Good Citizenship as Barack Obama and Clarence Thomas See It

The advice they offered at college commencements offers a rare point of convergence between POTUS and SCOTUS.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

This spring’s commencement ceremonies would have been more interesting if President Obama, who spoke at Howard University and Rutgers University, would have swapped commitments with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who spoke at Hillsdale College, a conservative institution with many evangelical students. But for all the generational, biographical, and ideological differences that separate America’s highest-ranking black officials, for all their deep disagreements about the nature of progress in a democratic society, the speeches that they delivered were most notable for the common themes that they covered, highlighting different strains of conservatism that shape their thinking.

Obama and Thomas both noted the significant progress against racism they’ve seen in their lifetimes. When they were born, few would’ve imagined either of their trajectories possible. They posited that graduating students have obligations to work within the current system, urged them to behave morally and responsibly in their civic lives, and specifically warned students about what both regard as excessive political correctness, although Obama spent far more time than Thomas on that last subject.

The men differed most notably in the aspects of citizenship that they emphasized.

For President Obama, “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The responsible citizen’s charge is to understand that this bend is neither automatic nor assured. In his telling, a good citizen is someone who values facts, logic, and empiricism, reaches sound conclusions about optimal changes in public policy, and engages in earnest activism, persuasion, and negotiation with fellow citizens. This process, along with voting, slowly but surely yields incremental improvements.

That conception of politics is well within mainstream thought at Howard and Rutgers. But Obama did challenge audiences at both schools by warning them against intolerance. “Our democracy gives us a process designed for us to settle our disputes with argument and ideas and votes instead of violence and simple majority rule,” he told Howard students. “So don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them. There's been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view, or disrupt a politician’s rally. Don’t do that—no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths.”

At Rutgers, he made the same point at greater length, and warned students against conceiving of themselves as too fragile to engage intellectually with any idea:

You've got to be a citizen full time, all the time. And if participation means voting and it means compromise and organizing and advocacy, it also means listening to those who don't agree with you. I know a couple years ago some folks on this campus got upset that Condoleezza Rice was supposed to speak at a commencement. Now I don't think it's a secret that I disagree with many of the foreign policies of Dr. Rice and the previous administration.

But the notion that this community or the country would be better served by not hearing from a former secretary of state, or shutting out what she had to say, I believe that's misguided. I don't think that's how democracy works best, when we're not even willing to listen to each other.

I believe that's misguided. If you disagree with somebody, bring them in and ask them tough questions. Hold their feet to the fire. Make them defend their positions. If somebody's got a bad or defensive idea, prove it wrong. Engage it. Debate it. Stand up for what you believe in. Don't be scared to take somebody on. Don't feel like you've got to shut your ears off because you're too fragile and somebody might offend your sensibilities.

Go at them if they're not making any sense. Use your logic and reason and words and by doing so you'll strengthen your own position, and you'll hone your arguments. And maybe you'll learn something and realize you don't know everything. Maybe you'll have a new understanding not only of what your opponent believes but what you believe. Either way you win. And more importantly, our democracy wins.

The significance of Obama’s critique is partly captured by Jonathan Chait of New York magazine, who observed after the Howard University speech that almost no one on the left who pillories Chait for his critiques of political correctness attacks Obama when he makes the same points, even though the president is so much more influential.

Chait suspects “that this is because p.c.-niks rely so heavily on identity to discredit opposing views, it is convenient for them to identify opposition to p.c. with a white male, and highly inconvenient to identify it with a famous, liberal African-American.” In any case, he added, “Obama has concluded that the left, especially the young left, has turned away in important respects from his political values. In the final year of his presidency, he has begun to defend his own ideals with increasing force.”

Clarence Thomas’s speech at Hillsdale made passing reference to political correctness, but only in service of a larger point about his notion of what it means to be a good citizen. As one might expect of a conservative, Thomas focused more on personal character and obligations to family and neighbors than activism to effect top-down change. “As you go through life, try to be that person whose actions teach others how to be better people and citizens,” he said. “Reach out to that shy person who is not so popular. Stand up for others when they're being treated unfairly in small things and large. Take the time to listen to that friend who is having a difficult time. Do not hide your faith and your beliefs under a bushel basket, especially in this world that seems to have gone mad with political correctness. Treat others the way you would like to be treated if you stood in their shoes.”

In his telling, “these small lessons become the unplanned syllabus for becoming a good citizen, and your efforts to live them will help to form the fabric of a civil society and a free and prosperous nation where inherent equality and liberty are inviolable.”

While Thomas shared Obama’s belief that much racial progress has been made in America, he seemed to disagree with Obama’s belief that the country as a whole is an unambiguously better place than it was a few decades ago. “Things that were once considered firm have long since lost their vitality and much that seemed inconceivable is now firmly or universally established,” he said. “Hallmarks of my youth, such as patriotism and religion, seem more like outliers, if not afterthoughts. So in a sense I feel woefully out of place doing this or any commencement.”

In his youth, Thomas watched his grandparents behave as model citizens, with the men of their generation even fighting on foreign soil on behalf of a country that did not treat them fairly. “They returned from that horrific war with dignity to face the indignity of discrimination at home,” he recalled. “Yet the desire to push our nation to live up to its stated ideals persisted.” He treated the idealism of his grandparents, even in the face of horrific oppression, as a moral lesson. Through their example, he absorbed the belief that being treated unfairly does not change what is objectively moral or correct or one’s obligation to act accordingly, even if, at times, he harbored grievous doubts about the rightness of that standard:

I often wondered why my grandparents remained such model citizens even when our country's failures were so obvious. In the arrogance of my adult life, I challenged my grandfather and doubted the ideals of our nation. He bluntly asked, ‘So, where else would you live?’ Though not a lettered man, he knew that, though not nearly perfect, our Constitutional ideals were perfectible if we worked to protect them rather than to undermine them. As he said, "Son, don't throw the baby out with the bathwater." That is, don't discard that which is precious along with that which is tainted.

A somewhat similar message echoes through a lot of President Obama’s speeches, which juxtapose the evils of slavery and Jim Crow with Obama’s oft-repeated assertion that his personal story is only possible in the United States of America.

Justice Thomas continued:

Sadly, today when it seems that grievances rather than personal conduct are the means of elevation, this may sound odd, or at least discordant. But those around us back then seemed to have resolved to conduct themselves consistent with the ideals that the duties of our country demanded. They were law abiding, hard working, disciplined. They discharged their responsibilities to their families and neighbors as best they could.

We were taught that despite unfair treatment, we were to be good citizens and good people. If we were to have a functioning neighborhood, then we had to first be good neighbors, and if we were to have a good city, state, and country, we had to first be good citizens. The same went for our school and our church. The corporal works of mercy, the greatest commandment, love thy neighbor as thyself. Just because someone else wronged us did not justify reciprocal conduct on our part.

Right was right and two wrongs did not make a right. As my grandfather often said, we were duty bound to do the right thing, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. In a sense they were teaching us that what we wanted to do did not define what was right, nor I might add did our capacious litany of wants define liberty. Rather what was right defined what we were required to do and what we were permitted to do. It defined our duties and our responsibilities, whether those duties meant cutting our neighbors' lawn, visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, or going off to war, as my brother did. We were to honorably discharge them.

He later mused, “Perhaps it is at times like that when you lack both strength and courage that the clarity of our obligations supply both. Duty, honor, country. The clarity of obligation.”

For Thomas, one’s obligations are interpersonal or civic more often than they’re political. Reflecting on who taught him to be a good citizen, he mused, “It was my grandmother dividing our dinner because another person showed up unannounced. It was the stranger stopping to help us get our crops out of the field before a big storm. There were the Irish nuns who believed in us and lived in our neighborhood. There was the librarian who brought books to mass so that I would not be without reading materials on the farm.” He watched people like that in his youth.

“You are to be the example to others that they were to you. The greatest lecture or sermon you will give is your example. What you do will matter far more than what you say,” he told Hillsdale’s graduates. “Who will be watching you and what will you be teaching them?” Reflecting on what it will take to preserve liberty and the health of American government, he declared, “I think more and more that it depends on good citizens discharging their daily duties and their daily obligations.”

When I reflect on the American experiment, I think more and more that its success depends on how adeptly its citizens can fuse the best insights of liberalism and conservatism, ways of viewing the world that are at their best in negotiation with one another. There are real divergences in the ways that Obama and Thomas view citizenship, but their approaches are more complementary than contradictory. Taken together, their advice encompasses the personal and the political, affording a better portrait of the whole citizen than either offers in isolation.

I suspect that the Howard and Rutgers students would’ve benefited more from hearing Thomas’ perspective, while the Hillsdale students would’ve gleaned more from Obama, but this being the age of YouTube, perhaps they can all partake of both speeches, and work with one another better than their elders have managed to do.