I generally pick on Cal Thomas, because if anyone knows ridiculous, it is Cal Thomas (though I am on the record agreeing with him once - I won't make a habit of it, I promise). Today, however, I'm going to diversify a little, bringing just a hint of light to a particularly flagrant bit of ridiculous from Thomas Sowell. In a recent op-ed piece in the Washington Times, Mr. Sowell takes up the subject of the kinds of judges a president Barack Obama might appoint. (And he gets extra credit for his use of scare-quotes around the word "change" in the first paragraph - I could see John McCain's sarcastic shrug jumping off my computer monitor!)
Mr. Obama has stated very clearly what kinds of Supreme Court justices he wants - those with "the empathy to understand what it's like to be poor, or African-American, or gay, or disabled, or old."
Like so many things Mr. Obama says, it may sound nice if you don't stop and think - and chilling if you do stop and think. Do we really want judges who decide cases based on who you are rather than on the facts and the law? If the case involves a white man versus a black woman, should the judge decide that case differently than if both litigants are of the same race or sex? The kind of criteria Barack Obama promotes could have gotten three young men at Duke University sent to prison for a crime neither they nor anybody else committed.
I don't know whether or not Mr. Sowell is accurately quoting Sen. Obama - you don't need to offer citations for an op-ed piece, and your readers wouldn't thank you if you did. Since I have no reason to doubt the veracity of this quote, I'll take Thomas Sowell at his word when he writes that Obama said this. However, I seriously doubt that this is the only thing that Barack Obama, a lawyer who taught Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago - one of the world's finest academic institutions - has ever said on the subject. Yet that's what Mr. Sowell would have you believe. It is, in fact, the premise on which his entire argument depends.
Barack Obama says that judges should be able to empathize with the experience of the marginalized, therefore the defining characteristic for a judge, according to Barack Obama, is empathy with the experience of the marginalized. Knowledge of the law? Bah! All you really need to be able to do, to be a good judge, is to side with the minority against the majority, every time. A case between a woman and a man? You don't need to know the facts of the, or the relevant legal principles and precedents. Just side with the woman! A case between a black man and a white man? The black man should win every time! Gay v. straight, poor v. rich? These are easy decisions!
Now, it gets tricky when you have to choose between a black man and a white woman. Which is the trump, race or gender? I guess you could just flip a coin.
Does Sowell really believe that a lawyer and a scholar of Constitutional law would use this, and this alone, as his criterion for entry to the federal bench? I certainly hope not. Sowell has, frankly, written some whack-out shit in his time, but this would take the cake, calling not only his intelligence but his very sanity into question.
The most reasonable take on the quote from Sen. Obama that Mr. Sowell offers us is that Obama believes (rightly, I think), that the ability to empathize - and especially to empathize with those who so often stand powerless before the court - is a judicial asset. The strongest reasonable reading is that such ability is a necessary condition for being a good federal judge. That is, that empathy for the experience of the marginalized in our society is a quality that would be present in any good federal judge.
But is this the only quality? Heavens no! And no serious person would suggest otherwise. It should go without saying that any lawyer - much less someone who has taught Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago (have I mentioned that enough?!?) - would value some knowledge of *gasp* the law and the Constitution! Yet clearly Mr. Sowell needs this spelled out for him.
So, Thomas Sowell, let me be (hopefully not) the first person to tell you that you have committed a flagrant violation of logic, and should be chastised accordingly. You have made the elementary mistake of confusing a necessary condition with sufficient conditions.
For those of you keeping score at home, a necessary condition is a condition that must be met. A baseball, for instance, must be round. It is not sufficient, in that there are a great many round objects that are not baseballs; but it is necessary, in that there are no baseballs that are not round.
Similarly, if we are to read the statement of Barack Obama's that Mr. Sowell devotes an entire ill-conceived column to in the strongest reasonable way, it is necessary for a good federal judge to show empathy. That is, per Sen. Obama, there are no good federal judges who are unable to empathize with the experience of the oppressed. (This may well mean that, by this standard, a good many federal judges are not good, and that is a problem that I certainly hope an Obama administration would address!) So, it is necessary that a good federal judge be able to experience and express empathy, allowing that empathy to factor into judicial rulings. However, it does not follow from this that empathy is sufficient, that it is the only quality of a good federal judge.
I really shouldn't have had to type that.
Did I mention that Barack Obama taught Constitutional Law at the University of F-ing Chicago?!? They don't just let ANYBODY do that! (that's as close to shouting as I get)
But I'll give Mr. Sowell some credit. As ridiculous as his assertion is, it is by no means the most ridiculous assertion made at the page on which I found his column. For a real taste of true wingnettery, check out the comments, which include claims that Barack Obama - because he once clumsily used the phrase "spread the wealth" (as though that weren't the point of all taxes!) - would outlaw private property! However, the lunatic claiming that didn't get paid for his/her contribution.
Thomas Sowell: Thanks for trying. Better luck next time.
Should we indict Thomas Sowell for crimes against logic?
If so, and if he is convicted, what should his sentence be?