Wanting to Travel North, but Following Mars


With his passing, part of a high school commencement speech by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has been making the rounds.  Read the whole excerpt, but I’ll further reduce it thus:

[A] platitude I want discuss comes in many flavors. It can be variously delivered as, ‘Follow your star,’ or ‘Never compromise your principles.’ Or, quoting Polonius in ‘Hamlet’ — who people forget was supposed to be an idiot — ‘To thine ownself be true.’ Now this can be very good or very bad advice. Indeed, follow your star if you want to head north and it’s the North Star. But if you want to head north and it’s Mars, you had better follow somebody else’s star. …

In short, it is your responsibility, men and women of the class of 2010, not just to be zealous in the pursuit of your ideals, but to be sure that your ideals are the right ones. That is perhaps the hardest part of being a good human being: Good intentions are not enough. Being a good person begins with being a wise person. Then, when you follow your conscience, will you be headed in the right direction.

Watching the complete speech (or at least one taken from the same text), one can understand why the right half of the country (politically) saw Scalia as a unique voice of wisdom who had the other half figured out.  Taking up another platitude — that the United States is the greatest country in the world — Scalia concludes that this is so because of Americans’ strong values and the governing system allowing those values room to express and perpetuate themselves.  A few excellent phrases from this portion of the speech give the sense:

  • “Americans believe in things, and believe deeply, but will try to persuade others to their way of thinking and not to coerce others.”
  • “Freedom is a luxury that can be afforded only by the good society; when civic virtue diminishes, freedom will inevitably diminish, as well.”
  • “When the society is composed entirely of criminals, only the strict regimentation of a prison will suffice.”

Those of us who have been stunned and set to worrying by Scalia’s death tend to fear that such statements no longer apply very well to our country, as a whole, but the reality is actually somewhat worse than that.  As a nation, we haven’t forgotten our principles; we’ve allowed them to be perverted for the benefit of a narrow few — a narrow few who insist that tolerance is best expressed by coercing others to accept ideas that they (the “tolerant”) assert as values, a narrow few bent on dismantling civic virtue and turning society sour in order to diminish freedom, and a narrow few who seek to recast virtuous behavior like personal enterprise and civic engagement as criminal (or, at the very least, suspicious) in order to regulate it.

In the justice’s imagery, Americans maintain the virtue to want to travel north, but we’re being mystified into following Mars.