For nearly six years I proudly called Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, my home. I lived in a historic and lovely section of town called the Fan and at one point had an apartment on the city’s most famous street, Monument Avenue. As the name would suggest, it was a street lined with monuments and I just so happened to live within eyesight of the biggest, and I would say, most beautiful one of them all: the enormous statue of Robert E. Lee. Being surrounded by things dedicated to slave owners and people who famously worked to oppress my ancestors is par for the course in America. That racists, bigots, misogynist and even people who promoted genocide (see: Andrew Jackson being on the 20 dollar bill) are honored in this country is just something I have to deal with and basically accept.
I don’t expect Richmond to remove these monuments any more than I expect Washington DC or Washington State to change their names because they’re named after a slave owner. Our country was founded and has been run by people with complex pasts since its inception. But none of this means it doesn’t sometimes feel like a slap in the face, especially when some of these monuments and naming honors are given to people specifically because of their hateful and hurtful actions, but all people are flawed and times change.
I can accept having these things around, so long as we do it the politically correct way which is to teach the whole history of these people and not the sanitized version of it, and so long as we also acknowledge that some of these honors were given with the specific purpose of offending and demeaning people (see: countless roads named after Jeff Davis, the president of the Confederacy, running through black neighborhoods all throughout the South). This is all part of our country’s troubled past and if we required people to be flawless to be honored, there wouldn’t be very many people to build statues of. I can accept that, too, because in a way, holding someone three hundred years ago to our modern notions of political correctness would be like criticizing someone from the 1950’s for using the word negro instead of African American. People just didn’t know any better and the standards of decency were just so much lower. That said, when George Mason University sold its law school’s naming rights to donors who wanted to name it after the recently deceased Justice, Antonin Scalia, I was shocked, angered and offended. Haven’t we learned anything from history? Haven’t we progressed at all? Isn’t it enough that the school is named after a slave owner?
I will concede that Scalia is well-respected and highly-regarded by some in the legal community, and it cannot be argued that he was intelligent and had a huge influence on our legal system. I will also accept, without question, what many people who have firsthand knowledge of the man say about him: He was decent and warm to the people he met and extremely funny (his intelligence and humor were evident in many of the opinions he wrote). However, Scalia is also an enormously controversial figure because of things he said and positions he advocated for.
The list includes his support for a law that allowed gays to be imprisoned for having sex, which he argued the constitutionality of by writing, “Many Americans do not want persons who openly engage in homosexual conduct as partners in their business, as scoutmasters for their children, as teachers in their children’s schools, or as boarders in their home.” He continued, “They view this as protecting themselves and their families from a lifestyle that they believe to be immoral and destructive.” (Scalia believed this lifestyle to be immoral and destructive, too.) He also compared laws banning homosexual sex to laws banning “fornication, bigamy, adultery, adult incest, bestiality, and obscenity.” That’s right, he compared gays having sex to bestiality and incest. He also said banning discrimination and unfair treatment of people for being gay was like giving them special treatment, and suggested bans on gay sex were fine because they can still have straight sex. He also said these kinds of laws were no different than laws banning murder or child pornography.
While it’s clear the man didn’t have a clue what it means to be gay and doesn’t view it as being the inherent quality that it is, it’s doubtful that would have made any difference to him. I say this based on some of the things he’s said about black people, a condition which I’m pretty sure he understood wasn’t a choice. He also said laws meant to protect blacks from this country’s historical patterns of discrimination were also a form of special treatment.
This man, time and again, said reprehensible things about whole groups of people based on who they are as people, not the choices they made. He did not say these things in private conversations. They were not thoughts only shared behind closed doors. These views and opinions were central to his job and his job gave him a lot of power over the lives of Americans and he used it to belittle, insult, degrade, dehumanize and try to deny rights to people simply for being who they are. There is no doubt this man’s arguments will come to be viewed as repugnant and backwards as people who argued in favor segregation, women not having the right vote and bans on interracial marriages. For many, they already are.
You do not honor a man like this by naming a school after him. Not in the 21st century. America is full of enough monuments to hateful men who used their power to put down and hold down others; we don’t need anymore. For every good thing that can be said about Scalia, there is a person who the same can be said for and who didn’t spend 30 years trying to deny a whole group of people their rights.
In this whole renaming debate, I have gotten back in touch with lots of people from my former law school. Given my own political and philosophical dispositions, most of the people I’m still close with were from the minority population of non-hardcore conservatives at the libertarian institution. They were equally outraged by the sudden announcement. I also heard from some of the many conservatives who dominated the school. Some were impressively middle of the road about the whole thing and had sympathy towards those of us who do not wish to be associated with Scalia. Others were unapologetically thrilled by the name change. And picking up right where we left off from in law school, started spewing the latest conservative talking point about how it’s intolerant to be intolerant of people’s bigotries (With twisted logic like this, is it any wonder their brand of conservatism is blowing up this election cycle?).
Let me quickly address this and lump naming my law school after this man to the hateful, fearful and misguided anti-LGBT laws currently being passed and debated around the country that Scalia most surly would have supported in the name of “religious freedom.” For me to be tolerant, I do not have to be accepting of intolerance. In fact, let me take that one step further and say that the relationship between tolerance and intolerance is like the relationship between light and dark. Just like darkness is the absence of light, intolerance is the absence of tolerance and neither can exist together. While it might be incumbent upon me to show patients and act decently towards people, regardless of how repugnant their deeply held beliefs might be towards the idea of basic human decency, I do not have make room for hateful and discriminatory beliefs and practices in the public square or in public policy. Furthermore, the purpose of showing any sympathy towards people who would mistreat others because of who they are as people is only for the purpose of spreading tolerance so that it, like light, might someday drive intolerance out, and a great place to start to do this is by making it clear that when people in power use it to promote hatred and discrimination, they will not be rewarded and they will not be looked upon favorably by history. (See: Andrew Jackson being demoted on the 20 dollar bill.) That George Mason does not understand this and doesn’t see the clear trend of history is causing it to look like the Mississippi of law schools.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to run and order a shirt that says Mason Law on it while I still can because I would rather wear a shirt with the name of a slave owner from a couple hundred years ago than be caught dead wearing anything with a modern day homophobe on it. (Don’t you just love the choices people outside of America’s majority are given in this country?)