Thursday, June 25, 2015

The brass serpent on the Supreme Court

In these few days between the issuance of SCOTUS's postmodern decision on Obamacare, of which Antonin Scalia has said that it shows that words have no meaning anymore to this court, and the forthcoming decision on marriage, of which so many expect so much evil, I am reminded inexplicably of a passage from Isak Dinesen's remarkable Out of Africa. She speaks of the process of being made a "woman of sorrows" by the Africans, one who bears the burden of grief and fear for others. She calls this "brass-serpenting." She says of it, "I thought it a painful, a very painful process to be hung upon the pole. I wished that I could have escaped it."
During the [First World] war, when the fate of the Carrier Corps lay upon the whole Native world, the squatters of the farm used to come and sit round my house. They did not speak, not even amongst themselves, they turned their eyes upon me and made me their brass-serpent....It was a singularly hard thing to bear. I was helped through with it by the fact that my brother's regiment was at that time sent on to the foremost trenches at Vimy Ridge; I could turn my eyes upon him and make him my brass-serpent.
As I think of Antonin Scalia, that Cassandra of the legal world, who untiringly writes his flaming and eloquent dissents, who lives and labors and is outvoted again and again at the epicenter of the loss of legal integrity, honor, and meaning in our country, I am moved to make him my brass serpent.

It is perhaps a little unfair to his fellow dissenters on this latest decision to place that symbolism upon Scalia alone. Clarence Thomas and possibly Samuel Alito are, for all I know, just as fiercely burdened with a sense of the betrayal of law, truth, and meaning, but Scalia is the one who says it. He never gets to say, "I'm tired. I'm discouraged. I'm not going to write a dissent this time." He keeps doing it. He has to go on, to bear being part of this irrational, postmodern court, and to go on saying it and saying it, the voice crying in the wilderness. Because that's his vocation. That is the work that has been given him to do.

And so I say: If he can bear it, and keep on speaking and not give in to despair, I, a mere citizen, can too.

4 comments:

William Brown said...


'And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not."
-Galatians 6:9

R.C. said...

Roberts's dissent is good (Scalia signed on to all of it).

But Scalia's dissent is pitch perfect. I hope that it will catch on among the opposition the way that Kennedy's mush-mouthed closing paragraph has gone viral. There are lots of good bits, but my favorite bit is hidden in footnote 22:

"If, even as the price to be paid for a fifth vote, I ever joined an opinion for the Court that began: 'The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity,' I would hide my head in a bag. The Supreme Court of the United States has descended from the disciplined legal reasoning of John Marshall and Joseph Story to the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie."

Beth Impson said...

I missed this one at the time. Excellent.

Lydia McGrew said...

Thank you, Beth.