Justice Kagan and the 'Naked Public Square'
9:45 AM, May 7, 2014 • By ADAM J. WHITE
DeGirolami's comment calls to mind the famous lines of Edmund Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution, in which Burke urges that civic virtue is promoted by—not undermined by—each citizen's prior attachments not just to family, but also to social class and our other "little platoons": "To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind."
Furthermore, as Yuval Levin explains in his recent account of Burke, "breaking apart all the connections that stand between the individual and the state and leaving equal but separate individuals alone would expose them all to the raw power of the state directly. ... The social institutions that stand between the individual and the government are crucial barriers to the ruthlessness of public officials and the occasional cruelty of majorities. They are essential to liberty."
On the other side of this spectrum, at its far extreme, we find Teddy Roosevelt's famous criticism of "hyphenated Americans":
Roosevelt reiterated a year later, "let us be Americans, nothing else." Such sentiments find echoes, perhaps distant, in Justice Kagan's dissent—at least when she urges each American citizen "performs the duties ... of citizenship ... not as an adherent to one or another religion, but simply as an American."
These arguments cut across familiar political lines; indeed, I suspect that all of us occasionally harbor thoughts on both sides of the spectrum. Conservatives might today share DeGirolami's concerns about Kagan's dissent (and Roosevelt's concerns about "hyphenated Americans"); but they might also have bristled, just a few years ago, at Justice Sotomayor's suggestion that as a justice she would benefit especially from "the richness of her experiences."
And conservatives are not the only ones who likely have seen both sides of these questions. Indeed, note that Justice Sotomayor herself joined Kagan's dissent, despite the notes strikingly at odds with her own account of how each judge's own background affects the judge's work.
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