I first heard that Antonin Scalia had died when I was walking down a South Campus hallway and read “OMG Scalia dead!” written a whiteboard outside a dorm. While this is notably the first and likely the last time I will have gained useful information from the odd flashes of decorating motivation Grinnellians sometimes have, the very public, and very exclamatory message, did not sit well with me.
After confirming the news, I truly believed that there would be at least a day of politicians and media taking a moment to let the facts sink in, and maybe release some of those noncontroversial obituary articles that don’t quite say anything. Apparently even in the age of clickbait politics and POP CULTURE REFERENCE, I’ve still retained some of my naivete, as the immediate political responses to Scalia’s death on all ends of the partisan spectrum prove.
What has bothered me more is the many people expressing, either implicitly or outright, that they are happy Scalia is dead. Not many are disputing that Scalia was dedicated to his beliefs and his country; he was a public servant until the end. Scalia was admirable in many ways. Although he was politically conservative and often voted that way, in some major cases he voted against the general Republican consensus, such as in Texas v. Johnson and Maryland v. King. He at least seemed to believe he was more motivated by his judicial principles than his political ones. As some whose greatest bipartisan achievement was dressing up as Michelle Bachmann for Halloween, I can respect that.
At the same time, it is potentially unfair to ask Americans just view the issues Scalia held opinions on abstractly. If he had been able to completely enforce his opinions on abortion and LGBTQ rights, there would be many more obstacles to happiness or just survival in the lives of Grinnell students and Americans in general. In addition, there is real evidence Scalia was homophobic. The Atlantic quotes him as having once said, “If we cannot have moral feelings against homosexuality, can we have it against murder?”, and also as having dissented against overruling DOMA partly because it would pave the way for a similar decision about same sex marriage. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that Scalia’s personal opinion must have influenced his work.
Another facet that complicates the issue of a proper response is the issue of death versus simply retirement. I would have been readily comfortable with people expressing gladness at Scalia’s retirement. Rejecting what Scalia stood for and achieved while on the Supreme Court is one thing, but to be positive about his death is in a way rejecting everything he stood for and achieved in his life. Thus, a little more sensitivity is required.
In the end, after not really coming to any opinion of my own, I think the most important aspect of anyone’s reaction to Scalia’s death was the amount of thought they put into that reaction. While researching this article (I actually did research, aren’t you proud Mom?), I realized that the best articles were the ones whose writers put serious effort into writing and grappling with their own opinion, whether the articles contained praise or condemnation.
Just focusing on the strength of one’s own opinion is, in my opinion, a lot of what is wrong with politics and even the increasing polarization of the court. Scalia was likely both part of the problem and part of the solution with regards to this. I’m not sure if there is an easy way to combat polarization in any aspect of our society, but at least we can try to do so in our own lives by thinking through responses to complex events like the death of Antonin Scalia, and preparing to stand by and defend our opinions. (Or just take the easy route and claim no strong opinion like me.)