The Case of Antonin Scalia

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Early emotional deprivation trauma is the key to the right-wing personality and Justice Antonin Scalia could be the poster child for this phenomenon.

Antonin Scalia is a public figure and we know a lot about him.

Alan Dershowitz made a comment about Scalia in 2005 on the Air America talk show “The Majority Report”:

He’s an interesting guy. His father was a teacher at Brooklyn College when I was there.

[Dershowitz attended B.C. 1954-1959. Salvatore Eugene Scalia taught Romance languages at Brooklyn College from 1939 to 1969. Justice Scalia attended Georgetown 1953-1957, and then entered Harvard Law. Dershowitz attended Yale Law 1959-1962.]

 His father was a proud member of the American-Italian fascist party and got his doctorate at Casa Italiana at Columbia at a time when in order to get your doctorate you had to swear an oath to Mussolini. 

[This contains inaccuracies. The elder Scalia did not get his doctorate from Columbia until 1950, when the Casa Italiana was closed, and Mussolini quite famously dead. However, Salvatore did get his M.A. from Columbia in 1932 and was a Research Assistant there in the 30s during the heyday of the Casa and the admiration of Mussolini and Italian Fascism. During that time he commuted to New York from Trenton, New Jersey, and did not move to Elmhurst, Queens until 1942, three years after getting his full-time job at Brooklyn College. By that time, of course, the Germans had taken complete military control over Italy, and Mussolini’s reputation in the U.S. was extremely negative.]

So he comes from an interesting background and he went to a kind of military school in New York which was a place where many children of fascists were educated.

[This was the Jesuit school, St. Xavier’s, which was indeed a military school until 1972. Antonin attended there from 1949 to 1953, and the school at the time was noted for its extremely prominent conservative Roman Catholic connections rather than fascism. He went to Jesuit-run Georgetown in Washington, D.C. from 1953 to 1957, during the height of the Cold War years, when Georgetown students voted Senator Joe McCarthy their top choice as Outstanding American, over President Eisenhower who came in second.  So, in Dershowitz’s account there seems to be some conflation between conservative Catholicism and Italian Fascism.]

Therefore to call him a conservative – he’s never expressed any conservative principles – he’s a statist. He’s a man who is well in the tradition of Franco and Mussolini. Not Hitler. He’s not an anti-Semite – there’s no bigotry or racism in him at all. But he is somebody who has these views which would have been very comfortable in fascist Italy or fascist Spain.

For the senior Scalia, the Fascism piece is suspect, but could be proven one way or the other by diligent research in local newspaper sources of the time. But what is certainly true of Scalia’s father is that he was an intense and private scholar of extremely controlled emotional demeanor, just the opposite of his equally scholarly mother, Catherine Panaro, who is remembered for her emotional flair and vivaciousness.

So, Scalia might well not be just an emotionally well-balanced guy who happens to have an exceedingly bright legal mind. If that were the case, he would be right most of the time, and when he was disagreed with, he would be civil about it. He is rather an emotionally constricted person who needs to be right and in a position of authority. And so when others disagree with him, he is not civil, but petty, dismissive, sarcastic, ridiculing.

In March 2013, he threw a teen-aged temper tantrum during the Q and A of a Supreme Court session that included graphic descriptions of the behavior of homosexuals.

Note that this is petulant, adolescent behavior by a Justice of the Supreme Court.

Why?

If, as a small child he did not get enough nurturing affection from a stern father, except when he was “bright”, that could explain it. Since he had extraordinary intellectual gifts, it was effortless for him to be “bright”, but it was also an addiction. If he ever failed to be bright, he would fall into that abyss of deep self-doubt that is the condition of the emotionally neglected child. It is quite remarkable that every biographical account of him always mentions that he was “bright” — in primary school, first in his class in his elite high school, at university and Harvard Law. He was always bright, bright, bright.

The early years of Scalia’s childhood make him a prime candidate for early emotional deprivation trauma. Scalia himself remembers his father’s demanding academic standards from his grade school years in Queens (starting at age seven; Scalia lived with the extended Scalia clan in Trenton, NJ until the age of six.) Joan Biskupic’s biography of him gives enough detail to fill in the blanks of the earlier years.

So, the paradox of Antonin Scalia is that he is both deeply insecure and extraordinarily gifted in regard to a certain left-hemisphere functioning of his brain. This means that he has a prodigious memory capacity (a huge benefit for someone who is practicing law) and a remarkable conceptual acuity that enables him to parse legal reasoning with awareness of the finest nuances of language. But his personal insecurity completely blocks him from the right-hemisphere’s access to the trauma imprints of his psyche, and so he does not recognize “being right” as a need. For him it is just a fact.

So, Scalia’s need to be right and in a position of authority stem from early emotional neglect. But then there is also his textualism. In epistemology, Jacques Derrida is the textualist par-excellence. Epistemological textualism denies the connection between thinking and the body, between language and the body, and the analysis of that position reveals the intervention of emotional trauma. “For traumatized individuals body awareness can be problematic in a variety of ways.” (Ogden) “Part of the dynamic of trauma is that it cuts us off from our internal experience as a way of protecting our organism from sensations and emotions that could be overwhelming.” (Levine, Waking the Tiger.) The clinical term for this condition is dissociation.

Dissociation explains both the acerbic need to be right, and textualism. Jurisprudential textualism is structurally exactly the same as epistemological textualism. It discounts any connection between the language of the Constitution and the personal and social context of its creation. The body of the authors contains this context. But once you do implicate the meaning of the text with the context of its creation, then the only logical approach to its meaning is to allow for evolution, as the social context of the original undergoes historical change.

Dissociation also explain the male “blind spot” in Scalia’s judicial philosophy, as noted by Justice Ginsburg after the Hobby Lobby decision in July 2014.  It produces fixated personal beliefs (must conceal the self-doubt at all costs), “insensitivity”, and a failure of empathy for people whose life experience is different than one’s own. Failure of empathy is in frequent evidence in Scalia’s public comments, e.g., about gays and atheists, non-textualists, and everyone who disagrees with him.

But there are two distinct parts to Scalia’s persona.  Besides his judicial philosophy there is his set of religious beliefs. He is indeed correct that believing that the devil is a real person and that heaven and hell are real places and the destination for all human beings are certified doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. They are in Denzinger. They are de fide definita. But they are also medieval mumbo jumbo. They are delusions. They are magical thinking. No matter how many Catholics believe them, that does not change their inherent character. In the world as a whole they are just one more form of weird, sectarian beliefs.

And, if he should presume to make them prescriptive for American society as a whole, he would no longer be Justice Scalia, he would be Ayatollah Scalia, Sharia Scalia.

But, returning to the basic emotional dynamics here, the purpose of the persona is to save the personal worth of the person whose sense of personal worth has been damaged by that early emotional neglect. If the persona is destroyed, self-annihilation arises.  So it is fiercely defended.

What, if anything, could destroy the persona of needing to be always right of a man with extraordinary legal intelligence, a deep personal insecurity, and the office of Justice in the highest court in the land? (And give him the opportunity to recover his authentic self.)

Some might think that it is Scalia’s textualism itself. But that doesn’t work because even though anyone who is not dissociated sees very clearly that textualism is completely wrong, there appears to be enough dissociation in the legal community to make that point complex and highly arguable.

No, in order to ameliorate the persona of needing to always be right, we need a public and obvious intellectual error. This will not be easy. Scalia is a font of controversial opinions that have outraged many people. Mere public criticism will not dismantle the persona about always being right. It is not enough for the error revealed to convince others, it has to be an error that convinces him. When his persona is revealed to himself, then he can fall into “fatal peril” and start on the road to emotional recovery.

I have done a preliminary search of Scalia’s numerous controversial opinions and I have found only one that possibly fills the bill:  “Words have meaning. And their meaning doesn’t change.” (September 26, 2014, Jennifer Senior interview) This one has promise, because it connects to huge segments of his judicial philosophy and is eminently falsifiable.

“Mere public criticism” will not work, but wholesale intelligent public rejection might help. Scalia appears to be almost totally ignorant of the history of Western culture and the development of Roman Catholic dogma, of New Testament exegesis, and the history of cultures and belief systems around the world. (What in the world did those Jesuits teach him during his four years at Georgetown University? Well, it was the fifties.) But information about all these fields of knowledge is ample and readily available, so it should not be impossible to point out to him with some persuasiveness that Roman Catholic doctrine is not universal factual knowledge about the human condition, but merely a strain of purely sectarian beliefs that is severely limited in time and geography, and no foundation for pluralist democracy. Outside the field of jurisprudence, the Justice is a very ignorant man.

It would be nice for Scalia and for American jurisprudence for his perfectionist, dissociated persona to be dissolved. But it is not easy. Denial is one of the most powerful defense mechanisms in the armory of the human psyche, and many have died rather than change.

However, perhaps merely pointing out the existence of this persona, publicly, can make a contribution to Antonin Scalia’s healing process.

Michael H. Ducey, Ph.D.

Port Chester, NY

November 26, 2014

 

Michael H. Ducey, born in Chicago 1933, member of the Jesuit religious order 1952-1966, University of Chicago Ph.D. (Sociology) 1974, blog at timegeist.tumblr.com .