Column: Grown men, whining

Published on June 30, 2015.

Two “opinion pieces” made the rounds and generated enormous controversy in the last few days. One was a Facebook post by a University of the Philippines professor; the other a sharply worded dissenting opinion by a famous justice of the US Supreme Court. Both, in my view, offer instructive examples of extremist thinking — that is, of a lived philosophy or ideology taken, in one particular, unfortunate instance, to the extreme. In their desperation of the moment, both the leftist sociologist Gerard Lanuza and the right-wing jurist Antonin Scalia came off sounding like grown men whining.

Lanuza’s post became immediately controversial because its readers (quickly numbering in the thousands) understood the subject of the post to be the new UP graduate Tiffany Grace Uy, then in the news after setting a new university record, the highest grade in UP history since World War II. (Her 1.004 is the result of getting the highest possible grade of 1.0 in all her classes save for one, where she received a 1.25.)

Some of Lanuza’s supporters have protested that in fact the professor was not referring to Uy at all, but rather was making yet another attack against the grade-consciousness he finds pervasive in Philippine society. The words of the post can be read either way, but either way the post is still offensive, because of Lanuza’s absolute cynicism about education.

The original reads:

“Hindi dahil naka uno (1.0) ka sa lahat halos ng klase mo sa UP Diliman ay ‘matalino’ ka na! Ang ibig sabihin lang nyan ay masipag kang gumawa ng reaction papers kahit di required, mabait ka sa klase, di mo inaway ang teachers mo, di ka sumama sa walkouts laban sa TOFI  kaya wala kang absences, pati diarrhea mo ng isang araw ginawan mo pa ng medical certificate para ma-excuse ka; nabili mo lahat ng requirements at books at matyaga kang nagpapaxerox. Now, tell me: by doing those things made you intelligent? Not necessarily. Intelligence means what you do when everything that you know become useless! In short, you’re a worthy puppy of your parents! … I have to ask: FOR WHAT AND FOR WHOM ARE YOU DOING THOSE THINGS FOR?”

This is jaw-dropping reading. Lanuza makes the extreme argument that getting the highest possible grade in “almost all your classes in UP Diliman” means “only one thing”— the student is diligent in writing reaction papers even when these aren’t required, is “good” in class and never fights with her teachers, is never absent because she does not join protest actions, buys all requirements and books and does all the photocopying necessary. That’s all it means? One wonders how Lanuza conducts his classes, and whether this view is a reflection not of the university he teaches in but his own style of teaching.

His opinion about grade-consciousness should be heard, but in this particular post, he comes unhinged and ends up muttering loudly (in all caps) to himself. That’s how I choose to read those dizzying lapses in grammar, which in today’s shorthand would be described as cringeworthy. He was ranting, and forgot himself.

Justice Scalia’s dissent in the same-sex case decided last week is impeccably grammatical, but let’s not make a mistake: It is also a rant, and the US Supreme Court’s best prose stylist forgot himself.

First, he whines about the style of the majority opinion. “The content is couched in a style that is as pretentious as its content is egotistic.” He has taken potshots at Justice Anthony Kennedy’s sometimes turgid copy before, so this is par for the course. But he also writes:

“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.”

A perfect sound bite for Fox News, but, please. Scalia has found himself joining some of Clarence Thomas’ opinions; now that justice, the mediocre lawyer whose prose cannot even rise to the level of a fortune cookie, is the true opposite of Marshall.

But Scalia was not yet done. He reserved his deepest scorn for the fact that a majority of five justices had made a far-reaching decision. He attacked the process’ unrepresentative nature. “Take, for example, this Court, which consists of only nine men and women, all of them successful lawyers who studied at Harvard or Yale Law School. Four for the nine are natives of New York City. Eight of them grew up in east- and west-coast States. Only one hails from the vast expanse in-between. Not a single Southwesterner or even, to tell the truth, a genuine Westerner (California does not count). Not a single evangelical Christian (a group that comprises about one quarter of Americans), or even a Protestant of any denomination. The strikingly unrepresentative character of the body voting on today’s social upheaval would be irrelevant if they were functioning as judges …”

And yet in the same dissent, he employs some aphoristic mysticism himself, and pointedly reminds the Court: “When the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868, every State limited marriage to one man and one woman, and no one doubted the constitutionality of doing so. That resolves these cases.” But in fact, the public that ratified that key amendment in 1868 was also strikingly unrepresentative: largely white, all male, mostly Protestant, and so on.

Most striking of all: In his whining, he manages to smuggle a criticism of his own wife into his dissent: “Who ever thought that intimacy and spirituality (whatever that means) were freedoms? And if intimacy is, one would think Freedom of Intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage. Ask the nearest hippie. Expression, sure enough, is a freedom, but anyone in a long-lasting marriage will attest that that happy state constricts, rather than expands, what one can prudently say.”

It is pleasant to imagine millions of long-married spouses responding as one: “Speak for yourself!”

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