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On heroes

Submitted by Simon on Tue, 05/08/2007 - 6:46pm

This was going to be an update on my previous post, but it's probably met the threshold for a separate post.

Anyone who's had email correspondence with me will know that my address proclaims me an Acolyte of Justice Scalia. This is intended more as one of those omnipresent allergy warning labels you see on anything remotely ingestible, facilitating caveat interlocutor, than either mild genuflection or idle boast; to be sure, he isn't the only star in my legal sky, but for reasons more of accident than design (as is true for all heroes, I suspect), his work has substantially and substantively shaped and colored (if not exactly molded) many of my views on law and above all what I think law is and thus how it should be approached. "Role model" overstates it by some measure, because I have some disagreements with him in terms of both substance and style, but it conveys the basic idea.

Now: Someone else whose views I pay great heed to recently warned me (that might overstate it - "gently but forcefully suggested," perhaps) that the kind of attatchment to, idealization of and I suppose placing on a pedestal of Scalia in particular and really to judges in general that underlies the sort of post directly below is perhaps unhealthy. These are but mere mortals, flawed as we all are, and perhaps in some ways even more so. While a fully decent respect for their opinion suggests that I ought to more carefully explain why I don't entirely go along with that than I will here, where I'll be brief, but will say something to it for now.

First, I concede that there's certainly something to that concern, as indeed there is about the perhaps unseemly idea of people who are long since out of short trousers confessing role models and heroes of any sort. Still: as an instinctive matter, I don't think that it's necessarily unhealthy, and indeed, from my experience, it can be quite productive. The most essential bulwark against it becoming unhealthy, it seems to me, is to make sure that were your hero(es) to gaze down from their pedestal you've placed them on, they see you doing good work inspired by that drive that made you put them up there, rather than gazing back up at them in mindless reverence.

To be sure, one should choose their role models carefully, and should always be open to criticizing and disagreeing with them. And if one must play the sycophant one should at least do so out of a more sincere admiration than that word usually connotes. But I don't hold to the view that one cannot have heroes, still less that those we look to as guides must themselves have never strayed from the path.

Ultimately, I agree with Scott DaBarge's conclusion: while "[o]ur heroes help define the limits of our aspirations" (emphasis added), they can also provide "symbols for ... the qualities we would like to possess and all the ambitions we would like to satisfy," and in so doing, "expan[d] ... our sense of possibility," "help[ing] us lift our eyes a little higher." Experientially, I know this to be true. There's no doubt in my mind that I have more to say and can better say it because I have people to whose favorable review I have aspired should they ever gaze down from those pedestals. Of course this has the potential to become destructive and dangerous, but as long as one retains the honesty to say "just because you're up there don't expect me to agree with you on everything," that is, as long as I retain the intellectual integrity to independently assess and dissent when having done so I still disagree, to resist the temptation to fawn rather than defer, I think it's all to the good.

In our masthead here at SF, we quote Twain, but the blog Crooked Timber prefers Kant: "out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made." Of that, DaBarge says that so much may well be true - "[b]ut some have used that warped, knotted timber to build more boldly and beautifully than others, and we may all benefit by their examples." So to pick a specific example, I know my writing has been influenced and colored in many ways by fondness for and desire to assimilate into my own voice the very different styles (and views) of Justice Scalia and Prof. Althouse, so perhaps the wisest counsel is to string a hammock between two or more pieces of differently-crooked timber and shed any fear of falling.

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