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Toward a Culture of Conversation
The first sentence of Stephen L. Carter’s 1991 book, Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, went directly to the point. “I got into law school because I am black,” he wrote. The book, which presented a contrarian view of past policies intended to compensate for centuries of discrimination, quickly became a best-seller, and set off a heated national debate. Here was a black man admitting that he’d benefitted—unfairly, in his view—from a system burdened with too much baggage. Affirmative action, he claimed, codified “assumptions about our intellectual incapacity and other competitive deficiencies,” and while Carter acknowledged that some blacks and members of other minority groups were helped by laws that called for preferences in college admissions, hirings for jobs, and promotions, he felt that ultimately, this “convenience,” as he put it, was “an insult or, worse, counterproductive.”
Carter backed up his assertion that the “hand up” was as much bane as boon with arguments that established its author as an intellectual force to be reckoned with. “You owe it to yourself to grapple with his arguments,” said Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. ’73 about the book. “Do not affix labels to him [Carter]. Read him.”
Certainly Carter, who is now the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law, has given readers—and they are legion, from Bill Clinton on down—plenty of material to grapple with. In addition to Reflections and a steady stream of magazine articles, Op-Ed pieces, and professional analyses for law journals, the prolific professor has also published two more books—The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (Basic Books, 1993), and The Confirmation Mess: Cleaning Up the Federal Appointments Process (Basic Books, 1994). Last December Time magazine named Carter to its roster of America’s most promising leaders age 40 and under, and Carter (who turned 40 last October), now finds himself in demand throughout the country as a speaker, panelist, and subject of magazine and newspaper profiles.
This is a heady experience for an academic, and while Carter seems somewhat uncomfortable with all the personal attention he’s attracting these days—he was aghast that he was recognized at an airport recently—the professor registers substantial pleasure at being in the center of some of today’s most intense intellectual storms. “I’d like to advance the debate,” says Carter. “But it makes very little difference if people agree with me or not, as long as they find what I have to say serious, interesting, and worth responding to.”
The Culture of Disbelief has so far prompted the biggest response. In it, Carter, who is best known professionally for his constitutional law scholarship, argues that the courts have tended to treat religion as a kind of trivial pursuit—“God as a hobby,” to use his oft-quoted phrase. Among those in power, there is, he writes, a pervasive feeling that “we live in a secular culture, devoted to sweet reason. We separate church and state,” and those people who don’t , the ones who “take their religion seriously, who rely on their understanding of God for motive force in their public and political personalities—well, they’re scary people.”
Carter argues that many Americans consider such people to be not quite rational and feel that, while they may be protected by the First Amendment freedom in believing what they please, they should keep their beliefs to themselves. Increasingly, notes Carter, believers are expressing their faith outside the church, the temple, and the mosque, and therein lies what he feels is one of the main sources of tension in modern society.
Carter himself makes no effort to veil his religious beliefs. A devout Episcopalian, he prays often—and in public. He and his equally religious wife, Enola, a Washington, D.C., attorney, send their children, Leah, 9, and Andrew, 6, to a religious school. His Law School office is decorated not with the standard quotations from the Constitution, but with a Biblical epigram from Micah, Chapter 6, Verse 8: “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”
It is a question Carter addresses in his daily life. “Years ago, at a particularly difficult time for me,” he says, “I was praying to God, asking, ‘What should I do?’ and this little voice said, ‘You already know, I’ve already told you.’ I took that to mean, ‘It’s all written down in the Bible. You just have to figure it out.’” He cites the quotation from Micah as an example: “That passage is about what you owe, but Micah doesn’t interpret it for us, and that’s good, because if everything is interpreted, you lose free will.” Without free will, Carter says, our job would merely be to obey, and that is the message of some fundamentalist groups. He disagrees with this worldview, but he understands its appeal.
“What the evangelical Protestants, Pentecostals, Mormons, and Muslims—religions that are growing very fast—have in common is that they have no-nonsense rules,” he explains. “And to intellectuals, such groups are all equally scary for that reason. But for people who are struggling with how to live in a morally complex world—whether it’s black people in the inner city or white people living in rural poverty—the lack of ambiguity is a breath of fresh air.”
Carter is more in tune with traditions that allow the faithful to question authority. “The marvelous thing about many religions that rely on the written word is that they often have an interpretative tradition of how that written word has been understood,” he notes. “So you can think of yourself as being in a narrative, in a dialectic with that history.”
Carter attributes his ability to take such a broad view of religious practice at least in part to his upbringing. He grew up in a solidly middle-class family in which both parents had college degrees. While his mother, he explained, “did the tough work of raising us,” his father, a lawyer, served in the federal bureaucracy in Washington, D.C. When Carter was a teenager, his father joined the faculty of Cornell, and the family moved to Ithaca, New York, where he discovered that both the academic and the country life held great appeal. A standout student in high school, Carter enrolled at Stanford, intent on pursuing a career in physics. His talents, however, lay elsewhere, and he settled on history, graduating in 1976. In college, Carter also toyed with the notion of becoming a journalist, writing an often contrarian column for the school paper and working for a summer as a reporter for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.
He started writing short stories when he was 6, and writing remains his hobby as well as a major part of his professional life as a scholar. (His other passions are his family, chess—he’s a lifetime member of the U.S. Chess Federation—and watching basketball and football.) “When I need to relax, I write,” he says.
But making a living as a writer seemed unrealistic, so he opted for Yale Law School, graduated in 1979, and garnered a clerkship from 1980 to 1981 with Thurgood Marshall, the legendary Supreme Court justice and civil rights lawyer who died last year. (Carter, who joined the faculty in 1982, is currently editing Marshall’s oral history.) “The summer before I went to law school, I read Simple Justice,” says Carter. The book, by Richard Kluger, tells the story of Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court case in which Marshall argued successfully against “separate but equal” public schools. “Until then, I had never understood the legal side of the civil rights movement, or the courage, the brilliance, the hard work, and the simple patience of the people involved.” As Carter sees him, “Thurgood Marshall was the light and energy of the movement, and one of the most important lawyers of the 20th century. After all, he argued 32 cases in front of the Court and won 29 of them. That’s not bad.”
Not bad, indeed. But when Carter actually worked with Marshall, the law clerk discovered something that often surfaces in many tales about him. “He was a human being, someone who felt he had nothing to prove,” says Carter. “In fact, he was a nice guy to hang around with—a lot of fun. A very wise man with an incredible store of knowledge and experience that he loved to share. Being with Thurgood Marshall was tremendously inspiring.”
Carter says he learned three main lessons during his association with the Supreme Court justice: “The first is never lose sight of the fact that what we call law affects real people. It’s never an abstraction—there are people out there whose destinies are determined by which way the law goes.”
The second lesson Marshall imparted, says Carter, is that “it’s important to be true to your convictions and say what you believe, no matter what others may think.” But the judge also had an abiding tolerance for dissenting views, and this sense, coupled with his obvious courage, provided the once-and-future clerk and professor with perhaps the longest-lasting lesson of all. “Thurgood felt that the fact that someone disagrees with you doesn’t make him an enemy,” says Carter. “He felt it was important not to hate people, and of all the qualities in him I miss, this is the one I miss the most. It’s very rare in public life today.”
Carter tracks the loss not just in public life, but in private as well. “We have lost our talent for conversation,” he says, adding that instead of reasoned discourse, the air is full of manipulation and bile. “What argument is about today is waiting for your chance to show the other fellow that he is an idiot. Nobody says anymore what is for me a vital part of my creed: ‘I may disagree with what you say but I’ll fight to the death for your right to say it.’ Instead, people say, ‘I disagree with what you say, and you’re a monster for having said it,’ or, ‘it should be against the law to say it.’ This is a horrible thing.”
Resurrecting real conversation, the kind in which each side is willing to listen to the arguments of the other, will require an openness that is currently lacking, says Carter, adding that the nation is certainly the poorer for attempting to exclude so many people, particularly those motivated by religious concerns, from the debate over this country’s direction. In The Culture of Disbelief, for example, he argues for accommodating and listening to those who take their religion seriously, noting that one of them was Martin Luther King Jr.
In The Confirmation Mess, the author repeats the theme of listening, this time to the whole person, rather than to—as has been the case in such celebrated confrontations as the confirmation hearings for Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas—one piece of their message. “Almost the only issue that came up when Justices Ginsburg and Souter were nominated was abortion,” says Carter. “That’s a farce, and it comes back to our desperate desire for simplification combined with our reluctance to have a genuine conversation.”
How can we change the nature of the national debate? Carter has no ready answers, nor does he plan to seek them in politics or on the judicial bench. “I’m too eclectic in my interests,” he says. Indeed, he is currently at work in areas as diverse as intellectual property law, the evolution of the automobile, integrity (the subject of his next book), and loyalty, a topic he’ll explore this spring when he delivers the William Massey lectures at Harvard. “I’m not really a leader of anything,” he says. “I’m an intellectual, a writer, a teacher, a husband, and a father.”
Leader or not, Carter’s work has struck a chord in a nation that could benefit from his central message of listening with ears instead of mouths. Conflict may be inevitable, but if opposing sides agree to disagree—and to keep talking—dissent doesn’t have to be fatally divisive, Carter insists. “A state that loves liberty and cherishes its diversity,” he writes in the conclusion to The Culture of Disbelief, “should revel in these conflicts, welcoming them as a sign of political and spiritual health. And this is the nation that America should be.”
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