By Max Saltman
As a Masshole, I’ve always been aware of rivalry’s merits. I’m old enough to remember that halcyon night of ‘04, when the Red Sox reversed the Curse of the Bambino, taking home a World Series title for the first time in 86 years. The sight of a Yankees cap still fills me with a mixture of enmity towards New York, dismay at their appropriation of New England’s ancient demonym, and haughty pride in Boston’s superior graphic design.
Yet, for all this, in my three years at Sewanee I’ve never truly cared about our rivalry with Rhodes College. I’m not even sure what their mascot is, much less the name of the trophy we’ve apparently exchanged with them every year since 1954. In fact, the strongest feeling I’ve ever had towards Rhodes might be low-octane envy; their campus includes Elvis’s first home in Memphis, they’ve made a recorded commitment to pay their workers $15 an hour, and they offer minors in Jewish, Islamic, and Middle East studies. Compared to Boston-New York, the Rhodes-Sewanee rivalry never felt personal enough to bother with.
This past week, though, I began to feel it. I felt the first true stirrings of rivalry as Rhodes alumna and Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Since Democratic Congressional leadership have declined to take any significant action against the ghastly hypocrisy of her nomination other than whining, tweeting, and grandstanding, Judge Barrett, Rhodes class of ’94, will likely be confirmed. She will ascend to the highest court in the land to rule over us for the rest of her life. And she went to Rhodes. Yuck.
The briefest glance at the Barrett-Rhodes connection makes clear that her nomination has divided their college community. More than 1,500 alumni signed a letter of concern about her politics, while about 550 signed another stating their support. The president of Rhodes, Marjorie Hass, sent out a statement of her own after news came of Barrett’s likely nomination. Among other things, she wrote that Rhodes has long had connections to the Supreme Court, with class of ’30 alumnus Abe Fortas having been an associate justice himself. Her letter doesn’t mention it, but Fortas was the first SCOTUS judge to resign from the court under threat of impeachment, so one point for Sewanee, I guess.
With Barrett and her nomination, I have found a reason to truly root against Rhodes. Forget the fact that she is a terrible jurist who would make a terrible justice, and focus merely on what she said (or didn’t say) at the sham of a Senate hearing held before her seat theft. This is a person, perhaps Rhodes’ most visible alumna, who wouldn’t say whether she believed in climate change or not. Never mind how she would rule on a case regarding the environment — she said that while she “has read” about the scientific fact that global temperatures are rising as a result of human activity, she “doesn’t have firm views on it.” I get it, she’s following the “Ginsburg Rule” — no hints, no previews, no forecasts — but come on. This is basic common knowledge about nature. The climate crisis is as established a fact as Newton’s laws of motion.
I can’t really blame Barrett for following precedent in what Justice Elena Kagan once called the “vapid and hollow charade” of SCOTUS nominations. But Barrett arguably didn’t follow the Ginsburg Rule during her entire hearing. She notably played hide-the-ball on Lawrence v. Texas (which prevents the government from criminalizing consensual sex between adults) and on Obergfell v. Hodges (which legalized same-sex marriage). However, she remarked that Loving v. Virginia and Brown v. Board, two landmark cases against anti-miscegenation laws and segregation, respectively, were decided correctly.
And she also stated it was “very, very, very, very, very, very unlikely” that Griswold v. Connecticut, which established marital privacy and legalized contraception, would be overturned, a statement that sounds suspiciously like a forecast. It seems pretty fair to assume that the issues Judge Barrett was most reluctant to speak on during her hearing are the ones most likely to garner conservative votes from Justice Barrett. Issues like voter intimidation, abortion, LGBTQ rights, healthcare, the environment, or immigration.
To be fair to Rhodes, Sewanee’s relatively small pool of notable alumni and adjacents contains a few ghouls of our own. Our founder, Leonidas Polk, was one of the largest slaveholders in Tennessee, as well as a Confederate officer. So was nearly everyone else who had a hand in creating this place. Indeed, Sewanee is still in many ways the world’s largest Confederate memorial despite, in a long-overdue September decision, the Board of Regents having finally rejected our association with the Lost Cause.
And yet, the fact that the people who have left this place haven’t recently gone on to obfuscate their backward views before the Senate makes me proud. I pity Rhodes, and any other obscure school whose time in the sun is sullied by the ugly beliefs of their former students. When all this is over and done, I hope to see plenty of signs and banners referencing the pitiful charade of Barrett’s seat theft at the annual Rhodes-Sewanee football game. With jurists like this one, who needs famous alumni? YSR, indeed.