The XX Factor

Justice Scalia Isn’t Charming. He’s Just Mean.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia
Nope, still not cute.

Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images

New York magazine published an interview with Justice Antonin Scalia this weekend, and right off the top, we’re reminded of the common Washington wisdom regarding the conservative judge: He’s just so adorable. “He is smaller than his king-size persona suggests, and his manner more puckish than formal,” writes Jennifer Senior, who goes on to say that Washingtonians know Scalia as “charming and disarming.”

You often hear this about Scalia, that he’s got charm, that he’s “merry,” “gregarious,” and “funny.” Many of the same people who loathe his views find him downright delightful. But I must confess: I don’t see it. There is nothing cute or funny about a mean old man railing on, as he does in this interview, about how terrible it is that he can’t go to a movie “without hearing the constant use of the F-word—including, you know, ladies using it.” I don’t hear a cavalier wit when he belligerently defends believing in the devil by saying, “I mean, Jesus Christ believed in the Devil! It’s in the Gospels!” There’s nothing amusing about his description of gays as “destructive.” I just hear a mean old bigot who is resisting modernity with every ounce of his being, the polar opposite of the cosmopolitan open-mindedness that leads to true charm and wit. He defends his unwillingness to engage in anything but right-wing media by saying, “[W]hy should I get upset every morning?” and then turns around and derides the younger generations for creating a “narcissistic society.” That’s not charm. Charm requires more self-awareness than this hypocrite has. 

Part of the problem is that American culture positions the cantankerous old coot as a charming figure of fun, which is easier than admitting that he’s a nasty tyrant. We laugh indulgently when Grandpa makes jokes about how kids these days need to pull up their pants and get a job. We giggle when our uncle tells us that if we don’t drop this feminism stuff, we’re never going to find a husband. You’ve seen Grumpy Old Men, right? The coots often do it with a twinkle and a chuckle, knowing that it’s unlikely anyone will actually push back (because elders, respect, etc). “Oh, that’s just Scalia being Scalia again. Isn’t that cute?”

It isn’t cute. It’s not cute when the relatively harmless old man at the coffee shop is rambling on again about how the rappers are ruining music, and it’s even more grotesque when the cranky old man in question has real political power, as Scalia does.

There’s a third option beyond just writing men like this off as cute or actively trying to argue with them: Start practicing the disdain for them they are so good at showing the rest of the world. It might feel unnatural after living in a culture that teaches that the proper reaction to the gruff old fart is to find his shtick amusing, but with practice, you’ll soon find it easy to respond to Scalia or your local grumpy grandpa with the immortal phrase, “Christ, what an asshole.”