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Clarence Thomas tells graduates to simply be good citizens


Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas urged college graduates who seek to "preserve liberty" to do so by fulfilling the duties of their daily vocations rather than attempting to achieve sweeping political goals.

"At the risk of understating what is necessary to preserve liberty in our form of government, I think more and more than it depends on good citizens, discharging their daily duties in their daily obligations," Thomas said Saturday during a commencement address at Hillsdale College, a small liberal arts college in Michigan.

Thomas lamented various aspects of contemporary society, especially with regard to colleges and universities. He diagnosed what he regards as a contemporary tendency to take pride in having "grievances rather than personal conduct" and to focus on individual rights as citizens, rather than responsibilities. "Hallmarks of my youth such as patriotism and religion seem more like outliers, if not afterthoughts," Thomas said.

He added, "Do not hide your faith and your beliefs under a bushel basket, especially in this world that seems to have gone mad with political correctness."

But the speech had a personal emphasis, in content and delivery; he remembered of the late Justice Antonin Scalia's kindness to him "when it mattered most" — a reference to his confirmation to the high court following the Anita Hill controversy — and spoke briefly to each graduate as they received their diploma.

Hillsdale has a reputation as a "citadel of American conservatism," with an outpost in Washington, D.C., that Thomas's wife Ginni helped to establish when she was an associate vice president at the college.

Thomas discouraged the audience from prioritizing government service and trying to "change the world" over other work.

"I resist what seems to be some formulaic or standard fare at commencement exercises, some broad complaint about societal injustice and at least one exhortation to the young graduates to go out and solve the stated problem or otherwise to change the world," he said. "Having been where you are, I think it is hard enough for you to solve your own problems, not to mention those problems that often seem to defy solution. In addressing your own obligations and responsibilities in the right way, you actually help to ensure our liberty and our form of government."

Thomas said he learned this from his grandfather, who taught him to revere "duty, honor [and] country" even though he was raised in a racially-segregated society. "He knew that though not nearly perfect, our constitutional ideals were perfectible if we worked to protect them rather than to undermine them," the justice said. "Don't discard that which is precious along with that which is tainted."

Thomas concluded by telling the graduates to thank their families and teachers — "these are the people who have shown you how to sacrifice for those they love, even when that sacrifice is not always appreciated," he said — and to be kind to those in need. "As you go through life, try to be that person whose actions teach others how to be better people and better citizens," he said.

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