“Why is a man who is winning as much as Sam Alito is so furious?”
That line—deep into Margaret Talbot’s profile of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, in the September 5, 2022 edition of The New Yorker—jumped out at me. After twelve pages of Justice Alito’s personal story, the pablum he offered the Senate at his confirmation hearings, his plodding behavior during his early years on the Court, his emergence as the right-wing kingpin of the so-called “Originalist” crowd, up to his tossing away a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization; that single line captured the man’s essence.
It also pretty much describes any human being who finally gets what he wants. The taste of victory is sweet, yet short. But when that victory is long-fought—and contrary to the public will—a man cannot rest on his laurels. Victory does not beget contentment. It only fuels resolve to deeper, more corrosive battles.
If you want to follow the evolution of Sam Alito in detail, please read Ms. Talbot’s excellent article. But if you want to view Justice Alito through the prism of just another power figure for whom every victory, every electoral vote, every Dow Jones jump is nothing more than incentive to enact bigger, more ludicrous, more repressive schemes, Ms. Talbot’s simple line sums it up.
Donald Trump wants to own the White House; Elon Musk wants to own space; Mark Zuckerberg wants to own our screentime; Tom Brady wants to own (another) Super Bowl ring. Sam Alito wants to own our private lives. These men are allergic to being content. Whatever they achieve only fuels them to want more.
The human condition is a balancing act between striving and contentment. Every man wants a better life for his child; yet every man reaches an age when he modifies his dreams and accepts his reality (except perhaps for the examples listed above). Many, perhaps most of us, can achieve a healthy level of contentment. Unfortunately, it only takes a few ravenous souls pushing, pushing, pushing their agenda for the rest of us to suffer the consequences of their bravado. A person who is content has no reason to exert energy against a hell-bent dynamo, until that dynamo has upset their contentment. In which case, it is often too late.
I don’t believe that insatiable want is the sole province of white men; in our society white men simply have the greatest opportunity to indulge gargantuan egos. Nor do I believe that women or BIPOC folk, given more access to power, would act more humbly. The sample pool is small, but Margaret Thatcher, Betsy DeVos, Ellen DeGeneres, and Will Smith are hardly shining examples of people who have used their outsized influence wisely.
Are humans genetically trapped by insatiable want? I can’t believe its fundamental to our DNA, as hunter gathers have no reason to hunt or gather more than they can eat before it rots. Agrarians, alas, have incentive to over produce…store…covet; and modern man has crafted a society in which work and wealth are distinct. Capitalism demands unrestrained so-called growth, and so far, globalism has only exacerbated the distinctions.
Regardless, even if insatiable want only infects a small segment of our species, and we could evolve out of it, we are unlikely to so in any timeframe that will stop our rapacious ways from destroying ourselves.
It may not seem obvious how Sam Alito is a threat to our existence in the same way that income inequality might lead to revolution or environmental devastation will lead to an uninhabitable planet. And yet, thanks to his opinion in Dobbs, a fifteen-year-old girl in Oklahoma is compelled to deliver a baby to term, even as she is too young to check out a book on sex ed from the library. That duality eats away at our ability to live healthy, informed lives just as much as a minimum wage job or a half degree Celsius.
And don’t think for a moment that Sam Alito will rest content on his achievement in overthrowing a woman’s right to an abortion. The man has a lifetime appointment to our highest Court. He has tasted victory. And he is furious.