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Opinion

Opinion: Neil Gorsuch was a teenage wisenheimer, not a teenage fascist

Donald Trump and Neil Gorsuch

President Trump congratulates Judge Neil Gorsuch, who did not found a fascist club at his Catholic prep school.

(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

If ever a story qualified for the Twitter disclaimer “big if true,” it was the scoop that appeared in the online Daily Mail this week.

The lead of the EXCLUSIVE story was sensational: “Supreme Court Justice nominee Neil Gorsuch founded and led a student group called the ‘Fascism Forever Club’ at his elite high school, DailyMail.com can reveal.”

The story’s smoking gun was a snippet from the yearbook at Georgetown Preparatory School. It included the yearbook’s litany of Gorsuch’s school activities (including “Forensics 1,2,3” — which referred to speech and debate, not crime scene investigation). And there, among the other extracurriculars, was: “Fascism Forever Club” (Founder and President).” There also was a reference in the yearbook to the way the club “happily jerked its knees against the increasingly ‘left-wing’ tendencies of faculty.”

The real revelation in the yearbook story is that young Gorsuch was a conservative (no surprise there) and that he had an adolescent sense of humor
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I doubted this story at once, for two reasons. First, Georgetown Prep is a Jesuit institution, and I was pretty sure the Jebbies wouldn’t have allowed their students to form a fascist club.

Second, this “fact” was in a high school yearbook. From time immemorial, yearbooks have served as repositories for inside jokes and hoaxes.

For example, according to the yearbook at my Catholic boys school, I was a victim of an airline hijacking.

It happened, according to an impressive photo spread, when my fellow yearbook staffers and I were flying to Miami for the International Yearbook Convention and an armed man (well, an armed teenager) put a gun to the temple of Rick Corrigan and said: “This plane —  and this yearbook staff —  is going to Cuba!” That shocking scene took place in the cabin of an idled United Airlines jet. The father of one of the kids, a travel agent, had arranged for us to use the plane for our photo shoot. (The airline didn’t know we were going to stage a fake hijacking.)

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I assumed that everyone who saw the “hijacking” spread in our yearbook would know it was an elaborate joke. Not so. Several kids commiserated with me about our ordeal. (“You must have been scared …less!”) I hope they didn’t go into journalism.

Obviously some people also believed the Teen Fascist Club story, but it eventually was debunked. Snopes.com gave the report a Red X for “FALSE.” In America, a Jesuit magazine, reporter Michael O’Loughlin gave the background:

“Mr. Gorsuch ... was routinely teased, accused of being ‘a conservative fascist.’ No shrinking violet, he would shoot back, taking on the liberal ethos of the school and even arguing with religion teachers about the liberal theological trends in vogue at the time. …

“When it came time to write his senior biography for the yearbook, he would make light of the divide between his conservative political beliefs and those of the more liberal faculty and students.

“He wrote that he founded and led the ‘Fascism Forever Club,’ though those with knowledge of the school back in the 1980s say there was no such club.

“The mention of it in the yearbook was a tongue-in-cheek attempt to poke fun at liberal peers who teased him about his fierce conservatism.”

So the real revelation in the yearbook story — other than the credulity of the Daily Mail —  is that young Gorsuch was a conservative (no surprise there) and that he had an adolescent sense of humor (also unsurprising; he was an adolescent).

So is this example of “fake news” any more than an amusing diversion? I think it is.

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As with past Supreme Court nominees, journalists and activists are trawling through Gorsuch’s past in search of clues about how he might rule on the court in politically charged cases. A lot of these excavations will turn up “evidence” that, while not as falsifiable as the “Fascism Forever Club,” will be hyped or overinterpreted.

For example, the Guardian has published a piece with a headline worthy of the Daily Mail: “Oxford scholar who was mentor to Neil Gorsuch compared gay sex to bestiality.”

The story noted that Gorsuch “studied for a doctorate at University College Oxford under the supervision of Prof. John Finnis, a 76-year-old Australian legal scholar considered one of the world’s foremost thinkers on the philosophy of natural law.” But it emphasized not only that Finnis, a Roman Catholic, had written about “the evil of homosexual conduct” but also that he had described abortion as the “approved killing of vulnerable innocent human beings.”

What does this have to do with how Gorsuch might rule as a Supreme Court justice? The Guardian tries to draw a connection: “Although Gorsuch has not formally stated his opinion on the landmark Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court ruling, which established the right to abortion, his work on euthanasia, under the tutelage of Finnis, has been interpreted as some of the clearest evidence of his likely pro-life views.”

Maybe, but the fact that Gorsuch wrote a thesis about assisted suicide under the “tutelage” of Finnis doesn’t mean that he shares his mentor’s views of homosexuality and abortion. (And to the extent those views reflect Finnis’ Catholicism, they wouldn’t necessarily be shared by Gorsuch, an Episcopalian.)

Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if some senators engaged in some guilt by association by pressing Gorsuch to say whether he agreed with his old mentor.

But at least he won’t have to deny that he was a teenage fascist. We can hope, anyway.

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