Scalia, Stanley Fish and a Memorable Sentence

In the first chapter of Stanley Fish’s new book, “How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One,” he extols a sentence from Scalia’s dissent in Lee v. Weisman, the 1992 case in which the majority said prayer at a Providence, R.I., middle school graduation violated the required separation of church and state. Fish notes that the Court majority referred to the “psychological coercion” of students in attendance, and he continues, “This was too much for Justice Scalia, who, after citing a fellow jurist’s complaint that establishment clause jurisprudence was becoming so byzantine that it was in danger of becoming a form of interior decorating, got off this zinger: ‘Interior decorating is a rock-hard science compared to psychology practiced by amateurs.’”

Of those twelve words, Fish writes, “The sentence is itself a rock thrown at Scalia’s fellow justices in the majority; it is a projectile that picks up speed with every word; the acceleration is an effect of the two past participles ‘compared’ and ‘practiced’; their economy does not allow a pause or a taking of a breath, and the sentence hurtles toward what is both its semantic and real-life destination: the ‘amateurs’ who are sitting next to Scalia as he spits it out.”

Fish says his appreciation of Scalia’s sentence does not relate to the merits of the dispute. Rather, Fish writes, “It is the pleasure of appreciating a technical achievement … Scalia’s ability to load, aim, and get off a shot before his victims knew what was happening.”

And in the world of great sentences and neat coincidences, Fish notes, as an aside, that Daniel Weisman’s challenge – on behalf of his 14-year-old daughter Deborah — was to the same middle school Fish attended as a boy.