Blogs > Cliopatria > Judging Others -- Near, Past, and Far Away

May 25, 2006 12:40 pm

Judging Others -- Near, Past, and Far Away

So, I'm sitting here niggling with KC about perspective in his well-researched post,"Duke's Party Line," only to discover that, while I'm quibbling over perspective, he's got the whole thing republished over at Front Page Rag.* Probably won't be any nigglers over there. Just coodies. In fact, the Right is fast seizing on the Duke lacrosse players as late Spring martyrs -- crucified, crucified, I tell you, on a cross of political correctness. If only Jesus had had a good Philadelphia lawyer.
*[Update: Via e-mail, KC says"I neither contacted Frontpage nor was aware that they republished the piece until I read your post." I take him at his word about that. Frontpage commonly reproduces work without an author's permission. Further update: Frontpage has removed KC's article from its mainpage, but retains it within its system.]

Yet, even as I write that bit of cynicism, I have doubts. It took a long time for me to learn to bridle my own presentist tendency to make normative judgments about the past and not to hold historical figures accountable for their failures to live up to my expectations of them. I had, first, to understand that I, too, was a historical figure, subject to the limitations of my own time -- limitations I probably didn't altogether understand, myself; and, second, by extensive research, to find out what possible range of opinion about an issue was available in a given period. But, in fact, the more research I did, the broader the range of alternatives I found available to them. At Is That Legal?, Eric Muller displays a document that challenges superficial justifications of Japanese internment in World War II on the grounds that our criticism of it is only a function of hindsight. Some prominent Americans did know better and did protest it. Maybe KC's voice is comparable to theirs. Maybe I am insensitive to an injustice that's taking place before my very eyes.

Similar issues of perspective arise in the erroneous reportage about the Iranian parliament having passed legislation requiring religious minorities to wear distinguishing badges. Canada's National Post now repudiates and apologizes for its story. But the outrage with which right-wing bloggers seized on it assumes, of course, that we wouldn't do anything comparable. It's always they who commit outrages. But I'd go so far as to suggest that thosemostoutraged at the (erroneous) report of Iranian action might be the first to demand that we act comparably. How would the Iranian action be different from demands for National Identity Cards? Or from some of the demands in the United States' current debate about immigrants? Demands for their removal resonate with earlier demands elsewhere and in the United States for the removal of unwanted minorities. In order to avoid superficial judgments, we need to think about what badges of otherness connote."Unclean"?"Illegal"?"Subordinate"?"Inferior"? Or, merely"Other"? As Nathanael Robinson suggested, we'd benefit from knowing whether facist regimes, other than Germany's, required ethnic minorities to wear distinguishing badges and, if so, what consequences that meant for them under those regimes; and we'd benefit from understanding the meanings of"dhimmi" and how that would differ from the status of an"illegal immigrant." In some circumstances, apparently, dhimmi implied protection. In others, discrimination. What's the difference?

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Ralph E. Luker - 5/25/2006

Your answer suggests that national is a more important identity than religious and gives no latitude for means of identity in societies where paperwork is less common than our own. And, still, the libertarian question would be: why would one want to have a national identity card any more than one would want to have badges of religious identification.

John H. Lederer - 5/25/2006

Ralph Luker asks "How would the Iranian action be different from demands for National Identity Cards?"

1) identity cards would not indicate religion
2) identity cards are not visible unless asked for

in other words, in this regard, basically no different than a driver's license, a firearms permit, a fishing license, or a social security card.