Blogs > Cliopatria > Historical Analogies in the Times, again.

Mar 18, 2004 2:28 am

Historical Analogies in the Times, again.

Back when the first" cold fusion" flap happened back in 1989, a chemistry magazine I read (because my mother edited it) ran a cartoon: a couple of lab-coated researchers, one of which was saying,"I thought the New York Times was peer-reviewed...." In that spirit, here's a couple of interesting pieces of historical"scholarship" from the Paper of Record:

First, one of my least favorite"public intellectuals" argues against being too ambitious about political and social reform in Iraq. OK. But his exemplar? Napoleon, who marched across Europe freeing serfs and Jews and imposing French Law where'er he went. In fact, Buruma argues, Napoleon caused the Holocaust: the association between the liberation of the Jews and French universalist liberalism persisted over a century to result in National Socialism's anti-semitic chauvinistic particularism. Aside from the fact that the world has changed an awful lot since Napoleon and Hitler, and aside from the fact that the values of the French Revolution are now enshrined in international bodies like the UN, how about this persistent association between Jews and liberalism? Enlightenment thinkers associated Judaism with primitivism, tribalism; the association of Jews with" cosmopolitanism" ("rootless" or otherwise) was a product of the late 19th century socialist internationalist movement, which was very attractive to more assimilated Jews. Sure, liberation meant that Jews were more visible (because they were more active in more areas of society) and less visible (because they were not necessarily immediately identifiable as Jews by name or dress), but I find it hard to fathom drawing a direct line between that and the false-positivistic racialism of de Gobineau and Chamberlain. Maybe I'm missing something, but if so it's because Buruma is skipping a few steps in the logic chain.

There's a better article, though, a constitutional and historical comparison between gay and interracial marriages. My personal favorite part of the article, which echoes discussions elsewhere in blogspace, was the graphic map showing the states which had, but repealed, bans on interracial marriage (West and upper Midwest) and the states which maintained their bans until the 1967 US Supreme Court decision which invalidated the laws (pretty much what you expect: south of the Mason-Dixon line out as far west as Texas). The highlight of the piece is pointing out that the Defense of Marriage Act and the Defense of Marriage Amendment are both unnecessary, as it is long-standing practice to allow states to not recognize marriages that are against public policy/illegal within their own borders. Though there is the creeping problem of judicial recognition under limited circumstances.

Regarding that, I just want to say here what I've said elsewhere:"judicial activism" is a shibboleth, code for"decisions we don't like." Judges are required to interpret the law, when cases don't quite fit the clear language of the law, and they are required to mediate cases where rights are in conflict, and they are required to provide a check on legislative actions when those actions violate constitutional protections. That's not"activism"; that's doing their job. It's bad enough that we've got mandatory sentencing and immense prosecutorial discretion handcuffing judges: now there is this rhetorical attack on their fundamental checks and balances role.

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Derek Charles Catsam - 3/18/2004

Jonathan --
Fully agree on "judicial activism" as a term intended to deride rather than enlighten, as with most such epithets wieldy broadly and without much precision, -- especially as we live in an age when the traditional critics (conservatives) of such supposed activism now are the one's endorsing the same sort of "activism." Most of the time these arguments come from people who can't be bothered to or simply do not understand constitutional law and history.
These days it does almost seem that taking on the NYT is almost too easy. I just got through an exchange with the editors about a factual error in one of their pieces -- they insist, based on a bizarre and narrow reading, that their assertion was technically right even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. One would think factual accuracy would be an increasing and not a decreasing concern of theirs in light of the past year or so. Apparently not. And I am a liberal. I hate to say it, but all of this does just add grist to the mill of the conspiracists,left and right.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/18/2004

Agreed. And what was striking about the map is that those laws were, fifty years ago, nearly uniform, with a small swath of the north, the old Union, excepted.

I also thought it was odd they didn't mention the case, particularly given the name as you say, but I think that's indicative of the general lack of interest in detail on the part of both readers and writers. The chart was adequate penance, I think.

Richard Henry Morgan - 3/18/2004

Strangely, the article doesn't mention the Supreme Court precedent on point, which is unfortunate, given its name: Loving v. Virginia. I remember the open-jawed incredulity of my students when I taught the case -- we've come a long way when students can't even imagine that such laws once existed.