Friday, November 11, 2022

Reading Rosenberg in 2022 Portland

I'm teaching a seminar on Anti-Discrimination Law this semester -- the first time I've taught the class in 10 years. One of assigned materials is Gerry Rosenberg's classic book The Hollow Hope, a famous critique of the judiciary's ability to bring about social change.

I was especially curious to hear my students' reaction to the book, as I think a lot has change even over the past ten years regarding some of the underlying presumptions that made Rosenberg's book so explosive when it was released, or even when I first assigned it in 2012.

Back then ("then" being the early 1990s, when the book originally came out, and 2006, when I first read it, and 2012, when I first taught it), liberal law students still were I think largely operating in the nostalgic shadow of the Warren Court as the model of what courts should be doing on behalf of vulnerable minority groups. Courts were presumed to be an important vector of social change; to the extent the Supreme Court had become conservative it was frustrating that judicial conservatives wouldn't let the judiciary do its job like it did in the mid-20th century. The Hollow Hope was such a shock to the system because it suggested, not that the Warren-era precedents were illegitimate or products of bad judicial reasoning, but that they didn't matter -- they (allegedly) did virtually nothing to bring about the lauded progressive changes like desegregation in the 1950s and 60s.

But kids these days, I figured, may not hold the judiciary even conceptually in such high regard. I could very much imagine the progressives in my classroom coming in with a lot of preexisting cynicism towards the courts -- the baseline assumption being courts as obstacles to social progress rather than (currently malfunctioning) enablers of it. For that sort of student, how would Rosenberg be received?

The conversation we had in class was interesting and dynamic (as they typically are -- I have great students). But it ended on a topic that has virtually never come up in my law school classrooms until now: the earnest questioning of when political violence is justified.

I want to be clear: this question, like any other, is a valid subject for classroom discussion. America was founded by violent revolution, after all; in my Constitutional Law class we just finished reading about the importance of protecting under First Amendment principles discussion about, or even "abstract advocacy" of, violence as a tool for seeking political change.

Nonetheless, it was a sobering discussion, and one that felt very much borne out of despair. Rosenberg, it seemed, put the nail in the coffin of any hopes of using courts as a vector for social change, at least as against entrenched and powerful social interests. And they were already deeply cynical about the vitality of democratic institutions as a meaningful avenue for securing progress -- not because they opposed democracy in concept, but because they thought our democratic institutions had been so malformed by corruptions like gerrymandering, voter suppression, and boundless money in politics that there was no longer reliable correspondence between the nominally democratic levers of power and the popular will. Given that, they wanted to ask, to what extent are we in an arena where at the very least we need to take seriously the prospect of widespread political violence, and act accordingly? (One student, in particular, was absolutely emphatic that liberals needed to arm themselves -- the fascists were coming, he said, and we absolutely cannot rely on the state to protect us anymore).

Again, the discussion was thoughtful, bracing, and serious -- in particular, there wasn't a lot of gleeful discussion of violence that one occasionally hears from the more radical set, which falls over itself in the eagerness to "punch Nazis". But also again, it was sobering just that this was where my students' minds were at -- a cynicism and depression pushed nearly to the breaking point, and serious lack of confidence in the vitality of the basic institutions of liberal democracy. As a pretty normcore liberal, that worried me. And even more worrisome to me is that I did not feel like I had a lot of compelling arguments to assuage their fears.

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