Saturday, May 08, 2010

What Goldstone's Past Actually Teaches Us

An article in an Israeli newspaper digs into Richard Goldstone's past as a judge during South Africa's apartheid era. The story focuses on Judge Goldstone's role in sentencing several Black defendants to death, as well as other actions which seemed rather sketchy given the way they reified South Africa's racist structure:
Goldstone claimed that he never discriminated against black defendants and acted to the best of his abilities to act fairly, though he was sometimes morally opposed to the laws he was upholding. He noted that he was equally committed to maintain equality and to uphold the law, two principles that often clashed.

I think this is very important. Matt Yglesias dismisses the entire article because "an awful lot of people were in morally compromising situations" during the apartheid era.* And this is undoubtedly true. The ANC seems to think of Judge Goldstone as a good jurist and a friend, and that's enough for me to accept his anti-racist credentials.

But the importance of this article isn't really about somehow showing Goldstone to be a dreaded racist. Nor am I convinced that Goldstone's participation in the Gaza inquiry was meant to sanitize this unsavory past. Jon Chait gets it closest when he writes that "Goldstone seems to be disinclined to make a brave, lonely stand against the prevailing currents."

But what I was most reminded of was my own intuition on Goldstone's self-image of the role of law:
Judge Goldstone, I've often thought, is like a very judicious, public-spirited, personally fair-minded person who volunteers to be the judge at the Scottsboro trial. The instinct is equal parts admirable, naive, and egomaniacal. Admirable, because of the belief (which I think Judge Goldstone had) that what the situation really needed was for someone who wasn't infected by the endemic prejudice to step in and be a fair arbiter. Naive, because it drastically underestimates the degree to which the prejudice infects the entire system, and thus is perfectly complimentary with formal legal categories -- Jim Crow ate up and spat out formal constitutional doctrine with a near-careless ease (it took rather dramatic changes in how we viewed American law for institutional racism to be rooted out). Egomaniacal, because of the belief that one messianic person could effectively counter an entire system simply by playing by its own rules. Formalism, no matter how judiciously applied, only works when the surrounding system is just. When that quality isn't present, following the rules will do virtually nothing, because they mean virtually nothing.

The above block-quoted section fits this to a T. Goldstone, I think, rationalized his service as an apartheid-era judge because, in contrast to his explicitly racist fellows, he knew he was fair and judicious, and would follow the rules and dot every "i" and cross every "t". The overwhelming faith in formalism remains the blindspot. When the system is unjust, following the rules does surprisingly little. Judge Goldstone may be (or may not be) a meticulous technician within the system, but he has no view of the big picture. He can't fathom that simply playing by the rules isn't enough.

* The rest of Matt's piece is a rather half-hearted effort to swat aside the possibility that Israel is the victim of unfair treatment because -- well, he doesn't explain why, except to say that the folks who support Goldstone don't all hate Black people. Well, that's great, but it is entirely possible to hold egalitarian views towards one marginalized group and be prejudiced against another. I would never impeach Desmond Tutu's anti-apartheid credentials, but I sure as hell will impeach whatever credibility he has speaking about Jews and Jewish experience.

The question is whether the system we're working in -- international law as mediated through UN institutions -- is one that treats Jews and Jewish claims fairly, and it's not like this argument hasn't been made with considerable sophistication and evidence. Matt wants to force us into this binary where either we have to oppose the entire facial ideology of international law, or accept that the system as currently administered is meted out fairly. This doesn't so much answer the critique as sidestep it entirely, secure in the confidence that the ultimate response to claims of discriminatory activity is to mock the complainant.

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