Saturday, January 30, 2016

Special Favorite

In 1883, the United States Supreme Court held (in a cluster of cases known collectively as The Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883)) that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was unconstitutional. In doing so, Justice Bradley, writing for the majority, made the following observation regarding the current status of Blacks in America and the legal rights they could justly claim:
When a man has emerged from slavery, and by the aid of beneficent legislation has shaken off the inseparable concomitants of that state, there must be some stage in the progress of his elevation when he takes the rank of a mere citizen, and ceases to be the special favorite of the laws, and when his rights as a citizen, or a man, are to be protected in the ordinary modes by which other men's rights are protected. 
I love this passage, because it so neatly illustrates just how detached the "special rights" complaint is from actual extant conditions faced by minority groups. "Come on -- slavery was abolished, like twenty years ago already! It's time to stop being the law's special favorite and just be equal."

I thought of this upon stumbling across an old Garry Wills review of a book titled "The Popes Against the Jews," which (as the name suggests) documents a variety of Vatican pronouncements targeting the Jewish people.  It leads with the following quote, from a prominent Catholic journal known as an informal organ of the Vatican itself.
The Jews — eternal insolent children, obstinate, dirty, thieves, liars, ignoramuses, pests and the scourge of those near and far . . . managed to lay their hands on . . . all public wealth . . . and virtually alone they took control not only of all the money . . . but of the law itself in those countries where they have been allowed to hold public offices . . . [yet they complain] at the first shout by anyone who dares raise his voice against this barbarian invasion by an enemy race, hostile to Christianity and to society in general.
That quote came in 1880. Italy had only emancipated its Jews in 1861, and in Rome it was not fully actualized until 1870. Yet here we are, complaining about the powerful Jews, controlling all the laws and all the money, yet nonetheless having the temerity to complain "at the first shout by anyone who dares raise his voice" against their "barbarian invasion by an enemy race." Aren't Jews so ridiculously oversensitive?

One hears similar refrains about both Blacks and Jews today -- that they are the law's "special favorite", that the time has long since past where racism or anti-Semitism was a real thing worth complaining about, and indeed the real victims are those chafing under accusations of either prejudice. In doing so, they insist that they do take these forms of oppression seriously, they are just engaged in a sober analysis of the contemporary moment. And yet, isn't it funny how the same argument in the same language appears no matter the historical moment is?

Fancy that.

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