Monday, November 27, 2017

Evil Things Come in Normal Packages

One of the first bits of independent research I ever did, as an undergraduate at Carleton, examined how southern judges responded to Black litigants making claims in the Jim Crow era. Everyone is familiar with the Scottsboro cases, for example, and many lawyers know of the two Supreme Court cases that resulted: Powell v. Alabama (reversal of convictions due to failure to provide counsel) and Norris v. Alabama (reversal of convictions due to exclusion of Blacks from the jury pool).

But before the Supreme Court heard those cases, they went up through the Alabama judiciary, which issued its own rulings. It will not surprise anyone that the Alabama Supreme Court had affirmed all the convictions. It might surprise some that in Powell, at least, that affirmance came over a vigorous dissent by the Chief Justice of that court.

More to the point: if one reads the opinions in those cases, one is struck by their ... normalcy. The general sense of how the southern legal system treated Black litigants in the Jim Crow era might be summarized as "the litigant is Black, the litigant loses. The end." That's both right and wrong. On the one hand, the law really was -- consistently and systematically -- stacked against Black litigants, in ways that made it virtually impossible to achieve justice. On the other hand, the legal opinions always had the appearance and trappings of normal, unremarkable legal analysis. They looked the same, more or less, to how legal opinions look today. Sometimes, opinions aren't unanimous. Sometimes -- rarely, but sometimes -- Black litigants even won in the southern judiciary.

Why does this matter? Well, it seems to me that we do -- at some level -- expect that systematic injustice of the Jim Crow variety is (for lack of a better word) aesthetically distinctive; coming in clear packages of snarling viciousness that makes no bones about its own evil. And a corollary of that is that, to the extent we don't witness that sort of snarl as widespread in the present day, we must not be witnessing systematic injustice (of the Jim Crow variety). But what my research indicated, and what I continue to believe, is that this presupposition is incorrect. Even then, evil was wrapped in normalcy and held the trappings of justice and civilization. Which means that any normalcy and civility we witness today is not probative evidence that we are not ourselves witnessing evil.

All of this is, of course, warm-up to the discussion of that New York Times article on the "normal" neo-Nazi next door. I haven't read that profile, and it strikes me as quite plausible that it was done poorly. But I admit to significant discomfort over the notion that it's wrong to "normalize" Nazism (or antisemitism, or racism, or what have you) in the sense that it's wrong to present it as something that is perpetuated by people who in many respects appear "normal": not snarling monsters, not people twirling their mustaches and cackling about their desire to immiserate the universe.

Now, not all the critics are making such a claim: Jemele Hill, for instance, recognizes that the genre isn't per se wrong but thinks the execution is off -- a totally fair claim.

The JTA analysis likewise contends that the problem with the piece is that the author seems to just assume "oh, we all know these views are garbage" -- but of course, the actual moral of the story here is that lots of people, people who don't "wear it on their sleeve", people who maybe (gasp) read The New York Times, actually don't "know" that and will accordingly read the piece in a very different light than what the author intended.

But contrast that critique to Ezra Klein's, who confidently tells us that there's nothing "new" about the observation that evil is banal. In a sense he's right, but the reason that Arendt's work still resonates is precisely because we're resistant to the message. This is why people wince when they hear the label "The New Jim Crow" -- we may have problems, sure, but Jim Crow? That was so ... explicit! The obviousness, the alleged abnormality of it, is taken to be the knockout argument against applying it to the present day.

It seems trivial to say that Nazis, too, shop for groceries and like to pet puppies. But to the extent that many people really do seem to take the stance that "Nazism can't be a problem here -- all the folks in my neighborhood are normal folks who shop for groceries and pet puppies", then it actually does matter to reiterate that terrible people share those qualities too.

In short: Our markers for extreme injustice are far, far off-base. We think we'll see head-to-toe swastika tattoos and street executions on every corner. And since we don't see that, we assume there's nothing left to see. But injustice doesn't always, or even often, come clothed in such distinctive garb. Most of the time, evil things come in normal packages -- and it's important to point that out.

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