Sunday, March 26, 2006

Life under my rock, or discovering Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson

I live under a rock. It's a nice rock, but it's a rock nonetheless. I have been living in the United States for over 10 years, and I have never learned US history. In part this may have been a subconscious protest - an unwillingness to admit that for better or for worse, I live in the US and I am an American. What I know about US history comes from books I read in my childhood - things like Little House on the Prairie, the Jungle and Anne of Green Gables. Oh wait - Anne was Canadian...

You see my point. I have spotty knowledge of the US in foreign affairs - I've studied the Monroe Doctrine and US intervention in Latin America. I know about Kissinger and Nixon. I know a little something about WWII. But when it comes to domestic US history, my knowledge of most things begins and ends with Gone With The Wind.

Of course I heard about "separate but equal," segregation, the Civil Rights movement - I saw documentaries, photographs, heard speeches, and read and re-read the Autobiography of Malcolm X.

But somehow the reality of all of that never sank in until I started reading the related cases in Constitutional law. To read the majority opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson is to be confronted with a explosion of judicial activism and illogical thinking designed to undermine every last bit of efficacy of the reconstruction amendments.

Europeans think Americans are weird. In many ways. I'm not surprised. Any country that embraces Plessy v. Ferguson, eugenics, Japanese internment camps and Ann Coulter is weird. We are a schizophrenic nation - made up of extremes in every direction, cloaked in a veil of centrist terminology. But despite those extremes the lesson to be learned from US history seems to be that eventually we move forward. Slowly. Painfully. Amidst great protest. But forward.

15 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Failing books there are a number of documentaries running the accuracy and ideology range on American history. There are also several internet sites which cost less (being free).

There is a famous Nevins & Commager one-volume history of the US originally put toether as part of a library of pocket anthologies (this is the origin of the excellent Portable Vikings) for GI's in WWII. You will learn nothing you don't already know from it and it is highly unlikely that you will really stay awake for it, although you will say you did.
Book recommendations follow. Being in Law School you proabably miss reading.
Incoming transmission from the Commie Jews talking through my fillings:
--Are you married yet? (they are Jews)
--You should marry a black man.
(They are Commie Jews)
--Failing all this you should check out some real history, like
*Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen (which outlines major episodes in American history, but within the context of a discussion of how history is taught. Short version: ravingly ideological Texan schoolboards got the textbook publishing industry by the balls);
*A People's History of the US and its sort-of-sequel Declarations of Independence by Howard Zinn. Same framework but with the balance shifted: the discussion of history as taught is very light, the stories are laid on thick. Zinn himself is a fascinating guy, a poor kid who taught himself to read from a discarded rotting edition of Dickens, a bombardier-turned-pacifist who, as a professor in a repressive black college more obsessed with dating regulations than civil rights, martched with King and helped hide various anti-war fugitives from our glorious and infallible FBI. To read more about the man himself, see You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train.
*Nearly anything by IF Stone, the God of American Journalism. Stone derided the press corps that relied on unexamined official stories (how times have changed), and ran rings around them by skipping soirees and conferences for long nights of research in official records.
*Anything by Studs Terkel, the God of interviewing. (We are in Bizarro America by the way, and we can see this because airheaded nobody Larry King and underappreciated institution Studs Terkel are in reversed positions on the real Earth. That and the whole Metric thing.)
*Anything by Gore Vidal, including the novels. Often his fiction is more factual than any newspaper, such as the gruesome pre-legal abortion episode in 1876. His understanding of history is fantastic.
Yes, these people are leftists; they're also right. Ideology shouldn't matter given verifiability, although generally you must look out for rightists since lying is an integral part of rightist ideology (to include Bolshevism and Trotskyism, which is normally classified as leftist). This is important now as we are seeing a kind of plague of rightist antihistory, mostly lionizations like the new treatments of various presidents that, in the case of TR see no reason to call any unsightly attention to his raving and passionate racism.

11:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How auspicious! Today in American History, March 26 1830, Joseph Smith publishes The Book of Mormon, after translating it from golden plates turned over by the angel Moroni. Smith maintained that the text contained in the tablets were written in "Reformed Egyptian" which he read by means of two magic stones from the Old Testament, the Urim and Thummim. (from Daily Rotten, a good source of daily details.)

11:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is nothing strange about racist law. As you can see in Edwin Black's War Against the Weak, America led the way in a globally popular eugenics law craze, but not so far that there was any real mainstream objection from much of anyone. And if anyone is giving us shit over racist policies it ain't the Japanese, who even now are circulating manga with libels and hatemongering about Chinese and Koreans that could've come straight out of the GEACPS (or, changing "China" and "Korea" to "the SU" and "Poland," from a certain Central European country that likes model trains).

11:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That last paragraph was really wierd, because the real lesson is that there are no Great Men, that all progress comes from obstinate people like those profiled in Sven Lindqvists' excellent Skull Measurer's Mistake. (Anything by Sven Lindqvist is great as well by the way.)
You make it sound like the great protest isn't the very thing driving change, which is of course Common Sense/Received Wisdom/Official Reality. No protest ever acheived anything, they all turned violent by the same invisible forces that make the free market self-policing, and their message is always drowned out by their immature tactics.

11:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

out of curiosity, have you seen the opinions of a justice named michael musmanno regarding the legalization of henry miller (pa state supreme court, 421 pa. 70; 218 a.2d 546 [1966])? they are nostalgic in a way, since while they are quite completely insane, they are also pretentiously articulate, like a really decent middle-school paper or a high school debate project. in the era of pat robertson this is depressing. being evil doesn't have to mean being a proudly ignorant fuckwit.
musmanno also has an earlier piece on holding lovers to their promises to marry, but it's not as icyhotonyourballs insane.

12:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is unrelated, actually kinda old, and you must have seen it. But if allegations that Vladimir Putin plagiarized his doctoral thesis are true, will it matter? Will he spin it as making him more attractive in the same way as anti-intellectuals here love Bush's fake stupidity act?

5:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A blogpost relating history and law as disciplines.

7:04 PM  
Blogger Ilya Ehrenburg said...

Heh...weird or not. It is still better then Europe which doesn't so much move forward. They just use new labels. : )

8:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Europeans think Americans are weird. In many ways. I'm not surprised. Any country that embraces Plessy v. Ferguson, eugenics, Japanese internment camps and Ann Coulter is weird.

Law school really does cause brain damage. You should think about a class action when you graduate sweetie.

WTF!!!!! Europeans think we are weird?!!! Where the hell do you think we learned about eugenics?!!! Umm, what European nation carried out the largest full scale experiment in eugenics in the history of the world!!!!! Oh, yeah, Coulter ranks right up there with Dr. Josef Mengele, Robespierre, Cromwell and other humanitarians of European history!!!!

What an idiot.

2:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Coulter is a poor imitation of a pundit. Mengele et al have plenty of company in the real contributors to American history. As far as this conveniently brief reversal of eugenics fashion, America led the way in significant ways, and Edwin Black's War Against the Weak is as good a place as any to start on that.

12:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i like vindicating coulter (malkin, the concentration camp advocate, would be a better example) by separating her from the real machers she would only apologize and root for. by this logic we have no right to mess around with holocaust deniers and mere cheerleaders of european evil, as they're only selling it, not actually doing it.

1:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

WTF!!!!! Europeans think we are weird?!!!

Resisting the inevitable metric system, socialized medicine, public transportation (Americans built France's exemplary train system but reserve unsafe toy tanks for themselves), peace economy and matching peace military,
Level of religiosity normally found in particularly squalid Third World states,
Allowing the military-industrial shell game to drive us to Third World status,
Obsessing over the fetishism of the state, making up new rituals for flag bearing, fascistic militarism and overflagging (putting it everywhere from windows to diapers), totally unrealistic martial obsessiveness,
And giving Braveheart best picture.
Is there something normal-looking in there?

2:54 PM  
Anonymous stats79 said...

"Resisting the inevitable metric system"

Well, there you go, conclusive proof that America is weird. Now if I could figure out where I put 6 million jews or a couple million Poles... Oh, I guess you are right. Them damn Americans and there contrary ways are just plain weird.

6:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now if I could figure out where I put 6 million jews or a couple million Poles

Typical rightist inability to make comparisons. Exterminating millions of people isn't wierd, it's evil. Imagine a documentary about how annoying, or punctual, or representative of any other unimportant quality the Nazis were.
Although the paradigm for that was the American conquest of our own continent -- the Lebensraum idea driving Hitler East was a leftover from the ages of exploration and empire -- and the numbers still don't compare. It goes from single digit millions per group in Europe to hundred-millions in America.

And yes, it is inexcusably wierd that we would resist the Metric system.

6:56 PM  
Blogger Clever WoT said...

This is directed toward the anonymous commenter who said: "Where the hell do you think we learned about eugenics?!!! Umm, what European nation carried out the largest full scale experiment in eugenics in the history of the world!!!!!"

You should be careful of your historical timeline when you're throwing around so many exclamation marks. The Holocaust, awful as it obviously was, didn't occur until the late 30s. It was, incidentally, hardly the first example of genocide or ethnic cleansing.

Take a look about ten years earlier and you'll find a U.S. Supreme Court decision called Buck v. Bell (which I wrote about here), which upheld a law allowing the government to involuntarily sterilize the mentally retarded. Sounds to me like there was a full-scale American eugenics movement well before WWII.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in his rather infamous opinion: "It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

The Nazis didn't invent eugenics. In fact, the Nazis likely were directly responsible for the end of the eugenics, since it was impossible for people to support once they saw it carried to its logical extreme.

And just a random historical note: Plato was a big fan of selective breeding and government control of reproduction. So I guess you should blame him, unless you want to contend he learned it from the Nazis as well.

10:15 PM  

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