Tuesday, May 18, 2010

antisemitism, illicit attitudes, and the supreme court

Pat Buchanan's recent comments, to the effect that there are too many Jews (what else?) on the Supreme Court, are laughable if not worse in content. But are they antisemitic, and do they merit exclusion from the debate? This strikes me as a harder question.

I think things are most likely to be antisemitic (or racist, sexist, etc.) when they (i) ascribe to a group disproportionate power over people or events, and (ii) are broadly consistent with traditional stereotypes about the group. For example, the statement that "there are too many Jews on the Supreme Court, the next thing you know they'll be doing oral arguments in Hebrew" would not sit well with me--no more than a statement that the women justices are likely to be too emotional, the Catholics too loyal to the Pope, etc. Assumptions that Jews are all communists (or capitalists), or that they put Jewish concerns over American ones, would fall in a similar category.

But is any discussion of the religious makeup of the court necessarily illicit? If Kagan is confirmed, the Court will have four justices from New York City and none from large sections of the country, not to mention no Protestants in a country with a lot of, well, Protestants. Although I haven't done the necessary calculations--I'm not sure which part of the Bronx and Brooklyn Sotomayor and Ginsburg hail from respectively--it's possible there would be three from the same subway line, not to mention nine from the Yale and Harvard law schools. Is any mention of this imbalance per se unacceptable? People make the diversity argument in favor of female, minority, or other presences on the Court all the time: why is it suddenly impermissible to do so when the shoe is (so to speak) on the other foot?

Of course, Pat Buchanan is a poor choice to make this argument. He seems to be obsessed by the Jewish question, and understandably raises suspicions when he discusses anything connected with them. Still, I am hesitant to try to rule out discussion of any issue, and less than completely trustful of the people doing the ruling. I think the "too many Jews on the Court" argument is a dumb one, not least of all because there's no evidence they take this into account in making decisions. But I don't think it's inherently antisemitic, at least not in the sense that the term is usually understood.


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