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The Gold Standard: Spectral Evidence: the race weapon

Published: December 7, 2007
Section: Opinions


During the Salem witch trials, Abigail Williams and her friends are able to obtain guilty verdicts and secure capital punishment for the citizens of Salem, Massachusetts, on the basis of rather unusual attestations. As former practitioners of witchcraft themselves, they could “see” the foul spirits that were being controlled by the Salemites; while on the witness stand, they would sometimes announce that people who were not present had just bitten or pinched them.

Testimony based on dreams or visions, experienced only by the individual witness, is known as “spectral evidence.” Even at the time the admission of such evidence by the Salem judge, William Stoughton, was controversial. The Reverend Increase Mather opposed it on the grounds that these visions might actually be a trick by malevolent demons.

Tragically, our modern society has revived spectral evidence as a legitimate basis for condemnation. We are told that only underprivileged members of a downtrodden “race” can understand the hurt that innocent actions can cause them. A distasteful joke in Gravity magazine, a poem about hip-hop culture in the Hoot, a rational analysis of club constitutions: the intent may have been artistic or constructive, but if anyone, anywhere, indicates that they were offended on the basis of race (or gender, or sexual orientation), then the offender must be brought to justice.

What is, after all, a race? Is it genetic, cultural, a product of melanoma levels in skin-pigmentation? The U.S. Bureau of the Census defines it on arbitrary geographic grounds, such that if one’s parents are Pakistani, he is “Asian-American”; but if they were Iranian, he is “Caucasian/European-American/white”. On the other hand, Mozambique-born Teresa Heinz Kerry came under pressure after she attempted to identify as an African-American.

If we are to believe the good members of Students Organized Against Racism (SOAR), one’s race is visible to the naked eye. At a diversity training session that they offered to members of the Student Union government last Sunday, attendants were told that “only whites can be racist,” and that “of course Jews are white – look at them!”

If this language sounds dangerously – well, racist – then you, dear readers, have misunderstood the term. According to definitions distributed by SOAR at the event, racism can only be perpetrated by the members of a currently or heretofore dominant group on a formerly underprivileged ethnicity. It is thus impossible, by the very definition of the term, for an African-American to be a racist.

SOAR’s mediation was invited after an incident before the Thanksgiving break which resulted in mutual recriminations. The chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, Class of 2008 Senator Asher Tanenbaum, penned a quick message to the Senate listserve regarding the African Club which was coming up for charter. In studying the Brandeis Black Student (BBSO) constitution, he had discovered that it had included international African culture in the club purview. For the Senate’s consideration, he copied both club purposes and submitted that there was a potential issue of duality of purpose.

There were, according to Mr. Tanenbaum, no direct responses. However, TYP Senator Kamarin Lee communicated to a select group in a separate e-mail that Asher’s comparison seemed like “something that a White, Jewish, Middle-Class Conservative would say.” Eventually the word got out, as it has a way of doing. Not being aware of the SOAR definition, some Senators interpreted this accusation as racist. We may assume that he was using a “common sense” definition of the term, or perhaps that he consulted Merriam-Webster’s, which defines racism as “a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement.” At the least, it seems clear that Mr. Lee’s comments were racialist.

When the Senate met to discuss the crisis, a number of SOAR members attended to denounce Mr. Tanenbaum as racist for comparing the two clubs purposes. Mr. Tanenbaum, apparently, had fundamentally misunderstood the semantic connotation of the noun. Racism, SOAR later clarified, is a product of white privilege. It can only be perpetrated by whites upon non-whites, often (usually?) unknowingly.

The oft-repeated assertion that only the underprivileged can detect discrimination, as the majority cannot understand their identity, is fallacious on countless grounds. Every person is a minority of one, and individualism is much less intrusive means of interpreting the universe than racialism.

Who, after all, decided that the Jews – the world’s pariahs for millennia – are a part of the white majority, only now that “whiteness” is a basis for punishment? One exception, of course – the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazi Party certainly don’t accept the Hebrews as their racial brethren. As usual, the Jews get the worst of all worlds.

However, there have been plenty of ideas as or more ludicrous in the long span of human history, and people should be entitled to hold any views they choose, with one major caveat. As soon as citizens begin to use their subjective ideas to cause harm to other persons or their reputations, their ideas become wholly illegitimate in our citizen democracy.

Just as the Salem witch trials are now understood as a dark stain on national history, the spate of casual accusations of racial bias cannot last for many more decades. Increasingly, the abuse of this system is proving obnoxious to Americans. The liberal system enshrines the right to speak freely, not the right to silence free speech.

Mr. Tanenbaum was not trying to make a statement; he was trying to do his job. The terrible regime of Political Correctness found in him another victim. It is an incredible privilege to live in a free society, where anyone can say anything. This is a right that we must win back.