Wednesday, July 24, 2013
I did not intend to write an essay about Trayvon Martin and/ or George Zimmerman. To say the same thing slightly more emphatically, I intended not to write about Tayvon Martin and/or George Zimmerman. I did not regard myself as competent to do so. Early on I did not follow even the journalistic presentation of the matter thoroughly or thoughtfully. Daily summaries of the actual course of the trial left me with impressions but no confident conclusions, certainly with none that would authorize me to give public endorsement of—let alone second guess--a jury that showed every sign of having taken up its unpleasant duties with seriousness. Furthermore, though I hope I sometimes have interesting contributions to make on the often whimsical topics I take up in my blog, I am far from believing that my political or social opinions are of general interest. As for their authority, they rarely win approval, let alone agreement, even within my own family.
We now arrive at the but. I just came upon a brief article, based in a supposedly objective statistical survey, concerning public attitudes toward the acquittal of Zimmerman. More than half of white people asked felt certain that the jury’s decision was the right one. Less than ten percent of black people did. A few days ago President Obama spoke movingly and convincingly to white Americans in the following terms: “I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that -- that doesn’t go away.”
Mr. Obama referenced his own personal experience, as I must reference mine, comparatively trivial though it be. I was immediately taken back in my mind to the afternoon of October 3, 1995. About 1pm (Eastern Time) I was sitting around a large conference table with fifteen or more other members of the “Race Relations Task Force” of Princeton University: an impressive group of student leaders, professors, and administrators, about half of whom were black people. The brown-bag lunch meetings of this earnest and well-intentioned group were generally useful but also sometimes somniferous. Not today. People came and went, discreetly, as their schedules demanded, and about one o’clock a newcomer arrived bearing the news of the O. J. Simpson verdict: “Not Guilty!”
I have possibly experienced a more ironic moment of professional life, but if so I cannot think of it now. All the blacks broke out in more or less effusive expressions of delight. Most of the white people, certainly including me, succumbed to the affect of having recently ingested a bad clam. That is how the “Race Relations Task Force” of a great university related to race on this particular occasion.
This was for me a difficult moment, for I fear that I had indeed come to a rather firm conclusion concerning O. J. Simpson’s role in the death of his wife Nicole. But I could still tell myself that I hadn’t been there, I hadn’t heard everything that the jury had heard, and that “the jury had spoken”. Perhaps I succeeded in convincing myself that it was at least conceivable that Simpson was innocent. But there was a greater challenge yet to come.
Among my most distinguished colleagues at that time was Toni Morrison, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Soon after the conclusion of the trial our excellent student newspaper ran its own article on “campus reactions” to the trial’s outcome. A student reporter interviewed Toni Morrison, who was quoted as saying something I found quite fantastic. She could think of no way in fact or in fiction that Simpson could have been guilty of the murder! I am working from memory here, but Ms. Morrison’s general views on the matter have been documented elsewhere, and can be consulted.
Now when one of the world’s great imaginative writers tells you something empirically probable is so impossible that she cannot allow even a fictional version of it, it may be time to reassess the meaning of meaning, and revive the doctrine of the plurality of truths. In the thirteenth century some Christian followers of the Arab philosopher Averroës (1126-1198) developed a doctrine of the “double truth”. Philosophical truth was one thing, theological truth another. For example, Aristotle had held that the world was eternal; but the Scriptures spoke of a creation in time. So the eternality of the world was “philosophically true” while the temporality of the world was “theologically true”. So long as there was no forced confrontation or reconciliation of the two, an uneasy intellectual equilibrium could prevail. Though few people realize it, our term “politically correct” had a similar theoretical origin in Marxist thought. What is “politically correct” is the secular equivalent of what in the old sacred realm was “theologically correct”.
I conclude that in the matter of Trayvon Martin and/or George Zimmerman an appeal to the truth is predestined to fail. This is not merely because of the contested interpretations of meager and ambiguous evidence, but because different interpreters seek a definitive privilege for one or another of plural truths. There is only what might be called instrumental or functional or legal truth in the verdict of a jury of one’s peers, supported by protocols of judicial review, but it is a truth nonetheless. It is too much to hope for philosophy or theology. Nobody sentient is likely to judge the American system of jurisprudence to be perfect. But sins of commission are here worse than sins of omission. That is why the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti will remain an "everlasting wrong" and that of Orenthal James Simpson a bizarre episode in popular culture. Nobody with even a vague historical sense should lightly badmouth one of the undoubted foundations of our precious liberties, let alone replace it with the judgments of surveys in the popular press, the opinions of talking heads, or the organizers of on-line petitions.