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The limits of writing and analysis

April 5, 2015

Jonah Goldberg opposes analogies between religious freedom laws and Jim Crow:

The other day I wrote a column arguing that it’s ridiculous to compare Indiana’s RFRA [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] to Jim Crow laws. It was obvious, at least to me, that lots of people didn’t really understand what RFRA was. What I failed to appreciate is that perhaps even more people didn’t really know what Jim Crow laws were.

Goldberg’s analysis is sound as far as it goes, and I recommend you read both links. But as I’ve painfully learned, analogies will invite backlash no matter how carefully you make your point. People who don’t like your message will nitpick and that’s just the way it is. In this case there are enough similarities between Jim Crow and anti-gay discrimination to undercut Goldberg’s argument. Terms like ‘ridiculous to compare’, ‘what RFRA was’, and ‘what Jim Crow laws were’ can be interpreted in a number of ways.

Goldberg’s essay reminded me of an old David Roberts post I discussed on my old blog. Roberts criticized academics for having a naïve understanding of social and political change:

You’ll be shocked to hear that Socolow, who spends his life in a world of ideas and explanations, concludes that the answer is better ideas and explanations…I don’t think [David Victor] has ever said anything more on the money than this:

The community of policy advocates—especially folks drawn from academic science and engineering—is shockingly naïve about politics and the strategy of political action.

Writers gonna write. That’s just what they do. So of course Goldberg provides facts and ideas and explanations for how RFRA is not like Jim Crow. But as I asked in my last post: what’s the strategy? What does this essay do for religious freedom? I found Goldberg persuasive. But how many other minds will he change? And what impact will changing minds and hearts have on policy? Is changing policy even the goal?

Goldberg–and RFRA laws–need more than eloquent writing. By my understanding, gay rights advanced in no small part because of visible signs of gay dignity and humanity. Of actual, real-life examples of loving gay couples.

If Goldberg wants to undermine Jim Crow / RFRA comparisons,  he needs visible signs of the horrors of American racism. He has to help us see how monstrous Jim Crow was. That’s where the analogy breaks down for me. Racism against black Americans was unlike anything else in our history not because of how the statutes were written, but because of the impact on human lives. To quote myself: “Did redlining occur in gay communities? What about disparities in poverty and incarceration rates? Did the Great Recession affect homosexuals disproportionately as it did black Americans?

And to finally return to my hobby-horse after some neglect…I’m starting to realize that I cannot just academically intone: “The evidence indicates that creationists can are as capable of scientific reasoning as everyone else.” I have to show that this fact is true. I have to make it visceral. How to do accomplish is something I will be thinking about and working on in the coming months.

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