14 March, 2017

Scoff Law

"The natural separation of the races is...an undeniable fact, and all social organizations which lead to their amalgamation are repugnant to the law of nature."
 - Supreme Court of Louisiana, city of New Orleans versus Willie V. Piazza (1917)*

I have no faith in the law to uphold such righteous declarations as "women are equal to men", "blacks are equal to whites", or "gays are equal to straights", only because public sentiment has, over the course of history, been shifting in that direction - when anyone can look back decades or centuries and find examples of lawmen justifying the prejudices of the time in the same language used today, which is disguised to look like reason, but in truth hides a wellspring of personal and public bias.

We can work toward shifting emotions - this is an effective strategy, and it is happening all around us - but I'd like to be able to trust in the belief that a competent application of logic will lead us down the path of virtue. Yet this is no more than a fantasy. Homo sapiens is and always has been ruled by its emotions. It is a highly illogical species that irritates me and tries even my patience. I'd prefer to have nothing to do with it.

Not that emotions are not valuable. But when they trump reason, then facts cannot overcome bias, and the outlying individual (along with his rights and freedoms) is swept away by the overwhelming (and irrational) tide of public opinion.

*Context: I've been reading this fascinating book about Storyville (which inspired the highly controversial film Pretty Baby), a unique social experiment in which, for two decades starting at the turn of the twentieth century, New Orleans attempted to establish a legal red light district. The result, while not exactly glamorous (despite how well-outfitted some of those mansions were), was actually a reduction of vice and corruption throughout the city, by keeping it confined and regulated, instead of allowing it to flourish beyond the reach of the law.

Unfortunately, the United States Navy (in its infinite wisdom) eventually stepped in and forced Storyville to close, upon threat of military intervention (because totalitarianism - not freedom - is the American way). But before that happened, the city attempted to produce a second district, so as to enforce racial segregation.

The case quoted here was the result of a complaint by one of the original district's leading personalities, whose business was to be uprooted by this new modification to the Storyville Ordinance, based solely upon the color of her skin. Most of the court's argument wastes time rejecting Piazza's complaint by emphasizing the city's right to regulate houses of prostitution, missing the point that if Piazza had been white, she wouldn't have been facing eviction in the first place - even as the owner of a brothel. But when the court does finally get around to the issue, their legal defense of the doctrine "separate but equal" starts to sound alarmingly like a KKK manifesto.

P.S. Additionally, the amount of weight that precedent carries in a court case bothers me. I'm sure the courts don't want to reinvent the wheel with every case they come across (although with the amount of thought that goes into these cases, I'm not convinced that they don't do exactly that, and are just citing precedent to legitimize their own derivations), but just because one dumbass court made a bad decision once before, doesn't mean that the next court should feel all the more confident in propagating that bad decision. It's inherently biased towards conservatism, and stands as a very real obstruction to progress.

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