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Don’t Count on History to Judge Wisely

The Supreme Court's rulings on Tuesday aren't certain to be condemned by future generations.

Scott Barbour/Getty Images

There once was, in Indonesia’s third-largest city, a Nazi-themed restaurant called SoldatenKaffee. It opened in Bandung in the early 2010s, was closed following an international outcry in 2013, reopened with a smattering of Allied paraphernalia in 2014, and finally closed again in 2017, apparently due to a lack of business. The owner, who says he intends to reopen in a new location, does not strike one as an especially ardent anti-Semite, nor as a neo-Nazi; he seems mostly to like the look of his kitschy collection of Third Reich memorabilia. While Nazi-themed venues and events aren’t exactly taking Southeast Asia by—you’ll pardon the expression—storm, neither are they entirely uncommon.

It’s easy enough to get outraged over this. In the so-called West, we have broadly agreed that the Holocaust represented the most evil episode in the history of humankind, but it turns out that even this has a kind of cultural and geographic specificity. There are yet parts of the world where “history” is simply indifferent.

This crossed my mind as Justice Sonia Sotomayor read her dissent in Trump v. Hawaii, the case of the president’s travel ban (née the Muslim ban), which the Supreme Court’s five conservative justices upheld as constitutional. “History,” Sotomayor opined from the bench, “will not look kindly on the court’s misguided decision today, nor should it.” But it is probably more apt to quote Peter Rudge, one of the students in Alan Bennett’s play-turned-film The History Boys: “History is just one fuckin’ thing happening after another.” It is a comfort to imagine it judges, kindly or otherwise. But it does not.

In that very same decision to legalize an obviously discriminatory policy against Muslims, the five justices also, audaciously and almost as an afterthought, overturned Korematsu v. United States—the infamous decision in 1944 to uphold President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Japanese-American internment camps. But even as I call that ruling infamous, I recognize the narrowness of the historical verdict. The internments ended seven decades before their legality was blithely overturned, and if we still judge the court harshly for it, we bracket our judgment of the president who gave us the interments themselves: an evil and unnecessary act by the man we nevertheless broadly consider one of the great American presidents, up in the pearly heights of Washington and Lincoln.

History’s superseding judgment also crept into the left’s responses in the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates case, the other decision announced on Tuesday, in which another narrow conservative majority ruled on free speech grounds that anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy centers” can, in effect, deceive people about the services they provide, overturning a California state law that compelled certain disclosures. The court, much of lefty Twitter agreed, had once again found itself on the wrong side of history. This presumes that the left, broadly defined, will be the ones writing it, because the left will prevail.

This is magical thinking. The Democrats are completely out of power in Washington and across most of the country, and the Supreme Court is one retirement or heart attack away from a 6-3 conservative majority (and a chief justice who is just 63). It may be reassuring to quote King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But that famous line was, in context, an explicitly theological consideration, not a statement about the inevitability of temporal social justice. Moreover, that refrain obscures the difficult fact that King grew increasingly pessimistic in his final years, increasingly doubtful that history was predisposed to justice at all.

Moral superiority in the absence of political power is useless, and self-reassurance in the inevitable upward motion of progress—that it may be interrupted or delayed, but rises inexorably—is self-indulgence. The GOP has spent the last half-century methodically and patiently laying an infrastructure for the acquisition and, more importantly, for the exercise of power. Its broad capture of the American judiciary is one of the great political feats of the modern era. The ostensible opposition party lacks a clear strategy for the coming legislative midterms, let alone for the incremental grooming of a cohort of jurists to place on the bench two to three decades down the road.

Things are not looking up in America. The young John Connor is still explaining to his robot friend, sent back from the blasted future in which history has at last ended, his mother’s full dictum: “The future is not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.” Everyone in history is either dead or is gonna be. What are we going to do now?