The Impossibility of Perfect Justice
Last night, there was a passionate parish council meeting here in West Feliciana. In 2012, our parish (that is, county) voted to do away with our traditional system of government, the “police jury” (don’t ask me to explain it), and replace it with a “home rule charter” system, which is much more like what others have. Under the old system, the parish was ruled by seven police jury members who had equal power. Under the new system, there will be a five-person parish council of four members elected from separate districts, and one at-large member. Plus, we have an executive branch headed by the parish president. The Home Rule Charter was voted in by a clear majority of the parish’s voters, in an election year that saw a whopping 77 percent turnout in West Feliciana.
Since then, however, the people opposed to the HRC have tried every move they possibly can to reverse the results. They’ve been shot down in court, and faced down in the council when they’ve tried to repeal it. For reasons too complicated to explain here, last night’s meeting was the last chance they had to get a repeal on this fall’s ballot. After this fall, the parish will exit the three-year transition stage of Home Rule, and fully implement the system.
At the meeting last night, there were a number of African-Americans who spoke out against Home Rule, and in favor of having a re-vote. Their view is that the 2012 election was invalid, because the black community was strongly united against Home Rule (89 percent of black voters were against it). And even though two of the four districts have been drawn to be predominantly black, they believe the new system dilutes the black vote.
A (white) pro-HRC council member pointed out that the demographics in our parish have changed a lot in the past generation. Now, only 33 percent of the parish’s residents are African-American. Yet under the new districting, they will have 42 percent of the power. They are actually getting more power than is their demographic due. I could tell from looking at the faces in the audience that this didn’t change their mind.
A white citizen who also wanted to see the HRC repeal on the ballot stood to say that she too thought the districting was unfair. She pointed to the numbers showing that some districts have many more voters than others, unfairly diluting the voting power of citizens living inside the more populous districts. Why should people who live in a district with over 2,500 people in it have to settle for equal representation with a district that has 800?
That is a good point. The answer is that given the population distribution throughout our small, rural parish — about 10,000 residents (not counting Angola inmates) in a space 13 times larger than Manhattan — had the districts been divided equally by number, each one would have been predominantly white. Given voting pattersn here, you would likely have had a parish with one-third African-Americans ruled by an all-white parish council. Given the history of white supremacy here, and of disfranchising the black electorate, that is politically untenable, to say the least. Plus, to have drawn the districts that way would have invited the Justice Department’s civil rights division to investigate us.
Look at this crazy map. Districts A and B are the predominantly black districts, C and D the predominantly white. Are these fairly drawn? No. But they are more fair than any realistic alternative. And so, in my view, they are about as just as we can hope for.
The point is that often, justice is approximate. I was thinking about last night’s meeting — the HRC repeal measure failed, by the way — when I read this apologia by Sherman Alexie, the editor of Best American Poetry 2015, explaining how he picked the poems he chose for the anthology. The interesting part is Alexie explaining how he dealt with discovering after the fact that an English language poem he chose written by a Chinese poet had actually been written by a white man under a Chinese pen name. Alexie writes, of the rules he imposed on himself at the beginning of his mission:
Rule #4: I will not choose any poem based on a poet’s career. Each poem will stand or fall on its own merits. There will be no Honorary Oscars.
Rule #5: I will pay close attention to the poets and poems that have been underrepresented in the past. So that means I will carefully look for great poems by women and people of color. And for great poems by younger, less established poets. And for great poems by older poets who haven’t been previously lauded. And for great poems that use rhyme, meter, and traditional forms.
OK, now wait. How can you let a poem stand on its own merits, but also weight it for reasons of color, sex, age, and relative fame — categories that have nothing to do with literary merit? This is exactly the kind of injustice that the fake Chinese poet was trying to counter. A poem by a white dude from the Midwest doesn’t make the cut, but the same poem by someone who is of Chinese ancestry does? Where is the justice there?
In a remarkable look inside his thought process, Alexie concedes that he did factor in the apparent Chinese-ness of the poem’s author in selecting it for the anthology:
I did exactly what that pseudonym-user feared other editors had done to him in the past: I paid more initial attention to his poem because of my perception and misperception of the poet’s identity. Bluntly stated, I was more amenable to the poem because I thought the author was Chinese American.
Alexie talks about how he went back and forth over whether to yank the poem from the anthology once poet Michael Derrick Hudson revealed his subterfuge, which Alexie denounces as “colonial theft.” Now that’s funny: Hudson caught Alexie out giving extra points to a poem because he thought the poet was a member of a minority group he favored, but the sin is actually Hudson’s, because Colonialism. Ah, the rules of the academy.
In the end, Alexie decided the poem had to stay:
But I had to keep that pseudonymous poem in the anthology because it would have been dishonest to do otherwise.
If I’d pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I gave the poem special attention because of the poet’s Chinese pseudonym.
If I’d pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I was consciously and deliberately seeking to address past racial, cultural, social, and aesthetic injustices in the poetry world.
And, yes, in keeping the poem, I am quite aware that I am also committing an injustice against poets of color, and against Chinese and Asian poets in particular.
But I believe I would have committed a larger injustice by dumping the poem. I think I would have cast doubt on every poem I have chosen for BAP. It would have implied that I chose poems based only on identity.
The word “only” is doing a lot of work in that sentence. Anyway, I’m glad Alexie left the poem in the anthology. This embarrassing episode, though, reveals how corrupting the attempt to work social justice through redistributing merit can be. Michael Derrick Hudson will never know if his poem would have been selected on its own merits. And writers of color included in that Alexie-edited anthology will never be confident that their poems were good enough to be in the book, or if they made it in because Alexie put his SJW thumb on the scale, to compensate for pro-white racism (real and imagined) in past editions.
What does this have to do with the political redistricting in my parish? The two situations are different because one has to do with political power, and the other has only to do with aesthetic quality. In the political case, there is no conceivable division that could have been completely just, given that the first black people weren’t allowed to register to vote in West Feliciana until 1963. In this case, the discrimination of the past was well within living memory, and easy to document. The current redistricting is about as just as we can hope to get at this point in our history in this place. As a political matter, we can more easily bear the injustice of this current redistricting than we could any other permutation.
But Alexie and people like him redistricting (so to speak) art and literature based on perceived historic racial injustice? That’s a much murkier thing. I don’t think it’s right to say that personal characteristics of the poet should have nothing at all to do with the literary worth of a poem. A poem about the pain of exile written by a Syrian refugee may strike us with more force than a poem about exile written by an especially imaginative creative writing grad student of Scandinavian heritage. On the other hand, if the grad student conveys the agony of exile more vividly in her verse than an actual exile does, isn’t she the greater artist?
You see the problem with trying to determine artistic merit based on biography. I give Alexie credit for being so open about his reasoning here. Still, I cannot for the life of me see how either art or justice are served by trying to right (write) abstract wrongs by committing concrete acts of injustice to contemporary poets who, like poets of past eras, happen to be in a disfavored demographic. “Everybody did it, so why can’t I?” is not an acceptable response. Sherman Alexie would have been much less tortured, and certainly less embarrassed, had he just made up his mind to pick the best poems, period. Merit is an impossible to define standard, and subjective when it comes to something like a poem or another work of art. But as imperfect as it is, it seems to me to be better than the alternatives.