Dean Minow’s Superiority

Awhile back, I wrote about Dean Martha Minow of Harvard Law School, highlighting (with Peter Bercowitz’s help) her misrepresentations of a student email that raised questions about racial differences in intelligence. There, I concluded that Minow “disregarded what may be the first principle of academic discussion: to represent the words and ideas of others accurately and fairly.”

In the Boston Globe on August 8, once again addressing a racial issue, Minow committed the same dishonesty. It’s an op-ed on the Elena Kagan confirmation hearings, and it chides Republicans for attacking Justice Thurgood Marshall and hints that “some want to appeal to and perhaps feed anxieties of some whites about desegregation.”

During the hearings, Minow claims, Republican senators repeatedly criticized Marshall. In the confirmation process, she writes, “Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama questioned Marshall’s concern for ‘the little guy.’ Senator John Cornyn of Texas labeled him ‘a judicial activist.’ Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa announced that Marshall’s legal views ‘do not comport with the proper role of a judge or judicial method.'”

Note Minow’s reply. In essence it is a bien pensant rejoinder, an assertion of mannered indignation.

“How times have changed. It is almost inconceivable to try to tar the most recent Supreme Court nominee by association with the iconic civil rights lawyer who successfully argued Brown v. Board of Education, widely viewed as the finest modern moment of the Supreme Court.” Minow proceeds to outline the momentousness of Brown.

This is not only an annoying assertion of pique. It also misrepresents the object of the Republicans’ statements. I listened to the hearings for hours, and I don’t recall any Republican questioning Marshall’s work as an NAACP lawyer or attacking the ruling of Brown. Instead, Sessions and others questioned Marshall’s jurisprudence after he joined the Court.

Does Minow believe that because Marshall did genuinely heroic work as an attorney his subsequent years on the Court are beyond criticism? Apparently so, for she cites Dana Milbank’s judgment about the senators’ strategy: “Did Republicans think it would help their cause to criticize the first African American on the Supreme Court, a revered figure who has been celebrated with an airport, a postage stamp and a Broadway show? The guy is a saint . . . ”

Minow agrees, and so, faced with the saintliness of Marshall she can only judge the senators oppositely as subtle demons or cynics playing upon white worries about “black men in power.” This is the denial of critical thinking and open-mindedness. By the time one reaches the end of Minow’s op-ed, where she declares, “It’s time for a deep breath and a rejection of ignorance and distortion,” one recognizes that her statement is not an expression of legal or political argument. It is, rather, an expression of character, an Ivy League dean claiming the enlightened pedestal for herself and the blinding muck for the wrong-minded.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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