Chomsky Tries Modern Feminism and Gets it Right

Noam Chomsky inadvertantly reminds us why people don’t trust feminism in his latest political article, called Magna Carta Messed Up the World, Here’s How to Fix It.

Hey, don’t blame him for the title. Editors often write those things to get clicks, and that seems to be the case here as his article is clearly supportive of the Magna Carta. Its actual complaints are (1) that the Magna Carta‘s protections of people (Barons, but OK) against their governments remain imperfectly realized today and (2) that there was another Charter issued around the same time that’s forgotten from history because it protected the rights of the commons (and more directly the rights of commoners), a brand of rights that capitalism finds uncomfortable.

Chomsky’s right that the content of the Charter of the Forest isn’t widely taught in schools, so I’m glad that I read the essay overall, and I certainly agree with him when he writes:

The constitutional lawyer in the White House has introduced further modifications. His Justice Department explained that “due process of law”—at least where “terrorism offenses” are concerned—is satisfied by internal deliberations within the executive branch. King John would have nodded in approval.

Chomsky is one of the rare voices on the left who hasn’t let Obamamania knock him off balance.

I did want to pick a couple of nits, though, and that’s with this line:

Indeed, it wasn’t until 1975 that women gained the right to serve on juries in all fifty states.

First, this is factually incorrect. Women gained the right to serve on juries in the last holdout state – South Carolina – in 1967. What Chomsky is mistaking for granting the right for women to serve on juries in every state in the country is a 1975 Supreme Court Case – Taylor v. Louisiana that ruled out the practice, still in force in some states and explicitly declared constitutional in 1961 in Hoyt v. Florida, of only considering women for jury pools who had specifically applied for jury duty. So, in effect, only men in these states had a jury duty; women could serve if they wanted but were not specifically required to do so.

Second, if you’re going to split hairs in this way and try to argue that women don’t have a full "right" to serve on juries in the 17 or so states that still had this scheme in effect in 1975 because they have to specifically apply, where men don’t, we need to ask why you haven’t dated it from 1979, when another Supreme Court Case, Duren v. Missouri, forbade the twin practice of allowing women to opt out of jury duty. It’s this second point that I’m actually getting at.

The only sense I can make of Chomsky’s thinking here is that making it a hardship (she has to apply) for a woman to serve on a jury where a man can get called up at any time is tantamount to denying her a right to serve on a jury. But that’s exaggerated on a number of levels. First, it’s just sort of factually silly. I have a right to vote, and yet I have to specifically register to exercise it, and almost no one takes that fact to be evidence that I don’t really have a right to vote. Perhaps Chomsky would say that no citizen of the US actually has a full "right" to vote because of the registration requirement, but it’s a highly unusual opinion if so. Second, almost no one considers it a "right" to be in a position to be called to do something compulsory. It’s like saying that men have more of a "right" to be drafted than women. Or that Australians have more of a "right" to vote than Americans do, because you get fined for not doing it there. That’s just not the way that most people think about "rights."

The point about mistrusting feminism, of course, is that Chomsky is not at all fussed about the followup case – Duren v. Missouri – that removed a woman’s ability to opt out. Duren upheld the idea that jury duty is duty – over and above just being a right – for everyone, and so to be fully consistent, Chomsky should actually date the full assumption of equal jury rights for women from 1979, not 1975. That would have the nice side effect of making his point even more shocking, since in context it’s clear that he’s trying to emphasize how slow the extension of full rights for women has been.

So, it’s telling. To the extent we can follow him to the point of confusing jury duty with a right, we can’t help but notice that the right women gained in 1975 was greater than the right men had at the time, since women in some jurisdictions could opt out of jury service.

Feminism gets a bad name for exactly this kind of oversight. Or rather, it retains its name for it. The modern push to say that "feminism" is coterminous with "gender equality" fails on cases like this, which show a concern with winning rights and privileges for women that is greater than assuring that the system of rights and privileges be actually equal.

So file this in the very long cabinet drawer that stores examples of people advocating for equal rights and privileges for women but not equal duties or hardships.

One thought on “Chomsky Tries Modern Feminism and Gets it Right

  1. “First, it’s just sort of factually silly. I have a right to vote, and yet I have to specifically register to exercise it, and almost no one takes that fact to be evidence that I don’t really have a right to vote. Perhaps Chomsky would say that no citizen of the US actually has a full “right” to vote because of the registration requirement, but it’s a highly unusual opinion if so.”

    I think his point makes sense when thought of in light of voter disenfranchisement, and whether we have a right to vote regardless of our ability to be registered. Many people don’t have the socio economic opportunity to register to vote, so to call it a right seems misleading. Black people have the right to vote, but are in many cases denied that right the same way women have the right to be on a jury, but in many cases are denied that right. Before 1975 it was constitutional to deny a woman that right, so the definition of what a “right” is construed to mean two different things: a speculative right, and a practical right– is everyone who is promised rights able to exercise those rights? It would seem that a right you cant exercise isnt a right at all.

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