Law in Contemporary Society
This a revision of Anja Havedal First Paper. Hopefully I didn't mess up the formatting.

Ambition for Ambition's Sake

-- AaronShepard - 17 Apr 2009

Building it Higher

The Burj Dubai was built with one purpose: to be the tallest building on Earth. Including its antennas and spires, it stands an impressive 2,684 feet. By comparison, the prior record holder was Taipei 101, which stood at 1,671 feet; the Empire State Building is a mere 1,472 feet. All told, the Burj Dubai is quite an imposing structure, representing the continuing aspirations of man to do things bigger and better. However, in less than a decade, this $4,100,000,000 building might have lost its purpose, as the construction of the Mubarak al-Kabir Tower in Kuwait is estimated to reach 3,284 feet. This latter building, an endeavor costing a mere $7,300,000,000, will further demonstrate the ability of mankind to better itself, at least superficially; however, is there any doubt that within a few years of that tower’s completion, some other building will be made even higher?

This repetition of supposed progress can be seen through many cultures, especially those that have any combination of ‘industrialized’, ‘western’, or ‘Capitalistic’ included in their description. What causes this constant need to get ahead? Is it a desire to ‘one-up’ the next person? Is it simply a con we play on ourselves, with some implicit justification that if we go a little bit further, or climb the next rung of the ladder, we will be somehow better?

Ambition in Law School

Law school is a perfect area to study this human virtue vice characteristic. How many people here have always sought for such ‘progress’? My hunch is that the percentage is fairly high. With exceptions, many of the people who are at Columbia went to prestigious undergraduate institutions. Many probably attended prestigious secondary schools. Hell, the desire for progress in education starts as young as Upper-East Side helicopter parents trying to get their kids into the 92nd Street Y. After going through so many filters, and achieving so much, one might figure that law students would be content, and finally do what makes them happy. Alas, at this false pinnacle, there is even more mountain to climb, and the competition narrows further. After hearing about getting into Ivy League undergraduate schools, and then the US News top-14 law schools, we now have the Vault – 10 to deal with. Ahh, but for those who are even more elite, they can score a post-graduation clerkship. Do well enough, and maybe there's a gig with SCOTUS. After that, well, you can try for something with a federal prosecutor, but don’t try for the SDNY; that’s only for the best (of the best, of the best, sir).

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why can’t more people escape this? I consider myself fairly immune from this type of hysteria, but looking back on my decisions, I can’t help but think that my decision to choose Columbia might have been subtly influenced by its ‘prestige’. Will I be happy if/when my chain of progress stops? I think about the fisherman, who is happy because he has all that he needs. But once he is exposed to new worlds, even ones less ‘advanced’ than ours, will he remain so? Even if the scale of his dreams seem petty to us, will they still drive him less? For his sake, I hope he can be happy with what he has, and not have an insatiable hunger to naturally ‘advance’.

One can respond that this drive is what makes us productive, that the good of civilization comes from driven people. But the drive to do good is not necessarily the drive that motivates the progress I speak of. That drive comes from simply the desire to be better, to advance a step in the game. Clearly this is not all bad; new challenges are how we satisfy our intellectual palate, and it seems innate that we try to improve our situations. Furthermore, new challenges provide compensation, and a way of insuring ourselves against the future; catching more fish allows the fisherman to better feed his family, and ensure that, in case of a storm tomorrow, he will have food to eat. So the drive to be better has positive effects. But the motivation behind it should be our own, because we want to, not because we feel pressured by a con we all go along with for pragmatism’s sake.


The bottom line is that there will always be those who seek to be ‘the best’, especially at a place like Columbia. I was bemused by something early on in my time here, when literally dozens of people ran for the student senate within a few weeks of being on campus. While I’m sure some of these people were civically inclined, the realist in me suspects that most were looking for another line to put on their resume. And in the short term, the winners of that contest might benefit (although, somehow, I doubt all that much). In such a competitive environment, every bit counts; one can go mad trying to pick up on all the little edges that are possible. But if that mindset is the one you continue with, can you ever be happy? There’s one commander in chief; there’s one Chief Justice. Everyone else has someone above them in the pecking order, an ambition potentially unfilled, leaving an accomplished person otherwise unsatisfied. And quite frankly, most accomplished people get to their position because of this greed and thirst, but do they then end up unhappy as well? Think of all the senators who attempted but failed to become presidents.

This is not to condemn ambition, and my point is not that ambition leads necessarily to despair; instead, it is that ambition driven by a subconscious need to accomplish more is going to be an almost assuredly unquenchable thirst. To be happy, it would seem prudent to ensure that thirst and ambition are driven by what YOU want, as opposed to what you think you should have. In this way, ‘progress’ can be used to enhance what you already have, instead of point out what you don’t.

  • I don't think this was a fully successful edit. As an editor, your task was to preserve both the strengths of Anja's essay and its central ideas, so far as you could, while increasing its ability to communicate with its intended readers by coping with its weaknesses and increasing the power of its writing. I don't mean that was your specific task only: editing is always about no more than that.

  • So in evaluating the quality of your editing, I need to ask how much effort and commitment went into achieving the objectives, and how effectively the objectives were achieved given the resources supplied. Let's start by asking what the strengths and central ideas of Anja's essay were. As I see it, she made effective use of her personal experience to illustrate and support her central ideas, the Manichean opposition of justice and greed, and the critique of Western "progress" as inherently corrupting. Even if one considered those ideas to be weaknesses to be coped with, excising them altogether would no longer be editorial intervention. Her personal experience is crucial to the essay, in validating as personally-felt propositions that have become so familiar in the dissenting political theories of the left and right over the last two hundred years as to be almost cliche. She saves them from being trite, however, by animating them with her own presence and her own view of life. In doing so, she raises questions she does not handle. One, concerning her closing vignette, stimulated substantial conversation in and out of class. Her proposition that helping an Afghan potato farmer she met to improve his very difficult material and human condition was against her principles or her desires, because with civilization would come its discontents, is even more controversial, though we didn't have time to discuss it as a group. More needed to be said on both questions to make the essay capable of achieving its full value.

  • Your intervention was to remove all of Anja's experience, and both her central ideas. You not only rewrote the piece so it reflected none of her strengths, you switched out the ideas she was trying to communicate, in favor of a different set of issues altogether. Anja's essay was trying to ask global questions, which you replaced with a draft about law school. Anja's draft concerned itself with justice. Yours concerned itself with happiness. The draft you read asked difficult questions whose implications it didn't fully cope with. The draft you wrote concludes with a truism: "The bottom line is that there will always be those who seek to be 'the best.'"

  • We're not deciding here whether your essay is good. (At the moment it is sufficient to say that it is not better than the first draft of your first essay. No improvement.) We're deciding whether your draft is Anja's essay made better. It isn't. I don't think the problem here is your effort. I think the problem is commitment. Editing means committing yourself to understanding your collaborator's ideas; when you are editing yourself it means commitment to unrelenting self-criticism and re-examination. An editor who likes to read the sound of his own prose so much that he can't hear the rhythm of someone else's, or an editor who likes his own ideas so much that he always wants collaborators to write what he would have written, is not fully committed to the enterprise of editing. Many of us are given to mistakes of insufficient commitment in editing. I struggle with these problems all the time in my own work. But you need to make more progress with them if you want to improve.

  • In my view you should re-perform this edit. See if you can develop a relationship with Anja's draft that goes a little closer to her central themes and concerns. It's a work that repays study, and its strengths contain its weaknesses. That means it can be deepened by editing and re-presentation. So can Hamlet. But in both cases you can't do it well without doing it very carefully.


Webs Webs

r3 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:31:11 - IanSullivan
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