Law in Contemporary Society
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I'm picturing three scenes we have in common, in which my use of the English language was an antagonist:

  • the senate election, where I finished sixteenth and last;
  • your responses to a previous, poetic draft of this paper;
  • and Eben's excoriation of me in his office last semester.
I wanted my paper to identify this common language problem, but my writing isn't yet strong enough to do it justice. Instead, it characterizes the symptoms plaguing my expressing myself in a way that I can't, by characterizing one man's critique of how I express myself in a way that I can.

As you know, I went to Eben's office last semester to ask him to transfer me into this class, and he asked why I wanted to be a lawyer.
I told him, and he responded: “I wonder what kind of surgeon your father is, that you learned to think of humans as organs growing up. We won't get along, and I don't want you in my class. No."
I said something else, and he wrote a note to the registrar, and here I am.

But this scene represents the middle of a larger story. The explanation for how my words triggered Eben's inquiry into my father's surgical specialty (which happens to be vascular) lies in whatever made me conceive those words, by which I mean, my life up to that point. I've always regarded myself both blessed and cursed to be among those who are well-educated and highly perceptive. We are both blessed and cursed, you and I, and all of us, in that we cannot disprove what Voltaire meant only ironically: “to understand all is to forgive all." The more we learn about the Antagonists we think harmed us, the harder it is to define boundaries around some thing about them that we'd benefit to target with our moral indignation. When we learn that our enemies "know not what they do" and forgive them, we can blame their educations; but when we learn that their educators also knew not what they were doing -- blame flees forgiveness all the way back to Creation.

Which is satisfactory, if you’re Christian ... but I’m Jewish.

By which I mean: if Judaeo-Christian man/woman is a schizophrenic, the Jewish split-persona suffers from that pathological half-belief -- half-teaching -- half-COMMANDMENT --

  • that his social position, and the information impacting him about others’ social positions, can never be “arbitrary,” --
  • that the bottom-up accounts of physics, biology, evolution, psychology, sociology, and path-dependant accounts of history are ruled, from the top down, by Morality, --
  • that beneath the descriptive meanings he's so adept at finding, there lie latent normative meanings, for the very purpose of finding which, his parents educated him.

And yet, for all my blessed perceptiveness, I've never yet revealed a single one of these meanings. And that's the curse of clever-Jewish-boy syndrome -- to be apathetic towards things that should make a mensch indignant.

  • I hesitate before making Holocaust jokes, not because they make me uncomfortable, but they make others uncomfortable, and those people then attack me. What do they have, that I lack, that they know to be indignant?
  • When I deferred my admission to Columbia Law School for a year—and worked for the American Jewish Committee, to learn what issues I should be concerned about -- I emerged a year later with a list, but I couldn't care less whether I ever checked anything off that list. Even today, I still have no idea what order I'm to go about crossing things off.

My curse: that the only indignity I can justify is against myself. "Don't forgive me, Lord! I know not what to do."

Thus, however I answered Eben's question, I presented the phenotype of a Jewish son -- the son of Jewish parents -- Jewish, that is, in that they wanted me to understand the world in order to change it / to get educated in order to get power; but parents, in that they also wanted proof that I would do so ...

  • Given that parents' control over our choices must eventually end, their rational response has been to train their children to seem rather than to be.
    • first training us to seek things verifiably (call it "language acquisition");
    • and then conforming our actions, while still surveillable, towards choosing the visible trappings of what they think is best for us (call it "language control").

But the tool of seeming, in the hands of parents [of any persuasion] who want us to "know, in order to act" -- to "get educated, in order to get power" -- to "do well by doing good" -- is much better calibrated to identifying the trappings of values -- getting university degrees, wearing suits, winning cases, getting ribbons, seizing levers, doing well -- than it is to evaluating the quality of values -- learning at a university, raising the living standards of thousands of people, spreading justice, doing good.

I, like everyone, was therefore taught to favor doing well over doing good—indoctrinated to use education to inject myself into power, and to postpone figuring out why I deserved that power until I'd consolidated it. Just as it's easier for a surgeon to do good for organs but bad for the patient (cf effect of cheap MRIs ( 1 and 2 / my dad's mafioso stroke patient, "I knew something was wrong when I couldn't pull the trigger). I chose law school because it was easier to justify to my parents than to justify a Ph.D.; and I might go to a law firm for the same reason. My upbringing was determined by Darwin and Veblen to have evolved this way.

Eben must have understood this. Which makes it stunningly obvious why he should have forgiven me -- reading "forgiveness" flexibly, to include the forgiveness of Maimonides (what Eben calls "charity by stealth") -- by indicting my history to my face. My HISTORY: not me. He attacked my history, my assumptions, my sociology, my upbringing -- everything that EVOLVED me, everything that CONCEIVED me. He indicted society because it made me. "For this sin of making you hate yourself, forgive yourself -- YOU know not what you do; blame your SOCIETY for making you feel this way -- AND CHANGE IT." The only kind of indictment that could break through the Jewish-boy graph-paper brain-cage.

At that moment I didn't know much about Darwin or Veblen, and I didn't hear it that way. I thought he was indicting me directly, and I took it personally-- and this is what I heard:

    Of course your Jewish-boy head prefers finding descriptive truths rather than normative truths; your father taught you to be this way, to make you a good boy, because it made him a good surgeon. But fathers, though perhaps moral authorities, cannot be their sons' moral authorities.
Living in pluralist America, where Jew and Christian and everyone must coexist, we need to outgrow our parochial authorities, and translate our values into common authorities, secular ones. If Jewish moral authority came from Rabbis, men who studied Torah, then in a secular era we must study, all of us, those whose goal in studying Truth is to reveal NEW ETHICS, not to ossify the old. Then the story of Socrates becomes our Creation myth -- the Big Bang of secular gestures towards justice -- and today we must associate with his followers -- people who study justice by listening for it.

Why did Eben write that note to the registrar, based on what I said in response? We'd have to know everything that he hoped would follow that meeting. We would have to derive a new Republic. But there's not enough time, and words remaining, in this paper, and this month of the semester, and this century, for us to have that conversation. We get busier every year, too busy to wait for my writing to improve on its own. And so until I'm given a chance to identify my language problem, we'll postpone our dialog, about what it is that we're listening for, and who we are when we're listening.

If you're confused, don't blame the idea -- blame my failure to express it. Let's talk soon.

-- AndrewGradman - 13 Apr 2008


Hello reader,
My goal was to characterize the ambiguity between [the demands of society and the demands of the individual] in a lot of different ways. Sometimes I do that by intentionally making the essay itself unclear. But where that OBSCURES the content [e.g. through vague syntax / poor logic / opaque metaphor] that's UNINTENTIONAL and BAD. I could use help identifying those places. Thanks. -- AndrewGradman - 13 Apr 2008


Webs Webs

r68 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:34:10 - IanSullivan
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