Law in Contemporary Society

Irony is Cool

One of the problems with joking is that other people can't always tell when the jokes are serious. Worse is when you aren't sure yourself. I started this class with an introduction that established a direct line between getting a more professional haircut and dark fears of ending up in a genteel country club. It was silly, snarky, and honestly conveyed my values and fears. The message was entirely serious but difficult to articulate in a straightforward manner, even to myself. This essay attempts to unpack my concerns.

Those People

My father was proud of me for getting into Columbia (“not that I wasn’t proud of you before”). Earlier, though, when I told him about the schools I applied to, including the Ivies, he was taken aback. “You really think you’re one of those people?”

I replied, “Why not?” In addition to the obvious rational reasons based on career and academic opportunities, I had a giddy excitement about the possibilities of a top law school. It goes something like this: Ruth Bader Ginsburg went here! I go here! Therefore, I will be on the Supreme Court! (A similar formula works for New Yorkers, whereby an individual feels more important because of the accomplishments of a number of other people who live in close proximity).

Moreover, maybe those people didn’t really exist anymore, if they ever did, whoever they were.

Still, his words struck a chord. I was, in fact, afraid of becoming one of those people, one of the people I had always made fun of but could not and cannot precisely describe. It’s not wealth, exactly, and much as I enjoy throwing around the amorphous term “elite” I don’t really know what to do with it. Surely those people encompasses consultants for sorority rushes (“The smart rushee will have a résumé stressing community service, leadership, academics and teamwork”) and a Goldman Sachs executive who makes sure to highlight his résumé, including a bronze medal for table tennis at the Maccabiah Games, when he blasts his employer on the way out. The obsession with credentials, at the very least, is a major marker, as is taking yourself entirely too seriously. My fears were not entirely unfounded: I discovered that I suddenly cared a lot about credentials once I had access to a good one. (To paraphrase the show 30 Rock, “I go to law school in New York. Not Fordham…”).

Defining yourself against other people, especially when those people are, well, ill-defined, can be perilous. Not everyone who plays squash is a monster. More importantly, there’s a large element of projection in these formulations. As my friend put it, “I generally assume when my brain wants to say ‘other people’ I am talking about some aspect of myself.” It’s possible I even misunderstood my father and imputed my ideas into his words. Finally, those people, to the extent they are not figments of my imagination, tend to be accomplished, and I want to accomplish.

Snarky Ambition

The challenge for me, then, is figuring out what “aspect of myself” I am struggling with, to what extent my critiques are real, and what I want to accomplish and how to do it.

Those people in part represents ambition. There is something utterly terrifying about openly aspiring to do big things. Terrifying because you may fail, terrifying because success may be disappointing, and most importantly for me, terrifying because it could require seriously judging yourself or, far worse, other people.

Not long ago, in a different context, I described my family (namely my older sister and especially brother) as too dysfunctional to be ambitious. I was immediately disgusted with myself. At this point in time that statement is true for both of them, but I could easily rationalize my comment away as projecting (certainly partly true) or flatly ridiculous. They, after all, doing far better than many others, and I do not want to turn my life into an unjustified sob story. We can’t all be as happy as the people in the Best Buy flier.

Above all else, though, I was horrified that I was judging them, and maybe myself, according to conventional standards that I had always dismissed before. Standards I had seen myself as being above but perhaps worried I could not meet.

I tend to communicate in snark. Eye rolls can do as much work as essays, and if someone talks about being a “double Ivy” I reserve the right to ask how it felt to get rejected from Harvard twice.

But why impress upon them that you're smart enough to be onto them, at the expense of telling them for free something it was to your personal advantage to keep to yourself? "In politics," said Uncle Joe Cannon—who was very much the Speaker of the House, "one must sometimes duel with skunks. But one should never permit the skunks to choose the weapons."

Irony, sarcasm and self-deprecation can point to underlying issues but they can also obfuscate them. They can keep you honest but, crucially, they can also maintain the distance between what you are and what you aspire to be. Downplaying ambition with a wink and a smirk can let you off the hook for not trying. That is not something I can afford to do.

I want to learn more about the world and accomplish goals based on my values and priorities. My long-term goal is to become a civil liberties lawyer, but whatever kind of work I end up dong I want to do well. If accomplishing my goals requires, as Moglen put it, improving my posture, (“Byron White would kick your ass”) then that is not too much to ask and will probably not lead to life in Stepford or Greenwich. If it requires discipline and hard work, which, tragically, it appears to, then I need to be more disciplined (especially with procrastination; even this essay is extraordinarily late) and work harder.

At the same time, I want to avoid the genuine pitfalls of those people, including shallowness, narcissism, excessive self-seriousness, condescension and the like, all of which I’ve seen in myself to varying degrees. Validation must come from internal sources? , but the conventionality of some of my goals provides no reason to limit my ambition or excuse myself from trying. In truth, I needed a haircut anyway.

So that's the good news and the bad news. There's an Army of the Good and Fearless But Not Arrogant or Silly, and you can join up and spend your life comfortably and productively as a civil liberties lawyer, but you have to learn to sit up straight and keep some of your profuse, witty comments to yourself. You will also need to learn to meet your deadlines. All the time. It's a good deal, and all of you should take it, including the ones who are afraid, or contemptuous, or whatever else it is that they have a right to be and are.

-- ShakedSivan - 24 Jul 2012


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r3 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:10:14 - IanSullivan
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