Law and Conversation

January 20, 2014

Martin Luther King Day, Father Pfleger, and stories

Getting to hear the remarkable Fr. Michael L. Pfleger speak on violence last week at a meeting of an organization of lawyers and judges to which I belong was especially timely given that today is Martin Luther King Day in the U.S. I can’t adequately summarize everything he said–you need to listen to him yourself–but, among other things, he emphasized the importance of good schools and education for every young person and said that we as a nation must “come to terms with our love affair with guns.” I couldn’t agree more.

Fr. Pfleger is an eloquent, direct, and dynamic speaker whose message deserves wide dissemination. You can read more about him and watch a number of his speeches on the website of Chicago’s St. Sabina Parish, where he is pastor. Be sure to check out St. Sabina’s main page, too, which has other links of interest.

Several rather disparate books I’ve read in the past few years came to my mind on this holiday honoring Dr. King:

1) Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, a remarkable memoir that takes the 21st-century reader inside the life of a 19th-century slave. The link takes you to a site with the free text.

2) Martha Washington: First Lady of Liberty, by Helen Bryan. This well-written and carefully researched biography is not only a fascinating story of its subject but also a detailed study of slavery that demonstrates what a deeply sick system it was and what profound and long-lasting effects it had for our country. A bonus for me was noticing that the author, whose job was quite difficult because her subject deliberately left so little documentation for posterity (Martha burned every scrap of correspondence between herself and George that she could find), is a lawyer.

3) Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann. The book as a whole did not quite work for me; it consists of several stories of people in New York City that the author links with 9-11-01, and I did not find that the link was strong enough to call the separate stories a novel. But McCann writes really well. His depiction of the violence and despair in New York’s inner city is realistic and heart-rending.

The speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. are, of course, tremendous. CNN has a story of some that are often overlooked or overshadowed by the more famous “I Have A Dream.”

How inspiring and hopeful that one man could effect such change in our country through determination and nonviolence.

January 6, 2014

Cross-examinations and Author Interviews

A good author interview, like a good cross-examination, is a thing of beauty. In both, the lawyer or interviewer seeks to flesh out a story. For the lawyer, the story is the one told by the witness, which is a smaller part of the story presented by the lawyer’s client’s opponent. For the interviewer, the story is the author’s work. Like the witness’s story in a trial, a book is a component of a larger story that includes the real-life background and events that inspired the author to write it, which may include political issues, current events, history, and the author’s personal life.

An effective cross-examination or author interview will seem relaxed and effortless. But the lawyer or interviewer has to work really HARD to make it look so easy. The lawyer will know the facts of the case inside and out, including what each witness said happened, what, if any, motives the witnesses have to shade their stories, and how the witnesses’ perceptions might have been altered (as by a vision angle or tendency toward selective memory); what documents exist, what they say, when they were created, and who created them; and how to elicit the story so as best to help the judge and/or jury to understand it. The effective interviewer will have acquired a familiarity with the author’s works by reading or at least skimming not only the one designated for discussion but as many of the author’s other writings as possible, knows enough about the current or historical background of the book to speak and ask intelligent questions about it, and will have found something out about the author’s personality and personal history. A great cross is never about the lawyer, and a wonderful interview is never about the interviewer: both are all about the subject.

Apart from substantial reading and research, both trial lawyer and author interviewer face another challenge: getting the witness or the author to answer the questions. Both may be reluctant or even hostile. Court rulings may place limits on a lawyer’s ability to ask questions of a witness (even over the general rule that cross-examination is limited to the scope of the direct testimony), and superstar authors may succeed in conditioning interviews on avoiding certain uncomfortable topics. Even absent such special circumstances, witnesses often do not want to testify at all, let alone be cross-examined by the lawyer for an unfriendly party. While authors typically want to sell their books, they may not want to talk about them, or may not want to talk about the aspects that the interviewer wants to discuss. In fact, it’s not unusual for an author to hate book tours and interviews. An effective interviewer, like an effective trial lawyer, has to be prepared to deal with the hostile or oyster-like subject without losing equanimity.

The Paris Review’s long-running series of author interviews is renowned for its depth. I’ve also long been a fan of Australian Ramona Koval’s author interviews on “The Book Show,” a sadly now-defunct broadcast of the Australian Broadcasting Company, which I listened to for years via the modern miracle of podcast. I’m pleased to learn via The New Yorker that Koval has now published a collection of her interviews, “Speaking Volumes.”

Other interviewers whom I particularly admire include Dick Cavett, NPR’s Terry Gross, Radio New Zealand’s Kim Hill, and the CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel and Jian Ghomeshi. All, like Koval, are impeccably prepared and show a genuine interest in their subjects, are unfailingly gracious, and elicit wonderful stories from their guests. For two examples of an interviewer’s grace in dealing with the difficult subject, see Ghomeshi’s interviews with Billy Bob Thornton and Cissy Houston.

Interviews occur every day in all kinds of work and life contexts. How do you deal with the difficult subject, whether at work or a cocktail party? Don’t tell me you just walk away; cutoffs are copouts. I’m looking for comments describing situations where you, like the litigator or the talk show host, MUST continue to engage and interact with the person.

October 22, 2013

Aya is back!

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From checking Amazon and Drawn and Quarterly’s website I knew there were more than the 3 collections of Aya comic strips that were available in my public library and which I read and enjoyed three years ago. But they were available only in French and Spanish, and I wanted English translations. So I was thrilled to find a new omnibus collection, Aya: Love in Yop City, on the shelf of new graphic novels the last time I was at the library, and I promptly checked it out.

If you’ve read much of this blog, you know I’ve loved comics since I was a child and that I’ve been on a graphic novel jag off and on for several years, ever since reading Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” a few years ago. I’ve also specifically written of how engaging I find the Aya series, written by Ivorian native Marguerite Abouet, who now makes her home in Paris, and gorgeously drawn by French artist Clement Oubrerie. The new collection is as delightful as the other three volumes, and very much worth the wait. To my delight, I also spotted a number of legal issues in the tightly crafted story about a girl growing up in 1980s Abidjan, the largest city in the Ivory Coast.

Aya is now a college student studying medicine, still living at home in the working-class north Abidjan town and commune of Yopougon. At the outset of the story, she receives a rude introduction into the adult world of unfairness when her biology professor turns out to be a bully who subjects her to explicit quid pro quo sexual harassment, telling her she can forget about medical school and that she’s too stupid ever to be a doctor when she spurns his advances.

Abouet is really good at weaving several subplots about Aya’s friends into her main narrative. Her friend Adjoua’s brother’s ex, Innocent, has decamped to Paris to seek his fortune but has a rough go of it; culture shock and immigration issues in early 1980s France make things difficult for him, just as they often do today in France and the U.S. alike, as well as many other countries, for foreign-born individuals seeking to immigrate. Luckily, Innocent makes a friend when he saves another young gay French man, Sebastian, from being beaten by thugs. The horrified reactions of Sebastian’s and, in a later, different subplot development, Adjoua’s parents on their sons’ coming out to them as gay inevitably called to my mind the public debate in this country over bullying and seeking legal means, including tort suits and criminal statutes, to combat it, as well as over the increasing inclusion of sexual preference in anti-discrimination laws and enactment of laws permitting same-sex couples to marry.

I got to attend multiple programs recently at Chicago Ideas Week. Chicago native Dan Savage, a writer now living in Seattle, spoke at one of those programs about the It Gets Better Project that he started with his husband in response to the suicide of a gay teenager after having been bullied.

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Gay kids, of course, aren’t alone in being subject to bullying for being different. Though Savage’s admirable project is directed specifically and primarily toward young LGBT people, the message of the project and the videos applies equally well to all who are feeling as if they don’t and will never fit in in their schools, families, or other communities. I hope the project helps not only LGBT youth but straight kids, too; it seems to me that if people could feel safe being true to who they really are (I’m exempting sociopaths, of course), an enormous amount of unhappiness and conflict in the world would vanish. Remember not only Rudolph, but Hermie in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” who wanted to be a dentist, not a toy maker like the other elves?

And there’s something else that’s really cool: The stories of Aya in 1980s Ivory Coast and Hermie the elf in a 1960s American movie resonate with each other and with the U.S., France, and the rest of the world in 2013. Linking the commonalities of people from vastly different backgrounds, places, and times is one of the great things about stories.

So please go read Aya! Abouet deftly and satisfyingly resolves all of her subplots, and, as I mentioned, Oubrerie’s artwork is just beautiful. And I couldn’t help but be pleased to see that strong, sensible, intelligent young heroine acquire an admirer who seems worthy of her. The book is billed as the conclusion to Aya’s story, but I’m hoping Abouet and Oubrerie will continue their collaboration; I’d happily settle for a new series with different characters, though, if they feel that they’ve taken Aya as far as they can.

August 17, 2013

Charles Dickens, Claire Tomalin, and backing it up

I’ve just finished Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens, which came out a couple of years ago and had been sitting on my nightstand in a TBR stack. I was really looking forward to seeing what Tomalin had to say about Dickens, especially since I’d recently finished “Little Dorrit” and had also read Tomalin’s masterpiece of biographical sleuthing and deduction, “The Invisible Woman,” her biography of Nelly Ternan, Dickens’s much younger mistress.

Tomalin delivered some fascinating insights into the great author in highly readable form. Still, there were a few references that bothered me.

First, in chapter 16, she writes that after the death of their nine-month-old daughter Dora in 1851 “Another Highgate funeral had to be planned and carried out, and [Dickens's wife] Catherine brought to London and comforted.”

For me, Tomalin’s phrasing leaves much to be desired. As a friend observed, it conveys that Catherine was – horrors – NEEDY, as great a sin 160 years ago as it is today, at least when we’re talking about those in the circle of a Very Important Person with an ego to match his (or her) ability. No matter that Catherine’s CHILD HAD JUST DIED.

Based on sympathetic references to Catherine elsewhere in her book, I don’t really think Tomalin meant to suggest anything unkind about her. However, I would have liked some additional information and commentary here about Dickens’s and Catherine’s relationship and the impact of their child’s death on both of them individually and on their relationship, which had deteriorated badly by that time. Dora was Dickens’s child, too; did he not also grieve, even though, as Tomalin notes elsewhere in her book, he said on more than one occasion that he regretted having more than three children? Even a statement that there is no information, or that Dickens made no reference to Dora’s death in his surviving contemporaneous correspondence with his close friends, if that was the case, would be insightful.

Second, in chapter 25, Tomalin refers to Dickens’s daughter Katey’s marriage to Charles Collins, 12 years her senior and an invalid, as “not much of a marriage.” Again, though I realize a biographer has to make some hard choices about how much information to include about members of her subject’s circle, I would have liked a few more details to support her conclusory description. Plenty of happy couples, after all, have similar differences in age, and it’s hard to imagine greater devotion and commitment than that of one whose spouse is so disabled as no longer to be capable of being a partner. Tomalin asserts earlier that Katey decided to marry Collins (the brother of the writer Wilkie Collins, Dickens’s friend) “without love” and “to get away from home” (chapter 21). A supporting quotation or two would have benefited these conclusions; the endnotes do not make the bases for Tomalin’s assertions clear.

I don’t remember reading biographies this critically before I became a lawyer. Though lawyers get a bad rap for writing obscurely, the characteristics of good legal writing are the same as good general writing and include clarity and, for nonfiction, documentation. If you write a brief – a document in which you make your best argument for your client – you need to support every assertion with authority. So when I read a work of nonfiction, for every single assertion I want to know on what primary sources the author relied and what in them warrants the author’s conclusions.

As has already been reported, Tomalin was taken in by an academic fraud: she recounts as fact a meeting that supposedly took place between Dickens and Dostoevsky in London in 1862. The purported meeting never happened, though the academic hoax was accepted for years. (I believe the error has been corrected in later editions of Tomalin’s biography). The lessons? First, as journalism students have long been taught, even under deadline pressure and even with a seemingly unimpeachable source, “check it out.” Second, even tremendous writers and scholars like Tomalin can make mistakes, which should actually be heartening for all of us.

July 22, 2013

Charles Dickens, George Zimmerman, and Trayvon Martin

Instead of watching the George Zimmerman trial, I was reading “Little Dorrit.” The long 19th century novel by Charles Dickens had been on my list for a LONG time, and it had been a few years since I’d read a Dickens novel. I enjoyed it immensely.

As I was reading it, I was thinking about how different the great novels of the 19th century are from the literary novels that are published today. Among many other differences, Dickens’s characters are generally more two- than three-dimensional. Many, particularly the supporting characters, are types, and even the main characters behave completely predictably and provide no surprises. Little Dorrit, for example, is Goodness personified—a martyr who never, ever, appears to feel any anger or resentment toward the rest of her family for allowing her to support them, sponging off her labor and good works. Rigaud/Blandois, the villain, is completely evil—a sociopath with no redeeming qualities. The story’s hero, Arthur Clennam, along with his friends, Mr. Meagles and Daniel Doyce, is completely morally upright; like Little Dorrit, Clennam is very, very good, never appears to feel or express any resentment toward those who have treated him badly, and is also a bit of a martyr who has to be coaxed and convinced that he’s not washed up in his thirties and too old to have a life. Compare it to Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections,” for example: I’ve heard Franzen criticized for writing a 19th century novel in the 21st century, but for me his narrative was timely and fresh, with imperfect, human, three-dimensional characters.

For Dickens, it’s all or nothing; a character is either good or bad. Amy Dorrit, Arthur Clennam, and Monsieur Rigaud don’t exist in real life. They have no complexity, no shades of gray—they’re more like windup dolls than humans. But notwithstanding the book’s largely flat, predictable, unrealistic characters, “Little Dorrit” is a great story, driven by a complex plot if not by complex characters, and we still read and enjoy it 160 years after he published it.

Like Dickens’s works, most of the stories I’ve read about the Zimmerman trial have flat, predictable characters. For many, the correct story of what happened is that Zimmerman was an evil, aggressive racist, while Martin was a peaceful saint. For others, the story is that Zimmerman was heroically protecting his neighborhood, while Martin unreasonably attacked him and was viciously beating him up. The former camp’s rhetoric comes pretty close to suggesting that Zimmerman was acquitted because of racism and he should be retried until a court reaches the result they think is correct; the latter camp’s, that it wasn’t at all a bad thing that Zimmerman was prepared to, and did, shoot point-blank to kill. So from the first camp, never mind double jeopardy, and from the second camp, never mind that we have a police force to address suspected criminal activity. If you think about it, both camps seem to agree on one thing: if law enforcement or the courts do not administer what people who weren’t there and/or don’t have all the facts think is the correct result, taking justice into one’s own hands might be a good thing to do. That’s horrifying.

Amid all the shouting and handwringing, two blog posts about the Zimmerman trial stand out for me: Miami, FL lawyer Brian Tannebaum on The Embarrassment of the George Zimmerman Verdict and NYU law professor Stephen Gillers on An imaginary dialogue trying to explain Florida v. Zimmerman to someone who has not had the benefit of a legal education at The Legal Ethics Forum. Both focus on the human reality and the law of the events and the trial.

As for me, I’m not seeing a Dickensian story with flat, good or evil characters here. Though I’m mindful of Tannebaum’s admonition “You weren’t there, and you don’t know what happened,” I’m seeing two basically decent people, Zimmerman and Martin, who both made some unwise decisions one evening that ended up in Martin’s losing his life and Zimmerman’s having to spend a chunk of his life, and probably a lot of money, defending a criminal prosecution and becoming an object of hatred for a lot of people. I’m also seeing an enormous amount of handwringing about racism—which we can all agree is a bad thing—and very little interest in rethinking our country’s attitude toward guns and the law. To the contrary, every time there is a gun tragedy, whether it’s a bunch of people getting shot at a movie theatre, little kids getting shot to death at an elementary school, or a young person who had his whole life in front of him getting killed a short distance from his family home, the ultimate result has been even more rhetoric, policy, and laws encouraging people to get and carry guns.

So how did that pro-gun attitude and those pro-gun laws work out for everyone in the Zimmerman case? Not too well for Martin, who’s dead. Not too well for Zimmerman, who had to spend lots of time and resources that he could have been dedicating to his family and his personal pursuits defending himself in a criminal prosecution instead, not to mention becoming an object of opprobrium for a significant number of people, many of whom he will probably encounter in the future. (OK, maybe Zimmerman will get a lucrative book deal and sell movie rights to his story and go on the speaking circuit, but if he does (and maybe he won’t–I certainly don’t know what he will or won’t do), he will have paid quite a price for those things.) Not too well for the country, either: following the verdict, there’s an increased perception on the part of many that Zimmerman was acquitted because his victim was African-American (if you have questions about the reasons for the verdict, please read Tannebaum’s excellent post) and that our system of justice doesn’t work as it ought.

I’m familiar with the arguments for opposing limitations on firearm ownership that many honorable and intelligent people hold dear. “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns” was a facile and popular saying when I was growing up, and one which I myself espoused as a young person; while that’s still around, more lately I’ve seen “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” They sound good and easily roll off the tongue, but both ignore human complexity as much as Dickens’s stories do.

I can recognize that there may be a few occasions where a Bad Guy/Outlaw, or someone who’s gone off the deep end, is prevented from shooting people because there’s a levelheaded Good Guy, who’s also a crack shot, in the vicinity with a gun and is in just the right position to get a good shot off to take the Bad Guy down without killing one or more innocent bystanders in between. Note, however, that those are a lot of factors that need to converge; if any one of them is not present—Good Guy isn’t levelheaded, isn’t a great shot, isn’t in precisely the right position, Bad Guy or Innocent Bystanders move out of or into Good Guy’s bullet path—the story doesn’t have a happy ending. Story also doesn’t have a happy ending if person standing next to Good Guy as he pulls out his gun doesn’t realize he’s the Good Guy and thinks maybe he’s a Bad Guy and takes him down, maybe with his own gun. (How are we to recognize the Good Guy, I wonder? How do we know the guy standing next to us who’s pulling out a firearm in the shopping mall, or in the movie theatre, or on the subway, is going to save us and isn’t another Bad Guy?)

Far more likely to occur are any number of less than ideal scenarios. Maybe our hero, the Good Guy, is actually an officious busybody and wannabe hero who misreads a situation so badly that he (or she) ends up killing someone who wasn’t a Bad Guy at all. Maybe Good Guy has the best of intentions but isn’t a crack marksman and takes out Innocent Bystander instead of Bad Guy. Maybe our Good Guy who’s lawfully carrying a gun around has dementia; if you think that concealed carry laws, or open carry laws, are a great idea, is that something that makes you feel safer? (Can you write a statute that prevents someone with undiagnosed dementia or paranoia, or an uncontrolled temper, or bad judgment, from possessing firearms? I don’t think so. Writing statutes that do just what you want them to do, and nothing else, is HARD.) Or maybe our Bad Guy isn’t a fundamentally bad guy, but is legitimately feeling unfairly treated by the world, maybe is clinically depressed and not thinking rationally, maybe is chronically angry at not being in the position he thinks he should be in due to various unfairnesses in his life, experiences a Last Straw that might be getting laid off, or evicted, or divorced, or sued, or cut off in traffic, and in a moment of appallingly poor judgment takes out the gun that he’s lawfully carrying and uses it—maybe on others, maybe on himself, maybe first the former and then the latter. Or maybe we have two generally good guys, or two general jerks, or one of each, who are lawfully carrying guns, take offense at each other’s actions, and, in the heat of their disagreement, take out their guns and use them.

All of those scenarios are realistic, and all end up as tragedies. All, I suggest, are far more likely to happen in our gun-encouraging culture than the flat, two-dimensional Good Guy With A Gun saving the rest of us from the flat, two-dimensional Bad Guy With A Gun. And with no change in our country’s pro-gun attitude, and no change in the laws, I suggest that they ARE increasingly likely to happen.

Sadly, since the shootings at schools and movie theaters, the reaction that has carried the political day has been “We Must Have More Guns,” and the only changes in the laws have been changes that make it even more likely that there will be more George Zimmermans and more Trayvon Martins. President Obama recently said publicly that he could have been Trayvon Martin, but you know what? So could any of us, and so could any of us be George Zimmerman if we opt to carry guns.

For now, I’m returning to my Dickens novels, and to 19th century England. But I have no doubt that, as I did when reading Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” set in 18th-century Germany, I’ll continue to find resonance in these novels of past times and faraway places for events occurring in the 21st century USA.

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