Saturday, May 30, 2009


Quotable: Solzhenitsyn on the "Letter of the Law"

Not long ago I read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's June 1978 commencement address to Harvard University entitled A World Split Apart. Solzhenitsyn's obvious strength was his writing on life in Russia. And while he was also a keen observer of the West, he did not always see it so clearly. His understandable anti-Communism sometimes blinded him to the reality of American imperialism.

For instance, he chastised the "American intelligentsia" for the US defeat in Vietnam never understanding that the US role was indefensible by his own standards. Sounding the alarm, he claimed, "a hundredfold Vietnam now looms over [America]." He decried the materialism, irresponsible freedom, and humanism of the West and the US, in particular, never understanding that these were, in large part, symptoms not causes.

At least in 1978, he failed understand that Americans are not free but the unwitting slaves of a sophisticated and pervasive propaganda system. Which is, in turn, part of a larger system or constellation of systems which are life-destroying on scales large and small and manifest in America's culture of death and the "The Combine" of Ken Kesey's novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or the "Domination System" described by Walter Wink.
In any case, the passage below from A World Split Apart has much to commend itself in terms of understanding the law in America. It is noteworthy that his examples of the failure to exercise "Voluntary self-restraint" are not individuals as one would expect to hear from many American commentators but they are corporations.

Western society has chosen for itself the organization best suited to its purposes and one I might call legalistic. The limits of human rights and rightness are determined by a system of laws; such limits are very broad. People in the West have acquired considerable skill in using, interpreting, and manipulating law (though laws tend to be too complicated for an average person to understand without the help of an expert). Every conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the ultimate solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required, nobody may mention that one could still not be right, and urge self-restraint or a renunciation of these rights, call for sacrifice and selfless risk: this would simply sound absurd. Voluntary self-restraint is almost unheard of: everybody strives toward further expansion to the extreme limit of the legal frames. (An oil company is legally blameless when it buys up an invention of a new type of energy in order to prevent its use. A food product manufacturer is legally blameless when he poisons his produce to make it last longer: after all, people are free not to purchase it.)

I have spent all my life under a Communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is also less than worthy of man. A society based on the letter of the law and never reaching any higher fails to take full advantage of the full range of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relationships, this creates an atmosphere of spiritual mediocrity that paralyzes man’s noblest impulses.

And it will be simply impossible to bear up to the trials of this threatening century with nothing but the supports of a legalistic structure.

Source: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. A World Split Apart. (New York: Harper & Row, 1978) pp. 15-19.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Monday, May 25, 2009


Quotable: The Law

Once in Conference the vote was close on a case and [Justice Stanley F.] Reed could not make up his mind. "I am inclined to reverse Chief Justice," Reed said deferentially. [Charles Evans] Hughes replied with his customary twinkle, "Brother Reed, I will enter you in the docket as voting to reverse. For my experience is that if a Justice inclines a certain way, he has the facility and resourcefulness to marshal the reason to back his inclination."

It was shortly after that episode that Hughes made a statement to me which at the time was shattering but which over the years turned out to be true: "Justice Douglas, you must remember one thing. At the constitutional level where we work, ninety percent of any decision is emotional. The rational part of us supplies the reason for supporting our predilections."

I had thought of the law in the terms of Moses-principles chiseled in granite. I knew judges had predilections. I knew that their moods as well as their minds were ingredients of their decisions. But I had never been willing to admit to myself that the "gut" reaction of a judge at the level of constitutional adjudications, dealing with the vagaries of due process, freedom of speech, and the like, was the main ingredient of his decision. The admission of it destroyed in my mind some of the reverence for the immutable principles. But they were supplied by Constitutions written by people in conventions, not by judges. Judges are, after all, not creative figures; they represent ideological schools of thought that are highly competitive. No judge at the level I speak of was neutral. The Constitution is not neutral. It was designed to take the government off the backs of people, and no wiser man than Hughes ever sat on our Court. I say that although his predilections, drawn from a different age, were not always mine.

Source: William O. Douglas. The Court Years, 1939-1975. (New York: Random House, 1980) p. 8. Charles Evans Hughes was appointed as an Associate Justice to the US Supreme Court by Republican President William Howard Taft; he served in that post from 1910 until he resigned from the Court to become the 1916 Republican Party presidential nominee. Hughes was appointed as the Court's Chief Justice by Republican President Herbert Hoover; he served in that post from 1930 until 1941. William O. Douglas was appointed as an Associate Justice to the Court by Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt; he served in that post from 1939 until 1975.

Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power, and want a certain result with all your heart, you naturally express your wishes in law, and sweep away all opposition. To allow opposition by speech seems to indicate that you think the speech impotent, as when a man says that he has squared the circle, or that you do not care wholeheartedly for the result, or that you doubt either your power or your premises. But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas -- that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment. Every year, if not every day, we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge. While that experiment is part of our system, I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country. I wholly disagree with the argument of the Government that the First Amendment left the common law as to seditious libel in force. History seems to me against the notion. I had conceived that the United States, through many years, had shown its repentance for the Sedition Act of 1798, by repaying fines that it imposed. Only the emergency that makes it immediately dangerous to leave the correction of evil counsels to time warrants making any exception to the sweeping command, "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech." Of course, I am speaking only of expressions of opinion and exhortations, which were all that were uttered here, but I regret that I cannot put into more impressive words my belief that, in their conviction upon this indictment, the defendants were deprived of their rights under the Constitution of the United States.

Source: Dissent of Oliver Wendell Holmes in Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616, 630-631 (1919). Part of this passage is also quoted in Louis Menand. The Metaphysical Club: The Story of Ideas in America. (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001) p. 430.

Note: It would be a mistake to think that Holmes was a consistent civil libertarian. He wrote the infamous majority opinions in Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919) and Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927).

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets or steal bread.

Source: Anatole France (1844–1924), French author. The Red Lily, ch. 7 (1894)

Every time I repeat, as though by rote, my maxim, 'But justice will ultimately win', I cannot help twitching. Because I know it's a lie and I twitch when I lie.

Justice, alas, is not a benevolent God who will descend when all human efforts fail to salvage his name. The cases in history of grave injustices are well known. The Turks murdered a million and a half Armenians; have they been made to pay? The American Indians were crushed and dispossessed: do they stand a chance of justice? Of course, some may answer that this was before 1948 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Right. All men are equal but only as long as those who have do not have to sacrifice anything to those who have not.

Source: Raja Shehadeh. The Sealed Room: Selections from the Diary of a Palestinian Living Under Israeli Occupation, September 1990-August 1991. (London: Quartet Books, 1992) p. 161. Shehadeh is a Palestinian lawyer and a founder of the human rights organization al-Haq. Sotomayor

Labels: , , , , , ,

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Weep for Arabhood

Congressman John Dingell has stated: “I believe the United States has no truer friend in the Middle East than Israel. I have been in Congress for 50 years, and during my tenure I have proudly helped to move more than $300 billion worth of American aid to Israel. I believe our continued commitment to Israeli security and democracy is not only smart policy, but also a moral imperative.”
He also said: “I yield to no man in my support for Israel. I have voted for hundreds of billions of dollars for it over the years I have served [in Congress].”
How do Arabs react to such flagrant support for Zionist colonizers? While some throw shoes, others make us wonder what more Dingell needs to do for "Israel" before Arabs finally feel offended: Congressman John Dingell (D-MI) to Receive Lifetime Legislative Achievement Award at the ADC National Convention

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, May 17, 2009


Quotable: Proof & Adjudication

Thou canst not prove thou art immortal, no
Nor yet that thou art mortal—nay my son,
Thou canst not prove that I, who speak with thee,
Am not thyself in converse with thyself,
For nothing worthy proving can be proven,
Nor yet disproven: wherefore thou be wise,
Cleave ever to the sunnier side of doubt,

Source: Excerpt from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "The Ancient Sage." Quoted in The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World by Alister McGrath (Doubleday 2004) p. 93.

... science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God's possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can't comment on it as scientists.

Source: Excerpt from "Impeaching a Self-Appointed Judge" by Stephen Jay Gould. Quoted in McGrath, ibid., p. 109.

Labels: , ,

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?