The Western and the Courtroom

In my pursuit of seeing all the old classic films, I recently watched Stagecoach, the 1939 film directed by John Ford that catapulted John Wayne from B-movie actor to a major star. This film signaled the beginning of the glory days of the western film, a period that lasted until the 50s, though the ‘spaghetti westerns’ of Sergio Leone gave them a brief resurgence in the 1960s.
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Taking the baton from Molly Ivins

Journalist Molly Ivins died of cancer last week at the age of 62. I was a regular reader of her monthly columns in The Progressive magazine. There have been many marvelous remembrances of her all over the media. Paul Krugman had a good article on Molly’s ability to see right through bogus arguments, and nowhere was this skill more visible than in her columns about the Iraq war. As Krugman says:
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Talking to those with whom you disagree

I watched the documentary What is said about. . .Arabs and Terrorism on Tuesday and Wednesday. Director Bassam Haddad, a professor of political science at St. Joseph’s University, had a good mix of interviews from America, Europe and the Middle East. It was especially interesting to hear the views of a spectrum of regular people, intellectuals, journalists, and activists from the Middle East, since we rarely get to hear those voices here. Listening to them, you are made aware of the common humanity that binds us all and transcends ethnic and religious divides. You realized that there was strong agreement across the board on some basic ideas of what kinds of actions were justified and what were deplorable.

But Haddad also highlighted the fact that the nature of the discourse on the topic of terrorism is very different in the west from that in the rest of the world. It even starts with the lack of east-west consensus on what the word means. What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for labeling an act as ‘terrorism’ and the perpetrators as ‘terrorists’? Does it depend on who the perpetrators are? The nature of the victims? The nature of the act? The motive behind the act? In the absence of such agreement, the word ‘terrorism’ has become used to denote not some well-defined quality, but as a pejorative label to discredit the actions of those whom we dislike.

One important distinction that was highlighted was that in the west, terrorism is seen exclusively as the actions of individuals or sub-national groups, while elsewhere terrorism by nations is also included in the mix.

We know that many policymakers refuse to talk to people on the ‘other’ side, claiming that it would give them a legitimacy they do not deserve. Haddad used an interesting technique for creating a dialogue between sides that would not normally talk to each other. What he did was to use film as an intermediary to create a dialogue. He would interview someone, say a spokesperson from Hizballah or Hamas, then fly to the US and show that film interview to someone from (say) the American Enterprise Institute (a pro-war ‘think tank’) and then film their response. Then he would fly back and show the response to the original speaker and get the response to the response, and so on. As viewers of the final film, we could watch a person watch the interview of the ‘other’ person, then Haddad would stop the film, and then the person would respond.

Watching the two sides engage each other via film, even if they often spoke through each other and did not seem to, or want to, understand what the other person was saying, was the best thing about the documentary.

Watching it, I realized how impoverished the political dialogue is in the media here. I think everyone would understand much better what the issues were if the spokespersons for Hamas and Hizballeh were on the talk shows here, and had their writings published on the op-ed pages to present their positions, so that viewers and readers could judge for themselves what the merits or defects of their arguments were. Instead we are treated patronizingly, and get their positions second-hand, having other people tell us what Hamas and Hizballah represent. It is as if we had to be shielded from them.

al-Jazeera and other Middle Eastern news outlets routinely have high American officials such as the Secretary of State on their shows to give the American point of view directly to the population in that region. Why cannot the same thing be done here with those groups that represent important constituencies in the Middle East? And yet, even al-Jazeera English TV cannot get access to the basic cable services here. Clearly the news media here practice a form of self-censorship that hinders deeper understanding. Although it would be perfectly defensible for a news media outlet to have representatives of Hamas and Hizballah on their shows, this happens far too rarely for the views of those groups to be well understood by the American public.

The people in the documentary were willing to talk to the opposition via an intermediary even though they might not want to be in the same room and talk directly. This strikes me as a meaningless distinction. This unwillingness to talk directly to people with whom you disagree, especially concerning grave issues of war and peace, is something I find hard to understand.

I recall a time when I was an undergraduate in Sri Lanka when the students were agitated over an unresolved issue with the university administration. We were planning on striking over an issue and I was a proponent of this action. (Student strikes are not an unusual phenomenon in Sri Lankan universities.) Before the final vote on whether to strike, I suggested at an open meeting of the student body that we invite the University President to appear before the student body to make his case. Some student leaders opposed this suggestion, arguing that the President was a clever person, had a charming personality, and was a smooth talker (all of which was true), who might win over the students and convince them not to go on strike.

I responded that that was a ridiculous position to take. If we could be so easily swayed, that meant that our case was weak to begin with and we should not go on strike anyway. So a vote was taken as to whether to invite the President. The student body was overwhelmingly of the opinion that they could judge the President’s arguments for themselves and did not need us as intermediaries, and the vote was yes. The President accepted our invitation, came and spoke, and we had a cordial debate on the pros and cons of the issue. Eventually the students voted to go on strike anyway. Soon after, the President and the University Senate accepted the student position and the issue was resolved peacefully and quickly, with both sides negotiating a compromise. I felt that this result was obtained partly due to the fact that the two opposing sides had listened to each other and understood the issues much better than before, and were thus able to better understand the other’s position and arrive at a workable solution

I simply don’t understand the basis for the position that you should keep certain people out of the discussion. While some people may disagree with the positions taken by Hamas and Hizballah, there is no question that they are major players in the Middle East and command the support of millions of people. They are also members of their respective governments. It is silly not to talk with them and listen to them. When you eliminate negotiations, when ‘the other’ is excluded from the discussion, violence becomes inevitable.

POST SCRIPT: Happy Birthday, Charlie!

Today is the 198th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. To celebrate it, you can see the film A Flock of Dodos by filmmaker Randy Olson which looks at the debate in Kansas over evolution versus “intelligent-design.” The link takes you to amusing trailer for the film.

When: Monday, February 12, 2007, 6:00 p.m.
Where: Goodyear Auditorium, Clapp Hall 108, Case Western Reserve University.

The film is free and open to the public. For more details, see here.

There is now a website containing Darwin’s entire collection of works. (Thanks to Ross Duffin for telling me about this site). Here is a BBC news clip about this project.

The history of jury nullification

The history of juries nullifying laws is very interesting. In yesterday’s post I discussed the celebrated case of John Peter Zenger. But there’s lots more. As Doug Linder writes:

Jury nullification appeared at other times in our history when the government has tried to enforce morally repugnant or unpopular laws. In the early 1800s, nullification was practiced in cases brought under the Alien and Sedition Act. In the mid 1800s, northern juries practiced nullification in prosecutions brought against individuals accused of harboring slaves in violation of the Fugitive Slave Laws. And in the Prohibition Era of the 1930s, many juries practiced nullification in prosecutions brought against individuals accused of violating alcohol control laws.

More recent examples of nullification might include acquittals of “mercy killers,” including Dr. Jack Kevorkian, and minor drug offenders.

Of course, not all nullifications advance justice and the rights of individuals. As Linder points out there are “negative applications including some notorious cases in which all-white southern juries in the 1950s and 1960s refused to convict white supremacists for killing blacks or civil rights workers despite overwhelming evidence of their guilt.” I am not sure if this constitutes nullification since, as I understand it, true nullification involves refusal to convict because of a belief that the law is unjust, not because one simply wants, for whatever reason, to see the accused go free. But nonetheless, recognizing the rights of juries to nullify laws does carry with it the risk that juries will acquit for less noble reasons.

Perhaps the most celebrated case of jury nullification was back in 1670 in England when William Penn, the Quaker, was accused of preaching to an assembly in a public street, the building where they usually met having been closed by the authorities. William Mead was accused of conspiring with Penn to create a ‘tumult’ and thus both were accused of being in violation of the law prohibiting such actions. The proceedings at the Old Bailey, which were recorded in almost verbatim form by an observer, gives a fascinating account of the trial.

Penn’s defense was that he was merely seeking to assemble with other believers to worship god, not seeking to create a riot, and he was unshakeable in asserting this. The fact that there were several hundred people in the street creating such noise that he could barely be heard was not questioned, so technically he had violated the law prohibiting creating ‘tumults’ in a public place. In terms of the law and the facts, the prosecution pretty much had a slam-dunk case.

It was clear from the start that the judge (who was the Mayor) and the court recorder (who is what we now call the prosecutor) were extremely hostile to the defendants, subjecting them to various indignities. It seems that the courtroom was crowded and the proceedings were boisterous, with both Penn and Mead conducting their own defense with so much vigor and cleverness that Penn was accused by the recorder of being a “saucy”, “impertinent”, and “troublesome fellow.”

At one point Penn was ordered to be taken away because of his arguments irritated the prosecution, and while being led away made this stirring speech about the need to protect fundamental liberties: “[I]s this justice or true judgment? Must I therefore be taken away because I plead for the fundamental laws of England? However, this I leave upon your consciences, who are of the jury (and my sole judges,) that if these ancient fundamental laws, which relate to liberty and property, (and are not limited to particular persuasions in. matters of religion) must not be indispensably maintained and observed, who can say he hath right to the coat upon his back? Certainly our liberties are openly to be invaded, our wives to be ravished, our children slaved, our families ruined, and our estates led away in triumph, by every sturdy beggar and malicious informer, as their trophies, but our (pretended) forfeits for conscience sake.”

After Penn had challenged the case made by the prosecution, the judge removed the prisoners and charged the jury to look at only the facts of the case. But Penn shouted out a final appeal to the jury as he was being led away: “I appeal to the jury who are my Judges, and this great assembly, whether the proceedings of the court are not most arbitrary, and void of all law, in offering to give the jury their charge in the absence of the prisoners; I say it is directly opposite to, and destructive of the undoubted right of every English prisoner, as Coke, in the 2 Instit. 29. on the chap. of Magna Charta.”

Penn’s appeals to the jury must have worked because despite pressure from the judge to achieve unanimity, the jury returned after about ninety minutes with what we would now call a hung verdict, in which eight found the defendants guilty but four wanted to acquit. After scolding the four dissenting jury members, the judge sent them back to their room with instructions to come up with a unanimous decision. After considerable time they did, and the verdict on Penn spoken by the foreman was “Guilty of speaking in Grace-church street.” This was a mere statement of fact and not a guilty verdict of an actual offence. The judge wanted them to convict the prisoners of causing a riot and he was furious at the jury’s seeming evasion but the foreman refused to say anything more than what he had said earlier.

The judge and recorder then scolded the jury and said that they could not accept their statement as a verdict and that the jury would not be released from duty until they came back with the verdict that they wanted. The jury was then sent them back to the deliberation room again but returned after half an hour with the same verdict: “We the jurors, hereafter named, do find William Penn to be Guilty of speaking or preaching to an assembly, met together in Gracechurch-street.”

The judge and recorder were enraged and the recorder issued this threat: “Gentlemen, you shall not be dismissed till we have a verdict that the court will accept; and you shall be locked up, without meat, drink, fire, and tobacco; you shall not think thus to abuse the court; we will have a verdict, by the help of God, or you shall starve for it.”

The jurors were then locked up and not even allowed to have chamber pots or to go out to the bathroom so that they ended in their room for the night hungry and thirsty and cold and surrounded by their own excrement.

The next morning the jury was called in and the foreman gave the unanimous verdict: “William Penn is Guilty of speaking in Gracechurch-Street.” The judge prompted: “To an unlawful assembly?” but the foreman refused to add anything to what he had said earlier. This caused an uproar in the court.

The judge and recorder again threatened the jury with starvation if they failed to bring in the “proper” verdict. The recorder was so disgusted with the jury that he wished that England could adopt the highly efficient Spanish Inquisition, then currently in vogue in the rest of Europe, saying: “Till now I never understood the reason of the policy and prudence of the Spaniards, in suffering the inquisition among them: And certainly it will never be well with us, till something like unto the Spanish inquisition be in England.” But the jury foreman would not be swayed and only said: “We have given in our Verdict, and all agreed to it; and if we give in another, it will be a force upon us to save our lives.”

The judge ordered them locked up in prison again for another day under the same onerous conditions. The next day when the jury was brought in, they had a new verdict: Not guilty for both Penn and Mead.

Needless to say the judge and recorder were furious and fined both the defendants and the jury for contempt, telling the jury that they had “followed your own judgments and opinions, rather than the good and wholesome advice which was given you” and ordered them jailed for non-payment of the fines.

But the jury was released soon after on the basis of habeas corpus applications and their incarceration was ruled illegal by a higher court.

I recount this story to remind us that it was due to the fortitude of people like Penn and Mead and the members of that jury that we enjoy the freedoms that are written in the Bill of Rights. They were able to stand up to coercion. The jury felt that the law prohibiting assembly and association was unjust and despite the disgusting treatment they received and the awful conditions they were subjected to, they were unwilling to compromise. By nullifying the law, they gave us a fundamental right.

US Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone would have approved: “If a juror feels that the statute involved in any criminal offence is unfair, or that it infringes upon the defendant’s natural god-given unalienable or constitutional rights, then it is his duty to affirm that the offending statute is really no law at all and that the violation of it is no crime at all, for no one is bound to obey an unjust law.”

It is good to be reminded of the history of how hard won are those things that we now consider fundamental freedoms, especially these days when people seem to be so willing, even eager, to give them up for a false sense of security. The recent enactments of the Patriot Act and Military Commissions Act, renditions, and the use of torture have stripped people of many of their rights. We tend to feel helpless in the face of an increasingly authoritarian government and a complaisant legislature. But we, the people, have the ultimate power as members of juries. If we consistently refuse to convict people on the basis of unjust laws, then the laws have no force.

But for this to have even a chance of happening, people have to be aware of the full rights of juries. I wonder, though, how many juries today, even if they knew of this right, would have the courage and fortitude of the William Penn jury and refuse to convict on the basis of unjust laws, whatever the facts of the case.

Jury nullification

In a democratic system, laws are created by the people as a means of maintaining order. Unlike in a police state, where compliance to laws is arrived at by using the force of the state security apparatus, democratic societies can only maintain their open nature because of voluntary compliance based on the belief that the laws are just and should be followed. This voluntary compliance is obtained because we believe that we ourselves are the architects of the laws that govern us.

But how do these laws come about?

We are all familiar with how the process works, at least on the Schoolhouse Rock level. We, the citizens, vote legislators into office. These legislators propose bills. Once passed by the legislature and signed by the elected executive, these bills become laws. So we tend to think that we, the people, have created the laws that govern us through the medium of representatives elected to act on our behalf.

But as has become increasingly clear, there is no guarantee that the elected representatives are, in fact, acting in our best interests. The influence of money and lobbyists has resulted in a system where the elected officials are far more likely to be swayed by those interests than they are by the wishes of their constituents. It should not be news to anyone that much of the language of current laws and, even more importantly, the regulations that spell out the implementation details of the laws, are being written by lobbyists who are not accountable to the voters but instead take their instructions from pressure groups.

So what can we do to regain our prerogatives as the people who ultimately get to decide on laws? We tend to think that the only option is to vote the miscreants out of office and vote in new people who are more in tune with voters. But this is not easy to do.

It turns out that there is one feature of the whole process by which laws are validated that has been carefully hidden from all of us and which we can invoke in some limited situations. The fact is that the signing of a passed bill by the chief executive is not the last step that determines the validity of a law. The last step is determined by juries who get to decide on whether or not to convict someone based on the law. In other words, juries, representing the common people, have the final say in determining if a law is just or not and whether it should be used to convict people or not.

This will come as a surprise to many. We have become accustomed to television and film courtroom dramas (and even experienced it ourselves if we have been members of juries) where juries are instructed by the judge on how the relevant law is to be interpreted and are told to judge the case only on the facts of the case. The validity of the law is not to be part of the discussion.

But it turns out that the right of juries to judge both the facts and the law is one of the oldest rights we have, and has been upheld time and time again. In fact, many of the fundamental rights that are cherished in the Bill of Rights came about because juries consistently refused to convict people under laws that they felt were unjust, ultimately forcing governments to repeal those laws. This phenomenon is called jury nullification a groups such as the Fully Informed Jury Association (FIJA) and the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago are trying to inform people, and especially juries, of this aspect of their rights in the face of this official silence.

In the US, the earliest example of a jury exercising its right to nullify a law was in the case of John Peter Zenger in pre-revolutionary times.

[T]he power of jury nullification predates our Constitution. In November of 1734, a printer named John Peter Zenger was arrested for seditious libel against his Majesty’s government. At that time, a law of the Colony of New York forbid any publication without prior government approval. Freedom of the press was not enjoyed by the early colonialists! Zenger, however, defied this censorship and published articles strongly critical of New York colonial rule.

When brought to trial in August of 1735, Zenger admitted publishing the offending articles, but argued that the truth of the facts stated justified their publication. The judge instructed the jury that truth is not justification for libel. Rather, truth makes the libel more vicious, for public unrest is more likely to follow true, rather than false claims of bad governance. And since the defendant had admitted to the “fact” of publication, only a question of “law” remained.

Then, as now, the judge said the “issue of law” was for the court to determine, and he instructed the jury to find the defendant guilty. It took only ten minutes for the jury to disregard the judge’s instructions on the law and find Zenger NOT GUILTY. (emphasis in original)

Note that there was no doubt that Zenger had violated a duly enacted law because he admitted as much. But the jury still acquitted him, in direct defiance of the facts of the case. This right of juries to nullify an unjust law by refusing to convict people under it has continued to be upheld in the US even after independence under the constitution that was later adopted. The above article continues:

At the time the Constitution was written, the definition of the term “jury” referred to a group of citizens empowered to judge both the law and the evidence in the case before it. Then, in the February term of 1794, the Supreme Court conducted a jury trial in the case of the State of Georgia vs. Brailsford (3 Dall 1). The instructions to the jury in the first jury trial before the Supreme Court of the United States illustrate the true power of the jury. Chief Justice John Jay said: “It is presumed, that juries are the best judges of facts; it is, on the other hand, presumed that courts are the best judges of law. But still both objects are within your power of decision.” (emphasis added) “…you have a right to take it upon yourselves to judge of both, and to determine the law as well as the fact in controversy”.

So you see, in an American courtroom there are in a sense twelve judges in attendance, not just one. And they are there with the power to review the “law” as well as the “facts”! Actually, the “judge” is there to conduct the proceedings in an orderly fashion and maintain the safety of all parties involved.

As recently as 1972, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said that the jury has an “unreviewable and irreversible power… to acquit in disregard of the instructions on the law given by the trial judge…. (US vs Dougherty, 473 F 2d 1113, 1139 (1972))

Sam Smith writes in the Progressive Review that while the right of juries to nullify a law they perceived as unjust has been upheld when challenged, courts have been increasingly reluctant to let juries know of this right and some have even struck jurors from the panel who asserted this right or even said they knew about it.

Those who have endorsed the right of a jury to judge both the law and the facts include Chief Justice John Jay, Samuel Chase, Dean Roscoe Pound, Learned Hand and Oliver Wendell Holmes. According to the Yale Law Journal in 1964, during the first third of the 19th century judges did inform juries of the right, forcing lawyers to argue “the law — its interpretation and validity — to the jury.” By the latter part of the century, however, judges and state law were increasingly moving against nullification. In 1895 the US Supreme Court upheld the principle but ruled that juries were not to be informed of it by defense attorneys, nor were judges required to tell them about it. Stephen Barkan, writing in Social Problems (October 1983), noted that the attacks on nullification stemmed in part from juries acquitting strike organizers and other labor activists. And in 1892 the American Bar Review warned that jurors had “developed agrarian tendencies of an alarming character.”

In other words, since juries tend to consist of ‘ordinary’ people, they are more likely to view as unjust laws that have been passed by the money-dominated legislatures to expand the privileges of the powerful at the expense of the powerless. Hence the need by the powerful in society to suppress knowledge of this right of juries. But as Sam Smith says: “The nullification principle involves the power to say no to the excesses of government, and thus serves as a final defense against tyranny.”

It should be understood that this right of juries does not mean that they can do anything they like. This right is a limited one, to save individuals from being deprived of life or liberty because of unjust laws. It cannot be used to arbitrarily convict someone or to declare a law unconstitutional.

This matter shows how important juries are to the very fabric of society. We should resist all attempts to reduce its influence or to abridge its rights. When we serve on a jury, we are engaging in the ultimate democratic act, sitting in judgment on the very laws that we are called upon to execute.

As Thomas Jefferson said in a 1789 letter to Tom Paine, “I consider [trial by jury] as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.”

POST SCRIPT: Feingold again

At the risk of making this blog look like a Russ Feingold fan site, here is another clip of him speaking very clearly about what should be done in Iraq, and why even the Democratically-controlled Congress is so timid.

Betraying both principles and friends

(See here for the background to this post.)

During the McCarthy-era HUAC hearings, some people who were called up to testify but did not want to name names and thus inform on their friends and colleagues refused to answer questions using the Fifth Amendment, which says that people cannot be forced to give evidence that might incriminate themselves. While this was effective in avoiding punishment, some felt that this was a somewhat cowardly way out. The Hollywood Ten, including Dalton Trumbo, decided to use a more risky strategy and that was to invoke the freedom of assembly clause of the First Amendment that says that people have a right to peaceably associate with those whom they please and thus do not have to say who their friends and associates are or otherwise inform on them.

In those charged times, this right was over-ridden and they went to jail for various lengths of time. Albert Einstein was actively involved in fighting these anti-communist witch-hunts and approved of using the First Amendment to fight them. Writing in 1954 in the book Ideas and Opinions (Crown Publishers, New York, p. 34), he said:

Every intellectual who is called before one of the committees ought to refuse to testify, i.e., he must be prepared for jail and economic ruin. . . . This refusal to testify must not be based on the well-known subterfuge of invoking the Fifth Amendment against possible self-incrimination, but on the assertion that it is shameful for a blameless citizen to submit to such an inquisition and that this kind of inquisition violates the spirit of the Constitution. If enough people are ready to take this grave step they will be successful. If not, then the intellectuals of this country deserve nothing better than the slavery which is intended for them.

This kind of situation where one is compelled to turn in one’s friends is not uncommon, either in real life or in fiction. Harry Potter fans will recognize it in book four Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire where Karkaroff reveals the names of other Death Eaters to the Council of Magic in the Ministry of Magic (a group remarkably like the HUAC) to avoid being given a life sentence in Azkaban under the dreaded Dementors.

But back in real life, Dalton Trumbo’s letter reminded me of the famous and controversial 1962 Stanley Milgram experiment. Psychologist Milgram was interested in answering the question: “How is it possible that. . . ordinary people who are courteous and decent in everyday life can act callously, inhumanely, without any limitations of conscience…Under what conditions would a person obey authority who commanded actions that went against conscience.” His interest in this question was triggered by the 1961 war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann who claimed in his defense that he was just following the orders of the Nazi government. Milgram was interested in the question of whether people would follow orders that went against their basic human instincts.

Most people have heard of this experiment in which test subjects, perfectly ordinary people, were willing to apply increasing amounts of voltage to an unseen person despite hearing the victim’s increasingly distressed screams of suffering. The screams were fake but the subjects did not know that and their willingness to impose so much pain has been marveled at.

Although I too had heard of the Milgram experiment, its full force did not hit me until I saw a television program which contains footage of the experiment as it is being carried out. The video showed that the subjects were not callously or sadistically increasing the pain they were inflicting on the victim. In fact, most were really anguished and wanted to spare the victim further suffering. They kept asking if this was the right thing to do and sought reassurance that they were not causing harm.

What made them continue to inflict increasing levels of pain was that the person giving the instructions looked very official and respectable and authoritative, dressed in a white lab coat and speaking in a calm but firm manner. The clincher was that this official person told them that they were not responsible for the outcome of the experiment or the health of the victim, and that the official took full responsibility for both. This shifting of responsibility away from themselves enabled 60-65% of the subjects to overcome their qualms and push the shocks all the way to the highest level, despite the fact that they thought the victim had a heart condition, and to ignore the screams of the victim and his pleas to stop the experiments.

And this is precisely the danger. As long as people feel that they are not responsible for the outcomes of an action, as long as there is some official-looking person telling them that all this is quite proper and normal and they are absolved from the consequences, they seem willing to do things that their basic human instincts tell them is wrong.

As Milgram himself reported:

Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

This brings us back to the question I posed at the beginning of yesterday’s post as to whether we would be willing to inform on our friends just because some government official asked us to. For myself, I hope that I would say no. The older I get, the more I value friends and the less I trust the motives and intentions, let along the competence, of the government and other official agencies to do the right thing.

The request to betray a friend is an ignoble one. But it is unlikely to come in the form of a bribe offered by some sleazy person in a dark alley. Instead it will come in the open, by very proper and official people, and the offer will be wrapped in the flag and decorated with bows that appeal to one’s honor and duty and patriotism. Failure to inform on a friend may well result in one being called disloyal and even a traitor.

As I said, in actual extreme situations there is no knowing what we will do. It is possible that I could be coerced into doing things that I think are wrong. But the action will still be wrong. Most of us do not have the internal resources to resist the more subtle pressures brought to bear on us by the modern coercive state. We have to systematically create those resources. The Milgram experiment suggests to me that what makes us challenge authority is the availability of others to support us in our actions, to reinforce in us the belief that we should do the right thing whatever the authority figures might claim. And friends are our most valuable resource.

In the end, friends are all we have. When we betray them, we become nothing and have nothing.

POST SCRIPT: Have friends, live longer

A recent study suggests that having good friends leads to more tangible benefits. It found that “People with extensive networks of good friends and confidantes outlived those with the fewest friends by 22 percent.” Close relationships with relatives or children did not have the same effect on longevity.

“[T]he authors of the report speculated that friends may encourage older people to take better care of themselves—by cutting down on smoking and drinking, for example, or seeking medical treatment earlier for symptoms that may indicate serious problems.

Friends may also help seniors get through difficult times in their lives, by offering coping mechanisms and having a positive effect on mood and self-esteem.”


Here is a hypothetical scenario to ponder. Suppose one day government agents, say from the FBI or the Department of Homeland Security, come to you and say that they suspect that one of your close friends is a terrorist sympathizer and that they would like you to act on their behalf, secretly observing your friend and reporting all his or her activities to them. Would you do this?

There are some problems with this scenario. I do not think it is standard practice for government agents to enlist amateurs to help them in such ways because they are unlikely to be good covert operatives and are very likely to give the game away. But given the level of paranoia and fear-mongering that has been deliberately created and the disregard for civil liberties and fundamental rights that characterize government actions these days, variations on the above scenario are not as far-fetched as one would like to think.

I have also written before that extreme hypotheticals such as this one are not good ways of predicting how one would act if such a situation would actually arise because it is hard to predict how one would behave in situations which are far removed from those with which one is familiar. But while such extreme hypothetical situations are not very good predictors of behavior, they are useful devices to think about what principles one lives by.

I started thinking about this about three years ago when a letter that Dalton Trumbo had written to a friend in 1967 was published in Harper’s magazine (March 2004, page 30). Trumbo, who died in 1976, was a very successful screenwriter who refused to testify and name people as Communists or collaborators before the McCarthyite-era House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings. The recent film Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) dealt with the events and atmosphere of that time.

As a result of his refusal to name names, he became one of the original Hollywood Ten, a group of writers and directors who were blacklisted by the Hollywood studies and could not get work anymore. He was also convicted of contempt of Congress and sentenced in 1950 to 11 months in prison. After being released, he lived abroad but his work was still sought after and his screenplays appeared under pseudonyms and fronts until 1960 when influential actors like Kirk Douglas got him re-instated. One of his screenplays (under the pseudonym “Robert Rich”) even won an Academy Award in 1957.

If faced with the above scenario of betraying one’s friends, for some the choice will be simple. If the law requires us to cooperate with the authorities and inform on our friends, then that is the right, even honorable and patriotic, thing to do. Although they may disagree with the law, they may feel that they are compelled to follow it, that it is not our prerogative to challenge the law. While we may work to change it, good citizenship requires us to follow the law that is on the books.

In his letter, Trumbo says that it is not that simple. It is not about compulsion and he makes some important points about the nature of the choices that we have to sometimes make:

[A] prominent and liberal producer was quoted as saying: “Look, you people are simply stubborn and foolish. Regardless of what you think of informing it has become a part of the law. The committee and its requirements are part of our time; they are the country; they are the flag. That’s the way it is, and those who refuse to recognize this no longer arouse sympathy; they only isolate themselves and prevent their voices from being heard.”

The more I think of that the more I disagree with it, and the more puzzled I become about the workings of the mind that produced it.

I know and can read the First Amendment as well as anyone. I know it is the basic law of this country. I know that if it goes, all will go. The Warren Court has carefully and specifically outlined the exact method by which persons can refuse to inform. It is almost as if the court had decided to provide citizens with a textbook on how to avoid turning informer.

Thus the court has presented us with a dilemma that lies at the heart of all philosophies and religions, the dilemma best symbolized in the Faustian legend: yield up your principles and you shall be rich; cling to them and you shall be less prosperous than you presently are.

That’s the problem: choice. Not compulsion. Committee or no committee, law or no law, capitalism or no capitalism, movies or no movies, it is the constant necessity to choose that dogs every action of our lives every minute of our existences.

Who is it then who compels us to inform? The committee does not come and ask us to change our minds and give them names and reinstate ourselves. Who is it that denies us work until we seek out the committee and abase ourselves before it?

Since it is neither the court nor the law nor the committee, the man who compels informing can only be the employer itself. It is he, and not the committee, who applies the only lash that really stings – economic reprisal: he is the enforcer who gives the committee its only strength and all its victories.

Disliking the nasty business of blacklisting but nonetheless practicing it every day of his life, he places upon the country and his flag the blame for moral atrocities that otherwise would be charged directly to himself. And thus, since informing has nothing to do with the law and the country and the flag, and since the necessities of his life, as he sees them, oblige him to enforce what the committee can never compel, and since without his enforcement that committee would have no power at all, – what he actually said is that he is the law and the country and the flag.

Then in a moving series of montages, Trumbo reflects on the wide ranging jobs he has had all over the country and the wide variety of people from all walks of life that he has met on those journeys.

And if I could take a census of all the Americans I have seen and of all the dead whose graves I have looked on, if I could ask them one simple question: “Would you like a man who told on his friend?” – there would not be one among them who would answer, “Yes.”

Show me the man who informs on friends who have harmed no one, and who thereafter earns money he could not have earned before, and I will show you not a decent citizen, not a patriot, but a miserable scoundrel who will, if new pressures arise and the price is right, betray not just his friends but his country. Such men are to be watched; I cannot imagine they are not watched.
. . .
I look back on two decades through which good friends stood together, moved forward a little, dreamed that the world could be better and tried to make it so, tasted the joy of small victories, wounded each other, made mistakes, suffered much injury, and stood silent in the chamber of liars.

For all this I am grateful: that much I have; that much cannot be taken from me. Barcelona fell, and you were not there, and I was not there, and perhaps if we had been the city would have stood and the world have been changed and better. But we were here, and here together we remain, and our city won’t fall, and if it should, better that we lie buried among its ruins than be found absent a second time.

Every time I re-read Trumbo’s letter I am moved by its eloquence. It is a powerful statement about what good friends, acting together, can achieve and our responsibility to our friends.

Next: More on friends

POST SCRIPT: Russ Feingold on the escalation in Iraq

Senator Russ Feingold once again speaks clearly to Keith Olbermann about what is at stake in Iraq. When listening to him one gets the impression that he is not carefully targeting his message to pander but is just saying what he really thinks, which is rare in a politician. Perhaps he is a very good actor, but I don’t think that’s it. He just happens to be a person with a sharp mind and the verbal fluency to express his ideas well.

I don’t agree with everything Feingold says but it is definitely refreshing to listen to him.

Fear and panic in Boston

Since I never watch TV news, my contact with mainstream news is fairly limited. It starts in the morning with listening to Morning Edition on NPR, a little more NPR on the drive home, and reading the local paper The Plain Dealer in the evening. At various times during the day, I occasionally check up on some news sites on the web but these sites deal more with world news. So it possible for me to sometimes completely miss those stories that come and go within one news cycle or less, such as the ‘terrorist scares’ that seem to sporadically break out in the US.
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Some reflections on this blog

Last Friday, January 26th was the second anniversary of this blog which I, of course, completely forgot about since I am not big on commemorating birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, and the like. But such milestones are good occasions to pause and take stock and when I remembered this one later, I started reflecting on what this blog has and has not done during the past two years.

Some thoughts were triggered by the fact that within the last month, two very good bloggers decided to hang up their keyboards and ride away into the sunset. They were the anonymous Billmon at the blog Whiskey Bar (an excellent writer who combined sharp analysis with historical insight into contemporary political matters) and Michael Berube. Berube’s last post reflects on what caused him to start blogging, and then to stop after exactly three years.

Like Berube, I have learned a lot about blogging while doing my own blog. The first thing I realized is that a blogger must have respect for the readers. Over the two years, this blog has received over two million hits and it is inevitable that whatever topic I might be writing about, there are always likely to be many readers who know more about the subject than I do, and also care about it more than I do.

The second thing I learned is that to be a blogger requires one to have skin that is not too thin (so that one always responds courteously to people and not take criticisms as insults, and also to be able to ignore actual insults and abuse and ad hominem comments) and not too thick (so that one does not dismiss or ignore other people’s arguments and comments). The very fact that someone has bothered to take the trouble to read what you have written when they could have been doing something else has to evoke respect for that person. Quite a few of my posts were written to address points made by commenters.

Another important thing I learned is the necessity to provide evidence and sources for as much as possible without making the post an annoying jungle of hyperlinks. Readers have a right to know the basis for my assertions and be able to check them without doing too much tedious digging on their own.

What I have found interesting is that some professional journalists who are now either blogging or otherwise getting immediate feedback from their readers haven’t quite absorbed these lessons. After sometimes making sweeping and inaccurate and unsourced statements, they respond with indignation when these missteps are pointed out by people who have checked up on them. It is as if they feel that the fact that they are the correspondent for a major news outlet gives them some kind of oracle powers that we mortals can only admire with awe.

Those days are gone. Nowadays, everyone can be a fact checker and let others know what they have found. As I have said before, the anonymity and speed that the internet provides does sometimes result in people making remarks in an intemperate way. The journalist (or blogger) has to simply recognize this as a fact of life and let it go. It is true that blogs can be, and have been, the source of much inaccurate information. But they can also serve a very important function of making lazy journalists aware that they need to be more careful about checking their information and the way they present it.

One of the principles I have used in my life is to not waste other people’s time and I have tried to adhere to that for this blog as well. My hope is that readers who spend their valuable time reading it will find useful information, thought provoking ideas, and sometimes just fun stuff to amuse and laugh over.

One of the things about being a writer is that writing does reveal a lot about who you are and this took me some getting used to. I am by nature a private person but I quickly realized that even if I avoid directly talking about myself or my personal life and instead stick to public affairs and write in as objective a way as I can, I cannot help but reveal myself in my writings. I suspect that anyone who has read a varied sample of my postings will have a pretty good idea of who I am and what I value. Although I am not trying to hide who I am, I am also not used to having people whom I don’t know, know me. When I meet someone for the first time and they say “Oh, I read your blog” I am pleased, of course, but also a little disconcerted. Public figures are accustomed to this imbalance in personal knowledge and take it in their stride but I do not consider myself a public figure.

How long will this blog last? I don’t know. It is a labor of love. It does take time to write posts that I think are worth reading and are not sloppily written. In the course of doing so, I have learned a huge deal, often in responding to comments and answering questions. Writing the posts has helped me to sort out my ideas and served as first drafts of articles that have either appeared in print or been submitted for publication and will appear in press. More importantly, it has forced me to learn and present things in a systematic and organized way, instead of just leaving things as a shoe-box full of related ideas and information.

When will I know that it is time to stop? A clue that the time to quit blogging has arrived will be when I start to dread writing the posts and resent the time spent on it. So far that has not happened. I do most of my writing on the weekends and I still look forward to it.

Another clue that it may be time to stop will be when I start repeating myself, and I worry more about this. As the header indicates, I thought that this blog would deal with a wider range of topics than it has. For example, I have written much less than I thought I would about education and learning and science, subjects I care deeply about.

The shift was not caused by a narrowing of my interests but because issues of war and peace have seemed to me to be so urgent and occupy so much of my thoughts that I feel compelled to write about politics more than I perhaps should. I don’t feel that I am repeating myself in terms of actual content but I do feel that I may be focusing too much on politics, especially Iraq and the Middle East. But a blog does also serve as an outlet for pent up feelings and so as long as I feel angry about the senseless death and destruction currently going on, and the dangerous policies advanced by the Bush administration, and its blatant disregard for the human rights, the constitution, and the law, politics will likely continue to dominate.

But in terms of actual content I have rough notes of lots of ideas on a whole variety of topics so there is no danger of running out of material. In fact new material keeps coming in faster than I can use them, and some interesting topics simply lose their timeliness and get shelved permanently, much to my regret.

So here’s to another year of blogging. And thanks for reading.

POST SCRIPT: Voice mail rant

When I spot a grammatical or typographical error in a newspaper, I usually find it mildly amusing but do not get outraged. After all, newspapers are on a tight deadline and are bound to let the occasional mistake slip through. But some language purists get really upset. Listen to this rant that was left on a newspaper editor’s voice mail.

Why I stopped watching football

Super Bowl number something or other is being played this coming Sunday. There was a time, even quite recently, when I would have looked forward to the event, and planned on seeing it with some friends. Nowadays I can barely muster up the interest to even turn on the TV towards the end to see the result.

My initially strong interest in football began immediately after I arrived in the US to do my doctorate in physics at the University of Pittsburgh. I was there during the period 1975-1980 when the famed Steelers “steel curtain” defense and spectacular offense led them to four Super Bowl titles in six years. Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, and Franco Harris dazzled fans week after week. At the same time the University of Pittsburgh football team won the national championship and its running back Tony Dorsett won the Heisman trophy. And if that weren’t enough, the Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series. So the town went crazy, and it was all sports all the time.
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