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.
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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.

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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.
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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.
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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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