Law in Contemporary Society
In class, I asked what “freedom” looks like. I am still concerned about the implications of the freedom advertised in this course. Particularly, I am worried that this “freedom” merely replaces one scheme of ego-gratification for another.

If we reject all external sources of meaning as bullshit (and we may have good reason to do so), and refuse to care at all what anyone thinks, then this is freedom, on Professor Moglen’s view. The validity and attractiveness of this position are best addressed elsewhere, but the application and consequences of this view are my concern here. This kind of freedom replaces external means of self-validation for internal means of self-validation; this is potentially problematic. If the source of our values and self worth is exclusively internal, this creates a troubling solipsistic perspective through which one engineers whatever reality is most satisfying to the ego. Which is to say, rejecting the law school/corporate rat-race “bullshit” does not free you from ego needs- it’s just a cleverer way of feeling superior. I think Robinson is a very clear example of how this devolves into egomania-- or, at the very least, insufferable self-aggrandizement.

What’s worse, this sort of dissociation is hostile to moral constraints. For example, doesn’t this perspective necessarily commit itself to saying that the bigoted propagandist (from the article we read) would be a good lawyer? Or that, values aside, he is the kind of advocate we are supposed to be? He certainly embodies the kind of strategic systemic consciousness that this course promotes.

My question is: if what “freedom” looks like is the rejection of external sources of value, then where do we draw the line? Maybe we don’t need to hear that we should extricate ourselves from a world of bullshit, because the bullshit isn’t really the issue. We are. Maybe we need to hear something more difficult: it’s time to get over ourselves.

-- AlisonMoe - 09 Feb 2010


I do not think it follows that rejecting external definitions of what is valuable creates solipsism. You can certainly develop internal value judgments that acknowledge the concerns and integrity (not to mention existence) of other people. I think what you call egomania is really just a well developed autonomy that extends to moral choice.

-- RobLaser - 16 Feb 2010

I had a very different reaction to "Robinson." I wrote the little story below last week after reading it. But I didn't post it until now because I thought it was too egotistical. But now that egotism and talking frenetically about the things you see at your job are a topic, I thought I should post it. It originally contained more about my workers, but I thought I should keep it short. (I can talk about my workers for a very long time if you let me.)

“Have you ever been in a jail?” - Robinson’s Metamorphosis, p. 11.

Prof. Moglen suggested answering a question, so I’ll answer this one: Yes.

I was part of a group of about 40 union staff people who chained ourselves together on the ramp to I-95 in downtown Stamford at evening rush hour. It was a civil disobedience to support a janitors strike. The janitors could not get arrested themselves because they were undocumented immigrants. The police came and cut us out of the chains and arrested us.

The cells were too small for us, so they put us in the police station garage. We were in there about five hours. While it was uncomfortable to stand for so long in a smelly place wearing handcuffs, and no one wanted to use the jail toilet (the toilets are out in the open so the police can watch you), we were all chattering and having a pretty good time. If we needed to scratch our faces, we would ask someone else’s permission to rub it against his/her shoulder. I confess to having deliberately tried to chafe my wrists against the cuffs. I was hoping to have little red marks the next day so I could show off to my strikers that I had done something nobler for them than just replacing the bullhorn batteries and driving the strike van.

About three hours in, two policemen marched through the garage escorting three “real” prisoners. They wore green jumpsuits and were shackled together at the wrists and ankles. They were all black men. We were mostly white women. They looked across the garage and stared at us. We stared at them. Then they burst out laughing and, a second later, so did we. We waggled our hands at each other in modified handcuff-waves. I thought it was gracious of them to laugh.

We got released around 1am and went home. Our bail was $6400, and we pled to Obstruction of Free Passage. The union paid our fines. About a week later, the strikers won. They got a 46% pay raise, from $6.15 to $9 an hour, and employer-paid individual health care. Also an ass-grabber supervisor got put in his place by women who didn’t think they had to take it anymore now that they were union members.

The next time I got arrested was not cute and fun like the first time. Despite the unpleasantness, I do like to boast about my record (yes, this is partly an ego trip), so I will probably write about that too some other time.

NB: if you are going to get arrested, don’t drink a lot of water beforehand, because you might be lucky enough to get released before having to use the toilet. Bring nothing more than your driver’s license in your pocket. Anything else such as a wallet they will confiscate and you will have trouble getting it back. Also, do not wear shoelaces, a belt, long underwear, or anything else you could use to hang yourself/garrot someone else, because they will take those things too.


I agree that we need to get over external means of self-validation. I agree that we need to get over ourselves, at least to the degree that those selves are being shaped externally (see: the fear, anxiety discussions). But I don’t think that satisfying the ego is necessarily such a bad thing. Guidance by internal sources of value is not the same thing as guidance by greed (and greed alone, morality free), which was evidently the man in the NY Times article’s only motivation.

In truth, I have trouble understanding how personal interests (I would say ego but that word leaves a bad taste) play so little a part in this (larger class) discussion about choices and freedom. In the end, isn’t loving your job a large part of doing your job well? We can talk in endless circles about pawning licenses and making choices. But he who is interested in human rights will make a great human rights lawyer, and he who finds corporate crime a puzzle should probably be defending white-collar criminals.

I come from an industry (movies, TV) of the self select who tend to be myopic about everything except the content of their jobs. The majority knows that the industry is a gamble, that its successes are as random as they are well-deserved and that but for sheer pluck any given member will be on a plane back to his or her hometown. This goes for the baby writers and it goes for the directors who have a decade under the belt. Entertainment is a resourceful and cooperative climate (extending, again, about as far as the end of the soundstage), which happens to be extremely good at producing decent products and generally content workers. Everyone just really wants to be there.

There is not too much overlap between that world, and ours. There is an army of unhappy lawyers. A family member of mine has literally made a career out of counseling paralyzed mid-career lawyers about what to do next. I can only think that the majority of these people are unhappy because they don’t like what they do, meaning, literally, the day-to-day content.

The critical step out of law school is into a field of interest. This is the only way to work effectively in the long term. This is the only way changes can be wrought to a deeply flawed system by the lawyers working within it. To be a good lawyer is to be happy about being a lawyer, and the only way to do that is to like your work.

So I agree that we need to close our ears to all the bullshit humming around us. But the internal bullshit might be useful. Because I have yet to meet a television writer praying for the opportunity to change careers.

-- AerinMiller - 09 Feb 2010

Aerin, I completely agree with you that personal choices/interests help determine the success you have in a job and the enjoyment you derive from it. Without knowing what we are passionate about, we’re certainly going to struggle to figure out what the “right” job is for us.

However, I think that one of the points that Eben is making in this class is that we need to thoroughly examine whether a particular job is the “right” one. Even if we know for an absolute fact that civil rights is the issue we want to pursue in our legal careers, that doesn’t mean that every civil rights organization would be a good fit for us as individuals. No job is going to be the “right” one for everyone.

A good example of this is our different experiences in the entertainment business. I was a network television sitcom writer for the past ten years and I disagree with some of what of what you wrote about the world of TV and TV writers. For one thing, I actually believe that tv writers have quite a bit in common with lawyers who choose to work at a big firm. Most sitcom writers come to their work from a creative writing background or a career as a stand-up comedian. They spend time developing their ability and then they “hock” that ability. Just like the lawyers Eben describes, they give up their right to choose their subject, their hours and even the approach they take to storytelling in exchange for stability (a little bit) and a nice paycheck.

I don’t think you could find a television writer who, in the privacy of his office or in the writers’ room, would tell you that they honestly and truly believe that their show is better because of the orders they take (and taking orders is what “taking notes” means) from studio and network executives and, in some cases, actors. One of the first shows I worked on was shot in New York. A writer quit in the middle of the season after the star of the show tore his script to shreds. He had to undertake a pretty nasty legal battle with the studio to break his contract and he knew doing so might mean he would never work again (he didn’t). Before he walked out on the show and began his legal fight, the showrunner asked him if he was sure he was doing the right thing by just leaving and flying back to LA. He replied, “If my plane to Los Angeles explodes in mid-air, and I die a fiery, screaming death, I will have still done the right thing,” and walked out.

For a lot of writers, the loss of any sort of creative control is just the cost of doing business and other aspects of their job are satisfying enough that they are, in general, happy. But some writers find it isn’t right for them, for whatever reason. People I’ve worked with have left the business for all sorts of other careers. One left her Exec. Producer position to raise her kids, one went into venture capital, another became a novelist and one applied the Kurt Cobain method with a shotgun in his mouth. Still other writers are pretty miserable in their day to day job, but are held in place by two things: the golden handcuffs of a healthy salary and the lack of alternate options (TV writers aren’t qualified for a whole lot other than sitting around and eating, a skill I’ve honed to a razor sharp edge). Every television writer I ever met was working on a screenplay “on the side.” Why? For some, it was just a chance to exercise creative expression outside the strictures of their day job. For others, it was because they dreamed of getting out. I worked with a writer who, every hiatus, would churn out screenplay after screenplay. He never generated any interest at all and, eventually, his agent kindly pointed out that maybe he’d better just stick to the sitcom thing. Our next hiatus, the writer goes out and writes another screenplay. We asked him why. He said, “It beats doing this.” It was pointed out to him that movies are notoriously rewritten over and over by different writers and that, even if he sold a script, whatever wound up on screen wouldn’t likely bear much resemblance to his original. His reply? “Yeah, but I least I wouldn’t have to stand there and watch while they kill it.”

It seems impossible to me that there is any job out there that everyone loves having and is happy and content in. And yet, that is what this law school would have us believe. We are told that careers are a binary proposition: either we’ll work at a large firm or do “public interest” work, at properly approved public interest organizations. I completely agree that it is important to listen to my inner bullshit, but the key, for me, is not doing so solely in regards to whether I’m “a public interest guy” or “corporate dude.” It is a seductive choice that the school is offering, because it’s simple and they are willing to make it easy for us to follow those two specific paths. It is not, however, going to be the right choice for some of us.

-- JohnSchwab - 15 Feb 2010



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r9 - 17 Apr 2010 - 19:05:46 - NonaFarahnik
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