09 September 2003

On the Margins
Unfortunately, lawyers as a group have a well-deserved reputation for impenetrable prose, sloppy logic, and elevating form over substance. Lawyers in academia have a bad reputation among lawyers for all of the above. On the margins, though, there are exceptions. One of them is Professor Jack Balkin of Yale Law School. His comments on dissent over Gulf War II bear careful study by para-McCarthyists everywhere, and even by others who just wish to understand the rush to suppress dissent.

   I always thought that the whole point of democracy is to acknowledge the legitimacy of dissent (at least in principle). The arts are even more dependent upon difference. Without dissent, there is no room for literature. Literature, whether pulp fiction or "high church" literary fiction, whether serious nonfiction or Dave Barry column, works only when there is at least an implicit acknowledgement that things might be or become different than they are. It is not very far from recognizing that things might be different to the difficult distinction between should and could. My point is not that every work of literature necessarily examines that distinction; it is that even literature that explicitly disavows that distinction has acknowledged its importance. As George Orwell perceptively noted half a century ago, "[N]o book is completely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude."

   To put it another way, removing politics and dissent from the text and subtext of a work requires an immense effort and knowledge of political implications, which is certainly subject to revisionism later; consider all the Marxist interpretations in the 1980s of, say, Madame Bovary that turned a personal tale into a political screed on supression of personality in class distinctions (and worse).

   I would go even farther than do Orwell and Professor Balkin: the act of even reading literature is an act of dissent in this society, because literature is not valued by the Powers That Be. And writing is even worse—even worthless garbage like Ann Coulter's intellectually dishonest parroting of positions held dear by some of the Powers That Be. She would be just so proud to be considered a participant in the process of dissent! Of course, some of those who are more overtly dissenters would be offended.

   That our adversarial legal system (and its unfortunate corollary, the two-party system) implicitly holds that truth best emerges from the process of criticizing and attacking ideas seems to have escaped most of our political leaders.