Posts Tagged 'lawyers'

Winning and Lying

I recently read a long essay in the New York Times Sunday magazine about a young lady, Noura Jackson, who spent nine years in jail because of prosecutorial bad behavior. In this woman’s case exculpatory evidence was withheld at trial and from the defense. When that evidence was uncovered and revealed the woman was released. Ultimately, the prosecutor and her staff were exonerated. Imagine yourself with nine years of your life unjustly spent behind bars and the people who deliberately perpetrated this outrage got off free. Law and order? Justice? I don’t think so. It is, in fact, more like rewarding pathological lying.

The ethos that caused this young lady to lose those nine years of her life is pervasive in both criminal and civil courts. The base cause of callous disregard for Justice is, as I see it, the national American fixation with winning at all costs and Truth be damned. In fact, the compulsion to win seems to have infected the entirety of our society with damaging effects to trust and civility. In civil cases incentive is provided by insurance companies who pay lawyers to beat back claims to “win” regardless of facts, regardless of damage or injury. It isn’t only a matter of insurance company lawyers pursuing claimants but also plaintiffs’ lawyers who sue businesses for claimed injuries to person or property under questionable circumstances and find sympathetic juries to award damages. In both instances what we have is an assault on truth and the social contract by lawyers. This aberration and negation of justice will continue for as long as lawyers are paid to “win”. They “win” and society loses.

The American ethos of relentless competition and winning is impressed on children practically from the day they are born as parents compare birth weights, the first time on the potty, and cheer passionately at little league ball games. Cooperation is regarded as “Socialist” and it is well on its way to being declared unAmerican. Our reigning president constantly touts himself as a “winner” because he knows the idea resonates with his base. According to him everything he touches “wins” and his fans hang on every utterance basking in his success and wealth beyond the dreams of avarice becoming vicarious “winners” themselves. This “winning” administration is working with the Republicans in Congress to make cuts to education, health care, social security, food stamps, Medicaid,  disability benefits, unemployment benefits, the National Institutes of Health, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Science Foundation, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; the list is long and, if they are successful, the inflicted pain and social disruption will be widespread. Yes, indeed. Step right up folks – everyone’s going to be a “winner”.

Once those cuts to government programs are in place and the savings awarded to billionaires as tax breaks what will be left for those social programs the general public depends on so much? People will be “great” and simultaneously diminished. The winners will be losers. The cutting sword cuts both ways. There is a pathology to this. In fact this pathology is the working definition of sociopathy: “… a disorder manifesting itself in extreme antisocial attitudes and behavior and a lack of conscience.” The populist “will of the people” has become the 21st century equivalent of phlogiston, the 17th Century magical ingredient, making everything add up regardless of “facts”. Who needs facts, who needs truth if you’re a “winner”?

In the face of what is being said and promised by our new president and what is actually taking place we must wonder about pathological lying and why people who are most injured by those lies vote for the liars. These people are voting against their own best interests, they are living in some kind of alternate universe fueled by resentment and anger. I read an interview recorded at a rally with an enthusiastic Trump supporter and it went as follows: I’m distrustful of most politicians, usually. They say almost anything. At least this administration is doing something. Whether it’s too fast, or outside of already in-place procedures, I really don’t know.” When asked to name an example of something that is “being done” the happy voter was at a loss, he couldn’t name one thing. In spite of or maybe because of, all this America is, at last, “winning” and on its way to regaining its lost “greatness”. Winning in this society has become a meta-political illusion, a dream world, that rationalizes political and lawyerly anti-social behavior as “greatness”. It’s a head scratcher all right. It’s a con game and our tattered social contract is being taken to the cleaners.

Ripples Into Riptides

John Adams once wrote – “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes and murders itself. There never was a democracy that did not commit suicide.” The unrelenting war on all forms and manifestations of a democratic social contract has led to bloody revolutions in every era, on every continent, and in virtually every culture. They all begin as slight disturbances, ripples on the surface of daily events, minor perturbations in the status quo that eventually take on a destructive life of their own not unlike the early gentle rumblings of an earthquake.

History clearly demonstrates political Democracy and Capitalism are not compatible ideologies, they are contentious and contradictory belief systems. Capitalism has, at bottom, become a quasi-religion as much as an economic system. Whereas Capitalism is amoral imposing no limits on wealth extracted from the commons, Democracy, on the other hand, requires morality of community, civility, and commitment to the common welfare, in a word, “sharing”. Sharing is anathema to Capitalism because there is no monetary profit and so is vilified by calling it “socialism” or worse. Controlling the vocabulary of debate is an old and useful tactic.

When any kind of amorality becomes pervasive, it desensitizes a society with a form of instrumentalism that justifies other amoral behaviors creating a destructive pathology of civil decline. One need only recall the rise of Nazis and their vilification of Jews in pre-war Germany to understand how this dynamic works. For a recent example, how can a society justify killing someone for selling a loose cigarette while lionizing and bailing out with taxpayer money, bankers who impoverished millions with their greed? In the US today 49.7 million people qualify as poor, 80% of the total population is in or near poverty.  In the face of this calamity politicians are proposing cuts in the Food Stamp programs, Social Security, and health care. To what end are we again, it seems, being driven to the intersection of civilization vs barbarism, a society committing suicide.

When a country acts immorally it diminishes its moral authority across the board. When a government offers “facts” contrary to the truth people who are actually living it it relinquishes its moral authority, authenticity, and agency. The innocent adults and children killed by our drone strikes is a truth not ameliorated by the fact that there is always collateral damage during war. Collateral damage is a morally reprehensible argument against justice, a false use of truth invalidating claims of moral superiority over the enemy. Sadly this behavior also speaks in the names of all of citizens of the state causing the harm and that includes you and me. The US is a country in which thousands tout their Christianity and at the same time accept criminalizing feeding the hungry and homelessness. Everything is related to everything else in one way or another.

In Cleveland, police summarily executed a 12 year old boy at a playground. The boy was holding a bb gun. The same cops also threw the kid’s sister to the ground and handcuffed her for wanting to reach her dying brother. The boy died, the cops offered no first aid or care. In a news interview Police Union Chief, Jeffrey Follmer, placed absolutely no value on the 12 year old’s life – none! His callous  response? “How about this: Listen to police officers’ commands. Listen to what we tell you, and just stop … that eliminates a lot of problems.” He added, “I think the nation needs to realize that when we tell you to do something, do it.” Listen up, Nation, Jeffrey Follmer has spoken a fact which is truth for many Americans, you live in a police state – do what you’re told – or else we’ll kill you even for selling a lose cigarette. Is this American Exceptionalism? Is it justice? What kind of society have we become? What are we becoming?  We have the facts but are we ready to face truth?

There are many more examples but the foregoing seem to encapsulate a version of the social contract that is in opposition to what we believe to be normal – they portray a new normal in which truth has no moral function and human life has no value. The facts are, do what you’re told and everything will be alright, but the truth is something else. The truth is we cannot be parties to torture abroad or unwarranted killing at home unless we accept our own complicity. It is valuable to note that the most outspoken critic of CIA torture was a Congressman who himself, as a prisoner of war, was tortured by North Vietnam. Is that what it takes for people to understand that inhumanity – to be tortured themselves?

  In all of this, it is essential to understand that facts and truth are not, in fact, the same thing. Facts are devoid of morality, they simply describe and nothing more. Truths, on the other hand, are an integral aspect of moral thought and behavior, truths give facts meaning. Facts exist in a moral void and truths are a moral context. I have personally witnessed many instances of individuals spewing facts and not describing the truth, using facts to obscure the truth, to create cognitive dissonance. Lawyers and politicians do this routinely. It’s a shuck and jive the end result being that an audience or a jury never understands the truth and so defaults to the better liar.

We are, in the 21st Century, engaged in a new round of Democracy vs Capitalism. We must question. We must challenge – each of us. Time is running out on what’s left of this Democracy and what is left of a civil society because we are avoiding truth. We must tell truth to power and demand truth from them lest the ripples turn into waves and the waves into riptides of destruction. Truth is a virtue not an inconvenience, there can be no justice without it.

990

 

Sleep Walking Away From Democracy

“Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public have little influence over the policies our government adopts. … America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened”, concludes a recent Princeton study. Threatened by the Supreme Court, by Congress, by wealth, but even worse by apathy and indifference.

“O sleep, O gentle sleep, … Nature’s soft nurse …” so said Shakespeare. Nature’s soft nurse indeed. For many sleep is the best way out.  Look the other way, be numb, don’t notice – don’t identify with what is being done to others. It’s always “others” – not me, not us but “them”, those “others” are the ones affected, it won’t happen to me . Martin Niemoller, a German pastor, witnessed the Nazi round-ups first of Jews, then Communists, then trade unionists, then social democrats.  Niemoller said nothing until: “When they came for me there was no one left to speak out.” Can’t happen here. Can’t happen to you. That’s what you need to believe. George Carlin once said: “The American Dream [is] so called because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

How do we describe much less understand people like the Governor of Oklahoma who signed a law banning cities in that state from setting minimum wage laws? Not far behind, in Louisiana lawmakers banned consensual same sex activity but left legal necrophilia. In Nevada a rancher who has for years been using government land to pasture his cattle without paying has declared, as far as he is concerned, the US government doesn’t exist. Paul Ryan, an Ayn Rand fan, whose college education was paid for by his father’s social security death benefits now denounces those benefits as “socialist”. Not to be outdone, our Supreme Court has gifted corporations and money with human status creating a veritable United States of Money. How to explain these challenges to common sense?

The definition is psychopathy a condition in which people do not experience remorse or empathy, qualities associated with fully functioning human beings. Callousness, pathological lying, and superficial charm are part of the package. There are certain professions which attract people with these qualities lawyering being one and politics another which may be why so many politicians are also lawyers. In the 113th Congress, there are 128 lawyers in the House and 45 in the Senate.

  Unless people make their voices heard, especially at the ballot box, a plutocracy where money speaks more loudly than working people is here to stay. Republicans understand this very well and this is why they are creating ever greater barriers to voting wherever they have a majority vote in state houses.  These politicians stoop even to prohibiting people from using toilet facilities while having to stand in hours long lines waiting their turn to vote. Republican state house legislators, like their counterparts at the national level, are agents in the destruction of democracy and they don’t care who knows it.

Truth today depends on who has the money and who is willing to take it. So long as there is relentless rent-seeking at all levels of the social ladder the powerful will always have minions to do their bidding. Just ask Sheldon Adelson who spent $93 million in the 2012 election or the Koch boys’ $28 million expenditure to undermine Social Security. This is how plutocracy works and how democracy fails. 

This is not a naturally a “just world” it takes paying attention, hard work, and participation to make and sustain social justice. You can’t sleep through it.

Crossroads – Questions Without Answers

Here are some questions that have been plaguing me for months: Why are people like the Koch boys and their wholly owned politicians on such a rampage to destroy the American social contract? What’s in it for them? After all, they and their friends have or control nearly all of the money and resources. And when they have it all then what? What is the point or purpose of such behavior? Does it even have a point or purpose? Is it a sickness? A mental disturbance? Why would anyone want to deprive other people of food and sustenance when they, themselves, have more than they need? What sort of gratification comes from denying health care to those who need it but can’t pay? As we follow this line of questioning we arrive at this:  Do we actually have core “American Values”? Have we ever?

What is even more disturbing is that the majority of those attacking the social contract are self-defined Christians. It is my understanding Christian teachings require compassion and identification with others. This is the so-called “Golden Rule” that one should treat others as one would want others to treat them. This “Rule” exists across history in nearly every religion around the world. So what kind of belief systems allow some people to act with complete disregard for others? Is it depravity? It certainly isn’t civilized. A suit and tie don’t confer civilized status – only behavior does that. The Pope, speaking out against the patent absence of moral standards that has created the current scenario was criticized by a right-wing radio show host who claimed the Pope to be a Communist. When the Pope comments about redistribution of wealth he is speaking as a moral being not as a politician.

If we cannot ask moral equations of ourselves or of our society without being labeled what does that say about us? Moral questions have been replaced by power, profit, and gain. It does’t seem to matter whether or not environmental safety questions are settled before fracking for oil and transporting it across oceans, prairies, or tundra. Safety is only a matter of whether or not litigation can be successfully defended against by your phalanx of lawyers and PR firms. This strategy is deemed cheaper than moral considerations of environmental, social, and human damages.

People lose their savings or lose their homes when the economy and markets tank. The government bails out bankers, “too big to fail”, who gambled away their depositors’ money with taxpayer money to the tune of billions of dollars. This is the taxonomy of greed in a society that once represented a shining shore of exceptionalism. Moral questions will not be asked here. Profit and loss take precedence over morality. This is what we have become.

A recent example of displacement of moral thought by legalism is one Barry Engle, a lawyer involved with off-shore trusts for people stashing their wealth, ill-gotten or otherwise, out of reach of the tax man. Engle made the following statement: “Lawyers can debate the morality of these trusts… My first duty is to my clients and my clients have a need.” Apparently “morality” is not Mr. Engle’s brief. (“Paradise of Untouchable Assets” Leslie Wayne, NYT 12/15/13) So, what is it that lawyers do if their “first duty” is to their clients and not to Justice? As I understand it, Justice serves the whole of society by protecting individuals from injustice. That Truth and Justice are held to be blind to social status is why Lady Justice is depicted as blindfolded and why lawyers supposedly have a sworn responsibility to serve that ideal.

If Justice has been undermined so too has religion been stripped of moral value. Case in point: Paul Ryan, the Republican, Alter Boy, Congressman who is working relentlessly to dismantle social safety nets, is a Catholic. My question is, to what extent has Ryan been informed by his religious beliefs? I don’t see a connection between the teachings of the Catholic prophet and Ryan’s behavior as a member of society. So far as I know, the prophet Jesus is nowhere depicted as a sociopath.

We will never have a just society without a sense of shared community. As Alasdair McIntyre put it: “In a society where there is no longer a shared conception of the community’s good for man, there can no longer be any very substantial concept of what it is to contribute more or less to the achievement of that good.” The United States seems to no longer qualify as having a shared conception of what is good.

Using their offices as instruments in service to the wealthy politicians are creating  a destructive social fractiousness. We have a society of rent-seekers – asking, “what’s in in for me?”.  It’s all about price not value. Using power to selfish ends isn’t confined to politics it operates within religious entities, trade unions, businesses, police departments – organizations led by individuals with insatiable appetites for wealth, fame, and power. Is this our new measure of life?

As the world turns there are so many questions and few and fewer answers. Volver … volver….

Crossroads Series – Knitting At Starbucks

 Crossroads Series – Knitting At Starbucks

If you wanted to destroy a modern civil society where would you start? With education perhaps? Or the health and welfare of the general public? Or the civil courts where well paid insurance company lawyers beat back attempts to hold culpable parties responsible? How about ubiquitous universal surveillance of your activities, phone calls, and internet browsing? The economy would also be a good choice. Fostering and controlling divisive public narrative around money would be particularly effective. In fact, this last would be a particularly easy option if you controlled “news” outlets and teams of commentators who would be willing to distort events according to a prescribed political agenda. Conflict between those who have a lot and want more, those who have just enough to get by and are scared to death they’ll get sick or lose their jobs, and the have nots with nothing much left to lose – a real battlefield. Controlling the public narrative is especially effective and important because so many people don’t look beyond what they see and hear in the media or the circumstances of their own lives and they don’t look beyond information that confirms their beliefs or feeds their fears.

Because they are dangerous critical thinking skills are not cultivated or encouraged in the education system. One result of this lack is a widely divided public, a collection of people and groups with conflicting beliefs whose prejudices and fears can easily be played off against one another. What we end up with is not a nation so much as a large land-mass populated by people with competing values and beliefs on a collision course — no winners in this game of “chicken” except those who stand to profit from it and even they must consider the consequences.

Control the narrative and you can control what people believe. This ages old strategy to divide and conquer is facilitated by a global around the clock news cycle controlled by billionaires with an agenda and with loyal, well paid, cadres of announcers, panelists, and pundits. The narrative is defined in simplistic terms to structure what the general public believes about other people, other countries, events, people of differing political persuasions, poor people, and “foreigners”. While today’s list is longer and up to date the methods of forming beliefs have been uniform forever. Keep repeating the same lies and distortions and sooner or later you will have infected belief systems. Within the boundaries of a nation, or any organization for that matter, the more you divide the more you control. By definition this strategy leads to a population with irreconcilable values  and no longer organized around shared beliefs – one nation under nothing really except perhaps control.

Consider the current politicization of public education aimed at destroying it and replacing public schools with for-profit schools. This is a national movement being carried out by phony political “foundations”. State governors are raking in campaign contributions from billionaires drooling at the prospect of more profit and a population well prepared to not question authority.

Why destroy public education? Children must be educated to be fully functioning members of society, a process that is thousands of years old. And, how does this happen Mr. Joel Klein, Michele Rhee, Arne Duncan and his hoops buddy when children’s noses are pressed against computer screens informing only themselves in a circumscribed and contrived personal world? Well, it won’t happen because “public” means all of us including children, working and learning as a community, not as self-enclosed, hermetic, self-absorbed centers of private experience. Public is the antithesis of self-centeredness. Public means all of us working together, learning and teaching, not grasping whatever we can at whatever cost to the community oblivious to an inclusive  social contract. The foundational conception of public education is neither capitalism or socialism, it is not about Republicans or Democrats, not about profit, but about civility, about community, about Democracy.

Should we be teaching children to become accustomed to being constantly surveilled – a new form of life skill? Would it be best if growing up included understanding that the government is monitoring you and your not so private anymore life? Read any of Chris Hedges essays or better, Heidi Boghosian’s “Spying on Democracy”, it could be the text book. Protecting your vastly diminished life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness under the government microscope, sanctioned by Congress and our neoliberal President will be the new curriculum. It’s down the rabbit hole of paranoia as neighbors spy on neighbors as in the Soviet bloc countries during the Cold War years except far more efficient and comprehensive. Knitting at Starbucks could become a crime.

True story:

A guy is sitting in a Florida Starbucks having a tall coffee and knitting. He looks up and there are three burly cops looking down at him.  A perfect Inspector Clouseau moment. “Ahem …. What is that you’re doing?”, they ask. “Knitting, officer.” This is the new reality in paranoid America. Get used to it.

Your little cell phone provides your coordinates, your list of friends, your interests, who you call, and who calls you. All your information is being pored over by “analysts” and computers looking for clues in the “metadata”. But, not to worry, you won’t have to be looking over your shoulder for terrorists just for federal agents and they are, of course, on your side. If you have questions direct them to the General in charge of the NSA. He has the capacity to store in the neighborhood of 12 exabytes of data about his fellow Americans and you’re in there, Pal. It’s a “Brave New World”, folks. Knit one, purl two.

 

Civil Society at a Crossroads—Truth and Justice

 I have always believed truth to be the basis of justice, for how can you have justice without truth? So far so good perhaps, but then the questions inevitably arise—which truth, whose truth? There are at least 11 theories of truth, plus a few including mathematical truth. Just for the sake of illustrating the difficulty of defining truth, the major theories are: Correspondence, Coherence, Constructivist, Consensus, Pragmatic or Minimalist, Deflationary, Performative, Redundancy, Disquotational, Pluralist and Semantic. There are others as well, but these are the biggies. You could spend a lot of time working your way through these ideas and still, in my opinion, not come up with a better everyday working definition than “conforming to reality.” As Aquinas said: “A judgment is said to be true when it conforms to reality.”  This is the definition I would suppose and hope parents teach their children.

I’ve put the following question to lawyers: “Is it winning or justice you seek in court?” So far I haven’t received a take-away answer. This leads me to believe we are dealing with a conundrum, a question for which I had naively expected there would be a ready or, at the least, facile answer. After all lawyers are professionals who appear before judges and juries to represent … what? Are lawyers merely hired guns who do or say whatever it takes to win their case? If so, what does this say about the very idea of justice? How does the society arrive at justice if everyone is telling a truth designed to serve their own purposes? How can a society believe in justice when there is no truth serving justice? From the most primitive to the most sophisticated societies, social contracts are underwritten by truth and justice. These are the foundation stones of the social contract. Consequently, when the contest is between winning and justice, the ultimate victim is the social contract.

In addition to the many truths posited, philosophers also argue there are many realities. Obviously, this makes getting to an absolute truth even more of a crap-shoot. If that doesn’t make for a shaky social contract what does? We have my truth, your truth, the Supreme Court’s truth, a billionaire’s truth, a plaintiff’s truth, a defendant’s truth, and of course, an insurance company’s lawyer’s truth. Whoa! “Did you throw a stone through the neighbor’s window?” Yes or No? That’s easy, isn’t it? When a man spends 30 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, was the prosecutor seeking justice or a conviction? Of course if truth is as fungible as indicated by the lack of one definitive statement of it, that would, I believe, indicate there can be no absolute justice either, could there? So, it would seem then that the multiplicity of these realities gives rise to many possibilities and a great many of them troubling.

If there is no absolute truth and thus no absolute justice, what do we mean when we talk about a just society, a just social contract? What if justice is merely an illusion promoted for purposes of one form of social control or another? What happens when people wake up to the charade? How do they manage? In Central Europe, when the illusion of Communism’s truths dissolved, so too did the social contract, and it is now wearing thin in China. Religion and democracy have the same problem as politics in matching promise to actuality. Consensual truth has led to all manner of belief systems, from religious to social, but when experience didn’t add up to the promise, consensus had a limited life span, as did the social contract. When life as it is lived doesn’t add up to the promise, change is inevitable.

It is said all men are created equal before the law. If you take that statement at face value then you must also believe in the Easter bunny. We all know that in life, as it is lived, not all people are treated equally before the law, but we choose to believe otherwise—we live with the contradiction, indeed we need to live with it. The statement is patently and demonstrably not true but is repeated mantra-like as though it were, and why is that? One reason is that as a society we need it to believe it true—we need to believe it is true because if it isn’t true the believed social contract is on shaky ground.

All societies are built on a foundation of “truths” and beliefs, many of which are illusory. Equal justice is, as we have seen, questionable, so too are equality of economic opportunity, educational opportunity, and others as well. Each illusion serves a particular purpose and polity. Each has its own dynamic, and each needs to be publicly examined and discussed. This I believe; while philosophers chew on these questions the rest of us need workaday answers, otherwise the social contract cannot otherwise function. Illusory or not, ultimately the social contract becomes no longer viable—destroyed by those sworn to uphold it, and those who profit from it in one way or another, but in every case a betrayal of unimaginable proportions.


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