Freedom of speech leads a precarious existence in the best of times, and these are not the best of times. In many parts of the world, dissent from the majority views, particularly majority religious views, is a capital offense. Most Americans consider themselves fortunate to live in a bastion of liberty where vigorous and robust speech is allowed and encouraged, even if the speech disturbs others.
That is why it was disheartening to see in one 48-hour period last week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction extends throughout the western United States and Alaska and Hawaii, deliver two stinging repudiations of freedom of speech. Continue reading
What is the source of wisdom?
We are not born understanding thermodynamics or quantum mechanics, nor are we skilled innately to play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 or to perform spinal surgery. The knowledge required for such undertakings comes from long years committed to education and training.
But what are the intellectual requirements for offering insights into the deepest human mysteries? Do “highbrow” and “lowbrow” matter when the subject is the meaning of love?
I would argue not, and I would offer into evidence the testimony of two witnesses to support my case.
Marie-Henri Beyle, widely known by his pen name Stendhal, was a 19th-century French intellectual, polemicist, and novelist. He authored De L’Amour (On Love), the classic work on the nature of love.
Last week’s unanimous decision of the California Supreme Court to admit to the State Bar Sergio Garcia, an alien residing in the United States unlawfully, was not a surprise. The decision issued on January 2, 2014, the day after Assembly Bill No. 1024 became effective. That statute, codified as Business and Professions Code section 6064(b), authorized the Court to admit as an attorney at law “an applicant who is not lawfully present in the United States [who] has fulfilled the requirements for admission to practice law . . . .”
Sergio Garcia cut a sympathetic figure, and was ideally suited for the role of a party in a test case. He did not sneak across the border; rather, he was brought over by his parents when he was 17 months old. His father eventually attained citizenship, and Garcia himself has been in line for 19 years, waiting for an immigrant visa to become available. When it does, it will legalize his presence in the country and provide a basis to adjust his status to lawful permanent resident. Meanwhile, Garcia has graduated high school, college, and law school. He passed the California bar exam on his first attempt, then applied for admission to the Bar. The Court noted that the State Bar Committee’s investigation found “that Garcia is a well-respected, hard-working, tax-paying individual who has assisted many others and whose application is supported by many members of the community, by past teachers, and by those for whom he has worked.” In his application, Garcia candidly indicated that he was not a U.S. citizen, and that his immigration status was “pending.”
In many ways, the case represented an internal affairs matter for the California legal profession. The California Supreme Court has final say over who can and who cannot practice law in the state. But while the Court’s ultimate conclusion was not surprising, what was surprising was that not a single lawyer sitting on the bench, nor a single lawyer appearing before it, took any notice of the fact that Garcia was receiving very different treatment than other enterprising businessmen. No one commented on the uncomfortable fact that this proceeding, conducted by lawyers before lawyers, established a preferred status for lawyers under the immigration laws. Continue reading
In November 1985, a short, bespectacled Navy civilian researcher, with a history of erratic behavior and drug use, was stopped by FBI agents on his way home from work. Allowed to call his wife, he uttered the word “cactus.” After the call, his wife removed a suitcase from their apartment and called some Israeli acquaintances.
The researcher was Jonathan Pollard. The Israelis were his handlers. The suitcase was filled with intelligence materials, which Pollard had surreptitiously removed from his office. The materials represented a small portion of the paper pile Pollard had stolen and provided to the Israelis over the previous 18 months. In total, the purloined documents could fill a space 10 feet by 6 feet by 6 feet – almost as large as the prison cell Pollard was destined to occupy for the next 28 years.
Next week, three U.S. Presidents and 26 members of Congress will join over 60 world leaders, to attend the funeral of Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg. This is a remarkable outpouring of global respect for a man who led a small country (South Africa’s population was 35 million when Mandela was elected to lead it) for a short time (Mandela served one four-year term as President, then retired). It demonstrates the power of the moral life to inspire, a life which, in Mandela’s case, evidenced determination in the face of oppression, dignity in confinement, and forgiveness and reconciliation in victory.
Since his death, many commentators have cited Mandela as an exemplar of Thomas Carlyle’s theory of the “Great Man.” Carlyle, a nineteenth century Scottish writer, maintained that human progress is powered by the actions of a few heroic figures. “The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” he wrote. Carlyle’s heroic view has always been controversial. His contemporary, Herbert Spencer, deemed it childish and primitive. Spencer saw history as the product of larger, impersonal social and economic forces. These forces made the so-called Great Men more than the Great Men made history. “Before he can remake his society,” Spencer wrote of Carlyle’s hero, “his society must make him.”
The social system into which Mandela was born was a retrograde and odious system of racial separation. He spent most of his life fighting it, and when he had won, he forgave his oppressors and tried to work with them in building a new social system. It is hard to find precedents for the magnanimous course he followed after release from his 27-year imprisonment in 1990. Perhaps Abraham Lincoln, with his reconciliation plans for the defeated Confederacy, would have furnished an example, had he lived.
Readers of a certain vintage raised in Jewish homes will recognize the question posed by the title as the ultimate arbiter on issues of the day. Is Sammy Davis Jr. good for the Jews? Absolutely, I’m kvelling. Is Eisenhower good for the Jews? Not so much. Even today, the expression survives. The Wall Street Journal recently published a column assuring its readers that the new Pope Francis would be “good for the Jews.”
Now Brad Pitt’s summer movie spectacular, World War Z, has the world wondering: are zombies good for the Jews?
“Next year in Jerusalem!” zombies pray.
“So you think that money is the root of all evil?” said Francisco d’Anconia. “Have you ever asked what is the root of money?”
Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
Life is not a Randian novel, populated by characters embodying absolute good or absolute evil. Life is more complicated than that. Real life actors strut upon the stage wearing hues of gray instead of black or white. But that doesn’t mean that life can’t teach moral lessons.
Last month, real life rather than fictional characters taught some important lessons about the nature of money. Continue reading