Author: Carrie Menkel-Meadow


The Ethics of Reading and Writing

In a recent issue of the Chronicle of HIgher Education (February 8, 2008), Yale Professor of Comparative Literature, Peter Brooks, has written an interesting article on “The Ethics of Reading:,, in which he suggests that the now infamous Bybee Torture Memo can be blamed, at least in part, on post-modern, deconstructionist teaching and literary criticism. He talks about the implicit attributions made by novelist J.M. Coetzee’s novel, Diary of a Bad Year, in which four young American Muslims are indicted for terrorism based on a vague and amateur videotape they made, which, their prosecutor suggests, proves their relationship to Al Qaeda because, as they have been taught in American literature classes, “nothing is as it seems.” Brooks suggests that Coetzee blames “a set of analytical instruments which they obscurely sensed could be useful outside the classroom” for the rootless, meaningless use of words (and then their defense by twisted turns of phrases (or ordinary words if you want to count what the meaning of “is” is…) or the contrary (as every deconstructionist knows, words have meaning from what they say and what they don’t say –the contradiction of meaning is what gives literary and legal deconstruction their particular power).

But is it literary deconstruction or ordinary legal interpretation that is really the culprit for facilitating the elasticiity of meaning that can justify the most horrific of acts (and more mundane ones too)?

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The Phenonmenology of Political Correctness

As I have said on these pages before, I will happily vote for Obama if he becomes the Democratic nominee, but I still see some merits in voting for Hillary Clinton. As a member of one of the most “liberal” law schools in the country (all I mean by that is that we know we have many more Democrats on the faculty than Republicans, but how many and how many Independents is not known, nor should it be, in my view), I have been quite surprised to learn how “silenced” I feel by my many colleagues who are enthusiastically supporting Obama (a wonderful group of whom went to work in South Carolina and are now working hard in Maryland for him, which I think is terrific). On the issues we likely feel mostly the same –end the war in Iraq and bring the troops home, do more to deal with our stubborn problems of poverty, inequality and inequities, restore some sense of a positive reputation for our nation in its internal and external affairs, provide health care for all and restore faith in our beliefs in inclusion, justice, and social equity and opportunity. Yet, in conversation after conversation I feel like a Republican in a Democratic world for expressing any positive views about Hillary (and until yesterday about John Edwards too). Or as one of my similarly minded colleagues said, why does it feel like a “guilty pleasure” to vote for Hillary?

A few years back I was asked to moderate a panel at Georgetown in which Viet Dinh (R) and John Podesta (D) and I addressed concerns about political correctness and diversity of view in our student body. This was before a choice-right to life dispute here last year, but during a period of our generally wonderful community-enhancing culture here. We had a lively, civilized discussion, which actually led to some concrete suggestions (and whether coincidentally or not ,we have subsequently hired several more conservative members of our faculty, both entry level and lateral). All of this was our institution at its best. So, now I feel like one of those students who complained about feeling silenced in the classroom (pro-life in a sea of pro-choice, or market based efficiency in a sea of state regulated fairness).

Many of my colleagues, rightly, feel that Obama will signal a new day for the United States — as they say, “the prince of hope, inspiration and change,” as JFK seemed in 1960. (I was actually an RFK fan swimming against the Eugene McCarthy tide in 1968). My pollster husband tells me some of this is generational –so far Obama is outpolling Clinton in youth votes and she is still outpolling him in “older” voters. Oh dear, how did this “child of the sixties” (me) become an older person? Many think both Clintons are tainted by the failures of that administration to do more on the issues I mentioned above and I agree with those who think that Bill Clinton’s campaigning has been a bit “OTT” (over-the-top) lately, employing old and unnecessary “hit” tactics that will not serve us well post-primary season, BUT the Clintons (and HIllary in particular) were thwarted in their efforts by the health insurance industry, the Gingrich “revolution” and a Republican Congress (if not a “right wing conspiracy,”) and we should think about more complex lines of causality, as any President will have to.

When I listen to some of the most persuasive arguments on behalf of Obama –that he will signal something new (and don’t tell me his multi-cultural identity is not one of those things, which I applaud and support) like greater credibility abroad and more of a community organizing background, I am unable to be heard on some of the arguments or views that I have about Hillary without being glared at or feeling like I am supposed to turn in my membership card for SALT or other bastions of “secular humanism or liberalism” that I am a member of. Hillary and Obama are both lawyers, trained at elite schools and using their considerable intellects and personal qualities to do a wide variety of things. They are much closer in fact than all the rhetoric would suggest. They both have represented some unsavory clients (Wal-Mart and slumlords) and they both have done extraordinary work on the amelioration of poverty and related issues (children, legal services, education and health care for Hilllary; community empowerment, poverty reduction, education, and social equity for Obama). When I am told that Obama will make a great signal to the rest of the world that we are the inclusive nation we say we are I need to remind people that on the basis of much of my international work in the last few years, Hillary (and yes, her husband Bill) are much beloved abroad. And what would a first woman president signal to the rest of the world and our own children? Both candidates have much to say for these issues –both substantive and symbolic and both, in my view, are important in elections and leadership.

Perhaps I am getting older or it is my years in Washington DC, but I do also value someone who has worked “in” this system, despite all its muckiness, and who manages to bring in people who often claim not to like her. I did not start out a great fan myself (for a variety of other reasons) but as I consider my own continuing deliberations (as one who teaches and practices deliberative democracy), I want more discussions of both the merits and who could be an effective and “electable” leader. I don’t like being made to feel guilty that I might vote differently than some of my colleagues.

Whatever happens in the elections, I know, as a teacher who has always tried to create an atmosphere of genuine respect for different views in the classroom , I have learned a great deal about the experience or ethnography of political correctness, now from inside that experience. As one talky, noisey girl, I feel like I can’t express certain views that are not expected of my demographic (progressive, ciivl rights, justice seeking, anti-war, political activist).

Both as a teacher and as a mediator, being inside the experience of a “minority view” in my own institutional political culture is instructive. Perhaps I need to go back and read (along with my colleagues) the posters on my office door about how to have conversations across difference. I”ve been a disenfranchised or minority person before — but feeling like I can’t say what I think –that is a somewhat new experience. For those of us who will want to work together in a new government and administration, I think we need to heed some of the process advice of Emma Goldman –to paraphrase somewhat, the process of the revolution needs to reflect the values that will follow when the revolution is successful. A little really good open and deliberative conversation could go a long way to making that new political order. Let’s have some respect for our not-so-really-different views, as well as for those with whom we really do differ. For you teachers out there, think about how you structure conversations in your classes to elicit good and open thinking and think about whether and how you express your own political views.


Creating Legal Scholarship? Are We Writers?

Do we who write legal scholarship, books and articles, think of ourselves as “creative writers”? And if so, how do we write? A wonderful new book, Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings and Everything In Between (edited by Carole Burns, (WW.Norton & Co. NY,2008), providing excerpts of writers on writing from the pages of the Washington Post, suggests some interesting questions for us to think about. How do we start a project of legal writing or scholarship? A contested area of law? A hypenated title (a wise dean once said to me every law review article needs a colonic purge)? The juxtaposition of two conflicting ideas (my own student note was inspired in this way over 30 years ago (“The Inevitable Interplay of Title VII and the NLRA” — contradictions in ideas about union seniority and promotion of affirmative action ideas). Do we conjure up a color (as A.S. Byatt does)? Or a character ( particular legal actors) as Michael Cunningham does? Or must the article or book have a legal “plot” or story? Or a “flash” or an “irritant” (Gish Jen)?

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Can Actors Do Everything? Mediate, Litigate?

George Clooney, Tom Hanks and other actors have offered to step in and “mediate” the writer’s strike. They say they will just tell the two sides “you have to live with this (particular terms) and get over it.” Some bloggers suggest only “starpower” will make the producers bargain in good faith.

I hope these well intended actors know what they are doing when they offer to mediate. It sounds like they don’t. Mediators don’t tell the parties what to do (”you need to live with that and get over it”). They facilitate negotiations between the parties so they can (together) come to an agreement and “live with it.” It is interesting that actors think they can “act” anything–including being professionals in a field that is complex and requires judgment and knowledge of how and when to “intervene.” George Clooney “acted” a great doc on ER but I wouldn’t want him doing my actual emergency treatment. And he was a law firm “fixer” in Michael Clayton but would you really want him to negotiate a legal settlement or litigate an unfair labor practice charge? Mediation can be just as hard as “human surgery” and more difficult than a trial. Not necessarily a good idea to have non-professionals (even those with clout) in this situation. As we say as professional mediators, first “do no harm.” (And that means entering into things/performances we know nothing about.)

Using arguments about “starpower” is not unlike “muscle mediation” (what we (the United States) do in North Korea and the mid-east –use our power to try to dictate terms (and peace). One can see how stable those “agreements” are. If they want to mediate, perhaps next we’ll have law professors (and mediators) acting!!


Feminist Nostalgia – Is Hillary Being Pilloried?

A day after Iowa one of my very own feminist colleagues said “it’s all over for Hillary. Good — she is telling an inconsistent story.” I, who had not made up her mind yet about who to vote for, was suprised by my own reaction–anger and disagreement. What politician ever tellls a totally consistent story? Was Hilllary being pilloried?

In the early days of Bill Clinton’s presidency an op-ed appeared in the Washington Post criticising him for being a “compromiser without principles.” I almost wrote an op-ed myself to remind the public of the “good” side of Machiavelli who reminds us that good leaders sometimes cannot have rigid principles if they are to lead a diverse polity. This is another version of “you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” Yes, leaders need some principles and policy plans but they also need to be flexible, take into account very different values of a diverse polity and in my mind. be able to change positions when changed facts and circumstances call for change. In this election campaign much is being made of “change.” Change is “good” if it means deposing Bush and current Iraq and economic policies. Change is “bad” if it demonstrates a change of position, mind or rhetoric. This is problematic and in my view, Hillary is being unfairly criticized.

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