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Re: Moglen's bullshit rap at its finest
Re: Moglen's bullshit rap at its finest
Mon, 08 Feb 2010 21:48:06 +0100
> This guy you call a bull artist studied at Yale, was a clark to one of
> the US Supreme Court Justices and is a professor at an Ivy League law
> school (Columbia).
The class is "Perspectives in Modern Legal Thought," and the Professor
is one Eben Moglen.
A few words about the course. The official name of the class is
misleading for two reasons. One, as nearly everyone I knew pointed out
within the first week, there is only one "perspective" offered in the
classMoglens. Two, most of our readings are socialist monographs that
precede the fall of Communism, and are therefore neither especially
"modern" nor "legal." And a few introductory words about the Professor.
Think Dartmouth education Professor Andrew Garrod meets Mussolini. An
acid-tongued student in the class once described Moglen as equal parts
The Fountainheads Ellsworth Toohey, Invitation to a Beheadings Monsieur
Pierre, and The Offices David Brent. He is the type of professor who
plays music to begin and end each class. Selections so far have included
the Beatles "Revolution" and a rendition of the "Internationale" by Ani
DiFranco. He is a celebrity of sorts in something called the "Free
Software Movement" and the author of something called "The Dot-Communist
And now on to the class. Besides playing the Beatles to establish his
revolutionary bona fides, Moglen wasted no time in diving into the heart
of the course. We were, on that first fateful day, informed that Rudy
Guliani is a fascist, reminded of Justice Scalias duck hunt with Vice
President Cheney, instructed on the immorality of the second Iraq war,
and somberly updated that "the United States is now a torturing
society...and when was the vote on that?" Skeptics might wonder whether
these incendiary points were absolutely essential, or even relevant, to
an investigation of Oliver Wendell Holmes "The Path of the Law,"
published in 1897, which was our assigned reading for the week.
But the sort of person who would wonder something like that "doesnt
understand what Eben is trying to do," according to another student in
the class who was frustrated that an alarming number of us didnt seem to
be "digging the vibe." The vibe was laid down very early: I think there
was technically a vote, but the first order of business was the
imperative that we were to call Eben by his first name, not "Professor"
or "Professor Moglen." The second important thing we were to keep in
mind was that class was not going to be a bunch of lectures, but an
ongoing "conversation." This "conversation" would continue outside of
the classroom when students could e-mail their opinions to the rest of
the class. These comments vary in quality, but I have the suspicion that
Im one of the only people who actually reads them. One student,
apparently frustrated at accidentally opening e-mails from the mailing
list, actually sent out a suggestion that future posts include a
"uniform heading on the title/subject of the e-mail" to make "the
sorting of the e-mail a heck of a lot easier." Eben did not find that
that particular proposal advanced the conversation, and vetoed the idea.
One early submission to the mailing list, on the topic of anarchy,
caught my attention:
There is a rich philosophical and political anarchist movement
(historical and contemporary) both in the United States and abroad.
Anarchists lead [sic] the Spanish Civil War against fascism, the U.S.
labor movement at the turn of the last century, and now the contemporary
anti-corporate globalization movement. In New York City, they can be
found building libraries and community centers, saving community
gardens, and advocating peaceful discussion. There are christian [sic]
anarchists, queer anarchists, anarchists of color, anarchafeminists,
anarcho-hedonists, anarchoprimitivists, and anarcho-syndicalists, to
name a few.
The writer obviously leaves out such types as the
anarcho-Haymarket-Riot-bomber and anarcho-Presidential assassin. Sadly,
the e-mail is not un-representative of a large portion of the mailing
But let me start at the beginning. I had heard the Moglen legendsthat
he had, for example, "murdered" his father (he didnt, per se, he
assisted the suicide) or that he dated students, supposedly being
engaged to a woman in the current graduating class (this one may have
actually been true). I was, you can imagine, wary of entering the class.
I had spoken to a few Moglen veteranssome who loved him, some who hated
him, and believe it or not a few in betweenand their advice was
unequivocal: if you intend to survive the course, dont open your mouth.
Ever. I was too stunned by what I saw the first day to deviate from
their counsel, but after witnessing a foolhardy conservative literally
be shouted down by Eben in class, I vowed to enter the fray. The topic
was whether a society could survive without a legal system. In the
spirit of Hobbes, a student pointed out that chaos and violence would
succeed an absence of legal authority, which led Eben to shout him down,
pronouncing, "that is a lie!" Another brave student asked Eben to
produce a single successful society that didnt have a legal system. Eben
paused, and then matter-of-factly offered his slam-dunk counter-example:
the Arctic. Yes, you read that correctly. In the ensuing silence, Eben
added that pre-Columbian Native American tribes were another example.
(We later learned, through repetition of citation, that the Iroquois are
a particular favorite of his.)
At this point, I saw my opening and raised my hand. I conceded that
those societies in fact didnt have a legal system (which may or may not
be true), but suggested that their pre-industrial status might be an
unfortunate but unavoidable limitation of such a plan. For modern
civilizations, with things we value like skyscrapers, law schools, and
dentists, we need a legal system. I knew I had him hereEben was a
world-class orator, but such a silly position left him little room to
Eben let me finish my point, glared at me, and then off-handedly
remarked to the other side of the room, "I didnt realize dentists were
such an integral part of modern civilization." The Myrmidons in the
front laughed, and Eben went on with the conversation. I later tried to
argue another point, which ended with our both yelling at each other and
Ebens refusing to let me make any further points until I looked up the
statistics he was citing on drug-related incarcerations. I might add
that my participation was by no means the days most colorful.
It should also be mentioned that "Perspectives in Modern Legal Thought"
is required for all first-year law students. Transferring sections is
difficult and usually involves swapping ones entire schedule.
Fortunately, there is a law school rule that all exams and papers be
graded blindly. Regrettably, Eben despises this policy, and therefore
insists that he be allowed to know the identity of the author for the
first two papers (there are three in total). Now, so as not to
discourage prospective Columbia Law students, I will add that this
course will no longer be required after this year. But this is obviously
a bitter consolation for those of us stuck in the class now. Morale is
low. To paraphrase a famous dissident: how do you ask a 1L to be the
last man to die for a mistake?
But back to the aftermath of that first week. In case the point hadnt
sunk in, Eben sent a mailing to the class over the weekend, admonishing
some of us for what he styled "jousting." He reminded us that unlike our
classes from the previous term ("Torts," "Contracts," and "Civil
Procedure"), "now we are trying to think about law not as it is seen by
gladiators, whose product is success in combat, but as it is seen by
those whose product is ideas." He ended with this observation: "jousting
is just as stupid as exams are. The goal is to ask better questions, not
to impose a narrowing of answers."
Fearful of committing the grave sin of jousting and aware that
challenging Ebens opinions might be construed as an attempt to "impose a
narrowing of answers," I decided to follow the earlier advice and never
open my mouth. Most of the dissenters in the class quickly followed
suit, with one exception being a well-liked Orthodox Jew on the Student
Senate, who posted to the mailing list and argued with Eben in class
frequently. However, one day the student broke down and a uniquely
uncomfortable confrontation ended with Ebens kicking him out of the
classroom and later, according to the student, threatening to ruin his
career and flunk him. This incident finally convinced a dean that the
student should be allowed the transfer he had repeatedly requested.
The few conservatives who were still voicing their opinions basically
stopped participating after that, only a few weeks into the semester.
Since then, Ebens ire has mostly been directed at those students in the
class who say they are committed to social justice but whom he suspects
will end up working for big law firms. In a memorable moment from a
recent class, Eben finished a long screed against the law schools
admissions department and its over-reliance on the LSAT at the expense
of other factors, such as commitment to social justice, by leaning
forward and lamenting, with a voice of infinite bitterness and
disappointment: "I wanted a class that was committed to changing the
world ... and instead ... I got you!"
I think, at this point, the reader has a pretty good idea of the bias of
the class, but the full effects of this belligerent myopia on any
"conversation" are best illustrated with a final example involving Bill
Gates. Eben harbors an eerily personal animus towards Mr. Gates, related
to the damage he thinks Microsoft has done to software development. In
the midst of a fairly technical screed that I wasnt computer-savvy
enough to really follow, Eben spiced things up by declaring that Bill
Gates was a "mutant human being that we would be repulsed by" and then
matter-of-factly informed the class that Microsofts dehumanizing
software stemmed from the fact "Mr. Bill" was autistic. In case anyone
missed that part, or wasnt sure he heard correctly, Eben repeated the
diagnosis a few more times in the conversation. Like most people, I had
never heard that Bill Gates suffered from autism before, and no one I
spoke to about it afterwards had either. This might be considered odd as
Bill Gates is one of the most famous people in the world and autism is
both debilitating and difficult to conceal. Nevertheless, in a class of
127 Columbia law students, not a single one dared inquire as to the
foundation or source of the autism charge, let alone try to dispute it.
When a non-political statement of fact, unsupported by even an iota of
evidence and in conflict with common knowledge, cannot be challenged in
the classroom due to the intimidation and denigration of all dissenting
views, the hopes for free inquiry on complex normative topicsfor
example, modern legal thoughtcan be all too readily inferred. Res ipsa
(GNG is a derecursive recursive derecursion which pwns GNU since it can
be infinitely looped as GNGNGNGNG...NGNGNG... and can be said backwards
too, whereas GNU cannot.)