The Tribe of Chopin and Slash

I went to law school knowing that I wanted to try cases. That’s all I wanted to do. I knew there was money, big money, to be had in transactional work – negotiating contracts, etc., but I didn’t care about that. I wanted the battle.

Luckily, I was in Chicago, and so I was able to observe many great trial lawyers. And here’s what I noticed: I wasn’t like most of them. I wasn’t loud or outgoing. I didn’t have what seemed to me to be an almost pathological need to impress people (one lawyer’s waiting room was wallpapered with news articles about his courtroom victories, another’s office was covered in drawings of himself arguing cases). Instead, I was quiet and reserved. Those lawyers mistook my introversion for shyness, and decided that they didn’t have any use for me.

I was angry and upset about their rejection for a while, but then I just forged on ahead because I knew I’d make a great trial lawyer. I was right. Despite what those guys must have thought, I haven’t collapsed in tears or passed out during a trial yet. Not even once. I’m an introvert. That doesn’t mean that I can’t perform. It just means that I’m not going to get all in your face about it.

I’ve been thinking about this because I was listening to an interview with Slash the other day and he mentioned not liking to sing or promote albums and it hit me: He’s an introvert, like me. And he’s awesome.

I imagine that when Slash gets on stage, he feels much like I do when I start a trial. I enter a kind of Avatar State. Some usually dormant part of me comes to life and fills me with energy and I can just do it. I get activated. And then I go home and don’t feel the need to prove anything to anybody until the next trial.

I mean, here’s how I see it: there are Chopin fans and there are Liszt fans. You can admire and respect them both, but if you listen to them long enough you’re going to be drawn to one or the other.

Those Chicago guys were Liszt lawyers, full of bombast and flash. That’s fine, but it’s not for me. I’m not interested in dazzle.

I prefer Chopin. On first listen, maybe his music doesn’t grab you in quite the same way that a piece celebrating Mephistopheles might, but something about it keeps you coming back, and you start to hear more and more, and the profundity of what you missed in those early encounters – because Chopin didn’t come right out and tell you about it – starts to be revealed.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t have anything against those extroverted Liszt lawyers. Many of them are great, and their Steve Vai brand of showmanship can get results. But if that’s not who you are, don’t worry about it. The courtroom is just another stage, and there’s a place for the Slashes and the Chopins too.

Privacy Is the Armor That Protects Your Dignity

Recently, the New York Times revealed that for years American customs officials have been intimidating people at the border, coercing them into agreeing to searches of their laptops and phones. This situation has left many of these people feeling “belittled, ashamed, humiliated, and disgraced.” These violations happened under the leadership of Barack Obama. One can assume that this type of behavior will be even further encouraged under the current administration.

Reading this article got me thinking a lot more about getting serious about my online privacy, such as transitioning to an encrypted email service like ProtonMail. What can encrypted email do to help you in a border search situation? Not much, but the fact that you have it might serve to remind you not consent to the search which, under American law, you do not have to do.

[Sure, this will probably cause you to be detained, but it might keep your phone from being searched. And, if everybody who crossed the border refused consent perhaps overzealous border agents wouldn’t have the time to make ridiculous requests. Or at least maybe they’d limit their searches to people who truly are suspicious.]

So why think of email at all when reading about consent searches at the border? Because of this important detail: the only reason that we know about these searches is because the people that they happened to know about them. They were there. They actually watched the government violate their privacy. What about all the times that the government has searched our personal information without us knowing about it?

Not long ago, a friend of mine was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. I have been processing this information with him through Facebook messenger. It’s been a heartrending discussion and I have allowed myself to be vulnerable with him in ways that I would never be comfortable sharing with anyone else.

And so, when I read in the article how one phone was scrutinized by eight different people, I cringed. How many people have read my personal conversation with my friend? I can’t really say. But I can say that since I didn’t send it through an encrypted service like ProtonMail, it’s possible that someone else has, and that thought troubles me. It makes me feel like the people who were subjected to these border searches, who used words like “hurt,” “degrading,” and “demeaning” to describe the experience. “I am distraught and an emotional wreck,” one person said.

And that’s why we all need to care more about our privacy. Because privacy is the armor that protects our dignity. When it’s stripped away and our intimate things become exposed to strangers we really are hurt. It’s an emotional hurt, but it’s a hurt just the same. It is “traumatizing.”

It would be nice if the United States government cared about that, but it doesn’t.

So you have to.

Bravery Has Many Faces

In 1884, Auguste Rodin was commissioned by the city of Calais to create a sculpture commemorating the salvation of the city by six prominent citizens who offered themselves up for sacrifice to King Edward III during the Hundred Years War. The story goes that Edward laid siege to the city for over a year before the starving populous was forced to request terms of surrender. Edward demanded that six of the city’s leaders emerge from it barefooted, with nooses around their necks and holding the key to its castle. And so they did, fully expecting to be beheaded. (As it turned out, their lives were spared when Queen Philippa, Edward’s wife, intervened on their behalf.)

Five hundred years later, Calais was expecting something grand to celebrate this event. Instead, when the veil dropped on Rodin’s creation, it revealed a sculpture that portrayed the Burghers of Calais as real people. Worried. Scared. Old and tired men who did not really want to be put to death as martyrs for their city. And yet, they stepped forward.

A Burgher of Calais (Jean d’Aire) by August Rodin.

It seems to me that society doesn’t appreciate this kind of bravery any more today than it did when it criticized Rodin’s depiction of it. The only definition of bravery that people are willing to recognize in the face of a challenge is someone who glories in the risk and bellows full-throated opposition to it. But I think Rodin understood that a hero is not someone who simply resists all the time, or who is somehow genetically immune to the anxieties of peril. Rather, it’s that perilous moments happen to ordinary people, and it’s how people meet these moments that determines whether or not they are heroes. Sometimes the brave thing is not resistance, but acknowledgment. The Marines did not hold at Chosin. They withdrew. Even Sitting Bull and Geronimo understood that there comes a time to lay down your rifle.

Of course, we all like triumph. If we could write the stories of the challenges of our lives, that’s how they would end. But we can not. There is perhaps, a little motor that ignites in our cells against our will, or the fragile engine of a dream that sputters to stillness despite all of our careful attentions. And when these things happen, acceptance of the inevitable is neither cowardice nor weakness. It is instead to look straight on at something that we don’t want yet can’t change, and to meet it with grace.

Drop Cap by Jessica Hische.

A Calm and Reasonableness Like the World Has Never Seen

December 2, 1942, is not a date that has lived in infamy, and yet it is one of the most important dates in human history. That is the date upon which mankind probably sowed the seeds of its own destruction.

On that Wednesday afternoon, under the racquetball courts at the University of Chicago, Enrico Fermi and his group of scientists popped open a bottle of chianti. Moments before, “Chicago Pile-1,” the world’s first nuclear reactor, had gone “critical” and become self-sustaining. Mankind had unlocked the power of the atom.

The output of CP-1 was minimal – barely enough to energize the filament of a light bulb. And yet, so diligent were those who sought to amplify that power that less than three years later an atomic bomb was dropped on Japan that detonated with the same amount of force as 15,000 tons of TNT, killing 80,000 people. Many thousands more subsequently died from burns and radiation poisoning. Three days later (today is the 72nd anniversary, in fact), a second bomb was dropped.

Instead of looking at the wasteland that these bombs created and viewing them as something that should never have been done, people went in the opposite direction, building thousands more of these bombs, some of which are hundreds of times more powerful than the ones that were dropped on Japan. And here we are today, all of us living under the threat of nuclear annihilation. It is a heavy burden. Oppenheimer and Stimson thought little of tomorrow’s children when they sought to become death. I cannot be the only parent in America who darkly wonders as he drives his daughters to school whether this is the day when they might be vaporized. [As it turns out, I’m not.]

Now, we have a situation. Despite numerous attempts to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear aspirations, it seems that the North Koreans may have finally developed a bomb that is capable of reaching the United States. The president has threatened nuclear war. The very concept is madness, and yet we inch closer to it. Already, I sense the leadership in Washington priming the public to accept the argument that they had no other choice.

I reject that. Here is another choice: talk to them.

Begin those talks by acknowledging the reason that diplomacy has failed. Admit that a policy of “we reserve the right to destroy you at any time while also rejecting your claim to defend yourself by similar means,” is merely hypocrisy masquerading as diplomacy. “Trust us not to destroy you,” is not something that any hostile sovereign power can reasonably be expected to accept.

How about taking the hypocrisy out of things and simply saying, “we don’t think you should have nuclear weapons and, guess what, neither should we? No one should. So here’s the deal: abandon your nuclear program and we will abandon ours. Truly. Not only will we cease construction of any further weapons, but we will also begin the immediate dismantling of all of our current weapons. It’s going to take us some time, because we have so very many of them, but in ten years the people of North Korea will no longer have to live in fear of nuclear attack from the United States.”

This is radical, I know. “We can’t do that,” you’re thinking. “The Chinese and the Russians will never follow our lead. We’ll be vulnerable.”

It’s okay, just breathe. First, I actually think that if we began a complete and unilateral draw-down of our arsenal, the Chinese and Russians might follow our lead because they could no longer justify the risk and expense of maintaining their own arsenals. But even if they don’t, it doesn’t matter because of the simple truth that for some things there is no sufficient justification. The mass incineration of children is one of those things.

I want you to engage in a little thought experiment with me. It’s going to be a touch uncomfortable, but I think it’s necessary in these times.

Imagine that you’re in a room by yourself and you’ve just received word that the enemy has launched their nuclear weapons. Our defenses have failed. In ten minutes all of America will be lost.

But, on a control panel in front of you, there is a large red button. Pressing the button will launch our devastating and unstoppable retaliatory attack. There is nothing left on earth for you to do now except to push it, or not push it.

Do you push it?

In your mind, push it, and ask yourself what you have done, really. Have you saved your country? Have you done something that the withered remnants of humanity will thank you for? Have you done what Jesus would have done?

The development of the atom bomb was folly; mankind is too impulsive, unpredictable, and accident-prone to control such power — that we haven’t killed ourselves with it yet is nothing less than a miracle. But now we have an opportunity. We can use this opportunity to further prove our unworthiness to possess deep knowledge, or we can use it to save face while walking back an advance that should never have been made.

The people of my generation had no choice but to be born under a nuclear threat. What better gift to give to the next generation than to sweep that threat aside?

Ought we not to at least try?

Equality Is A Necessary Expense

Statement of the Shadow President:

Recently, there has been talk of the “tremendous medical costs” associated with accommodating transgender persons in our military. I am not concerned.

Perhaps there really are tremendous costs attached to supporting a military that reflects the diversity that makes up America. (I doubt it, but maybe.) Even so, preserving that diversity by allowing people who come from minority communities to participate in our national institutions is what a country like ours must pay for. More than that, it’s what a country like ours exists for.

After all, the only reason that we have a military is to preserve our values and our way of life. There is no value that we have fought harder to enshrine in our national identity than that of equality. In my vision of our American family, all are included. All belong. It would be a mockery of the military to prevent it from exemplifying one of the principles that it is meant to protect.

So, yes, our military is expensive and maybe we are paying too much for it. That’s a conversation that we ought to have. But allowing transgender Americans to fully participate in their society, whether it be through military service or otherwise, is not an unnecessary expense. It is, in fact, what we must do if we are to survive and be the nation that we think we are.

Disclaimer: I am not actually the president of the United States. The views expressed herein are not necessarily those of the person who is.

Our Enduring Fraternity

The Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown by John Trumbull (1820)

President Trump recently visited France and complimented the French First Lady on her looks. Instead, he might have said:

President Macron,

Thank you so much for your invitation. It is, of course, a great honor for me to be here in the capital of America’s oldest ally.

You know, it occurred to me as I was flying over here that the friendship that exists between the United States and France really is remarkable. We have never stood across the battle lines from one another. Instead, we have always stood together, shoulder to shoulder. When we needed you eleven score and sixteen years ago, you were there. Almost a century and a half later, when the occasion arose for us to repay the debt that we owed the nation of Lafayette, we did so. And we united again less than thirty years after that to restore France to its rightful place of prominence in the world as we and our allies swept the agents of tyranny and fascism from the European continent, we hope, for ever.

It must be said, though, that even though we’ve never raised arms against one another, we haven’t always gotten perfectly along. We have from time to time quarreled, which is the mark, I believe, of a true friendship. After all, friends only try to persuade those they truly care about.

When we invaded Iraq, for example, France didn’t like it, and told us so. We, in return, acted childishly. Instead of appreciating the criticism for what it was: the concern of a loyal ally who has supported us throughout our history, we scoffed at France and sat insulted in a lonely corner eating our freedom fries. I want to apologize for that.

I feel that I can apologize because I am not someone who believes that the actions of our forebears are immune from criticism simply because they may no longer be here to defend themselves. On the contrary, when one assumes the mantle of public office one also assumes the burden of being judged for one’s official conduct even after one leaves public office, for it is true that the evil that men do lives after them. If we act in ways that will affect posterity, we must also expect posterity to judge us for how we acted.

As such, I do believe that I have the authority to apologize for the juvenile and uncharitable way that the people of the United States behaved toward the people of France not so long ago and, in this instance, I further believe that it is my duty to do so. I am grateful to the people of France for being more magnanimous and mature than the people of my country can sometimes be, as is evidenced by the grace that you have shown my fellow Americans by inviting me to be their representative at these events here today. Thank you.

That being said, I want to put our disagreements behind us and focus on the remarkable things that our two great nations have done for one other these last two hundred and fifty-odd years. You saved our revolution, which then went on to inspire yours. It was a Frenchman who was among the first to come to America and observe our democracy, and who then wrote a luminous book explaining it to us better than we understood it ourselves. When tired immigrants came to our shores hopeful that the blessings of liberty and equality for which every human being yearns would finally be allowed to them, it was a gift from the French that welcomed them and that consecrated the promise of my nation that the United States would indeed be a land in which they could grow the gardens of their dreams.

But that statue continues to consecrate something else as well. It consecrates the spirit of fraternity that has always existed between the French and the American people. It is physical proof of what every American has always known: that if we can count on anything, we can count on France. It is my sincere hope that the people of France know and believe the same of us. It has always been so. May it always be so.

Vive la alliance et vive la France!