Saturday, September 23, 2017

Can ‘Star Trek’ put the U back in –topia?



This weekend will see the premiere of the newest entrant in the Star Trek franchise, CBS’s Star Trek: Discovery (trailer).  Notwithstanding CBS’s dubious bid to build a new model for content delivery in CBS All Access—creative initiatives crushed by commercial imperatives is a tradition in Star Trek history—Discovery marks a worthwhile moment to take stock of where we are now as a global village, 51 years after the premiere of Gene Roddenberry’s groundbreaking Star Trek, now “The Original Series.

Roddenberry’s vision was a utopian one.  It seems almost clich√© now to recount the novel “enterprise” of a multi-national crew spreading humanist idealism throughout the galaxy.  Despite its military trappings, Star Fleet was tasked with exploration of the final frontier on behalf of a United Federation of Planets (UFP).  Star Trek represented all the good parts of cultural imperialism and mitigated all the bad with deep, moral self-reflection.

Martin-Green
(CC 2.0 Gage Skidmore 2016 via flickr)

It looks like Discovery will resonate in the Roddenberry tradition.  The series, which might vary perspective and setting across seasonal sub-arcs, opens with a strong black female lead in Sonequa Martin-Green (The Walking Dead’s Sasha) and a female captain of color in Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger’s Yu).  Discovery takes place after humankind’s first forays into deep space, which were depicted a decade ago by Star Trek: Enterprise, but still before the adventures of James T. Kirk and crew in the 1960s Original Series and the current movie-reboot series.  The nascent UFP is in a cold war with the Klingon Empire.  This fictional era and the name of the starring ship, U.S.S. Discovery, suggest fealty to Roddenberry’s vision of a “wagon train to the stars.” 

But can that vision get traction in today’s world?

However much our multi-platform electronic environment has served up an embarrassing surfeit of science fiction, we remain awash in dystopian imaginings.  Disclaimer one, yes, I realize that dystopian fiction is not new; even 1984 dates to 1949.  Disclaimer two, let me be no hypocrite; I have devoured it all, from The Hunger Games to The Handmaid’s Tale, having just finished the latter’s s1 yesterday.  (Nick is going to save her, right? right?!)  Yet many a commentator has observed the peculiar resonance of dystopian fiction today, in a world in which hunger and poverty persist, the wealth gap widens, and our standard of living and expectation of leisure seem after all not to have skyrocketed in consonance with technological ingenuity.

There was a time after the Berlin Wall fell, in the 1990s amid perestroika and glasnost, that it seemed like we might be on an upward trajectory.  The turn of the century brought with it a cautious optimism.  Maybe the era of world war and nuclear nightmare could be put to bed, and humankind would rise from those ashes and turn at last to the business of life on, and beyond, earth.

Then 9-11 happened.  The world went back to war, and we’re still in it.  Our American streets fill with protests fueled by racial division.  An unprecedented humanitarian crisis tears at the seams of European socio-economic union.  The septuagenarian United Nations—real-world analog of the thinly veiled UFP—seems impotent to stop a threatened nuclear detonation in the atmosphere.  And oh yeah, the ice caps: they’re melting.

Inevitable dystopia seems the apt model to envision our future on earth.  Wherefore art thou, Discovery, into our world of social and political fracture?  Can we even recognize ourselves in utopian science fiction?

It bears remembering that the world to which Roddenberry first introduced Star Trek was itself no utopia.  The Original Series tendered commentary that might seem trite now—e.g., TV’s first interracial kiss between Kirk (Shatner) and bridge officer Uhuru (Nichelle Nichols), the “black on the ‘right’ side” racism of Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, the futile primitive conflict of A Private Little War.  But that commentary was sophisticated and controversial in its time.  Star Trek’s very proffer of earthbound east and west in common pursuit of human survival and space exploration was a calculated critique of Jim Crow, the space race, Vietnam, and the Cold War.  Star Trek’s utopian vision was launched amid the civil rights fire that forged our second national reconstruction.

So maybe now is exactly the time for Star Trek.  Maybe we need utopia now more than ever, precisely because it is so unfamiliar.

As Star Trek turned 50 in 2016, Sir Thomas More’s enigmatic Utopia turned 500.  More’s Utopia was a social critique, not a social blueprint.  Critique always has been the raison d’√™tre of science fiction.  There is no utility in only imagining the future.  The endgame is to hold up that parallel world next to your own, to see how the two compare.

For Star Trek, the final frontier is not space.  The final frontier—the discovery—always has been us.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Video resources for teaching theory of intent in tort law

I've created some new video resources to help in teaching common law torts.  These videos all relate to theoretical points in the introductory unit on intent.  The videos are available on my public YouTube channel.  They can be used in any torts course, though they track Shapo & Peltz-Steele, Tort and Injury Law (3d ed. 2006) (CAP, FB, Amazon), and Steele's Straightforward Torts (free from SSRN).




Study: Intent in U.S. Tort Law.  This video offers a study in the theory of intent in U.S. tort law.  A movie clip is analyzed to demonstrate analysis of intent in battery.  Running time: 8:50.



Explainer: "Pound Progression" in U.S. Tort Law.  This video briefly explains the three steps Dean Roscoe Pound observed in the development of civil justice systems.  Running time: 2:19.



Explainer: Eggshell Plaintiff Rule in U.S. Tort Law.  This video briefly explain the operation of the eggshell plaintiff rule, as well as the reason for its inapplicability to intentional infliction of emotional distress.  Cited is Vosburg v. Putney (Wis. 1891).  Running time: 2:36.




Explainer: Culpability Spectrum in U.S. Tort Law (Pound to Intent).  This video examines the culpability spectrum in U.S. tort law with an emphasis on variations on intent.  The video further explains how culpability can be varied to compensate for the uncertainty implications of the Pound progression.  Running time: 3:44.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was kind of a pompous ass


Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (FJC), “the great dissenter,” was kind of a pompous ass.  That probably should not have surprised me, given his birthright in Massachusetts aristocracy.  And that probably should not have been my chief take-away from the book, The Great Dissent (2013) (Amazon; Macmillan), the impressive accomplishment of author and law professor Thomas Healy at Seton Hall Law.  Somehow I am stubbornly surprised every time a person I admire turns out to be no more than human.

The subtitle of The Great Dissent reads, How Oliver Wendell Holmes Changed His Mind—and Changed the History of Free Speech in America.  That refers to a monumental shift, now legendary in constitutional law, that seemed to have occurred in Holmes’s thinking over the summer of 1919.  In the spring of 1919, Holmes and the Court majority were eagerly doing their part to condemn targets of the First Red Scare, such as labor agitator Eugene Debs, for criminal violation of the post-WWI Espionage Act.  Then in fall 1919, Holmes suddenly turns up in dissent to further convictions.  He used almost the same language, the same rules that he had authored and joined earlier in the year.  But in the fall, with not even a wink at the reader, he seemed to think the words had acquired entirely different meaning.

Partnering with Justice Louis Brandeis, Holmes’s powerful dissents in 1919 and following years outlined a philosophy of free speech that ultimately passed the test of time.  Holmes veritably gushed ideas, such as “clear and present danger” and “marketplace of ideas,” that became benchmark norms in 20th-century civil rights law—not only in the United States but in democracies around the world.

So what happened to Holmes in the summer of 1919?  To answer that question, Healy takes the reader on a spellbinding journey into the social and political dynamics of America’s intellectual class—and last survivors of the Civil War—as they struggled to maneuver the country in a new world order shaped by the ravages of an unprecedented war.

There is an apocryphal answer to the 1919 question.  The free speech analysis that Holmes and Brandeis worked out after 1919 bore a striking resemblance to an earlier proposition advanced by Judge Billings Learned Hand as trial judge in a 1917 case in federal court in New York.  Hand and Holmes knew one another, if not well, and their contrasting judicial philosophies, co-existing in era, frequently prompt comparison by scholars.  So it was once speculated that perhaps Holmes had met with Hand in precisely that summer.  It’s the kind of story that would make an exciting two-man show for the law-and-theater crowd.

As Healy tells it, Hand did play a role, if less direct, in reshaping Holmes’s thinking.  Another figure emerges as a key intermediary in Healy’s narrative, British political scientist Harold Laski.  Laski did interact with Holmes quite a bit, before, during, and after the summer of 1919, and his influence is plain.  Of course the full story is a good deal more complex, and Healy constructs it masterfully.  More than that, I won’t spoil.  Read the book.

Holmes in 1861 daguerreotype.
I was struck by three points of the story, and they all relate to Holmes not really being the paragon of personhood I wish he were.

First, Holmes was an elitist.  He read 50 books in the summer of 1919, Healy recounts.  He was always eager to immerse himself in the rich intellectual legacy of the Greek philosophers.  He was much less eager to take up Justice Brandeis’s invitation to visit textile mills in the summer of 1919 to witness for himself the unsettling state of labor and labor strikes in post-war America.  On the one hand, it’s fabulous that Milton’s Areopagitica and Mill’s On Liberty were part of the deep knowledge of the man who shaped modern free speech law.  On the other hand, it’s hard to tell whether he really understood the implications of dissent on the ground.

As my law school is now in the process of hiring a new dean, I think about Holmes's elitism in relation to the transformative trauma unfolding in legal education today.  Law schools are entranced with experiential education and are dumping jurisprudence in an effort to get students more time in practice training.  Ian Holloway and Steven Friedland recently located legal education in tension between a “grand university” model and a “Hessian craft guild" model.  Holmes was all grand university, and that is not ideal.  But modern free speech would not be what it is today if we were depending on the Hessian craft guild to build it.  It’s really important to have room for both.

Second, Holmes was a little slow on the uptake, even on free speech doctrine.  There was in fact correspondence between Hand and Holmes, though it pre-dated 1919.  And Healy reports how Holmes just missed the point.  Had he gotten the point, he might have started dissenting a bit earlier, and maybe even saved some demonstrators and harmless Bolsheviks from long prison terms.

A good example of Holmes’s fumbling start is the “clear and present danger” doctrine, which was born before the summer of 1919, but only later acquired its more rights-protective meaning.  “Clear and present” was indicative of Hand’s influence, suggesting as it did what today we might call a behavioral economic approach to legal reasoning.  But Holmes rather blew it, because his use of the test was highly subjective.  He gave the test no meaning, so allowed it to be perverted by the fever of the Red Scare.  Later evolution of the test would reveal a dynamic relationship between variables such as the “imminence” and “gravity” of the danger.  That more sophisticated analysis prophylactically protects speech that might be subversive, but poses no real threat, and also allows free speech doctrine to realize its critical anti-majoritarian function.  Hand understood that in 1917.  It took Holmes quite a while to work it out.

Third, Holmes was not a friend you could count on.  Amid the Red Scare, Holmes’s dear friends Laski and Felix Frankfurter, on the Harvard Law faculty, suffered virulent persecution for their politics and identities.  The “Red Summer” was the very summer of 1919.  Both men were sympathetic with labor, and both were labeled Bolsheviks.  Frankfurter, who was Jewish and Austrian, was further denigrated by post-war anti-Semitic and anti-German sentiments.  Critics of Laski, a British national, demanded his expulsion from teaching at Harvard Law.  Imagine!—persecution on a law faculty based on the politically correct zeitgeist.  How last century.

To be fair, Holmes and Harvard Law Dean Roscoe Pound did take steps to defend Laski and Frankfurter.  But their efforts, especially Holmes’s, were lackluster.  Despite the loving affection that Holmes professed for like-a-son Laski in private correspondence, Holmes resisted early entreaties to help.  Holmes was afraid of offending Laski and Frankfurter’s persecutors on the Harvard Law faculty, whom Holmes regarded as friends.  Holmes preferred to distance himself from the conflict and retreat to the sanctified solitude of his private library.  The great dissenter, a Civil War veteran wounded in action, whose famous diction dominated doctrinal opponents, shrank from moral defense of his friends, lest the comforts of his social and economic status be placed in jeopardy.   

Huh.

An honorable biographer, Healy is straightforward and matter of fact when it comes to Holmes the man.  Holmes was a voracious reader, brilliant thinker, and surely was one of the greatest jurists, perhaps the greatest jurist, in American history.  Civil rights as we know it today, and much of human rights as it is known in the world today, owes a debt to Holmes.

Holmes also cheated on his wife.

“If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.”  James 4:17.