Sunday, July 25, 2010

A couple famous old court cases

1. So you know how the US government can claim a "State Secrets" privilege in a legal trial and either refuse to provide requested evidence or get an entire case thrown out, without even a judge seeing the evidence, if the government thinks providing the evidence could harm national security? There was a specific case that went to the Supreme Court in the 50s that established this precedent. Upon review of the documents involved after they were released many years later it became clear that they didn't in fact contain sensitive secrets, only information that would have damaged the government's case. I heard of this on This American Life, and it's mentioned on Wikipedia as well. If you're surprised by this I have some real estate and a used car you might be interested in.

I also recently heard about Hugo Chavez' moves towards nationalizing parts of a large grocery chain. Many workers, reportedly, are against the move, as they fear a government takeover would result in worse conditions. There's evidence to support this, and it seems obvious in theory, too. The government plays a large role in regulating labor conditions. Once it owns an enterprise it has a direct interest in that enterprise's success, and that conflicts with its interest in protecting workers. This could work if the regulatory and productive parts of the government were truly independent, but this seems unlikely on this planet.

This is another side of the “State Secrets” coin. It's an obvious conflict of interest for the executive branch to decide what evidence it can simply withhold in cases where it's a party. Seems like minimizing these conflicts would be a good idea. Perhaps if it's not appropriate for judges generally to see evidence that's potentially sensitive there could be a handful of judges cleared to see it. Because they'd need to be cleared by the executive their independence might be somewhat limited but without a direct interest in the executive branch the conflict would be less than it now is.

2. Leopold and Loeb. I was reading some things on the Internet about the Scopes Trial (I should find a good book or two on it... seems like an odd and fascinating spectacle) and came across a reference to one of Darrow's other cases, his defense of this pair that apparently believed themselves Nietzschean über-men and committed a murder to show that they were above the law. But they managed to get caught and their alibis fell apart completely. So much for that.

But they avoided the death penalty, perhaps partly on the strength of a Darrow argument about their psychology, nature, and motivation. Then again, the judge may have just been reluctant to sentence minors to death. One of them was murdered in prison while the other was released on parole, moved to Puerto Rico, and wrote a book.

A few of Nietzsche's ideas either influenced Hitler or were used by Hitler to manipulate people. So there's that. But this case was pre-World War II. Had this murder occurred after that it probably would have looked very different to the public. It wouldn't have been nearly as shocking, and the defendants probably couldn't have got away with showing so little remorse publicly.

As I understand it (which is not all that well) Nietzsche believed democracy would ultimately lead to mediocrity, and that we should orient society instead toward the development of über-men who could really stand above all law and judgment. The “über-man” stood in contrast to “last-man”, representing our self-limiting and, perhaps, primitivist tendencies.

You can see some of these ideas play out on a less dramatic scale in the way people carry out their careers and business, and the way they live with respect to the environment. Some people clearly are living with the idea that they're doing such great work that any of their excesses are justified. Others take a more humble tack and try to reduce their negative impacts. The trouble with the second method is clear — if our overall impact is indeed so negative, why bother to live? Of course, many people don't really consider the idea at all.

One thing I've picked up about our negative responses to things like veganism, environmentalism, etc., when it comes to really making changes in our lives, is that we believe (usually implicitly) that our desires are self-justified. This is something I've probably questioned more than most people have, but seeing as I've moved between Chicago and the Pacific coast three times, mostly in pursuit of fairly personal objectives, I'm not sure what all that pondering has done. I either believe that what I'm to find and do justifies all that burned gas, or I'm pretty inconsistent and hypocritical...

... Yeah, that would be the latter. Incidentally, that's one of the many things “Dear Mr. Burnham” is about. It's a two-minute song, and I could go on for hours and hours about any line in it. You don't want to hear me do that, but the second half of this blog post is one way I could do that regarding the final couplet.


olyphant said...

Mmm, inconsistent and hypocritical. My favorite!

I'm not clear on how this post relates to the final couplet in "Dear Mr. Burnham"; I don't see any "useless obsessions" being thrown away, but maybe it's happening behind the scenes.

Al Dimond said...

The couplet is all about how I cling to those sorts unproductive obsessions...

The last verse (which is split by the instrumental break) suggests a world where the illusion of “über-man” exceptionalism (the ability for humanity to completely bypass natural limitations that apply to other species and live completely by its own rules) dies hard (this causes the downfall of Western Capitalism, which, as far as we can tell, only works under the condition of exponential growth, hence the song's introduction). But whatever bad shit is going on, I'm still fixated on the same things as before instead of dedicating my energy to solving real problems, as if still under the illusion that they matter.