THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson



 

The Fine Print

 

Miscellaneous Legal Maneuvers That May or
May Not Be Related

1

A gift card graciously presented for the holidays came with two pages of illegible and indecipherable fine print. Reproduced in its entirety here, the text is no doubt too small for most adult humans to read, but no one on Earth is going to read it anyway.

Really, Visa? A cardholder agreement for a gift card? Has the threat of lawsuits from gift recipients become that serious, or is your army of lawyers simply in perpetual pursuit of self-justification? Did it never occur to anyone running the company that, for Christmas, you might wish to avoid pissing people off for no good reason? Note to top management: legal advice is just that — advice — so you can take it or leave it. If you ignore your attorneys' counsel, they are still going to represent you in court, because that is what you are paying them to do. If and when you do get sued, they will be in no position to wag their fingers at you and say 'I told you so' because you are the one sending their kids to college. And if they are foolish enough to do so, keep in mind that the nation's law schools annually churn out new attorneys by the thousands, many of whom are out there right now looking for gainful employment.

The Fine Print
We have met the enemy, and he is us

Is there something more ominous going on here than overzealous lawyering? Which should concern us more: the defenses that even large and powerful companies feel compelled to put up against their own customers, or our complete lack of surprise that they would stoop to behaving this way? Corporate bosses may very well argue that all they are doing is (a) protecting shareholders from the onslaught of marauding private attorneys, who scour the land for opportunities to drain company bank accounts on behalf of clients who barely realized they had been injured, and/or (b) bending over backwards to comply with government regulations that become more burdensome with each passing year. Do you think they enjoy wrapping gifts in legalese? No, but someone has to bar the door against the barbarians.

There may be good reason for concern about a proliferation of class action lawsuits, and to be wary of regulators who themselves can hardly be expected to parse the language of arcane post-crisis legislation. But, on the other hand, there is little historical evidence to support the notion that the average financial services company would be a model of self-restraint but for all of those ambulance chasers bending the tort system out of shape. In any event, the pervasive sense of helplessness among the shopping public that is engendered by profit-obsessed corporations, rapacious law firms and hapless government agencies only enables more disreputable behavior across the board. We are not indifferent to this treatment but have long ago abandoned any hope that someone, anyone, is toiling for the benefit of the public good. This is presumably one reason why we greet such effusions of bureaucracy, public or private, with a collective shrug. All we can do is look out for ourselves as best we can. Which leads us to…

2

As of this weekend, it is legal to carry a firearm openly in Texas. That's right, law-abiding citizens: your .45 or AR-15 no longer has to stay at home with the kids when you go out on the town. It may seem that Texans have been permitted to carry weapons almost everywhere for a while now — who can remember, what with all that legal alcohol? — but the state's legislators keep coming up with more and more creative places to let the people exercise their God-given right to bear arms. Nursery schools, explosives factories, maternity wards, psychiatric hospitals — if you can name it, chances are Texas allows you to carry there. Some plucky entrepreneur is probably already publishing a book about gun etiquette: What's the right side-arm to bring to a child's birthday party? Do you think the Glock's too much? But it goes so well with my pants suit…

(Yes, we know it's really the Second Amendment that proffers the right to bear arms, not the Bible, but trying to explain the difference to a well-armed Texan is not highly recommended.)

While the law is a straitjacket on almost every human activity, the ownership of weapons is a glaring exception. It is one area of the law where many people are in fact working assiduously for the public good. Actually, the gun lobby in general, and the National Rifle Association is particular, works very hard as the trade organization for the gun manufacturing industry. As such, its primary concern is neither the defense of liberty, life and property, nor the defense of the Bill of Rights, but the ease with which customers may purchase weapons. What people do with them later is clearly not the problem of the manufacturers or their advocates.

Congress has made certain of this by making it virtually impossible to sue gun manufacturers for any reason, thereby freeing them from the reams of regulation that are breaking the backs of every other honest business in the nation. It makes sense if you think about it: why should companies making products specially designed to cause death and injury be held liable in court when their products cause death and injury? What would be the point of that? If the law in our time seems less a means of protection against disorder, dishonesty and discrimination than a shady racket designed by people who can afford expensive counsel, at least we can still count on guns as the great equalizer: the one arena from which the law is mercifully kept at a safe remove, and the one remedy available to rich and poor alike.

What could possibly go wrong?

3

What people do with their guns does in fact become the problem of the police, the courts and the prisons. Just as the accessibility of guns is extended to every layer of society, so our vulnerability to violence is also spread across the spectrum. Though not evenly, of course; the poor are far more likely to be victims of violence, not because the disadvantaged are themselves inherently more violent than other people but because their neighborhoods happen to be where most of the crime occurs. Many among the well-to-do have demonstrated a decided inclination toward violence, when the circumstances called for it. Many terrorists, for example, come from very nice homes and received first-class educations, but that didn't stop them from resorting to bloodletting as a means of expressing their inner selves.

The police are caught in a double bind. Not only are they expected to keep a lid on criminal activity but are often themselves accused of contributing to the culture of violence. Some would call their use of guns indiscriminate, resulting as it does in the deaths of any number of unarmed suspects, and others who are not even suspected of any crime at all. Negative attitudes towards people of color are so deeply ingrained that even police officers of color are sometimes guilty of assuming the worst of blacks and Latinos, especially young men. Police departments over the years must have thought that recruiting more minority officers would have offered some immunity from accusations of profiling (what was once quaintly called just plain "stereotyping"). Of course, if that's why they made the effort, they were doing it for the wrong reasons.

In any event, the struggle against discrimination has now taken a terribly twisted turn, and the familiar black/white divide has become confused and indistinct. A white woman is roundly castigated for pretending to be black, even though her intent was clearly to help black people. Black college students have moved on from the struggle to gain access to higher education, to confrontations over the limits of free speech that leave most of the rest of the country scratching their heads in astonishment. The decades-long struggle to open the university gates to everyone would not even have been possible without the rights of minority students to speak their minds and have their day in court. It is no coincidence that we revere Brown v. Board of Education and other civil rights decisions that followed as the high mark of American jurisprudence. This is, we like to believe, what the law is for.

And then, once again, a young black life is snuffed out for no good reason by a police officer, and all arguments about the subtleties of the law and who owes what to whom for which historical wrongs take a back seat to the realities of living on these American streets. The accused officer stands at the bewildering intersection of conflicting forces over which he, as a lone individual, has no more control than did his victim. He may genuinely and sincerely believe that he was acting in the public interest, but his training clearly did not teach him to value the lives of the public he is sworn to defend above his own life and those of his brother officers. This is a harsh judgment, considering how dangerous the work is, how one can never be paranoid enough in the face of so much anger and violence, and how many of them die in the line of fire each year. But with the increasingly paramilitary attitude and arsenal of the police, it is only fitting that we ask why a police officer, unlike a soldier, should not use his gun only as a last resort, even if that means increasing the risk that he might have to make the sacrifice of his own life.

Is it any wonder that the police are among the most vocal advocates for gun control legislation? If we trusted them more, perhaps the arguments against such laws would have less resonance among a weary and frightened public.

4

Sixty percent of members of the United States Senate and 37 percent of members of the House of Representatives are lawyers by profession. Just saying.

5

Bill Cosby has been charged with sexual assault in Pennsylvania. However, it was not before his own lawyers sued several of his accusers for defaming his character by saying that he drugged them and then had sex with them while they were unconscious.

Are we supposed to be proud of our legal system, or despair of it? Should we celebrate the prosecutor who finally brought this case to court, or bemoan the fact that there are lawyers in these United States who would even entertain the idea of representing so disreputable a man in such a despicable way? Atticus Finch would roll over in his grave at the state of his honorable profession (if he weren't just another racist, as we recently found out).

Cosby and his paid defenders had gotten into the habit of pointing out that he hadn't been charged with any crime. With the advent of the new year, they will have to change their tune and start saying that he hasn't been convicted of any crime (yet). But to paraphrase the late Andy Rooney (who was referring to another once-admired celebrity accused of a terrible crime), a man is innocent until proven guilty, and Cosby is guilty.

Perhaps if the law were not so casually abused, we would be more supportive of the essential principle that every man is entitled to his day in court. "I'd give the Devil the benefit of the law, for my own safety's sake," says Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. Still, in the real life of the nation, there must be a distinction between the protection of the law and its serial abuse, if only we could find it. For this will likely be the great comedian's legacy: a serial abuser not only of women, but of the law, as well.

It is surely a pity that our civilization's greatest exemplars of legal probity are fictional characters, or historical figures portrayed in fiction, much like the genial Cos we thought we knew.

6

It's official: everyone in America is now gay, lesbian, bisexual and/or transgender. Transparent, Carol, The Danish Girl and hundreds of other television series and movies have taught us definitively that human sexuality is indescribably complex, and that whatever we were brought up to think was "normal" was just a gross oversimplification of a perplexing array of possibilities.

Someone now needs to find a way to sue over this. A reparations movement will no doubt spring into being, though it will be tricky finding someone to foot the bill now that no one is straight any more. As victims, we can't be expected to shoulder such guilt. Perhaps the money we've sequestered from Iran and Russia, in retaliation for their various misdeeds, could be used for this purpose. After all, there are no LGBT people in these countries, according to their leaders. It seems only fitting that these irredeemably heterosexual societies should be the ones to pony up.

If Islamic terrorists didn't despise us enough already, the fixation of our film industry on sexual esoterica makes the incompatibility of our cultures more obvious than ever. Perhaps their revolutionary zeal will eventually fade and they will come to recognize the humanity in their fellow suffering creatures, as many in the West have. But a world awash in brutal weapons does not have a thousand years to wait for moral conscience to come around.

Have no fear, the law will save us. When ISIS comes barging through the door, guns blazing, just hold up your cardholder agreement. That impenetrable thicket of legalese has been known to bring even powerful men to their knees.

 

January 2, 2016

 




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All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.