HOLT UNCENSORED #98
by Pat Holt
Friday, October 15, 1999
SOME THOUGHTS ON
'THE MORAL COMPASS OF THE AMERICAN LAWYER'
I was kind of bewildered when I read Scott Turow's latest novel, PERSONAL INJURIES (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 384 pages; $27). There's no doubt it's another mesmerizing study of the legal system and its abuses, with enough surprise twists and courtroom shenanigans to keep any Turow fan riveted - but boy, does it bog down.
You have to hand it to Turow for not writing the same book every time and for taking a huge risk by devising what is essentially a two-character play in which a corrupt attorney and an undercover FBI agent find the deeper self in each other.
But in this story of a "sting" investigation of judges-on-the-take, the pivotal conversations take place in the lawyer's expensive Mercedes, and heavens, do we get tired of it. Of course, it's in the Mercedes that Robbie, the lawyer, and Evon (pronounced "Even"), the FBI agent, can talk without risk of being overheard or bugged.
Every day they drive to and from the Robbie's phony office, which has been set up by federal agents to lure judges into taking bribes, and every day Even lets a little more of her real identity come out, just as every day Robbie reveals just a little more of his humanity. Sometimes this is intriguing, even moving; increasingly it is stilted, labored and hard to believe.
Even when the action shifts, we don't go very far, though the places are lively and typically Turow - the federal prosecutor's office, the courtroom, local hangouts and places where cash is passed. The book is populated by great Turow bit players like Toots Nuccio and Knuckles Skolnick, as well lawyers from past novels in cameo shots, such as Sandy Stern and Raymond Horgan. And there's a great Claude Rains role in the character of the federal attorney.
But the whole environment of the book is centered on that car. Descriptions of it are so tight, controlled and airless that a literary claustrophobia sets in. It is not a fun car; it is a Fat Cat car. Robbie loves it, Even can't help but like it, Turow luxuriates in describing its creamy leather upholstery until you want to throttle the guy.
Of course one sticks with a Turow novel because he's a master at probing beneath the surface of acceptable legal practices, even beneath ideas of ethics and morality, in order to explore questions of identity, trust, betrayal and destiny. Thus in the middle of what should be a standard courtroom thriller, Turow's characters find themselves talking about "the Myth of love," the lure of love, the call of love that make us want to think "Love will make me different. Love will make me better. Love will make me dig myself."
And as a character study, "Personal Injuries" keeps us guessing. Here is Robbie starting out as a slick operator with a "guy's guy air and a style that made you wonder if, like a slug, he would leave a grease track behind." Yet he has a surprisingly sophisticated understanding of the existential aspects of what he calls "The Play" - a ruse, on the one hand, that conmen use to manipulate people, but also a sign from the cosmos to remind all of us that we're mortal.
"It's really chaos and darkness out there, and when we pretend it's not, it's just The Play," Robbie tells Evon. "We're all onstage. Saying our lines. Playing at whoever we're trying to be at the moment. A lawyer. A spouse. Even though we know in the back of our heads that life is a lot more random and messed-up than we can stand to say to ourselves."
"Personal Injuries" is probably one of Turow's lesser books (still better than most novels, of course), but it offers an opportunity for readers and booksellers alike to explore a nonfiction book that is even more gripping in showing how the law really works (see below).
'THE MORAL COMPASS OF THE AMERICAN LAWYER'
But don't be put off by the preachy sound of the title. There's so much to learn and so much fun in THE MORAL COMPASS OF THE AMERICAN LAWYER: Truth, Justice, Power and Greed by Richard Zitrin and Carol M. Langford (Ballantine; 274 pages; $24.95) that the book simply inhales us into its pages with the most engrossing case studies to reach the general audience since - dare one say it - the O.J. Simpson case.
Oh well, pardon! Everybody's tired of OJ but remember how it seemed, when the Simpson trial was going on, that criminal law in all its many arcane applications was understandable and accessible to the average person? Perhaps we all fell (well, some of us fell) for the idea that our own common sense would make sense of the law (instead the case seemed to make fun of everybody in it, including onlookers).
But this notion, that our legal system has a core integrity that relates to each one of us - proves infinitely true and instructive in Zitrin and Langord's book. Here these two professors of law take us through real-life cases in which attorneys screw up royally, as they themselves might say. At every step of the way we are asked just how "immoral" we perceive lawyers to be - even when the system may consider those same lawyers "ethical."
In the opening case, for example, a rapist and killer - considered by everybody including his own lawyers "a piece of scum" - turns out to be even more vicious and murderous than imagined. Of course he is deserving of a proper defense, but what it takes for his lawyers to defend him COULD lead to a kind of lying (it's murky but that's the point!) that at the same time COULD be considered ethical and moral.
While brutal crimes always stir up the emotions, Zitrin and Langford keep us guessing as they get into the more tangled areas - "innovative billing methods," for example, or what is apparently every trial lawyer's dream, "selecting a biased jury."
Product liability is a particularly smarmy area, especially if you were a woman named Maria Stern in 1984. After winning $1.7 million against Dow Corning because of damage caused by silicone breast implants, Stern, who was aware her case would warn other women of the dangers of implants, nevertheless agreed to a settlement when the case was appealed. The conditions of the settlement were that Stern and her lawyers never talk about the case again. "Stern felt she had no choice," Zitrin and Langford explain. "She knew that any other course meant years of appeal with an array of the best legal talent aligned against her before she would see a penny."
So these kinds of decisions, we learn, aren't as easy as John Grisham makes them in "The Rainmaker." Because Stern accepted the settlement, "the public remained in the dark about breast implants for years," during which "tens of thousands of women" experienced what they believed were "serious injuries caused by their implants."
This one aspect - the public's right to know - plays a key role in everything from class-action lawsuits to insurance fraud, and perhaps the best part of this book is the sense that OUR right to know, as readers, is respected and served.
From a literary standpoint, the biggest surprise, even for Turow fans, is that if you read Turow's work of fiction first and Sitrin and Langford's book of nonfiction second, you'll have a lot more fun with the latter.
I have to admit I'm still plagued by the concept of "collaborative filtering" (see #98) - well, not the concept itself but New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell's belief that once computer technology can be used reliably to predict the books that people will want to read, we won't need independent booksellers - heck, we won't need human interaction any more..
This tendency of turning to science to override human intelligence or engagement is nothing new, but nowhere have I seen it so terrifyingly depicted as in "COERCION: Why we Listen to What 'They' Say" (Riverhead; 321 pages; $24.95) by Douglas Rushkoff.
Here's a quick example: Let's say we're sitting across from each other and I ask you to add 235 to 621. Picture yourself looking at me as you try to answer the question. Which way did your eyes move as you added up the figures in your mind?
Now here's the second question: Describe how you felt the first time you made love. (Okay! I would never ask you this! It's too private! Just PRETEND you're answering and see where your eyes move.)
Media analyst Rushkoff says the chances are you looked to your right when adding the figures and to your left when talking about emotions. This is because each side of the brain controls functions on the opposite side of the body - the right hemisphere "deals with logical, rational functions" while the left hemisphere "is believed to carry out creative and emotional tasks," he writes.
Okay, there's been a lot of debunking by scientists that right/left brain studies can be reduced to such simplistic uses. The fact is, Rushkoff says, that marketing and sales people - not to mention CIA agents and Internet "experts" - have read all the latest NLP ("neuro-linguistic programming") books and are routinely and successfully exploiting such discoveries to manipulate you and me beyond our wildest fears.
When you're in a car dealership considering a new purchase, the sales person may ask if you like a more expensive model better than a cheaper one. If you say "no" but look to the right, the sales rep "knows you're lying," Rushkoff writes.
It still sounds pretty dumb to me, but a lot of people swear by it, says Rushkoff. They even say that by standing on your right or left side, they can "access" emotional and rational sensibilities you may not know you have. They can "nest" ideas inside other ones and thus "bypass [a] subject's defense mechanisms" through a technique called "linguistic presupposition." And they can determine by distraction, disassociation and a means of "pacing and leading" the conversation just how you're feeling - and how you can be influenced to make a decision you may not otherwise have made.
These techniques are now so prevalent and easily executed, Rushkoff says, that the sales rep closing the sale or the CIA agent extracting the confession use them with equal aplomb, as do others. "Women in bars are subjected to pickup lines culled from books based on NLP," he writes. "Beggars on subway cars, and children on church-fund drives use the same sorts of hand-to-hand strategies developed for Avon ladies."
The idea is to "disintermediate" the human element (old idea) AND to plug it back in (new idea) when people seem to miss it. In the midst of career-threatening accusations, Kathie Lee Gifford, Marv Alpert and Hugh Grant appeared embattled and endearing when they faced the cameras (not their accusers) and appealed to the humanity in us all. Whether they told the truth didn't matter.
Another example: publishers like HarperCollins abandoned CD-ROMs because "these computer products were no match for the thrill of live engagement with other human beings on the Net," he suggests. But while email and message boards may seem to humanize computer technology, "each click of the mouse" has by now been scripted to "herd" users toward the "buy" button whether we're thinking of spending the money or not.
Attempts to make giant corporations look human include programs by Barnes & Noble and Amazon (okay, he uses other examples - Cybergold and Eyegive) to convince users to enlist our friends to help us make money and to run ads on our "start" page, often resulting in the company giving donations to "a charity of your choice."
According to Rushkoff, "this sort of voluntary submission to advertising messages is more like paying a squeegie man a dollar after he's washed your window. We are paying for the privilege of not getting mugged, and end up telling ourselves that we've kept a criminal off the streets."
Rushkoff explains how Internet companies use tiny files called "cookies" that collect information about customers so that eventually the website can "adapt itself to appeal to our established patterns of behavior." One day, he adds, these cookies will be a bit more aggressive (hackers already do this) and "search our computers' hard drives and monitor our keystrokes, even when we are not connected to the Internet." Naturally this information can then be bought and sold all over the Internet.
What kept running through my mind as I read Rushkoff's book was the seemingly harmless statistical utopia envisioned by New Yorker writer Gladwell and his "collaborative filtering," in which we "tell" the computer what books we like and it "tells" us books we might like in the future. That such a "conversation," multiplied by the tens of thousands and "disintermediating" actual human beings, could lead to the kind of out-of-control computer system that Stanley Kubrick envisioned in HAL, the control-freak computer in "2001."
This doesn't mean that abandoning your independent bookseller so you can fool around with a computer formula on the web is going to lead to an economic fascism far worse than anything George Orwell ever imagined. But it comes close. Perhaps before capitulating so fast-and-furiously to computer "breakthroughs" like collaborative filtering, we might do ourselves a favor by actually leaving the screen and taking a stroll through our neighborhood bookstore. There an antidote to the kind of "coercion" Rushkoff talks about is waiting for everyone.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Here's one thing that strikes me as unfortunate about collaborative filtering: fear of taking a risk. God forbid that one should start to read a book and find it to be Not the Book for You! Not only are there all the movie ratings, presumably written by critics who know more than we about the fine points of moviemaking, there are self-help books written by those who are arguably our betters at finding the right shade of lipstick or the perfect lover.
And now, now there are book recommendations from people Just Like Us. Why? Are you afraid you might be Wrong? Waste the price of a sandwich or two? Mon dieu! Why not take the risk? Read a few words, a paragraph. Try reading it out loud. Go ahead, it's a book store, they'll understand. It's actually safer than running a red light.
And then - because you went to school and really studied to become educated as opposed to downloading your papers from the Internet so you could get a degree; because you read for the love of it rather than to show off your familiarity with Hot Titles; because you have a passion for literature, so you're willing to give it the time that all worth-while things take - then you buy it or not. And if it should be not the perfect book for you, well, then, take it down to the used book store and trade it in on something else, or donate it to our poor libraries.
Recommendations are fine, up to a point; but using them constantly is not the way to live a responsible amusing adult life.
PS. Flotilla DeBarge is great! Very East Coast.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
If you mentioned the dates of the San Francisco Book Festival, I sure couldn't find it anywhere. Since I live in Berkeley, I would love to attend especially after reading your report.
Holt responds: Whoa, forgive me, I thought I said it's on this weekend (October 16-17)! You can get the updated schedule at http://www.sfbook.org, and check there for continued video coverage of panels and speeches (the Czech writers are wiring the place like mad!).
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Usually, I read your newsletter with delight as you Pillory the Phillistines of contemporary publishing and bookselling, and I find most of book your reviews objective. I can't say the same for your treatment of Edmund Morris and "Dutch." It seems to me that you have fallen the into tar pot maintained by The International Holyhood of Reagan-Bashers. I hear one conditioned reflexive S-N-E-E-R, the common reaction of "progressives" whenever any reference to the man is made. You say in passing that some (several?) respected reviewers have given the book friendly treatment. Then you condemn them with faint praise, hinting at conspiracy - consistent with the accepted Anti-Reagan Dialectic.
You also overlook - or discount by inference - Morris' credentials as a skilled and successful biographer.
Why so vehement at a liberty being taken with form - for which the only standards are usage? How do you tolerate the lathering of politicians too numerous to mention which assail booksellers' shelves daily, political panegyrics that turn the truth "ever whichaway but loose?"
Morris has written in an experimental form, hoping - although, I agree, not successfully - to get at the truth of a person. It seems to me that preconceived notions of that person so cloud judgment, that "reviews" become roasts, and commendations trigger polemics. A serious assessment of Morris' attempt would undertake to weigh the device he employs in his attempt to personalize a man who is constantly caricatured and condemned out of hand - as in your review.
Such an attempt would also make an honest effort to assess the device of inserting the biographer into the history of the subject's life, and attempt to place it in the literary heirarchy. Any one writer's device that could inspire such extremes of reaction deserves, I think, a second look. Where else has this form been attempted? With what results? Why NOT attempt to enliven and make human a biographical subject with quasi-fictional persons? Is writing so rigid that any straying from the (imagined) proper path should by lashed with scorn? Hardly!
Recognizing that if you are bound to the canon and that a biography is a biography is a biography--I can't help but wonder how you would have treated such wild experiments as "The Tropic of Cancer/of Capricorn," (An autobiography? --with no liberties taken?) "Ulysses?" (A True and Compleat History of Ireland; or, rather, a Compleat History of a Jew in Ireland?). "Anthony and Cleopatra," "The Life of Henry IV, V, VI" "Richard II, III." What indeed, were Shakespeare's histories? Weren't they, at least in part, cunning (or commanded) distortions of the lives depicted, for better (Henry V) or worse (Richard III)? Were all the characters true to life, none ficitonal? By what literary measure are you assessing Morris' attempt? Could it be you're using a rubber yardstick?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I have to respond to the "unsigned" letter from the person who claims the independents are "whining" because huge monolithic corporate structures like Barnes & Noble are driving us out, and that we should model ourselves after them... well, that just destroys the concept of "independent," doesn't it?
For someone who seems to claim support of independents, to say "find out what (the corporates) are doing right" [doesn't make sense]. I've worked for an independent bookstore for the past 11 years and watched a B & N open its doors DIRECTLY across the street from us, front doors facing each other, almost 10 years ago. We are still in business, due in part to the fact that we DID NOT start emulating them. We retained our independence, and the fact that we are still around shows that the general public is tired of being treated like sheep and would rather support the knowledgable staff of the independent bookstore than get a piddly discount on a bestseller.
By the way, the reason they (the corporates) can offer discounts is because they order huge mass quantities of titles, which a locally owned independent cannot do. What are we going to do with a thousand copies of a new hardback that is destined for the remainder table anyway? Also, independents can't afford millions for advertising and promotion So when you say "find out what they're doing right," that's an invalid statement. . . . Thanks anyway for your "tough-love," but I think the best thing for independents to do is to keep on keepin' on.