Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Praising the Good (An Occasional Series).

I have to confess I didn't know who David Foster Wallace was before he committed suicide this month at 46. I have been digging into his past and am highly impressed.

I have ordered Infinite Jest, his epic 1,000-plus-page novel (on Time's list of the top 100 novels of 1923-2006), and have looked at his 2003 book on the mathematical concept of infinity (Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity) as well as his book about traveling with Sen. John McCain during the 2000 campaign (McCain's Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope). To say he had writing range is an understatement.

In his book on infinity, a remarkably complex spin through math theory by an admitted amateur, he suggested mathematicians suffer from mental illness more than artists. He said its emphasis on abstraction causes a detachment from reality, and those who intentionally detach from reality (e.g. artists and other creative types) don't have the same risk of mental disease. He also included a staggering concept that there are certain computations or numbers that are so large that a computer larger than earth, working for longer than earth existed, couldn't finish the computation. A mind-bender, to be sure.

Look for some forthcoming Wallace book reviews here.


Saturday, September 13, 2008


Evidently these folks were serious:


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Book Review: A Time to Fight by Jim Webb (2008).

Senator Jim Webb (D-Va.) analogizes baseball to the American political system.

"Baseball is perhaps the most intricately designed sport ever created. Whether one enjoys it or not (and I am an unabashed fan), its structure is pure genius. It is an individual sport. It is also a team sport. With every pitch (indeed with every different pitcher), with every count on the batter, and with every new base runner, the strategy of the game can change. Evey player has a specific responsibility that puts him in the glare of the spotlights. Every player has the chance to be a star, both in the field and while at bat. But in the end only the team can win, and the team, can win only by working together. And on every play the umpire, judge-like, must make a decision before the game can proceed. Baseball's complex rules become a part of the excitement of the game. But the rules never get in the way of the action.

"This is pretty much the way our country was designed to operate under the overarching guidance of the Constitution. We are a nation of individuals, but each individual, at least in theory, has a responsibility to the greater good and must play by certain specifically delineated rules. The rules are known, visible, and subject to objective judgment. Our basic freedoms are as common to us as the air that we breathe. and the right to question all forms of authority with impunity is one of the defining characteristics of being an American. But the rules--all subject to constant interpretation--define the playing field." (p. 72.)

I include this lengthy excerpt for two reasons. First, his observations of the individual and collective aspects of baseball and the U.S. government provide a basic architecture for his political views. Second, this seemingly contradictory structure unwittingly describes his book.

Demonstrating both individual and group aspects, Webb weaves his intriguing personal narrative within a larger political manifesto. He employed the same technique to great success in his excellent, Born Fighting: How The Scots-Irish Shaped America (2004).

Having read Born Fighting in 2004, I was not surprised that Webb changed party affiliations and ran as a Democrat in 2006, defeating formidable incumbent George Allen for one of Virginia's Senate seats. In the earlier book, Webb wrote glowingly of Andrew Jackson, the country's seventh president (and a Democrat). Although he never mentions Allen's name, Webb describes how he organized his truncated (nine-month), and seemingly improbable run for the Senate (labeled "Quixotic"). (p. 19.) He describes the multifaceted attacks he endured, which are almost too absurd to be believed. (See, e.g., p. 29.)

Because Webb's path to the Senate has been so circuitous and unconventional, there is much to his personal narrative, which also shapes him into becoming a highly respected Senator. He includes interesting vignettes about his military service in the Vietnam "bush" as a Marine; his service at the highest levels of the Pentagon (he was Secretary of the Navy in an Republican administration); his work as an accomplished novelist (e.g. Fields of Fire); and like Born Fighting, his experiences as a law student at Georgetown, among other things.

As a result, the book soars when it operates as a memoir. Its pace slows, however, when Webb moves back to political discourse. And this discussion is uneven. In one particularly out-of-place example, Webb includes an entire chapter on the "jail-happy" American culture. (p. 217.) These views are oddly juxtaposed to the bulk of the book's polemic about military interventionism, especially as it relates to Iraq. These political polemics aren't connected in the text, and I found them disjointed.

Nevertheless, Webb does carve out a path for Democrats to reinvent themselves with a "new" winning strategy that isn't really new. It largely comes from "Old Hickory" (Jackson) and Teddy Roosevelt--two icons in Webb's pantheon. Among other things, he takes Democrats to task for identity politics, their anti-military predilections (p. 22) and softness on illegal immigration. Webb has been such a rising star in the Senate and his party that he was mentioned as a potential Vice Presidential candidate. To their discredit, they didn't listen.

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Friday, September 05, 2008


Lawyer Edward Fontaine Nicolds moved to Texas in 1888 and needed to be admitted to practice there. At that time, there was no formal bar exam. Instead, each aspirant had to interview with the Texas Supreme Court.

"[T]hey asked him only four questions: Had he studied Blackstone? Did he read the Bible? Did he know his Shakespeare? And could he play poker?

"The first three questions were easy to understand. Blackstone's Commentaries was the basic reference book for lawyers everywhere.... The Bible and Shakespeare, of course, were essential to understanding human nature.... But the poker question made him nervous.

"Still he had to answer honestly. The lawyer reluctantly admitted that he was a more-than-occasional seven-card stud player. ... To his relief, however, they admitted him to practice on the spot.

"Once he was safely sworn in, the young lawyer got up the nerve to ask the court about the poker question. 'Your Honors...I know why you inquired about Blackstone, Shakespeare, and the Bible, but what on earth does poker have to do with the practice of law?'

"The chief justice looked down from the bench and sternly replied, 'Young man, how else do you expect to make a living during your first three years as a lawyer?'"

(S. Lubet, Lawyers' Poker: 52 Lessons Lawyers Can Learn from Card Players (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 3-4, 255.)

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