Law Religion Culture Review

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

Friday, June 26, 2009

Book Review: Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever (2009) by Walter Kirn.

Knowledge isn't power, according to Walter Kirn's memoir, Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever.

It's a "reckoning...a way to assess your location, your true position, not a strategy for improving your position." This was a lesson he received from his "surrogate father"--a retired admiral when he was about four. However, Kirn "lost [his] bearings. [He] veered off course. [He] went away to school." Kirn's disorientation reached its zenith during his time at Princeton.

To Kirn, formal education devolved into a game of mimicry, trickery, and fakery.

"With virtually no stored literary material about which to harbor critical assumptions, I relied on my gift for mimicking authority figures and playing back to them their own ideas as though they were conclusions I'd reached myself.... To me, imitation and education were different words for the same thing, anyway. What was learning but a form of borrowing? And what was intelligence but borrowing slyly?"

Kirn learned how to deconstruct without knowing how to construct anything. "We skipped straight from ignorance to revisionism, deconstructing a body of literary knowledge that we'd never constructed in the first place."

Kirn learned other artifices. "I couldn't quote anyone, reliably. I'd honed other skills: for flattering those in power without appearing to, for rating artistic reputations according to academic fashions, for matching my intonations and vocabulary to the backgrounds of my listeners, for placing certain words in smirking quotation marks and rolling my eyes when someone spoke too earnestly about some 'classic' or 'masterpiece,' for veering left when the conventional wisdom went right and then doubling back if it looked like it was changing. Flexibility, irony, self-consciousness, contrarianism. They'd gotten me through Princeton....I'd found out a lot since I'd aced the SATs, about the system, about myself, and about the new class that the system had created, which I was now part of, for better or worse. The class that runs things."

Through this "elite" educational process what Kirn really learned was cynicism and its ultimate end: nihilism. It nearly broke him. He curiously clawed back by learning (on his own) obscure words and their definitions. And thinking back to the advice he received from his mentor as a child. It's odd that the book took about a quarter century to write or be published. It contains references to being at Princeton when Lennon was shot (1980), and yet it was published this year. Nevertheless, its message translates to today.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Book Review: Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey into Manhood and Back Again by Norah Vincent.

"Before I can walk in another person's shoes, I must first remove my own."
--Brian Tracy

The men's movement has an unlikely champion.

A lesbian feminist: Norah Vincent.

However, she had to walk in men's loafers (and clothes, glasses and beard disguise) for about 18 months (p. 15) to arrive at this destination. Moreover, the process landed her a psych ward. (p. 268.) As a psychiatrist told her: "'[H]aving done what you did, I would have thought you crazy if you didn't have a breakdown." (p. 271.)

Vincent infiltrated six different contexts as a "man" and wrote about them in Self-Made Man. Apart from an introduction and epilogue, the book is organized according to each of these experiences: "Friendship" (about playing on a men's bowling team); "Sex" (about visiting strip clubs); "Love" (about dating women as a "man"); "Life" (about staying at a Catholic monastery); "Work" (about selling coupon books in a testosterone-fueled company); and "Self" (about participating in a men's group, including a "retreat").

Vincent writes: "But, of course, getting inside men's heads and out of my own was what this project was all about. Part of the project was writing a book like this is to learn something about the infiltrated group and then ideally to put that knowledge to good use. Inevitably then I have to ask myself whether or not my experience as Ned [Norah's male alter-ego] has changed the way I see and interact with men." (p. 283.)

She concludes: "Unexpectedly, the answer is both yes and no. Yes, in the sense that I have an inescapable empathy for men that could not help but come from living among them. I know in some sense how it feels to be on their end of things and to receive some of the blows and prejudices the world inflicts on them." (p. 283.) In this vein, Vincent reluctantly concludes: "Manhood is a leaden mythology riding on the shoulders of every man." (p. 271.)

Through this unusual process, Vincent reports some poignant observations about men that probably could only have been the product of such a study--a woman living as a man, mostly among men. In addition to insights about the male gender, the book also provides understanding about women especially in their expectations for men. (See, e.g., Chapter 4, "Love".)

As drawbacks, Vincent contradicts herself intermittently (such as whether or not she was just being herself in a male disguise) and traffics in some stale gender stereotypes.

Nevertheless, this book adds some fresh (and surprising) content to the "conversation" about gender.


Monday, June 22, 2009

"Are You Ok, Counsel?"

As I approached counsel's table today, I observed a large wad of toilet paper dangling from my worthy opponent's mouth.

The judge noticed too.

Judge: "Are you ok, counsel?"

Counsel: "Yes, Your Honor. I cut my lip on the way into the courthouse, and it's been bleeding for the past hour."

Judge: "If there's anything we can do, please let us know."

Counsel: "Well, your bailiff gave me a band-aid which has helped. I guess the joke of the day is that an unhappy client did this to me."

Judge: "That's been known to happen in this courthouse."

Thursday, June 18, 2009


In California, one of the lesser known and used tools in the defense counsel's toolbox is a motion for undertaking (i.e. bond) and stay.

This statute provides: "When the plaintiff in an action or special proceeding resides out of the state, or is a foreign corporation, the defendant may at any time apply to the court by noticed motion for an order requiring the plaintiff to file an undertaking to secure an award of costs and attorney's fees which may be awarded in the action or special proceeding." (C.C.P. Section 1030(a).)

The standard for obtaining a bond is relatively low: “The motion shall be made on the grounds that the plaintiff resides out of the state or is a foreign corporation and that there is a reasonable possibility that the moving defendant will obtain judgment in the action or special proceeding. ... The affidavit shall set forth the nature and amount of the costs and attorney's fees the defendant has incurred and expects to incur by the conclusion of the action or special proceeding.” (C.C.P. Section 1030(b); emphasis supplied.)

Further, if the motion is timed adeptly, it can stay a plaintiff's action. "If the defendant's motion for an order requiring an undertaking is filed not later than 30 days after service of summons on the defendant, further proceedings may be stayed in the discretion of the court .... The hearing on the application for the stay shall be held not later than 60 days after service of the summons." (C.C.P. Section 1030(e); emphasis supplied.)

In one of my current cases, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit against my clients wherein it admitted that it was incorporated in an east coast state. At the outset, I filed the motion for bond and undertaking within these deadlines--within 30 days of service--and set the hearing to occur within 60 days of service.

The court found that I had met the requirements for the bond and ordered the plaintiff to file the bond and stayed the case unless and until it did so. I served notice of the ruling and a copy of the court's order on opposing counsel.

At the next hearing, a comical exchange ensued between plaintiff's counsel and the judge.

The judge asked if the ordered bond had been filed.

Counsel responded: "We are in the process of filing the bond."

Judge: "So it hasn't been filed yet. When is it going to be filed?"

Counsel: "Soon."

Judge: "This case is stayed. Nothing can be done on your case, counsel."

Counsel: "We didn't think the case had been stayed."

Judge: "What do you mean you didn't think the case had been stayed? I stayed it!"

Counsel: "We were confused."

At that point, the court dismissed us with the admonition that plaintiff's case was dead in the water. And it remains so.

Monday, June 15, 2009


At movies, I saw a guy sabotage his nice gesture of getting food for his date by delivering it with, "Here you go, fatty."


Monday, June 08, 2009

Book Review: Little Pink House: A True Story of Defiance and Courage (2009).

As former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart observed, "'[P]roperty does not have rights, only people do.'" (p. 254 [attorney Scott Bullock quoting Potter Stewart].)

In other words, with eminent domain, it's about people, not property.

Jeff Benedict's Little Pink House especially reveals and revels in the human drama surrounding the Kelo v. City of New London Supreme Court case, involving the taking of Susette Kelo's (and others') property for a development benefiting Pfizer, Inc.

While I was generally familiar with the case, and even heard Justice Antonin Scalia speak about it shortly after the Supreme Court handed down its controversial decision (see August 30 and September 2, 2005, posts), Benedict's hard investigatory work and clear prose explicated the remarkable milieu in which this case arose, uncovering many intriguing aspects the MSM doubtlessly missed. The twists and turns were far too dramatic to be fiction. Among other things, Benedict explains what happened after the High Court's opinion to these folks and their properties and the unexpected tragedies befalling some of the property owners' apart from the takings.

In addition to expertly capturing the human drama, Benedict ably grasped the legalities. In fact, he did such an excellent job describing, in layperson terms, the legal maneuvers that I strongly suspected he had some legal training. However, nothing on the book's jacket revealed that he was a lawyer--instead, it mentioned his authorship of seven books and numerous published articles as well as his position teaching writing at Southern Virginia University.

I found the answer buried in the acknowledgements when Benedict mentioned in passing that someone offered him his first commercial-publishing contract when he was a first-year law student. (p. 381.) Bingo.

Highly recommended to lawyer and layperson alike.


Sunday, June 07, 2009

Book Review: The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University (2009).

Undercover journalism, conducted out in the open.

That's my brief, oxymoronic description of Kevin Roose's The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University (March, 2009)--a product of his semester as a student at Liberty University.

Taking a leave of absence from his studies at Brown University, Roose decided to spend Spring semester, 2007 at Liberty and then write about it.

While hiding his writing agenda, Roose didn't hide his identity. He matriculated as Kevin Roose, from Brown, and a Christian (p. 12), albeit from a nominally Quaker background (pp. 6-7). "If anyone ever asked, I'd say that I was a Christian (strictly true)" (p. 12), "although I wasn't an evangelical Christian" (p. 12). Interestingly, "Liberty application [didn't] require a mandatory statement of faith" (p. 12) like many other conservative Christian colleges such as Biola University.

Roose explains his approach: "I did want to see what Christian college was like, with as little prejudgment as possible....If I went to Liberty, it would be to learn with an open mind, not to mock Liberty students or the evangelical world in toto." (p. 11.)

Roose was largely successful in this two-fold endeavor. By throwing himself into the experience he learned what a Christian college was like, and largely did so without mocking Liberty "or the evangelical world in toto."

Roose actively participated in Liberty life perhaps much more than his fellow students. For example, he sang in the Thomas Road Baptist Church (connected to Liberty) choir (singing in front of millions on tv); conducted "cold turkey evangelism" at Daytona Beach during Spring Break; interviewed Rev. Jerry Falwell (Liberty's chancellor at the time) and wrote about it in the school newspaper (which turned out to be Rev. Falwell's last print interview before dying at the end of that semester); participated in a men's accountability group; played intramural sports, among other activities.

Some of his observations were not so profound and some were. For example, Roose acts like it's a revelation that it's easier to wake up on a Sunday morning without a hangover. (pp. 56-57.) On a more serious note, Roose poignantly summarizes his learning at Liberty: "By experiencing [Liberty people's] warmth, [their] vigorous generosity of spirit, and [their] deep complexity, I was ultimately convinced--not that [Liberty people] were right, necessarily, but I had been wrong." (p. 319; emphasis added.)

This multi-faceted learning process forms the bulk of the book. Given this "deep complexity", Roose mercifully (mostly) leaves behind the simplistic stereotypes of "evangelical Christians" (a hackneyed term poorly defined in the book and elsewhere). As an Ivy League student, he discovers that Liberty's studies are quite rigorous on the whole, and even admits some struggles to achieve high grades in the courses. "I worked twice as hard at Liberty as I ever did at Brown." (p. 106.)

This book does better than Hanna Rosin's similar, but more detached and political God's Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America--a reporter's book about Patrick Henry College reviewed here on December 13, 2007. (Roose mentions reading Rosin's related New Yorker article while writing his book. (p. 241).)

Unlike Rosin, Roose investigated while a student at the subject school. Perhaps as a result, Roose's book is much more empathetic and nuanced. For this reason, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University (a lame title especially since Liberty doesn't tout itself as the nation's "Holiest University") receives a much higher recommendation. Look for more from Roose--as of the publication he was a Brown senior. This book portends well for his writing career.