Occasion For Thought Number 2 (New Series — 2008)
Thine Alabaster Cities Gleam “A Slightly Fictionalized Memoir of a Career in the Last Half of The Twentieth Century” by Lawrence R. Velvel, Dean, Massachusetts School of Law
2And so my own measure of what makes a book a good one — or makes an object in any of the arts a good one — is short and simple: It’s the truth-measure. The definition of this measure, that is, is short and simple. Explaining why or how something fits it may be another matter altogether, as complicated as the piece under consideration.
In the case of Lawrence Velvel, however, clarity and simplicity (that’s a good word, by the way) are the rule from opening words to final paragraph, and with good reason: The author’s subject through all four volumes of this memoir is the simple and consistent truth that honesty in America is a big disadvantage, in fact a crippling disadvantage, to a person’s profession, career, success, stature, income, and life achievement. At least this is so if the person’s profession happens to be the law. And if that person’s career had its beginning somewhere around mid-century, right after World War II had been won by the forces of freedom, a time when, as Velvel puts it in his preface to Volume One, “the American Dream was in full flower.”
It’s worth lingering for a minute over that preface, and over Velvel’s simple — again, good word — descriptive definition of “the American Dream” as having had one of its central origins in the life and thought of — yes — Abraham Lincoln. “It is Abraham Lincoln’s life and views,” writes Velvel,
which most strikingly illustrate the idea that in America you can rise as high as talent plus hard work can carry you. It is Lincoln’s life and views which most strikingly show that, in the process of rising, it is not enough to do well for yourself. Rather, you must also help your fellow man. And thought one an argue about it because Lincoln was so political an animal it is probably Lincoln’s life and views which best illustrate the belief that in the long run the race belongs to the man who does what is right. [vol. 1, p-i]
Known and very popular cialis coupon which gives all the chance to receive a discount for a preparation which has to be available and exactly cialis coupons has been found in the distant room of this big house about which wood-grouses in the houses tell.
Such, then, was the thought lying at the foundation-source of the American Dream, and, says Velvel, it was the “version of the American Dream illustrated by Lincoln [that] the protagonists of my story absorbed as children.” [vol. 1, p-ii]
And the next word? The next word is “yet,” the hinge on which the door of America was hung back then, around 1947 or 1950, and the hinge that allowed that door to swing in a direction that is going to provide the material of Velvel’s entire life story. His words:
Yet, as they got older and went through life, they learned that in the last half of the 20th century this version was largely fictive, largely fantasy. What Lincoln so aptly called “the race of life” did not necessarily go — perhaps did not go at all — to the talented and hard working; still less did it go to the talented and hard working who acted to help others as well as themselves, or who thought that in the long run right can make might. It went instead to those with very different qualities: it went to the purely greedy and to those who were always and only looking out for number one, to the incompetent, the venal and the evil who would play the game the company way (in any and all walks of life, not just in companies), to the thoroughly dishonest and the fraudulent, to the immodest, the celebrified and the self celebrified, to those who, in government or business, did not stickle at doing evil.
And there we’ve got the entire story in outline — the decline of the American nation from Lincoln to Cheney, with the steepest downward slide from social morality into fraud and depravity taking place from 1950 onward. I’d say that’s an enormous story, wouldn’t you? I’d say it’s pressing, vitally important, essential that this story be told, and told honestly and fully, wouldn’t you?
Imperative as such a telling may be for the good of the nation and the good of its people, it is nevertheless one of the stories most thoroughly and rigorously silenced and suppressed by the media and by publishing — by the Cheney-powers and the corpo-gov powers, powers that are themselves under the control of, yes, that’s right, America’s worst and America’s most emergent, the “purely greedy,” “those. . . always and only looking out for number one,” “the incompetent, the venal and the evil.”
No wonder they don’t want the story told. And yet Lawrence Velvel goes ahead and tells it, revealing everything, lock, stock, and barrel. And you, rare and lucky reader, just by getting hold of his book, can go along for the ride. And quite a ride it is.
Velvel writes in the first person, but he adds a twist from the usual memoir form: As “I,” he doesn’t tell his own life story, but he follows the lives of two other characters he’s known from college on up. One is Harry Brohnz (“In some ways Harry Brohnz was the smartest man I ever met,” [vol. 1, p. 1]) and the other is Lionel Wolfe (“Wolfe was a close friend of Brohnz’s and, like all his close friends, was reasonably intelligent, though of course no Brohnz” [vol. 1, p. 23]).
This is the device causing Velvel to declare the book “slightly fictionalized,” and it’s a useful one. It gives the entire undertaking the objective feel of a novel as Velvel simultaneously observes his own life and “tells” it, talking about himself while seeming to be talking about someone else. This novelistic device lets him include the personal at will (and with just the right abundance) without risk of its overtaking the broader scope and purpose of the project — that is, as a public memoir that records and laments the moral-intellectual decline of an entire nation.
4Though there are plenty of other characters in this big and deeply felt drama, Brohnz and Wolfe remain the central two, though Wolfe, as the decades pass and the tale continues, emerges more and more evidently as the figure who represents Velvel himself — the one who, after graduating third in his class from Michigan Law (Brohnz chose Harvard), found employment readily with major and influential, in fact with very high-powered, law firms in the D.C. area — and then went on to get fired five times in succession, from one position after another, until it looked as though just keeping food on the table and the kids in school (by this time there are children and a wife) is going to prove — well, perhaps undoable.
What kind of story is this? Well, let me tell you, it’s a good one, and by its conclusion it will have you up from your seat and cheering for the good guys — Wolfe and his associates — and ready to take arms against a virtual sea of bad guys. And who are they? Well, the bad guys are just about everyone who has a role in the institution of law in the United States — not least, as you’ll learn, the moribund, retrograde, self-serving, and class-bound United States Bar Association.
It’s a story, in short, of indefatigable underdog heroes on the one hand, and of their powerful enemies on the other. It’s a long story, and it goes at an admittedly leisurely pace. But it’s a rouser for anyone still sensitive to what’s good and what’s bad in a nation. Thank god we have it.
Wolfe’s five firings weren’t quick or sudden. That is, they did happen in sequence, but only with long years in between. But happen they did, and three things need to be said about them right away: First, the person fired was extraordinarily capable, hardworking, and insightful as a lawyer, and he did and had done great work in and for each firm he was a part of or represented; second, the firings tended to occur just at the point when things were going especially well in Wolfe’s contribution to whichever firm it happened to be at the time; and, third, the firings occurred for this reason and for this reason alone: The firms and their management knew unequivocally that Wolfe was not only hardworking, capable, and insightful, but they also knew that he was honest. Often, that meant that, even though he had successfully brought, say, a multi-million dollar case to the firm, he still had to be let go. Why? The firm couldn’t possibly trust him, at some later stage in the case’s development or in the all-important trial stage — the firm couldn’t possibly trust him later on to do what they expected of all their associates and partners, to bend rules, cut corners, make secret deals, or, in short, to do the wrong thing in the interest of the firm.
In short, Wolfe was honest (and so was Brohnz ). Raised in Chicago by socialist-leaning Jewish parents who themselves valued honesty and truth as the highest values, Wolfe was — well, he was the carrier of his family’s intellectual and moral legacy.
5Let’s hear Velvel tell about it. We’re in volume two, Trail of Tears, and Wolfe has taken a position with a D.C. firm called Crider, Rogers & Holabird. The closing paragraph of chapter 15:
At this point, then, Wolfe had done well by Crider, Rogers & Holabird. Notice that I didn’t say at Crider, Rogers. I said by Crider, Rogers. He had helped get WAIC and, in an important sense, Crider, Rogers out from under the nearly limitless adverse possibilities of a default judgment, one that WAIC and Crider, Rogers may have deserved. He had worked closely for a considerable period with [Robert] Bork, one of the leading lawyers of a generation, in efforts to overturn the default, and to avoid similar terrible situations in other courts. He had co-authored a brief that had made a small contribution to overcoming a magistrate’s decision throwing out ENLEC’s case. He had taken a small case brought by a lone individual, Mehl, and, with Fuchs, had obtained a settlement that resulted in remarkable evidence, had won an unprecedented discovery order from a fundamentally hostile judge, and had caused a huge client to join the litigation, thereby turning a small case into a large one — into one from which the firm ultimately made a total of $18 million in hourly fees and contingency fees. Also, in a firm reputed to be the hardest working one in Washington, he always was near the top in the number of hours worked annually, and there was at least one year in which he had worked more hours than anyone else. As I say, he had done pretty well by Crider, Rogers. So, naturally, he was about to be fired. [vol. 2, p. 119]
Could it be (the suspicious reader whispers inwardly) that, skilled as he was, Wolfe was in actuality impossible to get along with? Well, conceivably — yet a reader of the book comes out with an impression of Wolfe-Velvel that’s quite, quite the opposite of cantankerous, backbiting, or willful. In fact, let’s take time for a few authorial words on this very subject:
Wolfe, however, was not an intellectually arrogant person. He could be short tempered, could e intolerant of intellectual opposition which he believed lacking in supporting facts or ideas, and did not suffer fools gladly. But, even if this is contradictory or paradoxical, he was not intellectually arrogant. He had been intellectually knocked down too many times by professors in college — even, or especially, by some who had helped him greatly, like Professor Gandolph — to arrogantly think that he had all the answers. Sometimes others wrongly perceived him as thinking he knew all the answers, because he was intolerant of their lack of facts or thought. But when a person seemed to have a good idea of what he or she was talking about, Wolfe was receptive to the individual’s ideas and often was as or more willing to accept them than to insist on his own. [vol. 2, p. 92]
If you want to know a person, look at his or her writing. A person’s writing will, one way or another, tell nearly everything. By reading it, you’ll be able to discover whether the person is hollow or full, thin-textured or well-textured, simple or complex, insolent or conscientious, really moral or merely flip, serious or cavalier, perceptive or superficial, original or conventional. It’s a test that can’t and won’t fail, so long as the writing is real writing and so long as there’s more of it than, say, a quick email’s worth.
6Velvel, now, has given us four volumes of writing that come to a grand total of 790 pages and cover at least fifty years (Bronhz and Wolfe were class of 1960 at Michigan). That’s a lot of writing and a lot of coverage. By the time you’ve read all those pages, there’s little — there’s no — doubt as to the kind of person who’s written them, and it’s a person characterized by the first in every set of paired qualities I listed in the paragraph above this one.
If you don’t know much about law — as I certainly don’t — you’ll also find your ignorance no handicap, since you’re in the hands of an author who explains no more than needed, and who does it both thoroughly and naturally — most of the time providing you with information in the way another writer might provide you with setting or any other element necessary to a scene or story. I learned, for example, the importance of the process of “discovery” preceding a trial. The judge or court works out the terms of discovery with lawyers from each side in the case, and then a time period is set during which each side must make available to the other such facts or documents as may properly or potentially consist of evidence. The plaintiff has to make certain materials available to the defendant, and the defendant to the plaintiff, within the time frame.
It’s an important procedure in any trial, obviously — and a procedure exceedingly seductive to anyone already inclined to cheat. Thus we return to Wolfe, as Velvel provides us with more on the subject of that hardworking man’s firings. Velvel points out that an intellectually independent person like Wolfe is susceptible to being seen by the firm he works with as having a secret agenda of his own — precisely because he remains suspiciously independent rather than joining, with not the least hint of doubt or hesitation, in the lockstep behavior and manner of thought so highly preferred and valued by those, as it were, at the firm’s helm. In the suspicious minds of those august figures, lower-ranking people like Wolfe might all too readily seem to have about them “a lean and hungry look.”
Back to Velvel and his comments on Wolfe in the discovery phase:
Adding to the lean and hungry man problem was that at least one of these men, Wolfe, had made clear that he would give opponents the documents they had every right to obtain in discovery. This, it was feared, could threaten success and the huge incomes that were dependent o success. Even in those days, long before the phrase “the information age” came into popularity, or even into existence, information already was power in litigation. Those who had it were ea leg up. Those denied it found it very difficult to prove their cases. (All this has remained true in litigation to this day.) The powers in C, R & H, and in other big firms, would not risk loss by giving potentially dispositive information to the other side in discovery unless and until they were face to face with the last extremity — and sometimes not even then, as the WAIC default matter showed. Two things were intolerable at C, R & H: giving potentially dispositive information to the other side regardless of how much right they had to it, and getting caught withholding it from the other side.
7Wolfe, however, had a different attitude. Coming from his background, he had no psychological option but to do the right thing under the rules. So to him the great trick never was to win by withholding information. Winning that way was easy, if you did not get caught. The great trick was to give up the information and then figure out why and how you should and could win anyway, why and how should and could win despite the information. Figuring out how to win while being honest — figuring out how to win despite being honest — is not a philosophy that held high distinction in the legal profession then or now. Nor is it a philosophy given high distinction then or now by politicians, the CIA, or other powers of our society. Wolfe’s philosophy always was an odd man out, so to speak, in every corner of the American power structure.
So the powers at Crider, Rogers had two problems regarding Wolfe. Like a few others, he did not automatically tug at his forelock. And he was honest. The leaders of C, R & H decided they could not tolerate such people. [vol. 2, pp. 120-121]
Anyone — and of course that now means everyone — anyone who has lived through the past two administrative terms of government by lies, fraud, duplicity, deceit, and criminality; anyone who has been witness to the step by step dismantling of the free republic and its replacement by a state poised for takeover by tyranny; and anyone who has seen that state’s leadership repeatedly commit treason, crimes against humanity, crimes against peace, and war crimes,1 all with a near-perfect absence of any repercussion from the realms or in the name of justice — anyone who, with abhorrence and disbelief, has watched such things happening in and to our nation over the past seven or eight years will immediately understand, first, the extraordinary importance of Thine Alabaster Cities Gleam and, second, will understand also how and why it may be that so prescient, revelatory, and impassioned a book has been held by and large under the radar of a general reading public. It’s too meaningful. It’s too relevant. It’s too dangerous — to the government, yes, but too dangerous also to the great apparatus, Siamese twin of government, that keeps control over an entire society by means in every way more intimately akin to those espoused and employed by Crider, Rogers than those espoused by the Abraham Lincoln with whom Velvel opened his book.2
In the preface to his third volume (The Hopes and Fears of Future Years: Loss and Creation), Velvel remarks that “Especially after reading volume III, the reader will not be surprised that I regard dishonesty as perhaps the most vicious and consequential of societal plagues that afflict us, particularly because it makes the other plagues possible”
1 See, for one excellent example of analysis of these subjects, Francis A. Boyle, Protesting Power: War, Resistance, and Law (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).
2 Interested readers might see my own A Nation Gone Blind: America in an Age of Simplification and Deceit (2006).
8[vol. 3, p-ii]. Velvel then refers to a review (in The New York Review of Books) of Steven Shapin’s A Social History of Truth, quoting the reviewer, Richard Horton, as follows:
Horton says that Shapin “argues that our personal knowledge of the world depends to a large degree on what others tell us. Our understanding therefore has a moral character, based as it must be on trust. In constructing a body of reliable individual knowledge, trustworthy people are crucial. In the seventeenth century, the concept of the gentleman embodied these notions of trust. “Honor” was the key to believing someone’s testimony. Lying was seen as incompatible with a civilized society. (Emphasis added [by Velvel])
And Velvel continues, in his own words:
My own view, it turns out, is not so different from, is merely a throwback to, this 17th century view. I think honor — and a decent respect to the onions of mankind (to use Jefferson’s phrase in the Declaration of Independence) — require truthfulness. I also think that dishonesty, in all its degrees and in its various forms, has reached such a level that to call ourselves a civilized society is perhaps to have changed the meaning of civilized in a significant way and to a significant extent. [vol. 3, p-ii]If you’re like me, your heart will rally and thrill at these words and others like them: It will thrill at the knowing, however massively damaged and malignantly diseased our nation has in pitiable truth become, that there are some, like Lawrence Velvel — or like Harry Brohnz and Lionel Wolfe — who see the nation as it is, who value it as it ought to be, and whose lives remain dedicated, in whatever ways possible, to opposing and diminishing the omnipresent moral ruin and decay and to replacing it with uncontaminated soil that can nourish new and salutary growth.
I use the agricultural metaphor purposely, since it seems to me that Thine Alabaster Cities Gleam is about nothing if it’s not about the planting of new life in fields of death. The metaphor of death, also, is deliberate, for I’m able to find no way of avoiding the conclusion that the nation we live in today is one whose dedication has been turned away from life and purposely redirected toward the achievements solely of death.
And this is where the great and life-affirming value of books like Alabaster Cities lie. I’m convinced that no help in our nation’s crisis can be gotten from anyone who isn’t first able to see, and to see clearly, the full extent and un-ameliorated truth of the situation we’re in. Lawrence Velvel is such a person — a writer, after all, who just this minute announced to us, in however modest a voice, that we live now, here, today, in a society so thoroughly corrupted by dishonesty that it can no longer accurately or honestly be said to be a civilized society.
And what is he going to do about it? Three things. First, he is going to survive. Second, he is going to have a couple of important recognitions. And, third, he is going to plant.
After decades in Washington, Wolfe finally learned the lesson that evil is victorious — “Is often laudable” — while doing good is “Accounted dangerous folly.” For decades in D.C., Wolfe had tried to do what he thought, and had been brought up to think, was the right thing. He had attempted to be honest, to work hard, to be competent, to have integrity, to be modest, to be a nice person, to care about others. This was all consistent with the Labor Zionist, semi-socialistic, Eastern European Jewish background of his parental family. But in a Washington, and in a United States, where dishonesty, fraud, lying, celebrification, boating, pushiness, selfishness, me, me, me, and I, I, I were all, all, all, the traits he tried to follow led only to a pauper’s grave. They were only al poet’s dream in a place where evil usually outweighs good, a place where evil collects the dividends and virtue pays the bills. [vol. 3, p. 2]
. . . He had to leave a city where pushiness, false imagery, self glorification, hypocrisy, and dishonesty were everything, and where honesty, decency, and principle were nothing. Leaving was a matter of personal survival. [vol. 3, p. 3]
10Next, the first important recognition:
After being fired for the fourth time in a row, Wolfe finally understood that he hand to get out of this milieu, had to get out of Washington. Curiously, naïvely, although he knew the traits he sought to live by had proven to be useless — worse that that, had proven to be counterproductive — he had not yet come to the concomitant visceral conclusion that he would no longer be Mr. Nice Guy. He had not yet come to the conclusion that from now on, he was overtly going to be the meanest son of a bitch in town instead of trying to be a nice person. [vol. 3, p. 2]
Then the second important recognition:
After he later became a son of a bitch and therefore successful in another part of the country, time and distance enabled Wolfe to exercise historical perspective. What had happened to him, a white collar lawyer, was in one way no different that what had been happening to blue collar people from the dawn of the industrial revolution. Working people had known for 150 or 200 years what it is to lose a job, to have no way of supporting themselves and their families, to be thrown out of a second job after they finally managed to get one, and then to lose a third job, and a fourth, and so on. By the scores of millions, they had learned to live with this as a “normal” part of life. The white collar class, on the other hand, had usually managed to escape this; it certainly managed to largely escape it for 40 years or so after World War II, with lawyers and doctors escaping it more than anyone else. It was only decades after the war that mid-level managers who devoted their lives to the corporation in exchange for security began to learn the one-way character of their bargain. It was only then that whole blocks, whole suburbs, began to be filled with the despondent 30-, 40-, 50-, and 60-year-old white collar unemployed, who could not find new jobs. It was only then that the white collar class became sad exemplars of what blue collar people experienced for scores, even hundreds, of years. [vol. 3, pp. 3-4]
It was once said that where there is no wisdom the people perish. Wolfe thought that where there is no honesty the people perish. [vol. 3, p. 7]
And at this point, it seems to me, a person could justifiably end this consideration of Velvel’s broad, deep, life- and energy- and idea-filled book, since we’ve come by now to know the character of its characters; the quality of their minds; the kind and intensity of their patriotic and professional morality; and we’ve even come to see how these characters — Brohnz, Wolfe, Velvel — came to the recognition that the nation’s half-century-long and increasingly virulent epidemic of dishonesty has grown into a tool not only for the gaining of its own profit, power, and self-perpetuation, but also into a tool bent deliberately to the purpose of maintaining class oppression.
This new (or newly evident) element in Wolfe’s consciousness — his awareness of the exclusion of working-class people from the professions, especially from law, and of both the injustice and the waste of such exclusion — this awareness that appears in Volume Three and remains on stage until the last curtain — this element of broadening conscience in Wolfe’s thought has an enormous influence not only on the outcome of his own professional life but also in the development of his own character. Let me take up character first, since, among other things, it’s the foundation of the rest.
One aspect of the subject is pretty simple. Despite Velvel’s own words about Wolfe back in Volume Two, there’s really — please take it from me — no evidence at all that Wolfe ever became “a son of a bitch,” let alone the meanest one in town. He may indeed have become more angry, and with good reason. He may have become more perseverant than ever. He may, even, have become stubborn. Without any doubt, he became more idealistic. And, equally without doubt, he became more scornful than ever of the institution of the law, both in the practice of it and in the teaching of it. Concerned about word-count, I haven’t said much about Wolfe and Brohnz’s — and Velvel’s — time
11in law school at Michigan and Harvard, about their impressions of both it and of its faculty, or about their later very powerful, albeit partial, condemnations of both. But the broadening of Wolfe’s conscience and character from Volume Three on now brings that subject of law school together, quite naturally, with the subject of the change in direction of his own professional life.
In a word, Wolfe turned away from the practice of law and threw himself into law education. And he did it not as a son of a bitch but as a conscious, populist reformer, dedicated powerfully to the estimable aim of wresting the institution of law both in its practice and in its education out of the hands of a greedy, dishonest, narrow, self-replicating, and largely destructive social element — and placing it instead within the reach of any and all Americans who would previously have been excluded from it, who were strongly motivated toward it, and who were capable of achieving an intellectual and professional mastery of it.
It’s heady stuff, believe me. It’s no stretch to say that Alabaster Cities is an American non-fiction novel, that it gathers together great American themes — of money, class, privilege, immigration, education — and that it carries them to an irresistibly dramatic, and dramatically American, end. In the book — after difficulties, dead-ends, double-crossings, back-stabbings, financial reverses — Wolfe at last becomes founder of NNELS (Northern New England Law School), while in real life, Lawrence Velvel becomes co-founder of the Massachusetts School of Law, a very real place indeed, about which one can, for example, today, now, actually read published words such as these:
The Massachusetts School of Law at Andover was established in 1988 to provide an affordable, quality legal education to minorities, immigrants and students from low-income households that might otherwise be denied the opportunity to obtain a legal education and practice law. Its founder, Dean Velvel, has been honored by the National Law Journal and cited in various publications for his contributions to the reform of legal education.
And what do you suppose the occasion might be — just now, at this particular time — for informational words such as those to have been put in public circulation? They are words, after all, that not only address an educational philosophy that might well meet the approval of Lionel Wolfe as we’ve come to know him by the end of Alabaster Cities, but they touch also on theme after theme that he himself met up with, wrestled with, was victimized by, analyzed, opposed, fought against and, in many of their aspects rejected in order to reform what remained: “Law,” “education,” “minorities,” “immigrants,” “low-income,” “denied,” “opportunity,” and “reform” itself. Maybe the only word that isn’t there but certainly should be is “honesty,” as in these memorable lines: “It was once said that where there is no wisdom the people perish. Wolfe thought that where there is no honesty the people perish.”
Well, guess what. The exact occasion for the informational words’ appearance at this particular time is explained fully in a press release with the headline “Law School to
12Plan Bush War Crimes Prosecution.” You can read the entire piece just by clicking here,3 which I trust that no reader will fail to do. And I trust, too, that anyone who hasn’t yet read Thine Alabaster Cities Gleam will do so now, without delay. It is a book, a person could honestly say, that serves as a long, explanatory, painstakingly careful, and vitally important preface to the press release you’re now about to read, announcing that “A conference to plan the prosecution of President Bush and other high administration officials for war crimes will be held September 13-14 at the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover.”
Once you’ve read the book, you’ll far more richly understand what war crimes are; how and why they’ve come of late to be committed in such profusion by Americans; exactly what they — and law itself — have to do with honesty; and, not least, why it is so perfectly suitable that, of all law schools everywhere, Lionel Wolfe’s should be the particular one where the conference is to be convened, a conference that will hope once again to put honesty and justice together.
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