Monday, May 15, 2017

In The Nature of an Oymoron

     The Beverly Hills Bar celebrated its 85th birthday on Saturday evening, Jan. 28th.  There was a big party. I was there and played in the Big Band of Barristers conducted by Gary Greene.  The night before, the bar’s dynamic Executive Director Marc Staenberg was honored at a black tie dinner. 
         Eight-five years ago, minorities were not welcome in most bar associations.  The Beverly Hills Bar was created to remedy that injustice.  It opened its doors to all lawyers, regardless of their race, or ethnic and cultural background.  So I was happy to be there.  During a break, I mingled with the guests and met a Chinese immigration lawyer.  She looked me over and informed me this was the Year of the Rooster.  I asked if there was something about me that reminded her of roosters.  She gave me a second look and mumbled “not really.”  I was concerned because a sizeable number of short guys often act like roosters to make up for their shortcomings.
         She then asked what year I was born.  I took a few seconds, and figured it out.  I hesitated, but did not want egg on my face.  So I told her, even though it was nothing to crow about.  Instead of remarking how good I looked for my age, she looked off into space and began calculating.  I think she used her fingers.  After a minute or two, her eyes focused on me.  “You were born in the Year of the Ox.”  The what?  I was convinced she was mistaken.  I thought for a moment about china shops (pardon the reference), but oxen don’t go into china shops.  Are oxen stubborn?  No, mules are.  An ox is large; I am slight.  I protested, but she maintained her calculations were correct. 
         I checked with my friend and colleague Justice Elwood Lui, the first Chinese jurist appointed to the California Court of Appeal.  He consulted charts and graphs on a special app on his cell phone and concluded I was definitely born in the Year of the Ox.  He asked if my parents called me “Babe” and if I had an affinity for lumberjacks. 
I was about to protest, when it hit me like a pickax.  I realized the calculation was correct.  Quite apart from favoring the color blue, I had interpreted the Year of the Ox too literally. I am more in the nature of an oxymoron.  (Please do not emphasize the last two syllables.)  Scholars and charlatans agree that my columns are an exercise in oxymoronic prose.  The multiplicity of themes speaks to doubtful certainty.  I was overcome with bored excitement.
The oxymoronic theme reminds me of some law students at NYU some 26 years ago.  They were what I call “refusing advocates.”  With apologies to Lord Tennyson, they were “falsely true” to their beliefs.  The students refused to participate in a moot court competition when they were assigned to argue against the petition of a lesbian couple seeking custody of a child. 
The students and I agreed upon one point.  It is unacceptable to deny relief to the otherwise qualified petitioners because they are lesbians.  But that is why we need lawyers.  Lawyers protect all points of view, however offensive.  The Bill of Rights was enacted so that politically incorrect points of view could be expressed.
         At that time, I wrote in the Daily Journal:  "If lawyers become intimidated by the enforcers of correct thought, then we are in big trouble.  The students who refused to participate in the moot court competition because they disagreed with the principle they were assigned to argue unwittingly sabotaged the very principles they professed to support.  When certainty of the correctness of your position causes you to silence the opposition, you have undermined your own position.  You have become like your enemy.”
         Nat Hentoff in his book “Free Speech for Me, But Not for Thee:  How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other” (Harper Collins 1992) also expressed his dismay about the refusal of the students to participate in the moot court competition.  He wrote:
 "The presence of self-appointed enforcers to compel the expression of the politically correct point of view can have a devastating effect on the law profession.
         "If lawyers forget this, we will ultimately have a society where ideas are crimes.  Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, and 1984 will have been written in vain.
         "Those who fight for minority rights, whether they be the rights of gays, blacks, Jews, women, or atheists, should be particularly sensitive to preserving the right of others to be heard, no matter how loathsome the point of view.
"By allowing the free expression of bad and even offensive ideas, we insure that good ideas flourish. It is this way that we preserve the American freedom of mind and spirit.  It’s something law students must learn, and lawyers must never forget."
Hentoff quoted extensively from my column in his book which proves that the Daily Journal has a wide circulation.  But it meant a great to me because as a kid in high school I became a Nat Hentoff devotee.  He was an influential jazz critic when I had the absurd notion of becoming a jazz musician.  My passion for that career was not sufficient to overcome my aversion to crowded, smoke-filled night spots and late hours.  And I was not all that thrilled about starving to death.  Can you imagine that during a break on a gig, the musicians were so poor that they were forced to share a cigarette?

For years Hentoff wrote for the Village Voice covering a variety of subjects that included jazz reviews and social commentary.  He was a wonderful writer and incisive critic on subjects that included civil liberties, politics and political correctness.  A mutual friend and writer had planned to introduce me to Hentoff.  I looked forward to the three of us having a lunch or dinner and engaging in lively conversation.  That will not come to pass.  Nat Hentoff passed away last month.  He was a congenial provocateur. 

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