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The Better Angels of Our Nature

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

– Abraham Lincoln

By the time Abraham Lincoln gave his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861, seven states had already seceded from the Union. He knew all he had to sell was the idea of America.

For most of my life I took democracy for granted. I was convinced it was defined by the strength of its institutions. But democracy is an idea, like electricity, train travel and space flight. Unlike those other things though, democracy requires our continued belief to exist.

You can believe, as so many did a little over a century ago, that humans were never meant to fly, but that belief today will not stop a single plane from flying.

Democracy, on the other hand, needs our continued investment. For those critics who point out its imperfection, I would argue you miss the point. Democracy, as the early 20th century associate justice of the United States Supreme Court Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, does not start out with all the answers. It is the framework which requires constant refinement and rework.

Democracy was a lonely idea. Over the millennium, other than briefly with the Athenians and pirates, government was the right of sultans and kings, and democracy was believed to be an idea that could not work. Until, of course, the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. In the years afterwards, most of the Founding Fathers we remember would write of its likely demise, but what they created endured.

Ideas are the soul of democracy and debate its nourishment. Without this marriage there is no offspring of progress. For those triggered by the idea of debate, I am sorry. The sacrifice is too great to abide your censorship.

Where do ideas come from and why are we so afraid of them?

We have been shunning and banning books since long before Nicolaus Copernicus provided a model of the universe that placed the sun rather than the earth at the center of the universe in 1473.

The New World brought Puritan settlers preferring that we read only the Old Testament.

Mark Twain, America’s Man of Letters, has been banned more than almost any other American author for the crime of placing an escaped slave named Jim as the moral center of his 19th century novel, the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Truth, even if fictionalized, is apparently dangerous.

Are we not to see the universe as it is? To practice faith as we wish? To see the world through other eyes? These are the gifts of these and thousands of other works. What comes next is up to us.

Joseph P. Kennedy—patriarch of the Kennedy dynasty—often repelled me with his parenting skills, with one exception. He held court at the dinner table nightly where the family discussed the issues of the day. Debate leads to knowledge and abrogates our fear of ideas.

Why is it that both the left and right are now so fragile that they cannot imagine our children reading books or hearing ideas we do not embrace? It is, in fact, this very Socratic discussion where intelligence and reasoning come from. Without it, there is no knowledge or wisdom, just memorization and ideology. Democracy dies a thousand small deaths at silent dinner tables every night.

The Odyssey

When I was a 2L in law school, I argued on the national moot court team and spent months in the stacks of the law library, on a fruitless search for “the truth.” The issue was the constitutionality of airport searches two decades before 9/11. It was also in the early days of computers, so all of the research had to be done by hand. It was tedious, but I was convinced that if I just kept going back through each decision, every citation, even dicta, that I would find “the truth,” as if it had been granted to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Right next to the story of the apple would be “The truth about airport searches.”

I was Homer on my own odyssey, but no matter how much I sailed, I could never find anything other than human opinion. And while it would support my arguments, pure truth was elusive.

While perfect truth may have indeed exceeded my grasp, the journey taught me law school’s most important lessons – to be able to argue an issue from either side and to think in detailed layers. That is, epistemology: to research, study, question, discuss, debate and repeat over and over until every argument and every crevice had been explored.

That is, the virtual opposite of what we do today, where we draw conclusions first and then argue passionately from an emotional and certain point of view without textualized or layered thinking. Don’t like the opposing argument? Ban their books, cancel them or complain of being triggered.

“Triggered,” by the way, is the new phrase for what we used to call thinking. And thinking is supposed to make us uncomfortable. That is the whole point.

Every time I read arguments about banning books, canceling ideas and triggering, I hear the line from a Pierce Pettis song, “like a tear from God’s own eye.” Shame on us.

It turns out, there is no certain truth, but there are ideas, debates and moral compasses.

Great Thinkers

This week on In House Warrior, the daily podcast I host for the Corporate Counsel Business Journal, I interviewed four great thinkers who are changing their professions.

Her Honor: My Life on the Bench…What Works, What’s Broken, and How to Change It

Retired Judge LaDoris Hazzard Cordell, the first African American woman jurist in Northern California, joins Michael Zeldin of That Said with Michael Zeldin and me to discuss her new book, Her Honor: My Life on the Bench…What Works, What’s Broken, and How to Change It. She provides an insider account of our legal system and reveals the strengths, flaws and much-needed changes required within our courts.

Up Close on Litigation Finance with Christopher Bogart of Burford

I also spoke with Christopher Bogart, Chief Executive Officer, director and a co-founder of Burford, the largest global provider of legal finance in the world and a force in the global legal market. We discussed his view of trends, innovations, challenges and perhaps, most importantly, their significant financial commitment to women and people of color in the practice of law. Chris Bogart is one of the most significant innovators in the practice of law over the past 50 years.

Cures For Many Rare Diseases May Already Exist

In a “call for the courageous,” Annette Bakker, a PhD in Biochemistry and President of the Children’s Tumor Foundation, spoke with me about the fact that cures for cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, neurofibromatosis and rare cancers may have already been developed, but that scientists don’t realize it yet. With minor tweaks, some of pharma’s discarded drugs could be turned into game-changing therapies for currently untreatable diseases.

An Eye on Asia

James Tunkey, Chief Operating Officer of I-OnAsia, a cross-border investigations and security consulting company, spoke about their work assisting American clients with risk management and litigation support issues in Asia. The old adage that criminals are always one step ahead is very true, particularly in the corporate white-collar space—even more so because so many losses go unreported.

“Do not curse the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind.” Leviticus 19:14

As the rabbis interpreted this through the centuries, this is not an early Americans with Disabilities Act warning but instead a recognition that we are all—every one of us—to some degree, blind and deaf in different ways. We need to be kind to each other and recognize rather than exploit these human foibles. Most importantly, we need to recognize these shortcomings in ourselves.

If we are fighting ideas because we disagree with them, how do we get our sight and hearing back?

We stand on the shoulders of giants. They gave us this height to try and reach the stars, not to complain about the glare.

Let us find the better angels of our nature.

“The great thing in this world is not so much where we are, but in what direction we are going.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes

Enjoy the shows

Richard Levick

Listen to Her Honor: My Life on the Bench

Listen to Up Close on Litigation Finance

Listen to Cures for Many Rare Diseases May Already Exist

Listen to An Eye on Asia


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