WikiLeaks

Tomorrow’s Internet law class-our last this semester–will focus on WikiLeaks.  (Good luck loading wikileaks.org.  The first topic may be “if a website’s URL does resolve to the site’s home page, does the site exist?” Another of the top four Google responses to a search for wikileaks.org also failed to load: http://cablegate.wikileaks.org/.    The two sites that loaded, with links to the leaked U.S. diplomatic correspondence, are http://213.251.145.96/ and   http://213.251.145.96/cablegate.html.)  This week it is hard not to find news stories, blog posts, rants, and raves about WikiLeaks’ dissemination of the diplomatic cables.  In no particular order, with no endorsement of their respective stances, and with no representation that these are the best courses of information, here is some of what I’ve read:

I’ll post more links when I access my laptop at school.

WikiLeaks is a mother lode of discussion topics:  freedom of speech, freedom of the press, national security, criminal law, extradition, ethics, Internet culture, network architecture, network security, file-sharing technology, citizen journalism, hacking, the 24-hour news cycle . . . and more, no doubt.

Hypocrisy, for example. WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange’s stated goal for WikiLeaks is to puncture organizations that maintain their authority by conspiring to hide information about their activities. In other words, secrecy–whether practiced by the United States government or sorority Alpha Sigma Tau–is inherently bad, therefore revealing secrets is inherently good.  Zunguzungo.com’s* lengthy, reverential exegesis of Assange’s writings favorably characterizes his definition of a conspiracy as “simply any network of associates who act in concert by hiding their concerted association from outsiders, an authority that proceeds by preventing its activities from being visible enough to provoke counter-reaction.”  Let’s see–network of associates . . . act in concert . . . hide concerted association . . . prevent visibility to outsiders . . . not accountable to anyone . . . doesn’t that perfectly describe WikiLeaks and its supporters?

Unless the topic is, say, engineering or math, I distrust binary thinking.  Reducing complex problems to black-and-white alternatives requires no thought, no analysis, no understanding of human nature, no judgment, no room for growth, no self-doubt, no capacity to listen, no compassion, no heart, no soul, none of what is special about humanity.   Assange’s blind faith in transparency makes him just another True Believer whose ego requires imposing his beliefs on the world.

*Which the website defines, apparently, as “harmonization [variant: harm minimization]”**

**To which I reply, wtf?

Lies

Here’s another question I’ve heard countless times from students:  “How can a court rule in favor of [x} if the other party lies in court?”  I posted about it here just a few weeks ago.  It comes up again because, as I said to a student after yesterday’s class, more students have asked a variant of this question this semester than ever before.  I think I’ve heard it more this semester than in the past three semesters, combined. Why, I don’t know.  I’m sure there are many explanations–it’s can’t be answered with binary thinking–but I wonder if students are asking “since everyone lies if they can get away with it, isn’t everything you’re teaching us bullshit?”, or “enough with the rules, tell me how to get around them” (although most students interested in knowing this ask without a smidgen of subtlety).   Perhaps it’s my imagination.  I just reread All the President’s Men and the amorality of the Nixon White House may color my perceptions.  Perhaps this semester’s questions are an anomalous blip.  Whatever the causes, the question has my attention.

Faculty Address

The text of my address at last evening’s commencement:

Welcome parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, extended families, friends, deans, faculty and staff, my wife Judy, and the reason all of us are here: the Boston University School of Management Class of Two Thousand Ten.

First, I must note the passing last December of our law-faculty colleague Jeffrey Beatty. Some of our students know Jeffrey’s extraordinary gifts as a teacher. All of our students know Jeffrey as the talented co-author of our law textbook. I would not be teaching here, but for Jeffrey’s call eleven years ago to tell me of an open faculty position. I am forever indebted to him.

Next, this is Dean Lataif’s final School of Management commencement ceremony. Thank you, Dean Lataif, for your support over the years, and for your inspiring vision of the social role of management education. You made this cynic a believer.

Recently, one of your classmates had occasion to see an old picture of me [full-size image]. I am about 23 years old, sitting on the battered wooden stoop of a dilapidated apartment building—for those who’ve heard the story, the same building where I was on rent strike for over three years.   The numerals “one eight three” are painted freestyle on the front door. In one hand I’m holding a pocket knife and orange; with the other I’m pointing at a newspaper. My narrowed eyes stare at the camera behind chronically unkempt hair and a thick beard. Your classmate studied this picture, saying repeatedly “that is not you.”

She was right. The young me in that picture had a life plan guaranteed not to include teaching law to business students. When I graduated in 1976 from what was then Boston University’s College of Liberal Arts, I planned to continue working for a few years as a paralegal handling prisoners’ rights issues, to attend the country’s best public-interest law school at Northeastern University, and to use my law degree to represent society’s have-nots. Five years later I graduated from Northeastern Law into Plan B: representing society’s haves, as an associate at a corporate law firm. Today, many changes later, I am eleven years into what may be Plan Q, although I lost track of the labels long ago.

Some say there are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who don’t.  I’m the latter, one wary of binary explanations to complicated problems. I’m a lawyer, inclined by nature, and accustomed by training, to deal with complexity, nuance, and changing facts. To lawyers, the answer to every question begins with two words: “it depends.”  [Actually, before getting to “it depends” we say “my rate is $500 an hour and I’ll need a $10,000 retainer.”]

A few years ago one of my students struggled with his inability to find black-and-white answers to legal questions. Frustrated by my explanation of the first exam he yelled at me and stormed out of the room. For the next few weeks he sat in the front row mumbling “ridiculous” and “multiple choice” and “picky” to himself, and glowering at me while I taught. Then one day he ran into my office to share an epiphany. “I understand!” he yelled. “We have to think in the space between black and white. We have to embrace the gray!”

Unfortunately, he never did figure out what that means.

Many of you believe that everyone, but you, knows what they are doing with their lives. Everyone doesn’t. Many of you believe that everyone, but you, is moving ahead with certainty. Everyone isn’t. Those with step-by-step career plans will discover that there are plans on paper, and then there are plans in the real world. Plans on paper rely on binary assumptions: if I attend a top-tier law school, then I will have a lucrative career in corporate law. If I work on Wall Street, then I will earn enough to work for Teach for America. If I live at home to save money, then my parents will treat me as an adult and let me come and go as I please.

It is difficult, even scary, to cut the moorings of black and white choices. Whether or not you embrace the idea that your future is uncertain, it is the nature of plans to encounter the convoluted world, and to change. My plans changed because of love, marriage, real estate, mortgages, children, youth soccer, the 1990’s savings-and-loan crisis, business opportunities, innate restlessness—and love, again.

This last love affair does not involve another individual. (Remember, my wife is here.) It includes you, and my thousands of other students. It encompasses what I feel, teaching in a college classroom. It is the deep connection teaching creates between who I am and what I do. It is devotion to sharing my passion for learning. It is ardor for exploring life’s complexities through law, for encouraging students to pierce the deceptive ease of black-and-white resolutions.

Years from now, you may see a picture taken of you today, smiling in your regalia, flanked by family, holding your empty diploma cover. You will look across the years into the eyes of your younger self. You will see someone who was focused, or uncertain, someone employed, or looking for work, someone seizing life, or someone who wanted to defer graduation’s reckoning for three years—that is, someone going to law school. You may reflect on the path you’ve traveled since the moment captured in that picture. And perhaps your path will have delivered you, as mine has delivered me, to a place both implausible and natural. Implausible, because 34 years ago that idealistic future lawyer would have never imagined he might one day teach business law at Boston University. Natural, because being a part of your experience at the School of Management is the most rewarding and satisfying thing I have done with my professional life.

Embrace the gray.  Thank you.

Go, gray, go

My Introduction to Law students take their first exam today. Many are wondering how to prepare for my multiple-choice, open-book exams–clearly, they reason, such an exam will not consist of definitions.  A recurring theme in yesterday’s discussions during my office hours was the contrast between the “binary thinking” (yes/no, black/white, right/wrong) characteristic of many math, science, and engineering courses and the “maybe this, maybe that” thinking characteristic of legal analysis.  One student said to himself as he stood to leave my office, “think gray.”

Excellent advice for students of the law:  Think Gray.  Just remember that on each multiple-choice question, there will be one answer that is better than the rest.