Less than the Least

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April 2009 Archives

April 13, 2009

Debtors' Prisons Old and New--Skeel

Debtors’ prisons seem to be back in the news. Last week’s New Yorker included an interesting article about debtors’ prisons in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century America (a link to the abstract is here). Decreasingly few states allowed imprisonment for debt by the mid nineteenth century, but debtors’ prisons weren’t abolished altogether until the Thirteenth Amendment was passed after the Civil War. Some commentators have argued that the 2005 amendments to the bankruptcy laws, which increased the costs and hassles of filing for bankruptcy, violate the Thirteenth Amendment. This is rather far fetched, but a recent practice in Florida seems a much closer call. A New York Times story reported that Florida courts have been throwing criminal defendants in jail if they fail to pay their court fees. Although this may not be imprisonment for debt, it seems awfully close.

Googling Jurors--Skeel

A couple of weeks ago, a friend showed me this article on jurors doing their own research during the breaks from a trial.  Given how quickly most of us go to the Internet to research our latest health concerns, it's not much surprise jurors are doing the same.  In both contexts, the results may be frightening.  Although it shouldn't be condoned-- think of all those wildly mistaken health diagnoses, not to mention jurors' promise to rely only on information presented at the trial--jurors' moonlighting could have a small silver lining.  Perhaps the risk that some jurors may look elsewhere for clarification of confusing aspects of a trial will encourage lawyers and judges to be as clear and as complete as possible within the four walls of the courtroom.

April 16, 2009

Veronese and John the Baptist--Skeel

With the possible exception of several Caravaggios, my favorite painting in Rome on my most recent visit was this painting (the reproduction here isn't great) of Saint John the Baptist by Veronese, in the Borghese Gallery. The planes of the painting—John’s body and arms, the trees in the background—are at slightly rakish angles, and the colors—reds, oranges, olives—seem pleasingly unexpected. 

The figure of Jesus in the lower left, just coming into view, must have been painted with John 3:22-26, especially verses 29-30, in mind. When asked what he thinks about his disciples flocking to Jesus, John the Baptist says: “The bride [i.e, God’s people] belongs to the bridegroom [i.e. Christ]. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and is now complete. He [Christ] must become greater, I must become less.”
This, in my view, is one of the greatest acts of humility in history. 
When I recently mentioned this painting, and the passage from the Gospel of John, to a dear friend who knows more about art than anyone I know (and, truth be told, likes the Veronese painting but doesn’t love it as much as I do), I commented that it’s hard to imagine a superstar of any sort in our own time saying, as John did: my turn is done; I’ll step aside now.
My friend responded that the verses reminded him, “on a more mundane scale,” of a conference on academic medicine he attended two years ago. One of the presenters was one of the leading figures in the field, “a senior man but still in his prime. Another was a rising star. The former, introducing the latter, made remarks very close to John’s. I was moved,” my friend recalled, “as was, visibly, the ‘rising star.’”

April 25, 2009


I have several reactions to the torture memos and the frenzy that has erupted since their publication. On the one hand, some of the behavior at issue—like pushing a prisoner against a wall designed to yield to pressure—seem far too mild to deserve the label “torture.” Using that word to describe such tactics cheapens the concept. On the other hand, two of the tactics described in Jay Bybee’s memo—waterboarding and extended sleep deprivation—seem to me qualitatively different. Those tactics strike me as transparently evil, the sort of thing civilized societies should not tolerate in others and should never do themselves. When governments practice such evil, they should be called to account. That is the great benefit of the rule of law: rulers are held to the same standards as those they rule. On yet another hand (I’m hearing the music for “Fiddler on the Roof” as I type this), there is something grossly unfair about punishing people who were striving to do right in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. Mercy is a virtue not much seen in America’s legal system these days. This setting seems to me a good place to begin practicing that virtue. 

But my dominant reaction does not run along those lines; its origin is neither legal nor political. For the past nine years, my back and right leg have hurt. For the past five years, the pain has been both constant and, usually, severe. Every day, I have periods when I hurt in a measure that, not so long ago, would have left me screaming. Sometimes, pain of that sort and worse must be inflicted on others. Soldiers shoot enemy fighters; doctors set broken bones, sometimes without adequate anesthetics on hand. But the idea of inflicting such pain not out of necessity but by choice horrifies me.
Why, exactly? The question is harder to answer than you’d think. One thing I’ve learned the past few years is that pain conscripts the mind. My wits are no longer mine; cancer and sciatica rule mental territory once put to other, better uses. In my case, that is no one’s fault: pain and disease are arbitrary villains; they strike without reason or cause. The notion of producing such effects deliberately—not because one must but because one can—seems monstrous. I still would decline to prosecute all those involved in this ugly business. But I want the ugliness acknowledged and condemned. And I certainly don’t want my government doing such things, ostensibly for my benefit.


The past few months have been discouraging. Thanks to pain, nausea, and fatigue—the first two are worse now than during chemo; the third is almost as bad—I’ve done a lousy job of teaching this semester. I’ve managed to do a little writing along the way, but only a little: much less than an ordinary semester’s work product.  Bad teaching and not much writing are not what I was hired to do. Frustration and guilt are constant companions. 

I wonder sometimes what it feels like to deal with cancer and chronic pain without a job. On the one hand, it would be a great gift not to feel that omnipresent guilt about badly taught classes and unproductive months. On the other hand, were work absent, pain and disease would fill my mind; nothing would be left to elbow them aside. I can think of few worse hells than that.
Which makes me wonder at this fact: the large majority of chemo patients I’ve seen at Yawkey (the Boston cancer center where I go) are well past retirement age. What must it be like to live with this disease and—just as bad—to live with the treatments without a job to occupy one’s mind? I shudder at the question. It sounds strange, but I’m thankful that this disease has caught me while I’m still working. The next thought is less odd: As badly as I do my job these days, I’m more thankful for it than I have words to express.

April 26, 2009


Cancer is more pickpocket than robber: it catches you unawares; you find out about it after your wallet is gone. Most of the time, anyway. 

But not all the time. My cancer was symptomatic before I was diagnosed in February of last year. The strange abdominal pain and my internist’s obvious concern after my annual physical left me unsurprised when the diagnosis came. Maybe it’s my customary pessimism at work, but I feel the same way now. Five months after chemo ended, I’m queasy all the time and nauseous much of the time, and I have a nonstop, low-grade headache that doesn’t always stay low-grade. The last few days, I’ve started to experience dizziness; I’m having trouble reading. My docs seem nervous: these could be signs that my cancer has spread to my brain—one of the places colon cancer likes to call home. Needless to say, that would be bad news. Another, less awful explanation is also plausible. These symptoms could be the effects of drug interactions; I’ve taken so many different pills that no one can say what the various combinations might do to me. My medical situation might be about to take a decided turn for the worse. Or, not so much. Either way, I’ll know soon.
Soon enough, by my lights. An old saying gets it about right: good news will keep, and bad news will find you. Part of me wants to know what the near future holds. Another part wants to hold onto my ignorance awhile longer—after all, ignorance is the only state I can freely choose. Choosing it now, if only for a week or two, feels empowering.

April 30, 2009

The First Hundred Days--Skeel

At his press conference last night celebrating his first hundred days, the President referred again to the need for a “house built on rock,” as he did in his speech on the economy at Georgetown last week. The reference is, of course, to the parable of the man who built his house on rock, not sand, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 7:24-27). 

Although Obama is using the parable in an entirely secular context, I personally think his choice of Biblical reference is both apt and effective. (I also thought the press conference was masterful—including his handling of the abortion question). But to truly lay a solid foundation for the future, especially for the economy, I think the next hundred days will need to rely less on new spending and more on the kinds of hard regulatory choices that haven’t been made thus far. 

The Chrysler Bankruptcy--Skeel

T.S. Eliot famously wrote that “The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” 

I’m not sure if it’s doing the right deed for the wrong reason, or doing the wrong deed for the right reason, but I found myself thinking of Eliot as I read the terms of the Chrysler bankruptcy filing this afternoon. There’s no question that it made sense for Chrysler to file for Chapter 11, as also is the case with GM. But the U.S. government is essentially planning to commander the bankruptcy process, by pushing through a sale of most of Chrysler’s assets (not to a true third party, but to “New Chrysler”) early in the case. The only thing standing in the way of the government’s stratagem is the bankruptcy judge who will be forced to decide whether to approve the sale. It will be awfully hard for a judge to say no to the deal that’s about to be thrust on him or her.  The end result may well be desirable, but the means are worrisome.