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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Headline News

From Washington Lawyer, March 2005

By Jacob A. Stein

Legal Spectator

Revolution, immigration, discrimination, car bombs, human bombs, atom bombs, sentencing guidelines, venture capitalists finding big profits in prisons, the Middle East, Rwanda, the Balkans, Iraq, Cadillacs made in Japan.

“The present is always chaos, its prophets always charlatans, its values always false. When it has become the past, and may be looked back on, only then is it possible to detect order underlying the charlatanry, inexorable justice underlying false values.” This is Malcolm Muggeridge (1903–1990), a British journalist in the 1940s looking back at the 1930s.

What will our times look like in 10 years? What is the order underlying the chaos and the truth underlying the charlatanry? The way to consider such things is to take a few books and sit in the sunshine in Dupont Circle Park and see if there is something in the books that connects with these big questions.

I picked three books at random from the pile in the corner of my office. They happened to be a collection of essays by Hugh Kingsmill (1889–1949) (who happened to be a friend of Malcolm Muggeridge’s), a collection of essays by Arthur Koestler (1905–1983), and a collection of essays by E. M. Forster (1879–1970).

Hugh Kingsmill wrote novels and biographies and filled them with original thoughts. Here is one:

What is divine in man is illusive and impalpable, and he is easily tempted to embody it in a concrete form—a church, a country, a social system, a leader—so that he may realize it with less effort and serve it with more profit . . . the attempt to externalize the Kingdom of Heaven in a temporal shape must end in disaster. It cannot be created by charters and constitutions nor established by arms. Those who set out for it alone will reach it together, and those who seek it in company will perish by themselves.

Kingsmill has certainly given us something to consider.

Something else to consider is the park where I am sitting. It is used by neighborhood people. There are chess games. There are dogs chasing each other. There are children learning to run a few steps. These are good signs. What’s missing is plaques on the benches.

When I am in Central Park I read the plaques. I like to know that the bench I am sitting on is where Fred proposed to Helen on August 15, 1997. On another bench I learn the birth and death dates of the Winston family and that many happy moments were spent here.

Park plaques are character testimony proving that the park is a good place to be. Why no plaques in Dupont Circle? Why hasn’t someone set up a committee to look into this? Let’s get Mayor Bloomberg on the cell phone and get him to tell us how to do it.

The next book is by Arthur Koestler. He was born in Budapest and commenced his travels as a committed Communist, which brought him to the Spanish Civil War fighting on the side of the Reds. What he saw turned him against Communism.

Koestler has a firm grip of the obvious. He has concluded that we suffer from a serious intractable mental disorder:

The most persistent sound which reverberates through man’s history is the beating of war drums. Tribal wars, religious wars, civil wars, dynastic wars, national wars, revolutionary wars, colonial wars, wars of conquest and liberation, wars to prevent and to end all wars, follow each other in a chain of compulsive repetitiveness as far as man can remember his past, and there is every reason to believe that the chain will extend into the future.

Koestler says evolution has made many mistakes and we are one of them. We do not know how to behave ourselves. We are the only species that takes pleasure in killing each other. Evolution damned us by giving us three brains. The oldest and meanest is reptilian. The next oldest is mammalian. The most recent is a refinement of the mammalian. We shall call it the human thinking cap. We have a lot of the crocodile and the lion between our ears. Our thinking cap has been assigned the impossible task of making us appear to be good, well-behaved people.

It supplies us the little rationality we have. It is the source of our scientific achievement. But it is a flickering light bulb, on and off and unreliable. In one of the flickers it presented us the atom bomb. Koestler leaves us with little comfort.

Koestler would have dismissed E. M. Forster as one of the 1930s Cambridge lefties, easily manipulated by the Commies. The Forster essay I have here with me, titled “What I Believe,” would have surprised Koestler. Forster believes, as Koestler did, that force is the ultimate reality that rules the world. But there are intervals when force is not in control. Forster wants these intervals, which he calls civilization, to be as frequent as possible. During these intervals an aristocracy appears, not an aristocracy of power based on rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky. They represent what is best in the human tradition.

He says there is a secret understanding among these aristocrats. Whoever tries to organize them as a political force fails. They slip through the net and are gone. As long as such people are knocking about, there is some basis for believing the bullies will lose and this park (I hope with plaques on the benches) will be around for the chess games to continue and the children who are now learning to run a few steps will have time to grow up and become aristocrats.

Jacob A. Stein can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].