My seventeen year-old son Charlie IV continues his new-found and somewhat all-consuming career of applying to colleges all over the U.S./English Speaking World. We had talked about including Germany and France but so far he isn’t interested. Today he was working on his application for the University of Chicago (where I received my J.D. degree, and where my mother studied and received several degrees back in the days of Chancellor Robert Maynard Hutchins). In the spirit of the eccentric Hutchins College, once called the greatest collection of disturbed adolescents since the Children’s Crusade and alternatively described, with only mild exaggeration, as “A Baptist School where Atheist Professors teach Catholic Theology to Jewish Students”, the 2009 University of Chicago College Application posed the following question to Charlie as a subject for an original application essay. I attach Charlie’s very interesting response to this challenge in full below, which Charlie ground out in just over two hours:
“Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust,” wrote the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” What is “human personality?” Is it obvious what uplifts and what degrades it? Can law be justified on the basis of it? We want to hear your thoughts on justice as it relates to this “human personality.”
IS ANY LAW THAT UPLIFTS HUMAN PERSONALITY REALLY JUST? I don’t think so…
Charles Edward Andrew Lincoln, IV, (Friday November 13, 2009)
Life itself, especially life in elementary secondary school/High School, has often seemed a lot like jail to me. Cinderblock walls and cement floors with cheap linoleum and cheaper carpets decorate unadorned square block shaped buildings two or three stories tall, and this seems to be the standard format of institutional life everywhere and these are where I have spent most of my waking hours, from age 5 going on 6 to 17 going on 18.
Sometimes I think I should have been “a pagan, suckled in a creed outworn,” or perhaps “a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” But instead all I’ve ever been student, among many other students, just another brick in the wall. But these are the meditations of prisoners everywhere, I think.
I certainly think I can understand how sitting in jail, in Birmingham, Alabama, or anywhere else, would make a person think a lot about what is uplifting and what is degrading. Prisons are built to “uplift society” by suppressing crime, which can only be done by “degrading” the very essence of our society, the people who came to this land described by the phrases
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”
(And in fact, yes I do promise that’s the last cheesy quotation from extremely well-known poems I will make in this letter of application—but it fits doesn’t it? Isn’t it primarily the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched rufuse of so many teeming shores, and above all, the homeless, who crowd all the different kinds of American prisons?—If I need to elaborate on this, I can and will—without the poorest, most underemployed, and least educated of the whites, African Americans, Mexicans, Vietnamese and Chinese, the correctional services industry would simply NOT be the fastest growing industry in the United States, as any watcher of late-night television knows for certain from constant advertising.)
In my 17 years and four months on this planet, I have been trying to develop my own “human personality” in the face of constant limitations and challenges. Words like “uplifting” and “degrading” are entirely subjective, entirely relative depending on one’s position in the world and on the planet.
But from any given position in relative time-space-and-social dimensions, it is definitely obvious what is uplifting or degrading—just as it is obvious what is “good” and “evil.” “Uplifting good actions or things” are those aspects of life which we perceive as beneficial to us and “evil degrading actions or things” are those which we perceive as harmful to us.
And jail really is the focal point for degrading some people by putting them in an evil place so that others can feel safe, uplifted, and confident in their own superiority. Jail is also the focus, one of the ends, of that which we so often refer to as the “justice” system. “Justice” uplifts some by degrading others. Criminal law is but one field where some human personalities (prosecutors/defense lawyers/judges) are consistently uplifted while most others are consistently degraded.
Think, for example, if thoughts of prison and criminal are too unbearably harsh, of the mortgage foreclosure crisis. What is more degrading than to be evicted from one’s home? What is more uplifting than to obtain financing for your wonderful dream home, larger and more elaborate than what you ever dreamed you could possibly afford? What is more degrading than to be turned down for credit? What is more uplifting than to be awarded a million dollars credit based on “stated income” with no credit check? All these actions, events, and phenomena are true stories constituting part and parcel of the financial crisis besetting America today.
Predatory lenders have made fortunes originating and then securitizing loans, which they, as “originators” know the “borrowers” could never pay back. That’s how hundreds of thousands of “MacMansions” were build on Florida’s Gulf-Coast and California’s Inland Empire, in Collin County North of Dallas and in explosion after explosion of suburban or ex-urban development throughout the first decade of the third millennium after the alleged birth of someone who allegedly said, “lay up your treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was, as his birth-name suggested, in so many ways an old-timey Protestant preacher of “that Old Time Religion” who doubtless knew his Gospels extremely well, probably backwards and forwards, including Matthew 6:20 and Luke 12:33. So, IS predatory lending evil? It has led to a crisis, which threatens not only the economic but the socio-political stability of the modern world—because thief-like investment bankers invented derivative securities and abrogated the common law, and now gnaw away at the remnants of capitalism like moths or rusting humidity. Truth is the greatest antioxidant (anti-rusting agent) in the world, but it lies far off, out of our grasp, as we grope like blind men along the walls, and hundreds of millions of people in starving Somalia and the Sudan in Africa, millions of sweatshop workers working for pennies a day in China and “slumdogs” who aspire to be “millionaires” in India still dream of living the uplifting good life which degrading evil credit can provide.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wanted African Americans to share in the riches of America, because that would be uplifting and therefore positive for them. One wonders how Dr. King would feel today to know that black men in modern America are more likely to go to jail than to become home owners, even now (especially now?) under the Presidency of an African-American who wants to expand the circular abuses of credit and preserve the system created by mostly white investment bankers.
So economic justice exemplifies a large family of Hegelian opposites, which are so easily transformed into Marxist “contradictions inherent in all things”, the dialectic between which is the source of all social change.
Are there alternatives? Are there JUST alternatives to systems which simultaneously degrade some people so that others can be uplifted? Are there systems which maximize the good and minimize the evil?
I sometimes wonder whether the Constitution of the United States, with its separation of powers and its Bill of Rights, was not the world’s greatest experiment in such a system which might, if properly applied, have the potential to accentuate the positive and diminuate (I looked it up in Webster’s it is a real word!) the negative.
Federalism and the three part government are tools of separating powers which at least theoretically, if properly applied, limit the ability of any one individual or group of individuals to uplift himself (or themselves) into the positions of KINGS and ARISTOCRATS while degrading others into the positions of SERFS and PEONS. I have some distant English cousins who are listed in both “Burke’s Peerage” and “Debrett’s Peerage” and have heraldic coats of arms issued them by the College of Arms.
It must be a great feeling to be a peer of the realm, even though you can’t automatically sit in the House of Lords anymore, but the U.S. Constitution forbids titles of nobility. In other words, the U.S. Constitution forbids something that is really uplifting TO SOME PEOPLE precisely because it is inherently degrading to others, and such things as titles of nobility, coats of arms, and ranks of peerage are UNJUSTLY but surely such things as guarantee that “some animals are more equal than others”, just as prisons and mortgage lending do. The Declaration of Independence says that this country is built on the proposition that all men are created equal, while another distant cousin of mine once wrote that even in the context of internal divisions, we should have “malice for none and charity for all.”
How could one ever be a peer and NOT have some form of malicious contempt for all those who do not? You would always be tempted to think you must be superior if you hold a title to all people who don’t. A peer could not possibly have equal “charity for all.” There are definitely titles in American Culture which seem to exalt some people over others: “Doctor,” “Senator”, “the Honorable”, etc., as if the people who have these titles are (respectively) “more learned”, “older”, “more honorable” than anyone else. (The only American title I don’t understand at all is “Esquire”—what does that mean, that lawyers actually carry shields or subscribe to certain popular men’s magazines more than others?)
While the separation of powers mandated by the Constitution would seem to be one guarantor of real equality, but it is the Bill of Rights that really seems to guarantee that no one should be guaranteed uplifting human personality at the expense of others. Justice under the Bill of Rights guarantees to all people the rights of the First Amendment, to speak and articulate one’s political and religious (or other) philosophies as one sees fit, and to guarantee to everyone the right to peaceably assemble and to petition for redress of grievances.
Yet there are movements in the United States which seem to suppress the right of the people to petition, or even to discuss the law—such movements as are the “integrated bar” movement in the legal profession, which seems to create a kind of quasi-nobility based on law or legal knowledge or admission to what was, historically, only a private club in America—the Bar Association. Are lawyers really the only people who understand law well enough to “petition for redress of grievances” in America these days?
If they are, then perhaps the residual guarantor of freedom and equality in America, the Second Amendment, is the last real bastion of equality. In Colonial Latin America, only “noble Indians” (i.e. Indians who were accepted as “superior” by Spanish Authorities) were allowed to carry firearms, and in fact even these “Indios Hidalgos” could only acquire the right to carry firearms by applying for a license.
In the United States of America, I believe that everyone should be allowed to carry firearms for the simple reason that, if the Maya and Aztec had had firearms and cannons in the 16th Century, they probably would never have been conquered and subjugated by the Spanish, and their nobility would have never been made subordinate to the Spanish. It is degrading to be conquered although it is very uplifting to conquer. The human personality of a Conqueror probably feels very good, literally “on top of the world.” But such an uplift is possible only at the expense of degrading others, and that is why the real balance of power must be maintained by freedom of speech, backed up by the equal right to keep and bear arms.
Likewise, in all probability, black Africans would have been enslaved in much smaller numbers if they had possessed firearms, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, job in the 1960s, as well as his tenure in the Birmingham Jail, might have both been quite a bit less burdensome and onerous, because there’s nothing that uplifts every human personality so much as preserving the individual right to speak, when no one else’s right is accordingly diminished or degraded. These are rights worth keeping and bearing arms to preserve.