Dec 14, 2012

Freedom Fries --- Chapter 2: "The President is on the line for you!" (Part 1)

Previously, there have been hints that George W. Bush may experience a change of heart post-retirement, that Samuel Fisher, founder and CEO of the Lynx (LYNX) channel, is concerned about the ratings, and that  George Lukacs, the charismatic hedge-fund titan, can't handle fair-and-balanced news. We're now in Berkeley, at the law school of Berkeley U. where John Yoo, author of the famous torture memos, teaches constitutional law.

John Yoo, professor of constitutional law, Boalt School of Law, Berkeley University
The classroom with its white tables, whiteboards, and overhead projector conveys the so-so appearance of a better UC campus, yet the carpet reveals that California’s university system has basically run out of money since Proposition Thirteen in 1978. Jim feels slightly awkward in this bluish overall, but he has come solely for the purpose of today’s happening, and so he is sitting nervously next to Liz, who has made him do this.

Liz is obsessed with Yoo because she loves constitutional law. She would sit up in bed at night and read Supreme Court opinions like other girls of her bend would read Jane Austen — not to study really, no, to relish an outdated language with pointers to a distant, politer past. She is the only con law student in America who doesn’t dream of the Supreme bench; she wants a humbler job and become Reporter of Decisions. The reporter is charged with the syllabus, an introduction to court opinions that supposedly elucidate the decision for the larger public, and the syllabus usually does its best to compete with the arcane language of the opinion itself. She would write more language for the record of the court than any individual judge. It’s a nice position, fairly well paid, and you work closely with the Justices. Reporter of decisions under Chief Justice Pamela Nachtrieb Timbers, that is her ambition. Timbers, her aunt twice removed, is actually serving as dean of Berkeley’s law school at the moment, but she was clearly destined for higher things, and Liz would follow her to the Supreme Court. Liz was mesmerized by Pamela, infatuated with Pamela, captivated by Pamela. It wasn’t sexual — let’s hope — but that is the only thing it wasn’t. Pamela and Liz are so close; it isn’t even clear whether today’s happening wasn’t Pamela’s idea.

Yoo is not a good speaker, and the rest of the class is bored, except for Liz. Zack is sitting behind them. The clicky noises from there probably means Zack is readying the camcorder. Yes. “Go,” Zack whispers.

Jim pulls a piece of black cloth from his bag, gets up, and climbs on the white table in front of him. He straps the cloth over his head, stretches the arms sideways, and produces a reasonable likeness with the Abu Ghraib mock torture icon.

“Talk about ... constitutionality; any questions about how this works?” Yoo has just asked.
“I’ve got one question,” Jim says, now standing on the table. “How long can I be required to stand her till it counts as torture?” The other students are laughing, but it isn’t clear whether they are siding more with him or with Yoo.

Yoo keeps his cool. “Unfortunately, I’m going to have to end class,” he replies.
-“It’s awkward for you, but it is very uncomfortable for me, I can tell you,” Jim says.
-“You’re putting yourself in that position.”
-“I’d love to move, but each time I do, my balls get buzzed.
-“I have to end class now, I’m afraid.”
-“Please Professor,” Jim is trying again, but Yoo interrupts:
-“I’ll give you a certain amount of time before I report you to security.” He exits under the applause of the students.

A certain amount of time later — two seconds — an administrative woman appears, mildly agitated, and announces that anybody not enrolled in the class has to leave, now, now and forever. Jim, who isn’t sure his lines have worked, turns around to Zack. Zack gives him thumbs up. “You’re headed for YouTube fame,” Zack says. Jim steps off the table.


Pamela Nachtrieb Timbers studies her nails. She has become increasingly interested in her nails since Sandra O’Connor has told her that she would need them a lot on the bench, especially for Scalia’s eyes. Sandra had a few glasses then, but Sandra has always had a few glasses — in vino veritas is a principled line of defense for any esteemed jurist. Pamela moves her attention to the clock on the wall. There are two types of deans. Deans with a large clock on the wall, and deans with a small clock on the wall. This is a large clock.

The whole idea is to make it as awkward for him as possible. This will only work, however, if she manages to maintain a facade of torture neutrality. She will not tell him to go fuck himself. No, she will not. Although, having been forced to study this herself now — due to Yoo’s unfortunate return from Washington — she has been appalled to learn how often rape is deployed as a method of torture. No, she will be all esteemed jurist. Nothing but subtle allusions wrapped in academic lingo. Needle his conscience like you needle a Hopi puppet.

He should enter the ante room any moment now, she thinks, and, yes, there comes the noise of somebody entering the ante room. He would explain that he has to see the Dean right away, and yes, there is a muted conversation between the soprano of her secretary and a castrato voice of Asian provenance. And, yes, the door opens, and there is the Professor of Torture.

“John,” she says, resting in her chair, “good to see you.” He doesn’t have an appointment, so ‘good to see you’ is nicely out of joint, a perfect way to begin. She casts an inconspicuous glance at the large clock on the wall, then at her nails. “What brings you to my office?”

Yoo explains. The disruption of his class. By people that don’t belong to his class (Jim, Zack). The time lost. The inconvenience for the other students. The assault on academic freedom. Et cetera — avoiding to mention Jim’s Abu Ghraib outfit, though — et cetera.

Pamela doesn’t interrupt. She would let the conversation taper off into awkward silence.

The awkward silence commences. “You have nothing more to say?” Pamela asks in the way serial killers are being asked one more question once all skeletons have finally surfaced — not quite sticking to her script, but it feels good, anyhow. “No,” Yoo replies flatly.

Pamela weighs her words: “My sense is that the vast majority of legal academics with a view of the matter disagree with substantial portions of your analyses regarding torture, including a great many of our colleagues at Berkeley. If, however, this strong consensus were enough to fire or sanction you, then academic freedom would be meaningless.” She pauses.

He wants to say something, she interrupts. “Does what you wrote while not at the University somehow place you beyond the pale of academic freedom today?” she continues. “Had you been merely be some professor vigorously expounding controversial and even extreme views, we would be in a familiar drama with the usual stakes. Had you been on leave marching with Nazis in Skokie or advising communists during the McCarthy era, reasonable people would probably find that an easier case still. Here, additional things are obviously in play. Gravely so.”

She stops. What’s next? You are not needling him at all. His non-conscience is completely intact.

An unusual knock on the door. Clarissa bursts into the room.
-”The President is on the line for you!”
-“Please elaborate,” Pamela says.
-”President Obama is on the line for you!”
-“President Barack Hussein Obama?” Pamela asks, grinning to herself about the cheapo.
-“Hussein, yes, Hussein,” Clarissa enthuses.

Pamela half-rises from her chair. “John, I think I have to take that call. Let’s stay in touch.”

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