Commentary Magazine


The Advocate

Affability is native to his spirit, as clear skin and good health habits to his person. His dress, his grooming, and the stylish deployment of his features reflect the harmony of a young man on excellent terms with his resources. Liking and liked in return, a lover of sports and family circles, good cars and sun tans, his life style would, in ordinary political times, properly be called bourgeois. No one can call him that now, though his present version of the good life was known once largely in fraternity houses. Indeed, to the cooler political eyes of another era, a young man of his sort would have been so appraised: in truth, were it not for the company he keeps and the tempest for which he stands, a young man of his simplicity might be so appraised today. His membership in a radical lawyers’ collective has taken him far. He joined shortly after leaving law school, after a few years of floundering with dull cases in private practice. Though with traces in him yet more jock than visionary, the move marked a clear maturing point in his life. He took up his new work seriously, immediately, as he had always taken up challenges which interested him.

He came to his membership in the radical collective with a certain self-possession and an enthusiasm not unlike that he had brought to other circles he had joined in his thirty-odd years. In addition, the fellow members he meets now are wonderful company, by far the best he has known for style and self-confidence—and brains—all qualities which have always won his deepest esteem. Indeed, some of them awe him with their brains. Here too are the sort of men—serious, grim, unsocial, unkempt—he never would have crossed paths with in college: he is sorry for that now. He perceives that there is a special dimension to them, a kind of importance: they reflect the stance and the doctrine of their revolutionist clients as though they had known these things all their lives.

With some eagerness to test himself now in these intellectual waters, he looks to his own capacities as he has never thought to look before. (Concentration, he discovered early in life, served him well, as quickness served others.) He had never had to consider the quality of his mind. It was understood, early on, that whatever he wanted to do, he would do without trouble. The study of law imposed no severe tests that way. He mastered the formulas implicit in the discipline, was in fact terribly interested in individual cases in his texts, fond of following them to their solution. He always wanted to know how things came out, once he had spent time being interested in them. The role of lawyer with its pleasant status, its elastic demand upon the intellect, was well enough suited to the furnishings of his mind, his observers would have thought.

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His time for self-questioning has come in the radical collective, partly as a consequence of the furnishings of his mind. (Only in the most extreme circumstances of his life has he experienced a sense of thinness, an inability to sort things out clearly in a given time.) Now he has come to feel, in the presence of his lean and hungry colleagues and of his raging clients, a flood of guilt. He believes it is because of the advantages to which he was born and which he has enjoyed all his life. Then, his brainy, somber colleagues make him feel guilty, for reasons he understands but dimly. With them his confusion is twofold. The absence in him of any critical intellect makes it possible for him to perceive them as men of extraordinary brilliance (and that absence makes it possible, too, for him not to know why he feels disadvantaged in their presence). And he is disposed now to feel enormous guilt in the presence of his clients, whose dismal and reckless lives are so unlike his own, so unlike any he has known. He does not know where he gets the right to represent people who have done so much and suffered so much.

Finally, for his guilt, there is nothing which would account for him in this courtroom. Nothing, in his combative presence before the court, which he is now sworn to despise (he had never before hated anybody impersonally) which he could account for: nothing in his accomplishment, his knowledge, or the passion of his mind which earned him the position he now enjoys. The idea he finds easiest to understand is that he is at the center of the political heroism of his era. The political trial is the great issue of his time. His collective, college audiences, the entire Left movement, Old and New, the media, have helped him define himself in his new historic role. Nonetheless, his understanding of his political position in no way diminishes his sense of guilt. Indeed, political position and guilt are one to him: the two are hopelessly confused in his mind. He goes to synagogues and churches to speak, gives television interviews, and fund-raising speeches: his predominant theme is guilt, his guilt, the national guilt. (His detractors have noted sourly of him, there is nothing so powerful as a neurosis whose time has come.)

In truth, he has things to feel guilty about. Awed, a not quite comprehending intimate of the law officially, he feels alien in the courtroom. (Some part of him still regards the law as an instrument of hallowed tradition, despite the support of his political tutelage.) With some relief he regards his clients’ mocking challenge to a complex and awesome system of jurisprudence. With their impatient scuffling, their fierce rage against complexity and ceremony, he is easier. Wedded to them in their denial of the Law, its mystiques and its great issues, he feels a satisfaction he had till then not known before the bar. All things, he is now faintly aware, are reducible by collective effort.

His identification with his clients, the also-alienated, increases his already heavy burden of guilt. Indeed, his behavior before the court gives evidence that he believes he is the accused, rather than the representative of the accused. The function of his peculiar, wide-ranging guilt is born, he does not understand, not of an excess of sensibility, but of incapacity to accept disapproval from any quarter, even, strangely, from his avowed enemies. He is, for example, in dread of the judge and obliged to call that dread rebellion. (His now long tenure as an advocate in political trials has permitted him to develop ornate disguises for his dread.) He appears almost as rebellious as his unhappy clients. He giggles with the most antic of them, balks at procedure, laughs helplessly at displays of judicial stiffness. He sulks when reprimanded for this behavior and worries, oftentimes, what it is about him that might cause the judge to dislike him personally.

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He is, curiously, without the immunity which insulates most of his clients: the ideologue’s scorn for his enemies, the relish for their hatred, the assumption that the approval of one’s allies is comfort enough. Only he, oddly, can tolerate no blame from his enemies. Indeed, the extraordinary displays of his feelings, his sense of personal grievance—louder even than those of his clients most of the time—bear witness to his strange sensitivity. And those he reviles-the judge, the other officers of the court, the representatives of the press—pain him anew every day by returning his dislike. Though his mind tells him the reason, he cannot understand it in his heart.

His political conduct, he has learned from his friends in the collective and the Guild, is his profession now. Political conduct, he understands now, is the opposite of proper behavior of counsel in the courtroom. Committed as he is to his knowledge, his new politico-legal profession, he is most unhappy to accept charges of misconduct and impropriety directed at him by the court or by the press.

From his clients, and from older-model radicals in his profession, comes the fount of his courage to be other than the self he has always known. It was not easy for him, at first, to overcome his affability, his automatic politeness—not for nothing had he learned to say “pardon” for “what.” Too early and too often he had learned that manners were a measure of something important. Sped by his instinct for avoiding the disapproval of those nearest him (before taking into account the possibility of any other), he perceived that reviling the court, the older man on the bench, the pigs, and the fascist press, had nothing to do with him personally: these were the political styles of his new circle. As he had been instructed, the enemy of his friends was his enemy. On this lesson he concentrated, screaming in the courtroom with the best of them. Feeling unhappy when people should think ill of him for this, he turns to his older, radical colleagues who assure him that his is the greatest virtue in these ugly exchanges.

His colleagues offer him models and succor, but for politics he has learned to depend on the leadership of his clients. These, he knows, spend long hours in their cells, poring over the wisdom of Mao, Che, Fanon, Lenin, and Abbie Hoffman. Of such learning they know more than he can ever hope to comprehend (they spend more time at books than he has ever done), though comprehend he must, to some degree. He is, he knows, political spokesman as well as advocate, and while he defers to his clients, the accused, in these matters, he has at the same time consented to reeducate the public in the higher understanding of political and social matters his clients enjoy. (As the members of his collective agree, there are no better savants on the forces which shaped our century than the accused.) Taught by them that he may teach, he is secretly awed by the wide range of their reference and at their patience with reading, on their own, books of such density as would have made him fretful had they been assigned in a college course. He is frequently astonished at encountering observers of his clients who are unimpressed by their intellectual stature.

He has had to make certain adjustments to observed contradictions in this matter. If, in the very nature of their talent for entrapment, the failure of their plots, their propensity for selecting police as allies, their tendency to plant bombs made of clay and oatmeal and devices otherwise thwarted by police-work, his clients have exhibited signs of something less than quickness, he is able to adjust. He understands that in the politics of revolution, losing is really winning.

And if certain other of his clients paint their faces and their chests and chant Oms, amid barnyard howls and ethnic jibes at the court, he understands it is all part of the plan.

He is able to adjust to contradictions, for example, by reasoning that it is the very superiority of his clients which marked them for capture and the prospect of many years in jail, if convicted. He had learned not a few things from his collective and his clients by now, handled them with all the concentration with which he handled lessons in the past. With all his new skill, he takes in stride the whole matter of conspiracy, among others. He believes passionately in a vast conspiracy of the courts, acting as an instrument of government to repress dissent; that there is no figure representing law who is not an active arm of government repression; that the police, the courts, the judge, work hand in hand with the government in this conspiracy; that the judge is a conspirator with the prosecutor; that the press is, with few exceptions, in conspiracy with the government and the prosecution. At the same time, his clients have been charged with conspiracy which, he points out, is a ludicrous concept. The very notion of conspiracy, he points out, is paranoid, another symptom of a sick system, a sick society. He has no difficulty with his two positions on conspiracy. It is all part of the big picture.

All these things he has digested and he believes. Yet he is not really able to rid himself of the question of disapproval for very long. All he has done is listen and learn. His times told him that being a lawyer—a profession, merely—was one dry-as-dust affair, no better than being in business. A radical lawyer, in a collective, put another dimension on the matter entirely. (It occurred to him, much like the difference between being a detective and a traffic policeman.) The radical collective invited him to join the most stylish and, by the lights of his culture, the most prestigious of circles in which to practice his profession. There were fringe benefits. He found it pleasing to confirm in himself (he never thought otherwise) that all his activities proceeded from his decency, rather than from his professional or otherwise selfish interests. The life of the radical lawyer was much in accord with his native value system that way. He had always known that the gesture is more important than the substance, the motive more important than the act, and, as he had always learned, the thought more important than the gift. He understood that the mere attitude implicit in being a radical lawyer said more for him, and more quickly, than any professional act of his could do. Irresistibly, revolutionary politics called to him: the chance to stand in the vanguard of a great social movement; for a living, to be a terrific guy.

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As choices of professions go, his did not disappoint him, except insofar as being disliked pained him, the small troubles which nagged him when he had to make serious adjustments to his perceptions. He perceived that his closest allies were people who bore toward other people, indeed whole societies, murderous attitudes; that his clients meant malevolence even when they did not succeed in the doing; that the motive behind the deed was annihilating; that some lives were expendable according to underground ethic, and gestures of destruction part of the overall catechism. These perceptions, after some small trouble, he took in stride, and under tutelage, he concentrated on the two most important attitudes for the radical lawyer: (1) that his clients are innocent victims of charges entirely trumped up by the state in a war of extermination against dissidents and blacks; (2) if his clients are guilty as charged, they have every right to be.

These two attitudes carry him far toward peaceful adjustment. Small matters which nag at his reason, his respectable upbringing—gun-toting, underground networks, bombs, anti-Semitic pronouncements, suicidal rampages against the police, directives from Algeria—all these he ascribes to the greater revolutionary wisdom of his collective. Now a member of the sharpest fraternity around, he is eager to be worthy of them. With the best will in the world he is learning, concentrating, to see the things they see in exactly the way they see them: Che, Fanon, Cleaver, the United States war of extermination. If he has a question, he holds his peace, confident the answer exists. All his life, he has learned to keep quiet around people smarter than himself.

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