The question of whether a person who is a known liar is eligible to become a member of the bar is one of these dilemmas that seem to be as much the fodder for standup comedy as it is a serious philosophical inquiry. Since so many licensed lawyers are known to lie or at least aggressively shade and chip away at the truth for a living, depriving someone who has already done the same thing in another profession of a chance to join the ranks of legal eagles seems to be the height of irony, if not a bit unfair. Nevertheless, one must applaud the scruples of those solons that judged Stephen Glass, who gained infamy for spinning fictional yarns and passing them off as factual reporting in national magazines, as unworthy to be a member of the California bar.
That ruling, an appeal of which will soon be decided by the California State Supreme Court, is the subject of a piece by New York Times op-ed columnist Joe Nocera today in which the author presents the famous fabulist Glass as a classic case of redemption. Nocera portrays the would-be lawyer as the second coming of George Washington and Abe Lincoln. Nowadays, Nocera tells us without tongue in cheek that he won’t even “tell even the tiniest of white lies”). But the column, like Glass’s attempt to join the bar, is both unconvincing and unseemly.
One of the most curious aspects of this case has always been Glass’s ability to portray himself as a victim. As a takedown of his appeal by Reuters media critic Jack Shafer shows, his excuses for the lies he spun in the pages of The New Republic and other publications are a microcosm of a culture in which seemingly every offense can be rationalized. Though he claims to have taken responsibility for his lies Glass blames his parents a lot as well as humiliations in high school and the pressure of going to law school while also holding down a job in journalism. The only thing he left out was the Twinkies.
Glass has always seemed a poor candidate for redemption since his first public act after being drummed out of journalism was to write a pseudo-memoir in the form of a novel about his experiences in which he piled on the excuses and pro-forma apologies while also cracking wise at the expense of some of the people and publications he defrauded. As one of the editors he scammed wrote of the book:
Glass’ ability to apologize while simultaneously insisting that his wrongs were trivial; his sneering portrayal of journalists even as he begs our forgiveness; his insistence that his book is fiction even as he asks you to believe that his repentance is real; all this goes beyond chutzpah into self-delusion. Part of Steve Glass wants to give the world the finger; an equal part just wants to be hugged.
In the end, the more Glass’ apologies pile up, the more perfunctory they feel. It’s as if Glass knows this is what’s expected of him before he can progress through the cultural cycle of exposure, exile, repentance and rehabilitation.
Some of those who were his victims, like former TNR publisher Marty Peretz, support their former protégé. The argument seems to be that if Peretz can forgive him, who are the rest of us to question Glass’s sincerity? Indeed, why should any of us care whether the California bar or the one in New York (which has already rejected him) lets him practice law? Aren’t further sanctions on Glass hypocritical?
But unlike Nocera, I agree with Shafer. There may be, as Shafer says, “worse people practicing law in California than Glass,” but there is something unseemly about the desire of this fraud for a state stamp of approval on his attempt to recast his character. No one is saying that he isn’t entitled to make a living of some sort or to peaceably live out his life, but the idea of Glass parading in front of a court and forcing others to swear to tell the truth is a bit much. To let him into the bar is almost to imply that journalistic lies are to be expected and forgiven since someone, no matter how young, who committed similar frauds while practicing law could never hope to regain their license. Had he faded quietly into obscurity, there would be no need to retell the story of his lies. But with his novel and his campaign for the bar, Glass won’t let it go. Until he does, neither should we.