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Allen Mendenhall Interviews Daniel J. Kornstein

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Communication, Essays, Humanities, Literature, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Politics, Rhetoric & Communication, Shakespeare, Writing on June 4, 2014 at 8:45 am
Dan Kornstein

Daniel J. Kornstein

Daniel J. Kornstein is a senior partner at the law firm of Kornstein Veisz Wexler & Pollard, LLP, in New York City.  He earned his law degree from Yale Law School in 1973 and has served as the president of the Law and Humanities Institute.  He has authored several books including Loose Sallies, Something Else: More Shakespeare and the Law, Unlikely Muse, Kill All the Lawyers? Shakespeare’s Legal Appeal, Thinking under Fire, and The Music of the Laws.  His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, and the Boston Globe.  In 2002, Dan received the Prix du Palais Littéraire from the Law and Literature Society of France.  In 2013, King Michael of Romania awarded him the Order of the Crown of Romania.

AM: Thanks for taking the time to discuss your new book with me, Dan. The name of the book is Loose Sallies, and as you state in your introduction, it’s not about fast women named Sally. For those who haven’t read the introduction or purchased the book yet, could you begin by discussing the book generally and say something in particular about your chosen genre: the essay.

Loose SalliesDJK: Thank you, Allen, for this opportunity. Those of us who occasionally write are, as you know from your own experience, always delighted to have a chance to explain a bit about how and why we scribble. Loose Sallies is a collection of essays written over the past 25 years mostly about topics of general interest. The first 75 pages is about the drafting of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 and why that remarkable process and its end result are still so important to us today. The rest of the book ranges over a wide variety of topics, from our precious civil liberties to profiles of some famous judges and lawyers to current controversies. It should, I hope, appeal to everyone.

AM: Phillip Lopate has said that the essay is a “diverting” type of literature and that its hallmark is intimacy. You call the essay “intimate, informal and reflective, as if you are sitting at home in your living room or dining room and having a pleasant, sometimes provocative, sometimes stimulating, but always, one hopes, insightful and enlightening conversation.” I agree. The essay is my favorite genre because it’s the genre of the person. You can’t know a person until you’ve met the persona he creates in his essays—and if you don’t write essays, you may not know yourself. Who are your favorite essayists, and what is it about their essays that you find compelling?

DJK: My favorite essayists are the obvious ones: Montaigne, Francis Bacon, Addison & Steele, Hazlitt, Lamb, Orwell, Mencken, Macaulay, Emerson, V.S. Pitchett, E.B. White, Lewis Thomas, George Will, Virginia Woolf, Edmund Wilson, and Joseph Wood Krutch. My favorite living essayists are Lopate and Joseph Epstein, the former editor of The American Scholar magazine. All these writers make their essays compelling by their clarity of thought and uniqueness of expression and their ability to communicate original, stimulating ideas, making us see familiar things in a new light. Epstein, for example, can write on literary personalities as well as personal topics we all think we know about but do not really. Everyone in my pantheon of great essayists is a superb writer with a distinctive and memorable style.

AM: I recently interviewed James Elkins, a law professor at West Virginia University, here on this site, and he talked about lawyer poets and said that “our iconic images of lawyer and of poet are put to the test when we think about one person writing poems and practicing law.” You have something to say about this seeming double life. “Writing,” you say, is “part of my double life. I have a life other than the lawyer’s life I lead on the surface. The two sides—law and writing—reinforce and complement each other.” I’ve heard the phrase “the two worlds” problem used to describe the lawyer who is also a writer. But this doesn’t seem to be a problem for you, does it?

DJK: A lawyer IS a writer. Writing is most of what a lawyer does. To be a good lawyer, one needs to be a good writer. Verbal facility, sensibility to language, and lucid thinking are prerequisites for both. A legal brief and a piece of expository writing have much in common. Both have a point to make to persuade the reader. Both rely on effectively marshaling evidence to demonstrate the correctness of a particular perspective. The topics may differ, but the skill and technique are similar. The problem facing the lawyer-writer is more one of time and energy and desire than anything else. Law is a demanding profession, which means taking time off to do anything else cuts into one’s otherwise free moments. But if you want to write, you make the time.

AM: I’m curious, when did your love of literature begin? Did you have an “aha!” moment, or did the love evolve over time?

DJK: I cannot recall ever not loving literature. My paternal grandfather was a printer at Scribner’s and when I was a little boy he gave me four books by Robert Louis Stevenson that my grandfather had himself set in type in 1907. I gave Treasure Island to my son and Kidnapped to my daughter, and still have the other precious two volumes on my shelves.

I remember my father taking me as a youngster to the Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street to get my first library card. In those days, the main building had a circulation department, and my father’s choice for my first library book was, of course, Tom Sawyer, a good choice for a ten-year old boy.

I remember as a teenager reading as much as I could in addition to books assigned in school. There were nights spent, in classic fashion, with a flashlight under the covers after bed time.

Inspiring teachers helped too.

AM: You’ve written a lot on Shakespeare. How did your fascination with him come about?

DJK: Like most people, I first met Shakespeare in high school English classes. Luckily for me, around the same time New York had a summer program of free Shakespeare in Central Park, which continues to this day. Starting in the summer of my junior year in high school — 1963 — I began to see two of Shakespeare’s plays every summer. It was at one of those performances — Measure for Measure in 1985 — that the passion grabbed me. I was 37 years old and had been practicing law for 12 years. As I sat watching Measure for Measure, I realized for the first time how much the play was about law, and that recognition — the “fascination” you refer to — set me off on a project that would last years. First, I wrote a short essay about Measure for Measure for the New York Law Journal, our daily legal newspaper. Then, months later, I saw a production of The Merchant of Venice and wrote another essay. From there, one thing led to another, and before long, I had the makings of a book.

I reread the plays I had read as a student and read many others for the first time. Then I read as much as I could find about Shakespeare and the law. The result was my 1994 book called Kill All The Lawyers? Shakespeare’s Legal Appeal.

I am still fascinated by Shakespeare. Each time I read or see one of his great plays, I get something new out of it.

AM: Many essays in Loose Sallies concern politics, law, government, and current events. You discuss the Founders, Holmes, Bill Clinton, Hugo Black, Steve Jobs, Ayn Rand—all sorts of people and even some decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court. You manage to do so without coming across as overtly political, polemical, or tendentious. How and why?

DJK: It is a question of style and goal. Every one of the essays has a thesis, some of which may even be controversial. The idea is to persuade your reader to accept your thesis, and that requires care and sensitivity, logic and demonstration, not name-calling or verbal table-pounding. If I am “overtly political, polemical or tendentious,” I will probably not convince anyone who does not already agree with me. A writer has to be smoother and subtler. We live in a country right now riven by political and cultural partisanship. Public controversy today between “red” and “blue” is almost always shrill. A reader tires of it; it becomes almost an assault on our sensibilities. To reach people’s hearts and minds, you have to credit both sides of an issue but explain patiently and show convincingly why you think one side is more correct than another. I am not running for public office so I have no “base” to appeal to. But I can at least try to keep the tone of the debates I engage in civil and pleasant.

AM: Do you consider the essays on these topics literary essays?

DJK:Most of the essays in Loose Sallies are not about so-called “literary” topics. True, one is about the literary style of Supreme Court opinions, and two discuss Justice Holmes’s opinion-writing style. But they are exceptions. So I do not think the essays for the most part are “literary” in that narrow sense. Nor do I think they are “literary” by way of being precious or mannered. I genuinely hope, however, that they are “literary” in the sense of being clear, crisp, well-written statements on a variety of topics of interest to all Americans today.

AM: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. Loose Sallies has been enjoyable for me. I keep it on my desk in the office so that, when I need a ten-minute break, I can open it and read an essay. I slowly made my way through the entire book in this manner: a break here, a break there, and then, one day, I was finished. I really appreciate all that you have done not just for the law, but for arts and literature. It’s nice to know there are lawyers out there like you.

2011 in Review

In America, Arts & Letters, Communication, Conservatism, Economics, Essays, History, Humanities, Justice, Law, Libertarianism, News and Current Events, News Release, Philosophy, Politics, Rhetoric, Television, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on January 1, 2012 at 9:54 am
By Slade Mendenhall and Brian Underwood
 
 
Slade Mendenhall is a founding editor of themendenhall.com. He is a student at the University of Georgia majoring in Economics and Mass Communications. His writing interests include screenwriting, fiction and essays on the subjects of philosophy, capitalism, political thought, and aesthetics. His New Years resolution is to progress in the completion of an as-yet-untitled novel (his second).
 
Brian Underwood is a second-year student at the University of Georgia where he studies history and political science as majors and philosophy as a minor. Originally a strong supporter of the Republican Party, Brian moved away from allying himself with the Republicans in politics towards a more “policy over party” position following the 2008 election. As a result, he became an avid reader of historical, philosophical, and other academic works. Moving ever further towards the “libertarian” end of the Nolan Chart, he eventually joined the Objectivist Club and the Young Americans for Liberty after arriving at UGA. Now, he simply defines himself as a “Capitalist.” His main writing interests include philosophy, politics, history, and economics.
 
The following post originally appeared over at themendenhall.
 
An endeavor to measure the shifts and turns of a nation’s ideology can only be compared to an attempt at sensing the turning of the Earth beneath one’s feet. It is at once ubiquitous and elusive, all-encompassing and indistinguishable. Yet, there are, on occasion, times at which one is struck by sudden jolts of rapid motion and change so disruptive that it forbids all attempts at understanding what course or direction it is taking. Swept up, we must at once answer the questions of where we are, to where we are going, and how we are to get there. We must either repair our faulted ideologies or face the consequences of our own contradictions. It may well be that 2011 is to be remembered as such a year. True, it lacked the singular purposefulness of 2010’s drive to repudiate the health care legislation, rid Congress of its unrestrained desire for ever greater government controls, and nullify the Obama administration’s oppressive regulatory policies wherever possible. Different times, however, call for different spirits. 2011 was the time for the promises of the 2010 congressional elections to be put into act, the time to put that ideology to work. The result was often well-intended but imperfect, hindered by the lingering Democratic control of the Senate and complicated by a perpetual series of compromises that left no one satisfied and sent congressional approval ratings to all-time lows of 12.7% at year’s end. As the unemployment rate stagnated, Americans were given a grim look into the engine room of partisan politics where principle is so often held subordinate to considerations of loyalty and appearance.Though it has yet to reflect in our economic condition, things are, politically, better than they were twelve months ago. For the first time in generations, there is a growing sector of average Americans who believe, both practically and ethically, in the merits of political and economic freedom. The challenge now will be carrying the enthusiasm they have cultivated since 2010 forward, through the brutish struggles in Washington’s backrooms and the uncertainty of Iowa’s ballot boxes, toward the elections of 2012 and, with hope, an era of ever-greater victories for the principles upon which our nation was founded. As always, winning our future means understanding our past. It is with that consideration that we look back on the events of the last year as we say goodbye to 2011.
 
A year of trouble and turmoil, 2011 has been as much affected by conflicts abroad as it has by the struggle between the changing tides of American ideologies and the onerous traditions of politics past. Scarcely had the year begun when it was upended by a sudden explosion of conflicts in the Middle East, beginning with the public suicide of a young man in protest of the Tunisian government which transpired to an international wave of political uprisings now known as the Arab Spring. That movement would incite conflicts in nations from North Africa to Syria and bring about the fall of such corrupt dictators as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Ghaddafi. Though the movement wages on in the bloodied streets of Syria, where rebels come to blows daily with a brutal and oppressive regime, its ultimate results and effects on American interests are as yet undecided. Much will depend on the current and future political struggles within those now shaken nations, and history could as easily come to see these events as a vacuum from which emerged a newly energized and vindicated rise of Islamic Totalitarianism as it could the pure and heroic struggle for freedom that the Western media so actively portrayed it to be.
 
  One consideration in particular must be made in regard to that circumstance, however: the nature of those revolutions, the violence in Egypt against Coptic Christians, the presence of Al Qaeda factions among the ranks of Libyan rebels, and the recent political victories of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt portend a dark future for those nations. If popular revolutions can be divided among those most akin to the American Revolution and the French Revolution, that which has transpired in the Middle East this year is definitively the latter. They are not movements based primarily on principles of individual rights. Were they, groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood would have been ousted along with Mubarak. Instead, they are less a push for freedom than they are a push against an oppressor, complicated by the fact that this is a part of the world which has never been exposed to true political freedom or come to accept the philosophical principles which are prerequisite to its realization. Tragically, the American media proved in its coverage of these events its dire inability to make that distinction.
 
In this publication’s view, the Leftist elements of the media were motivated by a desire to vindicate their long-expressed views on America’s Middle East policy since the beginning of the Iraq war. Doubtless, there are a myriad of arguments against our having gone to war in Iraq — most reputably that which states that Iraq was not the greatest or most immediate threat to American security, that the very costly armed welfare mission into which that conflict devolved was in no way carried out in the best interests of American soldiers or citizens, that our efforts would have been better served elsewhere. However, this is not the logic or sentiment which is most fervently held by these advocates. Since the beginning of that war, there has been a considerable segment of the Left which has argued against it on the grounds that the principle of self-determination grants nations the right to practice any form of oppression and denial of individual rights they please, so long as they hold majority support; that political freedom is a Western product that we happen to have chosen, but that any other nation’s choice of tyranny is equally valid because they chose it. Fast-forwarding to this year’s Arab Spring, these same advocates are some of the movement’s most ardent supporters, on the grounds that it shows that, left to their own devices, the peoples of such nations will eventually throw off their own shackles and choose freedom without Western support or guidance. Were this the case, the nations of the Middle East which have undergone revolutions this year deserve our commendations. However, we remain dubious that this is the case. Those who believe that freedom and prosperity are the predestined results of these revolutions will, we fear, be demonstrably proven wrong by whatever variant of oppressive control emerges in these very fragile regions in the coming years. What future instability or, worse, stability under dangerous conditions will mean for America’s interests in the region remain to be seen, but it is a problem that should be carefully observed to maintain our security and best interests.Ironically, in their advocacy of these revolutions, the Left has inherited a trademark intellectual error from the Bush administration: the belief that popular elections and a system of democracy are the source and cause of freedom. This is a grievous inversion that leads man to the conclusion that institutions and their organization can effectively supplant the role of ideas in the guidance of his actions. Though popular elections are an integral part of a free political system, they are its product, not its cause. Only a rational political philosophy of individual rights can ever be the cause of true and lasting freedom. Returning to our previous comparison, in the case of America, its revolutionaries had inherited roughly a century of Enlightenment thought in which they were well-versed and whose principles they explicitly understood. That knowledge of the Enlightenment values of reason and individualism led those men to the design of a government meant to acknowledge and secure them. France’s exposure to Enlightenment thought was quite equal to England’s, but its revolution was driven less by intellectuals and more by a mob, inspired less by a circumspect outlook upon what could be than by the violent, angry rejection of what was. In short: less talk of ideas, more guillotines. To which do the current uprisings in the Middle East better compare and what does that suggest about the political future to be expected there? It is significant that those here in America, the nation of the Enlightenment, are today so unaware of the role of philosophy in its beginnings… and its future.Despite the rather grim prospects of revolutionaries in the Middle East to establish any long-term system of freedom and prosperity, the ideological struggles waged in America this year have proven that its intellectual foundations are alive and well here in the States. What’s more, there are signs that they could be experiencing a popular– and lasting– resurgence. The Tea Party candidates around the country were inaugurated to their congressional seats in January after having run their campaigns on the principles of a free market, fiscal responsibility, and constitutionally limited government. Joining them were welcomed conservative state officials throughout the nation in such volumes as had not been seen since before the Great Depression.  Their rallying cry: to oppose the unyielding growth of government and its power over the lives of private citizens. Their victories were numerous and significant (if as much for what they prevented as what they created), though it seemed, at times, that every victory had its casualties and every two steps forward saw one step back. Democratic power in the Senate made for unproductive compromises and grand-scale debates that evinced more in theatrics than tangible results.This was never more clearly displayed than in the summer debt and budgetary crises, with the tantalizing threat of government shut-down looming over our heads. Americans bore witness to the paltry efforts of Congressto wean itself from excessive outlays, where merely promising to increase spending at a decreasing rate was portrayed as “budget cuts” and an unwillingness to abolish or defund a single government bureaucracy left the fundamental problems of America’s  leviathan state firmly intact. Unsurprisingly, though shut-downs were averted and compromises reached, the political instability over so crucial an issue led to the first downgrade of America’s debt to below AAA. In ensuing months, as compensation, we were offered  another grand spectacle in the form of a “Super-Committee” convened to tackle the problem of America’s mounting foreign debt. Tragically, it was stacked with the most diametrically opposite representatives from Left and Right and, predictably, politics yet again trumped the interests of American citizens’ well-being. Read the rest of this entry »
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