Leading up to Palm Sunday

Twenty-odd years ago, I was in the Harvard Bookstore buying a philosophy book when I saw, there on a little stand next to the cash register, a bright red pamphlet with the provocative title “Legal Education and the Reproduction of Hierarchy.” Even though I wasn’t in law school (and had no intention of subjecting myself to that experience), I was a young left intellectual trying to make sense of the fast rightward drift of the Reagan years. On an impulse, I bought the pamphlet. I think I paid three dollars for it.

Within a few months, I had given the pamphlet to a friend of mine who was actually in law school. She needed it more than I did. But I remembered the pamphlet’s advice that students should form study groups. Stand up at the end of class, the pamphlet advised, and say that you will be forming a study group at such-and-such a time, at such-and-such a place. When I found myself in graduate school for creative writing, in 1990, I did exactly that. Not that I tried to form a left-leaning study group — by that time, almost no one leaned left in public any more — but I found that participating in any kind of small study group turned out to be a good way to fend off the crushing anonymity of graduate study. (Analogies to small group ministries in congregations would be well-taken.)

As the years went by, I drifted away from left politics, and drifted into religion. I felt that Jesus (and Buddha, and a few other religious geniuses) did a better job of articulating egalitarianism and the essential worth of all persons, than did the Frankfurt School or the New Left.

So there I was yesterday, back in the Harvard Bookstore, when I saw a trade paperback published by New York University Press titled Legal Education and the Reproduction of Hierarchy: A Polemic against the System: A Critical Edition:– a critical edition of the little bright red pamphlet I had bought twenty years earlier. I had forgotten how turgid the prose had been, how simplistic the political analysis. But that little red pamphlet still offers good advice:

Because hierarchy is constituted as much through ideology as through physical violence, it is meaningful to oppose it by talking, by joking and refusing to laugh at jokes, through the elaboration of fantasies as well as through the elaboration of concrete plans for struggle.

Let me hasten to affirm, O Reader, that not all resistance is equally heroic, or equally successful, or equally well-conceived, or equally adapted to an overall strategy for turning resistance into something more. I propose in the next chapter that law students and teachers should take relatively minor professional risks. All over the world, workers and peasants and political activists have risked and lost their lives. There is a gulf between these two kinds of action, and I have no desire to minimize it.

But they are nonetheless parts of the same universe, and we possess no grand theory telling us that actions of one kind or the other are bound always and everywhere to be futile, any more than we can no that the most heroic behavior will be always successful.

Tomorrow, those of us who are spiritual followers of Jesus of Nazareth will remember his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. That’s always the occasion for me to wonder whether Jesus’s acts of resistance in Jerusalem were well-conceived and adequately adapted to an overall strategy for turning resistance into something more. It’s also the occasion for me to think about how far I want to go with my own resistance to the inhumanity of hierarchy, with my own personal work to promote egalitarianism.

Not that I have a final answer to that question, but it’s something to think about.

1 thought on “Leading up to Palm Sunday

  1. Kevin

    Grand sweeping gestures appeal to the spectacle and soap opera aspects that entrances all of us. Hence the reason I appreciate the irony of “The Greatest Story Ever Told”. But I agree with the author of the text: perhaps the most successful gestures in challenging hierarchies are those which are subtle rather than grandiose. Maybe grandiosity is neither the aim and perhaps it is the problem rather than the solution.

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