On Patriotism

My plucky little summer employer is a non-profit, which means, among other things, it has a limited law library. Whenever we need to look up things that don't fall within our limited Westlaw subscription, this means a trip on the BART up to UC Hastings and the library there. I've been up to Hastings three times now, and I still get a catch in my throat at it.

It's not a particularly pretty place, nor are the chairs comfortable. It's just a couple of floors, extremely quiet and filled with the collected legal knowledge of our country. Damn, it's inspiring.

See, we've built ourselves quite a marvelous edifice in the law. It takes something for a society to be able to sustain such a sophisticated legal system, the same way it takes something to support Major League Baseball or the Space Needle. We made this. Maybe I'm just looking up some obscure points of federal standing law, but they fit into the rest of it. If I wanted to, I could go through the whole library, book by book, and see how it all fit together.

Sure, it creaks along here and there, and some parts of it are downright awful, but as a whole, it's quite an accomplishment. The trains run most of the time, people eat most of the time, we haven't had a serious war against ourselves in well over a century. And when problems crop up, we turn to the legal system to resolve them. My plucky little summer employer is dedicated to the proposition that there are many things wrong with this country, but that an awful lot of those things, maybe even all of them, can be addressed by working within the system we've got. And that's not to be sneezed at.

And--and this is the part that gets me--I can just walk in off the street at Hastings and start in on working within the system. It's not just that we have laws and books about laws, or that what's in the books really works when you take it to a courtroom: it's that we have public libraries full of those books, and that anyone can read those books and take their contents to the courtroom. We don't make it easy, but we don't make it impossible, either.

When I go up to Hastings, I'm binding myself to a democratic, egalitarian tradition. We made these laws, and we are all equal before them. From Abe Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson to inmates teaching themselves law in a prison library, this is the sweep of learning and living law in this nation, and this is the tradition in which I am taking my place. It makes me proud to be an American, and proud to be doing what I can to make America better.

On the other hand, I feel no great pride over the folks setting off firecrackers in the street, close enough for me to smell the smoke.