In his excellent memoir of 1920’s and 30’s Berlin, Defying Hitler, German historian Sebastian Haffner recounts an experience he had as an apprentice lawyer. He describes the reading room of the Kammergericht, Berlin’s large, imposing law building at the time. Haffner recalls the proud satisfaction he felt to be working among professionals in the beautiful room with its immense oak tables. To be working in the highly specialized language of the law. He describes the profound quiet, broken only by the turning of a page or the scratching of a pencil, as fifty attorneys, heads down in concentration, worked away at their cases.
Suddenly, there is a crashing sound and shouts coming from the stairs. It is the SS. They are demanding that all the Jews get out. For a moment, the professionals in the reading room look up, then back down at their cases. The storm troopers enter the reading room, and Haffner himself looks back down, into the words of his case about a business contract. No one speaks up. Soon after the Nazis leave, Haffner leaves. “As I left the Kammergericht,” he writes, “it stood there, grey, cool and calm as ever, set back from the street in its distinguished setting. There was nothing to show that, as an institution, it had just collapsed.”
The University of Michigan Law School is a grand and beautiful structure. During the week, it bustles with activity and hums with the concentration of wonderfully talented and learned people. Certainly the cold rebuke a stranger’s invitation to coffee received does not constitute a metaphorical collapse of the law school. But Chris Hedges and his co-plaintiffs lost their suit, and NDAA section 1021 is law. And the professors are quiet. Taken “jointly and severally,” as lawyers say, the NDAA, the Military Commissions Act of 2006, the Patriot Act, the NSA spying program, all tell us that, as calm and ordinary as your neighborhood looks today, we are living in a police state. It is not coming. It is here. And the professors are quiet.
For now we can dissent. For now I can write this article and you can read it online with little fear of reprisal. But the legal framework for reprisal is in place. The technological framework to detect what you and I read and write online is there. And where are the professors?
Those in power have little concern for human life and health. They bomb weddings and hospitals in the Middle East, they allow the people of Flint to drink poisoned water, they allow the children of Detroit to attend vermin-infested schools. To be blunt, they must be stopped. The people of Flint are in the streets. The teachers of Detroit are on the picket line. But those who teach the law? Those in Environmental Science departments? Those in English departments, who are the curators of the words of Mark Twain and George Orwell? Those in History departments, which still offer courses where you can learn about Thomas Paine and Eugene Debs? Those who can walk out en masse on their lunch hour, hold a rally the local news would have to cover, and be back in time for office hours? Where are they?
Where are those who know the depth and breadth of the crisis that is upon us, its historical precedents and its potential outcomes? Where are the voices that can help us pull together the strands that run through Detroit, Flint, Syria and Yemen?
Where are the professors?