Article

Jeremy Lott


Neuroscience After Nietzsche

Is the brain a symphony orchestra without a conductor?

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The latest fault line is over a homicide. The Federal Court in Missouri's Eastern District has a long-standing custom of appointing newly minted lawyers to one pro bono case. Watson is assigned to a first-degree murder.

Hello? Why would a computer geek associate who has never spent one day practicing criminal law be assigned to defend a man who could get the death penalty?

Politics. The man James Whitlow killed was deaf and black, and Whitlow is clearly a bigot. He even has a tattoo on his arm that reads, "Jesus hates niggers." Though the crime was in fact probably only a "plain-vanilla voluntary manslaughter," Missouri's hate-crime guidelines make it very attractive for prosecutor Frank Donahue to up the ante and, perhaps, win a Senate seat in the process. But this still doesn't explain why Watson was assigned to such a high-stakes case.

Enter Judge Whittaker J. Stang, also known as "Ivan the Terrible." Stang is a throwback to a simpler, more decent, less litigious time. This Eisenhower appointee has an almost pathological hatred of lawyers and the muddle they've made of society. Being from another time, he understands Nietzsche's warning, as paraphrased by Tom Wolfe: "[Y]ou cannot believe in moral codes without simultaneously believing in a god who points at you with his fearsome forefinger and says, 'Thou shalt' or 'Thou shalt not.' " And so Stang seeks to put the fear of himself into startled lawyers. In his courtroom, he is god. The final authority is his, and he doesn't hesitate to abuse, annoy, and harass lawyers into respecting this fact.

But there's a softer side to the old goat, an aggressive mercy. The New Testament, if you will, is smuggled in under the covering fire of the Old. To wit,

"The Eighth Circuit can reverse me to Hell and gone," said the judge, smoke stinging his eyes into a squint, "they can mandamus my ass from backbone to backbone, but no white-trash punk is leaving my courtroom for the graveyard just because Frank Donahue wants to be senator."

But why make such a stink over a man who is (a) a bigot and (b) an undisputed killer? Because Stang is human after all. He recognizes that man—that's generic man—is steeped in sin. Let Whitlow be tried for murder and convicted; that's fine. But don't try him for "hatred," for the crime of being human. Asks the incredulous judge,

"You want to make hatred illegal? I've sat up here for fifty years and seen nothing but hatred. Everybody they drag in here is full of it, I'm full of it, you're full of it, and now what? You want to make certain varieties illegal? What are we going to do? Get some samples of hate and send them off to the forensic lab? See what kind we're dealing with?"

The judge speaks for Richard Dooling here. Through his one work of nonfiction, Blue Streak: Swearing, Free Speech, and Sexual Harrassment, and through op-eds in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, he has launched a one-man crusade against hate-crime laws.

So: Stang appointed Watson to the case for two reasons; both practical, the second in a Machiavellian sense. First, Stang read an article in a law review by Watson challenging the rationale behind hate crimes and got a good glimpse at an engaged mind. Second,

"[B]etween him and my clerks, we'll find plenty of case law to support my conclusion that this piece of crap Frank Donahue is calling a hate crime is nothing more than a Senate bid. The U.S. Attorney will appeal my dismissal of his hate crime charges. If he does, I may get reversed by … the Eighth Circuit. … At trial, Young Watson will have his head handed to him on a platter and the jury may even send his client to the in jection room. Whereupon, the defendant will find another lawyer and will file a motion claiming ineffective assistance of counsel because a psychotic old federal district judge appointed a know-nothing greenhorn to a death-penalty case . …I get a shot at Frank Donahue coming, and another one at him going."

Cut through the grandiloquent sarcasm of Stang's arias, and what you find are the same enduring principles that have fitfully inspired Watson—the belief, for instance, that everyone should have competent representation, no matter how repugnant his or her deeds may be. Stang believes that Watson has the makings of a real lawyer, an honorable man.

Back to Tom Wolfe for a moment:

If I were a college student today, I don't think I could resist going into neuroscience. Here we have the two most fascinating riddles of the twenty-first century: the riddle of the human mind and the riddle of what happens to the human mind when it comes to know itself absolutely. In any case, we live in an age in which it is impossible and pointless to avert your eyes from the truth.
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