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Column: After the election, a law professor pleads for wisdom

It’s been a bad year. It started with the unexpected passing of my uncle, Larry Schreiber — a family doctor who was willing to trade medical care for firewood; a humanitarian who ran a special-needs adoption agency and raised 14 children, 10 of them adopted, one a refugee from war-torn Cambodia. Upon his passing, his hometown paper, The Taos News, remembered him as “the Albert Schweitzer of the Sangre De Cristos.”

The year now draws to a close with the presidential election of a man who, from my perspective, is unfit for the office and the very antithesis of who my uncle was.

I am at a loss. I am convinced that my uncle’s America is not Donald Trump’s America. But I really don’t know what Donald Trump’s America is. I have my guesses, shaped by my own biases. But I’ve run out of the smug confidence that I really understand anything all that well.

I am a law professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, and I co-direct the school’s Program in Law & Public Service — a program committed to helping students pursue public-interest legal careers. Before entering academia, I was a public defender in Bronx County, New York.

In my world, elites are expected to give answers. But on Wednesday morning, I just couldn’t play the part. I couldn’t lie. I almost called in sick. But I dragged myself to work and started talking with students.

I was frank with them about my ideology, but I also acknowledged my ignorance. I spoke with a future prosecutor, who had served two tours in Afghanistan. He described the norms and practices of the professional military and allayed some of my concerns about, alternatively, misguided isolationism or international misadventure. I encountered survivors who expressed pain at recognizing as president a man who, at the very least, had boasted of sexual assault. I talked with feminists who worried that it would be another 40 years before a major political party would again nominate a woman for president. I met with students of color who said they were targets — fair game, now more than ever, for racist slights or worse. I spoke with some students who were rethinking private-law careers and other students who were rethinking law school. I listened to conservative students who felt misunderstood, vilified and silenced. And I realized that, to date, I had done little to keep them from feeling that way.

This past week has been the most rewarding of my teaching career. And I did almost no teaching. I am filled with a profound respect for the wisdom of my students, particularly my first-year students—young men and women who have yet to trade commonsense for analytic forms of legal reasoning.

Early on Friday morning, I reached out to the students with whom I have grown closest—the fellows in our Program in Law & Public Service. Here, in part, is what I wrote:

I’m writing to you now not as a professor or as co-director of the LPS Program, but as a friend and a colleague. I’m not sure that anything I say will make much sense. I’m having trouble making sense of the world around me right now. And I’m very tired but incapable of sleep. I whipsaw between an almost calm kind of resignation and a frenzied fear and despair. I recognize that my fears may be unfounded. But I recognize also how little I know about my country, the world, and its people—those near me and far from me. Frankly, I just don’t feel much like I understand anything at all. So, I remain paralyzed—caught between an instinct to fight back, an instinct to flee into my own private life, and an instinct to give the benefit of the doubt to people I know are decent—people I desperately want to understand. I think the shortcoming is mine. I have spent too much time in my bubble and have failed to do enough to see what and who is around me.

During the campaign, I was deeply offended by Trump’s description of the inner cities. When I worked in the Bronx, I saw a desperately poor place with desperate problems. But I also saw families and community, laughter and decency. My wife and I spend time in the mountains of West Virginia. When we go there, I see many of the same things: desperate poverty, desperate problems—but also families and communities, laughter and decency.

Right now, I guess I just want to try to make sense of things. I want to figure out where we are and where we are going. If I’m wrong to be afraid, I want to figure out why I’m so afraid and why I’m so wrong. If I’m right to be afraid, I want to figure out the path forward. Ideally, the job of an academic is to make sense of the world around her—to look more closely at things than the day-to-day hustle-and-bustle would typically allow. But in looking so closely at some things, I feel like I’ve ignored much else. And the truth is that I just don’t see the use in research and scholarship right now. It all seems so silly. It doesn’t feel like real knowledge and understanding. I don’t even know if I want to do it anymore. But, again, I feel like I just don’t know much of anything right at this moment. I feel dislocated.

And, so, this is why I’m emailing you. Over the past two days, some of the richest conversations I’ve had have been with students—students who are scared and students who are sanguine. I’ve learned a lot from both groups. I’ve been struck by just how wise and mature you all are—how thoughtful and deep. It makes me feel sheepish to stand in front of a class and teach—because, when it comes to the realest things, I know no more than any of you and a lot less than many of you. Please, then, keep talking to me. Feel free to come to my office. Let me know how you are feeling, and I will do the same. But, please know, I don’t have any answers. I don’t know what a Trump administration means to the world. I don’t even know what it means to the public-interest job-market (though I do know that this is understandably a matter of deep concern for all of you). Again, I very much hope my own fears are unfair and unfounded. And I refuse to presume with any certainty that they are or aren’t.

My apologies if this email is inappropriately political. I mean it to be personal. I am coming to you as a friend, not a teacher or mentor. After all, how can I be a teacher or mentor when I feel like I understand so very little? I am pleading for wisdom, not doling it out from on high. Please talk to me. And please talk to each other—within and beyond your communities.

Use your careers to bridge gaps. But never cower in the face of injustice. I have no definitive answers about where the injustice is or from where it will come. I would like to learn. Thank you for teaching me so much, so far. Let’s continue to learn from each other.

One of my uncle’s favorite musicians was, ironically, Leonard Cohen — an artist whose own death this week seemed timed for maximum poignancy. Cohen was a masterful wordsmith, and I have been listening all weekend for some lyric that might capture my feelings about my uncle — and about the election of Donald Trump.

Instead, I keep circling back to a quote inscribed on remembrance cards at my uncle’s memorial. Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, wrote: “Service is the rent we pay for being. It is the very purpose of life.”

I know what my uncle thought of our next president. (A cousin at my uncle’s bedside even drew a smile with the quip: “You’re doing all of this because of Trump?”)

But I also know that my uncle would have happily — joyfully — served and valued even Trump’s most die-hard supporter. He would have listened to her and respected her viewpoint. And he would have asked to be heard in response.

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