One of the trickier parts of life in a collection of compacted communities is jury duty. Jurors are almost bound to know something of the parties involved. We are not blank slates. When called, you do your best to be impartial. You suspend judgment and listen to both sides, which 95 percent of the time has all the entertainment of watching latex paint dry under conditions of high humidity. I’ve been called twice and give the opinion that sitting in a stuffy courtroom listening to attorneys hedge is near good as a narcotic—courtroom opiate. On one of my descents into the land-o’-courthouse-nod, I went along with the defense attorney’s explanation of events. I had the picture, or thought I did until the attorney called the defendant to speak for himself. That changed everything. I listened amazed as the defendant wove an increasingly convoluted concoction of impossibility delivered in an over-rehearsed, theatrical style. I sat mouth agape as the speaker glowed with the belief that his fabrication was so well done it would carry the day. It didn’t. Back in the room where we met to deliberate, there wasn’t a lot of discussion. Our collective shake of heads said we’d witnessed the same thing. The defendant had cut his own argumentative throat. We talked a bit so as not to appear over hasty before calling the first vote. Twelve hands rose on “guilty.” Leaving the courthouse that day was like falling out of Lewis Carroll’s Looking Glass into an orb of clear, lung-filling air.
I was reminded of this over the Fourth when by chance I sat next to one of the former jurors. The usual about weather, business, and the volume of tourists in town was shortened by a single phrase: “Haven’t seen you since.” There was no need to say since when. We sat silent. What now? My companion broke first. “That was the damndest thing.” “Sure was,” I agreed. “You know,” the speaker looked me in the eye, “I was on his side until he opened his mouth.” I nodded. “What made me mad,” my companion wished to be rid of a feeling held too long, “was he thought he’d fool us with that load of.” Come to think of it, the story told us that day in court was so artificial it was insulting. A basic problem with a “story” is it’s harder to remember than the truth and less convincing unless you’re committed to a particular camp.
For some reason (but not too hard to figure out), the above event reminds me of happenings in the Middle East. I mean the “spring” thing and the eruption of freedom and democracy flung about starting when George W. was in office. It’s been a while since we began promoting (assuming we were sincere) democratic freedom. The results look more like elections of crooks disguising themselves as government officials. A wolf puts on sheep’s clothing to get elected, and nothing changes—or things get worse in cases where revenge has popular appeal. It can look as if (in fact it can appear entirely as if) some cultural groups lack a way to exercise and enjoy freedoms as we do. I don’t like to say or think it, but in case after case over the past decades the freedom embraced in the Middle East seems very much to be the freedom to impose by one group over another. It is a “freedom” where majority rule is not moderated by mutual respect and becomes instead mob rule by popularly acclaimed despots.
Having begun with a tale of defense by the defense, I was recently treated to another example of this fine art. The “spring” in Egypt seems to mean elected tyrants replacing the self-appointed ones, as the Iranians swapped an absolute shah for an absolute Ayatollah: authoritarianism under new management. The new wave in Egypt is eager to reform the legal system to be more sharia compliant. The Egyptian populace has seemingly voted to approve such changes as part of freedom and democracy. I’ve heard it said that sharia is entirely consistent with our Western legal traditions and contains strict observance of women’s and human rights. If so, who could complain of such beneficial things?
Now we get to the part where the defense speaks for itself. Freedom in Egypt has led to an increase in sexual assaults on women, and under the new democracy this is a religious matter to be argued by clerics. We might say, “So what if it’s a boring preacher instead of a boring attorney doing the jabbering?” But said another way, this means religious dogma takes precedence over common law, and that does make a serious difference in how things work. I read with fascination as a cleric explained that a woman not properly covered invited sexual attack and was responsible for it when it occurred. He (a woman cannot be a cleric under those laws) explained that if you put out uncovered meat and cats ate it, the cats cannot be blamed. So as the defense put it, women are meat. Covered, they are off limits. Uncovered, they are fair game. A male who takes advantage of uncovered meat has a moral excuse bolstered in part by his acknowledged superiority over the meat sex. Higher rank lessens his responsibility, whereas the lower standing of a woman’s nature puts her on the spot accountable for the acts of others. In this context, women’s rights have a different twist.
It takes a bit, but working through the explanation and the “meat” analogy you find the underpinning basis defining rights, freedom, etc. vastly different from one system to the other. Is it justice when the bias of religion is allowed legal exercise? The religious defense has spoken. To accept its view of “uncovered meat,” we need to tear down Lady Justice—replace her with a man, eyes uncovered (he’s immune from uncovering making him meat) pointing at scripture. To rephrase my juror friend, the defense damned itself; and a fine job it did.