Friday, December 13, 2013

Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law by Alan Dershowitz- Book Review

Taking the Stand: My Life inthe Law by Alan Dershowitz (Crown/Random House, 2013, 546 pages, $28.00) is a tedious exercise in self-justification running on for 546 pages and containing 889 footnotes, most of which add nothing to an already bloated and defensive account of his life and career. From the Preface, which is mostly a catalog of the important cases and famous people he has been involved with during a career almost as long as the book, through a series of interminable “Oh, I forgot to write about this earlier...” chapters at the end, Dershowitz uses this one shot opportunity to write a self-justifying screed and settle scores with the many people he sees as having wronged him during his life and career. I can only imagine an editor at Crown Publishers saying, “Alan, let's rewrite to include this in an earlier chapter or eliminate it entirely as redundant.” “Oh, No,” Alan Dershowitz would say repetitively and ad nauseum, “this segment is essential.” while finally breaking the editor down.

Raised in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn to poor Othodox Jews from Eastern Europe, Dershowitz attended Jewish schools, called Yeshivas, until his graduation from high school. There he discovered that Orthodox Judaism relied more on careful observance of the customs and rituals of his faith than upon belief in its tenants. Gifted with what he claims as a photographic memory, he describes himself as constantly questioning everything the rabbis try to teach him, being rewarded with low grades and criticism despite his outstanding performance in any state or national test he was confronted with, and only emerging as a first rate student at Brooklyn College and Yale Law School. He's somewhat baffled about where his interest in art, music, and culture came from, but these broadening influences helped structure his life as he became first the youngest ever member of the Harvard Law School faculty and then its youngest tenured faculty member. This early success and security afforded him the luxury of a long and successful career where he could say, teach, and explore any area of the law and its intersection with injustice he wished to examine. For over fifty years, he has done so with huge success and in public, becoming famous and rich, while frequently asserting throughout the book that about half his cases were taken pro bono, with the gigantic fees paid by his celebrity clients financing his more costly efforts.

Taking the Stand is really two books rolled into one. The first is the story of his life, both personal and professional. It is written in a chatty style exploring his origins, marriages, children, education, and the general progress of his career. It is straightforward and pretty much devoid of any literary style which might make it extremely interesting. The second book follows his legal passions and interests through a truly amazing breadth of areas within Constitutional law, criminal defense, and international law where he has had significant influence on making law and protecting the rights of others. This component, although mostly written in language accessible to the lay reader, is extensive, important, and instructional, although, sadly, becomes pretty repetitive after several hundred pages, returning many times to core cases which have helped to shape and define Dershowitz's career. These include the defense of George Lincoln Rockwell's right to hold a neo-nazi parade in Skokie, Illinois, the O.J. Simpson murder case, the Harry Reems defense in Deep Throat obscenity case, the murder defense of Claus von Bulow, and a number of other high profile and controversial cases. Overall, Dershowitz's interests have included Freedom of Speech with particular emphasis on the elements of science and psychology which have affected legal practice and Criminal Justice, with an emphasis on death penalty defense in numerous high profile and lesser known cases. He repeatedly cites the way his active legal practice has informed and enriched his teaching over the years as he brings these cases into the classroom, and his students onto the defense teams. The third major emphasis in the book is his work on behalf of the State of Israel as an advocate for Israeli independence and rights as well as a critic of many of its policies. While the two stories inform each other, their complexity and length make Taking the Stand a painfully long slog through the twists and turns of Dershowitz's interesting life. 
Dershowitz as an individual emerges as a prickly person with a terrific need to justify himself to others as well as, perhaps, to himself. He returns too often to long-running disagreements with MIT linguist and activist Noam Chomsky, as if Chomsky is stuck in his craw where Dershowitz is unable to dislodge him. He also wonders, somewhat, on how he seems to have transitioned from being a traditional Jewish liberal, taking great joy in his relationship to and work on the behalf of Ted Kennedy, into being seen as a right winger for his defense of Israel and moderate stances on other issues. He asserts, and I think rightly, that he hasn't changed, but views on such issues a separation of church and state, gun control, capital punishment, religion and religiosity have changed over time while he has steered a steady course. His admiration for Judge David Bazelon, U.S. Circuit Judge in Washington, D.C. And Justice Arthur Goldberg, are huge, while Justice Antonin Scalia, and his father, are taken on as opponents reaching the level of scorn. He often contrasts the admirable Chief Justice Earl Warren with the much less able Warren Burger. His assessment of the transition of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) from a neutral guardian of free speech into a shrill, left-wing cause-driven organization is interesting with a strong ring of truth to it. Dershowitz asserts that “certainty is the enemy of truth, freedom, and progress,” while often claiming the certainty of most of the positions he has taken throughout his career.

Alan Dershowitz
Alan Dershowtiz emerges as something of a glory hound and name dropper while still having been an important and interesting voice for criminal, civil, and human rights. The book is extensively annotated, containing 889 footnotes, most of them being self-referential. The life and career of Alan Dershowitz is a fascinating and important one both in terms of the law and the convictions motivating his decisions about how and why to apply his expertise. Sadly, however, he has chosen the wrong person to tell his story. It will be truly intriguing to read the account when written with the insight of history and the objectivity of the solid historian and/or biographer who decides to write it. I really wanted to like this book much more than I d id, since I agree with so many of the positions Dershowitz has taken, but unhappily found the book to be over-written and under-edited. Taking the Stand by Alan Dershowitz ( Crown/ Random House, 2013, 546 pages, $28.00) was supplied to me as an electronic galley by the publisher through Edelweiss Above the treeline. I read it on my Kindle.