Monday, September 1, 2014

"William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe" (2009): A Review

Labor Day is as good a time as any to reflect on left-wing icons from the last century, and it was in that spirit that I rented "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe" last night and pressed play. As the film progressed, so did my emotional state.  I found myself at first balling my hands in rage and pausing the movie every few seconds to argue with the narrator; then my attitude shifted to cool tolerance as I began waiting for the thing to end, so I could write a devastating critique on this blog; ten minutes away from the finish, however, and my mood changed completely. It suddenly became clear that I had been "had" by the film, in the best possible way. That is to say, my earlier anger had been the deliberate consequence of the narrative technique of the film, and this made me feel both relieved and embarrassed. By the end, however, I was too deeply moved to care about either feeling.  In short, I found this to be an astonishing documentary by two very gifted filmmakers.

Those filmmakers, meanwhile, happen to be the daughters of the film's subject, Emily and Sarah Kunstler.  The story they tell is mostly that of their father's life and career as a radical lawyer, but it is also one of their own grappling with what they come to perceive as the darker aspects of his career.  The film is therefore autobiography as well as biography, and a story about coming of age. It is a kunstlerroman, if you will (ha ha ha), since both daughters became artists and documentarians.  The emotional resonance of its story-- the one that worked so well on me, clearly-- derives from its method of pulling the readers along the daughter's own developmental path as it unfurls-- moving from the children's adoration of their seemingly perfect father, to their teenage skepticism toward him and their repudiation of his work, and finally, to a mature appreciation of his legacy, in spite of his flaws.  It's the old and pretty much universal dialectic of growing up. It starts with two apparently incompatible, eternally warring interpretations of one's parents and their values, and ends in a synthesis of the best insights of both. 

I apologize for having gone on so long already, though, without explaining who Bill Kunstler is, and why we should care about him --these are not pieces of knowledge that can be taken for granted.  I, for one, certainly didn't know who Kunstler was for most of my life. Instead, I, like a lot of people, first learned his name from a scene in The Big Lebowski. You may know it. It occurs shortly after the Dude has been drugged by a sinister pornographer (who, says the Dude, "treats objects like women") and subsequently arrested. He is slumped over the desk of a Malibu county sheriff and moans, through his stupor, that he "wants a lawyer, man, like... Bill Kunstler, or.... or Ron Kuby."  Shortly after this, the sheriff beans him on the head with a full mug of coffee. (The Dude's request for counsel is perhaps meant to sound unrealistic, but one reflects, after seeing this documentary, and in light of that coffee mug, that Kunstler probably would have taken his case, if he'd been licensed in California!)

I see now, however, Kunstler's lack of name recognition is actually rather surprising.  It is clear from this documentary, after all, that he had one of those long and impossibly rich 20th-century careers that seemed to put him in the middle of everything that happened of any historical significance-- he was an attorney for the ACLU and the Civil Rights Movement; he defended the Chicago Seven and the Berrigan brothers; he was a negotiator at the Attica prison uprising; he served as legal counsel to Russell Means, Dennis Banks, and other leaders of the American Indian Movement after the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation, and so on.  Like Forrest Gump (only real, and more intentional in his actions), he was always there.  And more than just being there, he always acted in these situations, at great personal risk, in accordance with his conscience.

Hence the daughters' early adoration for the man.  But why their later disenchantment?  In the filmmakers' telling, it primarily had to do with the professional choices he made in the final decades of his career.  After all, Emily and Sarah were the product of Kunstler's second marriage, and they remind us that their father was already 57 when the elder of them was born.  Both the 'Sixties and his role in them were well behind him by that point. And much as the '60s "revolutionary movement" seemed to degenerate, by the mid-'70s, into little more than a set of personality cults devoted to violence and criminality (think of the "Symbionese Liberation Army"), so too, Kunstler's clients in his later years started to seem, at least to his daughters, less like heroic renegades and more like perpetrators of wanton cruelty.  Kunstler provided legal counsel to Mafia dons and terrorists, for instance, to a man accused of killing six police officers, and to another charged with gunning down innocent passengers on public transportation.  Particularly perturbing to the daughters, they tell us, was Kunstler's decision to defend the five people charged in the notorious Central Park jogger case.

It was at this point that I paused the film and started arguing.  I could see some merit in the daughters' growing dissatisfaction with their father and his choice of clients, perhaps, but I turned purple and livid at the mention of the Central Park case. This was because, of course, the whole significance of that case, we now know, lay in the fact that the five teenage boys charged with the crime had been innocent all along-- and were later exonerated by DNA evidence.  The whole scandalous affair was a classic instance of what Jessica Mitford once called "Trial by Headline"-- the boys, all under 18, had been convicted chiefly because the public was baying for retribution, because they were black, and because police had coerced their confessions.  Yet the Kunstlers' film appears, if you do not watch it through to the end, to ignore the incident's crucial dénouement.   

Kunstler's daughters could not have known at the time, of course, that these teenagers (now men) were innocent, but, I argued with the screen, they might have known at the time, from their father if from no one else, that it is precisely the most universally despised and hated defendants who stand most in need of legal representation.  It was precisely because the five teenagers were charged with such a horrifying crime, and because everyone assumed their guilt in advance, that they needed Bill Kunstler's aid.  And they still would have needed and deserved it, moreover, whether they had ultimately been guilty or not.  A robust defense, after all, is one of the few things in this world that allow us to determine people's guilt or innocence in the first place, with any degree of fairness.  

The exonerations of his clients, we should note, came after Kunstler's death, so he was probably never any more certain than his daughters were that they were actually innocent. However, his defense of them was not just pursued out of a belief in their innocence, but out of a rather more fundamental principle: the principle that the lawyer must exert him- or herself to the utmost to defend accused people in all cases, because such an earnest defense is an essential instrument of justice.

It seemed to me that Kunstler's daughters must have missed everything that was significant about their father's work, if they were presenting his efforts on behalf of the five accused people in the Central Park case as evidence of "hypocrisy" or "inconsistency."  I supposed that they had grown up hearing about those battles of Kunstler's from the '60s that had already been fought and won, or else beautifully lost, and assumed that his early career had been fired by a type of idealism that his current work lacked-- not realizing that, in the 'Sixties, defending the Chicago Seven or the Berrigan brothers would have been seen by many people in much the same light people saw defending terrorists in the '80s or '90s. If Kunstler had defended in the '60s only those clients with whom the public sympathized, I thought, as his daughters seemed to wish him to do in the '80s, he never would have become the William Kunstler they admired as children. 

 Of course, the Berrigans and the rest of the Catonsville Nine actually were heroic for burning draft documents; someone trying to burn people in a terrorist attack is not, to say the least. But Kunstler's principle was, I take it, that it is not only the virtuous oppressed who deserve fair representation, but all people, even the most reprobate. As Clarence Darrow expresses it in The Story of My Life: "The lawyer, if he has a deep sense of responsibility and warm sympathies, regards the human being in his hands in the same light that a physician views a patient in. [... N]o one would expect a physician to refuse to save the life of a patient, no matter who he might be. The lawyer's duty is just as binding[.]"

These at least were the things I was fuming over for most of the documentary's run-time.  But remember, I said above that I was successfully taken for a ride by this film.  For, ten minutes away from its close, the daughters at last return to the Central Park case, and confront the revelation, which reached them and the rest of the world long after their father's death, that the five men convicted in the case were innocent.  Sarah and Emily Kunstler interview one of the five, Yusef Salaam, in this final segment.  He was a man, they note, whom they had at one point assumed to be guilty, even while their father was defending him. They go on to pointedly recall something their father had once said to them-- that we are all racists, including Kunstler and his daughters, and that we have to subject ourselves to constant scrutiny and distrust for this fact.

I began to realize, then, that far from missing the point of their father's life, the daughters had made the film precisely because they had perceived it, and wished to underscore it.  And they succeed in doing so.  The film admittedly provides us at the beginning with the darkest aspects of Kunstler's later career, a study of his most morally ambiguous decisions as an attorney, and we are almost prepared to repudiate him for them, as his daughters were.  But it ends with the conclusion of the Central Park case, which reveals all over again precisely why Kunstler selected the clients he did-- why it was so important to him that he took on all of the most hopeless and indefensible cases that came along. It shows us why always he went on defending the people who were most hated and most condemned, even at the risk of his moral standing in his daughters' eyes and certainly of his public reputation.  

The film, then, far from missing this crucial point, conveys it in a way that is subtle, that pays off over the entire course of its runtime, and is considerably more powerful for both facts.


Even after grasping this point, of course, one doesn't approve of everything about Bill Kunstler.  The film does not end, as the human developmental process does not end, with a return to the child's exaggerated view of the parent's perfections.  The "synthesis" is not a return to the thesis, in dialectical terms -- Kunstler's faults remain, and they are many.  

These faults, and really, Kunstler's life as a whole, mirror very closely those of Clarence Darrow (for which my chief source is Andrew Kersten's 2012 biography).  Darrow was, to my surprise, not mentioned in Disturbing the Universe, but I feel he must have had been a significant if invisible presence in Kunstler's life, at least as some sort of spiritual ancestor. 

When I say the two men's lives were mirror-images, I don't just mean this in the sense that both were radical lawyers with a tendency to appear at every historic juncture in their lifetimes.  They were alike too in less obvious ways.  For instance, they both became the versions of themselves we now know, the great "Clarence Darrow" and "William Kunstler," "Attorneys for the Damned," relatively late in their careers.  Both had a political latency period when they were young lawyers, during which they established themselves as fairly conventional members of the professional middle classes-- Darrow in Ashtabula, Ohio and Kunstler in Westchester County, New York.  Both were radicalized, moreover, not in the early part of their lives, but in the middle.  Darrow was already a big-city lawyer for the railroad, let us recall, before he started defending labor on a point of conscience.  Kunstler was, in his daughters' telling, at most an "armchair liberal", before he became involved with the Civil Rights movement.

The flaws that both men share also seem linked, somehow, to the fact of these mid-career personal "reinventions."  One gets the sense that for both Darrow and Kunstler, for instance, their reinventions, mid-way through life, meant repudiating the memory of the people they had been before the decisive moment-- and likewise, involved repudiating the other people who had been important to them prior to that time.  The reinvention also involved for both men the sudden adoption of a bohemian lifestyle and outlook-- one that was ill-fitting and embarrassing at best in middle-aged men. Darrow fell in with various writers and artists in Chicago and tried to live a libertine existence, in Kersten's telling.  For Kunstler, meanwhile, the sudden turn to bohemia seemed to involve a fairly extreme over-idealization of everything young and transgressive. It was not a view, on Kunstler's part, that had anything to do with the often ugly realities of the '60s counterculture and the New Left (remember the Weathermen, anyone?), but it had everything to do with Kunstler's own mid-life crisis. 

Having said this, Disturbing the Universe does not reveal anything especially unpleasant about Kunstler's personal life. Unless one is terribly shocked by the fact that his second wife was much younger than he was, or that he smoked pot with Abbie Hoffman, there are no scandals to be reported here. Nevertheless, it is still hard somehow to come away from this film without an impression of amiable narcissism on his part. It may not be revealed in any one particularly selfish action, but it is still detectable. One gets a similar impression from reading about Clarence Darrow.

Nor were the mutual faults of Darrow and Kunstler confined to their personal lives-- they showed up in their legal and political lives as well.  Their choice of clients, to take the point on which they are most broadly criticized, sometimes alarms even me -- even in light of what I said above.  One can perhaps admire both Darrow and Kunstler, after all, for choosing to take on unpopular clients, clients damned from the outset in the public's eyes-- but what about those times when such clients were not indigent, but could afford any representation they wanted?  Did Darrow and Kunstler have the same responsibility to wealthy and powerful people who were accused (sometimes correctly) of doing terrible things, that they had to poor people who find themselves in the same situation?  Should Darrow have defended Leopold and Loeb?  Should Kunstler have defended mobsters?  None of these clients would have been lacking for counsel if the two men had refused to do so.

Moreover, both Darrow and Kunstler showed a willingness to bend-- or even break -- the rules of legal process for the sake of their clients. In the most extreme instance, Darrow was actually caught trying to bribe a jury in one of his trials. Less extreme, but still suggestive, is a dictum of Kunstler's that Harry Belafonte quotes in Disturbing the Universe: viz. "everything is jury-tampering that happens in a courtroom."  Such actions and beliefs derived from both men's justified cynicism toward the legal process.  They thought, I take it, that if the scales really are weighted against their clients from the beginning (and weren't they?), then it was only right they should balance them by extra-legal means.  

This reasoning is correct to the extent that the judicial process is often unfair and stacked against particular clients-- but the abuses in that process derive from unequal exercises of power in it, and in society. The relevant conclusion is surely that certain kinds of power will always be abused, if they can be abused, and thus people should not be trusted with them. Darrow and Kunstler knew this. So why should they trust themselves with any extra-legal powers and influences that they would not grant to others? 

But acknowledging such flaws in their characters and moral reasoning, we do still return to the same synthesis at which Kunster's daughters arrive in Disturbing the Universe.  We are left, that is, with profound admiration for both men.  

If Kunstler, like Darrow before him, became excessively pessimistic about the possibility of justice in our current system of law enforcement, we see that it was not because of any smug cynicism on his part-- it was through long exposure to that system and its abuses.  Kunstler, after all, was a negotiator at Attica, and heard the sounds of prisoners being gunned down by state troopers within its walls.  He was defending the Chicago Seven when Fred Hampton was murdered by Chicago police, in collusion with the FBI.  Both episodes are chronicled in his daughters' film, and both help to make clear the reasons underlying Kunstler's conviction, which he voices in a speech near the end of the film, that "better men, and more of them, have gone to their deaths by legal means than through all the illegalities in history."  I am reminded of something Oscar Wilde says in The Soul of Man Under Socialism that rings similarly true: "As one reads history," says Wilde, "[...] one is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted."

One is even more inclined to forgive Kunstler and Darrow their faults when one reflects how entirely unfinished their work remains, and how greatly we need more people like them today.  Eighty years after Darrow made his call for lawyers to devote themselves to "saving lives," the way doctors do, our country still ranks among the most prolific takers of human life through judicial executions in the entire world. Twenty-five years after Kunstler defended five black teenagers who were falsely accused of rape, we are still reading in the news about innocent people being shot by police or paranoid civilians because of their race. And none of this is to mention the people still detained at Guantanamo Bay without trial or charge-- many of them tortured in secret overseas by our own government; or people who have been subjected to government harassment or tried on specious charges since 9/11 because of their religion and ethnicity; or the estimated 80,000 inmates condemned to solitary confinement-- a form of mental death-- in our nation's prisons.

I take the lesson of Darrow and Kunstler's lives-- the lesson of their decision to always defend the most maligned and hated individuals-- to be essentially this: the test of a justice system lies in the difficult cases, not the easy ones.  After all, every regime is "democratic" to the people who agree with its policies.  Everyone in the world has "free speech," so long as no government objects to what they say.  The real test of a society is therefore not in how it behaves toward its more peaceable citizens-- it is found in how it responds to the people it most deeply fears (and whom it would even like to destroy). This is why we need more people like Darrow and Kunstler who are willing to look like scoundrels-- to be taken for scoundrels-- for the sake of defending the helpless.

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