Much of my job has nothing to do with trials, courtroom drama, judges, murders, conference tables, the news media or the like. Much of it is telling people, “No.” No, you don’t have a case. No, I won’t represent you. No, this is a waste of time.
The worst is telling someone “no,” even when you believe them, and you want to make it right. Even if they’ve really been discriminated against, a cop really beat them up, they really lost a son in jail because of someone else’s callousness… sometimes you still have to say, “No.” In so doing, I can spare someone two or three years of having the scabs of their wounds picked at by useless, maddening litigation. It’s a deeply unsatisfying (and unprofitable) way to conduct business, but it’s honest.
This business of telling people no, however, has very little to do with the business of justice. More often than not, my answer is: “No, the law doesn’t allow you to recover under these circumstances, but it should.” “No, there isn’t a cause of action for this, but I wish there were.” “No, the courts won’t help you out of this, but I wish they would.” “No, the law does not care.”
I wish it did.
But after more than a decade of saying no, and a lifetime of contrarian optimism, I’ve had to face the ugly truth about the career I love. The institutions that carry out the law do not exist to help the people I went to law school to help. The law itself, opaque, insular and expensive, is too heavy a tool for most to wield. With rare and precious exceptions, the courts are there to provide aid and comfort to the wealthy.
If this is true of the institutions that are tasked with interpreting and carrying out the law as it is written, might it also be true of the institutions that wrote the law in the first place? To pose the question is to answer it.
My home congressional district (Indiana’s 9th) covers 13 counties, mostly filled with folks of modest means. By Election Day this year, candidates for our House of Representatives seat (of which I was one until recently) will have spent at least $5 million to get a job, which pays $174,000 per year. In another year, they’ll start raising money again. The seat is currently held by a trust-fund multimillionaire from Tennessee. The challenger is frantically raising money to compete with the infinite bags of cash the incumbent can produce on demand. The Indiana Senate race, which has already generated the most advertising in the country, is on track to cost around $30 million. Much of these dollars will go to making sure everyone knows which candidate will be tougher on refugees, addicts, the sick and other folks whose lives could be forever altered if they had even the tiniest fraction of the money spent on a single campaign commercial.
As with the courts, regular folks don’t play the electoral politics game all that much. It’s dominated by exactly who you’d expect: the ultra-rich and narcissists, who are immune to all forms of shame (there is a significant overlap between these two categories). These people, along with a hopelessly outnumbered group of truly dedicated public servants, they make the rules the rest of us must live by. And these same politicians, who become more and more expensive every cycle, then appoint and confirm the judges who interpret the laws that they write. The few laws that don’t explicitly fit into gift boxes for the rich are mutilated and crumpled until they do.
The inescapable conclusion is that we, the vast majority of us, are fucked. Systemically, roundly, unmistakably fucked.
In José Saramago’s classic novel “Blindness,” ordered society becomes chaos when everyone suddenly loses their sight. Saramago’s point is that the structures and norms that support our daily existence are more fragile than we think; a little epidemic of blindness, and everything quickly goes to hell.
This checks out.
One need not suffer something so drastic as loss of a sense to be completely fucked here in America. It could be a temporary illness. A momentary lapse in judgment. An unplanned pregnancy. The loss of your job, a loved one, your mind. The courts offer no quarter. The legislature offers no quarter. The executive branch is perpetually on a golf course of one sort or another. These systems do not exist to aid the terminally fucked.
Long derided, even longer forgotten, we in the Midwest are perhaps the most fucked of all. The Walmarts of the world grow fat on our labor, the jails grow fat on our sons and daughters, and we become ever thinner. Overdoses, poverty, undereducation, obesity, racism, elections won by grifters — these failures afflict everyone in every corner of everywhere. Yet we shoulder a disproportionate share of the blame for the ills of capitalism.
The right hand harvests us for our votes and our backs. The left hand has washed itself of us.
Over the last 20 years as a musician, an activist, a lawyer and a politician in Indiana and Kentucky, I’ve seen the fucking over of the Midwest play out in an incalculable number of ways, affecting an incalculable number of lives. But I’ve also seen enough to maintain a glimmer of optimism — if just enough to get by.
In this series, I’ll be telling the stories of folks here who, for whatever reason, have been shortchanged by the institutions that govern their day-to-day existence. I’ll be talking to the good people in our communities who are working on solutions to the underlying problems. And I’ll be sharing what I learn from them about meaningful ways you and I can help unfuck the Midwest.
Stay with me. And if you know any good stories, send them my way.