Professor Nigam Nuggehalli, Dean of School of Law, BML Munjal University, routinely writes a series called ‘Letter to Law Students’, where he shares pearls of wisdom to help budding legal eagles make sense of what is happening around them. His latest letter (reproduced below) talks about some fragments from Obama’s memoir.
My dear law students
I thought today I should talk to you about Obama’s memoir, which is truly an epic in an era where epics have gone out of fashion. The last time I felt this excited about a socio-cultural phenomenon coming out of America was when I watched the Wire. Obama’s A Promised Land and the Wire remind us that the most intriguing ideas about politics, democracy and the law are to be found outside statutes and textbooks.
I will leave it to book reviewers to discuss the more overarching themes of law, politics and morality to be found in A Promised Land. I will instead focus on some fragments of thoughts and throwaway comments of Obama. Here are a few such fragments that I thought would be of interest to you.
Obama went to Harvard Law School, famous for its gruelling workload. But he found it enjoyable. ‘Whereas many felt burdened by the workload, for me days spent in the library…felt like an absolute luxury after three years of organizing community meetings and knocking on doors in the cold.’ Obama was comparing his law school workload to his community organisation days in Chicago. Whenever you (and I) think law school is a bit too much, it will be good to remember that experiences are relative. We are living privileged lives compared to many other people in our country. There is another lesson here, which is that perhaps our students might benefit from a bit of work experience before they come to law school. I think any experience would do, as long as it teaches people that getting things done means working with other people in less than ideal situations.
Obama went to the Copenhagen environment summit and found that the Indians and the Chinese were not willing to negotiate. At the last minute he received news that the Indian and the Chinese delegations (among others) were in a conference room by themselves. He decided to go up to the conference room uninvited and schmooze them until they agreed to some minimum environmental standards (the summit was ultimately a failure but that’s another story). So the President of the United States crashed a political meeting at an international summit. Sometimes you have to play it by ear and forget about the dignity of your office or work. There are some hilarious asides in this story. The Chinese environment minister is upset with Obama and embarks on a long harangue. Obama does not understand a word and turns to the Chinese translator. Before she could speak, Chinese premier interrupts her and says something. The translator turns to Obama and says ‘Premier Wen says that what the environmental minister said is not important.’
Despite his busy schedule, Obama made time for friends and fun. ‘Usually the dinners would last until well past midnight, full of wine-fuelled conversations that inspired us.’ Obama was talking about Toni Morrison and Meryl Streep, but I think there might just be something here for us mortals to note. Whatever might be the circumstances of our lives, surrounding ourselves with friends will enrich our lives. Neither celebrities nor wine is necessary, just lots of laughter and banter.
Obama has a recurring dream. ‘I find myself on the streets of some unnamed city; a neighbourhood with trees, storefronts, light traffic. The day is pleasant and warm, with a soft breeze, and people out shopping or walking their dogs or coming home from work…I realise that no one recognises me. My security detail is gone. There’s nowhere I have to be. My choices have no consequence. I wander into a corner store to buy a bottle of water or iced tea, making small talk with the person behind the counter. I settle down on a nearby bench, pop open the cap on my drink, take a sip, and just watch the world passing by. I feel like I’ve won the lottery.’
I found this passage the most poignant one in the book. The most powerful person in the world wants to do nothing more than do nothing. In other words, my dear students, the glamour of a high intensity job fades away quite soon. If you don’t like the job, the glamour will not provide any further motivation after a period of time. To be fair to Obama, despite this dream, his memoir is actually a testament to how much he loved his work.
Finally, Obama discusses Trump and his rise. ‘What I knew was that he was a spectacle, and in the United States of America in 2011, that was a form of power. Trump trafficked in a currency that, however shallow, seemed to gain more purchase with each passing day.’ Obama is absolutely right, except for one thing. A spectacle is a form of power everywhere, not just in America. Many professions including, I am afraid, the law, are in thrall of showmen. As future lawyers, be wary of showmen, for when the chips are down, their quackery will make your problems worse rather than better.
School of Law
BML Munjal University
Note: This letter has been reproduced after taking Professor Nuggehalli’s consent.
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