by Joe Auciello – February, 2005
The countless number of jokes about lawyers reveals a fear and animosity towards members of this profession, which, to the average citizen, appears powerful and mysterious. Only in fiction—and the self-serving autobiographies that read like fiction—does the lawyer emerge as the admirable figure, the hero. Think of Perry Mason; the flawed protagonists of Scott Turow novels; the cardboard characters of John Grisham, and from “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the most stellar lawyer-as-hero: Atticus Finch.
Their heroic real-life counterparts are less well known, though not entirely rare. Legal Aid societies, for instance, could not exist without them. The most
recognizable lawyers in America, though, make money and win fame by chit-chatting comfortably on cable television.
William Kunstler was an entirely different kind of lawyer. This book, a slim collection of courtroom and public speeches, some taken from FBI files, shows
Kunstler as the rare individual who, with a passion for justice, could not help but follow his conscience.
Kunstler is kin to notables like Stokely Carmichael, Dave Dellinger, the Berrigans, and Leonard Peltier (clients all), who were honest and principled men of integrity, persons who, whether one agreed with them or not, commanded appreciation and admiration. With all of them, social beliefs guided personal action, regardless of difficulty or consequences. These are
America’s noted nonconformist, Henry David Thoreau, wrote: “I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a
respect for the law, so much as for the right. … Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.” Kunstler may never have read these words, but his speeches attest that he lived by them.
“The law,” Kunstler said in 1994, “is nothing more than a method of control created by a socioeconomic system determined, at all costs, to perpetuate itself, by all and any means necessary, for as long as possible.” Kunstler abandoned the liberal daydream in the impartial and fair administration of justice.
“Those two words, legality and justice, are miles apart,” he said. Kunstler’s career as a public figure and movement lawyer began with civil rights work in the 1960s, but it was the Chicago Seven trial that shaped him into a political radical and compelled him to adopt the views he retained for the remainder of his life.
Chicago Seven defendant Abbie Hoffman in his autobiography, “Soon to Be A Major Motion Picture,” wrote: “Of course Kunstler was the central figure in the court. He was fearless and quick on his feet. His passion knew no limits and he roared with laughter or wept with tears as a legal system he really believed
in crumpled in chaos around him. … How the events registered on him and how he responded made up one of the trial’s greatest dramas.”
Kunstler himself referred to the Chicago Seven trial as his “personal Rubicon.” The reference itself says a great deal about Kunstler. The phrase implies not only an irreversible decision, but also a conscious decision and action taken from deliberate intent.
Kunstler was about 50 years old when he decided “that the only life worth living is one which is devoted to the welfare of others.” At 50, when most people are
fixed and settled in their beliefs, an age when political radicals are more apt to tire out and succumb to a softer, easier existence, Kunstler instead chose a more difficult personal and political transformation that guided his steps for the remainder of his life.
It is no wonder that, in speech after speech, Kunstler stressed the importance of individual conscience and the necessity to speak up and stand up for social
justice. In a message to a Yale University reunion, he wrote: “We are the elitist cogs of a civilization which measures human worth almost exclusively in dollars and cents, and the fact that it has rewarded many of us handsomely … only underscores our real value to it.”
This is not a fully realized Marxist theory of alienation within capitalist society; it is more of a moral renunciation of false values and a cry to live a better life in pursuit of real values. In this quest, Thoreau went to the woods; Kunstler went to the courtroom. There, he says modestly, “this effort has taken the form of engaging in perpetual struggle on rigidly restricted terrains for some aspect of
relative freedom for others as well as for myself.”
Parenthetically, it is telling that Kunstler accepts a particular misreading of Herman Melville’s great novel, “Moby Dick.” After the death of Captain Ahab
and the destruction of his ship, the Pequod, Ishmael, the narrator, alone survives to tell the tale.
Kunstler incorrectly cites Ishmael, as the hero who returns to the sea to continue a fight against evil. Nothing in the novel suggests that Ishmael goes back to whaling.
The idea of returning to the good fight, despite terrible setbacks, is Kunstler's own. If this example shows that he was a weak literary critic, it also shows something better: He was a strong man whose personal integrity enabled him to be an effective lawyer.
At the conclusion of the Chicago Seven trial, Judge Julius Hoffman remarked to defendant Tom Hayden, “Fellows as smart as you could do awfully well under this system.” His judgment applied equally to Kunstler who also could have done “awfully well,” in the judge’s sense of material wealth, comfort, and
privilege. But Kunstler turned his back on “success” and instead followed another path.
Someday a full biography of William Kunstler will be written, and no doubt that book will expose his personal weaknesses and lapses. A personality as large
as Kunstler’s must surely have had flaws to match.
Still, his virtues: courage, integrity, commitment, and daring, will remain undiminished and will continue to inspire.
Attorney Michael Ratner, in a useful introduction that shows the contemporary relevance of Kunstler’s ideas, wrote, “This book is a breath of fresh air. Reading Bill’s speeches genuinely awed me. They made me optimistic about the fight to regain our lost liberty. His speeches are as prescient today as they were when he gave them. His words place our struggle for a more just world in a historical context of struggle, and should make us all understand the obligation to continue fighting.”
In the United States and Canada, Ocean Press books are available through Consortium Book Sales and Distribution, at: www.cbsd.com.
William M. Kunstler, “The Emerging Police State.”
Ocean Press: Melbourne, Australia, 2004, paperback,
120 pages, $12.95.