I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men.

William Shakespeare[1]

He is not only dull in himself, but the cause of dullness in others.

Samuel Foote[2]

[Larry went to school last week, commuting daily to DC and back, and wants to tell us about it. Those of you who want to leave the room, may do so now.]

Yes, um, well you know last week was my annual pilgrimage to DC to learn about the latest developments in a narrow area of the law that I know something about but otherwise will not name. It’s not a particularly risqué, or complex field, but events do tend to churn on, and stuff happen even when I’m not involved. Hence the need for an update and, in any case, I have to do something to satisfy the CLE[3] requirements of various jurisdictions.

The course is a big deal in its own little area. Typically it runs for the better part of a week, from Tuesday afternoon to the following Friday morning[4]; each session is packed with lots of detail and supported by copious written materials; and it’s attended by up to 2000 people from around the country. If you’re serious about it and go to everything, you can lose all contact with the outside world. It’s just you, others in the audience who are like you, and the instructors who are also like you.

Have you ever heard a lawyer tell a joke? Mostly they’re not really up to it. Some of the instructors know that and make only modest attempts to entertain. For that they should be thanked. There’s nothing quite like a bad joke, poorly told, injected into an overlong discussion of an abstruse area of the law, in a vain attempt to wake up an audience. No joke could survive in such circumstances, except possibly one about sex; but we’re not allowed to tell those any more.

Of course, not every instructor at the course I attended agrees. Inevitably there are some who think they are the soul of wit, i.e., witty themselves and [possibly also] the cause of wit in others. Trust me on this: It’s not true.  I’ve known some great teachers, even in law school, who were genuinely witty and could tell a joke. But people of that caliber are not attracted to Washington, D.C., or if they are, they hide their senses of humor. Otherwise the D.C. immune system, in the form of its politicians, pundits and reporters, would reject them. Humor is not permitted in D.C., except at special events.

So, does that mean all the instructors were dull, and possibly even the cause of dullness in others? No. Most of them were ordinary people, who could carry on ordinary conversations, and possibly even tell a joke at dinner time. But their material was dull, very dull, and of interest only to specialists. Jokes do not grow well in a garden of dullness.

The general aura of dullness, coupled with the rigorous schedule maintained by the full time participants, isolated us. For a time we lived in a bubble, dominated by our own concerns, and oblivious to all else. You might say that we reproduced in microcosm the field effect that surrounds Washington, D.C. You know, the invisible field that filters out most of the news of the world, and currently tells us that only Barrack Obama, Lindsey Graham, and John McCain are truly important, with other bit players added from time to time.

I was a little less affected by our course mini-bubble than others, because I commuted to and from it.[5] Three hours a day on the train and the human contact that goes with it tend to open up one’s awareness. So, at one point last week I realized that the government of Ukraine was falling apart. “How could this be?”

Well, I dimly remembered that the Ukraine was a part of the old Soviet Union; that under Stalin it had a great famine; that during World War II a significant portion of its population sided with the Germans against the Russians[6]; that the Russians were not pleased; that there’s a sizeable Russian-speaking population in the Eastern part of the country; and that, it is said, that the Russian-speakers tend to favor closer ties with Russia, while Ukrainians in the West tend to favor the European Union[7].

Perhaps my question should have been, “Why were we surprised?” With that kind of history, why would the factions over there be calm? Well, apparently in this country we were, surprised that is. And I know why. We owe it all to our intelligence experts. No doubt some of them predicted an imminent revolution, but also without a doubt, others scoffed at the notion. So, that meant that someone, possibly the President, had to pick who was right, and if he picked incorrectly he’d get lots of criticism, especially from his political opponents. So the Administration took the safe course, and said nothing.

What about the Russians?  After all, they live next door to the Ukraine and historically have close, although not necessarily friendly ties with it. Did they do any better predicting outcomes than we did? Apparently not. They made a deal with the President Yanukovych[8] of the Ukraine, and persuaded him to abandon a plan to set up closer ties with the EU; he did that, and thereby triggered a general revolt; and now he’s out of office and reportedly hiding on Russian soil. That’s an even worse result than we achieved. The U.S. did and said nothing, and avoided looking stupid. The Russians acted, and created a disaster for their national interests.

Somebody said the other day that the Russians probably planned this. They have a greater plan to carve up the Ukraine, and assimilate the portions dominated by Russian-speakers. For that to happen, first there had to be a revolution, and chaos. I have no opinion on this, other than to say (a) so far it’s speculation, and (b) the Russians deny having such ambitions. Also, why would the Russians want to create chaos in the country next door? They already have plenty of it on their southern borders, largely caused by a variety of Islamic insurgents[9]. Why add more fuel to the fires down there? On the other hand, there are early indications that the Russians may have a different analysis and might be preparing some sort of move in the area.[10] Only time will tell.

What conclusions can we draw from this? Well, apparently all governments operate in a bubble of sorts, filtering the incoming and reacting only to what they think is important. This means, of course, that all Governments can, and do make mistakes, sometimes gross and embarrassing ones. Perhaps it’s time to pop some of those bubbles.

To that end, I’ll make a modest proposal: That all the Heads of State on this planet should by treaty, (a) establish Twitter (or other similar) accounts for the purpose of communicating among themselves, (b) provide that no national intelligence service of any country shall spy on or intercept any messages to and from these accounts, and (c) establish rigorous (and uniform) penalties for any who violate the security of these communications.

While this standing alone won’t pop well-established bubbles, say, in Washington, D.C., it will give Heads of State a reasonable opportunity to avoid them.

[Well, Larry, that’s quite a leap, from the specialized course you attended to international relations, but you did it gracefully. And I like the idea of carving out by treaty some areas where the spymasters can’t go. I wonder if any Administration could ever get such a thing ratified?[11]]


[1]  See Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (6th Edition, 2004) (hereafter cited as ODQ at __) at William Shakespeare, p. 691, n. 23. The quote is from Henry IV, Part 2 (1597).

[2] See ODQ at Samuel Foote, p. 328, n. 5.  Foote, an English actor and dramatist, lived from 1720 – 1777.

[3] CLE is the acronym for Continuing Legal Education,

[4] That’s two half days and two full ones.

[5] In the interest of full disclosure, Larry also would like you to know that, this year, he didn’t attend the full course.

[6] The sorry history of the Ukraine famine and the WWII period is set out, in abbreviated form, in the Wikipedia article on the Ukraine. You can find it at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ukraine

[7] If you want to know more about the population makeup of the Ukraine, try the CIA World Factbook at https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/up.html

[8] See CNN, Carter et al., Obama warns Russia against Ukraine intervention, says ‘there will be costs’ (Feb. 28, 2014) at http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/28/world/europe/ukraine-politics/index.html

[9] See the Wikipedia article on the Insurgency in the North Caucasus, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Insurgency_in_the_North_Caucasus

[10] See the article cited at note 8.

[11] But see ODQ at Charles de Gaulle, p.262, n.10: “Treaties, you see, are like girls and roses: they last while they last.”]

Advertisements