It’s not always easy for outsiders to get their minds around the CGCS, which describes itself as a “partnership for faculty and graduate-student research and outreach on issues of media development, national identities, and globalization.” That may have something to do with the multifarious career and interests of its director.
His first professional love was journalism, and it still tugs at him. “I often think that I’m a journalist manqué,” he says wryly.
Back in 1959, Price“full of intensity” as a young writer at the Yale Daily Newshad a notion that the Cuban Revolution could be his ticket to a journalistic career. Observing that college students in particular were “threatening to stay away in droves” from Cuba, he convinced a Yale alumnus and National Airlines stockholder “that a series of articles by me in the Yale Daily and in Ivy Magazine might do wonders for student ardor to visit Cuba despite the events there.”
That trip put him in a “context of professional journalists who are trying to define or communicate a large story, when there was really doubt, or a concern, about the direction” that story was going, he recalls. “Among other things, I learned the importance of professional journalists inflating a story that affects people’s future in the United States and elsewhere. It was a time where active journalism could have helped to develop public attitudes at critical moments towards Castro and the regime.”
After he pulled off a similar trip to Soviet Russia, he writes, he came away feeling “triumphant” at his success, “yet slightly and happily fraudulent.” (Price is engagingly open in his memoir about the satisfaction he sometimes takes in manipulating institutions for a desired, beneficent end. In his youth he identified with Thomas Mann’s Felix Krull, the Confidence Man, and later came to see himself “more in the tradition of the faith healer,” explaining: “I wanted to orchestrate perceptions, use the leverage of cumulated efforts of others to reach some concerted goal.”)
The following year, he wrote a column for the Yale Alumni Magazine about life in New Haven that led to a job with American Heritage Magazine, which represented an “interesting halfway point” between newspaper journalism and graduate school. Yet shortly after he signed on, he switched gears and ended up at Yale Law School. Why?
“I think I just did it to avoid going into the army,” he says. “I actually really wanted to be a journalist, and I was working for American Heritage Magazine, but it looked as if I was going to be drafted, so I went to law school. In some ways I regret it. I would have loved to be a journalist, and a lot of what I did in law school was a result of my interest in the role of journalists in society.”
As a law student, “I still looked at the world through an aspiring journalist’s eye,” he recounts in his memoir. “I read law, statutes, and cases the way a journalist might see ‘facts,’ less as a statement of immutable principles, and more as a set of representations.”
After law schoolwhere he became executive editor of the Yale Law JournalPrice clerked for Supreme Court Associate Justice Potter Stewart. By then he had already begun to learn about the Native American experience. He was captivated by the stories of dislocation and dispossession, including the 1830s legal battle surrounding the forced removal of the Cherokee nation from its home in Georgia to Oklahoma, a journey known as the “Cherokee Trail of Tears.” The struggles of the Cherokee and other American Indians to be a viable political presence and to maintain an ethnic identity in the face of oppression struck a chord.
“It was hardly a stretch … to see in the group and individual stories of these groups echoes of … those in various parts of the Jewish and refugee world,” he writes in his memoir. He would go on to advocate for the legal rights of different American Indian groups, eventually becoming deputy director of California Indian Legal Services and helping to found the Native American Rights Fund. (Ultimately, in a “kind of enormous legal joke,” his approach “led to the extraordinary right of Indian tribes to engage in gaming, establishing casinos throughout the country.”)
“I saw lawor the application of lawas a kind of theater, a theater that could be tweaked and changed,” he writes. “Somewhere in the mix of causation was this idea that law could be upended, made to frolic, allowed to turn disaster into an unforeseen opportunity. Somewhere, in the contribution I made to the sequence of events, was the acceptance of the absurd as a potential mode of solving problems.”
After serving as a professor at UCLA Law School from 1967 until 1982roughly coinciding with his advocacy for Native American causesPrice was named dean of the Cardozo School of Law, a position he held until 1991. In his memoir he compares the philosophies of two Viennese Jewish philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper.
“Wittgenstein famously said that the purpose of philosophy is ‘to show the fly the way out of the fly bottle,’” he writes. That phrase “stunned” Price, not just for its “trademark anti-essentialism” but because it presaged the constrictive horror of Vienna in the late 1930s. “Rather than trying to find out what the law ‘is’ or ‘should be,’ I saw law as something closer to what Wittgenstein called a function of altering the grammar of the everyday,” Price notes. For Wittgenstein, “The rules of the language game were not determined by the nature of the world, but by interactions among people. ‘Truth’ is not some sort of external reality, not a set of intrinsically correct statements, but is constructed by the coming together of a complex set of factors.”
Yet he also sympathized with the “positivist” approach of Popper, whose worldview allowed that “lawyers could work with the actual rules and try to improve them to make a specific positive social difference in terms of human freedoms.”
Given what happened to his family and the Jews of Vienna, where “the meaning and protection under existing law was fundamentally altered,” Price concluded: “I find a Viennese solution to the problem I’ve posed for myself: work for Popper-like outcomes but with a Wittgensteinian skepticism in the fundamental nature of law’s dominion. I conduct myself as if law should be taken seriously, but in my bones, I have my doubts.” >>
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©2007 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 4/28/07