Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Dan Markel: How About a Little Respect



I did not know Dan Markel but all I need to know comes from photos of him with two smiling children. It appears from that and everything that has been written that he was a terrific person. It also appears that I was one of a small handful of  people who did not know him. Nevertheless, it is beyond sad to think of the way lives have changed and I do not mean just his.

Some commentators, however, have used the event to engage in typical law professor BS. Tripping over each other in a desire to seem to know him best and to have inside information, stories have mentioned that he was in the middle of a divorce (false), that it was a home invasion (false), that he was shot in the back (maybe but it would be the back of the head.) This is the kind of loose talk usually reserved for the know it all, name droppers who spend too much time trolling the halls or in the faculty lounge. In effect, for some, his death became a means to the end of showing off.

One other factor that reflects badly, at least to me, about the commentators is the persistent description that he was a good scholar, an internationally known scholar, a gifted scholar. I do not doubt any of that for a second  nor do I care. To me it trivializes the loss.  The loving father of two children was gunned down.   My hunch is that he would have traded all the scholarship, citations, and accolades for a mere chance to see his children grow up, to be in a happy relationship, and to have good friends. Somehow, if I were describing the loss of a decent loving person, "scholar" would be way down on the list of characteristics that made the death so tragic. Is it harder to lose a good scholar than, say, the clerk at a 7-11? Not to me. Scholarship, like the 7-11 clerk who gets the change right every time, is simply something a person does. It is not who they are -- not at any meaningful level.

18 comments:

BH said...

People are speaking about him in the ways they know him, which is entirely appropriate. Virtually all the comments I have seen reference his love for and devotion to his children. But they focus on the professional side-- again--because that is how they know him. Speaking of a person's professional accomplishments ( which I am sure meant a lot to Prof. Markel) simply does not amount to saying that this was ALL he was.

Anonymous said...

Your complaint here is hypocritical. You are using the occasion of Markel's death to engage in your regular BS, namely, to chastise your academic colleagues for not being as down-to-earth and egalitarian and non-elitist as you allegedly are. Markel's career was as a teacher and scholar. It is appropriate to note that he was successful in his career. That is all people are doing. You should have some respect and some self-awareness.

Jeffrey Harrison said...

BH; Thanks. I think what strikes me is this. Everyone in the profession probably assumes he was a scholar at one level or another. For others though the mention of scholar strikes me as saying "pay attention, this death is special because he was a person of status." Would we see comparable comments that went like this" He had 2 loving children was regarded as a kind person and loved working at the 7-11" So, for me and perhaps only for me, the scholarship thing is unnecessary for law profs (we allegedly are all that) and shouts "high status" to anyone else. Somehow, a more careful description noting he loved scholarship seems less bothersome.

Jeffrey Harrison said...

Anon, sorry to point this out since you already seem angry but I think you have dropped the logic ball. I am using the commentators to do my usual thing (which you describe quite accurately) but hardly the death. There were no comments from me about the death itself. I actually did not know him. My reactions are to the reactions. This is not to say I am right, only that I think you start from a mistaken premise.

Fred said...

I kind of agree with both sides here.

If you look at the memorial on FSU Law's website, it only mentions his family at the very bottom of the page in contrast to the rest which is all information about his career. (See http://www.law.fsu.edu/dan_markel_memoriam.html)

At the same time though, you would expect that the law school would focus on his practice of law, because that's what he did, and that's what he was there for. They didn't really know his kids and what they did know about Markel was his academic activities.

Similarly, this news article seems to focus more on his career than his kids (See http://www.tallahassee.com/story/news/local/2014/07/19/fsu-law-professor-dies-shooting/12891513/). But it only does so after stating that "A big part of Markel's life was his academic career . . .." Further, what more could they really have written other than that he had two kids. Its not like they're going to interview them and ask what their fondest memories of their father are.

Admittedly, this is just the media and his school though so its kind of different than what you're saying which is about individual commentators.

BH said...

Hmm, we will just disagree on this one. If people who worked at 7-11 had blogs devoted to talking about working at 7-11, when one of their compatriots died, those left alive would talk about their colleague's work at 7-11.

BH said...

The other thing that I would say is his children are very small. Members of their family, and really close friends, are in the best position to supplement their memories of their father as a family man. These public tributes of his life as a public man will likely be of great interest to them when they are grown. It is always great to hear what my parents' friends and colleagues thought of them in contexts outside of the ones I knew them in. These tributes serve a very practical and, I think, ultimately humane purpose.

Jeffrey Harrison said...

Hopefully running a blog will never become a feather in one's cap rather than the substance of what he or she has to say. But then, law professors do have a tendency to define whatever they are doing at the time as "important."

Anonymous said...

Jeff, I am leery of me-too grief, but you are clearly in the wrong here. As BH indicates, it is reasonable for people to discuss him in the context in which they knew him. In dwelling on the respect for his scholarship, you completely ignore the degree to which they emphasize his generosity and support for others.

Your conversion of this into your normal schtick is just inappropriate. You say you are not writing about his death, but you are pointedly depicting this as business as usual. You're like a fashion blogger who criticizes what people are wearing at a wake. Even if they make the same mistakes they usually do, and even if you kindly leave the deceased out of it, can't you give it a rest?

Jeffrey Harrison said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeffrey Harrison said...

"Can't you give it a rest?" Wow does that mean someone has been listening? You could have fooled me. I am not sure what the "it" is but I'll take it.

I would definitely criticize what people wore to a wake in a second if I thought they were there to be seen or that what they were writing/wore fell into the "me too" category, as you describe it.

I do think there is a distinction between hollow appeals to status or authority which is business as usual for law profs even when it comes to the death of a colleague and an unselfish memorial. A good case of the latter is Orin Kerr's facebook piece. It told me about the person, actual events, and was very thoughtful. Granted, it was in the context of scholarly efforts, but that was merely a framework for describing the person.

On the other hand, comments that say he was a "scholar" are literally as useless as knowing his hair color. I am not sure what that even means and, frankly, given what I know about the loose use of the term it is, as you say, business as usual.

Perhaps, in the context of a tragedy, it would make more sense to ask law profs to please give it a rest.

Anonymous said...

I think all the commentators other than Fred are missing the point or creating a straw man. "Scholar" conveys nothing of importance. Acts, words, deeds, etc, are more useful.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, if you don't grasp that you are using his death as "a means to the end of showing off," you are less self-aware than I would have reckoned.

You and at least one other person here are upset by remarks appreciating his status as a "scholar." You have a nuanced view of what is acceptable and what isn't -- pity the soul who can't grasp how they've failed to use it as "a framework for describing the person," which I guess passes muster -- but I am more startled by the suggestion that someone other than you is "creating a straw man." Who among those describing him as a scholar intimates to any degree that he would NOT have traded that status "for a mere chance to see his children grow up, to be in a happy relationship, and to have good friends"? People write about those they know, in the ways they know them, in ways that person himself would have appreciated, without necessarily attempting to speak to everything in that person's life -- let alone suggesting that Aunt Gertrude's love of bingo, which brought her so much joy, brought her life its true meaning or was the world's highest calling. Others, I guess, prefer the sniping gossip they usually pretend to deplore.

Jeffrey Harrison said...

I really can't say that I agree with anything you are saying but if you are comfortable with it that's all that is important. I guess in your world someone who complained about the coverage of 9/11 would be using 9/11 to show off. That's pretty cynical and not something I would conclude just because I did not like what I had read.

It also concerns me that you think the difference between labeling someone and describing particular endearing and important characteristics is an matter of nuance. I think they are as different as the cover of a book and what is in it.

So, we will just have to disagree and my hope is that you would put similar energy into pointing out the flaws in the culture of the law teaching profession if, that is, you see any.

Oh, I am sure I am not grading you, voting for your tenure, or have any power over you. Plus, I don't even what to be your friend. So what is it with the anonymous BS. What's got you so scared? Clearly you are good with the establishment on this one.

Jeffrey Harrison said...

I never have understood the anonymous thing except perhaps for people in the private sector who could be writing things that their employer's would not like. So what if someone disagrees or lumps you in or out of the establishment? I'd really like to know where the source of the fear is. What is the bad thing that will happen -- not invited to a conference, not invited to a symposium. So, the response is to hide? Sorry, can't go there. Too much disrespect for authority or at least the authority within the confines of legal education.

Here is something kind of related to your notion of "me too grieving." The murder is a complete mystery and assuming it is not mistaken identity it is hard for me to imagine a law professor making someone so mad they would commit murder or hire someone. There is a chance that something very bad was going on in his life. Yet of the scads of friends people who knew him so well, as far as I know, he did not confide in a single one about a fear, a treat, or even a misgiving.

As for carping and students, you might be surprised. The idea is to force decision makers to pause just a second knowing that their funding or hiring decisions will be scrutinized and made "public." They know that there is at least one person with a voice who is not playing ball. It is a slow process and perhaps not worth the effort but I believe it makes a difference. Only at the margins of course.

Anonymous said...

You've taken some heat on this one but if anything you were too kind. It looks like almost none of those writing had any insight into his real life over the past three years.

BH said...

Why would that be necessary-- to have insight into his "real" life (private life?) for purposes of writing about what they knew of him in the public arena where he put himself? Also, how do we know that all of the people writing are devoid of insights into his real life? If the suggestion is that the shock at the circumstances of his death is a function of that supposed lack of knowledge about him, that is unfair. No one knows why this happened. Nothing could justify it happening.

Jeffrey Harrison said...

I read the comment too and drew none of the inferences you did. I can understand not letting his death go but you probably need to let your concerns about what anonymous commentators say go. After all,they do not have enough conviction to identify themselves when there is no down side to doing so at all.