Applause for John Yoo?
John Yoo closed his last formal constitutional law class of the semester today. Going in, I put the odds of perfunctory end-of-class applause at 50%. On the one hand, he’s an effective and endearing professor. On the other…well, you know – the electrodes-to-genitals thing.
It turns out that after a long wind-up of thanking us for the honor of teaching us, Yoo did get a nice round of clapping. From almost everyone. In a classroom in Berkeley. Yep.
(Although there seemed to be an almost-imperceptible hesitation just before the clapping, which was microseconds away from becoming awkward, I have no sense of timing or rhythm, so maybe it was just my imagination.)
I'm a good Democrat, but let's pause on the applause to appreciate the rage this will surely prompt among some on the far left. Just picture the apoplexy: Applause? For someone who should be fired or possibly shot? For a war criminal akin to Goebbels? For the person directly responsible for the worst crime of all: the precipitous drop in Boalt’s bar passage rates?! Mon dieu!
I don't want to make too much light of this. I basically think the policies Yoo helped instantiate were insanely misguided strategically and morally. But still. Why, in this bastion of Bizerkeleyism, did John Yoo receive applause?
What I think is going on here – if I may pluralize anecdote into data – is that most Boalt students have come to a few rough conclusions about Yoo. If I had to articulate the plurality sentiment at Boalt, it'd be this:
1. He’s a good prof. Not just in the sense of “students like him.” But in the sense that he’s teaching stuff correctly. That’s what’s so ludicrous about the suggestion, made by Slate’s Deborah Pearlstein and others, that he’s somehow flunking his academic duties by filling his students with one-sided propaganda. His class was scrupulously faithful to current doctrines on the foreign affairs and war powers, separation of powers, judicial review, treaties, executive appointments, executive privilege, and such. And about 10x more organized and detailed than certain other classes. Put it this way: if you want to learn con law for the CA bar (the “black letter” Pearlstein seems obsessed with), would you rather take it from Amar, HaLo, or Yoo? That’s what I thought.
2. He did wicked, wicked acts. With shoddy, shoddy legal work.
3. But the morality of torturing terrorists is an ambiguous and contestable idea – outside certain zipcodes in Berkeley, Chevy Chase, and Cambridge. As is the degree to which a strong executive is either normatively desirable or constitutionally sanctioned. So to demonize his facilitation of those doctrines is to see issues in absolutes that most people perceive in gray. Plus, give the guy a little credit for trying to serve American interests — at least as his superiors so (mis)defined them.
4. None of which is to excuse the very legitimate questions about professional ethics; the quality of the legal scholarship; the misunderstanding about the identity of the client; the blurring of the line between advocacy and neutrality; the validity of the “just taking orders” defense; the responsibility for the proximate results of his scholarship; the limits to academic freedom, etc .
5. But the answers to all those questions are not so clear-cut as to justify hounding the guy out of a job. Or refusing to clap if, for a welcome change, he does a good one.
Anyway, that’s the rough temperature of student sentiment I’m taking. And I draw it not just from the clapping – that’s a self-selected group of students willing to take his class (or suffer quietly for the great time-slot and the four units) – but from conversations with other students and reading this blog. Maybe I’m wrong. It’s just my informed opinion. It and $2.25 gets you a coffee at Zeb.