Much of my job as a lawyer has nothing to do with trials, courtroom drama, judges, murders, conference tables, the news media, or the like. Much of it is telling people "no." No, you don't have a case. No, I won't represent you. No, this is a waste of time.
The worst is telling someone "no" even when you believe them and you want to make it right. Even if they've really been discriminated against, a cop really beat them up, they really lost a son in jail because of someone else's callousness; sometimes you still have to say "no."
In so doing, I can spare someone two or three years of having the scabs of their wounds picked at by useless, maddening litigation. It's a deeply unsatisfying (and unprofitable) way to conduct business. But it's honest. It's candid. It's humane.
This business of telling people no, however, has very little to do with the business of justice. After more than a decade of saying no, and a lifetime of contrarian optimism, I've had to face the ugly truth about the career I love. The institutions that carry out the law do not exist to help the people that I went to law school to help. With rare and precious exceptions, the courts are there to provide aid and comfort to the wealthy.
As one might expect, this is also true of the institutions that wrote the law in the first place. My home congressional district (IN-09) covers 13 counties, mostly filled with folks of modest means.
By Election Day this year, candidates for our House of Representatives seat (of which I was one until recently) will likely have spent about five million dollars to get a job which pays $174,000.00 per year. In another year, they'll start raising money again.
The seat is currently held by a trust-fund multi-millionaire from Tennessee. The challenger is frantically raising money to compete with the bags of cash the incumbent has on hand.
The Indiana Senate race, which has already generated the most advertising in the country, is on track to cost around 30 million dollars. Many of these dollars will go to making sure everyone knows which candidate will be tougher on refugees, addicts, the sick, and other folks whose lives could be forever altered if they had even the tiniest fraction of the money spent on a single campaign commercial.
As with the courts, regular folks don't play the electoral politics game all that much. It's dominated by exactly who you'd expect: the ultra-rich, and narcissists who are immune to all forms of shame. These people, along with a hopelessly outnumbered group of truly dedicated public servants, make the rules the rest of us must live by. And these same politicians then appoint and confirm the judges who interpret the laws that they write. The few laws that don't explicitly fit into gift boxes for the rich are mutilated and crumpled until they do.
The inescapable conclusion is that we, the vast majority of us, are fucked. Systemically, roundly, unmistakably fucked.
In José Saramago's classic novel Blindness, ordered society becomes chaos when everyone suddenly loses their sight. Saramago's point is that the structures and norms that support our daily existence are more fragile than we think.
This checks out. One need not suffer something so drastic as loss of a sense to be completely fucked here in America. It could be a temporary illness. A momentary lapse in judgment. An unplanned pregnancy. The loss of your job, a loved one, your mind. The courts offer no quarter. The legislature offers no quarter. The executive branch is perpetually on a golf course of one sort or another. The systems we have in place do not exist to aid the terminally fucked.
Long derided, even longer forgotten, we in the Midwest are perhaps the most fucked of all. The Walmarts of the world grow fat on our labor, the jails grow fat on our sons and daughters, and we become ever thinner. Overdoses, poverty, undereducation, obesity, racism, elections won by grifters - these failures afflict everyone in every corner of everywhere. Yet we shoulder a disproportionate share of the blame for the ills of capitalism. The right hand harvests us for our votes and our backs. The left hand has washed itself of us.
Over the last twenty years as a musician, an activist, a lawyer, and a politician in Indiana and Kentucky, I've seen the fucking over of the Midwest play out in an incalculable number of ways, affecting an incalculable number of lives. But I've also seen enough to maintain a glimmer of optimism – if just enough to get by.
In this series, I'll be telling the stories of folks here who, for whatever reason, have been shortchanged by the institutions that govern their day-to-day existence. I'll be talking to the good people in our communities who are working on solutions to the underlying problems.
And I'll be sharing what I learn from them about meaningful ways you and I can help unfuck the Midwest. Stay with me. And if you know any good stories, send them my way.