“Justice, justice shalt thou pursue.”
Yesterday, I read two unrelated items that brought that Talmudic injunction rather forcefully to mind. The first was a line in an excellent review in the Atlantic of two books about Sholem Aleichem, sometimes called the “Jewish Mark Twain.” (Aleichem was the creator of Tevye, the inspiration for the central character in Fiddler on the Roof.) The sentence that struck me was this: Jewish humor arises in the gap between reality and dreams, reality and justice.”
The other item was a story from the Huffington Post. The headline says it all: For the First Time Ever, a Prosecutor Will Go to Jail for Wrongfully Convicting an Innocent Man.
The prosecutor in the case, Ken Anderson, possessed evidence that would have cleared the defendant, including a statement from the crime’s only eyewitness that the defendant wasn’t the perpetrator. Anderson sat on that evidence and obtained a conviction of the accused, who remained in prison for the next 25 years. Meanwhile, Anderson’s career flourished, and he eventually became a judge.
As unjust as this situation was, as shocking to the conscience, what makes it newsworthy is the fact that Anderson actually was punished. As the story notes–and as most lawyers can attest– this is not an isolated case of malfeasance. Although most prosecutors and judges are ethical practitioners who take their obligations to the rule of law seriously, there are far too many who do not, and they are rarely, if ever, sanctioned. A recent study found prosecutorial misconduct in nearly a quarter of all capital cases in Arizona. Only two of those prosecutors have been reprimanded or punished in any way.
Evidence of gross misconduct leading to injustice isn’t limited to the legal system. It is increasingly impossible to ignore the corruption of our social and governing institutions. Over the past couple of decades, we’ve seen it everywhere–from rampant corporate misbehavior to major league sports doping to revelations of priestly child molestation to corrupt lobbyists to propagandists masquerading as journalists to Congressmen who cut food stamps for hungry children while fiercely protecting tax loopholes and corporate welfare for their patrons.
In this dismal ethical environment, justice isn’t the first word that comes to mind.
An unjust, unfair world invites–demands–political satire, and satire, at least, is thriving. You need only watch Jon Stewart for an example of Jewish humor that “arises in the gap between justice and reality.” It’s a big gap. The Sholem Aleichem reviewer suggests that the purpose of Jewish humor is to “give yourself some distance from your hopeless situation.” If that’s accurate, most humor these days is Jewish humor.
I enjoy a good laugh, but I’d prefer a more just world.