The Supreme Court Salutes “Get Smart”


As the 1960s sitcom Get Smart makes its way back into popular culture with the release of the film adaptation starring Steve Carrell, it is amusing to note that the series has also had an unlikely impact on legal discourse. In both Canadian and American legal briefs and court rulings, the idea of the ‘cone of silence’ – which never worked on the show – is discussed earnestly and interchangeably with another metaphor with an interesting lineage – ‘Chinese walls.’

Here’s Canada’s Supreme Court in 1990 in MacDonald Estate v. Martin:

“… The courts in the United States have generally adopted the stricter ‘possibility of real mischief’ test. According to this approach, once it is established that there is a ‘substantial relationship’ between the matter out of which the confidential information is said to arise and the matter at hand, there is an irrebuttable presumption that the attorney received relevant information. If the attorney practises in a firm, there is a presumption that lawyers who work together share each other’s confidences. Knowledge of confidential matters is therefore imputed to other members of the firm. This latter presumption can, however, in some circumstances, be rebutted. The usual methods used to rebut the presumption are the setting up of a ‘Chinese Wall’ or a ‘cone of silence’ at the time that the possibility of the unauthorized communication of confidential information arises. A ‘Chinese Wall’ involves effective ‘screening’ to prevent communication between the tainted lawyer and other members of the firm. A ‘cone of silence’ is achieved by means of a solemn undertaking not to disclose by the tainted solicitor. Other means which would constitute clear and convincing evidence that no improper disclosure has or can take place are not ruled out.”

Here’s to hoping we may see a shoe phone reference the next time a telecom matter is before the court.

Edward Luttwak: The Intellectual as Adventurer

Like his friend Michael Ledeen, Edward Luttwak lives in the weird nether-land where scholarship meets espionage and intellectual journalism meets military adventurism. When he’s not writing learned books on the grand strategy of the Roman Empire or crisp essays for the London Review of Books, Luttwak works as a consultant for the various military and police agencies, going so far so to assist in the interrogation of prisoners (always legally, he assures us). My friend and occasionally collaborator Laura Rozen wrote a splendid profile of Luttwak for the Forward, one that captures the contradictions of the man nicely.

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Christopher Lasch: The Radical as Cultural Conservative


As my Sans Everything colleague A.M. Lamey  has observed, there are certain strands of radical thought, even forms of Marxism, which are surprisingly sympathetic to cultural conservatism. One of the best examples of this tendency is the late historian Christopher Lasch (1932-1994). In works like The Culture of Narcissism (1979) and The True and Only Heaven (1991), Lasch was a bracing and far-reaching critic of mainstream American life, in particular the comfortable illusions of liberal thought. As I pointed out in my previous posting, Lasch was particularly effective in dissecting the shoddy way liberals think about foreign policy, their tendency to become entrapped in the snares of militarism and imperialism.


Yet Lasch’s very stance as a radical anti-liberal made him susceptible to his own brand of illusions. When writing about family life he tended to be a nostalgist, celebrating the home as a haven and distrusting all modern attempts to reform domestic life in the name of gender equality. A good example of Lasch’s cultural conservatism is the chapter on late 19th and early 20th century feminism in his 1965 book The New Radicalism In America. In criticising these pioneering feminist, Lasch fell back on the cheapest sort of stereotyping, describing them as man-haters motivated by envy.


In one remarkable passage Lasch wrote: “Whatever one thinks of the justice of the feminists’ cause, one has to admit that the envy of men was very pronounced in American feminism. Sometimes it amounted to outright antagonism. The feminists talked a great deal abut the need for a freer and more spontaneous companionship between men and women, but in practice they often seemed to assume a state of perpetual war. Even when the envy of men did not reach the point of hostility – and it is possible to exaggerate the Lesbian and castrating aspects of the feminist revolt – the envy nevertheless remained.”


Especially revealing in this quote is the qualifying clause (“it is possible to exaggerate the Lesbian and castrating aspects of the feminist revolt”). When he wrote it Lasch no doubt thought he was being magnanimous and gallant but in retrospect it’s an amazing example of offhand, unthinking chauvinism.

The War Liberals: From Wilson to Bush


If there is one thing historians understand, it’s that history does really repeat itself exactly. History is the study of the past in all it’s local and unique particularity. Yet still, some forms of human behavior do fall into patterns, and when people make the same mistakes over and over again, it’s worth asking why.

The New Republic was born in the fateful year 1914, on the eve of the first global war. Throughout it’s history, this magazine, a leading organ of American liberalism, has time and again found itself loudly supporting wars, using progressive rhetoric to defend militarism, only to suffer regrets afterwards.

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Comics: Out of the Gutter and Into the Academy

Comics were once a gutter art form, barely more respectable than pornography. Now comics are perhaps all too cherished by the establishment, showered with attention by academic studies and museum shows. More than anyone else Art Speigelman is responsible for this shift, thanks not only to his celebrated graphic novel Maus but also his many lectures and essays on comics history.

But even Spiegelman has some misgivings about the newfound legitimacy of comics. As he recently told the Globe and Mail: “The careful-what-you-wish-for thing is, I really like comics’ grittiness and disrepute, their raffish and scruffy qualities. And I don’t really want to see them turned into something that’s so academicized that one can approach them with the same suspicion I used to approach art in my lower-middle class childhood.”

Are comics better off in the gutter? That’s an issue I’ll take up this Friday with three very smart writers (Douglas Wolk, David Hajdu and Hillary Chute) in a panel discussion hosted by the New York Institute For the Humanities as part of an all day symposium on “the growing cultural significance of comics.” For more on the symposium see here

The whole symposium looks very interesting and will have many distinguished guests, including Lynda Barry, Francoise Mouly, Sarah Boxer, Gary Panter, and of course Art Spiegelman.