By Paul M
As the 2023 CUNY Law School full-time students’ Elected Speaker left the podium (speech here), the Associate Dean of Student Affairs rose to introduce the next speaker. At the same time Sudha Setty, the Dean of the Law School, stepped to the dais. Associate Dean Beltran sat down again, looking a little confused, as Dean Setty started to speak:
“This part of our Commencement activities is unscheduled, I’m afraid. We’ll return to today’s program in a few minutes, but first I am going to take advantage of my privilege to say a few words of my own. Not my white, patriarchal privilege—as you all know, I am a woman and of Indian descent—but my privilege as a leader and an educator. In fact, though those are both great privileges, that is the wrong word. Being a leader and educator makes it my responsibility to say something now. Ms. Mohammed has had her freedom to speak. What she has said makes it imperative that I now use mine.
“The representative of the graduating class had a great deal to say during her speech. Those of you who have the temperament to be lawyers—at least the kind who serve justice, the kind we aspire to graduate from CUNY Law—already know that every argument has at least two sides and appreciate the value of a robust rebuttal. Those of you who don’t, and sadly I can already hear your voices starting to rise, should remember that both your future employers and your future clients will be able to watch your performance on the internet. I’d advise you to let me be heard and you can boo me when I finish.
“I must first take issue with the idea that the law is a manifestation of white supremacy and was created to intimidate and bully. I am horrified that any of you could have completed a three-year law degree and emerged with that belief. It is, first of all, historically ignorant, as the entire framework of legal theory and practice you have been exposed to is the result of a continual, if uneven and unfinished (and never-ending) push toward constraining power and creating fairness. But secondly, what does it say about you, our new graduates, who have spent these three years cultivating contempt for your new profession and, presumably, most of your professional colleagues? What do you propose: to sweep it all away? What comes next: anarchy, or a rifling through the statute books to weed out or rewrite all those that don’t answer to your own prejudices? It is our duty—and I mean duty—as lawyers to love the law as a virtue, not to see only its persistent flaws. You can’t serve your clients or justice if the law, to you, is nothing but a tool of oppression or a weapon for your activism.
“In the same vein, you can’t function as a citizen of this country, or any other democracy, if all you can see is the warts. Yes, the United States, like all nations, is marred by injustice both in the past and the present. But it is also a country that intentionally set out to base itself on universal rights. If its founders couldn’t see past the myopia of their times to envisage truly equal rights for all, their words nevertheless made a promise that succeeding generations have tried to bring closer and closer to reality. We are, after all, now a country where a woman with South Asian ancestry can be the dean of a law school and a woman from Yemen can not only study at that school but rise to represent the whole class. And as the voice of her class she can say anything she likes without her government punishing, or even wanting to punish, her or them. To summarize the US as “an empire with a ravenous appetite for destruction and violence” is to claim that destruction and violence are its aims. This is, to put it plainly, a lie. Not that there haven’t been countries that practiced destruction as an end in itself, but even in Yemen which, not for the first time, is drenching its “rich soil” with the blood of countrymen shed by other countrymen, their purpose is something more. The United States, notably, has on multiple occasions shed the blood of its children for the sake of freeing or keeping free the children of others. To see only its bad wars and unjust policies is unworthy of their sacrifice, and of you. To defame our entire police department and military simply as “fascist” is also unworthy and a prejudice as bad as any other.
“I am not a Jew or an Arab and I wouldn’t normally choose to get involved in the politics of Israel and the Palestinians. I don’t know enough to justify a strong opinion which, by the way, is also true of most of you. But since Ms. Mohammed devoted so much of her speech to the subject I must also say something. It is, first of all, particularly unedifying to see the same small country singled out in consecutive years for demonization and blame by CUNY speakers. In a world where so many regimes are brutalizing their own citizens or their neighbors, a world so rich with candidates for condemnation, from North Korea to China, Russia, Iran, Syria and, yes, Yemen and beyond, I have to ask you to ask yourselves what accounts for this unwavering fixation on Israel and one of the world’s smallest conflicts. Or, having chosen to fixate, what causes your unlawyerly determination to admit only half the evidence, to the extent of trying to prevent the other side from even speaking to you. How can you claim indiscriminate Israeli violence and ignore Palestinian rockets, bullets bombs and knives aimed at civilian targets? Or worse, sanctify them under the rubric of “By Any Means Necessary”?
“Here I must sound a warning: To mouth the words “by any means necessary,” as your speaker did, is to make yourselves unfit to be members of the legal profession, for the simple reason that it is a claim that refuses the authority of law. Either you believe that the law, applied honestly and fairly to everyone, is the path toward justice, or you grant yourselves exemption and then watch everyone else do the same. “Any means necessary” leads the descent into barbarity for all. It is, to borrow from an old slogan, a weapon with innocents at both ends.
“In finishing I will acknowledge that the failure of the young to grasp complexity is universal. But there has been a particular failure in this time and this place of the mature and experienced, who have not done enough to introduce complexity to you. Your class representative has shown us the consequences. It may be that your generation of graduates is now beyond help and for that I can only express regret, but I can and do promise that the classes following you will be exposed to more complexity, more nuance and more diversity of viewpoint. There will free speech up to the limits of the First Amendment, for everyone. There will be no spaces at CUNY Law safe from ideas and all spaces will be made safe for their exchange and examination. The right to protest will be protected, but protest that robs another person of his speech will be viewed severely. Your successors will hear from people who can describe to them the dilemmas of good policing and its necessity as well as its abuses. They will hear about the good that America has done and is doing, and about the devil’s bargains in all foreign policy, and not just about bad choices and bad faith. They will have Zionism explained to them by Zionists, not just by its enemies, and will hear from peacemakers on all sides, Jewish and Arab.”
Note: Dean Setty applauded Ms Mohammed’s speech and is noted for her dedication to social justice lawyering. Setty introduced an “Antiracism and Cultural Competency” graduation requirement for the university’s students. The graduation requirement, which was adopted by the law school in April 2021, included courses that were titled “Race, Racism & the Law” and “Business Law from an Antiracist Perspective.”