Fordham Forum Explores Intersection of ‘Law, Culture and Society’
To bring what he calls “a different kind of clarity” to troubling questions of justice, Professor Thane Rosenbaum of Fordham University School of Law has launched an ongoing public forum in which distinguished artists reflect on the limits of the U.S. legal system.
Novelist E.L. Doctorow and playwright Tony Kushner, both of whom have offered fictive interpretations about the still-controversial 1950 espionage trial and later execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were the first guests.
On Jan. 19 at the Time-Warner Café in Columbus Circle, Messrs. Doctorow and Kushner spoke on the Cold War-era trial before Southern District Judge Irving R. Kaufman; evidence found wanting decades later in documents from the toppled Soviet Union; and its international cause célèbre aftermath: the Rosenbergs’ deaths by electrocution in 1953, which orphaned their two young sons.
In introductory remarks before an audience of about 200, Fordham Law Dean William M. Treanor explained the evening’s purpose. “We’re lacking a way to talk about ideas of law and justice and how they shape our culture,” he said. “Two of the world’s greatest writers will discuss a case that has haunted our imaginations for a half-century.”
Mr. Doctorow, whose 1971 novel “The Book of Daniel” was inspired by the Rosenberg case, said “questions of guilt or innocence” were less important to the theme of his book than “the pulse of the country” in the anti-Communist fervor of the 1950s, and due to the energies of historic players of the era such as Roy Cohn, who second-chaired the Rosenbergs’ prosecution and thereby drew the admiring attention of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy.
The role of the novelist in considering a case as politically and emotionally laden as the Rosenberg trial, said Mr. Doctorow, was to examine the ambiguities of “complicated, defining events.” He said such cases may be closed according to the dry formality of law – and certainly by electrocuting the convicted parties – but they are never quite closed in the public mind, which requires deeper answers.
“A book or a play may not provide redemption,” said Mr. Doctorow. “But they have the distance to deliver a moral judgment.”
He added, “We live lives of moral consequence, whether we’re lawyers or judges or whatever. The moral truth is the final prophecy. If you do your work right and the book works, that’s better than vengeance. It serves as justice of a sort.”
Mr. Doctorow’s verdict in “Daniel” does not favor the likes of Roy Cohn, who was disbarred in New York on grounds of unethical and unprofessional conduct and who died in August 1986 of complications from AIDS. Nor does Mr. Kushner’s harsh portrayal of the disgraced lawyer in “Angels in America,” a fantasia about life in the age of AIDS, look kindly upon Mr. Cohn’s passions.
“I loved writing Roy Cohn’s character,” said Mr. Kushner. “I hate to admit that. I was careful not to attribute anything to Cohn that was not on the public record. It was important not to invent anything to defame him beyond that.”
Mr. Kushner’s award-winning play also included the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, who pronounced both justice and forgiveness on Mr. Cohn in a hospital bedside scene in which the ghost said Kaddish, adding to the Hebrew prayer for the dead: “You son of a bitch.”
In an interview, Mr. Rosenbaum further explained the mission of his discussion programs -collectively to be called the Forum on Law, Culture and Society.
“We want to be a place where you can come and hear how the legal system affects not just the parties to the action, but everyone,” said Mr. Rosenbaum, himself the author of three critically acclaimed novels, including “The Golems of Gotham.”
Future programs, he said, could include previews of plays and films on legal themes, as well as conversation-style seminars such as the inaugural event. The next event, planned for late spring, will feature screen and TV writer Tom Fontana, creator of the prison drama “Oz” for HBO, and film director Sydney Lumet (“The Verdict” and “Twelve Angry Men”). The two will discuss their new movie project, “Strip Search.”
All forums will feature further discussion online at fordhamlawandculture.blogspot.com. The blog is already packed with post-event commentary on the Jan. 19 program.
Of principal concern in future programs, said Mr. Rosenbaum, will be the nature of law versus the nature of morality. “What’s legal isn’t moral. The legal system in many ways encourages the split,” said Mr. Rosenbaum. “Apology, for instance. The legal system does everything to dissuade apology. And lying is not really punished under the law.”
He added, “Legal relief is a misnomer. It’s not like medical relief – ‘Oh, yeah, I feel better.’ The legal system is not good – it doesn’t want to be good – about giving people what they long for. And people want to speak to that.”
Thomas Adcock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.