Monday, March 10, 2008
Of Prostitutes, Prosecutors, and Other Miscreants
Eliot Spitzer, paladin of justice and connoisseur of high-priced prostitutes, seen here in happier days: I know there's a joke here just screaming to be let out, but I'll leave the details to you, oh reader most gentle and refined.
Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann was a 19th Century polymath -- a prolific writer, caricaturist, composer and artist whose achievement-rich life was abruptly ended by illness in his 46th year. He's remembered -- to the extent he is remembered -- primarily as a weaver of supernatural tales in the style of Goethe.
Hoffmann began his public career as a jurist committed to vindicating individual rights in an age inhospitable to liberty. He was a judge on the Prussian Supreme Court and a member of the "Commission for the Investigation of Treasonable Contacts and Other Subversive Activities." It was Hoffmann's view that "Not even the highest government officials are above the law; rather, they are subject to it like every other citizen."
Accordingly, Hoffmann had a parting of the ways with his professional colleagues, who saw the law as a means of forcing the common people to submit to the unaccountable rule of the elite. Toward that end, informants and police were planted thickly across the kingdom, and every tremor of discontent was dealt with as incipient treason. This was a period described by Paul Johnson, in his book Birth of the Modern, as the "Golden age of political police."
When alleged subversive Freidrich Ludwig "Turnvater" Jahn was brought before the Commission, Hoffmann provoked a scandal by condemning the police and the prosecution for the illegal tactics used against the defendant. Denouncing the entire Prussian counter-subversion system as "a whole web of arbitrary acts, blatant disregard for the law, [and] personal animosity," Hoffmann actually represented Tunvater Jahn in a lawsuit against a Karl Heinrich von Kamptz, the police official behind the malicious prosecution.
ETA Hoffmann, in a self-portrait.
Years later, Hoffmann included a fictionalized account of the Turvater Jahn case in an episode from his story "Master Flea." In that tale, von Kamptz, represented by a character named Knarrpanti, explained the basic tenets of Prussian "justice" of the time:
"When reminded that, after all, a crime had to have been committed for there to be a criminal, Knarrpanti opined that once the criminal had been identified, it was a simply matter to find out what his crime had been. Only a superficial and careless judge would ... not be able to slip into the inquest some small lapse or other on the defendant's part that would justify the arrest."
Like many others who used satire as a vehicle to express officially proscribed truths, Hoffmann found himself arraigned on criminal charges -- in this case, he stood accused of "revelation of court secrets." His untimely death, on July 25, 1822, came while he was awaiting trial. Von Kamptz went on to become Prussia's Justice Minister ten years later, in which capacity he frequently acted on the principle Hoffmann revealed in his satire: It's not necessary for a crime to be committed to identify and punish a "criminal."
Von Kamptz could be considered the prototype of the modern prosecutor -- the grand progenitor of such despicable creatures as Michael Nifong, Andrew Thomas, Rudolph Giuliani, and -- of course -- Eliot Spitzer, who has been known in some business circles as "George Fox," and in some court documents as "Client #9."
Sinclair Lewis famously referred to his literary creation George F. Babbitt as a man who "made nothing in particular, neither butter, nor shoes, nor poetry"; in similar fashion, Spitzer and his discreditable ilk do not create wealth, nor do they contribute to the protection of individual liberty and property. They are, however, quite cunning in creating "crimes" ex nihilo, and utterly shameless in capitalizing on the misery they propagate.
Spitzer built a successful career out of targeting certain people as "criminals," and then inventing the "crimes" after the fact. There is a certain symmetry to be found in the fact that his political career has been grievously (one hopes mortally) wounded because he eagerly and arrogantly committed a non-crime* -- solicitation of sex for money -- that provided him with prime opportunities for prosecutorial preening.
But the sobering aspect of this story -- apart from the vivid reminder it offers of the damage that morally undisciplined men can do to their wives and families -- is found in this fact: The inquiry into Spitzer's conduct began when his bank reported that he was moving large amounts of cash out of his account.
In other words, he was spending his own money in amounts that the government deems suspicious. In Spitzer's case, the money was spent on activities forbidden by the criminal code. But an individual who manages his money in ways not authorized by the federal government can face criminal penalties, or civil "asset forfeiture," without committing a crime of any kind. And bank personnel are expected -- nay, required -- to act as dutiful informants whenever such non-criminal transactions occur. And Spitzer has done more than his share to criminalize perfectly legitimate business and financial behavior.
Few have done more in recent years than Spitzer to weave "a whole web of arbitrary acts, blatant disregard for the law, [and] personal animosity." Witness the threat Spitzer made against one businessman who had the temerity to criticize the then-Attorney General of New York in a letter to the Wall Street Journal: "I will be coming after you. You will pay the price. This is only the beginning and you will pay dearly for what you have done. You will wish you had never written that letter."
It's tempting -- almost overpoweringly so -- to set aside one's principles in the eager wish to see the author of that threat experience just a taste of what he's force-fed so many others. But there would be nothing to gain by doing so: Because of the perversions of law he has abetted, and his connections in the Power Elite he has so faithfully cultivated, Eliot Spitzer probably doesn't need our sympathy. In the system Spitzer has served, punishment is reserved for those who are innocent and powerless, and mercy is reserved for the powerful and guilty.
On sale now!
Dum spiro, pugno!
*Yes, there are laws against prostitution. There shouldn't be.