Someone (I think on Reddit, to which I don’t belong; my husband passes on all the comments from Reddit and Facebook) said that I looked intimidating in the video from the AB 1500 hearing.
My response? “I was raised by lawyers.”
Actually, my father is a lawyer. My mother is something more dangerous: a person with whom it is impossible to win an argument. As a child, I never understood that there was nothing I could say that would make a difference, so I kept trying to find ways to be more persuasive.
Then I became a classicist. (Instead of a lawyer, like my uncle and brother and father, posed above in maximum pomposity. I can’t remember when that photo was taken or by whom, but it must be at least fifteen years ago, because it was a film camera.)
There are two important parts to this. The first is that in the course of learning Latin and Greek, you have to read the masters of political rhetoric and understand their techniques. I learned how Cicero used language to manipulate his way into political prominence when I was fifteen. (Have you ever met a teenager who isn’t a born lawyer?)
As an undergraduate and graduate student I pursued Greek, and though I specialized in fifth-century tragedy, I had a thorough grounding in Plato and Thucydides with side helpings of Demosthenes and the orators: rhetoric, demagoguery, and sophistry–“the art of making the worse argument sound like the better,” as Plato puts it.
Then as now, many politicians were lawyers: they made their names arguing in the courtroom and went on to argue in the assembly or the senate. Athens had an Assembly and Rome had a Senate. California has one of each. The modern versions have much more complicated rules, but the ability to speak persuasively hasn’t gotten any less important.
The other thing about being a classicist is that classicists (at least at the University of Michigan where I was a PhD candidate) are Serious Scholars. That means you know how to conduct research with primary and secondary sources (in the original language wherever possible: it’s not a real paper without at least one source in German), and you know how to analyze and synthesize what you read.
And you never let authority go unquestioned. “The way to prove that you’re a grown-up after you have your degree is to disagree with your supervisor in print,” my dissertation advisor said once. Not that she needed to worry. All scholars disagree with each other all the time on principle. It’s the only way you can further your career. Even when you really admire a colleague, you have to find something to disagree with or at least expand on.
After I left academia, I spent some time working as a ghostwriter. This meant getting into other people’s heads, and, again, doing a lot of research, though as often involving interviews as libraries.
So if you give me a topic and point me in the direction of some research materials, I will start digging. I’ll go back and look at original data where I can, to see whether it supports the conclusions that the authors of an article have reached. And I will start formulating arguments with footnotes, or at least their online equivalent, links. And as I do that, I start polishing the rhetoric. It’s a reflex.
I’m normally very mild-mannered, but put shoddy scholarship in front of me, and I become savage. I have a stack of studies that make unfounded claims that their authors fail to support. My responses to them won’t be pretty.
I was raised by lawyers. Some people might wish it had been wolves.