Interview with jurist Eugene Volokh

Eugene Volokh is a Ukrainian-American jurist known for his studies of American constitutional law and libertarianism as well as for his prominent legal blog “The Volokh Conspiracy”. He holds the Gary T. Schwartz Professor of Law at UCLA and is an academic affiliate with the law firm Mayer Brown. Before speaking at a Zócalo/ASU Cronkite School event, “Does the First Amendment still protect free speech? Volokh talked to us about Rudyard Kipling’s Green Room, his family’s New Year’s tree, and why he’d be delighted to iZombie.

Q:

Traditions that your family brought with you from the Soviet Union to the United States?

A:

It’s funny, we’ve always had a Christmas tree, even though for me it’s always been a New Year’s tree. American Jews were a little shocked and a little put off by my mother, who is very aesthetic, who insists on having a tree. Because for them, it is first and foremost Christian. Not at all Russian, who is an atheist. In the Soviet Union, it was the New Year’s tree. It was just a nice smelling thing, one of the few really nice things you can have in Russian life.


Q:

Do you have a favorite poem?

A:

One of my favorites is called “The Sons of Marthaby Rudyard Kipling. And one thing that I love about it is that most of the poems are about love or death or the meaning of life. This is about civil engineering. And that’s from a time when I think people cared and appreciated engineering. First of all, I think Kipling was just a great master of the English language. Second, there is very little elevation in the wording. It was not poetic language; it was ordinary language. Kipling is talking about something really, really important, but also something that most poets don’t pay any attention to. Because what do they care about engineers? If they wanted to be engineers, they wouldn’t be poets.


Q:

Do you have a favorite legalese?

A:

Legal jargon is usually pejorative. But there are broad lines of judges. One, which I used in class today, was by Oliver Wendell Holmes: “You shouldn’t expect detached thinking in the presence of a raised knife. It was in a case of self-defense. And his point is that when people’s lives are threatened, you can’t expect them to be so thoughtful and careful. I think the best kind of legalese, or legal writing, is one that clearly and succinctly expresses a fact of life. This law concerns life; the law is about determining which rules make sense in light of human nature, as opposed to light of abstract logic. There’s another line that’s very relevant to today’s conversation: I founded the Free Speech Law Journal, and our motto comes from the opinion of one Holmes. He was talking about the First Amendment and said it was an experiment, like all life is an experiment.


Q:

What is your best guilty pleasure?

A:

TV shows that aren’t big dramas, but they’re going to be so much fun. One of my favorites, which I haven’t watched for several years because it’s gone, is iZombie. No one is going to confuse it with great literature or great science fiction or fantasy. The whole frame is that she eats people’s brains and recovers their memories and solves crimes. It’s so well executed. And my favorite character, of course, Ravi. I would like to think that if I had fallen into this universe, I would be delighted.


Q:

You seem to take so much pleasure in life. Where does this joy of living come from?

A:

There is so much to enjoy in this world. There are also bad things but it’s inevitable, right? Any world where you can eat the food you want to eat, listen to the music you want to listen to, watch any movie. Read all these books. Talk to all these people from everywhere about everything. You have to be able to find something to enjoy there. Otherwise, it’s just a lack of imagination.


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