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The Reluctant Philosopher – A Q&A with Cardozo Law Professor Ekow Yankah

Ekow Yankah is one of the most charming people I know. He’s a sharp dresser and a smooth talker, unfailingly polite, and makes an excellent martini. He’s just the person you want to have with you if you’re trying to get a table at a popular restaurant on a busy night. Or if you’re trying to talk your way into a party. Or talk your way out of some kind of trouble.

Fortunately, he uses these powers for good, and not for evil, and so rather than being an international playboy, he is, instead, a mild-mannered academic. On the faculty at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, he’s generally quite busy teaching students, writing articles (for both legal and general interest publications), serving on the board of the Innocence Project (an organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted criminals through DNA testing, and working to reform the United States’ criminal justice system to prevent future injustice), and keeping active in Democratic politics. And he’s working on a book. Despite this rather heavy schedule, he found some time to sit down with me recently and tell me about what he’s been working on lately. (I did tell you that he was unfailingly polite.) Here’s what he had to say.

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The NewsWhistle Q&A with Cardozo Law School Professor Ekow Yankah

Date: January 27, 2016

Hometown: East Lansing, Michigan

Current town: New York, NY

Occupation: Legal and political philosopher

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I hardly know where to begin to ask you questions, because you are involved in a great many things: teaching law students, the Innocence Project, writing about the importance of government in our lives, some writing about some of the failures of government, etc.

My main job is a legal and political philosopher. When I was a graduate student, I would never call myself a philosopher, which seems sort of vague and self-congratulatory.

So like Kant and Mill, and looking at the stacks of books on your desk, MacIntyre and Dworkin. And why not Yankah?

I wouldn’t put myself in their category. But legal and political philosophy is how I think about the various projects I’m working on, and how they all tie together. As an academic, you need to find your contribution, your set of projects, your portfolio. You can spread yourself too thin and find your work fractured.

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So can you tell me about your current project, the book that you’re working on now?

The basic ideas is that political theory should focus on the civic duties that we have to each other and less on the individual’s rights against the state.

Can you give me an example of the kind of policy question you’re thinking of?

Take something like Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act). The arguments focus on whether government can impose a bill making these requirements for people to have health insurance. But I think we should be taking more about how we live in a civil society together.

Do you consider yourself a communitarian?

No, because my concern is more about citizenry than just community. For instance, because we went to the same law school, we are part of a community that went to school together; we may look to each other for mutual support; our alumni association encourages us to help each other with our resumes and consider each other for job opportunities; I might contribute to their fund raising efforts. But I’m talking about obligations not just because we’re a member of a group, but the idea of being moral citizens to the people in our country. I consider myself a civic republican.

Would you go further than the borders of our country and take a human rights approach?

No, although all people, whether or not they are citizens of our nation, are owed their human rights. I can’t kill someone just because he’s from France. But my obligations to someone from France are not the same as my obligations to someone in this country. Even if our country’s policies and actions have an influence on France, we don’t allow the French to vote in our elections.

Some people go further, with a kind of cosmopolitanism that doesn’t make that distinction. They would, if it were possible, allow all people an equal say. So it wouldn’t make any difference for someone’s rights which side of the Rio Grande they were born on. Of course, that would be very hard to administer, some kind of government of the entire world.

It does seem rather arbitrary, the side of a river being such a determining factor in someone’s life, but I know that is how we do things.

Yes, theories focused on our civic bonds explain the mystery of “jurisdiction.” They make sense of it by noticing the moral weight of being bonded to those who will share a polity as a starting point (while recognizing that this is, at some point, arbitrary). Of course, we owe people born in Mexico decency and care. But they are not owed a voice in our government.

So when you talk about duties we owe to people, that really ties in with your interest in criminal law and policing.

Yes, criminal law is where we best test our intuitions about politics and the state’s power to enforce laws.

I know you don’t find libertarianism attractive, but there seems to be a shared concern there about the power of the state. Some people think that we should have as small a government as is possible to limit the state’s power.

It’s peculiar, actually, when I read Nozick, and his powerful writing and considered judgment, it seems right. At least while I’m reading it. But I think a libertarian system is against human nature. We’re social and political animals.

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 I know you are active in politics; do you see this as part of your political obligations and duties?

I’m part of the Democratic Lawyer’s Council, which is part of the Democratic National Committee. The work is partly politics and party voting rights. The world in which all voices were heard would be a different world. And voter suppression is racially and class based. So this is part of living up to part of my political duties.

So you would be in favor of mandatory voting, like they have in Australia?

Yes, I’d be in favor of making voting an obligation. That type of law makes voting and political participation salient. Such laws are not meant to be punitive, and they also entail building legal structures that support voting.

Making it more of a social norm that everyone votes?

Yes. I have worked in Albany on laws making it easier for people to vote. Like Governor Cuomo’s new proposal to extend the voting period. Removing barriers that make voting difficult.

I was in Cleveland during the last election and in Cuyahoga County, they have a month to vote. Election Day is the last possible day to vote.

Have you any concerns about too long a time period for voting? What if I cast my vote early in the process and then there is some kind of a scandal with the candidate? Or the candidate dies?

Well, I’d never really thought about that before; it’s not so different, though, than if something happens between the election and the beginning of the term. Like what if John Edwards had gotten the Democratic nomination and was elected before the scandal erupted?

Sure, something could happen at any point in the election cycle; there are processes to deal with that. But the election itself is the only point in the cycle where an individual gets to make a decision.

It’s a good point. I’d say though that the benefit of giving more people the opportunity to vote outweighs that particular concern. There’s not usually a scandal in the three-week period before the election.

That’s true, it’s rather far along in the process. Well, if you write about it, please give me a footnote or something!

When you work in philosophy, and in particular, legal and political philosophy, you really want to stay engaged in the world. I could be an epistemologist or someone who studies aesthetics. But epistemology and aesthetics have less of immediate real world applications. Law touches the world.

I want to write things for the public, not just a small group of academics. I have to make sure that I’m not in a room just writing to my friends. I do try to balance writing purely academic work and more public work.

That’s something I really appreciate, when academics write for a broader audience than people in just their sub-specialty. I think the work can be really interesting, especially when it is made accessible.

Absolutely. I don’t want to dumb things down, but I am trying, with my book, to write something that an intelligent reader, who is not an academic, will get something from.

Do you have a title yet for your book?

The current working title is For We Are All Bounded: Political Obligation, Franchise, and Criminal Law.

I will look forward to it. So, on another topic, when you meet and teach the current crop of law students, are you optimistic about the future for law and justice?

My big concern for my students is the start of their careers; the legal market is being banged up. But long term, I’m optimistic. The world will need lawyers and critical thinkers. There’s a reason that lawyers are called “counselors.” Legal practice may change; lawyers may not spend their early years doing document review. But even if machines can do that sort of thing, lawyers aren’t replaceable by robots. Lawyers are generalists and the skills can’t be replaced.

There are new problems to work on. The law has to keep up with privacy, with technology, with the changes to our environment. These big problems need lawyers to help. And to negotiate solutions.

Well, there’s no shortage of problems. And new laws are going to need people to draft them, and people to interpret them.

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I know you are a believer in the good that government can do…I read one of your essays on the topic in the Huffington Post, and I’d really like more people to read that. (I’d also like everyone to take some civics courses.) What do you think people in this country don’t know, that they should know, about our government and how it works?

I think there’s a lot of ignorance about how much everyday good the government does.

President Obama made this point when he said “You didn’t build that,” and he was roundly mocked for it. But he was right.

What used to happen when a building burned was that neighborhoods burned, cities burned. That doesn’t happen now because of fire departments and building codes.

Bubonic plague did more than decimate the world’s population; it tri-mated it. But good governments take care of the public health.

Look at what stateless countries look like. Bands of murdering armies, because there is no way to organize society.

So even though it feels like today we have endless regulation, and there’s slowness and irritations with inefficiencies, the government does so much good.

And what else people probably don’t know that they should: a real sense of how dominating money is with campaign finance. And sometime when people learn that, they disengage completely. But people can change things. We can waste all that money being spent to control things. I want to encourage everyone to try participation. Even little things, like being on community boards and working on voting drives.

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What’s the best advice you’ve been given?

My wife is very good at reminding me of the importance of cultivating and learning from mentors. To too many people, mentors can do something for you, like a recommendation letter or finding you a job. But it should be a relationship, and you should turn to your mentors for strength and counsel. We can’t go it alone. There are brilliant people that we can learn from.

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Do you have a book recommendation for our readers?

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is a powerful book. Although I don’t agree with everything in it.

And IQ84 by Murakami. (It’s a tome, though!)

And Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstander, the historian. It illustrates a fault line in our culture.

How about a movie?

Rashomon is one that’s easy to pick, it’s beautifully told. And I still love Casablanca. It’s one of my favorites.

I wish I saw more movies and plays. It’s important to make our moral imagination work. Novels and plays and books are amazing at making philosophy live.

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If you could go back in time and do one thing over, what would it be?

I worked a lot when I was young, through high school and college. I should have picked jobs to build fun life skills. Like being a short order cook. I did work in a wine store and that was a good job, I learned a lot. I did work in a bar, but I wish I would have learned more about music. I would love to have done that. And to have been a docent in an art museum. So, to go back to ages 16 to 20, and pick something useful.

Also, growing up I was in a big rush. I was 20 when I went to law school, also rushed through grad school. It turned out well, but maybe I could have become a lawyer at 25, not 24.

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What’s something most people don’t know about you?

I’m a huge sports fan. College team: University of Michigan.

And I was a semi-professional soccer player. Well, I have a card that says I could have been paid to play when I was in school. There were no offers. Clearly a case of market failure.

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What’s your strangest phobia or superstition?

I dislike little irritating pain. I’d rather be tackled by a linebacker than stung by a bee.

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Do you have a favorite celebrity?

Cassandra Wilson. I am madly in love with her. It’s a little problem for my marriage.

Have you met her?

Actually, yes. I went to see her perform and talked to her after the show; I offered to buy her dinner at Blue Smoke, but she declined.

Was she nice about it?

Yes, she was very polite.

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What’s the best or worst thing that happened to you this week?

My second son was born this week. It’s been an excellent week.

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Last, but not least, is there anything you want to pitch, promote, or discuss?

People should get involved. That’s why I work for the New York Democratic Lawyers Council. Do not sit on the sidelines.

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Image Courtesy of Ekow Yankah

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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com

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Other Q&As By Laura LaVelle

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* Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director, Historic Districts Council

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Alexander Campos, Executive Director, Center for Book Arts

* Mark Cheever, Friends of Hudson River Park

* Margaret Dorsey, anthropologist

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