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In what follows I shall resort to a shortcut. Instead of reporting on Brook Thomas's interpretation as a whole, I shall cite some of the most strikingly important and interesting passages. Given the foregoing (and your possible prior knowledge of Melville's story), these quotations should speak for themselves.
"I do not mean to either excuse Vere's technical errors or to argue that technicalities are unimportant. . . . [But] to base criticism of the legal order on procedural errors is to risk explaining injustice as the acts of corrupt, or even just well-intentioned but confused individuals in positions of authority. It avoids questioning the order to which the legal system is intricately related.
"One lesson that we might draw from our historical cases and from Billy Budd is that Vere, Shaw, and Parson are corrupt and hypocritical men, employing a rhetoric of strict adherence to the law in order to disguise their conscious manipulation of the law. Or, more generously, we might conclude that they are sincere men who are so concerned with fulfilling their duty that they unconsciously violate the very principles they claim to uphold. A more fruitful line of inquiry is to try to understand what it is about the logic of the legal order they have sworn to defend that causes three well-intentioned men seemingly to contradict their own most sacred principles.
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As I said before, these quotations will speak for themselves, in the context of this whole handout, of course. The lesson in all of this? Melville's brilliant work combined with the splendid work of some of his critics helps us see that although laws are necessary, they can be manipulated in such ways that justice is not always the result, even though the intention of laws is, among other things, to administer justice. The idea is as old as the Bible, which tells us not to judge, lest we be judged, and which also tells us that the letter of the law kills while its spirit gives life. The legal system should make us think and think hard. Understanding all this should also make us better "judges," for the biblical injunction against judging is not a prohibition, but a warning that we shall be judged according to how we ourselves have judged. If we have been just, we have nothing to fear.
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- Derrida, "The Force of Law: The 'Mystical Foundation of Authority,'" in Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice