A Parable:

I used to think that I (like everyone else) basically understood the story of the Emperor's New Clothes. It wasn't until I re-read the original story a couple of months ago, though, that I actually got it. [I've been slowly making my way through a volume of collected Hans Christian Anderson stories in Italian - to keep my Italian in good shape for my next visit to Italy, and because I thought (probably mistakenly, as it turns out) that fables and children's stories would be the right level for me to work on]. Everyone knows the story -- the king is naked, but nobody acknowledges it until finally some small boy speaks up in the crowd, at which point everyone realizes how stupid they've been . . . But what I hadn't understood was: why did the King walk around naked in the first place? Why did he think he had clothes on?

The answer is that two tailors had come to town and convinced everyone that they made clothing with special magic attached to it; the magic was that the clothing was invisible to stupid people. The King ordered some, and sent his courtiers to check on its progress in the tailors' shop. The courtiers, of course, were terrified of being labeled stupid, so they reported back to the king that it was coming along beautifully. Positive feedback then took over, and did the rest, until everyone is falling over themselves commenting on how beautiful the new clothes are.

I was thinking about this recently, not, as you might suspect, in connection with Sarah Palin's nomination, but in connection with the systemic problems of legal scholarship. My law school -- like many others, I suspect -- is undertaking a review of the whole law journal system, with an eye, possibly, to making some substantial changes. It's a discussion that sometimes reminds me of the King's -- staring us in the face is a system that is profoundly, and even laughably, dysfunctional, but we all just stand around and grumble to ourselves about it and nobody stands up to pronounce it so. [I use "laughably" advisedly; I've actually had people laugh when I tell them that the direction of legal scholarship is set, in substantial measure, by 2d and 3d year law students.] It's not just the Internet, of course, that is pushing this along, though that has made the cracks all the more obvious -- if the designation "published in the XYZ Law Review" has any utility at all anymore, it is not as a distribution vehicle but as a signaling device: read this because it's been selected as a particularly good one to read. But really -- what value could that signaling possibly have when we're talking about selections made by 2d and 3d year law students? None whatsoever. The system will, I hope, have entirely disappeared in 20 years or so -- but it's going to take some institution to stand up and say that it is ridiculous and that they're not going to support it any more for that to happen.