As we lurch uncontrollably toward Election Day, choosing our next set of lawmakers, I’ve been looking for a way to cast some light on what is at stake. I think that I’ve found it in the oldest legal code, the Code of Hammurabi, from 1772 B.C.
In general, the Code of Hammurabi established the law as a force much like William Blake’s “tyger” in “Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright”: it has a “fearful symmetry.” How many times have you heard the phrase, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”? That is shorthand for these sections of the Code of Hammurabi:
196. If a man has knocked out the eye of a patrician, his eye shall be knocked out. . . .
200. If a patrician has knocked out the tooth of a man that is his equal, his tooth shall be knocked out.
I think that I can hear you say, “Whoa! I never heard that bit about ‘patrician’ or ‘equal’ before. What’s that all about?”
Well, I’ll tell you.
The Code of Hammurabi explicitly set separate laws for patricians, a/k/a the 1%, and plebians, a/k/a the 99%. Patricians enjoyed the full protection of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Plebians did not. Here is what they got:
198. If [a man] has knocked out the eye of a plebian . . . he shall pay one mina of silver.
199. If he has knocked out the eye of a patrician’s servant . . . he shall pay half [of the servant’s] value [to the patrician]. . . .
201. If [a patrician] has knocked out the tooth of a plebian, he shall pay one-third of a mina of silver.
(Today, a mina of silver would be worth about $600.)
Here is another example:
202-204. If a man has smitten the privates [ouch!!] of a man higher in rank than he, he shall be scourged with sixty blows of an ox-hide scourge, in the assembly. If a [patrician] has smitten the privates of a patrician of his own rank, he shall pay one mina of silver. If a plebian has smitten the privates of a plebian, he shall pay ten shekels of silver.
(A shekel of silver today would be worth about $10.)
And another one:
209-213. If a man has struck a free woman with child, and has caused her to miscarry, he shall pay ten shekels for her miscarriage . . . . If it be the daughter of a plebian that has miscarried through his blows, he shall pay five shekels of silver. . . . If he has struck a man’s maid and caused her to miscarry, he shall pay two shekels of silver.
So here is the point: in the wrong hands, the law itself becomes a means – a very powerful means – of discrimination. And in many respects, it already is. Look at the tax code. Look at banking law. Look at abortion laws. Look at the laws on marriage equality. And look at the system itself: most people have the same access to the so-called “justice system” as they do to the Ritz-Carlton.
And whose hands are “the wrong hands”? How about the hands of a gentleman who has never had to dirty his hands at any time during his entire life? A gentleman “to the manor born”? The spiritual heir to Thurston Howell, III?
We already have reached a point where inequality is so extreme that the median wealth of whites is seven times higher than that of African-Americans, and African-Americans are seven times more likely to be incarcerated.
When we choose our legislators in a few days, let’s remember this: the laws that they pass can be a force for equality, or a force against it. That’s not only a big difference, it’s the biggest difference of all.