Elizabeth Holmes, Theranos and the New American Dream

Every day, the American media will provide an abundance of reports on the sometimes bizarre workings of its justice system. This first week of January proved to be rich in examples, with the high-profile cases of Ghislaine Maxwell and Elizabeth Holmes complemented by a plethora of stories on smaller cases about the antics of local judges or the ambiguity of the law in some states.

The ultimate effect of these stories may seem to justify Mr. Bumble’s remark in Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” who quoted the proverbial phrase, “the law is a donkey”. Dickens painted Bumble as a dreadful hypocrite and the hapless husband of a tyrannical wife. When told that “the law assumes that your wife acts under your direction,” Bumble correctly identifies the gap between the principles expressed in the law and reality. Reacting to the law’s supposed “guesses”, Bumble wishes “his eye could be opened by experience – by experience.”

Judicial creativity is in the news


In this comedic passage, Dickens identified one of the central problems with any legal system, the friction created when assumptions about human behavior meet the facts of actual human experience. In the minds of most people, the notion of equality before the law requires that the letter of the law be applied uniformly to all, regardless of the circumstances. But righteousness requires two things which are not contained in the law. Law enforcement should take into account varying circumstances. But it should also mobilize the human ability to treat language – the wording of the law – as the unreliable artefact that all language tends to be. The latter seems to represent a formidable challenge.

A New York Times article titled “Language Mistake in Georgia Death Penalty Law Creates Intimidating Barrier” discusses how the reckless wording of Georgian law reversed the intended logic. At one point, he quotes a 2013 pearl of wisdom spoken by future Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. “It is essential,” said Kavanaugh, “that we follow both the words and the music of Supreme Court opinions.”

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary Definition:


1. A sublime art form practiced in all human cultures that derives from the ability to modulate the pitch, rhythm and sympathetic resonance of sounds produced both by the human voice and the skillful manipulation of a wide variety of colors. ‘physical objects

2. A useful metaphor of using the art form’s absence of propositional content to sound irresponsible statements as if they reflect deep and serious reasoning.

Contextual note

Perhaps Kavanaugh imagines the American criminal justice system as something akin to the pre-Copernican universe in which the sun was believed to revolve around the Earth and where on top of the heavens one could hear the celestial music of the spheres. This is a far cry from Mr. Bumble’s more precise description of how the law works, who wanted the law to descend from its principled heights and open its eyes to face human experience.

The verdict in the trial of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes confirmed the dramatic fall of a former sweetheart of the techno-financial-political establishment and young billionaire. It also illustrates that while Kavanaugh’s imaginary legal music did not play a large role in determining the verdict, some form of cultural mythology featured prominently.

Under the headline ‘EXCLUSIVE: Juror Speaks Out After Convicting Elizabeth Holmes,’ ABC News explains how jury deliberations resulted in a verdict that ended up blaming Holmes for cheating on the millionaires and billionaires who invested in her business but found her innocent of having defrauded a gullible public into purchasing a fraudulent product.

One of the jurors, Wayne Kaatz, described by ABC News as “an Emmy Award-winning television writer,” observed a phenomenon that every fiction writer and media professional should notice. “It’s hard,” Kaatz explained, “to condemn someone, especially someone so likeable, with such a positive dream.” He insisted that the jury “respected Elizabeth’s belief in her technology, in her dream.” He added that in their minds, Holmes “still believes it, and we still believe she does.” In American culture, believing in a “positive dream” is in itself an act of moral virtue. Believing in those you believe in is almost as good.

Historical Note

The idea of ​​the American dream was first promoted by businessman and historian James Truslow Adams. In his 1931 bestseller “Epic of America” ​​he described it as the “dream of a land in which life should be better, richer and more complete for everyone, with opportunities for everyone according to their abilities. or its achievements ”. Later commentators, according to music historian Nicholas Tawa, “would argue that the American dream was primarily the pursuit of financial betterment and the accumulation of greater and better material goods.” Truslow launched the phrase describing his “positive dream” around the time Edward Bernays, the godfather of public relations, was solidifying the ideology that would support the growth of the consumer society over the following decades.

Martin Luther King skillfully exploited the idea of ​​the American dream in his famous “I have a dream” speech. Instead of putting it in a consumerist framework, Reverend King framed the dream of the black American in terms of future justice. The righteous dream has consistently challenged the consumerist version of Truslow aggressively promoted by Bernays and the powerful Madison Avenue agencies.

In other words, even within the American justice system, it is not King’s dream of justice but Truslow’s consumerist model that dominates, subconsciously shaping the average American’s perception of the world. The vaunted personal belief in his dream (and his plan) to make money usually carries overwhelmingly positive results for the world.

In the case of Elizabeth Holmes, what the jury called a “positive dream” was the promise of an instant deciphering of the state of health of every citizen thanks to a drop of blood produced with a pinprick. For the incomparable success of Elon Musk, it is the return of the planet to ecological health thanks to expensive electric cars. Or, alternatively, the colonization of Mars as the emerging truth about the failure of electric cars to save Earth offers humanity no choice but to escape to another planet.

These generously optimistic beliefs held by brave entrepreneurs (funded by equally brave billionaires) can be seen as justifying lying and other forms of hype. After all, if you have a great idea and don’t agree to play hard by aggressively promoting the dream you intend to turn into reality, you will fail and return to the dust where you came from: the Anonymous Losers Cohort. The jury admired Holmes for trying, even though the effort required serious lies from a gullible audience.

In contrast, the jury had no trouble finding Holmes guilty of the much more serious crime of pulling the wool over the eyes of the American nobility, the wealthy elite who agreed to back his dream with their money. In a guest article for the New York Times, Vanity Fair’s Bethany McLean admits she hopes justice will be served with the opposite verdict. She wanted Holmes “to be convicted of lying to patients, but found not guilty on charges of defrauding investors.” McLean thinks they “should have done the homework that the others who refused to give Theranos money did.”

The leading investors and political celebrities who supported Holmes’ dream had the means to do their due diligence but, charmed by the music of the dream, didn’t care. Worse yet, the confidence projected by such prestigious investors – including former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Henry Kissinger, Oracle’s Larry Ellison, James Mattis (Donald Trump’s future Defense Secretary), Rupert Murdoch and the Walton family – gave added credibility to the lies of the Theranos patients. have been submitted.

Holmes is now awaiting his conviction. She will likely serve a significant sentence in prison, although this can be eased and her time in prison reduced thanks to the kind of sympathy that prevails for those who believe in their dream (especially young white women). This sympathy may have been a factor in the lenient sentence handed down to sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein in 2008, although no jury was involved. This is perhaps just one feature of the music of the law that Judge Kavanaugh considers real, always ready to produce its alluring accents, at least in the moments when it isn’t bawling like a donkey.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Fair Observer.

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