Remembering Dan Markel

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Dan MarkelDan Markel was killed yesterday. Dan was a distinguished young law professor at Florida State University, and founder of PrawfsBlawg, one of the first and most successful group law professor blogs (his blogging colleagues have posted a heart-rending notice of his death). Everyone I know in the very small world of legal academia seemed to know and like Dan. I knew him, and I liked him.  But frankly, I didn’t know him as well as I should have.

We were facebook friends; we exchanged likes on posts about our professional milestones and on photos of each other’s children, we sent one another birthday greetings (his always came with a “happy bam bizzle”). I did a stint guest-posting on Prawfs a couple of years ago, and Dan’s warmth and gratitude was palpable–over email.  But we worked in different fields–he in criminal law, I in intellectual property–and never found ourselves at the same conferences or workshops.  We never worked on the same faculty.  So we never really formed the kind of personal relationship so many of my friends and colleagues are now reminiscing over in their grief.

I always figured I’d get the chance to get to know Dan better in person someday–we were both relatively young; he often found himself in New York; we both had long careers ahead of us, or so I thought. Since hearing about his death, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the notion that this someday isn’t coming, and everything I’m ever going to know about Dan is already in the world, somewhere, fading.  I’ve spent the past few hours trying to gather some of these rosebuds, and it breaks my heart.

I never realized how much my own professional life has been lived in Dan’s shadow, as if I’ve always been walking two steps behind him. We were, briefly, contemporaries in law school; he completed his service on the Harvard Law Review just as mine was starting.  When I decided I wanted to be a law professor, I took advice from Dan’s blog, not realizing he had founded it less than two years earlier (shortly before he started his academic career).  He had two young sons, his “bears,” each only a few months older than my two boys–tonight I can’t think more than a few seconds about this without weeping or trembling.  Finally, he spent the past decade trying to build and defend a theory of his field that depended not on detached calculation of cause and effect, cost and consequence, but on a fundamentally moral sense of what we as a democratic community of equals owe to one another, and how we should go about trying to fulfill those obligations. It’s only recently occurred to me that my career is shaping up to be about the same thing.

Because I never really got to know Dan personally, all I’m ever going to have to remember of him is his undeniable warmth and the ideas he left behind in his writing. And his ideas resonate deeply for me, though I suspect he and I came to our intellectual commitments by somewhat different paths.  Dan and I were both raised in the Jewish faith.  He embraced and lived that faith; I, ultimately, rejected it in favor of a more secular humanism. Whatever the sources of our intellectual commitments, though, we each came to believe strongly in equality, in democratic solidarity, and in the dignity of moral agents.  Perhaps most importantly, we each came to believe that these values are something we owe to one another as individuals, but practice together as a community.  The difference between us is that Dan actually built a community around himself that reflects these values, and tonight as I listen to that community mourn in disbelief, I’m painfully in awe of the achievement.  If I am still trying feebly to interpret the world, Dan in his too-brief life really did change it. I wish I had done more to help him.

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