Sunday, July 21, 2013

Protest and purpose

I've ambivalent about protest marches. I get that people want to express their outrage, and the marches can bring needed attention to issues. In the case of Trayvon Martin, I'm pissed, too.

What, though, was the point of a Martin protester blocking a light-rail vehicle in San Jose today?

What did the people on that LRV have to do with Martin's murder?

What did the transit authority operating the LRV have to do with Martin's murder?

Another thing: even on a Sunday, people have to work. People have obligations other than work, too. Protesters who deliberately screw with traffic, then, aren't just "inconveniencing" people, as their apologists like to claim. They are adding stress and difficulty to the lives of people who not only did no harm to Martin, but have no power to redress the injustice of his death.

Why piss them off about your protest rather than whatever you're protesting?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

McFerrin's take on "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"

Bobby McFerrin's "Swing Low", his version of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", is getting what passes for heavy airplay on the local jazz station. That's too bad, because his rendition saps the life from the old spiritual.

McFerrin took what I have always heard as a plea from a strong, dignified protagonist to end his suffering in this world, and drained every drop of dignity and strength from it. He croons it like smooth-jazz dinner music. Ew. Really, that's my instinctive response, to shy away from it as if it were rotting food.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Maybe the best opening scene ever

Damn. I do love me The Wire.

I grant you that I haven't watched most of The Sopranos, or indeed virtually any of the other shows people typically cite as "the best TV show ever". But I can tell you that The Sopranos, at least, didn't hold me spellbound from the word go: it took a few episodes before I got into it. David Simon's magnum opus, on the other hand, hooked me from the very first scene.

The very first scene. In the very first episode.

That scene just seems to encapsulate the mood and sensibility of the whole series, in two and a half brilliantly distilled, casual-seeming minutes. The trademark elements of the stories to come — the grimness, the frustration, the bafflement, the weariness, even the dark comic streak that surfaces at the oddest moments because that's how life is — they're all in that one scene.

Here it is.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Zimmerman verdict

So George Zimmerman has been found not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin.

Like a lot of people, I'm having a hard time accepting that the guy who was armed and who chose to follow the unarmed guy — against the explicit request of a 911 operator — acted in self-defense.

My hunch is that Zimmerman is legally innocent because of the way the Florida "stand your ground" law is written. I served on a jury that was itching to convict on a murder charge, but the definition of "murder" in the jury instructions included requirements we simply couldn't meet. We had to convict on lesser included charges. The victims' families were pissed. I don't blame them. We weren't happy either. But we were stuck with the law as it was set out in the jury instructions.

On the plus side, the judge threw the book at the defendant in that case. George Zimmerman will know no such penalty.

I can't pretend I like the Zimmerman verdict. I'm trying hard, though, to remember that I know very, very little about this case — probably a lot less than you do. It was easy to pigeonhole Zimmerman as an arrogant vigilante. It still is, to tell you the truth.

But I don't know the man. Even if I'd followed this story 24/7, I wouldn't know him. You can't get into another person's head. In any case, it's unlikely he is the thoroughgoing villain my sense of justice demands.

If I had accidentally shot someone to death, I have to imagine I'd take refuge under whatever shelter the law provided. Is there even one in a million of us who wouldn't do the same?

That doesn't mean I wouldn't feel the weight of the life I'd taken for the rest of my days.

I hope Zimmerman feels that weight.

That's the only consolation a lot of us will be able to take from this tragedy.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Torn between a creator and his work

I wrote a cranky entry a while back about Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, or rather, about my dissatisfaction with its sequels. At the time I had only heard a bit about Card's opposition to same-sex marriage. I wasn't so wrapped up in Ender's Game that I was prepared to look further into his sentiments: I had many better things to do with my time.

With the hoopla surrounding the upcoming film version of the novel, Card's views are again in the news (some of the news, anyway). One news piece linked to an opinion piece he wrote in 2008 in the Deseret News. The antipathy to Card's views that various articles cited was so fierce, I decided to look into what he had to say for himself.

Card's views are deeply traditional, unsurprising since he's Mormon. However, his vehemence took me by surprise. He regards same-sex marriage, and homosexuality generally, not merely as aberrant and morally beyond the pale, but as a threat to civilization.

He opens by denouncing the 2008 court decisions that legalized same-sex marriage in California and Massachusetts.

These judges are making new law without any democratic process; in fact, their decisions are striking down laws enacted by majority vote.

The pretext is that state constitutions require it — but it is absurd to claim that these constitutions require marriage to be defined in ways that were unthinkable through all of human history until the past 15 years. And it is offensive to expect us to believe this obvious fiction.

Card is disingenuous. He resorts to a convenient (and in his mind presumably unassailable) rhetorical shelter, the sanctity of the vote. But the sanctity of the vote has been used many times throughout this nation's history to justify discriminating against people. Card's Ender-derived novels bandy history about a good deal, so there is every reason to believe he knows just how dishonest it is to regard the ballot box as the determinant of legality or even morality. To quote someone he presumably respects, "It is offensive to expect us to believe this obvious fiction."

There is more bitterness:

... the courts upheld obviously unconstitutional limitations on free speech and public assembly: It is now illegal even to kneel and pray in front of a clinic that performs abortions.

Do not suppose for a moment that the "gay marriage" diktats will not be supported by methods just as undemocratic, unconstitutional and intolerant.

Oh, when the law prohibits activities he supports, that's when Card the constitutionalist emerges? I'm disappointed. Card is intelligent and well-read, so he must know how intellectually bankrupt his ranting is. The world view he reveals in the quoted passages would elevate religious believers' prejudices and dogmas to the status of diktat, to borrow his term.

Or perhaps his religious upbringing prevents him from casting a critical eye on his beliefs. That, on reflection, is probably the problem.

He does make a couple of good points.

... we are fools if we think "gay marriage" is the first or even the worst threat to marriage.

We heterosexuals have put marriage in such a state that it's a wonder homosexuals would even aspire to call their unions by that name.

That much is true. And speaking of marriage:
The laws concerning marriage did not create marriage, they merely attempted to solve problems in such areas as inheritance, property, paternity, divorce, adoption and so on.
I've said before that "marriage" should not be the term we use to designate a legal bond between two consenting adults (that isn't a business partnership).

That is about all the good I can find in Card's piece. I mean, what can I say about a man who thinks this about our culture?

In an era when birth control and abortion make childbearing completely optional, the number of out-of-wedlock births shows the contempt that many women have for marriage.

Yet most of these single mothers still demand that the man they chose not to marry before having sex with him provide financial support for them and their children — while denying the man any of the rights and protections of marriage.

Men routinely discard wives and children to follow the nearly universal male biological desire for diversity in mating. Adultery is now openly expected of men, even if faithful wives deplore it.

Adultery is expected? Monogamy, then, is dereliction of duty? And those single mothers demanding support from those beleaguered, put-upon men who were just looking to make honest women of them ... um, what is Card smoking? Has he fallen into some nightmarish concept for a novel he wants to write? Because he's not on the same planet we are.

He concludes thusly:

How long before married people answer the dictators thus: Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down, so it can be replaced with a government that will respect and support marriage, and help me raise my children in a society where they will expect to marry in their turn.

Biological imperatives trump laws. American government cannot fight against marriage and hope to endure. If the Constitution is defined in such a way as to destroy the privileged position of marriage, it is that insane Constitution, not marriage, that will die.

Insurrection? Really? Well, I suppose if you're gonna threaten consequences, you might as well go all in.

Challenged in the past for his extreme views, he has stood firmly behind them. Now, though, he appears to be concerned that they might adversely affect how Ender's Game, for which he is a producer, is received in the theaters. He issued a statement to Entertainment Weekly that apparently was intended to tamp down a nascent boycott by science-fiction fans who repudiate his stand on same-sex marriage. The statement doesn't explicitly ask for fans not to boycott: it merely declares the issue "moot" given the Supreme Court's recent decisions on DOMA and California's Proposition 8.

A disavowal or apology, the statement isn't. Rather, the whole thing is a passive-aggressive dig at same-sex marriage and its supporters. My guess is that Card was asked by the film's other producers to say something, but they couldn't dictate what. My guess also is that his statement will do squat to diminish the boycott: it's a laughably half-hearted attempt to change the subject that won't fool anyone, including his fellow producers.

I already had decided not to see the movie because I didn't think the book could ever be faithfully translated to film. It seems I was right, because according to the FAQ for the movie at IMDb, the script was adapted from not just Ender's Game but also the novel Ender's Shadow, which describes events contemporaneous with Ender's Game. As I wrote in my earlier entry, I'm not a fan of the other "Enderverse" novels so that's not a bonus for me. Anyway, I've yet to see a filmed version of a favorite science-fiction or fantasy novel that lives up to the images in my head, so I've decided not to watch any of them.

Absent that decision, would I have forsworn the movie solely on the basis of Card's statements? Probably. I would have reproached myself for giving him ten more dollars to spread his retrograde notions.

If that opinion piece had been the first I'd heard of Card, would I have shunned all of his writing? Almost certainly. And that would have been a pity because Ender's Game is a compelling story. I'm glad I read it before I knew anything about its author's tremendous antagonism toward gays (and, I strongly suspect, much else that I value in modern life).

Card is another in a long line of artists whose non-artistic words or deeds have affected how audiences perceive their works. I don't have a hard-and-fast rule about whether to shun those works because their creators are disagreeable (or worse). I only know that if my impression of an artist's character is diminished, so is my appreciation for his work. The next time I crack open Ender's Game, the memory of Card's strident denunciation of gays will cast a shadow on every page.

[UPDATE: In the 4th-to-last paragraph,clarified that I didn't think "the book", rather than (a meaningless) "it", could be translated to film.]

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Who are we?

Robert Hicks has a piece in the New York Times entitled, "Why the Civil War Still Matters". I don't care much either way about his thesis (the Civil War has never interested me), but his final paragraph is worth quoting:
True, we have not arrived at our final destination as either a nation or as a people. Yet we have much to commemorate. Everything that has come about since the war is linked to that bloody mess and its outcome and aftermath. The American Century, the Greatest Generation and all the rest are somehow born out of the sacrifice of those 750,000 men and boys. None of it has been perfect, but I wouldn’t want to be here without it.
Hicks writes of what has happened. I would like to know who we are.

We're a nation that still struggles with race, as sporadic public uproars keep reminding us (Paula Deen, or, going back a little further, Mel Gibson).

We're a nation that still struggles with religion, perhaps because we fiercely protect the right to have one (though we don't seem nearly as content to allow a person not to have one).

We're a nation that struggles with sexuality. We're obsessed with it because many of us believe it isn't a fit subject for public discussion. Many others believe it's that sense of taboo that makes our national discussion of sex (and sexuality, and sexual orientation, etc.) so profoundly weird.

We're a nation that struggles with fear. Right now, we probably have less justification for existential fear than any nation in history. Yet looming over us all are the shadows of the vanished Twin Towers.

I'm particularly reminded of our struggles with fear by recent revelations that the government is monitoring our web of associations via phone, email, and, as revealed today, our postal mail. The government has what it says, and what a sizable number of people believe, are good reasons, all involving criminals and terrorists (who we have been repeatedly told are not the same).

Myself, I grew up with the idea that the government not only wasn't allowed to monitor my associations, but wasn't able. Now that I know it can, the question remains: should it?

A lot of people, perhaps a majority, say yes, if it could help to prevent another terrorist attack.

I think the world would be better off if governments stopped busying themselves with people's private lives. Whom people associate with should never be in an FBI file or NSA database.

"What do you have to hide?" That's always the rejoinder. However, it's not the question that was meant. The intended question was, "Have you done anything illegal that you're trying to hide?" For most of us, the answer is "no", and that's where the supporters of surveillance leave the matter.

Perhaps, though, we ought to make the question, "Have you anything to hide?" I think most of us do. Not illegalities, of course, but simply things of which we're ashamed. They're probably harmless, but you still wouldn't want them aired. Yet how could you be sure they wouldn't be if the information sat in a federal database? And why should you have to live with that possibility hanging over your head?

Law enforcement is no longer enough: now we demand preemption of law-breaking. That, though, requires investigating the innocent: you can't preemptively find wrongdoers without looking at everyone.

What does it say about us that we treat everyone as a potential wrongdoer?

How does being under omnipresent suspicion make us "the land of the free"?

What does it even mean to be free, if our actions are constantly under observation?

Who are we?

That's what I'd like to know as we celebrate our day of independence, because it seems to me we prefer to focus on what has happened and not who we have become.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Times "McCains" Feinstein

It seems the New York Times has found in California's senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, the Senate's current maverick.

In Jeremy W. Peters' article "Feinstein's Support for N.S.A. Defies Liberal Critics and Repute" (in passing, I must observe I've never seen "repute" used like this), Feinstein is painted in a way that is reminiscent of how John McCain was portrayed between five and ten years ago.

Although her political upbringing in the liberal bastion of San Francisco City Hall, where she served first as a city supervisor and then as mayor, suggests otherwise, her beliefs have always defied an easy caricature. She supports capital punishment, saying the Boston Marathon bombings should be prosecuted as a death penalty case. She cast votes to sustain the Iraq war until its later stages and voted to confirm Bush cabinet and judicial nominees from her position on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Ladies and gentlemen, the New York Times formally anoints Senator Dianne Feinstein the holder of the Senate's John McCain "Maverick" Chair! What will that wacky DiFi do next?

Feinstein the maverick: a convenient peg on which to hang a (filler) story. Convenient, but wrong.

Feinstein is no mystery to those who have followed her since her days as mayor. First, she never was a San Francisco progressive politician. Such a person could never have garnered support in the rest of the state. Rather, Feinstein is a solidly machine-made pol in the tradition of most of San Francisco's Democratic mayors. As such, she makes progressive noises (or used to) but acts conservatively for the most part. To the extent non-San Franciscans consider her "liberal", it reflects how far to the right the country has drifted since Reagan.

Feinstein, moreover, has a strong authoritarian streak. As mayor she never met a pro-law enforcement measure she didn't like. As a senator her taste for a firm hand has more scope, with the covert protection of national security interests falling within her ambit as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. She found in George W. Bush a kindred spirit, and became one of the highest-profile Democrats to give his administration political cover to pursue extralegal activities in the name of the "war on terror".

That she is well-known for seeking an assault-weapons ban is, I suspect, not due to any leftish-of-center sentiments on her part. Rather, I think she was shaken by the assassinations of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. She also may have been affected by the 101 California St. shooting in 1993 (twenty years ago yesterday, by the way), which took place just five years after she stepped down as mayor. Neither set of killings, though, involved assault weapons (the killers used handguns), so I could be wrong.

Feinstein confuses only those who assume she shares the values of the most progressive San Franciscans. She doesn't. She's a centrist with a troubling yen for order at any price.

Monday, July 1, 2013

"The Suicide Detective", Kim Tingley

Coincidentally, not long after venting my spleen about Bright Eyes' "No Lies, Just Love", a (seriously dissatisfying, in light of the songwriter's demonstrated talent) song (putatively) about attempted suicide, I came upon this New York Times piece. It's a profile of Dr. Matthew K. Nock, "one of the most original and influential suicide researchers in the world", and a brief overview of what we know about suicide.

What do we know about suicide? Not much.

Recent psychological theories posit that suicide is driven by intense mental pain: hopelessness, a yearning for escape, a sense of not belonging, feelings of burdensomeness.
I try not to be snarky about scientific research but I can't help observing that anyone who has had suicidal thoughts could have told us that. I'm dismayed our knowledge of the subject is at roughly the stone-knives-and-bearskins stage.