Missouri, Compromised

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American political rhetoric is often like American politicians themselves: bland, oblivious, tone-deaf, and inimical to the cause of liberty. Whenever they say stupid things, we mock them for it, and justly so. But there’s another type of political rhetoric less entertaining but often far more harmful: the plain speech of the authority figure refusing to do anything which might in any way challenge the structure of which he is part. This is what we saw last night (Nov. 24) when St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch announced to the press that the grand jury convened by his office had decided there was no probable cause to pursue charges against police officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of teenager Michael Brown.

Anyone tuning in could be forgiven for thinking that McCulloch was actually speaking for the defense. For more than 20 minutes, he laid out what he saw as the facts of the case, careful to promote the account he found believable—Wilson’s, of course—and to dismiss any others that conflicted with it, all prefaced by an attack on the “24-hour news cycle” that inconveniently demanded facts about a case where very few were made available to anyone outside the secret grand jury proceedings.

In theory, it’s the prosecutor’s job to convene such grand juries so that probable cause might be found, and the case proceed to trial. As Ben Casselman notes, the grand jury is a slam dunk for prosecutors — it is extremely rare for grand juries to refuse to find any reason not to go to trial, except in cases involving police shootings. So how then, in more than 20 years as prosecutor, has McCulloch never managed to successfully recommend charges against a single police officer? It’s not for lack of opportunity.

Anyone tuning in could be forgiven for thinking that McCulloch was actually speaking for the defense.

Potentially, it could have something to do with McCulloch’s father, mother, brother, uncle, and cousin all working for the St. Louis Police Department. Imagine if a case involving a company came before a judge whose entire family worked for that company: if the judge did not recuse himself, it would be grounds for his removal from the bench. Consider also that McCulloch is the present president of The BackStoppers, an organization that funds families of police officers killed or wounded in the line of duty. Of itself, this could be noble work—but McCulloch has been charged by the voters of St. Louis County with pursuing justice, and that means avoiding conflicts of interest or the appearance of partiality. Given his family history, his record of performance on the job, his daily work alongside officers, even his statement that he became a prosecutor because, having lost a leg to cancer as a child, he couldn’t become a cop—one can understand why there were questions raised about his sincerity in presenting this case to the grand jury. And it can definitely help explain why to many, including at least one former prosecutor, it looked like McCulloch had no interest in bringing a case at all.

But instead of recusing himself, McCulloch stayed on, up to the point of calling an inexplicably late press conference to mug for the cameras and urge for “calm” while the Ferguson PD rolled out all the military surplus gear they’ve acquired over the past decade: a troop carrier, sound cannons, riot armor, automatic rifles, and a seemingly endless supply of flashbang grenades and tear gas. (In more typically vapid rhetorical territory, President Obama took center stage soon after to say absolutely nothing whatsoever of substance, while scenes of gassed protestors played alongside him.)

One can entertain reasonable doubts about what happened in the meeting between Wilson and Brown. One could even believe, after considering the evidence as the grand jury supposedly did (in proceedings that cannot be disclosed, by a vote that they are legally obligated to conceal), that Officer Wilson was justified in shooting Michael Brown at least six times. But I struggle to imagine any circumstance under which one could find it appropriate that Robert McCulloch was wielding that authority and giving that speech last night. Because he was, we got the rare spectacle of an American public figure neither leaning on clichés nor bumbling his lines. No: he communicated, at length, exactly what he meant to say.



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The Film You’ve Been Hearing About

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Normally I go to a movie theater with a pen in my hand and a notebook in my lap. Yes, it requires me to break away from the universe created on the screen, but it’s a small price to pay on behalf of my readers. Ten minutes into Gone Girl, however, I put both away and settled back for the ride. Don’t even bother to fasten your seat belt — you’ll want to feel every twist and turn.

It’s a beautiful sunny morning when Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) arrives at The Bar with a board game under his arm and begins bantering with the barmaid Margo (Carrie Coon), who turns out to be his twin sister. Soon Nick’s phone rings. It’s his neighbor, and he rushes home. His cat is outside. The door is ajar. The glass coffee table is upturned and shattered. There’s a speck of blood on the range hood. And Amy, his wife — his girl — is gone.

Gone Girl is a “whodunit” in the tradition of the best classic murder mysteries but with a modern twist that keeps the audience guessing all the way to the end. Not only do we not know who done it; we don’t even know the answer to “done what?” Amy (Rosamund Pike) is gone, and someone has mopped up a pile of her blood from the kitchen floor. But without a body, homicide detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) can’t make an arrest. Meanwhile, there’s a boatload of possible suspects in the vicinity, including Nick’s mentally unstable father (Leonard Kelly-Young), Amy’s overachieving parents (Rand Elliot and Lisa Banes), Amy’s spurned former boyfriends (Neil Patrick Harris and Boyd Holbrook), the neighbor down the street who claims to be Amy’s best friend (Casey Wilson), and even Nick’s oh-so-close twin, Margo.

Someone says, “Smile,” and you do. And Greta Van Susteren takes it upon herself to broadcast that photo and give it an entire backstory.

Dark, good-looking, and lantern-jawed, Ben Affleck was obviously cast for his striking resemblance to Scott Peterson, who was tried in the media (and then in court) for the murder of his pregnant wife, Laci, after she went missing on Christmas Eve, 2002. In both the movie and the Peterson case, a wandering pet alerted neighbors that something was amiss. In both, the husband was alone on the water when his wife went missing. In both, the parents of the missing woman supported their son-in-law (until the girlfriend showed up). And in both, the cable news networks made it their lead story every night.

In many ways this story is an indictment of the “trial by media” that has become a regular staple in the daily diet of the news. Simply put, sensationalism sells. “We all know” that JonBenét Ramsey was killed by her father. Unless it was her uptight mother. Or her creepy stepbrother. (Choose a team.) Ed Smart was a prime media suspect in the disappearance of his daughter, Elizabeth, until she was found, alive, nine months later. (To his credit, Sean Hannity came to believe Smart’s story and gave him plenty of competing air time.) Casey Anthony was acquitted of the murder of her little girl, but “everyone knows” she did it; we reviewed the evidence night after night on cable, even before her trial began. Amanda Knox, a college student studying in Italy, was convicted of the murder of her roommate, Meredith Kercher, in part because she was seen kissing her boyfriend and sitting on his lap while waiting to be interviewed by the local police. She just didn’t look distraught enough. And “we all know” what that means.

But we also know what a camera can do in the blink of a lens. Someone snaps a candid photo from across the room while you are in the middle of saying a word or while you are squinting into the sun, and you look angry or sullen or goofy. Someone stands next to you for a photo or a selfie, and you automatically smile, no matter what you are feeling inside. You see a friend across the room, and you smile as you wave hello, even if the occasion is as somber as a funeral or a trial. It’s automatic, even when you’re upset. Someone says, “Smile,” and you do. You just do. And Greta Van Susteren takes it upon herself to broadcast that photo and give it an entire backstory.

The beauty of Gone Girl is that you just don’t know which of the snapshots to believe, or what is going to happen next. It’s a thrill ride of epic proportions, and I’m not going to spoil it for you by saying another word.

Unfasten your seatbelt. It’s going to be a gloriously bumpy ride.


Editor's Note: Review of "Gone Girl," directed by David Fincher. Regency Enterprise-Pacific Standard, 2014, 149 minutes.



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Post-Traumatic Story Disorder

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The latest of our nation’s mass-media-broadcast shootings took place yesterday (April 2) at Fort Hood, where a gunman—according to reports, one Ivan Lopez—murdered 3 and wounded 16 before killing himself.

Given the ghoulishness of the 24-hour-cycle press, it’s unsurprising that their first, hopeful question was whether this was a terrorist attack. Given their stupidity, it’s also unsurprising that, once they found out poor Lopez was just some guy possibly suffering from PTSD following a stint in Iraq, they reached precisely the wrong conclusion: that this wasn’t about terrorism after all.

You idiots. Of course it’s about terrorism. It’s all about our government’s stupid, belligerent, macho response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, knocking over countries with little or no connection to those attacks, in the mistaken belief that we could run those countries better than they were already being run. It’s all about how Congress and the military have removed hundred of billions of dollars from the American economy in order to build and maintain palatial outposts of Empire, only to strand our people there at the first sign of trouble. It’s all about how we continued to recruit unfledged and underemployed men and women and dispatch them into conditions that favored the advancement of sadists and psychopaths, places where anyone of normal disposition would end up damaged in mind, if not also in body.

When the networks say it’s not about “terrorism,” what they mean was the shooter wasn’t Muslim, or they can’t connect him to any extremist groups at home or abroad—more’s the pity for them, deprived of their latest bogeyman, their newest Tsarnaev or Nidal Hasan. Lopez, if it is him, is just some schmuck they can’t fit into a preexisting narrative; at least, not one they’re willing to broadcast. But the story’s clear enough to anyone who doesn't purposefully blind themselves to it.



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Think Twice

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Prisoners is an aptly named film filled with characters who are all imprisoned in one way or another. The central story involves the search for two little girls, Anna (Erin Gerisamovich) and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons), who have gone missing on Thanksgiving Day as their families celebrate together. The prime suspect is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a mentally deficient young man whose camper was seen parked in the girls' neighborhood earlier that day. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the lone-wolf police detective who is determined to find the girls.

Subtle hints suggest that Loki is a prisoner of some childhood trauma. He blinks a little too deeply and a little too long, especially when he is stressed. He works alone and is normally calm, determined, and controlled, but he bristles at his captain's authoritarian attitude and is prone to sudden violent outbursts when he is frustrated. Loki has numerous small tattoos on his fingers and hands, the kind that appear to be self-applied. While investigating the disappearance of the girls, he interviews known sex offenders and hints that he knows the pain of their victims. And he wears on his pinky a small silver ring with the Freemason symbol on it, suggesting metaphorically that he has built a wall around himself. Even his name, Loki, suggests that he is a flawed god.

Even more determined to find the girls is Anna's father, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman). Dover is drawn initially as a stereotypical right-wing Bible-thumping survivalist. He "prays for the best but prepares for the worst." He has a basement full of survival supplies, sings the Star Spangled Banner in the shower, and recites the Lord's Prayer as he is teaching his son to shoot his first deer. His truck radio is set to a Christian station and a cross hangs from his rear view mirror. But he swears a blue streak and he has a sadistic side that comes from somewhere deep inside his past. He is so certain of Alex's guilt that when the police let Alex go for lack of evidence, he grabs the young man and holds him hostage in an abandoned building where he resolves to beat the truth out of him. For days.

Well, what would you do? the film seems to ask. Wouldn't you break every law, risk every punishment, to rescue your sweet little child? Echoing last year's Zero Dark Thirty, in which torture was used to uncover terror plots, he tells Joy's parents, "We hurt him until he talks. Or they're gonna die."

The scenes of torture are not easy to watch. The rest of the film is. Full of suspense but not of gore, the plot is superbly written and tensely developed. The film is as much about the many prisoners of their past as it is about finding the missing young girls. It exists in the closed universe that is essential for this kind of thriller, and also essential for the central metaphor of prisoners; the characters can hide behind their emotional walls, but they can't escape their setting. There are no good guys or bad guys in this film, just prisoners who do good things and bad things as they try to escape their own private hells.

Prisoners is the kind of film that keeps the viewer engaged long after the credits have rolled and the lights have come up. So much is left unsaid and unexplained about the characters and what makes them tick, yet the clues are all there. Director Denis Villeneuve trusts his audience to figure it out, even if it takes a day or two to exit the maze. It's not the kind of film for lone-wolf reviewers like me, so take someone with you so you can talk about it later. The complexity of the characters will keep you guessing what has happened and what will happen next, even after you learn who done it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Prisoners," directed by Denis Villeneuve. Alcon Entertainment, 2013, 153 minutes. (Use the bathroom before you go in — you won't want to miss a minute!)



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Why Is Arms Control for Civilians Only?

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In the early morning hours of New Year's Day, 2009, Oscar Grant III was killed by an overzealous transit cop in Oakland’s Fruitvale BART Station. He was 22 years old, the father of a four-year-old daughter. Grant and his friends were returning from watching the New Year's Eve fireworks when an altercation started among the revelers on the train. The fight had already ended before the cops arrived, but they still wanted to assert their thuggish authority. Grant was lying face down on the platform when he was shot. Several bystanders caught the arrest and shooting on their cellphones, and these grainy images of the actual event are seen at the beginning of "Fruitvale Station," which tells the story of Oscar Grant's final day of life.

The film is a lot like Gabriel Garcia Márquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold in that we know from the beginning that Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) is going to be shot, just as we know from the first sentence of Chronicle that this is the day when Santiago Nasar is going to be killed. Nevertheless, both stories are taut and suspenseful because they focus on the "who" and the "why" of the stories rather than the end result. Fruitvale Station is a moving character study of the young man, and of the socioeconomic conditions that influenced his life and death. It is an important film for today, when stories appear of a 95-year-old man who refused medical attention being killed by cops with a beanbag round propelled from a shotgun, and an 18-year-old skateboarder being killed by another taser-happy cop after spraypainting an abandoned building. What ever happened to due process?

Oscar is presented as a generous-hearted young man, the kind who notices others and goes out of his way to help them in simple ways — he's that guy who will reach something from the top shelf of the grocery store for a stranger, or pick up something you need on the way home from work and not let you pay him back. He likes being a nice guy.

But we see a darker side to Oscar, too. He wears a mask of easygoing generosity, but behind that mask he is worried, and he is lying. He has lost his job at the grocery store, and he doesn't want anyone in his family to know it because he doesn't want to disappoint them. He has already disappointed them enough; we soon discover that he has done time in prison for various offenses, including drug dealing. The sad fact is that 40% of black males aged 18–26 are unemployed today, and a large proportion will spend time in prison. When they get out, their chance of finding employment drops even more. Dealing drugs is the fastest and surest way to make some quick cash. But it's also the fastest and surest way of ending up back in prison. Oscar doesn't want to go back.

Without the cellphone record, Oscar's death would likely have been reported as just one more former felon "shot while resisting arrest."

The conflict between the good man Oscar seems innately to be and the outlaw he is struggling to leave behind makes this film much more than a diatribe against police brutality. One of the most powerful moments in the film occurs when Oscar suddenly dons his "prison mask" during a visit with his mother (Octavia Spencer). Another inmate challenges him in the visiting room, and Oscar immediately becomes vicious and challenging in return. In the next moment he is a little boy again, desperate for his mother's understanding and affection. He is like the small dog who bares his teeth and growls menacingly when a larger dog enters his territory. It is a defensive stance, intentionally aggressive and defiant in order to avoid an escalation to physical violence. We see that mask once more during the film, and both times it is a stunning piece of acting.

There are many heroes in this film, but Oscar is not one of them. The film honors his memory, but he is a victim — a victim of poor education, of cultural poverty, and ultimately of random circumstances that put him on that train car in that station at that moment with a scared young cop who didn't know his taser from his service revolver. The true heroes are the ordinary citizens who pulled out their cellphones and began filming the event, even as cops yelled at them to put the phones down. Without that record, Oscar's death would likely have been reported as just one more former felon "shot while resisting arrest." Good riddance. And his friends who were on the platform with him would likely have ended up in jail instead of being released hastily when the police realized they were in deep trouble.

As the late Andrew Breitbart maintained, we have become a militia of journalists, armed with our cellphone cameras and ready at a moment's notice to protect the strangers around us by documenting many kinds of abuse.

Recently when I was picking my son up at the airport, I dutifully circled the terminal at least half a dozen times while waiting for him to arrive. Finally he called to say that he had his luggage and was ready to be picked up. As I pulled to the curb, however, the airport cop yelled at me, "Move along! This area is only for active loading!" I pointed toward my son and opened my door to get out. "Stay in your car and move along!" he yelled again. I pointed again at my son. "I could have you arrested,” he threatened.

"For what?" I demanded. "For picking up my son who is standing right there?"

The cop's arm twitched backward toward his holster. Seriously. For an alleged parking offense. (Maybe that's where he kept his citation pad . . .) At that point the officer noticed that my daughter was filming the whole event on her cellphone. And suddenly his whole demeanor changed. "I'm sorry Ma'am," he said. "It's been a long day. I'm at the end of a double shift." Smile, copper. You're on candid camera.

The film is NR (not rated) because of pervasive ethnic street language that would have garnered an X (filmmakers will opt for NR to avoid the deadly X rating) but for the fact that the language is realistic and appropriate to the cultural environment. Frankly, I'm amazed that the word "nigger" blaring from the hip-hop songs on Oscar's radio would be considered worse than the gore and nudity that earns an R rating, but hey — I don't let the Hollywood police tell me what to watch anyway.

Fruitvale Station won both the Drama Grand Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance this year. It is a powerful film, well worth seeing.


Editor's Note: Review of "Fruitvale Station," directed by Ryan Coogler. The Weinstein Company, 2013, 85 minutes.



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The Zimmerman Verdict

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The trial of the decade (so far) has ended and George Zimmerman is a free man. What are the important points we should take from this?

First, it’s clear that the system worked. Zimmerman received a fair trial. A jury of his peers found him innocent based on the law and the evidence presented at trial. Obviously, Zimmerman was foolish to ignore police advice and continue following poor Trayvon Martin. But he committed no crime in doing so. His actions provoked the confrontation that ended in Martin’s death, but again, under Florida law he was justified in shooting Martin in self-defense. The jury believed that Zimmerman feared for his life, and that’s enough in Florida to justify taking a life, even if the killer instigated the events that led up to the killing.

This trial was not a repeat of the first Rodney King trial, in which a jury consisting of ten whites, one Hispanic, and one Asian was almost certainly blinded by a conscious or unconscious fear of blacks. Nor was it OJ all over again, with a panel practicing jury nullification in support of the defendant. It did, however, resemble the OJ case in that the prosecution was quite inept. The prosecutors were ineffective in all phases of the trial, possibly because they had a weak case to begin with. The defense on the other hand hardly put a foot wrong, aside from the unfortunate knock-knock joke in its opening statement. The authorities also overcharged the case — there was never any prospect of finding Zimmerman guilty of second-degree murder. (Overcharging, by the way, is a tactic used by prosecutors all over the country as a means to get defendants to plead instead of going to trial. As such, it represents a major perversion of our justice system.)

We all should have the absolute right to defend our homes and families from aggression. But public spaces are a different matter.

We can be thankful that the verdict did not lead to major violence. The small-scale thuggery seen in Oakland and L.A. does not compare to the barbarism displayed in South Central L.A. after the King verdict. President Obama, who seems increasingly irrelevant both at home and abroad, performed a useful service by urging calm. On the other hand, the lack of a video in the Zimmerman case may have had as much to do with the absence of major violence as the measured words of America’s mixed-race chief executive.

Millions of people, both black and white, are deeply dissatisfied with the verdict. Many are urging the Justice Department to bring a civil rights case against Zimmerman. Such a case would be very hard if not impossible to prove. This analyst believes Attorney General Holder will decide not to bring a civil rights case against Zimmerman, for the simple reason that it would probably fall apart in court, embarrassing both the Justice Department and the president. That the Attorney General is an African-American probably makes it easier to resist the temptation to file federal charges against Zimmerman. An administration in which all the key players are white might very well feel compelled to do so.

Holder, like the president, has been a moderating voice in the wake of the verdict. This has been his finest hour — or rather, his first fine hour after four-plus years in office. In a recent speech he questioned the concept of Stand Your Ground laws, maintaining that people have a duty to retreat if they can safely do so — but adding the important qualifier, when outside their home. There needs to be a serious debate nationally about the concept of Stand Your Ground. In Vermont, where I live, the law says I should retreat even if a criminal comes onto my property or enters my home. This, to me, is crazy. The idea that I must flee from my home rather than subdue or kill someone coming onto my property with criminal intent repels me. But then Vermont is a crazy place.

In my view we all should have the absolute right to defend our homes and families from aggression. But public spaces are a different matter. It’s true that Zimmerman’s defense team never invoked Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. Nevertheless, that law hung like a storm cloud over the proceedings. The principle of stand your ground as applied to public spaces has led, in this case, to the death of a young man who was simply returning from a trip to the store. A cop wannabe decides to follow a teenage boy (whom he may or may not have racially profiled) despite police advice to desist, and thereby provokes a fight that leads to his shooting the kid to death. Despite these circumstances, the wannabe is innocent in the eyes of the law. The kid is dead; the wannabe walks. Surely in this case the law is an ass.




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Whence Comes This Evil?

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On the night of December 16, 2012, a couple boarded a bus in Delhi. There were already six men on the bus. They allegedly raped the girl, using an iron rod to torture her. She died of fatal injury in her abdomen, intestines, and genitals. A minor among the six men may have been the most brutal rapist. He allegedly inserted the iron rod into her vagina and ripped out her intestines, only 5% of which were still inside her body when she was thrown on the roadside. She died a few days later in a hospital in Singapore.

The response has been massive, nonviolent protests in most Indian cities. The protestors — men and women — blamed the government for not providing enough security to women. They asked for death sentence for rapists. The incident was widely covered in media around the world. Government was forced to provide her with top medical care. She was flown to Singapore at public expense. The case was transferred to a fast-track court. Two police commissioners were suspended for their failure to prevent this gang rape. New Year celebrations around the country were cancelled.

For some, this rape was a turning point in India. For them, India is now leading the way for the world in fighting against the violence against women. The US government posthumously awarded the 2013 “International Women of Courage Award” to the raped girl. Intellectuals praised Indians for staying non-violent during their protests. Recently Indian government promulgated a law that provides the death penalty for rapists.

Has India finally awakened?

A minor event in the scheme of things?

Honestly, I am not sure what is supremely significant about this case. Violence is an inherent part of the Indian cultural fabric. Poor people get openly beaten up by the police. Even well-off people must be obsequious when dealing with those in the government — a crime against their sense of self, a poison to their humanity and integrity.

A few months back, in Bhopal, I saw a kid being very badly beaten by a bunch of policemen right in the middle of the main square. They had circled him and were slapping him so hard that he was almost flying around from one policeman to another. Other kids had been forced to stand and watch while this was happening. People continued to walk around, enjoying their ice cream without the slightest — not the very slightest of slight — strain on their faces. Some of the kids who were forced to watch were giggling. Was a criminal, insensitive, unsocial, numb future in the making? I bet it was.

The circle of violence is far, far wider and deeper and much more irrational than people would like to think.

The sad irony about India is that even animals are scared of you — children pass on the torture they receive to those less capable of defending themselves. The circle of violence is far, far wider and deeper and much more irrational than people would like to think.

Should I blame these kids if they rape when they grow up? Or should I blame the policemen who were behind the future rapists? Or should I blame the normal people who were too numb to feel any strain? But were they themselves the product of abuses in their homes while they were growing up? Should I just blame men in general, as feminists demand? Or should I blame women, who in India are mostly responsible for bringing up children and forming their character? Or should I blame the culture — which has huge medieval, superstitious aspects — a culture that through its rationalizations and justifications and discouragement of critical thinking carries the ingredients that do not allow for a break from the cycle of violence and drudgery?

Hypocrisy and apathy

In the past I reported to legal authorities about such abuses — and once in a while still do — along with evidence. Mostly nothing happened. Instead I was made an utter fool. People laughed at me. In a very rare case when the victimizer was cornered, the abused compromised for pennies in bribes or for the satisfaction of torturing the weaker. But talking about this would be too much of a digression for now.

Anyone who has been in India knows full well that you don’t have to search for crimes. You see abuses all around you, nonstop. At the Delhi airport, in full view of everyone, conmen operating out of booths provided by the airport rip off newly arrived tourists. I once went to the head of aviation about this, pointing out that it could easily lead not only to financial troubles for the tourist but also to sexual risks for female tourists (they face many, and most go unreported). He put me on a conveyor belt of such horrendous bureaucracy that I gave up. Nonstop troubles persist for tourists from the time one’s plane comes in until one finally departs. And of course, Indians face the same, self-inflected problems. Bribery and corruption are so open that you hardly need to look for news on the TV to feel horrified. But Indians need the TV to feel horrified, in the safe confines of their houses.

About 135,000 die on Indian roads each year. If you spent a day driving around in India, you would see at least a couple of dead bodies lying on the streets or highways. As the traffic speed is rather low in India — because of the chaos that exists — immediate fatalities are rare. A lot of people could be saved. But they die of slow bleeding and trauma. People just stand and watch. Ambulances never arrive. China is well known for bad driving, but in comparison to India, it has only about one-ninth as many fatalities per vehicle.

Apathy and desperation, two characteristics that are common among the lower class elsewhere, are common even among the middle class in India. I can understand that if poor people cared or had long time-preferences, fear and anxiety would dominate their moment-to-moment lives. To exist they must stay numb. But why apathy and desperation have never left the middle class in India, as any student of sociology would expect, is a mystery to me. Is it that Hinduism or some other aspect of the local culture preempts individuals and the society from self-analysis or thinking beyond material well-being? I don’t know, but at best those becoming richer seem to be moving from apathy to debauchery, at best.

If you spent a day driving around in India, you would see at least a couple of dead bodies lying on the streets or highways.

When a crime happens in India the first reaction of most people I know is to want to keep the police out of the picture. They know that the police would rape them again (figuratively, if not literally). Every Indian whom I know, knows this. But what is surprising is that as soon as they think in terms of groups, they want police control over people to increase. And really, how could police have stopped rapes unless they converted the society into an Orwellian surveillance state? To make a real, significant change in society, people should have looked at the underpinnings. In essence, the protests did not come out of a passion to stop crime but from something else.

Who were the protestors?

I was extremely curious about these people protesting so vociferously against the rape. I have hardly ever met such individuals. Were they protesting for entertainment? Or is this something they have recently copied from the West? I do find the way they light candles on the photographs of victims a bit out of place, for India has had no such custom. Or maybe protesting is their way to feign that they care? Or maybe they watch too much TV and want to adopt Western ways of showing care, or to feel that they have arrived? Or maybe they feel so isolated socially that the crowd gives them a feeling of catharsis? Or maybe this was just another of series of hysterias that Indians are prone to suffering, now made much worse by television, which make the non-thinking gyrate at the same rhythm with increasing frequency?

Protestors have accused the alleged rapists before due process and want the minor to hang as well as the others. (According to the law he could be walking free within the next three years.) Indians don’t understand that it is only the due process that can give integrity to the legal system. One of the accused rapists has already died in an alleged suicide. No one wants to know how he actually died. Another ended up in the hospital after being beaten. If people care about justice, they should care most about those in the frontline of dealing with the law. It is exactly these alleged rapists who should get a very fair trial. What if those arrested are not really the rapists? Would the courts tell the true story behind the circumstances, given the nature of public opinion? And will we ever hear the story of why the rapists became such vicious people? Of course, one must understand that what these men did was not just sex. They had a huge amount of hatred for society bubbling inside them.

Is the issue over-feminized?

Crime is crime. Trying to show rape as a crime that one subgroup commits against another leads to faulty understanding of the issues. Nevertheless, over the years, law and social pressure have increased the age at which people can marry. Feminist movements have been vociferously behind this. No thinking has gone into the fact that premarital sex is still a major taboo in India. Prostitution is illegal. Of course, not getting sex gives men no justification for rape! But does it not create conditions for it? It would have been far better if poor Indians had been allowed to marry earlier if that is what they wanted.

India’s legal structure is weak to nonexistent. But the feminist movement has encouraged women to go out and do whatever they want, without letting anyone add a word of caution that even when the pedestrian light is green it is worth taking a glance on both sides. Some Indian laws unfairly favour women, leading these laws to be hugely misused. New laws would of course be used for political purposes, and sane men would be scared of interaction with women. Would the death penalty stop rape? Only a naïf can believe that the thought of capital punishment acts as an adequate restraint on prospective rapists, their blood full of sex hormones.

In the blame game in which men as a subgroup are isolated as standalone culprits, no one dares bring up the fact that in India women have the responsibility for raising children. In today’s world, suggesting to women that they might be abusing children at home or forming a wrong character in them is no longer allowed.

Of course, rapists should get severe punishment. But if Indians are serious about meaningfully improving their society, they need to start some serious introspection.




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Predators for the Extermination of Tragic Animals

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A recent article in a British newspaper is a cause for reflection, about both the content and the source.

The story reports the news that the “animal rights” organization which styles itself “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals” (PETA) last year killed nearly 90% of the 1,600 lost or abandoned dogs and cats turned over to its Virginia headquarters’ animal “shelter.”

To be precise, of the 1,110 kitty cats and 733 puppy dogs handed over to its tender care, 1,045 of the cats and 602 of the dogs were slaughtered. Only two of the hapless cats and three of the distressed dogs were reclaimed by their owners. Twenty-two of the cats and 106 of the dogs were sent to another shelter (the story doesn’t tell us what subsequently happened to them). The fates of 34 of the cats and 7 of the dogs were classified as “miscellaneous.”

In fact, since 1998, PETA has liquidated 29,398 pets. The organization’s “shelter” was more like an extermination camp.

These facts were unearthed and brought to light by the Center for Consumer Freedom, a group that represents restaurant owners who are doubtless angry at all the PETA ads showing famous female celebrities posing naked in order to convince people not to eat meat or wear fur. This is called payback, and as we used to say in my youth, payback is a bitch (who may therefore be “put to sleep” if PETA gets hold of her).

The PETAphiles were not amused at the unfavorable information being released. They appear to believe that only they have the right to unattractive news about groups they hate. In justification of their actions relative to the innocent animals formerly in their care, a PETA spokeman averred, “We have a small division that does hand-on work with animals, and most of the animals we take in are society’s rejects: aggressive, on death’s door, or somehow unadoptable.”

Yes, all those killer kitties — ferocious felines attacking hapless hominids! We can all attest to the growing menace. And the animals “on death’s door” . . . let’s just kick the pesky pets though it!

The PETA mouthpiece petulantly added that, “CCF’s goal is to damage PETA by misrepresenting the situation and the number of unwanted and suffering animals PETA euthanizes because of injury, illness, age, aggression, and other problems, because their guardians requested it, or because no good homes exist for them.”

“Euthanize”: isn’t that the ultimate euphemism? And why is it ethical to slaughter injured or sick animals, rather than attempt to cure them, or keep them alive even if they are old, or find other “guardians” or homes for them?

The truth — revealed by that term, “guardian” (as opposed to the more common term “owner”) — is that many of the hard core of the PETA activists are hard-line animal rights activists, who conceptualize a pet as a free soul in slavery. From that perspective, if Fluffy or Fido cannot self-actualize in full Kantian autonomy by itself, and is to be the lifelong pet owned by some miserable human, then death may be preferable . . . death is more noble than forcing it to live a life of degraded bondage to a hideous human. To these activists, there should be no pets at all. You can create a no-pet society either by eliminating the institution of pethood or, failing that, by eliminating the pets.

Also interesting is the source. Notice that the information about the actions of this American PETA chapter was published in a British newspaper, not in the American mainstream media. PETA is an organization within the penumbra of the PC protection machine (AKA the MSM), so naturally no critical information is to be divulged.




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Words on Trial

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For me, the biggest entertainment event of this month has been the Jodi Arias murder trial.

I confess: I am not one of those happy, productive citizens who are too immersed in real life to follow the latest trashy court case. I am one of those trivial people who have nothing better to do than rush home and watch the evening replays of endlessly repetitive testimony delivered by amateur actors in an Arizona courtroom. I don’t really mind admitting this, but I feel impelled to note that silly people like me outnumber the sober, industrious folk by about 100 to 1. People who tell you that they never heard of Jodi Arias are almost undoubtedly trying to fool you.

But why do we like this stuff? The answer would be more obvious if there were some great mystery in the case. But there isn’t, unless it’s the mystery of how it could possibly have dragged on so long. On June 4, 2008, in Mesa, Arizona, Jodi Arias killed her boyfriend, Travis Alexander. Of course, she started out denying it. Her first claim was that she was nowhere near the site. Her second claim was that the crime was committed by a gang of home invaders who surprised her and her boyfriend, injuring her and killing him. Nevertheless, her current claim is that, yes, she killed him, but she did it in self-defense.

To put this in another way, Jodi Arias drove several hundred miles to have sex with Travis Alexander, did so, then took pictures of him naked in the shower, then stabbed him 29 times, cut his throat from ear to ear, shot him in the head, and went off to visit another boyfriend, leaving Travis Alexander’s body to be found, days later, by friends who were wondering what had happened to him. Jodi Arias claims that she acted in self-defense against Travis Alexander’s domestic violence; that much, she’s sure of. But most of what happened after she started acting in self-defense . . . she cannot remember. At that point, she claims, she had entered a mental “fog.”

The words of a vicious murderer, without evident sympathy or empathy for other people, turn out to be almost indistinguishable from the buzzwords and clichés of the Great Society.

But this brings us to the reason why the Arias case is so interesting. It offers the fascination of watching someone tell lies, thousands of lies, one lie after another, for days and weeks on end, without convincing, perhaps, even a single person that these lies are truths, but just going on and on telling lies.

You may say, “I can watch politicians do that, any old time; why should I turn to Headline News and watch Jodi Arias do it?” You’re right, there’s not much difference between Jodi Arias’ approach and that of our national leaders, except that our leaders’ performance is impossible to appreciate on a purely verbal level. You keep thinking, “Wait! You’re ruining the country!”, and “Wait! I can’t believe that people voted for you,” and “Good Lord! Half the people in the country actually think you’re motivated by high moral ends!”

With Jodi Arias, there are no such distractions. You can sit back and enjoy the performance — and be instructed by it, too. Jodi — it’s impossible not to be on a first-name basis with someone who is always in your home — provides an index and review of the kind of lies considered (and not without reason) most likely to succeed with 12 jurors culled at random from the ranks of American voters and possessors of a license to drive. Ridiculous, but true: the words of a vicious murderer, without evident sympathy or empathy for other people, turn out to be almost indistinguishable from the buzzwords and clichés of the Great Society.

Home invaders! Those words sell “security devices” and “security protection” contracts by the tens of millions. Remember, home invasioncan happen to anyone, at any hour of the day or night. We are all in danger. Not being a drug dealer or a gang kingpin, nor having outstanding debts to gamblers or usurers, I naively assume that gangs of armed men are unlikely to burst into my home. Apparently, however, I am one of the few people who feel this way. Jodi must have felt that she had a hell of a compelling story when she thought of home invasion.

"Impact" means nothing. That’s why people use it. It’s the end of the story: he, she, or it was impacted, all right? You can stop asking questions.

Her only problem was that the murder scene presented no actual evidence of home invasion, but it did present evidence of murder — by her. So obviously, her best bet was a claim that she was forced to defend herself from her sex partner, her abusive sex partner. Was your boyfriend ever abusive to you before? Arias was asked. Oh yes, she answered, he had been abusive, but not as abusive as he was when he suddenly flew into a rage and charged at me, lunging out of the shower like a linebacker, just before I killed him.

Travis Alexander wasn’t built like a linebacker. Travis Alexander was one of those smiley, sort of pudgy, momentarily good-looking guys who are about to become fat. But if you could get people to picture him as a linebacker, and remember how men like that have wild mood swings and are given to roid rage, then they might be able to see why the victim of his domestic abuse would have to shoot, stab, and virtually decapitate him. Just to stop him, you know.

This disinformation might have been conveyed in a hysterical tone — and at certain times Jodi has, as the media say, broken down in tears. That’s expected, even required, of people in court cases. But our society has become an intensely bureaucratic one, and Jodi often prefers the kind of language that people who sit in cubicles spend their days typing into computers. What do you mean, she was asked, by “lunging at you like a linebacker”? Well, she said, “He got down low and he impacted my torso.”

Impacted. The universal word, the word for anything. It means “smashed, slashed, hit, touched, influenced, had some kind of unspecifiable influence upon, made a difference in some way to.” “The president’s speech,” we are told, “impacted the public debate.” So what exactly was that impact? You will never know. “Her action,” someone says, “impacted my life.” Was that a good thing, or should we take you to a hospital? Either way; whatever. “John Smith is one of our firm’s most impactful executives.” Gosh, I hope the insurance company will reimburse us for the damage. Meanwhile, we’ll give him a promotion.

Impact means nothing. That’s why people use it. It’s the end of the story: he, she, or it was impacted, all right? You can stop asking questions. If you demand to know more, if you want to know what kind and degree of impact somebody thinks has occurred, you are likely to get the answer that Jodi Arias kept giving to the prosecutor’s demands for more specific information: “You’re scrambling my brain.”

Her brain was not too scrambled, however, to remember that abuse can include sexual abuse, and that accusations of sexual abuse can have a very major impact, sometimes to the extent of scrambling the brains of everyone who hears them. It was inevitable that Jodi’s testimony would eventually go there, and it did.

A brief interjection. Somewhere it needs to be said that Jodi Arias’ circus of lies could not have been staged without the assistance of a judge who was obviously prepared to admit anything and everything in evidence, and to license the prosecutor, the defense attorneys, Jodi Arias, and members of the jury — who in Arizona are allowed to put their own questions to a witness, and did put questions, hundreds of them — to use as many millions of words as they felt like using. So they have used millions of words.

Several days of the trial was consumed in the consideration of a recorded conversation, 45 minutes long, in which Jodi and Travis explored with gusto all the things that adult heterosexuals might want to do with each other’s bodies. More days, or was it years?, were consumed in discussions of their actual sex practices. Despite all this adult, triple-X fare, Jodi guessed that accusations of pedophilia — that kind of abuse, or potential abuse — might have an impact. So she claimed that one day she had surprised Travis enjoying pictures of young boys. She thus tried the same trick that the Menendez brothers tried when they suggested (1993) that they had killed their father (and, by the way, their mother too, but who’s counting?) because the father had abused one of them when he was young. No objective evidence was presented, in either case; in our society, nevertheless, it’s worth a try.

But speaking of remembering things, that was the other big prong of Jodi’s defense. She killed Travis; yes, she conceded that; she recalled that happening, sort of; but simultaneously she remembered that she suffered a crucial loss of memory, right after killing him. Of course, an expert in psychology came forward — and stayed there, for over a week — to testify that what Jodi suffered was actually (guess what?) “post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” and there were “tests” to prove it.

The trial hasn’t merely exposed the thought patterns of Jodi Arias; it has exposed the correspondingly hideous flatness of the social environment in which she lived.

Question: are those the kind of teststhat doctors use to find out whether you have cancer, or are those the kind of tests that psychiatric professionals use to find a name for what you claim you suffer from? The prosecution asked that question in approximately 100,000 ways, and the answers were not impressive. Other topics of discussion, at this point, were “dissociative amnesia,” “temporally circumscribed amnesia,” and “transient global amnesia,” which, we were told, between three and eight out of 100,000 people have been shown to suffer from, at some time in their lives. You can add that to all the other things you may suffer from, at some time in your life. If one of those things doesn’t get you, some other one undoubtedly will.

The Arias trial has been a festival of lies, but unlike most such festivals, it has been a benefit to society. It has provided a satire — unintentional, of course — of the multitude of ways in which discourse is twisted and debased by the clichés that modern Americans resort to when they try to think. The trial hasn’t merely exposed the thought patterns of Jodi Arias; it has exposed the correspondingly hideous flatness of the social environment in which she lived.

It was nothing out of the ordinary; it was an environment of vaguely aspiring, vaguely enterprising 20- and 30-somethings, the environment of guys who party, and take girls to Cancún, and like doin’ things in the outdoors — “outdoors” being a place where they go to get their pictures taken, smiling broadly or mugging raffishly or flashing fake gang signs at the camera. This is a pretty laid back world, a world in which Travis Alexander (and even, briefly, Jodi Arias) could be mistaken for a devout Mormon. It’s a world in which Jodi — who is obviously one hell of a nutty woman, the kind of woman who can be locked in a police interrogation room and start doing handstands, or sit on the floor in handcuffs and burst into “O Holy Night,” or grin when her mugshots are taken, because she thinks to herself, “What would Travis do if he was in this situation?”, and concludes that “he would smile . . . he would flash that grin” — could be regarded by Travis’s friends as a bit strange. Just a little bit strange. Maybe not exactly right for Travis.

What tipped them off? Maybe it was her starey eyes. Maybe it was her way of pushing her face into any available camera (but Travis did that too). Maybe it was the rumor that she once slashed Travis’s tires. But surely it wasn’t her words. There is nothing unusual about Jodi’s mode of discourse. Even her most solemn utterances are clichés in use by millions of people, every day:

“If I’m convicted, that’s because of my own bad choices.

“I believed that it was not OK to take someone’s life.”

“I trusted him . . . I just wondered about his agenda, I guess.”

“When [after killing Travis] I finally came out of the fog, I realized, ‘Oh crap, something bad has happened.’”

Apparently none of Travis’s friends got much farther in analyzing Jodi than she got in analyzing Travis, when (as she claims) she wrote in her diary, “I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something is just off with that boy.” When asked for specifics — “What do you mean by that?” — she replied, “My kind of indirect way of referring to his issues that in my mind I couldn’t look past and accept.”

She couldn’t put her finger on it. There wereissues.

But Travis was also part of that weird, flat landscape. So who was Travis Alexander?

This is a cruel thing to say, but Travis was a motivational speaker. In today’s America, this is a respected occupation. But what does it mean?

Travis Alexander (T-Dogg to his friends), worked for something called Pre-Paid Legal Services, an outfit selling legal “insurance” by “multi-level marketing.” In other words, it has a marketing scheme in which higher-level salesmen sell the idea of selling to lower-level salesmen, who then try to sell something to you and me. Usually, the new guys don’t sell anything (in 2005, the company admitted that less than 25% of its salesmen sold more than one insurance contract during the year). Given the unattractiveness of their occupation, these people need something to keep their enthusiasm up, at least until a new crew can be cycled in. That’s how Travis Alexander made money — enough money to buy the home in which he was murdered. He appeared at the séances held for Pre-Paid Legal salesmen, told lame jokes, and puffed the company. Judging from surviving videos, the audience response was second in enthusiasm only to the characters in The Bacchae. The participants laughed continuously; they shrieked like banshees; they greeted poor Travis Alexander as the best thing since Joan Rivers, if they’d ever heard of her. In the world of American discourse, there are many Travis Alexanders, practicing their trade. Well, it was a living. But Travis’s old friends all testify to his sterling qualities: “he was a great man,” “he always wanted to help people.” It doesn’t take much to be a standout in that world.

What kind of life can you lead when you classify evil acts as bad choices, like mistakes in tennis?

All right. I apologize for being insensitive. I find nothing likable about Travis Alexander — and nothing particularly unlikable, either. But I’m sorry that he is dead. He didn’t deserve to die. And nobody deserves to die the way he did. I’m happy to think that his murderer’s lies will be rejected by the jury, as they have been rejected by everyone else who has observed the trial. The whole affair has been an encyclopedic exposition of popular thought and language, and I actually think it will do some good, if only by showing the emptiness of the words now popularly used to conceptualize moral problems.

But did I say moral problems? I should have said life problems. What kind of life can you lead when you regard all challenges and conflicts, all moral difficulties and psychological disabilities, as issues, like revisions of the copyright law or the regulation of sugary soft drinks? What kind of life can you lead when you regard your desires and plans, your passions and obsessions, as items on an agenda? What kind of life can you lead when you classify evil acts as bad choices, like mistakes in tennis?

It isn’t a wonderful life. It’s barely a human life. But you can’t detect what you’re missing until you have some real words to use when you go to look for it.




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Philosophical Thriller

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When Martin (Channing Tatum), the husband of Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), is released from prison after serving five years for insider trading, her troubles should all be over. Her handsome husband has come home, ready to start rebuilding his life with her. Instead, they are just beginning. She just can't seem to shake the depression and sadness. First she drives herself head-on into a brick wall. Then she nearly steps off a platform into the path of a subway train. She feels inexplicably sad and cries all the time. Her psychiatrist Dr. Banks (Jude Law) prescribes traditional antidepressants, but they don't seem to help. Then he prescribes a newly developed antidepressant that picks her right up. She laughs again. Her libido returns. But there are side effects. She sleepwalks. And she kills her husband.

True depression — not an occasional bout of the blues — is a serious problem. It has been described clinically as "the inability to imagine a future," and poetically as "a poisonous fog bank rolling in at 3 pm." Clinical depression is often caused by the brain's inability to release or absorb essential hormones or communicate effectively with itself. In these cases, psychotropic drugs can offer relief. As Dr. Banks tells Emily, "It doesn't make you someone you aren't; it just makes it easier for you to be who you are." As the parent of an epileptic daughter whose grand mal seizures are completely controlled by medication, I am grateful for pharmaceutical companies that have worked diligently to develop better and more effective drugs.

But psychotropic drugs can also have severe side effects, including erratic and even violent behavior. Public massacres in recent months have brought the discussion of these drugs to the forefront, but it is difficult to know whether the drugs themselves cause the violent urges, or whether the violent urges already existed within the troubled mind of these young men who planned the massacres. Michael Jackson's doctor was convicted of administering drugs that his client requested — demanded! — but those drugs ended up killing him. Who is culpable in these cases?

Director Steven Soderbergh examines these issues in his fine film Side Effects, which opened this week. We watch Emily as she struggles with sadness and suicidal desires. Her psychiatrists Dr. Banks and Dr. Seibert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) attend conferences where new drugs are introduced and promoted. Banks attends a lunch meeting where he is offered a lucrative deal for recruiting his patients to participate in experimental trials of a new drug.

The first half of the film seems almost like an anti-pharmaceutical Public Service Announcement sponsored by Scientology. In one scene, several doctors are interviewed on "Good Morning America," allowing the screenwriters to ask — and answer — several probing questions. One of the cops investigating Martin's death threatens Dr. Banks to make him comply with the prosecutor's office, saying, "Either she's a murderer, or she's a victim of her medical treatment. Which do you want it to be?" After all, Dr. Banks had already been told about Emily's sleepwalking. Shouldn't he have taken her off the drug?

Under these circumstances, "Did she do it?" and "Is she guilty?" become two very different questions. Can she be guilty if she was completely unconscious of the act? But a man is dead. If she isn't guilty, who is? Since most people are able to use these drugs without adverse effects, should the doctor be held accountable when a patient does have a bad reaction? Is she not guilty by reason of insanity, or a victim of circumstance and her own biology?

The first half of the film presents the audience with these philosophical questions. But don't be put off by the PSA sensibility. The second half of the film turns into a taut and engaging murder thriller as Dr. Banks tries to salvage his career by answering these questions. In the end, the film is as tense and exciting as it is philosophically engaging. Great performances and a fascinating denouement make this a film well worth seeing.


Editor's Note: Review of "Side Effects," directed by Steven Soderbergh. Endgame Entertainment, 2013, 106 minutes.



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