Model Citizen

 | 

Bernie Tiede was a model citizen in the small city of Carthage, “behind the Pine Curtain” in eastern Texas, as one resident calls it. As an assistant funeral director, Bernie took gentle care of the deceased. As a member of a local Protestant congregation, he taught Sunday School, sang in the choir, and made people weep with his lovely tenor solos. As an amateur thespian, he directed local musical revivals. As a trusted friend, he escorted a recently widowed curmudgeonly dowager to concerts, dinners, and even trips abroad. He was generous and kind. Everyone loved Bernie. Even after he killed the curmudgeonly dowager. By accident. Oops.

Bernie is a dark, deadpan comedy in the style of the Eugene Levy-Christopher Guest mockumentaries. But this is no mockumentary; the people being interviewed for this film are real citizens of Carthage, Texas, all dolled up for their close-ups and spouting colloquialisms you couldn’t get away with as a scriptwriter. “She had her nose up so high in the air, she would have drowned in a rain storm,” one snippety resident says about Marjorie Nugent, the deceased dowager. Another gives a detailed explanation of the five sections of Texas, ending with “I sort of skipped over the panhandle — but everyone does.” “The Gossips” (as director Richard Linklater affectionately calls them in interviews) do their best to support their friend Bernie and explain his motives. No one could ask for a better jury of his peers.

Linklater has carefully crafted a combination documentary and fictional bio-flick about this famous (at least behind the Pine Curtain) case. He interviewed dozens of people who knew Bernie Tiede, and then used their stories to write a script about it. Jack Black is perfect as Bernie, inhabiting the role with a distinct waddle, a beneficent smile, and a sincerity that invites endearment. You just want to reach out and hug him, or be hugged by him. Early in the film we join Bernie in his car as he drives through the town, singing a country hymn about his walk with Jesus. That long cut, interspersed with occasional interviews, tells us everything we need to know about his personality.

Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) is the kind of nasty, critical, overbearing old woman whom everyone wants to avoid. Her own grandchildren haven’t seen her in four years, and for good reason. At first she is charmed by Bernie’s attention and becomes charming as a result, but eventually she reverts to type, assailing Bernie, too, with her browbeating and criticism. MacLaine is wonderful in this role, tapping into her ingénue days to charm Bernie and then digging deep into her nastiness. But she never revels in the role or tries to steal a scene — she is convincingly Marjorie throughout. Wisely, MacLaine has resisted the Hollywood collagen-botox mania, so she can still move her face. She doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, but she doesn’t need it. Her body language and facial expressions tell us what Marjorie is thinking and feeling without words.

Bernie is one of those unexpected little gems that surprise and delight us in every scene, despite its macabre subject matter. It asks us to sympathize with someone who should be utterly unsympathetic — and we do. Linklater’s melding of actors and townspeople is brilliant — actors could never have convinced audiences to empathize with Bernie, but these real residents who know and love him do. Moreover, the actors seem to have taken their cues from the interviews, matching their cadences and movements to the local residents. The result is a seamless blending of fact and fiction. Matthew McConnaughey is particularly good as Danny Buck, the preening peacock of a prosecutor. The film is a delightful piece of work, with a delightful protagonist. Too bad about Marjorie. Oops.

The film also inadvertently highlights a growing problem with the criminal justice system: the tendency for prosecutors to overcharge, with the hope of forcing a plea bargain. Let’s suppose a young man gets into a fight, and someone ends up dead. The fight may have been premeditated, but the killing was not. The prosecutor charges him with first degree murder and scares the bejeezus out of him with the maximum sentence of 25 to life. A plea bargain to manslaughter would get him a sentence of 8–10 years. Frightened about the potential risk of a jury trial, he takes the deal.

But what if he isn’t guilty at all? What if he has been wrongly accused? He already doesn’t trust the system; after all, they got the wrong man, and he knows it. Nevertheless, facing a potential sentence of 25 to life, and knowing that juries are wont to convict poor kids like him who have been assigned an overworked public defender, he might be convinced to plead out. If he does go to trial, he’s facing the higher charge of first degree, even though the prosecutor knows it should be manslaughter or, at most, second degree murder.

Any film that causes us to take a closer look at the criminal justice system is a good film in my book. And Bernie is a very good film. Don’t miss it!


Editor's Note: Review of "Bernie," directed by Richard Linklater. Millennium Entertainment (2011), 104 minutes.



Share This


Think First, Talk Second

 | 

On April 10, I published in this journal an anguished protest against indiscriminate use of the word “legendary.” The occasion was the lavish application of this term to the dead television personality Mike Wallace. If I had been more assiduous in research, I would have brought up the other 235,000,000 uses of that word, as currently indexed by Google. Few of them, I think, are related to Beowulf or The Golden Legend.

The reward for my strictures on “legendary” was a mailbox full of plaudits — all the libertarian equivalents of “right on, brutha man!” — and execrations. From the latter I learned that I was petty, hypercritical, and without respect for the dead.

My response to both parties is this: “Well, somebody’s got to do it.” But I want to salute everyone who’s willing to debate questions of language. If there were more people like my boosters and detractors, the English language might be saved. Salvation comes not from indifference but from vigorous and candid reflection.

One kind of comment puzzled me. It came from a friend I ran into on the street. This person said, “I liked your comments, but I kept wondering, what words would you use instead of ‘legendary’? I mean, there must be some reason why people keep choosing that word.”

My answer is that people keep choosing that word because they hear other people using it; in other words, because they’re too lazy to think for themselves.

But if you want a list of alternative terms (“what would you use instead?”), no problem: you can generate a list of your own in about 30 seconds — which is about how long it took me to come up with the list below. The terms proceed in rough order from the nicest ones to the ones you never expect to see in an obit, for Mike Wallace or any other media darling:

  • Idolized
  • Beloved
  • Celebrated
  • Acclaimed
  • Esteemed
  • Distinguished
  • Respected
  • Famous
  • Nationally recognized
  • Well known
  • Familiar
  • Once famous
  • Now forgotten
  • Notorious
  • Infamous

(Note the difference between “famous” and “infamous.”)

So, here’s a case in which a minimum of reflection can yield significant results. Most language problems are like that. But let’s proceed to another case — quite different — that exemplifies the same idea, by highlighting the lack of reflection.

Whenever you force yourself to read what politicians or public officeholders say, you naturally ask yourself, “What the hell was he thinking?” The answer is usually: “Nothing.” In support of that assertion, I could cite such astonishing recent instances as that of Al Armendariz, who was, until his resignation on April 30, a regional head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Why did this little warlord leave his perch? Well, a video from 2010 had surfaced, in which a grinning Armendariz lectured a friendly audience about the strategy he used to persecute business people. He indicated that he believed in acting as the Romans allegedly did in “Turkey,” as he called it: when they moved in, they grabbed a bunch of people and crucified them, after which the place was easier to govern.

So when Almendariz laughed about being brutally unjust and cruel, he was also lying — right?

It’s hard to think of a more revolting thing to say. And it’s interesting to note that Big Al was a college professor, so he can’t claim total ignorance of words and meanings. But as if his speech weren’t bad enough, when his sickening remarks — and the even more sickening attitude that accompanied them — were finally revealed, and when he finally resigned, he said, “I regret comments I made several years ago that do not in any way reflect my work as regional administrator." So when he laughed about being brutally unjust and cruel, he was also lying — right?

So much for the self-crucified Al Armendariz. But my main target isn’t the circus of stupidity he was running. It’s the steady, unobtrusive seepage of bland amorality from public officeholders into American public discourse. All without a moment of reflection — as the following case will illustrate.

On the morning of April 2, a fat 43-year-old man with the wonderfully Joycean name of One Goh walked into the offices of tiny (100 students) Oikos University, located in an industrial park near the Oakland, California airport. Goh’s original name appears to have been Su Nam Ko, but sometime after coming to the United States from his native Korea, he changed it, thinking it too girlish. This was one sign that there might be something wrong with One Goh. There were others. He was paranoid and obnoxious; he had welshed on a variety of debts; and at the moment he was intending to kill a school official against whom he had been nursing a grievance. (All right, he was allegedly intending. Please remember that everything I say about Goh is a mere allegation; it has never been proven in court.)

Arriving at Oikos University, and discovering that the official was not in her office, Goh decided to kill other people instead. He went into a classroom, told the students to line up, and shot 10 of them. Seven of them died. Then he went out to the parking lot, stole the car of one of his victims, and fled to a shopping mall, where he surrendered to police.

That is the sad, repulsive story of One Goh. Now let’s see what the head of local law enforcement, Chief of Police Howard Jordan, had to say about it, in interviews on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and other venues.

Jordan said that the police had “learned” a lot: "We've learned that this was a very chaotic, calculated and determined gentleman that came there with a very specific intent to kill people, and that's what his motive was and that's what he carried out."

Well. How interesting. Goh, a man who burst into a classroom and proceeded to shoot 10 people at random, was a gentleman. I wish that Jordan were the only “law enforcement official” who used this term. Prison guards routinely use it for the convicts they’re processing into their domains. “All right, gentlemen, you will now remove your clothing . . .” And no, that isn’t just sarcasm. The next time you hear a cop giving the news-conference version of an arrest, see if he or she doesn’t refer to the alleged suspect as the gentleman that allegedly fired the fatal shot. In the amoral vision of the well-trained public official, even being a mass murderer doesn’t make you a bad person. You’re still a gentleman like everybody else. To put this in another way: like everybody else, you’re just a vat full of chemicals that sometimes erupts. It’s not really your fault.

That’s bad enough. But I’m sure you’ve noticed some peculiarities about Mr. Jordan’s expert psychological analysis. Did you mark that weird movement from chaotic to calculated to determined? Of course, this makes no sense. A calculated action may be wicked, but it can hardly be chaotic. So the Chief’s account of events is no different from other expert analyses; it’s a piece of junk. Observe, however, where the sequence ends. It ends in determined. The gentleman was determined.

Like everybody else, you’re just a vat full of chemicals that sometimes erupts. It’s not really your fault.

Determined used to be a good word, a word reserved for people who had a purpose and courageously pursued it. No more. Now everybody gets an even break. Entering the ring on one side — Howard Roark! On the other side — One Goh! It’s a fair fight: these contenders are both determined.

One Goh surrendered to the cops without putting up a fight — an action that could be described in a number of ways. One would be to note that he was determined when he slaughtered a bunch of defenseless people, but not so determined when he confronted armed policemen. That would be the moral way of representing it. But another way would be simply to note that he surrendered without putting up a fight. And naturally, that’s the way Jordan put it: “We don't believe he intended on having a confrontation with police.”

Thank God for good intentions.

But why am I picking on a public official who doesn’t happen to have a gift for words? There are a number of ways of replying to that, too. One is to say that if you don’t have a gift for words, you shouldn’t volunteer to go on television. Another is to say that the chief has a gift for words — the wrong words.

He was eloquent in suggesting sympathy-provoking causes for One Goh’s crimes. Referring to Goh’s fellow students, Jordan said the following: "They disrespected him, laughed at him. They made fun of his lack of English speaking skills. It made him feel isolated compared to the other students." This explanation was presumably supplied by Goh who was said by the chief to be not especially remorseful about his crimes (oops, actions).

So this is what you do, if you’re a police chief. Curious about the motives for a mass murder, you accept the mass murderer’s account, never noticing that it blames the victims. Meanwhile, you assume that someone who is crazy enough to shoot up a classroom should not be isolated or disrespected. Odd, isn’t it? By giving such significance to the currently atrocious crime of dissing someone, you end up dissing whoever does the dissing. Gosh, isn’t that a puzzler? What should we say about that? Or about the fact that these people who supposedly made Goh feel isolated were students at a college attended almost entirely by men and women whose first language is not English, a college founded by an Asian pastor to help Asian students feel comfortable in their new environment. But so what? One Goh didn’t feel comfortable. Someone must have made him feel uncomfortable.

That’s where amorality creep always goes. It doesn’t pause before such weighty matters as the good and bad; it slithers around them. At the end, it’s hard to tell the culprits from the victims.

Now consider what Dawinder Kaur, a 19-year-old Army reservist who was shot by One Goh, had to say about the student who was absent from her nursing class for months, then suddenly turned up and started shooting. Her brother reported her remarks: "She told me that a guy went crazy and she got shot. She was running. She was crying; she was bleeding, it was wrong."

Do you have anything to add to that? I don’t. It accounts for everything — including the fact that it was wrong.




Share This


Race Doesn’t Exist

 | 

The Trayvon Martin shooting has resulted in predictably absurd conclusions and ridiculous behavior. On first impression, the circus that gathered around the Sanford, Florida, site of the killing (featuring race-baiting clowns like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton) looks and sounds a lot of a scene from the satiric Tom Wolfe novel The Bonfire of the Vanities.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Jackson sputtered that “blacks are under attack,” adding that “targeting, arresting, convicting blacks and ultimately killing us is big business. . . . No justice, no peace.”

This cynical circus is so predictable because it’s based on a false premise. Not that the shooting didn’t take place; George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin. The false premise is that the shooting was race-related.

It’s false because there’s no such thing as race.

What we call “race” is a social construct invented hundreds of years ago by slave traders and colonial powers. It’s been kept around because it suits lazy people and statist governments looking for cheap ways to categorize individuals.

It’s time that reasonable people abandon this slothful shortcut.

I make the argument about the falseness of race in detail in my book Libertarian Nation (if you have a Kindle, you can “borrow” the book from Amazon for free). Much as I hate to interfere with commerce that channels some money my way, here’s the gist of the argument.

The pigment of your skin and acidity of your hair don’t have much to do with your personal identity. And they don’t make you similar to or different from anyone else.

Race is a social construct. And an old one. The idea that people can be categorized into supposedly objective — or, more recently, “scientific” — groups has been around for as long as human civilization. It’s always been subject manipulation, usually by the state. And its categories are always shifting, usually according to the political needs of the people running the state.

The libertarian notion of a colorblind society is closer to reality than advocates of identity politics — racists and multiculturalists — like to admit.

So, contemporary notions of race are more . . . contemporary . . . than most people realize. Skin color wasn’t the controlling characteristic of race until the end of the 16th century; and then it had something to do with slavery and something to do with the birth of colonialism. The states that stood to profit from the import of cheap materials and slave labor began a 500-year campaign to convince the world that Africans with dark brown skin were a different class of humans than Europeans with lighter brown or pink skin. The Portuguese and Dutch were especially dedicated to the concept. They defined “race” to suit their needs; but popular culture seems to have forgotten their roles in promoting the fiction.

All people are a mix of genetic traits. This fact raises various questions — and the dread of both hardcore racists who lament “mongrelization” and race-obsessed multiculturalists (who, intellectual brothers of the racists, are heavily invested in the notion of distinct racial identities).

What’s the relationship between genes and race?

Most anthropologists and biologists agree that race is a fuzzy concept. By various estimates, 20 to 30% of the genes in the average “black” American come from light-skinned European stock. As Time magazine has noted: “science has no agreed-upon definition of ‘race’: however you slice up the population, the categories look pretty arbitrary.” And, in a similar vein, the Chicago Tribune reported:

In a 1998 “Statement on ‘Race’,” the American Anthropological Association concluded that ordinary notions of race have little value for biological research in part because of the relatively minor genetic differences among racial groups.

And, the anthropologists might have added, the broad genetic variation that exists within racial groups. In the New Statesman magazine, the often-quoted science writer Steven Rose pointed out:

. . . the idea that there is a genetically meaningful African “race” is nonsense. There is wide cultural and genetic diversity amongst African populations from south to north, from Ethiopians to Nigerians. There are, for example probably genetic as well as environmental reasons why Ethiopians make good marathon runners whereas Nigerians on the whole do not.

The normally statist British newspaper The Guardian has stumbled to the same conclusion:

Other scientists point out that our species is so young — Homo sapiens emerged from its African homeland only 100,000 years ago — that it simply has not had time to evolve any significant differences in intellectual capacity as its various groups of people have spread round the globe and settled in different regions. Only the most superficial differences — notably skin colour — separate the world’s different population groupings. Underneath that skin, people are remarkably alike.

So, the libertarian notion of a colorblind society (often dismissed by statists as an unrealistic ideal) is closer to reality than advocates of identity politics — racists and multiculturalists — like to admit.

These advocates have more influence over mainstream media and popular culture than they should. People like Jackson, Sharpton, and Derrick Bell have devoted their lives to a fiction. That must leave them with a hollow feeling, in their solitary moments or when they look themselves in the mirror.

Derrick Bell may have been the saddest of the bunch. He was intelligent enough and well-trained enough that he should have been able to see through the fiction. Instead, he spent his life popularizing Critical Race Theory — which is the intellectual rationalization of a false premise.

The critical document that stands in contradiction to the ultimately bankrupt rationalizations of the Critical Race Theorists and base manipulations of the race hustlers is Martin Luther King’s rightly immortal “I Have a Dream” speech. To the point:

In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. …We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. …Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. …I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

That speech drew its undeniable moral force, in part, from its recognition of the falseness of the concept of race. The triviality of the color of a person’s skin.

(Take a few minutes to read — or reread — that speech. Would any left-wing speaker today use the metaphor of a bounced check to criticize failed promise? It’s so…bourgeois.)

A side note: I’ve always thought there were two Kings, the libertarian defender of individual dignity who fought for fair treatment and delivered the August 1963 speech and the less-inspiring socialist who muddled through the last years of his life.

Compared to King’s image of free individuals treating one another with mutual respect, the current discussion of race is insect-like. The mainstream media tries to turn Trayvon Martin’s shooting into clicks and readers and ratings. The pathetic New York Times concocts the term “white Hispanic” to emphasize that Martin’s shooter was, er, something different from black.

Race is a dubious social construct that serves most effectively as a shortcut for lazy statists trying to put hard-to-manage individuals into easy-to-manage boxes.

Not everyone is so small. Former NAACP leader C.L. Bryant accused the likes of Jackson and Sharpton of “exploiting” the Martin shooting. “His family should be outraged at the fact that they’re using this child as the bait to inflame racial passions,” Bryant told The Daily Caller. He said that “race hustlers” were acting like “buzzards circling the carcass” of the teen.

Race doesn’t exist. Population ancestry influences the patterns of an individual’s genotypical and phenotypical traits (what people commonly think of as “racial” appearance and characteristics) but single variables — for example, skin color — do not. It may seem counterintuitive, but skin color is actually a poor indicator of race.

Race is a dubious social construct that serves most effectively as a shortcut for lazy statists trying to put hard-to-manage individuals into easy-to-manage boxes. No one who loves liberty should buy into the fiction.




Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2017 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.