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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Not Just Another Gangster Film

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Did we really need another big, bloody, blockbuster of a gangster film?

Well, we may not need another one, but I'm mighty happy to have this one. Gangster Squad is smart, classy, brilliantly acted, creatively conceived, and surprisingly fun. It tells an important story, too, about how gang bosses build their territory and why it is so difficult to get rid of them.

The film is set in postwar Los Angeles and tells the mostly true story of Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) — a high-profile gangster from New York and Chicago who wants to make L.A. his exclusive territory — and the cops who go after him. Cohen trades in drugs, women, and gambling. A former prizefighter, he is brutal in his punishment of anyone who fails him or crosses him. He is determined to become the kingpin of the West Coast, and Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin), an honest cop and World War II vet, is just as determined to stop him. But to do that, he will have to fight half the cops in L.A., because most of them are on Cohen's payroll.

I believe in the power of the free market, but I ask you: how can profit incentive alone produce honest cops? It's hard to keep crime down when the price of cops keeps going up. The bad guys will always have more money than the good guys to buy the cops' loyalty. Cohen says cynically, "A cop that's not for sale is like a dog with rabies. There's no medicine for it. You just gotta put 'im down."

Honest cops have to be motivated by more than money. They have to care passionately about the people and the town. O'Mara and his gang have that kind of passion. Fresh out of the war, they have the military mindset of men who believe in their cause and are willing to die for it. They risked their lives to defend America's honor and her way of life, and then they came home to a city facing corruption. One of them muses, "A bright future — that's what we fought for, right? I'm not gonna let Mickey Cohen take that away from us."

Can profit incentive alone produce honest cops? It's hard to keep crime down when the price of cops keeps going up.

That kind of honor-driven determination makes the members of the gangster squad very dangerous to criminals. And to themselves. They take risks no one would accept for a paycheck alone, and they do things no cop oughta do without a warrant, a trial, and a sentence. After one particularly deadly shootout, O'Mara says, "War taught us how to fight, and now that's all we know how to do. We don't know how to live, only how to fight. We might as well be Mickey Cohen."

In many respects Gangster Squad is a classic mission movie in the style of The Magnificent Seven or The Dirty Dozen. As O'Mara assembles his team of honest cops turned rogue assassins, we get to know their personalities and strengths. Ryan Gosling is the Steve McQueen of the group. Even the way he smokes is cool, sexy, and smart. So is the stylized way he shoots. He has the sly smile and enigmatic eyes that tell us his character is as unpredictable as nitroglycerin. Giovanni Ribisi is the family man whose expertise is communications technology — sort of the "Radar" of this group. Robert Patrick is the anachronistic cowboy, a sharpshooter and soothsayer rolled into one.

Director Ruben Fleischer has a great eye for style. He uses his sets, colors, costumes, gorgeous cars, and cinematic magic to suggest a graphic novel brought to life. O'Mara has the strong jaw, steely squint, and classy fedora of a Dick Tracy. Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) with her deeply colored lips, sultry movements, and sideswept hairstyle suggests Veronica Lake — or perhaps Jessica Rabbit. Side characters such as Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) and Lt. Quincannon (Jack McGee), with their distinctive noses and gruff bravado, look like the supporting characters in a Spiderman comic book. The script, written by first-time screenwriters Will Beall and Paul Lieberman, almost falls into parody at times, but the actors carry it off without cracking a smile. The dialogue is witty and sophisticated, while the story is deadly serious. It's a winning combination.

If President Obama wanted a poster movie for his war on automatic weapons, this one is it. The film was supposed to be released in September, but after the shooting in an Aurora movie theater in mid-July, they had to pull it from distribution and rewrite the climactic scene, which originally took place in a crowded movie theater. The scene now happens on a crowded street in Chinatown, but its veiled allusions to Graumann's Chinese Theater and the film Chinatown, which was considered very violent when it was made in 1974, serve as reminders of what the scene originally entailed. I'm not so sure the change of venue makes that much difference — civilians are still being gunned down in droves in a public square — but the move seems to have made director Fleischer and the rest of the cast feel better about the film. I wonder if a similar sense of social consciousness will prompt Quentin Tarantino to remove the climactic theater massacre from Inglorious Basterds, or cause TNT and others to edit out the ending when they show it on TV. Somehow I don't think that will happen . . .

Gangster Squad is a bit bloody for some tastes, but it's easy to know when to look away if you're the squeamish type. Meanwhile, the fine acting, engrossing story, witty script, and artistic cinematography make it worth the effort.


Editor's Note: Review of "Gangster Squad," directed by Ruben Fleischer. Warner Brothers, 2013, 114 minutes.



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Batman and Business

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Business is bad in Hollywood, and I'm not talking about the box office receipts. Businesspeople have been portrayed as bad guys in movies for the past several decades. When an audience member asked about this trend during the "Liberty in Film" panel at the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival last month, Hollywood biographer and insider Marc Eliot dismissed it with a wave of his hand. "It's just a shortcut," he explained. "When you see a businessman on the screen, you know it's the villain. It just streamlines the story."

As moderator of the panel, I agreed with him that these shortcuts are probably not intentionally sinister; in fact, the technique goes all the way back to Aesop, who used them in his fables. "If a character was a dog, you knew he would be loyal," I acknowledged. "A fox would be cunning. A crow would steal. In the old days," I went on, "a black hat meant 'bad guy' and a white hat meant 'good guy.' But shortcuts are dangerous and unfair when we're talking about whole groups of people." I specifically referenced the "shortcuts" of earlier generations of filmmakers: blacks were clowns; Indians were ferocious; women were weak. I suggested the danger of having a new generation automatically think "villain" when it sees a businessperson. The problem is that these characters often mirror and perpetuate basic prejudices within a culture. Onscreen stereotypes lead to real-life prejudices.

Panelist Gary Alexander added this biting criticism: "Using shortcuts is just plain lazy." It's true that filmmakers have always used stock characters as shortcuts to storytelling, and they probably always will. But that doesn't mean we have to accept them.

The silver lining to this clouded silver screen is that these shortcuts can be changed. The challenge for filmmakers is to break away from them and create independent characters who can surprise and satisfy. Just as filmmakers of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s deliberately challenged black and female stereotypes by casting against type and writing untraditional storylines, so libertarian filmmakers today need to write screenplays that challenge and overturn the stock business villain. These characters need to be portrayed in the rich, three-dimensional diversity that exists in the real world, where some business people are admittedly bad but others are surprisingly (to filmgoers) good.

What a reversal of stereotypical shortcuts! A businesswoman who expresses the proper role of business, and a burglar who reveals her petty jealousies.

This actually happens in The Dark Knight Rises, the latest entry in the Batman franchise. It's subtle, but it's clear: although there are some bad businesspeople in the film, there are just as many good ones, smashing the stereotype and insisting that viewers look past their stock expectations. For example, when Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) discovers that his homes for at-risk and orphaned boys have not been funded for two years, he confronts his trusted friend and protector, Alfred. "The homes were funded by profits from Wayne Industries," Alfred sadly explains. "There have to be some." That’s a reminder to Bruce, who has been in a deep funk since his girlfriend died, that his neglect of his company has had wide-ranging effects. Bruce — and the audience — are thus informed that "excess profits" are a good thing. They can be used for doing good works, if that is the business owner's goal.

Similarly, in another brief interchange the audience is told that everyone is affected by the stock market, whether they own stocks or not. I don't think I'm giving away too much to tell you that, early in the film, the bad guys break into the stock exchange. The chief of police is unconcerned about the consequences of a financial meltdown, arguing that the average person saves his money under a mattress and doesn't care about what happens to the stock market. The head of the exchange tells him, "If this money disappears, your mattress will be worth a lot less." A simple truth, simply stated.

Later, Bruce Wayne teams up with Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), the head of another corporation, and she voices similar truths about the free market. "You have to invest to restore balance to the world," she tells him, acknowledging the importance of capital investment and private enterprise. And when he looks around at a lavish business party she is hosting, she tells him, "The proceeds will go wherever I want, because I paid for the spread myself." Even Ayn Rand would likely approve this self-interested heroine who understands the value of business.

Meanwhile, Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), one of Batman's archenemies, looks around at Bruce Wayne's huge estate and growls jealously, "You're going to wonder how you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us." What a reversal of stereotypical shortcuts! A businesswoman who expresses the proper role of business, and a burglar who reveals her petty jealousies. Bravo, Christopher Nolan!

Cinematically The Dark Knight Rises delivers all that was promised in the weeks and months building up to its release. Christian Bale's troubled Bruce Wayne lifts the character far above the comic book hero created by Bob Kane and trivialized by the Adam West TV series in the ’60s. Gone, too, is the sardonic humor injected by George Clooney's portrayal in the ’80s. This Batman is a reluctant savior of a world that has largely misunderstood and rejected him. While he has a few ardent supporters, most consider him a traitor and want him destroyed. He is briefly tempted away from his mission by the love of a woman. He suffers indescribable agony in a dark prison at the hands of a monstrous villain named Bane (Tom Hardy) — the "bane" who wants to destroy the world. Despite his reluctance, Bruce accepts his arduous task. In short, he is a classic Christ figure, adding gravitas to the modern myth of Batman. He even says at one point, "My father's work is done."

I had to display the contents of my purse to a uniformed employee before entering the theater. I hope that a TSA-style Movie Safety Authority does not take over our malls and movie theaters.

But while the characters are rich and well acted, the story is interesting, Hans Zimmer's musical score is powerfully compelling, and the final hour is particularly thrilling, it was difficult to watch this film. Action movies have always provided an opportunity to enter another world, suspend one's disbelief, enjoy vicarious experience, then step back into the real world where "things like that" don't really happen. But in light of what did happen in Aurora, Colorado on opening night, I found it almost impossible to separate myself from the barrage of onscreen shooting in the first half hour of the film. It seemed devastatingly real because I knew it was during this scene of heartless shooting in a very public location that the actual shooting began. I was almost ashamed to be there, seeking a few hours' entertainment from a film that was the unwitting stage for such terror.

I also found myself looking around the aisles and corners of the theater, watching for suspicious characters and devising an escape plan. This was partly because I had to display the contents of my purse to a uniformed employee before entering the theater. I hope that fears like this dissipate for everyone. And I hope that a TSA-style MSA (Movie Safety Authority) does not take over our malls and movie theaters.

Spoiler alert — read the next paragraph only if you have already seen this movie, or if you have no intention of ever seeing it:

The film ends with an "aha" moment that is so thrillingly unexpected that, when I saw it, the entire audience gasped in disbelief. But I should have known from the beginning. Marc Eliot explained it to us in the “Liberty in Film” panel, and he was right: Hollywood uses shortcuts to tell us who the bad guy is. Even when a writer-director is planning the most delicious of twists for the end, he is helpless against his own Hollywood instincts. Nolan telegraphed it from the start: In modern movies, the business owner is always the bad guy. Even when you least expect it.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Dark Knight Rises," directed by Christopher Nolan. Warner Brothers, 2012, 164 minutes.



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Model Citizen

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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.



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Think First, Talk Second

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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.




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The Impact of It All

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So many Niagaras of words have flowed from the Penn State sex scandal that, unpleasant though the task may be — and it is plenty unpleasant — Word Watch needs to comment on them.

There’s no good place to start, so let’s just dive into the notorious email that Penn State Athletic Flunky Mike McQueary sent to a friend, denying that he had failed to take action when he (allegedly) saw Very Important Coach Jerry Sandusky having sex with a young boy in the showers at the football building:

“I did stop it, not physically . . . but made sure it was stopped when I left that locker room . . . I did have discussions with police and with the official at the university in charge of police . . . no one can imagine my thoughts or wants to be in my shoes for those 30–45 seconds . . . trust me.”

Surely Mike McQueary deserves a promotion. The language of this note is much more appropriate to a university administrator than to a low-level munchkin. First, there’s the strong assertion (“I did stop it”); then there’s the telling admission (“not physically”); then there’s that curious kind of statement that makes one pause, read it again, and speculate about what it really means, without ever knowing how one could tell if one had actually found the meaning.

“Made sure it was stopped when I left that locker room.” Does that mean you really, personally stopped it? If so, how? But maybe you mean that you let it go on, but when you went back and checked, you found it had stopped, possibly because of whatever it was you did, or didn’t do, before. Is that it? Should we ask for the floor plans, so we can see where the locker room was, in relation to the showers? Was the interval between the time when you saw something happening in the shower and the time when you left the locker room the same as “those 30–45 seconds”? Or what?

But the thing that really puts McQueary in the higher administrative or political realm is his chain of self-references: “No one can imagine my thoughts or wants to be in my shoes . . . . trust me.”

On this one matter, I do trust him. I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes. But I can well imagine his thoughtswhen he was confronted with the need to protect a child from sexual abuse by a high-ranking operative of the “educational” institution he worked for. I believe he was thinking, “Damn! This is gonna get me fired!”

How does a bunch of college kids marching around with candles make anyone feel better about having been molested?

That thick vein of self-regard, and the obfuscating style that is its inseparable companion, runs into McQueary’s next remarks: “I am getting hammered for handling this the right way . . . or what I thought at the time was right . . .” Silly me. I thought this mindless jock was “getting hammered” for doing something wrong. Now I have to consider the possibility that he thought he was right. Gosh. What about that? I guess if he thought he was right, I’ll have to feel sorry for him. Won’t I? Won’t you?

Uh, maybe not, but it was a good try, planting that logic tree: either he’s right — or he’s wrong, but in that case he’s right anyway, because he thought he was right. . . .

The McQueary statement that galls me most, however, is the following: “I had to make tough impacting quick decisions.” Fascinating — what were those decisions? I would like to know. Once more, either he did something right, or he did something he thought was right — but what was it? Whatever it may have been, it was “quick” (45 seconds? In 45 seconds you can get halfway through the Gettysburg Address), “tough” (on whom?), and “impacting” (again, on whom?). Apparently it wasn’t especially impacting on Coach Sandusky, or on Penn State University, or on its head football coach, or on its president, or on McQueary himself, or on anyone else involved in this mess. All of them went on their merry way, for the next nine years. One imagines that McQueary’s decision might at least have been impacting on McQueary. But what was the impact? No one knows. Nonetheless, McQueary wants everyone to care and sympathize.

Sadly, impact is not just a flunkeyism. Itis the word of choice for all those high-class people who specialize in, well, impacting public opinion. First marketed to congressmen and corporate CEOs, it soon passed to all other professionals, including professional educators such as McQueary and his associates. The Penn State scandal alone has registered as many impacts as the surface of the moon.

We are all impacted now, and no one more than The Second Mile, the organization for disadvantaged kids that Sandusky founded, and which he reputedly used as a means of identifying his sexual targets. On Nov. 6, soon after the scandal broke, Second Mile canceled a fundraising event, explaining, “While we are providing our children’s programming as scheduled, The Second Mile has decided, out of respect and compassion for all impacted by the allegations from the Attorney General’s office, to postpone The Second Mile’s Reverse Drawing . . .” If you push your way through this thicket of words, you will discover that what has made an “impact” on the unspecified “all” isn’t any actions of Sandusky himself but simply the force of the Attorney General’s “allegations” about such actions.

Coupled with this announcement was a carefully worded narrative intended to exculpate The Second Mile. It started with the all and impact boilerplate: “Our prayers, care and compassion go out to all impacted.” I suppose that includes the leadership of Second Mile, people who have certainly been impacted, if not deprived of their jobs, by the events in question. But in their case, prayer has been unavailing. Eight days after the message just quoted, the organization’s CEO resigned, modestly stipulating that any further statement on his part would take “the focus from where it should be — on the children, young adults and families who have been impacted. Their pain and their healing is the greatest priority, and my thoughts and prayers have been and will continue to be with them.”

In other words, he’s not talking. But this word impacted . . . it’s a curious expression. It used to mean that something had smashed into something else, and the latter had been seriously damaged, perhaps destroyed. Now, under the influence of obfuscating politicians, officious or embarrassed educators, and illiterate journalists, impacted can mean anything within the range of “affected in some way.” Dude! Your beagle is impacting my front lawn. Dude.

Surely, kids who have been seduced or molested by sex-greedy adults have been seriously impacted, but the more you use that word, the less it means. The image of a crater, or a tooth in trouble, seems less significant, and less humane, the more you hear it applied to humans. It’s an easy word, isn’t it? No one can claim that you aren’t caring enough, if you use such an emphatic term. Especially when you couple it with a standard reference to thoughts and prayers.

I don’t want to sound self-righteous, but when I tell someone that he is in my thoughts and prayers, I mean that I am actually thinking about him and praying for him. That’s simple enough. But what do you think is happening when the normal public figure says that people are in his thoughts and prayers? Do you believe that presidents respond to earthquakes, plane crashes, droughts, floods, and deaths in battle by actually thinking and praying about those who have been impacted? They say they do, but I don’t think they’re telling the truth.

He was patiently bemused by the stupidity of the young.

Listening to this jargon, I picture the president abruptly leaving his golf games, lobbyist shakedowns, and reelection strategy sessions to rush up to the family quarters and kneel in prayer on behalf of every person endangered by all those floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and military defeats about which he has publicly extended his thoughts and prayers during the past 24 hours. That’s what we’re supposed to imagine, isn’t it?

I don’t deny that even a president may sometimes pray, and pray for someone other than himself. Many presidents have done that. Until recently, however, they haven’t made so many confessions that they are always busy thinking and praying about people in the news. Every religious person should oppose such pretense at piety, instead of leaving it for the atheists to ridicule. One reason why this is especially important to debunk is that the hypocrisy of the official class has a way of seeping down, like fluids escaping from a corpse, into the language of everyone else. In other words, as President Obama would put it, official smarm impacts us all in a negative manner.

On November 11, on Fox News, Juan Williams — a journalist who knows and respects the English language — had the unenviable task of reporting on events at Penn State, where students rioted because the trustees overthrew the local god, Joe Paterno, the head coach who failed to act in the Sandusky case. The insurrection happened just when the university was most vulnerable, facing, as it did, an invasion from Nebraska on the coming Saturday. So after the first night of orgiastic grief, the Penn State patriots decided that smarm was better than violence. Without relinquishing their support for JoPa, they decided to take strong moral action — by holding a candlelight vigil. Huh? Yet this is exactly what you would expect from the disciples of an ersatz religion, such as college football. Light some candles, and everyone will know you’re devout. They may even confuse your worship of fuhbawl with the ceremonies of one of the higher religions.

But let’s see . . . there had to be a vigil, but what would be the point of it? What would it ostensibly be for? Of course, it was “to show support for the children who were allegedly abused” — an interesting use of the word support. One supports a football team by screaming slogans in a stadium. These verbal oblations are assumed to have a magical effect on the prowess of the team. But how does a bunch of college kids marching around with candles make anyone feel better about having been molested?

This question must have occurred to someone besides me, because the vigil organizers got more specific. They said that their show of support was aimed at “raising money for victims of sexual abuse.” That sounds good — but of course, the actual victims weren’t going to receive any of that money. Oh no. Contributions would go to “groups fighting child abuse.” Again, it sounds good. But how do you use money for something like that? Is this how we deal with other crimes? Do we give money to groups fighting burglaries? How about murder — do you think we should donate money to groups fighting that?

Please don’t accuse me of being insensitive to victims of burglary, murder, or any other actual crime. But guess what? We already have an organization that’s designed to fight such crimes, including child abuse; and it is very well funded. We all contribute to its maintenance. That organization is called the police.

Now back to Juan Williams. He had to interview two young women, students at Penn State, who were involved in the mighty candlelight vigil. These young people loved Penn State. They pitied its sorry plight. They viewed it as an innocent lamb, deprived of its shepherd (Joe Paterno). But this religious devotion to alma mater seems to have made them especially vulnerable to leakages of pomposity from the upper administrative levels. When Williams asked one of them a softball starter question, she declined to answer before she had pounded all the rivets into the official boilerplate. “First,” she intoned, “I just want to take a moment to extend my thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families on behalf of myself and all the Penn State family.”

Now President Spanier adds one more to the list of perfect objects. His statement is the ne plus ultra of administrative arrogance.

Williams reacted to this extraordinary statement in the only way in which a courteous gentleman could react: he tried to make sense of what the young woman was saying; then, failing that, he contented himself with a few pacific, grandfatherly remarks, which neither of the students appeared to understand. He was patiently bemused by the stupidity of the young. But for God’s sake, what kind of culture is it that inspires a 20-year-old with the notion that a university is a “family,” that she is empowered, by her proffered feelings, to speak for that “family,” and that she has thereby achieved the sacramental role of thinking and praying over other people, personally unknown to her — on television, yet? Her effortless assumption of the official attitude was bizarre, and unsettling, though hardly unprecedented.

Is this what universities teach? I’m afraid they do.

I should add that Penn State students were advised, at the candlelight vigil, to go to the Nebraska game wearing blue, which for some reason has been identified by someone as the color of “child abuse awareness.” Awareness? Does that word have a meaning? Is there a non-trivial sense in which my awareness of child abuse does something for its victims? In any event, the slogan of the day was, "Stop Child Abuse, Blue Out Nebraska." A strangely assorted pair of sentiments! But yes, the stadium was full of blue on Saturday, though Nebraska was not blued out. Nebraska won.

Winners and losers . . . one sadly revealing episode of the Penn State scandal was college president Graham Spanier’s official statement (Nov. 7) about the arrest of two of his fellow administrators: “The protection of children is of paramount importance. The university will take a number of actions moving forward to increase the safety and security within our facilities and make everyone aware of the protocols in place for handling these issues."

From time to time, it is given to mortals to view a work of human artifice so perfect, in its way, as to lie beyond all analytic criticism. The Taj Mahal. Andrea del Sarto’s “Madonna of the Harpies.”The final movements of Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony. Yeats’s “Crazy Jane” poems. Now President Spanier adds one more to the list of perfect objects. His statement is the ne plus ultra of administrative arrogance. One stands in awe of it: it is a perfectly pompous, perfectly empty statement. It is perfect in that way, not because it says nothing at all — it says a lot of things — but because it claims to mean something, and simultaneously withdraws all its purported meanings, thus arriving, in this most challenging of contexts, at the nothingness it pretends to reject.

The university will take actions. What actions? A number of them.

The university will increase safety and security. How? Somehow.

There are protocols in place for handling these issues. What protocols? What issues? What does “issues” mean, anyhow? Never mind; we will make everyone aware.

Meanwhile, we are all moving forward. Does that mean . . . just possibly . . . that there was something wrong in the past, which we are now moving away from? That’s a possibility. Exploring it, however, would ruin the effect.

But here’s the good part. The statement didn’t work. Graham Spanier and Joe Paterno were fired. Of the fallen Dr. Spanier, said to have been the most highly paid university administrator in America, the governor of the state opined: “People lost confidence in [his] ability to lead.”

The word wasn’t “talk.” The word was “lead.” There’s a difference. And no heap of words can cover it up.




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Who Let the Dog Out?

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Police are routinely judged by a different standard, a double standard under the law that allows them to violate the civil liberties protected by the constitution. The police do so with impunity. They can (and they do) get away with murder while the average, non-uniformed person is tossed into jail for forgetting to pay a traffic ticket.

A recent news story from WFMJ (Campbell, Ohio) and the Youngstown Vindicator illustrates how deeply embedded this double standard has become. An “off-duty” police dog was enjoying a walk with his partner when he spotted an 8-year-old boy playing hide-and-seek with his cousin. The dog attacked the running child, dragging him to the ground, shredding his sweatshirt, puncturing his T-shirt and leaving marks on the boy's arm.

What is the police response? They praise the dog's record as a crime-buster and drug-sniffer. No mention is made of sanctioning the police officer or taking the dog off the street. Any other dog would be put down for attacking a child without provocation; any other owner would be liable in civil court. But this dog was excused with the explanation that he could not distinguish between a fleeing suspect and a playing child. In short, the dog was just doing his job.

"They're [police dogs] trained that anything running could be a potential threat, and all he's doing is reacting and doing what he was trained to do," explained Sergeant John Rusnak from the Campbell Police Department. “He has caught three armed robbers. He has located numerous amounts of drugs. He has tracked down suspects. He’s been a vital, vital part of our police department.”

The libetarian commentary site The Agitator makes an interesting observation about the incident: “And if someone had come to the kid’s defense and shot the dog, as on- and off-duty cops routinely do, that person would be in custody right now. Of course, the problem isn’t the dog, it’s the handler. And when cops kill the family pet, the problem also usually isn’t with the dog.”

It is my understanding that no police dog attacks without a verbal command. If I am incorrect, then every police dog out there is a standing menace to every child it encounters. There is no mention of any sanctions or repercussions for the officer who let the dog in question get away. Apparently leash laws do not apply to everyone. As in Animal Farm, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Orwell was speaking of swine. So am I.




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Poverty and Crime

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If you’re like me, you have been instructed, from your youth on up, that crime is caused by “conditions” — meaning economic conditions, meaning poverty. You’ve also been told that crime can be reduced, or even eliminated, by the abolition of poverty — which, of course, can come only by means of massive government action.

These were some of the ruling theses of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, which continues in its thousand institutional forms unto this day, more than four decades after he declared it.

The theses were always vulnerable, on their face. What do you mean by “crime”? Do you mean a Hollywood producer’s rape of a female staffer, who is too afraid to report the crime? Do you mean a party in West LA, where rich people snort a barrel of coke, and are never caught? Or do you mean a guy who’s pushing weed in Fresno, or a girl who’s arrested for prostitution on the streets of Grand Rapids? Do you mean crime that’s successfully prosecuted, or do you include crime that never gets recorded?

And the thesis has long been vulnerable to the evidence. Johnson’s War on Poverty immediately preceded an enormous wave of crime. The hundreds of billions of dollars that American communities spend on welfare has not demonstrably reduced the incidence of crime, however you want to define that term. Most serious analysts believe those dollars have increased it, by fostering a culture in which principles of individual responsibility are no longer considered necessary.

But wait a minute: what is “poverty,” anyhow? What’s the standard? What’s the definition? Was “poverty” the welfareless condition of virtually all Americans in the 1920s? If so, was it the lack of government welfare that induced millions of people to violate the Prohibition laws, and some thousands of them to kill and maim their fellow-citizens in pursuit of profits from that violation? In a larger sense: isn’t poverty relative? The poor of the 1950s were much richer in absolute terms than the poor of the 1920s, yet fewer people were sent to prison in the 1950s. The poor of the 1980s and 1990s were richer still; yet a much larger proportion of the populace went up the river in the 1980s and 1990s than in the 1950s.

Now comes the following announcement from a website in my town (voiceofsandiego.org), about the FBI’s new report on crime in America during 2010, the year of a great depression, especially here in far southern California:

“In San Diego, the number of violent crimes — murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault — dropped 5.3% from the previous year and the number of property crimes — burglary, theft and vehicle theft — dropped 4.6%. (Nationwide, violent crime dropped 5.5% and property crimes were down 2.8%.)”

The author adds a reference to the prevailing wisdom:

“Nationwide crime declines in recent years have continued to puzzle criminologists, who expected worsening economic conditions to lead to more crime.”

Experts might be puzzled, but no one with any sense, or historical perspective, would suffer their fate. Officially recorded crime went down during the 1930s — the time of the Great Depression. Why shouldn’t it go down in 2010?

We can’t quantify the sources of crime, but we should know this: crime, and the definition of crime, has less to do with “economic conditions” than with community mores, individual opportunities, and (in a reverse sense) government action. When the government declares alcohol or drugs to be illegal, “crime” automatically results. But when individuals and communities hunker down in order to get through a period of relative poverty, crime may well diminish. Only God knows the exact linkages, but it’s not puzzling that people whose families are making less money than before may respond by doing something legitimately and dependably profitable rather than something criminal.

Indeed, as William Blake commented two centuries ago, the idea that poverty causes crime is a slander on poor people. It ought to be resisted by every person of generous mind, and especially by all of us — and there are many, many of us — who have struggled to come out on the other side of bad “economic conditions.”




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