Archive for September, 2011


Sunday, September 25th, 2011

Ross Douthat has a fascinating piece in the Sunday Times about the Troy Davis case.  Douthat, as you probably know, is the Times (most) conservative columnist and, according to Wikipedia, a convert first to Pentecostalism and then to Catholicism, making this morning’s column, for me, another example of the damage religious conversion can sometimes do to your moral sense.

This may misrepresent the column.  Douthat’s argument is not religious but civic.  To the extent that faith is invoked at all it’s as a call to waverers not to lose faith in the death penalty over this unfortunate affair.  If you’ve been following the case, you know that what made the affair unfortunate was the very high probability that the State of Georgia just put an innocent man to death.  On the plus side, according to Douthat, the case, which exhausted 20 years of appeals, “can focus the public’s attention on issues that many Americans prefer to ignore: the overzealousness of cops and prosecutors, the limits of the appeals process and the ugly conditions faced by many of the more than two million Americans currently behind bars.”

In other words, if I’m understanding him properly, the execution of an innocent man can help us focus on the conditions that make it possible for us to execute innocent men.

Here’s where I hear the bat-squeak tone of a certain kind of religious mindset.  There’s a pleasing circularity to Douthat’s vision.  Davis’s execution will help us to reform abuses so that fewer Troy Davises will have to die and we can have faith in the fairness and justice of executions.  It’s the way a certain type of mind veers helplessly towards systems—self-enclosed, self-perpetuating systems from which a great deal of mess has been excluded.

In one sense the column startled me.  I’d been clumsily dividing the death penalty issue between opponents who pointed out the danger of executing innocent people and proponents who thought that innocent people were never executed.  For the latter, the fact that Davis exhausted all his appeals and was executed is sufficient proof that he was guilty.  The system worked.  (If Davis had been exonerated, the system would also have worked, despite the 20 years in prison.)  And yet I should have understood that there must be people like Douthat who believe both that Davis was essentially murdered and that the death penalty is necessary and valid.  It’s not an untenable position—we have many other systems in which we’re willing to countenance the deaths of innocents in the name of a larger good:  war, poverty, highways.  But the problems with the position lie in the mess that Douthat is excluding.

I should say that I don’t actually believe that opponents of the death penalty “prefer to ignore” the abuses of the justice and prison system.  My guess is that they’re only too well aware of them, and that they’re as troubled by the wrongfully imprisoned as they are by the wrongfully condemned-to-die and work as assiduously to free them.  Douthat’s most tangled paragraph opines that “a society that supposedly values liberty as much or more than life itself hasn’t necessarily become more civilized if it preserves its convicts’ lives while consistently violating their rights and dignity.”  (Recently I had a dinner conversation about this troublesome word “liberty” which we hear more and more from the right and which seems to be used like a little silver hammer to knock people between the eyes and stop them thinking.)

The problem is not just that Douthat is offering us a binary choice—protect life or protect rights and dignity—a choice which he is not extending to the actual prisoner, who might weigh those options differently.  The problem is that the more reformable aspects of the criminal justice system are the ones that revolve around making prisons safer and more humane places.  The less reformable aspects of the criminal justice system—the mess that Douthat is excluding—are the ones that led to Davis’s execution.

We can, of course, work to reform the ways that the criminal justice system seems to reward corruption and careerism—the way prosecutors are encouraged to construe their jobs as getting convictions not seeing that justice is done.  It will be a long uphill climb, but at least I can see it as a possibility.  I’m sure that these elements came into the Troy Davis case.  But something else operated as well.

I suppose it’s possible that, in the Davis case, corrupt officers, determined to get a conviction in the murder of a fellow officer, coerced false statements from scared witnesses in the full knowledge that they were railroading an innocent man.  But that seems like a level of conscious maleficence to which the average human being doesn’t often rise.  It seems more likely that, having had the killer named to them, they went to find witnesses who could confirm to them what they already knew.  The assumption was that these recalcitrant witnesses needed to be badgered and threatened into spilling what they knew, and the danger that the officers might, with their badgering and threats, actually produce false statements receded from awareness.  It’s the same dynamic that made the day care cases of the eighties and nineties such colossal disasters.

I was struck by the way that Officer McPhail’s widow insisted on Davis’s guilt.  There seemed to be plenty of room for doubt.  The case, from an objective point of view, had been shot full of holes, and the evidence now seemed to point to another man.  You can dismiss the prosecution’s resistance as corruption and careerism if you like, but why wasn’t his widow more interested in making sure that, if a man were going to pay for killing her husband, it was the right man?

It’s the same reaction that you heard when the West Memphis Three were freed last month.  There was the fervent belief that three child-killers had just been set free and a resentment, as in the Davis case, at interference from “outsiders” who didn’t understand.  The question is what were those outsiders outside of?  And what didn’t they understand?

Here’s what you will never reform:  the way that not just individuals but groups form narratives and how quickly those narratives become impermeable to outside information.  The outsiders stand outside the narrative, and the proven difficulty—in the Davis case, in the West Memphis Three case, in the day care cases—of getting those inside the narrative to step outside it should give Douthat pause.  We’re no longer talking about reforming a system.  We’re talking about basic human irrationality, and a great many Troy Davises would have to die before we reform that.

Long Time Gone…

Sunday, September 25th, 2011

It’s been nearly a year since I posted any news on what was at the time my newly redesigned website.  It’s not that nothing’s been happening.  Theater Breaking Through Barriers presented a reading and then a staged reading of SAD HOTEL with the wonderful Sam Tsoutsouvas in the Tennessee Williams part, which he played in the White Barn production ten years ago.  For the third time, I participated in Blue Coyote’s Standards of Decency Evening, this one called STANDARDS OF DECENCY 3: 300 VAGINAS BEFORE BREAKFAST.  My play was called PLATO’S RETREAT (pictured) and looked at internet pornography through Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.  It may be the first time I’ve ever missed the entire rehearsal and performance period of a brand new play, since I left for Brazil (that’s Carlos and I in Brasilia’s Oscar Niemeyer-designed Cathedral) a few days before rehearsal started and returned two days after the last performance.

My big project for the summer was to finish the novel that I started in my first year in NYU’s MFA Fiction Writing (in Chuck Wachtel’s amazing year-long novel-writing workshop).   I should say I finished the first draft of the novel, as pretty much the entire last half is an unholy mess, which I will spend the next year straightening out.

As for other news, my three-character thriller DEADLY MURDER (I know, I know.  Can I just say, here, publicly, that I didn’t give it that title?) seems to be sprouting up at community theatres thanks to the Samuel French edition.  There are also productions slated for Prague and Athens in December.

So that’s the news for the year.  The website also remains in the beautifully designed but empty state that my friend Bob Chatelle left it in when he designed it, lacking the information and material that I was supposed to fill in.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to spend a little time over the next months getting it into shape.

Campaign Mode

Friday, September 9th, 2011

Andrew Leonard in Salon on Obama’s speech last night:  “Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was exactly right in his comment before the speech Thursday morning: ‘This isn’t a jobs plan; it’s a reelection plan.’”  According to Leonard, Obama was “being a little too cute” when “[h]e tried… to pretend otherwise.”  The reason we know it was a reelection speech is, apparently, because “there’s zero chance of anything like [his jobs plan] passing.”

Quite apart from a concern about whether Andrew Leonard, or anyone at Salon, should be carrying Mitch McConnell’s water for him, the analysis seems to offer no way for Obama actually to address the jobs crisis.  I’m having difficulty imagining what, in Leonard’s ears, a real jobs proposal would have sounded like.

Didn’t everyone agree that the Republicans would reject any proposal the president made?  Weren’t we also agreed that Obama should nevertheless come out swinging, with a strong proposal for solving the crisis, a proposal that would not pull punches based on the Republicans’ presumed intransigence?  Am I the only one who understood the rationale behind that as more than electorally strategic?  Aren’t Obama’s choices right now pretty much reduced to forcing the Republicans onto the defensive, not just so he can win reelection—though that would be nice—but because by keeping them on the defensive he can have some slim hope of breaking through the obstructionism that has prevented anyone from doing anything about the economy?  The president’s threat to take the argument to “every corner of this country” seemed to be as much about the opposition’s reelection campaigns as his.  He was saying, “I may not be able to keep you from blocking me, but if you insist on blocking me, I will do everything I can to make it cost you.”  You’re only allowed to reduce that to electioneering if you can come up with a better strategy for getting the opposition to yield.  If the test of the speech’s seriousness is whether any of its proposals are likely to pass, then perhaps thirty minutes of silence would have better pleased Leonard.

I don’t think I’m being naive.  I understand that reelection is and has to be part of Obama’s calculations right now.  The problem, though, with Leonard’s analysis, and analysis like it, is that it doesn’t leave room for strategies that are not merely electoral.  We wanted him to come out fighting and he did, and now we’re assuming that he was only fighting for his own ass.  Or is that what we wanted him to fight for?

It’s a version of the problem I have with the more Glenn Greenwaldian among my friends.  If you’re going to go on and on about how disappointed you are in Obama, how much of a sellout he is, then you’ve got to have a credible answer to one question:  who would be doing better?  And your answer to that question—the person you propose—has to satisfy two conditions:  that person has to have a reasonable chance of (a) getting elected and (b) being allowed to govern once elected.  There may, for all I know, be lots of people who fit those criteria, but only two occur to me off the top of my head:  Hillary and Bill.  And if the Glenn Greenwaldians don’t like Obama, they REALLY don’t like Hillary and Bill.

By all means push back on Obama when you feel that he’s reneged on his promises or principles—Guantanomo, the public option—but do it in the context of the circumstances the man is actually in.  If you don’t like the system, work to change it, but don’t accuse Obama of bad faith because he hasn’t managed to transcend it by dint of personal magnetism.

Moreover, Obama has been subjected to attacks whose vitriolic craziness makes Bill’s troubles look like a champagne brunch.  The question of whether those attacks have been racist obscures the way in which Obama’s mixed heritage—mixed not just in race, but in geography, in lived experience—stand for an America that many of us have felt coming into being for a long time.  Obama’s election seemed to ratify that America for us.  Which, for a huge segment of the country, was exactly the problem.

The level of obstructionism he’s faced has been unprecedented.  Could he have finessed that obstructionism more adroitly?  Maybe. He’s one limited person with his own set of failings, as Bill had his.  Given a choice, I’d take Obama’s failings over Bill’s.  And I’d take both of theirs over those of Obama’s predecessor.  But these seem to me real—or at least imaginable—choices.  Just as Obama/Perry or Obama/Romney is an imaginable choice.  The choice between Obama and some unnamed person who would somehow tame Wall Street, neuter the Republicans, and defeat the corrupting power of money and lobbyists does not seem like a real choice to me, and because it’s not real, it’s potentially dangerous.

If I have hope for Obama’s reelection and his chances of making headway against the Republicans, it’s not because of the eloquence and fire that everyone agrees he summoned again last night.  The eloquence wasn’t what won him the election, though it certainly helped.  It was his ability to take the long view, to see the separate skirmishes as part of an overarching narrative.  He managed to squeak by with this strategy on the health care bill.  Who knows?  He may squeak by again on his newest proposal.

But if he doesn’t we should not be standing on the sidelines, arms chummily linked with Mitch McConnell, dismissing the game as unwinnable from the start.  We should be worrying, deeply, over what happens when the game is lost.