Archive for the ‘news’ Category

Letter to Delta

Tuesday, June 13th, 2017

Below is my letter to the CEO of Delta Air Lines regarding the Julius Caesar controversy:

June 12, 2017

Edward H. Bastian

Delta Air Lines, Inc.
P.O. Box 20706
Atlanta, Georgia 30320-6001

Dear Mr. Bastian,

I recently flew back from Rome on Delta and remembered again how much I enjoy your airline’s calm, efficient service. I will have difficulty flying Delta again, however, unless it reinstates its sponsorship of New York’s Public Theater.

I understand you’re in a difficult position. People like me won’t fly Delta because you withdrew support. Others won’t if you continue your support. But the stakes here are much higher than which set of customers you lose.

Support of the arts entails grave responsibility. When you bow to loud voices and withdraw funding from an arts organization, you give those voices a power to silence that goes beyond one production of Julius Caesar. You send a message to arts organizations around the country that if they take on controversial material they risk losing funding. You’re not required to fund the arts, but if you do, you need to think carefully about the consequences of your decisions. Here you’re allowing one very vocal group to dictate how the arts are allowed to speak.

I applaud your past support of the Public Theater, one of New York’s most important arts institutions. I understand that the current controversy has tested that support, but it seems to me that it requires a response not just more courageous, but more nuanced: a ringing endorsement of freedom of expression tempered with an understanding of art’s complexity. As many others have pointed out, Julius Caesar is a play in which assassination and political faction plunge a nation into chaos. Of the assassins, the one with the most “noble” motives ends up physically and morally destroyed. Forcing us to engage with that kind of complexity is one of the most important things that art does. Those railing against the Public’s production seek to reduce that complexity, which should worry us whatever side of the political spectrum it’s coming from.

As I say, it’s a difficult position for an airline to be in, but I believe you should come down firmly on the side of complexity.

Sincerely,

David Foley

 

I Like Hillary

Tuesday, July 26th, 2016

“I like Hillary,” I said to some friends over lunch last Christmas Eve.

“What do you like about her?” one asked.

I shrugged. “I don’t know.”

I did know, more or less, but my reasons weren’t going to stand up long in the conversation we were having. We were having a conversation in which a dear friend had just suggested that Hillary, once elected, would turn Social Security over to Wall Street. My reasons for liking Hillary weren’t going to stand up to that, and they’re not going to stand up to all the what-abouts I can hear ringing in my ears as I type: what about Libya? Goldman Sachs? The Clinton Foundation? Welfare reform? I have only an impression to offer in return. Having followed Clinton’s career for 25 years, I’ve formed the impression that she’s smart, tough, hard-working, deeply informed, compassionate, and funny. She has some less attractive qualities, but who doesn’t?

Since this impression is essentially apolitical—it doesn’t take a stand on this or that issue—it may be unimportant, or worse, a distraction. Who cares if she’s funny if she invades Syria? And yet arguments about Hillary keep falling into the realm of impression. “The lesser of two evils is still evil,” began a typical comment on a recent New York Times op-ed. “Hillary Clinton has proven herself to be totally corrupt” appeared today in response to a David Brooks column. The idea that Hillary is not just wrong, but evil and corrupt, a power-hungry robot destroying everything in her path, has become a cherished truism of both the left and right. Elements of this portrait fly in the face of fact. Critics describe her as “entitled,” waiting for her “coronation,” but her worst enemy will tell you she works like a dog. How is that entitlement? Unless you mean that coming within an ace of winning the 2008 primary entitled her to serious consideration in 2016.

It worries me to hear this smart, capable woman described in terms usually reserved for comic book villainesses or the wives of Scottish thanes. She’s ambitious. Presidential candidates usually are. It’s hard not to catch a whiff of misogyny in the ways she gets caricatured. Would an ambitious man be reduced to hunger for power, all other attributes falling away?

Here’s why this matters: I’ve begun more and more to believe that you can’t do anything about a problem if you can’t describe it accurately. This may seem obvious, but after eight years of Obama, I’m not so sure. Within a few months of his election, I began to feel that I was living in a different country from the one his critics occupied. In the country I lived in, there was an opposition party devoted to obstructing not just the president but any reality-based analysis of the problems that threatened us, whether gun violence or climate change. In the country I lived in, a rabid right-wing commentariat was branding the president a tyrannical Kenyan Maoist bent on destroying America. In the country I lived in, the president’s more progressive ideas—the public option, the jobs bill—were widely understood not to have a snowball’s chance in hell, given opposition that ranged from the craven to the virulent. His critics on the left, however, appeared to be living in a country led by a “corporate hack” who never intended to fulfill his promises because he was secretly on the side of the war-mongers and the investment bankers. At the Glenn Greenwaldian extremes of this argument, he was no different from or even worse than the Republicans.

I’m not saying that there aren’t principled reasons to oppose Clinton or Obama on the issues, but much of what I was hearing, and have been hearing in the last months, falls into the category of magical thinking. Sanders will do what Obama was supposed to do: transform a rigged system through the magical power of his convictions. Again, it’s a problem of naming the problem. If Obama is a corrupt tool of a rigged system, then electing a Sanders or a Trump might do an end run around the system. Shake it up, as supporters of both men said. But if the system has been hijacked by a party increasingly dedicated to know-nothingism and intransigence, then those end runs will keep running into stubborn blocks. And Obama’s accomplishments, which have required not so much end runs as steady determination, start to look pretty good.

When we describe complex problems in storybook terms—villains and saviors, evil queens and Manchurian candidates—we lose our ability to deal with them, and we play into the hands of the other guy, whose great gift is reducing complex problems to fantasy novel tropes. These are problems, he assured us last Thursday, that he “alone” would solve “fast,” (though we might note that this is the language of the villain in a fantasy novel. Frodo accomplishes nothing fast or alone.)

I’d like to think that his speech on Thursday shook everyone out of their complacency. The bellowing strongman claiming to be the people’s “voice” has never come so close to the center of American politics. Surely everyone now could see the stakes involved.

But I worry.

Thursday afternoon I was visiting my parents, who live in a building where the demographic skews old. In the elevator, a woman I didn’t know asked me if I’d been following the convention. I said I’d caught the end of Ted Cruz’s speech.

“Unbelievable,” she said. “Dump—I call him Dump—how could anyone take him seriously?”

“It’s pretty amazing,” I agreed.

“But the other one,” she said. “She’s such a liar.”

“Oh, I think she gets a bad rap.”

We were now standing in the lobby. She shook her head. “You don’t know what to do.”

“Not me,” I said. “I’m voting for the smart woman.”

Shakespearing at The Drunken Odyssey

Monday, June 30th, 2014

Riverside 2 smallWhat began as a summer project and now looks as if it will take me into next spring has recently made its debut on John King’s website, The Drunken Odyssey. For reasons I explain in the first post, I’ve been reading all of Shakespeare’s plays in (presumed) order of composition and writing 600-word blog posts about them, starting with Henry VI, Part 1. As I write, I’m five plays ahead of the postings, which means I just finished Titus Andronicus. So far its been a great summer adventure of reading, responding, and writing.

Reading Titus Andronicus, which is supposed to have been partly written by George Peele, I was reminded of something I wrote a while back about Shakespeare’s relationship to the “university wits.” It was part of a longer piece (well, rant) about the effect of college playwriting programs on the kinds of plays we were seeing, but the Shakespeare stuff is here:

In a way, it’s an old story. Shakespeare was condescended to by the University Wits, Jonson, even in encomium, slighting his “small Latin and less Greek.” It is an indignity from which he still suffers. One of the oddest arguments of the anti-Stratfordians is that he couldn’t have written his plays because he didn’t go to university. This seems to me such a coarse misunderstanding of the sources of art in general and playwriting in particular as to overleap all but the most high-flying of the absurdities by which that curious faith is promulgated. And in light of what I’ve been discussing it seems just about exactly untrue. Isn’t there, to Jonson and even to Marlowe, a sheen of the academy, which would detract from Shakespeare’s unruly engagement with life as it is lived, as it is felt, as it is endured? Isn’t it possible that Shakespeare was better spared the university?

Here’s a story I love about Shakespeare. Many years after Shakespeare’s death, Jonson delivered another of his left-handed panegyrics. While avowing that he loved Shakespeare “this side idolatry,” he throws in, “Many times he fell into those things could not escape laughter: as when he said in the person of Caesar, one speaking to him, ‘Caesar, thou dost me wrong,’ he replied ‘Caesar did never wrong, but with just cause,’ and such like, which were ridiculous.”

Imagine it. It’s opening night of Julius Caesar, and here’s Jonson congratulating Shakespeare in the time-honored manner of rival playwrights. Jonson says whatever is the Elizabethan equivalent of “Really, really interesting, Will,” and then slips in his, “Oh, by the way…” And Shakespeare, irritated and abashed, sensitive about his lack of a university education as he is about his doubtful coat of arms, inwardly resolves to change the line. As he apparently did, at least if Jonson is quoting him correctly, since it has come down to us in different form.

But, of course, Jonson was wrong. Yes, the line is a rhetorical absurdity, a flagrant violation of whatever Elements of Style Cambridge was circulating at the time. But it is the line’s queasy failure to mean that captures the casual corruption of political speech. It leaps the centuries. Who in this year, this week in the life of the ailing American experiment can fail to recognize the rhetorical slippage whereby a leader never does wrong but with just cause? When we speak of the genius of Shakespeare, this is what we’re talking about. And it’s not something easily taught or even nurtured at the conservatory.

Help Kickstart a Film About the San Antonio Four

Monday, July 1st, 2013

SanAnt4Many of you have read my posts about the Jesse Friedman case. The San Antonio Four are four Latina lesbians who were similarly targeted with false allegations of sexual abuse, in a case driven by misogyny and homophobia. Three of them are still in prison fighting for release, while the fourth, out on parole, is a registered sex offender. Deborah Esquenazi is making a documentary about their case. The film’s Kickstarter campaign has one more day to raise $15,000. They’re about $850 away from that total. If they don’t make their total by tomorrow evening, they don’t get any of the money. Please consider making a pledge.

Summer Beach Reading

Sunday, June 30th, 2013

OK, summer’s here, and it’s Gay Pride day, and now the Supreme Court says everyone (well, 30% of everyone) can marry the person of their gender preference. What better time to pick up a sweet gay travel romance for some summer beach reading? Now you can get my novel The Traveler’s Companion in e-book or paperback.

The easiest source is Amazon, but if you’re looking for alternative file formats, try Smashwords.

And to prove that it’s perfect beach reading, here’s a beach scene set in Venice:

lidoWhen Lint and Ricka and Klaus have gone off to the nude beach, I feel a tiny regret at not having gone along, not least because my cowardice has left me just here, lying between Philip and Antonio who are as glistening and uncommunicative as fish at a market stall. I take out my book and start to read but can’t concentrate. I glance again at my companions. Philip may or may not be sleeping, but he has achieved in repose the stillness and symmetry of the effigy on a Medieval sepulcher. Antonio must be asleep. His lips move, and every now and then a murmur escapes them. My eyes travel down his chest, lightly dusted with dark hair, along his narrow waist, to the tiny black swimsuit. He moves suddenly, and I glance away. But he has only shifted in his sleep.

I get up, walk down to the water, and wade in. The water is warm, with a lingering odor of the canals. A hundred tourists and Italian holidaymakers splash around me. I wade out past the crowd and begin to swim until I am rather far out. Around me the sea is a glittering disk with the sky domed above it and, at its rim, a crescent of sand dotted with colored moving forms. I float on my back and let the sun bake my face. Then with slow strokes I make my way back to shore. As I stand up and wade through the crowd, I hear my name called.

“Mark!”

I look around. Off to my left, Francesco stands at the edge of the water. I wave and wade towards him.

“How are you?” he calls.

“Fine, and you?” I shout back.

I have the disconcerting sensation that, like the hero of a children’s story who steps magically into a picture book or a painting, I have walked into a Vogue Uomo spread. If Francesco was beautiful in the lovely setting of his garden, he is stunning here, set against the sea and sand, with the breeze sifting through his honey-colored hair. He seems taller than I remembered, or perhaps it’s just that, in his snugly fitting bathing suit, there seems so much more of him and all of it perfectly shaped and tanned. The rest of us, duller and plainer and all too recognizably human, fade into background detail. I fold my arms across my chest and squint up at him, finding my skinny, pale form reflected in his sunglasses.

He smiles. “A beautiful day.”

“Yes,” I agree. “Are you going swimming?”

He casts a finical glance at the water. “The water is dirty here,” he says making me feel all at once coated in grime. “There are nicer beaches to swim.”

I wonder if he means Lint and Ricka’s beach, then have a quick image of Francesco striding naked down the beach with everyone gazing in hushed appreciation as if royalty were passing.

“Thanks for dinner the other night,” I tell him. “It was really great. Do you cook a lot?”

“Yes,” he seems pleased that I’ve asked. “I like to cook very much. I would like to open a restaurant some day.”

“Here?”

“New York. I love New York. I must convince Adam. He does not want to return to America.”

“Well, it’s a big country,” I say, wondering what I could mean by such a pointless remark.

“Yes,” he agrees. “I love it. You liked to meet Adam?” he goes on.

“Very much. He’s very nice.”

“He is very intelligent. He talks all the time.” He laughs and flutters his fingers against his thumb to indicate constant talking. “Sometimes I just let him talk. He likes to talk. I let him.”

It strikes me as a pity that Adam should have a lover who doesn’t like to hear him talk and wants to go to New York when Adam wants to stay in Italy. But, I tell myself cynically, his other charms must more than compensate.

I’m searching for my next trivial remark when I look up to see Antonio coming down the beach. I start to wave, but he stops and seems to hesitate. Francesco follows my gaze and calls out, “Ciao! Come stai?

Antonio, reluctantly it seems, moves towards us. He nods briefly at Francesco. “Come stai?” They talk in Italian for a few minutes, Francesco smiling pleasantly and Antonio appearing to give brief, unwilling answers. Finally Francesco, with a smile at me, moves off. “We see you soon?” he calls as he moves away.

“I hope so.” I watch his tanned, well-shaped back disappear into the crowd, then turn to Antonio who, I’m surprised to notice, is looking remarkably discomposed. Even with the dark glasses he’s having trouble meeting my eyes, and he may be blushing.

“How do you know Francesco?” I ask.

“I see him, you know, in the city.”

“Do you know him well?”

“No, not at all.”

“I guess that’s a coincidence, that we both know him.”

He shrugs. “Venice is not a large place. You know him well?” he asks.

“I just met him the other night. He’s a friend of—he lives with this guy—a friend of my sister’s.”

“And you like him?”

“He seems very nice.”

“Yes, he is very nice.” He hits the words with a mocking lilt, as if he’s only mimicking my accent again. With his eyes hidden behind his sunglasses, any other meaning is impossible to guess. “We must wake Philip,” he says. “He will burn.”

Powerful Delusions

Friday, June 28th, 2013

Shortly after Capturing the Friedmans came out, I was on a bus and overheard two people behind me discussing the film. “They were creeps!” they said, referring to Jesse and his father. “They were so guilty!”

I was stunned because I thought the film, though deliberately ambiguous, portrayed a clear miscarriage of justice. But I realized that the miscarriage of justice was probably clearer to someone who had studied other such cases and recognized the patterns. My fear is that, by the same token, my recent posting might be unpersuasive to people who don’t know the history and theory of the day care cases. And it occurs to me that I might be able to explain the problems with the Jesse Friedman case in a way that doesn’t require special knowledge. So:

When I began to research the Bernard Baran case, I quickly realized that there were only two possible theories of the case: either Bernard Baran had committed crimes of horrific depravity against vulnerable children or he had spent half his life in prison for something that never happened. (You might argue that a third theory is possible, one that splits the difference. Sure. You just have to make sure it’s a real theory and not a cop-out. If you find yourself saying, “Well, something must have happened,” you don’t have a theory. You have an evasion.)

All theories, of course, are provisional. A theory is good only as long as it continues to adequately explain the known facts. In this light, though, a heavy burden is on the prosecutors in the Jesse Friedman case. They have to explain:

…how it was possible for so many students to be repeatedly abused in a classroom without anyone noticing anything amiss

…why other students in the classroom claim never to have witnessed the abuse, which was supposed to have happened in “plain view”

…why some of the accusers now say that nothing happened, but describe instead intense pressure from investigators to say it did

…how it is possible to know whether any of the accusations were true if some of them were clearly fantastic (anal sex leapfrog?)

…how this case is different from other cases which, operating on the same assumptions and pursuing the same methods, have since been discredited

The theory that most adequately explains all of the above is the theory advanced by Jesse’s supporters: that Jesse and his father were victims of the same kind of hysteria-driven witch hunt that played out in the McMartin case, the Amirault case, the Kelly Michaels case, the Wenatchee case, the Little Rascals case, the…. well, you get the idea. Regarding the largest explanatory burden placed on Jesse’s defenders—why would the kids make these accusations if none of it was true?—they can simply state, “It happened all the time,” and adduce as evidence McMartin, Amirault, Michaels, Wenatchee, etc. (Another part of the explanatory burden is the guilty pleas. For those, I refer you to Jesse’s account.)

As I suggested in my post, the news accounts of the report, instead of providing solid refutation of the defense’s theory, offer random bits of information of the kind that all criminal cases throw up. So we get an uncle who now claims that Arnold Friedman confessed to him years ago; Jesse’s own trial psychiatrist calling him a “psychopathic deviant”; two sexually related infractions on Jesse’s prison record. The problem with these random bits of information is that they don’t do anything to address the difficulties I’ve outlined above. They don’t make the prosecution’s theory of the case any likelier. Indeed, they seem like diversionary flares sent up to distract people from the weaknesses of that theory.

It’s characteristic of such random bits of information that they can be hard to pin down. Who is this uncle? When did he make this revelation? Why did he wait so long to make it? Is he lying? Crazy? Misremembering? If he’s remembering accurately, what did Arnold actually say? Why? What was his state of mind? (Free answer: not good.)

The day care cases were built on just such random bits of information, information that sounded shocking, but was difficult to place in any concrete way. The Bernard Baran case began when a mother claimed that, while giving her four-year-old son a bath, she saw blood coming from his penis. The boy, she claimed, said Bernie had touched it. Quite disturbing, but on the other hand, huh? The child had not been in the day care center for several days. What could Bernie have done on Monday to make a child’s penis bleed on Thursday? For that matter, what would you actually do to a child’s penis to make it bleed? (It doesn’t help that this mother was not, um, the most trustworthy person in the world.)

Of course it’s shocking to think that Great Neck children might have been sexually abused in their after-school computer class, but how did it happen in real world terms? You’ve got to be able to at least imagine a where, when, and how. The problem with the day care cases was that the efforts made to pin any of this down produced only wilder and woolier accusations, until you ended up with anal sex leapfrog. (See page 10 of my Baran piece if you want to know how crazy things got in that case.)

I was asked the other night what draws me to these cases. I think it’s the toxic interplay of irrationality and injustice. I’ve always been fascinated by human irrationality. When I was in high school, I wrote a report on theories that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays. It changed how I viewed the world. It had never occurred to me before that people believe in spite of evidence and logic, that they marshal evidence and logic at the service of belief, the belief itself being overpowering, world-shaping, self-justifying, whether it’s the belief that the Earl of Oxford wrote Hamlet or that a monster has been loose in the local day care center. Perhaps for this reason, the district attorney’s “impartial analysis” was no more likely to find Jesse innocent than a council of Mormons would be likely, after impartial analysis, to acknowledge the golden plates as one of Joseph Smith’s more charming flights of fancy.

Such beliefs can be harmless but they can also be immensely destructive, and this is why I’ve never been happy with the epistemological shrug (can we ever really know what’s true?). It might not matter whether Shakespeare wrote his plays, but it matters that Bernard Baran spent 21 years in prison, that Jesse Friedman is still a registered sex offender, and that three of four women in Texas are still imprisoned nearly twenty years after becoming targets of the same kind of self-justifying delusions.

The district attorney’s report revealed once again how depressingly difficult it is to break through the walls of those delusions. What makes it difficult is that these delusions are ultimately about power; they reinforce and protect power, and to give them up is to yield power. The power of delusion is that it can shape not just facts but people to its will, which is how a gay day care worker can become a sex fiend and a suburban teenager a “psychopathic deviant.” Another reason that the DA’s office was unlikely to clear Jesse Friedman is that it would have deprived them of their power to tell him who he is.

Jesse Friedman

Wednesday, June 26th, 2013

I first met Jesse Friedman in February 2002, a little over a year before Capturing the Friedmans came out. He’d just got out of prison, and friends from Boston asked me to look him up because he was living in New York and didn’t know anyone. My friends thought I’d be a good person for Jesse to know because I’d been working with them on a project I was developing: a screenplay about Bernard (“Bee”) Baran. Like Jesse, Bee had been ensnared in one of the sex panic cases of the 1980s. Convicted of raping five children at a daycare center, he had, at the time, been in prison for 17 years, though his conviction would be overturned four years later. (I’ve written about Bee here.)

Jesse’s case was a different story. I first heard about it from Debbie Nathan when I interviewed her for the Baran project. Debbie’s incisive investigative articles for the Village Voice were what first got me interested in the day care scandals, yet she told me she’d initially been leery when Jesse reached out to her. Not only had he and his father both confessed, but Jesse repeated his confession on Geraldo. Moreover, Arnold Friedman actually was a pedophile. The case began when police recovered child pornography from their suburban home.

But the patterns were the same. No sign of any problem until an investigation was sparked. Children making accusations only after repeated, often coercive questioning. Increasingly improbable scenarios of abuse. And, among the investigators, the moral fervor of priests performing an exorcism.

Oh, and one more thing: an absolute refusal on the part of prosecutors to admit that mistakes were made, no matter how many years had passed or how high an accumulation of evidence they had to ignore.

Hence, presumably, the report from the Nassau County District Attorney’s office which on Monday upheld, after conducting an “impartial analysis” of a three-year investigation, “the integrity of Jesse Friedman’s guilty plea, and his adjudication as a sex offender.”

I haven’t read the report, but what’s appeared in news accounts seems to reflect a problematic combination of outraged authority and insufficient curiosity. The outraged authority can be heard in the claim that Jesse “remained quiet” about his innocence until the movie came out. He didn’t. (See above.) Indeed the report directs a certain amount of animus at the film, as if it were the film and not an excoriating court decision that made the re-investigation unavoidable. There is also outraged authority in the random bits of character assassination that at least the news reports are supplying in lieu of solid refutation: an uncle’s belated revelation, a psychiatrist’s report, Jesse’s prison infractions.

The insufficient curiosity, though, is more troubling. The report claims that the Friedman case is “in no way similar” to other notorious sex abuse cases of the 80s. That’s not true. The similarities are striking. You can argue that, despite those similarities, Jesse was guilty, but to claim that the case is “in no way similar” is to confess that you haven’t studied those cases with any understanding. To substantiate the supposed lack of similarity, the report asserts that, unlike in the McMartin preschool case, the children in Great Neck were older and their accusations emerged quickly. But the other half of the sex panics of the 80s and 90s consisted of adults recovering memories of lurid, often satanic abuse, so there’s no age limit on the manipulation of memory. As for the swiftness with which the accusations emerged, Bernard Baran went from first accusation to conviction in four months; the initial accusation was followed by a second within hours.

Perhaps the most chilling insight into the re-investigation comes from a Times article that appeared ten days ago. Someone speaking anonymously from inside the investigation claims that “the most compelling evidence was the level of specificity and detail in the children’s accounts, which was beyond what a child could have come up with on his own.” Maybe you have to have spent as much time in the thickets of the day care cases as I have to feel the special horror of that claim. It was a claim made repeatedly back in the day. The children could not possibly have come up with such graphic details unless they’d actually experienced them. And, repeatedly, when transcripts of the children’s interviews were available, it was revealed that the details were supplied by the adults interviewing them. The statement suggests an investigation frozen in time, unable to give up (or insufficiently curious about the problems with) the discredited thinking of 1988.

There are other signs that the investigators did not consider the history of the daycare cases to be part of their investigative bailiwick. The report includes a list of “symptoms” that the children were said to be experiencing as a result of the abuse. You don’t have to have read up too much on the sex panic cases to know that exactly such vague, generic lists were used to diagnose abuse, whether of a child at a day care center or of an adult seeking help with emotional difficulties. If those lists are symptoms of anything, they’re symptoms of a sex panic.

In one way, the report is not surprising. The day care center cases were about belief, and it’s hard to penetrate a belief system. The fact that these particular belief systems are shored up by considerations both political (people’s careers are at stake) and personal (who wants to acknowledge that they ruined someone’s life?) only makes them more resistant to outside analysis.

And yet that resistance brings with it a moral calcification, which, in the report, finds expression in some high-handed verbal overkill. At one point, the authors declare that Jesse was “a maker of his own destiny.” Jesse may have made some bad decisions, but he made them in horrifically difficult circumstances. When he pleaded guilty in exchange for a reduced sentence, he was being charged with 243 counts of child sexual abuse and facing a lifetime in prison. It takes a certain kind of moral obtuseness to call that making your own destiny.

But the day care cases were always notable for missing the human context, for failing to recognize that everything is tied to human circumstance. Yes, it always needs to be asserted, sexual abuse happens, but it happens within a recognizable human context. In the day care cases, sexual abuse was assumed to happen outside that context: in a busy day care center with parents coming in and out, in a computer class to which students happily returned week after week. It happened in defiance of temporal, physical, and psychological constraints. And where justice has been achieved in the day care cases, it has required a return to human understanding, a painstaking investigation of how things happen in human terms.

I suspect that when Kathleen Rice, the district attorney, congratulates herself on the “impartial analysis” of her report, she’s actually describing a failure of human understanding.

Against Liberty

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

“Liberty” is a word that can send you crawling for cover these days. It comes armed and angry. Here’s a radio host in Minnesota addressing the victims of gun violence: “I’m sorry that you suffered a tragedy, but you know what? Deal with it, and don’t force me to lose my liberty, which is a greater tragedy than your loss.”

It’s the “my” in that sentence that gives the word its particular curdling quality.

We should love liberty—the word, I mean. Growing up I spent a lot of time hanging out at the Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers, and everyone understood, because we were from Massachusetts, that the name referred to the famous Boston Liberty Tree around which American patriots rallied before the Revolution, just as we understood that Patriots Day commemorated Paul Revere’s Ride and the Battle of Lexington and Concord. We were used to thinking of our state as the birthplace of American liberty.

Few who use the word liberty these days would associate it with Massachusetts. Liberty is not about same-sex marriage or universal health care. Indeed liberty seems mostly opposed to both, unless you catch a particular brand of libertarian who would reject the second but accept the first on the grounds that the state should stay out of marriage altogether.

Liberty, in its current usage, has a troubled relationship with the word freedom. It entirely lops off the second half of FDR’s four freedoms—freedom from want and freedom from fear—and is fitfully suspicious of the first two—freedom of speech and freedom of worship. (If you don’t believe me, try building a mosque in liberty’s neighborhood.) But then, you know, that’s FDR, from whose tyrannical legacy the liberty-lovers have long sought to be liberated.

Perhaps FDR was trying, as Obama still tries, to put the “our” in freedom, to remind us that we cannot separate the terms in the phrase “a free society.” The reach of that “our” is what liberty seeks to limit. For this reason, liberty, even in its American Revolutionary sense, is not in and of itself a good. The two brothers who attacked Boston on Patriots Day may have had more claim to the word liberty than the people they harmed. Incoherently, pointlessly, savagely, they were striking a blow for the liberation of Chechnya from Russia’s hegemonic power or Muslims from Westerners, as we did with Britain, as the South strove to do for the North, as latter-day patriots seek to do with the tyrannical power of the federal government. Liberty, in this sense, has no obvious inherent value. It might be a good, it might not.

What matters is what happens after liberty. What matters is freedom. Who believes that the South would have been a freer place if it had managed to secure its independence from the North? Who believes that America would be a freer place if our Minnesota radio host got his way? Freedom is a project and a difficult one. It requires many hands. Perhaps the Tsarnaev brothers inadvertently left us with an image of liberty and freedom: the isolated blow for liberty followed by the many-handed multitude working together to protect and secure their freedom.

Self-Publishing Journal #6: Print!

Sunday, April 7th, 2013

There is now an actual physical version of THE TRAVELER’S COMPANION, available through Amazon. The cover is (once again) designed by Bruce Goldstone.

You can still, of course, buy it as an e-book for your Kindle or Nook. The Kindle app allows you to read e-books on your tablet, smartphone, or laptop. (I know I’m supposed to like real books best [and I do, I do!], but as a new iPhone owner I’ve lately discovered the convenience of reading books on my phone on the subway.) The book is also available at Smashwords in various formats, including a PDF file.

I’ll also be at the Rainbow Book Fair on Saturday, April 13th. I’ll have some copies of the print edition on sale, and I’ll be reading a short excerpt from the novel, at about 12:30. Come by and see me!

Mysteries

Sunday, December 16th, 2012

OK, so it’s late. And I’ve been spent way too much time today following the news from Connecticut. And I’ve scrolled down the Facebook feed and read one too many comments along the lines of “guns don’t kill people, people do” or “why must we exploit this tragedy by talking about guns?” And it was probably a mistake to read in the Times the latest from Ross Douthat, with whom I’ve taken issue before.

But really.

Douthat has taken upon himself to understand the tragedy for us. Turns out it’s a matter of evil and suffering. Which are mysteries. He cites The Brothers Karamazov (a novel which, you’ll be glad to learn, is “famous”). He thinks that Ivan Karamazov might actually have a point when he accepts “that the Christian story of free will leading to suffering and then eventually redemption might be true, but rejects its Author anyway, on the grounds that the price of our freedom is too high.” (The price of freedom, in this case, seems to be 20 dead children.) He reminds us, at this festive season, that behind the Christmas story lie “[t]he rage of Herod” and “the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — the shadow of violence, agony and death.” And these great and awful mysteries, he’s willing to allow, test our faith.

The last time I took issue with Douthat, I noted the “circularity” of his mind-set, the way “a certain type of mind veers helplessly towards systems—self-enclosed, self-perpetuating systems.” And the system is on full display here. He seems quite pleased that he has come to this understanding for us, that he has been able to construct from the horror his tone poem on the mystery of evil.

And I’m willing to believe the thing is mysterious. It’s occurred to me more than once today that we should understand these tragedies better by now. The pattern is familiar. We should have some way of analyzing it, of being able to name the pathologies that produce these acts if not to prevent them from happening. But, no matter how many times they happen, something about them remains opaque.

So, yes, there are mysteries here, but cosmic they’re not.

Because there are facts. The rate of gun deaths per 100,000 people in the U.S. (9.0) makes us twelfth in the world, ahead of South Africa but behind Montenegro. Our murder rate (4.2) is comfortably small compared to Brazil (21.0) or, God forbid, Honduras (91.6). But it’s several times the rate of other developed democracies: France (1.1), Italy (0.9), Japan (0.3). We’re also behind Morocco (1.4), Lebanon (2.2), and Afghanistan (2.4).

The most obvious reason for this is the unrestricted availability of guns. There are more than 200 million privately owned guns in America, and many of them are capable of such rapid, repeated deadly force as most of us, short of an alien invasion, will never need. So that’s part of it. And maybe, too, we should consider the political climate of the past several years in which the collectivist impulse was consistently construed as something the other guy was trying to take from you. Along with your guns.

But whatever. All those things can be discussed. Indeed they need to be discussed. And to shrug Friday’s tragedy off as part of God’s unfathomable ways is, to quote myself again, “another example of what [religion] can sometimes do to your moral sense.”