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Dorner as the paragon of our violent culture

A cop who feels he was wrongly fired to cover up brutality in the LAPD goes on a murderous rampage, targeting cops and their loved ones in an act of revenge and to bring light to the corruption of the force. Sounds like a Hollywood plot, right? It is of course the true story of Christopher Dorner, which played out dramatically in the media earlier this month.

But in a way it is a Hollywood plot. A one-man army going outside the law to seek justice is a common trope in action flicks, and Dorner's saga generated comparisons with Rambo and Falling Down, among others, in the media. He was the so-called "chaotic good" agent, doing what was necessary to confront the corrupt powers-that-be. So it was a tragedy that was almost bound to happen due to how our culture celebrates violence.

Clearly the LAPD and big-city police forces in general have an image problem. When the public was exposed to Dorner's claim that he was fired in retaliation for reporting policy brutality, it was widely accepted as probable. People were commenting that for once, the madman's manifesto actually made some sense.

In the course of the manhunt police lived up to the caricature, twice shooting at innocent people who happened to be driving pickup trucks, and deploying their increasingly-militarized arsenal against Dorner, including aerial drones. In the inevitable final shoot-out, Dorner took his own life rather than suffer the flames ignited by the police's incendiary grenades.

With Dorner appealing to cultural hero narratives and the police fulfilling a cartoonish expectation of brutality, it was no surprise that we started seeing the following headline: "Dorner has supporters in social media." That is, many people had come to root for Dorner and were expressing those sentiments in public on the internet. Now some people I think were just expressing sympathy for Dorner's firing, saying that they find his totally-believable story to be credible. But still others seemed to support the rampage itself.

Dorner was the worst sort of criminal - a cold-blooded killer. His attacks targeted not only police officers, but their family members as well. So there should be no respect for his actions, whatsoever. To me it is insane to think that a shooting rampage is a just protest against policy brutality. I know many, if not most people in the US would agree with that.

Yet in our culture, violence is portrayed as the ultimate embodiment of justice. In Hollywood works, and law enforcement, and politics, and foreign policy, it is the redemptive force which brings about good in the end. In so many cases it is the climactic gunshot or fist fight or cruise missile which wraps the story and gives closure to the plot.

So when the socially legitimate violence of the police is undermined, I am not surprised that some people would view Dorner's violence as justified. After all, violence is necessary to achieve good, and if the police are abusing it, somebody should set things right with a gun, right?

Of course not. Escalating police violence is a real problem in this country. We need to decrease the militarized nature of the police, lower overall violence, and increase consequences for the improper use of force. But those need to be achieved through peaceful and lawful means, not through a psychotic rampage. If Dorner has any legacy, it should be to show that our culture is too sympathetic to violence, and that this needs to be corrected.

Hungry for violence

Today my wife and I viewed the film version of The Hunger Games, first in a popular trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins. The premise is quite disturbing - outlying territories of a future North American empire are forced to offer up 12-through-18-year-old children as "tributes" to fight to the death in an arena. This is continuing punishment for the territories' past rebellion. And the entire twisted affair is broadcast for the delight of the imperial society. It is the Roman gladiatorial games meets reality television, or perhaps a sick twist on The Truman Show.

My desire for the characters to survive without being corrupted by their situation drives my appreciation of this story. I recommend it, in spite of it being tough to read and watch. What makes the story most wrenching for me is that this hopeless, senseless bloodbath is perpetrated by children against children. Both in reading the book and watching the film, I felt a sense of dread as the prospect of such violence neared. I think most adults (especially parents!) feel similarly.

However "young adult" children are the target audience both of the books and the movie. I fear that the maturity of some may be lacking to understand the significance of the story. Case in point: I heard a few laughs burst from high-school-aged boys in the theater during some of the brutal killings depicted in the film.

Now do not get the impression that I am wholly opposed to the depiction of violence in the arts. I think at times it is necessary to tell a certain story, or convey a poignant message to the audience. Yet the default purpose of violence in media is entertainment, or worse: glorification.

We as a society are sensitive to violence in the media, though it can be somewhat confused. This past week I saw dueling headlines, some questioning whether The Hunger Games was too violent for its target audience, others alleging that fans may be upset because toned-down violence in the film lacks fidelity with the book.

I find no wonder that our society has these confused views on violence. After all, the same nation which celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day also celebrates numerous military holidays. Shocked by the concept of sending eighteen-year-olds to kill sixteen-year-olds? The same could be a characterization of our battles against the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq. Polite company may hem and haw at children playing violent video games or seeing depictions of war in film, but they constantly inform them of the necessity of such violence.

A fitting distillation of this contradiction is embodied in a hallway in the Portland VA Medical Center which hails the service of noteworthy underage military personnel. "Sorry son, you're too young to enlist, so just go play America's Army for now. But if you do manage to sneak in, we're going to make a star out of you." See? Confusion.

The Trayvon Martin scandal provides another opportunity to consider our nation's attitudes towards violence. I will focus here not on the case itself, but on the so-called "stand your ground" laws which came to my attention as a result. To quote the relevant portion of the pertinent Florida law:

a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if: He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony;

I am of course no legal expert, but these laws (which are on the books in twenty of these United States) seem to legalize dueling. I am only half joking about that. Deadly violence becomes the legally-justified first resort for those in conflict, and they need only claim their lives felt threatened to avoid judicial scrutiny.

I'll offer an alternative vision of "stand your ground:"

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the evildoer. But whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well. And if someone wants to sue you and to take your tunic, give him your coat also. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to the one who asks you, and do not reject the one who wants to borrow from you.

At a crucial point in The Hunger Games, the heroine perpetrates a crucial act of non-resistance with a fellow tribute. In so doing she defies and enrages the powers that be, which is the catalyst for the next phase of the story. We as Christians must strive to "stand our ground" and eschew violence. In this we challenge the prominence of violence in our present society and hopefully prevent the downfall into the depraved society depicted in the film.

Reasonable doubts about capital punishment

If you have not seen it already, see this exchange from a recent 2012 Republican presidential candidate debate:

(Texas Governor Rick Perry is questioned about the 234 executions which have occurred under his watch and the crowd applauds).

We cannot be very surprised by the audience's support for Perry on this issue, though I think it took an odd form as applause. Capital punishment has fairly significant popular support in the United States. Some states allow it, and some don't. Of those who allow it, some do not really actively execute death-row inmates. But Texas is the king of the death penalty.

The US finds itself in league with some strange partners in the use of capital punishment. We find ourselves in the company of North Korea, Libya, Zimbabwe, China, Iraq, and Iran. None of our traditional allies in Europe or Canada practice it, and many of the countries we regard as the most despicable do.

I know that the Declaration of Independence is not a binding legal document for the US. Still, it is the statement of the spirit of our republic, and many politicians invoke it. So I wonder how it could be true that "Life" is an "unalienable Right" where capital punishment is practiced. Let me be clear: I am not trying to portray the death penalty as a departure from our idealistic roots. The founders supported capital punishment in various forms. So there is some form of ideological hypocrisy there. Mostly I just want Americans to consider how the God-given, unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness relate to our current criminal justice system.

I found Perry's phrasing here interesting: "the ultimate justice." The word I was expected was "punishment," not "justice." I think it is useful to maintain a distinction between justice and punishment in our rhetoric. If the death penalty is carried out in error, it is the ultimate injustice. Rick Perry does not express doubts about 234 convictions, but I find it hard to believe that every single one of those condemned was truly guilty. That's a level of accuracy that is hard for humans to achieve in even the simplest matters.

Christianity has a mixed witness on capital punishment. I do not feel I can make an authoritative appeal to scripture or tradition one way or the other. So when I address the death penalty, I typically do so from the standpoint of reasonable doubt. I believe that the burden of proof for capital punishment should be higher than what can be delivered by our legal system. In other words, I never trust a judge and jury to get it right when the stakes are so high. We cannot afford to get it wrong.

I am surprised that more people do not distrust the government to make a life and death decision. So many people who are otherwise skeptical of government competence are supportive of an irreversible punishment. I think that is because most people never have to consider the possibility of a wrongful execution for themselves or their loved ones. But then cases like Troy Davis come along, and the media attention raised by them may help people to at least think about the issue.

The shame of prison violence

Allen Stanford was the victim of a beating and possible traumatic brain injurywhile in prison awaiting trial for a non-violent crime. He has been declared unfit to stand trial in the interim as a result of the beating.

There is so much to be ashamed about in this story, I'm not even sure where to start. How is it that someone who was being held without  bail was housed in the same area with violent convicts? Why does our justice system rely on privately operated prisons? A man who could still be declared not guilty in a court of law has nonetheless borne the de facto punishment of the prison system. That is not right.

And even if he were a convict, it will still not be right. I think our society has to rethink our justice system and its reliance on incarceration. Prisons are rarely a healthy place for rehabilitation nor even a safe place for segregation from society. Violence is regular, and criminals rarely provide a positive influence for one another. Additionally, our society has many laws (with mandatory minimum sentences), so an embarrassingly high proportion of our population is locked up at any given time. Are prisons really the solution to the problem of crime?

I think America has some mixed feelings about violence which play out in our criminal justice system. I sometimes wonder why corporal punishment is not accepted when so many other forms of violence are. In spite of our wars abroad, our torture at Guantanamo, and police violence which is rarely repudiated, you wouldn't guess that we would be squeamish about corporal punishment. Yet that is something which is not tolerated in modern criminal justice (except when prisoners inflict it upon each other), leaving incarceration as the prevalent form of punishment.

I am not advocating for corporal punishment, nor do I necessarily think I have better ideas for alternative punishments. I think prison violence needs to be stopped dead in its tracks, and I think a reformation of prisons (and the laws which put people in them), in conjunction with a reduction of their population, is the first step in the right direction. Our justice systems suffers from a crisis of legitimacy when punishments are dispensed ad hoc by the prison system itself.

Mammon Day

Today the American culture celebrates the apex of consumerism. People have been camping out on strip-mall sidewalks for the privilege of purchasing consumer goods which will be obsolete by this time next year. I myself am feeling the tug of shiny gadgets. Large televisions, gaming consoles, computers, phones, etc. I like that kind of stuff. Luckily I realize that I don't really use the shiny gadgets as much as in my imagination. Often I derive a great deal of pleasure in writing code on my tiny netbook. And who needs it, with a baby boy in the house?

I doubt any American needs to be told about the amazing levels of consumerism in our culture. I'd like to comment instead on how this consumerism has been tied to our national well-being. "Consumer confidence" is considered a crucial measure of the economy. In 2008 the Bush Administration and Democratic congress gave away free money to every tax-paying citizen in an attempt to "stimulate the economy." The news media will breathlessly report the sales figures from this weekend in an attempt to determine if we are turning the corner on this recession. Black Friday is part of our national meta-narrative. If we can just come together and spend enough, we will all get through this.

And it is true, to an extent. Our economy is greatly based on the consumption of frivolous goods. It seems a foolish way to organize a society, yet here we are. Consumerism is patriotic and essential for national happiness, or so we are told. I wonder how well the shiny gadgets will serve us in times of real trouble (not just the meta-troubles of capitalism).

I am doing my best to not bow down to Mammon today. It is counter-cultural. And truth be told, I find it very difficult.

Strange cohort of capital punishers

Gallup has released a new poll on American public opinion on the death penalty in cases of murder. Sixty-four percent of Americans favor the death penalty in general terms, and the recent trend is fairly flat. The last time that public opinion was against the death penalty was in the 1960s (you can see details in the charts published in the Gallup link).

Here is some interesting context flagged by Andrew Sullivan:

The use of the death penalty has been declining worldwide, with most of the known executions now carried out in five countries -- China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.

Now that is a strange cohort. These are four countries which are often associated with the phrase "human rights violations" within the US media. I am not aware of any case in which any of these nations is held up as an example to aspire to. Yet on this one issue, we are with them and against our friends.

And we are with them in a big way. Nearly two thirds of Americans support the death penalty, so its not just a partisan divide. I found a telling illustration of this in an article by CNN focusing on the jury in the case of a gruesome triple murder:

Jurors who convicted a man of three murders in a 2007 Connecticut home invasion and recommended he be put to death for his crimes said Tuesday that serving on the case changed their lives -- and took an emotional and sometimes physical toll.

"This has strengthened my faith," Paula Calzetta told In Session on the truTV network. "We all came together. It was amazing, how it worked out, and we came to the right decision. I know that this is, for me, God's plan, and I think I'm honored to be a part of that."

That is, the administration of the death penalty is, for at least some people, a spiritual experience. I am not particularly surprised by this sentiment. After all, America is a Christian nation, and many Christians in this nation support the death penalty insofar as it was instituted by divine command.

This is a difficult issue for believers. I think there is solid scriptural support both for the legitimacy and illegitimacy of capital punishment for Christians. I think a Lutheran "two kingdoms" theology is probably the easiest way to reconcile the fact that Jesus commanded us to turn the other cheek while Paul admonished us that government is right in executing God's judgment.

I have two inherently Christian objections to capital punishment. First, Jesus said "let he who is without sin cast the first stone." I'm aware of the textual controversy surrounding this passage, but I think it is irrelevant, since it is in the canon nonetheless. The point is that Jesus halted the judicially righteous and justified execution of a guilty person. Furthermore, he challenged those carrying out the sentence as hypocrites. There is an interesting interpretive question of whether he was challenging them on the grounds of the particular sin of adultery (i.e. "judge not lest ye be judged") or all sin in general. However, it seems unlikely that so many righteous stoners would implicitly admit to adultery by backing off, so I am going with the "all sin" interpretation. Capital punishment may be justifiable, but I can't carry it out. If I can't carry it out, I can't ask someone else to.

Secondly, capital punishment in our society lacks divine assurance. I don't care if the unanimous jury has 12 or 100 members - I don't trust that we can make a judgment accurate enough to warrant death. In Israel, it was apparently possible to appeal to divine wisdom for an answer on these matters. I know that was not the final standard in every capital case, but I think it is important.

Because of these reasons (along with some others), I do not support capital punishment in the United States. The perpetrators of that terrible crime in Connecticut deserve death, but I am not going to give it to them.

What's an economy for?

It feels almost embarrassingly cliche to mention that the Greek word from which our word "economy" is derived means "housekeeping." I think that regardless of what "economy" means in today's English, this etymology can be a helpful lens through which we examine our economic systems.

To state it in the form of a question: what's an economy for? Very few would be so naive to answer "to make money," but that is often what the purpose of today's economy feels like to me. To be fair, personal wealth cannot be totally separated from the proper goals of an economy. But I think the pursuit of wealth should not ever come ahead of those goals.

To me, good housekeeping has to do with good food, clothing, shelter, strong families and neighborhoods, bodily health, good stewardship of resources, hospitality, amusement, etc. "Good" is of course the operative term there. A "good" house is not necessarily a big, new, or fancy house. I find it odd that we could achieve in good measure the goals of good housekeeping with a much smaller economy. I'm not sure what the significance of that is.

Ideology in censorship: the bleep

Slavoj Žižek gave a talk at Powell's in Portland in 2008 wherein he addressed the ideology behind censorship. His basic point is that censorship does not really save the people from anything, because it is often clear what is being censored (e.g. an intimate scene in a film being replaced by a fade-out). Rather, he argues that there is some "other" which is actually being protected from seeing the vulgar material. It is a thought-provoking point.

I noticed this exact same phenomenon in how dirty language is bleeped and blurred from popular entertainment. Most times, given the context, it is obvious which bad word is being said, in spite of the sound being covered up. Sometimes the bleep leaves the beginning and ending sounds in tact, so that there can be no doubt what the offensive word is. And in some even more amazing cases, the word can actually be spelled (e.g. "foxtrot uniform charlie kilo") and pass censorship. That is, only the very naive (i.e. nobody) are protected by such censorship. So why do the censors continue in bleeping, in spite of the fact that everyone still knows what was said? It is a totally futile exercise, and yet it is still carried out.

The Berry blogger's dilemma

There is something slightly embarrassing for those readers of Wendell Berry who first discovered his work on the internet. I myself fit in to this category. It is a sure sign of being a Berry neophyte (note the agricultural metaphor), since someone who is initiated to his thought would know better than to approach his work through an electronic medium.

The reason for this is twofold. First, Berry himself has chosen not to use computers. He rejects the premise that computers increase the quality of writing. I believe that we can infer that his opinion of the internet and blogging would fare no better than the technology upon which they are based. There is something supremely ironic about reading about a man's case against the computer on the internet.

A second reason can be derived from Berry's thoughts on energy. Berry is a conservationist. He does not seem to mind, however, writing and purchasing works printed on the remains of trees. As an important conveyor of our culture (which he values quite highly), books are a worthy expenditure of natural resources. Another factor in favor of printed books as a medium is that they are durable. That is, one book, if cared for and shared liberally, might spread its value to many people over many years. I suspect that a calf-skin codex would be even better in Berry's estimation, since it could even last 1,600 years and bless millions. The internet as a storage medium is quite the opposite of books with respect to energy. A Wendell Berry article is in no way durable when conveyed electronically. Information online is ephemeral. Rather than requiring a fixed amount of resources at production like a book, an online article requires electricity each time it is accessed, even if by the same individual. This electricity is typically generated in an unsustainable and polluting manner (both are anathema to Berry).

Therefore I must come to the uncomfortable conclusion that Berry himself might condemn the reading of his articles online. I would hazard to guess that he is blissfully ignorant, however. So this is my formulation of the Berry bloggers' dilemma: to blog about Wendell Berry is to contradict his writings. Indeed, if I myself become a full-fledged adherent of Berry's thought, I would have no choice but to quit blogging and disconnect from the internet entirely. The internet is a terrible example of an increasing volume of decreasingly useful information being disseminated to an increasingly large audience, all at the expense of non-renewable energy. So if I one day disappear completely from the internet, blame first Wendell Berry.

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