Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Stephen Smith, Michelle Beadle and the Ray Rice Situation: Was Stephen Smith Defending Domestic Violence?

Man got his woman to take his seed /He got the power oh she got the need/ She spends her life through pleasing up her man/She feeds him dinner or anything she can/
She cries alone at night too often/ He smokes and drinks and don't come home at all/
Only women bleed only women bleed only women bleed/
Black eyes all of the time don't spend a dime clean up this grime/
And you there down on your knees begging me please come watch me bleed Only Women Bleed - Alice Cooper
As you may have heard Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice and his then fiancee and now wife Janay Palmer got into some sort of physical altercation in an Atlantic City hotel. Unlike the one way slap and kickfest between Solange Knowles and Jay-Z the public lacks video evidence of what exactly took place but apparently whatever fight took place the new Mrs. Rice lost decisively because we do see the video of Mr. Rice dragging the unconscious Mrs. Rice by her hair and lifting her up after he apparently knocked her out. The police arrested both Rice and Palmer. Each had assault charges filed against them. Janay Palmer's charges were later dropped while Mr. Rice's charges were increased. However as a first time offender, Mr. Rice was eligible to enter into a diversion program, which will allow him to avoid jail or prison. FWIW his wife indicated that she didn't want to pursue charges. In fact at the press conference in which Rice apologized to everyone except her, she said that she regretted the role she played in the incident. Ok. I can't imagine ever becoming violent with a woman. The very idea disgusts me. It's a virtual impossibility. Work it out or walk away. I was raised in a very traditional household. However I am also disgusted by the idea of a woman spitting on me or hitting me as Mrs. Rice is reported to have done to Mr. Rice. I think that everyone should abide by a no-hands rule in interpersonal conflict. When you start a violent confrontation you don't know what the other person might consider an appropriate response to your physical aggression. I have never understood people who hit or beat a spouse or intimate and then go to sleep in the same house as the person they just assaulted. I think that's dumb. You might get some hot grits thrown on you. You might not wake up with everything still attached. You might not wake up at all. So again, no violence against either party should ever be tolerated. This is for both moral reasons and those of pure self-interest. 

So with no jail time upcoming, the only question was what would NFL commissioner Roger Goodell do. Goodell has a media image, one aided by his own pronouncements, as a tough take no prisoners type of guy, who was going to lay down the law to bad guys. Beating your wife certainly is something a bad guy would do. So many people both in and outside of the NFL were a bit taken aback when Goodell announced that Ray Rice would be suspended for two games and have pay withheld for a third game. Some people wanted a tougher sanction. Oft irritating ESPN personality Stephen Smith is paid to be opinionated and loud. So he gave his opinion about the Rice situation. However he walked into a buzzsaw of controversy when he seemingly suggested that women can be taught or advised not to inflame situations. Likely the word that caused the media storm of controversy and set off a wordy twitter battle with fellow ESPN employee Michelle Beadle was "provoke". As expected Smith had to apologize for his statements which he duly did here. It was a pretty good apology as apologies go I guess. I would guess that his bosses at ESPN made it clear that it was not helpful to the network or his continued employment at the network for anyone to think that Smith or the network condoned beating up women. If I go tell the police that I was assaulted I would be taken aback if rather than ask who did it, their first question was "Well what were you doing to cause that? We need to investigate that first sir before we go bother other decent people on your say so." So I understand that discussion of "provoking" violence likely won't be well received by anyone who was the target of said violence.

Nevertheless I feel that Smith and his detractors are talking past one another, purposely or not. If I walked up to a man larger, stronger and entirely more dangerous than myself and said insulting things about his mother, punched him or spit in his face there's a good chance that after I got out of the hospital people might ask me why I thought my actions were appropriate. And those would be fair questions. There are many people who see the NFL as the last remaining he-man woman hater's club. But I don't think that's the case. There are plenty of other situations where businesses or organizations have looked the other way when a man who brings in money behaves poorly or even arguably criminally with women. Former American Apparel CEO Dov Charney, who among other things, pleasured himself in front of a female journalist, and fashion photographer Terry Richardson, who has been accused of everything from generalized sleaziness to sexual harassment and assault, are just two examples of men not working with, in or for the NFL who somehow have managed to until recently avoid mainstream media attention, even after having done or allegedly done acts that are just as bad as what Ray Rice did. The ugly truth of the matter is that just like every other business, the NFL is looking to make money. That's the primary concern. If Charney were still making money for his company American Apparel he would still be in the big seat. And Richardson is skilled enough at what he does to still have legions of admirers and fans. And if Ray Rice rushes for 1300 yards this year, most Ravens fans won't care too much about whatever happened in that elevator. That may be sad and even immoral but it's just the way it is. So I don't think we should pretend that the NFL alone has a problem. 

Domestic violence is all over the place. It's a societal problem, not just a NFL or sports problem. Everyone should be aware of it and seek to stop it, regardless of the victim's gender. I think that is what Smith was trying to say. I think that as soon as Smith used the word "provoke" people thought about the classic stereotype of a woman cutting a man verbally and a man lashing out at her physically or for no reason at all because he's a cowardly POS. Those events still take place. I've seen a few, unfortunately. But times change. There are some quite dangerous women walking around out there. If you were the man unlucky enough to be intimate with Sadie Bell, you had better be ready to defend yourself at all times, up to and including fisticuffs or more. That's reality. 

ESPN on Tuesday announced a one-week suspension for one of its most controversial commentators, Stephen A. Smith, in the wake of his widely-criticized remarks about domestic abuse that referred to possible "provocation" by victims.

What do you think?
Is a two game suspension enough for Ray Rice?
Was Stephen Smith defending domestic violence?
Should Stephen Smith have been suspended?

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Book Reviews: The Spook Who Sat by The Door

The Spook Who Sat By The Door
by Sam Greenlee
Sam Greenlee just passed away a few months ago. Sam Greenlee was an American writer who had a long career as both a military officer and overseas agent for the United States Information Agency, which worked worldwide to dispense propaganda and news favorable to U.S. interests. Greenlee witnessed (was involved in?) the 1958 Iraqi revolution. Greenlee was also a member of the Alpha Kappa Psi fraternity. He was among the first black employees for the USIA. He later apparently came to regret some of his work. Although the book "The Spook Who Sat by The Door" was not exactly autobiographical, as Greenlee was never a CIA agent, nor did he start any revolutions as far as we know, it definitely drew on and was inspired by his work experiences. The book's attacks on racism are far exceeded by a deeper disdain for black integrationists, in particular those who were petit bourgeois/middle class. Greenlee's writing drips with contempt for people who would rather go along to get along or mouth empty words about tolerance rather than stand up and take control over their own lives. The book's title is a double pun as spook is both a racial slur and a nickname for a spy. The phrase also refers to the corporate practice of hiring black people in visible positions so that a company can market itself as an equal opportunity employer. Often, however, such token hires are never afforded access to real power or promotion opportunities. The book's protagonist, Dan Freeman, is an Army veteran who takes advantage of an affirmative action program designed to produce the country's first black CIA agent.

The CIA created this program because a cynical liberal senator, concerned that his black support is dropping, verbally attacked the CIA in open committee hearings for not having any black agents.
The white General who runs the CIA is confident that no black recruit will pass the necessary physical, stress or intelligence tests. The recruits are, except for Freeman, middle class men whose primary interests are making the cover of Jet or Ebony magazine as the "first black CIA agent", making money, and chasing women, not necessarily in that order. They are generally soft, class obsessed and arrogant. They shun Freeman, who didn't go to the best school (he's a Michigan State grad) or join a fraternity. The white instructors are all hostile. Nevertheless when the dust settles, Freeman is the only man who passed. With one notable exception (his demolishing of a racist martial arts instructor), Freeman has built an aw shucks facade that is impervious to all but the most dedicated investigation. He finds that people generally see what they expect to see. And they don't expect much from him.

Freeman stays undercover. He becomes an apparently apolitical drone who's seemingly happy to spend his time copying materials and doing other simplistic demeaning work at the CIA before he leaves to work at a government funded outreach program for Chicago's disaffected youth. Most of the program employees don't care about the youth. For most people, working with underprivileged youth is something that is done to salve guilty consciences, pad resumes for future jobs, do Ph.D coursework or make money. But Freeman has other ideas. A former teen gang member himself, he reaches out to the Cobra gang. He has plans for them, plans of freedom and revolution for all black people in America. Freeman learned more than people thought he did in the CIA. Representing the two paths that Freeman could take are two women with whom he's close. There is Joy, his would be fiancee and self-made middle class striver who thinks that militants are dangerous and unrealistic. Joy wants to marry someone materially ambitious. There is a prostitute whom Freeman calls his Dahomey Queen. He exposes her to Afrocentric music and literature and tells her that she's beautiful despite her intensely West African facial features and skin tone. Although he doesn't share his real plans with either woman, Freeman finds that women can read him easier than he thinks. 

This is not a great book. Outside of Freeman, the characters are pretty flat. But it is quick reading. People who are very close to me were almost killed in the Detroit 1967 riot. So the description of the rioting in the book was if nothing else, intriguing. The lingo is dated. But the theme isn't. Anyone who has ever bit their tongue to keep a job they hate or undergone short term unpleasantness for long term goals will recognize Freeman's struggle. The book has a lot to say about how oppression warps human beings. As Freeman scoffs in a moment of openness (paraphrasing) "The oppression creates the conditions and then they use the conditions to justify the oppression!". That is a true statement and one which I will certainly use in the future.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Television Reviews: The Strain (FX), The Musketeers (BBC America)

The Strain
Vampire myths have always reflected the tensions and fears of their originating societies. Bram Stoker's Dracula gave the reader images of "perverse" (i.e. non-marital/non-missionary/non-reproductive) sex, the threat of the darker, corrupt or foreign man to the white or virtuous woman and fears of unchaste liberated women, venereal diseases and death. Death and sex are often linked because each process is critical to life. For the past 40 years with some occasional notable exceptions provided by such writers as Stephen King or Brian Lumley, or films such as 30 Days of Night, the vampire's primary media image has emphasized the sexual or romantic loner elements and played down the undead monster or alien monstrosity interpretations. Such writers as Anne Rice, Stephenie Meyer and perhaps to a lesser extent Charlaine Harris have created and inspired a large number of vampire stories that for my taste veer far too close to gothic romance stories or even soft core porn. Each person has their own likes and dislikes. I just happen to prefer the myth of a vampire as an alien/undead thing, not a bisexual goth or tortured romantic or suave antihero. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with the other renderings. It's a large world and fortunately everyone can find the sort of entertainment that they enjoy. To each his or her own. You may be familiar with the film director and producer Guillermo Del Toro and/or the writer Chuck Hogan. You may not have known that a few years ago they wrote a trilogy of vampire novels in which the vampires were light years away from pretty boy fops. These vampires are not moping around whining about immortality nor do they "sparkle" or hang around high schools experiencing puppy love with tremendously boring teen girls. These vampires are not looking for the reincarnation of their lost love. You don't want to meet these vampires in alleys, dark or otherwise. Del Toro has made that quite clear in his public comments about his new series.

The vampires are monsters. When they drink your blood it is not a metaphor or substitute for sex. Sex is not really on their agenda. Drinking your blood is their agenda. 

The first book in this trilogy was titled The Strain. I won't claim that it revolutionized horror literature or anything like that but I found it to be a welcome addition to the modern vampire genre. It injected a fair bit of real horror and fright into a style which I thought had become almost effete. I was happy to see that not only was there a FX series based on the books but that Del Toro and Hogan would be involved in writing, directing and producing. The results so far (the series just started last week) have been pretty good. If you were impressed with the physical look of the vampires in Blade 2 (directed by Del Toro) you will be pleased with The Strain's updates. An international flight from Berlin to NYC's JFK airport lands at night in the wrong section of the airport and then goes silent. No radio contact, no cell phones calls, no text messages, no nothing. All the shades are drawn except one. Because we are post 9/11 every single New York and Federal agency with even the remotest claim of authority over an event like this is jockeying to direct the response (and take credit for fixing the problem). The airport tarmac is full of government officials and bureaucrats like the late Alexander Haig who are running around telling everyone that "I'm in charge here" and strutting around engaging in baboon like displays of authority and aggression.
Somewhat implausibly(?) control is initiallly handed over to the CDC in the person of one Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll) a man who is in the middle of required counseling sessions with his estranged and soon to be ex-wife Kelly (Natalie Brown). Kelly wants to divorce Eph because as head of the CDC rapid response team, Eph always puts the job first. Eph loves his wife and son but he has some issues about always having to be right. He's also a recovering alcoholic. Although he's doing his best to hold back sarcastic responses during the counseling sessions, Eph has no choice but to prove Kelly correct about his excessive job dedication when he gets paged. Along with fellow CDC worker Dr. Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro), Eph enters the plane to discover that all the passengers are dead with no apparent signs of trauma. There are some other anomalies.  This is obviously a shout out to the ship The Demeter, from the Dracula novel. Meanwhile across town death camp survivor and walking bada$$ grandpa Professor Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley aka Walder Frey from Game of Thrones) sees the news coming out of JFK and knows exactly what's happened. He also knows he won't be believed. Look for Sean Astin (Samwise from Lord of the Rings) as a CDC administrator. Unfortunately, at this stage in my life "The Strain" comes on too late (Sundays at 10 PM) for me to watch in real time. Furthering my irritation, my cable provider/FX has thoughtfully disabled the fast forward provision on its on-demand selection. So watching the premiere on a work night required me to devote a little over 95 minutes of my time. That was no good. Subsequent episodes are only a hour. So time will tell if I will watch the series during the week, wait until the weekend to watch the Sunday episode or take my brother's suggestion, join the modern era and obtain a DVR. 

Anyway, if you are into vampires, disturbingly creepy body horror, disaster films, or Del Toro creations you could do worse than to check this out Sunday nights, provided you are younger and/or don't have to be up bright and early on Monday mornings. There is explicit violence and occasional blink and you missed it nudity. The biological and scientific elements mesh seamlessly with the supernatural.


The Musketeers
Everyone probably knows the story of The Three Musketeers, written by Alexander Dumas. It is a pretty good adventure story as such tales go. Some people may be unaware that Alexandre Dumas was a man of partial African ancestry. I wrote about his father here. Some of the younger Dumas' themes and fables were taken from stories told about his father and other black nobles of pre-revolutionary France. It is perhaps fitting then that in this new BBC America version of the story, the Musketeer Porthos, who in the book had some similarities to both Shakespeare's Falstaff and Dumas' father, has been altered to be a biracial black Frenchman, just like the elder General Dumas. I guess you could say that's both a step forward for color-blind casting and ironically for more historically accurate casting. Dunno. I like what Charles and the show writers have done with the Porthos role from what I've seen of the show to this point. 

Anyhow I am not going to detail much of the plot here because you probably already know it. The series creators take large liberties with it. I mean massive. I mean gargantuan. I mean gigantic. But for all of those changes, I think that the series still works as good entertainment. It works because although the creators change many details, add different motivations and make all sorts of other changes they still allow some basic truths to shine through. Athos (Tom Burke) is still a nobleman who is haunted by his marriage to the deadly Milady (Maime McCoy). Porthos (Howard Charles) is still a giant brawler who has fierce dedication to his comrades. Aramis (Santiago Cabrera) is still a man perched between dedication to the church and dedication to sleeping with as many women as he can. D'Artagnan (Luke Pasqualino) is still a quick tempered Gascon youth who has come to Paris (he's looking for vengeance for his murdered father instead of his fortune) and is slowly falling in love with the very married Mrs. Constance Bonacieux (Tamla Kari) And Cardinal Richelieu (Peter Capaldi) is still a ruthless, intelligent and occasionally acerbic manager and backroom dealmaker who is equally invested in increasing the glory of France and the glory of Cardinal Richelieu. The Cardinal is evil. But he's not so much actively malicious as he is willing to do anything to reach or justify his ends. He's not running around kicking puppies for fun. But if he discovers that his lover has been stepping out on him or worse, telling other men his business, he will have her murdered without thinking twice on the issue. Capaldi could probably step into the shoes of Peter Cushing or Vincent Price if he wished to do more period roles. He really is that good here. He's a true pleasure to watch.

The Musketeers and D'Artagnan are as much detectives and secret agents as they are soldiers and swordsmen. They work to maintain the authority of the state and the power of the King and Queen. They don't always like this. However they also work to prevent murder, avenge wrongdoing, stop urban renewal projects explicitly designed to drive out the poor and in one episode even prevent a would be slave trader from wreaking havoc. To an extent, some of the early episodes often play out like police procedurals as each week a different Musketeer is forced to confront a damaging secret from his past. He usually tries to keep the others out of his business but of course being Musketeers the whole "All for one and one for all" usually kicks in. The Cardinal is usually always attempting to humiliate, embarrass or otherwise dismiss the Musketeers. He even set up one of them for murder. Cardinal Richelieu sees the Musketeers as a threat to his domination of or access to the King. The Cardinal believes that the King must rule France but that he must provide sole advice and counsel to the King. Anyone who gets in the way of that purpose is a threat as far as the Cardinal is concerned. If you stay out of his way and out of his business he's not likely to bother you. Do otherwise and well you get in his bad books. Nevertheless occasionally the Cardinal and the Musketeers are compelled by events or even the King to put aside their differences for the greater good. The Cardinal is, above all, a patriot. If you like period drama, with all of the attendant costumes and settings this show is worth watching at 9 PM on Sundays.


Thursday, July 24, 2014

Arizona Inmate Executed: Can the Death Penalty be Rehabilitated?

We've discussed the problems with the death penalty before here and here and here. Another problem with the death penalty is that in part because of increasing national and worldwide moral objections to the medicalization of executions, there are shortages of the various chemicals needed to literally put a man to sleep. And obviously there is no ability to, well not in this country anyway, to test in advance the chemical cocktail used in executions. This leads to "botched" executions. That is "botched" in the sense that the condemned man (and it's usually a man) did not die either quickly or painlessly. Now while if I were related to someone who had been murdered, I'm not sure that I would be all that bothered by the person who did it having some suffering before they died, that's not what our justice system is designed to do. The State carries out sentencing in the name of the People, not as private vengeance and retribution. There are various sentences, approved by the People and their Representatives, that are supposed to deter, to punish and in some cases to rehabilitate the convicted criminal. The sentences are not supposed to visit upon the convicted criminal the same evil and horror that he doled out. In many cases that would be not only immoral but impossible. If someone has raped and killed your child most people would agree that the State's proper response should not be to send someone to the convict's house to rape and murder his child. That's retribution but it's not justice. Similarly if someone has tortured and murdered someone and been sentenced to death, is it cruel and unusual punishment if his execution is slow, drawn out and painful instead of swift, certain and painless?

PHOENIX (Reuters) - An Arizona inmate took almost two hours to die by lethal injection on Wednesday and his lawyers said he "gasped and snorted" before succumbing in the latest botched execution to raise questions about the death penalty in the United States. The execution of convicted double murderer Joseph Wood began at 1:52 p.m. at a state prison complex, and the 55-year-old was pronounced dead just shy of two hours later at 3:49 p.m., the Arizona attorney general's office said.

During that time, his lawyers filed an unsuccessful emergency appeal to multiple federal courts that sought to have the execution halted and their client given life-saving medical treatment. The appeal, which said the procedure violated his constitutional right to be executed without suffering cruel and unusual punishment, was denied by Justice Anthony Kennedy of the U.S. Supreme Court. "He gasped and struggled to breathe for about an hour and 40 minutes," said one of Wood's attorneys, Dale Baich. "Arizona appears to have joined several other states who have been responsible for an entirely preventable horror: a bungled execution. The public should hold its officials responsible."

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer expressed concern over how long the procedure took and ordered the state's Department of Corrections to conduct a full review, but said justice had been done and that the execution was lawful. "One thing is certain, however, inmate Wood died in a lawful manner and by eyewitness and medical accounts he did not suffer," the Republican governor said in a statement.

"This is in stark comparison to the gruesome, vicious suffering that he inflicted on his two victims, and the lifetime of suffering he has caused their family."

Joseph Wood, 55 at the time of his death, carried out the double murder in August 1989 when he shot his former partner Debbie Dietz and her father Gene at their family-run car body shop in Tuscon, Arizona. Wood, who was said to have assaulted Debbie during their relationship, walked into Dietz and Sons Auto Paint and Body Shop and shot 55-year-old Gene in the chest.

Then, as a desperate Debbie tried to phone for help, Wood grabbed her round the neck. The Arizona Daily Star reports that witnesses heard him tell her "I told you I was going to do it. I love you. I have to kill you, b****" before also shooting the 29-year-old fatally in the chest. When police arrived Wood turned his gun on officers, prompting them to open fire and shoot him nine times.

So do you think that this execution in Arizona is just a case of the karmic wheel of justice doing what it's supposed to do or do we need to come up with a more humane way of executing people? Or is the very idea of humane execution an oxymoron? When you shoot and kill your girlfriend and her father if you are in Arizona there's a chance that you'll have to pay for that with your life. So maybe it is what it is? And if Wood survived being shot nine times was that pain really worse than gasping for breath during his execution? Does this make you reexamine any of your thoughts about the death penalty and its implementation? My issues with the death penalty are its arbitrariness (the overwhelming majority of murderers will never face it) and its unfairness (it's tremendously biased in terms of race, class and gender). But if the State can't kill without torturing should the death penalty be scrapped?


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Who's a thug: Santelli vs. Sherman

You may remember that Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman was quite excited after his team just won the NFC Championship game. Sherman was instrumental in helping his team to achieve that victory. He spoke emphatically and aggressively. He also spoke dismissively of rival football player, wide receiver Michael Crabtree of the San Francisco Forty Niners. Sherman was fined. He was also excoriated in social media and by more than a few pundits as a thug. A great many people made racist ugly comments about Sherman's intelligence, his family, his class, his race and black people in general. The people making these sorts of attacks on Sherman did not care that he was a Stanford graduate, was obtaining a Masters Degree, or most importantly had no record of criminal arrests or convictions. AFAIK no one has accused him of domestic abuse, drug sales, bar fights, child abuse, drug usage or anything else that might indicate violent or criminal tendencies. All that is public record about Sherman is that occasionally he likes to run his mouth on the football field. These public attacks on Sherman weren't just your normal attacks by conservative/racist whites. They also included people like liberal/moderate law professor Jonathan Turley. Unconscious stereotyping and unexamined bigotry cross all political lines.

You may not recall that CNBC commentator and derivatives trader Rick Santelli is also a very excitable man. He happens to lean conservative. His initial rant about the possibility of bailing out underwater homeowners is credited with helping to start Tea Party movements across the United State. Recently, as Princeton Economist and NYT opinion columnist Paul Krugman has been predicting, more financial commentators and economists are starting to notice that the very specific predictions about the economy made by conservative pundits like Santelli have simply not come true.  In fact, sometimes the exact opposite has happened. When Santelli was called out on television about his consistently incorrect financial predictions he became very agitated, aggressive and extremely loud, probably about as loud as Sherman was. But from what I can see twitter and other social media has not exploded with racist vitriol towards Santelli. There don't seem to be many people questioning his intelligence or whether he got special assistance in admission to or graduation from his alma mater. I don't seem to find too many people calling Santelli a thug or making offensive links between his ethnic background and his behavior. Santelli is not of course someone with the same national profile as Sherman but still. Talking smack may well be more of a black athlete thing than a white one but there have been more than a few white athletes who can talk smack with the best of them and aren't called thugs. Although there have been successful introverts in the career paths of both Santelli and Sherman, their chosen jobs tend to be filled with people who are confident, loud, aggressive and don't mind letting you know about how good they are.

Now anyone who knows me in real life would tell you that I am generally pretty introverted and quiet. If I get angry with someone initially it usually comes across as ice and coldness instead of heat and fire. It takes a lot before I raise my voice or start sputtering insults. That's what I've been told anyway. That's neither good not bad. It's just the way I am. Sometimes I think it would be useful to be more fiery like some people I know. But that's not me. The chances of me sounding like either Santelli or Sherman are extremely low. Outside of a few relatives or other special people I'm not overly fond of excitable, boisterous, loud people. That said, I also know that everyone is different and just because someone's personality or mode of expression is different than mine doesn't tell me anything about that person. I think that I can usually get my point across without yelling or raising my voice. Other people have much lower thresholds for increases in volume or irritation. So it goes. The problem I have with the different reactions to the Santelli/Sherman rants is that these reactions have very real impact on all black people, regardless of gender, age, or personality type. These double standards count. The white law professor and the white police officer may have very different ways of seeing the world. They may vote for diametrically opposed candidates. But if they both immediately think "thug" when they see or hear a loud black man, that could lead to things like this. An unarmed black man allegedly resists arrest and is immediately swarmed, taken down and killed. An armed white man tells the Federal government what they had better not do and is still walking free.

These double standards and perception differences around the same behavior in different people are one of the definitions of racism. They need to be identified, called out and resisted as often as possible. Not getting hired or promoted or treated equally in the workplace is more common and much less painful than getting harassed, beaten or killed by the police. But the same ugly mentality is behind both responses. It's a mentality that still sees a black person as the dangerous other, who is not to be trusted or treated the same as whites. To be called a "thug" by apparently no small number of people all a black man has to do is speak loudly. For society to even think about granting a white man that title he would actually have to go out and beat or kill someone, you know, actually meet the definition of the word. But even then that might not be enough. Sherman is not a thug.

This is a thug. See the difference?

Monday, July 21, 2014

Israel Attacks Gaza and Kills Palestinians: Again

As you may have read in the news the State of Israel has launched military attacks by land, air and sea against the Palestinians in Gaza. Israel claims to be trying to degrade Hamas' military capacity and prevent Hamas from launching rocket attacks against Israel. As virtually every US politician who sees himself or herself as a national figure has rushed to the nearest microphone to intone, "Israel has the right to defend itself" and "No country could accept rockets being fired into its territory". Those are true statements. What you won't hear many, if any, US politicians say is that Palestinians also have the right to defend themselves against Israel. As Palestinians are literally children of a lesser God in the view of many in the "West" the idea that they have the right to resist is something completely alien to the narrative. The other idea which is completely alien to the narrative is the idea that massive and exponentially disproportionate retribution isn't always actually a moral or even useful method to respond to violence or resistance. At the time of this writing, a little over 400 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, most of them non-combatant men, women and children. That's what happens when people with a first rate air force, navy and army drop bombs on and shell people who lack any air force who live in an area roughly the size of Detroit. Children have been deliberately targeted while playing on a beach. Hospitals and disabled centers have been attacked.                                          
It's simply impossible to oppress, demean and humiliate a group of people without simultaneously coming up with an ideology that transforms your oppression into sober, fair minded treatment and the people being subjugated into either irrational, mindless beasts howling for blood or folks who are sadly simply culturally deprived and don't understand all the benefits your "oppression" provides them.

This is something which is true in Israel today but it bears repeating that this is something which is true across humanity in every time and place. It's exactly because we all have shared humanity that in order to brutalize another human being we have to find some sort of method of denying their status as human beings. This was true with British colonists in Kenya or French colonists in Algeria who murdered, tortured and raped indigenous people who resisted their invasions and depredations. It was true with European settlers in Australia and the Americas. It was true with White American slave owners or supporters of Jim Crow and Black Americans. It was true with Arab slave owners in Africa. It's true with Hindu caste systems. And so on. Any time someone is on top and doing their best to keep someone else on the bottom they come up with justifications. And nobody likes being dominated, humiliated or exterminated. They resist, often even when resistance seems or actually objectively is, futile. So the current "round of violence" against Palestine is thoroughly predictable. But even using that frame of "round of violence" ignores the root cause of all the violence. It's the occupation stupid! The Israelis have been occupying and/or controlling the West Bank and Gaza for longer than I've been alive. Palestinians inside those territories are regularly and routinely brutalized or killed. In Gaza, particularly, they lack access to clean water, medicine, food, housing, almost everything that makes life worth living. 

The Palestinians have no representation, no way to address grievances, no protection against the Israeli military. That's what happens under military occupation. This is made worse by the fact that thanks to American and European diplomatic and military support Israel is convinced that it can have peace, military occupation and increasing numbers of Jewish settlements. The moribund peace process has only seen an increase in the amount of West Bank Jewish settlements. Israel has embarked on ethnic cleansing in the West Bank. Some Israeli politicians are openly calling for ethnic cleansing and genocide in Gaza. Knesset Member Moishe Feiglin is open about what he wants: 
After the IDF completes the "softening" of the targets with its fire-power, the IDF will conquer the entire Gaza, using all the means necessary to minimize any harm to our soldiers, with no other considerations.
Gaza is part of our Land and we will remain there forever. Liberation of parts of our land forever is the only thing that justifies endangering our soldiers in battle to capture land. Subsequent to the elimination of terror from Gaza, it will become part of sovereign Israel and will be populated by Jews. According to polls, most of the Arabs in Gaza wish to leave. Those who were not involved in anti-Israel activity will be offered a generous international emigration package.
Knesset Member Ayelet Shaked echoes and goes beyond Feiglin's statements by explicitly calling for the death of Palestinian mothers and the destruction of their homes. She has endorsed a call for utter war against all Palestinians, viewing them all as worthy of death. How about that idea that female leadership will lead to less war and violence? Yeah, not so much. Shaked may lack testosterone but she has no deficit of hatred and bile.
"They have to die and their houses should be demolished so that they cannot bear any more terrorists," Shaked said, adding, "They are all our enemies and their blood should be on our hands. This also applies to the mothers of the dead terrorists." "Behind every terrorist stand dozens of men and women, without whom he could not engage in terrorism. They are all enemy combatants, and their blood shall be on all their heads. Now this also includes the mothers of the martyrs, who send them to hell with flowers and kisses. They should follow their sons, nothing would be more just. They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there."
One would wait in vain for any prominent American politician to condemn those ugly racist statements. All they will do is bleat about how Israel has the right to defend itself and the Palestinians must accept Israeli hegemony. I see no difference between what these Knesset members called for and the insane justification for a local murder of a two year old. The Israeli brutalization of the Palestinians also requires a torturing of the English language. NJ Governor and possible Republican Presidential candidate Chris Christie, a supporter of Israel, was nonetheless compelled to apologize after he mistakenly used the term "occupied territories" when referring to the occupied territories.  Occupation supporters such as casino mogul Sheldon Adelson prefer the terms "disputed territories" and certainly won't be writing checks to any politician who doesn't use the proper terminology. So, what is the solution to this? While one prominent anti-war libertarian thinks that Israel as it exists today must be dismantled, I think that just as the Palestinians aren't going anywhere, neither are the Jewish Israelis. I think the two-state solution is dead and has been dead for quite some time. Israel has no intention of removing its hegemony from either the West Bank or Gaza. The only long term solution is one state for both Jews and Palestinians, with equal rights for all. That seems like a pipe dream now. But as the family of murdered Jewish teen Naftali Frenkel said in a statement, "There is no difference between Arab blood and Jewish blood. Murder is murder". That is the message that needs to be nurtured and grown in Israel, not the weed of Jewish supremacist ugliness. In the same way that IRA bombing attacks in England did not result in massive indiscriminate bombardment of Dublin, Israel needs to find a different way. Because morality aside, what it's doing isn't working.

The Palestinians do not currently have nor are they likely in the near future to gain the military power to break the siege of Gaza or eject the West Bank settlers. And despite the constant invocation of "tiny Israel surrounded by 300 million Arabs who hate them", it's also very unlikely that other Arab nations will be riding to the Palestinian rescue. You may have noticed that those nations have their own problems. And none of them have a military that is remotely comparable to Israel's, let alone America's. But unless Israel thinks that it can openly get away with genocide or expulsion, the Palestinians will still be there. So long term, one state with equal rights for all and special rights for none is the only way. Otherwise, sometime in the distant future, when the Israeli and West Bank Arab population has far outstripped the Jewish population, there may be a settling of accounts that might not be to Israel's benefit. Right now the US needs to enforce a cease fire. Short term, politicians in the West, particularly the US, must turn off military, diplomatic and financial aid to Israel. Stop giving them weapons. Stop letting the tail wag the dog. Stop sharing intelligence. That's the only thing that has a remote chance of making Israeli politicians see the light. It is close to being too late. My only remaining hope that if the filthy apartheid state of South Africa can reform and become an imperfect democracy for all of its people, then so can Israel. But it's going to have to be forced into doing so. Of course at a minimum that would require a President who wasn't afraid to tell Israel "No". And we haven't had that for a while. #FreePalestine.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Movie Reviews: Devil Ship Pirates, China Moon, Gettysburg

Devil Ship Pirates
directed by Don Sharp
I purchased Devil Ship Pirates around the same time my brother sent me the package which included Bad Blonde. Although it was made in Hammer's classic era, this film is not overly reliant on oozing blood or heaving cleavage. By Hammer standards, there's little of the former and just the normal amount of the latter, mostly provided by actress Suzan Farmer, who plays the local lord's daughter, Angela. The simple story provided a modest level of suspense and tension that was gradually turned upwards as the movie progressed. It's really a hostage film. It reminded me of Key Largo or Went the Day Well? The Spanish Armada has just been beaten by the English navy. The survivors are limping home to Spain. Everyone goes home except for the people on the ship Diablo, which is commanded by the Spanish pirate Captain Robeles (Christopher Lee showing off his Ike Turner haircut). Robeles thinks his ship is too damaged to make the long trip back to Spain. When one Spanish navy commander disagrees with this assessment, questions Robeles' martial spirit and tries to take command of Robeles' ship, Robeles promptly kills him. Robeles, as he patiently explains to everyone throughout the film, is not big on people telling him no.

The other Spanish navy liaison, Don Savilla (Barry Warren) is wiser. Although he disagrees with Robeles and despises pirates he's not stupid enough to press the issue while he's outnumbered 60-1 on a pirate ship. He registers his objections and shuts up. Robeles lands in a remote English harbor to make repairs. Robeles' plan goes awry when two of his men are discovered by the villagers. Showing the value of a good bluff when your hand is crap, Don Savilla lies to the villagers and tells them that the Spanish won. 

Without twitter the English villagers don't know that England was victorious. The pirates tell the villagers that they are simply the first wave of the approaching Spanish invasion force. Submit peacefully and the villagers will be well treated. The town's young men are mostly absent.
In every conflict there are always people who will easily submit to power rather than fight for what's right. Robeles recognizes this. He quickly takes steps to establish his authority. The people at the top of the social structure, the local lord/mayor and vicar immediately become willing collaborators. The vicar talks about God's will and nonviolence while the lord tries to ensure that his daughter is not dishonored by the randy Spanish. Robeles quarantines the village so that no news of the Spanish defeat can penetrate. It's the men from the lower social classes who plan resistance. A younger man previously crippled by the Spanish is suspicious of the so-called Spanish victory. Along with his father and a few other hardheads, he organizes secret cells. These men hide their weapons. They recruit a village boy to visit a nearby town that still has a contingent of armed combat age men. If England didn't lose the battle the boy will request the neighboring village to send some men with bad intentions to help eject the Spanish.
Robeles forces the villagers to repair his ship. He must depart before any English relief force arrives. The pirates make goo goo eyes at the village women, who comprise most of the town's population. Don Savilla becomes more disgusted with the pirates, especially with their treatment of women. He might be willing to help the resistance, quietly. An English woman aware of the truth escapes from Spanish captivity and tries to return home. Robeles is starting to notice Angela. This upsets Angela and makes her beloved, the crippled and intensely anti-Spanish Harry (John Cairney) blow a gasket. There is no nudity or horribly explicit bloodshed. There are beatings, executions, fist fights, sword duels and plenty of leering. Rather humorously, given the predominantly English cast, there was an accident on set one afternoon when tea arrived. Everybody onboard the pirate ship immediately rushed to one side of the ship for tea, causing the ship to capsize. Almost everyone fell into the water. I'm sure they got their tea eventually though. The film's bright colors and detailed costumes impress. Although Lee is probably best known for his Dracula roles and as Saruman in LOTR, playing the coldly ruthless Robeles allowed him to act more than the Dracula gigs ever did. This was a good old school classic pirate film that's perfect for a lazy weekend afternoon.

China Moon
directed by John Bailey
Although this noir movie is not great it does have a solid cast. Despite some gaping plot holes it's almost worth any shortcomings just to watch good actors like Ed Harris and Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister himself) play off each other. Both men are playing characters that are tightly controlled but just this close to losing it. Dance and Harris always bring intensity to their roles and this film was no different. Harris is of average height while the lanky Dance stands 6-3. It was amusing to watch Dance's tall, extremely wealthy, self-assured and powerful character not even bother to draw himself up to his full height to dismiss the much shorter and much poorer character played by Harris. Talk about looking down on your adversary. China Moon was released in 1994 but was filmed in 1991. Similar to many neo-noir films released in the early nineties and late eighties, China Moon had a tremendous amount of truly horrible saxophone music on the soundtrack. Really, this music was so cheesy and intrusive that the film might have done well to break the Fourth Wall. A character should have held his ears, made a face and then punched out the saxophone player before looking at the camera and saying "Isn't that better"? Watching this film reminded me of how much time steals from us. Nobody gets out alive but there was a time when Dance and Harris actually weren't bald. How about that?

Ok, what is this movie about you ask? Well what is every story about? It's about a man and a woman. Kyle Bodine (Ed Harris) is a Florida area homicide detective. As we see Kyle is pretty sharp on the job or least he thinks he is. He treats his younger partner Lamar Dickey (Benicio Del Toro) with a mixture of semi-polite condescension and open arrogance. He doesn't mean anything by it. It's just the way he is. As the somewhat smug Kyle tells Lamar, sooner or later every murderer makes a mistake. In Kyle's experience, murderers generally aren't very smart people. Well at least they're not as smart as Kyle and that is a fact. One night in a bar Kyle notices a leggy sultry brunette giving him the once over. Well Kyle is not shy. He goes over to inquire as to how the young lady is doing. But she won't divulge her name or number. After a small bit of flirtatious back and forth, she leaves. But she's not mad at Kyle. She just says she has to go and may return some day. That gets Kyle's interest up. Kyle makes the bartender give him the woman's name from her credit card slips and tracks her down.
When Kyle pops up out of nowhere, Rachel Munro (Madeleine Stowe) is apparently not bothered by his persistence. One woman's stalker is another woman's sweet thang. Rachel's marriage to international banker Rupert Munro (Charles Dance) is falling apart. Though she doesn't share the details with Kyle, Rachel has visual proof that Rupert is cheating on her with one of his employees, a good looking woman who's a little younger and curvier than Rachel. Rupert also emotionally and physically abuses his wife. So Rachel is ready to let another mule kick in her stall. Kyle can do that job. He's never been married and falls hard for Rachel. Kyle starts feeling protective of Rachel. He finds reasons to watch over her and snoop around her home. Rachel and Kyle call each other at work. When Kyle and Lamar hear a 911 domestic violence call concerning Rachel's residence, Kyle insists on taking the call though that's not their job as homicide detectives. This makes Lamar suspicious. When Kyle sees that Rupert has punched Rachel and bloodied her nose, he can barely hold back from giving the languid Rupert a serious tune up. But when there's another domestic incident Rachel takes matters into her own hands. And she calls loverboy Kyle for help after the fact. People joke that true friends help each other bury bodies. Well that may be. But I don't know about becoming an accessory to a felony. Kyle slowly learns that he wasn't as smart as he thought he was. There's a very thin line between love and hate. Would you be ready to throw everything away, your life, your integrity, whatever success you had, for that thing called love? Do you think you're really the smartest person you know? China Moon features violence and murder as well as toplessness and nudity from both genders. Stowe is suitably slinky and sexy but doesn't quite have the level of competence or coldness I expected from a true femme fatale. Some other characters suffer from some motivational deficiencies. Del Toro gets some good lines though. 

directed by Ronald Mazell
This was originally supposed to be a television miniseries. Gettysburg was produced by media tycoon Ted Turner who is a Civil War enthusiast and something of a Confederate sympathizer. So this film is tarnished slightly by creative decisions which give the actors playing Confederate leaders many of the best lines. But of course I am biased, aren't I. On the Union side Sam Elliot brings his trademark high testosterone baritone gruffness; Jeff Daniels shines as a Union colonel who combines strong anti-slavery belief with leadership capacity that's based more on inspiring men than intimidating them. This movie was followed up by the prequel Gods and Generals which went completely over the top with revisionist nonsense--a slave woman giving a fond goodbye to a Confederate soldier. Yeah. Realizing that you can't really make tragic heroes out of men who were effectively fighting to ensure that slavery remained part of American life, Gettysburg adroitly sidesteps and downplays (at least on the Southern side) the fierce dedication to white supremacy and enslavement which animated the Confederacy. One Confederate general says that "We should have freed the slaves first and then fired on Fort Sumter" while a Confederate soldier claims that he "doesn't care about the darkies one way or the other and is only fighting for his rights". Splendid. Inconvenient and incorrect rationalizations aside, this is still a good war film. When I watch old war movies I always think that there must have been a better way to fight than to line up a relatively short distance from your enemy and shoot at him while he's doing the same to you or grimly march headlong into aimed artillery fire that includes solid shot, shell and cannister. However those methods hadn't yet been discovered in the 1860s.

The Confederate Army is riding high. Its leaders think that if the South can win a decisive battle on Northern soil and place its armies close to Washington D.C they can force the Union to admit defeat and accept terms. Commanding General Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen) has almost legendary status among both armies and is beloved by his troops. His best friend and most trusted general, Pete Longstreet (Tom Berenger), is more cautious than his boss. Longstreet quietly worries that General Lee may have started to believe his own legend of invincibility. Accidental skirmishing breaks out between advance elements of the Confederate and Union armies near the town of Gettysburg. The Union forces, temporarily led by General John Buford (Sam Elliot) are able to hold the high ground and drive off the Confederates. Both groups send messages for assistance. The next day everyone and his brother is there ready to throw down. General Lee is upset because his scouts under J.E.B. Stuart gave him no warning but he's not going to back down now. Lee blandly ignores Longstreet's initial subtle hints and later increasingly frantic warnings that this is not the time or place to fight. Well if the Confederates want a fight, the Union is keen to give them one. In the film's best setpiece Colonel Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) and his depleted Maine regiment desperately hold off seeming endless waves of oncoming Confederates on the hill of Little Round Top. Chamberlain finally orders a bayonet charge when his men are almost out of ammunition.
Gettysburg magnificently depicts the famous and doomed Pickett's Charge, which started out as the high point of the Confederacy and ended with victorious Union soldiers taunting the broken and retreating Confederates. My favorite film line was a real quote. General Lee peremptorily ordered General Pickett (Stephen Lang) to reform his division. General Pickett sharply responded "Sir, I have no division!" Because this film was originally made for television it's not bloody or explicit. Sheen captured Lee's regret and belated realization that he let his pride interfere with common sense. Berenger almost steals the film. There's a melodramatic subplot about a Confederate general conflicted about fighting his best friend, a Union general. This cast was huge. It also included such people as Ken Burns, Kevin Conway, Richard Jordan, C. Thomas Howell, Ted Turner, Donal Logue, and George Lazenby among others. Apparently most men back then had beards. During the end credits you see the actor next to the historical figure they depicted. The casting and costume departments really did a good job. In real life General Longstreet ended up working for the Union and briefly commanding Black troops. Life is often stranger than fiction. This film may pique your interest about the war that remains even today the bloodiest conflict the US ever fought. Its repercussions are still with us today in many ways. So this was a good movie if you like war movies. Or I suppose it was a good movie if you like male facial hair...

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Book Reviews: Beat The Reaper

Beat the Reaper
by Josh Bazell
This book reminded me of Pest Control, The Catcher in the Rye, or a few other madcap satirical adventures. But it's also a biting critique of the health care system, a coming of age story, an Elmore Leonard style absurdist mob hijinks tale and one huge middle finger to anti-Semitism. That's a lot for one book but it flows well. The book was written by a doctor who also has a B.A. in English Literature. I don't know if the described details of hospital life would seem familiar to doctors or other people who are familiar with real life hospitals. Some of the displayed false concern for patients rang true to me from my brief experiences of hospital care. I imagine that anyone who is constantly making life or death decisions would find a way of achieving some distance from patients because otherwise how could they do their job? Bazell takes pains to point out that he's writing fiction. He writes that hopefully you're not going to rely on occasionally made up information for medical knowledge. This tale is told in first person and has some very funny parts mixed with real tragedy. Dr. Peter Brown is a sleep deprived, sarcastic, irritable and overworked (not that there's any other kind) intern at a Manhattan hospital. There's more to Dr. Brown than meets the eye as he is a little older, larger and rougher than the average intern. He can handle himself physically in a way that most men, doctors or not, simply can't. On Brown's trip to work a criminal attempts to mug him by placing a gun to his head. That criminal or "f***head" as Brown calls him makes a tremendous mistake. Brown easily maneuvers out of danger and disarms the mugger. Brown seriously injures his assailant via a combination of martial arts and medical knowledge but pulls back at the last second to avoid killing his attacker. Peter Brown is not just a doctor. Peter Brown is an Anglicized version of his real name "Pietro Brwna". "Brown" is a Jewish-Italian (he strongly identifies as Jewish) hitman, who having run permanently afoul of his Mafia employers in ways that are slowly revealed throughout the book, has joined the Witness Protection Program. 

However both Brown and the Feds are so thoroughly contemptuous of his former employer's retaliatory powers and intelligence that Brown hasn't bothered to leave NYC or do much to protect himself beside the modest name alteration and keeping a low profile.

This plan develops a big problem. On his shift Brown runs into an old Mafia associate, Eddy Squillante, who has been assigned to Brown as a patient. Both men are quite surprised to see each other. Squillante is suffering from stomach cancer. Squillante thinks Brown will seize the opportunity to get rid of him. As insurance against this Squillante quickly takes steps to provide that Brown's location and identity will be revealed in the event of Squillante's death. Brown probably would indeed have killed Squillante if he thought he could have gotten away with it but his incentives are now changed. Unfortunately for Brown, Squillante's surgery has been assigned to an out of hospital media savvy "rock star" doctor, Dr. Friendly. Dr. Friendly receives a lot of positive press coverage. However, according to Brown's med school mentor, Friendly is a near incompetent hack who's fond of inappropriate racist or sexist jokes and sexually harassing women. If Dr. Friendly operates on Squillante, it's goodbye Squillante. So Brown has some decisions to make. Brown's past is catching up with him in more ways than one. Brown also learns from Squillante that one of Brown's old enemies is not dead (Brown threw him out of a sixth floor window) but rather very much alive. He's looking for Brown so that he can show Brown that he doesn't hold grudges and wants to continue their relationship in the true Christian spirit of forgiveness. Yeah. Not. This man wants to gut Brown like a fish. Despite his former profession and somewhat cold persona (he describes his patients' shortcomings in graphic detail), Brown actually takes the Hippocratic oath quite seriously and refuses to leave the hospital until his shift is over, because that would hurt his patients and his fellow doctors, students and staff. 

Brown makes his shift rounds. He retraces his bad decisions. Such subjects as romance, racism, sex, adultery, malpractice, doctors, lawyers, anti-Semitism, hospital politics, flirty drug company reps, and know it all bosses are all wildly skewered. Whether it's Brown describing a patient as the one he currently hates the least or telling his boss that she's not boring him any more than usual there's a lot of droll offbeat humor here. You'll laugh out loud at reading some things before realizing your humor was likely inappropriate. 
If you can accept the premise of a Mob hitman who has become a skilled doctor, this is a oft humorous book. It's made more so by the footnotes and Brown's asides to himself. You can see the great tragedy of Brown's life coming before he reveals it but it will kick you in your gonads anyway. The humor gradually drops away and the book's tone becomes darker near the ending. This is a taut story at about 300 pages.