Saturday, May 30, 2020

Revisiting "A Time To Kill"

I keep thinking especially of the film version of this story though I have read the Grisham novel as well. I would say the movie is a good movie, with great parts in it. Matthew McConaughey plays the lawyer Jake Brigance, who defends a black man, Carl Lee Hailey, who took revenge on the men who raped his young daughter Tonya. It's a little bit different than some of the real-life cases we've seen lately, in that Carl Lee is definitely guilty, and it's a story about jury nullification, as well as about racism and revenge.

I think of one scene before Jake's closing argument, where he's visiting Carl Lee in jail and he tells Carl Lee that he's not going to win the case. Jake starts complaining about how the jury sees Carl Lee, versus how they see him. Jake ticks off a couple of cultural and socioeconomic reasons, and then Carl Lee interrupts, saying, "Or you're white and I'm black! See, that's why I picked you, Jake. You just like them… Oh, you think you ain't, because you eat at Claude's, and you're here with me right now, but you are. What would it take to convince you to let me off? That's how you save my ass."

(Jake instructs the jury to close their eyes, while he describes the crime in vivid detail, and then he says, "I want you to imagine this little girl… And now imagine she's white.")

The racism in the film is not at all subtle, because the story is set in Mississippi. That gives white liberals and semi-liberals cover to think that things aren't so bad in the north, on the glorious victors' side of the Civil War. But recent events have disabused us of that notion, haven't they?

I think the fact that Jake wins the case with that closing argument--whether or not it would work in real life--illustrates to me that George Floyd and so many others would mean more to some of us if they were white. In the fictional story, the brutal rape and attempted murder of little Tonya didn't actually matter to most of the whites in the story, and the whites on the jury, until she was imagined as white.

Maybe this daily more obvious pattern which emerges of police brutality (and white vigilantism) is not pressing to us, because they're not people to us. We don't see them as people we know, and love. They're not really our friends and neighbors. And in the grip of an ideology, we have reason to dismiss especially the white activists who shout, "black lives matter!," because "progressive" has meant to us, "make stuff up to fit a narrative".

I definitely have felt defensive in response to some activism for black lives, especially before this. I guess I kind of thought that if a substantial number of police officers were racist--or at least abused their power--to some significant degree, that I would be some sort of advocate for anarchy, or moral relativism. The thing is, I don't know any absolute moral code that says you have to choke a man to death while he's completely defenseless, and pleading for his life. I'm no lawyer either, but forgery is not a violent felony. There was absolutely zero reason to use any physical force at all, much less to use sustained deadly force, while disregarding basic human cries for help. As I said the other day, people aren't supposed to die in the custody of the police. There is no reason to physically harm a suspect of any crime, unless the officers are attempting to prevent a violent crime against an innocent party. The reason we have police and juries and lawyers is precisely because we are a nation of laws, not a fearful rage mob. If some substantial portion of us whites are afraid of black men--simply in the normal course of living--the problem is us, not them. (Though not only men have been treated this way.)

Frankly, I don't think I'm saying anything too radical. We give the police permission to use deadly force potentially, in the work of law-enforcement, and we expect a higher standard of them, as a result. What I find more disturbing than anything in these discussions is the amount of people holding the police to a lower standard, instead of a higher one. If that isn't racialized fear, and authoritarian impulses, I don't know what is.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

A Small Revision

I got some pushback on my last post from a good friend, to the effect that I was denigrating all cops, and perverting the notion of justice. Let me say this clearly, and as clearly as I can: I recognize that the radical suggestion I proposed would not be fair, in an individual sense. But don't we tell our children, "Life's not fair"? If we have a major structural problem, such that a recent black Atlanta police chief can express his opinion that 20% of his own department is racist, the inconvenience of losing a job ought to be worth it for the sake of overall justice. I don't think we're ready to consider the idea as white people that this problem is much bigger than we ever thought. What if the problem is not at the margins? What if our attitudes about those who raise their voices against police brutality are more formed by a desire for stability, than for justice?

I do not intend to suggest that I know the hearts of every police officer in America. I do not even intend to suggest that I know the extent of racism among white people in America. I don't even truly know the extent of my own racism. What I intend to suggest is that a free society functions almost entirely on trust. If trust is lost to any great degree, the society itself is in danger. If we have a large plurality of citizens who do not trust the police--and rightly so--our society is in danger. Any sensible person would want to confront an existential threat to his or her society. Confronting this existential threat is worth a few inconveniences, even for those who are not actively participating in the injustices.

One needs only to examine his own thoughts and feelings about the phrase "sensitivity training" to know that we have a long way to go. Because it's no longer about a few off-color slurs with the boys off-duty. People are literally dying at the hands of the police. And frankly, we were a little too casual to assume that those off-color slurs had no impact upon how police would do their jobs.

I shouldn't have to say that I respect the danger of police work. I shouldn't have to say that there are actual bad people in the world of every color, who need to be confronted and subdued by police. I shouldn't have to say that I am a moral absolutist, ever and always. Yet apparently, I do, because I was invited to take responsibility for things I never said. I said we should at least consider--here comes a modification--firing all the white police, and starting over. I never actually said that the very concept of due process should be permanently eliminated, or that every unfortunate person impacted by this is guilty of something. I am saying that sometimes justice is more important than fairness.

I know it's a radical suggestion; I know that to make a suggestion of this type--even to think about it--marks me as some kind of "liberal". But if you have been following this space for any length of time, you know what I think about our labels right now, with respect to politics.

Anyone who has ever held a conservative attitude about anything intends to conserve something. That which is not worth conserving ought not to be conserved. I leave you to consider how much of our society--reflected in the actions of police--is infected with white supremacy, and how far you think we need to go to fight it. I've stated my views, and I don't intend to revise them at this time. Take it or leave it.

My Turn

I'm not going to waste your time mourning; I have no performative emotional displays left for anyone or anything. I only know that the harassment or indiscriminate murder of a black person seems to happen with disturbing regularity.

What is more disturbing is the pattern I see in some of my fellow whites. There will be a superficial acknowledgment that something has gone wrong. Then there will be a plea to "let all the facts come out," which is the precursor to finding some justification for the killing. Do we honestly believe that the world would fall apart if we fired every police officer in America, and started over? Do we believe that the morally ordered universe would simply fall apart, if we decided that such a radical change was necessary?

I think the comedian Chris Rock was right about us. He said that for most whites, we passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and decided that every injustice was righted at that time. No other protest or complaint would be accepted. There is something structurally wrong; people aren't supposed to die while in police custody, to say nothing of use-of-force decisions, and weapons discharge decisions. I suppose I am naïve enough to believe that protecting and serving are what police are supposed to be doing. If you were black, would you feel protected and served right now? Would you have ever felt that way?

Quite frankly, I think open mistrust of police is now morally justified. If good cops don't want to be distrusted, they should start policing their own. They haven't.

Flagrant, repeated injustice demands a swift and heavy response. If there ever were a time to overreact, this is now the time. The friends and family of the dead don't want to hear about "a few bad apples". The whole tree is bad; we've just been in denial about it this entire time.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Unfiltered Thoughts

The title is a fair warning that this will not be a happy post. I looked up "ennui" in the dictionary. It doesn't mean what I thought it meant. It doesn't describe what I'm feeling. I'm not bored; I'm angry. I'm angry that I'm not necessary. I'm not needed by anyone, for anything. I'm angry that 80% of the people that are like me--with a physical disability--aren't working. In this meat grinder of a society, where we judge people by what they do, use them up, and toss them aside, I'm not even one of the disposables. I have 2 degrees, and I nearly got a third. I'd like to think I'm fairly intelligent, with something to offer. But we don't treat disabled people with respect in this society; we don't even treat them like poster children. We treat them like posters. Something to look at, while we celebrate ourselves.

And another group of you, who go on about making a Catholic and Christian society, I've got something for you. Anything truly Catholic and Christian makes space for people to do something, something that makes them feel like they contribute to the world around them. Everyone wants this, and everyone wants to do this. Don't you dare go on about how "inspiring" I am. You pat me on the head, and send me home to wait on the scraps of your alleged generosity, while you have the clueless audacity to wonder why I can't just "get a job" like everyone else. And all the while sitting in your comfortable perch from which--barring some disaster--you will never be dislodged.

No, ennui is not the right word. I care passionately about many things, not least of which is the outcome of my own life. I am not just an object. I am a man, like any other, with real thoughts and feelings. Take the measure of your own words; would you use them toward anyone but me? Dare you to act surprised, when I do not simply accept the "comfortable" place you have assigned for me?

I am literally--yet metaphorically--just a man shouting into the ether. But I do it nonetheless. At the moment, it seems to beat screaming in someone's face.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Back To the Beginning

I can remember the beginning. The early days with Jesus, and even before that, when I was simply curious about God, without knowing anything about Him. There is an idea, or set of ideas, that gets a bum rap in Christian circles these days; it's called, "moral therapeutic deism". The basic idea is that God exists, but he exists to make us feel better about ourselves. Religion itself exists in this conception as the atheist says it does: to provide us comfort and sustenance through the hardship of this life. You can see how bunch of Christian leaders could get all bent out of shape about this, when they realize that their sheep know nothing about doctrine, or endurance, or obedience. On the other hand, I may be the only person who has been helped by the prevailing culture of moral therapeutic deism. I knew that God existed, and I knew that he had to be good. I knew that the multiple tragedies of my young life made God sad, if there is such a thing. [There is. Jesus wept.--ed.] In short, I knew that God loved me, and that there was an answer to the suffering I experienced. I didn't understand that I needed him, and that I myself needed forgiveness. I didn't understand that Jesus was Lord and Savior.

 A Rabbi Kushner wrote a book called, "Why Bad Things Happen to Good People". I read that, and I was ripe for the picking, in terms of conversion. It's because the good Rabbi deals with the problem of pain and Providence by sacrificing the notion that God is all-powerful. I definitely understand the appeal of wanting to do this, because the pain of this world is not theoretical. In fact, if the terrors and degradations against Jewish people don't cause you to have moments of doubt about the plan of Providence, I can't help you. Sometimes we demand an answer, and we're not going to get one, at least not in this life. I don't know how or why this recognition kept me from agnosticism, or even atheism, but I would have said that somehow Goodness was protecting me. My best answer to the sorrow of the world is still, "I don't understand," and I don't need to investigate it further. In my experience, getting through the suffering is more important than demanding an explanation.

If we know that we are loved, even in simply human terms, we can endure almost anything. On the supernatural level, this is still true. However, this is why particular kinds of abuse and trauma are so damaging: because they cause people to misunderstand love, or even to doubt that they have received it from still others. I could have been irretrievably broken many times, or so it seems. Nevertheless, it also seems as though Love Himself has been chasing me, as long as I have been able to understand anything. I suppose therefore that I am in the right business, so to speak.

I suppose the gift of knowing more about God is to take the opportunity to allow Him to love me, to stop running away, hopefully to stop trying to find my completion in other things.

I think the best thing about religion properly understood, is that it is not some weirdly inhuman thing that is superimposed upon my life, and its relationships. Rather, God revealing himself is the explanation for all that you and I seek, the personal articulation of everything we hope for. I have felt God chasing me, precisely because he is chasing all of us. We know that it is not meaningless, this life, because so many of us refuse to surrender--at least completely--to our more selfish instincts, or to the bitterness that could so easily consume us in the face of all this suffering. Some people claim that I simply make a meaning out of essentially nothing. A person who truly believed this would encourage me to kill his mother. We know better, and we even ought to know that any "society" which encouraged people to kill their mothers would be a defective society. On the other hand, we accept and tolerate so many things that ought to be similarly outrageous, probably by endless repetition and acceptance.

I digress.

In the end, I don't know too much more than I knew at the beginning. What I know I know more deeply, more personally, more intimately. It is a journey of self-discovery, but it is also in a unique way the true reality of the world outside.