By now, you’ve certainly heard about the criminal case of an American student studying abroad in Italy – the alleged “mastermind” behind the death of her roommate. Chances are also pretty good that you’ve heard the verdict: 26 years in prison.
This morning I read an article which quoted the victim’s family’s lawyer as having said,
“With tonight’s verdict, justice has been done for the tragedy which struck the Kercher family. They are satisfied. These are severe sentences for young people, so it is a tragedy for all concerned” (italics mine).
If we were to cut the fat from this man’s statement, translate it into an algebraic statement, and then put in true values for the variables, it would come out (when simplified) looking something like this: justice = tragedy + tragedy. Read his statement again. This lawyer suggests that an event which constituted a tragedy, required another tragedy of commensurate degree to be committed in order for justice to occur. Does this sound like justice to you? To me, it sounds like simple revenge – but the kind of revenge you can stomach without shame, because it happened in a court of “law.” (Any one recall “an eye for an eye makes the whole world…”?)
Now, I don’t know much about the case and haven’t taken an interest in it until now – so my words should really be taken cum grano solis. After all, I’m basing my entire perception of wrong-doing on one man’s statement. But, what bothers me more than the fact a court may have allowed revenge to take place in its proceedings, rather than true justice, is that, to my knowledge, no one in the media has been concerned with this same idea. I was inundated yesterday – online, on television, on the radio, in paper – with media buzzards swarming around this story. The aspects they were concerned about were, to me, mundane and irrelevant: “How does the family feel?” (We can all imagine how they feel – now let’s stop prying into their personal lives.) “How does the victim’s family feel?” (We can all imagine how they feel, now let’s stop prying into their personal lives and let them grieve on their own). “Was it sex? Was it drugs? Was it violent?” (Of course the media would pick up on such elements).
Why wasn’t the media evaluating the case? The proceedings? The fairness of the sentences?
In his 1996 essay, “Why American’s Hate the Media,” James Fallows suggested that the media has lost its way. That its focusing on the wrong aspects of the stories it covers. He focuses more on politics, but I think the same idea applies here. He says,
“the pressure to keep things lively means that squabbling replaces dialogue. The discussion shows that are supposed to enhance public understanding may actually reduce it…”
That statement seems to be the crux of what’s wrong with the media. It speaks to a confusion over their vision (not perception, but vision of their purpose). After all, what’s the point of the media? Is it to increase ratings? If so, they can focus on the sensational, but their choice of topic and manner in which they cover it will not enlighten us. So, then, is their purpose to increase our understanding of issues and events? I certainly hope so. But I can’t say I’ve seen evidence of that in the American media today.
The November 30, 2009 Newsweek ended not with a bang, but with a sobering back story, entitled “What’s the Last Word in Capital Punishment?” (I had hoped to provide only a link, rather than recap the story, but can’t seem to find this on Newsweek‘s website). Against the backdrop of a syringe, this story displays the results of Ian Yarett’s textual analysis of last statements made by the 446 people executed in Texas since 1976. His analysis resulted in a list of the most frequently used words in “offenders’ ” last remarks. Here’s a glimpse of the top five:
“Love” (630 times)
“Thanks” (243 times)
“Sorry” (211 times)
“God” (175 times)
“Lord” (130 times)
Of special interest to me was the large gap between the most commonly mentioned word (“love”) and the second most commonly used word (“thanks”) – a 61% difference.
This single page had more of an impact on me than the last thousand (of any publication) I have turned. There seems to me to be something sacred about what people say right before they die – criminal or not. And, Texas seems to agree. They’ve faithfully recorded every last statement and made them publicly available online, from 40 year-old Charlie Brooks jr who was executed in 1982 for kidnapping and killing a car salesman, to 34 year old Robert Thompson, executed just two weeks ago for robbing a convenience store and killing the store clerk.
These statements seem to prove Henry Drummond correct, when he reminded us that
“You will find, as you look back upon your life, that the moments when you have truly lived are the moments when you have done things in the spirit of love.”
Then again, I cannot, somewhat cynically, resist from recalling one of Toni Morrison’s poignant lines:
“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
Indeed, it may be that language is the measure of our lives. Something to think about, eh?
The other day I visited Starbucks after a hike. I ordered a tall latte and, as I waited on the barista, wandered around the store. I perused the obligatory black-and-white art, the collection of coffee mugs, and a rambling mess of Starbucks paraphernalia. When I had made an almost complete circle back to the barista, I caught sight of a small cardboard stand-up. It proudly boasted Starbucks’ logo, hovering over a small paragraph of text.
As far as my imperfect memory recalls, the paragraph read something like this:
“The Siren. According to myth her song was beautiful and irresistible. We still can’t resist her.”
I cocked my head and re-read the justification for their logo once more. When I was certain I had read correctly, I started looking around me with an incredulous look on my face. No one else seemed bothered by what I noticed.
Based on my brief observation, I began to suspect that Starbucks suffered from a terrible disorder called mytholitis – that is, a condition in which one fails to recall mythological stories accurately or completely. Either they suffer from this terrible condition or, I’m afraid, they selectively retold this myth to hide an obvious truth about their product.
According to this cardboard prophet, Starbucks justifies the Siren in its logo because this creature was beautiful and irresistible to sailors. To the casual observer, this advertising sends a warm subliminal message which depicts hard working sailors (us – the consumer) being humored by the song of a beautiful woman (Starbucks). The appeal of this narrative – being pleased by a member of the opposite sex – is obvious. To rehash the Siren myth in this way, however, is a patent oversimplification.
As anyone who does not suffer from mytholitis could tell you, the real myth recounts a more tragic story of the Sirens. They were ugly humanoids – half bird, half woman in appearance – and were entirely wicked. When unsuspecting ships would sail by Sirenum scopuli, the three rocky islands where the Sirens made their home, these creatures would begin to sing. Men who heard their ethereal voices became enchanted. Incensed, they sought to find the source of the music no matter the danger. Usually this meant turning their ships towards the noise and blindly sallying forth, wrecking their ships upon the rocks surrounding the Sirens’ islands and drowning, unfulfilled.
Initially, I was concerned that Starbucks was incorrectly rehashing a myth to justify their misuse of an icon. In hindsight, maybe that icon is appropriate – when the myth is correctly remembered. After all, Starbucks coffees aren’t necessarily healthy for us and, for many Starbucks regulars, their product does seem dangerously irresistible. Perhaps their marketing gurus put out this message to amuse themselves, fully cognizant of the fact that there are two vastly different ways of reading their logo: an incorrect way, which they’re peddling to consumers everyday; and a correct way, which would warn consumers away from heeding the Starbucks Siren’s call.
Lately I’ve noticed a string of periodicals publishing stories which claim our sex offender laws are too harsh. I read one story and was unconvinced. I read another and, though I started puzzling over the matter in earnest, remained unmoved. A quick succession of a third and fourth article on the subject really had me thinking – and I’ve since come to agree: we need to re-evaluate our stance on sex offenders.
It seems we could refer to the nineties as the “Crackdown on Sex Offenders Decade” – a majority of ordinances and laws were passed in those ten years which have since become a part of our everyday lives: federal and state sex offender registries, living restrictions, and restrictions on where sex offenders can work (or even volunteer – Georgia had banned offenders from volunteering for churches, before it was overturned) . But, what have they accomplished? In our desperation to protect ourselves and our children, we fought in the name of reduced recidivism, but only achieved the creation of a new sub-class of human being: one with no home, no friends, and fewer reasons not to commit more crimes.
The August 8th issue of The Economist tells the story of Wendy Whitaker who, in 1996, performed oral sex on a classmate. She was 17 and he was three weeks short of being 16. In Georgia at the time, oral sex was considered sodomy – and thus was she charged. Whitaker consequently spent more than a year in jail, the state women’s prison, and boot camp. She told The Economist, “I was in there with people who killed people. It’s crazy.” And, although oral sex is no longer considered sodomy in Georgia and a new law has categorized consensual sex
between teenagers only a misdemeanor and not a crime, Whitaker has received no relief: her name, photograph, and address are made publicly available online at Georgia’s Sex Offender Registry. Recently, Whitaker and her husband bought a house, being careful to abide by the living restrictions Georgia has established for these vile sex offenders (they must live and work at least 1,000 feet from anywhere children may congregate). The Whitakers thought they researched their choice well enough, but were evicted when it became evident that a church nearby operated a child-care centre. Her dutiful husband moved with her and lost his job as a result.
A similar tale can be found in Miami, where legislation bans sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of places where children gather . As a result, a new slum has been born: the Julia Tuttle Causeway. Under this bridge, a “colony of predators” eke out their meager existence – or so we think . Most individuals only sleep at the Julia Tuttle Encampment, but live elsewhere during the day. After all, the ordinance just requires them to avoid places where children gather from 10p.m.-6a.m. As one sex offender observed, “We could be in front of a school all day, but we are under the bridge when all the kids are at home with their moms at night. This doesn’t make any sense” .
The sex offender registries have numerous flaws, including:
Weak definitions of sex offenses: 13 states require registration as a sex offender for urinating in public ,
Discrimination against teenagers: 29 states require registration as a sex offender for teenagers who engaged in consensual sex with another teenager . You can drive a car, smoke, fight for your country, and vote – but I’ll throw you in jail if you make consensual love to your girlfriend. The Economist cites one man who feels the pain of this flaw poignantly: he “was convicted of statutory rape two decades ago for having consenual sex with his high-school sweetheart, to whom he is now married” .
The sheer numbers of offenders on the list makes it impossible for law enforcement to do anything effective with it. Terry Norris, of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, reported to The Economist that the man who had consensual sex with his high-school sweetheart, mentioned above, takes as much of their time and resources as someone who commits an especially “heinous” crime .
These individuals are made into targets for harassment: Numerous examples abound, describing convicted sex offenders being physically assaulted, murdered, or psychologically abused. While some critics might say this is their just desserts – we have to think strategically. While it is fair to say a murdered sex offender poses no threat to anything but our conscience, a harassed sex offender is only more likely to commit a more crimes – after all, what’s the point of abiding the law if it doesn’t protect you?
As a result of these flaws, we can paint this portrait of your average sex offender, post-punishment:
Destablized: “Well-intended policy is making the public less safe…[it] destablizes [offenders] by making them homeless” 
Destablized: “20-40% have had to move house because a landord or neighbor realized they were sex offenders” .
Emotionally unstable: “49% of sex offenders’ families report fearing for their own safety”  and most report feeling depressed, hopeless, or afraid .
Does it really seem logical to make a convicted sex offender more unstable? Admittedly, there is probably little “rehabilitation” for those who have committed heinous crimes – most of them are likely sick individuals who need to be imprisioned for the majority of their lives or medicated. But for the other individuals (those who were caught giving blowjobs, caught having consensual – though underage – sex, caught peeing on a building in public), do we really want to be creating an environment which is more likely to turn them into actual criminals, then just fools who made a silly mistake?
Building Blocks Towards a Solution
The Human Rights Watch is championing a better solution, where no other politicians have. Among other things, they propose the following adjustments to our sex offender laws:
Those convicted of minor, non-violent offenses should be not required to register
Juveniles should not be required to register
Sex offenders should be individually assessed, and only those judged to rape someone or abuse a child should be registered
Registrations will be regularly reviewed and offenders who are “rehabilitated” or who grow to old to re-offend, should be removed from the registry.
The information on sex-offenders registries should be held by the police and not published online, except on a need-to-know basis.
Blanket bans on all sex offenders living and working in certain areas should be abolished. Instead it makes sense for the most dangerous offenders to face tailored restrictions as a condition of parole.
The Economist (08.08.09), pg 21.
The Economist (08.08.09), pg22.
Newsweek (0803.09), pg 48. “A Bridge Too Far,” by Catharine Skipp and Arian Campo-Flores.
Newsweek (0803.09), pg 49. “A Bridge Too Far,” by Catharine Skipp and Arian Campo-Flores.
It seems each year, some organization ropes in another one of our fifty-two weeks and lays claim to it. Scanning Epromos’ list of these occasions, you might not be surprised to notice weeks have been designated for “Administrative Professionals,” “National Head and Neck Cancer Awareness,” Be Kind to Animals,” “National Tourism,” et cetera.
And yet, there are still some surprises out there – you might be surprised to read, for instance, that today, April 19, is the official start of Cowboy Poetry Week. In fact, this week hasn’t even made a blip on Epromos’ radar. You might think a week is overkill for honoring what sounds like an imaginary medium but, in fact, Cowboy Poetry Week has been steadily gaining steam and its sponsoring organization, CowboyPoetry.com is entering its tenth year. Although Epromos hasn’t caught onto the craze, Gov. “Ahnold” Schwarzenegger seems to be a fan.
Although the website isn’t a webcrawler’s dream in terms of navigation or pizazz, you might stumble on some gems. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll realize soon that there’s a new sheriff in town.
At my father’s insistence, I’m reading Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons. While lounging with the book today, a passage caught my attention, especially in light of recent news from the Pew Research Center:
“Perhaps miracle is the wrong word. I was simply trying to speak your language.”
“My language?” Langdon was suddenly uncomfortable. “Not to disappoint you, sir, but I study religious symbology – I’m an academic, not a priest.”
Kohler slowed suddenly and turned, his gaze softening a bit. “Of course. How simple of me. One does not need to have cancer to analyze its symptoms.” (page 27).
In August of last year, I wrote “Emptying Pews Cry for Leadership,” in which I discussed my perception of religion as a dying institution, but one that’s dying needlessly, from a preventable disease. The quotation from Angels & Demons I’ve included above is a propos because I’m not particularly religious; I’m just fascinated by religion and how people engage themselves with it.
In these dire economic times, you’d expect more and more people would be going to church. After all, aren’t we used to seeing church attendance rise when tough times or hurdles lie ahead or when the future becomes cloudy and overcast? Furthermore, going to church is more or less free, so it’s not like you can use less cash as an excuse from attending.
Despite what you might expect, the Pew Research Center released findings on March 13 which suggest that people are just as unconvinced by the value of going to church now as they were before this crisis started.
From the graph to the left, you can see that church-goers remain at the same small handful in January 2009 as they did in January 2007.
I don’t know about you, but I fully expected that as the Dow Jones plummeted, church attendance would climb, a testament to our ability to ignore the good things in our life until all we’re surrounded by is the bad.
So what does this mean, that the flagging economy has failed to revive our interest in religion? Maybe, just maybe, it’s an dead horse that’s not worth beating anymore.
I’m probably crossing a line with this post. I’ve been sitting on this one for about a week now, discussing this with friends and reflecting on it. My opinion hasn’t changed.
By now, you probably have heard of the sexting phenomenon. If not, in brief, it is the act of sending nude or semi-nude pictures of yourself to others via your mobile phone. Here’s the shocker: according to a survey performed last year by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 20 percent of teens “said they had sent or posted nude or semi-nude photos or videos of themselves” (MSNBC). Split out by gender, this was true for 22% of girls vs 18% of boys.
I haven’t had much time to write in the last couple of weeks, but I still wanted to capture this train of thought somewhere.
At the turn of the month, I made my rounds to Talking Philosophy, where Jean Kazez had just written (competently, I feel) about the perils of caring too much and the virtue of indifference, especially as it pertains to religious matters. Although I’m taking it out of context, one of the passage which stirred most concerned a topic I’m passionate about:
“At least in the US, we are rather fond of definining ourselves clearly. Each person practically has a brand (huge exaggeration–but think about facebook pages, blogs, ring-tones, and the like). There’s also high intolerance for non-belief, making it more important to “come out” defiantly as a non-believer. Atheism has developed something akin to a gay-pride movement, because there is in fact a high level of misunderstanding and prejudice in both cases.”
Jean says that considering Facebook pages, blogs, ring-tones, etc as a personal brand is a “huge exaggeration.” But is it really? In recent years, authors, prominent businesspersons, and media mongols have been pushing the idea that the main ingredient in success is creating a strong, irresistible brand of “You.” Considering that:
1) Are artifacts like Facebook, MySpace, ring-tones, blogs, twitters, etc precursors of the Brand-of-I mentality, or symptoms?
2) Are these precursors/symptoms healthy? Useful?
3) Where should we draw the line with our personal brands?
4) Perhaps more than anything, are we creating the brands, or are the brands creating us? (Corny, I know, but chew on it: Is the effort of perfecting our image for consumption causing us to burn away something more important?)
I’m reminded of Walter Fisher’s narrative paradigm. He suggested that we relate to people most through narrative. This trend is exemplary evidence to support that theory. Further more, this trend may end up showing just how constructive – or destructive – narrative can be.
To some, it’s simply “to drink or not to drink.” To others, it really is “to [die] or not to [die].” For the first time in twenty-five years, it seems now is the time to rehash the question. But, before considering whether or not the current drinking age of 21 years should be adjusted, it is best to examine this issue from its roots to its shoots, so to speak. After a brief historical survey, I’ll opine away.
While popular opinion would have you believe that this saga began in the 1920’s, contention on the topic began brewing much earlier. In 1629, the Virginia Colonial Assembly ruled that “Ministers shall not give themselves to excess in drinkinge, or riott, or spending their tyme idellye day or night.” In 1637, Massachusetts decreed that no one should stay in a tavern “longer than necessary occasions.” Meanwhile, Plymouth Colony outlawed the sale of alcohol to newly arrived strangers which cost “more than 2 pence.” These efforts to control excessive drinking are humorous, considering that Puritans took 42 tons of beer and 10,000 gallons of wine with them on the trip to Massachusetts – and only 14 tons of water.
Throughout the seventeenth and most of the eighteenth centuries, the spectre of prohibition made its presence known only in efforts to control individual consumption. During the last quarter of the eighteen century, prohibitionists realized their efforts might be more successful if they attacked the source. Thus John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, denounced distilling as a sin and called for its Prohibition in 1773. Despite a burgeoning number of people denouncing alcohol altogether, the camp in favor of alcohol remained staunchly unconvinced. When Harvard students were “left ‘wanting beer betwixt brewings a week and a week and a half together,” the first master at Harvard was fired.
In any case, out of my continuing interest in self-hood, identity construction, etc, I was intrigued by the following:
“It’s not just that Romantic Selfhood—Walter Pater’s notion of burning with a “hard, gemlike flame,” which is the true emotional underpinning of bohemia—has become commodified. Fairly harmless is the $4 venti soy latte purchased amid Starbucks’s track lighting, Nina Simone crooning, and a story about Costa Rican beans that have sailed around the world just to see YOU! It’s that Selfhood has its own berth now in the psychiatrist Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” a generational shift presaged by American sociologists who, as early as the 1970s, posited that, while hungry people are concerned about survival, those who grow up in abundance will hunger for self-expression. In the relatively affluent post–Cold War era, the search for self-expression has evolved into a desire to not have that self-expression challenged, which in turn necessitates living among people who think and feel just as you do. It’s why so many bohemians flee gritty Los Angeles for verdant Portland, where left-leaning citizens pride themselves on their uniform, monotonously progressive culture—the Zipcars, the organic gardens, the funky graphic-novel stores, and the thriving alternative-music scene.”
This economic catastrophe is teaching the Xers that their prized self-expression and their embrace of personal choice leads to … the collapse of capitalism. Time to inculcate not those self-satisfyingly hip and rebellious values—innovation! self-fulfillment!—cherished by the creative class (a class, after all, that includes in its ranks those buccaneering entrepreneurs who’ve led us down the primrose path), but those staid and stolid values of the bourgeoisie: industry, sobriety, moderation, self-discipline, and avoidance of debt. Out with the grungy baseball cap (cheap on its own, but not so thrifty when accompanied by those other accoutrements of formerly affluent hipdom—the iPhone, the rain-forest-safari vacation, the richly appointed LEED-certified house) and in with the dowdy JCPenney suit. The age of narcissistic creative-class strivers has brought this country cool new neighborhoods and an infinitely better selection of coffees and greens, but it has also brought shameful social stratification and a consumer binge that our children’s children may well be paying off. The Xer is dead. Long live the burgher!