Monday, February 24, 2014

"Stand your ground" laws have got to go

Earlier this month, a jury in Florida determined that Michael Dunn, who fired 10 pistol rounds into an SUV containing four teenage boys, was guilty of attempted murder. Attempted murder, mind you. Even though Dunn shot and killed Jordan Davis, one of the boys inside the vehicle, the jury hung on the charge of murder.

The reason that the jury failed to convict on the primary count can be attributed to Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, a synopsis of which, Judge Russell L. Healy provided in his instruction.
  • The defendant “has no duty to retreat.”
  • The defendant has “the right to stand his ground.”
  • “The danger facing the defendant need not have been actual.” 
A careful interpretation of these instructions explains why, indeed, the jury reached the verdict it did.

After Dunn started shooting on that day in November, the driver of the SUV attempted to flee. But Dunn continued firing into the vehicle as it drove away. The jury held that this action was unjustifiable. On that basis, it convicted Dunn of attempted murder.

But before the driver attempted to drive away, Dunn had already fired several shots, killing Jordan Davis. The jury could not determine Dunn's guilt regarding the murder count, because Dunn claimed he saw a weapon in the vehicle at the time the incident occurred. Therefore, even though the danger he faced was not actual (the police investigation revealed that there was no weapon in the SUV), Dunn was within his rights to act to protect himself.

And so, the net result is that Dunn is convicted on 4 lesser counts, where he tried, but failed to kill anyone, but is not convicted on the 1 count that addressed the actual killing.

The lack of a conviction recalls another case in Florida from February of 2012: the case of George Zimmerman's shooting of Trayvon Martin. In that case, Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder, even though he forced a confrontation with the unarmed Martin, who was walking home from the store.

Both of these cases demonstrate the absurdity of Florida's "Stand your ground" law. The way the law is interpreted, a person can provoke a conflict, respond to any action with deadly force, and then claim that he felt endangered by the victim.

The uproar from these two cases is causing a re-examination of the law. Sadly, it comes at the price of two young lives.

Although Dunn will most likely spend the rest of his life in prison, it is important that law enforcement officials follow-up with a retrial on the murder charge. Florida must establish that shootings are not acceptable when the option to retreat is available.

Florida's "Stand your ground" law is an outgrowth of the fear and insecurity that is prevalent among certain elements of our society. To these people, the world is dangerous and they are losing their places within it. My own anecdotal observation is that, oftentimes, vociferous gun-rights advocates are frightened, insecure persons. To them, a gun affords respect. It gives them an illusory totem to which they can cling as proof of their relevance.

What an unhappy life that would be. And what a terrible price we continue to pay just to assuage the fears of such miserable, frightened creatures.

Read more here:

Monday, February 17, 2014

Isn't life dreary, Mr. Billionaire?

"I would call attention to the parallels of Nazi Germany to its war on its 'one percent,' namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the 'rich.'
This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendent 'progressive' radicalism unthinkable now?" --Tom Perkins, January 24, 2014, letter to the Wall Street Journal
I wonder, could Tom Perkins have possibly found a more frank expression of the contempt he has for the common people? The audacity of these remarks --made by way of complaint at the treatment "the rich" are receiving in the national media --is breath-taking. Truly, Mr. Perkins has but one measure of a person's worth. (Hint: it ain't sartorial sense.)

(Not to mention, of course, the disrespect it displays toward the millions of victims of Nazi atrocities in the days of the Third Reich. (Kristallnacht refers to a two day period of terror in 1938, about 18 months before the outbreak of World War II. Nazi paramilitary units in Germany and Austria roamed the streets, attacking Jewish businesses, homes, schools, and synagogues. They burned, smashed, and pillaged while authorities looked on. At least 91 people were killed and many more beaten or incarcerated.))

Mr. Perkins thinks he's being treated unfairly? I say he needs to buck up. According to the New York Times, corporate profits in March, 2013 were at record levels. Corporate profits are how Perkins makes his money. He's a venture capitalist. He makes money with money.

Meanwhile, the US poverty rate for the last three years has held at 15%. One in six Americans live in poverty. And while President Obama recently issued an executive order raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, it would take a minimum wage earner 4,670 years of 40-hour weeks to make enough money to bid on Perkin's yacht, The Maltese Falcon, which he sold in 2009 for £60 million.

Perkins is a sociopath. Like Junior. Or Cheney. Like oligarchs everywhere. They have no inkling of what it is like to sweat making a mortgage payment or to run a cost/benefit analysis for a health care procedure. People like Perkins cannot conceive that other people matter. They have no idea of what life is like for the rest of us.

It just serves to confirm. Vast fortunes kill empathy.

In a way, they are pitiable. Their extraordinary circumstances set them apart. They can never know the triumphs that we know, the joys that come from just enduring.

They can't buy that.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Book review: Cambodia's Curse

Joel Brinkley's book of recent history in Southeast Asia, Cambodia's Curse, is an arduous read. Not because of its density, nor its length, nor its obscurity. In fact, the book is neither dense, nor lengthy, nor obscure. What makes this book a difficult read is the subject matter and the depressing picture it paints.

Brinkley is a veteran foreign journalist who made his name reporting on Cambodia at the time of the fall from power of Pol Pott's murderous Khmer Rouge regime. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Vietnamese invasion that occurred in 1979.

Cambodia's Curse, however, deals with the post-Khmer Rouge years of Cambodia. Mercifully, Brinkley does not dwell on the abuses that occurred during the Pol Pott days. They're mentioned, but I expect he deemed that enough has already been written about that. And what he does write about is bad enough.

After a brief historical synopsis, Brinkley launches into an exposition of the state of Cambodia in the immediate aftermath of the genocidal years. Cambodia became a laboratory for high-minded United Nations experimentation. The UN and its constituent members found a state in utter chaos and poverty and responded with a generous attempt (to the tune of $3 billion) to create a modern nation-state ready to join the community of nations. The UN attempted to introduce notions of self-determination and good government to the traumatized Cambodia people. But, Brinkley reports, Cambodia wasn't ready for it. Cambodians were mostly illiterate and uneducated and their history, since the days of the great Angkhor kings in the 8th century, was of a land governed by feudalism.

Brinkley chronicles how the well-intentioned efforts of the global community fell victim to the  Cambodian curse of government nepotism and corruption. He relates how the people, downtrodden and despondent, have learned to accept their condition.

Cambodia is a nation that will not face its past. For example, Khmer Rouge war criminals live among the people they once wantonly killed without fear of being held to account for their crimes. Mental health experts estimate that much of the population suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. (Remember, Pol Pott and his gang murdered nearly one quarter of the nation's entire population.)

Cambodian government is little more than organized crime. Government leaders, among them crafty strongman Hun Sen, jealous princeling Norodom Ranariddh, and Sam Rainsy, the clownish opposition leader, spend tremendous energies vying against one another, playing to foreign governments, maneuvering for political position, and generally ignoring the needs of their desperate people. As foreign aid money pour into the country, the cancer of corruption metastasizes.

Brinkley also describes the plight of everyday Cambodians: survivors of the notorious Killing Fields, impoverished farmers, people displaced by aribtrary and corrupt government policies. Cambodian children often grow stunted from the effects of malnutrition. There are precious few doctors and educators and other professionals in the country. No one is free from the effects of corruption. Those children lucky enough to attend school are expected to provide bribes for their teachers who, in turn, pass a portion of their cut up to the principal. Government services are pay-to-play. Poor sanitation, nationwide, lead to regular outbreaks of sanitary-related diseases.

This is why Cambodia's Curse is an arduous read. It is a depressing and near-hopeless portrait. When I got to the end, I didn't see any reason to expect anything better for Cambodians in the foreseeable future. Quite sad, really.

Brinkley has a matter-of-fact delivery. His language is plain. His assessment of politics is thorough. One nit I had with the book was that I could have used more instruction on the pronunciation of Cambodian words.

Cambodia's Curse is informative and factual. I can't say I enjoyed it. But I learned from it. That's enough to make it worthwhile.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Blizzard of '14

Picked Maty up from work
Weather reports on Thursday told a harrowing tale of log-jammed traffic a mere half-hour's drive to the south of my place of employment. Interstate 5 was bound for miles in both directions according to the ODOT weather cameras, causing myself and many of my coworkers to abandon the office and flee northward before the advancing front.

Driving north, I saw evidence of the storm on the refugee vehicles around me. Snow clung to bumpers and tail lights and gathered at the base of rear-view windows. But the pavement was still clear when I arrived home.

Not so a mere hour later. Snow was falling in miniscule, dry flakes. It accumulated in the frozen gutters and scudded in wisps across the pavement, driven by a fierce east wind. (Ever Portland's scourge, that wind.)

At 2:30 pm. I made the short drive to Maty's place of employment to spare her the cold walk home. At that hour, the snow was thick, burying the street curbs and speed bumps.

Setting out for Freddie's
Maty was restless when we got to the house. "Weather like this, you never know," she said. "Let's go to Fred Meyer and buy food." So we bundled up and set out.

Although a mere four city blocks measure the distance between our house and Fred Meyer, it was an arduous trek nonetheless. The wind blew ice directly into our faces and the sidewalks were treacherous.

Before we did our shopping, we walked the extra block to the pho place and ate bowls of pho and drank hot tea against the cold.

Nothing like pho on a snowy day
Fortified and encouraged we went to Fred Meyer. The aisles were all hustle and bustle. We were not the only Rose City folks to see the prudence in a trip to the grocer. We purchased fish (snow cod, appropriately) and other groceries.

Made it
Thus provisioned, we hurried home. Our backs were to the wind on the return trip. Between that fact and the reassurance we took from our supplies, the homeward leg wasn't nearly as bad.

That was Thursday. Today, Sunday, conditions haven't improved much. The snow is still here with an added layer of frozen rain. But the wind, at least, has abated.

It's a veritable blizzard, but we're getting through it alright.

Hang in there, Rose City! Let's not go all Cormac McCarthy on each other.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Book review: The Luminaries

With Eleanor Catton's Man Booker Prize-winning second novel, The Luminaries, the young New Zealand author has established herself as a more-than-accomplished writer. Ms. Catton was 27 years old at the time of the book's first printing, and given the astuteness of her perception, her skill as a plot developer, and her convincing (and at times, playful) narrative voice, that is an amazing fact. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The Luminaries is set on the western coast of New Zealand in 1866. A gold rush is on at this, the far frontier of civilization. A disillusioned and disinherited young Scot named Walter Moody arrives at the small seaport of Hokitika where he hopes to earn his fortune panning for "color." Mr. Moody has had a harrowing voyage; he's the witness to a sight that has left him disquieted and in doubt. But he finds no respite when he seeks to relax in the smoking room of his hotel that evening. Rather, he interrupts an urgent conference between 12 men of diverse appearances, social classes, and races. A series of unexplained events have occurred in Hokitika. A hermit prospector has been murdered; a fallen woman has made an attempt on her own life; and an ambitious politician has arrived in town. Each man at the gathering has a piece of the puzzle that connects these events, and each has an interest in learning the truth about them, although for widely divergent reasons. All of this is made clear to Mr. Moody as the men turn to him for advice and perspective.

What unfolds from there is an intricately-plotted, haunting and beautiful tale of betrayals and deceptions, isolation, disillusionment, honor and dishonor, and love-in-spite-of-everything. It's an ambitious and daunting achievement.

There are many aspects of this multifaceted novel that bespeak Catton's extraordinary skill.

Like David Mitchell, Ms. Catton experiments with structure. The Luminaries mimics the progression of the zodiac in its composition. Each chapter of the novel is prefaced with a zodiacal chart. The chapters wane in length like the phases of the moon. The first chapter, "A Sphere Within a Sphere" is the longest (the moon is full). Subsequent chapters are sequentially shorter (the moon wanes) up to the last chapter, "The Old Moon in the Young Moon's Arms," which is but 2 pages in length.

The narrative voice the author employs is Victorian (think Charles Dickens or Emily Brontë) and it is spot on. Catton's prose evokes vivid imagery and reveals an astuteness toward human nature that is astonishing for such a young writer.

The characters are so well-drawn and vivid that, as my friend Kurt Kemmerer wrote of them: "The folks were standing in my living room as I read." 

Further, Catton exhibits a genius for plotting. The Luminaries is a complex novel. A score of major characters appear, each with his or her own motives, agenda, and goals. The reader is challenged to keep track of how the agendas of the characters interlock and relate to one another. The timeline jumps forward and backward. Foreshadowing, mirroring, and rich symbolism permeate.

And just to give you a sample of her beautiful prose, I include here an excerpt from the book. This is a pivotal scene and it comes late in the book. See what you think:
The Maori man carried a greenstone club upon his hip, thrust through his belt in the way that one might wear a crop or a pistol. The club had been carved into the shape of a paddle, and polished to a shine: the stone was a rippled olive green, shot through with bursts of yellow, as if tiny garlands of kowhai had been melted and then pressed into glass.
Carver, having delivered his message, was about to bid the other man goodbye when the stone caught the light, and seemed suddenly to brighten; curious, he pointed at it, saying, "What's that --a paddle?"

"Patu pounamu," said Tauwhare.

"Let me see," said Carver, holding out his hand. "Let me hold it."

Tauwhare took the club off his belt, but he did not hand it to the other man. He stood very still, staring at Carver, the club loose in his hand, and then suddenly, he leaped forward, and mimed jabbing Carver in the throat, and then in the chest; finally he raised the club up high above his shoulder, and brought it down, very slowly, stopping just before the weapon made contact with Carver's temple. "Harder than steel," he said.

"Is it?" said Carver. He had not flinched. "Harder than steel?"

Tawhare shrugged. He stepped back and thrust the club back into his belt; he appraised Carver for a long moment, his chin lifted, his jaw set, and then he smiled coldly, and turned away.
The book is a weighty 800+ pages in length. A considerable effort, but one that is well-worth making. I've undertaken to give it another go even as I write this. The plot is so complex and interwoven that this book demands a second reading.

Elizabeth Catton is on my must-read list. I can't wait to see her next effort.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Super Bowl XLVIII: Party for the privleged

For those of you in the cheap seats I'd like ya to clap your hands to this one; the rest of you can just rattle your jewelry!”  --John Lennon 
Another Super Bowl in the can.

Maty and I actually watched the game this year. We and roughly 97 million other persons (according to Neilsen). What made it strange was that we watched because she suggested it! Maty, the gal from West Africa who doesn't even understand American football, suggested that she and I watch the game together. On teevee! She said she wanted to see the commercials.

Mismatched work schedules put a premium on the time that Maty and I have together and Super Sunday was our day. So we watched, even though it has been 20 years or more since I've had any interest in the NFL.

The Seattle Seahawks, our neighbors to the north, blew out the Denver Broncos in a surprisingly lop-sided game. Final score 43-8. Denver bungled their opening play from scrimmage and gave up a safety to the tenacious Seahawk defense. On the first play from scrimmage! For the Broncos, it was all downhill from there.

At some point in the day, maybe while enduring the breathless pre-game coverage on the tube, or maybe while enjoying all the chomp-at-the-bit sh*t-talking on Facebook, it occurred to me that the Super Bowl is prima facie evidence of the gaping resource chasm that exists in this country. I'm talking about the gap between those who have everything --the upper 10% --and all the rest of us.

The Super Bowl isn't really an event for most of us. Yes, we gather around our television sets in our millions, munching chips and guacamole. But we're spectators. We aren't included in the party.

Consider: according to the New York Times, cheap seats at MetLife Stadium went for $1600 per. For top-of-the-line corporate suites the price was $292,000. In Portland, that could buy you a very decent 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom house! Of course, most of us would have to take out a mortgage and pay it off over decades. No one I know has access to the kind of resources that allow you to spend over a quarter million dollars to spend a day partying.

I have to imagine that the vast majority of the people taking part in the Super Bowl event --the people sitting in those seats, enjoying Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers half-time show --are affluent beyond anything I can ever imagine. Of course, noblesse oblige dictates that the NFL relegate a few seats to charitable causes --Special Olympics kids, wounded war veterans, and so on --but the rest of us aren't really welcome at the party. It's an elite event.

Flawed presidential candidate John Edwards used to speak about there being two Americas. "One America that does the work, another that reaps the reward."

That speech, the "Two Americas" speech, came to mind while Maty and I munched Papa Murphy's pizza. We sat under a blanket on the couch in our drafty living room. Glued to our television screen. Watching the rich folks rattle their jewelry. At the Super Bowl.