Talkin' about character, talkin' about ethics (yes, the "#gamergate" post)

>> Thursday, October 16, 2014

I'm talkin' about friendship. I'm talkin' about character. I'm talkin' about - hell. Leo, I ain't embarrassed to use the word - I'm talkin' about ethics.
- Johnny Caspar, Miller's Crossing (1990).

One of the sly running jokes in Joel and Ethan Coen's Miller's Crossing is that the only character in the film who explicitly worries about the ethics of criminality is a mentally unstable, erratic, violence-prone moron.  In a film stuffed to its gills with sociopaths like Eddie Dane and Bernie Bernbaum, one in which the protagonist is a seemingly amoral antihero who initially appears to be playing the same vicious game played by the protagonist(s) of Yojimbo and its remake A Fistful of Dollars,  Johnny Caspar is possibly the most psychopathic of the miserable lot.  He's such a rotten apple, his most sympathetic personality trait is that he's an easily-manipulated fool who's oblivious to the machinations and real agendas of those around him, possessed of a fundamental incompetence running so deep you could nearly feel sorry for him--a trap the Coens cannily avoid falling into by including a scene where Caspar slaps the shit out of his own son (a hapless adolescent who appears to have inherited the worst traits of his round mother and idiot father).

Naturally, as a violent and not-at-all-bright gangland boss, Johnny Caspar's grasp of "ethics" is, well... interesting.  It's not necessarily that he's wrong, it's just that even if he's right, it doesn't change the underlying fact that he's a clueless, murderous jerk.  You really can't undersell just how dumb and violent Caspar is.  But he has "ethics".  And loads of advice about getting a really clean shave.

Dumb, violent jerks who rant about ethics have been in the news a bit lately, especially if you're a geek or nerd who has an interest in, oh, I don't know, let's say you're interested in videogames.  Some of you already guessed where this was going, didn't you?  (Yes?  No?)

We would be talking about an assault on women in the gaming industry by a small but extremely noisy group of misogynistic malcontents that lately includes terrorist threats against professionals and critics (the word "terrorism" is not used lightly: a lecture by a prominent media critic that was scheduled to occur at the University of Utah was cancelled over public safety concerns after the school received an e-mail threatening "the deadliest school shooting in American history") that has been given the unfortunate label "Gamergate" because "gating" a word is how we Americans purport the land is awash in scandal again these days.

The tl;dr version would be that a sad little man-boy got his feelings hurt and a bunch of Johnny Caspars decided to launch a crusade about "journalistic ethics" that was really a not-particularly subtle attack on all the girlfriends in the world who are Ruining The Band1.  Which would even be funnysad but for the fact that the attack has gone beyond pissing and moaning about how ooky girls are and how much it sucks things have changed and to the aforementioned terror threats and doxxing (the posting of private details of someone's life online; which can be bad enough even when unaccompanied by explicit and implied threats of violence--and I'll give you one guess as to whether these asstards have been making violent threats); along with some other offensive and tacky misbehavior like slut-shaming that is meant to make people feel bad (but just shy of actual criminal conduct, though much of it is obviously tortious if any of these choads could be nailed down by a civil suit).

The sad little man-boy is a guy with the improbable name Eron Gjoni, and he makes an old man out of me.  See, back in my day, when a girl broke your heart, what you did was, you got yourself a bottle of Scotch, or maybe bourbon, and you drank the hell out of it until your buddies came around and took you to a bar and agreed with you while you bored them to tears with the sordid details of how this girl--who you loved, man, you really, really loved her--was a heartless bitch who--how could she do this to you?  How could she do this to you, you really loved her and how could she do this?  And your friends kept you from drunk dialing her and possibly tried distracting you with a strip club and made sure you got facedown onto the couch without picking up an impaired driving charge and surely were incredulous behind your back that you were such a pissy little whiner.  You possibly wrote a bunch of overwrought songs about how shabbily you were mistreated that nobody ever heard unless you were a member of Fleetwood Mac ca. 1977.

Apparently that's not how These Kids These Days do it.  Apparently these Millennials--the idiot Millennials, at least--write long blog posts about it and publish them online for the world to gawk at.  Which, I'll confess to you Dear Reader, I went by and gawked at it myself because sometimes the voyeuristic urge to look at the photos from the wreck at the rail crossing overcomes good sense and decency.  Old people, anyway, who fail to resist the urge to look at somebody's wreckage, will read Gjoni's groaning, self-pitying angstwank and shudder to imagine themselves in their childish twenties, and send a silent shoutout to their old brothers and sisters in arms who put up with their crap back in the day (to those of you reading who put up with my shit: thank you; to those of you reading whose shit I put up with: you're welcome).

May I digress and tell all you kids that if this is how you do it these days, plastering your juvenalia all over the Internet, that you're doing it wrong?  No, seriously, I mean, you're really, really doing it wrong.  Instead of boring your friends with what an emotional fetus you still are, you're turning it into a public spectacle that will be stored on servers forever and ever and ever until some vast interstellar EMP wave lobotomizes our collective intelligence or we global-warm ourselves into extinction, whatever comes first.  For centuries, ever since the invention of distillation, getting shitfaced and blubbering all over the people unfortunate enough to be on a first-name basis with you has been the approved and satisfactory solution to dealing with heartbreak, precisely because the lack of record means later everyone can pretend they've forgotten about it.  Leaving permanent digital records of when you were immature, shallow douchetards for all posterity to shake their heads over?  Not smart, kiddos.  Not smart at all.

Of course, it's possible that Mr. Gjoni has no idea how shitty and stupid he's going to feel when he's forty, and even feels some kind of misplaced smug self-satisfaction because what happened was that this girl who supposedly broke his heart (and he loved her, man, he really really loved her!) just happened to be a prominent rising force in videogame development, and there was already this vocal contingent of cretins who are having a hard time dealing with women doing just about anything (it's a subgroup of the misogynistic residue that's been grappling with the role of women in American culture since the 1940s), and they seized upon Gjoni's childish missive to the world as an excuse to yet again target the poor woman for various crimes against mankind ranging from existing to enjoying sex, along the way stumbling into an allegation that maybe she used her sexual wiles to seduce a freelance journalist named Nathan Grayson into writing nice things about her, making this a matter not just of Girlfriends Ruining The Band, but a matter of Journalistic Ethics!

I'm going to go ahead and call attention to something you may have just noticed.  I've called out Elon Gjoni by name.  I'm telling you that the journalist who allegedly slept with the game developer is a guy named Nathan Grayson.  But I'm not naming the game developer.  I'm doing that very much on purpose, and not to demean her in any way: quite the opposite, because this isn't a post about what the developer purportedly did to "deserve" being a primary fixation of a bunch of gynophobic trolls.  This would ultimately be a post about how the gynophobic trolls out themselves by focusing on a woman they're trying to victimize and hound out of their precious little world and paying scant attention to the men involved: ironically, while there's a larger issue at stake about the role of women in society, this isn't actually a post about what women do, it's a post about men.  So we're naming men.

So, anyway--where were we?  Ah yes: a bunch of cretins began flogging Gjoni's bitching, seizing upon the claim that one of the people his ex, a game developer, supposedly slept with was Nathan Grayson, who is a journalist who writes about video games--scandal!  This, the wankers said, was evidence of deep corruption within gaming journalism, a breach of journalistic ethics that warranted countless nauseating pixels about what a horrible person Gjoni's ex-girlfirend--a game developer, not a journalist--is and what ought to be done about Gjoni's ex-girlfriend--a game developer, not a journalist.

And now we hit upon a funny, funny thing that happens when you're dealing with assholes whose real agenda is at wide variance with what they're actually doing.  You see, we're at the point in this mess where the natural and instinctive thing to do is to point out that the cretins' version of the story was severely wanting from what you might call a factual perspective: from a strictly factual perspective, Nathan Grayson wrote less than one entire sentence about the game developer and the game she was working on, and only wrote about the game developer at any length in a single article about a group of game developers who were treated shoddily by a reality show about game developers--an article that was published before this particular game developer and Mr. Grayson began dating.

The thing is, these particular facts, while inconvenient for the trolls, don't really matter with regard to the claims they claim they're making.

Let me seemingly-sidetrack for a moment into an ethics issue I happen to have a professional (but, thankfully, not a personal) interest in: attorney ethics.  Specifically, North Carolina's Rule of Professional Conduct 1.19:

Rule 1.19 Sexual Relations with Clients Prohibited
(a) A lawyer shall not have sexual relations with a current client of the lawyer.

(b) Paragraph (a) shall not apply if a consensual sexual relationship existed between the lawyer and the client before the legal representation commenced.

(c) A lawyer shall not require or demand sexual relations with a client incident to or as a condition of any professional representation.

(d) For purposes of this rule, "sexual relations" means:

(1) Sexual intercourse; or

(2) Any touching of the sexual or other intimate parts of a person or causing such person to touch the sexual or other intimate parts of the lawyer for the purpose of arousing or gratifying the sexual desire of either party.

(e) For purposes of this rule, "lawyer" means any lawyer who assists in the representation of the client but does not include other lawyers in a firm who provide no such assistance.

Thou shalt not sleep with your client.  Pretty clear-cut ethical rule.  But please notice the obvious point: the ethical rule barring a lawyer from having sexual relations with a client says nothing about a client being prohibited from having sexual relations with a lawyer.

The difference?  The difference is that if a lawyer and a client have sex, and the North Carolina State Bar gets wind of it, they don't investigate the client.  They may talk to the client to obtain information about what the lawyer did, but they're not really interested in the client's part of it beyond that.  The client will not receive a mean and nasty formal letter from the State Bar, the client will not be sanctioned, the client will not risk being prohibited from the practice of law, the client isn't in any trouble at all.  Clients can sleep with whomever the hell they want to.

While I'm not in the medical profession, my understanding is that the rules are quite similar.  A patient who sleeps with their psychiatrist doesn't get a letter from the licensing board informing them they can no longer visit psychiatrists because it's substantiated they slept with their current practitioner.  The onus is all on the professional.

There's a reason we talk about attorney ethics, medical ethics, and, yes, journalistic ethics.  As opposed to client ethics, patient ethics, subject ethics.  When we're really discussing those things, there's only one participant (or group of participants) whose (mis)conduct matters: the professionals who are subject to the rules.

Even if they're informal rules.  Journalists don't have ethics.  (That's sort of a joke.)

But seriously: there aren't licensing bodies that can take away a writer's right to write (boom!).  Journalistic ethics are completely self-imposed and self-enforced; if someone like Stephen Glass invents sources, quotes and entire stories, for instance, the only thing that stops him from being a professional journalist is that editors and publishers will stop paying him when the embarrassment he causes is a bigger loss than whatever a publication gains from publishing him. Glass could still be a journalist today if he could find a willing outlet.  (And nothing keeps him from making a go at self-publishing his reporting, were he to choose to do so.)

If a journalist has a conflict of interest, there's an understanding amongst writers, editors and publishers that the conflict ought to at least be disclosed and perhaps should bar the writer from covering the subject.  As best I can tell, there's a good-faith effort among those players--or at least among the most serious and committed of them--to self-enforce that rule.  But whether or not they do so (or succeed), the key thing here is noting who those players are: they're the writers, editors and publishers.

So let's suppose a game developer, any game developer, does have sex with a journalist, any journalist, in quid pro quo, straight-up, tit-for-tat exchange for a favorable article.  A breach of journalistic ethics, perhaps, but if so the game developer isn't the one who's done anything wrong.  Maybe, I dunno, it's "unbecoming" or something, but it isn't an "ethical scandal" for the subject of the article.  It's a scandal for the writer who failed to disclose a conflict of interest and thereby may have mislead their editor and/or the reading public, or perhaps a scandal for the editor who should have chosen to pull the story if they knew about the apparent conflict, or perhaps for the publisher who failed to maintain an appearance of objectivity and integrity for the publication-at-large.  But for the subject of the article, the game developer?

You know, when considering how competitive the field is, one can frankly sympathize with any developer or game publisher, from the pseudonymous app coder in a basement somewhere to a corporate dinosaur like Electronic Arts, doing whatever it takes short of murder to bring attention to a title.  (This isn't unique to the games industry, either.2)

In other words, if you really care about journalistic integrity, the bête noire these Caspars yammer on about, you care about what a journalist does, and who he does it with is kind of immaterial.  They slept with someone they were writing about and failed to tell anyone they had a special interest in the subject?  Any sin wasn't in the sleeping.

But who--and this is the point, folks--who are the Gamergating trolls calling out for ethical lapses?  Ninety, ninety-five percent or more of their ire is directed at a game developer, who just happens to be a woman they have a history of disliking and directing nerdrage towards.  (What a co-in-key-dink!)  Sometimes they'll remember they're supposedly concerned about journalism, and drop the name of Kotaku, the gaming website Nathan Grayson contributed to, and that has cleared Grayson of wrongdoing.  But how often do they hound Grayson, d'ya think?  Who supposedly, allegedly committed the breach of having an undisclosed conflict of interest?

Not much.  At all.

Not that Grayson, in point of fact, committed a lapse.  I want to be clear about that.  And there are further some points about this that are worth bearing in mind:

  1. He's been cleared of committing the breach: he wrote a single longform piece about a subject concerning the developer in question (the article wasn't even about her--it was about a television show she was to appear on) prior to having any kind of personal relationship with her;
  2. Even if he had committed an ethical breach (he didn't), that breach would have been a failure to disclose a possible conflict of interest: the rule isn't that you can't sleep with someone you're writing about, the rule is that you ought to let people know if there's a reason your piece might not be properly objective;
  3. Which, incidentally, also means that it's probably perfectly okay to write about someone you're sleeping with as long as you're perfectly clear about any effect it's having on your work; indeed, writing about your relationship or about a subject in the context of your relationship can be a quite valid and informative form of writing.3

Every time one of these "Gamergate" trolls says this is about "journalistic ethics" and they mention a specific game developer, you know they're lying.  Flat-out.  Straight up.  Nope, that's not what they're about.  Because if they were worried about journalism, they'd talk about journalists.  And every time the game developer they mention happens to be a woman, you see what they're really about.  Who the fuck still cares about who a sober female person above the age of consent has had sex with in this day and age?  Prudes, savages, moral infants, the intellectually-undeveloped, reactionaries, cretins, fools and jackasses.

You know, the Johnny Caspars.

1I wanted to avoid notes, but one of the things happening here is a variation on a very old meme.  Remember The Beatles?  And remember how Yoko Ono broke up The Beatles?  With some help from Linda McCartney?  Because the breakup had nothing at all in the whole wide world to do with the actual members of the band.  The Beatles didn't break up because John Lennon and Paul McCartney grew up and, once they were no longer teenagers, discovered like so many teen-friends do that they no longer had the same interests in music, politics, lifestyle, etc..  The Beatles didn't break up because George Harrison felt his contributions to the band were being neglected (which, incidentally, in addition to getting the artistic shaft, also meant he was getting cut out of album songwriting royalties, which can be a demoralizing symbol even when you don't actually care about the money; see also Floyd, Pink).  The Beatles didn't break up because Paul had a real love of performing live but George was a little stage-shy and didn't like performing in front of screaming throngs who couldn't even hear his playing.  The Beatles didn't break up because Paul's artistic ambitions had evolved just a little ahead of Ringo's (frankly underrated) playing to a point where he was secretly re-recording some of Ringo's drum parts and hiding it from Ringo only Ringo found out.  Nope, The Beatles' breakup had nothing at all to do with the diverging interests and goals of the guys who were actually, you know, in the band and everything to do with women not sticking to their place.  It's always about the girls ruining everything.  Bros before hos and all that.

2Consider Larry Harris' entertaining memoir of his time at Casablanca Records, And Party Every Day.  One can find fault with the journalists, editors, disk jockeys, sales directors, program directors, promoters, etc.  who were willing to compromise themselves in exchange for entrance to cocaine-fueled parties with famous people, but you can hardly blame someone like Harris for exploiting their willingness to put a fun weekend ahead of their professional responsibility--in fact, it's his job to use any tool at his disposal to sell his label's records.  Even if some of those tools seem a little amoral or, strictly speaking and from a purely technical point-of-view, involve violations of Federal and state drug laws and/or a broadcast professional violating FCC regulations.

Quite seriously, Harris wasn't the one at fault: just because you tell a station manager that you'd love to fly him halfway across the country to go to Studio 54 and maybe Mick or Andy will be there (and do you need to even mention all the fun things you can put into orifices at Studio 54?), and by the way has he heard the new Donna Summer record, just phenomenal, why, you just happen to have a copy right here--well none of that means he has to take you up on it, much less ever get around to playing the record, right?

I don't know if Harris ever considered exchanging sexual favors for airplay (I don't recall mention if that in the book), but if it ever crossed his mind: hell, you'd have to give him credit for a cheaper solution to his problems than plane tickets and coke, wouldn't you?

3Aha!  Caught you, VanNewkirk!  So what's wrong with Elon Gjoni publishing a poisoned essay about his ex-girlfirend?  Ha!  Winning!

Well, no.  I didn't say what Elon Gjoni did was unethical.  I basically said it was stupid, ugly and tacky.  And that he's a pathetic, sad little whiner.

What he did was also (presumably) hurtful to another person, and gratuitously doing hurtful things is probably immoral.  (I think so, anyway, but I'll grant you that Philosophy majors may have arguments about this in their dorm rooms at three a.m..)  He was being petty and vindictive and trying to publicly embarrass someone, all of which is bad.  In the context of journalistic ethics, it bears pointing out that Gjoni's poor widdle broken heart isn't newsworthy; in other writing contexts, publishing a piece about your ex's love life... well....

I mean, nobody who knew anything at all about the private life of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes had any doubt who some of their poems were really about, even when names weren't named.  And everyone knows about how Rumours is a document just crammed full of angry brokenhearted back-and-forth sniping.  To cite but two exemplars.

But Sylvia Plath and Lindsey Buckingham were/are artists, in that they made/make art things, and their work (whether or not it appeals to you) is artistic work.  Elon Gjoni's sad little poor pitiful me routine isn't even trying for art: it really is nothing more and nothing less than one of those post-breakup rants you'd inflict on your friends between lap dances at the titty bar.  A laundry list of grievances and second chances, how badly he was abused and if anything was his fault it's only that he loved too well but too unwisely.  It doesn't even rise to the level of Tommy Wiseau's The Room: at least Wiseau had the minimal decency it took to turn his angstwank about the real-world "Lisa" into a stage play and then (when that failed) into a bizarre piece of cinematic outsider art.

In short, Gjoni may have outed himself as a pathetic loser, may have proven he isn't a gentleman, may have demonstrated that he has poor judgement and no self-awareness, and may have done something cruel and awful in a vicious attempt to lash out at someone he was mad and sad at by publicly humiliating her--but these aren't ethical lapses.  They don't make you corrupt, they just make you an asshole.  One whose most noteworthy accomplishment to date is something that isn't as good as the worst motion picture ever made by an incompetent hack.

Perhaps a better human being, or at least a slightly more mature one, would have written a song called "Chloe" and posted it to YouTube, maybe even recorded a concept album about it; or perhaps penned a book of sad poems.

See the difference?


Can you hear what I hear?

>> Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Brother Vince brought to my attention a Techdirt piece, "Moral Panics Of 1878: NY Times Warns People About The Evils Of Thomas Edison's Aerophone", which is absolutely worth a read and well-taken: people have been complaining about novelties, whether we're talking about their children or their inventions, for as long as we have recorded what people think about anything.  In 1878, it was the nation's self-appointed paper-of-record griping that Thomas Edison's phonograph was going to make private conversation a thing of the past, which actually happened, and that this would (among other things) keep young men from ever whispering sweet nothings in the ears of their beloveds for fear the cunning vixens would be wired for sound and use the soft words of woo in breach of promise suits; now you know why everybody stopped getting married in the 19th Century.

But this point about how there's nothing new in all the hand-twisting over new technologies isn't the very best thing in the 1878 article Techdirt cites, nor is the best thing just how wrong the Times' fears turned out to be.  No, the best thing is this, right here:

Mr. EDISON, with characteristic effrontery, represents this as a useful and beneficent invention. He says that an aerophone can be attached to a locomotive, and that with its aid the engineer can request persons to "look out for the locomotive" who are nearing a railway crossing four miles distant from the train. He also boasts that he will attach an aerophone to the gigantic statue of "Liberty." Which France is to present to this country, provided we will raise money enough to pay for it, and that the statue will thus be able to welcome incoming vessels in the Lower Bay, and to warn them not to come up to the City in case Mr. STANLEY MATTHEWS is delivering an oration on the currency, or Mr. Cox is making a comic speech at Tammany Hall.

This saddens me.  I cannot express how much it does.  It doesn't amuse me that the New York Times, a newspaper that carries columns by Thomas Friedman and David Brooks that it evidently pays them for with no apparent sense of pity or shame, was wrong.  It distresses me.  It brings me tears.  It fills me with woe and regret.

I mean, can you imaging how fucking awesome it would be if the Statue of Liberty had a loudspeaker that belted out greetings to arriving ships?

Seriously.  "HI!  WELCOME TO AMERICA!" it could shout.  "HOW ARE YOU TODAY?  ENJOY YOUR VISIT!"  In times of xenophobia and isolationism, Liberty could scream, "NO THANK YOU!  PLEASE GO HOME WHEREVER THAT IS!"  In times of prosperity and open arms, "HI!  ARE YOU HERE TO SPEND SOME MONEY!  WE LIKE MONEY!  DON'T FORGET TO VISIT THE EMPIRE STATE BUILDING OBSERVATION DECK WHILE YOU'RE HERE!  MONEY!"

She could taunt Europe.  We'd like that way too much, I fear.  She could call our enemies a bunch of rotten assholes at 200 dB.  (That would be pretty feckin' loud--Manhattan Island might want to move back a few feet, or put up some kind of audio baffle in the harbor.  And it might not even be loud enough: I mean, I figure we'd want Liberty to be loud enough to wake up Mosul, right?)

And trains.  Trains could be so cool.  So, so cool.

The ScatterKat and I live near some tracks that run through North Charlotte, which is both a minor annoyance and an awesome thing: the tracks are going to end up being part of the light rail extension, which is good, but right now they're used for freight and we sometimes have to pause a movie or TV show if we're watching something with the windows open.  Train goes by, blaring away at the horns because of an intersection less than a mile from us, it interrupts phone conversations or even just regular chat.  We don't mind terribly, because we both really like trains, but it's slightly inconvenient.

But how awesome would it be if, instead of a blatting horn, the train cried out, "LOOK OUT FOR THE LOCOMOTIVE!  LOOK OUT FOR THE LOCOMOTIVE!"?

That's right, it would be completely awesome.  Superawesome.  Awesome surpassing mere awesomosity.  (I don't know why you people keep looking at my website like I make these words up.  Do you not have a dictionometery?)

That human contact, something animate and friendly, unlike the robotized pseudodinosaurical roar of the air horn!  Offering useful information instead of an inarticulate groan!  "LOOK OUT FOR THE LOCOMOTIVE!"  Why yes, I will, thank you, Mr. Train!  I will look out for the locomotive!  It could even be elaborated upon when needed: "NO!  IDIOT!  THE TRAIN IS OVER HERE!  LOOK OUT FOR THE LOCOMOTIVE BEHIND YOU!"  All the accidents that could be prevented by adding necessary informational details to what is now a vague cry of omen.

Granted, this wonderful, wonderful change would have had a curious effect on country music and the blues (and, by extension, upon rock and roll).

The lonely, wordless cry of the locomotive is, of course, one of the great muses of indigenous American music.  How many American bards have hearkened to the comings and goings of trains as harbingers of love lost (almost always love lost) or, every now and again, love found (usually after some long and devastating absence)?  Ella might have to tell us, for example, "Now the rain's a-fallin' / Hear the train's a callin', LOOK OUT FOR THE LOCOMOTIVE!" which kind of throws off the meter.  Or I imagine Bruce Springsteen wistfully recalling how "The room was dark, our bed was empty / Then I heard LOOK OUT FOR THE LOCOMOTIVE!"

Perhaps, in honor of our native traditions, engineers could sometimes shout out something to help our singers and songwriters: "LOOK OUT FOR THE LOCOMOTIVE!  SHE DUMPED YOU!" for example.  Or, "YOU'VE TRAGICALLY WASTED YOUR LIFE!  LOOK OUT FOR THE LOCOMOTIVE!"  It might have a somewhat problematic effect on the suicide rate, I grant you; at least at first, until we all got used to it.  But it would give our poets something to talk about.


An open letter to Candys Exporters

>> Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Job Vacancy‏

To: Recipients
From:     CANDYS EXPORTERS ( Your junk email filter is set to exclusive.
Sent:    Wed 10/01/14 4:30 AM
To:    Recipients (

Good day, Our company base in UK, USA, Canada and other part of the world. We need representatives that can help us pay our Workers, if you are interested get back to us.

Please access the attached hyperlink for an important electronic communications disclaimer: http:█████.██.██/███████████████

Dear Candy (Candys?) or Whomever It May Concern,

Wow.  Okay.  Where to begin?

So, first off, I'm really unclear as to whether you are someone named Candy who doesn't understand possessives, someone who exports candy and doesn't understand plurals, or someone named Candys in which case carry on.

If, however, you're the first of those, you probably need to know that in English we put an apostrophe before a possessive, like so:


...indicating that you, Candy, possess something; presumably an export firm in this case.

On the other hand, if you're someone who exports sweets, you probably would want to call yourself

Candies Exporters

...or perhaps even:

Candies Exporter

...which would get rid of an unpleasant sense of having too many sibilants.  Though it would not get rid of having a really generic name for your firm.

I do my best to be charitable about matters grammatical.  For one thing, I do all sorts of eccentric and even improper things with English grammar, some of them deliberately because I think things ought to be done that way and some of them inadvertently because I'm an idiot.  As a native speaker of Standard American English, of course, I can get away with a certain casual attitude towards my tongue, the kind of contempt bred by familiarity.  I also try to be charitable about grammar because I tend to prefer descriptivism to prescriptivism, meaning that I see language as a constantly evolving and flexible thing across time and space; so I prefer discussions of how grammar is actually used by speakers and writers, and how usage has changed over the years, and the interesting things you learn by comparing regional dialects, to pedantry and dogmatism about "correct" usage (especially since at least half the time you find out that the "correct" usage is wrong--e.g. everyone who ever said "ain't" ain't a word--or is some arbitrary preference someone imposed upon everyone else because he could--e.g. Noah Webster just deciding one day to remove the letter "u" from a bunch of words where it was paired with an "o" because, by God, it was his dictionary with his name on the title page and he could do whatever the hell he wanted to).  Finally, I also try to be charitable to grammar online because the wonderful thing about the Internet is how international it is, and a certain humility is in order when you realize that some French or German writer's terrible English grammar is much better than your nonexistent French or German.

Still, with that latter bit, one might humbly point out to a non-native writer that a properly-placed apostrophe would bring the boring name of their firm into consistency with commonly accepted usage.  And if you are a native writer, well... I'm sorry, but shame on you: I know that apostrophe placement is a rule that people mess up so frequently it's almost more-honored in the breach, but it's an easy enough rule.  I don't want to betray my gut-level sympathies with descriptivism by suddenly turning into a grammar scold, but the way I would describe the possessive usage in English would be, "We typically put an apostrophe in front of the 's', except in the case of 'its', which is messed up."

There are other grammatical issues in the body of your request.  "Our company base in...," seems like it's missing a verb somewhere.  Your capitalization is eccentric, though not unprecedented.  "Good day," is most often written as its own clause with a period at the end of it, even though that technically makes it a sentence fragment (I think you could also use a semicolon, although semicolon usage is to English grammar what the Rule Against Perpetuities is to law: nobody actually understands it and anyone who claims to is most likely lying).

Grammar is an easy place to start, but it's probably the least of your problems, frankly.  We need to talk about your business practices.

Specifically, you seem to be confused about how a business operates.  Generally speaking, when you have an employee, you pay that person.  You don't seek out representatives to pay your employees for you.  Or, even, to help pay your workers.  There may be exceptions: you might pay a fee to an employment agency that covers the pay of temporary workers, and then the employment agency cuts the paycheck to the temp, but that doesn't seem to be what you're after.  Or, if it is, you're doing it wrong.  What you should be doing is, you should be looking up "Employment Agencies" or "Temp Agencies" online or in the Yellow Pages of your phone book.  Not hitting up strangers for money.

I understand the appeal of the idea, of course.  If you could get someone else to pay your workers for you, that would probably take a big chunk out of your expenses, thereby raising your profitability.  It's just that no one is going to take you up on that offer.  I don't even know what your employees would think: "Soooo... I put in forty hours exporting candy this week and now I need to hit up some guy I never heard of for my check?"  And how on Earth does your benefits package work?  Are you expecting random people you e-mailed to pay for insurance or contribute to a retirement fund?

No, I'm pretty sure this clever plan of yours suffers from the tragic flaw of so many clever plans: it's completely unworkable.

Really, what you need to do is, you need to pay your workers yourself.

Now, it may be that I've misunderstood what you're looking for, but if so, I don't see the point.  It may well be that you plan to pay your workers yourself, but you need help for the act of paying: that is, you give me the money you're paying the worker and then I give the money to your worker.  Why?  I don't understand.  Don't you see these employees more often than I'm likely to?  Wouldn't it be easier to just hand them their checks?  If you're going to mail them, why mail them to me instead of simply mailing them directly to the worker?

It just seems easier if you cut out the extra step.  Unless it's some kind of tax thing--taxes are very confusing, I admit--but then I'm even more certain I'd rather not get involved.

Finally, I am curious about the nature of your business--not that I want to get involved (the whole thing sounds like a pain in the ass, honestly), but because one always wonders about "exporters".  For instance, do you actually export candy, or do you export other things?  Do you import anything?  If you have an office in the United States that sends something to a sister-office in the United Kingdom, does that still count as an "export" because it crosses international borders (I would think that it would), or does the in-company transfer mean it's some sort of lateral pass?

There's an old Seinfeld running gag, I think, where George pretends he has a company that only and exclusively imports but doesn't export, or maybe it's the other way around, but then at some point when he's pressed he expands the lie to say he imports and exports; the gag works, I think, because we all wonder about this, and because there's something exotic about being involved in the import and/or export business.  Those of us who aren't in the biz imagine it involves traveling halfway across the world to a warehouse in Senegal just to pick out the best-of-the-best whatsits before traipsing off to Bali to argue with bazaar merchants about the wholesale costs of somethingorothers.  When probably the business only involves lots and lots of ledgers and poorly-connected phone calls to vicious and unintelligible sweatshop overseers, and arguments with customs officials over the fact there are only two copies of the dot-slash-number-slash-letter-dot-number so-and-so forms attached to the file and there ought to be three even though no one ever even looks at the third and it in fact gets thrown away as a matter of protocol.

James Bond's cover was that he worked for a firm called "Universal Exports".  I'm sure he was asked these questions all the time: "James, have you ever suggested to your boss that you could double your business if you also imported things?"  "You don't import universes, do you?  Ha-ha!"  "So does the company name mean there's anything you won't export?"  Et cetera.  Of course, "Universal Exports" didn't really export anything, it was just a reason for Bond to pretend he was traveling to one of those Senegalese warehouses or Bali bazaars to pick whatsits and argue somethingorothers when he was really going to Jamaica to murder a bunch of guys and their squid and to screw a woman who may have been mentally handicapped, her claim to having read half a  encyclopedia set notwithstanding.  Presumably, there were a lot of dreary poolside conversations where Bond had to stand around and field awful questions about exporting (and maybe importing), but Ian Fleming understandably spared us:

Bond stood by the barbecue and regretted wearing the sandals instead of dockers with socks, because the mosquitoes were utterly ferocious this afternoon.  His martini was warm and had been made with a bargain-shelf gin instead of his preferred vodka, and his host had been unclear about the amount of dry vermouth to be used, preferring for some reason an unpalatable one-to-one ratio that he erroneously and apologetically claimed would make up for having run out of ice twenty minutes ago.

An overweight securities broker who needed to put his shirt back on, both to avoid a nasty sunburn and to spare the gathering the sight of a bosom more ample than that of most of the wives in attendance, bombarded Bond with a barrage of questions about the export business.  What did the future of exports look like?  Had Bond ever considered imports?  Was it possible to get Brazilian lawn furniture through Customs without paying fees if it were bundled with, just say hypothetically, gravel?  Had Bond ever met so-and-so, who wasn't in the export trade per se, but worked for a rail freight company, which was basically the same thing, wasn't it?  This, Bond reflected, was why he was an alcoholic sex addict.  He wondered, not for the first time, if his double-0 license to kill would cover pushing a half-naked overweight securities broker into a scum-covered swimming pool and holding his head underwater until their host learned how to make a cocktail, which, by the taste of it, might take years.

Anyway, I was just wondering.  Cheers.  And good luck with your future sentence composition and business endeavors.

R. Eric VanNewkirk


The Mountain Goats, "Lovecraft In Brooklyn"

>> Wednesday, September 10, 2014

An old song, but I heard it for the first time today, driving home:

H.P. Lovecraft was, in his way, a kind of brilliant writer.  I mean, his prose was absurdly florid, and he didn't seem to realize the 19th Century had ended, and there were other problems with his work; but he was just brilliant at structure and atmosphere.  There's possibly no better writer to learn from when it comes to structuring a story so it peels apart as the reader gets to the core of it.  His best stories are like onions in the way a dense object is formed from layer after layer after layer of paperthin wisp.  And in some respects his imagination was vast; his greatest contribution to modern pulp and genre fiction may have been the Lovecraftian existentialism that embraces "cosmic horror"; much of horror fiction boils down to God is good and Satan is evil and Man is in the middle, but Lovecraft pioneered (if he didn't invent) a form of horror fiction in which there's neither God as such nor Satan per se, and what Man is in the middle of is an indifferent and vast universe full of things that just don't care about the human species any more than a human might care about termites--something to be overlooked and ignored when they aren't bothering anything, or to be exterminated if they're a nuisance.

He was also a horrible racist, even in terms of the early 20th Century.  And it affected his writing in nasty ways: the great menace imperiling the world in "The Horror at Red Hook" is immigration, for instance, and he ghost-wrote a story for Zealia Bishop, "Medusa's Coil", in which the dramatic, horrifying reveal--gasp!--is miscegenation.  This makes him a problem writer, and a lot of people these days are understandably eager to toss him from the pantheon.  Personally, I think the qualities of his writing and significance of his role in modern genre fiction are important enough that this would be a terrible mistake, though it couldn't happen to a more deserving jerk.  But I also can't stress enough that apologists who overlook or try to excuse his bigotries and their effect upon and presence in his fiction are really, really, wrong, more wrong than those who'd cast him aside altogether: one can at least sympathize with the urge to reject a creep, even if doing so would toss away some useful and even enjoyable pastimes with him.  There's no excuse for excusing him, though.

Better, I think, to acknowledge that enjoyment of Lovecraft is an imperfect pleasure, that his contributions to the pop culture canon are vital, inescapable, and flawed, and that we have to understand his work in context and can celebrate this while disapproving of that.

The Mountain Goats song, in an interesting way, is celebratory opprobrium or condemnatory commemoration, or something like: Lovecraft indeed went to Brooklyn and lived there for about a year, and was completely miserable at least partly because the neighborhood was, shall we say, not particularly WASPy in those days.  "The Horror at Red Hook", indeed is set in the neighborhood in which HPL lived and the vitriol directed at the immigrants there stems from his own disquietude in having to live amongst people he loathed.  The Mountain Goats transfer that feeling to a metaphor for a more generalized misanthropy, drawing a character who feels like "Lovecraft in Brooklyn" and finds himself so afraid of everyone and everything he's "Headed for the pawnshop / To buy myself a switchblade".  It's not really, I don't think, meant to be a terribly sympathetic portrait of a paranoid neurotic: to know that your feelings are akin to Lovecraft's, that your misanthropy is deeply rooted in prejudice, is to feel a certain degree of self-loathing.  When John Darnielle says this is "another song about people who hate everybody," the "everybody" means everybody, not just everybody else.
Nicely done, that.


When animals attack

>> Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Janiece Murphy points us to this Washington Post editorial by Sunil Dutta, "I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me," and to commentary by James Joyner and Ken White.  You're fully and completely linked up in this paragraph, but I'm not sure you actually need to read Dutta's piece, for which the Post's editors deserve full credit for producing the most complete and accurate headline I've ever seen in the history of anything.  As for Joyner's and White's comments, suffice it to say they don't like what Dutta has to say.

Nor do I, but I also have to point out that as an assistant public defender, I've given the exact same spiel Dutta does to clients, friends, family members, concerned citizens, random people I've just encountered, and possibly to Elvis.  Not that I've enjoyed agreeing with Professor Dutta, my personal feelings being much in line with Messrs. Joyner and White on the subject.

It's just that Dutta is, of course, right, though it verges on astonishing that he's so blasé about why he's right.  There's no doubt that challenging a cop is a good way to get hurt, or killed, or just arrested and charged with some routine horseshit like Disorderly Conduct, Obstructing Justice, Resisting an Officer, or whatever else your local jurisdiction and the officer want to call it.  Police officers in the United States carry guns.  And handcuffs.  And Tasers.  And pepper spray.  And nightsticks.  And those little ninjalike mini-nightsticks they've been trained to jam into your pressure points in especially painful ways.  They can kill you or seriously hurt you with any of these things, and then they have paperwork on hand that they can use to have your hardship, suffering and/or death written up as being Officially Your Own Goddamn Fault.

In short, the average police officer is fully capable of seriously injuring you and then having you arrested for having to have been fully injured, and then you can go to jail or possibly even prison for having been injured, or possibly just pay a fine for having been injured, and/or you might be required to make regular visits to a probation or parole officer and do probationary things like pee in jars and undergo psychiatric evaluation for having been injured.

And even if you're lucky, and you're somehow vindicated, or at least let off the hook by a prosecutor who thinks the cop overdid it, you might still sit in jail for a bit awaiting bail or trial, you'll most likely have to spend lots and lots of time visiting the courthouse, you're out of pocket on attorney's fees if you hired a lawyer, you perhaps made the local paper's arrests-and-bookings page, and anyone doing a criminal record check sees you were charged with something (which they may hold against you even if your record clearly states that you were acquitted or your charges dismissed).  All of which is still insult on top of injury, even if it's not as grave an insult or further injury as having a conviction and all its attendant consequences inflicted upon you.

It's easier, if you can pull it off, to just avoid eye contact and say "Yessir" a lot and do a jive and shuffle for the nice policeman.  I say "if you can pull it off" because frankly if you're black there's some chance you'll be charged or arrested anyway, because that's just the state of the union circa 2014.  It's getting better, Ferguson, MO notwithstanding, but we aren't there yet and I don't know how long it's going to take to get the rest of the way.  Sorry.

But the best way to avoid getting your ass kicked and then you get charged or arrested if you weren't killed, is to treat cops like they're very dangerous animals.  Not because cops are animals, not because all cops are very dangerous ones, but because you just have no way of knowing who you're dealing with, and any probability greater than zero is bad odds when the end scenario involves you being shot up to hell and then accused of charging the officer because you may or may not have been involved in some kind of robbery or larceny at a local convenience store that the officer may or may not have known about when he began pulling the trigger over and over again.

She says "on these streets, Charles
You've got to understand the rules
If an officer stops you
Promise you'll always be polite,
that you'll never ever run away
Promise Mama you'll keep your hands in sight"

The rub is that my advice for dealing with law enforcement officers is about the same as my advice for dealing with rattlesnakes, or feral dogs, or a really mean looking bear.  Assume the creature is dangerous and not very bright, and prone to interpreting anything you do as a threat.  Do not make expressive gestures.  Back away slowly unless the creature starts making noises that indicate the movement is disturbing to it.  Terminate the contact as quickly as possible.  None of which is the advice I'd like to give anyone about dealing with police: what I'd like to tell people is that they can treat police officers the way they'd treat Andy Taylor--this one, the one from Mayberry, not this one, from Duran Duran.  Though I don't think you need to worry about the one from Double-D too much.  I'd like to be able to advise people that you can shoot the shit with the police, talk about guitar playing and whether the fish are biting, and the finer points of being a single father and how the folks are doing and the secret of Aunt Bee's fried chicken, but instead I have to advise people that wild animals may bite or maul and they can cause lingering illnesses even when their attacks aren't immediately fatal.

I think this sucks.

Not just because it offends the civil libertarian in my soul, or because somewhere in my decayed, cynical, bitter and disappointed heart there's still the kid who admired Woody Guthrie's fascist-killing machine and The Clash.  It does, it offends me to pieces that you might have to kiss the ass of a cryptofascist making demands on behalf of his auth-or-i-tai.  But, you know, it's also a situation that just sucks, that's just toxic and corrosive for everyone.  It can't be good for civil order or even for common decency that you need to fear cops (yes, even if you're white: bullets don't discriminate), and hell, it's bloody unfair that those guys who join law enforcement and remain decent and try to do the right thing have to be treated like brute beasts because they have brothers on the force who would bite someone right to the bone as soon as look at them if given opportunity and a poor excuse.  

Wouldn't we all agree that The Andy Griffith Show,, if extrapolated for greater racial diversity than a '50s TV show about the American South was willing or able to portray, offers a kind of Platonic ideal of law enforcement practice?  It's fantasy, of course: I don't think policing was ever like that.  But fantasies guide our aspirations and offer our cautionary tales, and certainly the idea that unarmed community policing by nice guys with a lot of common sense is something we might navigate by even if its as impracticable an actual destination as The Shire, or Narnia.  I.e. we're not making the case that the Andy Taylor Policing System is a viable model for law enforcement, with it's unarmed Sheriff and one-bullet deputy in a town with a single stoplight and probable conflict-of-interest issues arising from the consolidation of the Sheriff's and Magistrate's office, merely suggesting we all might benefit if more police officers looked to Sheriff Taylor as a role model in much the same way so many young lawyers, say for instance, fancy they're going to be Atticus Finches.

In any event, it's sort of unfathomable that Professor Dutta evidently wants to embrace a model of the world suggested by weary defense lawyers who think citizens' encounters with police ought to proceed in much the same way as a hiker's encounter with a mountain lion: with distance and deference due to a hostile and powerful predator.  Dutta writes, "For you, this might be a 'simple' traffic stop, for me each traffic stop is a potentially dangerous encounter"; well, indeed, I view a 'simple' traffic stop as a potentially dangerous encounter, too.  But the respect I show a grizzly bear--or a traffic cop--isn't the kind of respect any mentally healthy adult human being ought to be seeking.  It's the respect you give to things that can kill you on a whim, and however heady an empowerment it might seem to a shallow and narcissistic personality type, it's mostly dehumanizing.


Alas, we've already screwed up--sorry, Alabama, we should have left well enough alone

>> Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Two members of the Alabama Public Service Commission, a member-elect and an Alabama representative to the Republican National Committee said proposed EPA regulations that aim to reduce power plant carbon emissions by 30 percent represent "an assault on our way of life" and are a purposeful attempt by the Obama administration to kill coal-related jobs.


At their news conference today Cavanaugh and PSC commissioner-elect Chip Beeker invoked the name of God in stating their opposition to the EPA proposal. Beeker, a Republican who is running unopposed for a PSC seat, said coal was created in Alabama by God, and the federal government should not enact policy that runs counter to God's plan.

"Who has the right to take what God's given a state?" he said., July 28th, 2014.

The federal government drove out malaria from the American South in the early part of the 20th century. And the lessons learned from that successful campaign could help control the disease in developing countries, says Daniel Sledge, a political scientist at the University of Texas, Arlington.

"It's almost impossible for us to imagine," Sledge says. "But in the rural South, as late as the 1930s, the extent of malaria was in many ways comparable to what it is today in sub-Saharan Africa."

Sledge and his colleague recently analyzed archived public records to try to determine what factors helped to eliminate malaria in Alabama.

The findings were surprising. It wasn't getting people to sleep under insecticide-treated bed nets, or getting better medications to people who do get infected — two major tactics used to control malaria today in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.

Instead, the parasite left the U.S., in large part, because the government destroyed mosquito breeding grounds.

"The primary factor leading to the demise of malaria was large-scale drainage projects, which were backed up by the creation of local public health infrastructure," he says. Sledge and his colleague described their findings this September in the American Journal of Public Health.
NPR, January 3rd, 2014.

As an American citizen, I would like to apologize on behalf of my country to the citizens of the great state of Alabama.  I am so, so, so very sorry right now we took away all your God-given mosquito breeding grounds and your God-given amoebic parasites.

Sometimes, when you're dealing with a problem that affects the public well-being all across the nation (and even the world), you lose sight of God's plans.  And I just want all y'all to know, Alabama: if it were in my power to give God's malaria back to you, why, right now, I would, I would, I would in a heartbeat, even if I regretted it a few weeks or months or years later.

Because, seriously, I had no idea it meant that much to you.

(H/t Salon.)


Two executions

>> Friday, July 25, 2014

I read about an execution this week. 

The New Yorker has a lot of their content exposed and free-to-read this summer, part of a transition to what sounds like it will be a New York Times-style buffet paywall: read up to however-many articles a month for free and then if you want to go back through the line for another serving you have to have a subscription.  It's a good chance to glut while it's a free-for-all.

So I was reading an article about William Alexander Morgan, who I'd never heard of before, which is a bit embarrassing because some student of history I must be, to have not heard of one of the three non-Cubans who rose to the rank of Comandante in the Cuban Revolution, another being that guy from the t-shirts hipsters used to wear in college when I was a kid.  The New Yorker article is a pretty thorough bio by David Grann, "The Yankee Comandante", from back in 2012, and it's worth a read, because Grann's a solid writer, and he seems to have done his footwork, talking to Morgan's widow and others who knew him, and because William Alexander Morgan was a character.  That last bit, especially--Grann's piece is the kind of story where you start trying to cast the movie version while you're reading it, wondering who would direct, how you'd structure the story in the language of film, that kind of thing.

Morgan started his life by making a bit of a hash of it, getting into a bit of legal trouble as a teen, going into the Army after WWII (he apparently tried going during the War, but was too young) and getting himself dishonorably discharged for running off to visit his girlfriend, and ending up with Mob ties in the 1950s.  Seems he ended up as a gunrunner, and he was in Cuba in 1957 when, for reasons that may not have even been true, he decided to go up into the mountains where he joined the anti-Batista forces and reinvented himself as an action hero.  Convinced the guerrillas he wasn't a pro-Batista CIA agent provocateur, which is exactly what he looked like, taught them whatever fighting skills he learned in the Army, put his ass on the front line for them and suffered in the woods with them.

He wasn't a socialist, but neither were the anti-Batistas he hooked up with, nor were all the anti-Batistas communists or socialists; you may or may not realize it, but there's even some debate to this day as to whether Fidel Castro, who was commanding another revolutionary force on the island, was a communist or socialist at that point: his brother, Raul, was, and his main man Che was, but Fidel himself remained coy about ideology until after the Bay of Pigs invasion (my own hypothesis is that Castro was, at least up until that point, a pragmatist and opportunist, who probably would have been happy to be whatever brought in foreign aid, kept Fulgencio Batista in the Dominican Republic and the U.S. at arm's length, and shored up his primacy amongst the revolutionaries).

Morgan was a national hero in Cuba, a pariah in his homeland (his citizenship got revoked after the Batista regime, which the U.S. was in bed with, collapsed), but he ended up on Fidel's shitlist.  Possibly because he was an American, and some Cubans suspected Morgan was a double or triple agent even after he foiled an American/Dominican Republican/Batista counterrevolutionary plot in 1959; some people, here, there and everywhere, evidently still think Morgan might have been in cahoots with American intelligence, even though documents released through the Freedom of Information Act suggest the CIA and FBI independently decided Morgan was radioactive.  Possibly because Morgan was explicitly not a leftist, and whether or not Castro was, Castro's closest advisors and supporters were, and the Soviet Union was increasingly Cuba's meal ticket as the United States went a bit nuts over Batista's exile (even knowing that Batista was a total bastard and that Batista's Cuba was practically a fiefdom of American organized crime).  Possibly because Castro recognized Morgan as a viable rival; indeed, as Morgan slowly gave up on the hope that Castro was a non-ideologue or moderate, he started caching supplies in the mountains with an eye towards another possible revolt (I'm not sure you'd call it a counterrevolution, though Castro did, since Morgan sure as hell wasn't going to be inviting Batista back in).

Anyway, Castro had Morgan arrested.  And Morgan went to prison.  And then he had the obligatory show trial.  And then he went back to prison.  And then they hauled him out and stood him against a wall, and they shot him.  Grann writes:
According to a prisoner’s account, a voice in the distance shouted, "Kneel and beg for your life."

It was the last thing that Morgan could control. "I kneel for no man," he said.

One of the executioners shot him in the right knee. The Yankee comandante tried to stay on his feet, blood spilling around him. Then he was shot in the left knee. Finally, he collapsed, and was repeatedly shot in the torso and head. His face, a witness said, was "blown off."

"Many of the men in the patio were crying," the prisoner who had provided medicine recalled. "The rumbling, that almost rose to the pitch of a riot, was a tribute to William Morgan's popularity." [Morgan's wife, Olga] Rodríguez, sequestered in the safe house, did not yet know of her husband's death, but she felt a presence in her room. "I saw William," she says. “I felt him give me a kiss. No sound. Just the warmth of a kiss."

I have no idea how much of that account is true.  I don't mean that Grann invented it; I mean, for all I know this is what the prisoners told Olga Rodríguez when Castro's police finally caught up with her, the story she held onto for the years she was imprisoned in Cuba until she was (barely) allowed to flee to the United States in the Mariel Boatlift in 1980.  It may not even be a story that was made for her, it might well be the story the political prisoners told each other, embellished, cherished, clung to for their own sakes and not just for the sake of the martyred widow.

Hell, it may be exactly what happened.

I'm pretty sure, though, that whether or not it's what happened, it's how Morgan would have wanted to die.  It's epic, so epic I'm not sure how much credence to give it.  I don't know how much credence to give any stories about Morgan in Cuba, really, because he seems to have been revered by the non-Castro revolutionaries, and maybe the myth outgrew the man; but it also seems like Morgan aspired to be that myth.  And if he didn't say, "I kneel for no man," if he didn't try to keep on his feet even after he was shot in the leg, well: I'm pretty sure that's what he meant to do (and, again, for all I know, he did do exactly what he meant to, maybe the whole thing is surprisingly true; obviously, I wasn't there).

Just suppose you could go back in time, and visit William Alexander Morgan in his cell at La Cabaña (it's a crappy form of time travel, I know, that doesn't allow you to travel to a point in time where you could be actually useful, but that's just the kind of time travel you get in thought experiments like this one).  And you could say to him, "Comandante, I'm afraid your ultimate execution for crimes against the state is a done deal, but you get a choice.  Option number one is, we take you to a nicer cell for quite a long stretch of months or even years until just about everyone except a few government officials forgets you're here, and then what we'll do is, what we'll do is we'll take you to a room where we'll tie you down to something like a dentist's chair.  And we'll have a doctor swab your arm and put a needle in.  There may be a couple of guys there to watch.  And at a predetermined hour--we'll have told you in advance what time--some anonymous guy will press a button, and you'll be sedated.  You'll just go to sleep, and maybe you'll have a nice dream about your wife.  And then after you're asleep, you'll get two more injections, one that will paralyze your muscles, and a third that will stop your heart.  You'll go to sleep, you'll maybe have a nice dream (if that), and then you won't wake up, and we'll bury you somewhere.


"Or, option number two.  We take you out in the yard.  Not immediately, but soon.  We'll line you up in front of a wall riddled with bullet holes, and we'll tell you to kneel.  Which you may, or may not: if you don't, you may get to say something cool, something that states the code you lived your life by, and we'll shoot you in the leg.  And that's going to hurt, it's going to hurt terribly, but you're a pretty tough guy and you suffered some serious pain fighting beside your brothers-in-arms in the mountains, and maybe you've even been hurt that bad before.  So maybe you'll keep your feet, sort of, until we shoot you in the other leg.  And if you haven't passed out from shock, if you're still upright, or as upright as a man can be after his legs have been gunned out from under him, you can glare at us defiantly as we shoot the hell out of you, which is going to hurt, it's going to be the worst agony you've ever felt.  But maybe the last thing you're going to hear is the wailing of your brothers for the Yankee Comandante, as he's martyred to the vain hope of a free Cuba.

"Your call, Morgan."

C'mon, what do you think he's going to say?  Did you go and read the New Yorker story before you came back here?  Did you at least look at the Wikipedia entry I linked to?  Did you pay attention to my summary of his life, which was longer than I wanted but still far too short?

You think Morgan would have wanted to go out taking a final nap?

I read about an execution this week.

Not much, because I just couldn't handle it anymore.  And because, contrary to what some people will tell you and what you may think, it doesn't matter any more than any of the other executions that go on in this country, even the ones that don't take two hours.  That is, I don't want to disparage a man's death, which is an awful and terrible thing--but a man's death is always an awful and terrible thing.  Even when his last words are that he kneels for no man.

Arizona killed a guy named Joseph R. Wood III, and he wasn't a Cuban war hero who boldly fought to bring down a corrupt and repressive torturer and executioner named Fulgencio Batista and began laying plans to fight Fidel Castro when it started becoming clear that Castro was merely going to be a different kind of totalitarian nightmare; Wood was a guy convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend and her dad, all the way back in 1991, and for all I know he really did it, and for all I know it was horrible, and for all I know he didn't deserve to live (which isn't exactly the same thing as deserving to die, you know).  But apparently Arizona decided to try out some relatively novel procedure for killing guys--I don't know if they were able to get a real doctor to perform it, but I'm guessing they weren't, seeing as how medical boards have lately decided that killing patients might be a violation of the Hippocratic Oath.  And so it took two hours for Wood to die, and apparently it was noisy, and it may have been painful.  If any of that matters.

Because I kind of don't think it does, is the thing.

I mean, I can say this about the Wood execution: it's probably clarified to me that I've been mostly citing the wrong Constitutional amendment for all the years I've opposed the death penalty.  I'm sure that executing prisoners is barbaric, don't get me wrong.  But state violence is inherently barbaric, isn't it, even if you feel some kind of pragmatic obligation to engage in it.

You'd like to think that civilization is pacitropic, if you'll let me coin (I think) a word: that we grow away from violence and into becoming, increasingly, a creature that is clever enough to solve problems through application of reason.  And if state violence is required, if it just can't be avoided, you hope it'll be humane.  Maybe I'm presuming a bit here, thinking we're not barbarians or we don't want to be: I'm assuming that if we could unerringly kill terrorist cell leaders by pressing a button that causes them to magically die in their sleep, we'd do that instead of sending in heavily-armed drones that occasionally blow up weddings and funerals, because we want to take the terrorist cell leader out of circulation, the goal isn't to make the guy suffer and occasionally maim and kill civilians while we're at it; that the weddings and funerals are collateral damage, accidents, and not the goal.  And that if we could get a terrorist cell leader (let's assume he hasn't hurt anyone yet, he's just starting out and there aren't other justice issues at stake yet) to just quit by, say, talking to him, we'd do that, right, instead of just blowing him to bits and possibly taking out his neighborhood while we're doing it; because the objective is we don't want him to be a terrorist, not that we like the blood in the streets.

I hope I'm right about that.  (And if I'm not, what's it to you that Joseph Wood took two hours to die and may have hurt some while he was doing it?)

But, like I said, I've probably been quoting the wrong amendment.  What I probably meant to say, and maybe have said by accident now and then, was that I'm pretty sure that whether or not the state executes you has more to do with what color your skin is, and what color your alleged victim's skin is, and where you live, and how good your lawyer was, than it has to do with the nature and quality of the acts you supposedly committed that the state might be killing you over.  Which is basically a Due Process and Equal Protection issue.  If we could magically guarantee that every person sentenced to die really and truly deserved it... well, how do you finish that sentence?

I mean, if someone deserves to die, does it matter how they die?  And if there's inevitably doubt about whether or not they deserve it--I don't just mean doubt about whether they did it, which is already a huge problem, but also doubt about what's just and fair and merciful--does it matter whether the death is humane?  "Well, we don't know with utter certainty if this guy really killed anyone, but a jury thought he did, and then the jury decided he should die for it even though this other guy over here did something that sounds a whole helluva lot worse, and he only got life in prison for whatever reason--but at least he died in his sleep and didn't feel anything."

That probably makes sense to somebody.  I guess.  I'll be honest, I sure don't see it.

But, anyway, if you were already against the death penalty, I don't see how the execution of Joseph R. Wood makes you more against it.  It was already bad enough that Arizona was going to kill him.  They were going to kill him worse than?  I wasn't going to feel better about the execution if he went fast.

Meanwhile, if you're in favor of the death penalty, maybe you're glad Wood might have suffered.  He deserved it, right?  Was convicted of a brutal double homicide, had it coming to him?  You probably would have watched.  Probably should have been forced to watch all of it, then, without piss breaks.  But I'm sure it would have gladdened your heart.  Birds sing, sun breaks through the clouds, another miserable bastard bites the dust, I guess.  An eye for an eye, maybe it was too good for him.

It didn't matter, anyway, how he died.  It mattered that he did, whether you're for or against, and how he did is really just a detail.

But maybe there's a grey area in between those poles.  You're for the death penalty, if it's fair and merciful.  You're only against it because you're not sure it can be, otherwise you have few scruples about state violence.

William Alexander Morgan.

What I mean is, what would have been any better about the Yankee Comandante dying with a needle in a vein?  He got the death, I think, he would have wanted.  It was barbaric and bloody and cruel, if the account is going to be believed, with taunting executioners, a vicious maiming and unsuccessful attempt at a final humiliation, and then a fusillade of bullets that, more than likely, caused anything but an instantaneous death.  Maybe a bullet pierced the brain or the heart--we're told his face was shot off--but it's pretty likely he lay there on the ground--unconscious, I'd expect, but maybe not--bleeding out.  Killing a man is pretty hard.  Sometimes it takes as long as two hours, I hear.

And maybe you're thinking this is a cheap shot: a public trial in American courtroom is a lot different from a show trial in Castro's Cuba, right?  Well, I hope so.  Emphasis on hope.  Because I'm not sure some American capital trials are that much different; longer, maybe.  With more plausible pretenses.  But.  You know.  There's racial bias, and some prosecutors like hiding evidence, and some defense attorneys are morons, and some judges don't know the law, and sometimes juries get a little crazy, and even under the best of circumstances there are mistakes; memory is fallible, "scientific" tests aren't always reliable and accurate (especially under field conditions, where crime scenes are often exposed to weather and public traffic)--sometimes they turn out in retrospect to not even be all that scientific, hence the quotation marks.  But you're probably right.  Most of the time.  Well.  A lot of the time, anyway.

Hopefully more often than not.

But gosh, what if Morgan had had a fair trial, instead of a show trial?  Well, maybe crimes against the state shouldn't be capital offenses.  He was kinda sorta plotting what might be called treason, sure, and treason is historically a capital offense in many countries, even modern ones.  Maybe merciful and civilized states ought to be lenient, though, and not use lethal force unless they absolutely have to.

Or did I say that already?

But Morgan probably wanted to go out like that.  Not that he wanted to die, which I imagine he didn't.  But if he had to, he probably wanted the violent, hideous, gory death.  Did anyone ask Wood what he wanted?  Probably not.  I guess it doesn't matter.  I guess we don't let convicted criminals, however they're convicted, make those kinds of choices.  But it does make any kind of debate over whether Wood should have had a "cleaner" death seem a little, I don't know, silly, maybe?  Maybe he would have preferred the two hour death.  Or to be shot in the legs and then into little pieces.

I don't know, to die as he lived?

I guess the point is that the fact an execution may have been botched or otherwise cruel seems to me a little beside the point.  I have no idea whether it's more cruel to make someone sit in a cell for twenty-three years until they're eventually tied down in a lonely room and put to sleep like an elderly housecat, or more cruel to allow someone to strut out in front of a firing squad, give them a chance to tell you to go fuck yourself in so many words, and have them die on their feet.

There's worse things that could happen.  You could be sentenced to death in the first place.


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