22 December 2014

The police state: in union there is strength

Here we go again. In Milwaukee last April a cop fired 14 times to kill a homeless man after the man fought with him and seized his club. This brief account doesn't tell how may bullets hit the man, but it informs us that this time, too, the policeman won't be prosecuted, even though he was thrown off the force after an internal review determined that he had had subjected his victim to an "improper pat-down." The fact that he let a bum take his club probably didn't help his job security, but while that means this victim wasn't exactly unarmed, people are still bound to think that 14 bullets vs. a baton, even when wielded by a mentally ill person, is a disproportionate use of force. We'll see what becomes of this in the aftermath of the assassination of the two policemen in Brooklyn last Saturday. Meanwhile, New York Times columnist David Brooks, one of the paper's house Republicans, challenges readers to do something about it all. Writing before the Milwaukee decision and the Brooklyn shootings, Brooks acknowledges a problem with police that's actually pretty similar to the problem many perceive in the public schools. He claims that the biggest obstacle to reforming police procedures and community relations is the entrenched power of police unions. Their arrogance in the face of protests this fall has been flagrant and offensive, climaxed by the NYPD's attempts to shame the mayor of New York following the Brooklyn killings by turning their back on him and ranting about blood on his hands because he had tolerated and even sympathized with protests against police excesses. Even Rudy Giuliani thinks the "blood on his hands" bit goes too far, and he's no fan of Mayor DeBlasio nor a sympathizer with the protests. Brooks suggests that nothing will change until people and politicians confront the police unions. It seems to him, however that "the left doesn't want to go after police unions, because they're unions." I doubt that matters much to the black protesters, who presumably count as part of the left, but it probably is fair to say that protesters haven't clearly addressed how to deal with union resistance to whatever reforms the protesters desire. Of course, Brooks realizes that the right will be of little help because police still embody "law and order" for most of them, though he might have mentioned that libertarians of the Rand Paul sort might prove more useful allies to the left on this particular issue. Most people seem to agree that "reform" of some sort is necessary, but from the long perspective reform got us here in the first place. The problem with police, to some extent, is less about union power than it is about professionalization. We wanted police who weren't just puppets of the politicians who ran a town, who had qualifications for protecting people and property besides their political connections. We don't want to go back to the Keystone Kops today, but we probably do want police to be more mindful of their dependence upon political will. On some level our police represent us as much as our elected representatives, and on some level they should be answerable to us. If we can have that along with the protections unions can provide against unreasonable treatment, fine. But it has to be the people, not the police, who decide ultimately what reasonable treatment is. Otherwise the police are a law unto themselves in a way no other unionized workforce is.

20 December 2014

Retaliation and responsibility

In retrospect it seems inevitable that someone angered by the failure to prosecute police for killing unarmed black men would decide to kill cops. The unusual part is that the killer traveled all the way north from Baltimore to go hunting cops in Brooklyn. He found two in their car -- an Asian and a Hispanic, for the sake of arguments -- and assassinated them. Cornered later, he killed himself rather than fall into the hands of angry police. This man had issues of his own and was clearly out to settle all outstanding business today, having shot an ex-girlfriend before heading north. Al Sharpton was quick to condemn the shooting but that won't stop anyone from saying that he, along with everyone else who's denounced the police -- including the mayor of New York City -- has blood on his hands. That is plain and simple bullshit. Holding Sharpton responsible for cop-killers is like calling The Interview an act of war. The intent is basically the same. Just as the Guardians of Peace presumably want to silence foreign critics of Kim Jong Un, those engaging in "blood on their hands" rhetoric this weekend really want to silence criticism of the police and a legal system that enables killer cops. Two wrongs don't make a right, after all. To be specific, the second wrong doesn't make the first right. The deeds of a crackpot scumbag don't vindicate the police in Ferguson or Staten Island. But if you still want to argue that all the anti-cop rhetoric inflamed and emboldened this particular scumbag crackpot, answer a question first. Do you think this particular crackpot scumbag was only convinced this fall that cops were his enemies? His criminal record suggests otherwise. Sharpton and others haven't created a crisis; they've only described it. If today's news proves anything other than that this country is full of dangerous people with guns, it's that while the legal system continues to immunize cops from accountability for killing unarmed people, armed people will feel tempted to hold the cops accountable themselves. In that case, whose hands, besides those of the dead murderer, are bloody today? The police seem increasingly to think that every hand but theirs is. Their petulantly self-righteous displays tonight, including turning their backs on Mayor DeBlasio, effectively surrender whatever sympathy they had received as a class following the murders. Sympathy is owed to the murdered officers, as persons, and their families, and to no one else.

19 December 2014

Tyrannophobia and its discontents

In my immediate anger over Sony Pictures' cancellation of a film I never wanted to see, I reflected that it was too bad that the U.S. had no diplomatic relations with North Korea, since that left Americans nothing of Kim Jong Un's here to attack. While my own anger was exacerbated by Paramount Pictures' cowardly refusal to make Team America: World Police available for replacement screenings, I think I've found a sense of perspective by observing Republicans' apoplexy (excepting Rand Paul, at least) over the prospect of the U.S. normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba. Led by reactionaries of Cuban descent, particularly Senators Rubio and Cruz, the Castro haters are treating this initiative of the Obama administration as no less craven a capitulation to tyranny than the suppression of The Interview. Somehow I don't see it that way, but why should that be? Why am I less offended by the prospective opening of normal relations with a bloodstained tyranny than with with the bullying of a Hollywood studio by another bloodstained tyranny and its online auxiliaries? Actually, there are some fairly obvious reasons to see the two cases differently. Nothing is lost to us by normalizing relations with Cuba, apart from the exiles and reactionaries' capacity for moral self-congratulation. Nor has Cuba recently attacked American interests -- to clarify, Sony Pictures is an American-run subsidiary of the Japanese-owned Sony conglomerate -- or interfered with the Internet, unless you count the censorship of Cuban browser capacity that's inevitable in any modern dictatorship. On a psychological level, since Fidel Castro's retirement in favor of his less charismatic brother, Cuba's cult of personality is less of an affront to American sensibilities than North Korea's, where Kim Jong Un is a Pharaoh for our time. Most importantly, the American rapprochement with Cuba comes with no obligation on the part of American citizens to hold their tongues regarding the Castro brothers. Rubio and Cruz and all the exiles and all their friends have just as much right to denounce the Castros and their Communist government as they ever had. The main reason I find their outrage unreasonable compared to the outrage over the suppression of The Interview is that the Castro-haters are self-evidently unsatisfied with merely criticizing the Castros.

To explain myself, I use "Castro-haters" as a descriptive rather than a pejorative term, since history has given good reasons to hate the brothers. They are tyrants; however legitimate their siege mentality in the face of a longterm American threat, they're unjustified in regarding all opposition to their regime as giving aid and comfort to the imperialist enemy. If the U.S. can hold elections in the middle of a civil war, no country's government has any excuse to refuse reasonable challenges to its continuation in office. On some less visceral level I suppose I hate the Castros or something they seem to represent, but I separate myself from "Castro-haters" whose opposition to the brothers and their party is irreconcilable. Here's a crucial distinction: however Seth Rogen may have felt personally about Kim Jong Un prior to this week, and no matter how much the North Koreans willfully misconstrue his intentions, I'm pretty certain that The Interview does not advocate the assassination of Kim or the overthrow of his party by the U.S. government. The film is not a policy recommendation. Meanwhile, the Castro-haters want nothing short of the overthrow of the Castro brothers and the Communist party in Cuba, and while they're neither crazy nor brave enough to propose "liberating" Cuba by force they insist that American policy keep regime change as its ultimate goal. That's the unreasonable part, just as it is every time the U.S. makes regime change anywhere a policy goal.

Americans are sensitive enough to the subtleties of pop culture, even if subtlety is probably the wrong word to describe The Interview, to see that Rogen's film is not propaganda for regime change. In our eyes, at least, the Guardians of Peace's reaction to the film is insanely disproportionate to its offense, but that's only keeping with North Korea's description of the project as an "act of war" since its inception. I suppose that on some level The Interview is an expression of a characteristically American tyrannophobia, but while the perfect tyrannophobe may be outraged equally by both North Korea and Cuba, though that may make him merely a virulent anti-Communist, tyrannophobia for most of us is a relative thing. Few here would argue that, outside the military, there are circumstances when we have an obligation to obey authority's positive commands without question, or that our collective existence requires the emergence of a ruler entitled to command unconditionally. Such beliefs may come more naturally to older, more "organic" cultures, but I suppose every culture has a line beyond which rulers become tyrants and must be opposed. The American difference may be a tendency to see threats to our freedom in tyrannies anywhere else on Earth, and an assumed prerogative to propagandize against them, either to advocate their overthrow or simply to let them know what we think of them. It shouldn't surprise us if other nations see our habit, whether expressed by governments, corporations or individuals, as a breach of a certain international comity upon which world peace depends, or simply as a withholding of a respect to which all nations and their governments are entitled. This seems to be the crux of the Interview controversy: Kim Jong Un demands a degree of respect, or the Guardians of Peace demand it for him, that would make Rogen's film unimaginable,while Americans, if not other people around the world, feel morally entitled, if not morally compelled, to withhold that respect from rulers like the Kim dynasty -- or the Castro brothers. For the moment, the Guardians have upheld Kim's honor by force; hacking, apparently, is the new form of "no gun, no respect." By doing so they've violated many Americans' sense of honor, which is staked on our ability to speak out against anyone on Earth who offends us. The sequel to this chapter will most likely be more interesting than anything Seth Rogen can imagine.

17 December 2014

The Interview debacle: this isn't funny!

Events developed rapidly today as the threat to theatergoers planning to see The Interview from the self-styled Guardians of Peace, previously dismissed as not credible, somehow became more credible. This afternoon I read that the Bow Tie theater chain, which runs a multiplex in Schenectady, not far from where I am, had decided not to take chances by showing the Seth Rogen film. Tonight I hear that Sony Pictures, still reeling from the Guardians' hack, has pulled the comedy from release altogether. The U.S. State Department now holds North Korea responsible for the hack, although the Guardians are believed to be based outside the country. The Guardians are offended on North Korea's behalf because The Interview made a conspiracy to assassinate hereditary dictator Kim Jong Un the subject of a comedy, or of any sort of movie. The Guardians' attitude, their ideology notwithstanding, is exactly the same as the attitude of American right-wingers when they learned of a film that imagined the assassination of George W. Bush. In each case, the offense is a kind of sacrilege, and the brainless assumption is that to imagine is to advocate. But at least the Bush movie played in American theaters. King Kim and his surrogate hackers have successfully bullied Sony into suppressing their mockery of him. Apparently it isn't enough for the Guardians that governments show their idol the diplomatic minimum of respect. Instead, they demand implicitly that individuals everywhere show Kim Jong Un a respect that anyone who believes in civil liberty must withhold. But neither Kim nor his toadies has any right to expect respect from free people, nor should they expect us to mute our opinions in deference to his thin skin or from fear of his long virtual reach. If these Guardians think they're fighting the power by defending Kim's honor, then they're probably as ignorant in their own languages as they are in English on the evidence of their threats. It's one thing for Kim to oppress his own people -- and if we're to assume that they acquiesce in his rule because they don't revolt we can also assume them contemptible -- but now he and his stooges insult the entire world and violate our freedom to mock him. I may feel that no one anywhere deserves to be killed, but if I made exceptions despots like Kim would probably top the list. The only reason I didn't title this post, "Kill Kim Jong Un" is because it might have violated Blogger standards, but the sentiment is there. This is about more than a movie -- a movie that never looked like more than a piece of crap and one I wouldn't have wasted money on just to make a statement, especially since I've made a statement here and now. Fully recognizing my responsibility as a citizen to hold my own government and its leaders to standards of justice first, I still have consciousness to spare to hate tyranny elsewhere and wish it gone from the earth. Like The Interview probably is, Kim Jong Un is a big joke that isn't really funny. It should be as easy to withdraw him from circulation.

Justice without justice?

James Coll is both a college professor and a police detective. He's written an op-ed for the Albany Times Union asking whether justice was served in the decisions by grand juries not to indict policemen who killed unarmed men in New York and Missouri this year. The protest slogan, "No justice, no peace," he writes, begs the question of what justice really is. Coll thinks he has an answer, but it's unlikely to satisfy the protesters. In short, he rejects any notion of justice that isn't embedded in law. Noting that the Constitution was drafted to "establish justice," among other objectives, Coll assumes that the Constitution, as amended over time, does just that. This compels him to a predictably liberal conclusion, in the classical sense: justice under the law in the U.S. is essentially procedural. Justice is not to be understood as a substantive result. On this reasoning, there was due process in both of the recent controversial grand jury proceedings, as justice requires, but justice does not demand a specific result, as the protesters appear to insist. On one level, this is logical: you may not have gotten the result you want, but that alone doesn't make the process unjust. However, Coll himself is guilty of a fallacy when he interprets the protesters' demand for justice as simply something they want. I don't think he'd say that the protesters want "justice" the way someone wants a car for Christmas, but that's what he says in effect. "There will always be those who care little about facts," he writes, implicitly describing the protesters. It's obvious, however, that the protesters care very much about one fact in particular: unarmed men, blacks in particular, are being killed by police. As far as Coll is concerned, presumably, that fact is mitigated by other facts grand juries are bound to consider. The alternative, he warns, is a legal system "subject to the influence of public opinion." In the end, he abandons the idea of justice by reminding readers that "we have a legal system, not a justice system." What he means, in the context of what came before, is that we can expect no more justice than the legal system allows.

Coll must have lost his train of thought somewhere after reminding us that the Constitution is meant to establish justice. He can argue that the legal system isn't the same as a "justice system," but that doesn't mean that the country doesn't have one. Instead, our justice system is our electoral system, through which the people establish justice by choosing representatives to make laws. There would be no disregard for any facts in a demand for changes in the law to make police more accountable for killing unarmed people. If that's what the protesters are demanding, Coll really has no complaint against them. It would be another thing if the protesters are only demanding that somebody prosecute those cops for something now, but if the protesters really hope to accomplish anything I hope they know that they need to change the law. I don't know if Coll would think it unjust to change the law to increase police accountability, but if he does I'd like to know the facts that would make him think so. In any event, while we live under a rule of law -- except when we disobey a policeman, that is -- we also have a right to say the law is wrong, especially when we have the facts to back us up.

16 December 2014

Another school shooting

It was in Pakistan this time and was more or less a military operation -- a revenge attack by the Taliban. One report says there were nine gunmen, in which case the reported body count of 141 victims suggests that these hardcore jihadists were less effective, having less victims per person, than the little creep who shot up the Newtown grade school two years ago. There's probably more similarity in motive behind the two incidents than we might assume. Taliban spokesmen have said that they wanted Pakistani military families, whose children were in the Peshawar school, to "feel the pain." As far as the Taliban were concerned, this was a fair reprisal for the killing of "our families and females" by the Pakistanis. But revenge, arguably, is simply spite with a sense of drama, and spite certainly drives the angry individuals who go on amoklaufs in America, not to mention the knife-wielding Chinese farmers who've made schoolchildren a special target in recent years. As news of the Peshawar atrocity follows the fatal hostage-taking in Sydney, the prospect of more "lone wolf" attacks around the world shadows the holiday season. A great fear in the U.S. is that a convergence long-dreaded will occur as our homegrown misfits take inspiration, justification or some sad sense of belonging from the appeal of the "Islamic State" or other Islamic extremists. In some cases around the world, Islamic extremism inflames people with authentic or at least arguable grievances, but the IS's propaganda of the deed no doubt inflames many more people whose grievances are far less obvious to most of us.  Either way, a point comes when they can't share the world with some people, perhaps because they think they haven't gotten their fair share, perhaps because they think they haven't gotten any share. Whether everyone can share the world is still open to debate, but the debate can't be abandoned, even if it offends those who won't share it and like things as they are -- or were.

15 December 2014

The true face of the police?

Another weekend brought another peaceful but high-profile protest from an NFL football player of excessive use of force by the police. In Cleveland, wide receiver Andrew Hawkins took the field without provocative gestures, but wore a shirt demanding justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford. Rice was the twelve-year old boy killed for carrying a BB gun in Cleveland last month; Crawford was shot down in an Ohio Wal*Mart earlier this year. Compared to the "hands up, don't shoot" display by members of the St. Louis Rams this was a modest demonstration, but it was still enough to enrage the Cleveland police union. As did their St. Louis counterparts, the union demanded an apology from the football franchise. As in the previous case, the Cleveland cops actually expect gratitude. "The Cleveland police protect and serve the Browns stadium," their statement reads. I don't think I read too much into these outbursts if I infer that they threaten the withholding of protection and other services in the future if the players don't show the proper respect. While the Cleveland cops can't accuse Andrew Hawkins of lying, since he made no comment about the Ferguson MO incident, they did express contempt for "pathetic ... athletes [who] think they know the law." Not surprisingly, the police union misses the point. In cases like these, Hawkins and those who feel as he does probably know all too well what the law is. Their sense of justice demands a change in the law, and the last time I looked it was every citizen's prerogative in this country to demand changes in the law -- to demand "justice" -- without being pressured to apologize by offended parties. If a cop feels disrespected by Hawkins's demand for justice, that cop most likely feels that he and his blue line are the law. I'm surprised they don't call Hawkins or those Rams players traitors. But in this case, unlike in the Rams game, the cops presumably had the last laugh of the day. Cincinnati shut out Cleveland, 31-0. The Browns scored a moral victory, however, by standing up for Hawkins's right to "bring awareness to issues that are important to [him] ... in a responsible manner." Usually wherever the police can't tolerate such behavior we call it a police state, while a healthy irreverence toward police is an American tradition, as our pop culture heritage well testifies. A century ago people laughed at tramps evading cops in movies. I wonder whether police unions would tolerate such displays today, but then again I fear that people don't find cops as funny as they once were.

12 December 2014

More spending, less regulation

On the radio this morning I heard a Democratic congressman from Virginia ranting on the House floor about how compromise was the way the legislative branch was supposed to work. If compromise means everyone gives up something, I'm not sure that's what we saw last night in the passage of the so-called Cromnibus spending bill. Democrats, at the President's urging, had to loosen some regulations of derivatives trading and campaign donations. Tea Partiers, despite their Nay votes, had to accept funding of the President's discretionary enforcement of immigration laws. The Cromnibus is acknowledged as genuinely bipartisan legislation, as enough Republicans opposed it to make Democratic support essential to its passage. That probably means there's more spending in the bill than any Republican really likes, and if that's so then I suppose everyone did give up something. We can still question whether the tradeoffs were equitable.  Seeing the Democrats -- or at least the President -- relent on regulation to get more spending actually made me wonder whether there actually was some virtue in the idea of austerity. Of course, it the spending is for essential programs and not for the pork barrel, it could be argued that Democrats had to give Speaker Boehner something, especially if his bill was angering Tea Partiers. On the other hand, we can still ask whether the regulations were more important than the spending. People with money to throw around can now throw ten times as much as before to the national party committees. Stock traders can play more of the same games that got everyone in trouble in 2008. Would it be unfair to ask people to do without some things to hold the line on the old regulations? I leave the answer to those measuring the pros rather than the cons of the bill -- but I doubt they can justify the ancient, obfuscating practice of attaching rules-change "riders" like the ones mentioned to spending bills. The practice may make horse-trading easier but it also makes it hard to know the will of the nation on the merits of individual things. I get the sense that not many Americans approve of the cromnibus in its entirety, but once the Senate approves it and the President signs it, it's the law of the land, in its entirety, just the same. I'd like to think that if the base elements of each party hate it, there must be some good to it, but thinking so presumes an inherent virtue in centrism that can't be proved. Centrism in a bipolarchy isn't the same as moderation as the ancients understood it. A compromise between bad and bad probably isn't much good for anyone, but it probably won't end the world either -- this time, at least.