Friday, July 31, 2009

Jesus was an OutLaw

My family and I spent last week at Outlaw Ranch, a camp in the Black Hills operated by the nonprofit organization Lutherans Outdoors. It’s a marvelous place, with spirit-filled worship (often around a campfire), enthusiastic college-age counselors who take care of your kids for extended periods of time, a musical artist-in-residence, and adult learning sessions on timely issues facing the faithful. The outdoor element is also there for the experiencing, in activities such as horseback riding, canoeing, and hiking.

On the second or third night, the staff put on a peripatetic passion play. Making full use of Outlaw’s spectacular natural setting, we reenacted key moments in the life of Christ, beginning with his humble birth, continuing with baptism in the Jordan River, and on through ministry, arrest, crucifixion − and ultimate resurrection. The play was full of memorable moments, such as standing in a crowd yelling “Crucify him!” as I craned my neck upward to see Pontius Pilate on the deck above us. He washed his hands of the matter, then dumped the water in his bowl down toward us.

At one point in the play, the narrator makes the assertion “Jesus was an outlaw.” Immediately upon hearing this, my mental wheels started turning at swifter speed. Aha, I thought, now I’m starting to see why the camp is called Outlaw Ranch. It’s not just the location in the Black Hills, an area sacred to the Sioux that later became associated with white land grabs and colorful Old West characters like Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok. It’s the fact − still scandalous after two thousand years − that the founder of the Christian faith, the author (many of us believe) of our salvation, was condemned as a criminal and put to death on a cross, the most shameful death the Roman world could devise.

As a result of the crucifixion, and the resurrection that followed, humans have been set free in a way that gives the word “outlaw” yet another level of meaning. In a sense, Jesus came to perfect the law, but even more fundamentally, one who is in Christ is set free from the law to be a new creation (Galatians 3: 19-25; Romans 8: 1-4). In other words, Jesus was an outlaw in more ways than one.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Addicted to War's Adrenaline Rush?

"War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning," went the title of a book by the journalist Chris Hedges a few years ago. It was a cautionary tale by a veteran war correspondent about the addictive quality of war.

Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Zone dramatizes this addiction to utterly harrowing effect.

Words fail; go see it.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Billie Holiday, 1915-1959

Billie Holiday, the great blues singer, died the year I was born. My sister, Sonja, indirectly introduced me to Holiday as a cultural icon when she gave me an album by the Irish singer/songwriter Van Morrison as a college graduation present. In several of his songs, Morrison invokes Holiday with a respect that verges into reverence. He calls out her name with awe and wonder, as if it were an apostolic greeting.

I had not known the tragic story of Billie Holiday’s life, however, until yesterday. On a Twin Cities radio station, 89.3 The Current, the announcer said that she died fifty years ago, of heart disease and cirrhosis in a New York hospital. A police offer was outside her door, as she was under arrest for heroin possession at the time she died. How sad, I thought − and what a strange use of law enforcement resources.

Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit,” recorded in 1939, takes on the lynching of African Americans. Seventy years later, it’s still worth a listen.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Oneself as Another at the Sotomajor Hearings

In a country whose president launched a completely misguided “war on terror,” maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that a U.S. Senator could engage in a ridiculous skirmish against empathy.

The senator was named Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), and he claims President Obama is "outside the mainstream" because Obama believes that one of the many qualities needed in a Supreme Court justice is a sense of empathy.

Sen. Kyl's antics recall the charcater in Alice in Wonderland who said "a word means only what I say it means." Forunately, language is more resilient than that, and a confused and mean-spirited U.S. senator cannot single-handedly reshape a word signifying a concept central to our humanity. Without empathy − intuitive understanding, emotional intelligence, the ability to imagine oneself as another − each of us is trapped within a metaphorical prison: the prison of the self. It is a commonplace that people without empathy are otherwise known as sociopaths.

Sen. Jeff Sessions R-Alabama), one of Kyl’s Republican colleagues, seemed to realize this when he asked Judge Sotomajor at her Supreme Court confirmation hearings about the New Haven firefighters case. Trying to comply with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the City of New Haven threw out the results of a promotional exam for firefighters in which no blacks had qualified for advancement. In Ricci v. DeStephano, white firefighers sued, claiming racial bias. Judge Sotomajor was part of a three-judge panel of the Second US Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld the city’s decision. The Supreme Court reversed the Second Circuit’s ruling in June, setting the stage for an attempt by Republican opponents of Judge Sotomajor’s nomination to make some political hay − or at least try to.

Sen. Sessions wanted to know whether Judge Sotomajor cared about what the white firefighters may have felt when the appeals panel she served on rejected their racial bias arguments in a three-paragraph ruling. In other words, he was asking whether she empathized with them. Did Sessions appreciate the irony of this, given the overt attack on empathy made by his colleague Kyl? Good cop, bad cop: one senator says Sotomajor shouldn't be empathetic; the other says she
wasn't empathetic enough.

Capitol Hill dust-ups come and go, often leaving deeper issues unexamined entirely. For me, this one provides the impetus to connect with Paul Ricoeur’s book Oneself as Another. We cling too closely to individual identity in America, and our lack of empathy, both personally and collectively, reflects emotional impoverishment in the materially richest country in the world.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Those Four Gray Walls Closing In

“One phone call, two Tylenol
Four cold gray walls closing in . . .”
(from Todd Snider’s Tilamook County Jail)

In the interest of transparency, I suppose, the Minnesota Department of Corrections offers virtual tours of its facilities. It’s been over six years since I was a research and planning specialist for the DOC, and so it’s been awhile since I physically visited a prison. Tonight, I decided to take the virtual tour, starting with Stillwater, a classic “Big House”-type prison with old-fashioned cell blocks.

One quickly sees that the cells are quite small. Single cells are a mere six feet by nine feet. Double cells are the same, except that there is a second bunk. By comparison, cells at Rush City, constructed in the 1990s, are seven feet by thirteen feet. To paraphrase Tolstoy, how much space does a man need?

For a quick comparison to another state, I checked the New York State Department of Correctional Services website. Specifically, I was looking for information about Sing Sing, the notorious prison in Ossining where the journalist Ted Conover worked as a correctional officer to gather material for his excellent book Newjack (2000). The DOCS provided only driving directions, however, and a map of the area around the prison.

The details vary, state by state and facility by facility. But the emotional reality of incarceration surely has a universal quality, from for-sale San Quentin on San Francisco Bay to the well-documented Farm in Louisiana and anywhere else humans confine each other. Even in a modern pod-like facility where inmates can move around, those four gray walls start closing in.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Excruciating Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince opened today, the sixth movie in the remarkable series based on J.K. Rowling’s wildly popular books.

I’m only on the third book, The Prisoner of Azkaban, and haven’t seen any of the movies yet. Diane and I are waiting until our boys get a little older, so we can see them together as a family.

A few days ago, Micah, Luke, and I read a chapter in which Harry and his two closest friends, Ron and Hermione, go to visit Hagrid, the good-hearted but accident-prone gamekeeper. Christmas is fast approaching and most of the students at Hogwarts, the school for wizards, have gone home on break. Harry and his friends have stayed at school, however, and they know Hagrid is struggling with a personal issue. They have hopes of cheering him up.

In Hagrid’s hut at the edge of the Forbidden Forest, talk turns to the time he spent the year before detained in Azkaban, the wizard prison. For all its charms (pun very definitely intended), the wizard world lacks due process. In the second Potter book, The Chamber of Secrets, the Ministry of Magic summarily subjects Hagrid to detention in Azkaban on suspicion of committing a terrible crime. Though he is eventually cleared of suspicion and released, Hagrid remains on some level traumatized by his brief but difficult imprisonment.

Hermione asks whether it’s awful in there.

Hagrid replies that in Azkaban, you can’t really remember who you are anymore. Indeed, you struggle to see the point of living at all. He admits to wishing he would die in his sleep.

When he was suddenly released, Hagrid said, it was like being born again. Yet he carries with him the fear of one day being sent back.

How many real Americans are going through a soul-destroying ordeal of incarceration similar to Hagrid's fictional one? I invite anyone uncertain about the answer to this question to read Atul Gawande's recent New Yorker article, Hellhole.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Syllogism for Sotomajor?

Major premise (Senator Jon Kyl): A sense of empathy has no place in a judge’s decisions.

Minor premise (DSM-IV): Lack of empathy for others is a characteristic of antisocial personality disorder.

Conclusion: Judges should be drawn from a pool of sociopaths.

Monday, July 13, 2009

When Sports Stars Fall

Wealth, status, and power. The distribution of these three societal goods is one of the key functions of a socio-political regime.

This was the analytical point of departure offered by Professor Charles Umbanhowar in the introductory political science course I took in my first semester at St. Olaf College. He defined the term “regime” broadly as referring to the way the parts of a whole interact to divide what's desirable.

In the American regime, professional athletes have a disproportionate share of two of three social goods of which Umbanhowar spoke. The wealth they enjoy is almost incomprehensible compared with their counterparts of even a generation ago. The reasons for this are numerous − free agency, ubiquitous cable television exposure, savvy marketing, and so on − but the bottom line is bizarre. This year, the average major league baseball salary is $3.26 million.

Athletes also tend to have high social status, and this can be a problem when children look up to them as role models. The ability to perform heroic feats on the playing field does not necessarily imply that the performer has a character worth emulating.

Yet for decades, the marketing of these athletes included an element of hagiography. Sportswriters spun tales of Babe Ruth’s visits to sick children, but ignored the way he flouted Prohibition. Is it any wonder that eventually there was a backlash against this, debunking many of the old myths?

Perhaps American society is finally ready for a more nuanced view of elite athletes. It should be possible to applaud their remarkable playing skills while recognizing that, as human beings, they are generally no better or worse than most other people. Here in Minnesota, we have had a couple of occasions in recent year to apply this perspective.

Few would have suspected, until it all came crashing down, that one of these would be the beloved Kirby Puckett, who led the Twins to their first World Series title in 1987 and another in 1991. In 2003, he stood trial on sexual assault charges for allegedly groping and falsely imprisoning a woman in a restaurant bathroom. Though Puckett was acquitted, the sad story of his abusive treatment of his wife, Tonya, came to light. He moved to Arizona and died of a heart attack in 2006, at the age of only 45. A sad spectacle.

The alcohol-fueled struggles of football Hall of Famer Carol Eller dependency have been difficult to watch as well. In the late 60s and early 70s, he was a member of the Vikings’ famed Purple People Eaters” front four. But in February 2009, at age 67, he found himself serving a 60-day sentence in the Hennepin County workhouse for assaulting two Minneapolis police officers who tried to stop Eller after he ran a red light. Eller was released from the workhouse on April 23, but his sentence also includes two more months on home monitoring. He also received a concurrent sentence for refusing to submit to chemical testing and a $1500 fine on each charge. The county attorney said he hoped Eller would get the treatment he needs.

America will not stop being a celebrity-obsessed culture anytime soon. To use a sports metaphor, however, justice system actors must strive to “call them as they see them,” not letting sports star status sway decisions. Granted, this is easier said than done in a case like Puckett’s (or Kobe Bryant’s in Colorado, for that matter). Yet anything less would be a betrayal of the democratic ideal.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Do Your CLE

Lawyers are good at making valid distinctions. As a lawyer myself, perhaps it is self-serving to say that. But from my perspective, the old saw about law school teaching you to “think like a lawyer” is true − and mostly for the better, rather than for the worse.

To be sure, not every distinction, no matter how far-fetched and attenuated, is equally valid. In an adversarial system like ours, however, it’s largely up to judges to decide which arguments are valid. And if an attempted argument is downright frivolous or made in bad faith, the system has sanctions available for attorneys who cross the line.

Last spring, the Minnesota Supreme Court was faced with the question of whether a criminal conviction remains valid even if the prosecutor lacked a valid law license when the conviction was obtained. The case involved an assistant Hennepin County attorney named Gemma Graham who had failed to do mandatory continuing legal education for twenty years. Even though she had a restricted law license, Ms. Graham prosecuted a first-degree murder case against Alonzo J. Graham (no relation). In a unanimous ruling, the Minnesota Supreme Court said the conviction must stand because the defendant was not able to show any prejudice from the prosecutor’s lack of a valid license.

The prosecutor who didn’t meet the CLE requirements will face two types of sanctions. The Minnesota Supreme Court placed her on probation for two years, and she also received unspecified internal discipline within the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office.

On every level, this is the right outcome. Respect for rules is important, and if CLE requirements are mandatory for a law license, that should mean something. But it doesn’t follow that an otherwise valid conviction should be thrown out, just because the prosecutor was not in compliance.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Only Connect - Like Wellstone Did

With his hand on the late Senator Paul Wellstone’s bible, Al Franken took the oath of office today as Minnesota’s junior senator. In doing so, he paid tribute to the man who not only inspired him to run, but who modeled the humane values without which politics is nothing but − as Clausewitz warned − war by other means.

For nearly eight months, Franken’s Republican opponent, Norm Coleman, waged a rear-guard legal challenge to the election results. With each successive Franken victory − before the State Canvassing Board, then a specially constituted trial court, and finally the Minnesota Supreme Court − Coleman’s chances of overturning the outcome became increasingly remote. As the legal fees mounted into the millions, it seemed as if his real purpose was not to win, but only to block Franken from being seated for as long as possible.

Happily, Coleman’s dubious endgame is now over. He belatedly conceded the race last week, after the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled, and we now have two senators again, for the first time since Coleman’s term ended in January.

To mark the occasion, I took Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them down from my bookshelf. My parents had given it to me as a birthday present in 2003, and this provenance to the book adds an extra layer of meaning to it for me. Looking at the note my mom wrote inside the front cover, I was touched by her words. Then I realized that she had written on behalf of my dad as well. Reading between the lines, this spoke to me of my dad’s Parkinson’s disease, which he had been diagnosed with in September 2003 and lived with until his death four years later.

In the book itself, Franken writes candidly of losing a parent. He recalls how his dad was part of a theatrical group composed of senior citizens that performed skits in nursing homes during Wellstone’s first campaign for the Senate in 1990. After the senior Mr. Franken died in 1993, Al’s mom began to struggle and was hospitalized for a time due to severe depression.

The last time Al Franken talked with Paul Wellstone, about six weeks before Wellstone’s untimely death in a plane crash on October 25, 2002, the talk was not about Wellstone’s heated race for the Senate against Norm Coleman. It was about Al Franken’s mom. Wellstone asked how Al’s mom was doing. Franken lamented that it was difficult to have a conversation with her, because of the toll that age, illness, and her husband’s death had taken on her faculties.

Wellstone’s response was deeply human: “You know, touch means so much.”

It does indeed. As our world gets more and more wired, there’s still no substitute for face-to-face connection. “Reach out and touch someone,” went the flower company ad. Sometimes, in a far-flung country, that’s all we can do. But even better is to be there.

The talk will soon turn to Franken’s position on issues like the nomination of Sonja Sotomajor to the Supreme Court. For now, let’s pause a moment and recognize the importance of holding on to one’s humanity amid the hurly burly demands of politics. Nearly seven years after his death, Paul Wellstone remains a powerful exemplar of how to do that well.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

No Shame in Bowing

Tsuyoshi Kusangi, a popular Japanese entertainer, had too much to drink and was arrested for dancing naked in a Tokyo park around 3 a.m. on April 23.

The next day, he appeared at a news conference and apologized for his behavior. “I drank a lot, and did not know what I was doing. As an adult, I did something shameful.” His apology also included a non-verbal component, as he bowed his head so that it nearly grazed the thick row of microphones arrayed in front of him.

Following Kusangi’s apology, the authorities dropped the charges, and he has returned to his hit television show.

Could this ever happen in America?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A Legacy of Shame

Sticking a psychological label on someone based merely on media accounts is a dubious way of trying to get at the truth. This is the case even if the label is being pinned on the notorious and virulently vilified Bernard Madoff.

Madoff is the former investment guru who defrauded investors out of upwards of $50 billion in a decades-long ponzi scheme that collapsed in December. New York Magazine dubbed him “the monster mensch,” with a cover depicting him as a tricked-up Mephistopheles. Many victims lost their life savings and numerous charities were forced to shut down. At first, Madoff was allowed to remain on house arrest, but eventually he was jailed, and yesterday a federal judge sentenced him to 150 years in prison.

Last week, I attended an online CLE on civil commitment of the mentally ill in which one of presenters, a board-certified psychologist named Samuel Myers, glibly suggested that Madoff illustrated antisocial personality disorder. Dr. Myers was trying to show how the categories in the DSM-IV, the diagnostic and statistical manual used by mental health professionals, can help predict the level of someone’s risk of causing harm to self or others. Though he cautioned that the DSM-IV categories must be combined with clinical judgment, that didn’t stop him from tossing around the names of celebrities to illustrate various disorders, such as

● Winston Churchill for bipolar disorder
● Princess Diana for borderline personality
● General Patton for narcissism
● Bernard Madoff for antisocial personality

I can see how examples like these can be useful teaching tools, yet they can also easily give rise to red herrings. Bernard Madoff, for example, certainly was a con man and a pathological liar, looking people in the eye while robbing them blind. But if Madoff stands for antisocial personality disorder, how does one account for the fact that he confessed to his two sons (who eventually turned him in to prosecutors)?

Could the concept of “shame” shed some light on Madoff’s behavior? Surely it is suggestive that shame was a word Madoff used himself. In his remarks at sentencing, he spoke of the legacy of shame he had left to his family. Of course, as a confirmed liar, Madoff’s concern about shame might have been a sham — but who, ultimately, can know the human heart? My point is to beware not only of lies and the lying liars who tell them, but of glib labels that obscure thought, even if those labels come from the DSM-IV.