Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Prison Grove: All These Broken Lives

The idiosyncratic rock singer Warren Zevon forewent invasive cancer treatment to finish his final album, The Wind. One of the tracks was a haunting meditation on life (and impending death) behind bars called Prison Grove.

"All these broken lives," sang the dying Zevon, backed by Bruce Springsteen and other long-time friends. Suffering and the sounds of an inscrutable fate permeate the song.

The macabre had long held a strong fascination for Zevon. Throughout his career as a solo artist, his oeuvre often included songs whose stories spilled out into over-the-top violence. Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner, Werewolves of London, Excitable Boy, and so on.

But though the material sometimes seemed lurid, Warren Zevon was not engaged in nihilistic posturing. In a violent world, it was more like a recognition of reality. Laying bare the skull beneath the skin, to acknowledge our common human vulnerability.

So to me it was perfectly fitting, on his final album, for Zevon to acknowledge the terrible pain inflicted across America by out-of-control incarceration. When Zevon released Excitable Boy in 1978, the U.S. prison and jail population was slightly over 500,000. Thirty years later, it had risen seven-fold, to 2.3 million. Prison Grove reflects the agonizing toll that this unprecedented increase has taken on so many lives.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

AT & T Takes on Texting While Driving

Public service announcements on television are usually easy to ignore. They are typically shown among a block of commercials, when many viewers have already used the remote to bounce to another channel or at least mute the sound. And that's not even counting all the people who tivo through them.

Amid this attention-challenged landscape, AT & T's PSA on texting while driving stands out. The TV screen is suddenly filled with nothing but three short words: Where U at.

The spare, abbreviated words stay on the screen while a woman's voice says, "This is the text my daughter was reading as she drove into oncoming traffic."

No text is worth dying for. A true statement, to be sure. Sadly, many lives have been lost already as society strives to instill its truth in the minds of drivers of all ages, especially younger ones.

The AT & T announcement concludes its point with an effective tagline: It can wait.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Mandela Tops the SERP

I'm making my way, in fits and starts, through Kate Braestrup's Marriage and Other Acts of Charity. It's a thought-provoking essay on the religious dimensions of the marital state, penned by a minister who lost her husband (and father of her four children) to a tragic accident.

Last March, on a solo spring break ramble, I happened to see the book, and purchase it, at Prairie Lights in Iowa City.

Tonight, I decided, as a little experiment, to see what would come up on the SERP (Search Engine Results Page) for a Google search on the terms "marriage, sentencing, corrections."

The answer was Nelson Mandela, who remained married to his second wife, Winnie Madikezela, throughout his 27 years in prison. She endured an 18-month incarceration of her own and was there to meet him upon his release in 1990.

Winnie had been unfaithful to Nelson while he was imprisoned, however, and the couple had political differences over the proper means by which to resist apartheid. Her rhetoric had turned violent, including an endorsement of the practice of "necklacing" - burning people alive using tires and gasoline. She was also found criminally complicit in the kidnapping and murder of a 14-year-old boy by her bodyguards, for which she paid a fine after originally being sentenced to six years in prison.

Amid all this, the marriage of Nelson and Winnie Mandela - nominally intact for so long - finally ended. They separated in 1992, two years after Nelson Mandela's release from prison, and were divorced in the mid-1990s.

In recent months, Winnie Madikizela has become even more estranged from Nelson Mandela. In March, she gave a notorious interview in which she accused him of betraying the blacks of South Africa by not doing enough for the poor.

I doubt that Winnie Madikizela has read Kate Braestrup's book. But she should. If she did, she might find it in her heart to be more charitable to her former marriage partner.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

What Does a Sex Offender Look Like?

A terrible nursing home abuse case came to light in 2008 in Albert Lea, a town of 25,000 people in southern Minnesota, a couple of hours from the Twin Cities.

Investigators from the state Health Department found that six aides at the Good Samaritan home in Albert Lea physically and sexually abused as many as 15 residents who struggled with Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia. Four of the six aides were juveniles. Their cases were handled in the juvenile system, where they were determined to have failed to report the abuse.

The other two aids - Brianna Broitzman, now 21, and Ashton Larson, 20, are being prosecuted in the adult system. Broitzman recently agreed to an Alford plea, which means she still asserts innocence but concedes there is enough evidence to convict her of gross misdemeanor disorderly conduct concering three of the victims. She will be sentenced on October 22. Larson's case is still pending, with a trial date not yet set.

The alleged conduct was deeply and egregiously offensive. Spitting in a resident's mouth. Jabbing the breasts. Sticking a finger up the rectum. Getting in bed with a resident and miming sexual intercourse. Not just disgusting, but shocking - and criminal.

In the Star Tribune account of Brianna Broitzman's plea, Iris Freeman, a law professor from St. Paul, pointed out that the Albert Lea case overwhelmed the previous stereotypes of a likely sex offender profile. For the abuse was perpetrated not by menacing, misfit men, with unappealing mug shots, but by nubile young women with appealing yearbook photos. Appealing photos that the online version of the Star Trib was happy to use.

Did the print version of the story refrain from spotlighting the fetching photos? I certainly hope so, but my wife and I now carry only a weekend subscription.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Pete Rose, the Anti-Goethe

Anna Quindlen said recently that one of the most remarkable things about being a parent is the way in which it allows you to re-experience elements of your own childhood, this time in a much richer, more profound way.

Such is the case with me and baseball. My two boys, ages 10 and 7, were on the point of discovering it late last season. In October, while my wife, Diane, was in Tanzania, Micah, Luke, and I listened to the radio broadcast of the Twins’ one-game playoff with the Detroit Tigers for the A.L. Central title. It was a thrilling game — all the more so because of the radio medium — and the boys were hooked.

As the winter of 2010 wore on, I found myself experiencing baseball fever like I never had before. Keeping the hot stove league hot was a given for two reasons.

First, Micah and Luke were using their allowance money virtually every week to stock up on Topps baseball cards. And second, the Twins’ front office was making moves designed to strengthen the team for a deep postseason run in its first season at our new outdoor Field of Dreams — known, thanks to the corporate naming rights, as Target Field.

(The construction was made possible, by the way, by a tax increase approved by a 4 to 3 vote of the Hennepin County Board, with the 4 boys outvoting the 3 girls. That story, in itself, would merit a post.)

All this is by way of explanation for why, a few days ago, I found myself at the public library, checking out an armful of baseball books and videos. One of these — solely because the title was intriguing — was My Prison Without Bars, by Pete Rose and Rick Hill.

Though I knew Pete Rose, the MLB all-time hits leader and exposed gambler, had been banned from all official involvement with MLB for betting on baseball, I wasn’t really familiar with his Nixon-like attempt to rehabilitate himself. After reading the first few pages, however, I was very quickly deeply appalled.

What appalled me was not the drumbeat of constant profanity that Rick Hill — the professional writer whom the practically illiterate Rose chose to tell his story — inserted into the text, seeking to replicate Rose’s voice.

No, it wasn’t that. Nor was it Rose’s pathetic attempt to enlist sympathy for himself by milking the scene in which he must say goodbye to his young son before heading off to prison for tax evasion.

No, it wasn’t that either. It was the unconcealed misogyny with which Rose has Hill tell his story.

My Prison Without Bars, Pete Rose's apologia pro vita sua, begins in 1947, with 6-year-old Pete serving as waterboy at his father’s semi-pro football game in Cincinnati. The elder Rose breads his leg, but refuses to come out of the game and makes the winning tackle. Or at least that’s what Pete, 55 years later, asserted to his amanuensis, Rick Hill.

Rose cites this as a defining moment, in which worship of his strong, decisive father crystallized and he came to scorn the “idle gossip” of women. For his mother was not down there on the field, looking into Pete’s father’s strong, steely eyes.

(Pete, my father was my hero, too. But playing on a broken leg in a semipro football game is hardly the capstone of heroism.)

Is it any wonder that a divorced, 60-something man who can tell the story Rose tells with a straight face has had a train wreck of a family life? John Gottman, one of America’s foremost experts on indicators of divorce, might want to include a footnote on this the next time he revises The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

What a contrast Pete Rose’s contempt for women makes to Johan Wolfgang von Goethe’s life-long love affair with the fair sex. Where one man claimed to hear superficial chatter, the other recognized that “Das ewige Weiblich zieht uns hinan.”

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Syria's National Morale — or Morass

My father would have turned 79 tomorrow.

He died on October 7, 2007 from complications of liver disease — a condition he somehow came down with even though he hardly ever consumed alcohol. He served as a Lutheran minister for 38 years, preaching the word, baptizing those new to the faith, burying the dead, conducting marriages, visiting the sick, and doing all the many other things pastors do to equip the saints.

I miss him every day.

With my dad in the back of my mind, I happened to hear about a 79-year-old human rights lawyer in Syria being sentenced to three years in prison for supposedly “weakening national morale.” Haitham Maleh had spent six years as a political prisoner in the 1980s. This did not deter him, however, from decades of advocacy for an end to emergency rule in Syria.

Amnesty International decried the sentence and described Maleh as a prisoner of conscience for his criticism of the corruption and one-party rule of the Ba’ath party, which has banned all opposition since it took power in 1963.

Maleh is not the only human rights activist who has been imprisoned. Mohannad al-Hassani, a 43-year-old lawyer, was also jailed for three years on similar charges.

Neither Maleh nor Hassani should be in prison. One reason I support Amnesty International is that it keeps their personal stories and political commitments live, despite the unjust imprisonment.

Given the grim conditions in Syrian prisons and the ineluctable effects of age, Haitham Maleh may or may not leave prison alive. But he's fighting the good fight, just as my father did in his own ministry. In the words of the epitaph written by civil rights pioneer Jackie Robinson, as engraved on his tombstone, "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives."

By that measure or any other, Haitham Maleh's life is important. As was my father's.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Circuits Split on GPS Searches

Police in Washington, D.C., put a GPS device on a suspected drug dealer’s car and — without getting a warrant — used the tracking system to follow his movements day after day for a month.

Finally, they nabbed him.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has held that using GPS in this way violates the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. Other courts, however, have held otherwise.

What will the U.S. Supreme Court say?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Room for the Wrath of God? Not in "Salt"

I felt like some escapist summer fare at the cineplex, so I took a couple of hours of vacation time and went to see Salt, which was purportedly a spy thriller.

Excrebable, is what it was. Ludicrously stupid. Redundantly violent. The worst movie I've seen in years.

The basest of behaviors, however, can point us back to first principles. For me, that means the Christian alternative to the practically non-stop fit of vengeance wrought by Angelina Jolie's preposterous character.

Cf. Rene Girard, in Violence and the Sacred: "To make a victim out of the guilty party is to play vengeance's role, to submit to the demands of violence."

Sounds like Angie's Evelyn Salt, alright, beholden to a vendetta. Yes, she does switch vendettas midway through the flick, changing a Russian, retro-Cold War vendetta for her own personal one. But it comes to much the same thing: trying to put an end to violence through violence, not recognizing, or perhaps not caring, that constant retribution creates a ceaseless cycle of reprisal and counter-reprisal.

The apostle Paul urged a different way in Romans 12:19: Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord."

Angie's scriptwriters probably didn't see the right box office equation in that view of the world. (Although Werner Herzog certainly got a lot of ironic mileage out of the "wrath of God" in his film Aquirre, der Zorn Gottes.)

Girard again: "By denying religion any basis in reality, by viewing it as a sort of bedtime story for children, we collaborate with violence in its game of deception."

By shelling out $6 for a late-afternoon matinee of Salt, was I collaborating with volence?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Swimming in a Sea of Incarceration

Susan Sontag's son, David Rieff, published a memoir about his mother's death. After two previous bouts with cancer, Sontag succumbed to leukemia in 2004 at age 71. David, her only son and, liker his mother, a writer by trade, tried to give voice to his feelings a few years later in a slim book with a jagged-edge title, Swimming in a Sea of Death.

Years before, Sontag, one of the leading literary luminaries of her era, had written a widely discussed memoir of her own about dealing with cancer. Illness as Metaphor came out in 1978, the year I graduated from high school and started college. Though I did not read it, her essay collection Under the Sign of Saturn sits on my bookshelf, and her novel The Volcano Lover lies packed away in a box somewhere. So much to read, so little time.

The reason I decided to pick up Rieff's book is that I, too, am dealing with the lost of a beloved parent. My father died of liver disease in October 2007, at age 76. How he got that disease, we'll never know. Other than the small portions in communion wine, he did not drink alcohol. Yet he did of a disease often associated with acute alcoholics. The irony of this injustice still aches in my heart, and it's the type of irony that Sontag explored in her essays.

As I began reading Rieff's memoir, one question stood out. He asks himself whether he is overreaching in seeking to assign some special meaning to the feverful intellectual passions of his mother's final years. He wonders where she had some sort of presentiment that her time was drawing short. Then he catches himself: "Or is all of this just that vain, irrational human wish to ascribe meaning when no meaning is really on offer?"

Somehow this search for meaning reminded me of America's 2.3 million people in jail or prison. What does it mean, for each of those lives, to be locked up? And what does it mean for us, as a society, that we engage is such wholesale incarceration? To me, the answer that "it is what it is" is no answer at all.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Confession and Absolution at LOTW

A new Christian congregation called Light of theWorld is taking root amid the corn fields and subdivions of the Twin Cities' southern exurbs. Launched three years ago in Farmington after extensive planning by the St. Paul Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and several mission partners, LOTW has already achieved financial independence.

My family and I worshipped at LOTW yesterday as the congregation celebrated this milestone. My wife, Pastor Diane Sponheim, one of the pastors at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church, brought greetings from SOTV to LOTW. (Yes, Lutherans do seem to like abbreviations.) SOTV has been one of the key financial sponsors of LOTW, whose minister, Pastor Deb Stehlin, formerly served at Shepherd.

With an emphasis on contemporary liturgy and community building, Light of the World reaches out to many people who previously did not have a church home or who seek a fresh experience of being and doing church.

One element of the contemporary liturgical approach was in the wording used for corporate confession and forgiveness. Here is how it began:

Leader: Let us confess our sin in the presence of God and of one another.

(Silence for reflection)

Leader: Gracious God,

Leader and Congregation: We confess that we have turned away from you and from our neighbor and have isolated ourselves in fear. By our own choosing we have become captive to sin. Have mercy on us. Break into the prison we have built around our hearts to keep you and others away. Breathe into us your forgiving Spirit and allow us to serve you and all people in newness of life.

Building prisons out of fear. Hmm, that sounds familiar. Hasn't a similar phenomenon driven America's prison-building boom of the last four decades?

With the practically blank check for prisons at last coming under budget scrutiny across the country, it's time to face our fears - and maybe even engage in a degree of confession about the overuse of incarceration as a strategy for dealing with social conflict. Confession would not only be good for the soul; it would open up possibilities for thinking outside the proverbial box.