Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Giving Voice to Painful Truth - After 148 Years

Concentration camps in Minnesota?

It sounds so incongruous, in the place simultaneously satirized and romanticized in Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion. Lake Wobegone and genocide are not readily reconcilable.

The same is true of Iowa. Kevin Costner's Field of Dreams and a prison camp do not easily coexist in the same mental picture frame.

But it's time to expand those old images - especially for white folks like me.

The brutal treatment of the Dakota people after the violent conflict of 1862 has never been adequately told. After a series of skirmishes between native Americans and white settlers in the Minnesota River valley, the U.S. military crushed the Dakota people and imprisoned them at Fort Snelling.

That was only the beginning. Over 300 Dakota leaders were sentenced to death. After personally reviewing the case files, President Lincoln commuted 265 of those sentences. That group was then sent to a military prison, at Fort McLellan in Davenport, Iowa.

The Minnesota Historical Society is planning to publish a book containing letters written in the Dakota language by Dakota prisoners. The letters were originally written to a Presbyterian missionary who shared them with Dakota families. They are being translated for the first time, by a 3-person team at North Dakota State University.

MPR's report today gave a glimpse of the terrible conditions the letters describe. It was common practice, for example, for prison guards to rape the Dakota women who did the cooking and cleaning at Fort McLellan. The Dakota men knew of the rapes, but were powerless to stop them.

The letters do not, however, tell a simple morality tale of villains and vicims. Some of the Dakota people collaborated with the military, just as some Jews did in the Nazi camps.

"The past is never dead," Faulkner said. "It isn't even past."

Faulkner was a self-consciously Southern writer, rooted in a region torn apart by the Civil War. But his saying about the presence of the past also applies in the Upper Midwest, to painful truths about a tragic time that are only now gaining a voice.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Even Supermodels Suffer

Christie Brinkley, the famous former SI swimsuit model, and Friedrich Nietzsche, the famous renegade classicist and would-be anti-Christ, are two names that one would not normally associate with each other.

Brinkley recently used one of Nietzsche’s maxims, however, to sum up her attitude toward a painful time in her life. Though she did not quote Nietzsche directly, she had this to say in an interview in Prevention magazine about her divorce from a man named Peter Cook. "I really believe in the old expression that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. It's through adversity that you find the strength you never knew you had."

Considering that the Nietzschean Ur-source dates to 1888, I suppose one could call the expression “old.” For it was in that year, in Twilight of the Idols, that the 44-year-old Nietzsche wrote (in English translation): “What does not kill me, makes me stronger.”

How odd that Nietzsche, the fierce, solitary critic of traditional Christian values, should — indirectly through his aphorisms — end up offering words of consolation to an aging American pin-up idol.

Yet the thought about pain, perseverance, and the ubiquity of suffering is universal enough that it rings true. Indeed, it provides evidence that the French man of letters Alain de Botton was on the right track when he vulgarized Nietzsche’s insights down to a single slogan: no pain, no gain.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Death Penalty and Geographical Disparity

The United States is not only an outlier among developed countries in its off-the-charts incarceration rate. American exceptionalism also features an atavistic attachment to the death penalty.

The French gave up the guillotine a generation ago. Virtually all other democracies have also ended capital punishment.

But not America. The federal government and 35 states still have the death penalty on the books. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia do not.

There have been recent rumblings in Illinois and Pennsylvania about possible abolition there. For now, however, both states remain in the death penalty column.

The disparity with which the penalty is applied is shocking and scandalous. And it’s not only racial disparity I’m referring to; it's also geographical disparity. Since 1976, 1237 people have been executed in the U.S. and 464 of those have been in Texas.

Only one other state — Virginia, with 108 — has executed more than 100 people during that time. Outside the South, executions become quite rare, with only four in the entire Northeast region of the country since 1976.

No matter which state we live in, however, each of us should know more about what happens at the death house door.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Everybody Loves a Good Krimi

In English, detective novels and other crime stories are often categorized as "mysteries."

That has always seemed to me to be a bit of a stretch. More often than not, pulp fiction does not really explicate the Eleusinian mysteries.

The Germans, however, have a wonderfully pithy word for the genre: Krimi.

For the past few years, the Krimi par excellence on the world stage has been Stieg Larsson's millenium trilogy, which begins with The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo.

A friend at work gave me two of the three volumes. Dipping into Dragon Tatoo, I found the early going pleasurable but slightly tepid. Then, when I reached page 92, the hook was set. Like millions of others around the world, I am finding it hard to put the book down.

On page 104, Larsson's memorable character Lisbeth Salander drops a synonym for jail or prison that I omitted from my short list of those terms in my post a couple of months ago. Salander notes that Mikael Blomkvist, the noted journalist convicted of libel, is headed for "the slammer" for three months.

The slammer, I suppose, as in the door slams behind you.

Sunday, January 9, 2011


A disturbed young man with a gun went on a shooting rampage outside a grocery store in Tucson, killing six people and wounding 14 more. The dead included John Roll, the chief U.S. district judge in Arizona. The target, however, was U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was holding an event to meet constituents in a Safeway parking lot.

Mass shootings occur with dismaying frequency in America. What made this one especially troubling was its connection to politics. Rep. Giffords, a moderate Democrat, was universally liked and admired on both sides of the aisle. But in the mid-term election last fall she kept her job only after her seat appeared on Sarah Palin’s attack list, which literally showed incumbents in the crosshairs.

Today, as Rep. Gifford lies critically injured after being shot in the head, her response to Palin’s dangerous diatribe last fall makes for eerie reading:

“[W]e’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list, but the thing is, that the way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they have to realize that there are consequences to that action.”

No one is suggesting that there was a direct, cause-and-effect connection between Palin’s reckless rhetoric and the gunman who shot Giffords - suspected to be 22-year-old Jared Loughner. Clarence W. Dupniak, the Pima County sheriff suggested, however, that pundits and purveyors of hateful political discourse should take a hard look in the mirror.

“People tend to pooh-pooh this business about all the vitriol that we hear inflaming the American public by people who make a living off of doing that. That may be free speech. But it’s not without consequences.”

Intentionally or not, the sheriff’s statement thus echoed elements of the one Rep. Giffords made when her district showed up on Palin’s list.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Giving Michael Vick a Second Chance

Michael Vick was a star quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons until he was convicted of running a vicious dog fighting operation. After serving 19 months in federal prison, he sought reinstatement to the NFL. Commissioner Roger Goodel decided that Vick had showed the requisite remorse and reinstated him to the league in 2009.

This year Vick suddenly catapulted back up to the top of the game, even better than before. He’s a candidate for the league MVP award after leading the Philadelphia Eagles into the playoffs. President Obama, in a recent statement, praised Eagles’ owner Jeffrey Lurie for giving Vick a second chance.

The president’s statement should not have been controversial. He said that “individuals who have paid for their crimes should have an opportunity to contribute to society again.”

Vick seems to be doing that. He has not just gone back to his old ways. Instead, he has done volunteer work for the Humane Society and other animal rights groups since leaving prison,

But critics were still quick to pounce, saying Vick hasn’t really paid for his crime. Bill Smith, founder of an animal rescue organization in Philadelphia, is one of these. Last season, he took the perverse action of collecting food for animal shelter every time Vick was sacked while trying to pass.

What does Vick have to do to satisfy such critics? Even self-immolation probably wouldn’t be enough for those so opposed to rehabilitation.