Monday, April 30, 2012

New portrait of Zimmerman begs the question: Was the Martin tragedy an “inevitable” result in a formerly “family-friendly” community rocked by crime?

I was at a Kent Safeway last week when after picking-up a few comestibles I went into a checkout line in where a black female was behind the checkout counter. In front of me was another black female, and the checkout clerk treated her with great deference, and even reached over the counter to place her small bags into her cart. I was next. The checkout clerk said nothing, did not even look at me. She took my money, gave me my change, and I took my bag walked away. But before I left I heard her greet the white people behind me with great warmth, as if she was trying to make a political point of it. And indeed she was: She obviously took me for a “Mexican,” and the media which is trying to avoid the anti-Hispanic bigotry angle of the Trayvon Martin story here again proves how either ignorant or deceitful it is. The Daniel Adkins killing continues to be ignored, and having mentioned last week the beating death of Luis Ramirez in the racially-charged Pennsylvania town of Shenandoah, it should be noted that the teenagers who killed Ramirez were—like Trayvon Martin—“unarmed.”

While I find the whole episode involving George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin to be disturbing, unnecessary and tragic, I refuse to be cowed by people who would accuse me of “condoning” the shooting. There is far worse than this happening in inner city neighborhoods and housing projects every day, yet it is so commonplace and people who are willing to testify against the killers are few, that someone like me who is sensitive to hypocrisy can’t help but take note of it in the Martin case. Although CNN, NPR and other news outlets continue the victim drumbeat, if one reads the comments sections of their website posts, one cannot help but to observe that people are becoming less and less convinced that the line the media is telling them is the truth; given the knowable evidence which the Florida prosecutor, Angela Corey, and the pro-Martin militants purposefully disregard for political reasons, it is difficult not to understand (if not condone) Zimmerman’s actions in a frightening moment when a “young child” sucker-punched him, pushed him to the ground and repeatedly slammed his head against a sidewalk. It seems likely that Zimmerman thought he was going to be seriously injured or worse, and despite his pleadings for help, no one was coming to his aid; in a moment where a kind of fighting madness occurs where one sees only red (as a Civil War soldier described his senses in a typically violent firefight), he acted with instinctual self-preservation. This was not the case in the Adkins killing, however; Adkins’ killer was within the safety of his car, and had plenty of time to digest the anger of a developmentally-disabled man walking his dog who was nearly hit by the car, rather than roll down his widow and fire his gun.

While the Trayvon Martin partisans become increasingly angered by any investigation into Martin’s past history, and accuse those who would dare to question the current propaganda as “right-wing,” any examination of Zimmerman beyond the demonizing rhetoric also inspires contempt. But Chris Francescani, a reporter for Reuters, decided he wanted to find out who the “real” George Zimmerman was. What he discovered couldn’t be further afield of the current media portrayal. Posted last week, Francescani’s story reveals a man who—unlike Trayvon Martin—was trying to be a law-abiding, responsible member of society who “comes from a deeply Catholic background and was taught in his early years to do right by those less fortunate. He was raised in a racially integrated household and himself has black roots through an Afro-Peruvian great-grandfather - the father of the maternal grandmother who helped raise him.”

Zimmerman’s father, Robert, was a Korean and Vietnam War veteran, was employed at the Pentagon and later served as a magistrate in Fairfax County's 19th Judicial District. His mother, Gladys, was a Peruvian immigrant who taught physical education. A devout Catholic, she was active in community outreach programs; “Gladys would bring young George along with her on ‘home visits’ to poor families, said a family friend, Teresa Post.” According to Post, who is also Peruvian, "It was part of their upbringing to know that there are people in need, people more in need than themselves,” and she recalled when living with the family the evening prayer sessions in the racially-diverse household.

The disgust one feels about the racial propaganda being posited by the Martin militants is only exacerbated when one reads the following in the Reuters report:

“Zimmerman's maternal grandmother, Cristina, who had lived with the Zimmermans since 1978, worked as a babysitter for years during Zimmerman's childhood. For several years she cared for two African-American girls who ate their meals at the Zimmerman house and went back and forth to school each day with the Zimmerman children.”

George Zimmerman was an altar boy at a Catholic church for ten years. "He wasn't the type where, you know, 'I'm being forced to do this,' and a dragging-his-feet Catholic," said one parishioner. "He was an altar boy for years, and then worked in the rectory too. He has a really good heart." Zimmerman, who is bilingual, was even asked by the school principle at his elementary school to be a translator with immigrant parents; he was only 10. At the age of 15 he had three part-time jobs nights and weekends. Then, “On his own at 18, George got a job at an insurance agency and began to take classes at night to earn a license to sell insurance. He grew friendly with a real estate agent named Lee Ann Benjamin, who shared office space in the building, and later her husband, John Donnelly, a Sanford attorney.” Zimmerman “impressed” Donnelly as a “real go-getter”—working days and going to school at night. In 2004, Zimmerman opened an Allstate insurance office with an African-American friend as a partner. This is your “racist.”

The media’s focus on Zimmerman’s life concern his troubles in 2005, when his business failed, his engagement to a woman was broken off when both were given restraining orders against the other, and Zimmerman was charged with resisting arrest and battery after shoving an undercover alcohol-control agent who was arresting a friend of Zimmerman’s. The charges were dropped after Zimmerman agreed to attend an anger-management program. According to police reports, this was also the year that Zimmerman was robbed at gunpoint while eating at a Chilli’s restaurant.

Zimmerman married Shellie Dean in 2007, and moved to a town house in the Retreat at Twin Lakes neighborhood. Zimmerman worked at a car dealership and a mortgage company, while attending classes at Seminole State College with the intent of earning an associate’s degree in criminal justice. He was one credit short of that goal when the Martin shooting occurred. The media reported that Zimmerman had been "kicked out" of the school, but in reality he was prevented from completing the program because the school administrators were afraid for the safety of both Zimmerman and other students if "trouble" visited the school.

Despite being the victim of the armed robbery in 2005, Zimmerman did not own a gun until 2009, when after a neighbor’s pit bull “menaced” he and his wife several times, police suggested they protect themselves by purchasing a gun rather than use pepper spray, as Zimmerman considered using. Zimmerman took firearms training and purchased a Kel-Tec 9mm handgun. “By June 2011, Zimmerman's attention had shifted from a loose pit bull to a wave of robberies that rattled the community, called the Retreat at Twin Lakes. The homeowners association asked him to launch a neighborhood watch, and Zimmerman would begin to carry the Kel-Tec on his regular, dog-walking patrol - a violation of neighborhood watch guidelines but not a crime,” writes Francescani.

Twin Lakes didn’t just have problems with pit bulls; burglaries and home invasions rocked the neighborhood last year. “Previously a family-friendly, first-time homeowner community, it was devastated by the recession that hit the Florida housing market, and transient renters began to occupy some of the 263 town houses in the complex. Vandalism and occasional drug activity were reported, and home values plunged. One resident who bought his home in 2006 for $250,000 said it was worth $80,000 today.” The Sanford police department received calls for at least eight robberies in the neighborhood since 2011, and many more went unreported or ignored by police. “Twin Lakes residents said dozens of reports of attempted break-ins and would-be burglars casing homes had created an atmosphere of growing fear in the neighborhood.”

In cases where there were witnesses to the crimes, the perpetrators were in the main identified as young black men—including a teenager who simply walked-up to Zimmerman’s front porch and robbed a bicycle. "Let's talk about the elephant in the room. I'm black, OK?" a woman who lives in the neighborhood told Francescani, refusing to be identified because she feared a "backlash" from blacks who supported the current version of events. Looking directly into the reporter's eyes, she said ‘There were black boys robbing houses in this neighborhood. That's why George was suspicious of Trayvon Martin."

Last summer, Twin Lakes was rocked by news of a Hispanic resident whose home was invaded by two black men. Writes Francescani, “On August 3, Olivia Bertalan was at home with her infant son while her husband, Michael, was at work. She watched from a downstairs window, she said, as two black men repeatedly rang her doorbell and then entered through a sliding door at the back of the house. She ran upstairs, locked herself inside the boy's bedroom, and called a police dispatcher, whispering frantically.” Bertalan armed herself with a pair of scissors while trying to keep her crying child quiet; when police arrived, they interrupted the two black teens attempt to steal a television set, both of whom escaped through a backdoor. This was the kind of thing Zimmerman was referring to when he told the 911 dispatcher that he was tired of people getting away with these crimes.

Following the incident, Zimmerman visited Bertalan, offered help if she felt “unsafe” and even purchased a stronger lock for her to place on the sliding door. "He was so mellow and calm, very helpful and very, very sweet," she told Francescani. "We didn't really know George at first, but after the break-in we talked to him on a daily basis. People were freaked out. It wasn't just George calling police ... we were calling police at least once a week." Last September, residents had a meeting with the homeowners association, and Zimmerman was asked to be the neighborhood “watch” captain. Within two weeks, another robbery and the vandalizing of a new home occurred. Police stepped-up their patrols, to little avail, and an e-newsletter for the community advised residents to “call our captain” after contacting police.

Then on February 2 of this year, Zimmerman called police in regard to a young black male looking inside a house with the residents out. "’I don't know what he's doing. I don't want to approach him, personally,’ Zimmerman said in the call, which was recorded. The dispatcher advised him that a patrol car was on the way. By the time police arrived, according to the dispatch report, the suspect had fled.” Four days later, two roofers reported that two black males lingering in the yard of a home that was later reported burglarized, in which a laptop and gold jewelry were taken. When one of the roofers observed one of the men the next day, he called the police; the stolen laptop was found in the backpack of the 18-year-old, Emmanuel Burgess—who was also the man that Zimmerman reported peering inside the empty house; Burgess also had a juvenile record that suggested that he was a career petty criminal.

Life was not going well for Zimmerman at the time; both his father and grandmother were in the hospital, and he spent many nights sleeping on a couch in the hospital to be near them. Then came that fateful night, when Zimmerman spotted a man acting in a way that he found all too familiar. "’We've had some break-ins in my neighborhood, and there's a real suspicious guy,’ Zimmerman said, as Trayvon Martin returned home from the store. The last time Zimmerman had called police, to report Burgess, he followed protocol and waited for police to arrive. They were too late, and Burgess got away. This time, Zimmerman was not so patient…These assholes, they always get away.'"

Placed in context, it is understandable, if no less tragic, what then occurred. Like many locales, this was a community under siege. Zimmerman took personal responsibility for a situation that even the police could not control, and now we see what could occur. This is what we learn when the media actually does its homework, instead of disseminating mistruths and propaganda.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The old college try doesn't make it in the NBA

Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider must have a plan that the rest of us are not privy to, if their draft selections this year are any indication. The watch word for this coming season is ”trust”—as in trust in their judgment. The best that I can tell is that Carroll and Schneider drafted for specific skills—unlike, say, Aaron Curry who was supposed to be a physical freak capable of moving mountains, except that he had trouble figuring out how to move a pebble. Anyways, it should be a most fascinating season.

But football can wait. I must confess that I don’t follow the NBA much anymore, but this season did at least provide us with some minor amusement, in the form of the Charlotte Bobcats. Now, it is fascinating how in the coaching business, more often than not people who have little or no .talent at playing a particular sport tend to be make coaches—while former Hall of Famers are often lousy coaches. Casey Stengel as skipper of the New York Yankees won seven World Series, but as a player he confessed "I had many years that I was not so successful as a ballplayer, as it is a game of skill.” I remember in Green Bay that some fans observed that the Lombardi magic refused to rub-off on Bart Starr when he briefly coached the Packers, although if Lynn Dickey had stayed healthy it would have made for some exciting losses with Pro-Bowl pass catchers like Lofton, Jefferson and Coffman—and often opposing players.

This lack of rub-off also applies to would-be owners who believe the “magic” of their names can somehow incite at least mediocre performances out of their teams. Such is the case of Michael Jordan, whose executive “skills” did little to turn the Washington Wizards into a mildly competitive team, while his ownership of the Charlotte Bombcats has produced the worst team by winning percentage in the history of the NBA, although to give them the benefit of the doubt they still had 16 games to win 3 to beat-out the Philadelphia 76ers for all-time NBA futility. You may observe that there are two Duke University players on the squad, Gerald Henderson and Cory Maggette. For those who have a sense of history, Duke players have had a history of success in the college game, but most have turned out to be absolute stiffs in the NBA: Hurley, Laettner, Ferry, Parks, Redick, Dunleavy, Scheyer, “Wojo,” Collins and countless others, and if Jordan had some idea that he can change this history, he hasn’t shown us yet.

How do the Bobcats match-up to that other monument of futility, the 1972-73 76ers? Are they really the “worst” team ever in NBA history? Here are some comparisons between the two teams:

W/L Record: 76ers, 9-73 Bobcats, 7-59

W/L Pct.: 76ers, .110 Bobcats, .106

Point Diff.: 76ers -12.1, Bobcats, -13.9

Point Diff./Loss: 76ers, -14.5 Bobcats, -16.4

Losing Streaks: 76ers 15,14,20,13 Bobcats 16,23

Winning Streaks: 76ers, 2 (twice), Bobcats, 1

Losses 10+ Pts: 76ers, 47 Bobcats, 38

Losses 20+ Pts: 76ers, 19 Bobcats, 24

Losses 30+ Pts: 76ers, 4 Bobcats, 8

Top scorer: 76ers, 19.9 Bobcats, 15.1

Top rebounder: 76ers, 10.8 Bobcats, 5.8

Were the Bobcats the worse team? The 76ers operated in a different time, when scoring was higher; they managed to keep-up with their opponents marginally better than the Bobcats, scoring 90 percent as many points as the opposition, compared to 86 percent by the Bobcats. The 76ers had fewer really bad losses (i.e. losses by 20 or more points), even when playing 16 more games. The games they lost were by an average of 2 points per game less than the Bobcats. On the other hand, the 76ers had more double-digit losing streaks; outside of two weeks in February when they won 5 of 7 games, the 76ers were a monstrously bad 4-71—a .053 W/L percentage. On the other hand, the Bobcats could never string together two wins in a row, and having lost their last 23 games, who knows how long that could have continued. Frankly, some teams just don’t seem all that likely to inspire confidence with nicknames like the Clippers and the Bobcats; they just sound like they should be the runts of the NBA litter.

One has to admit that the Bobcats were a bad team before Jordan took over, but isn’t it remarkable that a player with his reputation couldn’t do better than this pathetic team? The only hope for the Bobcats is if they get the top lottery pick, and hope they can find a franchise-changing superstar—like Lew Alcindor, who took a last place expansion Milwaukee Bucks team to the NBA title in its third year. The 76ers only started to turn things around in 1976 with the acquisition of Julius Erving from the ABA, and the NBA title in 1983 came with the addition of Moses Malone. But then again, the 76ers were an established franchise, winning the title in 1967 with the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, winning an at the time a record 68 games. But Chamberlain was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers after the 1968 season for three non-names, and it was mostly downhill after that, and the loss of Billy Cunningham as the last piece of that championship team setting up the year of futility.

On the other hand, the Bobcats had their one winning season in its franchise’s history just a few short years ago, and frankly one wonders if it is the owner or coach Paul Silas who is responsible for the team falling from 34 wins last year to 7 this year. Perhaps the problem is that former superstar players seem to expect that the “superstar” is in everyone if they only give it the old college try—which isn’t good enough.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Look to the past to see the future

About a month or so ago I was listening to a local sports radio program when a functionary nick-named “Boy Howdy” strayed outside his presumed area of expertise to deliver a review of the film “The Hunger Games,” the next big film “event.” Unfortunately, he only proved that he has no future as a film critic, but maybe as a sound effects man for Z-movie trailers (or local sports radio). His vapid attempt at intellectual critique merely proved that technology is an inadequate substitute for humanism (the Star Trek “reboot” featuring spot-on characters from the original series more than adequately proved that point). However, I cannot fault “Boy” too much, since his generation takes amorality, stupidity, vapidity, venality, cupidity, superficiality, Kim Kardashianity, etc. as normal life.

Young people today have no sense of their cultural heritage or history. When I was growing up, we didn’t have cable television, cell phones or laptop computers. If you were not really into the “party” scene, there wasn’t much to do except read (for me, history), listen to the radio, or watch stuff on TV like “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” or the latest Jacques Cousteau special, both shows which I really dug. I also seem to recall that UFOs, Bigfoot and the alien intervention theories of Erich von Daniken were actually taken seriously by some people. On the footsteps of man on the moon and films like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” technology seemed to promise that the next step into the “new frontier” was no more than a decade away. The future was exciting indeed, particularly if you were young with an expansive imagination.

The point here is not to poke fun at a “na├»ve” generation, because there were a great many things that were not amusing and people knew it (like Watergate, the fall of Saigon and the oil embargo), and there were the odd warnings of trouble ahead (the “People start pollution, people can stop it” TV ad featuring the Sicilian Indian with the tear in his eye); it is that people’s minds were not yet so jaded or bombarded with competing imagery that prevented them from taking stock of the past and using that knowledge to move forward. Even contemporary “music” seems to unable to move forward. I grew-up having a deep appreciation of Philly Soul from the likes of the Spinners, the Stylistics, the O’Jays and numerous one-hit wonders like Billy Paul, the Three Degrees and George McCrae—music which could trace its roots to at least the 1950s. But music has to evolve to stay fresh, and not remain stuck in what now seems like a permanent rut of rap and hip-hop, with no sense of the past or the future. Back in my time, people were singing about love, peace and hope. Today, the primary emotional response one derives from music is narcissism.

I saw this failure coming when Ronald Reagan took office. “Greed is good” and government is “bad” were the catchphrases of the day, and the Reagan administration walked the talk. The firing of striking air traffic controllers was the first shot across the bow, but arms for hostages, then Iran-Contra—in the old days, these would have been regarded as treasonable acts; instead, ideologically-corrupt, law-breaking fanatics like Oliver North are now considered “patriots.” Today, lying to the American public about weapons of mass destruction that cost more than 4,000 American lives—that’s nothing. Not compared to a president who merely received satisfaction from a willing intern because he just wasn’t getting “enough” to appease his “needs.” Oh no, that’s much worse. We almost impeached the guy for this.

If people have a difficult time with relative goodness and badness, how can they make the informed decisions on the future? We know what they problems are, and they mostly have to do with money and the redistribution of it, whether to people or programs; the only question is do we have the will to do something about them before it is “too late”? If Congress, the Republicans and the Supreme Court have their way, apparently not.

That “future” is knowable and something can be done to mitigate it if we choose to. But then we have “the future” as portrayed by fictional media. The thing that I find fascinating is that if you ask people what they are supposed to be learning from watching “Hunger Games,” they will just tell you it is about some teenage girl-hero saving the world (presumably by the third installment). I have to admit that I don’t pretend to completely fathom what the “message” of the movie is either beyond that, but that is more a function of the fact that its basic conceit is a “future” that has never existed in society, save in the imagination of George Orwell or Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.” If you are as old as I am, you’ve seen the imagining of the “future” where a tightly-controlled “state” or controlling cadre where a few “elites” oppress everyone else is a zillion times. The concept that “representatives” of the population are arbitrarily chosen to participate in lethal “games” is also something that is derivative, only that is was more intelligently-rendered when Kirk Douglas played Spartacus in Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 film—which also had the quality of being based on an actual historical event. But it is a highly unlikely event that one boy and one girl from “districts” are set to fight one another to the death. The conceit that the boys and girls would fight on equal terms also represents the political conceit of the author. The pretentious source novels’ author, Suzanne Collins, claims to have somehow admixed an amalgamation of “reality” shows, the Iraq war, the Greek myth of the Minotaur, and Roman gladiatorial combat, which probably explains why these novels are for easily-fooled youths who don’t know better. If you wanted updated classical, you’d do much better reading a Eugene O’Neal drama.

Writers and filmmakers apparently can’t imagine a “utopian” world governed by the Latin term “communis”—a world where the accumulation of material goods is discouraged (because it promotes “selfishness”), and where “reason” is the governing principle. On the other hand, they can’t imagine a future that may look like something we already see today, because it doesn’t “sell.” If you really want to see what a future would look like for an increasing percentage of the population, one that portrays the ugly underbelly of poverty and hopelessness, go buy or rent the 1969 film “Midnight Cowboy.” It is still real and immediate, something you would have to come to grips with now, not sometime in some unfathomable future.

However, the early criticisms of “Hunger”—even before principle shooting started—were not about the pretentious, unbelievable plot, but about the actors chosen to play the various roles, principally the lead actress. Arian-Nordic Barbie Doll blonde Jennifer Lawrence plays a character who in the novel is dark-haired and olive-skinned, doubtless to show a greater “kinship” with the people (non-white) who would really be the ones oppressed in such a state. After the outcry from fans of the books, Lawrence dyed her hair and apparently spent some time in a tanning bed. That made all the “difference.” The focus on a white female is in line with female as both superior and victim at once (something like Helen Reddy--both the "invincible" I Am Woman, and the Delta Dawn and Ruby Red Dress driven mad by the men who dumped them) , although in a post-apocalyptic world, white folks are more likely to align themselves with their own kind and let everyone else fend for themselves. There are one or two black characters in this film, while Latinos and Asians are hard to spot in the crowd shots. This movie is no more “reality”-based than, say, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which is another feminist novel/film which is also based from the perspective of the “oppressed” white female (or author Margaret Atwood), while all the “colored” people are tucked out of sight in some gulag, so that the target audience isn’t discomfited by things like context, perspective and relativity. Get this plot conceit: Through the miracle of electronic banking, some theocratic dictatorship withdraws all the money from bank accounts with female names, and all the women are reduced to a subhuman species with no rights a man is bound to respect, good only as breeders—or those who can breed. Talk about truly paranoid. And worthless in understanding the “future.”

Another conceit about the “future” is that everyone will have incomprehensible names out of a two-year-old’s grammar book. At least in the Star Trek universe, people still had normal-sounding names like “Jim” and “Leonard.” But with Star Wars, silly, made-up names were supposed to signify “the future,” although current English names would not have been unrecognizable to people a thousand years ago (many of which have Latin derivations), and probably for at least another thousand years, provided that the human race doesn’t find a way to extinguish itself.

In the “Hunger” world, the country is divided into oppressed “districts” controlled by the inhabitants of a wealthy city, which I suppose is supposed to remind us of the Roman Empire. But this stretches credibility, since the idea of imperialism has long lost its appeal to nations who can barely see to their own affairs. The society “Hunger” imagines is an anachronism of the past—made more unbelievable in that it imagines a post-Apocalyptic world where there are sufficient resources and technology to create a stereotypically “futuristic” city, while the “districts” are havens of poverty. Such a world would not be allowed to exist for long in this country—regardless of what absurd name it is called.

The writer puts forth this possible vision of the future, because it fits into her political agenda. But the film isn’t anymore “prophetic” than “2001,” “Blade Runner” of even” 1984.” If you want “prophetic,” you have to go back in time—way back, when people didn’t have technology to save themselves. The fall of the Western Roman Empire (the eastern half survived for nearly a thousand more years), followed by the so-called “Dark Ages” engineered by the Germanic peoples and their “uncivilized” ways, and the collapse of infrastructure that kept the Roman world connected and maintained, and the loss of classical learning—and finally the effects of the Black Death in the 14th Century are a truer picture of effects of a calamity, although possibly how we would get out of it.

The Germanic tribes that invaded and consumed the western half of the Roman Empire were much like the bands of militias and disorganized tribes that we see in some parts of the Middle East and Africa, that seem unable or unwilling to coalesce into a united, centralized governing entity. The Roman civil engineering that created roads and aqueducts that sustained large cities and maintained communication links over large areas fell apart, and expertise in agriculture created a society in which manufacturing and the technological advancement that went with it declined because more people had to devote their time to farming—usually as a serf with no incentive save survival. The “barbarians” showed little interest in art and learning, although classical scholarship in the West was preserved to a certain extent by monks who had a lot of time on their hands. The only “unifying” force for a millennium was the church, based in Rome, but that only insured that world was rife with superstition and backward thinking. But change was on its way, during the 16th Century with the Renaissance, in when classical learning, humanism, art, commerce, science and the opening of vistas beyond the shores of Europe opened people’s eyes to the possible. The Enlightenment that followed it caused thinkers to question what they were told and use reason to develop other rationales to explain the world.

But before the world was reborn it had to endure the greatest human calamity in recorded history, greater than even than the world wars: The Black Death. One book I find a fascinating read is Barbara Tuchman’s “A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century” which chronicles the political, social and economic effects of the plague starting with the first outbreak in 1347 until the end of the One Hundred Years War between England and France in 1453. All of the following were symptomatic of the period: “Economic chaos, social unrest, high prices, profiteering, depraved morals, lack of production, industrial indolence, frenetic gaiety, wild expenditure, luxury, debauchery, social and religious hysteria, greed, avarice, maladministration, decay of manners.” Few had any inkling of the cause of this disturbance; we now know that Turkic nomads laying siege to a Genoese outpost in the Crimea catapulted disease-infested corpses within it. From there, Genoese traders passed it on to Italy and beyond.
The saints that victims prayed to in order to save them from the menace were soon taking some of the blame; this was followed by the phenomenon of self-flagellation, in which penitents whipped or had themselves whipped in an effort to appease God. But it was that all-purpose scapegoat—the Jew—who bore the brunt of blame. “In the torment of the plague it was easy to credit Jewish malevolence with poisoning the wells, “writes Tuchman. “In 1348 Clement VI issued a Bull prohibiting the killing, looting, or forcible conversion of Jews without trial, which halted the attacks in Avignon and the Papal States but was ignored as the rage swept northward. Authorities in most places tried at first to protect the Jews, but succumbed to popular pressure, not without an eye to potential forfeit of Jewish property.”

But while the persecutions and murders went on unabated, they didn’t appear to have an effect on the spread of the plague. In countries like England, it is estimated that by 1400 the population had been reduced by half of what it had been in 1300. “’The forests came back with the English,’ as war and pestilence emptied the land. In Picardy, the invaders’ perennial pathway, villages were left in blackened ruin, fields were uncultivated, disused roads vanished under brambles and weeds, unpeopled lands lay solitary where no cockcrow was heard. In the outskirts of Abbeville, a starving peasant woman was found who had salted down the bodies of two children she had lulled.”

It is generally estimated that one-third of Europe’s population was extinguished when the first outbreak ended, but there would be at least five more outbreaks of the plague before it exhausted itself. Half of the population of Europe had been extinguished by the time it was finally over, and would not recover to its pre- 1348 numbers until the 16th century. One “positive” in the reduction in the labor force was the predictable effect of empowering labor. Tuchman writes, “To keep them on the land, the lords offered many concessions, and towns welcomed the wanderers to fill the shortage of artisans, so that they grew aggressive and independent. They were most angry and seditious, and haughty about food… when their fortunes prospered. ‘They deign not to dine on day-old vegetables . . . penny ale will not do, nor a piece of bacon,’ complained one contemporary, ‘but rather fresh-cooked meat and fried fish… Joining with villeins and artisans, they learned the tactics of association and strikes, combined against employers, subscribed money for ‘mutual defense,’ and ‘gather together in great routs and agree by such Confederacy that everyone shall aid the other to resist their Lords with a strong hand.’ A generation ready to revolt against oppression was taking shape.” Although rulers of the day tried to repress workers, by criminalizing increases in pay, or when workers sought to change employers who offered higher wages, once a better life was tasted, change was inevitable. The plague had another long term impact that opened the way to the “rebirth” of Europe in the 16th century:

“If a disaster of such magnitude, the most lethal ever known, was a mere wanton act of God or perhaps not God’s work at all,” writes Tuchman, “then the absolutes of a fixed order were loosed from their moorings. Minds that opened to admit these questions could never again be shut. Once people envisioned the possibility of change in a fixed order, the end of an age of submission came in sight; the turn to individual conscience lay ahead.”

What does this mean for us? If we were subjected to a devastating denouement brought on by carrying capacity collapse, a biological contagion or war, a renewal of individual freedom—rather than oppression—could be what the future holds. After the initial impact that brings confusion and fear, a reawakening that exposes and refutes the propaganda and deceptions that previously maintained those in power and wealth, and rather than strengthen the grip of the political elites and rich, loosens their hold to oppress—not so dissimilar that what was seen during the Great Depression. We may not be destined for the stars, but neither are we destined to “cultural” annihilation of right-wing paranoids, nor the victim mythology of certain political activists.

Monday, April 23, 2012

A close encounter of the disturbing kind

I have to confess that if I had a choice, I would prefer not to have to wake-up at 2 AM on a Sunday morning to go to work. Although I rarely see anyone on my way to the bus stop, when I do it rarely portends to anything good. For example, one person I “met” mugged me, and another followed me around in his little cart, and on another occasion a Kent cop was waiting to ambush me. This past Sunday morning I encountered a young man who was also disturbing to me, but for entirely different reasons. After my encounter at one end by the mugger and at the other end by the cop, I try to avoid the more obvious routes, taking a bike/hike trail for a few hundred yards and then cutting across a deserted parking lot. I had mostly completed my trek down the trail when I heard this rather ghostly moan: “Help me. Help me.” I could make-out a figure on his hands and knees about 50 feet away; I have to admit that my initial reaction was a combination of the following: Anxiety, fear and irritation. Was this man a drunk? If I got close enough, would he jump-up and attack me? If he truly was in need of assistance, what could I do? I was also aware of the fact that I was already cutting it close for making for the bus stop in time to catch the Redeye. “Oh, why me?” was my general evaluation of the situation. Didn’t I have enough troubles of my own?

As I drew near this person I moved off the trail into the grass on the other side just in case I had to make a run for it if the man had some evil design on my person. But as I passed him he sobbed “Help me” even more piteously. He was on the slim side, and by his youthful face he could have been anywhere from 15 to 25 years old. He also appeared to be a “white” Hispanic. I observed two items in particularly that forced me to reevaluate my stance: His distressed visage matched the disturbing sounds he was making, and his trousers were pulled down, exposing boxer shorts. Still keeping my distance I asked what was wrong with him, and he moaned out that he had been kidnapped and raped. This was certainly not something I was prepared to deal with this early in morning—especially when I had one bus to catch to the airport that left early enough on a Sunday (this was no little thing to me; if I don’t clock in on time I lose out on $60 of “incentive” pay, which at my pay grade is a lot of money). But conscience got the best of me; after all, if indeed his story was true, the person who committed this crime wasn’t counting on me being out this early on a Sunday in the middle of nowhere. This meeting was fated.

It was also fortunate for both of us that I had purchased some minutes for my “go” phone a few days ago, because I normally don’t use it for anything except as an alarm clock. I called 911 and alerted the dispatcher that I had encountered a male who said he had been kidnapped and raped. I gave a description of his attire and our location, and when asked, I told her that he appeared to be Hispanic. The dispatcher then revealed the “racial profile” of Hispanics by asking me if he was of medium or heavy build; why did she assume he was either? When I was this person’s age, I barely registered 100 pounds. I told her he was medium to slim. In response to an inquiry as to the victim’s state of sobriety, I said that it was possible he was not, but I had smelled no alcohol. I then affirmed when asked that I was “comfortable” in allowing the victim to use my phone; the victim moaned some words and then gave me back the phone. At that point, rightly or wrongly, I decided I had done what I could, since the police were presumably on their way. I looked at my watch and decided if I jogged I could catch the bus. I also must confess that I did not relish an encounter with the Kent police in the wee hours of the morning, and questions about why I happened to be there.

A few minutes later the dispatcher called me back, requesting another description of the victim, and few more minutes later to ask for directions again before announcing that the victim had been found, which I had to confess was a more rapid response by police than I had anticipated. When I reached the bus stop, I observed the lights of what I assumed was an emergency medical vehicle at the location I assumed that police would have taken the victim off the trail.

I did try to contact the Kent police sergeant who had responded via email to a complaint I had about the above-mentioned officer, although he told me he wasn’t familiar with the case. I do know, however, that a Kent police van did take a drive down the trail the following evening, which was swell of them. With the lack of knowledge of the particulars of this case, I can only conjecture what happened, assuming that a rape was committed. Although I assume a female did not commit the act, that isn’t to say that a female was not involved. The victim could have been “kidnapped” by some Anglos who didn’t like the attentions he was giving to a white female. This is hardly an absurd scenario; this was the case in the Spring, Texas sexual assault on a Hispanic teen by two white skinheads a few years ago—the gruesome details of which a Times editor told me the paper couldn’t publish because they might “revolt” readers. Another theory is that the victim, who appeared to be more typical of the so-called “white” Hispanic, may have been targeted by gang members who thought he was too “white.” Of course, this is just guessing, and I won’t find out anything more than you unless the media picks up on this. That, of course, is the $64,000 question. Even if the victim’s claims are indeed true, I would frankly be surprised if the local media would even touch this. It goes against the accepted stereotypes and myths, not just in regard to rape, but of domestic violence.

I must confess that my previous view concerning rape as a crime has not changed because of this episode; rather it was confirmed. I saw firsthand the trauma such an act could have on the victim. It had an almost immobilizing effect, both emotionally and physically. This is quite different from other incidents that I have read or heard about—from people who make casual accusations against anonymous homeless men in order to receive attention, or seem to be motivated by vindictiveness, such as in the Duke lacrosse case; I am also less convinced as some are by the phenomenon of “date rape” when the accusation is that the “victim” was allegedly too drunk to make an “informed decision.” On the other hand, it is impossible to deny the reality that violent sexual assault has a terrible, whether short term or long term, effect on the victim. That is something I cannot forget.

(Postscript: I seem to have been more concerned about this episode than the police. The rape of a male is an “uncommon” event, so you would think that there was some talk of it in the precinct (Kent basically only has one). However, the officer I contacted, who was a supervising sergeant, had absolutely no idea what I was talking about, then after some prodding, he told me he had spoken to the detective involved in the case, and it had been investigated. This was only a few days after the incident. I was a little incredulous that the case “had” already been “investigated,” suggesting that the police had washed their hands of it. Not hardly surprising; I recall an incident when I was employed at a sports apparel warehouse, when a temp who had been spending a lot of time in and near the restroom left unannounced before the end of the day. The break area was “outside” in the main warehouse space where people worked, so the female employees felt “safe” to leave their purses and handbags on the break area benches—which were also near the restrooms; they had done this for years without incident, but it may have been inevitable that not everyone who walked through the door could be trusted. When people were preparing to leave, the women noticed that their purses were either missing or had money missing. The missing purses were found in the women’s restroom trash can. Someone noted how strange the now missing temp was acting, and the Kent police were called; despite the suspicions of all and even having a name and the temp agency that could be contacted to make an inquiry, the female officer tried to deflect suspicion from the female suspect and attempted to sow suspicion and mistrust amongst the long-time employees. No one was buying that line, and when the officer left the feeling was that the police were going to do nothing at all.)