Jury Duty Fake-Out

About a month ago, when we drove down to the main drag to pick up our mail, I plucked a surprise out of our post office box.  In large red letters, the envelope announced JURY SUMMONS.

My first thought was “oh, what a pain.”  I am so busy at work and this will interfere with my travels to southern California to conduct the training classes that I’ve been planning for months.  My second though was “it will be fun and interesting to serve on a jury again.”

What did not go through my mind was the thought that everyone else seems to have in such situations:  “How can I get out of it?”  My wife tells stories of how her late father wouldn’t vote for fear of being added to county lists of potential jurors.  Apparently, he was not alone.  These days, I hear they use DMV lists for this purpose.  Lots of people don’t vote but, at least in California, almost everyone drives.

I believe there is a reason it’s called “jury duty.”  Serving when called is a civic duty, not unlike the obligation to pay taxes.  In both cases, failure to fulfill one’s obligation to society can land you behind bars.

I remember the first time I was called for jury duty.  This was back in New York.  I was in my twenties and hadn’t much of a clue about the process.  Then, as now, summoned jurors were expected to call the day before and listen to a recording to hear whether the group number on the summons was called to report.  Sure enough, my number was up right away.  I reported to the courthouse, sat in the jury assembly room for a couple of hours and was eventually called to voir dire in a civil case.  The twelve jurors were selected, and I was up for one of the two alternate spots.  Now, I had no intention of sitting through a trial just to be sent home without the opportunity to sit in deliberation with the other jurors.  Being young and foolish, I viewed this as a waste of time instead of the integral part of the process that it is.  Fortunately for me, I knew one of the people on the witness list and hoped that mentioning this fact would get me excused.  When one of the attorneys asked if there was any reason I would be unable to serve as a fair and impartial juror, I got out exactly one word of my answer.  “Well,” I began, and was immediately cut off by the judge who asked me not to say anything further.  Excused!  I suppose they were concerned that I would say something that would prejudice the other jurors.

Years later, I finally did serve when I lived down in the Central Valley.  It was a criminal trial involving lots of drug charges and a group of people who had a nice little business running a meth lab out in the sticks.  I was so glad when we were able to convict those miscreants.

Last weekend, I dialed the number on the jury summons to see if my group had been called.  The message said to call back after five on Monday.  When I did so, my group number was up for Tuesday.  I texted my boss to let her know that duty called.

My wife dropped me off at the courthouse downtown, an impressive six-story edifice reached from the street by means of two flights of stairs and walking across a plaza.  For those of us who have mobility issues but are not in wheelchairs, this can be daunting.  As it is, the traffic was bad downtown and we had a heck of a time navigating the maze of one-way streets leading to the courthouse.  I was already late and we were not about to drive around some more looking for the correct one-way street that might lead to a side of the courthouse that would have a handicapped ramp.  Gripping the railings,  I slowly pulled myself up all those steps, carrying my little Whole Foods bag packed with enough food and water for the duration.

After being scanned through the metal detector, I headed for the elevator up to the jury assembly room.  Riding up with several others, one of my fellow occupants of the lift remarked that she smelled popcorn.  Another said that all we needed now was a movie.  A third assured us that we would indeed see a movie shortly.  I rolled my eyes.  Probably a little five-minute flag-waving video about the important part that jurors play in the judicial system and the democratic process generally.  I had no idea of what was to come.

Exiting the elevator, I was confronted with a mass of humanity.  A large open mezzanine with what seemed like hundreds of seats was completely full.  I learned where the start of the line was and was shocked.  The line snaked around and around the mezzanine, eventually turning into a hallway and then into the jury assembly room, where it again snaked around several corners.  I could not begin to estimate how many people were present.

Fortunately, the courthouse was a cool respite from the 100 degree plus heat outside.  However, I questioned whether I would be able to stand on my feet long enough to reach the end of the line.  I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly the line moved along.  In less than 15 minutes, I was able to collect my badge holder and show my summons to the clerk behind the window.  I was told to take a seat.

Um, where?  I did not see a single seat that was vacant.  I peeked into an adjoining room.  Also full.  I walked up and down the aisles until I found a seat that was occupied not by a person but by a cell phone and a bag.  “Is anyone sitting here?” I asked.  I figured that the owner of those belongings had probably run to the rest room and would be right back.  Luckily, I was wrong.  The occupant of the adjacent seat picked up the items and I was able to sit down.  Whew!

By then, I was the one who needed to use the rest room.  I was reluctant to abandon my seat, however, for fear that I would not find another.  I noticed that several people were standing, leaning against the walls.

The jury clerk welcomed us over a microphone that could be heard both in the jury assembly room and out in the mezzanine, where the snaking line continued to deliver more potential jurors to the window.  “We’re going to have a party!” the cheerful clerk announced.  Oh, brother.

The assistant presiding judge came in, took the mike and thanked us for participating in the judicial process.  There were 580 of us today, he announced.  He could just as well have said 5,080 and I would have believed.  Men, women, young ones, old ones, guys in T-shirts, guys in suits, women in jeans, women dressed to the nines.  People working on the jigsaw puzzles set out at four stations.  People talking on cell phones, reading the newspaper, texting, playing games on iPads, doing homework while balancing laptops and textbooks.  People staring off into space.  People chatting with each other.  People ignoring their neighbors.  People with their eyes closed, seemingly asleep.

I texted work, checked email and then put my phone away for fear that I’d run out of charge.  No outlets in which to plug a charging cord were in evidence.  The clerk announced that the courthouse plaza was being used in the evenings as a homeless encampment and that the court could not vouch for the cleanliness of the picnic tables and benches outside.  Then she told us she’d put on some movies, but that they were all rated PG.  Sounds about right for a courthouse.

There were two flat screen TVs in the jury assembly room, on which a steady stream of Blu-Ray movies were shown all day.  I wondered whether they showed the same movies over and over, day in and day out, and whether the clerks ever got bored with them.

The first movie was a kids’ flick with Billy Crystal and Bette Midler, Parental Guidance.  The premise involved a washed-up baseball announcer and his wife taking care of their spoiled rotten grandkids for a week.  I actually watched most of this unfunny comedy, at least until it became to stupid to bear.  Then came Zookeeper, which I think was supposed to be a romantic comedy, featuring a talking lion, giraffe, gorilla, monkey and other assorted members of a loquacious menagerie.  Appropriately, I suppose, Adam Sandler was the voice of the monkey.  I guess I made it through about half the film before I couldn’t take the stupidity.  That was followed by You Again and several others, by which time I had totally zoned out and stopped paying attention.

Every so often, the clerk would pause the movie to read off a list of names of those who were to report to a particular courtroom for jury selection.  She urged us to say “Here!” nice and loudly when our names were called so that she, or her counterpart with the hundreds out in the mezzanine, could be checked off the list.  She began to read the list.  With each name, I heard the cry of “Here!” either close by or faintly off in the distance.  As to the unseen masses sitting out in the mezzanine, we’d here a loud “Chirp!” to announce that the person called had acknowledged his or her presence out in the other room.  I assume that the chirp was issued by a handheld device used by the clerk working the mezzanine.

Three panels were called, but my name was not.  Then an hour and a half break for lunch.  Most of the crowd left, but I stayed tight and pulled out my sandwich, carrots, grapes and bottles of water.

Thanks to the lovely medications I take, I had to use the rest room several times throughout the day.  The first time, I waited as long as I possibly could until finally making a mad dash for the men’s room before my bladder burst.  Upon my return, to my surprise, my seat was still vacant.  Well, what do you know!  And I didn’t even have to yell “spot back!”

The second time I wasn’t so lucky, but managed to find a seat closer to the door and farther away from the squawking Blu-Ray movies.

After lunch, two more panels were called, but still my name was not heard.  Finally, about 3 pm, the clerk announced that the courtrooms had confirmed that no more jurors would be needed that day.  Those of us remaining would be excused in groups.  When our group number was called, we were to report to the window, turn in our badge holders and receive a slip acknowledging our service.  Under California’s “one day/one trial” rule, we were reassured that we would not be called again for at least 18 months.

I texted my wife to come retrieve me and went out to sit just inside the front door of the courthouse.  It was 105 degrees outside and I did not relish the thought of sitting on a step in the broiling sun while my wife navigated the downtown traffic.

I was a bit disappointed that I was not called to sit on a trial, but also a little relieved.  Now I could return to work to prepare for my upcoming trip down south.

But if summoned again in 2019 to do my civic duty, I plan to answer the call and once again show up at the courthouse to sit all day with masses of my fellow Sacramentans.  After all, I do appreciate the freedoms that we Americans enjoy, including the guarantee of a trial by a jury of our peers.  So, as I see it, it’s the least I can do.

 

Removal

A “removal” used to mean moving a dead body from a home or hospital to a funeral home in preparation for burial or cremation. In President Trump’s America, however, the term has come to refer to deportation from the United States.  Still, when I think of “expedited removals,” the image that comes to mind is one of a black hearse screeching up to the curb and guys in dark suits with bad haircuts running up to the front door with a gurney.  Somehow, boarding passes for Guatemala and El Salvador never quite make it into that picture.  Nor do handcuffs, heavily-armed guards and midnight knocks on the door by la migra.

Perhaps substitution of the word “removal” for “deportation” is appropriate, as President Trump appears to be treating undocumented immigrants as dead tissue that must be excised to save the American body.  Like Kevin O’Leary on TV’s Shark Tank, it’s as if our president is telling our immigrants “you’re dead to me.”  He somehow wishes to purify us by eliminating from our midst those who risked their lives in a bid to escape to the land of the free.  And I venture to say that I’m not the only one who finds recent events disrespectful to those who didn’t survive the journey, who never made it to freedom.

The Bible speaks of the “uncleanness of death” (tu’med met in the Hebrew) that comes upon those who touch a corpse until such time as they sprinkle the water of purification upon themselves.  Num.  19:13. Does our president really believe that ridding ourselves of those who arrived here in desperation, “yearning to breathe free,” in the words of Emma Lazarus immortalized at the base of the Statue of Liberty, will serve as some sort of purification?  Is this particular brand of xenophobia some sort of Marseillaise under which we are fighting against an impure blood polluting our furrows?  The whole concept leaves me rather aghast.  I only hope that our president has a relationship with God and that he is reminded of the injunction of Leviticus 19:34, “But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” (KJV)  Indeed, we were all immigrants once.

The immigration follies have been going on in one form or another for well over a century.  My grandfather, who arrived on our shores in 1923, held a passport from a nation in which he was not born, in which he never resided, and which, in fact, did not even exist.  This legal fiction allowed him to satisfy the quota for that year and that, apparently, was enough to get him through Ellis Island, where his sponsor picked him up.  Then, as now, laying it all on the line for a new life involved dancing into a gray area between what was legal and was humanly right.

Grandpa was a Polish Jew, which, in those days, essentially rendered him a stateless person.  Poland did not recognize the citizenship of Jews, although that did not stop its government from drafting Grandpa into its army.  And so, the “nationality” field on his passport reads “Israeli.”  My mother still has it, packed away in a box in the back of a closet. The fact that the modern nation of Israel did not come into existence for another quarter of a century did not seem to bother anyone at the time.

My grandfather, a tailor by trade, became a furrier in Manhattan’s garment district and began a long life as a resident of New York City.  When I was little, he lived three floors below us in our rent-controlled Bronx walk-up, and later, after my grandmother died, about a block away with his new wife.  He learned English, studied for the citizenship test, and became a naturalized American long before I was born.

Many years later, in his old age, he finally visited Israel, where he prayed at the Wailing Wall and relaxed on the beach at Netanya.  Having died in the year that Reagan took office, I have to wonder what he would think of the shenanigans of late.  I have no idea how Grandpa felt about Reagan, but I am hard pressed to imagine him voting for a Republican.  On a windy day this past May, during my first visit to New York in more than 20 years, I visited his gravesite in Queens.  I took photos for my mother, who wanted reassurance that her parents’ graves were being cared for.  I recalled childhood days of utter boredom, at this very spot, waiting endlessly for my mother to finish her visit, knowing nothing of her grief that years failed to erase.

My mother grew up in a one-bedroom apartment where she had the pleasure of sharing a pull-out bed in the living room with her older sister.  The girls were expected to speak English at home, and English was the only language that my grandparents used with their kids.  When it came to conversations with each other, however, my grandparents lapsed into a medley of eastern European languages. Mom recalls how, through the bedroom door at night, she and her sister could hear the murmured cadences of Russian, Yiddish, Polish, German. And she remembers how, even in their English conversations, they often spoke of something mysterious called “the HIAS” (pronounced “high ass”).

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society provided food, clothing and shelter to Jews newly arrived on our shores after having escaped Russian pogroms and, later, genocide at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust.  They had a dormitory on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and a setup on Ellis Island, where they often lent indigent immigrants the $25 landing fee.  In looking up the history of the HIAS online, I was shocked to learn that they’re still in existence, fighting against the anti-immigration policies of our current administration.

It’s reassuring to know that there are still organizations out there speaking for those who have essentially been rendered voiceless and left for dead.  As for my grandpa, if he were alive today, I believe he’d be donating his time and money to support the HIAS and others who work to make an American life possible for those who find themselves in the same difficulties that he once faced.

 

 

 

Growing Up Jewish and Racist

My wonderful wife has a heart of gold. After all the years we’ve been married, she still amazes me. For one thing, she cares deeply for people. For another, she has an intuitive understanding of others that’s almost scary. Words will come out of her mouth that are dead-on perfect while I’m still muddling through my feelings and trying to figure out what’s really going on.

Like last week, for example. We were having lunch in a nearby restaurant on Saturday afternoon. I started chattering about police-involved shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement when my wife’s comment stopped me in my tracks. “Am I the only one who feels like walking up to a black person and apologizing?” she asked.

No, my dear, you’re not. That’s exactly how I feel, though I hadn’t been able to define it. And I suspect there are a lot of us white folks out there who feel the same way.

I can hear the criticism now. “Feel sorry for what? I didn’t do anything to them.” Well, there has to be a collective sense of guilt. For referring to those with a different skin color as “them,” for one thing. There is no “them.” There is only “us.” An injustice done to one is an injustice done to all. We are all connected.

Each Passover, observant Jews read the Haggadah’s warning that he who fails to acknowledge his freedom from slavery on the grounds that he was never personally a slave to the ancient Egyptians is a sinner who, had he lived in Egypt in those times, would not have been deemed worthy to be redeemed.  Dare we ignore our brothers’ legacy of slavery and their continued oppression and marginalization in modern times?  We do so at our peril.

This puts me in mind of the prejudices deeply instilled in me during my upbringing. Trust me, these early influences are extremely difficult to overcome. Intellectually, of course, I know better. But it is frightening how those preconceived notions continue to sit there in my subconscious, waiting for the right moment to invade a split-second thought.

I grew up in a lily white suburban neighborhood where I rarely encountered anyone who looked different than I did. Segregated neighborhoods resulted in de facto segregated schools. Oh yeah, also the teachers all were white. And this was in New York, not Mississippi!

I attended a very large junior high and I don’t think there were ten black kids in the whole danged school. They must have lived right on the district line. The only black kid I remember was named Leroy (hanging my head in shame) and he was constantly in trouble. I watched him set a fire in the boys’ room once.

At home, blacks were schvartzers (or worse, if my parents were angry). The Yiddish word just means “blacks,” but was always uttered in a tone dripping with contempt. By the time I was five years old, I knew that a vast chasm stood between “us” and the schvartzers.

Us: People of the Book. Value education.
Them: People of the Street. Can’t speak English properly.

Us: Doctors, lawyers, accountants.
Them: Maids, cooks, janitors.

Us: Married with two children.
Them: Single women with five kids by different daddies.

Us: Hard-working. Law-abiding.
Them: On Welfare. Criminals.

Us: Sip of wine in synagogue.
Them: Bottle of wine in a paper bag on the street corner.

Us: Kosher
Them: Hazer (pig) lovers

Us: Academic track. College bound.
Them: Detention, suspension, things too horrible to mention.

Us: Success.
Them: Failure.

I learned early on to stay as far away from the schvartzers as possible because they were no-good troublemakers. They would steal your money, beat you up and kill you.

I am crying as I write this.

There is no pennance I can do that would begin to atone for the hate instilled in my heart when I was a kid. Al het shakhatanu… For the sin which we have committed. The sin of hate, for which there is no forgiveness.

Can hate and fear be unlearned?  Can I forget my father’s ugly racial slurs, cruel jokes, imitations?  Can I replace these memories with love and blot out that evil forever?

And then I went to high school and the world changed overnight. It was 1973 and we were now integrated. Uh, sort of.

A lot of the seniors were still hippies with their faded denim jackets, ripped jeans, flower decals, beads, peace sign chains, pot smoke. The school was beyond capacity, bursting at the seams courtesy of the baby boom. And a few hundred of us were black. (I hadn’t yet heard the term “Hispanic.” Oh, you mean Puerto Ricans?)

The school district was heavily into tracking. The extent of one’s exposure to teens of another race largely depended on one’s track. “B” class? (Remedial level) Nearly all black. “O” class? (Average track) About 3 whites for every black. Advanced placement or honors class? Lily white.

Well, everyone has to eat. The cafeteria, you would expect, would be the great equalizer. You would be wrong.

The student newspaper denounced the lunchroom’s “invisible line.” The white kids sat on one side, the black kids on the other. I thought it was just plain dumb. No one dared cross over to the “wrong” side. This self-imposed racial segregation was accepted by most of us as an ironclad rule that could not be violated. I don’t recall any brave soul from either camp ever attempting to break down this barrier.

After a year and a half of accepting without understanding, my mother took a job an hour and a half away and I found myself in another giant high school, this one on the edge of farm country. White as the January snow. I learned what an evangelical Christian is. They learned what a Jew is. I came to the conclusion that being different just wasn’t worth it. I stopped wearing a yarmulke when I ate my tuna sandwich in the cafeteria. I joined the chorus and figured out that it wouldn’t kill me if I sang a song with the word “Jesus” in the lyrics. But the impromptu prayer meetings after school was where I drew the line. So I was never a real native, even though most of the time I could pretend. What if my skin were black? Would I have been able to blend in then? And would I have been welcomed at the prayer meetings?

Flash forward to the present. My efforts at color blindness have met with mixed success. I say “mixed” because there are so many interracial relationships now that I often couldn’t make a racial identification of a particular individual if I tried. I am far more interested in what a person knows and what someone can do than I am in what he or she looks like.

Case in point: My family has become a melting pot. (Whispering: And I love it.). My twice-divorced sister-in-law had married two Hispanic men. We have a lot of fully and partially Hispanic nieces and nephews as a result. They all grew up and many of them got married, to spouses of every race, skin color and cultural background. So when we attend our grandniece’s third birthday party (Hispanic mom and African-American dad), we know there will be a piñata, hard core rap music, and American burgers and hot dogs on the grill.

We all need to be involved in narrowing the cultural chasm, the racial divide instilled in me as a child that I continue to struggle to overcome. I see my landlord as a role model. He and his wife are Ukrainian-Americans. His wife emigrated as a child. He owns his own business and rents us a house that he built with his own hands. They home school their children, attend a Russian church, speak excellent Spanish and hire employees of every race and culture. If the American Dream still exists, surely this is it.

I was disappointed recently when I read about how a “Black Lives Matter” posting on an employee white board (!) at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park was crossed off and replaced with “All Lives Matter.”

Really? With the epic gun violence and shocking murder rate in our country, I am led to believe that life is cheap. It’s hard to believe that “all lives matter” when the pettiest slight will get you shot and no one seems to care if you live or die.

So all lives matter, eh? Do white-skinned people have to worry about racial profiling? Do white-skinned people have to worry about being automatically thought of as criminals? Do white-skinned people have to suffer the indignities of serving as the butt of tasteless jokes based on racist stereotypes? Do white-skinned people resign themselves to being shooting targets for the cops? Do white-skinned people have to live life knowing that many consider them utterly disposable due to their appearance alone?

I was relieved that Mark Zuckerberg chastised his staff for crossing off the “Black Lives Matter” sign. Insisting that “all lives matter” diminishes the pain and suffering experienced by African-Americans. The aggressor is not entitled to share in sympathy extended toward the victim. And don’t tell me that you never did anything to “them,” that what happened to “them” is not your fault. Let me say it again: There is no them! There is only us!

We’re all responsible for this horrible mess. I bristle when I hear the words “check your privilege,” but it’s true! I enjoy white privilege that my darker-skinned brethren will never have. And although I can’t undo that, I can only hope that this privilege will erode through a combination of education, exposure and cultural melting. For it is only then that our nation’s ideal of E. Pluribus Unum will become a reality: Out of many, one.

Protecting the Protectors

While I am rarely at a loss for words, I don’t know what to say about the recent rash of murders of police.  How can I adequately express my anger, frustration and fear?  I think of economist (and New York Times contributor) Thomas Friedman, who more than a decade ago warned of the dire necessity of enacting reasonable gun control laws to combat our insane epidemic of firearm murders.  As protesters chanted back in the sixties and seventies, “the world is watching.”

I go online and am greeted by commenters from many nations shaking their heads about the violence that is coming to define the United States.  If you’re not murdered by a family member or in a home invasion or carjacking or mugging, you may be the victim of a drive-by shooting or you may be shot dead just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  My wife likes to watch “The First 48,” a homicide investigation television show, in the background while she is working.  I try to drown out the sound with music over headphones, but the images of death and devastation on the screen are difficult to ignore.  It’s a stark reminder of what I’d like to wish away because it’s just too horrible and heartbreaking to bear.  John Williams’ soaring orchestrations only go so far.  Eventually, one must return to reality.

I hold little hope that either of the major presidential candidates will achieve improvements in this area.  Clinton is, despite her rhetoric, mired in the status quo.  She will get nowhere fast with the Republicans in Congress, particularly considering the apparent effectiveness of the Tea Party and other right wingers.  As for Trump, well, he brags about having a concealed carry permit.  Money is the only thing he loves more than the Second Amendment.  So, looks like we’re plumb out of luck.

Wow, this is sure turning out to be a depressing post.

To return to my subject of the murder of police, at face value it seems like a blatant disregard for authority, laced with a liberal dose of anger and blind lashing out.  Clearly, such conduct cannot be tolerated in a nation of laws.  The question, however, is how to prevent this disaster from occurring time and time again.

Some focus on swift and severe punishment, both to ensure that the offenders are unable to repeat their violent acts and to assuage justifiable public outrage.  Donning my sociologist’s hat for a moment, I happen to believe that attacking law enforcement is a symptom of Émile Durkheim’s anomie, a moral vacuum that perverts the social contract and may even encourage anarchy.  I have to assume that murderers take no regard of the effect their actions will have on the families (their own and those of their victims), never mind on the rest of us.  I still haven’t gotten over the murder of two of our local sheriff’s deputies by a married couple back in October, 2014.  Time is supposed to heal all wounds.  Life goes on, right?  (Not for their families, I am sure.)  But then it happens again and again and again.  Let’s rip open that wound, shall we?

Back in law school, decades ago, my fellow criminal law students would frequently have the “bad or mad” debate.  My view is on the “mad” side.  Not “mad” as in “angry” (although that is certainly in play these days as well), but in the British sense of “mad” as “crazy.”  I believe that those who do not care about the effects of their actions on others, and on society as a whole, are suffering from some form of mental illness.  Case in point:  The cop killer in Dallas was taken out by police after they got nowhere in negotiating his surrender.  Police say the murderer was laughing and singing.  You can’t tell me this guy wasn’t crazy.

Nevertheless, more than a few of my contacts in the legal profession believe that I myself am “mad” to think this way.  I am told that those who have the ability to abide by the law, but choose not to do so, are willful, disobedient “bad” children who need to be taken out behind the woodshed (or incarcerated for life because no one took them out behind the woodshed when they were young).

I find it interesting that, nowadays, this debate seems to have subsided.  That’s because it doesn’t really matter anymore.  In the case of the murder of police (as well as for multiple murders of civilians), it has largely become a nonissue because the offenders generally kill themselves or are killed by police at the scene.  The issue now is how to protect those who are sworn to protect us.

There is an argument that the most dangerous person is he who believes he has nothing to lose.  Those who do not value their own lives cannot reasonably be expected to value the lives of others.  Unfortunately, our officers of the law often become targets because, in the demented minds of criminals, they serve as a reminder of their own shortcomings and stand as a symbol of every disappointment they have ever suffered and, indeed, of everything that is wrong with their lives.  They may well be willing to go out in a blaze of “glory.”  Too often, their only concern is how many they can take out with them.

Some say that we have now reached the lowest common denominator, that now that police are constantly in danger, there will be an increased appreciation of the fear that the rest of us have experienced for so long.  I cannot believe that it has come to this.  In my line own line of work, we are always fretting over who will train the trainers.  Well, who will protect the protectors?

It is my hope that the devastating events of the past few months will fuel a robust return of the gun control debate and will spur Congress to enact some sane laws on the subject.  The recent Democrat-led sit-in demonstration by members of Congress (“no bill, no break”), minimized by many as an ill-advised publicity stunt, is a step in the right direction.  While more symbolic than anything else, it shows that at least some in Congress are as frustrated as the rest of us and believe it’s high time that we found a way to stop the madness.

Yes, blue lives do matter.  We need a diplomat to engineer a cease fire right here in our own country.  We need an expert in détente, a brilliant negotiator to encourage all parties to put away their guns.  The public must stop killing police and police must stop killing members of the public.  As the clergy will be quick to point out, the only answer is love.  If we cannot love one another, then I fear that all is lost.

News stories tell me that there has been an uptick in firearm purchases recently.  I fear for the utter breakdown of society that could develop in a world in which everyone feels the need to carry a gun for protection and the final arbiter of any slight, however minor, will be who is quicker on the draw.

Please, Congress.  I don’t want to reside in the OK Corral.  And I know you don’t, either.

Wild Animals Do Not Belong in Captivity

Over the past week, there has been a great deal of media coverage of the Cincinnati Zoo’s decision to kill a young resident of its Gorilla World exhibit, Harambe, after a four year old boy deliberately slipped past a fence and fell into a moat surrounding the great ape’s enclosure.  Many of the comments online are filled with emotion and invective (see Twitter hashtag #justiceforharambe if you don’t believe me), either supporting or castigating the zoo for its actions.  Some even lash out at the boy’s mother, criticizing her parenting abilities to the point of calling for social services to get involved.  Others go even further and would have the child’s parents prosecuted under the state’s criminal law (for what offense I have no idea).  The Cincinnati Police is supposedly investigating.  (I love this!  They can calm the fomenting rabble by agreeing to investigate while they know perfectly well that there is little they can do.)

I have no idea whether the zoo was right or wrong to kill Harambe.  After all, I wasn’t there.  Some of those who were on the scene describe Harambe dragging the child around and repeatedly banging his head on the concrete.  Others point out that the child was examined at a hospital and was found to have suffered no serious injuries.  So you can take your pick there.  All I know is that if a 420 pound gorilla were to drag me around and repeatedly bang my head on concrete, I wouldn’t be here to write these words.

Supporters of Harambe have suggested that the zoo should have used a tranquilizer dart or should have distracted the gorilla with treats such as pineapple.  Some say that the gorilla would have wreaked irreversible damage on the boy by the time a tranquilizer took effect, while others point out that the zoo allowed ten minutes to elapse before making its decision to use lethal force, time during which a tranquilizer could have been taking effect.

And, of course, there are those who insist that the zoo’s decision was a no-brainer, that “a human is always worth more than an animal.”  (Although not everyone agrees with this proposition.)

As you no doubt realize by this point, I am more than a bit amused by the forceful arguments in support of or in opposition to the Cincinnati Zoo’s action.  That’s the wonderful thing about a free press in the age of the internet:  Everyone gets to express his or her opinion, vastly enriching the marketplace of ideas.

We are all such good Monday morning quarterbacks, now aren’t we?  This is what my mother always referred to as “20/20 hindsight.”  Unfortunately, those faced with an emergency don’t have the luxury of time to allow the case to be argued in the court of public opinion.  We see this all too often when police make a split-second decision to use deadly force in order to protect themselves or others from being killed.  First walk a mile in that guy’s moccasins, then come talk to me.

As for the mother’s culpability, I cannot escape my legal training that has taught me to argue both sides of the question.

Legally, a non-human animal is considered chattel, mere property.  This has been the common law at least since Blackstone, Coke and the other great British legal commentators published their treatises centuries ago.  As a supporter of animal rights, I am not happy about this fact, but there it is.  Accordingly, if I were representing the Cincinnati Zoo in civil litigation against the mother, I would argue that her negligence resulted in the loss of valuable zoo property and would demand restitution forthwith.

Just think of the approbation and liability that the zoo would have suffered if it had allowed Harambe to kill the boy!  The lawyers would have descended, demanding millions of dollars in damages, far more than the property value of a gorilla.  One internet commenter pointed out that the value of a boy is so much more than that of a gorilla because the latter has such limited capabilities, while the former could be the discoverer of the next cure for a deadly disease.  That is certainly a possibility.  Typically, however, the courts greatly limit the value of a child’s life, as it cannot be known whether he would have been the next Einstein or a criminal in prison for life.  While a gorilla is unable to discover the cure for cancer, neither is it able to engage in genocide or embezzle the retirement funds of thousands.

Now, if I were representing the boy’s mother, I would argue that Harambe’s enclosure represented an attractive nuisance to a young child and that the zoo therefore has no one to blame for its losses but itself.  Think of it:  You’re four years old. Ooo!  A big gorilla to play with!  And water to splash in on the way!  Your mom is momentarily distracted with your brothers and sisters.  What would you do?  Uh-huh, thought so!

In its defense, zoo director Thane Maynard claims that its fences at Gorilla World are more than adequate, that they have been approved by the relevant governing bodies, and that they have never experienced a problem before in the nearly forty years that the exhibit has been open.  Kind of what I would call an “innocent until proven guilty” defense.  But Maynard also admits that “the trouble with barriers is that, whatever the barrier is, some people can get past it.”  Uh-huh.  Little people, for example.  Like, uh, maybe a four year old?  And just what audience do zoos cater to anyway?  Families!  Children!  School groups!  It’s fun for all ages, it’s educational, bring the kids for a day out at the zoo!

This, I believe, is the crux of the problem.  Rather than second guessing the zoo’s on-the-spot decision, we need to step back and take a bigger picture approach.  Let’s admit that safety considerations are just one of many reasons that animals should not be maintained in captivity.  Wild animals belong in the wild.  And as long as the courts refuse to extend the writ of habeas corpus to non-humans, we will continue to experience unfortunate incidents involving the death of captive animals or the humans who come into contact with them.

After all, boy and gorilla were each doing what comes naturally.  The fault is not theirs, but ours.

 

North Carolina is a Disgrace

I’m a married, heterosexual male and I like it that way.  But my gosh, I cannot believe the discrimination against the LGBT community, and against transgender individuals in particular, that still exists in this modern day and age.  It makes no sense to me whatever.

There are undoubtedly some who remain unpersuaded by arguments for tolerance based on love.  In other words, there will always be some who prefer to hate.  I thought things had begun to change, perhaps only because that’s how it looks on the surface when political correctness drives ugly attitudes underground.  So it’s disappointing to me when the black crud deep in some of our hearts shows up in the light of day.

That’s exactly what happened in North Carolina last week when the legislature rammed through House Bill 2 and the governor quickly signed it into law.  As my mother would say, “you should be ashamed of yourselves!”

HB 2 is North Carolina’s Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act.  Broadly, the law bans local governments, such as cities and counties, from enacting nondiscrimination laws.  Only the state can do that now.  The true purpose of the law was to void Charlotte’s city ordinance that allowed anyone to use the rest rooms and changing rooms of the gender with which he or she identifies.  Indeed, HB 2 specifically provides that people may only use public rest rooms assigned to their biological sex, defined as “the physical condition of being male or female, which is stated on a person’s birth certificate.”

So what does this mean for those transitioning to the opposite gender in North Carolina?  They can be arrested for using a public rest room reserved for the gender with which they identify.  Even those who have fully transitioned risk arrest unless they have had their birth certificates changed.

I am proud to say that I haven’t darkened North Carolina’s door in more than 20 years.  I hope I never do so again.  I find HB 2 to be full of hate, blatantly discriminatory and, most of all, devoid of common sense.  The yahoos in North Carolina’s state government think just the opposite, as is evidenced by Gov. Pat McCrory’s tweet to the effect that he had to stop Charlotte’s ordinance because it “defied common sense.”

I’m pretty sure that I’d be thrown in the slammer if ever I visited North Carolina.  As a man who, thanks to an unfortunate genetic condition, has breasts, I fully expect a fellow user of the men’s room to run out screaming and call the cops to arrest me for daring to use the “wrong” rest room.  I guess I’d have to walk around carrying my birth certificate as proof of my gender.  Of course, I could just drop my pants, but even that wouldn’t satisfy the requirements of the law.

A note to the sane Democrats in the North Carolina Senate:  We appreciate your good intentions, but it really did not do anyone a bit of good to walk out in protest and allow Republican bigots to unanimously approve this bill.  Yes, we know you would have lost anyway, but at least we’d have your “nay” votes on record.

In defending the law, North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore referred to the need to protect women from sexual predators who would show up in the women’s rest room if Charlotte and likeminded cities were permitted to enact equal access rest room ordinances.  After all, we know that all sexual predators are men and that they will uniformly take the opportunity to claim that they are transitioning from male to female and identify as women for the sole purpose of stalking women in various states of undress.  I suppose this is borne out by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s comments last year about his wishes that, back in high school, he could have claimed to identify as a woman so that he could shower in the girls’ locker room.  Oh, well, boys will be boys, right?  After all, as comedian Jeff Foxworthy astutely pointed out, the only things we men want to do is “drink a beer and see something naked.”

This patronizing inclination to protect women who are obviously defenseless (even in a gun-loving southern state) is a bit of gender objectification that reminds me of pre-Loving v. Virginia anti-miscegenation laws designed to protect “the flower of [white] Southern womanhood” from being sullied by black men.  I fail to see the difference in gravity between discrimination on the basis of race and discrimination on the basis of gender.

It’s all about fear, of course.  Hate of every stripe always is.  Lack of understanding, fear of the unknown, antipathy to anyone or anything different than we are.

Hopefully, the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been quick to boo North Carolina’s deplorable shenanigans, will see to it that the federal courts find HB 2 unconstitutional.  While the lawsuit is making its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, however, any Tar Heel State obstetrician who takes seriously the Hippocratic Oath to “first, do no harm” should commit to refusing to fill out the gender portion of any birth certificate.

That’ll royally screw up the state’s vital statistics.

North Carolina deserves nothing less.

 

Just Google It: An Essay on Self-Reliance

As I’ve mentioned before in this space, among my favorite words in the French language is la débrouillardisme and its adjective form, débroubillard(e).  While I do not believe that there is any English word that exactly captures the nuances of the term, the closest translation that I’ve encountered is “resourcefulness.”  The word also has a certain patina of what, back in my college days, was termed “gettin’ over on the man” and what (even earlier, as a kid) adults called “pulling a fast one.”  The implication is one of knowing how to get things done, particularly in terms of which back channels must be traversed and whose palms must be greased.  But the French word also contains an element of the concept of “cleverness,” somewhere between knowing how to spin straw into gold and knowing how to trick people into doing what you want.  It’s no wonder that “il/elle est très débrouillard(e)” is among the highest of compliments that a French person can bestow.

I also think of the term as bearing elements of “self-reliance,” as in “he can take care of himself.”  That presents a fine line between the admirable trait (in terms of the Protestant work ethic, anyway) of not needing to depend on anyone else and the (arguably) more questionable trait of “being a sharpie” who obtains advantages for him/herself at the expense of others.

I thought about this concept today because of Google, and because of the U.S. presidential debates that I’ve been watching on TV recently.

Painted with the broadest of brush strokes, I’ve heard it expressed that the Republicans are the party of laissez-faire economics and rugged individualism.  The Horatio Alger “rags to riches” myth (and its closely associated phrase “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps”), with its implication that “any kid can grow up to be president, just look at old Abe Lincoln who was born in a log cabin,” is alive and well in America.  The GOP has a reputation as being “the party of business” that rewards the rich with tax breaks that aid them in retaining their wealth.  The party also has a reputation of favoring a reduced role of government, with the underlying philosophy that most of us have deep wells of fortitude upon which one can draw to reach the nirvana that is self-reliance.  Don’t mess around with the economy and things will find their own level as people make decisions based on self-interest.  Coddling Americans with government largesse encourages sloth and leads to every type of weakness, from the personal to the national.

The Democratic Party philosophy appears to embody a decidedly different world view that includes awareness of society’s troubles, from poverty to mental illness to drugs (what I like to term “the three Hs”:  homelessness, Haldol and heroin).  My fellow Democrats like to be proactive rather than reactive.  Rather than closing the barn door after the horse has escaped, we believe in spending money on things like education, social justice and prevention rather than prisons, hospitals and cemeteries.  We believe that those who “can” have a duty to society to give their all.  But we also know that there will always be those who “cannot” and must be supported rather than left to be trampled on by the herd, to suffer and to die in desperation.  “There will always be poor people in the land.  Therefore I command you to be openhanded.”  Deut. 15:11  We may admire self-reliance, but it is wrong to disrespect those who, for whatever reason, lack that ability.  It takes all kinds to make a well-rounded society, and everyone has something to contribute.  We all agree on the need to care for the children, but too many of us fail to see that there are those among us who will always be children and must be taken care of regardless of their chronological age.

The stresses of modern American life put the lie to the ideal of self-reliance and expose the Horatio Alger myth for what it is.  I think of Donald Trump, whom I believe is rightly admired for his many successes, but who may not have been able to achieve them had he not been preceded by his millionaire real estate developer father, Fred.  While Trump may see himself as a modern-day Lincoln (I suspect that The Donald is a legend in his own mind), he was definitely not born in a one-room log cabin in Kentucky.  Nor was he raised in a rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn, as Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders was.

I find a supreme irony in the fact that both Trump and Sanders are native New Yorkers, the former from Queens and the latter from Brooklyn.  One was born with a silver spoon in his mouth while the other was born to impoverished immigrants who sought a better life in America.  I suppose it’s no wonder that Sanders seems to have an appreciation for the suffering and hope of those who risk everything to escape death in places like Syria, while Trump wants to build a wall on the Mexican border and keep Muslims out of the country.  I think it’s clear that we have two different world views going on here, each propounded by a man who achieved success through his own vision of “resourcefulness” and “self-reliance,” la débrouillardisme.

This is where I have to mention Google.  It seems that hardly a day goes by that I don’t hear someone say “Why don’t you Google it?”  After hearing this phrase roll off the tongue of coworkers, my wife and my teenage niece, the profoundness of its ubiquity struck me when I heard it from my octogenarian father not too long ago.  The essence is that if you don’t know, it’s no big deal.  You can just Google it.

Over the centuries, the United States has progressed from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy and, finally, to an information economy.  Despite the importance of information, however, no one much cares what we have stored up in our brains anymore.  Why commit anything to memory when you can just Google it?

Among the arguments in favor of search engines is that they are capable of storing exponentially more information than any person could ever hope to know.  I imagine that today’s grade school students must find it insufferable to have to memorize anything (from multiplication facts to state capitals to spelling words) when you can just Google it.

Is this what has come of self-reliance?  Have we truly moved on from Nike’s age of “just do it” to the age of “just Google it?”  One could argue that we no longer rely on the self, but instead rely on computer databases (and hope to God that they are accurate).  Speaking of accuracy, I suppose there is no comparison.  The human mind is subject to the vagaries of recollection and the ravages of time, but zeroes and ones (like diamonds) are forever.

There are those who argue that the knowledge economy transcends the memorization of yesterday.  Computers spew and vomit out data nonstop; the value-added individual is he or she who can interpret what it all means.  How important is it really that a presidential candidate at a debate botches the name of a world leader, a quotation or a statistic?  We all know that CNN, Fox News and the New York Times will be fact checking every statement.  So there really isn’t any need for a dog to bark at the lies and misstatements of the candidates, as so colorfully recounted by Hillary Clinton recently.  We have the news media to do the barking for us.  And think of all the money we save on vet bills!

In his famous essay, “Self Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested that we are obligated to decide things for ourselves rather than rely on the views and opinions of others.  He praises nonconformity, at least in the sense it shouldn’t matter what anyone else thinks.  After all, who’s to say that we’re not right and everyone else is wrong?

I suppose Emerson’s ideals could be said to have influenced the self-reliant types who head off into the Alaskan wilderness to live the life of a resourceful hermit.  And yet, the French ideal of la débrouillardisme is not about separating ourselves from our fellow man, but learning to succeed in spite of him.  It’s all about being Dickens’ Artful Dodger, knowing how to turn the tricks of the trade to your advantage, how to smooth talk others into giving you what you want, how to execute what Trump refers to as “the art of the deal.”

While it’s fine to admire the clever among us, and to refine our methods of dreaming and scheming, it would be well to remember that we are not dealing with a level playing field here.  Many of us are disadvantaged right out of the gate, including African-Americans and recent immigrants, who face every variety of subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination, and including those with mental and physical disabilities, and including those who were raised in abject poverty that weighs one down with a gravitational force that precludes pulling one’s self up by even the strongest of bootstraps.

While those of us who “can” pursue our self-reliant ways, we must never forget to proffer the assistance needed by those who “might” with the aid of additional resources, and we must never forget to provide for those who “cannot” under any circumstances.

So I say to all the presidential candidates of both parties:  Know this for certain, that the day will come when you will require an answer that neither Google nor Siri can provide.  For as King David taught us centuries ago, in time even the mighty shall fall.  And it is then that those of former greatness shall gain personal knowledge of what it is like for those of us who live without help and without hope.