Thursday, July 26, 2012

I Read the Freeh Report, and Other Stories

Those of you who make your home underneath large stones may have missed the media frenzy surrounding the conviction of Jerry Sandusky for multiple counts of child molestation, the subsequent report by Louis Freeh summarizing his investigation into how exactly something like this could have been concealed at Penn State for so long, and the sanctioning of Penn State by the NCAA. It's engaging because it involves sports, our national obsession, and because the crime is so horrendous that you instinctively recoil. It's almost impossible to be neutral about what Sandusky did; even if you discount the accusations of the victims who weren't involved in the case (his stepson, for instance, as well as additional victims who claim to have been molested during the '70s and '80s) the width and breadth of the crimes he committed demand response.

When the Freeh report was released, every news site in the country put out stories summarizing and characterizing what was in it, as news sites do when reports are published. They read it so we don't have to. Now, I have no claim to intellectual rigor. I like to think I take facts and evidence into account, but too often I'm content to let someone else's analysis and opinion about facts and evidence sway me, especially if it's someone I tend to agree with. So, when the Freeh report was released, I read it.

I didn't read the whole thing.  I skimmed the recommendations, because I'm not a Penn State board member and so what Louis Freeh thought they should do with his findings is not terribly germane to me. I also didn't read the appendices, which contained the primary sources Freeh went through to compile the report and which were cited in the body. I probably should have done this; although by reading the report I went beyond reading what someone thought about what Freeh wrote, I was still reading what Freeh thought about what he read instead of also reading what he read and drawing my own conclusions. Nevertheless, reading the body of the findings put me further ahead of the game than I normally am.

What stood out for me, apart from the fact that Paterno, Spanier, Schultz, and Curley let a serial pedophile molest boys on their campus for decades, was a footnote on pages 65 and 66 detailing examples of the massive influence of Paterno and his football program. Students who were sanctioned by the school never had their penalties reduced unless they were part of the football program, in which case their punishments were lessened or dropped. (The woman whose experience was summed up in the footnote, Vicky Triponey, was the subject of a profile which goes into the matter further.)

The young men who were involved in these incidents were done a disservice by their coach, Joe Paterno, and by the university personnel involved in those decisions. College faculty and staff have a number of responsibilities, all of them intertwined and none of them easy. They need to educate students, which involves bringing in and keeping qualified faculty. They need to make sure those students not only learn, but graduate, and that once they graduate, they get and maintain employment. They need to keep in contact with their alumni and foster good relations with them. They need to offer extracurricular activities. They need to provide a safe environment for all these things. They need to keep the lights on, and keep up with the latest technologies and teaching tools, and have an easily accessible and navigable library with a good supply of books and other archived materials. And so on, and so forth. But above all of these things, they need to be role models and good leaders, because you don't just learn how to do calculus from your math professor but also how to conduct yourself, how to think, how to navigate this world. And when your coach and your administrative staff are showing you that it doesn't matter how you behave in your daily life as long as you win football games, and that you'll be allowed to do whatever you want as long as you win football games, you won't learn how to be a good person and to treat others with respect. You'll learn that you don't have to follow the rules and that you don't have to consider other people.

And when your coach, your mentor, and the administrative staff of the university are covering up darker crimes than a couple of rowdy football players assaulting other students, when those men are involved in a decades-long cover up because they feared for their reputation, with no consideration for the victims or their families (note, from the report, the multiple attempts to let Sandusky know he should stop what he was doing, but no attempt to contact law enforcement or, more importantly, the victims or their parents), then you are learning the wrong lessons.

I'm not suggesting everyone who went to school at Penn State is a warped monster. Sandusky is, I think, a singular parasite, whose particular pathology had no genesis at the school he coached for (though it was given corners to prey in). And I even think Paterno passed along some good along with the implicit bad he was passing along with his behavior and his laser focus on winning football games. I don't hold the kids who graduated out of that program, and the kids that are there now, responsible for the failures of their leaders. Paterno said, of the Sandusky business, that it wasn't a football scandal, which is true in the sense that The Crucible is not a play about McCarthyism. The losing of the forest for the trees, however, is not a failure unique to football programs; it happens in any situation where the institution becomes more important than the ideals for which that institution was established, or more important than a sense of right and wrong. However, I, and a great many people, judging for how many were clamoring for the blood of the Penn State football program and for Paterno's statue to come down, find it far more respectable for a leader to take an action which might damage his or her institution's reputation for the sake of doing the right thing than for a leader to protect the image of said institution by letting shady doings continue. Paterno and the rest did more damage by keeping silent than they would have if they had spoken up in 1998 (or in 2001).

I don't hold the kids responsible for their leader's failures. However, the NCAA did. Everyone thought Penn State would get the so-called "death penalty," i.e. no football for a year (or possibly longer). What they ended up getting was much harsher, including voiding past victories, eliminating post-season games, scholarship reductions, and much more (in addition, the Big Ten conference barred Penn State from the tournament for the duration of the punishments). These last for four years. It's a devastating punishment, and it's a punishment that falls nearly wholly on the kids.

I understand the response. I absolutely do. Nothing than anyone can do can erase what Sandusky did. It's a long, hard road back to normalcy for those boys; their entire lives will be shaped by Sandusky's crimes. Those crimes could have been prevented, or curtailed, had someone at Penn State showed backbone or character. And we, here, in the year 2012, can't make sense of our powerlessness in the face of these crimes.

The NCAA had to act. I see that. But what they did went beyond the true perpetrators of the crime, Sandusky and his enablers. Is there anyone at Penn State who doesn't know that their past victories are tarnished? Is there any danger of them forgetting what happened? More to the point, is there any chance we will let them forget? Penn State's name is going to be synonymous with Sandusky's crimes for a very long time, and for the actual students of the university that's the only thing they should be suffering. There should be an examination of the influence of football and sports culture in general, and not just at Penn State; if you think that's the only school where winning sports teams are treated differently than the rest of the student body you are delusional.

The Penn State program didn't need to be burned to the ground. All that needed to happen is this. Anywhere on campus that where you could see a reference to a football victory (a sign, a banner, a trophy case) there should also be, in a place of equal visibility, a picture of Sandusky in handcuffs. I find the elimination of Penn State's victories from the record to be a touch Orwellian. For me it's more poetic if no one is allowed to forget what was being done in the name of victory. But none of that means that the young men and women now attending Penn State shouldn't be allowed to strive for honest victories, and to show they have more honor and character than the men who led them to this ruin.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Gatsby was a bootlegger, not a bootstrapper

There exists, on the Chicago Tribune website, an analysis of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby which is so stunningly misguided that I felt the need to offer a rebuttal.  The author's thesis is that those who interpret the book as a criticism of the American Dream are "grievously misinterpret[ing]," and that Gatsby should be admired as someone who bootstrapped his way up the ladder into high society, as all of us should aspire to.  She ends with this, ". . . Not everyone in America succeeds, but everyone has the chance to. The green light — the one Gatsby watched, night after night — is visible to anyone, from any angle, and while we all won't reach it, we can all dream ardently of doing so. The true beauty is in the wish, not the attainment."

My issues with the piece actually begin around the middle, when she dismisses the ending, saying, "[t]he tragedy that befalls him — we're treading delicately here, to avoid the dreaded spoiler — is based on a misunderstanding, and could've befallen anyone. His fate is almost beside the point."  This is nearly nonsense, in a number of ways.  I understand the desire to avoid spoiling the ending (Gatsby's death at the hands of Wilson) given that part of what this piece is trading on in terms of relevance is the imminent film adaptation, which will potentially attract viewers who haven't read the book.  However, it is impossible to meaningfully critique a piece of art without experiencing the whole of that art; if you're critiquing a TV show, you have to watch all the episodes, if it's a movie you have to stick around to the end, if it's an album you have to listen to each song, and if it's a novel you have to read to the end, even it, for whatever reason, the death of the titular character strikes you as "beside the point."

 Film Crit Hulk, an insightful commentator on pop culture who writes in all caps in the guise of Marvel's Incredible Hulk (which is much less gimmicky than it sounds at first glance) wrote a great article in which he advances his view that, "THE ENDING IS THE CONCEIT."  The whole article is worth reading, and if the Hulk-speak bothers you a) there is a website somewhere that will de-Hulkify it and b) you are a big baby.  Since reading it, the idea has stuck with me as something true not just for film but for all storytelling.  What he's saying may seem self-evident; the ending changes and informs the meaning of everything you just saw, or read, or experienced.

Consider Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen's third album.  It opens with what many consider to be Springsteen's best song, "Thunder Road," and the title track comes third in the line-up, but the album ends with "Jungleland," a song that contains the lyric, "Outside the street's on fire, in a real death waltz/Between what's flesh and what's fantasy/And then the poets down here, don't write nothing at all/They just stand back and let it all be/and in the quick of the night/They reach for their moment/And try to make an honest stand/But they wind up wounded, not even dead/Tonight in jungle land," after which we hear a furious piano solo and a haunting, wordless howl from Bruce before the song comes to an anti-climactic end.  You can talk about how much "Born to Run," rocks, but you can't say that the entire meaning of that album is locked up in that one song, and a critique of Born to Run that avoided acknowledging the placement of "Jungleland," at the end (and the fact that it's immediately preceded by the grim, low-key "Meeting Across the River,") is like, well, a critique of The Great Gatsby that ignored Gatsby's ignominious death by the pool.

Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, often described by people who had to read it in high school and never experienced it anywhere else as a great love story, is a story utterly transformed by its ending.  I have seen people describe it, with a straight face, as being a play with the message, "Love conquers all."  This is a play, need I remind you, where the male lead murders his way into exile from his own city (a pretty big deal back in the day) and away from his love, and where the two leads do not live happily ever after but die alone in a tomb.  You could write a dramatically feasible ending scene where Romeo says, "Thus with a kiss I die," and goes to drink the poison, only for Juliet to dramatically awaken.  Then the lovers embrace, their parents arrive and somehow Romeo is forgiven for his killing spree and the two teens are free to populate Verona with tiny Capugues.  That's not the play Shakespeare wrote, however; he wrote a tragedy, where the hatreds of the elder generation infect the younger, and where the youth are set free in a world with no moral guideposts and no way to get reliable advice (the Nurse exists for Juliet, but the Nurse hates Juliet; on Romeo's side, there is Friar Lawrence, a largely out-of-touch clergyman whose solution for the reuniting of the lovers proves as misguided as anything), a play where the parents are only able to see the results of their feud after it has annihilated their children.  Yes, Mercutio is an engaging character, yes, the love poetry is amazing, but this is because Shakespeare understood contrasts.  A reading of Romeo and Juliet as a simple love story is like, for example (something I'm just pulling out of thin air here), a critique of The Great Gatsby that ignores Gatsby's waterside end.

I took issue with the Peter Jackson adaptation of The Return of the King because of his omission of the Scouring of the Shire, as did, I am sure, many other pedantic nerds.  For me, the Scouring was part of what made the book so resonant.  Yes, it's grim, but for me it made the book's central quest more real.  There were obviously terrible consequences if Sauron got that One Ring (or if someone else got their hands on it), but the more real evil for me was the evil of Saruman coming and twisting the hobbit's home into a smaller version of what the rest of the world ultimately would have been.  It showed that heroism isn't just going out and doing great deeds, but being able to come home and do them too.  That bad comes with good, that the world is unpredictable, that we may be required to stand up not just when the large goes wrong but also when the small does.  I don't think the movie needed yet another denouement, necessarily (although I think, and have said, that if Frodo and Sam weren't detained for half the movie in Osgilioth during The Two Towers that they would have been able to fit more stuff from Return into that movie and thus make space for the Scouring).  The lack of the Scouring in the movie changes it, much as The Great Gatsby becomes a different book if you, for some reason, omit the death of Gatbsy.

I feel I've sufficiently belabored the general point about why the ending matters, but the ending of Gatsby, and Gatsby, matters because it transforms the meaning of all that came before.  Gatsby's dream wasn't for wealth for its own sake, to pull himself out of a life of poverty into one of comfort and leisure; it was to become wealthy so that the lies he told Daisy about himself could become truth, and he could become worthy of her.  His dream was romantic; to sweep his long-lost love off her feet and live with her a life of happiness, but to be beguiled by Fitzgerald's prose and Gatsby's dream is to ignore the reality of what Gatsby was trying to do, which was break up a marriage (with a young child), and the reality that Daisy was a woman who would do those things.  Gatsby wasn't a self-made man; he was a front for Wolfsheim, necessary because the people Wolfsheim was bootlegging for wouldn't deal with a Jew.  Gatsby didn't participate in his own parties, which were thrown for Daisy (who, when she finally attended, didn't like them) and, as D'Angelo from The Wire, which for me is fast becoming the Kevin Bacon of criticism, points out in season two, "he frontin' with all them books, but if you pull one down from the shelf, and none of the pages ever been opened (sic)."

To focus on the glittering parties and the green light and the poetry, as Keller does, is to ignore the realities of who Fitzgerald told us these people are.  The poetry is important, yes; it's part of why Fitzgerald is read today, part of why the story sticks with us.  Poetry will elevate something from good to great; we have Shakespeare Festivals in most, if not all, of our states, but you will find a Webster Festival or a Marlowe Festival somewhat sparsely attended.  But poetry in The Great Gatsby is but one of many moving parts, all of which are working to tell a more complicated story than Keller is willing or able to admit.  Her insistence that reading Gatsby as a criticism of the American Dream, and her view that it is a trumpeting of it ignores the idea, noted in the comments on the article, that both things could be happening simultaneously, that the American Dream is a coin with two sides, either of which could come up at any moment.  That there is the potential, in theory, for any one of us to find wealth and success and happiness, but that reality often conspires to limit opportunities for those not born into some sort of privilege.  It ignores the fact that Gatsby's happiness was found not in his success and his parties, but in Daisy, and that happiness turned out to carry the complications that led to the spoiler-that-dare-not-speak-its-name.

Keller says that, "literature often is far more transparent and straightforward than it is given credit for."  I would argue the opposite, but even if I were willing to grant the premise I would not grant it here.  The American Dream is a complex thing, and Fitzgerald's novel exploring it is equally complex.  To read it without a sense of irony or nuance, to visit it as one would a party and gulp it down like so much champagne, to see only the green light and not the gritty end, will inevitably lead to "grievous misinterpretation," but those misinterpretations will far more resemble Keller than those she accuses of same.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Seeing and not seeing

If you live in Chicago, as I do, you will eventually see a homeless person.  You can find the homeless in other cities, obviously, but I don't see, for example, the Los Angeles homeless every day on the way to the Metra, seeing as how I am unable in my current state of evolution to surpass the limits of time and space.  I am not a connoisseur of the homeless; I saw homeless men and women when I was a kid coming up to the city, and I see them on my way to wherever I happen to be working at the time, but I'm sure there are Chicago natives who have been ignoring the homeless for far longer than I.  Nevertheless, I have now seen, on multiple occasions, homeless people with dogs.

The mind already puts up barriers when we're dealing with the homeless.  I know I do it all the time.  I stare straight ahead and pretend not to see them.  I turn up my .mp3 player.  I fiddle with my phone.  I walk on, convincing myself in that moment that it's very important for me to get to wherever I'm going, that I don't have the time to stop or the money to give (although frequently I don't have to pretend about that last part), that someone else will stop and help, that they'll be okay.

In other words, I tell myself stories.

When you see a homeless man clutching a dog, this practice goes into overdrive.  You have to tell yourself a story to make that okay because if you really truly confronted what that meant it would ruin your day at the very least.  That guy has to be a scammer.  It's not his dog, it's just a stray he's found to make people feel sorry for him.  He's not really homeless, he's just bilking gullible tourists out of their money, and he's going home to some apartment somewhere after the lunch rush.  He's a drug addict, or an alcoholic.  He knows where the shelters are and just doesn't want to go there and get help.  He's too lazy to keep a job.  He pissed away an inheritance.  He deserves to be out there.  He deserves what he got.  It's fine.  It's okay.  You don't have to care.

Never mind that health care for many people is prohibitively expensive and that if he has any kind of medical condition or complication that becomes too much for him to financially cope with he can be out on his ass.  Never mind that not everyone has a stable family structure that can support them through hard times.  Never mind that people with mental illness, especially returning veterans with PTSD, can find it difficult to function in a society that doesn't fully understand that kind of struggle.  Never mind that the notion of someone making a full and healthy five-to-six figure yearly wage begging chump change from passing strangers is so far into the realm of fantasy that you might as well believe he used to be a dragon slayer.  Never mind that so many people in this world struggle with addictions of all shapes and sizes and that none of us are in a position to judge someone who battled with those demons and lost, that it's not a matter of weakness or strength but of access to treatment and care and empathy from out fellow humans and that anyone can be brought low.

We tell ourselves stories because we don't want to believe that that could be us, and we go into overdrive when we see a man or a woman out on the street with a dog because that just brings that reality into sharper relief.  We tell ourselves stories to eliminate the humanity of the homeless.  But they are human, living in conditions we can't and won't imagine, and our illusions are stretched to the breaking point when we try to make a monster out of a man holding a dog.

"If you want to be perfect, go and sell what you own and give the money to the destitute, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come back and follow me," said Jesus.  I don't believe he was the son of God, but I do believe he was more revolutionary than people really know.  Just as that man holding the dog was more human than I, and the sea of humanity passing him by, could bear.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Death and The Wire: "The Hunt", "Cleaning Up" and "Sentencing"

After the jolt of cliffhanger ending of "The Cost," comes a different kind of jolt, in which we see characters who have previously been antagonistic to what we might loosely describe as our heroes show different facets.  Landsman, who has heretofore been the source of comedic, profanity and middle-management dickery in roughly equal measure, shows us that a real police lurks beneath the portly exterior, while Rawls steps into action and clears a path for the men under his command to investigate freely.  Much of the episode concerns the investigation of Kima's shooting, and because it's one of their own everyone swings into action with fervor.  This being The Wire, there's no computer enhancement of surveillance footage or pulling DNA off of random objects; the closest we come is Freamon pulling a partial fingerprint of Little Man off of a discarded soda can.

However, this being, again, The Wire, we're shown the pieces of how that can got there.  Little Man and Wee-Bey hoofed it to a pay phone to page Stringer, then got the call back to confirm that the job - to wit, killing Orlando - was done.  Little Man drops the can, which we see him do.  Freamon notices the call because of the taps on the pagers, at which point Prez puzzles out Bey's pager code.  They deduce what we already know, that Bey called Stringer from the pay phone, and at the phone itself Freamon finds the can.  This might seem redundant if The Wire was a mystery show about how crimes are committed, but it's more interested in establishing just how good police work gets done, through information, observation and leg work (and a little bit of luck; if there wasn't a wire tap going on the shooters, that piece of the puzzle probably never gets found).

What it's also saying, if you read between the lines (something the show tries to train people to do), is about priorities.  When you see the collective might of the police department being brought to bear to solve one case, you'll probably find yourself asking, "why don't they just do this all the time?"  It asks us to briefly entertain a world where the police expand this much energy investigating each and every crime.  I don't mean to suggest that homicide detectives only give a shit when it's one of their own; even if I hadn't read Wire head writer David Simon's Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets I would still find that too cynical a belief.  The book does make a case for the same ironic detachment we've seen from detectives earlier in the series (Bunk's, "Don't even think of comin' up a murder," exhortation to a corpse, the infamous Bunk-and-McNulty Fuck Scene), positing that it would be impossible for one person to care about every single case and not go insane, confronted as they would be by the worst of humanity.  Barriers are necessary for these men and women, and so I think seeing the energy of the investigation into Kima's shooting should not be read as a wouldn't-it-be-nice-if fantasy of how law enforcement should always work - remember, much of the sound and fury of the investigation is largely meaningless, since the case is solved by the information gleaned from the existing wiretap and some very cool, collected police work from Bunk and Freamon - and more as a privileged view of what happens when those barriers come down.

In the aftermath of the shooting, we start to see the Barksdale crew in panic mode.  After Stringer lets Wee-Bey know that "shorty was a cop," Stringer tells Bey, with chilling indifference, "Little Man got to go."  We never see Little Man's death on screen, only hear it referred to.  In a later scene, where the Barksdale's lawyer Maurice Levy (played by Michael Kostroff, an actor who, in what is, amazingly, only the second most baffling Disney-The Wire-related association, played a character on the Disney sitcom for kids Sonny With a Chance - I'll get to the first most baffling when I cover season 5) tells Stringer and Avon that they need to "limit their liability," (i.e. kill anyone who can hurt them), they come around to Nakeisha Lyles, the security guard from the first episode who was intimidated into changing her testimony against D'Angelo.  The reasoning goes that the intimidation might not stick, and that leaving her alive is too much a risk, so Nakeisha, like William Gant, is sentenced to death.  There is no safe place for residents of Baltimore or, by extension, anyone who lives in a city where they might witness something that someone else might not want them to see.  Lyles was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and even though she was willing to stick her head in the sand and disavow what she saw, even though she's not a drug user or a drug dealer, but simply a woman living her day-to-day in a bad part of town, she is as doomed as any of the kids in the game.

Which brings us to Wallace.  Brandon's death so shook him that he decided he wanted out, and D'Angelo, whose own awakening to the horrors of his life has been ongoing throughout the season, gets soft-hearted and lets him leave, telling him, "you a smart little motherfucker," and that he should get back in school.  Wallace's heart has never been in his day job, but after some time out of the city with his aunt, he comes back, since it's what he knows.  This might have gone unnoticed if D'Angelo was the only one he had to deal with, but with the Barksdales paranoid about snitches in their organization (because of the effects of the wiretap and a mandate from the Commissioner to send a message by raiding all of the Barksdale's assets, torpedoing the investigation), Wallace's exodus and return look suspicious.  And so, in "Cleaning Up," we have Daniels and McNulty realizing that they haven't been keeping tabs on Wallace and racing to try and track him down, even as Bodie and Poot, Wallace's childhood friends, have been enlisted by Stringer to kill him.  Which they do, in one of the most powerful scenes of the first season, a beautiful piece of writing and acting, from the way Wallace can barely muster up a coherent defense ("Y'all my boys," he says through tears.  "Why it gotta be like this?"), to the way Bodie actis hard up until the moment he has to pull the trigger, then is unable to do so until Poot shouts at him, and the way Poot takes the gun to finish the job.

As with every death on the show, Wallace's death ripples out.  D'Angelo gets sent to New York to pick up drugs, since the police took everything the Barksdales had, and gets caught because of the wiretap.  The cops try to push him, revealing that Wallace has been killed, and at first, D'Angelo is incredulous, but later, in another incredible scene, he blows up at Stringer and Levy.  Things have finally gone too far, and he tries to cut a deal with the police, to tell them everything he knows, which is pretty substantal (this video contains some graphic photos of dead bodies, one of whom, Deirdre, was naked when she died, so don't watch it at work, I guess, although if you work somewhere where you're watching clips from The Wire let me know where it is so I can send them my resume).  Of note in this scene is D'Angelo's lawyer's reaction to the photos McNulty send D'Angelo's way in the course of the confession.  The photos of Nakeisha, Wallace, Deirdre and Brandon are each horrific in their own ways, but taken together they're particularly gruesome.  However, as viewers we may have, by this point, become used to them, deadened as D'Angelo, McNulty, Rhonda and Bunk have been deadened, and it's useful to have the perspective of someone who can give us what we might consider a normal reaction to them.

Among other things, we get the real story of Deirdre Kresson's death.  Wee-Bey was the shooter, not D, meaning that if D'Angelo's braggadocio when he was trying to impress boys in the Pit rang false to you, you were ahead of the game.  D'Angelo agrees to testify if he can go away, if he can get "what Wallace wanted," and start over somewhere.  However, he's visited by his mother, who appeals to his sense of duty to his family, convincing him that without family, he'll have nothing.  And so D'Angelo goes back to letting Levy represent him and goes to jail, this time for the maximum of 20 years.  Stringer, at the hearing, approaches McNulty and says, "Nicely done," just as McNulty did to him back in the first episode.

And so we come to the end of the first season of The Wire.  The last thing we see after a montage showing what the major and minor players are up to is Omar, sticking up some poor schmoe in, presumably, New York, where he's still laying low.   A lot of bodies got dropped throughout the season, but what The Wire tells us is that the toll for each body goes farther than the immediate friends and family.  You can argue that those who investigate those deaths are relatively unscathed, although even beyond the example of Kima's shooting you have multiple scenes of McNulty and Bunk drinking themselves into oblivion, which speaks to the psychological cost they're incurring by working where they work.  Wee-Bey is serving life in prison for the murders he committed, and for murders he might not have (like the Gant shooting, which he tries to admit to in order to potentially spring Bird), and D'Angelo is serving 20, pushed by forces beyond his control into doing something he didn't want to do, and paying a price he doesn't really want to pay.  Bodie and Poot murdered their best friend.  Omar lost a lover, in an existence where he really doesn't have a lot to call his own.  Avon is in jail and Stringer is in charge of a diminished Barksdale organization.  And drugs are still being sold.

Death toll: 12
Death toll per episode: .92

Ahead in season 2: The death toll increases substantially in only the first episode and we come to one of the two deaths that made me start the series.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

I'm not touching you

David Brothers over at 4th letter has a post up about the recent Before Watchmen announcements from DC Comics.  For those of you who have no idea what that is, the Cliff Notes version is that in the 80's Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons wrote Watchmen, one of the most influential superhero comics of the last few decades.  I've read and heard commentary about how Watchmen was more like the crest of a wave that was already building, rather than something out of the blue that made everything do a 180, but regardless, it's a hugely important book, one that says something and makes full use of its form (in terms of panel layouts, repeated imagery, and all those other things you can only really get out of a comic book).  Alan Moore has made a career out of writing influential, important comics, and he's been ill-treated by DC, but up until now Watchmen has been left mostly intact.  However, recently DC announced that there would be a number of mini-series coming out delving into the pre-history of Watchmen, written and drawn by creators who are not Moore and Gibbons, and with no input from same.  It's a pretty obvious cash grab by any stretch of the imagination; these issues are being created not because all these creators had a burning desire to tell these stories, but because there's money to be made.

I was going to write about this not because I have something to say about the situation that hasn't been articulated by Brothers (who is a phenomenal writer and has been killing it on creator's right in comics for a long time now), but because it struck at something that's been on the tip of my tongue about corporate power, and really power in general when wielded against the powerless.  It wasn't crystallized until I saw this interview on the subject of Before Watchmen and how it led him to leave/be fired from DC with Chris Roberson, writer of iZombie (which is not about a new, prohibitively dangerous but undeniably stylish Apple product).  From the interview:
...[T]he only defense that’s offered of things like either Before Watchmen or the counter-suit against the Siegels or any number of different things that have been done historically is that the company is operating within the bounds of the law. The company is doing nothing illegal. There’s no defense mounted to the ethics or morality of their actions, and in many cases they will make kind of passing nods to the fact that what they are doing might be interpreted as unethical, but that because it’s not illegal, you know, they’re going to do it.
That's really it, right there.  Hiding behind legality and pretending that makes it right.  This contract says I can fuck this guy over, so I'm going to do it.  Why are you mad?  It says I can do it, so that makes it okay?

It's exactly like the "I'm not touching you," game.  Anyone with a sibling knows this one.  Someone gets right up in your grill, like inches away, and obviously you react badly, because no one likes it when someone's up in their personal space.  You're afraid they're going to headbutt you, or tickle you, or sucker-punch you or get your right in the nuts, but they just wait, like the test of the Emergency Broadcast System.  Finally you snap and tell them to stop, likely getting upset because seriously that shit is annoying, and they smile that beatific smile of the confirmed asshole and say, "I'm not touching you."

Ghost Rider creator Gary Friedrich is no longer legally allowed to say he's the creator of Ghost Rider and get paid for it, because a judge ruled in Marvel's favor; furthermore, he now owes Marvel $17,000, which he doesn't have because he hasn't been getting paychecks for creating Ghost Rider for decades.  I'm not touching you.

Joanne Siegel, the model for Lois Lane, wife of Jerry Siegel, co-creator, with Joe Schuster, of Superman, died before seeing the rights for Action Comics #1 return rightfully to the Siegel estate, because DC Comics has a steadfast resolve to stick to the letter of the law and not the spirit.  I'm not touching you.

It's perfectly legal for the police to ask you for a strip search no matter what you've been accused of, according to the highest court in the land.  I'm not touching you.

Florida's Stand Your Ground law may exonerate a man who shot and killed an unarmed black teenager.  I'm not touching you.

American corporations have hundreds of billions of dollars in untaxable off-shore accounts, which are "legally out of reach of the Internal Revenue Service."  I'm not touching you.

I'm not touching you.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Lying In the Pursuit of Truth, or The Daisey Dismantling

So A Thing happened recently.  A couple months back, This American Life did an episode about Mike Daisey's 2010 trip to China that inspired his one-man show The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, wherein Daisey claimed to have visited a number of factories to speak with workers who worked on the iPad.  The monologue is an account of various worker violations at the Foxconn factory that manufactures iPad parts; Daisey claims to have met significant numbers of underage workers (and implies that their existence at the factory is an open secret with management, who turn a blind eye), spoken with a sizable contingent of workers who are part of an illegal union, seen guards with guns at the gate of the factory, met with workers who have suffered neurological damage from a cleaning agent called n-hexane, and met with a man whose hand was crushed in an industrial accident who had never seen an iPad before being shown one by Daisey.

If you go to the link above, you'll see that they've since aired an episode retracting the story.  The plot began to unravel when Rob Schmitz, a reporter for Marketplace stationed in Shanghai, noticed discrepancies in Daisey's story and decided to track down the translator Daisey worked with (with little difficulty, as he tells it).  Daisey had previously said that he had given his translator, who he calls Cathy in the play, that name as an alias, when her real name was Anna, and that he no longer had up-to-date contact information for her (this is the point, says TAL host Ira Glass, that they should have immediately killed the story).  The reason he did this, as Schmitz lays out, is that Daisey's account of events and the translator's differ wildly.  Daisey, in other words, fabricated many of the factual details of his journey.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Death and The Wire: "Lessons" and "The Cost"

For a number of reasons I struggled getting into this particular entry, partly because I've been distracted by other TV shows (Breaking Bad, Parks and Recreation, and the superlative Community) and partly because the newest addition to the death toll is something of a bit player.  However, I realized eventually that that was the point, and it's actually brilliant.