Archive for November, 2009

What’s So Bad About Doing Good?

November 18, 2009

Or, for that matter, about feeling good? Or even doing good in order to feel good? These questions, of course, are directed at the authors and devotees of “Stuff White People Like.” Admittedly, I’ve only read bits and pieces of SWPL itself, mostly as quoted in other people’s blogs. But SWPL is only the most coherent popularization of a strain of thought that has afflicted our culture for nearly a century now. It has its origins in a kind of pop Calvinism that has by now forgotten its origins, but is still basic to the American psyche.

Jean Calvin (no relation to the tiger’s pal), who brought us the Pilgrims and the Presbyterian Church, believed that people are inherently sinful, and can’t “save” themselves by doing good works. We are “saved” if and only if God chooses to save us. We have no way of knowing who is saved and who is damned, and we shouldn’t care. We should, of course, do good, but not to save ourselves from damnation. We should do good purely because that’s what God wants. We must do everything possible to guard against ulterior motives. Doing the right thing for the wrong reason is no better than not doing it at all.

There are, Calvin tells us, lots of wrong reasons. Earthly rewards, like money and status and power. Heavenly rewards, like not going to hell. And psychological rewards, like feeling good about ourselves. Ideally, we should do good as secretly as possible*, and in ever-present uncertainty about our eternal destination. Calvin didn’t, so far as I know, have any helpful advice on how to keep from feeling good about having done good. Presumably, if we are all sinners, awareness of that fact should be enough.

Well, these days, it isn’t. Unlike Calvin and his ideological descendants, today’s Americans believe deeply in their inalienable right to feel good about themselves. We bump up our self-esteem for our skills, our temperaments, and our sheer lovability. As Senator Franken, in his earlier incarnation as Stuart Smalley, used to say, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and—doggone it!—the Minnesota Supreme Court likes me.” Or something like that.

We are entitled to feel good about every aspect of our selves except—oddly enough—our attempts to improve the world we live in and the lot of its inhabitants. Not only are we not allowed to feel good about doing good, we are not allowed to feel good about being good, except in the sense denoting excellence of worldly skills. We still believe we are all sinners. But we also believe that, as Smalley would say, “that’s o-kay.” We don’t need to feel bad about being sinners, we just shouldn’t feel good about being do-gooders. That would imply that we do good for ulterior motives—namely, in order to feel good.

This at least provides us with a solution to the eternal conundrum of how to bad-mouth people we don’t like but about whom we don’t actually know anything discrediting—just say they’re only buying Fair Trade coffee/living in integrated neighborhoods/going to church regularly/sending their children to public schools/buying hybrid cars/etc. to feel good. It’s even neater than calling them hypocrites, which was the ploy before we discovered feelgood.

Admittedly, I come from the Jewish tradition, which is mostly profoundly behaviorist. With some rather esoteric exceptions, we don’t much mind if you do the right thing for the wrong reason—even reasons a lot wronger than mere self-esteem, like looking good to the neighbors, improving the image of your business, impressing eligible members of the opposite sex, or even intimidating potential opponents—so long as you do it. We figure the world will still be a better place than if you don’t do it.

For the same reason, we aren’t keen on doing good secretly. If your neighbors don’t know you donate to charity, they may feel they live in a world in which most people don’t donate. This may lead them to stop donating. It may also lead them not to bother asking for help when they really need it, because they don’t know anybody to ask. At the very least, it is likely to lead them to depression and even despair.

Moreover, as St. Augustine figured out a long time ago, it is just about impossible to delete selfish motives from our actions. Either we deceive ourselves about our motives, or we get paralyzed into not acting at all. This is not worth the trouble.

So, please, spare me the Stuff White Liberals Who Aspire to a Moral Code Loftier Than Al Capone’s Like. Nice people feel good about nice things. Nasty people feel good about nasty things. Pat yourself on the back and go on your way. Make the world a better place.

*This was the whole point of Magnificent Obsession, a very popular edifying novel of the 1950s.

Red Emma

Magical Thinking, Al Queda, and Aliens

November 15, 2009

The origin of Guantánamo is pure magical thinking, as is the current mainland US resistance to bringing Gitmo defendants onto our soil for trial before federal courts. Perhaps the ancient Hindu practice of untouchability is the clearest analog. A person who can pollute places and people by his very presence in a room, or by casting his shadow upon a Brahmin’s food, is, on one hand, the lowest of the low. On the other hand, he also has a kind of super-power. Remember cooties? Back when we were fifth-graders and the boys had decided that girls had cooties, the girls could chase the boys halfway across the playground threatening to pollute them. Oh, to have that kind of power again!

Well, Al Quaeda, and anybody even remotely suspected of being connected with Al Quaeda, has that power. If any of them are allowed onto US soil, we will instantly dissolve into terror and anarchy. The super-max prisons that now securely hold the worst of our worst home-grown criminals are presumed to be utterly ineffectual against these Muslim super-criminals. Never mind that the latter’s accents and looks make them a lot easier to spot and retrieve than our home-grown murderers and rapists. Never mind that many of them have probably been deprived of most of their physical and mental competence by their treatment at Gitmo. Once their feet touch US soil, they will gain 100 pounds, get a foot taller, and turn green and even meaner than, say, Ted Bundy, Ted Kosinski, and Brian Dugan.

We knew that back in 2001, of course, which is why we created Gitmo in the first place. Those of you familiar with pagan magick know about wards and circles, which create places outside normal space and time to which the most dangerous forces can be restricted. Well, that was Gitmo. The detention facility there was created to be a legal black hole, under no one’s jurisdiction for purposes of legal review, but under the absolute control of the US government for purposes of keeping the Bad Guys from our shores. Of course, as anyone who saw “A Few Good Men” well knows, there is legal US jurisdiction at Gitmo. That’s why the US military servicemembers stationed there can be disciplined and even court-martialed, right there on the base, if they violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice. If they don’t like the result, they can even appeal, first up the military chain of command all the way to the Pentagon, and then to the civilian federal court system on the mainland. But, apparently, the US public can’t handle that truth either. They/we can accept the novel concept of an “unlawful combatant” who is in a different category from prisoners of war, spies and irregulars subject to being shot on sight, and criminal defendants. Such a person therefore cannot be granted any of the legal rights of POWs or criminal defendants. But by reason of some strange compunction, he cannot be shot on sight either (perhaps because many of them were never encountered by US authorities on the battlefield in the first place, but were picked up from local bounty hunters.) Presumably that’s one of the three impossible things a good American is required to believe before breakfast. But we can’t imagine allowing these people to touch our sacred soil, lest they pollute it, and us, with deadly weakness.

Which is closely related to what happens to our sacred soil when the wrong kind of alien touches it. And also what happens to the right kind of alien (ie anti-communists and especially Cubans) touches that same soil—they are immediately free and legal. The soil that renders anti-communist Cubans free and legal is itself rendered vulnerable and polluted by capitalist-wannabe Mexicans. Does Hogwarts know about this?

Red Emma

How Do You Stop a Prosecutor from Overcharging?

November 13, 2009

It’s an old joke, of course. But not as old as the stereotyping of the relationship between police, and prosecutors, and what Hammett, Spillane, and in a somewhat milder vein, Gardner, used to portray as the intrepid but slightly disreputable private investigator or criminal defense attorney. Avid crime novel reader though I am, I always found that stereotype unpersuasive, perhaps because I’m also an attorney and occasionally do criminal defense work. And I have never been treated with anything but the utmost courtesy by cops and prosecutors. So I figured the hostility between cops/prosecutors and private eyes was just a literary device to generate conflict and complexity in an otherwise too-simple story.

Apparently I was wrong, at least in Cook County. Or, at any rate, the newly-elected Cook County State’s Attorney, Anita Alvarez, reads the same crime novels I do and takes them a lot more seriously.

Some background: David Protess*, a professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, has for ten years or so been running an Innocence Project which has succeeded in getting several convicted murderers off Death Row and getting several other convicts out of the Illinois prison system. His students investigate diligently, and then turn their information over to the State’s Attorney, to prove that their clients were innocent all along. Not just “not guilty” on some technicality or other, like improperly seized evidence or improperly extracted confession—actually innocent. As in “they didn’t do it.” As in “some other dude did it” who may even still be on the street free to do it again. They succeed often enough that the State’s Attorney’s office is evidently a bit embarrassed.

So our new State’s Attorney has decided to strike back. Presented by the Innocence Project with evidence that Anthony McKinney had not committed the 1978 murder for which he was locked up for life, she has subpoenaed the students’ grades, notes, expense reports, and class syllabi, all in an effort to demonstrate that the students were more interested in getting good grades by any means necessary than in getting an actually innocent man out of prison. They paid witnesses to give exculpatory testimony, she says, and the witnesses then spent the money on drugs. They were themselves then rewarded by getting good grades.

Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling! Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes…: The dead rising from the grave! Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria! Investigators who were themselves being rewarded for getting the evidence may have paid the witnesses who provided it, who then may have spent the money on drugs. Oh the humanity! Ummmm, don’t the cops get paid to dig up evidence? Don’t they occasionally pay informants, or at least cover their expenses? Is it at least remotely possible that some of those informants then spend the money on something other than food, non-alcoholic drinks, transportation, extra socks, a new copy of the Big Book, and a donation to the parish poorbox?

Aside from which, the students say the only pay they gave an informant was his cab fare, paid directly to the driver with instructions not to give the change back to the informant. But what difference would it make if they had given him drug money? Isn’t it the State’s Attorney’s job to check out the information provided by the students? Why is she expecting them to present in finished form, suitable for presentation in court? Why is she persecuting them for not doing her homework for her?

I’m not even going to get into the issues of privilege raised by Medill’s attorneys—if the students are journalists, their notes and personal and academic information should be shielded from seizure by the prosecution, but so what? Even if they’re not journalists, and even if everything Alvarez alleges is true, what difference does it make? There is no legitimate reason for pursuing this stuff, and the most obvious illegitimate reason is that the head prosecutor is finally in a position to pursue a vendetta against the people who have been embarrassing her office for years.

Back when I was working at the Federal Public Defender, my boss told me, while expounding on final arguments, “a lot of jurors vote to convict because they find the prosecutor really likeable and they don’t want to hurt his feelings. You need to point out to them that his feelings won’t be hurt in the slightest, because an honest vote to acquit isn’t a defeat for the prosecutor. He’s not like us—we only win if our client gets acquitted. But the prosecutor wins if justice is done, whichever way that goes.”

This prosecutor is losing.

* Full disclosure: David Protess and I were involved in draft counseling some of the same students at Roosevelt University in the 1970s. He’s a good guy.


Bigotry and Low Expectations

November 6, 2009

No, this isn’t about the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” I just did that to catch the eye. There is no heat in my office, my hands are cold, and the only way to keep myself typing is to start with something eye-grabbing. This is actually about the state of Maine (with which I have family connections) and the results of their referendum on same-sex marriage.

1) Why a referendum at all? Since when do we put constitutional rights to a popular vote? The fact that we have done it, in California and Maine, begs the question. Holding a referendum (regardless of its outcome) presumes that we don’t consider marriage a constitutional right, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in the marvelously-named Loving vs. Virginia case 40 years ago. Foo.

2) Does that mean that those who voted to repeal same-sex marriage in those states were bigoted?

3) Or does it mean that the supporters of same-sex marriage in those states were bigoted when they called their opponents bigots? Or that they were interfering with their opponents’ First Amendment rights by advocating boycotts and other non-violent demonstrations of opposition to the repealers? Conservatives seem to consider being labeled as bigots to be a fate worse than, say, Matthew Shepard’s death. Whatever happened to “sticks and stones”?

The word “bigot,” BTW, is believed to come from some Germanic sort of root meaning “by God.” There is a literal equivalent in Spanish, referring to little old ladies in black crepe who spend most of their time in churches: pordiosera. For more etymological information, see the Wikipedia entry.

Now that we’ve explicated the word as well as one can these days, let’s scrap it. It’s not useful for this discussion. Let’s, instead, use “prejudice” and “discrimination.” Mr. Wired draws a very useful distinction between them. “Prejudice” is what everybody has a bunch of, just by virtue of having been born and raised in a particular context. Most of them we don’t even notice most of the time. They’re as close to original sin as I can allow myself to believe in. But as a practical matter they’re morally neutral. It is useful to be aware of one’s own prejudices, because that enables us to avoid discrimination.

Discrimination is not morally neutral. It involves acting on one’s prejudices, to the detriment of the well-being of others. It’s a real sin. Not serving people in restaurants. Not letting them hold certain jobs. Beating them up. Hate crimes.

Very often, the way we become aware of our prejudices is by somehow associating their object with our children. Desegregating schools unveiled a lot of parental bigotry after the promulgation of Brown vs. Board of Education. White people who were willing to work with, or even for, African-Americans, or to vote for them, or to recognize the legal authority of people who had been elected mainly by the Black vote, found themselves drawing the line at the schoolhouse door.

The campaign against same-sex marriage in Maine apparently owes its success to the claim that schoolchildren would have to be taught that same-sex marriage was no different from the usual kind. So far as anybody can tell, that claim was utter hogwash, but, as other bloggers have already pointed out, it served as a proxy for the Bigotry That Dares Not Speak Its Name, opposition to allowing our children to be aware of otherwise normal people being gay. How we want to raise our children (as opposed to how we live our own lives) is often an expression of both our highest values and our lowest prejudices.

Many otherwise very decent opponents of same-sex marriage are perfectly okay with civil unions. As a practical matter, that keeps them mostly on the right side of the prejudice-discrimination line. Most same-sex couples will not suffer unduly from having civil unions rather than marriages, given proper legal drafting. Until we think about why these decent anti-same-sex-marriage opponents want to take that position. It’s really the same reason that classical and medieval authorities required prostitutes, and Jews, to wear distinctive dress. Not because Those People were so utterly different from The Rest of Us, but precisely because they weren’t. Without the yellow hat or the blond wig or the six-pointed star, they could easily be mistaken for, and treated like, Real People. We wouldn’t know whom to discriminate against.

When one of my colleagues tells me he frequents gay bars because he is “husband-hunting” (and I respond, as gently as possible, by telling him that bars are not usually great places to meet spouses), the very normality of this exchange puts any eavesdropping adolescent at the risk of concluding that gay people are just like the rest of us. For that matter, what happens when your kid’s high school class does a field trip to the local court and hears the judge, in the course of jury selection, ask a member of the panel, “Are you married or do you have a domestic partner?” (Yes, here in Cook County, they do that.) We can’t have that, can we?

Many sincere and religious people believe that homosexual behavior is a sin. Most of them also believe that adultery is a sin (one which is usually condemned in the same biblical paragraphs as homosexuality, and sentenced to the same punishment, by the way.) Many of them even believe that remarriage after divorce is a sin. But they somehow survive their children interacting with, or at least becoming very aware of, the public adulterers and remarried divorcés around them. So apparently their religiously-based discomfort with those classes of sinners does not get translated into discrimination, maybe not even into prejudice. One has to conclude that homosexuality is different for reasons that have nothing to do with biblical morality. The yuck factor, as some religious bloggers have termed it.

So, okay, I’m willing not to call same-sex-marriage opponents bigots if they’re willing to allow civil unions (or, for that matter, religious marriages) with all of the privileges that go with civil marriage in this society—so long as they don’t treat people in civil unions, and gay people in general, any differently than they treat public adulterers and remarried divorcés. Which means allowing their kids to interact with and be aware of and be taught in school by all, or none, of these public sinners.