Friday, December 29, 2006

Those Who Choose to Ignore History are Doomed to Rewrite It

A day or so after Iraq's highest court decreed that Saddam Hussein would be executed in 30 days or less, the execution was carried out. Shiites, as well as many Iraqi Christians and Iraqi-Americans danced in the street. To those that experienced, or had loved ones that experienced, Saddam's reign of terror, this is a perfectly understandable sentiment.

This brought my A.D.D.-afflicted mind round and round, about war crimes and justice, and terrorist versus freedom fighter, and so this blog will meander about quite a bit.

It's an oft-quoted truism that history is written by the victor. And this is never more true than in the history of governmental conflict. On the one hand, we treat the war on terror much as we did the war in Korea and the War in Viet Nam. When we treat with foreign nationals we believe are terrorists, we have a convenient double standard: We can suspend habeas corpus because they are prisoners of war, yet we have no declaration of war, and we can dispense with Geneva Convention constraints, because they're not really P.O.W.s, they're domestic terrorists. But in Korea, Viet Nam, and Desert Storm, we had a nation we went to (undeclared) war against. That kept things a bit neater: If you were North Korean, Chinese, Viet Cong, North Vietnamese, or Iraqi, respectively, you were the enemy. AND, you were over there too. The enemy today is the enemy within. Sort of like what the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) feared was the case 50+ years ago. Then the fear was that communism would undermine our way of life. Now the fear is that way of life will be blown up.

A major 'Catch-22' of our founding philosophy of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is that freedom allows things many of us think are just wrong to occur. An example of this well before terrorism has occurred for years in the judicial system. An accused criminal is entitled to ALL the legal benefits of the judicial system, whether guilty or not. The right to a vigorous and thorough defense has created loopholes big enough to drive a truck through for the guilty, as well as methods to exonerate the innocent. Do you amend those rights to punish all the guilty? How do you separate the guilty from the innocent? And do we even know what constitutes a crime? Remember the famous definition of pornography: "I can't define it, but I'll know it when I see it." Are "unAmerican" statements illegal? Does voicing the opinion that a terrorist is right constitute "aiding and abetting the enemy"?

Every country, every culture, every group of people writes their own history based on their preconceived notions. The very same rationale that the founding fathers listed in the Declaration of Independence could have been quoted (and probably was) by the legislators in South Carolina on December 20, 1860, when they were the first state to secede from the Union. We won, it was our war of independence. They lost, they were the rebels. They said they had a right to self-government. The Federal government said they didn't. The same Federal government that "four score and seven years" before that, said they HAD that right.

The balance of power isn't about right, wrong, or fair, it's about the biggest kid on the block, and a game of Armageddon-chicken. In October of 1962, Soviet Premier Khrushchev sent a load of nuclear missiles to the communist island of Cuba, where they would have a 20 minute flight time to Washington, D.C. The C.I.A., the Defense Department and John Kennedy were incensed about this, and they ordered a blockade. Never mind that the U.S. already had nuclear missiles in several bases in Europe, including in Izmir, Turkey, which had a 15 minute flight time to Moscow. When it's our missiles, they're there for defense, when it's theirs, they're threatening us. They blinked first (although Kennedy secretly agreed to withdraw the missiles from Turkey - still keeping the others in Europe) and turned the missile boats around back to Russia. This was, of course, AFTER we had tried the badly messed-up coup to depose Castro in Cuba in the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

Bottom line, we do what we need to do, and I understand that. We do apparently need to sacrifice our ideals for the freedoms we keep, at least until we can figure out a way to do it while keeping safe AND free. I'd just sometimes wish we weren't quite so unapologetically smug about it.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Death of Literature, The Adolescence of Technology, and the Birth of a New Art

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Arthur C. Clarke (1917 - ), "Profiles of The Future", 1961 (Clarke's third law)

It wasn't too long ago that a liberal arts education said that you were well-rounded, intelligent, literate. A leader. Now it says you couldn't decide on a major, plan to be a student until you're 35, and will be grossly underemployed. In the nostalgic haze of, say, the 30's, you hear archeology department at an Ivy League school, you think 'Indiana Jones'. Today, you think 'Van Wilder'. A favorite semi-truism in Iowa City, IA, home of the University of Iowa (one of the highest per-capita cities of Masters' Degree holders in the country): "You know the last thing they teach in Graduate School? They teach the best way to say 'You want fries with that?'" And I first heard this from the Chair of a prominent U of I department.

My niece Kamryn (she's the one without the beard) is learning Spanish and French, as well as reading, writing, problem solving, and the ability to troubleshoot a malfunctioning computer. Oh yeah, and she just turned five. I'm a college educated, Mensa-qualified, well-read English Lit major who has taught Shakespeare in college. And my five year old niece can count in Spanish higher than I can. Not to mention can probably locate as many South and Central American countries on a map as I can (Damn you, Dora The Explorer). Yeah, well, I'd like to see Kammy conjugate a verb or write a scene in Iambic pentameter.

The point here is that there's been a sea change in what as well as how, we teach, and the subsequent value we put on the other stuff. At the risk of this morphing into another of those tired "things were so much better in MY time..." whines, literature is a curiosity. Television, in its infancy, tried to bridge the gap between the staid, "professional" news and entertainment industries, with "Playhouse Theatre" shows that showed live-to-tape stage productions, and the heyday of the respected news anchor, from Edward R. Murrow to Walter Cronkite.

Somewhere just past the Apollo 11 moon landing, with all of it's Cold War Space-Race results, and the increasingly complex arms race, the world, and most of all America, began to focus like a hyperactive ferret-on-cocaine, that is, on anything and everything that moved faster, farther, and smaller. Phones that were "mobile" went from being on a cord hardwired in your car, to being carried in a bag, to itty bitty gadgets you can talk on while taking a picture while listening to music while driving a car. And it's everywhere, from computers in preschools to bluehairs on bluetooths (blueteeth?).

Quality today is quantifiable. You judge the newest technology by how fast it goes. By how small it is. By how many tasks can be multitasked into the smallest (and thereby, most portable) container. Online Universities advertise online for people to learn how to program more online University website ads. It's a vortex of technology teaching more technology. Call me paranoid (and you wouldn't be the first), but I keep waiting for Keanu Reeves to show up at my door and tell me Morpheus wants to see me.

Best-selling books are either warm and fuzzy or tough love self-help tomes, or they're tell-alls about what the butler saw through the keyhole. Or they're mile-a-minute thrillers with the mystery du jour plot (du jour right now is, of course, anything Jesus/Mary Magdalene related that wants to be scandalous). Short attention span theatre, along with whatever you can do for me today. I fully realize that many, if not most, of what has been considered classic literature for a lot of years was, in its creator's time, under appreciated. But it scares me that in a hundred years, my great-great grandson might be faced with an opportunity to purchase a first edition Dr. Phil for a thousand dollars.

How many people with advanced degrees (Besides the ones with English Lit majors) today know what Juliet was really asking when she quoted one of Shakespeare's most famous lines: "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo"? And I'll give you a tidbit you can probably win a bar bet with - back in the day, wherefore was 'why', not where. She wasn't looking for Romeo (hence her surprise when he calls up to her), she was asking rhetorically, why he had to be a Montague, of all people. The one family her family has been feuding with for years. Does knowing this little factoid help you in any way, shape, or form? Certainly not in any quantifiable way. But if you ever see or read "Romeo and Juliet", you might understand one tiny part of a piece of great literature, just a bit better. Knowledge, any knowledge, used to be useful for no other reason than it was knowledge. Now it needs to be useful knowledge. Moving to a point knowledge. Life is too fast and too important to dwell on things that just sound good. Or look good. Or make you think.

Some people like to just listen to good jazz. Or blues. Not to dance to, or to get psyched up to, just for the 'feel' of the music. I read for that reason. Shakespeare, Marlowe, Swift, Hobbes (both philosopher Thomas and the cartoon tiger), Dickens, Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dr. Seuss. And so many more.

And yet, as miserably depressed as I can get about the state of art and literature nowadays, there passes before my eyes periodically (as I browse the bedeviled technology Internet for hours at a time) evidence of the new art. The techno-art. The Computer Aided Drawing stuff (I love the fact that this piece of technology's acronym is cad. It somehow seems appropriate). The picture under the 'About Me' title above was done on a computer. Courtesy of Visual Paradox (Copyright 1999-2006 by Brian Kissinger). Mr. Kissinger has gallery after gallery of incredible art. Fractal geometry, Computer Generated Imagery (cgi just doesn't have the Edwardian flair that cad does).

It is the new art, and while it's still a bit antiseptic for me, perhaps it is in a phase of evolution. Machine becoming something more. Something with a life to it. Something with a soul. I don't mind the idea of the machines taking over the world quite as much if I can think of it converting digital files to music. Converting bits to pictures. Creating life from lifelessness.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

"Thou Shalt Not Kill" (Unless Thou Art a State or Federal Judicial System)

I periodically have a discussion with a member of my girlfriend's family about the merits of capital punishment. This member of her family (for discussion purposes, we'll just call him "Ed") is roughly two ideologies to the right of Barry Goldwater. Since I have actually "won" this discussion (I call it a win when "Ed" agrees to disagree amiably), I thought I'd take it public (public being a relative term, considering that to my knowledge there are roughly 10 people who read this with any regularity).

I used to be a devout capital punishment advocate. This despite the fact that normally I am just to the left of Timothy Leary (yeah, I know, but there really aren't nearly as many colorful leftists as there are right-wingers, and nobody else leapt to mind). My old standard reply was: "You commit a premeditated murder, you lose all your rights to life, as well as liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." This view sufficed for me for much of my adult life. A few years ago, and I have no idea when or why exactly, I realized I didn't feel that way any more. Every one of the arguments I was presented with in favor of capital punishment, I disagreed with. And basically, I was left with one overriding axiom:

If killing is wrong, be it on moral, religious, or ethical grounds, it simply doesn't get made right because the state says so.

We'll look at some of the tried and true answers for the capital group in a moment, but first, a disclaimer: This post is full of statistics. The first statistics professor I had in college had an enlightening (if sophomoric) analogy about the perils of statistic quoting - He said that stats are "like string bikinis - what they show is very interesting, but what they hide can be essential." The statistics below are by no means the be-all-end-all, but for me, they do illustrate the points.

1) It's a deterrent. This one's just plain silly. I'll give you a couple of good examples: In the state with the most executions since 1976 (when it became legal again), Texas, they have executed 376 people since then. New Jersey, since it re-enacted the death penalty laws in 1982, has executed exactly no one. Zip. Nada. Nil. Their current murder rate is 4.8 murders per 100,000 people. Texas' rate is 6.2 per 100,000. And lest you think it has anything to do with the law already on the books, let's compare Michigan, home of Detroit, often competing for the coveted title of murder capital, and one of 12 states without the death penalty. 6.1 per 100,000. That's just a shade less than Texas. Here's another related tidbit: According to a NY Times study, 10 of the 12 states without the death penalty have homicide rates below the national average, while half of the states with the death penalty were over that average. While I'm certainly not saying it encourages anyone to murder, I am saying there seems to be no hard evidence that it stops anyone either.

2) It costs the taxpayers less to execute a criminal than to keep him/her locked up for life. This is one of those counter-intuitive arguments that seems to be obvious, but isn't. In fact, in most instances it's simply not true. First of all, there are states like the afore-mentioned Garden State. Since 1982, New Jersey has spent $250,000,000 on 197 capital trials, resulting in 60 death sentences, of which 50 were reversed. There were no executions, with 10 people currently on death row there. That's approximately $5,000,000 per accused. On the 'cheaper plan'. Then there was a study done in Indiana by the Indiana Criminal Law Study Commission that concluded that from trial through incarceration to execution, capital sentences were 38% more expensive than if all defendants were sentenced to life without parole. That presumes a 20% overturned verdict ratio, including re sentencing. I won't bore you with more statistics, but suffice to say, for me, this was the one toughest argument to refute for me. Now it's at the least possible that it's as cheap or cheaper to incarcerate than to execute.

3) They killed (an) innocent person/people. It's just justice that they be killed themselves. Now this one would make sense to me on several levels. Except that the state keeps pretending it's justice and not revenge. In fact, I have less problem with a notion that would allow a victim's family to kill the murderer in just the same fashion as they killed their victims than the current system. That would at least be a true act of vengeance, and arguably, the just resolution. The most bizarre part of the capital punishment judicial code is the part about 'cruel and unusual' punishment. You're going to be KILLING him/her. You are going to be taking away their life. Forever. It is somehow cruel and unusual to make it uncomfortable while you do this??

For me the entire process of the death penalty is epitomized by what happens right before the injection. The lethal injection. The lethal injection that's supposed to kill you in seconds. They swab the condemned with alcohol. They certainly don't want you to get an infection, days, or weeks after they've already killed you. Talk about the height of hypocrisy.

But let me also be clear on a couple of other things: I do believe in life in prison without parole. I don't believe in bargaining down what qualifies as first degree murder to 12 - 25 years, with time off. I also believe that if you didn't actually do what you are convicted of, spending the rest of your life in jail allows your innocence to be explored. Before they have to grant you an acquittal posthumously. I believe the millions spent each year on capital cases (and their appeals) as well as the tens of millions spent each year on prisoner conveniences, should be put towards more penitentiaries and higher guard salaries. I'm not sure a weight room, color televisions and rec rooms are worth early releases for thousands of violent criminals because we haven't got a room at the inn.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

I'll have the CoorsBudweiserGuinessMillerSamAdamsPabst, please. On tap.

This is going to be a singularly unimportant rant, as rants go, but then again, it's probably more socially significant than the previous entry on pet peeves, if only by the narrowest of margins.

The two ostentatious vices I indulge in, albeit rarely (because in addition to being ostentatious vices, they're also expensive ones), are smoking good cigars, and drinking good single malt Scotch. The latter, being the rarer for me, is tonight's topic of bewilderment.

For those unfamiliar with the world of Scotch, there are two types of Scotch drinkers: The single malt people and the blended people. The single malt drinkers view the blended drinkers much as wine connoisseurs view people who prefer their wine with screw-off tops (and colorful names like Boone's Farm and MD20/20), and blended scotch drinkers view single malt patrons as pretentious snobs. Being periodically pretentious and often snobbish by nature, I am, and always have been, a single malt Scotch drinker. However, in this case, I just don't understand the alternative.

Blended Scotches (including some very famous and well-regarded brand names like Chivas Regal and Dewars) are literally amalgams of dozens, if not hundreds, of single malt Scotches that have been pawned off by single malt distillers, mostly their leftovers. Much of the distinction of any specific Scotch lies in two root ingredients - the local water, and the local peat. Like it's hoidy-toidy cousin the wine-grape, the local region produces very distinct tastes, based on the area within Scotland that it comes from. Saltiness, smokiness, peat content, and other criteria, combine to give every single malt locale a distinct flavor and a passionate following. Some are Highland fans, some Islay, and others places in between, mostly along the Spey river in Scotland.

Now I get the fact that some people don't like Scotch. It's an acquired taste, to be sure. And even within the single malt community, you'll have arguments over the 'best' place to distill Scotch. Much like wine afficionados fighting over regions of France, or Spain, or Italy, or Australia, or California or New York wines. And like brewers that tout their beer based on the local waters they brew with (think Coors in America, or Guiness in Ireland).

What perplexes me is the people that LIKE a blended Scotch. If you like a good Chardonnay, for instance, would you order a glass of wine that you knew was made from dozens, if not hundreds, of different kinds of wine grapes? That could have come from France, or California, or Kansas, for that matter? That they could be from any type of wine grapes, sweet or dry? Methinks not. You've probably developed a taste, or at least a mood for, a certain kind of wine, and more often than not, probably a favorite place that it comes from.

Bourbon, that most American of hard liquor, has evolved into such a specific entity that by U.S. trade law, it must be at least 51% corn (typically closer to 70%), with the rest of the recipe containing wheat and/or rye, and malted barley. No other dry ingredients are allowed. A concurrent resolution of the U.S. Congress restricted Bourbon to U.S. production (in 1964). No hybrid blends here either.

I'd never tell a Highland-type Scotch drinker that his lighter Scotch was inferior to the smokier tastes of my beloved Islay (Lagavulin, Laphroaig) or Spey malts (Macallan), because at least that's a specific choice made. A blended Scotch is much more akin to the 'garbage can punch' stuff we had in college.... You know, where everyone brings a bottle of something and pours it into the punchbowl. You'll get drunk either way, but with a single malt, you can at least enjoy the taste.