Saturday, November 26, 2011

"The law is . . . a bachelor"

 Still life

Gare de Jasper

Yet another expert on the TV news yesterday shared an opinion: that bullying should be made a hate crime, in this case. She undoubtedly has a point; hate crimes relate not so much to the holding of hateful opinions as to the instigation of hatred in others. Public taunting is clearly a deliberate effort at besmirching someone’s reputation broadly, whether it be with a clique on the playground or attendees at a political rally, hockey game, demonstration, indeed, any event where others can overhear the taunt.  
               Laws regarding slander and libel could be applied and the designation, “bullying” dropped. Given that there’s a mile of difference between slander perpetrated by an adult or by a 10-year old in a playground, the crime is the same: one person’s chances in life are diminished as the result of a deliberate attack by another person.
               Furthermore, the law must judge—in cases of slander and libel—whether the attack was deserved or not: if you steal my cow and I publicly announce that you’re a thief, no slander has been committed. The question of deserved or not becomes extremely murky with the taunting that typically occurs on a playground: “faggot” refers to same-sex orientation, but it’s a pejorative just like “nigger”, and a case could be made that no such put-down expression is ever deserved, in the legal OR moral sense.
               (I have, by the way, tried to work out the etymology of “faggot” as it’s used today—without success. In older English, a faggot is a piece of firewood and I speculate that when burning was a standard procedure for doing away with heretics, witches and homosexuals, calling someone a piece of firewood was tantamount to indicating that they were deservedly headed for the bonfire.)
               I hold out little hope that elevating bullying to “hate-crime” status would make much difference. There is something animalistic and visceral in the expression of hatred and vengeance, and the cure has to be sought somewhere else.
               In Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Mr. Bumble is told by the magistrate that he is responsible for the actions of his wife. He replies—famously—that: “If the law supposes that . . . the law is a ass—a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.”
               I’m sure there are thousands of good teachers out there who would say that if the law thinks it can effect better relationships on the playground through harsher treatment of offenders, then “the law is a ass—a idiot.”
               Have I just committed a libel by denigrating members of the legal system, in writing?
You be the judge.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Crime, Punishment and the "Occupy Movement"

 Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer true . . .
 John Cabot - Cape Bonavista
 I must go down to the sea today . . .
During the 1860s, Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky worked on and published material that would later be collected into the novel called Crime and Punishment.  By today’s standards, it’s a flawed novel that would have to be heavily edited to become publishable; speeches that go on for page after page, for instance, along with the tendency to wander off into plot tangents and to give near-irrelevancies as much weight as the crucial.
               Rereading it this week, however, I was impressed by the parallels in its dominant motifs to events of the present. Simplified, Crime and Punishment revolves around the central theme of the nature and boundaries of human morality.  Its central characters fall into three categories: evil reprobates (Luzhin), the morally upright (Razumikhin) and, thirdly, the key characters who by choice or necessity, are caught between the two poles (Raskalnikov, Sonya, Dounia).
Central to this latter group, of course, is Raskalnikov, who as a student contemplated the nature of crime, and tentatively concluded that laws relating to moral actions are applied only to “ordinary” people, while a layer of “extraordinary” people are exempt. In conjunction with this “theory,” he postulated in an essay he wrote that morality is relative, i.e. that to murder can be justified by the good it achieves.
There existed a number of protest movements in Russia in the mid to late 1800s, including a Utopian Socialist movement (that undoubtedly became the germ of Soviet socialism),  anarchist gangs and nihilist groups to name a few. All were expressions of discontent with the state of affairs in the country, a country of extreme wealth alongside abject poverty, of the “poor man’s nihilism”—drunkenness.
The “Occupy” movement as we are witnessing it is a protest against the state of affairs in North America today. Unfocussed and ad hoc as it may be, politicians and corporations may well ignore or dismiss it at their peril. The rage felt by many as a result of economic collapse and the resulting loss of jobs, foreclosures, etc. hasn’t found clear goals yet, but the anger is not gone just because the tents are.
Although they may not have discovered it yet, participants in the Occupy movement are protesting a morality that condones crimes in the “extraordinary” while punishing the “ordinary,” and perpetrates the notion that the end justifies the means, even when the means requires that thousands will die in phony wars, that millions will be reduced to poverty because the “extraordinary” have been greedy beyond what countries’ economies will bear.  They’re protesting the fact that the “ordinary” must pay for the immoral acts of the “extraordinary.” They’re protesting that a petty thief can be thrown in jail while Bush and Cheney and the oil barons are excused.
Canada is preparing itself for the onslaught by building more jails to house the rebelling “ordinary.” 
We are led by an extraordinary prime minister; his foresight is amazing.
It’s, in part, what Crime and Punishment is about.
There really is nothing new under the sun.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Crime and Punishment

 Erst muss Ordnung sein

Speaking of Bark . . .
I’m sure that the set of motive/opportunity circumstances for pretty much every crime is unique, so it’s somewhat foolish to talk about crime as if it were one thing. In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Raskalnikov—a student who has had to quit lessons because he has no money—lives in a garret and while feverishly ill, is tortured by the injustice of his situation and resentful of the old woman who holds all his former valuables in pawn. In this condition, he first dreams about and then premeditates her brutal murder and robbery, which he then carries out methodically.
               Except for one thing. The old woman’s daughter walks in on his crime and he sees no way out but to crack open her skull with his axe. So confused, guilty and agitated is he by this time that he botches the robbery in his attempt to flee and ends up with little except his guilt to take home with him.
               That, in short, is the anatomy of one crime, albeit fictitious.
               I see no authentic way to equate Raskalnikov’s crime to those of Clifford Olsen, Robert Pickton . . .  or Osama Bin Laden, for that matter, except that all four knew that the consequences for their crimes—if apprehended—would be enormous. None of the above, it seems, were deterred either by the prospect of a life of remorse and guilt or the possibility that they might well be executed or imprisoned-for-life for what they had done.
               Slowly but surely, Canada is allowing the Harper government to pull us back to medieval concepts of crime and punishment, namely, if thirty lashes won’t deter criminals from committing crimes, then let’s see how they like sixty lashes! I can only assume that both Stephen Harper and Vic Toews are aware that the crime bill they’re championing will be both futile and expensive. The obvious conclusion is that they have also discovered that 39% of the population is enough to win a majority and that with law and order, jet fighter and economy-before-environment policies, they can be assured of 39% of the vote, no problem.
               If there is a key to solving problems of crime, terrorism and environmental degradation, it is surely in the area of prevention, not retribution.
               Mind you, prevention wouldn’t be cheap either. For instance, we know that a combination of poverty-amidst-wealth alongside exclusion breeds high crime rates, relatively speaking. Raskalnikov’s crime was hatched in the futility of poverty without prospects. Bullying in schools is symptomatic of the competitive and exploitative, them-and-us  environment in which our children are raised. Tackling realities like those makes building pipelines to Texas child’s play. It won’t be cheap.
               An imaginative approach to poverty in Canada is way overdue; it’s time to take down the “Stop Bullying” placards and put up the “Prevent Bullying” signs; it’s time for a serious, communal rethinking of our child rearing, community institution and educational objectives.  
               Every crime involves a unique set of circumstances and it’s likely that degenerates like Olsen and Pickton will appear again, a new, sterner crime bill or better preventative programs notwithstanding.  But heaven help us if we don’t even give prevention a good try.
It’s time for informed, sincere leadership. I’m guessing that 100% of the population could rally behind it.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Black Hats

Gros Morne
I wear a big, black leather hat I found in a roadside shop in Arizona a few years ago. I like it. When it rains, I don’t need an umbrella. When it’s hot, I take my shade with me. It gathers a few smiles as I walk down the street in Saskatoon and a smile is always nice. People need to be amused and I’m happy to oblige.
In Howard Jacobson’s 2010 Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Finkler Question, an Orthodox Jewish lad wearing a black hat and side curls is surrounded in the street by high school kids taunting “Look! It’s a Jew!” The difference between him and me (besides the side curls, of which I have an obvious dearth) is probably that when I walk down the street, most people think: “There goes one of us wearing a funny hat—amusing.” When the Orthodox Jew walks down the street in a black bowler, it’s: “There goes one of them in a funny hat; let’s knock it off!”
If you can get past frank dialogue about sex and the use of related words we’ve designated “smutty,” you might want to pick up The Finkler Question and spend some time with it. I won’t review it critically; a competent jury selected it to be the best of the novel-writing craft for 2010 and their judgment is good enough for me. It is at the same time a fascinating study of what it’s like to live in one us and them world.
And how us vs. them we’ve become—or have always been: Arian vs non-Arian; black vs. white; Arab Muslim vs. the West; real born-again Christians vs. false non-born again so-called Christians; Jews vs. Gentiles; conservatives vs. liberals vs. social democrats; the smart vs. the stupid; heaven-bound vs. the world; Americans vs. pretty-much-everybody else by now (except the Harper government). I won’t dwell here on the fundamentals of tribalism, of clannishness except to say that from a biological, anthropological standpoint, the instinctive needs for “us and them” come first; the methods by which we make the distinctions are inventions that follow.
For a more amusing description of this, just read Dr. Suess’ The Sneetches. It’s a much quicker read than The Finkler Question and probably even more insightful.
Or watch the World Series and listen critically to the words of the opening and seventh-inning anthems: God gave this land to me (no he didn’t; he gave it to the aboriginal people—you stole it from them) and God bless America, my home sweet home. Always with the: we, the chosen ones.
Meanwhile, in Rosthern the winter vs. summer distinction is being dramatized this morning by a few inches of snow and a minus three temperature. It’s interesting to note here that snow falls on everybody; it’s not clannish. I’ll be wearing my black hat today; it actually keeps the otherwise-unprotected top of my head quite warm. Knock it off if you dare.