Sunday, September 13, 2020

Punishment and Crime

The title character of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado offers what seems to be an admirable theory of crime-and-punishment:

My object all sublime 
I shall achieve in time 
To let the punishment fit the crime – 
The punishment fit the crime.

Here are two examples of how his theory would work:

All prosy dull society sinners,
Who chatter and bleat and bore,
Are sent to hear sermons
From mystical Germans
Who preach from ten till four.

The billiard sharp whom any one catches, 
His doom’s extremely hard – 
He’s made to dwell – 
In a dungeon cell 
On a spot that’s always barred. 
And there he plays extravagant matches 
In fitless finger-stalls 
On a cloth untrue, 
With a twisted cue 
And elliptical billiard balls!


In all the talk and writing about Black Lives Matter and the rash of murders of Black American citizens by the police—choking and shooting the most prevalent methods of execution—one point has seemingly not been commented upon. That is, the offenses of the victims have been minor, or not even criminal offenses at all. The victims have allegedly violated criminal laws such as selling loose cigarettes or passing a counterfeit bill. Or have allegedly violated a motor vehicle law, such as driving with one’s bright beams on. Or have done nothing worse than sleeping in one’s own bed.

The point I wish to make here is that the police have exacted capital punishment on people who have not committed capital crimes. Whether you believe in capital punishment or not (we can discuss that another time), you must recognize that the state can exact capital punishment only after a legal trial. Being executed by a policeman on a city street doesn’t qualify as even a kangaroo court, much less a legal one. 


What the Mikado proposes might be called a Law of Commensurability. His comical example of being condemned to play billiards with a twisted cue and elliptical billiard balls may be hellish to the offender. It is, however, less lethal than being summarily executed for a minor offense. And unlike what is happening in America, a punishment that fits the crime.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

School Days

I see that Barbie and Ken of the West Wing are definitely going to send their moppets to school this fall. Makes sense. After all, it’s hard to help screw up the country with yowling brats clinging to you. But for more normal members of our populace the decision to put their offspring at peril of the coronavirus is unnerving.

It is claimed by those favoring an opening of the schools that children who do not attend classes will fall behind in their educational development (and shocking to American capitalists, the children would fall a year behind in becoming wage slaves to business). 

I have thought back to my days in elementary school and have discovered that I remember only one class from those six years—music. I am sure, though, that I must have learned something else—arithmetic—because I became quite adept at mathematics somewhere down the line. I know I never learned spelling; I have been an awful speller all my life.

The music classes, if I recall correctly, were held during the weekly assembly. We were mandated to wear white shirts or blouses, red ties, and blue pants or skirts. One of the proudest moments of my six years was when I was singled out as a mini-GQ as an example of how to dress properly for assembly (thanks, Mom!). 

We did not learn how to play instruments during music class. The closest we came was to pretend we were strumming a ukulele or banjo and singing out, Plunk-a, plunk-a, plunk. I felt really bad when Mrs. Livingston,* the dreadnaught who ran the music class, assailed my best friend, Alvin, for a hand that allegedly flopped like a dishrag. 

I have no remembrance of what the plunk-a song was, but I have clear (and, unfortunately, lingering) memories of other songs. There was “Waltzing Matilda,” that puzzling masterpiece of Aussie tramp slang. There was also a song about a creature called a kookaburra, who seemed to be sitting in tree for some reason unknown to me. What all that antipodean musical indulgence was in aid of escaped the brain of at least one Brooklyn boy.

When us kiddies were not being transported geographically to a far-away continent, we were time-traveled to the First World War. We learned to sing “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag, and Smile, Smile, Smile.” I always heard “old kit” as “oakit,” and wondered (a) what kind of tree was an “oakit? and (b) how do you make a bag out of a tree? To this day, I still haven’t received any answers. 


* I do not recall any other married women among the teaching staff. Also, there were no Jewish teachers, Black teachers, or Latin teachers.

Monday, July 20, 2020

The Pachyderm in the Room

The big news out of Washington this weekend was that the President of the United States was able to identify an elephant. Mr. Trump himself celebrated his accomplishment by claiming that he had “aced” a test. One is glad that he has earned his merit badge in animal naming, and that he announced his feat in—what was for him—a minimal over-the-top fashion. One suspects that if Junior, who likes to kill beasts that can’t shoot back at him, had conquered an elephant, he would have dragged the carcass onto the stage in front of cameras.

In truth, though, it must be admitted that not all Capital observers were buying the Trump story, for it has been whispered that Mr. Trump may have a slight penchant for telling porkies.*

Still, one might be inclined on this occasion to believe him. After all, the elephant is the symbol of the Republican party, so how could he fail to recognize one? 

And one ventures the guess that Mr. Trump also would have had no trouble identifying the symbol of the Democratic party—the donkey. Indeed, he is probably more familiar with its features than that of the elephant. For every morning, when he looks into the mirror to construct the yellow edifice on the top of his head, he sees an ass.


Incidentally, at this point in time, there has been no word on what other mammals or marsupials Mr. Trump is an ace at identifying.


* Cockney rhyming slang: “lies” = “pork pies,” or “porkies” for short. 

Sunday, July 19, 2020

On The Road

I have just finished reading—back-to-back—two articles on the New Yorker website. The first is a report from Munich, Germany on the steps taken by the authorities to fight the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The second is a chronicle of an automobile trip from California to New York during the virus crisis in the United States. I recommend reading both pieces, especially back-to back.

The first article, “How Munich Turned Its Coronavirus Outbreak Into a Scientific Study” by Elisabeth Zerofsky,* details how scientists and medical professionals, having received a million euros from the government implemented a wide-spread testing and tracing program. Scientists established a protocol for home visits:
careful precautions [were] taken to establish public trust: after the initial knock, the team members explained who they were and what they would be doing. Residents don’t have to immediately agree to participate, as a separate team would return to take the first blood samples. The study also attracted a great deal of press attention, so residents often already knew about it.
The program was welcomed. Someone exclaimed, “I was hoping so much that you guys would come to my door!” 


On June 23, Michael Specter, a scientist, professor, and writer, hustled his dog into his car for his biannual trip back to the east coast from Palo Alto, California. He recorded his journey in an article entitled “Driving Cross-Country: A Coronavirus Diary.”**

Considering the great number of virus-deniers, non-maskwearers, and crowds he encountered, it would have been astonishing if Specter would have been able to report that people across the country were welcoming PPE-clad testers into their homes. Even Specter’s mask was off-putting to people: “Oh, honey . . .You don’t have to wear that thing in here. It’s a bit much, don’t you think?” said a motel clerk to Specter, who, besides masks and gloves, had brought along on his journey “enough hand sanitizer to disinfect the nation.”

In Las Vegas, Specter “counted a hundred and thirty-seven people during my thirty-minute stroll, and only seventeen wore masks.” Not a very effective way to confront the pandemic. “[W]e were not born with masks on,” a woman accurately and stupidly informed him.

In Utah, Specter read in the newspaper that the state epidemiologist was quoted as saying, 
For three straight weeks now, our cases have been increasing at a rate that isn’t sustainable . . . .We are at risk for overwhelming our hospital capacity. 
And how did the politicians hop to it to see that the populace would be safe? 
Victor Iverson, the Washington County commissioner and a candidate for lieutenant governor at the time, declared that he “will never wear a mask.” He had had it with the pandemic talk. “I think it’s time to get back to normal,” he said. “Our citizens want to be free. And we’re done.”
Things did get better; Specter notes that as he drove east, “rules, in general, are stricter and compliance seemingly better.” But, overall, a very discouraging journey.

As part of his summing up, he says, 
I don’t know what I expected from this trip, but I was surprised at how little attention people seemed to pay to the virus. I once wrote a book called “Denialism,” but I could never have imagined that so many people could be so committed to ignoring reality. 


Bavaria is historically a conservative German state. But its efforts to use scientific and medical knowledge to prevent the spread of COVID-19 proves that to be politically conservative does not mean you have to be a flaming loonie.

Then again, there’s yesterday’s headline:
Trump administration seeking to block funding for CDC, contact tracing and testing in new relief bill: report***

Americans like to proclaim that they are living in the greatest country in the world. Our deluded northern neighbors, the Canadians, with their much lower per-capita coronavirus death toll and their free health care system, think that they are. Their dollar coin is called the “loonie.”

You don’t have to flip one to determine who’s right.


Friday, July 10, 2020

It Ain't Me, Babe

This blog post draws upon the following article for the facts of the case:


Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee was incredulous:
I find that hard to believe. I’m sorry, but it’s like a pretty big decision, a lot of people there, everyone’s there, and it just sort of happened? 
Smith was reacting to testimony by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who told Congress on Thursday that he did not know 
who gave the widely denounced order to clear peaceful antiracism protesters from Lafayette Park, across the White House, early last month.
       “It’s still unclear to me who gave the direction to clear the park at       that moment in time” . . .
Esper acknowledged to the House Armed Services Committee that the National Guard was present on the scene, but said that it played only “a static role” and did not take part in the controversial clearing. "The Guard did not advance on the crowd,” he told lawmakers.  
But under questioning, Esper could not say who had given the order for the National Guard to take even that limited role. 
Maybe it was Attorney General William Barr (who is so far up Trump’s ass that he won’t see daylight for at least ten years) who was the instigator of the riotous clearance of peaceful protestors from Lafayette Square. “I’m not involved in giving tactical commands like that,” claimed Barr. 

Well then, perhaps it was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, who trooped in his combat fatigues behind Trump to St. John’s church, where the narcissicist-in-chief posed with a Bible (as he pointed out, not “his” Bible, just “a” Bible). Milley said, “I don’t know with certainty,” who did what, claiming that there had been a planning session earlier in the day at FBI headquarters at which “they divided up who was gonna do what to whom.” 

But who were the “they?” Milley “seemed to suggest, as Barr did to the AP, that a commander of the Park Police was responsible.”

One somehow doubts that a Park policeman could deploy National Guard troops and helicopters.

Of course, this whole denial business fits the MO of the Trump administration, led as it is by Mr. “I-Take-No-Responsibility” himself. 

Speaking of whom, did Trump play no role in wanting the plaza cleared of peaceful demonstrators so that he could have his photo op?

And an even better question: what efficacy could 
And Attai begat Nathan, and Nathan begat Zabad,
And Zabad begat Ephlal, and Ephlal begat Obed,
And Obed begat Jehu, and Jehu begat Azariah,
And Azariah begat Helez, and Helez begat Eleasah,
And Eleasah begat Sisamai, and Sisamai begat Shallum,
And Shallum begat Jekamiah, and Jekamiah begat Elishama.
have as a riposte to “Black Lives Matter”?


No one was driving, officer. We were all in the back seat.

Peter Lind Hayes


No, no, no, it ain't me, babe,
It ain't me you're lookin' for, babe.

Bob Dylan


And the theme of the day: "I know nothing."

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Funny--You Don't Look Jewish

In an interview on Friday, the head of the Church of England said the west in general needed to question the prevailing mindset that depicted Christ as a white man in traditional Christian imagery.*
Thus, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury. He went on to say that if you go into churches around the world,
You see a black Jesus, a Chinese Jesus, a Middle-Eastern Jesus – which is of course the most accurate – you see a Fijian Jesus.
Did you notice who was missing from this litany of Jesuses?

That’s right—a Jewish Jesus.

Some of you might claim that “Middle-Eastern Jesus” includes a Jewish Jesus. However, a little effort would winkle the Jews from the Syrians, Egyptians, Iraqis, et al. But, more important, I see the submerging of Jewishness into the general mire of Middle-Easternness as another example of the centuries-old attempt to ahistoricize Christianity’s relationship to Judaism. Consider one other example, cited by Diarmaid MacCulloch in his massive (and brilliant) biography of Thomas Cromwell: In 1535, parish clergy were enlisted
in a campaign of sermons and addresses to get families to teach their children the first building-blocks of the Christian faith—Lord’s Prayer, Apostles’ Creed and Ten Commandments.**
Would that be the same Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai for the Jewish people?

To use a very contemporary phrase, aren’t we seeing here examples of cultural/religious appropriation?


Anyway, to get back to iconography, I do wonder about the idea that Christians have that any of their portrayals of Jesus—in painting, sculpture, or some other weird  medium***—are really portrayals of the historical personage. Unless I’ve been sleeping at the switch, I have not heard of any itinerant Polaroid photographers snapping pictures of random Nazarenes during the first century. Thus, nobody can claim to know what Jesus looked like. Certainly, the standard portrait has no historical claim to validity; according to Wikipedia, “there is no physical description of Jesus contained in any of the canonical gospels."****

With nothing to contradict us, therefore, I would hope we can all agree on one thing: that he almost certainly looked Jewish.


** Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life

Saturday, June 20, 2020

A Confession

I suppose that some of you dear readers who have been following this blog for a while have come to believe that I, normalvision, am the nicest, sweetest creature to have trod this planet’s turf since the days of Tyrannosaurus rex. But I have to confess that I have moments when I slip down the niceness slope, usually because the good angel sitting on my left shoulder is out-argued by the bad angel on my right. Today is one of those times.

Today is the day scheduled for Donald Trump’s latest lie-fest, to be held in Tulsa, Oklahoma. About 19,000 drinkers of the Kool-Aid will be in attendance. In all probability most of these shoulder-to-shoulder idiots will emulate their duce and not wear a face mask. Why listen to the scientists about the dangers of the coronavirus? 

Why not, instead, create a perfect storm for the pandemic to spread? Even Trump, who understands little, understood enough to have all attendees sign a waiver that neither Trump (Mr. "I am not responsible") nor his campaign will be held responsible for any corona illnesses that will undoubtedly arise from attendance at his love-in.

Now, my good angel is whispering in my ear that one should sympathize with anyone who falls ill (with any malady) and hope, humanely, for their sake that their affliction is mild and soon recovered from.

But my bad angel is spurring me to a feeling of schadenfreude (or, Schadenfreude).* After all, those who catch the virus at the rally will have brought it on themselves, by their own determined ignoring of social distancing and mask wearing. And, unfortunately, after they leave the premises of the arena, many of them will be bringing the virus to other—innocent—contacts. They, therefore, should not be viewed as victims, but as creators of their own (and others') misery, and we should, therefore, like Hamlet feel it’s “sport to have the engineer / Hoist with his own petard.”


* Pedantry Note: My personal stylesheet hasn’t yet decided whether to treat the word as an English loanword from German (thus, “schadenfreude”) or as a German word still (thus, “Schadenfreude,” and capitalized as are all German nouns—both common and proper).