Thursday, September 03, 2009

In the Penny Press: New Yorker, 7 September 2009

The 7 September New Yorker was very nearly as all-purpose good as the previous week's issue, and that's made me very suspicious. Ordinarily, The New Yorker goes for weeks without fielding an issue even half as good as both of these two latest ones have been, and here they've done two in a row. It makes me suspect editorial changes behind the scenes - either that, or we're in for a long, boring winter.

This issue again starts off right, with a pointedly funny cover by Ivan Brunetti titled "Required Texts" in which a baseball-capped young person is trying - in vain - to teach texting abbreviations to a class of clueless old people. The implication - that there's an impassable generational barrier around current technology - isn't true, but untrue implications are the heart and soul of good cartoons, aren't they? The only thing that irritated me was the fact that Brunetti's people have weird little black tentacles instead of arms and legs. Perhaps he tires easily.

But once again, the issue keeps the ball in the air, starting right off with the Letters (always a pleasure watching people call Malcolm Gladwell a fraud) and the Talk of the Town, in which Nicholas Lemann writes a cogent, clear-eyed little piece on the process of President Obama's embattled scheme for national health care. Lemann packs a lot of thought into a little space, including what struck me as a key bit of political understanding:

If a health-care bill passes this fall, it will be full of compromises: departures from liberal ideals, and fudges about how much it will cost. But anybody who stops fighting for it now is going to spend years repenting. As long as Congress passes, and Obama signs, a law that embodies the principle of universal, government-guaranteed coverage, the country will have achieved an enormous, and previously elusive, advance. Reagan nailed it in 1961: medical care is a core element in the liberal social contract.

Of course the Reagan sentiment Lemann's referring to meant to be nailing the idea of national health-care into a coffin, but the point is nevertheless likely true about today's liberal politics. The very idea is absurd - the government has as little legitimate involvement in an individual's medical life as it does in his love-life (no luck last weekend at Hooter's? Apply for your check now!), and it's utterly irresponsible that the Obama administration is sinking so much time and energy into this ridiculous notion while the country's two unjustified wars stretch on and its economy still staggers. But hey, the President "promised Teddy" (in the same issue, Hendrik Hertzberg continues the line of EMK hagiography that's currently gripping the nation, writing "The second half of his forty-seven-year senatorial career was a wonder of focussed, patient, unwavering service to a practical liberalism that emphasized concrete improvements in the lives of the poor, the old, the disabled, children, the uninsured, the undocumented, the medically or educationally disadvantaged" - several parts of which bare only a nodding acquaintance with a senate record that is, after all, available for public examination)(but Bruce McCall's health-care-related "Shouts & Murmurs" piece "Fibrilliations" is hilarious and not to be missed).

Adam Gopnik turns in a piece on Michael Ignatieff that's far more interesting for Gopnik's mordantly humorous observations about all things Canadian than it is about the titular candidate, and Jane Kramer writes an apparently unmotivated essay about that essential friend of all writers everywhere, Montaigne. Nobody who knows anything about Montaigne will learn anything new about him from her piece, and Kramer offers no new twists in opinion or interpretation - but ah, that's the beauty of Montaigne! Not only does he exist as the ne plus ultra of literary allusion (if you're writing a long essay and feel the need for the insertion of a quote to up your credibility, go to Montaigne - and if you already sort of half-remember which quote you want, but it isn't turning up on any of your tipsy Web searches, simply add a couple of semi-colons to what you've got and attribute it to Montaigne - chances are your end result will be something he wrote anyway, or near enough), but his gargantuan collection of essays is the Everest of writerly self-absorption, a source of unending comfort to all subsequent writers who read books the way Narcissus gazed into his pond. Kramer doesn't quite point out that Montaigne was the first blogger, but if I'd been 'helping' her to write it, she would have.

(A side-note to those of you reading this who may not yet have made the acquaintance of Montaigne's essays: don't let my sour old tone dissuade you! Instead, let me find you a good collection and send it to you post haste!)

The back of this issue is crowded with quarrelsome fuss-budgets: Joyce Carol Oates (who, when all is said, really has no business offering herself as any kind of literary critic) turns in a bland, quote-heavy observation of E. L. Doctorow's insufferably condescending new novel Homer & Langley - she makes vague references to Twain and Beckett, but if you can figure out what she actually thought about the book, you're a better man than I am (and if you're considering reading the book yourself, you'd be well-advised to read Sam Sacks' review of it in the September issue of Open Letters, for a far more opinionated - and far better written - account of the thing).

Likewise David Denby writes a dual movie-review of "American Casino" and "The Most Dangerous Man in America" - two movies neither I nor anybody else has ever heard of, so the ultimate point of his piece was lost on me. And then there's Hilton Als, a writer whose brilliance is as habitual as it is habitually overlooked: he reviews the new JoAnne Akalaitis Central Park version of the 'Bacchae' of Euripides, and he tosses off fantastic understated insights throughout a piece that's nevertheless oddly ... well, fuss-budgety. He goes appropriately swoony over the dreaminess of Jonathan Groff, who plays a rock-star Dionysus ("His beauty is part of his success - a beauty that he can and does undercut with anger. He makes up for the script's lapses as well - conveying Dionysus' ideological, if not actual, bisexuality. Akalaitis is lucky to have Groff" ... and so on), but he seems not to have enjoyed his evening. I suggest he take another shot at reviewing the show. Just wait about a week, until Groff gets a hangnail or a pimple and has to miss a performance - his understudy not only has talent (something Groff lacks, not that it's ever going to make a difference in his career) but isn't nearly so ... distracting.

But the issue really has two highlights, one comic and one tragic. The comic side is handled by Caleb Crain, who writes a very entertaining piece about that tried and true standby, pirates. Crain's piece is very enjoyable, despite the odd historical misstep (when he writes "Modern piracy has its origins in the wars that the great European powers fought over trade in the centuries following the discovery of the New World," I have no idea what he means - modern how? He himself points out that piracy is as old as seafaring).

But the peak of this issue is the tragic story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was tried and convicted of setting the house-fire that killed his children in small-town Texas in 1991. The arson experts called in to examine the burn-patterns and other such arcana concluded that Willingham was lying when he said he fled the house when it was first enveloped in smoke and couldn't rescue his children, who were trapped inside. When Willingham lost his case, he was sentenced to death, and David Grann, the author of this spectacularly good piece "Trial by Fire," reminds us that since 1976, more than a hundred people have on death row have been exonerated by scientific evidence that either didn't exist or wasn't used properly when they were sentenced.

Cameron Todd Willingham wasn't one of those people; he was duly executed, despite the fact that advocates of his case had brought in a rival arson expert who angrily discredited the conclusions drawn by the court experts, as in:

The notion that a flammable or combustible liquid caused flames to reach higher temperatures had been repeated in court by arson sleuths for decades. Yet the theory was nonsense: experiments have proved that wood and gasoline-fuelled fires burn at essentially the same temperature.

This rival investigator, a man named Hurst, right away starts to find disturbing problems in the case that killed Willingham:

Hurst found it hard to imagine Willingham pouring accelerant on the front porch, where neighbors could have seen him. Scanning the files for clues, Hurst noticed a photograph of the porch taken before the fire, which had been entered into evidence. Sitting on the tiny porch was a charcoal grill.

But while all this investigating and cross-investigating was going on, all of Willingham's appeals were being denied. In 1996, Grann has him saying something that rings entirely true: "I just been trying to figure out why after having my wife and 3 beautiful children that I loved my life has to end like this." On the strength of the case Grann makes, it seems almost certain Willingham was wrongfully convicted and wrongfully executed, and the piece makes much of the frisson of horror that notion is supposed to produce in its readers.

That's nonsense too, of course - the problem with the death penalty in America isn't that it occasionally kills an innocent person (callous as it sounds, all human endeavors have a margin of error) but that it isn't allowed to kill enough guilty people. When you subtract those 130 innocent people from death row, you're left with thousands and thousands of convicted and confessed killers in American prisons - people who are guilty of murder, rape, and child abuse and who are being housed and fed at public expense. When the tiny fraction of that number who ever manage to exhaust the variety of appeals available to them are actually marched to their death, they most often face lethal injection, as Willingham did. Contrary to law enforcement PR, it can be a fairly unpleasant death - but if you're guilty of hacking four college girls to death for fun, or raping your 8-year-old foster kid if his state check is late (and a thousand other such offenses), it's a hell of a lot better than you deserve.

One of the district attorneys in Grann's piece says "certain people who commit bad enough crimes give up the right to live," and regardless of the procedural injustices that unfairly condemned Cameron Todd Willingham, that simple sentiment is entirely true. In America today, if you decide to butcher the Korean family that runs the counter store where your Lotto number failed to win, you know you stand a statistical likelihood of spending the rest of your life in jail - and somewhere in the back of your drink-and-drug-addled brain, you've somewhere along the line registered the fact that this applies even if you're sentenced to death: the legal system will often fight tooth and nail to keep you alive. This is called eating your cake and having it too, and it slings a lot more mud on the concept of justice than unfairly executing a few innocent people. That back-of-the-mind sub-calculation enters into the picture and crucially distorts the data that attempts to project whether or not the death penalty is a deterrent to major crimes. It might not be a deterrent now, but it would be if a gallows stood in every American prison yard and somebody dead-bang convicted of a small class of particularly heinous crimes had a week to set his affairs in order before he was ushered up those stairs.

But that gets us off-topic! The point is that David Grann has written a fantastic piece of old-fashioned reportage, and you should read it here before it gets anthologized everywhere next year, as it surely will.

(And to those of you who might be keeping score, yes, I know I haven't commented on the issue's short story, "Distant Relations" by Orhan Pamuk ... what can I say? The thing obviously wasn't conceived as a short story - it will almost certainly appear completely unchanged in his next novel, and it reads that way. I can't stand it when illustrious authors pull this kind of crap; the short story is its own art form, and crudely approximating it by chipping chunks off a different art form and plopping them into The New Yorker isn't a valid thing to do ... it's just lazy and opportunistic, and since I don't think Pamuk generally is either of those things, I thought it would be more politic simply to ignore the thing ... )


Jeffrey.Eaton said...

"I thought it would be more politic simply to ignore the thing ..."

Indeed sir, this post is the very model of diplomatic restraint.

Sam said...

Hee. Opportunities to worsen the health and shorten the lives of humans are not things our host will often pass up!

But the post is necessarily thin on the details of how the procedure of capital punishment should work. The famous statistic is that it's actually far more expensive for taxpayers to execute criminals than keep them in prison all their lives. And that's because of the vast amount of checks every execution has to pass through, all the appeals and writs and stays. But if you eliminate those, and shuffle people off to the gallows a week after a guilty sentence then you've got a system in which "human error" becomes an effective pretext to eliminate the sorts of people some people dislike. Can you name a time when capital punishment wasn't massively abused by the capital punishers?

steve said...

Depending on what you mean by 'abuse,' I certainly can! Almost every time it's been a regular part of jurisprudence, rather than an instrument of political ideology (and if you maintain that ALL jurisprudence is an instrument of political ideology, you're just being DIFFICULT), capital punishment has been free of such abuse - or at least as free as anything human can be.

Applied today with even a fraction of the attention the criminal justice system gives to keeping confessed rapists and murderers alive, the process would work very well, I think. Caught on store camera shooting a convenience store clerk five times in the face? You get a one-day trial (in which the jury is shown the video, while your court-appointed defender sits in silence), and one week later you get hanged. No appeals, no writs, no stays - one week later, you're entirely removed from the same fabric of society from which you entirely removed the store clerk.

I'm aware of how careful such a system would have to be (or how careful our CURRENT system should be and often isn't), about things like race bias, or judicial incompetence ... I'd be perfectly happy to see the system I envision constrained by the burden of lock-solid reasonable-doubt certainty, if that would help to curtail such abuses. Even under such a burden, thousands of people would die every year who don't have any business being alive anymore. I'd settle for that.

Greg said...

But the system today IS constrained by reasonable doubt. All murder cases are. And still there are errors. There have been about 1200 executions in the United States since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, but as David Grann's piece points out, more than a hundred people have been exonnerated by evidence. A one day-trial system whose guiding spirit is bloody revenge, like the one you're proposing, would only make it worse. If, for the sake of argument, we assume that the American people don't rise up in revolt against the justice system their government just imported from Burma; if, for the sake of argument, we assume they support it, the social implications would be nothing short of disastrous. Bloody revenge and bullshit "tough on crime" political rhetoric have already given us failed policies like mandatory minimum sentences for trifling offenses, like the possession of a thimble full of crack. If the entire population and their pandering leaders bought into the medieval model, what would the rest of the criminal code look like? What would ANY policy look like? 300 million poorly-educated people inflamed by righteous anger at anything that bothers them aren't going to make good decisions, and their gutless, self-interested politians will be even worse.

Ignore that and you still have the problem of Constitutionality. Your system would violate Article VI of the Bill of rights. There's no time for a defendant "to be confronted with the with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor," and all the leg-work and cross-examination that implies. You'd have trouble with Article V too. The provision for "due process of law" is necessarily vague, but the men who approved these articles had the English system in mind, and would find the idea of a mandatory one-day trail ridiculous. I doubt even Antonin Scalia would think twice about striking it down.

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