Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Deadly Case Of Affluenza: What's Just About The Justice System?

For instance, there are some who say, that it is unjust to punish anyone for the sake of example to others; that punishment is just, only when intended for the good of the sufferer himself. Others maintain the extreme reverse, contending that to punish persons who have attained years of discretion, for their own benefit is despotism and injustice. 

John Stuart Mill
From Utilitarianism

Last week a 16-year-old boy named Ethan Couch was sentenced to 10-years probation for killing four people while driving drunk. His defense team claimed Ethan wasn’t capable of making rational decisions due to the amount of wealth he grew up with. I (like many of you) was outraged: another case of wealth being able to buy justice.
We’ve all heard the stories about hedge fund managers and investment bankers being able to bend the rules they weren’t breaking without any fear of serious criminal prosecution. When we hear about these crimes our blood boils and the public outrage machine cranks up. These cases are usually so nuanced that by the time the nightly news anchor starts talking about derivatives, insider trading, and collusion our collective eyes glaze over.
This was different; the four lives lost were real, concrete, tangible human beings who had families and friends. This ruling is a continuing indictment of the American jurisprudence system. We have a legal system that benefits the privileged. The national outcry is long overdue. Until we acknowledge this problem in a public way we will continue to get these kinds of sentences.
I don’t want revenge for this verdict. Instead, I want a justice system that views the poverty of juvenile defendants through the same lens it viewed the affluence of this kid. Ethan was given a second chance because a judge deemed his family and his upbringing worthy of it. As a nation we don’t show this kind of outrage when underprivileged kids find themselves on opposite side of rulings like this.
Let’s be honest and admit we have a tiered system of justice. There’s an old cliché that says it’s better to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent. We’re the only industrialized western country that executes its citizens. The disparities you hear civil rights leaders talk about aren’t figments of a collective imagination. Class and race are factored into the adjudication of justice more than some of us are willing to admit. 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Knockout Game Filtered Through Saint Augustine's Confession

In book 2 of Confessions St. Augustine tells the story of stealing pears with his friends as a 16 year old. His purpose for telling this story was to show in his words how unmotivated evil is more evil than evil with a motive. He writes:

Those pears that we stole were fair to the sight, because they were Your creation, You fairest of all, Creator of all, Thou good God...Those pears truly were pleasant to the sight; but it was not for them that my miserable soul lusted, for I had abundance of better, but those I plucked simply that I might steal. For, having plucked them, I threw them away, my sole gratification in them being my own sin, which I was pleased to enjoy. For if any of these pears entered my mouth, the sweetener of it was my sin in eating it. And now, O Lord my God, I ask what it was in that theft of mine that caused me such delight; 

The knockout game is unmotivated evil at it's purest. Writing his confessions later in life Augustine still struggled to find a motive for his actions. I know comparing his theft of fruit to the knockout game is a stretch for some, but in his own words he compared the lack of motive behind his crime to the crimes committed by the Roman empire. In his mind they were of the same kind of evil.

We're shaken by the lack of meaning in atrocities. The fact that we have no answers or explanations make the horror associated with senseless crimes more frightening. Most people are killed by someone they know. We compartmentalize this type of crime because it allows us to feel safe knowing that maybe there was something under the surface that can give the act a deeper meaning. The randomness of the knockout game puts all of us at risk. 

The rise of social media and the allure of instant fame factor heavily in the spike in the knockout game. Years ago drug dealers would knockout junkies just for laughs. They would lure some unsuspecting addict or homeless person into an alley and see if they could drop them with one punch. 

Now, kids have video cameras on their phones. They can upload a video to a social media site in less than a minute. As a culture we've traded our 15 minutes of fame for 15 seconds. The technological age we live in allows me to publish from my home with a modest amount of equipment, but it also allows people to upload videos of innocent people being assaulted on our streets. 

There's a racial element to this new version of the knockout game. It appears to be rooted in some misguided attempt for fame or maybe it's a rebellion against the socioeconomic realities. The symbolic gesture of knocking out a person whose white skin "associates" them with power is a systematic rejection of the path paved by the civil rights leaders of the 60's. This temporary power is the illusion of power Augustine says prisoners experience when they do something wrong without fear of punishment. The weak are made to feel powerful, but after the laughs are over and the moment fades their circumstances are still the same. 

Cruelty is the weapon of the powerful, used to make others fear them... Augustine

In the context of random violence, cruelty is the tool of the weak. These kids are weak because they choose not to address the root of their problems. The lack of judgment at the center of theses attacks are indicative of a culture obsessed with instant gratification and a lack of understanding. Immaturity and socioeconomic factors can't explain away all of the social ills facing our youth. Sometimes we have to accept that evil doesn't always have a motive.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Epistemology Of Egoist In Rap Music Part 2: Commodity Fetishism And Poverty

The nations which are still dazzled by the sensuous glitter of precious metals, and are, therefore, still fetish-worshippers of metal money, are not yet fully developed money-nations. Karl Marx Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844

In part one I wanted to give an example of how socioeconomic conditions affect and sometimes limit the choices available to many in urban communities. The rational egoist in 50 cent acted out of an urban survivalist instinct. This type of morality is based on doing what's deemed necessary for the sake of survival, whereas the psychological egoism in rap music is based on bling, money, and social status as its endgame. 

Many problems in the inner city have their roots in poverty. There are a multitude of those problems that having resources could solve. The physical and economic consequences that come with having very little money can be measured, but the deep rooted psychological and existential problems that can't be quantitatively measured are often the ones that cause the biggest problems for greater society. 

If a kid is hungry and we feed him, the hunger subsides for a while. The question is: how do we help that kid if he feels his self worth is tied to his hunger? Most teenagers don't wake up one morning and decide they don't care if they live or die. This pathology takes hold before they are old enough to understand it. We look at the families and communities and ascribe blame, but all that does is name the problem. Going to a mechanic and finding out you have a bad transmission doesn't fix it. Yes, we need diagnosis, but we also need treatment.

Take a kid from a broken home, add violence, lose the self esteem, and throw in a market culture that equates non market values like love, honesty, and loyalty less valuable than physical commodities and you get a recipe that isn't necessary for failure but sufficient. 

Some hustle to survive while others hustle to validate their lives. If you couldn't do anything but sell drugs, you would pour your heart into being the best dope dealer around. The lack of skills, trades, or commodifiable talents lead many to hustle, but the quest for status is the darker side of the hustle game.  

The choice to be a "gangster" takes less talent than courage. It's the hardest and easiest choice for some. If you have a world view that equates poverty to being a nobody, and money to success, then the choice is easier. The disproportionate value we (as a society) place on commodities bites us when crime can lead to there acquisition quicker than work. There's a breed of kids who value iphones, Jordan's, and Bentleys more than they value their lives. The symbolic value of these objects add real value to young lives full of poverty and despair. 

Karl Marx hit it on the head when he gave his treatment on nations that fetish the glitter of precious metals. If you substitute nations with people you see that his words still hold truth in them. Rap music as a vehicle for expressing the plight of the inner city has shown itself to be fully entranced by all things shiny. The horror stories of poverty in the hood were replaced by the horror stories of violence in the hood. Too many are ready to get rich or die tryin than get humble and die livin.

Money isn't the cause of this. I lean on biblical text 1 Timothy 6:10 reads as follows: For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

It's easy to look at the guy on the block in a wave cap, tank top, and baggy jeans and get scared; it's harder to understand how he got there. These are realities many who read this won't have to contend with, until they have to contend with them in the form of a senseless crime committed upon them or a loved one. We can hide away in our safe neck of the woods and pretend this doesn't exist until we are forced to face it.   

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Get Rich Or Die Tryin : The Epistemology Of Egoists in Rap Music Part 1

It's been 10 years since Get Rich Or Die Tryin propelled Curtis (50 Cent) Jackson from mixtape obscurity to multimillionaire cultural icon. The autobiographical nature of his writing delivered an authenticity die hard rap fans and casual listeners gravitated to. "Fifty's" story was so full of doubt, sorrow, and hopelessness that risking your life to escape it seemed like a reasonable choice.

"Get rich or die tryin" wasn't a new proposition. It was the articulation of the desperation necessary to subscribe to this mantra. 50 wasn't a pioneer; he just made his declaration outloud for the world to hear. I've compiled lyrics from the song "Many Men" to show how this mindset is cultivated and ultimately accepted as a creed. Society's mistake in trying to understand this type of music is best summed up by a Wesley Snipes line from the movie White Men Can't Jump: They listened to the music but didn't hear it.

Here's a quote from "Many Men":

 Many men, many, many, many, many men
Wish death 'pon me
Lord I don't cry no more
Don't look to the sky no more
Have mercy on me
Have mercy on my soul
Somewhere my heart turned cold
Have mercy on many men
Many, many, many, many men
Wish death upon me

The catharsis in these lyrics are drowned out by the violence that surrounds them. The message loses its meaning when violence sticks out so much further than pain. Again, a quote from the same song: 

50's cries for help are pushed aside for the kind of proactive justice that can be found on the streets. 50 isn't a deist in the traditional sense; he believes in a God who watches from above, but never blows his whistle on the foulness of life. He isn't waiting for miracles; he doesn't believe in them. The idea that he could be a pacifists and a killer is hypocritical or paradoxical depending on how you read this song. Growing up without a father and having his mother killed when he was a child hardened his heart. 

There's a verse in this song that does a better job of appropriating his existential angst than I can:

For the niggas on lock, doing life behind bars

Most people cringe at the thought of dying young, yet Fifty embraced the proposition as a way out of a hard life. He understands that pain is a component of life, but feels as if he has had more than his share of rainy days. This is the confession of a tired soul. 50 doesn't want to be a gangster, but doesn't see another way to survive. This is rational egoism at its best. He acts in a way that allows him to survive. "Get Rich" wasn't successful because of  beats or a marketing strategy. People identified with the message. For a segment of society this was the truth of their life; for others, it was a glimpse into a world they could only visit through song.  

Most who come from a different time, socioeconomic background, or culture completely misread the problem of inner city crime. One of the conventional wisdoms is that these kids don't value life. The scarier reality is that these kids do value life, but at a lower price than most of us would be comfortable with. Over the next few weeks I'll be breaking down rational egoism in rap music and its much more dangerous brother psychological egoism.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Entertainments Role In Spreading Ideology

One thing I despise about the corporate entertainment apparatus is this paradigm that entertainment is a distant second to profits. We see it every summer with the barrage of repackaged old films and the ever growing number of sequels. Another thing I despise is the use of entertainment to perpetuate and spread negative stereotypes. 

The music industry, like the movie industry, also suffers from a lack of new and original artists. If 2Chainz sells a gold album the competing record companies knee jerk reaction is to find a carbon copy who will (hopefully) cash in on the buzz created. The reality is that talented new artists are sacrificed for the "next" Tupac, 50 Cent, or Jay-Z. Think about the space that was created after the death of Tupac. Ja Rule, DMX, and a slew of 5 foot nothing no hundred pound tough guys were selected to fill the void- some more effectively than others.

The corporate entertainment structure doesn't have the ability to control what we think, but it does have the ability to influence what we think about. If the only movies made about Muslims depict them as bloodthirsty savages, and the only TV shows about Italians portray them as Mafia or (worse) like the cast of Jersey Shore, then sadly for some, it becomes their depiction of reality.  

Many critics have classified Hip-Hop and rap music as noise. They point to the glorification of violence and the exploitation of women as proof of its negative impact. In these cases their critique aptly fits. But, let's go to the next level: instead of asking why is this music so seemingly fascinated with death and destruction; let's ask why are these the only images we see? 

The rise of Gangsta rap in the late 80's was caused by the identification to the real life struggles of the inner city, and the fascination with that struggle by those (safe on the sidelines) in suburban and rural America. I never understood how Tipper Gore, the "Moral Majority", and a host of others were more offended by the creative narration of life in the ghetto than they were with the hell these kids were growing up in. This type of negative thinking is just as dangerous as the ideology shared by kids who feel they have nothing to live for. The idea that voices crying out for help should be silenced for the sake of a politically correct dialogue is a form of censorship and denial of the everyday realities for some. 

Forget the copycat artists who offer very little in the way of creativity, but look at the men and women who have provided an autobiographical quality to the genre. These voices have been drowned out by the fascination with street culture. Rap music is the opportunity for inner city kids to tell their story and corporate executives to exploit it. 

The use of the large and small screen, or music to advance a social message is paradoxical by it's nature. The pain that fueled N.W.A's lyrics was glorified into the message: only male machismo can overcome the system. "Get rich or die tryin" was sanitized of the living hell that spawned it and turned into a catchphrase. It's sad how easily these messages were co-opted. I'm not downplaying the role the artists have played in this process. The road out of the ghetto is paved with hard choices and the introduction of money makes many of the ethical choices even harder. 

The same window that was open for Public Enemy was open for 2 Live Crew. The Cosby Show was a platform for African American exceptionalism that Cops at its worst tore down. Instead of Heathcliff Huxtable in a sweater we were bombarded with an assortment of half literate men in wife beaters. The worst examples of African American behavior edited and displayed for entertainment. This is true for Married With Children, Jerry Springer, and the majority of reality TV shows. Imagine how many people have been negatively impacted by this type of entertainment? They can't control what we think, but they can certainly influence what we think about.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Lack Of Choices in A Monopolist Utopia

I spend a large portion of my week submerged in commerce. On the surface our retail and grocery stores appear to be filled with a plethora of choices, but when you look closely at the labels and investigate you see that our choices are rather narrow. Monopolistic capitalism has morphed into a two-sided coin with the winner always being the large multinationals.

Recently, I had a customer ask me a series of questions concerning the sale of Smithfield to the Chinese conglomerate (Shuanghui). The most telling aspect of the conversation was her underlying concern for our country. Almost everyday a new company either sells or ships its manufacturing base off our shores. We have an economy driven by corporate interest that no longer respects the dignity or well-being of labor or consumers.

If you go down the soft drink aisle you'll see bottled water in a variety of different labels, but the truth is Dasani and Evian are Coca-Cola products, Nestle owns Poland Springs, Arrowhead, Deer Park, Ozarka, and Ice Mountain. All of these choices funnel money into the pockets of the two companies. Monopolies have killed the small businesses politicians profess to support. As companies grow bigger the influence they have over our lives also grows.

Smithfield handles one-third of all the pork slaughtered and processed in this country. One company having that much control also has the ability to affect pricing for the whole market. When you put this in the context of the "too big to fail" paradigm, it's easy to see how this could end badly. 

Many of our good, God fearing patriots profess their love for America, but will sell her (and her people) out to the highest bidder. The Neocons beat their chests to show their American pride, but worship at the alter of the almighty dollar. The third way offered by the Neo-liberals is a less offensive version of this economic policy, different on the surface, but with similar results.

Whether it's toothpaste (which Colgate-Palmolive and Proctor and Gamble control over 80% of the market for), or bottled water eventually we are given a wide variety of the same choice. I don't know how the Smithfield deal will workout in the long run, but I've gotten use to the reality that American hallmarks are being sold to the highest bidders.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Ideology In The Modern World

I have a friend from Nigeria (Adawale Adelke aka Wallace) who taught me a valuable lesson about life and ideology. He said we (in the west) are so concerned with deciding whether the glass is half full or half empty that we don't appreciate the fact that a large number of people in the world don't have a glass. 

This is how free market capitalist ideology functions in our society. While parts of the world are starving and dealing with a level of existential angst we can only sympathize with, we are consumed with the half empty glass in the form of iPhones, Abercrombie and Fitch, and Air Jordan’s. We struggle to find the items that will fill our glass.

I'm not pointing out the flaws in our society while exonerating myself: I'm just as guilty as the next person. The degree to which we wrestle with these issues is what determines how sincere we are in our struggle with the question: what kind of person are you going to be? Accepting the darkness inside of us is the key to overcoming and changing it. All of the phobias, "isms", and negative ideologies inside of us won't die without us being conscious of their existence.

We aren't bad people because we want these items, we're told our lives won't be complete without them. I know for more mature people this trap is easily avoided, but in the last 25 years children have been marketed to in a way incomparable to any period of time before it. Our posterity are constantly told the only way to fit into the status quo society is by chasing the labels. There are a great number of people with compassion for the suffering of their fellow citizens, but the belief that we can possess our souls through the acquisition of physical commodities is a prevalent ideological misnomer.

I pose these questions and offer commentary, yet I struggle to find answers that would sufficiently deal with the kinds of apathy and nihilism that grow from this kind of ideology. At the core of our existence is the search for meaning; a meaning that will make all of the suffering in this life worth it. I know I haven't found all of the answers, but I've found enough to make tomorrow interesting. I'll keep studying this culture, these people, and most importantly myself. Eventually we will confront our problems or have the consequences of those problems confront us.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Family Secrets On A National Level: Why 911 Showcased The Best And Worst Of America.

If you subscribe to the community as an extension of the family metaphor, it’s easier to understand the society we live in. The smaller our circle the more we identify with those inside it. We accept the positive aspects associated within the linguistic frame of community, city, and nation as family, but we often ignore or reject some of the truest negative traits associated with the family. Just like every family has secrets, communities also push hard truths to the margins. Everyone knows a person who defends a family member no matter how wrong they are. It’s no different within a community. This isn't ground breaking; this line of thinking has roots in Plato’s Republic. What I contend is that like a country or a family, we as individuals often refuse to engage in the truth.

I recently had someone ask me if I wanted to attend a meeting. Without hesitation I said no: Why would I attend a meeting where I can get all of the information minus the embellishment and gossip? We rarely want to hear the truth. When you meet someone they don’t say: hi my name is Jim; I cheat on my taxes and kick small dogs. How many times have we dressed up our pasts? This nation is no different. We love our crazy uncles; we wouldn't take them on a job interview, but we defend them when outsiders point out how crazy they are. These aren't opposite sides of a coin; they are the same side of the coin. We like our neighbors a little more than we like the people in the next city. This paradigm applies to our politics and religion. I reflexively defend our nation’s first black president when the attacks are rooted in racial animus. As Americans we defend our country when those outside of our borders call her integrity into question.

Getting back to truth, we have to agree that there are things we can say about our mother’s that we wouldn't let others. We tolerate comments about our mother’s from siblings more than we would a cousin, and even more so than a stranger. We tend to get tribal even inside of our own communities. 911 tore down the walls of separation for many in this country. The black kid in a Houston Rockets Jersey was just a little more American. The guy with the Jacked up pickup truck was seen as a brother in the truest sense of the word. Black, brown, yellow, red, and white Americans united together under one flag. We needed someone we all could hate equally to unite us. I think that’s the saddest truth associated with the events of 911. 

It’s politically correct to say we value all life, but the reality is we (as a nation) have a tiered system in which we view the preciousness of life. An American life is worth more than the life of an Iraqi, an Israeli life is worth more than a Palestinian life, and a baby in Beverly Hills is worth more than a baby in Compton. I didn't make these rules. There will be people who curse me for bringing these things up. They will question my patriotism and think less of me. These same people will do all of this without having the kind of deep Socratic dialog within themselves that calls into question the merit of these remarks.

Back to the truth, we don't want any part of it if possible. The world isn't black and white. All of the good isn’t on one side fighting all of the bad. America is a fragile democracy- the world’s oldest continual constitutional republic, but flawed and imperfect. I love her to the best of my ability, but I won't lie for her. I love her more than the Taliban, but less than someone unwilling to come to grips with her past. I’m not the wife trusting her husband instead of her lying eyes. 911 is a date that typifies the good and the bad in this country. On 9/11/01 we wept as a nation and loved each other a little more. On 9/11/73 our CIA and DIA backed the overthrow of the government of Chile, and installed a puppet regime. Blood was shed and lives were lost. Good and bad weaved together in one red, white, and blue flag.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Attempted Silencing of Dissent: What Some Conservatives Don't Get Concerning Black America

I've been reading a lot of chatter on different conservative media sites about a boycott of Ebony magazine. The official statement made by Ebony called into question the viability of a boycott by a segment of society that doesn't buy their product anyway. As I was reading the comments section, which I tend to do, I noticed a recurring theme amongst supporters of a potential boycott: What would people do if white people made a magazine that was all about them? The logic behind this type of argument is elementary at best, and denies the proud history of publications like Ebony, JET, and Essence. These magazines came into existences because people of color had no avenue to express their opinions about the world they lived in. 

Fast forward to the present and people expect black publications, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, (HBCU's) and other historically significant entities to shutter their doors because we live in a 'post-racial' society. Howard, Morehouse, and Hampton exist because they were needed. These institutions have a history as worthy of praise as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, yet they should close their doors and get over it. I know graduates from these HBCU's these are brilliant and capable men and women. Why should these avenues of education and expression be closed to people yearning for them? If I could make one point to those of you still reading it would be that we are the same people you think you are. We want our kids to be loved and respected, we want dignity, and we most of all want our humanity recognized.

When President Obama was inaugurated we celebrated the achievement, but what we realized that maybe some didn't was that he is just one of MANY capable black men and women who could have been president. We will never get over our collective racial issues by pretending they don't exist. I support Ebony because people of color deserve to have their voices heard. When my folks were young Jet and Ebony were the only mainstream publications that bothered to acknowledge their intellectual capabilities, cater to their taste, and feature people who looked like them. To close these institutions to make others feel better would be a crime as horrific as the crimes that led to their creation. 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Why Student Loans Are The New Adjustable Rate Mortgage

If I've learned anything about our country it’s that we are fond of biblical teachings and the founding fathers. I want to share a bit of both. Leviticus 25:35-37 “If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and are unable to support themselves among you, help them as you would a foreigner and stranger, so they can continue to live among you.  Do not take interest or any profit from them, but fear your God, so that they may continue to live among you. You must not lend them money at interest or sell them food at a profit.”

I bring this up because congress just passed a comprehensive student loan bill that attaches interest rates to the improvement of the economy. This sounds good considering rates were going to be over 6% for undergraduates this upcoming school year, but the reality is that these rates could be 8.5% in less than a decade. We are basically doing to college tuition what we did to the mortgage industry. We watched Adjustable Rate Mortgages destroy the wealth of many middle class Americans, and now we have forced a similar system on to our youth.

James Madison once said, "The primary function of government is to protect the minority of the opulent from the majority of the poor." I’m wondering if I'm being too literal in my interpretation of these words. The idea of the Federal Republic is to concentrate power into the hands of a select few.

As I spend more time with biblical and historical texts the differences between them becomes more pronounced. Our kids are being saddled with the equivalent of a mortgage by the time they graduate. I can't understand why investment banks can borrow our tax dollars at a lower rate than our kids can.

We worship a free market system that sends our jobs overseas to Communists countries, hides the profits in more friendly countries, and speculates on future debt. Instead of addressing the issues that have a bearing on our lives, we argue and fight over the details. This is the tragedy of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the TEA party; both want very similar things, but won’t work with each other to get them.