10 March 2015

Harry G. Frankfurt

     Harry G. Frankfurt is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton.  He has written a number of essays, one of which was published as a small tome called "On Bullshit".  That essay's first sentence is a statement of indisputable fact:  "One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit."  What I do dispute about the statement, however, is the inference that our culture is unique in the amount of bullshit.  Bullshit is endemic and it seems to me to be the result of thoughtlessness.  Thoughtlessness and bullshit are inseparable.  If one were to give a specific statement, idea, notion, or proposition some thought, i. e. analyze it, the bullshit inherent in the statement, idea, notion, or proposition would rise to the surface and be recognizable for what it is:  bullshit.

     In that bullshit is prevalent to our culture, which includes my profession--the legal profession and specifically criminal defense--it is a proper subject of discussion.  For instance, our sex offender registry statutes are premised on bullshit.  If you ask me whether I would rather have a burglar or a sex offender living next to me, I will pick a sex offender every time.  But no sex offender can live next to me because somewhere within 2,000 feet is a daycare or some such thing; the idea being of course that a) a sex offender will likely kidnap and abuse a child and b) "a" will not occur if the offender is required to live at least 2,000 feet from a daycare.  Neither "a" nor "b" are probable and very nearly impossible, however the probability of something occurring is not relevant and therefore within the realm of bullshit.

     Of course, the prime example of bullshit in my profession are the drug laws.  Thousands of people are serving most of their lives in prison because the state (federal and state) have pronounced drugs as destroying lives.  Apparently serving 20 years in prison does not constitute a destroyed life, but sniffing a little meth does.  Since there is no rationale for our criminal drug laws, they constitute bullshit.  One of Iowa's legislators when asked if he would support decriminalization of marijuana practically yelled no, that he wanted our children protected from illegal drugs which is of course complete bullshit.

09 March 2015

From "The Hero's Fight"

     Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, a sociologist trained at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore has written a book entitled "The Hero's Fight".  In her introduction she sets out some thoughts on the situation of the slum people of west Baltimore which show a good understanding of not just poor people, but how they became poor and their relation to the governments they must interact with.  One of her themes is penalization as the method of control of the work force without jobs--the result of the massive movement of well-paying manufacturing jobs overseas.   The conservative emphasis on penalization is    co-existent with the liberal emphasis on social programs operated by social workers.  Both have the purpose of forcing the poor to live middle class lives and both are debilitating.

     Both penalization and social programs enforced by social workers hold that their clients, the poor, are morally to blame for their failure to adhere to middle class values. In Baltimore the areas where the author researched were one time prosperous neighborhoods of well-paid blue collar workers, now ghettos.  The book is a documentation of this transition with an attempt to understand it.  It is relevant to me as a criminal defense attorney who represents people charged with crimes, minor and major, almost all of whom have nothing.  Most are dysfunctional in one form or another; relying on disability payments from the state for what little money they have.  These people have no future, whether male or female, and their relation to the state is constant in either the form of police or in the form of social workers.

      I do not live in a ghetto nor do my defendants; we live in small communities in central Iowa or in Des Moines which does have an area which is considered by some as a ghetto, but not really--nothing on the scale of our major cities such as Baltimore.  Here the same forces are at work however, created by our legislature-penalization and social programs both aimed at correcting the behavior of the poor.  We can't kill them like Hitler did but we have decided we can change them and if they don't change we put them in jail or prison and take their kids from them.  The one thing we can't do apparently is to accept them for what they are.

     Ms. Fernandez-Kelly thinks that two factors would make a difference:  education and property.  We don't often hear property as a factor in behavior but as they say in the classroom, it is intuitively obvious.  If a person has property, that person behaves in ways different from a person who has no property.  A person who owns his house lives differently in that house than a person who rents his house.  If you have nothing, jail isn't so bad.  In jail, you will be able to socialize with people like yourself; you will have three meals a day; you will have a warm bed in winter.  Sometimes it is better than being homeless.

04 March 2015


  •      Zygmunt Bauman wrote an interesting book titled Modernity and the Holocaust.  His major premise appears to be that without the modern bureaucratic organization employed by the Nazis, the holocaust could not have happened.  The bureaucratic organizational ability of the modern world makes it entirely possible that the holocaust can repeat itself.  One of the factors in this modern, bureaucratic world we live in is encapsulated in the following sentences from his book:  "For those who do not possess the know-how, responsible action means following the advice of the experts.  In the process, personal responsibility dissolves in the abstract authority of technical know-how."  Is it true that by following the advice of an expert on what to do, how to do it, where to do it, how long to do it, when to do it, etc. you are not taking personal responsibility for your actions or is the responsibility of a person to follow the advice of the experts simply, without any of your own input, for the reason that the expert knows best

  •      We do have options.  We can compare experts; we can compare expert opinions; we can view expert opinions in relation to our own knowledge and experience.  If one has paid attention through his or her lifetime and has the ability to cogitate, there is much advice that should be rejected out of hand. Do I take the advice of an astrologer?  No.  Do I take the advice of my auto mechanic?  Most of the time and if it doesn't cost too much.  Do I take the advice of medical practitioners?  Usually. but sometimes with a second opinion.  I like to think that I take personal responsibility for most of what I do.

  •     Now, the mantra in this country is of taking responsibility for oneself.  Of course, this is simply meaningless drivel in that the last thing your various governments want to see is its citizens taking personal responsibility for anything other than, maybe, having a job whether it pays or not.   The national pastime seems to be victimhood.  Everyone wants it, looks for it.  The latest effort of victimization is the new emphasis on bullying and how it should be eradicated.   Bullying, regardless of how defined, is a constant on this planet.  I suspect that a coyote eating a rabbit is a form of bullying as defined.  We have a list without end of possible victims:  Victims of domestic assault, victims of drunk drivers, victims of crime, victims of pollution, victims of genocide (this one might actually count), victims of fatty foods, victims of internet scams.  As I said, the list could be endless.

  •      Victimhood can and often does show a failure of personal responsibility.  In order to be a victim, you have to be recognized as such; it must be a published event that constitutes victimhood.  Along with the publication of the event creating a victim is usually the expert to deal with the trauma of victimhood; each variety of victimhood having its own brand of expertise which has been acquired through advanced college or university degrees.  The core purpose of the expert is to inform the victim how he or she should feel or think about being a victim. 

  •      Interestingly, in the world of criminal justice, the criminal is defined as the person creating the victim, causing the victimhood.  The criminal is not allowed the privilege of victimhood.  And so far as he or she is creating victims by his actions, he must be punished.  Punishment is not deemed a form of bullying.  There is no rational basis for this other than it would not be compatible with any of our accepted notions of victim and criminal.  The so-called liberal segment of our thinking has acknowledged to some degree that criminals may be considered victims of their environment and this should be a factor in our sentencing decisions.  But again, this sentiment is mostly spoken and not acted upon.