Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Escape From Dannemora: The Game

Now that David Sweat has been caught and Richard Matt killed one can’t help speculating on what they did right or wrong. They certainly did a lot right in terms of the success of their project, though it seems like the bulk of their planning had to do with escaping from the Clinton Correctional Facility, the maximum security prison in which they were held and less on what they would do once they got out.What was right was to create relationships with two Clinton employees, who essentially provided tools and guidelines which made the escape possible. What was wrong was the planning on what they would do once they were released which rested on the flimsy hope of escaping to Mexico in a  getaway car provided by Joyce Mitchell, one of the prison employees. All of this would make a great computer game, perhaps of the old-fashioned kind in which the universe of the game somehow reflects the twists and turns characteristic of real life. Perhaps Escape from Dannemora could compete with Grand Theft Auto. Of course one thinks of the famous television series, The Fugitive, which was also made into a movie. The subplot concerning Gene Palmer, the corrections officer who traded a screwdriver and pliers for artworks (not far from the arms for hostages used during Iran- Contra scandal) will embellish the movie adaptation which is undoubtedly already in the works--though the lack of the moll in the getaway will dampen the action. When one thinks about it, it seems far harder to break out of a prison like Clinton than to escape from the adjoining territory. No one had ever broken out of Clinton in its 150 year history! But look at it this way, the prison might be thought to be what an inmate knows best. Surviving inside and even figuring out how to escape the structure is a lifer's meat and potatoes. The one thing prisoners like Sweat and Matt begin to lose is the ability to negotiate the real world. You’ve heard all the stories of how difficult many freed prisoners have in adjusting to everyday life. Exiting that manhole cover from which they escaped must have proved a rude awakening. Here they were thrown back into a hostile world in which they’d never functioned very well in the first place. Being a criminal is a calling, but so is being a prisoner and from what it sounds like both Sweat and Matt came into their own in prison (after all they ended up on the honor block). You could say that the force of 1200 that were pursuing them was a formidable obstacle to overcome. Yet you could also surmise that no matter how harsh, men like Sweat and Matt would always do better in the controlled environment inside then within the unpredictable world that lay without.

Monday, June 29, 2015

When Crying “Fire!” Becomes a Slur

photo: lPankonin

This past week witnessed two historical decisions ("'Equal Dignity,’" NYT, 6/27/15,  “Supreme Court Allows Nationwide Heath Care Subsidies,” NYT, 6/25/15) which reaffirmed not only the impartiality of the Supreme Court (with a Conservative Justice upholding the Affordable Care Act), but its imperturbability as an institution in comparison to an increasingly rambunctious and unstable congress. However, the next big decisions facing the Supreme Court are very likely to revolve around the limits of free speech. The famous Oliver Wendell Holmes decision in Schenck v. United States brilliantly prescribed limits to First Amendment Rights. But free expression is one of the most complex matters in jurisprudence and it regularly receives challenges from all sides of the ideological spectrum. This problem is particularly acute in the case of religious expression. Is wearing the Hijab, the veil worn by some Muslim women a right, when hiding one’s face makes identification documents like driver’s licenses and passports almost meaningless? Members of Canada’s conservative government recently courted controversy when they began to question this form of expression (“Harper says majority of 'moderate Muslims' support view on hijab ban,” The Globe and Mail, 3/15/15) Do militantly anti-Muslim groups have the right to promote offensive attacks on Muhammad like the cartoon contest recently held in Texas, under the guise of defending the right of free speech against those who would stifle it (“Pamela Geller, Organizer of Muhammad Cartoon Contest, Trumpets Results,NYT,  5/4/15).The latter might have given Oliver Wendell Holmes pause, as would have the case of the Nazis marching through the Jewish section of Skokie, Illinois (a case that never made it to the Supreme Court). At the recent PEN conference in New York, otherwise liberally inclined writers signed petitions against honoring surviving Charlie Hebdo staff members, an astonishing turn of events considering PEN’s storied history of defending writers and free expression around the world (“PEN Group Blacklists Charlie Hebdo,” The Screaming Pope, 4/29/15) Those who believe that questioning the First Amendment opens up a Pandora’s Box might ask how exactly “fire!” was cried, how crowded the theater and where the exits were. Salman Rushdie, who had a fatwah issued against him for The Satanic Verses, was incredulous and irate at the waffling some of his PEN colleagues, but the fire has now become the threat of violence and destruction. Liberal western values themselves are like crying “fire?” for fundamentalists of many stripes. In Israel the ultra Orthodox have attempted to inflict their values on a population that doesn’t always cotton to their values. In an age of increasing terrorism, there will be a tendency to constrict both the exercise of beliefs as well as the right to express opposition and outrage at those self-same beliefs. The Supreme Court will have its work cut for it.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Wound and the Bow

Edmund Wilson
Sometimes you have a wound that never heals. That was the story of the Greek warrior Philoctetes who was exiled to the island of Lemnos due to a suppurating laceration that also smelled. There was the wound and the additional insult resulting from being ostracized and made into a pariah by his peers. Loss of any kind is such a wound, whether it's unreciprocated love, unfulfilled ambition or the death of a loved one. At first you're surrounded with family and friends who console you. Jews sit shiva and Catholics have wakes, but the purpose is not only to remember the dead. It’s to help the living go on. However, after it’s all over the person in mourning always comes back to the empty house or apartment, one of those dirty brick pre-war affairs one imagines the Glass family occupying in Franny and Zooey—with a window overlooking an aging water tower and stamped with a built-in solitude. There's no person or thing that can replace loss. It just sits there and then life takes its course and the pain turns into memory that is ultimately distorted by some degree of denigration or idealization depending on the compromise formation that occurs in the psyche of the mourner. The pain never goes away, though there are people for whom it becomes a kind of fuel as Edmund Wilson describes in his famous series of essays, The Wound and the Bow, based on the Philoctetes myth. Others  succumb and eventually drown in their sorrows.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

You Can’t Control Your Hand Unless You Stack the Deck

Self-hatred fuels the black hole of longing. Can we postulate a law of emotional thermodynamics in which lack of self esteem is inversely proportional  to the degree of neck pain one experiences from turning one’s head every which way but straight ahead?  Conversely can we hypothesize that the degree of self worth one experiences is directly proportional to the ability to want what one has? This is not to say that desire and particularly the desire for change are paraphilias. But there is a qualitative difference between the kind of self-loathing that fuels wishes for usually impossible attainments and the kind of hopefulness that immigrants and refugees experience when they come to a place which offers them freedoms and potentialities that they’ve never experienced before. There's a difference between being motivated by ambition and imagination and a mere despising of life itself. This later form of desperation rarely brings the kind of results you think you're looking for since it’s like a disease that actually curses anything or anyone who is unfortunate enough to come in its path. You don’t want to fall in love with a self-hater who thinks you're the answer since eventually he or she will hate you. They think they want things, but it’s dispossession not possession that they’re after. Next time you’re in St Tropez go down to one of the beaches with all the topless lovelies. You will inevitably find a number of scowling male tourists, wearing neck braces and cursing the bad hand they’ve been dealt.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Kim Jong-un’s Social Anxiety Disorder

A recent Times editorial (“North Korea’s Horrors,” 5/18/15) points out two recent incidences where hyperbole has fueled accounts of the horrors of current regime in the DPRK, led by its brash young leader and film critic, Kim Jong-un (“Kim Jong-un and the Auteur School,” The Screaming Pope, 12/22/14). The first rumor, according to the Times had Kim Jong-un feeding his uncle Jang Sung-taek “to a pack of dogs.” A story in The Guardian made a similar point, “Story about Kim Jong-un’s uncle fed to dogs originates with satirist," 1/6/14. This is almost as comforting as finding out that the latest accusation which, according to the Times, involved having “the minister of the armed forces blasted to pieces with an antiaircraft gun, purportedly, among other things, for dozing off while Mr. Kim spoke,” was also apocryphal. For instance the Times editorial points out that “South Korea is now saying that Gen. Hyon Yong-choi was purged, not probably killed.” The point of the Times piece is that even if prominent officials are simply being executed by firing squad, it’s not a good thing and goes on to speculate about Kim Jong-un that “one explanation is that he is unstable and threatened, and needs to fuel the terror that his power rests on.” Fair enough, but let’s cut the Supreme Leader a little slack. How many times have you been snubbed at a cocktail party and fantasized about feeding a dismissive person to dogs? How many times have you contemplated turning an antiaircraft gun or worse on someone who hasn’t returned your Email inquiry or phone call? When we feel small and powerless in the face of an unfriendly superpower or person, we all engage in these kinds of fantasies. The DSM-5 lists such symptoms under the category of social anxiety disorder. And if we were to be armchair psychoanalysts we might even wager that these anxieties might derive from having to live up to the reputations of his powerful father Kim Jong-il (who kidnapped the South Korean film star Shin Sang-ok) and grandfather Kim Il-sung whose founding of the dynasty might be where all his problems started in the first place.