Tuesday, July 08, 2008


Progress has always been two steps forward and one step back – even when we know where we’re headed and we have a reasonably good game plan.  Typically there are little things to learn along the way, small mistakes that have to be made because nobody gets everything right the first time through and there’s apt to be some chance events that are relevant in some way and must be taken into account.  Together these necessitate retracing a step or two or three before we can resume with the forward momentum.  But lately it seems most of the steps have been backwards, the game plan not so good or, even worse, no game plan at all, where we are headed obscured by the unwillingness to articulate a full vision of what that place looks like.  And it frequently seems as if making progress is a secondary or tertiary goal.  I, for one, have recently been taken up with the idea that most of us are committed first and foremost to advancing our own personal agenda, irrespective of whether it’s socially progressive or socially detrimental, caring more about maintaining control and affirming our prior held position than about any consequence on others – good, bad, or indifferent. 

About a year ago we had an all day retreat for administrators in my College in order to discuss College Issues and to make relevant connections across administrative units, something we don’t do very often.  When we were talking about the Undergraduate Program we got onto the topic of student preparation prior to enrollment, with a few folks commenting that many of our students aren’t well prepared in spite of their very high ACT scores.  When it came to my turn to speak I said, “I blame it on Bush.”  That got a laugh, although I wasn’t trying to be funny; there has been a narrowing of the curriculum since No Child Left Behind and the kids get a school-is-about-test-taking mentality.  (Business school folks do tend to be more conservative than the Campus as a whole; perhaps that’s the reason for the chuckles, thinking the remark was a gaffe.) 

Blaming Bush has become a national pastime.  But, in truth, Bush is more symptom than cause.  The issues have existed for some time, as this recent Krugman column points out.  But only lately does it seem that we realize that we’ve mortgaged our future and if we don’t take serious steps to reverse things soon we’ll be in a big trouble as a permanent condition.  Bob Herbert rings this alarm, citing David Boren’s new book A Letter to America.   Much of the refrain is familiar.  We heard it especially from John Edwards during the debates, where he talked about fighting the special interests.  But Boren’s other point is a about excessive partisanship.  Extending the olive branch is probably a better solution to that than fighting.  The problem with fighting, as we’ve seen over and over again, is that the combatants lose their sensitivity to criticism.  They harden in their positions and thereby become impervious to reasoned argument and counterpoint.  How else does one explain Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and the mismanagement of Katrina relief which still makes the news?

We witness the consequences of the partisanship.  So we spread the blame around to include Congress and those who live inside the Beltway.  And that’s been a national pastime too, a little less focused to be sure, but still in the same ballpark.  That game seems apart from the games we play.  Yet there obviously is a connection.  We get the elected officials we deserve and to understand that it’s time to look closer to home for what ails us. 

More or less on a lark (I needed another purchase from Amazon.com to qualify for free shipping on some other books) I ordered David Brooks Bobos in Paradise.  (Bobo is short for Bourgeois Bohemians, a seeming oxymoron that turns out to describe the high achievers among the Baby Boomers and younger adults, who have to reconcile their own personal value systems that tends to prize fairness and equality with the realities of the marketplace of the knowledge economy where they are the high achievers and hence likely rewarded handsomely for the fruits of their labor while the many others either find their paychecks shrinking or they have no job at all.)  I’ve only read the first chapter and the copyright for the book is from before Bush took office, so I can’t say yet whether Brooks gives a full explanation of my theme – if we coexist with such obvious internal contradictions and we feel a need for both sides to express themselves might it not happen that one sides ends up drowning out the other?  And worse, might it not be the case that we mistakenly take the distribution of economic reward as an ethical statement, that being paid exceptionally well is an indication of moral worth and hence it’s the egalitarian values that end up with the short stick; after all it’s the market making these pronouncements, we don’t do it ourselves.  I’ve got Brooks’ book on a coffee table next to my reading chair.  I may go back to find out whether my theme is all there or not. 

In the meantime, I want to get to the piece that got me into a tizzy and set me off on this theme in the first place – Is Google Making Us Stupid?  by Nicholas Carr.  I took that article very personally.   Part of me agreed with it.  I’m much more impatient in my reading nowadays, often I don’t follow through in reading a piece and instead link off to something else, which in retrospect feels like I’ve given up on the piece too soon.  So there is a sense of a mile wide but only an inch deep in much of what I’m exposed too.  But another part of me disagreed.  Look at this review of .edu blogs by Greg Ritter, just to show I’m not making this up – the characterization of my posts talks about long rambles, not quick hitter items.  I’m an idea guy, even if lacking in some of the sensibilities that Brooks describes for his Bobos.  The way I produce ideas is by constructing narratives; some of those find the light of day in my blog.  And over the last several years, Google has become a key instrument in this writing activity. 

Once an idea for a post has been selected (in this particular case, though I subscribe to the Atlantic on my Kindle, I was alerted to the Carr piece by my friend Robert Baird and dutifully read it following his suggestion) often triggered by viewing a film, reading an article or a book, or having a discussion that left some important points unresolved, I can begin to produce the story and fragments of that emerge.  The need to connect those pieces creates a related need, to document the points.  Sometimes documentation is the process of remembering – finding a reference that I already know – Google is pretty terrific for that.  But sometimes I’d like a point to be true but am not sure it really is.  I’m looking to confirm a hunch.  Google is quite good with this too, especially if the standard for evidence is not too stern, e.g., a Wikipedia entry is acceptable.  So writing has these nonlinear sojourns for documentation and learning about things I only guessed at before.  There can be modification in the story based on what I learn.  Occasionally, but not too often, I’ll abandon the theme altogether based on that. 

Throughout I’m driven by my idea and the story I want to tell.  It’s all an extraordinarily egocentric process and what engages me is the idea itself and the telling the story about it well.  As a solitary activity, that may be for the best.  But in a social setting it’s potentially pernicious and I’m aware for me it’s becoming destructive.  I find myself impatient with the stories of others, especially when they don’t tell their story quite so well.  And in a conversation (watching some of my ooVoo chats really emphasizes this to me) while my partner is polite I tend to hog the time, though I’m playing the role of the interviewer and it should be the interviewee who gets the lion’s share.  It seems the impatience that Google foists on us, as a byproduct of making information so inconvenient, has a different side effect, at least on me.  I start to view other people as information sources only and when their information quality is low they get discarded.  In this reductionist hellhole, if you think your own information quality is better you stick with that.  This is insularity in the making, a first step toward potential disaster. 

After reading Carr I told myself I had to start spending more time away from the computer – sitting at the screen can create all sorts of bad habits, even if it is also a place for learning and, for me, the place where I write.  Wondering whether getting away from the computer would suffice it also occurred to me that I had to get away from my own narratives, I had to spend more time with the narratives of others, if for no other reason that the compulsiveness I feel to produce these stories can be self-defeating, a corollary to what makes Jack a dull boy. 

So I went to the bookshelf in my study to find something to read.  I had purchased a recent John Grisham book earlier in the year, The Innocent Man, it was the slack variable when after receiving a Borders gift certificate and buying a CD I wanted there were still some dollars left over.  I’ve had admiration for Grisham’s writing since I read The Firm, back in the early ‘90s.  I read most of this on an airplane flight with an infant in my arms fast asleep and my arm asleep too, but somehow the story commanded my attention; my surroundings and personal comfort disappeared as the story unfolded.  I would love to be able to produce writing that achieves that type of effect; much of what I read does not.  So, not very confident about my ability to lose my own narrative in favor of the narrative in what I’m reading, Grisham seemed an obvious choice. 

As it turns out The Innocent Man is Grisham’s first work of non-fiction; it’s still Grisham and it is absorbing but he needs to document the circumstances and build his case, so the style is different from his novels, it’s first an identifying of the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle before he then puts them all together, and the tone is journalistic.  The funny thing is that while I was looking for escape I found my theme in reading the book – it’s all there and it shows the problem has been with us for some time.

At root The Innocent Man is about a violent crime in Oklahoma, a rape and murder, for which two people went to trial and were found guilty and then sent to Death Row, in spite of the paucity of evidence to support the verdict.  The crime was White on White,  it happened in 1982, well before Clinton let alone Bush II, and by the time the trial occurred in 1985 the country was well on its way to regaining its confidence under Reagan after enduring the stagflation of Carter and the recession that Volker’s tight money policy induced to wrest out the inflation which happened in the early years of that decade, so the attitudes of the populace were quite different than they are now and the circumstances in this case differ from what we view as the main issues nowadays.  But the crime happened anyway.  The crime itself is only a launching point for Grisham’s story and the real villains in that story are the police and the prosecutor, who “knew” the defendants were guilty in spite of the lack of evidence and that there was another suspect, seemingly more likely to have committed the crime, but whom the police ruled out. 

The book spends much of the time documenting the horrors of incarceration, which might not concern most of us given the evils that these prisoners inflicted on their victims, but the reader is drawn into the barbarism of it all with the observation and personification of others on Death Row who’ve also been wrongly accused.  They are there because the criminal justice system is stacked against the indigent  defendant, where the presumption seems to be guilty till proven innocent.  So the book makes for compelling though depressing reading. 

I don’t want to provide a complete review.  My focus is on the police and the prosecutor.  Why did they come to such a wrong conclusion?  Were they earnest in their convictions or pursuing a different agenda, duplicitous in how the case was prosecuted or, yet a different spin, comme ci comme ça?   The book considers their perspective only briefly.  The focus is on the main defendant, once a major league baseball prospect, then later when he failed at that a womanizer, heavy drinker, and sufferer from some serious mental illness.  He was self-centered, loud, and boisterous and as such an unsympathetic character, except to his parents and his sisters and then not always with them.  One obvious reason to believe he was the murderer was a kind of guilt by association that most of us engage in on occasion, putting people into categories; he had the personality makeup of somebody who’d commit this type of crime so it must be him. 

The crime scene showed evidence of a violent struggle and based on that the police concluded there were two perpetrators of the crime; one guy couldn’t pull it off.  The way this was presented in the book it seemed like a natural deduction, not an assumption forced into the evidence to drive whom the police would charge with the crime.  The main defendant had a sidekick – they did bar hopping together.  The sidekick became the other defendant, though the bulk of the evidence against him was simply that he was the sidekick.  The police had no other pair to choose from.  They did have this other suspect, who had a history of crime and was seen talking with the victim at a bar the night before the murder.  But they failed to investigate him thoroughly.  At one point in the book Grisham mentions that he may have been dealing drugs to the police, in which case perhaps the police wouldn’t want to pin the crime on him for fear that he would implicate them in drug-related criminal activity.  Ultimately this guy does get convicted of some other violent crime so it’s uncertain why they steered clear of him in this case. 

The main suspect and sidekick were tried separately. Those trials didn’t happen till three years after the crime was committed.  The police need to solve violent crimes. The community needs to feel safe.  People can’t feel safe if there is a murderer at large.  It’s the police’s job to restore law and order.  But what happens when there’s no smoking gun, nor any incriminating evidence whatsoever, though there is no doubt about violence of the crime, there’s only doubt about who committed it?  Might the police then arrest some suspects just to give the appearance that they can solve the crime?  And might the police try to pin the crime on these suspects; it’s the best they can do to restore law and order under the circumstances? 

The prosecutor’s motives seem similar but Grisham’s presentation makes it seem as if he genuinely thought the defendants were guilty.  Many years later after the original trial a retrial was sought by lawyers working on behalf of the main defendant and as a result new DNA evidence was brought bear.  The DNA evidence entirely exonerated the defendants, there was no match, and indeed proved the other suspect was guilty.  The prosecutor was stunned.  He had welcomed the DNA evidence but thought it would confirm what he already knew.  He was forced to let the defendants go free, though he was slow to prosecute the man who had committed the crime.  One doesn’t know if at various points the prosecutor was playing a charade or not.  Some people are blind to their own errors in judgment, but the blindness is genuine, not an act.

What are the tonics for this sort of blindness?  Now I’m guessing because I really don’t know.  But if there is still some self-awareness and not complete delusion then it makes sense to me to place oneself in a circumstance where self-delusion is not necessary as a survival mechanism, i.e., to consume other people’s narratives rather than to make up your own.  I need to do more of that.  But habits are hard to break.  I like to sit in front of the screen, write my posts, do my Google searches, read the posts of others on their blogs or the commentary of NY Times columnists or other online pieces that come to my attention, so I can weave these into my story.  I no longer can read at the computer and keep that information their story.  I need to read away from the screen.  But how do I get there?  Some blood will be spilled before the cure has been taken. 

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