Friday, March 31, 2006

Media Double (La)crosses Rights of the Accused

First, if you didn't read my last post, about Amendments four through eight (deconstructed for dummies), I encourage you to do so. It will put the following entry in an accurate light. Recently, the Duke University men's lacrosse team has been under heavy fire because of an alleged rape that took place at a party on March 13 [the Raleigh News & Observer has a special section on its website devoted to the issue with all coverage to date]. Unlike the media and students around the school, I will not discuss whether the allegations are accurate or not: I believe that any ethical human being will agree with the statement that if the allegations are true, if three men gang raped and sodomized an escort in the bathroom of a house during a party, they should each receive the maximum punishment afforded by law, and that any who knew about the rape and did not report it should be beaten with sticks and jailed for aiding & abetting.

The last statement is the most important: any who knew. Evidently, the forty six members of the team who were present at the party have all submitted DNA samples and willingly stopped competition until the allegations are cleared. None claims to have any knowledge of the alleged incident.

The local press is having a field day. I'm sure you can imagine the contents of the stories: 'Elite University covers up crimes!' 'Duke Rapists are "LAX" [the abbreviation for lacrosse] in moral values' and other such crap. Because of the hideous nature of the allegation, and the racial factor - the alleged rapists were three white boys (no true man would ever brutalize a woman) and the victim an African-American woman - the coverage has been nonstop since the allegations came to light. I will note here: although racism is foul and ugly, I feel that rape is a far more disgusting and brutal crime, therefore, I will not discuss that portion of the story.

What is disturbing is the complete disregard for due process and the rights of the accused evinced by the media coverage. It took several days for the defense to be afforded the opportunity to speak out against the way in which the media and the prosecution are handling the case [Story: N & O]. Two days prior, the local rag printed a screaming headline across the front page stating, "15 players had prior charges." What they didn't tell you was that the prior charges are nothing more than charges commonly leveled at college students: public intoxication, urinating in public, and underage possession of alcohol. Columnists lambasted the players, all of whom maintain that nothing happened, to come forth and "tell the truth." To this I ask, "What if they are?" Nobody wants to hear that.

Coverage such as this denies due process and impartiality from the outset. It is a means by which a newspaper can sell copies, a means by which it can stir public outrage. Again, if the allegations are true, then all involved, from the rapists to others who knew, should face the maximum punishment afforded by law. However, if they are innocent, truly not guilty of the crime of which they have been accused, we all know that headlines devoted to their innocence will be relegated to page 3B, for a single day's issue. After public crucifixion, after this inflammatory coverage, these players will never be believed innocent, and none has, as yet, even been charged with wrongdoing. No Grand Jury, no indictment, no charges, just allegations that have yet to yield any evidence other than testimonial.

I'm sorry to say, testimony, if true, cannot convict when there is testimony that contradicts it. I'm only sorry to say this if the testimony is true. The reasons for this are longstanding: there have been far too many false allegations of wrongdoing in the past: for reasons of vengeance, of character assassination, of longing for attention, even of an overzealous imagination. "Rapist" is a label that follows a man throughout his life. It is also one of those labels that, once applied through allegation, is nearly impossible to remove. I know of two men at my undergraduate institution who were accused of rape by former girlfriends who were mentally unbalanced. These men had to literally prove their innocence, completely in conflict with the constitutional rights of American citizens: eventually the stories of the accusers were proven unfounded: one was visiting her parents at the time of the alleged rape; the other was with her current boyfriend at the time.

The student body and local citizens have taken to the streets of Durham, screaming for blood. "What if it were your daughter?" they ask those who believe in the rights of the accused. Well, first of all, I doubt that all five thousand of the protesters were parents of the alleged victim. My daughter hasn't been born yet, but that is a different issue, one entirely dependent upon the nature of the individuals involved. If I believed them true, I'd probably head over with a bat, despite my espoused disgust with vigilantes. In all, I think that a statement made by one of the protesters to the media sums up the case (and the confluence of the new "yellow journalism" with culture and inflammatory rhetoric) perfectly.

The statement? "I'm outraged that legal rights are used to quiet this issue." [story] Legal rights are what separate us from tyranny. Legal rights may save that very speaker from a false claim some day.
currently playing on miPod - Symphony no. 2, 1st movement - by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Constitutional Conundrum (4-8)

Okay kiddies. This week we're going to talk about the rights of the accused. Amendment IV of the United States Constitution states, "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." Interpreted for idiots, this means that law enforcement (from the guv'ment right on down to the local Barney Fifes) cannot perform any of the following actions without a warrant supported by probable cause (probable cause, just in case you were wondering, does not mean "just because your skin is brown and/or you are Muslim"):
  • enter your house and look for evidence that a crime has been committed
  • look through your e-mail and library card checkouts to see what you're reading and to whom you are talking
  • monitor your phone calls placed citizen to citizen: even abroad, you have all of the Constitutional rights of an American citizen. Your buddy may be monitored if he is not a citizen, but only his voice can be recorded or transcribed.
  • look through your car
  • do anything that the Patriot Act says they can do.
Amendment V of the US Constitution states that "No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be put twice in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." For those who get all legal information from television, this means:
  • Nobody can be charged with a capital crime (big-time felonies) unless indicted or presented to a Grand Jury (unless you are a soldier - they can trample your rights all they want to because you signed your body and soul over to the government). Only soldiers can be held without due process - not citizens, even during time of war.
  • You can't be tried for the same crime twice, even if new evidence surfaces at a later date.
  • You cannot be forced to testify against yourself. If something you say will be held against you in court, you don't have to speak. You don't even have to justify it. If something you say may be interpreted as incriminating, even if, in context, it is not, you don't have to say it. It's not a cop out, it's a means to protect innocents from overzealous prosecutors
  • If the government confiscates or takes your belongings, including land, for itself, you have to be paid.
Amendment VI, VII, and VIII, in order, read thus:
  • VI - In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.
  • VII - In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
  • VIII - Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
Much of Amendments Seven and Eight are understood, but only about half of Amendment Six is generally understood; that is, people know that the accused in a criminal trial have the right to an impartial trial by jury; furthermore, that the accused has right to legal counsel. Recent Supreme Court rulings have reaffirmed the middle half: all accused criminals have the right to face their accusers in a court of law, no matter the circumstances. In cases of murder, the state, deprived of the resources of deceased citizens, stands as the accuser, so that dead folks don't have to be present.

Why discuss this now? What does this have to do with media and rhetoric? There is an interesting commingling of society, media, and rhetorical agency where these five amendments are concerned. More on this in my next entry.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Intelligent Fools

There is a particular breed of person that has begun to flourish in modern America, one who grates on almost everyone I know: the intelligent fool. This person manifests his existence in several ways, however, he is most likely to appear in one of the two following forms: either the bitchy pseudo-intellectual with a sense of entitlement who works in book stores or coffee shops, or the book critic. There are interrelating characteristics found in both that bear exposure and help one identify the underlying foolishness of otherwise bright people.

The first of these, the whiny store clerk/barista who believes the world owes him something just on the basis of his unrecognized brilliance, is perhaps the most annoying. The average example of this individual is a college dropout who was seen as the “disaffected poet” while in high school; someone who didn’t see how a university education could possibly benefit him and therefore decided to quit school “to spend more time with his writing” (the graduate of a liberal arts program who actually finished his degree, but still has the same sense of entitlement, is usually this person’s supervisor). He sighs when asked questions related to his job, as though wondering why such a brilliant individual must put up with the mundane questions of the commercial sellouts who come into his store. This sigh, mind you, is the predecessor of the snicker he’ll emit to a similar co-worker after the customer has gone in search of his book: the snicker that pokes fun at all literary tastes not in keeping with his own.

The clerk in question must always qualify his occupation with the phrase, “until I finish my [insert art form].” The trouble with this is that nobody who is too lazy to put up with the hassles of completing a college degree will ever have the work ethic necessary to complete a novel. Most successful novelists will tell you that writing is a full-time job; that overcoming a writer’s block requires the mental endurance equivalent to running a marathon. The other trouble is that, although many have talent, they abhor the idea of publishing popular fiction that will earn a living: that, they believe, is selling out.

This idea of selling-out is precisely why I label them pseudo-intellectuals. Most of them buy and read books that may as well have “Sartre-Mimicry-of-the-Month-Club-Main-Selection” stamped on the front cover. They are snobs and obscurants who read difficult works with impressive catch phrases that they then proceed to spout whenever they get a chance (no matter how inappropriate the situation): thus proving, in their own minds, how much better they are than everyone else. They loathe popular fiction, disdaining the capacity of “the masses” in choosing books that appeal to their current situation. Popular fiction cannot be literary in their minds (a trait they hold in common with some book critics mentioned below): if too many people like something, it lacks “artistic integrity,” a meaningless phrase invented to appeal to the pseudo-intellectual mind.

What these people refuse to recognize is that today’s popular fiction, in many instances, will become tomorrow’s literature. Shakespeare was not trying to make life difficult for the modern eleventh-grader; he was trying to fill the seats at the Globe. While linguistic and cultural evolution may make his work difficult for some modern readers, the work is not literary simply because it is difficult; rather, it is literary because the themes within the work appealed to massive numbers of people in his time – some, indeed, still resonate today. Likewise, the same idea applies to novels: most (not all) works of what is termed “classic” literature today were huge bestsellers in their own day. The list is impressive: Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, Charles Dickens’s Little Dorritt and David Copperfield, Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, James Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, and many others. These books appealed to great numbers of people because they addressed contemporary thoughts and issues as well as certain “timeless” themes (for lack of a better word); and as such, they provide modern readers with a glimpse into vanished societies that hold ideas still true today.

In order to feel better about their current situation, the clerk who fits my description will deride all those who enter his limited domain as having no taste. He will mock them for purchasing the latest Stephen King novel; simply because he is jealous that both his customers and the writers they read are happy with their lives. He feels that because he is bright, he should be handed a book contract so that the rest of us can read the drivel he chooses to share with us - in order that his complex and intellectual thoughts can reach the unenlightened masses. He fails to realize that most of us read what we do because it serves some purpose: it illuminates aspects of our lives in an entertaining matter or allows us to escape from whatever difficulties our day has to that point engendered.

Certain book critics share literary tastes with these clerks. They feel the need, as frustrated novelist wanna-bes, to criticize the bestseller lists for lack of taste. Most of them, in fact, do not even consider genre fiction to be literary in the slightest. They will cite a lack of touch with reality or “escapism” as the reason for their derision of science fiction. While they do not share the belief that literature should be difficult, they do believe that lack of reality in fiction automatically precludes its validity as an art form: art, they say, should reflect reality.

Most science fiction readers read their books to escape from reality, to journey into a world wherein good is rewarded and evil, punished. There is, in fact, a good deal of literary tradition that science fiction and fantasy coincide with, although these critics cannot see this. To explain: one of the most common themes in American literature is the orphaned boy, noble at heart, who sets out in a corrupt world to make a life for himself. Along the way, he will experience a direct confrontation with evil (either a person or situation), and end up wiser: he retains his nobility and goodness, maintaining his separation from corruption, while learning how to avoid that corruption. At the end of the road lies the good life.

Instances of this theme abound in our cultural dialogue: Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, Deerslayer, and The Great Gatsby will suffice to name some of the literary instances. This theme is also prevalent in the cultural ideal of “The American Dream.” Science fiction and fantasy are merely modern reactions to the idea: they take this story, which doesn’t seem viable in a modern, cynical, uncaring world, and place it in a universe where it can happen. The growing abundance of science fiction following the first and second World Wars attests to this feeling that the story is more realistic in an unrealistic setting. The growing popularity of the genres can denote the modern reader’s need for a hope not found in some “realistic” modern works of fiction. The stories are universally about the triumph of good over evil, something that people want to read about more and more as the prevailing worldview becomes more bleak each year.