Sunday, March 26, 2006

A couple weeks ago WRKO talk show host John DePetro ignited a firestorm by suggesting that Imette St. Guillen, who was brutally murdered after a night of bar-hopping in New York, should not have been out alone at 4 a.m. DePetro was immediately assailed for “blaming the victim”. Unfortunately his critics offered no real-life ways for young women to deal with real-world dangers. Simply put: Mr. DePetro’s advice was strictly pragmatic, his critics’ complaint strictly ideological. The sad fact is: the pragmatic approach could save a life, while an unwillingness to consider it could cost one.

No one has suggested that the murderer was not 100% responsible for Imette’s tragic death. But are we really “blaming the victim” in this case to suggest that certain minor precautions for a night on the town may have lowered the risk of danger for her? Or might lower the risk of danger for other young women like her? Should we follow the ideological route, as one woman in a chat room discussion on the case put it: “Yeah, we women should all stay locked up and afraid for our lives. Guess freedom in America is for men only, right? Might as well put long veils on us, lest we provoke the inner rapist…in men.” Is encouraging women to be proactive in protecting themselves as much as possible from danger (just as sensible men do, by the way) really tantamount to imprisonment or slavery?

It’s a question. But for a night out on the town the pragmatic approach is probably more useful. It goes something like this: regardless of the activity—whether it’s driving a car, crossing the street, cooking with gas, bowling, or bar-hopping—certain patterns of behavior expose you to more risk than others, and certain choices in conduct reduce risk. If you want to discuss the evils of patriarchy over drinks with strangers, just make sure you’ve got a friend you can count on close by. And just as you wouldn’t let a friend who’s drunk drive, don’t leave a friend who’s been drinking alone in a bar in the wee hours to fend for herself, no matter how much she protests or how fed up you are.

Here are the facts: Imette St. Guillen was at the bar at 4a.m. She was alone. She was drinking. At closing time, she was escorted out by a bouncer. The bouncer was convicted felon Darryl Littlejohn. If any—any—of these particular elements of the equation had been different, odds are Ms. St. Guillen would be alive today. You do the math. There are things we can do as a society to reduce risks like these, and things we can do as individuals to look out for ourselves and each other. It’s vital that we teach our boys to respect women, for one. It’s just as vital that we empower girls to act responsibly on their own behalf, so they never have to rely solely on “the kindness of strangers” at closing time.

Monday, March 20, 2006

With America entering its third year in an increasingly unstable Iraq at a cost of about $150 million a day, and an administration that breaks the law, disregards civil liberties and human rights at its whim, the question Democrats, Independents and Undecideds are asking these days is: could it get any worse? Well, my friends, consider this: Frist-Romney ’08. The answer is, obviously, yes. But Conservatives should be asking themselves the same. It is their legacy that’s at stake. It’s their party that’s being stolen from them. When the pendulum swings—and it will—what will be left of their gutted Grand Old Party? As the façade of Republican conservatism crumbles, should it surprise anyone that most self-professed conservatives know little or nothing of Edmund Burke and David Hume, never mind Joseph de Maistre and F.A. Hayek? Or that they’re blissfully unaware that, even with their “team” winning, conservatism is in crisis?

We all know there are those on either side of the spectrum who look at political parties as something akin to baseball teams. The rivalry between Republicans and Democrats, like that between the Sox and the Yankees, has little to do with who’s on the roster. It’s the jersey that matters. Just wearing the “wrong” one is enough to condemn you to eternal perdition, according to the guy in the “right” one. But for Republicans who want their party to stand for something, the question of whether Mr. Bush is a conservative has been coming up a lot lately. It is what might be described as an internal squabble that has spilled out into the open because many stalwarts of the conservative movement have been asking it, among them economist Bruce Bartlett, columnist George Will, and the godfather of modern conservatism himself, William F. Buckley, Jr.

Conservatives seem to agree that the war in Iraq, and a policy that assures future such military adventures abroad, is damaging if not flat-out hostile to conservative values. They quote no less an authority than James Madison, father of the Constitution, on the subject: “Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.” Madison also warned of the consolidation of power in the executive that we’re seeing under Bush.

Could it get worse? So long as Democrats remain bankrupt of ideals or the ability to inspire Americans to live up to them, yes. So long as Republican rah-rah team-loyalty trumps “traditional values” like the balance of powers, government ethics, fiscal restraint, and the conservative trinity of peace, property and commerce, yes. One thing’s for sure: the parties are changing, one of them radically. If you’re wearing a red jersey, it’s time you stepped up to the bat and took your team back.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Last week, the perpetrators of a string of church arsons across Alabama were apprehended. The crimes had perplexed investigators because they lacked the kind of pattern we’re accustomed to seeing in such cases. And when we got our first look at the criminals, what shocked was not their religious fanaticism or racism—but their utter lack of motive, aside from boredom. All three were popular college students from the prosperous suburbs of Birmingham. One, a former class president, is the son of a county constable, another’s the son of a doctor. They told police the arsons were “a prank that spun out of control”.

It’s certainly not the first time shocking acts of vandalism and violence seem to have stemmed from sheer boredom. But serious crimes without motive are on the upswing. Arson, armed robbery, and most troubling of all: more and more young people assaulting the homeless. Last summer in Florida five suburban, church-going teens confessed to the beating death of a homeless man, Michael Roberts. Motive, according to police: “they were bored and wanted to have some fun.” Earlier this year in Ft. Lauderdale, another brutal murder of a homeless man, Norris Gaynor, was caught on tape. The suburban teenage “thrill-seekers” had no motive. Last August here in Boston, Mario Acosta Chavez died after being beaten by two teens. In the North End not two weeks ago a homeless man was assaulted and set on fire while asleep in Langone Park.

Homeless assaults have surged in recent years. Some have blamed a series of fast-selling low-budget videos available on the web that glorify violence towards (and among) the homeless. But this alone can’t explain 386 reported attacks against homeless people nationwide from 1999 to 2004, resulting in a staggering 156 deaths. In the words of Michael Stoops of the National Coalition for the Homeless: it’s “a national epidemic.” First let’s house the homeless. We have the resources to do it. Then we need to ask ourselves, why are children of privilege in a prosperous nation preying on the poor for sport? It’s obscene, but the problem of boredom in leisure is a serious one.

Economists like John Maynard Keynes and Roy Harrod warned of the violent consequences of prosperity. Keynes said it would lead to “a general nervous breakdown.” Harrod foresaw “a return to the war, violence and blood sports of the Middle Ages.” Tibor Scitovsky’s classic “The Joyless Economy,” listed boredom as chief among the ravages of general prosperity, with violence as its outcome. And “the remedy for violence,” he wrote, “is civilization.” Now that we’ve mastered the production process, we must master leisure. His solutions seem quaint and not a little naïve to us now. Parents: turn off the TV and Play Station. Start parenting. Schools: recognize the vital importance of arts and humanities, which are as important in forming balanced, conscientious adults as organized sports. According to Scitovsky, we’ll discover in the humanities not only non-violent relief from boredom, but, potentially, real pleasure in leisure.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The recent Pew Research Center Social Trends Report “Are We Happy Yet?” is a sad comment on the state of happiness if ever there was one, full of specious correlations between quantifiable data like income, party affiliation, and church attendance, and an indefinable, unquantifiable and necessarily impermanent emotional state, elucidation of which has traditionally been the province of poets and philosophers, not pollsters and politicians. Of course, what really got my attention (and, yes, my goat, too) was the much ballyhooed “finding” that Republicans are happier by far than their foes. Yes, they’ve won the ultimate victory. It’s official: it’s a rout. Looks like the GOP’s the only disco in town now. You’ll have to forgive me if I’m not quite ready to join the Stepford Republicans smiling so vehemently their faces twitch and so spitefully their clenched teeth crack. If this is happiness, I’d rather cry in my beer with the losers, thanks. Seems like more fun, frankly.

I don’t put much stock in polls myself. Remember that politeness poll that found that Americans believe poor manners are increasing, yet 80 percent rated their own as "excellent”? Mm-hmm. There’s a larger question here about scientific inquiry into our conscious experience of, reflection on, and ways of communicating subjective, emotional states. Multiple choice leaves something to be desired. The very nature of a poll tells us our answers will be compared to others’, implying our internal states are somehow comparative, too. Savvy as we are at taking polls, we want to be on the “right” side when the data are compiled. Even if we have to exaggerate a bit. Let’s take church attendance. The Christian Century Foundation found that “actual church attendance was about half the rate indicated by national public opinion polls.” According to them, “most overreporting occurs among those who consider themselves to be regular church attenders,” but in reality are not. They’d like to be, or imagine they should be, or don’t want to be classed with those who aren’t. Are you happy? Is this a trick question?

The dating website offers a pretty typical “PhD Certified” Happiness Test. I don’t think of myself as a gloomy gus, but I’m no grinning fool. I figured I’d see how happy I really was, according to the pollsters. The test was True/False. Number one: “I feel my life is on the right track.” That’s where the trouble began. I mean, say I don’t see my life on a track at all. What am I, a greyhound chasing a mechanical rabbit? A thoroughbred in blinders or a locomotive racing against the clock? Even if you see life as a journey along a path, say you’re an ambler. Sometimes on the path, sometimes off it. Say you are the path. What if happiness is “off the charts” for you? What do the pollsters have to say about that? None of which is to say that Republicans don’t think they’re perfectly happy on their own hedonic treadmill. Maybe the rest of us are just thinking outside of the box.