Daily Archives: 23 Nov 2014

Yet Another Murder Exoneration — After 39 Years

Ricky Jackson Leaving PrisonThe most repetitive story in America never gets boring. You know the one. The police pick up some guy and decide he committed a murder. The guy is always poor and almost always dark skinned. So the police get someone to lie or do so themselves. And then decades later, he is exonerated. It’s so much nicer than the much more common story that is the same except for the end, “And the state put him to death despite many problems with the case.” Now we have the story of Ricky Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman — two men released from the Ohio prison system on Friday after 39 years behind bars. Because Jackson was in a bit longer, he now holds the record for the longest time spent in jail before being exonerated. I assume Bridgeman holds the record for the second longest.

This case is especially bad because the police used a 12-year-old boy, Eddie Vernon, to do their dirty work. The crime was a very brutal convenience store robbery. But as usual:

There was no evidence linking the three men to the crime. Vernon said that once he told authorities the names of the three and the fact that he saw the slaying, Cleveland police fed him information about the crime and what happened.

But here’s an excellent additional example of our criminal justice system. Wiley Bridgeman was paroled back in 2000. But he didn’t stay out long:

In a chance meeting just months after leaving prison, he ran into Vernon. The two talked, and Vernon testified this week that he asked for Bridgeman’s forgiveness.

Someone saw the two men together and told Vernon that he must report the meeting to Bridgeman’s parole officer, as Bridgeman was told he could not meet with any witnesses in the case. Bridgeman was soon sent back to prison for a parole violation.

The question on my mind is why we see this over and over again, yet nothing happens. We have a broken criminal justice system where prosecutors have almost unlimited power and the police have little regard for the truth. And none of them are ever held accountable. These two men were convicted on the say-so of a child with no other evidence. That’s something more tha just laziness and incompetence. That’s villainy.

These two men also spent time on death row. I bring this up because whenever I talk to a death penalty supporter, they always think that death penalty cases are air tight. But in that, they are usually like this case: based upon almost nothing other than the fact that the defendants are poor and can’t mount a good defense.

This is justice in America, folks. It is despicable. And we do nothing about it because judges, prosecutors, and police offers have nothing to fear from being too harsh. Is it any wonder that we treat the weak as though they were animals?

Illegal Immigration Is Not Just About the Border

Scared RepublicansI heard from my father that the Fox News ranters have been talking about our double plus good border fence. You know the one: the double fence mandated by the Secure Fence Act of 2006. The Republicans have been really mad that the fence was never completed. The problem is that the fence is estimated to cost more than four billion dollars and the Republicans never allocated money to pay for it. But that’s perfect for them. They don’t actually want to do anything about illegal immigration. They know the business community (Along with all those rich people with all those big lawns to mow!) wants those undocumented workers. So they can maintain the current situation while demagoguing the the issue on Fox News. “If the president really cared about our immigration problem, he’d build the double plus good border fence!” And that leaves the Fox News viewer outraged that yet again, Obama just won’t enforce our immigration laws!

There is a bigger problem here other than the usual Republican disingenuousness. The truth is that enormous numbers of undocumented residents did not come here illegally. Let’s start with the fact that not all undocumented people come from Mexico. The fraction is high, but probably not as high as most people think: 59%. What’s more, 15% come from five countries way across the big ocean: Philippines, India, Korea, China, and Vietnam. In total, perhaps 40% of all undocumented residents in the United States came legally and simply stayed.

Think about this. It is estimated that there are 11.4 million undocumented residents in the United States. To listen to Republicans on the subject, no undocumented population is acceptable. But if we closed down the border and didn’t allow anyone through, we would still have 4.6 million undocumented people living here. The fewer people in the country illegally, the harder it is to find them. So we are always going to have large absolute numbers of people here illegally. The only way to avoid that is to turn the United States into the kind of prison that communist China was during the Cultural Revolution. I realize that there are certain conservatives who would be all for this and that Fox News could doubtless convince a third of the country that we must do this. But it isn’t a good idea and I doubt the American people would stand for it. (But it wouldn’t shock me if they did!)

The reasonable way to look at our undocumented population is to start by deciding what we will accept. How big a population is acceptable? Currently, 3.6% of our population is undocumented. That actually doesn’t sound that bad. And that is probably why people always shout about eleven million illegal immigrants! If 1.5% is an acceptable target, then all this focus on the double plus good border fence makes a certain amount of sense. But I do not think that the immigration hysterics who rant about 11.4 million people would change at all if the number were 4.6 million. That’s why I think it is important to find out what level of illegal immigration they think is acceptable.

There will always be undocumented residents in any country that has trading relations with other countries. I’d like to see what Republican politicians have to say about this. Because I know that the Republican base is not going to think that almost five million undocumented residents is acceptable. This will be yet another case where Republicans are demagoguing an issue with no ideas as to what they would do. The demagoguing is the product. And it fits in perfectly with the Republican base’s thinking. It is a kind of magic thinking that believes that with enough will to succeed, everything will be accomplished. All we have to do is line up tens of millions of border patrol agents on the southern border and there will be no illegal immigration. What will they think when they learn this is just half the problem? Well, they will never learn that as long as we allow Republican politicians to pretend that illegal immigration is all about the US-Mexico border.

Afterword

There is one solution to the undocumented residents. We could allow our economy to become so terrible that there is no opportunity here and our citizens go to other countries looking for jobs. This is what Republican and New Democratic economic policy is bringing to the United States. So maybe it is wrong to say that the conservatives don’t have an immigration plan.

New Atheists and Non-Overlapping Magisteria

Stephen Jay GouldIn 1997, Stephen Jay Gould published an essay, “Non-Overlapping Magisteria.” In it, he posited the idea that there was no conflict between religion and science because they dealt with different things. For example, religion was concerned with questions of morals and existence — issues on which science had no opinion. One could question this on the moral front, where science actually has a lot to say about many of our morals. But the obvious counterargument is that religion isn’t really concerned with morality as we find it but rather morality as we ought to find it. On the issue of existence, science really does have nothing of value to add, although sadly most atheists can’t seem to understand that.

I’ve always seen Gould’s essay as more a plea to religions to stay on their own ground. One of my great frustrations in dealing with theists is their reliance on Iron Age myths for their science. So they think that Genesis is literally true. But claims like humans being created originally in their current form and the Grand Canyon being formed by the great flood are not religious claims; they are scientific claims. Not only do these fanciful stories soil science, they also make religious people stupid in a theological sense.

Recently, the atheist community has begun to attack the idea behind Non-Overlapping Magisteria. In fact, they are so outspoken about it, I had assumed that I had missed something — that there was some critical flaw with the idea. But then I came upon the following video by Hemant Mehta. In general, I like his work. But on this video, he shows his smug atheist colors. I take special offense to one line, “If you are a devoutly religious person, and one who accepts the scientific method, something’s gotta give.” Ugh!

I am greatly concerned about the way the atheist community fetishizes the scientific method. They seem to have learned about this in high school science class and decided it was The Truth™. I noticed this same thing in the first episode of the new Cosmos. Neil deGrasse Tyson said that even though Giordano Bruno was right about stars just being other solar systems, he wasn’t a scientist. Why? Apparently because he never proved that it was true. He just had an intuition. This is an enormous error of thought. It mistakes the scientific process for what any given scientist does. What Bruno did was no different from what Einstein or Maxwell or Newton did.

The High School Science Class MethodWhat Mehta is getting at is that people who accept the “scientific method” only believe things that have been proved. This is patently false. What it means in practice is that atheists believe in the current state of science. Hooray for that! But most issues are not this clear. When it comes to the murky waters of economics or child rearing, do atheists really use the “scientific method” or do they just go with their gut? We all know the answer to that regardless of what some iconoclastic atheist might say.

There is one issue on which science has no opinion: ontology. And here I’m not just talking about the fact that science has no answers. Science is not designed to answer questions that exist outside the realm of existence itself. But I’ll admit: maybe some day science will have answers. But given the fundamental paradox of existence, it seems unlikely. But until then, science has no answer. And to expect people to simply have no opinion on such a fundamental question until science does have an answer is just silly.

I think that the Non-Overlapping Magisteria concept is just what we need today. I’ve already mentioned how religions soil science by applying their Iron Age myths to scientific questions. But atheists have a strong tendency to soil religion by applying scientific answers to theological questions. The ultimate example of this is Lawrence Krauss’ facile ontological answer, “Nothing is unstable.” It’s a perfectly fine scientific answer to why universes form. Similarly, the big bang is a perfectly fine scientific answer. And if we ever manage to show that our universe is part of a multiverse, that too will be perfectly fine scientific answer. But people who are interested in the ultimate question of why anything exists at all will not be satisfied with these answers.

From my perspective, there is one and only one question that is beyond the conceivable reach of science. But it is the biggest question there is. And atheists do themselves no good by pretending (1) that the question doesn’t matter and (2) that eventually science will answer it. And the idea that science has answered it is just fatuous. Atheists need the idea of Non-Overlapping Magisteria. Stephen Jay Gould was a lot smarter than the leaders of the New Atheist movement.


See also: Non-Overlapping Magisteria Helps Theists and Atheists

Ever to the Right Democrats!

Thomas FrankCarter’s vice president, Walter Mondale, ran for the presidency in 1984 on a platform that The New York Times called “bluntly conservative,” a “turn to [the] right,” because it promised spending cuts and higher taxes in order to deal with the federal deficit. Yet, after Mondale lost — in a landslide even worse than Carter’s — the verdict among pundits and Democratic strategists was well-nigh unanimous: The party had to cut its ties to what were then called “special interests” (meaning labor and African-Americans) and find its way to the center.

On and on it went. The Democratic presidential candidate in 1988, Michael Dukakis, seemed like a centrist’s dream, a post-partisan problem-solver who famously refused to call himself a liberal until the race was as good as lost. Once he had been good and properly floored by George Bush senior, however, the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, high priests of the move-to-the-right postmortem, found it convenient to make Dukakis the symbol of everything they despised.

Bill Clinton, though, won elections; therefore: Visionary! Meaningful! A champion of the “vital center”! Except for when Bill Clinton didn’t win elections (like in the mid-terms in 1994, after getting the Republicans’ beloved NAFTA passed); in which case: Hie thee to the center, lib’rul! Al Gore, a DLC centrist of impeccable credentials, lost his bid in 2000; therefore: Populism discredited for all time.

Barack Obama presented the mythmakers with a challenge. On the one hand, he is obviously a fellow worshiper at the pundits’ post-partisan shrine, and his efforts to conciliate the GOP and be nice to Wall Street have sometimes been enough to make one wince with shame. On the other hand, the right has always regarded him as a socialist and maybe even a Satanist. So, what is a pundit to make of him?

Well, duh: the same as always. When Obama succeeds, it is yet another triumph for centrism, even when Obama pulls off the win by going “populist,” as he did against Mitt Romney. When Obama’s team loses, as came to pass earlier this month, the man suddenly no longer represents the “center” at all; now he has supposedly led his party into the wilderness of the left. This is asserted even though the man didn’t do anything significant to speak of between the 2012 and 2014 elections.

—Thomas Frank
Phony Spin Even Fox News Won’t Buy

Robert Towne

Robert TowneThe great screenwriter Robert Towne is 80 years old today. I know, I know: another screenwriter?! But I quite like Towne. Most especially, I like him for Chinatown, which is a great screenplay and a great movie. In Hollywood, he is probably best known as a “script doctor.” He is legend for all the films he has helped fix. I can’t really comment on that. I tend to think that kind of stuff is anti-art. For example, he was brought in to work on Crimson Tide. But really, what major screenwriter in Hollywood was not brought in to work on that film?

The only films that I’m really sure he was the primary writer on were Shampoo and the second Mission: Impossible film. The first Mission: Impossible film is probably more typical of what Towne is paid extremely well to do. After going through a number of screenwriters, the production didn’t have much of a script. Brian De Palma (the guy who made good films at one time) put together a few action sequences in pre-production, so Towne took David Koepp’s basic story line (What?! Team leader double crosses team?) and De Palma’s action sequences and created some kind of a structure. In the end, the film almost seems like it makes sense.

Mission: Impossible II makes a lot more sense. It is riddled with Hollywood movie cliches and its most clever plot twist is so unbelievable that it would make Stan Lee wince. But it is a good vehicle for John Woo and probably as good a thing as he did in America. But it does highlight something unpleasant: being a writer for hire is probably the perfect thing for Robert Towne.

But sometimes a great craftsman gets the perfect project and great art is born. And that is the case with Chinatown. Actually, The Two Jakes is a great script too. It shows that having a great director is also important though. Towne did some directing too. Nothing worth mentioning. Let’s forget all that and just watch a little Chinatown. The following scene brings together three ideas that are very important to me: (1) money is a self-aggrandizing game for the powerful; (2) under the right circumstances, people are capable of anything; and (3) the powerful are far more likely to be evil than the weak.

Happy birthday Robert Towne!