Monday, July 22, 2013

Did the Zimmerman-Martin Case Just Leave Us with Two More Scapegoats - and an Unchanged System - Rather Than Useful Answers?

14 & 22 July 2013

I have done a quick scan of Google, looking for an intelligent analysis of the Zimmerman-Martin case, the obsessive media coverage of which I acknowledge I have not followed particularly closely. Thus, I wanted to get myself better informed. Unfortunately, a media review has not helped on that count!

So far, all I have found is arguments for one side or the other. In my view, that is simply not journalism, it is advocacy. Thus, I shall here attempt to raise the questions to which I have wanted answers….

In brief, there remains much that is not known, and it certainly raises reasonable doubt in my mind as to whether Mr. Zimmerman committed murder or manslaughter. Issue number one, why did Mr. Zimmerman pursue Mr. Martin when the 911 operator told him not to? Perhaps he assumed that 911 would not get anyone there in a timely manner. Hmmm. He may certainly have been right about that one.

Should Mr. Zimmerman have pursued Mr. Martin? Well, I think it is obvious that he was unwise to do so, for many reasons, the most prominent of which is the fact that Mr. Martin was walking down the street not breaking any laws. My impression is that Mr. Zimmerman was in fear of Mr. Martin from the outset because (1) there had been break-ins in the neighbourhood, and (2) Mr. Zimmerman was already frightened and suspicious of black men.

Was Mr. Zimmerman breaking any laws by pursuing Mr. Martin? In Canada, he would have been breaking several. However, as a neighbourhood watchman in Florida, my understanding is that he was entitled to observe and approach anyone of whom he was suspicious, whether for good reason or not. As our airports are teaching us, in our fearful era, the observation of suspicious behaviour is NOT a requirement for the initiation of monitoring activity.

Was Mr. Zimmerman harassing Mr. Martin? I'd guess the answer to that big question is probably yes, and that he may also have had inappropriate courage due to carrying a gun (legal in Florida).

What options did Mr. Martin then have? Well, he had a neighbourhood watchman following him with a gun (of which he was presumably unaware; I don't know at what point, if any, the gun was visibly displayed). Mr. Martin may or may not have been alert to the fact that Mr. Zimmerman had some level of authority to monitor his behaviour, whether he was profiling him or not. Did Mr. Zimmerman appropriately inform Mr. Martin of his duties, or did he inappropriately provoke Mr. Martin? Again, I haven't followed the story in detail. Maybe this question has been answered, but in my review so far, my impression is that this is unknown. Here, I can imagine a dozen scenarios, in some of which Mr. Zimmerman is aggressive and intrusive, in some of which Mr. Martin is provocative and threatening, and in some of which, both players are getting out of line. Until I know more, my assumption is that the third option most likely applies – that is, that both gentlemen were behaving badly, which in my mind is one of the key conundrums of the case (not the only one, by any means). Was one player more out of line than the other? That is where reasonable doubts (not to mention perceptions and prejudices of many kinds) really begin to surface.

Based on the evidence I am aware of, it is apparent that these two apparently angry young males got into a physical dispute with each other. Mr. Martin seems to have been young, fit, and willing to go at it with Mr. Zimmerman, possibly to the point of making serious threats, if one is to lend credence to Mr. Zimmerman's report of events. Mr. Zimmerman, for his part, was probably behaving provocatively, though, as noted, he was in a position of some authority, whether equipped with the skills to carry out that authority or not. Mr. Zimmerman has been described as unfit and unskilled in physical combat. This all fits with Mr. Martin being "on top of" and physically "close to" Mr. Zimmerman, a point on which the prosecution seems ultimately to have agreed with the defense.

Now, here's where I'm going to draw on personal experience. In my work, I have heard (and sometimes examined) thousands of narratives of physical altercations between disputing parties. The story is ALWAYS different between the two sides. If Mr. Martin was "on top" and Mr. Zimmerman was "on the bottom," who was crying for help? Well, it could have been either one, of course, but, given the circumstances, I'm going to say that the cry was far more likely that of Mr. Zimmerman (Mr. Martin would have felt out of place in a mostly non-black neighbourhood, and thus would not have been likely to perceive help as being available to him, a probable reason for his acting aggressively, which he seems almost certainly to have done).

Would Mr. Martin have used threats – including threats of death, as Mr. Zimmerman reported – to intimidate and deter Mr. Zimmerman? Based on my experience of such encounters, I would say this again is highly likely. Going further out the same speculative limb, I'm going to guess that Mr. Zimmerman may have been more provocative at the outset (though it is perhaps possible that he was not – reasonable doubt, again).

In other words, it is transparently obvious that Mr. Zimmerman was fearful of Mr. Martin from the start. In fact, his excessive level of fear from the outset is probably the best reason why he should NOT have pursued Mr. Martin in the first place. That is, if your fear is out of control at the start, emotional intelligence suggests that further action will lead you deeper into the abyss, as quite obviously occurred in this situation.

So, was Mr. Zimmerman in fear for his bodily integrity and life at the time he discharged his gun into Mr. Martin's chest at close range? On this point, I honestly have little doubt. Mr. Zimmerman was excessively fearful at the start – in fact, so fearful that he certainly should not have acted, particularly with his courage apparently dependent on the gun in his possession. Ultimately, Mr. Martin is on top of Mr. Zimmerman, and, by inference, has the physical edge, and very likely the psychological edge. How fearful is Mr. Zimmerman at this point? Well, if Mr. Martin was truly in the superior position and now behaving in a threatening manner in an act of perceived self-defense on his part, Mr. Zimmerman almost certainly feared serious injury or death. Assuming that Mr. Zimmerman had cried for help, obviously no help had readily arrived (I don't know the time frame, but time passes slowly when you're undergoing traumatic stress – and yes, both were experiencing traumatic stress, and roughly equally, in my best guess).

So, given that this is Florida, and both parties were arguably standing their ground, Mr. Zimmerman discharged his firearm into the co-party's chest, ending his life. On this point, I have little doubt that Mr. Zimmerman was in fear for his bodily integrity and of his possibly impending death.

Mr. Martin, for his part, was dealing with a different, and arguably more complex, set of fears, which probably only a minority group member can fully grasp. In short, Mr. Martin almost certainly assumed that he was "on his own" in Mr. Zimmerman's neighbourhood, and that his best chance of deterring his pursuer was to incite fear in him (compliance with authority is risky for minority groups in an unjust society). Given that Mr. Zimmerman's problem seems to have been excessive fear, Mr. Martin's strategy was thus understandable, but ill-chosen (I'm guessing he would have lived that night, had he reassured rather than challenged his pursuer, but it would have been very hard for him to do this, for many reasons, some of which have to do with issues of race, inequality and the multiple levels of prejudice already in place against him, and he was also a not-yet-mature adolescent male).

Returning to the legal matter in question, and in brief, if Mr. Zimmerman was in fear for his physical integrity and/or life, then there is reasonable doubt that he committed homicide. Thus, on the question to the jury, “was Mr. Zimmerman guilty of homicide,” then "not guilty" is almost certainly the only reasonable answer. However, there remain a dozen or more additional questions which this trial did not either ask or answer. Unfortunately, the media coverage seems also to have skated past these questions. Thus, I guess we are on our own if we want to understand these matters better.

So, please let me close by listing just a few of the unasked questions in this case….

This tragedy arose in the context of a legal system in which an untrained neighbourhood watchman, and indeed, any citizen, is entitled to bear arms, and to use them in self-defense. Further, self-defense is the motive assumed under the law (as it should be), unless it cannot be proven that a legitimate case for self-defense existed. Given this system, how can anyone possibly believe that this (and other tragedies) are not inevitable?

Is this not therefore a systemic problem?

If this is actually a systemic problem, how can focusing on, trying in court - and blaming - an individual whose actions cannot be shown to violate any Florida law, resolve any fundamental problems? 

Should not our dialogue focus on developing a better legal code, and ultimately, wiser, safer and more competent citizens, rather than on the search for scapegoats (on which members of the public somewhat arbitrarily choose sides)?

Moving down from the systems level, here are a few practical questions:

Should fearful young men with guns be acting as neighbourhood watchmen? Also, what level of training is necessary for neighbourhood watchmen?

Does the 911 system actually work in situations where a (possible) immediate threat is identified (whether actual or perceived)?

How can we effectively reduce fear and prejudice among the thousands of differing/distinctive groups in our society?

Could improved social skills on both sides have saved lives and prevented violence this particular night? (I think so.) If the answer is "yes," what skills in particular?

What are the social/institutional causes of crime/threat and racial misunderstanding that contributed to the fearfulness of both Mr. Zimmerman and Mr. Martin?

Why is it so difficult to identify and talk objectively about the experiences, thoughts, emotions and behaviour of both parties in this event?

Did anyone, anywhere, accurately capture the stories of either Mr. Zimmerman or Mr. Martin – or even try?

What reforms would be most effective in preventing recurrences of unneeded violence of this type?

Does Mr. Zimmerman have a continuing moral or legal obligation to redress the harms he did to Mr. Martin, his family and society?

Similarly, does society have some obligation to redress harms done to Mr. Zimmerman?

Were both parties ultimately scapegoated for the sake of pursuing partisan agendas on both sides of the issue - in fact, diverting attention from a system of laws and social policies that cannot possibly produce desirable results?

Are there thus many more than two sides to this issue? What are the real competing agendas here?

Could we do better than this both in preventing violence and in administering justice, particularly in situations that are racially charged?


The point I've been trying to make is that this story is not actually about Trayvon Martin OR George Zimmerman. The United States has a system of laws and social norms that guarantees that such tragedies will be repeated. Mr. Zimmerman was correctly found not guilty. There is far too much room for reasonable doubt in circumstances such as occurred in this particular case to proceed to conviction, and it has nothing to do with "stand your ground legislation."

But where else besides Somalia and the Congo are you going to have neighbourhood watchmen legally bearing arms? That's where the problem begins (and ends), in my view. Until the American legal and regulatory framework is changed, this story will continue to be retold again and again.

Addendum: The following is a link to the first coherent specifically legal analysis I've seen - brief, focused, and composed by an experienced Florida lawyer: The Embarrassment Of The George Zimmerman Verdict

Now, I'm waiting for public interest in a systems level analysis of this problem to emerge. I hope not to have to wait "forever," but I fear that I will. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

How Economic Central Planning Fails

17 July 2013

The "Coups de Whiskey" of the 1920s and the 2000s

Was J. M. Keynes the Paul Krugman of his era? He was the first congratulator of the "coup de whiskey."

From Modern Times - The World from the Twenties to the Eighties, by Paul Johnson:

"Domestically and internationally they constantly pumped more credit into the system and whenever the economy showed signs of flagging they increased the dose. The most notorious occasion was in July 1927, when Strong and Norman held a secret meeting of bankers at the Long Island estates of Ogden Mills, the US Treasury Under-Secretary, and Mrs. Ruth Pratt, the Standard Oil heiress. Strong kept Washington in the dark and refused to let even his most senior colleagues attend, he and Norman decided on another burst of inflation and the protests of Schacht and of Charles Rist Deputy-Governor of the Bank of France, were brushed aside.

The New York Fed reduced its rate by a further half percent to 3.5; as Strong put it to Rist, 'I will give a little coup de whiskey to the stock-market' -- and as a result set in motion the last culminating wave of speculation. Adolph Miller, a member of the Federal Reserve Board, subsequently described this decision in Senate testimony as 'the greatest and boldest operation ever undertaken by the Federal Reserve System [which] resulted in one of the most costly errors committed by it or any other banking system in the last seventy-five years…

"The policy appeared to be succeeding. In the second half of the decade, the cheap credit Strong-Normal policy pumped into the world economy perked up trade...This was genuine economic management at last! Keynes described 'the successful management of the dollar by the Federal Reserve Board from 1923-28 as a 'triumph.' Hawtrey's verdict was: 'The American experiment in stabilization from 1922 to 1928 showed that early treatment could check a tendency either to inflation or to depression…The American experiment was a great advance upon the practice of the nineteenth century…Strong's last push, in fact, did little to help the 'real' economy. It fed speculation. Very little of the new credit went through to the mass-consumer…

"Strong's coup de whiskey benefited almost solely the non-wage earners: the last phase of the boom was largely speculative…The 1929 crash exposed in addition the naivety and ignorance of bankers, businessmen, Wall Street experts, and academic economists high and low; it showed they did not understand the system they had been so confidently manipulating. They had tried to substitute their own well-meaning policies for what Adam Smith called 'the invisible hand' of the market and they had wrought disaster. Far from demonstrating, as Keynes and his school later argued -- at the time Keynes failed to predict either the crash or the extent and duration of the Depression -- the dangers of a self-regulating economy, the dégringolade indicated quite the opposite: the risks of ill-informed meddling."

My comments follow:

Fast forward to today. I believe Mr. Bernanke (our current Fed Head) to be a noble individual, in that he is the most honest (and thorough) communicator the Fed has ever had. However, his communications are quite evidently becoming ever more jumbled, with endless backtracking and restating. That is, if Mr. Bernanke can't say anything coherent, it's because the Fed is failing in its (misplaced) mission - which I understand to be economic central planning.

If there is one thing that should NOT be centrally planned, it's an economy. It's very difficult to separate economic freedom from prosperity. And when I talk to all the small business people filling out all their government paperwork, or observe all the investment managers tuning in to the next Fed speech, it's pretty clear that our economy is now much less free than it once was...

For example, the 1950s, when I was growing up, was a quite free era, despite all the misplaced fears about the doomed system of communism, with its core mandate for the central planning of "everything." Surely the advocates of freedom might have recognized that communism would fail - not because of totalitarianism (which has its own contradictions), but because of economic central planning. 

That is, no "cold war" was ever needed. Economic central planning always fails. It's just a waiting game. 

Unfortunately, today's economic central planners are on our side, and inevitably, despite the fact that they are not totalitarians, their agenda will also fail, just as did those of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Mugabe, Castro, Chavez, the Kim dynasty, John Law, ad infinitum.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

An Essay on Retribalization in the Post-Subsistence Age

15 May 2007 (reposted 14 July 2013)

It has now been many decades since
Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian apostle of television-based social change, postulated, among other things, that the “cool” electronic media – at that time represented primarily by television – were exerting a “retribalizing” influence upon post-industrial civil society.

McLuhan’s ideas are complex and often vague, and he addressed issues of far-reaching cultural significance. Additionally, several decades have passed, and the internet has replaced television as the “cool” electronic medium of our era. Nonetheless, broad culturally-related behavioural changes seem to be evident in our population at large, and it may be worthwhile to consider whether the concept of retribalization sheds some light on how our world is changing.

Let us begin by laying down some
fundamental concepts. Modern humans have walked the planet for a scant 200,000 years, and during almost all of that period, our forebears lived a tribal and subsistence-based way of life. About 5000 years ago, the development of agricultural technology enabled the first gathering of peoples into cities, and this era is generally referred to as the rise of civilization, though I prefer the term civil culture, which refers to the cultural developments that occur when humans engage in a trade-based lifestyle in urban centres.

With the rise of civil culture, the influence of tribal culture diminished, and this was particularly true during the interlinked historical eras of imperialism and industrialization.

Until recently, individuals inhabiting civil cultures regarded themselves as unquestionably superior to individuals living within tribal cultures.

A jolting reminder of this smug worldview was afforded me this week when I watched the 51-year-old John Wayne movie,
The Searchers – truly a movie classic (though now strikingly dated) and the original inspiration for Jonathan Lethem's novel, Girl in Landscape, about which I have blogged earlier.

In a “making of” featurette, Natalie Wood conversed with the self-confident narrator, and the two broached the topic of cultural contrasts while discussing the role of the indigenous Navajo people in the making of the film. Without blinking an eye, the two conversants suggested that the Navajo had historically lived a “savage” lifestyle, but had now abandoned this way of life for a peaceful and subsistence-based, and thus still “primitive,” lifestyle.

I could say much more, but what most struck me about this self-satisfied synopsis of recent history from the vantage point of 1956 is the fact that, in my view, the greater change over the subsequent 50 years has not been the continued “advance” of the indigenous peoples (in this case the Navajo), but in fact the retribalization of the dominant culture – and I think that this is an outcome that neither the narrator nor Ms. Wood ever envisioned.

In both the historical and anthropological contexts, we tend to think of tribal lifestyles solely in terms of subsistence, and for the most part, the age of subsistence has passed, at least in the northern hemisphere.

How then can our society have retribalized over the past 50 years?

Interestingly, if Mr. McLuhan is correct, even the making of films, such as The Searchers, might in fact play a role in this process – and this further compounds the irony of my initial observation.

In brief, Mr. McLuhan held that
tribal culture is characterized by ways of life based on interpersonal speech, story-telling, participatory processes, integrating and decentralized social structures, mythic views of the world, village-based lifestyles, and – in particular – tribal identities.

In contrast, the subsequent “mechanical age” was characterized by hierarchical structures, top-down communication, and rule-governed social behavioural structures, creating a way of life that was individualistic, fragmented, nationalistic, centralized, specialized and urbanized.

Perhaps the height of civil culture is represented in the rise of the British Empire in the 19th century. In addition to national pride, this era was characterized by clearly-defined and often exacting social rules and structures, highly-refined and universally-valued basic skill sets (here I would focus in particular on the primacy of literacy and literate communication), and a clearly-delineated and consensually accepted worldview as to the nature of individual and social progress based on rationality and technological mastery of the environment.

How far we have come in our modern era from the consensual views and hierarchically-structured norms of the Victorian Age.

Many of us who are products of the age of text-based literacy have lamented the breathtaking decline in universal literacy that quite clearly characterizes our current era. One need only spend an afternoon in the attic with the correspondence of one's grandparents to observe that literacy in particular has crumbled in response to the onslaught of the age of electronic media.

And this simple observation gives rise to the instinct of curiosity as to what else might be taking place....

If McLuhan is correct, that electronic media reshape our personal and cultural identities, then we have a starting point for thinking about the disorienting global and cultural crosscurrents that typify our fragmented era.

At this point, I would like to present further – though admittedly inchoate evidence – that a very fundamental and correspondingly radical process of change is afoot.
Picasso represented these changes in his introduction of cubism into the world of visual art, and as an exhibit, I present his classic work (a replica of which took its insistent place on the walls of our family’s summer cabin on the James River of Missouri during my childhood), Les Demoiselles D’Avignon.

The shattered perspectives in Picasso’s paintings offer evidence that our ability to perceive the world has somehow become radically disunified, and in an obviously disturbing way. Picasso’s best-known work, Guernica, certainly illustrates this point more profoundly still.
The literary works of the existentialists, emerging in the 19th and early 20th centuries, anticipated similar developments. Here I am thinking of such writers as Sartre, Camus and Dostoevsky, whose novels consumed my attention and interest during my high school years. One cannot read such works without the sense that our personal certainties have become profoundly disrupted by the incomprehensible diversity and disorder of broad human experience.

Ivan Illich, with whom I was fortunate enough to have been invited to spend a weekend almost two decades ago, argued that we should consider returning to a new kind of “subsistence” lifestyle, for the sake not of our economic survival, but of our survival as human beings capable of relationship and collaboration. Illich also shared McLuhan's interest in the human transition from reliance upon oral communication to text-based communication – and beyond that, to electronically-mediated communication (see: ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind (1988) ISBN 0-86547-291-2).
Can we not easily contrast the profoundly intricate literary accomplishments of Shakespeare with the primitive linguistic formulations that characterize the great mass of entries on, the virtual space that you as my reader and I as the writer of this essay inhabit at the very moment of your reading of this text?

My grandmother told me stories of neighbourly visiting in her early and mid-adult life. Social visiting was highly formalized, and greeting cards – which she collected and shared with me – were exchanged.

Can anyone argue that tribal warfare remains a force against which our sophisticated and technologized military interventions are virtually useless – or that tribalism has unmade the US adventure in Iraq and is rending much of Africa, the Middle East and South Asia as well?

I pass most of the hours of most of my days in conversations with the Ojibway and Cree people of Northwest Ontario. In most cases, the near-ancestors of these individuals lived a classic tribal lifestyle, and a smaller number of my aboriginal clients have been able to describe to me their experiences of subsistence during their own early years, characterized by living in tents, camping at and walking traplines with their parents, and being raised by their extended family as a “non-nuclear” family unit.

I close here following the above potpourri of examples, because I trust that you can afford your own. And I also wish to reflect on what I have learned and observed through my discussions with individuals whose way of life often continues to express the legacy of many millennia of tribal culture.

My work has caused me to become interested in how tribal people think and behave both similarly to and differently than people with European ancestry, and I have grown increasingly curious as to the factors that characterize the thinking of the individuals who have so kindly shared many of their most personal experiences with me.

Please permit me to summarize briefly a few of my observations

For many of my clients, the self is very much a shared as opposed to an individual reality. How others are impacted by every thought and action is not merely an incidental, but a primary concern. This is an example of the workings of a tribally-acquired identity.

Further, the events of the immediate moment and of the present day very often overshadow concerns as to future expectations, aspirations and consequences. This is not a reflection of anomie or of goallessness – far from it – but of the primacy of immediate circumstances, and of one’s high regard for the importance and needs of one’s present companions.

I believe also that for the tribal person, emotional reality tends to supersede the “rational” worldview. "Sense" is not a construct of logical induction or deduction, but of the interplay of the changing and competing emotional realities of those with whom one is engaged in relationship.

The above are meant to be only a few examples, true to Montaigne's spirit in his penning of his original essays as first “attempts” at the formulation of new ideas through their presentation to others in the form of brief texts.

Let me close by clarifying that I do not regard myself as a tribal individual. I am very much a product of the age of literacy and formalism. But I do perceive that I am surrounded by a retribalizing society and I do not denigrate it – rather I seek to understand it.

Many of the modalities of living that typify the world in which I was raised are literally evaporating before my eyes, and I wish to understand how and why that is occurring, and what it means. The concept of retribalization in the post-industrial era seems to me to be the key to reaching that understanding, though I am only in the early stages of doing so.

Let me close by urging the reader to take some time to watch the classic movie, The Searchers, and don't skip the “making-of” featurettes.

Consider the irony that as Ms. Wood and the narrator converse easily from a perspective of their own presumed superiority, their children and their children’s children have probably become much more similar to the tribal people whom they clearly regarded – only 50 years ago – as less-advanced than themselves.

The children and the grandchildren of the worthy Navajo people who aided in making the film have probably changed much less than have the descendants of the film-makers.

It seems to me that it is now the indigenous peoples of the world who must teach most of the rest of us about how to be tribal, rather than we who must teach them about how to be “civilized.”

It is perhaps only those who still remember the tribal ways who possess the capacity to lead us along the path that we are now following. Further, and perhaps radically, I suspect that human survival itself may depend upon the formation and nurturing of such seemingly inverted teaching and learning relationships.