Sunday, November 22, 2009

Further thoughts on the complexity of human nature, biker justice, and this blog.

First of all, there is change in the wind at SHAMblog. I think.

Those of you who've been here a while have accompanied me through several false starts at shutting down the blog. (Does that make them false finishes?) In those cases I either woke up one morning and realized I had more verbiage to inflict on you, or something happened in the SHAMsphere that demanded comment, and the blog
not yet in full rigorwas a handy medium. But lately I've been feeling that I've pretty much said it all...and I've said it 368 times at that.* More to the point, I've become convinced that there must be a better way to serve the modest but loyal audience for this materialor, better still, a way to serve the much, much larger demographic of people who don't know they're an audience for this material but should be. There's only so much cultural traction you can gain by preaching to the choir.

Anyway, I'll have more on this soo
n. Ideas are always welcome.


Owing to the mass amou
nt of verbiage alluded to above, most of you by now know my rather bizarre thoughts on crime and punishment**, so you've learned to expect the expected from me. Therefore you won't be disappointed by this post.

Went to Walmart yesterday, and found the store in the grips of some mass insurrection on the part of Biker Nation. In the giant parking lot were, conservatively, 2000 bikes and their associated riders of all description. And when I say all description, I mean all description. Everything from authentic Mongol types to your weekend warriors (e.g., Herb-the-urologist, who likes to play at being Marlon Brando on Saturdays, but only the sunny ones, otherwise the wind and rain make his allergies act up, plus he sometimes gets a really, really bad rash). Actually, it turns out that the bikers had convened from far and wide for a colossal toy giveaway sponsored by Walmart partnering with an Allentown shelter.

So I go in the store and my eyes are immediately drawn to this seriously malevolent-looking dude at one of the checkouts. I grant you, appearances can deceive, but between the tats/sleeves, the neo-Nazi haircut and ZZ Top-ish beard, the well-worn leather, the obvious scars, and the overall you-got-a-problem-with-me? look, I'm thinking,
If this guy doesn't have a rap sheet longer than John Dillinger's pecker, then I'm your Aunt Jemima. At his side was his honey, and I swear to God, I have to believe she could've kicked the ass of 95% of the other guys in the store, including the rest of the male bikers. I mean to tell you, this was the couple from central casting.

Thing is, under each arm he had a toy. And not just any toy. They were dolls. Nice, pretty dolls with pink dresses. (OK, I know, there are probably all sorts of cynical/nefarious comments about pedophilia that suggest themselves at this point, but humor me.)

So I finish up my shopping
feeling, I might add, somewhat gay in this sea of testosterone, despite my own considerable sizeand there he is again, walking out of the store just ahead of me. (Funny thing, too: This is one dude whose receipt the greeter does not ask to see.) I follow him with my eyes as he walks down to the area that's been cordoned off with yellow tape, climbs over the tape, and places the dolls in a sidecar that's already crammed with other toys. Driving out of the lot, I pass right by him and his bike. On the back of the bike is a little license plate-like sign that reads:

People, I don't know what this guy has done so far in his life. It seems a safe bet that he's had a few scrapes here and there. But let's say it's worse than that, much worse. Let's say he's killed a man. Even a couple of men. Let's stipulate to that, for the sake of argument. But let's also say he's serious about this "be nice to children" stuff, and that he goes out of his way to walk the walk. Sure, most of us love kids, but let's say this guy goes totally above and beyond. Maybe he has his reasons, and maybe those reasons have something to do with his own childhood, something he hasn't forgotten. Something that probably wasn't that nice. Regardless, all we know now is that he finds every opportunity to help kids. He raises moneymaybe legally, maybe notfor this or that children's cause. He'd give his right arm (or at least a kidney) to help one of those poor waifs at St. Jude's.

I ask you a simple question: Is this man really more of a blight on the species, even with his two homicides, than the kind of self-seeking prick who never quite crosses that fine line
never actually breaks any (written) lawbut never lifts a finger for anyone who can't do him some good? The kind of guy who knows all the angles and plays them, always for his own benefit? The kind of guy who not only doesn't give a damn about other people's kids, but mistreats his own? Or even, let's say, the kind of hedonist/sybarite/Luxist-type guy who helped run things at AIG or Goldman Sachs before the fall?

If one of them must be punished...which should it be? Where's the sense of proportion here? I'm just askin', and it's an honest question.

* This is my 872nd post. I mean, geez....
** some of which can be read in this piece I did for Skeptic. This just scratches the surface of my questions/doubts about the system, but it's a good introduction to the topic.


Athol Kay said...

Well there's a big difference between "shutting a blog down", and "stepping back for a bit and coming in with a quality post once a month or so".

I've shut a blog down before, it's freeing, but at the same time a year later I regretted it a little.

Tyro said...

even with his two homicides, than the kind of self-seeking prick who never quite crosses that fine line—never actually breaks any (written) law—but never lifts a finger for anyone who can't do him some good? The kind of guy who knows all the angles and plays them, always for his own benefit?

Are you saying that the multiple-murderer, probable drug runner and violent thug doesn't "know all the angles"? According to your own hypothetical he has violated some of our most severe legal and moral laws and escaped punishment. Does a bumper sticker and fifty bucks make it all better? I'd rather have the meek sociopath who sticks to himself and doesn't break rules over the violent sociopath who harms and kills others, even if he publicly donated toys.

Next time instead of the rhetorical questions and the vague hints of hypocrisy you can come out and say what conditions or qualities can excuse murder because that's what it looks like you're doing, just without the courage to come out and say it.

Tyro said...

BTW: I just finished reading SHAM this summer and found your blog a month or two ago so all of this is fresh and new to me. I think that even your regular readers may not mind (and will probably even appreciate) repetition and reminders. Blogs aren't like books which develop a single argument but are rather a good means of discussing new events or fleshing out a single theme. If that's what you're concerned about, I wouldn't be.

And yeah, what Athol said - step back for a month or six, repost golden oldies from the past which newer readers may not have read and older readers may have forgotten, flesh out ideas for new projects. You will probably regret deleting the blog, but benign neglect never hurt anyone.

Steve Salerno said...

Tyro: I'm not excusing anything. I'm simply posing a question that asks readers to move a little beyond the pat, comfortable definitions and ask why we categorize certain things as crimes while dismissing other types of behavior as "just the way it is." And yes, I would submit that, all things being equal, a woman who kills her husband in a domestic dispute may indeed have far less negative impact on society than another woman who raises four sons in a brutish, uncaring way, such that all of them go out into the world with "issues" and possibly dangerous maladjustments.

The first is homicide, and you go away for life (or are killed in the State's name). The second is just "questionable parenting."

Btw, I'm not really thinking about abandoning the blog. I just think it needs a few format changes to be optimally useful to people.

Jenny said...

You are not preaching to the choir here, Steve. And as much as you might think you've "said it all" before and then some, my guess is that there is still a lot you are not saying. I for one will continue to come around and see what is on your mind because what you say inspires me to think in fresh new ways.

I just graduated from college (again) and am looking now at the program. On the front is the Latin phrase Rogamus Ut Discamus, which means "We ask in order to learn."

I see you asking many questions. This in turn gets us asking questions, too.

Here is another quote from the graduation program:

"The great end of education is to discipline rather than to furnish the mind; to train it to the use of its own powers, rather than fill it with the accumulation of others." -- Tyron Edwards (1809 - 1894)

It seems to me education is happening here at SHAMblog. That is quite a service you are providing. Maybe it is just time to rest on your laurels awhile.  : )

Tyro said...

And yes, I would submit that, all things being equal, a woman who kills her husband in a domestic dispute may indeed have far less negative impact on society than another woman who raises four sons in a brutish, uncaring way, such that all of them go out into the world with "issues" and possibly dangerous maladjustments.

In your example, it matters whether the woman who killed her husband was the victim and defending herself or whether she was the abuser. If the former, I think is justifiable but has little relationship to the example in your original post. And what of the dangerously maladjusted children - they might donate a toys and be nice to their own children which makes everything better!

In your post, you said the biker fellow had killed several people. Did you mean that they were in self-defence? Perhaps he killed them to save some struggling orphans? That wasn't the impression I got which makes this analogy quite deceptive. The biker dude you described was a huge thug, a member of a criminal gang that thrives off dealing drugs and extortion and who has killed two people yet who is still walking around freely.

Those people he killed were children once, so why are you so blase about it? Would you be defending him if, instead of killing two adults in unknown circumstances, he killed two children instead? What if he killed one man because the victim tried to stop the biker from selling crack near a school? What if he killed one man because he was drunk and just didn't like the guy's face. Would it matter if you knew the biker still drank a lot? Do you still think you'd rather have him in your neighbourhood than the milquetoast who doesn't help anyone but doesn't break any laws?

I'm at a loss to understand what sort of moral code you're using which allows you to justify (or exculpate) murdering two people by being generous towards others.

Steve Salerno said...

Tyro, I think you're jumping to conclusions here. And I'm not helping with my extreme and/or jarring examples.

All I'm trying to say is that these things, to me, are not as cut-and-dried as they seem. The fact that something is presently a law doesn't mean that it's an eternal law that's above rethinking, or that it stands up to logical scrutiny. The same could be said of our criminal-justice system as a whole.

Anonymous said...

'All I'm trying to say is that these things, to me, are not as cut-and-dried as they seem.'

Which is why civilised nations have a criminal justice process which cconsiders each case on its merits, not, as you seem to imply, just hands out predetermined judgements that are set in stone.

I just sat through a two day inquest into the strange death of a friend of mine some years ago. It was an open verdict, not much of a progression from where the case started for those involved years ago, but the process re-examined all the evidence, forensics, investigations etc, as a whole and returned the only possible verdict given the state of our current knowledge.

Unlike the crime shows on TV which always manage a neat solution in an hour of breathless action, real life rarely offers us such a tidy package with such clear-cut moral imperatives.

Your defence of the hypothetical biker stone-killer with a heart of gold sounded oddly close to the rationalisations routinely offered by wife beaters to their battered victims:
"Honey, I know I broke your nose/arm/put you in the hospital with internal injuries but you have to forget all that and think of me as the sweet guy who brought you flowers to kiss and make up"

Incidentally, I learnt the hard way to ignore the spoken blandishments and look at the behaviour to see who it is who is trying to manipulate my natural inclinations to see the good in everyone. Not a lesson I will ever forget, and I have given it much thought--next time I will just kill the bastard and do the time, it saves everyone a lot of mental anguish.

SustainableFamilies said...

After I noticed that "Bright Sided" came out, I wondered if there were others. People who could see beyond the nonsense of gurus and new age philosophy that seems to go unquestioned by it's followers. I LIKE a lot of holistic health stuff, however I think a lot of it is in fact Dangerous, and could harm a lot of people. I have been shocked over the years that people who follow gurus seem to like them ALL. They just... follow. If it sounds esoteric, convoluded, and against reason, even better.

What I would like to see is more hard science in holistic health, and more holistic health (that's backed by hard science) in western health care.

Hard science doesn't really exist. But nonetheless I think studies and research and statistical analysis are are helpful at coming as close as we can to the truth.

In any case, my first target was Byron Katie. I googled "Byron Katie sucks" "Byron Katie is lame" "Byron Katie is full of *&**" finally I hit the right thing and found Cosmic Connie. Great article she wrote.

That was a day after the Death Ray horror and I felt really tied into what was going on with that.

I really enjoyed your coverage, Steve. And I enjoy the other things I've found here in your blog.

That has nothing to do with bikers, but I enjoy the blog and I'm curious to see what you'll do with it!

Martha said...

Bumper sticker seen in Santa Fe:

"You're just jealous because the voices are talking to me."

NormDPlume said...

Good question, Steve. I used to watch the old TV show, "Homicide" and the script often covered cops wondering if a dirtball drug dealer killing another dirtball drug dealer was really a crime. Is there really a victim; or just someone who had it coming?

I am of the opinion that murder is murder - somebody's dad,brother, son, daughter, or sister is getting their ticket punched, no matter how dreadful that person's life. Can the killer make amends by purchasing dolls for orphans?


Is the killer worse than a selfish prick? Doesn't the selfish prick commit "victimless crimes"? I'll side with the selfish pricks on this one.

Martha said...

Herb sounds like my kinda guy. Well, John Dillinger does, actually, but that's another story for another time.

Your story about the "be nice to kids" biker reminds me of someone I know. At a glance pretty darn scary (tats, bike, he even puts his thinning fu manchu into a ponytail using those dental rubber bands), until he opens his face into a smile and does something really nice for you.

I'm thinking a lot of these people are sad, wounded souls who are protecting their mooshy hearts with a "want a piece of this?" 'tude. (I hide my mooshy hear behind a "you may approach the throne" 'tude. It keeps away the riff raff.)

Taking your topic to a less extreme place, I see the dichotomy every day in Santa Fe. All these people preening themselves about vortexes, Higher Power, energy, loving what is, etc., but God help you if you're a little slow at grabbing that parking spot at Whole Foods. And if you hold the door open for one, you might as well make yourself comfortable. You'll be standing there while a parade of 25 people in their yoga togs flounce across the threshold like the ostriches in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

I'm also reminded of the time in the late 70s when my brother and I were caught in Georgetown in a snowstorm. On my agenda: getting home. On his agenda: meditating at the local dharma center. He had the keys to the family car. But wouldn't budge off his position.

So I told him, "While you're warm and comfy meditating on the suffering in the world, try not to think about your sister waiting in the snow for a bus that won't come."

That was the first and only time we had a fight in public that involved the turning of heads. We would probably laugh about it now, but we haven't spoken in years. By mutual agreement. Better that way.

SustainableFamilies said...

Ok, I'm going to go ahead and factor into your idea that the biker has committed homicide, that it was a mutually instigated (loosely could be described as self defense related) tuff and in that case, I can see a person who was capable of terrible acts like that as also being capable of trying to make the world a better place for children. It's a confusing thing, I've actually known a lot of shady characters and quite often their anger is matched by their passion to protect (sometimes violently) those that they love.

I admire that. I can't hang out with weirdos any more due to being a parent, but I had some really interesting experiences that I don't regret (and a few that I do), hanging out with rough and "mentally intriguing" characters. Did you ever read Boy's Life? There was this despicable character, awful, had done bad things to a child, bad bad person... and he had a kid with him in a car, they had gone over a cliff and were about to sink under the water. And this bad human being, shoved the kid up out of the water, saving the kid and allowing himself to drown.

Sometimes it seems so much more profound when we see a bad people do one good thing, than when we see good people do good things over and over again.

Steve Salerno said...

Sometimes it seems so much more profound when we see bad people do one good thing, than when we see good people do good things over and over again.

What a wonderful and thought-provoking line. Great to have you aboard, SF.

Anonymous said...

Steve, I am one of your faithful as you call us. I usually post by name but I'm choosing not to do that here. As a gay man, I was taken aback by your remark about feeling gay in Wal-mart. I know you probably didn't intend any offense but that's not the point. By this point in our cultural journey it shouldn't be acceptable to stereotype people in an offhand way, anymore than it would be acceptable for you to use the N word in making some casual joke about blacks. Besides being a gratuitous swipe it was an unfair and inaccurate charcterization, as if all gay men are the swishy milquetoasts that were once such easy targets for comedy (and sometimes actual targets.) If you think that's true you need to come with me to some gyms I know.

There is a wide diversity of personality types among gay men. It is no different from the variety among straights. Would you be shocked to discover that some of the testosterone that made you feel so "gay" in Wal-mart was circulating in gay bikers? Because that's a safe bet, too.

Anonymous said...

"So I finish up my shopping—feeling, I might add, somewhat gay in this sea of testosterone, despite my own considerable size"

You mean the lip plate and penis gourd didn't bring looks of respect?

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 12:21: Very good.

Anonymous said...

I for one wouldn't tangle with you if you turned up in the store like that.

littleplanet said...

What the plate said should be a good opener for a conversational exchange. That I happen to agree whole-heartedly with the statement might be a positive introduction to the man, and maybe his cause.
After which, certain details might become a little clearer and move beyond the spectrum of plausible wonderments as to the nature of his history and character.

Stuff like that constantly reminds me of how quick we are to pre-judge people based on all kinds of external blandishments of image.
Just like an edited Hollywood movie, sometimes the best stuff gets left on the cutting room floor.
(that almost happened to Over the Rainbow...the producers felt it was a little too smooshy at first; they were somewhat preoccupied with Dorothy's image - after all she was priming to kick some ass.)

Each time you sum someone up and further details bring a change of perspective, is a bit of triumph for the socially assertive over the couch-potatoed slovenly curmdgeon, I'd say.