Thursday, March 29, 2012

Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich, an American poet of great power and resource, died Wednesday at the age of 82. I have always loved her poem “For Ethel Rosenberg” which ends with lines about how she might have lived into old age, by herself, filling a notebook with "secrets she has never sold" - see here - and the poem “Natural Resources” which concludes with a magnificent image/thought that many of us try to live by:

My heart is moved by all that I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed.
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.


"Published on Thursday, March 29, 2012 by Common Dreams
Making the Connections
by Adrienne Rich

[Editor's note: Poet, essayist, and political activist Adrienne Rich died on Wednesday at the age of 82. The following is an essay of hers Common Dreams ran in December of 2002. It reads as well now as ever. Thank you, Adrienne.]

A sense of the larger picture is growing among US citizens, notably, though not only, among a young generation, along with a revulsion against official and corporate contempt for the will and welfare of ordinary citizens, for the value of human life itself. The antiwar movement of this century is a movement to reclaim democracy and to push it further. It has no token national leaders; it is various in its formations and organizing principles, often originating and working locally, yet in touch with other groups. It is connected through free giveaway papers like the San Francisco-based, nationally distributed War Times, through Internet sites and e-mail correspondence, through teach-ins, vigils, strikes, newsletters, cell phones, radio, cartoon strips, art and bumper stickers, benefits and much else.

Links between militarization, racism, economic and gender inequity, perversion of the criminal justice system and the electoral system are made not because of laundry-list sectarian opportunism but because, more and more, the actual connections are being laid bare by the activities of the current Administration and its corporate family. The origins of this antiwar movement and all it implies lie in the extremism of a long-unresponsive government, a stumbling and incoherent empire, most of whose citizens don't want an empire at such cost, if they want one at all.

To be "antiwar" is not a simple position. It means disentangling the strands that connect the weapons industry with the lack of will for diplomacy and coherent foreign policy. It means understanding what the militarization of a society costs, economically and socially and in terms of civil liberties, the propaganda of violence as both heroism and efficient solution. It means probing the official versions to reveal how and why we are being driven toward aggression. To be "antiwar" is to be for public debate and knowledge, the foundations of democratic polity.

A new growth in public consciousness and political intelligence challenges an autocratic government from within and is seen as dangerous to vested interests. Like every past movement for humanization, for the amelioration of suffering, this antiwar movement will be attacked not only by the right but by onetime liberals who fear the costs of real peace and justice more than they dislike the costs of empire. Regime Change Begins at Home: Vote, said one bumper sticker during the last election.

Regime change is a very large order indeed, and will involve a long process of public education and self-education, of demanding and rewarding courage in elected officials and of political work beyond the ballot. Demonstrations are the tip of the iceberg in this process.

Making clear how issues are connected has been the great work of the progressive movements of the past forty years. Keeping issues separate, silencing those who try to connect them, has been the great strategy of media and of presidential power. The fear of socialism, even of the word itself, suggests how our social imaginations have been abridged and hampered. For the question of the future is, ineluctably, After regime change, what? What are we for? What do we want to see happen? And how do we want to make it happen?"

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The snare of words and the refinement of argument, part 3

As the repeated threats to Socrates in the first book underline, students of Plato, even in the Republic which seems to be about Glaucon's city, a militaristic city in speech with an obscure philosopher-king, are invited to think about going down...

From Thrasymachus's previous observation of Socrates - the background of their relationship is not sketched by Plato in other dialogues - Thrasymachus does have a rhetorical strategy to dominate. He means to ridicule Socrates for asking questions of others but never offering an argument himself. All of his rhetoric, spurred by hubris as well as fear of Socrates, is designed to wrestle with Socrates in this way. An egotist, he accuses Socrates of being an egotist (psychologically, this is projection on Thrasymachus's part). But in ancient Hellenic terms, Socrates is often - and in a not simply ironic way - moderate. If you follow the argument, he says, you yourself will find that you agree with a point that you previously doubted (see Alcibiades 1). Any witness who reasons well will see the point. This, in addition to realizing that he does not fully know the ideas beyond geometry (which is itself a work in progress), safeguards Socrates from egotism or bullying.*

As another way of putting this point, Thrasymachus takes in Socrates's method of questioning, even though he himself is incapable of questioning. For Thrasymachus thinks of questioning as in the service of winning a wrestling match, of dominating. Once again, he projects on Socrates, who is good at argument, his own bullying.

Thrasymachus is, however, otherwise an unarmed man. He has an assertion with some truth, but no arguments for it, a novice in chess, as it were, against a Bobby Fischer, a club boxer against Mohammed Ali, a high school basketball player shooting jump shots with Lebron James (h/t Robert Nozick). But Thrasymachus is still more anxious for applause and to be paid than to hold to his rhetorical tactic. His egotism overcomes his ability to hold out. His definition of justice is really a notion of the injustice which typically prevails (staggering, he even comes to praise the unjust ruler deliberately). That prevalence, and not any interest in the way he argues for it, is the sole power of his assertion. But once he gives his definition of justice, Socrates can get a hold on it. It is at this point that Thrasymachus loses the argument because he is unable to answer Socrates or to pursue Socrates’s questions in a way that helps his definition.

Turning the tables, Socrates reveals the snares that Thrasymachus, the rhetorician, sets for others: tear down the other rhetorically and your definition, however poorly argued, will be the one remaining standing. (In today’s American politics, one might say, Thrasymachus’s is the tactic of negative campaigning; Mitt Romney is, for instance, good at tearing down others, but even among the at best bewildered, what is left standing elicits no enthusiasm). Perhaps Socrates asks rather than answers for practical as well as theoretical reasons, for instance, a willingness to question all particular opinions about justice stems, in ancient Greece, from the fact that they were all connected to murderous (internal or civil) wars. See my Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?, ch. 4.

“What if I formulate a definition of justice superior to any you have offered?" (says Thrasymachus) "What penalty would you accept?” (337d)

Socrates offers to learn from and praise him. If one is seeking the truth, that seems reasonable enough. Instead, Thrasymachus demands money. His argument’s shallowness – his obsequiousness to tyranny – is underlined at this point.

“I will pay when I have the money.” [Socrates]

“'You already have the money, Socrates', said Glaucon. 'You needn’t worry about payment, Thrasymachus; we shall take up a collection.'" [That Socrates is sustained by a kind of communal property talked about in his proposals on the guardians seems clear here - cf. Eva Brann, The Music of the Republic).

Thrasymachus of Chalcedon, the metic, is hungry for money (the class as well as polis or "national" difference between Thraymachus and Glaucon is marked, here). Thrasymachus struggles a little longer, but then speaks because the aristocratic boys shower money on him:

“Yes, and then Socrates will go through his well-known routine, refusing to answer anything himself but demolishing the answers of everybody else (337e).”

He sees the trap, holds back, and then, hypnotized by the money, plunges.

As also the narrator of this dialogue (what Plato thinks is at a third remove in this kind of dialogue – Socrates and others speaking, Socrates commenting on the discussion, and the silence of the author about both conversation and commentary). Socrates notes that Thrasymachus was “flattered” in being asked to tell them. “He was convinced that his definition could not be refuted. He was eager to speak and still more eager for the acclaim he assumed would reward his discourse.” (338a)

Again, Thrasymachus is motivated by hopes in the audience’s applause and money – he needs to make others’ ideas of justice go away - rather than to figure out whether his idea about justice is true.

“Then here is my answer: justice is nothing but the interest of the stronger.” (ton kreittonos sympheron - 338c)

Amusingly, Socrates asks if Thraysmachus were saying that “an athlete like Polydamos eats a great amount of beef to stay in shape. You are not going to argue that this diet is advantageous and just [note that Socrates slips in one of Thrasymachus's forbidden words - again sympheron - linked explicitly to what is just - dikaion - here and Thraysmachus is too slow to notice] for the rest of us.” Once again, to kreitton can mean the stronger or the superior, and what is superior here - a common good or questioning and following argument - is at odds with Thrasymachus's domineering.

Calling Socrates a “buffoon” which, mere sneering, is no answer to Socrates's question or the quip about interest, Thrasymachus again points out that Socrates “is effective enough in sabotaging other people’s arguments.” (338d) Thrasymachus describes Socrates's argument with hostility as but a blow in a match, does not see it as argument, and again, makes no counter-argument…

At last, Thrasymachus offers some evidence for his view (that justice in differing types of currently existing cities is the interest of a prevailing group, a particular interest as Aristotle names it in distinguishing tyrannies from decent regimes**). This is one of two times in their conversation that Thrasymachus attempts, fleetingly, to argue***:

"Now governments use their power to make tyrannical, democratic, or aristocratic laws, as suits their interests. These laws, then, designed to serve the interests of the ruling class, are the only justice their subjects are ever likely to experience [but subjects who go abroad, confronted with different laws from their own, might come to ask the question: what is justice?}. Transgressions will be punished for breaking the laws and sullying justice. This is why I say that justice operates on the same principle everywhere and in every society. Justice is what advantages the interest of the ruling faction. Since the ruling faction is also the strongest faction, the conclusion should be evident to anyone who reason correctly: justice is the same in every case - the interest of the stronger." (338e-339a)

But Socrates again turns the tables on his rhetoric, focusing repeatedly and devastatingly on the word interest:

“Now I understand your meaning. But whether it is true or not is something I must still ascertain. First I note you use the word ‘interest’ in defining justice, a word that you were unwilling to let me use.”

Socrates then adds: “I admit, however that you add the words ‘of the stronger.’”

Here Thrasymachus responds only with sarcasm, again ducking the argument: “A trifling addition, no doubt.”

A student might observe – someone who attends to the argument closely – that Thrasymachus whiffs entirely because Socrates is, once again, right…

“Trifle or not, [Socrates says] our main business is to find out whether your definition is correct. I will agree that justice is an interest of some sort. But then you add that it is the interest of the stronger. I question that. We must examine that point.” (339a-b)

Plato means this discussion to invite the question in its hearers: what might Socrates have said in response to a more probing version of Thrasymachus’s account? This path of conversation lay open to Plato’s students and they might, in the Academy, have hazarded other views, instigated, for another day, deeper arguments. That there is one path through the woods of a dialogue – and one that proves to be a dead end, not well stated - does not close off others. Each agreement might be taken back (recall Socrates's worst argument ever: the philosopher and the barking dog here), the argument formulated in a more complicated and compelling way...

For instance, Thrasymachus praises the life of injustice, seeking to refine it as “good policy” (or to the rich: Feed me! Feed me!; consider Scott Walker and the Koch brothers...). See Four paths through the Republic’s woods here. But Thrasymachus's injustice is just fleecing everyone. In contrast, Xenophon’s Simonides proposes a more complex injustice to the tyrant Hiero, benefiting a common good – imitating in reality, justice – while having his minions in the dark cut his imagined enemies’ throats. Simonides's image or argument is even superior to the story of the ring of Gyges, a striking realization of advice or counsel to princes, which supersedes Thrasymachus’ weak efforts in book 1 (see also Aristotle’s Politics, book 5, based on Xenophon’s Hiero, and a favorite of Leo Strauss****). In saying Thrasymachus is like a snake too easily charmed in book 2 (358b), Glaucon, a fiercer and more dangerous snake, offers the more complex tale of the ring, See here.

Noticing this feature of Plato, Heidegger - see here and here - and Strauss seek out the hidden or coded meaning of a dialogue. For instance, Glaucon's ring reveals the foolishness of Thrasymachus; further, in the decline of regimes from philosopher king to tyrant (book 8), there is the hint that a circle would be complete if a tyrant of a certain kind became a philosopher king. But seen aptly, these insights are merely that better versions of an objection, with telling effects on the world, are possible. There is no reason to think, however, that questions cannot be raised, counterarguments given, against such refined objections. Socrates - Plato's repeatedly invoked example in the Republic - after all, went down to fight for justice and against tyranny (of the Thirty, of the democratic majority). Socrates did not become such a ruler. Instead, presaging civil disobedience, he died.

One might thus take any of the dialogues as a living thing for Plato’s students, who are invited to think about the arguments, not merely accept them, let alone with Strauss or Heidegger, point to, parroting, a supposed single, hidden meaning. Aristotle studied at the Academy for 20 years…

My guess is that Socrates might have said something like: all the opinions about justice around here are largely justifications for strife, democrats murdering aristocrats, aristocrats murdering democrats. For a full discussion, see my Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?, ch. 4. One of the meanings of the prima facie self-refuting thought: I know that I know nothing [better: I know nothing definitive about the ideas though I know some examples, for instance, of just conduct, and am making a long-term ascent through argument] is: if opinions about justice for political purposes become sanctifications of murder as in Athens, Socrates will not affirm one. “It is better to suffer wickedness than ever to do it.” Here is a starting point - one unusual in political philosophy but later taken up by Jesus, Gandhi and King. Socrates also asks questions and thinks about arguments. So the aspect of Socrates that Thrasymachus, speaking belligerently for the thoughtless (argument-less) and murderous Athenian majority at the trial, seeks most to bring down in this conversation, emerges from it shiningly...

In addition, through questioning Thrasymachus’s account, Socrates shows, if justice is the advantage of the stronger, then the subjects should obey the laws or commands (which secure that advantage). But suppose the stronger mistakes his advantage as Thrasymachus admits possible (and as the Athenians did, say, in invading Syracuse). Then justice for subjects would require: upholding the stronger’s real advantage against the laws or policies which the ruler commands.

It is here that Polemarchus – unusually - leaps again into the discussion. This, too, is a signal to Plato’s students to learn something about argument::

"'Now, most wise Thrasymachus, can you see how you contradict yourself? [said Socrates] Your indiscriminate equation of justice with what the strong command the weak obey leads only to its own negation; it actually requires the weak to injure the interests of the stronger.'"

"'Nothing could be clearer, Socrates,' said Polemarchus."

"'If one could believe Polemarchus's testimony.' said Cleitophon."

"'No witness is necessary,' said Polemarchus. 'Thrasymachus himself said that rulers may command what is not in their interest and that subjects obeying these commands are doing justice.'"

"'You are right, Polemarchus. Thrasymachus said that justice for subjects is obedience to rulers.'"

"'Yes, Cleitophon, but he also said that justice is the interest of the stronger, that sometimes the strong mistake their interest, but the subjects must nevertheless carry out what the stronger mistakenly order them to do. The inference is unavoidable that justice may equally be the advantage or the disadvantage of the ruler.'"

"'What Thrasymachus meant, said Cleitophon, is that justice is what the stronger believes to be in his interest. Obedience to this belief, in turn is the just duty of the subject.'"

"But he didn't say that, objected Polemarchus."

Here Socrates intervenes to allow the reformation or refinement of the argument. Socrates is not trying to win a wrestling match but to ascertain the truth (and invites students to follow him...): "'It doesn't matter, Polemarchus,' said I. 'If that is the position Thrasymachus now wants to take, let us accept it. Is that what you want to say Thrasymachus? Is justice what the stronger thinks is his interest, whether it really is or not?" (339e-340c) Socrates is also being ironic here: he sees that Thrasymachus is not arguing for a position, but asserting what the domineering which he is and in which he believes.

Amusingly, Cleitophon, a stupider ally of Thrasymachus, offers a weaker translation of Thrasymachus's argument, one that acknowledges that Thrasymachus, the would-be tyrant and peacock, might be mistaken. Cleitophon abandons the domineering that is Thrasymachus. So Thrasymachus goes a different way, driven to affirm the injustice that his ruler seeks...

Polemarchus's unusual interjection - and the conversation with Cleitophon - is to highlight again what the argument is. It is a message for students in how to question an argument, how to read. In contrast, once again, Thrasymachus is revealed as not seeking the truth. In Plato’s resonant image, he is a “bathman” pouring down a great stream of water on the listeners – here is the danger of long, external speeches designed to harry or dominate others into submission as opposed to questioning the internal structure of others’s arguments or assertions in order to seek the truth. Thrasymachus then attempts to walk away but Socrates and his students demand, instead, that he stay to follow out the argument.

When Socrates corners him, listen to Thrasymacus’s blustering peroration:

“And a captain, in the exact sense of the word, is a ruler of sailors. He is not himself a sailor.” [Socrates]

“That has already been granted.” [Thrasymachus]

“As captain and ruler he will provide for the interests of the sailors under his command and not his own interests.”

Socrates comments as narrator: “Thrasymachus resisted but finally conceded this point, too.”

“’So, too, with government. The governor – or ruler – insofar as he is to be true to his work, will never consider what is in his own interest. He will take into account only the interests of his subjects and the requirements of the art of governing. These are the sole criteria by which he plans and governs.”

“By now, it was clear that Thrasymachus’s definition of justice had been stood on its head [comments Socrates, underlining the point for Plato’s future students]. But instead of replying, Thrasymachus asked if I had a nurse.”

“’Why ask such a question? You owe me an answer to a question of mine.” (342e-343a)

Little could be more direct here, on Plato’s part, as a way of pointing out the importance of argument and answering questions to the extent one can. The coupled conversations of Socrates with Polemarchus and Thrasymachus underline this point. In this respect, book 1 is, despite Socrates’s announcement at the end that he has not found a definition of justice, complete. The rest of the dialogue is driven - and driven off track - by Thrasymachus whose argument is then refined by Glaucon. On the one hand, it does get into a profound discussion of the ring of Gyges and cures, though not entirely through argument, Glaucon’s hunger for tyranny.

On the other hand, the modeling of doing philosophy as a truth-seeking enterprise – through these two exchanges - is complete in book 1. But the dialogue, however resonant, often goes off the rails, philosophically speaking, in the next 9 books. Much of Socrates’s later argument and imagery are both satirical (at least in part) - comparing the philosopher to a dog or a guardian or answering the charges in the trial by specifying what it would take to clean up the gods, to not corrupt the young - and incomplete. See here and here. And one is meant to notice that the incompleteness is driven by the hunger of Glaucon (as earlier by Thrasymachus), and that a student might refine the argument, as the interjection by Polemarchus, Cleitophon's response and Socrates's, by asking different questions.

Put differently, the torch relay on horseback occurs on the tracks of the Thrasymachus-Glaucon images, motivated by ordinary politics. But the search for justice might go in a quite different direction if Socrates (and Plato) were not driven to satirize a military city, the city of Glaucon…

The dialogue does, however, cast some light on the ascent, the idea of the good and the nature of philosophy. See my "If the city in speech is Glaucon's, what city is Socrates's?" here and "Pythagoras on the surface and in the depths of the Republic" here.

Returning to book 1, Thasymachus then adds: “Because your nurse evidently neglects to wipe your nose and leaves you sniveling. What’s more, she leaves you ignorant of the difference between shepherds and sheep.”

“Why do you say that?”

And here Thrasymachus pours down the bath:

“Because you fancy that the shepherd or cowherd has the interests of his charges at heart, grooming and fattening them for their own sakes and not to serve the master’s profit [Thrasymachus’s definition of justice again] or his own. You carry the illusion into politics with the consequence that you fail to see how rulers really behave. The actual ruler or governor thinks of his subjects as sheep all right [or in Goldman Sachs's defective terms today, "muppets" - see former Vice-President Greg Smith's letter of resignation in the Times here], but his chief preoccupation, day and night, is how he can fleece them for his own benefit. [think of the "Republican" candidates, obsequious only to the 1/10th of 1%, as well as what would be the Democrats’ abject acquiescence to such policies in the absence of the Occupy movement…]. You have strayed so far from reality that you cannot understand that what is just is simply something that is good for someone else. He who behaves justly does not benefit himself. It follows that a just subject serves the interest of the ruler but injures himself. The dynamics of justice, then, consistently operate to advantage the ruler, but never the subjects. The result is that injustice lords it over those who are truly simple and truly just. Because the unjust ruler is stronger, his subjects serve his interests and his happiness at the expense of their own.” [here in response to questioning, Thrasymachus goes where he can, makes some effective points, but then sinks, flailing, in quicksand…]

“The just man is always a loser, my naïve Socrates. He always loses out to the unjust. Consider private business. If a just man takes an unjust man for a partner and the partnership is later dissolved, it is invariably the unjust man who walks away with the lion’s share of the assets. Consider their dealings with the government. When taxes fall due, the just man will pay more and the unjust man will pay less on the same amount of property. Or, if the government is letting out contracts or disbursing money for some other purpose, those who are unjust will get all of it, and the just will get nothing.”

“The just man in public office will reap no rewards [here is a foreshadowing of the guardians – no rewards but recognition – and perhaps philosophers, though in Athens, Socrates will be scorned by the majority and put to death]. In the first place, as he conscientiously attends to the affairs of state, he must necessarily have little time left to attend to his own affairs [as Socrates attends to the question of virtue in discussions with others and is poor]. His principles forbid him to embezzle on his own account. They will also prevent him from handing out unlawful favors from the public treasury to others. [note how Socrates, as epistates for one time only, stands out against the defiling of the law when the Athenians want to hang the strategoi – naval leaders – in judging the battle of Arginusae in the Apology (line 32) and in the, in other ways differing account in Xenopohon’s Hellenica, 1.6-7]. In consequence, he will earn the enmity of his disappointed friends and acquaintances.”

“The unjust man is in exactly the opposite situation. I mean the same man as the one I spoke of before, the one who exploits others on a grand scale [here is Thrasymachus’s argument for the large-scale evil of politics, the one Glaucon will dress up with the image of the ring of Gyges and Xenophon’s Simonides and Aristotle’s Politics, book 5, will transform]. I speak, namely, of the tyrant and of tyranny, the highest form of injustice.”

In questioning Polemachus’s definition of justice as benefiting friends and harming enemies, Socrates had shown that this is the view of a tyrant like Periander or Perdiccas (336). Here the passing of the torch of a definition of injustice – of seeking to benefit oneself at the expense of an unnamed but implied common good – comes through sharply. And of course Glaucon (and Xenophon and Aristotle) will take up, in a more fiery way, that same torch.

“If you want to see how unjust acts benefit the tyrant, watch how he makes his crimes pay off. Watch how his own happiness and prosperity impoverish his subjects.” (343a-344a)

In contrast, Simonides at this point produces a far stronger argument for tyranny, urging that a smart tyrant benefit his subjects. This argument is but hinted at in the Republic in the decline of regimes from philosopher-king to tyrant in book 8 and the thought, traced by Aristotle in book 5 of the Politics, ostensibly as a criticism of Plato, that it would be perfect and a circle (kuklos) if a tyrant of a certain kind became a philosopher-king. Unlike Xenophon's Socrates in the Memorabilia, a gossip who offers savvy local advice, Xenophon’s Simonides advances what is close to a philosophical argument about tyranny, even though he never soars, as Plato does, toward the ideas…Smart or seemingly philosophical tyranny [kingship] borders on, has elements of a common good. Amusingly, this thought, already in Leo Strauss's first book in the United States On Tyranny focused on Xenophon's Hiero (1948), is as far as Strauss ever got with Platonism. But what are "philosophers" and "the light" without the ideas?

Strauss has no interest in pursuing the ideas; the idea - of ideas - shockingly goes almost unmentioned in Strauss's account of Plato. This is another way in which Strauss - no Platonist - is a follower of Heidegger...

The appropriate rejection of Xenophon's view is that tyrants who give themselves, with hubris, the airs of the "wise," do the worst (one thinks of Critias or of Cheney and the Straussian neo-cons here, and alternately, in certain respects, Stalin…).

In contrast, Thraymachus's tyranny which seeks to grab everything is often counterproductive. For tyrants often end up hung, like Mussolini, and of ill fame.

Thrasymachus’s long speech is thus like a bathman pouring down waters over the bather. Drowned as it were, one can hardly respond without Socrates's presence of mind:

“'Watch how he persecutes those who reject injustice and continue to act justly.'"

"'Force and fraud are the tyrant’s chosen instruments. He uses them to deprive others of their property, not little by little but in wholesale lots. He makes no nice distinctions among his victims [he has no political strategy, does not attempt to separate friends from enemies, is overreachingly grasping – like the American elite, though the latter exhibits a bit more policy, notably racism as divide and rule focused in the prison/probation complex, in the last 30 years]; private citizens, the public treasury and sacred associations are all fair game.'”

“'Any one of these acts perpetrated by a private individual would be condemned and punished. The guilty one would be branded a thief, swindler, housebreaker, cheat or robber of temples. But if a man not only steals from his fellows but also uses the power of government to enslave them, one hears no such unfriendly epithets. [consider the “Supreme” Court, Citizens United and the superpac billionaires keeping Romney afloat – or the pro-Likud funder Adelson who bankrolls Gingrich, or Foster Friess, the monetized hot air behind the bilious Santorum]. All the world applauds every instance of triumphant injustice; all the world calls the unjust ruler happy and blessed.'”

“'The reason for this is that people censure injustice only because they fear to be its victims and not because they have scruples about being unjust themselves. So it is, Socrates, that injustice when practiced on a large enough scale, [Thrasymachus races toward - Plato prefigures - the ring here] is stronger and freer and more successful than justice. What I said at the outset, then, remains true. Justice is whatever serves the advantage of the stronger; injustice, on the other hand, whatever serves the interest of any man.'”

"Like a bath attendant pouring buckets of water on our heads, Thrasymachus had nearly drowned us with his oratory [comments Socrates]. Now he wanted to leave. But we all demanded that he stay and defend his position. I was particularly urgent in my plea that he remain."

Socrates does not give the reason here. But it is perhaps that his effort is to struggle with tyranny and Glaucon, to neutralize proto-tyrants at the least…

*The dialogues go only so far in revealing what Plato thinks.

**The starting point for constructing political institutions, Aristotle suggests, is to combat or balance such particular interests. Ethically speaking, it is to realize a common good.

***The other is Thrasymachus's assertion that the shepherd fattens a sheep for the owner's profit or his own.

****See the discussion of the crucial passages from Strauss's 1967 lectures on Aristotle's Politics in the notes to my "Do Philosophers Counsel Tyrants?," Constellations, May 2009 here.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A blueprint for murder

Much has now been said about the Trayvon Martin murder. But Charles Blow, who has been a leader in raising this issue – see here - has another powerful and sad column Monday in the Times...

If one wants to see the madness of American racism (the only thing, along with sexism and homophobia, that keeps the “Republican” Party afloat), this is it…

The Democrats are also a party of the elite and cater to such policies.

The so-called “Stand your Ground” law is a license to kill as Gene Robinson describes below (h/t Peter Minowitz). But this killer wasn’t “standing his ground.” If a man following a slim teenager – a big man armed with a gun – can get out of an SUV and shoot him down yards from his house and walk away, this country has no laws…

He was hunting; Trayvon was trying to escape him…

If the "Stand your Ground" law were other than racism, Trayvon was the one with the right to stand his ground (and to go home).

The lies of Zimmerman were, as the Martin family said, released by the police to assassinate Trayvon’s reputation after the bullet ripped his body. Charles Blow has spoken with the family because of the public outcry. Have the Sanford police?

A fiercer movement from below which connects what happened to Trayvon with the prison/probation complex (see here, here, here, and here) and how it reflects all of us and all of our children – how any of us would feel if our child were subjected to such a death, his last cry for help ringing out into the night - is very important.

OP-ED COLUMNIST
A Mother’s Grace and Grieving
By CHARLES M. BLOW
Published: March 25, 2012

“They called him Slimm.”

That is what Sybrina Fulton, the mother of the slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, told me people called her son because he was so thin.

I talked with her Saturday in a restaurant near her home, four weeks to the day after George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer in a gated community in Sanford, Fla., shot Trayvon in the chest and killed him. Trayvon was unarmed, carrying nothing more than candy and a drink.

Ms. Fulton brought her own mother with her, Trayvon’s grandmother, and we talked for nearly an hour over iced tea and lukewarm coffee.

His mother lights up when she shows me pictures of Trayvon on her phone, even managing an occasional smile that lifts the shadow of grief and brightens her face. He was a gangly boy, all arms and legs but little weight, nearly six feet three inches tall but only 140 pounds and with the cherubic face of a boy years younger.

She grows distant when she talks about her loss, occasionally, seemingly involuntarily, wrapping her hands gently around her mother’s arm and resting her head on her mother’s shoulder like a young girl in need of comfort. The sorrow seems to come in waves.

She and her mother paint a portrait of an all-American boy, one anyone would be proud to call his or her own. He liked sports — playing and watching — and going to the mall with his friends. The meal his mother made that he liked most was hamburgers and French fries. “And brownies,” his grandmother chimed in, “with lots of nuts.”

He was a smart boy who had taken advanced English and math classes, and he planned to go to college.

He was a hard worker who earned extra money by painting houses, and washing cars and working in the concession of the Pee Wee football league on the weekends. He also baby-sat for his younger cousins, two adorable little girls ages 3 and 7, whom the family called the bunnies, and when he watched the girls he baked them cookies.

The only fight his mother could ever recall his having was with his own brother when Trayvon was about 4 and the brother was 8. They were fighting for her attention, and it wasn’t even a real fight. “They were wrestling. It was so funny,” she said with a smile.

This hardly fits the profile of a menacing teen who would attack a grown man unprovoked, but that is exactly what Zimmerman contends.

Zimmerman’s statement, as related by police, says he was following the boy but “he had lost sight of Trayvon and was returning to his truck to meet the police officer when he says he was attacked by Trayvon.”

Trayvon’s personal account of who initiated the physical encounter is forever lost to the grave, but the initiation is likely to be the central question in the case.

To believe Zimmerman’s scenario, you have to believe that Trayvon, an unarmed boy, a boy so thin that people called him Slimm, a boy whose mother said that he had not had a fight since he was a preschooler, chose that night and that man to attack. You have to believe that Trayvon chose to attack a man who outweighed him by 100 pounds and who, according to the Sanford police, was wearing his gun in a holster. You have to believe that Trayvon chose to attack even though he was less than a hundred yards from the safety of the home where he was staying.

This is possible, but hardly sounds plausible.

The key is to determine who was standing his ground and defending himself: the boy with the candy or the man with the gun. Who was winning the fight is a secondary question.

That said, we’ll have to wait for details of the investigation to be revealed to know for sure. But while we wait, it is important to not let Trayvon the person be lost to Trayvon the symbol. He was a real boy with a real family that really loved him.

And now he is gone from his mother forever, only able to stare out at her as a shining face on a cellphone. She has no home videos of Trayvon. She doesn’t even have voicemail messages from him saved. The only way that she could now hear Trayvon’s voice would be to call his phone and listen to his answering message, but she dare not do it. “If I hear his voice, I think I’m going to scream.”

Every night she says she dreams of him. Every morning she says she thinks he’s going to walk through the door and say, “Mom, I’m here. You were dreaming. It’s not true. I’m not dead. I’m here,” and give her a hug and a kiss.

And the bunnies — they still don’t understand where he is. They’re still asking for Trayvon, the cousin who came over and baked them cookies.


Repeal the ‘Stand Your Ground’ law
By Eugene Robinson, Washington Post, Published: March 26

The “Stand Your Ground” laws in Florida and other states should all be repealed. At best, they are redundant. At worst, as in the Trayvon Martin killing, they are nothing but a license to kill.

Police in Sanford, Fla., cited the statute as grounds for their decision not to file charges against Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman. Martin, 17, was strolling home from a convenience store, armed with an iced tea and a bag of Skittles, when Zimmerman — a neighborhood watch volunteer and wannabe police officer — spotted him and decided he looked suspicious.

Zimmerman, who is 28, happened to be armed with a handgun. He followed Martin, despite instructions from a 911 operator not to do so. They had an encounter that left Zimmerman suffering from minor injuries and Martin dead on the ground from a gunshot wound. While we don’t know exactly what happened, we know that Zimmerman initiated the contact by stalking a young man who had done nothing more sinister than walk down the street wearing a hooded sweatshirt.

Police decided to release Zimmerman without charges because of the Stand Your Ground law. The relevant part of the statute says that “a person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked . . . has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm.”

Zimmerman claimed self-defense, was given the benefit of the doubt required by law and released.

This was a shocking travesty, as we now know. The “person who [was] not engaged in an unlawful activity and who [was] attacked” was Martin. Under the Florida law, as I read it, he had every right to feel he was in “imminent peril of death or great bodily harm” from the stranger who was following him. He had every right to confront Zimmerman — to stand his ground — and even to use deadly force, if necessary, to defend himself.

Imagine that Martin, not Zimmerman, had been carrying a legal handgun — and that it was Zimmerman who ended up dead. The law should have compelled police to release Martin, a young African American in a hoodie, without charges.

Somehow, I doubt that would have happened.

The consensus view, which I’ve heard expressed by supporters of Stand Your Ground, is that police were wrong to extend the law’s self-defense immunity to Zimmerman so quickly without a more thorough investigation — and that, given what we have learned about Zimmerman’s pursuit of Martin, the law does not seem to apply.

But why does Florida, or any other state, need this statute? State laws already allowed the use of deadly force in self-defense. By making explicit that the person who feels threatened has no obligation to retreat, all the state Legislature accomplished was to lessen the odds that a hot-tempered confrontation would be allowed to cool down without violence.

The Florida law took effect in 2005. Five years later, the Tampa Bay Times said that reports of justifiable homicide across the state had tripled. The newspaper found cases in which the protection of Stand Your Ground had been invoked by persons who felt — perhaps with good reason, perhaps not — that they faced imminent attack in their homes. Those incidents were at least in keeping with the intent of the legislation. But the newspaper also found the law being used to excuse violence committed during fights at house parties, disputes between neighbors and disagreements in public parks.

“Gangsters are using this law to have gunfights,” state’s attorney Willie Meggs told the Times.

Following Florida’s lead, about 20 states have enacted similar legislation. I doubt you will be surprised to hear that the National Rifle Association has lobbied hard to get these dangerous and unnecessary statutes approved.

These laws encourage hotheads to go into potential confrontations with loaded firearms. They give permission to shoot first and ask questions later. This may be good for gun manufacturers, funeral homes and the NRA, but it’s tragic for justice in America.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Poem: America

coloring

theycame

bytwosandfive s

the photos

almostfor ger ies

luck yboy

whobrought


hadtofleeRussia

unlucky


savedhisuncle

diedyoung


his vill ag e

suninPhiladelphia


coloringphotos

counter

feit daguerr o

died


type
myfather

nopictures


madeChristmas

fortheyounger
children

whenhewasgone

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Oligarchy, hierarchy and the stealing of elections

Kristine Kubat of Justice Radio read my piece on the Democratic caucuses in the mountains of Colorado and interviews me about the tepid, oligarchic hierarchy of the Democratic Party here. For instance, in 2004, the rank and file at the state convention voted overwhelmingly by voice, at lunchtime, against the war in Iraq and the convenor of the meeting ruled that they had voted for it. The vote had been held at lunchtime because much of the audience (overwhelmingly anti-war) was out of the room...

In that election, the first in which I had participated actively in the Democratic Party, I suggested at the tiny meeting of the five precincts in the mountains where I live, then a total of 15 people, that the Democrats make a central issue – not an empty platform plank but something to fight on – of electronic voting machines that leave no paper trial. It was endorsed unanimously. I raised the same issue – with the same emphasis – at the county convention. That, too, was endorsed unanimously. See here.

But there was little chance that the hierarchy, tepid and wildly influenced by money and its place in the elite, not “centrist” but vehemently pro-militarist and pro-war, would then adopt such a plank.

Kristine has long been very interested in these issues. In the dialogue, I discuss with her how the miserable Saxby Chambliss stole the 2002 Senate race in Georgia, baiting Max Cleland, a paraplegic from his war wounds from Vietnam, as "unpatriotic" (the “Republican” party, as anyone can tell from Fox News or its Presidential candidates – Ron Paul excepted – is in another universe. In 2004, Kerry fell on his sword, declared the election "fair." But 40 million people voted on machines which left no paper trail – think if you deposited money in a bank and the ABM machine left no paper trail…

In Ohio in 2004, the exit polls (which are never wrong when done with minimal competence) showed Kerry winning by 4.3%. But the recorded “vote” showed Bush winning by 2.6%. In contrast, in 41 states, exit polling revealed Bush’s margin of victory, for example in Utah or Georgia to .3%, or Kerry’s in New York and Illinois to .3%. There is a statistical unlikelihood of such results occuring randomly of 1 in 150 million...

John Conyers led House hearings and did a hundred page report on all the electoral fraud in Ohio – all pointing in the same direction, all helping Bush – without considering the exit polling. But the exit polling combined with the fraud revealed in the Democrats' report shows rather plainly that the election was stolen.

I was also worried about this in the 2008 election, but though the Obama campaign was weak – and weak-minded – on this issue, Obama won. Perhaps he won even more handily than it seemed. In any case, it is still an issue.

In this election, one of the people at the meeting had been told by a higher-up not to press the issue of such voting machines in Colorado because “people are already discouraged from voting.” The elite of the Democrats lacks enthusiasm for or principle about democracy. Getting mad because our votes do not count, because capitalists privatize voting which is a public trust in a democracy if there is one, is likely to get out the vote...

With all the attempts to bar the elderly, the young, and minorities from voting by Republican governors and state legislatures in 20 states, a result of the 2010 election, and give the rich man Romney a long leg up (since no one likes Mitt and the closer one sees him – the master of the negative campaign and lying – the less there is - "etch a sketch" - to like), democracy in the most minimal sense of counting the votes) may not occur. Still barring contraception for women or the 'self-deportation' of immigrants are odious off the charts. Obama is plainly a better alternative.

Kristine and many other people I admire are working for Rocky Anderson. Anderson is by far the best candidate – in terms of positions – in the race. But voting Obama has two major good features. First, he is the first black (mixed race) President. And the cry against him is that he is a "foreigner," not American (a "European" in Romney’s confused idiom and he was happy enough to take the endorsement of Trump, the birther). That idea needs to be defeated, and voting for Rocky Anderson won’t defeat it.

Second, over the past fifty years, the Republican party has moved steadily to the Right, in support of American militarism and crazier wars and destroying the environment. Andrew Sullivan had a foolish piece recently about how humans will survive for another 100,000 years, whatever the catastrophe…

Humanity on this planet, without very sharp alterations in conduct, has a good chance of going out of business by the end of this century. Obama, on this matter, has some sense of what is going on and may - with sufficient pressure from below (as in the case of the Keystone XL pipeline) do the right thing.

But the Obama Presidency has been spoiled, in terms of its promise, by his taking on too much Wall Street, too many “think tank” experts who yammer for war, and relying on drones (even killing Bin Laden did not require the firing of one drone…) and authoritarian "executive power."

Only a movement from below – putting mass pressure on the Democrats, and featuring large scale civil disobedience – can break the pressure of the war machine and fight for decency. Obama has just - horrifyingly- approved the Pipeline in Oklahoma and Texas - this is sheerly a bad calculation on electoral gain. In the absence of struggle from below, American politics is a right-wing two step, and Obama, to beat Romney, often takes steps to the right.

Obama has thus sold out many people who will now vote for Rocky Anderson or not vote altogether. And they are not wrong – they are part of the movement we all need…

But I will vote for Obama. Andy Goodman, my childhood friend, died in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and repudiating the horrific racism of the capitalist and Republic elite – I mean all the Republicans, and though Paul is better on the prisons, he was also among the racists. Recall Trayvon Martin (see here).

Will this recover America? No. Will it save the Supreme Court as an instrument of law? Doubtful (Kagan seems to be on the dark side about “executive power” as is Obama, who, for example, works to persecute whistleblowers).

But does it give us some room to fight and maneuver? Yes.

Kristine suggested that ordinary Americans have a problem with instant gratification and need elections or wars resolved quickly. This is, I think, a profound error. All the decent movements that have changed America have come from below i.e. the Revolution, abolition, the union movement, the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the gay and lesbian movement, the anti-war movements and others. We should not expect to have friends in high place (those in high places who do decent things do so only because of pressure from below).

As in the case of Occupy, the elite meets democratic protest – nonviolent protest – with violence. The tear gas at Davis is a symbol of what the American elite – including the Democrats – do. Consider Rahm Emmanuel, fighting for a police state in Chicago, whom Obama selected as a chief of staff…

We need a mass nonviolent movement of resistance from below to turn around militarism. We need a student movement to fight debt-slavery and to join, as Occupy has, struggles against evictions. We need, as Alex Madsen, my student, brilliantly says, a new ethic of service. In a paper on Occupy for a nonviolence seminar, she cites Gandhi on how brahmans (member of the upper caste in India) should clean the latrines of the outcasts...Participating in community struggles, for instance, against eviction, is something many people in Occupy are already active in.

Nonviolence has been with us vigorously as a movement only in this last century (it was adumbrated by Socrates, Jesus and Mirabai, among others). The inventiveness of Occupy, very good in isolating the 1%, highlighting the evil of the two parties (servants of olirachy), pioneering direct democracy, frustrating pundits (including the ordinarily quite good Thom Hartman), can be extended in new ways. In contrast, the Black Bloc does self-destructive protests which exhibit violence- urine bombs or painting on cars - toward ordinary people. But some in it want a better way – I debated one person who was going to participate in a “fuck the police” march, and she didn’t like ordinary pacifism where a few people mark out with the police what they are going to do, where they are going to be arrested, the small demonstration choreographed. But she did respond to the idea of mass, militant nonviolence - say 100,000 people, if we could mobilize them, sitting down around the White House to prevent bombing Iran… Or sit ins of smaller numbers in or around every predatory bank until Congress legislates them out of the student loan business and transfers funding from militarism to the education of Americans.

There is much here for Occupy to discuss…

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The snare of words, part 2

Reconsidering the contrast of Polemarchus and Thrasymachus, perhaps Plato also expected his careful students* to learn the difference between argument - the search for justice, including what we call civil disobedience, and the idea of the good - and its opposite, between ascent to the light and the cave. Recall that Thrasymachus’s bullying is a harsher version of what Polemarchus did in arresting Socrates at the beginning of the Republic. And note how much of Thrasymachus’s position is shared by Glaucon, particularly in the latter’s long speech surrounding the story of the ring of Gyges in book 2 (358b-361d) even though his defense of injustice is much gaudier. In the metaphor of the opening lines, a torch was passed flickeringly within the darkness (the cave of a defective democracy's execution of Socrates). Note that motivating or addressing the ring in long, sometimes poetic speeches is a give-away about the feebleness of Glaucon's actual ability to argue, To be eloquent in the way of making speeches is not the same as to be good at asking questions, following argument.

The length of the speeches is also a warning that although much more formidable and smarter than Thrasymachus, Glaucon, Socrates’s chosen companion in the Republic and seeming student, testing out his own course in life as a military and would-be political leader, resembles Thrasymachus more than Polemarchus. For the latter grows; he begins to understand questioning.** There is also a warning in book 2 about the argument; the comic likening of the philosopher to a dog and a guardian, and the repetition by Adeimantus of other arguments from book 1 that have already been answered sets the stage for seeing that this particular city in speech and some of its measures is Glaucon’s city – a military city – and not Socrates’s city. See here here, here and here.

One may also see this contrast in the long speeches or myths of Protagoras and the brief speeches or questions of Socrates who is superior to anyone in “apprehending an argument” as Alcibiades’s puts it in the Protagoras. Perhaps Plato’s (and Socrates’s) students are also to learn the dangers of having an unreflective position, not just in Polemarchus’s foolish belligerence in arresting Socrates, but also in Thrasymachus’s stridency and even in Glaucon's and Adeimantus's dazzling metaphors.

Thrasymachus’s view – that justice is “nothing but the advantage of the stronger” (what is to kreitton, "the stronger,"*** is a theme in the Republic) – has some truth. One can see this, for instance, in today’s politics (Mitt Romney is the voice of the oligarchic consensus of the last 30 years, producing ever greater inequalities and an intensified attack on the needs and interests of ordinary people).**** Thrasymachus seeks dominion, not truth. All of his wiles are displayed to undermine the genuinely philosophical discussion that has occurred between Socrates and Polemarchus:

“Then he bellowed at us and the whole company. What idiocy is this, Socrates? Why do the two of you behave like dolts deferring to each other’s insipidities?” (337c)

Thrasymachus mocks Socrates’s questioning and insists – repetitively, hectoringly - that he will not tolerate a sweeping variety of likely answers to the question: what is justice?

“If you really want to know what justice is, you should be able not only to ask the question but to answer it. You should not try to score points merely by refuting your opponents' efforts [note the overriding competitiveness of Thrasymachus’s conception]; you ought to provide your own definition. After all, there are many who ask, but cannot answer [are there? It seems as if there is one, Socrates, with this approach, that of philosophy and not of the lawyers or sophists...]. So now say what you think justice is. Say it at last with precision and clarity and spare us your ponderous analogies with duty or interest or profit or advantage. They produce only nonsense, and I don’t put up with nonsense.”

This is the very portrait of bullying rhetoric with no interest in truth. The idea that one is, just as a matter of who one is, the “authority” on what counts as nonsense, is a longstanding rhetorical move of the powerful. That the emperor has no clothes – that there is no argument to go along with the “bellowing” – is obvious as soon as anyone asks: what criteria about knowledge is Thrasymachus suggesting? The answer is: none.

And therefore: who are you to say?

Thrasymachus illustrates the ugly speech of sophists, those who teach only for “the money’s sake,” which is characteristic of courts of law or public assemblies in ancient Athens, and is distinct from philosophy. At the outset of the Apology, Socrates says ironically that this kind of speech is unfamiliar to him. On one level, he can match and subvert what Thrasymachus or his accusers say. On a deeper level, the Republic is the illustration of why, descending from the light of philosophy or questioning and the search for truth, the murderousness of the cave is unfamiliar...

Thasymachus's is egotistical speech, affirming what Rousseau would call a will of all.***** In an act of defective, proto-McCarthyite or will of all democracy - see here - a court, based on Thrasymachean speech, will put Socrates to death…

Big intimidating speeches, designed to draw applause but to forget the point at issue or the argument, to deceive, “sit at the doors of the rich.” In book 2, Adeimantus dresses up the ring of Gyges with secret police and rhetoricians who provide a tyrant with beautiful clothes:

"But if a man chooses injustice and at the same time fabricates a reputation for justice, he can expect to live like a god."

"After all, the philosophers have proved that appearance is mightier than reality and hence the true lord of happiness [have they? Plato might ask. Such a large opinion...]. To appearance, then, one must unstintingly turn one's efforts. A man must deceive. He must don costumes and devise stage-effects that impart the illusion of virtue even as he heeds the sage Archilochus and drags behind him the wily and subtle fox [foxes are, of course, genuinely beautiful and clever; in this passage, Oscar Wilde's Dorian Grey is foreshadowed]. If another objects that it is not always easy to conceal wickedness, the answer can only be that nothing great [Adeimantus here rewords Thrasymachus] is ever easy. In any case, if one wants happiness, this is the way to go. One can cover one's tracks by organizing political clubs and secret brotherhoods [here Adimantus speaks with the voice of Simonides in Xenophon's Hiero and prefigures Leo Strauss******] and by relying on rhetoricians [i.e. Thrasymachus] who teach the art of persuading courts and assemblies. And so partly by persuasion and partly by force, one can steal and go unpunished." (365b-d)

More precisely, Thrasymachus might say, pay me and I will say that justice is your advantage and (Thrasymachus’s "little" addition) “nothing but”…

First, Socrates asks, ironically, for aid in seeking the truth from this “superior intellect.” For Thraysmachus thinks he is superior with regard to justice and wisdom. But Socrates then responds cuttingly with two argumentative maneuvers which reveal Thrasymachus’s emptiness: as an opinion, he has some truth about ordinary cities, much of the time - it is up to a point what Socrates names in the Meno true opinion - but no means to argue it. Emulating a statue of Daedalus, such an opinion is not tied down as knowledge would be - for every person, for instance Socrates, and every ruler is not unjust - but gets up and walks away from Thrasymachus...

The first of Socrates’s arguments draws a parallel, suggesting that many of the elements Thrasymachus excludes by fiat might be part of a reasonable answer to the question; it also makes the point that more than one of the things he rules out is likely to be, in some way, characteristic of justice.

“With your intelligence, Thrasymachus, you will surely recognize this problem. Suppose you ask a man what set of numbers go into twelve. But then you tell him that two times six or three times four - or six times two or four times three – are not valid answers, that they are the kind of nonsense that ‘you won’t put up with.’ If you put the question to him that way, he has no way to answer. Suppose he were to answer with a question: ‘Thrasymachus, do you really mean to exclude all of those answers, even if one or more are right, and force me to give a false answer?’ How would you respond?"

Socrates stands down the bully Thrasymachus on the issue of telling the truth. One must not lie under compulsion (here again Polemarchus’s initial threat – “do you see how many of us there are” and Socrates’s refusal to go along, staying only because Glaucon stays - is recapitulated). Offering rhetoric without argument, ducking the issues, Thrasymachus baldly asserts:

“Your analogy, as usual, is misleading.”

“How so [underlining the point that Thrasymachus has yet to make an argument; he is not strong on thinking, another way of saying he is strong on bullying]? But suppose you are right, and the cases are not comparable except to the one who made the comparison? Would he not have every right to speak the truth as he sees it, whether we forbid him or not?” (337a-d)

Socrates reiterates standing up for the truth against the prohibitions of (would-be) dominators. He sees the rhetorical tricks of the domineering, is not intimidated by them (despite his irony about the fearsomeness of the opponent, the one who – justice in Athens putatively being the advantage of the stronger – eventually murders him) and exposes the emptiness of Thrasymachus’s position and so far, in the argument, person.

In contrast, Socrates speaks much more carefully of his listening on – carried away for a moment as if to a lovely music, hearing silent argument or notes beyond the story told - when Protagoras offers his democratic creation myth in the Protagoras. One important point about this distinction: Socrates does not mainly challenge the story about democracy - for instance, that insights are sometimes widely distributed in a people by Zeus or in Aristotle's later idiom in the Politics, 3.12, that sometimes, the many understand more than the one - but mainly questions whether virtue can be taught. This connects with the theme of the Meno: it can’t. But that dialogue never examines what virtue is, and thus fails, as Plato - here in the person of Socrates - warns, as argument. This theme also connects with the action of the Republic where Socrates teaches Glaucon not to become a tyrant and perhaps Polemarchus to do philosophy (to seek virtue).

Socrates' thought in the Protagoras could imply: virtue is a form of knowledge and can be taught by a philosopher ruler. But grasping the idea of justice even in part (not the whole or even a large part of the city in speech, but for instance, the equality of women and men or of slaves and masters) and going down to resist for decency in a democracy, as Socrates goes down to fight for questioning, could also exemplify this thought. So could the action of the Republic, that of Socrates as a philosopher from below in a democracy - a member of the small city or circle of those interested in questioning within the many cities of the democracy - who teaches Glaucon not to become a tyrant, let alone a philosophical tyrant (of which there is no hope; Glaucon is interested or entertained by philosophy and very smart, but on the showing of the Republic no potential philosopher). In the argument about the ostensible likeness of the dog, the guardian and the philosopher (book 2) and the idea of the good, Glaucon is shown as motivated by seeking the approval of Socrates rather than thinking (or answering what he might plausibly think, were he motivated by thinking) about the argument.

Yet the argument could also pit Socrates against Plato if Plato means (as he seems to mean in Syracuse) actual philosophical kingship. Of course, Plato advocated a rule of laws in Syracuse so the peculiar philosophical tyranny of the beautiful city - the city of Glaucon's dreams in the Republic - is an illusion (pace Heidegger). And not Plato but Dion does go down in Syracuse. In trying to head off or repair the conflict between Dionysius and Dion, Plato presents himself in the Seventh Letter as wise, and, unsurprisingly, as perhaps also, a bit of a coward. It is a dark path, however shining historically, to emulate Socrates.

Socrates plainly surpasses Plato in courage for philosophy and justice, and meets a very different kind of end...

The Meno and the Republic need to be studied in the light of these alternatives in conjunction with the Protagoras. But in the latter dialogue, Socrates also plainly agrees with much of the substance of the democracy.

Put differently, he (and Plato, up on the hill) do look contemptuously down at artisans. They do not approve all the elements of the democracy. But they are reformers within a kind of democracy, wanting perhaps more elite rule (one might wonder where that thought leaves the son of a stone mason and inheritor of the trade, though also student of philosophy, Socrates). In the context of the democracy's calling illegally and immorally for the killing of the leaders (strategoi) who did not pick up the corpses from the sea during the battle of Arginusae (Apology, 32) or in a great storm following it (Xenophon, Hellenica, 1.6-7), Socrates indeed (and some others) seem like wiser experts than the many who call for their death. Note, however, that the decent views, comparable to the some 220 votes of Socrates's "true judges" - Apology, 40a - also come from the democracy (they are just not the then predominant ones).

But as the anti-war movements against American aggressions in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran all highlight, in today's oligarchy with parliamentary forms, it is the movement from below that is right or decently - that is, for a common good or a general will - democratic. (h/t Todd Power) A common good-seeking democracy contrasts with the advice of "experts" who even among today's Democratic counselors like Samantha Power and Susan Rice are fans of tyrannical executive power on behalf of humanitarian intervention, servants of the American war complex,******* and give not a fig for the Constitution or its designers's justified fears about frivolous quasi-monarchical wars. The Democratic think tanks experts (Leslie Gelb and the like) are rightly seen as "neo-neo cons" (h/t Chris Hill) and are often echoed by Bill Kristol or Bob Kagan whose war criminality was demonstrated in the lead up to the Iraq aggression.

For anti-war or anti-militarist decency in American corporate public life comes entirely from below (Electoral activity is - at the highest levels increasingly now - in appearance a form of corporate life. Consider Gingrich and Netanyahu, brought to you by Sheldon Adelson, or Romney, decked out or muscled with neocons, by the big donors of Karl Rove like the Koch brothers and allied billionaires - the Kochs raised $100 million in pledges for the campaign in one weekend - or Santorum by Foster Friess) . To find anti-war or anti-militarist decency which exists only on the margins of American corporate-dominated public life, one has to look Barbara Lee of Oakland or, formerly, Dennis Kucinich or Ron Paul and a few others. Such figures are rarely publicized in the commercial (part of the war complex) media...********

These facts - and a notion of the genuine or democratic accountability of leaders to ordinary people and a common good (h/t Scott Horton) - defeat Socrates's thought about the benefits of expertise in the modern day. All decent movements in modern American democracy - the Revolution, the Shays rebellion, abolitionism, the union movement, civil rights, the women's movement, the gay and lesbian movement, and the anti-war movements - emerge from below. They have leaders in democratic discussions (and disinterested or truth-seeking "expertise" can play a role, from below, among citizens, as Occupy's debates suggest, where official leaders or "spokespersons" are absent).

Now, as in Protagoras, Socrates is also notably critical of artisans or what we might call experts in one thing, but who then think they know much more broadly. Analogous to the Democratic think tank establishment, they always do the wrong thing. Think of that establishment's embrace of drones, and Obama's use of them, breeding enmity in Pakistan repeatedly through the slaughter of innocents. These Democrats are more like Thrasymachus, speaking for the money's and publicity's sake - after his folly during the Iraq debacle, Leslie Gelb wrote an article in Foreign Affairs which suggested self-critically that he and others could not get on television without calling for war, and then promptly demanded that Obama escalate in Afghanistan without taking any time to think about alternatives.******** Or one might say that they seem artisan-like about foreign policy (know many details), but are wrong about every particular war. They are the paradoxical artisan in Plato's terms who, in a kind of slapstick, seems to know how to build a chair but always plunges you down a hole when you try to sit on it...

Given the war complex's media, being a crusader for Iraq like Kristol is an incentive to be consulted anew as an "expert" by Congress, Fox, CNN - and if you are a Democratic "expert" who was wrong, on MSNBC; being right all along about Iraq as many of us were is, of course, disqualifying....See here for a call to organize against aggression against Iran.

Here is a dramatic deficiency of Plato's (the son of Ariston, the best) and perhaps Socrates's (son of Sophroniscus, the stone-mason whose voice may here be overridden) elitism as a kind of democrat, and a more serious deficiency about a modern democracy. Only a popular movement from below, not "experts," are a hope for a nonaggressive American foreign policy...********

In the image of Socrates following the music in Protagoras, Plato also indicates for students how easy it is to be caught up in an argument or big speeches, not to think about how an argument works, what question(s) to ask about it, to hear in Protagoras’s case, only the music of a beautiful story.

Thrasymachus is a metic (immigrant) in Athens, from Chalcedon. That makes him, though a fierce fighter (what his name means), just a rhetorician, not a potential war leader (what the name Polemarchus means), let alone a shining potential tyrant or more distantly, a potential philosopher (Glaucon, shining like the gray of the sea or the owl eyes of Athena Glaukopis). Thrasymachus speaks for the democracy of the trial as "nothing but the advantage of the stronger." Thrasymachus's view is politically for a tyrant the most inadequate (a Thrasymachean tyrant seeks to grasp everything and only for his own advantage, the nothing-but-injustice of Goldman Sachs as revealed three days ago in the Times by a Vice President Greg Smith who resigned - see here).

In an interesting parallel, it is Protagoras, a sophist from Abdera (Thrace) and thus a visitor (or metic) in Athens, who tells the creation myth of Athenian democracy. In contrast to Thrasymachus, Protagoras recounts the admirable story of a knowledge dispersed widely within the many - what Aristotle crystallizes in book 3.12 of the Politics as the many often being wiser than the one. He captures a political philosophical virtue of democracy in a way that Thrasymachus does not. Thrasymachus's false definition of justice is really a view of injustice purporting to be justice; that is why Glaucon's ring of Gyges story is a much deeper and no charmed snake, revelation of Thrasymachus's argument.

Though Socrates questions both views about Athenian democracy, he distinguishes between them sharply. He listens on for a few moments to some following music in Protagoras's story - one which captures or points toward a common good-oriented or general will conception of democracy. In contrast, he stands down Thrasymachus's mob, "particular interest" or "herd of beasts" (Aristotle) or "will of all" view of democracy. This is another subtle Platonic indication to careful readers of how strongly Socrates's valued a common good-sustaining democracy. For he went down for that democracy against tyrannies (against Critias, against the pseudo-democratic or proto-McCarthyite majority that hated questioning...). See here.

After listening, Socrates asks Protagoras a single question: whether the virtues are different parts of a whole, or the same. Protagoras opts for the former; Socrates's questions point toward the latter. But the bearing of this question on choosing between democracy and rule of the one who knows is more obscure than Socrates's initial statement - before Protagoras's story - might suggest. If the virtues come together, then beauty, holiness, goodness, justice and wisdom unite by implication, in the outstanding man. But mightn't that be true, to varying degrees, among democrats as well? And how many Socrateses (or Platos), as opposed to Critiases, Alcibiadeses, Heideggers, or Strausses, are there? Aren't the self-deceiving philosopher-"kings" or advisors to tyrants common and dangerous? And recall in the Apology, Socrates's skepticism about how much one knows or can know - his wisdom in that he knows only that he does not know so much. That basic though is far more consistent with democracy than with the rule of a philosopher-tyrant which is, once again, characteristic of Glaucon's city, not Socrates's, and largely satirical.***********

In Protagoras, Socrates also comments when the rhetorician is becoming angry. I should note, however, that Protagoras never emulates the domineering of Thrasymachus. Still even in Protagoras, the argument has mortal public implications about questioning. And Socrates, perhaps following his daimon (his inner voice which warns him to discontinue a conversation, Apology, 40a-c), gets up to leave. His action parallels Thrasymachus's attempt to leave in the Republic - but with the difference that some aspect of the conversation is marked, for the student, as serious or positive (Socrates does not think Protagoras will respond to questions, join an argument to figure out the truth) rather than negative (Thrasymachus wants to run away from the argument).

The implications of the argument for democracy in the Protagoras are subtle. But Socrates is mainly friendly to democracy and democratic laws, not a critic of them. Compare Socrates's willingess to stand up to Thrasymachus in the Republic (Thrasymachus is not permitted to leave). Or his willingness to go down to defend philosophy and questioning - a decent democracy - to a mob that put him to death. Or, alternately, to go down to defend the law, for instance in his one time as epistates (leader of the assembly representing his prytany), standing against calls to murder him and other decent people in the trial of the strategoi (leaders) for not retrieving the corpses in the sea in the Battle of Arginusae (I should note that the illegal trial, conviction and - subsequent - execution of 6 military leaders at the proposal of Callixeinus occured only the following day, when Socrates no longer served as epistates).

Resisting or questioning injustice, practicing a precursor of civil disobedience and nurturing respect for the law as in his role as epistates during the trial of the military leaders as well as in the Crito, where the speech of the laws is deepened by this example, are vital to maintaining or creating a common good-sustaining or decent democracy. They are what a philosopher might go down for.

My guess is that Plato, over time, teaching these dialogues line by line, inviting question upon question, hoped his students would make such comparisons, think about such possibilities.


*For "The snare of words, part 1," see here.

I could just have said: his students. But "careful students" is a term of art, referring to the passage in Phaedrus where Socrates names the problem of writing - words, like statues, if asked a question, have no "father" to defend them - and distinguishes this from speaking. Sleepy readers - or belligerent auditors like Thrasymachus - will miss what the argument says. The same problem exists in a less extreme way even in a spoken argument (that thought is what Plato's invitation to careful reading of a dialogue is designed to elicit).

Only those who know how to read, who can follow the words in a dialogue in relation to the action, distinguish bad arguments and things left unsaid from good ones, and test out each assertion and who makes it, can begin to glean what the hidden author, Plato, actually is saying. That this is a complicated process with much misinterpretation even on the part of the most sophisticated readers, i.e. Strauss and Heidegger, should by now be clear for readers of this blog.

One of the main reasons for confusion is these two somewhat clashing dimensions of political argument in Socrates and Plato: common good-sustaining democratic resistance v. tyranny; defective democratic execution of Socrates leading to reform of democracy and philosophical kingship. Were philosophical tyranny good, it would pair with scorn for democracy; this is a common, often thoughtless misunderstanding of what a dialogue is, a conclusion of those who assume Socrates and Plato are reactionaries and whatever the care in reading, always "know" that the argument points in this direction. But once one notices the complexities of the dialogues and fact of Socrates's civil disobedience, there is little reason to think that Plato or Socrates pursued a unique, let alone anti-democratic direction.

**Glaucon, too, grows in an important way - he is no longer hungry in the sense of searching to become a tyrant. But he is tamed as it were by the argument; he becomes a person interested in philosophy. He does not, however, become a neophyte philosopher.

***To kreitton can also mean the "superior." Thrasymachus aspires to be the "stronger"; in the dialogue, questioning is superior (one might say: justice is the advantage of she who asks questions...").

Alternately, one might say, Socrates seeks the truth - a common enterprise - which is not in Thrasymachus's sense a (domineering) advantage.

****The military-industrial-Congressional-think tank/academic-intelligence- judicial (there are currently 4 votes on the Supreme Court to make Guantanamo the law in "the state of the exception").

*****Everyone, for instance, the bully Polemarchus at the outset of the Republic, has a naive egotism and unquestioned purposes. But here, the arrest and killing of Socrates is still a kind of joke. I name Thrasymachus an egotist because he wants to win at the expense of diminishing and potentially killing Socrates. One may thus distinguish naive or ordinary egotism about argument from belligerent or murderous egotism. But even Thrasymachus is ultimately tamed - the charmed snake - and Socrates says that they are now friends, although there is no evidence, beyond Thrasymachus's staying, that Thrasymachus now is beginning, parallel to Polemarchus, to follow argument.

******Leo Strauss seems esoterically to identify the ring of Gyges with Socrates's account of a dialogue (ordinary writing is like a sculpture; if you ask it a question, it has no father to defend it; the same image appears in Protagoras after the sophist's democratic creation-story). But to read Glaucon as revealing the truth about Plato and Socrates, one has to have a mania for privileging hidden meanings against their opposites.

Strauss appears an exceptionally learned scholar and an unusual teacher, with a phalanx of believer-scholars of considerable diversity (ranging from the Thrasymachean William Kristol, no scholar and corrupt and aggressive, to - on the outskirts - Charles Butterworth, a scholar's scholar and someone completely admirable, with many gradations in between. That Charles and a few other scholars were taught by and admire Strauss is a noble testimony...). Strauss is also a Jew who left Germany. But he is, hiddenly, as one can see from his letters and essays of the 1920s and 1930s, a fascist and his own kind of national socialist, at least for a considerable time, and recommends - as do his more political followers here and now - a kind of imperial authoritarianism or "commander in chief power." There is a sad and deliberate Portrait of Dorian Grey here.

*******Breaking civilian-military relations in a democracy, General Stanley MacChrystal had, at the start of Obama's deliberations, demanded 40,000 additional troops at a press conference in Paris. The media of the war complex - and the Democratic think tank experts - did not point to this extraordinary breach. And MacChrystal was later fired for badmouthing Biden and the President in a Rolling Stone intervew, a venial sin comparatively. Under such pressure - as the leader of the Empire and agianst his better judgment (he and Biden already knew that Al-Qaida was in Pakistan...), Obama sent 30,000 additional soldiers publically and 70,000 Xe/Blackwater Corporation mercenaries. And the Congress and the press and the thinktank experts uttered not a word to the public about this - revealing the institutional enmity to public deliberations over war in this democracy (more aptly, oligarchy with parliamentary forms).

********Obama came to power as an anti-Iraq war candidate because, as a result of a huge anti-war movement, the debilitating effects of occupation, and an unusual, popular (also anti-racist) campaign. But to make himself eventually acceptable to the war complex, he had to speak carefully at a 2002 rally about Iraq as a "dumb war" - not an act of aggression - and affirm that he did not oppose all American wars...The organizers shook their heads, wondering "who is he speaking to? He sure isn't speaking to people here." Obama was already planning to run for President, and is an unusually insightful politician. He was differentiated from Hilary by this speech (but if he had been in the Senate like Hilary, would he have spoken out? Would he have become President?). In American politics, a soap opera with dark consequences, much turns on luck...

Though on the margins of the elite (his views appealed to the democracy from below), Barack, unusually, was able to rise. But he has also, ironically, become the anti-dumb Iraq War candidate who has waged 5 or 6 aggressions and occupations as President....

*********In the elite, Ron Paul is no expert on foreign policy, and straightforward but horrific on domestic policy. But in opposition to drones and aggression and military bases abroad and militarism, he is usually right and the "experts," including the Democratic neo-neo cons, nearly universally wrong. No wonder the New York Times is so hesitant to cover this aspect of Paul's views, at most referring to "isolationism" as if still in the debates about Hitler of the 1930s.

**********For instance, the suggestion that women are equal to men and can participate in the guardians is both seriously meant (consider Diotima in the Symposium and Aspasia in Menexenus) and true even though the tale of women and men wrestling naked together is a satire. And Plato did experiment with the route of not going down, philosopher-kingship, in Syracuse, so, however different from the image suited to Glaucon's psyche, there is some seriousness here.

**********As I frequently ask my students, can anyone think of a policy suggested by a Republican presidential candidate (Ron Paul excepted) which conceivably would benefit any of the 99%? Republicans used to build highways or supported planned parenthood...

Put differently, their's is a campaign of the emperor's new clothes and racism. Obama has to do but a few decent things - they are there (Biden's new campaign slogan: "Bin Laden is dead; GM is alive" is part of this, along with the stimulus, the appointment of Sotomayor, the move toward equality for gays and lesbians, and other matters) and perhaps even unusual among Presidents (of the empire), but all too few and offset by bad things - to be deserving against this...

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Man shoots teenager and goes scot-free

A gated community. A vigilante in an SUV follows a young man in a hood after dark. The grown man is an adult, weighing 100 pounds more than the young man. The grown man calls the police, but is told to stay away from the young man. The car screeches behind the young man, the grown man gets out, screams loud and threatening things to the young man, they scuffle, the grown man goes down, blood on his face.

The young man screams for help. The grown man murders him with a gun...

The young man is white. The vigilante is black.

The grown man is arrested immediately and in jail, awaiting trial for murder.

But Trayvon Martin was black...

The aggressor - the racist - was white.

The police department protects the racist. The case reeks so badly it is (to its credit) in the New York Times this morning.

What the story does not include are the facts about the prison and injustice system revealed by Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow and a wave of important writings on the prison/probation complex. The US holds 2.3 million people in prison, 25% of the world's prisoners, more than China, Russia and the remaining dictatorships of the Middle East (including the Israeli dictatorship over the Occupied Territories) combined. Many of those imprisoned are black and chicano. According to the Justice Department, 1 in every 3 black males born in 2001 can expect to go to prison, 1 in 6 chicanos and 1 in 17 whites. Even the number for whites is enormous, both as compared to civilized countries and as an absolute; the racism of these figures - and how it hurts whites as well - is unspeakable. See here.

There is no self-defense reasonably to be claimed for someone in an SUV following a young man with skittles and ice tea walking in a gated community in the wrong clothes (a hooded jacked). Trayvon Martin committed the offense of walking while black and was murdered for it.

He did stand up to the aggressor and initially perhaps fought him off. What the aggressor screamed at Trayvon is not yet a matter of public record, but it is hard not to be sympathetic to Trayvon in the situation (George Zimmerman is a big man, a bully and a coward, whose "strength" dissolved into his gun...).

In a state with a legal system (not Florida), a defense lawyer might want to consider paranoid insanity.

But of course, what the police did here in letting the white man walk is part of a deep pattern of injustice - or police state activity - driven by the American South but upheld by the Democrats as well. It a pattern which creates mass jailing of young people largely for drug "crimes" (better than half of the eight-fold increase of imprisonments since the 1970s, has been for drug crimes, 4/5ths of these for possession of marijuana).

Zimmerman, as his father said, is part chicano. But unlike the chicanos who can expect to spend time in prison, he was here temporarily made an honorary "white." This is the reality in America, 2012...

Maintenance of law requires that Martin be arrested and the facts aired in a court. He could be punished for the crime (though capital punishment is an act of barbarity, also misapplied in a racist way - see here, here, here and here on Troy Davis). But honoring the law equally is only a way to discourage crime. Trayvon Martin can never live out his life.

The community could be healed by truth and reconciliation. But in the America of 2012, this is not yet a possibility...

What Charles Blow speaks of as a "salve" (the punishment of a criminal) can never heal what is gone.


OP-ED COLUMNIST
The Curious Case of Trayvon Martin
By CHARLES M. BLOW
Published: March 16, 2012

“He said that Tray was gone.”

That’s how Sybrina Fulton, her voice full of ache, told me she found out that her 17-year-old son, Trayvon Martin, had died. In a wrenching telephone call, the boy’s father, who had taken him to visit a friend, told her that Trayvon had been gunned down in a gated townhouse community in Sanford, Fla., outside Orlando.

“He said, ‘Somebody shot Trayvon and killed him.’ And I was like, ‘Are you sure?’ ” Fulton continued in disbelief. “I said ‘How do you know that’s Trayvon?’ And he said because they showed him a picture.”

That was Feb. 27, one day after Trayvon was shot. The father thought that he was missing, according to the family’s lawyer, Benjamin Crump, but the boy’s body had actually been taken to the medical examiner’s office and listed as a John Doe.

The father called the Missing Persons Unit. No luck. Then he called 911. The police asked the father to describe the boy, after which they sent officers to the house where the father was staying. There they showed him a picture of the boy with blood coming out of his mouth.

This is a nightmare scenario for any parent, and the events leading to Trayvon’s death offer little comfort — and pose many questions.

Trayvon had left the house he and his father were visiting to walk to the local 7-Eleven. On his way back, he caught the attention of George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old neighborhood watch captain, who was in a sport-utility vehicle. Zimmerman called the police because the boy looked “real suspicious,” according to a 911 call released late Friday. The operator told Zimmerman that officers were being dispatched and not to pursue the boy.

Zimmerman apparently pursued him anyway, at some point getting out of his car and confronting the boy. Trayvon had a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea. Zimmerman had a 9 millimeter handgun.

The two allegedly engaged in a physical altercation. There was yelling, and then a gunshot.

When police arrived, Trayvon was face down in the grass with a fatal bullet wound to the chest. Zimmerman was standing with blood on his face and the back of his head and grass stains on his back, according to The Orlando Sentinel.

Trayvon’s lifeless body was taken away, tagged and held. Zimmerman was taken into custody, questioned and released. Zimmerman said he was the one yelling for help. He said that he acted in self-defense. The police say that they have found no evidence to dispute Zimmerman’s claim.

One other point: Trayvon is black. Zimmerman is not.

Trayvon was buried on March 3. Zimmerman is still free and has not been arrested or charged with a crime.

Yet the questions remain: Why did Zimmerman find Trayvon suspicious? Why did he pursue the boy when the 911 operator instructed him not to? Why did he get out of the car, and why did he take his gun when he did? How is it self-defense when you are the one in pursuit? Who initiated the altercation? Who cried for help? Did Trayvon’s body show evidence of a struggle? What moved Zimmerman to use lethal force?

This case has reignited a furor about vigilante justice, racial-profiling and equitable treatment under the law, and it has stirred the pot of racial strife.

As the father of two black teenage boys, this case hits close to home. This is the fear that seizes me whenever my boys are out in the world: that a man with a gun and an itchy finger will find them “suspicious.” That passions may run hot and blood run cold. That it might all end with a hole in their chest and hole in my heart. That the law might prove insufficient to salve my loss.

That is the burden of black boys in America and the people that love them: running the risk of being descended upon in the dark and caught in the cross-hairs of someone who crosses the line.

The racial sensitivity of this case is heavy. Trayvon’s parents have said their son was murdered. Crump, the family’s lawyer, told me, “You know, if Trayvon would have been the triggerman, it’s nothing Trayvon Martin could have said to keep police from arresting him Day 1, Hour 1.” Even the police chief recognizes this reality, even while disputing claims of racial bias in the investigation: “Our investigation is color blind and based on the facts and circumstances, not color. I know I can say that until I am blue in the face, but, as a white man in a uniform, I know it doesn’t mean anything to anybody.”

Zimmerman has not released a statement, but his father delivered a one-page letter to The Orlando Sentinel on Thursday. According to the newspaper, the statement said that Zimmerman is “Hispanic and grew up in a multiracial family.” The paper quotes the letter as reading, “He would be the last to discriminate for any reason whatsoever” and continues, “The media portrayal of George as a racist could not be further from the truth.” And disclosures made since the shooting complicate people’s perception of fairness in the case.

According to Crump, the father was told that one of the reasons Zimmerman wasn’t arrested was because he had a “squeaky clean” record. It wasn’t. According to the local news station WFTV, Zimmerman was arrested in 2005 for “battery on a law enforcement officer.”

Furthermore, ABC News reported on Tuesday that one of the responding officers “corrected a witness after she told him that she heard the teen cry for help.” And The Miami Herald published an article on Thursday that said three witnesses had heard the “desperate wail of a child, a gunshot, and then silence.”

WFTV also reported this week that the officer in charge of the scene when Trayvon was shot was also in charge of another controversial case. In 2010, a lieutenant’s son was videotaped attacking a black homeless man. The officer’s son also was not initially arrested in that case. He was later arrested when the television station broke the news.

Although we must wait to get the results from all the investigations into Trayvon’s killing, it is clear that it is a tragedy. If no wrongdoing of any sort is ascribed to the incident, it will be an even greater tragedy.

One of the witnesses was a 13-year-old black boy who recorded a video for The Orlando Sentinel recounting what he saw. The boy is wearing a striped polo shirt, holding a microphone, speaking low and deliberately and has the heavy look of worry and sadness in his eyes. He describes hearing screaming, seeing someone on the ground and hearing gunshots. The video ends with the boy saying, “I just think that sometimes people get stereotyped, and I fit into the stereotype as the person who got shot.”

And that is the burden of black boys, and this case can either ease or exacerbate.


See here for the Times's news story on the case, and here on the new generation of racist "stand your ground" laws.