When Black Friday Comes

Black Friday can bite me.

I’m tired of hearing about it, tired of the spectacle of grown people embarrassing themselves and acting like idiots to try to get the latest hot toy or specially priced flat-screen TV that will only be available to the first 50 customers, and tired of the talking heads talking, talking, talking about how important Black Friday is to the health of our economy and its retail sector.

Go out and buy, buy, buy!  Curse the lack of parking!  Groan when you see the length of the check-out line!  Feel the surge of anger when some jerk cuts in front of you or blocks the aisle or doesn’t watch their bratty kid who is knocking items off the shelves!

So today you won’t find me at the shopping malls.  When I think of Black Friday, I think of the classic tune from Steely Dan’s Katy Lied, performed live below in 2006.  My favorite lyrics from the song have a certain resonance on Black Friday, the dreaded shopping day:

When Black Friday comes
I’m gonna dig myself a hole
Gonna lay down in it ’til
I satisfy my soul
Gonna let the world pass by me
The Archbishop’s gonna sanctify me
And if he don’t come across
I’m gonna let it roll

Eroding Trust On Both Sides Now

There was rioting in Ferguson, Missouri last night after a prosecuting attorney announced that a grand jury had declined to indict white police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager.

The prosecutor, Bob McCulloch, said that the racially mixed grand jury had met on more than two dozen occasions over three months to hear the testimony of more than 60 witnesses.  He said the members of the grand jury were the only people to have heard all of the evidence and to have weighed the credibility of every witness, and added that they took their job seriously and “poured their hearts and soul into this process.” 

Shortly after the verdict was announced the police officer’s grand jury testimony was released.  According to the Associated Press report, Wilson said he had seen Brown walking with a handful of cigars, which he connected to an earlier report of a convenience store robbery.  Wilson testified to an escalating confrontation in which Brown punched Wilson while Wilson sat in his patrol car, Wilson drew his gun, the two struggled, Brown ran away, Wilson gave chase, Brown turned to face the policeman, and ultimately Wilson fired the fatal shots.

Rioting began almost immediately after the no-indictment decision was announced, with crowds setting fire to vehicles and buildings and looting local businesses.  Police fired tear gas and made numerous arrests.  President Obama quite properly appealed for calm and noted that the United States is a nation of laws and the grand jury was the institution charged with deciding whether the officer should be charged with a state-law crime.

Of course, both the prosecutor and the President are right:  only the members of the grand jury heard all of the evidence and its decision must inevitably be accepted.  Similarly, no rational person doubts that serving as a police officer is a difficult, dangerous job that requires split-second decision-making in moments of great stress.  Still, we can fairly question why so many deadly police shootings happen in our country — in Cleveland, for example, on this past Saturday afternoon, a rookie police officer fatally shot a 12-year-old African-American boy who was holding a pellet gun — and whether officers are too quick to use deadly force.  In too many of our communities, there seems to be an us versus them mentality on both sides of the police-civilian divide that makes these fatal confrontations much, much too likely to occur.

The Rapper Defense

Should the standards of what constitutes an actionable threat of physical violence be changed in the era of the internet and social media?  Next week the Supreme Court will consider that question, which probes the tender intersection of the First Amendment, criminal law, and society’s interest in protecting people from impending harm.

For years the prevailing standard has been that “true threats” to harm another person are not protected free speech and can be punished under the criminal law.  The issue raised by the Supreme Court case is whether prosecutors should be required to prove that the speaker had a “subjective intent” to threaten, as opposed to showing that an objective person would consider the statements to be threatening.  A requirement of subjective intent obviously would be harder to prove.

In the Supreme Court case, the defendant created Facebook posts about his estranged wife, writing about “a thousand ways to kill you” and asking whether the protection from abuse order she received was “thick enough to stop a bullet.”  His lawyers contend that the statements are simply “therapeutic efforts to address traumatic events” and references to the violent, misogynistic imagery of the defendant’s favorite rappers.  The defendant also argues that other actions like the placement of an emoticon — a face with its tongue sticking out, purportedly to indicate “jest” — must be considered in assessing whether the speaker truly intends menacing behavior or is just blowing off steam.

I’m a big supporter of free speech, and exercises in line-drawing are always difficult, but I don’t see any need to revisit long-time legal standards just because the internet has been developed.  Domestic abuse is a huge problem, and we need to protect the abused.  If prosecutors are required to prove “subjective intent,” and the placement of emoticons or the couching of unambiguous threats of violence in the context of rap lyrics become viable defenses, the ability to protect the abused will be diminished.  I don’t know of any real “therapy” that encourages disturbed people to make specific threats of violence, and I don’t buy the argument that standards of lawful behavior should be reduced simply because some anonymous people treat the internet as a kind of free-for-all zone.

Standards exist for a reason, and we shouldn’t be in a hurry to lower them.  It’s not unfair to hold people whose behavior already has given rise to legitimate concern — like the defendant in the Supreme Court case who was the subject of a protection from abuse order — accountable for specific violent statements, on social media or otherwise.

An Issue That Captures And Frames The Worst

Immigration is a hugely important, multi-faceted issue.  In a world of many terrorist threats, border security is of paramount importance.  The influx of immigrants who don’t enter the country in an authorized way puts pressure on education, health care, and social benefits systems.  Immigrants are happy to perform physically challenging, low-paying jobs that are essential to our economy.  And what should we do with immigrants who crossed the border illegally but have worked here for years and whose children were born here?

So it is perhaps not surprising — in fact, it’s entirely predictable — that the incredibly important immigration issue manages to encompass much of what is appalling about the current sorry state of American government:  completely politicized yet frozen in place, featuring a legislative branch that is seemingly incapable of acting despite the obvious need for action and a President who can’t lead or forge a compromise and so acts unilaterally, and infused with finger-pointing, cringing political correctness and demagoguery that seems to preclude both rational discussion and reasonable compromise.

President Obama’s decision yesterday to issue sweeping executive orders on immigration issues — orders that will establish new programs that will change the legal status of millions of immigrants, change deportation practices, and end other programs — don’t help matters because they just highlight the politicization of this important issue.  President Obama has previously said, correctly I think, that changing immigration laws and policies through unilateral executive orders would be “very difficult to defend legally.”  The President also earlier had made the decision to defer any action on immigration until after the election, an approach that obviously was calculated to help Senate Democrats up for reelection.  In view of that decision, arguments that unilateral action is urgently needed now ring awfully hollow.

I’m sure that President Obama’s supporters will argue that issuing executive orders of dubious constitutionality is justified here because it will goad Congress into taking action that should have been taken long ago.  That argument is like saying that the behavior of the bully in A Christmas Story was justified because it ultimately provoked Ralphie into standing up for himself.  I’m not buying that, either.  America is supposed to be a constitutional form of government where the executive branch and legislative branch both respect and honor the limitations on their powers.  The fact that Congress has dropped the ball doesn’t excuse the President’s overstepping of his constitutional authority.

I’m not trying to excuse Congress’ leaden inactivity on developing a comprehensive set of immigration reforms or side with the anti-immigration fear-mongers, but I think President Obama’s decision to issue these executive orders is a mistake that will only make it much more difficult to address a crucial issue in the correct, constitutional way.  Brace yourself, because the shrill demagoguery on all sides is about to increase in pitch and volume.

On The Trail Of The Lonesome Cactus

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This Midwestern boy can’t help but goggle at the desert plants and scenery — and of course the cactus plants are the most alien to the Midwest, and therefore the most interesting.

For most of my hike up North Mountain the sky was overcast. I appreciated that more and more as I huffed and puffed up the trail, and wondered what it would be like to do so with the sun beating down relentlessly. As I descended with the aid of gravity and passed this solitary cactus sentinel, however, a patch of blue sky appeared on the western horizon.

On Top Of North Mountain

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One of the trails near our hotel leads you to the top of North Mountain — which must be tall,, because at the very peak you will find a cellular tower.

All around is the vastness of Phoenix, which stretches out into infinity until its contours are lost in a kind of smudgy haze. North Mountain is a welcome respite from the urban and suburban sprawl.

On The Jacksonville Beat

Richard moved to Jacksonville this past Friday and started his new job at the Florida Times-Union on Monday.  Yesterday he got (I think) his first article published, about job cuts by CSX at its Jacksonville headquarters.

Richard will be on the business desk and also will be doing some investigative reporting.  He lives in an apartment in the Riverside Avondale neighborhood, which Kish says is a charming and historic area.  It must be, because it has its own Riverside Avondale Preservation society and website.  It’s close to the St. Johns River and has pretty areas on the waterfront, many jogging options, and some good restaurants.  And today, when a cold snap means that Columbus will be lucky to hit a high of 43 degrees, Jacksonville’s high temperature is forecast to be 79 degrees and sunny.

It’s always interesting to move to a new place and learn about what is has to offer.  We’ll be eagerly following Richard’s reporting and learning about this new place as he does, too.