Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Law, Responsibility, and the Jury

[For a longer piece on my experience on the jury for this tobacco case, go here.]

Hearing what jurors on the Merck case in Texas had to say about why they awarded for the plaintiff even though her husband died of complications that have not been shown to be related to Vioxx reminds me of a jury I served on at the end of 2000.


Warning: those of you who are uncompromisingly against corporations aren't going to like what I am saying here. As you will see, it's my belief that justice has to pertain to the specifics of a case, not to whether the accused is "bad" due to other actions. "They may not have done this, but they did something, so deserve to be punished" doesn't work for me.


The case I served on concerned a RICO charge brought against the tobacco industry by the Manville Trust. It concerned the connection between asbestos and tobacco--and involved a huge amount of money. It lasted two months in the Federal Courthouse in Brooklyn, NY. Witnesses included Julius Richmond, a former Surgeon General of the United States, Jeffrey Wigand, the man on whom the movie The Insider is based, and James Heckman, a Nobel laureate, along with parades of anti-tobacco campaigners and tobacco company loyalists.


The plaintiff wanted us to find that they had been materially damaged by a tobacco-industry conspiracy. But, in terms of the law itself, for us to convict, it would have to be shown that the Manville Trust had been materially damaged--that it had spent extra money--because of fraud perpetrated by the tobacco companies.


"Maybe it was wrong, maybe it was too much, but it was not a fraud," said David Bernick, lead lawyer for Brown & Williamson. And fraud it had to be, if we were to follow the law in finding against the tobacco industry. Yes, Bernick said, his client and its co-defendants had tried to "push back on political pressure, regulatory pressure" to save themselves and their profits. In their public relations campaigns, they had claimed they would conduct research on their product and disease. Yes. In reality, they had done little more than deny a material link to disease. Was that criminal?


I had been hoping it was. For seven weeks, I had listened to argument and testimony surrounding the actions of the tobacco industry. From the beginning, I had wanted to hurt it, to make it pay for all of the suffering its products had caused--I wanted to do what the Merck jury did do. But now, listening to Bernick's summation, I was no longer sure I would be able to decide that fraud had been established and that damages were due the plaintiff.


Early in the trial, Edward Westbrook, the Trust's lead lawyer, had insisted that the tobacco companies should "pay their fair share" for disease caused by the particularly deadly combination of tobacco and asbestos. I had nodded. The Trust, established in the wake of the Johns Manville Corporation bankruptcy, had taken responsibility for paying for asbestos-related disease resulting from Johns Manville products. Because cigarette smoking exacerbates such diseases, the Trust felt that the tobacco companies should shoulder at least a part of the burden. I still think there is a strong moral element to Westbrook's argument--but that is not proof of a crime.


And our charge was to determine whether or not the tobacco industry had violated the very specific RICO regulations.


The Manville Trust was desperate for money. Created out of Johns Manville Corporation bankruptcy proceedings begun 1982 due to overwhelming asbestos disease litigation, it had taken over Johns Manville's liabilities. According to a statement by the Alliance for a Fair Tobacco Settlement to the House Judiciary Committee on 2/5/98:

Asbestos litigation defendants have paid... tens of billions of dollars in compensation to injured asbestos workers.... The asbestos trusts that stand in the shoes of those bankrupt companies pay as little as 10 cents on the dollar for their admitted liability. By contrast, the tobacco companies have paid nothing to asbestos workers injured by smoking.
The '10 cents on the dollar' paid continues to be true for the Manville Trust. Sufferers from asbestos disease are not getting fair compensation, and the Trust wanted to change that by forcing the tobacco companies to chip in.


The Trust claimed, with some justification, that the combination of asbestos exposure and tobacco use created a synergy that made lung cancer much more likely. What they were not able to do, however, was prove that the tobacco industry had acted in an illegal conspiracy that had materially affected them.


What the Trust was hoping for was an outcome like that of the Merck case in Texas. The tobacco industry reputation was deservedly low, and the Trust was hoping we would punish it by finding for the plaintiff, just as the Merck jury did this month.


But the Trust couldn't even make a convincing case that it had paid tobacco's share of the disease it was paying claimants for. I now felt that it surely couldn't be argued that it had been harmed by big tobacco's deceit.


Most of the other jurors agreed with the conclusion I came to, that the burden of proof had not been met by the Trust (in a RICO case, there are quite specific elements of conspiracy that must be proved). Two, however, did not. Or, rather, reacting like the Merck jurors, they felt that the tobacco companies were bad on the face of things, and should be punished. The rest of us felt we had to anchor our discussions in evidence and law, if we were going to reach an honest verdict. These two would not do that. The tobacco companies needed to be punished--and that was that.


"They have to be guilty," said one.


"There was fraud," said the other.


"And what about the destroyed documents?" asked the first. The plaintiff's lawyers had constantly harped on missing tobacco-company documents.


The rest of us explained that the burden of proof lay with the plaintiff, and that, were we to convict, we would have to see that proof.


"Show it to us," we pleaded. "Help us find it." They could not, but would not change their views.


Our attempts to engage the two went on for four frustrating days. We continued to try to get them to debate, even though we all knew that it was futile. They were not going to agree to acquit the tobacco companies, and that was that.


Once, when one of the dissenters finally said that "the tobacco companies should have done something, so should pay," I wrote, in big block letters on a pad on an easel: "Silence: Not A Crime."


But even that did not help. They, like those Merck jurors, wanted to "send a message" to the tobacco companies.


On the fifth and final day of deliberation, discussion got quite tense. We sent a note to the judge, asking him to clarify whether or not silence, in terms of RICO, could be considered a crime. Frustrated and fed up, people were shouting at each other. Finally, as foreperson, I grabbed my pad and pen and wrote. "That's enough," I said. "Let's send this in." I read what I had been writing, and what we had been avoiding for days: "We cannot reach unanimity."


While I was speaking, another juror, suddenly red-faced, yelled in agreement, "If this keeps up, somebody is going to kill someone."


A dissenting juror turned and screamed at him, "Don't you threaten me. Nobody threatens me."


"I didn't threaten you."


The other juror, seeming to ignore him, turned and started writing. "I heard what you said," she muttered. She folded her paper, opened the door, and handed it to the marshal outside.


"Do we all agree with this?" I held up my paper. For the first time, everyone nodded. I relayed my paper, too, to the marshal.


I'll let the Associate Press take it from there:

A judge declared a mistrial Thursday in a high-stakes tobacco trial after being warned that deliberations were so strained that one juror had threatened to kill another.


"I have an obligation to jurors to protect them," U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein said.


The last of three notes sent to Weinstein on the fifth day of deliberations read, "Juror has made threat against other juror to kill'' if they have to be "here much longer.''


Juror Maggie Altidor -- one of two holdouts in a 10-2 deadlock favoring the tobacco industry -- told reporters she wrote the third note after a male juror threatened that if deliberations lasted another day, "one of us would be killed.''




For the tobacco companies, the hung jury was as good as a complete victory. For the Trust, well, other avenues to revenue would have to be found. Westbrook said he would seek a retrial, but he never has.


It bothers me that our jury system is used for things it was never meant for (it was meant as a means for determining guilt for specific crimes, of course). Using a jury to "send a message" or to "punish" someone or some entity for crimes other than the specific charges is an abuse of a legal system that, problems though it may have, has protected us for quite some time not.


The Merck jurors may not understand this, but they are making it easier than ever for the jury system to be abused. There's enough of that already, from the OJ jury on. They are making it easier for juries to "play God" and ignore law.


That's not good for any of us.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

This Is Just A Test…

At the US Department of Education website is this statement:
[Former] U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige said, "Anyone who opposes annual testing of children is an apologist for a broken system of education that dismisses certain children and classes of children as unteachable." When we do not know whether or not a child is learning, how will we ever provide that child with a quality education?
The statement is peculiar on a number of grounds (for example, “broken system.” Our educational system consistently produced one of the most learned and curious populations the world has ever seen, right through the end of the 20th century. The system had, and does have, problems, but it has never been “broken”), but the presupposition that testing is the only way of assessing learning is the one I want to focus on here.

The DOE webpage goes on to discuss what it calls “MYTHS AND REALITIES ABOUT TESTING”:
TESTING MYTH
Testing suppresses teaching and learning.

THE REALITY
A teacher is effective when a student learns. It is impossible to determine teaching effectiveness without determining learning results. A teacher can present a great lesson, but if the students do not understand, then the lesson has no value.
Testing students on what they are taught has always been a part of teaching. The process of testing students on what they are learning over a course of instruction is universally understood and appreciated. Testing helps teachers understand what their students need, helps students understand what they need to learn, and helps parents understand how they might help their children.
As I said above, one of the presuppositions here is that only testing can determine “learning results” (whatever that means). The odd thing about “the reality” here is that it is actually an affirmation of “the myth.” That is, the belief that testing “helps teachers understand what their students need” is based on the idea that a pre-set body of goals can encompass necessary learning—and such a belief, by itself, suppresses experimentation in teaching and in learning.
TESTING MYTH
Testing narrows the curriculum by rewarding test-taking skills.

THE REALITY
Surely a quality education reaches far beyond the confines of any specific test. But annual testing is important. It establishes benchmarks of student knowledge. Tests keyed to rigorous state academic standards provide a measure of student knowledge and skills. If the academic standards are truly rigorous, student learning will be as well.
The fact is that testing (when it is used as the sole basis for advancement and for school assessment) narrows the curriculum. Period. It can only do so: No test can possibly be comprehensive; all tests must be narrowing.
TESTING MYTH
Testing promotes "teaching to the test."

THE REALITY
Those who say testing gets in the way of learning frame a false dichotomy. Testing is part of teaching and learning. Gifted and inspiring teachers use tests to motivate students as well as to assess to their learning. Effective teachers recognize the value of testing and know how to employ testing in instruction.
Sure, testing is a part of teaching, but when learning is evaluated only by tests, the tests become all of learning. In such a situation, a teacher has no choice but to “teach to the test.”
TESTING MYTH
Testing does not measure what a student should know.

THE REALITY
In a strong accountability system, the curriculum is driven by academic standards, and annual tests are tied to the standards. With this in place, tests not only measure what a student should know but also provide a good indication of whether or not the student has indeed learned the material covered by the curriculum.
It is fine to talk about “standards,” but what are they and who established them? Generally, they have been established by administrators and influenced by legislatures as much as by teachers. It’s quite scary to legislate what “a student should know,” for this can lead to biased standards. It is extremely difficult to determine what the appropriate standards are for any specific situation. Trying to establish generalized standards is impossible.
TESTING MYTH
Annual testing places too much emphasis on a single exam.

THE REALITY
Most Americans see the importance of visiting a physician for an annual checkup. They also recognize the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle and monitoring their health throughout the year. Annual testing provides important information on student achievement, so teachers and parents may determine how best to improve student performance and diagnose problems that might be associated with poor performance. If a single annual test were the only device a teacher used to gauge student performance, it would indeed be inadequate. Effective teachers assess their students in various ways during the school year. As they do this, they not only monitor student achievement but also help to ensure that their students will excel on annual tests.
It’s not the test itself that is the problem, but the importance placed on it. Making it analogous to an annual physical check-up shows a misunderstanding of both activities. Ultimately, all a test shows is how well the taker did on that particular test on that particular date. It should not be used to predict future activity (as has happened in the past, leading to the placing of able students who did poorly on a test in remedial environments, for example).
TESTING MYTH
Testing discriminates against different styles of test takers.

THE REALITY
A well-designed evaluation system accommodates special needs. Evaluating the performance of all students is not easy. Some students do have trouble taking tests. Some students score poorly for reasons outside the classroom. A good evaluation system will reflect the diversity of student learning and achievement.
A little bit of bait-and-switch? From testing we suddenly get to a “good evaluation system.” Yes, a good evaluation system might include testing, but it should be based on much more, including the observations made by teachers.
TESTING MYTH
Testing provides little helpful information and accomplishes nothing.

THE REALITY
A good evaluation system provides invaluable information that can inform instruction and curriculum, help diagnose achievement problems and inform decision making in the classroom, the school, the district and the home. Testing is about providing useful information and it can change the way schools operate.
It is the last line that is the problem here, the claim that testing “can change the ways schools operate.” Yes, they can make them more focused on tests. It is easy to use numbers to make an argument—they look as though they defy argument. However, they should be only a small part of any decision-making process. “Useful information?” Perhaps the person who wrote that should find a copy of that old supplemental Economics text, Darrell Huff’s How to Lie with Statistics.
TESTING MYTH
Testing hurts the poor and people of color.

THE REALITY
The fact is that millions of young people—many from low-income families, many people of color-are being left behind every day because of low expectations for their academic achievement and a lack of adequate measures to determine academic achievement. These are the students who stand to benefit the most from annual testing. A strong accountability system will make it impossible to ignore achievement gaps where they exist. Moreover, where testing systems are now in place, low-income and minority students are indeed excelling. A recent study reports that there are more than 4,500 high-poverty and high-minority schools nationwide that scored in the top one-third on the state tests.
Hmmm… speaking of lying with statistics: I wonder how many high-poverty and high-minority schools there are? And I wonder what the criteria were for establishing which schools to include? Not that it matters: any test that is meant to cover all students in such a large country has to be biased towards the middle—and the middle, in this country, is neither poor nor of color.
TESTING MYTH
Testing will increase dropout rates and create physical and emotional illness in children.

THE REALITY
The overwhelming majority of students who drop out of school do so because they are frustrated. They cannot read or write or learn. Testing helps with the early identification of students who are having trouble learning so they may get the services they need to succeed. Testing, in any form, does sometimes cause anxiety. Effective teachers understand this and help students prepare for it. Testing is a part of life, and young people need to be equipped to deal with it.
I wonder what basis there is for this statement on frustration? Was it Ron Paige, whose “Houston miracle” of reduced drop-out rates was proved to be all smoke and mirrors? I suspect that as many students drop out because they are bored… and that more drop out because of other situations completely. I’m not sure that testing increases drop-out rates, but I doubt it decreases them, either.

Friday, August 05, 2005

With Abject Apologies to Lewis Carroll

However, the egg only got larger and larger, and more and more human: when she had come within a few yards of it, she saw that it had eyes and a nose and mouth; and when she had come close to it, she saw clearly that it was KURVIE ROVIE himself. `It can't be anybody else!' she said to herself. `I'm as certain of it, as if his name were written all over his face.'


It might have been written a hundred times, easily, on that enormous face. Kurvie Rovie was sitting with his legs crossed, like a Turk, on the top of a high wall -- such a narrow one that America quite wondered how he could keep his balance -- and, as his eyes were steadily fixed in the opposite direction, and he didn't take the least notice of her, she thought he must be a stuffed figure after all.


`And how exactly like an egg he is!' she said aloud, standing with her hands ready to catch him, for she was every moment expecting him to fall.


`It's VERY provoking,' Kurvie Rovie said after a long silence, looking away from America as he spoke, `to be called an egg -- VERY!'


`I said you LOOKED like an egg, Sir,' America gently explained. `And some eggs are very pretty, you know, she added, hoping to turn her remark into a sort of a compliment.


`Some people,' said Kurvie Rovie, looking away from her as usual, `have no more sense than a baby!'


America didn't know what to say to this: it wasn't at all like conversation, she thought, as he never said anything to HER; in fact, his last remark was evidently addressed to a tree -- so she stood and softly repeated to herself: --


    `Kurvie Rovie sat on a wall:
    Kurvie Rovie had a great fall.
    All the President's horses and all the President's men
    Couldn't put Kurvie Rovie in his place again.'


`That last two lines are much too long for the poetry,' she added, almost out loud, forgetting that Kurvie Rovie would hear her.


`Don't stand there chattering to yourself like that,' Kurvie Rovie said, looking at her for the first time,' but tell me your name and your business.'


`My NAME is America, but -- '


`It's a stupid name enough!' Kurvie Rovie interrupted impatiently. `What does it mean?'


`MUST a name mean something?' America asked doubtfully.


`Of course it must,' Kurvie Rovie said with a short laugh: `MY name means the shape I am -- and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like your, you might be any shape, almost.'


`Why do you sit out here all alone?' said America, not wishing to begin an argument.


`Why, because there's nobody with me!' cried Kurvie Rovie. `Did you think I didn't know the answer to THAT? Ask another.'


`Don't you think you'd be safer down on the ground?' America went on, not with any idea of making another riddle, but simply in her good-natured anxiety for the queer creature. `That wall is so VERY narrow!'


`What tremendously easy riddles you ask!' Kurvie Rovie growled out. `Of course I don't think so! Why, if ever I DID fall off - - which there's no chance of -- but IF I did -- ' Here he pursed his lips and looked so solemn and grand that America could hardly help laughing. `IF I did fall,' he went on, `THE PRESIDENT HAS PROMISED ME -- WITH HIS VERY OWN MOUTH -- to -- to -- '


`To send all his horses and all his men,' America interrupted, rather unwisely.


`Now I declare that's too bad!' Kurvie Rovie cried, breaking into a sudden passion. `You've been listening at doors -- and behind trees -- and down chimneys -- or you couldn't have known it!'


`I haven't, indeed!' America said very gently. `It's in a book.'


`Ah, well! They may write such things in a BOOK,' Kurvie Rovie said in a calmer tone. `That's what you call a History of the United States, that is. Now, take a good look at me! I'm one that has spoken to a President, I am: mayhap you'll never see such another: and to show you I'm not proud, you may shake hands with me!' And he grinned almost from ear to ear, as he leant forwards (and as nearly as possible fell of the wall in doing so) and offered America his hand. She watched him a little anxiously as she took it. `If he smiled much more, the ends of his mouth might meet behind,' she thought: `and then I don't know what would happen to his head! I'm afraid it would come off!'


`Yes, all his horses and all his men,' Kurvie Rovie went on. `They'd pick me up again in a minute, THEY would! However, this conversation is going on a little too fast: let's go back to the last remark but one.'


`I'm afraid I can't quite remember it,' America said very politely.


`In that case we start fresh,' said Kurvie Rovie, `and it's my turn to choose a subject -- ' (`He talks about it just as if it was a game!' thought America.) `So here's a question for you. How old did you say you were?'


America made a short calculation, and said `Two hundred and twenty-nine.'


`Wrong!' Kurvie Rovie exclaimed triumphantly. `You never said a word like it!'


`I though you meant "How old ARE you?"' America explained.


`If I'd meant that, I'd have said it,' said Kurvie Rovie.


America didn't want to begin another argument, so she said nothing.


` Two hundred and twenty-nine!' Kurvie Rovie repeated thoughtfully. `An uncomfortable sort of age. Now if you'd asked MY advice, I'd have said "Leave off at two hundred" -- but it's too late now.'


`I never ask advice about growing,' America said Indignantly.


`Too proud?' the other inquired.


America felt even more indignant at this suggestion. `I mean,' she said, `that one can't help growing older.'


`ONE can't, perhaps,' said Kurvie Rovie, `but TWO can. With proper assistance, you might have left off at two hundred.'


`What a beautiful belt you've got on!' America suddenly remarked. (They had had quite enough of the subject of age, she thought: and if they really were to take turns in choosing subjects, it was her turn now.) `At least,' she corrected herself on second thoughts, `a beautiful cravat, I should have said -- no, a belt, I mean -- I beg your pardon!' she added in dismay, for Kurvie Rovie looked thoroughly offended, and she began to wish she hadn't chosen that subject. `If I only knew,' the thought to herself, 'which was neck and which was waist!'


Evidently Kurvie Rovie was very angry, though he said nothing for a minute or two. When he DID speak again, it was in a deep growl.


`It is a -- MOST -- PROVOKING -- thing,' he said at last, `when a person doesn't know a cravat from a belt!'


`I know it's very ignorant of me,' America said, in so humble a tone that Kurvie Rovie relented.


`It's a cravat, child, and a beautiful one, as you say. It's a present from the older Bush and his First Lady. There now!'


`Is it really?' said America, quite pleased to find that she HAD chosen a good subject, after all.


`They gave it me,' Kurvie Rovie continued thoughtfully, as he crossed one knee over the other and clasped his hands round it, `they gave it me -- for an un-birthday present.'


`I beg your pardon?' America said with a puzzled air.


`I'm not offended,' said Kurvie Rovie.


`I mean, what IS and un-birthday present?'


`A present given when it isn't your birthday, of course.'


America considered a little. `I like birthday presents best,' she said at last.


`You don't know what you're talking about!' cried Kurvie Rovie. `How many days are there in a year?'


`Three hundred and sixty-five,' said America.


`And how many birthdays have you?'


`One.' ...


`And only ONE for birthday presents, you know. There's a law for you!'


`I don't know what you mean by "law,"' America said.


Kurvie Rovie smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don't -- till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'


`But "law" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument,"' America objected.


`When I use a word,' Kurvie Rovie said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'


`The question is,' said America, `whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.'


`The question is,' said Kurvie Rovie, `which is to be master - - that's all.'


America was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Kurvie Rovie began again. `They've a temper, some of them -- particularly federal ones, they're the proudest -- state laws you can do anything with, but not federal ones -- however, I can manage the whole of them! Impenetrability! That's what I say!'


`Would you tell me, please,' said America `what that means?`


`Now you talk like a reasonable child,' said Kurvie Rovie, looking very much pleased. `I meant by "impenetrability" that we've had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you'd mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don't mean to stop here all the rest of your life.'


`That's a great deal to make one word mean,' America said in a thoughtful tone.


`When I make a word do a lot of work like that,' said Kurvie Rovie, `I always pay it extra.'


`Oh!' said America. She was too much puzzled to make any other remark.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Back to the Blues

When I was in college (more than 30 years ago) I would write, occasionally, about the blues music for the student paper. I haven’t written anything similar since.

Last night, however, I was watching American Masters: Good Rockin' Tonight: The Legacy of Sun Records on PBS, I got to thinking about the blues, especially when Sam Phillips talked about hearing Elvis singing Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right, Mama”—something that galvanized Phillips into immediate action and that launched Presley on his way to stardom. Phillips knew that, given the racial climate of America at the time, he would not be able to promote the music of the black proto-rockers into popular success. But Elvis, a white boy who could sing the same songs with the same passion… well, that was something he could work with.

It wasn’t questions of race that interested me last night, though—but the dominoes that started falling, each with the name of a blues musician important to my own odyssey as a fan of the music. As I listened to the show, I opened a cabinet and started plowing through my old lp’s—that’s “long-playing” records, to those of you born after 1980. What follows, then, is a bit of nostalgia from my own record collection. No history of the blues, it’s a history of listening, of connections and leads.

My introduction to the blues came in 1963 with the base lines played on Hudie Ledbetter’s 12-string guitar—on a record someone I knew happened to own. Leadbelly stunned me, as he did many of my generation and even more of the generation preceding. I couldn’t get enough of him, or enough of the older Blind Lemon Jefferson, who had influenced him greatly. Wanting more, I soon was devouring the works of Bukka White, Bo Carter, Blind Boy Fuller, Fred McDowell, Lonnie Young, Josh White, Big Bill Broonzy and more—not to forget Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. Soon, I discovered Mississippi John Hurt and the Reverend Gary Davis… both of whom I still listen to regularly.

John Hurt led me to Dave Van Ronk and Taj Mahal—also still favorites.

Somewhere in there, I stumbled over the music of Bessie Smith. I’ve listened to her ever since, constantly astonished by the power of her music. With an assist from Bob Dylan (“Where Ma Rainey and Beethoven once unwrapped their bedrolls/Tuba players now rehearse around the flagpole”) and a couple of re-issues, I discovered Smith’s predecessor, Rainey, sometime in the late 1960s. By that time, I had also become a devotee of Tracy Nelson, who still carries Smith’s heritage.

Often, as I progressed into electric blues, it was white musicians who led me back to black ones. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (which I may have discovered through Michael Bloomfield—whose guitar work on that same Dylan album with the Ma Rainey line--Highway 61 Revisited--had mesmerized me) was one of these. As was Canned Heat, a band I just loved listening to live. Then there were lesser-known ones, such as the Siegel-Schwall Band, Charlie Musselwhite, Marvey Mandel, and John Mayall. They led me to the likes of Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wold, Muddy Waters (and Otis Spann), Magic Sam, and B.B. King. This bunch, in turn, drew me back to Joe Turner, Elmore James, Ike Turner, and “Big Boy” Crudup—the musicians the Sun Records “sound” is most beholden to.

In the early 1970s, I lived not far from Chicago so was exposed to new Delmark recordings by the likes of J.B. Hutto and the Hawks and T-Bone Walker and the All Stars. Oh, and the early Alligator recordings of Son Seals, Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers, and Big Walter Horton with Carey Bell (thanks, Bruce Iglauer—he would sell the records, almost literally, out of the back of his car).

Soon after, however, I moved on to other musical interests, particularly the post-avant garde surrounding the ex-members of Ornette Coleman’s band and people like Carla Bley—a congregation that centered, for me, on the old 5 Spot in Greenwich Village.

But that’s another story.

I’ve watched the popularity of the blues grow over the past decade or two, but have not really returned to the music. Looking at those old lp’s, however, has convinced me I should.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

“A New Kind of Evil”?

Back, less than a week after 9/11, when George Bush said
This is a new kind of--a new kind of evil. And we understand. And the American people are beginning to understand. This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while.
most of us didn’t really pay much attention to Bush’s choice of words. After all, this is a man renowned for tripping over his own tongue.

Turks and Arabs, however, did notice. And their reaction made those of us in the US say (at least), “Oh yeah. ‘Crusade.’ Yeah, guess they’ve got something of a point.”

Now, professionally (I teach literature) I fancy myself a “New Historicist.” One of the benefits is that I get to play in the muck others have long-since ignored. In other words, I often read books (look at film strips, examine old photographs, etc.) that have been long superseded or forgotten—at least in terms of their primary focus. What I look for is not their take on science or history or anthropology (or even of the subject of a particular snapshot), but what that take says about the society of the time.

Recently, I came across a book by René Grousset, The Epic of The Crusades. It was first published in France in 1939, the English translation (by Noël Lindsay) appearing in 1970. A member of the Academie Francaise, Grousset was certainly one of the most distinguished French academics of his time.

What drew my attention was the title (in French, it is L’épopée des Croisades—with pretty much the same meaning as in English). The crusades as an epic? Personally, I saw them as gross mistakes, though with unintended consequences that have benefited all of us with European roots.

But I didn’t think about them much. Few of us in America ever do.

Not so, in the Middle East.

A look at this book has helped me understand why. Even as late as 1939 (and later, given the date of the translation), attitudes in Europe and America towards the Turkish and Arabic foes of the crusading “Franks” have been, at best, disdainful. Take a look at this passage:
We see in him [Bohemund of Tarentum], moreover, a man of exceptional vitality. Some of his stratagems of war look like enormous, if somewhat rough, pleasantries. The Frankish army was infested with Turkish spies disguised as Armenians. No one knew how to get rid of them. Bohemund took on the task. One evening, at dinner time, he bade his cooks prepare a batch of Turkish prisoners for the table. “Their throats were cut,” says the chronicler, “they were spitted, and the cooks set about roasting them.” On being questioned about these strange preparations, Bohemund, with the most natural air in the world, said that the headquarters mess was being regaled with spies on the spit. The whole camp came running up to see if it was true. Nothing could be more true: the Turks, duly basted, were cooking over a hot fire. The next morning, all the spies had disappeared in horror, without waiting for their quittance.

Apart from these displays of somewhat ferocious humor, the crusaders followed a very wise and flexible policy toward the Moslems.
Shades of Rush Limbaugh and his ”fraternity pranks” at Abu Ghraib!

Is it any wonder that people, who have been treated so cavalierly by the West (even in 20th-century retrospect) are outraged by the way the United States is treating its prisoners today?

We did not enter the dance in Iraq with a clean card. We carried with us the baggage of a millennium of interaction between Europe and the Middle East. When our representatives do something wrong, it resonates with wrongs from generation upon generation ago.

Yet we (our government, that is) continues to stupidly believe that the dance we’ve forced upon Iraq will be seen as the first—and that our overtures are to be trusted.

For a thousand years the West and the Middle East have been having problems. Yet Dick Cheney can still say that the insurgency in Iraq is in its “last throes.”

Until our attitudes change, and change in such a way that the people of the Middle East can believe us, those ‘throes’ may last for a very long time, indeed.