sleeping alone and starting out early

an occasional blog on culture, education, new media, and the social revolution. soon to be moved from http://jennamcwilliams.blogspot.com.

Archive for the ‘crime’ Category

twinning injustice, one social structure at a time

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on July 2, 2010

My sister, who just finished absolutely destroying her first year of law school, recently announced an interest in pursuing criminal prosecution. Once I overcame my instant misreading of her announcement (don’t blame me; I’m not a morning person), I figured out pretty quickly that my twin sister and I are pursuing vocations that spring from the same moral impulse. To wit: I must serve and defend people who have suffered or will suffer at the hands of others.

It’s just the name–prosecution–that throws us off, makes us think prosecutors are out to punish the bad guys. In certain respects, of course, that’s exactly what prosecutors do–that’s exactly the power we confer to them. But the public interest in punishing the bad guys is an outgrowth of a deeper public impulse: To maintain the social order, to protect our citizens from injustice and victimization, to fight for the good guys.

Protecting people from injustice and victimization. Fighting for the good guys. That’s pretty much what I like to think I’m doing, too, by working in the service of working class kids and kids who are deeply undervalued and underserved by a system that is not designed to help them. I work in defense of those kids. And another way to frame that work is to say that I am a public prosecutor, building a case against a system that’s criminally unjust, criminally cruel.

But here’s where I think Laura and I part company: I believe we need to demolish the social order. I believe that the public education system is deeply, perhaps fatally, flawed, especially for poor kids and minorities, and I believe we need to work to tear it down. That’s the wheel I’m throwing my shoulder against.

Though we haven’t explicitly talked about this, I’m pretty sure my sister believes the criminal justice system is similarly deeply, deeply flawed (see here, here, here, and here)–but it seems to me that her stance is something like “this is the best system we have right now, the only system we have, so we need to use it to protect the innocents and the victims.”

I’m all, fuck the Man and the horse he rode in on! And my sister’s all, yyyeah that’s nice but lookit all these victims who need protecting and defense right now. And I’m all, Yes! And let’s muster up an army made up of those victims and march with them right to the gates of hell if that’s what it takes! And my sister’s all, um, okayyy but this woman was raped and that guy’s son was murdered and this woman was stabbed by her partner and what if we put aside the anger and try to take care of the people who need us right now?

Details, details, right? Laura and I agree that the world is all effed up, and we agree that we are therefore bound to the work of un-effing up things. The rest is just planning.

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Posted in crime, education, human rights, law, politics, public schools, racism, twins | 1 Comment »

on homophobia, classism, and the politics of rape: Don Belton and Bloomington’s Pride Film Festival

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on January 30, 2010

I want to talk about Don Belton.

Belton, you may remember, was the Indiana University professor who was found stabbed to death in his home on Christmas day. He was the gay Indiana University professor; his killer, ex-Marine Michael Griffin, has not only confessed but has explained his motive for stabbing Belton:

The former military man told police that Belton, who was openly gay, sexually assaulted him in front of his girlfriend, while they were both intoxicated on Christmas Day. And because the assistant professor of English refused to “show remorse,” Griffin stabbed him to death, according to court documents.

Bloomington’s LGBTQ community was hit fairly hard by the news of Belton’s death. In part, this is because Belton was well liked; and in part, this is because the killing repeats the old message that nobody wants to be reminded of: It’s (still) not safe to be gay in America.

A web site was built and called “Justice for Don Belton.” Vigils were held. Press releases (here, here) were circulated mourning Belton’s death and noting the loss to the IU community. And this year’s Pride Film Festival, an annual LGBTQ event held in downtown Bloomington, has been dedicated to Belton’s memory.

All of this for someone who has officially been identified as a perpetrator of sexual assault.

If this were a hetero situation, and the killer were a woman who claimed to have killed a man after two incidents of sexual assault, there would be no vigils. There would be no websites. There would be no film festival dedicated to the dead man’s memory. And rightly so: After centuries of struggle, we have finally started to evolve into a society that does its best to side with the alleged victim in cases of sexual assault. We aren’t a society that does its very best, of course, and you know, we sort of keep having to have the same conversation every time it comes up: Rape is not about sex. It’s about power. And women who accuse a man of literal rape have been subjected to metaphorical rape by a court system that embraces a blame-the-victim mentality. And so on. But we’re trying, and we’re getting better at having these conversations.

And of course this isn’t a hetero situation, and the gender, power, and sex issues don’t map. We pretty much don’t believe that Belton was a rapist or that Griffin was a victim; we believe–and, to be clear, I believe–that Belton was brutally murdered, and that the motive was homophobia. Homosexuality is a deep threat to heteronormative culture, to the status quo. It’s dangerous and terrifying and the most insecure among us believe it must be blotted out. With violence, if needs be.

Belton’s death is a reminder that no matter how far we’ve come, we’re still a society that cannot guarantee the safety of its marginalized members. Bloomington was recently named America’s 4th gayest city by the Advocate, which confuses me but let’s go with it for now. And this year’s Pride Festival,
which is deploying at the Buskirk-Chumley theater this very weekend, has drawn hundreds, if not thousands, of beautiful, joyous, and celebratory LGBTQ and LGBTQ-friendly community members. But all it takes is misreading one person, or showing up at the wrong bar at the wrong time, or acting a little too gay, or even just holding your partner’s hand in public; and the Great Lie starts to unravel. It’s not safe to be gay in America. It’s not even always acceptable to be gay in America.

This isn’t to say the reaction of the LGBTQ community to Belton’s death is completely ick-free. There is the issue of classism. Part of the reason we don’t believe Griffin is that Belton was so cultured. He was well educated. He was a writer. He was a professor, for godsake. He couldn’t have possibly raped someone. I mean, just look at his picture:

Here’s Griffin, an ex-Marine, 23 years old:

Leaving aside issues of race–not because I think we should leave those issues aside, but because I’m not qualified to talk about race–we craft a narrative around Belton and Griffin, and it’s a narrative that points to deep class assumptions that hover above issues of gender and sexual orientation. It’s the same sort of narrative that frames, for example, the story of Tiger Woods and his multiple mistresses (“Cocktail waitresses! Pancake servers! Why’s Tiger rooting around in the trash?!?”), our attitudes toward celebrities (“Britney Spears–you can take the girl out of Hicksville, but….”), and the political decisions that undergird our social structure.

It’s easier and simpler to use Belton’s murder as a touchstone for conversations about the state of gay rights in America. In fact, this story, like all stories worth telling, is far more complicated and multithreaded. Like all stories worth telling, the work of interpreting the details is far less clearcut than it seems upon first blush.

Posted in crime, gay rights, gender politics, human rights, movies | Leave a Comment »

Breaking: Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton "cannot subscribe to the views of those online critics who insist that I ‘just don’t get it’ "

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on May 31, 2009

Subhead: Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton just doesn’t get it.

Michael Lynton wants guardrails for the internet in the name of preserving creativity. At least, that’s what he says he wants. If you read his recent piece in the Huffington Post, you quickly understand that what he really wants is to preserve his company’s ability to profit from the creativity of others.

Lynton went viral after making the following assertion: “I’m a guy who sees nothing good having come from the Internet. Period.” And in the HuffPost piece, he explains that he welcomes the “Sturm und Drang” that resulted from that statement, because it allows him to make the following point:

the major content businesses of the world and the most talented creators of that content — music, newspapers, movies and books — have all been seriously harmed by the Internet.

He’s right, of course. But any attempt to roll back the appropriation, remix, and–sometimes–piracy practices enabled by new media will fail, and one big reason for this is that people like Lynton can’t see that the internet simply cannot be regulated the way we’ve traditionally approached culturally transformative inventions.

Lynton compares the Internet to the national highway system developed under the Eisenhower administration. He explains the comparison thus:

Contrast the expansion of the Internet with what happened a half century ago. In the 1950’s, the Eisenhower Administration undertook one of the most massive infrastructure projects in our nation’s history — the creation of the Interstate Highway System. It completely transformed how we did business, traveled, and conducted our daily lives. But unlike the Internet, the highways were built and operated with a set of rational guidelines. Guard rails went along dangerous sections of the road. Speed and weight limits saved lives and maintenance costs. And officers of the law made sure that these rules were obeyed. As a result, as interstates flourished, so did the economy. According to one study, over the course of its first four decades of existence, the Interstate Highway System was responsible for fully one-quarter of America’s productivity growth.

We can replicate that kind of success with the Internet more easily if we do more to encourage the productivity of the creative engines of our society — the artists, actors, writers, directors, singers and other holders of intellectual property rights — yes, including the movie studios, which help produce and distribute entertainment to billions of people worldwide.

It makes sense for someone like Lynton to compare the internet to a literal highway–he, and many of his ilk, continue to think of the internet as an “information superhighway” that can be maintained and paid for via a simple system of tolls, speed limits, and regulations on what kinds of vehicles will be allowed to operate, and when, and by whom. This is precisely why the information superhighway metaphor has fallen into disuse by the majority of internet users: It simply does not apply to a system that is far more complex, and far less regulated and regulatable, than the metaphor suggests.

Mind-bogglingly, Lynton believes that “without standards of commerce and more action against piracy, the intellectual property of humankind will be subject to infinite exploitation on the Internet.” He wonders:

How many people will be as motivated to write a book or a song, or make a movie if they know it is going to be immediately stolen from them and offered to the world with no compensation whatsoever? And how many people whose work is connected with those creative industries — the carpenters, drivers, food service workers, and thousands of others — will lose their jobs as piracy robs their business of resources?

Seriously? The head of one of the most new media-reliant entertainment companies in the world is so oblivious to the creativity that is enabled by social media that he really, honestly believes that the social practices that are emerging around these technologies are going to destroy humanity’s creative impulse?

On the other hand, this is perhaps an apt approach for the head of a company that makes its bones on defining creativity as “stuff that can make money for whoever owns the rights to it (e.g., Sony Entertainment).”

Lynton would have us believe that he’s in this fight for the good of mankind, that he and others like him are humanitarians along the lines of this cartoon I pirated from the internet:

Alternately, we might view his motives as more closely aligned with this cartoon I pirated from the internet:

Lynton wants us to know that he is not a Luddite, not “an analogue guy living in a digital world.” I am fully convinced of that. I also believe that his impulse to set up internet guardrails is not quite as humanitarian as even he himself might think. He seems to be confusing the notions of “creative impulse” with “the drive to make money off of creativity.” As anybody who’s been paying attention for the last couple of decades knows, in the internet era, these aren’t the same thing. They aren’t even in the same category. If that makes it harder for behemoths like Sony to survive by standing on the shoulders of the creative types it exploits, then so be it.

Posted in convergence culture, creativity, crime, culture, intellectual property, lame, law, new media, obnoxious, participatory culture, social media, social revolution | 1 Comment »

And speaking of people who have no lessons to teach us…

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 20, 2009

California corrections officials have released a new photo of Charles Manson, who is now&#8212can you believe it&#8212 74 years young.

Age has tempered the visual intensity of the man, whose 1968 mug shot (one year prior to the mass murders that officially elevated the Manson Family from “wacky commune” to “insane murderous cult”) quickly emerged as the canonical representation of one of the most terrifying cult leaders in American history.

Most terrifying and also, by the way, completely insane. As the LA Times so succinctly explains it,

Manson and other members of his so-called family were convicted of killing actress Sharon Tate and six other people during a bloody rampage in the Los Angeles area during two August nights in 1969. Prosecutors said that Manson and his followers were trying to incite a race war that he believed was prophesied in the Beatles’ song “Helter Skelter.”

If you’re not yet convinced, you might watch the short clip embedded below.

An interesting question about Charles Manson is the extent to which the personality he presents to the world is actually more of an intentional performance than an authentic self-representation. Manson has applied, and been denied, for parole eleven times, most recently in 2007&#8212and he often uses these hearings as a platform for more ranting, in effect extending his newsworthiness through the decades. Here’s what he said after being denied parole in 1997:

I accept this decision. That’s cool. What I’d like for you to do in your own minds personally, everybody that has a personal mind of their own, could possibly consider that the longer that you let this conviction stand, and this little Helter Skelter scheme of the District Attorney to give his particular reality over into the play, that’s going to be the reality that they’re perpetuating. That’s not the reality that I’m perpetuating. I’m not saying that I wasn’t involved. I’m saying that I did not break man’s law nor did I break God’s law. Consider that in the judgments that you have for yourselves. Good day. Thank you.

In addition to never once publicly showing remorse for his actions, Manson rarely even presents himself in a subdued, calm manner when a moment for oration presents itself. And actually, this might be the only lesson worth considering here: That people like Manson bring into question the degree to which the “self” we present to the world can ever truly be considered “authentic.” (You can read a blogpost I published about this very topic over at the blog of my day job, Project New Media Literacies, here.)

Posted in celebrity, crime, zombies | Leave a Comment »

I feel like I’ve been punk’d.

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 19, 2009

If you’ve been following the news, you know that Austrian freakmeister Josef Fritzl is currently on trial for imprisoning his daughter in a secret room in his basement for 24 years. Aaaaand if you’ve been following this story, you know that he did more than just imprison her.

No lessons to be learned from this story, of course&#8212it would be like trying to extract key principles of motherhood from the actions of Grendel’s mother. Mainly, I wanted to direct your attention to a piece I recently stumbled upon at Orato.com. The piece, a personal essay called “I knew Josef Fritzl,” was penned by one Bernice Dainty (photo at left).

The story begins like this:

The first time I met Josef was when my friends Teresa and Esme and I had to collect chalet keys from his home. Looking back I suppose he was a bit odd, but I just put it down to the language barrier. I only know how to say a few things in Austrian, which I learnt during my first visit there.

He looked well-kempt. His hair wasn’t all like a grey cloud like it is now. However, his trousers had no belt, but instead a length of cord. I can’t help wondering about what he used the rope for now.

Despite her acquaintance with Fritzl, Ms. Dainty is apparently as confused as the rest of us by Fritzl’s actions and feels great empathy for Fritzl’s family who, she suspects,

will not find the answers to the question of why he did it. Maybe Josef will be the only person to know that now, but I think maybe he doesn’t know himself. I would almost like to talk to Josef one more time, but I think it would be too hard. I can’t help but feel sick and scared when I think of all this now.


Now, just to give you a sense of my experience of this story, the above section of “I knew Josef Fritzl,” is part way down the first of two pages&#8212but already I’m looking at the site address. I’m looking for indications of a fake email address or “no photo available.” Some clue, anyway, to whatever joke is being played. And I haven’t even gotten to page two, where she asserts that

Josef obviously has serious problems with his emotions, and I think he could not show his affection in the normal way. I would like to see him realise what he has done is wrong, and for him to use his experience to help others who have similar desires to control them. I do not want to see any more men raping their family in dungeons in the news!


Now I’m thinking: This is so subtle as to qualify as brilliant, à la Jean Teasdale of “A Room of Jean’s Own” fame. Except with good ol’ Jean, you always kinda know the joke’s on her. Bernice Dainty, then, is Jean Teasdale dry, with a twist of strawberry.

But no.

Wikipedia tells me that Orato.com “is an international news Web site that showcases first person accounts from the protagonists and witnesses of events.” Not only that, but

It was recognized as one of the top 12 news websites in the world by the 2008 Webby Awards, called the Oscars of the Internet by The New York Times, receiving approximately 10,000 visits per day, up to 55,000, from a mostly American demographic.

and

Anybody can post a story at Orato as long as it is a demonstrably true story that follows Orato’s guidelines.

You guys, I’m pretty sure this site is for real.

Perfect. Now I have to deal with the fact that at least one human out there thinks it’s perfectly legitimate to say something like: “I would like to see him realise what he has done is wrong, and for him to use his experience to help others who have similar desires to control them. I do not want to see any more men raping their family in dungeons in the news!”

I, too, hope he works for change, by starting up a rehabilitation group for all two other men in the history of the world who have fathered seven children over a period of decades via their imprisoned daughters.

Ahem. Please excuse me. Bernice Dainty makes me hyperbolic.

Please note that I’m not making light of the situation of Fritzl case itself&#8212it goes without saying that his daughter has suffered a monstrosity the depths of which go far beyond human comprehension. I’m only saying: Bernice Dainty, plz to stick to your day job. The rest of us will hope that your day job involves neither writing nor a particular capacity for insight.

In the comments section attached to Ms. Dainty’s piece, a handful of readers alternately attack and support Bernice Dainty, mainly focusing on a paragraph in which she explains that her friend Teresa claimed that Fritzl had sexually harrassed her, but

[w]e did not believe her because she is a bit of an attention seeker and also overweight. We could not see why he would single her out for sexual attention. Usually the men give more attention to me and the other gal pals, so we thought she was trying to make us jealous. We should have listened to her though.


I can see why readers might target this section of her essay, but as far as I’m concerned, the weirdness of this paragraph is the most minor of her sins. The most grievous error she commits is the slow, inexorable murder of both subtlety and complexity. And neither subtlety nor complexity uttered a single peep while it was happening. That is simply not their way.

I can only hope that while Orato may be authentic enough in its purposes, Bernice Dainty is not. I can only hope I’ve been tricked. (Please god let her be a sockpuppet.) If you possess knowledge about Orato, Josef Fritzl, or Bernice Dainty, please send it my way.

Posted in crime, journalism, zombies | Leave a Comment »