96% of federal criminal cases are resolved by plea bargain.

That means that 96% of the time no judge or jury hears the evidence and makes a decision about whether or not a person deserves to be punished and how severe the punishment should be.

That means that 96% of the time a suspect is confronted with this choice: take a sure conviction of a lesser offense and less prison time, or take a chance on a trial for a more serious crime and, possibly, a much longer prison sentence.

As you are thinking it over, consider this: juries in the U.S. absolutely love to convict. They just love, love, love it. They will convict you in the morning, convict you in the night; they will convict you based on nothing, except the word of a law enforcement officer or prosecutor who just feels very, very sure that you are guilty, and the identification of a distant blind witness who saw you from 300 meters away on a dark night in the rain and picked you out of a police lineup because you were the only one complaining about being in a police lineup.

We know the system often fails because of the all the convictions that have been reversed based on DNA evidence. But as long as most of those convictions are of black men, our society doesn’t care.

We have the opportunity to go back and re-examine those cases to try to figure out why these men were convicted in the first place. The answer– aside from the obvious– is: it’s hard to tell.

You might believe that prosecutors and police are honorable, ethical professionals who never let personal ambition sway their decisions about how to handle a criminal case. I think you would be wrong. There are too many examples of prosecutors or police who were more interested in a conviction than in the reputation of the criminal justice system. Exculpatory evidence is often hidden from the defense. Dubious “expert” witnesses testify about fibers or chemicals or traces of substances found on the victim that could “only” have come from the suspect’s car or closet, to the exclusion of all other possible suspects or cars or closets even though no other suspects or cars or closets were examined.

There is no justice system;  There is a system for processing black men into prisons at the lowest cost possible.

It only took only took 9 years for the U.S. to badger Majiid Khan into confessing to numerous terrorist activities, including conspiracies with the mad Sheik Khalid Mohammed and Osama Bin Laden, whom he has never met.  And he must also confess to the bombing in Jakarta in 2003, though he was in custody five months before it happened. When Mr. Khan mentioned something about the agreement meaning he couldn’t sue the CIA for mistreatment, the live video feed was cut off.

Is this some kind of joke? Why do people take these plea bargains seriously? If the U.S. had evidence against Khan, why would they accept an 18 year sentence? If he was really co-responsible for the deaths of 50 people in Jakarta– would they not have sought the death penalty?

There is only one reason why they would not: they have no evidence.

And if you have no evidence, it may take 9 years, but you will get a plea bargain, if that’s what you want.

Because the alternative, for Majiid Khan, is forever.

Solitary Man

The movie “Solitary Man” (Starring Michael Douglas, 2009) uses the Neil Diamond song, “Solitary Man” as it’s theme. That makes no sense.

“Solitary Man”– just about the only song by Neil Diamond that I like– is about a man who decides that he will just live alone rather than engage with women who, it seems to him, are likely to cheat on him, and play “games” behind his back. He’s looking for a sincere, faithful woman, who won’t see love as a “part-time” thing.

In the movie, Michael Douglas plays Ben Kalmen, a man whose career as a car dealer is crashing, and who is a serial womanizer. He just can’t resist. He’s already blown one marriage and has just seduced a woman in order to get her father to invest in a new car dealership. When he sleeps with her daughter, a chain of events brings him to near ruin.

Ben’s problem is not women who play around behind his back. And he’s not a solitary man– he doesn’t nearly have the gravitas for it.

As I said, I do like the song, and I’ve liked it since I first heard in the late 1960’s, I think. It has that kind of self-pitying seriousness adolescent boys take on when they realize that girls aren’t necessarily grateful to you if you like them: it’s a bubble-gum pop-rock version of the infantile “My Way”, a contemptuous statement of male insularity and self-sufficiency.

It’s really a typical Neil Diamond song in the sense that it doesn’t seem to reference any specific reality. Cute lyrics: “I’ll be what I am”. Yes, you will.

Somehow he walks in on Linda and Jim, without evoking any kind of actual location or circumstance: he “found” them together. His relationship with “Sue” died too. Just died. And he knows:

…it’s been done having one girl who loves you,
right or wrong,
weak or strong

What? I’m not sure what he means by “right or wrong” and I’m not sure why a “weak” relationship would be any better than Sue. The two phrases do not add to our understanding or insight into this man’s predicament. Here’s an example of how it’s done, from the master:

You say you’re looking for someone
Never weak, but always strong
To protect you and defend you,
Whether you are right or wrong

Okay, so it’s unfair to compare Neil Diamond with Bob Dylan. Okay– so that’s my point.

But while we’re looking, more from Dylan:

You say you’re looking for someone
Who will promise never to part
Someone to close his eyes for you
Someone to close his heart

“…close his heart”! Then he adds, later: “someone who will die for you and more”.

So, I ask myself, what do I actually like about “Solitary Man”? I don’t know. The chorus, I guess, and the minor chord it starts out in, and the sneaky rhythm. That’s all. And maybe the way Chris Isaak makes it sound.

By the way, Diamond deserves some credit for the album “Tap Root Manuscript” (1970) which experimented with native African rhythms and textures more than a decade before Peter Gabriel or Paul Simon embraced the idea. That doesn’t make it a good album– it still has the excretable “Cracklin’ Rose” on it, the most overplayed song of all time (once would have been sufficient). (It’s real claim to fame is that it is one of the few songs that is more annoying than “Sweet Caroline”, which has inexplicably– or not– infested the crowd at Boston Red Sox games, maybe because it was inspired by Caroline Kennedy. It’s true.) But “Tap Root Manuscript” was relatively bold and relatively daring and it was important as an acknowledgement, by popular music, of the black roots of rock’n’roll.

Diamond started his career as a factory song-writer in the Brill Building, writing hits for other groups including the Monkees (“I’m a Believer”, “Look Out, Here Comes Tomorrow”). The Monkees later insisted on writing their own songs, which Mickey Dolenz likened to Leonard Nimoy becoming a real Vulcan.

Diamond once sang a duet with the Fonz, which could only have been less embarrassing than a duet with Helen Reddy at the same gig. Think about it: the author of “I am I Said” sang a duet with the man who destroyed the mystique of the 50’s rebel. And the “I am Woman” lady.

I never quite understood why Diamond was invited to “The Last Waltz”, the eponymous farewell concert of The Band. I thought at the time that it was an allusion to the strain of pure pop music that helped shape rock’n’roll, part of the mix that influenced the Band. Diamond is the opposite of The Band: colorless, predictable, pompous. You could tell he realized that he had just had the coolest honor ever by being invited. He could put it right up there next to his Grammy for “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” (the soundtrack) and his Razzie for “The Jazz Singer”.

[2022-05:  Turns out Robbie Robertson invited him, and the rest of the The Band was just as puzzled and flummoxed as I was.]

A short story by Joyce Carol Oates I really, really like.

Chris Isaak does a respectable version of this song on Youtube.

Neil Diamond’s version is typical of most of his work: bland, ornamental, unbelievable. This is a man who performed “I am I said” with a serious expression on his face. The Daily Telegraph referred to it’s “raging existential angst”. Is that in the “LA’s fine but it aint home/New York’s home but it aint mine no more”?

It took Diamond four months to write. And three minutes to make ridiculous.

His recording of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” ranks among the worst covers of all time.

You people are all crazy.

“This is TV partner; this is the great American narcotic machine at work”, Michael Nesmith (the Monkees) in an interview in the VH1 documentary on the Monkees, before he became a Vulcan.

The most pompously stupid comment on a shallow, trivial pop song I have read recently:

The song is a “ballad of a loner looking for love.”[3] While nominally about young romantic failure, lines in the lyrics that read:

Don’t know that I will
But until I can find me
A girl who’ll stay
And won’t play games behind me
I’ll be what I am—
A solitary man…
Solitary man

have been closely identified with Diamond himself, as evinced by a 2008 profile in The Daily Telegraph: “This is the Solitary Man depicted on his first hit in 1966: the literate, thoughtful and melodically adventurous composer of songs that cover a vast array of moods and emotions…”[4]

Literate?  Are you nuts?  “Don’t know that I will / But until / I can find me”  is “literate”? !

Kicked Out of Ballet School

If you are a male hockey player and you invest a huge chunk of your life in the pursuit of a career as a professional hockey player and you reach a fairly high level– say, Junior A– and then one year you don’t make the team, how would you describe what happened? I think you probably say you had been cut. You couldn’t make the team. You couldn’t keep up.

I just heard the author of “Various Positions”, Martha Schabas, describe how the same thing happened to her when she was around 15, and a student at the National Ballet School of Canada. I thought it was interesting that she didn’t use the word “cut”. She said she was “kicked out”.

Call me sexist if you like: I don’t think a male would use that term to describe what has happened when you are no longer good enough to make the team. That’s the phrase you might use if you wanted to indicate that you had broken a rule, or had a fight with an assistant coach, or failed a drug test or something: you got kicked out. If you were removed from the team because you weren’t good enough, however, you were just “cut”.

For the record, I don’t believe all girls would use that phrase either.

“Kicked out” implies that you were part of a group, the in-crowd, an association of like-minded individuals with a mutual self-interest. And then, outrageously, you were “kicked out”. Excluded. Unjustly deprived of membership.

Incidentally, Martha Schabas’ book, “Various Positions”, is about “Georgia”, a 14-year-old ballet dancer who lusts for and seeks sexual relationships with adult men. Without, apparently, the disapproval of the writer/narrator.

A number of reviewers on Goodreads complained about that. But I suppose she could argue she is just describing reality, and the reviewers are being politically correct.

The title, by the way, obviously alludes to a Leonard Cohen album by the same title.

The coach of Canada’s national women’s hockey team, Shannon Miller, once cancelled the team Christmas Party because she didn’t like their attitude during or after a loss to the Americans.

I will never understand why the players didn’t simply announce that they would have the party without Shannon Miller. What would she do? Call the police?

Kick them off the team?

Well, maybe. Shannon Miller would have cut the ring-leaders from the team. If you would have asked her if that was fair, I don’t think she would have been troubled by the issue at all: they were disloyal. Membership on the team is a favor bestowed by me. That’s enough.

I frankly don’t believe it’s likely that a very good player would make the team if she did not at least pretend to hold the coach in high regard.

Gingrich Shoots a Half-Breed

To understand Newt Gingrich, you need to rent a copy of “The Searchers”, John Ford’s 1954 classic starring John Wayne as Ethan Edwards, a world-weary civil war veteran– and possible thief– coming home to his brother’s farm for a spell. It is hinted that the real love of his life is Martha, his brother Aaron’s wife, and it is implied that Aaron and Martha’s daughter Debbie– born shortly after Ethan left to fight for the Confederacy– might be Ethan’s daughter.

Someone steals the cattle one day and the men set off in pursuit. They shortly come to the realization that the cattle theft was a diversion: the Comanche waited for the men to leave and then burned down their houses and killed Aaron and Martha and their son, Ben, and kidnapped their two girls: Debbie and Lucy.

When they first catch up to the Comanche, Ethan/Newt wants to charge head-on into the camp slaughtering everybody. They are all pretty sure that Debbie and Lucy would die in the assault so the militia commander, Clayton, insists they sneak into the camp first to try to rescue the girls. This leads them into a trap. which they barely escape with their lives. They find Lucy’s body shortly afterwards: she had been raped and murdered. Newt was right. Only Newt was right. All of the other men, we later learn, are either weak or foolish or greedy. Only Newt can really save the girl, and he just wants to kill her.

The militia give up and go home, but Ethan does not. He rides on, searching.

A long time passes.

You see, Newt/Ethan believes that once Debbie has adapted herself to Comanche culture, she will be “no good” any more for any white family. So it becomes clear that he now intends to just kill her, if he finds her.

I don’t know for sure what “no good” means. Clearly, she won’t be a virgin. And it is utterly of a piece with Conservative “character” that demands are made of other people’s virtue that obviously are not made of oneself. But does it also mean that she might have become more like Newt: ruthless and capable of slitting someone’s throat if there was a necessity for it? So you wouldn’t want someone like that in your house. She’s “no good”. But then, why would he want to kill her? Why not leave her with the Comanche?

And let them have her? Are you mad?

They don’t deserve her. They are not entitled to her. They are– hoo boy! Different, damnit!

Unlike Newt, John Wayne’s Ethan actually fought in a war. That makes him someone Conservatives admire deeply but never emulate. War is for other people to fight, and for me to start.

I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t mean that she had become a lesbian, though — hey, this was the 50’s– you never know. It might have been part of that richly textured and nuanced meaning of “no good”.

When they next find Debbie– after about 2 years of hunting for her– Ethan gets set to kill her. He chases her on his horse, catches her, but then decides to take her home instead. That is because even though Newt is ruthless and brutal and convinced he knows exactly what is best for everyone, he always does the right thing. But are they grateful? No they are not. After delivering Debbie back to the white folk, the door of the cabin famously closes on the receding image of Ethan walking away. They just don’t appreciate him. They don’t realize that without people like Ethan, those Comanche would be snatching up all of our sons and daughters and enslaving them with excessive regulations and onerous taxes.

In real life, a woman who was held by the Comanche for several years was, in fact, rescued (she was returned as part of a deal) to her family and community.

She could not adjust and eventually returned to the Comanche.

“The Searchers” in consistently ranked way up there with the best of American film, and is often listed as the best Western of them all. Is it really? If it is, it must be the sweep and grandeur of it’s vision, because the acting is awful, and the story is absolute melodrama at times.

Just one example: when Ethan finally catches up with Debbie for the final time, she rejects him and flees, and he chases her on horseback– I assume this is a stuntman, not Natalie Wood– and catches up to her, and she tries to slash him at first. Then he says, I’m taking you home. She looks into his manly John Wayne eyes and immediately melts and hugs him.

John Ford couldn’t be bothered to take even 30 seconds for the most important dramatic transition in the entire movie? This is apex upon which the entire narrative drive pivots! It’s all over in about 10 seconds.

Even worse: the famous last scene, of John Wayne marching off into the sunset, is far shorter than I bet you think you remember it. Check it out. It’s a fart of an ending. The audiences are already out in the lobby before they “get” that Ethan just not the kind of man who could settle for a first or even a second wife.

So it’s a classic of the epic Hollywood genre, which means, a film that is all surfaces and check-marks: close up, wide shot, pan shot, lighting, make-up, hair, costume. The story isn’t trivial: it’s actually quite rich and complex. Characters are developed. There’s even a bit of grit, an edge, some rawness to the drama. But that was all in the script. What showed up on the screen was a lot of spectacle, and then actors standing on their marks reading their lines.

And please don’t give me that shit that all the movies of this era were like that: they were not! Check “The Third Man” or “Marty”. Or “Seven Samurai” or “Rashomon” or “All about Eve” or “Tokyo Story” or “Wild Strawberries” or “La Strada” or “On the Waterfront”, and so on.

And please don’t tell me that John Wayne was a great actor.  He always only played himself: a mediocre actor playing his own illusion about manliness.

Natalie Wood

Here is a cringe-worthy piece on Natalie Wood.  [web site defunct]

I’ve always liked Natalie and I’ve liked her work generally, though she should never be confused with a serious actor.

Here, the narrator points out that Natalie has a lot of work to do when it comes to choosing her next picture: she also has to choose the director, her co-stars, the production company, and so on. He forgot: and write the script, compose the music, select the film and lenses, edit, and actually produce a story that is worth watching. This is the art form turned on it’s head. This is the sunflower telling the artist how to paint.

You can tell she really thinks this is all “art” and so very serious and all that, which is a shame, because what she did quite often– as in “The Great Race” was good fun and digestible, and she worked okay in “Splendor in the Grass”, at least partly because that was such a strange story.

Of course, Marni Nixon dubbed her vocals in “West Side Story” but why would that be a problem? “West Side Story” isn’t about anything real in any case. We’re entering an era where they will also dub your nose, your eyes, your breasts: the public does not care about “real” or “authentic”. The public cares mainly about fantasy.

She just shouldn’t get mixed up about just what it is she does.

The Zambian National Soccer Team and Perceptions of Athletic Supremacy

In 1994, the entire Zambian National Soccer team– save for one player– was lost when a military plane carrying them to a tournament crashed into the ocean. These were the players who were believed to be the best starting 11 in the nation.

Given the reverence with which superstars are treated around the world, you would think that the Zambian national team, now comprised almost entirely of second place substitutes, would fail miserably. Instead, they proceeded to make it all the way to the final of the African Cup of Nations. They lost to Nigeria, 2-1, in the championship game.

What this means is not that Zambia had remarkably able second-stringers. It means our perception of “superstars” is way off the mark. I believe that, far from being a fluke, the performance of the second-stringers was probably an accurate representation of the actual difference in skill sets between world famous athletes and the athletes no one has ever heard of who labour in their shadows. That is because superstardom is less a function of real achievements than it is of real achievements and insanely obsessive media coverage which wildly inflates the public’s perception of an athlete’s real worth.

The leading scorer in any sport receives boatloads of publicity and exposure.  The second place man is almost unknown, even though he ranks just behind the famous leading scorer.

The second level of players, the ones who wait on the sidelines for someone in the first string to be injured or retired, are not substantially inferior to the top tier of players they replace. Quite often, they are better, because many of the first-stringers have passed their prime and are coasting on their reputations.

So where would you rank Derek Jeter in terms of shortstops in the American League last year?