"As long as we are not chased from our words we have nothing to fear. As long as our utterances keep their sound we have a voice. As long as our words keep their sense we have a soul." -- Edmond Jabes, from The Book of Yukel, Return to the Book

Sunday, June 26, 2016

On Brexit and Trump via Facebook

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Jose, Jose, Jose

Jose Reyes is back with the Mets -- or back with the Mets organization. He signed a minor league contract over the weekend and is expected to spent a week or two getting in baseball shape and learning some new positions, so he can return to Queens as a super utility player.

It's unclear whether this will help the Mets -- his skills have been in decline for the last three years -- but my Mets heart is happy to see one of my favorite players from a decade ago back with the team.

The Reyes signing, though, raises some questions beyond what he can still do on the field, questions pointed to by the response I received to a tweet I sent out Saturday:  
I can understand Babe Ruth's anger. Reyes was accused of assault and domestic violence in Hawaii during the offseason, though he was never charged because his wife Katherine Ramirez -- the victim -- refused to cooperate with the investigation. He wasn't cleared, though police couldn't find enough evidence to proceed, and Major League Baseball acted. Reyes was suspended for 52 games to start this season in accordance with league policy. (Was 52 games enough of a suspension? Should it have been longer? Would a lifetime ban have been appropriate?)

The suspension ended and the Rockies essentially cut him from the team (the MLB process is a bit involved but not really necessary to explain here). They ate the bulk of his massive contract and the Mets decided to take a flier on one of their old heroes.

As a baseball move, it makes sense -- a low-risk gamble. Is it an ethical or morall? How do we deal with the domestic violence? Is he just a creep, as  the Twitter response says, irredeemable and unforgivable?

"It's outrageous how little women's lives seem to matter when someone can throw a baseball really hard, wins Super Bowl's, or has a good jump shot," Mark-Viverito said in a statement.

"Domestic violence kills thousands of women every year and it's time professional sports actually takes it seriously. The Mets should be ashamed. We need to be better."
We do need to do better, and we should ask whether Reyes is being given his second chance because of his -- diminishing -- talents or his history with the team.

I honestly can't answer that, though I suspect it is a factor -- the way it is for so many in powerful positions. As a general rule, I believe in forgiveness, but I think that forgiveness is earned. I also think there is a difference between someone who is a serial abuser and one who gives in to his worst impulses once. The act is still a crime, a sin, and cannot be explained away. As Barretta said, you do the crime you should do the time.

Some domestic violence advocates, at least, are prepared to give Reyes a chance.
“Domestic violence is a choice,” said Cindy Southworth, the executive vice president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “Because it’s behavior that can be chosen, it’s also behavior that cannot be chosen. People can come back from that and have a more respectful relationship. It’s hard work and needs a trained therapist, but I do think it’s possible.”
Southworth emphasized a point that she said could seem counterintuitive: Reyes being allowed to continue his career could benefit his wife and others who find themselves in abusive relationships with athletes.

“What we don’t want is for someone, the moment the police are called, is for an athlete to lose his entire career,” she said. “It would create huge, unfathomable pressure not to call 911 if they knew their loved one’s career would be in jeopardy.”
What happens after the abuse or when the abuser is caught also has to be factored in. Ray Rice, for instance, initially faced an unexplainably short punishment that was lengthened to something more appropriate. He showed remorse -- I think -- and probably deserves another shot on the field. Reyes faced a stiff penalty in baseball terms and is at least saying the right things. The question is what that might be worth. Has he earned his second chance?

I can't answer that, either. I can say that we have, for too long, treated domestic violence as a private matter, failing the victims. Reyes' wife refused to cooperate, but that is part of the tragedy in these cases -- women are afraid or refuse to come forward. It has made prosecuting cases of domestic abuse very difficult. 

As you can see, I'm ambivalent. Reyes was my favorite Met until he left, and my baseball heart is glad to see him return. My baseball head sees it as a good baseball move, as well. But my ethical and moral compasses are sending different, and mixed signals.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Sit down I think I love you

The House of Representatives is not usually associated with civil disobedience. But Democratic House members have decided that civil disobedience may be the only way to force their chamber to act on the issue of gun violence.

Democrats have engaged in a day-long sit-in on the House floor, which started at about noon on Wednesday, demanding votes on two gun measures opposed by Republican Congressmen and the National Rifle Association.

As The Huffington Post reported, Democratic
efforts to achieve this goal continued throughout the night, even after the Republican lawmakers snuck into the chamber at 2:30 a.m. and voted to adjourn the session until Jul. 5.
It was an incredible scene. Throughout the day, Democrats clogged the House floor, holding the printed names of gun victims over their heads and loudly chanting “No Bill, No Break.” Democrats were protesting the Republicans’ refusal to take up the so-called No Fly, No Buy legislation, which would bar people on the terrorist watch list from purchasing guns.

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) gaveled the House back into session, nearly 11 hours after the Democratic sit-in began. He read a prepared script to set up a procedural vote, as if the House was in order and that Democrats weren’t breaking rules.

When Ryan stepped down from the podium, Democrats chanted “Shame!”
It is an unprecedented move -- Rachel Maddow said repeatedly last night that there had never been a sit-in in the House in its history -- that has the potential to shift debate in a more sane direction on guns.

The specific legislation in play here -- banning people on the no-fly list from gaining access to weapons -- is popular with the American public, but badly conceived and problematic from a civil liberties standpoint. The no-fly list lacks transparency and invest far too much authority in the hands of the executive branch -- almost anyone can be placed on the list without being told and those who end up designated as potential threats have little recourse. If I were in Congress, I'd vote against the "No Fly, No Buy" legislation on civil liberties grounds.

But this sit-in is about more than this bill -- or it needs to be. As we saw earlier this week when four gun-reform bills were defeated, the gun issue is not taken seriously by the legislative branch. Republicans, for the most part, equate any discussion of gun regulations with confiscation, an argument that fails the simplest tests of logic, and one that is inconsistent with the way we treat other constitutional rights.

The First Amendment is subjected to a variety of regulatory schemes, including limits on commercial speech and the kind of speech that can be broadcast over the public airwaves, restrictions on where houses of worship might be constructed, and the like. Restrictions on speech and religious practice must meet a higher bar than other limits, but the courts have consistently ruled that the public good can trump individual rights in narrow circumstances.

The same approach is needed when dealing with guns. There are a host of potential regulations we can put in place that would improve public safety without infringing on the ultimate rights of gun owners. None are perfect -- anyone who thinks we can eliminate gun violence completely is fooling themselves, just as anyone who thinks that gun-control measures will do nothing is either lying or deluding themselves. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.

First, we not treat access to guns the same way we treat driving privileges? We can requiring background checks, safety training and testing, and liability insurance for anyone who wants to own a gun. Remember, we do not hand a gun to a cop and say have at it. We require officers and soldiers to be certified, to practice and pass tests, before we entrust them with their weapons.

Second, we should acknowledge that we have the right to draw some lines when it comes to what weapons should be available to the general public. It is not an issue of whether the line should be drawn, but where. We already do this -- RPGs, machine guns and bazookas are heavily regulated (the NRA opposes these regulations), explosive devices are banned, and so on. We have the ability to determine where the line should be placed, balancing the public good against the right of the individual -- which is the same standard we apply to the First Amendment.

The NRA might argue that the Second Amendment is different -- it calls gun ownership, absurdly, our "first freedom." At best it is our sixth, given that it is placed in the Bill of Rights behind the five freedoms outlined in the First Amendment.

But there is no rational reason to treat these rights differently -- but this is a digression. My point, ultimately, is that we need to have these discussions, that debates and votes are necessary, that they are an integral component of how our system of government is supposed to function. If the sit-in reminds us that so-called gun rights are not exempt from the legislative process, then the sit-in will have been a success.

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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Ten notes on Vinyl

I finally finished watching season 1 of Vinyl, HBO's series focusing on the music scene in New York, circa early-/mid-'70s. It arrived with a lot hype -- much of which has proven to be undeserved. In the end, it probably was better than its reviews. (Updated: HBO cancels Vinyl.)

Here are my thoughts:

1. Vinyl is visually and aurally alluring, but ultimately empty. Even as its nods to grassroots musical movements of the early '70s, it has more in common with the bloated stadium rock the punk, disco and other underground movements were reacting to.

2. The name-dropping is ineffective and undercuts efforts at creating something more than just a period piece. I get that the producers, directors and writers are seeking authenticity, but the constant mention of rock's pantheon (and others famous at the time) has the same effect that your uncle's boasting that he knows a guy has -- go ahead, roll your eyes.

3. When the show opts to include the famous in the narrative as characters -- David Bowie, Robert Plant, Andy Warhol -- it suspends our suspension of disbelief.

4. It traffics too much in nostalgia. See 2 and 3. The terrible ABC comedy, The Goldbergs, uses a concept it calls '80-something to create a sensibility and collapse an entire decade into a single moment -- a tactic that does nothing more than cast a complicated decade simplistically as the sum of the clothing, music and film loved by teen America. This is what I mean by nostalgia -- collapsing complexities into a simple narrative that connects with a rosy sense of a time in our past.

Vinyl does this, even as it portrays the flawed hedonism of the time, even as it rolls out examples of the darkness within.

5. It glorifies drug abuse. I'm not being prudish -- I support most legalization and decriminalization efforts -- but the excesses that left a trail of bodies across the decade are not given a weight equivalent to the excitement of hedonistic libertinism.

6. Too much Richie, which leaves some truly interesting personalities struggling for air. More focus needed to be given to Lester, Zak, Jamie and Devon.

7. The female characters are either underused (see 6) or caricatures. Andrea's strong woman is portrayed one-sidedly as a ball-buster without humanity -- which may have been a role strong women had to play at the time, at least publicly, but it also lacks nuance and is pure stereotype.

8. There are too many stretches of what is best called "masturbatory filmmaking" -- or visual flourishes that lack function. This contributes to pacing issues and some boring stretches.

9. The murder narrative feels tacked on.

10. And yet, it was oddly compelling. Maybe I'm just a sucker for the music, or maybe it's just the equivalent of rubbernecking a car crash, but I can't say for sure that I won't return for season two.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Old poems never die

I'm reviewing recent and older work as I attempt to put together a book manuscript. In doing so I came across these three pieces:

This one ran in the Rutgers College Quarterly in 1988 -- my senior year -- and stood as a manifesto of sorts on my approach to the poetic line.

This ran in an anthology called Off the Cuffs, which was writing by and about police. It's from the mid- to late-1990s.

This ran about 10 years ago in the Edison Literary Review and was written after watching my nephew Joe's youth baseball team.

All three are deeply flawed poems, I think, but capture some element of my current approach, whether in terms of craft, style, or theme.

I don't know that any of the three deserve placement in a new book, but I thought I'd share.