Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Spenser fights to save Western Civilization

(Part two. Part one is here.)

Probably shouldn't be trying to draw lessons in political philosophy from a better than the last one but really not up to his best genre novel by a once very good mystery writer who's been writing too much and too fast the last decade or so and has stopped being careful so that any ideas that get raised are half-baked at best and possibly not even sincere but just there to connect Plot Point A to Plot Point B or save him the trouble of actually fleshing out a character. But although he does it in a rush and a bit sloppily, I think Robert Parker is struggling with an important question in his newest Spenser mystery, School Days.

To what degree do we hold individuals responsible for their actions?

Law and Order conservatives---most conservatives, in fact---would be quick to answer that one, "To the n-th degree!

Or at least to the m-th.

No less than the l-th, anyway, at the outside.

Go below that and you're just a bleeding heart.

Conservatives are in love with the myth of the self-made man. It's flattering to their vanity, for one thing. But it's also a convenient argument for kicking over the ladder once you've reached the top. What do you need unions for? What do you need Big Government social programs for? Are you weak? Are you a baby? This country was built on self-reliance. Be a man! Be a self-made man!

But in a liberal civilization, where we keep order by encouraging everybody to be responsible for one another and to one another, we recognize that while individuals can fail to keep their responsibilities to others, that is to society at large, society can fail to keep its side of the bargain too.

That's why we temper justice with mercy and charity and allow for forgiveness.

Like I said yesterday, totalitarian civilizations don't care beans about individual responsibility. They're only interested in keeping order. It doesn't matter to them why an individuals break the rules. That's why punishment is swift, certain, and totally without mercy, charity, or even justice.

In a liberal society we don't believe that no one is ever at fault, as some Conservatives claim many Liberals think. But we do believe in mitigation and we do believe that there are some people who cannot be blamed because they cannot control their own actions and others who might have had more control had society not failed them.

Think of a woman who kills the ex-husband who beats her and who has been unable to get the police to enforce the restraining order.

I know some people thinking of that woman are thinking tough petunias for her. She had options, she had choices, she did the crime, now let her do the time.

A lot of conservatives are perfect Shylocks when they want their pound of flesh, but put them in the dock with their own chests bared to the knife and listen to them plead and scream for the intercession of a Portia dropping mercy like a gentle rain.

Think Scooter Libby. Think Karl Rove when his turn comes.

Or just think of the loudmouth at work going on and on about how the cops need to come down harder on them suddenly turning into both an anarchist and a bleeding heart (his heart bleeding only for himself, of course) when he's got a two hundred dollar traffic ticket to pay.

"Your honor, the radar gun didn't work! The sign was hidden by the trees! The cop had it in for me! My speedometer doesn't work! My grandmother's sick and I was rushing to see her! A freak tail wind came up behind me and pushed me through that stop light! It wasn't my fault!"

And the judge says, "Son, all those things are no doubt true. But civilizations must act as if individuals are responsible for what individuals do."

When Robert Parker has Rita Fiore head off any doubts that Spenser might be planting in her head about whether or not his mentally and emotionally retarded client's truly guilty by saying, "whatever the psychological reality might be, civilizations have to act as if the individual is responsible for what the individual does," she sounds more Shylock than Portia to me, and more like the Conservative prosecutor she once was and not the brilliant Liberal defense attorney she's become.

Again, as I was saying yesterday, I suspect Parker's felt he had to protect himself from accusations that he was letting the Columbine shooters---or any of the kids who have gone on murder sprees in their school hallways---off the hook. By having the open-minded to almost a fault Rita make that statement before the usual representatives of law and order chime in, Parker made it a position we're expected to sympathize with. Spenser himself is skeptical, but that's in character, and he doesn't argue with Rita or with anyone else who espouses it, so Parker leaves it unchallenged to stand or fall on its own, although I think he expects it will stand.

I don't think it does. Totalitarian civilizations don't care about individual responsibility and in fact do everything they can to take away from their citizens any opportunity for responsible action. People do what they are told not what they know to be right. Liberal civilizations don't see individuals as being capable of that much responsibility for themselves, and in the courtroom, which is where Rita, being a lawyer, is picturing civilization at work, liberal civilizations show themselves to be liberal by often acting the other way entirely.

This is why we have categories of murder and manslaughter, degrees of felonies. This is why we use phrases like "diminished capacity," "temporary insanity," and "crime of passion." This is why there's such things as probation and parole and why governors and Presidents are given the power to pardon.

This is why we have juvenile court.

Rita Fiore would all about this better than I do.

I'm assuming that Rita, and Parker, mean what Rita says though.

But it's possible that Parker means Rita to mean what she would more likely have said, "That the legal system [not civilizations] has to act as if individuals are responsible for what individuals do."

If that's what Parker means her to mean, then Rita is still sounding more like a prosecutor than a defense attorney, but since she used to be a prosecutor, maybe that's in character.

And if that's what Parker means her to mean, then I agree.

Our legal system is a tool of liberal civilization. Our liberal civilization may understand that invididuals have a lot less say in who they are than our ancestors believed. Cassius insisted the fault lies not in our stars but in ourselves, but he didn't know that our selves are things we do the best we can to invent after accidents of genetics and circumstances assemble the raw material and sometimes that material is close to useless to work with.

But while our civilization has learned enough for all of us to know that what looks like the worst kind of evil is often the most virulent form of insanity and we can feel sorry, at least on an abstract level, for a person so crazy he can't resist his most violent impulses, when we get him inside a courtroom we will still treat him as if he's a very devil.

We do this because liberal civilizations have promised to free all of us from the the temptation to act out of pure self-interest by freeing us from want...and by freeing us from fear.

End of part two.


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