Nittany jurors

A radio commentator last weekend said of the Jerry Sandusky verdict something like, “Several of the jurors were Penn State alumni or employees, and there was some concern that they wouldn’t convict Sandusky because of their ties to the university.” That’s about the most idiotic thing I’ve ever heard. I bet that in a smallish college town like State College, Pennsylvania, defendants connected with the university are tried and convicted by jurors also connected with the university all the damn time. Did this commentator really think the jurors’ school spirit would overwhelm the nausea they probably felt listening to evidence about how this guy raped children?

This is typical of the news media, creating controversy where it doesn’t exist. Some “trial expert” pundit probably cooked that one up.

Native Guard

All the grave markers, all the crude headstones—
water-lost. Now fish dart among their bones,
and we listen for what the waves intone.
Only the fort remains, near forty feet high,
round, unfinished, half-open to the sky,
the elements— wind, rain— God’s deliberate eye.

Natasha Trethewey, Native Guard

I heard on the radio that the United States has a new poet-laureate. This is not something I usually pay much attention to, except that Natasha Trethewey’s name is familiar to me. I met her when she visited Ship Island to learn more about the Louisiana Native Guard, black soldiers who were stationed there during the Civil War. Her resulting Pulitzer Prize winning poetry book Native Guard is named after those soldiers. So after hearing the news I picked up that book from the library.

Poetry, like jazz, often eludes my attempts at appreciation, even though I write an occasional doggerel verse. The poems in Native Guard are accessible to poetry non-readers like me. They weave Trethewey’s tragic Mississippi childhood (her abusive stepfather murdered her mother) with aspects of Mississippi’s tortured racial history. Trethewey’s mother and father were respectively black and white, their marriage in those days a crime in the state (a poem about this is titled “Miscegenation”).

It wasn’t Trethewey’s personal interpretation of Mississippi that I related to most, but her verbal rendering of the national park I worked at for three and a half years. In the same poem quoted at the top of this post, titled “Elegy for the Native Guards” she writes of her visit to Fort Massachusetts on Ship island:

Inside we follow the ranger, hurried
though we are to get to the beach…

I didn’t lead that particular tour, but she captured my professional existence out there pretty succinctly. Brava!

Prometheus

This post is about a movie; avoid spoilers by not reading.

We don’t usually go in for the 3-D at the movie theater but Prometheus seemed like it would be worth it, and it was. It was probably the best movie we’ve seen at a theater in a while. The 3-D effects weren’t terribly intrusive. I forgot I had the glasses on and perhaps that’s as it should be. As for the rest of it, the story, character, and visuals all clicked very nicely.

I have a pet peeve with space adventures, even ones I like: when arriving on a strange planet, the explorers always manage to land within walking distance of the its seat of power. In the case of Star Trek, The Original Series, the away team might land in what looks like a total wilderness (or as wilderness as a cheap set of foam rocks can get), but are guaranteed to find a representative of the whole big planet is just beyond those shrubs. It’s sort of like aliens landing by happenstance around the corner from the United Nations Headquarters. How convenient! Anyway, I rationalize that a planetary survey took place off-camera somewhere.

Drift

I think Rachel Maddow is likable and engaging, though I last watched her show on MSNBC a couple of years ago. On that show she included a short segment boohooing the treatment of some Indians to whom the United Kingdom denied entry because they were traveling with Iroquois Confederacy passports. Why Maddow thought this was worth mentioning was beyond me. Nice try, Hiawatha, but get back in line. The rest of us don’t get to travel internationally on homemade passports. It’s that sort of reflexive bleeding heart nonsense that distract from real issues liberals can raise about the state of democracy in America.

Despite my annoyance with that detour I read Maddow’s new book “Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power”. The drift she refers to is the increasing distance between our foundational aversion to a large military establishment and our present condition of ceaseless warfare. Most of the book deals with the usurpation of war-making from the people’s representatives by our last several presidents. “The ‘imperial presidency'” Maddow writes, “… is a radical departure from previous views of the presidential power, and it should be taught and understood that way.” She supports her arguments with colorful anecdotes about the military adventurism of Ronald Reagan and his successors, often using their own words.

Maddow seems to think the transfer of war-making authority from Congress to the president is a recent occurrence. It is not but perhaps the scale of undeclared military operations has increased in recent decades. I would argue that our original aversion to a military establishment ended when we adopted the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson, whose writings Maddow cites as the philosophical basis for limited military capacity, was virtually alone among early presidents in disdaining the permanent army and navy.

Maddow also describes as causes of drift the sequestration of military sacrifice to a very small segment of our population, privatization and secrecy, and institutional inertia. Even the much-celebrated counterinsurgency doctrine that has recently transformed our military strategies has its dark side, since it expands the armed forces’ roles in to broader goals of “nation-building.” Nothing in “Drift” is terribly earth-shattering but it is a good, concise assessment of trends in our national attitudes about making war and how it affects our democracy.

As an aside, one of the testimonials on the back cover is from Roger Ailes, chairman and CEO of FOX News. It’s the most backhanded and lukewarm endorsement I’ve seen on a hardcover jacket. It begins with criticism (of something not really addressed in the book), then a affirmation of Maddow’s right to express her opinion, and concludes with, “Drift is a book worth reading.” I guess it’s there to attract readers who otherwise would avoid a book by Maddow but I don’t feel like liberal opinions need an official stamp of legitimacy from conservative leaders.