Culture: July 2013 Archives

Leadership Tulsa executive director Wendy Thomas, writing on Facebook back in late May 2013:

Hannibal B. Johnson and I got to visit with a delegation of non profit directors and consultants from Belarus yesterday sponsored by the Tulsa Global Alliance. One of them posed and interesting question. He said they knew a lot about American life from our American films and TV but pointed out how infrequently those films depict or charity/non profit organizations and wondered why that was, especially since it seems to be such a large part of our national identity. Never thought about it before. Any ideas?

Thinking about it now, a couple of months later, I'm inclined to blame the disconnect between Hollywood and the rest of America. Massive amounts of money not only insulate you from the consequences of your bad behavior but also from the need to depend on voluntary communities to help you get through life. You don't need family, you don't need mutual support, mutual submission, or voluntary cooperation, because you can buy what you need and want without the need to negotiate. Naturally, then, Hollywood would be blind to the way churches, extended families, fraternal organizations, mutual-aid societies, and other non-profits enrich the lives they touch. Hollywood would believe that the problems they solve with money can only be solved by money, and naturally they would see the state providing that money. To the extent they think about community and family and voluntary associations, they would likely see those mediating institutions as suppressive of individuality, demanding conformity to group norms as a condition of assistance.

Thomas also wrote:

Our national spirit is especially evident this week in light of the tragedy in Moore. The other thing that always strikes me about our charitable spirit is that it is not limited to people of great wealth. In fact, I believe I have read that people with more modest incomes give a greater amount as a percentage of the income. Volunteer Tulsa also would have stats about volunteerism.

Author Hannibal Johnson replied to Thomas's post:

I really enjoyed meeting the delegation from Belarus. I found them to be professionally astute and intellectually curious. They also helped me better appreciate the civil society infrastructure we too often take for granted. They talked about working in an environment with few resources and a lack of government support (indeed, often, affirmative government opposition). The kind of government support (tax exemptions for nonprofits and tax-deductibility of contribution to nonprofits) and private sector backing that seems so natural here is all but absent in Belarus. That makes what these folks are doing all the more impressive.

Sometimes it takes a stranger to point out what's all around us. Alexis de Tocqueville noticed the same thing about America circa 1830.

Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited America in 1831:

Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate. Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.

From an American Enterprise Institute report on de Tocqueville and the development of civil society in China:

An important function of civic and political organizations is to educate individuals about being citizens in a free society. Such groups may also form alliances with like-minded organizations in order to lobby the government or coordinate their advocacy messages. Shared interests among civic groups are a natural precursor to the development of political associations. But civic associations--reservoirs of social capital though they may be--cannot promote liberalism or sustain political freedom on their own.

Furthermore, social capital does not become political capital as readily as some groups may hope. To understand the dynamic between civic and political associations, it is helpful to consider two different types of regimes. The first is real totalitarian despotism, in which every organization is a tool of state. The second is the corporatist authoritarian model, in which many common interest activities or advocacy groups are allowed to exist until they become problematic--either by challenging the system of government or making a claim to justice. For example, the Chinese government, as a corporate authoritarian regime, may tolerate an environmental group that is calling attention to a particular ecological plight. The state's patience would likely run out, however, if the same group were to challenge a specific CCP environmental policy.

The notion that civil society activity portends liberal political progress is problematic, if Tocqueville is right. Even for those groups that operate with relative autonomy, it seems that the process of self-governance only provides a lesson in good-neighborliness, rather than promoting the tendencies necessary for liberalism. Indeed, it is reasonable to presume that a stable corporatist authoritarian state could sustain a vibrant, yet contained civil society--one in which individuals and organizations are active but lack the compulsion to develop political agendas.

Then again, some civic groups are inherently troublesome to despotic regimes. It is not an accident that religious groups have been intimately involved in political revolutions throughout history. Religious groups feature an inherent call to justice, posing an automatic challenge to repressive systems. Universities, as generators of new ideas are also perennial threats to authoritarian regimes. The same can be said of newspapers, which can spin small ideas into bigger issues, and ethnic minorities, through whom one idea can be promulgated among a broader group of people. To understand the future role of civil society in China, it will be important to examine the nature of prominent civic associations and identify the terms on which they engage with the regime. Are they simply seeking the redress of minor grievances? Are they providing a benign service or forum that the state cannot? Or are they calling attention to systemic flaws in the state's model of governance?

In his Ancien Regime, Tocqueville's native France provides the basis for a study of civil society, as he seeks to understand the forces which had, prior to the revolution, managed to stifle all attempts at civic association. In poring over state documents from the pre-Revolutionary era, Tocqueville comes to understand the vast bureaucratic schemes which had prevented civic engagement and political activity. He further finds that the Revolution had adopted the same despotic features of the Old Order, again undermining the incentive for French citizens to create and engage in such civic life.

Writing on June 18, 2013, in the Wall Street Journal, Niall Ferguson worried that the American distinctive of civil society and self-organization is dying, replaced by a growing dependence on government, that America is moving away from the qualities de Tocqueville admired and toward the conditions of which de Tocqueville warned:

Tocqueville would not recognize America today. Indeed, so completely has associational life collapsed, and so enormously has the state grown, that he would be forced to conclude that, at some point between 1833 and 2013, France must have conquered the United States.

The decline of American associational life was memorably documented in Robert Puttnam's seminal 1995 essay "Bowling Alone," which documented the exodus of Americans from bowling leagues, Rotary clubs and the like. Since then, the downward trend in "social capital" has only continued. According to the 2006 World Values Survey, active membership even of religious associations has declined from just over half the population to little more than a third (37%). The proportion of Americans who are active members of cultural associations is down to 14% from 24%; for professional associations the figure is now just 12%, compared with more than a fifth in 1995. And, no, Facebook is not a substitute.

Instead of joining together to get things done, Americans have increasingly become dependent on Washington. On foreign policy, it may still be true that Americans are from Mars and Europeans from Venus. But when it comes to domestic policy, we all now come from the same place: Planet Government....

Genius that he was, Tocqueville saw this transformation of America coming. Toward the end of "Democracy in America" he warned against the government becoming "an immense tutelary power . . . absolute, detailed, regular . . . cover[ing] [society's] surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way."

Tocqueville also foresaw exactly how this regulatory state would suffocate the spirit of free enterprise: "It rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one's acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces [the] nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd."

If that makes you bleat with frustration, there's still hope.

Hat tip to The Political Hat, who writes:

America's strength lies in its civic virtue, in particular the ability of the people to take upon themselves the duty and privilege of maintaining economic and social order, and to cherish and protect our values and heritage. It is this free interaction of free individuals to voluntarily associate their combined power, that gives us the freedom and capacity to meet the our needs and the needs of others, and to create a society that does not require the pseudo-benevolent hand of Leviathan....

Indeed, we are quickly turning into the France that de Tocqueville contrasted America to. Instead of initiative, creativeness, and virtue, we are subject to the whims of government. Rather then some type of lens through which the "volonté générale" is focused, the government has become "a system of relief operating from such a distance... bound to be capricious, sometimes misdirected, and always quite inadequate."

The civic basis of our society is thus rent asunder, such that the government assumes all the functions that were previously reserved for free men, thus diminishing those free men into dependent nouveau serfs. We do not loose these freedoms necessarily because we are explicitly forced into serfdom, but because "when the head becomes too swollen, the body develops apoplexy."

A few thoughts:

I'm disheartened by the outraged reaction from my liberal friends, who are certain that justice was denied, and that a racist murderer has been set free. NBC, CNN, President Obama, and other public figures and opinionators did race relations and common sense in America a grave disservice in the way they depicted the event, distorted the available evidence, and framed it as a racially motivated killing. If you stopped listening and made up your mind at that point, I can understand why you'd be outraged by Zimmerman's acquittal.

But the testimony in the trial, from both prosecution and defense witnesses, paints a very different picture. Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch captain in an gated townhome community that had experienced several recent burglaries, noticed an unfamiliar man, dressed to match the description of suspects in those crimes. He called 911, described the person, tried to keep him under observation, and requested that the police check out the situation. Meanwhile, Trayvon Martin was on the phone with a friend, complaining that he was being followed by a "creepy-ass cracker." Rather than call 911 and report a stalker, rather than get back to the townhome where he was staying as soon as possible, it appears that Martin chose to confront Zimmerman, wrestling him to the ground and beating Zimmerman's head against the pavement. One witness said it looked like a mixed-martial arts move called "ground and pound." Zimmerman, pinned to the ground, had no means escape, feared for his life, and shot.

Zimmerman is from a mixed-race family and was an outspoken supporter and organizer on behalf of a black homeless man who had been mistreated by local police. He supported President Obama's election. Yet he has been portrayed as a racist who stalked and killed Martin because of his race.

An NBC edit of the 911 call gave the impression that Zimmerman volunteered the race of the person he was watching. In fact, Zimmerman only identified race in response to a question from the dispatcher. NBC retracted the edited version and fired those responsible.

CNN transcribed a comment on the 911 call, putting an old-fashioned, seldom-heard, four-letter racial epithet in Zimmerman's mouth. Monosyllables can be easy to mishear, particularly on distorted low-bandwidth recordings, and once an authoritative source like CNN asserts the identification of an authoritative word, it's hard to hear it as anything else. But CNN later retracted their transcript, and concluded that Zimmerman had said, "It's f***ing cold." Others believe he said, "F***ing punks." But by the time the correction was made, many had already pegged Zimmerman as a racist vigilante and were beyond persuasion.

The use of years-old photos of Zimmerman and Martin also shaped public opinion in a way that framed Zimmerman as a hateful, racist thug who should have had no reason to see baby-faced Martin as a suspicious character.

However the confrontation began, once it advanced to Martin straddling and beating Zimmerman (as corroborated by eyewitnesses and Zimmerman's injuries), it became a matter of self-defense for Zimmerman. All the preliminaries became irrelevant at that point to Zimmerman's guilt or innocence. Zimmerman said he believed his life was in danger, believed Martin would grab Zimmerman's gun and use it against him, so Zimmerman grabbed the gun and shot.

Wikipedia has a detailed, heavily footnoted, and dispassionate summary of the evidence and varying accounts of the incident. Will Saletan at Slate describes the case as a tragedy of misperception and overreaction by both Zimmerman and Martin. The New York Times has a series of aerial photos showing the progression and location of events leading to the shooting.

This case has been portrayed as being about race in America, but there's no evidence that racial animus drove Zimmerman's actions. But if Martin did in fact confront Zimmerman and initiate the struggle that led to the shooting, I have to wonder if Martin's response to Zimmerman's surveillance was conditioned by the racial grievance industry and a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude that he owed no one an explanation of who he was and why he belonged there.

Some may say that, as a white man, I am blind to the realities of race in America, and the suspicion that surrounds blacks, particularly young black men. But as a man, particularly as a man who wears a beard, I am continually aware that my presence in an unfamiliar place could be a source of worry to others, and that my expression, gait, demeanor, and dress can either reassure or stoke fears.

My favorite form of exercise is walking, and I would much rather walk through a historic neighborhood admiring homes than perambulate an oval indoor track. I'm interested in cities and neighborhoods and development, and when I travel I like to walk or drive through interesting areas and take pictures. I know that my strolling and staring and picture-taking may trigger worries, and that I need to be ready to give a calm and confident answer to anyone who questions what I'm up to.

In 2008, I was driving back from visiting relatives near Lawrence, Kansas, at night. As I passed through downtown Ottawa, I was taken by the beautiful neon of the Plaza Theater and stopped (no one behind me) to roll down the window to take a photo. A police officer spotted me and pulled me over. He asked me what I was drinking (Diet Coke) and why I was taking pictures. He thought I might be casing the jewelry store next door to the theater. I was tired and a bit shaken up, but I answered him calmly, and my calm demeanor, along with the sleeping toddler in the back seat in his car seat, set the officer at ease, and I proceeded onward to my destination. What if, instead, I had been incensed at his unwarranted inference, and had responded with hostility?

I recall another occasion many years earlier, when I worked at Burtek. I would sometimes pick up some lunch at a drive-thru (usually Lee's Chicken, Arby's, or Burger Street) and drive to McClure Park, about a half-mile from work, find a shady spot to park the car, and I'd eat, read the paper, and listen to Paul Harvey on KRMG (or if I was late getting away to lunch, KGGF's later broadcast) on the car radio. Once I parked under a tree along the south side of 7th Street, the northern boundary of the park. I noticed a woman who appeared to be from a nearby house striding with determination toward my car. She shot me a nasty look, walked around behind my car, and made a show of writing down my license plate number. I don't recall how I reacted, but I think I asked in a loud voice if there was a problem. She simply walked away. It was odd, but I figured out later that there must have been a burglary or some other suspicious activity nearby, and my presence marked me as a suspect. I think I avoided parking on 7th for a time after that, even though I had every right to park there and there were some very nice shade trees to park under. I didn't want to give anyone a reason to suspect me of wrongdoing.

If I find myself walking down a street with just one person ahead of me, particularly if the other person is female, I will adjust my pace or even cross the street to make it clear to the other person that I'm not going to approach. It's a matter of being considerate and thoughtful of the way my actions will be viewed by others.

Trayvon Martin didn't deserve to die for seeming to be suspicious and that wasn't why he died. He died because of a fight in which he physically beat another person and put the other person in fear for his life. A simple "can I help you?" followed by a gentle explanation would have avoided the confrontation, the fight, and the shooting.

MORE: Robert Stacy McCain reports that Martin's possession of stolen goods and marijuana were treated as disciplinary incidents rather than juvenile crime, in an effort by school police officials to reduce the Miami school district's crime stats:

Both of Trayvon's suspensions during his junior year at Krop High involved crimes that could have led to his prosecution as a juvenile offender. However, Chief Charles Hurley of the Miami-Dade School Police Department (MDSPD) in 2010 had implemented a policy that reduced the number of criiminal reports, manipulating statistics to create the appearance of a reduction in crime within the school system. Less than two weeks before Martin's death, the school system commended Chief Hurley for "decreasing school-related juvenile delinquency by an impressive 60 percent for the last six months of 2011." What was actually happening was that crimes were not being reported as crimes, but instead treated as disciplinary infractions.

McCain says that, had Martin been taken into custody as a juvenile offender in Miami, he would not have been in Sanford, Florida. Instead, he was suspended from school, and he was sent to stay with his father's girlfriend in Sanford. reports that Obama's Department of Justice provided logistical support for anti-Zimmerman protests in Florida.


I missed this, but Detective Christopher Serino testified that George Zimmerman responded with relief when told Serino mentioned that the altercation may have been captured on video:

Defense attorney Mark O'Mara questioned Serino about Zimmerman's fourth interview with police, when Serino teamed up with Officer Doris Singleton for a more aggressive line of questioning.

Serino stated that, during that interview, he suggested to Zimmerman there were surveillance cameras in the area of the shooting that could have captured the attack.

Zimmerman responded, "Thank God, I was hoping somebody videotaped it."

Singleton, also present during the interview, testified that she did not find any significant differences between Zimmerman's oral and written statements, and found no evidence Zimmerman had any ill will, spite or hatred toward Martin. Singleton added that Zimmerman appeared to be in shock when he learned that Martin was dead.

This YouTube video has the relevant section of Serino's testimony beginning at 30:38. And Legal Insurrection has a detailed account of Serino's testimony.

A year ago, Jack Cashill published a detailed timeline of Trayvon Martin's last hour, based on the 7-11 surveillance camera and phone records.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Culture category from July 2013.

Culture: May 2013 is the previous archive.

Culture: August 2013 is the next archive.

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