Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect….

I played a game of Monopoly with family this weekend (Star Wars Monopoly, for my fellow nerds out there). I went through a bad spot. I kept landing in the “Go To Jail” square, or rolling the number of doubles that sent me to jail. This run of bad luck resulted in my not passing “Go” and collecting any money for several turns.

I didn’t win the game. The odds were stacked against me.

There’s this nifty phrase I like to use sometimes called “disproportionate response.” You know, when the reaction that a person has to something is far more severe than the situation that triggered that response. I thought about that phrase again last week during a conversation about a Ponzi scheme that was in the news. In fact, there’s been a lot of Ponzi schemes in the news lately…almost perpetually so since Madoff’s venture of ill repute. The conversation I was having last week in particular involved the disproportionate (I really like that word) sentence that an individual received in prison after his conviction in such a scheme.

As if that prison sentence would somehow result in the restoration of the monies stolen from investors. Or, as if the individual sentenced (who in the case of this particular story won’t be released until he’s in his nineties) somehow learned their lesson. I have a huge issue with people who commit crimes (and, let’s be honest: hasn’t everyone committed a crime at some level in their lives?) being locked away from the rest of society for inordinate amounts of time in a system that’s called a “correctional system,” and that, in fact, does nothing of the sort. I understand keeping violent criminals convicted of rape or murder locked away, because it protects innocent victims and the rest of society at large. But the offenses for which an individual can lose half their lives, or the rest of their lives, in prison are simply not serious enough to merit such a punishment. Someone with a drug habit is caught in possession during a traffic stop and goes away for the prime of their life, never to get it back. Someone commits financial fraud (apparently even worse than murder in a capitalist society), and they can easily lose the rest of their lives…literally, being locked away for defrauding money.

Actually, for defrauding numbers in a bank account. Since leaving the gold standard, it’s not even real money. I mean, really. That’s was someone’s life.

I guess my issue is with a criminal justice system that is based on punishment instead of restitution, that has almost no allowance for second chances for offenders. In short, I have a problem with a justice system that does not include grace.

As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, I imagine a system that takes those convicted of a crime and places them into restitution and reimbursement programs based upon their crime; into rehabilitation and educational programs based upon their offense. The teenager who vandalized a store front by breaking out a window is forced to work as an apprentice to someone in the trade of glass repair, with one of his projects being the replacing of the glass he shattered, until he masters the craft. He then has a skill with which to earn a respectable living and has recompensed the business owner for the damage he caused. Someone who defrauds people of money if forced to serve enough labor time with an organization until the amount of money that they defrauded (as much as possible) is returned to the victims. You get the idea. These are productive uses of tax money, and productive to those who have made a mistake. They aren’t locked away in subhuman conditions, losing their right to vote and, essentially, their ability to have gainful employment because of a mistake that any of us could have made in similar circumstances.

In Western culture, there are very few second chances afforded anyone who makes an error. Sometimes, you just roll the dice wrong, and being prevented from passing “Go” really doesn’t help you to get past the poor choice. I find it little wonder that many would have difficulty with faith, believing that there was a chance for redemption after an error, no matter how egregious. A government of any society must enforce penalties for breaking laws that maintain the common good…this is certain. Those penalties, however, must leave room for hope.

Because there’s precious little hope to go around in our culture, as is.

Riding into the Sunset. Or Not.

There’s something about the ending to a story.

I remember an undergrad journalism course in which the professor advised us to not irritate our readers. If we do, they tend to not come back. While that is well-intentioned and effective advice for a factual article written in the inverted pyramid, it becomes problematic in fiction. Problematic, but no less true. I’ve read similar advice to writers about the endings of scripts and stories. How the loose ends tie together is key, they say. Upset your audience with the ending, and they tell their friends to not bother seeing or reading your work. Should there be a sequel, they won’t be interested. The ending is critical, and, if Hollywood and much genre fiction are to be believed, must be done in relatively routine ways that border on formulaic (in the case of Hollywood, remove the “border on” from that sentence).

My issue with this is that, if the story is to be true to life, there will be messy and unresolved issues at the end. Because that’s the way life ends. Messy. With unresolved complications.

This is culture informing art, I think, because Western culture just doesn’t grieve well. We don’t accept that death is a part of life, and so we run from it, minimize it, and pretend it doesn’t exist. I can almost see producers around a table in a smoke-filled room saying things like, “Happiness is key, and we all must live happily ever after. Except we don’t. But let’s not tell them about that.”

I recently read this flash fiction piece and thought it appropriate here, because it portrays (rather poignantly, I think) what happens when we don’t permit ourselves to grieve. I’ve talked before about how obscene I’ve witnessed the death process to be in our culture…an emotional barbarity I’ve experienced firsthand. I think that the reason grief is such an alien process to us is because we’ve been taught to avoid it.

Karen commented recently that those mourning a loss are surrounded by well-wishers and supporters initially, for several days or a month or so. Then the supporters phase out and go on with their lives, and the grieving are left in an emotional abyss. That is when they truly need support…I think that is when real friends are proven. There are other causes of grieving, though, than just the loss of a loved one. The loss of a career, the ramifications of poor choices, the ending of a relationship; all leave us entrenched in the grief process. Psychologists will say that this process takes longer for some than others, and that is certainly true. What is clear, though, is that there is no cultural custom built in to assist us in walking through grief, such as other cultures (I think specifically of ancient Israel) have in place. As much as tradition finds itself wanting for me, I can see its value on occasion, and this would be one of those occasions.

The all-too-neat endings of our stories speak to the desire we have for life to end the same way. We like things to resolve the way a chord resolves in music. Yet, true life is closer to the unresolved chords of some jazz musicians, the ugly endings of some indie films, the “artsy abstractness” of literary fiction. I think that there must be a negative before there is a positive in mortal life, that we cannot truly appreciate the positive unless we’ve experienced the negative…the tragedy before the comedy, as Buechner phrased it (and, following his phraseology, I certainly don’t mean to imply that I don’t believe in the fairy tale). Yet, our culture’s stories grasp at an eternal desire for the positive without living nearly long enough in the negative, or else exist solely in the negative and eschew the positive in an attempt to glamorize the negative. This tendency makes for a very unbalanced story.

And that is a symptom of a very unbalanced culture.

Photo Attribution: bensisto 


I suppose there’s nothing worse than posting something late for a special event, but what I’m posting about was likely unknown to many of you last week (it was to me until someone told me), and…well, I’m on a once-weekly posting schedule here, so you’ll have to look over it.

Last week was National Banned Book Week in the U.S., an event sponsored by the American Library Association and other organizations to draw attention to the harm done by censorship and the still unbelievably common practice of banning books in certain schools and communities. You would be amazed at the books that have been banned in the U.S.: titles and authors ranging from Harry Potter to Shel Silverstein have been deemed dangerous or unfit for reading by children. My imagination immediately invokes images of book burnings through the course of history (I saw a video presentation for National Banned Book Week that contained images of Nazi book burnings), and I immediately leap to frustration at efforts to close down freedom of inquiry and expression. I think it is important to read opposing and unpopular viewpoints, because I’m not sure how one disagrees with something until one understands what that something is.

In fact, I groan at how, very recently, history has repeated itself at some level, this time in the name of protecting state secrets.

As a scholar, as a thinker, as an artist, I will scream from the hilltops that censorship is never, ever okay. I’ll also cry that the public has a right to know, whatever the dirty laundry of our leaders. Banning books and keeping them from the hands of inquisitive readers causes all sorts of adrenaline-laced exasperation to course through me, because it smacks of mind control and propaganda. Everyone should be able to read everything whenever they want. Literature and scholarship must be open to all, and is the property of all.


Someone vocalized a rational, opposing viewpoint during a conversation at the end of the week.  That would be that children of certain ages should be prevented from reading certain material in order to protect their innocence. I spat and sputtered for a moment upon hearing that, but when you think of it…none of us would argue against protecting a child’s innocence, would we? The person taking this stance wasn’t advocating for books to be banned, but merely withheld until a certain age…more of a parental function than a governmental function, I think, and perhaps as a tactic of the educational system.

Now, I don’t for a moment think that this metaphor extends to governments keeping secrets from their people, but I can suddenly see the logic of protecting names of vulnerable people that could meet harm or lose their lives should their names be published.

Still, does that merit censorship? I can’t agree that it should. A higher burden of responsibility on the writer, perhaps, and a recognition that servants who place themselves in harm’s way assume the risk that such a thing could happen. Similarly, in the vein of the other argument, I’m not sorry I read anything from my childhood, although I can see how I certainly lost a level of innocence by reading some of the authors that I did.

L’Engle once said that only books with something to say get banned. Franklin spoke against the concept of giving away liberty for the sake of security. I can’t sleep well at night with the idea of advocating the restriction of thought in the name of security or protection. Yet, I can’t sleep well at night with the idea of robbing anyone of whatever innocence they might have left in our bent and industrialized culture. National Banned Book Week leaves me in a bit of a conundrum.

What do you think?