Memo To NYPD: Don’t Let The Door Hit You On Your Way Out

Over the past few days the NYPD, offended by protests against their policing, and still in a huff at New York’s mayor, Bill De Blasio, for daring to suggest they might need reform, has gone on a work-stoppage of sorts, refusing to carry out arrests or hand out parking tickets or miscellaneous traffic summonses. Meanwhile, I have not been quivering in my home at night, afraid that sundry villains will break down the doors and come rampaging in to my castle to loot and pillage, to despoil my wife and children and rob me of my belongings.

The police are not a thin blue line separating us from the forces of darkness and disorder. They are a street-level, heavily armed, occasionally violent, revenue collection service for New York City. The police department’s threat to the city is not that law and order will mysteriously vanish to be replaced by anarchy now that its members are busy keeping themselves safe and sedentary–not too far from the nearest doughnut establishment. Rather, it is a threat that the minor monies the city relies on the police to collect on an ongoing basis to ease its perennial budgeting crises will not be forthcoming. That is, in case you missed it, the police are refusing to be partners in a low-level extortion racket the city has been running for a while now, the cracking down on behavioral nuisances deemed too dangerous and disorderly for civil society.

As anybody who has interacted with the police knows, complaining about crime that is most likely to affect a New Yorker–muggings, break-ins, car theft–is normally met with a shrug of the shoulders and a laconic “Whaddyagonnado?” There is little reward in this for the police; no glory, no fame. There is instead, some tedious detective work to be done. When it comes to ‘big-time crime’–homicide, drug smuggling, terrorism, etc–police work is done by specialized detectives in conjunction with more specialized outfits like the FBI. Most of the conflict resolution work the police do-intervening in domestic violence disputes,  in minor altercations at home or commercial establishments like bars for instance–can be done much better, and more safely, by unarmed citizens groups. (These interactions with citizens are typically dangerous because of the easy availability of guns, which is a separate problem altogether, and on which more, anon.)

What the police are really, really good at enforcing is low-level disorder offenses because the odds are so overwhelmingly stacked in their favor. They have guns and they can use them whenever they want; they can be as violent as they want; and they never work alone.  This kind of work, this policing of joint-smokers and beer drinkers, homeless panhandlers and building project teenagers, ticket-less travelers on subways, this low-level ass-kicking, where you get to say “Sir” in your most faux-polite voice, where you can just casually shove up someone against the wall, or punch them for looking at you wrong, or talk in your most menacing tone, the one you spent years perfecting in high-school but never got a chance because guess what, in that jungle, someone else, some other bully, was kicking your ass instead, this is the kind of work the NYPD likes the most. This is the kind of work whose parameters would be affected the most by recent protests. (After all, the protests are not asking for police to change their fingerprinting procedures.) No wonder the NYPD is upset and wants to walk off the job.

But the folks who get hassled by them everyday are not; they want to make sure the police don’t let the door hit them on the way out.

The NYPD And The Serial Abuser’s Oldest Trick

A dozen or so years ago, a friend told me his wife’s sister was on the run, seeking shelter and safety after her abusive, drunken husband had assaulted her–and threatened to assault her young child–again. She had spent a night at her mother’s place but was considering moving on to a ‘neutral venue.’ All too soon, she suspected, she would be forced to confront her serial tormentor, who would approach her, asking as usual, for reconciliation and forgiveness. The worst part of it all, she said, was that soon enough, she would find herself, the abused one, asking for forgiveness from her husband.

Come again, I said, to my friend. Why would your sister-in-law be the one asking for forgiveness?

I was not the first, and I won’t be the last, to be mystified by an all too common phenomenon in abusive relationships: very soon, after committing yet another offense, the serial abuser neatly turns the tables, going from a loud, blustering, abusive, violent maniac to being a sobbing, begging, whimpering, self-pitying whiner, one who points out that this abusive behavior was forced upon him, that he meant no harm, that his hand could  have been stayed, but it wasn’t, just because he felt so much pain and torment and anguish. And sure, he punched his wife, and threw a bottle at her, and smashed a hole in the door in his rage, but he’s just so sad and angry, he’s so tormented, don’t you know? And bizarrely, miraculously, the one with the black eye and the swollen lip, she would be the one asking her now sobbing husband to forgive her, to take her and her frightened child back into their house.

The oldest trick in the book of the serial abuser is to know when to play the part of the victim, to turn the tables on the abused and make them into the guilty ones. There’s so much pain in his heart that needs addressing–can’t the victim just put her pain on hold for a second and attend to this big blustering fool here, you know, the one that almost broke your jaw?

Think of this, when you think of the NYPD asking for kid gloves treatment, when it asks for a critique-free zone, for the #BlackLivesMatter marches and protests to end–which it offensively and cluelessly made responsible for the shootings of Officers Liu and Ramos–even as it insists its job is dirtier and dangerous than ever, that it wants to go deploying as much force as it sees fit, punching, choking, shooting, whomever, when and wherever it chooses. And if any of those punched, shot, choked, or humiliatingly searched ever dare speak up, ever dare protest, then well, aren’t you just being mean and unfair to the poor cops, who hurt so much, who are in such pain, who need your forgiveness and your love, because their hearts are so wide open to all the pain in the world. They are so hurt, they would rather declare war on the people and their elected representatives rather than hear one more hurtful word of criticism about their violent working out of all their job-related stress.

Get us a restraining order, please.

Memo to Blasio, Bratton, Lynch: Ixnay On The Suspension Of Protests

On Saturday, a lone gunman with a history of violence, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, shot dead two New York City policemen. Before he did so, he proclaimed on his Instagram page that the killings were revenge for the choking to death of Eric Garner by the NYPD. After he shot the policemen, Brinsley killed himself at a nearby subway station.

Brinsley seems to have been a mentally ill person, someone who had, earlier in the day, also attacked his partner. He was not acting on behalf of any political organization or movement. He acted alone, and violently. Unfortunately none of these facts seem to matter in the aftermath of the killings. Irresponsible and incompetent journalists are reporting hearsay that some cheered on hearing the news of the policemen’s shooting, and yet others are writing that Brinsley had tenuous connections with shadowy violent groups.

Most unsurprisingly of all, the worst reaction of all has come from the NYPD itself. Stewing in a deadly soup of resentment and self-pity over the years, it has come out swinging recklessly, threatening a coup d’etat of sorts, and declaring war against the the city and the people it polices. Pat Lynch, the head of the Policemen’s Benevolent Association, proclaimed:

The mayor’s hands are literally dripping with our blood because of his words, actions and policies, and we have, for the first time in a number of years, become a ‘wartime’ police department. We will act accordingly. Absolutely NO enforcement action in the form of arrests and or summonses is to be taken unless absolutely necessary and an individual MUST be placed under arrest. These are precautions that were taken in the 1970’s when Police Officers were ambushed and executed on a regular basis.”

There is no comparison between the stray killing of two policemen by a violent criminal and the peaceful protests that have been prompted by the relentless killings of citizens by the police. This elementary fact is clearly of no import to the NYPD, convinced as it is of its martyrdom, its saintliness, its eternal rectitude. If it wants to make the lives of policemen on duty safer, it should begin by changing its crude and violent policing methods.  Threatening a coup d’etat and a quasi-strike won’t help. It won’t stop the ‘Fuck the Police’ chants that bothers them so much. It merely makes an already dangerous organization even more threatening.

Among my reactions to the news of his actions was the sinking feeling Brinsley had done incalculable damage to the protest movement currently underway; there was no doubt the protests would be blamed for the killings and sure enough, they were.

Today, New York police department commissioner Bill Bratton said:

[I]t’s quite apparent, quite obvious that the targeting [of] these two police officers was a direct spin-off of this issue of these demonstrations.

And then, New York City’s Mayor Bill De Blasio made matters much worse by asking protesters to cease and desist:

It’s time for everyone to put aside political debates, put aside protests, put aside all of the things that we will talk about in due time. That can be for another day.

To paraphrase what Neo said to Agent Smith, when offered the opportunity to “bring a known terrorist to justice”, let me just say the following to Mayor De Blasio and Commissioner Bratton:

Well, that sounds like a pretty good deal. But I think I may have a better one. How about I give you the finger and you give us the protests.

Deal?

The Pietà, The Hammer, And The Stain

In The Renaissance: A Short HistoryPaul Johnson writes:

[Michelangelo’s] first important commission, a Pietà (Mary with the dead Christ) [was] intended for the tomb of a French cardinal in Rome…It is by any standards a mature and majestic work, combining strength (the Virgin) and pathos (the Christ), nobility and tenderness, a consciousness of human fragility and a countervailing human endurance, which fill those who study it with a powerful mixture of emotions.

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I first read of the Pietà in the context of its restoration:

[O]n May 21, 1972 (Pentecost Sunday)…a mentally disturbed geologist named Laszlo Toth walked into the chapel and attacked the sculpture with a geologist’s hammer while shouting “I am Jesus Christ, I have risen from the dead!” With fifteen blows he removed Mary’s arm at the elbow, knocked off a chunk of her nose, and chipped one of her eyelids. Onlookers took many of the pieces of marble that flew off. Later, some pieces were returned, but many were not, including Mary’s nose, which had to be reconstructed from a block cut out of her back.

After the attack, the work was painstakingly restored and returned to its place in St. Peter’s…

The essay I read on the Pietà was an equally painstaking description of the restoration process. It has been more than thirty years since I did so and only one detail of that labor–equal parts love and laboratory–has endured in my memory. Toth’s hammer did not just break the marble of the Pietà, it also stained it. There were, apparently, some residues of a greasy, oily substance on the hammer-head–perhaps from its previous use in a workshop of some kind–and as Toth struck the stone of the sculpture, these were transferred onto it. Toth’s blows hadn’t just disturbed the structural integrity of the Pietà; his hammer was not just violent, it was also not pristine. He brought and transferred impurities and scars of another kind to the Pietà. He made and left a mark. The resultant bluish-blackish stains had to be removed carefully–perhaps by some kind of gentle chemical treatment–so as to not result in a bleaching of the marble, which would have had the adverse effect of leaving ugly discolored blotches behind and permanently disfiguring the Pietà.

I do not know why this detail of the restoration still endures in my memory. Perhaps because it was the most surprising and unexpected detail of all: I had thought most of the labor of the restoration would have been expended in collecting all the shattered pieces, expelled away from the site of the blows, and then putting them in their rightful places. The restoration would have been akin to the solution of a particularly intractable three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. That process would have been all ingenuity, all skill, all technical virtuosity.

But the act of removing the stains–even though embodying a technical art of another kind–somehow also spoke of a very particular gentleness, a delicate care, almost loving in its sensitivity. That final human touch in the removal of the despoilment was what perhaps made it so literally memorable.

Note: Image of the Pietà from Wikipedia. Made available here under a CC-BY-SA-3.0 license.

That Guy, The One Who Picks Fights With Your Facebook Friends

Like many Facebook users, I have defriended ‘friends.’ Enough was enough, and the ‘Unfriend’ option got selected. Sometimes, it was because I was sick and tired of seeing their posts in my newsfeed–for whatever reason, perhaps they were politically or personally offensive, or just too silly to put up with anymore. (Pompous, self-inflated, pretentious, bon mots and faux aphorisms are among the worst offences; they deserve the electronic guillotine like nothing else.) Sometimes, it was because I was finding that person particularly contentious in their dealings with me online–in their constant desire to reduce all conversation to a species of verbal sparring. And sometimes, because the offender had committed an exceedingly common Facebook sin: getting into edgy, hostile, arguments with friends of friends.

Let’s say you have a party. You invite some of your friends over. Many of the people you invite introduce themselves to each other. They enter into conversation, and sometimes, perhaps after a few drinks have been consumed, they might even engage in spirited discussion or argument. A few intemperate ones, not recognizing the bounds of propriety turn these encounters with almost-perfect strangers into slugging matches. You wish you hadn’t invited them to your party. They are loud, they have assumed too much familiarity with your other friends, they have disturbed the decorum of an otherwise friendly space.

Or consider a variation on the above theme. A friend of yours,overhearing a response another friend of yours made to you, loudly accosts him, and starts berating him. The two do not know each other; they have not been introduced. Your first friend is bemused and bewildered. You are vexed. Why doesn’t your second friend simply address himself to you alone, the person whom he knows and has previously established some kind of relationship with? Why is he picking fights with strangers–at your  party?

This second kind of behavior is exceedingly common on Facebook. You post a status; your friends respond to you. But other friends respond to them. So far, so good. If they know each other. But if they don’t, then you  find one friend subjected to  harassment by another.

Pro-tip: this is rude. Really rude. If you want to comment on a friend’s Facebook page, by all means do so. After all, he has spoken up in a space open to you. But do not, unless you know the person, unless you are friends with them, enter into hostile, contentious arguments with friends of your friend. You are embarrassing your friend, being an ungracious guest. You are being an obnoxious presence, one begging to be expelled. There are many spaces for argument on the Internet; many spaces for discussion and disagreement. The exact template and form and content of the argument you are disagreeing with will be found elsewhere; that fact is mathematically certain. If you feel like refuting that argument, find an alternative venue for so doing. Your rhetorical and argumentative skills will find deployment; you will be reassured you are as smart as you think. You do not need to refute *this* person in *this* space.

And if you persist, do not be surprised to find yourself shitcanned.

The Dog Stars: The Apocalypse As Outdoorsman Fantasy

Peter Heller‘s The Dog Stars is one of those post-apocalyptic novels in which authorial fantasies are overwhelmingly transparent.

The world is coming to an end; flu has stalked the land; millions have died. Violence is the currency of most human interaction; food is scarce; government is invisible. And so on. You’ve seen most of this before. But there is a twist.

The novel’s central protagonist, Hig, is a bush pilot of sorts. He lives on a now abandoned airfield with another man, Bagley, who is a stone-cold killer, the kind of man who has a lifetime subscription to Soldier of Fortune, and wonders why he is never invited to contribute articles for it. Our hero, the aviator, has some fuel for his aircraft, a Cessna, lovingly nicknamed ‘The Beast,’  and a faithful dog, who accompanies him everywhere. He has guns. (Indeed, Bagley and Hig have a small arsenal, which also includes grenades and mortars.) They have plenty of ammunition, often dispensed at those who dare breach the boundaries of their solitary outpost. Every once in a while, Hig goes flying. He finds food, he carries out reconnaissance, he patrols the perimeters, he drops off food and supplies to another band of survivors (an act of kindness Bagley finds gratuitous).  He looks for signs of life. He hears radio signals, and he follows them. He finds surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant. He returns. Along the way, he loses one companion, and finds another one.

So: men have guns in the Wild West, they go hunting, fishing, tracking with faithful dogs, they kill anyone who moves. They fly, the splendid sprawling wilderness of the American West beneath them. Fuel and food and bullets are scarce, but not really. Nine years on, real scarcity still hasn’t kicked in. When the desire for human companionship gets really strong, our hero finds a beautiful woman. They bond; they have both experienced loss in the past. She soon gives herself up to him, coming to his bed at night. She asks for, and receives, ‘oral pleasure.’

This fantasy of an American West unspoiled by tourists, full of wild game, journeyed over by a light aircraft, with a never-ending supply of aviation fuel and ammunition, and just enough women, is written quite beautifully. Heller has many lyrical descriptions of man and nature, man in nature, and just plain nature. Reading The Dog Stars made me want to return to Colorado–or New Mexico, Montana, or Idaho, for that matter–to go hiking again through its valleys and over its alpine passes, to look down on its glittering cobalt lakes, to gaze up at its snow-capped peaks. I wouldn’t carry canned food. I’d hunt and fish and cook my meals by myself. Perhaps I’d get laid too. At night, in a tent, the sounds of my virtuosic love-making muffled by the gurgling brook nearby.

And if a broken-toothed, malodorous, tobacco-chewing, potentially-rapist redneck ever got in my way, whether on a highway or a trail or campsite, I’d blow his fucking brains out with one of my many guns. After warning him to back the fuck up, of course.