Kathryn Schulz’s Confused Take On The Steven Avery Case

In a rather confused take on the Steven Avery case–the subject of the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer, Kathryn Schultz of the New Yorker writes:

“Making a Murderer” raises serious and credible allegations of police and prosecutorial misconduct in the trials of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey. It also implies that that misconduct was malicious. That could be true; vindictive prosecutions have happened in our justice system before and they will happen again. But the vast majority of misconduct by law enforcement is motivated not by spite but by the belief that the end justifies the means—that it is fine to play fast and loose with the facts if doing so will put a dangerous criminal behind bars.

Pardon me, but the belief that the end justifies the means, which then prompts egregiously immoral actions–like the kind so clearly on display in Making a Murderer, is spiteful and malicious; it leads to actions that trample over all and any that get in the way of the particular end being realized. In the Steven Avery case, that belief–a rule for action–is spiteful because it disregards the moral and professional standards that are supposed to govern the conduct of law enforcement activity. I don’t mean to give Schulz a little lesson in moral philosophy but acting on the basis that the end justifies the means, which can mean treating a person as not a person–you know, one deserving to be treated as innocent until guilty–is a spectacular moral failure. It treats a person–like Brendan Dassey, abused in order to produce a coerced confession–as a means to an end, the kind of moral catastrophe Kant warned against.

Moreover, given Schultz’s apparent passion for the truth and for empirical assessments of the claims of investigative journalism, what does she base such a perception of law enforcement on? It cannot be the vast literature on prosecutorial misconduct or the racist system of mass incarceration which is this nation’s greatest current moral failure. Or is she simply taking law enforcement’s claims at face value? Still, it is nice to see a journalist sticking up for the side with the power to ruin innocent people’s lives. Those folks really don’t get enough positive press.

Ricciardi and Demos instead stack the deck to support their case for Avery, and, as a result, wind up mirroring the entity that they are trying to discredit.

Schultz imagines that journalism needs to be governed by the ‘both sides are equally culpable’ rule. But that is precisely not what journalism is supposed to be about. The best journalism is always partisan, a case often made quite eloquently by Glenn Greenwald (here is the most recent instance.) Moreover, most importantly, in the Avery case, plenty of supposed evidence against him was presented–he is in jail, after all. Perhaps someone should present Avery’s side of the story and concentrate on that so that the full dimensions of the tragedy at play can be brought out–rather than have it obfuscated once again by the considerations that led to his conviction in the first place.

Schulz is confused about both the issues that are supposedly the focus of her essay: the morality of ends-justifies-means behavior and the standards governing investigative journalism.

Gramsci And Nietzsche As Philosophers Of Culture

In ‘Socialism and Culture’ (reprinted in The Gramsci Reader, Selected Writings 1916-1935, David Forgacs ed., New York University Press, 2000) Antonio Gramsci writes:

We need to free ourselves from the habit of seeing culture as encyclopaedic knowledge, and men as mere receptacles to be stuffed full of empirical data and a mass of unconnected raw facts, which have to be filed in the brain as in the columns of a dictionary, enabling their owner to respond to the various stimuli from the outside world. This form of culture really is harmful….It serves only to create maladjusted people, people who believe they are superior to the rest of humanity because they have memorized a certain number of facts and dates and who rattle them off at every opportunity….It serves to create the kind of weak and colourless intellectualism…which has given birth to a mass of pretentious babblers….The young student who knows a little Latin and history, the young lawyer who has been successful in wringing a scrap of paper called a degree out of the laziness and lackadaisical attitude of his professors, they end up seeing themselves as different from and superior to even the best skilled workman…But this is not culture, but pedantry, not intelligence, but intellect, and it is absolutely right to react against it.

Gramsci’s critique here resonates with the kind that Nietzsche offered of the ‘educated philistine,’ the superficially educated man who runs about collecting ideas and consuming the cultural products that are considered the ‘trophies’ of his ‘culture,’ but who never learns their value, nor masters their relationships and interconnections so as to raise himself to a higher state of being (where a ‘unity of style’ may be manifest.) This pedant remains hopelessly confined to accepted and dominant modes of thinking and acting, unable to summon up a genuine critical, reflective viewpoint on his place in this world. As such, he is all too susceptible to becoming a reactionary, a defender of the established status quo, a hopeless decadent. These attitudes would be benign if they were not also affected with a fatal arrogance that breeds a dangerous politics.

Gramsci goes on to claim that:

Culture is something quite different. It is organization, discipline of one’s inner self, a coming to terms with one’s own personality; it is the attainment of a higher awareness, with the aid of which one succeeds in understanding one’s own historical value, one’s own function in life, one’s own rights and obligations.

The invocation of ‘organization’ and ‘a coming to terms of one’s own personality’ also strikes a Nietzschean note here. The truly cultured person, one possessing a ‘unity of style,’ has brought together his disparate drives and energies and inclinations into a unified whole, an act requiring a ‘discipline of one’s inner self.’ He has also, as Nietzsche suggested, recognized his own self for what it is, and ‘joyfully’ accepted it.

The concentration camp commandants who read Goethe and listened to Beethoven at night in their offices were philistines in this view; they were mere consumers of ‘culture’; they lacked ‘discipline’ and remained susceptible to their atavistic urges. Their ‘pedantry,’ their philistinism, and the lack of intelligence it implies were an integral component of their moral failures.

Mary McCarthy On Henry Mulcahy’s Selfishness

In Mary McCarthy‘s The Groves of Academe, John Bentkoop, a faculty member at Jocelyn College, offers his take on his beleaguered colleague, Henry Mulcahy, who has set in motion schemes of varying deviousness in his bid to hang on to his precious position after receiving a dismissal notice from the college president:

Hen has a remarkable gift, a gift for being his own sympathizer. It’s a rare asset; it could be useful to him in politics or religion….He’s capable of commanding great loyalty because he’s unswervingly loyal to himself….Very few of us have that. It’s a species of self-alienation. He’s loyal to himself, objectively, as if he were another person, with that feeling of sacrifice and blind obedience that we give to a leader or a cause. In the world today, there’s a great deal of free-floating, circumambient loyalty that fixes itself on such people, who seem to offer, by their own example, the possibility of a separation from the self that will lead to a higher union with the self objectified in an idea. It’s Hen’s fortune or his fate to have achieved this union within his own personality; he’s foregone his subjectivity and hypostatized himself as an object.

There is no doubt Mulcahy’s ‘gift’ speaks to what could be a great and valuable skill: it enables the kind of fidelity and commitment to a greater purpose that is so often conducive to desirable forms of self-disciplining and to a channeling of personal energies towards a sought-after goal. (This goal will be, in all probability, one only of interest to Mulcahy.) Indeed, it is Mulcahy’s greatest strength–such as it is–that he is so utterly dedicated to himself and his life’s projects. He knows, with little self-doubt, who is number one. Bentkoop does not invoke narcissism here but there is no doubt the loyalty he refers to flirts with such notions.

Bentkoop’s suggestion that Mulcahy’s self-loyalty would be of most use in politics and religion is thus, entirely appropriate: a determined politician or preacher needs to sound–most of all, to himself or herself–entirely sure about his or her political or moral rectitude. Only someone with utter loyalty to themselves could be so convinced.

Mulcahy thus seems to have achieved what many others seek so desperately: some cause, some leader, some channeling of our otherwise all-too disparate energies toward a coherent objective. Fidelity and commitment to something–if only we knew what it was! Mulcahy has the answer: first, engage in a psychological maneuver–unspecified by Bentkoop–to transcend one’s own subjectivity, and then, regard oneself–and our goals–as a distant other to be approached with loyalty and desire. Thus, perhaps, who knows, we might even find the desirable balance between narcissism and self-abnegation.

As The Groves of Academe shows, the problem with Mulcahy’s loyalty to himself is that he does not find this balance: he is all too quick to sacrifice others to his cause. His colleagues, his family, his students, are all merely pawns, incidentals in a larger enterprise. McCarthy’s view of Mulcahy’s moral failings–forced upon by him by the news of his possible firing–is acutely unsparing.

The readers of her novel are not the first, and neither the last, to discover that self-loyalty is sometimes just an exalted name for selfishness.

Jesse Pinkman and Eklavya: Teacher-Student Relationships Broken Bad

The grand old Indian epic Mahabharata contains, among its thousands of stories, several which unsettle us by their moral ambiguity. One such story is that of Eklavaya. The Wikipedia entry for him notes:

He is a young prince of the Nishadha, a confederation of jungle tribes in Ancient India. Eklavya aspired to study archery in the gurukul of Guru Dronacharya, the greatest known teacher in the use of weaponry and martial knowledge at the time. He was son of Vyatraj Hiranyadhanus, a talented soldier in the army of King of Magadha….Eklavya sincerely sought the mentorship of Drona in weaponry and martial art. Drona discouraged him, and ultimately rejected the boy due to his caste. Out of respect for Drona, Eklavya began a program of self-study, using a clay image of Drona for inspiration. Eventually, Eklavya achieved a level of skill superior to that of Arjun, who was Drona’s favorite and most accomplished student, and part of the royal Pandava family. The Pandavas come across the boy in the forest one day, and Eklavya told them of his self study under the idol of Drona. In a cruel move, the guru demanded that Eklavya cut off his right thumb in obeisance to his guru, a request that could not be refused by a student in a gurukul. Eklavya agreed to the demand without hesitation, severing his right thumb and presenting it to Drona.

The story of Eklavya horrified me when I first heard it, and it continued to exert an unsettling effect on me as time went by: it acquired the stature of a singular betrayal of the student by a teacher, a figure in whom the student had reasonably accorded some faith, trust and hope for ethical treatment. Years later, as a doctoral student who had heard too many stories of horrific dissertation supervisors, I would often recount this story as an archetypal instance of the abuse of the student-teacher relationship.

Thanks to Breaking Bad, and the sorry story of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, we now have yet another such demonstration of the flagrant disregard of the moral parameters of the teacher-student relationship.

Jesse is not Walter’s student in school anymore, of course, but he does function as a junior understudy, one mentored and taught by Walter. In his continuing references to ‘Mr. White’, in his awkwardness around Walter’s family and in his home, it is clear a certain impression of Walter White has not been erased from Jesse’s mind. The old teacher-student relationship has now been replaced by a new one; the classrooms and homeworks are admittedly different, but it is evident that a basic, familiar template still persists. It is thus all too easy for Walter and Jesse to fall back or rely on the behavioral patterns and expectations prescribed by it.

For Jesse, this is a persistently abusive relationship. From the very beginning, from the time that Walter threatens to betray him to the DEA, through the twists and turns of his tortured partnership with Walter, one marked by hectoring, verbal expressions of contempt, overt and covert manipulations, and almost right up to the end, Walter takes advantage–among other things–of whatever psychological and emotional edges might have been afforded him by Jesse’s memory of him as his teacher in high-school.  Walter White was always keen to draw upon any weapons available to him when he waged his battles; his drawing on the status he had once enjoyed in Jesse’s life was, for him, a foregone conclusion. If Jesse is deferential to Walter, it is only to the latter’s benefit.

Many of us cheered Jesse on when he punched Walter senseless during their fisticuffs in the fourth season; I suspect some of our anger at Walter was driven by the sense that he had betrayed an implicit trust that Jesse had in him, one that would, hopefully, protect him from the kind of abuse Walter subjected him to.

By saving Jesse from the purgatory of a life as a meth-manufacturing slave, Walter White partially redeemed himself. But his actions before that fateful night had already become established in the annals of moral failures in teacher-student relationships.