Monday, July 15, 2013

"Blind" Justice

The verdict in George Zimmerman's murder trial is, without a doubt, an explosive topic.  On one hand are the justifiably outraged, denouncing the decision as letting a murderer walk free while mourning yet another unjustly slain son.  On the other are those who argue one of two things: it's the justice system and it was a fair trial or that Zimmerman was somehow justified in shooting the young man he stalked, chased, and confronted.  Running through the whole debate is the standard American non-discussion of race following its usual dynamics of people of color calling out systemic racism; some more articulately than others, while being ignored, dismissed, or patronized in some way or another by the punditry, mainstream opinion, and unfortunately far too many people who should be listening. 

One cannot deny this is trial and its outcome are heavily rooted in race.  Blacks in America have been very negatively slandered as violent, dangerous thugs ever since the first slave ships arrived in the early 1600s.  These fabrications were crafted and used as one of many the justifications for slavery and segregation, both in the form of Jim Crow South and the less overt forms discrimination which were practiced in the rest of the country.  Even today these assumptions manifest in the clear and unjustified emphasis on communities of color in the enforcement of drug laws.  These myths and policies seep into the greater discourse of society in a number of ways, one example being how commonplace the "angry black man" and the "black thug" tropes are in popular culture and the media.

Set against this is the very strong vested interest most white and mainstream Americans have in the criminal justice system as it currently functions.  Many in society perceive the justice system as a bulwark of order against imminent chaos.  As they see it the criminal justice system works because it requires guilt to be proven in a public court of law, the verdict is rendered by a jury of random theoretically ordinary people, and the requirement that the verdict be the unanimous agreement beyond all reasonable doubt of all the jurors.  The general perception this system is fair, unbiased, and impartial is central to their trust in the court system.  As is generally believed at the end of the day anyone can have their day in court and it will be a fair one.

Unfortunately, as this case brutally illustrates, the criminal justice system is no more infallible than any other system in the United States has proven to be in recent years.  This case brings these faults to the fore in three key ways.

First was the decision by the judge to allow Zimmerman, who was ordered by the emergency dispatcher NOT to pursue Trayvon Martin, to argue self defense.  A similar attempt was, ironically enough, denied when Stand Your Ground invoked last year by Marissa Alexander.  As a result she was sentenced to twenty years for firing a warning shot at her abusive husband so it looks like who the victim is exists purely in the eye of the beholder.  Perhaps it was Zimmerman's status as a neighborhood watch member, his previous attempts to apply for the police department, or the high profile the defendant has received which had something to do with an aggressive pursuer being granted what was denied to a mother backed into a corner.

Second was the approach the defense took to the trial.  Rather than deal with the cold, hard facts that Zimmerman pursued Martin and confronted him with a loaded firearm the defense chose to obfuscate these issues by focusing on Martin's character.  They staked their entire defense on arguing Trayvon Martin was a violent thug, therefore justifying Zimmerman standing his ground and using lethal force.  As goes the logic of some of those less principles practitioners of the law if the victim is more detestable than your client then they're not guilty.  To further support this they paraded photos of George Zimmerman's injuries as further justification, blithely ignoring the fact that any sane human being would do as much, if not more, harm to Zimmerman as Martin did if they too were confronted by some large man late at night who was waving a gun in their face. Of course this entire defense hangs on the very shaky notion that it is somehow relevant; it is doubtful in the extreme that George Zimmerman was aware of any of what his defense team presented at the time of trial making it extremely unlikely any of the smears leveled against Martin would have entered into his mind.

Third and finally was the fact that the judge allowed both of these farces to happen in a court of law, likely fully aware of the prejudicial effect they would have on the jury.

 And so we are now at the same, ugly impasse.  While I do not doubt some of those who defend the verdict do so with at least some racist motivation in doing so the vast majority I doubt see it that way.  To many the outrage against the verdict is on one level an attack on the justice system, a system which while imperfect is seen by many as the only hope for order and peace in society.  They believe in spite of its imperfections how the verdict was rendered is essentially fair, there's nothing wrong with the process, and the failings of the courts are the consequence of individual faults and not systemic flaws. 

If we lived in such a society where the justice system worked according to their largely-benevolent vision they might be justified in feeling the way they do, but when justice has clearly been denied by unscrupulous operators playing the race card it is the duty of every person to stand up, speak out, and not stop until the situation is changed.  When a young man, chased through the streets by an armed rejected wannabe police officer with a history of violence, is condemned for defending himself because the defense was allowed to parade ugly racist stereotypes in front of a jury the conduct of such a trial should be questioned.  When the court system is shown to be stacked against people based solely on their skin color it is not the one objecting to such circumstances who is in the wrong, anymore than Trayvon Martin ever was.

Correction: I previously stated Zimmerman called 911 & invoked Stand Your Ground which was not, in fact, the case.  This has been fixed.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Germanic Fatalism

The word fatalism, in the modern context, conjures up the image of a person whose life is adrift and rudderless.  To be a fatalist in the eyes of contemporary society is to give up all control over what happens to you by surrendering everything to the whims of forces far beyond one's control.  In our high-stress, high-demand world the idea of being in total control of yourself and your surroundings is a very powerful one.  The idea of submitting to forces beyond oneself is so utterly terrifying it is understandable as to why the fatalistic perspective is so heavily mocked and derided. 

Further complicating matters is the heavy influence of Christian thinking on our understanding of fatalism.  In Christianity everything in the world is governed by God's Will.  The Will of God is perfect, unerring, and all-encompassing.  All things, good and bad, are the result of God's Will which gives rise to the concept of theodicy to justify the issue of suffering in a world governed by an all-powerful, all-knowing, omnipresent, just, and loving master.  While the concept of theodicy may provide comfort in some abstract sense it can also inspire the opposite response, creating the impression of a vast being snuffing out lives like a child frying ants with a magnifying glass.  Being reduced to a bug on a plate is a concept which creates some pretty understandable fear in the hearts of many.  In such a world view when one is at the mercy of God, fate, or other greater forces it puts one in a situation where they suffer from a total loss of control over their destiny.  Over-correcting by seeking total control of one's personal life when viewed in this sense could be seen as an act of profound denial.

Fatalism in the Germanic world, much like the understanding of suffering, comes at the whole question from a very different tack.  Just as humans are not born flawed and marked with sin in the pre-Christian Germanic worldview so to does fatalism take on a different form.  Unlike the Christian concept of God's all-encompassing plan Germanic fatalism comes from a much more nuanced understanding of the universe; not surprising when you have a cosmology with at least three different divine tribes filled with countless members in a universe with nine worlds inhabited by an even greater variety of beings of all kinds!  In the Germanic world the forces that shape our lives and destinies are wyrd and orlog.  The push and pull between these two forces has a major impact in shaping our lives and unlike the ineffable, distant Divine Plan every individual being is a key part of this dynamic.  To understand this we must first understand what these forces are.

Orlog, a word sharing linguistic origins with the words for law and other absolutes, are the facts of one's existence.  In the Scandinavian cosmology these facts, such as the circumstances of our birth and the time of our death, are determined by the three Norns.  Orlog represents the idea of those things which are.  They are the parameters for action, possibility, and development.  Wyrd is the other side of the coin from orlog.  Wyrd translates to mean that which is becoming or has become.  It is the uncertainty of life and existence which lie beyond the power of the Norns.  Our wyrd, unlike our orlog, is shaped by our actions, our interactions with other beings in Midgard and beyond, and our responses to the circumstances dictated by one's orlog. 

This leads to a number of very different ethical and practical assumptions from living under the giant microscope.  While there are many things which have already been determined, most importantly the moment of our birth and the time of our passing(1), there is far more which is not certain.  The fact that one's circumstances and demise are already fixed and there are far mightier forces at work in the world does not make one helpless.  On the contrary while one's conditions and surroundings exert considerable influence on what one can do they are not the end-all be-all of human possibility.  While it is definitely true those who are born into more privileged positions are in a much better position to explore these possibilities the lesson of wyrd is that not all things are pre-determined.  There are many ways, some of which may have not yet been imagined, one can change their life for the better for themselves and those around them.  The fact that one's circumstances are fixed is not the point; what you do about them is up to you.

After all, there is a very special place in the sagas for those who struggle against mighty odds in spite of certain defeat.  The greatest example of this is the grand cosmic drama of Ragnarok.  In the struggle of creation, destruction, and re-creation the Aesir are fully aware Ragnarok is their pre-determined unavoidable end.  No matter what they do, how they prepare, or how they act sooner or later it will come.  Yet in spite of this unavoidable, absolute orlog the Aesir try anyway.  Thor battles hostile giants while valkyries prowl the battlefields of Midgard for soldiers to fight in the last war.  Odin plots, schemes, and works to delay its coming with his every breath.  Tyr sacrificed his right hand to ensure Fenrir, prophesied to devour the world, so the beast could be bound in spite of the certainty that one day it would break its bonds.  The same grim defiance of the dictates of the universe permeates the sagas.  Gunnar rides out to confront Atli in spite of warnings that doing so could be the end of him(2).  Beowulf confronts the great dragon in his old age in spite of the near-certainty of his demise in doing so(3).  Indeed the attitude of acting in spite of and in defiance of one's fate is a theme which runs strong throughout the sagas.  As best said in the words of Skirnir:

Boldness is better than plaints can be
For him whose feet must fare
To a destined day has mine age been doomed
And my life's span thereto laid(4)

The concept goes beyond the mythic image of the three spinners at the foot of the Yggdrasil pulling thread from the waters of the three wells.  It is an understanding of life which addresses the totality and impact of every action, re-action, and possibility of every circumstance.  Some things; like gravity, DNA, family, and place of birth, are already determined.  All the rest is the direct consequence of the deeds, words, and actions of oneself and others.  The intersection of these actions and their interactions is wyrd.  The bounds of the web are set but the shape, pattern, and form of it are in the hands of those who are influenced by it.  While there are forces in this world which are far mightier than any one person at the end of the day the response of the modern Heathen is not to curl up in fear of its awe and power but to stand tall, act, and be an active participant in the shaping of our fates.  The end and the beginning are set; the rest is up to us.

1) Voluspo 20, Poetic Edda, Henry Adams Bellows translation
2) Atlakvitha 19-25, Poetic Edda, Henry Adams Bellows translation
3) Beowulf XXXV 55-74, retrieved from the Gutenberg Project at
4) Skirnirsmol 13, Poetic Edda, Henry Adams Bellows Translation