The Don in Giovanni

November 30, 2016

Hi folks,

I don’t usually tell stories, but sometimes an ancient story seems to have contemporary relevance.

We know the character I’m thinking about as DON Juan. In Italian it is DON Giovanni, the title character of a Mozart opera. Don is an honorific title. Like some people with whom we share this world, DON Giovanni is a braggart. Leporello, his servant sings “Mille et tres” – in English, “a thousand and three.” Leporello counts the women all over Europe that DON Giovanni has dishonored – six hundred and forty in Italy alone; two hundred thirty-one in Germany; a hundred in France; ninety-one more in Turkey. And in Spain, oh in Spain already one thousand and three. Leporello adds that these girls came from all ranks of society – girls from the city and the country, maidservants, and noble women, members of the aristocracy. DON Giovanni uses different lines for women of every hair color, shape and weight.

The first half of the opera is light-hearted. Peasants dance in preparation for the wedding of Zerlina and Masetto. But DON Giovanni sends Masetto off with a combination of claims that everything will be fine because he, the DON, is a nobleman, plus thinly veiled threats with his sword. Then the DON dangles enticements before Zerlina. Zerlina sings “I would, but I would not.” I remember seeing a young couple sing that duet on the lawn at Chautauqua – I can no longer remember their names but never forget how well that Zerlina sang, coquettish but embarrassed at her own desire, completely understanding Zerlina’s predicament. Zerlina knew that this nobleman might be insincere, merely to dishonor her, but finds herself unable to resist. That first Act ends with others, who know and resent the DON’s tricks, rescuing Zerlina. DON Giovanni comments that the Devil is playing with him.

The second half of the opera is quite different. DON Giovanni has escaped those angry with him and taken refuge in a graveyard near the statue of the character known in italian as il Commendatore, commemorating a man killed by DON Giovanni, and the father of one of the noblewomen who has rescued Zerlina. An inscription at the base of the statue demands vengeance. There in the graveyard, the statue speaks, warning DON Giovanni he is near the end. Cool and fearless, DON Giovanni invites him to dinner. Sure enough, il Commendatore appears at dinner as a white shrouded statue – we could call him a ghost – demanding repentence. DON Giovanni refuses to repent, claiming he fears nothing. They scream at each other, “Repent;” “Never;” “Repent;” “Never.” Like the Donald we have to live with, the DON that was Giovanni [quotes] “loved” women too much to regret dishonoring them.

Mozart, often thought of as writing music that ranges from merely pretty to soaringly beautiful, grabs musical lightning from the Lord and hurls it at DON Giovanni, pulling him down and taking him to Hell.

Mozart’s opera ends with the characters in chorus making clear that is exactly where the DON belongs.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Nov. 29, 2016.

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Propensity to violate others – taking checks and balances seriously

April 28, 2015

Polls have found that more than 3 American men in 10 would rape or coerce a woman into sexual intercourse if they could get away with it.[i] Those findings have mostly been discussed only in conjunction with the issue of rape. But I think it has a broader meaning. I think it means that there is a proportion of people who will take advantage of defenseless others for their own benefit when they think that they can.

That creates problems in lots of areas. Like soldiers of countries that we think are less civilized then we, some proportion of American soldiers have resorted to forms of torture like waterboarding. Some go berserk, others are mean, but the misbehavior is predictable, if not who will do what. And like police of countries that we think are less civilized then we, some proportion of American police have also victimized demonstrators, people down on their luck, the homeless and racial minorities. That’s certainly not democratic policing. And it’s made worse by codes of silence in some police departments that are almost as sinister and sometimes worse than the codes among thieves.

I don’t think that most police are bad guys. But when we set things up so that people can get away with bad stuff, it is predictable that a significant proportion will. When we hand people guns and then make excuses for whatever they do because it’s a stressful job, we should expect that a significant proportion of them will do very bad things with the freedom we give them. A system of impunity encourages bad behavior. So one question is how we can set up our police forces so that policemen have the right incentives, incentives appropriate to a free and democratic country? Transparency and accountability matter.

The same is true of business, both international and local. When we take all the tools out of the hands of consumers and courts, we should expect a significant proportion of businesses to misbehave and take people for a ride, often for very dangerous rides. And in business the market mechanism can sometimes make things worse because it punishes those businesses which can’t bring their costs as low and their profits as high even when the mechanism is to take advantage of people, take their money, injure, and leave their lives in shambles. Responsible businesses need responsible regulation to keep the competition in line.

The same of course is true in politics. That’s why we value free speech so highly. But as my colleague, Timothy Lytton pointed out in a book called Kosher,[ii] a study of private marketplaces that do and don’t work, accountability depends on a sufficient number of people with intense interest in the subject, people the rest of us trust to check on what is happening, and a way to get the information out. It’s not automatic – there’s too much to know, too much work to find out.

So transparency is only the beginning. We have to have a culture in which we expect to hold people and organizations to account – without fear or favor for any of the groups and institutions that can hurt us. But in law, the Roberts Court seems to be developing the opposite – a legal culture of defenses and protections buried in contracts and doctrine. And in popular culture, stereotypes, ideology and polarization now substitute for facts. Heaven help us.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 28, 2015.

[i] See Sarah R. Edwards,  Kathryn A. Bradshaw, and Verlin B. Hinsz, Denying Rape but Endorsing Forceful Intercourse: Exploring Differences Among Responders, 1 VIOLENCE AND GENDER 188, 190 (2014) available at http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/pdf/10.1089/vio.2014.0022. Though the survey size was small and localized, similar results have been reported before. See Only Psychos Think Rape is OK…Right? in Web Info on Sexual Assault and Abuse (University of Illinois at Chicago, Office of Women’s Affairs, Campus Advocacy Network), https://www.uic.edu/depts/owa/sa_rape_support.html collecting some of the studies.

[ii] Timothy D. Lytton, Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food (Harvard Univ. Press 2013).


“Enhanced Interrogation”

December 17, 2014

We’ve been hearing people talk about “enhanced interrogation” for quite a while. Then the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on the CIA’s use of torture was released this week. And we got another dose of “enhanced interrogation.” We’ve been hearing it so much one stops noticing. That’s the technique of the big lie – say it often enough and people accept it.

This time I got in the car in time to hear someone talking about “enhanced interrogations.” I missed the announcement, but I think it was John Brennan, current CIA Chief. No matter, everyone seems to be using the term, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, John Brennan, it’s in the Report and all over the place – “enhanced interrogation.”

No, they were not “enhanced.” Torture, brutal, degraded and inhumane is not enhanced. I’m disgusted at the use of enhanced as a so-called euphemism for morally unacceptable. It shows how degraded some of us have become when we think totally reprehensible is “enhanced.”

Rape is not “enhanced” affectionate behavior. Murder is not “enhanced” roughhousing.

Until now we blamed the world’s barbarians for torturing people. Now it turns out Americans used torture as official policy. And because we’ve used it, some people try to defend it. That’s the way we corrupt our souls. We’ve allowed ourselves to be dragged into the muck of sin so now we proclaim the sacred power of sin. Yippee.

Republicans were incensed when Clinton had a consensual sexual experience with a young woman but they assert the right to cause extreme suffering, and to make it worse, without even figuring out how many innocent people they were torturing in the process. God forbid we figure that out – the Bush Administration fought every effort to provide the benefit of any legal process designed to separate the innocent from the guilty to the “detainees,” another euphemism. Now they find some of them were innocent.

But these days to be tough means to forget law and order and take the law into your own hands, except that’s a euphemism too for doing whatever they felt like regardless of the law. That truly is the message of the Bush Administration and the Bush-Cheney-CIA “enhanced interrogation” – that they are lawless, have no respect for law except as something they can twist for their own purposes. Skip the nonsense of original understanding of the Constitution – it’s just a way to ignore what they don’t like and do something worse.

No “enhanced interrogation” is not acceptable, not in reality and not as a figure of speech. Those responsible should be blacklisted from civil society. Remember these were the trumpets of so-called morality – but what we’re seeing is how immoral they truly are. We’re more moral and better off without them. They deserve to be deported far more than the families they are so determined that Obama deport. Then maybe America could regain its moral compass.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 16, 2014.


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