The easy, short answer is that I don’t have time. It really is that simple, too simple. Unclear.
I worry that some of my more critical readers have confused the difference between simplicity and oversimplification.
Of course things often reduce to a simple core reality. At the same time, these simple things can rarely be accounted for with “simple” talk. Perhaps silence is best. But that leaves much to be desired, too, sometimes.
I value clarity as a form of fidelity. For me, to be “clear” is to describe or represent a thing as it is. To adhere to it as strongly as possible. No more, no less. Simple, not oversimplified. This is terribly difficult, especially when the thing in question is not clearly understood to begin with. Concepts and ideas, inchoate things that exist in the heart and the mind and the guts, these sorts of things do not submit to “clarity” without a great deal resistance and doubt.
To be “clear” about that which is not clear to begin with is to not be clear at all.
This may be boring to read and digest, and it may come off sounding too serious for a blog post, but I guess sometimes you get what you pay for.
I stayed away from the Trayvon Martin trial for a long time, which at first was not too hard to do since I don’t own a television. Lately, though, it became inescapable online and, in the past few days, I was willfully avoinding it. I don’t have time to give all the reasons why I fled from it, but, if you’ve been reading me for a while, you can surely imagine why.
Then, on Friday, Obama’s speech piqued my curiosity, mainly because it was so sharply criticized from both the Right and the Left. On Facebook, legions of #tcot conservatives were calling it racist and being very uncreative about repeating each other’s truisms about it and echoing each other with gusto. I figured I should read it, and I did. After reading it, I immediately suspected that it would cause an unexpected, albeit superficial, form of solidarity between the far Right and the far Left. And, shortly thereafter, my suspicions were confirmed when Tavis Smiley took the offensive against it calling it “weak as presweetened kool-aid” (I mostly agree with Smiley in this one regard).
This triangulation of polar ideological interests against Obama sent me in Google search of police reports and other primary sources related to the incident. I figured it was time to know what the hell was going on. It took all of ten seconds to find a whole slew of original documentation here. I was hooked. An hour and a half later, I felt like I’d been reading an altogether different story from the two I saw in the headlines, memes, and statuses that went something like what follows:
- From the Righthand side, this seemed to be a very simple case of self-defense, with Trayvon the Terrible — the seventeen year-old, 160 lb whirlwind of Black fury —assaulting the multi-racial (or Hispanic) Zimmerman the Pure — a full grown, well over 200 lb., man — for no good reason, forcing Zimmerman to shoot Trayvon in the heart.
- From the Lefthand side, this seemed to be a very simple case of racial profiling, leading to a modern-day lynching. In this version, St. Tryavon Martin, martyr, is put to death in cold blood for nothing other than wearing a hoodie and being a Black young man, with the White villain, George Zimmerman, taking the generic role as an angry, violent racist.
Both of these narratives fail for more than the obvious reasons. They fail primarily by how entirely derivative and predictable they are. For aesthetic reasons. I could write either one of those tired, boring stories in my sleep. You could too, we all could. If not, then you might be one of their victims. The story I read in the dry reports and witness transcripts is much better. Fascinating, really.
There are two ways to read the Trayvon incident: forwards and/or backwards. The former tends to emphasize the effects, the latter looks at the causes. Depending on how one reads it, there are multiple justifiable conclusions to draw from it and either one of the main characters gets vindicated or indicted. I suggest being Catholic about it: both/and. Here are six conclusions I’ve come to after doing my homework:
- Trayvon was innocent. He was not doing anything relevantly illegal. Even though there had been robberies that may have justified Zimmerman’s suspicions, these do not, in any way, make Trayvon guilty of them. Those who go even further to bring up his Facebook account and more as ways to adhere culpability to him in advance of the assault are being stupid. Trayvon is innocent in this particular sense.
- Trayvon was guilty of assault. Zimmerman’s antics notwithstanding, there was no good reason for Trayvon to throw a punch or to proceed to kick the living shit out of Zimmerman. Those who try and argue that Trayvon was defending himself seem to misunderstand what self-defense is about in any serious sense. It is, first and foremost, defense. And no, the Bush Doctrine of preventive defense doesn’t qualify — it didn’t apply then (in Iraq) and it doesn’t apply now, trying to absolve Trayvon from his wrongdoing. (Interesting how the Left is unwittingly trying to use the Bush Doctrine to get Trayvon off the hook.)
- Zimmerman was innocent. He was within his rights in following Trayvon. While it is questionable as to whether he should have ignored the dispatcher’s advice to stay in his car, he did nothing overtly aggressive, although the creepiness factor is not wholly irrelevant. And then he got knocked down by a single punch to the face by a 160 lb teenager. This takes his “innocence” to a whole new level: he was also innocent in the sense that he was childishly defenseless and, frankly, weak sauce. All he could do was yell for help and then let his (legally possessed) firearm do the rest. (If Zimmerman is not “innocent” in this sense of being a total wuss, then he is guilty of, to use the basketball expression, “flopping,” and killed Trayvon in something closer to intentional murder.)
- Zimmerman was guilty of some degree of murder. Even if you dismiss the borderline issue of his paranoid surveillance and ill-advised exit from his vehicle, the fact remains that Zimmerman shot and killed a person who was walking to a friend’s house. Not in cold blood, mind you, but even under the duress of being assaulted, the idea that a full grown man would need to resort to lethal force against a 160 lb teenager is at the very least manslaughter in the most basic sense. Self-defense can only work if it is proportional to the threat imposed. Even if that threat is elevated to personal safety, it is hard to see how this was life threatening.
- Trayvon was a strong idiot. Racial profiling and justified minority angst aside, you don’t beat people up in the streets, especially these quiet streets, regardless of their motivation. Acting like a thug is hardly what the Black community needs right now, or ever. This is a pragmatic sort of non-violence. Even if you win, you lose. In this case, if Zimmerman doesn’t kill Trayvon, Trayvon is on the hook for the whole thing. Which, all things considered, is better than the way it turned out.
- Zimmerman is an weak idiot. Whether he is White, Hispanic, or multi-racial (a fascinating question in its own right), it doesn’t change the fact that, clearly, he was personally threatened by Trayvon and is probably an overall insecure guy. And for good reason: he got knocked out by a seventeen year-old. He carries a gun around in a gated community. Not a barrio or an urban ghetto — a gated community. Now, it sounds like the gates at the gated community sucked, because their houses were getting broken into at a rate disproportionately higher than any ungated neighborhood I’ve ever lived in — if living in a gated community makes you more liable to get your shit stolen, then something isn’t working. So he’s an idiot for paying association fees and is a bigger idiot for not using his fear more productively and letting the police handle things. Clearly he’s not Rambo. Which leads to his last reason for being an idiot. If you are scared and have a gun and don’t use it to keep your antagonist at bay early, then it makes even less sense to try and fire a pistol in the middle of the action. The dude hardly fits the profile of Wyatt Earp. If he doesn’t, almost miraculously, shoot Trayvon in the heart on his first and only shot, he runs a major risk of getting the rest of his 9 mm clip unloaded into his skull. Again, if he holds Trayvon at bay with his weapon or just lets himself get his ass kicked (knowing cops are an their way), he is golden. He becomes the clear victim and the ideological finessing shifts in the other direction.
The reason I didn’t write about the Trayvon Martin case is because, juridically speaking, none of this matters. This is where the law is goofy and counterintuitive. In a case like this, as easy as it is for a layperson’s intuitions to make sense of the matter if they are willing to do the work, the law is the standard, not common sense. It may sound terrible, and of course we should want our laws to be as intuitive as possible, but until I devote even more time (that I don’t have) to reading those laws, their precedents, and more, I have nothing to say about the case. Nothing, that is, besides the fact that Florida’s self-defense laws appear to be very permissive. In this regard Obama’s cautious tone and rhetoric was sensible.
I know this much: I’ll never get into a fight of any kind in the state of Florida. In fact, I may just never go there.
Some have raised problems of unequal application of the same laws and this might be true, I just don’t know. And, sorry, I don’t trust anyone. If I cannot read and interpret it myself, from primary source documents, then I will always be a skeptic. Call me cynical, I’d just call it not being a lemming.
As vulgar as that may be, a lesson we can learn is this: there is a crucial distinction between what we mean by “justice” when we are speaking about the common intuitions that ought to inform the law and the just application of the actual laws on the books. The law does not always correspond to what is just, we’ve known this since Augustine, or Moses vs. Pharaoh. This might be, among other things, because we are not sure how to describe, and much less judge, what justice is to begin with.
People like to make fun of theory and philosophy and abstract thought. But without it, the application of justice will only be harder, if not impossible, to do. The lack of clarity in our present laws reflects a conceptual lack of clarity in our ability to describe the concept of justice and its many applications.
The question of race looms over this whole discussion, heavy and thick. As it should. This is a far richer racialized situation than the simplistic Black and White narrative of the Left or the post-racial naiveté of the Right.
It also ignores the question of class and the very notion of a “gated community.”
Is this the result of the inherent ideology of a gated (albeit poorly gated) community? Is this a manifestation of what Charles Taylor, in A Secular Age, calls the “buffered self”? Can we read this tragedy as a story about what happens when we enclose ourselves from others to the point of total, absurd violence? Is this the lesson of Crash, where the city of Los Angeles pines for human touch so deeply that its inhabitants settle for the only intimacy they can muster: crashing into each other?
One thing is sure: just as the Left has conveniently tried to use preventive defense to justify Trayvon’s assault, and in doing so endorsed the Bush Doctrine, so too with the Right on the (ir)relevance of racism, and especially racism against the Black community: to dismiss the cancerous problem of racism, and in particular the racist legacy of the US, out of convenience, also denies the role it plays in a particularly graphic, yet apt description of abortion: genocide. If race and racism cease to be real, then genocide is impossible. If genocide is impossible, then it only follows that one cannot make the claim that contemporary abortion rates are genocidal.
Furthermore, given the monstrous presence of genocide (and other racial, national, and ethnic conflicts) in the past century, and throughout history, anyone who attempts to wish away racism ought to be more cautious and far less desperate.
My guess is that racism runs deep in the human psyche; it is ideological not material, and, like suffering, will not be washed away and may not even be entirely evil. It should not be oversimplified.** The paranoid post-racial nonsense reminds me of New Atheists trying to rid themselves of religion without understanding that it is more than a passtime or a club — it is a fundamental desire inherent to the human person, a longing for something beyond, warts (even genocide!) and all.
I wrote a lot about the Trayvon Martin incident, but nothing about the (court) case. The reason I didn’t do that is that I don’t have time to do my homework.
No. Not really.
**If you’re interested in other work I’ve done on race, here is a talk I gave during Black History Month (titled “White HIstory Month”) and an essay I wrote about racist jokes as form of social solidarity.