Saturday, May 23, 2015

Human Rights in North America: Having too many and not enough

Ship stranded on sand
One evening after a few beers (I only had two or three), my German friend and I were on our way back to our respective abodes when out of nowhere we stumbled upon a man lying in the middle of the pavement. His eyes were open and my immediate thought was that he must have been drunk, or rather, beyond drunk.

My second reaction was to walk past him and not get involved. One of my maxims in life is the philosophy of non-interference. Unlike many others, I do not like to play police and at the same time I do not wish to interfere with other people's business, that is, as long as I do not see it as necessary to intervene in that particular situation. By necessary I mean where my non-interference or lack of action might cause significant additional harm to the person involved, and it does not put myself or a loved one in danger.

In other words, if I see somebody being attacked, I would most definitely not get involved unless somebody I know was mixed up in it. Even then it would become hazy: How close is my relationship to that person and how grave was the danger etc. The only time I would mindlessly or instinctively jump into the fray would be if a close family member was involved, for example, my son or my wife.

Contrary to my hesitance, my German friend, who had had about the same, if not slightly more, drinks to his name, usually tends to interfere in almost all types of situations. So he asked this man who had his belly visibly protruding from under his T-shirt, why he was lying there on the pavement. It was then we also noticed a couple of (unopened but clearly dent) cans scattered around his immobile body.

This man explained in somewhat blurry words that he had been punched by somebody very hard in the face and that, as a result, he found himself on the ground. This was worrisome. My friend wondered if the man knew the assailant; to this our guy claimed that it had happened on a very random basis.

Notwithstanding this situation (which probably was not true as we could not make out visible bruises on the face of the self-proclaimed victim), my friend told him that this was no good reason to continue lying in such a way on the pavement, and he asked him, where he lived. The stranger told us his apartment was merely a couple of blocks from where we found ourselves and that his girl-friend was supposedly waiting for him.

My friend asked him if he could walk, and the man told us he was not sure. He would get dizzy when he gets up, he confided. So my friend decided to hail him a cab, but first helped him up. Our guy seemed a bit shaky on his legs, as predicted by himself, and so we quickly turned to scout for a taxi. And then we heard a boom, and turned around in fear.

Our guy had indeed lost his balance falling uncontrollably backwards; to our horror in his fall his head hit the side of the pavement, while his body was spread on the side of the street amid oncoming traffic. This is when I felt seriously worried and suggested to my friend to call for an ambulance.

In the meantime, an Irish couple from the other side of the street had seen the fall and ran over to help us out. With the sudden appearance of another couple of curious but helpful guys, we managed to gently pull this man onto the pavement again, while one of the guys was redirecting traffic all the while. It was still not too dark at the time.

The hospital was about two and a half blocks from the scene of the incident, so we were positive they would arrive soon. Thank goodness our guy was conscious and breathing and could still communicate with us. Suddenly, a car stopped and a young man approached and started to bend over this man asking him questions.

I was impressed with the outpouring support and aid in this situation, but found it strange why this young man was asking our guy all those questions. One of the other bystanders asked him if he was a doctor, and he affirmed. He had pulled over when he saw the man and was examining him. By the looks of it, our guy despite his two falls seemed to be coherent enough.

He told us again about his girlfriend, so we collectively decided to give her a call. Our guy could not remember her or rather his own home phone number, but we managed to find her on the contact list, and the doctor talked to her explaining the situation, while my German friend was explaining the 911 operators the situation, and I was telling other questioning passersby what was happening here.

The Irish couple had also witnessed the fall, and we all agreed that paramedics ought to be able to help him and take him to the hospital for a check-up. We had to wait longer than anticipated, especially considering the lack of distance between our place and the hospital, a mere two blocks, until the ambulance finally appeared with flashing sirens, and we waved them frantically in our direction.

To our surprise, we encountered two young women. The doctor told our guy on the ground that there were two young women ready to take care of him now and decided that his presence was not needed any more. He, however, first shared with the two female paramedics his findings as a doctor and then dismissed himself. We thanked him collectively and greatly appreciated his help and input.

The paramedics started asking our guy questions and checked the back of his head with a special light. It was bleeding. One of the paramedics asked our guy if he wanted to go to the hospital, but he said no. We said that we considered it a better option for them to take him there for a quick check-up, as the fall, at least the second one we had witnessed, did not look good at all.

And then to our shock the other paramedic told us that they could not do that. It was against the law to take someone to the hospital against their will. It seemed like a bad joke, except that it was neither funny nor a joke. Their powers in this situation were limited and their hands bound. But he is in a confused state; he is not in his right mind to decide what would be the best thing to do, and he should be taken to the hospital for precautionary observation and care.

No use. There was nothing anybody could do in this situation, and it all depended on his shaky shoulders. Did we know him? No, we had found him in this state here. And then suddenly, out of nowhere, a group of Asians, who seemed language students, walked by and recognized him, and he recognized them, and the paramedics asked whether they could take charge of him.

They said yes and that they could drive him home in their car. Did they have drinks that night, and the Asians said no, and before we knew it, they were taking him to their car. We decided that our presence was futile and that we had done our duty, or at least my friend had, while I had been assisting him in my own manner. This whole event had taken about half an hour in total.

As we walked back home, we found that the Irish couple had the same path, so we could not help marveling about the event together. They claimed that in their country a person who had sustained a potentially serious injury would be taken to the hospital, regardless of their own views on the matter. They would be then released the next day if everything turned out to be fine.

To me, this seemed also the best and most logical way of doing things. For example, if a person has a stroke or a heart attack in public, but does not want to go to hospital, simply because they feel they are fine or they think they are all right or they are suffering from confusion, then paramedics should be given the right to override the patient's wishes and take them to the hospital in the best interest of the person.

Sure, there could be potential abuses or perhaps misunderstandings, but I would rather err on the side of caution. Whatever happened to our guy, I do not dare to ask. What if he did not even make it to the next day? All because of a clause protecting one's human rights at the expense of one's life. The right to life and treatment should override all the other petty issues.

What is the procedure when somebody gets stabbed or shot? If they choose not to be taken away, do the paramedics also obey? In our case, they had witnesses and the man was bleeding at the back of his head. Did he need to be unconscious for them to treat him or would they wait until he wakes up so he can give them the thumbs up that he is OK and then walk back home? Incidentally, the paramedics said that all they could do was ask for a police car to give this man a ride back home. I see little use in that except the assurance that he got home all right. But what happens after that?

So I ask myself, are we taking our human rights too far? The question is evidently rhetorical in nature. In a country where you can choose to have children not vaccinated because of your personal beliefs (hence endangering not only your children's lives but also other children around you) we have seen more than the usual number of outbreaks in especially richer neighborhoods.

This is not because of a lack of knowledge or availability, but because we may have too much of either. More importantly, our government is tiptoeing around the so-called private citizen rights of the individual. There is also the recent issue, at least in Canada, whether women are allowed to wear the niqab not only in public but also in governmental institutions and during citizenship oaths.

Now I do not want to enter into this particularly sensitive domain, nor mean to tread on anybody's toes, and far be it from me to give right to the conservative right in our country, but it seems odd that there are most likely millions of women who feel forced and who under the threat of penalty of law and severe punishment must be wearing those garments, only to find people who insist on them in a country that gives them the freedom to wear what they please.

We have gotten so entrenched in the human rights of individuals that we do not see when they are taken away from us, like the controversial anti-terrorism bill or other laws supposedly meant to make us safer but which end up restricting us in our movements. For example, our scientists have been restricted in their research and are not allowed to voice their opinions in a free and democratic manner. And in times of war, criticizing the efforts or the allies has been often interpreted as anti-patriotic or treasonous.

I wonder why this emphasis on individual rights is so pronounced in North America and not so in Europe, which has endured major wars and catastrophes in its wake and history. My only possible answer is that North America is the place where immigrants sought freedom from ideological restraints and religious persecutions. Those who settled here wanted to have a fresh new start in which rights would be enshrined in a new and shiny constitution, in which everyone would be deemed equal.

In that sense, in terms of liberty and freedom, North America was miles ahead of its mainland counterparts. However, that did not stop its people from engaging in slavery and horrible atrocities to its African citizens in the US, nor its illegal camps of Japanese people or its unfair and illegal treatment, via head taxes and other means, of its Chinese residents in Canada. It seems that rights are accepted but only of a limited part of the populace. Hence, in theory people are equal but in practice there are significant shades of differences there.

This is worrisome. Too many rights have convoluted us and have taken away our sight. We cannot see the essential, or as they say, we cannot make out the forest for the trees. It is great to have rights, but we also need to respect those of others. At the same time, laws should be also based on common sense and on the particularities of the situation.This would make, in my view, the right to own guns in this day and age both dangerous and counterproductive.

Our guy should have, under the circumstances, had his rights waived for his own best interest and safety. And we need to ensure that people's rights are respected, but at the same time, make sure that we are not handing them over to the government, nor do we want to be abusing the many benefits freedom and democracy bestow upon us. At least, all of this would be of importance if we are indeed and truly living in a state of freedom and democracy. But some things are, as they say, better left unsaid.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Foxcatcher in the Rye: A Movie Review

Movie poster with three characters and an eagle

There are some movies that satisfy you and fill you up, whereas others you cannot help but to keep chewing and mulling over in your mind. Some films, irrespective of quality and mastery, are indeed like junk food. They give you satisfaction in the moment, but then down the stretch of time, they lose their flavor. Others, however, are not for temporary or instant consumption and full-filment, but are food for thought and may become classics or cult films years down the road. In my view, Birdman and Boyhood fall in the former, Foxcatcher in the latter category.

Bennett Miller's movie left me in a state of unease. I was impressed, but at the same time I cannot shake it off. It has that je-ne-sais-quoi characteristic that makes it stand out from the myriad other movies I have seen. While I was immediately driven to write my impressions and a review of Whiplash, this one I was ruminating about and it has been lingering in my mind for weeks now. Moreover, I was sharply inclined not to write anything on it. But I cannot resist.

The title is “catchy” enough; this man du Pont is intent on catching foxes (whatever that means) and is not interested in saving children from steep cliffs. The title is not merely an artistic pose, but makes sense in the context of the incidents. For one, du Pont's family was obsessed with hunting, whereas he was not interested at all in traditional hunting; second, and more importantly, “Foxcatcher” was the name of the wrestling training camp that this millionaire created on his own private grounds.

This is a film about wrestling, in the same way, Miller's previous film Moneyball was about baseball. The answer is it is not so much about the sport itself; references to it are incidental. What Foxcatcher is really about is ... well let us pause for a moment and not rush things and try not to box fixed structures on a fluid and mesmerizing film just yet.

The film is about an odd - but in their own idiosyncratic and absurd way fascinating - trio: Two brothers who are successful wrestlers, and a creepy rich man who claims to love wrestling and wants to sponsor and train them to further Olympic success.

From the onset, we sense that the Schultz brothers have a tight relationship. They care for each other, and they love the sport, but they seem incapable of expressing their feelings. There are also fundamental differences in their situations: one of them, David, has a family; the other, Mark is lonely and lacks close relationships. We see him live a desolate and lonely life, and the call from du Pont may seem like a rescue from his dire situation.

Du Pont's supposed motive is his patriotism. He thinks that America has let down or back-tracked regarding promises to the sport of wrestling, and he wants to, single-handedly, put wrestling back on the map. He will provide all the necessary expenses to prepare Mark Schultz for further greatness, for his next Olympic medal.

All this talk and the opulent grounds and wealth of his strange benefactor make a very strong impression on young Mark Schultz's impressionable mind. Mark soaks up du Pont's words and ecstatically transmits them to his brother David, who is more level-headed and rational and has his doubts vis-à-vis the millionaire's real intentions.

First off, it is inevitable, which a number of critics have pointed out, to see this film as an examination and criticism of the American dream and patriotism. Wrestling is not an American sport per se, but it serves as an interesting metaphor for trying to pin down the competition and to come out on top.

Attributes of resilience and the die-hard and never-give-up attitude prevail during the training sessions. These wrestlers underfunded and overlooked by their government are given a chance to shine and win over fans among the American populace by proving those narrow-minded officials wrong, at least so the story goes according to du Pont who is willing to put his own money, a mere slice of his grand fortune, into this endeavor.

The movie can be read as a criticism of misplaced patriotism and the American dream. Just look at du Pont, the spokesperson and advocate for these ideas. He has his own chopper and does cocaine on top of it just before an important speech. To make matters worse, he offers his protégé wrestler Mark pinches of this white powder.

There is, however, much more to this person. In real life, he was in fact much worse, and Bennett Miller decided to dial it down for his movie (Take a note Michael Bay!). We see du Pont buy major weapons and tanks from the US military, and simply by being rich, he has a number of important government contacts. But his behavior is bizarre, and his real motivations remain hidden. By presenting us such a flawed character expressing such lofty ideas, one can assume that the Australian director is subtly putting up a mirror to re-examine these ideas in a clearer light.

What's in it for du Pont? Is it patriotism that is his driving force? It may seem so during his speeches, but there is something profoundly mysterious and creepy about this man. It seems to be more than mere service to the country; there is an underlying desire or hidden motivation behind his decision to fund wrestling.

His mother, the only family he has, is dead set against this sport, which she considers uncivilized and vulgar. Du Pont tries hard to impress her to no avail. She is still in charge, especially when it comes to managing their fortune, and du Pont follows her like a puppy, maybe rebelling slightly here and there and once in a while, but he lacks the guts and courage to break off in his own direction.

Furthermore, there seems to be an unspoken homosexual attraction towards these muscular and greasy men he surrounds himself with. Could he derive a secret unacknowledged sexual attraction towards these wrestlers? The movie slightly hints in that direction without however committing itself to such an interpretation.

Everything takes a turn for the worse, once du Pont's mother dies, and he is given free rein to do as he pleases with his immense fortune and power. In fact, he completely loses it and commits a horrible deed, which I will not give away here.

Yet throughout the film and regardless of our unease regarding this bizarre man (and what a great nose plus brilliant acting performance by Steve Carell), we cannot help but feel empathy for him. We feel sorry how this man who is ironically buried under mounds of wealth does not achieve happiness. In fact, most of his life, he has lived in the shadow of his domineering mother and then, for whatever reason, he has never found any satisfaction in life despite (or because?) having anything he wants at the flick of a finger.

In the film, we see that he literally suffers to see David happy with his family, his wife and children. There is also a flicker of resentment on his face about how there are other more important things than wrestling, fame, or money. And as they say, there are some things that money cannot buy, and this may explain to some degree why du Pont acts the way he does.

Yet the movie, with this particular characterization especially, chills me to the bones, and the “Foxcatcher” himself like an embodiment of a half-forgotten horror film did show up in one of my nightmares and is still making me shudder, while at the same time I cannot stop raving about this brilliant film.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Vigilante Justice: Is taking the Laws into your own Hands a good Idea?

Batman Bat Sign
I have been meaning to write on vigilante and justice for quite some time, but somehow it has never felt right. Not that this is the right time now (although I can cheekily exclaim May the 4th be with you!), yet I feel more compelled than ever to write about this topic, so there you have it.

I think I should start with the notion of justice. It is a tricky concept, tricky to describe or define, but everyone knows what it is and more importantly I am certain most - if not all of us - can give at least a couple of our own examples when justice was not served.

When something wrong happens to us or to our loved ones, and we feel slighted, we want a form of compensation for it, be it of the monetary kind or simply a gesture, a word of apology in smaller cases, while we may expect to see jail time in much more serious incidents.

Injustice happens all the time and on all the different scales and levels. It can happen on the school ground and at work, and if we cannot resolve the issue between each other, we turn to the relevant authorities, such as parents, principals, bosses; if still remained unresolved, we may turn it over to the lawful authorities, such as the police and the law courts.

The problem with the higher authorities is that more often than not they demand evidence of the event. I understand that this is necessary for one's own protection, but in many cases evidence may be hard to come by. It then turns to so-called he-said/she-said accusations, and the judge takes no side whatsoever by dismissing the case wholesale.

In my own - admittedly rose-colored but also principle-bound and ethical - world of justice, this need for evidence should become redundant. I believe that if you have committed a crime and especially considering that you are under oath, you simply should not lie.

When defendants are asked to give a plea, they should say the truth and plead guilty when actually guilty; only when they are effectively innocent should they take that route. Trial and judgment then heavily depend on the integrity of the individual, and this would save our whole justice system time and resources, let alone headaches and mistrials.

But in the real world, people lie and claim to be innocent when they are not. I was personally appalled to see how our resident managers who had committed a misdeed against us could with tranquility lie through their teeth. In our case, they were represented by a lawyer who kept rubbing in his thirty-odd years of experience and a clearly corrupt arbitrator who constantly sided with the accused and dismissed our case with little or rather no thought whatsoever. In other words, I did not see the point of having a hearing in the first place except for pretending or giving the illusion that the needs for justice were being met.

Justice was not served in that case and those who had perpetrated evil got away unpunished and scot-free. What bothered me with our justice system is that I was telling the truth; yet honesty and integrity were not rewarded but in fact discouraged by the so-called higher authorities. I was told that I could appeal with the Supreme Court, but I did not want to go through another mishap and see the bad guys win once again. After all, the slates of justice tend to favor those with money and power, and I, sorry to say, possess neither.

Of course, this is a frustrating experience, but my only solace is the personal belief that there is karma and a spiritual world that will set things right in the end. It may not be an immediate and visible type of reaction or punishment if you like, but one that would catch up with those who do wrong. In the meantime, I do wish them well.

That said, I could see how people in certain situations would prefer to take the law into their own hands, especially in its weaker and failing moments. Hence our fascination with vigilantes. In those moments, when we are let down, we would like God to punish the evil doers with a ray of lightning and if that cannot happen for whatever reason (physical laws mainly), then we turn to good old Batman.

Another reason why justice fails is also the issue of corruption and who would be better to fight against those incidents than our caped crusader. In the past, we had Robin Hood who stole from the rich to give to the poor, but in the case of our “anonymous” masked superhero we are dealing with somebody who sets all the wrongs right. That is what makes what he does heroic indeed.

In its purest form, vigilante justice will ensure that everyone gets what they deserve and that no wrongdoing goes by unpunished. They are the laws of karma made flesh. At the same time, they must follow strict ethical guidelines themselves and be beyond temptations and corruption. Batman did not do it for money nor necessarily recognition as both had been already inherent in and represented by his original persona as the highly successful and very wealthy Bruce Wayne.

Another interesting and intriguing example would be Dexter Morgan from his eponymous TV series. He is a serial killer, which is definitely not good or ethical in itself, but he turns his desire against those who have escaped through the cracks and loopholes of the law. (Note: Using loopholes to me is not that different from breaking the law, except that it is done in a more surreptitious manner).

So Dexter kills those who are evil to begin with and who are released because of lack of evidence, circumstantial or what-have-you, or because they had a strong lawyer who had twisted words to the client's benefit. Or worse, they may have been released because officials were bribed or because of incompetent jury members and / or a corrupt judge. The end result is that the evil person is free to roam and to commit more evil.

Before killing them, Dexter follows a clear ritual and presents the bound evil-doer (and current victim) with his own victims of the past by putting up photos of them all around the gasping perpetrator pleading for his own life. Dexter's killing, although personally enjoyable for him and not considered a chore nor a bore, is righteous in the sense of setting wrongs right again and of eliminating a life that is not worth living from a person who has lost the human right to exist anymore.

At this point I do not want to go into discussions of death penalty or capital punishment. Suffice it to say that in his own twisted way Dexter has turned - or at least tried to turn - his evil instincts into doing “good,” and he is the ultimate dark vigilante.

All of this presumes that it is all right to take the law into one's own hands. Is it then? That is a tough question to which I do not have an answer except to say that it depends. Two wrongs they say does not make a right, and there is a definite truth in that.

The ideal would be to be a moral person yourself and let everything out of control simply be and roam its course and not be caught or necessarily be affected by it just like the just and aptly named Abel Morales in A Most Violent Year who would refuse to adapt to the changing and more violent and corrupt climate of his times and who stubbornly walked the straight and narrow path of the righteous. That is, of course, harder said than done in real-life situations.

Also the vigilante can choose other weapons at his disposal, and they do not have to be of the violent kind. I am thinking of using one's pen to create justice the same way courageous journalists and writers unearth the truth and present it to the masses, which then brings down the evil and corrupt like a house of cards. Again, we are thinking in ideal terms.

And the other issue would be, how far do we take this vigilante business? If the laws are not doing what they are supposed to do and their representatives are corrupt or simply do not care, is it our own responsibility to make sure justice is happening? Would this not lead to chaos and even anarchy?

That is my concern. I respect the law because I expect it to be just. But more often than not it serves to protect a few and punish the multitude. It seems that there are often cases of innocent poor people being punished and guilty rich people being exempt from the law and being deprived of the natural right of justice.

Part of me may applaud re-actions of organizations like Anonymous who fight back in their own way; yet at the same time, they are breaking the law too. And stealing is stealing whether you steal from the poor or the rich (although we may generally feel more sympathy for the underprivileged former).

Yet instinctively, we prefer moral justice so that the ones who have wronged ought to find their punishment, while the good should be rewarded. And ideally, we would like to see it with our own eyes in this world of ours and not in a vague afterlife that we are not completely sure of.