Law and Conversation

July 22, 2013

Charles Dickens, George Zimmerman, and Trayvon Martin

Instead of watching the George Zimmerman trial, I was reading “Little Dorrit.” The long 19th century novel by Charles Dickens had been on my list for a LONG time, and it had been a few years since I’d read a Dickens novel. I enjoyed it immensely.

As I was reading it, I was thinking about how different the great novels of the 19th century are from the literary novels that are published today. Among many other differences, Dickens’s characters are generally more two- than three-dimensional. Many, particularly the supporting characters, are types, and even the main characters behave completely predictably and provide no surprises. Little Dorrit, for example, is Goodness personified—a martyr who never, ever, appears to feel any anger or resentment toward the rest of her family for allowing her to support them, sponging off her labor and good works. Rigaud/Blandois, the villain, is completely evil—a sociopath with no redeeming qualities. The story’s hero, Arthur Clennam, along with his friends, Mr. Meagles and Daniel Doyce, is completely morally upright; like Little Dorrit, Clennam is very, very good, never appears to feel or express any resentment toward those who have treated him badly, and is also a bit of a martyr who has to be coaxed and convinced that he’s not washed up in his thirties and too old to have a life. Compare it to Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections,” for example: I’ve heard Franzen criticized for writing a 19th century novel in the 21st century, but for me his narrative was timely and fresh, with imperfect, human, three-dimensional characters.

For Dickens, it’s all or nothing; a character is either good or bad. Amy Dorrit, Arthur Clennam, and Monsieur Rigaud don’t exist in real life. They have no complexity, no shades of gray—they’re more like windup dolls than humans. But notwithstanding the book’s largely flat, predictable, unrealistic characters, “Little Dorrit” is a great story, driven by a complex plot if not by complex characters, and we still read and enjoy it 160 years after he published it.

Like Dickens’s works, most of the stories I’ve read about the Zimmerman trial have flat, predictable characters. For many, the correct story of what happened is that Zimmerman was an evil, aggressive racist, while Martin was a peaceful saint. For others, the story is that Zimmerman was heroically protecting his neighborhood, while Martin unreasonably attacked him and was viciously beating him up. The former camp’s rhetoric comes pretty close to suggesting that Zimmerman was acquitted because of racism and he should be retried until a court reaches the result they think is correct; the latter camp’s, that it wasn’t at all a bad thing that Zimmerman was prepared to, and did, shoot point-blank to kill. So from the first camp, never mind double jeopardy, and from the second camp, never mind that we have a police force to address suspected criminal activity. If you think about it, both camps seem to agree on one thing: if law enforcement or the courts do not administer what people who weren’t there and/or don’t have all the facts think is the correct result, taking justice into one’s own hands might be a good thing to do. That’s horrifying.

Amid all the shouting and handwringing, two blog posts about the Zimmerman trial stand out for me: Miami, FL lawyer Brian Tannebaum on The Embarrassment of the George Zimmerman Verdict and NYU law professor Stephen Gillers on An imaginary dialogue trying to explain Florida v. Zimmerman to someone who has not had the benefit of a legal education at The Legal Ethics Forum. Both focus on the human reality and the law of the events and the trial.

As for me, I’m not seeing a Dickensian story with flat, good or evil characters here. Though I’m mindful of Tannebaum’s admonition “You weren’t there, and you don’t know what happened,” I’m seeing two basically decent people, Zimmerman and Martin, who both made some unwise decisions one evening that ended up in Martin’s losing his life and Zimmerman’s having to spend a chunk of his life, and probably a lot of money, defending a criminal prosecution and becoming an object of hatred for a lot of people. I’m also seeing an enormous amount of handwringing about racism—which we can all agree is a bad thing—and very little interest in rethinking our country’s attitude toward guns and the law. To the contrary, every time there is a gun tragedy, whether it’s a bunch of people getting shot at a movie theatre, little kids getting shot to death at an elementary school, or a young person who had his whole life in front of him getting killed a short distance from his family home, the ultimate result has been even more rhetoric, policy, and laws encouraging people to get and carry guns.

So how did that pro-gun attitude and those pro-gun laws work out for everyone in the Zimmerman case? Not too well for Martin, who’s dead. Not too well for Zimmerman, who had to spend lots of time and resources that he could have been dedicating to his family and his personal pursuits defending himself in a criminal prosecution instead, not to mention becoming an object of opprobrium for a significant number of people, many of whom he will probably encounter in the future. (OK, maybe Zimmerman will get a lucrative book deal and sell movie rights to his story and go on the speaking circuit, but if he does (and maybe he won’t–I certainly don’t know what he will or won’t do), he will have paid quite a price for those things.) Not too well for the country, either: following the verdict, there’s an increased perception on the part of many that Zimmerman was acquitted because his victim was African-American (if you have questions about the reasons for the verdict, please read Tannebaum’s excellent post) and that our system of justice doesn’t work as it ought.

I’m familiar with the arguments for opposing limitations on firearm ownership that many honorable and intelligent people hold dear. “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns” was a facile and popular saying when I was growing up, and one which I myself espoused as a young person; while that’s still around, more lately I’ve seen “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” They sound good and easily roll off the tongue, but both ignore human complexity as much as Dickens’s stories do.

I can recognize that there may be a few occasions where a Bad Guy/Outlaw, or someone who’s gone off the deep end, is prevented from shooting people because there’s a levelheaded Good Guy, who’s also a crack shot, in the vicinity with a gun and is in just the right position to get a good shot off to take the Bad Guy down without killing one or more innocent bystanders in between. Note, however, that those are a lot of factors that need to converge; if any one of them is not present—Good Guy isn’t levelheaded, isn’t a great shot, isn’t in precisely the right position, Bad Guy or Innocent Bystanders move out of or into Good Guy’s bullet path—the story doesn’t have a happy ending. Story also doesn’t have a happy ending if person standing next to Good Guy as he pulls out his gun doesn’t realize he’s the Good Guy and thinks maybe he’s a Bad Guy and takes him down, maybe with his own gun. (How are we to recognize the Good Guy, I wonder? How do we know the guy standing next to us who’s pulling out a firearm in the shopping mall, or in the movie theatre, or on the subway, is going to save us and isn’t another Bad Guy?)

Far more likely to occur are any number of less than ideal scenarios. Maybe our hero, the Good Guy, is actually an officious busybody and wannabe hero who misreads a situation so badly that he (or she) ends up killing someone who wasn’t a Bad Guy at all. Maybe Good Guy has the best of intentions but isn’t a crack marksman and takes out Innocent Bystander instead of Bad Guy. Maybe our Good Guy who’s lawfully carrying a gun around has dementia; if you think that concealed carry laws, or open carry laws, are a great idea, is that something that makes you feel safer? (Can you write a statute that prevents someone with undiagnosed dementia or paranoia, or an uncontrolled temper, or bad judgment, from possessing firearms? I don’t think so. Writing statutes that do just what you want them to do, and nothing else, is HARD.) Or maybe our Bad Guy isn’t a fundamentally bad guy, but is legitimately feeling unfairly treated by the world, maybe is clinically depressed and not thinking rationally, maybe is chronically angry at not being in the position he thinks he should be in due to various unfairnesses in his life, experiences a Last Straw that might be getting laid off, or evicted, or divorced, or sued, or cut off in traffic, and in a moment of appallingly poor judgment takes out the gun that he’s lawfully carrying and uses it—maybe on others, maybe on himself, maybe first the former and then the latter. Or maybe we have two generally good guys, or two general jerks, or one of each, who are lawfully carrying guns, take offense at each other’s actions, and, in the heat of their disagreement, take out their guns and use them.

All of those scenarios are realistic, and all end up as tragedies. All, I suggest, are far more likely to happen in our gun-encouraging culture than the flat, two-dimensional Good Guy With A Gun saving the rest of us from the flat, two-dimensional Bad Guy With A Gun. And with no change in our country’s pro-gun attitude, and no change in the laws, I suggest that they ARE increasingly likely to happen.

Sadly, since the shootings at schools and movie theaters, the reaction that has carried the political day has been “We Must Have More Guns,” and the only changes in the laws have been changes that make it even more likely that there will be more George Zimmermans and more Trayvon Martins. President Obama recently said publicly that he could have been Trayvon Martin, but you know what? So could any of us, and so could any of us be George Zimmerman if we opt to carry guns.

For now, I’m returning to my Dickens novels, and to 19th century England. But I have no doubt that, as I did when reading Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” set in 18th-century Germany, I’ll continue to find resonance in these novels of past times and faraway places for events occurring in the 21st century USA.

December 17, 2012

Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, guns, and mental health

Seen through my 21st-century eyes, the late 18th-century German Romantic classic, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” is the tale of a deeply depressed, obsessive young man who needs some serious therapy. But even before the horrific school shooting in Connecticut a few days ago, I also read it as a case study of why the availability of guns needs to be limited.

**Spoiler alert: Predictable though the novel is, go read it and then come back if you don’t want to find out here how it turns out.**

The first two-thirds or so of the story is structured as a series of letters by Werther to his best friend, Wilhelm, interspersed with diary entries; it’s not always clear which is a letter and which is a diary entry. Werther appears to be somewhere between 19 and 24, in between the stage of living at home, dependent on his family, and out on his own and supporting himself for the first time. In the course of taking care of some family business, Werther decides to take an extended break in first one charming rural village, then another, Wahlheim, that truly enchants him. There he meets a young woman, Lotte, who he learns early on (though not before some pretty clear flirting on both of their parts) is engaged to be married to her longtime sweetheart, Albert.

It didn’t take long for Werther to annoy me. He rhapsodizes to Wilhelm about the pastoral landscape and the simple life that the peasants lead. “A wonderful serenity fills my whole being….I am quite alone, and pleased with life in this countryside, which seems to have been created for souls like me.” His letter about the pastoral inhabitants reeks of condescension: “The simple folk here already know me and have taken to me, especially the children.” It’s not surprising that Werther finds the Wahlheim area so idyllic: he’s a child of privilege, on holiday, with money in his pockets and time on his hands to play with the children. The hard work the “simple folk” must spend their lives doing to keep body and soul together doesn’t really register with him.

Far more serious than Werther’s juvenile romanticism is the progression of his crush on Lotte. He prolongs his visit and spends all the time he can with her, and also, necessarily, with Albert, who is always gracious to him even though Werther must be a bit of a chore to be around. For her part, Lotte does so little to discourage Werther that it seems quite possible that she’s thoroughly enjoying having two swains at once and has no idea of the ultimate depth Werther’s obsession will reach.

To the reader, though, Goethe’s foreshadowing makes the danger clear early on: Werther asks Albert if he can borrow his pistols for a trip, Albert freely delivers them to him, and Werther starts playing around with them, actually holding one to his head and joking about suicide. Though in this scene Albert doesn’t seem to get that there might be a problem, the narrative reveals much later that Werther talks about suicide more than once and that Albert and Lotte are concerned enough to talk about it with each other privately—and do nothing.

Werther leaves, continues to ruminate about Lotte, and drifts back after she and Albert are married. He eventually does start to get on Albert’s nerves, and no wonder: Werther is ALWAYS THERE, mooning around Lotte, who still doesn’t do a whole lot to discourage him. Only when Werther visits her when she’s alone, breaks down with her into tears over a romantic poem, and then ardently embraces her (which she gives every sign of wanting him to do) does she finally seem to realize that There’s A Problem Here. And even then—even though we learn that she and Albert have acknowledged more than once to each other their doubts about Werther’s stability—she voices no concern at all but helps Albert loan Werther his guns again. The only part of the ending that you might not be able to guess until you read it is whether the deeply depressed Werther kills only himself or takes Albert with him.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Much as Werther’s immature, melodramatic point of view annoyed me, he actually seemed fairly typically twentysomething to me. He thinks he has all the answers, but he’s kind and idealistic. He’s naive and unrealistic–yes, romantic–but he has a good heart and wants to make the world better. He’s wrapped up in himself, but the narrative reveals that he has many friends who love him. Albert, a stable and kind man, must have found him engaging and seen his fundamentally good qualities despite Werther’s wearing his attraction to Albert’s wife on his sleeve. I had no doubt that if Werther had talked to a therapist (OK, they didn’t have therapists in 18th-century Germany) or a more mature friend in person, or at least in real time (OK, no phones and no texting in the 18th century) about his crush and maybe taken some short-term anti-depressants (no Prozac in the 18th century, either), and if Albert and Lotte hadn’t so irresponsibly first encouraged his obsession and then gone into denial and given him a gun, his character would have emerged from his depression, stopped idealizing and hanging around an obviously unavailable woman, grown up, become a solid citizen (and, probably, a fairly responsible gun owner), and acquired some perspective and wisdom, as most of us do. But take an immature, narcissistic personality, provide him with lots of time but no meaningful outlet for his emotions apart from rumination, do nothing to discourage his obsessions, have everyone else deny that anything could be wrong, and give him a gun when he wants it with no questions asked, and we have excellent odds of at least one wasted life, whether an imaginary 18th-century German or a real 21st-century American.

Werther’s fictional problems in 18th-century Germany, like real life matters in 21st-century USA, are not simple and do not have just one cause or solution. It seems clear to me, though, that we need to stop the madness of unregulated, unquestioned, easy access to firearms in this country. And, though I don’t understand why Liza Long tosses off “it’s easy to talk about guns,” her essay on the challenges and heartache of parenting a disturbed or different child eloquently shows why it’s also necessary to address mental health. She doesn’t mention national health care, but her reference to having given up freelancing for benefits illustrates why that, too, is imperative. Until we make all three a priority, more lives will be wasted. Some may be ours; some will be people we love.

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