Friday, July 19, 2013

The Zimmerman/Martin case, served in Goose-Gander Sauce

[Erklärung des Titels / explication du titre.
The subject-line alludes to the old proverb,

“”What’s sauce for the goose  is sauce for the gander.”

A more contemporary equivalent would be, “Turnabout is fair play.”

It is a wise and spicy saying;  for, unlike the sullen, passive plea-or-protest, “Fair’s fair”, with its insipid and unconvincing tautological form,  the quip about the goose and the gander (Gänserich, jars) points out, with a tasty culinary metaphor, that  once you have described Case A as to be treated by certain general principles, those same principles may well apply, unexpectedly or against public sentiment, to Case B.
There doesn’t seem to be any equally savorsome equivalent in the other languages I’m familiar with.  The best my available dictionaries could do was by Wildhagen:  “Was dem einen recht ist, ist dem andern billig.”  So true, so true;  but not near so well-expressed.
On prie nos lecteurs de nous en fournir de meilleurs.]

[Update 19 July 2013]  In today's low-key but eloquent address,  the President has made many of the same points we put forward below.
It was a wise, sad speech;   sad, because the President is well aware of facts like these -- to take yet one more example, this from this very day:,0,1569435.story

[Update 20 July 2013] In  France likewise, the bien-pensant press normally refrains from any mention of the ethnicity of those involved in large violent public disturbances, even when that fact is key to the storyline;  only, over there, the ethnicity is different.  And again, French readers are not fooled.  
Sometimes the journalist manages to sneak in a tipoff without explicitly mentioning race creed or national origin:  with us, a hoodie, with them, a veil:

Le garçon de 14 ans a été atteint au cours des affrontements survenus dans la nuit de vendredi à samedi entre habitants et policiers. Ceux-ci semblent avoir pour origine l'interpellation, jeudi, d'un homme qui s'était opposé au contrôle de son épouse voilée.
Retour au calme samedi matin à Trappes1 après une nuit de violences. Habitants et forces de l'ordre se sont affrontés pendant plusieurs heures, dans la nuit de vendredi à samedi, devant le commissariat de cette ville des Yvelines, avant de se disperser vers 3 heures du matin à la suite de prières spécifiques au ramadan.

[Update, an hour later]  Really, there is no shortage of such incidents.  The following concerns the attacks on police and looting, alleged to have happened at the scene of the worst train disaster in France in many years.   Again, no mention of anything … sensitive … but “racailles” is a code-word, and readers understand:

Brétigny-sur-Orge : «T'as trouvé quoi dans les bagages ?»
Des policiers ont trouvé des SMS explicites dans le portable de jeunes interpellés le jour du drame. Une enquête doit être menée pour savoir si les victimes du déraillement du train ont bien été volées.
Les forces de l'ordre ont-elles été «caillassées» à Brétigny, comme elles l'affirment, ou simplement accueillies «de façon un peu rude».
Un texto d'un CRS envoyé à ses collègues décrit même «des victimes pillées par des racailles». Un tract de l'Unsa-police s'offusque du fait que «des individus» aient pu «profiter de la détresse des victimes pour les piller et agresser les intervenants».
Ancien officier de police, élu UMP, Bruno Beschizza, demande, lui, des explications au ministre de l'Intérieur. «On s'aperçoit qu'il y a tout une machine d'État qui s'est mise en branle pour démonter les faits!, s'indigne-t-il. Cela laisse présupposer une vraie chape de plomb sur beaucoup d'autres incidents ailleurs en France…»

Si cela vous parle,
savourez la série noire
en argot authentique d’Amérique :


~ [the original post] ~

As usual, we are not trying to be political here, but simply to make a single logical point.  I have not been following the case closely, so it may be that someone (or a hundred people) have made this same point before, but I haven’t seen or heard it done, despite the point’s being obvious.

First, if we just consider that narrow slice of space-time  in which Z. is on his back, apparently having been knocked down by M., and M. is pounding his head against the pavement (vide photos of the wounds), a plea of “self-defence” is obviously plausible  -- this is no doubt why the police initially decided not to charge him, until political pressure built up.  Furthermore -- and it is remarkable that so little comment has been expended on this key legal point -- this would seem to be exactly the sort of case that Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law was meant to cover.   That law may be ill-advised, whatever;  but the intent of the legislature is here prima facie met.

This defense begins to stick in people’s craw once we allow our camera to pan back and take in a larger slice of space-time, where we see Z. persistently looking for trouble -- “asking for it”, some might say.  But this is a grey area, one of shades and degrees, and mere logic has little to contribute here.

But more starkly evident -- and this is the fact that I have not seen referred to, an elephant-in-the-room fact, in other words -- is that this same plea of self-defense could be claimed by M. -- and would so have been claimed, with at least equal justification, had chance so decided that the scuffle over Z.’s gun (which Z. states took place) resulted in the death, not of M., but of Z.

“At least equal”:  actually, more.   For:  Here is M., going about his business (possibly contemplating mischief -- say, burglary, or preferring Brahms to Beethoven, or denying that names are rigid designators -- none of that is anything to the purpose) when this “creepy-ass cracker” starts stalking him, in the dark of night.   (Some have tried to make hay out of M.’s use of this colorful and alliterative phrase, but Beowulf would have loved it, and even the exigent M. Gustav Flaubert would have admitted it as le mot juste.)
Now, people wanting to make Z. look bad (and this includes everyone in the media I usually glance at) keep emphasizing the phrase “unarmed black teenager”, as though this a-posteriori assessment were some sort of Carnapian Protokolsatz, and  should have been obvious to Z.  “Gavagai!” he must have exclaimed to himself (on this widespread but absurd account);  meaning, in this instance, “Lo! A youth, dusky of hue, yet undoubtedly unarmed, though it is too dark to tell.”    So, we exonerate Z. of the media insinuation.  But this exoneration applies as well to M. -- and indeed, again, much more strongly.   For here, not only did M. have no basis for assuming that his pursuer was unarmed: in point of fact, the pursuer was armed, and M. knew this as soon as he saw the holster (which, in Z.’s own account, M. did).
So now M. can quite reasonably picture himself in peril, not merely of a beating, but of his life.  What is he supposed to do?  Well, according to that same Florida law, he is entitled to stand his ground.   And the safest defence in this case is a good offense: to knock down your pursuer and attempt to wrest away his deadly weapon.

So the predicament is actually symmetric, though it is never depicted as such:  M. and Z., by that point, had become two scorpions in a bottle.  What, then, should the law do in such a case?  Who knows -- hard cases make bad law.
We may notice, though, that historically there is indeed a whole class of cases of approximate symmetry -- and complete symmetry as regards the instruments of violence:  dueling swords, or pistols at twenty paces.   And the way European law traditionally treated such cases is:  The victor got charged with a crime.

[Update, 14 July 2013]
The verdict is in, “Let the healing begin”.

And meanwhile … a spot of non-logical, apolitical, purely psycholinguistic analysis.  To wit:
Every splashy public case like this  is, among other things, a kind of global street-theatre, part of the société du spectacle.    The principles that rule here, are not those of Frege, nor of the Founding Fathers, but Freud and Jung.   The narrative is shaped according to the rules of literature and folklore, not forensics.

So, two persistent leitmotivs of the case;  both, as in dreams, representing wish-fulfillments:

(1)  The phrase “unarmed black teenager” was repeated ad nauseam, as though it were a fixed phrase, from which the epithet “unarmed” was inseparable, like that of the wine-dark sea in Homer.   
One detects a certain repetition-compulsion, as though the populace were trying to reassure themselves,  to allay their anxiety of faceless threatening minorities at large.   (There is also a more purely Freudian reading, which I shall not go into;  as well as a subconscious Christian narrative, which I leave as an exercise for the reader.)

(2)  So what’s with the Skittles?  Over and over we were told:  the kid was carrying Skittles, as though this were a decisively important (and indeed exculpatory) element of the case.  “You see, Watson?” exclaims Holmes, as he retrieves the telltale candy-wrapper from the shrubbery.  “Skittles!  Just as I suspected.”

Was für Krimi liest wohl Dr. Sigmund Freud?
Schauen Sie mal!

At the simplest level, what that meant was:  “… and not drugs” (though the latter would have been equally irrelevant to the logic of the case).   But there is more to it than that.
It really does matter that it was Skittles.   It renders their carrier  folkloristically harmless.   The word itself is cute (skittish kitten, ittle-bittle);  the actual bonbons are like buttons, small and round and brightly colored, such as would appeal to a tiny child.   Had the teen instead been carrying some jumbo-size chunky-nut chocolate-knobbly Baby Ruth bar, it would have been much more unsettling, and swiftly dropped from the press.


The two sidelights above  could have been noticed by any rhetorician, on the basis of mere textual frequency.  But there is another aspect of the case that does not yield to linguistic analysis, but must be intuited.

The case as it played out in court  has been less race-based than people anticipated.  Partly because (so we have argued above) the logical structure of the matter is entirely race-neutral;  partly because people prefer to tiptoe around this issue.  But there is another dimension entirely, that has played a role in this case, other than race;  and this, almost entirely unremarked-upon.   I refer to the matter of gender.

But before I extract that rabbit from the hat -- a word on methodology.  How to spot, that something is afoot?  Not, as in the case of “unarmed” (used as an inseparable prefix) or “Skittles” (improbably personifying the victim, month after month):  yet still, by noting an anomaly.
Such a modus operandi is more characteristic of our colleague Holmes, than of our friend Freud.  The latter had the luxury of asking his patient to free-associate, beginning from anything that struck the good doctor as salient, whether apparently anomalous or not.  Whereas Holmes could not grill the criminal (his identity yet to be established), nor even (in some cases) question the witnesses.  As, in the celebrated case of the purloined thoroughbred Silver Blaze (as schematized by Wiki):

    Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"
    Holmes: "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
    Gregory: "The dog did nothing in the night-time."
    Holmes: "That was the curious incident."

And the key anomaly here, is not anything that anybody said, or did,  but something that the Defense didn’t do.

~  Posthumous Endorsement ~
"If I were alive today, and in the mood for a gripping mystery,
this is what I'd be reading: "
(I am Sherlock Holmes, and I approved this message.)
~         ~

Legally, as opposed to emotionally, the key to the case was the plea of self-defense.  As we argued above, M. would have had quite a strong right to such a plea, had the struggle over the gun (if one took/had-taken place, as Z. contends) had resulted in the death of Z., either accidentally or deliberately.    Now, in many states, the measures you are permitted to take in your own self-defense  are severely circumscribed, even if the threat is not in question:  you can punch back, but not shoot to a punch.   But in Florida, the case of anyone so pleading is significantly strengthened by the Stand Your Ground law.   That, textually;  plus the law in question is not some obscure antebellum statute, but the recent ratified will of the Florida legislature.  A gift to the Defence, on a silver platter.  Yet in the actual trial, as opposed to the pre-trial, the Defense did not avail itself of that.  Why?

Note first how anomalous this is, legally.  Typically, the Defense does not stand on ceremony.   The defence attorney is not looking for a Mr Nice-Guy award, or a Political Correctness commendation:  if he’s any good, he uses any and all wiles at his disposal  to get the guy off.   To have forsworn this one, requires comment.

Look again at the name of the (as it turns out) unmentionable law: “Stand Your Ground!  Grammatically, it is an imperative;  not simply permitting, but enjoining.  As such, it is straight out of the world of John Wayne, or his less-salonfähig successors  Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson.   And the ethos behind it  speaks deeply to the soul  of any heterosexual male.  You will get no glimpse of this from the bienpensant commentariat:  but the Readers’ Comments, vox populi, fill you in, with relevant references to Z. being “punked-out”, “sucker-punched”,  or “bitch-slapped”, by the blow that felled him low, low, despicably low, to the ground.  At that point, there was nothing he could do but fight back with all available force, if he was to leave the field a honor with some shred of dignity.  And the same calculus applied to M., harassed and cornered by his relentless armed pursuer.
That ethos is a fact, going back to prehistory; this is not to commend it or condemn it.  But the fact is, just as there have lately been a great many laws specifically tailored to address, or even to pander to, the demands of women, so this law  essentially  addresses the men.
And the defense attorney looked up and saw a female judge on the bench, and an all-female jury.  And figured… Um… Let’s just forget that Stand Your Ground stuff.
The white-on-black account, or black-on-Hispanic, does not capture this dynamic.  It was Male on Male.


“Hard cases make bad law,” the saying goes.  And the bad laws thus inspired, engender further hard cases.
Laws passed in the face of pressure from emotional interest-groups  are likely to be hastily drafted and ill-thought-out.   They are intended, after all, not really to work (in the long term) but (in the short term) merely to appease.  (Rule of thumb:  Any law named for a specific victim  is likely to be of this sort.  And any law named for a cute little girl, definitely does.)
The “Stand Your Ground” laws, operative in a number of States, do not quite fall into this category.

But their unintended effect may be pernicious, nonetheless.

Falls Sie im Doktor-Justiz-Sammelsurium
weiterblättern möchten,
Bitte hier klicken:

[Update 28 July 2013]   )* sigh *(     And so it goes …

A Bethesda man was beaten and robbed early Saturday morning in Adams Morgan by three men who yelled, “This is for Trayvon Martin,” before attacking him.

[Wacky update, 29 Dec 2013]
The Beatification of Saint Skittles
In a California creche, the figure of Jesus is replaced with that of Trayvon Martin.

This sort of thing is the reason I retired from satire:   You just - can't - make - this- stuff - up.

[Update 14 Oct 2014]  Following Saint Skittles, we have:  The Man with the Sandwich.

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