Monday, April 23, 2012

Trayvon Martin's Death: The Fear of Difference

Clearly, not all of the facts have come to light in the tragic death of Trayvon Martin.  However, what is clear from the 911 tapes is George Zimmerman's anger at what he perceived to be a "punk" whose suspicious behavior--at least according to Zimmerman--mandated not only a call to local police but also Zimmerman's decision to leave his vehicle to pursue and ultimately kill a teen who was simply walking back to his father's fiance's nearby residence after buying some snacks at a neighborhood convenience store.

Although a number of people throughout this country say that Martin's race was not a factor in Zimmerman's decision-making process, anyone who labels a total stranger as a "punk" certainly illustrates his preconceived hostility.  And in doing so, he rationalizes his fear of difference.

Some speculate that the "hoodie" Martin was wearing was one initiating factor.  For example, Geraldo Rivera argued on national television that parents should not let their children wear such apparel (and, thus, he unknowingly implied that Zimmerman's suspicion was somehow justified because of Martin's attire).  Such profiling based on one's clothing is most commonly applied to children and adults of color.  If one asks a roomful of Latinos, African Americans, Asians, and others of color if they've been profiled and/or actually stopped and questioned by police or private security personnel because of their clothing or supposed gang attire (the coded language that police and others use to justify such harassment), one will hear a variety of anecdotes that paint a xenophobic tableau of contemporary America.

Others argue that Zimmerman's actions were justified because of the history of burglaries in his neighborhood.  Regardless of the number of crimes in any neighborhood, one is not allowed to pursue or confront strangers as if one is a police officer.  Zimmerman and others like him have the right to watch others in public and even report suspicious individuals and activities to their local police, but no one should associate past crimes in a specific neighborhood to strangers who, like Trayvon Martin, aren't acting in a suspicious manner.

And then there's the matter of Zimmerman's ability to legally carry a concealed weapon.

Florida was among one of the first states to become a "shall issue" state with respect to concealed carry permits:  If one pays the fees, takes and passes the required CCW classes, passes the background checks, isn't a convicted felon, and doesn't have a history of mental illness, one will be able to obtain a permit like the one Zimmerman possesses to legally carry a concealed weapon in public.  In contrast, California is still a "discretionary" state where one must give a justifiable reason for wanting a concealed carry permit (in addition to the required training classes and background checks) that must be approved by the applicant's county sheriff's office (the most common CCW permit-issuing authority in most discretionary states) or local police department.

Specifically, those who've taken any CCW course should know that they should never put themselves in the position of a pursuer:  CCW holders throughout the United States know that they can only use their weapons in situations where flight is impossible and where an attacker has the means to cause a life-threatening injury.  By physically pursuing Martin, Zimmerman violated that primary tenet since he's not a police officer, just a CCW holder; consequently, Zimmerman created a situation by becoming a pursuer and not just an observer.  Moreover, a fist fight between two men in most jurisdictions would not constitute a life-threatening situation; otherwise, countless police officers would be shooting people who physically challenge them to the point of fisticuffs on a daily basis. Consequently, Zimmerman's use of a firearm against an unarmed Trayvon Martin certainly would be viewed by the vast majority of CCW instructors--and most police officers--as inappropriate use of a concealed weapon.

If George Zimmerman somehow avoids conviction of second degree murder or a lesser charge of manslaughter, his actions will set a dangerous precedent that CCW holders can not only pursue people they deem to be suspicious but also utilize deadly force against people who don't wield lethal weapons.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

William Carlos Williams' Legacy: Poetry as Poetry


William Carlos Williams' poetry has never generated a critical canon (unlike texts about Eliot's or Pound's poetry) that's truly appreciative of Williams' primary goal:  Poetry should first and foremost be poetry.  In contrast,  Eliot and Pound seemed forever intent on using poetry as a vehicle to promote culture, history, religion--in short, anything other than simply poetry.  And, true to their nature, the critics took to Eliot and Pound in the same manner that sharks feed in a frenzy:  They couldn't get enough.  Sadly, those same critics largely ignored Williams as if his works exuded a kind of critic repellent.

No wonder most critics often don't know what to say about Williams' work (just as they often don't have anything interesting to say about Whitman's work as well); and, unlike Eliot and Pound, Williams didn't spur critics with metaphors or terms that required exegesis or Greek or Latin or Chinese translations.  Williams utilized the vernacular he spoke and heard in his daily life.  No reader will ever be impressed by literary allusions or extended conceits and metaphors in Williams' poetry, for he rarely relied on or was drawn to such conventions which are often the main reasons critics have written about poetry.  True, the Paterson volumes are Williams' answer to Eliot's The Waste Land and Pound's The Pisan Cantos, but one can assume that Williams was human:  He had to prove to the critics that he too could write an epic poem (though, and this is of course highly arguable, epic poems tend to be rather boring no matter the author).

Critics, on the whole, have been blind to the fact that Williams' chief influences were what appear to be two dichotomies:  His interest in the plastic arts, especially Cubism and other Modernist movements, and his outright love for his daily work as a physician.

Cubism nurtured Williams' appreciation for what many avant-garde artists strove for, that paintings (and, analogously, poems) didn't have to be informed by the historical and critical baggage of previous artistic movements.  Specifically, Picasso no longer felt a need to promote verisimilitude and one-point perspective once he gave the finger to the past with what some consider the first Cubist painting, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.  One could even argue that he left the painting supposedly unfinished (the areas around the canvas' borders are empty and unpainted) because, if he had finished it, such overall completion would have signaled to Picasso himself that he was finished in changing as an artist; on the contrary, Picasso had just begun to enter a new artistic world that's still evolving.

Not surprisingly, literature students often find Williams' refusal to let literary conventions like metaphors control or even appear in many of his poems discombobulating:  "Mr. Vasquez, what does he mean by 'red wheelbarrow' and 'white chickens'?"  If one responds with the following, "He means exactly what he's referring to--the poem's speaker focuses on the ordinary things of the world, for these things matter in and of themselves and should matter to us all as well," one will find that some students will think less of Williams' work because he often eschewed literary conventions.  However, if one were to note that Williams wrote that poem after visiting a family who had just suffered the loss of a child, the students would be quick to reevaluate and possibly even like the wheelbarrow and the chickens:  "Oh, I see.  These were the things that must have mattered to the child who died."  But Williams chose not to include those tidbits of information in his poem and for good reason:  The poem would have been about death ("Class, what is this poem about?"  "It's about death, Mrs. Marley."), and Williams was not interested in writing poems that could be easily summarized or categorized.  For the world of poetry to change, Williams realized that his appreciation of the world around him had to change if he was to free himself from the literary conventions that all too often dictate a poem's creation even before one stroke of a pen or a typewriter key hits paper.