Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Jerome Murdough and our everyday cruelty

Earlier this year, a mentally ill man named Jerome Murdough baked to death in a cell in a New York prison. Murdough was a 56-year-old former Marine and suffered from mental illness.

Surprisingly, the grim news has actually drawn national attention from a media that often ignores the plight of prisoners in general and mentally ill prisoners specifically. As usual, Andrew Cohen has been excellent on it.

Most of the commentary on Murdough's fate has questioned the specific circumstances of his death — why the cell was so hot, why Murdough was not properly monitored, etc. These questions are more than appropriate; they're crucial.

However, I'd like to ask a different question: Why was Jerome Murdough in prison in the first place?

Reports say Murdough was in prison for trespassing. His family claims he climbed onto an enclosed stairwell of a housing project for a place to sleep. I wonder why New York looked at the case of a former United States Marine who was curled up in a stairwell and felt that it warranted the funds, time and energy needed to prosecute it. More to the point, I'm wondering why the prosecutor and judge felt the need to imprison the accused — who could not afford his $2,500 bail — while these questions were sorted out.

Murdough death is a sad tragedy. It's rendered even more tragic by the fact that the tragedy's scaffolding has been so normalized in our culture it isn't even questioned. This is what happens when you look to incarcerate as a first resort, a last resort, and every resort in between. That, too, is one of the tragedies of Jerome Murdough.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Veronica Mars, and why it matters

"If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."
-E.M. Forster

There was something different about Neptune.

This weekend, I went with friends to see the Veronica Mars movie. The movie — like the three-season series featuring a quippy teenage detective and her private-eye father — was delightful. It was funny when it wanted to be funny, suspenseful when it wanted to be suspenseful, and even moving when it wanted to be moving. It was everything I wanted it to be and more.

Still, there was something different about Neptune.

Neptune, the fictional, economically splintered California beach town where the whole thing takes place. The town, sunny and candy-colored in the series, was more muted. There were more blues and grays. When Veronica visits an acquaintance's apartment late in the film, it looks more like a worn-thin warehouse than a glorious penthouse.

A couple of weeks before I saw the movie, I read Chris Hayes' fine book Twilight of the Elites. At the risk of oversimplifying, the book is about the collapse of America's most trusted institutions over the last decade. The church, Congress, professional sports — Hayes argues that they've all stumbled, and has some intriguing arguments about why.

Hayes' arguments are intriguing. But they're not surprising, at least not to me. I've been watching Veronica Mars for years.

Veronica Mars took a long layoff between its low-rated, three-year run on television and its fan-funded movie. But in a fundamental and almost eerily accurate sense, it's a piece of work for our times.

As the series begins, Veronica and her father live in a ramshackle crapbox at the edge of a swimming pool you wouldn't want to take a dip in. They're there because her father, formerly the town's sheriff, had had the guts to accuse one of the town's wealthiest men of murder. Both Mars — father and daughter — find themselves cast out by the town's inner circle. Now they're living next to the crummy swimming pool.

During their crime-solving adventures, Veronica and her father Keith learn one lesson over and over again: That their town's fundamental structures are shot through with corruption. The police department is at best incompetent and at worst corrupt. The legal system offers nothing remotely resembling justice. Even the town's beloved heroes, such a former baseball star, have sinister secrets.

If the last decade or so, like Hayes argues, has seen the growth of a profound mistrust in our institutions, Veronica Mars was one of the first works to accurately uncover it.

While the show hosts a healthy skepticism about institutions, it's never more steel-eyed than it is when it's examining the growing gap between rich and poor. In Neptune, there's not a gap between the two — there's a canyon. The wealthy offspring of the town's elite lie, cheat, steal and occasionally get away with murder. When one wealthy character's house is burned down, he buys properties being rented by the poor and kicks them out. When Veronica's prom is cancelled, the wealthy students host a private  one. To adapt the old joke, the middle-class and poor are on the bottom floor of a two-story outhouse. There have rarely been shows that draw that portrait as Veronica Mars.

If there's a counterbalance to the skepticism in Veronica Mars, its Veronica friends and family. One of the most joyous scenes in the film is also one of the most quiet. When Veronica returns to Neptune after a long absence, she reunites with her father and a few friends who had been through battles with her. Their scene, where they trade quips while sitting on a porch, is one of the most moving in the film.

The message of Veronica Mars is clear. You can't trust the institutions around you — the criminal justice system, the political world. You can only trust the individuals who will fight for you — and with you. 

In the end, Ver sets off to battle the corruption in those institutions, but she's not alone. She has her friends by her side.

Neptune may have a little less color and a little less cheer than it even had before. But as Veronica marches into battle there, she has her friends at her side. Sometimes that's enough.