73 year-old man “lands in coma” after “encounter” with Missoula police

Justice

Last month, Missoula police responded to a complaint that a man on Higgins Avenue was shining a flashlight in the eyes of passing drivers. That man was 73 year-old James Smith. Commuters may know him as the guy who sits in his yard with a heart-shaped box during rush hour. According to police affidavits, Smith hit two officers with his flashlight when they arrived at his home on May 20. After he was detained, he tried to kick and trip them. Two days later, his daughter got a call informing her that he was in a coma. Here’s Dylan Kato at the Missoulian:

Stephanie Smith, of Allentown, Pennsylvania, said that in addition to the coma, her father sustained a skull fracture, multiple facial fractures, a concussion, respiratory failure, bruised ribs, organ damage, bruising and other injuries from the incident. While he was sometimes confused or disoriented before the incident, Smith said these symptoms, as well as amnesia, have become more prominent since he was hospitalized.

What happened between when Smith was arrested and when he was hospitalized with multiple head traumas is not stated. Who can say what put this 73 year-old man in a coma? It’s a stone-cold whodunnit, as far as the Missoulian is concerned.

The reticence starts with the headline: “State investigates Missoula police after encounter lands 73-year-old man in coma.” Whatever happened was not a beating or even an arrest. It was an encounter, and it “landed” Smith in a coma the same way Bugs Bunny’s hijinks land him in trouble. “Lands” is an odd choice of verb that reflects this headline’s desire to allege as little as possible. The pathological refusal to say anyone did anything continues in the opening paragraphs:

The Montana Department of Justice is conducting a use-of-force review after an incident involving the Missoula Police Department in May ended with a 73-year-old man hospitalized in a coma. James Smith spent several days in Providence St. Patrick Hospital before he was committed involuntarily to the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs. He was released to his daughter following a court hearing May 30.

That doesn’t even say who released him, much less how he got into that coma. It was an “incident involving the Missoula Police Department,” and it “ended” with Smith near death, but beyond that we cannot say. Maybe he fell down the stairs ten times before a metal press closed on his head.

Kato has a good reason to write this way. The matter is still under investigation, and a newspaper must be careful never to blame people for things they might not have done. The passive voice is a way to maintain a scrupulous objectivity. But it can also disconnect the facts of a story so thoroughly as to distort it. When Markus Kaarma was charged with murder after shooting a teenager in his garage, the Missoulian did not report that an incident involving him ended with a 17 year-old exchange student bleeding to death. We reserve such conspicuously softened language for the police.

Reporting potential instances of police brutality as vague situations that just happened is an industry-wide habit. It reflects a journalism that has become too deferential to police. On the cops-and-crime beat, the prohibition against attributing fault to cops is so powerful as to outweigh the prohibition against the passive voice, leading otherwise strong writers into paragraphs like this:

Missoula police Detective Capt. Mike Colyer said on May 24 that he was called to the scene shortly after 2:30 a.m. on May 20. He confirmed that Smith had been hospitalized after being detained, and that due to the potential use-of-force issue, the department followed best practices and asked the Justice Department’s Division of Criminal Investigation to conduct an independent review.

Smith has been hospitalized and detained, but for what and by whom go unstated. The injuries that put him in a coma are a “potential use-of-force issue,” reinforcing the vagueness of the passive voice with some old-fashioned Orwellian euphemism. One of the paragraph’s only active verbs pops up to shine a favorable light on the police department, which “followed best practices” by asking for an independent review [of how two of its officers put an elderly man in a coma.]

I want to emphasize that this style of writing is not Kato’s invention or even his choice. He’s following standard practices in daily news reporting, and wisely so. He’s working with limited information, and he doesn’t want to smear two good cops if there is somehow an innocent explanation for all this. Neither does he want to get his paper sued. He’s got editors combing his copy to make sure that doesn’t happen, while on the other end he’s got to worry about access. If cops think he wrote a hit piece on other cops, his job as a reporter gets a lot harder. I don’t want to blame Kato for having to work under these pressures. But I do want to draw attention to the system that pressures him, and the way news reporting bends over backwards to say nothing critical of the police.

Maybe it’s not just reporters, though. Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of this story comes at the end, when Kato paraphrases Smith’s daughter and her husband:

They reinforced that they appreciate the help they have received from the police department, as well as lawyers in the Missoula County Attorney’s Office and the Office of the State Public Defender, since they arrived in Missoula. “The people that we dealt with are very nice, including the detective and evidence people. Over all this we do support law enforcement, we understand that they put their lives in harm’s way,” Jones said.

It does look like they almost beat her father to death, though. I was going to say that we give police too much deference. We heap praise on them whenever they become vulnerable to criticism, so that the more evidently awful things they do, the more we announce our support. That was going to be my conclusion. But if this woman doesn’t agree, who would?

Erick Erickson: Let’s consider secession

Erick Erickson considers Lipitor.

Over at his blog The Resurgent, Erick Erickson has published an essay titled Let’s Consider Secession. He doesn’t specify who “us” is. Neither does he acknowledge the disaster that unfolded last time someone had this idea. This document is not a plan or even a call to make a plan to secede. It seems like Erickson’s main goal is to be provocative. His first paragraph supports this hypothesis:

This past week has made me realize the situation in this country is unlikely to get better. We have 320 million people who hate each other and the left shows no signs of toning down rhetoric after last week’s mass assassination attempt. If anything, too many of them regret there were no deaths.

Sounds measured to me. I agree that even one person regretting no one died in last week’s shooting at a Republican baseball practice would be too many, but show me the person who said that. This claim prepares us for Erickson’s subsequent arguments that Nazism was a leftist ideology, Margaret Sanger was the “patron saint of dead kids,” and that progressives are saying Steve Scalise deserved it. He tops this outrage sundae with the big red cherry that “the political left is becoming the American ISIS.”

It’s true the DSA has taken control of several cities, and Bernie Sanders did behead that reporter. Still, it feels like Erickson is indulging in hyperbole here. It’s almost as though he built his career on inflammatory statements that thrill his fans, provoke his critics and just barely wink at the possibility it’s all an act, some species of political kayfabe.

Yet one detects a note of genuine sadness. Erickson argues that the present system is unjust, particularly in the areas of gay marriage and abortion, but that’s not his reason we should dissolve the Union. It’s that we all hate each other. He starts by literally saying that—“We have 320 million people who hate each other,” he writes, apparently counting babies—and, 700 words later, winds up here:

I am no longer an optimist about the future of this country. This past week has shown there is no incentive for the better angels of ourselves to rise. Both sides are out for blood. The only way to calm the situation is for us to part ways.

He fits in a lot of crazy bluster along the way, repeatedly referring to abortion as “killing kids” and claiming that Saul Alinsky dedicated his book to Satan, but it’s not the romp that a gratuitous call for secession ought to be. It’s more like an exasperated sigh. Erick Erickson is sad, and not in the objective way, like you want. He’s sad as the subject of his own experience as a person who is starting to feel like American democracy has broken down. In this way, is he completely different from the rest of us?

Maybe we should never pay attention to anything Erickson says or does. He is not a serious thinker. Although he has become well known, I’m not sure we can say he is influential. But we can say that he is a bomb-thrower, a purveyor of outrageous claims and terrible accusations. If he thinks politics have gotten out of hand…well, I don’t know that it’s serious. I’m certain I disagree with his historical claims and his bizarro “both sides do it” take wherein Republicans are becoming as bad as the real source of incivility in American politics, the Democrats. None of that makes any goddamn sense at all. But as I reject him out of hand, I am pained by just a sliver of agreement. I guess I am sad and worried, too.

Trump on Twitter: I am being investigated

Three-dimensional chess

I’ve spent the last several hours writing blurbs for the Indy’s upcoming Best of Missoula issue, and boy are my arms…glib. Remember yesterday, when I said there would be Friday links? I’ve got some bad news, champ. Fortunately for us, the president is refreshing the news cycle so rapidly there’s no time to look back on the week that was. This morning, he took to Twitter for this quasi-official statement:

I worry that the bizarre content of this tweet will distract from the bizarre punctuation. The president who has spent the last few weeks trying to get various members of the Department of Justice to say that he is not being investigated is, apparently, being investigated. While attempting to defend himself, he became the first person to reveal that publicly. He also thinks Witch Hunt is a title, like Duck Hunt.

This behavior is very much like that of a character in comedy. First he becomes monomaniacally dedicated to a goal—in this case, getting the word out that he is not under investigation. Then his efforts to pursue that goal bring about the opposite result—in this case, telling the world that he is under investigation. It’s times like this I’m glad there’s nothing funny about his speech patterns, or the president would seem ridiculous.

Or perhaps this is a genius gambit! Maybe, at the moment when it most appears that Trump doesn’t want people to think he is being investigated, he tells everyone he is being investigated to deprive his enemies of the opportunity to tell us themselves. It is a plan fiendish in its intricacies. Surely it is the work of a mastermind—the kind of mastermind who uses his inherited wealth to rise to the presidency and then, like a phoenix, fails at literally everything else he attempts. You’ve fooled us again, President Trump. We almost thought you were incompetent, for a second.

Eric Trump, subject of photographs

Eric Trump realizes one of the hostages is still alive.

Last night, philanthropist and third-generation millionaire Eric Trump told Sean Hannity that Democrats were “not even people” to him, given the way they obstructed his father’s agenda. His Q factor remained about the same. Even if his father weren’t the most hated man in America, Eric would have a likability problem. I blame photography. For a man who has spent an inordinate amount of his life posing for pictures, Eric has a hard time looking likable on camera. For example, here he is threatening me in church:

When someone is about to take your picture, push your jaw forward and hold your lips as close together as you can without letting them touch. That conveys the most relatable human emotion, seething rage. But don’t forget to show your lighter side, too. Here’s Eric after filling his maid’s room with pigeons:

He got her good. You think this is a weird way for him to smile, but that’s because you haven’t seen the alternative. Here he is meeting you on your first day as his new maid:

I cannot overemphasize how important it is that you never be alone with two out of the three people in this picture. Here’s Eric telling a joke at your grandmother’s funeral:

He came with your cousin, even though they’ve broken up a couple of times in the last year. But what do you want her to do? He’s rich. Here he is after learning that you still have student loan debt.

That’s cool, if you don’t have the money to pay it off. He has the money to pay it off so, personally, if he had student loans, that would be bullshit. But whatever—it takes all kinds, right? Here he is just begging us to Photoshop a dick into his picture:

Even his dad is thinking about it. You don’t think Donald Trump realizes his second son is kind of gooney? The man values appearances above all else. He knows Eric is off-putting, but he loves him. He loves his giant, gummy, probably evil son. Here they are enjoying hot dogs together:

The best part is, they were free. You tell the guy you want two dogs, he passes them down, and when he asks for the money, you tell him you already paid. If he gets his manager or something, insist that he be fired. Who are they going to side with—the hot dog guy or Donald Trump and his son? The trick is to stay close to your dad. It only works if he’s rich.

Kathy Griffin’s head photo is wrong aesthetically, not morally

A photo of Kathy Griffin taken by Tyler Shields for TMZ

The thing about performatively threatening the president is that you want to make it symbolic. Broadly speaking, there are two ways to do that. You can threaten a person who symbolizes the president, as Snoop did when he expressed his frustration with powerful clowns. Or you can make the threat itself symbolic. If I sent you a drawing of me stabbing you in the chest with a knife, you would probably go to the cops. But if I sent you a drawing of one stick figure urinating on another, with the figures labeled “me” and “you” respectively, you would probably take it as less a literal threat than a gesture of contempt. Introducing symbolism lets you perform violence against the president and expect it to be taken as an artistic expression rather than a threat.

That’s where Kathy Griffin messed up. This picture of her holding a severed head is not symbolic enough. With its big stupid hair, the head looks too much like Trump. And campy though it may be from a special-effects perspective, we are clearly looking at a murder scene. The violence is not symbolic, and neither is its target. It’s a photo illustration of Griffin holding up the severed head of the president.

A lot of people have condemned it as a threat. Threatening the president is illegal, even in a joking context, and the AV Club reports that the Secret Service is investigating. I bet their investigation finds that Kathy Griffin ain’t gonna do shit. This photo was obviously a stunt. K-Griff herself said it was all a jape, once it turned out no one thought the picture was cool. I quote Twitter:

2/ OBVIOUSLY, I do not condone ANY violence by my fans or others to anyone, ever! I’m merely mocking the Mocker in Chief.

— Kathy Griffin (@kathygriffin) May 30, 2017

Welp, there goes your plausible deniability re: that could have been anybody’s head. But more importantly, why didn’t anyone think that picture was cool? I submit that the moral condemnations are a dodge, and a reasonable person would not take this photograph as a threat. The problem with it is not moral but aesthetic. All it achieves is to neatly convey the pitfalls of political art.

What does this picture make us think? It tells us that Griffin is very displeased with President Trump. After that comes a howling silence. There is no nuance to any of it, no source of additional meaning. Her face is expressionless, suggesting neither knowingness nor innocence, irony nor sincerity. She makes no comment on her own attitude toward the president. She makes no substantive comment on the man himself, like if the head were smoking a cigarette or wearing Gaddafi glasses or something. Unless you want to argue that her blue blouse symbolizes support for the Democratic Party, the only idea this picture conveys is “Kathy hate Trump” in capital letters. But a piece of paper with that printed on it wouldn’t be audacious enough to go viral.

This audacity introduces the defense that it’s not the photo that matters but the act of releasing it. In the same way the art wasn’t in Warhol’s soup cans so much as in the act of painting them, “Trump Head” is not a photo but a concept piece. Publishing this picture is like putting a shark in a lucite tank or submitting a urinal to the Grand Central Palace exhibition. What happens when Griffin issues a blunt, potentially illegal expression of hatred for the president? You could argue that’s the artistic question examined here, and it’s not a photo but rather a piece of performance art.

Except what happens is utterly safe and predictable, so it fails as performance, too. It’s not as though this picture will cost Griffin her gig in Branson. With the possible exception of Log Cabin Republicans, the overlap between her audience and people who will be offended by this photograph is small. Here lies the natural sin of political art. Where good art asks questions or introduces unfamiliar sensations, political art is tempted to tell people what they already know.

That’s why Bill Maher sucks now. He’s not surprising me to make me laugh; he’s agreeing with me to make me clap. Griffin’s severed head photo does the same thing. It styles itself as defiant, but it’s a bid for applause. It seems dangerous to hold up the head of President Trump, but when you think about it, anyone else’s head would have been riskier. That’s what makes him so insidious.

The worst thing about having this man as president is the brutalization of the poor, sick, and brown. The second-worst thing is the terrible judgment his election laid upon our country’s soul. But way down the list, and perhaps too little remarked, is the problem of how his flat, stupid badness has flattened and stupefied art. So many of us feel so strongly against him that we are apt to mistake any mirror for a picture. The question of how to say something interesting about this man is getting increasingly hard to answer, and yet he is so terribly important.