TIME Media

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: America’s Dark Obsession With Vigilante Justice

DEXTER
Showtime's Dexter Christian Weber—Showtime

Our belief that the government wants to help us achieve fairness is lower than ever—leading to fantasies of lawless revenge

The events in Ferguson and elsewhere across the U.S. have launched a heated national dialogue that questions our faith in the benevolence of government institutions — especially police, judiciary, and politicians. Dead black bodies always makes us wonder whether they really have the best interests of the American people at heart, or just the best interests of some American people. Sometimes in the dense fog of passion and tear gas it is hard to see what values a country as diverse as America really shares. One way to check the heart of American attitudes is to lay our fingers on the pulse of pop culture, which often subtly reveals the truth long before the news pundits compulsively check their Twitter to see what’s trending and chase after it.

One pop culture truth that has clearly emerged over the last few years is that the sharp rise of vigilante heroes in our books, TV, and movies is supplanting the traditional cultural heroes of the precinct, ER, and courtroom. I’m not talking about Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Avengers, or any other super-powered beings fighting other super-powered beings. That’s adventure-fantasy that has little to do with the political or social landscape. I’m talking about our grim-faced, non-powered heroes who, realizing that government is either too impotent or too corrupt to deliver justice, take up arms against the sea of troubles — and by opposing, end them.

A quick look at movies and TV will confirm the rise of these DIY knights: Batman, the Punisher, the Arrow, Black Canary, Sherlock Holmes, Jack Reacher, Kick-Ass, Ray Donovan, Dexter, Luther, House, and the rogues of Persons of Interest and Sons of Anarchy, to name a only a few. Of course, there will always be cop, doctor, and firefighter shows because these dramatic, heroic professions lend themselves to exciting plot conflicts. But to ignore the seismic shift in who we’re elevating as heroes is like ignoring the backpack of meth you found in your teen’s closet.

What these vigilantes have in common is that they take the law into their own hands, sometimes coldly executing those people they decide are too evil to live. At the end of the BBC season of Sherlock, a smug media mogul who has destroyed the lives of many and manipulated governments through blackmail and printing lies thinks he has trapped Sherlock into being arrested. To which Sherlock responds, “Oh, do your research. I’m not a hero, I’m a high-functioning sociopath.” He then shoots the villain in the head. Problem solved. Justice delivered, hot and tasty.

Tempting, isn’t it?

In a world where we witness the most horrific, violent, sick bastards not only getting away with and profiting from crime, but also giving the finger to law enforcement behind a phalanx of high-priced, morally ambiguous lawyers, we can’t help but fantasize about a man like the Punisher who executes mobsters and terrorists and the morally ambiguous on sight.

But is that a healthy fantasy for our nation? And how did America go from admiring lovable police detective Columbo to admiring lovable serial killer Dexter?

Historically, the popularity of the vigilante hero increases during times of social chaos when the people lose confidence in the integrity of government. The golden age of the American private eye story is the 1920s and 1930s, during the Great Depression and Prohibition. In the massive upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s, the outsider vigilante hero again took center stage. For whites it was Clint Eastwood as rogue cop Dirty Harry and white-collar architect Charles Bronson blowing away street punks in several Death Wish movies. For blacks it was blaxploitation movies like Shaft, Trouble Man, Super Fly, and Foxy Brown delivering neighborhood justice while standing up to the condescending Man.

Today, our belief that the government wants to help us achieve justice is lower than ever. Politicians make predictable flag-waving speeches about the bravery and sacrifice of our troops in order to get themselves elected, but allow the Veterans Administration to let vets die through deliberate paper shuffling inaction. Isn’t that the definition of murder? Yet, no one was charged. Justice? No wonder the Punisher and the Executioner are veterans who come home from war, find the country in a bigger mess than the war zone they left, and use their military skills to bring justice.

As of June 2014, a Gallup Poll showed only 7% of Americans had confidence in Congress, the lowest of 17 institutions measured and down from 42% in 1973. Gallup concluded, “The dearth of public confidence in their elected leaders on Capitol Hill is…a challenge to the broad underpinnings of the nation’s representative democratic system.” The criminal justice system only got the support of 23%. If these two powerful symbols of democracy and justice have no public confidence, then when it comes to fixing the system who we gonna call?

Dexter?

The problem is that the highly entertaining and emotionally satisfying legend of the Just Vigilante is only a fantasy — and one with possible harmful real-life effects.

First, it perpetuates the idea among our young that having corruption in government or big business justifies breaking the law. If you cheat on your taxes, shoplift from a department store, or don’t vote, aren’t you just sticking it to Corrupt Society? Getting a little street justice, instant karma, or political payback? No, you’re just emulating their despicable behavior. If you become just like your enemy, who’s really won?

Second, the vigilante fantasy encourages thinking of violence as the default method of solving problems. That’s the opposite of what this country stands for, which is reasoned, thoughtful debate in an effort to resolve differences peacefully. It is not meant to be an excuse to grab your guns and line up on the border threatening children. Or open carrying guns into Denny’s frightening patrons.

Third, it undermines the concept of American justice by celebrating emotion over logic. Our judicial ethos proclaims that the only way to ensure justice is to deliberate rationally, without passion. Our vigilante heroes are often triggered by a rage for revenge due to the murder of a loved one. That’s the worst person to be in charge of seeking justice. Police blotters are filled with real revenge shootings in which the perpetrators killed the wrong people or innocent bystanders. We’ve seen how often an entire system of well-meaning professionals gets it wrong and convicts innocent people. Certainly the odds go up when one person without all the evidence judges guilt or innocence.

Fourth, many fictional vigilante heroes rationalize their actions because the villains “got out on a technicality” or “beat it through a legal loophole.” Nothing infuriates us more and we angrily blame our judicial system for these “technicalities” and “loopholes.” And yet, often the technicality or loophole that we so hate is actually something important, like searching without a warrant, racially profiling, or not reading Miranda rights. These aren’t minor “technicalities,” they are the foundation of the American ideal of protecting our people against the abuses of power. They are defending our Constitution as legitimately as soldiers on a front line. Yes, there will be miscarriages of justice because of these technicalities, but that doesn’t mean we dismantle the judicial system anymore than abandoning soldiers in a just cause just because we lose some to the miscarriage of friendly fire. We can’t parade around in stars-and-stripes sweaters getting teary-eyed when talking about patriotism, then turn around and complain about safeguards of the Constitution, the symbol of what we are being patriotic about.

Of course, our growing need for these stories is a symptom, not the disease. We need to accept that our stories are a sign of the times and try to fix the problems that give rise to our fantasies of taking the law in our own hands. The disenfranchised in society — the poor, women, minorities, LGBT — are even hungrier for justice than the mainstream because they experience less of it. It’s deliciously appropriate to our times that the new version of The Equalizer features Denzel Washington as the ex-Black Op agent now working at a Home Depot helping average people rather than the wealthy British original (brilliantly portrayed by Edward Woodward).

There are times when the individual should stand up to the communal notions of right and wrong, as did Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, and Gloria Steinem. But they did it with words, with courage, with intellect — not with violence. My hope is that we use the abundance of vigilante literature to fuel our outrage at injustice and to inspire us to, rather than cynically pull a trigger, fix what’s broken in our system through peaceful protest and the ballot box.

TIME Media

Patton Oswalt: Why I Quit Twitter—And Will Again

Maybe the next fashionable rebellion is to become “unlinked"—only reachable face-to-face

On June 1 of this year I resolved to take a break from all social media. No Twitter, no Facebook. No visiting click-bait video sites, news aggregators, or any link with the words “… you won’t BELIEVE …” in the title. I logged off on June 1st and planned my return for Tuesday, September 2.

In the first week alone I dropped 15 pounds, re-watched Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue, built a sustainable small-yield garden for my daughter, and learned knife throwing. By the second week I’d read all three volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, completed a triathlon, and cooked the first half of Marcus Samuelsson’s Aquavit cookbook. By week three I had melded my consciousness with the sphere-bleed of galactic central point’s sentient Time Shell and hiked the Andes.

Actually, I spent the first week silently lurking on Twitter, checking my “@” mentions, visiting the feeds of people I both love and despise. I did the usual Google searches of my name and played game after game of GemCraft: Chasing Shadows. I gained weight. I started but still haven’t finished Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and Howard Cruse’s Stuck Rubber Baby. I still clicked on videos. Visited my usual news aggregate haunts. Wasted time.

The second and third week weren’t much different, but … they weren’t the same. A couple of times, in line at a grocery store or coffee shop, instead of taking out my phone to stiff-arm the creeping ennui, I’d look around instead. At the world. At the people around me. Most of them looking at their phones. We now inhabit a planet where the majority of the population is constantly staring downwards, entranced, twiddling like carpenter ants. Do pickpockets know they’re living in a second renaissance?

Sometimes I’d catch the gaze of a holdout like me. A freak without a phone. Adrift in this gallery of bowed heads. A teenager, whose phone had probably died. Or a slightly older “millennial,” probably waiting for a video to load. But they were unique and far between. It was, mostly, people my age, and older—stooped, staring statues, peeping at windows in their palms.

Once I’d gotten past the first month, though, I noticed an interesting pattern. By this point I rarely looked at my phone. The only times I’d use Twitter was to re-Tweet a link to a project I was involved in, or help promote a friend’s documentary, or fund­raising effort, or album release. My phone only came out of my pocket if I needed to call someone or, more often, text someone. More and more, my eyes met the world. At eye level.

Those holdout freaks I talked about? The teen whose phone battery I assumed had died? Or the older millennial I assumed was downloading a video? They were the ones not using their phones. They had the strongest immunity to the devices’ pull. It was the older people, the over-40s like me, and those way older, who couldn’t escape the tiny gravity of connection constantly yanking us out of existence.

Maybe it’s because this younger generation doesn’t have the demarcation we have—of a world before cell phones and then after. It was always there for them. So it’s not a novelty. And thus has less power. They don’t remember the endorphin rush of sudden connectivity, like when people my age first logged onto dial-up Internet and, after 10 minutes, sheepishly searched for their own name. Or the first time we received an email. And when those things happened on our phones? It was like the apes touching the monolith at the beginning of 2001.

I really enjoyed these three months away. Slowly weaning myself off of social media has, ironically, made me feel younger. At least, I have the habits of a much younger person now. I used social media—at least for these past 90 days—at the frequency of a 20 year old. Occasionally, like it wasn’t some exotic novelty, and didn’t need to be consumed like a wine whose supply was finite.

Here’s a thought—what if the next fashionable rebellion, from whatever generation rears its head after the millennials, is to become “unlinked.” Only reachable face-to-face. Hmm.

I think I’m going to do this every summer. June 1 to post–Labor Day. Eyes up, logged off. Remember how, in The Matrix, mankind had become batteries, so the machines could feed off of us? Well, it’s happening now, just 140 words at a time. It’s too late to go back, but you can carve out three hot months to recharge.

Oswalt is a stand-up comedian, writer and actor.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: August 26

1. “This is a reflection of long-standing and growing inequalities of access to basic systems of healthcare delivery.” –Partners in Health co-founder Paul Farmer on the Ebola outbreak.

By Democracy Now!

2. Despite commitments to the contrary, elite colleges are still failing to bring poorer students into the fold.

By Richard Pérez-Peña in the New York Times

3. #ISISMediaBlackout: Tuning out Islamist rhetoric and taking out their powerful propaganda weapon.

By Nancy Messieh at the Atlantic Council

4. What makes income inequality so pernicious? The shocking odds against moving up the income ladder for some Americans.

By Richard Reeves at the Brookings Institution

5. The specter of Iraq’s looming collapse is inflaming concerns about Afghanistan’s electoral crisis. But the two countries are very different.

By The Editors of Bloomberg View

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Media

Stop Pretending Nothing Happens in August

President Richard Nixon Resignation At White House In Washington On August 9Th 1974
President Richard Nixon Resignation at White House in Washington on August 9th 1974. Keystone-France—Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

The month of beach vacations is also when World War I broke out, Iraq invaded Kuwait and the U.S. bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki

The headlines these days all seem to demand exclamation marks. Iraq is teetering on the brink! Russian troops are massing on the Ukrainian border! Gaza lies in ruins! World’s worst Ebola epidemic afflicts Africa!

Oh, and it is also National Goat Cheese Month. Welcome to another quiet and peaceful August.

Yeah, right. One of the puzzles of summer is why so many of us persist in pretending that August is a month when nothing happens, when we can step back, tune out, take a break, and recharge. Europeans even think they are entitled to take the entire month off.

Perhaps there’s something about late summer, a couple months gone since school let out in June, that makes us forget our history. This year, August is full of reminders. We’re commemorating the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s resignation and the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I.

Bellicose August also brought the Gulf of Tonkin incident that triggered our involvement in Vietnam, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the failed coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact in 1939 that enabled Hitler to invade Poland on September 1, and the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945 and ensuing Japanese surrender. Hurricane Katrina also occurred in August, but let’s leave Mother Nature out of it.

There’s a melancholic quality to August, a month nearly synonymous with “waning days of summer.” Less acknowledged in our cultural vernacular is the extent to which the “waning” feeling is as much about the end of another year as it is about the end of summer.

Sure, we sing “Auld Lang Syne,” kiss under the mistletoe, and wish each other a “Happy New Year” when December turns to January. But who among us doesn’t feel that the real reset moment each year, the new beginning, comes in September, the day after Labor Day? The fall is when we start school and football season and the U.S. government fiscal year, and when we get serious, if we ever do, about our work.

August, then, is about the waning not only of summer, but also of each passing year, and lost possibilities. It is about the waning of life, even. There is a grasping, desperate quality to many of the historical events that took place in August—hence the resonance of the title of Barbara W. Tuchman’s historical bestseller about the outset of World War I, The Guns of August. It’s quite fashionable to study the sequence of events that led to the so-called “Great War,” which in retrospect appear like dominoes falling as if on a predetermined course. The rest of the war is far less fashionable to read about, as it proves too muddled a narrative. Best to focus on the August beginning, and how it ended all that came before.

Mischief conspires with melancholia in August, the notion that mice can play while the cat’s vacationing. It’s not clear whether Saddam Hussein thought he would get away with taking over Kuwait if he did so while the American president was summering in Maine, or whether that president’s son, when he was in office a decade later, would have taken warnings of an airborne al Qaeda plot more seriously had he been briefed about them at some time and place other than August at his Texas ranch.

August and the waning days of summer (and of the year, I insist) is when we let our guards down, creating an opening for those with an agenda, be it the invasion of Poland or Kuwait, or the shorting of the pound (George Soros famously bet against the British currency in August 1992, and won big). So keep your eye on colleagues who seem especially busy and eager to stick around the office this month. Who knows what they’re up to?

Financial markets are notoriously slow in August, the month of lowest trading volumes, when bankers follow their clients to the beach. But “slow” can be a deceptive term in business as in life, given that lower volume and less liquidity in a market can make it more volatile, and more susceptible to speculation. If you buy or sell 1,000 shares of a company, you are far more likely to influence that stock price on a day when only 5,000 shares trade hands than on a day when 100,000 shares trade hands.

That same dynamic applies to anyone seeking to influence the outcome of any event: your influence increases the fewer people are engaged. Which is what makes this such a dodgy month, and the current news headlines so ominous.

And now, I’m off to the beach for a week. It’s August, after all.

Andres Martinez is editorial director of Zocalo Public Square, for which he writes the Trade Winds column. This piece originally appeared at Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Television

Chuck Todd to Take Over Meet the Press

MSNBC Anchors - Season 2014
Chuck Todd, who will leave MSNBC's Daily Rundown to take over Meet the Press Charles Ommanney/MSNBC

A big change? It depends whether you think the show's big problem was David Gregory or Meet the Press itself.

On Thursday, NBC announced a major transition in its Sunday-morning news strategy: from a guy without facial hair to a guy with facial hair. As had been rumored for weeks, NBC is ditching David Gregory as host of Meet the Press, which he has moderated since 2008, in favor of White House correspondent Chuck Todd.

Todd will give up the White House post, as well as his MSNBC show Daily Rundown, which may insulate him from charges of association with MSNBC’s left-leaning hosts. Gregory, who has taken blame for a decline in ratings, will leave the network altogether–indeed, he was all but dropped through a trap door, departing immediately in favor of Todd, who takes over September 7.

How big a deal this is to you depends in part on how big a deal the Sunday shows remain to you. (Disclosure: I watch television for a living, am deeply into news, politics and government, and I watch them only when forced.) One explanation for NBC’s ratings drop was Gregory’s less-than-energetic style; the chipper, data-driven Todd should bring a change in tone, and NBC says it plans to make to-be-determined changes under Todd.

But I don’t think Gregory was ever MTP‘s real problem. And there’s no sign, with this hire, that the show intends to change its inside-Washington focus on who’s up and who’s down and how it all affects an election cycle that never ends.

Todd, who remains NBC’s political director, is sharp, eager and routinely praised as a “politics junkie.” But it’s worth considering that that phrase does not mean the same thing as “policy junkie.” And in the world of Sunday-morning TV, the former is the kind of junkie you want to be if you want to get ahead: you need to be mainlining poll results and campaign positioning and 2016 speculation–the stuff of who gets in power and how, not of why anyone would want them to be there and what works and doesn’t in government. The latter affects all Americans, a lot, and the Sunday shows are now generally built on the assumption that they don’t care about it.

All of which to say is, Chuck Todd will probably be just fine, maybe even very good, as host of Meet the Press. He’s engaged, quick-witted and always seems to have done his homework plus the extra credit. When you want to break down the currents and political map of an election, Todd’s one of your best guys. But Meet the Press, it seems, will continues to be what Meet the Press has become: rounds of interviews with leaders the major parties have offered up (i.e., John McCain), framed as a discussion of who won and lost the week.

If you think the main problem with Meet the Press was David Gregory, this is probably a good change for you. But if you think the problem with Meet the Press–and the other Sunday shows–is themselves, you’ll have to wait and see if MTP shows any signs of breaking out of permanent campaign mode.

TIME Media

It’s Now Guns Vs. Cameras in Ferguson

The arrests and tear-gassing of journalists in an American city is an outrage—in part because everyone is the media now.

+ READ ARTICLE

“Stop videotaping!”

It’s about the first thing you hear in the handheld video Washington Post journalist Wesley Lowery took of his being arrested by police in Ferguson, Mo., Wednesday night, along with Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post, for “trespassing”—in an open McDonald’s—while covering the unrest after the shooting death by police of Michael Brown. The two journalists were detained, roughed up and held in a cell before being released later the same night. (You can read Lowery’s account of the arrest here, and Reilly’s here.) Their only evident provocation: doing their work at Mickey D’s and using the wi-fi.

Lowery and Reilly were obviously not the only people taken into custody that night. Others in the streets were tear-gassed and hit by rubber bullets as police met the protesters, outfitted in SWAT gear and accompanied by snipers on armored vehicles. Nor were they they the only journalists targeted: here you can see footage of an Al Jazeera America crew fleeing their video equipment after getting hit with tear gas, after which a SWAT vehicle pulls up and police take down the camera and lights.

A SWAT team. To take out cameras. In the United States of America. Because you know how dangerous it is when people start pointing those things around.

I want to be careful about this, because I don’t want to give the impression that somehow it only matters when it’s reporters who get arrested or hurt. You can say what you want about the implications of there being what amounts to a war zone in an American city after a police shooting–but reporters do cover dangerous places like war zones, and they expose themselves to risk. So to be clear, I’m not saying that journalists are somehow sacrosanct, or that an injury to a law-abiding reporter matters more than an injury to a law-abiding regular citizen.

But it does matter.

It matters, both morally and practically, that police took two journalists into custody for, essentially, covering the police. It matters morally because having media at a confrontation like this is a way of bringing the world in. When journalists are forced out of the scene, you’re cut out of the picture. And when there isn’t an observer with the power to get word out, widely and quickly, then bad actors—whoever they are—can act in secret.

It also matters practically because, being honest, it draws media attention. Journalists do pay more attention to stories that involve other journalists, which is the sort of thing that can bring the fiasco unfolding here to the next level of coverage. (Earlier in the week, for instance, Ferguson was struggling for newshole space with the death of Robin Williams–and, yes, I know I’m speaking from a magazine that put Williams on its cover this week.)

And if law enforcement wants to retain some level of trust as the story gets framed, this is not a great way to do it. If police in Missouri are willing to do this to people with a media platform, how, it’s reasonable to ask, will they treat someone who doesn’t? Not to mention that attacks on the press make law enforcement look not only sinister but inept. Just as, in Washington political journalism, pundits use the way a candidate handles media as a measure of a campaign’s competence, going to war against reporters shows that (at best) things are not being thought through here.

And it matters because it wasn’t just Lowery who was ordered, “Stop videotaping!” Multiple reports came in Wednesday night of riot police telling the media and the crowd in general not to photograph or video-record. (It is in fact, the belief of some officers to the contrary, 100% legal to photograph the police.) Because here’s the thing: accredited journalists are not the only media on scene in Ferguson, or anywhere. Smartphones make everyone a camera crew, and social media gives everyone a platform, if not an equal one. Here in New York City, it was a bystander who recorded Eric Garner’s fatal chokehold arrest. Police who crack down on journalists are by extension cracking down on anyone who might use a camera in a way they don’t like–which nowadays, is almost all of us.

The arrests of journalists is not an outrage because journalists deserve special outrage. It’s an outrage because, now, we are all the media.

Keep videotaping.

 

TIME Crime

2 Journalists Arrested, Detained in Ferguson, Mo., While Covering Protests

They were covering protests in the Missouri town that have been raging in the wake of the deadly shooting of 18-year-old Mike Brown

Updated August 14 at 1:00 a.m. ET

Two journalists said they were arrested and detained Wednesday in Ferguson, Mo., while covering protests that have been raging in the wake of the deadly police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown last week.

Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post and Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post tweeted they were arrested while doing reporting at a McDonald’s restaurant in Ferguson. “Police came into McD where me and @ryanjreilly working,” Lowery tweeted. “Try to kick everyone out.”

Reilly later tweeted that they were arrested for “not packing their bags quick enough” at the McDonald’s. The two journalists have been covering the aftermath of the shooting of the unarmed teen in Ferguson, which has sparked protests in the suburban St. Louis town. Lowery said on the Rachel Maddow Show on Wednesday that the McDonald’s was located near “ground zero” of protests that have drawn national media attention.

In a first-hand account of his own arrest published in the Washington Post late Wednesday night, Lowery offered a detailed account of the arrest, as well as video of a police officer telling him to stop filming. Although he did not resist the officers taking him into custody, Lowery writes, they slammed him into a soda machine.

His account of the arrest includes this exchange:

“I hope you’re happy with yourself,” one officer told me. And I responded: “This story’s going to get out there. It’s going to be on the front page of The Washington Post tomorrow.”

And he said, “Yeah, well, you’re going to be in my jail cell tonight.”

A strong police force greeted protesters on Wednesday—Huffington Post‘s Reilly tweeted images of officers with assault weapons, wearing helmets, and peering from out of armored vehicles.

Lowery said police detained the two, though they were later released without charges.

Calls to the St. Louis County Police Department to confirm the arrests were not immediately returned.

TIME Media

Genius, Mensch, Sad Clown: Dissecting What Robin Williams Really Meant to People

Robin Williams
Peter Hapak for TIME

The words used to describe the icon have a rich history that makes them even more appropriate than people realize

The world has lost a lot this week: a comedic genius, a real mensch, a sad clown. Remembrances of actor and comedian Robin Williams, who was found dead on Monday, have repeatedly summed him up with the same few words.

Some readers were learning the terms that cycled and recycled through the news. After Steve Martin tweeted his reaction to Williams’ death—“I could not be more stunned by the loss of Robin Williams, mensch, great talent, acting partner, genuine soul.”—mensch became the fifth most searched word on Google.

But even those who didn’t have to thumb through their dictionaries may be surprised to learn the history behind these suddenly ubiquitous words, much of which makes them even more appropriate for the sad task they’ve had this week.

“Robin Williams, an Improvisational Genius, Forever Present in the Moment”

— New York Times headline on August 11, 2014

genius (n.)

In the Middle Ages, a genius was a supernatural being. In classic Latin, the word referred to the male spirit living in the head of a family, which was then passed into everyone else through him. And in the Middle Ages, genius came to describe an attendant spirit that was assigned to each person at birth, and sometimes two mutually opposed spirits (you know, the good genius and the evil genius). This same root gave rise to the word genie, like the lamp-dwelling one Williams’ voiced in Aladdin, who could be good or evil depending on who his master was.

Because a genius was to accompany people through life, fulfilling their fortunes and then escorting them off the mortal coil, the word came to refer to the essential character of someone and their natural aptitudes for things. And so writers using it now to refer to Williams’ singular talents are also, likely unknowingly, connoting a battle of the selves that geniuses have represented throughout history.

I could not be more stunned by the loss of Robin Williams, mensch, great talent, acting partner, genuine soul.

— Steve Martin (@SteveMartinToGo) August 11, 2014

mensch (n.)

This Yiddish word is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a person of integrity who is morally just. But there is more to the word’s aura than that. Yiddish scholars could argue endlessly about the precise nuances, but mensch is often used to describe someone who is not only admirable but who should be emulated, a willing mentor who thinks beyond themselves in a way that shows strong character, not passivity.

Writer H.L. Mencken described a mensch this way: “an upright, honorable, decent person” and “someone of consequence.” Others argue that a mensch must be approachable and that a true mensch would never call himself a mensch, probably because he’s too busy putting the community above himself.

Like many Yiddish words, this one has been adopted into the American vernacular in a way that is evolving and richly imprecise. But most qualities assigned to the word, however Steve Martin meant it, have been reflected in other words people have recently used to describe what Williams’ was like as a family member and neighbor. The local comedy club in Mill Valley, Calif., where Williams could often be found backstage encouraging young comedians, canceled their weekly comedy night for the first time in 10 years this Tuesday, out of respect for their mensch.

The word’s origins are related to those of mannish. No, not the mannish we use now to refer to hairy or masculine folk, but a long obsolete usage. In Old English, being “mannish” meant one was of mankind, exhibiting humanity itself and human nature. And being mannish is at the heart of comedy, the quality of unspoken truths Williams’ indirectly told his audiences about, and made them laugh about, through his jokes and voices. You know, it’s funny because it’s true.

Robin Williams the ‘sad clown’

— Toronto Sun headline on August 11, 2014

(sad) clown (n.)

The word clown originally meant something along the lines of “lump.” From there, the word came to describe a clumsy boor or a lout—often some crass hayseed-type with no class or culture. Circa Shakespearean times, clowns evolved as fools who played up their ignorance or cultivated oddity for laughs, either in a court or on a stage. They were servants and sidekicks who might humiliate themselves, and hide their true selves, for others’ pleasure. And they could use that distance to mock more powerful figures by transforming themselves into something grotesque—and funny.

In Europe’s Romantic days, the notion of a sad clown—the type of character whose costume romantically masks inner turmoil—became popular. Part of this comes from the Italian Commedia dell’Arte theater that relied on certain stock characters that cropped up again and again. One of them was a bumpkin that actors began playing as a melancholy clown. Literary types were drawn to the sad clown as a character who was a creative master unappreciated by the public (no doubt because some of them felt that way themselves).

Certainly Robin Williams was appreciated, though perhaps not for the whole artist he might have been, after deviating from the Flubber era into more serious, darker roles. But he came to the American public as a clown. His first big part, as an alien learning human behavior on Mork & Mindy, was a creature weird and unrefined, a figure on the margins of humanity that knew life on this planet in a different way than the rest of us, in all its cruel, lovely sense and nonsense.

This is an edition of Wednesday Words, a weekly feature on language. For the previous post, click here.

TIME Media

#IfTheyGunnedMeDown and What Hashtag Activism Does Right

Social media protests have their limits, but one thing they're very, very good at is grassroots media criticism.

The injury, a deadly one, came first. Unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot to death by police in Ferguson, Mo. Then came the insult: many news accounts used a photo of Brown that showed him, unsmiling, gesturing at the camera in a way that led to unsubstantiated claims that he was “flashing gang signs.”

This portrayal of Brown, who is African American, recalled the quasi-trial-by-photo of Trayvon Martin, another young black man shot to death. It became another racially charged statement in a controversial killing, as outlets illustrated their stories with pictures that–rather than show the dead teen smiling or in a family context–led commenters to call him a “thug” and thus to suggest that he brought his death on himself.

So as people protested in the streets of Ferguson, a meta-protest began on social media. Twitter users, especially African Americans, began a meta-protest, posting pairs of photos with the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown: a young man in a military dress uniform, say, and the same poster flipping off the camera. If I got shot down, each post asked, which version of me would the media show you? (See more #IfTheyGunnedMeDown tweets here.)

The term “hashtag activism” has become a kind of putdown lately, with the connotation that it’s substituting gestures for action, as if getting something trending is a substitute for actually going out and engaging with the world. And sometimes the criticism is justified: no amount of social-media RT-ing managed to capture guerrilla leader Joseph Kony, for instance.

But #IfTheyGunnedMeDown was a simple, ingenious DIY form of media criticism: direct, powerful, and meaningful on many levels. It made the blunt point that every time a media outlet chooses a picture of someone like Brown, it makes a statement. It created identification: so many ordinary people–students, servicemen and women, community volunteers–could be made to look like a public menace with one photo dropped in a particular context. And it made a particular racial point: that it’s so much easier, given our culture’s racial baggage, for a teenager of color to be made to look like a “thug” than white teen showing off for a camera the exact same way.

It was a brilliant media critique, and while Twitter and other platforms may have no magical power to stop shootings or catch warlords, one thing they are very good at is catching the attention of the media. Journalists pay attention to Twitter–disproportionate attention, maybe–and that makes it a very, very good place to deliver the modern version of a letter to the editor. You could say similar of #YesAllWomen, or of the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag of earlier this year: no, it didn’t have the power to free the Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram, but it did put the story on homepages and newscasts often resistant to overseas news, especially from sub-Saharan Africa.

#IfTheyGunnedMeDown is not going to stop anyone from being gunned down, but it most likely lodged in the memory of editors and producers who make judgments every day. Sure, many of them are already aware of the power of image choices, but #IfTheyGunnedMeDown chose its own images to make a powerful statement–one that people are likely to remember the next time “if” becomes “when.”

TIME Gadgets

Here Come the iPhone 6 Rumors

Here's a look at what you can expect when Apple announces the iPhone 6

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Both Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal report that Apple will unveil its two new iPhones at a Sept. 9 event.

According to reports, the iPhone 6 will come in two sizes, a 4.7″ and a 5.5″ screen size. This will help Apple in its efforts to appeal to a larger market internationally, where the desire for larger screens have hurt its sales in the global market.

Mac Rumors has said the newest iPhone to be debuted from Apple will be thinner and lighter with an updated processor.

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