Wednesday, 23 December 2015

You're going to help us, Mr Anderson, whether you want to or not

This article should probably start in the same way as the Wikipedia page, whose first sentence I reproduce here in all its glory:

Cornealious Michael "Mike" Anderson III (born c. 1977) is an American convict whose case became nationally known when it was discovered (when he was due to be released) that, due to a clerical error, he was never imprisoned.
This was a big story in 2013 and 2014, although I never heard it at the time. But despite being self-evidently remarkable, I am of course less interested in the story itself and more in its chronicling by Wikipedia.

The gist is this: our man Cornealious, apparently the third of his great name, robbed a Burger King at gunpoint in August 1999, and in March 2000, he was sentenced to 13 years behind bars. He was released on bail during an appeal, but when this was rejected, the erstwhile Missouri Department of Corrections made no effort to return him to its custody, evidently burdened by the belief that he was already in it. Cornealious proceeded to live out a relatively happy and peaceable 13 years, which included getting married and founding his own company. In another standout sentence, Wikipedia states: "He registered his business, he voted, he renewed his driver's licence all using his full name and address."

No one noticed until 2013, when, as I like to imagine it, a bored guard turned up at an empty cell, looking at his clipboard and muttering if anyone had seen Anderson.

Wikipedia compares the case to that of Rene Lima-Marin, also convicted of armed robbery in 2000, this time in Colorado. Rene was sentenced to 98 years behind bars (justice!) but was erroneously released after a mere 8, without anyone - even Rene - realising that this was 9 decades early. "He became active in his church, married his former girlfriend, helped raise her son, and had another son with her." In a lovely, if suspicious, turn out for the books, Rene and Cornealious were represented by the same lawyer.

Now, the article spends more than 2,300 words describing these two cases, along with some of the "controversy" that they provoked in the media - this alone surely represents overzealous attention to detail for what is essentially a minor, if novel and attention-grabbing, moment in US legal history. But what I feel is really outstanding is the further 800 words dedicated to a section titled, drily, "Analysis".

The Analysis reads like an undergraduate law school assignment, comparing and contrasting several legal authorities (fully referenced, with citations for each publication) and their takes on what the whole kerfuffle says about the US justice system. Of particular note is the fact that Cornealious became - in the time he spent not in prison - by all accounts a fully reformed and upstanding member of society. As the judge finally put it in 2014: "Go home to your family, Mr. Anderson, and continue to be a good father, a good husband, a good taxpayer... Good luck to you."

This is to be contrasted - as the wiki-academics do at length - with the penal system as a whole, which has a famously poor record when it comes to reforming inmates. Consider the pros and cons weighed in this short, but thoughtful, passage:
Two thirds of people released from prison reoffend and often by committing a more serious crime. Instead of rehabilitating, prisons train people to be more violent.[29] According to Zeman, the failure to rehabilitate is a threat to society, but that it is a hard sell to convince those who focus on incarceration as punishment that incarceration should focus on rehabilitation.[29] According to Gilligan, allowing prisoners access to education and obtaining a college degree is the only program that has ever been shown effective in reducing recidivism.[29] However, such education programs are either viewed as too lenient or they are ineffectual in most prisons in the United States.[29]
Now, you or I might wonder what the minutiae of different expert opinions on modern recidivism has to do with a brief media sensation in 2013, but Wikipedia appears undaunted as it ploughs on for several lengthy paragraphs. This is why I love this website. The piece goes on to thoroughly explore the ideas of a man named Jayadev, who eventually makes Cornealious more or less a poster child for penal reform, citing the ludicrous costs of incarceration, the likelihood of re-offence and the problem of mandatory sentencing.

So if you ever thought Wikipedia was a simple one-stop shop for basic facts about stuff, remember Cornealious III. 

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

If you ain't scared, you ain't alive

OK, bear with. I'm going to attempt a short review of the new Pixar film, the Good Dinosaur, onto which I will then try to shoehorn such topics as: Batman, Dylan Thomas, Ernest Hemingway, Woody Allen, Arya Stark and the quest for immortality. But mainly it's about death. Spoilers follow.

I liked the film. It's a fairly simple Western for kids with a few good gags, even if it leans little heavily on the sentimentality. But the story is great. Pixar didn't do a film last year - a traumatic absence - but they made up for it this year with two films that approach storytelling in what to me feels like an exciting new way. Like Inside Out, the Good Dinosaur sees our hero plunged against his will into a fantastical landscape through which he must make his way home, learning much about himself and growing as a character as a result of his experiences along the way.

This is the hero's journey structure, used in virtually every great Disney film since Chris Vogler famously introduced it to the studio in 1985. In its particular incarnation in children's animations, the hero's journey has developed certain moral overtones (not that these are unique to Disney of course), which can be simplified as: the character has a Defect, and over the course of the Journey, it is Rectified.

Simba is childish and burdened with guilt; at the end of the film he is wise and has Remembered who he Is. Pocahontas doesn't know which path to take; she finds it as a peace-maker. Mulan can't seem to be a proper woman; she learns that proper womanhood lies in saving the Empire, sorry, I mean bravery and doing the Right Thing. Aladdin hates his scavenging street-rat status; eventually he uses honesty to earn the love of a Princess. Quasimodo is jealous of the freedom of others; by the end he is, almost manically, pushing the love of his life into the arms of another.

In Inside Out, Joy's problem is that Riley is sad, and in the Good Dinosaur, Arlo is afraid. But here's where things are slightly novel: the solution isn't to extinguish sadness or fear, but to find these "negative" emotions' utility. Joy realises that Riley needs to be able to feel sadness to grow as a person, and Arlo realises, in the words of the daddy Rex, "If you ain't scared, you ain't alive". Inside Out definitely makes this point more clearly, because Arlo has to overcome his fear at key moments, but the idea is still there and it's a good one to explore.

It's difficult for most of us in life to attempt a proper hero's journey where we completely change ourselves and purge our defects - for most people, it's more realistic to come to terms with them, and often, they're important to hold on to, because they help us in ways we might forget about. It's a profound, difficult and exciting idea, and it speaks to Pixar's immense creative talent that they are willing to pioneer it.

The point about fear is actually something that I've thought quite a lot about in the past. It was best brought home to me in one particular line from the Good Dinosaur, crowbarred though it may have been. The crazed, murderous pterodactyl Thunderclap attacks his foes by proclaiming the source of his power: "I have seen the eye of the Storm and I forgot what fear is!"

Now, Thunderclap is an insane cargo cult leader in a movie for infants, but I think his character really gets to the nub of what's so damaging about fanatical belief in anything. Cults and religions (wherever you draw the line between the two) are pretty much targeted precisely at people's fear. They offer the ability to remove your fear (of death, of being alone, of whatever) and replace it with an unthinking - but shared, communal - dogma. Dogma is something which you can trust and defend, whatever happens. You never need to worry again. But it's when you lose the ability to fear that you gain the ability to become a fanatic. In other words, fear is necessary for our sanity, not something to be driven out or overcome.

This brings me onto my next point (although, let's be honest, when is it ever not my next point?) - my crippling fear of death. As often as possible, I like to rewatch my favourite scene from Midnight in Paris:

I don't want to dive into the thorny topic of Hemingway's sanity, but in my view you've got to be completely barmy not to fear death. By comparison to his passionate denial of fear, the archetypal New Yorker neuroticism looks positively well adjusted, but it is the former that is held up as virtuous and manly. Whenever a thing's primary recommendation is that mainstream masculinity approves of it, you know there's a strong chance it's nonsense.

Being as obsessed with the fear of death as Mr Allen, it's something that I've written about before in the context of Chris Nolan's final Batman movie, the Dark Knight Rises. In that film, Batman is completely willing to lay down his life to protect his city, but what is really required of him is something much more challenging: to find the will not to die, but to live. To regain a fear of death. Like the Good Dinosaur, what the Dark Knight Rises shows so well is that fear can be a strength; it's something that can make life so much more worth living.

That's why I find it so difficult to understand the (very common) position that immortality should be avoided. Medical science has hinted at the possibility that, at some point in the next century, perhaps, ageing can be slowed and stopped. Yet some of my earliest memories involve being taught, earnestly, that death is not something to fear, that you can only achieve peace and happiness in life if you come to terms with the inevitability of its end. Many "wise" and "zen" philosophies (and of course religions) are built on this principle. But for the person who is happy to die, what kind of value can be placed on living?!

That's why I'd like to end this exceptionally strange monologue with a call to arms in support of research towards longevity and, hopefully immortality. Like my other hero, Game of Thrones' Arya, the correct response to death ought to be "not today!" We have the radical potential - just maybe - to be the first generation to truly embrace fear, embrace life, and to finally rage with some effectiveness against the dying of the light. And that should be a cause for hope.