On Monday, the editors at Merriam-Webster, the acknowledged delineator of American English, named “justice” as its Word of the Year for 2018. The company cited a 74% increase in look-ups of the word over 2017, and said it was one of the most consulted words throughout 2018.
“The concept of justice was at the center of many of our national debates in the past year: racial justice, social justice, criminal justice, economic justice,” Merriam-Webster said in explaining its choice, going on to add, “In any conversation about these topics, the question of just what exactly we mean when we use the term justice is relevant, and part of the discussion.”
Indeed, it is. As well as our interpretation, the connotation, not just the denotation, we put on the word. And how it relates to our belief systems, both in the instant and in the bigger scheme of things. And how it works, or doesn’t, in actual practice.
Ironically, I got the news of this selection on the car radio on my way back from St. Pete, where I had my latest encounter for what passes for “justice” in contemporary America. I had filed a motion to hold the miscreant who had destroyed one of my boats, in clear violation of an agreement he had entered into with me and over which the court retains jurisdiction, in contempt. What I told the judge – this was before learning it was Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year – that I was seeking one thing, summed up in a single word, and that word was “justice.” I was boiling things down to their most basic objective, and that word expresses it.
Well, I got some reasoned explanations from the judge, and some references to precedence in prior court decisions on the kind if issue I was raising, and agreement that I had suffered significant losses at this guy’s hands. And what I came away with was . . . wait for it, wait for it . . . not justice. Anything but. Even, in an oblique way, the judge agreed I wasn’t going to get justice, regardless what I did or the other party did. Sure, I could continue to pursue the matter, at whatever cost and effort it takes, but it wasn’t going to make any difference in the end, as far as the judge was concerned. I was, in the slang acronym that applies in this case, SOL.
So you can understand why the radio report on M-W’s Word of the Year got my attention. It wasn’t the only thing on my mind driving across Tampa Bay on the Howard Frankland Bridge on the way back when I heard it, given the ongoing and persistent reminders these days of the injustice inherent in our system and those entrusted with implementing it. But it certainly brought the reality of that injustice home once more. In truth, I didn’t have much expectation going into the hearing that I was going to get the justice I sought. This wasn’t my first encounter with the American system of “justice,” including several tours through so-called “family court,” which is an oxymoron if there ever was one, so I was conditioned by experience to know how these things usually go. And in that sense, I wasn’t disappointed.
This is not meant cynically – you can draw your own conclusion whether cynicism is justified or not –but what I’ve come to expect is that wrong-doers are more likely than not to be rewarded for their misdeeds, or at best not penalized for them. And the wronged party is, if not outrightly punished – which experience and observation has shown me happens in a significant percentage of cases – left as I was in this case, SOL.
If this was just a personal issue it would be bad enough. But today we were witnessing an American hero, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, facing sentencing (later deferred) for lying to the FBI. Normally one might assume that, as the judge in that case said this morning, this is a serious offense. But put in the context of how the FBI conducted itself in this and related matters, how the FBI, in dealing with Flynn, thoroughly abrogated the standards it imposes on other law-enforcement agencies and, most telling of all, the total inconsistency evident in how individuals who committed much more serious violations of law and national security, Hillary Clinton and many others associated with her, were allowed to skate by, one has to wonder, where is the justice? Looking at the big picture, if you conclude that the American people is SOL if it expects justice, you’d certainly be justified.
I’ve said before that we have a dual system of justice and nothing I’ve seen since then dissuades me from that view. Special Counsel Robert Mueller has spent millions upon millions of taxpayer dollars chasing after process crimes, like that which Flynn has admitted committing, offenses unrelated to his primary mission, which is finding collusion between the Russians and the President – which, to date, not a single piece of evidence has been shown to exist – futile indictments of Russian oligarchs, and other chimeras. Meanwhile, the most obvious offenses committed by Clinton, which include destroying evidence of her crimes and lying to the FBI, go untouched and unprosecuted.
Then there are the 25 FBI agents in the past year who have been fired, demoted, or resigned for their expressions of bias against President Trump and their unprofessional behavior. Have there been any prosecutions of any of them? Not a one. This includes former agent Peter Strzok, who took part in the questioning of Flynn that later led to the charge of lying to the FBI, even after other agents involved in the interview said they thought Flynn had not lied. It was Strzok, you might remember, who changed the wording of former FBI Director James Comey’s statement to exonerate Hillary Clinton, and then later told Congress, under oath, he didn’t remember doing it. Now Strzok was no low-level flunky. He was head of the FBI’s Counterespionage Section and second in command of the agency’s Counterintelligence Division, and he was involved in every investigation that could help Clinton or hurt Trump. And he’s the same agent who wrote to his paramour at the agency, FBI Attorney Lisa Page, answering her alarmed question whether Trump could become president by saying, “No. No he won’t. We’ll stop it.” Several other Strzok emails to Page, reported in the Department of Justice’s inspector general report on him, reinforce the same anti-Trump bias. Can there be any question that the dichotomous treatment of Clinton and of Flynn, not to mention the President himself, does not have political motivation behind it? Political motivation within the country’s top law-enforcement agency? And you wonder whether there is not a dual system of justice?
Not to let Comey off the hook, the former FBI head, who increasingly looks like an arrogant buffoon, and a dishonest one at that, admitted the FBI would never have gotten away with what it did with a more “competent” administration. Comey had some other profound things to say after meeting with Congressional investigators behind closed doors on Friday. He said he didn’t learn anything new about the investigation into Trump from the session. Well, Mr. Comey, the point of questioning a witness is not for the witness to learn something new, but for the questioners to do so. Apparently the Congressional investigators didn’t learn much from Comey, either, after he told them an astounding 245 times during the session that he didn’t remember, didn’t know, or didn’t recall, in response to questions put to him. Incompetent or a liar? Take your pick. Great choice. But no prosecution of Comey for the outrageous illegal acts he’s admitted to in earlier sworn testimony to Congress and has even written and bragged openly about since. Equal justice? Where?
I told you in an earlier posting I wasn’t going to forget about these things, so consider this an installment on keeping that promise.
Getting back to my own case, which pales in comparison to these much larger miscarriages – abortions is more like it – of justice, the extent to which justice eluded me in court also applies to law enforcement as well. Before filing the contempt motion that was the subject of Monday’s hearing, I tried repeatedly to get the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Department to take action against the “Defendant,” and noted how he had violated at least four criminal statutes, which I cited by number and text. Well, speak about wasted effort. One level of the chain of command after another, starting with the deputy who witnessed the damage done and spontaneously termed it “disgusting,” and escalating, insisted it was a civil, not criminal, matter. They even insisted that the State’s Attorney’s office said it was a civil, not criminal matter. This the same State’s Attorney who refused to prosecute a man who allowed his young son, 23-month-old Lawson Whitaker, to die in a hot car, despite clear signs, and even admission by the father, that he was on drugs at the time. And this is the same Sheriff’s Department that failed to test the father for drugs, despite those same clear signs and admission. Pinellas County Prosecutor Bernie McCabe shamelessly went on TV and said he decided not to prosecute the father since he had “suffered enough” by losing his son. He suffered enough? Really? What about little Lawson? How much did he suffer, locked in his car seat in a sweltering car, while he slowly died? At 5 p.m. on the early September Florida day he perished, his body temperature was reported to be 108F. This is the state of “justice” in this country.
I am reminded of something my friend Ed Sanders said back in the 1970s. I knew Sanders when I lived in Woodstock, N.Y., and we worked on some investigations together. If you don’t know who Ed Sanders is, he describes himself as a poet-investigator, and among other claims to fame he is a founding member of the rock band The Fugs. He also wrote the book The Family, which laid out the events that led up to the Tate-LaBianca murders by the Manson Family, and Sanders told me he once shared a sleeping bag with Charlie Manson out in the California desert while researching the book. This is what Sanders said to me then about the police, and I think seldom in my life have I heard truer words, which to this day I frequently quote:
“Big crime, big problem. Little crime, little problem. No crime, no problem.”
That’s how it was then, and that’s how it is now. Mostly you’ve got to try to get the police to do anything to you – much less, for you – unless somehow you just haplessly fall into their clutches, often for some insignificant offense that hurts no one. I’m not specifically anti-police, but they’re just one more element of this unjust justice system we have.
Yesterday I was reminded of something else out of the past. I presented the judge with the stack of photos of the damage the “Defendant” had done to my boat and what he stole, since the exhibits as filed online may not have been very clear. He kind of flipped through a few of them as he was telling me I was SOL. Later, I could only think of one thing, the lines from Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 masterpiece, Alice’s Restaurant Massacree, which go:
We walked in, sat down, Obie came in with the twenty-seven eight-by-ten color glossy pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one, sat down. Man came in said, “All rise.” We all stood up, and Obie stood up with the twenty seven eight-by-ten color glossy pictures, and the judge walked in sat down with a seeing eye dog, and he sat down, we sat down. Obie looked at the seeing eye dog, and then at the twenty-seven eight-by-ten color glossy pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one, and looked at the seeing eye dog and then at twenty-seven eight-by-ten color glossy pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one and began to cry, ‘ cause Obie came to the realization that it was a typical case of American Blind Justice, and there wasn’t nothing he could do about it, and the judge wasn’t going to look at the twenty-seven eight-by-ten color glossy pictures with the circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was to be used as evidence against us. And we was fined $50 and had to pick up the garbage in the snow, but thats not what I came to tell you about.
Well, coincidentally – I swear it’s true – I had submitted exactly 27 photos of the damage and also the actual stolen air conditioner, and I absolutely wasn’t thinking of Alice’s Restaurant when I did. The judge didn’t have a seeing-eye dog, but he wasn’t going to look at the 27 photos, with or without circles and arrows or a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was. And in the end, I was SOL.
I think Oxford Dictionaries’ choice for Word of the Year is perhaps telling: “Toxic.” And Dictionary.com’s selection says what we get: “Misinformation.” As for “justice,” reverting to Meriam-Webster, an oxymoron – which could be Word of the Year any year — is, “broadly: something (such as a concept) that is made up of contradictory or incongruous elements.”
Yup, “justice,” an oxymoron, for sure, as it exists in America today.