Thursday, January 21, 2010

Third Try on the Cult of Celebrity

I've obviously struck a nerve.

I'm taking one more shot at this, and then I'll just let the commentators have at it (and thank you, by the way, for reading and commenting - even if it's to tell me that I'm full of shit).

Mumia's not an empty celebrity, not a mere celebrity. But he is a celebrity. Like it or not, he gets far more attention than the overwhelming number of folks on death row in the U.S., and it isn't because his case is so much more outrageous.

Same for Troy Davis and Kenneth Foster and probably a couple of dozen others, by the way. Each of the small number of men and women who get international campaigns mounted on their behalf because they're articulate or attractive or caught the attention of someone or some group who gathered the time and money and organization and worked tirelessly on their behalf.

More power to them.

But don't tell me they aren't celebrities. They are. The particular attention they garner, that's garnered for them, the sheer quantity, virtually defines celebrity.

I'm not saying they should be ignored or that their supporters should stop. (Frankly, I'm not telling anyone what to do.) I'm not saying they do no good. They do. Sometimes the attention even saves, or helps save, their lives.

What I'm saying, simply, is that there are some 3,279 men and women on death row in the United States. Probably fewer than 100 - whatever the number it's a small percentage - have any sort of significant public or media attention. Their lawyers (if they have lawyers and if the lawyers are any good) struggle to find the resources they need to mount anything beyond the most cursory defense.

(In one case, I asked a federal court for the money for arson investigator since there was at least some question of whether my client actually committed arson. The judge said no. The state's arson investigators said it was arson, so mine would agree, so there was no point. That's how it really works, folks.)

I'm not suggesting that Mumia or his supporters don't care about that. I'm not suggesting that they aren't using his star power on behalf of all the condemned. I'm not criticizing anyone.

I'm just noting that, for instance, when the judge in Ohio yesterday declared that he didn't believe that the witnesses against Mark Brown who recanted their testimony and, therefore, saw no reason to do anything to prevent or delay Brown's execution 2 weeks from today, it didn't make the New York Times or CNN or Le Monde.

Pretty much nobody noticed. Pretty much nobody cares about Mark Brown, or even knows who he is.

I don't represent Brown, never have. I have no particular stake in his case. But he's the next guy up. Not just in Ohio, but in the U.S. And right now he needs all the help he can get. So does Alabama's Robert Bryant Melson due two weeks later. So did the guys in December. And all the rest of the ones you haven't heard of.

Mumia'd like to save them. So would his supporters. So would I.

But one way to help try to save them is to notice them. The focus on celebrity, makes it harder in some ways. The big trees obscure the shrubs. How many people know which is the ninth tallest mountain in the world? The seventh brightest star in the sky?

The focus on celebrity as a means of saving the ordinary folks is a hope for deus ex machina, and it rarely works that way.

The celebrities have powerful voices - hell, that's partly how they become celebrities. They address a big picture which needs to be addressed, but they model a false one.

Again, most of the men and women on the row aren't altogether innocent. Most aren't articulate, most aren't saintly. Most have nothing much to recommend them except that they are human. To take just a bit of a speech from Shylock:
I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die?
And so they are, those men and women on the row.

It used to be (I'm going back 10 or more years now, I think) that the on-line abolitionists engaged in constant, too often mean-spirited debate about the proper arguments to be used in advocating for abolition. You must argue religion, some said. No, you must deny religion. You must argue only morality. No, ignore morality and argue only innocence. Or only cost.

I was part of the cadre saying there was no single right approach. You argue whatever will move this or that audience. What matters is ending the killing and saving the lives, not insisting that those things should only be done by a world that shares a single motivation for it. "Let a hundred flowers bloom," I said, quoting Mao and looking to the announced idea if not the down and dirty reality.

I was wary then of the cult of celebrity and I'm wary of it now. I don't want to stop Mumia and his supporters. I just want to spread the energy about. To Mark Brown, to Robert Bryant Melson, to the 3278 other individuals, each of whom shares collective reasons, but also has individual ones, why he or she ought not be murdered by the government.

So I guess the charge that mine is an old point is right.


  1. I couldn't agree more. Thank you for opening this perspective and debate.

  2. Excellent point, I could not agree more!