Archives For Crime

Dangerous Clowns

October 7, 2016 — 15 Comments

clownsThe latest concern here in the United States, aside from who will be our next president, involves “scary clowns.” And this bizarre meme got me thinking about clowndom in its broader expressions.

The current worry comes from people dressing up in sometimes morbid variations of clown attire. It’s not quite so bad as “It,” Stephen King’s 1990 miniseries about a demonic counterfeit.

It, by the way, has been updated lest the current generation be deprived of its arguable glories. The new film is in post-production and is due for release next fall.

Anyway, this film is only one of a legion of movies and cable productions that portray clowns in an ominous light.

So, it appears that the public is primed to expect the worst when people decide to dress up like jesters and do odd things in suspicious places at strange hours.

Expressed that way, there’s no reason people shouldn’t be concerned. After all, one of the most familiar elements of the criminal ensemble is a mask.

I sincerely hope that this fad doesn’t result in any serious problems. However, even if 99 out of 100 people are simply donning the make-up to be silly . . . that still leaves the 1%.

Attitudes Towards Clowns

I’ve never cared much about clowns, one way or the other. I’ve never considered them particularly eerie or entertaining.

I learned listening to the radio this week that I have that in common with Michael Medved.

Medved is a talented radio personality who coincidentally is a renowned film critic. Today, because of this media attention related to these harlequin lurkers, Medved was questioned about his attitude towards clowns.

He shared that he doesn’t particularly care one way or the other, but his family did have a negative experience many years ago. He related how one of his brothers was able to attend a taping of the San Diego expression of the “Bozo the Clown” program. Curiously, the stage for the broadcast was in Tijuana, but that’s another story.

Readers of Medved’s and my generation will immediately know who Bozo was. (To be distinguished from Bonzo, who was tucked into his blankets by President Reagan long ago.)

Returning to the clown . . . it turns out that Medved’s brother was frightened by the appearance of Bozo, and began crying. That drew the immediate attention of the actor in the intimidating suit, who said—probably in a low, threatening whisper, through the façade of the painted smile—“That’s a Bozo no-no . . .” Pretty creepy.

C.S. Lewis and Clowns

It just so happened that it was time for my next blog column. I wondered if there might be some connection I might draw with the Oxford don, or some bit of wisdom I might be able to apply to the subject at hand with minimal logical gymnastics.

It turns out I needn’t have been concerned. Here’s a wonderful description of Lewis, written the year after his death by his close friend, J.R.R. Tolkien.

C.S.L. of course had some oddities and could sometimes be irritating. He was after all and remained an Irishman of Ulster. But he did nothing for effect; he was not a professional clown, but a natural one, when a clown at all.

He was generous-minded, on guard against all prejudices, thought a few were too deep-rooted in his native background to be observed by him.

That his literary opinions were ever dictated by envy (as in the case of T.S. Eliot) is a grotesque calumny. After all it is possible to dislike Eliot with some intensity even if one has no aspirations to poetic laurels oneself.

I like that description of Lewis. As someone who is usually among the first to usher humor into a conversation or situation, I would like to think I might be described in a similar way. Not a “professional clown,” seeking to gain attention and praise. But a “natural one” who promotes laughter, good humor, and emotional health.

Those results are, I assume, the goals of all true clowns.

As for those who work to transform this image of merrymaking into something sinister . . . we can only hope and pray, that the trend exhausts itself soon.

And, at No Extra Cost

If you have never seen Bozo, you owe it to yourself to learn what your parents and grandparents called “entertainment” back in the day! (Trust me, you’ll never be the same.)

 

A Dire Norwegian Crime

February 16, 2016 — 1 Comment

pulpitrockActually, the title may be slightly misleading, since we don’t know the nationality of the people who risked their child’s life over a 2,000 foot cliff . . . but the scene of their crime was one of Norway’s amazing natural wonders.

Preikestolen, is known in English as Pulpit Rock. It is a rare geological feature, a pillar of rock thrusting 1,982 feet from the ground, with three sides a sheer drop to the rocks. It stands majestic, adjacent to a picturesque fjord.

It’s lovely to behold. But only a fool would want to walk out on it, right?

I mean, just look at it. Doesn’t anyone else notice the huge fissure that splits the pulpit right in half? As I look at it, I can just imagine it splitting down the middle with the exposed side crashing down like an enormously oversized and exponentially elongated domino . . . but a domino made out of granite exposed for eons to the frigid Nordic winters so when it strikes the earth it will shatter into a million and a half fragments like a sheet of ice. Well, that’s what I see when I look at the pictures.

What I don’t see is a tourist site where I would like to prance out and pose for a photo beside the edge, or pretend to have accidentally fallen off the side.

Nope, not by a long shot.

As one visitor said, “It’s a straight drop. You don’t want to go too close because it’s pretty scary. You’d be pretty much dead if you fall down there.”

Yes, “pretty much.’

Nevertheless, scores of thousands of people every year prove how few cautionary genes they and I share by doing just that. Of course, I do share with C.S. Lewis the conviction that courage is utterly necessary for living a Christian life in an anti-Christian world. Even Screwtape understands that!

Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty or mercy which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky. (The Screwtape Letters).

But this sort of courage does not necessarily translate into foolhardy risking of one’s fragile body.

Back to Scandinavia

Apparently, Preikestolen is quite a popular spot.

I offer links below to a several videos of crazy stunts people have pulled on the small bluff. Some people apparently also like to go there for picnics. That reminded me of a column I posted about “Rational Fears” related to another frightening dining experience.

Tragically, in 2013 a tourist fell from the precipice while shooting photos. But here is the amazing part of that story: “Local sheriff Odd-Bjørn Næss said it was the first time anyone had accidentally fallen over the edge of Preikestolen.”

Up until I read the sheriff’s statement I had always taken pride in my 50% Norse lineage. One reason was because I considered my ancestors sturdy and honest folk. Yes, I see the sheriff’s “accidentally” disclaimer, and I suspect they do experience a number of suicides . . . but I believe that with all of the foolish behavior transpiring at Preikestolen there must be more fatal accidents . . .

The Crime With Which We Began

Accidents, of course, are not crimes. But this, most certainly is. Some adults, presumably the baby’s parents, put their small child at terrible risk by posing her or him beside the edge of the cliff simply to take some shocking photographs.

Yes, you read that right.

They set their little child, who was crawling at the time, on the brink of a 2,000 foot drop!

cliffchildIf you’re familiar with precious little ones, you know that babies do not always crawl in a straight line. Nor do they always continue moving in the direction you plan for them. Not only that, but they are prone to taking occasional tumbles–perhaps even rolling over onto their side or back. And on this rugged pillar top, mind you, the baby was on an extremely uneven, and possibly slippery, surface.

Simply put, these parents are criminals. In every civilized country I’m aware of, “child endangerment” is a crime. You can read the story about their foolhardy action here, and see the frightening photo from which this small image is cropped. (You can see the original picture and the the accompanying article here.)

Unfortunately, they pixilated the adults’ faces, so they can’t be recognized. Seems to me that they should have allowed them to be identified . . . if not for trial, for public shaming so they would be forced to reflect on the responsibilities one assumes as a parent.

Epilogue

trolltonguePreikestolen is not the only deadly sightseeing destination in Norway. Another goes by the more foreboding name of Trolltunga, Troll’s Tongue. It too has claimed at least one life, and from the photo of the small spit of rock, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to walk out on it.

 

As promised:

A Base Jumper Who Nearly Dies

Free Hanging Off of the Cliff

Insane Italians Slack Lining

There are more examples of the craziness evoked by the image of Preikestolen, but these are representative. I thank God I don’t feel the slightest envy as I watch people base jumping, free hanging, or slack lining.

I’m content to get my adrenaline rushes from reading a great book.

NietzscheI unexpectedly encountered C.S. Lewis while unpacking a box today.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but five years after moving into our retirement home, I have yet to unpack half of my library.

The text that stood out among the two score volumes restored to the light today is called The Cult of the Superman. It was written in 1944 by Eric Bentley.

The 1969 edition which I possess includes “An Appreciation” by C.S. Lewis. Before emigrating to the United States, Bentley had studied under Lewis at Oxford. He spent his own professorial career at Columbia University.*

I have yet to find the time to read the volume, but it’s subtitle clarifies the profound subject it addresses: A Study of the Idea of Heroism in Carlyle and Nietzsche, With Notes on Other Hero-Worshippers of Modern Times. Thomas Carlyle and Nietzsche, in elevating the exceptionality of the hero or superman who “shapes history,” diminish the value of the vast majority of human beings who seek no such domineering role.

This view, so warmly embraced by the Nazis, is directly opposed to the Christian worldview.

The news that God lifts the lowly will come as a disappointment to any supermen or superwomen who are reading this.

However, to those of us who do not yearn to rule over the masses, it is joyous news. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

In Jesus’ own words, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Nietzsche would revile those words, yet his knee too will one day bow before the One who “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”

In his “Appreciation,” Lewis declares that Bentley is the right man to address this challenging topic.

The Author, though sternly critical, has a sympathy which I cannot emulate with those elements in Heroic Vitalism which really deserve a serious answer, and this enables him to make a constructive book out of what might easily have become a mere chamber of horrors.

Sheep or Wolves?

This aggrandizement of those who seize their self-ordained right to lord over others can certainly lead to horrors. One example I recently saw was a violent criminal’s justification for his actions. “There are sheep and there are wolves. I’m a wolf. The sheep only exist for my benefit.”

Those of us who comprise the lambs find it inconceivable that evil people believe we exist only to be preyed upon. Yet, this is precisely what predators think. And this Nietzschean notion can justify any atrocity, based as it is upon the maxim that “might makes right.”

Coincidentally, as I was writing this column, “Fishers of Men” by The Newsboys began playing. The first lyrics in the song coincide perfectly with the biblical promise above that every single person—including you—is precious to God.

Seven billion people on a spinning ball,

And they all mean the world to You.

So much for those who would consider themselves super-men . . .

_____

* Lewis’ praise for Bentley’s work is also found in a letter included as an expression of appreciation in ‪The Play and Its Critic: Essays for Eric Bentley.

For an interesting assessment of Lewis’ influence on Bentley’s vocation as a drama critique, Donald Cunningham writes in his Ph.D. dissertation:

Dissent and debate were seen by Lewis as a method for testing ideas, and so he felt that discussion of an ideological sort could only strengthen a grasp on truth. . . . It is possible, then, that Bentley’s positive attitude toward conflict and its necessary presence in a pluralistic, growth-oriented world was learned at Oxford.

Slippery Crimes

February 17, 2015 — 12 Comments

willeIn the hierarchy of criminals within the penitentiary system, murderers are feared, crime lords respected, and pedophiles despised. Where, one wonders, did the butter forgers rank?

Alongside Machine Gun Kelly, and my namesake, the Birdman of Alcatraz, the Pen at Leavenworth housed violators of the Oleomargarine Act of 1886. Notorious, they were not.

Take a look at Chuck Wille’s mug shot above. I wonder what bank robbers and car thieves thought of his dandy mustache.

wirthJoe Wirth, pictured to the right, looks more like a vaudeville comedian than a hardened criminal. I can easily imagine naive people being duped by someone who appeared as unthreatening as Wirth.

mcmonigleJohn McMonigle, prisoner 8468, was not deterred by his stint in prison. He was sent to Leavenworth twice, due to an encore violation of the oleomargarine law.

The word oleomargarine probably sounds alien to most young people. They know what margarine is—well, some of them do—but the oleo part likely sounds more like a cookie than a butter substitute.

Oleomargarine was made from beef fat. A chemical compound of olein and margarine. Olein is “a colorless to yellowish, oily, water-insoluble liquid, C57 H104 O6.” How appetizing!

Most people today opt for margarine made from refined vegetable oils, but even today animal “by-products” can find their way into margarine products.

I recall growing up when oleo was still part of the American lexicon. My mother used it as a sort of synonym for margarine. That faded as I grew, but persisted long enough for me to vividly remember it.

Washington State was one of those with a strong dairy industry. Such locations drew clear demarcations between butter and its “substitutes.” The dairy organizations vigorously challenged the “unnatural” competition.

The primary battle line was whether or not oleo could colored to make it appear more like the food it was replacing. You see, in its natural state it doesn’t look nearly as tasty as when a yellow coloring was kneaded into it.

Congress taxed the invention differently. Ten cents a pound for the yellow version, but only .25 cents (1/4 of a cent) per pound for the raw version. Amazingly, this tax did not end until 1951. Homemakers would color their own oleomargarine to get their unsuspecting children to eat the stuff.

Nowadays, some people prefer margarine to butter. And, even when it was inferior to current standards, if butter was unavailable, most people would be delighted to have access to the alternative.

Meanwhile, at the beginning of the twentieth century, 32 states—with strong dairy lobbies—banned the coloring of margarine by businesses.

Naturally, where there is a law, there will be lawbreakers. Presumably private citizens were able to continue camouflaging the material in the secrecy of their own homes. The three criminals on this page violated the Oleomargarine Act. And they paid for their illicit marketeering.

C.S. Lewis & Margarine

Regular readers of Mere Inkling may be wondering how in the world this subject connects with the Oxford don.

Lewis wrote a wonderful essay, entitled “Religion: Reality or Substitute?” You can find it in the Christian Reflections collection, edited by Walter Hooper.

The message of the essay is that we cannot completely trust our own experiences. Some people, he says, are inclined to think that the spiritual realm is a sort of “substitute” for reality, rather than real itself. Among the vibrant illustrations he provides for this is the following.

‘Substitutes’ suggest wartime feeding. Well, there too I have an example. During the last war, as at present, we had to eat margarine instead of butter. When I began doing so I couldn’t tell the difference between them. For the first week or so, I would have said, ‘You may call the margarine a substitute if you like, but it is actually just as good as the real thing.’ But by the end of the war I could never again have mistaken one for the other and I never wanted to see margarine again.

This is different from the previous examples because here I started knowing which, in fact, was the substitute. But the point is that mere immediate taste did not at first confirm this bit of knowledge. It was only after long experience that the margarine revealed itself to my senses as the inferior.

Lewis’ essay argues that “There is nothing we cannot be made to believe or disbelieve,” so it is necessary that we place our truth (faith) in something more reliable than our own impressions.

Lewis is right. Just as there have been secular criminals who sought to profit off of the misrepresentation of oleomargarine, there are religious hypocrites and vermin who desire to deceive people about divine truths.

The deepest purpose of all things dark, is to draw people away from the Light. Evil seeks to substitute the lie for the Truth. It has been this way ever since our first parents resided in the Garden.

Whether one prefers butter or margarine, is left to individual taste, and of little consequence. However, whether we choose to consign ourselves to death, when freely offered Life, is something of eternal consequence.

_____

The criminal masterminds cited here are identified further at the National Archives page subtitled, “Crimes against Butter.”

 

 

Discipline or Abuse?

August 13, 2013 — 31 Comments

beltDiscipline is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a necessary thing, if you understand it in terms of correction or protection (its true purposes).

Sadly, the very word has been contaminated by its association with something diametrically opposed to discipline—abuse. It is extremely common for abusers to try to hide their crimes under the once untainted label of discipline.

Here is biblical wisdom: “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:11-12).

And, a testimony from the Psalmist that discipline’s role is to protect. “Blessed is the man whom you discipline, O Lord, and whom you teach out of your law, to give him rest from days of trouble, until a pit is dug for the wicked” (Psalm 94:12-13).

C.S. Lewis elaborates on this truth in “A Preface to ‘Paradise Lost.’”

Discipline, while the world is yet unfallen, exists for the sake of what seems its very opposite—for freedom, almost for extravagance. The pattern deep hidden in the dance, hidden so deep that shallow spectators cannot see it, alone gives beauty to the wild, free gestures that fill it, just as the decasyllabic norm gives beauty to all the licences and variations of the poet’s verse. The happy soul is, like a planet, a wandering star; yet in that very wandering (as astronomy teaches) invariable; she is eccentric beyond all predicting, yet equable in her eccentricity.

It is precisely because of this, the genuinely noble and affectionate character of genuine discipline that I was so deeply repulsed (and moved) by the following story. It comes from the fine journal, First Things.

A friend who corresponds with prisoners on death row sends one prisoner’s poem describing the horrific abuse he endured as a child. He tells her that most of the men on death row with him suffered that kind of abuse. The poem, titled “Spare the Rod” and addressed to his father, begins with the story of his sister’s beatings, and continues:

Then came a son to intercede,

a five-year-old you caused to bleed;

he would not flee your spit and roar,

you smashed his face into the floor.

And those were just the better years.

It ends:

What shall you find at heaven’s gate?

What shall be a father’s fate

who reveled in his children’s screams

who haunts them still in all their dreams?

You took your children meek and mild,

and beat them feral, stomped them wild.

You’ve now moved on to spar with God,

Who spares the child and breaks the rod.

ferretYou may already have seen this picture which has spread like wildfire across the internet. I’m ashamed to say I shared the common initial response to the story—laughter at the foolishness of consumers looking for bargains. Fortunately, as I learned more of the facts of the deeper crime committed here became apparent, and the humor was displaced by sympathy.

So, just what does this image show? Apparently in Argentina, some criminals have devised a very profitable type of deception. They sell cute toy poodles at a fraction of typical prices.

The only problem with this transaction, is that when owners take their puppies in for vaccinations, the veterinarians have to break the news to them that what they really purchased is not a poodle . . . but a ferret.

How in the world could someone confuse the two, you doubtless wonder. After all, one is Canis lupus familiaris (canine) and the other is Mustela putorius furo (weasel)!

The thieves go to extremes to camouflage their crime. In addition to grooming their fur in similar ways, apparently they abbreviate the poor creatures lives by loading them with steroids as soon as they are born. This adds bulk to disguise the slinky build of these crepuscular mammals that are closely related to polecats. [Don’t feel bad, I had to look up “crepuscular” myself; it refers to animals most active during dawn and twilight hours.]

From the photo you can see the “subtle” differences. I suppose the vendor could explain some of them away with comments like “the muzzle of really young puppies always looks slightly pointed, until they mature.”

While I despise theft, I can chuckle at the thought of someone’s jaw dropping at the news of how they were duped—but I do not regard as at all humorous the suffering inflicted on those innocent creatures.

I don’t own one of the estimated 800,000 domestic ferrets that are part of American families. That doesn’t prevent me, though, from being angered by the cruelty of man toward a species with which humanity has enjoyed a cooperative relationship since before the days of Caesar Augustus. (Augustus shipped ferrets to the Balearic Islands to control a rabbit infestation in 6 BC.)

Some readers might consider my concern for mere weasels as misguided. I believe they are wrong. As C.S. Lewis wrote to a correspondent in 1956:

I think God wants us to love Him more, not to love creatures (even animals) less. We love everything in one way too much (i.e. at the expense of our love for Him) but in another way we love everything too little. No person, animal, flower, or even pebble, has ever been loved too much—i.e. more than every one of God’s works deserves.

It should come as no surprise that the creator of Narnia gave much thought to humanity’s relationship with the other creatures with which the Lord has populated our world. God in the Dock includes his fine essay on “Vivisection.”

After weighing the arguments for and against experimentation on animals, Lewis suggests that our justifications for doing so are often dehumanizing.

The reason why we do not dare [to strongly object to experimentation on higher life forms in the animal kingdom] is that the other side has in fact won. And though cruelty even to beasts is an important matter, their victory is symptomatic of matters more important still.

The victory of vivisection marks a great advance in the triumph of ruthless, non-moral utilitarianism over the old world of ethical law; a triumph in which we, as well as animals, are already the victims, and of which Dachau and Hiroshima mark the more recent achievements. In justifying cruelty to animals we put ourselves also on the animal level. We choose the jungle and must abide by our choice.

I pray that the Argentinean authorities are able to dismantle this abominable trade. And I also hope they will not only prosecute the perpetrators of the crime for theft . . . but for the far more morally corrupt crime of cruelty to animals as well.

I had a disturbing conversation today. He was from Texas, a state my family resided in during my first Air Force tour. What troubled me was a recent experience he had that revealed even “down south,” where courtesies long forgotten by most on the west coast still prevail, rudeness is on the rise.

The man I was talking to is a crippled veteran, a Marine in fact. We were discussing the number of people who don’t think twice about “stealing” clearly marked disabled parking spaces from those who genuinely need them.

He related that as he returned to his car recently, there was a young man just getting out of his own vehicle in the adjacent, reserved space. There was no indication on the vehicle that it was authorized to use the space, and neither the man nor his passenger evidenced any disability.

The veteran said, “maybe you didn’t realize it, but that’s a handicapped space you just parked in.”

His words elicited an emotional backlash as the driver (in his twenties) unleashed a barrage of vulgarity and curses at this stranger who had dared to point out his discourteous act.

After his rant, the trash-talker’s father interjected, “hey, it’s none of your business where my son parks, anyway, what do you expect us to do?”

The Marine stood his ground and said, “someone who needs that spot won’t be able to use it if you’re there. If you don’t want to move it now, perhaps the police can persuade you to do it when they arrive.”

As he pulled his phone out of his pocket, the grumbling older man persuaded his fuming son to move the car before the call could go through.

As disgusting as this scene was, I’m sure it’s reenacted across the globe in hundreds of locales every day.

I shared with my new friend the first thought that entered my mind when I heard the question: “what do you expect us to do?”

I told him I would have been tempted to shout: “What I expect is for you, as a father, to feel some modicum of shame for the disgusting way your son is acting.”

What used to be universally regarded as inappropriate conduct now appears to have become the norm. This decline has been in progress for some time. C.S. Lewis referred to the slide in public mores in a 1945 essay.

“We have lost the invaluable faculty of being shocked—a faculty which has hitherto almost distinguished the Man or Woman from the beast or child.” (“After Priggery—What?”)

If I had been there to voice the words that leapt to my mind—and if the foul-mouthed individual didn’t beat me into deaf unconsciousness—I would be curious to see if my statement elicited the slightest glimmer of shame in either father or the son.

There is an irony interwoven into this tale, as is true in so much of life. Although I don’t hijack disabled parking spaces . . . there is much in my life for which I should be—and am—ashamed. As I consider my own selfishness and sin, I am reminded that I am no more deserving of God’s grace than either of the men I am so quick to condemn.

Here too C.S. Lewis offers wise insight. In The Problem of Pain he describes how it is only in sincere, naked self-examination and confession that we can see ourselves as we truly are. “Unless Christianity is wholly false, the perception of ourselves which we have in moments of shame must be the only true one.”

Shame is part of the life of the Christian. And, I would suggest, in the life of every healthy person. I’m not talking about debilitating shame that leads to despair or self-loathing. I’m referring to that shame that is itself a divine gift. The shame that reminds me I should strive to be a better person today than the man I was yesterday.

A shame that drives me to my knees in prayer and moves me to echo the prayers of millions of believers before me and this very day alongside me . . . “forgive me my trespasses, as I forgive those who trespass against me.”