Tuesday, February 9, 2016


This winter in Vermont has been dull from a weather standpoint. We have had very little snow and the temperature hasn't even been down to zero yet. I didn't turn on the heat until December 29. Without snow, the landscape here looks dead and ugly. Fortunately the forecast calls for more snow and lower temperatures. I prefer a certain amount of adversity and have not been getting much of it recently.

We just began to watch the popular Netflix series Making a Murderer. It concerns the legal battles of Steven Avery, whose family owns an auto salvage business in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. Avery was wrongfully convicted of sexual assault in 1985 and spent 18 years in prison before being exonerated in 2003. Two years after his release, Avery was charged with the murder of a female photographer, and in 2007 he was found guilty and sentenced to life without parole. As far as we've watched, the documentary focuses on Avery and his family and the improper investigations conducted by the Manitowoc police. Avery's nephew, Brendan Dassey, was also implicated in the murder and later found guilty of being party to a homicide.

In the presentation of the documentary, Avery was clearly innocent in the 1985 conviction, but there are many unanswered questions regarding the 2007 conviction, which we haven't come to yet. Avery knew the dead woman and was scheduled to see her on the day that she died. Her vehicle and the remains of her body were found on his family's lot. However, as he is presented in the documentary, Avery does not seem to be a likely suspect. The case may have been irreversibly compromised by the Manitowoc police, who seemingly planted evidence at the scene and coerced a false confession from Brendan Dassey. The themes within the documentary include the vulnerability of stupid, poor people like Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey, the bias, incompetence and lack of accountability of the police and judiciary, and the sheer mystery of what happened in the case of the dead woman. Figuring out the latter now seems to have become a major national pastime. I've barely looked into it myself, but there is the possibility, for example, that the death was a murder committed by a known serial killer who happened to live nearby at the time but has since died. No doubt this case will be in the news for a long time, and Steven Avery and his nephew may well be acquitted with the help of massive publicity and free legal support.

Most people seem to react to stories like this in the context of inequality and the lack of justice in the U.S. There is a tendency to think in terms of the oppressed and the oppressors without examining the premises of democracy, which is what usually occurs to me. The main things that stand out to me in this documentary are the palpable levels of stupidity. Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey, two incredibly stupid people, are victimized by people who are more intelligent and better educated, but still rather stupid themselves when you consider that the facts are going to catch up with them sooner or later and that at a minimum their reputations will be destroyed. Of course, they're going to get better treatment than Avery, but that isn't really the point. The point is that self-governance is and has always been a pipe dream: if you look closely enough at any democratic system you will always find errors, incompetence, unfairness, self-interest, bias, etc. In this respect the documentary has nothing new to say. It is simply a fact of human nature that all existing democratic systems are bound to coexist with miscarriages of justice.

At the moment I'm not reading much. Next up on my list is the novel Satantango, by László Krasznahorkai, the Hungarian writer, followed by Half-Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life, by E.O. Wilson, which will be published next month. I haven't read any literature from Central or Eastern Europe for quite some time now and am hoping that Krasznahorkai will make a nice change if he's as good as people say.

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