The Death Penalty

David Edelstein and Nell Minow

The Death Penalty

David Edelstein and Nell Minow

The Death Penalty
An email conversation about the news of the day.
July 27 1998 3:03 PM

David Edelstein and Nell Minow

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Hello, and thanks for your salute--more on Don Knotts's The Ghost and Mr. Chicken below. Slate sure is quiet this week, so a lightweight back-of-the-book type like me gets to romp through the corridors sounding off on "grown-up" subjects. Wheee! I've foresworn my usual New York Times crossword puzzle to digest your first missive.

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I like to drive my wife, Rachel, a truculent liberal, crazy by rejecting the death penalty in principle and then making a (boorish) exception for every scumbag killer whose ugly mug flashes across my TV screen. While doctors were fighting yesterday to save the life of "alleged" Capitol shooter Russell Weston, Jr., I suggested aloud that we'd all be better off if one of his surgeons had a really nasty itch and, in the course of scratching it, happened to sever several of his patient's major arteries. (I slept in the living room last night.)

But think of the Colin Fergusonesuqe farce to come: Will prosecutors with a straight face seek the death penalty for a man already declared a paranoid schizophrenic? If they do, they'll make an even bigger laughingstock of the much-mocked insanity defense. If they don't, they'll have to grapple with the wrath of a rabid Congress and death-penalty-crazed populace in an intensely partisan season.... So my hope for Mr. Weston to have a violent and fatal hemorrhage on the operating table was, I insist, a compassionate one.

Incidentally, is it really the Left that's responsible for the release of so many Westons? My understanding is that the wave of paranoid schizophrenics who wound up on the streets of our cities in the early 80s was the direct result of Reagan cutbacks in the programs that funded their treatment. Am I wrong? (Perhaps I am. The New York Post editorializestoday against de-institutionalization, which wouldn't be the case if liberals weren't somehow to blame.) I've known many good people with schizophrenic children and siblings: Drugs can mitigate the symptoms, but rarely by much and never altogether. Most families don't have the resources to be (or to hire) full-time caregivers; but current levels of funding practically guarantee that a crackdown will bring back the "snake-pits" of the early part of this century.

As conservatives blame the permissiveness of the Left for everything from murder rates to El Nino, I wonder if the opposite isn't the case: that the wide streak of hysterical, Right-wing vigilanteism that runs through our movies, TV, and literature isn't taking its toll on our higher instincts. It's not just the Eastwood and Schwarzenegger pictures that sanction righteous murder; you even find the message in near-masterpieces like Saving Private Ryan--which implicitly endorses the (instant) death penalty for prisoners of war. The New York Times reports today that the film is a rare, feel-bad summer smash, leaving audiences both enthusiastic and traumatized. But almost no one talks about the picture's vividly-illustrated assertion that the only good German is a dead German.

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Timothy Noah, one of our splendid predecessors, noted in his final entry last week that I hadn't read Ulysses but was up to page 35. I am pleased to report I'm on page 41 and hope to be finished by the time this exchange ends, a fortnight hence. The verdict so far: Definitely one of the century's best. A stylish romp that's irresistibly entertaining. A big thumb up.

What else to talk about this morning? I begin each day by reading my newsgroups, most of which involve my current passion, classical music. Rec.music.opera might be the single most vicious site on the web, with opera queens and homophobes cyber-shredding each other ("Faggot!" "Nazi!") over their favorite sopranos.... Two raging debates: Does obesity have a positive or negative effect on pure sound? (I'll keep out of that until I lose some weight.) There's also a brouhaha over a proposed dameship for the 80-year-old Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the former Hitler Youth member and Third Reich Golden Girl. My sympathies are not, to say the least, with the allegedly unrepentant Schwarzkopf. But then, as you can tell, I'm not a believer in a statute of limitations on Nazis. I'll never buy anything conducted by the late Nazi opportunist Herbert von Karajan. And if I've made a sort of peace with the anti-Semite Wagner, it's only because he didn't live to participate in what I hope even he would have found a repugnant embellishment on his views. 60 Minutes last night re-aired a segment about a Jewish family's attempts to recover a Degas for which their parents had been murdered, now in the collection of an American named Searle. Mr. Searle evidently believes that if you purchase something in good faith, it's yours, no matter where it came from--and anyway, all that unpleasantness was so long ago. Evidently his acquisitions of great works of art have had little impact on his soul.

Finally: The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. This was one of the first films I saw on something called Pay TV that existed (pre-cable) in the 60s. In Hartford where I lived, you tuned to Channel 18 and saw pixilated images and heard R2D2 bleeps; you dialed a code into a box above the set; and the picture faded in to the accompaniment of Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man"--a piece I will forever associate with Don Knotts. I bring this up not as a rambling digression, but to open what I hope will be a long-running dialogue. As the author of the soon-to-be-published Movie Mom guide to family movies, you should understand that the best works for kids are the hidden--or forbidden--ones. The movies that fade in when you dial a code (and how fun it was to get the codes for movies I wasn't supposed to see!). The disgusting monster magazines read by flashlight under covers. The medical books I found on the shelves in my parents' offices, full of women's breasts and tumors...(Incidentally, a promo for the new Guinness Book of World Records TV show promises a view of "The World's Biggest Tumor." Yummy! Now you don't need to have parents who are doctors!) So Nell: I am the Movie Mom's worst nightmare.

Well, off to Connecticut to buy my Powerball ticket. Later!

 

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. Nell Minow's reviews of movies and videos appear on her Movie Mom Web page. Her book The Movie Mom's Guide to Family Movies is forthcoming.