Archive for February, 2007

Who Owns Your Corpse?

Tuesday, February 27th, 2007

My initial reaction to the decision of Judge Larry Seidlin’s weepy decision to hand over the corpse of Anna Nicole Smith to the lawyer of her infant daughter was wrong. In truth, I was probably reacting more to the clownish performance of the judge than the decision itself. I mean, come on, crying for this? And you’re the judge? If the judge can’t even comport himself properly, how on earth could he make the right decision?

I am sure that I was also seeing this overdramatized non-drama through my eyes as a parent. Any parent would feel the same way. If your child died, leaving no spouse or adult child survivor, it is only natural that you as a parent would step in and act as next of kin. It’s the most natural thing in the world, but like everything else involving Vickie Lynn Marshall, aka Anna Nicole Smith, there wasn’t anything natural about this.

So my curiosity was piqued, and I decided to take a look at the legal issues involved. It turns out that a corpse has a rather unique status under common law. (Common law is the law that applies if the state legislature has not passed a statute that specifically addresses the issue.) A corpse is not considered property and cannot be owned. Moreover, as property, it cannot be bequeathed or inherited, meaning that a person cannot control the disposition of his own corpse by his or her will.

So if a corpse is not property, what is it? The law does not really answer this question, the issue being not what to call it, but what to do with it.  The answer is that the next of kin of the deceased have both the duty and the right to dispose of the corpse. If the next of kin can’t agree, a court will make a decision, and in making the decision the wishes of the deceased should be taken into consideration, as much as practicable.

All of this makes perfect sense if you keep in mind the fact that, whatever is to be done with a corpse, it should be done quickly. Until recently we did not have refrigerated morgues, and the last thing in the world anybody wanted was for a corpse to sit around for the time needed to decide a drawn out will contest or lawsuit. That’s why a corpse was not regarded as “property,” and that’s why it was the responsibility of the next of kin to act, and act quickly.

But who are these next of kin? There really is no fixed definition, and it is just about anybody related by blood or marriage who is willing to get involved. Remember that a corpse quickly becomes a nuisance, and the object is to get it disposed of properly, but quickly. There isn’t much motivation to fight over a corpse, I mean, it has no value, can stink to high heaven, and costs a fair sum to get rid of. Therefore, as a practical matter, the only people who are at all inclined to want the corpse are motivated by higher principles, usually love and respect for the deceased.

In the case of Anna Nicole Smith, however, I take a more cynical view, and I suspect that one would have been hard pressed to locate any higher principles in Judge Seidlin’s courtroom, even behind the bench. But just because higher principles shaped the law does not mean that they are required to apply the law, and as often happens in a courtroom, higher principles are pressed into service by those generally unacquainted with them. In any case, when the next of kin can’t agree, the judge has to decide. How does the judge decide? I found an old New York decision from 1899 that addresses this exact question. In the words of the learned Judge Bischoff:

When decent burial has been had, the further disposal of the corpse must depend upon questions which have nothing to do with assumed personal rights of the surviving relatives. The wishes of the deceased, as expressed in his lifetime, or implied from the circumstances of his life and death, and the natural feelings of mankind for propriety and decency, must be considered; and, so far as the wishes of the relatives are concerned, the matter involves no question of legal damage, but has to be determined, through an exercise of sound discretion in each particular case, with regard to the sensibilities of the parties.

In other words, the judge tries to figure out who is the kin with the closest ties to the deceased. In the 1899 case, the dispute was between the widow and the brother of the deceased. It turns out that the deceased was estranged from the widow and had not lived with her for some years and had no desire to be reunited with her in the afterlife. The brother was closer to the deceased and the widow lost.

So my initial belief that Anna Nicole Smith’s mother should prevail was wrong. She was estranged from her daughter. While ANS clearly had a complex and unconventional web of personal and intimate relationships, her mother was not part of them. That is sad and regrettable, but it was not Judge Seidlin’s role to heal that relationship.

If not to the mother, then to whom? The concept of next of kin is flexible enough to have included Howard Stern, but that might have offended “the natural feelings of mankind for propriety and decency” for reasons that are obvious enough. That pretty much leaves the infant child, represented by a lawyer appointed to look after her interests. Obviously the infant has no understanding of what is going on, and it is doubtful that the decision where to bury ANS will be of any serious consequence to the child in the future. In the final analysis, a decision had to be made, and the child’s lawyer became the best candidate, not because of her personal feelings or regard for the deceased, but precisely because she was free from any self interest.

That leaves just one question in my mind — what was Judge Seidlin crying over?

Tuesday Rant Against Conservatism

Wednesday, February 14th, 2007

Listening to an interview of James Buckley, the former senator from New York and brother of William F. Buckley, the well known conservative. Here are a few random reactions to things Buckley said.

He referred to his brother as “exotic” thinker having great interest in how conservatism could be used to address society’s problems. Buckley and his conservatism have been around for fifty years, and they haven’t solved any problems at all. Conservatism really has no solutions for society’s problems, and in fact has been the dominant force in American politics since about 1980 and we are unquestionably worse off as a result. Don’t take my word for it — look around you, what are the biggest problems we face today? Global warming, the environment, education, health care, loss of manufacturing jobs, widening gap between the haves and have nots, dependence on foreign oil — conservatism is on the wrong side of every one of these issues, and in many cases, has been a cause or contributor to these problems. The fact is that all progress that has been made by society has been the result of liberal ideas, and conservatism has invariably opposed those ideas and that progress.

Buckley talked about his experiences in World War II. I have great respect for WWII vets. Like most who grew up in my generation, all our fathers and uncles served. But Buckley made a comment that I found quite odd. He said that, for him, WWII was a very “unsatisfying” war, because he himself never felt in personal danger and was never personally challenged. I guess I understand what he is saying, but the use of the word “unsatisfying” in reference to war? Quite bizarre, to say the least, especially in view of the thirty millions or so who died in that war. Would they be viewed by Buckley as “satisfied?” As for feeling challenged, perhaps he could have given away the fortune he inherited and challenged himself in that fashion.

It was hearing Buckley’s views on Iraq that made me lose all respect for the man. The general rule is that as one gets older, one gets wiser. I think this is not so much the result of age as such, but experience, and it is simply the product of being shaped by experience. Not everyone learns from experience, however, and, of course, not everyone experiences life the same way. I don’t know, but suspect, that experiencing life with too much privilege, and too closed a mind, might result in not gaining much wisdom with age.

Buckley starting talking about Iraq by bringing up that old canard abut the problem being not one of military strength but of will. This is just a meaningless truism, but the suggestion here is that there is something wrong with us for not having the will to stay in Iraq for who knows how long. Why should we have that will? I think it’s a good thing that we don’t have that will.

Buckley offered two reasons why we should be staying in Iraq. The first was that we “owe” it to the Iraqi people to give them a chance to manage their own affairs. Now, I think that the case can be made that we created an injustice for the Iraqi people and that we owe it to them to try to correct that injustice. But that’s not what Buckley really has in mind, because the first thing we would have to do is acknowledge that we had no business invading Iraq in the first place. Buckley just wants to keep up the same failed policies that have created this mindless disaster in the first place. But you know, that just seems to be a hallmark of conservatism — the ability to pursue a policy no matter how much it has failed in the past. Sort of like a corollary of Einstein’s famous definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again no matter how much it fails. They don’t even expect a different result. It’s the pursuit of the policy, not the results, that seems to matter most to them.

Finally, Buckley alluded to some alleged statement by Osama Bin Laden echoing Buckley’s statement that Americans lack the will to fight, and Buckley warned that if we leave Iraq now, we will be facing a ten terror attacks on the scale of 9-11. This kind of junk logic is just infuriating, and we get it all the time from the right wing (and also from the left wing from time to time). So what is Buckley is saying, that Bin Laden was motivated to attack us on 9-11 because he believed that America would not stay indefinitely in Iraq after invading it unnecessarily? That’s just absurd.

Maybe Buckley is saying that if we leave Iraq now, we will be signaling American weakness to our enemies and they will be encouraged to attack us? This sounds more plausible, but it doesn’t make any sense if you think about it. The 9-11 attack didn’t happen because somebody viewed America as “weak.” Why would suicide attackers even care about such things? The fact is that there’s just no link between military strength and terrorism. Israel is by far the strongest military power in the Middle East, but it has more problems with terrorism than any country in the world (except for Iraq, of course, which happens to be occupied by the most powerful military power in the world).

Staying in Iraq will not make us more safe, and leaving Iraq will not make us more vulnerable. In fact, if we were to devote just a fraction of the money spent in Iraq to (a) pursuing Bin Laden and (b) improving security at home, we would be a lot better off, and in this respect, leaving Iraq will make us more safe, not less.

Living in the moment . . .

Tuesday, February 13th, 2007

I’m going to plan to live in the moment.

2008 Presidential Election

Sunday, February 11th, 2007

Hey, it’s too early! I think a two year campaign is bad for democracy and I’m not going to be part of it. I will not write about the 2008 election until, well, I think it’s time to.

From the Hate Wars

Saturday, February 10th, 2007

“See How Much They Hate Us!” is always a winning story. So when a British teacher named Colin Cook got sacked from the King Fahd Academy in west London, he decided that it was his patriotic duty (in addition to suing for money damages) to let all of Britain know just how much hate and vitriol against westerners was being taught to the impressionable young minds at the Academy. According to Cook, the youngsters were being taught from a textbook that called Jews apes and Christians pigs. Needless the say, the media was only too eager to publicize and even embellish Mr. Cook’s allegations.

Never mind that Mr. Cook had worked at the Academy for 19 years and was untroubled by the environment of hate until he was canned. And apparently if Mr. Cook had his druthers, he would still be working there. After all, his real complaint is about being fired. And yes, Mr. Cook claims to be a whistle-blower, and whistle-blowers deserve protection, but he wasn’t blowing the whistle about young folk being taught to hate, but about alleged cheating. I know nothing about the merits of Mr. Cook’s case, but it’s conceivable he has an ax to grind and before giving air to his allegations one might want to check the facts. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about “fair and balanced” reporting, just accurate reporting.

Mr. Cook’s allegations reached my delicate ears via the morning show on Air America Radio, of all places. A point of clarification here. There are actually two morning shows on Air America Radio. The “official” network show is the Young Turks, which can be heard over the internet, via XM Radio or some network stations. If you live in the New York Metropolitan area, however, you get something called Sammy and Army, or vice versa. Sam is Sam Greenfield and Army is Armstrong Williams, and their show is broadcast over WWRL, the “flagship” station of Air America. If you’re wondering what Armstrong Williams is doing on Air America, well, that’s a whole ‘nother story which I imagine I’ll get around to discussing some other day.

Anyway, what I heard was Sam Greenfield, who is normally pretty level headed, going off in a semi-rant, half hysterical, half disbelief, about this Muslim school in London that uses a text book that teaches children that Jews are apes and Christians pigs, and that the school is unapologetic, refuses to remove the offending book from its curriculum and is funded by the Saudi government to boot. Greenfield urges his audience to call in and, apparently based on this information, opine on whether all Muslims are taught to hate.

Something seemed fishy to me and so I did a little digging. The only news outlet that saw fit to print the whole story was, to its credit, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, and it appears that the whole flap was over a quote from an early Islamic scholar that appeared in a footnote. Furthermore, the book was not even used in the school’s curriculum.
Still, this doesn’t stop such nonsense as, and I kid you not, “‘We Do Call Jews Apes’, Admits Head of Islamic School” which appeared in some rag called the digital journal.

All of this reminds me of the big flap over the Pope’s quote of an early Christian scholar who had some unflattering things to say about Islam. At the time the general tenor of the press coverage was that Muslims are hypersensitive and distorted innocent comments in order to find insult. But now the shoe is on the other foot, and oh what howling we hear!

There’s a lot to take from this story, at multiple levels. I’m not going to go into all of them. There real disservice to this kind of stuff is that it gives people who are inclined to hate a justification for their views. Somebody who’s a big confused over the whole Christian/Muslim issue and who is genuinely looking for answers is going to be troubled by the idea that Muslims in London are taught to hate Jews and Christians. Of course, those who already harbor animus against Islam, and there are plenty, will jump all over this as validation of their hatred.

On YouTube there’s a clip from a BBC grilling of the headmistress of the school in question. One of the points that she’s skewered over is the teaching that non-Muslims will rot in hellfire after they die. Now really, how can anybody get all boiled up over this kind of stuff? It’s standard issue Christian belief that non-believers won’t go to heaven, and many brands of Christianity believe that all non-believers will go to hell. Big news, right? When’s the last time the BBC has brought in mainstream Christians and cross examined them on their religious intolerance because of their belief that acceptance of Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation?

To those who pretend to be scandalized by this, and that includes the BBC, I say “grow up!” Do some Muslims consider Jews no better than pigs? I have no doubt. Do some Jews consider all Arabs to be animals? I have heard it with my own ears. Quite coincidently in the most recent issue of The Nation is a letter from Steven Cohen, a Jewish reader in Scarsdale, New York. Mr. Cohen writes about an interview he conducted of Joseph Burg, then a prominent member of the National Religious Party in Israel. After the interview Burg took Cohen aside to talk as “one Jew to another” and proceeded to describe Palestinian Arabs as animals. Cohen goes on to describe that Burg’s view was widespread and openly stated.

We need less religious intolerance, not more. Distorting religious views of others to make it appear that “they” hate “us” may sell newspapers, but it also reinforces attitudes that make religious violence and intolerance more acceptable.