Thursday, October 28, 2010

Cultures of Impunity

Photo supplied to the Toronto Star

In most of our postings, we delve into representations and constructions of law through popular cultural mediums and the connections that might be drawn between the two. Every now and again however, it helps to consider the practices and norms of state actors in their enforcement of the law and what it tells us about certain facets of legal culture.

Based on several legal errors that transpired at trial, a panel of the British Columbia Court of Appeal recently acquitted Ivan Henry of having raped or sexually assaulted eight women in the early 1980s. Henry has served 26 years in jail. One of these errors involved the admission of a photograph where Henry resisted participation in a police line up and was seen restrained by the guards. The trial judge instructed the jury that this could be taken as "consciousness of guilt."

The image (provided above although a larger image can be seen by clicking on it) itself is striking in the way that at least two of the cops appear to be smiling as they are forcibly restraining Henry and in the way that several individuals in the line up appear to be smiling along with what is transpiring (perhaps plain-clothed policemen). Given all the smiling faces, one might mistake the scene for something out of a comedy sketch or film, rather than a true moment that transpired amidst a criminal investigation.

The image itself presents a snapshot in time of the permissive culture of police aggression that existed (at the very least) at that time and in that place where it was taken. It was one where police officers could be so brazen as to laugh so mockingly - as though the exercise were one big joke. This impunity was indeed legitimized by the trial court by allowing it into evidence and indicating that it was evidence of a consciousness of guilt. The purpose of a line up is to allow witnesses to properly identify a suspect amidst a number of individuals who may have some resemblance to the suspect. As one can imagine, much of that is lost when uniformed police officers, as part of this line up, restrain an individual and thus clearly signal who the main suspect is.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Norms of Restaurant Success

Who might have thought a television channel exclusively dedicated to "food" could have become such a hit. Yet, for the past ten years, the Food Network (FN) has done just that. It features a number of shows highlighting three themes. The first theme is what one would naturally expect from such a network, cooking shows. A second and also popular group of shows could be classified as competition-oriented programming, pitting (up and coming and/or established) chefs against one another for a designated prize - money (Chopped), a position at a prominent restaurant (Hell's Kitchen), or some other coveted prize - prestige (Iron Chef America), or a combination of all three and/or other rewards (Top Chef).

Then comes a third category (which is the subject of this blog posting) - programs aimed at advising restaurant owners and their staffs in how to become successful and sustainable businesses. Three key exemplars of this repertoire, Chef Gordon Ramsay's long-running Kitchen Nightmares, Restaurant Makeover, and the more recent FN show, The Opener with Chef David Adjey. The temporal context of Kitchen Nightmares and Restaurant Makeover is one where an existing restaurant is failing to produce profits for a whole host of reasons. The Opener, as the title suggests, takes place as the restaurant is about to open and a number of critical problems are identified and addressed.

Notwithstanding the different restaurants, styles of the particular hosts or the general tone of the shows, there are some common, if not fundamental lessons they seem eager to teach owners of new restaurants or failing ones. The lessons might be framed essentially as rules for success and the proper management of restaurants. Here are some of them in no particular order of importance.

#1 - Maximize seating capacity. In almost every episode of The Opener, Chef Adjey calculates how much income each seat might generate, ranging from one day to a full year. When owners are confronted with the potential revenue they could be earning by adding another table that seats for example four individuals - owners suddenly become more motivated to make better use of their space. This is particularly so, when the restaurants in question need to generate income and break out of the red - restaurants that are about to open spend a lot of money before and around the time of opening while hoping to generate business and income to balance or preferably to exceed their expenses.

# 2 - Less is more - institute a focused and concise menu. A consistent theme amongst the shows mentioned above is the need to focus the menu to fewer items which can be mastered and be delivered consistently by the chefs and kitchen staff. Bigger menus with a greater diversity of options require restaurants to keep many ingredients stocked and available when necessary. As a consequence, many purchase frozen and canned items rather than using freshly purchased produce. This leads us to two other interrelated rules (see # 3).

# 3 - Buy and cook with fresh ingredients. The reason for this is obvious - it results ostensibly in better tasting and better quality food. Furthermore, owners are suggested to buy local and establish a rapport with local growers and sellers. The idea that one is selling preparations made with ingredients from local producers tends to sell well amongst patrons who are only too happy to support the local economy beyond just the restaurant.

# 4 - Establish a chain of command in the kitchen and accountability. In some restaurants, there is sometimes a desire to have two chefs running the kitchen simultaneously. The message of these shows is that without a clear chain of command, orders prepared and sent from the kitchen can be sketchy with limited quality control exercised by a single, head chef. Furthermore, without necessary controls and authority, chaos and consequently delays ensue along with customer dissatisfaction. By the end of each episode, owners are strongly veered toward identifying one individual as the head chef and the other having to step in line.

There are of course a whole host of other rules, both explicit and implied that form part of the rules of success that I need not go into here. The point of course is that, like with anything else, rules form an integral part of many endeavors and the instructive chefs on these shows (like Ramsay and Adjey) play a significant role in projecting these out into the stream of consciousness and set a normative standard.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Media of Judgment

Over two and a half years ago, the media told the stunning story of the downfall of Eliot Spitzer, then the Governor of the State of New York. Indeed, media, it could easily be argued, was instrumental in the outcome of the story itself.

In 2006, Spitzer, a Democrat and then State Attorney General, was elected Governor in a landslide victory that brought together Democratic and Republican voters alike. Prior to the election, media was used by the Spitzer campaign to craft his image as a uniting force for the state, regardless of political persuasion, and as a force for inclusion – Spitzer himself is Jewish and his running mate (and future Governor of New York) David Patterson is African American and also legally blind. Spitzer’s inauguration was a grand and well-orchestrated event that was again told as an even grander story by the media, featuring Spitzer’s beautiful and accomplished wife, Silda Wall Spitzer, a respected human rights lawyer, and their three teenaged daughters.

In the months that followed, there were the expected quarrels between Spitzer and the New York State Legislature, however the media continued to tout Spitzer’s image as a rising political star with the potential to become the nation’s first Jewish president. Indeed, one of the last – and most poignant – images from Spitzer’s governorship was of Spitzer and his wife walking through the White House on the way to a reception, looking as if they could easily occupy the White House themselves.

However, early 2008 saw a change the media’s portrayal of Spitzer. On one shocking day in late winter, the media began to present a different story, that of Spitzer as a man who patronized a high-priced prostitution ring on numerous occasions even when, as Attorney General, he was actively prosecuting other prostitution rings. Initially, there was uncertainty as to whether Spitzer would resign his office. In the space of a week, however, the media’s reports grew increasingly salacious, featuring details of Spitzer’s alleged trysts, as well as the allegation that he paid for the transportation of a favored prostitute from New York to Washington, D.C. while he was there for business. Ultimately, this allegation proved the most damning for Spitzer since, if established, it would have constituted a violation of the U.S. Mann Act, and thus would have shifted the potential venue for criminal charges from state courts to federal courts. After this allegation surfaced, Spitzer called a press conference in which he announced his resignation from office. Throughout the series of press conferences that led to Spitzer’s resignation the indelible image that the media captured was that a of Silda Wall Spitzer, looking thin, pained, and thoroughly tormented, standing next to her husband.

Following Spitzer’s resignation, the form of media attention shifted slowly from television to largely print, however the attention itself did not recede for quite some time. Spitzer himself was quite honest to the media in terms of the state of his family – which has remained intact – and entered life as a private citizen. Recently, however, Spitzer – who was a voracious critic of Wall Street during his tenure as Attorney General – slowly stepped into the public eye again. The first stage of his reemergence was a column which he writes for an internet site in which he primarily addresses issues related to the economy and his Wall Street insights. The second, and far more public, stage of his reemergence occurred when CNN announced that Spitzer would team with noted conservative journalist Kathleen Parker to create a new talk show airing during CNN’s prime time schedule. This program, Parker Spitzer, began to air this week.

There are many notable topics to come from Parker Spitzer, and doubtless they will be the subject of future blog postings. What I would like to focus on in this posting is the role of the media as a force for both condemnation and rehabilitation in a way that forms its own quasi-legal cycle.

Despite its veneration of Spitzer during the 2006 election cycle, the media turned on him quickly at the hint of a scandal. He no longer fit the image crafted for him; he had broken the rules which both he and the media had created for himself, or at least for his image. Instead, he became vulnerable and criminal, although interestingly the criminality in the media cycle tended to focus more on the impurity of his actions – and on the titillating details of them – than on the legal criminality of his actions at the state and federal level. The swiftness of Spitzer’s political downfall was attributable in large part to the media, which, certainly within New York State, was perpetually focused on Spitzer and continued to publish stories about his alleged conduct in an increasingly condemnatory way. Indeed, not only did the media scrutiny of Spitzer indict him before the public, it also indicted his preferred prostitute, who became analogous to a co-conspirator.

While the US Attorney decided not to prosecute Spitzer and no state legal proceedings were brought, Spitzer was still prosecuted in the media for months after his resignation. Eventually the media focus shifted away from Spitzer and it seemed that he would be relegated to the life of a private citizen, largely forgotten in the way that those convicted of notable crimes frequently become forgotten after they disappear into the confines of prison.

However, much as a conviction is not the end of the relationship between the person convicted and the justice system, this is not the end of the story of the relationship between Eliot Spitzer and the media. Initially, Spitzer’s reengagement with the media came in the form of an internet column. This was an important step, but it was not that visible. The latest step is, however, very public, and involves Spitzer working with the very same media that condemned him in order to rehabilitate himself and also to continue bringing attention to issues which were important to him as Attorney General and Governor. The media, in this instance, can be seen as granting an appeal, since there is no guarantee that Parker Spitzer will be a successful television program, or that the program will change the public’s perception of Spitzer. What Parker Spitzer will do is give Spitzer the opportunity to make his case directly to the public and use the same media that condemned him as a way to rehabilitate himself.

Information on Parker Spitzer is available at