George Zimmerman is in the news again. This time he is teaming up with a ‘Muslim-free’ gun shop to raise funds for both of their legal bills by selling prints of Zimmerman’s painting of a Confederate flag.
Let me say here and now, I am a fan of neither guns, nor Confederate flags, but find the timing of this recent, and completely tangential Zimmerman story, in light of the discussions I have had with this week’s hoodie-wearing person of interest, a bit of kismet.
Zimmerman, the Floridian and self-appointed neighborhood watchman who in 2012, pursued, shot and killed an unarmed black teen for, what to many appeared to be “walking through a white neighborhood while wearing a hoodie,” escaped prosecution as the beneficiary of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. It got America talking about the common law concepts of self-defense, duty to retreat, and the Castle Doctrine.
“Self-Defense” is an affirmative defense used by a person charged with crimes of assault and/or battery or homicide, who claims his use of force was necessary and reasonable to protect himself, another or his property.
Early common law theories make no distinction between defense of the person and defense of property, which builds on the Roman Law “principle of dominium where any attack on the members of the family of on the property it owned was a personal attack on the pater familias, that is, the male head of the household, sole owner of all property belonging to the household and endowed by law with dominion over all his descendants through the male line, no matter what their age.”
“Justification does not make a criminal use of force lawful; if the use of force is justified, it cannot be criminal at all.” Dennis J. Baker, Glanville Williams Textbook of Criminal Law (London: 2012)
Often in civilized societies, especially those outside the United States, common law falls to the retreat rule; the requirement that a person being attacked must “retreat to the wall” before using deadly force in self-defense. “Castle doctrine” is an exception to the retreat rule. It allows the use of deadly force by a person who reasonably fears imminent deadly peril or seriously bodily harm to himself or another, and does so to protect his or her home and its inhabitants from impending attack, especially from a trespasser.
Don’t play with your firearm, OK?
Immediately after Zimmerman’s acquittal, he made news again, this time stopped by a Texas Ranger in the Lone Star State, where he had fled, he claims, to avoid those seeking their own form of justice. According to a CNN story, Zimmerman was apparently traveling with a gun when he was pulled over. Dashcam video released by Forney, Texas, police shows him and a police officer talking briefly before the officer tells him to shut his glove compartment. The CNN story reports the officer says to Zimmerman, “Don’t play with your firearm, OK?” And then sends Zimmerman off with a verbal warning to “slow down.”
Juxtapose this scenario with another, maybe darker skinned person “playing with a fire arm” visible in a glove compartment during a traffic stop. Do you imagine the same result?
In Texas, we know all about the Castle Doctrine, where the advice has always been, if you shoot someone, drag him into your front yard to escape prosecution.
Other forms of self-defense are avoidance, and de-escalation, which includes Verbal Akido. Verbal Akido is a style of communication based on the aikido philosophy and martial way, created and propagated by Morihei Ueshiba during the 20th century. Verbal akido treats the ‘attacker’ as a partner rather than an adversary, to restore a balanced interpersonal dynamic and/or to reach a positive emotional result in an exchange. Occasionally, I will go full on assault, sometimes, defense; more for others than myself, but usually I’m more into Verbal Akido.
Not the same can be said for all of us.
When it comes to wine bloggers, we run the gamut when it comes to the perception of assault and self-defense. Not all of us have set out to publish high-minded journalism befitting of Wine Spectator, E. Bobby P., Tanzer or Wine Enthusiast. Some prefer the word-whipping styles of Henry Rollins, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, or even Jon Stewart. These bloggers use satire and strong language, hit hard and refuse to soft serve their critique. Sometimes they are perceived as just plain mean. Other times they are perceived as racists, misogynists and even libel-leaning assholes. They are the love-em-or-hate-em writers, where very few who read them respond with merely, “meh.”
That’s where you find The Kassel Doctrine.
The Kassel Doctrine
Chris Kassel (pronounced like its homonym “castle”) writes Chris Kassel’s “Intoxicology Report” subtitled, “‘The Contra-Connoisseur’s Guide to Wine, Beer, Spirits And Other Stuff The World Got Right’.”
He’s been labeled as “not only a misogynist, but bloody racist as all hell,” by one woman. I do not consider him to be either. Many of my woman friends in the wine world loathe that I would read his columns. Some had a conniption fit when I posted a link to his a very moving piece about his daughter Caitlin; “Orange is the New Daughter,” on my Facebook page, with the suggestion that ladies, who had issues with his other ORANGE piece, read it. I caught hell for that, specifically for saying “you women,” which a few felt violated some sort of gender code of secrecy.
Maybe it’s because I have a thick skin. Or I grew up a tomboy. Or I try not to take myself too seriously. Or because I lived near his hometown of Detroit during law school. Or because I appreciate biting sarcasm and satire. Or because I consider it the height of anti-feminism to think I, as an individual woman, should join a monolithic recoil because another woman perceives misogyny. It is like thinking one should admire that word salad queen Sarah Palin, just because she is a woman, and I am a woman.
Maybe it is because I actually read his entire post without catching my hair on fire at an inflammatory remark or two, because I think I know why he writes the way he does — to illicit a response, even if it is just the slow boil of the reader’s blood.
Primarily, I think it’s because he is a damned good writer.
I am not the only one; it seems, in that club. He has a legion of readers in both print and digital, and is a seven-time Michigan Emmy award winner, with two personal Emmys for screenwriting for the “Our Story of” series documentaries.
“Making Light of a Subject does not Mean It’s a Light Subject”
Kassel sees himself as a writer of sarcastic humor, although, to quote him, he found it ironic that it was his “Robin Williams: Art, Alcoholism And Suicide,” one of the few pieces he has written that was not “sarcastic at its core,” and “was neither funny, nor about wine,” that earned “Best Post of the Year” in the 2015 Wine Blog Awards. In that article Chris talks not only about Williams’ suicide, but also about that of his own mother, who like Williams grew up in a well-to-do home of a Ford executive.
Prior to that piece, the only stuff I read from Chris Kassel were his snarky Facebook posts, where we often fall on different sides of an issue (like guns and Confederate flags.) I do not remember how we became Facebook friends back in September 2010. But just after Williams’ death, I saw Kassel’s by-line in the Wine Business Monthly’s “Most Popular Daily Blog Posts” and cynically, figured it was an opportunistic piece riding the coattails of celebrity death headlines. I was wrong, and commented as such. That is when I started reading his blog regularly, and some of the back posts. He is never a boring read, so I ordered a couple of his books from Amazon, too. He’s written two regional wine books to date, “A Rite of Paso: Paso Robles Wine Country” and “Heart & Soil: Northern Michigan Wine Country,” as well as some fiction.
He is also a writer for Orbit, billed as Detroit’s only arts, culture, entertainment, and humor magazine created both 25 years ago and then put to death at age 9 by Jerry Vile. Vile and his “snarky band of pranksters” have resuscitated the magazine in the form of a crowd-sourced anthology published by Wayne State University Press available next month, and on sale now:
He says he started Intoxicology Report in August 2011 after he found print publications were more beholden to their advertisers than their readers.
“I was the wine critic for the Detroit Free Press late 90’s until the mid-2000s. Largest daily in Michigan, I was subject to mind-numbing politically correct editors, so when I started the online column it was meant as a rakehell turn in the opposite direction,” says Kassel. “I also wrote for a couple of Detroit humor magazines at the same time, Fun Magazine and Orbit Magazine, so I wanted to combine that level of inanity with genuine info and an honest look at the state of the industry.”
A self-admitted smart-ass, Chris Kassel says he has spent the better part of his adult life hiding behind his keyboard. I coaxed him out for an interview during last week’s Wine Bloggers’ Conference in Corning, New York, where Kassel spoke as part of a panel of Wine Blog Award winners and availed himself the opportunity to research Finger Lakes Region wines for his next Wine Region book. Some folks connected to the Wine Bloggers’ Conference have insisted that there is no appreciable difference between wine writing and blogging, even to the point of suggesting a change from Wine Bloggers’ Conference to Wine Writers’ Conference. When asked about that Chris says blogging allows a writer a much greater freedom to write honestly. Being beholden to advertisers creates a bit of a conflict for a print publication, especially when it comes to reviewing wines.
Kassel says when he writes for print publications he “reins it in, for obvious reasons.” He says a lot of Intoxicology Report is shtick — stagecraft. “That’s intentional,” he says.
“I have very few editorial limits when I blog,” he says, stating that for him, with blogging no words or analogies are off limits. “Learning to write without constraint is only half the battle, though,” Chris says, “The other half is not caring.”
I do not really believe him about the “not caring” part. I think he cares a great deal -– about his children, loyalty, his reputation as an honest writer and those who earn his respect – although that particular list of folks might be a short one. For those who earn his ire, though, watch out. They become subjects of the writer’s mordant marksmanship. One particular woman earned his ire when she labeled him a misogynist -– a label he categorically denies.
“I’ve spent my life trying to shine a flashlight into holes in my psyche that might harbor shreds of racism, sexism, homophobia and all those things that find a little foothold based on a million intangibles in one’s cultural upbringing,” says Kassel. “Once illuminated, I try to instantly excise them.”
“But once illuminated,” Kassel says, “they become very much a part of my conscious mind, which can’t see too far beyond the ludicrousness of life. Therefore, I express those hidden pockets in a way meant to showcase the absurdity of them.”
But does he have any regrets? Has he gone too far, at times? Has he ever wanted to un-publish or pull a piece prior to publishing, I ask.
“I can’t think of any regrets. I have pulled pieces at the request of nice people who were offended inadvertently, he says.” “I think they over-reacted, but what can you do? I like nice people, and am willing to accommodate,” he says.
But there’s a weird twist to that particular piece that Chris wrote and co-produced.
“Odd story,” he says, about the woman who came to Detroit for reconstructive surgery, and stayed. “She took me and the crew back to Crete, we found the cave she’d been in when the Nazis opened fire, killing her father and brother and essentially removing her whole lower jaw.” Chris says it was a particularly grueling, tragic, and painful interview.
“I swear to God,” says the raised-Catholic, father-of-seven, self-proclaimed atheist whose given name is Christian. “We had no idea if the whole Nazi story was fabricated, but as a film crew, we swore not to mention it to our financial sponsors.”
Then there’s the piece about his daughter, and her stint in court-ordered rehab. I mention her name, and the heretofore stoic writer breaks out in a big grin.
“I’m helping her start her own blog about having to give up drinking before you turn 21. She has a pretty wry sense of humor and is not a bad writer. It gives her something positive to focus on.”
But does she know you wrote the piece about her? I ask.
Chris says he waited until his daughter got out of rehab, in June, to tell her.
“I think she understands that I felt a certain obligation to write it,” he says. “It was intrusive; she and I both deal with that reality. She’s okay with it. Not over-the-moon flattered, but she is entering a new phase of life where she is making amends, not making demands.”
I mention that addiction and depression seem to hit some genetic lines harder than others. Kassel’s raw posts about his mother in the Williams’ piece and his daughter seem to touch on that. And he’s mentioned his own more-than dalliance with addiction.
“I’m neither ashamed of it nor proud of it,” he says. “It simply ‘is.’ But I exploit it at times, because I’ve had some grisly and (I think) interesting experiences with Detroit’s hardcore drug trade.”
People like to read about that kind of stuff, Kassel says.
Detroit creatives have a certain edge to them, it seems to me. Robin Williams was one. Alice Cooper, Aretha Franklin, Sherilyn Fenn, Iggy Pop, Gilda Radner, Eminem, Lily Tomlin, Jack White, Kid Rock (before he sold out to the Country Music and family friendly Rodeo crowd) even Madonna, before she adopted a British accent. I asked Chris how growing up and living near Detroit shapes his writing.
“I love Detroit,” he says. “Born and raised here, and wouldn’t leave on a bet.” “But it is, I promise you, far worse than the worst portrayals represent,” says Kassel. “It’s Mordor, only without the cool mountain. For a writer, it is amazing hyperbole.”
“If you are after dystopia, this is ground zero,” he says, “No happy endings here.”
Chris says he will publish a Detroit-centered novel later this year. I ask him if it will be partly biographic.
“We write what we know,” he says.
Knowing he’s written about his own history of substance abuse, I’m curious about his wine writing – a bit like Cheers’ Sam Malone owning the bar in Boston, doesn’t that create the risk of “falling off the wagon?” I ask.
“No risk at all,” he says. “I taste and spit. I have a fundamental understanding of my own substance history. Drinking in moderation was never of interest to me. Not then, not now, so the idea that an alcoholic could potentially learn to drink socially is irrelevant.”
Chris says he has no wish to drink socially, but he appreciates wine far more now that the buzz is not a factor.
“It’s impossible to make worthwhile value judgments about a substance that by its nature affects your value judgments,” he says. I tend to agree. “Incidentally, I’ve sworn off a lot meaner substances than alcohol, and I can’t imagine writing about the magic of heroin three times a week,” he says.
“That says a lot for wine’s intrinsic majesty.”
You can read Chris Kassel’s Intoxicology Report, by clicking his banner logo, below.