On the Silk Road, Nick Bilton’s ‘American Kingpin,’ and the difference between being clever and being wise.

On the Silk Road, Nick Bilton’s ‘American Kingpin,’ and the difference between being clever and being wise.

There are many forms of intelligence.  A runner on our cross country team was a jittery kid with mediocre grades, but he was one of the most kinesthetically gifted people I’ve met.  He was good at construction, auto repairs, skateboarding, climbing, running, jumping …

Our society holds these skills in low regard.  We shower money and adulation onto klutzy math whizzes, whereas tactile learners are told they have “disabilities” like ADHD and are given potent psychoactive drugs to get them through each day at schools ill-designed for them.

I’m a klutzy math whiz, so maybe I shouldn’t complain.  But, if this kid had been born fifteen- or twenty-thousand years earlier, he could have been a king.  During most of human evolution, his talents would have been more valuable than my own.

I found myself thinking about the distinction between different types of intelligence while reading Nick Bilton’s American Kingpin.  The protagonist – who went by Ross Ulbricht in real life and “the Dread Pirate Roberts” online – was clever but un-wise.  And I don’t mean “un-wise” in the sense of antagonistically luring the wrath of government agents the world over – that’s ambitious, perhaps foolhardy, but it’s reasonable for an intelligent person to take risks while pushing back against oppression.  Attacking the Death Star is never as easy as it looks in movies; it’s still worth doing.

Ross_UlbrichtRoss Ulbricht was un-wise in that he dogmatically clung to his philosophical stances without regard for new evidence.  Ulbricht disliked the War on Drugs without considering that abetting the transfer of certain drugs could be as immoral as attempting to staunch their flow.  Our world is incredibly complicated, full of moral quandaries and shades of gray.  But Ulbricht treated real life like an undergraduate debate.

From Bilton’s American Kingpin:

9781591848141[A man going by the username “Variety Jones”] was a loyal servant and companion.  He had even talked about buying a helicopter company to break [Ulbricht] out of jail if he was ever caught.  “Remember that one day when you’re in the exercise yard, I’ll be the dude in the helicopter coming in low and fast, I promise,” he had written.  “With the amount of $ we’re generating, I could hire a small country to come get you.”

But even with that bond, fundamental disagreements over the direction of the site would crop up, and Variety Jones was trying desperately to steer [Ulbricht] in a new direction on a particular topic.

It wasn’t even up for debate in VJ’s mind that the Dread Pirate Roberts was as libertarian as they came and that he believed the Silk Road should be a place to buy and sell anything.  There were no rules and no regulations, and as a result there was something illegal for sale on the site for literally every letter of the alphabet.  Acid, benzos, coke, DMT, ecstasy, fizzies, GHB … but it was the letter H that had Variety Jones in a very difficult quandary.  He was fine with everything before and after that letter, but heroin – he hated it.

“I don’t even have a problem with coke,” VJ wrote to DPR, but “H, man – in prison I’ve seen guys – I wish that shit would go away.”

Variety Jones was open about the time he had spent in jail.  He told long and funny stories about people he had met behind bars and explained the ins and outs of getting around the system, including how cans of “mackerel” were the currency of choice in the British prison he had been confined to years earlier.

Instead of mackerel, many transactions in U.S. jails seem to be priced in terms of “Honey Buns,” shelf-stable sweet rolls often sold by commissaries for about a dollar each.  In class one day my co-teacher J.M. mentioned that in Richmond, Virginia, two honey buns could buy you a roll of toilet paper or a blowjob.

The guys in our class were incredulous.  “Two honeybuns for a blowjob?  That’s extortion right there.  Here it’s gonna run you one.”

“If that,” somebody added.

SONY DSC

 

But they thought the price of toilet paper sounded fair.  Apparently the guards are allowed to give out extra rolls, “but they’re not gonna give it to you unless you walk up to them with literally shit dripping down your arm.”  J.M. and I once walked by a pregnant woman in the tank pleading with a male guard to bring her an extra roll.

And many of the men in jail in Bloomington – especially the ones whose actions would make you think they loved H – wish there was less heroin around.  It seeps into every corner of their lives.

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“My kid wanted some cereal, okay?  A bowl of cereal for breakfast.  So I got it for him, poured the cereal, poured the milk.  I went to get him a spoon.  First spoon I picked up, it had this big burn in the bottom.  I threw it in the trash.  And the next spoon too.  I went through … every spoon I took out of that drawer was burned.  I threw them all away.  My kid ate his cereal with a fork.”

He was trying.  But he slipped again and landed back in jail.

From American Kingpin:

Morally, though, Jones told Dread, “I don’t think I could make money off importing H.  If you want to, I’ll offer all the help and advice you need, but I don’t want to profit off of it.”

. . .

Ross had never seen the effects of heroin in person it still didn’t deter him from his belief system.  “I’ve got this separation between personal and business morality,” DPR explained to VJ.  “I would be there for a friend to help him break a drug dependency, and encourage him not to start, but I would never physically bar him from it if he didn’t ask me to.”

And yet, as harmful as addiction is, you could argue that the War on Drugs is worse.  After all, the War on Drugs pushes transactions underground; makes drug concentrations so variable that it’s hard not to overdose; makes harm reduction therapies borderline illegal.

If Ulbricht had been incarcerated simply for creating the Silk Road website, I’d have a lot of sympathy for him.

But, as a devout libertarian, Ulbricht thought it was okay to murder people.  Eventually, the FBI caught a computer programmer who’d been helping with the website.  During the bust, a rogue FBI agent used that programmer’s credentials to steal a bunch of money.

How could [Ulbricht] let someone steal [$350,000] from DPR and get away with a measly beating?  The conundrum lay in the reality that violence was not something Ross was used to, though it was something he believed in when absolutely necessary.

Finally, Variety Jones rang the final death knell.  “So, you’ve had your time to think,” he said.  “You’re sitting in the big chair, and you need to make a decision.”

I would have no problem wasting this guy,” DPR replied.

And so Ulbricht paid another rogue government agent to murder the innocent programmer.  He’d go on to pay for the murders of several more people.  And felt justified all the while – in his opinion, lethal violence was acceptable when used to protect his property rights.

By the same reasoning, anyone would be justified in murdering Ulbricht when his actions caused someone else’s property to lose value.  Because his website increased the availability of guns and addictive drugs, he had crossed that line.

This is the problem with libertarianism and anarchy – without a coalition government to monopolize violence, individuals take violence into their own hands.  Bad governments are terrifying, but unhinged individuals are pretty scary, too.  Ulbricht paid for murder and felt righteous the whole time.

Despite the juvenile, unreflective protagonist, American Kingpin is a charming read.  Ulbricht was clever.  Singlehandedly, surreptitiously, he did the work of a billion-dollar start-up company.

But he was wrecked by his success.  If he was intelligent enough to build the Silk Road, he thought, wasn’t he also qualified to decide who should live or die?

On Liu Xiaobo, monster hunter.

On Liu Xiaobo, monster hunter.

In the late summer and fall of 2015, hundreds of lawyers were detained by the police.  Many were sent to prison.  Several were tortured.  They had been defending the wrong clients.  Some had said the wrong things.  Most were outspoken advocates for free speech, constitutional rights, and democracy.  The Chinese government considered their work seditious.

The American journalist Alex Palmer was able to speak with several of these human rights lawyers and their families – you should read his article about their plight.  The most heartbreaking passage describes a meeting with two of the imprisoned lawyers’ wives:

I met Wang and Li in a wood-paneled coffee shop on a blistering summer afternoon, a little more than a week before the first anniversary of the crackdown.  The worst part of their husbands’ sudden disappearance, they agreed, was trying to explain the situation to their young children.  Li, whose son was 2½ when his father disappeared, tried at first to maintain a veneer of normalcy, telling her son that his father was on a business trip.  But over the course of the year, as the family visited detention centers, police stations and lawyers, the boy came to realize that his father had been taken to prison.  He asked his mother why.

‘‘I explained that he is a lawyer,’’ Li told me.  ‘‘He has to help others. Because he helps others, he has been taken away by monsters.’’  Wang put her hand on Li’s back as she continued. 

‘‘ ‘Why doesn’t he come back?’ my son asked.  ‘Are there too many monsters?’  I said to him, ‘If you be good and grow strong, you can help your father fight the monsters.’ ’’

She paused and took a sip of tea. Li’s husband often came to Liang’s office to work, and the books he had left behind still cluttered Liang’s shelves — and as she spoke, Liang [the lawyer struggling to free Li’s lawyer husband] kept his eyes down, fiddling with a pen.

‘‘He asked if others are also helping fight the monsters,’’ Li said.  ‘‘I told him, ‘Yes, many people.’ ’’

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There are approximately 300,000 lawyers in China.  Of these, a few hundred were willing to take human rights cases.  A tenth of a percent of all lawyers.  A vanishingly small percentage of the 1.4 billion people living in the country.

It’s not clear how many monster hunters we will need.

*

This summer, Liu Xiaobo, a devoted monster hunter, passed away.  Liu was an outspoken advocate for democracy and justice – and therefore spent much of his life in prison.  He won the Nobel Prize – an empty chair addressed the world in his stead.  He was a poet – every year on June 4th, in honor of the students who were murdered in Tiananmen Square in 1989, he wrote another elegy.

His poetry is banned in China.

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*

Liu’s elegies and other poems have been translated into English by Jeffrey Yang, which you can find here.  When we read his poems in jail, the men loved “Greed’s Prisoner” – they loved it, but it hurt.  From the poem:

He controls your pen

makes you write endless letters

makes you desperate to find hope

One man in our class hung his head in shame and said, “I’ve done it.  I’ve seen all of us done it.  We call the old lady, where’s my lawyer, what’d you write him, where’s my commissary, we’ve got to get it done.  We … we forget that they’ve got their world out there, too.”

the moment he sees himself brimming with righteousness

you already possess nothing

We, in the United States, briefly, distractedly celebrated Liu.  He stood up for his convictions!  He fought for truth and justice no matter the cost!

This is easiest to applaud when we do not know the costs.  But Liu knew.  His choices did not lead only to his own suffering – when the government imprisoned him, they were torturing his wife too.  She could be tortured without their needing to touch her.

Liu offers his love alongside repentance.

Beloved

my wife

in this dust-weary world of

so much depravity

why do you

choose me alone to endure

LXB

*

Liu Xiaobo’s ordeal is over.  Liu Xia’s is not.  And the monster hunters are a long, long way from winning.  Instead of justice, China prizes growth.  More wealth.  More power.  Longer lives for the lucky wealthy.  Flashier technologies to occupy our minds.  Forests cleared for more farms, more high-rises, more roads to drive new cars across.  Wetlands drained.  All other animal life pushed toward extinction.

Which should not surprise us.  In the United States, we prize … growth.  More wealth, more power, longer lives, fancy toys.  Our countries will get along fine.  Speaking of the current president of China, 45 said “He is a good man.  He is a very good man.”

He wants what we want.

*

To be good and grow strong enough to fight the monsters, we have to want something else.  We must choose less money, less consumption.  But that is okay.  We can choose less money and still have more happiness.

So, please, take a moment to slow down.  Perhaps you’ll have time to read a poem.

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On photographs not taken.

On photographs not taken.

Most likely, you are being watched. If you spend any time in urban areas, you surely pass by numerous surveillance cameras each day. Recent advances in computational image analysis allow the movements of every person in a crowd to be tracked.

Big Brother has hungry, hungry eyes.

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Worse, you’re probably collaborating with the invasion of your own privacy. If you carry a smartphone with a GPS device, you have – according to U.S. legal precedent – consented to be monitored. Your every movement traced, the rhythms of your life documented in exquisite detail. When you sleep, when you eat, where you shop…

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In the U.S., many people assume that the police cannot spy on them without probable cause. This is the gist of the Fourth Amendment, after all. We are ostensibly shielded from search and seizure.

Thankfully, my local library bought a copy of Barry Friedman’s excellent Unwarranted: Policing Without Permission, and I learned that this assumption is wrong. Since the beginning of the War on Drugs, our courts have issued ruling after ruling that erode Fourth Amendment protections.

If the police are allowed to stop and search people at will, they can apprehend more criminals. As a corollary, huge numbers of innocent people will be treated like criminals. In Friedman’s words:

51gDp2lcbEL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_It is plain from what is happening on the nation’s streets, and in its airports, that Terry’s elimination of the probable cause standard has set the police loose on the rest of us. Not just to stop us, but to place their hands on our bodies and possessions. The police still ostensibly need articulable suspicion to forcibly stop people – that much is clear – but what counts as articulable suspicion is deeply suspect, and the Supreme Court has done virtually nothing to rein in this sort of conduct. The stops occur, the frisks follow almost automatically, and the bodily integrity of millions of people is violated without good cause.

Our courts have ruled in favor of Fourth Amendment violations so many times because they only hear cases in which criminals – or dudes carrying drugs, at least – were caught via illegal police behavior. The “penalty” that courts are supposed to impose on the police in these instances is referred to as the “exclusionary rule.” When the police violate the Fourth Amendment, any evidence they gather is supposed to be ignored during a trial.

But it feels bad to ignore evidence. When somebody has clearly violated the law, judges want to throw that person in jail. No, not the police officer. Violating constitutional law does not merit jail time. But if a person had drugs, and the police found them? Our judges want to put that person in jail.

Do we really want to let drug users or dealers back onto our streets?

(Hint: the correct answer is almost assuredly “yes.” Without even considering the ethical implications of what we’ve been doing, it’s pretty clear that imprisoning them endangers us all. But most judges disagree.)

And so, case by case, our judges have decided that this time, the police did not actually violate the Fourth Amendment. Our judges excel at rhetorical gymnastics. As long as a judge can argue that a particular search was constitutional, then the cops are in the clear. No evidence need be discarded. Another criminal can be locked away. Everyone is happy.

Almost everyone.

Veave_in_jail

Almost all the rich white people are kept happy, at least. Everyone who counts.

These rulings have been issued by judges considering only a single case at a time, one instance when a police officer’s illegal search found evidence of a crime. Because the “exclusionary rule” is the only penalty the courts are willing to impose on police officers – i.e., it’s exceedingly rare for police officers to be fined for their illegal activities on the job – people who were illegally searched but had not committed a crime have no chance for redress. If you’re already innocent, what good is the exclusionary rule? You don’t need any illegally-obtained evidence to be ignored.

And so it’s worth considering how often innocent people are searched. From Friedman:

… Judge Pratt got a specific answer to Judge Arnold’s question: How often do agents stop suspects and hassle them like this, only to come up with nothing? The agents in the case before him testified they “spend their days approaching potential drug suspects at the Greater Buffalo International Airport.” In 1989 “they detained 600 suspects … yet their hunches that year resulted in only ten arrests.” Ten hits out of six hundred people harassed. Less than a 2 percent hit rate. Judge Pratt concluded, “It appears that they have sacrificed the fourth amendment by detaining 590 innocent people in order to arrest ten who are not – all in the name of the ‘war on drugs.’ “ In other words, it could be you.

That was three decades ago – since then, the situation has gotten worse. Despite the Fourth Amendment, police officers can stop and search you at almost any time, for almost any reason. Especially if you’re driving a car, in which case you’re almost assuredly breaking some law. No matter how minor the infraction, at that point searches become legal.

Most of us should be aware by now that the burden of innocent people being treated like criminals does not fall upon all people equally. Our nation’s poor, as well as anybody with above-average concentrations of skin pigment, are routinely abused. Wealthy white people are free to assume that our constitutional rights are still intact.

The minor consolation? The teensy benefit of all those life-endangering stops and searches? At least people know they’re being searched.

The courts have also ruled that you do not have Fourth Amendment protections when your behavior is visible in public. If a police officer glances at you, notices you’re carrying a jay, and busts you, the officer has done nothing wrong. Which seems sensible enough. But the police are also allowed to augment their natural senses using any tools “commonly available” to the public.

If you have a fenced-in backyard, for instance, the police are allowed to fly over it in a helicopter and take high-resolution photographs with a telephoto lens. After all, any member of the public could’ve done so – lots of people have copters and telephoto spy cameras. Right? So you should have no expectation of privacy. Or, if you’re in your house, the police are allowed to watch you using heat-sensing devices. They can aim infrared cameras at the walls and watch you move from room to room. After all, infrared devices are “commonly available” as well. Many smartphones have some semblance of this functionality.

Of course, anyone who carries a smartphone is even more exposed. You have “voluntarily” given data about your location at every moment of the day to a third party. Whenever you have shared information with others, the police need only present a “reasonable suspicion” to silently siphon it from that third party. They can obtain all your data with a subpoena (a privilege explicitly granted by the 2001 Patriot Act, but already in line with court precedent), and these are invariably granted.

And the world grows spookier. Recently our legislators decided that internet service providers should be allowed to collect data on everything we do online and sell that data to whomever they want, including the government. Again, this agrees with court precedent – we’ve shared this information with third parties, and Google and Facebook were doing it already.

At least the recent bill caused more people to notice how little privacy we have.

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I collect pictures of fire hydrants. I travel a fair bit, and walk around a lot when I do, so I have seen many interesting ones.

 

But I don’t always have a camera with me. So I thought that today’s essay should be a brief paean to three lovely photographs I didn’t take.

1.) Shortly after I arrived in California, I was walking from Menlo Park to Stanford’s campus. It was, as ever, a gorgeous, sunny day. And then, just after passing the shopping mall, in front of a sparkling green field and a wooden fence, I saw a young woman and her mother standing still ahead of me. The young woman had a camera aimed at a yellow hydrant.

Later, after they’d walked on, I stopped and inspected the hydrant. There was a small anthill in the dirt nearby – presumably this was not visible in the young woman’s picture. There was an ocher stain on the hood where some paint had flaked away, but most of the yellow coat was smooth. It had the same shape and size as the vast majority on campus.

Ah! To have documentation of strangers also collecting fire hydrant photographs!

2.) Between my home and the university library, cattycorner to the bus stop where many music students wait to be ferried to the practice halls, there were two hydrants within two feet of each other for about a week. One was painted a light shade of green, the other gray. The ground around them was patchy with bare earth and course gravel. They were on a slope, the green hydrant slightly above the gray.

I had plenty of time to return home, grab a camera, and hike back to take a photograph. It was splendorous, and mirrored a dream I’d had during college, of hiking through Chicago on a fire hydrant safari and finding a street corner with four hydrants visible together, one at each vertex of the intersection.

But I grew complacent. I thought those hydrants would be paired forever! Each time I saw them, I said to myself tomorrow I’ll remember to bring a camera.

And then, one day, the gray hydrant was gone. I’ve taken people to that intersection to tell them, once, there were two hydrants together. The other was right here, right where I am standing.

If I had a photograph, people would believe me.

3.) Last week, I was driving my spouse home from work amidst a clamorous thunderstorm. It was slightly after eleven a.m. – K left work early for a doctor’s appointment. Four blocks from our house, she spotted a hydrant – with a long metal stem attached – lain supine in the grass.

I circled back so we could see it again. And said, as soon as the rain stops, I’ll jog here with a camera!

The rain stopped during our kids’ nap. K was at the doctor’s. I stayed home, reading while they slept, until she returned.

By then, two hours had passed. I ran to that spot with Uncle Max (our dog) and a camera. But the fallen hydrant was gone, the nearby hole covered up, the metallic corpse carted away.

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If I carried a smartphone, I wouldn’t have this problem. Most newer models have excellent built-in cameras. Whenever I saw a catchy hydrant, I could take a brief break from twiddling with my twitter and snap a photo. (As long as my device left me sufficiently attentive to notice hydrants.)

Instead, I have a seven-year-old flip-phone. Camera-less, text-message-less, often turned off. (And, unlike a smartphone, it actually does turn off.)

I’ve missed a few great hydrant photos. But I’ve spent less money. I’ve contributed a little less to our species’ destruction of the environment. And – though obviously I too am being watched – those hungry, spying eyes get less from me.

On government intrusion and addiction.

On government intrusion and addiction.

Midway through his review of Akhil Reed Amar’s pop constitutional law book, Jeremy Waldron introduces the following scenario:

An FBI agent starts attending a particular mosque.  After each visit, he writes down everything he saw and heard and reports to his superior. 

Is this a search?  Should the FBI agent need a warrant?fbi

I assume that many people feel icky about the idea of government agents attending a religious service in order to snoop.  I do.  But it’s unclear whether we should call this a “search.”  If not, the Fourth Amendment offers no protection.

Even if we decide that this is a search – in which case an FBI agent would not be allowed to do this without establishing probable cause – this snooping would be totally legal if done by a private citizen.  If you attend a church service and hear something suspicious, you’re well within your rights to report to the authorities.  Our constitution permits more intrusion by the general populace than by government employees.

But… what qualifies someone as being in the government’s employ?

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In jail recently, we read Virginia Adair’s “Cor Urbis.”  This poem trudges through urban decay with stanzas like:

And so to the cubicle of stench

          Past rats running for offices

          Roaches and flies feeding like bankers

                   We come fast to the heart

                   the heart of the great city.

melonThe men loved this.  The insects were being insulted… by comparing them to human bankers.  The imagery throughout this poem is simultaneously realistic – as we walk the corridor rats skitter away and duck inside the adjacent offices – and surreal – the city has fallen so far that the very rats stand on streetcorners, shaking hands, announcing their platforms, swearing “If you vote for me, I’ll clean this place up!” 

After discussing the poem, we tried writing about cities we’ve lived in as though they were bodies – in “Cor Urbis,” Adair writes that the “guns have human eyes,” the streets are “varicose thoroughfares,” and building “facades ooze and peel like scabs.”  Cancer imagery is common in literature, too, conveying that one aspect of a city or society has careened out of control…

For the exercise, I wrote a short poem about Silicon Valley as a Stepford Wife: dyed platinum blonde hair, surgically-enhanced physique, immaculately styled, exhaling money… with no soul.  One man wrote that his home town was dead.

And another participant wrote a piece that began with the line, “Bloomington, full of rats and lies.”

Bloomington: full of rats?  A large rat does live behind my compost bin.  This monstrous rodent feasts on vegetable scraps.  Each evening with our leavings I pay tribute to the Rat King!

But that’s not what our writer meant.  He was talking “rat” as in “police informant.”

rat

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If a police officer snoops around your home, spots drugs, and then files for a warrant, we have a problem.  The officer has violated the Fourth Amendment.  Any evidence of wrongdoing is supposedly inadmissible in court, per the “exclusionary rule.”

If a private citizen snoops around, spots drugs, then tells the police… and then the police file for a warrant, based on this private citizen’s tip… they’re in the clear.  This is a perfectly legal sequence of events.  The Fourth Amendment doesn’t apply to people who aren’t working for the government.

Even if, suddenly, they are.US_incarceration_timeline

With mandatory minimums hanging over their heads, people break.  Many, brought into jail, become informants.  They aren’t considered government employees, because they receive no monetary compensation for their tips… but they receive something more valuable.  They’re being paid with their lives.

Let’s say a person’s car was searched, and the police find a few grams of a white powder… and this person has priors, and kids… and the prosecutor starts rattling off threats, if you take this to court, we can put you away for twenty years… twenty years?  For that?  When no one was hurt?  In twenty years, those kids will have kids of their own.

Of, if you cooperate, you could walk today…

In game theory, there’s a famous scenario called “the prisoners’ dilemma.“ Presumably you’ve heard the set-up: two people are each being interrogated separately by government agents.  Prosecutors have enough evidence to convict each on a minor charge, but would rather pin a major crime on somebody – that’s what brings prosecutors the publicity they need to stay in power.

If both suspects stay mum, they’ll each land five years in prison.  If both betray each other, they’ll each get ten years.  But if one stays mum and is betrayed, the talker walks and the hold-out gets fifteen years.

pdil 1.jpg

According to an economist, each should betray the other.  When we draw out all the possible choices and the payoffs, we see that, no matter what Prisoner B chooses, Prisoner A will serve less time by talking (either Prisoner B has chosen “Betray,” in which case Prisoner A gets 10 years instead of 15 by talking, or else Prisoner B has chosen “Silent,” in which case Prisoner A gets zero years instead of 5 by talking).

pdil 2.jpg

And so that is the choice Homo economicus – an imaginary “perfectly rational” being – would make.  Homo economicus betrays friends.  And both players serve more prison time than they would’ve if they’d managed to stay mum.

Economists agree that there is a better strategy – in the outcome described above, both suspects land more prison time (10 years each) than they would’ve if they’d managed to stay mum (5 years each) – but only in the context of the “repeated prisoners’ dilemma.”  If we play many times with the same partners, there is a powerful incentive to cooperate.  We are building a reputation.  We can signal to our friends that we are not rational.  We can stay silent when Homo economicus would not.

Of course, the mandatory minimums for drug crimes are so egregiously long that people only play this game once.  The sentences can be measured in decades – huge fractions of our lives – and we each have just one life to live.

I assume that’s why so many dudes in jail – especially the young dudes – have the words “Death Before Dishonor” crudely inked on their forearms.  In a world where people might only make these choices once, we need ways to signal our irrationality in advance.  You can trust me because I am not Homo economicus and will not act in my own self interest.

This same principle might explain why we humans are so emotional.  Most animals will fight: there’s only so much food and territory and premium nookie to go around.  And they’ll fight when threatened.  But humans launch all-out irrational vendettas.

Why?

Here’s Daniel Dennett’s supposition, presented in Freedom Evolves:

9780142003848When evolution gets around to creating agents that can learn, and reflect, and consider rationally what they ought to do next, it confronts these agents with a new version of the commitment problem: how to commit to something and convince others you have done so.  Wearing a cap that says “I’m a cooperator” is not going to take you far in a world of other rational agents on the lookout for ploys.  According to [economist Robert] Frank, over evolutionary time we “learned” how to harness our emotions to the task of keeping us from being too rational, and – just as important – earning us a reputation for not being too rational.  It is our unwanted excess of myopic or local rationality, Frank claims, that makes us so vulnerable to temptations and threats, vulnerable to “offers we can’t refuse,” as the Godfather says.  Part of becoming a truly responsible agent, a good citizen, is making oneself into a being that can be relied upon to be relatively impervious to such offers.

Not everyone is sufficiently emotional to give up five years in order to stay true to an ideal, however.  It’s especially hard while sitting around in jail, sweating through withdrawal, sleep deprived, nineteen hours a day of fluorescent light and even the brief dark merciless since that’s when the nearby schizoid man spends two hours straight rhythmically kicking his cell door…

Tortured this way, people break.  They start dropping names.

Despite the fact that we’ve given our police officers millions of dollars worth of military-grade equipment to fight the “War on Drugs,” most preliminary evidence is gathered by shaking down impoverished addicts.  They’re hauled in, locked up, and then offered a brief reprieve of freedom – during which time the police know their informants are planning to use again, which is why the offer is so tempting – in exchange for betraying their friends and neighbors.

The use of informants evades the strictures of the Fourth Amendment.  But, as a tactic in the “War on Drugs,” this is absurd.

For people to get clean and stay clean, we need stronger communities.  We need to foster more trust in people’s friends and neighbors.  Several of my friends have sobered up over the years – from meth, pills, heroin, pot, or alcohol – and every single one of them would readily acknowledge that he couldn’t have done it alone.

But the use of police informants saps trust.  Which means that, when people get out, and they are struggling to stay sober… they won’t have a community they trust to catch them.

The opiate epidemic is, in many ways, a symptom of a bigger problem in this country.  And the punitive way that we’ve been trying to fix it?  We’re making it worse.

On isolation.

On isolation.

Richard-feynmanThe physicist Richard Feynman was insatiably curious.  He was an enthusiastic artist, musician, teacher, biologist, philosopher, lockpicker, epistoler.  And he was puzzled by his own mind: it was made of inanimate matter, and yet there he was, thinking.  He decided to investigate himself:

I went into isolation tanks and got many hours of hallucinations, so I know something about that.

We now refer to these devices as “sensory deprivation tanks.”  Inside the dark, soundless chamber, a person floats effortlessly in densely-salinated, body-temperature water.  In theory, all external stimuli vanish: the mind is free to roam as it will.

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Within the tank, Feynman surmised, he would be left with only his mind and could reflect upon its workings.  He turned his attention toward the phenomenon of human memory, and one day felt he had a breakthrough: he could see clearly that memories were encoded by a long series of linkages, each episode encoded by references to other experiences we’ve had.

I felt pretty good about this discovery … [but] about forty-five minutes after I came out of the tank I suddenly realized I hadn’t the slightest idea of how memories are stored in the brain: all I had was a hallucination as to how memories are stored in the brain!

Deprived of the world, Feynman realized, our speculations become unhinged.

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The sensory deprivation tank was invented by neurologist John C. Lilly.

Lilly was a provocateur.  By now, most scientists are aware that experiments can be difficult to interpret if the researcher is on psychedelics, but Lilly dosed himself and captive dolphins with LSD to test whether the two species could thereby communicate.

For another experiment, Lilly confined a 23-year-old female volunteer in a small facility with a male bottle-nose dolphin.  The volunteer was isolated from other humans for a period of ten weeks.  In this way, she’d teach the dolphin to talk.

The dolphin did not learn to speak.  The dolphin did use non-verbal communication to request a sexual relationship with the human volunteer.  Eventually, she offered manual release.

In total isolation, we change.  Our brains atrophy.  Our inhibitions wane.  Kept constantly indoors, our eyesight goes.

The hand job she gave was reluctant, but, after weeks away from humanity, must have seemed reasonable enough.

Neither of these experiments – drop acid with cetaceans – confine a woman and dolphin for two and a half months together – would be approved by contemporary IRBs.  Applying for funding would be a nightmare – several members of a grant reading committee soberly considering a proposal that states in this way we’ll teach dolphins human speech, a goal ten or twenty years away.

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For scientific experiments, a wide variety of social animals are kept in isolated cages.  These housing conditions seem to affect their minds.  When Dr. Harry Harlow and colleagues took infant rhesus monkeys away from their mothers and housed them in isolation, the animals developed strong attachments to the blankets in their cages.  These blankets were their only friends; the babies became extremely agitated when the blankets were removed.

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Dr. Bruce Alexander and colleagues dosed rats with morphine and then housed them in either isolation or in social environs.  The animals who lived in open playgrounds with toys and other rats subsequently decreased their consumption of morphine-laced liquids.  The animals living alone, in cages, drank more.  From the research publication:

A possible explanation for the environmental effect is that for the isolated rats the reinforcement value of morphine ingestion was enhanced by relief of the discomfort of spatial confinement, social isolation, and stimulus deprivation.

Opiates are highly addictive.  But opiate use is also correlated with other troubles.  Our nation’s current opiate epidemic is linked to the economic crisis.

And among the rats?  These are social animals.  Isolation is painful for them.  They’ll attempt to numb that pain with drugs when given the chance.

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10490113913_e3a697bdca_zConfining social animals in isolation is a form of torture.  Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, has argued that prisoners should not be extradited to the United States, as the U.S. routinely holds prisoners in solitary confinement.

After 15 days in solitary confinement, much of the psychological damage caused by solitary confinement becomes irreversible.  Mendez argues that solitary confinement for over two weeks is clearly torture.

In the United States, attempts to change prison policy such that solitary confinement not be used for over 90 days have made little progress.  Throughout the country, many people have been held in solitary confinement for years at a time.  For some, decades.

Large protests have been held outside of prison walls.  Inside, inmates have refused to eat, hoping to draw attention to their plight.  Guards are authorized to pin these men to the ground, shove long lubricated tubes into their nostrils, and pump nutrients directly into their stomachs.

Many of the men in my classes have been held in solitary.  One, a teddy-bear-shaped guy whom the others invariably describe as “humble,” was put in for nine months.  “I get through it okay.  I got myself a system.  This much time I spend thinking, this much time I spend walking in place.  I get to the point, I don’t even want to go nowhere for the exercise.”

“But dude,” I said, “you need the sun!”

“Oh, yeah yeah yeah, if I’m out I go outside, I’m outside all the time.  But for rec time?  You can’t see the sun no how.  You just in a different box.”

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According to ex-CIA officer Ray McGovern, “You can’t get reliable information from torture.  But torture works beautifully if you want unreliable information.”

A young Muslim man named Syed Fahad Hashmi was held in solitary confinement by the United States for three years before his trial.  Per his constitutional rights – innocent until proven guilty – he was an innocent man.  He was decidedly un-dangerous.

From Jeanne Theoharis’s essay, “Torture of a Student,”

The charges against him stemmed from allowing a friend, Junaid Babar, to use his cell phone and to stay for two weeks in his London student apartment with luggage containing raincoats, ponchos, and waterproof socks (the “military gear”) that Babar later allegedly took to an Al Qaeda leader in Pakistan.  Subsequently picked up, Babar became a cooperating witness for the government in numerous terrorism cases in exchange for a reduced sentence, and is now a free man.

Torturing an innocent man before his trial seems ethically suspect.  Theoharis:

Citing extensive research on the health impacts of prolonged solitary confinement and the impact these conditions imposed on Fahad’s ability to participate in his defense, the defense requested a set of modest changes.  The judge was unmoved, stating for the record that the measures were “administrative not punitive” and therefore constitutional.

But the torture is often “successful,” if we define success by the number of people whom we are able to lock away:

These conditions of prolonged isolation are designed to induce acquiescence.  Because the government holds control over the defendant’s conditions and the courts have been loath to intervene, the SAMs [special administrative measures, which can include solitary confinement, censoring of mail & all reading materials, etc.] rig the contest, weakening a person’s ability to participate in his own defense.  The number of plea bargains in the Justice Department’s roster following years of prolonged pretrial solitary confinement suggest the success of these practices.

In this case as well, our government won.  Syed Fahad Hashmi was tortured before his trial on behalf of all United States citizens – which is to say, on my behalf – and he broke.  One day before his trial began… one day after his judge granted the government’s request that this man – who allegedly aided & abetted the transport of ponchos & raincoats! – be tried before an anonymous jury… he accepted a plea.

After three years of torture, during which time he constantly proclaimed his innocence – are we confident, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he knew there were ponchos in his friend’s luggage?  Are we confident, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he knew these ponchos were bound for Al Qaeda? – he “confessed” that he was guilty of “conspiracy to provide material support.”

He was sentenced to 15 years of solitary confinement in ADX.

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29supermax1-blog427-v2ADX – full name, “United State Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum” – is in Florence, Colorado.  Some four hundred men are held there, tortured by the most brutal isolation of any prison in the United States.

A former warden referred to ADX as “a clean version of hell.”

Jesse Wilson – who received a five year prison sentence at the age of 17 – is now at ADX.  This dude, shunted into a world of extreme violence while still a child, quickly conformed to the expectations of his environs.  He “misbehaved” and was moved from prison to prison until reaching the worst in the state of Mississippi, where he got into a fight and killed a man who was being held on death row.

That’s when Wilson received a life sentence and was transferred to ADX.  From his essay describing the place:

We as a country are blind to the reality of our prison system.

It has become normal.  And we the inmates are voiceless.  Our voices are not heard.  If they are heard, the things we say are thought of as lies.  I heard the head of the Bureau of Prisons testifying in Congress (on radio), saying they do not have insane inmates housed here.  This is what should be thought of as a lie.  I have not slept in weeks because of these nonexistent inmates beating on the walls and hollering all night.  And the most non-insane smearing feces in their cells.

This place is horrific with the solitary, and the lack of communication outside these walls.  I’ve been in prison without release for more than twelve years, and eight of them I’ve been in a cage walking around in circles.  So I am pretty in tune with the concept of solitary.  Prison.  Cages and craziness.

Out my window I see into a concrete yard surrounded by red brick walls.  There is a drain in the middle of it and out of it weeds are growing.  I thought they were weeds until a few blossomed into these beautiful yellow and brown flowers.

Every now and then a pair of owls roosts on the security lights.  This spring they had two babies.  We watched them grow up and fly away.  On any given day the sky here is breathtaking.  The beauty out my window stays in my mind.  I look around this cage at plain concrete walls and steel bars and a steel door, a steel toilet, and I endure its harshness because I am able to keep beauty in my mind.

The window helps greatly.

I’m in the hole so there is no TV.  Books help me escape better than my words could ever explain.  But most of all it’s the love of my family, the memories of beauty, and the knowledge of humanity.

Loneliness is a destroyer of humanity.

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hell_is_a_very_small_place_final.jpgThe essays by Theoharis and Wilson – and many others – appear in Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement, edited by Jean Casella, James Ridgeway, and Sarah Shourd.

You should read this book.

If you are human, you will cry.

If you are a citizen of the United States, you should know: we’re doing this for you.  The men and women whose essays appear in Hell Is a Very Small Place are being tortured on your behalf.

Mayhaps you should do something.

On driving.

On driving.

MARK SCHLERETH: Everybody’s done it — it’s depending — depending upon how much cheating you think it is. And again, I think to me it’s setting your cruise control in a 65 mile an hour zone at 72 and think “I’m not gonna get a ticket for that because nobody’s gonna give me a ticket for going, you know, 6 or 7 miles an hour over the speed limit.”

STEPHEN A. SMITH: Well, to touch on your last point, Mark Schlereth, as just a fun way of getting into it, most brothers that are behind the wheel, we anticipate we may get pulled over if we go seven miles over the speed limit. Let me just throw that out there as an aside.

— ESPN First Take Podcast, May 21st, 2015

When I was nineteen and visiting a high school buddy at his college, a cop tailed me for two miles, flashed his lights after I parked, then sauntered up and complimented me on my impeccable driving. I’d ferried a carload of friends down from Northwestern for the weekend, and by way of a “thanks for letting us crash on your couches” offering for my (twenty-one-year-old) buddy, we’d stopped at a liquor store to pick up a case of beer and a bottle of rum just after hitting town.

Unbeknownst to me, a recently-passed law made it illegal for minors to operate any motor vehicle being used to transport alcohol, even in the trunk1. Since I’d driven, then sat chatting in the car with a friend while our twenty-one-year-old companions ducked into the liquor store, the cop who spent his evenings idling on a ridge overlooking the parking lot (fighting crime one entrapment site at a time!) pegged me for an easy mark.

It’s true. I’m a privileged dude. I grew up in a wealthy suburb outside Indianapolis. At nineteen, I was having my first interaction with the police. I answered the cop’s questions because I naively thought that’s what you do, with the denouement being confiscation of our alcohol and citations — six hundred dollars all around — doled out to me, the underage driver, and my of-age friends, accomplices to the crime.

Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that my friend riding shotty had a baggie with a quarter ounce of pot in his coat pocket. To my suddenly paranoid mind the whole car seemed to reek from the furtive smoking he’d done during our drive, but I was a wealthy-looking white kid — the cop yoinked our sack of booze from the trunk without asking to search the car.

I’m less oblivious now. My high school was pure Wonder Bread, roughly what you’d expect in a suburb full of Republican doctors and lawyers served by an illegally-bigoted real-estate association2. Big houses and pale bland robot kids. I had black friends in college, but my mild touch of Asperger’s meant I never noticed their treatment by the outside world. Hell, we were college kids. We mostly walked around campus or hung around the student housing co-op, smoking pot and playing chess. We rarely even saw the outside world together.

During graduate school my big-C Consciousness score bumped from dead zero to something I hope is at least passable. My brown-skinned colleagues were routinely belittled by their advisors, and there weren’t many of them, and all the janitors were black and Latino, and the verbal abuse showered upon them was worse. Very frustrating to see. Although it’s shameful that it took me so long to notice.

White-looking white dudes in this country are free to be placidly oblivious. Maybe a bit less easily now — shortly after I finished my Ph.D. the national media started giving some coverage to the most egregious police abuses, like murdering people in the street3 — but, given all the “War on Police” coverage rolling on Fox News4, it can’t be that hard to remain ignorant.

As far as my own blindness goes, I’m trying to atone. I’ve done a lot of reading lately; I went through twenty-three years of education without picking up a single book by Hurston, Baldwin, Ellison, or Morrison. I’d blame my teachers but, at some point, didn’t it become my own damn fault?

Still, better late than never. I teach now, twice a week at the local jail. I volunteer with Pages to Prisoners, an advocacy organization that sends free packages of books. I run a correspondence writing program for inmates across Indiana, hoping that I can help some of our nation’s most stigmatized citizens find an audience for their stories.

And I drive really, really slowly. Like 27 in 30 m.p.h. zones. Like consistently below the speed limit, even downhill. Because heartbreaking work from contemporary thinkers like Michelle Alexander got me thinking about the Fourth Amendment.

When it comes to harping about the Bill of Rights, Democrats yelp most about the First Amendment, Republicans about the Second … although Republicans will invoke the First, too, when it comes to their right to emblazon courthouses with religious iconography, or to deny pizza to homosexual weddings (only tasteless straight people would even consider serving greasebomb pizza at a wedding, but still), or to banish mandatory medical information from their “pregnancy crisis centers.” The First and Second Amendments bogart all the big press.

But it’s the Fourth Amendment that actually needs our help. Protection from unreasonable search and seizure. As you may have noticed, I have at times had non-zero quantities of marijuana on or around my person. My youthful indiscretions were less egregious than those of any sitting president of the last sixteen years, but they were certainly prosecutable offenses. And yet. I got to finish college, earn my Ph.D., marry, raise my children. No police officer thought to poke his nose into my pockets, cluck what have we here, and charge me for the eighth that I was holding. But just last month I sent a care package to a dude my age, my height, my weight, who has been in prison since he turned 19, six years of that in solitary, all stemming from a conviction of “possession with intent to sell” a very ordinary quantity of marijuana.

Dude has no beautiful wife. No beautiful life. I sent him, among other things, some erotic stories to read5. In his letter he apologized for even asking for them, but explained that after six years in solitary he felt so achingly lonely.

All of which he earned by being black. Caught with less pot than I’ve at times had in my own vehicle.

But he was searched. I was not.

In a world with real Fourth Amendment protections, he would’ve been safe. His life could’ve been like mine. He’s my age, my height, my weight! Except for more melanin and shorter dreads, his picture even looks like mine.

The heart of the problem is that you can’t do much in this country without a car. And the illustrious members of the Supreme Court have issued a series of rulings that cumulatively result in our Fourth Amendment rights evaporating almost as soon as we step into a car6. These are lucidly described in David Harris’s George Washington Law Review essay, “Car Wars: The Fourth Amendment’s Death on the Highway.” Unless you’re prone to high blood pressure or apoplectic rage, you should give it a read.

The Supreme Court reasoned that the Fourth Amendment was designed to protect innocents. As soon as you break a law, you give up your rights. Doesn’t matter that incorrect use of a turn signal is totally unrelated to the likelihood you’re dealing drugs — once you slip up, any cop who wants can nab you. Question and answer time! Trawl for outstanding warrants time7! Stroll around your vehicle with the drug-sniffing dog time!

The tangle of laws on our roadways is brutal, too. At times it might seem impossible to know and follow them all. Worse, it is often literally impossible to follow them all.

That’s why white people should drive more slowly.

Almost every road has a posted maximum speed. In most states, if you drive one mile per hour above that limit, you’re breaking the law. Fourth Amendment rights? Gone!

I’ve got itchy feet. I listen to music in the car. I plan out stories in my head. What can I say? Sometimes my mind isn’t totally focused on the driving. So it’s pretty common for my speed to fluctuate a few miles per hour here and there. To stay consistently under the limit, I have to aim for something like eighty or ninety percent of the maximum speed. 27 m.p.h. in a 30, say. 49 in a 55. Then my slight moments of inattention won’t bump me over.

But most states’ vehicle codes also contain a clause stipulating that you are in violation of the law whenever you drive at a speed “that impedes or blocks the normal and reasonable movement of traffic.” 8 The normal movement of traffic in most places I’ve lived is about ten miles per hour above the posted limit, which means that any driver below the limit will be in technical violation of the “impeding traffic” clause9. Which means, again: Fourth Amendment rights? Gone! The courts have ruled that technical violation is all it takes. And, yes, I’ve been stopped for driving “suspiciously slowly.”

The driving habits of the majority ensure that there is no speed at which minority drivers will be safe from harassment.

You might wonder, am I ranting about all this just to protect criminals? After all, if a dude doesn’t have marijuana in his car, or coke, or pills in somebody else’s name, then he’s got nothing to fear. Right?

Let’s set aside the sheer degradation of being searched, being presumed to be and treated like a criminal, and simply point out that this supposition is incorrect. The innocent are not safe. From Douglas Husak’s Overcriminalization I learned that some states prohibit “the possession of paraphernalia — items used for a variety of purposes, such as storing or containing drugs. Defendants may be convicted without knowing that the items that qualify as paraphernalia are typically used to commit drug offenses.

This is by no means a toothless prohibition. Did you know that some people use soda straws to store or transport heroin? I didn’t. Not until I read about Tyrone Tomlin, who was arrested in 2014 in New York City — and beaten severely, causing irreparable brain damage, during his 21 days at Rikers — for possession of a soda straw. The soda in his other hand was insufficiently mitigating evidence to keep him safe and free.

Have you ever driven with a soda straw in your car?

Or, how about money?

Seems ridiculous that it would be illegal to have U.S. legal tender in your vehicle. But, for some people, it is. Why? Because money is sometimes used in drug transactions. Which means that if a police officer stops someone — perfectly legal whenever any stipulation of the vehicle code has been violated, which, given that every speed technically violates either the posted maximum or the “impeding traffic” clause on most roads, means roughly whenever the officer wants — and searches the car, and finds money, that money can be confiscated. Especially if the driver looks like someone who might’ve intended to use that money to buy drugs. Or if the driver looks like someone who might’ve earned that money by selling drugs. Basically, if the driver looks black.

Police officers have seen MTV. They’ve seen videos with young black men flashing bills and braggin’ ‘bout the bricks they moved to get ‘em. Doesn’t matter that these videos are fiction, that many were produced and disseminated by white people, that studies have shown that the vast majority of both drug users and drug dealers in this country are white10. Facts are trifling things compared to how people feel.

Without Fourth Amendment protections to contend with, police officers have enormous latitude to make their prejudices come true. If the police think a certain type of person looks like a criminal, they can focus their attentions on similar-looking people, which will lead, lo and behold, to the capture of many criminals who fit that description.

To me, this sounds unfair. But because the unfairness is visible only through aggregate statistics, the risk that any particular driver will be stopped, searched, and incarcerated unfairly is considered to be merely “conjectural” or “hypothetical.” No young black male can know in advance that he will be the unlucky driver discriminated against today. So the Supreme Court has ruled that individual citizens do not have standing to introduce these statistics into any court case, even though anyone glancing at the data can see that they’re unfair11.

I’ll admit, the stakes here may seem small. When you next find yourself behind the wheel, you might feel an urge to goose the engine, nudge over the legal limit, get where you’re going a little sooner. After all, as long as you personally are not a police officer unfairly targeting minority drivers, are you causing any harm?

Yes. I would argue that you are. By contributing to the “normal” flow of traffic above the designated limit, you preclude the existence of any legal speed. This is a harm we cause collectively. But there is more: by arriving at your destination early, you profit from injustice. Those who profit from injustice are tainted by it. As a white person grappling with these issues, I find these words from Jim Wallis’s America’s Original Sin particularly instructive:

White people in the United States have benefited from the structures of racism, whether or not they have ever committed a racist act, uttered a racist word, or had a racist thought (as unlikely as that is).  Just as surely as blacks suffer in a white society because they are black, whites benefit because they are white.  And if whites have profited from a racist system, we must try to change it.  To go along with racist institutions and structures such as the racialized criminal justice system, to obliviously accept the economic order as it is, and to just quietly go about our personal business within institutional racism is to participate in white racism.

Acting alone, neither you nor I can cure the ailments of our society. But each and every one of us, individually, can forgo those perquisites allotted to us unfairly. If you, like me, look white, you could choose to violate the speed limit. You would probably face no penalty. But others, through no fault of their own, do not have that choice. They pay for your privilege.

In a world where others are required to drive slowly, shouldn’t I?

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Footnotes

1. Indiana Code 7.1-5-7-7 stipulates, among other things, that “It is a Class C misdemeanor for a minor to knowingly transport [an alcoholic beverage] on a public highway when not accompanied by at least one (1) of his parents or guardians.” In case you were wondering about the retrograde pronoun usage, an earlier passage of the legal code stipulates that “the masculine gender includes the feminine and [sic] where appropriate, the single number includes the plural.” Equivalent laws are on the books in several other states, such as Massachusetts, but for the life of me I can’t imagine that any of these laws has made the world a safer place.

2. Harsh words, but true. It’s rumored that a company in the area once issued permits for black employees to display on the outsides of their cars because the police, knowing that black people couldn’t possibly live there, would otherwise pull them over for a little casual harassment. As recently as 1996, a black state trooper was stopped a block from his own home because a cop thought it inconceivable that he belonged anywhere nearby. The Indianapolis chapter of the NAACP brought a class action suit — this was by no means an isolated incident — that was settled in 1999, at which point the local police department claimed they would no longer systematically target older cars and black- or brown-skinned drivers.

3. You could argue that Eric Garner’s death in the arms of Daniel Pantaleo was somehow accidental. But Walter Scott was clearly murdered. And these are only the men whose deaths, like horrifying low-res snuff films, were captured entirely on camera. Of the thousands of black men killed by police in the past few years, some hundred of them unarmed, it’s hard to believe — grand jury judgments aside — that no other instances constitute murder. I’d list names — they deserve remembrance — but do you realize how long that list would be?

Some of their names: 1999-2014.   2015.   2016 – present (unprocessed data).

4. Yes, the shootings in Dallas were frightening. And two officers were senselessly murdered in New York City. But the “War on Police” coverage began long before Dallas and has been incommensurate with the actual harms suffered by our men in blue. I’m not sure violence wreaked by one or two unhinged individuals constitutes a war. After the tragedy at Sandy Hook, nobody claimed there was a “War on Elementary School Children.”

5. Every prison has a unique set of regulations as to what type of books they’ll allow inmates to receive. Some prisons set a limit on quantity, others specify “no hardcovers,” or “no spiral bindings,” or, and this is trickiest for a volunteer-run organization struggling to send out free books, “no used.” This dude was at one of the “no used books, no hardcovers” facilities. Let me tell you, not many people have donated pristine paperback copies of My Secret Garden lately. I wound up sifting literotica.com for tasteful stories (I have no problem with Saxon-derived language, but no way am I sending anything with violence or the word “slutty” in it), then spending half an hour in front of our one-page-at-a-time-or-it-jams, single-sided-only printer to put together a forty-page pamphlet for him. Hopefully the guards let it through.

6. I’d like to blame this development on the usual suspects, the quintet of crusty hate machines appointed by the political right, but I can’t. Whren v. United States, for instance, was decided unanimously. This case hurts most, setting a precedent that the police may stop any driver who violates any stipulation of the vehicle code, even if that violation alone, independent of an officer’s preexisting desire to stop a particular driver, would never be considered sufficient cause to pull someone over. Because most states’ vehicle codes span many hundreds of pages, everyone commits a technical violation sooner or later. After I finished my Ph.D. and was driving a U-Haul full of books and furniture from California to Indiana, I was tailed for several miles by a Utah state trooper who eventually dinged me for failing to signal for the requisite two seconds before passing a truck. I’d signaled for only a second and a half. Of course, after he stopped me he saw past the dreadlocks, army green cap, and sunglasses to my pallid skin and nice-as-pie wife and declined to even glance in the back. So it goes.

7. Even in Justice Sotomayor’s scathing dissent to Utah v. Strieff, in which the majority seems to have been bamboozled by recent quantum mechanical evidence from dual slit experiments about time-traveling information, ruling that the future discovery of a warrant makes illegal behavior by a police officer retroactively become legal, Sotomayor acknowledges that we have a long history of permitting suspicion-less warrant trawling of anybody driving a car. “Surely we would not allow officers to warrant-check random joggers, dog walkers, and lemonade vendors just to ensure they pose no threat to anyone else,” she writes, although she knows already that she is wrong — the majority would allow this. But Sotomayor has no beef with the haranguing of drivers: “We allow such checks during legal traffic stops because the legitimacy of a person’s driver’s license has a ‘close connection to road-way safety.’ ” Make no mistake: although she writes “legal traffic stops,” the modifier is redundant. Given the state of our roadways, all traffic stops are de facto legal.

8. This is true whenever you drive so slowly that “three (3) or more other vehicles are blocked.” In the small college town where I live this takes no more than a quarter mile driving dead on the speed limit. At two or three miles per hour below, that many cars can pile up within seconds of turning from my street onto the main road.

9. Not to mention the serious risks you incur by driving at or below the speed limit on a three- or four-lane highway; outside of rush hours, traffic flows at fifteen or more above on every city-circling interstate I’ve driven.

10. This claim is obviously subject to numerous assumptions. It’s difficult to accurately assess the frequency of illegal activities: I’ve lied on surveys before, and I can’t be the only one. Even though every survey indicates equivalent rates of drug use across ethnicities, disparities could exist. But it seems unlikely. Among people I’ve known, use of all drugs seems to be roughly correlated; I haven’t met people who never smoke, never drink, but are willing to drop acid or snort a line of coke. And the abuse rates for legal drugs, for which I imagine the data are more trustworthy, suggest that white people are slightly more interested in escaping reality than other ethnicities. As far as the racial distribution of drug dealers goes, the data are even more fraught. Total numbers are lower, which by itself means less trustworthy statistics, and it must seem even riskier to admit on a survey that you’ve been selling. So this conclusion is based instead on data that suggest people buy drugs from dealers who look like them. Again, there are caveats — even if everyone uses drugs at the same rate, and everyone buys drugs from dealers who share their ethnicity, it may be that some populations of dealers serve far more customers than others, which would mean fewer individual dealers.

If this were the case, though, we might expect incarceration rates to even out in the end. A naive expectation would be that high-volume dealers would receive longer sentences. That’s not what’s happened, though. Instead, black people are incarcerated at a much higher rate for nonviolent drug crimes, and they receive consistently longer sentences than white people for seemingly-identical infractions. Despite the fact that the Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project serves a set of fourteen states where the population is only between five and ten percent black, about a third of the inmates we help are black (setting aside what it even means to be black in this country, a question far too tangled to be dealt with in a footnote).

11. This case, City of Los Angeles v. Lyons, really was decided by a quintet of hate machines. A black driver was stopped for a minor traffic violation, dragged from his car, and choked until he passed out. In an ensuing court case, the driver sought to change Los Angeles police department policy such that future drivers would not be choked. His lawyer documented that most drivers choked this way were black. The Supreme Court threw out that evidence and dismissed the case. Justice Marshall wrote a dissent that clearly describes the harm caused by willful blindness to this type of statistical evidence: “Since no one can show that he will be choked in the future, no one — not even a person who, like Lyons, has almost been choked to death — has standing to challenge the continuation of the policy.

On the Bush years, from the perspective of the 45th.

On the Bush years, from the perspective of the 45th.

attheriverofslimeIn Ghostbusters II, the parapsychologists learned that certain words were dangerous.  A strange pink slime burgeoned beneath New York City, bringing with it a wide variety of malevolent spirits.  Every vile, hateful thing that anyone said caused the slime to grow in power.  Let slip too many insults and the muck might expand to engulf the world.

Similarly, our nation is currently helmed by an erratic figurehead that seems to draw strength from every intonation of his name.  During the primaries, and then the general election, much of what was said about our 45th was bad.  But content was irrelevant.  All that mattered was the name.  After all, the name is his key asset.  In the business world, most of his ventures folded, and the empire rebounded from bankruptcy on the value of the name alone, a crisp, bold, status-conferring word to adorn crassly gilded buildings.

And so, even though there is obviously more to write about the state of our nation, K (with the help of some lovely letters to the editor) convinced me to stop using the name.

I’ve also been binging Eliot Weinberger’s essays on my Netflix lately.  (Clarification from K: “By ‘Netflix,’ he means his library card.”)

EliotWeinbergerBW350Until I picked up his Ghosts of Birds, I’d never read anything by Weinberger.  This is tragic, because he’s been publishing phenomenal essays for decades.  “The Falls,” from Karmic Traces, is a brutal compression of three thousand years of racism.  An Elemental Thing is gorgeous throughout its two hundred pages.  Written Reaction is riddled with wry snark and lovely poetry recommendations.

And then there’s 2005’s What Happened Here: Bush Chronicles, which has proven invaluable to me as I attempt to make sense of our nation’s current political situation.

From the opening page:

bushchronicles.jpgAl Gore received some 540,000 more votes than George W. Bush.  Presidential elections, however, are determined by the archaic system of an Electoral College, to which each state sends  representatives who vote according to the will of that state’s voters, nearly always on a winner-takes-all basis.  An 18th-century invention, the College was a last-minute political concession to Southern slave owners when the Constitution was written.  Representatives were apportioned according to population; slaves, of course, could not vote, but they were considered to be three-fifths of a human in the calculations, thus increasing the populations of the slave states and the number of their representatives.

Enlightened now, we have done away with slavery.  We’ve kept the electoral college, though, which continues to suppress the voice of populous urban areas.  And we’ve kept the system of counting voice-less black bodies to inflate the votes of their oppressors: we build prisons in white, rural, Republican-leaning districts.  The prisoners count toward the local population – not the population of whatever district they lived in & will return to – but are not allowed to vote while there.

Stealing representation from prisoners’ home districts matters most for the composition of congress.  But the basic premise of the electoral college – intentionally undercounting urban votes – subverted the will of the American people in 2000, when Gore won by half a million votes, and more egregiously in 2016, when Clinton won by two million.

7301022116_374439c45e_oAwarding the presidency to the losers was constitutional.  Somewhat less so in 2004, when clownish Supreme Court justices with clear conflicts of interest prevented the state of Florida from accurately awarding their votes, but constitutional nonetheless: in Weinberger’s words, “Our Founding Fathers had a limited enthusiasm for democracy.

After the inauguration, though, it didn’t take long for the constitutional egress to begin.  Bush tortured innocent Muslim men.  45 keeps attempting to ban them from our country.  Bush practiced an obscene cronyism.  Here’s Weinberger:

If you drill into Bush’s skull, what you mainly find is a pool of oil.  It’s difficult to understand Bush – especially when he speaks – but it is somewhat easier if one realizes that he sees the whole world exclusively in terms of the production and consumption of oil.

But if you drill to the core of George W. Bush’s being, there is something else, something that seems so hyperbolic, that so smacks of the cliches of old Communist propaganda, that it is hardly believable.  And yet the evidence of his term as the Governor of Texas, and the daily evidence of his presidency, proves that it is true.  Once one clears away the rhetoric that he is handed to read out loud, it is apparent that Bush believes that his role, his only role, as President of the United States is to help his closest friends.

And yet, somehow, 45 has taken this practice further.  Rather than presume that his role in office is to help his friends make money, 45 acts only to help himself.  He uses the presidency as an advertising platform; he badgers corporations that threaten his family brand; he reaps membership fees from wealthy individuals purchasing the opportunity for political contact; he bestows favors on nations where he owns significant properties (note, for instance, which nations were left off his executive orders on immigration).

Of course, neither Bush nor 45 could act alone… but Weinberger has you covered here, too.  Despite being over a decade old, his “Republicans: A Prose Poem” is still tragically relevant.  If anything, a reprise would be even more grim.  The piece is charming, though.  And a lot of fun, with lines like:

George W. Bush, President of the United States, is a Republican.  To demonstrate personal sacrifice and his determination to win the War on Terror, he gave up desserts and candy a few days before he announced the invasion of Iraq.

And yet Bush, despite his unpopularity and incompetence – nominating a governor from a wretchedly polluted state who believed in “voluntary compliance” to run the EPA; inundating the public with lies and misinformation (Weinberger: “Reagan, as everyone knows, was the master of transforming Washington into Hollywood, with his photo opportunities and careful scripts.  Bush has taken this one step further: Whereas Reagan’s scenarios were advertisements meant to promote what he was doing, Bush’s are often heartwarming television vignettes that are the opposite of his actual policies.  Thus we have had Bush in the forest extolling the beauty of the national parks, while opening them up for logging and mining, Bush reading to schoolchildren (as he was yesterday) while cutting the budgets for libraries.  Or, my favorite Bush moment: a speech he gave to something called the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, a community-service group, calling them exemplary of what makes America strong and free.  The next day, his administration completely eliminated their government funds.”); selecting a racist, hateful white southerner to serve as attorney general – was elected to serve a second term.

Address to the Nation on Immigration. Oval.

It’s unlikely Bush could have won in 2004 (after all, he’d lost in 2000, before people even realized what a mockery he’d make of our government) if the 9/11 terrorist attacks had not occurred.

And we’re in a similar situation now.  From Mark Danner’s “What Could He Do”:

we must see the likelihood of a crisis as the vital springboard of a [45] presidency, especially an increasingly shaky, unpopular, and unstable one.  The lower his poll numbers, the more outlandish his lies, the greater the resistance from opponents within the bureaucracies, the thicker his scandals and chaos, the likelier he will be to seek to use a crisis and all the opportunities it offers to lever himself from a position of defensiveness to that of dominating power.

To maintain power, 45 needs the United States to be attacked.  From that perspective, his foreign policies are totally reasonable.  In Danner’s words:

If, as the Islamic State has asserted, the goal of its attacks in the West has been to “eliminate the gray zone” … then [45]’s immigration ban goes far toward accomplishing the same thing: isolating Islamic communities, placing them all among a besieged minority whose travel is restricted and whose loyalty to their adopted countries is put into question. … If one sought to design a policy to encourage radicalization, it would be hard to suggest a better one.

Similarly, why not deliberately offend every other nation.  45 cannot guarantee that his belligerence against Muslims will prompt the attack he so sorely needs.  Every possible “other” who might be molded into a threat is worth pursuing: Muslims, Mexicans, Koreans, Chinese… our own citizens who happen to have more epidermal melanin than 45 himself does… hell, even Australians… any attacker who is not a good white Christian American would do.

But at least we have Eliot Weinberger, writing to warn us.  His words from January 2001, months before the attack:

If the economy sinks, as it probably will, a return to Iraq will certainly be the most expedient distraction.

And Weinberger’s words from September 12th, the day after the attack:

…the logic of George Bush’s seeming cowardice has received some ingenious explication.  Today, administration officials claimed that the terrorist attack was actually an assassination attempt, that the airplane that struck the Pentagon was intended for the White House (but hit the Pentagon by mistake), and that the plane that had crashed in Pennsylvania was somehow supposed to crash into the President’s jet, Air Force One.  I happened to watch these pronouncements on television with a group of 13-year-olds; they all burst into derisive laughter.

That in a time of national crisis – a moment when, amidst waning government powers everywhere, government actually matters – the country is being led by a man laughed at by children may create psychic wounds as severe as those caused by the attack itself.

And, from 2003’s “Poetry is News,” collected in Weinberger’s Oranges & Peanuts for Sale:

The good news about the monstrosity of the Bush administration is that it is so extreme and so out of control that it has finally woken up the left…

On preventing future crime.

On preventing future crime.

4557822128_5d9ba71628_zFeeling safe is great.

Ask anybody with PTSD – feeling unsafe is the pits. A perception of danger elevates cortisol, wears the body out, and makes it hard to sleep, hard to think, hard to remember anything.

And – properly wielded – state violence is the best way to keep people safe. Of course, the term “state violence” means different things to different people. I’m not talking about police officers murdering innocent people, which has led many to experience way more stress, their hearts racing whenever a patrol car is spotted down the street.

leviathanI’m only fond of state violence that protects. We Homo sapiens have a long evolutionary history as a violent species, and state violence at its best prevents violence from individuals. This is the basic idea behind Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan.

A good practical example is the state violence that facilitated the civil rights march from Selma. The town was full of murderous individuals. Only the presence of armed federal soldiers – a clear imposition of state violence – prevented the far worse, anarchic violence that would’ve been perpetrated by locals.

At its worst, though, state violence is horrific. You get wanton destruction of life and liberty on a massive scale. Which is grim to think about, given that my own country is now helmed by a fickle racist who celebrates his own acts of violence against women.

Violence from a bad state isn’t keeping anybody safe.

10490113913_e3a697bdca_zConsider mass incarceration as currently practiced by the United States. Forcibly locking someone inside a prison or jail is a clear exercise of violence. In some cases, this violence keeps us safe. For instance, my mother-in-law was murdered last year. The man who killed her should be kept away from society so that he doesn’t hurt anyone else until he’s better. The brutality of this incident leads me to suspect he has some serious emotional disturbances at the moment.

But this dude has been shut inside various prisons for over nine years already… after convictions for non-violent drug crimes. When the state locked him away for all those years, were we the people made safer?

In Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil proffers a reason for doubt:

weaponsofmathdestructionWhat’s more, for supposedly scientific systems, the recidivism models are logically flawed. The unquestioned assumption is that locking away “high-risk” prisoners for more time makes society safer. It is true, of course, that prisoners don’t commit crimes against society while behind bars. But is it possible that their time in prison has an effect on their behavior once they step out? Is there a chance that years in a brutal environment surrounded by felons might make them more likely, and not less, to commit another crime?

Yes, I’d say there’s a chance. I doubt many people would disagree. Even those responsible for locking dudes in prison sometimes acknowledge that they’re doing the wrong thing.

While C. J. Chivers was researching his New York Times Magazine article about Sam Siatta, a marine who returned from Afghanistan with severe PTSD and no support, Chivers met with Jason Chambers, the prosecuting attorney whose office sent Siatta to prison. (After returning from the war, Siatta tumbled into alcoholism, and one night broke down a stranger’s door while stumbling home drunk from a party.) Many thought Siatta should be offered treatment instead of prison, but the prosecutors were unyielding. Siatta was socked with a six-year sentence.

Until, that is, Chivers arrived. Once Chambers learned that a reporter was investigating the case, he promptly offered to vacate the conviction. Siatta was released that week.

thefighter

From Chivers’s article:

There was a question to explore: Why did Chambers propose exactly the resolution to the case that his office had resisted for two years?

Chambers described a criminal-justice system that resembled an overworked mill. His office handles almost 5,000 cases a year, he said, and it was not possible for him to follow each of them closely …

From his point of view, Chambers said, the plea deal in the works was not actually a large shift. Siatta had received the minimum sentence for a Class-X felony and would soon plead to more than the minimum sentence for a felony one class down. “From a practical standpoint, it is a big change,” he said, because Siatta was out of prison. “From a legal standpoint, it is a hair’s width apart.”

And for society, Chambers added, the new arrangement was probably safer. If Siatta were to behave well in Shawnee [prison], he would be eligible for release in less than three years and would return with virtually no counseling or care for his PTSD. Now Siatta would be under state supervision for several years, receiving care throughout. “The rationale for me became, ‘What makes people safer over the long term?’ “ he said. “Is it treatment or just getting him off the street?”

Chambers is almost certainly correct: we the people will be safer if Siatta is given treatment instead of more time in prison.

Of course, our jails and prisons are so flawed that the same is probably true of most everyone sent away.

There’s even data showing how much less safe incarceration makes us. Individual prosecutors and judges have an inordinate amount of discretion, and defendants are randomly distributed among them… which means we’ve inadvertently conducted something like a controlled study. When a dude is busted for possession, he might land the judge who’s hard on theft but soft on drug crimes, in which case he’ll walk. Or he might land the judge who comes down hard on drugs and get four years in prison.

It’s absurd that a coinflip decision – which judge you’re assigned to – is the only difference between four years and freedom. From the perspective of justice, this is a nightmare. But from the standpoint of science, it’s great! Who doesn’t love controlled studies? Equivalent people are being assigned to receive either prison time or freedom, basically at random, which lets us compare how they fare afterward.

When Michael Mueller-Smith combed through the data for over a million defendants, he found that locking people up increases the likelihood that people will need expensive government services after release and increases the likelihood that people will commit future crimes.

Oops.

It seems quite likely that the choices made by New York state prosecutors – locking a then-harmless poor dude away for a decade – led to my mother-in-law’s death.

jamestrentAnd yet. I’ve been trying not to end these essays on a dour note. I certainly don’t mean to imply that everyone who spends time in prison becomes somehow tainted. So I’d like to close with advice from James Trent, whose lovely personal essay “A Visit from an Outsider” recently appeared in The New Yorker.
Despite being labeled with scorn by our criminal justice system and shunted away for decades on end, Trent resolved that even in prison he would do and be his best. He knows he’s made a positive impact on people’s lives during his time there. And he advises we do the same:

when you have a bad situation occur in life you can choose to become bitter or better. Choose to be better!

On fear.

On fear.

cta_brown_line_060716We recently visited my brother and our Auntie Ferret in Chicago.  Traveling with two young kids was difficult, but not impossible.  N held my hand while we strolled down the sidewalk and we did the five-hour drives to and from the city while she and her brother were sleeping in their car seats.

When we returned to Bloomington, I excitedly regaled staff at the YMCA “play and learn” childcare area with our adventures: we went to Restaurant Depot!  A grocery store where you can buy a six-pound tub of chili garlic paste!  It was magical!

One woman shuddered slightly: “Chicago?  I’m afraid to go there.”

Based on that statement alone, I’d bet large sums of money that she voted for Donald Trump.

Which isn’t such a bad bet.  He lost the popular vote, and Bloomington is a liberal isle in the midst of southern Indiana, but… this is southern Indiana, after all.  Trump garnered a lot of votes here.

And he campaigned on fear.

It’s not the best emotion, fear.  It’s no hope, for instance.  I’d say fear is far worse than whatever emotion best characterizes the recent Clinton campaign, even though I’m not quite sure what that emotion is… scorn?  Which isn’t good, but I’d swallow my pride and vote for smarmy self-satisfied scorn over fear any day (as in fact I did).

banksyfollowyourdreamsWe’re already seeing the awful consequences of fear: an executive order barring immigrants and refugees from a few (poor, Trump-property-less) countries that people here fear.  Yes, it looks like children are drowning as families flee the civil war (sparked by climate change from our pollution).  But what if those deaths are all part of an evil ploy by ISIS (not Daesh, not ISIL) operatives to infiltrate the United States?

The ban is misguided and heartless, obviously.  But it’s hardly the worst that fear can do.  Because fear inspires attack.

Which is a fascinating research finding.  Terrifying, yes, given our current political situation.  But still fascinating.  You get it all here: mind control… senseless violence… and… killer mice?

Back in 2005, Comoli et al. found that hunting seemed to activate a pattern of neurons in the amygdala, the brain region responsible for fear in a wide variety of mammals, including humans.

So… what would happen if you suddenly activated those neurons?

Usually, neurons are activated only when we think.  Our thoughts are patterns of neuron activations, and they cause further activations, which means we get to keep thinking, on and on as we learn and grow… until we die.  Then the activations stop.

picture-1Each of these “activations” is a flow of electricity from one of the cell to the other.  Neurons are lined by “voltage-gated ion channels,” and these let signals flow.  Ions entering through one gate cause nearby gates to open.  After a gate opens, though, it takes a while to recharge, which causes the current flow in a single direction.

And that’s how you can create a Manchurian candidate.  Instead of hypnosis – conditioning Sinatra to flip when he spots a playing card – you infect neurons with new ion channels that open when you shine laser light on them.  Make a recombinant virus, load it into a syringe, and plunge that needle into the brain!

The laser causes your new ion channels to open, and then, once they do, all the others respond, creating a flow of current.  The signal becomes indistinguishable from any other thought.  Except that whoever holds the laser is in control.

Wenfei Han et al., for the study “Integrated Control of Predatory Hunting by the Central Nucleus of the Amygdala,” took some mice and infected their amygdalas with these light-activated channels… and found that they’d created killing machines.  In their words:

When a non-edible item was placed in the cage, laser activation caused the otherwise indifferent mice to immediately assume a ‘capture-like’ body posture and seize the object, which was then held with the forepaws and bitten.  Behavior was interrupted immediately upon laser deactivation.

Light on… attack!  Light off… whoa, what was I doing?

mouse attacking.jpg

From Han et al.:

Generally, upon laser activation, mice readily seize, bite, and often ingest, non-edible objects, an effect that was modulated by internal state.  Laser activation also abolished natural preferences for edible over non-edible items.

When left to their own devices, mice will hunt crickets (although it’s worth noting that “Consistently, by employing the cricket-hunting paradigm, [laser activation] shortened the time needed for mice to capture and subdue their prey.  Captured crickets were immediately eaten.”), but the mind-control lasers cause them to hunt anything.

Well, almost anything.

Activation did not induce attacks on “conspecifics,” that is, their fellow mice.  But human psychology seems to allow great flexibility in distinguishing between our own kind and others.  When a mouse sees a mouse, it’ll know it’s a mouse.  But we are so tribal that when one Homo sapiens sees another, the knowledge of shared humanity is often clouded over.  Instead of recognizing a human, we might see a Syrian, or a Muslim, or an “illegal,” or a Republican, or a criminal.

A mouse won’t hunt another mouse, but we humans are great at attacking our own.

Of course, we don’t know for certain that humans would attack so single-mindedly if we activated neurons in the amygdala.  We conduct only voluntary research on humans, and it seems unlikely that many people would sign up for an experiment involving the injection of viruses into the brain (which causes the infected neurons to become light-activated), intentional lesions between various brain regions (to isolate activities like hunting and eating – a quick slice lets researchers permanently uncouple those thought patterns), and euthanasia (to dissect the brain at the experiment’s end).

mouse-801843_1920The mice used in these studies – or any other research studies, since mice aren’t even considered “animals” for the purposes of the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act – did not fare particularly well.  Far worse than the impoverished or imprisoned Homo sapiens whose “voluntary” research participation is induced by the offer of a piddling amount of cash or less mistreatment inside.

But now we know.  Inspire sufficient fear, trigger attack.  We’ll find an other – edible or not, deserving or not – and try to kill it.

People who felt afraid voted for Trump… and he has been using his social media megaphone to inflame their fears further ever since… and if we don’t calm those fears, war is coming.

Terrorism is scary.  But can we get a little more “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” around here?

On wasted ingenuity.

On wasted ingenuity.

You should read Demetrius Cunningham’s essay about learning to play the piano in prison.  He describes taping together flaps of cardboard trash and training his fingers by pressing the places where a piano’s keys would be.  It’s a beautiful piece of writing.

cunningham.JPG

And it hurts to consider what Cunningham might accomplish if he had access to more resources.

He’s not alone in striving to apply his intellect within a situation where most of his effort is – from the perspective of our modern world – simply wasted.  It’s incredible that he devised a system for learning to play piano with only cardboard at his disposal.  But we live in a world with such cheap plastics and electronics that perfectly functional keyboards can be purchased for three dollars or less at most pawn shops and thrift stores.

But Cunningham, in prison, is not allowed a three-dollar children’s toy.  He studies with cardboard.

Which is not to say that our world should be without punishment.  Those who murder need time away from society.  People should be kept safe from harm.  But I find it inconceivable that the best way to help someone who has murdered become a kinder, gentler, wiser human would be to lock him inside a world of violence, mistrust, and cement.

K’s mother, too, was murdered recently.  In her case, the man who murdered her had previously been held in New York prisons for some nine years on nonviolent drug charges.  The time he served in prison surely affected him.  Based on what little I know about life inside, that time probably affected him adversely.

So I’d argue that the state of New York’s efforts at “correction” contributed to K’s mother’s murder.  Would that man have killed her had we not shunted him into prison for nine years?  And, what of the childhood that led to his drug convictions in the first place?  Did we devote the resources necessary to ensure that he felt safe and loved as a child?  Did he have the opportunity to build a life around respected, well-compensated work?

Did Cunningham?

In my poetry classes, only one participant (that I know of) has served time for murder – in his case, 20 years thus far of a 50-year sentence.  He is an excellent writer, and very well-read, but, until our class, every time he wrote a poem or story he would crumple the pages and throw them away.

Why keep them?  The world had made very clear that no one cared what he might have to say.

Inventions are made over and over again inside: using only those spare materials allotted inside prison, how might men mimic some of the conveniences of the modern world?  In Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water, a clear-eyed description of the 1971 Attica prison riot and its aftermath, she describes the jury-rigged water heaters many inmates built for their cells.

Or there’s her passage on the amenities:

bloodinthewaterThe men needed money at Attica because the state offered them only a few items gratis.  These included a thin gray coat, two gray work shirts, three pairs of gray pants, one pair of shoes, three pairs of underwear, six pairs of socks, and one comb.  Then, every month, prisoners would receive one bar of soap and one roll of toilet paper, which meant that men were forced to limit themselves “to one sheet per day.”  The state’s food budget allotment was also meager.  At a mere 63 cents per prisoner per day, it was insufficient to meet the minimum dietary standards as determined by federal guidelines.  The reality was that many men at Attica went to bed hungry.  For this reason jobs in the kitchen or the mess hall, while more arduous than others given their seven-day-a-week schedule, were some of the most coveted.  At least on those jobs a man could eat leftovers.

To get anything beyond the supplies given them – warmer clothes, more food, toiletries like toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, razors, and extra toilet paper – prisoners needed money.  Being able to buy deodorant was no luxury since these men were allowed only one shower a week and were given only two quarts of water a day.  With this water prisoners were expected to wash their socks and underwear, shave, brush their teeth, and clean the cell to a correction officer’s exacting standards.

Prisoners had to be clever to endure such conditions.  Likewise, it takes more cleverness to survive childhood poverty than is needed for a privileged middle class existence of soccer leagues at birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese and A’s stamped on the state achievement tests.

But our world doesn’t celebrate the former type of cleverness.  We prize instead earned wealth and good grades.  And yet, think: what if all that ingenuity weren’t wasted?  What if more of our nation’s childhood survivalists and prisonyard Edisons had been given a fair opportunity?

I love capitalism and the chance for people to profit from their discoveries.  But capitalism crumbles without opportunity.  Especially now, with automation at the forefront of technology, a system rewarding past capital ownership will waste more and more human ingenuity.  The class of those born into opportunity will keep shrinking.

Of course, those privileged few – armed with their intentional misunderstandings of economics and technology – will argue otherwise.  That’s how we got here in the first place.