On power and dignity in defeat.

On power and dignity in defeat.

Winning is pretty easy.  It takes effort to get there, but once we’ve done it, most people can act with grace.

It reveals more about a person’s character to see how they handle defeat.  In the Christian bible, Jesus is a more compelling character than Yahweh.  Jesus faces adversity, which sometimes he accepts calmly – he willingly submits to crucifixion despite knowing in advance that he has been betrayed – and sometimes heatedly – braiding a whip when he’s angered by commerce in the temple.

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So, sure, Jesus loses his temper.  Don’t we all?  It’s understandable to lash out when unconscionable behavior seems to be taking over the world.

Which is why, when Jesus rages, he still seems like a sympathetic character.  But when Yahweh does it, He seems small and petty.  After all, Yahweh is omniscient.  Omnipotent.  He always wins, and yet he’s still jealous and wrathful.

In Norse mythology, every champion is shown both at moments of glory and in defeat.  The latter episodes let us see the true depth of their strength.

In Laughing Shall I Die, Tom Shippey writes that:

image (7)Losing is a vital part of the Norse belief structure.  Ragnarok is like Armageddon, the battle at the end of the world.  In it the gods and their human allies will march out to fight against the frost giants and the fire giants, the trolls and the monsters.  And in that battle – and this is not at all like Armageddon – our side, the good guys, will lose.  Thor will kill the Midgard Serpent, the great snake that coils round the world, and then drop dead from its poison.  Odin will be swallowed by the wolf Fenrir.  Heimdal and the traitor god Loki, Tyr and the great hound Garm: both pairs will kill each other.  Frey, left swordless, will fall before the fire giant Surt, who will then set the world ablaze.

The gods know this is going to happen.  That is why Odin habitually betrays his own chosen heroes to death, and this is where the myth of Valhalla comes in.  Odin wants his best heroes dead so he can collect them in his own Halls of the Slain (Valhalla), where they will fight each other every day, for practice, and come back to life-in-death at the end of every day, to feast. 

The myths had a built-in answer for, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  The Norse imagined that gods betrayed their champions in life because they needed allies in death.

Odin knows Ragnarok is coming, but since he does not know when, he wants his team to be at all times as strong as possible, even though the result is foreordained.  Even the gods will die, and their side will lose as well, and they know they will.  But this does not make them want to negotiate, still less change sides.  Refusal to give in is what’s important.  It’s only in ultimate defeat that you can show what you’re really made of.

All this shows an attitude to winning and losing markedly different from ours.  To us, calling someone ‘a loser’ is seriously insulting.  This must be the result of 150 years of competitive sport.  All modern games start off by imposing fair conditions.  Same numbers on each side, level pitch, no ground advantage, toss a coin at the start for choice of ends in case there is some advantage, change ends halfway through to cancel any such advantage, umpires and referees to see fair play – all the rules are there to see that the better team wins.   So if you lose, you must have been inferior in some way, strength or speed or skill, and if you lose consistently, then there’s something wrong with you: no excuses.

Worse, our culture is so permeated with the ethos of sport that we mistakenly believe every victory reveals moral worth.  Ayn Rand argued that financial wealth revealed a person’s merit; many contemporary politicians have been suckered into the same beliefs.

Vikings were wiser.  They knew that in the real world, conditions aren’t fair.  Heroes may be outnumbered, betrayed, trapped, caught off guard or just plain run out of luck.  That doesn’t make you what we call ‘a loser.’  To their way of thinking, the only thing that would make you a loser would be giving up.  And there’s another factor, perhaps the most distinctive thing about the Viking mindset. 

The heroes of the Viking Age, both gods and men, fixated as they seemed to be on death and defeat, just did not seem able to take death and defeat seriously.  Unlike the ponderous heroes of the classical world, they kept on making jokes, coming out with wisecracks.  To them, the throwaway line was another artform.  They had no sense of their own dignity.  Or maybe, they had such a strong sense of their own dignity that they felt no need to stand on it.

Finally, and combining the attitude to losing with the attitude to joking, what was especially relished in story after story was the stroke that showed that the hero hadn’t given up, even in an impossible situation.  What was best was showing you could turn the tables, spoil your enemy’s victory, make a joke out of death, die laughing.

People who think like that, one may well conclude, can be beaten by superior force, but though they can be killed like anyone else, they are impossible to daunt.  If they’re alive they’ll come back at you, they’re not done until they’re stone dead; even if they’re dying or helpless they will try to think of some trick, and if you fall for it, then the joke’s on you.

Viking humor.  Their secret weapon.  Part of their mindset.  Take warning, though!  There’s a mean streak running through it.

The Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project receives many requests for material about Norse mythology, but unfortunately we rarely send any.  White supremacists decided that the Norse myths should underpin their religion, and so current publications of these materials are often laced through with racism and hate.  I’ve (slowly) been preparing my own anti-racist pamphlet about the Norse myths, though, because many are lovely stories.  And the above passage seems like it could be quite helpful for many of the people who get caught in our nation’s criminal justice system.

In jail, we often read Julien Poirier’s poem “Independently Blue,” which opens with the lines:

It’s easy to fly a flag when you live in a nice house

in a beautiful city.

Things have worked out nicely for you,

and you think everyone can agree

this is the greatest country on earth.

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 The people who are “winning” in our country – the wealthy, the comfortable – rarely began on an even playing field with everyone else.  Their patriotism costs little.  Why wouldn’t you love your country if it provided you with everything?

deadpool_by_steelstrugglin-d9stlbzThere’s a chance that Deadpool’s current popularity is due to the fact that so many people feel like they are not winning at life right now.  After all, Deadpool’s superpower is the ability to suffer with a smile.  He’s a hero who embodies the ethos of Norse mythology, willing to joke about his own failures.

From Shippey:

A hero is defined not by victory but by defeat.  Only in defeat can you show what you’re really made of.  Only in final defeat can you show that you will never give in.  That’s why the gods have to die as well.  If they did not die, how could they show true courage?  If they were really immortal and invulnerable, who would respect them?

At a time when so many people feel as though the world is stacked against them, seeing Superman score yet another preordained victory isn’t so compelling.  Better to root for a loser, to see Deadpool grin through a mouthful of cracked teeth and make one more bad joke before he passes out.

Especially for people in prison and jail.  Many were born into crummy situations.  After they’re released, they’ll have to navigate the world with huge additional burdens impeding their efforts – if you haven’t read it, you should check out poet Reginald Dwayne Betts’s lovely essay about trying to become a lawyer despite having been convicted of a felony when he was a kid.

I hope the people we’ve incarcerated manage to carve out some form of success.  We should want that for everyone.  People can grow and change; why not do what we can to help others change for the better?

But maybe these people will not win.  Maybe they’ll submit dozens of job applications but receive no interviews.  Maybe nobody will want to give them a second chance.

That is, unfortunately, the way it often happens.

Would defeat hurt less if we celebrated myths in which our heroes suffer, too?  And not just the way Jesus suffered, undergoing a torturous death as a trial before his ultimate ascension.  What would our world be like if we venerated gods who died with no hope of rebirth or redemption?

George Patton said, quite accurately,

Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.

But people at the bottom are strong, too – often stronger than those whom fate allowed to start at the top and stay there.  Our world will be a better place once we learn to show kindness to those who actually need it.

On substitutes.

On substitutes.

When I started bouldering, I had the pleasure of attending a gym run by Jess McCauley.  He was an excellent climbing coach – although this was a very small gym in Mountain View, California, many of the kids he taught excelled at national competitions.

Then Jess decided to become a school teacher.  He was clearly great at working with kids, and had a B.A. in history focusing on African studies, so he figured he could do more good inside a classroom than a gym.  As he finished his education degree, Jess began working as a substitute teacher.

His first job was in my spouse’s high school “Biotechnology” class.  The day before, she exhorted her students: “The sub tomorrow is a good friend of mine, and I’m gonna be really upset if you’re hard on him.”

Everybody knew Jess was great with kids.  He’s a funny, charming, knowledgeable, muscular dude.  But every time a substitute teacher steps into a classroom, the chance that something will go wrong increases dramatically.

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Teachers build relationships with students over the course of a year.  As you work with a group of people, you learn to read subtle social cues – you’ll know when two students need to be separated from each other, when somebody might need to take a momentary breather in the hallway.  There’s a lot going on inside a high school beyond content education, and teachers develop an intuitive feel for the social dynamics inside their own rooms.

With experience, most people get better at this.  I imagine my spouse’s content knowledge didn’t improve much over her first five years in the classroom, but she became a better teacher.  She learned how to read and work a room.

And I know how much effort she puts into establishing a culture of trust inside her room.  But there are still problems.

In the morning, she teaches AP biology to her school’s “best and brightest,” kids bound for college at top-tier universities.  Many of those students would probably learn fine if you gave them all textbooks and put a straw-filled scarecrow behind the teacher’s desk.  Their neurochemistry tends to mesh well with the norms of public education.

In the afternoon, she teaches “Earth and space science” to kids who actually need a good teacher.  (Unfortunately, many schools pair their best teachers with the honors students and assign whomever’s left to the kids who need the most.)  These are students whom administrators often expect to fail – and yet, when given appropriate challenges (like a recent assignment engineering challenge to build a functional solar still), they shine.

Still, when a substitute steps into these classrooms, there’s a major risk that something will go wrong.

Last year, when our family traveled to St. Louis for the National American Biology Teacher meeting, one of my spouse’s students punched a classmate in the head.

During another of our trips, a student flipped a desk.  The year before, some students locked a sub out of the room and looped twine between the door handle and a lab table, tightening their barricade with a bar from the coat closet.  Those same kids stole the fire extinguisher that day (which my spouse only knew because they gleefully hugged her and told her so at graduation – nobody expected for these kids to receive diplomas, so they were understandably elated to be there).

When my spouse plans trips, she requests that only experienced substitutes be assigned to cover her classes, but there’s only so much that somebody unfamiliar with the room can do.  I imagine that if she were subbing for somebody else, the chance of something going wrong would still jump, even though she can keep her own classrooms orderly.  Those are students she’s grown familiar with.

High school is a stressful environment.  And putting a new face into that kind of situation can trigger trouble.

But, what’s a little worse than high school?  In terms of, like, people don’t want to be there, emotions flare, you’ve got massive numbers of athletic young men crammed into a cramped little space?

Oh.  Right.  Prison.

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One consequence of the federal hiring freeze is that many prisons have been relying on substitute guards.  These subs might be trained guards who usually work other blocks – or they might be classroom instructors, medical staff, clerks.  Female secretaries dressed in their office clothes (i.e. skirt, button-down blouse) might be suddenly assigned to patrol the halls of a men’s prison.

When a substitute steps into my spouse’s classroom, kids might get hurt.  When a substitute enters a prison, people could die.  According to a terrifying article from the New York Times,

As the shortage of correctional officers has grown chronic under President Trump – and the practice of drawing upon other workers has become routine – many prisons have been operating in a perpetual state of staffing turmoil, leaving some workers feeling ill-equipped and unsafe on the job, according to interviews and internal documents from the Bureau of Prisons.

Dozens of workers from prisons across the country said inmates had become more brazen with staff members and more violent with one another.

The traditional rules go unenforced, which emboldens people to push the limits further.  When guards can’t be relied on to keep a prison orderly, gang violence often takes over as an alternate form of control.

In My Brother Moochie, journalist Issac J. Bailey describes the emotional fallout that accompanied his older brother’s violent crime.  After this brother, Moochie, was sent to prison, Bailey’s family crumbled.  Several of his younger brothers got involved with petty crime and have been cycling in and out of prison ever since.  For instance, Bailey’s younger brother James, who is traumatized by the violence he witnesses in prison:

The man who was killed was “a little Asian dude smaller than me, so about fifteen of them ran into the room and started stabbing him,” James said.  “Dude was supposed to go home the next week.  What’s crazy is dude is from California and he can’t even speak his family’s original language.  They stabbed him out of fear.”

A shortage of prison guards throughout the state’s correctional system meant the few on duty didn’t always manage to make the rounds through the dorms on schedule.

I teach at our local county jail.  During a staffing shortage two summers ago, the jail became much less safe.  According to former inmate (and excellent human being) Max Smith, “Guys learned to time things.  A guard would be walking through for the count, some guys would be wailing on somebody inside a cell, they’d have somebody go up, ask the guard a question, distract him right when he got to that window.  Then he’d keep walking and they’d continue beating the shit out of somebody.  It was a scary place to be.”

Maybe there’s more that my spouse could be doing to establish a culture that will stay calm even when substitutes come into her classroom.  But I know that she’s already trying awfully hard, and she’s one of our country’s best teachers.

I think it’s safe to assume that the average prison guard puts less energy than she does into cultivating a safe and respectful environment.  When subs cover for them, bad things are going to happen.

Maybe we as a country don’t want to spend so much money on our prisons.  If so, we should probably be spending a whole lot more on education, so that we won’t feel the need to lock people up – public schooling is a chance to turn people’s lives around, but it’s not like we’re pouring money into that.  And there’s sentencing reform.  With shorter prison sentences, we wouldn’t need so many guards.

But I can’t imagine that the best solution is to conscript secretaries, teachers, and medical staff into patrolling the halls.

On race and our criminal justice system.

On race and our criminal justice system.

I’ve been teaching poetry in the local jail for over a year. The guys are great students, and I love working with them… but there are differences between these classes and my previous teaching experiences. Not just the orange attire or the chance that somebody down the hall will be rhythmically kicking a cell door all hour.

When I was teaching wealthy pre-meds physics & organic chemistry at Northwestern & Stanford, none of my students died. Nobody’s boyfriend or girlfriend was murdered midway through the semester. Nobody was sitting in class with someone who had ruined his or her life by becoming a police informant. Sometimes people got teary eyed, but only over grades.

plowWhereas… well, when we were discussing Norman Dubie’s “Safe Passage” last December – a beautiful poem about riding in the snowplow with his grandfather the night before the old man died – we wound up talking about our families. A forty-year-old man wept: he had thought that this year, for the first time in years, he would get to spend Christmas with his kids … but, even after they let you out, they take away your license … and make you show for blow-and-go some fifteen miles away, every single day … and charge you for the classes, but those classes mean you have no way to schedule regular work hours … so they put you on warrant when you can’t paid … and then, if you make one tiny mistake …

Christmas was in two days. He’d spend another month inside.

Ai_bwThe accumulated trauma that these guys shoulder from their past lives is heartbreaking. One of the best lesson plans my co-teacher and I have come up with uses several poems from Ai to prepare for writing our own persona poems. A former student – now released, & still sober after two months – says he still feels changed by the experience of writing in someone else’s voice. In that space he was made to feel so small, but taking a few minutes to ponder the world from another perspective let him escape. And it gave him a new view of the consequences of his own choices.

But a lot of Ai’s poetry is very difficult. She writes from the perspectives of murderers and rapists. We’ve discussed her poem “Child Beater” with several groups of men, and at least a third of the guys, every time, shared harrowing stories of their own.

On a good day, these men have long histories of suffering weighing them down.

And on a bad day? My co-teacher and I might show up with a stack of poems, start teaching class, and, mid-way through, learn that another of our students’ family members has just died. Over the course of a year, at least two had wives die of overdose, another’s partner was murdered … and, in that case, one of the killers was placed overnight in a cell adjacent to his own …

And, half an hour after my second class there ended, one of my students died.

The men do great work, both interpreting poems and writing their own, but, just think for a moment: what could they accomplish if they weren’t oppressed by so much misery? Compared to my experience teaching at wealthy universities, the emotional toll is excruciating. And I am just a tourist! After every class, I get to leave. A guard smiles and opens the door for me. I walk away.

This is their life.

And it’s my fault. All citizens of this country – all people who benefit from the long history of violence that has made this nation so wealthy – bear the blame. As beneficiaries, the suffering caused by mass incarceration is our responsibility.

So, the guy who died? He was just a kid. Nineteen years old. And he’d gone over a year without medication for his highly-treatable genetic condition. I’ve written previously about the unfair circumstances he had been born into: suffice it to say that his family was very poor. He’d been in jail awaiting trial since sixteen – he was being tried as an adult for “armed robbery” after an attempted burglary with a BB gun – and then, when he turned eighteen – please ignore the irony of this age constituting legal adulthood – the state said he had to pay for his own medication. With beta blockers, people with his genetic condition have a normal life expectancy. Beta blockers cost about $15 per month.

No, a dude whose family is so poor that he attempted robbery with a BB gun can not afford $15 per month. Sitting in jail, it’s not like he could help pay.

A few weeks after his death, I remarked to one of the other guys that he probably wouldn’t have been charged as an adult if he’d been a white kid. I told two anecdotes from the local high school: a student with psychiatric trouble amassed weapons in his locker and planned a date to do something violent. Another student participated in a food fight during the last week of school. The former was welcomed back; the latter was told that he’d be arrested if he returned to school grounds. And he hadn’t taken all his finals yet! If all his teachers had known about this disciplinary ruling in time, he wouldn’t have received a degree.

The first student was white; the latter black.

snowflakeThere’s no universal standard. Maybe there can’t be – we are all “beautiful unique snowflakes,” and so every case will be slightly different. But unfairness blooms when so much is left up to individual discretion. Black students are punished excessively throughout our country. Black children as young as 4 or 5 are considered disproportionately threatening and are treated unfairly.

Prosecutors in the criminal justice system have even more power. There’s no oversight and often no documentation for their decisions. Charges can be upgraded or downgraded on a whim. A white kid might’ve been sent to reform school for his “youthful indiscretions”; this dude sat in jail from age 16 until his death.

“Yeah, but _____ always said, ‘I’m not black. I’m mid-skinned.”

(You can also listen to a podcast about his unfair treatmeant and premature death here.)

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This spring, I said to one of the guys whose trial date was coming up, “I feel like, if I’d done the exact same thing as you…” I shook my head. There was no reason to go on. “But black guys get the hammer.”

He disagreed. Not with the idea that black people are punished disproportionately in this country, just that it would be his burden, too.

NCA-Earth“Well, but I’m not black,” he said. “My family is from all over the place … I’m Native American, and Caribbean, and …” He listed a long pedigree. Indeed, his ancestors had come from around the globe: Europe, India, Africa, the Americas …

“My apologies,” I said. “And, I guess … so, my wife teaches at the high school in town, and one of her kids, his family is Polynesian … but at school everybody assumes he’s black. So he mostly identifies with Black culture here.”

“I get that,” the guy said to me, nodding. He’s a really kind and thoughtful dude. “Cause, yeah, some of it is just who other people think you are.”

His words stuck with me: who other people think you are.

We were sure he could walk. Probation, rehab, that kind of thing. We’d seen other people with equivalent bookings go free.

We were wrong. Dramatically so: he was sentenced to seven years. His family was devastated. You don’t even want to know the extent.

Soon after, I was looking up his prison address to send him a letter and a few books of poetry. On the page of “Offender Data” provided by the Indiana Department of Correction, it read,

Race: Black.

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On the Tower of Babel and beneficial curses.

On the Tower of Babel and beneficial curses.

In Jack Vance’s The Eyes of the Overworld, a bumbling anti-hero named Cugel the Clever is beset by one misfortune after another.  He attempts to burglarize a wizard’s palace but is caught in the act.  The wizard Iucounu forces Cugel to retrieve an ancient artifact – a seemingly suicidal quest.  To ensure that Cugel does not shirk his duties, Iucounu subjects him to the torments of Firx, a subcutaneous parasite who entwines searingly with nerve endings in Cugel’s abdomen, and whose desire to reuinte with his mate in Iucounu’s palace will spur Cugel ever onward.

Early in his journey, Cugel is chased by a gang of bandits.  He escapes into a crumbling fortress – only to find that the fortress is haunted.

eyesofthe.jpgThe ghost spoke: “Demolish this fort.  While stone joins stone I must stay, even while Earth grows cold and swings through darkness.”

          “Willingly,” croaked Cugel, “if it were not for those outside who seek my life.”

          “To the back of the hall is a passage.  Use stealth and strength, then do my behest.”

          “The fort is as good as razed,” declared Cugel fervently.  “But what circumstances bound you to so unremitting a post?”

          “They are forgotten; I remain.  Perform my charge, or I curse you with an everlasting tedium like my own!”

“Everlasting tedium” sounds like a raw deal, so Cugel figures he’d better slay his assailants and get to wrecking this haunted edifice.  He kills three bandits and mortally wounds the fourth with a boulder to the head:

Cugel came cautiously forward.  “Since you face death, tell me what you know of hidden treasure.”

          “I know of none,” said the bandit.  “Were there such you would be the last to learn, for you have killed me.”

          “This is no fault of mine,” said Cugel.  “You pursued me, not I you.  Why did you do so?”

          “To eat, to survive, though life and death are equally barren and I despise both equally.”

          Cugel reflected.  “In this case you need not resent my part in the transition which you now face.  The question regarding hidden valuables again becomes relevant.  Perhaps you have a final word on this matter?”

          “I have a final word.  I display my single treasure.”  The creature groped in its pouch and withdrew a round white pebble.  “This is the skull-stone of a grue, and at this moment trembles with force.  I use this force to curse you, to bring upon you the immediate onset of cankerous death.”

“Immediate onset of cankerous death” sounds grim.  Dude’s day has gone from bad to worse.

          Cugel hastily killed the bandit, then heaved a dismal sigh.  The night had brought only difficulty.  “Iucounu, if I survive, there shall be a reckoning indeed!”

          Cugel turned to examine the fort.  Certain of the stones would fall at a touch; others would require much more effort.  He might well not survive to perform the task.  What were the terms of the bandit’s curse?  “ – immediate onset of cankerous death.”  Sheer viciousness.  The ghost-king’s curse was no less oppressive: how had it gone?  “ – everlasting tedium.”

          Cugel rubbed his chin and nodded gravely.  Raising his voice, he called, “Lord ghost, I may not stay to do your bidding: I have killed the bandits and now I depart.  Farewell and may the eons pass with dispatch.”

          From the depths of the fort came a moan, and Cugel felt the pressure of the unknown.  “I activate my curse!” came a whisper to Cugel’s brain.

          Cugel strode quickly away to the southeast.  “Excellent; all is well.  The ‘everlasting tedium’ exactly countervenes the ‘immediate onset of death’ and I am left only with the ‘canker’ which, in the person of Firx, already afflicts me.  One must use his wits in dealing with maledictions.”

At times, one curse can save us from another.

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In the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, humans are cursed for building a bridge to heaven.  Implicit in this story is the idea that humans nearly succeeded: our edifice of bricks and stone was threatening God.

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In part, this story was written to disparage other religious beliefs.  In the beginning, Yahweh was worshiped by a small tribe of relatively powerless people, and so the Old Testament seems to be riddled with rebuttals (some of which I’ve discussed previously, here).  In From Gods to God (translated by Valerie Zakovitch), Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch write that:

fromgodstogodThe derivation of “Babel” from b-l-l seems to have originated as a response to the widely accepted Babylonian explanation of that place’s name, Bab-ilu, “God’s Gate,” or Bab I-lani, “Gate of the Gods” – a meaning that, we’ll soon see, was known in Israel.  Indeed, the story of the Tower of Babel in its entirety polemicizes against a Babylonian tradition according to which the tower-temple in Babylon, which was dedicated to the god Marduk, was built as a tribute both to him and to the belief that Babylon was the earthly passageway between heaven and earth.  According to ancient Babylonian belief, the tower in Babylon – Babel – was Heaven’s Gate.

It seems that the biblical writer, unwilling to accept that Babylon – a pagan city – was the entryway to heaven, found various ways to counter this Babylonian tradition that was well known in Israel.  First, he converted the story of the building into one of ultimate failure and human conceit.  At the same time, though, he introduced an alternative story about the gate to heaven.  This time the gate’s location was in Israel, the Land of One God.  This replacement story is found in Genesis 28: the story of Jacob’s dream.

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The Bible succeeded in its propaganda campaign: by now the standard interpretation of the Tower of Babel is that humans approached the world with insufficient humility, we began a technological campaign that ultimately ended in failure, and Yahweh cursed us such that we could not cooperate well enough to attempt a similar project in the future.  Babel – Babylon – was not a passageway to heaven.  The gateway was never finished.  Because we’ve lost the ability to communicate with each other, it never will be finished.

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The story of the Tower of Babel implies that all humans shared a single language before our brash undertaking.  The world’s current multitude of tongues were spawned by Yahweh’s curse.  But… what if languages are good?  What if we need diversity?

In 1940, Benjamin Lee Whorf speculated that the language we speak shapes the way we think.  His idea was egregiously overstated – creatures with no spoken language seem to be perfectly capable of thought, so there’s no reason to assume that humans who speak a language that lacks a certain word or verb tense can’t understand the underlying concepts.

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But Whorf’s basic idea is reasonable.  It is probably easier to have thoughts that can be expressed in your language.

For example, the best language we’ve developed to discuss quantum mechanics is linear algebra; because Werner Heisenberg had only passing familiarity with this language, he had some misconceptions about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

Or there’s the case of my first Ph.D. advisor, who told me that he spent time working construction in Germany after high school.  He said that he spoke extremely poor German… but still, after he’d been in the country long enough, this was the language he reflexively thought in.  He said that he could feel his impoverished language lulling him into impoverished thought.

His language was probably more like a headwind than a cage – we constantly invent words as we struggle to express ourselves, so it’s clear that the lack of a word can’t prevent a thought – but he felt his mind to be steered all the same.

19537_27p1pWhorf’s theory of language is also a major motif in Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, in which the characters’ English-language miscommunication is partly attributed to their different linguistic upbringings.  The narrator is perpetually tentative: did her years speaking Turkish instill this in her?

I wrote a research paper about the Turkish suffix –mis.  I learned from a book about comparative linguistics that it was called the inferential or evidential tense, and that similar structures existed in the languages of Estonia and Tibet.  The Turkish inferential tense, I read, was used in various forms associated with oral transmission and hearsay: fairy tales, epics, jokes, and gossip.

… [-mis] was a curse, condemning you to the awareness that everything you said was potentially encroaching on someone else’s experience, that your own subjectivity was booby-trapped and set you up to have conflicting stories with others.  … There was no way to go through life, in Turkish or any other language, making only factual statements about direct observations.  You were forced to use -mis, just by the human condition – just by existing in relation to other people.

She felt cursed by the need to constantly consider why she held her beliefs.  And yet.  Wouldn’t we all be better off if more people considered the provenance of their beliefs?

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Most languages have good features and bad.  English has its flaws – I wish it had a subjunctive tense – but I like that it isn’t as gendered as most European languages – which treat every object as either masculine or feminine – or Thai – in which men and women are expected to use different words to say a simple “thank you.”  Although Thai culture is in many ways more accepting of those who were born with the wrong genitalia than we are in the U.S., I imagine every “thank you” would be fraught for a kid striving to establish his or her authentic identity.

And, Turkish?  I know nothing about the language except what I learned from Batuman’s novel.  So I’d never argue that speaking Turkish gives people a better view of the world.

But I think that our world as a whole is made better by hosting a diversity of perspectives.  Perhaps no language is better than any other … but, if different languages allow for different ways of thinking … then a world with several languages seems better than a world with only one.

tongueofadamThis is the central idea explored by Abdelfattah Kilito in his recent essay, The Tongue of Adam (translated by Robyn Creswell).  After an acquaintance was dismissive of the Moroccan Kilito after he composed an academic text in Arabic instead of French, he meditated on the value of different languages and the benefits of living in a world with many.

Here is Kilito’s description of the curse Yahweh used to stop humans from completing the Tower of Babel:

After Babel, men cannot seek to rival God as they seemed to do when they began building the tower.  They cannot, because they’ve lost the original language.  God’s confusion of tongues ensures his supremacy.  The idea may seem odd, but consider the story of Babel as we find it in Genesis: “And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” [11:4].  A tower whose top would touch the heavens: taken literally, the expression suggests a desire to reach the sky, to become like gods.  A rather worrisome project: “And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded” [11:5].  Man’s attempt to rise up is answered by the Lord’s descent: “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech” [11:7].  God does not destroy the work.  He punishes men by confounding their language, the only language, the one that unites them.  For Yahweh, the root of the menace is this tongue, which gives men tremendous power in their striving toward a single goal, an assault on the heavens.  The confusion of tongues brings this work to a stop; it is a symbolic demolition, the end of mankind’s hopes and dreams.  Deprived of its original language, mankind breaks into groups and scatters across the surface of the earth.  With its route to the heavens cut off, mankind turns its eyes to the horizon.

And here is Kilito’s description of this same dispersal as a blessing:

The expression, “the diversity of your languages,” in [Genesis 30:22, which states that “Among His wonders is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your languages and colors.  In these are signs for mankind”], means not only the diversity of spoken tongues, but also, according to some commentators, the diversity of articulated sounds and pronunciation of words.  Voice, like the color of the skin, varies from one individual to the next.  This is a divine gift.  Otherwise, ambiguity, disorder, and misunderstanding would reign. … Plurality and heterogeneity are the conditions of knowledge.

Kilito endorses Whorf’s theory of language.  Here is his analysis of the birth of Arabic as told in the Quran:

According to Jumahi, “Ismael is the first to have forgotten the language of his father.” This rupture in language must have been brutal: in a blinding instant, one language is erased and cedes its place to another.  According to Jahiz, Ismael acquired Arabic without having to learn it.  And because the ancient language disappeared without a trace, he had no trouble expressing himself in the new one.  This alteration, due to divine intervention, also affected his character and his nature, in such a way that his whole personality changed.

His personality is changed because his language is changed: new words meant a new way of thinking, a new way of seeing the world.  If humans had not built the Tower of Babel – if we had never been cursed – we would share a single perspective… an ideological monoculture like a whole world paved over with strip mall after strip mall … the same four buildings, over and over … Starbucks, McDonalds, Walmart, CAFO … Starbucks, McDonalds …

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The current occupancy of the White House … and congress … and the U.S. Supreme Court … seems a curse.  The health care proposals will allow outrageous medical debt to wreck a lot of people’s lives, and each of us has only a single life to live.  Those who complete their educations in the midst of the impending recession will have lifelong earnings far lower than those who chance to graduate during boom years.  Our vitriolic attorney general will devastate entire communities by demanding that children and parents and neighbors and friends be buried alive for low-level, non-violent criminal offenses.  Innocent kids whose parents are needlessly yanked away will suffer for the entirety of their lives.

I can’t blithely compare this plague to fantasy tales in the Bible.  Real people are going to suffer egregiously.

At the same time, I do think that kind-hearted citizens of the United States needed to be saved from our own complacency.  Two political parties dominate discourse in this country – since the Clinton years, these parties have espoused very similar economic and punitive policies.  I have real sympathy for voters who couldn’t bear to vote for another Clinton in the last election because they’d seen their families steadily decline in a nation helmed by smug elitists.

Worse, all through the Obama years, huge numbers of people deplored our world’s problems – widespread ignorance, mediocre public education, ever-more-precarious climate destabilization, an unfair mental toll exacted on marginalized communities – without doing anything about it.  Some gave money, but few people – or so it seemed to me – saw those flaws as a demand to change their lives.

Climate-Change-Top-PhotoAnyone who cares deeply about climate change can choose to eat plants, drive less, drive a smaller car, buy used, and simply buy less.  Anyone embarrassed by the quality of education available in this country… can teach.  We can find those who need care, and care for them.

After the 45th stepped into office – or so it has seemed to me – more people realized that change, and hope, and whatnot … falls to us.  Our choices, as individuals, make the world.  I’ve seen more people choosing to be better, and for that I am grateful.

Obviously, I wish it hadn’t come to this.  But complacency is a curse.  Sometimes we need new curses to countervene another.

On paying teachers for value added.

On paying teachers for value added.

I loved standardized test days when I was in school.  Instead of sitting in class being lectured at until the teacher noticed I was doodling again and booted me to the office, we’d all sit in the cafeteria, spend maybe ten minutes filling in bubbles, then get to doodle in peace.

The tests themselves were dull, but my friends and I enlivened them with our “points per minute” game.  By jotting down the time we finished every section, we could compare ppm scores for bragging rights even when everyone flat-lined at the same perfect score.  And all those freshly sharpened #2 pencils balanced out the funky smell of the cafeteria carpet.

testBut I understand that, for students less recalcitrant than I was, the ones who might actually learn something during regular instructional days, standardized tests waste time.  And the current barrage of tests don’t even fulfill their purported goal.

You want to pay good teachers more for doing their jobs well?  Great idea!  Most schools currently use a payscale that only rewards teachers for the total number of years they’ve been in the business.  This is a cause of several problems, like older teachers having trouble finding new jobs because their salaries would be too high, and talented young people not wanting to go into education because their starting salaries would be so low.

BW teacher pay blog post_graph 1.JPG
This graph is from Brandon Wright’s excellent post about teacher pay.

Unfortunately, many otherwise reasonable people latched onto the mistaken idea that you could measure each teacher’s “value added” with a whole boatload of standardized tests.  This makes school worse for basically every kid who isn’t like me, since they’re stuck taking too many pointless tests instead of learning.  And, worse, the metric doesn’t even work.

I’m not sure everyone involved in this discussion even understands what “value added” means.  Here’s a quick definition: let’s say you have a product that’s worth 100 dollars.  Then you change it in some way.  If the product is now worth 110 dollars, you’ve added 10 dollars of value to it.

Simple enough, right?  If you’ve ever watched one of those cheesy TV shows about flipping houses, you’re probably an expert.

2972440288_bb9e17b32b_zThe example I like to start with is shipping.  Apples at an apple orchard might be worth two dollars a pound.  Anybody who wants an apple has to go to all the trouble of driving there.  But if someone loads them into a truck and brings them to a grocery store near people’s houses, the apples might be worth three dollars a pound.  Transporting apples from where they grow to where people eat adds value.

Another example is assembly.  Most companies that sell computers don’t manufacture their own components — maybe you’ve been stuck at a coffee shop with some hipster dude explaining that your Macintosh computer is full of Chinese parts that Apple raises the prices of.  But that’s a valid business model.  They buy pieces and put them together into a functional device.  Of course they charge more for the resulting computer than the aggregate cost of the components.  They’ve added value by assembling it, making it so that even relatively clueless people can buy a computer and know that it’ll work.

So, teaching?  A teacher has a set of students, and the hope is that these students change during the year.  They might gain factual knowledge, or critical thinking skills, or the ability to work with others, or the ability to sit quietly in uncomfortable chairs and follow directions like mindless drones.

That list is a good segue into the first problem with the way people talk about “value added” for teacher pay — the idea doesn’t mean much until you specify what, exactly, you value.  What’s the purpose of public education?  By attempting to measure “value added” with a standardized test, you’re asserting that we send kids to school to improve performance on standardized tests.

Given how infrequently most adults take standardized tests in their day-to-day lives, I imagine this isn’t what most people think the purpose of school should be.

6956509317_770512683b_zIf we don’t care about how well kids learn to fill in bubbles nice and dark with a #2 pencil, then what should we value?  Well, we might care about workforce productivity, in which case your “value added” metric should track students’ eventual salaries or lifetime earnings.  Maybe we want to make people into better citizens, in which case we should measure how often people volunteer, or how often they vote, or what percent of students stay out of jail.  Maybe we care about something as ethereal and hippy-dippy as happiness, in which case we could use surveys to assess well-being, or look at how many former students are married, or track how many commit suicide.

Or course, most of the metrics I’ve suggested can’t be measured immediately.  With a bubble test, you zip ‘em through the scantron and five minutes later know how well everybody did.  With happiness, or eventual salary, teachers would have to wait several years to know the whole amount of any “value added” bonus to their salary.  To my mind, that’s fine — I think more industries should use long-term performance rather than short-term gains to assess bonuses — but maybe that seems weird to you.

Those long-term metrics should also hint at the fact that “value added” calculations would be incredibly complex.  If you’re looking at somebody’s eventual salary, how do you know whether it was great work on the part of their third grade teacher, or their fifth, or their seventh, or their twelfth that gave them the skills they’d need?

It’s not an impossible math problem.  Just tricky.  This kind of multivariate regression isn’t feasible except when churned through by computers.

But I think it’s good that the math is so clearly difficult.  Because the idea that you could assess “value added” with a standardized test given to students at the beginning and the end of the school year is bizarre.  Among other problems, the “test at the beginning, test at the end, calculate the gains” idea ignores differences between students.

the-weeping-womanA student with learning disabilities will probably gain less than average each year, independent of teacher quality.  A gifted student will probably gain more than average, again independent of teacher quality.  The teachers do matter, of course.  If you gave both Pablo Picasso and me some crayons and a piece of construction paper, his drawing would probably be better than mine.  But he’d add less value to that piece of construction paper than he would’ve been able to add to a canvas, if you instead gave him a canvas and some oil paints.

A meaningful “value added” metric for teaching would ask, “How much did this student gain, compared to what he or she would’ve gained if taught by an average teacher instead of this particular teacher?”

Again, I want to stress that this is a very complicated math problem.  But not impossible, as long as you have a population of many teachers and many students to obtain data from.  You’d need to find some criteria to match students to one another.  That way you can say, “This type of student usually gains this much during third grade when given an average-quality teacher.”

231011361_4a4a257a60One difficulty in sorting people this way is determining what matters.  What attributes define a student’s type?  Do you include parental income as a variable? A near-meaningless childhood IQ test?  Do you sequence every student’s genome and include genetic factors (Good Lord I hope not — even including ethnicity seems politically suspect — but that’s the sort of thing you’d want to consider)?

Your data would also be best if each teacher had a range of student types.  This is very different from how most classes are currently organized.  When I was in school, all the special education students were tracked together and had one set of teachers, all the “gifted & talented” students were tracked together and had a different set of teachers.

Tracking would make an accurate calculation of “value added” more difficult.  Still not impossible, but less statistically robust.

Maybe that’s fine — it’s reasonable to assume that there are some teachers who’re good at working with gifted students, and can help them gain a lot, who might flounder if they worked with special education students.  I think the reverse is less likely to be true — because special education is harder, I bet most teachers who are good with special education students could do well by other students, too.

With a real “value added” measurement, I think you’d see that.  But if the powers that be cling to the mistaken notion that you can assess “value added” by measuring a difference in test scores between the beginning and end of the year, without considering that each student is unique, you’re instead going to conclude that all special education teachers are terrible.  Their students gain less!

You’ll guarantee that those teachers doing the hardest work are rewarded least.

Whoops.

As it happens, this exact same misconception about “value added” is making medicine worse, too.  If you’ve had your full dose of feeling dismal about what we’re doing to education, you should take a few minutes and read Saurabh Jha’s lovely post about this problem in medicine, “When a bad surgeon is the one you want.”

On Welcome to Braggsville and…

CaptureBecause it’s a tragicomic collegiate novel about racism (hey!  I wrote one of those too!), I’ve been looking forward to reading Welcome to Braggsville for a while.  And, praise be to the local library, I finally got my chance!  Thank you, library.  Thank you, T. Geronimo Johnson, for caring about these issues enough to write your book.

One thing that felt strange to me as I was reading, though, was the stark contrast between the collegians’ perception of racism in the Bay Area versus in Georgia.  And, yes, I realize that irony is a central theme of the book, so it’s important for the protagonists to be naive and oblivious …

LONG-ASS PARENTHETIC ASIDE STARTS HERE: (which is a major source of the book’s humor.  But not my preferred style, I must admit.  It’s obviously a valid style of comedy — satirizing the buffoonery of others, in this case over-earnest students who perceive of themselves as liberal without sufficiently understanding the issues enough to make their points correctly — but it’s just not my thing.

Like, have you seen the movie Napoleon Dynamite?  I’ve watched it twice.  The first time I watched it on my own.  I thought it was quite humorous and had a blast.  The dude was a loser but able to transcend his circumscribed existence through imagination and dreams; I was smiling often watching him carve out happiness from within a bleak situation.  Because I was that same type of loser.  I guess the current author picture I have up makes me look rather dissimilar from the protagonist of that film, but, look, here’s another, this one from my freshman year of college, from when my best friend convinced me to join his dance troupe to perform at the South Asian Student’s Association annual gala.  That pale-skinned scrawnmonster at the left edge is me.

Dance - costume fun- frank, ravi, shiva, ananda (village-hero-wannabes)But then the second time I watched Napoleon Dynamite was when it was shown at the student union of my university.  That time, I sat in the audience and felt angry; my fellow students were laughing just as much as I had, but they were laughing at the wrong times.  Turns out the movie can be funny two ways, like how the moon might have an old man in it or a rabbit.  One way, you can laugh with the guy, celebrate his triumphs.  But you could also get your chuckles by laughing at him.

Vote_for_Pedro_Rally_to_Restore_SanityWatching that film in the student union really demonstrated to me that I was going to school with a whole bunch of derisive greed-heads.  The undergrads there were generally wealthy, generally good test takers, generally no more or less intelligent than undergrads at Stanford, who tend think they are smarter, or at Indiana University, who tend to think they are dumber.  Northwestern was about forty percent greek, and as expected funneled huge numbers of students into economics majors and then into banking or consulting careers [I studied economics too, but I only took one undergrad course, “Intro to Microeconomics,” and it wasn’t fun.  In that class, I made no friends.  All my other economics courses were grad-level, because the buddy next to me in the picture above made a bet as to whether I could do their master’s series and keep up my g.p.a.  We made a lot of stupid bets — the one he was working on was, While taking a full courseload, can you start a lab-on-a-chip microscale low-cost HIV testing company?  His was a harder task, but dude very nearly succeeded].

And, here’s an additional factoid about Napoleon Dynamite for you.  Back in 2005, when Netflix was starting out and then were offering prize money to anyone who could improve their movie-preference-prediction algorithm, they realized that Napoleon Dynamite was a quagmire.  It’s a polarizing film, one that many people love or hate, but that’s not an issue; there are many polarizing movies out there.  But with Napoleon Dynamite, they simply could not predict whether people would like it based on the ratings they had given to other films.  Many attempted improvements to their prediction algorithm were stymied by Napoleon Dynamite.

All of which is not to say that Johnson’s humor was on the same tier of meanspiritedness as my former classmates’.  I’m just oversensitive to that type of humor, so I failed to find the book as funny as it’s meant to be.  But most people should laugh.) END LONG-ASS PARENTHETIC ASIDE – NOW BACK TO YOUR REGULARLY SCHEDULED REMARK ABOUT RACISM IN BAY AREA VS. ELSEWHERE

…but the pervasive racism that K and I saw in the Bay Area was a large part of why we left.  The department I was in at Stanford had only one black researcher, a post-doc in my lab and a good friend of mine (as in, she sang several times on the holiday record that my family mails out each year in lieu of a picture of us attempting to smile at a booth in the mall), and she was often treated poorly.  This wasn’t solely because of her skin; she was French and so spoke English haltingly for her first few years in California, but that doesn’t seem like a good reason to assume someone is stupid either.  Or my running buddy, a neuroscientist who was hired straight out of his Ph.D. to a professorship in the midwest.  He grew up in the Bay Area and was subject to numerous “driving while black” traffic stops.  Or K’s students…

WOULD YOU HAVE FELT SATISFIED IF THERE WAS ONLY A SINGLE LONG-ASS PARENTHETICAL ASIDE IN THIS ESSAY? (There is a well-known narrative about good teachers changing students’ lives.  People who say “I never liked history / math / literature / science until ________ made it come alive!”  Or movies like Dead Poets Society.  But it’s also true, just less often remarked upon, that good students can change teacher’s lives.

K had the good fortune of encountering an excellent budding human during her student teaching year in California.  When they first met he was failing many of his classes, tangentially involved with a gang, living on an aunt’s couch… the works.  But he took the time to meet with K and teach her about the ways school was failing him.  The next year, he showed up for parent-teacher night at her new school to translate into Spanish for the parents.  He designed several of her classroom exercises.  Taught her the importance of having students clearly articulate their motivations.  And really sculpted the person she is in the classroom.

But this narrative isn’t as common in the popular imagination — in part this may be because everyone has been a student, but a much smaller number of people have been teachers — so there isn’t a great venue to celebrate everything he did for her.  She wrote an article about it for an educators’ magazine, but there aren’t, like, awards for students who change their teacher’s life.  She did get to fly out and watch him walk at graduation, and through a massive stroke of luck he was awarded papers — being undocumented was a large part of why he was doing poorly in school.  Because, what would be the point?  The jobs where a degree matters are going to check.  And I hope his ripple travels on to make the world a better place.) THAT WAS THE LAST ONE, I PROMISE.  NOW BACK TO K’S STUDENTS AND THEIR EXCITING ADVENTURES NAVIGATING A HATEFUL WORLD!

…whom she would sometimes meet at coffee shops or the like to discuss their future plans, classroom performance, etc.  It took her a while to notice, but one day she with her life-changing student, buying some pencils and a notebook at a drug store.  K was talking to the cashier and tried unsuccessfully to bridge the conversational gap between said cashier and her student.

Afterward K said to him, “She didn’t look at you at all.  It was like you weren’t even there.”

He laughed.  “Just watch,” he said.  They walked down the street together.  Plenty of people smiled at my wife.  But no one looked at him.

“I’m not invisible.  But they act like I’m not even here.”

USS_San_Francisco_(CA-38)_enters_San_Francisco_Bay,_December_1942Or there was the tract of land just a mile from K’s and my apartment that wasn’t part of any town.  Too many Mexicans had moved there, apparently, so the local politicians redrew their town borders to make that area unincorporated space.  Police would tear through those streets with lights flashing and sirens blaring, but as soon as they hit the edge of the rich town they’d kill the noise.

And, yes, Johnson lives out there.  Obviously he knows his own experiences, and I’m thrilled if he’s been treated better there than he was in the south (unless, of course, he’s treated badly in Berkeley too and is just contrasting that with abysmal experiences in the south, but that’s not the impression I got from his work.  Sounds like Berkeley’s been fairly good to him to earn such a kind acknowledgement in his book).

But, for me … the racism in the Bay Area really let me down.  I had such high hopes!  Thought I would love living out there.  Ken Kesey lived in Menlo Park!  Well, yes.  A long time ago.  A lot of that revolutionary spirit has faded away.  Berkeley is not the hotbed of protest that it used to be.  Sure, people out there do yoga and eat yogurt.  But, where we lived especially, they also seemed mean.  There was a lot of racism.  A lot of ostentatious wealth… but at least the ostentatious wealth in New York City is often coupled with good taste.  The Bay Area had a lot of gaudy displays.

So K and I moved to Indiana.  It’s cheap.  We have family relatively close by.  The place does have its problems.  There are bilious hate sacks out here, too.  But, having done a fair bit of traveling, I’m under the pessimistic impression that there are plenty of mean-spirited people everywhere.  The main difference that I’ve noticed is that the bilious hate sacks are more open about who they are here than in California.  In a way, that makes life easier.  When you know who the evil people are, it’s harder to feel tricked.

Which, here, a treat!  From Marcel Proust’s The Captive (trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin, revised by D.J. Enright), here is one of my favorite passages about feeling tricked:

But this does not exempt the sane from a feeling of alarm when a madman who has composed a sublime poem, after explaining to them in the most logical fashion that he has been shut up by mistake through his wife’s machinations, imploring them to intercede for him with the governor of the asylum, complaining of the promiscuous company that is forced upon him, concludes as follows: “You see that man in the courtyard, whom I’m obliged to put up with; he thinks he’s Jesus Christ.  That should give you an idea of the sort of lunatics I’ve been shut up with; he can’t be Jesus Christ, because I’m Jesus Christ!”  A moment earlier, you were on the point of going to assure the psychiatrist that a mistake had been made.

This isn’t fun.  Neither is attempting to maintain a casual conversation with someone who, apropos of nothing, just launched into a tirade against those Mexicans.  Or blacks.  Whatever variety of “takers” they feel aggrieved by that day.  You feel ashamed for not noticing earlier, you have to revise your interpretations of everything else they’ve said, you have to find some way to gracefully say goodbye and never talk to that person again.  Which happened disconcertingly often in California.  Whereas the hate won’t catch you off guard if it comes from somebody in a confederate-flag t-shirt.