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 prosecution.

On prosecution.

Most people know the standard story why mass incarceration spiraled out of control in this country.  In response to the civil rights movement, we accelerated the War on Drugs and started locking up a lot of low-level, non-violent drug offenders.  We also passed laws making sentences outlandishly long – people might go to prison for a decade for minor slips.  After the three-strikes laws, people might be shut away for life.

41U2y6n5hgL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_In Locked In, economist & law professor John Pfaff presents data suggesting that the story everyone knows is incorrect.  According to the data he found, “Although the share of the prison population serving time for drugs rose during the 1980s, the share was 22 percent at its peak in 1990.  By 2013 it had fallen to under 16 percent.”  Instead, most people in prison are incarcerated for violent crimes.

Of course, it is still possible that the War on Drugs led to mass incarceration.  If someone is locked up for 10 years for drugs, and then, after getting out of prison, does something violent and is locked up for an additional 40 years, you’d find that only 20% of the prison population was due to drugs.  But the first incarceration might’ve caused the second, by fraying the person’s social network and exposing him to violence inside.  This might explain what happened to my mother-in-law.

And a War on Drugs can make entire communities more violent.  The main benefit of state violence is that it suppressed violence from individuals.  Police officers reduce theft and assault because they represent the threat of violent reprisal from the state.  But the War on Drugs causes entire communities of supposed “criminals” to lose police protection – without the help of the state, they have to rely on individual violence to enforce property rights.

These alternative narratives do not contradict Pfaff’s central message: the phenomenon of mass incarceration in the United States did not originate the way many people assume.  Instead, Pfaff’s data suggest one major cause: prosecutors.

Samjain_warrantAfter someone is arrested, prosecutors decide what charges to file.  Even if the police have collected a lot of evidence, the prosecutor may choose to go easy on someone, perhaps even dropping the case entirely.  Alternatively, the prosecutor may file many extra charges that aren’t supported by the police report at all.  No explanation needs to be given, and there won’t be any official record documenting the prosecutor’s decisions.

Myriad county-level prosecutors across the U.S. decided to get tough on crime, and that caused mass incarceration to spiral out of control.  According to Pfaff:

The crime decline since 1991 has been dramatic.  Nationwide, between 1991 and 2008 violent crime fell by 36 percent and property crime by 31 percent.

While crime rates fell, police “clearance” rates – the percentage of each type of crime that results in an arrest by the police – remained relatively flat, and in some cases declined.  As a result, as violent and property crimes fell, so too did arrests for those offenses.

Yet while arrests fell, the number of felony cases rose, and steeply.  Fewer and fewer people were entering the criminal justice system, but more and more were facing the risk of felony conviction – and thus prison.

In short, between 1994 and 2008, the number of people admitted to prison rose by about 40 percent, from 360,000 to 505,000, and almost all of that increase was due to prosecutors bringing more and more felony cases against a diminishing pool of arrestees.

Decisions made by a prosecutor typically receive no oversight.  Because the vast majority of cases end with a plea, the prosecutor is effectively judge and jury as well.  Using the threat of an egregiously long sentence if someone is found guilty in a jury trial (someone in our writing class was recently facing 32 years for burglary), a prosecutor can easily coerce people into signing away five or ten years.  Even innocent people plead guilty – if you’re told that you will have to sit in jail another six months waiting for a trial, or you could enter a plea and be released today for time served, would you stick it out?  What if you had young kids who needed you home?

Because prosecutors have so much power, Pfaff argues that in many ways there is not a criminal justice system in the U.S., but rather 3,000 idiosyncratic county-level criminal justice systems.  Equivalent actions reap very different consequences depending on which county they are prosecuted in.

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This discretion has the unfortunate consequence of letting one county drive another into bankruptcy … especially in a state like Indiana, which tried to combat the perverse economic incentives of mass incarceration (cities have to pay for crime deterrence by hiring police officers, but they foist the cost of crime punishment onto the state, which hires the COs who staff prisons) by forcing counties to hold low-level offenders in their own jails instead of shipping people off to state prisons.  This benefits counties that can displace crime to their neighbors, instead of preventing it.

Education is both cheaper and more effective than punishment … but deciding not to educate children and then convincing the troublemakers to move to a new county is cheaper still.

The city council of Bloomington is struggling with this now.  A friend of mine has been riding with police officers for a writing project – he was told that, for drug busts, the police surreptitiously track suspects until they cross county lines.  Bloomington is in Monroe County, where prosecutors are viewed as “soft” on drug crimes, offering treatment, therapy, and second chances (note that this supposedly “kinder & gentler” approach is still brutal, with huge numbers of people lolling in jail for months or years on end).  The police would rather make arrests in neighboring counties, where the prosecutors seek steep sentences for drug offenders.

This gives drug users, and many others who need services, an incentive to move to Bloomington.  If you need opiates to stave off withdrawal, you are better off living in an area with a needle exchange, proposed methadone clinic, and treatment options.

By establishing a reputation for excessive punishment, prosecutors can pressure the most expensive citizens to move away … the same way charter schools force out the most expensive students to fraudulently boost their success ratings compared to public schools.  The poor saps who think we have a moral duty to help everyone will have to spend more for outcomes that appear worse (since they’re working with a different population).

Mayhaps it’s not that the U.S. has a mass incarceration problem … rather, the majority of our 3,000 counties have mass incarceration problems.  Each operates independently, and, often, antagonistically.  We won’t fix it until we realize that we’re all in this together.

On Alice Goffman’s ‘On the Run’ and extrapolate-able truth.

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Screen shot of the New Republic article.

Many people have criticized Alice Goffman’s ethnography On the Run. The first set of criticisms I noticed were from people who claimed that she misrepresented black urban life by studying the particular group of people on whom she centered her book (examples here and here).

Now Goffman is being accused of felony-level crimes and, by virtue of her explanations thereof, of publishing a book that is not “true.” You can read a good summary of these accusations here.

I can’t help but think these accusations are silly. For one thing, I rather liked Goffman’s book. Sure, in my private life I’ve railed against it, but that was because she tucked a detail (if you’ve read it, I’m referring to the story about the wristwatch) into a section titled “Appendix: A Methodological Note” that made me cry. Sitting there snuffling on the couch, I was thinking “Really, Alice? You tricked me!” I didn’t expect to tear up reading “a methodological note.”

Other people apparently feel that she tricked them in a different, worse way.

But I’m not sure how someone could read her book and think that Goffman was implying that all black urban life resembles the lives of the small cohort of people she is studying. Goffman even included brief sections describing her time spent with very different young urban black males, a group of guys who held steady jobs, played video games, ate pizza. If she describes two very different groups that she personally spent time with, it seems strange to read her book as implying that all persons xxxx resemble one of those groups, or even that all people would fit into one of those two. Her book isn’t quantitative. Her book is decidedly not exhaustive. Her book relates anecdotes about a small set of people’s lives, and we should be embarrassed that our country is such that anyone has to live that way.

And, sure, my phrasing for that last clause brings up another complaint people have levied against her book: that the young men she spent time with did not have to live the way they did. For instance, she mentions that some of them did not attend their children’s births because they were afraid of being arrested. Quite possibly it is factually untrue that these men would have been arrested out of the maternity ward. But that doesn’t matter.

In a way, it’s like the premise behind Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan (which, sure, I realize is an ironic work to draw attention to, because Castaneda’s work is untrue on multiple levels, most damningly that the individual whom he claimed to be studying did not exist); the book was an anthropological study of magic. Now, I believe that the type of magic described in that book does not and can not exist. But that doesn’t change my opinion that it is (or would have been, had the study not been fabricated) worthwhile to investigate the worldview of those who believe that type of magic does exist.

9780226275406Similarly, if the young men whom Goffman studied had deeply held beliefs about the police, and those beliefs affected their lives in profound ways, then it’s worth reporting their beliefs as fact within her book. Sure, it would have been an even better book if a footnote mentioned that she could find no evidence that their deeply held belief reflected consensus reality, but within a study like hers the most important thing to do is understand the constraints and beliefs that guide her studied cohort’s actions… and no one has presented any evidence that she failed at that objective.

The claim that Goffman is a criminal is rather more serious. I don’t think it’s any more reasonable, however. A major point of Goffman’s book is that many behaviors qualify as “criminal” within the world she was studying. Young black men can be arrested for standing outside looking “suspicious.” They can be arrested for failing to pay fines or court fees. And, because there is a long history of unethical police behavior, they cannot rely upon the police to protect their property, or their lives, or their loved ones. So I think that even if Goffman had done some things that violated the letter of the law (including “loitering,” or touching marijuana, or driving above the speed limit, or transporting a very angry dude with a gun), she would have been justified.

She has stated that the actions she took were not illegal, though — that there are additional facts that weren’t reported in her book. And that statement has resulted in the accusation that she created a fiction through omission.

Lying by omission is a huge problem in academia. There have been big stories in the news lately about false studies wherein the data is totally fabricated. But the bigger problem, and source of many more untrue findings, is data that is real but reported selectively — if you collect data on thirty or more variables, and then report a finding based on correlation between two of those variables, your result is probably not real.

This practice is extremely common. I’ve been involved with this. Nearly all my friends who’ve done academic research have, too. It’s bad. We shouldn’t have.

If Goffman had collected data that showed that most young black men are never harassed by the police, and then she published a book claiming that most were, that would be roughly equivalent.

That’s not the book she published, though. She lied by omission in that she did not include every single detail she knew. Which is fine, obviously. If completeness is necessary for a work of nonfiction to be true, then only mathematics texts deserve the classification. By the time you toss in enough approximations to study physics, or, worse, chemistry, or, worse, biology, or, worse, psychology, or, worse, sociology, you’ve layered in so many truth-eliding approximations that whatever you write will not be correct. Goffman’s work is no worse in that sense than any other work of cultural anthropology or ethnography that I’ve seen. And the negative reviews of her work that I’ve read seem to be about her work specifically, not complaints about her field.

And, sure, perhaps it is valuable to complain about the field. Researchers introduce biases. Only finite amounts of data can be presented in any summary. And it’s human nature to extrapolate broad conclusions from limited amounts of data; it takes conscious effort to remember that anecdotal studies are relevant only to extremely small groups that closely resemble the studied subjects.

But Goffman’s book is still valuable. People like the men described in her book exist. And, even if the only such people are the small number whom Goffman spent time with (not that this seems to be the case), we should still feel ashamed — as per John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, a society in which anyone lives that way, no matter how few such people there might be, is unjust.