On the evolution of skin color.

On the evolution of skin color.

Our criminal justice system ensnares people from all walks of life.  Occasionally we’ll hear about the arrest of a wealthy sociopath with a penchant for child abuse, like Jared Fogel or Jeffrey Epstein.

But, let’s face it.  Justice in this country isn’t applied fairly.  If you’re wealthy, your behavior has to be a lot more egregious for you to reap the same punishments as a poor person.  If you look white, your behavior has to a lot more egregious for you to reap the same punishments as a black person.

There’s abundant statistical evidence to back up these claims.  But the Supreme Court won’t allow any particular individual to petition for reduced punishment based on the statistical evidence.  After all, prosecutors, judges, and juries ostensibly came to their decisions based on the unique details of each individual case.  Just because people who resemble you are often treated unfairly doesn’t mean that you were treated unfairly, too. 

Or so ruled our Supreme Court.

Because we apply punishment so inequitably, our jails and prisons are full of people who’ve been treated poorly by the world.  Compared to the average citizen, people in prison grew up with less money, received less education, experienced more trauma.  And, no matter what people’s earlier lives were like, if they’re in prison, they’re not being treated well now.

So they have a lot of justifiable grievances against the dominant political, cultural, and religious beliefs of our country.  Punished unfairly by their fellow Christians, people sour on Christianity.  Inside walls where the demographics make it blatantly obvious that our laws are enforced in a malignantly racist way, racial tensions boil.

At Pages to Prisoners, an organization that sends free books to people inside, we get requests for stuff about Norse mythology, Odinism, and Asatru.  Lots of folks ask for material to learn foreign languages – people want to feel like they’ve accomplished something during their time in prison – but I always feel skeptical when somebody wants help learning Icelandic.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Icelandic.  And Norse mythology is cool!  Unfortunately, a gaggle of violent white supremacists decided that Norse mythology should be the basis for their religion.  Starting in the 1970s, a right-wing racist from Florida began sending “Odinist” publications into prisons.

A photograph showing a book page in Icelandic.

During the thirteenth century, Christian scholars transcribed many of the old Norse myths so that they could better understand the literary allusions of old Icelandic poetry.  But they didn’t record anything about ancient religious practice.  We barely have any information about most ancient pagan beliefs.  Anyone who wants to adopt a pre-Christian European religion now – whether it’s Wicca, Druidism, Odinism, or Celtic polytheism – is basically forced to make things up.

I have nothing against religious invention.  All religions were made by human beings – there’s no a priori reason why a religion created long ago, by people who understood much less about the world than we do now, would be better than something you invent today.  Sure, ancient religions have been tested by time, suggesting that they possess virtues that their practitioners found helpful over the years, but most ancient religions have their problems, too.  Inaccurate cosmologies, scattered hateful passages in their texts, that sort of thing.

So I like the idea of neo-paganism.  You want to find a clearing in the woods and do some moonlit dancing?  You’d rather worship a feminine generative force than a norm-enforcing patriarchal deity?  You want to exalt nature as a hearth to be protected rather than a resource to be exploited?  Go right ahead!  All of that sounds pretty great to me.

A Wiccan-style gathering of artifacts including a statue of a seated green goddess, her pregnant belly painted as the earth; mums; a chalice; a string of green beads; a stoppered rectangular prism bottle; and a candleholder appearing to be carved of wood, again of a pregnant woman with hands holding her belly.

Unfortunately, neo-paganism as it’s currently practiced in prison tends to be pretty hateful.

That’s why I’ve been working on a set of anti-racist pamphlets about Norse mythology.  Currently, when people ask for The Poetic Edda or whatever, we send a friendly letter saying that we don’t have it, and also that we generally don’t stock that sort of thing because it runs afoul of our anti-hate policy. 

But the Norse myths are certainly no more hateful than Biblical myths, and we send plenty of those.  The main difference is that centuries of continued Christian practice have created a scaffolding of gentler beliefs around the stories in the Bible. 

The text of Psalm 137 states that “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”  But the text is a tool, not the entirety of the religion.  The practice of Christianity frowns upon the murder of any human infant.  Whether you like the kid’s parents or not.

A sun-dappled photograph of a page of the Bible.

We’d be better off if Pages to Prisoners could send warm-hearted material about Norse mythology to people.  Sure, you can interpret the Norse myths as endorsing a war-mongering death cult.  You can interpret the Old Testament that way, too.  But you can also interpret the Norse myths as environmentalist.  Feminist.  Supporting the pursuit of knowledge.  Judging strangers based upon their merits, not their appearance.

Because contemporary Odinism is so entangled with white supremacy, though, our pamphlet will have to address skin color and genetic heritage directly.  It’s a fraught topic.  Lots of people in the U.S. don’t like any discussion of evolution.  Some people feel squigged out when they learn that contemporary birds evolved from the same set of common ancestors as the dinosaurs.  And that’s far less emotionally charged than a description of human evolution. 

A photograph of a model dinosaur, complete with feathers.

Plus, skin color still has huge implications for how people are treated in the United States.  Consider, um, those prison demographics I cited above. And so discussions about the evolution of epidermal melanin concentrations are especially tense.  Although the underlying biology is simple – some places have more sunlight than others! – because people think it matters, it does.

I’ve found that these conversations are actually a decent way to get people interested in the study of archeology and biology, though.  After we’ve discussed this in jail, people have asked me to bring research papers and textbooks so that they could learn more.

Whenever two groups of an organism stop mating with each other, they’ll slowly drift apart.  This rift might occur because the groups became physically separated from each other.  Maybe one group migrated to an island.  In contemporary times, maybe the groups were separated when humans built a new highway bisecting a habitat. Maybe two sets of similar-looking insects mate apart because they’re eating fruits that ripen at different times.

Or the groups might stop mating with each other because a chance mutation caused members of one group to want their sexual partners to smell a certain way.  Various species of stickleback are able to interbreed – they identify other members of their kind based on smell.  But water pollution has overwhelmed the fishes’s senses, leading the fish to mate indiscriminately.

A photograph of a three-spined stickleback fish.

If humans hadn’t polluted their waters, though, these sticklebacks would have drifted farther and farther apart until it became impossible for them to interbreed.  No matter how many sense-suppressing chemicals we dumped.

We don’t know what caused the initial rift between our ancestors and the ancestors of contemporary chimpanzees.  About 4 million years ago, though, these groups stopped having children together.  By 2 millions years ago (at least 100,000 generations later), these groups looked quite different from each other.  Although it’s possible that these organisms could have still mated with each other and raised viable progeny, they rarely did.

One group of these creatures, which included our ancestors, had a tucked pelvis and mostly upright posture.  This allowed for a good vantage while scavenging and, eventually, hunting.  The other group, which includes chimpanzees’ ancestors, mostly moved on all fours.  This body plan results in fewer mothers dying during childbirth.  As ever, there are trade-offs to be made.

Image shows the upright skeletal postures of gibbons, humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans.

Up until about 2 million years ago, all our ancestors lived in Africa.  But then they began to migrate.  Over the next million years, they explored much of the globe.  By about 500,000 years ago, half a dozen different types of humans lived in Africa, Europe, and Asia.  The difference between one population to the next was not like the racial differences among contemporary humans, but more like the difference between lions and tigers, or between polar bears and brown bears.  Scientists describe them as distinct species.  Although they were similar enough that they could have sex and raise children together, they rarely did – they lived in distinct parts of the world and had begun to evolve adaptations to their specific environments.

Evolution isn’t easy.  Nor is it quick.  Just because a certain trait would be advantageous doesn’t mean that creatures will acquire it.  In the desert, it would help to have adaptations for water retention like camels, or long ears like jackrabbits to cool the blood.  But a trait can only spread after a random mutation creates it.  And, even if a trait is very helpful, if only one individual is born with the adaptation, there’s no guarantee that it will have enough children for the benefit to spread through the population. 

Once a beneficial trait has a good toe-hold – present in perhaps 1% to 10% of the population – then we can expect it to flourish.  But below that amount, even great adaptations might die off due to bad luck.  That’s why it takes so many generations – tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands – before you see organisms become drastically better suited for the environment.  Even when scientists do directed evolution experiments in the lab, it takes about this many generations for a population of bacteria to evolve ways to consume a new food source, for instance.

By 500,000 years ago, the various species of humans were recognizably different.  Denisovans lived in the mountains, and their hemoglobin genes allowed them to avoid altitude sickness.  Their blood was less likely to clot and cause strokes, and they could extract more oxygen from the thin air.  These are incredibly beneficial traits.  Even though the Denisovans went extinct about 40,000 years ago, about 40% of people currently living in Tibet have copies of the Denisovan hemoglobin gene.

Our ancestors migrated east to the Denisovans’ homeland just before the Denisovans went extinct.  To be perfectly honest, we probably killed them.  But before or during this genocide, a few of our ancestors must have had sex with the locals.  And then the bi-racial children of these Homo sapiens / Denisovan couplings must have been significantly better off for the gene to spread so widely.

The Neanderthal lived at high latitude.  Over many generations, their average skin color became paler.  In part, this was probably due to the lack of selective pressure.  Think about a dodo – there was no advantage for these birds to lose their fear of humans.  But, because the dodos were living on an island that no humans traveled to, there was also no harm in the birds becoming fearless.

A sculpture of a dodo.

Dodos lost a beneficial trait – fear – because their fear wasn’t actively needed.  It’s kind of like the airbags in an old car.  If your car’s engine goes bad, you’ll notice right away.  Turn the key, hear it sputter.  You use the engine every time you drive.  But your airbags could get worse without you noticing … and then, in the moment when they’re needed, they won’t deploy.

Humans living near the equator need epidermal melanin.  If you don’t have enough melanin, you’ll get sunburns, which exacerbate the risk of infection and dehydration; you’ll suffer radiation-induced DNA damage, which leads to skin cancer; and you’ll lose folate, which means that pregnant women will have more birth defects.

The most recent ancestors that humans and chimpanzees shared in common had pale skin.  Contemporary chimpanzees are still pale.  They can afford to be – their fur protects them from the sun.  But our ancestors lost their fur, probably so that they didn’t overheat while running, and this led to the evolution of dark skin.

High concentrations of epidermal melanin distinguished humans from the other apes.

As humans migrated to higher latitudes, though, they gradually lost this indicator of their humanity.  Because the sunlight was less intense, there was less selective pressure.  Humans could lose their epidermal melanin in the same way that dodos lost their fear – not because it was helpful to go without it, but because the trait went untested in their day to day lives.  They had no way to “realize” how important it was. 

Your airbags aren’t helpful until you crash.  And then they’ll either deploy and save you, or they won’t.

Now, it’s possible that the Neanderthal also experienced some positive selective pressure on their skin color as they migrated north.  Over thousands of generations, the Neanderthals may have benefited from paler skin because it increased their production of vitamin D.  We don’t know for certain that the Neanderthal felt any evolutionary pressure to have more vitamin D – after all, contemporary Inuit people live at very high latitudes but still have a lot of epidermal melanin – but it’s true that vitamin D deficiency is a big risk among people with crummy diets.

In the past, hunter / gatherers typically ate much healthier, more varied diets than farmers.  When humans began to farm, they would mostly eat the one type of plant that they cultivated, rather than the wide mix of plants that could be found growing wild.  And when Homo sapiens farmers migrated to northern Europe, their diets were so poor that they even developed loss-of-function mutations in a cholesterol synthesis gene, probably so that they’d have higher concentrations of vitamin D precursors.  Among these people, pale skin was probably a big advantage.  They’d be ready for the cloudless days when their homeland’s feeble sunlight was enough to make some vitamin D.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Harvesters.

Around 40,000 years ago, our planet’s most recent ice age ended.  The world began to warm, and glaciers retreated from Europe.  By then, a group of humans living in Africa were recognizably Homo sapiens.  These were our ancestors.  Every human alive today – no matter what you look like or where your family is from – is descended from this group of people from Africa.  They lived in tribes of twenty to a hundred people, had darkly pigmented skin, made art, and spoke complex languages.

As the world warmed, some of these Homo sapiens began to migrate.  These journeys occurred over many generations.  Some tribes stayed in Africa; some tribes ventured north into Europe; others moved east toward Asia.  As they traveled, they encountered the humans who already lived in those places.  As I’ve mentioned, the newcomers occasionally had sex and raised children with the natives.  They probably also killed a lot of them.  Unfortunately, we Homo sapiens don’t have the best reputation for treating strangers well. 

Interbreeding happened rarely enough that most people living today have about 99% Homo sapiens DNA.  Some people, especially if their families are from Africa, have essentially 100% Homo sapiens DNA.  At other extreme, even people whose families are from Europe have 96% or more Homo sapiens DNA.

Among people living in Tibet, the Denisovan hemoglobin gene is common, but most other Denisovan genes are gone.

Everyone living today is human.  We are all Homo sapiens, all the same species.  But some of us do carry vestiges of the other human populations whom our ancestors killed.

Like the Neanderthal before them, the Homo sapiens who ventured north into Europe began to lose their epidermal melanin.  People who hunted and fished probably became paler simply because there was less risk of sun damage.  Remember, this didn’t happen all at once.  Average skin color would change only over the course of hundreds or even thousands of generations, not during the course of a single journeying Homo sapiens’s lifetime. 

Our ancestors spent almost all their time outdoors, which is why even dark-skinned people could probably synthesize plenty of vitamin D.  Among contemporary humans, vitamin D deficiency is such a big problem because we spend too much time inside.  As I type this, I’m sitting at a table in the YMCA snack room, lit up by flickering fluorescent bulbs.  This low-quality light won’t help me make vitamin D.

Instead, I take a daily supplement.  But that doesn’t come near matching the health and psychological benefits of time outdoors.

Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that people in jail – places not known for providing a rich, high-quality, varied diet – typically get to go outside no more often than once a week.  At our local jail, their hour of “outdoor rec” occurs in a little courtyard at the top of the jail, a cement space covered with a chain-linked fence.  Outdoor rec often happened at night – a friend who was recently released told me that “This was still nice.  You could see some stars.  And there’s that restaurant, Little Zagrib, down the street?  Sometimes we’d smell foods from their kitchen.”

Treating people that way is unlikely to help them get better.

Blue sky and white cirrus clouds as viewed through coiled razor wire atop a barbed-wire fence.

But back to our migrants!  Descendants of these pale-skinned Homo sapiens continued to explore new territories.  Some reached North America about 12,000 years ago, and some of their descendants continued farther, all the way to South America. 

As people traveled – journeys that lasted many generations – they continued to evolve.  Indeed, skin color was a trait that came repeatedly under selective pressure.  As people migrated south into the Americas, they were living progressively closer and closer to the equator.  Compared to their grandparents, they were bombarded by more intense sunlight.  They needed more epidermal melanin.

This is a process that takes a long time.  A family might have six kids; maybe the two palest kids get sunburned, which makes it more likely that they’ll develop skin infections and die before they have children of their own.  If this happens again and again, among many different families, then eventually the whole population will wind up with slightly darker skin.

A prediction for the distribution of human skin colors based on the intensity of ultraviolet light present at each latitude. Figure from Nina Jablonski & George Chaplin, “The Evolution of Human Skin Color,” in Journal of Human Evolution, 2000.
This figure depicts the (limited) data we have on the distribution of human skin colors before the modern era’s horrific set of forced migrations. In this image, white-colored regions indicate an absence of data, not low concentrations of epidermal melanin among a region’s prehistoric population. Figure from Nina Jablonski & George Chaplin, “The Evolution of Human Skin Color,” in Journal of Human Evolution, 2000.

Because human skin color has changed during each of the many prehistoric migrations, it isn’t correlated with other traits.  As we entered the modern era, people’s skin color was lighter or darker based on how close to the equator their recent ancestors lived.  But human populations migrated so often that there were many different groups, each with unique cultural and genetic heritages, living at every latitude.  Because skin color is so closely linked to latitude, this means many different groups shared similar concentrations of epidermal melanin.  And there’s no evolutionary pressure linking a trait that protects skin to brain size or intelligence.

As it happens, there are major events known to have caused a decrease in human brain size (and probably intelligence).  After all, human brains are costly.  Even though there’s a benefit to being clever, there’s also been constant evolutionary pressure against large brains.

Large brains kill mothers.  Because humans walk upright, childbirth is riskier for human mothers than for other primates.  Our posture constrains the width of our hips – both male and female – but a baby’s whole head has to pass through that narrow passageway.

Having children is so risky that we evolved to give birth about 3 months prematurely.  Human gestation takes about a year, but most mothers give birth after only 9 months.  This allows a baby’s head to continue to grow outside the mother’s body, but human babies are totally helpless at birth.  We have to be very devoted parents to keep them alive.

Also, our brains require a lot of fuel.  Human evolution occurred over such a long, long time that our ancestors lived through many droughts and calamities.  During the hard years, our ancestors would struggle to get enough to eat, and a large brain makes that struggle harder. 

A person with a smaller brain requires fewer calories, making that person less likely to starve in lean times.  And, again, it’s worth remembering that evolution happens over so many generations, among so many families, that even small changes can add up.  If mothers who have small-headed children can survive a dozen pregnancies, but mothers with large-headed children die after only a few, then the trend will be to have people with smaller brains.  Intelligence has to be extremely beneficial to overcome this sort of evolutionary pressure.

Similarly, if people with small brains are more likely to survive and raise children during droughts, then, after hundreds of generations of people who have survived dozens of extended droughts, you’d expect to see more people with small brains.

Many of us have the bad habit of reflexively thinking about evolution as the gradual development of more and more complexity.  But that’s not what it is.  Evolution is the process by which things that are better suited for their environment become more abundant.  If the environment is a hard place to live in, then evolution tends to push for more and more simplicity.  When it’s hard to get enough calories, why waste calories on anything that you don’t really need?

Starfish are descended from organisms that had brains.  But starfish are brainless.  The ancestral starfish that weren’t wasting energy thinking were more likely to survive.

Which should make you feel pretty good about your own brain, actually.  Your ability to think is so fabulous that your ancestors evolved larger and larger brains … even though these brains were sometimes causing us to starve to death, or kill our mothers.

That’s a valuable thing you’ve got inside your skull.  It cost our ancestors so much for you to be able to have it.

But, right.  Because the cost was so high, human brains did shrink sometimes.  Like when we first domesticated dogs.  Our ancestors began living with dogs about 30,000 years ago.  Dogs were willing to do some thinking for us – they’d sniff out prey and listen for predators at night.  Based on the behavior of my family’s dogs, I bet that they licked the faces of screaming children.  Maybe that doesn’t seem essential for survival, but I certainly appreciate every time our dogs calm the kids down.

Because we could slough off a few mental tasks – I don’t need to be so observant if the dog will help me hunt – our brains could shrink, making childbirth less deadly and reducing the caloric cost of maintaining our minds each day.

Pottery shard depicting a boar hunt in ancient Greece.

When humans switched from hunting and gathering to agriculture, our brains shrunk further.  A hunter / gatherer has to know so much about every plant and animal living nearby; the work asks more of a person’s brain than farming.  This evolutionary trend was exacerbated by the fact that people’s diets became way worse when they began to farm.  Instead of getting nutrition from a wide variety of different plants and animals, a farmer might eat meals consisting mostly of a single type of grain. 

There’s nothing we can do now about these evolutionary trends.  Dogs and farming swayed our ancestors’ evolution toward smaller brains, but it’s not as though you can get those neurons back by deciding to take up hunting, or never living with a pet.

But, honestly, our brains are so plastic that our genetic heritage matters less than how we choose to spend our time.  By nature, neither gorillas nor parrots will speak human language.  But individuals from both these species have been able to learn to communicate with us after we taught them.

Nobody is born with an innate understanding of mythology, religion, science, or mathematics.  None of that can be encoded in your genes.  If you want to understand this stuff, you’ll have to make an effort to learn it.

Neuron count only suggests a brain’s potential.  You could do incredible things with a low number – consider, by ways of analogy, the feats that 1960s NASA accomplished using computers much smaller than a contemporary telephone.  And, conversely, sensory deprivation will make it much harder to get things done, no matter what your innate potential.

That’s why I volunteer with Pages to Prisoners.  Our brains are capable of wonders.  At any age, we can learn and grow.  And yet, we lock people into prisons that seem designed to make them worse.

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.

Luca_Giordano_-_Christ_Cleansing_the_Temple_-_WGA09000

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.

illustration

 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 Tao Lin’s ‘Trip,’ targeted advertising, and finding scraps of life in books.

On Tao Lin’s ‘Trip,’ targeted advertising, and finding scraps of life in books.

Featured image: artwork by Tao Lin on Flickr.

trip

I recently borrowed my local library’s copy of Tao Lin’s Trip.  I read ten pages before a business card fell out.  I didn’t find the other until about a hundred pages later.  The cards were really crammed in there – I often read at nap- and bedtime, lying on my back, with little feet kicking my books, belly, neck, etc.  I’m surprised the second card wasn’t ejected earlier.

In Trip, Lin writes about drugs and some of the people who frequently ingest them.  For instance, Lin spent several months reading the oeuvre of Terrance McKenna, a passionate advocate for the legalization of psychedelic drugs (which I support) who argued that his chemical-induced visions (language elves, fractal time) represent tangible features of our universe (which I think is asinine).  At other times, McKenna self-described as a “psychonaut,” which I think is a better term – compounds that perturb the workings of a mind do reveal truths about that mind.

That’s the essence of the scientific method, after all.  First, formulate a predictive model about how something works.  Then, perturb your system.  If your prediction holds up, try to think of a different test you could make to try to prove yourself wrong.  If your prediction is off, try to think of a new model.  Repeat ad infinitum (physicus usque ad mortem).

In an undergrad-designed psychology experiment, the perturbation might be to compel a study subject to think about death by mixing a lot of photographs of car wrecks into a slide show.  Does a person exposed to these images seem more inclined to spend time with close family members (based on the results of a 30-question survey) than equivalent study subjects who were instead shown photographs of puppies?

Maybe you’d learn something from that.  But, honestly, 0.5 mgs per kg of psilocybin is a more powerful perturbation.

(A man who has been attending my poetry class for the past few months also self-describes as a Buddhist psychonaut – his favorite psychedelic is LSD, but he also struggles with a nagging impulse to shoot heroin.  He’s a vegetarian and has been writing poetry for twenty years, ever since his first friend died of overdose.  The only way for him to avoid prison time is to enroll at a court-mandated Christian-faith-based rehabilitation clinic where everyone works daily at the Perdue Meats slaughterhouse.  He’s just waiting on a bed before they ship him out there.  Personally, I think that having a recovering addict decapitate hundreds of turkeys daily would be an unhealthy perturbation of the mind.)

As Lin researched pharmacology, he realized that he’d made the same error in thinking about his body that our society has made in thinking about our environment, especially the oceans.  He’d assumed that his body was so large, and each drug molecule so small, that he’d be relatively unchanged as the pills he swallowed were metabolized away.  But he was wrong.  He’d turned his own body into a degraded environment that felt terrible to live inside.

He realized that corporations shouldn’t have free license to destroy the world that we all share.  And he realized that he needed to practice better stewardship of his body, his own personal environs.  He changed his diet and his lifestyle and no longer felt like garbage all the time.

good dayLin also provides some useful information about this country’s War on Drugs.  If someone was looking for an accessible way to learn more about this, I can see myself recommending either Trip (for the dudes in jail) or Ayelet Waldman’s A Really Good Day (for the harried parents working alongside me in the YMCA snack room).

And those business cards?  They made convenient bookmarks.  Verdant green, the front advertised a local hydroponics supply store, the back listed the store manager’s name and telephone number.

This seemed like a great advertising strategy.  Much more precise (and less evil) than Facebook’s targeted ads.

I won’t be buying any hydroponics supplies, but I’ll probably put those business cards back before I return the book.

Most of what I’ve found in books has been less directly relevant to the subject matter.  I felt dismayed to find a business card for a local artist / writer / model / actor – the front showed her in pinup-style undergarments with the cord for a video game controller entwining one stockinged leg – inside a library copy of Against Our Will by Susan Brownmiller.

When I flipped through one of Deepak Chopra’s new-age self-help books (that I pulled off the secondhand inventory shelf at Pages to Prisoners to mail to someone who’d requested stuff about UFOs, Wicca, and conspiracies), I found a Valentine’s Day note (written by a small child in crayon) and a polaroid of a tired-looking bare-breasted woman staring  at the camera from atop a camper’s bed.  MWPP totally would’ve gotten dinged if I’d mailed the book with that picture still inside.

And I’ve written previously about the time I found an acceptance letter from Best of Photojournalism inside a previous year’s edition of the book as I selected books to mail to a prisoner interested in photography.

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But I didn’t mention that I visited the university library to find the accepted photograph (of a stretch of highway closed for the emergency landing of a small plane in distress) …

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… or that I then put together a package of books to send to that photographer, because it turned out that he was also in prison after murdering his son-in-law.

The impression I got from news reports was that this man had a daughter whom he’d raised alone.  When his daughter was 13 years old, she fell in love with an abusive, oft-unemployed 19-year-old.  She soon became pregnant.  As it happens, this boyfriend took too many drugs.  I’ve met many men in jail who are totally charming while sober but (“allegedly!”) wail on women when they’re not.  Some are quite frequently not sober.

During this man’s trial, several witnesses testified to the violent physical abuse his daughter was subject to.  His daughter’s boyfriend “would grab ____, jerk her by the face, force her to go places, cuss her out if she didn’t do the right thing … “

Not that this is a reason to shoot somebody.

Still, I wondered how a book from the man’s personal library had wound up in the inventory of the Pages to Prisoners bookstore.  The murder occurred in August of 2012.  Mid-autumn, 2015, his book was on our shelves.

I like to imagine that his daughter made the donation.  That perhaps, by then, she’d forgiven her father.  That she’d realized how miserable U.S. incarceration can be and wanted to do a little something to make it better.

I certainly hope that his book helped people at the prison where I sent it.

 

On games, tinkering, and gratitude.

On games, tinkering, and gratitude.

I play board games with a local reviewer.  We often try two or three each week – and I’ve noticed that I’m happiest after playing really flawed games.

Consider, for example, the card game Boss Monster.  You portray a villain building a dungeon full of traps.  Each turn you expand your dungeon, making it more enticing and more dangerous.  Then adventurers appear and venture into one of the players’ dungeons; you win by causing their demise.

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My gaming buddy really dislikes this game: while playing, you make very few meaningful choices.  Sometimes no choices at all, honestly.

That’s not fun.

But I loved it!  Not just because I have a soft spot for games that portray humans as the enemy (in Ferretcraft, which my family designed, you play as a forest creature and the “orcs” are just green-tinted humans).  And not just because I’m a sucker for cute art (which makes me feel lucky that my favorite artist makes games with me).

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A warlock character from Ferretcraft.  See what I mean about her art?

Even in his negative review, my buddy stressed again and again how great Boss Monster looks.

I should admit, it wasn’t very fun to play.  Shuffling a deck of cards and sitting down to “play” doesn’t mean much if the game has only marginally more strategy than War.  But there are several really clever ideas behind the game – they’re just poorly executed.

For instance, players are competing to lure adventurers.  If your dungeon has less treasure than an opponent’s, no heroes will visit, and so you can’t get points for dooming them.  Unfortunately, the cards that are best at luring heroes are also the best at dispatching them.  There’s no strategy here – on each turn, you should play the most powerful card.  The design would’ve been much improved if there was a tension between attracting adventurers and harming them.

And the adventurers are each lured by a different type of treasure.  Wizards seek spellbooks, warriors seek weaponry, thieves seek gold.  If you happened to build a dungeon full of gold, and a thief happens to appear, you’ll get to slay that hero.  But the adventurers are drawn from a deck at random, which means there’s no strategy here either.  Most likely, each player in the game will be best at luring a certain type, and the random order that adventurers appear determines who wins.

With a few changes, though, this could be really fun.  A card that’s good at luring heroes shouldn’t hurt them much – then players would have to balance what their dungeons need.  The adventurers should be more difficult to dispatch if several voyage into a single dungeon at the same time, which would impose a cost on being too good at luring them.  And the adventurers should wait in town for a bit before entering the dungeons, which would allow players to plan ahead.  Perhaps the adventurers would spend time drinking ale and boasting in a tavern – each might need a different number of beers before feeling ready to tromp off to his or her doom.

(It’s not clear whether an extremely strong hero would need more beers – a higher alcohol tolerance – or fewer – more confidence.  I think either design has interesting gameplay implications.  If each hero in town drinks one beer per turn, and the powerful heroes can handle more liquor, then you have a long warning period in which to make your dungeon deadly enough to handle hardy adventurers.  Or if weaker heroes require more liquid courage, then players can vie to lure easy points away from their opponents.  We’d probably test both designs and then write lore justifying whichever was more fun.)

With those changes, you’d get to make meaningful choices every game instead of simply doling out cards and seeing who wins.

But even though Boss Monster wasn’t fun to play, it was a blast to think about.  Which made me feel grateful to the designers … and to my parents.

Growing up, there was always an expectation that we’d modify games.  Pieces from the board games we owned were used to make dozens of others.  My brother and I played Risk daily for several summers in a row … but I don’t think we ever played an entire game according to the rules printed on the box.

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My siblings, with a game they’d made.

And it’s not just while playing board games that I feel grateful.  Once we’d learned that we might have to modify games to have more fun, it was easy to view the rest of the world with an eye toward improvement.  More than just games are flawed, after all.  I might feel overwhelmingly depressed by everything that’s wrong with the world if I didn’t feel at least a little joy in tinkering, trying to make things better.

Because it is daunting.  Or at least it feels daunting when I look at the Pages to Prisoners mail queue, knowing that each envelop might be somebody else stuck in solitary with no one to talk to, nothing to read.  Or it might be somebody who’s getting out soon and wants to turn his life around (recently I sent books to somebody who wanted career guides and self help because he’s about to finish a seventeen year sentence).  Or it might be somebody who’d like to play games – our criminal justice system hoovers up all kinds.  But if we abandon people to our current dehumanizing, demoralizing system, we’ll mostly get one type back.

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Contents of a package we recently sent to someone in prison.

Header image for post: Tinkering studio at the Exploratorium.

On light.

On light.

In my high school Spanish class, we read a short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  A bulb breaks, spilled light fills the room, two boys at home alone float atop the photons.

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Listen to and read the short story here.

I spoke very poor Spanish.  I knew the word for “swim,” but not for “drown.”  The story ends with a party thrown by the boys for their classmates.  The other children brought no rafts.  Light pours down and the boys’ boat rises and their classmates die.  The little corpses bob amidst furniture, fistfuls of condoms, and a television flickering with nudity.

The flood of light is dangerous.

In jail, there’s a moment each day when everyone’s agony is synchronized.  A guard yells “chow time” at four fifteen a.m..  The men brace, their brief solace snatched away.  The lights go off at midnight and then it’s less hard to be locked up.  Eyes closed, maybe even sleeping, the jail is not so different from any other place.

“When the lights come on,” T tells me, “that’s when the darkness comes.”

And so that final second – after a guard yells, before they flip the light switch – is excruciating.  All the guys agreed.

T spent his final days here hoping no one would come from California.  He’d served his full sentence and unless they extradited him – which they could only do if a representative showed up in person – the judge had to release him.  “They’ve got less than two weeks,” he told me, and then, at our next class, “they’re down to four days.”

T asked me once, “Is it selling out, thinking I’m going to dress real different once they let me out?  I used to wear, you know, jeans, some baggy shirts, but I’m thinking now, I get out, I want to dress real nice.  I don’t want them to mess with me, you know?”

It isn’t selling out.  It’s shameful, sure – but he’s not the one who should feel ashamed.  Everyone else in this country should feel ashamed that he can’t dress the way he wants, not without drawing undue attention from the police.  My pallor and Ph.D. let me wear my hair in dreadlocks, dress in tattered clothes from Goodwill or the dumpsters, and still be treated with respect.

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To be treated as well as me, T, with his melanin and Hispanic accent, has to look much “nicer.”

We demand most from those who’ve been given least.

The first poem T wrote was a lyrical persona piece from the perspective of a threatened woman.  After he finished reading it aloud, the class clapped and someone asked to hear it again.  T started to read a second time, but then choked up and began to cry.  He’d never had a room full of people actually listen to him.  Twice.

Another man hugged him.  After about ten seconds he said he was okay and continued reading.  And after that day, he wrote two or three poems each week.

On his final day in class, he was shivering beneath a blanket but was happy – “four more days and they have to let me go!” He planned to stop by Pages to Prisoners, maybe volunteer.

California came to collect him with two days to spare.

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 Facebook and fake news.

On Facebook and fake news.

With two credits left to finish his degree, a friend switched his major from philosophy to computer science.  One of his first assignments: build a website for a local business.  Rather than find someone needing this service, he decided to fabricate an empire.

I never knew whether he thought this would be easier.  In any case, he resolved to create the simulacrum of a small publishing company and asked me for help.  We wrote short biographies for approximately a dozen authors on the company’s roster, drafted excerpts from several books for each, designed book covers, and used Photoshop to paste our creations into conference halls, speaking at podiums and being applauded for their achievements.

This was in the fall of 2003, so we assumed that aspiring artists would also pursue a social media presence.  We created profiles for the authors on Myspace (the original incarnation of Facebook, loathe to admit fakery, would only let users register for an account using a university email address; the email accounts we’d made for our authors were all hosted through Hotmail and Yahoo).  My friend put profiles for several on dating websites.  He arranged trysts that the (imaginary) authors cancelled at the last minute.

My apologies to the men and women who were stood up by our creations.  I’d like to think that most real-world authors are less fickle.

Several years later, when my family began recording holiday albums in lieu of a photograph to mail to our friends and relatives, we named the project after the most successful of these authors… “success” here referring solely to popularity on the dating sites.  We figured that, because these entities were all constructs of our imaginations, this was the closest we’d ever come to a controlled experiment comparing the allure of different names.

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It does still have a certain ring to it.

Eventually, my friend submitted his project.  By this time he’d kept up the profiles of our creations for about two months.  At first the authors were only friends with each other, but by then they’d begun to branch out, each participating in different online discussion groups, making a different set of connections to the world…

My friend received a failing grade.  None of the links to buy the authors’ books were functional.  He had thought this was a reasonable omission, since the full texts did not exist, but his professor was a stickler.

Still, I have to admit: faking is fun.

Profitable, too.  Not in my friend’s case, where he devoted prodigious quantities of effort toward a project that earned exceptionally low marks (he gave up on computer science at the end of that semester, and indeed changed his major thrice more before resigning himself to a philosophy degree and completing those last two credits).  But, for others?

From William Gaddis’s The Recognitions:

71ncmdhfzzlLong since, of course, in the spirit of that noblesse oblige which she personified, Paris had withdrawn from any legitimate connection with works of art, and directly increased her entourage of those living for Art’s sake.  One of these, finding himself on trial just two or three years ago, had made the reasonable point that a typical study of a Barbizon peasant signed with his own name brought but a few hundred francs, but signed Millet, ten thousand dollars; and the excellent defense that this subterfuge had not been practiced on Frenchmen, but on English and Americans “to whom you can sell anything” . . . here, in France, where everything was for sale.

Or, put more explicitly by Jean de la Bruyêre (& translated by Jean Stewart):

It is harder to make one’s name by means of a perfect work than to win praise for a second-rate one by means of a name one has already acquired.

Our world is saturated in information and art – to garner attention, it might seem necessary to pose as a trusted brand.

6641427981_0bc638f8e8_oOr, it seems, to peddle untruths so outlandish that they stand distinct from run-on-the-mill reality, which might be found anywhere.  This, it seems, was a profitable moneymaking scheme during the 2016 U.S. elections.  With a sufficiently catchy fabrication, anyone anywhere could dupe Facebook users and reap Google advertising dollars.

Which is frustrating, sure.  Networks created by ostensibly socially-conscious left-leaning Silicon Valley companies enabled a far-right political campaign built on lies.

But I would argue that the real problem with Facebook, in terms of distorting political discourse, isn’t the platform’s propensity for spreading lies.  The problem is Facebook itself, the working-as-properly attention waster.  Even when the material is real-ish – pointless lists, celebrity updates, and the like – it degrades the power to think.  The site is designed to be distracting.  After all, Facebook makes money through advertising.  Humans are most persuadable when harried & distracted – it’s while I’m in the grocery store holding a screaming toddler that I’m most likely to grab whatever item has a brightly-colored tag announcing its SALE! price instead of checking to see which offers the best value.  All the dopamine-releasing pings and pokes on Facebook keep users susceptible.

As described by computer scientist Cal Newport:

Consider that the ability to concentrate without distraction on hard tasks is becoming increasingly valuable in an increasingly complicated economy.  Social media weakens this skill because it’s engineered to be addictive.  The more you use social media in the way it’s designed to be used – persistently throughout your waking hours – the more your brain learns to crave a quick hit of stimulus at the slightest hint of boredom.

Once this Pavlovian connection is solidified, it becomes hard to give difficult tasks the unbroken concentration they require, and your brain simply won’t tolerate such a long period without a fix.

Big ideas take time.  And so we have a conundrum: how, in our world, can we devote the time and energy necessary to gain deep understanding?

Ideas that matter won’t always fit into 140 characters or less.  If our time spent flitting through the internet has deluded us into imagining they will, that is how we destroy our country, becoming a place where we spray Brawndo onto crops because electrolytes are “what plants crave.”

Or becoming a place that elects Donald Trump.

Or becoming a place populated by people who hate Donald Trump but think that their hate alone – or, excuse me, their impassioned hate plus their ironic Twitter posts – without getting off their asses to actually do something about all the suffering in the world, is enough.  There are very clear actions you could take to push back against climate change and mass incarceration.

Kafka could look at fish.  Can we read Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” without shame? Here:

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