At about eleven a.m. on my birthday, I buckled the kids into the car to drive to our local print shop. Taking the kids with me for a fifteen minute errand seemed like a good gift for my spouse: she’d have some time in our house alone, which is rare to come by right now.
The print shop is just across the street from the (currently closed) services center for people experiencing homelessness, just down the street from the services center for people recently released from incarceration, a few blocks from the hospital. There’s a popular bus stop on the sidewalk out front. Across the street, a truck rental company has a large, mostly empty parking lot.
Large crowds of people have been hanging out near the print shop. Day and night.
I pulled into a shaded parking spot. We had the windows down. “I’ll just be a minute, can you sit in the car?” I asked.
The kids nodded, not looking up. A friend recently gave us a stack of Ranger Rick magazines, and we’ve been doling them out gradually for car rides.
I had my wallet in my pocket with a twenty and a ten, and we’d already been sent the bill for our print order. $20.49 for a stack of postcards to send to my spouse’s future AP biology students, explaining their summer assignment.
Normally she’d give kids a slip of paper with their assignment sometime during finals week, but this year had no finals. For many kids, no school.
But don’t worry. The assignment isn’t too bad. Students choose from a set of things like “fill an old sock with trash, bury it, then dig it up six weeks later” or “take a walk and look for things that match each of these different colors.”
I looked in the center console of the car for a pair of quarter. We keep them in a little pouch, ready to pay for parking. Haven’t been using them recently – the meters are still on, but there’d be nowhere to go after parking the car.
I thought it would be a nice gesture to pay in cash with exact change. The credit card company wouldn’t be taking a cut of the profits, and exact change would minimize the length of our transaction.
As I was zipping the pouch closed, a man ambled over. I’d guess he was a little over six feet tall, a little over two hundred pounds, with light brown skin, a buzzed head, and a bristly beard. He leaned down to the open passenger-side window and said something to me, but I couldn’t parse it – his words sounded mushy, thick with saliva.
“Hang on,” I said, “I’m hopping out of the car, let me come around.”
I walked around the back of the car, stopping a few feet away from him. He said the same thing again. I shrugged and shook my head. My brain takes a while to process spoken words, even under the best of circumstances. I can’t listen to audiobooks – whole chapters wash over me without any understanding. I can’t listen to podcasts – when people recommend them, I’ll search for a transcript, then read it and pretend that I too listened while riding an exercise bike or something.
By the fourth time he repeated himself, I understood him better. I think part of the problem was that he was speaking too quickly – almost everybody gets nervous when approaching a stranger.
I can relate. I doubt I’d ever be able to flirt with strangers in a bar.
“I like your hair,” he said. “I grew up in Gary, came down fifteen years ago for Indiana University, but I caught that bipolar. Just got out of the hospital, today’s my birthday, five twenty-six, and I just got out.
He still had a white plastic bracelet on his arm, which seemed to be printed with his name and age. He didn’t gesture to it or anything, which felt nice. As though the two of us would need no evidence to trust each other.
“Your birthday? How old are you?”
“Thirty-seven,” he said, without hesitation.
Indeed, the bracelet was printed with the number 37 in a fairly large font. But it seemed like this was a nice thing to ask.
“No shit,” I said, “thirty-seven. Same as me. Today’s my birthday, I just turned thirty-seven.”
“Naw, man, you’re shitting me.”
“It’s true.” I turned to the car, shouted to the kids, “Whose birthday is it today?”
The kids said something, but neither the man nor I could hear them. The crowd across the street was loud.
The man reached into his pocket, pulled out a jumble of stuff. Dice, some black beaded necklaces, a keychain, a tiny flashlight, nail clippers, a tube of toothpaste. He put the toothpaste back into his pocket.
“Don’t need this yet,” he mumbled.
“You got a toothbrush?” I asked. We actually have some spare ones in the car to give to people.
“Yeah,” he said, pulling out the green plastic handle of a toothbrush, “but I used that already. See these, my teeth so fucking white.”
He smiled for me and I nodded approvingly, murmuring that his teeth were indeed very white. A full smile. Several teeth were stained dark near the edges, but I’ve met lots of men with worse teeth than that.
“Hey, you paint your nails, too,” he said, noticing. “See this, look at this.” He reached out, his hands still full of stuff, to show me his fingers. They had tiny remnants of polish, pink on several but a pointer finger with a mix of red and black, just like I use on mine. My nails were barely even chipped, because I’d painted them the week before. I usually do them about once a month these days. Hard to find time for the little things since having kids.
“I got … here, how about this,” he said, handing me the nail clippers. “They good, they good ones, I haven’t even used them yet, they’re clean.”
As he spoke, spittle flew from his mouth. Luckily, I’m not much of a germophobe. Luckier still, I think I already had the disease that’s going around right now. Between a pair of kids in preschool, a spouse at the high school, and me teaching in jail, I catch most of the viruses that come through town.
I turned the clippers over in my hand. A large pair, space-age iridescent top glimmering in loops of purple and blue, big letters “Made in China” etched into the metal.
“They’re beautiful,” I said. “I like the look of that metal. But we’ve got so much stuff already. Meeting you, that’s present enough today.”
I handed the clippers back. As he took them, one of his dice tumbled from his hand. I bent down to pick it up, gave that back to him, too.
“You play craps?” he asked.
“Hey, I’ll teach you. Come on, here, you gotta get a seven, eleven, don’t want snake eyes.” He bent down, blew on the dice, and rolled. A five and a six.
“Eleven, hey, that’s good,” he said. Then picked up the dice, blew on them again, and rolled. A two and a six.
“Eight. Now I got to roll an eight before I get a seven, see, that’s crap out.” And he rolled about four more times before he hit his seven.
“Now it’s your turn,” he said, and handed them to me.
I rolled, got a two and a four.
“That’s a six, that’s a hard one, got to roll a six again before you crap out.”
I rolled again, same two and a four. Maybe I didn’t shake the dice enough – they didn’t really tumble on the ground, they just sort of plopped down on the asphalt in front of me.
And I found myself thinking how strange it is that dice are a big thing for both the toughest and the wimpiest groups of people in town. Street people and folks in jail gamble with dice, and then there’s Dungeons & Dragons, fantasy buffs rolling 2d6 as they tell stories.
I’ve heard that Dungeons & Dragons is pretty big in some prisons, too. A few prisons have banned D&D or roleplaying books from being sent in – reputedly, people got killed over developments in their games. Somebody’s elf cleric was betrayed and a few days later guards found a body in the showers.
I don’t know how much truth there is to that. But, when people at those prisons ask for D&D books, I have to write an apology and send some fantasy novels instead.
I tried to give the dice back after rolling my second six, but he said I had to keep playing. “I got two, hey, you got to see where you go on this next roll.”
“Okay,” I said, “but then I got to pick up, my spouse is a high school teacher, she has this print order, some post cards to send to her students.” I gestured with my head toward the shop. And then I rolled.
An eight. Followed by a seven. I was done.
“Thanks for teaching me,” I said.
“And, hey, hey, I was thinking, for my birthday, you help me get something at Rally’s. I’m trying to get a pair of ice cones, for me and my girl.”
I gave a wan smile. Normally I don’t give money to people. It’s a tricky situation – people have things they need to buy, and even the chemical escape can seem necessary. My life is really good, and even I struggle with the sense of being trapped inside my head sometimes. And yet, I don’t really like the thought of my money being part of the whole cycle, keeping drugs in town. I’m even pro-drug, mostly, but meth and heroin typically do bad things to people’s lives.
A few days earlier, when I crossed paths with a friend from jail while my dog and I were out running, I’d asked if my friend was eating enough. He laughed at me and said, “Fuck, no!”
It’s true, I’m pretty bad at looking at people’s faces when I talk to them. When my friend started laughing, I finally met his eyes and realized how gaunt he looked.
“Is it a money problem, or …?”
“Oh, dude, don’t give me any money. I could eat, I think I can eat, I just don’t. You give me anything, I’d just spend it on meth.”
Instead of handing money to people on the street, we buy paper and pencils for folks in jail; we support our local food bank; we give time. Building human connection takes time, and there’s no shortcut.
Still, on my birthday, I was standing there in the print shop parking lot next to a man who’d just given me a present – nice nail clippers, even if I didn’t keep them. And we’d played craps. Maybe he’d won – I’m not sure what the rules are about draws. And I had a pair of quarters in my hand.
I’d hoped to have exact change. But I shrugged and gave him the quarters.
“Thanks, man,” he said, and I told him “Thanks for the game,” and walked over to ring the doorbell at the print shop, ready to pick up my order. The kids had been doing a great job of waiting patiently in the car.
Recently, my hometown of Bloomington’s farmers market has been covered Fox News and The New York Times. Not because the vegetables sold here are particularly deserving of national attention. The market was deemed newsworthy because one of the farm stands is run by outspoken white supremacists.
Although Bloomington is a fairly liberal college town, this region has a sordid history of hate. The national Klan headquarters is less than 30 minutes away – when I was in college, the campus diversity coordinators warned students not to stop in that town, not even to buy gas. Even right here in Bloomington, there was a fracas at the local high school recently because some students decided to honor a friend who’d died by using cremation ashes to print bumper stickers – but they printed stickers of the Confederate flag.
Teaching poetry in the
local jail has made me much better at recognizing supremacist imagery. Most people know that the Confederate flag is
bad news, but I’ve gotten to see a wider range of hateful symbols tattooed onto
COs bring twelve people to
each week’s class – often two to four will be Black (in a town where the total
population is approximately 4% Black or African-American), and the rest are
usually white guys. It’s pretty common
for one or two of the white guys to have visible supremacist
tattoos. Which doesn’t even include
questionable stuff like the dude who got an poke and stick of the words “White
Trash” in elaborate two-in-tall cursive letters during his time there. Tattooing runs afoul of the jail’s “no self
mutilation” policy, but most COs studiously overlook the guys’ rashy red skin
and burgeoning designs.
When I’m there, we often
read poetry that directly addresses racial injustice. I’ve brought stuff by Reginald Dwayne Betts,
Ross Gay, Terrance Hayes, Adrian Matejka, and Tracy Smith. Sometimes these lead to good
discussions. Sometimes our class gets
In one of the poems titled “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” Hayes pulls off a stunning trick. The same line is included twice, but the word “haunted” changes from a verb into an adjective after the language slides into a less formal diction. It’s a beautiful moment. The first time I brought this poem, we talked about the clinginess of the past, the way not only our own histories but also the histories of our forebears can stalk us through time.
The next time I brought
this poem, several guys reacted by saying that Black people don’t talk right. Then they went off about sagging pants. All this from southern-accented white guys
whose missing-toothed, meth-mouthed mumbles and guffaws I could barely
We had to quickly move on.
Or there was the time when
we read Betts’ “Elegy with a City in It,” a fantastic poem that uses a spare,
stark set of words and sounds to simultaneously evoke both the deprivations of
the inner city and the epic grandeur of The Iliad, which uses a
similarly constrained lexicon.
Many gone to the grave:
by blood, lost in the
of all that is awful:
think crack and
what time steals,
or steals time: black
nights when men offed in
the streets awed
If you read the poem
aloud, you’re chanting the same phonemes over and over, but their meanings
twist and turn as they spill from your tongue.
That’s what I wanted to discuss.
Instead, a few guys
latched onto lines like
Mario, Charles, they all
the inside of a coffin …
and this offended them because “white people have it bad, too!” As though Betts could not describe Black pain without trivializing their own. Soon somebody was saying “All lives matter” and that he’d voted for our current president. This guy was in jail because he’d been caught selling heroin to support his own habit. The president he’d voted for had recently recommended executing drug dealers.
Somebody else shook his
head and muttered, “y’all are fucking [stupid].”
We moved on.
In my classes, I work with a wide range of ages – sometimes guys as young as seventeen, sometimes men in their sixties. My spouse, as a high school teacher, works with younger people – anywhere from fourteen to eighteen years old. But ideology can set in early. My spouse has had students whose families were prominent in the Klan.
At the beginning of the
year, she asks each student to fill in the paper silhouette of a head with
words and pictures of what inspires them to succeed. She then posts these along the ceiling of her
classroom. Several times, she’s had to
ask kids to erase supremacist imagery.
So it isn’t terribly
surprising that some farmers at our local market have hateful beliefs. Right-wing supremacist movements are major
terrorist organizations in this country, and they do a lot of recruiting. As our nation has become slightly less
horrible, though, many of these people learned to be circumspect. They maintain a divide between their private
and public language.
People who rely upon
public, liberal venues like our farmers market can’t be too outspoken with
Indeed, the white supremacist farmers who were recently outed tried to be circumspect. But they must have felt lonely, and they grew too careless. Under a pseudonym, they posted on the Identity Evropa message board. This is a website devoted to the ideologies that have inspired the vast majority of terrorism in the United States. Theoretically, this is a venue where people get to cultivate their hatred anonymously. But one of their compatriots was caught painting swastikas on a synagogue (see image below) and blew their cover. Sort of. The vandal was interrogated by the FBI, and his remark unveiling the farmers’ pseudonym was buried deep in a 200-page sentencing document.
Through assiduous work, a
team of activists was able to prove that these farmers were white supremacists.
The activists who had
worked so hard to gather evidence were obviously against hate. They wanted to take action. But the plan they favored wasn’t very
flashy. They would organize a boycott of
that farm stand. They also proposed that
the city use the sellers’ farmers market fees to fund grants for people of
color, with the understanding that our nation’s long history of racism has
inequitably skewed the demographics of agricultural land holdings.
To stay at the farmers
market, the supremacists would have had to support a cause they loathed … and
they were making less and less money here.
I was told that, during the boycott, the farmers had begun padding their
bins, bringing fewer vegetables each week so that they could still appear to be
selling out their stock.
Unfortunately, the tropes
of social media have changed public discourse in our country. I assume it’s relatively uncontroversial to
claim that social media prizes style over substance. Quiet, careful plans are at a disadvantage in
the attention economy.
As word spread that these
farmers were white supremacists, patrons demanded that they be banned from our
market. People of color now felt unsafe
in that space, for obvious reasons.
There’s a difference between the perceived threat level felt by a
pale-skinned activist and by somebody who is recognizably a member of a racial
The mayor, whose spouse is
a constitutional law professor, rightly argued that the farmers would be able
to sue the city on a First Amendment case.
Still, people felt that we
had to do something more visible. Passively
allowing outspoken white supremacists to hawk their tomatoes at our market would
seem to be tacitly endorsing their political stance.
Everybody has a right to
believe whatever garbage they want. Do
you sincerely believe that people of northern European descent have a genetic
inclination toward greater intelligence?
You’re wrong, and you’re a jerk, but you’re allowed to believe that.
The problem is that white
supremacist organizations like Identity Evropa use terrorism to back their
asinine beliefs. Implicit threats of
violence, delivered by people known to stockpile military-grade weaponry, are
different from “mere” hate.
If these farmers couldn’t
be banned, then we’d hold signs in front of their booth. Eventually, a protester was arrested – the
police had asked her to stand in a designated “announcements” area instead of
in the middle of the market – and, as always happens following an arrest, her
home address was published online.
She was soon inundated
with death threats.
As coverage of the dispute increased, right-wing militia types were also drawn to our town. Three percenters, unaffiliated gun nuts, other supremacists – they began to support that farm, undermining the boycott. And these radical Protestant faux-constitutional terrorists made sufficiently credible threats of mass violence that our mayor had to shut down the entire market for two weeks at the height of the growing season. Other farmers were suffering.
Calm, careful behavior
from the original activists – assiduously combing through those lengthy, dull
documents, not to mention their efforts to infiltrate local supremacists’
in-person social circles – had undoubtably helped. Hateful ideologies were exposed, and efforts
were made to impose consequences.
But then our visible
protests made matters worse. We’ve
helped the proponents of hate to make more money.
And, now that we’ve drawn attention to them, we’ve inadvertently connected these white supremacists with their allies. They will no longer need to post on public forums, which was the only reason that activists were able to prove that they supported these ideologies in the first place. Now these supremacist farmers are invited speakers at right-wing events.
Our audience clapped for
the poems and stared aghast during our banter, which is probably as it should
We closed our set with a
piece from M.G. This poem was written in
February, before the public turmoil regarding our farmers market began. At a moment when so many of us were warily watching
that space, it seemed important to remind people that there have always been
watchful eyes gazing at the market.
The farmers market is just
down the street from our five-story county jail.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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
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
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.
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
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.
After William Burroughs experienced how
pitifully he could be held in thrall by a small molecule, he developed a
lifelong interest in telepathy and mind control.
His own brain had been upended. Suddenly, he found himself devoting the vast majority of his time and money toward a single cause: obtaining a day’s ration of opiate. If he was delinquent in this task, he grew sick. Agony would keep him focused.
If that drug was capable of re-sculpting a human personality, might there be other ways? In Queer, the protagonist speculates:
“I know telepathy to be a fact, since I
have experienced it myself. I have no
interest to prove it, or, in fact, to prove anything to anybody. What interests me is, how can I use it?
“In South America at the headwaters of
the Amazon grows a plant called Yage that is supposed to increase telepathic
sensitivity. Medicine men use it in
their work. A Colombian scientist, whose
name escapes me, isolated from Yage a drug he called Telepathine. I read all this in a magazine article.
“Later I see another article: the
Russians are using Yage in experiments on slave labor. It seems they want to induce states of
automatic obedience and ultimately, of course, ‘thought control.’ The basic con. No buildup, no spiel, no routine, just move
in on someone’s psyche and give orders.
“I have a theory that the Mayan priests
developed a form of one-way telepathy to con the peasants into doing all the
work. The deal is certain to backfire
eventually, because telepathy is not of its nature a one-way setup, nor a setup
of sender and receiver at all.”
As it happens, psychedelic drugs are quite poor tools for potentiating mind control. But there are other ways. A precisely-localized magnetic pulse can cause prompt, unnoticeable alterations in a person’s behavior – researchers were able to change how their human study subjects responded to unfairness, all without those subjects realizing that they were acting differently from usual.
Because repeated behaviors give rise to
our personality, it stands to reason that repeated transcranial magnetic
stimulation could rewire a person’s identity.
Invisibly, and, with the right interference patterns, at a
You could be made other.
The more common form of mind control
practiced in the United States is much less technologically advanced. Rather than using a magnetic pulse to
stimulate or suppress particular regions of the brain, we employ narrative
Here’s a simple story: a bell rings, then dinner is served. If this story is integrated inside the brain as universally true, then the sound of the bell will trigger salivation. This is the basic principle behind Pavlovian conditioning. You can train a dog to associate dinnertime to the sound of a bell, or to have an aversion to a particular smell.
Humans can be similarly conditioned. Companies like Facebook and Apple have incorporated a variety of sensory experiences into their designs, all intended to engender a sense of urgency about checking your telephone. The alerts, the updates, the little pings – these are pushed to the forefront of the design because they compel engagement. Likewise the little jingles of dropped loot in online fantasy games.
In a perfect world, corporations would not make their users’ brains worse in order to increase their own profits. If those companies’ designs were less malicious, the makers wouldn’t need to be so vigilant about making sure that their own children don’t engage with their creations.
But those are little stories. A few stray details added to the narrative of
your day: if you see the dot, click to see the update! More threatening is the prospect of mind
control that totally rewrites an internalized narrative. Take a person’s memories and supplant them.
In Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, the doctor Benway describes his interrogation techniques:
“While in general I avoid the use of
torture – torture locates the opponent and mobilizes resistance – the threat of
torture is useful to induce in the subject the appropriate feeling of
helplessness and gratitude to the interrogator for withholding it. And torture can be employed to advantage as a
penalty when the subject is far enough along with the treatment to accept
punishment as deserved.”
In an excellent article for Science magazine, journalist Douglas Starr describes research into false confessions, situations when people are subjected to such extreme narrative control that they temporarily lose grasp of their personal memories and accept instead an interrogator’s version of reality.
A variety of techniques are employed – the threat of torture, as above; a questioning regime that is in itself torturous, giving the subject an incentive to play along just to make it stop; sleep deprivation to muddle the brain; ardently repeated falsehoods to supplant the subject’s own stories; deceitful cajoling to persuade the subject that there would be minimal consequences to accepting an alternate version of reality (by saying things like “Anyone would have done the same thing”).
And it works. Innocent people can be made to believe that they’ve done horrible things. With a variety of laboratory experiments, psychologist Saul Kassin has shown that these techniques can induce almost anyone to confess to things they haven’t done.
Your stories can be wrested from you.
Indeed, our entire legal system is a battleground for narrative control. Two sides compete to determine what story will enter the legal record: this is typically set up as a test of wits between a well-trained, well-funded prosecutor and an indigent, incarcerated individual who might or might not receive a brief consultation with an overscheduled public defender.
Predictably, the prosecutor often wins. Because prosecutors have absolute, unchecked power to determine what charges to levy against a defendant, they can threaten people with the risk of outlandish punishment … and they can force a defendant to suffer in jail simply by delaying trials. So, eventually, when a prosecutor offers an alternative story that would allow the defendant’s torture to end, most people will renounce their own memories. They plead guilty. After all, you might spend another year in jail waiting for a trial, or you could just let the prosecutor re-write history and walk out today.
Of course, you might not walk out today. Even if you were told that you would. In this battle for narrative control, one side – the defendant – is required to be honest. The other is not.
And so people lose their stories, the very narratives that make us who we are.
If you’re worried that you don’t feel enough stress and anxiety, there’s an easy chemical fix for that. Habitual methamphetamine use will instill intense paranoia.
In our poetry classes in jail, I’ve talked with a lot of guys who stayed up for days watching UFO shows on TV. A few were also stockpiling military grade weaponry. One man used strings and pulleys to link his shotgun’s trigger to a doorknob, ensuring that anyone who tried to enter the house would be rudely greeted.
They’ve dismantled dozens of computers and phones: sometimes out of suspicion, sometimes because there are valuable components. Although they were rarely organized enough to hawk the proceeds of their dissections.
Suffice it to say that, deprived of sleep and dosed with powerful stimulants, their brains became tumultuous places.
Which is why we spend so much time
talking about conspiracy theories.
I’ve written several previous essays about conspiracy theories – that the Santa myth teaches people to doubt expertise (children learn that a cabal of adults really was conspiring to delude them); that oil company executives have been conspiring to destroy the world; that, for all the ways Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow probes at the undercurrents of truth beneath government conspiracy, the text blithely incorporates metaphors from a Disney-promulgated nature conspiracy.
But, with the fiftieth anniversary
coming up, the men in my class have been talking more about whether the moon
landing was faked.
There’s only so much I can say. After all, I, personally, have never been to
One of my colleagues from Stanford recently conducted molecular biology experiments on the International Space Station, but that’s only zero point one percent of the way to the moon … and she and I were never close enough for me to feel absolutely certain that she wouldn’t lie to me.
Visiting the moon does seem much easier than faking it, though. Our government has tried to keep a lot of secrets, over the years. Eventually, they were leaked.
But that line of reasoning is never going to sway somebody. The big leak might be coming soon.
Instead, the strategy that’s worked for
me is to get people worried about another layer of conspiracy.
“Let’s just say, hypothetically,” I say, “that we did send people to the moon. Why would somebody want to convince you, now, that we didn’t?”
When NASA’s project was announced, a lot of people were upset. Civil rights activist Whitney Young said, “It will cost $35 billion to put two men on the moon. It would take $10 billion to lift every poor person in this country above the official poverty standard this year. Something is wrong somewhere.” (I learned about this and the following quote from Jill Lepore’s excellent review of several new books about the moon landing.)
During John F. Kennedy’s presidential
campaign, he argued that we needed to do it anyway. Despite the challenge, despite the
costs. “We set sail on this new sea
because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they
must be won and used for the progress of all people.”
We did reach the moon. But, did we use that knowledge to benefit the rights and progress of all people? Not so much.
A lot of the guys in jail went to crummy schools. They grew up surrounded by violence and trauma. They didn’t eat enough as kids. They’ve never had good medical care. They’ve struggled to gain traction in their dealings with government bureaucracies … we’ve spent years underfunding post offices, schools, the IRS, the DMV, and, surprise, surprise!, find that it’s arduous interacting with these skeletal agencies.
To keep these men complacent, the people in power would rather have them believe that we didn’t visit the moon. “Eh, our government has never accomplished much, we faked that shit to hoodwink the Russians, no wonder this is a horrible place to live.”
The fact that people in power are maliciously undermining our country’s basic infrastructure would seem way worse if you realized that, 50 years ago, with comically slapdash technologies and computers more rudimentary than we now put into children’s toys, this same government sent people to the moon.
Ronald Reagan said, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” And he was in a position to make his words true – he was the government, so all he had to do was be incompetent. And then people would hate the government even more, and become even more distrustful of anyone who claimed that good governance could improve the world.
Needless to say, 45 has taken strategic incompetence to a whole new stratosphere. Beyond the stories of corruption that pepper the news, there’s also the fact that many appointments were never made; there are agencies that, as of July 2019, stilldon’t have anybody running them. These agencies will perform worse.
If people knew how good our government used to be, they might revolt. Better they believe the moon landing was a sham, that the faked photographs are as good as anybody ever got.
We are composite creatures, the edifice of our minds perched atop accumulated strata of a lifetime of memories. Most people, I imagine, have done wrong; remembrance of our lapses is part of who we are. And most of us have been hurt; those grievances also shape our identities.
struggle to be good, despite having been born into an amoral universe and then subjected
to innumerable slights or traumas as we aged.
is a nebulous concept, however. There’s
no external metric that indicates what we should do. For instance: if we are subject to an
injustice, is it better to forgive or to punish the transgressor?
are compelling arguments for both sides, and for each position you could base
your reasoning on philosophy, psychology, physiology, evolutionary biology …
Intellect and reasoning can’t identify what we should do.
A wide variety of cooperative species will swiftly and severely punish transgressions in order to maintain social order. Misbehavior among naked mole rats is generally resolved through bullying and violence, which ensures the colony does not lapse into decadence. (As with humans, shared adversity like hunger generally compels threat-free cooperation.)
Archaeologists suggest that the belief in vengeful gods was coupled to the development of complex human societies. The Code of Hammurabi prescribed immediate, brutal retribution for almost any misdeed.
But punishment invites further punishment. Every act of revenge can lead to yet another act of revenge – the Hatfield and McCoy families carried on their feud for nearly thirty years.
Punishment is fueled by anger, and anger poisons our bodies. On a purely physiological level, forgiving others allows us to heal. The psychological benefits seem to be even more pronounced.
But forgiveness is hard. Sometimes people do terrible things. After her mother was killed, my spouse had to spend her entire afternoon prep period on the phone with a family member and the prosecutor, convincing them not to seek the death penalty.
And incidents in which dark-skinned men hurt white women are precisely those for which prosecutors typically seek the death penalty; after my mother-in-law’s death, the only national news sites that wrote about the case were run by far-right white supremacists trying to incite more hatred and violence toward innocent black people. (I’m including no links to these, obviously.)
time, I was working on a series of poems about teaching in jail.
wife’s mother was murdered Saturday –
at four a.m., scattering birdseed,
a cigarette, shucking schizophrenic
into the unlistening air.
a passing man tossed off a punch,
her to the ground.
stomped upon her skull
there was no more her
that battered brain.
intubated the corpse &
it oxygenated by machine,
each blip of needless heart
my wife convinced
to let the mindless body rest.
taught another class in jail
men who hurt someone else’s mother,
daughter, or son.
man who murdered,
New York inmate #14A4438
black hair & brown eyes,
been to prison twice,
2002 & 2014,
paltry grams of crack cocaine.
man received a massive dose
years of penitence.
Nearly a decade of correction.
Victor Frankenstein share the blame
the murders of his creation,
man he quicked but did not love?
can we walk into a maternity ward
one, nursing now, will be a beast.
Are monsters born or made?
mother-in-law is dead, & our man is inside again,
after “spontaneous utterances,”
in blood, photographed with
bandage between his eyes.
we, in our mercy,
always stood firmly on the side of Frankenstein’s creation. Yes, he began to kill, but misanthropy was
thrust upon him. The creature was
ethical and kind at first, but the rest of the world ruthlessly mistreated
him. Victor Frankenstein abandoned him
in the laboratory; he befriended a blind man, but then the man’s children chased
Frankenstein’s fiancée did not deserve to be strangled – except insofar as we
share blame for the crimes of those we love – but I understand the wellspring
of the creature’s rage.
In Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, a junk dealer’s attempt to honor the anonymous victims of Iraq’s many bombings gives rise to a spirit of vengeance. The junk dealer acts upon a grisly idea – most victims could not receive proper funerals because their bodies were scattered or incinerated by the blasts. But what if many stray pieces were collected? An charred arm from Tuesday’s explosion; a ribcage and lower jawbone from Wednesday’s; two different victims’ legs from Thursday’s. The city is so wracked by violence that there are plenty of body parts to choose from. And then the junk dealer could take his creation to the police and say, Look! Here is a body, victim of the attacks. Here is a dead man we can honor properly.
truth, the junk dealer’s plan was never terribly well thought out. Once he completes the corpse, he realizes
that using his creation as a locus for lamentation would be no better than all
the empty coffins.
the corpse springs to life, seeking vengeance on any and all who wronged its
component parts. In the creature’s words
(as translated by Jonathan Wright):
of people to seek revenge on grew longer as my old body parts fell off and my
assistants added parts from my new victims, until one night I realized that
under these circumstances I would face an open-ended list of targets that would
was my enemy, because there was never enough of it to accomplish my mission,
and I started hoping that the killing in the streets would stop, cutting off my
supply of victims and allowing me to melt away.
killing had only begun. At least that’s
how it seemed from the balconies in the building I was living in, as dead
bodies littered the streets like rubbish.”
the creature realizes that the people he attacks are no different from the dead
victims that he is composed of. He can
chase after the terrorist organizations that orchestrate suicide bombings, but
the people in those organizations are also seeking revenge for their dead
allies. The chain of causality is so
tangled that no one is clearly responsible.
States forces have been inadvertently killing innocent civilians ever since
invading Iraq … an attack that was launched in retribution for the actions of a
small group of Afghani terrorists.
To seek vengeance, we need someone to blame. But who should I blame for my mother-in-law’s death? The man who assaulted her? That’s certainly the conclusion that the white supremacist news sites want me to reach. But I sincerely doubt that this poor man would have hurt her if a prosecutor hadn’t ripped him from his friends and family, condemning him to ten years within the nightmarish violence of America’s prisons, all for participating in a small-scale version of the exact same economic transaction that allowed Merck to become a $160-billion-dollar valued company.
Do I blame the racist white legislators who imposed such draconian punishments on the possession of the pure amine form of cocaine, all while celebrating their pale-skinned buddies who snerked up the hydrochloride salt form?
blame myself? As a citizen of this
country – a wealthy citizen, no less, showered with un-earned privilege – I am
complicit in the misfortunes that my nation imposes on others. Even when I loathe the way this nation acts,
by benefiting from its sins, I too share responsibility.
is hard, but revenge would send us chasing an endless cycle of complicity. The creature in Frankenstein in Baghdad
mind he still had a long list of the people he was supposed to kill, and as
fast as the list shrank it was replenished with new names, making avenging
these lives an endless task. Or maybe he
would wake up one day to discover that there was no one left to kill, because
the criminals and the victims were entangled in a way that was more complicated
than ever before.
are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely
criminal.” This sentence drilled its way
into his head like a bullet out of the blue.
He stood in the middle of the street and looked up at the sky, waiting
for the final moment when he would disintegrate into his original
components. This was the realization
that would undermine his mission – because every criminal he had killed was
also a victim. The victim proportion in
some of them might even be higher than the criminal proportion, so he might
inadvertently be made up of the most innocent parts of the criminals’ bodies.
“There are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely criminal.”
A friend of mine, whom I
first met when he was a student in my poetry class, was writing a
post-apocalyptic novel. There’s nuclear fallout;
civilization crumbled. A few people who
haven’t yet caught the sickness are traveling together, fantasizing that they
could restart the world.
When the bombs fell, governments collapsed. Not immediately, but within the year. The idea of government is predicated on people getting things done: fire fighters who might rescue you, police officers who might protect you, agencies who maintain the roads and ensure the water is safe to drink. All of which requires money, which the government can print, but those slips of paper don’t mean much if no one will accept them in exchange for food or a safe place to sleep.
“Hangrith,” that’s a
beautiful word. It’s archaic, means a
realm in which you can expect security and peace. Literally, “within the grasp of the king’s
hand.” While you are here, the
government will protect you.
My friend was skeptical of the concept. The king’s hand wasn’t cradling him, nor wielding a protective sword to keep orcs at bay; instead, my friend felt the gauntlet at his throat. We’d met in jail, where he’d landed for addiction. We volleyed emails after he left, while he was working on his novel. And then he was in my class again. Failed check-in. Once you’re on probation, you’re given numerous extra laws to follow – people on probation don’t have the rights of other citizens, and minor transgressions, like missing a meeting or late payment for a fine, can land you back in jail.
And so it wasn’t difficult for my friend to imagine a world in which there was no government to rely upon. To reach their destination, his heroes have to barter. Which meant that, suddenly, my friend’s skills might be treated with respect.
After all, what would
people be most willing to trade their food for in a world where waking life was
a ravaged nightmare?
“I took a patch with me underground when
shit hit the fan. Grew it
hydroponically. Cared for that shit like
a baby. Gave me something to do while I
was in that shelter. Weed is my money.”
Rampant economic inequality, fractured communities, and the spread of attention-grabbing toys that prevent us from making eye contact with one another – these have all contributed to the increase in drug use and addiction in contemporary America. But the world could be worse. After the blast, everyone would share the stress and trauma that people in poverty currently weather.
Methamphetamine lets people keep going despite crushing hopelessness and despair. Meth use is widespread in many hollowed-out towns of the Midwest. It’s a problematic drug. At first, people feel good enough to get out of bed again. But methamphetamine is metabolized so slowly that users don’t sleep. Amphetamines themselves are not so toxic, but lack of sleep will kill you. After five, ten, or twenty days awake, vicious hallucinations set in. The drug is no longer keeping you alert and chipper enough to work – static crackles through your mind, crustacea skitter beneath your skin, shadows flit through the air.
They walked on, their path
lit by the moon, among the wreckage of cars and piles of trash and useless
electronics that were heaped up until they came to a concrete slab with a
manhole in it.
“This is my crib, where I sat out that day.”
After the fall, experience
in the drug trade lets people carve out a living. And experience on the streets lets them
survive. All the ornate mansions,
people’s fine wood and brick homes, have fallen into disarray. Their inhabitants caught the sickness, or
else died in the initial blast.
The survivors were people
who slept outdoors, protected by thick concrete. Not in bunkers; the blast came too suddenly
for that. Beneath bridges, tucked into
safe alcoves, or down on dry ledges of the sewers.
My friend understood what
it meant to make shelter where you could find it.
“After Pops gave me the boot, I had to find
a way to support myself; that’s when I learned my hustle. And Penny here was one of my biggest
“You used to be her dealer?”
“Damn, dude, you make it sound dirty. Weed ain’t no drug, it’s medicine.”
The heroes plan to go west, aiming for San Francisco. When I was growing up, I had that dream too – I’d read a little about the Merry Pranksters and failed to realize how much the world might have changed. People living around the Bay Area are still interested in polyamory and psychedelic drugs, but that doesn’t mean they’re nice. It was heartbreaking to see how racist and ruthless the people there were, especially since I’d expected to find a hippie paradise.
And so my spouse and I
moved back to the Midwest.
But I understand the dream – we’re surrounded by a lot of retrograde cudgleheads, here. The only problem is that people are pretty similar everywhere else.
“An agrarian based society. Where everyone works to grow what they
eat. The soil might be okay. We won’t know all the affects of the radiation
“Well, I know for sure it’s mutated animals
near the hit zone. I’ve seen all kindsa
freaky shit. People too. It’s like the wild west again, where we’re
The actual “wild west,” in U.S. history, was horrible. Racism, genocide, misogyny. But the ideal – a lawless land beyond the hangrith where a person’s ingenuity reaps fortune instead of jail time – might be enough to keep someone going.
And it worked, for a
while. My friend carved out months of
sobriety. He was volunteering at the community
food kitchen. In the late afternoons,
he’d type using a computer at the public library. He was always a very hopeful person; while he
was in jail, he asked me to bring physics textbooks so he could use the time
productively. You can get a sense of his
enthusiasm from his poetry:
“BIRD TOWN, TN”
by Brett Wagner
Picture this young boy
whose favorite color was
the blank white
of a fresh page. We went running once
on the spring green grass.
As I’ve heard it said,
“There’s nowhere to go but
so we ran anywhere in this
jungle gym world.
Somewhere the clouds
didn’t smother us
and the hills didn’t
where robins, blue jays,
and cardinals sing
like boddhisattvas that
have taken wing.
But then he slipped. A first drink led to more. He’d been in sober housing; he was kicked out, back onto the streets. A friend, another New Leaf volunteer, gave him enough money for a few days in a hotel.
We had several cold snaps
this winter. Two nights after his hotel
money ran out, temperatures dropped.
We’d made plans for my friend to join us for a panel with Dave Eggers, where we’d discuss storytelling and incarceration.
Instead, at 29 years old, Brett Wagner froze to death. His novel is unfinished; his heroes will not build a new agrarian society.
They had grim odds. Nuclear fallout is a killer. But my friend was felled by the apocalypse that’s already upon us.
Mark Salzman wrote a beautiful memoir about growing up as a nerdy, well-off, suburban white kid. Lost in Place is charming, and I’d recommend it highly to anyone who likes memoirs and to parents raising children in the suburbs.
Salzman loves to write, and he was
lucky enough to make a career out of it.
But, as a well-off white male, he does not have the lived experience to
know intimately every sort of character who might populate his
books. Even while writing Lost in
Place, he was forced to imagine the experiences of an other –
Salzman the adult was writing the book, but he was attempting to recreate the
world of Salzman the child. He was
forced to empathize with the (occasionally foolish) thoughts and experiences of
the youth he once was; I’d argue, based on the emotional impact of the book,
that he succeeded.
The experiential distance between Salzman the adult author and Salzman the youthful protagonist is probably much smaller than the distance between, say, Salzman and an epileptic female nun, or the distance between Salzman and a troubled Latino teen.
Salzman’s Lying Awake, a book about faith and the sacrifices we’re willing to make to maintain it, includes both such characters. But when he sent a first draft to his editor, she was less than thrilled. In Salzman’s words (from his memoir True Notebooks):
was a minor character in the story, a juvenile delinquent with a terminal
illness. Although I had given Carlos
tattoos and a bald head, he failed to impress my editor. She thought he needed a personality. And “please please please,” she urged in one
of her notes, “give him a different name.”
is the youth gang capital of the world, so I figured [my friend] Duane, [who writes for the Los Angeles Times,]
must have had to write about them at some point. I asked if he could recommend any good books
about juvenile delinquents that I could use for research. He thought about it, then answered, “Not
figured that was the end of that, but then he said, “But I volunteer down at
juvenile hall twice a week. I teach a
writing class there. If you’d like to
come down and visit sometime, the guys could tell you more than any book.”
Salzman knew that he was too ignorant
to properly empathize with the perceptions of his character, and so he opened
himself to the world in order to learn more.
He visited the juvenile detention center. Soon, he began to teach his own writing class
there. He became friends with several
students; hoping to provide moral support, he attended every court date of a
young black male who’d shot and killed another kid during a violent altercation
in a movie theater.
All writing draws upon empathy. Even to create nonfiction, a writer must
empathize with the reader, puzzling out which words will best allow others to
understand whatever it is that the writer hopes to convey. And with fiction, unless we expect authors to
populate each and every novel with clones of themselves, a writer must ponder
the ways that a character – and people similar to that character – would
perceive the world.
Imagining what it would be like to inhabit the hearts and minds of others compels us to fight injustice; without these experiences of empathy, we might be complacent to focus only on our own circumstances.
Obviously, there are times when a apparent attempts at empathy fallshort.
But there’s a difference between recognizing that some artists don’t empathize enough, and the idea that artists shouldn’t attempt to empathize with others at all. In the New York Times editorial “In Defense of Cultural Appropriation,” author Kenan Malik writes that:
Emmett Till’s mother urged the publication of photographs of her son’s
mutilated body as it lay in its coffin.
Till’s murder, and the photographs, played a major role in shaping the
civil rights movement and have acquired an almost sacred quality. It was from those photos thatMs. Schutz began her painting.
suggest that she, as a white painter, should not depict images of black
suffering is as troubling as the demand by some Muslims that Salman Rushdie’s
novel The Satanic Verses should be censored because of supposed
blasphemies in its depiction of Islam.
In fact, it’s more troubling because, as the critic Adam Shatz has
observed, the campaign against Ms. Schutz’s work contains an “implicit
disavowal that acts of radical sympathy, and imaginative identification, are
possible across racial lines.”
In order to convincingly include a troubled youth in his novel, Mark Salzman immersed himself in several young people’s lives. He allowed his heart to grow. And he, as a person, was changed. When he first began teaching, he saw those kids as the sort of bullies who’d harassed him when he was growing up. After a few years, he saw them as friends, many (if not all) of whom had been forced to endure more trauma as children than other people weather in a lifetime.
weren’t monsters, they were people. And
he found a way to write about them such that readers, too, would recognize
their shared humanity.
And perhaps, perhaps, feel outraged enough by his characters’ circumstances that readers, too, would work toward changing the world. Because the world is clearly in need of change. And empathy is the only force powerful enough to compel us to do it.
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.
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:
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.
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?
There’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.
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.
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.
“I heard there was, like, a car that runs on water … “
“Dude, no, there’ve been, like, six of them. But oil companies bought all the patents.”
A lot of the people who attend my poetry class in jail believe in freaky conspiracy theories. Somebody started telling me that the plots of various Berenstain Bears books are different from when he was a child, which is evidence that the universe bifurcated and that he’s now trapped in an alternate timeline from the path he was on before …
(New printings of some Berenstain Bears books really are different. Take Old Hat New Hat, a charming story about shopping and satisfaction: after the protagonist realizes that he prefers the old, beat-up hat he already owns to any of the newer, fancier models, a harried salesperson reacts with a mix of disgust and disbelieve. This scene has been excised from the board book version that you could buy today. Can’t have anything that tarnishes the joy of consumerism!)
I’ve written about conspiracy theories previously, but I think it’s worth re-iterating, in the interest of fairness, that the men in jail are correct when they assume that vast numbers of people are “breathing together” against them. Politicians, judges, police, corporate CEOs and more have cooperated to build a world in which men like my students are locked away. Not too long ago, it would have been fairly easy for them to carve out a meaningful existence, but advances in automation, the ease of international shipping, and changes to tax policy have dismantled the opportunities of the past.
Which means that I often find myself seriously debating misinterpretations of Hugh Everett’s “many worlds” theory (described midway through my essay, “Ashes”), or Biblical prophecies, or Jung-like burblings of the collective unconsciousness.
Or, last week, the existence of water cars.
In 2012, government officials from Pakistan announced that a local scientist had invented a process for using water as fuel. At the time, I was still running a webcomic – one week’s Evil Dave vs. Regular Dave focused on news of the invention.
When scientists argue that a water-powered car can’t exist, they typically reference the Second Law of Thermodynamics (also discussed in “Ashes”). The Second Law asserts that extremely unlikely events occur so rarely that you can safely assume their probability to be zero.
If something is disallowed by the Second Law, there’s nothing actually preventing it from happening. For an oversimplified example, imagine there are 10 molecules of a gas randomly whizzing about inside a box. The Second Law says that all 10 will never be traveling in the exact same direction at the same time. If they were, you’d get energy from nothing. They might all strike the north-facing wall at the same time, causing the box to move, instead of an equal number hitting the northern and southern facing walls.
But, just like flipping eight coins and seeing them all land heads, sometimes the above scenario will occur. It violates the Second Law, and it can happen. Perpetual motion machines can exist. They are just very, very rare. (Imagine a fraction where the denominator is a one followed by as many zeros as you could write before you die. That number will be bigger than the chance of a water-fueled car working for even several seconds.)
When chemists talk about fuel, they think about diagrams that look roughly like this:
The y axis on this graph is energy, and the x axis is mostly meaningless – here it’s labeled “reaction coordinate,” but you wouldn’t be so far off if you just think of it as time.
For a gasoline powered car, the term “reactants” refers to octane and oxygen. Combined, these have a higher amount of energy stored in their chemical bonds than an equivalent mass of the “products,” carbon dioxide and water, so you can release energy through combustion. The released energy moves your car forward.
And there’s a hill in the middle. This is generally called the “activation barrier” of the reaction. Basically, the universe thinks it’s a good idea to turn octane and oxygen into CO2 and H2O … but the universe is lazy. Left to its own devices, it can’t be bothered. Which is good – because this reaction has a high activation barrier, we rarely explode while refueling at the gas station.
Your car uses a battery to provide the energy needed to start this process, after which the energy of the first reaction can be used to activate the next. The net result is that you’re soon cruising the highway with nary a care, dribbling water from your tailpipe, pumping carbon into the air.
(Your car also uses a “catalyst” – this component doesn’t change how much energy you’ll extract per molecule of octane, but it lowers the height of the activation barrier, which makes it easier for the car to start. Maybe you’ve heard the term “cold fusion.” If we could harness a reaction combining hydrogen molecules to form helium, that would be a great source of power. Hydrogen fusion is what our sun uses. This reaction chucks out a lot of energy and has non-toxic byproducts.
But the “cold” part of “cold fusion” refers to the fact that, without a catalyst, this reaction has an extremely steep activation barrier. It works on the sun because hydrogen molecules are crammed together at high temperature and pressure. Something like millions of degrees. I personally get all sweaty and miserable at 80 degrees, and am liable to burn myself when futzing about near an oven at 500 degrees … I’d prefer not to drive a 1,000,000 degree hydrogen-fusion-powered automobile.)
With any fuel source, you can guess at its workings by comparing the energy of its inputs and outputs. Octane and oxygen have high chemical energies, carbon dioxide and water have lower energies, so that’s why your car goes forward. Our planet, too, can be viewed as a simple machine. High frequency (blue-ish) light streams toward us from the sun, then something happens here that increases the order of molecules on Earth, after which we release a bunch of low-frequency (red-ish) light.
(We release low-frequency “infrared” light as body heat – night vision goggles work by detecting this.)
Our planet is an order-creating machine fueled by changing the color of photons from the sun.
A water-fueled car is impractical because other molecules that contain hydrogen and oxygen have higher chemical energy than an equivalent mass of water. There’s no energy available for you to siphon away into movement.