On bread.

On bread.

In the King James version of Genesis, Adam and Eve began their lives as vegans.  They ate nuts and fruit.

16895519109_b0b8ea19eb_z (2)Then they ate Yahweh’s special fruit, so he expelled them from Eden.  Yahweh said, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.”  Adam and Eve would no longer live in a land of such abundance that they could survive on the raw produce of trees – instead, they’d have to cook bread.

And Yahweh rubs it in – even if you work hard, and procure food, and survive a while, still you will die.  You humans are mortal.

(To the other deities, Yahweh offers an aside: “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.”  Yahweh does not mention to the humans that their mortality was curable, His own doing, and His plan all along.)

In the beginning, bread was a curse.

752px-Odysseus_bei_den_LaestrygonenSoon, however, the Western world treated bread as a mark of civilization.

In The Odyssey, Odysseus and his crew sail to Laestrygonia.  Not knowing that the island is overrun by voracious giants who might slay and eat them, he asks who eats bread there.  In Emily Wilson’s new translation, he says:

I picked two men, and one slave as the third,

and sent them to find out what people lived

and ate bread in this land.

#

Bread is alchemy.  Flour and water and a speck of yeast aren’t enough to support a human life, but if you let yeast eat the flour, then bake it, suddenly you have a food that could nourish you for weeks.

In jail, meals are served with flimsy slices of airy white bread.  I’ve eaten one meal at our local jail – the guards let us stay for dinner with the men after class one week, just after one man’s partner was murdered.

(The trio charged with murder – a woman and two men – were incarcerated in that same jail.  The woman was placed into a holding cell adjacent to the dorm where the murdered woman’s partner lived.  He stayed up all night, shouting to her through the wall.  He was telling her to forgive herself.)

We received green beans, spaghetti, a slice of white bread, a cookie.  To drink, our choice of milk or sweet tea.  I’ve been told that our jail has better food than almost any other.

If you fold your spaghetti into the bread, they told me, you get to have a taco.

#

When we incarcerate people in this country, we force them to find ingenious ways to deal with deprivation.  Demetrius Cunningham built a practice piano out of cardboard.  In Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water, she describes the jerry-rigged water heaters common at Attica Prison.

At the end of our poetry class recently, a man showed me his ear gauge, a round disc of purple and green.

“I’m surprised they let you keep it,” I said.

“They didn’t.  It’s bread.”

“What?”

toast-74375_1280“Bread.  I made it here.”  He popped it out to show me – it wasn’t quite as shiny as the stuff you’d see on Etsy, but otherwise looked just as nice.  “While I been in, I must’ve went from a quarter inch to, what’s this, over an inch?”

“Bread,” I said, shaking my head.  I felt hesitant to touch it.

“I been making all sorts of things.  You need bread, and some pencil shavings, colored pencil, you know?  I been making flowers, little sea turtles.  I made a whole lot of flowers.  Gifts for people, when I get out.  It’s like therapy.  While I’m making them, gives me something to think about, you know?  It helps. Keeps the mind busy.”

The next week he brought a few of his sculptures to class.  The flowers were incredible, each an inch or two tall, with green stem and leaves, petals in blue and purple.  His sea turtle was only a quarter inch across and intricately detailed.  Like netsuke, except …

“Bread?” I asked him again.

“Yup,” he said, leaning back in his chair.

220px-Robert_Martinson,_Freedom_Rider,_1961.jpgI’d previously read about Robert Martinson making a chess set from bread, but I’d assumed the pieces would look gross.  In “Solidarity under Close Confinement,” Martinson wrote about his experience being incarcerated for 40 days with the Freedom Riders in the 1960s.  He reported that “chess sets and objets d’art could be molded from paste made from chewed bread and dried in the ventilator I gloated over a tiny nest of buttons, string, chicken bones, and chess pieces – an affection I now find difficult to remember.

Martinson was appalled by what incarceration does to people: “Of course, the persons we had become in our cells were difficult, boring things.”  After his release, he studied prisons, hoping that the way we punish people could be made less awful.  He was hired by the state of New York to address recidivism: did any type of programming reduce criminal behavior by ex-felons?

As described in Terry Kupers’s essay “How to Create Madness in Prison” (published in Hell Is a Very Small Place):

51iuyKezuuL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgA turning point occurred with the publication of Robert Martinson’s 1974 essay, “What Works?  Questions and Answers about Prison Reform.”  Martinson ran some numbers and announced that rehabilitation programs have no positive effect on recidivism rates.  This was the research that conservative pundits and politicians had been waiting for, and they made Martinson famous as they legislated a drastic turn from rehabilitation to harsher punishments.

With calls to “stop coddling” prisoners, prison education programs were slashed, weights were removed from the yards, the quality of prison food declined, prisoners were deprived of materials for arts and crafts, and so forth.

Even though Martinson really should have realized that this would be the consequence of his publication (and subsequent speaking tour), he was devastated.  After all, he was a firm believer in social justice.  He had risked his life to join the Freedom Riders.  He began to study incarceration because he hoped to improve prisoners lives.  As a result of his research, he’d written that prisons “cannot be reformed and must be gradually torn down.”

That’s not what happened.  Instead, we started sending more people to prison, and made the prisons worse.

Which is why Martinson soon recanted his findings.  It was true that the education and counseling offered in prisons weren’t very effective at staving off future crime.  It was also true that the education and counseling offered in prisons were terrible.

If the available “education” is just a guard and some textbooks, is it surprising that few people are rehabilitated by it?  What about counseling – with untrained counselors told to do “whatever they thought best” during five or so short meetings with their patients each year?

Nobody cared about Martinson’s 1979 publication, “A Note of Caution Regarding Sentencing Reform,” in which he apologized for flaws in his earlier work.  By then, the punitive reformers had already gotten what they wanted: a lefty intellectual arguing that nothing works and so prisons should be cheap and miserable.

Martinson was horrified by the damage he’d wrought.  That same year, he committed suicide – in front of his teenage son, he leapt from the window of their ninth story apartment.

On radical religious terrorists targeting the United States.

On radical religious terrorists targeting the United States.

I was named after the doctor who delivered me, a friend of my father’s from medical school.

51EoHkd8RcL._SX434_BO1,204,203,200_Dr. Curtis is a gynecologist who has written several popular books about pregnancy.  When a woman asked for a tubal ligation after her tenth delivery (two of her children had died in infancy, but by then she was raising eight, ranging in age from a high school sophomore to her newborn), he performed the surgery.

This woman’s husband had given his grudging permission before she came in, but he later decided that irreversible sterilization must be against the will of God.  He began to harass Dr. Curtis.  He convinced his wife that she had done an evil thing.  The couple became so distraught that the hospital forgave their medical bills, hoping to stave off litigation.

This angry man never did bring a lawsuit against Dr. Curtis or the hospital.  Instead, he convinced his wife to give him back his guns – she’d hidden them as his rants became increasingly vitriolic.  But she caved.

Fully armed, he drove to the hospital, planted enough dynamite to level half a block, and stormed inside to find the doctor.  Dr. Curtis noticed him, called the police, and left.  The angry man took hostages – nurses, mothers with infants, pregnant women – whom he threatened at gunpoint as he searched the hospital.

One of these hostages – a recently-hired nurse – saw an opportunity to wrest his gun away.  She pulled the shotgun from his hands and ran.  He pulled out another gun and shot her in the back, killing her.

Three hours into the crisis, one woman delivered her baby – the newborn began life as a hostage.  Fifteen hours into the crisis, the police had found the dynamite and began to negotiate.  The angry man wanted the police to escort his wife and Dr. Curtis into the hospital, so that he could murder Dr. Curtis in front of her.

The police declined this offer.

alta view.PNG
Movie poster from a film made about the incident.

Eighteen hours into the crisis, the angry man surrendered.  He was taken to jail and charged with murder – the nurse he’d shot in the back – amidst other crimes.  He took a plea for thirty-five years because the prosecutors said they’d seek the death penalty.

In jail, he extolled the other inmates with his virtues.  He was better than them, he said.  His plan was righteous.

The other inmates beat the shit out of him.  Repeatedly.  It seems they had a difference of opinion as to who was better than whom.

The angry man tried repeatedly to escape.  He was transferred from state to state – he’d be transferred after altercations with fellow inmates, botched escapes, and suicide attempts.  During one of the botched escapes, he fell from a fence and broke both his legs.

His lawyers recommended an appeal – he was not in his right mind when he pled guilty, they said.  That much I agree with, I suppose.  I’m not sure he was ever in his right mind.  But I think it’s likely he would have attempted murder again if he was released.

Shortly before his appeal hearing, he succeeded in breaking his own neck with a sheet tied to the wall with shoelaces.  (Inmates at Bloomington’s jail wear lace-less orange crocks.  Less risk of suicide that way … although there have still been several in the past few years.  Jail is a miserable place to be.)

It’s not clear to me how a tubal ligation could be against God’s will but suicide was fine.  Maybe the angry man knew that his logic was faulty.  His defense attorney said that “One of his biggest regrets is that they didn’t kill him at Alta View Hospital.”  Just like the members of ISIS, Christian terrorists would rather lose their lives in action.

This country has a long history of Christian terrorism.  Numerous seemingly respectable people support the murder of doctors who enable women’s right to choose when to have children.  In Danny Davis’s The Phinehas Priesthood: violent vanguard of the Christian Identity movement, he writes that:

61NK-8V3GdLMany Christians will be surprised to discover that similar beliefs and moral values are present in the Identity worldview.  In some denominations, the only initial difference will appear when the idea of a biological Israelite heritage to present day European Anglo-Saxons is seen.

These terrorists believe that human life begins when a sperm cell fuses with an egg to form a zygote with a full compliment of chromosomes.  Given this belief, they think that abortion is murder – especially later in a pregnancy, when the developing fetus begins to look like a miniature human.  Because a gynecologist might perform several abortions each day, they believe that God would want them to murder the doctor.

(Human life does not begin at conception.  A large number of zygotes – probably between fifteen and twenty percent, but possibly higher since women do not always realize that they ever were pregnant – will self-abort due to chromosomal abnormalities.  Also, although most miscarriages are caused by blameless genetic problems, the rate of miscarriage is higher in women who are overweight.  Why do Christian terrorists not target McDonald’s?  Their food probably terminates more pregnancies than any gynecologist.)

mcds
Obesity & ill health terminate pregnancies, but I’ve never seen pro-lifers protesting at McDonald’s.

Davis also writes that:

In his book, Mix My Blood with the Blood of the Unborn, Paul Hill details his public defense of anti-abortion shooters Michael Griffin and Shelley Shannon.  Shortly after Griffin’s attack Hill penned a very articulate letter “describing such murders as ‘justifiable homicide.’ ”  In the same letter he gave his Biblical reasons against abortion and explained the need for “Phineas actions” to protect the unborn.

Christian theology has a long tradition of defending awful behavior that supposedly fulfills the will of God.  In Fear and Trembling, nineteenth century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard writes (translated by Walter Lowrie):

KierkegaardIt is now my intention to draw out from the story of Abraham the dialectical consequences inherent in it, expressing them in the form of problemata, in order to see what a tremendous paradox faith is, a paradox which is capable of transforming a murder into a holy act well-pleasing to God, a paradox which gives Isaac back to Abraham, which no thought can master, because faith begins precisely there where thinking leaves off.

Fear and Trembling has the beginnings of a lovely work of philosophy.  I have always enjoyed Kierkegaard’s description of the sort of person he considers second best in the world, the knight of infinite resignation.  This sort of person, according to Kierkegaard, accepts that our efforts are guaranteed to be fruitless – Camus would later argue that this is true of all of us, since we are all guaranteed to die, and eventually humans will go extinct, the universe will become a frozen void, and all trace of our existence will have dissolved into an entropic nothing – but doesn’t stop striving even when though failure is inevitable.

[The knight of infinite resignation] does not give up his [doomed] love, not for all the glory of the world.  He is no fool.  First he makes sure that this really is the content of his life, and his soul is too healthy and too proud to squander the least thing upon an inebriation.  He is not cowardly, he is not afraid of letting love creep into his most secret, his most hidden thoughts, to let it twine in innumerable coils about every ligament of his consciousness – if the love becomes an unhappy love, he will never be able to tear himself loose from it.

That’s great, Kierkegaard!  But then why would you also write that “The paradox of faith is this, that the individual is higher than the universal”?  Abraham does not need your defense.  Whatever he believed God to have said, stabbing your son is wrong.

According to the King James translation of the Bible,

Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.

And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.

Because Abraham believed it was God’s will, he was ready to murder.  And so set Kierkegaard off on his convoluted reasonings, arguing that when the faithful believe themselves to be fulfilling the will of God, their vile actions should be seen as righteous.

Oops.

At least the story of Abraham ends with the man refraining from murder.  Not so the story of Phinehas, patron saint of violent white supremacists.  In this story, God was angry because the Israelites were marrying foreigners, which might lead them to eventually abandon their religious traditions.  Rather than let them drift away, God figured he should smite his chosen people.  But Phinehas patched things up with God by murdering.

Again from the King James translation:

holy-670718_1280And, behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, who were weeping before the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.

And when Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose up from among the congregation, and took a javelin in his hand;

And he went after the man of Israel into the tent, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly.  So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel.

And those that died in the plague were twenty and four thousand.

And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,

Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned my wrath away from the children of Israel, while he was zealous for my sake among them, that I consumed not the children of Israel in my jealousy.

Wherefore say, Behold, I give unto him my covenant of peace:

And he shall have it, and his seed after him, even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was zealous for his God, and made an atonement for the children of Israel.

In the United States, Christian terrorists have referenced the story of Phinehas to justify murder.  In Matthias Gardell’s Gods of the Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Separatism, he writes that:

31m-sWuKYQL._BO1,204,203,200_.jpgIn 1990, hardcore Identity ideologue Richard Kelly Hoskins suggested that individual zealots could atone for Israel’s transgressions by assassinating homosexuals, interracial couples, and prostitutes.  Hoskins believed such zealots belonged to an underground tradition of racial purists, the Phineas Priesthood, and traced its history into antiquity.

After all, most of the Bible does depict Yahweh as a bloodthirsty god.  Yahweh himself murders a lot of people.  He was initially worshiped with animal sacrifice.  And he has a chilling disregard for the lives of women and children – in the story of Job, for instance, his wife and children are killed, but all is made right again when Job receives a new, better wife and new, better children.  These people are simply possessions, and only Job’s suffering has moral weight.

And this book is supposed to be the wellspring of American values?

On psychedelic drugs as medicine.

On psychedelic drugs as medicine.

We are creatures of habit.

learning_to_walk_by_pushing_wheeled_toyLife would be excruciating if we were not.  Can you imagine: consciously remembering to breathe every few seconds?  Concentrating with the intensity of a toddler each time you stand and walk across a room?  Carefully considering the rules of grammar and conjugation when you stop to ask someone for directions?

Our brains zip through so much unconsciously.  Most of us can drift into reverie while driving and still go through all the motions correctly, stopping at red lights, making the appropriate turns, our mind set on autopilot.

We live, and we learn, and our brains constantly change – neurons reach out to form synaptic connections to one another.  Other connections wilt away.  The resultant network determines who we are.  More precisely, the pattern of connections determines which thoughts we are good at having.  Thoughts we’ve thunk before come easily.

But our propensity for habit can hijack our lives.  In David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, viewers of the highly-addictive titular film are unable to think of anything but watching it again.  One taste and you’re hooked!

otto_wegener_vers_1895_2Or, in an example closer to most humans’ experience, Marcel Proust writes of the way our shared experience with a lost love causes the brain to ache each time a similar experience must be forded alone.  Over and over we hurt: going to sleep alongside her was a habit.  Chatting in the evening was a habit.  Walking to the store hand in hand was a habit.  The brain is still wired such that it could effortlessly zip through these tasks, but… she is gone.

In an example that is – unfortunately! – increasingly relevant today, William Burroughs writes that powerful opiates do not hook users right away.  It takes many recurrent episodes to rewire the brain.  In his (overly cavelier) words:

4306771895_1eda6d6e9d_z
Painting by Christiaan Tonnis.

The question is frequently asked: Why does a man become a drug addict?

The answer is that he usually does not intend to become an addict.  You don’t wake up one morning and decide to be a drug addict.  It takes at least three months’ shooting twice a day to get any habit at all.  And you don’t really know that junk sickness is until you have had several habits.  It took me almost six months to get my first habit, and then the withdrawal symptoms were mild.  I think it no exaggeration to say it takes about a year and several hundred injections to make an addict.

. . .

You don’t decide to be an addict.  One morning you wake up sick and you’re an addict.

And then, depression.  To perceive the world a shade darker than it ought to be comes easily… to someone who is depressed.  A depressed person’s brain has been rewired through perhaps a lifetime of rumination and pain.  Suicidal ideation gets easier and easier and easier… unless it goes too far, and then it becomes impossible.  Dead matter doesn’t think.

thenightmare
The Nightmare by John Henry Fuseli.

Cognitive behavioral therapy attempts to use the brain’s own habit-forming capabilities to battle depression.  Because today’s depressed thoughts enable tomorrow’s depression, a conscious effort to find joy and beauty today could ease tomorrow’s struggle.  Phrases like “virtuous cycle” are bandied about.

My wife, each evening, asks me to list four good things that happened during the day; if we forget the ritual through a harried week or two, it’s difficult to start again.  I lay in bed, pondering, “What was good about the day?”  Which should always be easy.  I have two loving children whom I am graced to spend time with.  I am not in jail.  I have a warm, safe place to sleep.  I have enough to eat.  I live near phenomenal libraries.

But the habit of depression digs the mind into a rut.

lsd-clinical-trial-bottleWhich has caused several researchers to wonder, “Would cognitive behavioral therapy work better if a patient could be jolted out of the rut first, then trained in a new virtuous cycle?”  We have access to several potent chemicals that wrest the brain out of its routines.  Psychedelic drugs like lysergic acid diethyl amide, dimethyl tryptamine, and psilocin are powerful beasts.

Which is not to say that, if you’re feeling sad, you should go find that raver dude you know and ask what he’s holding.  For one thing, most psychedelics are illegal in the United States.  This contributes to the dearth of high-quality clinical information about their uses – obtaining permission to run clinical trials with Schedule I compounds is difficult, and drugs can’t be downgraded from Schedule I status without reams of data from clinical trials.  Nonsensical bureaucracy at its best!

Plus, high-quality clinical trials must control for the placebo effect – neither patients nor doctors should know whether an individual is receiving the treatment or a control.  But I’m guessing most recipients recognize the difference between an injection of DMT or saline.  Did your visual field suddenly fragment into geometric patterns?  Did you feel an out-of-body sensation akin to alien abduction?  Did your memories begin to unfold like interlocking matryoshka-doll puzzle boxes?  Those are sensations I rarely experience from salt water.

LauretaAnd the sheer power of psychedelic drugs also makes them dangerous.  Dr. Lauretta Bender, whose least harmful contribution to science was the idea that emotional disturbances could be diagnosed by asking a child to reproduce pictures of geometric shapes, assumed that LSD would cure autism.  If she’d been right, this sort of baseless cognitive leap would’ve been heralded as brilliance.  She injected large doses into the muscles of children as young as five.  Daily.  When that “cure” proved insufficient, she combined it with electroconvulsive therapy: high currents to overwhelm their little brains.

Enforced acid trips in nightmarish environs of total control can ruin lives.

Especially since Dr. Bender was diagnosing autism in routinely-abused orphans based on symptoms like “avoids eye contacts” and “difficulty forming trusting relationships.”

5009548522_6701801dcb_oAcid trips can end lives, too.  At least one involuntary research subject ensnared in the CIA’s efforts to use LSD as mind-control reagent committed suicide.  And there are innumerable horror stories of murders committed by people mired in psychedelic trips.  Then again, most murders are committed by people who haven’t taken psychedelics.  In Ronald Siegel’s Intoxication he writes that:

Many bad trips are a function of personality; not everybody is a good subject for a mind-altering experience.  And even experienced users can have a bad day.  … Harold, a veteran of one thousand LSD trips, wanted to volunteer to be a psychonaut but he had a history of violence, both on and off the drug.  “Ever since I was small,” confessed Harold, “I go ape when I’m bothered.”

.. [a grim description of Harold murdering two hikers outside Santa Barbara in 1984 follows.  Yes, Harold had “drank some beer, smoked a little marijuana, and swallowed a few amphetamine tablets along with a full dose of LSD.”  But he’d also “been bothered by financial problems.  He was passing bad checks and had failed to make child-support payments to his ex-wife.”  So I’m not sure the drugs were at the root of his malaise.]

Cases like Harold’s tend to confuse the issue of intoxication and violence.  Violent people are often intoxicated but the violence is usually rooted in the personality, not the drug.  . . . What seems difficult for us to understand is that despite overt behaviors, the subjective experience can still be fun.  In other words, one’s inner feelings and sensations can be under the influence but such influence may not extend to outside acts in the real world that remain chillingly sober.  This is most difficult to accept if users are obviously intoxicated when they commit criminal acts.  The subjective intoxication can remain an enjoyable experience, despite our desire to blame the fires inside for the destruction outside.

Used incorrectly, psychedelic drugs are awful.  They disrupt habits, seeming to dissolve the mental filters that allow humans to function despite constant bombardment by thoughts and memories and myriad sensations from the world.  This newfound wonderment & reset can help, of course, but for someone in a bad place, it can be horrible.

mdma1Then again, for someone with post-traumatic stress disorder, the world might be horrible already – even if the chance that psychedelics could help were low, they’d be worth investigating.  Thankfully, the FDA finally granted permission for a trial to be run on the use of methylene dioxy methamphetamine (ecstasy – when I was a TA for undergraduate organic chemistry at Stanford, I wrote most of the quizes.  After they learned about acetal protection of ketones, all 200 or so pre-meds wrote out a partial synthesis for MDMA.  The reactants and products were unnamed, so I don’t think the students or the other TAs noticed) to treat PTSD .

In other experiments, LSD and psilocin seem to help terminal cancer patients overcome depression.  Ayahuasca is also being tested as a treatment for depression and those seeking to quit substance abuse (peyote has long been used for the latter), although these studies are far from the FDA clinical ideal.

Many people, as they live, drift into routine and no longer consider the implications of their actions.  I’m well aware that drugs can wreck lives, but sometimes we need a jolt.  I wish people weren’t shunted to jail for drug addiction – and obviously the dudes in there wish they were almost anywhere else – but a surprising number are grateful that something interrupted their habits.  Junkies don’t want to look back on a wasted life, either.

pills-750x400I’m not super keen on the rich & entitled using psychedelics for fun & games, and psychedelics certainly should not be used often.  But these molecules, treated respectfully, can heal damaged lives.

Even in the ostensibly healthy, psychedelics can do good.  Does the way you choose to spend your time benefit the world?

On self-immolation.

On self-immolation.

A lovely young woman from my home town died recently.  Another suicide.  Recent college graduate, Fulbright scholar, compassionate, and sufficiently clever that no one realized the pain she was in.  My wife has the good fortune of working with many wonderful students, but it’s awful that some of the best & brightest pour their all into making sure that no one knows to offer help.

I try to be upfront with people — especially the young students I volunteer with — about the workings of my own mind.  That my own mind is wired such that the world often looks bleak.

depression_by_thecruelone-d48z40t
Depression by sensum on Deviantart.

Part of the misery of growing up with depression, after all, is the mistaken assumption that you alone are broken.  Most people you see from day to day are either not sick that way, or have found ways to accommodate their troubles.  Otherwise you wouldn’t be seeing them out & about!  This is the same reason perusing social media often makes us feel worse about our own lives.  There is “positive selection bias.”  People chose to post pictures and experiences that make themselves look good, and the algorithms choosing what lands at the top of somebody’s feed aggravate the problem.  Other people are getting married, running marathons, cavorting on the beach, birthing beautiful babies!  And nobody’s clicking “like” for your kid’s screaming tantrum video on a day you got sacked.

In my writing, I try to address the philosophical problem of suicide in a non-hokey yet life-affirming way.  It’s true, there is a lot of pain inherent in being alive.  Watching a toddler cry while teething triggers in me a panoramic vision of generations upon generations of teary-eyed kids who’ve suffered the same.  And for secular, science-y types, there isn’t even an externally-imposed meaning to life that would make all that suffering seem necessary.

If things get bad enough, then, yes, the idea of nothing might sound like a step up.  This is described in a darkly comic passage about optimism from Primo Levi’s If This Is a ManAnd I think it’s important to remember, when reading this, that Levi pressed on until he was quite old.  Knowing that he could end things gave him the strength he needed to persevere:

Primo_LeviIt is lucky that it is not windy today.  Strange, how in some way one always has the impression of being fortunate, how some chance happening, perhaps infinitesimal, stops us crossing the threshold of despair and allows us to live.  It is raining, but it is not windy.  Or else, it is raining and is also windy: but you know that this evening it is your turn for the supplement of soup, so that even today you find the strength to reach the evening.  Or it is raining, windy, and you have the usual hunger, and then you think that if you really had to, if you really felt nothing in your heart but suffering and tedium — as sometimes happens, when you really seem to lie on the bottom — well, even in that case, at any moment you want you could always go and touch the electric wire-fence, or throw yourself under the shunting trains, and then it would stop raining.

Knowing Levi’s history — the fact that, despite all the horrors he’d seen during the Holocaust, he did choose to live, adds power to the final phrase.  He didn’t need to stop the rain.  He needed only hope, the knowledge that the rain could be stopped.

Knowing about David Foster Wallace’s life is also what adds so much power — the other way — to my favorite passage from The Pale King.  I love the accountant’s description of heroism; if you’re interested, I’ve written about it here.

Given our world, I imagine I’d feel compelled to write about suicide even if I personally did not suffer from depression.  The death rate in the United States is rising, largely driven by acts of self violence… and that’s even if you consider our epidemics of suicide and drug overdose as separate phenomena.  There’s a compelling argument to be made that these stem from the same root causes, in which case the problem seems even more dire.

The risk isn’t distributed equally.  Like the beloved young woman from the introduction to this essay, suicide takes many of our best and brightest.  It also claims the lives of many who’ve already made tremendous sacrifices on our behalf — the suicide rate among returning veterans is heartbreaking.  We, as a people, are doing far too little to help them.  I’ll include more about this next week when I write about David Means’s Hystopia.

51PqvC8KySL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgI found myself thinking about the problem of suicide — again — while reading Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus.  Her poetry powerfully investigates racial and gendered violence, but I was struck by a strange allusion she chose for “On the Road to Sri Bhuvaneshwari.”  Lewis watches as a buffalo is forced to sniff her stillborn calf during a trip to India, then parallels this tragedy with her own venture into motherhood years later.  Given that my own family is expecting another child, it was a scary poem to read.

The lines about suicide come early in the poem.  Here Lewis is being driven around Uttar Pradesh, a state in northern India.  She will visit a temple celebrating one of the fallen fragments of Shiva’s wife — according to myth, pieces of her body were scattered during Shiva’s grieving, and the sites where they fell became sacred:

I sit behind the driver, admiring

          his cinnamon fingers, his coiffed white beard,

                   his pale pink turban wrapped so handsomely.

                             Why did it take all that?

I mean, why did She have to jump

          into the celestial fire

                   to prove her purity?

                             Shiva’s cool — poisonous, blue,

a shimmering galaxy —

          but when it came to His Old Lady,

                   man, He fucked up!

                             Why couldn’t He just believe Her?

I joke with the driver.  We laugh.

This is such a strange passage because Lewis, who has a master’s degree in Sanskrit and comparative religious literature, is substituting the suicide of Sita, Rama or Vishnu’s wife, with that of Sati, Shiva’s wife.  In a book about racial violence, this is a striking reversal.

To a rough approximation, Shiva is most often venerated by darker-skinned Indians, people who have suffered racially-motivated injustice at the hands of lighter-skinned north Indians.  Shiva is often depicted as an exceedingly grungy god — he chills in cemeteries, his hair is tangled in dreadlocks, he believes in austere living.  In mythology, one of Shiva’s most famous worshipers is Ravana, the scholarly vegetarian south Indian king who is the villain of the Ramayana.

Kalighat_Shiva_mourns_SatiAccording to mythology, Shiva’s wife did commit suicide.  Although Sati loved Shiva, her family thought he was beneath them.  He lived like a dirty hippie!  They didn’t want that grunge-ball to come visiting.  And so, when Sati’s family threw a big party, they didn’t invite Sati or her husband.  Sati, ashamed that her family would slight the man she loved, committed suicide.

This isn’t a story about which you’d write “Why couldn’t He just believe Her?”

But Sita’s suicide?  She was married to Rama, a north Indian prince, but then Ravana, angry that Rama had assaulted Ravana’s sister, kidnapped Sita in retribution.  Rama then gathered an army of monkeys and went with them to destroy the south Indian kingdom.  If you think of The Iliad, you’ve got the basic gist.

Sita lept into the flames because her husband, after rescuing her, considered her tarnished by rape.  Because she had lived away from him, she was no longer fit to be his wife.

3654539475_6185d49e9d_o
From Sita Sings the Blues.

Here’s Rama’s reunion with his wife:

          As he gazed upon [Sita], who stood so meekly beside him, Rama began to speak, as rage simmered in his heart:

          “So here you are, my good woman.  I have won you back after conquering my enemy in battle.  Whatever there was to be done through manly valor, I have now accomplished.

          “I have wiped clean the affront, and so my wrath is appeased.  For I have eliminated both the insult and my enemy at the same time.

          “Today, my manly valor has been witnessed.  Today my efforts have borne fruit.  Today, having fulfilled my vow here, I am once more master of myself.

          “You were carried off by that wanton [Ravana] when you were left alone, but now, through manly action, I have expunged that affront brought about by fate.

          “What human purpose can man serve if his spirit is so feeble that he will not wipe clean through his own blazing energy an insult he has received?

          “The leaping of the ocean and the razing of [the South Indian kingdom]–today those praiseworthy deeds of [Hanuman, the most powerful monkey,] have borne fruit.

          “Today, through their valor in battle and their beneficial counsel to me, the efforts of [the monkey king] and his army have borne fruit as well.

          “And the efforts of [a south Indian defector], who abandoned his evil brother and came to me of his own accord, have likewise borne fruit.”

          As Rama was saying these words in that fashion, Sita, wide-eyed like a doe, was overcome with tears.

          But as Rama gazed upon her, his anger flared up once more, like the raging flame of a blazing fire drenched with melted butter.

          Knitting his brows on his forehead and glancing at her from the corner of his eye, he spoke harshly to Sita there in the midst of the monkeys and raksasas.

          “In wiping away this affront, Sita, I have accomplished all that a man could do.  In my wrath, I have won you back from the hands of my enemy, just as, through his austerities, the contemplative sage Agastya won back the southern lands that had been inaccessible to all living beings.

          “Bless you, but let it be understood that it was not on your account that I undertook the effort of this war, now brought to completion through the valor of my allies.

          “Instead, I did all this in order to protect my reputation and in every way to wipe clean the insult and disgrace to my illustrious lineage.

          “Since, however, your virtue is now in doubt, your presence has become as profoundly disagreeable to me as is a bright lamp to a man afflicted with a disease of the eye.

          “Go, therefore, as you please, [Sita].  You have my permission.  Here are the ten directions.  I have no further use for you, my good woman.

          “For what powerful man born in a respectable family–his heart tinged with affection–would take back a woman who had lived in the house of another man?

          “How could I who boast of my noble lineage possibly take you back–just risen from Ravana’s lap and gazed upon by his lustful eye?

          “I have recovered my reputation, and that is the purpose for which I won you back.  I do not love you anymore.  Go hence wherever you like.”

(Note: I replaced the term “raksasa,” occasionally, with “south Indian.”  This isn’t entirely accurate.  The word “raksasa” is often translated into English as “ogre,” a race of fantastical shape-shifting creatures, and it would be foolhardy to believe that there is a literal correspondence between this myth and prehistorical events like the conquest of south India by invaders from the north.  But I’m of the belief that it would be equally foolhardy to believe there is no connection between mythology and real-world events.  If you’d like to see the original Sanskrit text of this scene, it’s available here, and my previous essay touching upon the racial implications of the canonical Ramayana is here.)

In traditional mythology, Shiva’s wife did not commit suicide after claiming to be pure and being disbelieved by her husband.  That was Sita.  The wife of the light-skinned oppressor, not, as Lewis alludes, the wife of the dark-skinned oppressed people’s god.

(Another note: according to the myth, Sita survived jumping into the fire — it refused to burn her because she was pure at heart.  Rather than launch into an analogy comparing this to the tests used during the Salem witchcraft trials, I’ll just say that she was briefly accepted back by her husband, then kicked out again, and successfully committed suicide several years later by leaping into a temporary crevasse.)

I agree that the story of Sita’s suicide is more powerful.  Even now, here in the United States, one reason so few sexual assaults are reported is because many victims feel ashamed.  There is a fear that friends, family, and lovers will consider a victim of sexual assault to be damaged.  Tarnished.  Many victims fear that others’ reactions will only aggravate the initial trauma.

They’re often right.  Look what happened to Sita.

Agni_pariksha

It’s unlikely that this underreporting problem will go away until prevailing attitudes about sexuality change.  And, yes, even now the victims of sexual assault are at much higher risk of suicide.

Which, if you’re thinking about it: please wait.  Talk to somebody.  The world’s not perfect.  But it gets better.

On Simon Critchley’s ‘Memory Theater’ and other people’s lost time.

On Simon Critchley’s ‘Memory Theater’ and other people’s lost time.

Memory is fascinating.  It’s incredible that mere patterns of linkages could cause a past experience to overwhelm us.  And we remember so much — most people seem able to vividly recall occurrences from a wide variety of times throughout their lives.

unnamed (8)I’ve written a few posts about memory previously (here, here, and here), and so was obviously excited when I saw an advertisement for Simon Critchley’s new book Memory Theater.  In addition to my fascination with neuroscientists’ efforts to understand memory, futurists’ efforts to reproduce it, and therapists’ efforts to re-color it, I’ve always loved writers’ efforts to understand the workings of their own minds.  Because memory is so difficult to appreciate from outside someone’s head, hearing someone’s description of what memory feels like is still one of the best ways to understand the phenomenon.  Proust is still mentioned quite frequently in neuroscience reviews.

Critchley’s book also appeared as though it would address the workings of our minds.  The basic plot is simple enough.  A philosopher receives boxes full of a friend’s old notes after that friend’s death.  The notes contain both musings on memory and, alarmingly, a set of charts, one of which predicts the date of the philosopher’s own impending demise.

unnamed (1)

Reading the description of a box full of occult astrological charts, I couldn’t help but think of the “Jimmerson Spiral” from Charles Portis’s Masters of Atlantis.  A lovely book, Masters of Atlantis, featuring an incredibly unreflective man named Lamar Jimmerson who starts a cult in the United States after being scammed in Europe.  A grifter named Robert sold him a specious pamphlet about an exciting new religious order, the Gnomon, and, after failing to find higher leadership in the order, Lamar assumes that he himself might be regent.  He returns to the U.S., spreads the order, and embellishes the cult with his own speculations… including the idea that fate can be predicted based on a diagram he deems the “Jimmerson Spiral.”  The book is full of wry humor, very understated, like in this early passage:

unnamedThe Armistice came and many of the doughboys set up a clamor to be sent home at once, though not Corporal Jimmerson, who remained loyally at his switchboard.  He even volunteered to stay behind and help with all the administrative mopping-up tasks, so as to replenish his savings.  In May 1919, he received his discharge in Paris, and went immediately to Marseilles and got deck passage on a mail boat to the island of Malta.

On arrival in Valletta he took a room at a cheap waterfront hotel called the Gregale.  He then set out in search of the Gnomon Temple and his Gnomon brothers.  He walked the streets looking at faces, looking for Robert, and clambered about on the rocky slopes surrounding the gray city that sometimes looked brown.  He talked to taxicab drivers.  They professed to know nothing.  No one at the post office could help.  He managed to get an appointment with the secretary to the island’s most famous resident, the Grand Master of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, but the fellow said he had never heard of Gnomons or Gnomonry and that the Grand Master could not be bothered with casual inquiries.

Lamar found three Rosenbergs and one Pappus in Valletta, none of whom would admit to being Master of Gnomons or Perfect Adept of Hermetical Science.  He tried each of them a second time, appearing before them silently on this occasion, wearing his Poma and flashing the Codex.  He greeted them with various Gnomon salutes–with his arms crossed, with his right hand grasping his left wrist, with his hands at his sides and the heel of his right foot forming a T against the instep of his left foot.  At last in desperation he removed his Poma and clasped both hands atop his head, his arms making a kind of triangle.  This was the sign for “Need assistance” and was not to be used lightly, Robert had told him.  But Pappus and the Rosenbergs only turned away in fright or disgust.

Was he being too direct?  A man who wishes to become a Freemason must himself take the initiative; his membership cannot be solicited.  With Gnomonry, as Robert had explained, it was just the reverse.  A man must be invited into the order; he must be bidden to approach the Master.  Perhaps he was being too pushy.  He must be patient.  He must wait.

In addition to Masters of Atlantis, I often found myself thinking of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and Thomas Bernhard’s Correction.  Sebald’s work came to mind due to the discursive nature of Critchley’s text: in addition to passages describing events as they occur in the narrator’s temporal frame of reference, we read about philosophy, philosophers, musicians, and the narrator’s own past.

Thomas Bernhard’s Correction is alluded to throughout.  The protagonist of Correction is similarly tasked with understanding a misguided construction project from the scattered notes remaining after a friend’s suicide.  Indeed, both Correction and Memory Theater build toward the idea that perfection and cessation are inextricably linked.  And both use interesting stylistic devices to convey a sense of madness to the reader.  In Correction, there’s a disorienting propensity for repetition, as though the ideas and even sentences themselves are being worked over again and again in search of some platonic ideal.  In Memory Theater, Critchley conveys mental duress through his liberal use of choppy sentence fragments; when these work well, the effect is quite striking:

I went to see a psychiatrist with psychoanalytic sympathies on the Upper East Side.  Expensive.  Platitudinous.  Useless.  He suggested hospitalization and prescribed antipsychotic drugs.

The protagonist of Memory Theater becomes obsessed with building an edifice to physically embody his memories.  He invents symbols to represent everything he knows and uses these symbols to decorate figurines within a small chapel.  Sitting inside, he feels that he can slowly move his gaze through the building and recollect everything he knows.

image (3)

Clearly a foolhardy proposition.  The fascinating thing about how much we remember is that it would take reams and reams of text to describe the same set of information stored by our neurons.  In that tiny lump of fatty flesh.  The theater built by Critchley’s protagonist obviously can’t convey the contents of his mind to anyone else, and it couldn’t even stir his own remembrance of everything he knows.  He only built figurines to represent the memories he was able to consciously recall.  If someone gave him a relic from his past, much more might swell forth unbidden.  Memories he hadn’t even realized he still had.

Those relics are fascinating.  Such small objects.  And yet immense, sprawling narratives might be hidden by each.

unnamed (8)
I couldn’t find an image of #6, so here’s #18 instead.

For instance, a prisoner recently requested that I send a book of photography.  I looked through our inventory and pulled The Best of Photojournalism 6 for him.  Then began flipping through the pages: the prisoner’s facility, in addition to disallowing hardcover books and anything with spiral bindings, won’t let me send pornography.  The Best of Photojournalism 6 certainly didn’t sound pornographic, but I figured a guard might flip through and check for racy photographs, which meant that, if I wanted to make sure the package didn’t get returned, I ought to too.

I didn’t notice anything overly scandalous, just a photograph that’d been used to illustrate a magazine article on peeping toms.  This showed a man holding binoculars to his face, and reflected in each eyepiece was the silhouette of a woman undressing behind a diaphanously curtained window.  The artist had made the image by cutting out the pictures of the window w/ undressing woman, pasting them into the eyepieces of his binocular image, then re-photographing the entire collage.

peeping tom
My hasty recreation of an image from “Best of Photojournalism 6.”  I sent the package over a month ago now, so apparently the binocular image was not racy enough to make it bounce!

As I was flipping through the book, a letter fell out.

Dear Photographer: One or more pictures you submitted is under consideration for “The Best of Photojournalism 8.”  Please give me some personal insight into your feelings about this photograph, what you were trying to do, etc.  This will give added perspective to the picture as it is used in “The Best of PJ/8.”

The letter was postmarked two months before I was born.

How strange, I thought.  This photographer received his acceptance notice, tucked it away into a previous edition of the series, and then, years later, donated that book.  Good ol’ PJ/6.

I hope he kept his copy of volume 8, the one in which his own work (presumably) appeared.

And, getting back to Simon Critchley’s work — you can easily imagine that the recollections triggered by holding that envelope again and reading the actual letter inside would be far more vivid than anything the photographer might recall if shown a symbolic representation of that episode from his life.  It’s quite possible that if the photographer were building his own memory theater, he wouldn’t even think to include anything related to that picture from over three decades ago.  But surely there’s a story.

I suppose Amélie would try to get the letter to him and let him remember.

On proving that elections will make you miserable.

On proving that elections will make you miserable.

sphereIn economics,  proofs often begin with the words If we consider a ball of radius R centered at the point X in R n I wrote those words so many times.  Reading them now, they sound quite strange to me.

A math course called “real analysis” was a prerequisite for economics.  Presumably real analysis would’ve taught me to write proofs, perhaps well enough that I’d understand why I wrote the words I did.  But my university had recently implemented an online registration system, and its glitchiness meant I could skip pre-reqs, and that I was able to enroll in both economics and inorganic chemistry during the 10 am to 11:30 time slot.  I attended economics except when there was a chemistry exam.  And still don’t know for certain what “real analysis” entails.

1280px-Schrodingers_cat.svg
As it happens, my wavelength was too small to actually be in both places at once … but Oncourse didn’t know that.

But I know that the word “ball,” in the world of mathematics, is a generic term for round things.  You have two dots in one dimension, a circle in two, a sphere in three, then a “ball” in four or more.

The number of dimensions is what the “n” stands for in “R n.”  In the world of economics proofs, you might have any number.  Of course, in our day to day lives, most of us are familiar with only two or three (yes, yes, physicists claim that we should understand four, because we move along three spatial axes and time.  But I can move forward and back, left and right, up and down.  I’ll continue to think of my world as three-dimensional until I learn to move with equal faculty into the future and the past).  But economists need more because they like to give each variable its own dimension.  Instead of “up and down,” a dimension in an economics proof might be the weather, the number of factories, the number of workers in a population.

Sliding along an axis can seem incredibly grim if you momentarily forget that a proof is supposed to be abstract.  It’s just an imaginary line projecting endlessly through space, but what does it mean?

homeless
A homeless man down and out in New York City. (Photo by lujoma ny)

For workers, sliding back toward zero means lives destroyed, people unemployed, hustling to pay rent, to keep the lights on, to feed their kids.  Or worse.  Alongside Primo Levi in the Buna concentration camp, the number of workers could be varied at will.  There seemed to be endless numbers of condemned to add, and each decrease meant another murdered man.

Luckily, in class we worked quickly enough that there was no time to think of that.  The professor would scrawl his solution upon the board, I’d copy it into my notes, struggling to keep up.

Or perhaps I lost you earlier.  Maybe you hadn’t realized that there even were proofs in economics.  I hadn’t, before I enrolled.  I expected only to draw crisscrossing lines, mark where they intersected, claim that should be your greeble’s price.  A “greeble” being, for some reason or other, the default name for an imaginary product for which the supply and demand can be used to determine a price.

I learned about these mythical “greebles” in high school, in an economics class that moved many-fold more slowly than the university class.  In high school there was more time to sit and wonder what a greeble was.  I drew pictures in my spiral notebook.  Most of these pictures made the greeble look like either a strange pet or a military weapon.  There were many vicious-looking weapons drawn in my high school notebooks.  I hated being there.  I wrote stories about blowing up the school.  Not that I was a violent kid.  I was already vegetarian because I hated hurting things.  But I certainly drew a lot of death and destruction.  Then, of course, the Columbine shootings happened and I had to stop drawing those pictures.  Writing those stories.  Murderous ideation was no longer safe.  Even once I’d stopped, they started sending me to the principle’s office about once a month.  That did not make me like school more.

fc old notebook cover009.jpg
One of my notebook covers from high school.  Maybe you get the idea.

From then on, at my school, even suicidal ideation was something you had to keep to yourself.  Luckily, I was a pretty happy kid.  I rarely thought about that sort of thing more than once a day.  Still don’t.

But, yes, in economics there are proofs.  One famous proof we reproduced was “Arrow’s impossibility theorem,” which states mathematically that if a population is trying to vote, they’re doomed.  There is no fair voting system that picks the most-preferred candidate out of a set of three or more.  Your options are a dictatorship or else electing some schmuck whom nobody really wants.

voting

Maybe that sounds like an argument in favor of a two-party system.  But it isn’t, not really.  If you’re worried that from a set of options the best one won’t be picked, the best solution isn’t to offer only two of the crummier options from that set.  People still won’t get what they want.  All you’ve accomplished is to blast even their illusion of a fair choice.  In a two-party system people are still doomed, but they’re so clearly doomed that you don’t even need Kenneth Arrow’s fancy proof for them to know it.

As it happens, it’s election season again.  It so often is, because “election season” seems to run approximately two years out of each four-year presidential term, and sometimes a year or more for even two-year congressional terms, and huge numbers of people devote eighty, ninety, hundred hour work weeks toward their efforts to get this dude or that dude or (finally!) this lady elected.

Jason Pruett's small cartoons of each of the U.S. presidents.
Art by Jason Pruett.

Whenever I feel bad about how long I’ve spent working on a project, I remember the number of person hours that are guaranteed to be wasted each election cycle.  Because huge numbers of people work full-time to get their preferred candidate elected, and all but one won’t win.  Maybe they console themselves by thinking at least by running, we helped change the tenor of the national debate!  But, let’s be real.  Even when fewer than a third of the populace votes for a dude, he’ll refer only to the (bizarre!) electoral college numbers and claim to have received a clear mandate for action.

Nobody cares about the platform the losers were running on.  And most everybody is guaranteed to be a loser.  Even (especially?) the voters.

Capture

My personal political inclinations include taxation to assess the fair price of business externalities, free trade, open borders, lax enforcement against possession of tools for self-harm (drugs), strict enforcement against possession of tools for other-harm (guns, automobiles), progressive income taxes such that people pay (or are reimbursed) relative to what they’d likely lose or gain if we had anarchy instead of our current government.

If I were trying to be cheeky, I’d draw a parallel between my ideas about progressive income tax and the conceptual framework behind electric potential, the idea that the energy at each point is equal to the work that would’ve been done to drag a test charge there from infinitely far away.  Instead of a field-less void somewhere far off in the distance, I imagine people being launched into their current wealth or poverty from an undifferentiated state of Hobbesian anarchy.

Donald_Trump_September_3_2015_(cropped)But maybe the physics metaphor would seem too twee.  So (a la Trump, I’m not going to say they’re weak.  But they’re weak), I won’t subject you to it.

I’m pro-genetically modified foods, anti-pesticide.  Pro-vaccination, pro-childhood nutrition, against our current quantity of medical spending.  Most doctors think there needs to be a conversation about how much the government should pay for each quality-of-life-adjusted year.  I think even that is not enough.  We need a concurrent conversation about how long humans should live.  About what we as a people consider to be the meaning of life and the best way for our spending to reflect that.  Because any threshold for how much we’ll spend on each quality-of-life-adjusted year will result in untenable costs if medical advances keep allowing people to live longer.

19820235745_9ef17f2551_zAll of which means that, yup, as ever, no politician will (or should, honestly) care about what I stand for.  I’ll vote for the old hippie commie guy in the primary (if I get to vote.  I probably won’t get to, though.  My state’s primary is scheduled relatively late), and then throw away my vote in the general election (what with our electoral college, most people’s votes are submerged at that stage.  I think there’ll be something like eight states where the vote will be close enough that all people waiting in line for their turn in the booth can delude themselves into thinking that their votes matter).

Which, again, does sound awful.  Like, isn’t there a better way?

Well, yes.  There is a better way.  There are many better ways than the strange system our country has contrived.  But at least I had the experience of jotting out the full proof to know that there is no perfect way.

(Somehow I’d deluded myself into thinking that typing this essay would make me happy.  I see now that I was wrong.)

On civil forfeiture, racial profiling, and outlawing self-harm.

On civil forfeiture, racial profiling, and outlawing self-harm.

aa-asset-forfeiture-great-oneI spent most of breakfast today blathering about civil forfeiture.  So K claimed I should write an essay about it.  I thought that sounded ridiculous, because I figured everyone already knew about it.  Indeed, a brief internet search revealed that even John Oliver did an extended piece on it; sure, we don’t have a television, but we have computers and an internet connection, and K often watches John Oliver while pumping milk for N.  Maybe it’s just that she’s less angry, in general, than I am, so she’s less compelled to know these things.

But there are a few features of civil forfeiture that I think are particularly funny / horrible.

I’m writing about a world with a criminal justice system rather similar to our own, as in what we have in the contemporary United States, except my world is slightly more logical.  Still horrible, obviously, because the horror is, for me, the entire draw toward writing about it… just more internally consistent.  As in, yes, black people are still massively over-represented in prisons.  But instead of being locked up for drug possession, they’re locked up for “intent to self-harm.”  After all, ingesting a drug (and then not driving, operating heavy machinery, etc.) hurts no one but yourself.  Ingesting a drug and then driving obviously threatens others, and so should be illegal, but that’s a crime that predominantly white people commit (based on statistics for the ethnicity of those causing alcohol-impared driving fatalities), so it’s possible to get things like the claim that civil forfeiture of an automobile used by a drunk driver is disproportionate to the offense, even though drunk drivers kill people, but civil forfeiture of money (from small amounts of cash scrounged up from the floor of a car in a traffic stop, up to hundreds of thousands of dollars) that police think might be used / has been used to buy drugs, is reasonable.  Even though the worst that might happen is the person who volitionally bought the drugs might overdose and die.  Unless, of course, that person drives while intoxicated, but dangerous driving should be an offense in itself, without regard for why you’re driving poorly.

To me, outlawing self-harm itself seems more logical than outlawing drug possession.  Especially something as innocuous as, say, cocaine.  This essay doesn’t condone illegal activity, obviously, but if you were going to take cocaine, you should drink it as a tea, or chew the leaves, practices that’ve been employed safely and responsibly for millennia.  Yes, cocaine is bad for you if you purify it and cram it up your nose – but try doing that with caffeine or nicotine.  Or, rather, don’t, cause you’ll die.

But it’s perfectly legal to possess purified caffeine, or nicotine liquid, or azeotropic ethanol-water (190 proof – quite easy to drink yourself to death with).  Whereas the most serious risk of harm that you’d be courting with possession of cocaine isn’t that you’ll hurt yourself with it, it’s that you’ll get busted and spend time in jail and potentially lose your money and home.

The latter being where civil forfeiture comes in.

Oh, but, right… I’ll get to it in just a moment, I swear!… but here’s one last reference to attempt to show that my internally-consistent world isn’t totally ridiculous.  Here’s an opinion piece from the New York Times about the harms caused by suicide being illegal in India.

So, okay… civil forfeiture time!  Just a handful of fun facts, presented at random.  Because there are other, better resources out there if you’d like to learn about this.  Which, you should learn about it.  If you live in the United States, that is.  Because it’s horrible, and the whole idea of the social contract means that by living here and paying your taxes and being a law-abiding citizen and whatnot, you’re aiding and abetting the practice.

Aw, man.  So, despite linking to it in the first paragraph of this, I only now watched the John Oliver piece.  And it was nice, but… all the victims are white people?

That’s not exactly the usual outcome of civil forfeiture.  Here’s a quote from Sarah Stillman’s article on the practice:

The public records I reviewed support Rulli’s assertion that homes in Philadelphia are routinely seized for unproved minor drug crimes, often involving children or grandchildren who don’t own the home. “For real-estate forfeitures, it’s overwhelmingly African-Americans and Hispanics,” Rulli told me. “It has a very disparate race and class impact.” 

And, later in her piece, when discussing a particular district that employed the practice egregiously:

Patterns began to emerge. Nearly all the targets had been pulled over for routine traffic stops. Many drove rental cars and came from out of state. None appeared to have been issued tickets. And the targets were disproportionately black or Latino. A finding of discrimination could bring judicial scrutiny. “It was a highway-piracy operation,” Guillory said, and, he thought, material for a class-action lawsuit.

But that was a daunting prospect. “Class actions involving race discrimination are extremely hard to win,” Guillory said. “Most of them go down in flames.”

Which, right, in that quotation there’s a reference to the fact that race discrimination lawsuits are difficult to win.  Often people talk reference the case Los Angeles v. Lyons.  A man was nearly killed by the police using a chokehold during a traffic stop, and he attempted to sue for the police to stop using those chokeholds.  But even though data existed showing that most of the people these chokeholds were used against were black, and Lyons himself was black, he couldn’t prove that the police would stop and choke him in particular again.  Even though the next victim would probably be black, that victim probably would not be Lyons, and so his case was thrown out because he didn’t have standing.

Which, to read more about this and other such horrors, you should look up Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow.”   I wrote one essay that mentioned her work earlier, but I’m not sure if I stridently recommended it when I mentioned it last time.  But you should read it.  It’s a very scary, very well-written book.  I don’t agree with all her conclusions, and I think she leaves out some important information and reasoning, but the legal analysis she does present is very good.  And she does so much so well that I can recommend it wholeheartedly despite my contentions.

But the basic idea seems to be roughly that a person needs standing to bring a case, and even when statistics exist to show that an average black male is in danger from a practice, that’s (stunningly, foolishly) discounted as evidence that any particular black male is in danger.  So no one has standing.

What often seems to happen is that cash is taken from someone driving – our traffic laws are so horrible that there is always a pretext to stop someone, and as pointed out in Alexander’s book police are also allowed to stop someone if they fit the profile of someone involved in the drug trade, which includes “too scrupulous following of traffic laws.”  So if you violate any traffic laws – if you drive 31 in a 30 m.p.h. zone – or if you *don’t* violate any traffic laws, and therefore fit the profile of a drug dealer, you can be stopped.  I don’t even look much like the usual victims of these crimes – I have dreadlocks, sure, but also receive all the privileges afforded to those whose ancestors lived in sufficiently mild climates that the genes for melanin production degraded over time.  As in, I’m a white dude, having lost one of the evolutionary hallmarks of what makes us human: here’s a quote from Quillen and Shriver’s Nature review on the evolution of skin pigment:

However, not all selective events were recent.  For example, patterns of genetic variation at EDN3 support selection on pigmentation in the common ancestors of all humans prior to their divergence.  Some researchers have suggested that this may reflect the initial darkening of skin pigmentation in pre-human ancestors as they lost the fur that protects the light skin of our chimpanzee cousins.

But, right, despite my appearance normally giving me all sorts of legal perquisites in this country, I was pulled over in a drug-bust-style stop in Utah.  K and I were moving from California so we were driving a Uhaul through, a police officer followed me for two miles, and eventually he pulled me over because I hadn’t signaled for the requisite two seconds before passing a truck – I used my turn signal for only 1.5 seconds before changing lanes.

Not that I should complain much – the cop didn’t steal all our boxes of books, after all – I included the anecdote just as further evidence that if they want to stop you, they will.  At least I was given an excuse: members of the community Alice Goffman wrote about in “On the Run” seem to have been stopped and frisked or thrown onto the ground with no rationalization ever given.

So, police officers stop might stop you.  Especially if you have dark skin.  And then they take your money.  Again from Stillman’s article:

Yet only a small portion of state and local forfeiture cases target powerful entities. “There’s this myth that they’re cracking down on drug cartels and kingpins,” Lee McGrath, of the Institute for Justice, who recently co-wrote a paper on Georgia’s aggressive use of forfeiture, says. “In reality, it’s small amounts, where people aren’t entitled to a public defender, and can’t afford a lawyer, and the only rational response is to walk away from your property, because of the infeasibility of getting your money back.” In 2011, he reports, fifty-eight local, county, and statewide police forces in Georgia brought in $2.76 million in forfeitures; more than half the items taken were worth less than six hundred and fifty dollars. With minimal oversight, police can then spend nearly all those proceeds, often without reporting where the money has gone.

So it’s unsafe to have money in your car.  But not all people living in this country have equal access to banking facilities.  Look, even if I got stopped by a police officer trying to steal my money, all I’d have with me is, what, twenty, thirty dollars?  For anything more expensive than that, I pay with a credit card. But if you’re too poor to have credit cards, if nobody’s offering you one of those free-checking-and-a-debit-card bank accounts, then you have to carry cash – it’s the only way you’ll be able to pay for anything.  For a family of 2.1, it’s not unusual for us to spend well over a hundred dollars at a time grocery shopping – I’d hate to lose that much money because a police officer decided to steal it from me, and no way could anyone afford to hire a lawyer to get such a small sum back.

To put it more concretely, why don’t I quote a paragraph from a 1999 ACLU letter to Congress regarding civil forfeiture:

One example of the type of case that does not receive publicity is the case of an African-American man from Virginia Beach, Virginia. He was stopped by police on June 16, 1998, while driving from Virginia Beach to Wilmington, Delaware. The police officer who stopped him claimed that a taillight was out, which was untrue. Once stopped, the officer subjected him to a search by a drug dog, claiming that he “looked like a drug dealer.” The officers asked him if he was carrying drugs, guns or money. He replied that he had $3,500 in cash. The officer seized the money, claiming that it must be the proceeds of drug dealing.  

And, right, I didn’t mean to get carried away on that tangent about racial profiling.  It’s just, I don’t know, I had linked to it so I figured I should watch the John Oliver segment.  And it did seem strange to me that everyone shown, in interviews and in the little cartoon graphics and tv-show-like re-enactments, was white.

Because a major reason why civil forfeiture seems so horrible is that cops steal money to use for their own retirement funds or year-end bonuses or luxuries at the office from poor black people.  It’s yet more data that gets left out of analyses about how regressive much of the United States tax code is (with the point being that this analysis looks at actual taxation – but when you add in other sources of funding, like civil forfeiture, poor people are paying even more): if the police need more money to do their jobs, why are they stealing it from poor people?

So… this essay is already pretty long, and despite my intent, I haven’t really talked about the particulars of civil forfeiture.  But, really, you can read other sources for that.  I still think everyone already should’ve heard about it.

Because it is true: civil forfeiture is wacky. It’s legal actions against stuff, like money or homes or possessions … police can take things from your car or home without charging you (or anyone) with a crime … you have to spend large sums of money to get your stuff back, often you have to spend money just to get a hearing to maybe get your stuff back … and your stuff is presumed guilty – you have to show a preponderance of evidence proving that your home or ipad or cash was not involved – or about to be involved – in any crime.  Which is ridiculous.

To me, given the way the logic of civil forfeiture works, it seems like if you’re about to spend cash at a fast food restaurant, and the person behind you in line might buy drugs later that night, and your cash would be given to that person as change, a police officer should be allowed to steal your money.  Because it’s the physical dollar bill that’d be charged with intent to commit a crime, and, yeah, if that dollar bill would be given in change to someone who would buy drugs with it, then that dollar bill is no less guilty than many other items stolen through civil forfeiture laws.