On power and species.

On power and species.

At track practice, a pair of high school runners were arguing.  Knowing that I’ve completed twenty-two years of schooling, they figured I could resolve their debate.

“Coach Brown, who would win in a fight, Superman or The Hulk?”

I stared at them blankly.  I knew a bit about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which helps to understand The Hulk, but I’d never read a Superman comic.  Superman didn’t sound like an interesting hero: he seemed too powerful.  Even The Hulk is more interesting within the context of a complex campaign, when he might become enraged and wreck his own plans, than in a single fight.

I failed to provide an answer, and the kids went back to arguing.  (“Superman could just turn back time to before The Hulk got enraged, then smash him!”) 

And I resolved to read a Superman book, to shore up this gap in my education.  Astounding, isn’t it, that Stanford would allow me to graduate without knowing anything about the paragon of the DC universe?

I chose Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman.  And was pleasantly surprised – although Superman is indeed too powerful for the risk of danger to provide narrative tension, he’s still sad.  He doesn’t get the recognition that he feels he’s due; his powers leave him feeling isolated and alone; during the 24-hours when his girlfriend becomes his equal due to a magic serum, she spends her time flirting with other heroes. 

Doing great work can feel hollow if nobody appreciates it.

Midway through the series, Superman meets two other survivors from his native Krypton.  He expects that they’ll congratulate him on how well he’s kept his adopted planet safe.  Instead, they’re disgusted by his complacency.

Superman, in turn, feels disappointed by his brethren.  Within the world of comic books, characters who view their powers as conferring a responsibility are heroes; those who think that power gives them the right to do whatever they want are villains.

Homo sapiens are not as intelligent as the new arrivals from Krypton.  We are smaller, slower, and weaker.  Our tools are less technologically advanced.  If they chose to cull our kind, we could do nothing to resist.

#

I recently had the opportunity to read Luke Dittrich’s New York Times Magazine article on the Puerto Rican macaque colony that was traumatized by Hurricane Maria.  (I’ve written previously about Dittrich’s investigation into the history of “Patient H.M.” and unethical behavior among MIT memory researchers.)

This particular colony of macaques has been studied closely for years.  Researchers have voluminous observational data from both before and after the hurricane; they’ve stored many tissue samples as well.  The hope is that this dataset could unveil the biochemical consequences of trauma, and elucidate traits that allow some people to weather trauma more effectively than others.

With clear insights into the specific pathways affected by trauma, we might even be able to develop drugs that would allow humans to stave off PTSD.  Or cure it.

Macaques have long been used as subjects for medical research.  We’ve developed several vaccines that prevent AIDS in macaques, but unfortunately the differences between SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus) and HIV meant that some of these vaccines increased human susceptibility to the disease.  Whoops.

An image attributed to the Primate Research Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and disseminated in 1992.

Macaques are highly intelligent, social animals with approximately 93% the same DNA sequences as us humans.  For immunology research, they’re kept in wire cages.  They can’t touch, don’t really get to move around.  But that’s not so bad compared to the nightmarish psychological studies that have been conducted on macaques in the past.  Dittrich’s article summarizes a few of Dr. Harry Harlow’s experiments.  Harlow named several pieces of his research equipment, such as “The Pit of Despair,” a small box devoid of light or sound in which children could be trapped for months on end, or “The Rape Rack,” which shouldn’t be described.

“[Harlow] found that the females who had endured the trauma of both the Pit of Despair and the Rape Rack tended to become neglectful or even severely abusive mothers.

#

We’ve conducted studies on humans who have been traumatized.  By surveying hurricane survivors, we’ve found that many suffer from PTSD.  But one drawback of these investigations, Dittrich writes, is that “the humans in these studies almost never become experimental subjects until after the traumatic events in question, which makes it hard to gauge how the events actually changed them.

If a researcher interested in how trauma affects individuals or societies were to dream up an ideal natural laboratory, she might imagine a discrete landmass populated by a multigenerational community that has been extensively and meticulously studied for many decades before the traumatizing event.  Even better, it would be a population to which researchers would have unfettered access – not only to their minds, but also to their bodies, and even their brains.”

We are to macaques as Superman is to us.  We are stronger, smarter, technologically superior.  We can fly into space; macaques have done so only at our whims.

In “St. Francis Visits the Research Macaques of Modern Science” by John-Michael Bloomquist, we eavesdrop on a conversation between the saint and Miss Able, the first primate to leave our planet.  St. Francis asks about her experience of the voyage; she tells him “The Gods did not let me see anything, the damn cone didn’t have a window.

The capsule and couch used by one of America’s first spacefarers, a rhesus monkey named Able, is displayed at the National Air and Space Museum. Able and a companion squirrel monkey named Miss Baker were placed inside a Jupiter missile nose cone and launched on a test flight in May 1959.

We are indeed like gods among macaques, but we have not elected to be heroes.  Instead, we’ve ravaged their ancestral lands.  We’ve wracked their children with twisted nightmares that they could not wake from. 

Even the Puerto Rican macaque colony that Dittrich writes about – some individuals are permitted to live out their days in relative peace, but this is a breeding center.  If you’re developing an HIV vaccine, your lab’s macaques will die; for a few thousand dollars each, this colony will furnish replacements.  According to their website, they maintain “an available pool of rhesus macaques in optimal condition for research.

We humans are like gods, but, unlike Superman, we’ve chosen to be villains.

On kind, environmentalist, and vegan books for kids.

On kind, environmentalist, and vegan books for kids.

Our children love books.  We visit the public library every Friday and typically exit with one or two full tote bags (the only exception being days when our kids are so upset at the thought of leaving the library that they start yelling, at which point we might fail to check out any of the books we’d set aside).

At home, our children spend an hour or two each day reading.  Our preschooler actually knows how; our two-year-old flips through the pages of his favorites and recites aloud as much of the text as he remembers.  With his current favorites, like The Itchy Book, Potato Pants, or I Will Take a Nap, his versions are quite close to the printed edition.

Before our four year old learned to read, I never would have expected how sad her growth would make me feel.  She still curls up in my arm to hear bedtime stories, and she likes to read comic strips together for the chance to have jokes explained to her, but she’s been devouring The Magic Treehouse series and early chapter books by Beverly Cleary on her own.

Our family is fairly liberal.  We devote a lot of our free time to advocacy for environmental causes, veganism, justice, gender equality … and, when I read books to our children, I often change the words. 

In Owl at Home, our readings have Owl telling winter, “Do not come back,” as the text reads, but we also add “until you have changed your ways.”  Because, the kids agree, everyone should have a chance to grow; we all make mistakes and could use second chances.

In The Snowy Day, Peter tries to join “the big kids” in their snowball fight before realizing that he isn’t quite old enough yet.

And in many books, we change the foods that characters are eating.  Our kids love animals, and it’s easier for them to enjoy a story if the characters have tofu or vegetables on their plates instead of an animal.

But sometimes it’s nice to have a beautiful book that needs no substitutions.  I trawled through a few lists of vegan kids’ books, but many of these, like Dave Loves Chickens, are blatantly ideological texts that don’t quite work as stories.  And so, in case you were looking for recommendations, here are a few of our family’s favorites.

The Great Pig Escape by Eileen Christelow tells the story of a group of pigs who escape from a truck when a pair of farmers are taking them to market.  When the piglets first arrive, one of the farmers remarks that they’re cute, but the other reminds her, “Eight months from now they’ll be pork chops, so don’t go falling in love with them!”

But the pigs are lovable, and quite clever too.  They sabotage the farmers’ truck in a way that will abet their escape, then later steal clothes to disguise themselves as regular civilians.  (Lest you worry that the book encourages thievery, you should know that the pigs later mail a package full of clothing, returning everything they took.  Everyone is overjoyed to receive their belongings back – except the farmers, who receive a cheerful postcard instead of their lost pigs.)

We also purchased a copy to give to our local farmed animal sanctuary … after using watercolors and packing tape to modify the art so that the pigs were escaping to that sanctuary instead of to Florida.

The Dog House by Jan Thomas features a quartet of animal friends who accidentally toss their ball into a spooky doghouse.  One by one the animals go inside, attempting to retrieve the ball, but they don’t come out again.  Eventually only the mouse is left and he whimpers, “Won’t you come back out, duck?”  But a big, scary-looking dog stomps outside to say, “No, because I’m having duck for dinner!”

The mouse is horrified – someone is eating his friend!

Except that the dog is having duck stay as a guest – the animals all share a tasty vegan meal with parsnips and other vegetables.

Our family lives with a big, scary-looking pit bull, as well as a rather wolf-like hound dog … both of whom are vegan.

Me, Jane by Patrick McDonnell tells the story of Jane Goodall learning how to quietly observe nature, the skill that enabled her scientific discoveries.  There are several charming children’s books about Jane Goodall (we also like The Watcher by Jeanette Winter, which describes her research in more detail), but we love McDonnell’s art. 

When our preschooler first learned to read, she favored comic strips.  She had recently turned four and loved Calvin and Hobbes.  Heck, I love Calvin and Hobbes too.  But I’m a wee bit older than four.  I’d like to think that I have a good grasp on the concepts like irony and antiheroes.  Our child did not.  She asked, “Mama, what’s a poopy head?” because Hobbes had slung that insult at Calvin.  Well, that’s not ideal, but, fine.  Kids are eventually going to learn salty language.

Worse, our kid’s behavior tanked.  She started raging, battling her sibling, kicking dust at the playground … when we pulled her aside to talk about that last activity, she explained, “Calvin says it’s the best part of playing baseball!”

Well, yes, there is a comic strip where Calvin says that.  I had to explain that grown-ups think it’s funny because Calvin is doing the wrong thing.  Our kid nodded, but the expression on her face made me think that she was dubious.

So I wound up hiding all our Calvin and Hobbes.  Soon after, I hid all our Peanuts, which also feature kids acting less kindly than we would like.

But McDonnell’s Mutts?  Mutts can stay.  The characters are mostly gentle and kind, and we feel confident that McDonnell shares our passion for treating both our neighbors and our planet with respect.

So Me, Jane is a book about a prominent vegan activist that is written and drawn by a prominent vegan cartoonist.  But it’s not sanctimonious in the least – it’s values are like deep currents, coursing beneath the text.  I would feel comfortable sharing that book with any child, even if I knew nothing about the parents’ political beliefs, because the only explicit statements stress the value of patience and hard work.

Gus’s Garage by Leo Timmers features a asiduous mechanic who lets nothing go to waste.  The book begins with a large mound of what appears to be useless junk next to Gus’s small shop, but as various animals arrive and describe their travails, Gus is able to engineer solutions to their problems with the materials he has on hand.

Again, there is no explanation given in the text for why Gus lives the way he does.  And I like that – because the message is so subtle, a wide range of people could enjoy this book.  Gus is both resourceful and ingenious, in a way that might evoke the survival skills that many Americans of my grandmother’s generation developed during the Great Depression, and which exemplifies the “reduce, re-use, recycle” mantra taught to elementary schoolchildren of my own generation.

Plus, the art is excellent and the sing-song rhymes are a pleasure to read aloud.

Julia’s House for Lost Creatures by Ben Hatke beautifully conveys why a family needs rules: a fair set of rules can allow a group of very different individuals to live together peacefully.  Interested in talking to a two- or three-year-old about the refugee crisis?  There is a troll who arrives at Julia’s door after fleeing political turmoil at home (the city has torn down his bridge).  Trying to introduce your children to the concept of chores?  Julia eventually crafts a “chore chart,” giving everyone a manageable task that relies upon the guests’ unique talents.

(Perhaps I should mention, since I’m including Julia’s House for Lost Creatures in a list of vegan children’s books, that one picture depicts the imp-like folletti roasting something that looks very much like a chicken in the oven.  Since our kids have never seen this food, I’m not sure they ever realized.  And, besides, we’ve talked to them about veganism as a way of being kind – and this book is exceptionally kind.)

For slightly older children, you could try the early reader chapter book Ellie and the Good Luck Pig by Callie Barkley.  This is part of The Critter Club series, about a group of friends (when we read this aloud, we always change “the girls” into “the friends” or “the kids” … our preschooler will actually make substitutions like this on her own when she reads aloud to her sibling) who form something like an animal shelter in a neighbor’s barn. 

I had originally assumed that the kids in The Critter Club, who bonded over their love of animals, would all be vegetarian, but no such luck.  And perhaps it’s worth mentioning that I personally find the entire series to be like the literary equivalent of cotton candy.  There are some kids’ books, like Nate the Great, that I enjoy as much or more than my kids do … but not these.  Still, I’m not the target audience.  Our preschooler loves these.  The characters typically undergo some form of mild conflict that is just complicated enough for her to understand.  And a perfectly happy resolution will come after a few dozen pages.

In Ellie and the Good Luck Pig, the piglet is adopted by someone who runs a sanctuary for famed animals. 

Our family doesn’t manage to volunteer at our local farmed animal sanctuary as often as we did before having kids, but we’ve still gone several times in the last few years for me to pitch in some work.  Our kids like visiting – they especially like getting to see the pigs – but the drive is hard.

I’ve heard it gets easier, though.  Eventually they’ll grow up.  They’ll be able to sit quietly – reading, no doubt – in the car for a few hours at a time.

And I’ll feel sad.  Their intellectual journeys will leave me behind.

But I hope that we will have set them off in the right direction.

On violence and gratitude.

On violence and gratitude.

Although I consider myself a benevolent tyrant, some of my cells have turned against me.  Mutinous, they were swayed by the propaganda of a virus and started churning out capsids rather than helping me type this essay.  Which leaves me sitting at a YMCA snack room table snerking, goo leaking down my throat and out my nose.

Unconsciously, I take violent reprisal against the traitors.  I send my enforcers to put down the revolt – they cannibalize the still-living rebels, first gnawing the skin, then devouring the organs that come spilling out.  Then the defector dies.

800px-CD8+_T_cell_destruction_of_infected_cells
CD8+ T cell destruction of infected cells by Dananguyen on Wikimedia.

My cells are also expected to commit suicide whenever they cease to be useful for my grand designs.  Any time a revolutionary loses the resolve to commit suicide, my enforcers put it down.  Unless my internal surveillance state fails to notice in time – the other name for a cell that doesn’t want to commit suicide is “cancer,” and even the most robust immune system might be stymied by cancer when the traitor’s family grows too large.

Worse is when the rebels “metastasize,” like contemporary terrorists.  This word signifies that the family has sent sleeper agents to infiltrate the world at large, attempting to develop new pockets of resistance in other areas.  Even if my enforcers crush one cluster of rebellion, others could flourish unchecked.

800px-How_metastasis_occurs_illustration
How metastasis occurs. Image by the National Cancer Institute on Wikimedia.

I know something that perhaps they don’t – if their rebellion succeeds, they will die.  A flourishing cancer sequesters so many resources that the rest of my body would soon prove too weak to seek food and water, causing every cell inside of me to die.

But perhaps they’ve learned my kingdom’s vile secret – rebel or not, they will die.  As with any hereditary monarchy, a select few of my cells are privileged above all others.  And it’s not the cells in my brain that rule.

Every “somatic cell” is doomed.  These cells compose my brain and body.  Each has slight variations from “my” genome – every round of cell division introduces random mutations, making every cell’s DNA slightly different from its neighbors’.

The basic idea behind Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene is that each of these cells “wants” for its genome to pass down through the ages.  Dawkins argued that familial altruism is rational because any sacrifice bolsters the chances for a very similar genome to propagate.  Similarly, each somatic cell is expected to sacrifice itself to boost the odds for a very similar genome carried by the gametes.

Only gametes – the heralded population of germ cells in our genitalia – can possibly see their lineage continue.  All others are like the commoners who (perhaps foolishly) chant their king or kingdom’s name as they rush into battle to die.  I expect them to show absolute fealty to me, their tyrant.  Apoptosis – uncomplaining suicide – was required of many before I was even born, like when cells forming the webbing between my fingers slit their own bellies in dramatic synchronized hara-kiri.

28407608404_84b3c64433_h
Human gametes by Karl-Ludwig Poggemann on Flickr.

Any evolutionary biologist could explain that each such act of sacrifice was in a cell’s mathematical best interest.  But if I were a conscious somatic cell, would I submit so easily?  Or do I owe some sliver of respect to the traitors inside me?

The world is a violent place.  I’m an extremely liberal vegan environmentalist – yet it takes a lot of violence to keep me going.

From Suzana Herculano-Houzel’s The Human Advantage:

image (1)Animals that we are, we must face, every single day of our lives, the consequences of our most basic predicament: we don’t do photosynthesis.  For lack of the necessary genes, we don’t just absorb carbon from the air around us and fix it as new bodily matter with a little help from sunlight.  To survive, we animals have to eat other living organisms, whether animal, vegetable, or fungus, and transform their matter into ours.

And yet the violence doesn’t begin with animals.  Photosynthesis seems benign by comparison – all you’d need is light from the sun! – unless you watch a time-lapsed video of plant growth in any forest or jungle.

The sun casts off electromagnetic radiation without a care in the world, but the amount of useful light reaching any particular spot on earth is limited.  And plants will fight for it.  They race upwards, a sprint that we sometimes fail to notice only because they’ve adapted a timescale of days, years, and centuries rather than our seconds, hours, and years.  They reach over competitors’ heads, attempting to grab any extra smidgen of light … and starving those below.  Many vines physically strangle their foes.  Several trees excrete poison from their roots.  Why win fair if you don’t have to?  A banquet of warm sunlight awaits the tallest plant left standing.

And so why, in such a violent world, would it be worthwhile to be vegan?  After all, nothing wants to be eaten.  Sure, a plant wants for animals to eat its fruit – fruits and animals co-evolved in a system of gift exchange.  The plant freely offers fruit, with no way of guaranteeing recompense, in hope that the animal might plant its seeds in a useful location.

But actual pieces of fruit – the individual cells composing an apple – probably don’t want to be eaten, no more than cancers or my own virus-infected cells want to be put down for the greater good.

A kale plant doesn’t want for me to tear off its leaves and dice them for my morning ramen.

But by acknowledging how much sacrifice it takes to allow for us to be typing or reading or otherwise reaping the pleasures of existence, I think it’s easier to maintain awe.  A sense of gratitude toward all that we’ve been given.  Most humans appreciate things more when we think they cost more.

We should appreciate the chance to be alive.  It costs an absurd amount for us to be here.

But, in the modern world, it’s possible to have a wonderful, rampantly hedonistic life as a vegan.  Why make our existence cost more when we don’t have to?  A bottle of wine tastes better when we’re told that it’s $45-dollar and not $5-dollar wine, but it won’t taste any better if you tell somebody “It’s $45-dollar wine, but you’ll have to pay $90 for it.”

Personally, I’d think it tasted worse, each sip with the savor of squander.

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 conspiracy theories and Santa Claus.

On conspiracy theories and Santa Claus.

Our daughter wants to visit dungeon-master Santa.

This isn’t as scary as it sounds – the local mall Santa happens to be a developer for Dungeons & Dragons.  Unfortunately, our daughter has a bit of trouble with impulse control.  I’ve heard that this is normal for three year olds.

santa-2990434_640“What would you say to other kids about Santa?” we asked her.

“I’d tell them that Santa isn’t real.”

“But, remember, only their parents are supposed to tell them that.”

“Why?”

“Well, you should know that we will always tell you the truth.  If we’re telling you a story, we’ll let you know that it’s a story.  But some other families are different.  They want their kids to believe the dungeon master lives on the North Pole with an army of elves.”

Why?”

“I … I dunno, dude.  But don’t tell the other kids, okay?”

I’ve written previously about the harm in conspiring against children – belief in one conspiracy theory makes people more likely to believe in another.  People who believe that the government is covering up evidence of UFOs are also more likely to believe that vaccines cause autism, fluoride in the water enables mind control, and the Earth is flat.

And, sadly, we start our citizens early.  The Santa story is a vast conspiracy, a large number of authority figures (grown-ups) collaborating to keep the child in a state of ignorance.  A local philosophy professor told me that he felt the story was valuable as a measure of intellectual development – at first the child believes, but then begins to notice flaws in the story.

“Uh, if it takes two minutes to deliver presents, it would take a thousand years to visit everyone in the United States, or two million Santas on Christmas Eve – but not every house has a chimney!”

8236362941_3fa1316511_b

I think it would be cynical to lie to children as a developmental metric.  This measurement changes the child (which is not Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, f.y.i.).  The experience of uncovering one conspiracy will train children to search for conspiracies elsewhere.  Perhaps a child is supposed to realize that there’s no Santa at seven years old, that there are no gods at eleven, that the moon landing was faked at thirteen, that JFK is smoking blunts in the Illuminati’s underground lair at seventeen.

After all, the Santa story isn’t the final time we conspire against children.  In my school’s health classes, all sexuality outside of marriage was described as fundamentally bad.  Even if we somehow dodged pregnancy and disease, disrobed physical affection would break our hearts and leave us feeling guilty and ashamed.  Recreational drug use was described in similarly bleak terms (by a teacher who drank coffee every morning).

Students grow up, get laid, drink beer, smoke pot.  Grown-ups were hypocritically hiding the truth.  Sex is fun.  Drugs are fun.

What else were they hiding?

(Have you seen all those children’s books with pictures of happy animals on the farm?)

A lot of the guys in jail believe in conspiracy theories.  Despite a plenitude of dudes with Aryan tattoos, I’ve never heard anybody on a full-tilt ZOG rant, but I’ve been told about Nostradamus, Biblical prophecy, the CIA (to be fair, I’ve spent a fair bit of time talking about MK Ultra, too).

To an extent, I understand why.  The people in jail are being conspired against by judges, informants, and the police.  With lives in thrall to the overt conspiracy of our criminal justice system, covert conspiracy seems probable, too.

And so, in preparation for this essay, I took a few minutes at the beginning of class to say, “There’s an administrator at the local school who thinks the Earth is flat.  Says so to kids.  You guys hear anybody talking about that?”

flatearth“Oh, yeah, there was this dude in A block!  He was talking about it like all the time!”

“Now he’s in seg.”

“It’s like, has he never seen a globe?”

And the guys wondered what that administrator was doing inside a school.

“Cause kids go there to learn, right?”

Kids do need to learn critical thinking.  They should question whether the things they’re taught make sense.  I’ve heard plenty of teachers make erroneous claims, and not just in Indiana’s public schools – some professors at Northwestern and Stanford didn’t know what they were talking about either.  Even so, I think it’s unhelpful to train children by having them uncover the Santa story.  That experience is a step along the way to thinking your sensory experience has primacy over abstract data.

After all, the planet feels flat enough.  It looks flat from most human vantages.  And it would be cheaper to deceive people than to send spacecraft to the moon (a former colleague recently went to the International Space Station for some incredibly expensive molecular biology experiments.  This was a huge undertaking – and she was only 0.1% of the way to the moon).

If you take a kid for his MMR vaccine, and shortly after vaccination he seems to regress into autism, that narrative – which you watched with your own eyes! – is more compelling than a bunch of medical statistics proving there’s no connection.  If you comb the Bible and find lines mirroring current events, that narrative also must seem more compelling than the thought that history is chaotic.  Physicists from Einstein till the present day have been dismayed that quantum mechanics feels so unintuitive.

It’s tricky to find a balance between our own senses and expert opinion.  It’s even harder in a world where numerous authority figures and media outlets have been caught spreading lies.

And so, while I try not to judge others’ parenting decisions, please, take a few minutes to think about the holiday stories you tell.  If you’d like to live in a country where the citizenry can agree on basic facts, lying to your kids might be not be the way to get there.

On Facebook and fake news.

On Facebook and fake news.

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

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

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

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

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

a red one.jpg
It does still have a certain ring to it.

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

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

Still, I have to admit: faking is fun.

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

From William Gaddis’s The Recognitions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As described by computer scientist Cal Newport:

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

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

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

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

Or becoming a place that elects Donald Trump.

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

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

rilke

On Charles Foster’s ‘Being a Beast’ and battling the empathy gap.

On Charles Foster’s ‘Being a Beast’ and battling the empathy gap.

At a February presidential rally, the crowd cheered when Donald Trump declared, “All lives matter,” using his microphone to drown out the protesters.

All lives matter: setting aside that, for some people’s lives, the world is already acting as though they matter, it’s hard to believe Trump meant what he said. Considering his policy proposals, it doesn’t seem like he values Black, Latino, or Muslim lives that much. It’s doublethink à la Animal Farm: “All lives matter. But some lives matter more than others.”

orwell.JPG

The world would be less terrible if we could understand why people believe this. Or, better yet, make them stop.

The root of this problem is that our brains are not designed for this world. Natural selection does not work like an engineer, but like a basement tinkerer, slapping together barely-functional prototypes from duct-tape, twine, and pre-existing parts.

Natural selection molded the human brain. And, sure, our brains are amazing. We can talk, we can think, we can rocket ourselves into space. But our brains are built using much the same genetic blueprints as other species’. The finished product features many of the same archaic modules.

But we’d best remember that our brains have flaws, especially within the context of the modern world: we’ve reshaped the planet so thoroughly that it looks nothing like the environment in which humans evolved. And so we make mistakes. Our intuitions about the world, about fairness or even basic logic, do not always match reality.

interlandiIn March of 2015, Jeneen Interlandi published a thought-provoking piece on the “empathy gap” in The New York Times Magazine. She was curious about the neurological underpinnings of empathy. What gives rise to our misguided sense of identity? Why are we moved by the plights of those whom we consider to be like us, but can stay callous and cold to the suffering of perceived “others”? For instance, civil forfeiture episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver featured exclusively white victims, as did the New York Times coverage of innocent people incarcerated due to faulty roadside drug tests, despite the fact that black drivers are the primary victims of these police abuses. Did the producers worry that an accurate depiction of these harms would lose their audience’s interest?

In “The Brain’s Empathy Gap,” Interlandi focuses on the treatment of the Roma in Hungary. Should the Hungarian masses care about poverty and educational failings among the Roma? Yes. Of course. But do they? Judging by most Hungarians’ actions, or by the limited political will to rectify injustice, no. Excepting a rare few bleeding hearts, it doesn’t seem so.

Should the masses in the United States (as in all people, including the melanin-deficient sinking middle classes shouting themselves red in the face at Trump rallies) care about poverty, educational failings, and the state-sponsored murder of black people? Yes. They should.

But this is not how our brains evolved to operate. For millions of years, reflexive callousness made sense. Among populations scraping out a subsistence living – scavenging other hunters’ kills, picking berries, and hoping not to be eaten by a predator in the night – there was only so much help to give. Waste it on a stranger, someone who appears not to share many of your genes, and your own children might die.

From a philosophical perspective, this is not a problem. Utilitarian ethicists from Jeremy Betham to Peter Singer have argued that our moral choices should not be so easily swayed by friendship, family relations, or proximity.

But from an evolutionary perspective? Helping an other as opposed to your own is disastrous. The genes that might trigger this type of self-sacrifice die out, leaving the world overrun with those that spell Family First in a chemical script of As and Cs and Gs and Ts. These narcissistic sequences were so successful that we nearly all have them. Though I like to think of myself as a rational, thoughtful individual, I too have a brain that would command me to trample all the other children on the playground if my daughter were in danger.

These genes helped my ancestors survive long enough that I might be here today.

evolution
It doesn’t work quite like this, but what a picture.  Picture by T. Michael Keesey on Flickr.

Today’s world is very different, of course. Modern agriculture is so productive that there should be plenty of food for all. Air travel and urban living means there is no longer any correlation between physical appearance and genetic similarity. And I would like to think that our thousands of years of philosophical inquiry – what we’ve done with the magnificent brains that natural selection bequeathed us – have accomplished something. We should know better now.

It’s hard, though. Practicing uniform kindness with our brains can be like running Photoshop on a Linux machine; even when it doesn’t hang and crash, the fans are working overtime. My former housemate competes in something called “power racing,” where she builds small vehicles propelled by lawnmower engines. She has to be careful when she drives: juice her machine too hard and the engine might melt. There are always complications when a tool designed for one task is repurposed for another.

DSCN0106.JPG
An illustrative example.  Photo credit: the Vulture.

As for our brains, our chauvinism is innate. Psychology journals are full of evidence of this, especially in the older issues, back when rampantly unethical experimental design and the consent-less manipulation of children were seen as permissible in the name of science. A week-long camp with children partitioned into two animal-themed teams is enough to instill a powerful sense of jingoism. Even a classification as arbitrary as falsely purporting that a child over- or under-estimates the number of dots on a screen is enough to trigger a narrowing of moral concern to the child’s own kind.

9781627796330And yet: empathy can be learned. Charles Foster’s Being a Beast is a lively demonstration. Foster is a trained veterinarian and ethicist who sought an understanding of the inner lives of animals. In Being a Beast, he documents the months he spent scavenging urban trash like a fox, shivering in winter rivers like an otter, huddling alongside his middle-school-aged son in a hillside burrow like a badger, and chasing after migratory swifts.

Though living as a badger sounds ridiculous, the success or failure of Foster’s project has serious implications. If learning to empathize with someone whom we’ve been taught to view as other were extremely difficult, we might resign ourselves to a world in which no one who brandishes the slogan “all lives matter” could ever understand the fear of black parents that their children might be killed by officers sworn to protect them. Justice, though necessary, might never gain popular support.

No person is more other than an animal. If Foster can understand how it feels to be a beast, then we must all have it in us to offer justice to our fellow humans.

Alarmingly, Foster perceives his project as having failed. In a passage on river otters, Foster dismisses his efforts brusquely:

otterAnd, knowing that the cold, and that urgent calorific imperative, sends otters wandering even more widely, I’ve tramped and tramped the riverbanks and the watersheds, trying to feel in touch with them – or in touch with anything outside myself. I’ve failed.

But Foster, who suffers from depression, is not to be trusted as to the quality of his own work. Like all depressed people, he can malign himself cruelly where congratulations are due.

Foster’s project did not fail. For one, he created a compelling work of art. I laughed aloud at his description of otters as frenetic killing machines. And his experience of empathizing with swifts, a type of bird, is deeply poignant:

tachymarptis_melba_-barcelona_spain_-flying-8I’m best at being a swift when I’m on the ground. At least then I can see and smell the source of the air rivers the swifts are fishing, hear the thrum next to my ear of the wasp that will be broken three hundred yards up, and slap a fly on my arm at more or less the same speed as the swift’s stubby neck would turn and its mandibles close on it.

Most importantly, he was able to overcome all the years in which he’d trained his mind to see badgers, otters, and birds as inescapably other:

badger_odfw_2But species boundaries are, if not illusory, certainly vague and sometimes porous. Ask any evolutionary biologist or shaman.

It is a mere 30 million years – the blink of a lightly lidded eye on an earth whose life has been evolving for 3.4 thousand million years – since badgers and I shared a common ancestor. Go back just 40 million years before that, and I share my entire family album not only with badgers but with herring gulls.

All the animals in this book are pretty close family. That’s a fact. If it doesn’t seem like that, our feelings are biologically illiterate. They need reeducation.

Foster changed his life in a way that proves his project succeeded. He was an avid hunter through his youth and young adulthood but writes that, because of this experience, “I’ve put down my guns and taken up my tofu.” He was willing to give up his own pleasure once he convinced himself that the animals he hunted were unique individuals with their own wants and desires. He was willing to make personal sacrifices because others’ pain no longer seemed so different from his own.

We can overcome the reflexes of our minds.

neilLuckily, it seems to require fewer heroics to successfully empathize with another human than Charles Foster employed in his efforts to understand animals. We need not scuttle naked through the woods, defecate outdoors, ask someone to chase us with a pack of hunting dogs. If all you’re after is empathy for other humans, it seems that reading will do. Reading in general, and especially the reading of emotionally-engaging fiction, makes people more empathetic. In The View from the Cheap Seats, Neil Gaiman speculates that this transformation occurs because “you get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.”

It might take nothing more than great literature – including, perhaps, Charles Foster’s Being a Beast, alongside The Invisible Man, The Bluest Eye, A Naked Singularity, The Beast Side, and the works cited in Justice Sotomayor’s Strieff dissent – for Trump’s supporters to be pained by our nation’s shameful treatment of minorities. The incarceration crisis, the education crisis, the police-murdering-people-in-the-streets crisis. Perhaps books could engender the political will needed to overcome injustice.

(Lest I sound too blithely hopeful, I should probably mention that reading in this country, especially reading fiction, has been on a steady decline for years.)