Many toys for babies are designed to be loud. A baby moves, and suddenly there’s sound! Bells or jangling rings or stuffed animals that drink batteries to sing!
These toys delight! (Well, they delight the baby. Parents often find them aggravating.) These toys make a baby feel powerful.
With these small hands, I can change the world!
And, crayons! And paint! Oh, the apparent joys of non-toxic fingerpaint! As the baby moves, the world retains a visible memory of that movement!
The world remembers me! My presence here: it matters!
My eldest is now in second grade. Like most second graders, she has recently discovered that she is hilarious! She can read a joke in a book and then tell it to people. She can tell those jokes again and again and again and they are funny every time!
My younger child is now in kindergarten. Because her older sibling is telling jokes, she wants to tell jokes also. And her jokes are hilarious, too! She knows that they’re hilarious because she tells the same jokes as her sibling. One after the other, they tell me the same jokes.
Each time I say, “Hmmm, I don’t know, _______, what do you get when you cross a sheep dog with a rose?”
And each child in turn is hilarious when they tell me that it makes a collie-flower. Or that the cheese that isn’t yours is nacho cheese. Or that …
All the jokes that my children tell are funny (to them), but a certain genre is particularly loved. Yes, the knock-knock jokes! Because a knock-knock joke isn’t only a chance to feel hilarious – knock-knock jokes are power.
You can see the realization dawning: if I say “Knock knock,” people have to say “Who’s there?”
Knock-knock jokes are like sorcery. Like a form of puppeteering. Knock-knock jokes allow a child to control everyone around them!
But, oh! The moment when people decide that a particular child is too old for knock-knock jokes – when friends and family fail to respond with “Who’s there?” – must feel so disillusioning! Suddenly, a font of power has been wrested away! The child will have lost a way to control the people around them!
Eventually, this sense of power fades. Or rather, we grow older and become jaded. Inured to the sense of empowerment that children’s toys and knock-knock jokes once gave us. Being able to alter the world with a crayon no longer feels enough; we want to do more than make red marks on stray sheets of paper.
Many people age into these evolving expectations gracefully. Recognizing the increasing amounts of work and effort needed to change the world in meaningful ways. When an adult makes art, we expect rather more from their creations – the blobby monsters drawn by a child might seem less impressive if they’d been made by someone in their thirties. Children reap praise by building a fort from cardboard boxes; a grown-up might be expected to build a house.
Sometimes, though – and this is especially common among men – the world doesn’t make people feel as powerful as they think it ought to.
I was supposed to be master of my domain, and instead you’re talking back to me??
And so they attempt to wrest a sense of power from the world around them with violence. They find ways to circumvent their gnawing fear of being ignored.
When I say “Knock knock,” people have to say “Who’s there?” When I whistle and shout a lewd comment at a woman, she has to cringe!
Ah, right – aggrieved men don’t just wrest a sense of power “from the world.” Unfortunately, men are often given the false impression that power is synonymous with power over. And so their sense of power needs to come at the expense of someone else: someone perceived as weaker, lesser, lower in their imagined hierarchy.
By harassing a woman, a man might feel momentarily powerful again.
The aim of harassment … is not only to control women’s bodies but also to invade their minds. … Harassment is always a sexual demand, but it also carries a more sinister and pathetic injunction: ‘You will think about me.’ Like sexual abuse, to which it is affiliated, harassment brings mental life to a standstill, destroying the mind’s capacity for reverie.
Power: the sense that our actions will be noticed. For our 45th president, leading a nation was not enough: he wanted for people to pay attention to him. He kept shouting into the insatiable maw of social media; he needed to watch television news to see evidence that people had noticed his latest shout.
But not every aggrieved man has a bevy of journalists to amplify his inane blather. “My I.Q. is one of the highest,” “Windmills are the greatest threat to eagles,” “The concept of global warming was created by the Chinese” – lots of men say this sort of thing, yet still they go unnoticed! Which makes them feel powerless! It’s very unfair!
But there’s a solution: interject oneself into the world in a sufficiently awful way, and then it’ll be impossible to be ignored!
In Culture Warlords, Talia Lavin describes how it felt to immerse herself in the internet worlds of white supremacy and hate. In some ways, this might feel like a silly project: isn’t the goal of internet trolls to feel powerful by being noticed? By intentionally studying them, isn’t Lavin giving them what they want?
In a passage describing her observation of a flame war between pagan white supremacist trolls and Christian white supremacist trolls, Lavin writes:
While researching that religious expression, it was easy for me to get bogged down in who’s drinking goat blood for Satan and who thinks a cone-shaped Crusader helmet is an extremely cool fashion accessory and who’s climbing mountains to sacrifice to Odin in hopes of awakening the white race.
Sifting through the details, and observing the nonstop, puerile nature of their speech, it can be easy to wonder precisely what the point of decoding all this hate is. Isn’t it just hate? Aren’t these just losers pontificating and arguing on the internet?
The thing about hate, though, is it metastasizes. The thing about channels that are filled, twenty-four hours a day, with stochastic violence – testosterone-filled megaphones shouting for blood – is that, sooner or later, someone is going to take them up on it.
In many ways, a person who has studied martial arts for decades is just as dangerous as a person with a gun. Either person, if they felt sufficiently threatened, could cause someone to die.
But there’s a difference: the power from martial arts is earned. During long years of training, a person learns not to feel threatened. Having put in the work, they’ll feel powerful and so learn to control that power.
Whereas it’s trivially easy to buy a gun. There’s no impetus for psychological growth. You’ll be left with the same weak, scared, angry person – now suddenly more dangerous.
Boorish men. Internet trolls. Self-appointed militia men asserting their Second Amendment right to feel powerful without effort. They’re like aggrieved children, furious if you’re not responding to their knock-knock jokes.
You have to notice me!
Harasser, internet troll, attention-starved man with a gun: in the modern world, this might well be a single individual. Which is why Lavin’s journalism matters: these men’s hate speech can lead so easily to physical violence.
The hateful internet troll who murdered 49 people in an Orlando nightclub (while wounding & traumatizing many others) was checking Facebook during the act. As though the only way to be noticed – to feel any sense of power – was to be awful.
How is white paint like the defeat of our nation’s (former!) white-supremacist in chief?
They’re pulling us back from the brink. Both ample cause for dancing in the street.
When I woke on Wednesday, November 4th, the news looked grim.
Before the 2016 election, I felt pretty sure that Donald Trump would win. I felt horrible about the prospect, but based on conversations I’d been having with people – and because the man embodies so much of our crass, self-serving, money-hungry national id – it seemed very likely that Trump would be elected.
But I had no prediction this time. I haven’t been talking to people. My family has returned to something vaguely like our regular life – my spouse is teaching, my kids are in school – but the local jail won’t let me inside, and I have far fewer conversations with folks around town. Our voices are muffled, and I can’t see their lips for extra help in parsing words.
I had hoped, obviously, that watching what the man has done to our country would induce people to vote for anyone else.
Nevertheless, almost half the people who voted wanted that man to stay in office.
Sure, Joe Biden clearly won the popular vote – but it wasn’t a landslide. It was something like 51% to 48%. Even ignoring, for a moment, the awfulness of the electoral college – a system that was designed so that some people could enjoy the FREEDOM to abduct, torture, and murder other people – 51% to 48% is quite close.
Almost half our nation’s voters think the president has been doing a dang fine job and should carry on with it.
On Wednesday morning, it looked like the electoral college might proffer another victory to our current president.
I didn’t take to the streets. Nor did I descend into my secret bunker.
I don’t even have a secret bunker. Although I did notice, when I went grocery shopping on Monday before the election, that the shelves were stripped bare of most types of canned beans. I imagine other people were stocking their secret bunkers.
And it’s not clear to me whether I’d be more in need of a secret bunker if Trump had won – four more years of ravage – or if Biden had won decisively, which might induce violence from the most prominent terrorist organizations in our country, the well-armed white supremacists.
I bought some dried beans. Which is silly, I know. With young children in the house, I almost never plan our meals well enough ahead of time to use dried beans instead of canned. And, in the event of TOTAL CHAOS, there’s no guarantee that we’d have running water to cook dried beans with. And also, maybe it’s excessively paranoid to be at the grocery store a day before a U.S. presidential election and feel an overwhelming dread of impending violence.
But maybe it’s not. That’s the thing. Maybe it’s not.
Any Rip Van Winkles who lay down for a nap in 2015 would have thought I was being absurd. But in 2020, other people had gotten to the canned beans before I did.
So, waking up, feeling nauseous at the gaping blood-red wound / chasm confronting me from the New York Times website’s map of the United States on Wednesday, I sat down to send sad emails to a few people I care about. Given that depression is normally a very private affair – too private, most people suffering in silence, alone – it felt almost cathartic to have the opportunity for such shared despair. Perhaps 52% of our nation felt the same hopeless nausea that I did.
During one of these sad emails, I wrote about stocks. I’d hedged my bets – stock in construction equipment like CAT in case Joe Biden wins and actually embarks on our sorely-needed infrastructure project; stock in HVAC (air conditioning) and Canadian agriculture in case Trump won.
And, sure, maybe I shouldn’t unload my Canadian ag stocks yet. If the obstructionists hold the Senate, maybe Biden will be stymied in his efforts to address climate change. But, you know what? At least he’s gonna try.
The other guy was going to keep tweeting that sacred-water-poisoning pipelines and mountain-wrecking coal mining would Make America Uninhabitable Later, and, after an erudite Black man had successfully governed our nation for eight years, lots of folks really wanted to maul something.
But, the dire need for air conditioning?
Well, let’s preface this by saying that air conditioning is going to be a really problematic feedback loop in our efforts to address climate change. The world gets hotter, people feel miserable, people use more air conditioning, air conditioning is a huge energy suck, which makes the world get even hotter. That’s bad. If a chemical company develops a more efficient coolant, it’ll be a huge boon.
Kinda strange for a hippie environmentalist like me to extol the efforts of companies like Dow chemical, but also, I’m a scientist, and, also, this is where we are in the world. Things would be different if we’d made better choices years ago.
No matter. This essay is a happy one, chock full of good news.
The first good news is that, pending a few lawsuits that will (eventually) fizzle in a tangled mess of illogic, Biden has won the U.S. presidency. Of our nation’s approximately 140 million eligible candidates for president, Joe Biden isn’t my number one pick. But, still. I voted for him. He’s good enough.
I’m quite happy he won.
(Given the stakes this year – buying dried beans on Monday, honestly! – that’s an understatement.)
Here’s some more good news: new paint!
Seriously. If you can spare a minute to read Science magazine’s layperson-friendly press release, please, click here!
There’s a charming new research article – published three weeks ago, but unnoticed by me until this morning – that describes how much cooling we could achieve by painting buildings with a fresh coat of this special formulation of white paint.
Sunlight shines down, ready to heat any buildings covered in black shingles or whatever, but sunlight will bounce off this white paint, and be reflected in a lovely spread of wavelengths to fly back harmlessly into outer space.
This is, after all, the usual problem with greenhouse gases. Carbon dioxide lets inbound sunlight pass through, but all our stuff down here on Earth absorbs the photons of sunlight and in return ships off a larger number (more entropy, more chaos) of lower energy (so that no energy is created or destroyed) infrared photons, and the greenhouse gases won’t let those new photons fly off into outer space, so our planet heats up.
Joe Biden. And white paint.
Our species is a bit less likely to face extinction in the coming centuries. And that sounds great to me!
Recently, my hometown of Bloomington’s farmers market has been covered Fox News and The New York Times. Not because the vegetables sold here are particularly deserving of national attention. The market was deemed newsworthy because one of the farm stands is run by outspoken white supremacists.
Although Bloomington is a fairly liberal college town, this region has a sordid history of hate. The national Klan headquarters is less than 30 minutes away – when I was in college, the campus diversity coordinators warned students not to stop in that town, not even to buy gas. Even right here in Bloomington, there was a fracas at the local high school recently because some students decided to honor a friend who’d died by using cremation ashes to print bumper stickers – but they printed stickers of the Confederate flag.
Teaching poetry in the
local jail has made me much better at recognizing supremacist imagery. Most people know that the Confederate flag is
bad news, but I’ve gotten to see a wider range of hateful symbols tattooed onto
COs bring twelve people to
each week’s class – often two to four will be Black (in a town where the total
population is approximately 4% Black or African-American), and the rest are
usually white guys. It’s pretty common
for one or two of the white guys to have visible supremacist
tattoos. Which doesn’t even include
questionable stuff like the dude who got an poke and stick of the words “White
Trash” in elaborate two-in-tall cursive letters during his time there. Tattooing runs afoul of the jail’s “no self
mutilation” policy, but most COs studiously overlook the guys’ rashy red skin
and burgeoning designs.
When I’m there, we often
read poetry that directly addresses racial injustice. I’ve brought stuff by Reginald Dwayne Betts,
Ross Gay, Terrance Hayes, Adrian Matejka, and Tracy Smith. Sometimes these lead to good
discussions. Sometimes our class gets
In one of the poems titled “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” Hayes pulls off a stunning trick. The same line is included twice, but the word “haunted” changes from a verb into an adjective after the language slides into a less formal diction. It’s a beautiful moment. The first time I brought this poem, we talked about the clinginess of the past, the way not only our own histories but also the histories of our forebears can stalk us through time.
The next time I brought
this poem, several guys reacted by saying that Black people don’t talk right. Then they went off about sagging pants. All this from southern-accented white guys
whose missing-toothed, meth-mouthed mumbles and guffaws I could barely
We had to quickly move on.
Or there was the time when
we read Betts’ “Elegy with a City in It,” a fantastic poem that uses a spare,
stark set of words and sounds to simultaneously evoke both the deprivations of
the inner city and the epic grandeur of The Iliad, which uses a
similarly constrained lexicon.
Many gone to the grave:
by blood, lost in the
of all that is awful:
think crack and
what time steals,
or steals time: black
nights when men offed in
the streets awed
If you read the poem
aloud, you’re chanting the same phonemes over and over, but their meanings
twist and turn as they spill from your tongue.
That’s what I wanted to discuss.
Instead, a few guys
latched onto lines like
Mario, Charles, they all
the inside of a coffin …
and this offended them because “white people have it bad, too!” As though Betts could not describe Black pain without trivializing their own. Soon somebody was saying “All lives matter” and that he’d voted for our current president. This guy was in jail because he’d been caught selling heroin to support his own habit. The president he’d voted for had recently recommended executing drug dealers.
Somebody else shook his
head and muttered, “y’all are fucking [stupid].”
We moved on.
In my classes, I work with a wide range of ages – sometimes guys as young as seventeen, sometimes men in their sixties. My spouse, as a high school teacher, works with younger people – anywhere from fourteen to eighteen years old. But ideology can set in early. My spouse has had students whose families were prominent in the Klan.
At the beginning of the
year, she asks each student to fill in the paper silhouette of a head with
words and pictures of what inspires them to succeed. She then posts these along the ceiling of her
classroom. Several times, she’s had to
ask kids to erase supremacist imagery.
So it isn’t terribly
surprising that some farmers at our local market have hateful beliefs. Right-wing supremacist movements are major
terrorist organizations in this country, and they do a lot of recruiting. As our nation has become slightly less
horrible, though, many of these people learned to be circumspect. They maintain a divide between their private
and public language.
People who rely upon
public, liberal venues like our farmers market can’t be too outspoken with
Indeed, the white supremacist farmers who were recently outed tried to be circumspect. But they must have felt lonely, and they grew too careless. Under a pseudonym, they posted on the Identity Evropa message board. This is a website devoted to the ideologies that have inspired the vast majority of terrorism in the United States. Theoretically, this is a venue where people get to cultivate their hatred anonymously. But one of their compatriots was caught painting swastikas on a synagogue (see image below) and blew their cover. Sort of. The vandal was interrogated by the FBI, and his remark unveiling the farmers’ pseudonym was buried deep in a 200-page sentencing document.
Through assiduous work, a
team of activists was able to prove that these farmers were white supremacists.
The activists who had
worked so hard to gather evidence were obviously against hate. They wanted to take action. But the plan they favored wasn’t very
flashy. They would organize a boycott of
that farm stand. They also proposed that
the city use the sellers’ farmers market fees to fund grants for people of
color, with the understanding that our nation’s long history of racism has
inequitably skewed the demographics of agricultural land holdings.
To stay at the farmers
market, the supremacists would have had to support a cause they loathed … and
they were making less and less money here.
I was told that, during the boycott, the farmers had begun padding their
bins, bringing fewer vegetables each week so that they could still appear to be
selling out their stock.
Unfortunately, the tropes
of social media have changed public discourse in our country. I assume it’s relatively uncontroversial to
claim that social media prizes style over substance. Quiet, careful plans are at a disadvantage in
the attention economy.
As word spread that these
farmers were white supremacists, patrons demanded that they be banned from our
market. People of color now felt unsafe
in that space, for obvious reasons.
There’s a difference between the perceived threat level felt by a
pale-skinned activist and by somebody who is recognizably a member of a racial
The mayor, whose spouse is
a constitutional law professor, rightly argued that the farmers would be able
to sue the city on a First Amendment case.
Still, people felt that we
had to do something more visible. Passively
allowing outspoken white supremacists to hawk their tomatoes at our market would
seem to be tacitly endorsing their political stance.
Everybody has a right to
believe whatever garbage they want. Do
you sincerely believe that people of northern European descent have a genetic
inclination toward greater intelligence?
You’re wrong, and you’re a jerk, but you’re allowed to believe that.
The problem is that white
supremacist organizations like Identity Evropa use terrorism to back their
asinine beliefs. Implicit threats of
violence, delivered by people known to stockpile military-grade weaponry, are
different from “mere” hate.
If these farmers couldn’t
be banned, then we’d hold signs in front of their booth. Eventually, a protester was arrested – the
police had asked her to stand in a designated “announcements” area instead of
in the middle of the market – and, as always happens following an arrest, her
home address was published online.
She was soon inundated
with death threats.
As coverage of the dispute increased, right-wing militia types were also drawn to our town. Three percenters, unaffiliated gun nuts, other supremacists – they began to support that farm, undermining the boycott. And these radical Protestant faux-constitutional terrorists made sufficiently credible threats of mass violence that our mayor had to shut down the entire market for two weeks at the height of the growing season. Other farmers were suffering.
Calm, careful behavior
from the original activists – assiduously combing through those lengthy, dull
documents, not to mention their efforts to infiltrate local supremacists’
in-person social circles – had undoubtably helped. Hateful ideologies were exposed, and efforts
were made to impose consequences.
But then our visible
protests made matters worse. We’ve
helped the proponents of hate to make more money.
And, now that we’ve drawn attention to them, we’ve inadvertently connected these white supremacists with their allies. They will no longer need to post on public forums, which was the only reason that activists were able to prove that they supported these ideologies in the first place. Now these supremacist farmers are invited speakers at right-wing events.
Our audience clapped for
the poems and stared aghast during our banter, which is probably as it should
We closed our set with a
piece from M.G. This poem was written in
February, before the public turmoil regarding our farmers market began. At a moment when so many of us were warily watching
that space, it seemed important to remind people that there have always been
watchful eyes gazing at the market.
The farmers market is just
down the street from our five-story county jail.
Our criminal justice system ensnares people from all walks of life. Occasionally we’ll hear about the arrest of a wealthy sociopath with a penchant for child abuse, like Jared Fogel or Jeffrey Epstein.
But, let’s face it. Justice in this country isn’t applied fairly. If you’re wealthy, your behavior has to be a lot more egregious for you to reap the same punishments as a poor person. If you look white, your behavior has to a lot more egregious for you to reap the same punishments as a black person.
There’s abundant statistical evidence to back up these claims. But the Supreme Court won’t allow any particular individual to petition for reduced punishment based on the statistical evidence. After all, prosecutors, judges, and juries ostensibly came to their decisions based on the unique details of each individual case. Just because people who resemble you are often treated unfairly doesn’t mean that you were treated unfairly, too.
Because we apply punishment so inequitably, our jails and prisons are full of people who’ve been treated poorly by the world. Compared to the average citizen, people in prison grew up with less money, received less education, experienced more trauma. And, no matter what people’s earlier lives were like, if they’re in prison, they’re not being treated well now.
So they have a lot of justifiable grievances against the dominant political, cultural, and religious beliefs of our country. Punished unfairly by their fellow Christians, people sour on Christianity. Inside walls where the demographics make it blatantly obvious that our laws are enforced in a malignantly racist way, racial tensions boil.
At Pages to Prisoners, an organization that sends free books to people inside, we get requests for stuff about Norse mythology, Odinism, and Asatru. Lots of folks ask for material to learn foreign languages – people want to feel like they’ve accomplished something during their time in prison – but I always feel skeptical when somebody wants help learning Icelandic.
Not that there’s anything wrong with Icelandic. And Norse mythology is cool! Unfortunately, a gaggle of violent white supremacists decided that Norse mythology should be the basis for their religion. Starting in the 1970s, a right-wing racist from Florida began sending “Odinist” publications into prisons.
During the thirteenth century, Christian scholars transcribed many of the old Norse myths so that they could better understand the literary allusions of old Icelandic poetry. But they didn’t record anything about ancient religious practice. We barely have any information about most ancient pagan beliefs. Anyone who wants to adopt a pre-Christian European religion now – whether it’s Wicca, Druidism, Odinism, or Celtic polytheism – is basically forced to make things up.
I have nothing against religious invention. All religions were made by human beings – there’s no a priori reason why a religion created long ago, by people who understood much less about the world than we do now, would be better than something you invent today. Sure, ancient religions have been tested by time, suggesting that they possess virtues that their practitioners found helpful over the years, but most ancient religions have their problems, too. Inaccurate cosmologies, scattered hateful passages in their texts, that sort of thing.
So I like the idea of neo-paganism. You want to find a clearing in the woods and
do some moonlit dancing? You’d rather
worship a feminine generative force than a norm-enforcing patriarchal deity? You want to exalt nature as a hearth to be
protected rather than a resource to be exploited? Go right ahead! All of that sounds pretty great to me.
neo-paganism as it’s currently practiced in prison tends to be pretty hateful.
That’s why I’ve been
working on a set of anti-racist pamphlets about Norse mythology. Currently, when people ask for The Poetic
Edda or whatever, we send a friendly letter saying that we don’t have it,
and also that we generally don’t stock that sort of thing because it runs afoul
of our anti-hate policy.
But the Norse myths are
certainly no more hateful than Biblical myths, and we send plenty of
those. The main difference is that
centuries of continued Christian practice have created a scaffolding of gentler
beliefs around the stories in the Bible.
The text of Psalm 137
states that “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little
ones against the stones.” But the
text is a tool, not the entirety of the religion. The practice of Christianity frowns upon
the murder of any human infant. Whether
you like the kid’s parents or not.
We’d be better off if Pages to Prisoners could send warm-hearted material about Norse mythology to people. Sure, you can interpret the Norse myths as endorsing a war-mongering death cult. You can interpret the Old Testament that way, too. But you can also interpret the Norse myths as environmentalist. Feminist. Supporting the pursuit of knowledge. Judging strangers based upon their merits, not their appearance.
Odinism is so entangled with white supremacy, though, our pamphlet will have to
address skin color and genetic heritage directly. It’s a fraught topic. Lots of people in the U.S. don’t like any discussion
of evolution. Some people feel squigged
out when they learn that contemporary birds evolved from the same set of common
ancestors as the dinosaurs. And that’s far
less emotionally charged than a description of human evolution.
Plus, skin color still has huge implications for how people are treated in the United States. Consider, um, those prison demographics I cited above. And so discussions about the evolution of epidermal melanin concentrations are especially tense. Although the underlying biology is simple – some places have more sunlight than others! – because people think it matters, it does.
I’ve found that these conversations are actually a decent way to get people interested in the study of archeology and biology, though. After we’ve discussed this in jail, people have asked me to bring research papers and textbooks so that they could learn more.
Whenever two groups of an organism stop mating with each other, they’ll slowly drift apart. This rift might occur because the groups became physically separated from each other. Maybe one group migrated to an island. In contemporary times, maybe the groups were separated when humans built a new highway bisecting a habitat. Maybe two sets of similar-looking insects mate apart because they’re eating fruits that ripen at different times.
Or the groups might stop mating with each other because a chance mutation caused members of one group to want their sexual partners to smell a certain way. Various species of stickleback are able to interbreed – they identify other members of their kind based on smell. But water pollution has overwhelmed the fishes’s senses, leading the fish to mate indiscriminately.
If humans hadn’t
polluted their waters, though, these sticklebacks would have drifted farther
and farther apart until it became impossible for them to interbreed. No matter how many sense-suppressing
chemicals we dumped.
We don’t know what caused the initial rift between our ancestors and the ancestors of contemporary chimpanzees. About 4 million years ago, though, these groups stopped having children together. By 2 millions years ago (at least 100,000 generations later), these groups looked quite different from each other. Although it’s possible that these organisms could have still mated with each other and raised viable progeny, they rarely did.
One group of these
creatures, which included our ancestors, had a tucked pelvis and mostly upright
posture. This allowed for a good vantage
while scavenging and, eventually, hunting.
The other group, which includes chimpanzees’ ancestors, mostly moved on
all fours. This body plan results in
fewer mothers dying during childbirth.
As ever, there are trade-offs to be made.
Up until about 2 million
years ago, all our ancestors lived in Africa.
But then they began to migrate.
Over the next million years, they explored much of the globe. By about 500,000 years ago, half a dozen
different types of humans lived in Africa, Europe, and Asia. The difference between one population to the
next was not like the racial differences among contemporary humans, but more
like the difference between lions and tigers, or between polar bears and brown
bears. Scientists describe them as
distinct species. Although they were
similar enough that they could have sex and raise children together, they
rarely did – they lived in distinct parts of the world and had begun to evolve
adaptations to their specific environments.
Evolution isn’t easy. Nor is it quick. Just because a certain trait would be
advantageous doesn’t mean that creatures will acquire it. In the desert, it would help to have
adaptations for water retention like camels, or long ears like jackrabbits to
cool the blood. But a trait can only
spread after a random mutation creates it.
And, even if a trait is very helpful, if only one individual is born
with the adaptation, there’s no guarantee that it will have enough children for
the benefit to spread through the population.
Once a beneficial trait has a good toe-hold – present in perhaps 1% to 10% of the population – then we can expect it to flourish. But below that amount, even great adaptations might die off due to bad luck. That’s why it takes so many generations – tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands – before you see organisms become drastically better suited for the environment. Even when scientists do directed evolution experiments in the lab, it takes about this many generations for a population of bacteria to evolve ways to consume a new food source, for instance.
By 500,000 years ago, the various species of humans were recognizably different. Denisovans lived in the mountains, and their hemoglobin genes allowed them to avoid altitude sickness. Their blood was less likely to clot and cause strokes, and they could extract more oxygen from the thin air. These are incredibly beneficial traits. Even though the Denisovans went extinct about 40,000 years ago, about 40% of people currently living in Tibet have copies of the Denisovan hemoglobin gene.
Our ancestors migrated east to the Denisovans’ homeland just before the Denisovans went extinct. To be perfectly honest, we probably killed them. But before or during this genocide, a few of our ancestors must have had sex with the locals. And then the bi-racial children of these Homo sapiens / Denisovan couplings must have been significantly better off for the gene to spread so widely.
The Neanderthal lived at
high latitude. Over many generations,
their average skin color became paler.
In part, this was probably due to the lack of selective pressure. Think about a dodo – there was no advantage
for these birds to lose their fear of humans.
But, because the dodos were living on an island that no humans traveled
to, there was also no harm in the birds becoming fearless.
Dodos lost a beneficial
trait – fear – because their fear wasn’t actively needed. It’s kind of like the airbags in an old
car. If your car’s engine goes bad,
you’ll notice right away. Turn the key,
hear it sputter. You use the engine
every time you drive. But your airbags
could get worse without you noticing … and then, in the moment when they’re
needed, they won’t deploy.
Humans living near the equator need epidermal melanin. If you don’t have enough melanin, you’ll get sunburns, which exacerbate the risk of infection and dehydration; you’ll suffer radiation-induced DNA damage, which leads to skin cancer; and you’ll lose folate, which means that pregnant women will have more birth defects.
The most recent ancestors
that humans and chimpanzees shared in common had pale skin. Contemporary chimpanzees are still pale. They can afford to be – their fur protects
them from the sun. But our ancestors
lost their fur, probably so that they didn’t overheat while running, and this
led to the evolution of dark skin.
High concentrations of
epidermal melanin distinguished humans from the other apes.
As humans migrated to
higher latitudes, though, they gradually lost this indicator of their
humanity. Because the sunlight was less
intense, there was less selective pressure.
Humans could lose their epidermal melanin in the same way that dodos
lost their fear – not because it was helpful to go without it, but because the
trait went untested in their day to day lives.
They had no way to “realize” how important it was.
Your airbags aren’t
helpful until you crash. And then
they’ll either deploy and save you, or they won’t.
Now, it’s possible that the Neanderthal also experienced some positive selective pressure on their skin color as they migrated north. Over thousands of generations, the Neanderthals may have benefited from paler skin because it increased their production of vitamin D. We don’t know for certain that the Neanderthal felt any evolutionary pressure to have more vitamin D – after all, contemporary Inuit people live at very high latitudes but still have a lot of epidermal melanin – but it’s true that vitamin D deficiency is a big risk among people with crummy diets.
In the past, hunter / gatherers typically ate much healthier, more varied diets than farmers. When humans began to farm, they would mostly eat the one type of plant that they cultivated, rather than the wide mix of plants that could be found growing wild. And when Homo sapiens farmers migrated to northern Europe, their diets were so poor that they even developed loss-of-function mutations in a cholesterol synthesis gene, probably so that they’d have higher concentrations of vitamin D precursors. Among these people, pale skin was probably a big advantage. They’d be ready for the cloudless days when their homeland’s feeble sunlight was enough to make some vitamin D.
Around 40,000 years ago,
our planet’s most recent ice age ended.
The world began to warm, and glaciers retreated from Europe. By then, a group of humans living in Africa
were recognizably Homo sapiens.
These were our ancestors. Every
human alive today – no matter what you look like or where your family is from –
is descended from this group of people from Africa. They lived in tribes of twenty to a hundred
people, had darkly pigmented skin, made art, and spoke complex languages.
As the world warmed, some
of these Homo sapiens began to migrate.
These journeys occurred over many generations. Some tribes stayed in Africa; some tribes
ventured north into Europe; others moved east toward Asia. As they traveled, they encountered the humans
who already lived in those places. As
I’ve mentioned, the newcomers occasionally had sex and raised children with the
natives. They probably also killed a lot
of them. Unfortunately, we Homo
sapiens don’t have the best reputation for treating strangers well.
rarely enough that most people living today have about 99% Homo sapiens DNA. Some people, especially if their families are
from Africa, have essentially 100% Homo sapiens DNA. At other extreme, even people whose families
are from Europe have 96% or more Homo sapiens DNA.
Among people living in
Tibet, the Denisovan hemoglobin gene is common, but most other Denisovan genes
Like the Neanderthal
before them, the Homo sapiens who ventured north into Europe began to
lose their epidermal melanin. People who
hunted and fished probably became paler simply because there was less risk of
sun damage. Remember, this didn’t happen
all at once. Average skin color would
change only over the course of hundreds or even thousands of generations, not
during the course of a single journeying Homo sapiens’s lifetime.
Our ancestors spent almost
all their time outdoors, which is why even dark-skinned people could probably
synthesize plenty of vitamin D. Among
contemporary humans, vitamin D deficiency is such a big problem because we
spend too much time inside. As I type
this, I’m sitting at a table in the YMCA snack room, lit up by flickering
fluorescent bulbs. This low-quality
light won’t help me make vitamin D.
Instead, I take a daily
supplement. But that doesn’t come near
matching the health and psychological benefits of time outdoors.
Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that people in jail – places not known for providing a rich, high-quality, varied diet – typically get to go outside no more often than once a week. At our local jail, their hour of “outdoor rec” occurs in a little courtyard at the top of the jail, a cement space covered with a chain-linked fence. Outdoor rec often happened at night – a friend who was recently released told me that “This was still nice. You could see some stars. And there’s that restaurant, Little Zagrib, down the street? Sometimes we’d smell foods from their kitchen.”
Treating people that way
is unlikely to help them get better.
But back to our migrants! Descendants of these pale-skinned Homo sapiens continued to explore new territories. Some reached North America about 12,000 years ago, and some of their descendants continued farther, all the way to South America.
As people traveled –
journeys that lasted many generations – they continued to evolve. Indeed, skin color was a trait that came
repeatedly under selective pressure. As
people migrated south into the Americas, they were living progressively closer
and closer to the equator. Compared to
their grandparents, they were bombarded by more intense sunlight. They needed more epidermal melanin.
This is a process that
takes a long time. A family might have
six kids; maybe the two palest kids get sunburned, which makes it more likely
that they’ll develop skin infections and die before they have children of their
own. If this happens again and again,
among many different families, then eventually the whole population will wind
up with slightly darker skin.
Because human skin color
has changed during each of the many prehistoric migrations, it isn’t correlated
with other traits. As we entered the
modern era, people’s skin color was lighter or darker based on how close to the
equator their recent ancestors lived.
But human populations migrated so often that there were many different
groups, each with unique cultural and genetic heritages, living at every
latitude. Because skin color is so
closely linked to latitude, this means many different groups shared similar
concentrations of epidermal melanin. And
there’s no evolutionary pressure linking a trait that protects skin to brain
size or intelligence.
As it happens, there are
major events known to have caused a decrease in human brain size (and probably
intelligence). After all, human brains
are costly. Even though there’s a
benefit to being clever, there’s also been constant evolutionary pressure against
Large brains kill
mothers. Because humans walk upright,
childbirth is riskier for human mothers than for other primates. Our posture constrains the width of our hips
– both male and female – but a baby’s whole head has to pass through that
Having children is so
risky that we evolved to give birth about 3 months prematurely. Human gestation takes about a year, but most
mothers give birth after only 9 months.
This allows a baby’s head to continue to grow outside the mother’s body,
but human babies are totally helpless at birth.
We have to be very devoted parents to keep them alive.
Also, our brains require a
lot of fuel. Human evolution occurred
over such a long, long time that our ancestors lived through many droughts and
calamities. During the hard years, our
ancestors would struggle to get enough to eat, and a large brain makes that
A person with a smaller
brain requires fewer calories, making that person less likely to starve in lean
times. And, again, it’s worth
remembering that evolution happens over so many generations, among so many
families, that even small changes can add up.
If mothers who have small-headed children can survive a dozen
pregnancies, but mothers with large-headed children die after only a few, then
the trend will be to have people with smaller brains. Intelligence has to be extremely
beneficial to overcome this sort of evolutionary pressure.
Similarly, if people with
small brains are more likely to survive and raise children during droughts,
then, after hundreds of generations of people who have survived dozens of
extended droughts, you’d expect to see more people with small brains.
Many of us have the bad
habit of reflexively thinking about evolution as the gradual development of
more and more complexity. But that’s not
what it is. Evolution is the process by
which things that are better suited for their environment become more
abundant. If the environment is a hard
place to live in, then evolution tends to push for more and more simplicity. When it’s hard to get enough calories, why
waste calories on anything that you don’t really need?
Starfish are descended
from organisms that had brains. But
starfish are brainless. The ancestral
starfish that weren’t wasting energy thinking were more likely to survive.
Which should make you feel
pretty good about your own brain, actually.
Your ability to think is so fabulous that your ancestors evolved larger
and larger brains … even though these brains were sometimes causing us to
starve to death, or kill our mothers.
That’s a valuable thing
you’ve got inside your skull. It cost
our ancestors so much for you to be able to have it.
But, right. Because the cost was so high, human brains did shrink sometimes. Like when we first domesticated dogs. Our ancestors began living with dogs about 30,000 years ago. Dogs were willing to do some thinking for us – they’d sniff out prey and listen for predators at night. Based on the behavior of my family’s dogs, I bet that they licked the faces of screaming children. Maybe that doesn’t seem essential for survival, but I certainly appreciate every time our dogs calm the kids down.
Because we could slough
off a few mental tasks – I don’t need to be so observant if the dog will
help me hunt – our brains could shrink, making childbirth less deadly and
reducing the caloric cost of maintaining our minds each day.
When humans switched from hunting and gathering to agriculture, our brains shrunk further. A hunter / gatherer has to know so much about every plant and animal living nearby; the work asks more of a person’s brain than farming. This evolutionary trend was exacerbated by the fact that people’s diets became way worse when they began to farm. Instead of getting nutrition from a wide variety of different plants and animals, a farmer might eat meals consisting mostly of a single type of grain.
There’s nothing we can do now about these evolutionary trends. Dogs and farming swayed our ancestors’ evolution toward smaller brains, but it’s not as though you can get those neurons back by deciding to take up hunting, or never living with a pet.
But, honestly, our brains are so plastic that our genetic heritage matters less than how we choose to spend our time. By nature, neither gorillas nor parrots will speak human language. But individuals from both these species have been able to learn to communicate with us after we taught them.
Nobody is born with an
innate understanding of mythology, religion, science, or mathematics. None of that can be encoded in your
genes. If you want to understand this
stuff, you’ll have to make an effort to learn it.
Neuron count only suggests
a brain’s potential. You could do
incredible things with a low number – consider, by ways of analogy, the feats
that 1960s NASA accomplished using computers much smaller than a contemporary
telephone. And, conversely, sensory
deprivation will make it much harder to get things done, no matter what your
That’s why I volunteer with Pages to Prisoners. Our brains are capable of wonders. At any age, we can learn and grow. And yet, we lock people into prisons that seem designed to make them worse.
descended from the oppressors. My
ancestors ventured from their homeland with colonial aspirations and genocidal
It wasn’t my fault. I wasn’t born yet! But, having inherited vast privilege, some measure of responsibility from the misdeeds of my people surely falls upon my shoulders.
A hundred thousand years ago, several species of humans shared our planet. My ancestors, who would give rise to contemporary Homo sapiens, mostly lived in Africa. They differed from other primates in that their brains were larger, their posture more upright, their epidermis darker in hue, their verbal communication more nuanced.
During a period of climate change, my ancestors left their home. The planet was warming; glaciers receded; Homo sapiens ventured north.
Europe was already populated by humans, people who had weathered the bitter cold through the waning ice age. But my ancestors were undeterred. They did not respect the old territorial boundaries. Soon they supplanted the native peoples. Every last one of the natives died. Their people disappeared from the face of the earth, extinct.
Every time my ancestors ventured to a new land, the old inhabitants were killed. Nearly all of our planet’s large animals are gone now; megafauna extinction is directly correlated with human migration.
If it’s any consolation, Homo sapiens were not the only perpetrators of these atrocities. Every other human species – including those whom my ancestors harried to extinction – wrought similar devastation on their environments.
In this case, no reparations are possible. The victims are dead; their families curtailed. My ancestors’ misdeeds against them ceased, but only because there was no one left to harm.
But I can atone through remembrance.
And so, as a descendant of the oppressors, I felt a special sympathy toward the Neanderthal. When I was in school, these humans were consistently described as brutish, uncouth, and unintelligent. But I recognized that sort of language. My people have almost always maligned supposed “others” – until we took the time to learn how smart they are, all non-human animals were imagined to be unthinking automata. Pale-skinned Europeans claimed that intelligence – or even humanity itself – was inversely correlated with epidermal melanin concentration (by which measure Pan troglodytes would be more human than any Englishman).
Forty years ago, medical doctors implied that men who felt a sexual attraction to men differed from their peers on a cellular level, as though the human immunodeficiency virus was sensitive to a psychological preference. Even now, many medical doctors believe that people with higher amounts of epidermal melanin experience pain differently.
My people’s negative assessment of the Neanderthal, I figured, was probably not true. Indeed, in recent years we’ve discovered that Neanderthals made art, that they probably had spoken languages … that they were like us. Enough so that many humans living today carry Neanderthal DNA sequences in their genomes.
Inspired by Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, a first-person perspective of the apocalypse wrought upon 11th century England, I began working on a story narrated by the last of the Neanderthal.
I was still working on this story during the 2016 presidential election. But with our 45th openly praising white supremacists, I felt suddenly less inspired to celebrate the Neanderthal. Many of the hate mongers were extolling the virtues of humans descended from northern Europeans, and, as it happens, these are the people who have the most abundant remnants of Neanderthal DNA in their genomes.
Genetics isn’t destiny. And there haven’t been any correlations between Neanderthal DNA and intelligence; indeed, most of the genetic sequences that have been proposed to modulate intelligence are probably false. Neanderthal DNA has been found to correlate only with an increased risk of depression and an increased susceptibility to allergies.
I began working on my Neanderthal story as an apology to the dispossessed, but I couldn’t bring myself to finish it in an environment where some individuals might tout their Neanderthal heritage as a mark of superiority. As though their blood conferred the right to mistreat people from other backgrounds, or the right to so thoroughly ravage our planet’s atmosphere that other people’s homes are scorched or submerged beneath the sea.
seems shocking to me. Quite recently,
the Neanderthal were thoroughly impugned.
As though we could declare their kind to be undeserving of existence and
thereby spare ourselves a reckoning for having killed them.
contemporary oppressors herald the Neanderthal as a source of greatness. Light-skinned warrior folk, beset by
dark-skinned immigrants from the south.
Achilles briefly reaped fame and glory, then died in battle. But people continued to speak of his feats with reverence. In the underworld, he was as a god.
Yet Achilles would have
traded everything – lived in squalor as a peasant farmer instead of fighting
alongside kings – if it meant he could still be alive.
“No winning words about
death to me, shining Odysseus!
By god, I’d rather slave
on earth for another man –
some dirt-poor tenant
farmer who scrapes to keep alive –
then rule down here over
all the breathless dead.”
(translated by Robert
The mythologies of ancient
Greece offered no opportunity for resurrection.
As best I can recall, only one person almost managed to live again, and
only because she’d charmed the world’s greatest musician.
Most other religions
postulate that the dead could return.
This seems to be a widespread belief because it gives people hope. It’s easier to face death – our own or the
passing of loved ones – if we think that we could be reborn.
Even contemporary physicists speculate on the possibility of rebirth. Our minds are patterns. If the number of possible patterns is bounded, perhaps because physical space is granular … and if the universe is infinitely large, with an infinite quantity of matter to arrange and rearrange … and if time itself is boundless … then something very much like you will come back. Eventually.
The most probable form of resurrection is as a “Boltzmann brain,” a hypothetical structure in which the random fluctuations of a gaseous cloud temporarily recreates the connectivity as your current mind, including every memory and every perception that you seem to possess right now. Sure, you think you’ve lived here on Earth for years, which would seem to indicate that you’re not just a gaseous floating brain … but there’s no reason why the brain couldn’t blink into existence full of false memories. Your entire past might be a momentarily delusion. Even your present perceptions – everything that you’re experiencing right now, the sights and sounds and feeling of existence – exist within your mind and so could be recreated within a floating cloud.
Indeed, the physicists who
believe our universe to be infinite and eternal think that there would be many
times more “Boltzman brains” than living humans, and so you now are more
likely to be a floating mind than an extant creature. Again and again, they believe, you’ll exist
between the stars.
This speculation seems no
different from any other form of religious belief. Rebirth is rebirth, whether you think that
the pattern that makes you will arise again as an animal, an angel, or a
disembodied spirit in the sky …
But we, as individuals,
are unlikely to return.
More often, it’s religions themselves that are resurrected. They slip away; we strive to bring them back. Like Daoism, Wicca, or Odinism. From Ian Johnson’s recent essay, “In Search of the True Dao,”
Louis Komjathy, a scholar
who diligently seeks authentic Daoism, searches for masters who can initiate
him into a lineage, even though Daoist lineages have been largely destroyed by
the upheavals of the twentieth century.
There is no direct transmission of the ancient wisdom; instead it is a
recreation of a lost past.
At one time, the predominant religion in England was that of the druids and witches. Roman soldiers, who were hoping to conquer the world, reported that these druids were rotten people, bloodthirsty and fond of human sacrifice. Of course, similar slanders have been levied against outsiders throughout human history – Protestant Christians accused Catholics of human sacrifice, Muslims accused Christians of polytheism, Europeans accused Jews of all manner of imaginary ills, and even today many Americans believe Islam to be an inherently violent religion. I don’t think the Roman reports about those evil druids are very credible.
Pagans managed to repel
the Roman invaders. But then, years
later, Christianity spread throughout Europe, displacing the old faiths.
Similarly, the Norse myths we know today were recorded several generations after the populace had converted to Christianity. Poets were worried that no one would be able to read the ancient literature that had inspired them, because Icelandic poets described everything obliquely. For instance, you weren’t supposed to write the word “beer” in a poem; instead, you’d say something like “Odin’s gift,” since there was a myth in which Odin brought a special beer to share with the other gods, or you’d say “the eagle’s gift,” since Odin had changed shape to become an eagle in that story, or “Thor’s challenge,” since there was another myth in which Thor thought he was drinking beer but was actually slurping up the ocean.
And, yes, “Thor’s
challenge” could also mean “ocean.” The
old poems strike me as standoffish – instead of inviting listeners to share an experience,
the poets were challenging people to understand. Poetry not as a gift, but an obtuse riddle
intended to demonstrate how clever the poet is.
(Actually, some contemporary American poetry is like that too, and I
think it’s silly.)
When I read the Norse myths, I can’t help but think that the Christian scribes’ prejudices seeped into the stories. These scribes’ version of Christianity denigrated women – and most of the Norse myths about female heroes were coincidentally lost.
Her prowess had never been
questioned until we learned that she had two X chromosomes.
And so, although we still
have a story explaining that Thor’s greatest battle occurred while he was
wearing a dress, other tales of feminine triumph (which are referenced throughout
the cannon) were left out.
But, even if we still had
the full set of stories, we wouldn’t really understand the viking
religion. With a copy of the Bible, you
wouldn’t really understand Christianity; a copy of the Torah wouldn’t let you
suddenly understand Judaism. In practice,
these religions seek kindness and community, but the underlying texts are
violent and petty. Yahweh felt slighted
and decided to murder millions in a flood.
You’d have a pretty skewed vision of Christianity if that’s how you
thought believers were supposed to behave.
As Anthony Appiah explains in The Lies that Bind, the traditions and practices of a religion are often more important than the foundational documents describing the creed. In practice, the Jewish people of my home town don’t believe that sinners should be drowned in a flood, but rather welcome the lost into interfaith shelters, sharing warm clothes and a meal.
But when violent white supremacists decided to resurrect Odinism based off the preserved Norse myths, they created a strikingly unpleasant religion. They do not know any of the traditions. Instead, they base their beliefs on a handful of stories about the gods’ violent battles against giants, others about a human’s cursed wedding and betrayal.
It reveals more about a person’s character to see how they handle defeat. In the Christian bible, Jesus is a more compelling character than Yahweh. Jesus faces adversity, which sometimes he accepts calmly – he willingly submits to crucifixion despite knowing in advance that he has been betrayed – and sometimes heatedly – braiding a whip when he’s angered by commerce in the temple.
So, sure, Jesus loses his temper. Don’t we all? It’s understandable to lash out when unconscionable behavior seems to be taking over the world.
Which is why, when Jesus rages, he still seems like a sympathetic character. But when Yahweh does it, He seems small and petty. After all, Yahweh is omniscient. Omnipotent. He always wins, and yet he’s still jealous and wrathful.
In Norse mythology, every champion is shown both at moments of glory and in defeat. The latter episodes let us see the true depth of their strength.
In Laughing Shall I Die, Tom Shippey writes that:
Losing is a vital part of the Norse belief structure.Ragnarok is like Armageddon, the battle at the end of the world. In it the gods and their human allies will march out to fight against the frost giants and the fire giants, the trolls and the monsters. And in that battle – and this is not at all like Armageddon – our side, the good guys, will lose. Thor will kill the Midgard Serpent, the great snake that coils round the world, and then drop dead from its poison. Odin will be swallowed by the wolf Fenrir. Heimdal and the traitor god Loki, Tyr and the great hound Garm: both pairs will kill each other. Frey, left swordless, will fall before the fire giant Surt, who will then set the world ablaze.
The gods know this is going to happen. That is why Odin habitually betrays his own chosen heroes to death, and this is where the myth of Valhalla comes in. Odin wants his best heroes dead so he can collect them in his own Halls of the Slain (Valhalla), where they will fight each other every day, for practice, and come back to life-in-death at the end of every day, to feast.
The myths had a built-in answer for, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The Norse imagined that gods betrayed their champions in life because they needed allies in death.
Odin knows Ragnarok is coming, but since he does not know when, he wants his team to be at all times as strong as possible, even though the result is foreordained. Even the gods will die, and their side will lose as well, and they know they will. But this does not make them want to negotiate, still less change sides. Refusal to give in is what’s important. It’s only in ultimate defeat that you can show what you’re really made of.
All this shows an attitude to winning and losing markedly different from ours. To us, calling someone ‘a loser’ is seriously insulting. This must be the result of 150 years of competitive sport. All modern games start off by imposing fair conditions. Same numbers on each side, level pitch, no ground advantage, toss a coin at the start for choice of ends in case there is some advantage, change ends halfway through to cancel any such advantage, umpires and referees to see fair play – all the rules are there to see that the better team wins. So if you lose, you must have been inferior in some way, strength or speed or skill, and if you lose consistently, then there’s something wrong with you: no excuses.
Worse, our culture is so permeated with the ethos of sport that we mistakenly believe every victory reveals moral worth. Ayn Rand argued that financial wealth revealed a person’s merit; many contemporary politicians have been suckered into the same beliefs.
Vikings were wiser. They knew that in the real world, conditions aren’t fair. Heroes may be outnumbered, betrayed, trapped, caught off guard or just plain run out of luck. That doesn’t make you what we call ‘a loser.’ To their way of thinking, the only thing that would make you a loser would be giving up. And there’s another factor, perhaps the most distinctive thing about the Viking mindset.
The heroes of the Viking Age, both gods and men, fixated as they seemed to be on death and defeat, just did not seem able to take death and defeat seriously. Unlike the ponderous heroes of the classical world, they kept on making jokes, coming out with wisecracks. To them, the throwaway line was another artform. They had no sense of their own dignity. Or maybe, they had such a strong sense of their own dignity that they felt no need to stand on it.
Finally, and combining the attitude to losing with the attitude to joking, what was especially relished in story after story was the stroke that showed that the hero hadn’t given up, even in an impossible situation. What was best was showing you could turn the tables, spoil your enemy’s victory, make a joke out of death, die laughing.
People who think like that, one may well conclude, can be beaten by superior force, but though they can be killed like anyone else, they are impossible to daunt. If they’re alive they’ll come back at you, they’re not done until they’re stone dead; even if they’re dying or helpless they will try to think of some trick, and if you fall for it, then the joke’s on you.
Viking humor. Their secret weapon. Part of their mindset. Take warning, though! There’s a mean streak running through it.
The Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project receives many requests for material about Norse mythology, but unfortunately we rarely send any. White supremacists decided that the Norse myths should underpin their religion, and so current publications of these materials are often laced through with racism and hate. I’ve (slowly) been preparing my own anti-racist pamphlet about the Norse myths, though, because many are lovely stories. And the above passage seems like it could be quite helpful for many of the people who get caught in our nation’s criminal justice system.
In jail, we often read Julien Poirier’s poem “Independently Blue,” which opens with the lines:
It’s easy to fly a flag when you live in a nice house
in a beautiful city.
Things have worked out nicely for you,
and you think everyone can agree
this is the greatest country on earth.
The people who are “winning” in our country – the wealthy, the comfortable – rarely began on an even playing field with everyone else. Their patriotism costs little. Why wouldn’t you love your country if it provided you with everything?
There’s a chance that Deadpool’s current popularity is due to the fact that so many people feel like they are not winning at life right now. After all, Deadpool’s superpower is the ability to suffer with a smile. He’s a hero who embodies the ethos of Norse mythology, willing to joke about his own failures.
A hero is defined not by victory but by defeat. Only in defeat can you show what you’re really made of. Only in final defeat can you show that you will never give in. That’s why the gods have to die as well. If they did not die, how could they show true courage? If they were really immortal and invulnerable, who would respect them?
At a time when so many people feel as though the world is stacked against them, seeing Superman score yet another preordained victory isn’t so compelling. Better to root for a loser, to see Deadpool grin through a mouthful of cracked teeth and make one more bad joke before he passes out.
I hope the people we’ve incarcerated manage to carve out some form of success. We should want that for everyone. People can grow and change; why not do what we can to help others change for the better?
But maybe these people will not win. Maybe they’ll submit dozens of job applications but receive no interviews. Maybe nobody will want to give them a second chance.
That is, unfortunately, the way it often happens.
Would defeat hurt less if we celebrated myths in which our heroes suffer, too? And not just the way Jesus suffered, undergoing a torturous death as a trial before his ultimate ascension. What would our world be like if we venerated gods who died with no hope of rebirth or redemption?
George Patton said, quite accurately,
“Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.”
But people at the bottom are strong, too – often stronger than those whom fate allowed to start at the top and stay there. Our world will be a better place once we learn to show kindness to those who actually need it.
Thor finds himself grappling with the Midgard Serpent, a giant snake that had encircled the entire planet. Thor bops the snake on the head with his magic hammer; the snake retaliates with poison.
[Thor] steps nine steps but is finished
by that serpent who has no fear of malice.
Both Thor and Serpent die.
Thor’s father Odin spent much of his life obsessed with prophecy. Convinced that great sacrifice would lead to wisdom, Odin stabbed himself with a spear and hung himself from a tree till nearly dead, nine days and nights. Later, he traded an eye for a vision of the future – who needs depth perception, anyway?
But Odin still brought destruction upon himself.
According to the prophecies, Odin would be killed by a giant beast, the Fenris Wolf. Like the Midgard Serpent, this wolf was a child of Loki. By rights, the wolf should have joined the pantheon. It would have been Odin’s ally.
Instead, Odin deceived the wolf – you shuck shackles as easily as Houdini will! But let’s try one more time. If you can’t escape this set, we promise we’ll untie you. We just want to see, so that we can all marvel at your strength – provoking his anger.
If Odin hadn’t been such a jerk, Loki’s children wouldn’t have hated him. Ragnarok would not have come. Thor might have lived forever.
Or perhaps not. Because Thor surely died again when he was forgotten. What good is a god without worshipers? Pious humans keep their deities alive.
It’s not clear whether Thor was ever really worshiped, but libations were probably poured for him. I’ve never studied spiritual husbandry, but I bet the occasional splash of beer onto the ground was enough to keep Thor ticking.
Then his people converted to Christianity. They’d celebrate Jesus instead. Thor might have been forgotten entirely except that a few Christian scholars, years later, decided that the old stories should be preserved. Which means, of course, that our knowledge of Thor’s escapades is laced with Christian stereotypes.
In Christianity, women have a clearly subservient role – Job’s wife was a replaceable possession; Jesus’s teachings were conveyed to us solely by men. It’s not clear whether the Norse shared these prejudices.
For instance, contemporary genetic analysis revealed that one Viking warrior – long assumed to be male because he was buried with weapons and the regalia of high rank – was actually female. (As soon as this discovery was made, members of our modern Christian-ish society decided that she probably wasn’t that great a warrior after all, even though her prowess had gone unquestioned until she was revealed to have two X chromosomes.)
In Thor’s greatest recorded battle, he wears a dress. Within the world of Norse myth, the burly bearded man smites giants, but so might the presumed willowy beauty. Thor was Thor, but someone you’d thought was Freya might be Thor as well. In duress, man and woman alike could conjure the passions of battle.
Thor limped along for centuries, partially resurrected, his stories preserved so that Christian readers would better understand the poetic devices used in Icelandic literature. Wasn’t until the 1970s that anyone strove to worship Thor back to life.
In the beginning, the white supremacist movement in the United States was closely linked with Christianity. Southern plantationers thumped their Bibles. Specious theories about Noah’s grandchildren were used to justify slavery.
(Noah drank too much. On a night while he was passed out drunk, one of his sons castrated him so that there wouldn’t be any more siblings to share the inheritance with. Noah was understandably upset, and declared that this particular son’s lineage would become slaves. A few thousand years later, a nation of ignoramuses convinced themselves that people with higher epidermal melanin concentrations must be descended from this son.)
(The version of this story that was eventually settled upon for the Hebrew cannon – i.e. the version in the Old Testament – is circumspect to the point of absurdity.)
The KKK hated black people, but they hated Jewish people, too.
In the 1970s, a subset of white supremacists decided that Christianity itself was a tool for Jewish mind control. Jesus was just another cog in the great ZOG plot! They reasoned that the whole love thy neighbor business was intended to make them weak, and that they’d been tricked into worshiping Yahweh, who was and always would be a Jewish god. They conveniently overlooked the fact that Christians had been murdering Jewish people for millennia.
They spoke out against cultural appropriation. White people shouldn’t latch onto other peoples’ cultures or beliefs, they said. Instead, white people should worship their own gods.
They decided that Odin and Thor were white gods. As though a person’s religion could be coded into DNA. As though your genes determined which stories you should believe.
Thor really was racist, it’s true – but he was prejudiced against the race of giants, not any particular population of humans. And even though Thor was murderously prejudiced against the giants, it was still considered acceptable for him or other gods to drink and cavort with them, or intermarry.
The modern supremacists who’ve claimed Thor as their own think differently. For instance Else Christensen, who distributed Odinist materials to prisons with missionary zeal, who wrote that “We, as Odinists, shall continue our struggle for Aryan religion, Aryan freedom, Aryan culture, Aryan consciousness, and Aryan self-determination.”
Thor first died battling a snake. (This sort of bloody end would grant entrance to Valhalla – as opposed to Nilfheim, Hel’s dark cold misty kingdom, final destination for all who died of illness or old age.)
Then Thor died ignominious, his followers having dwindled, his worship having ceased. For centuries, the mud drank no more mead for Thor.
I was named after the doctor who delivered me, a friend of my father’s from medical school.
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.
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:
Many 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.)
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):
It 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.
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:
And, 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:
In 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.
(After writing the preceding sentence, I wanted to mention which seasons. I typed “when can dolphins conceive” into my search bar. The top hit was a website called Can Male Dolphins Get Pregnant, with the blurb “There will be nothing you can do about it but pray.” I clicked the link. The page instantly re-directed to a website called Trusted Health Tips featuring a “new groundbreaking online video that reveals how to get pregnant,” alongside the disclaimer that “pharmaceutical and fertility companies have requested the government to ban” the video, since it would clearly destroy their businesses. Our generation is the first to have all the world’s knowledge at our fingertips! We are like gods, are we not?)
Dolphins, like humans, are attracted to a wide range of sexual partners. Pairs or trios of males form long-term strategic alliances, and they will engage in “psuedo-sexual” behavior with their allies. Presumably one or both of the participants finds these activities pleasurable. They’ll tumble with females, and males, and humans, too.
As best we know, dolphins hold no negative stereotypes against those who pursue consensual pleasure, no matter what form it takes.
I’ve felt surprised, when discussing sexuality in jail, that so many men who’ve spent time in prison still use starkly binary terminology. I’ve never heard anyone use the word “bisexual” in jail. Instead I’ve heard things like, “I’ve got nothing against people who want to be gay. It’s not for me, but I’ve got nothing against it. What gets me is when people who I know are gay, who I saw be gay inside, they get out and want me to back up their lies that they’re not. I’m like, excuse me, I know you’re gay, so how can you ask me to tell somebody that you’re not?”
At another class, we discussed human sexuality throughout history. Physical affection was encouraged among the troops of ancient Rome, with the idea that a soldier might fight more fervently to protect his lover than his country. Japanese samurai were considered unrefined if they didn’t savor the occasional dalliance with another male. (I refrain from describing the samurai’s encounters as “sexual,” because many were not consensual by contemporary standards – the objects of their desire were often too young.)
In many cultures, if someone was so persnickety that he had sex exclusively with women, despite spending long periods of time surrounded only by other men, he’d be seen as deviant.
One of the guys interjected, “Yeah, but what they were doing wasn’t, you know, cause I heard you’re only gay if your testicles touch.”
This was immediately disputed. “No way – there’s positions with two guys and a girl where your testicles touch, and I know for a fact that don’t make you gay.”
My co-teacher and I sighed. We’re both long-haired, relatively effeminate men, typically dressed in some measure of women’s clothing – every pair of pants I own comes from either the Indiana University dumpsters or the women’s department of Goodwill, and the same is true of most of my co-teacher’s jackets.
But my co-teacher and I live in a world where ambiguity is safer. The way we punish people in this country carves away the nuances of people’s personalities – immersed in violence, they’ll need friends, but people are shuffled so often that there’s little time to build friendships. They make do with communal identity instead.
When people were talking over a young black man as he read a poem, they were shushed by a convicted murderer covered in Aryan Brotherhood tattoos. The tattooed man never seemed particularly racist. He was very well read, and often mentioned things he’d learned from reading The Quran or Confucius. But he was socially a white supremacist. A pragmatic choice for a dude who’d spent eighteen years in prison. At cafeterias under AB control, he’d get to eat.
Likewise, no matter who men fool around with, most choose to identify as socially heterosexual while they’re inside.
(A lovely quote from Morgan Freeman that I first saw as an epigram in CAConrad’s While Standing in Line for Death: “I hate the word homophobia. It’s not a phobia. You are not scared. You are an asshole.”)
Our world didn’t have to turn out this way.
In the poem “Gilgamesh,” Spencer Reece documents the slow crumbling of an affair – the poet fell in love with a man who desires only the young. As Spencer ages, the romance fades. This man wants only to recapture the love that was denied to him in youth.
This instability is tragically common – Spencer’s paramour was raised in a culture that considered all sexual desire to be sinful, and homosexual desire especially so. Even outside prison walls, we consider certain ambiguities too fraught to tolerate:
Fragments, clay cylinders, tablets, parchment –
to write Genesis, they say, the writers
searched their neighborhood,
found all kinds of things, including
the epic about Gilgamesh, much of it damaged,
regarding the man who saw into the deep.
Somehow, the part
about Gilgamesh and Enkidu
What a different world we’d have if our sacred books taught that love was love was love. People could comfortably be all of themselves.
In his poem “Dolphin” from An Aquarium, Jeffrey Yang writes that