Tag Archives: Jay Parr

The Devout Agnostic

by Jay Parr

Sunrise as seen from orbit. Taken by Chris Hadfield aboard the International Space Station.

I am a devout agnostic. No, that is not an oxymoron.

After considerable searching, study, and introspectionand, having been raised in the Protestant Christian tradition, no small amount of internal conflictI have come to rest in the belief that any entity we might reasonably call God would be so alien to our limited human perceptions as to be utterly, and irreconcilably, beyond human comprehension.

Gah. So convoluted. Even after something like a dozen revisions.

Let me try to strip that down. To wit: Humankind cannot understand God. We cannot remotely define God. We wouldn’t know God if it/he/she/they slapped us square in the face. In the end, we cannot say with any certainty that anything we might reasonably call God actually exists. Nor can we say with any certainty that something we might reasonably call God does not exist.

Splash text: I don't know, and you don't either.

To horribly misquote some theologian (or philosopher?) I seem to remember encountering somewhere along the way, humankind can no more understand God than a grasshopper can understand number theory.

I mean, we can’t even wrap our puny little heads around the immensity of the known physical realm (or Creation, if you prefer) without creating incredibly simplistic, and only vaguely representative models.

Let’s look at some of the things we do know. With only a handful of notable exceptions the entirety of human history has happened on, or very near to, the fragile skin of a tiny drop of semi-molten slag just under 8,000 miles across. That’s just under 25,000 miles around, or a little more than two weeks’ driving at 70 mph, if you went non-stop without stopping for meals or potty breaks.

Freight train in the American west, looking dwarfed by the landscape, with mountains visible in the far-off distance.

Even that tiny drop of slag can feel pretty vast to our little human perceptions, as anyone can tell you who has been on a highway in the American West and looked out at that little N-scale model train over there and realized that, no, it’s actually a full-sized freight train, with engines sixteen feet tall and seventy feet long and as heavy as five loaded-down tractor-trailers. And even though you can plainly see the entire length of that little train, it’s actually over a mile long, and creeping along at seventy-five miles per hour. Oh, and that mountain range just over there in the background? Yeah, it’s three hours away.

If we can’t comprehend the majesty of our own landscape, on this thin skin on this tiny droplet of molten slag we call home, how can we imagine the distance even to our own moon?

To-scale image of Earth and the Moon, with the Moon represented by a single pixel.

If you look at this image, in which the moon is depicted as a single pixel, it is 110 pixels to the earth (which itself is only three pixels wide, partially occupying nine pixels). At this scale it would be about eighty-five times the width of that image before you got to the Sun. If you’re bored, click on the image and it will take you to what the author only-half-jokingly calls “a tediously accurate scale model of the solar system,” where you can scroll through endless screens of nothing as you make your way from the Sun to Pluto.

Beyond the Moon, we’re best off talking about distances in terms of the speed of lightas in, how long it takes a ray of light to travel there, cruising along at about 186,000 miles per second, or 670 million miles per hour.

On the scale of our drop of moltener, Earthlight travels pretty fast. A beam of light can travel around to the opposite side of the Earth in about a fifteenth of a second. That’s why we can call that toll-free customer-service number and suddenly find ourselves talking to some poor soul who’s working through the night somewhere in Indonesiawhich, for the record, is about as close as you can get to the exact opposite point on the planet without hiring a more expensive employee down in Perth.

Earthrise_apollo8_19681224_NASA_500crop

That capacity for real-time communication just starts to break down when you get to the Moon. At that distance a beam of light, or a radio transmission, takes a little more than a second (about 1.28 seconds, to be more accurate). So the net result is about a two-and-a-half-second lag round-trip. Enough to be noticeable, but it has rarely been a problem, asin all of human historyonly two dozen people have ever been that far away from the Earth (all of them white American men, by the way), and no one has been any further. By the way, that image of the Earthrise up there? That was taken with a very long lens, and then I cropped the image even more for this post, so it looks a lot closer than it really is.

Beyond the Moon, the distances get noticeable even at the speed of light, as the Sun is about four hundred times further away than the Moon. Going back up to that scale model in which the Earth is three pixels wide, if the Earth and Moon are about an inch and a half apart on your typical computer screen, the Sun would be about the size of a softball and fifty feet away (so for a handy visual, the Sun is a softball at the front of a semi trailer and the Earth is a grain of sand back by the doors). Traveling at 186,000 miles per second, light from the Sun makes the 93-million-mile trip to Earth in about eight minutes and twenty seconds.

iss-sun-over-earth

Even with all that empty space, our three pixels against the fifty feet to the Sun, we’re still right next door. The same sunlight that reaches us in eight minutes takes four hours and ten minutes to reach Neptune, the outermost planet of our solar system since poor Pluto got demoted. If you’re still looking at that scale model, where we’re three pixels wide and the sun is a softball fifty feet away, that puts Neptune about a quarter of a mile away and the size of a small bead. And that’s still within our home solar system. Well within our solar system if you include all the smaller dwarf planets, asteroids, and rubble of the Kuiper Belt (including Pluto, which we now call a dwarf planet).

To get to our next stellar neighbor at this scale, we start out at Ocean Isle Beach, find the grain of sand that is Earth (and the grain of very fine sand an inch and a half away that is the Moon), drop that softball fifty feet away to represent the Sun, lay out a few more grains of sand and a few little beads between the Atlantic Ocean and the first dune to represent the rest of the major bodies in our solar system, and then we drive all the way across the United States, the entire length of I-40 and beyond, jogging down the I-15 (“the” because we’re on the west coast now) to pick up the I-10 through Los Angeles and over to the Pacific Ocean at Santa Monica, where we walk out to the end of the Santa Monica Pier and set down a golf ball to represent Proxima Centauri. And that’s just the star that’s right next door.

See what I’m getting at?

What’s even more mind-bending than the vast distances and vast emptiness of outer space, is that our universe is every bit as vast at the opposite end of the size spectrum. The screen you’re reading this on, the hand you’re scrolling with—even something as dense as a solid ingot of gold bullion—is something like 99.999999999% empty space (and that’s a conservative estimate). Take a glance at this comparison of our solar system against a gold atom, if both the Sun and the gold nucleus had a radius of one foot. You’ll see that the outermost electron in the gold atom would be more than twice the distance of Pluto.

atom-vs-solar-system

And even though that nucleus looks kind of like a mulberry in this illustration, we now know that those protons and neutrons are, once again, something on the order of being their own solar systems compared to the quarks that constitute them. There’s enough wiggle room in there that at the density of a neutron star, our entire planet would be condensed to the size of a child’s marble. And for all we know, those quarks are made up of still tinier particles. We’re not even sure if they’re actually anything we would call solid matter or if they’re just some kind of highly-organized energy waves. In experiments, they kind of act like both.

This is not mysticism, folks. This is just physics.

The crux of all this is that, with our limited perception and our limited ability to comprehend vast scales, the universe is both orders of magnitude larger and orders of magnitude smaller than we can even begin to wrap our minds around. We live our lives at a very fixed scale, unable to even think about that which is much larger or much smaller than miles, feet, or fractions of an inch (say, within six or seven zeroes).

Those same limitations of scale apply in a very literal sense when we start talking about our perception of such things as the electromagnetic spectrum and the acoustic spectrum. Here’s an old chart of the electromagnetic spectrum from back in the mid-’40s. You can click on the image to expand it in a new tab.

1944electromagnetic_spectrum-5000

If you look at about the two-thirds point on that spectrum you can see the narrow band that is visible light. We can see wavelengths from about 750 nanometers (400 terahertz) at the red end, to 380 nm (800 THz) at the blue end. In other words, the longest wavelength we can see is right at twice the length, or half the frequency, of the shortest wavelength we can see. If our hearing were so limited, we would only be able to hear one octave. Literally. One single octave.

We can feel some of the longer wavelengths as radiant heat, and some of the shorter wavelengths (or their aftereffects) as sunburn, but even all that is only three or four orders of magnitudetwo or three zeroesand if you look at that chart, you’ll see that it’s a logarithmic scale that spans twenty-seven orders of magnitude.

If we could see the longer wavelengths our car engines would glow and our brake rotors would glow and our bodies would glow, and trees and plants would glow blazing white in the sunlight. A little longer and all the radio towers would be bright lights from top to bottom, and the cell phone towers would have bright bars like fluorescent tubes at the tops of them, and there would be laser-bright satellites in the sky, and our cell phones would flicker and glow, and our computers, and our remotes, and our wireless ear buds, and all the ubiquitous little radios that are in almost everything anymore. It would look like some kind of surreal Christmas.

visible-vs-infrared

If we could see shorter wavelengths our clothing would be transparent, and our bodies would be translucent, and the night sky would look totally different. Shorter still and we could see bright quasi-stellar objects straight through the Earth. It would all be very disorienting.

Of course, the ability to perceive such a range of wavelengths would require different organs, once you got beyond the near-ultraviolet that some insects can see and the near-infrared that some snakes can see. And in the end, one might argue that our limited perception of the electromagnetic spectrum is just exactly what we’ve needed to survive this far.

I was going to do the same thing with the vastness of acoustic spectrum against the limitations of human hearing here, but I won’t get into it because acoustics is basically just a subset of fluid dynamics. What we hear as sound is things movingpressure waves against our eardrums, to be precisebut similar theories can be applied from the gravitational interaction of galaxy clusters (on a time scale of eons) to the motion of molecules bumping into one another (on the order of microseconds), and you start getting into math that looks like this…

acoustic-theory

…and I’m an English major with a graduate degree in creative writing. That image could just as easily be a hoax, and I would be none the wiser. So let’s just leave it at this: There’s a whole lot we can’t hear, either.

We also know for a fact that time is not quite as linear as we would like to think. Einstein first theorized that space and time were related, and that movement through space would affect movement through time (though gravity also plays in there, just to complicate matters). We do just begin to see it on a practical level with our orbiting spacecraft. It’s not very bigthe International Space Station will observe a differential of about one second over its decades-long lifespanbut our navigational satellites do have to adjust for it so your GPS doesn’t drive you to the wrong Starbucks.

Physicists theorize that time does much stranger things on the scale of the universe, and in some of the bizarre conditions that can be found. Time almost breaks down completely in a black hole, for instance. Stephen Hawking has posited (and other theoretical astrophysicists agree) that even if the expanding universe were to reverse course and start contracting, which has not been ruled out as a possibility, it would still be an expanding universe because at that point time would have also reversed itself. Or something like that; this is probably a hugely oversimplified layman’s reading of it. But still, to jump over to popular culture, specifically a television series floating somewhere between science fiction and fantasy, the Tenth Doctor probably said it best:

wibbly_wobbly_timey_wimey_stuff_jnapier99_edit

So far we’ve been talking about physical facts. When we get into how our brains process those facts, things become even more uncertain. We do know that of the information transmitted to our brains via the optic and auditory nerves, the vast majority of it is summarily thrown out without getting any cognitive attention at all. What our brains do process is, from the very beginning, distorted by filters and prejudices that we usually don’t even notice. It’s called conceptually-driven processing, and it has been a fundamental concept in both cognitive psychology and consumer-marketing research for decades (why yes, you should be afraid). Our perceptual set can heavily influence how we interpret what we see—and even what information we throw away to support our assumptions. I’m reminded of that old selective-attention test from a few years back:

There are other fun videos by the same folks on The Invisible Gorilla, but this is a pretty in-your-face example of how we can tune out things that our prejudices have deemed irrelevant, even if it’s a costume gorilla beating its chest right in the middle of the scene. As it turns out, we can only process a limited amount of sensory information in a given time (a small percentage of what’s coming in), so the very first thing our brains do is throw out most of it, before filling in the gaps with our own assumptions about how things should be.

As full of holes as our perception is, our memory process is even worse. We know that memory goes through several phases, from the most ephemeral, sensory memory, which is on the order of fractions of a second, to active memory, on the order of tens of seconds, to various iterations of long-term memory. At each stage, only a tiny portion of the information is selected and passed on to the next. And once something makes it through all those rounds of selection to make it into long-term memory, there is evidence in cognitive neuroscience that in order to retrieve those memories, we have to destroy them first. That’s right; the act of recalling a long-term memory back into active memory physically destroys it. That means that when you think about that dim memory from way back in your childhood (I’m lying on the living-room rug leafing through a volume of our off-brand encyclopedia while my mother works in the kitchen), you’re actually remembering the last time you remembered it. Because the last time you remembered it, you obliterated that memory in the process, and had to remember it all over again.

I’ve heard it said that if scientists ran the criminal-justice system, eyewitness testimony would be inadmissible in court. Given the things we know about perception and memory (especially in traumatic situations), that might not be such a bad idea.

court

Okay.

So far I have avoided the topic of religion itself. I’m about to change course, and I know that this is where I might write something that offends someone. So I want to start out with the disclaimer that what I’m writing here is only my opiniononly my experienceand I recognize that everyone’s religious journey is individual, unique, and deeply personal. I’m not here to convert anyone, and I’m not here to pooh-pooh anyone’s religious convictions. Neither am I here to be converted. I respect your right to believe what you believe and to practice your religion as you see fitprovided you respect my right to do the same. Having stated that

Most of the world’s older religions started out as oral traditions. Long before being written down they had been handed down in storytelling, generation after generation after generation, mutating along the way, until what ends up inscribed in the sacred texts might be completely unrecognizable to the scribes’ great-great-grandparents. Written traditions are somewhat more stable, but until the advent of typography, every copy was still transcribed by hand, and subject to the interpretations, misinterpretations, and agendas of the scribes doing the copying.

Acts of translation are even worse. Translation is, by its very nature, an act of deciding what to privilege and what to sacrifice in the source text. I have experienced that process first-hand in my attempts to translate 14th-century English into 21st-century English. Same language, only 600 years later.

SGGK_facsimile

Every word is a decision: Do I try to preserve a particular nuance at the expense of the poetic meter of the phrase? Do I use two hundred words to convey the meaning that is packed into these twenty words? How do I explain this cultural reference that is meaningless to us, but would have been as familiar to the intended audience as we woulds find a Seinfeld reference? Can I go back to my translation ten years after the fact and change that word that seemed perfect at the time but that has since proven a nagging source of misinterpretation? Especially in the translation of sacred texts, where people will hang upon the interpretation of a single word, forgetting entirely that it’s just some translator’s best approximation. Wars have been fought over such things.

The Muslim world might have the best idea here, encouraging its faithful to learn and study their scriptures in Arabic rather than rely on hundreds of conflicting translations in different languages. Added bonus: You get a common language everyone can use.

quran

But the thing is, even without the vagaries of translation, human language isat besta horribly imprecise tool. One person starts out with an idea in mind. That person approximates that idea as closely as they can manage, using the clumsy symbols that make up any given languageusually composing on the flyand transmits that language to its intended recipient through some method, be it speech or writing or gestural sign language. The recipient listens to that sequence of sounds, or looks at that sequence of marks or gestures, and interprets them back into a series of symbolic ideas, assembling those ideas back together with the help of sundry contextual clues to approximatehopefully—something resembling what the speaker had in mind.

It’s all fantastically imprecisewristwatch repair with a sledgehammerand when you add in the limitations of the listener’s perceptual set it’s obvious how a rhinoceros becomes a unicorn. I say “tree,” thinking of the huge oak in my neighbor’s back yard, but one reader pictures a spruce, another a dogwood, another a magnolia. My daughter points to the rosemary tree in our dining room, decorated with tinsel for the holidays. The mathematician who works in logic all day imagines data nodes arranged in a branching series of nonrecursive decisions. The genealogist sees a family history.

Humans are also infamously prone to hyperbole. Just ask your second cousin about that bass he had halfway in the boat last summer before it wriggled off the hook. They’re called fish stories for a reason. As an armchair scholar of medieval English literature, I can tell you that a lot of texts presented as history, with a straight face, bear reading with a healthy dose of skepticism. According to the 12th-century History of the Kings of Britain, that nation was founded when some guy named Brutus, who gets his authority by being the grandson of Aeneas (yeah, the one from Greek mythology), sailed up the Thames, defeated the handful of giants who were the sole inhabitants of the whole island, named the island after himself (i.e., Britain), and established the capital city he called New Troy, which would later be renamed London. Sounds legit.

sggk-edit

In the beginning of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain beheads the huge green man who has challenged him to a one-blow-for-one-blow duel, right there in front of the whole Arthurian court, but the man picks up his head, laughs at Gawain, hops back on his horse, and rides off. Granted, Gawain is presented as allegory rather than fact, but Beowulf is presented as fact, and he battles a monster underwater for hours, then kills a dragon when he’s in his seventies.

Heck, go back to ancient Greek literature and the humans and the gods routinely get into each other’s business, helping each other out, meddling in each other’s affairs, deceiving and coercing each other into to do things, getting caught up in petty jealousies, and launching wars out of spite or for personal gain. Sound familiar?

As for creation stories, there are almost as many of those as there are human civilizations. We have an entire three-credit course focused on creation stories, and even that only has space to address a small sampling of them.

BLS300-visions

Likewise, there are almost as many major religious texts as there are major civilizations. The Abrahamic traditions have their Bible and their Torah and their Qur’an and Hadith, and their various apocryphal texts, all of which are deemed sacrosanct and infallible by at least a portion of their adherents. The Buddhists have their Sutras. The Hindus have their Vedas, Upanishads, and Bhagavad Gita. The Shinto have their Kojiki. The Taoists have their Tao Te Ching. Dozens of other major world religions have their own texts, read and regarded as sacred by millions. The countless folk religions around the world have their countless oral traditions, some of which have been recorded and some of which have not.

Likewise, there are any number of religions that have arisen out of personality cults, sometimes following spiritual leaders of good faith, sometimes following con artists and charlatans. Sometimes those cults implode early. Sometimes they endure. Sometimes they become major world religions.

jim-jones

At certain levels of civilization, it is useful to have explanations for the unexplainable, symbolic interpretations of the natural world, narratives of origin and identityeven absolute codes of conduct. Religious traditions provide their adherents with comfort, moral guidance, a sense of belonging, and the foundations of strong communities.

However, religion has also been abused throughout much of recorded history, to justify keeping the wealthy and powerful in positions of wealth and power, to justify keeping major segments of society in positions of abject oppression, to justify vast wars, profitable to the most powerful and the least at risk, at the expense of the lives and livelihoods of countless less-powerful innocents.

A lot of good has been done in the name of religion. So has a lot of evil. And before we start talking about Islamist violence, let us remember that millions have been slaughtered in the name of Christianity. Almost every religion has caused bloodshed in its history, and every major religion has caused major bloodshed at some point in its history. Even the Buddhists. And there’s almost always some element of we’re-right-and-you’re-wrong very close to the center of that bloodshed.

spanish-inquisition

But what if we’re all wrong?

If we can’t begin to comprehend the vastness of the universe or the emptiness of what we consider solid, if we can only sense a tiny portion of what is going on around us (and through us), and if we don’t even know for sure what we have actually seen with our own eyes or heard with our own ears, how can we even pretend to have any handle on an intelligence that might have designed all this? How can we even pretend to comprehend an intelligence that might even be all of this? I mean seriously, is there any way for us to empirically rule out the possibility that our entire known universe is part of some greater intelligence too vast for us to begin to comprehend? That in effect we are, and our entire reality is, a minuscule part of God itself?

In short, the more convinced you are that you understand the true nature of anything we might reasonably call God, the more convinced I am that you are probably mistaken.

understand-everything-crop

I’m reminded of the bumper sticker I’ve seen: “If you’re living like there’s no God, you’d better be right!” (usually with too many exclamation points). And the debate I had with a street evangelist in which he tried to convince me that it was safer to believe in Jesus if there is no Christian God, than to be a non-believer if he does exist. Nothing like the threat of hell to bring ’em to Jesus. But to me, that kind of thinking is somewhere between a con job and extortion. You’re either asking me to believe you because you’re telling me bad things will happen to me if I don’t believe you, which is circular logic, or you’re threatening me. Either way, I’m not buying. I don’t believe my immortal soul will be either rewarded or punished in the afterlife, because when it comes right down to it, even if something we might reasonably call God does exist, I still don’t think we will experience anything we would recognize as an afterlife. Or that we possess anything we would recognize as an immortal soul.

To answer the incredulous question of a shocked high-school classmate, yes, I do believe that when we die, we more or less just wink out of existence. And no, I’m not particularly worried about that. I don’t think any of us is aware of it when it happens.

But if there’s no recognizable afterlife, no Heaven or Hell, no divine judgment, what’s to keep us from abandoning all morality and doing as we pleasekilling, raping, looting, destroying property and lives with impunity, without fear of divine retribution? Well, if there is no afterlife, if, upon our deaths, we cease to exist as an individual, a consciousness, an immortal soul, or anything we would recognize as an entitywhich, as I have established here, I believe is likely the casethen it logically follows that this life, this flicker of a few years between the development of  consciousness in the womb and the disintegration of that consciousness at death, well, to put it bluntly, this is all we get. This life, and then we’re gone. There is no better life beyond. You can call it nihilism, but I think it’s quite the opposite.

Because if this one life here on Earth is all we get, ever, that means each life is unique, and finite, and precious, and irreplaceable, and in a very real sense, sacred. Belief in an idealized afterlife can be usedtwisted, ratherto justify the killing of innocents. Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out. The implication being that if the slaughtered were in fact good people, they’re now in a better place. But if there is no afterlife, no divine judgment, no eternal reward or punishment, then the slaughtered innocent are nothing more than that: Slaughtered. Wiped out. Obliterated. Robbed of their one chance at this beautiful, awesome, awful, and by turns astounding and terrifying experience we call life.

Likewise, if this one life is all we get and someone is deliberately maimedwhether physically or emotionally, with human atrocities inflicted upon them or those they love—they don’t get some blissful afterlife to compensate for it. They spend the rest of their existence missing that hand, or having been raped, or knowing that their parents or siblings or children were killed because they happened to have been born in a certain place, or raised with a certain set of religious traditions, or have a certain color of skin or speak a certain language.

In other words, if this one life is all we get? We had damned well better use it wisely. Because we only get this one chance to sow as much beauty, as much joy, as much nurturing, and peace, and friendliness, and harmony as possible. We only get this one chance to embrace the new ideas and the new experiences. We only get this one chance to welcome the stranger, and to see the world through their eyes, if only for a moment. We only get this one chance to feed that hungry person, or to give our old coat to that person who is cold, or to offer compassion and solace and aid to that person who has seen their home, family, livelihood, and community destroyed by some impersonal natural disaster or some human evil such as war.

syrian_refugees

If I’m living like there’s no (recognizable) God, I’d better be doing all I can manage to make this world a more beautiful place, a happier place, a more peaceful place, a better place. For everyone.

As for a God who would see someone living like that, or at least giving it their best shot, and then condemn them to eternal damnation because they failed to do something like accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior? I’m sorry, but I cannot believe in a God like that. I might go so far as to say I flat-out refuse to believe in a God like that. I won’t go so far as to say that no God exists, because as I have said, I believe that we literally have no way of knowing, but I’m pretty sure any God that does exist isn’t that small-minded.

einstein

So anyway, happy holidays.

This is an examination of my own considered beliefs, and nothing more. I won’t try to convert you. I will thank you to extend me the same courtesy. You believe what you believe and I believe what I believe, and in all likelihood there is some point at which each of us believes the other is wrong. And that’s okay. If after reading this you find yourself compelled to pray for my salvation, I won’t be offended.

If you celebrate Christmas, I wish you a merry Christmas. If you celebrate the Solstice, I wish you a blessed Solstice. If you celebrate Hanukkah, I wish you (belatedly) a happy Hanukkah. If you celebrate Milad un Nabi, I wish you Eid Mubarak. If some sense of tradition and no small amount of marketing has led you to celebrate the celebratory season beyond any sense of religious conviction, you seem to be in good company. If you celebrate some parody of a holiday such as Giftmas, I wish you the love of family and friends, and some cool stuff to unwrap. If you celebrate Festivus, I wish you a productive airing of grievances. If you’re Dudeist, I abide. If you’re Pastafarian, I wish you noodly appendage and all that. If you don’t celebrate anything? We’re cool.

And if you’re still offended because I don’t happen to believe exactly the same thing you believe? Seriously? You need to get over it.

xmashup

If Elected as Your President…

by Jay Parr

obama-edit

Well, it’s getting to be election season again. I’m sure you’ve noticed. Fox News hosted the first “debate” recently, and there are, what, seventeen candidates going after the Republican nomination now? At least on the Democratic side it’s mostly Hillary against that plucky underdog Bernie Sanders. That is, unless Uncle Joe decides to throw in his hat.

So I’ve decided it’s time for me to announce this: Under no circumstances will I be running for the office of President of the United States of America. No way. Just ain’t gonna happen. Or, to paraphrase that old Sherman dude, if nominated I will not run, if elected I will not serve.

First of all I was an adventurous and nonconformist poor kid in my teens and twenties (okay, and thirties). There’s way too much dirt to be dug up on me. Sure, my response to most of it would be, “Yeah? And?” But no one wants their friends to end up becoming collateral damage, right?

rally

That and I really have no stomach for the machinations of politics. I get a bellyful of politics and diplomacy just trying to advocate for our students, here in my bottom-rung administrative position for the BLS Program. If I had the entirety of Congress trying to stymie me at every turn (Every. Single. Turn.), I would probably either have a psychological breakdown or a psychotic break. Think, “Hammer-Wielding President Rampages Through Capital!”

Anyway, it’s still fun to think about what one would do as the “leader of the free world,” so why not?

I’m thinking my campaign slogan would have to be SHAMELESSLY LIBERAL. Something along those lines anyway, and I don’t think “What a Pinko” has quite the right tone for a presidential campaign.

Anyway, I hear you say. Enough of this navel gazing, what would you do?!

health-care-sm

Universal Health Care: Single-payer style. You need a doctor, you go to a doctor. Doesn’t matter if you’re a billionaire or homeless, a veteran or an artist. Every citizen, every veteran, every President, every billionaire, every college student, every crack addict, every member of Congress (yes, every member of Congress), has the same level of coverage. I am firmly of the opinion that for-profit health insurance and for-profit medicine are among our great societal evils, in that they profit handsomely on the misfortunes of others. So let’s take them out of the picture; you go get the medical care you need, and your taxes pay your doctors’ salaries. Yes, your taxes will go up. Yes, the doctors’ gross incomes will go down. You’ll still be paying less for your healthcare, and your doctor will still be making the same net income, maybe more, after our taxes also pay for her education. Which brings me to…

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Access to Education: At any level. Free of charge. Any student who is doing reasonably well can attend any public university, in-state or out-of-state, to any level, absolutely free, with a stipend for living expenses, and can finish a BA, an MA, an MFA, an MDiv, a PhD, a JD, an EdD, or what have you, and walk away totally debt-free. Also paid for by our taxes. It’s not as expensive as you might think (a fraction of our annual spending on our recent wars, less than we spend incarcerating nonviolent offenders), and in the long run it is simply in the best interest of the nation to invest in an educated populace. Educated people contribute more to their communities and to their countries, both in tangible contributions to GDP and in intangible contributions to quality of life. When the reason a talented and motivated young person doesn’t pursue her PhD in engineering is because her family’s working-class background makes it financially untenable, it’s not just that child that suffers. It’s all of us. When the person who would have discovered the cure for diabetes is stuck flipping burgers in West Cowtown because the cost of education is prohibitive, it’s not just she and her family that suffers. It’s all of us. When the poor black kid from Baltimore starts his lifelong career in the corrections system at fourteen simply because he is presumed to be a criminal by everyone he meets, that’s one more life lost. One less chance for the world to have its next once-in-a-century artist, musician, scientist, statesman, what have you, and at a cost several times higher than providing him with a top-notch education.

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Campaign Finance Reform: The billionaire Koch brothers want to eliminate all limits on campaign contributions so that the wealthiest citizens can basically buy the government. I want the opposite. At the very least I would like to see individual donations limited, and corporate donations and superpacs eliminated altogether. I even like the idea of going a step further and requiring candidates to campaign under uniform conditions (think of NASCAR’s equipment restrictions): Each candidate campaigns through a standardized system supported by tax dollars, through which their sponsored bills and voting records are shown, they have the opportunity to comment on their votes, and they can make positional statements. Advertising reminds voters to study the candidates, make their choices, and to vote on election day. And hey, let’s make election day a national holiday while we’re at it.

Automatic Voter Registration: Oregon just did it. We can do it nationally. Anyone who is eligible to vote is automatically registered upon receiving a driver’s license or state-issued identification card. Other mechanisms may also be explored to catch the people who have neither (e.g., Social Security rosters). The idea is that anyone who is eligible to vote is registered by default. To further encourage participation, it would be worth exploring a small stipend for each voter, to be issued when the ballot is cast at the polls (or when the absentee ballot is processed). For less than the costs of recent campaigns, each voter could be offered a few bucks to encourage her to actually show up and vote. Democracy simply doesn’t work when most of the population doesn’t bother to vote.

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Eliminate the Political Party System: The party system mostly works to keep representatives in line with the wishes of an elite power base. Independent candidates are rarely elected (there are 2 in Congress, out of 535 members), and that leads anyone with political aspirations to align themselves with one major party or the other. From that moment they endure pressure to vote certain ways on specific items of legislation and even on whole issues. This pressure, in effect, means they can no longer represent their constituencies or even their own consciences, because they are beholden to represent their political party. When there are no sides of the aisle, no party affiliations, that pressure is removed and the candidate can run, and the representative can represent, according to their own convictions and the wishes of their constituencies.

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Eliminate Corporate Lobbying: Another method by which a monied few exercise disproportionate influence on political outcomes. No energy-policy debate can be balanced when petroleum-industry interests are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into lobbying efforts. Likewise, no healthcare-policy debate can be balanced when insurance-industry interests are doing the same. Lobbying is a $3,250,000,000.00-per-year business. That’s over a thousand dollars a year for every single person in the country. Imagine what could be done with that money if it weren’t being used to skew political outcomes in the favor of the wealthiest individuals and corporations.

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Restructure Congress: In 1789, there were about 30,000 constituents per representative in the House. Today, there are some 700,000 constituents per representative. That makes each seat more powerful and thus more subject to big-money influence. It’s time to go back to representatives who actually know their constituencies; in today’s world of teleconferencing and telecommuting, we could easily go back to one representative for every 30,000 constituents. Yes, that would make the House some 10,000 members. No, it would not be necessary to assemble a 10,000-member House of Representatives at the Capital building for every session of Congress. Each member could work from a local office in her district, accessible to her constituents. That office could be her designated location for voting and for filing legislative documents. Floor debate could be held with a combination of in-person and electronic attendance. A representative could serve her entire term, in fact, without ever setting foot inside the Beltway.

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Eliminate the Senate: Having two senators per state skews senatorial representation in favor of the less populous states: Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Alaska, Delaware, and Vermont each have only one representative in the House, and they each have two senators. California, with 53 representatives and a far greater population than those seven states added together, also has two senators. Further, having two senators who represent a large and wealthy state means those senators are far more likely to be influenced by big-money interests within their states (and maybe even from outside their states). Basically, senatorial representation is in no way representative of the populace, and is far too subject to big-money interests. It’s a throwback, a mimicry of the equally non-representative House of Lords. Let’s get rid of it.

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Marriage Equality: Wait, I hear you say. The Supreme Court just did that. Well, not exactly, and not completely. Yes, Obergefell v. Hodges was definitely a step in the right direction, but a Supreme Court ruling is an interpretation of constitutional law. It is not, and should not be, federal law or even federal policy. The ruling also has its limitations, and I’m sure you’ve heard about folks agitating to resist, or ignore, or otherwise malign the Supreme Court’s authority in this matter. I’d like to put an end to all that.

The first order of business would be separation of church and state in the marriage business. A couple of ways this could be done: 1) Perform all legal marriages in the courts, as is done in Mexico, and let the spouses also have a non-legally-binding church ceremony if they’re so motivated; or 2) Separate the role of officiant (i.e., representative of the state in the matter of the marriage to be performed) from that of ordained clergy (i.e., representative of the church), and create a process by which a person can have herself authorized to officiate a wedding ceremony. Anyone would go through the same process, ordained clergy or otherwise, but it would be a separate process, a legal process, and the role of officiant would be understood to be (and literally) a legal role independent of any religious ordination.

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On the matter of marriage equality, I would also go a step further than simply same-sex marriages. Marriage equality needs to be for everyone. As marriage is the legal codification of a committed relationship, and the legal status carries certain rights and benefits, the legal framework should accommodate any configuration of committed relationship. This means not only same-sex marriage, but nonbinary-gender relationships and consensual polygamy in any configuration (polygyny, polyandry, or other polyamorous arrangements). I don’t have this all sorted out, because I’m not a gender-studies person and the math can get complicated in a hurry, but the basic idea is that there is a status for spouse and one for co-spouse, and that the legal rights carry between anyone in that status (and yes, in theory, one could be in more than one multiple marriage, with branching relationships of co-spouses in either direction). My one caveat would be that all parties in the marriage would be required to sign the license to add a new member.

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A Legal Third Gender: Here are the facts: Not all people identify as the gender they are assigned at birth. Not all people identify as either gender. Not all people even fit into binary gender categories at birth (i.e., intersex). There needs to be a legal gender category for people who don’t fit into that binary. I like “nonbinary” as a catch-all term, myself (“other” is, after all, quite literally othering). And yes, there are countless subdivisions of nonbinary gender, but in the end it’s a small enough population that I’m inclined to think one catch-all category is sufficient for most legal purposes (I’m talking driver’s licenses and the like) . Of course, finer distinctions can be made where they’re called for, but any legal document that notes gender needs to have a nonbinary option.

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End Mass Incarceration: We love to call ourselves the “land of the free,” and yet we have an embarrassing percentage of our population incarcerated, most of them minorities, and most of them for nonviolent crimes. Zero-tolerance drug laws, three-strikes policies, and other hardline legislation mean a lot of people are serving years- and decades-long sentences over petty lifestyle offenses and what I like to call crimes of poverty. Oh, and it costs us a ridiculous amount of money. As in, enough money to make college free for every student in the country. Justice would be better served, and in the long run it would cost us a lot less money, if the majority of those prisoners had their sentences lifted. Of course, amnesty isn’t quite that simple, as most of those prisoners, by virtue of their disadvantages from having been prisoners, will need financial support and career rehabilitation to help them get reestablished in society. In the short term, implementing such an amnesty policy would be herculean, but it shouldn’t be necessary in the first place. So here are some thoughts on how to correct the situation in the long term.

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End the War on Drugs: The War on Drugs hasn’t done a whole lot to reduce drug use in this country. Most of what it has accomplished (aside from creating an enormous prison population) is to drive the black market for drugs further underground and make it more violent. Prohibition taught us that illegal distribution creates violent gangs, whereas legal distribution creates a peaceful business culture. It also taught us that, all moral objections aside, where there is demand for a product or a service, someone will provide a supply. The demand for weed isn’t going away. Neither, unfortunately, is the demand for harder drugs such as heroin, cocaine, crack, meth, et cetera. The solution is not to attack the suppliers of those demands with militarized law-enforcement agencies. All that does is create a militarized black market. Instead, we should allow businesses to create legal, taxed, and regulated supply streams, at prices that can out-compete the black markets, and let the economy run its course (how often do we see black-market liquor these days?). Instead of sinking revenue into futile attempts at enforcement, we generate tax revenue, which we in turn use to discourage the more violent elements of the market, and to provide quality rehabilitation services to those who need them.

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Decriminalize Prostitution: Most people who engage in prostitution do so because they have little choice. We must create a legal system which protects those sex workers from further harm and recognizes their vulnerability to abuse, instead of criminalizing them for engaging in what may well have been a last resort for survival. Sex workers should be able to come to law-enforcement agencies knowing that they will find sympathetic advocates. The current reality is that most sex workers find themselves unprotected, in lawless conditions, because approaching law-enforcement agencies will most likely result in slut-shaming and denigration at best, and arrest and imprisonment at worst.

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Decriminalize Poverty: Let’s face it, in the final analysis the vast majority of people in prison are there because they are poor (and minorities). The wealthy Duke student gets busted with ten grams of weed, his family knows a good lawyer who keeps the kid out of jail, and maybe successfully argues to have the arrest expunged because, you know, wouldn’t want to ruin the kid’s career potential over a youthful indiscretion. The poor black kid from a bad Durham neighborhood gets busted with the same ten grams of weed, the entire system presumes it to be one sign of a larger pattern of criminality (not helped by the fact that he’s not very good at code-switching into white “civilized” speech), he gets assigned a green public defender straight out of a bottom-tier law school, and there’s that time he got busted for throwing a rock at a cop car on a dare, and next thing you know the kid’s serving a good chunk of his twenties in county.

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Outlaw Private Prisons: The incarceration of prisoners should never be a for-profit business, and allowing it to run as such only encourages prisoner abuse. The corrections system also allows prisoners to be paid well below minimum wage for assigned work; combine that with a for-profit prison and you basically have slave labor.

End Capital Punishment: Two words: Posthumous exoneration.

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Police Reform: It has become obvious to me that there needs to be a sea-change in the attitudes of police agencies. There seems to be a default assumption of criminality on the part of law-enforcement personnel in far too many of their interactions with the citizenry. Police departments need to be demilitarized, and shows of military-grade force on the part of police departments needs to come to a stop nationwide. Right now. The climate of policing needs to shift such that police personnel interact with the public from an assumption of innocence, that the person they are facing, even the person they are detaining, is a fellow citizen trying to do his best to get by. Even if he runs. Gunfire should be reserved for situations in which the officer or nearby civilians are actively under threat of imminent harm. I’m even starting to wonder if the average beat cop may even be better off without that sidearm. That will bring me to my ideas on gun control in a bit.

But first, I think policing could be improved with a couple of other little adjustments. First, fine revenue should be divorced from municipal budgets in such a way as to remove any pressure on police personnel to generate fines (and most fines should be eliminated anyway, as they disproportionately impact people with lower incomes). There should be no room for even the perception that a police officer’s primary role is to ticket law-abiding citizens for minor offenses. I also think a lot could be done for the quality of policing if the starting salary were somewhere in the range of $50,000.

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Gun Control: I’m going to lose some people here. I’m okay with that. I’ve hit on an idea that I think might help reduce some of the insane gun violence in our country without inciting the “well-regulated militia” to revolt. Here it is: You get to keep your guns. No one is going to come and take them away from you. Some of them might become a little harder to buy in the future, and some of them you may not be able to sell to anyone but the government for destruction. But you can keep them. The catch: If you have that firearm in public it must be unloaded and in a locked case. If the firing chamber can be disassembled without tools, it must be disassembled. If you have ammunition, it must be in a separate locked case. That way, you can still go hunt on private property or shoot at the firing range. But if anyone walks into a big-box store with a holster on her hip, or walks down the street with a rifle on his back, we don’t have to wonder if that is someone about to go on a killing spree or a law-abiding citizen who just happens to be an open-carry activist. Because anyone in public with an uncased and loaded firearm is not a law-abiding citizen. Possession of an uncased firearm would be a primary offense under this law (which is to say you could be arrested on sight for it), and such possession within sight-lines of a school, hospital, place of worship, shopping area, performance venue, or other public gathering place would be a felony.

Tension Rise On Mexican Border After Border Patrol Agent Slain Last Week

Immigration reform:  A path to citizenship for dreamers and past illegal immigrants, and reasonably open borders for people who would come to live and work in the United States. As with drugs and prostitution, I am essentially proposing a legal path for what is already happening on the black market, and a recognition that our current laws tend to criminalize actions taken out of sheer necessity. As things are, illegal immigrants are literally second-class citizens in this country. Our immigration and naturalization system considers the fact that they are in the US illegally more important than anything they may come to law enforcement agencies about, be it that they were cheated out of pay for work they’ve done, or that they were detained, imprisoned, and forced into slave labor, or even that they were raped, physically abused, and forced into prostitution.

And So Much More: Comprehensive sex education and free, no-questions access to contraception for students. Close GITMO (not like Obama didn’t), not just the prison camp but the whole base, and give the land back to Cuba. While we’re at it, close all our bases in foreign nations where our presence is a signal of oppression and not cooperative peacekeeping. End our involvement in sundry military engagements, significantly downsize our standing military, divert those funds into improving the quality of life in our own country and taking care of the veterans who have made lifelong sacrifices in the line of duty. End subsidies for fossil fuels and subsidize development of domestic renewable energy sources. Subsidize a shift away from point-source power plants to distributed generation and storage of energy (rooftop solar, neighborhood-level wind generation and power storage). Subsidies to encourage the development of offshore wind and desert solar generation. Mass transportation at a level that can effectively compete with personal transportation, both on a local level and on a city-to-city level. Road-use taxes and fees to subsidize mass transportation and encourage use of alternative, non-car modes of transportation. A legal class of intermediate city vehicle between the highway-rated passenger car and the 25-mph NEV (“neighborhood electric vehicle,” essentially a golf cart).

As it turns out, putting together a platform for president means thinking deeply about a whole lot of issues. I’m gaining on 4,000 words here and still haven’t addressed any number of major issues. But I’m done. I’ve run long, I’ve run out of time, and I’m not really running for president anyway so I don’t even have to answer your questions if I don’t feel like it. And of course, these are all just my opinions. Some of them are more thought-out than others. Some of them may be downright uninformed, but that hasn’t stopped any number of presidents from doing any number of things in the past. The ideas in this post have been a long time in the making, and I am glad to see certain candidates talking about some of these ideas, and calling attention to a lot of things that have been very wrong for a very long time. I am even glad to see our sitting president, with whom I have had my disagreements, using his lame-duck position to get serious about some of the things that he has been talking about for a long time.

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And I will leave you with this: No matter your political convictions, please please please (please!) take the time to keep yourself politically informed, to research your candidates, and at the very least, to get out on election day and vote. Democracy only works if the people participate. Otherwise, it reverts back to some form of plutocracy, in which the wealthy hold all the political power and we hoi-polloi become more and more disenfranchised. So for the love of all that is sacred and holy, please, vote! Or to put it a different way…

Mere Murder?

by Jay Parr

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A month ago, around 5:15 PM on the afternoon of Tuesday, February 10 (right about when our transfer information session was getting underway here at UNCG), about 50 miles down the road from here in a neighborhood adjacent to the Friday Center in Chapel Hill, 46-year-old Craig Hicks entered the condo of his twenty-something newlywed neighbors Deah Barakat and Yusor Abu-Salha, and firing seven or eight shots, murdered them both and Yusor’s younger sister Razan Abu-Salha. I will not use the word “allegedly” here because Hicks turned himself in just hours later, and readily confessed to the killings. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past month, you’re well aware of this incident by now. It’s not even news anymore.

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around these shootings ever since.

Mr. Hicks’ that’s-my-story-and-I’m-sticking-to-it is that it was all over a parking dispute. It is pretty widely known by now that Hicks was in ongoing conflict with any number of his neighbors, about the use of limited parking spaces in the complex and other similarly-urgent matters, but murdering three people over it seems—well—just a tad disproportionate to me. There’s obviously more going on here, even if Hicks really does think it’s that simple.

More importantly, there’s more going on here even if Hicks is just a nutjob.

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The problem here is that the dead are three observant young Muslims, while the killer is a white man who, in the end, represents mainstream America as a whole. That is to say that, for the vast majority of us, gentle reader, Craig Hicks ultimately represents you and me. That being the case, this senseless killing spree—carried out by one unstable individual, with no evidence of any real forethought or planning—can’t help but be much, much more than just one senseless killing spree by an unstable individual.

Let’s take a look at the players here. The dead are Deah Barakat, a 23-year-old second-year dental student at UNC Chapel Hill and and an active participant in an international charity working with displaced refugees; Barakat’s wife of six whole weeks, Yusor Abu-Salha, a 21-year-old graduate from NC State, who had been admitted to begin the same dental program in the fall and who was heavily involved in the same charity work; and her younger sister Razan Abu-Salha, a 19-year-old sophomore in architecture and environmental design at NC State, active in a charity for deaf advocacy.

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They were kids. A married couple in the first third of their twenties, and her younger sister who was still a teenager. I don’t consider myself all that old (my firstborn is only two and a half), but I was already married and getting divorced when Mr. Barakat was born, so it wouldn’t be a bit of a stretch to say that I could have been their father. For that matter, so could Hicks.

They were achievers—if not overachievers. At 23, Deah was already in the second year of dental school. I can’t tell you how many students I’ve advised who at that age had yet to figure out that if they couldn’t handle general bio, general chem, and calculus in the same semester, maybe they shouldn’t plan on going to medical school. This guy had already been in dental school—no less rigorous than med school—for a year and a half. His new bride was no less of an achiever, having finished her bachelor’s degree and been accepted into the same dental school at the ripe old age of 21. I know less about her younger sister, but being a sophomore in architecture at 19 is nothing to sneeze at. They were clearly dedicated students, and they came from families that obviously valued education. Among the few things I know about their families are the facts that Deah’s sister has a doctorate degree and that the girls’ father is a psychiatrist (i.e., an M.D.).

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They were also very giving people. Deah was heavily involved in a charity that provided dental care and support to refugee children. Yusor gushed on her Facebook page about the time they had spent in Turkey, and the people they met and the work they did while they were there. Razan was also involved in charity work, at an age when most mainstream-American teenagers are routinely and utterly self-involved. I guess what I’m saying here is that, had these kids been Christian instead of Muslim, other students their age would have been openly making fun of what pious goody-goodies they were. I mean really, married in their early twenties? Don’t drink at all? Up to their eyeballs in charity work? What are you guys, some kind of evangelicals?

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Those are the dead. Three overachieving, charitable youths, who also happened to be observant Muslims.

From what I can find of the killer, he’s a paradox in many ways: Skeptical of all forms of religious extremism, loudly in favor of marriage equality and women’s equality and access to reproductive healthcare including abortion when needed (all of which I can get behind), but also kind of an extremist in his anti-theism and apparently rather belligerent about running around intimidating folks with his firearms, both of which I have problems with. I took a look at the public postings on his Facebook page. Once you get past all the clickbait it’s an interesting glimpse into his anti-theistic views.

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But here’s the thing: For all his paradoxes, and for all the ways in which some of us may find his opinions distasteful and his actions reprehensible, in this case he represents all of white mainstream America. He’s the old white boy with the Midwestern background and the revolver on his hip. The one who shot three young Muslim students to death in their own home.

Sure, he’s not exactly a shining example of the mainstream American. I mean, he is in his mid forties and was studying for an associate of applied science, so not exactly an outstanding scholar. He’d had a series of crappy jobs and a couple of failed marriages, and a daughter who didn’t really want anything to do with him. He seemed to have had frequent altercations with any number of his neighbors, more than one of whom had complained about him, and it would seem he had a penchant for showing up armed to air his grievances. Apparently that wasn’t the first time he had shown up at his neighbors’ door over parking or noise, and he’s also reputed to have mocked the young women over their hijab on several occasions. So not exactly a friendly neighbor. And not exactly someone I want representing me as a white male mainstream American. But the fact remains: He’s the white dude here. He’s the “American,” regardless of where any of his victims were born or raised.

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Hicks also had a collection of guns. Something on the order of a dozen of them. That does not make him exceptional among gun owners in the United States. However, it has been established that among developed nations, the US has considerably more guns per capita—and considerably more gun deaths per capita—than pretty much anyplace else. That alone puts every single one of us at greater risk for gunshot-related injuries or death, just by virtue of being in the United States.

But it goes beyond that. Despite what the fear-mongering portion of the media might have you believe, most of the people with those guns are not minorities. In fact, most of them are conservative, rural, white males. Even fewer of the open-carry activists (I prefer “bullies”) are minorities. Brown people in this country seem to learn that brown people carrying guns in this country are a bit more likely to get shot on sight, so you’re not going to find a lot of brown open-carry activists. No, the open-carry crowd is almost exclusively white. In fact, I would argue that strutting around in suburban shopping centers while openly loaded down with military-grade weaponry takes a level of hubris that is almost exclusively associated with white privilege.

That was Hicks. The white guy with the guns. In a country that has an exceptionally high percentage of white guys with guns.

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For the record, I’m not completely opposed to guns, personally. I have on occasion enjoyed shooting targets at firing ranges and shooting cans out in the country. I won’t have one in my house, but that’s partly because I have a toddler who isby mere virtue of being a toddlera very unpredictable variable. However, when she is of an appropriate age, I do want her to learn to handle and use a firearm, if for no other reason that when she inevitably stumbles across one she will be able to handle it safely and confidently. If I did own a firearm, I can tell you that when it was not at the target range it would be stowed in a secure and locked gun safe, empty, maybe even partially disassembled, with any ammunition (if there was any ammunition in the house) locked up in a separate location. I sure as hell wouldn’t want it out and loaded and on my person on a daily basis. There’s just way too much to go wrong there, and for my personal anxiety level the risk of an accidental shooting outweighs any security I might gain by walking around armed.

The other problem with having firearms around constantly is that, put simply, people get angry. We all have irrational moods. Granted, some of us have them more often than others, but we all, without exception, get into moods when we are tempted to do things—or maybe we actually do things—that we wouldn’t do in a levelheaded state of mind. As a friend of mine, a writer and generally placid person, pointed out in a discussion on this topic, “I have been angry enough to want to shoot someone in the face.” If we’re all honest with ourselves, I think most of us have been there at some point or other in our lives.

The problem becomes when a bunch of usand inevitably the more belligerent among usactually have handguns strapped to our hips, because that’s when it becomes a matter of mere impulse control between “angry enough to want to shoot someone in the face,” and someone (or as it were, three someones) actually getting shot in the face.

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Compound an overly-well-armed America with an Islamophobic America, and the odds get even worse for these victims. And before we start saying we don’t live in an Islamophobic culture, let’s take a look at the major spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes in the last few years, much of it seemingly related to a surge in anti-Muslim rhetoric in the media. Let’s take a look at the disproportionate attention given to violence by Muslims—even if it’s a video of a single murder by ISIS extremists, specifically designed to be a spectacle, and the media are playing right into the terrorists’ hands by lavishing it with attention. Let’s take a look at the disproportionate attention given to the fact that the perpetrators of that violence are Muslim—not that they’re off-the-deep-end radicals, or that the vast majority of their victims are Muslim, but that they themselves are Muslim. Let’s take a look at the fact that any time a Muslim commits an act of terrorism, every single Muslim in the Western world is suddenly at a higher risk of a retaliatory attack.

Seriously, how much anti-agnostic rhetoric did you hear after Tim McVeigh blew up a huge chunk of downtown Oklahoma Citykilling well over a hundred people and well over a dozen children—in the largest terrorist attack in the United States before 9/11? I was loudly agnostic at the time, and I don’t remember getting so much as a second glance. How much did the US media shout that the IRA were Catholic terrorists? And how many pundits did we hear shouting that we should ship all the Catholics back to Rome or wherever they came from, or that we should ship all the agnostics back to I-don’t-know-istan?

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But two radicalized young brothers blow up a trash can in Boston, killing the same number of people that Hicks did last month (yes, a lot more were injured), and they’re terrorists, and even though they weren’t affiliated with any Islamist terror organizations, a lot of attention is given to the fact that they’re Muslim. They’re Muslim Terrorists. And while yes, the rest of us are reminded that extremist violence can affect our lives at any given moment, every Muslim in America is at higher risk of being attacked just for being Muslim.

Two shooters representing a very radicalized arm of al-Qaeda storm into the headquarters of an irreverent Paris publication and shoot most of the editorial staff, and almost all of the attention focuses on the fact that they were Muslim, and that the publication had published images mocking The Prophet (pbuh). Not that they were Muslim extremists, mind you, but that they were Muslim. And they get presented by some particularly loudmouthed pundits as representing the entire Muslim world. And suddenly every Muslim in the Western world has to actively and loudly disavow the attack to avoid being associated with it. Because the assumption is that, as Muslims, they’re complicit. And even with all that disavowal, innocent Muslims all over Europe and the U.S. face a resurgence of anti-Muslim rhetoric, and mosques and schools are vandalized, and Muslims are harassed and attacked on the street, and the hate sites have a field day, and most of us don’t hear a word about any of that, because it’s not what sells advertising space.

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And the end result of all this attention is that being identifiably Muslim in the United States (or much of the Western world, really) means constantly being under a heightened level of scrutiny from all directions. And it means being a lot more likely to encounter microagressions, intentional aggression, and even outright violence. In fact, on a daily basis a Muslim in the United States is five times more likely to be the victim of a hate crime than before 9/11.

Despite Hicks’ professed equal-opportunity anti-theism and despite his claim that it was all about parking (and maybe noise), I have trouble believing that the fact that these young students were Muslim had nothing to do with it. Had they been something a little less Other in the American zeitgeist, some plain-dress Christian denominationsay, Mennonite for sake of argumentwould Hicks have been so compelled to murder them in their own home? I kinda doubt it.

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image © Kevin Schoonover

Maybe in Hicks’ mind it really wasn’t about them being Muslim. Much like in various law enforcement officers’ minds (or in one particular wannabe law enforcement officer’s mind), maybe the decision to shoot really wasn’t about their victims being black. Not on the conscious level, anyway. However a lack of conscious motivation on the part of the shooter doesn’t make those victims any less black, or any less dead. Just as Deah, Yusor, and Razan are no less Muslim, and no less dead.

Maybe somewhere in Hicks’ mind this killing really was all about a parking dispute. It begs the question of how a mere parking dispute got so ridiculously out of hand that three innocent people ended up being ruthlessly executed in their own home (and clearly I don’t buy it anyway). But regardless of Hicks’ motivations in the momentand regardless of whether or not he intended to make any statement larger than that of an enraged neighborhis actions, in the wider context of our gun-toting and Islamophobic culture, make him the face of American terrorism: An armed, entitled, angry white male attacking an unarmed brown innocent (or three) because he felt threatened in some way or another. An attack which ultimately reminds everyone in that Other demographic that on some level they are outsiders, that they will always be outsiders, that they are hated, and that at any moment that hatred could blow up in their faces and end their lives, or the lives of their dearest loved ones.

That is not a mere murder. That is an act of terrorism.

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I Owe My Life to White Privilege

by Jay Parr

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Who‘s the armed gang here?

I had a nice article from Carrie all ready to publishabout foodperfect for the holiday season that basically begins this week. But then the grand jury decision over the Michael Brown shooting was announced and Ferguson, Missouri erupted into a new wave of outrage and protests and tear gas and pundit commentary, and my news feed became a discussion of racial inequality both in Ferguson and beyond (because I’m fortunate to have a friends list of mostly thoughtful people), and that was when I realized I needed to drag out this post I was too busy to finish back in the weeks after the shooting.

The killing of yet another unarmed black teenager at the hands of the police really had me thinking about the persistent and serious problems in our ostensibly “colorblind” culture. I mean, I’m glad it opened up a little bit of discourse about racism, and classism, and access to education, and the role of law enforcement, and the unfortunate necessity of code-switchingat least for a couple of weeks, anywaybut at the end of the day, yet another teenager is dead. Let me repeat that. Yet another teenager is dead. For the oh-so-grave offense of acting like a teenager. I felt like I needed to write something about that, but I hadn’t been able to find the right approach. Then it occurred to me.

Had I grown up black, I would probably be dead.

Seriously. Given my own teen years, had I been black instead of white, I probably would have ended up dead. Or in prison. Or both. I certainly wouldn’t have a master’s degree and a steady (if unglamorous) job in academia. No, I can thank my white privilege for all that.

Let’s take a look at the factors, here.

The house in Shepherd Park.

The house in DC. Just a city bus fare from the Smithsonian.

I was poor. When I was fourteen and my parents divorced, my father left the ministry and Washington DC to go do cabinetmaking in southwestern Virginia, and then ended up severely disabled after he broke his neck in a motorcycle wreck a few months later. He never provided a dime of child support that I’m aware of. The church in DC had provided our housing in a manse next door, but as it was part of my father’s compensation and he was no longer their pastor, it was decided that after the end of the school year, if my mother and brother and I were going to stay we would have to rent the house at market value. My mother had just finished nursing school in her late forties, and had almost no work experience (she had spent most of her adult life raising seven children), so there was no way we could afford to stay in that three-bedroom, two-bath house, or even in the racially- and ethnically-diverse, well-educated, upper-middle-class DC neighborhood of Shepherd Park. So my mother moved us down to Virginia to be near my father, and we bought a run-down fisbo in the crappy neighborhood where my father was renting an apartment. Even after she managed to get her Virginia nursing license, my mom had a hard time finding anything but casual work for quite a while. So that was how she supported my little brother and me for years. As a nursing temp. Finally she landed a steady job at a nursing home, but the pay was far from glamorous, and the benefits were nonexistent. None of us had health insurance for many years.

Mine is the white house left of center. That porch has always been a busy place.

Ours was the white house. That porch next door has always been busy.

I lived in a dangerous neighborhood. Let me put it this way: The first night we spent in that house, a couple of the neighborhood punks got into a scrap right out front, and one of them ended up in the hospital with stab wounds. I have bleary memories of red and blue lights, squawking radios, and a line of people a few years my senior sitting on the curb in handcuffs, right below my window. That was our first night there. We would soon discover that anything not chained down would walk away, and that locked doors just meant the windows would get broken when someone wanted to come in and look for valuables. And every once in a while one of the old fire-trap houses would burn down. As if that weren’t enough, among school administrators and law enforcement personnel, my address itself was sufficient cause for them to assume my criminality. Thing is, we could afford to live there (well, sort of). My mom bought the house for $9,000 in 1980, and the sellers even financed it with no down-payment. They were a working-class family accustomed to doing things informally, so when we couldn’t make a house payment, a simple phone call was all it took to put matters right. With all that, buying that house was more affordable and more secure than even a crappy little apartment somewhere else in town. In short, we were trapped.

Whereas the neighborhood in DC was educated and genteel (and maybe even a bit pretentious at times), most of the adults in the new neighborhood had not finished high school. Those who worked had the kind of jobs that involved polyester uniforms with embroidered name patches, but much of the local economy was welfare, theft, and the black market of drugs and “hot” merchandise. Even with all that, the culture of racism was such that the mostly-white denizens of that neighborhood would have referred to my old neighbors with a plethora of xenophobic slurs and held themselves above their more educated and well-off counterparts by virtue of their skin color alone.

I had an undiagnosed and untreated mood disorder. Clinical depression and bipolar disorder both run in my family. I’m fortunate to have been blessed with the lesser of those ills, but left untreated (see “uninsured” above), in a hormonal teenager, it led to all sorts of fun. I was prone to sudden fits of self-destructive rage (e.g., hurling a broken bicycle chain at a motorcycle cop—thank heavens I missed, and he didn’t see it), and equally self-destructive apathy (“So suspend me. I’ve got a book I’d rather be reading anyway”). Sometimes my affect was so flattened that people thought I was on drugs when I wasn’t, which was merely a little awkward when that was the school guidance counselor, but could be a little more dangerous when it was some gung-ho rookie cop who was obviously scared shitless of the neighborhood he was patrolling.

Mixing a gig in high school. The collared shirt was a total fluke.

Mixing a bar gig in high school. The collared shirt was a total fluke.

I looked like a tweaker. That’s a meth addict, for those of you who haven’t been educated by Breaking Bad. I was scrawny, partly from genes and partly from poor nutrition. Food was scarce at times, and I never had lunch money at school (I spent it on smokes instead). I had a tendency to chain-smoke and drink a lot of iced tea when I was hungry, leaving me hangry and over-caffeinated. So not only did I look like a tweaker, scrawny with the sunken cheeks and hollow eyes, but I was also twitchy and cranky. Especially if I was out of smokes. Add that to a strong sarcastic streak and a complete lack of respect for authority, and it was a recipe for trouble.

I smoked. Duh. I started smoking at fourteen, because to not smoke in that neighborhood was to be a pariah. A misfit. A narc. A pussy. Better to learn to smoke than to invite the all-too-often-physical disdain of the abused and abusive teenagers who were my peers in that neighborhood. But the thing is, nicotine is also ridiculously addictive, so I was a smoker everywhere I went. Even when I was somewhere that my smoking only further labeled me as worthless trash (i.e., pretty much anywhere that wasn’t my neighborhood).

Later on, I switched to hand-rolled cigarettes, which had a tendency to look like joints. Especially when you got down to the dry crumblies at the bottom of the pouch. That got me into quite a few shall we say, conversations with law-enforcement personnel.

The corner where the local hoods hung out.

The corner where the local hoods hung out.

I got suspended, and skipped school, on a regular basis. Smoking got me suspended from my junior high school several times. Losing my cool with a teacher got me a vacation from my first month of high school. Sometimes I would just skip school with a pack of the other neighborhood kids, and we would shoplift and/or get someone to buy us beer. Then we would go wander along the railroad tracks, or trespass in derelict buildings or desolate industrial areas, and vandalize stuff, and just generally act like young hoodlums. Other times I just wouldn’t wake up in time (see: untreated depression), so I would just stay home and read books.

I dressed like a hoodlum. Most of what I wore came from charity bins or through some other hand-me-down channel, and I wore it long past the point that pretty much anyone else would have thrown it away. To give it some character other than just hand-me-down rags, I would decorate everything with magic markers, safety pins, scraps of random fabrics, and anti-mainstream (or anti-establishment depending on how you saw it) buttons, slogans and symbols. I got into punk rock a little bit, and the “fashions” that went along with that scene gelled fairly well with what I was already doing, so I added a few re-purposed dog chains and some metal spikes to my style somewhere along the way. This was the ‘80s, in southwest Virginia; it wasn’t a style that was cute and retro then. It was generally viewed as a pretty loud “f*** you” to people in positions of authority.

I usually carried a knife. Part of it was the influence of the neighborhood. Part of it was because in high school I got into theater tech, and a knife is a handy tool there. But it still meant that pretty much every time I came in contact with law enforcement (see: neighborhood) I had a knife in my possession. One of them kind of looked like a switchblade. Among my peers, a knife was just another accessory, as essential as smokes or a light (butane, matches, a Zippo if you were really swanky). But I can’t tell you how many times I was interrogated about what I was “planning to do with that knife.”

Clearly the only reason anyone would ever carry a knife.

Clearly the only reason anyone would ever carry a knife.

One of those times I was walking to get smokes and found a cop behind an old VW Beetle with his headlights pointed at the open engine cover. I knew a bit about old Beetles by then; we’d had several, and my mom had long since enlisted me as her designated VW mechanic (see: poor). So I went over to see if I could help. Turned out it took me five minutes to figure out the problem and a twist of a knife blade to fix it, but the cop had been obviously suspicious of me since he saw me approaching in the dark, and after that girl drove off in the convertible Beetle her daddy had bought her, the cop turned on me and interrogated me about that knife. For a little while I honestly wondered if I was about to spend my first night in jail. I will tell you that the whole time I was excruciatingly careful not to make any unexpected moves. I’ve tried to write that story several times, but it always just sounds too contrived.

I took suspicious shortcuts. Before I got my motorcycle, I walked pretty much everywhere I went, and I was always trying to shave a few steps off my route. I would cut through brownfields, derelict service alleys, along railroad tracks, between houses. My neighborhood had a lot of abandoned spaces that made good shortcuts, but merely being there was suspicious. And trespassing.

I rode a barely-legal motorcycle. When I got a little older and could gather the means, I got my hands on a cheap old ugly motorcycle for transportation. It turned out the mufflers were too rusted to pass inspection, so I fixed it the least expensive way I could, which was with a set of little loud rattle-cans. So even my “car” shouted that I was trouble.

Sometimes I would hang out with some other young rat-bikers. I’ll never forget the time a gaggle of us were hanging out around our bikes at a roadside parking area in the city park not far from my house, when a preschooler  came running past us on a bee-line for the road. I reached down and snatched her up before she could get run over, then scanned for an adult only to see the horror in her mother’s eyes. I played it cool, with a smiling “Is this yours?” But I can only imagine how that could have played out if nothing else were to change but that I had been a young black man.

One of my old bikes (not the first, but a similar aesthetic).

One of my old bikes (not the first, but a similar aesthetic).

I was a smart-ass to cops. Or really, to anyone who was pushy about wielding authority. I could get into my complicated relationship with my authoritarian (but also rebellious) father, but I’m just going to own it instead. I had problems with authority. Specifically, I had problems with authority being wielded in any way that I considered inequitable or arbitrary. I still do, for that matter, but these days I’m older and mellower, with better outlets for venting my frustrations. And better mood-stabilizing pharmaceuticals. In those days, I was more prone to fume in silence right up to the bursting point, when I would lose my temper right at the teacher or vice-principal or cop I was being confronted by. As I mentioned, It got me suspended more than once. How it never got me in handcuffs, I have yet to explain.

The list goes on. For example, I got all my binge-drinking out of the way before I was of legal age (which was 19 at the time). I stole road signs and decorated my room with them. Pretty much all my friends were holding weed at any given moment, and most of my acquaintances in the neighborhood were holding something strongermeth, or acid, or pills, or hash, or sometimes heroin. Between insomnia and my involvement in theater tech, garage bands, and bar gigs, I was often out and about in the ungodly hours, either walking the crappy part of town or out on my ratty motorcycle. I had the vocabulary of a sailor. And I had a strong sense of social justicea strong sense of the injustices often perpetrated by those with more power on those with lessand I wasn’t good at hiding or tempering my outrage at those who had the power. Even though they were also the ones with the power to make my life much more difficult.

So, with all this, how did I never end up in jail? Or dead? Or with a criminal record? Given the times I argued with cops, or got pissed off and threw something in the presence of a cop, or failed to restrain my body language from letting a cop know I thought he was being completely unreasonable, had I been a black teenager, who lived in a black neighborhood (or worse yet, who lived in a white one), the statistics show that I would have been much more likely to have been detained, arrested, imprisoned, or even killed. By the authorities whose job is ostensibly to ensure our safety.

But I was white. I had grown up in the rural Midwest and mainstream D.C., so I didn’t have to code-switch to sound like the people on TV. Or the white cops I encountered. I wasn’t rich, but I was still given a certain benefit of the doubt in some situations, simply because I was white (I really don’t like to think about what might have happened had I been a black teenager when I pulled out my knife under the hood of that old VW). When I got a little older, I could cut off my ponytail, put on a collared shirt, and blend right in with the country-club-and-beach-house set (or at least the country-club-and-lake-house set). Because I was white. Had I been black and tried to do that, I’m pretty sure someone would have assumed I was an employee.

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But in a more general sense, my whiteness meant that, clean-cut or not, flat-broke or not, in an industrial brownfield or a moneyed neighborhood, I could smile at a cop and say hi, and have it be assumed that I was innocently taking photographs, or taking a walk, and not that I was “up to something.”

The population of Ferguson, Missouri is 67% black. However, the mayor is white, and the police chief is white, and 94% of the police force is white. Black citizens are subject to 86% of the traffic stops, 93% of the arrests, and 92% of the searches (despite the fact that of those searched, whites were 65% more likely to have contraband). Another report shows that black citizens in Ferguson are about twice as likely to be searched, and about twice as likely to be arrested, despite the fact that whites are half-again more likely to be carrying contraband. Nationally, black citizens are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of their white counterparts, according to NAACP data, mostly for nonviolent, drug-related crimes.

Don’t tell me we’re a colorblind society. The numbers prove otherwise.

When I was thirty and divorced, and finally managed to escape that neighborhood, I moved up to New York City for a while. One of the things I though I was escaping, in my naivete, was the racism of the South. I had been there a few weeks when one day I saw a black teenager on a pay phone, having what was obviously some kind of lovers’ quarrel. He stopped mid-sentence, and having apparently been hung up on, got flustered and slammed the phone down. As a passerby having only witnessed what I had overheard, I thought it was a perfectly normal response to what appeared to be happening. Too bad there also happened to be an NYPD cruiser passing by at that exact moment, because within seconds the poor kid, still keyed up about his relationship drama, found himself slammed over the hood of a squad car with his arms pinioned behind his back, and two white cops labeling him as a criminal. My relationship with my first wife having been what it was, I couldn’t begin to count the times I had slammed down a phone, public or private, every bit as hard as that poor kid had just done. But I can count the times I found myself handcuffed over the hood of a police car for having done it. Precisely zero.

___

Further reading: “The Science of Why Cops Shoot Young Black Men”why-cops-shoot

Miscarriages of Justice

by Jay Parr

Henry McCollum at the hearing that led to his release, after 30 years on death row.

Henry McCollum at the hearing that led to his release, after 30 years on death row.

This past Tuesday, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were exonerated of the brutal rape and murder of a preteen girl, a crime for which they had been falsely convicted, condemned, and imprisoned for thirty years. One of them spending the entire time on death row. McCollum was released on Wednesday morning, after spending over half his life facing execution. Brown, his half-brother, was released from his life sentence at a different prison later in the afternoon.

Both of these men were convictedand condemnedbased on confessions that were wrung out of them when they were teenagers (McCollum 19 and Brown 15), after many hours of high-pressure interrogation. Confessions which were written by others for them to sign, despite the fact that neither of them was functionally literate or intelligent or educated enough to read and understand what they were signing, or legally astute enough to understand the consequences of signing it (in an interview from death row, McCollum says he signed believing that if he did they would finally let him go home). These menscared teenagers at that time, who had only recently come to North Carolina and who had never had a run-in with the police beforewere convicted and condemned based on confessions which they signed with no defense counsel present, and which they have both consistently recanted from that point on.

Brown at the hearings.

Leon Brown at last week’s hearings.

Based on those coerced confessions, these two men have been imprisoned, removed from society, forced to live in the sterile and hostile environment of the penal system for decadesas men convicted of raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl and then thrust in among a population that is notoriously unfriendly to child sex offenders. Both of them have spent years on death row, and both of them have endured a long series of trials and retrials. Hearings in which their very lives were at stake. Literally.

A cell in North Carolina's death row.

A cell in North Carolina’s death row. (WRAL)

There are two distinct miscarriages of justice here.

The first happened 30 years ago, when two naive teenagers were coerced into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit. That miscarriage of justice was exacerbated when the system that was supposed to afford them a fair trialthe system that was supposed to presume their innocence until the evidence proved their guilt beyond a reasonable doubtfailed to recognize that there was not a scrap of physical evidence tying them to the scene of the crime (that in fact there was evidence implicating another man who lived near the crime scene and who had been arrested for a very similar crime), and that their confessions were wrung out of them under conditions so flawed as to render them utterly invalid.

That miscarriage of justice has been perpetuated anew every time someone in the political and legal sphereincluding a Supreme Court justicehas trotted these men out as examples, as heinous criminals who brutally raped and murdered a preteen girl, as justifications for keeping the death penalty active, or as reasons their political rivals (who may have been so ridiculous as to point out flaws in the case) were “soft on crime.”

Reverse view of death-row cell. (WRAL)

Reverse view of the cell. The ultra-wide-angle lens makes it look bigger. (WRAL)

The second miscarriage of justice happened this past week, when after thirty years, these two men were exonerated and then simply released, with not so much as a mention of compensation for the decades of which they had been robbed. Think of the opportunities that were lost along with those decades; to have that crappy first job; to have that young-and-foolish relationship doomed to fail from the start; to finally stumble into that long-term (if unglamorous) job, and to meet that certain someone who would end up becoming their companion for decades to come; to know the joys and frustrations of being fathers, and likely grandfathers by this point. To live, that is, something resembling normal lives. In something resembling a normal world.

These men don’t have the decades of experience that is going to be taken for granted by everyone, given their ages. They’ve never used an ATM or a debit card. One article I read mentioned McCollum gushing to his parents recently about getting on the internet for the first time. But I have seen nothing about the justice system assuming any responsibility for helping them acclimate to the lives they’ve been denied. As a representative of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation points out, these men don’t even have the minimal support offered to ex-cons who exit the penal system under normal conditions. “It’s not like being on probation or parole. It’s just—good luck.”

The same article points out that there are processes by which the men could seek a pardon of innocence from the governor—essentially a statement that they had been wrongly convicted and sentenced—at which point they could then go on to seek some unspecified compensation from the state.

The death row day room; McCollum's world for decades.

The death row day room; McCollum’s world for decades.

These men, McCollum at 50 and Brown at 46, have never had the opportunity to learn the skills they would need to make it on the outside. They’ve never had to keep a job, or pay rent, or keep track of a variety of utility bills, or make their income cover their expenses, or plan a week’s meals and shop for them. They haven’t been in a grocery store in thirty years. If either of them ever learned to drive, it has been at least that long since they’ve done it. Not only will they be living in new, unfamiliar towns, the very concept of getting around in any town is going to be foreign at this point. Partly because it has been so long since they’ve done it and partly because so much has changed in the meanwhile. As adults, they’ve never been in the regular presence of women, or mingled with the variety of people who make up any normal public place. In fact, for the past three decades, their only regular company has been the other (male) inmates on death row and the uniformed corrections officers assigned as their guards. Their worlds have been the prison blocks and complexes where they have been housed, with occasional forays out into the world (most likely in shackles) for court appearances. For thirty years they haven’t had the option to decide where to go at a given moment, or to close their own doors, or to turn off their own lights. For thirty years they haven’t had a moment of true privacy. Having lived in the penal system and on death row for so long, and having been thrust there at such young ages, they literally have none of the skills and none of the experience they need to function in the everyday world. One article points out that McCollum, climbing into his parents’ car upon his release, didn’t even know how to fasten the seat belt.

McCollum faces reporters outside. What awaits in the outside world?

McCollum faces reporters upon his release. What awaits in the outside world?

It is no more in the interest of justice to release these men into the world so unprepared, and so uncompensated, than it is to keep them incarcerated in the conditions that, horrid as they may have been, are the conditions to which these men have spent the majorities of their lives being acclimated.

These men have spent three decades fighting to prove their innocence. They have spent decades fighting for their very lives. They shouldn’t have to fight anymore. It has been proven that their convictions were invalid and that their incarcerations were unjust. It is obvious at this point that the state of North Carolina owes these two men very comfortable retirements.

Something like this.

Something like this. With a staff.

If we can afford the cost of keeping these men as inmates, one of them on death row and the other for life, we can afford a roughly equivalent sum as pensions, in exchange for the lives that have been wrongly stolen from these men. If we can afford the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, spent repeatedly condemning them to die in prison on the basis of inadmissible, coerced, and disprovable confessions, we can afford to provide them with the guidance, the training, and the support to manage their lives in a world for which we have prevented them from being prepared. If the state of North Carolina were to take the initiative, to arrange for that level of compensation to be awarded and implemented quickly, without requiring anything further from these men or their tireless advocates, then it just might be possible to claim that justice has finally been served. Maybe.

BLS 362: Vice, Crime, and American Law

BLS 362: Vice, Crime, and American Law

Note: Thanks to Saundra Westervelt (who literally wrote the book on this topic) for taking the time during a busy weekend with Witness to Innocence to read and offer valuable feedback on this article.

Why I Do My Job: A Letter From a Graduate

by Jay Parr

I was recently cleaning out a pile of old papers in my office—going through each one, because anything with FERPA-protected information must be shredded—when I stumbled across this old email sent by an alumna just after she graduated in August 2011. It reminded me of why I do this job.

Dawn Humphrey (right), serving as a marshal at the May 2011 commencement.

Dawn Humphrey (right), serving as a marshal at the May 2011 commencement.

Dear Jay,

For decades I called myself a high school graduate. Today I call myself a graduate student. What a change the BLS program has made in my life!

Three years ago I made a courageous decision to complete my bachelor’s degree, although I was in what some would consider my “golden years.” I sought your advice and you recommended I complete my Associates degree. I subsequently enrolled at a community college in the fall of 2009 and graduated with an AA degree in August of 2010, earning a 4.0 GPA.

contemporaryshortstory

Last August, just one short year ago, I began my studies as a BLS student at UNCG while working full time. I managed to complete all the BLS requirements within one year, graduating on August 12, 2011, and again attaining a GPA of 4.0. I completed 3 hours more than was necessary in order to qualify for Latin Honors [summa cum laude] and the potential nod of Phi Beta Kappa.

As with most adult students, I was eager to complete the degree, yet I also juggled a career and a household and struggled with finances. Fortunately, the academic community has begun recognizing the needs of the online student, with time and convenience being paramount to address a work-life balance.

While I certainly have no desire to become a poster child, future candidates are inspired when they realize their dreams are so close to becoming a reality, thus hearing my story may provide the motivation to pursue their goal. I also had the pleasure of serving as a University Marshal, indicative of the BLS students who are becoming involved in more traditional campus activities and honors.

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While my time in the BLS program was swift, my educational experience was excellent, graced by exemplary professors and a robust curriculum. Hard work and late nights, blended with lively discussion boards and insightful professors, proved rewarding beyond all my expectations.

Just one month shy of my 55th birthday, I have fulfilled my dream thanks to the wonderful BLS program at UNCG and the guidance of their attentive staff. It is my hope that other potential students will see that via the BLS program, the end of the rainbow may be closer than they think.

On a closing note, please accept my sincere thanks for your advice and encouragement through the years. Our early conversations were the catalyst that sparked the inspiration and courage to return to UNCG after a 30 year hiatus.

Many thanks,
Dawn L. Humphrey
Masters of Arts in Liberal Studies Candidate

Dawn Humphrey receiving her Master of Arts from the chancellor one year after this letter.

Dawn Humphrey receiving her Master of Arts from the chancellor one year later.

Ms. Humphrey finished her Master of Arts in the MALS program one year later—faster than any previous MALS student, and with yet another perfect 4.0—and she now serves as a teaching and research assistant for Dr. Stephen Ruzicka, one of the senior faculty in that program (also a committee member and occasional teacher in the BLS Program). She writes that the pay is negligible (she still has another career), but that “it is the delight of interacting with students that calls me back to the MALS table each semester.”

Thank you Dawn!

Baby’s Hungry: A Daddy’s Perspective on Nursing (and Nursing in Public)

by Jay Parr

A quiet moment in the country.

That special bond between a mother and her child.

I was about twelve, riding the DC Metrobus home from school, when a woman started complaining loudly about another woman breastfeeding her baby on the bus. I didn’t see anything, so I don’t know if the nursing mother was covered up or not, but that’s irrelevant here. The complaining woman made her way up to the driver, a taciturn and tough-looking man who looked like he would as soon cut your throat as say hello (I remember him because he drove that route often). He focused on the afternoon traffic as the woman complained, until he came to a light and she demanded, “Well? Aren’t you going to do something?”

The driver looked out at the cross traffic for a moment, absently drumming his fingers on the fare box, then turned to the woman and shrugged.

“Baby’s hungry.”

BLS 348: Representing Women

BLS 348: Representing Women

I can’t say for certain that the woman immediately stopped complaining, either to the driver or to the other passengers around her, but I do remember that as far as the driver was concerned, the conversation was over.

Baby’s hungry. So feed the baby. ‘Cuz if baby ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

Until thirty years later when I became a father, I never thought much about breastfeeding. I knew some people did it and some people didn’t. I knew medical opinion was evolving back in the pro-breastfeeding direction—the implicit concession being that millennia of natural selection just might trump a few decades of medical inquiry. I knew I was more likely to see women breastfeeding their children when the acoustic band I worked sound for played at places like hippie music festivals and communal farms, and I found it vaguely amusing that the medical establishment and the crunchy-living community seemed to be on the same page about something for once. That was about as far as it went.

Then we had a baby, and everything changed.

Selfie with week-old Baby Girl.

Selfie with week-old Baby Girl.

Common words like “latch” and “letdown” suddenly took on new and highly-specialized meanings. The entire household became centered around the mother-baby nursing nest. I learned that breastfeeding, while clearly the most natural process, was not without its setbacks and complications (and blood and tears). I learned about the important contributions of lactation consultants. I learned that some people who aren’t breastfeeding would much rather be breastfeeding, but can’t for some reason or other. I learned about breast-milk-sharing networks, and the amazingly selfless mothers who contribute to them. And much to my dismay I learned that breastfeeding—especially breastfeeding in public—is an absurdly controversial topic in this country.

WPA poster, circa 1937.

WPA poster, circa 1937.

But let’s back up a little. The benefits of breastfeeding are numerous and well-documented. For example, the nursing mother’s immune system works in tandem with her child’s, detecting pathogens to which the child has been exposed and producing antibodies that are passed through breast milk (if you’ve ever wondered why mothers have a strange compulsion to kiss their newborns’ hands, one theory is that it’s related to this immune support). Nursing produces hormones that encourage bonding, relaxation and a sense of well-being for both mother and child. Night milk contains tryptophan, that legendary compound that makes you so sleepy after feasting on your Thanksgiving turkey. The composition of a mother’s milk changes over time as the baby matures, to meet the baby’s changing nutritional needs. The mother’s diet affects the flavor of her milk from day to day, and children who have been exposed to that variety of flavors  at the breast tend to be much less finicky about new foods than children who have been raised on a single flavor of formula. Even among toddlers who are eating mostly solids, mothers’ milk provides a high-quality nutritional supplement, and continues to bolster the child’s still-maturing immune system—all the way up to school age. The list goes on, but I think I’ve made my point. And where the medical establishment swayed toward formula in the mid-20th century, that opinion has swung strongly back in favor of nursing in recent decades, despite the best efforts of a well-funded formula industry to keep its foot in the door.

Still, even with all that backup from the scientific and medical communities, and even with prevailing attitudes renormalizing breastfeeding—even with laws from both liberal and conservative state governments protecting a mother’s right to nurse wherever she and her child are both allowed to be—we as a culture just can’t help but be a little squeamish about the whole topic.

There seem to be two main points of debate about breastfeeding in this country: 1) How public is “too public,” and 2) how old is “too old.”

How public is too public? According to the North Carolina statute addressing indecent exposure, there is no such thing: “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a woman may breast feed in any public or private location where she is otherwise authorized to be, irrespective of whether the nipple of the mother’s breast is uncovered during or incidental to the breast feeding” (§14-190.9).

INFACT Canada transit poster, World Breastfeeding Week 2000.

INFACT Canada transit poster, World Breastfeeding Week 2000.

Does that mean a business owner or manager can’t ask a nursing mother to leave the establishment under the state’s trespassing laws? As far as I know, that part remains unclear. And of course, the laws vary widely from state to state.

Just last week a woman in Austin asked to use a fitting room at a Victoria’s Secret to nurse her child (you know, so she could nurse discreetly without flashing her breast all over, of all places, Victoria’s Secret), and was told no, thanks for your purchase and all, but go use the alley instead. She went to the news, and the story went viral, and Victoria’s Secret issued a statement distancing itself from the actions of its employee, but the fact remains that the business may have the legal right to deny anyone (even a customer who just made a $150 purchase) the use of a fitting room for any purpose other than to try on merchandise. She may have been more legally within her rights to sit down right out in front of the store and oh-so-shamelessly whip out some boob right there under the Texas sun, like a good in-your-face lactivist. Because we all know every nursing mother is really just looking for some public humiliation and controversy, right?

David Horsey / LA Times, 12 July 2012

David Horsey / Los Angeles Times, July 12, 2012.

To look at the comments in the media, especially social media, public opinion seems to be that anything a nursing mother does (short of, perhaps, staying at home) is wrong. The mother who asked to use a dressing room was asking a private business to risk losing sales (you know, if all the other dressing rooms filled up and someone got really impatient). The mother sitting outside the store should have sought a more private space, like maybe a dressing room. The mother with her baby under a nursing blanket should have gone out to her car. The mother nursing in her car should have gone inside to a bathroom (would you eat your lunch in a public bathroom?). The mother in the restaurant should have—oh I don’t know, something. Just gone home, maybe? And we haven’t even gotten to the mother whose baby won’t tolerate being covered up, or the one who’s struggling with latch issues or has some other reason she needs to constantly watch and adjust the nursing baby.

The public’s uninhibited judgment of parents in general is pretty harsh, but the public’s judgment of nursing mothers is amazing. Check out any article about someone encountering trouble for nursing in public, and you’ll find all kinds of enlightened comments from the hoi-polloi. Anyone who’s not going about it exactly as the commenter would do it is some kind of radical or attention-monger (to use a polite euphemism), trying to cram her breast down the public’s throats. You’ll see breastfeeding equated to public masturbation, public fellatio, and even public defecation. Excuse me? Feeding the baby is a sex act? Sodomy, even? Nursing a hungry baby is equivalent to dropping a deuce in public? Now you just sound like someone who has never actually had to change a crappy diaper in a public place. It’s a hoot, let me tell you.

This commercial takes on the issue with just the right touch of humor:

Baby Mama has referred to herself as an “accidental lactivist.” Baby Girl would never tolerate nursing under a cover. Her latch was horrible early on (and has always been tentative), needing a lot of revision and pop-off re-latching. Oh, and we’re in no rush to wean, so she’s still nursing at eighteen months. Which brings us to the second major point of debate.

Kayapó mother and child in Brazil.

Kayapó mother and child in Brazil.

How old is too old? We in the United States are in an awfully big hurry to wean, and despite the fact that most of the developing world (and much of the developed world) recognizes the benefits of extended breastfeeding, we seem to view anyone who nurses beyond a year as some kind of radical. Baby Girl’s favorite toddler-class teacher recently asked Baby Mama not to nurse her in the classroom at pick-up time anymore. She justified the request with an insinuation that new dads coming in to pick up their children might be somehow “offended,” but we can’t help but wonder if it’s really driven by an opinion that at eighteen months, she shouldn’t be nursing any longer. Especially among our parents’ generation, there seems to be an opinion that if the child is still nursing at her first birthday, it’s time to cut her off (which is one lousy birthday present, if you ask me). Others will say that if she’s old enough to ask for it, she’s old enough to wean. We’re more of the opinion (as is much of the world, I think) that if it’s not working for both mother and child, well then it’s just not working, but as long as it’s still working for both, why mess with it? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, you know?

We’re not alone in that opinion. The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding alongside appropriate solid foods “up to two years of age or beyond” (WHO). Here in the States, there’s something of a movement afoot toward extended breastfeeding, going hand-in-hand with the movement toward what has been dubbed “attachment parenting.” In a nutshell, attachment parenting is built around the notion that humans are naturally an offspring-carrying species (à la higher primates), not a nesting species like dogs or cats or birds. As such, the argument goes, we are more within our natural element carrying our babies, or wearing them, or co-sleeping with them at night, than we are to plop them in a stroller or a bouncy seat or a playpen or a crib (as were most of us as children). Far from spoiling the child (as the old-schoolers would say we were doing), the theory is that keeping our children physically close to us—carrying them on our chests or backs when we’re out and about, engaging them with direct attention, allowing them to sleep close to us or even with us—helps the child grow into a secure, empathetic, and nurturing adult.

Attachment parenting has something of a guru in a fellow named Dr. Sears (actually the elder of several Dr. Searses), who may in fact have even coined the term. I’m not much of a joiner, and Baby Mama will attest that I’m horrible about doing my parenting homework, so I’m not really an expert on the Doctors Sears or the current theory and research around attachment parenting. I only know that the general precepts make sense to me. Children are hardwired to bond with their core caregivers (parents, et al.), and to be more secure around them than around relative strangers such as rotating day-care providers. To get all Darwinian, it’s reproductively advantageous for children to hew toward the adults who are most driven to look out for their safety and welfare. It just makes sense.

Cover article on Dr. Sears and Attachment Parenting, Time, May 31, 2013

Cover article on Dr. Sears and Attachment Parenting, Time, May 31, 2013

To judge by the subtitle on this Time cover, attachment parenting is not without its detractors. Nor is extended breastfeeding. And of course, there are going to be extremists on both sides of any argument, because the world is full of nutjobs. We could talk about how part of the problem is our culture’s hypersexualization of the breast—our hypersexualization of any kind of nudity or intimate physical contact, really—and how that creates a cycle of shame and repression. We could talk about the role of patriarchal traditions and systemic misogyny (‘cuz let’s face it, fellas; those yummies aren’t there for us). We could talk about how all this is compounded by our country’s pitiful maternity leave policies, and the ways in which we make work and parenting mutually incompatible. But I’m running way too long already, and I’m bucking my deadline, so all that will just have to wait for another time.

So how public is too public? If you ask me, there is no such thing. Riding a bus, sitting in a restaurant, in uniform, in Parliament, in front of the Pope—you name it. A nursing baby is so much more pleasant than a cranky, hungry baby. Don’t want to see it? That’s simple: Don’t look.

And how old is too old? As far as I’m concerned, as long as breastfeeding is still working for both mother and child, no one else really has much right to chime in. If you’re not the mother, it’s not your body and it’s not your child, so it’s not your business.

BLS 385: American Motherhood

BLS 385: American Motherhood

In short, as the partner of a nursing mother and the father of a happy and healthy breastfed toddler, I believe that no mother should ever be made to feel that she has somehow transgressed public decency simply by feeding her infant or soothing her child. It’s not an act of rebellion. It’s not an attention-seeking spectacle. In fact, it’s not about you at all. It’s an act of love between a mother and her child. Baby’s hungry.

Update: After tapering down to one short nursing session at bedtime, Baby Girl finally decided she’d had enough mama milk a little after her third birthday.

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