Tag Archives: social justice

HB2: Legislating Bigotry

by Jay Parr

Last Wednesday, March 23, the North Carolina General Assembly convened in its Second Extra Session of the 2016 legislative yearan “emergency” session, with the request for that session and the proclamation that it would be held both filed by the clerk only one day before. The session convened at 10:00 AM, and a new bill was introduced in the state house of representatives. It was debated and amended and passed in the span of five hours, the final vote taking place at 3:04 PM. From there it was passed on to the state senate, where it passed its final vote a little over three hours later, at 6:29 PM. Forty-five minutes after that, at 7:14 PM, Governor Pat McCrory tweeted that he had signed it into law.

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That law takes effect today, April 1, 2016. April Fools’ Day. There’s probably some joke about putting such misguided legislation into effect on this, of all days, but you can rest assured that this post is not an April Fools’ Day prank.

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I’m the first to admit that I understand very little of what Governor McCrory or the NC General Administration has done in recent years, so it was no surprise to me to learn that they had done something else I found totally baffling. I was, however, a little surprised that they had convened an emergency session to do something I found totally so baffling about something that was so far from an emergency. McCrory’s next tweet, two minutes later, purported to provide something of a justification.

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The “Ordinance” to which McCrory refers here is a nondiscrimination ordinance that was set to go into effect in Charlotte today, which would have added “marital status, familial status, sexual orientation, gender identity, [and] gender expression” to the list of protected statuses in such areas as housing and employment, and would have implicitly allowed transgender people to use the restroom facilities best corresponding to their gender identity. That is, it removed the old verbiage more or less requiring this transgendered woman to apply her lipstick in the bathroom with the urinals behind her.

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As an aside, I found it interesting that both of McCrory’s tweets used precious characters to invoke the word “bipartisan.” That emphasis prompted me to go look. What I found was far from anything I would describe as bipartisan. The representatives calling for the special session were all Republican, with every Republican representative except one (Chuck McGrady of Henderson) joining the call. No Democrat called for it, nor did NC’s one unaffiliated representative. The thirty-six sponsors of the bill, including the four primary sponsors, were all Republican. In the House vote, every Republican representative got in line with an aye vote. Most of the Democrats and that one unaffiliated representative voted nay. When the bill came to a vote in the senate, the entire Democratic side of the aisle walked out in protest. That bears repeating: Every single Democratic state senator walked out of the senate vote in protest. There were, however, eleven Democratic representatives back in the house, mostly from relatively conservative rural districts, who for some reason or another voted aye. I guess those eleven votes are where McCrory gets his claim that it was “bipartisan.”

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While we’re unpacking those tweets, let’s take a look at McCrory’s phrase about the Charlotte ordinance, “allowing men to use women’s bathroom/locker room.” If you read the ordinance deemed so objectionable as to warrant an emergency session of the state legislature, the only relevant language (on p.4, under Section 3) is as follows:

“It shall be unlawful to deny any person the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of a place of public accommodation because of race, color, religion, sex, marital status, familial status, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, or national origin.” (PDF)

That language does replace some language specifically excluding “[r]estrooms, shower rooms, bathhouses and similar facilities which are in their nature distinctly private” (the struck-through language on the PDF), but it’s a bit of a stretch to portray it as opening the door for me, as a cisgendered male, to pull on a dress and go lurking about in the ladies’ room.

But that’s the bogeyman that was invoked. This guy. Lurking in the bathroom. Waiting for your wife and daughter.

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For the record, that guy’s at a movie with his young niece, who wanted to wear her Cinderella dress but was worried about being teased, so he dressed up in a Cinderella dress along with her. That guy has more cojones than the entire NC General Assembly combined. But I digress.

McCrory’s tweet only works if you define a transgendered woman as a “man.” The only way to define a transgendered woman as a man is to completely ignore the complexity of sex, assigned sex, gender, gender identity, and gender expression. That is, to define a trans woman as a man, you have to insist that one’s gender expression is always dictated entirelyand solelyby the contents of his or her first diaper. You have to insist that sex=gender, always, and without exception, and you basically have to insist that your [sex=gender] equation is always binary, male or female, and deny the existence of intersex people. It’s a slippery slope, even if you dictate your definitions entirely by biology. I give you Pidgeon Pagonis, one of the hundreds of thousands of Americans born neither entirely male nor entirely female, but basically a little bit of both.

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Of course, we as a culture have a history of being threatened by exceptions to binary gender. We revile people who do not conform to the gender norms of their assigned sex, and we take it so far as to view a stay-at-home dad as a worthless freeloader and the career-oriented mom who supports him as a heartless, distant, and probably unfit mother. And that’s a couple that is entirely heteronormative. A woman born male, or as she is more commonly described, a “man who wants to be a woman,” just gives Americans the willies. We are so attached to the notion of binary gender that when a baby is born intersex, our first cultural and medical impulse is to subject that baby to “corrective” surgery, to “fix” those nonconforming genitals, and we continue to do so despite the fact that those surgeries are literally a form of genital mutilation, and despite overwhelming evidence that it is both medically and psychologically damaging to the child, and to the adult that child will become. With a background like that, it’s no wonder that certain segments of our population panic at the notion of “penises in women’s rooms.”

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But let’s talk for a moment about the utter paucity of evidence indicating that any transgendered person anywhere in the United States has engaged in sexual misconduct in a public bathroom, let alone sexual harassment or predatory misconduct toward a cisgendered victim. You have most likely shared a public restroom with a transgendered person on at least one occasion and never knew it. In fact, despite there being some seven thousand transgendered people for every US senator in the country, you’re more likely to be groped by a senator.

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There is, on the other hand, ample evidence of transgender people being harassed, assaulted, and even killed for using public restrooms. Reliable statistics are hard to find, because many law enforcement agencies have only recently begun tracking gender nonconformity as an impetus for hate crimes, but the vast majority of transgender people report having been harassed and bullied, often in bathrooms, usually beginning as early as elementary school. Many have feared for their lives. Many have been physically assaulted. Too many have been killed. To quote an article that appeared in the scholarly journal Aggression and Violent Behavior a few years back:

“[S]ources indicate that violence against transgender people starts early in life, that transgender people are at risk for multiple types and incidences of violence, and that this threat lasts throughout their lives. In addition, transgender people seem to have particularly high risk for sexual violence.” (14.3, pp 170-179)

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According to FBI hate-crime statistics for 2014 (which was only the second year gender identity was tracked), “the number of violent crimes motivated by the victim’s gender identity tripled from the year before” (ThinkProgress). Now, we can attribute that jump to a system that’s just starting to track those statistics, but if we go over to the US Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime, we find this little gem about how safe any trans woman really is anywhere:

“50 percent of people who died in violent hate crimes against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people were transgender women[…]. Sexual assault and/or genital mutilation before or after their murders was a frequent occurrence.” (ovc.gov)

Let’s break that quote down a little: Transgender women, who account for maybe five percent of the LGBTQ population, account for half of those killed in hate crimes. Oh, and they’re likely to get raped and/or mutilated in the process. No wonder Madeline Goss doesn’t want to go in the men’s room.

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Meanwhile, over in the ladies’ room, the women who are supposed to be “protected” by this law are now legally required to share it with this guy.

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Sheffield’s tweet went viral, and while he admits that “It’s super funny to think about some bearded hillbilly in a stall next to the governor’s wife while she clutches her pearls,” the reality of the situation is actually a lot darker, and a whole lot more dangerous for the trans person.

“I can follow the law and go into the women’s room in a state that’s a Stand Your Ground state with a very liberal open carry law, and if I do that, are women gonna stop and ask me if I’m trans? Or are they just going to shoot me because they think I really am a predator because all they see is some bearded guy walking into the women’s room?” (Mic)

Now, this is a guy who can pass comfortably as a cisgendered man, so in reality, he can most likely continue to use the men’s room (in a closed stall, of course) and no one will be the wiser. But what about all the transgendered folks who are early in transition and don’t pass comfortably as either binary gender? What about the genderqueer folk who aren’t comfortable on either side of the gender binary, or the intersex people who don’t biologically fit into either side of the gender binary? Heck, what about the men who just plain have a really feminine physicality? Or the women who just have a really masculine one? Is it justice to force these people into an artificially imposed binary? Is it justice to force them into the room where they are exponentially more likely to be harassed, bullied, assaulted, and even murdered? All so we heteronormative cisgendered folk can avoid maybe being a little uncomfortable? I mean seriously, which bathroom would you have this person use?

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Let us not forget that transgender people are already a threatened demographic. Reliable statistics are hard to nail down, because the population has been largely ignored by law-enforcement agencies and social-science researchers alike, so the numbers that are available are usually self-reported and from relatively small sample sizes, so they tend to have wide margins of error. But what they do tell us without a doubt is that most transgender people experience harassment and bullying, usually beginning at a young age, and often coming from figures of authority. They tell us that somewhere around half of transgendered people are rejected by their own families. They tell us transgendered people are orders of magnitude more likely to be homeless, or to be denied basic services, or to have significant mental health issues such as major clinical depressiongee, I wonder whyand that somewhere between one third and one half of all transgender people have attempted to commit suicide at some point in the past.

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If you need something a little more personal than statistics, and if you feel like watching a brilliant movie that’s admittedly a little hard to watch, pop over and check out Boys Don’t Cry (1999), starring Hilary Swank in what is arguably her best acting turn ever, as 21-year-old trans man Brandon Teena, who was raped and murdered in 1993 when his cover was blown (Wikipedia). Here’s a trailer that links right to the full-length film.

The McCrory administration and the General Assembly don’t seem to have sought out any of these statistics, or to have considered the impact their actions would have on an already-marginalized and endangered population, before springing into action. Instead, they seem to have done just as they did with Amendment One a few years ago. In yet another decidedly anti-intellectual action, they seem to have acted on ignorance, out of irrational fear of an unsubstantiated bogeyman, to protect a privileged class from having to potentially step outside of their comfort zone a little, and in the process, throwing an already underprivileged classof folks people who are already marginalized by society and by the legal systemunder the bus.

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As for McCrory’s rhetoric of the Charlotte ordinance “putting our women and children at risk,” that sounds to me like a thinly-veiled version of Hermann Goering’s “[T]ell them they are being attacked” tactic. After reading some other analyses of HB2, I’m also not entirely certain to what extent the whole mishegas was about some of the other powers that were quietly wrested from the municipalities and consolidated at the state level, such as the authority to determine the terms for public-bidding contracts or to set local a minimum wage. We don’t have space to explore those details here.

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Looking at this issue from a more global perspective, I have to point out the fact that all-gender toilet and bathing practices have been common throughout much of the world and throughout much of history, and at levels of social organization ranging from nomadic bands to advanced state-level societies. In much of the world men and women and children, young and old alike, have bathed and do bathe in common, communal spaces, and have and do use common, communal toilet facilities. In some cases those are little more than latrines. In some cases they are advanced bathroom facilities that are designed from the ground up to be shared by members of either (or any) gender. They are almost universally a safe space, policed by the guidelines of community etiquette and often by an additional subset of bath- or toilet-specific etiquette, and they are almost never a space marked by heightened sexual energy, harassment, or bullying.

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If we could adopt attitudes more like that in the US, it would certainly take some of the angst out of this who-uses-which-bathroom issue. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening anytime soon. We’re too steeped in our puritanical taboos about any sort of bodily functions, and our insistence on equating any level of nudity with sex, and our amazingly strong cultural taboos about sexuality and sexual expression outside of a very narrow set of parameters driven mostly by, interestingly enough, the marketing industry.

Maybe if we could get the marketing industry to normalize nonbinary gender, then we wouldn’t have laws that force someone (who just needs to pee) into a situation where (s)he is quite so likely to encounter violence just for existing. Maybe we could create a culture where someone doesn’t have to carry these cards around in his pockets to try to defuse the situation that is sure to arise.

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The silver lining to all this just may be that it seems to have opened up a new conversation about trans issues. Maybe, just as Amendment One did, it will help raise enough awareness to tip the balance of public opinion. That’s the best possible outcome I can think of. But until this situation is solved and trans folk can safely use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity, the bathroom in my office is open to anyone who needs it. It’s the least I can do.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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…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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Loving Day, Once Again

by Joyce Clapp

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Today is Loving Day, the anniversary of June 12, 1967, when the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that interracial marriage had to be performed and recognized in all 50 states (Loving v. Virginia). It is also a day by which we may or may not know how the Supreme Court is going to rule on a similar issue: Same-sex marriage (as of this writing, we don’t know yet). I’ve spent the last week Googling “SCOTUS” every couple of hours, knowing full well that if they didn’t announce on Monday that they weren’t likely to announce for the rest of week, and also knowing full well that when they did announce, it would hit Facebook and Twitter within minutes. And yet…I kept checking.

It is odd, waiting for SCOTUS to decide if you’re married. Well, if you’re legally married. Well, if you’re legally married in all 50 states, since you are already legally married in 36 states and may very well stay married in some of those states regardless of what the Supreme Court does. And thankfully, your mother says you’re married, no matter what SCOTUS does. I spend a lot of time lately feeling faintly queasy. I can only imagine how those of our friends that have children with their same-sex spouses feel, considering the implications there.

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I can only begin to imagine what Richard and Mildred Loving felt like, around this time in 1967. Interracial couples were not nearly as common as they are now, and the U.S. was living through a really hard time. It’s not that we aren’t living through a time of gaping inequality and racial tensions now (let’s not kid ourselves), but it was worse in 1967. Brown v. Board of Education was just a touch over 15 years old and most schools were still in some state of segregation (the more things change, right?). Malcolm X had been assassinated only two years previously. The 1960s were a decade when we saw church bombings, the Civil Rights marches in the South, and the Freedom Riders doing their work because interstate busses were still segregated. This wasn’t an easy time to be an interracial couple.

“Tell the court I love my wife, and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.” (Richard Loving)

So I can’t imagine sitting in my home in Washington D.C. with my children, waiting to see if I was going to be allowed to move home with my family to a state where not ten years previously, sheriff’s deputies had stormed my home, barged into my bedroom, arrested myself and my spouse, and said of the marriage certificate on my wall, “That’s no good here.

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My wife and I are fortunate to be married in a different United States. We are on the side of history. We went out recently for a ghost tour of Greensboro and we weren’t the only interracial couple on the tour. At my wife’s brother’s wedding recently, we were 1 of 5 interracial couples present, including two guys showing off recent engagement rings and grinning like mad. We held hands through visiting the zoo and only garnered a couple of dirty looks. The lesbian character in Pitch Perfect 2, which we saw recently, volunteers that she’s moving to Maine and getting hitched, and it’s a non-event (other than a lot of happy squeals). My non-straight students wander in to my office to talk about wedding plans and ask relationship advice just like anyone else, because they are just like anyone else. My straight students ask me how spring break with my wife was, just like we’re anyone else, because we are just like anyone else (and then they ask me relationship advice and what they should do about that Spanish class).

And in the meantime, we wait nervously to see if SCOTUS is going to catch up with history and society, whether the story is going to be ‘we didn’t want redefine marriage’ (an institution that I’m glad has been ‘redefined’ over the years – who wants to be their husband’s property?), or whether the justices are going to look at the words from 1967 and do their job:

Marriage is one of the “basic civil rights of man,” fundamental to our very existence and survival… To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State. (Chief Justice Warren)

The obligatory rings picture, taken on on our legal anniversary.

The obligatory rings picture, taken on on our legal anniversary.

I felt like I was going to have something long and impassioned and sociological to say when I signed up for posting for Loving Day, one of those nice chewy posts that make good reading and discussion. But that’s not the case today. It’s simple. I love my wife, I’m lucky I can live with her in this time and place, and I’m lucky that in North Carolina right now, she inherits if I die, and I can call the Veterans Administration for her, and we can make medical decisions for each other without gobs of very expensive, possibly legally shaky paperwork. I hope that in the eyes of the law, we remain legally married after the Supreme Court makes its decision.

The Phantom Wind

by Matt McKinnon

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It’s hard to imagine how a 25-year old man can be handcuffed and put into a police van, seemingly in reasonable health, and then emerge 30 minutes later barely breathing, almost unable to walk, with three cracked vertebrae, a crushed voice box, and a nearly severed spine.

Hard to imagine how he had no other broken bones or even visible signs of trauma—other than those fatal injuries to his neck, injuries normally associated with a high-speed car accident.

It must have been some phenomenal force that did such damage to those three neck vertebrae and nearly severed his spinal cord and yet had no effect on the van itself or the officers safely strapped in their seats.

It must have been some supernatural force that hyperextended his neck, backwards and forwards, and caused those vertebrae to fracture and crush his spinal cord.

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It must have been some invisible ghostly force that mysteriously left no trace on the metal cage that housed him or the van that transported him or the officers who arrested him.

A phantom wind that blew across the Charm City on that breezeless Sunday morning, capable of such selective destructive force—tornadic almost in the way it chose a victim there in the back of the van but left those in close proximity untouched, secure in their gentle fate.

No high gale warnings that still spring day, the waves on the harbor lazy, unconcerned, unaware of the hurricane wind with sniper precision that passed, unseen by human eye, untraced by Doppler radar, unyielding through the city streets and touched down there at only one place, only one time, only one victim.

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Like some violent demonic wraith called forth from the aether itself, or out of a poem by Edgar Allen Poe.

That chilling wind.

That killing wind.

That specter wind that blew before in Baltimore.

There are names for the ride it takes you on—names that some in Baltimore know all too well:

A rough ride. A cowboy ride. A nickel ride.

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Its ghosted trace is known well enough by courts and juries too, and by police departments whose “official policies” betray its shaded existence and try in vain to soften its deadly blow.

But somehow still it howls.

In 1997 that same wind blew Jeffrey Alston, arrested for speeding in his BMW, handcuffed, shackled, and supposedly strapped to a bench in the back of a police van, but, officers later claimed, in Houdini-like fashion, was able to free himself and leap headfirst into the partition, breaking his neck and leaving him a quadriplegic, later to die from complications. A jury disagreed with this “official” account to the tune of 39 million dollars.

But the wind remained aloof.

In 2005 that same wind blew Dondi Johnson, arrested for urinating in public and also placed, handcuffed but not in a seatbelt, in the back of a police van. It likewise blew him clear across the vehicle, breaking his neck and snuffing out his life. A jury awarded his family 7.4 million dollars.

But the wind escaped notice.

It blew again just two years ago, though this time the victim, a young white woman named Christine Abbot, survived to tell her story…and to sue the sue the City of Baltimore. Since, well, you cannot sue a phantom wind.

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It has also blown in Philadelphia, paralyzing two in similar fashion.

Undoubtedly it has blown elsewhere before, outside of public gaze, this astral gust that appears briefly from nowhere, mysteriously tracks only police vans, and then is gone, leaving only the broken bodies of handcuffed detainees in its wake.

It’s hard to image such a phantom wind.

It must make for one hell of a rough ride.

BPD-van

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.

scholar-not-criminal-edit

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.