Sometimes a novel really hits me in the gut. That is the case with Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters. This novel is disturbing, wrenching, powerful, and so terribly, terribly on-target.
Winters has written an alternate history that is not really alternate at all. It is the 21st century United States of our reality thinly-disguised as from an alternate reality.
In the alternate history of Underground Airlines, Lincoln was assassinated in Indiana as he traveled East to his inauguration in 1861. In order to prevent the Civil War, Congress agreed to the 18th Amendment which made slavery legal forever (or for as long as those states chose) in the then-current slave states. No other states could become slave states. Further, the Federal government, using the Federal Marshals, would be in charge of finding, capturing, and returning escaped slaves to their owners. The Federal government would also monitor all slave operations to make sure that basic, minimum standards of care were maintained for the slaves. Winters does an excellent job of weaving historical events in our reality of the past 150 years into the alternate reality.
In the alternate 21st century, only four states remain slave states: Carolina (North and South have joined into one state), Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. These states are fenced off from the rest of the US and have heavily-guarded entry/exit posts. Due to pressure from abolitionists in the non-slave states, companies in the slave states cannot sell directly to non-slave states or most other countries. However, holding companies with complex corporate structures manage to hide the ways in which they and their customers benefit from slave labor.
The One-Drop Rule has mutated into a precisely-delineated color chart with scores of skin-color shades marking an individual as “Black” and, therefore, suspected of being a slave, escaped slave, or, at best, a lesser form of human.
The protagonist in the novel is Victor, a former slave who has been coerced into working for the Marshals as a slave catcher. His job is to hunt down escaped slaves and then notify the Marshals who will capture the individual in order to return him or her to the owner. The story begins with Victor being given a case which feels ‘off’. I won’t give any spoilers because I hope you will read the book.
The existence of slavery and the color chart prevents anyone who is not lightly-pigmented from being treated well and equally in the non-slave states, even if that person and his/her ancestors have been free for generations. Those deemed Black are subject to intense scrutiny, must live in segregated neighborhoods that lack basic amenities, and must defer to the superior White individuals. Even white abolitionists involved in the Underground Airlines view themselves as superior to non-whites.
Underground Airlines makes it very clear that Black lives do not matter except as bodies to produce goods to enrich their owners. How much does that alternate reality really differ from our own? For those who wish to live in a reality where there is true equality and where Black Lives Matter as much as White lives, I suggest carefully reading this policy platform in order to consider how you can support it.
I just finished reading Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us by Avi Tuschman, an appropriate topic for this election year. While well-written, this heavily-researched, scientific analysis of where and why individuals fall on the political spectrum of left to right might not be everyone’s idea of summer reading, so I will give a very brief summary of its main points.
Conservatives are extremely concerned with protecting their in-group from all those who are in the out-groups, which is the vast majority of the rest of the world. Fear drives their ideology, leading them to want to build walls, both metaphorical and actual, to protect their in-group from ‘invasion’ and change.
Liberals are open to new experiences and groups. They are drawn to those who are different from themselves and don’t really see the world in terms of in-groups and out-groups. Rather, they see everyone’s humanity. Because of their desire to connect, liberals build bridges. They view change as a virtue rather than as something to fear.
As with all traits, physical and behavioral, genes and environments interact to produce a bell-shaped distribution curve. Most individuals fall in the middle: they are conservative in some ways and liberal in others. In political terms, this means that compromise is possible. However, as one moves towards the tails (i.e. ‘right-wing’ and ‘left’wing’), individuals become more ideologically rigid and less compromise is possible. In fact, at the extremes, compromise is disdained and vilified.
The ideologies of the extreme right (rigid hierarchies, extreme inequality, little individual freedom) and the extreme left (extreme equality, much individual freedom, little hierarchy) are utopian in nature: both believe that they are creating the perfect world. However, both become authoritarian regimes where the rulers are treated as semi-divine. Tuschman considers communist regimes as exemplars of the extreme left. Although he does not explicitly state this, it appears that he would place the social democracies of Europe more within the liberal section of the curve than the extreme left.
Our Political Nature was published in 2013, well before the current election cycle, so I am extrapolating from Tuschman’s analysis for the remainder of this essay. While the US has yet to devolve into either extreme form of authoritarian control, the current US House of Representatives is under the sway of individuals who express an extreme right-wing ideology. Compromise is evil and their patron saint is the semi-divine Ronald Reagan whose name has been plastered everywhere.
Until this election cycle, the US has not had an extreme-left candidate who managed to obtain national prominence, but this changed with the candidacy of Bernie Sanders who has a utopian, leftist ideology of revolution leading to extreme equality. As with right-wing extremists, left-wing extremists are unwilling to compromise. Their ideology is right and just; therefore, compromise is not possible. I imagine this is why Sanders and his staunchest followers are finding it almost impossible to accept defeat. It also explains the cult of personality Bernie has engendered. If he somehow became president, I would expect that his name would be plastered everywhere. Fortunately for the US, Bernie Sanders will not be president as, according to Tuschman, the extremes always lead to an authoritarian government no matter what their utopian intentions were.
Compromise is not a dirty word. It is what enables liberals and conservatives to work together to create a functioning, democratic government; one where there can be tariffs (walls) to protect the country while also having treaties (bridges) to bring differing groups closer together.
I recently read a book that presents a disturbing analysis of the criminal justice (actually, injustice) system of the United States. Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice by Adam Benforado is extremely well-written and well-reasoned. It can also be viewed as the companion volume to Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy which I reviewed in a prior post. This post will include a number of direct quotes from Unfair.
Criminal InjusticeUnfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice
We want “…to see the world as a fair place where people receive their just deserts. When confronted with an example of a seemingly ‘good’ person, like a virgin, suffering a terrible outcome, we experience a strong dissonance. And we eliminate that discomfort–and maintain our perception of justice–by finding fault with the victim.” p. 17
Benforado discusses research about why cops see threats where there are none. The research study showed that research subjects who were holding a gun were more likely to perceive an individual shown on a screen as threatening (no matter what the individual on the screen was doing) than research subjects who were not holding a gun. “…having a gun at your fingertips can make the world seem a far more threatening place, with potentially deadly consequences.” p. 61
Later, Benforado analyses the flaws of police lineups. “…studies of actual police lineups show that eyewitnesses select innocent people more than 30 percent of the time. Would we as a society tolerate the sale of a car whose brake lights malfunctioned on every third trip, or a hospital that handed out the wrong medicine to every third patient? Obviously not; we would demand immediate change. So why do we accept the claim that the legal system works just fine as it is? p. 129
Judges lack training in analyzing expert testimony and don’t grasp the importance of scientific literacy. “Federal and state judiciaries should commit to rigorous training of judges in assessing expert testimony…A lack of proficiency can bring devastating consequences…making scientific literacy mandatory doesn’t demean judges; it’s a testament to the importance of what they do.” p.155
Why do we punish those convicted of crimes? “[T]here is a growing scientific consensus that it is a desire for retribution–not deterrence or incapacitation–that has the strongest influence on why we punish. [T]he motive to deliver payback to the perpetrator operates as a sort of automatic default.” p.191
“[W]e often seem to be driven to punish first and seek justification second.” p.194
“[O]ur desire to find a culprit and reset the moral scales by inflicting punishment may sometimes override our commitment to fair treatment…[R]etaliatory acts look far less like accidents, anomalies, and collateral damage. They look like reflections of our true nature–who we really are.” p 196-7
Punishment that is meted out differs by the ‘race’ of the perpetrator and the ‘race’ of the victim. Example [p. 197]: Pete murders a woman who spurns him. If the woman is white, Pete is more likely to face than death penalty than if the woman is black. If Pete is black, his odds of facing the death penalty are far higher than if he were white. Black men “…also receive higher bails, face a greater incarceration rate, and are subject to longer sentences than white defendants.” They “are also more likely to actually be executed.” p. 197
Research has shown that stereotypes and bias affect views of guilt and punishment. Study participants read a story about a boy with prior juvenile convictions who committed a violent crime. “The texts given to the groups were identical, aside from one word: for the first group, the defendant was described as black; for the second group, he was described as white. Participants who had read about the black teenager express more support for the severe sentence and for the notion that kids are as blameworthy as adults.” p. 198 That is: white boys are boys, but black boys are men.
“It’s not just whether you are black; it’s how black (italics in original) you are. The broadness of a defendant’s nose, the thickness of his lips, and the darkness of his skin have all been correlated with capital punishment decisions: in cases where the victim is white, the more stereotypically black a defendant’s facial features, the more likely he is to receive the death penalty.” p. 199
Religious views also affect the severity of punishment meted out by the judicial system. “[I]f you believe in the existence of pure evil…you will tend to support harsh punishment and view efforts at reforming offenders as pointless.” p. 203 You will be more likely to support the death penalty and less likely to appreciate nuance and “…the various forces outside of an offender’s control that may have led him to commit a terrible act.” p.204
Slavery existed in what became the United States since the 1600s. The US is still dealing with the effects of enslaving millions of its residents. “A country that abolished slavery 150 years ago now has a greater number of black men in the correctional system than there were slaves in 1850 and a greater percentage of its black population in jail than was imprisoned in apartheid South Africa.” p.209 The US prison system is essentially a continuation of slavery.
“[I]n every state, we imprison people for relatively minor, nonviolent crimes–like using drugs or passing a bad check–that would receive a slap on the wrist in other countries. While no more than 10 percent of those convicted of crimes in Germany and the Netherlands are sentenced to prison, in the United States it’s 70 percent.” p.209
Solitary confinement is more cruel than corporal punishment. “The notable thing about isolation, of course, is not the infliction of direct suffering; it’s the withholding of the things people need in order not to suffer–in particular, human contact.” p. 217 In addition, solitary confinement “…frequently aggravates the symptoms of mental illness. More egregious still, when that person’s psychological condition deteriorates–leading him to throw food or feces or act out against guards–we punish him with more isolation, adding years or even decades onto his sentence.” p. 220
“If we really wanted to deter crime, we would stop wasting our time with harsh mandatory minimums, three-strikes laws, and life without the possibility of parole, which have a minimal or nonexistent impact on offending…A punishment needs to be distasteful, but it doesn’t need to be long.” p. 226
Harsh treatment by guards and warehousing with little or nothing to do is a prescription for violence within correction facilities. “In Georgia between 2010 and 2014, for example, there were thirty-four murders that occurred inside [italics in original] state prison. Our correctional facilities are incubators for brutality.” p. 228
“Depriving people of normal human contact does not eliminate criminal behavior; it eliminates the capacity to engage in normal human contact…it leaves them unprepared to get a job or interact with the outside world when they are released.” p.229
“[T]he extreme harshness of our punishments may actually increase the likelihood of malfeasance because they suggest that the law is not worthy of respect. If a couple of garage break-ins over the summer and a stolen car can land a nineteen-year-old in prison for life, then it is hard to trust the system, believe in its rules, and rely on its processes and officers.” p. 230
“The total bill for our correctional system is some $60 billion each year…The irony is that spending money on education–in particular to keep male high school students from dropping out–appears to be a far more effective way to combat crime.” p. 231
There are solutions to the unfairness of our judicial system. Norway has a far-more-humane way of treating its prisoners. “A monstrous prison will create monsters. And what is the point of that?” p. 232
Germany is also concerned about the humanity of its prisoners. “Germany’s Prison Act, for example, makes rehabilitating the inmate the sole aim of incarceration; protecting the public is simply a natural outgrowth of ensuring the inmate’s successful transition back into society upon release.” p.233
What and who we choose to protect or punish is wildly unfair. “We will fight tirelessly to protect the rights of those who spew hate in the public square, stockpile weapons capable of wiping out classrooms of children, and flood our airwaves with lies to sway elections, but we draw the line at permitting a man convicted of stealing videotapes a door to his toilet, the chance to spend a night with his family, or the experience of preparing his own dinner in his own shirt. If ensuring freedom for those who may harm us is worth the risk when the costs are high, that must certainly be the case when protecting their rights leaves us safer.” p. 235
“[P]owerful individuals and institutions are already exploiting the weaknesses in our legal system for their own gain. What does that mean in practice? If you are rich and connected, you go free. If you are poor and uneducated, you go to prison.” p. 248 As Bryan Stevenson has said, “The opposite of poverty is justice.”
“There’s a reason that this book about unfairness hasn’t talked about white-collar crime: those who engage in corporate self-dealing, illegal accounting schemes, and securities fraud get more than a fair deal.
For those at the bottom, by contrast, the lack of access initiates a devastating downward cycle. You can’t stop losing, because every time you return from prison, you are in a worse position to gain the help you need…And you pass on the curse to your children…Entire inner-city communities become locked into this self-reinforcing inequity, while gated ones across the river are able to secure wealth and success for generations to come.” p. 252
A major part of the problem in policing and justice is implicit racial bias. “[I]mplicit racial bias puts unarmed blacks at a significantly greater risk of being shot than unarmed whites…One successful approach [to reduce implicit bias] is to show people images of well-known blacks with strong positive associations (like Martin Luther King Jr.) and well-known whites with strong negative associations (like Charles Manson) in order to disrupt racial stereotypes.” p. 258
Trials do not necessarily achieve a just outcome. Prosecutors can tilt a trial in their direction by failing to give the defense team all the evidence. As a solution, “…we could have forensic reports automatically sent from the crime lab to the prosecution and defense at the same time, or have all police reports entered into an open-access file with no input or revision by the prosecution.” p. 261
There are a number of methods that are being used in some jurisdictions to ensure that crimes are properly investigated and that negate reliance on faulty witnesses, intuitions, and biased memories. These methods include cameras that are triggered by gunshots and record the scene. Panoscan which records a complete view of the crime scene that allows detailed inspection even months after the fact. Smartphone apps that give responding officers details about any prior incidents at that address. To reduce deaths, officers should have trauma kits and know how to use them. This could save thousands of lives each year.
In order to reduce judicial bias and replace self-serving amicus briefs, Benforado suggests the creation of an independent panel that would provide neutral data on the relevant points in a particular case. “This simple fix could combat judicial tunnel vision and ensure that all of the justices have access to the same data, which would make it harder to ignore conflicting evidence. ” p.264
Surgery errors and pilot errors have been dramatically reduced through the use of checklists. A smartphone app that guides officers through the proper steps of managing a crime scene would also reduce errors and the chance of a wrongful conviction. “[I]t seems misguided to fret about the impact of such technology when the consequences of a mistake are so high.” p. 266
Benforado proposes a radical, but sensible idea: trials should be virtual with neutral avatars representing all involved individuals. This would eliminate all biases based on an individual’s behavior or appearance. If juror’s don’t know what a person looks or sounds like, their focus is then directed solely to the evidence. Lawyers and judges wouldn’t know anything about the jurors and so would also have to focus on the evidence and witness statements. Witnesses wouldn’t have to worry about their safety. Trials would be more efficient, rapid, and cheaper. Therefore, more cases could go to trial rather than being pleaded out, which would benefit poor defendants, many of whom, although innocent, plead out in order to avoid remaining in jail, sometimes for years, until their case is tried. The current system may make for high drama, but with limited justice.
Another proposal by Benforado is the creation of a virtual corrections environment in which “[t]hose convicted of crimes might continue to live in their homes and work at their jobs but be required to spend two hours every day in an immersive online space tailored to serve whatever ends we deemed best, whether deterrence, rehabilitation, or something else. The eventual payoff could be enormous. For one thing, we would no longer have to house, feed, and clothe most inmates, which would drastically reduce correctional costs. More critically, only the convict would experience the punishment, not his children, spouse, parents, and friends, as in the current system, and it would be only the punishment that we directly intended, not the assaults that plague today’s prisons.” p.271
“We need to stop viewing the people we arrest, prosecute, convict, and imprison as evil and less than human, for that toxic combinations drives us to hate and hurt, makes our brutish treatment seem justified, and does little to make us safer. We must challenge the structures that prevent us from seeing our commonalities, hide our shared goals, and dampen our empathy for our fellow human beings. And we must build new mechanisms that encourage us to understand the perspectives and situations of others.” p. 271
“The arc of history does not bend toward justice unless we bend it.” p. 286
Smith first read Tolkien as a child and adored the books so intensely that he re-read them all many, many times. Therefore, it shouldn’t be any surprise that he took life advice from the Hobbits who seemed generally happy and content. While living a Hobbit lifestyle may seem odd, Smith does a great job of detailing how Hobbits take pleasure in life and what this can mean for us non-Hobbits if we follow their advice.
Since I want you to read the book, I will present just a smidgen of the Shire Wisdom here.
The first step to contentment is that your home must be a ‘snug’ place. If your home does not feel warm and welcoming when you open the door, it is difficult to be happy there. *
Eat well of a wide variety of good food when you are hungry while also taking pleasure in your meals. It is hard to feel content or to think clearly when you are hungry.
Get plenty of exercise, especially by walking everywhere you can. Walking a wooded trail is a great source of contentment.
Grow a vegetable garden. This provides you with good food along with exercise. Pulling weeds can be quite meditative.
Sleep is vital to well-being. After hard work, it is necessary to sleep long, dream-filled hours in order to process the day (through dreams) and recuperate and refresh your spirit along with your body.
Be open to new ideas and great adventures. As my grandmother used to say when we were lost or something unexpected happened, “We are having an adventure!” This puts a positive spin to life’s events.
In addition to his advice, Smith also includes in each chapter relevant tidbits from the Tolkien lore. He concludes the book with a ‘quiz’ to determine how much of a Hobbit you are. This quiz is really for the deep-dyed Hobbit and LOTR fans who’ve read the books multiple times and seen the movies over and over. I’ve seen the movies (once) and read the books (once, when I was 14), so I do not qualify. But we can all use the Wisdom of the Shire to make 2016 a year of happiness and contentment.
As an anthropologist, I’ve read a few ethnographies. They are generally fairly dry and academic. I’ve also read a few ethologies of primate behavior, which tend to be much more entertaining. I recently finished a book that manages to successfully blend both ethnography and ethology:Primates of Park Avenueby Wednesday Martin.
Martin does an excellent job of incorporating the data gleaned from participant-observation (she moved into the habitat of Park Avenue East and interacted on a daily basis with the women there) with the behavioral insights informedfrom research done by primatologists on the other great apes (humans are a type of great ape) and monkeys. Her scientific study of New York City women in the 0.1% shows that even the wealthiest women living in one of the wealthiest cities in the world are really not far-removed from our primate cousins.
Primates of Park Avenueis an enjoyable, fast read that demonstrates how an anthropologist with an interest in primatology views her fellow humans. Frankly, there is a little chimp/bonobo in all of us.
Scarcity is the limiting factor that can make life more difficult whether the scarce resource is money, time, energy, etc. It becomes more difficult to make appropriate decisions when the brain’s cognitive capacity is focused on that scarce resource. Thinking of cognitive capacity as ‘bandwidth’ allows us to realize that there is only so much bandwidth available. If we are already heavily using it, for instance, by trying to figure out how we will pay this month’s bills, there is little left over for other important decisions, such as planning how to save for a college education.
This issue of scarcity and how it affects decision-making is taken on by authors Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in their book Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives.A major point of the authors is that scientific research has shown that scarcity actually reduces IQ: when scarcity pressure reduces bandwidth, there is too much going on to effectively process all that needs to be done or decided.
Mullainathan and Shafir devote a large portion of the book to discussing poverty and its relationship to scarcity and bandwidth reduction. Many of those who are poor may appear to make unfortunate decisions. It is not because they are incapable of making better choices, but because their cognitive bandwidth is over-taxed due to their inadequate resources. In one experiment, “The poor responded just like the rich when the car cost little to fix, when scarcity had not been rendered salient. Clearly, this is not about inherent cognitive capacity. Just like the processor that is slowed down by too many applications, the poor here appear [italics in original] worse because some of their bandwidth is being used elsewhere.” p. 52 “We would argue that the poor do have lower effective [italics in original] capacity than those who are well off. This is not because they are less capable, but rather because part of their mind is captured by scarcity.” p. 60
Poverty is a serious issue for the future since it affects the children. “Nearly 50 percent of all children in the United States will at some point be on food stamps. About 15 percent of American households had trouble finding food for the family at some point during the year.” p.147 Not only are children going hungry, but their parents have trouble parenting due to reduced cognitive bandwidth. “Being a good parent requires many things. But most of all it requires freedom of mind. That is one luxury the poor do not have.” p. 137 How can children do well in school when their cognitive bandwidth is occupied with hunger and a chaotic home life? “An overtaxed bandwidth means a reduced ability to process new information…Our data…suggest that much of the correlation between income and classroom performance may be explained by the bandwidth tax… Absorbing new information requires working memory.” p. 158
Many of the poor are striving for better lives for themselves and their children. A college education is now considered a basic requirement for many jobs, but the cost of a college education has sky-rocketed at the same time as grants and scholarships have become more difficult to obtain and/or cover less of the cost. Students are then forced to go heavily into debt, work while taking classes, or both. These students are experiencing scarcity of money and of time. “…the financially strapped student who misses some easy questions looks incapable or lazy. But these people are not unskilled or uncaring, just heavily taxed. The problem is not the person but the context of scarcity.” p. 65
Poverty will be a multi-generational trap that is impossible to escape if nothing is done to reduce the load on cognitive bandwidth. The poor have to constantly re-certify to get food stamps and other government programs. But the neediest often fail to do so because of the bandwidth tax: they forget. This is a tax on poverty. “To see the logic of taxing bandwidth, think about it this way. Imagine we imposed a hefty financial charge to filling out applications for financial aid. We would quickly realize that this is a silly fee to impose; a program aimed at the cash stretched should not charge them much cash. Yet we frequently design programs aimed at people who are bandwidth-stretched that charge a lot in bandwidth.” p. 222 “…the bandwidth tax was sizable: roughly thirteen to fourteen IQ points, with an equally large effect on executive control. These are … very large effects on cognitive function… the bandwidth tax plays a similarly large role in the lives of the poor everywhere.” p. 161-62
Benefits to the poor, such as food stamps, should be paid weekly rather than in one lump sum at the beginning of month. This smooths out the boom/bust cycle. We need to “…create long periods of moderation rather than spurts of abundance followed by heightened periods of scarcity.” p. 223 “The failures of the poor are part and parcel of the misfortune of being poor in the first place. Under these conditions, we all would have (and have!) failed.” p. 161
There are a number of ways in which government and business could reduce the bandwidth tax on the poor. If you are poor and have kids, having highly-subsidized day care frees up lots of bandwidth and makes life easier. “We’d be taking a cognitive load off. As we’ve seen, this would help your executive control, your self-control more broadly, even your parenting. It would increase your general cognitive capacity, your ability to focus, the quality of your work… [H]elp with child care…is a way to build human capital of the deepest kind: it creates bandwidth.” p. 176-77
Jobs paying minimum wages require those with children to work two or more jobs in order to be able to pay the bills. This situation is aggravated when these jobs do not provide consistent work schedules. “In the United States, something as simple as inconsistent work hours…can cause juggling and perpetuate scarcity. A solution would be to create the equivalent of unemployment insurance against such fluctuations in work hours, which to the poor can be even more pernicious than job loss.” p. 178
In order to solve poverty, we must realize that simply having a job is inadequate. “Now, rather than looking at education, health, finance, and child care as separate problems, we must recognize that they all form part of a person’s bandwidth capacity. And just as a financial tax can wreak havoc in one’s budget, so can a bandwidth tax create failure in any of several domains to which a person must attend.” p. 179-80 Social programs and employment structure need to be redesigned: “…a better design will have to incorporate fundamental insights about focusing and bandwidth that emerge from the psychology of scarcity.” p. 181
Our cognitive capacity bandwidth is limited. If it is taxed by inadequate pay, inconsistent work schedules, lack of childcare, unhealthy and/or insufficient diet, a polluted environment, inadequate social services and infrastructure, among many other scarce resources, it should not be surprising if the poor seem trapped in a cycle of poverty. Mullainathan and Shafir have provided a method for reframing and solving this crisis. Will we care enough to implement it?
You’ve seen it. You may have done it yourself. Someone cuts in front of you while driving. How rude! You yell at them, maybe cussing at them. Behavior that probably wouldn’t happen among friends happens easily among strangers. Why is this?
For around two million years, humans lived in small foraging groups of around 25 to 50 individuals. When food was plentiful, the groups would gather together to exchange news and to find a mate. A variety of research studies by anthropologists has found that humans can form optimal connections with no more than about 150 others. Beyond that number, others tend to be viewed as strangers and, therefore, as potentially dangerous.
This data forms the basis of Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*uck, a book on manners for the 21st century written by Amy Alkon whose advice is informed by solid scientific research leavened by pointed and humorous personal anecdotes. Our brains are optimized for small-group living, but most of us live in cities and suburbs surrounded by strangers. The group size we now have to deal with is too big for our brains. This makes it difficult to behave well towards strangers. But an effective society requires that we figure out how to do just that.
Alkon’s primary recommendation is to turn strangers into neighbors. Actually look at everyone you encounter: smile, be pleasant. When you really see someone and they really see you, it is harder for either of you to be rude. “[R]udeness…almost always comes down to a failure of empathy–neglecting to consider how our behavior will affect others.” (p. 196)
Failures of empathy tread all over another person’s dignity and may cause that person also to behave rudely. A negative cycle ensues.
When we view someone as a stranger rather than a neighbor, it is easier to treat that person as not fully human. As Alkon notes, we have to find ways to connect with strangers in order to make them co-humans with whom we can relate. Or, as I say to my students, “Build Bridges, not Walls.”
In this holiday season where the focus is on peace and goodwill, use empathy to break down walls and build bridges. View others as potential friends rather than potential dangers. Turn strangers into neighbors.
Just Mercy is excellent. Stevenson weaves into his narrative the stories of a number of individuals caught in the criminal justice system, along with his efforts to help them. The stories are alternately emotional, heart-breaking, uplifting, and deeply sad. I fully expect Stevenson’s life’s work to be made into a feature film in the next few years. He and his team are the Civil Rights activists of our time. They demonstrate that empathy and social justice can be powerful forces for change.
Below I’ve posted a number of quotes taken from Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.
“Some states permanently strip people with criminal convictions of the right to vote; as a result, in several Southern states disenfranchisement among African American men has reached levels unseen since before the Voting Rights Act of 1965.” p. 16
“I’ve represented women, whose numbers in prison have increased 640 percent in the last thirty years, and seen how our hysteria about drug addiction and our hostility to the poor have made us quick to criminalize and prosecute poor women when a pregnancy goes wrong.” p. 17
“The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” p. 18
“Even though the restriction couldn’t be enforced under federal law, the state ban on interracial marriage in Alabama continued into the twenty-first century. In 2000, reformers finally had enough votes to get the issue on the statewide ballot, where a majority of voters chose to eliminate the ban, although 41 percent voted to keep it. A 2011 poll of Mississippi Republicans found that 46 percent support a legal ban on interracial marriage, 40 percent oppose such a ban, and 14 percent are undecided.” p. 20
“In debates about the death penalty, I had started arguing that we would never think it was human to pay someone to rape people convicted of rape or assault and abuse someone guilty of assault or abuse. Yet we were comfortable killing people who kill, in part because we think we can do it in a manner that doesn’t implicate our own humanity, the way that raping or abusing someone would.” p. 90
“In 2014, Trina turned fifty-two. She has been in prison for thirty-eight years. She is one of nearly five hundred people in Pennsylvania who have been condemned to mandatory life imprisonment without parole for crimes they were accused of committing when they were between the ages of thirteen and seventeen. It is the largest population of child offenders condemned to die in prison in any single jurisdiction in the world.” p. 151
“Florida had the largest population in the world of children condemned to die in prison for non-homicides.” p. 154
“In 1996, Congress passed welfare reform legislation that gratuitously included a provision that authorized states to ban people with drug convictions from public benefits and welfare. The population most affected by this misguided law is formerly incarcerated women with children, most of whom were imprisoned for drug crimes. These women and their children can no longer live in public housing, receive food stamps, or access basic services. In the last twenty years, we’ve created a new class of ‘untouchables’ in American society, made up of our most vulnerable mothers and their children.” p. 237
“Convict leasing was introduced at the end of the nineteenth century to criminalize former slaves and convict them of nonsensical offenses so that freed men, women, and children could be ‘leased’ to businesses and effectively forced back into slave labor. Private industries throughout the country made millions of dollars with free convict labor, while thousands of African Americans died in horrific work conditions. The practice of re-enslavement was so widespread in some states that it was characterized in a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Douglas Blackmon as Slavery by Another Name.” p. 299
A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about the book The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith. I won’t repeat what I said in that post except to note that humans are not meant to be vegans. We need to eat animal protein (fish, shellfish, eggs, poultry, some red meat) in order to be healthy. Fatty fish and eggs are especially important for proper brain growth, development, and health. Refusing to eat them could result in decreased mental ability as one ages.
Another recent fad is the raw food movement. Now, I am not against eating raw foods. However, I am against the concept that one should eat only raw foods, especially if that means only vegan raw foods (i.e. no sushi).
As neuroscientist Susanna Herculano-Houzel notes in her TED talk, cooking food allowed our human brains to expand in neuronal number and connections far beyond what would be expected for a primate our size. If our ancestors had not begun cooking their food, especially meat, we would not be advanced much beyond chimpanzees in brain capacity and ability.
Vegan/vegetarian diets will also not save our planet from destruction. Keith covers some of the reasons for this in her book, but ecologist Allan Savory’s TED talk provides yet another reason that humans need meat in their diets: in order to reverse climate change and desertification, we need to have large herds of animals mimicking the herds that once roamed the savannas and grasslands.
Savory’s thesis seems counter-intuitive. Even he thought that before he tried it. The results are amazing.
Points to ponder and remember:
1] We need cooked animal protein for healthy brains and bodies.
2] Managing herd animals correctly can save the planet.
3] Grasses (wheat, corn, rice, etc.) are for herd animals to eat, while the herd animals are for us to eat.
Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the 21st Century, has received a great deal of press. Having just finished the book, I believe that most of the commentators skimmed/skipped the first two parts and just read the last two parts. Unless you are an econ geek (I am not.), the first two parts are pretty tedious and difficult. However, they do provide Piketty with his bona fides. Anyone who criticizes Piketty on the basis of his credentials probably hasn’t read/understood Parts 1 and 2.
Parts 3 and 4 are where the meat of Piketty’s argument is discussed. My interpretation of his main points is as follows:
Income inequality is increasing in all the OECD (economically-developed and democratic) countries.
Wealth/capital inequality is even worse than income inequality.
The United States is the most unequal of the OECD nations.
A progressive tax on income is good, but a progressive tax on capital/wealth would be much, much better.
Billionaires can hide most of their wealth so that they end up paying taxes on their much lower level of income.
In order to implement a progressive tax on capital, banks must provide governments all data on their depositors so that wealth cannot be hidden.
Excessive accumulations of wealth/capital actually depress economic productivity.
If steps are not taken to reduce income and wealth inequality, levels of inequality will worsen and revolution of the increasingly-strapped lower and middle classes is probable.