Category Archives: Ethics

Sri Lankan Church Bulletin Quotes Teddy Roosevelt

Today I went to the Grace Evangelical Church here in Wellewatte, a southern suburb of Colombo, Sri Lanka, and ran across a quote by Theodore Roosevelt that was printed in the bulletin.

“It is not the critic who counts, nor the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with dust and sweat and blood…and who…if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

Right now I am meandering through a colossal audio series of 90 lectures on American history, and I am eager to get to Roosevelt.  The man was uber egotistical, great, and terrible, but besides the elitist desire exhibited in this quote to be set apart from lesser, more timid souls, I think he is right on the money.  I had a hard time paying attention to the sermon cause I was thinking about Teddy and failure.

More and more, I have come to feel comfort in failure because it is a sign that I am in the game.  Of course, we should never love failing, but we can take pride in it.  There is great dignity in having your business fail, a lover leave you, or receiving rejections from potential employers or schools.  All one can ever do is give it their best shot, and God and luck do the rest.  Instead, honor dies when our energy wans—when we remove ourselves from the “arena” of judgement so that we can pretend ourselves to be immeasurable.

Mostly unrelated to that: I find it interesting that so many great American politicians were never presidents, and were often more powerful figures than their contemporary presidents, and yet considered themselves to be failures because they did not become presidents: Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, Stephen A. Douglass…ok, I’m only to the 1860s.  I was trying to think of great politicians in modern times who did not become presidents, and I could not, at least not anyone of the stature of these men.  Any ideas?

Part III: Crimes Against Criminals Don’t Count

In this, my thrilling and final series conclusion, I will explore problems that ex-cons face, as well as articulate a path that I see moving forward.  

After people get out of prison, society never truly stops punishing them for their crimes.  In many states you can’t vote or sit on a jury.  Ex-cons are often not eligible for food stamps or public housing.  Finally, it will be hard to attend college, and, of course, to get jobs–discrimination against ex-cons is seen as entirely appropriate.

Of course, ex-cons need jobs desperately.  In addition to often being low-income and ineligible for various forms of assistance, many ex-cons leave prison with debt from accumulating child payments, court fees, probation fines, legal fees, etc.  Steady employment, ironically, is also a condition of parole — a catch 22.  To avoid violating parole, prisoners have to take very low paying jobs even if it does not make sense (e.g., they have to take a 30 minute taxi-ride to work everyday that costs $40 where they make $55 a day at minimum wage).  Unfortunately, within 3 years, 70% of realeased prisoners are rearreested and half are sent back to prison.  Many of them have not commited new crimes, but have instead merely violated parole in one way or another.

So why doesn’t the explosion in our prison population, the prison rape issue, and these other injustices get so little attention? Why is society not interested i?  One obvioius reason is that the victims usually have no voice: they are poor and they cannot vote, which means they can’t back campaigns financially or vote in them.  Another reason, and this was news to me, is that the supreme court has ruled that the first amendment does not prevent prison authorities from barring the press.

Perhaps more importantly there are, in my personal opinion,  five significant cultural dynamics at work that make the American penal system deeply dysfunctional:

  1. America prefers to punish than rehab; we do not feel that others deserve forgiveness or protection once they have failed us to a certain extent–they are now “criminals.”  (Three personal encounters of American passionate punitiveness: inner-city residents I worked with in Buffalo would very often fervently prefer to punish those they thought were responsible for the decline of their neighborhood rather than take steps to arrest that decline, even if punishing others directly contributed to neighborhood decline.  Secondly, in my work in housing court, I saw how Judges might love to throw homeowners and slumlords in jail for violating housing codes, but throwing a slum lord in jail is the only way to ensure that his/her property will not be fixed.  Finally, after I rescued that guy on the subway, I was dumbfounded by how often I was asked if I would have still risked my life if knowing the guy was drunk; as if being drunk and doing something dumb meant that you did not deserve to live.)
  2. The second cultural factor that makes our prison system worse comes from American Christianity.  Too often the church has equated state justice as God’s justice and forgiveness and rehabilitation with weakness.  Fortunately this is solvable.  I would argue that true Christianity is about forgiveness.  There is a debate here that can be won.
  3. Thirdly, while Americans love the entrepenurial spirit and those who take risks when it comes to business, while Americans love taking risks with their health and eating whatever they want, Americans won’t accept risk when it comes to safety.  Americans are willing to keep another million people a year in prison if they think it lowers the chance of their daughter getting raped even .3%.  (I remember moving back to America from Taiwan, and I was amazed at the vast apparatus involved each morning in the task of transporting children to school–those same kids are packing capri-sun, jello, PB&J on white bread, and string cheese for lunch.)
  4. Americans, because we are rich, can afford to indulge our love of segregating ourselves.  The old, the young, the mentally ill, the disabled, the “low-lifes,” the dying, and even the dead, will be curtained off and put out of view as long as we can afford it.
  5. There is little money, passion, or organizational support around protecting men from getting raped.

So what can we do?   Christopher Glazek identifies 7 tasks.

  1. Put up with increased risk in our daily lives by letting people out of prisons.  (Pooling risk, he claims, is the liberal insight.)  I agree, but this is relatively minor.    
  2. Parole needs to be less strict.  Agree.  
  3. He asserts that “we must be ready to sacrifice the trational progressive agenda on the altar of criminal justice” and he offers an example of the death penalty.  For the last three decades, about 30 people a year have been executed.  This, he claims, is a tiny injustice compared to the millions of prisoners and communities that suffer from our penal system generally.  Therefore, “Prison abolitionists should be ready to advocate for a massive expansion of the death penalty if that’s what it takes to move the discussion forward.”  Probably wise to an extent.  
  4. Stop wasting time on gun control; it helps little.  I’m not sure.  
  5. Legalize narcotics.  I agree strongly.  
  6. Lower standards for life sentences.  Agree.  (Interestingly, unlike rape, homicide has one of the lowest recidivism rates of any crime–you can only murder your wife once, suggesting that death row inmates may pose less of a security risk than other categories of offenders.)
  7. Lower standards for prison sentences across the board.  Agree.

These suggestions are mostly good, but I think he widely misses the mark.  These policies are fine, but our first policy aims must be that which has a catalytic effect and increases energy around a host of policy goals.  Here is my list:

  1. I would suggest that the most important task before us is fully reinstating criminals after they have paid their debt to society.  In other words, all discrimination against ex-cons must be illegal.  Specifically, they must be allowed to vote and get jobs.  This would grease the skids for all prison reform by giving the victims more power.  Also, a true 2nd chance would hopefully descrease recidivism rates and allow “ex-cons” to reinvent themselves and gain self-respect.   )This might sound goofy, but I tend think we should have civil reconciliation ceremonies after which ex-cons are declared full citizens again.  These events should be as celebrated as weddings.)
  2. We need the disinfectant of light; the press must have access.
  3. We need to count crimes against criminals as actual crimes, in the data and in our own heads.
  4. This means we need to address the cultural factors that might be mutable.  The goal of prisons must be rehabilitation instead of punishment and we need to push back on all forms of Christianity that advocates for harsher sentencing.

Lastly, and this may sound weird, but I think each of us needs to forgive “the other” for all the anonymous crimes that have been commited against us.  For example, I am still mad at the thief who stole a beautiful leather jacket in college.  I had bought it in Tuscany when I was 17, spending way too much money.  I think there is a part of me that assigns to known criminals all the frustration of unsolved crimes against me.

But whatever the reason, there can be no doubt that the real problem with our penal system is that you and I, and others too, care more about other things.  This is a political issue; it can only be mitigated through public will.  Certainly, there are many other important issues vying for our attention, but I hope that prison reform will be on your list of issues worth paying attention to going forward.

In other news, Alicia probably won’t get to Sri Lanka until late June!  Argh!  But I did make a friend today.  He is 18, a hotel receptionist and a massage therapist, and his name is Anwas.  He walked around with me today and we went to the History Museum together.  Also picture is a tuk tuk ( 3 wheeler Colombo taxi), and a beautiful pool in a restaurant I checked out.  Forgive the bad quality iPod pics.  

Part II: Crimes Against Criminals Don’t Count

Prison life is bad for many reasons.  This post will explore three that receive inadequate attention.   

First and most obviously, when folks are in prison, they are not in their communities.  For instance, 1 in 3 black baby boys can expect to spend part of his life in prison.  The absence of these black convicts, criminals, inmates, “low-lifes,” (aka fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters) can damage black communities, especially low income neighborhoods in inner cities.

The second reason why prison is bad has to do with how the presence of convicts in other districts takes power and money away from a convict’s own community, who often need it more.  Allow me to explain: remember how the constitution originally did not give black slaves the right to vote, but allowed them to be counted as 3/5 of a person in census data?  This constitutional law, in addition to disenfranchising people, gave slave-populated states and slave-populated counties greaterand unproportional representative power in state and federal governments.  In the same way, prisoners count as a person when it comes to districting and funding, but most often they also cannot vote.  In this way, displaced inner-city prisoners bolster the voting power of rural districts, where prisons are located, while being unable to vote themselves.  Rural whites, ironically, are statistically the most punitive demographic, and the power and money that would be allocated to inner-city, minority communities, often flows to the very districts that tend to advocate for harsher sentencing.

The third issue I want to mention in regards to prison life is rape.  In 2008, the Justice Department estimated there were 216,000 victims of rape in the prison system that year–nearly 10% of all inmates (my own calculations 216k/2.3 mil).  This was up from 140,000 rape victims in 2001 (as estimated by the Human Rights Watch).  These victims are often assaulted multiple times over the course of the year.  Consider this story:

“Roderick Johnson, a petty thief who was attacked by his roommate shortly after arriving at a Texas prison. Johnson asked to be transferred to a different section of the facility, and got his wish. But news of Johnson’s physical availability had spread throughout the complex—after you’re raped once, you’re marked—and he was soon enslaved by a gang. In addition to passing Johnson around among themselves, Johnson’s new overseers sold his ass and mouth to a variety of clients for $3 to $7, a competitive enough price that it resulted in multiple rapes every day for the eighteen months that Johnson spent in prison.”

Because of a trend of sexual slavery, 216,000 victims of rape a year might translate into exponentially more actual instances of rape.  Yet, amazingly, there were only 935 confirmed instances of sexual abuse in 2008. I am no expert, but this mind-blowing disparity only makes sense to me if victims feel that the only thing worse than getting raped is getting raped and seeking help.  By allowing this ridiculousness to continue it seems to me that society, that is you and me, is making a clear and icy statement: crimes against criminals don’t count.

Fun fact: it is very possible, even likely, that the majority of all rapes in the United States in 2008 were committed against male victims, making the United States the first country in the history of the world where men are getting raped more often than women.  Consider these premises:

  • There are around 208,000 victims of rape outside of prisons per year.
  • The substantial majority of prison rape victims are men and the vast majority of non prison rape vicitms are women, though estimates vary.
  • Imprisoned rape victims tend to be raped more often per year than non-prison rape victims, though estimates vary.

The next post will explore issues related to life after prison. 

Crimes Against Criminals Don’t Count

Crime has fallen precipitously since the high of the early ’90s.   For example, from 1980 to 2005, the estimated incidence of rape fell by 85%.  In 1990, there were 2,245 homicides  in NYC.  In 2010, there were only 536.  Crime has continued to fall even during the recession.

But this is not actually true.  Crime has merely been transplanted and concentrated in our nation’s prisons and, incredibly, crime rate statistics do not include crimes which occur in prison.  This is totally understandable, right?  Crimes against criminals don’t count!  But, lately I have pretended that they do count, which has led to some basic research about the U.S. penal system, to a discovery of an obnoxiously worthy cause, and now I am less content in my ignorance and apathy–a rookie mistake.  (If somebody can explain all this away please let me know!)

In recent posts, I noted the media frenzy around Trayvon Martin’s death and that, while the incident was tragic, murder by strangers, especially neighborhood watch volunteers, is not a top societal problem.  In an effort to walk my talk I am taking the next few posts avoiding the latest stories (Obama’s for gay marriage!?) in order to highlight the critical situation in our burgeoning penal system.  These issues receive little attention, and, in my opinion, could easily be much improved.  For those in search of a crusade, you might consider it.

Thoughtful citizens take note: the U.S. prison population has boomed (this would make a good voting quiz question).  It rose 400% from 1980 to 2007, while the general population grew 33% in the same period, until U.S. prisons housed 2.3 million with about 5 million people on parole–a total population greater than the municipalities of Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco combined.  This makes the United States the most incarcarated country in the world and second most in known history (supposedly the USSR under Stalin just edges us out).  Today, the U.S. has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s incarcerated people.  We spend $70 billion of the $200 billion spent globally on keeping people locked up.

Many factors contribute to the rise in the U.S. prison population.  One is the war on drugs.  Another is 3 strike and other laws that demand stricter penalties which the public demanded after the rise in crime in the 80s and 90s.  Unfortunately, offenses that count towards 3 strike laws can be quite minor, such as stealing videos from wallmart, etc.  Life sentences are also given out more often than they used to be.  In 2003, 127,677 Americans were serving life sentences, an 83% jump in 11 years.  For these reasons and others, the prison population grew.

At first, the scale of this prison population spike just seemed strange.  After all, have we really had a 400% increase in depravity in the last 30 years?  Regardless, perhaps the rise is gravy if prison life means simply reading, watching TV, and exercising.  But the truth seems a bit more complicated. (Part 2 to come.)

(Unattributed quotes or stats are pulled from a fairly well-known article by Christopher Glazek.)

George Zimmerman and Me

One year ago this month, I grabbed the guy off the third rail at a downtown Atlanta station and my life got pretty crazy for a couple of weeks with interviews, new reports, and the story going viral online (click here if you don’t know what I am talking about).  I did not want to say it at the time, because I thought people would look down on me, but 15 minutes of fame is hard on the adrenal glands.  Sure, starving and dying of disease to death can be taxing, but watching a news story about you spread across the internet is stressful too.  Seeing facts become skewed, details lost, and misconceptions develop exasperated me.  I realized that, in everyday life, if a friend misrepresents you to someone, you can contact the friend and whoever they talked with and set the record straight.  But in a public story that millions see and thousands forward, control is illusory.  Over those few weeks I got a bit better at being comfortable being talked about by  strangers, but it left me with a healthy respect for the chronically famous, and pity for those poor souls plucked from obscurity and thrust into the limelight.

George Zimmerman is such a person.  One second he’s an insurance underwriter–entirely unknown.  Within a few weeks, protests calling for his arrest are happening across the nation and 2.2 million people have signed a petition demanding he be arrested and tried.

I was not good at interviews at first.  You can see my “men and boys” epic fail here.  But I watched  Zimmerman’s brother on Piers Morgan’s show doing incredibly well considering one guy was plucked from obscurity and the other makes a living arguing in the public eye.

From what I can gather on the awesome Wikipedia and the world wide web, people are going crazy: “George Zimmerman received death threats and moved out of his home in the wake of the controversy.[5] The New Black Panther Party offered a $10,000 reward for the “capture” of George Zimmerman;[174][175] this was condemned by the city of Sanford.[174]  Film director Spike Lee retweeted to his 200,000 Twitter followers an erroneous Sanford, Florida address, purported to be Zimmerman’s, which forced a family out of their home to avoid harassment after they received hate mail and unwanted visits from reporters.[176][177][178]

…seems a tad much perhaps?

At least I had the good fortune of being in a story that was made better by skewing the facts in my favor.  People wanted me to be a good guy.  George Zimmerman does not have that luxurty.  The story of him shooting an unarmed teenager is more sensational the more villainous Zimmerman appears.  Of course, this story is way bigger than mine ever was, more beyond his control, and responses to the story are way more cruel and uninterested in facts.

A second lesson I learned from my 15 minutes of fame is that there is no such thing.  When one-off stories like this develop, nobody is famous or known in any complexity that might reflect reality.   A thin projection of yourself, attached to your name, is sent out into the void and people judge it.

The average person feels remarkable freedom to judge people that they don’t know shit about.  They will hear a 1-2 sentence news story and say, “What a dumbass!”  It’s really quite incredible.  Really?  You’ve heard enough information?  Ah.  Absolutely.  No it makes sense.  I’m sure you are very intuitive. 🙂

As friends and I discussed the Trayvon Martin shooting, I was very surprised at how such kind and thoughtful people can also be so quick to judge.  I am amazed at “facts” that people are citing, in my own conversations and in the news, that are so obviously inconclusive and meant to paint a picture.

For instance, it is oft said that he apparently has called the police 46 times since 2004 — but I probably called the police twice as many times in my 2 years as a community organizer.  He also was part of the block club, and was tasked with the neighborhood watch.  Some say he was a busy-body who took it upon himself.  Others say he was asked by the community to do it.  I say that if you walked down any block that I had worked on, you would probably hear both things said about me too.

So, as far as I can tell, Zimmerman might be a vigilante idiot.  He also might be a responsible and active community citizen.  I don’t know.  But I do know that nobody else knows either and that all the facts that I know about the case, including the skin color of the victim, might be incidental and not reflect the mind of George Zimmerman.

He was Me (Dad’s Story)

After last week’s post, I commissioned my father to write this particular story.  It is one so real to me that I struggle to remember that I was not actually in it!  Also, those of you who know me well will be struck with how the last few paragraphs share identical sentiments you’ve heard me rant about dozens of times.  Indeed, I was startled to see the resemblance, and then ashamed of my surprise.  Of course!  I got my passion for connecting to history from my own connection with my dad (and most of my other good passions I got from him too).  I hope you enjoy it!   

I remember the day very well. As a boy, it was my task to clean and dust the basement. It was one of those finished basements with the brick fireplaces and wood paneling popular in the 70’s. We spent a lot of time in that basement (as opposed to the living room, which was reserved for “guests” and almost never used), so it got messier quicker.

There was delicious irony in my mother assigning this particular task. On the wall an old photo of a civil war soldier looked out from a very ornate frame that my mom had to clean when she was a kid. She hated cleaning that frame, because it was so ornate—it took forever. I grew up around this picture and its frame, and now it was my turn. But unlike my mother’s situation, my taskmaster was not as persnickety, and so all I had to do was to take a vacuum brush to it, and then wipe it down with a cloth dampened with “Endust”–some wonderful modern chemicals.

On this particular day, however, I was not appreciating the lucky break that history had given me, but rather thinking what a silly chore this was.  And so I began to wipe this stupid frame with the stupid old picture in it, thinking what a beautiful day I was wasting. But, as I did so, the light from the window reflected off the picture in a way that made me actually look at the picture. My half closed eyes slowly got wider and wider. And I stopped wiping and just stared. And gaped.

I knew I was looking at my great great grandfather, Rich McGee. He was a confederate soldier in the civil war.  And he was around 16 when he joined. I knew all this. But it began to dawn on me that the eyes that were looking at me were about the same age as eyes that had been joylessly cleaning with Endust.

A stocky, 16 year old. Brown hair. Round face. Light colored eyes.

And then I saw him.

He was me. I was not looking at a picture, I was looking in a mirror. I had grown up into this picture.

It was both an exhilarating and tremendously creepy sensation, all blended into one. There was at once a sense of bonding with the past, and at the same time a realization that his world was nothing like mine, and the issues that he faced were quite different. I had to eventually stop and go upstairs to tell Mom my epiphany. She just smiled.

This got me wondering what had happened to Rich McGee.  And so I asked my grandmother Dana what she remembered about Rich McGee in the civil war. This is the story that she told me, with probably some details gone awry:

There were three brothers who had signed up for the confederate army, I believe from Patrick County. The mother was understandably worried for his sons. She made the oldest promise that he would take care of the youngest.  I don’t know why the middle child was not a part of this family pact, maybe the mother felt that he could take care of himself (but not necessarily others).

I don’t remember what battle it was—it could have been the second battle of Manassas. But after a day of combat, the older brother could not find the youngest among the fires that the soldiers huddled around. Desperate, he made his way out in the darkness, away from the fires, and back unto the battlefield looking for his brother. While searching on that battlefield, he was shot by a Union sniper, and was killed instantly.

Eventually, they did find the younger brother out there in the battlefield.   He was alive, but seriously wounded. About a half a year later, he would die from those wounds.

Only the middle child, Rich, remained.  Again, I am not sure which battle, but he was eventually taken prisoner, and waited the rest of the war out in a union camp.

Rich McGee eventually lived into his 90’s and died in the 1930’s. He had a son, also named Rich, and that son also lived into his 90’s and died in the 1960’s. I have a picture of that son, then grown old, there with his little great grandson—me.

And when I think of this, it reminds me how young we are as a nation, how the things we read about in history books are not really that far away. It also reminds me that we are never born in a vacuum. That we stand on the shoulders of the decisions and choices of those before us. And we stand with similar equipment in mind and body. This doesn’t stop each new generation from taking history in another direction. But it does tell us at what point we start.

I have come to appreciate the Chinese value of honoring our ancestors. But I don’t have to burn incense or paper money to do so. I can honor them by remembering their stories.

So thanks, Jer, for letting me do some remembering and some reminiscing–some honoring.

By Cary Clifton

Politics is Intellectual Football (I’m a Confirmed Idiot #1)

Sometimes I have thoughts worth sharing, but I don’t share them because they are in various ways self-congratulatory.  If subtexts had vocal chords they might scream, “See!  Aren’t I great?”  Don’t get me wrong.  That’s a wonderful message which the world needs to hear.  It is just problematic when it is so obviously preached by me.  So sometimes I avoid ideas and messages worth sharing, things I believe in, that may help people, in the pursuit of looking like a nice guy.  But no longer!  I am starting a blog series called “I am a confirmed idiot.”  Basically, I am requiring myself to start any post containing obviously self-congratulatory subtext with a formulation in which I confess a unrelated humorously humiliating personal act.  This frees me to make my points with righteous passion, holding nothing back, for, as it says in Leviticus 27:35, “If you are humble for a moment, feast on the joy that comes from being full of yourself the rest of the time.”  Specifically, I will start these posts by saying, “I am a confirmed idiot.  After all, I once….” then I’ll tell of my stupidity, and I’ll end with “…however…”and then state my idea.  For example: 

I am a confirmed idiot.  After all, I once hit my friend in the head with a brick after excitedly bounding over to show her how high I could throw bricks.

However, unrelated to that, I do treat serious topics, like politics, the way that they should be treated, with marked levity.  Politics, for instance, is no fun unless you watch it like intellectual football, which I do, which is why I stay informed and will continue to stay informed.

I was talking to a friend today.  She’s smart, she cares about the world, and she wants nothing to do with politics because it is so depressing.  I feel like I talk to a friend like this once a week.

This is horrible.  We can’t be losing the attention of smart and loving people.  All we will have left are the angry, jaded, and unintelligent people.

Instead, we gotta make jokes and relish the clever games that politicians play.  We need it to be fun.

“But real lives are at stake,” they tell me.  “Exactly,” I respond, “that’s why we gotta enjoy the crap out of it.”

Alternatively, we can pay attention to non-depressings things that do not matter.  On Tuesday I had lunch with a fun group of African American ladies and a few of them got into a friendly and spirited discussion about the Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons.  After some fightin’ words, and laughs, and more trash talk, I remained conspicuously silent.   Finally, I blurted it out, “I must confess.”  They stopped and stared as I paused and lowered my head, “I don’t watch football.”  They laughed their heads off.

Football is interesting.  There are personalities involved.  Sneak plays.  Talent.  Vanity.  Cleverness.  Aspirations.  Competitions.  Macho-ness.  Smackdowns.  Sometimes, when an enemy quarterback gets run over, you can’t help but bite your knuckles in delighted surprise.  Sometimes, a penalty gets called that you stand up from the couch to “boo,”  but when you see the instant replay close-up that shows your favorite lineman doing something very naughty, you also bite your knuckles in delighted surprise.

It’s a moment when my Honduran friend might rase his hand and say, “No [SNAP] he [SNAP] didn’t [SNAP]!”

Those ladies loved their football, even though football doesn’t matter.  What mattered is the entertainment value, and nobody is above that.

Fortunately, politics has all the drama of football, except it is more interesting because, obviously, something is at stake.  Like football, the smack-downs are usually obvious and well-reported.  For example, when Gingrich told Romney on last week’s ABC debate that the only reason he was not a career politician is that he lost to Ted Kennedy in 1994–good smackdown.  But here are two political plays that really made me bite my knuckles in glee (the best are always sneak plays):

Perhaps you saw it.  Last Tuesday, Newt Gingrich had a one-on-one debate with Jon Huntsman.  At first, Newt’s choice puzzled me.  Why would the frontrunner choose to elevate one of his opponents?  Ahhh… he wanted to elevate Huntsman because a Huntsman rise is likely to chip into Romney’s numbers rather than his own, and Romney is of course the bigger threat.  Did you see the new poll that came out today in New Hampshire?  Newt’s play picked up a couple of yards for him (and Huntsman).

Nice…I bit my knuckle with glee.

Perhaps you saw it.  Mitt Romney is running a TV spot in which he talks of debt reduction as a moral responsibility.  Ok.  No big deal, right?  Wait…am I crazy, or is this commercial really about Newt’s infidelity and two divorces?  (Note the happy couple at the end who have been married for an often mentioned 42 years.)  Without being negative, the ad turns personal morality into something which actually makes one better at fostering a good economy.

Oooh… well-played Mitt.  Well-played.

I am sure some of my readers will find these “sneak plays” depressing.  Some of those people might also be disgusted at me for how I find so much glee in them.  But I am more disgusted in their disgust than they are disgusted in me.  Enjoying the serious topic of politics as intellectual football is the only moral choice I know of that a loving and smart person is able to make.

So grab the popcorn, don your favorite candidate’s hat or over-priced t-shirt, gather some happy loud-mouth friends, and turn on the news.  The game never stops.

Outliers (2008), Guns, Germs and Steel (1999), and Michele Bachmann–Part 2 of 2

Outliers made me realize that lots of people are talented, work hard, and succeed (10,000 hour rule), but the bridge between success and wild success is built exclusively on fortune.  Because of this I cannot help but surmise that much of the wealth of the wildly wealthy belongs, in a way, to all of us.  Guns, Germs, and Steel took this line of thinking further: the “us” is larger than one country.  In other words, much of the wealth of wildly wealthy countries belongs to the world.

By 12,000 years ago, every continent and major area had been settled.  People were everywhere.  In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond asks this question: why did some societies develop faster than others?  In other words, why did the Spanish conquer the Aztecs instead of the Aztecs sailing to Spain and conquering the Spanish.  He notes, quite correctly I think, that if you do not have an explanation for this, it is difficult to uproot racism–even one’s own.  How could a couple hundred Conquistadors conquer millions of Aztecs?  Our minds immediately go to the first distinction: one group is Spanish, the other is Aztec.   To combat this, Diamond explains in detail why societies developed the way they did.  I want to point out just a handful of his observations.

In the long term, enormous benefits come to those who stop being hunter-gatherers and turn to food production.  I’ll mention three.  Because hunter-gatherers support population densities of 10-100 times less per acre than food producers, 1) food producers have more warriors and 2), and this cannot be overstated, high population density breeds diseases and disease-tolerant populations.  3) Also, food production will eventually allow some people to do something besides agriculture.  Food production allows for food supluses which can support an artisan class, a key to starting the process of rapidly ‘making stuff better.‘  Artisanship leads to specialization, expertise, academia, and ultimately to some form of scientific inquiry and space shuttles.

But these benefits are long term.  In the short term, the switch from hunter-gathering to food production can be very unattractive for at least these two reasons.

  1. In general, food producers have to work harder than hunter-gatherers, sometimes even twice as many hours in a day.
  2. The first food producers had, compared to what we had today, pretty shitty crops.   Have you seen a wild tomato?  They are tiny pathetic albeit beautiful things.  It would take a while for those to develop into something big enough to be worthwhile.  Likewise, after controlling the breeding of domesticated animals for thousands of years, we have developed chickens that create lots of eggs and lots of meat.  Sheep have more wool.  Cows have more milk.  All of these gains would be nearly non-existent when they first started.

Of course, hunter-gatherers did not switch to food production because they foresaw its benefits for distant descendants.  Indeed, because making the switch was so unattractive, food production only developed independently in 4 separate places around the globe.  The cultrual, and specifically agricultural, descendants of these areas would come to dominate the others.  For example, it is estimated that Spanish disease wiped out between 85-97% of the Aztecs in first 130 years of exposure to Conquistadors.  This incredible advantage was due directly to population density made possible by the switch to food production.

Switching to food production doesn’t really make sense until you have a package.  A food production package includes a number of different domesticable crops along with animals to eat, to use for muscle and for manure.  Why weren’t all aborigines able to develop a food production package from local flora and fauna?

Jared Daimond tells this story: He was hiking in the jungle of Papua New Guinea with a few aborigines and ran out of food.  They stopped for the night, and one of the men slipped off into the falling light.  He came back with arms full of mushrooms and starts preparing them.  “We can’t eat these,” Jared protests, “people get sick from mushrooms all the time.  Even scientists who study it their whole lives can collect the wrong mushrooms and die.”  The aboriginees turned to him, scolded him like a child, and then commenced to describe, by memory, the 87 different varieties of mushrooms that could be found in that area, how they could be recognized, where they grew, which parts were edible, what sort of sicknesses were caused by ingesting the wrong parts, etc.

It is reasonable to believe that 12,000 years ago everyone would have been just as familiar with the local flora and fauna as the aborignees in Daimond’s story.  Ok, so why did food production develop in some places but not others?  In short, some places, like the fertile crescent, had enormous local benefits.  Others, like Australia, had very little benefits.  What are these benefits?  Edible plants that were the easiest to domesticate, the “low hanging fruit,” were nearly all native to areas in which food production developed independently (e.g., wheat was native to the fertile crescent and was by far the best candidate for domestication).  Even more striking is that worldwide there are only 14 possible domesticable animals.  Of these, 7 were native to the fertile crescent.  None were native to Australia.

What facilitated the spread of food production across Eurasia is another thing that Eurasians cannot take credit for: their continent’s long east/west axis.  Crops and animals had a hard time spreading over North and South America.  The tropical jungle, the Isthmus of the Panama, as well as the vast climate differences associated with different latitudes, made the spread of food-producing crops and livestock very unlikely.  After all, a llama is not suitable to live in the Amazon.  Not until the present age were Llamas raised in North America where, it turns out, there has been appropriate environments for thousands of years.  In contrast, the crops originally developed in the fertile crescent, and the animals domesticated there, could be used everywhere from Spain to east asia (although east asia was blessed with rice varieties and water buffalo, upon which they developed their own agricultural package).  So why wasn’t there domesticable animals in places like North America?

The truth is, and I did not know this before I read Diamond’s book, there was.  Archeological evidence suggests that there were various animals that might have been docile, herd-like, sufficiently safe, etc.–that would have had all the qualities necessary for being a candidates for domestication.  Millions of these creatures covered North and South America, but they had a weakness.

Remember the Dodo bird?  It had developed without humans, and so had no fear of them.  Hungry explorers would literally walk up to them, grab their heads, wring them off, and make supper.  Such an easy food quickly went extinct when they were exposed to humans.  Now, unlike Eurasia and Africa, the flora and fauna of the American continents developed, like the Dodo bird, with no human contact.  But, 20,000 years ago, when humans crossed the Bering Strait, that isolation ended, and animals that might have done nicely as plow-pulling, milk-producing, manure-making, yummy beasts were killed and eaten.  Little did these newly arrived peoples know that they were killing their own descendant’s chances of food production and opening themselves up to Spanish conquest 20,000 odd years down the road.

In two recent Republican presidential debates, this question has been posed to Michelle Bachman: for every dollar that I make, how much do I deserve to keep?  She responded without hesitation: “All of it.  You earned it.  Of course you deserve it.”

Among hunter gatherers, without division of labor, there is in fact a surprising amount of equality, and decisions that the strong-man makes are generally arrived at by consensus.  Combine that with the previously-mentioned intimate knowledge hunter-gatherers had of their environment and this scene comes to mind:

Everyone had noticed: the mighty herds were gone.  A good many of the tribe were thinking that restraint might be necessary.  They were hoping that their strong-man would make a decree.  Others, no doubt, were indignant.  “How dare you tell me how to live my own life!”   This group despised any attempt at others to coerce them, which of course nobody wanted to do.  The tribe had grown large with the easy abundance of food, but now great swaths of land had to be combed over in an attempt to locate these animals, and some large families were already on the verge of starvation.  How could people be expected to limit consumption now?

So I imagine the opportunistic prehistoric politician/priestess, jumping around a fire in garments made of animal fur, preaching earnestly to her people.  “You killed it.  You dragged it back to camp.  You cooked it.  Of course you deserve it.”

“Therefore Joy,” OutliersGuns, Germs and Steel, and my study of economics–and I would even say the Bible too–puts me in a different place.  For every dollar we earn, we probably deserve very little of it, and even less as one becomes more wealthy.  Nearly everything we are able to accomplish we owe to others, some living, most not, and all of us in one way or another owe God/fortune.

However, God and most people, past, present, and future, aren’t idiots; if individuals do not get enough gain from their labor, they will not work.  And so God and society are generally wise to approve of individuals and individual countries keeping a disproportionate amount of their profit.  But we must never think that anyone is entitled to cheap oil or tasty, slow-moving creatures.  Instead, all should be thankful for the gifts and advantages they have been given.

I imagine the global non-temporal society, which we are connected to in a weird and beautiful way,

  • from those who first switched from hunter-gathering to food production
  • to modern day Australian aborigines who never had a viable food-producing package
  • to our children’s children’s children who will live out the consequences of our actions,

…is genuinely thrilled to see us productive and rewarded for our work.  After all, present day production and innovation, though often dependent on the exploitation of natural or human resources, may ultimately do the most good.  But I also imagine this global non-temporal society beseeching us to be thankful and do our best to look out for their interests too.  Jesus might call it “loving your neighbor.”

These days, I might call it being a conservative Democrat.

Outliers (2008), Guns, Germs and Steel (1999), and Michele Bachmann–Part 1 of 2

In the last few years, no book has affected my perception of the world and my own role in it more than Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.  The book makes many points, but here I want to talk about just one.  Gladwell makes a compelling case that enormously successful people, the statistical outliers, are not off the charts because they themselves have amazing innate abilities.  Rather, the enormously and naturally talented are a dime a dozen, and those talented people who work very hard their whole lives are also common.  So what distinguishes the wildly successful?  Luck.  Those who make it really big (as opposed to usual, laudable, but still small-time success) usually benefited from a special set of circumstances over which they had no control.

Consider this, if you took the richest people ever (material gain being not a definition of success, but certainly a type of it), adjust for inflation, and make a top 100 list, you would find that at least 25% would have been born inside the United States in the past 200 years.  However, if success was based on individual talents, then that number should be much less (Here’s some of my own math: looking on the web, it looks like between 90-110 billion people have lived on the earth, so lets say 100 billion.  I think, to be very generous, there have not been more than 1 billion people who lived in the United Sates over the past 200 years, so I am guessing that, if wild success was due to innate ability, the number of Americans on the top 100 list should be under 1%).   Moreover, of these two dozen born in the US, about a dozen were born in one four year period; Rockefeller (1839), Carnegie (1835), and JP Morgan (1837), and the other dozen in another four year period; Steve Jobs (1955) and Bill Gates (1955).

This is already a strange coincidence, but it just gets stranger the closer you look.  The individual stories of these men tell a tale in which they were extraordinarily well-situated to catch each coming wave, the first being the American industrial revolution, the second being the personal computer revolution.  Of course, you had to be intelligent, talented, hard-working, and ambitious, but you also had to both not yet have a family to support, so you could afford (and have the time) to take risky business ventures, and also be old and experienced enough to see the wave coming.

Experience, it turns out, is absolutely key.  Gladwell popularized the 10,000 hours rule, which states that predictable success in any field takes about 10,000 hours of practice.  This holds true for premier violinists and computer programmers.  Bill Gates, it turns out, by the time he was 18, had more computer programming experience than anyone in the world his age.  Among other fortunate coincidences, he happened to have grown up  where there was an exchange program at a local college with one of the only computers that existed at the time.

Gladwell gave many more examples that left me with an overall impression of “wow, this changes everything.”  I saw it everywhere.  For example, no matter how brilliant and devoted a statesman is today, he or she cannot be a Founding Father.  If there would have been no American Revolution, John Adams would have just been a Boston laywer, and a struggling one at that.

As I reflected on this, I felt a weight fall off my shoulders.  I never wanted to be the richest man ever, but I suppose I want success.  I want to change the world–to make my mark.  Also, when I read the biographies of people like John Adams, I relate to them alot, I see myself in them, as many people do, and I realize that I could do something like what they did too.  But great accomplishment is just as outside of my control as it was theirs.  In my writing, in my nonprofit work, all I can do is my best, which, quite simply, might not be enough for wild success.  My best can likely secure success, but only of the more tame variety without some brilliant coincidence of fortune.  In fact, even the smaller amount of success that my abilities can most likely secure me is not really what I deserve.

For those of you who have read recent drafts of Therefore Joy, you will know that I view individual humans as incredibly affected by each other.  If so, we take part in each others joys and triumphs.  In other words, my work-ethic is not entirely self-created, and so the blessings that my work-ethic bestows on me, to be fair, must be partially distributed to, for instance, my third grade teacher, my mother, my childhood friend.  This is impossible of course, so we do not do it, but if we could we should.

Ultimately, the recognition of the prime role that fortune/providence/destiny/God plays in all this has allowed me to pursue my dreams even harder.  I realized that I cannot fail if I keep trying.  I became convinced that the most I can do is always continue to “give success a chance” for me that means that I will keep writing, trying to get my manuscript out there, keep working on poverty issues, and stop stressing about results.  Many of you may know this already, but I am just catching up:  Stress kills people. Humble work is freeing.

(See how this relates to Guns, Germs, & Steel and Michelle Bachmann in part two.)

Inspiration Oak

In 1492, the day before Christopher Columbus stepped onto the wet sandy beach of a new world he thought was India, a very insignificant event took place.   If Columbus would have kept going east, past the bahamas, over the gulf stream, and around the Florida peninsula, he might have discovered it–a fresh, tiny, young shoot that had just broken through the topsoil of an entirely pre-european continent.   Of course, Columbus, or anyone really, would not have cared, and would have easily and indifferently trampled it underfoot.  But, over the next few years, this shoot managed to avoid getting trampled or blown over by storms.  It grew in that little piece of what is today Alabama that juts down to the sea between Florida and Mississippi.  The plants there suffer through hurricanes at least once every few years.  But this little live oak survived.

In its youth, the world around it likely changed little, but in fact it had been claimed by a Spanish king.  It grew into a sturdy tree and endured more hurricanes, droughts, and fires, and Native Americans would stop and rest in its shade.

In its 27th year, in 1519, Cortez landed in Mexico.

In its 129th year, not too far away, Pilgrims and Native Americans shared the first Thanksgiving feast.

In its 284th year, in 1776, some self-evident truths were declared.

In its 327th year, in 1819, its ownership was transferred by the Spanish King to a young United States of America, and it became part of the new state of Alabama.

In its 373rd year, General Robert E. Lee surrendered in an obscure courthouse.

In its 453rd year, on V-J Day, August 14th, 1945, this picture was taken: 

Twenty two years later, in the oak’s 485th year, this picture was taken of the live oak itself:

At this point the Oak, now called Inspiration Oak, had become famous and a hallmark of Baldwin County.  Though it was owned privately, Baldwin County was going through the process of buying the land for the use as a public park.  The owner was outraged at how little the County offered for the property, and purportedly was the one who, late one night, took a chain saw, and cut a ring through the bark all the way around the tree.   The community was devastated, but A Save the Tree committee was formed, thousands of doallars were raised, foresters were brought in to attempt to graft bark across the gash, AmeriCorps members organized the community, Tibetan monks came and blessed the live oak, and 15,000 visitors came a month to watch the ongoing effort to save the tree.  But it was no use.  The tree was dying.

In the Oak’s 509th year, around 9/11/2001 when our country was the victim of international terrorism, the tree died.

Two years later, in 2003, in the oak’s 511th year, the tree had become too much of a safety hazard, and it was cut down:

What’s my point?  I am not sure.  History is cool…and I like big trees…and I like old things.

JRR Tolkien loved trees. Anyone who loves history, age, myth, and all things ancient has to adore trees.  I love how they are so incredibly tied to their communities.  They are 100% committed.  They cannot move.  In the Silmarillion, the god of the trees makes Ents to protect these huge, ancient, and helpless creatures.  In the real world, Ents do not exist, and even if they did, they would be ineffective.  Humans are incredibly powerful, and can destory so much so quickly, with war, hijacked planes, or chainsaws.  We must do what we can to protect all valuable and helpless things.  Many of those valuable objects are that which connect us to our past.

I stumbled upon the Inspiration Oak story as I was looking through some of Habitat’s old National Service files a few months ago, and, for me, it immediately became a precious, rare connection to a pre-european America.  Its passing feels something like hearing that a WWI veteran died.   It strikes me in the face; so much of the past was not so long ago, and so much of what was not so long ago lives today in our homes for Seniors, our forests, and everywhere we look.  We really need to just keep our eyes open.

Beauty, specifically really cool history stuff, is everywhere.