Sunday, December 19, 2010

What Better Angels

In Dr Viktor Frankl's exceptional book "Man's Search for Meaning" the author and father of the school of psychanalysis known as "logotherapy" describes the prevalence of a condition known as "delusion of reprieve" amongst his fellow Jewish captives at Auschwitz. A psychiatrist before the war, Frankl was reduced to the status of a simple laborer for much of his internment, but he put his trained and perceptive mind to the study of incarceration in a way that I can only hope to mimic on my best of days. While I in no way can even attempt to equate either my intellect or my situation with that of Dr Frankl, many of the psychological stages that he went through and documented are eerily similar to the ones that I have experienced here at Polunsky. The delusion mentioned above describes the tendency that most men engage in to form some imaginary hopes of immediate succor, shortly before they are executed. This illusion was all too common in Frankl's world, and it is all too common in my own, taking many different forms.

One of the most common seems to be the nearly continuous chatter about the various LEGAL CHALLENGES currently working their ways through the appellate courts that might cause the DP to be ruled a violation of the 8th Amendment's prohibition against "cruel and unusual" punishment. Another is the idea that a massive and instantaneous public shift will occur when modern science proves innocent men to have been executed. Frankl, too, noticed this capacity in his fellow prisoners, with many greedily snatching up even the most trivial of rumors, and then parading them about as if they were divinely revealed wisdom.

I always feel like central casting has thrust me into the role of playing Scrooge, when conversations turn to these matters. A drowning man does not generally like to be told to "check the source" of the life preserver tossed to him, and I have found that lately fewer and fewer of the men here engage with me in casual conversation. This is, simultaneously, both something of a relief and a source of some sadness. I am too young to feel this old.

But it is hard to avoid the obvious: social progress occurs when a plurality of voters decide that it is morally acceptable to permit this change. The DP will only end when the percentage of people who feel it is immoral for their government to have the right to end the lives of its citizens is greater than those who do not. While I think that the trends are all certainly pointing in the right direction, I feel it must be said that it does not appear that this shift is due to some overriding moral argument. Indeed, I do not feel that one should even bother attempting to use morality when appealing to the American public on an issue of social progress. Maybe in the past, one would have had some ground to stand on when appealing to the better angels of our collective nature, but those days are long, long gone.

Take the repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell." This policy should have died a violent death years ago, thanks to the supposedly American concept of "citizen equality." It should never have been conceived of at all, seeing as how the power plant of the entire policy ran on the fuel of requiring honorable men and women to live a lie. I cheered the end of this silly doctrine, but my joy was somewhat short-circuited by the results of several surveys on the matter. These showed that the main reason for the public's shift on this subject dealt not with the issue of equality (most are still opposed to gay marriage), but rather with the issue of necessity: when fighting two wars in Islamistan, we should not be turning away any capable volunteers. It was our collective desire for victory (and fear of a potential military draft) that caused the shift, plain and simple. Had these wars not stalled out for so many years, we never would have been forced to open our eyes to a very obvious injustice. It is sort of like the Civil War never happened and Americans still cannot face change without attempting to drop a whole slew of bombs first. If you are having a difficult time drawing a parallel between the Civil War and the modern fight for gay rights, you are very exactly proving my point. We have become blind to the obvious.

Sitting in front of me now are two surveys (Astin, Osegura, Sax, Korn; The American Freshman: Thirty Five Year Trends. Los Angeles: UCLA Higher Education Research Institute, 2002 and Pryor; The American Freshman: National Norms for Fall 2007. Los Angeles: UCLA Higher Education Research Institute, 2007), which show some rather interesting trends. In these surveys, researchers have questioned first year college students every year since 1969 about their attitudes on various issues. I think the results very clearly illustrate my point here:

- In 1969, 88.1% of women and 82% of men felt that it was "essential" or "very important" to "develop a meaningful philosophy of life." By 2007, the percentages had plummeted to 48.5% of women and 50% of men.

- In 1969, 30.4% of women and 52.3% of men felt that it was "essential" or "very important" to be "very well off financially." By 2007, the percentages had skyrocketed to 73.3% of women and 75.7% of men.

It would appear from the data that the idea of trying to figure out the meaning of our lives (a part of which, one would presume, would deal with the formulation of a code of morality) has taken a back seat to our quest for material wealth. When we do actually go looking for "the point", we tend to quench our existential thirsts on banal posts of 140 characters or less. The American Dream has discovered steroids and Twitter, and is now too busy preening in front of its reflection to care that the world is falling apart at the seams. Or, to mix mythical metaphors, that the entire consume-earn-consume cycle is most perfectly described as Sysyphean; like the unfortunate son of Aeolus, we, too, are stuck into a routine that is nearly inescapable. The difference is we are actively choosing this fate on a daily basis.

So, too, goes the system of capital punishment. The argument has already been made, and made on many fronts, that the root of the support for this sentence stems from a sense of vengeance, not justice. Conservative Christians are the strong and only vocal backbone for this system, despite the fact that the entirety of Jesus of Nazareth's message required the concepts of forgiveness and change to be central features of our value system. (Read John 8). And nevermind, of course, that Christ himself was tried arbitrarily and then executed by the state. I suppose that it is simply asking too much for the followers of Christ to actually read Christ's words, but, then again, they have never been very proficient at this, have they? (“’We regard every man in our midst an enemy to the institutions of the South,' said the Atlanta Confederacy, 'who does not boldly declare that he believes African slavery to be a social, moral, and political blessing, supported fully by God's strictures.’”) Point any of this out to a Christian, and I have found that most tend to scurry back to hide behind the books of the Pentateuch, which pretty much proves that they have never bothered to read the book they claim to be Holy, let alone understand the meanings of the words "new" and "old." Why not say it clearly? Most people profess faith in Christ for the purpose of feeling better about their own mistakes in life. They get the benefit of forgiveness, plus the fellowship and socialization that we all need to be happy. Nevermind actually having to undertake the difficult business of living a moral life, because, after all, forgiveness is easy: it's only a prayer away.

The argument showing that the innocent have been executed has already been proven, and proven on several occasions. The recent case of CLAUDE JONES should have caused an uproar, but it spawned only a number of torpid editorials in the mainstream press, before falling into a roadside ditch to make way for the news that, apparently, Bristol Palin is not a very talented dancer. Need I even say more?

No, these arguments mean nothing, and are not a part of the evolving attitudes against capital punishment. What it boils down to is money, honey: it is just too damned expensive to execute our criminals. (That assumes that we can even make the CHEMICALS REQUIRED.)

Sigh, if only these damned elitist, “activist" judges didn't require any sort of judicial review, we could jus t march these criminals off into a forest and shoot them all In the head. Macht nichts!

As indicated in the survey data above, few people have the time to contemplate issues like this, what with the rat race and the Joneses, and all. The cartoon included at the top of this entry pretty much sums the situation up: people know what is going on here, but they do not care. It doesn't have anything to do with them. They are not connected. Even worse: the subject is worthy only of a small, 4 by 5 inch cartoon, rather than the front-page news that it is, at heart.

I am the last person who should be commenting on any of this. Over the course of my life, I have been a selfish jerk. I have hated extensively, put enough chemicals into my veins and nose and lungs to put an enraged hippopotamus into a coma. I have failed at every moral test put before me, and my failures have accumulated a cost so high that I can never even cover the interest earned on a monthly basis, let alone the principle.

But I have one advantage now, one of position. I am now in a place where I can see things that some of you cannot. True, check the source, but also recognize that even the lowest of us can warn you of a trip line. In fact, the lowest of us may be best able to warn you of this.

It used to piss me off when celebrities would begin to champion a cause only after they became afflicted with it personally: Christopher Reeves taking up the banner of the disabled, starlets talking about breast cancer after a double mastectomy, etc. If the cause were so important, I thought, why didn't they stand up for it before fate put the two of them in hostile apposition? I was too arrogant to see the truth, and, like all the rest of my errors, I am paying for this now. I never knew that the courts worked this way before, or that the prisons should be charged as accomplices whenever a parolee commits another crime. I wasn’t involved; it didn’t touch my life directly. Had I ever come across a site like this, I think I would have failed to "get it."

I am hoping that some of you are better human beings than I was. When was the last time you stood up for something? Really drew a line in the sand and stood by it? There are so many issues facing us as a global people right now, many of them far more pressing than that of capital punishment. Are you feeling a sense of directionlessness? Like life should be worth more than this?

Can I make a suggestion that a lack of a cause is the root of this? I know it was for me. I wish someone had been able to explain to me the necessity of civic participation to a healthy mind; there is no telling what I might have done.

What would it take for you to be one of the few who stands up and makes the statement that the world does not have to be this way? Because it can be better.

This past October, around 500 people marched on the Capital building in Austin to protest the use of executions in Texas. This was the largest crowd ever for this annual event. For the first time, I actually had a representative attend the march, but - and this is the telling point - she had to come all the way from Australia to attend. We used to be a moral lighthouse for the rest of the world. Do you realize how far we have fallen behind? Do you care? When was the last time you stood up for something? Maybe that has been too long. I do not often enjoy being wrong, but I am hoping beyond hope that one of these days, my statement about being unable to make a moral argument to the people of this country will be retracted. I am not holding my breath, though.

The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,

Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,

Children afraid of the dark

Who have never been happy or good

A Few Final Notes:
- If you purchase one book this holiday season, please consider the one mentioned in this piece, by Dr Viktor Frankl. "Man's Search for Meaning" has two parts, the first being some of his memories of his years surviving in the concentration camps during WWII. The second part is deals with the science of logotherapy, which is a sort of existential analysis. This book will have an impact on all who read it, but especially on those who are interested in learning what exactly goes on inside the mind of an incarcerated person. This is officially the first selection of Thomas's Book Club, and you should be able to find a copy for only a few dollars on Amazon. It is short, and not tilled with complicated terms, and is well worth your time and money.

- I am in the midst of final exams these next few weeks, so please forgive me if this and the next few entries are not up to snuff. I think that some of you forget that I am a full-time student working on a double major, and, unlike in my previous life, I take my studies very seriously now. As soon as my grievance about expanding the day to 28 hours is accepted, I will be able to put a little more effort into this site. Plus, they seem to be really working hard to kill these entries the last few weeks, with several gone missing. Bear with me, please. Thanks.

© Copyright 2010 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved.

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