Friday, January 22, 2010

A Tale of Five Jails – Limestone County Detention Center – Part I

January 22, 2010

(Authors note: the events described here take place during the spring and summer of 2006)

Somewhere, people are thinking about going out to dance tonight, about reading their newspapers or walking the dog, I thought to myself as I looked out the window. Trying to decide what to do about dinner, or whether to get the model with the leather seats. That such normal, commonplace activities could actually be important to someone at that exact moment amazed me.

It had already been an exceedingly long day, waiting in the holding tanks at the center of the Grimes County jail. I felt infected by dirt and grime, by the years of sweat and tears and lost dreams that coasted the walls of that place. A river of Lady Macbeth brand soap would not have made me feel clean. My wrists were aching from where the handcuffs cut into my skin. I had once been told by an old timer back on a parole violation that I would eventually grow some calluses along my wrists after a few years of metal-on-skin contact. I hoped to God that he was just joking around. That seemed a terrible biological treason that the body would learn to accept what the mind never could.

When other people decide your fate, when you are caught up in the ebb and flow of foreign intentions, even sitting down can leave you drained. This is the lone word which currently occupies the spotlight in my mind: drained. My memory still works fairly well; usually it obeys when I command it. Events come rushing forward and line themselves up, awaiting my inspection. Something about Limestone makes me want to whistle, to change the radio station; I suddenly have an inescapable need to do a set of push-ups. Anything to distract, to postpone, to ignore. This defies concise description, this antipathy towards my personal reality, and all of this offends the portion of me dedicated to searching out the truth in a way which also baffles description. There is a coward in all of us, I guess, which colors some portions of our pasts with the intense desire to go to sleep. For a thousand years.

It wasn’t much of a source of comfort, but I think the orders requiring me to be banished to Limestone also ruined that day for the two transport officers. Misery, indeed, loves company. Now, instead of a relatively quick jaunt from Southwest to Northwest Houston, they had to pack it all the way nearly to Waco. Especially for the likes of me, who – according to the newspapers and my prosecutor – was so physically dangerous that I shouldn’t even be held in close proximity to starving crocodiles. They exacted their revenge by making sure the handcuffs were ratcheted down as tightly as possible, nearly cutting off circulation to my wrists.

It took us nearly three hours to reach the cultural mecca that is Groesbeck, Texas, where the sign at the city limits listed the populations as: “Well, we aint exactly sure, cuz’n we aint got that many fingers and toes, ya hear? An don’t let sundown catch your black ass on the streets, neither.” (I kid…sort of.)

By the time we neared the end of the journey, my hands had swollen painfully, and I was having visions of…uh, “re-educating” these jerks on proper handcuff utilization. I was sure that there was no point in complaining, though, as neither of them appeared to have the emotional range of a shovel.

For all of that, the route we took to arrive at the farm wasn’t entirely unpleasant. Especially when you consider I had been looking at nothing but cement and steel and desperate human wretches for the past eight months. There was a nice little middle class neighborhood with huge oak trees that we passed through right before we hit the unit, and we had to brake for a few seconds to pass slowly through an interrupted street hockey game. The kids were flashing us those cute/annoyed looks that only small children can manage with any aplomb. Two of their number skated frenetically over to the PVC pipe goals, dragging them out of the way with a look of near panic on their faces, as if they thought we would just carelessly careen right through them otherwise. Some of the kids finally noticed the decals on the side of the van, and began to race along side of us, trying to see inside. One of them flicked me off as I stuck my tongue out at him, which set the whole gang of them laughing riotously. I smiled with them. That there ever should have been a time in my own life when giving someone the finger passed for high comedy! How quickly the weeds begin to show up in the garden of innocence.

Innocence? Did I write that? Did I actually think that? Forgive me, these memories must have upset me more than I had recognized. That is the thinking of an old, old, man, glancing wistfully backward into the days when the years hadn’t etched so many signatures into his bones. It is the desire of the dying, to see the world as better than it is, that it will go on when we don’t. I should know better. I do know better. Some kids can be monsters, and the world will go on until it doesn’t anymore. My desires or silly sentiments on the matter don’t amount to one hill of beans, as they say down here. In any case, no one is blameless, and everybody pays. In Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago proclaims that all guiltless shall meet reproach, and they do. It just takes a little longer for the world to settle accounts with some of us.

I had never been inside a real unit before. Fort Bend, Grimes, even Webb County had been merely jails, entirely self-contained facilities within a set of supporting walls. No need for fences or razor wire or guard towers crammed with men who had been hunting since they hadfallen out of the crib. Limestone was different. You could tell that in one glance: the place just looked like serious business. (I laugh at this now, as even Limestone is merely a puny bantamweight scrapper compared to the heavy brute that is Polunsky.) The complex itself consisted of one immense building, which I later learned was imaginatively called “A-Building.” This comprised one fourth of the perimeter, the other three being actual fences. It housed dorms for TDJC inmates, as well as the library, infirmary, intake, and all of the corporate offices for Civigenics in that region. Spread out behind A-Building in a massive irregular rectangle was the rest of the unit, which was criss-crossed by dividing partitions of razor wire and chain-link fences. Sitting amidst these satellite buildings was an immense space of green and brown: the largest rec yard I had (or have) ever seen. It was so immense, it contained a full-sized dirt softball field, soccer field and track. The track was really just a patch of dirt that had been worn down by thousands of feet until even the strongest of Texas weeds had thrown its leaves up in surrender, but it was still a better rec yard than any other facility I had been a guest of.

Limestone had a separate set of buildings for federal BOP inmates, and this series of dorms sat opposite the yard. The whole mess was run by Civigenics, who had just signed a fairly lucrative contract with ten or eleven counties in eastern Texas to hold their pretrial detainees. There were a considerable number of these men already at the facility by the time I arrived. You could tell the three groups apart by the color of our jumpsuits: yellow for BOP, white for TDJC, and orange for county inmates. We were never supposed to be able to have any contact with each other, but of course this happened with an alarming frequency.

All in all, it was an ugly facility (though, I guess it should be said that I doubt a “pretty” prison has ever been developed), constantly growing, adding on, like a cancerous growth run amok. I could see three new buildings going up over in federal territory, almost ready to add several hundred new beds to the count. Business was booming for private prisons in Texas.

It still is.

We all experience fear in different ways. When I was younger, I would hide upstairs in my closet with a flashlight and a book. Literature has always been my escape of choice. Still is, to a certain extent. Later, I took to running out my anxieties, often pushing myself until I would be choking down vomit. Even later, I began to use certain chemicals to alter my perception of the things which I couldn’t run from. My actions of December 10th taught me a new form of fear avoidance: dividing the mind form the body, so that the good parts of me, the portions that know how to love and laugh and care can be submerged beneath the lakes of my eyes and hidden in a panic room, safe from what happens to the exterior. A nuclear fallout shelter for the “me.”

Yeah, I was scared to come to Limestone. I think most people would be. I can handle myself pretty well in most situations, but if four dudes get together for a purpose, there is very little a normal person can do to stop them. That’s a prison truth. You just hope it doesn’t come to that. But, then, what good is hope when the shanks come out to play?

The intake procedure was remarkably similar to that of Grimes County. The transport officers seemed glad to be rid of me, and quickly left me encased in one of the two holding tanks. I spent a few minutes stretching out, massaging my hands back to life. The little pins-and-needles feeling which engulfed my fingers seemed oddly comforting: almost like being caressed by someone.

My view from the holding tanks was rather limited, consisting of one set of concrete walls and massive pile of frayed-looking light blue mattresses, some more full than others, stacked against a set of two carts. I could also see where the transport officers had haphazardly tossed my garbage bag full of property, just around the corner. I spent about five minutes using my tennis shoes and shirt to snag this back to where I could get into it. After that, I waited in comfort. I could hear someone moving about in the hallway, the echoes of their footsteps coming nearer before fading away. I was tempted to check in my bag to make sure none of my hidden contraband had been detected during my hiatus at Grimes, but I let it ride.

A few times during those first hours, a white-clad TDJC trustee would come in with a cart and dump a load of mattresses on the stack. A few of them nodded at me, but I hadn’t really seen what I was looking for, yet. Finally, a white dude came in pushing a mop bucket and came over to say hello. He was tall with red hair, and it didn’t surprise me to learn that his nickname was Shamrock. He had several Irish tats visible on his arms, which were the size of cured hams. After introductions were made, he informed me that he had been at this farm for 18 months. He was only doing seven altogether, but they were screwing him around by making him do the “transfer unit shuffle.” State law says that an inmate cannot be kept on a transfer facility for more than two years, as these facilities are not as fully equipped as a regular unit. It says nothing about simply moving inmates from transfer unit to transfer unit just before the two year mark, which is exactly what they were doing to hundreds, if not thousands, of inmates. It is an absolute reality that a good chunk of the men sentenced to do less than ten years in prison will never once be assigned to a facility capable for giving them a GED, or a class on welding or auto repair. This is justice in Texas, where they want you to recidivate. They’ll keep a bed open for you, ya hear?

After we had spoken for a few minutes, I asked him to set aside one of the good mattresses for me. He smiled, and said he could do even better. He quickly walked to the corner door, to see if anyone was coming, and then removed a razor blade from his shirt pocket. He quickly and expertly sliced the end of one mattress open and stuffed another one inside of it, giving me a nice double-thickness mat to sleep on. As he was working on this, I slid my bag over and found the ramen noodle packet with small red mark on one of the corners. I slid my finger along the opening, which I had resealed with tape, and opened up what appeared to be a normal cube of noodles. In reality, it was a hollowed out case for my cigs. I handed him one as he set the mattress to one side.

“Hey, that’s slick. I like that. Anyways, that mats as good as a fucking Serta. You need anything, just ask around for me, and I’ll get to you. There’s a dude named Doc, a real old-school brother over in the detention tanks. He knows me. Just tell him Shamrock said ‘what’s up’ and he will take care of you. I’ll see you around, Wood.”

About an hour later, a young, ketosis-thin black man unlocked the gate, and ushered me into a cramped office. He had a wad of tobacco in his mouth the size of New Jersey, and an easy manner about him, like he could have been sitting in a bar somewhere. He seemed totally nonplussed to be alone with me, sans cuffs, and I decided that I liked him. He had a checklist of some sort on his desk, which he quickly signed, without even looking at a single item of my property. He took a quick photo of me for my ID, and only then did he think to ask, “You got anything on you that I could get fired for letting into this facility?” I just shook my head, still amazed. “Good. Because I don’t really feel like doing this shit today. If you get caught with something you shouldn’t have, just do us all a favor and say you bought it from the feds, ok? They got everything good anyways.” If the universe came with captions, his would surely read: “Needs A New Job.”

I learned that I was to be assigned to F-Building, which was built to house high-security county inmates. He seemed to think I was lucky to be out there, “away form all this crap.” He was really working to sell me on the place, and I became suspicious that I was about to be dumped into a real hellhole. Seemed to me that this was precisely the type of place where trouble lives, but he was making it sound more exclusive than the Garden of Eden.

Another trustee was quickly rounded up, and “my” mattress was dumped into a cart with the rest of my property. This was quickly followed by my necessities: a towel, sheets, bar of soap, and a razor. The guard, whose name was never offered, and which I am still ignorant of, waved me goodbye as the trustee walked out the door. I sat there for a minute, before moving off after him. I'm just supposed to…go to my assignment myself, I thought? The confusion in my mind must have been manifest on my face, because the trustee remarked that in TDC, “we often do our own thing.” I admitted that this was my first time in the system, and he said that I would be fine so long as I remembered that I had come in alone and would be leaving alone. This seemed good advice at the time, and I have heard this maxim repeated many, many times over the years. It is just as true now as it was then.

It was a long walk, consisting of many twists and turns. I mist admit that I lost track of where we went, that first time. Along many of the halls were small dorms, and men were hanging their arms out into the hallway, calling to each other and to the trustee at my side. One even called me a “new fish” and tried to grab my shirt. I caught his arm and bent it back the opposite way against the bars, and he gave up. I learned to walk in the middle of the hallway, after that. We soon passed the infirmary and the offices, and I kept expecting someone to ask us where the devil we thought we were going. Two inmates, unescorted…with a cart full of something…it could have been a pallet of AK-47s for all they knew. Eventually, we arrived at one of the external doors, and had to wait for an officer to buzz us out. As I exited the door, I noticed a small placard attached to the wall, with a small map of the facility laid out on it. There was a little read “X” at one point, with the words “You Are Here” written below it. Ah, goody, I thought. Because that is exactly what we need: further reminder of how screwed we all are.

Outside, I got my first view of the internal network of buildings and rec yards. We turned immediately to the left, and walked along the side of A-Building until we came to a high security fence. Protruding out of the ground was a metal pole with an intercom box attached to it. The trustee quickly pressed a yellow button and we could hear a squacking noise, which sort of sounded like a duck getting mauled by a pig. When the horrid noise ceased, the trustee leaned over and simply said, “new boot.”

A few minutes later we could hear someone walking up to the other side of the gates and then the sound of a key entering a padlock. The gates swung open and a guard ushered us down a short path, before closing the gate behind us. Once again, everything seemed exceedingly off, and a bit poorly planned. Why would they have built an internal section of the prison that could only be opened from the inside? A fortress within a fortress…that the inmates could control, should they want to. I would later learn that they pretty much already did.

F-Building was actually rather small. Upon entering the front doors, you are faced with a two-storey picket, which is locked from the inside, and is virtually the only portion of the building that is off-limits to the inmates. To either side of the picket were two man-trap doors, each splitting off in two directions. So: four pods or tanks, separated into two pairs. You could have the guards buzz you out into the central area around the picket to use the microwave or the barber station, which was really just a mirror on the wall and an electric razor. The guard took one quick look at my paperwork, and told me that I was in C-tank, which was to the left. It didn’t take long to get buzzed in.

The dayroom was a narrow strip of tables, maybe 15 feet wide by 50. The cells were all to the right, in two rows, and there looked to be 12 cells in all; five on the bottom row and 7 on the top. I quickly found my cell, which was number four. I was surprised at how quiet it was: the TV was on, but muted. I didn’t see a single person either in the shower area or watching the television. When I peeked into the adjoining cells, I saw that one of them was empty, and the other contained a man sleeping. I decided that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery, but first I needed a shower. The stall was dingy, but the water was scalding, the first really pleasant shower I had experienced in over eight months.

The prospect of having the television to myself was pretty sweet, but my “Serta” was calling me. First, I had to disinfect the cell. I spent about half an hour wiping everything down with my smuggled bleach, and then another ten minutes protecting it from bugs. Fort Bend had been infested with brown recluse spiders, and if you have ever seen one of these bites rotting the skin away, you will do anything on your power to prevent one of them from taking up lodging in your house. I made a paste out of water and bleach, and wiped this liberally over any cracks in the wall that I detected. Then, I laid out an unbroken line of this across the floor near the door. For whatever reason, ants and roaches and spiders are loathe to cross this. All ready for bed, I closed the sliding door and heard the lock engage. I was asleep within minutes.

My rest was fitful. After what seemed like only a few minutes, the volume on the television soared. I stumbled over to my door and noticed that several guys were eating dinner in front of the idiot box, but I didn’t feel like joining them. I did notice that they appeared to be content not to argue over the program, and this boded well. The television is both peacemaker and declaration of war, all in one. Inside, tension can leap from inmate to inmate like lightning. The TV can ground this current, if there is agreement. If not, somebody gets to act as the ground, and gets fried. I tested the door, and found it still locked, and began to wonder how one ever opened it. Turns out, a person has to get someone in the dayroom to flag the officer in the picket. I decided this was a problem for the next day, and went back to bed.

(I would later learn that the rec cycle for my building lasted until 5pm, and after showers, most everybody would take a nap until 7 or 8. This was why the place had seemed like a ghost town when I arrived.)

The next morning I awoke early, as is my custom. The picket guards automatically popped all the doors at 7am, but I was the only person who appeared to be a “morning person” in my tank. I decided to take advantage of the TV, and scrolled through the channels. I couldn’t believe my eyes: we had cable here! And not just the basic cable, but several movie channels as well. I had heard stories all my life about how prisoners lived the good life, sucking down funds from good and honest taxpayers for extravagant living conditions. This was the first time I had seen anything which approximated one of these tales, and I felt both simultaneously guilty and excited. (This is still the only such occurrence where I have seen prisoners given any kind of “luxury” item. Wherever the money you give to the state goes, it’s not to us.) I sat watching the morning news for a few minutes, before deciding to make myself a cup of coffee. Once I managed to get the guards attention in the picket, she buzzed me through to the central atrium, and I used the microwave.

I supposed at the time that cable TV and microwaves were the means by which Civigenics compensated for a lack of programs. I would later learn that the feds did have microwaves, but no cable. TDCJ inmates, of course, got neither.

By the time I had returned from the microwave, two of my fellow pod-mates were awake and sitting in front of the television. One was a tall skinny black kid, maybe 22 years old. The other was the biggest chino I had ever seen in my life. (In prison, all Asians are called “chino;” no idea why.) The guy looked like he could have eaten Tokyo in one gulp, and still have room left over for Hong Kong afterwards. I continued into my cell and dumped in my coffee mix, and went to sit at one of the tables to finish watching the news.

The two were deep in conversation, and the black guy kept looking back in my direction. The look was not friendly, and little alarm bills started going off in my head. I decided to shift my position, so that I was sitting on the table now, rather than the bench. Just leave me the hell alone, I thought furiously, trying to beam my will into his head.

It didn’t take long for the black kid to make up his mind. He stood up quickly, and began walking back towards me. Here it comes, I though. I considered smiling and trying to bullshit my way through this, but the predator-look on his face told me there wouldn’t be much of a point. I turned slightly on the table, ready to spring off it if I had to. There is never enough time to prepare for the ugly things we have to do.

“All right now, wood. I’m Dre and this is my fucking tank. It’s gon be like this: fight, fuck or bust me a 100 every week.” All the old options: violence, get raped, or pay 100 bucks in commissary every week to prevent the first two. The last isn’t a real option: they just take the money and do whatever they want to you anyway. All I could say for Dre was that he really didn’t beat around the bush any. In other circumstances, that might even be a compliment. I wasn’t thinking any of that at the time, of course. When people try to tell me about their prison fight stories, they always act like they were totally clear-headed, like everything moved in slow motion for them. What was really going through my mind was: shitshitshitshitshit. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something. “It’s like that?” I asked, still looking for a way out. The Chino didn’t appear to be with him, merely watching. And Dre was only wearing sandals. Ok.

“Yup.” I could tell he thought I was adding up what I had in my commissary account.

“Ok. Sure. Coffee?” This last was more of a shout as I launched my still very hot coffee at his face. To his credit, I think he saw this coming, but by that point, it was far too late. The Chino danced back, and, amazingly, began laughing hysterically. I ignored him and shot myself off the table, closing the distance fast. Dre had fallen back, trying to wipe his eyes, when I stepped forward and put all of my weight behind a blow that went directly into where I hoped his solar plexus was. I appeared to hit the mark, because his head shot forward, his lungs emptied of all air. I stepped back, and brought the heel of my hand up from what felt like the floor, hitting him directly underneath the chin, snapping his head backward. He fell back into the wall, and slumped to the ground.

For a moment, I just stood there, breathing heavily. My wrist hurt, as did my fingers from the punch. The Chino was still cracking up, but his laughter was light years apart from that of the children…yesterday? It seemed eons in the past. Weren’t these two friends? Or had he just put the poor bastard up to this, riling him up? I noticed that a few other heads had popped up out of bed, and were watching me now. I couldn’t take my eyes off of Dre. He was mumbling, and blood poured out of his mouth; I must have caught him with his tongue in between his teeth. Suddenly, all I could feel was weariness, a soul-crippling exhaustion. My legs began to feel as if they would not support me, and I knew I had to get out of there, fast. I slowly leaned over and picked up my now empty mug, and shuffled to my cell. In the movies, there is always some snappy line, some witty comment that gets said at moments like this. Like: “Now you owe me a fucking cup of coffee, punk.”

In the real world, you just make it to your door before the nausea overtakes you. You manage to swallow it down, and slide the door shut. You have to concentrate to hang the towel over the window, so no one can see inside. The thought of anyone seeing you in this state is horrifying. You are too tired, too flush with adrenalin to identify why this is, but on some instinctual level, you know that if the others see you in a moment of weakness, you will become the prey once again. So you just make it to the bed before your knees decide to stop functioning, and you sit there, numb, dazed, all the days of your memory meaningless, all the hopes and dreams of tomorrow wiped away. You want to die. You want the world to die. You want to live; you want all the world to be covered in flowers. You have tears on your face now, but you don’t know how they got there or why they came. You think about how you promised your mothers memory that you would do no more violence, down there in Mexico, that you would not let this place infect you. The realization that you are a liar again has you leaning over your toilet, gasping for air, trying to rid yourself of a poison you cannot name. You wonder vaguely if this is the punishment everyone seems to want for you, if this is enough, or if not, how often you will need to pay this toll before you are free from your guilt. How does one tally up such events? Do they count for nothing? Who notices? Who cares? You wash your mouth out, and wonder how that poor fool is, still sitting in a pool of coffee and urine and shame, and why he couldn’t have just sat in his fucking cell a few more hours. You know that he didn’t really hate you; he was just trying to play the game, to get his “points,” his respect. His anger towards you was as indiscriminate as cancer or a drive by. You hate him; you don’t hate him. You hate god for allowing this to be the natural state of life on earth, eat or be eaten; you love God for helping you get through it in one piece. You weep for this place, these people, all wanting to be the agents of history, and not its victims,

After your energy is drained, you feel numb. You have only one desire, and that is not to be. You are lonely disorder given a name, and all you want is not to be. You close your eyes, and for a few hours, you are not.

Then you wake up.

Part II coming soon.

I recently complete my SOC 379 course, which was offered as a certificate course. Here you can see the certificate, and here is the transcript, so you can see I got an A.

Here is an article on theodicy I thought was interesting.

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

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Mmm, Now With Even More Propagandaey Goodness!

January 12th 2010

I have to be one of the most disconnected writers I have ever heard of. Disconnected from my creations, I mean. I have mentioned before (though I suppose it bears repeating, since people apparently cannot be troubled to read any of the older weblogs on this site), but I write these entries as a first draft. I then send them out, replete with errors, to be posted. I like them to exist in this flawed state. It’s nice and ugly and raw, which comes nearer to my actual state than my words could ever manage. I write mainly for posterity, I think, which is probably why I don’t mind not getting much of a response from people, whether that be positive or negative. (Probably a good thing I don’t get as much negative response as a real writer, considering some of the insane vitriol that occasionally does grace my inbox.) Imagine my surprise, then, when several guards quietly congratulated me recently on my “truth” entry. I guess I always figured some of them were reading this tripe, but I don’t think I had any idea as to the extent. Thanks for the thumbs-up, guys. There was some information in that entry which was long, long overdue, and I’m sorry for dwelling so long on the negative.

A few weeks ago, I had a minister visit with Major Katherine Cox, whom I have mentioned before. One of the escort officers gave me a funny look when I passed him my bible. This is a relatively new officer, and seems to be a pretty decent guy, though ridiculously overqualified. I don’t think I could ever fathom why anyone would choose to work here, but that is his business. When I asked him what the raised eyebrows were for he looked around to see if he could be overheard, and mumbled, “I thought you were an atheist. That’s what I took from some of your recent journals, anyway.” (This comment has been paraphrased to remove any identifying verbal fingerprints, so forgive me for that. I don’t want to see this guy fired by using a phrase that might be identifiable.)

I had to smile. First, let me point out that even if I were the standard bearer for the Army of the Godless Legion, how does this preclude me from having an honest discussion about God? It might surprise you to know that most hermeneutical scholars today aren’t believers at all. Atheists are people, too, searching for answers, just like you. More importantly, I’ve never claimed I was an unbeliever. I would like to think of my stance as being a little more nuanced than what any single label could offer me. I have merely stressed the importance of textual scrutiny, and the role skepticism has played in making your life better.

I may one day describe my true personal stance on what I believe about God. Maybe I wont. In any case, it’s a thing in flux, constantly. I don’t think it is my place to tell you what to believe. I am no guru. I will leave it to the zealots to try to shove dogma down your throat. (In any case, adducing authority is not intellect, but rather memory, as Da Vinci noted.) I wont pretend to have the audacity to claim I have the Creator in my Fave Five. (And, never mind the contradiction between the arrogance required to say one knows exactly what God wants from you on any specific issue, and the humility one is supposed to embody when one follows Christ. What vanity must be (poorly) concealed to make such a statement!) I would hope that you understand that my comments on this matter are not designed to tell you what to think, but rather how to think. This is infinitely more important, in my view. I had to come to prison to learn how to think, and I know it’s not easy. You basically have to unlearn everything you think you know about the world. You would be amazed at just how little of the Bronze Age you invite back into your life, once you are free from it.

How many times have I said the following: you don’t know what you think you do. None of us do, myself included. I am constantly learning just how wrong I have been on major points. How does one know something is true? You make a hypothesis, and then you test it. If the results surprise you, keep testing the hypothesis. You may have to alter your views some, given the results. This may be uncomfortable, but you should take some solace in recognizing that your life is now aligned a little closer to the veridical ideal.

I am, of course, oversimplifying. Someone could very easily ask something horribly cliché, like: “What is truth?” In philosophy, they call the theory of knowledge “epistemology,” and one of the core questions within this field is the search for, and definition of, truth. It can be both subjective and objective, depending on the viewpoint and perspective of the questioner. The Sophists had their physis and their nomos, way back in the 5th century BCE, and the question still stands. I certainly have a view on this matter, as I am sure you do, and I would be foolish to think that this is definitive and final. But, I think we can agree on the statement that while defining truth may be nearly impossible, identifying a lie is somewhat easier. It wasn’t always like this. These same Sophists had some remarkably modern ideas about relativism, which would be echoed much later by modern thinkers. For example, the historian Herodotus remarked:

“Everyone without exception believes in his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best…”

There is abundant evidence that this is the universal feeling about the ancient customs of ones country. One might recall, in particular, an anecdote of Darius. When he was king of Persia, he summoned the Greeks who happened to be present at court, and asked them what they would take to eat the dead bodies of their fathers. They replied that they would not so it for any money in the world. Later, in the presence of the Greeks, and through an interpreter, so they could understand what was said, he asked some Indians, of the tribe called Callatiae, who do in fact eat their parents dead bodies, what they would take to burn them. They uttered a cry of horror and forbade him to mention such a dreadful thing. One can see by this what custom can do, and Pindar, in my opinion, was right when he called it “king of all.”

In those days, truth was pretty much what you could convince someone it was. Point of view, and tradition (what G.K. Chesterton accurately called the “democracy of the dead”) go a long way to defining what we believe. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, knew this quite well when he proclaimed: “Give me the child until he is ten, and I will give you the man.” Thankfully, the days when tradition guided the cart are passed. We -finally- have science to give us some stable ground upon which to build our belief structures. This shouldn’t require any mention, but I have found that it needs to be said, probably in all caps: when hard empirical science collides with soft theological belief, science wins. Tradition gets no automatic advantages with the modern man, the child of the Enlightenment; no preordained victories by fiat. Humanity lived for thousands of years under the tyranny and yoke of such oppression, and you should (and do, albeit unconsciously) fall upon your knees and thank all of these skeptics that created the relatively non-violent life that you now live.

More people live full and rewarding lives today than in any other time in history, thanks to reason and science. We are not entirely enslaved to the whims of nature. We do not have to watch scores of our children succumb to the vagaries of illness. No longer must we live short and brutal lives, bereft of direction. And yet, we still may end up killing our collective selves before the next century dawns. That is why I (and many others) are harping about this. In his work Gedanken Und Einfalle, Heinrich Heine wrote; “In dark ages people are best guided by religion, as in a pitch-black night a blind man is the best guide; he knows the roads and paths better than a man who can see. When daylight comes, however, it is foolish to use blind old men as guides.”

Believe what you want, but, as Paul wrote, have reasons for what you believe. With the exception of the subclass of Christians known as the Apologetics (from the Green apologia, which means a “speech in ones own defense,” not the apology you are thinking of), the naiveté of modern Christendom is absolutely appalling. I am convinced that many of these otherwise intelligent people are faux naifs, pretending ignorance out of fear of the truth, but much of this attitude is quite fearfully genuine. This aversion to science and reason is the greatest turnoff imaginable for the millennial generation. Check the polls: every single major recent survey on religion in the US shows formalized church groups experiencing steep declines in their ranks. The Pew Center has coined the trend towards agnosticism and atheism “the Rise of the Nones,” a reference to the 16 to 20 percent of Americans who no longer identify themselves with any religious doctrine or club. Look behind the numbers, and you will see many of these “Nones” are young people. Think this is a blip? An error? Bury your head in the sand, if you like, but this group isn’t going anywhere. Ignore the data at your peril.

Most of us keep an open mind. This is why I still chat with Major Cox, and why she loves me, I think. No senile old bat: she does give one a lively discussion, and graciously admits the flaws in the bible. (She has even pointed out some that I missed.) This is why I still pay attention to some Christian philosophers. Honest discussion on this is vital. So is a little humility, and love for people who we cant agree with. Religiously dogmatic people have a terrible track records in doing this, thought it should be noted that if a sociopathic loser like me can manage it, so should you be able to. I recently had another remarkable visit with a religious friend, named Tina ( In a few weeks, I hope to have her write something for Minutes, describing the conversation. We both challenged each other, on many topics pertaining to the reason v faith argument. For her, I asked her to try to step beyond the massive amounts of propaganda that exist within the Christian community. She agreed to educate herself on a few issues, especially the subject of evolution. Because by denying the truth of Darwin’s theory, you only shoot yourselves in the foot. My generation isn’t having any of your creationist rot. It should be noted that this is an old tactic for believers. Fear is the weapon the church has always used to keep the flock in line. Are you ruled by fear? Then you are a slave.

Take a quick view of history: once, conservatism stood for the mother church, which in turn told which monarchs they could rule. It stood for the theocracy. The liberals in this case were “heretics,” nearly all of whom were also Christians, only they believed in pesky little notions like reading the bible in their own language, rather than hearing it (and not understanding it) in Latin. (It should be noted, also, that “liberal” merely means a person who is open to new behavior or opinions and is willing to discard the old and broken. God save us from such forward-thinkers!) In the sixteenth century the biblical scholar William Tyndale had the testicular fortitude to attempt to translate the Vulgate into English. Heaven forbid people form their own independent opinions on the Bible! (Like, say, noting that the words “Pope” and “Purgatory” are found nowhere in canonized scripture.) Tyndale was chased all over Europe, eventually garroted, and then burned at the stake for good measure. (His bible eventually became the basis of the King James Bible, which is remarkable, though he really should have used the Septuagint, because the Vulgate has more errors than Sarah Palin’s memoir.) Conservatism, in other words, used to mean that Christians should defend Christianity by preventing others from knowing the words of Christ. Nice.

Think, then, of the millions of “witches” that were burnt in the flames of the auto-de-fe, for deviating from the views of the mother church. We’ve all heard the stories. Rather than crying over spilled milk, I will simply repeat the rolls of those executed in the single German city of Wurtzburg in the single year of 1598:

“The steward of the senate named Gering; old Mrs. Kanzler; the tailors fat wife; the woman cook of Mr. Mengerdorf; a strange woman; Baunach, a senator, the fattest citizen in Wurtzburg; the old smith of the court; an old woman; a little girl, nine or ten years old; a younger girl, her little sister; the mother of the two little aforementioned girls; Liebler’s daughter; Goebel’s child the most beautiful girl in Wurtzburg; a student who knew many languages; two boys from the Minister, each twelve years old; Stepper’s little daughter; the woman who kept the bridge gate; an old woman; the little son of the town council bailiff; the wife of Knertz, the butcher; the infant daughter of Dr Schultz; a little girl; Schwartz, canon at hach…”

And on and on. Some were given special humane attention, such as: “the little daughter of Valkenberger was privately executed and burnt.” Don’t tell me religion can’t be dangerous. Tell it to them.

Fast forward to the days of the American Civil War. The conservative case in this conflict is easy to explain: they believed the bible gave them license to treat a particular race of human beings as chattel. Why? Because it helped the bottom line. This, also, shouldn’t need to be said: God is not a capitalist. God is not a capitalist. God is not a capitalist. It is true that there were Christians on the side of abolition. Liberal Christians, such as the Quakers. But the southern states were entirely ruled by the same people they are now: conservative Christians. Frederick Douglass, escaped slave, had this to say about religion in the South:

“I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the South is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes – a justifier of the most appalling barbarity, a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds, and a dark shelter under which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slave-holders find the strongest protection. Were I to again be reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious mater the greatest calamity that could befall me…I…hate the corrupt, slaveholding, woman-wipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.”

Now, neither side really acquitted itself nobly in this contest. People – including our current president – genuflect upon the altar of Abraham Lincoln even today. He did some fine things, no doubt. But here we can see the propaganda machine of history in high gear. I will simply let Mr. Lincoln do the talking to prove my point that none of us really have any idea about what we think we know:

“I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races; that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say, in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white man.”

Clearly, of the two men, Darwin was the far greater Emancipator.

Hell, it took Mormons, clearly the last horse to cross the finish line in any religious intelligence test, until June 8th, 1978 (thirteen years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act) to recognize that black people are, what do you know, human after all. There has never been a more destructive force on our planet than religious conservatism.

I’m not done. This shit continues today, though I will admit the right has gotten more crafty. In Carl Sagan’s “The Demon Haunted World” (which I have read so often that I sometimes quote his thoughts as my own…sorry Carl), Sagan discusses Rebecca Brown’s spiritual warfare manual, entitled: “Prepare For War.” Brown informs us that abortion and sex outside of marriage “will almost always result in demonic infestation”; that meditation, yoga and martial arts are designed so unsuspecting Christians will be seduced into worshipping demons; and that “rock music didn’t ‘just happen,’ it was a carefully masterminded plan by none other than Satan himself.”

Any of that sound familiar? Go click on AM radio. Most any station will do. Go watch Fox News. This is everywhere. Stop. Taking. Things. At. Face. Value. Testing the world doesn’t make you a heretic. Those days are over. THIS MAKES YOU HUMAN. And it’s the only way we are going to survive ourselves.

When I was younger, the Baptist churches in suburban Houston, much like today, railed against the encroachment of leftists as an amalgamation of the Huns and the Nazis. These liberals would rape our women and transform our neighborhoods into ghettoes. This always made me uncomfortable, as any brief glance at any history book ever written of any time period will show you that the evils done in the name of liberalism are minute when compared to those of conservatism. The list is endless: wives in Africa who are currently being told they are to become martyrs, and not use the condoms necessary to protect themselves from the HIV which has infected their husbands; religious morons blowing themselves (and countless others) into pieces all though the middle east; Orthodox and Catholic forces slaughtering each other (and the Muslims) is Bosnia; etc, etc. So much of this misery could be halted if we would just learn to be a little more skeptical of the stuff which is shoved down our throats.

Even the staunchest of my conservative readers would be considered liberals by the standards of even 100 years ago, (Women given the vote? Phaw! Blacks as Presidents? Never!) This bears noting: liberalism is an unstoppable force, altering the moral zeitgeist as it moves forward. Do you really believe that 100 years from now, gays wont have the right to marry? That your own government will still be killing its citizens to send a message? Global warming skeptics still spewing nonsense about the icecaps not melting? The people of tomorrow will look back on all of the Tea Partiers with the same revulsion that we hold for the plantation owners of the Confederacy. If we make it another 100 years. Which isn’t a given. It’s taken me a long time to get where I am. A lot of reading. A lot of introspection. Don’t like or believe any of this stuff? Great! That’s the point! But you have to do this, next: PROVE. ME. WRONG. Do the work. Do the research. Beware the Barnum Effect (the tendency to accept certain information as true, even when the information is so vague as to be worthless). Upgrade your bologna detection apparatus to detect the many logical and rhetorical fallacies common in the media today (ad hominems; non sequiturs; post hoc, ergo propter hoc, and the like). You are smarter than this. You are better than they think you are. Every one of you is. We all have the tools we need to make the world around us more perfect. If you do this, it wont matter to me what you eventually come to define as truth, because I will know that you did the work necessary to come to a learned position. Even if we disagree about the logical conclusions of a point, we will be brothers and sisters. And you will have proven my point. You will be better for it. We all will.

“Thus we call a belief an illusion when a wish-fulfillment is a prominent factor in its motivation, and in doing so we disregard its relation to reality just as the illusion itself sets no store by verification.”

Sigmund Freud “The Future of an Illusion”

Not Knowing When To Quit:

Good propaganda is so subtle it is rarely even noticed. THIS is just sad. And since I know such a redneckian paradise is hard to compute, HERE is some background information for you.

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