Wednesday, September 21, 2011

And Besides I Gave Them Fire

The blogosphere is a desperate, grasping realm, I tell you. No matter how pathologically self-absorbed you are, no one has a life sufficiently interesting to set under the spotlights at public scrutiny day in, day out. Before long, one begins to cast sidelong glances at other sites, other lives, in an attempt to stay relevant. From there, it is a short step to the place where you are co-opting pretty much any subject you can latch on to, in a desperate attempt to keep one's hit counts up. It’s a pathetic existence.

I don’t know how other bloggers do it. Maybe with access to constant news feeds, tweets, and Facebook, finding topics to write about becomes a straight forward task. I suspect that if they were to find themselves locked into their closets for a decade or two, they would quickly grow bored with the chore of penning articles on the subject of shoes, jackets, and lint. The introduction of a moth into the environment would be headline news, of course, and perhaps it would be a blessing not to be witnesses to the collective yawning going on in the ranks at the readership. Trust me, I get it. No matter how bored you get with me, I am way ahead of you on this one.

What you end up doing is performing a sort of Jungian or archetypal critique of one's life and the world around you, looking for recurring themes. Hmm, you say, that is sort of similar to that, and this looks kind of like that other thing, too. It there are enough links in the chain, the thing might be worth writing about, and - even better - it might be important enough to actually transcend the walls of this carcerian nightmare to impact the life of someone in the freeworld. Still, you have to be careful. Relevance is relative. No matter how omnipresent the appalling odors are that waft over from my neighbors cell, they clearly mean nothing to you. Relatable themes are, to be frank, seemingly rare.

And sometimes they just happen. As I write, I am listening to Amy Goodman, host of DEMOCRACY NOW, live from the state of Georgia. She is on the scene at what could be a seminal moment in the history at the death penalty, the execution of the demonstrably innocent Troy Anthony Davis

(If you don’t know the case, you SHOULD; pull your head out of the sand for a moment and give it a once over. It's not that Mr. Davis has a case that is any better or worse than many; men are executed in the state of Texas on similar paltry levels of evidence all of the time. What is different here is the attention Mr. Davis has gotten. It is safe to say that he is one of the most well supported inmates in prison anywhere. (It you do not know the DEMOCRACY NOW program, you ought to check it out. The embedded media doesn't dumb its stories down. No, they already assume you are incapable of rational thought, and stay away from "difficult" stories altogether. Thirty or sixty seconds is not enough time to even begin discussing the problems that confront us as a people. We all know that. So why let these corporations dictate to you the information you receive? DEMOCRACY NOW has no commercials. No program on the Pacifica Radio Network does, and there are therefore no corporate strings attached to any story. They spend the first 15 minutes of the program on the headlines, and then the next 45 discussing one or two stories in detail, really digging into the meat of the issue. You probably won’t ever go back to the other "news" CHANNELS again, once you have, tasted this fare.)

About fifteen minutes ago, a cheer went up amongst the more than one thousand protestors gathered outside of the prison, and it was assumed that a stay had been granted. "Then, swiftest of all evils, Rumor runs straightway through Libya's mighty  cities - Rumor, whose life is speed, whose going gives her force. Timid and small at first, she soon lifts up her body in the air. She stalks the ground; her head is hidden in the clouds." Those were a few of the many lines Virgil used in the Aeneid, on the subject of rumors and they fit the situation pretty closely for a few minutes later, reality intruded - as it so often rudely does - and the jubilation turned to despair. I've seen this story, this archetype, before. Only last week, Texas inmate Duane Buck's execution was put on temporary hold (a "reprieve," in the parlance of the legal world, and quite a different thing from a "stay"), and his crowd of supporters outside at the Walls Unit in Huntsville reacted in the same way, with singing and dancing in the street, and with much praising of the Lord. In Buck's case, the letdown was only temporary, as the SCOTUS did eventually grant him a stay, but the same sense of anticlimax pervaded my mind then, as now.

Back to waiting, to hoping, then, for Mr. Davis. "Hope," wrote a good friend of mine from Tennessee recently, “is a real dirty bastard." I second the motion. My relationship with the concept is a contused one. I love her desperately, and when she shows up late on my doorstep smelling of booze and cigarette smoke and cheap motels, my heart folds and I take her back in, wash the grime out of her hair and hold her through the DT’s. A few nights later, she is gone, and friends tell me they have seen her at the bar with a gang of tattooed bikers. I hate her, but I also know that I cannot say no to her.

I think that the ancient Greeks would have agreed with me. The myth on the origin of hope is a pretty interesting one, and might be worth you time to inspect in detail. Much like their dusty desert contemporaries the Jews, the Greeks blamed pretty much all of the evils in the world on woman. It doesn't really matter what all of the exact details are of the myth for this discussion (because of course all religious myths at origin have long since been proven to be laughably false) but, basically, Zeus (the Greek version of Yawweh) got pissy about Prometheus (the very first humanist, and the archetype for the divine or heroic tricksters like Hermes and Odysseus) stealing "the fire of the gods" (a metaphor for knowledge and science and art and everything else that makes life worth living). In order to get back at humans for this act (which was in no way their fault, and is reminiscent of the stupidity at placing the "Do Not Eat Me" tree in the garden), Zeus ordered Hephaestus to make woman, and Pallas Athena and Aphrodite pitched in to make her pretty and talented. Finally, Hermes was ordered to put in her “the mind of a bitch and the character of a thief.” Argus then ferried Pandora (Eve) to be presented to Epimetheus as a gift, along with a jar containing all of the sorrows of man. These were, naturally, released, and flew out to infect mankind. Hope, for some reason, was also included inside at this damnable container, but when it escaped, it merely perched itself "under the edge of the jar."

What was hope doing in there in the first place, It hope is a good thing, this seems a bizarre inclusion. If it is evil, why did it not fly off to wreak havoc with the other sorrows! Hesiod doesn't say (and in any case, we probably ought to be skeptical at a man who's "Eden" consisted of a world populated by nothing but men ... whether he was a misanthropist or merely a misogynist, he was clearly an idiot.) Is hope a blessing or a curse! It does help us to survive the terrors of life on earth, and fuels the reactors at our ambition. But it is also by its very character delusive and blind, oftentimes prolonging or creating misery. Aeschylus seemed to get this, and provided a curious commentary on the matter in his play Prometheus Bound:

PROMETHEUS: I stopped mortals from foreseeing their fate.
CHORUS: What sort of remedy did you find for this plague!
PROMETHEUS: I planted in them blind hopes.
CHORUS: This was a great advantage that you gave mortals.
PROMETHEUS: And besides I gave them fire.

Clearly, the ancients were plagued by the same questions, so we will probably find no clear answers from their quarter. My personal thinking is that the character of our hopes relies on how we define them. When I say, "I hope to graduate next semester," what I really mean is, "barring some unforeseen calamity, I ought to graduate next semester." This is a very different thing from saying, "despite the fact that I have no appealable issues or attorney, I hope to survive my execution date next week." Maybe once our hopes are clarified and taken out of the clouds, we will be better able to see which are actually unrealistic expectations. Maybe then we will be less controlled by them. Easier said than done, though.

The science at hope and optimism is pretty clear, though. It is a known fact in social psychology that giving people the illusion of control over positive events gives people hope, and has many positive psychological and physiological benefits. In one study by Ellen Langer and Judith Rodin (1976), the effects on the perception of control were tested in a nursing home. On one floor, residents were given increased control over various portions at their lives, such as how their rooms were arranged, what movies to watch, and were also given a plant to care for. On another floor, residents were given no such choices. Questionnaires were given out periodically, and at the start at the experiment, no appreciable differences existed between the residents on both floors. Three weeks later, the differences were immense: nurses ratings showed improving health for 93% at the patients on the increased control floor. These same ratings showed decreases in health on the other floor for 79% of patients. In a follow-up study, things got even more impressive: those living on the control floor were significantly more healthy than those living on the no control floor, and a much smaller portion of those living on the control floor died during the next eighteen months. Happiness and optimism keep you alive, even when the source of that happiness is basically illusory.

Of course, there is another side to things. We all know that the "illusion of control over positive events'" is exactly that - an illusion. Sometimes your optimism can get you killed. Sometimes it can make you wish you were dead. The choices often seem to be between a happy delusion and a depressing red-in-tooth-and-claw reality. For most of my life, I have chosen to side with the latter. It may not be pretty, I told myself, but it is better to see the world for what it is.

Of course, pessimism can be an illusion, too, especially when you are a cynicism junkie like myself. In 1975 Martin Seligman developed his theory of “learned helplessness." When people see that their responses have no effect on a problem, they can learn not to respond to any problems in their lives. During the development of this theory, Seligman did some experiments with dogs. He would stick Rex into a specially designed cage, and give it an electric shock. The dog could escape that portion of the cage in order to avoid the shock, which was always precipitated with a loud signal. Fido, of course, high-tailed it to safer ground when the alarm went off. Then, Seligman transferred Sparky to a new cage, and was confronted with a no-win situation: no matter what the dog did, it could never evade the discharge. Later, Seligman transferred the dog back to the old cage, where the pooch could avoid the charge by jumping over a small fence. Only, it never did. He just sat there and got zapped. Fido had learned that the situation was hopeless. He had learned to be helpless. This happens in people, most notably in grumps like myself. When a situation arises, we make attributions that define the situation as negative, and fail to act. Intractable problems - like a bad economy or imprisonment - can generalize to other portions of our life that we actually do have control over, leaving us overwhelmed. "It’s a hopeless mess," we say. "Why do anything?” We become helpless and never solve our problems.

Despite this, I don’t know anyone who would call me helpless or hopeless. The balance that I seem to have struck is that when it comes to issues of “mankind” (or of principles), I am cautiously optimistic. As a progressive, I hold some concept of a human utopia in my mind, and the duty of my life is to attempt to lay down one brick in the road of the path to that place. I know full well that I will never reach it from here; I can’t even see it for the hills and the trees that stand in the way. But my stone will allow the next man to take another step, where he can lay down his own. Together, our species will get there, eventually.

When it comes to people, though, in the singular or immediate sense, I lose sight of this. I don’t know how it happens, exactly. The cynic in me crawls up out at the hole, and hops up on his soapbox, and I am overwhelmed. It doesn’t make any sense to have hope in mankind but not in man, but there you go. That is where I am, and like Rex, it is hard to believe in people after so many past experiences where my faith was misplaced. This is where I am, and I don’t really know where to go from here.

I have been witness to 87 executions, 6 suicides, and 4 "natural deaths" during my time here on Death Row. Of these deaths, 13 represent men that I consider to be close friends. Have you ever lost that many friends? I think not. We had four execution dates over the last nine days; two survived, two did not. What I am saying is, I have ample opportunities for re-enforcing the neural pathways for disappointment. When it comes to the matter of Troy Anthony Davis - a matter for which we are all waiting presently for a resolution - I have no hope for him as a man. I feel terrible for his family, for his friends, for his supporters. But this ain't my first rodeo, and experience tells me that if the SCOTUS has not helped him by now, they are not going to. As a symbol, though, I see him as a great beacon of hope and progress, the tender box that might ignite the conflagration that brings this system to its knees. I see myself in the same way, to a far lesser degree: I will be dead in a year or two, but I hope that over the last 4+ years I have swayed enough at you on this issue to have infused my life and my errors with some sense of meaning and purpose. I laid down my stone, or tried to. Hopefully, you will lay down yours.

How is any of this relevant to you? You don’t know me, or Troy Davis, or Lawrence Brewer, who was executed this evening in Huntsville. The more I learn about life, the more inter-connected everything seems. It is not always easy to see this. It's even more difficult to explain this sometimes, especially when you are trying not to look like some sort of hippie.

These last few weeks, I've been listening to the Republican debates. Actually, these aren't "debates" in any sense of the word. I was on debate team in High School, and what you see on television today are actually sequential position statements, where candidates use a series of rehearsed and vetted declarations to give the illusion of actually answering the question asked. If you pay attention, you will see that seldom does this actually ever happen; the candidate just sort of takes the issue where ever he knows the safe ground to be. There are many, many things wrong with America, but listening to these debates has caused me to focus on something that I have long suspected, something that is difficult to quantify. No, I am not talking about the now infamous comment by Rick the Right-wing Sprite about EXECUTIONS. That comment - and the applause that followed it - is a tale that I have been trying to tell you for the last four years. (Though, I hope at least that you are beginning to get a glimmer of what I mean when I talk about how the entire Texas "justice” system is corrupted; two decades of Perry and Bush appointing their friends and loyal henchmen into every nook and cranny of state government has resulted in a situation where there are no honest dissenters left to oppose the party line. No one wants to lose their job, and besides, everyone thinks the same way officially, so no one is actually looking at whether a man gets a fair trial or is innocent of the crime he is charged with.) This epiphany hit me during an exchange between the moderator (I think it was Wolf Blitzer from CNN) and Texas Congressman Ron Paul (there's that TX connection again ... you people starting to receive my SIGNAL yet?), when the latter was asked what we should do if a 30-year-old man who chose not to purchase health insurance suddenly found himself in need of six months of intensive care. Mr. Paul replied that "That’s what freedom is all about - taking your own risks." When the moderator asked him to clarify, pressing him about whether he meant that "society should just let him die,” the entire crowd erupted with cheers of "Yeah!" and other affirmative shouts.

I will be honest with you. When I heard this, I turned the radio off, and then the light, and just sat there in the dark. I will admit that some less than noble thoughts permeated the ether for a few minutes, and I wrote one very depressing letter later that evening. There is no point in going into that now, but just think about what was said there for a moment. No one likes freeloaders, people gaming the system. I am all for protecting the social safety net from those wanting to take advantage of it. But ... really! Let the man die! Somehow, over about the last 30 years or so, this nation has gone on an individualism bender. We always had the potential for this, as a nation of colonists and frontiersmen (an image Perry and his ilk are only so willing to manipulate for personal gain). We have taken this tendency, and made a religion out of it “There may be no 'i' in 'team',” went the shoe commercial, "but there is one in 'winner’.” It's all about your happiness, your success. You can’t be responsible for anyone but yourself, and so forth and so on. It was brilliant, really. Conservatism used the tear of communism to gut the moral arguments against the rise of Big Business, used the fear of socialism to deal a death-blow to the unions. And yet, by any measure, we are not a happy people. Scientists actually study societal happiness, did you know that? In survey after survey, we consistently rank farther down the list than countries like Malaysia or Costa Rica. European nations absolutely trounce us. Something is amiss, and we all know this, but still we hold on to our independence, our “personal freedoms at any cost."

My humble opinion is this: when you remove a human being from the social web, when you make him king at his own destiny and arbiter of his own morality, when you make him forget that there are other people out there just like him, you leave him something less than a human being. As unhealthy as my take on hope is, it is infinitely worse to be optimistic about oneself and pessimistic about mankind, which is what the spirit of conservatism is all about. Growing up, Ernest Hemingway was one of my favorite writers. I know it is not generally considered his best work, but For Whom the Bell Tolls is my favorite book of his, probably because I see so much of myself in the protagonist Robert Jordan. Briefly, this is the tale of an American professor participating as a partizan in the Spanish Civil War, blowing up trains and bridges behind the fascist lines. On one such occasion, he is sent to utilize a small group of guerillas in destroying a bridge ahead of a major offensive. The head at this group is Pablo, a once fearsome commando now infected by fear and the love of the horses he has stolen in combat (a metaphor for wealth and prosperity). In the debate over the planning at this raid, Pablo says: “To me, now, the most important is that we be not disturbed here. To me, now, my duty is to those who are with me and to myself." Pablo would have been a fine Republican.

The title at the book comes from a quote by John Donne. It is one that I have long had memorized:

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as it a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

Do you understand what he meant there? Really understand it, Feel it deep in your bones? He wasn’t talking in hyperbole or lofty rhetoric; there is nothing more vital or more central to the human condition than the feeling behind these words. I think that my grandparent’s generation understood this, as constrained as they were by tradition and history. They never would have launched themselves into the trenches of WW1 or WW2 if they had not, and you know we wouldn’t do the same today. FDR got it, too. All leftists do. Of my father's generation and my own, I think not. Mankind evolved to depend on each other for survival. We weren’t meant to live alone, on our own islands. When you only care about you and yours (your "in-group"), you have lost something vital to what you are. You are no longer a participant in mankind, and when mankind acts against itself, it will die, as we are dying. Today, Troy Davis has his head on the block. Taken to its conclusion, this ideology will kill us all.

Listening to these debates has caused me to remember that the word "utopia" has two meanings. The first, "good place", is the one that comes first to memory. It also means “nowhere," though. I never believed that a human utopia would be perfect, but rather a place where people have a life filled with meaning, where senseless violence and pain are abolished, where people truly care about each other. I don’t know, or claim to know, the best way to get there. But I know that the ethos behind men like Perry and Paul take us farther from those lands. They tell you this in every speech, every comment. Just pick an issue, and really think about it. It will terrify you. Somehow, Prince Rick tried to tell you that the tact that 26% of Texans not having health insurance was a good thing, while the 5% rate in Massachusetts was evil, because this had been achieved through RomneyCare. Huh? Following this, Perry gave a frightening but mostly incoherent comment on what he would do it the Taliban gained control of Pakistan's nukes. Go… look the moment up. His answer is difficult to parse, but he is basically saying that this would never happen on his watch because unlike Obama, he would have sold F-16’s', to India. First, it was India who chose not to buy the planes. Second, he is basically claiming that the solution to the problem is to encourage India to preemptively nuke Pakistan. Which, in turn, would launch their own nukes against a nation of more than a billion people, which would bathe SE Asia in nuclear fallout for generations. Maybe you are ok with that; it’s not your family being melted into the concrete, is it? But I, for one, have already seen Dr Strangelove. Ignore that bell ringing. Ignore the screams.

Do you see what I am talking about? It is hard to care about the out-at-work auto-mechanic in Detroit, but it you forget how to have solidarity with him, we will be shredded up as individuals until none of us are left. I am about as anti-religion as a person can get, but even I am willing to admit that once you have peeled back allot the layers of bullshit (and there are many), what you find at the heart of each is a core doctrine about caring for other people. It is confusing, then, to see that it is the most pious amongst us who are pushing the individualist ethos. Your Christ wasn’t THIS GUY (only an American would be stupid enough to put the words "Mercy" on a pair of boxing gloves); he would have stood against everything Perry and his ilk stand for. If there is one single thing I have learned in the last six years, it is this: learn to care for others as you do yourself, or we are all screwed.


The state at Georgia has just murdered an innocent man in the name of justice. The mood outside of the prison is dark. There was a time in my life when I was much enamored of the philosophy of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. With age has come a new perspective, and I now find myself mostly frowning when I hear him quoted. That said, he did say something once that is appropriate to the moment. The measure of a society, he said, is how well it transforms pain and suffering into something worthwhile. Use this moment, activists, use this man’s life and death to ignite a bonfire of change. This world is not a hopeless mess; our problems are manageable. Look at Mohamed Bouazizi, Abu-Abdel Monaam Hamedeh, and Ali Medhi Zeu: three ordinary men whose deaths have ignited a movement that is sweeping the Arab world. Look at Jan Palach, and if you don’t know who that is, look him up for heaven's sake. Stand up. Be counted. Show your goodness, and don’t ever let anyone try to tell you that empathy and compassion are inappropriate in any situation. They will try to. They will tell you to worry about yourselves. Smile at them, and tell them that you are going to worry about them. Do that, and the city behind the hill that I mentioned earlier won’t stay hidden for very long.

"The people thought their enemies were in their bosom. Each breath and rumor made them start with anxiety. Like men affrighted and in the dark, they took every figure for a spectre ... common sense, and common humanity, lost all influence over them."

-Scottish skeptic, historian, philosopher David Hume


When Perry tells you he wants to turn the United States into Texas, THIS IS WHAT HE MEANS

© Copyright 2011 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved

1 comment:

Thomas_R. said...

What stands out for me in your entry Thomas, are these words: "when you only care about you and yours (your "in-group"), you have lost something vital to what you are." You have arrived at the ultimate revelation.