Moral Accounting Versus Shared Suffering

There is a game humans play. It is about counting wrongdoings and measuring suffering. Whoever has had the worst experience, whoever has suffered the most wins. You get extra points for being a victim.

This is something all people do, left and right, women and men, young and old. Everyone has something that has hurt them or something they fear will hurt them. Some of these ’causes’ seem more objectively valid than others, but they all are real within the person’s experience.

This is the game of moral accounting. I don’t mean to judge this game as wrong. I’m one to do moral accounting when it comes to social problems. And I’ve been known to do it on a personal level. My long-term severe depression is the cross I bear. Through it, my understanding of the world feels justified. I have suffered. I know suffering. But so have almost everyone, one way or another. We all need to remind ourselves that we aren’t special, that our suffering isn’t unique.

How can I say my suffering is greater or less? There is no way to compare suffering. Suffering is suffering is suffering, the great equalizer. Obviously, in this life, suffering hits some people far worse than others. Yet we are incapable of being objective about it. Our own suffering is always worse, in our own experience.

Too easily, suffering can shut us down, close us off, isolate us from the world and from other people. Suffering, sadly, often divides us from the larger experience of shared human suffering, an experience that would lead us to compassion, even when we can never truly understand the suffering of another.

Why is this embracing of compassion so difficult? Why do we nurse our wounds as if from them we could shape weapons and armor to defend ourselves with? What do we fear would happen if others discovered our secret pain, if we just let our suffering be?

 

Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration, Race, & Data

I’ve been feeling a strong draw to get back into my unfinished blogging project about violence and inequality, specifically in the United States, in relation to race and racism. It is a daunting task, and for the moment I must focus elsewhere, but let me for a brief moment revisit this topic.

The most interesting book I’ve read about the American racial order is The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. The reason my mind has been brought back to this is because of another book I picked up a short while ago. It is Invisible Men by Becky Pettit.

The reason this book caught my attention is simple. Pettit, like Alexander, focuses closely on the data. It is a struggle trying to grasp what all the data means, and it is nice having books like these as guides. Invisible Men has the added value of looking not just at the data but also what data is collected (or not) and how it is collected, which gives us a rare opportunity to glimpse some blindspots.

I have just started the book and so can’t speak of it in detail at the moment. Let me just offer a passage to give you a taste of it (Kindle Locations 198-216):

“The intensive press coverage of America’s criminals and the extensive supervision of inmates by correctional authorities belie the invisibility of inmates, parolees, probationers, and others involved in the criminal justice system to the outside world. Inmates are a social group isolated socially, physically, and statistically from much of the rest of society. The vast majority of our nation’s inmates come from very few jurisdictions, and the facilities in which they are housed are even fewer in number (Heyer and Wagner 2004). Even our national data systems, as well as the social facts they produce, are structured around a normative kind of economic, political, and domestic life that commonly eludes those under the supervision of the criminal justice system.

“Inmates and former inmates are less likely than otherwise similarly disadvantaged men to hold down steady legitimate jobs, to participate in civic life, and to live in settled households. Even their institutionalization involves a segment of the state cut off from the usual methods of social accounting. We categorically exclude inmates and former inmates from the social surveys routinely used to gauge the condition of the U.S. population, and we systematically undercount them in the U.S. Census and social surveys.

“More than one hundred years ago, Émile Durkheim (1895/ 1982, 54) coined the term “social fact” to describe phenomena that both characterize and explain features of society: social facts are “the beliefs, tendencies and practices of the group taken collectively.” In his own research , Durkheim commonly relied on statistics such as rates of births, marriages, or suicides to isolate and examine social facts.

“This book documents how our collective blindness hinders the establishment of social facts, conceals inequality, and undermines the foundation of social science research, including that used in the design and evaluation of social policy. The decades-long expansion of the criminal justice system has led to the acute and rapid disappearance of young, low-skill African American men from portraits of the American economic, political, and social condition . While the expansion of the criminal justice system reinforces race and class inequalities in the United States, the full impact of the criminal justice system on American inequality is obscured by the continued use of data collection strategies and estimation methods that predate prison expansion.”

And then a little further on, the author sums it up and points out its relevance for us (Kindle Locations 222-225):

“The promise of the civil rights era has been undercut by a new form of invisibility manufactured by mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex. Yet the invisibility of large segments of the American population and the inequality it conceals is not a natural or inevitable product of prison growth.”

That gets the gears of my mind going. How can we understand something and discuss it when it is invisible to our collective sight? This makes for quite the challenge. We need to be very careful about the data upon which we base interpretations, speculations, theories, and conclusions. What is left out?

Communication Failure, Again

I was in another debate with a feminist about rape. My last such discussion was a few months ago. It was equally frustrating this time. I really don’t like ideologues and I really don’t like political correctness, either from the left or the right.

It isn’t even about whether I agree with someone or not. In this case, I think I may have been more in agreement. But it is pointless because such a person wants to hide behind their beliefs and opinions, hide behind their righteousness indignation, and I suppose hide behind their sense of suffering and victimization.

Life sucks and there plenty of reasons to be angry. I understand that. It is easy to get defensive and polarized into a position. I also understand that. But all my attempts at understanding came to nothing, so it seemed.

It sure can be frustrating trying to talk to someone who is stuck in that mentality. The person I was dealing with never came around to understanding that we were probably completely in agreement, at least about the central issues at hand. She so much wanted to make me into an enemy that divisiveness and heated argument was the near inevitable endpoint.

I wish I was better at communicating in such situations.

Failed Democracy and the Demand for Justice

I just now finished watching the HBO movie Recount. It awoke some old anger.

In 2000, I was in my mid-20s and not yet fully cynical. Maybe I was naive at the time, but I assumed that American democracy was a real thing. I had been apolitical up to that point in my life. The 2000 election was the first time I voted.

I should add that my anger had nothing to do with Gore losing, as I didn’t vote for Gore. Instead, I voted for Nader because he was the first politician I ever felt wasn’t lying to me (and don’t get me started with the bullshit scapegoating of Nader). Some of my anger in response to the movie was how easy it let Gore off the hook for his having given up the fight. Bush didn’t win. Rather, Gore conceded. He put ‘nation’ before party. But whose nation was it that trumped democracy? It obviously wasn’t the nation of “We the People”.

I couldn’t care less about Gore. What I cared about then and what I care about now is democracy. The movie barely touched upon the issue of the voter purge, one of the greatest civil rights infringements in modern American history. Democracy failed or rather we failed democracy. I still remain unconvinced that our country has recovered from that failure or ever will recover. Democracy is more easily destroyed than rebuilt.

But maybe that is a good thing. There is power in losing hope. It is only when we lose hope in the system that we can seek a justice that is greater than the system, that we can seek a new and better system. Our democracy was already broken or else the 2000 fiasco never could have happened. The recent Princeton study adds further proof that we no longer live in a democracy, assuming we ever did. If we can collectively acknowledge this, then and only then we could move toward creating an actual democracy.

It is only in losing false hope that we can gain a something more genuine. We don’t need hope. What we need is a righteous demand for justice. Democracy won’t be given to us. We the people must take it. Democracy isn’t the power of the vote. Etymologically and fundamentally, democracy is power of the people.

That realization should be taken very seriously. Power is something that only exists in its being used. Imagine if we were to take back our power from politicians and from Washington. Imagine if we let outrage move us to action. Anything would be possible, even democracy.

Disturbed Areas

“To be honest, the phrase “disturbed areas” had always bothered me in my occasional searches regarding plant habitat—I really didn’t know what it meant—and yet last night that ambiguity seemed suddenly strange, almost ominous. I could easily imagine the other landscapes offered by the field guide: “moist pinelands,” “meadows,” “thickets,” even the more poetic “rich woods.” And I could see the “ditches” and “roadsides” that some species favored. But the phrase “disturbed areas” was so abstract. If it didn’t include marred ground such as “ditches”—if it meant something more—then I could envision only horribly dug-up places, unearthed and scarred.”

~ Brent Hendricks, A Long Day at the End of the World

Happy News: Lack of Democracy & Excess of Carbon Dioxide

If you were already paying attention and being honest with yourself, none of this should surprise you. Still, it is sad.

Princeton Concludes What Kind of Government America Really Has, and It’s Not a Democracy
By Tom McKay

“As Gilens and Page write, “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” In other words, their statistics say your opinion literally does not matter.”

Carbon Dioxide Levels Just Hit Their Highest Point In 800,000 Years
By Kiley Kroh

“And this uncharted territory is something humans will have to navigate for quite some time because once its emitted, carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere. In fact, Andrew Freedman explains, “a single molecule of carbon dioxide can remain aloft for hundreds of years, which means that the effects of today’s industrial activities will be felt for the next several centuries, if not thousands of years.””

 

A Divide in Justice, a Divide in the Mind

I got sidetracked into reading some of Matt Taibbi’s just released new book, The Divide. A review of it in the Wall Street Journal of all places caught my attention. It was a surprisingly good, although short, review by Matt Welch. The reviewer ended with this damning conclusion:

“Though Mr. Taibbi doesn’t couch it in these terms, his warning is all about moral hazard, in two senses of the phrase. When swindlers know that their risks will be subsidized, and their potential crimes will be punishable only through negotiated corporate settlements, they will surely commit more crimes. And when most of the population either does not know or does not care that the lowest socioeconomic classes live in something akin to a police state, we should be greatly concerned for the moral health of our society.”

If that conclusion is correct and the Wall Street Journal was doing its job, that should have been front page news. Instead, I found it printed in a small corner of a back page of the newspaper. I guess one should be thankful that a review like this gets published at all in the mainstream media, however hidden away it remains.

This hiding in plain sight demonstrates a point made by Taibbi, maybe the central point of the entire book. His conclusion is that wealth disparities are causing unequal and unfair end results in the US justice system. But that is more just the ‘what’ of his argument, the evidence in support of a more probing insight. It is the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ that is the real issue of concern.

Taibbi speaks of implicit knowledge, that anyone who is paying attention knows all of this and yet it remains in the background. This is the key to understanding his argument. He introduces and emphasizes this perspective of implicit knowledge in his introduction. It appears he offers it as the foundation for building his analysis throughout the rest of the book. It is the sad fact that this knowledge is implicit, rather than explicit, that allows and encourages the growth of this divide.

Near the beginning of the introduction, he presents his case and puts it into context (Kindle Locations 67-75):

“The other thing here is an idea that being that poor means you should naturally give up any ideas you might have about privacy or dignity. The welfare applicant is less of a person for being financially dependent (and a generally unwelcome immigrant from a poor country to boot), so she naturally has fewer rights.

“No matter how offensive the image is, it has a weird logic that’s irresistible to many if not most Americans . Even if we don’t agree with it, we all get it.

“And that’s the interesting part, the part where we all get it. More and more often, we all make silent calculations about who is entitled to what rights, and who is not. It’s not as simple as saying everyone is the same under the law anymore. We all know there’s another layer to it now.”

Taibbi doesn’t pull his punches. He goes straight to the tender weak point in American pride by making a comparison to Soviet Russia (Kindle Locations 76-86):

“As a very young man, I studied the Russian language in Leningrad, in the waning days of the Soviet empire. One of the first things I noticed about that dysfunctional wreck of a lunatic country was that it had two sets of laws, one written and one unwritten. The written laws were meaningless, unless you violated one of the unwritten laws, at which point they became all-important.

“So, for instance, possessing dollars or any kind of hard currency was technically forbidden , yet I never met a Soviet citizen who didn’t have them. The state just happened to be very selective about enforcing its anticommerce laws. So the teenage farsovshik (black market trader) who sold rabbit hats in exchange for blue jeans outside my dorm could be arrested for having three dollars in his pocket, but a city official could openly walk down Nevsky Avenue with a brand-new Savile Row suit on his back, and nothing would happen.

“Everyone understood this hypocrisy implicitly, almost at a cellular level, far beneath thought. For a Russian in Soviet times, navigating every moment of citizenship involved countless silent calculations of this type. But the instant people were permitted to think about all this and question the unwritten rules out loud, it was like the whole country woke up from a dream , and the system fell apart in a matter of months . That happened before my eyes in 1990 and 1991, and I never forgot it.

“Now I feel like I’m living that process in reverse, watching my own country fall into a delusion in the same way the Soviets once woke up from one. People are beginning to become disturbingly comfortable with a kind of official hypocrisy. Bizarrely, for instance, we’ve become numb to the idea that rights aren’t absolute but are enjoyed on a kind of sliding scale.”

The example of Russia is an apt comparison. Like the Soviet Russia, the United States is in a precarious situation. We have immense power (or rather our government does) while at the same time having a population that is immensely deluded. Many American citizens have become disconnected from certain realities. Most Americans simply aren’t paying attention to what matters or not paying attention at all. But some Americans do notice, as the author acknowledges (Kindle Locations 95-101):

“This is obviously an outrage, and the few Americans who paid close attention to news stories like the deferred prosecution of HSBC for laundering drug money, or the nonprosecution of the Swiss bank UBS for fixing interest rates, were beside themselves with anger over the unfairness of it all.

“But the truly dark thing about those stories is that somewhere far beneath the intellect, on a gut level, those who were paying attention understood why those stories panned out the way they did. Just as we very quickly learned to accept the idea that America now tortures and assassinates certain foreigners (and perhaps the odd American or three) as a matter of routine, and have stopped marching on Washington to protest the fact that these things are done in our names, we’ve also learned to accept the implicit idea that some people have simply more rights than others. Some people go to jail, and others just don’t. And we all get it.”

This systemic and institutionalized injustice has become normal to us. We rarely think to even question it. Even when we do give it more than a passing thought, we typically accept it as the way the world operates, maybe inevitably. There are just those on the bottom of society as there are those at the top.

We see these problems and yet we don’t really see them. We never look at them head on. We never think about them carefully and talk about them openly. We live in social isolation and our minds are trapped within media bubbles. We don’t see the larger view (Kindle Locations 154-160):

“Most people understand this on some level, but they don’t really know how bad it has gotten, because they live entirely on one side of the equation. If you grew up well off, you probably don’t know how easy it is for poor people to end up in jail, often for the same dumb things you yourself did as a kid.

“And if you’re broke and have limited experience in the world, you probably have no idea of the sheer scale of the awesome criminal capers that the powerful and politically connected can get away with, right under the noses of the rich-people police.

“This is a story that doesn’t need to be argued . You just need to see it, and it speaks for itself. Only we’ve arranged things so that the problem is basically invisible to most people, unless you go looking for it.”

In our society, there is an implicit knowledge that is rarely ever overtly discussed publicly. I came across this same idea of implicit knowledge in a number of other books (and have written about this previously). The phrasing I kept coming across was to “know and don’t know”, a truth so dangerous that even to acknowledge it is frightening. What are we to do with such information? It makes us uncomfortable because it puts the lie to so many of our shared beliefs and assumptions, our collective self-image.

To know and not know. It is, at a fundamental level, a psychological dissociation, a splitting of the self based on a splintering of awareness. What we know in one context is separate from what we know in another context. We know and yet the full knowledge never gets our full attention, the different truths never quite connecting to help us see a greater truth that threatens our contentment and certainty.

There is a direct link between a disconnection of awareness and the social disparity of justice and wealth. The class and racial divide is part of the divide of ideological rhetoric, of political narrative, of media reporting, of public debate. There is a disconnection between what so many of us know on some level and what gets spoken in public forums and what gets implemented in public policy.

Reading a book like The Divide can be depressing. That was my initial response. The author, however, ends on a note of optimism. The divide was created and so can be changed. Going by the last examples in the book, it appears that changes are happening. “As this book goes to press,” Taibbi writes at the end of his concluding chapter (Kindle Locations 6405-6422),

“the Justice Department is sending signals that it’s beginning to realize its mistakes. Eric Holder is reportedly thinking of nominating a tough prosecutor, Leslie Caldwell, to permanently fill Lanny Breuer’s vacated post. Holder also talked about raising the statute of limitations on Wall Street cases, to give themselves another shot at all the crimes they ignored in the last five years, warning that those who committed crimes are “not out of the woods yet.” Hedge fund villain Stevie Cohen is being put out of business. As this book goes to press, criminal cases are reportedly coming against the megabank Chase for the “London Whale” episode and perhaps other misdeeds, including some related to its status as Bernie Madoff’s banker.

“At the very least, on the federal level, officials seem to recognize the political necessity of saying these things out loud, and this has to be in very large part due to the public outrage over the lack of Wall Street prosecutions. Decisions like the HSBC settlement were blunt bureaucratic calculations , where the risk of losing and/ or disrupting the economy was weighed against the benefit of receiving $ 1.9 billion in settlement money. But these new moves by Holder & Co. show that public outrage sometimes can change the calculus.

Exactly! Public outrage can make a difference. But public outrage requires public awareness. We are at an interesting moment in history that resonates with that moment when Russian society was awakening. With the rise of alternative media, Americans are becoming better informed in a way not seen before in my life.

Also, a large part of this shift comes from books like this written by Taibbi. It isn’t just the general public that is starting to question and doubt. More importantly, comfortably well-off mainstream media types such as Taibbi are beginning to look to new information and perspectives. And Taibbi isn’t alone. Many books like this one have been coming out recently and they are being read by all Americans, all across the economic spectrum:

“At the same time that Eric Holder was experimenting with a public change of mind, a federal judge named Shira Scheindlin handed down a ruling against New York’s stop-and-frisk policies. This was late in the summer of 2013. Scheindlin , among other things, cited a popular new book, The New Jim Crow, in her ruling and noted that since 2004 more blacks and Latinos have been accosted by police than actually live in the city. The ruling came at the end of a long and well-coordinated campaign by groups like the Center for Constitutional Rights and the NAACP.”

I liked the mention of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. That is another important book. It is surprising that Taibbi only mentions it right at the end and doesn’t even include the author’s name.  Alexander’s book goes into great detail about the data of inequality and injustice. The case made in The Divide could have been strengthened by Alexander’s analysis of data.

In his very last thoughts, Taibbi makes clear the power of public pressure and the necessity of more of it:

“Of course, a federal judge striking down stop-and-frisk as unconstitutional doesn’t mean the practice will end anytime soon. “You’re not going to see any change in tactics overnight,” promised Mayor Mike Bloomberg. But the fact that Bloomberg was put in the position of having to fight back— and that his successor, Bill de Blasio, won in part by running against those tactics— shows that public pressure can work . Just trying to do the right thing legitimizes the entire system. We don’t do it often enough.”

That is where the author leaves us.

A book is just a book. A writer can’t cause change merely through the act of being published. The only influence a book has is through those who read it and by what they choose to do with what a book offers. This may just be yet another book or it may be the start of a public discussion that we’ve needed for far too long.

We are on the edge of a historical shift. No one knows where this shift might take us or how it will happen. No one knows precisely when it will happen. But, one way or another, it will happen. We are close to the tipping point. Almost anything might push our society over the edge.

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