I saw Tolkien last week, and I really enjoyed it. This was surprising to me, because religion was absolutely essential to J. R. R. Tolkien’s life, to his motivations for inventing Middle Earth and all that went with it, and to the themes and characters of all the works he wrote in Middle Earth. Hollywood, on the other hand, is utterly incapable of handling religion seriously. So, how did Tolkien manage to be a good film anyway?
By basically ignoring religion.
Don’t get me wrong. They do mention that he’s Catholic, depict his relationship with the priest who was his caretaker after his mother died, and talk about the tension when Tolkien–a Catholic–wanted to pursue a relationship with Edith, who wasn’t Catholic.
You might think that’s religion, but it’s not, any more than Romeo and Juliet coming from different houses was about religion. His Catholicism is treated as a kind of immutable faction that he was born into and so is stuck with it.
Now, if the movie tried to explain anything deep about Tolkien’s character or his work while omitting religion, it would have failed utterly. It succeeds because–after redacting religion from Tolkien’s life–it also studiously avoids trying to say anything deep about his life or his life’s work.
As far as this film is concerned, all you need to understand how Tolkien’s life led him to create Middle Earth are a series of simplistic and primarily visual references. Tolkien left behind a boyhood home of rolling green hills. That’s the shire. Once, he saw the shadows of bare tree branches on the ceiling of his childhood room at night. That’s ents.
And of course there’s World War I. German flamethrowers attacking a British trench became the balrog. Shattered and broken human corpses mired in a denuded wasteland reduced to mud and water-filled craters became the Dead Marshes. And a kind of generic sense of impending, invisible doom became a dragon and also Sauron’s all-seeing eye.
As for the most famous aspect of Tolkien’s writing–the fact that he invented entire languages–that’s basically written off as a kind of personal obsession. Some people juggle geese. What are you going to do?
None of this is wrong, and that’s why the movie is so enjoyable. It’s fun to see the visual references, even if they are a bit heavy-handed. The rise-from-ashes, boyhood camaraderie and romantic plotlines are all moving. But for the most part the movie avoids all the really deep stuff and just tells a light, superficial story about Tolkien’s circle of friends growing up. And I’m fine with all of that.
Not everything has to go deep, and a movie is far from the best way to investigate what Tolkien meant by “subcreation” or a “secondary world” and all the theology that goes with that, anyway. Even if Hollywood could do religion. Which, seeing as how they can’t, just makes me grateful that in this film they didn’t try. That saves it from ruin and makes it a perfectly fun movie that every fan of J. R. R. Tolkien should see.
I have thoughts on Robert Putnam’s most recent book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, and on the response he gave me when I asked him a question about his optimistic outlook while he signed my copy after giving a lecture at the University of Richmond earlier this year.
My first thought, and I might as well get this out of the way, was the jaw-dropping irony when someone at the lecture stood up to ask an “us-vs-them”-style question juxtaposing “the rich” against ordinary people, like those of us here in the audience. I don’t remember the exact phrasing, just that it assumed as a premise that rich people were some weird, money-grubbing, alien group far away and the students, faculty, and alumni in the room were all very different from them.
That’s an astonishing lack of self-awareness, given the fact that you can expect to cough up more than $60,000 per year to attend the University of Richmond. That’s right up there with the most expensive colleges in the country. The students at the University of Richmond come from some of wealthiest families in the country. The decadence was really off-putting for someone like me, who attended for free thanks to generous faculty benefits, and never could figure out how to fit in with the kinds of people who are chauffeured from their family’s private jet to their dorm room in a limousine.
The question was a stark contrast with Putnam’s own views. One of the primary functions of modern identity politics is the way that it absolves upper-class Americans of guilt and redirects inquiry away from any social or economic critique that could threaten their entrenched power. This is one half of the danger presented by this ideology: no matter it’s original intent or origins, it has been firmly and decisively co-opted by America’s upper class and obediently serves their interests.
The other half of the danger was best articulated in the Slate Star Codex post Against Murderism, where the threat was summarized like this:
People talk about “liberalism” as if it’s just another word for capitalism, or libertarianism, or vague center-left-Democratic Clintonism. Liberalism is none of these things. Liberalism is a technology for preventing civil war. It was forged in the fires of Hell – the horrors of the endless seventeenth century religious wars. For a hundred years, Europe tore itself apart in some of the most brutal ways imaginable – until finally, from the burning wreckage, we drew forth this amazing piece of alien machinery. A machine that, when tuned just right, let people live together peacefully without doing the “kill people for being Protestant” thing. Popular historical strategies for dealing with differences have included: brutally enforced conformity, brutally efficient genocide, and making sure to keep the alien machine tuned really really carefully.
And when I see someone try to smash this machinery with a sledgehammer, it’s usually followed by an appeal to “but racists!”
Putnam didn’t contradict his interlocutor directly, but he didn’t really need to because his book is so adamantly opposed to an identity-based view of social and economic inequality, channeling the focus instead on class. For example:
That gap corresponds, roughly speaking, to the high-income kids getting several more years of schooling than their low-income counterparts. Moreover, this class gap has been growing within each racial group, with the gaps between racial groups have been narrowing (the same pattern we discovered earlier in this inquiry for other measures, among them nonmarital births). By the opening of the twenty-first century, the class gap among students entering kindergarten was two to three times greater than the racial gap. (162-163)
What we found in our interviews is that upper-middle-class kids–even across differences of race, gender, and region–look and sound remarkably similar across the nation. The same goes for working-class kids. For example, a black working-class boy like Elijah in Atlanta share many more life experiences (parental abandonment, jail, poor school, and so forth) with David, a white working-class boy in Port Clinton, than he does with Desmond, a black upper-middle class boy in suburban Atlanta. This is not to say that race does not matter for children’s outcomes; as we say in Atlanta, both Desmond (upper-middle-class) and Elijah (working-class) face harmful prejudices and discrimination in their schools and neighborhoods. However, Desmond’s mother’s class-based parenting practices–intervening in institutions, thoughtfully building cognitive skills and self-confidence from early childhood, and even monitoring how Desmond dressed when he left the house–sheltered him from many of the harsh realities experienced by Elijah on a daily basis. (273)
Not only does Putnam refuse to allow identity politics to be used as a cloaking device for class, but he also eschews the more radical economic criticisms that equate wealth with immorality.
Perhaps unexpectedly, this is a book without upper-class villains. Virtually none of the upper-middle-class parents of our stories are idle scions of great wealth lounging comfortably on family fortunes. Quite the contrary, Earl and Patty and Carl and Clara and Ricardo and Marnie were each the first in their families to go to college. Roughly half of them came from broken homes. Each has toiled exhaustingly to climb the ladder, and they have invested much time, money, and thought in raising their kids. Their own modest origins–though not destitute–were in some respects closer to the circumstances facing poor kids today than to the circumstances in which their own kids have grown up. (229)
Aside from class, the major theme that Putnam addressed was family structure, although he also noted that the two frequently go hand in hand.
Ironically, the new research findings [into parenting strategies] tend to amplify class differences, at least in the short run, because well-educated parents are more likely to learn of them, directly or indirectly, and to put them to use in their own parenting. As we’ll see, a class-based gap in parenting styles has been growing significantly during recent decades. Simone and Stephanie both clearly love their children, but as their stories and the scientific research make clear, when it comes to parenting, love alone is not enough to guarantee positive outcomes. (117)
I don’t want to give anyone the wrong impression: I’m not claiming that Robert Putnam is a conservative. He’s clearly not. Nor does he suggest that race is irrelevant or unimportant. Although he’s generally skeptical of the idea that specific policies either caused the widening class-gap in the United States or could easily fix it, he does call out one particular group of policies that did “contribute to family breakdown” and thus the widening chasm in our society: the War on Drugs, ‘three strikes’ sentencing, and the sharp increase in incarceration.” (76)
So it’s not that I claim Robert Putnam as an ideological fellow traveler. He isn’t. But he’s the kind of nuanced, serious, open-minded, fact-based, honest researcher that I believe improves the conversation even when I disagree with him.
Now, let me get to my brief exchange with him during the book signing.
Putnam’s optimistic spin on all the negative statistics is pretty simple: America has been here before and it made us better. The last time things were this unequal and unfair in our society was the Gilded Age and it was eventually followed a wave of progressive reforms that remade our society and ushered in an era of unprecedented equality and social mobility. I’m not sure I buy this historical narrative, but even if I grant all of it to Putnam for the sake of argument, there’s one dark reality that overshadows his optimistic belief that we can reproduce last century’s turn-around.
You see, one of the most vital causes of our current inequality is (as I mentioned above) family structure. And on that metric more than any other, our current dismal state of affairs is not like what has happened before. It’s unprecedented. As Putnam observes:
Unlike today, desperately poor, jobless men in the 1930s did not have kids outside of marriage whom they then largely ignored. Today the role of father has become more voluntary, which means that, as Marcia Carlson and Paula England have put it, “only the most committed and financially stable men choose to embrace it.” (75)
He also draws the connection to economic prosperity and equality directly:
Given these handicaps, it is hardly surprising that recent research has suggested that the places in American where single-parent families are most common are the places where upward mobility is sluggish. (79)
So, I asked him as he signed his book, how did he think we could turn things given the erosion of the family? He gave me a direct and honest reply. First, he pointed out that he left those points (and especially the quote on page 75) in the book intentionally to rile his own political allies. Second, he criticized conservative ideas that you could directly strengthen American families through policy intervention. (Which seems reasonable to me.) Finally, given these two facts, he suggested that we just had to hope that somehow our society could rediscovery prosperity and equality without strong families.
It’s an honest answer, but a bleak one.
The longer I’ve written and read about politics—not to mention the dumpster fire that is American politics in an age of Trump—the more I’ve come to see culture as fundamental. I have my political and economic views, sure. But they pale in importance relative to the essential question of culture. A fundamentally honest and civil culture is resilient and can tolerate an awful lot of policy mistakes. A fundamentally dishonest and angry culture is brittle and probably can’t thrive even with perfect policies.
Much as I’d like to share in Putnam’s optimism, I just can’t.
The Oscar nominations for 2016’s Best Picture have been announced. I’ve seen all the nominees and while my list is very similar, I have a few changes. Here is my top 10 list for 2016:
*Update: I’ve changed the order since the original posting, moving Your Name to the top. I saw it for the second time this week since it was released in the U.S. over the weekend. Not only was it the best of 2016, but it’s one of the best films of the 2010s.*
1. Your Name: One of the most unique films I’ve seen in some time, mixing elements from romantic comedies, coming-of-age dramas, fantasy, and disaster films. The film is gorgeous to look at and the meditations on time, longing, and connection stay with you long after the credits have rolled.
2. Manchester by the Sea: A quiet, humorous yet heart-wrenching look at grief, love, and family. Affleck’s subtle, aching performance is fantastic as he navigates this case study of the fractured human condition and the burdens of mortality we all have to bear.
3. Moonlight: Much like the two films above, this explores the desire for human connection and, with it, the need for identity. The brokenness of the main character’s life–from adolescence to adulthood–triggers our own cravings for belonging and awakens us to the completion and healing we find in even the most unlikely of people.
4. Zootopia: Tackles the subject of prejudice—from the explicit to the more subtle—and the barriers and suspicions it creates: all done with humor, emotion, superb animation, and a message of inclusion and friendship. A thoroughly entertaining and moving slam-dunk from Disney.
5. La La Land: A charming, nostalgic homage to classic musicals with a modern twist and uncommon finale (for Hollywood musicals, at least). Gosling and Stone both give strong performances, exuding wonderful chemistry. Justin Hurwitz’s jazzy score is both foot-tapping and grand, complementing the more fantastical elements of the movie.
6. Arrival: A thinking person’s sci-fi movie exploring the themes of language and communication. Drawing on the controversial Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the film probes questions about how language shapes our understanding and experience of the world around us and our interpretations of those different from us. Less about aliens and more about us.
7. The Wailing: This disturbing South Korean film is one of the best horror films I’ve seen in a long time. Most modern horror films rely on cheap scares, rehashed plots, and/or an excessive amount of gore (“torture porn”). This instead offers an atmospheric slow burn wrapped in a foreboding sense of dread and haunting ambiguity, driven by powerful performances, particularly those of Kwak Do-won and Kim Hwan-hee.
8. Lion: An uplifting true tale of courage and resilience that doesn’t shy away from the grim realities of poverty and child homelessness in India. The two strikingly different halves are woven together by the concepts of home and identity, resulting in a tear-inducing, ultimately satisfying whole.
9. Silence: The majority of modern Christian films–Fireproof, God’s Not Dead, Left Behind–are superficial fluff; the equivalent of what Jeffrey Holland referred to as “a kind of theological Twinkie.” But Martin Scorsese’s latest engages subjects like faith vs. doubt, discipleship vs. orthodoxy, belief vs. action, and the problem of evil. In essence, it’s what lived religion looks like.
10. Hidden Figures: No doubt sentimental and perhaps formulaic, this is nonetheless an incredibly well-done, feel-good, family-friendly film. Henson, Spencer, and Monae each deliver stirring performances, which in turn bolster the already incredible story. While it doesn’t break new artistic ground, it’s about as pitch-perfect as a lighthearted crowdpleaser can be.
While Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes touched on childhood and life experience more generally, cartoonist Scott Hales delves into the details and nuances of Mormonism’s unique and somewhat odd culture while capturing the same kind of magic described above. His new graphic novel–The Garden of Enid: Adventures of a Weird Girl, Part One–follows the thoughts and experiences of Enid: a witty, contemplative, socially-awkward (“weird”) 15-year-old Mormon girl. The hilarity of the strips stems from the portrayals of embarrassingly familiar situations faced by young Mormons: stake dances, boring teachers, YW camp, EFY, etc. Reading them feels like being in on an inside joke. Their depth, however, emerges from the moments of loneliness, uncertainty, reflection, and flickers of human connection. For me, the heart of the graphic novel is summed up in Enid’s exchange with her McConkie-loving seminary teacher who dismisses her “weird questions” in favor of a supposedly “simple”, “black and white” gospel. By contrast, the God Enid believes in is a “colorful” one “who likes weird questions.” Similarly, life is not “black and white.” It’s not even gray. It’s vibrant.
The Garden of Enid is what it is to be an American Mormon in microcosm. Even though the main character is a Mia Maid, Enid’s experiences can resonate with Mormons of all ages and genders. For me, Enid is that ward member that you have an unexpected, but incredibly moving moment with; that member who totally “gets it” when you’re unable to put on a smile at church. But she also–like Calvin–can model what not to do and how to cut oneself off from others. Like the best comic strips, Enid allows you to both laugh and reflect. And it’s a nice reminder that not only is God colorful, but so is life.
You can see my full review (from which the above is taken) at Worlds Without End. You can listen to cartoonist Scott Hales interviewed on Greg Kofford Books’ AuthorCast here.
I’ve been a fan of New Testament scholar N.T. Wright’s work for the last several years. His Surprised by Hope even earned a much-coveted spot among my Honorable Mentions on my Most Influential Books list a couple years ago. His popular works have a way of reaching all audiences with insightful, erudite scholarship. His newest book–The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion–is no different. Mormons have had an uneasy relationship with the symbol of the cross, which is odd when one considers how frequently it is mentioned in the Book of Mormon (e.g., 1 Ne. 11:33, Jacob 1:8, 2 Ne. 9:18, 3 Ne. 27:14-15, Ether 4:1). Some of our atonement theories adopt a pseudo-scientific framework in order to work out the mechanics of what we call The Atonement. Unfortunately, our understanding of the Atonement is often divorced from the context of scripture. For example, we often fail to recognize that the terms atonement, redemption, and salvation have very different meanings and contexts within scripture: priestly/cultic, kinship, political/martial. Wright attempts to place Christ’s crucifixion within the broader context of Israel’s covenant and deliverance and ultimately the grand narrative of creation itself.
In Wright’s view, Jesus’ sacrifice is too often transformed into a reductive “works-contract” theory in which Jesus takes the punishment for our sins so that we can go to heaven. In short, Christians have reduced the Atonement to merely address personal morality (important, but not the whole story) and in turn have cast Israel’s God as a pagan deity that requires punishment and sacrifice in order for us to enter into a Platonized afterlife. So what is it really about? Wright explains,
First, it seems clear to me that once we replace the common vision of Christian hope (“going to heaven”) with the biblical vision of “new heavens and new earth,” there will be direct consequences for how we understand both the human problem and the divine solution. Second, in the usual model, what stops us from “going to heaven” is sin, and sin is dealt with (somehow) on the cross. In the biblical model, what stops us from being genuine humans (bearing the divine image, acting as the “royal priesthood”) is not only sin, but the idolatry that underlies it. The idols have gained power, the power humans ought to be exercising in God’s world; idolatrous humans have handed it over to them. What is required, for God’s new world and for renewed humans within it is for the power of the idols to be broken. Since sin, the consequence of idolatry, is what keeps human in thrall to the nongods of the world, dealing with sin has a more profound effect than simply releasing humans to go to heaven. It releases humans from the grip of the idols, so they can worship the living God and be renewed according to his image…In the Bible, God’s plan to deal with sin, and so to break the power of idols and bring new creation to his world, is focused on the people of Israel. In the New Testament, this focus is narrowed to Israel’s representative, the Messiah. He stands in for Israel and so fulfills the divine plan to restore creation itself.
For Wright, the fall of Adam and Eve was their failure to fulfill their vocation as God’s image-bearers in the world. The covenant with Abram (Abraham) established his family (the eventual nation of Israel) as the vehicle by which creation would be set right. Yet, Israel also failed in their vocation and experienced exile just as their primal parents. However, God was faithful to his covenant with Israel despite their faithlessness. It was through Jesus–Israel’s true representative–that the covenant was fulfilled and the curse (for example, see Deut. 30:15-20) of exile, condemnation, and death was exhausted. Through the cross, idolatry, the “principalities…powers…the rulers of the darkness of this world [and] spiritual wickedness in high places” (Eph. 6:12), were defeated.
The book is theologically rich and thought-provoking. Check out Wright’s lectures on the subject at Pepperdine University below:
Philosopher Joseph M. Spencer has already made some incrediblyimpressivecontributions to Mormon Studies, including Book of Mormonresearch. For example, his An Other Testament is one of the most engaging and enlightening books on the Book of Mormon I have ever read. And yet, his latest from Greg Kofford Books–The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record–surpasses it. Spencer is one of the most careful readers of scripture in Mormon Studies and this book puts his skill on full display. While a stellar combination of close textual analysis, biblical scholarship, and theology, Spencer nonetheless makes the subject(s) accessible to a wider audience by writing in lecture format rather than a line-by-line commentary (which he believes “gets dull fast and alienates most readers”). Spencer spends multiple chapters dissecting the sections of Isaiah quoted in the Book of Mormon and follows them up with how various prophetic voices within the Book of Mormon–namely Nephi, Lehi, and Jacob–interact with Isaiah’s text. One of the major strengths of Spencer’s analysis is his willingness to let the different voices (and textual variants thanks to Royal Skousen’s work) speak independently, even if they are sometimes in conflict. He also allows Isaiah to speak for Isaiah, placing his writings in their proper historical context (he mentions the problem of Deutero-Isaiah, though he doesn’t necessarily seek to resolve it).
“[T]he whole point of Nephi’s record,” according to Spencer, “is to get us to read Isaiah carefully” (pg. 47). But why? Spencer beautifully summarizes:
The purpose of the Book of Mormon, according to Nephi’s vision, is to refocus Christianity on its Abrahamic foundations, to restore to Christianity the idea that the Gentiles aren’t a kind of replacement Israel, but that they’re to be grafted into the everlasting covenant that’s still vouchsafed to Jacob’s children…Take a look at what the very title page of the Book of Mormon has to say about its primary purpose. It’s “to show unto the remnant of the house of Israel how great things the Lord hath done for their fathers, and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever.” …It’s this vision of the Book of Mormon’s purpose (to save Christianity from itself!) that drew Nephi’s attention to Isaiah. Nephi found…the most brilliant available biblical explanation of the complex relationship between covenantal Israel and non-covenantal Gentiles. The book that bears Isaiah’s name is nothing if it isn’t a kind of systematic attempt to make sense of Abraham’s covenant in the richest way possible (pg. 11).
The Vision of All is easily one of the best books in the genre. Not only is it top-notch scholarship, but it’s also a profound and enriching theological treatise on the role of the Restoration in covenantal history as well as an implicit call to the responsibilities associated with this role. In short, it is a reminder of why we study the scriptures in the first place.
Let me start out by saying upfront: this book rocked my world a little bit. As any readers of Difficult Run will probably know by now, I’m extremely critical of contemporary social justice activism. I try not to use the pejorative term “social justice warrior” these days, but you’ll recognize the notion by buzzwords like “trigger warning” or “microaggression.” And so when I picked up Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, it was with a side of skepticism.
On the other hand, being a Christian means taking issues of social justice seriously. Of course, what I have in mind when I say “social justice” might not line up very well with the social justice movement as it exists today, but there’s no escaping the simple reality that both Old Testament prophets and the New Testament teachings of Christ are often most pointed on precisely the topic of justice in society.
“The Lord standeth up to plead,” wrote Isaiah, “and standeth to judge the people.” And what was God’s condemnation? “What mean ye that ye beat my people to pieces, and grind the faces of the poor?” And in one of Jesus’s most powerful parables, he taught that visiting prisoners was a service to God, saying, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” And then, lest there be any confusion, he also stated that, “Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.”
So, a book about oppressing vulnerable people by imprisonment? My skepticism was on hand, but my mind was also open. This is important stuff, and I wanted to hear what Alexander had to say.
I’ll get right down to it: on her primary argument, she has me convinced. And this is her primary argument: although the War on Drugs is ostensibly race-neutral, it systematically impacts black and poor Americans to the detriment of their communities while scrupulously avoiding the same kinds of impacts on white and prosperous Americans.
The first component of that argument, that the War on Drugs has a racially disparate impact, is based on a central fact: whites and blacks commit drug crimes at roughly comparable rates, but blacks are far more likely to be charged and convicted of crimes. Here is how that plays out in practice. First, Alexander notes that:
It is impossible for law enforcement to identify and arrest every drug criminal. Strategic choices must be made about whom to target and what tactics to employ. Police and prosecutors did not declare the War on Drugs, and some initially opposed it, but once the financial incentives for waging the war became too attractive to ignore, law enforcement agencies had to ask themselves, if we’re going to wage this war, where should it be fought and who should be taken prisoner?
The answer is simple: vulnerable communities will be targeted (because they can’t fight back politically) and specifically racial minorities will be targeted (because of stereotypes about drug offenders). In regards to the first, she writes:
Confined to ghetto areas and lacking political power, the black poor are convenient targets.
And in regards to the second, she writes:
In 2002 a team of researchers at the University of Washington decided to take the defense of the drug war seriously by subjecting the arguments to empirical testing in a major study of drug law enforcement in a racially mixed city, Seattle. The study found that, contrary to the prevailing common sense, the high arrest rates of African American in drug law enforcement could not be explained by rates of offending. Nor could they be explained by other standard excuses, such as the ease and efficiency of policing open-air drug markets, citizen complaints, crime rates, or drug-related violence. The study also debunked the assumption that white drug dealers deal indoors, making their criminal activity more difficult to detect. The authors found that it was untrue stereotypes about crack markets, crack dealers, and crack babies–not facts–that were driving discretionary decision-making by the Seattle police department.
Alexander’s case is particularly strong when she notes the difference between mandatory sentences for stereotypically white and black versions of the same drug (e.g. cocaine vs. crack) and provides the legal history of attempts to challenge the racially disparate outcomes of the criminal justice system. There’s McCleskey v. Kemp, for example, in which a death penalty conviction was challenged on the basis of research by David C. Baldus showing that “even after taking account of 39 nonracial variables, defendants charged with killing white victims were 4.3 times as likely to receive a death sentence than defendants charged with killing blacks.” The Supreme Court upheld the conviction, however. Alexander writes:
The majority observed that significant racial disparities have been found in other criminal settings beyond the death penalty, and the McCleskey’s case implicitly calls into question the integrity of the entire system. In the Court’s words, “taken to its logical conclusion, Warren McCleskey’s claim throws into serious question the principles that underly our criminal justice system. If we accepted McCleskey’s claim that racial bias has impermissibly tainted the capital sentencing decision, we could soon be faced with similar claims as to other types of penalty.” The Court openly worried that other actors in the criminal justice system might also face scrutiny for allegedly biased decision-making if similar claims about bias in the system were allowed to proceed. Driven by these concerns, the Court rejected McCleskey’s claim that Georgia’ death penalty system violates the 8th Amendments ban on arbitrary punishment, framing the critical question as whether the Baldus Study demonstrated a Constitutionally unacceptable risk of discrimination. It’s answer was no. The Court deemed the risk of racial bias in Georgia’s capital sentencing scheme Constitutionally acceptable. Justice Brennan pointedly noted in his dissent that the Court’s opinion “seems to suggest a fear of too much justice.”
According to an LA Times survey of legal scholars, it’s one of the worst post-World War II SCOTUS decisions. Prior to reading this book, I’d never heard of it. Nor had I heard of United States v. Armstrong, which found that defendants who suspected that they were victims of discrimination had to prove that they were victims of that discrimination first, before they could get access to prosecutorial records that would be necessary to prove the question of discrimination. Alexander writes:
Unless evidence of conscious, intentional bias on the part of the prosecutor could be produced, the court would not allow any inquiry into the reasons for or causes of apparent racial disparities in prosecutorial decision making.
Her case is also very strong when she makes two key points. First, violent crime can’t explain mass incarceration. This is something that came up in the Facebook comments after I posted Mass Incarceration is Not a Myth. Walker Wright recently wrote a solid follow-up piece with even more data: The Stock and Flow of Drug Offenders. So one of the common rebuttals to Alexander’s criticism–that incarceration is about violent crime rather than drugs–doesn’t hold up. However, it is worth noting that black men do commit violent crimes at higher rates than white men (in contrast to drug offenses) and so higher differential rates of incarceration in that case are not evidence of racial discrimination, a point that Alexander concedes.
Second, and even more strongly, she points out that incarceration itself is not the real problem. The problem is that a felony conviction is basically the modern equivalent of a scarlet-F: it makes you basically unemployable, excludes you from many government programs (like student loans), and therefore makes it all but impossible for people who have paid their debt to society (as the saying goes) to actually re-enter that society. This is why Alexander refers to “a system of control” that extends well beyond literal prisons. She’s right.
But there are some parts where I think Alexander gets important things very wrong. First, she tends to be a little blind to issues of class, which is also a leading problem with most contemporary social justice activists. Interestingly enough, Cornell West–in the introduction–draws this point out much more clearly than Alexander does in her own book, writing:
There is no doubt that if young white people were incarcerated at the same rates as young black people, the issue would be a national emergency. But it is also true that if young black middle and upper class people were incarcerated at the same rates as young black poor people, black leaders would focus much more on the prison-industrial complex. Again, Michelle Alexander has exposed the class bias of much of black leadership as well as the racial bias of American leadership for whom the poor and vulnerable of all colors are a low priority.
After reading the entire book, it sounds to me like West went much farther than Alexander was willing to do, although she has a lot of the pieces right there in the book. Alexander is very critical of affirmative action, first arguing that it does more harm than good and then arguing that middle- and upper-class blacks have in effect accepted affirmative action as a kind of “racial bribe” for their complicity in mass incarceration:
It may not be easy for the civil rights community to have a candid conversation about [affirmative action]. Civil rights organizations are populated with beneficiaries of affirmative action (like myself) and their friends and allies. Ending affirmative action arouses fears of annihilation. The reality that so many of us would disappear overnight from colleges and universities nationwide if affirmative action were banned, and that our children and grandchildren might not follow in our footsteps, creates a kind of panic that is difficult to describe.
As a result of both affirmative action and the takeover of civil rights organizations by lawyers, she concludes that the entire movement is mired in hypocrisy and inaction:
Try telling a sixteen-year-old black youth in Louisiana who is facing a decade in adult prison and a lifetime of social, political, and economic exclusion that your civil rights organization is not doing much to end the War on Drugs–but would he like to hear about all the great things that are being done to save affirmative action? There is a fundamental disconnect today between the world of civil rights advocacy and the reality facing those trapped in the new racial undercaste.
In examples like these, Alexander is clearly demonstrating that race alone cannot explain what is happening, but she is still unwilling to follow that logic to its conclusion. We’ll return to that in a moment, because it’s my biggest problem with her analysis. Before we get there, however, I want to point out that she also tackles a lot of the conservative criticisms head on. In addition to the violence/drug question, there is the issue of “gangsta culture.” Isn’t it a fact, conservatives might ask, that inner city black culture glorifies illegal and anti-social conduct, and that therefore there’s something rotten at the heart of black culture?
This is an important question, because it is a serious one but also one that conservatives generally can’t ask without simply being shouted down as racist. The inability to have a serious conversation about black culture as it relates to crime is probably the single biggest cause of our dysfunctional national conversation about race (or the lack thereof). As long as social conservatives aren’t even allowed to voice their most important questions, there’s really nothing to talk about. But Alexander doesn’t dismiss the question; she takes it seriously and addresses it. She does so in two ways. First:
Remarkably, it is not uncommon today to hear media pundits, politicians, social critics, and celebrities–most notably Bill Cosby–complain that the biggest problem black men have today is that they “have no shame.” Many worry that prison time has become a badge of honor in some communities–“a rite of passage” is the term most commonly used in the press. Other claims that inner-city residents no longer share the same value system as mainstream society, and therefore are not stigmatized by criminality. Yet as Donald Braman, author of Doing Time on the Outside states: “One can only assume that most participants in these discussions have had little direct contact with the families and communities they are discussing.”
Over a four-year period, Braman conducted a major ethnographic study of families affect by mass incarceration in Washington, D.C., a city where three out of every four young black men can expect to spend some time behind bars. He found that, contrary to popular belief, the young men labeled criminals and their families are profoundly hurt and stigmatized by their status: “They are not shameless; they feel the stigma that accompanies not only incarceration but all the other stereotypes that accompany it–fatherlessness, poverty, and often, despite very intent to make it otherwise, diminished love.” The results of Braman’s study have been largely corroborated by similar studies elsewhere in the United States.
If this is correct–and I have no reason to doubt it–then it means that the idea of a monolithic culture of disrespect for law and glorification of crime (not to mention outright misogyny) is a myth. Even in the inner-city there is respect for rule of law, manifested in deep shame accompanying incarceration.
But if that’s true, why is black culture most frequently represented by gangsta rap that does, in fact, engage in that kind of anti-sociality? That’s Alexander’s second point:
The worst of gangsta rap and other forms of blaxploitation (such as VH1’s Flavor of Love) is best understood as a modern-day minstrel show, only this time televisd around the clock for a worldwide audience. It is a for-profit display of the worst racial stereotypes and images associated wit the era of mass incarceration–an era in which black people are criminalized and portrayed as out-of-control, shameless, violent, over-sexed, and generally undeserving.
Like the minstrel shows of the slavery and Jim Crow eras, today’s displays are generally designed for white audiences. The majority of the consumers of gangsta rap are white, suburban teenagers. VH1 had its best ratings ever for the first season of Flavor of Love–ratings drive by large white audiences. MTV has expanded its offerings of black-themed reality shows in the hopes of attracing the same crowd. The profits to be made from racial stigma are considerable, and the fact that blacks–as well as whites–treat racial oppression as a commodity for consumption is not surprising. It is a familiar form of black complicity with racialized systems of control.
The most important part of this response, again, is simply the willingness to engage the issue seriously. This is critical, because once this issue is on the table it’s possible for dialogue. Additionally, however, I find her two-pronged approach compelling.
OK, so let’s get back to my biggest complaint with Alexander’s work: what’s behind the racially disparate impact of the War on Drugs? Throughout the book, she contends that (1) it is exclusively racist and (2) it is deliberately racist. Neither of these claims are supported by her own arguments, and they hurt her case. This starts fairly early on, and then runs consistently throughout the book. Here’s an early example:
The language of the Constitution itself was deliberately colorblind. The words “slave” or “negro” were never used, but the document was built upon a compromise regarding the prevailing racial caste system. Federalism, the division of power between the states and the federal government was the device employed to protect the institution of slavery and the political power of slave-holding states.
In other words, Alexander is arguing that federalism is nothing but a ruse to covertly encode racism within the Constitution. It’s true that federalism enabled slavery to continue by making it a state-level issue, but to say that that is why federalism existed is to deny that the Founders had any independent, reasonable reasons to support federalism, and that’s not plausible. Federalism was, first and foremost, an attempt to avoid the centralized tyranny of the British monarchy that was the ideological raison d’etre of the American Revolution. To dismiss that as incidental is to fundamentally misunderstand the history and philosophy of the Constitution.
At another point, she clearly states that “all racial caste systems, not just mass incarceration, have been supported by racial indifference,” but she also argues that–at the dawn of the era of mass incarceration–“Conservative whites began once again to search for a new racial order that would conform to the needs and constraints of the time.” In other words, Federalism was part of an intentionally racist program (slavery), separate-but-equal was part of an intentionally racist program (Jim Crow), and color-blindness is part of an intentionally racist program (mass incarceration). But I’m not convinced.
Oh, there’s strong evidence–smoking gun evidence, as far as I’m concerned–that Nixon and Reagan appealed to racism as part of their “law and order” approach to the War on Drugs. But that was nearly a half-century ago. And no, I don’t think that the US has emerged into a post-racial utopia since then. Obviously not! But I do think Walter Williams had it right:
Back in the late 1960s, during graduate study at UCLA, I had a casual conversation with Professor Armen Alchian, one of my tenacious mentors. . . . I was trying to impress Professor Alchian with my knowledge of type I and type II statistical errors.
I told him that my wife assumes that everybody is her friend until they prove differently. While such an assumption maximizes the number of friends that she will have, it also maximizes her chances of being betrayed. Unlike my wife, my assumption is everyone is my enemy until they prove they’re a friend. That assumption minimizes my number of friends but minimizes the chances of betrayal.
Professor Alchian, donning a mischievous smile, asked, “Williams, have you considered a third alternative, namely, that people don’t give a damn about you one way or another?” . . . During the earlier years of my professional career, I gave Professor Alchian’s question considerable thought and concluded that he was right. The most reliable assumption, in terms of the conduct of one’s life, is to assume that generally people don’t care about you one way or another. It’s a mistake to assume everyone is a friend or everyone is an enemy, or people are out to help you, or people are out to hurt you.
Williams (who is a black economist) was actually talking specifically about race relations in his piece. He said:
Are white people obsessed with and engaged in a conspiracy against black people? I’m guessing no, and here’s an experiment. Walk up to the average white person and ask: How many minutes today have you been thinking about a black person? If the person wasn’t a Klansman or a gushing do-gooder, his answer would probably be zero minutes. If you asked him whether he’s a part of a conspiracy to undermine the welfare of black people, he’d probably look at you as if you were crazy. By the same token, if you asked me: “Williams, how many minutes today have you been thinking about white people?” I’d probably say, “You’d have to break the time interval down into smaller units, like nanoseconds, for me to give an accurate answer.” Because people don’t care about you one way or another doesn’t mean they wish you good will, ill will or no will.
Alexander had it right when she talked about “racial indifference.” Even overt racism is virtually never racism for racism’s sake. Alexander herself said, “By and large, plantation owners were indifferent to the suffering caused by slavery; they were motivated by greed.”
So, based on the evidence she presents, what’s the real story of racism in America? Powerful people want to maintain their power at the expense of less powerful people. Race, which Alexanders correctly observes “is a relatively recent development,” is only the most potent and insidious means of perpetuating inequalities that are, at their roots, totally agnostic with respect to race or creed or language or ethnicity or religion. All of these are just social markers that can ennable power inequality, but which are mostly irrelevant in and of themselves. So even when race is appealed to directly, it’s always a means to another end, never an end in itself.
So much for the idea of deliberate racism. What about the exclusivity of the racial aspects of mass incarceration? Here, Alexander uses a military analogy:
Of course, the fact that white people are harmed by the drug war does not mean they are the real targets, the designated enemy. The harm white people suffer in the drug war is much like the harm Iraqi civilians suffer in U.S. military actions targeting presumed terrorists or insurgents. In any way, a tremendous amount of collateral damage is inevitable. Black and brown people are the principal targets in this war; white people are collateral damage.
No analogy is perfect, of course, but in this case her chosen analogy undercuts rather than strengthens her position. The point of “collateral damage” is not merely that it is incidental, but that it is scrupulously avoided whenever possible. I’m not saying that the US is perfect at that, but avoiding collateral damage–at least in theory–is what we strive for.
But if white people were really “collateral damage” in the War on Drugs, then of course we would not only see fewer of them in jail, we’d see none at all. Unlike dropping bombs from miles up, it’s easy to ascertain the race of a suspect before they go to jail. If race were the exclusive characteristic–if mass incarceration were designed specifically to target exclusively African Americans–then why are white drug dealers ever sent to jail? Or Asian, or Hispanic, Native American, etc? Alexander might argue, “to provide enough cover for people to believe it’s truly race-neutral,” but that explanation is thin and overly complex. It falls for the same fundamental mistake as all conspiracy theories: a drastic overestimation in the human ability to plan the future. The War on Drugs was not a consciously designed system of racial oppression that ensnares a set number of white people just to provide a thin veneer of racial neutrality. To see that this is true, just ask yourself: “Who determines the requisite number of white people required to give the system cover, and how do they coordinate all the local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies to make sure the quota is hit?” The whole setup doesn’t makes sense.
No, the War on Drugs isn’t a cleverly designed mechanism. It is an opportunistically cobbled-together mish-mash of policies, laws, practices, and agencies that exploits the vulnerable and powerless because of the blind logic of power, not because it was designed to target minorities. The War on Drugs also feeds off of and reinforces racist stereotypes. It is, without doubt in my mind, systematically racist. But it’s not exclusively racist; it’s also classist. And it does not exist today because of deliberate racism; but because of inertia, racial indifference, and power politics.
There are not just technicalities. They have profound implications for how we talk about race, how we analyze racist institutions, and what solutions we deploy against them. And this is where I found Alexander’s logic to be at its weakest. She is steadfastly set against colorblind policies. And, given the ability of the criminal justice system to be ostensibly colorblind and still produce racist outcomes, I understand. But her logic breaks down when she dismisses colorblindness entirely. This is most obvious when she writes that:
The uncomfortable truth, however, is that racial differences will always exist among us. Even if the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration were completely overcome, we would remain a nation of immigrants (and indigenous people) in a larger world divided by race and ethnicity. It is a world in which there is extraordinary racial and ethnic inequality, and our nation has porous boundaries. For the foreseeable future, racial and ethnic inequality will be a feature of American life.
Contrast that with her prior statement that “The concept of race is a relatively recent development. Only in the past few centuries, owing largely to European imperialism, have the world’s people been classified along racial lines.” If race is a “recent development,” can we really be so confident that “racial differences will always exist among us?”
No, we can’t. Race is a fluid concept. Not only was it largely invented in the 17th century, but it continued to change dramatically after that. In the 19th and 20th century, Catholic Irish, Jews, and many other groups were considered non-white. Today, the Irish have a distinct cultural identity within the United States, but nobody would seriously argue that they are non-white. How do the Irish fare vs. narrower racial definitions of whiteness on metrics like housing, household wealth, income, or educational attainment? My guess? Nobody knows because nobody even measures it.
I will agree with Alexander this far: race-blindness didn’t stop the racist bent of mass incarceration and it never can. We may need to be proactive about measuring racial outcomes, at a minimum, in our efforts to overhaul the criminal justice system. However, I’m not convinced that the dream of a colorblind society should be so easily dismissed.
Of course, the historical model of an ever-expanding category of whiteness won’t work in the future. First, because any racial definition has to have at least two groups. So if “white” exists as a category, there will have to be non-white. As long as we see the world in racial terms, universal racial inclusiveness is impossible. Second, I would hardly expect African Americans to be enthusiastic about a solution of universal whiteness even if it were possible (which it’s not).
“It’s OK, you can be considered white, too, one day,” is not an acceptable solution to our history of racial prejudice.
There are alternative possibilities, however. The way out of racial binaries is to drop race as a valid characteristic. A Marxist can do this by seeing only the bourgeois and the proletariat, just as one proof-of-concept. But, if we don’t want to all become Marxist, then we’ll have to figure something else out. Nationalism is another approach, although not without its own complications. And who knows: there may be other concepts we haven’t even thought of yet. The point is, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to hope for a day when the difference between an African American and an Irish American becomes much more like the difference between an American whose family came from Scandinavia and one whose family came from Italy.
We can’t get there from here if we do not redress the real and obvious racial disparities within our nation, and the racist War on Drugs seems like a great place to start. But I’m also not sure if we can get there from here as long as we view colorblindness as an intrinsically undesirable destination. If we insist on defining people in racial terms, then Alexander is probably right: “racial and ethnic inequality will be a feature of American life.” So maybe we shouldn’t plan on doing that forever.
At the end of the day, I found this book to have its flaws, but on the central points it has me convinced. I was already skeptical of the War on Drugs, but now I’m downright convinced that it is a needlessly oppressive and exploitative racist and classist juggernaut that somehow we need to stop.
This book got off to a kind of rough start for some of the same reasons that Harry Markopolos had such a hard time getting the SEC to investigate Bernie Madoff in the decade leading up to Madoff’s enormous Ponzi scheme finally publicly immolating: he’s kind of an abrasive character who comes across as arrogant, confrontational, and self-promoting. I’m glad I stuck with the book, however, for two reasons. First of all, the grating tone is smoothed out substantially as you realize that–while perhaps a little melodramatic–Markopolos seems to be entirely sincere in his intentions and oblivious to his abrasiveness. Second, because–as far as I could tell from the book, which is laden with supporting material and testimony–he was exactly right. He did determine early on that Madoff was a fraud, he did everything in his power to bring it to the SEC, and the SEC did absolutely nothing to follow up on his claims, even though there were incredibly quick and easy ways for the fraud to be validated.
In Political Order and Political Decay, Francis Fukuyama makes a vibrant, international case for the importance of strong state institutions. Although he is associated with the American right, Fukuyama eschews the conventional more/less government for an emphasis on quality rather than quantity of state institutions. He spends a lot of time looking at what is required to make state institutions effective: a delicate balance of autonomy and accountability. It’s impossible to have read that book recently and not see connections again and again to the SEC as described by Markopolos.
For example, Fukuyama emphasizes the importance of professionalism–often accomplished through objective, standardized testing–in helping state institutions retain independence (because rigorous testing confounds political appointments) and high morale (because the testing acts as a kind of filter to create a cohesive social group within the institution) in addition to the more obvious benefits of competence and knowledgeability.
Markopolos makes the exact same points although–lacking Fukuyama’s framework and context–he doesn’t quite connect all the dots. He notes that the SEC is staffed primarily by lawyers with no quantitative expertise or practical industry experience and that this makes the incompetent and overly deferential to the businesses. He also faults the SEC for being far too deferential to industry and afraid to do its job and go after major fraud and abuse. He doesn’t quite make the connection between the two, however, noting that the low standards for SEC employees not only lead to inexperience workers, but also foster the subservience and passivity of the SEC directly.
One of Fukuyama’s broader points is that, in the arena of modern liberal democracies, the United States has always lagged behind in terms of quality of state infrastructure. This is mostly because our democracy emerged before our institutions modernized, which historically is a recipe for disaster. The US was able to right the ship in the second half of the 19th century when a wave of progressive reforms professionalized the federal civil service and we ended up with fairly respectable institutions, although still nowhere near the quality (in terms of professionalism and efficiency) of states like Germany or Japan that modernized before they liberalized or states like the UK that–due to unique class structure–were able to fairly painlessly push through reforms in a matter of years that took the US a major national movement and decades to emulate.
The SEC was not one of the agencies that Fukuyama chose to focus on, but it could have been. His analysis would have fit perfectly with Markopolos’s, both in terms of the content and also in terms of the conclusion: America’s national institutions are once again in a period of deep corruption, inefficiency, and impotence.
One of the key points that Michelle Alexander makes in The New Jim Crow is that mass incarceration is primarily the result of the War on Drugs (rather than violent crime):
As numerous researchers have shown, violent crime rates have fluctuate over the years, and bear little relationship to incarceration rates, which have soared during the past three decades regardless of whether violent crime was going up or down. Today, violent crime rates are at historically low levels, yet incarceration rates continue to climb.
Moreover, whites and blacks violate drug laws at basically equal rates, but it is the black population that bears the overwhelming burden of suspicion, policing, prosecution, incarceration, and life with a criminal record while the white population–equally as likely to consume drugs–is blissfully ignorant and immune to the pointy end of the War on Drugs.
The question is: why? The laws and policies that constitute the War on Drugs are colorblind, not racist. One possible explanation is sheer racial animus: the police and prosecutors and legislators who enact and define the War on Drugs hate black people, and they deliberately–but covertly–use the War on Drugs to attack them. This is not plausible, however, and instead Alexander focuses on unconscious racism and incentives.
For example, the federal government–in an effort to win points by looking to be tough on crime–through massive resources into encouraging the War on Drugs by offering money to police departments that showed high numbers of drug convictions. And so:
It is impossible for law enforcement to identify and arrest every drug criminal. Strategic choices must be made about whom to target and what tactics to employ. Police and prosecutors did not declare the War on Drugs, and some initially opposed it, but once the financial incentives for waging the war became too attractive to ignore, law enforcement agencies had to ask themselves, if we’re going to wage this war, where should it be fought and who should be taken prisoner? That question was not difficult to answer, given the political and social context.
The incentives made it clear that arrests would happen. The question was just: where would they take place? And the answer, inevitably, was “among populations with the least ability to fight back politically.” Thus, the War on Drugs is not an effect of pre-existing racism as much as it is a cause of racism. This does not make the War on Drugs unique, however. If there’s one thing I’ve come to learn from studying the history of racism in the US, it’s that racism is always instrumental. The first consideration is always power. Racism is a servant of that quest for power. And this goes back to the very beginning. The slave trade was initially not very racist, in that the gap between white indentured servants and black slaves was fairly minimal. Slavery was, for example, not hereditary. A black child was born free, not slave. After Bacon’s Rebellion, however, when white servants and black slaves rose up together to fight against the elites, slavery was reformed as an institution to make it racially defined. Why? Because that allowed elites to split the coalition of poor whites and poor blacks. So: the quest for power created the racial aspect of slavery which, in turn, created race.
The point is that power and class warped the War on Drugs so that affluent (predominantly white) neighborhoods are left in peace and poor (predominantly black) neighborhoods are treated like warzones. There’s crime everywhere, but it only gets enforced where it makes political sense to do so.
White collar crime is the mirror image of the War on Drugs, and that’s where the connection to No One Would Listen comes in. Markopolos makes it clear that Madoff was far from unique: the entire financial sector is riven with dishonest and blatant criminality. Here’s one example:
My younger brother had had similar experiences. At one point he was hired by a respected brokerage firm in New Jersey to run its trading desk. On his first morning there he walked into the office and discovered that the Bloomberg terminals that supposedly had been ordered hadn’t arrived. Then he found out that the traders didn’t have their series 7 licenses, meaning they weren’t allowed to trade. And then he learned that the CEO had some regulation 144 private placement stock which legally is not allowed to be sold. But the CEO had insider information that bad news was coming, and he wanted to sell the stock. My brother explained to the CEO, “You can’t sell this stock. It’s a felony.” The CEO assured him he understood. My brother went out to lunch with the Bloomberg rep to try to get the terminals installed that he needed to start trading. By the time he returned to the office, the unlicensed traders had illegally sold the private placement stock based on insider information. My brother had walked into a perfect Wall Street storm.
He called me in a panic, “What do I do?” I said, “These are felonies. The first thing to do is write your resignation letter. The second thing you do is get copies of all the trade tickets. Get all the evidence you can on your way out the door. And the third thing you do is go home and type up everything and send it to the NASD.” That’s exactly what he did. The NASD did absolutely nothing. These were clear felonies, and the NASD didn’t even respond to his complaint.
So Markopolos’s brother witnesses felonies, gathers the evidence, and alerts the NASD and then… nothing. Just as Markopolos realized what Madoff was doing, gathered the evidence, and alerted the SEC and then… nothing. He sent them at least three or four major document dumps over a decade. Later on, he put together 20 other whistleblower cases, tied them up with a bow, and delivered them to the SEC for prosecution and again: nothing. Every one was rejected.
Poor blacks are convenient targets. Police departments and municipal governments essentially extort them by unequal application of laws. Rich white investment bankers are inconvenient targets. Gov’t agencies assigned to regulate and monitor them essentially act as their servants by unequal application of laws. As Markopolos points out, the SEC and other agencies would go after fraud cases now and again, but only small fish. They’d never touch the big guys, the rich guys, the influential guys.
Putting together Markopolos, Fukuyama, and Alexander doesn’t lead to a cheery or rosy view of the state of the United States, but I do think it’s a useful view. And besides, one lesson of Fukuyama is that political decay can be reversed. Institutions can be revitalized. One lesson of the Civil Rights is that human dignity can be broadened and justice can move forward. And–while Markopolos did not succeed in convincing the SEC to stop Madoff before he his scheme had ballooned from $7B to $60B, he did become a professional fraud-fighter after that, and so even in his case there is the potential for good to come out of bad situations. I think we all sense that the nation is not in a good place, but having an accurate understanding of what is wrong is the first step to finding truly effective solutions, and these books–to me–seem to work together to provide a substantial piece of that understanding.
According to Amazon, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is a best-seller. It’s not hard to see why. This deeply interesting book is also a deeply flawed book, and all of the flaws are calculated to make the book more sensationalist and provocative than the underlying research truly allows.
First of all, Harari is all-in for the hypothesis that the Agricultural Revolution was a colossal mistake. This is not a new idea. I’ve come across it several times, and when I did a quick Google search just now I found a 1987 article by Jared Diamond with the subtle title: The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race. Diamond’s argument then is as silly as Harari’s argument is now, and it boils down to this: life as a hunter-gatherer is easy. Farming is hard. Ergo, the Agricultural Revolution was a bad deal. If we’d all stuck around being hunter-gatherers we’d be happier.
The primary problem with this argument, philosophically, is its naked hedonism. I’m pretty sure I’d be happier if I just stayed in a perpetual, drug-induced high. And yet I don’t see Harari or Diamond (or any ostensibly sane person) standing outside of drug rehab facilities wearing a sandwich board warning heroin addicts that they’d be better off just staying high. Could it be conceivable that there’s more to life than minimizing the amount of time we spend procuring a bare minimum of resources to sustain life? The most frustrating thing about replying to this line of argument is that it’s absurd to even have to spell these things out. Isn’t the human penchant for dissatisfaction one of our noblest attributes? We’re not satisfied, and so we go out and we invent. Discover. Explore. Build. And, while we’re at it, plant and harvest.
Of course, it’s possible to take that to an extreme. Ideally, we find some way to balance the capacity to enjoy what we have–to live in the moment and to be accepting of the past–without giving up on our noble ambitions and desires to better ourselves, those around us, and the world we inhabit. The fact that this just might involve working more hours per week doesn’t automatically make it a bad idea, and the fact that I have to explain any of this to folks like Diamond or Harari is just plain silly. Their arguments are not insightful or provocative. They’re just childish.
Sadly, since this is one of the first arguments that Harari makes, he starts out by digging a deep credibility hole that he never really climbs back out of. He compounds it with other silly fad-arguments like the idea that we didn’t domesticate wheat, wheat domesticate us! Thus:
The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud. Who was responsible? Neither kings, nor priests, nor merchants. The culprits were a handful of plant species, including wheat, rice, and potatoes. These plants domesticated homo sapiens rather than vice versa. Think for a moment about the Agricultural Revolution from the standpoint of wheat. Ten thousand years ago wheat was just a wild grass, one of many, confined to a small range in the Middle East. Suddenly, within just a few short millennia, it was growing all over the world. According to the basic evolutionary criteria of survival and reproduction, wheat has become one of the most successful plants in the history of the Earth. In areas such as the Great Plains of North America, where not a single wheat stalk grew 10,000 years ago, you can today walk for hundreds upon hundreds of miles without encountering any other plant. Worldwide, wheat covers about 870,000 square miles of the globe’s surface, almost 10 times the size of Britain. How did this grass turn from insignificant to ubiquitous?
The biggest problem here is that the very first thing that Harari argues for in his book is the distinction between “humans” (a term that covers many species) and “homo sapiens” (a term that refers to just one particular species). He puts all kinds of emphasis on this distinction, including making it the title of his book! And yet, in the passage above, he treats “wheat” as just a plant. Yet, according to Wikipedia, wheat is a term (like human) that refers to nearly 2-dozen distinct species. Again, it’s a hit for his credibility to be so sanctimonious about a technicality in one case, and then so cavalier about it in another. More than that, however, it substantively undermines his argument. Because the reality is that in domesticating various plants and animals, humans were engaged in slow-motion genetic engineering. The result, from the various species of wheat to animals like dogs and chickens, is a species that is genetically distinct from their ancestors. This matters a lot. Because if Harari wants to define a species genetically (which he does) then the domesticated wheat species is not the same thing as the wild wheat species from which it was derived over tens of thousands of years of selective breeding.
To clarify this mistake, imagine that he tried to argue that humans were domestictaed by wolves instead of vice versa. And so now wolves live in the houses of their domesticated humans, right? Well, no. Dogs have domesticated humans, but dogs (Canis familiaris) are not the same things as wolves (Canis lupus, Canis rufus, Canis lycaon, etc). And so you can’t say “wolves domesticated humans” because man’s best friend is no longer a wolf. Similarly, the wheat that we grow for food everywhere isn’t the same creature as its wild ancestor. Once again, this isn’t just wrong, it’s silly. When you see memes on the Internet about how cats own humans, that’s funny. When you see someone trying to turn the exact same Internet joke into a serious scientific point in an ostensibly non-fiction book, it’s just sad and a little pathetic.
Harari’s book suffers a lot from this kind of sloppy sensationalism. In addition to these examples, he also spends a lot of time ironically stating that there are no objective values on the one hand and then–often within mere sentences–making sweeping claims about how modern society is better than ancient society in this or that particular respect. Better, according to which values? It’s just another example of the utter failure of ostensible relativists to actually enact the relativism they claim to believe in. If there are no objective values, then there’s no basis for making statements like that.
So, enough of the criticism. What’s good?
Well, for starters, his separation of ontological concepts into three categories: objective, subjective, and inter-subjective is actually quite useful. He is sloppy about conflating “subjective”, “myth” and “false” (these terms are not synonyms, but he think they are), but the definition of inter-subjective as distinct from mere subjectivity is really quite good:
An objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness and human beliefs. Radioactivity, for example, is not a myth. Radioactive emissions occurred long before people discovered them, and they are dangerous even when people do not believe in them. Marie Curie, one of the discoverers of radioactivity, did not know during her long years of studying radioactive materials, that they could harm her body. While she did not believe that radioactivity could kill her, she nevertheless died of aplastic anemia, a disease caused by overexposure to radioactive materials. The subjective is something that exists depending on the consciousness and beliefs of a single individual. It disappears or changes if that particular individual changes his or her beliefs. Many a child believes in the existence of an imaginary friend who is invisible and inaudible to the rest of the world. The imaginary friend exists solely in the child’s subjective consciousness, and when the child grows up and ceases to believe in it, the imaginary friend fades away. The intersubjective is something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals. If a single individual changes his or her beliefs or even dies, it is of little importance. However, if most individuals in the network die or change their beliefs, the intersubjective phenomenon will mutate or disappear. Intersubjective phenomena are neither malevolent frauds nor insignificant charades. They exist in a different way from physical phenomena such as radioactivity but their impact on the world may still be enormous. Many of histories most important drivers are intersubjective: law, money, gods, nations.
I also liked a lot of his later theories. As much as he made a hash of the Agricultural Revolution, his argument about the interrelationship between imperialism and science, for example, was really quite fascinating.
Scientists have provided the imperial project with practical knowledge, ideological justification, and technological gadgets. Without this contribution, it is highly questionable whether Europeans could have conquered the world. The conquerers returned the favor by providing scientists with information and protection, supporting all kinds of strange and fascinating projects, and spreading the scientific way of thinking to the far corners of the Earth. Without imperial support, it is doubtful whether modern science would have progressed very far. There are very few scientific disciplines that did not begin their lives as servants to imperial growth and that do not owe a large proportion of their discoveries, collections, buildings, and scholarships to the generous help of army officers, navy captains, and imperial governors.
This is a genuinely insightful argument, and it’s one I’d never heard before. It’s not hard to see why. Our culture–especially our intellectual culture–continues to treat science with a great deal of deference and respect. The mere existence of the term “social science”–combined with the embrace of statistical and other formal mathematical techniques in economics, psychology, etc.–all show how deeply ingrained this deference is. But imperialism? That’s practically a bad word in academic settings. Imperialism is pretty close to the Original Sin, as far as anyone residing in the Ivory Tower would believe. And so obviously it’s incredibly uncomfortable to suggest that imperialism and science are linked or even, not going quite that far, that historically science got a significant boost from imperialism. This is an embarrassment to modern Western sensibilities, and so the only kind of person who will bring it up is someone like Harari who seems intent on offending every conceivable member of his audience. The only time when mockery is really called for is in response to power, and so it is deployed appropriately in this case, and that is where the same penchant for kind of immature provocation turns from an annoyance (as with his silly theories about the Agricultural Revolution or wheat domesticating humans) into something important and serious.
Along these lines, I was also really struck with his argument about the consumerist-capitalist ethic. Here goes:
How can we square the consumerist ethic with the capitalist ethic of the business person according to which profits should not be wasted and should instead by reinvested in production. It’s simple. As in previous eras, there is today a division of labor between the elite and the masses. In medieval Europe, aristocrats spent their money carelessly on extravagant luxuries, whereas peasants lived frugally minding every penny. Today the tables have turned. The rich take great care managing their assets and investments while the less well-heeled go into debt buying cars and televisions they don’t really need. The capitalist and consumerist epics are two sides of the same coin, a merger of two commandments. The supreme commandment of the rich is “invest”. The supreme commandment of the rest of us is “buy.” The capitalist-consumerist ethic is revolutionary in another respect. Most previous ethical systems presented people with a pretty tough deal: they were promised paradise, but only if they cultivate compassion and tolerance, overcame craving and anger, and restrained their selfish interests. This was too tough for most. The history of ethics is a sad tale of wonderful ideas that nobody can live up to. Most Christians did not imitate Christ. Most Buddhists failed to follow Buddha. And most Confucians would have caused Confucius a temper tantrum. In contrast, most people today successfully live up to the capitalist-consumerist ideal. The new ethic promises paradise on condition that the rich remain greedy and spend their time making more money, and that the masses give free reign to their cravings and passions and buy more and more. this is the first religion in history whose followers actually do what they are asked to do. How, though, do we know that we’ll really get paradise in return? We’ve seen it on television.
Given his frequent borrowing of ideas I recognize from other sources, I suspect this is not original to Harari, but it is fascinating to me.
There are several more examples of these kinds of points Harari makes that are contrarian and interesting. Some I was already familiar with (such as the nonsensical notion that primitive humans lived in harmony with their environment, something that approaches farce once you actually look at the global swathes of mass extinctions that actually followed the spread of homo sapiens around the globe) and others were either new or particularly well-reasoned (such as his explanation of corporate personhood and intersubjective reality via Peugot). For those reasons: I do recommend reading this book. Just take everything in it with a grain of salt.
I suspect that John G. Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet will be the definitive biography of Brigham Young for the next few decades. Overall, this is a good thing.
But it may also be a troubling thing, at least for some people. I wholeheartedly recommended the recent Joseph Smith, David O. McKay, and Spencer W. Kimball biographies to all members of the Church. Sure, they are a little less sanitized than we are used to, but the picture in each one of those works is of a prophet of God who had some flaws, with far more emphasis on the “prophet” part than on the “flawed” part.
This book? Not so much. I have serious reservations about recommending it to the average church member; if you need your prophet to be larger than life, or even just better than the average bear, this book is not for you. I think there is a substantial risk that people raised on hagiographic, presentist images of prophets would have their testimonies rocked, if not shattered, by this book.
…So, here’s the Readers’ Digest version of my review: this book is a real treat, but it might completely destroy your testimony if you can’t handle a fallible, bawdy, often mistaken, sometimes mean, and generally weird prophet.
The book truly is incredible, doing for Brigham Young what Richard Bushman did for Joseph Smith. However, I agree with Julie that “the main weakness of this book” is the fact that “you are not left with any reason as to why people would have made the enormous sacrifices that were part of believing that Brigham Young was a prophet.” To fill in these gaps, here are the reported words of Turner from my friend Carl Cranney on Young’s appeal:
Why did people follow Brigham? He admitted to me and the others in the study group a few weeks ago that he felt he could have handled this question better. He pointed out three things, specifically, that Brigham had done before he became the de facto church president, and later actual church president, that garnered him a lot of good will from the members. First, many of the church members were from the British Isles, and Brigham had led the British mission. So many members of the church had fond memories of him as the leader of the missionaries that brought them into the church. Second, he finished the Nauvoo temple and endowed thousands of Mormons before they abandoned the city. The sheer amount of man-hours this took would have staggered anybody but the firmest believer. Brigham Young was a believer, and it showed to the people that he worked tirelessly for in the temple. Third, he was the “American Moses” who dragged a despondent group of church members from their Nauvoo the Beautiful to the middle of nowheresville, Mexico, to create a civilization literally out nothing in a sparsely-populated desert wilderness. He worked hard to preserve the church and to get its members to safety. So, after doing these three things he had garnered a lot of support and a lot of good will from the members.
Despite this oversight, the book is fantastic and the go-to biography of Brigham Young.
Check out John Turner’s lecture on the bio at Benchmark Books below: