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I coulda cried. I went to the movies last night, and it wasn’t another goddamned comic-book super-hero franchise movie. All summer long, that’s all they’ve shown, and I am so tired of that crap. Please, please, no more movies where all tension and drama is supposed to be resolved at the end with a great big punchy slog of a fight with lots of CGI!
The Green Knight is not that movie. Instead, we get all the complexity and ambiguity of the medieval story, with dangly bits of the tale that hang there and make you scratch your head and wonder what that was supposed to mean, and at the end you have to think about what it was all about. It also doesn’t slavishly follow the old poem, and the director adds new surprises. That’s what I want more of in a movie — creativity and originality and complexity. I may have to go again later this week just to soak in the lovely imagery and pick up on the nuances.
The only negative, something that diminished but did not ruin the movie for me, was the audience. For some reason, the theater had a small mob of boys in their early teens who came in to watch, presumably thinking this was another goddamned comic-book super-hero franchise movie. They were visibly bored, constantly getting up to go to the lobby, whispering to each other, noisily chomping on their snacks. So spread the word: this is not an action movie. There isn’t a lot of sustained violence. The sexy scenes are muted and strange. Stay home, kids, you won’t like this movie. And theaters: I know you’re desperate for ticket sales, but you’re doing no one any favors by letting the kiddies into a movie they won’t understand.
P.S. There won’t be a sequel to The Green Knight. It won’t launch a franchise with a new addition to the story every summer. The studios may be unhappy with that, but it’s a huge plus as far as I’m concerned.
To the moon, Alice, to the moon!
Look at that. No COVID-19 cases in my county in the summer, and then we all got cocky and slacked off. The Minnesota governor lifted the mask mandate, we had the Stevens County fair (I skipped it), the college students started trickling back, the schools opened, and whooo-eee, look at that spike! 28 cases on Thursday, 48 on Friday, and we’ll have to wait and see the thrilling progression on Monday. Will it continue to rise? Or will the roller coaster start going down? Nobody knows! We don’t even know where the locus of infection is, although rumor has it that in this case it’s due to spread in a local church congregation.
You may recall the conservative church domination of our school board means the public schools here aren’t allowed to insist on masking or vaccinations. How’s that going for you, Stevens County?
I’m pretty sure our local hospital couldn’t cope with 48 serious cases — I hope the majority of the current surge do not require hospitalization — so, to everyone else…do not get sick right now. Be safe. Don’t take any risks. Because if you do, you might find yourself at the bottom of any priorities.
They are all aiding and abetting murder by taking up ICU space with diseases that were easily preventable. Look at this example.
What first struck Nathaniel Osborn when he and his wife took their son, Seth, to the emergency room this summer was how packed the waiting room was for a Wednesday at 1 p.m.
The Florida hospital’s emergency room was so crowded there weren’t enough chairs for the family to all sit as they waited. And waited.
Hours passed and 12-year-old Seth’s condition worsened, his body quivering from the pain shooting across his lower belly. Osborn said his wife asked why it was taking so long to be seen. A nurse rolled her eyes and muttered, “COVID.”
Seth was finally diagnosed with appendicitis more than six hours after arriving at Cleveland Clinic Martin Health North Hospital in late July. Around midnight, he was taken by ambulance to a sister hospital about a half-hour away that was better equipped to perform pediatric emergency surgery, his father said.
But by the time the doctor operated in the early morning hours, Seth’s appendix had burst — a potentially fatal complication.
I take that personally. When I was a child, I almost died of appendicitis — the memory of the agony of that event still burns in my memory. I only had to wait 5 minutes after my dad carried me at a run into the hospital (my projectile vomiting probably motivated the staff), but if that thing had ruptured, if modern medicine hadn’t made appendectomies safe and routine, I wouldn’t be here today. I still remember the pain and drifting in and out of consciousness on that short and probably too fast drive to the hospital, and I can’t imagine what it would have been like to wait 6 hours for treatment.
Fortunately, in this case there was a relatively happy outcome.
Seth Osborn, the 12-year-old whose appendix burst after a long wait, spent five days and four nights in the hospital as doctors pumped his body full of antibiotics to stave off infection from the rupture. The typical hospitalization for a routine appendectomy is about 24 hours.
The initial hospital bill for the stay came to more than $48,000, Nathaniel Osborn said. Although insurance paid for most of it, he said the family still borrowed against its house to cover the more than $5,000 in out-of-pocket costs so far.
You know, there’s this process called triage, in which you rank the needs of the patients. I would not object if hospitals made a patient’s refusal to obtain a cheap, safe, easily obtainable vaccination part of the triage process. When Seth Osborn shows up in the emergency room, they should have looked at the list of people taking up ICU beds with COVID-19 who had not been vaccinated, and bumped one of them out to make room for the kid. It’s a hard decision, but medical personnel sometimes have to make those painful choices.
Imagine if Seth had died because some selfish asshole had neglected to do the minimally responsible thing, all because some Republican had told him not to.
Please do tear into Andrew Sullivan. This review of one of his books in The Baffler does a fine job of highlighting his shallow and contradictory thinking. Everything Sullivan does is a mess, and I have no idea how he continues to be published.
Three decades and four hundred pages later he’s still at it. “Transgenderist ideology,” he writes in “The Nature of Sex,” “is indeed a threat to homosexuality, because it is a threat to biological sex as a concept.” “Native Americans had been the first to discover this continent, and, with it, their own sort of American dream—thousands of years before Europeans imagined theirs,” he declares in an essay about the coronavirus pandemic, as if he actually believes the interpolation of a not particularly clever anachronism creates an equivalence between Stone Age nomads wandering into an unpopulated land and the gun-toting, disease-carrying invaders who stole that land from them ten thousand years later. Writing about Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a Dominican-born professor of classics who “came to see the white supremacists’ cooptation of the classics as inextricable from the classics themselves,” Sullivan tells readers that Padilla “refuses to ‘praise the architects of that trauma as having done right by you at the end.’”
This was one of a dozen times my margin note read “Physician, heal thyself.” But there can be no healing when there’s no ability to recognize one’s plight in others, and Sullivan remains resolutely uninterested in any losses but his own. In his mea culpa on the Iraq War, the final note isn’t “the lives lost, the families destroyed, the bodies tortured, the civilization trashed.” That was “bad enough,” sure, “but what was done to America—and the meaning of America—was unforgivable. And for that I will not and should not forgive myself.” That’s right, folks: as many as a million people were killed in a pointless war that Andrew Sullivan hawked like a fishwife for no other reason than his need to punish as many Muslims as possible for 9/11, but what’s important to remember is that he feels really bad about it. When I read this, I was reminded of Edmund Wilson’s reaction to Brideshead Revisited: “The last scenes are extravagantly absurd, with an absurdity that would be worthy of Waugh at his best if it were not—painful to say—meant quite seriously.”
But, the author of the review, a gay man, also constantly undercuts himself by sexualizing Sullivan, and the review keeps bring me up short.
The subsequent twenty-five years have proven Sullivan a dependable shill for reactionary causes célèbres, whether it’s defending racism and sexism in the name of “science” (“It may be no accident that testosterone-soaked ghettos foster both high levels of crime and high levels of illegitimacy”), opposing hate-crime laws on the grounds that calling someone a “gook” or “n*gg*r” “allows natural tensions to express themselves incrementally,” or undercutting radical LGBTQ activism by insisting that only a $35 marriage license provides “a sense of normality, of human potential, of self-worth—something that my generation never had and that previous generations would have found unimaginable.”
But that was still a few years off. At the time I was less interested in a bangers-and-mash Roy Cohn than in whether or not Maer and Andrew had fucked. I hope they did. No, really, I do. At least then there’d be something about Sullivan I could take pleasure in, if only vicariously.
If a book reviewer were a heterosexual man who kept bringing up his fantasies about the sex life of the female author of the book, would we be fine with that? Sullivan’s sexuality is an OK topic to discuss since Sullivan brings it up all the time, but please, don’t make it about your sexual interests, reviewer. Do discuss Sullivan’s hypocrisy on the subject. I do like that he quotes Sullivan’s own words at length, which is the best way to expose a fool.
I suspect that the way Sullivan continues to be published is by being such an obnoxious contrarian that his fellow obnoxious contrarians think they’re being clever by putting his ideas out there — not because they’re good, but because they are so wildly wrong. That’s why Maher continues to bring him on as a guest, because he’s not favoring ideas, he just wants noise.
I might overdo it just a little bit and liquify half of Stevens County. A sort of Thanos-snap that would leave little puddles of slimy goo everywhere.
I am delighted to announce that Issue 4 of our magic comic, Hocus Pocus, is out now. This one is all about whether it’s possible to predict the future. As ever, it contains 28 full colour pages about magic, mystery and the mind. This issue also has lots of interactive demonstrations and illusions. Mother Shipton predicts your future , Nostradamus uncovers the secret of publishing profitable predictions and Paul The Psychic Octopus reveals all.Amazing work by Jordan Collver, Rik Worth and Owen Watts. Enjoy! Available now from Prop Dog
On a sun-bleached afternoon in May, Rebecca Drury and Louise Sweeney, friends since their teenage years, strolled along a pebbled beach near Brighton, talking about death.
Rebecca, a blonde, stylish 53-year-old dance instructor, was dying. After fighting cancer on-and-off since 2016, she’d been told by oncologists in 2020 that her illness – which despite chemo and immunotherapy had spread to her pleura and bones – was incurable. Rebecca was not afraid of death itself. But she’d heard that palliative medicine cannot prevent painful deaths for some people. Already in immense pain, she was afraid of a bad death, and was making plans to avoid it.
Louise, also 53, recalls visiting Rebecca’s flat that day: a plant-decorated sanctuary perched at the top of a Regency townhouse. Rebecca, a creative cook, had prepared a salad of avocado, couscous and beetroot. Out of the window, the sun scorched down on the sea. After lunch, Rebecca took Louise on a walk, to her favourite spot, quiet Ovingdean beach. On the way, they talked. It was now clear that Rebecca wasn’t well enough to fly to Dignitas in Switzerland, which allows people of sound judgement to apply for assisted suicide by drinking tonics of antiemetic and pentobarbital drugs. (Nearly 350 Brits have taken the trip, falling asleep within five minutes and then drifting away within half an hour.) Besides, Dignitas paperwork takes three or four months. Rebecca wasn’t sure she had that long.
Instead, Rebecca said she was meeting with an end-of-life doula, a trained healthcare companion who supports people during dying. The doula, Li Mills, would help to set her affairs in order, manage end-of-life care and sit with her as she died. The cancer had taken away Rebecca’s old life – dancing, cycling, socialising, hosting – and the pain was becoming unmanageable. “I wish that I had a heart attack tonight, because I don’t want to be in this pain all the time,” Rebecca said. Louise understood. She’d watched her sister die of cancer and knew how horrible life’s final chapters can be. “Well, you know I’ll be there to hold your hand too,” Louise said.
Conversations about death tear through dozens of families every month. Even if every dying person had access to the best palliative care, an average of 17 people a day would still die in severe pain in the UK, according to a 2019 study commissioned by campaign group Dignity In Dying and conducted by the Office of Health Economics. For some cancers, like those shredding through the lungs, end-of-life sedatives sometimes don’t work; it’s hard to fall asleep if you can’t breathe, leading to the horrific sensation of being awake during your own death.
What Rebecca and Louise did not talk about was the prospect of assisted dying at home in Brighton, surrounded by loved ones. When the UK parliament decriminalised suicide in the 1961, it created a criminal offence for “assisting, aiding or abetting” suicide punishable by up to 14 years in prison. Doctors administering a lethal dose of painkillers or people helping dying friends travel to Switzerland both fall under the Suicide Act’s crosshairs. For decades, assisted dying campaigners have pushed to change this law – which they say would stop thousands of painful deaths a year, and finally grant people agency to choose how and when they die.
For a long time, it appeared the tide would never turn. In 2007 the Daily Mail blasted a Liberal Democrat MP as “Dr Death” for supporting assisted suicide. As recently as 2015, MPs voted overwhelmingly to uphold the blanket ban. But after years of campaigning, and a pandemic that has forced everyone to confront their own mortality, momentum is building. After Covid, “We’re just more aware that people can die badly,” Sarah Wootton, chief executive of Dignity in Dying, told me. New bills are being debated by lawmakers in Westminster, Holyrood and Jersey. “Now, there’s a real sense that the campaign is winning the argument. We’re in the strongest strategic position that we’ve ever been in,” Wootton said.
When they returned from the beach, Rebecca insisted on gifting Louise a pair of silver Mexican earrings studded with turquoise and blue opal. “I want to give you something to remind you of me,” she said. Louise was reluctant at first, but accepted. They embraced. “It’s really nice that you’re giving it to me now, before you’re gone,” she told her.
Rebecca was raised in a theatrical family in Nottinghamshire, with a drama teacher mum and music teacher stepdad. In her early 20s she moved to Brighton for university, fell in love with the city’s creative streak and never left. She became famous for hosting cocktail parties. “Becca’s the linchpin of the social circle,” Janice Britz, an NHS worker who’s been close to her for 15 years, told me. Friends say she made each guest feel as if the whole night had been planned for them. “Rebecca makes you feel your best self,” Janice said. “She makes people glow.”
At age 48 she was active, teaching dance classes and cycling across Brighton to see friends. Rebecca’s 2016 stage-two lung cancer diagnosis screeched the brakes on her life. She immediately cut out meat, ate organic, reduced drinking and quit smoking. Within two months, she’d had an operation and was two-thirds of a lung down. Those close to her during this first phase recall a relentless optimism. When she visited the hospital, Janice remembered being asked by Rebecca, “How are you? What’s going on for you?”
Rebecca vowed to rebound and run 8k within the year. She did. Two years later, she got the all-clear. Life in her flat, nicknamed the Pink Palace, returned to normal again.
But cancer, as the physician and author Siddhartha Mukherjee wrote in his 2010 book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, “is an expansionist disease; it invades through tissues, sets up colonies in hostile landscapes, seeking ‘sanctuary’ in one organ and then immigrating to another.” In 2018, Rebecca began to suffer a pain doctors couldn’t explain. After a series of painful tests, they spotted a tumour in Rebecca’s pleura, the cavity between the lungs and chest. Again, it was removed. Eight months later, however, with the pain still present, oncologists discovered the cancer had spread to her bones, entering through the ribs.
Rebecca was told in late 2019 her disease was incurable. She opted for chemo to beat it back. But she also started planning to end her life, in the hope of avoiding a bad death. With her energy dulled by heavy medication, Rebecca began researching Dignitas.
In 1998, Dignitas was launched in Zurich. The assisted suicide non-profit allows people to die in a domestic apartment, rather than a sterile hospital environment. Since its launch, it has aided 3,248 people’s deaths. During the application process, those who wish to take their own life meet twice with Dignitas consultants, plus independent doctors, for an evaluation to determine informed consent. The catch for British members is that the months-long process and necessity of travelling to Switzerland means people have to put a premature stop to their lives. But it is still popular with those who can afford it; someone from the UK travels to Switzerland to die on average every eight days. The typical cost is £10,000. So after her incurable diagnosis, Rebecca started saving.
Rebecca wanted dignity at the end. “I live life in agonising pain, and my pain is only going to get worse,” she said. “It just seems an obvious choice to me, if I could have a lovely little party – that’s what I was famous for, throwing parties – a nice little gathering of people around me the day before, and then someone to hold my hand.” Rebecca also began campaigning for a change to UK law with Dignity In Dying. She didn’t want other people to face her dilemma: a painful death, a potential botched home suicide, or ending life early (and friends facing prosecution) via Switzerland. “The UK’s law is inhumane,” she wrote to then health secretary Matt Hancock in June. “I want a beautiful death, on my own terms.”
The 1961 Suicide Act created the legal paradox that assisting someone to do something legal was itself illegal. This is even if suicide is someone’s explicit wish and assistance is motivated by compassion. Some doctors and nurses talk of the “old days” when, if a terminally ill patient was suffering extreme pain, a doctor would prescribe or administer a high dose of painkillers to “make them more comfortable”, speeding up their death and letting them drift away painlessly. But things changed. After the conviction in 2000 of GP serial killer Harold Shipman for murdering patients via lethal doses of diamorphine, palliative care was radically altered. Doctors spoke of the “Shipman effect”.
Medical professionals are now much more conservative with painkiller dosage. Some people die in immense pain, drawn out for days. “We treat dogs better,” one bereaved husband told me. His wife had cancer, and asphyxiated in August last year, four painful days after asking nurses to end her life. This is the death Rebecca feared the most.
In 2010, the Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP), then led by Keir Starmer, clarified guidance on who would be punished over trips to Switzerland. In a years-long lawsuit, Debbie Purdy, who had multiple sclerosis and planned to fly to Dignitas to die, demanded to know if her husband would face prison time for assisting her. Eventually forced by the court to clarify, the DPP said it was not likely to seek prosecutions as long as there was, among other things, a “voluntary, clear, settled and informed decision” to die and any assistance was “wholly motivated by compassion”. To campaigners, it felt like the edges of the jagged law had been sanded down. But the law was still in place. Now they wanted it replaced for good.
At the time, ministers saw nothing to be gained from decriminalising assisted dying. And with a trinity of opponents to provoke – religious leaders, newspapers and the medical establishment – it was a potential vote loser. Then in 2015, MPs got the chance to vote on assisted dying for the first time in 20 years. Labour backbencher Rob Marris’s assisted dying bill was pulled out the hat in the parliamentary private member’s bill ballot. It proposed stringent safeguards: not only two doctors were needed to approve a request but also the High Court, and only those with six months left to live were deemed eligible. (Humanists UK criticised the bill for being too narrow.)
MPs torpedoed the proposal 330-118. But since then energy has surged. Blanket bans seem to be waning globally. Nine US states, three Australian states and four European countries (most recently Spain) now have assisted dying laws. This May, Baroness Molly Meacher, a cross-bench peer and chair of Dignity In Dying, introduced a new bill to the House of Lords, modelled on the 2015 proposal. And this year The Sunday Times launched a campaign to legalise assisted dying. “That’s extremely powerful,” Meacher told me, “partly because Conservative MPs read The Sunday Times, every single one of them.”
Most significantly, the majority of UK medical professionals now support legalisation. Last October the British Medical Association published a poll of 150,000 doctors, finding 50 per cent personally supported a change in the law to enable assisted suicide, with 39 per cent personally opposed and 11 per cent undecided. Then, in September this year, the BMA dropped its opposition to assisted dying and adopted a neutral stance. Opponents have lost their nuclear argument.
But opponents still remain, and they’re fighting hard. Many are people of faith who want to preserve the sanctity of life. In parliament they’re led by Danny Kruger, Conservative MP and chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Dying Well. (His office did not respond to an interview request.) The lobby to retain criminalisation centres around three arguments: first, government should properly fund disability benefit and palliative care, much of which is currently funded by charity. (Legalisation advocates say these goals are not mutually exclusive.) Secondly, they say people may feel like a burden on their carers and feel pressed to die early. Finally, they argue it is impossible to have adequate safeguards to protect people from malicious families.
“It can be quite a compelling idea, that greedy relatives want auntie Flo’s assets so they’re pushing her to go for an assisted death,” said Trevor Moore, chair of My Death, My Decision, which campaigns for a broader bill to include people suffering incurable pain. “Frankly, that’s specious.” There are much easier ways to grab assets that wouldn’t include a rigorous assisted dying procedure, Moore said.
In November 2020, when Hancock announced a fresh coronavirus lockdown, a strategic question at the dispatch box from the co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Choice at the End of Life, Andrew Mitchell, forced him to clarify government guidance further. Amid travel restrictions, “It is legal to travel abroad for the purpose of assisted dying where it is allowed in that jurisdiction,” Hancock said. It was hailed as another step towards legalisation. The strategy, for Mitchell’s co-chair Karin Smyth, is to attack the existing law – “you have to chink away at some of the side bits” – while also battling for a new one.
The Meacher bill will have its second reading this autumn. As a private member’s bill, its chances of passing are slim, but campaigners are hoping the government buckles to public pressure: according to a 2019 Yonder poll, a total of 84 per cent are now in favour of assisted dying.
On Friday 25 June, Janice visited Rebecca at the Pink Palace. Some other friends also dropped by to dye Rebecca’s hair pink. Then they drank tea and chatted. Rebecca was heavily medicated, but the pain was controllable and she was overjoyed to play the host. “Becca was just glowing. She was saying, ‘This is like it was before!’” Janice said. “And you could just see her. She’s still Becca – we haven’t lost her yet.”
Three days later, Rebecca entered a hospice. The plan was a short stay of two weeks to experiment with drugs that would placate her pain and allow her to function. But she was deteriorating fast. Two weeks later, Janice was phoned by Li Mills, the doula, saying Rebecca was in bad shape. Janice rushed to the hospice. The doctors said they suspected Rebecca’s cancer had penetrated her brain. She was near the end. Rebecca’s body was resisting sedation, plunging her into an endless agony. Janice gripped her hand for hours and hours. Rebecca could only rally a whisper, but Janice recalled her leaning in and saying, “I want to go, can you help me?” Janice checked in with the doctor about the situation with her medication. With a look of kindness and empathy, a nurse said, “We’re upping her meds as much as we can.” Janice knew there was a line they could not cross. Rebecca was pushing up against it. After Janice left that evening, she pulsated with anger at the law which trapped Rebecca in this suffering. Rebecca wasn’t scared of exiting this world. “She was scared about the suffering,” Janice said. “I’m just holding her tortured face in my mind all the time.”
At last, the doctors found a balance of drugs that let Rebecca stay under and shelter from her aching body. She was tranquil, as if sleeping. Her room was flanked by pink roses, her favourite, that matched her pink hair. She stayed in this state for a few days, as if drawing one last deep breath before letting go. On the morning of 14 July, Rebecca died, her breathing ending almost imperceptibly.
Rebecca Drury did not have the death she wanted. She exercised as much agency as she could; her doula was with her right until the end. But now, in her memory, Rebecca’s friends are fighting to change the law – to stop others suffering a painful end.
The day before Rebecca died, I spoke to Louise over the phone. “I’m wearing her earrings today,” she said, “I really needed to feel her closer to me.”
This article is from the New Humanist autumn 2021 edition. Subscribe today.
Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History By Alex von Tunzelmann
It is possibly because statues are supposed to be permanent fixtures that they are so susceptible to being rethought or regretted: they’re the municipal equivalent of tattoos. Fallen Idols is a response to 2020’s global iconoclastic mania. Of the dozen that Alex von Tunzelmann considers, including monuments to Lenin, Stalin, Rhodes and Robert E. Lee, two are among those pulled down amid last year’s Black Lives Matters protests – the statue of Edward Colston dumped into Bristol Harbour in June, and the statue of George Washington in Portland, tipped over later that month, on Juneteenth. Colston was a slave-trader, yet a prolific philanthropist and builder of schools, hospitals and almshouses. Washington was a slave-owner, yet a revolutionary liberator, and founder of a mighty democracy. When we look at statues, for all their monolithic presence, we still get to decide what we’re looking at.
This is why humankind has been pulling statues down (almost) as long as we have been putting them up. Von Tunzelmann’s introduction reminds that our totem-smashing instincts date back to at least ancient Egypt, where incoming pharaohs would demand the demolition of idols commemorating their predecessors. But she begins properly in New York in 1776, where Joseph Wilton’s statue of King George III was toppled – and beheaded – by an enraged rabble after just six years presiding over Bowling Green, in Lower Manhattan.
It was common in 2020 for anguished liberals to express discomfort with the anarchy of de-statueing, even as they agreed with the motives. This, von Tunzelmann explains, is not a new phenomenon either. One fretful observer who witnessed George III’s humiliation said that he “doubts not the persons who pulled down and mutilated the statue. . .were actuated by zeal in the public cause, yet it has so much the appearance of riot.” He carried on by advocating sternly that in future these things be left to proper authorities. His name was George Washington.
The difficulty will always be that no universally applicable ethical template can conclusively decide whether a given statue should stand or fall. That said, some of von Tunzelmann’s selections seem open-and-shut. Whatever one felt about the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the glowering statue of tyrant Saddam Hussein in Baghdad assuredly had it coming. There seems no reason why the citizens of Kinshasa should want a statue of Belgian king Leopold II, who lorded over the horrors of the Congo Free State.
Even here, however, von Tunzelmann finds ambiguity and argument: Leopold’s statue was pulled down twice. The first time was in 1966, on the orders of loopy despot Mobutu Sese Soko, who may have believed that Kinshasa was only big enough for one rapacious maniac. After several decades mouldering “under a tree behind a shed, among other symbols of the colonial past”, Leopold was reinstalled in 2005 at the whim of Congolese culture minister Christophe Muzungu, taking to an extreme the notion, often floated in defence of controversial statues, that they are guarantors of our history, however murky it may be.
When it was made clear to Muzungu by an unimpressed crowd that if he didn’t take Leopold back down, then they would, it was re-removed. As has been the case in von Tunzelmann’s previous books, including terrific histories of the Suez Crisis and the Partition of India, her research is enlivened by a talent for unearthing and relating the droll factoid: “Muzungu claimed, not all that credibly, that it had only been put up as a trial, to test the stability of the plinth.”
Von Tunzelmann is surely correct when she argues that statuary is, in and of itself, a lousy way of commemorating or teaching history – it is often, in her words, “didactic, haughty, and uninvolving”. But as this gently inquisitive and often very funny book amply demonstrates, the disputes over a given statue can teach us a great deal – even if much of the culture war shrieking and quacking around statues, both for and against, does not usually indicate much willingness to learn.
This article is from the New Humanist autumn 2021 edition. Subscribe today.
"The people of this country will have economic, political and cultural freedom . . . The history of Bengal is the history of the staining of streets with the blood of the people of this country.” So proclaimed the freedom fighter Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, on 7 March 1971, as the province of East Pakistan began its struggle for independence.
To understand this bloody conflict, and all that came after, we must go back to the violent partition of India and Pakistan 24 years earlier, overseen by British colonial rule. As the British left India, it was decided that a homeland would be created for the subcontinent’s Muslim minority, due in part to their fear of persecution by the majority Hindu population. Pakistan would be made up of East and West, with the eastern wing lying at the mouth of the Ganges delta. East and West Pakistan were two Muslim-majority regions, brought together on the basis of religion, despite the fact that they were divided by over a thousand miles of Indian territory.
The country soon became heavily dominated by its western wing, what is today Pakistan. Bengalis living in the eastern wing were ordered to use Urdu as the sole national language, not their native Bengali. West Pakistanis characterised Bengalis as “short, dark, rice-eating peasants”. Although it was a Muslim-majority region, it was seen as less than orthodox in its religious observance – a peripheral, end of the world sort of place, full of people who were somehow not “real Muslims”.
When East Pakistan won its independence after that bloody war, it became known as Bangladesh. This new state was different: a sovereign identity based on linguistic culture, primarily, rather than faith. Sheikh Mujibur became the first president of this new secular state.
Bangladesh is now 50 years old. The half century since its formation has seen the country achieve much, but it has also struggled to fully embed democracy and the inclusive ideals laid out at its founding. Today, authoritarian governance holds sway in the region, along with religious chauvinism.
During the Cold War, to keep the Soviets and the political left at bay, Middle Eastern money poured in to the new state of Bangladesh, to fund what scholars have termed “state-enforced Islamisation”. This principally came from Saudi Arabia, flush with oil money after the 1973 oil crisis. “The objective was to bring Islam to the centre of the international scene, to substitute it for the various discredited nationalist movements and to refine the multitude of voices within the religion down to the single creed of the masters of Mecca,” as Gilles Kepel writes in Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Mohammed Bin Salman, appeared to confirm this view when he said, in a 2018 interview with the Washington Post, that “investments in mosques and madrassas overseas were rooted in the Cold War, when allies asked Saudi Arabia to use its resources to prevent inroads in Muslim countries by the Soviet Union.”
From the mid-1970s, young people like Jasimuddin Rahmani – the preacher who later brought Al Qaeda to Bangladesh – were educated in a burgeoning madrassa system, which grew apace in the post-Cold War era. Religious institutions were given an air of incorruptibility and purity, compared to the politics of liberal democracy that promised much and seemingly delivered only corruption. As a result, both the main political parties and Bangladesh’s military kowtowed to hardline religious movements in order to woo public support. These movements prospered, often for the mere fact of being non-political, even if their leaders often appeared to be wayward mediaeval fantasists.
Then, on 15 August 1975, Sheikh Mujibur was assassinated and a new president installed by the military. After the coup, the new government altered the constitution. The word “secularism”, which had appeared in the Preamble and Article 8 as one of the four fundamental principles, was replaced with “absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah” and a new clause was inserted to emphasise that this trust and faith should be “the basis of all actions”.
There was little response from western nations, or from the “global policeman” America. Within Bangladesh, some suspected American intelligence of having encouraged the rightward coup. Certainly, Cold War binaries coloured foreign policy at the time. In his book The Blood Telegram, about the approach taken by the US towards Bangladesh’s liberation struggle and the post-war dynamic, Gary Bass writes that “international security imperatives trumped the pursuit of justice for the victims of mass atrocities.” The new military government, and its Islamist and right-leaning political allies, was useful to the extent that it took the country into the orbit of the anti-Soviet alliance, permeated with a visceral fear of atheists and socialists.
Democracy returned, however, almost as soon as the Cold War ended. Today, Sheikh Mujibur’s daughter Sheikh Hasina is Prime Minister, leading the party that her father founded, the Awami League. But although it still claims to be a centre-left, secular party of Bengali nationalism – the equivalent of India’s Congress Party – it has imposed ruthless authoritarianism on Bangladesh. Democracy is weak and rights abuses are rampant. Sheikh Hasina has deftly wielded religion to remain in office for a record tenure, after two highly questionable elections.
Bangladesh is often celebrated as a success story. Its people not only apparently earn more than their Indian counterparts, they also have lower fertility rates than most in the region, and perform better on most human development indicators. However, citizens are embracing religious conservatism and extremism at increasing rates. In fact, extremism in Bangladesh does not seem to be directly linked to economic deprivation, as it is in many other countries. Multiple studies and surveys indicate that extremist religious movements in the country are often populated by the middle classes. This is an increasingly educated country, ruled by a supposedly secular party – yet hardline religiosity is being championed.
So what’s going on here? Bangladesh’s war of independence entrenched deep faultlines. Some within the country favoured independence and an Indian-style secularism. Others, broadly conservative and Islamist, wanted to remain part of Pakistan. Although the secular side ostensibly won, embedding their values into the foundation of the state, these tensions have continued to simmer and, at times, explode. In 2013, the country once again reached boiling point, when the government began to prosecute people accused of helping the Pakistani forces during the war. Rather than drawing a line under the trauma of the past, this process brought out tensions between secular and Islamist voices – ultimately emboldening violent extremism and suppressing free speech.
Back in 1971, the Pakistani military had responded brutally to East Pakistan’s calls for self-determination. It is widely accepted that this crackdown, enacted with the support of pro-Islamist militias within East Pakistan, constituted genocide. Although there is some dispute about the numbers killed, in Bangladesh the most commonly cited figure is 3 million. Hundreds of thousands of women were raped; Pakistan’s religious leaders declared that Bengali women were gonimoter maal (Bengali for “public property”).
Religious minorities suffered particularly acutely. As Sydney Schanberg of the New York Times wrote at the time, Pakistani commanders “admit to a policy of stamping out Bengali culture, both Moslem and Hindu – but particularly Hindu. Although thousands of ‘anti-state’ Bengali Moslems have been killed by the army, the Hindus became particular scapegoats.”
In 2009, Sheikh Hasina’s government set up a domestic war crimes tribunal to investigate and prosecute those suspected of participating in the 1971 genocide. Eleven chief defendants in the trials were accused of actively assisting the Pakistani army to target non-Muslims or apostates. Many of those killed were Hindus, along with intellectuals, unorthodox Muslims or others considered to be “deviants”.
Abdul Quader Mollah was one high-profile figure put on trial. At the time of independence, he had been a member of the Al Badr death squad, a group of local collaborators used by the Pakistani army to kill intellectuals and minorities. He was charged with crimes against humanity and with killing hundreds of people, including secular intellectuals and a well-known poet who was found decapitated, her head hanging from a ceiling fan. On 5 February 2013, he was sentenced to life in jail. Given that Bangladesh has the death penalty, many felt he had got off lightly, considering the serious nature of his crimes.
Thousands of disgruntled, largely secular Bangladeshis protested, taking to the streets and voicing their anger online. One of these online voices was Ahmed Rajib Haider, a 35-year-old architect from the same neighbourhood that Mollah had once terrorised. Rajib was an outspoken atheist, as were many of his fellow bloggers, which meant that people on the political right labelled the protests an atheist conspiracy. I was at the protest in Dhaka at the time, and the crowds I witnessed did not appear to be particularly atheist, with many dressed in traditional Muslim prayer garb.
One evening, ten days after Mollah’s sentencing, Rajib was leaving the home he shared with his brother. Out of the darkness, he was set upon and attacked by at least two men with machetes: Islamist extremists. The killing of Rajib was the first in a series of similar murders. Just as in 1971, intellectuals, atheists and religious minorities were targeted. The attackers butchered their victims with machetes – a nod to the sword, the weapon of choice to kill infidels in the time of the prophet. The group primarily responsible was mostly made up of affluent students; Rajib’s murderers were students at an elite private university. They would go on to form a local branch of Al Qaeda.
Sheikh Hasina’s government was initially supportive of the protests that Rajib and his comrades had started. But as religious voices continued to proclaim that these protests were an atheist conspiracy, politicians started to distance themselves, blaming the murder victims. As Sheikh Hasina’s son Sajeeb Wazed told Reuters, “We are walking a fine line here.” He added: “We don’t want to be seen as atheists. It doesn’t change our core beliefs. We believe in secularism. But given that our opposition party plays that religion card against us relentlessly, we can’t come out strongly for him. It’s about perception, not about reality.”
Rather than challenge the religious right in the face of these brutal murders, the Bangladeshi government violently supressed opposition party gatherings and publications. In 2013, the government set up committees to investigate lists of supposed blasphemers, and a handful of atheist bloggers were jailed. After Al Qaeda murdered bloggers and intellectuals, ministers said things such as “The bloggers, they should control their writing”; “Our country is a secular state”; “I want to say that people should be careful not to hurt anyone by writing anything – hurt any religion, any people’s beliefs, any religious leaders.”
This could be seen as a cynical turn. The 2014 election was approaching, and the government needed to bolster its popularity as it sought a second term in office. Appeasing the religious right was a pragmatic move. The Hefazat Islam movement, a powerful network of madrassas with millions of followers nationwide, had threatened to “siege” government if it did not punish blasphemy and apostasy with death. The Hefazat movement can bring hundreds of thousands of young men onto the street. The government effectively bought the movement off, offering the Hefazat leadership financial sweeteners, and agreeing that it would maintain its autonomy.
Fast-forward to 2018 and the government had beefed up its digital defamation laws with the Digital Security Act. It contains harsh penalties for anyone who publishes “any information that hurts religious values or sentiments”. The law is almost uniquely used to punish those who criticise the religious values of the majority. It is rarely enforced against those who criticise more powerless minority religions, let alone atheism. This has seen dozens of journalists and cartoonists imprisoned, while government-backed hackers police social media. This year a leading investigative journalist, Rozina Islam, who had exposed corruption in the health sector, was jailed and allegedly tortured. As well as silencing critics of Sunni Islam, the law also criminalises virtually all criticism of the Prime Minister or her father – the same independence leader who championed cultural freedom 50 years ago.
Where do we go from here? One answer is that Bangladesh must redress the balance of power between government and the extreme Islamic forces inside the country. In 2019, I published a book, Many Rivers One Sea, in which I explored why Al Qaeda’s push into Bangladesh had been so successful. They had murdered a dozen intellectuals. While some arrests were made, government ministers essentially acquiesced. Rather than taking concerted action against the aggressors, politicians made statements condemning those that the terrorists had targeted, and moved towards the policies that Al Qaeda advocated. This, I argued, was in no small part the result of weak government. Bangladesh’s “liberal” state is one of the smallest in the world, if measured by tax to GDP. The neoliberal model, favouring low taxes and minimal state intervention, has dominated Bangladeshi policy ever since the right-wing coup in 1975.
Where the state is weak, individual politicians and Sunni religious institutions are, as a result, powerful. This means that the fine words in Bangladesh’s constitution, that “it shall be a fundamental aim of the State to realise through the democratic process a socialist society, free from exploitation, a society in which the rule of law, fundamental human rights and freedom, equality and justice, political, economic and social, will be secured for all citizens” ring hollow in practice. They are little match for plutocrats, religious leaders and ambitious politicians. Bangladesh today is caught in a Catch-22 situation, where authoritarian governance has reduced trust in the state and its institutions. The social contract required for a larger state has withered, and it is difficult to encourage taxation and create the positive feedback loop that accountable institutions produce.
This year, Bangladesh celebrates its independence and its first 50 years. The country is more assured economically, and less dependent on foreign powers, than it has ever been. But the forces that Sheikh Mujibur once fought against – authoritarianism, sectarianism and majoritarianism – threaten to shadow the nation in its next 50 years.
This article is from the New Humanist autumn 2021 edition. Subscribe today.
In a brightly lit operating room in Brooklyn, New York, Alice lies on a padded gurney, feeling very anxious. As requested, the computer monitors that display her blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen levels have been put on silent. If they weren’t, the incessant beeping would add to her nervousness. The silence in the room is broken only by the general chitchat with the lead nurse and a routine set of questions that Alice answers quietly. What’s your name? Date of birth? And what procedure are you having today? “ECT,” Alice says.
She is then told that she will feel a cool sensation, as if her circulatory system is being fed by icy glacial streams, due to the anaesthetic that is being administered through a cannula in her right arm. Alice falls into a deep sleep within seconds. She doesn’t respond to any more questions. Since she recently had hip surgery, the anaesthesiologist increased Alice’s dose of sux, the muscle relaxant that is kept cool in a small fridge in a corner of the room. Her eyebrows and facial muscles twitch as the drug starts to take effect. The anaesthesiologist switches her monitor’s sound back on.
As the regular beeping returns to the room, the most important number on the anaesthesiologist’s screen is the concentration of oxygen in Alice’s blood. Recorded by a peg-like instrument attached to her index finger and displayed in bright blue numbers, it hovers around 98 per cent and is kept near to 100 per cent throughout the procedure. Early practitioners of ECT – or electroshock therapy, as it was more commonly known – didn’t always use artificial respiration, and cellular damage could occur as the brain was deprived of oxygen. In 2018, however, the year that ECT turned 80 years old, Alice doesn’t have to worry about this. Her anaesthesiologist is equipped with an artificial respirator (a plastic instrument that connects to an oxygen mask) that she squeezes and expands throughout the session. “It’s my job to keep the patient breathing,” she says. Since all muscle relaxants stop the diaphragm from moving, artificial respiration is a necessity in modern ECT.
When all is ready and the numbers are looking stable, Tricia Paperone, a 30-year-old psychiatric resident, pushes the red button on the front of the ECT machine with her thumb. It beeps for a few seconds, then the room is still and silent but for Alice’s regular heart rate. She hardly moves a muscle. But inside her brain, an electrical storm is circulating. Her synapses are flooded with neurotransmitters and growth-inducing molecules that, together, trigger cascade after cascade of signals that will continue long after Alice wakes from her sleep and returns to her flat on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The convulsion is over in less than a minute but has long-lasting effects. Although it is still an active area of research, it is this burst of activity – and perhaps the regrowth of connections in the brain – that is thought to be at the core of ECT’s efficacy in depression. Prolonged stress and severe depression are known to prune the brain’s delicate wiring. Parts of the brain start to noticeably shrink. ECT is thought to undo this. Rather than damaging the brain, as many psychiatrists and activists have argued over the years, modern ECT is more akin to a fertiliser of new connections, a regenerative procedure that can reverse the destructive combination of stress, depression and time. Another theory is that ECT acts as a reset button on regions that are hyperactive in depression.
Whatever the true mechanism, Alice is simply happy that she has been given access to this life-saving treatment. (She was shocked to find how vehemently some people stigmatise this treatment, and writes a blog to explain how boring and everyday ECT actually is.) Her own depression first arose in her mid-teens and resulted in her admission to a mental hospital, an ever-changing pick and mix of pills, and ten years of recurrent depression. Nothing worked. “I’ve always been a bit of a difficult case because people could not understand why I wasn’t responding to medication,” she says. Alice lost count of how many psychiatrists she has seen, how many drugs she has been given. In 2014, just before she turned 35, her latest psychiatrist finally admitted that this “shotgun” approach wasn’t working. She needed a different type of treatment. She needed to meet Dr Kellner.
As of 2018, Charlie Kellner had performed 35,000 sessions of ECT and literally written the book on how it should be given and to whom. His first session was in 1978, the year he became a certified doctor in the United States. It was an unpopular and precarious career choice. After the 1960s, ECT had fallen into disrepute. The reports from across the Atlantic were deeply concerning for psychiatrists around the world, and their patients. In the UK, the procedure was performed by untrained medical students in open wards where privacy was impossible. The machines themselves were often outdated and didn’t conform to the latest medical safety regulations (some didn’t have an automated pulse of electricity and the duration of the shock was dependent on the practitioner’s finger). “If ECT is ever legislated against or falls into disuse it will not be because it is an ineffective or dangerous treatment; it will be because psychiatrists have failed to supervise and monitor its use adequately,” an anonymous letter published in the Lancet in 1981 stated. “It is not ECT which has brought psychiatry into disrepute. Psychiatry has done just that for ECT.” Most worryingly, perhaps, was that ECT was given to people who would never benefit from it, while suffering from its side effects. Short-term memory loss, headaches and confusion are common risks with this procedure, even today.
ECT required a transformation of its own.
From his base at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, Kellner has spent his career teaching the next generation of psychiatrists how to do ECT properly. It starts with selecting the right patient. “For the right kind of illness, [ECT] is almost as specific as penicillin [in the treatment of] pneumococcal pneumonia,” Kellner says. People with psychosis, mania, catatonia and even a form of self-harming autism have all been shown to respond to ECT. But severe depression is still the primary indication. Endogenous, delusional, psychotic, melancholic: these terms have been used for decades. For Kellner, however, it doesn’t require a name. He knows it when he sees it. These people are often suicidal, wake early in the morning and suffer from a sluggishness that is more often associated with Parkinson’s disease. Their symptoms improve as the day progresses, but the next morning, when they wake at 3am, they will be back in the same position. Their minds are fixated on a single delusion: their bodies are empty; or their tissues are rotten; or they are dying from a cancer that no doctor can detect.
Psychotic depression might be unfamiliar to the general public, but it isn’t rare. In 2002, a large survey of 18,980 people living in Europe found that nearly a fifth of people who fitted the diagnosis of major depression also fulfilled the criteria for psychotic features. For people over 60 who have been hospitalised with depression, delusions are found in up to half of all cases. At high risk of suicide, such patients have often failed to respond to antidepressants and antipsychotics, and feel like they are falling through the gaps.
Alice responded after the first session, a rare but not unheard-of occurrence. Almost immediately, she says, “I felt like I had some sort of life, and some sort of chance.”
As with any medical treatment, the side effects are sometimes painful and disorienting. Headaches are the most common problem after receiving ECT. Painkillers and coffee are known to help soothe the pain; both are provided in the waiting area of Kellner’s clinic. Then there are the memory disturbances. To help coax lost memories back into her consciousness, Alice has started taking photos of her activities in the days and weeks preceding her appointments. “I can look at the picture and be like, ‘Oh yeah! I remember doing that.’” Although some people do lose personal moments forever, Alice’s main concern is how long it takes her to remember them.
Once a treatment for anyone and everyone, ECT in the US is now mostly limited to the wealthy and the insured. The price of just one session of ECT varies from $300 to $1,000. But the potential cost of not using ECT is far higher. (In the UK, the treatment is available on the NHS to treat serious mental health conditions.) As it can start to work after the very first session, ECT is one of the safest and most effective methods to prevent suicides. It can literally be a lifesaver. But in the US, at least, it is rarely used as such. People who have not responded to several lines of antidepressants, such as Alice, might never be told about ECT. Psychiatrists are still hesitant to offer it, perhaps because they don’t know much about it or they can’t perform it themselves. “People are allowed to remain sick for years,” Kellner says, “and, after 15-20 medications, finally they get ECT and they end up saying, ‘Why didn’t anybody tell me about this?’”
The moral argument for using ECT is its ability to make critically ill people better. But there is an economic argument here, too. Even with its high up-front cost, the fact that it works and it works quickly can help people return to their jobs and be more productive when they do. Plus, all those failed medications add up. Why not use something that works in a few weeks rather than throwing different varieties of pills and hoping one sticks? On top of this, longitudinal studies show that depression is harder to treat with each successive episode. This makes it even more important to find a treatment that works early in its course. For people with delusions, ECT should be a first-line treatment, Kellner says. While only 34 per cent of such patients respond to antidepressants, 82 per cent respond to ECT. Even when antidepressants and antipsychotics are combined – risking side effects such as weight gain and Parkinson’s-like symptoms such as tremor, muscle stiffness, sluggish speech and movement – they still don’t reach the same efficacy as ECT on its own.
A 2018 study put clinical outcomes to one side and focused on the economic argument for ECT. Academics at the University of Michigan found that ECT became cost-effective after two failed medications for severe depression. “Two failed medication trials, not 22,” Kellner says. “We should get away from this ‘last resort’ business.”
Morally, economically and scientifically, ECT shouldn’t be pushed into the fringes of psychiatry. It should be used as part of a standardised regimen of treatment, one that includes regular psychotherapy and antidepressants. Doing otherwise, Kellner says, is tantamount to medical malpractice. The effectiveness of ECT is the same no matter where in the world it is performed. For psychotic depressions, recoveries in 70 to 95 per cent of patients can be expected. It is one of the most effective treatments in the whole of medicine. And it is also one of the safest. The mortality rate is estimated to be 0.2 to 0.4 per 10,000 patients, a risk no higher than that of the general anaesthetic itself.
With such evidence for safety as well as efficacy, the rates of ECT are increasing in Britain, the US and Germany. But there is a long way to go. The stigma surrounding the treatment can make some psychiatrists refuse to prescribe ECT, even to those who might be most likely to respond. “It’s not on the fringe,” Kellner says. “It’s not a religion, I don’t believe or not believe in it. It is what it is: demonstrably the most effective treatment for the most severely ill people.”
Away from sensational Hollywood movies, ECT has always had a few vocal advocates. In her 1994 memoir Undercurrents, the clinical psychologist Martha Manning writes that people are so surprised to hear that she received ECT for her depression that they think she must have been abused. “People say, ‘You let them do that to you?!’ I didn’t let them,” she writes, “I asked them to do it.” In Shock: The Healing Power of Electroconvulsive Therapy, Kitty Dukakis wrote, “Feeling this good is truly amazing given where I am coming from, which is a very dark place that has lasted a very long time. It is not an exaggeration to say that electroconvulsive therapy has opened a new reality for me.” Even in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, while the protagonist’s first experience with unmodified electroshock therapy is a horrific one – “a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant” – the second was given with the correct safety precautions and was effective in treating her depression. “All the heat and fear purged itself,” the narrator explains, mirroring Plath’s experience with ECT in her own life. “I felt surprisingly at peace.”
Alice, a concert violinist, didn’t have the platform of a famous poet or a psychiatrist. But she did have her blog. Over four years, she wrote about her experience with ECT, how it saved her life, how to manage the side effects, and what she has to say to anyone who wants to ban its use. “If you consider yourself a ‘victim’,” she wrote in 2018, “what gives you the right to want it to be BANNED for the many, many people who have benefitted? Are OUR lives less important? That’s like the equivalent of wanting open heart surgery banned because your husband happened to die on the table.”
Alice wrote her blog anonymously. (Her name has been changed for this story.) One day, however, she hopes to be able to use her real name. She wants to celebrate her recovery and, she hopes, give other people the confidence to speak up about their own treatment. ECT should be a part of public discourse, like chemotherapy or surgery. “Amazingly, the people who claim to have been harmed are OK with giving THEIR names,” Alice wrote in November 2018, “because they are supported by the general [view] of the public. So WHEN can we give ours?”
The effects of even the best treatments for depression don’t last forever. In the majority of cases, patients require regular checkups, fine-tuning and repeat prescriptions. It is rare for depression to be a one-off event. It requires constant vigilance and combinations of approaches. Alongside her ECT sessions, Alice continues to take antidepressants and regularly visits her therapist for CBT-based psychotherapy. They aren’t in competition with each other. Psychotherapy, drugs, ECT: they are collaborators.
In late 2018, Alice performed at a large concert theatre in mid-town Manhattan. Along with the strings, winds and percussion, Alice’s violin is just one sound among many, a sound wave that harmonises the orchestra, just as a pulse of electricity helps recalibrate her brain waves. She has played this gig many times before. But, for Alice, this one was particularly special. Although she couldn’t see him among the bright sea of faces, she knew that Kellner was somewhere in the audience. “For someone who I really consider has saved my life to be there, with his wife, watching me do something that I can do, in part, because of him . . . it was just so significant for me,” she says. “[Plus], there’s pretty much nothing cooler than standing on the stage, playing Handel’s Messiah to a full house.” In three parts, the symphony progresses through the birth, sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a powerful celebration of a miraculous return to life.
Alex Riley’s book “A Cure For Darkness: The Story of Depression and How We Treat It” is published by Ebury
This article is from the New Humanist autumn 2021 edition. Subscribe today.
Currently, there is quite a bit of life on Mars – of the robotic kind. Two rovers are trundling across the ochre dust and a tiny helicopter is periodically hovering in the ultra-thin air. One of the rovers is from China. This is noteworthy because Mars is notoriously hard to reach, with around 60 per cent of spacecraft not fulfilling their entire mission. So far, China is the only country to succeed with both an orbiter and a rover on its first mission to the Red Planet.
The first truly successful spacecraft was Nasa’s Mariner 9, which in 1971 arrived during a planet-wide dust storm. As the dust settled, it revealed mega-volcanoes, fields of shifting sand dunes and canyons whose tributaries – bigger than the Grand Canyon – had almost certainly been gouged by water. Mars today is inhospitable. Its surface, beneath a carbon dioxide atmosphere a hundredth the thickness of the Earth’s, is raked by a deadly solar radiation and, on a hot summer’s day, barely reaches the freezing point of water. Elton John was not wrong when he sang: “Mars ain’t no place to raise your kids.”
Missions since Mariner 9 have revealed that Mars, in its first half billion years, was a very different place from today, with oceans and rivers, rain and snow. In fact, it would have been a Garden of Eden while Earth, still hot from the fires of its birth, was a molten hell. This has given rise to the suspicion that life got started on Mars first, before being transported to Earth inside a rock catapulted into space when an asteroid slammed into the surface. If this is the case, it is easy to find a Martian: look in a mirror.
Why exactly Mars dried out about 3.8 billion years ago is not known. But the transition from a wet to a desiccated world was seen by Nasa’s Curiosity – a rover about the size of a small car, which landed in 2012 – as it climbed a five-kilometre-high mound. Mount Sharp, as it is known, stands in the middle of the 154-kilometre-diameter Gale Crater, which in the ancient past was filled with water. That water lapped against the slopes of Mount Sharp, depositing sediment in stratified layers, which Curiosity’s scientists could read like a book.
All the ingredients necessary for life have now been found on Mars: water in the form of ice, organic molecules and energy, in the form of volcanism. However, the current missions are looking principally for evidence of ancient life. Nasa’s Perseverance, a souped-up version of the Curiosity rover, landed on 18 February 2021 carrying the 1.8 kilogram Ingenuity drone. When, on 19 April, it climbed to three metres and hovered for 90 seconds, it was the first flight of a helicopter on another world.
Perseverance is exploring the 45-kilometre-diameter Jezero Crater, which was once filled with a lake, fed through by a river delta. It is looking for the “biosignatures” of life, making it the first mission since Nasa’s Viking 1 and Viking 2 in 1976 to expressly look for Martian biology. Perseverance will also collect about 30 rock samples, inserting them in a canister to be picked up by a future mission to Mars and carried back to Earth. The rocks will then be analysed with sophisticated laboratory equipment which cannot be transported to Mars.
China’s Zhurong rover is exploring an area several hundred kilometres away from Perseverance. It was carried by the Tianwen-1 spacecraft and deposited on the Martian surface on 15 May. Among other things, Zhurong is using ground-penetrating radar to search for pockets of water.
The most exciting possibility, of course, is not that life merely existed in the distant past on Mars but that it survives there today. Once upon a time, the Red Planet was considered far too harsh a place for life. However, everything was changed by a series of unexpected discoveries beginning in the 1970s. Life was not only found in the Antarctic, but it was thriving in total darkness – both in solid rock, kilometres beneath the surface, and in boiling water around “hydrothermal vents”, kilometres down on the sea floor. If such organisms, known as “extremophiles”, could survive such harsh terrestrial conditions, argued scientists, then why not Martian ones?
It is a race against time to find life on present-day Mars. There is talk of human missions to the planet in the 2030s and such missions could easily contaminate the Martian environment with terrestrial organisms. If this happens, we will lose forever something beyond price: the chance to discover and study a unique and totally alien biology.
This article is from the New Humanist autumn 2021 edition. Subscribe today.
I have just co-authored a new research paper suggesting that learning to perform magic tricks makes children more creative.
During the experiment, a group 10 to 11-year-old children completed a creativity test that involved coming up with multiple uses for an everyday object. They were then taught how to perform a simple trick in which they showed someone a cube with different coloured sides, asked the person to secretly choose a colour, and then magically revealed their person’s choice. Finally, they all completed the creativity test a second time. Compared to another group of children who took part in an art lesson, learning the trick significantly boosted the children’s creativity scores.
Magic tricks often involve lateral thinking and we suspect that learning to perform the illusions encouraged children to think outside of the box. There is a need to enhance creative thinking from a young age. Learning magic tricks would be a cost effective, practical, and fun way of teachers and parents boosting children’s creativity. Maybe in the future, magic will become part of the school curriculum!
The peer-reviewed work was carried out in collaboration with Amy Wiles and Professor Caroline Watt (Edinburgh University), and published in the academic journal PeerJ.
I am delighted to announce that I have co-authored a new book – David Copperfield’s History of Magic.
It’s written by David Copperfield, David Britland and myself, with photographs by Homer Liwag.
The book presents a personal tour of David’s amazing secret museum of magic in Las Vegas. Containing over 100 full colour photographs, the book takes you on a journey into a clandestine world of psychology, history and magic. The book is released on October 26th and is now available for pre-order.
USA: Click here
UK: Amazon UK
Last year I collaborated with The Good Thinking Society to set up the Good Magic Awards.
Our first award focused on performers who use magic tricks to improve the lives of others, including work with disadvantaged groups, hospital patients, and schools. The judges selected two great winners: Megan Swann (who presents a magic show that promotes environmental issues) and Breathe Magic (who support children with hemiplegia by helping them to learn tricks that improve physical and psychological wellbeing).
This year, the award will provide £2,000 to support a new and innovative project that promotes the art of magic. This might, for example, include developing a live or virtual performance, writing a magic-related book or essay, creating a podcast, devising a new form of illusion or presentation, or undertaking research into the history of magic.
Applicants need to be over 18 years old and currently residing in the UK, and nominations will close at 5pm (GMT) on 20th February 2021.
To enter, please head over to The Good Thinking Society now!
A few years ago I produced three videos containing ten magic-based science stunts. I thought that they might help educate and entertain children during lockdown, or indeed anyone with a curious disposition. Here they are…..
In this episode of the podcast, Sam discusses the recent social protests and civil unrest, in light of what we know about racism and police violence in America.
This is a transcript of a recorded podcast.
* * *
Welcome to the Making Sense podcast… This is Sam Harris.
OK…. Well, I’ve been trying to gather my thoughts for this podcast for more than a week—and have been unsure about whether to record it at all, frankly.
Conversation is the only tool we have for making progress, I firmly believe that. But many of the things we most need to talk about, seem impossible to talk about.
I think social media is a huge part of the problem. I’ve been saying for a few years now that, with social media, we’ve all been enrolled in a psychological experiment for which no one gave consent, and it’s not at all clear how it will turn out. And it’s still not clear how it will turn out, but it’s not looking good. It’s fairly disorienting out there. All information is becoming weaponized. All communication is becoming performative. And on the most important topics, it now seems to be fury and sanctimony and bad faith almost all the time.
We appear to be driving ourselves crazy. Actually, crazy. As in, incapable of coming into contact with reality, unable to distinguish fact from fiction—and then becoming totally destabilized by our own powers of imagination, and confirmation bias, and then lashing out at one other on that basis.
So I’d like to talk about the current moment and the current social unrest, and its possible political implications, and other cultural developments, and suggest what it might take to pull back from the brink here. I’m going to circle in on the topics of police violence and the problem of racism, because that really is at the center of this. There is so much to talk about here, and it’s so difficult to talk about. And there is so much we don’t know. And yet, most people are behaving as though every important question was answered a long time ago.
I’ve been watching our country seem to tear itself apart for weeks now, and perhaps lay the ground for much worse to come. And I’ve been resisting the temptation to say anything of substance—not because I don’t have anything to say, but because of my perception of the danger, frankly. And if that’s the way I feel, given the pains that I’ve taken to insulate myself from those concerns, I know that almost everyone with a public platform is terrified. Journalists, and editors, and executives, and celebrities are terrified that they might take one wrong step here, and never recover.
And this is really unhealthy—not just for individuals, but for society. Because, again, all we have between us and the total breakdown of civilization is a series of successful conversations. If we can’t reason with one another, there is no path forward, other than violence. Conversation or violence.
So, I’d like to talk about some of the things that concern me about the current state of our communication. Unfortunately, many things are compounding our problems at the moment. We have a global pandemic which is still very much with us. And it remains to be seen how much our half-hearted lockdown, and our ineptitude in testing, and our uncoordinated reopening, and now our plunge into social protest and civil unrest will cause the Covid-19 caseload to spike. We will definitely see. As many have pointed out, the virus doesn’t care about economics or politics. It only cares that we keep breathing down each other’s necks. And we’ve certainly been doing enough of that.
Of course, almost no one can think about Covid-19 right now. But I’d just like to point out that many of the costs of this pandemic and the knock-on effects in the economy, and now this protest movement, many of these costs are hidden from us. In addition to killing more than 100,000 people in the US, the pandemic has been a massive opportunity cost. The ongoing implosion of the economy is imposing tangible costs, yes, but it is also a massive opportunity cost. And now this civil unrest is compounding those problems—whatever the merits of these protests may be or will be, the opportunity costs of this moment are staggering. In addition to all the tangible effects of what’s happening—the injury and death, the lost businesses, the burned buildings, the neighborhoods that won’t recover for years in many cities, the educations put on hold, and the breakdown in public trust of almost every institution—just think about all the good and important things we cannot do—cannot even think of doing now—and perhaps won’t contemplate doing for many years to come, because we’ll be struggling to get back to that distant paradise we once called “normal life.”
Of course, normal life for many millions of Americans was nothing like a paradise. The disparities in wealth and health and opportunity that we have gotten used to in this country, and that so much of our politics and ways of doing business seem to take for granted, are just unconscionable. There is no excuse for this kind of inequality in the richest country on earth. What we’re seeing now is a response to that. But it’s a confused and confusing response. Worse, it’s a response that is systematically silencing honest conversation. And this makes it dangerous.
This isn’t just politics and human suffering on display. It’s philosophy. It’s ideas about truth—about what it means to say that something is “true.” What we’re witnessing in our streets and online and in the impossible conversations we’re attempting to have in our private lives is a breakdown in epistemology. How does anyone figure out what’s going on in the world? What is real? If we can’t agree about what is real, or likely to be real, we will never agree about how we should live together. And the problem is, we’re stuck with one other.
So, what’s happening here?
Well, again, it’s hard to say. What is happening when a police officer or a mayor takes a knee in front of a crowd of young people who have been berating him for being a cog in the machinery of systemic racism? Is this a profound moment of human bonding that transcends politics, or is it the precursor to the breakdown of society? Or is it both? It’s not entirely clear.
In the most concrete terms, we are experiencing widespread social unrest in response to what is widely believed to be an epidemic of lethal police violence directed at the black community by racist cops and racist policies. And this unrest has drawn a counter-response from law enforcement—much of which, ironically, is guaranteed to exacerbate the problem of police violence, both real and perceived. And many of the videos we’ve seen of the police cracking down on peaceful protesters are hideous. Some of this footage has been unbelievable. And this is one of many vicious circles that we must find some way to interrupt.
Again, there is so much to be confused about here. We’ve now seen endless video of police inflicting senseless violence on truly peaceful protesters, and yet we have also seen video of the police standing idly by while looters completely destroy businesses. What explains this? Is there a policy that led to this bizarre inversion of priorities? Are the police angry at the protesters for vilifying them, and simultaneously trying to teach society a lesson by letting crime and mayhem spread elsewhere in the city? Or is it just less risky to collide with peaceful protesters? Or is the whole spectacle itself a lie? How representative are these videos of what’s actually going on? Is there much less chaos actually occurring than is being advertised to us?
Again, it’s very hard to know.
What’s easy to know is that civil discourse has broken down. It seems to me that we’ve long been in a situation where the craziest voices on both ends of the political spectrum have been amplifying one another and threatening to produce something truly dangerous. And now I think they have. The amount of misinformation in the air—the degree to which even serious people seem to be ruled by false assumptions and non sequiturs—is just astonishing.
And it’s important to keep in mind that, with the presidential election coming in November, the stakes are really high. As most of you know, I consider four more years of Trump to be an existential threat to our democracy. And I believe that the last two weeks have been very good for him, politically, even when everything else seemed to go very badly for him. I know the polls don’t say this. A large majority of people disapprove of his handling this crisis so far. But I think we all know now to take polls with a grain of salt. There is the very real problem of preference falsification—especially in an environment of intense social pressure. People will often say what they think is socially acceptable, and then think, or say, or do something very different in private—like when they’re alone in a voting booth.
Trump has presided over the complete dismantling of American influence in the world and the destruction of our economy. I know the stock market has looked good, but the stock market has become totally uncoupled from the economy. According to the stock market, the future is just as bright now as it was in January of this year, before most of us had even heard of a novel coronavirus. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. And a lot can happen in the next few months. The last two weeks feel like a decade. And my concern is that if Trump now gets to be the law-and-order President, that may be his path to re-election, if such a path exists. Of course, this crisis has revealed, yet again, how unfit he is to be President. The man couldn’t strike a credible note of reconciliation if the fate of the country depended on it—and the fate of the country has depended on it. I also think it’s possible that these protests wouldn’t be happening, but for the fact that Trump is President. Whether or not the problem of racism has gotten worse in our society, having Trump as President surely makes it seem like it has. It has been such a repudiation of the Obama presidency that, for many people, it has made it seem that white supremacy is now ascendant. So, all the more reason to get rid of Trump in November.
But before this social unrest, our focus was on how incompetent Trump was in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. And now he has been given a very different battle to fight. A battle against leftwing orthodoxy, which is growing more stifling by the minute, and civil unrest. If our social order frays sufficiently, restoring it will be the only thing that most people care about in November. Just think of what an act of domestic terrorism would do politically now. Things can change very, very quickly. And to all a concern for basic law and order “racist”, isn’t going to wash.
Trust in institutions has totally broken down. We’ve been under a very precarious quarantine for more than 3 months, which almost the entire medical profession has insisted is necessary. Doctors and public health officials have castigated people on the political Right for protesting this lockdown. People have been unable to be with their loved ones in their last hours of life. They’ve been unable to hold funerals for them. But now we have doctors and public officials by the thousands, signing open letters, making public statements, saying it’s fine to stand shoulder to shoulder with others in the largest protests our nation has ever seen. The degree to which this has undermined confidence in public health messaging is hard to exaggerate. Whatever your politics, this has been just a mortifying piece of hypocrisy. Especially so, because the pandemic has been hitting the African American community hardest of all. How many people will die because of these protests? It’s a totally rational question to ask, but the question itself is taboo now.
So, it seems to me that almost everything appears upside down at the moment.
Before I get into details on police violence, first let me try to close the door to a few misunderstandings.
Let’s start with the proximate cause of all this: The killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police. I’ll have more to say about this in a minute, but nothing I say should detract from the following observation: That video was absolutely sickening, and it revealed a degree of police negligence and incompetence and callousness that everyone was right to be horrified by. In particular, the actions of Derek Chauvin, the cop who kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes, his actions were so reckless and so likely to cause harm that there’s no question he should be prosecuted. And he is being prosecuted. He’s been indicted for 2nd degree murder and manslaughter, and I suspect he will spend many, many years in prison. And, this is not to say “the system is working.” It certainly seems likely that without the cell phone video, and the public outrage, Chauvin might have gotten away with it—to say nothing of the other cops with him, who are also now being prosecuted. If this is true, we clearly need a better mechanism with which to police the police.
So, as I said, I’ll return to this topic, because I think most people are drawing the wrong conclusions from this video, and from videos like it, but let me just echo everyone’s outrage over what happened. This is precisely the kind of police behavior that everyone should find abhorrent.
On the general topic of racism in America, I want to make a few similarly clear, preemptive statements:
Racism is still a problem in American society. No question. And slavery—which was racism’s most evil expression—was this country’s founding sin. We should also add the near-total eradication of the Native Americans to that ledger of evil. Any morally sane person who learns the details of these historical injustices finds them shocking, whatever their race. And the legacy of these crimes—crimes that were perpetrated for centuries—remains a cause for serious moral concern today. I have no doubt about this. And nothing I’m about to say, should suggest otherwise.
And I don’t think it’s an accident that the two groups I just mentioned, African Americans and Native Americans, suffer the worst from inequality in America today. How could the history of racial discrimination in this country not have had lasting effects, given the nature of that history? And if anything good comes out of the current crisis, it will be that we manage to find a new commitment to reducing inequality in all its dimensions. The real debate to have is about how to do this, economically and politically. But the status quo that many of us take for granted to is a betrayal of our values, whether we realize it or not. If it’s not a betrayal or your values now, it will be a betrayal of your values when you become a better person. And if you don’t manage that, it will be a betrayal of your kid’s values when they’re old enough to understand the world they are living in. The difference between being very lucky in our society, and very unlucky, should not be as enormous as it is.
However, the question that interests me, given what has been true of the past and is now true of the present, is what should we do next? What should we do to build a healthier society?
What should we do next? Tomorrow… next week…. Obviously, I don’t have the answers. But I am very worried that many of the things we’re doing now, and seem poised to do, will only make our problems worse. And I’m especially worried that it has become so difficult to talk about this. I’m just trying to have conversations. I’m just trying to figure these things out in real time, with other people. And there is no question that conversation itself has become dangerous.
Think about the politics of this. Endless imagery of people burning and looting independent businesses that were struggling to survive, and seeing the owners of these businesses beaten by mobs, cannot be good for the cause of social justice. Looting and burning businesses, and assaulting their owners, isn’t social justice, or even social protest. It’s crime. And having imagery of these crimes that highlight black involvement circulate endlessly on Fox News and on social media cannot be good for the black community. But it might yet be good for Trump.
And it could well kick open the door to a level of authoritarianism that many of us who have been very worried about Trump barely considered possible. It’s always seemed somewhat paranoid to me to wonder whether we’re living in Weimar Germany. I’ve had many conversations about this. I had Timothy Snyder on the podcast, who’s been worrying about the prospect of tyranny in the US for several years now. I’ve known, in the abstract, that democracies can destroy themselves. But the idea that it could happen here still seemed totally outlandish to me. It doesn’t anymore.
Of course, what we’ve been seeing in the streets isn’t just one thing. Some people are protesting for reasons that I fully defend. They’re outraged by specific instances of police violence, like the killing of George Floyd, and they’re worried about creeping authoritarianism—which we really should be worried about now. And they’re convinced that our politics is broken, because it is broken, and they are deeply concerned that our response to the pandemic and the implosion of our economy will do nothing to address the widening inequality in our society. And they recognize that we have a President who is an incompetent, divisive, conman and a crackpot at a time when we actually need wise leadership.
All of that is hard to put on a sign, but it’s all worth protesting.
However, it seems to me that most protesters are seeing this moment exclusively through the lens of identity politics—and racial politics in particular. And some of them are even celebrating the breakdown of law and order, or at least remaining nonjudgmental about it. And you could see, in the early days of this protest, news anchors take that line, on CNN, for instance. Talking about the history of social protest, “Sometimes it has to be violent, right? What, do you think all of these protests need to be nonviolent?” Those words came out of Chris Cuomo’s mouth, and Don Lemon’s mouth. Many people have been circulating a half quote from Martin Luther King Jr. about riots being “the language of the unheard.” They’re leaving out the part where he made it clear that he believed riots harmed the cause of the black community and helped the cause of racists.
There are now calls to defund and even to abolish the police. This may be psychologically understandable when you’ve spent half your day on Twitter watching videos of cops beating peaceful protesters. Those videos are infuriating. And I’ll have a lot more to say about police violence in a minute. But if you think a society without cops is a society you would want to live in, you have lost your mind. Giving a monopoly on violence to the state is just about the best thing we have ever done as a species. It ranks right up there with keeping our shit out of our food. Having a police force that can deter crime, and solve crimes when they occur, and deliver violent criminals to a functioning justice system, is the necessary precondition for almost anything else of value in society.
We need police reform, of course. There are serious questions to ask about the culture of policing—its hiring practices, training, the militarization of so many police forces, outside oversight, how police departments deal with corruption, the way the police unions keep bad cops on the job, and yes, the problem of racist cops. But the idea that any serious person thinks we can do without the police—or that less trained and less vetted cops will magically be better than more trained and more vetted ones—this just reveals that our conversation on these topics has run completely off the rails. Yes, we should give more resources to community services. We should have psychologists or social workers make first contact with the homeless or the mentally ill. Perhaps we’re giving cops jobs they shouldn’t be doing. All of that makes sense to rethink. But the idea that what we’re witnessing now is a matter of the cops being over-resourced—that we’ve given them too much training, that we’ve made the job too attractive—so that the people we’re recruiting are of too high a quality. That doesn’t make any sense.
What’s been alarming here is that we’re seeing prominent people—in government, in media, in Hollywood, in sports—speak and act as though the breakdown of civil society, and of society itself, is a form of progress and any desire for law enforcement is itself a form of racist oppression. At one point the woman who’s running the City Council in Minneapolis, which just decided to abolish the police force, was asked by a journalist, I believe on CNN, “What do I do if someone’s breaking into my house in the middle of the night? Who do I call?” And her first response to that question was, “You need to recognize what a statement of privilege that question is.” She’s since had to walk that back, because it’s one of the most galling and embarrassing things a public official has ever said, but this is how close the Democratic Party is to sounding completely insane. You cannot say that if someone is breaking into your house, and you’re terrified, and you want a police force that can respond, that fear is a symptom of “white privilege.” This is where Democratic politics goes to die.
Again, what is alarming about this is that this woke analysis of the breakdown of law and order will only encourage an increasingly authoritarian response, as well as the acceptance of that response by many millions of Americans.
If you step back, you will notice that there is a kind of ecstasy of ideological conformity in the air. And it’s destroying institutions. It’s destroying the very institutions we rely on to get our information—universities, the press. The New York Times in recent days, seems to be preparing for a self-immolation in recent days. No one wants to say or even think anything that makes anyone uncomfortable—certainly not anyone who has more wokeness points than they do. It’s just become too dangerous. There are people being fired for tweeting “All Lives Matter.” #AllLivesMatter, in the current environment, is being read as a naked declaration of white supremacy. That is how weird this moment is. A soccer player on the LA Galaxy was fired for something his wife tweeted…
Of course, there are real problems of inequality and despair at the bottom of these protests. People who have never found a secure or satisfying place in the world—or young people who fear they never will—people who have seen their economic prospects simply vanish, and people who have had painful encounters with racism and racist cops—people by the millions are now surrendering themselves to a kind of religious awakening. But like most religious awakenings, this movement is not showing itself eager to make honest contact with reality.
On top of that, we find extraordinarily privileged people, whatever the color of their skin—people who have been living wonderful lives in their gated communities or 5th avenue apartments—and who feel damn guilty about it—they are supporting this movement uncritically, for many reasons. Of course, they care about other people—I’m sure most of them have the same concerns about inequality that I do—but they are also supporting this movement because it promises a perfect expiation of their sins. If you have millions of dollars, and shoot botox into your face, and vacation on St. Bart’s, and you’re liberal—the easiest way to sleep at night is to be as woke as AOC and like every one of her tweets.
The problem isn’t just with the looting, and the arson, and the violence. There are problems with these peaceful protests themselves.
Of course, I’m not questioning anyone’s right to protest. Even our deranged president can pay lip service to that right—which he did as the DC police were violently dispersing a peaceful protest so that he could get his picture taken in front of that church, awkwardly holding a bible, as though he had never held a book in life.
The problem with the protests is that they are animated, to a remarkable degree, by confusion and misinformation. And I’ll explain why I think that’s the case. And, of course, this will be controversial. Needless to say, many people will consider the color of my skin to be disqualifying here. I could have invited any number of great, black intellectuals onto the podcast to make these points for me. But that struck me as a form of cowardice. Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, Thomas Chatterton Williams, Coleman Hughes, Kmele Foster, these guys might not agree with everything I’m about to say, but any one of them could walk the tightrope I’m now stepping out on far more credibly than I can.
But, you see, that’s part of the problem. The perception that the color of a person’s skin, or even his life experience, matters for this discussion is a pernicious illusion. For the discussion we really need to have, the color of a person’s skin, and even his life experience, simply does not matter. It cannot matter. We have to break this spell that the politics of identity has cast over everything.
As I’ve already acknowledged, there is a legacy of racism in the United States that we’re still struggling to outgrow. That is obvious. There are real racists out there. And there are ways in which racism became institutionalized long ago. Many of you will remember that during the crack epidemic the penalties for crack and powder cocaine were quite different. And this led black drug offenders to be locked up for much longer than white ones. Now, whether the motivation for that policy was consciously racist or not, I don’t know, but it was effectively racist. Nothing I’m about to say entails a denial of these sorts of facts. There just seems to be no question that boys who grow up with their fathers in prison start life with a significant strike against them. So criminal justice reform is absolutely essential.
And I’m not denying that many black people, perhaps most, have interactions with cops, and others in positions of power, or even random strangers, that seem unambiguously racist. Sometimes this is because they are actually in the presence of racism, and perhaps sometimes it only seems that way. I’ve had unpleasant encounters with cops, and customs officers, and TSA screeners, and bureaucrats of every kind, and even with people working in stores or restaurants. People aren’t always nice or ethical. But being white, and living in a majority white society, I’ve never had to worry about whether any of these collisions were the result of racism. And I can well imagine that in some of these situations, had I been black, I would have come away feeling that I had encountered yet another racist in the wild. So I consider myself very lucky to have gone through life not having to think about any of that. Surely that’s one form of white privilege.
So, nothing I’m going to say denies that we should condemn racism—whether interpersonal or institutional—and we should condemn it wherever we find it. But as a society, we simply can’t afford to find and condemn racism where it doesn’t exist. And we should be increasingly aware of the costs of doing that. The more progress we make on issues of race, the less racism there will be to find, and the more likely we’ll find ourselves chasing after its ghost.
The truth is, we have made considerable progress on the problem of racism in America. This isn’t 1920, and it isn’t 1960. We had a two-term black president. We have black congressmen and women. We have black mayors and black chiefs of police. There are major cities, like Detroit and Atlanta, going on their fifth or sixth consecutive black mayor. Having more and more black people in positions of real power, in what is still a majority white society, is progress on the problem of racism. And the truth is, it might not even solve the problem we’re talking about. When Freddy Gray was killed in Baltimore, virtually everyone who could have been held accountable for his death was black. The problem of police misconduct and reform is complicated, as we’re about to see. But obviously, there is more work to do on the problem of racism. And, more important, there is much more work to do to remedy the inequalities in our society that are so correlated with race, and will still be correlated with race, even after the last racist has been driven from our shores.
The question of how much of today’s inequality is due to existing racism—whether racist people or racist policies—is a genuinely difficult question to answer. And to answer it, we need to distinguish the past from the present.
Take wealth inequality, for example: The median white family has a net worth of around $170,000—these data are a couple of years old, but they’re probably pretty close to what’s true now. The median black family has a net worth of around $17,000. So we have a tenfold difference in median wealth. (That’s the median, not the mean: Half of white families are below 170,000 and half above; half of black families are below 17,000 and half above. And we’re talking about wealth here, not income.)
This disparity in wealth persists even for people whose incomes are in the top 10 percent of the income distribution. For whites in the top 10 percent for income, the median net worth is $1.8 million; for blacks it’s around $350,000. There are probably many things that account for this disparity in wealth. It seems that black families that make it to the top of the income distribution fall out of it more easily than white families do. But it’s also undeniable that black families have less intergenerational wealth accumulated through inheritance.
How much of this is inequality due to the legacy of slavery? And how much of it is due to an ensuing century of racist policies? I’m prepared to believe quite a lot. And it strikes me as totally legitimate to think about paying reparations as a possible remedy here. Of course, one will then need to talk about reparations for the Native Americans. And then one wonders where this all ends. And what about blacks who aren’t descended from slaves, but who still suffered the consequences of racism in the US? In listening to people like John McWhorter and Coleman Hughes discuss this topic, I’m inclined to think that reparations is probably unworkable as a policy. But the truth is that I’m genuinely unsure about this.
Whatever we decide about the specific burdens of the past, we have to ask, how much of current wealth inequality is due to existing racism and to existing policies that make it harder for black families to build wealth? And the only way to get answers to those questions is to have a dispassionate discussion about facts.
The problem with the social activism we are now seeing—what John McWhorter has called “the new religion of anti-Racism”—is that it finds racism nearly everywhere, even where it manifestly does not exist. And this is incredibly damaging to the cause of achieving real equality in our society. It’s almost impossible to exaggerate the evil and injustice of slavery and its aftermath. But it is possible to exaggerate how much racism currently exists at an Ivy League university, or in Silicon Valley, or at the Oscars. And those exaggerations are toxic—and, perversely, they may produce more real racism. It seems to me that false claims of victimhood can diminish the social stature of any group, even a group that has a long history of real victimization.
The imprecision here—the bad-faith arguments, the double standards, the goal-post shifting, the idiotic opinion pieces in the New York Times, the defenestrations on social media, the general hysteria that the cult of wokeness has produced—I think this is all extremely harmful to civil society, and to effective liberal politics, and to the welfare of African Americans.
So, with that as preamble, let’s return to the tragic death of George Floyd.
As I said, I believe that any sane person who watches that video will feel that they have witnessed a totally unjustified killing. So, people of any race, are right to be horrified by what happened there. But now I want to ask a few questions, and I want us to try to consider them dispassionately. And I really want you to watch your mind while you do this. There are very likely to be few tripwires installed there, and I’m about to hit them. So just do your best to remain calm.
Does the killing of George Floyd prove that we have a problem of racism in the United States?
Does it even suggest that we have a problem of racism in the United States?
In other words, do we have reason to believe that, had Floyd been white, he wouldn’t have died in a similar way?
Do the dozen or so other videos that have emerged in recent years, of black men being killed by cops, do they prove, or even suggest, that there is an epidemic of lethal police violence directed especially at black men and that this violence is motivated by racism?
Most people seem to think that the answers to these questions are so obvious that to even pose them as I just did is obscene. The answer is YES, and it’s a yes that now needs to be shouted in the streets.
The problem, however, is that if you take even 5 minutes to look at the data on crime and police violence, the answer appears to be “no,” in every case, albeit with one important caveat. I’m not talking about how the police behaved in 1970 or even 1990. But in the last 25 years, violent crime has come down significantly in the US, and so has the police use of deadly force. And as you’re about to see, the police used more deadly force against white people—both in absolute numbers, and in terms of their contribution to crime and violence in our society. But the public perception is, of course, completely different.
In a city like Los Angeles, 2019 was a 30-year low for police shootings. Think about that…. Do the people who were protesting in Los Angeles, peacefully and violently, do the people who were ransacking and burning businesses by the hundreds—in many cases, businesses that will not return to their neighborhoods—do the people who caused so much damage to the city, that certain neighborhoods, ironically the neighborhoods that are disproportionately black, will take years, probably decades to recover, do the celebrities who supported them, and even bailed them out of jail—do any of these people know that 2019 was the 30-year low for police shootings in Los Angeles?
Before I step out further over the abyss here, let me reiterate: Many of you are going to feel a visceral negative reaction to what I’m about to say. You’re not going to like the way it sounds. You’re especially not going to like the way it sounds coming from a white guy. This feeling of not liking, this feeling of outrage, this feeling of disgust—this feeling of “Sam, what the fuck is wrong with you, why are you even touching this topic?”—this feeling isn’t an argument. It isn’t, or shouldn’t be, the basis for your believing anything to be true or false about the world.
Your capacity to be offended isn’t something that I or anyone else needs to respect. Your capacity to be offended isn’t something that you should respect. In fact, it is something that you should be on your guard for. Perhaps more than any other property of your mind, this feeling can mislead you.
If you care about justice—and you absolutely should—you should care about facts and the ability to discuss them openly. Justice requires contact with reality. It simply isn’t the case—it cannot be the case—that the most pressing claims on our sense of justice need come from those who claim to be the most offended by conversation itself.
So, I’m going to speak the language of facts right now, in so far as we know them, all the while knowing that these facts run very much counter to most people’s assumptions. Many of the things you think you know about crime and violence in our society are almost certainly wrong. And that should matter to you.
So just take a moment and think this through with me.
How many people are killed each year in America by cops? If you don’t know, guess. See if you have any intuitions for these numbers. Because your intuitions are determining how you interpret horrific videos of the sort we saw coming out of Minneapolis.
The answer for many years running is about 1000. One thousand people are killed by cops in America each year. There are about 50 to 60 million encounters between civilians and cops each year, and about 10 million arrests. That’s down from a high of over 14 million arrests annually throughout the 1990’s. So, of the 10 million occasions where a person attracts the attention of the police, and the police decide to make an arrest, about 1000 of those people die as a result. (I’m sure a few people get killed even when no arrest was attempted, but that has to be a truly tiny number.) So, without knowing anything else about the situation, if the cops decide to arrest you, it would be reasonable to think that your chance of dying is around 1/10,000. Of course, in the United States, it’s higher than it is in other countries. So I’m not saying that this number is acceptable. But it is what it is for a reason, as we’re about to see.
Now, there are a few generic things I’d like to point here before we get further into the data. They should be uncontroversial.
First, it’s almost certainly the case that of these 1000 officer-caused deaths each year, some are entirely justified—it may even be true that most are entirely justified—and some are entirely unjustified, and some are much harder to judge. And that will be true next year. And the year after that.
Of the unjustified killings, there are vast differences between them. Many have nothing in common but for the fact that a cop killed someone unnecessarily. It might have been a terrible misunderstanding, or incompetence, or just bad luck, and in certain cases it could be a cop who decides to murder someone because he’s become enraged, or he’s just a psychopath. And it is certainly possible that racial bias accounts for some number of these unjustified killings.
Another point that should be uncontroversial—but may sound a little tone-deaf in the current environment, where we’ve inundated with videos of police violence in response to these protests. But this has to be acknowledged whenever we’re discussing this topic: Cops have a very hard job. In fact, in the current environment, they have an almost impossible job.
If you’re making 10 million arrests every year, some number of people will decide not to cooperate. There can be many reasons for this. A person could be mentally ill, or drunk, or on drugs. Of course, rather often the person is an actual criminal who doesn’t want to be arrested.
Among innocent people, and perhaps this getting more common these days, a person might feel that resisting arrest is the right thing to do, ethically or politically or as a matter of affirming his identity. After all, put yourself in his shoes, he did nothing wrong. Why are the cops arresting him? I don’t know if we have data on the numbers of people who resist arrest by race. But I can well imagine that if it’s common for African Americans to believe that the only reason they have been singled out for arrest is due to racism on the part of the police, that could lead to greater levels of non-compliance. Which seems very likely to lead to more unnecessary injury and death. This is certainly one reason why it is wise to have the racial composition of a police force mirror that of the community it’s policing. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that this will reduce lethal violence from the side of the police. In fact, the evidence we have suggests that black and Hispanic cops are more likely to shoot black and Hispanic suspects than white cops are. But it would surely change the perception of the community that racism is a likely explanation for police behavior, which itself might reduce conflict.
When a cop goes hands on a person in an attempt to control his movements or make an arrest, that person’s resistance poses a problem that most people don’t understand. If you haven’t studied this topic. If you don’t know what it physically takes to restrain and immobilize a non-compliant person who may be bigger and stronger than you are, and if you haven’t thought through the implications of having a gun on your belt while attempting to do that—a gun that can be grabbed and used against you, or against a member of the public—then your intuitions about what makes sense here, tactically and ethically, are very likely to be bad.
If you haven’t trained with firearms under stress. If you don’t know how suddenly situations can change. If you haven’t experienced how quickly another person can close the distance on you, and how little time you have to decide to draw your weapon. If you don’t know how hard it is to shoot a moving target, or even a stationary one, when your heart is beating out of your chest. You very likely have totally unreasonable ideas about what we can expect from cops in situations like these. [VIDEO, VIDEO, VIDEO]
And there is another fact that looms over all this like the angel of Death, literally: Most cops do not get the training they need. They don’t get the hand-to-hand training they need—they don’t have good skills to subdue people without harming them. All you need to do is watch YouTube videos of botched arrests to see this. The martial arts community stands in perpetual astonishment at the kinds of things cops do and fail to do once they start fighting with suspects. Cops also don’t get the firearms training they need. Of course, there are elite units in many police departments, but most cops do not have the training they need to do the job they’re being asked to do.
It is also true, no doubt, that some cops are racist bullies. And there are corrupt police departments that cover for these guys, and cover up police misconduct generally, whether it was borne of racism or not.
But the truth is that even if we got rid of all bad cops, which we absolutely should do, and there were only good people left, and we got all these good people the best possible training, and we gave them the best culture in which to think about their role in society, and we gave them the best methods for de-escalating potentially violent situations—which we absolutely must do—and we scrubbed all the dumb laws from our books, so that when cops were required to enforce the law, they were only risking their lives and the lives of civilians for reasons that we deem necessary and just—so the war on drugs is obviously over—even under these conditions of perfect progress, we are still guaranteed to have some number of cases each year where a cop kills a civilian in a way that is totally unjustified, and therefore tragic. Every year, there will be some number of families who will be able to say that the cops killed their son or daughter, or father or mother, or brother or sister. And videos of these killings will occasionally surface, and they will be horrific. This seems guaranteed to happen.
So, while we need to make all these improvements, we still need to understand that there are very likely always to going to be videos of cops doing something inexplicable, or inexplicably stupid, that results in an innocent person’s death, or a not-so-innocent person’s death. And sometimes the cop will be white and the victim will be black. We have 10 million arrests each year. And we now live in a panopticon where practically everything is videotaped.
I’m about to get further into the details of what we know about police violence, but I want to just put it to you now: If we’re going to let the health of race relations in this country, or the relationship between the community and the police, depend on whether we ever see a terrible video of police misconduct again, the project of healing these wounds in our society is doomed.
About a week into these protests I heard Van Jones on CNN say, “If we see one more video of a cop brutalizing a black man, this country could go over the edge.” He said this, not as indication of how dangerously inflamed people have become. He seemed to be saying it as an ultimatum to the police. With 10 million arrests a year, arrests that have to take place in the most highly armed society in the developed world, I hope you understand how unreasonable that ultimatum is.
We have to put these videos into context. And we have to acknowledge how different they are from one another. Some of them are easy to interpret. But some are quite obviously being interpreted incorrectly by most people—especially by activists. And there are a range of cases—some have video associated with them and some don’t—that are now part of a litany of anti-racist outrage, and the names of the dead are intoned as though they were all evidence of the same injustice. And yet, they are not.
Walter Scott was stopped for a broken taillight and got out of his car and tried to flee. There might have been a brief struggle over the officer’s taser, that part of the video isn’t clear. But what is clear is that he was shot in the back multiple times as he was running away. That was insane. There was zero reason for the officer to feel that his life was under threat at the point he opened fire. And for that unjustified shooting, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. I’m not sure that’s long enough. That seemed like straight-up murder.
The George Floyd video, while even more disturbing to watch, is harder to interpret. I don’t know anything about Derek Chauvin, the cop who knelt on his neck. It’s quite possible that he’s a terrible person who should have never been a cop. He seems to have a significant number of complaints against him—though, as far as I know, the details of those complaints haven’t been released. And he might be a racist on top of being a bad cop. Or he might be a guy who was totally in over his head and thought you could restrain someone indefinitely by keeping a knee on their neck indefinitely. I don’t know. I’m sure more facts will come out. But whoever he is, I find it very unlikely that he was intending to kill George Floyd. Think about it. He was surrounded by irate witnesses and being filmed. Unless he was aspiring to become the most notorious murderer in human history, it seems very unlikely that he was intending to commit murder in that moment. It’s possible, of course. But it doesn’t seem the likeliest explanation for his behavior.
What I believe we saw on that video was the result of a tragic level of negligence and poor training on the part of those cops. Or terrible recruitment—it’s possible that none of these guys should have ever been cops. I think for one of them, it was only his fourth day on the job. Just imagine that. Just imagine all things you don’t know as a new cop. It could also be a function of bad luck in terms of Floyd’s underlying health. It’s been reported that he was complaining of being unable to breath before Chauvin pinned him with his knee. The knee on his neck might not have been the only thing that caused his death. It could have also been the weight of the other officer pinning him down.
This is almost certainly what happened in the cast of Eric Garner. Half the people on earth believe they witnessed a cop choke Eric Garner to death in that video. That does not appear to be what happened. When Eric Garner is saying “I can’t breathe” he’s not being choked. He’s being held down on the pavement by several officers. Being forced down on your stomach under the weight of several people can kill a person, especially someone with lung or heart disease. In the case of Eric Garner, it is absolutely clear that the cop who briefly attempted to choke him was no longer choking him. If you doubt that, watch the video again.
And if you are recoiling now from my interpretation of these videos, you really should watch the killing of Tony Timpa. It’s also terribly disturbing, but it removes the variable of race and it removes any implication of intent to harm on the part of the cops about as clearly as you could ask. It really is worth watching as a corrective to our natural interpretation of these other videos.
Tony Timpa was a white man in Dallas, who was suffering some mental health emergency and cocaine intoxication. And he actually called 911 himself. What we see is the bodycam footage from the police, which shows that he was already in handcuffs when they arrived—a security guard had cuffed him. And then the cops take over, and they restrain Timpa on the ground, by rolling him onto a stomach and putting their weight on him, very much like in the case of Eric Garner. And they keep their weight on him—one cop has a knee on his upper back, which is definitely much less aggressive than a knee on the neck—but they crush the life out of him all the same, over the course of 13 minutes. He’s not being choked. The cops are not being rough. There’s no animus between them and Timpa. It was not a hostile arrest. They clearly believe that they’re responding to a mental health emergency. But they keep him down on his belly, under their weight, and they’re cracking jokes as he loses consciousness. Now, your knowledge that he’s going to be dead by the end of this video, make their jokes seem pretty callous. But this was about as benign an imposition of force by cops as you’re going to see. The crucial insight you will have watching this video, is that the officers not only had no intent to kill Tony Timpa, they don’t take his pleading seriously because they have no doubt that what they’re doing is perfectly safe—perfectly within protocol. They’ve probably done this hundreds of times before.
If you watch that video—and, again, fair warning, it is disturbing—but imagine how disturbing it would have been to our society if Tony Timpa had been black. If the only thing you changed about the video was the color of Timpa’s skin, then that video would have detonated like a nuclear bomb in our society, exactly as the George Floyd video did. In fact, in one way it is worse, or would have been perceived to be worse. I mean, just imagine white cops telling jokes as they crushed the life out of a black Tony Timpa… Given the nature of our conversation about violence, given the way we perceive videos of this kind, there is no way that people would have seen that as anything other than a lynching. And yet, it would not have been a lynching.
Now, I obviously have no idea what was in the minds of cops in Minneapolis. And perhaps we’ll learn at trial. Perhaps a tape of Chauvin using the N-word in another context will surface, bringing in a credible allegation of racism. It seems to me that Chauvin is going to have a very hard time making sense of his actions. But most people who saw that video believe they have seen, with their own eyes, beyond any possibility of doubt, a racist cop intentionally murder an innocent man. That’s not what the video necessarily shows.
As I said, these videos can be hard to interpret, even while seeming very easy to interpret. And these cases, whether we have associated video or not, are very different. Michael Brown is reported to have punched a cop in the face and attempted to get his gun. As far as I know, there’s no video of that encounter. But, if true, that is an entirely different situation. If you’re attacking a cop, trying to get his gun, that is a life and death struggle that almost by definition for the cop, and it most cases justifies the use of lethal force. And honestly, it seems that no one within a thousand miles of Black Lives Matter is willing to make these distinctions. An attitude of anti-racist moral outrage is not the best lens through which to interpret evidence of police misconduct.
I’ve seen many videos of people getting arrested. And I’ve seen the outraged public reaction to what appears to be inappropriate use of force by the cops. One overwhelming fact that comes through is that people, whatever the color of their skin, don’t understand how to behave around cops so as to keep themselves safe. People have to stop resisting arrest. This may seem obvious, but judging from most of these videos, and from the public reaction to them, this must be a totally arcane piece of information. When a cop wants to take you into custody, you don’t get to decide whether or not you should be arrested. When a cop wants to take you into custody, for whatever reason, it’s not a negotiation. And if you turn it into a wrestling match, you’re very likely to get injured or killed.
This is a point I once belabored in a podcast with Glenn Loury, and it became essentially a public service announcement. And I’ve gone back and listened to those comments, and I want to repeat them here. This is something that everyone really needs to understand. And it’s something that Black Lives Matter should be teaching explicitly: If you put your hands on a cop—if you start wrestling with a cop, or grabbing him because he’s arresting your friend, or pushing him, or striking him, or using your hands in way that can possibly be interpreted as your reaching for a gun—you are likely to get shot in the United States, whatever the color of your skin.
As I said, when you’re with a cop, there is always a gun out in the open. And any physical struggle has to be perceived by him as a fight for the gun. A cop doesn’t know what you’re going to do if you overpower him, so he has to assume the worst. Most cops are not confident in their ability to physically control a person without shooting him—for good reason, because they’re not well trained to do that, and they’re continually confronting people who are bigger, or younger, or more athletic, or more aggressive than they are. Cops are not superheroes. They’re ordinary people with insufficient training, and once things turn physical they cannot afford to give a person who is now assaulting a police officer the benefit of the doubt.
This is something that most people seem totally confused about. If they see a video of somebody trying to punch a cop in the face and the person’s unarmed, many people think the cop should just punch back, and any use of deadly force would be totally disproportionate. But that’s not how violence works. It’s not the cop’s job to be the best bare-knuckled boxer on Earth so he doesn’t have to use his gun. A cop can’t risk getting repeatedly hit in the face and knocked out, because there’s always a gun in play. This is the cop’s perception of the world, and it’s a justifiable one, given the dynamics of human violence.
You might think cops shouldn’t carry guns. Why can’t we just be like England? That’s a point that can be debated. But it requires considerable thought in a country where there are over 300 million guns on the street. The United States is not England.
Again, really focus on what is happening when a cop is attempting to arrest a person. It’s not up to you to decide whether or not you should be arrested. Does it matter that you know you didn’t do anything wrong? No. And how could that fact be effectively communicated in the moment by your not following police commands? I’m going to ask that again: How could the fact that you’re innocent, that you’re not a threat to cop, that you’re not about to suddenly attack him or produce a weapon of your own, how could those things be effectively communicated at the moment he’s attempting to arrest you by your resisting arrest?
Unless you called the cops yourself, you never know what situation you’re in. If I’m walking down the street, I don’t know if the cop who is approaching me didn’t get a call that some guy who looks like Ben Stiller just committed an armed robbery. I know I didn’t do anything, but I don’t know what’s in the cop’s head. The time to find out what’s going on—the time to complain about racist cops, the time to yell at them and tell them they’re all going to get fired for their stupidity and misconduct—is after cooperating, at the police station, in the presence of a lawyer, preferably. But to not comply in the heat of the moment, when a guy with the gun is issuing commands—this raises your risk astronomically, and it’s something that most people, it seems, just do not intuitively understand, even when they’re not in the heat of the moment themselves, but just watching video of other people getting arrested.
Ok. End of public-service announcement.
The main problem with using individual cases, where black men and women have been killed by cops, to conclude that there is an epidemic of racist police violence in our society, is that you can find nearly identical cases of white suspects being killed by cops, and there are actually more of them.
In 2016, John McWhorter wrote a piece in Time Magazine about this.
Here’s a snippet of what he wrote:
“The heart of the indignation over these murders is a conviction that racist bias plays a decisive part in these encounters. That has seemed plausible to me, and I have recently challenged those who disagree to present a list of white people killed within the past few years under circumstances similar to those that so enrage us in cases such as what happened to Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Walter Scott, Sam Debose, and others.”
So, McWhorter issued that challenge, as he said, and he was presented with the cases [VIDEO, VIDEO, VIDEO]. But there’s no song about these people, admonishing us to say their names. And the list of white names is longer, and I don’t know any of them, other than Tony Timpa. I know the black names. In addition to the ones I just read from McWhorter’s article, I know the names of Eric Garner, and Michael Brown, and Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile, and now, of course, I know the name of George Floyd. And I’m aware of many of the details of these cases where black men and women have been killed by cops. I know the name of Breonna Taylor. I can’t name a single white person killed by cops in circumstances like these—other than Timpa—and I just read McWhorter’s article where he lists many of them.
So, this is also a distortion in the media. The media is not showing us videos of white people being killed by cops; activists are not demanding that they do this. I’m sure white supremacists talk about this stuff a lot, who knows? But in terms of the story we’re telling ourselves in the mainstream, we are not actually talking about the data on lethal police violence.
So back to the data: Again, cops kill around 1000 people every year in the United States. About 25 percent are black. About 50 percent are white. The data on police homicide are all over the place. The federal government does not have a single repository for data of this kind. But they have been pretty carefully tracked by outside sources, like the Washington Post, for the last 5 years. These ratios appear stable over time. Again, many of these killings are justifiable, we’re talking about career criminals who are often armed and, in many cases, trying to kill the cops. Those aren’t the cases we’re worried about. We’re worried about the unjustifiable homicides.
Now, some people will think that these numbers still represent an outrageous injustice. Afterall, African Americans are only 13 percent of the population. So, at most, they should be 13 percent of the victims of police violence, not 25 percent. Any departure from the baseline population must be due to racism.
Ok. Well, that sounds plausible, but consider a few more facts:
If you have 13 percent of the population responsible for 50 percent of the murders—and in some cities committing 2/3rds of all violent crime—what percent of police attention should it attract? I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure it’s not just 13 percent. Given that the overwhelming majority of their victims are black, I’m pretty sure that most black people wouldn’t set the dial at 13 percent either.
And here we arrive at the core of the problem. The story of crime in America is overwhelmingly the story of black-on-black crime. It is also, in part, a story of black-on-white crime. For more than a generation, crime in America really hasn’t been a story of much white-on-black crime. [Some listeners mistook my meaning here. I’m not denying that most violent crime is intraracial. So, it’s true that most white homicide victims are killed by white offenders. Per capita, however, the white crime rate is much lower than the black crime rate. And there is more black-on-white crime than white-on-black crime.—SH]
The murder rate has come down steadily since the early 1990’s, with only minor upticks. But, nationwide, blacks are still 6 times more likely to get murdered than whites, and in some cities their risk is double that. And around 95 percent of the murders are committed by members of the African American community. [While reported in 2015, these data were more than a decade old. Looking at more recent data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, the number appears to be closer to 90 percent.—SH]
The weekend these protests and riots were kicking off nationwide—when our entire country seemed to be tearing itself apart over a perceived epidemic of racist police violence against the black community, 92 people were shot, and 27 killed, in Chicago alone—one city. This is almost entirely a story of black men killing members of their own community. And this is far more representative of the kind of violence that the black community needs to worry about. And, ironically, it’s clear that one remedy for this violence is, or would be, effective policing.
These are simply the facts of crime in our society as we best understand them. And the police have to figure out how to respond to these facts, professionally and ethically. The question is, are they doing that? And, obviously, there’s considerable doubt that they’re doing that, professionally and ethically.
Roland Fryer, the Harvard economist who’s work I discussed on the podcast with Glenn Loury, studied police encounters involving black and white suspects and the use of force.
His paper is titled, this from 2016, “An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force.”
Fryer is black, and he went into this research with the expectation that the data would confirm that there’s an epidemic of lethal police violence directed at black men. But he didn’t find that. However, he did find support for the suspicion that black people suffer more nonlethal violence at the hands of cops than whites do.
So let’s look at this.
The study examined data from 10 major police departments, in Texas, Florida and California. Generally, Fryer found that there is 25 percent greater likelihood that the police would go hands on black suspects than white ones—cuffing them, or forcing them to ground, or using other non-lethal force.
Specifically, in New York City, in encounters where white and black citizens were matched for other characteristics, they found that:
This is more or less the full continuum of violence short of using lethal force. And it seems, from the data we have, that blacks receive more of it than whites. What accounts for this disparity? Racism? Maybe. However, as I said, it’s inconvenient to note that other data suggest that black cops and Hispanic cops are more likely to shoot black and Hispanic suspects than white cops are. I’m not sure how an ambient level of racism explains that.
Are there other explanations? Well, again, could it be that blacks are less cooperative with the police. If so, that’s worth understanding. A culture of resisting arrest would be a very bad thing to cultivate, given that the only response to such resistance is for the police to increase their use of force.
Whatever is true here is something we should want to understand. And it’s all too easy to see how an increased number of encounters with cops, due to their policing in the highest crime neighborhoods, which are disproportionately black, and an increased number of traffic stops in those neighborhoods, and an increased propensity for cops to go hands-on these suspects, with or without an arrest, for whatever reason—it’s easy to see how all of this could be the basis for a perception of racism, whether or not racism is the underlying motivation.
It is totally humiliating to be arrested or manhandled by a cop. And, given the level of crime in the black community, a disproportionate number of innocent black men seem guaranteed to have this experience. It’s totally understandable that this would make them bitter and mistrustful of the police. This is another vicious circle that we must find some way to interrupt.
But Fryer also found that black suspects are around 25 percent less likely to be shot than white suspects are. And in the most egregious situations, where officers were not first attacked, but nevertheless fired their weapons at a suspect, they were more likely to do this when the suspect was white.
Again, the data are incomplete. This doesn’t not cover every city in the country. And a larger study tomorrow might paint a different picture. But, as far as I know, the best data we have suggest that for, whatever reason, whites are more likely to be killed by cops once an arrest is attempted. And a more recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by David Johnson and colleagues found similar results. And it is simply undeniable that more whites are killed by cops each year, both in absolute numbers and in proportion to their contributions to crime and violence in our society.
Can you hear how these facts should be grinding in that well-oiled machine of woke outrage? Our society is in serious trouble now. We are being crushed under the weight of a global pandemic and our response to it has been totally inept. On top of that, we’re being squeezed by the growing pressure of what might become a full-on economic depression. And the streets are now filled with people who imagine, on the basis of seeing some horrific videos, that there is an epidemic of racist cops murdering African Americans. Look at what this belief is doing to our politics. And these videos will keep coming. And the truth is they could probably be matched 2 for 1 with videos of white people being killed by cops. What percentage of people protesting understand that the disparity runs this way? In light of the belief that the disparity must run the other way, people are now quite happy to risk getting beaten and arrested by cops themselves, and to even loot and burn businesses. And most people and institutions are supporting this civil unrest from the sidelines, because they too imagine that cops are killing black people in extraordinary numbers. And all of this is calling forth an authoritarian response from Trump—and leading to more examples of police violence caught on video.
As I hope I’ve made clear, we need police reform—there’s no question about this. And some of the recent footage of the police attacking peaceful protests is outrageous. Nothing I just said should signify that I’m unaware of that. From what I’ve seen—and by the time I release this podcast, the character of all this might have changed—but, from what I’ve seen, the police were dangerously passive in the face of looting and real crime, at least in the beginning. In many cities, they just stood and watched society unravel. And then they were far too aggressive in the face of genuinely peaceful protests. This is a terrible combination. It is the worst combination. There’s no better way to increase cynicism and anger and fear, on all sides.
But racializing how we speak about the problem of police violence, where race isn’t actually the relevant variable—again, think of Tony Timpa— this has highly negative effects. First, it keeps us from talking about the real problems with police tactics. For instance, we had the recent case of Breonna Taylor who was killed in a so-called “no knock” raid of her home. As occasionally happens, in this carnival of moral error we call “the war on drugs,” the police had the wrong address, and they kicked in the wrong door. And they wound up killing a totally innocent woman. But this had nothing to do with race. The problem is not, as some commentators have alleged, that it’s not safe to be “sleeping while black.” The problem is that these no-knock raids are an obscenely dangerous way of enforcing despicably stupid laws. White people die under precisely these same circumstances, and very likely in greater numbers (I don’t have data specifically on no-knock raids, but we can assume that the ratio is probably conserved here).
Think about how crazy this policy is in a nation where gun ownership is so widespread. If someone kicks in your door in the middle of the night, and you’re a gun owner, of course you’re going to reach for your gun. That’s why you have a gun in the first place. The fact that people bearing down on you and your family out of the darkness might have yelled “police” (or might have not yelled “police”; it’s alleged in some of these cases that they don’t yell anything)—the fact that someone yells “police” isn’t necessarily convincing. Anyone can yell “police.” And, again, think of the psychology of this: If the police have the wrong house, and you know there is no reason on earth that real cops would take an interest in you, especially in the middle of the night, because you haven’t done anything (you’re not the guy running a meth lab)—and now you’re reaching for your gun in the dark—of course, someone is likely to get killed. This is not a racial issue. It’s a terrible policy.
Unfortunately, the process of police reform isn’t straightforward—and it is made massively more complicated by what’s happening now. Yes, we will be urging police reform in a very big way now, that much seems clear. But Roland Fryer has also shown that investigations of the cops, in a climate where viral videos and racial politics are operating, have dramatic effects, many of which are negative.
He studied the aftermath of the investigations into police misconduct that followed the killings Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, and Lequan McDonald, and found that, for reasons that seem pretty easy to intuit, proactive police contact with civilians decreases drastically, sometimes by as much 100 percent, once these investigations get started. This is now called “The Ferguson Effect.” The police still answer 911 calls, but they don’t investigate suspicious activity in the same way. They don’t want to wind up on YouTube. And when they alter their behavior like this, homicides go up. Fryer estimates that the effects of these few investigations translated into 1000 extra homicides, and almost 40,000 more felonies, over the next 24 months in the US. And, of course, most of the victims of those crimes were black. One shudders to imagine the size of the Ferguson effect we’re about to see nationwide… I’m sure the morale among cops has never been lower. I think it’s almost guaranteed that cops by the thousands will be leaving the force. And it will be much more difficult to recruit good people.
Who is going to want to be a cop now? Who could be idealist about occupying that role in society? It seems to me that the population of people who will become cops now will be more or less indistinguishable from the population of people who become prison guards. I’m pretty sure there’s a difference there, and I think we’re likely to see that difference expressed in the future. It’s a grim picture, unless we do something very creative here.
So there’s a real question about how we can reform police departments, and get rid of bad cops, without negatively impacting the performance of good cops? That’s a riddle we have to solve—or at least we have to understand what the trade-offs are here.
Why is all of this happening now? Police killings of civilians have gone way down. And they are rare events. They are 1/10,000 level events, if measured by arrests. 1/50-60,000 level events if measured by police encounters. And the number of unarmed people who are killed is smaller still. Around 50 last year, again, more were white than black. And not all unarmed victims are innocent. Some get killed in the act of attacking the cops. [EXAMPLE, EXAMPLE, EXAMPLE]
Again, the data don’t tell a clean story, or the whole story. I see no reason to doubt that blacks get more attention from the cops—though, honestly, given the distribution of crime in our society, I don’t know what the alternative to that would be. And once the cops get involved, blacks are more likely to get roughed up, which is bad. But, again, it simply isn’t clear that racism is the cause. And contrary to everyone’s expectations, whites seem more likely to get killed by cops. Actually, one factor seems to be that whites are 7 times more likely to commit “suicide by cop” (and 3 times more likely to commit suicide generally). What’s going on there? Who knows?
There’s a lot we don’t understand about these data. But ask yourself, would our society seem less racist if the disparity ran the other way? Is less physical contact, but a greater likelihood of getting shot and killed a form of white privilege? Is a higher level of suicide by cop, and suicide generally, a form of white privilege? We have a problem here that, read either way, you can tell a starkly racist narrative.
We need ethical, professional policing, of course. But the places with the highest crime in our society need the most of it. Is there any doubt about that? In a city like Milwaukee, blacks are 12 times more likely to get murdered than whites [Not sure where I came by this number, probably a lecture or podcast. It appears the rate is closer to 20 times more likely and 22 times more likely in Wisconsin as a whole—SH], again, they are being killed by other African Americans, nearly 100 percent of the time. I think the lowest figure I’ve seen is 93 percent of the time. [As noted above, more recent data suggest that it’s closer to 90 percent]. What should the police do about this? And what are they likely to do now that our entire country has been convulsed over one horrific case of police misconduct?
We need to lower the temperature on this conversation, and many other conversations, and understand what is actually happening in our society.
But instead of doing this, we now have a whole generation of social activists who seem eager to play a game of chicken with the forces of chaos. Everything I said about the problem of inequality and the need for reform stands. But I think that what we are witnessing in our streets, and on social media, and even in the mainstream press, is a version of mass hysteria. And the next horrific video of a black person being killed by cops won’t be evidence to the contrary. And there will be another video. There are 10 million arrests every year. There will always be another video.
And the media has turned these videos into a form of political pornography. And this has deranged us. We’re now unable to speak or even think about facts. The media has been poisoned by bad incentives, in this regard, and social media doubly so.
In the mainstream of this protest movement, it’s very common to hear that the only problem with what is happening in our streets, apart from what the cops are doing, is that some criminal behavior at the margins—a little bit of looting, a little bit of violence—has distracted us from an otherwise necessary and inspiring response to an epidemic of racism. Most people in the media have taken exactly this line. People like Anderson Cooper on CNN or the editorial page of the New York Times or public figures like President Obama or Vice President Biden. The most prominent liberal voices believe that the protests themselves make perfect moral and political sense, and that movements like Black Lives Matter are guaranteed to be on the right side of history. How could anyone who is concerned about inequality and injustice in our society see things any other way? How could anyone who isn’t himself racist not support Black Lives Matter?
But, of course, there’s a difference between slogans and reality. There’s a difference between the branding of a movement and its actual aims. And this can be genuinely confusing. That’s why propaganda works. For instance, many people assume there’s nothing wrong with ANTIFA, because this group of total maniacs has branded itself as “anti-fascist.” What could be wrong with being anti-fascist? Are you pro fascism?
There’s a similar problem with Black Lives Matter—though, happily, unlike ANTIFA, Black Lives Matter actually seems committed to peaceful protest, which is hugely important. So the problem I’m discussing is more ideological, and it’s much bigger than Black Lives Matter—though BLM is its most visible symbol of this movement. The wider issue is that we are in the midst of a public hysteria and moral panic. And it has been made possible by a near total unwillingness, particularly on the Left, among people who value their careers and their livelihoods and their reputations, and fear being hounded into oblivion online—this is nearly everyone left-of-center politically. People are simply refusing to speak honestly about the problem of race and racism in America.
We are making ourselves sick. We are damaging our society. And by protesting the wrong thing, even the slightly wrong thing, and unleashing an explosion of cynical criminality in the process—looting that doesn’t even have the pretense of protest—the Left is empowering Trump, whatever the polls currently show. And if we are worried about Trump’s authoritarian ambitions, as I think we really should be, this is important to understand. He recently had what looked like paramilitary troops guarding the White House. I don’t know if we found out who those guys actually were, but that was genuinely alarming. But how are Democrats calls to “abolish the police” going to play to half the country that just watched so many cities get looted? We have to vote Trump out of office and restore the integrity of our institutions. And we have to make the political case for major reforms to deal with the problem of inequality—a problem which affects the black community most of all.
We need police reform; we need criminal justice reform; we need tax reform; we need health care reform; we need environmental reform—we need all of these things and more. And to be just, these policies will need to reduce the inequality in our society. If we did this, African Americans would benefit, perhaps more than any other group. But it’s not at all clear that progress along these dimensions primarily entails us finding and eradicating more racism in our society.
Just ask yourself, what would real progress on the problem of racism look like? What would utter progress look like?
Here’s what I think it would look like: More and more people (and ultimately all people) would care less and less (and ultimately not at all) about race. As I’ve said before in various places, skin color would become like hair color in its political and moral significance—which is to say that it would have none.
Now, maybe you don’t agree with that aspiration. Maybe you think that tribalism based on skin color can’t be outgrown or shouldn’t be outgrown. Well, if you think that, I’m afraid I don’t know what to say to you. It’s not that there’s nothing to say, it’s just there is so much we disagree about, morally and politically, that I don’t know where to begin. So that debate, if it can even be had, will have to be left for another time.
For the purposes of this conversation, I have to assume that you agree with me about the goal here, which is to say that you share the hope that there will come a time where the color of a person’s skin really doesn’t matter. What would that be like?
Well, how many blondes got into Harvard this year? Does anyone know? What percentage of the police in San Diego are brunette? Do we have enough red heads in senior management in our Fortune 500 companies? No one is asking these questions, and there is a reason for that. No one cares. And we are right not to care.
Imagine a world in which people cared about hair color to the degree that we currently care—or seem to care, or imagine that others care, or allege that they secretly care—about skin color. Imagine a world in which discrimination by hair color was a thing, and it took centuries to overcome, and it remains a persistent source of private pain and public grievance throughout society, even where it no longer exists. What an insane misuse of human energy that would be. What an absolute catastrophe.
The analogy isn’t perfect, for a variety of reasons, but it’s good enough for us to understand what life would be like if the spell of racism and anti-racism were truly broken. The future we want is not one in which we have all become passionate anti-racists. It’s not a future in which we are forever on our guard against the slightest insult—the bad joke, the awkward compliment, the tweet that didn’t age well. We want to get to a world in which skin color and other superficial characteristics of a person become morally and politically irrelevant. And if you don’t agree with that, what did you think Martin Luther King Jr was talking about?
And, finally, if you’re on the Left and don’t agree with this vision of a post-racial future, please observe that the people who agree with you, the people who believe that there is no overcoming race, and that racial identity is indissoluble, and that skin color really matters and will always matter—these people are white supremacists and neo-Nazis and other total assholes. And these are also people I can’t figure out how to talk to, much less persuade.
So the question for the rest of us—those of us who want to build a world populated by human beings, merely—the question is, how do we get there? How does racial difference become uninteresting? Can it become uninteresting by more and more people taking a greater interest in it? Can it become uninteresting by becoming a permanent political identity? Can it become uninteresting by our having thousands of institutions whose funding (and, therefore, very survival) depends on it remaining interesting until the end of the world?
Can it become less significant by being granted more and more significance? By becoming a fetish, a sacred object, ringed on all sides by taboos? Can race become less significant if you can lose your reputation and even your livelihood, at any moment, by saying one wrong word about it?
I think these questions answer themselves. To outgrow our obsession with racial difference, we have outgrow our obsession with race. And you don’t do that by maintaining your obsession with it.
Now, you might agree with me about the goal and about how a post-racial society would seem, but you might disagree about the path to get there—the question of what to do next. In fact, one podcast listener wrote to me recently to say that while he accepted my notion of a post-racial future, he thinks it’s just far too soon to talk about putting racial politics behind us. He asked me to imagine just how absurd it would have been to tell Martin Luther King Jr, at the dawn of the civil rights movement, that the path beyond racism requires that he become less and less obsessed with race.
That seems like a fair point, but Coleman Hughes has drawn my attention to a string of MLK quotes that seem to be just as transcendent of racial identity politics as I’m hoping to be here. You can see these quotations on his Twitter feed. None of those statements by King would make sense coming out of Black Lives Matter at the moment.
In any case, as I said, I think we are living in a very different time than Martin Luther King was. And what I see all around me is evidence of the fact that we were paying an intolerable price for confusion about racism, and social justice generally—and the importance of identity, generally—and this is happening in an environment where the path to success and power for historically disadvantaged groups isn’t generally barred by white racists who won’t vote for them, or hire them, or celebrate their achievements, or buy their products, and it isn’t generally barred by laws and policies and norms that are unfair. There is surely still some of that. But there must be less of it now than there ever was.
The real burden on the black community is the continued legacy of inequality—with respect to wealth, and education, and health, and social order—levels of crime, in particular, and resulting levels of incarceration, and single-parent families—and it seems very unlikely that these disparities, whatever their origin in the past, can be solved by focusing on problem of lingering racism, especially where it doesn’t exist. And the current problem of police violence seems a perfect case in point.
And yet now we’re inundated with messages from every well-intentioned company and organization singing from the same book of hymns. Black Lives Matter is everywhere. Of course, black lives matter. But the messaging of this movement about the reality of police violence is wrong, and it’s creating a public hysteria.
I just got a message from the American Association for the Advancement of Science talking about fear of the other. The quote from the email: “Left unchecked, racism, sexism, homophobia, and fear of the other can enter any organization or community – and destroy the foundations upon which we must build our future.” Ok, fine. But is that really the concern in the scientific community right now, “unchecked racism, sexism, and homophobia.” Is that really what ails science in the year 2020? I don’t think so.
I’ll tell you the fear of the other that does seem warranted, everywhere, right now. It’s the other who has rendered him or herself incapable of dialogue. It’s the other who will not listen to reason, who has no interest in facts, who can’t join a conversation that converges on the truth, because he knows in advance what the truth must be. We should fear the other who thinks that dogmatism and cognitive bias aren’t something to be corrected for, because they’re the very foundations of his epistemology. We should fear the other who can’t distinguish activism from journalism or politics from science. Or worse, can make these distinctions, but refuses to. And we’re all capable of becoming this person. If only for minutes or hours at a time. And this is a bug in our operating system, not a feature. We have to continually correct for it.
One of the most shocking things that many of us learned when the Covid-19 pandemic was first landing on our shores, and we were weighing the pros and cons of closing the schools, was that for tens of millions of American kids, going to school represents the only guarantee of a decent meal on any given day. I’m pretty confident that most of the kids we’re talking about here aren’t white. And whatever you think about the opportunities in this country and whatever individual success stories you can call to mind, there is no question that some of us start on third base, or second base. Everyone has a lot to deal with, of course. Life is hard. But not everyone is a single mom, or single grandparent, struggling to raise kids in the inner city, all the while trying to keep them from getting murdered. The disparities in our society are absolutely heartbreaking and unacceptable. And we need to have a rational discussion about their actual causes and solutions.
We have to pull back from the brink here. And all we have with which to do that is conversation. And the only thing that makes conversation possible is an openness to evidence and arguments—a willingness to update one’s view of the world when better reasons are given. And that is an ongoing process, not a place we ever finally arrive.
Ok… Well, perhaps that was more of an exhortation than I intended, but it certainly felt like I needed to say it. I hope it was useful. And the conversations will continue on this podcast.
Stay safe, everyone.
Dear Making Sense and Waking Up subscribers—
Those of you who have been listening to my podcast or following me on Twitter know that I’m quite worried about the emerging coronavirus pandemic. Barring some extraordinarily good luck, I believe that we have some very rough months ahead of us. Health concerns aside, it now seems inevitable that we will experience considerable economic uncertainty as a wave of illness disrupts normal life in a hundred countries simultaneously.
As you know, both the Waking Up app and the Making Sense podcast are subscription services. However, it has always been my policy that money should never be the reason why someone can’t get access to them. As we collectively respond to this global emergency, please know that if you can no longer afford a subscription to Waking Up or Making Sense, you need only send an email to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org, and you’ll receive a free account when your subscription expires.
I’m incredibly fortunate to have found work that I love to do, along with a community of people willing to support it—and I feel especially good knowing that I can be of use to many of you at a time like this. I’m also very happy that both Waking Up and Making Sense are supported by a wonderful team of employees and contractors who can work from home indefinitely.
So please don’t forget: The work we are doing is for you, whether you can pay for it or not. And don’t hesitate to be in touch if you need help.
Wishing you all health and happiness,
As many of you know, the Day of Reflection conference, scheduled for November 17 in NYC, has been cancelled, and some hundreds of ticket holders are now left seeking refunds.
I was forced to pull out of this event nearly two months ago and have said very little about it since. Now that Travis Pangburn has officially announced that he will be “folding” his touring company, Pangburn Philosophy, I can give a brief account of what happened.
Although Pangburn still owes several speakers (including me) an extraordinary amount of money, we were willing to participate in the NYC conference for free as recently as a few days ago, if he would have handed it over to us and stepped away. I have been told that this offer was made, and he declined it.
I find it appalling that so many people were needlessly harmed by the implosion of Pangburn Philosophy. I can assure you that every speaker associated with the NYC event will be much wiser when working with promoters in the future.
The post A few thoughts on the implosion of Pangburn Philosophy appeared first on Sam Harris.
As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve recently gone back to school for an M.Ed in Higher Education. Regular readers may know that I already have a humanities PhD, which raises a pretty obvious question: “What the hell Dan? Aren’t you done with school? Why collect yet another degree? Seriously what is wrong with you?”
There are a few reasons I decided to go back to school. but most of them ultimately boil down to one thing: the academic job market. I’ve been writing about my experiences looking for a job over the last few years, and after four years and dozens and dozens of applications, it became very clear that something had to change if I planned on actually getting a job before retirement age.
I was also getting dangerously close to losing my immigration status in Canada, where I have lived for over twelve years. My three-year postgraduate work visa was set to expire this past summer, and with no employment on the horizon that would satisfy CIC requirements for renewal, going back to school was essentially the only way for me to stay in the country short of marriage (which an immigration lawyer actually suggested).
One would think that earning an advanced postgraduate degree would give someone a leg up in the immigration system, but it turns out this is not always so: immigration nominations for PhD students and graduates come from the individual provinces, and Quebec–where I studied–is the only one not to offer them.* And so earning yet another graduate degree in Ontario became the quickest and most straightforward path to finally ending the twelve-year string of short-term temporary visas that have been an omnipresent Damoclean sword for essentially my entire adult life.
But why Higher Ed?
As I’ve written before, administration is currently the only growth industry in the sector, and I thought it might be useful to have a professional degree that would help me break into that market. I also do honestly believe that schools would benefit from having more administrators who have first-hand experience with teaching and research, and with actual lived experience as graduate students and academic contract workers. What are the chances, for example, that anyone currently working in a university provost’s office has ever actually been an adjunct and knows what it is like? Or has even been a graduate student any time after the 1980s?
Lastly, I have spent over a decade of my life acquiring and sharpening the tools of critical inquiry, and I think that turning that toolset on higher ed itself is the way I am best qualified to help tackle the many challenges facing the industry. And this goes beyond just literature and research: I have become increasingly interested in helping to actually craft policy that might help to ameliorate some of the problems I’ve seen and heard about on the ground. This degree is a first step in that direction.
*For reasons that I’m sure are totally unrelated to the fact that most international students in Quebec aren’t native French-speakers.
Hello everyone! Many apologies for my long absence, but things got a little busy for me when I went back to school (yes, again) to actually officially study Higher Education!
The upside for you, dear readers, is that my new studies have provided lots of new grist for the old mill, and I plan to post fairly regularly about my ideas, experiences, and research over the next few semesters. This will include everything from day-to-day experiences in the programme itself to discussions of the existing literature on higher ed to summaries of my own research in the field (and possibly links to full papers for the true masochists among you).
Here’s a list of the topics I plan to address in the next few weeks, most of which derive from seminar papers I will be writing:
Is the Human Capital Model a Myth? Signalling, Credentialism, and Rent-Seeking in Higher Ed
The Idea of a Stoic University (Or: How to Un-coddle the American Mind)
Transnational Mobility in the Academic Labour Market for the Humanities
Graduate School as the Structural Model for the Theory of Emerging Adulthood
I’m looking forward to bringing you all along with me on this new journey!
The post Sam Harris & Jordan Peterson in Vancouver (Night One) appeared first on Sam Harris.
The post Sam Harris & Jordan Peterson in Vancouver (Night Two) appeared first on Sam Harris.
[Update to the update: SIU has posted a statement on the programme here. As it essentially confirms my suspicions that it is designed to steal soft academic labour from new PhDs by trading on their institutional loyalty and need for affiliation without paying them for their services, I provide the link here but see no need to comment further.]
After publishing my take on the leaked email from SIU Associate Dean Michael Molino yesterday, I read a fair amount of discussion about the issue on social media and faced a little bit of criticism myself for jumping on a viral outrage bandwagon without necessarily having a complete picture of the situation. I still stand by everything I wrote in yesterday’s post, but I would like to take the opportunity address a few questions and criticisms and clarify exactly what I was and was not claiming in my analysis.
Is this email even real? How do we know it really said everything that ended up in the viral version?
Okay, fair enough. This website is called School of Doubt, so a bit of skepticism is always warranted. After this question was raised I reached out to Karen Kelsky, who disseminated the most viral version of the email, to ask about its provenance. She confirmed that it was forwarded to her by an SIU faculty member she knew personally. Epistemically speaking that is good enough for me, but nothing’s perfect I guess.
Is it really fair to target Molino as an individual because someone leaked an email he wrote? Isn’t this just doxxing that invites harassment?
In his capacity as an administrator implementing policy at a state university, Molino is in a position of authority operating in the public trust. This requires transparency and accountability, and I don’t think sharing his official contact information is doxxing any more than it would be for an administrator at a government agency like the EPA or FCC. Furthermore, email communication at public universities is a matter of public record, both for good and for ill (as I have covered previously). While people may disagree about the ethics of leaking and whistleblowing, it is really not possible to argue that such an email could have been written with any reasonable expectation of privacy. But yes, he’s probably going to have a bad time and that sucks.
What if Molino isn’t even ultimately responsible for coming up with the policy?
Well, bluntly, who cares? He is clearly working to implement it. Not to get all Godwinny, but we’ve heard that one before. You can write to the Provost instead if you want. I won’t provide his email but I bet you can find it.
Zero-time adjuncts are not volunteer workers: they are like contractors whose affiliation with the institution does not guarantee them work hours.
First off there is a terminology problem here. Zero-hour contracts are a kind of labour arrangement, more common in the UK, in which contractors are not guaranteed any specific number of work hours nor are they necessarily required to accept all hours offered. Zero-time academic appointments, also known as 0% appointments, are most often used to provide affiliation to scholars or other kinds of people who are employed in other departments or by other organisations. For example, an economist might be tenured faculty at a business school but also have a zero-time appointment in the economics department of the arts faculty of the same school. This person might advise students or otherwise participate in research and service in both departments, but it is understood that the work in their 0% appointment is covered by the pay from their full-time appointment. Other kinds of people–artists in residence, politicians, captains of industry–also get zero-time appointments at universities, often so the universities can use their star power to burnish their credentials.
Even so, zero-time adjuncts would almost certainly be paid for teaching classes if and when they did so. Not to do so would probably be illegal, right?
Okay, here is the crux of the issue. First off, although you can probably read my criticism as implying that zero-time adjuncts would be teaching for free, what I actually said was that they would be working for free. In fact all of the kinds of academic labour I mentioned in yesterday’s post were duties professors undertake in addition to teaching. Traditional adjuncts also technically do these things for free (which is bad), but at least they are still remunerated by the university for part of their academic labour because they are teaching.
So what does it mean when they also don’t get teaching?
Does anyone seriously believe that they will be compensated at a specific and fair hourly rate for time they spend at departmental meetings, on thesis committees, advising and communicating with students, collaborating on research projects, or having other “intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units”? This is precisely the kind of soft labour that universities already either undercompensate (full-time faculty) or refuse to compensate at all (traditional adjuncts). Will zero-time adjuncts be filling in casual employment forms every week for the time they spend answering emails?
Like it or not, “professor” is still a word with a meaning. Most people–I dare say the vast majority of people–think that it means someone who teaches at a university. Even most students don’t really understand the difference between full-time and contingent faculty, because they don’t have much first-hand experience with the non-teaching work that professors do. Or when they do (e.g. academic advising, mentorship, etc.), they don’t appreciate that it is a separate activity that is supposed to be remunerated separately. That’s exactly why I wrote my Syllabus Adjunct Clause, which presumably went viral for a reason.
This lack of awareness is why it is so dangerous to allow this precedent. Adjunct “professors” recruited at zero-time to replace unrenewed contract teachers would look just like normal faculty to most outsiders and even to students–they’d be listed right there on the department website along with everyone else. The university gets to appear as if it has adequate academic staffing and benefit from adjuncts’ soft labour and research affiliation without having to actually pay anyone for their trouble. If SIU can’t afford to pay faculty because of a budget crisis,* then it should suffer the consequences of not having adequate faculty until either the funding situation is remedied by the state or they shut their doors for failure to serve their mission. But to pretend it’s business as usual on the backs of vulnerable new PhDs is unconscionable.
*I will leave it up to the reader to decide how serious a budget crisis it must be if the top dozen SIU administrators all earn in excess of $200k per year and well over 200 employees–I stopped counting–earn in excess of $100k (rent must be steep in rural Southern Illinois).
Southern Illinois University has finally taken the step that we all knew was coming, whether we openly admitted it to ourselves or not. The progression was too obvious, the market forces in question too powerful, for this result to have been anything but inevitable. The question was never if, but when, and it turns out that when is today.
Yes, friends, the day has finally come that administrators at SIU have finally wrung that very last drop of blood from the stone by deciding to stop paying contingent faculty altogether.
Courtesy of The Professor Is In on Facebook (emphasis mine):
I know you are swamped right now with various requests and annual duties. I apologize for adding to that, but I am here to advocate for something that merits your attention. The Alumni Association has initiated a pilot program involving the College of Science, College of Liberal Arts, and the College of Applied Sciences and Arts, seeking qualified alumni to join the SIU Graduate Faculty in a zero-time (adjunct) status.
Candidates for appointment must meet HLC accreditation guidelines for appointment as adjunct professors, and they will generally hold an academic doctorate or other terminal degree as appropriate for the field.
These blanket zero-time adjunct graduate faculty appointments are for 3-year periods, and can be renewed. While specific duties of alumni adjuncts will likely vary across academic units, examples include service on graduate student thesis committees, teaching specific graduate or undergraduate lectures in one’s area of expertise, service on departmental or university committees, and collaborations on grant proposals and research projects. Moreover, participating alumni can benefit from intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units, as well as through collegial networking opportunities with other alumni adjuncts who will come together regularly (either in-person or via the web) to discuss best practices across campus.
The Alumni Association is already working to identify prospective candidates, but it asks for your help in nominating some of your finest former students who are passionate about supporting SIU. Please reach out to your faculty to see if they might nominate a former student who would meet HLC accreditation guidelines for adjunct faculty appointment, which is someone holding a Ph.D., MFA, or other terminal degree. One of the short-comings with our current approach to the doctoral alumni is that the database only includes those with a Ph.D. earned at SIU, but often doesn’t capture SIU graduates with earned doctorates from other institutions. Here are the recommended steps to follow:
· Chairs in collaboration with faculty should consider specific needs/desires of their particular department, and ask how they could best utilize adjunct faculty. For example, many departments are always looking for additional highly qualified members to serve on thesis committees, and to provide individual lectures, seminars, and mentorship activities for both graduate and undergraduate students.
· Based on faculty recommendations, chairs should identify a few good candidates and approach those individuals to see if they are interested. The interested candidate should provide his/her CV (along with a brief letter of interest outlining areas in which they are willing to participate) to the department chair, who can then approach the Graduate Dean for final vetting and approval.
The University hasn’t yet attempted its first alumni adjunct appointment, but this is the general mechanism already in place. Meera would like CoLA to establish a critical mass of nominees before the end of the summer. A goal of at least one (1) nominee per department would get us going.
MICHAEL R. MOLINO
Associate Dean for Budget, Personnel, and Research
COLLEGE OF LIBERAL ARTS
MAIL CODE 4522
SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY
1000 FANER DRIVE
CARBONDALE, ILLINOIS 62901
In case you don’t speak adminstratese, “zero-time” means “unpaid.” Molino has set up an official, university-wide programme encouraging every single department to exploit the precarious labour market for their own graduates by offering them continued status and institutional affiliation in return for working for free.
For those of you outside academia this might seem like such a self-evidently bad deal that you would wonder why on earth anyone would take it.
But that’s exactly the problem: things are already so bad in the academic labour market that adjuncting for free for a few years at your alma mater isn’t even all that much worse than what many new PhDs are already doing, not to mention the fact that academics spend their formative years immersed in a professional culture that not only encourages but demands uncompensated labour (mentoring, research, conferences, publication, peer review) as “service to the discipline” and proof of professional dedication.
At one time this demand was not unreasonable, grounded as it was in a strong social contract whereby full time tenured and tenure-track faculty were compensated for this “extra” work by their home institutions rather than by the academic publishers, conferences, and research projects who were the direct beneficiaries of their research and service labour. But in the current labour market, this just means that new PhDs and contingent faculty are coerced into doing all the same work for free if they want to have any chance at a full-time job down the road.
Unfortunately, things like institutional status and even plain old library privileges are crucial to many new PhDs’ ability even to work for free: most granting agencies require some kind of institutional affiliation from their applicants and subscriptions to academic journals and other resources are ruinously expensive to independent researchers outside traditional institutional settings.
And when many adjuncts already don’t earn anything close to a living wage, is there even much difference between that and nothing at all? In the end, it’s just a few more deliveries for Uber Eats.
[Ed. note: I posted a follow-up to this post addressing some common questions and criticisms here]
Thank you for writing me with your question about [COURSE]. I am currently out of the office because I am contingent faculty and do not have an office.
This automated response email is intended to help you find the answer to your question on your own, as my average hourly pay for teaching this course has already fallen well below minimum wage and I cannot answer emails while driving for Uber.
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