Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Police, Blacks, Prisons, Drugs, and Neighborhoods

May 18, 2015

UnknownAmerica – “Land of the Free” – leads the world in locking people up. Yes, our incarceration rates exceed those in the most repressive countries like Russia or China.

Can it be that Americans lead the world in criminality? I think not.

Our over-incarceration is really a case of black over-incarceration. The black percentage of inmates way exceeds their percentage of the general population. It’s a holocaust for black communities and a significant contributor to our gaping socio-economic divide. I’ve written about how single motherhood exacerbates that divide. Over 70% of black children are born to unwed mothers – partly because so many black men’s marriageability is reduced by the criminal justice system. In Milwaukee, over half the black men in their thirties have been in prison.

It’s tempting to say, well, all this does reflect a higher rate of criminal behavior – if blacks didn’t do so many crimes they wouldn’t fill the prisons. But, in partial answer, blacks are more likely than whites to be imprisoned for comparable offenses. And one reason for that is blacks are more targeted by police. Discrimination? Rather, it’s mainly because they live in more crime-ridden areas.

imagesNow we get into a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Citizens in crime-infested neighborhoods need more police attention, for their own protection. And obviously it makes sense for police to deploy resources to locales where crime is concentrated. But on the other hand, if you go looking for something, chances are you will find it – so heavy police attention in black neighborhoods means that a lot of blacks will get caught up in that net, whereas quiet white neighborhoods are lightly policed with consequently fewer arrests.

UnknownThis sounds like a hopeless dilemma. But there’s another big fact: a lot of black arrests and imprisonments are drug-related. This is a huge wound for America that is self-inflicted. Whatever may be the harm of drug use, the harm of the “War on Drugs” is vastly greater. And if decriminalization led to more drug use – very doubtful – the harm of that increase would be vastly outweighed by the societal benefits of stopping the misguided drug war.images-1

Citizens in crime-ridden black neighborhoods do not benefit when police pull out half the males for drug-related offenses. They would benefit, greatly, if police could stop doing that, to concentrate their efforts instead on combating the violent crimes, muggings, burglaries, etc, that plague these neighborhoods. That would go far toward mending the broken relationships between the police and the policed.

Another point: kids growing up in bad neighborhoods tend to do badly, and bad neighborhoods are hard to fix (as half a century of well-intentioned social programs proves). But The Economist recently noted some pilot programs giving people vouchers to move to better neighborhoods. Voilà, their children did better. But, the magazine lamented, giving every poor black family such a “golden ticket” would cost about $30 billion a year. Unknown-1My reaction: Say what? Only $30 billion?! Why, the government loses more than that between its sofa cushions. (Almost literally: it’s estimated the feds make $125 billion in improper payments annually.) Thirty billion is less than 1% of the federal budget. Sounds like a no-brainer bargain to me, surely a better expenditure than all those other social programs mentioned.

“I Want Frida Kahlo’s Face Tattooed on my Ass”

May 13, 2015

images-1We recently attended Albany’s Tulip/Pinkster-fest, with numerous vendor booths. The first modern one was held in 1972, reviving an old festival; I was actually one of its organizers, and I set up myself there, displaying my surrealist paintings. Untitled-1A gal painter had set up next to me, and we wound up going home together. Nice. However, our relationship didn’t get too far, as she was an ex-nun, and I, of course, was not.

Prominent at this year’s fest was soap – booth after booth featuring fancy soaps. Are we developing a Japanese-style cleanliness fetish? One might snigger at the consumerism that makes such a big thing of soap. But actually, though we take it for granted, soap was one of Mankind’s greatest inventions. You might have thought it would put the perfume industry out of business, but no, that still seems to flourish as well. Anyhow, I think it’s absolutely wonderful to be living in a society so affluent that fancy soaps can sustain so many enterprises. If folks enjoy soap, I don’t want some holier-than-thou anti-consumerist scolds telling them they’re wrong.

A snippet of conversation overheard while wending our way through the dense crowds: “I want Frida Kahlo’s face tattooed on my ass.”

images-2Now, I frankly don’t get all this tattooing. I happen to think it messes up the appearance of girls who would otherwise be quite attractive. And for that matter, I don’t get the Frida Kahlo thing either. OK, she was maybe an interesting artist, but was she, like, the female Picasso? I don’t think so. Seems she’s been raised to some kind of iconic pedestal because she was treated like dirt by her more famous artist boyfriend. This is feminism?

Anyhow, hearing “I want Frida Kahlo’s face tattooed on my ass” was the highlight of my Pinksterfest experience. You can’t make up gems like that.

Or maybe I mis-heard it.

Visit to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum – A Humanist Monument

May 9, 2015

Unknown-1It was a little before 10 AM; I was enjoying the lovely weather, in my comfy lounge chair outdoors, working on a coin catalog, when my wife drove up and, with tears in her eyes, said, “The United States has been attacked!”

Recently on a New York jaunt we visited the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. It was impressive and moving.

UnknownThe memorial pools have a beautiful grandeur that photos do not convey. The museum too is, of course, a memorial to the 2,977 people lost; and one alcove, displaying all their photos, gives a sobering sense of just how many people that was – real people, not faceless numbers.

But mainly it is actually a memorial to the buildings. Now, we have visited numerous sites and museums with ruins, but this is different. Here are the ruins of buildings that were part of my own life. The PSC where I worked had offices there, and over many years I attended numerous hearings there, sometimes for weeks at a time. Also, the annual international coin show was held there; the last in December 2000.

Unknown-2Yet this is a profoundly humanist monument. In memorializing those buildings, the museum memorializes the people who built them, showing what a stupendous undertaking and achievement this was. The contrast, though unstated, is inevitable, between the soaring ambition and effort of those people, and what can be said of the ones who authored the destruction.

Of them the museum is, fittingly I thought, silent (except for a solitary exhibit case concerning the Abbottabad mission). The destroyers would have said they acted for God, and that was another thing fittingly absent from the museum – the word God. Given America’s pervasive religiosity, the omission reflected remarkable restraint by the museum’s creators, who eschewed all sorts of mawkishness that would have detracted from the solemnity. They seemed instead to follow the principle of res ipsa loquitur – the thing speaks for itself.

Photo by Therese Broderick

Photo by Therese Broderick

I am proud to be part of a society that conceived and built those buildings, as well as this memorial – and the new tower. It’s a better society than the one that spawned the destroyers.

Slavery and American Capitalism

April 29, 2015

imagesRecently I presented a book review talk at the Albany Public Library; the book was Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

Before being asked to do this, I well remembered the review in The Economist. It concluded, “Mr. Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” I said to myself: Whoah!

And I also remembered what happened next — something I’d never before seen in The Economist. An “editor’s note” appeared, apologizing for, and withdrawing, that book review. images-1Particularly regarding those quoted final lines, the editor said there had been widespread criticism, and rightly so; that the great majority of slavery’s victims had been blacks, “and the great majority of whites involved in slavery were willing participants and beneficiaries of that evil.”

Thus spake The Economist. If you’d like to see my review of the book, I have uploaded the text (unsuitably long for a blog post); click here. Mostly, it’s a portrayal of slavery. Warning: not a pretty picture.

Indiana, Discrimination, and Progressive Intolerance

April 6, 2015

Unknown-1Isabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns, about the migration of blacks from the Jim Crow South, tells of an Alabama doctor who relocated by car to California. His trip was an endurance ordeal because nowhere along the way could he get a meal or a room.

That is discrimination.

It’s what the 1964 Civil Rights Act addressed. The argument at the time was that restaurateurs and hoteliers shouldn’t be forced to serve people against their will. But that freedom was deemed overridden by the rights and interests of the victims of such discrimination, and the greater public interest. A reasonable societal decision.

imagesNow we’re told it’s the same issue of discrimination when a photographer or florist doesn’t (for religious reasons) wish to service a gay wedding. But recalling that Alabama doctor, I don’t think it’s comparable. Are they likely to be the only photographer or florist in town? (And would you want your wedding photographed by someone forced to do it?)

The great irony is that, after gays fought intolerance for so long, now the tables are turning, with the intolerance going in the other direction. Gays now have the right to marry, in most places. Must they also have the right to demand service from even religious objectors to gay marriage?

I support gay marriage, and reject Biblical teachings against it as vile nonsense. But I also accept the right of other people to think differently, and to live in accordance with their beliefs. I tolerate the foibles of my fellow humans, wanting everyone able to live as they choose.

“Tolerance” was long actually a liberal shibboleth, but for them it’s never a two-way street. Bible thumpers are required to tolerate gay married couples in their neighborhood. images-1But gays, and their political allies, should likewise be tolerant toward others who don’t share their perspective. That latter kind of tolerance is in short supply. Now viewpoints that, not long ago, were in the majority, are anathematized as bigotry. On this standard, President Obama, until 2012, was a bigot.

The word “progressive” was embraced to sidestep the bad odor of “liberal.” But “liberal” is a perfectly honorable word – and it’s right that “progressives” eschew it because they tend to be, in the strict sense, illiberal.

That they have their heads up their asses on such matters is exemplified by our Governor Cuomo who, in an excess of political correctness, curtailed state travel to Indiana.* images-3Yet he himself plans to travel to Cuba. Similarly, some businesses were shunning Indiana – while cheerfully continuing to do business with China. Is Indiana really worse on human rights than Cuba or China? Is gay marriage even allowed in those countries? If I were gay, I’d rather live in Indiana. (Heck, if I were anyone I’d rather live in Indiana than Cuba or China.)

This issue goes beyond forcing people to take wedding pictures against their religious beliefs. I’ve written about Brendan Eich, forced out as head of a major company, because he had supported a California ballot referendum (which passed) against gay marriage. images-4Isn’t this – people made pariahs, even losing their jobs – because of their beliefs – precisely the “McCarthyism” that lefties spent half a century beating their breasts about, as the crime of crimes? How did they so grievously lose their way?**

Our society has undergone a great change, very swiftly, on our attitudes toward gay people. But it’s hard for some people to get with the new program, especially if their religious beliefs come into the matter. I don’t think the correct approach is to browbeat those people, demonize them, and coerce them. That can only aggravate animosity. A softer approach would be better.

* Connecticut’s Governor did likewise, despite Connecticut itself having a “religious freedom” law almost identical to Indiana’s.

** See the comments on my post about Eich for a good illustration (“Rob”) of tortured lefty thinking.

John Gray versus Pinker on Violence: “The Sorcery of Numbers”

April 1, 2015

UnknownSteven Pinker’s 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, argued that declines in all kinds of violence, including war, reflect moral progress. I reviewed it enthusiastically (and not just because it cited my own book). But, unarguably, Pinker’s thesis has had a bad few years.

Hardly was his ink dry when violent conflict engulfed the Arab world. Russia has resurrected, zombie-like, a kind of big power military aggression we had thought gone forever. And whereas expanding democratization was a key explanatory pillar for Pinker’s thesis, democracy too has had setbacks, in countries from Venezuela to Thailand, with Egypt’s revolution producing a regime even worse than before,* while China’s authoritarianism looks better (in some eyes) than America’s democratic paralysis.

imagesWell. As I’ve often argued, human affairs are complex, and their path is never linear. We’ve had some years going in the wrong direction; but it’s way too soon to read the last rites for far longer and larger trends in the right direction.

Comes now John Gray in The Guardian** with an essay boldly headed, “Pinker is Wrong About Violence and War.” The subhead asserts, “[t]he stats are misleading . . . and the idea of moral progress is wishful thinking and just plain wrong.” (My daughter Elizabeth challenged me to respond.)

images-4I was expecting to find, in this lengthy essay, some substantive grappling with Pinker’s arguments and his exhaustive analysis of data, in the light of latterly developments. Not so. Indeed, the essay’s verbosity is inversely proportional to its substance. As Texans say, all hat and no cattle; revealing less about Pinker than about Gray’s pretentious cynicism masquerading as intellectual depth.

Gray does perfunctorily argue that data here “involves complex questions of cause and effect,” citing some ambiguities whose disregard, he says, renders Pinker’s statistics “morally dubious if not meaningless.” images-1But what Gray completely disregards (did he read the book?) is the vast depth in which Pinker examined just such issues (for example, what counts as “war” and how you count casualties), always probing for the reasons and explanations behind the data, to arrive at true understanding.

Rather than get into such nitty-gritty, Gray offers a string of non sequiturs. images-5For instance, unable to rebut Pinker’s analysis of actual history, he invokes counter-factual history – what might have happened, but did not (e.g., Nazis winning WWII). And, after enumerating a few recent violent episodes (yes, it’s no revelation they still occur), Gray says, “Whether they accept the fact or not, advanced societies have become terrains of violent conflict. Rather than war declining, the difference between peace and war has been fatally blurred.”

Fatally! This hyperbolic twaddle is belied by Pinker’s comprehensive exegesis of just how different modern advanced societies are, from earlier ones, in terms of the violence ordinary people encounter in everyday life. Thus Pinker addresses not just war, but every other class of violence – something Gray totally ignores.

Part of Pinker’s explanation for the improvement is the influence of Enlightenment values (just one example: Beccaria’s battle against pervasive torture). But Gray makes the customary shallow and cynical attack on the very idea of Enlightenment values. He cites a few backward views held by Locke, Bentham, and Kant. Which proves what, exactly? And Gray alleges (without specifying) “links between Enlightenment thinking and 20th-century barbarism,” dismissing any denial as “childish simplicity.” Call me childish, but I don’t consider Hitler, Stalin and Mao avatars of Voltairean humanism.

But, again, none of this nonsense represents any serious effort to engage with the analysis Pinker laid out in such depth. images-6And it’s all just a lead-up to Gray’s main point, which is to simply ridicule the whole project of elucidating these matters through statistical evaluation – which he likens to a 16th century magician’s use of a “scrying glass” to access occult messages, or spinning Tibetan prayer wheels. He sees Pinkerites as similarly trying to assuage some existential angst by fetishizing data, reading into it meaning that isn’t there. “Lacking any deeper faith and incapable of living with doubt,” Gray writes, “it is only natural that believers in reason should turn to the sorcery of numbers.”

There you have it. “The sorcery of numbers.” The postmodernist mentality at its worst: there’s no such thing as truth. images-2Don’t even try to understand reality by examining evidence for what’s actually happening. Instead, place reliance on – what? – John Gray’s deeper wisdom, uncontaminated by data? Magicians and sorcery indeed!

True, statistics can be misused, but surely that doesn’t tell us to eschew their use. Pinker recognized that his book challenged conventional wisdom and would be met with a wall of cynicism like Gray’s. Thus he knew he had to build a powerful battering ram of facts and data – accompanied by thoroughgoing and persuasive interpretive analysis – to break through that wall. Unknown-1Pinker’s success is evidenced by Gray’s bemoaning that “the book has established something akin to a contemporary orthodoxy.” If so, that orthodoxy is in no danger of overthrow from such a disgracefully foolish effort as John Gray’s.

* Though there’s been good news in Sri Lanka, and now Nigeria, where voters transcended traditional divisions to oust the ruling party.

** It had also published a similarly cynical and stupid review (by George Monbiot) of Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist.

 

Inequality and Family Culture – A Disagreement With My Wife

March 28, 2015

images-1I recently left my wife a newspaper clipping, writing “Read” on it. She returned the favor by writing “Total Rubbish!” on it.

It was a column by Ross Douthat (a Republican and Christian). He poses the question “whether the social crisis among America’s poor and working class – the collapse of the two-parent family, the weakening of communal ties – is best understood as a problem of economics or culture.” images-2It’s the latter, Douthat says, identifying post-sixties permissiveness as the key, which he faults upper classes for promoting, as acceptable for themselves, but ignoring its effects “on the less-savvy, the less protected, the kids who don’t have helicopter parents.”

My wife dissed the piece as racist and classist, and having no real answer for the problem Douthat fingers. That latter point is fair, the others not. Recognizing that lower class Americans suffer from cultural pathologies is not to blame them; indeed, Douthat again blames the better-off. And as David Brooks has argued, it’s not that lower classes lack the right values or aspirations but, rather, face obstacles living those values in their social environment.

UnknownI have discussed Charles Murray’s 2012 book, Coming Apart, seeing America increasingly divided by class; Douthat too references Murray, and also Our Kids, a newer book by sociologist Robert Putnam (of Bowling Alone fame), similarly describing a growing divide between better-educated and less-educated families.

That is the real root of the inequality we hear so much about. And, as Douthat contends (the reason I found him worth reading), money inequality is not itself the problem, that’s a symptom of the greater fact of cultural difference. It’s not that the rich hog wealth at the expense of the rest, or there’s insufficient redistribution – it’s that too many people are kept back, by cultural dysfunction, from rising out of disadvantage.

Unknown-1Two distinct American family models are at issue. In one, well-educated people marry each other and become the affluent helicopter parents Douthat mentions, raising kids to get similarly educated and replicate the model. Putnam says they give kids protective “air bags” that aren’t usually deployed in the other type of family, which tends to feature neither marriage nor higher education nor (in consequence) affluence. Unknown-2And that too is self-perpetuating. Sure, single moms often make heroic efforts; but the fact is that, on average, for a host of understandable reasons, kids tend to do much better in two-parent families. (Especially well-educated affluent ones.) Children from such families do better on the “marshmallow test” for impulse control, which has been found powerfully predictive for future life success. Stressed single mothers just cannot provide the quantity or quality of parenting that married couples can.

That, again, is America’s great cultural divide, it’s the big reason behind the economic divide – and it’s growing larger. The wage gap keeps widening between the college-educated and others. Unknown-3And while marriage rates remain quite high among well-educated people, for the rest the bottom has fallen out, with a majority of younger mothers now being unmarried.

You cannot argue that economic difficulties are driving this. Because, for all the whining about “these economic times,” in fact – as Douthat highlights – even lower-income citizens have more money, and more safety-net support, than in earlier generations. Yet, he says, those past generations “found a way to cultivate monogamy, fidelity, sobriety and thrift to an extent they have not in our richer, higher-spending present.” And Putnam shows many key ways in which affluent and non-affluent families differ much more now, in habits and culture (like how they talk to and socialize their kids*), than a few decades ago. This inhibits social mobility. Again, married versus unmarried life is key.

Consider this. During the Great Depression, did marriage rates collapse and single parenthood explode? No, they did not, despite far more unemployment, much lower incomes, and much less generous government support. Unknown-4Even black Americans – who suffered not only those Depression era economic challenges, but also far worse discrimination than now – maintained very high marriage rates, with two-parent families predominating. Today black single parenthood is at seventy-three percent.

This is not “the economy, stupid.” This is cultural. Again, economic disadvantage is more a consequence than a cause. Hence better jobs, higher minimum wages, more government benefits, “tax the rich,” etc., can’t fix this. What will? Like Douthat (and Putnam), I don’t have all the answers (though I’ve made some suggestions in my post on the marshmallow test, and here too). But anyhow, at least properly understanding the problem is a necessary starting point.

*At the upper end of the social spectrum, the ambition is kids getting into college. At the other end, it’s kids staying out of jail.

The Criminalization of American Business

March 19, 2015

When the future Gibbon chronicles America’s decline and fall, the war on business will feature prominently.

Unknown-2Some readers will gag. That’s precisely the problem. We demonize business, imagining it controls everything; fictional bad guys are invariably doing ill for profit; “corporate” is a four-letter word, with Wall Street blamed for economic troubles, and business misfeasance seemingly confirmed by repeated multi-billion dollar penalties extracted by government watchdogs.

The left harps on the imperfections of markets; about those of government, not so much. And while in many places businesses do suck, mainly this reflects not free markets at all, but the opposite — crony capitalism and cartelization suborned by the state. Denunciations of the “evils of capitalism” often fail to see that it’s really government behavior behind them.

And here’s the bigger picture. Modernity has made us very rich, compared to past millennia, with people able to live far better lives. (Fools romanticize “the good old days.”) In the last century, worldwide average real dollar incomes multiplied five-fold. Where do you think all this wealth came from? Government? Socialism?

It came from businesses seeking profit by supplying us with desired goods and services. That’s what generates all the wealth and income to buy them with. The capitalist, market system. Hate it all you like, but you cannot live without it.*

Yet it seems we’re trying to kill this goose that lays our golden eggs.

images-2A recent issue of The Economist looked critically at the mentioned parade of payments by companies to settle charges of wrongdoing, topped by Bank of America’s $17 billion in August. You might think if BofA agreed to that, it must have done something really naughty. Not necessarily. As The Economist stressed, these settlements typically don’t make public the details of the supposed misdeeds, which remain murky. But in one major example I’ve discussed, where the true story did emerge, the case against the bank clearly made no sense.**

Why then would they settle? Because to fight the government in such cases is suicidal even if you’re guiltless.*** Accounting firm Arthur Andersen did fight, and won vindication in the Supreme Court – a pyrrhic victory since by then the firm had been destroyed. This is why The Economist bluntly called all this an “extortion racket” – “the world’s most lucrative shakedown operation.”

I’ve always said that “unfettered capitalism” is a nonsense straw-man – just as individuals are subject to laws against harmful conduct, businesses should be too. UnknownBut as The Economist pointed out, the market does a very good job of punishing truly errant companies. Competitors will make sure misdeeds are publicized; customers and investors will flee; share prices will plummet. This penalty is far greater than any exacted by government.

Meantime, corporations face extortion not only by government predators, but also lawyers in the class action litigation racket. I’ve written about this epic scandal too.

China has no rule of law because enforcement is totally at government’s arbitrary whim. Lately it’s been on a rampage against foreign-owned businesses and their personnel, with selective prosecutions for various ill-defined “offenses.” But America isn’t far behind, with metastasizing business regulations carrying criminal penalties (estimated at 300,000 in 1991; apparently no one has tried to count them since). Result: no company can fail to be guilty of something. So that prosecution is necessarily selective, which inherently corrupts it. Former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson said in 2011, “No matter how gold-plated your corporate compliance efforts, no matter how upstanding your workforce, no matter how hard one tries, large corporations today are walking targets for criminal liability.”

images-3But at least large ones can manage the huge costs of trying to comply with the ever-deepening thicket of regulatory and paperwork requirements, and defending themselves. Small ones cannot – a big reason why their job creation – historically the most vibrant part of our economy – has been faltering. It’s increasingly hard to start and sustain a small business in today’s overbearing regulatory environment. (Click here for an outrageous example of small business screwed over by state government.)

The Economist concluded by saying “the recent flood of actions against companies has . . . done serious harm, to America’s legal system and the rule of law.” And of course it also seriously harms our economy.

* And, much though you may curse “the corporations,” if you actually stop to ponder, you are actually quite pleased about 99% of what you buy from them.

** The Economist noted that the very first federal criminal conviction of a corporation, in 1909, a railroad, was “for the bizarre offense of cutting prices.”

*** And the payments come from the pockets of shareholders – not the executives who agree to them. The Economist also observes that it’s wrong to suppose government enforcers act disinterestedly for the public good. They have their own agendas – puffing up their egos and careers.

 

The Edmund Pettus Bridge – 50 Years Later

March 7, 2015

Edmund Pettus was a Confederate soldier, Klansman, and U.S. Senator. It’s an irony that the bridge named for him became a landmark for black rights.

images-1Fifty years ago today, peaceful civil rights marchers on that bridge were met with unspeakable violence. It’s not ancient history; I remember it; this tells us how much has changed – how much can change – in a short time. (Short in the grand sweep of human events.)

I think about that bridge often. Those marchers knew what was coming. But none ran away. Courage is not a lack of fear – only a fool would have been unafraid in that march. Courage is going ahead, doing what one must do, in spite of the fear.*

One who did was John Lewis. John Lewis had already been seriously beaten, more than once, during the “freedom rides” to integrate bus travel. It didn’t deter him; he was badly beaten again on the Edmund Pettus bridge. Lucky to be alive, today he’s a Congressman. I’m proud of an America whose Congress includes a John Lewis.

imagesOf course America has not ascended to perfection; it’s always a work in progress. We’ve just had the report on Ferguson, documenting how its black citizens are systematically victimized by the police, in fact, milked as cash cows. Not long ago I wrote of how costly it is to be poor in America. I should have added, especially when black; Ferguson is Exhibit A.

images-2Yet the Edmund Pettus bridge marchers did achieve a lot. America’s saving grace is democracy; the power of the vote is the ultimate power. When, as a result of that 1960s movement, southern blacks got the vote, it changed everything. Today, the state with the highest number of black elected officials is Mississippi.

* It’s easy to pontificate on a blog; much harder to face a billy club. I’ve never been tested like that. But at least I know enough to appreciate what it means to live in a peaceful society free of such trials – for most of us, at least.

“Far From the Tree” – Parenting Non-normal Children

February 27, 2015

images-2Sometimes while reading I must stop, and shut my eyes, to absorb, process and recover from some shocker. This happened a lot with Andrew Solomon’s 2012 book, Far From The Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. It concerns non-normal children – mostly with deficits – deaf, autistic, disabled, etc.

“Deficit” is already a fraught word; the subtitle’s mention of “identity” is telling. We see here an element of identity politics, that is, based not on interests or beliefs but, rather, personal characteristics like ethnicity or sexuality. UnknownA major example is people who see their deafness not as a problem but as their identity. Indeed, there is deaf chauvinism, opposing medical ameliorations of deafness (mainly, cochlear implants), even equating them with genocide (killing deaf culture by depopulating it).

The argument is that they’re not defective but different, and it’s understandable that a deaf person might resent the concept of “cure” as implying something wrong. True, deaf culture, within its own boundaries, is a rich one, and adds to the overall diversity of human culture, which might be seen as diminished were deaf culture lost. imagesBut, to quote Robert Frost, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” – and deaf culture lies behind one, sealed off, not completely but partially, largely inaccessible by the rest of human culture. And, politically incorrect though it may be to point out the obvious, four senses are less than five.*

Pluralism is central to the concept of a truly democratic society. And everyone should be empowered to live the best lives they can. However, when we see “neurodiversity” advocates holding in effect that autism ought to be honored as though it were a lifestyle choice, that goes too far. Sure, autistics can and should live rewarding lives. But there is something very important missing. No one should argue this is not tragic.

Central to this book is what parental love is. It’s easy enough to bloviate all day about the ordinary kind. images-1But the book’s numerous personal stories often depict extraordinary circumstances, that stress-test the concept. Loving deaf children is no surprise, but then there are the children from Hell, turning their parents’ lives into painful, grueling ordeals.

Yet even they are loved. One can understand parents accepting responsibility toward even the most unresponsive, even anti-responsive, offspring; but love? What’s to love? one’s rational mind wants to ask. But while love often does have a (perhaps unconsciously) rational component, of course love is not entirely a manifestation of human rationality. Often it seemed the love depicted in the book existed for its own sake. Parents love children from Hell because, well, they just do. (And sometimes children love parents from Hell.)

Thus one striking impression from this book is that the world is full of saints. Unknown-1Now, admittedly, some selection bias clearly operated; Solomon talks only about people who were willing to talk to him; and few (at least in the medical-type situations) were non-affluent or culturally from the other side of the tracks. But I’ve never believed well-off or upper class people are inherently “better” than others. So if those in the book behaved well, that speaks about human universals.

And in fact, in case after case, people thrown-for-a-loop with an unexpected non-normal child rallied their inner resources and responded to the situation in ways they could never have foreseen. Yet I was not surprised; having long since grown to understand this human characteristic. Again and again, people do rise to the occasion, with an extraordinary capacity for responding to extraordinary situations in extraordinary ways.

Then there’s the chapter about children of rape. Few saints here; a parade of horrors and depravity (refer back to my first sentence). Of course we mustn’t “blame the victim.” And yet Solomon was struck how often being victimized and abused reflected an inability to foresee danger in one’s choices. “Every bad thing that befell them, even at the hands of previous aggressors, came as a surprise. They could not tell the difference between people who warranted trust and those who didn’t.” Why? Their childhood experience. “They did not know what caring behavior felt like, so they were unable to recognize it.”

Unknown-2What a contrast – the loving parental nurture of even profoundly disabled children, versus parenting of initially normal children that turned them into emotionally disabled people. But even some of those latter stories had good redemptive endings, with protagonists ultimately able to rise above all that had gone wrong in their lives. The good outweighs the bad; the tears of love outweigh those of rage.

That’s the human story. It makes me a humanist – a lover of humankind – and an optimist.

 

 

* I’m normally a stickler for the distinction between “less” and “fewer.” But sometimes rules must be broken. Here, “less” is the more fitting word.


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