Friday, March 27, 2015

Ruminations about the Good Life

Last week I ran across a video from the Getty Museum that showed how illustrated manuscripts were made around the year 1000. The process began with transforming animal hides into parchment. That was a long, laborious undertaking of scraping, stretching, treating the hides until they became soft and smooth surfaces that would take up ink and paint and would, unlike paper, last literally for more than 1000 years.
Preparing the parchment was just the beginning, then a scribe would slowly and laboriously write out the text after having prepared his ink and cut a goose quill just right. The letters were placed on the page one by one, one next to the other, each exactly the same size, each straight up and down.
Once the text was done, came the illustrators with their elaborate designs and miniature

paintings in gold leaf and many colors.

This work took a very long time and a great deal of effort. It required enormous concentration. Multitasking was not possible when the task at hand required your complete attention. Not everybody could do this work. It took many years of patient apprenticeship and practice to acquire the necessary skills.
Two characteristics stand out in this process. Whatever people did in 1000 took a great deal of effort. That was not only true of producing illuminated manuscripts. It started early in the morning when someone had to revive the remaining coals in the stove or the fireplace to make a new fire for cooking breakfast. No automatic coffee makers or other labor saving devices. Every part of the day required physical effort, concentration. Life was a struggle.
Our life today is totally different. Ease and lack of effort are supreme goals. We buy many devices because they will, their manufacturers tell us, save effort and make life easier. An easy life is nice. But after you have run 5 miles as fast as you can and are really out of breath you have accomplished something. After driving 5 miles, what have you achieved?
It is not an accident that having children is so important to us because having and raising children has not become any easier than it was a long time ago. Children still are new persons every day, and will challenge us in many ways. There is no way of automating child-rearing. There are no machines to deal with uncomfortable questions, unreasonable demands, or temper tantrums. When your children are grown up you know that you have accomplished something very difficult and you take pride in it, however it works out.
You do not take pride in the coffee your automatic coffee maker made during all those years.
To the extent that life has been made easy by all sorts of labor saving devices and by having other people do things for you that you used to do yourself, such as buying ready-made clothes sewn in China or Thailand instead of making then yourself, life has become awfully convenient but not very satisfying. After a long life you may take pride in all the good bread you baked, but you will not take pride in all the sliced bread you bought in the supermarket.
What we do is worth doing when it requires an effort. Challenges are worth taking up. Having exerted yourself to accomplish something that you found difficult, that you barely pulled off because you put in some extra energy and concentration, gives real satisfaction. Popping a TV dinner in the microwave and pushing the button does not. (Obviously not everything difficult is worthwhile doing, but few things that are easy foster contentment.)
There's a second way in which our world is very different from that long gone day when life was difficult and challenging.
I learned about the illuminated manuscripts from a video. I stumbled on this video through an app called "StumbleUpon" which literally provides you with a series of random websites some of which may interest you, many of which do not. There are millions upon millions of websites, every day brings more. There are Facebook pages, twitter messages, etc. etc.
There is the Super Bowl, and hardly is that past when we have March Madness while we already follow our favorite baseball team in spring training. Soon it is opening day and then there are the golf tournaments and the car racing.
And all the while people are making youtube videos that go viral and which you don't want to miss. There are not only new trends but millions of people pretending to start new trends and in all this madness you are rushing as fast as you can and you can't keep up.
The most common description of who we are, these days, is "extremely busy." We do too many things. Few of any of them occupy as fully. Our attention is scattered and concentration lacking. We are extremely busy with things which require few skills, require no physical or intellectual effort, are done in the blink of an eye, and do not require concentrated attention.
At the end of a busy day what have we done? What have we accomplished? Who are we?
In this setting it is very difficult to have a sense of oneself as a clearly defined person, who does a difficult job patiently with concentration and considerable effort. In this setting it is very easy to lose oneself, it is very difficult to have any sense of oneself at all.
The lives we lead in this supercharged culture overwhelm us with stimulation but make it very difficult to take satisfaction in accomplishing challenging tasks. It is difficult to be in touch with who we are in a world where innumerable things constantly demand our immediate attention.
Is ours the good life in 2015?

Friday, March 20, 2015

Resisting racism

Racism is so deeply entrenched in our culture that few, if any, whites can honestly say that they never catch themselves thinking racist thoughts. It behooves all white Americans to continue struggling against the profound hold racism has on our attitudes.
But it is also important to understand that many institutional injustices need to be confronted.
I mentioned in a previous blog that using and selling marijuana are as common among white young people as they are among young blacks but, by and large, only the black young men end up in prison. Wildly unfair law enforcement practices need to be targeted if we are going to reduce racial injustice.
Wealth and income have a great deal to do with who ends up in prison and who does not. It is completely unacceptable that in a nation which prides itself on adhering to the rule of law, poverty automatically increases one's likelihood of ending up in prison. An adequately financed and staffed legal defense service needs to be run by various government agencies in order to reduce racial injustice.
In many cities neighborhoods inhabited primarily by persons of color have the worst public transportation. At the same time more people in those neighborhoods cannot afford to maintain reliable automobiles and are therefore dependent on efficient public transportation to go to their jobs. Planning public transportation so as to enable the people most in need of it to get to work, is an important priority in the face of racial inequalities.
In New York City rent-controlled public housing has more building code violations, such as leaking water pipes, than so-called "market value" housing. People with low incomes, many of the persons of color, are not adequately protected by the cities code inspection and enforcement department.
Many other cities have similar experiences: housing in poor neighborhoods is poorly inspected. Building codes are not enforced against landlords in those neighborhoods.
Black children, a new study shows, are seven times more likely than other children to grow up in the worst neighborhoods in the country. If they are stuck in the poorest neighborhoods from age 1 to 17, only 76 percent will graduate by age 20, compared to 96 percent of black children in affluent neighborhoods.
Of course, you don't have to be black to suffer from bad surroundings. Among non-black youth, 87 percent graduate from high school if they grow up in the poorest neighborhoods, compared to 95 percent from affluent neighborhoods.
The longer children spend in bad neighborhoods, the worse their chances of graduating from high school, researchers found.” (
These residential differences and the resultant educational deficits for children growing up in poor neighborhood is directly reflected in differences in the median income between White and Black families. For every dollar earned by a White family, a Black family brings home 60 cents. Lower educational levels of the children growing up in poor neighborhoods accounts in part for that difference. So does the assignment of lower paying jobs to Blacks and Hispanics.
One of the results of all these limitations placed on young black men and women is that they feel profoundly devalued. Their confidence in their own abilities is really low. Young Black persons, when given the opportunity, for instance, to attend a good college are so intimidated, they sometimes cannot function. (
These observations have several important implications. While it is important for whites to keep working on enhancing their awareness of their own racist attitudes, doing so is not enough. There are a number of clear and blatant injustices that need to end. Only citizen activism will do that. Blacks and Whites holding hands and singing “We Shall Overcome” will not do the job.
The second implication is tactical. It is not helpful to call various government agents – from police officers to school board members to code enforcement apartments – "racist." That just makes everybody really defensive. It is preferable to press for these different government departments to do their job properly, to enforce existing law in all communities, to provide first-class schools in all parts of the city, to enforce building codes against all landlords, not only the landlords in middle-class communities.
It is time to stop talking quite so much about racism and to make the many different changes that are so urgently needed by demanding that government do its job as mandated by law.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Racist Cops”

When the Black Panthers first organized in Oakland in 1966—close to 50 years ago—their Ten Point Program called for an end to (white) police brutality in black neighborhoods. “ 7. We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people, other people of color and all oppressed people inside the United States.”
Fast forward to Ferguson and we see the same demand, louder to be sure, but still the same demand.
Nothing has changed in the last 59 years. How can we have a Black president, a Black Attorney General, a Black Supreme Court Justice but nothing is changed for the Black kids on the block?
How can we explain this to ourselves? What lessons can we draw for changing this disgraceful situation?
Many people give a two-word answer: “Racist Cops” thereby oversimplifying a complex situation. They make it impossible to make change because they are not willing to think carefully about why police rampages continue in Black communities.
Racist Cops” is as biased a statement as what many whites say or think about young Black men being unwilling to work, being unwilling to take responsibility for their actions. The one statement, as much as the other accuses large numbers of people of negative attitudes. As long as each sides parades its prejudices, we cannot move forward.
It has struck me for a while that when policemen shoot at young Black men they appear to shoot to kill, not to disable, not to throw off their presumed attackers. Individual policemen do not make up the rules. Their shooting to kill must be approved by police chiefs, by the mayors and city councils to whom the police chief answers. The racism here is not limited to the police but to the people who run our cities and towns.
Some of these people, for instance city councilors, are elected. The permission for policemen to shoot to kill has not to my knowledge ever been an issue in city elections. How many citizens have quizzed their city-council candidates on that issue? Ordinary voters are involved, however peripherally, in making rules for police conduct. White liberals who say “Racist Cops” are evading their own complicity.
Michelle Alexander has been writing and speaking eloquently about the mass incarceration of young Black men. Studies show that among young men, Whites are as often involved in trading and/or using marijuana than Blacks. But Blacks are six times as likely to be incarcerated as whites.
Here is where the “racist cops” explanation is seriously incomplete. Policemen make the arrest. But it is the prosecutor who asks for a long prison sentence, preferably for a felony conviction. A judge instead of chastising the prosecutorial staff, cooperates and sends the young man away for five years.
Prisons are often private enterprises whose profits go up with every additional prisoner. Prison corporations are known to lobby legislature for increasing mandatory sentences, and legislatures cooperate. The main motivations are familiar capitalist desires to increase profits; racism is not the main issue.
Prisoners come under the care of parole officers at the end of their terms.
Here are prosecutors, judges, legislatures and the parole system—all of whom see every day the overwhelming preponderance of prisoners of color, but no one raises an alarm. The entire judicial and the entire criminal justice system cooperate in perpetrating gross injustices. If we were satisfied to blame the policemen's racism we would miss completely the pervasive injustices encountered at every turn in our system of legislation, law enforcement and “corrections.”
But there is more.
It is a commonplace that “everyone commits crimes—only the poor get punished for it.” Unable to pay for a good lawyer, the poor are inadequately represented in court, often by lawyers completely unprepared for mounting a serious defense. Many localities jail people for not paying fines. Poor people unable pay fines return to prison. Middle class people and the rich pay and get on with their life.
The problems of young Black men with the criminal justice system have to do with a complex system corroded by racial injustices. But those difficulties are intensified by the pervasive poverty of the same Black young men. Our society is unfair to people doing the low-paying jobs. One large source of the injustices perpetrated against young black men and more and more against black women is the result of our economic system which produces increasing numbers of poor people.
If we strive for racial justice, we must stop putting all the blame on the police. We must call out the gross failures of the economic system to provide a decent living for every hard working citizen, and the failure of that same economic system to provide decent employment for everyone. We must also see clearly that prosecutors, judges, legislatures, in cities, states and at the federal levels and voters are all involved in this by refusing to challenge the ongoing injustices of the criminal and judicial system.
It is just too easy to say “Racist Cops.” The troubles of Blacks in the US are much more extensive and what I have mentioned so far is only a small part of the entire range of persecutions and inequalities.
Predominantly white legislatures in most states have passed laws that disenfranchise felons. In Ferguson a third or more of Blacks are convicted felons who cannot vote. That is one reason why a city with a Black majority of 67% is governed by an elected white City Council, a White city manager, a white police chief and a predominantly white police force.
Felons, however, are not only disenfranchised. More often than not they cannot find work. They cannot work—except in some illegal activity. They are unable to maintain their families. Trying to do so will soon land them in jail again.
In recent days a research institute at Brandeis documented the sharp rise in unequal asset ownership between whites and Blacks. The report states that ”in 2011 the median White household had $111,146 in wealth holdings, compared to just $7,113 for the median Black household and $8,348 for the median Latino household”--a difference of more than $100,000.00 in assets!--reflecting many factors, among them residential segregation in our cities which, in turn, reflects racial discrimination. But it also reflects the lower wages earned by many Blacks, the glaring inadequacy of many schools in Black neighborhoods. And, of course, it also reflects once again the mass-incarceration of young Blacks and the economic disaster a felony conviction is.
The list of restraints imposed on persons of color seems to have no end.