Former Grist staff writer Brentin Mock (now with CityLab) wrote an excellent article for Outside Magazine on the imperative for traditional green organizations to adopt racial justice as a central priority to their work. Doing so, he argues, is the only way to right these groups’ racist legacy and to remain relevant and powerful into the future.
My new morning mindfulness practice? Taking a minute each morning to ponder Dictonary.com’s Word of the Day. I find a weird calm and focus in contemplating a single word, as well as outsized joy in learning each one’s etymology (pro tip: there’s an app!). Some recent favorites: ataraxia, kanone, feinschmecker, bonzer, craquelure, fress, and scapegrace. I follow this up with reading aloud The Poetry Foundation’s Poem of the Day, and my word-nerd heart is momentarily content.
Last week, I read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. This week, I read the late Harvard Law Professor William J. Stuntz’s book The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, an incisive, provocative, and impossible-to-politically-pigeonhole survey of mass incarceration in the United States. The latter sometimes contradicts but often complements the former. It’s a scholarly survey of the ways that mass incarceration took over in the United States. It lays out a series of changes that sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally malformed American criminal law and enforcement into its current punitive, racially disparate, not-very-just, and not-very-good-at-crime-prevention form: Supreme Court rulings over the decades that enshrined procedural protections for defendants but left substantive questions of criminal law untouched; suburbanization of the electorate for county prosecutors (and jury pools) that diluted the political weight of high-crime urban neighborhoods; the codification and endless proliferation of criminal statutes by legislatures that give discretion and power to prosecutors but remove most compensating discretion from judges and juries; the soaring rate of plea bargains occasioned by those changes, to where 96 percent of US felony convictions are from plea bargains, not trials; the use of drug and weapons charges as easier-to-prove proxies for violent crime charges; and more. A friendly critic reviewed Stuntz’s book here (providing a great synopsis).
I also read Race, Incarceration, and American Values (2008 MIT Press), which captures an extended academic lecture on mass incarceration by economist Glenn Loury, along with responses from three other scholars of the subject. Short, beautiful, learned arguments about an immense injustice.
This preliminary survey of state prison directors tentatively suggests, meanwhile, that—although US prisons house ten times more people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other severe mental illnesses (SMIs) than do psychiatric care facilities—at least the use of solitary confinement for those with SMI may be less widespread than previously believed. Or it may have diminished. Perhaps 30 or 40 percent of the general prison population suffers SMI, according to previous studies. This survey found a lower number of just 8 percent and, fortunately, the number of prisoners with SMIs in solitary confinement was a tenth as high.
The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert has taken a though-provoking but sobering review of recent literature on the many flaws in human reason: our overconfidence in our own opinions; our resistance to changing our minds, even when confronted with overwhelming evidence that we’re wrong; our joy both in reading evidence that supports our preconceived notions and in rejecting ideas that conflict with them. Much of the blame, according to some researchers, can be traced to our evolutionary past: our powers of “reasoning,” these researchers posit, were designed to enforce social conformity and win power struggles rather than discern truths about the world. As Kolbert puts it, “Habits of mind that seem weird or goofy or just plain dumb from an ‘intellectualist’ point of view prove shrewd when seen from a social ‘interactionist’ perspective.”
I also highly recommend Elizabeth Kolbert’s latest at the New Yorker, “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds.” She examines some of the copious evidence that we, all of us, form strong beliefs in completely irrational ways, but she also suggests a potential remedy: people who are asked to provide detailed explanations for their beliefs tend to reduce their intensity.
Related, at Foreign Policy, David Rothkopt takes aim not at the so-called “deep state” but at the emerging “shallow state.” Speaking of its supporters he writes:
…are threatened by what they don’t understand, and what they don’t understand is almost everything. Indeed, from evolution to data about our economy to the science of vaccines to the threats we face in the world, they reject vast subjects rooted in fact in order to have reality conform to their worldviews. They don’t dig for truth; they skim the media for anything that makes them feel better about themselves. To many of them, knowledge is not a useful tool but a cunning barrier elites have created to keep power from the average man and woman. The same is true for experience, skills, and know-how. These things require time and work and study and often challenge our systems of belief. Truth is hard; shallowness is easy.
His argument is most forceful when he zeros in on the meaning of slashing federal funding for the arts and humanities:
Art is not an adornment to society. It is not a luxury. It is the purpose of society. It becomes our legacy. It is also, however, our teacher; it helps us consider that which is around us and what we want to be. It makes demands on us that in turn lead us to place demands on ourselves and those with whom we live and work.
As an antidote, perhaps, this video of Mr. Rogers defending his program before the US Senate in 1969 is very much worth watching. There’s more decency and kindness on display in 5 minutes there than it feels like I’ve seen in several months.
Mars and Venus, you say? Here’s a refreshing—and apparently exhaustive and incisive—study of the cultural constructions of gender difference, by Aussie academic Cordelia Fine, who dissects why they’re wrong and how we got them in the first place. She apparently pulls no punches and is funny to wit. This book is going on my to-read list for sure. Meanwhile, the review by Annie Murphy Paul is a treat, too:
If you hear a metallic rasp as you open the cover of Cordelia Fine’s new book, don’t be alarmed. It’s just the sound of the author sharpening her knives, the better to carve up the carcass of what she calls ‘Testosterone Rex’: the big, scaly body of assumptions, preconceptions, conjectures and distortions regarding ‘what men are like’ and ‘what women are like.’ Fine takes on this king of all biases with admirable vigor, and it’s a pleasure—albeit a strenuous one—to follow the action as she dismembers the beast.
Based on findings from a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, the red and blue divide among American voters looks to be nothing compared to the split in attitudes between young and old. “The divided opinions on Donald Trump’s young presidency are well known, but the gulf between those in the millennial and baby boomer age groups are stark and may hold the biggest long-term political impact.”
These stark differences in attitudes are all the more reason to listen to my strategic communication hero, Anat Shenker-Osorio, who reminds us to stop watering down messages to try to please everybody. You wind up pleasing no one and sounding like you don’t really have a strong position at all. Anat writes: “The problem with a message that attempts to turn no one off is that it cannot fire up the most enthusiastic believers. Messaging based on mitigating backlash must pull punches. The base may nod along. But they won’t be parroting your words to others.” Here’s my quick-reference cheat sheet on Anat’s strategy.
A recent Vox headline declares “voters really are less likely to vote for minority candidates.” But the voters described are not general election voters; they are Illinois Republican primary voters. Primary voters in the US tend to be whiter, older, and wealthier than general election voters. Indeed, digging into the study reveals that Illinois Republican primary voters are 97 percent white, have a mean age of 60, and live in higher-income neighborhoods. So an alternative headline could have been: Primary voters are mostly white and are more likely to vote for white candidates, giving general election voters fewer choices.
It turns out, health insurance is really complicated. But we keep debating the simple question of “who should pay?” when we should be asking:
- Whom do we pay?
- How do we pay them?
- For what, exactly, are we paying?
Health insurance and health care should be so much better than what we have in the United States. Maybe our leaders will get tired of running into a wall and start asking better questions.
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You may have heard me say we should all have a basic income. Now, thanks to GiveDirectly, thousands of people in Kenya are going to get one for two or twelve years, and the rest of us are going to get to see how well it works.
Is constitutional democracy in danger?
It was once thought that when a reasonably wealthy country achieved democracy, it would almost certainly maintain it. No more.
Democratic backsliding is far less rare than political scientists used to believe. In a recent academic paper, we identified 37 instances in 25 different countries in the postwar period in which democratic quality declined significantly (though a fully authoritarian regime didn’t emerge). That is, roughly one out of eight countries experienced measurable decay in the quality of their democratic institutions.
Scholars used to argue that democracy, once attained in a fairly wealthy state, would become a permanent fixture. As the late Juan Linz put it, democracy would become “the only game in town.” That belief turned out to be merely hopeful, not a reality.
Concerning the “deregulatory fever” in our nation’s capital, I have my own suggestion on a way to reduce the number of regulations and improve protections for public health simultaneously: one could consider each food-use of a pesticide as a separate regulation because each allowed use has its own “tolerance,” an allowed concentration of a given pesticide on a food item. In fact, the most recent set of federal regulations lists over 80 tolerances for just Chlorpyrifos and/or its toxic metabolites on food items. In other words, entirely revoking food uses for Chlorpyrifos would clearly boost protections for workers and the general public, plus it would effectively eliminate 80 regulations at a stroke, thereby allowing EPA to issue 40 more protections for health or the environment.
Are readers aware that a small discrepancy in the measurement of an astronomical “constant” may require fine-tuning the “standard model” of the universe? Details, including some cool Hubble telescope photos, here.
John Abbotts is a former Sightline research consultant who occasionally submits material for Weekend Reading and other posts.