The Prison Reformer

– The prisons appear to be massively overcrowded.

– Then we shall build gleaming new prisons, with ample space!

– The prisons appear to have squalid and unhealthy conditions.

– Then we shall build gleaming new prisons, sanitary and clinical!

Young people are being housed in the adult prison, and getting stabbed and abused.

– Then we shall build a gleaming new prison, just for the young!

– Is there any problem you wouldn’t solve by building more prisons?

– I am not sure I understand the question.

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The Most Infuriating Paragraph I Have Ever Read

The most infuriating paragraph I have ever read was written by a law professor named Paul Campos in 2012. It goes like this:

You have to be pretty rich in this country before you start thinking of legal services as necessities rather than luxuries. Another thought experiment: how much money have you, dear reader, ever spent on legal services? If you are broadly speaking middle class the answer is more probably than not “nothing.”  This is why lawyers who don’t work for rich people or corporations or the government are slowly or not so slowly going broke: because ordinary people, let alone poor ones, generally don’t employ professional legal services except in very limited circumstances (some but not most divorces, bankruptcies, arrests for minor but not too minor crimes. principally DUI). If the people who control entry into the New York bar are so concerned about helping poor people, it would be far better to simply require members of the bar to give poor people money, rather than offering them free legal services, which most poor people at most times will find, in comparison to various far more pressing needs — food, shelter, clothes, transportation, medical care etc. — about as useful as an annotated copy of Finnegans Wake.

Now look, you can perfectly reasonably argue that free legal services are an inefficient means of helping the poor, that there would be vastly greater benefits to mandating that lawyers give money to the poor for those more essential things than give time providing legal services. Perfectly debatable. That part of Campos’s argument is not the reason this is the most infuriating paragraph I have ever read. No, it’s infuriating because what you cannot argue is that legal services are not useful to poor people. Paul Campos has no clue what he’s talking about.

There are hundreds of stages in the lives of poor people where a lawyer would be extremely helpful indeed, and where the fact that one isn’t available causes harm to people’s lives. Poor criminal defendants are given hardly any representation before being thrown in prison for decades. Employers illegally steal employees’ wages that they cannot get back because they don’t have the resources to pursue a legal claim. People are foreclosed upon and evicted without any real negotiation and without ever making valid legal defenses. Landlords leave places in horrible conditions in violations of rental codes, and people don’t know how to get remedies. The elderly are abused and neglected and robbed. Children are expelled from school for minor infractions, or taken from their parents, or sent to detention facilities. Debt collectors harass people over charges that they don’t actually owe. People are beaten by the police, who seize their possessions and refuse to return them. Landlords illegally discriminate against Section 8 tenants and families, and employers discriminate against minority applicants, with none having any way to enforce their legal claims.

There are thousands of cases where poor people need advocates or negotiators, because the enforcement of their rights takes specialized knowledge and a lot of time. Legal services organizations and public defenders in this country are almost universally swamped with work; I have never met a single lawyer serving poor people pro bono who finds themselves lacking work. Paul Campos could not be more wrong, as there is a vast unmet demand for free legal services.

It’s striking, though, that this extremely obvious fact can seem so non-obvious to Campos. How could he be so oblivious? But note the lifestyle he describes, the one where legal services are rarely needed. It’s the lifestyle of the upper middle class, the lifestyle of law professors like Campos. It rings true for me, too; I’ve never needed a lawyer either. But Campos should consider the possibility that not all lives are like his own. He and I are fine without lawyers, because we are powerful; our wealth and status and training give us excellent negotiating power with landlords and creditors and judges. Similarly, I don’t ever have to feel afraid of cops; cops have always treated me fine. But life isn’t like that for everyone, and legal services are one of the few, imperfect ways that the balance of power can be slightly evened out between poor people and the swarm of authoritarian institutions that are trying to screw them out of their money and freedom at every turn.

Riots Aren’t Violence

In replying to calls to condemn the violence of Baltimore rioting, the standard progressive argument was as follows: it is unfair and hypocritical to ask for the disaffected of Baltimore to remain peaceful, given that they have been violently besieged by the police for many years. In the war waged by the police upon the poor, why should only one side be held to a standard of pure restraint? As Ryan Cooper at The Week points out, violence emerges in a context, a context of long-term structural poverty and despair for which those who chide rioters bear some responsibility. In a related vein, Scott G. Brown at the Washington Post defended violence as an occasional necessity in the pursuit of civil rights gains.

All of this is correct, but it misses a crucial point: when people get hurt or killed, that’s violence, but riots and looting in themselves simply aren’t violence to begin with. Violence is not committed against property, it is committed against people. The ethics of property destruction can certainly be debated, but to label it violence is to expand the use of the term in a way that dangerously blurs the distinction between the moral value of people and that of objects. Right and left alike are discussing whether violent protest is acceptable, without noticing that most of the acts under discussion aren’t actually violent. Setting fire to a police car may be shocking, but so long as the car is the only one harmed, we have chaos but not violence.

It’s important to maintain a clear concept of what violence is and isn’t, because true violence is such a deeply terrible human experience. Actual violence leaves people with brain damage, nightmares, disability, and trauma. The destruction of human bodies is a moral horror that simply cannot exist in the same category as the breaking of glass. Using the word “violence” to describe the smashing of a window (which is, it should not need saying, incapable of feeling pain) diminishes the term. Seeing harm to inanimate objects as violent also creates all kinds of definitional contradictions. What kind of harm to an object comprises violence? Is it a violent act to recreationally shoot a glass bottle with a BB gun? To take apart an air conditioner?

It is no surprise that the right wants to equate property and personhood. The wealthy, who live comfortable lives largely free of violence, enjoy pitying themselves by pretending that filing one’s taxes is like being tied up and held hostage. This conflation is what causes wealthy investors like Tom Perkins and Steven Schwarzman to start comparing Obama to Hitler every time he proposes a tiny hike in the marginal tax rate. If financial harm is the same as physical harm, then collecting a tax is the vicious slaughter of defenseless dollars. By making these sorts of arguments, conservatives trivialize the pain of every single victim of violence in recorded human history. Nothing that occurs to a business owner on a spreadsheet can ever approach the seriousness of even a minor bodily wound.

Expansive uses of the term violence are not the exclusive provenance of the right, however. On the left, many hold the idea that some uses of language are in themselves violent. A slippage occurs by which violence comes to apply not just to physical harm to human bodies, but to anything that can be analogized with such harm. Social theorist Judith Butler says the excluded “suffer the violence of derealization,” by which she means being disregarded, not being injured. Tabias Wilson at Gawker classifies as violence “the forced circumcision of blackness from queerness, and queerness from masculinities,” and says that discriminatory hiring practices constitute violence. This left-wing habit, of slipping from describing something as being like violence to describing it as actually being violence, trivializes violence just as much as the corresponding right-wing libertarian habit.

So words are not violence, and neither is looting. Violence is violence, actual physical harm to human beings. Yes, it’s important to point out the justifications for violence in self-defense of a community. But it’s even more important to point out the basic flawed premise: that police beatings and arrests, which are done to actual humans, exist in the same league as the stealing of televisions and bags of chips.

Racist Speech and Heroic Speech are Not Mutually Exclusive

“You may say anything you like in this country, as long as it isn’t racist.” So said the sign at the border.

In a country with such a law, free speech has an obvious serious curtailment. But perhaps everyone in the country is perfectly fine with it. None of them is a racist, so why should they care? Not a single thing that anyone would like to say is being restricted. Why, they reason, would anyone think this law was unfair unless they were a racist? Racist speech is valueless.

I don’t want to debate their reasoning right now; there are all kinds of good replies about creeping government power and the impossibility of adjudication. Instead, I want to assume that you and I already share an American conception of free speech: that except  for the tiniest possible category of actual violence-inducing speech, all speech should in principle remain permissible. A blanket prohibition on racist speech is an intolerable restriction on the liberty of human communication.

Now, if we do believe in this conception of free speech, what ought we to do? We’re not racists, obviously. But I honestly think in a society that restricts a certain category of speech, it can be a heroic act to disobediently utter that speech. Racism is abominable. But somebody who said racist things, not because they believed them but because they wanted to vigorously fight for the ability to say them, could be doing the right thing. It is laudable to force the society into a position where it had to punish by force that which had previously been punished only through informal pressure.* It is civil disobedience in the pursuit of a just cause.

I bring this up in reference to the tiny scandal over a bunch of writers being upset that Charlie Hebdo is being given a free speech award. Yes, Charlie Hebdo should be able to freely publish their offensive cartoons, they say, but there’s no need to recognize uttering offensive speech as something noble.

I disagree, though. If we live in a society where there is a threat of violence against anyone who says an offensive thing, and because I believe this is wrong I intentionally say an offensive thing in order to resist the threat, that is a heroic act. An important distinction here seems to be whether the speaker really means the content. If I’m a Nazi, and I issue racist statements because I am a Nazi, and am punished, I have been mistreated. Yet I’m not an especially honorable person, since my motivation for the act was being a Nazi; I am trying to make the society worse, not better.** But say I’m completely apolitical. I am motivated not by internal racism, but by a belief that somebody ought to try to push the limits of what can be said, so that the ability can be preserved for all. Honoring me would not be honoring “a racist” but somebody who said hideously offensive things because they thought those things needed to be said, not for their content but for the sake of extending the ability to speak.

I tend to think Charlie Hebdo is heroic because I see them as these sort of speakers. Their cartoons seem crude and pointless, not really driven by any ideology other than to say the most offensive possible thing. I don’t think they are motivated by racism, I think they are motivated by the desire to piss people off, using racism if it will accomplish this objective. They do this, as far as I can tell, because they think somebody ought to say everything that can be said, to encourage a robust freedom of expression.

Realize that this acknowledges Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons as racist. The debates I have seen on this generally split this way: supporters say Charlie Hebdo did not publish racist content but “satirical” or “provocative” content, and satire in the face of threats is heroic. Opponents say Charlie Hebdo published racist content, and saying racist things isn’t “heroic” even if it should be protected. I take a third position: Charlie Hebdo published racist content, and publishing racist content is a heroic act if one is doing it in order to insist upon their freedom to do so. If we live in a society in which it is made clear that one word is forbidden, and speaking it will be punished by death, the person who speaks that word in defiance is a hero, regardless of whether the word in question is “canteloupe” or the n-word. If I publish a magazine of racist pornographic scrawlings, the content of which I couldn’t really care less about, because I think it serves an important political function to have someone constantly pushing the boundaries of freedom (and risking their lives in doing so), that is an admirable thing.

Perhaps we think the writers of Charlie Hebdo are motivated by racism (which is not admirable), rather than a desire to say offensive things in order to prove it can be done (which is admirable). But I think the evidence leans the other way; in fact, most of the magazine’s detractors acknowledge that they basically just tried to be “equal opportunity” offenders that said incredibly disgusting things about whoever. The point the detractors make is that “equal opportunity” offense is a myth, because kicking the weak is very different from kicking the strong. You may insist that you offend everyone the same, but if I draw an offensive caricature of a politician versus an offensive caricature of a mentally disabled person, my level of caricature maybe the same but one of those drawings is far more reprehensible.

I agree with all of that analysis, but it doesn’t contradict my conclusion. It is only a reply to those who are defending Charlie Hebdo’s speech as not being racist. It is not a reply to those, like me, who concede completely that the speech is racist. There are circumstances, however, in which saying something racist and saying something heroic can be the same thing. If it is clear that death squads will come after you if you say racist things, then my God, the champion of individual liberty should start screaming racist things from the rooftops.

Finally, one more point: every single debate about whether someone should get some award or not is stupid. I hate awards.

* A distinction can be drawn between violent punishment by the government and violent punishment by private religious militias (like what Charlie Hebdo received). But I don’t think this difference matters, since from the perspective of the individual who wishes to have an ability to speak, the experience of having a society come after you through public or private means is pretty much the same, and free speech that is guaranteed by law but prohibited by organized private violence is not really free speech.

**I know the Nazi thinks he’s trying to make the society better. But he’s not; Nazis make society worse. This is inarguable.

There is No Such Concept as God

I am increasingly certain that it is possible to be neither an atheist nor an agnostic nor religious, and that this is where I stand. Here is how these categories go:

The atheist says “There is no such thing as God.”

The religious person says “There is such a thing as God.”

The agnostic says “I do not know whether God exists or not.”

I say “I have no idea what we’re talking about.”

Then everybody looks at me as if I am being intentionally irritating and disruptive. But there’s nothing intentional about it at all! Here’s why I’m lost: I can’t offer a position on the existence question without understanding what it is that God is supposed to be. But I don’t understand at all; I just don’t know what it is I’m being asked to affirm, deny, or remain neutral on. I cannot conceive of what a God is; it just seems like a word to me without much communicable content. When I ask for us to make clear exactly what it is I’m being asked, what the definition of God is, I just get synonyms like Higher Power and Creator. But all of it means nothing to me.

Weirdly, I think atheists are actually closer to believing in God than I am. The atheist thinks there is no God, I think the concept of God is too incoherent to even affirm, deny, or interrogate the existence of. In that way, the atheists actually grant the religious premise that there is content to this discussion; they seem to be able to understand the religious conception of God, so that they can deny it. You might think that I’m an agnostic, then. But the agnostic has the same problem! They still seem to see it as a meaningful question.

To illustrate how it looks to me, just replace God with a random string of characters. Ypsdjf. “Does Ypsdjf exist?” “I don’t know what that even means. What’s the definition?” “Ugh, don’t be pendantic, of course you know what Ypsdjf means. It means Fdlfjsjdl!” And so my answer is “?” while the atheist says “There is no such thing as Ypsdjf,” and the agnostic says “I do not know whether Ypsdjf exists or not.” Now, yes, technically I am in the same camp as the agnostic here, because I too do not know whether it exists or not. But the agnostic still generally grants the premise that we are talking about something that can be rationally discussed, and sees it mostly as an evidentiary question. Like if we were archaeologists trying to determine whether an ancient civilization had had wheeled transit or not. “The evidence is inconclusive on the question,” says the agnostic after looking at the dig site. They do not say “What the fuck is this ‘wheeled transit’ thing supposed to be?”

Or take the Russell’s Teapot business. Bertrand Russell said being asked to believe in God was like being asked to believe, on no evidence, that there was a teapot in space hovering near the sun. But it’s not really, because I know what a teapot is. And so that more easily sets up only three sensible positions: “Yes, there is a teapot,” “No, there isn’t a teapot,” or “I am not sure whether the teapot is there,” since nobody (except, yes, the irritating and disruptive) is asking what we mean by the word teapot. But the teapot parallel is inapt in one respect, because that is a valid question in the God debate, since nobody seems to have the same idea of what the thing under discussion is, and even when the conception is shared, it means absolutely nothing to me.

My position, then, is not that there is no such thing as God, but that there is no such concept as God.

On Interstellar Death Cults

I have said before that I am resolutely anti-death. I don’t believe death is a good thing, and thus I believe we should do everything to stop it, including attempting to prevent aging. Every so often in reply to my position, I hear variations on this sentiment: “But without death, life has no meaning.” Death, it is said, is what gives the meaning to life, for life is defined by the fact that there is death at the end, and if death were not there, neither would meaning be.

I find these replies hard to discuss, because I do not know what “meaning” means here. It certainly can’t mean what it means to me personally, since I’m a person who wants to stop death and yet I feel my life would still be meaningful even if I managed to do so. But let me give a more vivid example of how these replies make me feel. When I hear the sentence “without death, life has no meaning,” I imagine myself in a Jonestown-esque cult village. I have woken up in this village by mistake and been taken for a member of the cult. I protest that I am nothing more than a lost and weary traveler. They reply that, if this is so, I have arrived just in time, for the mass suicide is about to take place. At this point I am seized and poisoned. Through my final breaths, I protest that this is all an insanity. But I am met with the calm reply: “Insanity, dear lad? It is the opposite! For only death can confer upon life a meaning. Not to die means not to have lived.” And they leave me with those final words ringing in my ears: “Death gives meaning to life… Death gives meaning to life… Death gives meaning to life…”

All of this belief that death is natural and meaningful really does feel, to me, like waking up in a suicide cult. Now, look, I know it doesn’t feel that way to many other people. But from how I myself experience things the two situations are comparable. “But now,” you reply. “There is a gaping and obvious distinction. The suiciders intentionally brought about their premature deaths. Causing death by one’s own hand is completely different from simply resigning oneself to its inevitability.”

Very well. Let me change the scenario. I am born upon a spaceship. I have a happy little childhood, as our community hurtles through the cosmos. But when I reach the age of curiosity, I begin to detect something odd. I had never before asked where our enormous ship was going, but eventually, through hearing people’s discussions, it becomes clear to me that our ship is heading directly for the center of a moderately-sized white dwarf star, which it will hit in approximately fifty years. This seems worth further discussion, and I begin to ask questions about it.

“But if the ship sails into the star, won’t it instantly incinerate us?”

“Oh, yes, absolutely. In a nanosecond!”

“Why on earth are we heading into it then?”

“Oh, we have always been heading for it. For the entire history of this ship, it has been heading on a trajectory straight for the star.”

“Can we change ths ship’s direction?”

“It is unlikely.”

“But do you know for sure?”

“No.”

“Is anybody trying to navigate the ship onto a different course?”

“Oh, no. For, you see, that would be to tamper with nature. The ship’s trajectory is what gives its journey meaning. We define ourselves as the ship on course for collision with a star. If we were not to collide with the star, we would no longer be that ship. Do you see?”

And of course, I do not see at all. I just hear a bunch of interstellar cultists, who again chant “death gives meaning to life” over and over in a way that viscerally horrifies me. Why aren’t we trying to steer the ship away from a path toward certain destruction of our lives? Why are we simply resigning ourselves and then jerry-building a narrative as to why this is both inevitable and desirable? How did I end up in this madness, and why am I the only one to whom it even appears as madness?