Thursday, July 16, 2015

X-raying the Soul (Brief Look at Satire, Part 1)

For every calendar year we can find reasons to commemorate—if not celebrate—the anniversary of a notable event. Last year—2014—the most notable event that cried out for recognition—if not for celebration--was the centenary of the start of the Great War (as it was known at the time). This year, thankfully, we commemorate—and celebrate—the notable anniversaries of the conclusion of two bloody wars: the Second World War ended 70 years ago and the American Civil War ceased 150 years ago.

This year's notable anniversaries are not just about conclusions, but also about beginnings. One hundred years ago Billie Holliday was born. And 150 years ago, Lewis Carroll brought forth Alice in Wonderland onto the scene. But perhaps the most notable anniversary this year is that of a birth that took place 750 years ago: a man irreverently described by the Devil in Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman as one of “the greatest fools that ever lived,” because he described Hell
as a place of mud, frost, filth, fire, and venomous serpents: all torture. This ass, when he was not lying about me, was maundering about some woman whom he saw once in the street.
Dante, of course.

Putting Shaw's satiric remark aside, for Dante's 750th anniversary I wish to take a brief look at Dante's own use of satire in The Inferno.
Why is there such a thing as satire? The simple answer is that the world is filled with falsity: folly is applauded as wisdom; vice is accepted as virtue. And something must be done to unmask the deceivers and reveal their true faces. The art of satire is in the doing.

Satire can be general or specific. In The Inferno Dante targets both the general mass of mankind (all of us nameless sinners) and specific historical and contemporary individuals. His satirical strategy is really a simple one: he makes the figurative literal. Before citing examples from The Inferno, let me illustrate the maneuver by offering the following excerpt from one of the greatest satires of all time-- Swift's A Modest Proposal (which, as you know, is based on the idea that the best way to alleviate the economic distress in Ireland is to have the children of the poor become food for the rich):
I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.
Devoured” is the key word here, as Swift morphs a figurative observation about economic distress (the landlords have devoured the poor) into a literal (and repulsive) action.

In The Inferno the controlling conceit (both literary and theological) is that the sinners suffer punishments that are the literal equivalents of the sufferings they endure in real life. For example, in Canto VII the hoarders and the wasters, whose souls in life were obsessed by (figuratively burdened by) material things, are condemned to smashing great weights (literal material things) against each other:
I saw a nation of lost souls,
far more than were above: they strained their chests
against enormous weights, and with mad howls

rolled them at one another. Then in haste
they rolled them back, one party shouting out:
"Why do you hoard?" and the other: "Why do you waste?"

So back around that ring they puff and blow,
each faction to its course, until they reach
opposite sides, and screaming as they go

the madmen turn and start their weights again
to crash against the maniacs.*(Translation by John Ciardi)
This is general satire—against the undifferentiated mass of material sinners. The hoarders and the wasters, though seemingly opposites, are just different faces of the same coin. And (segueing from figurative to literal) coins—money, riches—are what they've given their souls over to. In life they are suffering from the figurative burden of their material lust. In Hell they will suffer the literal burden.
Much deeper in the bowels of Hell—in the Ninth Circle (the lowest)--Dante (the character) comes upon sinners frozen in ice, with just part of their faces free. They are in ice because they committed murder calculatedly, cold-bloodedly. (Those who killed in the hot-blooded heat of passion are in the Seventh Circle.) There, Dante comes upon Friar Alberigo, who points out Ser Branca d'Oria to him. Their presence in Hell astonishes Dante. He asks Alberigo, "What! Are you dead already?" and complains to the friar about the latter:
"I think you are trying to take me in," I said,
"Ser Branca d'Oria is a living man;
he eats, he drinks, he fills his clothes and his bed."
This is a brilliant example of Dante's specific satire. The souls of two living men are in Hell before their deaths. And in real life, the eating, drinking, clothes-wearing bodies are inhabited by demons:
I will tell you this [Alberigo explains to Dante]: when a soul betrays as I did,
it falls from flesh, and a demon takes its place,

ruling the body till its time is spent.
The ruined soul rains down into this cistern.
So, I believe, there is still evident

in the world above, all that is fair and mortal
of this black shade [Branca d'Doria] who winters here behind me.(Canto XXXIII)
Here again, Dante uses the figurative/literal transfer. To demonstrate that these living men are figurative demons, he replaces their souls with literal demons.

As we said above, satire—that purposeful art—aims to strip away the false mask of virtue and expose the true face of vice hidden behind it. Dante has gotten behind the mask, gone beyond the face, and exposed the soul.

*In an article in the Guardian, Alex Preston sums up his visit with one of the premier collectors of Nazi artifacts and memorabilia as follows:
I had met a man wrestling with a hobby that had become an obsession and was now a millstone. Collecting was like a disease for him, the prospect of completion tantalisingly near but always just out of reach. If he was mad, it wasn’t the madness of the fulminating antisemite, rather the mania of the collector.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Job Market

I was disappointed recently by a piece on the New Yorker website entitled “Jobs I’d Be Well-Suited For” by Dan Abromowitz.* You see, over the years I have attempted to compile my own list of jobs that I could do if forced back into the labor market at this late stage in life, and I had hoped, when seeing the title of the piece, that the author would offer a witty insight into some undemanding jobs in the real world. Instead, Abromowitz presented the reader with a list of lame inventions, such as:

Cool, crushable substitute teacher;      
Tattoo complimenter;
Horse spooker;
Do-over middle-schooler;
Ape taunter.**
None of the jobs on my list of “Jobs I Can Do” is an invention, but a job I have encountered in the real world. To get on the list each had to meet the following criteria:

It must require a minimum of physical effort;
It must need a minimum of mental agility;
It must not be susceptible to the vicissitudes of the weather;
And it must not pose a threat to life or limb.

My list began several decades ago when I drove onto the New Jersey Turnpike and received a toll card at the entrance booth. After tucking the card under my sun visor, I said to myself, “I could do that!” That is, I could hand out the toll cards to the drivers; after all, what did it take to do it? No physical effort to speak of and merely the ability to distinguish a car from a truck. And you were shielded from the weather by the glass booth. I recognized, though, that I while I could be a toll card giver-outer, I could not be a toll collector. That would involve the mental ability to add and subtract and the physical ability to juggle card, cash, and coins without losing anything under the wheels of a tractor-trailer.

The second job I could do I discovered while having an early dinner at a French restaurant in New York City prior to going to the theater. The table was covered by a tablecloth, which in turn had butcher paper on top as placemats. While my theater-going companion and I contemplated the menu, a minion was going around to all the tables with a rubber stamp in one hand and an ink pad in the other. What he stamped on the butcher paper was a message that read (something like):

Please Join Us for Sunday Brunch
11 AM to 3 PM.

Yes, I could do that job; all it would take was a steady hand not to smudge the ink and the recognition that the tablecloths were a no-no. And it was indoors!

The third job that I could do I found one Sunday morning (I was not having brunch at a French restaurant that AM) when I arrived at a nearby mall a little before the opening time of the stores. Since it was a sunshiny day, I spent a few pleasant minutes alongside the other early birds contemplating the meaning of life. At the stroke of 11 AM a fellow in a suit appeared inside the store doors and stepped forward to activate the electric sensor and open the exit door. He then walked through that door, took a few steps to the side, and tested the electric sensor for the entrance door, which, indeed, did open. Task successfully accomplished, he then proceeded into the store through the door, and we followed him in a line as if he were a modern-day piper of Hamelin. 

Stepping up to activate electric door openers? I could do that. I own a suit. And I'd only be subjected to the weather for the few seconds it would take to activate the entrance door sensor.
I'll stop my list here. Three jobs to choose from is quite enough and contemplating which one is best is too much like hard work.

**I will give him credit for “Door-to-door e-Bible salesman,” that's subtly good.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

For a Smarter America

If you were asked to name different types of taxes, you would offer some types very quickly, such as sales, income, real estate, inheritance, and value-added. But you would probably not answer “bandwidth tax.” Unlike the other taxes, the bandwidth tax does not diminish one's bankroll. Rather, it's a tax that diminishes a person's ability to focus on several different areas of concern.

When faced with a condition of scarcity—of time, food, or money, for example—a person's bandwidth narrows to finding a solution to the immediate problem. Cara Feinberg, in an article in Harvard Magazine,* tells of a World War II experiment at the University of Minnesota in which the volunteers agreed to starve themselves. What caught the attention of Sendhil Mullainathan many decades later when he studied the report of the experiment was not the expected decline in the men's physical condition but how “scarcity had stolen more than flesh and muscle. It had captured the starving men’s minds.” One participant reported, “Food became the one central and only thing really in one’s life.”

Mullainathan is co-author with Eldar Shafir of Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. As a result on their research, they argue, according to Feinberg, that “scarcity steals mental capacity wherever it occurs.” In one of the authors' experiments, “poor” and “rich” subjects (determined by their reported household income) were given an IQ test after being presented with a hypothetical problem that would require spending either $300 or $3,000 on auto repairs. The authors discovered that
when presented with the higher cost scenario, the poor people’s scores dropped the equivalent of about 14 IQ points: the difference between the categories of “superior” and “average” intelligence—or more pointedly, from “average” to “borderline deficient.”
But there was no significant change for the rich people.

Poverty, as Mullainathan puts it, “—no matter who you are—can make you dumber” (because the feeling of scarcity limits your bandwidth).**
Thinking about the outcome of Mullainathan and Shafir's study, I have discerned a way to raise the intelligence level of our country (and what patriotic American would not wish to do so?): Make the poor un-poor.

Now I know that some of you may have choked when you read the above sentence. After all, you probably will argue, the poor are poor because they make bad decisions—that their personal failure makes the poor morally deserving, therefore, of their poverty. However, Feinberg quotes Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner in Economics, who turns the statement around, claiming that “people make bad decisions because they are poor.”

Moreover, many people will argue that it's not in the American grain to give those who they perceive (wrongly, as it turns out) as responsible for their distressed state any handouts—even if designed to improve the lot of the miserable. However, while they may gag at alleviating the plight of those who are not poor because of personal failures, it is precisely in the American grain to give relief to those who are responsible for their failures. I'm talking about professional sports leagues, which every year grant the worst performing teams the choicest pickings of eligible newcomers. So much for suffering for one's personal incompetence!
So, in conclusion, I have identified in principle what should be done to make the country smarter; I leave it to others to figure out how in practice to bring the desired result about— by making the poor un-poor. Maybe the poor could band together and kick some balls around. Then the truly incompetent poor might be granted a boon. It's the American Way!

**In an interview in the Washington PostMullainathan uses the analogy of having to fight a fire to explain how people short on money get ensnared by payday loans. They have to focus their attention on meeting the needs of the here and now.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Necrophilia and Migrating Hairs

Medieval justice was scrupulous about holding proper trials and careful not to sentence without proof of guilt, but it achieved proof by confession rather than evidence, and confession was routinely obtained by torture.
Barbara W. Tuchman
A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century
Tukhachevsky was tortured. . . .
Tuchachevsky's confession . . . is dappled with a brown spray that was found to be blood spattered by a body in motion.
Stalin had to convince the Politburo of the soldiers' guilt. . . .
It's incredible, admitted Stalin, “but it's a fact, they admit it.” They even signed on each page to avoid “falsification.”
Simon Sebag Montefiore
Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar

In the April 13, 2015 issue of The New Yorker Ariel Levy in an article subtitled “What’s the right way to compensate someone for decades of lost freedom?”(1) writes about men and women who, in miscarriages of justice, were incarcerated for decades in prisons across the country.

Prison was “like a war zone,” according to John Restivo, whose miscarriage of justice is the central story of Levy's article. And prison was where he spent almost two decades—which should have been the prime years of his life, from his middle twenties to his middle forties—because of fabricated evidence, unfollowed leads, and, perhaps most crucially, the coerced confession of one of his two co-defendants, John Kogut. For a rape and murder none of them committed.

After having been told (falsely) that he had failed a polygraph test and having been grilled for eighteen hours, Kogut signed a confession, according to Levy, “handwritten by one of the detectives.” Kogut then went before a video camera and “confessed to the crime, hewing to the police's version of the events.”

It didn't matter that
(a) “Kogut recanted his confession immediately”;
(b) “Restivo's van [in which the crime allegedly took place] had been up on blocks at his mother's house on the night of the crime”;
(c) “the three men had never ridden in it together”
(d) the owner of a stolen Oldsmobile reported to the police after the car was found that “he had noticed a pair of unfamiliar striped jeans [like those the victim had been wearing] wadded under the passenger seat, and that a length of rope was missing from the vehicle.”

It didn't matter because, as Restivo was told by one of the police officers when first brought in for questioning (he was kept for twenty hours), “This is un-America: you have no rights here.”
[C]oercion, intimidation, deceit and trickery”--that was how H. Lee Sarokin, a retired federal judge, answered the title question “Why Do Innocent People Confess to Crimes They Did Not Commit?”(2) of a Huffington Post blog entry. And, of course, we might add, plain old torture (which is a bit more than coercion and intimidation). For too many police, prosecutors, and judges, from the scrupulous (according to the values of the time) medieval judges to the unscrupulous Soviets--or Chicago police(3)--the determination to convict a defendant by his own words has been single-minded pursuit. As Judge Sarokin put it:
There is no more powerful evidence in a criminal trial than a confession by the defendant himself.
But equally, again in the words of Judge Sarokin:
There is no greater injustice than when those confessions are obtained through threats and intimidation and result in the conviction of innocent persons.
Doing justice may require conceding wrongdoing rather than clinging to convictions . . . fraught with injustice” (again Sarokin). But there seems to be something in the make-up of prosecutors that they cannot admit to error.

Consider Cook County [Illinois] State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez in this excerpt from CBS Sixty Minutes:
Narration: In the case of Robert Taylor, Jonathan Barr and James Harden, DNA found inside the 14-year-old victim Catteresa Matthews was also retested, and a match was made to Willie Randolph, a 34-year-old convicted rapist, with 39 arrests. (Innocence Project Defense attorney) Peter Neufeld says prosecutors rejected the DNA evidence and instead came up with an unusual theory to explain it all away.Peter Neufeld: They suggest perhaps after the kids killed her this man wandered by and committed an act of necrophilia.Byron Pitts: Necrophilia. A lot of our viewers won’t know what that means.Peter Neufeld: Having sex with a dead person.Anita Alvarez: It’s possible. We have seen cases like that.Byron Pitts: Possible?Anita Alvarez: It is. We’ve seen it in other cases.Byron Pitts: It’s possible that this convicted rapist, wandered past an open field, and had sex with a 14-year-old girl who was dead?Anita Alvarez: Well, there’s all kinds of possibilities out there, and what I’m saying is that I don’t know what happened.(4)
We have not uncovered any evidence of any misconduct by the police officers or the State’s Attorneys that took the statements in these cases” is her declaration.
In the past year alone,” according to the New York Times,
nine people who had been sentenced to death were released — and in all but one case, prosecutors’ wrongdoing played a key role.(5)
Fred Klein, the assistant district attorney assigned to the Restivo case, told Ariel Levy that
prosecutors in many states are . . . bound by ethics statutes. But, he added, “practically speaking, most prosecutors don’t spend too much time worrying about that. They assume that the police did their job.”
And for him,
the idea that the police had manipulated the evidence “intentionally would just be beyond my comprehension.”
Klein also asserted that Joseph Volpe, the lead detective, who arrested Restivo, Kogut, and Dennis Halstead (the third defendant), was “a wonderful detective—one of the most tenacious, professional people I have ever worked with.” Volpe's report, claiming that two strands of hair from the victim's head had been found on the floor of Restivo's van, was the major element of the prosecution's case against the three men on trial.

At a retrial of John Kogut, the judge, after examining new forensic evidence, destroyed the prosecution's claim:
The judge concluded that [the hairs of the victim] must have come from elsewhere [other than the van], perhaps from the autopsy; apparently the police had commingled them—accidentally or deliberately—with hairs from the van.
And in 2014, a federal jury declared that Klein's “wonderful detective”
had engaged in official misconduct, including fabrication of hair evidence and withholding of exculpatory evidence in the case.(6)
Which should have been no surprise to Klein, because prior to Volpe's retirement from the police, Levy informs us, “the state had settled another case, in which he was accused of soliciting a false confession.”

But what really surprises me is that today this same Fred Klein is a professor at Hofstra Law School. I can only surmise that his speciality is the Ostrich Theory of Lawyering.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The "Active Bottom" and the Bottom Line

There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man's lawful prey. 
John Ruskin 
(As a child, sitting in the dentist's chair, I would read this quotation framed on the office wall.)
Knocking things about in the closet looking for something which, of course, I never found, I recently came upon a restaurant matchbook (remember them?) from the eatery that introduced me to fajitas (actually, I've never eaten them since, but that's neither here nor there). That dining occasion was around three decades ago, I'm sure. The dish itself had apparently sneaked its way up from the Southwest only a few years earlier; the New York Times first mentioned it in 1983.

It was barely a half-dozen years later that I myself first came across a mention of fajitas in the Times. What caught my eye was the title of the article: “How a Humble Cut Got a Fancy Price.”* In the piece, Florence Fabricant reported the staggering price rise of skirt steak, the cut of beef for fajitas, making it, because of the new food craze, “the second most expensive cut of beef, wholesale, with only the tenderloin costing more.” That was the “Fancy Price” part.

Fajitas were not a new food craze, however, among Mexicans living in Texas. A cheap cut of beef, it “used to cost about the same as ground beef and was the only cut of beef that Mexican immigrants in Texas could afford.” That was the “Humble Cut” part.

And so, they were priced out of their own cuisine:
''We were fine until the fajita craze went beyond Texas,'' said Dr. Jeff Savell, a professor of animal science at Texas A & M. ''The price is through the roof because demand for skirt steak is now exceeding the supply.''
As I write this on my MacBook, I am sitting here in a pair of sweatpants that cost me about 8 dollars. So I was amazed to read the other day that some folks are trying to flog their own sweats for 100 times as much. Indeed, as Marc Bain at points out:
A decade ago it would’ve been unimaginable for a pair of sweatpants to be as expensive as an iPod, let alone rival a MacBook.**
Previously, of course, the fashionistas had run up the price of the hard-working blue jean. Bain quotes a “fashion industry analyst” on the recent emergence of sweatpants as a fashion darling:
Because of the ability now to wear them as everyday attire, they’ve replaced the high-end jean market. . . .That same customer has migrated over to the active bottom.”***
Fajitas, jeans, sweatpants—with the turning of these three humble items of perfect practicality into examples of Veblenian show-offing by the dedicated followers of fashion, I think we see a kind of reverse Ruskinism at work. Instead of cheapening a product to attract those who only look at the bottom line (think of some of the infamous sardine-can airlines and what they've done to the overall experience of flying), the new con is to add a smidgeon here and little dab there and jack up the prices to appeal to the vacuous vain.

And if perchance some of those v-v's catch on to the hollowness of fashionistadom and decide to retreat, like Candide, to cultivate their own garden, they will discover, unfortunately, that they don't have the clothes for the job.


***You have to love that “active bottom” part. I leave that to your imagination.

Monday, February 9, 2015

All in the Family

Just because one's thoughts are banal doesn't mean they're true. Ideas that have been run round the block and back a dozen or more times are exhausted, but not necessarily toned in their intellectual muscularity. Take for example the proclamation by a number of anti-vaccination zealots that parents know what's best for their children. Rand Paul, United States Senator from Kentucky and alleged presidential aspirant, has gone even further down the road: “Parents own the children.” And, therefore, one presumes, can do whatever they wish to do to their little ones. 

And they have.

Bash, smash, shoot, stab, strangle, starve, poison, torture, crush, suffocate, drown, and drop from high places--what parents have done a lot is filicide, the murder of their offspring--so much so that it is the third-leading cause of death of children between the ages of 5 and 14 in the United States. According to Dr. Phillip Resnick, a professor of psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University,
one out of every 33 homicides in the United States is the killing of a child under 18 by their parent, or between 250 and 300 of the country's killings each year.*
USA Today has come up with an even higher number of filicides: 
three decades of FBI homicide data shows that on average, 450 children are killed every year by their parents.**
So, perhaps, offering one's child the opportunity to contract measles is, in comparison, an act of loving-kindness.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

No Soap

It's like nagging your parents to let you go skiing when you hate the cold and the snow: urging voters to elect you to a government office when you hate government. Needless to say, there are voters dumb enough to do so, and thus we have the likes of Thom Tillis, senator from North Carolina.
This week Tillis opined that (as paraphrased by “restaurants should not have to make their employees wash their hands after toilet visits.” “Let them decide,” said Tillis, referring to the regulated businesses.
Tillis has a problem with government regulations and thinks that market forces should rule the world and would set everything right. He thinks that people would avoid non-washing establishments, which would quickly go out of business.* Until those disease-spreading eateries go under, of course, patrons will be in danger of becoming ill (and some may even die). But, even so, germs are better than government.
The next logical step would be for surgeons to be allowed to decide whether to free themselves from regulatory procedures prescribing scrubbing-up before operating. (Certainly from an economic point of view it would make sense to do so: they would free up time to perform more procedures, and more procedures=more money.) Of course, we would then be plunged back into the dark ages of surgery, before Ignaz Semmelweis discovered that hand disinfecting would reduce mortality rates in maternity hospitals. In an unregulated surgical marketplace, Tillis would undoubtedly argue, patients would vote with their feet, putting the unsterilized practitioners out of business—that is, except for those patients who were wheeled out feet first to the morgue.
But why stop there? How about letting all other businesses decide what regulations to follow? Like construction companies, for example. So what if a shoddily-constructed apartment building went up in flames, or a bridge of inferior design collapsed? It's all good for the marketplace (and the morticians). And if the plagues of Egypt were resurrected in this country because government regulatory agencies were toothless? Well, it would be OK, I guess; after all, we would be free to choose between boils and the death of our first born.
*How would patrons know that a restaurant doesn't require staff to wash? Tillis, in the words of, “suggested that restaurants that did not require hand washing would have to alert customers with prominently displayed signs” (itself a regulation, as pointedly noted).
We could invent a new parlor game: create a Tillis sign. Just off the top of my head, how about:
Sources and Suggested Reading: