Saturday, February 21, 2009

Justice by disaster

A Reuters news agency story dated February 10, 2009 reports that Federal judges have tentatively ordered the release of up to one-third the prison population is the state of California. If implemented, this could result in the release of as many as 57,000 prisoners. The immediate reason for the possible release is that California's prisons are dangerously overcrowded; moreover, the severe budget crisis that has emerged in the early months of this year has led to doubts as to whether the state can continue to pay the high cost of imprisoning approximately 170,000 inmates.

Part of the reason for the severe overcrowding in California's prisons is the policy of giving very long sentences—often life sentences—to repeat offenders. Although some prisons in California have educational and rehabilitational programs for inmates, the number of inmates seeking such programs far exceeds the numbers who can be accommodated. As a result many inmates receive little or no rehabilitative help while in prison. Once released, many prisoners lack the resources to become re-established with honest gainful employment on the outside. As a result California has the highest recidivism rate in the United States; according to a California government fact sheet, 70% of men and 40% of women return to prison after being released. When the state lacks the policy to ensure that all inmates have an opportunity for education or job training, it is almost inevitable to released prisoners will commit further crimes; when the state has a policy of giving very long sentences to repeat offenders, the prisons are sure to become overcrowded and expensive. The entire system is in serious need of reform.

While the situation is worst in California, the difference from other states are only a matter of degree. The United States as a whole leads the world in the percentage of its citizens who are in prison. I have written about this before. It is not only California but all the other states, and indeed the federal government, that must take a serious look at its policies in imprisoning those who have broken laws.

There is no doubt that the economic crisis the world is facing will have terrible consequences for many people—it is probably not exaggeration to say that nearly everyone alive will suffer at least some negative consequences. But not all the consequences of the economic disaster will be bad; some will lead, in odd and unexpected ways, to improvements in human society. Wasteful habits of producing and consuming goods and services are likely to be revised, perhaps helping to heal some of the deep wounds the human race has inflicted on the planet's ecological systems. Another unexpected consequence of the economic downturn could be a return to a more sane and humane set of policies of justice. The overcrowding of California's prisons, and those in most other states, is surely an injustice. The release of prisoners for whatever reason is a correction, even if an unintended correction, to that injustice. And for that we can all rejoice.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Provoked by Mozi

Mozi said: In ancient times, when mankind was first born and before there were any laws or government, it may be said that every man's views of things was different. One man had one view, two men had two views, ten men had ten views—the more men, the more views. Moreover, each man believed that his own views were correct and disapproved those of others, so that people spent their time condemning one another.... Those with strength to spare refused to help out others, those with surplus wealth would let it rot before they would share it, and those with beneficial doctrines to teach would keep them secret and refuse to impart them.

Mozi wrote his essays sometime after the time of Confucius and before the time of Mencius, so sometime during the fifth century BCE. His essays have always intrigued me, because I agree so profoundly with much of what he says and at the same time shrink bank in horror at the implications of the life he advocates.

Mozi is best remembered for advocating a doctrine of universal love. Nothing but harm, he argued, comes of letting one's love be limited to one's own family, or to one's circle of friends, or to one's own country or to people who share one's beliefs and convictions. If one loves one's own nation, he said, then let one love all nations. To do anything less is to fail to be fully human, and to fail to be fully human is to fail to be satisfactory in the eyes of Heaven. The doctrine of universal love was intimately connected in Mozi's thought to his condemnation of aggressive warfare. When strong nations attack weaker nations for the sake of gaining more land, more population, or better markets, they rarely achieve what they seek and instead reap a harvest of bitterness that no sane person would want: death, destruction of property, wasted resources, and a general disruption of trust and confidence that results in an atmosphere of fear and resentment. Of all the unrighteous things a man can do, says Mozi, none is more unrighteous than beginning a war. Of all the incompetent actions a government can perform, none is more incompetent and counterproductive than beginning a war. With all these sentiments I have always found myself in full agreement.

Where Mozi begins to leave me feeling less sympathetic is in his uncompromising condemnation of music and the arts, and ornamented clothing and fancy houses and splendid carriages. My lack of sympathy here is not without complexity. Having been brought up by parents who had a disdain for all manner of luxury and who wore plain and functional clothing and avoided jewelry and drove practical and efficient automobiles and favored modest housing, I find that my own tastes are basically in accord with those of Mozi. Where I feel uncomfortable is in the stridency of his condemnation of all enterprises that are carried our purely for pleasure and enjoyment rather than for more obviously utilitarian and commercial purposes. The denial of the legitimacy of the pursuit of pleasure strikes me as founded on an unnecessarily narrow understanding of human nature. I keep wanting to argue that people do not thrive when they deny themselves aesthetic pursuits, or when they disdain doing things just for fun.

For most of my adult life, I have been attracted to disciplined ways of living that have little room for pursuits deemed frivolous. The spare lifestyle of the Buddhist monk has always been a source of inspiration to me, and I have always admired those who pursue it (especially since I myself have never been able to pursue it). The idea of having just one set of robes, one bowl out of which one eats one meal per day, and no hair or beard to trim and maintain has always struck me as the noblest way of living in the world. Having no reason to look at oneself in the mirror to see how one might appear to others, one could devote all one's time and energy to undistracted pursuit of wisdom and service to others.

While the Buddhist monk has always been at the top of my list of people to admire, a close second place is held by what Max Weber called secular ascetics, that is, people who earn a livelihood by the sweat of their brow and get married and have a family but who studiously avoid all luxuries so that they can devote all their spare time to undistracted pursuit of wisdom and service to others. Quakers, Shakers, Mennonites, Hutterites, and the Amish have always seemed the very noblest of Christians, the closest to succeeding in living a life that Christ (and the Buddha) would surely approve in full. Among these people there is not much music to be found, not much in the way of ornamented clothing (aside from some pretty amazing quiltwork) or luxurious housing and furnishing (except for some of the most beautiful furniture and carpentry that has ever been produced with simple tools and bare hands).

And yet, despite all my admiration for the plain and disciplined life of monks and so-called primitive Quakers, I cannot suppress my own hedonistic appreciation of music well performed, theater skillfully produced, painting and sculpture beautifully executed, clothing attractively sewn and dyed, and buildings well designed and carefully constructed. Even if I would probably not spend my own money to support the production of such things, I cannot deny being deeply grateful to those who do. Unlike Mozi (and quite a few of my fellow Buddhists and Quakers), I cannot regard the pursuit of beauty wasteful and frivolous. When Mozi rails against such things, I shudder.

I find myself wondering whether my love of discipline on the one hand and my love of beauty on the other is just another one of the many unresolved contradictions in my character. Can one condemn war and partiality and frivolity and praise discipline and wisdom and service but still have time for pleasure and fun without falling into self-contradiction and delusion? I think one can. But I may very well be deluded in this (as in so many other things).

Monday, February 09, 2009

Remembering to make sense

When I was younger, I think I had the belief that remembering something was a matter of going into some kind of archive and retrieving information about something from the past. So if I wanted to know what my grandfather said right after the car we were in was hit in an intersection on Silver Avenue as we were on our way to see a baseball game, all I had to do was check the archives and pull that record out and examine it. I'm not sure I actually believed that, but I seem to remember believing something of that kind.

About twenty years ago or so, I witnessed an animated discussion among members of my extended family. They were trying to recall something like who lived in which room of the house they had lived in together in 1935. Each party in the discussion examined the archives, and each pulled out a different record. There was no way of settling the dispute, since no one had access to anything except someone human being's memory. The more the original disputants drew others into the discussion, the more inconsistent memories there were. All avenues to finding a solution were closed. Tempers flared. Voices spoke ever more loudly. Unpleasant expressions began to appear on faces. Whether my memory of the dispute is accurate, my account of it illustrates how conversations tend to go when different people remember things differently and there is no reliable authority to consult to settle whose memory is accurate and whose is at fault.

The dispute accounted above, and dozens of others like it, have inclined me to think of memory not as a passive mental activity of simply receiving images of the past somehow, but rather as an active act of telling stories that make sense of our present experiences. This is not to say that remembering something is deliberating concocting a pure fiction (if there is such a thing as as story that is purely fictitious). It is not like telling a deliberate lie. Rather, it is more like adding a few embellishments and removing a few apparently irrelevant details from a dim and nebulous and mostly incoherent hodgepodge of impressions. It is perhaps a little like solving a jigsaw puzzle. It is more like putting forward a possible solution to a mystery. Telling a story to oneself about the past is not done to deceive anyone, but to make private sense of things that have taken place more recently than the event being recollected. Perhaps instead of saying that I remember something it would be better to say I am making up a story about something in the past that is compatible with the beliefs I hold today.

For the past several months I have been reading the journal of George Fox, the man who is given credit for having founded the movement called the Children of Light, later called the Society of Friends and derisively called the Quakers. Fox's journal was not written as events unfolded. He did not write down his memories of each day at the end of the day. Rather, he dictated his memories of events in his life years after those events had taken place. It is fairly clear to a reader of the journal that Fox, in dictating his journal, was trying to make sense of how the Quaker movement had evolved. He was also trying, perhaps unconsciously, to give legitimacy to a religious movement that had been at the center of a great deal of controversy. Given the large number of quotations of and allusions to biblical passages, it is also obvious that Fox was showing that his story of the Quakers was a continuation of the story of Jesus Christ as told in the gospels and the letters of Paul and other apostles. The stories (for there are more than one version) told in the Bible of the life and teaching and death of Jesus are themselves recorded memories of events that had taken place decades before the memories were written down, and it is pretty clear that they are attempts to show that the story of Israel was still unfolding in a particular way that involved the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. They are making sense of what might otherwise seem a meaningless and pointlessly brutal death.

George Fox and the authors of the Gospels may have been innocent of the extent to which they were making up stories to make sense of present realities. They may have been naive. They may also have been, to at least some extent, calculating and crafty. Whatever the case may be, taking the stories they told at face value, without taking into account the story-telling nature of what we call memory, would be to participate in a naivety that verges on being inexcusably careless. There is only one way to read memories: carefully, critically and skeptically.

My skepticism about memory (my own and everyone else's) may account for why I prefer to avoid religious doctrines that are based mostly on historical narratives. They feel too much as if someone is trying to sell a particular story and to preclude other accounts. Making one's own story legitimate almost always entails making someone else's story illegitimate. And that usually leads to tempers flaring, voices speaking ever more loudly, and unpleasant expressions beginning to appear on faces. Such things make life unpleasant. Or so it seems to me.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Telling stories about telling stories

“No one has ever been angry at another human being—we're only angry at our story of them.”—Byron Katie

There are things that some people do that tend to make me angry. The list is fairly long—embarrassingly long, in fact. Close to the top of the list is having someone—anyone—try to explain why I do the things I do, why I believe the things I believe, or why I have the attitudes I have. So, for example, if someone were to come along and say “The reason you tend to get angry when people explain what you do is because you have unresolved issues with your mother, who had a tendency to try to explain your behavior,” or “It's not at all surprising that you get angry when someone tries to explain your behavior, given that you have carelessly let yourself become a victim of overweaning pride and thus have the arrogant view of yourself that no one but you can possibly understand how your think.” It is not only relatively unflattering stories that annoy me. Nor is it only stories about me that annoy me. I just don't like it much when people make up stories, even pretty good and probably true stories, about other people's deliberate and unwitting behavior.

Stories, it has to be admitted at the outset, make the world go around. (That is a figure of speech, not intended as a scientific explanation of why the earth moves around the sun or spins on its own axis.) Countries go to war because of stories they make up and then believe. The United States invaded Mexico because of a story that President Polk told about the treacherous intentions of the neighbor to the south. More recently, the United States invaded Iraq because of a story that the Bush administration told about the treacherous intentions of Saddam Hussein. I spent the better part of my childhood, adolescence and young adulthood hearing stories about what a danger Communism posed to American freedom—American freedom itself being a major plot in yet another story that Americans have loved to tell themselves. Economies fall because of stories that people tell and then believe. Economies also recover because of stories that people tell and then believe. Some people prepare for the end of civilization as we know it because of stories they tell.

On a more individual level, people not only get angry at the stories they tell of other people. People also fall in love with the stories they tell of other people. (Narcissists, of course, fall in love with stories they tell about themselves.) People get married, and then divorced, as a result of stories they tell and then believe about other people in their lives. People are hired and fired because of stories that others tell about them. Children are disinherited because of stories their parents believe about them. People are sent to prison because of stories that judges and juries tell themselves about the accused. People are put to death because of stories that people believe about them.

Whether stories are true makes very little difference. What makes things happen is that stories are believed. Stories come true because people tell them and act as if they are true. Good things happen because of stories people believe, and horrible things happen because of stories people believe. Stories do not care what comes of them; stories only demand to be told.

In Buddhist teaching there is a word for the stories people tell to account for what they are experiencing. Buddhists call these stories prapañca. According to Buddhist psychology almost all of us have an obsessive tendency to want to understand what we are experiencing. Rather than simply noticing, for example, that there is an expectation to find a jar of peanut butter in the pantry, followed by a failure to see a jar of peanut butter in the pantry, one makes up a story to explain the mystery of the missing peanut butter. Someone took some peanut butter and then failed to put the peanut butter container back in the pantry; it was probably left open on the countertop and is now filled with ants. Someone used the last of the peanut butter without making sure to add peanut butter to the shopping list. Someone raided the pantry and stole the peanut butter. A team of very clever cockroaches carried the peanut butter jar outside and ate it, glass and all. An errant black hole came through the house and sucked the peanut butter into it. There never was a jar of peanut butter in the pantry, and my delusional belief that there was could very well be an early warning sign of Alzheimer's disease.

A key teaching of Buddhism is that a great deal of the pain, frustration, anger, envy, jealousy, anxiety, depression and expectation we human beings experience is a result of prapañca. We tell stories about nearly everything we experience, and about things we do not experience, and then we suffer because of the stories we have told. The obsessive need to come up with a story is a kind of addiction. Or so the Buddhist story goes. As is the case with most stories, it might have been better had that story never been told.

What would it be like to go through a day without telling any stories? What would it be like just to see sights, hear sounds, smell odors, taste tastes and feel corporeal sensations and stop there, without giving any account of them? What would it be like to hear the stories that others tell and simply observe them, without telling stories about why others tell the stories they tell? It might be interesting to experiment with living a day, or even a few hours of a day, in a narrative-free state of simple observance of sights, sounds, smells, tastes and bodily sensations. It might be interesting to cultivate a habit of catching oneself in the act of telling a story and then to refuse to finish telling the story.

Whether it would be interesting to live without telling stories is something one can never know without trying it. Do you feel like trying it? If so, go ahead and do it. I promise not to tell a story explaining why you decided to try it out—or why you decided that trying it out would be a waste of time.