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Thursday, September 22, 2016

Standing Resolute Against the Atonal Banshee of Emerging Egomania

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By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

It's not completely accurate to say that authors write the articles or essays that bear their bylines. In a very real way, I've discovered that stories tend to write themselves. Oh, it's all very well and good to have a plan or a set of intentions, but much of this goes out the window as soon as pencil hits paper and you have to start bumping up against the fuzzy terrain of Polanyi's paradox. Instead, that which is written tends to take on a life of its own, pouring out from a part of the brain that is instantaneous and foreign and not particularly keen to obey the parameters of logic or good sense. In the process, you come to realize quite often that you don't nearly understand the topic you are writing about, and that in discovering this, the subject starts to actually write on you. It happens more often than I would like to admit that I will pause halfway through a page, look up over what I have just written, and realize with a start that I don't actually agree with a word of it. Sometimes I will just sit there scratching my head, going: well I'll be damned, would you look at that rot.... Of all of the essays I have on my to-do list, the article I thought would be the easiest to pen, the one that wouldn't take me more than a few hours on a quiet night, was the one on the upcoming election. I sat down to write that essay four hours ago and have been staring balefully at a malignantly growing pile of crap ever since. I think my brain just doesn't want to admit that we've actually gotten to this point. So much for American exceptionalism.

This shouldn't be so difficult. I'm a deeply political person, and I know pretty much what I think about this train wreck and why. I have the material, too, as I've been taking notes since January. Every time one of our political stars went supernova or got sucked into a black hole of imbecility, I would write a little something down, a sort of journal of my rapidly growing discontent. I think that is part of the problem. I'm flipping through a nice stack of notes, looking for some common thread or leitmotif that I can use to weave everything into a nice, tidy, coherent essay, and the only thing I'm finding is how disgusted I am. I'm having some motivational problems as well, to be honest with you. I'm feeling oddly enervated about all of this. I try to avoid being cliche, and I think it's just a bit too easy to complain about our current situation; I'm pretty sure that all of that has already been picked over by thousands of hacks with better chops than mine. I don't really know what new perspective I could offer. Does the punditocracy even matter in this era of such radical hyperpartisan division?

Not writing, however, seems impossible, a travesty of sorts. If Trump wins and rules the way most of us suspect he will, I do not want to be remembered as having been silent. I will not be the postmodern equivalent of the millions of Germans who uncomfortably witnessed the rise of the Third Reich and didn't emit a single peep until the bombs started falling on their heads. Sometimes a decision on whether or not to scream is the only choice we have within our grasps; if so, you'd better blow your lungs out, or you will regret it later. I guess this is my scream. Sorry it's not more impressive sounding, but I've got all of this ennui stuck in the back of my throat. In any case, who could even hear me over Trump's tantrums?



Throughout this odd political season I have progressed - like many of you, I suspect - through various stages, ranging from depression to frustration to confusion. Mostly what I feel is despair. I have written this before, but I will say it again for posterity: democracy only works if the demos is well informed. The people capable of calmly making rational judgments based off of a decent store of mostly accurate data have to outnumber the ignorant fools who pull the lever based on the emotional appeal of whatever crackpot ideology is in ascendancy at the moment, or else the whole experiment fails. History is replete with examples of this, and they never turn out well. I never expected to see the Republican party drift so far into the realms of fantasy, but here we are, very nearly tipping the whole thing over. That's the thing that really blows my mind. You people have an almost unlimited amount of data at your fingertips, but many of you aren't even beginning to take advantage of it. Do you know what I have to do just to get a single book? Every day that I am allowed to go to the day room, I go there to run my hustles. One minute I'm moving this, another that. Every transaction risks a trip to Level 3. Sometimes I'm angling for a little something to eat, trying to store up for the days when the food they serve us on the trays is spoiled. On other days, I'm looking for colored pencils that I can turn into paint. Most of the time, though, I'm gunning for stamps or books. You wouldn't believe the scams within scams within scams that I have to perpetrate on the guards just to get something to read. You think I like doing this? I like being ignorant even less. I'll gladly take a 90-day trip to the dungeon for some genuine knowledge. And then I turn on the news and hear some buffoon pontificating mindlessly on trade deals or immigration or tax policy, and they aren't just incorrect on their basic facts, they are erring in the most spectacularly moronic manner imaginable. Seriously, in my wildest flights of imaginative fancy, I couldn't invent characters this lost in the wastelands of nonsense. I keep thinking, oh come on, this guy has to be running a scam on NPR; he's being ironic. Oh, how my horror grows as I realize - once again - that this person is totally serious. It's an insult to billions of people who have lived and died and played a part in building the world to where it is today. And yes, I know that I'm I've been an insult, too, but at least I found my way out of the hinterlands. The trajectory of my humanity is a sharp upward angle. What's their excuse?

At the same time, I don't know exactly what to do with this despair. It doesn't seem particularly constructive. For the past year or so, I've really been attempting to meditate more on our common humanity as a gateway to compassion for the Other. Sometimes I will come across a photograph somewhere and the sheer gravity of the pain trapped in the image will pull me in and shatter my heart on the way down. I cut these out and use them as focus objects whenever I feel myself getting aggravated or self-righteous. Here's one I came across a few months ago in the newspaper.



What happened to this man? Why is he homeless? Who would harm him like this? There's a world of hurt and loneliness in his one visible eye, a story that scuttles all of my pretensions about being a reformed man. I caused pain like this. I am responsible for this. Not directly, but I once lived and worked in a city with countless men like this, and I drove past them in my nice car and my nice suit and didn't give a damn about any of them. None of us can be truly "good" in a world where men and women and children live on the streets, where we prey upon each other like rabid dogs, not really, not when we aren't all doing something daily to make images like this a thing of the past. It's a balance I war with - compassion and despair, compassion within despair. I probably shouldn't think so much about politics, because it tilts the scales so completely toward outrage, toward wanting to "fix" everything. I feel it happening even now, the idea that anger and disgust can act as the fuels needed to change the world for the better. I know it's a lie. Only love does that, but I'm not nearly decent enough to stay convinced of this when I look around at our society. I fret over the state of our state. It would be easy of me to sit here in my condemned-man's cell and laugh at the world that is killing me, but I can't seem to find the anger needed. It's impossible to avoid the ignorance, though, the feeling that we no longer collectively understand enough of even basic matters to justify having this much power. Trump is the perfect exemplar of this cluelessness, and it doesn't surprise me that he should have gathered a flock of people behind him that are more susceptible to the macropolitics of spectacle than the actual possession of knowledge. It occurs to me that perhaps a little test might be in order at this point. I know, I know, who do I think I am, demanding knowledge in Trump's world? Bear with me.

Several months back, Bob Woodward and Robert Costa of the Washington Post interviewed Trump, focusing on what he would do during the first 100 days of his reign. He initially spoke about trade deals, his bête noire. When Costa asked him about economic legislation, Trump responded: "Before I talk about legislation, because I think frankly this is more important - number one, it's going to be a very big tax cut." So, here's my question for any Trump supporters that might be reading this: can you detect the error in his statement? Think about it for a moment. Read it again if you have to.

When I talk about ignorance, I want to be clear that I'm not demanding anyone go out and earn a graduate degree. Who has the time for that? I might be moderately elitist when it comes to education, but nowhere to that degree. I'm not requiring you to delve into macroeconomics in order to answer my question, though someone who did study that subject could certainly point out that virtually everyone of either party not currently sitting in front of an interviewer's microphone understands that in order to reduce the national debt, we are eventually going to have to raise tax revenue, not cut it, or that the Holy Laffer Curve has been a debunked economic model for several decades. Neither am I asking you to do a stylistic analysis of Trump's speech patterns, such as his tendency to use words like "frankly" or phrases like "to be perfectly honest with you" when he tries to glide over an issue he clearly doesn't understand. (Seriously: listen to his speeches. When he says "frankly," go fact check the sentence in which this was embedded. You will always - always - find factual errors. This might be my only original contribution to the coverage of Trump, So put it to the test during the Convention next week - or whenever this gets posted.) These are fair criticisms, and I can't help but wonder how it is that so many of us have so poor an understanding of rhetoric or the structure of our economy that his hucksterism isn't obvious to everyone. That wasn't what I was asking, though. I was simply wondering if you understood that tax policy is a product of legislation, and that there is no way for the president to hand down "a very big tax cut" by executive fiat. This is very simply, basic stuff, things that one learns in high school government classes. It's the sort of thing you would pick up by listening to NPR a few minutes each day or by reading the New York Times, instead of chasing after Pokemon. (Seriously, people. Good grief.) I think this is a very bad sign for our democracy that many voters do not understand so basic a question, but it is absolutely disastrous that he apparently didn't. If you parse the full extent of his claims, you will begin to discover that many of his speaking points aren't even structurally possible, regardless of how bad you may want it.



For instance, Trump promises "tremendous" economic growth of 6% each year he is in the White House, but presidents have very little control over things like oil-price spikes that crimp consumer spending, productivity growth, or a rosy international picture. Much of what goes on in the economy is quite simply out of the president's hands, though of course we blame them otherwise. And when it comes to the things Trump actually could do to impact the economy, the very pro-Republican US Chamber of Commerce calls his tax plans disastrous, likely to add 10 trillion dollars to the national debt. I won't even mention what the liberal experts are saying - it's a lot worse, obviously. The data is all out there for everyone to parse on their own, though most of the passengers on the Trump Train seem to think such calculations unnecessary. Who needs proof when you have Trump? There's a word for believing in something just because you want it to be true, you know. It's called faith. I do not think it is a coincidence that the Republicans are the party of the deeply religious, while the Democrats are becoming increasingly secular.

I often find it necessary to criticize religion. I don't like the way I come off when I do this sometimes. I'm more accepting of religious faith on a personal level than I would appear in these pages, though admittedly less so when I'm trying to write about culture or politics. In this latter register, you lose track of individuals and focus on groups.  When I do this, I'm mostly speaking to future generations of humans (or cyborgs, or AIs, or whatever insect-descended species evolves to take over this rock once we have annihilated ourselves in the Trumpocalypse) in more secular, enlightened times, to let them know that there were people able to see through the fog of all of this superstition and myth. One of my major issues with the concept of faith is that it promotes a model for verifying truth-claims that is fundamentally flawed. This format creates a structure upon which we build many other beliefs, meaning that these people literally do not understand what the word "fact" means in the same way as a scientist or the non-religious. This Trump thing is a perfect example. Hippocrates once wrote that "there are, in effect, two things: to know and to believe one knows. To know is science. To believe one knows is ignorance." We live in an era where people say - without any hesitation - that they "know" that Noah built himself a massive ark and loaded it up with two of every living thing (including, presumably, about a gazillion species of beetles, since evolution is a liberal lie), or that Daniel and his homeboys hung out in a furnace for awhile. The religious cannot know these things, because there is no direct evidence for them, only a series of stories written centuries after the events they purport to describe by people who are unknown to historical record. (It's no use arguing that these are allegories; of course they are, but that's not the point: people today in conservative circles take these books literally, and no amount of disputation is going to sway them.) These stories must be believed in, instead. What bolsters these myths is not evidence, but authority. A priest, imam, or rabbi told their congregations that they were true, and the flock took it on faith, minus any connection to evidence. Science doesn't work that way. Certain scientists are understood to be very important or respected, but this reputation is only as good as their data continues to be. I'm not certain that the average person understands what a peer reviewed journal is, so pardon this brief digression. When a scientist or team of scientists completes an experiment, they gather all of their data and construct some notes on methodology. They submit this to a journal. The journal will then pass the draft of the article to a series of experts in the relevant fields to see if they feel the experiment has merit. This can be a fairly brutal process, but if the study appears to advance or challenge the field, it gets published. Once it hits the journal, scientists all over the world attempt to replicate the experiment. That's the key thing here: it doesn't matter what anyone in particular says about X or Y: the data is all there, waiting to be tested. If the original team screwed up somehow, this will come out quickly. If they attempted to doctor their data, they will be found out; a phenomena that is rare but that takes place enough to know that the system works. Absolutely nothing is taken on faith, ever. To do so would render the entire method pointless.



You see the problem. When someone grows up in an environment where they are taught that the "truth" comes not from evidence but from authority, they do not understand that for something to be true there must be a process involved for verification. Claims without this process must be doubted as an a priori position pending evidence to the contrary. Without the implementation of such a system, you get a group of people tending towards credulity and who are susceptible to authority in other areas of their lives besides religion; this includes politics. It makes it difficult to discuss evidence or proof with such people, because in their world "evidence" is no better (and maybe worse) than the word of the local minister or strongman. Experts are deemed to be "arrogant." Track things like the understanding of climate change or the dangers of smoking (which Mike Pence denied as recently as 1998; seriously, after government regulators confirmed the lethal consequences of cigarettes, Pence mocked this as hysteria: "Time for a quick reality check," he wrote, "Smoking doesn't kill"), and you will always find an inverse relationship to the level of each respondent's religiosity. Proof matters less, because they get their "facts" from other sources. Thus the Trump phenomenon: the ability to believe the claims of a man whose connection to facts left the terrain of the tenuous months ago. If you are a Trump fan, ask yourself this: does it not bother you that he never explains how he intends to achieve his goals? How would you respond if your financial advisor asked you to invest your life savings without explaining what he intended to do with them? You'd want proof, no? Maybe a list of the funds he was going to buy, and their recent performance? Of course you would. Why are you treating the fate of your nation differently?

Everyone keeps repeating that the electorate is "angry," as if this explains everything. Okay, fair enough - but angry about what? Angry how? Are we actually talking about what really bothers us, or merely substituting some hot topic for something more systemic? And since when did outward displays of petulance suddenly become a virtue? Who sent out the memo that we are all of a sudden supposed to actually respect those with a sneering disregard for the basic civility that binds a society? It is particularly perplexing to hear about the rage of the evangelicals. I've long thought this was one of the most hypocritical segments of our populace, and their rapid coalescing around a man they detested as recently as the Indiana primary proves this point nicely. Suddenly - and what a transformation! - they decide that, what do you know, he's a "baby Christian" after all. I will leave Tony Perkins and the other doltish supporters of "muscular Christianity" (Boom! goes the irony grenade) to perform the doctrinal contortionism needed to support such a colossally vain man, one who admitted he had never felt he needed to ask Jesus forgiveness for anything - as if that weren't the practical definition of a Christian in the first place. I feel sort of weird quoting the Bible, but, well, when in the Bible Belt, etc,etc. (And in any case, heretic though I may now be, I've never really forgotten the lessons of my youth. As Omar Khayyam wrote in his Rubaiyat: "The Koran! well, come put me to the test / Lovely old book in hideous error drest / Believe me, I can quote the Koran, too, / the unbeliever knows his Koran the best".) How does the evangelical not see Trump being described in Psalm 73? "Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence. . . . they scoff, and speak with malice; with arrogance they threaten oppression. Their mouths lay claim to heaven, and their tongues take possession of the earth. Therefore their people turn to them and drink up waters in abundance." And yet, as with all of Trump's antecedents (Hitler, Mussolini, George Wallace, and my personal favorite, Huey Long), their success is temporary. "Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly they are ruined." The psalmist was clearly telling us to flee from demagogy, to make an extra effort to be decent and calm and patient, not to blame some people with browner skin for systemic problems in our economy.

Isn't anger generally taught to be a sin?  Dante certainly argued for this interpretation, placing the angry dead in Dis, the fifth circle of hell. When I posed this question to a few of the Christians here, they claimed (wrongly in my view, but whatever) that the Bible speaks of two types of anger. The first type is centered on the ego, dealing with what we want or fear and which tends towards irresponsibility. The second is righteous, and focuses on injustice. I thought about this for a while, and it came to me that if you accept this view, what Trump attempts to do in almost every speech is to make the first sort of anger look like the second - though I'm at a loss as to why anyone would fall for this. Can you not see that he acts like a child when someone criticizes him? That his is the fury of the egotist, not of Christ trashing the money stalls at Temple Mount? In any case, why is even the "better" type of anger superior to calmly explaining one's position to the Other? Barring that, whatever happened to the idea of a civil debate? I get that some of you are angry. Now stop acting like a two-year-old. This thing is not going to be fixed by breaking it. State your position, argue your points, and after the voting is done, get down to writing the best compromise possible, the one we all should have known was inevitable from the beginning. If you want to scream or pout, the sandbox is outside. Or, I guess, the RNC is in Cleveland. If there is one optimistic, policy oriented speech during the entire thing, I'll eat this typewriter. 



We never should have thought for one second that anger was a viable format for running a political party. If you wouldn't treat your co-workers or customers the way Trump denigrates his enemies (or even his allies sometimes), then you understand this implicitly. He clearly gets the most aggravated when challenged on his understanding of things. Aside from wanting to be the boss of the country, I don't think he really knows exactly what he wants to do in office. His plans are all over the map, contradicting at times Republican orthodoxy. I'm not convinced that his followers know exactly what they want, either, based on the comments I hear talked about on right-wing AM shows. I've no doubt that when the convention takes place they will be told what they want, but I think their anger has deeper roots than making America Great Again. What does that even mean, in practical terms? Which America is he referring to? Because there are clearly many Americas. Overwhelmingly his supporters respond to polls by saying that life has gotten worse over the past 70 years, and identify the 1950s as the best decade in our recent history. (38% of his voters in South Carolina say they wish the South had won the Civil War, too, according to Public Policy Polling. . . .) This astonishes me. Do we have, collectively, such an awful understanding of history that we are blind to the fact that unless you were white, male, and at least comfortably middle class, the 1950s kind of sucked? Or worse: do we understand this and just not care? I hope it's the first option, because all that will mean is that we are idiots. If it's the latter... then I really hope we are actually in decline, because such a people would be far too evil to have this many nukes.

Think for a moment about what made the 1950s so "great." What made the economy so super-charged? It was because of a raft of New Deal-era programs like the GI Bill, new rules demarcating maximum work hours and minimum wages, unemployment insurance, and Social Security. (All Democrat-inspired programs, by the way, but if you point this fact out to a Republican, their heads would probably explode.) These programs literally built our middle class, but they all intentionally left out minorities and women. Take Social Security, for instance. SS is basically old-age insurance, but it had to be implemented in a really foul way so as to gain the votes of southern Democrats who wanted to protect Jim Crow. Since a huge majority of the black Labor force in the south was involved in agriculture and domestic work, these occupations were cut out of Social Security. These exclusions lasted until the late 1950s, if I remember correctly. "Casual" or temporary workers were also left out of SS, which basically meant women. These are almost inexplicable omissions from a purely policy perspective, as these are precisely the sorts of occupations that most needed a way to save for retirement.

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 was supposed to create a floor under wages and a ceiling over hours, yet it also excluded domestic workers and farm workers. Unions didn't help as much as you would expect, because the National Labor Relations Act excluded exactly the same sorts of occupations traditionally held by women and minorities. Even the implementation of the GI Bill was marred by racism and sexism, because the federal government handed responsibility for this to the states, meaning that many of the 900,000 African-Americans that served were routinely denied applications for business assistance. Those attempting to attend college were crowded into limited slots in segregated universities. Is this what we are trying to return to, I ask? How was any of this "great"? I guess I do not understand the appeal of nostalgia. It seems synonymous with having a poor memory. Perhaps it is my deeply ingrained pessimism that is at fault here: I can always remember that which was broken, rusted, smeared with refuse or blood, while sometimes completely omitting the flowers blooming next to the wreckage. This is a flaw in me. But so is the converse, to remember –or, to be more accurate, to misremember - only the positive. Memory isn't static. It shifts and morphs to fit current beliefs. Yesterday wasn't that great. If you think I'm wrong, look deeper.



Neither do I understand why conservatives think something as massively complex as a culture could be put in reverse. It took an uncountable number of different cultural streams, all mixing and twisting in immensely complicated ways, to create our modern social imaginary, which is the sense we have of the normal expectations that we have of each other, the kind of common understanding that enables us to carry out the collective practices that make up our social life. This incorporates some sense of how we all fit together in carrying out the common practice. This understanding is both factual and "normative," that is, we have a sense of how things usually go, but this is interwoven with an idea of how they ought to go, what mis-steps would invalidate the process. You couldn't possibly reverse even a tiny percentage of the influences on our social imaginary. It doesn't work like that. We are dragged along the arrow of time, fated to witness the deaths of friends, family, ideas, institutions, political parties, religions; to see the glory days of our youths morph into knees that always ache and brains that stutter and stumble where they once waltzed. This is awful, I know. But raging against the inevitable isn't a sign of wisdom or valor, it's fantasy. Ideas die. The political wars that raged in the Victorian era aren't even bad jokes by this point; so, too, will be the conservative preoccupation with what two other adults are doing in the privacy of their bedrooms. Do these people even understand that they are already anachronisms? Is this what they are really mad about, perhaps? We have to be better than this. We have to see that all life and everything in it is impermanent, to see that this is all there is and then do the best we can to live in the presence of this truth. There is no going backward, only forward. To think otherwise is perhaps the root for much of the evil in the world today.

None of the above necessarily makes Hillary Clinton look any better, I realize. I felt the Bern, so I'm not terribly pleased with all of this mess. We've simply come to a place where you are going to have to vote for a liar - but let's not pretend that Hillary lying about her email server is in any way equivalent to the mountain of bullshit that Trump or his surrogates expel over the airwaves on a regular basis. We have a weird sort of false equivalence sickness rampaging across the nation right now, where both "sides" are blamed for every problem. Nobody is perfect, to be sure, and I have plenty of nits to pick with the Democratic Party. But it's not the Dems that have become so ideologically extreme that they scorn all compromise - it's the Republicans. It's not the Dems that are completely unmoved by a conventional understanding of facts, reason, science, open-mindedness, tolerance, secularity, or modernity - it's the Republicans. It wasn't the Dems that eliminated funding for the Office of Technology Assessment, Congress's highly respected, nonpartisan scientific research arm - it was Newt Gingrich, friend of Trump. Hillary may have lied a few times, but when Politico reporters Daniel Lippman, Darren Samuelsohn, and Isaac Arnsdorf fact-checked random 4.6 hour snippets of Trump speeches, they found more than five dozen untrue statements - an average of one every five minutes. Equivalence my ass. This is a guy that regularly brags about having written The Art of the Deal, despite the fact that the actual ghost writer's name is right there on the cover (to see more about Tony Schwartz and what he has to say about Trump after following him around for 18 months, see here). 

I find Trump's lies particularly galling on the subject of climate change, which he calls "a total hoax," "a canard," and "a total con job." Despite this public stance, he acknowledged the reality of climate change in a public filing in Ireland, where he was seeking permission to build a giant sea wall to protect his golf course against global warming and its ill effects. He certainly has a thing for walls, no? Climate change has become one of those all-or-nothing issues for me. Were I ever to be allowed to vote again, I could never vote Republican on this basis alone. Once again, ignorance of our past is becoming problematic. If you remember the battles scientists had against big business when attempting to prove to the public the dangers of leaded gasoline or cigarettes, you will find the following oddly familiar. Last year, journalists revealed the extent to which Exxon has misled shareholders and the public about what its product was doing to the world. It turns out - just as in the cases of leaded gasoline and cigarette smoke - the company had conducted massive levels of research on climate change, and knew very well that fossil fuel use was causing global temperatures to rise. For years, they funded organizations that attempted to muddy the waters on thousands of scientific studies that were published on the subject of a warming world. The Attorneys General of New York and the Virgin Islands subpoenaed Exxon in November, and Exxon ended up giving thousands of files to New York. It refused to comply with the requests to the Virgin Islands, perhaps because the territory, being an island, would have had an easier time than the state of New York on the issue of proving harm. Instead, the company countersued to block the subpoena.

They were not alone, as it turns out. Enter Ken Paxton, Republican Attorney General of Texas, stage far-right. Despite being under indictment himself for securities fraud, Paxton - using taxpayer money - filed a legal brief siding with Exxon, asking the court to put an end to "ridiculous" legal filings that "punish Exxon for holding an opinion on climate change that differed from theirs." That's right, folks. There's no such a thing as scientific proof, only "opinions," so they tried to make this into a First Amendment issue. Texas (Republican) congressman Lamar Smith, chairman of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology (and a climate skeptic) is using his office to probe into a huge array of attorneys general, activist groups, and environmental sciences labs, because, again, they are infringing upon Exxon's First Amendment rights to free speech. This is exactly what the tobacco companies attempted to do a generation ago, after getting slammed with a 17.3 billion dollar settlement (weirdly, they are even using the exact same law firm: Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton, and Garrison). Former Attorney General (and now number two Republican in the US Senate) John Cornyn spent the first two years of his time in office attempting to overturn this verdict. I literally couldn't invent a story this corrupt, and despite having their own share of stupid moments, you won't find the Dems doing anything even remotely this foul.



All of Exxon's and Paxton's tactics carefully sidestep the well-established fact that the First Amendment is not a shield for fraud, exactly what Exxon perpetrated on its shareholders when it knew its product was damaging the planet and told them otherwise. I find it bizarre that we are still having to fight this battle. I do see some Repubs crumbling, but not nearly enough. Now the mainstreamers aren't so much denying climate change outright, but attempt to dodge the issue by saying that they "aren't scientists." I want to scream at them sometimes: okay, you stupid bastards, if you aren't scientists, why aren't you listening to the actual scientists when they speak on this issue? Because they've all been saying pretty much the same thing for a long time. Morons.

You think all of that intransigence is bad, try talking to them about criminal justice reform. This is my second all-or-nothing issue. Neither party is perfect on this issue, and the sheer amount of work that needs to be undertaken is daunting. But don't pretend that any Republican is going to add anything constructive to this debate. I presume some of you care about this subject - otherwise, why would you be reading this site? Maybe you can't quite decide which is the lesser of the evils, or maybe you are simply not motivated to vote at all. If either of those is the case, consider voting for Clinton for me. It could literally save my life, and the lives of some of the other contributors to this site.

I told my friend Arnold a few months before he was killed that we were one new Supreme Court Justice away from abolition of the death penalty. I said that I thought the four Liberals were nearly ready to take on the issue as an 8th Amendment violation. Seven months after he was killed, the Glossip decision came down, showing us the path and proving that I was right on where some of the justices were. Two things needed to happen, I told him: for the Dems to continue holding the White House, and for Scalia, Kennedy, Alito, Thomas, or Roberts to retire or die. I honestly didn't expect the second part of that to happen for years. I don't hold any malice in my heart for Scalia. His clerks controlled the cases coming out of the 5th Circuit, and one of the reasons that Texas has killed so many more inmates than anyone else was that his clerks were writing really terrible summaries of the cases, meaning the SCOTUS rarely took one of our cases. For all that, I'm glad he's off the court, though I take no pleasure in his death. Unlike a lot of the pundits, it didn't surprise me at all that the Republican Senate refused to deal with Garland's nomination, as this is pretty much how they've been acting for years when something happened that they didn't like. But if Hillary wins in November, she will be able to nominate a Justice and have him or her confirmed by the spring of 2017 - just as I should be entering that court. I tend to think that abolition will come too late to help me, but you never really know. It's possible. I'm not attaching too much to this, but if you care in the slightest way about ending the death penalty in America, you better not even think about voting for that soft core Putin the Repubs nominated. If he gets to replace Scalia with one of the ultra-conservative blowhards the Heritage Foundation recommended to him, this thing will last easily another generation. If Hillary wins, it will be gone in five years, max. Put that in the bank.

This may be the most consequential election in my lifetime. I think scholars will look back on this past decade as a pivot point in US history - towards a more genuine pluralism, a sense of equality that is based in practice and on best intentions, a true shifting towards secularity and the immanent frame and away from a retrograde obsession for traditional power structures. It sounds grandiose, but history really is watching. You seldom have such a distinct set of options. Listen to the conventions. I'm going out on a limb here, but I feel pretty confident that the RNC is going to be dominated by nearly apocalyptically dark themes, of division and intolerance and fear. The DNC will be about hope and nuance and details on how to irenically solve the complex problems we face. It's easy to be fearful, to be angry. I know it's hard not to feel despair, but I also know that despair is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you feel it, you will find it wherever you look. And that is no way to run a nation.


Thomas Whitaker 999522
Polunsky Unit
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Thursday, September 15, 2016

Desensitized

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Desensitized (Part 1)

By Michael "Yasir" Belt

“We are in the real world in which we can´t change the changed.” – Robert Day

Another one bites the dust. They got one of us again.  One more black man shot dead in the streets by a law officer, a representative of the justice system.

It was Sunday morning.  I´d just finished the wake-up routine hygiene, praying, mixing that smoothly bitter shot of Colombian coffee and tuning my T.V. to the news channel. I sat down and began reading about the mentalities of women in an unsavory magazine it came over the airwaves.

“Get on the ground!  Don´t move! Don´t move!”

I looked up to see on TV the man, a black man, though it doesn´t really matter, getting his face smashed into the ground by the weight of a white officer´s knee. The officer was applying all of his weight to the head of the subdued man.

“Roll on your stomach! Stop resisting!”

Is he resisting,? I wondered.  Or is he merely trying to avoid pain? Mind you, he was already face planted on his stomach, with at least four officers pinning him down. And then you could hear “Pop!” of a gun, followed by screams.

“Aahhh! Oh my God!” cried the restrained black man.

“Gosh! I shot him! It was an accident! I´m sorry!” said an old man, a civilian who’d been on a ride along with officers who were standing around.

The officer who had his hand pressed against the victim´s neck didn´t relent, as someone with a heart would have. Instead he applied more pressure.  You could see him adjusting his body weight and kneeing the victim´s head and face further into the ground.

I wondered what would give first: flesh and bones or asphalt and concrete?

I´ve taken the liberty of excluding all the profanity emitted from law enforcement. I´ll substitute the phrase, “shut up!”  Which is what was constantly yelled at the victim, along with profanity, as he informed the officers that he could no longer breathe, or that he was losing breath.  Instead of loosening their restraint ever so slightly, the officers continued to forcefully hold him down and mock the dying man who can´t breathe, why don´t you? So professional. 

You know what….I can´t help it.  When the victim said that he couldn’t breathe, the officer on top of him said: “Fuck your breath!” Now, take that in for a minute. Imagine that was you or maybe your son, nephew, brother.  Your daughter, sister, or niece, even because they sure don´t discriminate in the mistreatment of simple citizens.

“I can´t breathe!” was a slogan, a chant at rallies recently.  This stemmed from the case of Eric Garner, another black man, who was being put in an illegal choke hold by a police officer on a New York City street.  His last words were: “I can´t breathe!” “Hands up, don´t shoot!” stemmed from the case of Mike Brown, of Ferguson, Missouri, who was retreating away from a police officer with his hands high in the air, as the officer opened fire on him, ending his life.  These were our “We´re not gonna take it anymore!” rallying calls.  But, we´ll come back to this later.

Pro tempore, I want to discuss why, before the current news story was even finished being told, I reverted my attention back to my studying of the feminine mind and physiological differences. Or, in other words, how could I take my eyes off  the black man laying shot and dying in the streets and turn my attention back to strumpets?  Why, where I am from, the answer is elementary dear reader.

I am a product of desensitization.  Dehumanization, even.  

The story that followed involved a police officer who had repeatedly punched a white female who was 9 months pregnant in the face in her kitchen while in front of her children.  She had been fairly subdued.  We all saw the video.  The officer´s stated reasoning for the brutal force used against the woman was the standard claim.  “She reached for my gun,” he´d said.  And, I say, did he watch the video before issuing that statement?

Next case in point, and bear in mind that this is all in the same morning, same news broadcast, all spread within maybe a half an hour.  There was a follow-up story showing the funeral procession of Eric Harris. Yet another black man gunned down about a week prior by a white officer.

In the video, you could see Eric Harris, smack the Taser out of the officer´s hand after already being tased repeatedly, and then take off running.  The officer doesn´t tell him to stop.  He doesn´t chase after him.  He merely draws his service weapon, takes aim at the fleeing man´s back and pumps out eight rounds in succession.

My roommate and I continued to watch as they played the video on a perpetual loop.  At first take, it was shocking; appalling; head-shaking, pitiable.  But, then, after about 15-20 minutes of the loop, we began to count down the shots and laugh as he began to dance his way to death.

One shot, two shots, three shots, four.  On the fifth shot, his body jerks, his back arches as he tries to continue to run.  On the sixth shot, his arms go out to his sides as if he´s doing the wave, break-dancing. On the seventh shot, his back archs into the limbo.

It takes a second or four for the eighth and final shot to be fired into Eric Harris back.  The officer is taking careful, precise aim for this one.  He zeroes in, adjusting his shooter´s stance.  It is as if he were at the shooting range and the target is painted on the back of a man who was once willfully fleeing for his freedom and now literally running for his life.  Eric Harris never made it, though.

The eighth shot slams into his back.  His legs carry him stumbling another ten feet of subconscious commands previously sent to them by his brain.  Then he sprawls out, face first, next to a tree.

The officer calmly walks over to the already dead body, cuffs it, walks back over to his Taser, picks it up and drops it back down next to the body.  His excuse later would be that they were struggling over the Taser. Witnesses, video and forensics will say otherwise.

Sad story, right? So, how could I laugh at it and then pay it relatively no mind?  For the same reason today´s case simply meant, “Another one bites the dust” to me.

I no longer feel like a human being.  I have come to develop a Peter Griffin mentality: “I would be empathetic, if I weren´t so lethargic.”  And, yes, this is a character from the animated show “Family Guy” that I am sympathizing with.

Does no one else see the issues?

How many times recently have we seen police brutality and misuse of authority and force?  I should mention the story of the Caucasian man in Los Angeles.  He had surrendered to the police.  He was lying there, spread eagle, face down on the ground.  He was not a threat to anyone in any way.  However, as soon as the officers approached him, they began to punch and stomp and kick him from head to toe.  I think that I even saw an atomic elbow drop in there somewhere. But, at least he lived through his encounter.  The point is, however, when will enough be enough?

How did it feel to witness the killing of a 12 year old boy? Tamir Rice, gunned down by a rookie cop in the park. I do not hold the same opinion as others on this one.  Some only see another black child murdered by a white cop.  And, that may be the case.  But, if Tamir did reach for the fake gun he was carrying, the officer had every right to defend his life against what he saw as impending danger.  Although, there was protocol that was not followed along with the failure to relay information by the 911 dispatcher to the responding officers  information that could have saved the boy´s life.

Is the pattern recognizable yet? The New York City rookie cop who shot the unarmed man in a housing project stairwell.  “He never did nothin´ to nobody but that boy shot him,” (Jay-Z).  The guy had been  returning from visiting a friend or going to the store.  Whatever the case, the rookie officer became frightened when the man came down the stairs.  He pulled his weapon and killed the unarmed citizen.  Tell me, is it ironic for a taxpayer to be killed with a weapon which he himself paid for?

I could go on.  I mean…this has been going on for decades.  But I´ll leave it there, at the cases which have occurred within the last three to four months.  And these are only the ones that I can remember. So, do you now see why I am “desensitized”? 

I am from the mean streets of Philly.  Not the Philadelphia known as the City of Brotherly Love.  Not Center City Philadelphia.  I´m from the hood, the real Philly.  I´m from where it goes down everyday.  Where bodies drop without remorse.  Whether you are from North, North-east, West side – the Best side – Southwest or South Philly, you learn what life is really like.  One of the only reasons some people watch the news or read the papers is to see which one of their loved ones was killed the night before.  Others refuse to follow the news, sick of all of the senseless violence and killing.

Picture me sitting in front of the T.V. with my daughter on a Saturday morning.  We´re eating breakfast while Bambi´s mother is killed.  I’m imagining the cartoon being more realistic and how the mother deer´s brains would look – like the cereal I’m eating and my daughter breaks into tears. Instead of offering a fatherly comfort, I stuff another spoon full of fruity, colorful, mother-brains into my mouth, turn to her, straight-faced, and quote a distasteful character from the movie “Paid in Full” : “Niggaz die every day, B.”

Would you call that insensitive?  Inhuman, maybe, or cruel? Or would you see it for what it is?  We are all merely a product of our given societies.

I´ve seen so much death in my life that I wonder if I’ve suffered permanent damage from it.  Maybe I have PTSD.  I can remember my first experience with death and my indifference even then.  My great aunt and I was young.  I remember all of my family being over my other great-aunt´s house, mourning, as I ran around trying to play.

Juice was killed when I was 13.  I didn’t really know him since I was just getting into the ways of the streets, but, I watched other members of my block lament over him.  When I was 15, Jamaican George was killed while I was away for the first time. He was the first one to teach me how to “conduct business.”  Then there was Tim Blaze, a good dude.  I was 17 or 18 by that time, and away again.  And, somewhere in the midst of all of that, my friend committed suicide.

The first dead body I actually saw was Rell´s.  I watched the shoot-out from down the street.  When it was over, I walked down the block and there was Rell, laying on the bus stop, minus part of his head.  I lucked up though since I was 20 by the time I saw that one.

I´ve only cried twice concerning death.  It was 2004 or 2005 when my best friend was killed by an off-duty cop who thought that he was above the law.  Charlie was the original Mike Brown, his hands held high in the air, telling the cop not to shoot him, that he was unarmed.  His nephew and my friend, Big, had been killed right before that.  Watch your friends closely, was the lesson to be taken from that one.  In 2006 my young friend Shawnn was killed by his own friend while he was in a high, jealous rage. Damn, Shizz, why didn´t you stay in college, baby boy?

In 2008, little Keyon died from an overdose of either oxycodone or another opiate.  I felt more connected to his death because not only did I watch him grow up, wrestling with him, trying to toughen him up for the life he was bound for, but Keyon had been crying out for me to help him.  He had just come home from prison, as I had shortly before him, and he was trying to avoid evil and its people. I didn´t fully commit myself to giving him the help he needed, succumbing to the evils myself at the time.  So, I feel, if not necessarily responsible, contrite, as if I could have done more.

So, why has death become the similitude of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to me?  Probably because I´ve been force-fed death for most of my life.  But so have a lot of people.  After all, death is a part of life.  But death like the kind I’m writing about should not be a part of anyone´s life.  Life should end the way it did for my grandfather recently: in old age.  But because life is what it is, when he finally died, I couldn’t have cared less.  We had been close when I was younger; when I was different.  But, now his death only mattered to me in that it relieved the suffering my mother endured over his failing health.  That´s it.

I´m numb. How many more of us must become this hardened?  How many more of us will?

“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” – Maya Angelou


Desensitized (Part 2)

By Michael "Yasir" Belt

“He who sleeps in continual noise is awakened by silence.”  William Dean Howells

I must apologize, dear reader, for it has been months since the death of Walter Scott.  His story was where we began this journey. “The words of truth are always paradoxical” (Lao Tzu).  And, the status quo still remains, however regrettably cliché, that black lives continue to not matter.

I was discouraged from continuing to write about this subject.  Not by another person, but rather myself.  “What´s the point?” I thought.  “My words will impact the situation about as much as a frog shitting in Florida marshlands does to a Sherpa in the Himalayas.”  And, I was right..  A multitude of others have spoken on this subject and its underlying issues to no avail.

Talk does not cook rice.

Freddie Gray died in police custody over the summer in Baltimore, Maryland.  His cause of death is believed to be the aftermath of what the police called a “rough ride.”  This is when arresting officers intentionally drive in an erratic manner in order to cause harm to their prisoner.  Freddie Gray’s death caused Baltimore to riot.  Another young black man, dead as a result of the actions of law enforcement.

Citizens took to the streets, like they did in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police killing of Mike Brown.  But this time, there was much more force.  They destroyed police vehicles, with bricks, bats, fire and feet.  Not all the destroyed cars started off being deserted.  There were attempts on the lives of police officers.  As reported, one of these attempts resulted in the loss of yet another young black life.

I am not speaking on this to praise, glorify or encourage violence.  For I believe that, as a wise man once said, “Problems cannot be solved by the same level of ignorance which created them.”  And ignorance causes some people to believe that other races are portrayed as animalistic, cantankerous, primitive, dim-witted, and, well, ignorant.  Such narrow beliefs may only lie in the eyes of certain groups and individuals, but, these are often the groups and individuals in power.

Some of what has colored us so falsely is, in that both Baltimore and Ferguson, we looted and burned down our own neighborhoods.  Black-owned businesses don´t even want to rebuild, they will move elsewhere and cut their losses, leaving us worse off than we began. Scenes were broadcast worldwide, footage of us destroying our own common places and communities, being our own conquerors.  We were viewed as being the cause of our own plights.  Did we not learn from the Watts or Newark riots?

However foolhardy such actions appear to be, they’re understandable.  Edmund Burke said that “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.”  This may have been the sentiment of Mike Brown’s stepfather when it was announced that the officer who’d murdered his son would not be brought up on charges.  He got on the bullhorn, addressing the crowd in front of the police station by screaming, “Burn this bitch down!”

Can we blame him for his emotional outburst?  Like him, the people are mad. Sick and tired of being sick and tired.  The rowdy believe the only way to be heard is to make noise: throw bottles and bricks at police or whatever it takes.  Those who are seen as older or meek, who are actuality the stronger, make statements such as one Baltimore protester did, “When is it going to stop being just us and be justice?” Yet, is either side wrong?  Surely their opposition is.  For there would be no fuse to light if the powder had not been continuously compounded into the keg.

Blasé Pascal said that “Justice without force is powerless.  Force without just cause is terror.”  There is no need to question the validity of just cause. Black lives – all lives – matter.  Simple as that.  The terror is the oppression and inequality, which continues to exist despite claims to the contrary. We arrive at the question:  would we be wrong if we directed the correct forces to their proper locations? I don´t think so. I can´t say what forces would be the correct, nor where to direct them.  There are people more qualified than I am in matters such as this.  But I want to be part of the solution, whether in my lifetime, my children´s or their children´s.  Here´s the kicker though:  It´s going to take more than myself, those whom I instill with guidance and wisdom, and a few thinkers.  A lot of doers are necessary and, together, we must act. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world,” (Margaret Mead).

Riots, peaceful protests – or any other form of demonstration have one thing in common.  They all fade.  Those on the other side of the picket-line simply wait for the momentum to dissipate and then they return to business as usual.  Nothing changes,  neither thought processes nor patterns of behavior.  The subject may be lingeringly addressed for a while, spoken of and then whispered for a moment.  Again, the rice has failed to be cooked.

Do we starve ourselves?

When we shoot each other we are considered the scourge and plagues of the communities.  Yet, when police come into our communities and unjustly gun us down, they are held to be heroes, patted on their backs by their fellow peers, compatriots and sympathizers.  And this is neither to justify, glorify nor vilify the actions of miscreants within our social climate, but to point out the injustices and inequalities.  Or, more so, biases when it comes to the citizens of certain communities as it relates to the police state in authority; not to be confused with the state of police.

“THUG LIFE, BITCH!” is one of the truest statements made by the precociously revolutionary, Tupac Shakur.  As I stated, I grew up in a climate of death and destruction, inequality and persecution.  Personal infringement upon humanity and sensibilities. I was a young boy watching Rodney King gettng beat to shit and now I am a grown man watching 12 year old boys being gunned down on the playground. Hands up, don´t shoot, and I can´t breathe; Black lives matter; slogan after slogan has been chanted since way back before “we shall overcome.”  Have we though; overcome?  Some may say things are different or that they have changed.  The reality, though, it is as Irene Peter said, “Just because everything is different doesn’t mean that anything has changed.”  We have come to realize that from our youth we are mind-fucked into believing that we do not matter.  THUG LIFE, BITCH!  Why have I been desensitized? Because The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody, Bitch! (For those of you not in the know, this is what Tupac meant every time he said Thug Life.)

I intend not to incite, but to edify and possibly empower.  I don´t have answers to questions or even suggestions.  I am simply one of the masses and I am tired, fed up.  And I do not know what else to do.  Some refuse to do even that.  They choose to ignore the fact that not only has damage been done, but it will continue if no one does anything about it.  They do not realize that “even if you bury your head in the sand, you can still get your ass kicked.” (Dr. HaHa Lung).

After Baltimore, a pretentious onlooker asked what´s so hard about, sitting down and figuring it out.  He was referring to the blacks of Baltimore and the Baltimore PD, who are known for their improprieties towards blacks.  Michael Smith of the sports show His & Hers responded to the ignorance by saying, it´s easy to say that someone should be able to find a solution “when you´re not the one forced to answer the question.”

As a black man, I am forced to attempt to find an answer to the question. If not simply for my people, then for my children, my little brothers and sisters, and the family which shall come from them all.  And I hate to play the race card or to talk race specifics period, because I despise even the simplest thought of racism or racial bias or even the fact that there are still race issues period. But, one can no more escape the harshness of reality than they can stop themselves from blinking (you even blink when your eyes are closed.).

I believe that it, that is, the situation in its totality is closer to the saying of Dr. Seuss more than anything when he said: “Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.”

I´ve realized that I´m not as numb as I initially thought I was. It´s possible I was merely being a sadist.   More than likely, I allowed for my alter ego to take over, for he feels no pain and has not a care but for himself.  Me though, the real me, I am empathetic every time I hear a new name.  Sean Bell, Amadu Dialo, Anthony Beaz. Tiesha Miller, Mohamed Bah, Oscar Grant.  I have found that it is easier to harden myself, to ignore or misdirect my emotions, rather than dying inside along with the unjustified. Though, with every Sandra Blane, a piece of my humanity is stripped away from me.  I am demoralized with the passing of our Jordan Davis, and desensitization occurs in the wake of Akai Gurleys.  

Sadly, a person rarely sees the light until they are enveloped in darkness.  Walking towards the light…senseless death and abuse is not funny.  Yet, we seek solace in laughter, in order to avoid tears.  We harden our hearts so that hurt can no longer permeate within them.  To belittle those tragedies as if they are simply démedé and to be overlooked may end up causing more hurt because the attitudes we display will be the attitudes our children shall mold the future with.

Maybe we can´t do anything about what takes place in our communities. Whether the negative actions are carried out by its inhabitants or otherwise. But maybe we can.  “The most common way people give up power is by believing that they don´t have any.” (Alice Walker).  Whether you are hopeful or hopeless, do not let the devil convince you that he does not exist.  It is true that the way one sees things depends on where one is looking from. So, turn around if need be and do not turn your back or a blind eye to the injustices.  Tilt your head to change your perception.  And no matter how many more names you hear, no matter their race, color or creed, no matter how much more outrageous it gets, do not become desensitized.

“I am for truth, no matter who tells it.  I am for Justice, no matter who it is for or against.” -Malcolm X 

Michael Belt KU8088
SCI Houtzdale
P.O. Box 1000
Houtzdale, PA 16698

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Thursday, September 8, 2016

Hunger Games

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By Jeremiah Bourgeois

My hands were cuffed tightly behind my back, hurting my wrists. The shackles were also biting into my ankles. Five minutes before I was being harangued by the Sergeant. Thirty seconds later I was punching him repeatedly. Ten seconds later I was being tackled to the ground by his subordinates. Now I was being dragged backwards to segregation. As my heels scraped the concrete, I had no idea how much suffering awaited me.

The torment began the following morning. "Mainline," the officer's voice boomed, signaling prisoners to stand at their door if they wanted to be fed. I had just finished brushing my teeth and went to the yellow line that indicated exactly where to stand. The two officers delivered the trays one-by-one, with one officer pushing the cart and the other opening the slot to pass the food through. I could smell the eggs as the cart moved closer. After the officer handed the guy on the right side of my cell his tray, they bypassed by cell, handed the guy on the left side of my cell his tray, then continued down the tier.

They never looked in my direction. They never said a word. I stood there in silence for about a minute. Fuming. Then I went and made my bed. That done, I paced the floor, stomach grumbling all the while. Lunch arrived four hours later.

"Mainline," the officer's voice boomed. I was on the far side of the cell when I heard him yell, and I rushed to that yellow line as if they were only feet away from the door. There I stood for several minutes until they arrived with the food cart in tow. Once again, the guy on the right side got his tray as did the one on the left. Once again, I didn't get shit. This time I couldn't help myself and asked sarcastically, "I can't get a tray?" They never looked in my direction. I felt like a fool. I shouldn't have said a thing.

As I listened to the wheels on the cart squeak as the food moved further away, I laid down on the bed. Furious. Not only because I wasn’t being fed but because I had shown weakness. They want to hear me scream and beg. To complain and request grievance forms. To feed off my reaction. I vowed not to react from that moment forward. My expression would remain devoid of all emotion. I would give nothing.

As I lay in bed throughout the afternoon all I could do was hope that the officers on the next shift were not in cahoots with this crew. Then I’d be able to eat dinner. I nodded off at some point and awoke when a different voice boomed, “Mainline.” I jumped out of bed, rushed to the yellow line, and waited. The guy on the right side of me got his tray, then the officers stopped in front of my cell. I couldn’t believe it. I was so glad that these guys were now on shift as opposed to the other two. When one of them opened the slot in my door to pass me the tray I felt so relieved. My relief turned to rage when he shoved the tray so forcefully the food flew all over the floor. The slot then quickly closed and the two continued passing out meals as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.

I ate that spaghetti right off the floor, and scraped the applesauce off the wall with my hand, licking it off my fingers. Of course I waited until my tormentors left the tier lest they get to enjoy bearing witness to the spectacle. When they returned to pick-up my tray, I handed it to them as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. My face showed no emotion. I said not one word.

This day replayed itself twenty-one times. No breakfast, no lunch. Dinner eaten off the wall and the floor. For twenty-one days I was never let out of that cell. No shower. No telephone. There was nothing I could do about it.

Who knows why they decided to start feeding me? Maybe it was due to their fear that my health would deteriorate to such an extent that it could lead to a medical emergency, thereby arousing suspicion amongst medical staff and raising questions that the officers did not want anyone to ask. Maybe the sight of my gaunt features evoked pity in one of them and compelled him to intercede on my behalf. Who knows? What I do know is thirteen pounds had vanished from my already slight frame. When I stepped on the scale on my way to the shower after having eaten breakfast for the first time in three weeks, my weight had dropped from 158 to 145 pounds.

************

Fifteen years later, I was imprisoned elsewhere. Years had passed since I was involved in any serious disciplinary incident. My days of punching officers in the face were long behind me. I had come to terms with the fact that I was going to spend the rest of my life in prison. I might as well make the most of it.

One morning I awoke to find that the prison was locked down. Nothing was moving. As I turned on the local news, I wondered how long we would be stuck in our cells before normal movement would begin. When I saw the lead story, I knew nobody was going anywhere.

The newscaster was reporting from right outside. Hours before, an officer had been found slain in the prison chapel. I was stunned. It was inconceivable to me. When the slain officer’s photograph was shown, my face froze. I passed this woman almost every day as she stood outside the chapel checking prisoners in. She worked inside during her shift. She was professional. Polite. Never bothered anybody. As the image on the screen cut to her quaint home with a horse in the back, my shock turned into sadness. She was only thirty-four years old, the newscaster said. That was only a year older than me. Her life snuffed out just like that. It was a tragedy.

Tears started to form in my eyes by the time the image on the screen cut back to the prison. The newscaster then explained that a convicted serial rapist was suspected of committing the murder. He was now being held in segregation. When I heard that, I suddenly thought “Those officers are about to fuck him up in there.” As I envisioned the countless ways they could go about it with him, I vividly recalled how they went about it with me. As I remembered those weeks of starvation, long buried emotions flooded over me. Anger. Depression. Hate. Self-pity. Loneliness. Fury. I couldn’t focus on the television anymore. I laid down and eventually fell asleep.

I don’t think I’ll ever get over what they did to me. To forgive, to let go, is truly a hard thing. I wonder if my victims also experience such emotions suddenly. Because of me. Because of what I did to a husband. A father. A friend. I doubt they’ll ever forgive me. 

Jeremiah Bourgeois #708897
Stafford Creek Corrections Center
191 Constantine Way
Aberdeen WA 98520