The Hedgehog’s Array: December 19, 2014

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Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“The Year of Outrage,” Slate Staff
“Following the news in 2014 is a bit like flying a kite in flat country during tornado season. Every so often, a whirlwind of outrage touches down, sowing destruction and chaos before disappearing into the sky.”

“How ‘The Interview’ Handled the Assassination of Kim Jong-Un,” Richard Brody
“The threat posed by ‘The Interview’ to the real Kim Jong-un isn’t just that it holds him up to ridicule, but that it could subject him to ridicule at home—not least, by dramatizing that prospect.”

“Host in the Shell,” Sara Black McCulloch
“Sometimes our immune systems lie to us. Autoimmune disorders attack the nonthreatening self, destroying vital body tissue, as with rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and Graves’ disease. Like even the best intelligence agencies, our immune systems sometimes fail to recognize when the self becomes a threat, the body a double agent: the cancer is coming from inside the house, at least where the house is flesh, and the immune system doesn’t see its cells as foreign.”

“The Art of Arrival,” Rebecca Solnit
“She had lived there in a house she had built herself with the beloved for whom she had left her first husband in the 1960s, and she lived there long after he had died, serene, with the air of someone who has truly arrived, not restless for other places, for life to change, for company or bustle or entertainment.”

“When We Speak of Nationality, What Do We Mean?,” Taiye Selasi
“There was nothing, it seemed, in the idea of Italy—in the notion of the nation—capable of overriding the realities of language, class and color. Returning to Berlin, my latest home, I couldn’t shake the thought: When we speak of nationality, then, what do we actually mean?”

“How the Essay Was Won And Where It Got Us,” Tobias Carroll
“The essay, as a form, can inspire introspection and make the familiar seem revitalized, or entirely strange.”

“Automation for the People?,” Christine Rosen
“Modern automation also appears to be erasing jobs from our lives. Although technology-induced joblessness has stoked fear since angry Luddites smashed the first mechanized looms, Carr persuasively argues that this time things really are different….”

“Athens on the Midway: Defending Leo Strauss,” Gary Rosen
“What, then, makes Strauss so compelling? What explains the allure of Straussian teachers and teaching? Many of the same things, I suspect, that have made Strauss and the Straussians so inviting a target for their critics inside and outside the academy.”

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What is Truth in Ferguson and New York City?

Stained glass from the Buxtehude courthouse. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Stained glass from the Buxtehude courthouse. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The grand jury decisions in Ferguson and New York City have raised important questions about credibility: the credibility of “the system” and those who enforce it, the credibility of witnesses and evidence, and the credibility of those who highlight and interpret the news of these events for the rest of us.

Insofar as we are the ones highlighting and interpreting the news—and in today’s Twitter and Facebook age, a lot more of us are filling those roles—it is also our credibility that is at issue, our imperative to speak truthfully. How should we be thinking and speaking about Ferguson and New York City? We can start with greater care and precision about what we know and what we don’t know. Continue reading

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Crime, Punishment, and Serial

 

I no longer care whether Adnan Syed is guilty or not guilty. For me, if he is guilty, the big question is how long he should be in jail.

The first season of what may be the world’s most analyzed podcast, Serial, will come to an end this week. Serial, a weekly nonfiction radio saga from the producers of This American Life, garnered a huge and immediate following when it reopened a 1999 investigation into the death by strangulation of a Baltimore high-school student, Hae Min Lee, and Adnan Syed, the ex-boyfriend convicted of her murder. A subculture of listeners devoted to discussing and debating the guilt or innocence of Adnan quickly spawned a podcast discussing the podcast, endless reddit feeds, “Free Adnan” t-shirts, and, particularly popular this week, predictions of how the series will end.

After the dust settles with this week’s concluding episode, and regardless of whether the show’s producer and host Sarah Koenig says she believes Adnan is guilty or innocent, or whether Mike Pesca’s widely repeated quip “Don’t let this be a contemplation on the nature of the truth” proves to be true, I’m thinking about different questions. If Adnan is guilty (and I tend to lean that way, although like any follower, my conviction wavers), has he already served enough time? In other words, now that we know Adnan, or feel as though we do, should that change our view on the severity of sentences imposed? What are the goals of a prison sentence anyway? Particularly a life sentence.

I first started thinking about this because Adnan and I are the same age, although, full disclosure, I also think about these things every day in my job as a public defender. I graduated from high school in 1999, when Adnan would have graduated had he not been convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend. Adnan is 15 years into his lifetime sentence plus 30 years for first-degree murder. During those same 15 years, I graduated from high school, college, and law school, lived in five different places, married, and gave birth to two children. Having been in prison from age 17 to age 33, Adnan has already missed out on the prime years of his life, when he would have completed his education and put in place the foundation of a productive career. Even If he were magically released today, he would carry his felony conviction with him, a stigma that would complicate any potential job prospect and possibly prevent him from receiving government benefits if he didn’t find work. In other words, in addition to 15 years of incarceration and numerous missed opportunities, he would face incredibly limited odds for future success.

That said, are 15 years and the prospect of a dismal future sufficient punishment for murder? What about 20 years? Of course,  the fact that this is murder is what makes it so interesting. Our federal prisons are filled with drug offenders (50.6 percent), with violent offenders making up only 5.9 percent of that population. There is a broad consensus that the increase in prison population (500 percent in the last 40 years) and the increase in the length of criminal sentences (a 36 percent increase from 1990 to 2009) is correlated with the “war on drugs,” what many would argue is victimless crime that leads to unnecessarily long sentences. But 53 percent of state offenders committed violent offenses, not all murders, although some in the same category as Adnan. So how much prison time is enough for these offenders—or for any offender?

The Criminal Law 101 theories of punishment are simple:

  • Retribution—An appeal to a societal sense of justice about punishing wrongdoing because of what we all know to be right and wrong
  • Deterrence—“Specific,” to deter the individual offender from committing a similar crime again; and “general,” to deter other people from committing a similar crime.
  • Rehabilitation—Reforming the offender to prevent future criminal behavior through education, counselling, treatment, etc.
  • Restoration—Repaying the victim or society for the cost of misdeeds, sometimes financial
  • Incapacitation—Physically removing offenders from society to keep them from committing additional crimes

The difficulty, of course, is applying the particulars of each case to this broad framework of punishment, while also keeping in mind the costs to society of paying for incarceration. On average, it costs $29,000  per annum for each person in federal prison. Taxpayers contribute more than $50 billion annually toward state prisons.

In the case of murder, American criminal law prioritizes retribution above all else. This emphasis often results in the imposition of a life sentence. By contrast, Norway caps all prison sentences at twenty-one years, with the assumption that rehabilitation has occurred by then, although the sentence may be extended in five-year increments if the prison system determines that rehabilitation has not occurred. In the United States, the mandatory minimum sentence for first-degree murder under federal law—life without parole—differs substantially from those imposed by Australia, New Zealand, or Canada.  All three set minimums of five years up to life, with the possibility of parole.

Are murderers irredeemable? Does age matter? What about really likeable murderers who interview well? What if the central question of Serial is not who took Hae Lee’s life, but whether or not we are justified in abandoning all hope of rehabilitating Adnan? Someone please send me a link to the reddit feed where we can start discussing sentencing. In a system where 97 percent of criminal defendants plead guilty instead of going to trial, questions about sentencing may be even more important than questions about guilt or innocence.

Lisa Lorish is an assistant federal public defender in the Western District of Virginia and a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law.

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The New Class and The New Republic

 

At first, Facebook billionaire Chris Hughes seemed like The New Republic’s savior. He said that he valued its peerless tradition and that he was worried about the future of long-form journalism. He gave the publication much-needed financial security, and he even brought back esteemed editor Franklin Foer. But the honeymoon proved brief. Hughes became impatient with Foer and longtime literary editor Leon Wieseltier. It was the kind of impatience peculiar to tech moguls, a sort of Silicon Valley itch: If it ain’t broke, break it. In Silicon Valley, the goal is disruption, not mere innovation.

In his first meeting with The New Republic staff, Guy Vidra, Hughes’s recently imported CEO, wasted no time in sharing that West Coast wisdom. “We’re going to break shit,” the former Yahoo News executive said. He was serious—except for the “we” part. He ran off (or pushed out) Foer and Wieseltier, and most of the senior staff and corresponding editors have left with them. Apparently they do not want to play a part in turning The New Republic into a “digital media company.”

That The New Republic has been undone by a tech billionaire is grimly fitting. From its founding onward, The New Republic has made room in its conversations for critics such as Randolph Bourne, Lewis Mumford, Christopher Lasch, Jackson Lears, and even Wieseltier himself, who are suspicious of techno-utopianism. They have all been  wary of our tendency to conflate technological change with progress, especially when those changes result in greater economic centralization. In a 2013 commencement speech at Brandeis University, Wieseltier claimed that “we live in a society inebriated by technology, and happily, even giddily governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency, and convenience”:

The machines to which we have become enslaved, all of them quite astonishing, represent the greatest assault on human attention ever devised: they are engines of mental and spiritual dispersal, which make us wider only by making us less deep. There are thinkers, reputable ones if you can believe it, who proclaim that the exponential growth in computational ability will soon take us beyond the finitude of our bodies and our minds so that, as one of them puts it, there will no longer be any difference between human and machine. La Mettrie lives in Silicon Valley. This, of course, is not an apotheosis of the human but an abolition of the human; but Google is very excited by it.

Culture elites have a cozy relationship with Silicon Valley cash, but it is only recently that they have had to reckon with Silicon Valley disruption. Continue reading

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The Hedgehog’s Array: December 12, 2014

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Noteworthy reads from last week:

“Has modern art exhausted its power to shock?,” Roger Scruton
“If the public has become so immune to shock that only a dead shark in formaldehyde will awaken a brief spasm of outrage, then the artist must produce a dead shark in formaldehyde—this, at least, is an authentic gesture.”

“Can We Criticize Foucault?,” Daniel Zamora
“Foucault was highly attracted to economic liberalism: he saw in it the possibility of a form of governmentality that was much less normative and authoritarian than the socialist and communist left, which he saw as totally obsolete.”

“The Disappearance of Rosemary Tonks,” Ruth Graham
“Decades later, a London poet named Rosemary Tonks would name Rimbaud as one of her main influences. If she was not quite the scandalous sensation of her forebear, she was nonetheless respected, and she ran with a bohemian crowd.… And then, quite suddenly, she disappeared.”

“Good Feminist,” Vivian Gornick
“Fast-forward another twenty-five years, and we’re into what’s called Third Wave feminism—a non-movement movement whose participants seem to bear an uncanny resemblance to the young women who called themselves free women in the 1920s.”

“The Gothic Life and Times of Horace Walpole,” Carrie Frye
“As a child, Horace Walpole frequently heard it said of himself that surely he would die soon.”

“Future Perfect,” Iwan Rhys Morus
“For the Victorians, the future, as terra incognita, was ripe for exploration (and colonisation). For someone like me—who grew up reading the science fiction of Robert Heinlein and watching Star Trek—this makes looking at how the Victorians imagined us today just as interesting as looking at the way our imagined futures work now.”

“Who Killed Cat Fancy?,” Abraham Riesman
“Extensive interviews with writers and executives there have suggested an answer: Cat lovers killed Cat Fancy. In their defense, they had no idea they were doing it.”

“How Torture Became Just Another Government Bureaucracy,” Scott Shackford
“A bureaucracy always protects its own existence above any and all things. The nature of the CIA’s acknowledgements of deficiencies are about fixing the bureaucracy and actually expanding it.”

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Color Commentary

Pantone's color campaign for its 2015 Color of the Year, Marsala (photo: Pantone)

Pantone’s color campaign for its 2015 Color of the Year, Marsala (photo: Pantone)

To introduce Marsala, the 2015 Color of the Year, Pantone Color Institute executive director Leatrice Eiseman pulled out all the stops: “Marsala enriches our mind, body and soul, exuding confidence and stability. Marsala is a subtly seductive shade, one that draws us in to its embracing warmth.”

Who knew that a color could do so much?

Pantone, the color house used by graphic designers and color-trend followers, makes a big splash every year by naming the shade to watch. Immediately after the announcement, clothing manufacturers, makeup companies, home décor designers, and fashionistas set to work blogging and chatting about the new possibilities of glamor and sensation opened up by the color.

Pantone’s own website introduced Marsala, a deep burgundy red, earlier this month with the full fashion-magazine treatment. A series of photographs incorporating color-coordinated clothing, makeup, food, and fabrics showcase the obligatory gorgeous models—exotic men with stubble, beautiful women with chunky accessories—all cavorting in a to-die-for apartment drenched in the shades of wine. One photo even shows a wine-colored playscript cover of “A Midsummer Marsala Dream.”

In early December, the Wall Street Journal featured a Marsala mash-up including ties, jeans, handbags, necklaces, plates, and—for the girl who has everything—wine-colored mascara and brow enhancer. Naysayers like Tanya Basu in The Atlantic found little comfort or warmth in a color that made her think of dried blood or rust. Pantone’s models may be sampling wine and pomegranate seeds, but Basu saw industrial carpets and dorm rooms. And she was not alone in her low regard for the color. The Cut blogger Kathleen Hou pouted that the color was “icky” and “makes you want to go to Olive Garden.”

The decision to tout one color as The Color is not taken lightly. Colors and their names convey a range of emotions, make intangible impressions, and create market possibilities. Pantone’s name for the chosen color is as important as the shade itself—even though the names can be mildly confusing. Mimosa, the pick of 2009, was a bright buttery yellow, while honeysuckle, a feminine pink, was the color for 2011. The honeysuckle flower can also be yellow, while mimosa flowers are typically pink—did that make these colors tough to sell? Last year’s color, Radiant Orchid, a lavender-pink shade, was a hot seller in the spring, but when fall arrived,  what was to be done with all those Radiant Orchid-colored toasters? Turquoise, the color of 2010, demonstrated truth in advertising, a blue-green shade close to that of the gemstone. Yet those with fond memories of rusty Chili Pepper, the color for 2007, might be forgiven for seeing its resemblance to Marsala.

The history of color is closely tied to cultural moments. The arrival of the Spanish in the Americas in the sixteenth century led to the export of massive quantities of cochineal, an insect that when ground up becomes a durable and brilliant scarlet. The ladies of Spain quickly clamored for all things bright red and pink (which they usually purchased with silver coins minted from colonial American ore). In the 1850s, the color mauve was discovered by a young chemist who was trying to synthesize artificial quinine. The residue from one his experiments became the world’s first aniline dye, guaranteed not to fade with time and washing. Queen Victoria wore a mauve gown to her daughter’s wedding, and Empress Eugénie of France cooed that the color matched her eyes—and an epidemic of “mauve measles” swept Europe. As cultural historian Simon Garfield noted in his 2001 book on the history of mauve, the color’s popularity led to burgeoning interest in the practical applications of chemistry and advances in the fields of medicine, weaponry, perfume, and photography. Mauve became indelibly associated with the elaborate, overstuffed décor of the Victorian period; when mauve returned in the 1980s, it was billed as “dusty rose,” a name much more congenial with that era’s other favorite color: hunter green.

Marsala is no mauve, but it does reflect our present cultural mood. Commentators have often noted that during times of economic and political instability, people seek out ways to control their immediate environments. This nesting instinct combined with a dramatic increase in the supply of cheap consumer goods has led furniture makers, interior designers, and fabric designers to swath and cushion homes in piles of pillows, deeply padded furniture, and colorful appliances. Our image-saturated age creates consumers eager to translate the flickering screen into a pleasing palette of color and texture in their homes. In the closely tied areas of fashion and makeup, the last few years have been characterized by alternating waves of luxury and austerity. The flames of indulgence are first fanned and then banked back in the name of simplicity and conservation (or what in fashion is known as “vintage,” itself a term that also applies to wine). Pantone’s color campaign plays on on this dynamic by drunkenly mixing leather and lace, tweed and organza with floral prints, stripes, and damask in a kind of lost Marsala weekend.

Inevitably, Marsala evokes food and drink. To quote Pantone’s Eiseman again: “It [the color] has an organic and sophisticated air.” Marsala is both earthy and complex, not accidentally, words also used to describe wine.

But the greatest source of Marsala’s current authority is its well marketed ubiquity. Pantone’s ability to dictate mood by coloring our clothing, our walls, our accessories, even our coffee-makers is powerful indeed. Interestingly, the last time a similar shade swept the fashion world, it was called oxblood. This non-Pantone wannabe had its moment, but its Oxbridge connotations of privilege just didn’t give it staying power. Or maybe it was a lack of official Pantone status. From our public appearance to how we feather our nests, Marsala could prove to be just as powerful as the Sicilian fortified wine for which it is named.

Leann Davis Alspaugh is managing editor of The Hedgehog Review.

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Self-Immolation, In Theory and In Practice

Ryszard Siwiec immolates himself to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, 1968.

Ryszard Siwiec immolates himself to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, 1968.

When Charles Moore set himself on fire this summer, he had been retired from his work as a Methodist preacher for fourteen years. For his whole life, he had been a civil-rights agitator, fighting segregation as a young man and continuing to demonstrate against civil-rights violations as he grew older. But the older he got, the more he was struck by a sense of his own uselessness; and eventually, sticking a suicide note onto the front of his car, he burned himself alive in a strip mall parking lot in Grand Saline, Texas. Although those close to him were not expecting him to die this way, they were not surprised either.

These facts are all to be found in Texas Monthly‘s extensive profile of Moore, which suggests that his self-immolation was one of a long line of acts of renunciation, and part of a lifelong interest in martyrdom:

He’d wake at four, write, read all morning, do research at the library, come home, eat a cold dinner, and read novels until bedtime. He visited Charles Dickens’s home, Karl Marx’s grave, and John Wesley’s chapel. He went to see the statue of William Tyndale, who had been burned at the stake in 1536 for translating the Bible. “This certainly shows how the giving of one’s life at the right moment can be of great significance and that the argument against martyrdom because of the uncertainty of its effect is not convincing,” he wrote.

Self-immolation has most recently been associated with Tibet, and particularly a wave of Tibetan protests in 2011. (Moore left, along with his suicide note, a copy of a 2013 New Yorker piece on Tibetan self-immolation.) Self-immolation has been used as political protest elsewhere: in the United States, in 2013, when a man set himself in fire on the National Mall; in Communist-era Czechoslovakia (above); in multiple countries during the Arab Spring; and in present-day Bulgaria. The term refers not only to setting oneself on fire, but to any act in which a person “intentionally [kills] himself or herself…on behalf of a collective cause” (as defined by Michael Biggs here). Nonetheless, it is mainly identified with voluntarily burning to death. Continue reading

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The Hedgehog’s Array: December 5, 2014

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Noteworthy reads from last week:

“The long, halting, unfinished fight to end racial profiling in America,” Emily Badger
“George W. Bush promised to end racial profiling a decade ago. Now Eric Holder is still trying”

“Who Should Own the Internet?,” Julian Assange
“Unlike intelligence agencies, which eavesdrop on international telecommunications lines, the commercial surveillance complex lures billions of human beings with the promise of “free services.” Their business model is the industrial destruction of privacy. And yet even the more strident critics of NSA surveillance do not appear to be calling for an end to Google and Facebook.”

“The evidence is in: there is no language instinct,” Vyvan Evans
“For decades, the idea of a language instinct has dominated linguistics. It is simple, powerful and completely wrong.”

“Could religion survive contact with extraterrestrials?,” Damon Linker
“Such a discovery would seem to vindicate the evolutionary hypothesis that life can and does emerge from (seeming) nothingness all on its own, without divine intervention of any kind.”

“How Sociologists Made Themselves Irrelevant,” Orlando Patterson
“We need to reinvigorate public sociology…I’m talking about using our expertise to help develop public policies and alleviate social problems in contexts wherein the experience and data can, reciprocally, inform our work.”

“The Quiet German,” George Packer
“The astonishing rise of Angela Merkel, the most powerful woman in the world.”

“Want to Limit the Use of Police Force? Limit the State,” Charles C.W. Cooke
“What, I wonder, would the anti-tax rebels who threw off the British Empire make of the news that a man had lost his life for peacefully selling a “loosie”? Once again: Is this why governments are instituted among men?”

“The Art of Revolution: Creativity and Euromaidan,” Natalia Moussienko
“Rationalism and pragmatism have their limits; emotive principles do not. Rationalism and pragmatism don’t lend themselves to the artistic mind; emotive principles do.”

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