The Hedgehog’s Array: October 21, 2016

hedgehog array logo_FLAT_72dpi[3]

Noteworthy reads from the last week (or so):

“Agnes Martin: The Essentials of a Minimalist Master,” Peter Plagens
“Martin achieved an artistic style that fused universal order and symmetry with a profoundly beautiful, subjective, oscillating human touch. Plato wouldn’t have believed his eyes.”

“Romancing the Romanovs,” Gary Saul Morson
“As any student of Russia from Peter to Stalin knows, Russian modernization, for all its embrace of Western technology, somehow missed something essential about being civilized.”

“Six Cups: A Wedding Present, a Family History, and Ukraine’s Dark Twentieth Century, 75 Years After Babi Yar,” Natalia A. Feduschak
“‘And then one day, the Jewish children were all gone,’ [my aunt] said in another phone call many years after she shared the story of the wedding cups.”

“From Attica to Harvard Law Students: A Message from Behind the Wall,” John J. Lennon
“Ignorance is ugly, particularly in prison. It’s loud and obnoxious and violent. It tumbles into my cell right now as I write this. But for some, education can quell that.”

“How John Berger Taught Us to See,” Colin MacCabe
“Berger was always committed to both criticism and creation: to the production of painting and fiction. ”

. . . . . . . .

Like The Hedgehog Review on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our posts via RSS.


What Attica Prisoners Want Harvard Law Students to Know


The last great book I read made me cry and grind my teeth and pace my cell. It was written by a Harvard Law School graduate. It was Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. With the best education in America, Mr. Stevenson chose to “get close to,” defend and ultimately save the lives of people on death row. People on these kind of missions—playing a bigger game in life—make murderers like me melt.

My name is John J. Lennon and I am a thirty-nine-year-old prisoner serving twenty-eight years to life at Attica Correctional Facility in western upstate New York. I was convicted of selling drugs and shooting a man to death on a Brooklyn street in 2001. I’m sorry for killing him, I’m sorry for it all.

That said, I’m not just a murderer. Today I’m also a journalist. Years ago, I fell into a couple of opportunities at Attica. In a privately funded pilot college program, I learned how to think better. In a creative writing workshop, I learned how to write clearly. Since then, my words have appeared in publications that make them matter.

Recently, Pete Davis, a law student and online editor at the Harvard Law Record, asked me to write a piece that would serve as a sort of open-mic to talk to you students at Harvard Law. Since my lane is journalism and not the law, I figured I would interview a few of my seasoned prisonmates and get their takes.

Anthony “Jalil” Bottoms has been in prison for forty-five years. He was a member of the Black Panther Party and one of the New York Three, convicted of killing two New York City cops—one white, one black—in 1971. Jalil rid himself of the militant Marxist mindset long ago, and today he sports a kufi and a white beard, speaks in a soothing tones, and takes in the world with sad and kindly eyes. He’s a Muslim.

I recently saw him at the lifers annual picnic. It’s a gorgeous day in Attica. A couple hundred mostly black and Hispanic prisoners in green mingle on a grass field at picnic tables.  Music is playing, a handful of old white ladies, who volunteer for therapeutic and anti-violence programs, are scattered among the lingering guards. In the distance, the thirty-foot gray wall looms. Jalil greets me with a hug. We’re in different cellblocks, so we don’t see each other too often.

He tells me he’s heard about some articles I’ve recently published and that he’s proud of me. That feels good. I tell him about this piece. In a nutshell, Jalil says you all should know that the mass incarceration debate cannot begin without understanding that while the Thirteenth Amendment prohibited slavery in American society, it allowed for it in American prisons, and today that’s where one in three black men wind up at some point in their lives. While Jalil invokes abolitionism, Michelle Alexander, whom he often quotes, eerily parallels the Jim Crow South to The New Jim Crow—her 2010 book, and her label for America’s prison system. The exception clause in the Thirteenth Amendment, Jalil says, sanctions slavery by the state and must be amended.

Chris Hynes, who’s been in for thirty years for a 1988 robbery-turned-murder, is a small and bald-headed Irish fellow with a big reputation for being the jailhouse lawyer in New York. Because he’s the Attica Lifers president, he is all over the place at the picnic handling gripes about food, attendance, etc. When I tell him about this piece, he says he’ll send me a kite (a written message). “Law students and lawyers need to get inside prisons and teach legal courses,” he writes in the kite I receive a few days later. “Guys need to learn how to interpret the law and write effectively to protect their rights.” He also says you should know that legislation like the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) significantly restrict prisoners’ ability to get federal habeas corpus review and for them to be able to bring civil rights actions against prison officials.

After chatting with Jalil and Chris, I sit with other guys. Rothstein is an animated, light-skinned, fifty-three-year-old inmate from Harlem. He asks me to use his jailhouse Jewish nickname. He sits across from me, wet with sweat because, moments before, wrapped in a white bed sheet, he’d captivated a wide-eyed Lifers audience as Shakespeare’s Mark Antony crying over Julius Caesar’s dead body. Also at the table is Dino Caroselli, a sixty-five-year-old, olive-skinned gangster who looks forty-five and sports a gold rope chain, thick as my pinky. He’s been in for twenty-five years. A corrections lieutenant once set him up with a false positive urine test. Dino bit off the officer’s nose. The report for the urine was dismissed. But he got another forty years for attacking the lieutenant.

When I ask them what they want Harvard Law students to know, they explode, interrupting each other and calling for reforms to penal law, case law, legislative law. “Cases are settled on the golf course,” Rothstein says. “They need to use their country-club associations to influence social justice—and then legal justice will be the byproduct.”

“You can’t tell them that!” Dino scoffs. “It’s insulting.”

“I’m in Attica for a stem and a lighter!” Rothstein shouts. “I’m a crackhead, not a criminal!” There’s awkward silence. His eyes get watery. Then he laughs, “Too much?”

Dino and I laugh, shaking our heads.

Rothstein soon gets distracted and Dino leans in and says, “I love the guy, but he’s out of his mind.” I don’t miss the irony of his comment. Exasperated, Dino says, “You know, John, it all comes down to education.”

I agree.

Ignorance is ugly, particularly in prison. It’s loud and obnoxious and violent. It tumbles into my cell right now as I write this. But for some, education can quell that.

Here’s proof: My friend Carlos Polanco is a Dominican, thirty-two years old, in for manslaughter. In 2011, he and I started college at Attica. Back then, Carlos grappled with changing his life and his association with gang life. Once, I had to remind him of our opportunity and persuade him to holster his scalpel—else he would have carved up a mouthy Blood member on the tier. Soon after, he transferred to Eastern Correctional Facility, a cushier joint closer to New York City, and landed a spot in the prestigious Bard College program that provides college education to qualifying prisoners. Last year, he led its debate team to defeat Harvard’s.

“We have been graced with opportunity,” he told the Wall Street Journal.

Sadly, few get those opportunities.

Here’s what Harvard Law students should know. College in the can is scarce. The programs that do exist are mostly privately funded. The 1994 crime bill made prisoners ineligible for Pell grants. Since then, the US prison population has doubled. Last year, the Obama administration started a three-to-five-year pilot program called “Second Chance Pell,” which will allow some prisoners to access Pell grants. If a President Trump comes in, he’ll likely scrap it. The Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act., H.R. 2521, will restore Pell for prisoners permanently. It needs a lot of support: Hillary Clinton’s support, your support.

I encourage you all to get even closer to the problem. Many of you will go on to practice corporate law. But that doesn’t mean you can’t come into the slammer, as Chris Hynes suggests, and train prisoners how to structure legal arguments, how to keep their elbows tucked in and learn how to write, how to punch out declarative sentences with nouns and verbs. Get this: John Whiteford of Goldman Sachs used to come into a New York prison and teach financial literacy. Point is: You can still kick ass and take names and help prisoners be less helpless.

And for those of you who may go work for the prominent Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, perhaps charting a path to public office like Robert F. Kennedy, remember this: As a prosecutor, you’ll have profound discretion with charging defendants, which, in turn, will profoundly shape their lives. Also, try to realize that you’re seeing people come before you who’ve had few opportunities. (Admittedly, I had plenty but squandered them, which is why I have a lot of shame.) These people are at the worst point of their lives, having just done terrible things. As disgusted as you are with them, know that they are just as disgusted with themselves. You may not see it. But they are. Trust me.

Take Rothstein, who initially came to prison with a three-to-six-year sentence for a desperate robbery. From a medium-security prison, he filed a post-conviction motion on a technicality and won. Then the prosecutor refiled the charges and upped the ante on the plea. In another act of desperation, he squeezed out a courthouse bullpen window, jumped two stories to the street, and ran. He barely got a city block before two officers tackled him. Now he’s doing twelve years to life. In Attica.

For years I’ve been attending twelve-step meetings with Rothstein. He’s a performer who owns the stage—lots of emotion, lots of tears, lots of pain. One on one, he’s a manic close talker who sometimes uses words I don’t understand. He hits you with out-of-the-blue factual info. “You know, Harvard was originally called New College, in 1636,” Rothstein says. “This guy John Harvard died on his voyage to America and his library was discovered and went to the college. In 1638, it was named Harvard after him.” I don’t even know if this is true, but I think he shoves this kind of detail into conversations to seem smart. He is.

But I happen to know he’s overcompensating for what lies beneath. Shame. Shame about being poor and having no formal education, shame about being too light-skinned and growing up in Harlem, shame about his mom leaving him along to fend for himself and his siblings—he stole supper from supermarkets, snatched pocketbooks from pedestrians—while she was off doing drugs and turning tricks. This is his background. This is why a serious talk with Rothstein can suddenly turn to tears. He wants powerful people—like you all at Harvard—to want to help instead of hurt people like him with punishment. It’s just mercy he wants.

It’s what we all want.

John J. Lennon is serving a sentence of twenty-eight years to life, at Attica Correctional Facility. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Marshall Project, PEN America, the Albany Times Union, and Quartz Magazine. His website is

This essay is a co-publication with the Harvard Law Record. Read more from John Lennon: “The Murderer’s Mother” from THR’s summer issue and “The Murderer’s Reckoning: An Interview with John J. Lennon” on THR Blog.

. . . . . . . .

Like The Hedgehog Review on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our posts via RSS.

A Philosopher Who Matters

Detail from The Death of Socrates, 1787, Jacques Louis David, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

In the moments before Socrates’ execution, he made a plea to his accusers: “This much I ask from them: When my sons grow up, avenge yourselves by causing them the same kind of grief that I caused you, if you think they care for money or anything else more than they care for virtue, or if they think they are somebody when they are nobody.”  You can’t seek Sophia and Mammon, Socrates warned. Fortunately, most philosophers don’t have to worry about this temptation. Trust me: Nobody’s getting rich dissecting syllogisms or parsing Hegel.

Unless you’re Charles Taylor. This week the Canadian philosopher was awarded the inaugural million-dollar Berggruen Prize for “ideas that shape the world”—what people are describing as the Nobel in philosophy.  (In fact, this is Taylor’s second million-dollar prize, having been awarded the Templeton Prize in religion in 2007.)

The award is well-deserved. Taylor is almost without peer (although I could imagine Jürgen Habermas also receiving this prize), and his work certainly exemplifies what the prize seeks to recognize: that ideas do indeed shape the world. So what is it that distinguishes Taylor’s work and has attracted this kind of attention? I think there are several features of his ongoing contribution that stand out.

The Philosopher as Genealogist

Family histories have a way of illuminating why we do what we do. We inherit intuitions and sensibilities and rituals that seem to be simply “natural”—until you spend some time with other families or in other households and then you realize, “Huh, we’re kind of weird.”  And if you do some digging, you get back to a great-grandmother whose matriarchal influence and hard-scrabble survivalism bequeathed habits and convictions that have passed down to the clan that followed. You not only live in her long shadow, you’re living in the world she made. The work of the genealogist helps you better understand yourself.

You might think of Taylor as an intellectual genealogist of the present. He is interested in how we got to the now, whether we describe that simply as “modernity,” or the “age of authenticity,” or our “secular age.”  Despite our chronological snobbery, and our preferred myth that we are de novo and au courant innovators of our selves,  Taylor’s work constantly reminds us of our intellectual great-grandparents and the long shadows they continue to cast over us. So he is almost always trying to track the “sources” of the (modern) self. He’s helping us understand where we came from and why we do what we do.

In this respect, Taylor is very much an heir of Hegel (who was the focus of one of his early break- out books in 1975). On the one hand, he is a throwback to the sheer ambition of a Hegel. In an era when philosophy allegedly “progresses” by means of smaller and smaller puzzles that are solved in peer-reviewed journal articles read by four other specialists, Taylor is effectively rewriting the Phenomenology of Spirit. While professional philosophers earn tenure parsing syllogisms, Taylor is the embodiment of the Romantic, humanistic, and encyclopedic philosopher who wants to make sense of the whole. He also follows Hegel in his attention to the contingencies and vagaries of history. He philosophizes by means of grand narratives that he calls “philosophically inflected history.” He is convinced the answer to our deepest philosophical questions has to be a better story of how we got here and where we’re headed. (Who knew that developments in the fourteenth century would help explain why we live in an age of “mutual display?”)

The Philosopher as Ethnographer

In Taylor’s corpus, however, we also see the philosopher as an ethnographer. While he takes ideas seriously, he has been a trenchant critic of what he calls “intellectualism”—a working picture that assumes human beings are just cognitive information processors, as if we make our way in the world by nonstop deliberation and deduction. Following the lead of Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Pierre Bourdieu—and akin to his sometime co-author Hubert Dreyfus—Taylor emphasizes that our “intelligence” is more fundamentally a kind of know-how, a feel for the world that is caught more than it is taught. We know more than we think. Language, for example, is something we use: It’s less a screen for representing the world than a tool for getting things done. Our intelligence is collective know-how that is handed down to us by communities and traditions, so that to be human is to be indebted in a fundamental way to those who apprentice us.

So Taylor’s cultural analysis isn’t just attuned to ideas; Like an anthropologist, he reads the practices of a society. What shapes our experience of modernity is not a “theory,” he emphasizes, but instead what he calls a “social imaginary.” “Broader and deeper than the intellectual schemes people may entertain when they think about the world,” he says, a social imaginary is “the way ordinary people ‘imagine’ their social surroundings.” It’s as if we imagine our world before we think about it, and we absorb that imaginary, Taylor says, in the images, legends, stories, and rituals of society. That’s why, if you want to distill the uniquely modern social imaginary, you need to become an ethnographer of modern images, legends, stories, and rituals.

It is this ethnographic attention to lived reality that makes Taylor so attuned to the experience of difference, diversity, and pluralism in late modern society—including an attentiveness to the enduring role of religious communities in western societies. Deeply committed to the liberal democratic project, Taylor’s work shows an enduring concern to forge a common life without flattening our differences or letting the hegemony of some consensus marginalize minorities. He takes seriously how deep our differences go without giving up hope on finding a way to live together. In fact, it was his own experience of difference and diversity in his student days at Oxford that set up the trajectory of his career. As he told me in an interview a few years ago, the seeds of A Secular Age were planted in his own experience of not understanding his peers, and not being understood (in part because he himself had a fundamentally religious understanding of the world). His life’s work has been an attempt to answer the question he first articulated in the 1960s: “Why is, to me, the obvious starting point often so totally different from my peers?” A philosophical corpus that begins from this question is a gift for an age of increasing polarization.

The Philosopher as Civil Servant

Finally—and this was surely a factor in the Berggruen Prize jury’s decision—Taylor is a philosopher who has answered the call to venture beyond the comforts of the academy. Involved in provincial politics from early in his career, one of Taylor’s most notable acts of philosophical civil service was co-directing the Quebec Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences—a blue-ribbon commission tasked with sorting out how a “secular” society like Quebec could nonetheless accommodate religious expressions like headscarves and crucifixes in the public square. Pushing back on a narrow, French rendition of laïcité that tried to inoculate public life from religious expression, the Commission’s report advocated what it called an “open secularism”: a way of making room for deeply held convictions and differences without jeopardizing the common life of a pluralistic society. While the report has had mixed results, it is nonetheless testimony to Taylor’s willingness to put his philosophical gifts to use for the common good.

Perhaps what is most admirable about Charles Taylor—and why not even poor philosophers will begrudge him yet another million-dollar prize—is that Taylor is a “philosopher’s philosopher.” He is indefatigably curious, persistently studious, and just downright enthusiastic about ideas. His ideas have had wide reception, but not because he has “popularized” philosophy or turned it into some digestible seven-point wisdom that will get him a seat on the talk show circuit. (“Digestible” is the last word someone would use to describe Sources of the Self or A Secular Age!)  Rather, Taylor’s ideas are shaping public conversation because he is deeply invested in this mad endeavor of life together that we call “society.” He cares about it enough not to just traffic in platitudes but to offer his best gifts: his philosophy.

James K.A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College, editor of Comment magazine, and the author of How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor.

. . . . . . . .

Like The Hedgehog Review on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our posts via RSS.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Politics

Donald Trump  and Hillary Clinton at the second 2016 presidential debate. Screencap from NBC’s debate livestream.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton at the second 2016 presidential debate. Screencap from NBC’s debate livestream.

Early into last night’s debate, Donald Trump found himself in an awkward position. No, I am not talking about the question first asked about the Access Hollywood tape on which he boasts of sexual assault. I am talking about a more subtle moment: early on Donald Trump found himself calling himself a “politician,” incredulously admitting, “I can’t believe I am saying that about myself.”

Almost one hundred years ago, the German social theorist Max Weber gave a lecture in Munich called “Politics as Vocation” in which he argued that there was a big difference between the “occasional” politician and the “professional” politician. We are all, he claimed, occasional politicians, in as much as we all may vote, circulate a pamphlet or petition, or give a stump speech. But professional politicians are a different breed: For them politics is a vocation, a calling, and with the vocation comes certain burdens and responsibilities.

The biggest problem with Donald Trump in this election cycle is that he is, in fact, no politician, at least not in a vocational sense. And contrary to popular belief, that is a very bad thing for a person running for president. Continue reading

. . . . . . . .

Like The Hedgehog Review on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our posts via RSS.

Running the Country Like a Business


Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Arizona. Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Arizona. Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

Like many wealthy Republican donors, Dallas businessmen Doug and Darwin Deason preferred just about every candidate in the primary over Donald Trump. But when their other options were eliminated, the Deasons broke from their political mentors and avowed NeverTrumpers the Koch brothers, to meet with the party’s nominee in search of common ground. Doug went into the room with a list of questions, but he didn’t get to any of them—not the ones about corporate cronyism, social security, or farm subsidies. Still, by the end of the day the Deasons planned to donate millions of dollars to the effort to elect Trump president. Why? Because, as Doug told Zoe Chace of This American Life, they agreed that “this country needs to be run like a business.”

Trump charmed the Deasons by suggesting that businessmen are the heroes our world is waiting for. But free market conservatives are not the only ones who believe that business has special powers that can be a force for good in many areas of our lives. In Oprah’s recent roundup of the best new self-help books, seven out of fifteen books on the list were written by authors with a corporate background or framed their advice using business concepts. The extent to which business has coopted our country’s imagination is one reason why so few people—conservative or liberal—are asking a fundamental question raised by the Trump candidacy: Does being a successful businessman qualify you to be president? Continue reading

. . . . . . . .

Like The Hedgehog Review on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our posts via RSS.

Counting Deplorables

Juan de Zurbarán, Apples in a wicker basket, an opened pomegranate on a silver plate and roses, irises and other flowers in a glass vase, on a stone ledge. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Juan de Zurbarán, Apples in a wicker basket, an opened pomegranate on a silver plate and roses, irises and other flowers in a glass vase, on a stone ledge. Via Wikimedia Commons.

If Hillary Clinton’s remarks about “deplorables” were a blunder, as even many of her supporters believe, the fault may lie less with her choice of adjective than with her carelessness about the numbers.

How did she calculate that half of Donald J. Trump’s supporters are deplorable, or did she calculate at all? Apparently not, since she walked the calculation back after the uproar that ensued. But this only raises a question: If not half, how many? What percentage actually falls into the “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic” basket to which Clinton was referring?

The Survey of American Political Culture, soon to be released from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, may offer some answers.

First, a general profile. Even though four out of five Trump supporters believe that Americans lived more moral and ethical lives fifty years ago, about three-quarters (74 percent) nonetheless hold that we should be more tolerant of people who adopt alternate lifestyles. And even though Trump supporters are overwhelmingly white (91 percent), the study finds, about two-thirds say their beliefs and values are similar to those of African Americans (62 percent) and Hispanics (68 percent). In fact, Trump supporters generally perceive greater cultural distance from the non-religious or the American cultural elite than they do from other American ethnic groups. Continue reading

. . . . . . . .

Like The Hedgehog Review on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our posts via RSS.

It’s the System, Stupid

Hillary Clinton at the DNC.  Disney | ABC Television Group via Flickr.

Hillary Clinton at the DNC. Disney | ABC Television Group via Flickr.

Back in 1992, when Bill Clinton first made a run at the presidency, his campaign strategist James Carville is said to have hung a sign in campaign headquarters reading, “The economy, stupid.” Oh, if it were still so. If it were, Hillary Clinton, despite her flaws, would be coasting to victory this November. The unemployment rate has fallen below 5 percent; in 2015, middle-class income grew at the fastest rate on record; and Wall Street is hitting historic highs. Not all the economic indicators are positive: Housing starts are down, and the income gaps between rich and poor, as well as black and white, continue to grow. Nevertheless, in any “ordinary election cycle,” as we’ve grown used to saying these days, the economic news would be a boon to Clinton.

But this election is not about the economy, stupid. It’s about “the system.” The “corrupt, horrible system” has been Trump’s electoral trump card.

The idea of “the system” has been fundamental to the sciences and social sciences since the middle of the twentieth century, when systems science, systems theory, and systems thinking came to dominate the U.S. academy. It was the academy in the middle of the last century that gave legitimacy to “systems” as accounting for the ways things really work, or don’t work, in the world. As in the human body, aging, a poor diet, genetics, and a sedentary lifestyle work together to cause heart disease, so “systems” integrate parts with a whole to produce results that transcend any one cause. Continue reading

. . . . . . . .

Like The Hedgehog Review on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our posts via RSS.

Law, Religion, and Confident Pluralism in the University

UVA chapel. Bill McChesney via Flickr.

UVA chapel. Bill McChesney via Flickr.

Law and religion point to the deepest questions of our existence, but they exist in the world only in their particulars: not “law” as such, but a liberal understanding of constitutional reasoning, or a conservative view of statutory interpretation. Not “religion” as such, but Roman Catholicism, or Sunni Islam. There are no such things as beliefs, rituals, or adherents in “law” or “religion” in general.

The particularized forms of law and religion are sustained by tradition-dependent practices—communities of people and institutions with histories that shape their purposes and values. These practices are constantly renegotiating both their internal norms and their relationships to the world around them.

The interaction between people who hold different and particularized beliefs leads to the challenge of pluralism—the fact of deep and incommensurable difference around us. We don’t choose pluralism; rather, we encounter it in the world as we find it—a world of competing religious and legal claims and practices.

I see three responses to the challenge of pluralism: chaos, control, or coexistence. Chaos is not sustainable in the long-term. It falls flat as a political possibility. It leads ultimately to a violence that destroys lives. Fifteen years ago, I sat in the Pentagon as people who saw only the possibility of chaos smashed a plane into that building. Avoiding chaos is a matter of survival. Continue reading

. . . . . . . .

Like The Hedgehog Review on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our posts via RSS.