Reading is Knowledge

When he was still in juvenile hall, a friend who was in prison elsewhere sent him the “Mexica Handbook”—a tiny book, the size of a cell phone, about the Spanish conquest of the Americas, and the colonial plantations that had conscripted and subdued the native populations. Murillo began to understand that his people had a history, and he read that the Mayans were not primitives: they had astrologers and architects and high priests. After he read the “Mexica Handbook,” he decided to read whatever he could get his hands on. At first, he read the kind of genre fiction that was available in the shu: Dean Koontz, James Patterson, Dan Brown. But one day when he was out in the yard—in solitary, the “yard” was a small concrete enclosure that had high walls but was open to the sky—a man on the other side of a wall told him that he should stop reading crap and get some good books from the prison library. After that, Murillo had many conversations with the man about books, although he never saw his face.

The man told him to start with Voltaire’s “Candide.” Murillo read it, and was amazed at how resonant it was—its depiction of the slave sounded very similar to what he’d heard about sweatshops. He came across a list of American novels with social-justice themes, and he read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Grapes of Wrath.” He read “Don Quixote” and “Les Misérables.” He read about the Zapatistas, and about how the Spanish had pillaged Latin America.

When he first got to Pelican Bay, he became enthralled by a book called “The 48 Laws of Power”: “I was thinking, Yo, I’m gonna be a fucking smart-ass criminal. When I go home, I’m gonna set up this drug empire and I’m gonna fucking make bank.” But, as he read more deeply in the book, he began to hate it. He still wanted power, but he no longer wanted to get it by stomping on another guy’s neck. He read about Zen Buddhism, and that made him feel that he didn’t need money anymore. And, as he started reading more about the history of Latin America, he stopped believing that his life was a random card dealt to him by fate: he started to think about politics, and about how the way his life had unfolded was partly the consequence of systematic inequality.

, “BUILDING A PRISON-TO-SCHOOL PIPELINE” in The New Yorker

Losing Our Common Understanding

“A couple of years ago, reporting from San Francisco, I noted an erosion of public meaning which seemed to getting in the way of civic progress. A key cause, I suggested at the time, was technology’s filtering effects—the way that, as we lived more of our lives in a personal bespoke, we lost touch with the common ground, and the common language, that made meaningful public work possible. Perhaps filtering effects are at play, but nothing I’ve seen since has changed my mind. The most dangerous intellectual spectre today seems not to be lack of information but the absence of a common information sphere in which to share it across boundaries of belief.”

–Nathan Heller, “The Failure of Facebook Democracy” in The New Yorker

Do we know our own history?

King of Hearts / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
King of Hearts / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

While I was talking to Durham, a family of Norwegian tourists stopped by. In the summer months, the park gets a lot of business from Europeans, who relish extreme heat of a kind they may never have encountered. (To New Yorkers, the park feels not unlike the lower level of the West Fourth Street subway station on a hundred-degree day.) After the Norwegians left, Durham said, “The Europeans romanticize us. They’ve seen all kinds of versions of us on TV. But they tend to know more about Native American history than the average U.S. citizen.”

–Alex Ross, “Desert Bloom” in The New Yorker

An example of why direct democracy is problematic

“Polls suggest voters may actually be confused about the two measures; a Capitol Weekly survey in late October found that while 92 percent of voters who identify as anti-death penalty say they plan to vote for Prop 62, “40 percent of those same anti-death penalty voters are casting ballots for Proposition 66.” Californians could conceivably vote “yes” on both. If both measures pass, the one with the most “yes” votes wins.”

–Liliana Segura, “NO CLOSUREEnd the Death Penalty or Speed It Up – California Faces Opposing Ballot Initiatives” on The Intercept

A Proper Balance of Power

“Curbing the administrative state does not, to be sure, mean abandoning necessary regulations in areas from the environment to financial markets. But faithfulness to the Constitution does require subjecting them to the separation of powers.

. . . the proper balancing of powers may also make the centralization of authority, to the degree it is genuinely necessary, less threatening than orthodox constitutionalists have generally supposed it to be. That is, the danger to constitutionalism is not merely the extent to which authority is concentrated at the national level of government, but the extent to which it is concentrated within the national level. The dispersal of power makes an otherwise necessary allocation of power to the national government safer.”

–Greg Weiner, “A Constitutional Welfare State” in National Affairs

The Saints We Revere End Up Alone

“The sad truth is that the saints we revere for thinking for themselves almost always end up thinking by themselves. We are disappointed to find that the self-taught are also self-centered, although a moment’s reflection should tell us that you have to be self-centered to become self-taught. (The more easily instructed are busy brushing their teeth, as pledged.) The independent-minded philosopher-saints are so sure of themselves that they often lose the discipline of any kind of peer review, formal or amateur. They end up opinionated, and alone.”

—Adam Gopnik, “Jane Jacobs’s Street Smarts” in The New Yorker

How Private Violence Leads to Public Power

“Across the South a revanchist political class that had campaigned on eliminating the ‘threat of black rule,’ and as its power was restored and became congealed into the institutions of the state and thus ‘legitimized,’ it moved to subdue the wave of extralegal violence it had previously encouraged—and not in small part used—to seize power. This fact helps make sense of the puzzle introduced at the outset of this article—why a vulgar white supremacist would advocate lynch mob violence as a private citizen, only to undertake extraordinary measures to thwart lynch mobs as governor.”

–“The Course of Law: State Intervention in Southern Lynch Mob Violence 1882–1930