Common Sense is Stupid

Before we begin, some facts:

* One in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime. (NAACP)
* The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration with 2.2 million people currently in the nation’s prisons or jails — a 500% increase over the past thirty years. (Sentencing Project)

* 20.4% of prisoners are “pre-trial” – legally innocent. (World Prions Brief)


I planned to write this article as of two days ago, before the atrocious shooting that occurred in Oregon. But my theory remains unchanged, even reinforced: we suffer from an incredible, institutional failure. By any standards, a society in which 1/3 of a racial population suffers incarceration operates on an unfair basis. In any other cultures, we’d call that cultural genocide.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle appeal to our inner morons by claiming to wield magical “common sense” solutions. The world is a complex place; millions and millions of factors go into even the most mundane of policy decisions. A simple bridge requires hundreds of precisely shaped concrete, millions of screws, nuts, and tons of rebar, and immense coordination. Most of us have a difficult time with an Ikea set. Proceeding to something slightly more complex – road upkeep – and, well, our roads suck.

Now, let’s take, oh, gun control – and the variables spiral out of control. “Restrict the guns!” they say. Other countries do, and their violence plummets. Yes, but correlations implies not causation. For one, it’s not like guns go out of style or something; they’ll still work, and the market is already flooded. So much so that while we complain about Mexican immigrants, their market is flooded with American guns. Stemming the flow of new guns seems like a great idea, but it’s not nearly enough.

The other frequently mentioned “common sense” solution is improved mental health care. I can’t argue with that need; finding a decent psychiatrist was a nightmare. But by what standards do we restrict gun ownership? Depression? Threats of violence? Or will simple ADD suffice? Where’s the line? And should we worry that the possibilities of being put on a “this person is too crazy to own a gun” list will dissuade the troubled from visiting their doctors? Might that only increase the nonsensical stigma against needing mental help?

And I don’t mean to be an ass, but it may be simply inevitable; doctors make mistakes. Anyone with half a brain is smart enough to lie to a doctor about his or her motives. Will anyone who wants a gun have to get an ok from a doctor? Easy lie to get around that one, while the difficulty of seeing a doctor increases significantly. Or will it be up to doctors to report patients unfit to own a gun? Welp, there goes doctor-patent trust.

I’m by no means claiming that the above ideas are bad, or wouldn’t work, but please, stop calling them “common sense” and simple.

There is obviously a legal component as well. This component, although I am not a lawyer, is bullshit. Not only must the militia be “well regulated,” but it clearly exists solely for the purpose of “the security of a free State.” If so, we can *constitutionally* restrict guns to homes for the sole purpose of protection against foreign invasion (I’m aware of the Court’s stance on this. I just disagree with the “textual” reading of the Constitution).

Furthermore – withholding guns treats the symptom, not the problem. I own a gun, and I’ve never hurt anyone with it. What’s beneath the issue? Mental health, perhaps, but other countries have mental health issues and don’t suffer these crimes. It’s a cultural failure. A cultural failure. That’s on us. We fail.

Gun control constitutes but one small part of the social policy that fuels the prison complex. We’re still barbaric enough as a nation to embrace the death penalty and ignore the horrendous abuses inside of prisons. By what metric do we delude ourselves into thinking prison rape, which occurs alarmingly often, is a fitting crime? The Bureau of Justice Statistics “findings suggest that in one year alone more than 70,000 prisoners were sexually abused” (HRW). How do we allow this? Because it only happens to poor prisoners? Where is the rationale for allowing long-term solitary confinement?

All of these pieces coalesce into something bigger, and this writing is simply a way to trace that development. This “superpower” might be little more than a cardhouse, and the bottom suddenly seems very weak indeed.

Mass incarceration, unstable populations, rampant civil rights and privacy violations, ferocious partisanship, no viable presidential candidates at all, atrocious healthcare, reactionary unrest in the middle east, Putin, and, most dangerous of all looms the promise of technology which evolves faster than we do. This has (up to this point) always been positive for mankind, but negative for the society that birthed it.



How do you think without “yes”?

Mandarin Chinese doesn’t have a word for “yes.” They instead repeat the inquisitive preceding verb. (“Did you eat today?” “I ate.”) The Ancient Romans, likewise, lacked a word for “yes.” Abraham Lincoln is older than the concept of the doorknob. The novel has existed as a literary device for only 300 or so years. And most of today’s teenagers can’t imagine a word without the Internet. Imagine what the world will look like tomorrow.

Of course, within the timespan of an 80-year human life, these changes all seem fairly momentous. But within the context of human history, none of them are longer than a blink. If homo sapiens have roamed the earth for 100,000 years, then we’ve recorded only the most recent 3% of our past experiences. Imagine how many empires rose and fell.

Within the context of our lives, none of this particularly matters. On first glance. For within the next 100, 200 years, all of this will be different. None of our conventions will matter anymore. They have to change at some point. Our most sacred institutions can evaporate in the blink of an eye. Government, internet, driving, shoes, shirts, sitting while eating, democracy, music, film … the list goes on.

If I lived each day like it was devoid of convention, what might that change?

Jesus, Perverted

“For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother.”

As humans, we tend to view the world through a binary dynamic: everything is good or bad. Right or wrong. Us or them. In some respects, this makes life easier; our ability to separate groups into two distinct categories must have been of tremendous use when distinguishing friend from foe back in the days of our evolutionary history. Yet this tendency of generalization also prompts dangerous thinking, especially in perverting the words of possibly the most influential man who ever lived.

This ideological deformation cuts in at least two powerful ways. We’re all aware of one way, in which His followers employ teachings of Jesus to encourage homophobia and contempt for sinners. This mindset, broadly and often un-fairly categorized as the “evangelical right,” encourages the people of God to legislate according to morality, associate with other moral people, and preach the Gospel with an unwavering sense of determination. Many members of this mindset would fairly scoff at the idea that this is a “perversion,” of Jesus, as these ideas do come directly from the Bible. But they come, I trend to remember, more from the writings of St. Paul than the mouth of Jesus.

I consider the above mindset to be a twisting, or certainly a significant re-framing, of the words and teachings of Jesus, but they are not a perversion, and it is not with these thoughts that true danger lies. I disagree with all of the above thoughts, but they are at least slightly in line with the Good Book.

My contempt, and revulsion of the perversion, actually comes from the people with whom I agree. The people who say that “the whole point of religion is to be kind to one another,” and that “Jesus wasn’t about judging people,” and “religion is about including everyone.” Should all of those things be true? 100% yes. Did Jesus ever espouse any of those ideas? No.

We tend to forget that Jesus saved the adulterer from sinning, but he also admonished her to “go and sin no more.” Some of us, myself included, fall prey to the idea that Jesus taught tolerance and hippie-love for everyone. He wanted us to all get along.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

Matthew 10:34-37

He did not. If we need a new religious icon for the 21st century, then we need to find and embrace one. But it’s unfair, and untrue, to suggest that Jesus wanted peace and harmony at all costs.

Testosterone, Signals United, Inc., and the American Daydream

I could feel the testosterone rushing; it was the perfect trap. Signals United was my next home. Having moved to Los Angeles just months prior, this was the most encouraging interview I could imagine. And I was killing it. Their online listing offered a “sports marketing management” position, which was right up my ally. I’d directed numerous commercials, my resume lists fairly extensive management experience, and I was named after a baseball player, for goodness’ sake. This was perfect. The Signals United office was in a nice building, and they had just moved into a larger space. The men looked young, energetic, and well dressed; the sole woman (a receptionist) was cute and blond. We flirted. I pushed aside my reservations. My interviewer looked pleased when I told him that I needed a company “which values employee ownership. I don’t want to work for a company, I want to work with my co-workers towards a common goal.”

The company allowed for a substantial salary, and the energy was infectious. Their process was selective, almost too selective; I could almost imagine what an interview with Google might feel like. They needed someone specific, and I’d seen many applicants (some much more qualified) come and leave, disappointed. I was onto something, and the rapport I shared with the interviewer felt palpable. It was a USC boy’s club, and I was moments away from an invitation. I allowed myself to indulge in the excitement of something that, on principle, I despised.

Pride comes before the fall, so allow me to climb the scaffold: while attending university on a full scholarship, I wrote and directed two feature films. The second one had a substantial budget, utilized the skills of scores of talented people, and featured the work of an Oscar-nominated actor and an Oscar-winning composer. I was 21 at the time. After graduating with a 3.8 GPA, I spent a year working with a start-up non-profit that taught film to “at-promise” inner-city students. I designed the 6-year curriculum, and more importantly, developed a deep and lasting rapport and friendship with my students. My film had just been accepted to the {redacted} Film Festival, which accepted fewer than 5% of all applicants, so I was finally feeling better about being rejected from Princeton and USC Film School years earlier. Oh, and my Mandarin Chinese was at the awkward/understandable level that was just charming enough for the Chinese businessmen I had met. It was my time; the American Dream dictated that I was off to Los Angeles to swim with the big fish.

Months later, and the aridity of my job search rivaled the Sahara desert. I hadn’t heard back from the “film marketing position that works closely with China,” and though I had met with two TV show runners and a few producers, no one would even hire me to get coffee. Without exaggeration, my inbox dispatched over 400 resumes, each with a personalized cover letter. I applied all over, from sales to film to entry-level HR help. Every single bartender job requires experience (how does that happen?), and though I can survive months in rural Asia, weeks of grueling on-location filming, and managing an inner-city classroom, my resume lacked the panache necessary to secure an interview.

My persistence had finally paid off, and I felt pride. The first Signals United interview flowed like an Aaron Sorkin film, and although their website felt curiously empty, the business model seemed plausible: they sold discounted sports tickets to companies as a method of employee motivation. So it felt natural that the second interview happened “in the field;” this job required significant amounts of account management and follow-up. I went with a surfer named Wes, who came across as legitimately decent. We hit it off.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Wes and I traveled 30 miles to go door-to-door, harassing restaurant hostesses to buy “a free two-night stay at the Rio in Vegas – for only $40!” Sales, Wes told me, was all about “just getting 5 more seconds. Sales is the mix of excitement and confusion.” I felt myself nodding sagely, even as my liberal-arts education screamed protestations to every fiber of my being. A pit grew in my stomach, but I needed the money.

At lunch, the bombshell fell. Wes previously warned me against “asking too many questions to others,” and I could tell why. It was a pyramid scheme; one of the “eight CEO’s” made $280,000 last year, while the entry-level sales people were expected to live off of a commission of $8 for every $40 package of junk sold. Deviating from the sales script was forbidden, and in the three hours of sales that I endured, no one sold a single package. I politely bowed myself out of consideration. They made me Uber back 30 miles to my car.

But this is America! I brushed off the annoyance, got my LLC together, and opened {redacted}. I would own my own business. We sell high-quality commercials, as well as Time Capsules, which is when we “interview your loved ones, parents, or grandparents to create a video history of your family that will last for generations.” Not a bad idea, right?

I thought so, too, until my business advisor (and father) called to remind me that, “whatever you earn, set aside 25% for taxes, or they’re coming for ya!” Shit.

Wanted: HERO. Anyone will do.

Donald Trump is our perverse Tyler Durden – a raving lunatic who persuades through sheer force of testosterone. The mogul embodies the masculine over-compensation Americans crave as a result of their surrendered loss of agency. As a fading superpower, the “greatest nation that ever was, ever will be” searches desperately for a superhero to save us. Force of personality required; anyone will do.

In just a few months, I suspect that the name “Trump” will again elicit laughs. His meteoric ascension merits a spectacular implosion, and by the time his obituary crosses our digital platforms, this rueful campaign will be but a terse paragraph in a brief news story.

Yet, like the first victim of an epidemic, I fear that this campaign represents more than an incredible misfortune; it stands as an omen, a harbinger of a lesser reality.

When Trump took the stage and offered to counter Russian might by befriending Putin, not a single candidate took the obvious “Chamberlain tried to befriend Hitler!” approach. This puzzled me, but I hypothesize the following:

We have completely, as a nation, lost all interest in the minutia of policy. Even politicians. I correct myself; we have abandoned even the pretense of caring. Finding ourselves desperately wrapped up in an anti-establishment furor, the angry masses coalesce themselves into a new establishment: an angry hive that craves passion, anger, arrogance, success, and leadership. The very things they lack.

They do this out of a culture of blame, and herein rests the root of the problem. Americans blame our politicians for everything, whereas if we held ourselves responsible, perhaps more would get done. Never again should a candidate disgrace him or her self through the avocation of a “common sense” solution. The world is a complex place. Grey exists between black and white. No domestic or foreign issue exists in a vacuum, and leading a country is never requires just common sense. But it allows citizens to stupidly blame their candidates for stupidity.

Trump epitomizes this; the mogul’s governmental acumen exists as a limit infinitely approaching zero. But he also promises to fight, presumably for us. Better than us fighting for us?

We find ourselves in a culture so hungry for something that eviscerates our blame and indulges our id that policy no longer matters. Disagreements between Kanyes and Hayek degenerate into “old, white men are all selfish evil business men” from the left and “graduated taxation is socialism” from the right.

The NSA steals our communications, police stations across the nation routinely desecrate the 4th Amendment, a “well-regulated militia” has become a cluster of lunatics, almost 1/3 of all black men will suffer incarceration, and HOPE AND CHANGE over-promised and under-delivered.

But in a time when the most viable candidate for the DNC nomination registers himself as an independent (don’t think for a second that Hillary will get the nomination) and the leading Republican used to be a Democrat, well – it’s clear that attitude matters much more than policy. We just crave someone to stand up for us, because we are simply too lazy to do it by ourselves.

50% of the population is below average. Don’t let them sink.