Weekend Reading

9 out of 10 doctors say reading these links will cure you of boredom:

Penn got in trouble for touting the supposed merits of New York’s stop-and-frisk policy. To the objection that the policy disproportionately targets blacks and Latinos, he responded, “And who, sadly, commits & are victims of the most crimes?”

But that’s a non sequitur. A false rationale. Take people’s fear out of the equation and the logical artifice collapses. Canadians are highly overrepresented in the field of professional ice hockey, but it would be ridiculous for anyone to walk around Alberta presumptively asking strangers on the street for autographs. When you treat everyone as a suspect, you get a lot of false positives. That’s why above and beyond the obvious injustice of it, stop and frisk isn’t wise policy. Minorities might commit most of the crime in U.S. cities, and be the likeliest victims of it, and that’s a problem with a lot of causes that should be addressed in a lot of ways. But crime is pretty rare. Not rare like being a professional hockey player is rare. But rare. Most people, white or minority, don’t do it at all.

That’s what I remembered when I began my recovery five years ago. In the preceding 25 years, I’d crossed paths with thousands and thousands of black people (including, obviously, those who became friends). Over the same stretch I’d also crossed paths with thousands and thousands of people wearing hoodies (there was surely some overlap). I got very, very unlucky one time. Adding it all up, I figured my odds of avoiding a repeat of that night are pretty good.

It’s interesting: neither the government nor the charity I worked with in Uganda were willing to try just cash, if only to compare. They wouldn’t even discuss it. This might sound sensible of them, since they could be right about their “other stuff” being important. Except the “other stuff” often costs more than the cash.

This is the big “cost” no one talks about: suppose a charity could give $2000 of stuff to one person, and help them become 200% richer or healthier than they were before. Is it possible I could spend $1000 each on two people, and help get them each get 150% ahead? Wouldn’t that be better?

A lot of charities don’t like to think that way. The TAL episode talked to a woman from Heifer International, who give cows and training instead of cash. That could be the right thing to do. But she couldn’t bear the thought of finding out. She hated the idea of experimenting on poor people. They are human beings.

Let me be blunt: This is the way the Heifers of the world fool themselves. When you give stuff to some people and not to others, you are still experimenting in the world. You are still flipping a coin to decide who you help and who you don’t, it’s just an imaginary one.

Birds on film are therefore important not in and for themselves but as part of a relation of figure and ground, as foils, or as objects that help us appreciate artificially rendered scale. It seems as if their function is to lend weight and sublimity to the glorious expanse of humankind’s and Hollywood’s technological prowess. At some point, somewhere in the dark corners of some digital animation studio, a version of this exchange must have taken place: “How’s this giant robot fight sequence looking, boss?” “It’s looking dope, man, but you know what — you need to throw some birds on that!” And why not? In the age of easy digital manipulation of images, how could any self-respecting CGI artist or art director help himself? After all, birds are pretty, and so easy to animate; they are a staple in the mise-en-scène of modern CGI-saturated film.

The digital flock of birds functions as a convenient proxy for “Nature” in the modern cinematic imaginary, that realm of living energy against which Man, surrounded and beset by Nature but somehow set apart from it, acts out his private and public traumas. Except where they are protagonists of the non-talking (War Horse) or, more frequently, talking variety (Beverly Hills Chihuahua), today’s films generally have little interest in animals qua animals, living their inhuman lives. These scores of birds we find littering our screens are never actors in the human drama, because in so many of these fables “Nature” itself, separated out from humankind, is chiefly employed as a cheap and easy ornament.

In a heavily controlled environment like the prison, it’s hard to talk honestly about voluntary participation. After all, no one wants to be in a prison production of Shakespeare. TheNew York Times in their feature about a performance at Rikers and This American Life both mention that actors in productions they covered have previous experience, but there’s no analysis as to why Hollywood extra and felon might be overlapping categories. Of course there are actors in prison. The plays they choose are small-scale dramas suited to the security concerns of the hosting institutions. The tragedies aren’t ensemble numbers; they don’t have roles for anyone who might want to join, like a school play does. That authorities can fill an audition with people who prefer being in Hamlet in prison to just being in prison isn’t much evidence of anything except perhaps incarceration levels. Certainly not the indomitable human spirit.


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