What I’m Reading Online: 28 April: Our Personal Connection To What Is Wrong


This article at Anderson Cooper’s 360 Blog by a former female Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saint, interested me because it seems to concern sacralising behaviour (related post).

“Women lost a lot of rights in 1953. They no longer had any say in who they could marry nor could they choose how to dress. The way this was spun was that since the community had come through the raid so successfully, it was now ready to practice a higher form of God’s law. (God is always the explanation when things get more restrictive; change is presented as a prize for being righteous and faithful. We were always told we were worthy of a higher law.)”

She reiterates the idea a little further down the page:

“The clothing also desexualizes women. Our chests are flattened out and any natural shape is hidden.

“We were always told by Warren Jeffs when the dress and choices became more restrictive that is was a sign that ‘God loves you so much he wants you to be more like him.’ (We believed Warren received direct revelations from God.) What we were losing were rights and any sense of control over our lives and all individuality.”

As mentioned in a study of religious and secular communes in the previous blog post,  the study’s authors concluded that “ritual constraints are not by themselves enough to sustain co-operation in a community — what is needed in addition is a belief that those constraints are sanctified.”


“Couldn’t God Have Designed A Gentler Universe?” by Jesuit astronomer Guy Consolmagno SJ at Thinking Faith: The Online Journal of the British Jesuits got my attention because I just finished reading Three Cups of Tea for a bookgroup, which is about American Greg Mortenson’s mission to build schools in Islamic countries (Pakistan and Afghanistan). Twice in that book there’s a sort of teaser for a comparison-contrast argument that never actually happens. Early in the book, the question is raised whether the rural mountain town that Greg is so taken with is a paradise, because the people seem happy, they are welcoming, they smile a lot, they are patient and accepting of what happens, they have leisure time, they have close relationships with each other and live intimately with the land and seasons, or a miserable backwater, because the people have high rates of goiters, cataracts, malnutrition and infant mortality, almost no access to health care, live in frigid temperatures for half the year, and work very hard to survive. Later in the book, there is a moment’s musing about a ‘hard’ but ‘pure’ life of such people, and what Western technological influences like roads, bridges and buildings will do to the close relationship those people have to their land.

Consolmagno’s words resonated with that in my mind:

“There’s an odd divide in Western culture nowadays. We’ve become separated from nature. We have air-conditioned homes, air-conditioned cars, air-conditioned offices, air-conditioned lives. [In far northern climes, substitute ‘well-heated’ for air-conditioned.] We spend most of our lives wrapped in cotton wool. If we feel pain, we want it to stop, now.

“Well-lit streets at night that mean that most people never see the Milky Way — or at least not until the lights go out. After the Northridge earthquake in southern California in January 1994, the phones at the Griffith Planetarium in Los Angeles started ringing off the hooks as people wanted to know why the earthquake made the sky look so scary. The earthquake struck at 4:30 a.m., while it was still dark outside. When people rushed through their blacked-out homes to the outdoors, a million people saw something in the skies over Los Angeles they’d never seen before: stars. And they were terrified.

I spent two years in the Peace Corps in Africa.I saw there how we used to live, back before flush toilets and neon lights. People lived close to nature, in a way that hardly anyone in America does anymore. And I learned in Africa that there’s a word for people who live close to nature: starving.

Our lifestyle puts a heavy toll on the environment; but so does the lifestyle of the desperate people in Kenya or Haiti, who strip the forests bare in their day-to-day struggle to stay alive. So I don’t necessarily mean to disparage our cotton-swabbed existence. My point is just to point it out, because the shock we experience when a natural disaster hits us is precisely the wrench of being jerked out of our cotton-wool womb and forced to confront nature. Nature can be hostile as well as beautiful; nature gives us food and gives us death.”

The rest is worth reading, though no answers are given.

>> Two articles on the HIGH PERCENTAGE OF IMPRISONMENT in the U.S.:

Adam Liptak in the NYT (23 April) writes “Inmate Count in U.S. Dwarfs Other Nations'” and Marie Gottschalk writes “Two Separate Societies: One in Prison, One Not” in the WaPo (15 April), both on the same topic.

Gottschalk points to a recent Pew Center study which showed “that for the first time in this country’s history, more than one in every 100 adults is in jail or prison” and one in every 32 adults is or has either been “incarcerated, on parole or probation or under some other form of state or local supervision.” The U.S. incarceration rate “is 5 to 12 times that of other industrialized countries as well as being the highest in the world.” The rate is ten times higher for African-American men: One in 9 young black men is imprisoned.

Liptak elaborates on the stats: “The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Indeed, the United States leads the world in producing prisoners, a reflection of a relatively recent and now entirely distinctive American approach to crime and punishment. Americans are locked up for crimes —  from writing bad checks to using drugs —  that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations.”

Gottschalk, citing hearings held by Senator James Webb (D-Va) last October, says that the increases in incarceration are not “driven so much by an increase in crime as by the way we chose to respond to crime,” with tougher sentencing guidelines. Her main point is that “the leading presidential candidates have not identified mass imprisonment as a central issue, even though it is arguably the country’s top civil rights concern.”

Liptak points to more reasons than simply tougher sentencing guidelines for the high U.S. incarceration rate (which, he notes, seems to have led to decreases in crime, although Canada’s crime has likewise decreased with no concurrent increase in incarceration rates), and he discusses each factor separately:

“Criminologists and legal experts here and abroad point to a tangle of factors to explain America’s extraordinary incarceration rate: higher levels of violent crime [a murder rate 4 times higher than many Western European nations], harsher sentencing laws, a legacy of racial turmoil, a special fervor in combating illegal drugs, the American temperament, and the lack of a social safety net. Even democracy plays a role, as judges — many of whom are elected, another American anomaly — yield to populist demands for tough justice.

Is this high rate of imprisonment our country’s nuanced form of mob justice?

Concerning the factor of “American temperament,” Liptak notes that “some scholars have found that English-speaking nations have higher prison rates. ‘Although it is not at all clear what it is about Anglo-Saxon culture that makes predominantly English-speaking countries especially punitive, they are,’ wrote Michael H. Tonry, a professor of law and public policy at the University of Minnesota, in Crime, Punishment and Politics in Comparative Perspective (2007).

“‘It could be related to economies that are more capitalistic and political cultures that are less social democratic than those of most European countries,’ Mr. Tonry wrote. ‘Or it could have something to do with the Protestant religions with strong Calvinist overtones that were long influential.'”


That’s what Michael Pollan ask, and answers, in his article titled “Why Bother” in the NYT Magazine (20 April). Pollan examines some of the obstacles and justifications for doing nothing, or very little:

Why bother to take any steps in the direction of reducing my footprint on the Earth “when I know full well that halfway around the world there lives my evil twin, some carbon-footprint doppelgänger in Shanghai or Chongqing who has just bought his first car (Chinese car ownership is where ours was back in 1918), is eager to swallow every bite of meat I forswear and who’s positively itching to replace every last pound of CO2 I’m struggling no longer to emit.”

And even if, for the sake of virtue, “I decide I am going to bother, there arises the whole vexed question of getting it right. Is eating local or walking to work really going to reduce my carbon footprint?” (Pollan points to studies that show they may not. )

“If determining the carbon footprint of food is really this complicated, and I’ve got to consider not only ‘food miles’ but also whether the food came by ship or truck and how lushly the grass grows in New Zealand, then maybe on second thought I’ll just buy the imported chops at Costco, at least until the experts get their footprints sorted out.”

His argument for making our daily, individual lives more sustainable is this:

“Whatever we can do as individuals to change the way we live at this suddenly very late date does seem utterly inadequate to the challenge. It’s hard to argue with Michael Specter, in a recent New Yorker piece on carbon footprints, when he says: ‘Personal choices, no matter how virtuous, … cannot do enough. It will also take laws and money.’ So it will. Yet it is no less accurate or hardheaded to say that laws and money cannot do enough, either; that it will also take profound changes in the way we live. Why? Because the climate-change crisis is at its very bottom a crisis of lifestyle of character, even. The Big Problem is nothing more or less than the sum total of countless little everyday choices, most of them made by us (consumer spending represents 70 percent of our economy), and most of the rest of them made in the name of our needs and desires and preferences. “

Pollan cites Wendell Berry, who 30 years ago “was impatient with people who wrote checks to environmental organizations while thoughtlessly squandering fossil fuel in their everyday lives — the 1970s equivalent of people buying carbon offsets to atone for their Tahoes and Durangos. Nothing was likely to change until we healed the ‘split between what we think and what we do.’ For Berry, the ‘why bother’ question came down to a moral imperative: ‘Once our personal connection to what is wrong becomes clear, then we have to choose: we can go on as before, recognizing our dishonesty and living with it the best we can, or we can begin the effort to change the way we think and live.'”


Much more to Pollan’s article (specialisation, hidden energy costs, why we should take individual steps anyway), but where this last bit leads me is back to a perhaps romantic notion of the ‘purity’ — or at least the honesty — of living life close to the land, and that state of being contrasted to the cultural free-floating angst, the urge to crime and urge to punishment (leading to high rates of incarceration and a punitive justice system), the need to sacralise and the need to artificially create meaning that we find widespread in our culture, where we are so much more likely to be living without integrity, living “the best we can,” as Berry says, in at least a veiled awareness of our own complicity in unsustainable living, in an unnecessarily harsh ‘justice’ system, in the war we are waging and its collateral damage as well as its intended damage to humans, other animals, and the Earth, and so on. We can watch reality TV, and it’s an almost-but-not-quite successful effort to screen ourselves from Reality, from “our personal connection to what is wrong.”


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