The Ann Arbor Chronicle » In it for the Money it's like being there Wed, 26 Nov 2014 18:59:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 In It For The Money: Our Schools Mon, 01 Sep 2014 13:01:22 +0000 David Erik Nelson My son starts third grade at Pattengill this week. He spent the first three years of his compulsory education riding the big yellow bus to Bryant Elementary – Pattengill’s K-2 sister school, sorta-kinda over by the municipal airport and town dump.

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

Every day, on the way home from the bus stop, I’d ask what he did that day at school. Invariably they’d done nothing. I’d prod, as directed by the school: “Which specials did you have today? Did you go to the library? Did you have gym? What did you get in trouble for? Did anyone fall out of a chair?” and basically get nothing.

He clearly demonstrated that he was learning things somehow – he was reading ever more voraciously, and suddenly knew perfect squares through 10 and what a rhombus was. If the school accomplished that through long days spent sitting motionless and staring into space, far be it from me to disrupt their zen practice. “Nothing” was, after all, getting results.

But as it turns out, my kid is a damned liar. They hardly did any “nothing” at all at that school.

Enter the Loose-Leaf Golem

At the end of the school year my boy brought home a trashmonster, his backpack heavy with pounds upon pounds of classwork, much of it unfinished, or seemingly untouched (kinda confirming his claim that he does nothing at school).

Knock, Knock. Who? Yes!

Knock, Knock. Who? Yes!

Embedded in that mess of nightmare penmanship and abandoned math sheets were bizarre gems, like these little daily writing things. I don’t know what these were supposed to be: They are half-sheet size, stapled into booklets, rarely dated.

Sometimes they are just a sentence or two about his weekend or favorite food, but often they are these weird schematic jokes.

Or little nuggets that read like spitball pitches for indie horror films in an alternate universe where the SAW franchise was conceived and executed as an animated series a la Muppet Babies. My favorite of these reads (with spelling corrected): An unfortunate hamster and a monkey with big ears tied together to a bone.

An unfortunate hamster and a monkey with big ears tied together to a bone.

An unfortunate hamster and a monkey with big ears tied together to a bone.

If any of you aspiring young filmmakers want to option this concept, the boy and his lawyer are taking meetings.

So that’s something they did all year: They scrawled cough-syrup fever-dream koans on little pieces of paper. Also, they published a fiction anthology.

This thing weighs over a pound-and-a-half and is thicker than my thumb. My boy’s contribution is the first chapter (?!) of what seems an awful lot like Snoopy/Pikachu slash fic in which wolves bring the intrepid couple magical weapons and a sonorous bird.

An anthology of stories by the students in Mr. Kinasz's 2nd grade class.

An anthology of stories by the students in Mr. Kinasz’s 2nd grade class.

More chapters of this – occasionally illustrated, invariably scrawled edge-to-edge, front and back, on loose sheets of college-rule paper – were embedded in the classwork trashmonster.

There was also the unpublished first draft of the first book in his series “Presidents in Peril,” in which Lincoln is saved from wolf-assassination by a time-traveling ninja (also an excellent film pitch, in my humble).

I realize that I’m running the risk of being dismissed as flip, so here’s a slightly more somber piece of classwork I extracted from the work-lump my son brought home from school.

Below is a single page from a not-at-all radical second-grade civics curriculum. That final box is a bit squished. It reads: The community may be abandoned.


“The community may be abandoned.”

We’ve lived next to an abandoned house for as long as he can remember (#PureMichigan), and we’re middle-class pink-colored people – which is to say we’re the sort of Americans that, statistically, are doing OK right now. That is what OK looks like in 2014.

In the Belly of the Beast

Oh, and, one more thing: My kid’s second-grade class made a whale last year.

In the belly of a blue whale.

In the belly of a blue whale.

It was a 1:1 scale replica of a blue whale, made from black plastic tarps and inflated with industrial blowers (the kind the custodians use to dry the floor after waxing. Sorry the photo isn’t super-fantastico; there was no practical way to get a pic of the outside of the thing, because it was as big as a blue whale.)

A whale. A whale. They made a whale, and then inflated it, and got inside it as a class, and made measurements so they could tape down 3×5 index cards labeling the locations of all the organs.

They worked on it for months – during which, every day, I asked my kid: “What did you do at school today?” and he answered “Nothing.”

He spent his days toiling in the belly of a whale.

Yet that was “nothing” to him – nothing at all. We live in an age of wonders.

These are our tax dollars at work, Ann Arbor. These are our tax dollars at work, Michigan.

This is what we vote for when we vote for millages. This is what we destroy when we slash budgets and privatize services.

This is what we destroy when we permit ourselves to obsesses about the less-than-meaningless minutia of testing tests – to better test the tests’ capacity to test our kids’ capacity to test well on future tests of their test taking skills.


My son attended Clifford E. Bryant Elementary School for three years. It wasn’t until that final day – the day I saw the whale – that I stopped to actually read the plaque next to the rather dour portrait of Clifford E. Bryant hung in the lobby. It’s hung high above the door my son walked through no less than 1,000 times, in the building bearing the name of the man pictured there. And what does that plaque say?

Clifford E. Bryant came to Ann Arbor after World War II and was hired as a custodian for the Ann Arbor Public Schools on August 16, 1946. He worked in the school system for 25 years. Mr. Bryant was not an ordinary custodian. He had the reputation of being a friend and helper to both students and teachers. He was not a tall or big man in physical size, but he was in every other way. Although tradition dictated that schools be named after deceased persons, Clifford Bryant was honored during his lifetime. He was chosen because of the kind of man he was and what he did for the children, teachers, and parents of Ann Arbor.

I’m including a half-tone photo of Bryant from a 1972 newspaper article instead of a photo of the plaque, because I think it makes a  better portrait of the man.

Clifford Bryant

Clifford Bryant

On the occasion of the school being named for Bryant, AAPS assistant superintendent of operations Emerson Powrie (who had worked with Bryant as a principal) said, “I’m very pleased that the [Ann Arbor Board of Education] has recognized that faction of the school community that is so often overlooked. Cliff was a very dedicated employee and deserves such an honor.”

I want to flag a couple things here.

First and foremost is the primacy of always reading the plaque – and the sooner the better. I wish I’d known this three years ago. I wish that I could have told my son, so that he would have more than 1,000 reminders of the other thing that I want to flag: The little things count.

We didn’t name a school after Clifford Bryant because he fought in a war (although he did), nor because he saved a bunch of kids from a fire (he might have), or because he cured cancer (which doesn’t seem to be the case), or because he walked on the moon (which no records indicate ever happened). He was not rich (according to any reports I’ve seen), he didn’t revolutionize desktop computing (to the best of my knowledge), and he didn’t appear in 47 top-grossing films nor win an Academy Award for his role in Good Will Hunting. As near as I can tell, his death wasn’t even very widely mourned – heck, he passed just six years after the school was named for him, and yet doesn’t seem to have even warranted an obituary in the local paper.

So what did he do to deserve this honor?

He showed up faithfully. He worked kindly. He helped. In short, he bent the arc of the moral universe in exactly the way that we all want our children to aspire to: By being gracious on the daily to those around them.

At a fundamental level Bryant was a custodian: He steadfastly protected and maintained something of value to us all.

And just as I very much like living in a community where we set our children to the task of building and working inside of ersatz, air-filled land-whales, I also very much like living in a community where we will name a school after a person because that person was good and faithful and kind.

Happy Trails

And here we are, Dear Readers, at the end of the road.

I’ll level with you: This has been a ton of work. In the normal course of events these columns consumed hours upon hours of typing, backspacing, typing, revising, cutting, cutting, cutting, and cutting, followed by my endless compulsive nit-picking and fidgeting and altogether trying of Mary Morgan’s good faith and Dave Askins’ monumental patience – and those were the columns that went to print.

Uncounted were the hours spent standing in lines, pestering folks, fruitlessly Googling, working the phones, and otherwise chasing down leads that evaporated to nothingness. If you knew how long these 33 columns took to write and research, then you’d know the awful truth: That I’m not just a self-aggrandizing blowhard, but also a damned fool.

Say what you want, Gentle Readers, but at least I was always a fool for the facts. I reported what I saw as faithfully as possible, and told you the truth to the best of my ability. And over and over and over again I have been surprised, and humbled, and intensely flattered by your honesty and patience and good will in coming along with me on what has been, quit literally, a fool’s errand. That we are here, together, at these words so low on the last page of the final column is a testament to your civic fortitude as much as my obstinacy.

So while it’s a bummer we’ll no longer hang out like this, it’s also a tremendous relief. I’m sure you understand.

That said, I continue to write.

Something like this column – albeit much shorter and more poorly proofread – pops up on my website now and again. If you want to be kept apprised of that, you can sign up for my newsletter (and hear from me not more than weekly) or follow me on Twitter (and see many more pictures of my toddler attempting to feed gin to a stuffed lemur). I also write other stuff. Amazon will happily sell it all to you, and places like Literati can certainly get ahold of the things actually printed on paper.

If any of you happen to know someone looking for a somewhat obtuse columnist interested in a new project, I’m willing to talk. No reasonable offers will be dismissed out of hand.

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In it for the Money: Chosen People Tue, 24 Jun 2014 16:38:36 +0000 David Erik Nelson Editor’s Note: David Erik Nelson’s short story “The New Guys Always Work Overtime” won the 2013 Asimov’s Readers’ Award for Short Fiction. You can buy it or download a free copy: [here]

Our Jewish Community Center in Ann Arbor is small. This seems to throw a lot of people off. They think of Ann Arbor as a fairly Jewfull town, because the University of Michigan brings in a lot of East Coast Jews, as well as basically every Midwestern Jew who can make the cut.

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

This probably sounds harsh, bordering on bigoted: When some guy with a generic Englishman’s surname and a very Nordic “K” in his conspicous middle name starts sounding off about the preponderance of Jews in town . . . well, it doesn’t sound good, does it? So, to clarify for the Occasional Readers and those who have not yet grown to know and love me: I’m a Midwestern Jew, born and raised in Metro Detroit, like my father before me.

And to us Metro Detroit Jews, UM has long been the Promised Land: At last count something like 40 of my relatives have attended the university (with most ultimately earning a degree or two!) The latest of these, my nephew, will be joining the rolls this September. We are kvelling (well, maybe less so his step-dad  – who is a Spartan, but still a pretty OK guy).

But the university’s Jews don’t tend to stick around, so the actual number of Jewish families in Ann Arbor is pretty small – or, at least, small compared to where I grew up. The point being that we have a small JCC here. It’s pretty heavily used by all the congregations, of which there are three with actual buildings – if you count the Reform folk, who share a building with Episcopalians – and then a handful of gathered congregations. I’d guestimate that more than half of the JCC’s square-footage is dedicated to children: There’s a large daycare, and a K-5 Hebrew Day School, plus an after-care program and several summer camps.

Our tiny JCC has an armed guard. In my mind, this is pretty common. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a JCC without an armed guard – but it came as a surprise to my wife and in-laws, who are not Jews.

Our guard is a guy I’ll call G. He’s a high-and-tight retired Army Ranger with a drawl. All the kids love him, because he is an excellent security guard: He makes it his business to be sure that all the kids know him and like him, so that they will listen to him in an emergency. Most of the emergencies are weather-related (naturally), but during my son’s final year in preschool at the JCC three armed robberies took place within a 1-mile radius of the JCC in a two-week stretch. In all three cases the school was locked down, because three men with shotguns were running around the neighborhoods, evading cops. In such situations, I’m glad G. is handy, because he is sharp and disciplined – and I am very comfortable with him and his role and his being armed in this setting.

To the uninitiated it maybe sounds a little nuts, that my kid’s daycare – which is also the building where we make our religious practice – has an armed guard. But this is the way of the world: Now and again white men with gun-show stockpiles take it upon themselves to take a stab at Zion, and they disproportionately target JCCs when they do so. And JCCs almost invariably have daycares and schools.

But that’s not what I want to tell you about. I want to share a Terrible Revelation I had at the end of May.

A New Gun

G. was off for a couple days at the end of May, and so the substitute guard was there. I’ve seen him now and again – he’s one of several subs who fill in for G. He’s well-meaning, but kinda shlubby; not crisp and affable and sharp as G. But good enough in a pinch.

And on his second day subbing, as I was carrying my 2-year-old daughter through the blast doors, I noticed he had a new pistol – either a small 9mm or a larger .22, the finish absolutely pristine – and I thought to myself “Dude has a new pistol. Oh yeah, some fucker in Belgium shot up a Jewish Museum over the weekend. Figures.”

On that sub’s first day on duty, I’d noticed he had no gun, and the thought in my head had been: “What the fuck good to me is a guard without a goddamn gun?” The thought just surfaced, made its impression, and drifted away. It was not a remarkable thought, here in the Promised Land.

I noticed because I always check the guard’s gun on the way into the building, no matter who is standing guard. G., for example, always packs the same automatic, which I believe to be a .45 Glock. It’s got wear along the end of the barrel and rear sites, where they rub as he walks, stands, sits. I always look, because I want to see that holster clipped – which it always is. And I want to know the gun is there.

So, on that second day I found myself relieved to see G’s sub with a gun on his hip. And only then did I realize how much I’d been bothered by its absence. And I discovered that – way in the back of my head – I’d actually been sorta-kinda considering calling the JCC to see when G. would return.

I made it out to the parking lot, to my car where my son sat waiting for me to drop him at his bus stop, and all of it just suddenly piled on top of me:

It will never be done.

The Land of MLK and Honey

All over this great nation, African Americans attend church on Sunday, and they do not worry about getting blown up. But at one time that just wasn’t the case – back in the days when MLK himself advocated packing heat. Terrorist IED attacks on churches were a constant worry, part of a constellation of worries. And those worries are not gone. And we are not “past race.” But church bombings are in the past. Lynchings are in the past. Burning crosses are in the past. If I were to go to a church and ask “Why don’t you have armed guards?” they’d look at me like I was nuts. If I asked “Why aren’t these windows blast-proof?” again, I’d seem insane, because for all the awfulness African-America has to deal with on a daily basis, broad ideologically motivated targeting by domestic terrorists has markedly declined.

But being the plum target of the men who purchase arms through the gun-show loophole will evidently drag on forever – even though this paranoid worldview jumped the shark so long ago that most garden-variety American Jew-haters have forgotten we killed their God and don’t even know what the blood libel is any more.

They just know that Jews are for hating.

Our JCC – my kid’s daycare – has blast proof windows. I have some professional contacts in the bulletproofing industry, and I can tell you for a fact that bullet- and blast-proof exteriors are exceedingly common at Jewish Community Centers – almost the norm. Under the auspices of Homeland Security, the federal government even offers grants to defray the cost.

Again, this is how the world has been as long as I can remember: JCCs have armed guards, High Holiday services have police protection, and you regularly meet grandparents who decline invites to cook-outs because the smell of meat over open flame stirs the hot ashes of memory and triggers panic attacks.

As children, our history was not sterile and abstract: It was not stark black-and-white photos in the encyclopedia; it was not limited to dramatizations directed by Steven Spielberg.

Our History was at your left elbow at the dinner table telling you about the time he captured – and then murdered – a panzer commander, because that officer gave him lip on the same day he learned his family still living in Poland had all been liquidated by good German patriots just like that privileged officer. Our History spent her young womanhood in Auschwitz-Birkenau sorting the clothes of those who’d been sent “up the chimney,” so that the garments could be shipped to the widows and orphans of German soldiers. Our History had a scar where she’d had her numbers cut out, rather than bear them as a sign upon her arm for the rest of her days.

Just to be crystal clear: I am a well-off “white” person born in the United States in the final quarter of the 20th Century. I grew up in a community of upper-class “white” people, most of whom had regular interaction with family members who had been enslaved and tortured for the German war effort. I grew up in a place where people like me were certainly “white” if you were dark, but still never quite white enough for the world of folks who festooned their house with lights come winter and never thought about whether or not they were really white, or really American.

I remember once, when I was a kid, someone keyed a rental car we had, carving swastikas into the driver’s side door, just above the handle, where the driver – my mother – would be sure to see. This didn’t alarm me; it was just part of how the world was. It was, in fact, so very unremarkable that I didn’t even think of the incident again until I sat down to write this column. For comparison, around this same time I came across a skinned cat laid out on a large flat rock in the middle of a creek in the woods near my suburban elementary school. I think about that moment often. It was the first time in my life I’d ever seen a skinned animal, and it had taken me a long, long moment to even make sense of what I was seeing, and what it must mean.

The skinned cat was remarkable. That was a Mystery worthy of long meditation.

But a swastika? Psssh. I can spot a swastika at 20 yards – scratched into a wall, worked into a tattoo, hidden in a pattern of tiles, subtly alluded to in the shapes of children’s toys and the orientation of library study carols. There are swastikas everywhere, when you have the right eyes on. And it behooves folks like me to keep those eyes on. Remember: Our daycares need forced-entry rated glass and armed guards. Our houses of worship draw regular protests.

The Slow Turn

But then I had my own kids, and my heart went soft. I began to assume that this threat – so small it is almost imperceptible, but also constant and all-permeating, like radon – just wouldn’t be part of my kids’ world, in much the same way that my childhood was not marred with the sort of overt anti-Semitism my dad endured, and his childhood was not defined by the murderous anti-Semitic pogroms his father fled: Seven years old, Abraham Spielberg crossed the Atlantic with a note pinned to his shirt, indicating the address where he should be sent, and the name that he should adopt, the world into which I ought to disappear.

This world. Here. America. The Promised Land of Milk and Honey.

But it’s a long tail, I guess, and this last bit, these final men with guns will linger for ever. And on the day one of them comes and puts lead in me and my kids and their teachers and my neighbors and G. and the receptionist, there will be people on the Internet like weev, or whoever, who will laugh and crack an “Elders of Zion” joke. And then click on to the next thing.

And we – me and my Jewish children, our Jewish neighbors, our gentile guard – we will be dead.

And we won’t be dead because Gun Control or because Mental Health or because Assault Rifles or because the Internet or because Anything. We’ll be dead because, for whatever reason, this one stupid little thing just won’t finish, the other damn shoe will never drop. They don’t even know why they should hate us any more, just that  being hated is what we’re for.

I can tell you – as a guy who spent his formative years talking to concentration campers, talking to Jewish-American enlisted men who liberated concentration campers, poring through first-person accounts, reading Christian Patriot and Aryan Identity forums – that the men who will come now to kill us, they are more dedicated than any of those sad-sack old SS guards that get scooped up now and again and dragged to Israel for trial. Unlike Eichmann himself, these last men with guns will never claim to have just been cogs following orders. These men are proud of their devotion. They come to give “a wakeup call to America to kill Jews” and to make sure that everyone knows that “The Holocaust is a lie. Obama was created by Jews. Obama does what his Jew owners tell him to do. Jews captured America’s money. Jews control the mass media.”

These are the men who will not be persuaded, who I cannot talk my way past or bring around, who won’t stop until someone like G. puts a bullet in them. These are the men who rarely stand trial because they are dead on the scene. These men will give the last full measure to squeeze off those rounds into my kid’s daycare.

Because that’s how firmly they believe that my daughter should be dead. Because she is a Jew like me. This must be how it feels to know you passed your daughter that gene for super-aggressive metastatic breast cancer.

And I’ll wager that the bulk of my Gentle Readers don’t have a context for this feeling – because they’ve never felt the cruel twist of self-loathing that comes with knowing you’ve endangered your children by virtue of being related to them. This is part of what I want to share with you.

This is, in a way, the core of the Terrible Revelation: I suddenly realized that your average Americans don’t spend a second of their lives despising themselves for marring their own children with the awful taint of their Identity.

For just a second, standing in the parking lot with my hand on the door handle of my car, that was too much to bear.

The Promised Land

But the Terrible Revelation just kept expanding, because in all the world this is among the safest places for us. This is as good as it gets: A daycare with an armed guard and blast-proof windows. According to a recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute 12% of Americans think it’s basically OK to refuse to do business with a Jew (and let us not forget the breadth of services that might ultimately fall under the auspices of “doing business in America“).

The lede on that first article is that 10% of Americans think it’s basically kosher to refuse to do business with an African American man or women. That number is pretty awful, yet somehow, today, now, in the 21st Century, Jews – nominal whites – are still a smidge less popular among your average American than the most terribly, systematically abused minority in the history of this nation.


The initial frame of this animiation shows dots representing a random selection of 100 Americans. The second frame shows 13% of African Americans (black dots) and the 10% of Americans who would refuse them service (red dots with slashes). The third and final frame shows the 2% of the population who are Jewish (blue dots) and the 12% of Americans who would not do business with them.

But once you really think about those numbers, it’s even worse than it sounds: African-America makes up just about 13% of the U.S. population. If you randomly select 100 Americans, you can expect about a dozen of them to be black, and ten of the remainder to refuse African Americans service. That’s terrible. But at least the black folk outnumber the racists. Pardon the grim calculus, but provided the other 77% of Americans decide to stay out of it, the black dots have a fighting chance.

Meanwhile, maybe 2% of the U.S. is Jewish. So, in that same random sampling, you have two Jews staring back at a room full of gentiles, a dozen of whom really hate them. And the remaining 86? I hope they are at least indifferent.

But every time I see a headline about Donald Sterling or Bernie Madoff or Alan Greenspan or Israel, I start to worry about the 86% of America – those who are neither Jews, nor so shockingly bigoted that they’d refuse to take our money.

I know where I stand with the Jews, and I know where I stand with the guy at Buhr Park Pool rocking the Parteiadler tattoo.

But what about the other 86? I never know. And history tends to indicate that there’s a tipping point for them. Some little thing is going to be one thing too many, and then . . . and then it’s the wrong end of the gun, it’s the lager bottles filled with gasoline, it’s axe handles, it’s Heaven’s Chimney.

It’s the End all over again.

But it never ends, because that’s the point: Until we stop existing – because we’re smoke and ash or because we wise up and stop going to our synagogues and JCCs and museums – then it’s never over, because they will always be more numerous than us, and they are as dedicated to our death and dismemberment as we are to just living our lives and getting our kids to daycare on time so that we can get our other kids to the school bus so that we can go home and get to work and pay our bills and taxes and just be.

Thus ended the Terrible Revelation that I wanted to share with you.

Happy Birthday

The next day after the Terrible Revelation was my son’s eighth birthday. He’s never met anyone who saw the inside of an operating concentration camp. I can remember being six and seven, but I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know about concentration camps, about genocide. I can’t remember ever being told; it was just always there, like air and thunderstorms and acorns.

I have not told my son. I feel like I’m lying by not telling him. I feel like I’m concealing something.

But I can’t find words to tell him anything about any of this; my throat just locks up. And that scares him. And so we do something else, because there’s no need to scare him. As should be suitably established by this point, the world is scary enough on its oddy-knocky. Hardly needs my enhancements.

What would I tell him? What fatherly advice suffices?

Keep a clean nose? Keep a low profile? Keep quiet?

I’m going to let you in on a little Jewish secret, Gentile America: Jewish fathers have told their Jewish sons to learn to keep their mouths shut and blend in from time immemorial, and it has never done a damn bit of good. We didn’t end up with the anonymous surname “Nelson” by some accident of history, folks. It was a plan. But it never really worked out.

I guess if I could say anything, I’d say it’s like what the Rabbi says in the story: Feel lucky, boy, ’cause it can always be worse.

Why Am I Telling You All This?

Honestly, I don’t know.

I do know that often, when you try to tell the Majority about some little sliver of a facet of living in a Protected Class, they get huffy. Sometimes it’s because they think you are a whiner or full of shit or whatever, and that’s OK. An asshole is born every minute – and, frankly, I don’t think many of those folks have read this far.

No, the Righteous Among the Nations get huffy, too, and I think that’s because they are sickened and overwhelmed by new knowledge of perpetual injustice. And, because they are powerful, and because they are good, and because they are Americans, they want to do something to Solve This. And what upsets them is the fact that this cannot be solved. That, in short, is my whole point: Here and now, in this place, this is as good as it will ever get for the Children of Israel – and still, my daughter’s daycare needs an armed guard and blast-proof windows.

So, just to be crystal clear: I’m not telling you this because I expect you to fix it. I’m not telling you this because I expect you do say “Poor Dave! Poor Jews!” I’m not telling you this because I want you to give Israel a pass on their awful domestic policies. I’m not telling you this because I want you to watch Schindler’s List or donate to the Shoah Foundation or visit a Holocaust Museum – jeez, you’re taking your life into your own hands doing that.

First and foremost, I tell you this because some of the Jews with whom I shared the Terrible Revelation, they said “You should publish this.” I suppose they felt that hearing this might help you – the great and all-ruling throng of gentiles – to know us a bit better. But whatever their motivations, they said you should be told, and they are right: By not telling you, I am lying to you about the world, as sure as I’m lying to my boy by not telling him about the Shoah.

I owe you the simple fact of what I saw as I stood in the parking lot, fingers on the door handle, on the day before my son’s eighth birthday.

But also, I want you to know because I think about that 100-person vision of America often. I think about those two little Jews adrift in a sea of docile American gentiles. I think about those twelve venomous jellyfish floating along, invisible to their countrymen, invisible to everyone but us yidlach.

I know that the vast, vast bulk of you, Gentle Readers, are likely to be Gentile Readers, quiet members of the 86% of Americans who are neither Jews nor principled bigots. And it’s you I dwell on, not the two little Jews, not the twelve angry anti-Semites.

Eighty-six of you in that quiet crowd, and God knows that you have every right, when the Bad Thing Happens, to treat it as exactly none of your business. God knows that this would be the smart thing to do, because standing up will likely mean getting killed with the rest of us, and you have your families and your people to watch out for. I entirely respect your decision to keep quiet and carry on.

But God also knows that if all of you choose to prudently mind your own business, we two Jews will be totally and completely fucked. Once again.

The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our publication of local columnists like David Erik Nelson. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. So if you’re already supporting us on a regular basis, please educate your friends, neighbors and colleagues about The Chronicle and encourage them to support us, too!

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In it for the Money: Equal Marriage Wed, 28 May 2014 11:33:03 +0000 David Erik Nelson Editor’s Note: David Erik Nelson’s short story “The New Guys Always Work Overtime” won the 2013 Asimov’s Readers’ Award for Short Fiction. You can buy it or download a free copy: [here]

Back in March, for just shy of 24 hours, Michigan was willing to license, solemnize, and recognize the marriage of any two people without getting all particular about their genitals. [1] The three-judge appellate panel is still out on whether the question of a happily-ever-after for non-bigots and wedding-lovers here in Michigan. But that was still a pretty wonderful day.

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

In one sense that day resulted from a specific victory in court: A courageous couple embarked on a legal battle in order to protect their adopted children in the case that either parent dies, lawyers argued the case, and based on the merit of those oral arguments and the testimony of experts a federal judge issued a very strongly-worded decision.

By itself, all of that was a wonderful example of our legal system basically working as we’d hope.

But here’s the thing:  If that was all that had been done – just plaintiffs and lawyers and experts and a level-headed judge – no one could have gotten married on Saturday, March 22, 2014. No offices would have been open, no staff would have been on hand, and the appropriate forms would not have existed.

So today I want to sing the praises of the quiet heroism of county clerks – who are, for the vast bulk of law-abiding citizens, the daily executors of the Law, which is to say our Will as a People. This column is meant to record in something approaching a permanent way their mettle in helping to bend the Arc of the Moral Universe towards Justice.

Background: Marriage Equality in Michigan

In October of 2013, when the DeBoer/Rowse v. Snyder case was filed, there was an expectation that federal judge Bernard Friedman would make a decision on the merits of the case based on the pleadings, without a full trial. This is called a “summary judgement.” Both the plaintiffs [DeBoer/Rowse] and the defendants [Governor Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette in their capacities as executors of the state's laws] had requested Friedman make such a judgement.

But he refused to do so because the “rational basis” of the state’s justification of the Michigan Marriage Amendment (which amended our state constitution to stipulate that “the union of one man and one woman in marriage shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union”) is itself questionable. His denial of the request for summary judgement is worth a quick read.

My favorite sentence from the denial has to be this one, taken from Lawrence v. Texas (2003): “Moral disapproval of a group cannot be a legitimate governmental interest under the Equal Protection Clause.” Friedman’s stated goal in forcing the case to trial was to permit (or, if you prefer, oblige) both parties to offer the most rigorous presentation of their case. However, several lawyers have independently told me that they believe Friedman forced the case to trial specifically to expose the state’s “pathetic” (their word) defense of MMA to the most intense possible scrutiny – and for that scrutiny to become a matter of public record, adding to the swiftly growing body of work dismantling common claims used to defend discriminatory marriage laws.

So, long story short: DeBoer and Rowse got their day in court and prevailed: Friedman deemed the MMA unconstitutional. Because same-sex marriage is such a hot-button, the expectation was that Friedman would place a stay on his decision – essentially hitting the pause button on canceling the MMA. He did not.

In retrospect, Friedman’s decision not to issue a stay makes a lot of sense, based on his deeply rational scrutiny of the matters of law surrounding the case itself. Generally a stay is issued for one of two reasons: Either because immediate execution of the judge’s findings would cause “irreparable harm,” or because the party requesting the stay seems likely to prevail on appeal based on the merits of the case presented. Friedman’s ruling makes it pretty clear that: (1) no one demonstrated that similarly gendered people saying “I do” has ever harmed anyone, irreparably or otherwise; and (2) the case the state presented had very little merit.

On the merit of the state’s case, I like Friedman’s characterization of one of the state’s four “expert” witnesses as “entirely unbelievable and not worthy of serious consideration.” About the four taken together, Friedman wrote that they “clearly represent a fringe viewpoint that is rejected by the vast majority of their colleagues across a variety of social science fields.”

But what really counts is that Friedman immediately voided our constitutional prohibition on same-sex marriage – at the end-of-business on a Friday. The state simply had no time to get someone down to the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati – the next court up the ladder toward the SCotUS – to request a stay.

And Saturdays are great days for weddings.

Going to the Chapel

What does it take to get married in the state of Michigan? Well, you basically need four things:

  1. A pair of opposingly-gendered, currently unmarried adult humans
  2. A correct and complete Marriage License Application form
  3. $20
  4. Three days

In the last several years, Item (1) has been the sticking point here. Back in 2004 a group of well-funded national bigots convinced a minority of Michigan voters to approve the Michigan Marriage Amendment (aka, the “MMA”). This nuked an existing separate-and-not-really-equal-but-better-than-nothing arrangement we had here in Michigan, whereby gender-opposed folks could get “married” – and accrue all the liabilities and benefits associated with that legal status. Meanwhile gender-similar folks could join in a “civil union” – and accrue some, but not all, of the liabilities and benefits associated with the “married” status.

One might characterize the MMA as unequally targeting a minority group and unconstitutionally stripping them of rights and responsibilities, in much the same way one might characterize grass as green and the sky as blue.  That is, the characterization would arise from immediately evident facts easily observed by reasonable minds – which is to say the great mass of the people. Michigan lawyers in the audience will see what I did there, clever, clever boy that I am – the rest of y’all might wanna Google “Justice Cooley” and “reasonable minds.”

So, assuming that you, Dear Reader, are not a bigot, then you are likely wondering what needs to happen to fix this fundamental injustice written into our state constitution? The voiding of MMA by either judicial, legislative, or voter action is obviously the start – but it’s only the start, because if something is legal, but functionally impossible, then we haven’t really restored justice; we’d be patting ourselves on the back for being so progressive without making any actual progress.

In order to move forward here in a meaningful way, we have do more than turn the Wheels of Justice. We need to turn the Wheels of Bureaucracy.

We have a tendency to lambast bureaucrats as, at best, ineffectual pencil-pushers with an unspellable title, and at worst pitiful and infuriating tin-pot dictators of tiny demonic fiefdoms, but they really are neither of these things, which is why I want to draw attention to them here and now.

They aren’t gremlins, or unglorified data-entrists; they are our legal conscience.

What it Takes to Get Married

Except for some common edge cases, here’s the basic process: A pair of otherwise unmarried adult humans with mismatched genitals show up at their county clerk’s office with proper ID. They fill out a single-page marriage license application and pay a $20 fee (unless neither are county residents, at which time the fee is $30). They wait for three days. (State law actually stipulates “A marriage license shall not be delivered within a period of 3 days including the date of application.”) After the three days have expired, the happy couple just need to get the license solemnized (i.e., have a judge or mayor or rabbi or whatever mumble some words and sign off on the deal). Boom! Married!

But let’s say you don’t want to wait three days. Maybe you have a plane to catch, or maybe you and your life partner need to rush things a little in order to dash through the brief gap in a stupid, hateful, and fundamentally unjust law. Don’t worry! The law allows for counties to issue licenses immediately, forgoing the waiting period, provided “the person applying for the license … pay a fee.”

When Larry Kestenbaum took office in 2004, that fee was $5. As it turns out, that was a terrible price point.

Brief Economic Tangent

People mostly don’t care about the three day wait; a marriage license is valid for 33 days after issuance, and applying for a marriage license is one of those things that everyone involved in your wedding is going to hound you about. It’s in the game plan, and thus “rush service” is just not a service many folks need under normal operating conditions. When accelerated processing is not an option, they don’t even notice. But once they hear that they can have their marriage license immediately for just $5, plenty of folks will say “Well, why not?” and drop the fiver.

In other words, at that price it’s an impulse purchase, just like the candy bars at the grocery store checkout. What human needs a 250-Calorie sugar boost in order to make it from the register to their car carrying bags upon bags of food? Perhaps some small subset of poorly-managed diabetics, but that hardly justifies the display, and that isn’t the reason it’s there: When we can immediately gratify some need cheaply, it takes an act of will not to do so.

So, the low price of expedited marriage licenses was actually incentivizing the purchase of something these folks didn’t really need, and wouldn’t have missed had it been unavailable.

The thing is, preparing marriage licenses is not the same as leaving a box of Snickers on the counter. Prepping a marriage licenses is time consuming and legally fraught; screw-ups can only be corrected by court order. So marriage license applications are only handled by workers specially deputized to do so, which will tend to be your more experienced (i.e., most efficient) staff. While a more skilled worker is monopolized rushing a marriage license for folks who are in no hurry, the line is backing up with other folks in need of quick fixes (e.g., picking up notarized birth certificates, completing DBA renewals, being told they are at the wrong counter and need to go to the second floor of a different building, etc.)

When Washtenaw County Clerk Larry Kestenbaum took office in 2004, it was immediately obvious to him that it costs more than $5 to rush a marriage license, so he bumped the fee up to $50, with the dual purpose of: (1) ensuring that the fee covered the added workload; and (2) disincentivizing rush orders. And it worked great – under normal operating conditions.

But there are times when the county clerk might reasonably expect (or even encourage) a surge in expedited marriage licenses – like, let’s say there’s a comet headed straight for earth. Or maybe we’re blessed with a very brief suspension of our fundamentally bigoted constitutional ban on certain subsets of minority marriages. In such emergency scenarios the county clerk isn’t necessarily eager to soak the desperate for $50 a pop. Or, at least, our county clerk, Larry Kestenbaum, is not eager to soak the desperate for $50 a pop, because our county clerk is a mensch.

So back in 2013 our county clerk made arrangements to be able to call “fee holidays” in situations where reasonable minds might need a rushed Marriage License at no fault of their own – for example, on occasions when the county offices will be closed for four days, or during a very temporary ellipses in our relentless legalistic bludgeoning of people based on a few stray clauses in an ancient religious text that we otherwise almost completely ignore.

During a fee holiday the $50 rush fee drops to one cent. (The Chronicle report on the Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting of Feb. 19, 2014 details the discussion and approval of the fee holiday.)

There’s No Box on the Form

So the judge has (temporarily) fixed the problem of the “mismatched genitals mandate”, and the clerks have fixed the “time and money” problems. One catch remains: Check out Michigan’s standard-issue marriage license application.

You’ll note that this form cannot be correctly completed by a couple that isn’t male-female. Heck, owing to its sort of narrow expectations about who does what with his surname upon marriage, I actually know several heterosexual couples who couldn’t technically complete this form completely and accurately.

Anyway, the problems posed by a form that demands one male and one female applicant (no more, no less) were not lost on the county clerks. So last year a group of clerks, led by Kestenbaum, contacted the State Registrar for Michigan’s Division for Vital Records and Health Statistics, Glenn Copeland. They asked Copeland to consider issuing a new gender-neutral marriage license application and marriage license forms. These were designed by a committee of county clerks, and ultimately were distributed by the state – which then abruptly whipsawed, claiming that the gender-neutral forms they’d issued had not been approved and thus couldn’t be used.

Interestingly, Michigan law doesn’t stipulate that the state has to approve these forms in any manner, just that they have to issue them. The statutory mandate is that “blank forms for a marriage license and certificate shall be prepared and furnished by the state registrar appointed by the director of the department of community health to each county clerk of this state in the quantity needed.”

If this seems like a minor point, bear in mind that some county clerks were arguing that same-sex marriages couldn’t be performed if the form didn’t provide for it – which is sort of bass-ackward, because the county clerk’s sworn duty is to facilitate the execution of the law. And for those hours between Friedman’s decision and the District Court of Appeals’ subsequent stay of that decision, the law was that any two Michganders who were of age and not already married could contract marriage.

“[The Law] didn’t require that the state be officially backing the form at the time we are using the form,” Kestenbaum said. “This is a question of 14th amendment equal protection under the law; I don’t think the form should stand up as a barrier.” Not surprisingly, Kestenbaum made a point to redistribute the state-issued gender-neutral marriage application forms far and wide.

Please note well: Assuring that all citizens were equally protected under the law, in the most functional day-to-day sense, fell not to legislators or judges, but to standard-issue pencil pushers in a small offices you never even think about.

March 22, 2014: Washtenaw, Ingham, Oakland

All of the pieces were in place on Saturday, March 22, 2014: The MMA was not in effect and the forms were fixed; forward-looking county clerks had even gone so far as to make sure their fee structure was prepared to fairly accommodate extraordinary circumstances.

But of Michigan’s 83 county clerks, only four made arrangements to provide services on Saturday, March 22. These were: Larry Kestenbaum in Washtenaw County (home to Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan, me, and probably everyone reading this), Barbara Byrum in Ingham County (which includes Lansing and Michigan State University), Lisa Brown in Oakland County (immediately adjacent to Detroit and among the ten highest-income counties in the U.S., and second most-populous county in the state, with about 13% of the state’s population), and Nancy Waters in Muskegon County (a small, rural county in West Michigan).

All told these four clerks and their staffs issued 329 marriage licenses on March 22. Washtenaw County alone – which was only able to stay open for a half-day, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., but was well staffed with deputized workers and a bevy of holyfolks ready to solemnize – processed 74 expedited marriage licenses that day. By comparison, Kestenbaum noted in an email that the Washtenaw County Clerk’s office has “averaged around seven [non-rush marriage licenses] per business day for the last several years.” Based on population size you’d expect the entire state to issue about 200 licenses on your average business day.

That highly productive Saturday was well covered by the media in Washtenaw, Ingham, and Oakland Counties; these are easy places for them big city papers to reach and pigeonhole. These are large (and largely supportive), diverse communities with large, well-staffed county offices.

Muskegon County is a little different, but instructive.

March 22, 2014: Muskegon

Muskegon County did not open their offices on Saturday, March 22. Nancy Waters, their county clerk, was much less confident of her community’s support than the other clerks, and so she made separate arrangements to hold what amounted to “office hours” in a nearby Unitarian church. There she was joined by the church’s pastor, Rev. Bill Freeman, and a deputized volunteer legal secretary. She informed the chair of the county board and the county administrator of her plans on Friday, but in the interest of avoiding conflict did not plan to do anything in any county building, use any paid county employees, or rely on any public resources.

Working from 9 a.m. until 3:50 p.m. – when the federal appellate court in Cincinnati issued its stay, thus reinstating the discriminatory MMA – Waters, Freeman, and their unnamed volunteer issued and solemnized 48 marriage licenses. That’s just shy of 15% of the total number of marriage licenses issued that day statewide.

They worked, without breaks, without lunch. When they ran out of HIV brochures – which county clerks are required by law to give to couples seeking a marriage license – Waters announced that she’d have to stop because they could not legally process the paperwork unless they could truthfully attest to the pamphlet having been issued. Upon hearing this, and of their own volition, freshly-wed couples took it upon themselves to collect and redistribute these pamphlets, so that there would be an ample supply. After all, the law says that couples need to receive this pamphlet in order to be issued a license; no one says a married couple has to keep it. I have no idea where my and my wife’s HIV pamphlets are. For that matter, I am a touch foggy as to where our marriage license is.

Operating from  9 a.m. to 3:50 p.m. also meant that Waters was face-to-face with a line of eager fiancees when she was told by the Detroit Free Press that a stay had been issued and she had to stop issuing licenses and marrying couples.

“There were people crying, there were people in line. One person – not in line, one of the family members – came up to me and said ‘Well, couldn’t you go on and issue these last few? Who would know?’ And I pointed to me, to my heart, and said ‘I would know.’ And I want to be able to say ‘I have followed the law all the way through this process.’”

Earlier in our conversation Waters had explained:

When this is over, and people hear the whole story, they’ll see that this was a real commitment on my part for following the law, and I would remind so many people who called me [before hand] and were opposed to it, and didn’t want me to do this, that up until 1967 interracial marriages were not legal [in much of the United States], and clerks were not allowed to issue marriage licenses if a black and a white came in to get a marriage license… There’s been a little backlash [to Muskegon County's March 22 "office hours"], but there’s been a lot of favorable support from people that I didn’t know, from people that have sent me little personal notes saying, ‘Even though I’m heterosexual, I want to commend you, I’m so proud of you, I salute you.’ And, you know, the few that were not in support or favorable were so minor that I don’t even think about it.

Bending the Arc

I love and admire the Rev. Dr. MLK, Jr., but I’ve taken him to task for favoring this passive, objectless grammatical construction when he said:

The Arc of the Moral Universe is long but it bends toward Justice.

That’s not just a grammatical peeve. In this case my gripe is rhetorical, because as King lays it out, the implication is that, given time, History will end up in a place of Justice and equality all on its own. Ice will melt. Fog will lift. And the Arc will bend toward Justice.

I do not believe this to be true.

The Arc of History is not going to bend toward Justice all on its own.  It will bend toward Justice if, and only if, we get up every morning and put a little effort into bending that bastard. Not a ton, just a little.

Larry Kestenbaum, Nancy Waters, Barb Byrum, Lisa Brown – they got up early on a Saturday morning, enlisted the help of friends and colleagues, put their hands to the Arc and pulled that dogleg straight. I want this column to be a lasting testament to their mettle.

Why did Nancy Waters go it alone and work her ass off to marry as many couples as possible on March 22? She was quite explicit when we spoke: “It was an opportunity for me, as a county clerk, to follow my oath of office, which said ‘Follow the law.’” But following the law wasn’t super popular where she serves, which is why she went forward independently, relying on no public resources.

But what gave her the courage to move forward?

“I certainly looked to Larry Kestenbaum. I have looked to him from the day that I became a county clerk in 2008, when I was elected. … Larry Kestenbaum had everything in order; that’s why I do look to him … and was so pleased for his very, very, very strong leadership in this significant process.”

Waters was of the opinion that the Oakland and Ingham county clerks had also looked to Kestenbaum for guidance. It was a contagion of courage, spreading like whooping cough in a California hippie school.

But where did Kestenbaum get this overabundance of courage? He got it from the Washtenaw County board of commissioners, who had pledged their support. And they pledged their support, because they knew we had their backs.

Is the virtuous feedback-loop clear?

Bending the Arc need not be a grand effort, like rustling up ministers and churches and volunteers to help process minority marriage applications. Nancy laid hold of the Arc because she knew Larry was doing so, and Larry did so because he’d done the ground work, and because he lives in a region of the state full of us, and knew that we wanted someone to straighten out the offensive jag that a minority of our fellow voters crammed into the Law in 2004.

And Larry knew we wanted this not just because we’d voiced support in obvious ways – with emails and notes and votes – but because this is a part of Michigan where, if our kid calls a teammate a “fag” for dropping the ball, we yell at our damn kid and give him “consequences.” We’d no sooner sit idly while a co-worker called a lame reality show “gay” then let a man beat a child in the street.

There is shit we just don’t tolerate, and discrimination against homosexuals has joined that shit list.

And our queer notions are spreading. Every time we put our hands to the Arc, a few more folks join us – because of herd mentality, because of peer pressure. Bending the Arc in these little daily ways is the joyous inverse of a lynch mob.

Midway through our conversation, Kestenbaum told me this:

One thing that I hadn’t really thought about was that these specific scenes – something happens, same-sex marriage becomes legal, and couples show up, and you have this wonderful happy time, and the examples of many of these people, who’ve been together for years or decades and have children – those scenes have helped drive support for same-sex marriage. I think that’s absolutely the case. …There’s that famous line about ‘the Supreme Court reads the election returns‘ – I think that public opinion is moving quickly on this, and the Supreme Court does not want to be left on the wrong side of it. So I’m still pretty optimistic [about how the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals and Supreme Court will ultimately adjudicate this issue.]“

And I’m optimistic about the rest of us, because it’s true: None of us want to be left on the wrong side, and our powerful need to be in the right will drive us to be sure that no one is left out in the cold.


[1] I know it’s going to begin to seem like I’m being snarky with all this talk about genitals in reference to the Michigan Marriage Amendment – which dictates “the union of one man and one woman in marriage shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union.” But in all honesty, once you start to actually think about the ramifications of those words, it’s really hard to determine what the MMA wants from marriage license applicants. The law doesn’t define what “man” and “woman” mean in Michigan, so we’re left with the “reasonable person” standard, at which time we’d assume that if someone shows up expressing a given gender and with a birth certificate and driver’s license indicating they have that gender, then that’s the case. But check out footnote 9 here, where the Michigan Court of Appeals finds that “Under the most obvious and commonly understood meaning of the words ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ a postoperative male-to-female transsexual is not a ‘woman.’” The note goes on to explain that’s because the surgery has not changed the fact that the individual has an X and Y chromosome, not two X chromosomes, because, in day-to-day life, the first thing any of us checks when deciding which pronoun to use is whether or not someone has a Y chromosome in the mix.

Snark aside, this finding strikes me – a reasonable person – as a pretty wacky interpretation of what a “reasonable person” would infer when introduced to a human with a female name, female demeanor, female genitals, and “FEMALE” printed on her birth certificate and driver’s license (Michigan law allows these records to be revised and sealed by folks who’ve undergone sexual reassignment surgery). Call me crazy, but I would be satisfied that such an individual was “female” and just get on with my life. In fact, judging by what I hear from folks married in Michigan more recently than I, if the state does anything to actually enforce the MMA, it goes no further than checking the sex listed on the applicants’ drivers’ licenses and birth certificates: There is no mandatory genital check or genetic testing, no mandate for a doctor’s affidavit. In other words, the state appears to be perfectly content to issue licenses that it knows to be “unconstitutional” under current Michigan law and its own inane common-law findings – which is hardly the sort of thing we’d expect “reasonable people” to do. [All credit and much love to Anne Marie Miller for digging up the legal reference for me.]

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In It For The Money: Presidential Stinkburger Mon, 07 Apr 2014 15:29:41 +0000 David Erik Nelson The President of the United States visited Ann Arbor on April 2. If you want to know what he said, you can read a faithful transcript right here, or just watch the unedited remarks.

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

But none of that puts you in the room with the PotUS. Hearing the same four presidential soundbites about Zingerman’s and minimum wage played over and over again on the radio certainly gives you the gist of what was said; none of it was earth shattering.

In fact, I’d wager that most Chronicle readers could generate a fairly accurate facsimile of the remarks made by the PotUS working strictly from First Principles. You know what politicians are like: Y’all a good looking crowd! God bless America! Handshake-babykiss-SMILE! You know what excites East Coasters about Ann Arbor: Zingerman’s! Sportsball! Wolverines! And you know how PotUS stands on the minimum wage: Raise it!

None of that puts you in the room.

And you’re likely inclined to say: So what? What’s the use of being in the room? What’s the bother of showing up in a specific time and place to see something that’ll be on YouTube ten minutes after it happens, to be watched at my leisure? Hell, Dave: Why did you bother wasting so many hours to be in that room? Don’t you have better things to do with your time?

And, while I do have better things (or at least better paid things) to do with my time, there’s always value in being in the room. In abstract, there’s value because being in the room is The Job. It’s what I’ve said I will do for you: I will show the hell up, and tell you what the hell I saw. This is the baseline contract any newspaper should have with its readers.

And specifically, on this occasion, there was value in being in the room because some things do not come across in articles and the op-eds and the clips and soundbites – not even in the unedited audio or video. There are intangibles – including all of the things that are outside the frame of the camera, too far away for the mics to pick up, or of little interest to the reporters on hand.

In The Room With The President

Appropriately enough, the venue for the visit was the basketball court at the top of the University of Michigan Intramural Building. This is an old building – constructed in 1927-38 – and the basketball court is a general purpose gymnasium: no bleachers, no built in hoops. Enormous windows allow excellent natural light, and the balls get dribbled on maple floors (which UM notes are original, and somewhat oddly constructed). All told, the innocuous IM Building is a goddamned fortress. It’s an open box with good light and excellent acoustics.

April 2, 2014 IM building on the University of Michigan campus: U.S. President Barack Obama addressed the assembly.

April 2, 2014 IM building on the University of Michigan campus: U.S. President Barack Obama addressed the assembly.

About half the space – the half with a conspicuous maize-and-blue MICHIGAN painted on the brickwork – had been prepped for remarks from the PotUS. It was cordoned off, then broken into two roughly equal-sized seating areas: “blue ticket” to the left, and “red ticket” to the right.

The red ticket section had seating, and was populated by Local Dignitaries (the mayor, UM Regents, Jon Conyers, a prominent metro-area family of personal-injury attorneys, etc.) and People Who Deserved Chairs (several UM sports stars, folks whose jackets prominently advertised their labor union affiliations, a voluble Detroiter in a track-suit who didn’t like banjo music and identified all of these people for me, etc.) The student section offered a row of portable bleachers against the wall beneath a sign reading OPPORTUNITY FOR ALL – which, when you think about it, doesn’t really have much to do with minimum wage, unless you’re really stretching it – and the rest of the space was standing-room-only.

These two sections embraced a little stage and podium for the PotUS, which was backed by another set of bleachers – packed with hand-picked UM students – and a very, very large American flag. In case you’re wondering: Yes, the students in the bleachers behind the PotUS were markedly more attractive than those who had seemingly randomly packed the bleachers in the “student section.”

The ethno-racial and gender breakdown of both bleachers and the student crowd seemed to be balanced, although I got the distinct sense that neither is a good match for the current race distribution at the university. That’s a topic for some other column, some other time (likely written by some other guy). This was all encircled by ring of steel made of the sort of portable railings I’ve seen used for ad-hoc cattle pens.

Orbiting all of this was a crescent of media. Some of the media were held on two risers (one directly opposite the PotUS, one to the right, sorta-kinda mirroring the student bleachers). These were crowded with thickets of tripods and cameramen. A roped off section of folding tables was packed with media folks crouched over lap tops. The rest of us journalistic rabble crowded at the cattle railing.

A very nicely dressed person wearing a “volunteer” badge told me that 1,400 people were in attendance. I have no idea of that number included media and staff. If not, then give that number a healthy bump of at least 10 percent or more.

Frankly, I have a lot of questions about much of the media. For example, of the folks like me crowded at the rail, very few were operating cameras, or holding recorders, or taking any sort of notes, or using cameras to do anything other than attempt to snap a selfie of themselves and the PotUS – who was no less than 65 feet away, standing behind a podium on a raised stage, and busy giving advice to college kids.

I'd totally planned to take a sort of half-joking, post-ironic selfie with PotUS in the background. But watching all these other folks do exactly this same thing  (1) drove home how painfully unoriginal my originality is; and (2) was totally, totally mortifying. So here's a photo of my press pass instead.

I’d totally planned to take a sort of half-joking, post-ironic selfie with PotUS in the background. But watching all these other folks do exactly this same thing (1) drove home how painfully unoriginal my originality is; and (2) was totally, totally mortifying. So here’s a photo of my press pass instead.

The point here, mostly, is that I’ve seen this crowd in other media accounts described as “raucous students.” And I just want to make the point that much of it (certainly in terms of floor space) was not students.

And although the students were exuberant, they were remarkably orderly given the circumstances. The lag between the audience load-in and the President’s actual remarks was at least 90 minutes, during which the organizers played looped, tinny banjo music at extremely high volume.

No one liked that music, and while the folks near me (I was on the rail behind the Local Dignitaries and Other Chair Sitters) were starting to get vocal on this topic, the close-packed students were happy as clams in a very crowded kettle.

The PotUS Is Such A Dad

What is the PotUS? For one thing, apparently, he is a Dad. And I don’t just mean to say he’s the biological father to Sasha and Malia; there hasn’t been childless PotUS since James K. Polk (who, Batmanishly, took on a nephew as his ward – so you could argue there’s never been a childless PotUS). I’m talking about the Nature of the sitting PotUS. George W. Bush was a “Cool” Big Brother – which is to say half rake, half bully. His father was a Study Hall Proctor. Reagan was, obviously, a Hollywood Actor. Clinton? He was an Elvis. And the current PotUS is a total Dad.

The PotUS arrived in his shirtsleeves, because he was ready to Get Down to Business and Hit Us with Some Straight Talk about wages and stuff. The PotUS complimented us as good-looking, and commended our work ethic and academic achievements. He seemed to legitimately admire the quality of the prominent sportsball players in the audience, which pleased the audience a great deal.

Then, like somebody’s dad, the PotUS cajolingly admonished us to sit down – which might have seemed sort of cryptic to home-viewers, because the crowd was cropped out of the shot. Everyone had given a standing ovation upon his entrance, and then remained standing. Many folks were standing on their rickety folding chairs – which any dad will tell you is dangerous, and bad for the chairs. C’mon, guys; settle down. I’ve gotta talk to you about something important.

This was all in the first three minutes and thirty seconds of his speech.

He went on to tell an anecdote about his lunch (Zingerman’s! ZINGERMAN’S!!!). He gave some really legit advice on properly structuring your college debt, and suggested that it’s important always to be polite when arguing with folks about politics. He may have advised us to neither be a borrower nor a lender, and to our own selves be true – I’d need to double check my recording.

Such dad-ish digressions were peppered throughout the presentation. The speech was taken up by long stretches during which the PotUS was clearly working crisply from the prompters and notes – stretches indistinguishable from every speech of his you’ve seen on video. And then we’d hit one of these sparkly little patches where the PotUS could be your pal’s dad, driving you to the movies in the family minivan, periodically craning back to explain something about compounding interest, or the infield fly rule, or why you always want to be sure your tires are at the appropriate PSI.

You know, standard issue dad small talk.

But the most dad-ish run in his remarks starts around 25 minutes in to the speech. The PotUS is talking about GOP economic policies, which seem to be in a rut: The same ideas stuck on repeat, despite being neither popular nor effective. He gets a little salty about the most recent attempt to repeal Obamacare: “Because they haven’t tired that fifty times!” And then about a minute later PotUS drops in a joke comparing these stuck-on-repeat GOP tactics to the film “Groundhog Day” – “except it isn’t funny.”

Now, I believe that line was scripted – and maybe not as a joke, precisely. He really seemed legitimately peeved at that point, just as he had with the “fifty times” jab a minute earlier. But the Groundhog Day joke turned into an actual laugh line for the audience – one that got a really disproportionate response. It really landed.

And you could sense the PotUS becoming emboldened, in the way dads will. You can see it in the video, a hint of it, but there in the room, you could feel the antic energy gathering. Even from 65 feet away, standing behind the crowd, I could feel a dad joke coming. It was like the portentous pressure front that precedes a tornado; my ears popped, wasps went nuts, squirrels fled, dogs barked at locked doors.

“If they tried to sell this sandwich at Zingerman’s,” the PotUS said, struggling to suppress his glee, “they’d have to call it [tiny pause] the Stinkburger.

I’m quite confident that somewhere in Washington D.C., at 3:19 p.m. on April 2, Sasha and Malia found themselves spontaneously rolling their eyes. “Oh no,” they gasped, miles apart, yet in perfect unison, “Somewhere, Dad’s trying to be ‘funny.’ ”

The crowd in the IM building was perplexed, thinking Did the President of the United States just say “Stinkburger”? I know this, because the two cameraless-notepadless-compterless-recorderless “media” people behind me – “mean girls” from central casting in pastel blouses and dark pant suits, who’d been snarking throughout the preceding 28 minutes – said aloud exactly that:

Ohmagawd. Did he just say ‘Stinkburger’?!

Frankly, they were just saying what the rest of us were thinking – at least at that moment. The other 28 minutes of their chatter was all just catty bullshit about people, places, and outfits I couldn’t conceivably have cared less about. But in that moment, we were all together, all of us, from the most exalted student athlete to the lowliest scribbler, joined of a single mind, wondering:

Did the guy who makes the drone kill list just say “Stinkburger”?

True to form for a dad, our chagrin did not dissuade the President of the United States and Leader of the Free World. There was joke there somewhere, and he could feel it. From across the crowded room, I could see him groping for that laugh-line.

So he groped on dad-style after the Stinkburger until he found something else: “Or the … or the … or the … or the Meanwhich!” Nailed it!

Ohhh. Dag, Mr. Obama. That’s … that’s not great. You can pull over and drop us off here. We’ll walk the rest of the way to the mall.

That joke just hung there, stagnant and awful as a fart in a car. And then we all laughed, because – just like that fart in a car – the awfulness, and the fact that we were all caught in that awfulness together, was itself sorta funny.

Dad Jokes, Domestic Policy

It’s been interesting to see the Stinkburger joke spin out across the political universe, especially among folks who weren’t in the room. In the local coverage – much of which, I can verify, was based on first-hand accounts – the Stinkburger didn’t seem to merit much mention. Nationally, it gained some traction in the Twitter feeds of elected Republicans, who were suitably outraged (but not there, in the room with us). Now, over the last few days, it’s been shoehorned into the headlines and ledes of articles in Business Insider,,, the Washington Post, etc. – as though it’s a legitimate expression of executive policy.

In case there’s any question, there is no “Executive Order: To Hell with GOP Stinkburgers!”

But treating any part of the PotUS’s April 2 remarks as legitimate political rhetoric meant to sway a dubious electorate is just as nutty. He didn’t come here to convince 1,400 people in the Upper Midwest that raising the minimum wage by $2.85 is a good idea. We’d all waited hours to get in, gone through the security rigamarole, and then stood around for another couple hours listening to excruciating banjo music. The folks who were on board came because they were already on board. The folks who weren’t came so that they could find something to be angry about.

He came to give us what we want: A sense of connection with the Leader of the Free World.

And, true to his agreeable nature and intent to be an aisle-bridging centrist, the PotUS gave everyone exactly what they needed – even the folks who just want to be pissed off at him, even the folks who didn’t show up to be in the room.

The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our publication of local columnists like David Erik Nelson. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. So if you’re already supporting us on a regular basis, please educate your friends, neighbors and colleagues about The Chronicle and encourage them to support us, too!

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In it for the Money: Your Public Library Wed, 26 Mar 2014 01:11:25 +0000 David Erik Nelson Editor’s Note: At the Ann Arbor city council’s March 17, 2014 meeting, Ann Arbor District Library Director Josie Parker told councilmembers that heroin sale and use takes place at the downtown location of the AADL. The council was debating a resolution about reserving as a public park an area of the surface of the city-owned parking structure adjacent to the downtown AADL.

In rejecting the idea that the problems are caused by the homeless, Parker also told the council that “some of the most obnoxious behavior exhibited at the public library in Ann Arbor is done by persons who are very well housed, very well fed, and very well educated. It is not about those things. It is just about simply behavior.”

Chronicle columnist David Erik Nelson is a frequent visitor to the public library. He drafted this column before Parker made her comments. And he’s still an enthusiastic library patron. From Parker’s March 17 comments: “We manage it and you don’t know about it … and you’re generally as safe as you can be in the public library, and that makes it successful.”

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

Say a precocious child – like Glenn Beck, for example – asks you how much the library costs. The library is, after all, readily confused with a bookstore (because it is full of books) or NetFlix (because they let you have stuff for a while, but expect it returned in good condition).

What’s your answer?

Probably the first thing that comes out of your mouth is that it’s free – which makes sense to the child (and, evidently, Glenn Beck). After all, the kid never sees you pay anyone there, and (assuming your household finances are like mine) it is also likely often a place you go to have fun and get stuff after you’ve explained that you can’t buy this or pay to visit that on account “We don’t have the money for it.”

But we’re all grow-ups here – even Glenn Beck – and we certainly know that the library costs something [1], we just don’t know how much (or, evidently, who foots the bill). If pressed, we’d wave our hands and say that the library is probably funded (note that passive voice!) by some sub-portion of a portion of our property taxes, plus a little Lotto money and tobacco settlement, multiplied by the inverse of some arcane coefficient known only to God and the taxman, or something – yet another inscrutable exercise in opaque bureaucracy.

But it’s not that way at all.

In contrast to pretty much all other public services – which are funded by an exceedingly hard-to-parse melange of federal, state, local, and “other” revenue streams – more than 90% of the Ann Arbor District Library’s budget comes from local property taxes. The amount you pay for it is written out on your tax bill.

At first glance, it’s probably more than you would have guessed: The average Ann Arborite has a $155 annual library bill. That’s sorta pricey for something that’s “free.”

But upon even brief reflection, it’s pretty clear that the library is much better than free.

The Cost of Everything

So, here’s my summer tax bill (which is when you pay your library bill – in the summertime). Check out line six.

The author's summer tax bill from 2013.

The author’s summer tax bill from 2013.

This year’s library bill was exactly $128.56. [2]

So, that’s about $11 per month. But is that a good deal?

Your average new trade paperback sells for $15 to $20. Even if Amazon knocks off 30%, I’m still looking at at least $10.50 per book (plus shipping). So, if I borrow one book per month from the AADL, I’m doing OK. [3]

I live in a four-person household; the baby (who turned two at the beginning of this month) doesn’t take out books yet (we’re trying to restrict her destruction to private property), but I don’t think my wife and 7-year-old son have ever returned from the library with fewer than three books each. So, just between those two, we often make back our entire annual contribution each month. If an investment consistently pays off at 10% annually – which is to say you start the year with $1 and end it with $1.10 – that’s a great investment. How do you even describe an investment that annually pays off 1,100%?!

Forget BitCoin; put your money in libraries, kids!

But “book rental” isn’t really a thing these days. A much more straightforward comparison would be a commercial endeavor like NetFlix – which is a pretty reasonable comparison, given that about half of the AADL’s annual circulation is “A/V materials” (predominantly DVDs).

NetFlix’s lowest pricing tier for service that includes a physical DVD (rather than streaming only) is $7.99 per month, for which you get one DVD at a time. My experience is that the turnaround time on a DVD is at least three days, and usually we don’t get around to watching a DVD for a day or two. (Remember: two working people, two kids, and we’ve got all those damn library books to read!) So, figure we watch four DVDs per month. Maybe you are a happy single person with few demands on your time. Given the limitations of NetFlix’s shipping schedule, the USPS, and the calendar, you still likely max out at around 7 DVDs per month on this plan.

Meanwhile, the AADL lets you take out an unlimited number of items simultaneously and has an average fulfillment time on requests of one to two days. Also, you’ve already paid for your library, and they offer a lot more than just “Nacho Libre” and “Eight is Enough” on DVD.

A Value Multiplier

As AADL Associate Director Eli Neiburger eagerly pointed out over cookies and coffee one Friday morning, “The library is very unique among taxing entities, in that you pay a flat fee up front, and then the value you receive from it is in direct proportion to how much you choose to use it, with no additional cost required.”

If you don’t feel like you’re getting a good value for your 1.55 mill tax [4], then there is a bone-headedly easy remedy: Borrow more books. Don’t like books? Then borrow movies and music. Don’t like any of the library’s 434,729 items? Then ask for something you do like.

In the same month that I glanced at my summer tax bill and wondered whether $128 was a good deal, the AADL loaned me a pair of digital oscilloscopes – $500 in gear, delivered to within a mile of my house, and free for me to use basically until someone else needs it. If that was the only thing I got from the library in four years, I’d still break even.

You’re likely wondering why the library (an institution named for the books that are its raison d’être) had one – let alone two – oscilloscopes to lend out to me. [5]

And, the short answer is: They had it because I asked for it.

The Most Responsive Entity

I don’t mean to imply that the AADL bought these scopes just because some big important local newspaper columnist asked. Mine was only one of a small handful of patron requests for oscilloscopes. But chatting with staff over email, I was given the distinct impression that even a single sufficiently impassioned request might well have triggered the purchase. That’s because there was already a strong sense from within the library that an oscilloscope might be something their patrons would want, if they knew it was there for the asking.

“We’re here to meet patron demand.” Eli says, with that “we” clearly meaning libraries in general, not just the AADL. “Typically libraries get in trouble when their vision of patron demand drifts from the actual patron demand. [...] What our users want is what we want to get. That’s the mission of the library: To get people the stuff they want. If anything, the 21st century’s biggest problem for libraries has been a ‘faster horse’ problem [6], that they [patrons] may not know what they want.”

Eli was quick to clarify that he wasn’t implying that the AADL should be a nanny telling patrons what they should want, but that any library is constantly bumping up against the limitations imposed by having libro embedded in their name.

According to Eli, “libraries were never in the book business, that was just the cheapest and easiest way of distributing information. To me, the value of the library has always been that it aggregates the buying power of the community and it purchases shared access to things [for private use]. There are no other institutions that have a mission like that.”

Do you want free music? Then the library wants you to have it. [7] Do you want a telescope? Come and grab one! Wanna rock out on a drool-worthy array of synths? BOOM!

“The pressure from the taxpayers helps keep it focused, in that [they ask] ‘Are you adding value for my money?’ – and because the central conceit of the library [...] is you buy it once and you use it many times.”

Libraries and the Creation of Stuff

So, that’s the most obvious bang for my buck: My annual payment of something-like-$128 goes to buying several hundred dollars in oscilloscopes – or whatever other reasonably useful things patrons might think to want. But the library isn’t just an aggregator of stuff. Check out the usage chart. (In case you want a little more context, that slide is drawn from this deck, prepared by the AADL.)

Ann Arbor District Library usage trends from 2004 through 2013.

Ann Arbor District Library usage trends from 2004 through 2013.

What do we see here? Well, since 2006 most of what the library does has held steady: Circulation (i.e., “checkouts,” which number around 9 million annually), folks visiting the library (“door count”), and event attendance are steady.

But “web” (that is, views of AADL web pages) has quadrupled. Why are so many people visiting the AADL web site? Isn’t it basically just a digitized card catalogue?

No. Check it out: “One of the best things we can do with the public money is cause new things to exist on the web that never would have existed otherwise, for which there is no commercial use case,” Eli said.

Eli rattled off several examples – including digitization of the Ann Arbor News archives, which amounts to salvaging, preserving, and disseminating 174-years of small-town history that just happens to coincide with the entire history of Michigan as a state and the growth and flourishing of one of the world’s preeminent research universities.

Or consider the AADL’s partnership with the African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County. Here’s how Eli describes it:

Once or twice a month we set up our equipment and we record an interview where a member of the museum interviews a member of the community and we put the entire unedited video up online with a clickable transcript and professionally done meta-data. There’s not a world in which that makes business sense. The library has an opportunity to make things happen that otherwise would not have happened without the library’s resources. And those things, they don’t just have value now or next week or next month, we seriously think about some of the things we produce having value in hundreds of years.

It’s ludicrous to think that something you upload to Facebook is going to be available to a scholar 500 years from now. But something that you put in the library’s corpus just might be. Of course, there’s a lot of zombies and barbarians and alien invasions between here and there, but, you know, we honestly think about [that] when we put up our infrastructure – we don’t say we want to ‘put it in the cloud and host it on a server.’

We need to know where it is, we need to know how it’s formatted, we need to be responsible for making sure that the data survives catastrophic events and that it can be recovered by people far in the future who we can’t imagine what their tools are. Now, that’s a very serious role, it’s an important part of a community, but it’s a very small part of what the library does, both in terms of hours and in terms of dollars. But does our copy of “Nacho Libre” have long term value to the community? No, it has short term value to the community. But our copy of an interview that would not have otherwise existed, and which we’re pledging to keep on the Internet for as long as we exist and as long as the Internet exists, that has enduring value.

In other words, the library has become a somewhat unconventional publisher – and it only takes a tiny sliver of your $130-ish per month to fund that quixotic endeavor.

Later in our chat Eli characterized it like this: “The 20th Century library brought the world to its community; the 21st Century library brings its community to the world” – which nicely brings us around to the last major thing the library does for us.

Soft Diplomacy

Let’s face it: As a nation, we don’t necessarily have a super-great reputation throughout the world. So, there’s obvious value in putting a little effort into telling the world about ourselves and how we live, lest they somehow get the impression that we’re mostly uneducated, unemployable queer-bashing gun nuts.

A little less obvious is what the existence of an endeavor like this tells the world about our commitment to our nation’s core values. “Free” public libraries – that is, those that are entirely and only funded by local taxes, with no additional “use fee” – are a rarity in the developed world, and libraries of any sort are rare as hen teeth in the developing world.

A project like the AADL says nice things about us, because it highlights our attention and commitment to recording, preserving, and disseminating truths about ourselves that may not be entirely flattering. The First Amendment is effectively meaningless if you have the freedom to speak, but no capacity to do so in a way anyone will get to hear. When we fund the library, we are putting tools in the hands of every member of the community, so that they can be heard. It’s us making good on the promises we’ve made to ourselves. In a world where the most common place to see “MADE IN THE USA” is stamped on the side of the tear-gas canister your government’s secret police just shot into a crowd of school children, it’s nice to have a counter example.

But these are edge cases, because even if the mission of the 21st Century library is to bring our community to the world, I’ve still gotta say that our libraries do a pretty good job of bringing the world to us.

The AADL branch that I frequent is the Malletts Creek branch. I can’t speak to the user mix elsewhere in the system, but Malletts Creek is heavily used by new immigrants and resident aliens, who come there not just for CDs and movies and books, but also for the tot time and Internet access and to receive language tutoring and literacy training. Some of these folks are in it for the long haul – political and economic refugees – and others are here for a few years while they or their spouses attend the University of Michigan. In any event, all of them seem to make occasional sojourns overseas, and to maintain connections with their countrymen.

I very much like knowing that, when someone has a bone to pick with America and the things we cause to happen around the world, these folks I meet at the library have enjoyed the fruits of our system, and are thus more inclined to say, “I hear what you’re saying, but you haven’t been to the United States, and I have, and let me tell you: They aren’t like that. They all chip in without batting an eye – even the blowhard jerkwads on talk radio – to make sure that everyone who sets foot on their soil can learn the language, get online, and get their hands on the stuff that it takes to make rich lives. They are as real about their First Amendment as they are about the Second.”


When my first book came out I did a few events at the AADL’s downtown location. I was making small talk with the guy helping me set-up, and said something to the effect of, “I really appreciate you guys putting on so many free events” and he stopped me and corrected me: “It’s not free,” he said, “You already paid for it.”

And it’s money well spent.


[1] Here’s Jon Stewart’s classic bit on this. The library gag comes in at 2:20. For the Glenn Beck apologists out there who might wanna claim that Beck just slipped up and misspoke that one time, you’ll note that the two clips I’ve shared are from different events; this “libraries are free” malarky was a standard applause line for Beck about three years ago.

[2] Our house – a lovely 1,000-square-foot ranch with 3 bedrooms, 1.5 baths, hardwood floors, and a finished basement – is about 80% of the median home value for Ann Arbor, so we’re paying a bit less than your average Ann Arborite, whose annual library bill is probably closer to $155. It should thus come as no surprise that a non-resident library card costs $150 per year.

[3] There are obviously some assumptions here as to how one uses those books; buying and borrowing are only the same if you are primarily interested in the book as a word-transmission and transport system. I’m not taking into account those books that I mark up and meditate on over time, books that I need to reference repeatedly, or recovering some of a book’s initial purchase price either directly through resale (for which I rely on the excellent Books by Chance), or karmically through trade or gift-giving.

[4] Currently, each property holder annually pays $1.55 per $1,000 taxable value of their home. The taxable value of an Ann Arbor home is around 40% of its market value. So, if you have an “average” Ann Arbor home – the median home value being something around $250,000 – then your taxable value is probably around $100,000, and your annual library bill roughly $155.

[5] It’s not unreasonable for rational readers to wonder why I needed the damn things: I’m working on my second DIY book. (Here’s my first.) This new book is all musical instruments and noise-toys, many of them electronic. Having a digital oscilloscope on my bench has made it an order of magnitude easier to debug and refine my homebrew (and not terribly electronically rigorous) oscillator and filter designs.

[6] Henry Ford apocryphally quipped: “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”

[7] I was particularly enjoying this album while drafting this column.

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In it for the Money: Crimes and Misdemeanors Sun, 02 Mar 2014 23:02:20 +0000 David Erik Nelson I want to talk about Dylan Farrow’s open letter, published on the New York Times blog on February 1. But I don’t particularly want to talk about Woody Allen, or rape, or patriarchy, or the law [1].

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

I want to talk about rhetoric.

I want to talk about rhetoric, and moral decision making, and a funny little blind spot built into our cognitive hardware.

At 942 words, Dylan Farrow’s open letter is one of the most brilliant pieces of persuasive writing I’ve seen in years. It’s strength stands on three legs.

First and foremost, Farrow’s letter opens and closes with a question, which is an established marketing tactic [2]: Humans naturally want to give assistance, and our minds rise unbidden to answer questions. We might be able to tamp down that inclination long enough to keep the answer from flying out our mouths or fingers, but we still rise to the question in our heads, and that’s all Farrow needs here. She needs us to engage her claim, which we might not be inclined to do if it was flatly stated.

Second is the powerful juxtaposition in the first two sentences:

1. “What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie?”

2. “Before you answer, you should know: when I was seven years old, Woody Allen took me by the hand and led me into a dim, closet-like attic on the second floor of our house.”

The juxtaposition implies an association, but does so without demanding we parse anything complicated. We are first asked a question – with which we reflexively engage. Then we’re given a very evocative declarative image.

Finally, that associative juxtaposition connects Woody Allen with violation, and activates a deep, pre-rational aversion buried in our hardware of our brains: We do not like to be associated with unclean things. Those two sentences associate Allen with this fundamentally repugnant violation in a way that speaks to our deep brain without engaging the rational surface layer.

If Farrow had flatly stated her claim – something like: “When I was seven years old Woody Allen raped me. You should not enjoy his films.” – our clever, lately evolved, logic-obsessed prefrontal cortices would balk, tossing up all sorts of rational roadblocks (It’s nonsense! The one thing has no bearing on the others! My favorite Woody Allen film was released three years before the events in question! ). The two sentences, as I’ve presented them, are literally non-sequitur; the one does not follow from the other in any obvious logical fashion.

Farrow’s rhetorical touch is brilliant, because she sidesteps our rationalizations, and directly engages our deep-seated imperative to distance ourselves and our loved ones from anything unclean. [3]

As such, Dylan Farrow’s question is much larger than one specific time and place, or one specific artist’s work: In everyday commerce, how do we decide how deeply we want to engage with people who we are fairly confident have done terrible things?

All of this is a bit outside the areas of my expertise [4], so I called Ari Kohen.

Kohen is the Schlesinger Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Forsythe Family Program on Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs at the University of Nebraska (Lincoln). His research and writing focus on human rights, heroism, and moral decision making, and he is the author of both “In Defense of Human Rights: A Non-Religious Grounding in a Pluralistic World” and “Untangling Heroism: Classical Philosophy and the Concept of the Hero.” Most importantly, Ari has experience working closely with death row inmates – that is, men whose deplorable actions are documented and undisputed.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Kohen and I attended high school together in Metro Detroit, where we were in Ergasterion [5] together. He plays a mean Sancho Panza and introduced me to the films of Kevin Smith. I don’t recall him ever giving two craps about the work of Woody Allen, which is something he reiterated at the start of our conversation.

Ari Kohen: You know, I think there’s a couple ways to think about it. The first thing is that, clearly, people are trying to do what you’re suggesting, right? And that is, to say that these things are not separable, the art and the artist. [ . . . ] That we should feel, all of us, some sort of moral responsibility if we want to say Woody Allen is some sort of comedic genius, or filmmaking genius, [because] he’s also allegedly, you know, a child rapist – or however we want to characterize it.

I don’t entirely know how I feel about that, in part, I guess – and here I’m going to retreat back to what I said a minute ago – in part because I didn’t really care about Woody Allen movies. I’ve seen some of them, but I don’t see myself defined by them, or measure my life in Woody Allen films. They never struck the same chord with me that they struck with other people. So, I can leave Woody Allen films alone and say I’m making a moral choice. I don’t think that that would be true; I’m making a purely aesthetic choice [ . . . ]. So I’m giving myself more credit than I deserve. But people who are taking sides and not taking his side want us to have this be a moral thing. We’re going to say “Art made by bad people should be considered off limits,” or something. [But] I think it’s very clear that bad people have made great art for a long time.

[ . . . ]

At this point in the interview Kohen and I sorta stumble over each other with several examples of good art made by bad folks [6]. Kohen settles on comparing the current furor to a remarkably similar media frenzy in 2003, when Roman Polanski was nominated for an Oscar. At that point Polanski hadn’t been in the U.S. for 25 years, having fled the country in 1978 after pleading guilty to charges of “unlawful sexual intercourse” with a thirteen year-old girl. Interestingly, that woman – Samantha Geimer – became the most notable and persuasive proponent of separating judgements of Polanski’s work from judgements of his character.

AK: The other side of this is that I consistently tell people, when I talk about the death penalty and people on death row, is that it’s troubling to judge someone by the worst thing he ever did, and say “This is the measure of the man.” This is a point I got long ago from Sister Helen Prejean, she says it all the time, that any one of us would hate to be thought of as the worst thing we ever did. I think there’s some merit to that. I think most people want to draw a line and say “Well, not when it comes to murder; murderers are murderers and that is the most relevant fact about them,” and they’d make the same case about child rapists, or pedophiles, whatever; that’s what you are.

But I try – and it’s stressful – but I try not to think of people that way, not to think of people as monstrous, and not to think about people as being that worst thing, but as having made terrible decisions and having made atrocious mistakes, or having acted on terrible impulses. It’s difficult, and it’s one of the hardest things to talk to people about when you talk about criminals and people in prison. [. . . ] Because, generally, free people think of themselves as being very, very different from [criminals and] incarcerated people, that there’s a fundamental break between someone who is in prison and someone who is not in prison. [. . .] The idea that they could, or that someone they love could be, in prison is a shocking idea, because they are categorically different.

I used to speak pretty frequently about my interactions with Ronnie.

“Ronnie” here is Ronnie Frye, a death-row inmate Kohen worked with when Kohen was a graduate student at Duke University. Here’s a 2011 post by Kohen about Ronnie, his life, and his death. It begins: “Today is the tenth anniversary of the death of my friend Ronnie Frye. He was poisoned to death in the middle of the night by the government of the State of North Carolina, on behalf of its citizens, in revenge for the 1993 murder of Ralph Childress.” Because Kohen doesn’t make it super clear until later, I want to mention now that Frye did not dispute the facts of the case: That he, armed with a pair of scissors, robbed and brutally murdered his landlord. [7]

AK: People were offended and upset when I just sort of talked about [Ronnie] as a person, about what he liked and didn’t like, what he talked about – and my experience of what a genuinely nice guy he was, caring and kind and compassionate. And, you know, I always explained how very different my interactions with him were from the person he was when he went in. The person who had committed a terrible crime was the same physical body, but also, you know, incredibly addicted to drugs and alcohol. The person that I met wasn’t [addicted to drugs], and hadn’t been for some time, and that makes a big difference. The person who went in was on the very, very edge of society, living in an unheated trailer that he couldn’t pay the rent on. The person I met was living in prison, where he was actually doing very well. The institution of prison was something that worked for him. [. . .]

Most of them [death row inmates] don’t make any representation to innocence. The guys that I met were willing to talk about what had happened, and willing to talk about the circumstances that led to what had happened, and, in some sense, I do think that makes it easier.

I used to do these speaking tours with an organization called the Journey of Hope, which is murder victims’ family members, former death-row inmates, family members of men who are on death row, and activists, who go around the state each year for two weeks and do a public-education speaking tour about the death penalty. The thing that always struck me was the guys who’d been exonerated, who had spent years on death row for crimes they hadn’t committed. They all acknowledged – almost every one of them acknowledged – the fact that they did something. They came to the attention of the police for some [legitimate] reason, it just turned out that [. . .] they hand’t done this.

[. . .]

So I do think there is something to this idea that the full story, or coming to terms with something that you’ve done, is important to us. . . . I do think that this notion, that either protesting your innocence against long odds or a total lack of acknowledgement that there’s even a question out there, that has to be disturbing. We want some kind of recognition, some idea that we’re all on the same page here. If you found something online about a person and that person persists in acting as though it simply doesn’t exist, there’s something very disconcerting about that.

This next part is going to seem to drift pretty far afield, but stick with it. The inciting question begins with me re-iterating how Dylan Farrow’s open letter really got to me. I was helpless as I attempted to avoid meeting her demand that I take a position on her claims and Allen’s evasiveness. And what really unnerved and perplexed me was how disturbed I was by the idea of associating myself with someone who had been accused of sexual assault and failed to respond meaningfully. Because the thing is, as part of my work, or owing to a series of social coincidences, I had knowingly taught or tutored or worked alongside or dined with more than a few admitted felons and at least one un-punished war criminal [8]. This seemed to me somewhat problematically contradictory: Convicted murderer? Sure, I’ll help you with your essay! Accused rapist who won’t even really address the accusations? I, umm . . . I got some stuff to do, but, ahhhhmm. . .

I ultimately asked Kohen:

David Erik Nelson: So, should we feel obliged to take a position on [Dylan Farrow's open letter], or does this lead us down a rabbit hole? I mean, statistically speaking, Jesus!, if I go around for a day, buy some gas, go to the grocery store, there are strong odds that I’m going to engage in a financial exchange with someone who is guilty of rape, who is guilty of murder – regardless of whether or not they’ve been caught – who’s committed an assault – who’ve done any number of things that I find loathsome. And it seems like it leads us to paralysis to all of a sudden wonder to what degree we need to shun people [or businesses] . . .”

AK: “Right. Part of it is a question of knowing and unknowing, right? If you do something without any knowledge of it – I mean, there’s a statistical chance, a likelihood even, that our daily interactions with people [unknowingly] bring us into contact with unsavory characters. But on the other hand, if you say, “I’m going to go shopping at this place that’s definitely run by a murderer,” that’s a quite different thing, right?

[. . .]

I haven’t been to a Shell gas station since 1995. Because, in 1995, when we both started off in college, the Nigerian government and Shell were working together, and Shell was at least indirectly – although I would say more directly – responsible for a number of executions that took place in Nigeria, the most prominent of which was Ken Saro-Wiwa, the author. I was working with Amnesty International, and we had a big Nigerian student community at Michigan State, so I got very involved in the situation in Nigeria with Shell and the Niger River delta, and so that was a position [boycotting Shell] that a bunch of us took. And I still don’t buy Shell gas. I have lots of choices, though; I don’t have to buy Shell. I can go wherever I want. But I like to tell people I don’t buy Shell gas, because then I get to talk about the issue. And maybe it’s the same thing with [. . .] Woody Allen. I don’t watch Woody Allen movies anyway, but having a conversation about the moral weight of our decisions is one that I want to have.

[ . . . ]

We all know [that] my boycott of Shell and your boycott of McDonald’s [9], no matter how many people we tell about it, it’s not impacting those companies in the least. But it’s worth doing for us, and maybe also for the people we talk to, [because] you’re expanding this circle of moral decision making and encouraging people to think more critically about their actions, their purchases, their associations. I generally think there’s a fair bit of good that we do when we spend time thinking about the ramifications of what we’re buying and what we’re doing. . . . Even if you don’t have a good answer, thinking about it at least gets you somewhere.

[Woody Allen] is not being forthright, and so we ought to feel uncomfortable with his defense. I think it would be the same thing if I was associating with someone who found himself in prison and said, “Yes, but – ” That was never what I heard from Ronnie, it was never “I did this, but – ” All the “but” came from me, I was always the one – when I spoke about him, I provided the context, but when I spoke to him, the context didn’t matter to him. He was not someone who wanted to argue that – even when we were trying to put together an argument to save his life, based on his situation growing up, where he was the victim of really unbelievable abuse, he didn’t want to have anything to do with that. It had to be pressed upon him. Because he had done it [murdered his landlord, Ralph Childress, using a pair of scissors], and in his way he’d come to terms with what he’d done, and it was something he knew he had to seek forgiveness for, and he couldn’t get that from the family of the victim because he couldn’t have any contact [with them], but he was not at all about contextualizing it. He was about saying “This is what happened.”

[. . .]

I would say that’s the difference [between convicted murderer Ronnie Frye and whatever-label-you-want-to-insert-here Woody Allen], and I think that’s actually something that you started us off with, that whole idea of kind of a narrative or something, and how we react to having or not having that narrative. It’s always hard to hear “I’m innocent, I’m innocent, I’m innocent,” especially when it certainly doesn’t seem like it. [. . .] And I think it becomes much easier to stand next to someone who says “I’m innocent of this, but I accept all these other things.” In part – and this is a strange thing, but I think this is probably true – I would be very, very sympathetic to a Woody Allen who said, “Here are the terrible things that I did, and I need to pay for them, I need to ask forgiveness, I need to work on myself, I need to seek all sorts of mental health assistance, I need to go to prison.” – whatever. That becomes a person I can really understand, and a person that I can really work with.

I’m glossing a bit here, because the conversation is garbled – Kohen and I are old friends, albeit friends who haven’t spoken at length in over 15 years – but what we come to is a fairly satisfying explanation for why it is that Kohen can feel comfortable befriending a repentant murderer and I can be comfortable dining with an unrepentant war criminal, but neither of us would be comfortable hanging out with Woody Allen: In the grand arc of history, it’s pretty easy to concoct a rational defense for “rewarding” the forthright criminal by allowing him to return to the fold. There’s a clear social utility to us being comfortable with people who are honest, especially when what they are being honest about is extremely, extremely unpleasant.

AK: This is not just something that I’m coming up with by the seat of my pants this hour. Having done work studying the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa, for example, you see the same thing: [For] people who come forward and say “This is what I did, this is the truth of the matter,” the finding, typically, of the Commission was to say “Because you were forthright and your crime was political in nature as we’ve defined it, you get amnesty for that crime.”

For a lot of people that seemed really problematic, but it seems exactly right to me: Here’s someone who was acting in this way at this particular time for this reason, and this is what happened, and maybe they expressed contrition, and maybe they didn’t, and then they moved forward with their lives. And then they contributed to the narrative of their country: Now we know more about what happened than we knew before, and that’s the goal of this, that’s how we start to move toward reconciliation, and that will continue moving forward. What disrupts that is people who don’t come forward, or don’t tell the truth.

At this point in our conversation I abruptly remember something I’d read in the opening pages of Robert B. Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion [10]:

A well-known principle of human behavior says that when we ask someone to do us a favor we will be more successful if we provide a reason. People simply like to have reasons for what they do. [Harvard social psychologist Ellen] Langer demonstrated this unsurprising fact by asking a small favor of people waiting in line to use a library copying machine: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?” The effectiveness of this request-plus-reason was nearly total: Ninety-four percent of those asked let her skip ahead of them in line. Compare this success rate to the results when she made the request only: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” Under those circumstances, only 60 percent of those asked complied. At first glance, it appears that the crucial difference between the two requests was the additional information provided by the words “because I’m in a rush.” But a third type of request tried by Langer showed that this was not the case. It seems that it was not the whole series of words, but the first one, “because,” that made the difference. Instead of including a real reason for compliance, Langer’s third type of request used the word “because” and then, adding nothing new, merely restated the obvious: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?” The result was that once again nearly all (93 percent) agreed, even though no real reason, no new information, was added to justify their compliance. Just as the “cheep-cheep” sound of turkey chicks triggered an automatic mothering response from maternal turkeys – even when it emanated from a stuffed polecat – so, too, did the word “because” trigger an automatic compliance response from Langer’s subjects, even when they were given no subsequent reason to comply.

In other words, we like having answers, even if the answers are nonsense. This is that critically dangerous cognitive blind spot. You can hide an enormous monster in a blind spot that size.

I suggested this to Kohen:

DEN: Really what we’re reacting to is the satisfaction of knowing things; having the story is enough for us. And that removes the fundamental discomfort, and once that discomfort is gone, my clever monkey forebrain will make up whatever justifications it wants so I can be satisfied with why I feel better, but in fact I maybe feel better because knowing something awful is better than wondering about it. That’s what eats at us in these situations, and is the real reason we feel the need to comment on it and keep picking at it.

AK: Yeah, that could be. There could be something to the idea that we want to have the information. I wouldn’t discount that. Not simply that, but it could just be that we want to have information [in general]; when I know secrets, when I have an answer, I feel a certain way about myself, not just about the other person. Knowing what you did gives me some measure of comfort, but also of power. I don’t know that we ought to discount that, either. We feel better because we know the person has been more forthright with us, but we also feel better because we know something.

DEN: Well, I’m glad that we could leave this at a nice disturbing place.

AK: Well isn’t that what being human is all about?


[1] Just because I have no interest in writing about these things doesn’t mean you have no interest in reading about them. Here are some of the articles that I’ve been thinking about as I’ve been thinking about all this.

[2] I in no way intend to cast aspirations by associating Farrow with marketers; as I’ve tiresomely tagged time and again, most of my living is made in marketing. Apart from that, I’m endlessly fascinated by both the field and its practitioners, who are often the only people with anything useful or interesting to say about the craft of rhetoric.

[3] Just to be clear, the “cognitive blind spot” I flagged in the nut graf isn’t this contradiction between our hardware-level aversions and our high-level rationalizations; that conflict is actually really productive – it’s a feature, not a bug. The “cognitive blind spot” – and it is, like the blind spots in your car, quite dangerous both to you and others – has to do with how we relieve the discomfort of the internal conflict between the Aversion and the Rationalization.

[4] Bed bugs, beauty queens, sitting in bars, burying the lead . . . and so on.

[5] We went to fancy-pants prep school, and that’s fancy-pants prep school talk for “drama club.” If that admission alone is insufficiently mortifying, let me go on to say that I not only appeared on stage (but briefly, as an agent of the Spanish Inquisition; I mostly did tech stuff), but I also directed a production of Vaclav Havel’s absurdist romp “The Memorandum,” in which Kohen stared as a mid-level bureaucrat caught in a Kafkaesque linguistic policy shift. Oh, to once again be young, obtuse nerds!

[6] Predictably, I brought up Wagner, who was such a vicious anti-Semite that to this day Jewish weddings do not play his Bridal Chorus (the tune that children sing as “Here comes the bride / All dressed in white . . .”) For a fascinatingly fact-free treatment of this topic, please see this thread on the Field & Stream magazine website forums.

[7] If you’re looking for more details about the facts of this case, this “Murderpedia” article is quite complete. (Yeah, I know: I cringe at the name of that site, too, but it’s actually a pretty reasonable endeavor, collating publicly available articles, briefs, documents, and filings related to U.S. murder cases.)

[8] I’m well aware of how alarming that sentence just got. Don’t worry! I’ll explain the whole thing in excruciating detail in April.

[9] This is sort of involved, but I haven’t eaten McDonald’s in almost two decades. This isn’t really a boycott, exactly, it’s just that in the mid-1990s someone (I think maybe my younger sister) mentioned that she’d heard that the concessions in Dachau were run by McDonald’s – not while it was a concentration camp, but now, at the memorial that’s been erected there. I have no idea if this is true or not, and such a thing was much more challenging to fact-check in 1990-whatever, but it struck me as such a remarkably weird juxtaposition that I half-jokingly vowed not to eat McDonald’s again until I did so at Dachau. But then I kept not-eating at McDonald’s – because, you know, I’m holding out until I can do so as a demonstration of the tenacity of World Jewry, or whatever – and, I dunno, a couple decades slipped by. Here we are: My off-hand joke matured through its adolescence as political statement, and has become some sort of obtuse performance art.

[10] Although it wasn’t Cialdini’s original purpose in writing the book, it’s become something of a bible for salesman, marketers, and business people in general (both innocuous and nefarious). Also, the book hasn’t aged terribly well – as some of Cialdini’s examples have been overturned by later scrutiny and new research. But his examples are beyond numerous, and the foundation of the work remains rock solid. All that said, “Influence” is, alongside Huff’s “How to Lie with Statistics,” one of the few works of non-fiction that I strongly urge all humans read.

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In it for the Money: Bed Bugs! Fri, 24 Jan 2014 15:02:01 +0000 David Erik Nelson Editor’s note: Nelson’s “In it for the Money” opinion column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month. If you want to get a not-more-than-weekly update on what Nelson is thinking about, sign up for his quasi-automated newsletter.

We met our first bed bug while traveling in the spring of 2011. My wife had plucked the creature from a friend’s bedroom wall.

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

As tends to be the case in situations like this, the meeting began with a debate over whether the arthropod in question was in fact a bed bug. Because I’ve had the privilege of being born and gendered male, my initial response was a very confident declaration:

“That’s not a bed bug!” Then we Googled it.

It was totally a bed bug. It was, quite possibly, the exact some bed bug shown in the top result returned for “bed bugs.”

What followed was a complete and hysterical existential freak-out. We helped our friends tear apart their home, searching for signs of bed bugs with all the frantic compulsion of deeply addicted meth heads scouring the rug for that last lost shard.

Our findings were inconclusive – as lots of things look like bed bug carcasses when you are freaking out. So we elected to beat a hasty retreat – fleeing not just the house, but the city and state, and stopping only to spend an hour or two at a highway rest area tearing through our belongings in a disgusted search for bugs, nymphs, carcasses, or droppings.

Meanwhile, our four-year-old played in the grassy border unattended, attempting to coax robins into landing on a stick he held by pretending to be a tree.

In our defense, this was back in 2011 – in the wake of the terrible Year of the Bed Bug, when mass media outlets from the New York Times and USA Today to local TV news reports couldn’t go a week without reporting a new bed bug incursion: bed bugs in New York lofts and San Francisco apartments, bed bugs in homeless shelters and thrift shops, bed bugs infiltrating high-fashion clothiers, upscale movie theaters, and even the offices of the Wall Street Journal (who’d jumped the gun three years earlier, declaring 2007 the Year of the Bed Bug).

Bed bugs, as you’ll recall, have sucking mouthparts which they use to drink your blood! These bites leave enormous suppurating welts on white people [1]. After biting you and draining you of your vital bodily essence, a bed bug will lay up to 300 eggs and poop blood in your bed! If a bed bug looks at an item of furniture for more than 15 seconds, that furniture must be completely burned and the ashes sealed in a zinc cask and cast into Mt. Doom, lest the bed bugs use it as a portal to all other furniture created in the same factory! Bed bugs spread filth and dyspepsia and halitosis, they are the number one cause of out-of-wedlock gay marriages in Bible Belt states, they are responsible for any of the Star Wars movies you don’t like, and they shot Abraham Lincoln’s dog!

Am I going over the top? A little. But here’s a 100% real bed bug article lede from a legitimate news source picked almost at random:

The United States is currently experiencing a nightmarish epidemic of disgusting blood sucking parasites. There is a full blown bed bug epidemic happening all across America and it just seems to get worse with each passing year. [2]

Neither of those sentences is factually accurate. The first might be, provided “nightmarish epidemic” is taken to be a synonym for “probable increase.” As for the second sentence, once you remove the unverifiable histrionics, all that remains is “There is a … bed bug … [in] America.”

That, at least, is true. There’s no denying that bed bugs are making a comeback in the U.S. and Europe as a common-place traveller’s worry.

But are they dangerous?


Are infestations very common across the U.S.?


Are infestations even all that common in the cities most infested with bed bugs?


If there’s an epidemic here at all, it’s one of unverified “press release reporting,” where otherwise well-intentioned “reporters” report directly from fear-mongering press releases without engaging a modicum of skepticism or meaningfully Doing the Job.

We aren’t suffering from bed bugs so much as we’re suffering from media-driven delusional parasitosis – and that, in fact, is dangerous.

Bed Bug Eradication

Part of what’s at work here is a general unfamiliarity with bed bugs – because few living Americans have anything other than faint childhood memories of them. As of the mid-20th century we’d almost entirely eradicated bed bugs in the U.S. and Europe, sorta by accident.

Starting during World War II, DDT was used extensively to control the spread of malaria, dengue fever, and typhus by eliminating their vectors: Malaria and dengue fever are transmitted via infected mosquitos, and typhus by lice, fleas, and ticks. DDT was remarkably effective against these pests – in fact, it’s remarkably good at killing most arthropods on contact – without seeming to be all that toxic to people, pets, or livestock.

After WWII this wonder insecticide was approved for agricultural and commercial use in the U.S., and America entered the Space Age with plentiful crops, healthy kids, and vermin-free homes – it was a great time to be an American! Heck, our country was so great that it didn’t even have commonplace annoyances like mosquitos, no-see-ums, fleas, lice, or bed bugs! American Exceptionalism! Brave New World! U-S-A! U-S-A!

But it turned out that DDT wasn’t so benign, and the canary in this coal mine was the very symbol of our independent spirit, the bald eagle. While it is indeed the case that mammals are largely unfazed by DDT [3], the pesticide is environmentally persistent and fat soluble, readily absorbed by fish. That fat-soluble DDT then accumulates in the bodies of the predators that eat the DDT-enriched seafood. For reasons still not fully understood, high concentrations of DDT cause birds to lay eggs with very thin shells. Birds of prey are especially hard-hit, as are songbirds (hence the title of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” which warned of the environmental impacts of overuse of pesticides, especially DDT). In case it isn’t suitably obvious, as birds sit on their eggs to incubate them, thin-shelled eggs aren’t viable. The combination of Carson’s writings and the DDT-driven near extinction of our national bird gave birth to the modern environmental movement, and led to the ban of DDT by the 1970s.

Yeah! Brave New World! Earth Day! U-S-A! U-S-A!

Of course, with DDT banned, bed bugs – which hadn’t really been on our minds in 20 years – also began to recover. So we turned to organophosphate pesticides, usually chlorpyrifos, to control them. While these are much less environmentally devastating than DDT – they breakdown rapidly when exposed to light and air and are water soluble, and therefore don’t bio-accumulate very readily – they’re also significantly more toxic.

Organophosphates are “quasi”-irreversible acetylcholinesterase inhibitors, which means the both intensify and prolong the action of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. This action slows the heart-rate and triggers muscle contractions. Classically, folks suffering organophosphate poisoning die from suffocation, as they are unable to relax their diaphragms. Sarin and VX nerve gas are also organophosphates.

Organophosphate poisoning is an absolutely wretched way to die – so terrible that we don’t even wish it on our worst human enemies.

As bed bugs tend to congregate in bed rooms, treating infestations with nerve gas seemed a touch injudicious. Chlorpyrifos was largely banned by 2001. Between 2001 and 2007-ish, we were doing OK against bed bugs using pyrethroid insecticides/repellents, which are basically what we’d been stuck using in those benighted years prior to WWII, when “don’t let the bed bugs bite” wasn’t just a cutesy bedtime aphorism.

Pyrethroids are basically man-made versions of the pyrethrins naturally occurring in some varieties of chrysanthemums. [Confusingly – for me, as a non-gardener – the specific mums that bear the highest concentrations of pyrethrins are often called "daisies"]. At one time “Persian powder” – basically crushed, dried pyrethrum mums – was a popular part of any good housewife’s anti-bed bug regimen, as was mercury. Ah, for the good old days, before we’d synthesized all these terrible chemicals like DDT and organophosphates and instead used good, clean, all-natural mercury to seal up our baseboards against the big bad bed bugs!

At any rate, by 2007 most strains of bed bugs seemed to have developed immunity to pyrethroids, both naturally occurring and synthesized. So, today, we’re not even back to square one. Square one was in the 1800s, when we still had the benefit of Persian powder and were willing to sleep in rooms filled with kerosene and mercury fumes. Today we’re completely defenseless against bed bugs – a scourge so terrible that, for a time, it seemed more reasonable to spray nerve gas in our sleeping chambers than to risk the terrible bed bug’s bite.

All those reporters are right: Truly, it is time to freak the hell out.


Except that it isn’t time to freak out at all. First and foremost: Bed bugs bites aren’t that bad.

Washtenaw County Environmental Health Director Kristen Schweighoefer pointed me to this wonderfully informative WEMU interview from August 25, 2010, featuring Erik Foster, a medical entomologist with the Michigan Department of Community Health. As Foster points out, bed bug bites don’t transmit disease – heck, even in lab conditions we can’t make them transmit disease. Bed bugs are actually fairly polite to humans: Their saliva contains an anesthetic, which is why you don’t feel their little mandibles buzz-sawing through your flesh. Some folks have a bad reaction to the anesthetic, which is why they swell up and get itchy – just as most folks do with mosquito bites (although, in contrast to bed bugs, mosquitos do spread dangerous pathogens). Between 15% and 30% of the population doesn’t even react to bed bug bites – and thus will be none the wiser of they get bit.

For a bit of contrast, let’s consider these much less reported, and much more significant, public health risks:

  • Mold: Complaints about mold outrank bed bugs in Washtenaw county, and mold is actually injurious.
  • Food-borne illness: More than one out of every six of us will suffer from it this year [4]. For most folks that will just mean a very unpleasant day, but for some it can be life threatening.
  • H1N1: The latest strain of H1N1 swine flu seems to target healthy adults – who are usually least susceptible to flu. It’s hospitalized more than 60 people in Washtenaw County since the New Year, and caused several deaths.
  • Dust mites: All of our beds and bedding are chock full of them. They’re seriously implicated in chronic asthma and pulmonary health issues for folks with allergies, but dust mites aren’t even really on the public-health radar; they’re just a an unpleasant fact of life – like bed bugs once were.

On top of this, bed bugs are egalitarian. The stereotype is that bed bugs target the poor, the dirty, and the foreign. But as Schweighoefer mentioned when we spoke, this really isn’t the case: “There’s a lot of social stigma associated with bed bugs; people often have the misconception that bed bugs are associated with a poorer socioeconomic status or dirty environment, and we know that is absolutely not the case. Bed bugs feed on humans. They don’t care how much money you make, or the color of your skin, or where you live. They like people. All people.”

In other words – and in contrast to many parasites, such as lice, who are racist – bed bugs are actually walking the egalitarian walk, and not just talking the talk. That’s kind of charming, when you think about it, especially so close to MLK Day.

But I digress.

To summarize: Bed bug are more polite than lice, safer than mold or dust mites or eating at a buffet, and their bites are less vexing and less dangerous than mosquito bites.

The Epidemic That Wasn’t There

Still, bed bugs are gross. They are relatively large (and thus easier to notice than the hordes upon hordes of microscopic dust mites that populate your pillow). They actively parasitize you and your bedmates. They do in fact poop blood in your sheets. They reproduce exclusively via traumatic insemination – which is actually much, much worse than it sounds, and which they are also doing in your bed. And they are going to totally make you a pariah if people find out you’ve got them.

Rational folks totally acknowledge that bed bugs are innocuous, but they still don’t wanna shack up with them.

How bad is our pan-national bed bug infestation? There’s the rub: Solid numbers from disinterested parties are remarkably hard to come by. Most media reports of the “bed bug pandemic” turn out to be re-reporting of press releases from national pest control chains, namely Orkin and Terminix, who release annual lists of the “most infested cities” in the U.S. On the one hand, this sounds pretty definitive: Who knows bed bugs better than trained exterminators? And who better to speak to the nationwide impact of bed bugs than nationwide firms with outposts in every region serving Americans across all socio-economic classes in a broad cross-section of living arrangements and businesses?

But these press releases don’t inspire a ton of confidence. To start with, they don’t even agree on which cities are most infested. In 2011, Orkin pegged Cincinnati as the bed-bugginist burg in the Union, followed by Chicago, Columbus (OH), Denver, and Detroit – New York came in seventh place. But according to Terminix. NYC was the place to be for bed bugs (and has stayed in the top five ever since), followed by Cincinnati. Detroit jumped to third, Chicago was pushed to forth, and Philadelphia (which was ninth according to Orkin) came in fifth on the Terminix list.

According to Orkin “cities are ranked in order of the number of bed bug treatments Orkin performed.” Digging a little deeper into their website, you find that “Most bed bug control treatments by professionals in the U.S. and Europe take 3-4 treatments” – which isn’t surprising when you learn that most companies (including Orkin) are still relying on some limited chemical pesticides combined with what amounts to spot-treatment using handheld steamers and dry ice. This isn’t super effective in killing eggs, which is why you end up with multiple treatments [5]. Are multiple treatments of the same infestations factored in to the press release tally? Who knows. This isn’t a scientific study; it’s a press release.

According to Terminix, their tallies are based on “complaint calls from customers as well as confirmed cases by service professionals when creating the ranking.” This distinction – between “calls” and “confirmed infestations” – is very murky, and that murkiness (elided in the press releases) goes entirely unremarked by reporters.

As it turns out, few municipal or county health departments actually track confirmed bed bug infestations. For example, Washtenaw County collects “complaints,” but these aren’t generally verified. As Schweighoefer explains, this is because, when it comes to bed bugs, the county’s role is really to mediate disputes and make sure the interpersonal issue is resolved. It doesn’t really matter if those purported “bed bugs” turn out to be gnats or pill bugs or hallucinations. If everyone can ultimately get along, that’s what counts – because, remember, bed bugs are not themselves dangerous.

So, for example, when a media outlet prints something like “… from September 2011 to June 2012, there was a period of frenzied feasting with [Philadelphia] residents phoning in 236 complaints of sleep-killing insects” – that figure doesn’t represent actual confirmed cases of bed bugs, even though treats it as though it does. I called Michael Z. Levy – one of the researchers on the study whose press release the Atlantic was reprinting – and he confirmed that the Philadelphia Department of Public Health’s Vector Control Services (the source of the data he and his colleagues used for what he stressed was a pilot study) tracks complaints, without confirmation. [6]

So, what we have is an epidemic of complaints and pricey treatments, not an epidemic of bona fide bed bugs.

Fortunately, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene records both complaints and confirmed infestations, giving us a glimpse at what the variance might be between these two numbers. For example, in 2011 – that fateful Year of the Bed Bug – NYCDHMH recorded more than 13,000 bed bug complaints, because OMFG New York is so gross. Call the Orkin Man!!

But of those 13,000 complaints, only 4,481 – or about one-third – actually turned out to be bed bugs. Still, 4,481 cases of harmless bed bugs is pretty gross, right? I mean, those 4,481 confirmed bed bug cases landed NYC at the top of Terminix’s list of “Most Bed Bug Infested Cities in the U.S.” for years. But when you adjust for population, NYC’s 4,481 confirmed cases of bed bugs in 2011 amounts to an “infection rate” of just 0.00054 infestations per New Yorker, or one infestation for every 1,851 New Yorkers.

But that doesn’t make for scary press releases, does it? That ain’t gonna sell newspapers, let alone get you to pay the Orkin Man to flood your house with nerve gas.

Incidentally, I spoke with Peter Logan, communications director for University of Michigan Housing, and in 2011 UM had almost exactly the same infection rate as NYC: Of their roughly 11,000 residents, they had six confirmed cases of bed bugs – or, as a press-release reporter might have put it in his article’s lede:

“This bucolic Big Ten university suffered a 500 percent increase in confirmed bed bug infestations in 2011, a bed-bug infestation rate as bad as those seen in the hardest-hit metropolitan centers.” [7]

That’s not an actual lede anyone’s ever used – but it is 100% factually accurate, unlike the real lede I quoted at the beginning of this column. And UM has never made anyone’s Bed Bug Ground Zero list, despite having bed bug infestation rates as high as those in the worst-hit cities. That’s because six cases of bed bugs is hardly worth reporting, or even press-releasing. But that doesn’t change the fact that the UM dorm 2011 bed bug explosion was just as bad as New York’s.

That was back in 2011, when bed bugs were at their worst. In the intervening years New York seems to have gotten a handle on controlling bed bug populations, and has pushed these rates down by about 40 percent. Nonetheless, it’s still among the “most bed bug infested cities in the U.S.” even though – when you actual adjust for population – it is significantly less bed bug infested than most major U.S. universities, including our own University of Michigan.

Press Release Reporting And Delusional Behavior

Publicists and marketers write press releases to “drive interest” – which is the step that precedes “Profit!” in the Underpants Gnome Business Plan. Even university press releases – like the one quoted by the Atlantic – are marketing pieces, intended to increase the public familiarity with a brand, and thus the likelihood that the public will support that brand. It always boils down to attention, with attention being a proxy for money [8]. And that means (1) everything is stated in the most extreme possible terms; and (2) all facts are held to account not against Occam’s Razor, but against the ironclad edict of “Attract Eyeballs!”

This is sorta-kinda OK in a press release, because none of us reads a press release or brochure or glossy magazine ad and thinks “Man, these scientists at Johnson & Johnson sure have thoroughly established that Listerine is an effective remedy for the terrible plight of chronic halitosis!” We know to take commercial messages with a grain of salt.

But when we read something in a newspaper, we tend to assume that some level of fact checking or meaningful analysis has gone into it. When a reporter simply re-reports a press release, we have real-life citogenesis: A spurious datum becomes an ironclad and oft-repeated fact.

And that “fact” – despite bearing only passing resemblance to reality – will form the bases of our decisions and actions, for better or worse.

The Power Of Delusional Thinking

I keep saying that bed bugs are harmless, and that’s true: Most folks only react mildly to bed bug bites and the bugs cannot carry human transmissible disease. But they are still a public health concern, because bed bugs exact a significant psychological toll, ranging from mild discomfort and disrupted sleep to prolonged anxiety, social isolation, negative self-image, and delusional reasoning.

About three weeks ago my family had our second bed bug run-in whilst traveling, this time on the coverlet of a bed in a crisp, clean, modern and by no means inexpensive business hotel. My wife and I knew a lot about bed bug biology and how essentially harmless they are – having successfully recovered from our previous “bed bug exposure” without becoming scabby hosts to the terrible things.

Nonetheless, my wife and I packed our bags, sealed them in garbage bags, and hustled our two young children away from that hotel, so that we could knowingly drive into a polar-vortex driven blizzard. Twelve hours in to what is normally a five- or six-hour drive, we were forced off the road by white-out conditions near Michigan City, Indiana – and nearly literally forced off the road by a heedless airport shuttle bus that couldn’t see us.

My wife and I both grew up around Lake Michigan.  We’re no strangers to the ferocity of lake effect weather. We’d even texted my sister – who lives in Chicago – before leaving the hotel, and she’d advised in no uncertain terms that we should stay put: The weather coming in off Lake Michigan was nuts.

So, to tally:

  1. We knew bed bugs were harmless.
  2. We knew how to properly search and treat our belongings so that we would not ultimately bring bugs or viable eggs into our home.
  3. We were fully cognizant of how dangerous highway driving is in general, let alone winter driving, let alone winter driving near the southern end of Lake Michigan
  4. We had specific and authoritative information categorically stating that this specific drive was especially dangerous
  5. We fully understood that we were driving into an unprecedented weather phenomenon.

And yet we left a safe hotel – where we would have gotten an excellent rate – and headed into a deadly storm. What we did was, without any doubt, stupid and irresponsible. I cannot justify it.

But . . .

It was our second morning in the hotel when I found and captured the bug. I’d checked the mattresses when we’d arrived (albeit far less rigorously than I would have in the past – after all, it’d been years since we’d seen a single bed bug). None of us had suffered a bite, or anything at all like a bite.

But you find that one bed bug – or even just one carapace, a few specks of blood near the mattress’s rolled seam – and you begin to itch all over. You can feel them under your clothes and in your hair. If you stop moving even for an instant – stop packing, stop loading the car, stop bathing the children, searching the sheets, cleaning, sorting, washing, searching – and you will feel them on your ankles and neck, worming across your belly hair, getting tangled in your armpits. You check your hair, tie it back, wash your hands. Repeat. You get back to packing, to barking at your kids, to checking and rechecking stuffed animals and books and shoes and sippy cups, bagging bags in other bags. You dive to scrutinize every dark clump of lint nestled in the shaggy rug. You wash your hands. Untie your hair, check your hair, tie it back. Check the kids’ boots, their stuffed animals, their bags, wash their hands, check their hair, wash your hands, rinse, repeat.



This is what’s dangerous about bed bugs, this low-level delusional parasitosis, and it’s dangerous because it drives us to behave irrationally and make terrible, terrible decisions. [9]

If you’re tempted to dismiss such things as “all in your head,” then just remember this: An intelligent man – a man you respect enough to wade through 4,000 words of his thoughts on bed bugs – drove into the vortex, endangering the lives of his toddler and seven-year-old, because he was afraid of the bed bug’s bite.


[1] Sorry if that seems like gratuitous race-carding, but when I typed “bed bug bites” into Google Image Search all of the returns were of white people. When I tried “bed bug bites on a black person” the response was still almost entirely pink-colored. [shakes head] Post-racial America, indeed.

[2] This was plucked from the generally non-hysterical International Business Times; it was the first news item returned when I Googled “bed bug pandemic” on January 19, 2014.

[3] This is a moderately controversial statement: DDT is implicated in increased rates of diabetes, as well as some developmental problems to those exposed in utero. There are indications that heavy exposure – like that endured by workers handling DDT regularly – may result in chronic neurological problems. It’s also possible that the rates of some cancers – including breast cancer – increase with DDT exposure, but the actual cause-effect relationships continue to be murky.

[4] Including your correspondent; this column is late because my son and I were down for several days, likely due to a dodgy hard salami.

[5] What does seem to work: “integrated pest management” and heat treatment. That basically boils down to: thoroughly cleaning the space and vacuuming, laundering everything and sending it through the dryer, limited chemical fumigation of items that cannot be heated, some freezing of items for which heating and fumigation are impractical, and then heating the entire dwelling to 120 degrees using industrial space heaters. Seal your mattress and box spring in an encapsulating bag – also best practice if you have dust mite sensitivity – and you’re done. Is this easy? No! It’s a shit-ton of work. Is it cheap? No! It’ll run you a grand, at least. Does it work?  Yup, it’ll kill all bugs and eggs, trap the remainder harmlessly in your mattress, and you aren’t filling your bedroom with nerve gas.

[6] In case you’re wondering how I performed this amazing feat of investigative journalism: Levy’s name is a link in the press-release, and that link takes you to his faculty web page, which lists his phone number. He answered on the first ring. The whole thing took me under two minutes. I ain’t no Bob Woodward.

[7] Hard numbers: UM had one bed bug incident in 2010-2011, six in 2011-2012, and seven in 2012-2013. There’s been one this year. Although there is no centralized tracking of bed bug statistics among universities, Logan’s sense was that most schools about UM’s size had similar rates of infestation, and followed similar treatment and prevention protocols to those used at the university. These guys take pest control really seriously.

[8] Disclosure: The bulk of my living is earned in marketing. I am not a journalistic pundit opining on the evils of commercial hacks; I’m a commercial hack taking a steep pay cut to speak to you candidly about journalism and punditry.

[9] In case you’re wondering what the right response was here – since fleeing into the Polar Vortex obviously wasn’t it – check out this related post I’ve written covering the appropriate traveler’s response to bed bugs.

The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our publication of local columnists like David Erik Nelson. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. So if you’re already supporting us on a regular basis, please educate your friends, neighbors and colleagues about The Chronicle and encourage them to support us, too!

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In It For The Money: Happy Holidays! Thu, 19 Dec 2013 12:46:39 +0000 David Erik Nelson Editor’s note: Nelson’s “In it for the Money” opinion column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month. Unlike Xanukah, it did not come early this time around.

Xanukah came early this year, and so did the Holiday headaches.

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

For example, due to issues both mathematical and autobiographical [1], I had a hard time getting Xanukah candles. Although I’m generally inclined to attribute these sorts of minor inconveniences to broad anti-Semitic conspiracies [2], I’ll admit that, in all fairness, this particular annoyance was mostly on me.

Owing to a family party, a Jewish Community Center party, a congregation party, a collision with a nominally secular national holiday, and some associated family travel, we got all the way to the eighth night of Xanukah without buying candles. And lo, on the morning of the seventh day [3], there were no Xanukah candles to be found in Ann Arbor.

I started driving up and down Washtenaw Avenue, then calling drug stores and groceries all over town, and it was always the same drill: I’d repeat “Xanukah candles” three or four times, and the clerk or manager or whoever would finally get his or her head around what the hell I was asking, and then very nicely, very apologetically, explain that they’d received a small shipment a day or two before, but sold out almost immediately.

Everyone was very nice and very concerned that I couldn’t acquire my ritual candles, and I didn’t have the heart to tell them that, despite the annual hoopla in the Gentile-controlled media, Xanukah is a really, really minor military holiday, and so it wasn’t a big deal.

But when I went into Hiller’s, I had a funny exchange with the clerk. I asked her if there were Xanukah candles (repeat × 3), and once she figured out what I was saying she said no, and apologized. She noted I wasn’t the first person to come in that morning (it was 9 a.m.), and that “you’d think we’d have them, because we’re a Jewish store, but no, we’re all sold out.”

Corporate Religion

Now, the thing is, Hiller’s Market is not a “Jewish store.” Despite what the mavens of Hobby Lobby might be arguing with the SCotUS, corporations like Hiller’s Market don’t have religions. We know this because, in all of the “I Went to Heaven” accounts ever penned, no one has ever claimed: “I came through the tunnel of light, and I was up above the clouds suspended in golden light, and there was Jesus, and he personally reunited me with my Uncle Luke, and my belovéd grandparents, and Gimbels, and Palm, Inc., and American Motors …”

Nonetheless, I understood what this nice lady meant, because Jim Hiller is a prominent regional Jewish philanthropist. But Hiller’s Market isn’t a “Jewish store,” it’s a grocery store that happens to be owned by Jews.

Still, I am struck by the stark difference between a “Jewish store” like Hiller’s Market and a “Christian store” like Hobby Lobby.

You can walk into a Hiller’s Market and you’ll have no notion that the business is “Jewish.” They’re open on the Jewish holidays and the Jewish sabbath (sundown Friday through sundown Saturday), and they stock plenty of Xmas stuff. Heck, Hiller’s even stocks their Jewish ritual wares (like shabbat, Xanukah, and yahrzeit candles) in the “International” aisle [4], just like Meijer stores – which bear the name of their former chairman, the notable regional Gentile philanthropist Frederik Meijer.

Conversely, Hobby Lobby is not open on the Xtian sabbath (which means Sunday business hours in this case, but I’ll admit to my ignorance of the way Gentiles handle the start and end times of their ritual day), denies their workers healthcare deemed ritually unclean among Xtians, and (at least until recently) declined to stock Jewish-themed celebration items [5].

More to the point: Neither of these establishments could help me with my Xanukah candle problem that day. Hiller’s couldn’t help me because I’d been lazy and waited too long. Hobby Lobby couldn’t help me because they would sort of prefer I didn’t exist.

And thus, after a manner, we arrive at why I don’t particularly find this to be the most wonderful time of the year.

The Gentile War On Xmas [6]

Not surprisingly, public religious practices like Hobby Lobby’s make me feel distinctly unwelcome. These sorts of displays inevitably increase in frequency at about the same time that shopping malls start putting up their Non-Denominational Holiday Trees, invite in their Religiously Unaffiliated Endomorphic Gift-Request Service Staff, and start pumping out the Just-Coincidentally-Almost-Exclusively-About-Xmas music.

As another example, consider a stocking stuffer mug from the National Republican Congressional Committee gift shop, which reads: “Happy Holidays” is what liberals say — and is set in the much-maligned Comic Sans typeface, no less!

Liberals say Happy Holidays

Liberals say Happy Holidays

What’s the message here? Isn’t this just a really pointed way of saying that the GOP isn’t for folks like me [7]? If there’s some other way to read this – one that doesn’t very clearly tell me I’m unwelcome in the Party of Lincoln – I’m eager to hear it.

Or how about a Xanukahtime press release from the American Family Association, calling for a boycott of RadioShack because the retailer doesn’t use the word “Christmas” on their advertising materials. The Shack instead opts to hype their “holiday deals” on “holiday gifts” during this “holiday season.” I’m not alone in reading this as one bunch of Gentiles urging a big mob of like-minded Gentiles to go hassle another bunch of Gentiles for insufficiently alienating my family.

When I tweeted about this, a pal replied that he had reached the point of just assuming groups like the AFA pulled stunts like this to drum up year-end donations. Frankly, that depresses me even more – because now my options are to believe:

  1. The Xtians of the AFA actually find offensive the well-meaning, if clumsy, attempt by a Corporate Person, like RadioShack, to make me feel welcome, or
  2. The AFA is built on a business model of picking on a disinterested minority in order to fleece bigots, or
  3. The executives of the AFA are blowing a dog-whistle to make sure members of various minorities know to keep a low profile – which, incidentally, also gratifies the bigots they are fleecing in option (2), and is possibly a consequence of (1) – hat-trick!

There’s no way to read that AFA press release that doesn’t make me feel bad about my country, and a little concerned about my family’s safety.

On a more personal note, here’s a pro-tip, just in case you wake up tomorrow to discover you are suddenly and inexplicably Jewish: When someone urges you to have a “Merry Christmas,” and you reply with “Happy Holidays” (a 100% accurate and meaningful reply for you) and that jolly old elf sours and pointedly corrects you by repeating “Merry Christmas” – you keep your mouth shut. In my experience, this is not the time to attempt to “open a dialogue.” Folks do not like surprises or direct contradictions, especially around Xmastime. Just say “Right back atcha!” and keep moving.

Merry Microaggression

I know this reads as petty whinging. I know these seem like tiny annoyances. But recall the fundamental lesson of the Spanish Gentile Water Torture: Tiny annoyances aggregate, and given time will slowly drill a hole in your skull and drive you mad.

In 1970 psychologist Chester M. Pierce coined the term microaggression to encapsulate this very experience of “subtle, stunning, often automatic, and nonverbal exchanges which are ‘put downs.’” Pierce was a Harvard psychiatry professor, the first African-American full professor at Massachusetts General Hospital, and the first black man to play college football south of the Mason-Dixon line. According to Pierce, “one must not look for the gross and obvious. The subtle, cumulative miniassault is the substance of today’s racism.” A quarter century later, he wrote “In and of itself a microaggression may seem harmless, but the cumulative burden of a lifetime of microaggressions can theoretically contribute to diminished mortality, augmented morbidity, and flattened confidence.”

Pierce’s work in racial microaggression was popularized among clinicians by a 2007 article Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice (Derald Wing Sue, et al.) In their work, Sue (et al.) divide microaggression into three sub-categories: microassault, microinsult, and microinvalidation.

Microinvalidation – which Sue defines as “communications that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person” – resonates strongly for me [8].

What so terminally bums me out about the Holidays is not just the weird bullying from entities like Hobby Lobby and AFA and stressed-out Xtians who are just trying to wish you a Merry Christmas! What bums me out is the totally well-intentioned, general false-inclusion. And this year – this year of all years – was a once-in-a-lifetime demonstration of that, because Xanukah came hideously early this year.

So instead of hearing ad nauseum false equivalences drawn between Xanukah and Xmas (“It’s the Jewish Xmas!”), I heard numerous dubious equivalences drawn between Xanukah and ThanXgiving (“It’s like a Jewish ThanXgiving for the victory of the Maccabees!”)

This is incredibly frustrating – because the equivalence, driven by a well-intentioned desire to be inclusive – is so needless. Xanukah isn’t a “Jewish Xmas.” It’s Xanukah – a relatively minor religious holiday celebrating a military victory. If anything, it’s sort of a Jewish Fourth of July – which is more apt, but just as nonsensical. Similarly, Ramadan isn’t a “Muslim Lent,” Diwali isn’t “Hindu Halloween” – or even a “Hindu Xanukah,” despite the fact that Diwali is also the “Festival of Lights.”

Inclusion is nice, but you do it by including others in the stuff you are doing, not by arguing that their things are sub-functions of yours. We’re not idiots; we haven’t failed to notice that the entirely secular “Holiday Break” from school conveniently centers around Xmas and the Gregorian calendar roll-over date, and that “Spring Break” is aimed to coincide with Easter – not Passover.

One of the principal privileges of being in the Majority is that you get to be, by definition, “normal.” You don’t find yourself constantly contradicted by outsiders – well-meaning television shows and well-wishers and folks planning office parties – as to what your holy days mean. You don’t have to wrestle with autocorrect about the spelling of your holidays and well wishes. You don’t have to disclose a lot of personal details to explain why this or that day is no good for a meeting, because no one schedules a meeting for December 25th.

They’re “microinvalidations,” because they are each really small, but as they collect they take on weight that grinds you down and makes you kind of nuts.

‘Tis the Season for Misery

So, we’ve established why I’m so cranky when XanuXmastime rolls around – because it’s the period when I absorb the bulk of my year’s antisemitic microaggressions. But the thing is, most Gentiles are reportedly intermittently miserable at the prospect of Xmastime, too. As someone who, even as a lifelong participant, has always felt like an outsider on Xmas, it’s this Xtian misery that, as time wears on, has become the principal mystery of the season.

I could have it all wrong, but my understanding is that Xmas is the principal festival of the Gentile ritual calendar, both among practicing and secular Xtians. So, my corresponding celebrations would be Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur in the fall, or Pesach in the spring. These holidays can be trying – there’s family to visit, hit-and-miss religious services, big meals to prepare, schedules to juggle, fasting – but I don’t know any Jew who dreads them as every Gentile seems to at least somewhat dread Xmas. For that matter, I don’t dread Xanukah – it just annoys me, at worst.

Listen, I have to admit that, taken objectively, your Xmas is pretty rad. Explaining it to my own son, I’ve said something along these lines:

Xmas is the celebration of the birth of the Xtian God, the Undying Son, who ultimately promises to liberate his followers (a sect of ancient Jews) from death – although all of that is celebrated at a different holiday, Easter, which is sort of like Gentile Passover. The Undying Son doesn’t play much of a role in Xmas, because he is still just a baby at that time.

The principal deity of Xmas is Santa Claus. He is fat – like the Budai – and clad in a blood-red suit. He loves children, and promises to play tricks and break into homes and remove barriers and grant boons and sort the worthy from the unworthy – so he’s sort of Coyote, and sort of Ganesh, and sort of Thoth.

But, like our Meshiach, he doesn’t ever actually show up; like us, the Gentiles are stuck eternally awaiting his advent. Unlike us, the Gentiles are not content to sit around waiting. Instead, they disguise themselves in his garb, and use this anonymity as an excuse to practice some of the highest levels of tzedakah and tikkun olam, and also to give loved ones gifts without having to admit to having done so. This Xmas Spirit is the principal embodiment of the Universal Mutual Caretakership that is the Xtian’s central creed.

The virtues of generosity and kindness are central to the nominally Xtian people. Gentiles – even otherwise secular Gentiles – make great sacrifices at this time of year in the pursuit of these rituals, and in assuring that even the least among them are able to participate in ritual gift exchange.

All told, it is a slightly bizarre ritual, but charming in its own right. They are a noble and charitable people and, despite how things often turn out, they really do mean well.

In that light, I really do sincerely wish each and every one of you a very Merry Xmas, and may your New Year be good, and sweet.



[1] For those not in the know, Xanukah runs eight consecutive nights sometime between Thanksgiving and Xmas. Sorry I can’t be more precise; Jewish holy days are anchored to the Hebrew calendar – a kludgy luni-solar affair consisting of 12 months of 29-ish-days each, with a leap month plopped in on a seven-in-19-years schedule that’s disputed to this day. For the mathematically inclined, the current leap month rule is:

(7y+1) mod 19 < 7 ⇒ leap year!

This might be read aloud as something like: “If seven times the Hebrew year, plus one, has a remainder less than seven when divided by 19, then it is a leap year. Probably.” On Jewish leap year Jews throughout the Universe cram in an extra Adar at the end of the ecclesiastical year (i.e., February-ish – and, yes, the Hebrew calendar concurrently tracks two kinds of year, each with its own start/end points).

If you’ve ever had the sneaking suspicion that these Jewish holidays are a bit inconsistent, shiftily skulking all over the calendar – well, sir, that is racist (and basically accurate).

Like all Jewish observances, Xanukah is celebrated at sundown. For ancient desert-dwelling folks with no mechanical clocks, “midnight” is a useless abstraction, while “sundown” is pretty readily observed. Also, the rabbis tell us that the Torah tells us that God told us to do it this way.

At any rate, once you locate Xanukah, you celebrate for eight consecutive nights by lighting n+1 candles, where n = the ordinal number for that day of Xanukah, and the +1 is the shamash, a “helper” candle whose sole purpose is to light the other candles, and otherwise has no ritual significance.

If you pour some pre-calc sauce over the sum of that series, you would conclude that a box of Xanukah candles contains 44 candles:


In my experience, the odds of actually consuming exactly one box of Xanukah candles in a given year are basically nil: You end up spending some nights with family or friends at their homes, and maybe miss one or two because of non-sectarian evening plans.

Plus, Xanukah often overlaps with Xmas, at which time Xanukah tends to be suspended in mixed households like ours.

In Jewish parlance, my wife and I are a “mixed marriage,” in that only one of us is Jewish. Although my parents aren’t technically “mixed” – my mother (raised a Congregationalist) converted to Judaism – when I was a kid in Metro Detroit, very few individual Jews (or even congregations) fully recognized a doctrine of conversion, despite thousands of years of Jewish conversion; there are recognized conversions in the Torah, just not in West Bloomfield. Even today, even here in peace-love-&-understanding Ann Arbor, “mixed marriage” is an issue that many congregations feel they need to help their members “cope with.”

I’d like to take this moment to advise folks struggling to cope with my family’s various multi-faith unions to keep their earnest concerns to themselves. I have no Holiday Spirit left for concern-trolling bigots.

At any rate, whether or not you recognize the validity of Jewish conversion, the math is pretty simple: I grew up with two Xtian grandparents, and they always came for Xmas, which continues to be the primary gift-giving holiday on my family’s ritual calendar, always superseding Xanukah during date collisions. And, while I remember several childhood Xanukah gifts with a grade-schooler’s special soft-focus fondness, what I remember most of Xanukah is the hot wax and candle light, and our long-haired cat catching fire on the Xanukiah year after year. The presents were blessedly secondary – as is right and good. After all, it really isn’t a gift-giving holiday.

At any rate, for a variety of reasons, each year my household finishes out the Festival of Lights with a day or two worth of spare candles – which means that, lazy and efficient as I am, I can generally ignore prepping for Xanukah, because I know I’ve got at least a few candles handy from last year. You need only a few to cover the first several nights: over the course of the first half of Xanukah, you only use 1/3 of the candles in a box. If you missed days 7 and 8 last year, than you’ve got enough candles to get you through days 1 through 4 this year). In my experience, picking up a box of Xanukah candles on the fourth night is usually trivial; the rush, after all, was a week ago by that point.

If you’re tempted to draw some sort of money, math, and Jews conclusion right now, I’ll have you know that is racist, good sir! Racist and accurate!

[2] A handful of other Jews I know, spread all across this great land, reported similar challenges sourcing candles for the first night of Xanukah – although, again, I’m not saying there is a vast anti-Semitic conspiracy … in this instance.

[3] Which technically follows, not precedes, the seventh night because, as you’ll recall, our holy days begin at sundown, not midnight or sun-up as one might expect, and I know that’s sort of confusing, and I apologize, but this calendar was here when we showed up, and we’re sorta stuck with it now

[4] … Jewish Conspiracy zing!

[5] There’s reasonable public dispute as to what degree Jews should take this as a slight. Yes, several different Hobby Lobby workers at different stores seem to have answered inquiries about their store’s dearth of Jewish celebratory items by responding along variations of “we’re a Xtian store, and don’t cater to those people,” and yes the Greens – who own the Hobby Lobby Corporate Person, and are both staunchly conservative Christians and supporters of Israel – were almost sorta quick to apologize and consider possibly changing their policies, but I want to make three quick observations:

  1. I’ve travelled all over the Gentile-dominated US, and have been perplexed, time and again, by how common it is for stores to stock Jewish speciality items. I’ve walked the aisles of grocery stories in the mountains of Tennessee and Kentucky, and the panhandles of Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma, in the vast and largely Jewless plains of our bread basket, and sure enough, there in the “International” section, there’ll be a couple boxes of Manischewitz matzo ball mix, some gelt, and a few dusty cans of kosher-for-Pesach macaroons. The Hallmark aisle, likewise, will have one or two Xanukah cards, a bris card, and some solemn condolences with a Jewish star on it. These were big box places, mom-and-pop places, groceries and drug stores, all in towns where I certainly felt like the only Jew in a 300 mile radius. How many bris cards do they sell in Elk City, Oklahoma? The simple answer is that even with next-to-zero demand, these are shelf-stable items taking up very little space. It’s a rudimentary long-tail strategy.I’m not leveling accusations, Mr. Green, but I am going to note that a Build-Your-Own Menorah kit is also small and shelf stable, and it sorta tests credulity that a Hobby Lobby couldn’t spare the 20-square inches to stock one in Jew-rich New Jersey, but a crumbling Food Lion in West Virginia has two shelves to spare for gefilte fish and kosher gelatin.
  2. Supporting Israel hardly equates to supporting – or even particularly tolerating – Jews in general. There is a whole terrifying sub-string of Armageddon Xtianity that desperately wants to maintain a Jewish Homeland in the Promised Land because it is somehow integral to their faction’s End World Ragnarök D&D Expansion Set Mythology. Friends don’t make friends into pawns in their weird apocalyptic death trips, Mr. Green.
  3. In whatever way the Greens run their business, they seem to have done it in a fashion that leads their workers – and a decent chunk of their customers – to conclude that the in-store merchandising is a result of the owners’ faith. This is very reasonable, because the Greens have been quite explicit that lots of other business decisions – like closing on Sunday or denying their workers healthcare which the Greens deem to be ritually unclean – are driven by their faith.

[6] If you’re a God-fearing Xtian type and you feel like I’ve been being a smart-ass and tweaking you by writing “Xmas” for the last thousand words – well, then you are perceptive, ’cause I am and I have. But if you think the abbreviation “Xmas” indicates an attempt to extricate the “Christ” from the “Christmas” – either by culture at large, or me in particular – you’ve got another thing coming; please permit my close chum Fritz Swanson to drop a little Xtian erudition on you: “Keeping the X in X-Mas

[7] Incidentally, while the stereotype that “All Jews are Democrats” is indeed broadly predictive, the Michigan GOP enjoys some meaningful support among Metro Detroit Jews, both historically and today. E.g., the current chairman of the Michigan Republican Party is Jewish – which I guess would makes the MI GOP a “Jewish business” in some eyes, just like Hiller’s. [Sighs]

[8] In this particular paper Sue (et al) specifically consider microaggressions as experienced by people of color. As of 2010 Sue had expanded the work to include religion, gender, social class, perceived disability, etc.

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In it for the Money: Miss America Thu, 21 Nov 2013 14:34:29 +0000 David Erik Nelson Editor’s note: Nelson’s “In it for the Money” opinion column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month. Miss America 2014 Nina Davuluri has a local tie, having grown up in western Michigan and attended school at the University of Michigan here in Ann Arbor. She graced the pages of The Ann Arbor Chronicle back in 2008 as part of The Chronicle’s coverage of the Miss Washtenaw pageant that year. Incidentally, she did not win or even place (!) in that pageant.

David Erik Nelson and  Nina Davuluri (Miss America 2014)

David Erik Nelson and Nina Davuluri (Miss America 2014)

On Nov. 1 the Ann Arbor Chronicle sent me to talk to Miss America. She was scheduled to speak at the India Business Conference held at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business, and then give a press conference.

Not being a journalist by training, I imagined a room crowded with folding chairs and jostling reporters, camera flashes bursting and shutters clacking. I figured I’d maybe get one chance to ask Nina Davuluri (Miss America 2014) a single question – and no follow-ups! So I practiced saying “Thank you, Ms. Davuluri. David Erik Nelson, Ann Arbor Chronicle . . .”

I was a little foggy on what the actual substance of my question would be, but that didn’t end up being germane, because I was the only legitimate journalist who showed up to report the event [1]. So we had some time to chat.

I’ll concede that you, as a “news consumer,” are right to question this. Should news media – even small-town news media – bother covering something like the annual Miss America pageant, let alone some specific Miss America showing up at this or that conference to blather on about … oh, god, I can’t even be bothered to imagine what drivel?

Clearly, the legitimate media – the Detroit papers, whatever the thing that was once the Ann Arbor News is calling itself this week, the various alternative weekly and monthly advertising vectors that “tell it like it is” – they didn’t deem it “newsworthy” that Miss America was speaking before a pretty large crowd of business people and aspiring business people.

But were they right to skip out on the event?

No. They were dead wrong. This was absolutely newsworthy for at least three reasons:

  1. It was Miss America! She came to town! If you’ve read this far, then by BuzzFeed and HuffPo and the now-dead standards, this was news: You clicked, the ads were served, and it got tallied as Internet traffic in some log somewhere. The system works!
  2. This particular Miss America is the first Indian-American Miss America, and her coronation as Our Girl Next Door triggered a really ugly nationwide xenophobic backlash over social media – which was pretty ironic (or karmically apt), because her stated goal is to “Celebrate Diversity.”
  3. The University of Michigan’s very prestigious and well-endowed Ross Business school invited a bathing-suit contest winner to speak at a foreign business conference! What the hell was up with that?!

So, even if the regional media’s gut-level assessment had been right, and this was just a total blow-off story that wasn’t worth the photons it takes to cast it across your screen, they were still wrong not to show up. They were wrong not to be there elbowing a jackass like me out of the way so they could ask their own questions of the very affable Ms. Davuluri.

They didn’t show up because they assumed there couldn’t be a story here, as opposed to showing up to see what the story was. They didn’t do the work of showing up because they thought they already knew the story.

And the story they thought they knew was something like this:

Miss America, as an institution, is passé, sexist objectification. It’s an embarrassing hold-over from an era of Playboy Clubs and three-martini lunches. An Indian-American girl was awarded the dubious distinction this year, earning her the ire of online racists. #sigh #america #raceisover?

A “Scholarship Pageant”

So, what are some of the stories that the legitimate print media could have written about this enduring national embarrassment? For starters, how about this:

Miss America – and its system of feeder pageants – was one of the first organizations in the United States to offer scholarships specifically to women and girls, and is still the number one scholarship granting association for young women in the world.

Let that sink in for a second.

The Miss America Pageant actually did start out as an actual bathing suit competition. It was sponsored by the Businessmen’s League of Atlantic City in 1921. They were intent on drawing tourists to their boardwalk after Labor Day, and decided they could capitalize on the growing mania for local business-sponsored beauty pageants by creating a sort of meta-beauty pageant. Miss America was the winner of a pageant that specifically restricted its entrants to girls who had already won a local contest elsewhere.

Technically, the first Miss America wasn’t even “Miss America” at all; in 1921 Margaret Gorman was crowned “The Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America,” winning $100 – which would be something like $1,200 in 2013 dollars. No one was calling her “Miss America” until the following year, when she showed up to defend her title draped in the American flag. (She lost to Mary Campbell, who held the title in 1922 and 1923, and almost took it again in 1924; she’s the only woman to ever win twice but, interestingly, she wasn’t super hot. Go figure.)

It was Lenora Slaughter – brought in to civilize the struggling pageant in 1935, and distinguish it from the scrum of other beauty pageants crowding the entertainment landscape – who made the pageant about being well-rounded and proper: “America’s Girl Next Door.” Slaughter added things like the talent contest and interview, foregrounded poise and personality above simple beauty. She sought to break the disconcerting link between beauty pageants and strictly commercial interests – like Businessman’s Leagues – as well as the popular notion that a beauty contest (and possibly a dalliance in the backseat of some sponsor’s Ford) was the fast-track to Hollywood or Broadway.

In 1945 Slaughter introduced the scholarship program. That first year she collected $5,000. It’s a little foggy how that money was ultimately distributed, but we do know that year’s winner, Bess Myerson was the first Miss America to receive a scholarship (and also the first Jewish Miss America, and the first Miss America to refuse to downplay her inconvenient race). For context, in 1945 annual tuition at the University of Pennsylvania cost $1000, including room, board, and textbooks; Slaughter’s $5,000 was the equivalent of something like $65,000 in 2013 dollars. [2]

Today Miss America and its feeder programs (e.g., Miss America’s Outstanding Teen) distribute something in the neighborhood of $45 million in scholarships annually, and not just to “winners.” This year’s crowned champion, Nina Davuluri, received a $50,000 scholarship – which she intends to spend on medical school. (She already earned a bachelor of science degree from the University of Michigan in Brain, Behavior & Cognitive Science.) But no one walked away empty-handed: The first runner-up received something like $30,000, the second $20,000, the third $15,000, the fourth $10,000; every contestant receives at least $3,000. Contestants who distinguish themselves with specific talents or within individual competitions (like the talent competition or the interview) get additional scholarships for up to $1,000.

All of which is to say, this is a lot of money being distributed every single year. According to UM, in-state tuition alone for a four-year degree is likely to run you around $52,000 (!) these days. If you’re borrowing at around 7% and paying that loan off over 10 years, you’ll end up shelling out an additional $19,000 in interest on top of paying back the $52,000. And that’s if you don’t require food, clothes, shelter, textbooks, or supplies.

So, this “scholarship pageant” – the largest scholarship-granting organization in the world for women – sounds pretty rad . . . until you reflect on the fact that half the world is women, but $45 million is far from half the total money doled out in scholarships each year. For contrast, look at something like UNCF (the United Negro College Fund), which seeks to support African-American students and historically black colleges and universities, and distributes about $113 million per year. That’s 2.5 times as much as the Miss America Organization targeting a significantly smaller population – half of which we can assume are also women.

And, to the best of my knowledge, the application process for a UNCF grant or scholarship involves neither a swimsuit contest nor “butt glue.”

If you’re feeling sort of ambivalent right about now about both the Miss America Pageant specifically and America in general, I think that’s OK.

But, just to goad you a bit more, let’s imagine the Department of Defense wanted to really polish up its image, especially among women and African-Americans. One quick way to do that would be to forgo just three Super Hornet for-killing-people airplanes and start a scholarship program with the savings. In that scenario, the DoD would instantly become the largest scholarship granting organization in the world for African-Americans and women. And it would only cost .02% of its 2013 budget.

Why am I dwelling on this?

First and foremost, because the way this pageant has evolved is sort of fascinating: It distinguished itself in the 1930s by going beyond being surface-obsessed – but we’re so surface-obsessed as a culture that it’s been 80 years and we still haven’t gotten the memo that winning these scholarships isn’t (just) about how good your butt looks in a swimsuit.

Second, and more to the point, it’s because Ms. Davuluri, like me, has been very upfront that she is In It for the Money. Winning Miss Michigan’s Outstanding Teen [3] in 2006 and finishing as first runner-up Miss America’s Outstanding Teen 2007 paid for Davuluri’s undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan. She didn’t earn those titles and that degree by showing up and smiling and being pretty. She did it by working her ass off (butt glue notwithstanding), which is maybe exactly the sort of thing that we, as a society, should applaud.

Or maybe just report.

At the very least, we should be willing to dedicate a few minutes of our collective, splintered attention to grokking all this: Why is the largest scholarship program in the world for women a freaking beauty contest? Or, conversely, why do we insist on continuing to characterize the largest scholarship program in the world for women as just a beauty contest? Military scholarships that traditionally favor men also insist applicants demonstrate talent, intelligence, service, and athleticism. But we don’t dismiss those as “beauty contests” – even though those guys are, on the balance, pretty damn good looking fellas.

So, right there, that’s an article some legitimate reporter could have written as a result of this event, just a quick little thinker piece along the lines of:

Isn’t it interesting that so many of us believe Miss America is an anachronism, yet no one seems to be eager to suggest some new way to get $45 million in scholarships to well-rounded, hard-working American women.

Boom! There’s your column, Detroit News – and we haven’t even thought about what Ms. Davuluri actually said yet. We’re already at 1,500 words, and that’s all just background!

Miss Marketing in America

Regardless of her ethnic background, it initially seemed to me like a pretty odd (if not downright pandering) choice to invite Miss America to a business conference whose slate of speakers was dominated by authors, journalists, activists, Harvard professors, successful venture capitalists, Ford Motor Company’s Chief Operating Officer, and Ann Arbor’s own mayor.

Over the course of her half-hour on the stage, Ms. Davuluri spoke quite a bit about business, and specifically the business of marketing oneself. This highlighted something that gets lost when we discard Miss America without consideration: These women are not idiots.

The Miss America Pageant is a job application process. We focus on the damn bikini, but among actual contestants, it’s generally acknowledged that it’s the interview (which is neither televised nor widely noted, and goes basically unreported) where the title is won – which, again, is just like landing any other job.

But what is the job? Folks within the Miss America universe refer to it as a “year of service,” and it’s basically a corporate spokesperson role. That spokesperson represents a specific vision of being American, a vision that includes being sophisticated, poised, educated, attractive, and equitably remunerated for your efforts. This spokesperson also promotes her chosen platform for social change. In the case of Ms. Davuluri, that’s “Celebrating Diversity Through Cultural Competency”.

When we reject the Pageant out of hand – because it’s stupid and passé and offensive and beneath us – we do so without considering the precise nature of our beef. Are we against telling our children that they should study hard, groom well, speak well, and get paid a decent wage?

No, of course not; we’re against the butt glue and the swimsuits!

And it’s fine and good to be against those. But it’s probably just naive to pretend that, when it comes to landing competitive jobs, how one looks in a swimsuit is immaterial.

To be blunt, if you are a member of a protected class in America – a woman, a Jew, a homosexual, an immigrant, an African-American, etc. – you often need to treat your appearance and presentation as a product, something that you test and tailor to specific situations in order to get the specific results you need.

This isn’t shameful or inauthentic, and it isn’t betraying yourself or your culture; it’s simple marketing. It’s something that in the past we’ve called “acculturation” or “Americanization” or “blending in” or “assimilation.” You need to talk to your audience in a way they are prepared to hear. In some situations that will mean playing to stereotype, and in others it will mean playing against it, but in any case – as Ms. Davuluri put it – at its core it’s about “owning” what you are and deploying what you are at your discretion.

The core privilege inherent in being “privileged” is that you can invest little to no mental energy in these calculations. You don’t have to worry about proving that you are American enough to be Miss America. You don’t have to measure the need to be sexy enough against the danger of being too sexy. You don’t have to calculate how to forestall the terrible moment when the person you’re talking to abruptly realizes that you are Jewish or gay or blind or Hispanic – or any of the thousand things that might make someone subconsciously uncomfortable.

So that’s another story a reporter could write in covering this event:

How successful folks – for example Indian and Indian-American business people – talk about how to negotiate their identities and present those identities.

How the Damsel Fights Racism

Even if you are thoroughly over Miss America – what with it being so passé and misogynistic and an embarrassing vestigial expression of Patriarchy’s former strangle hold on women’s bodies, et cetera ad nauseam – you probably still heard at least a bit about Miss America this year. That’s because of the depressingly predictable racist/xenophobic backlash that accompanied the crowning of a dusky maiden of the exotic backwaters of Her Majesty’s Commonwealth. [4]

In the media this largely played as having very little to do with Ms. Davuluri herself: She was invariably portrayed as a hapless victim, blindsided by racist vitriol.

So, it was really, really interesting when six minutes into her Q&A at the Ross Business School’s India Business Conference, Ms. Davuluri characterized the hateful Twitter backlash as “such a silver lining.”

Because, you know, that’s not how one usually categorizes hate mail.

Hate tweets are an audaciously public form of hate mail, when you think about it, really more like hate-flyering someone’s neighborhood. The silver lining, according to Ms. Davuluri, was that it meshed really well with her platform [5]: “Celebrating Diversity Through Cultural Competency.”

I’d initially scoffed at this platform. First, it is just a monstrously clumsy phrase to say aloud, which is a major marketing misstep. Beyond that, I’ve got the rapidly aging liberal Jew’s disdain for “diversity.” No offense, but I sorta feel like offering “diversity” to America right now is like offering a Kleenex to a hemorrhaging car-accident victim.

So, I was interested to hear her defense of this mouthful of seemingly disingenuous marbles:

What I really like about ‘cultural competency’ more than just talking about ‘diversity’ is that it’s supposed to engage people with different cultures. It’s not simply about opening a discussion about race, because that’s not necessarily proven to be effective. It’s really about engaging people with different cultures, whether that means trying a different cuisine, learning a different language . . . asking questions.

This was especially apropos once you looked at the content of the Twitter backlash, which was characterized by the tweeters’ inability to distinguish the differences between Muslim and Hindu, Egypt and India, foreign- and native-born, or correctly identify Al-Qaida’s theater of operations or the U.S.’s very friendly diplomatic relations with India. Many seemed especially off put by Ms. Davuluri’s alien talent offering – a Bollywood/Classical Indian dance fusion – characterized by some tweeters as “Egypt” and “terrorist” dancing.

Talk about cultural incompetence! This is obviously a rain dance, people; she’s Indian. #duh

Anyway, counter to the narrative that media outlets were content to repeat to each other, Davuluri was no hapless naif catching one in the chin. She’d seen all this coming: When she’d won Miss New York the year before, she’d weathered a similar bombardment via social media. I asked her about this when we hung out with the UM marketing consortium following her appearance:

David Erik Nelson: “Did that [the expected deluge of hate mail] ever give you pause about pushing forward toward Miss America, or did you just shake it off?”

Nina Davuluri: [bright eyed and smiling] “Nooo. If anything it gave me more motivation and drive to not necessarily prove myself, but to showcase, to really showcase that I am an American woman, young woman, that there’s nothing wrong with the fact that I’m Indian as well and there’s nothing wrong with sharing my culture and heritage. And I just really wanted to encourage, like I said, that little girl watching on television, you know, feeling like she had to be blond haired, blue-eyed to win Miss America. Like I said, it wasn’t about me, it was about reaching out to a wider demographic.”

DEN: “So, I mean, knowing that there’d be a backlash like that, in advance, really allowed you to enhance your message – “

ND: “Absolutely!”

DEN: “Like it really gave it a push forward that . . .”

ND: “Absolutely, it did. And I remember talking – like I said, Miss America is truly won in that interview room. It’s very similar to this – well, I’m standing [in the interview] and you guys [as the judges] are sitting, but it’s very similar to this. It’s a very private interview and judges can ask you any sort of question, and I remember a similar kind of question came up. We were talking about my platform, and I said ‘You know, as Miss New York I’ve experienced these things, people have said this about me, and if I win Miss America those comments will probably happen, but I now know how to handle that.’ “

That strikes me as really admirably audacious: Ms. Davuluri actively baited the racist (and culturally incompetent) trolls with her own identity – her own skin – knowing that doing so would activate a lot of ambivalent people to distinguish themselves by publicly showing how not racist they are. And those previously ambivalent people would rise up against the trolls, decreasing the free-floating sense that it’s dandy to sound-off on the Internet with “America is for the Americans who Look Like Me” bullshit.

That’s a helluva marketing ploy – and a helluva story. I like that headline a lot:

Damsel Draws Out Trolls to Be Slaughtered by Chivalrous Online Mob

Sure wish someone had shown up to write it . . .

What I’m Talking about When I Talk about Miss America

I like Miss America 2014 – she’s a sharp, fantastically poised lady with guts. I won’t be shocked at all to find myself connecting the arrow next to her name at the top of the ballot in November of 2028.

But in the end, this isn’t about Miss America. This is about us – the folks on my side of the screen, the “media” – and our failure to uphold the basic social contract we have with you. Our job isn’t to republish corporate and government press releases. Nor is it to bang out our own uninformed fact-free opinions about the world. Nor is it to maximize per-click ad revenue.

This job is about showing up at a place with our goddamn eyes open, shaking hands, seeing what we see and listening to what we hear, going home to do some research to figure out what we saw and heard, and reporting the findings back to you folks, on the far side of the screen.

If I hadn’t attended the Indian Business Conference, if I had not met Ms. Davuluri in person, if I had not connected with her, I would have written the same “The Miss America Pageant is sexist / Isn’t it a shame what racist pieces of shit we all are / Why are Internet jerks picking on this poor pretty girl?” bullshit so many other columnists and bloggers and guest outrageurs did. [6]

Or, more likely I wouldn’t have written anything at all, because “Miss America doesn’t matter any more.”

Except it does. She does. When a non-profit saves a Michigan girl four years of tuition and at least ten grand in debt while she studies neuroscience en route to becoming a doctor – and then gives her $50,000 more to go to medical school – that matters. If that non-profit is only willing to offer her that scholarship – at least in part – because her butt looks OK in a bathing suit, that matters, too.

But what matters most is that, even before reading this, you almost certainly had an opinion about Miss America, one that influenced your actions. And that opinion wasn’t based on having gone to the place and having shaken the hand – because you didn’t have the opportunity to do that. It was based on things other people like me wrote, and those people didn’t go to the place, either.

I know, because I was there, and if they were worth their salt they would have knocked me out of the way so they could get their story.


[1] I hesitate to call myself “legitimate.” As I’ve clearly stated in the past, I have no journalistic training, and my only real credential is that the management of this fine publication keeps sending me out on these increasingly quixotic assignments. After Noam Chomsky and Miss America, I’m not sure what’s next. And I don’t mean to imply I was the only person in the room with Miss America. All told, there were ten of us there, but I was the only person who was neither an employee of the university hosting the event nor the Miss America Pageant organization. As I recall the headcount was: One handler from the Miss America organization, one handler from the India Business Conference board of directors, two folks from the University of Michigan News Service, two from the school paper of the UM Ross Business School (the Monroe Street Journal – which is currently offline), one from the Michigan Daily, a member of the UM English Department faculty working as a freelancer for the LSA magazine, Ms. Davuluri, and me. I’m not saying that any of those other media outlets are bad or irresponsible news sources; I wrote (occasionally entirely fake) book reviews for the Daily when I was an undergrad, and have freelanced for the LSA Magazine within the last couple years. You could even reasonably argue that the Daily and MSJ have editorial freedom – within the confines of their university funding – but News Service and the LSA Magazine are clearly marketing entities. It would be patently absurd to call any of these impartial or independent news sources.

[2] Just so Lenora Slaughter doesn’t come off sounding like too much of a saint, let me hasten to include this: It was Slaughter who, in the 1930s, added the notorious Pageant Rule Seven to the Miss America rules and regs: “Contestants must be of good health and of the white race.” Pageant Rule Seven stood until 1970 (!) when Iowa’s Cheryl Brown competed.

[3] Juvenile Tangent: Please add your own joke about dating or shaking hands with Miss Michigan here.

[4] If you’re really living under a rock, you can check out coverage from Salon, HuffPo, BuzzFeed, Matt Binder’s Public Shaming, NPR – or just Google it yourself.

[5] Every Miss America contestant needs a “platform,” a sort of broad campaign to address a social issue like eating disorder awareness, bullying prevention and recovery, childhood grief, youth ministry, living tissue donation, the power of positive thinking, “Best Buddies,” “Chandler’s Challenge: Reading is Believing – Don’t Stop Believing” (I have no clue what the hell those last two are, but just to be clear: I’m not making any of these up; those last two are from this year, the platforms of Miss Massachusetts and Miss Alabama, respectively).

[6] Not to pick on anyone, but this piece from the Nation is as good an example as any. But it’s far from isolated; as I recall, the Detroit News ran something similar, as did the New York Times and Washington Post and . . . basically whoever. The thing about a bandwagon is how much fun they are to jump on.

The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our publication of local columnists like David Erik Nelson. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. So if you’re already supporting us on a regular basis, please educate your friends, neighbors and colleagues about The Chronicle and encourage them to support us, too!

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In it for the Money: Cockroach Thanksgiving Wed, 23 Oct 2013 14:19:13 +0000 David Erik Nelson Editor’s note: Nelson’s “In it for the Money” opinion column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month.

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

Come November, Ann Arbor’s own Backyard Brains will be shipping their educational RoboRoach kits. In just a few E-Z steps you (yes, you!) will upgrade a standard issue Blaberus discoidalis cockroach into your very own iPhone-controlled insectoid robo-slave – and just in time for the Non-Denominational Gift Giving Holiday Season!

I know, I know, you have questions – and almost certainly some objections – when it comes to icing a live cockroach, mutilating its antennae, drilling a hole in its back, and taking control of its brain – with a goddamn phone. [1]

Readers, I share your moral panic. But I have walked in the Valley of Death, have been prodded with the SpikerBox, have bought coffee and a cookie for the lead roach-roboticisizer, have met their techno-insectoid minions, and here, on the far side of the vale, I want to tell you this:

I am not worried about the kids who unwrap a Backyard Brains RoboRoach kit sometime between Thanksgiving and the end of the year; I’m worried about the kids who don’t.

Meet Backyard Brains

How did we arrive at this dystopian sci-fi future, where any person with a phone and a strong stomach might harnesses the cockroach as his or her unwilling beast of tiny burdens? It began with a pair of University of Michigan researchers (a neuroscientist and an engineer, Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo) who wanted an affordable, portable way to demonstrate to school children how neurons work.

Their solution was the SpikerBox, a bioamplifier that allows you to hear and see action potentials (i.e., “spikes”) moving across living neurons. Predictably, the first demo subjects were cockroaches – which are cheap, readily available, and not covered by restrictive research protocols.

Here’s a little video of the basic SpikerBox in action:

By 2013 Backyard Brains had released the EMG SpikerBox and opened the door to hearing your own neurons firing without having to shove needles in your arm.

As luck would have it, I’ve inadvertently been following along with Backyard Brains since their early days: I saw them showing off the SpikerBox at the first Detroit Maker Faire in 2010, where they were making discorporated roach legs dance by directly applying music to the nerves. I experienced the EMG SpikeBox first-hand at this year’s Maker Faire, where I also met my first RoboRoach in person.

But that wasn’t my first brush with the roach. Like a lot of folks, I was introduced to this new and exciting ethical dilemma in June, with Backyard Brains’s Kickstarter campaign to fund the most recent iteration of the RoboRoach [2].

Here’s the surgery instructions from an earlier version of the RoboRoach. (The hardware and software have changed significantly, but the roach surgery largely has not.)

If this video seems long, maybe just skip to around 3:25 and see how you feel about RoboRoach [3]. If you feel sorta-kinda like the girl in the center of the frame at 2:34 in the SpikerBox talk video, you are not alone. Lots and lots and lots of folks feel that way. And even if I didn’t precisely share the apparent sentiments of many of the kids in the SpikerBox audience, I’m going to be honest: I definitely didn’t feel right about RoboRoach.

After first watching that surgery video I waited two months to write about it, until I saw the RoboRoach in person at Maker Faire Detroit. And then I waited two-and-a-half more months, until I could actually talk to some folks at Backyard Brains.

After some wrangling (these roach wranglers are in high demand) I finally wound up having coffee and cookies with Backyard Brains engineer Bill Reith in early October. Bill has a biomedical engineering degree from the University of Michigan, has logged countless lab hours working with animals and their neurons, and has been with the RoboRoach project from the very beginning. He’s also a Michigander (both by birth and rearing), is taller than me, slimmer than me, has longer hair than me, and a better beard than me – in short, by every metric I use, he is absolutely unimpeachable [4].

As a group, the Backyard Brainers are pretty inured to the ethical debate associated with their work. When Bill took me to the Backyard Brains lab – a cramped second-floor suite on State Street, with a lovely view of tarpapered roofs – one of the techs, upon hearing I was a reporter [5], rolled her eyes as she sighed “ethical concerns, again?”

Pretty early in our conversation back at the coffee shop, Bill had quite gladly addressed this head-on:

When this ethical question comes up, I understand it. I mean, when I first worked in a neuroengineering lab I wasn’t, like, Alright! Roll up my sleeves; let’s work with some rats! I had questions as well. And that’s, I think, totally natural, especially when you see something like this in, you know, like a Maker Faire or on the streets of Ann Arbor. … Part of it, it’s kind of a good thing, because we want to have people ask questions, we want to have people curious about it, and then we want to have people understand afterward, and educate themselves about what’s going on here and the reality of this type of technology in the world today.

Talking to Bill I got the sense that there are three broad categories of ethical discomfort [6] on display when folks first meet a SpikerBox of RoboRoach:

  1. “Holy Crap, Don’t Do That to Me!” 
  2. Pain versus Dread
  3. Hurt No Beings

“Holy Crap, Don’t Do That to Me!”

This entire school of ethical complaint took me by surprise, because it had never, ever dawned on me to take personally what was being done to the cockroach [7]. But according to Bill, that’s a notably high percentage of the reaction they get: Folks see the cockroach, imagine their own antennae (or whatever) getting hacked off, their own carapace being pierced with a hypodermic needle, their own movements controlled via telephone – and then their logical faculties pretty much flee in revulsion. No one wants to be hacked up by school children; no one wants to live life as a robo-zombie.

The problem here is one of anthropomorphization and, subsequently, false analogy.

First and foremost there’s almost no analogy between a human and a cockroach. There’s a lot going on there physiologically (which we’ll deal with below), but just to take a really super clear example: There are tons of situations humans quite enjoy (for example, lying on a warm, sunny beach, or spending an evening reading in solitude in front of a roaring fire) that a cockroach would actively flee. Likewise, while you likely would hate wallowing in a vast sea of rotting bok-choy and rancid frier grease or wedging yourself in a dude’s ear, cockroaches seem to love it. To start by saying “a cockroach is a being very much like me, with a life defined by hopes, dreams, and fears very similar to mine” is folly; building an ethical scaffolding on that foundation is an invitation to a quick fall and broken back.

That aside, anthropomorphization is, by definition, entirely self-centered. I’m not objecting to what is being done to the cockroach, per se, or to any idea of cockroach quality-of-life; I’m objecting to what I imagine might be done to me. It is likely an outgrowth of our inclination toward sympathy (the acknowledgment of another’s apparent pain) – but it falls short of empathy (vicariously experiencing the other’s perspective). It falls short because it totally ignores the complicated grey zone of what it means to be a cockroach, instead substituting a tiny me in that same place.

A cockroach is not a tiny me; it is a cockroach. How would I feel if someone pulled back my wing cover and poked a hole in my nerveless carapace? Dude, that question makes no sense. There’s no meaningful analog between a chitinous exoskeleton and skin, and I don’t have a frikkin wing to pull back. It’s like asking a paramecium how it would feel if someone put a Yellen clamp on its penis and cut away its foreskin.

If we want to show true empathy for the cockroach – which I applaud – then it’s probably best to keep in mind that these cockroaches are bred as feeder animals. Their options are: (1) being subjects of experiments, regardless how amoral; or (2) grub for bearded dragons and tarantulas. In terms of quality-of-life, the RoboRoach spends the rest of its days safe in a terrarium, eating old produce, making babies, and hiding in toilet paper tubes. His or her brothers and sisters don’t enjoy so nearly long a life, and their third act is spent fleeing from a brutal predator with no chance of escape.

Mind Control And The Slippery Slope

Another branch of the “Don’t stick that thing in me!” school of ethical revulsion are concerns about mind control, and the RoboRoach representing our baby step towards universal human robo-zombie enslavement.

Let’s just say that these concerns are misplaced.

First off, you and me and everyone we know are a lot more complicated than a roach (which will be covered in just a minute). This product demonstrates neural stimulation, and that’s a far cry from mind control.

Having directly observed several cyborg roaches, I’ve got to say that Bill’s reassurances are pretty reassuring: Even post-op and hooked to a “controller,” these are still cockroaches, and a cockroach often makes for a pretty recalcitrant steed. Even though they are receiving direct electrical neural stimulation, the effect is more analogous to a bridled horse than a brainwashed Frank Sinatra [8].

Pain Versus Dread

What about pain? Watch the video of that surgery. Even if the cockroach is just fine with its ultimate fate as a cyborg monstrosity, it’s obviously distressed during the process, obviously in pain.

But, minus our bias as sympathetic observers, this isn’t obvious at all. The roach is reacting to its situation, and I’m interpreting that as pain and distress, but I also mourn the Pencil Named Steve and cringe at the curb-stomping scene in “American History X” and every single aspect of the trailer for “The Human Centipede” – all of which are verifiably fictitious. Humans regularly attribute non-existent emotional states to inanimate objects, words on a page, flickering LCD displays, internal combustion engines, weather patterns, sex workers. We are absolutely abysmal at objectively evaluating possible internal states, and easily fooled by artists, conmen, and our own expectations.

What do we know about a cockroach’s experience of pain and its similarity to ours?

Frankly, we seem to know that it probably isn’t similar at all. To begin with, we (like most any vertebrates) sense pain via specialized sensory neurons called nociceptors, which these roaches lack. The facile conclusion, then, is that they don’t feel pain – or certainly don’t feel it by the same mechanism as we do. (In the same way, several of my in-laws, who are colorblind, don’t see red as I do; they simply lack the proper receptors.)

But framing the issue in terms of the physical sensation of pain is a red herring. As Bill so aptly put it, “pain isn’t just some chemical in your brain.” It doesn’t really matter if cockroaches have the same sort of pain receptors we do, or some other kind of pain receptors, or no pain receptors at all, because the thing we call “pain” has so little to do with the simple impulse running along that chain of neurons to our brains, and so much to do with our expectations and values.

I have a tattoo. I got this by paying a nice man $60 to inject ink into my skin with a needle thousands of times. It took a long while, it hurt like the dickens during the process – an ever-increasing burn that somehow managed to get hotter and hotter without ever cresting into open flame – and was sore for a good while after. Nonetheless, I’ve been thinking about a new tattoo since summer, researching design elements, deciding how I’d budget for it. I’m excited by the prospect.

Meanwhile, it took me five months to “make time” to get a routine blood draw my doctor had ordered, a procedure that took all of 10 minutes. I “accidentally” lost the paperwork three times, and invented literally scores of excuses for why today was a bad day for that cholesterol check. The tattoo hurt – and, objectively, hurt a lot more than the blood draw – but I dreaded that blood draw, wrapped up as it was in a complex quilt of anxiety and apprehension and shame.

Pain is just pain.

We regularly and gladly inflict pain on ourselves and our loved ones because medical science demands it, or our notion of the God Thing demands it, or nature demands it, or just plain old practicality demands it.

But to inflict dread, to purposefully cause that suffering – regardless of whether or not we do so with physical pain – is clearly beyond the pale.

So, can the cockroach feel dread? Highly unlikely. Dread requires a reflective capacity that the cockroach almost certainly lacks. A cockroach brain, such as it is, is a helluva lot more diffuse and compartmentalized than ours, with a lot of the heavy-lifting performed by ganglia distributed throughout their bodies. Much of their behavior – even relatively complex behavior, like scuttling around attempting to hide in the shadow of your shoe – is essential a reflex arc, with no intervening, centralized evaluation or decision making.

Heck, any species of cockroach can live without its head for a week or more – wandering around, hiding from stuff, making babies – because there just isn’t much going on upstairs. Again, this isn’t to say that the cockroach has no inner life, just that its inner life is not like yours, and so making decisions about what that life means based on your experiences is unfounded (at best).

Hurt No Beings

The core of this third – and often default – ethical objection: a complete rejection of the causing of any suffering.

I’m sorry, but I’m going to level with you: I don’t know what to do with this, because so often it is the result of stunning naiveté.

Quick personal anecdote: In my twenties I volunteered with my then girlfriend (now wife) at the migrant camps around Adrian, Mich. [9]. Many of these workers and their kids had never had a physical or dental check-up, so small medical teams from the University of Michigan would head out to the camps and provide basic preventative care, gynecological exams, perform school physicals, answer health and lifestyle questions, etc.

My girlfriend (now wife) and I both spoke Spanish. Sometimes we served as translators, helping laborers fill out their forms or communicate with the doctors. More often we hung out with the kids and kept them busy so their folks could receive medical services. Accommodations weren’t great for migrant workers in the camps, and neither was the pay – remember, we need to keep the price low on agricultural commodities. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there! In these conditions, the one affordable treat parents could offer their kids was Faygo. Consequently, lots of these kids we played catch and soccer with had visible black cavities pitting the outsides of their teeth.

Pro-tip: Cavities that bad are dangerous to children; you get an infection, it quickly spreads to the brain, you have swelling and seizures – it’s not awesome.

If you eat your half-plate of fruit and vegetables at every meal, and not every scrap is coming out of your yard, then part of the cost of your healthy diet is likely those Hispanic kids’ teeth – their health, their shortened lives, their bad backs and knees, and their constant objectification as a political football.

During this period I happened to go out to dinner with my sister and one of her childhood friends. That friend was on a vegan kick, and she declined the honey-mustard dressing. You shouldn’t eat honey, she explained, because of some insane bullshit she believed about bees being wantonly decapitated as a part of the honey harvesting process.

Instead, as I recall, she had vinaigrette on her salad. All those greens and walnuts and sliced apples and raisins – so cruelty free.

Cruelty free, provided you don’t count the suffering of Hispanic workers and their children.

Costs And Benefits

Does this seem like a straw man? After all, not to be emotionally cold, but we obviously have to accept some suffering. We need to eat; some cutworms and chickens and migrant farm worker kids are going to die in the process – cost of doing business, dog-eat-dog, yadda yadda blah-blah.

But Dave, this business with mangling the roaches is so needless. It’s a toy. No one is benefitting from this!

Except that we are, and we already have. This technology isn’t substantively different from the increasingly common cochlear implants restoring hearing to the deafened – and granting it to the congenitally deaf. Bill Reith – that Backyard Brains engineer who’s worked with the RoboRoach from the start – cut his teeth working in rat labs researching deep brain stimulation which, among other miracles, can bring relief to Parkinson’s sufferers, easing and even eliminating debilitating tremors.

The development of this technology is directly accelerated by things like the SpikerBox and RoboRoach. This project is Open Source, with the expectation that users and experiments will feed their innovations back into the code base. For example, one problem in any neural stimulation situation is habituation: The nerve becomes accustomed to this absolutely regular electrical stimulation. Noting this, some high schoolers using a beta RoboRoach tried feeding just noise, as opposed to regular pulses, into the electrodes. They succeeded in delaying the habituation, and that innovation is now part of the stock RoboRoach package.

In a similar way, another RoboRoacher has combined “insect” SpikerBox and “human” EMG SpikerBox functionality to read the signals going to his biceps and use them to actuate a severed cockroach leg. He can use a cockroach leg as a prosthetic limb. Nightmarish? Yes. But blood transfusion was once exclusively the domain of scifi-horror stories, as were organ transplants, skin grafts, and most of modern psychotropic medicine.

And beyond those direct benefits (which, granted, will be few – even if some are spectacular) is an indirect, but powerful one: More people will have some sort of meaningful grip on what neuroscience is. The technological revolution of my lifetime – the Information Age – wasn’t driven by poindexters creating small and faster computers; it was driven by Average Joes and Janes understanding what the hell computers were, and why it might be neat to buy them and use them, and insert them into every damn facet of our lives. Inventions with no market wither on the vine.

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Roboroach

I’m going to level with you: My ick here wasn’t based on any of the Common Ethical Concerns above, and my approval isn’t based on science literacy and deep-brain stimulation. I don’t really care about the states of the lives of cockroaches, and I’m well aware of the fact that advances in quality-of-life are rarely evenly distributed. Or more bluntly: Five years from now every old dude is gonna have a bionic ear, but the kids picking your cukes are still gonna be enjoying all the benefits of mid-19th century dentistry.

What I care about is the states of the souls of the kids who get RoboRoach for Christmas, and likewise the states of the souls of those who do not.

I’ve met plenty of folks – like the no-honey-mustard-dressing gal – who refuse to be a party to any living being suffering harm. None of them have lived on farms where they grew their own food and cotton, wove their own cloth, brewed up their own biodiesel from peanut oil pressed from their own peanuts, then poured it into the tank of a tractor they forged from steel they smelted from ore they dug up on their own land, then drove it out into the fields on tires they vulcanized after long hours of tapping their rubber trees … You get the picture: They haven’t really removed themselves from the Economy of Pain; they’ve made some surface level changes, and chosen to remain ignorant of all of the deeper repercussions.

I’ve also spent some time with a variety of family farmers, hunters, fishermen, and some fairly off-grid hippies. They’re a helluva lot more realistic about the amount of suffering that goes in to their meals, their garments, their devices, their lifestyles. Mark Sponslor – my favorite hog breeder – doesn’t sympathize with his pigs; he empathizes with them.

More importantly, he is compassionate towards his charges. He understands his pigs and the lives they lead, and works to make sure those piggie lives are comfortable – not in human terms, but in pig terms. He would never inflict suffering on them, would never neglect them – and yet he knows that the vast majority of them and their descendants are bound to slaughter.

Similarly, no adult hunter or fisherman I have known shows glee at the death of an animal. At least one hunter I’m close with admits to saying his grace not over his dinner plate, but under the trees as he’s dressing out a caracas, because that’s clearly the moment for which he is grateful. Everything after that is a simple consequence of the primary sacrifice that deer has been party to.

I’ve met Bill and the other Backyard Brainiacs. Let me be clear: Legally and within their field, the standard is that there is no moral obligation toward invertebrates (such as cockroaches). They are well within their rights and the standard operating procedure to store their roaches in naked glass jars – without food, water, or anyplace to hide from the light – and flush them when they are done. And yet they take every measure to be sure that their roach collaborators live comfortable roach lives and die of natural causes. In no way is Bill callous toward his subjects; Hell, he’s clearly affectionate toward them. “They’re actually really fun little animals,” he noted absently as a post-op roach bigger than my thumb and not under phone-control climbed up his arm and toward his (OMFG-I’M-GONNA-FREAK!) face.

And Bill arrived at his compassion in the rat lab, where he implanted and maintained the neural stimulus shanks embedded in rats brains. And, just to head of any possible confusion, it is beyond dispute that rats are much more akin to humans than cockroaches are; there are protocols in place governing their use in labs, and by all accounts it is a much more emotionally fraught business.

“Working in the lab made me more aware of the cost of [research], and more up front with myself about it. I ended up understanding the lives that they lead as lab animals.”

I want to stress that these working relationships with animals are fundamentally different from most pet ownership. We mostly anthropomorphize our pets: We pull them into our homes, assign them names, grant them personhood, and then make decisions for them based on our own internal states. Very often we work very hard to subvert or alter their fundamental natures.

But working with animals as animals demands that we understand them and their perspectives – which is why sportsmen and ranchers so often become some of the most powerful voices for protecting the animals they’re killing. Sportsmen are integral to ecological conservation movements. Mark Sponslor has been instrumental in returning the breed of pigs he raises (and eats) to viability. It’s not ironic; it’s entirely logical.

But here’s the rub: We aren’t a rural people any more. An ever dwindling number of us are hunters, farmers, or ranchers. But we still accept the bounty of the fields and forest, we just do so at second (and third and fourth) hand. And our technology is really no different: Someone suffered deplorable conditions to get the coal to generate your electricity, the tantalum for the capacitors in your microwave and oven and laptop, to build your iPad, Hell, to code your video games.

By the time the food (or laptop of medical devices) hits our table, the sacrifices have been made, whether we think to give thanks for it or not.

Let’s be realistic: If you are diagnosed with Parkinson’s and the doctor suggests a deep-brain stim implant, you are not going to say “I’m sorry; too many rats experienced pain stimuli in the making of that device.” You are going to say “Thank God! Thank you doctor! Thank you Obamacare and BCBS!”

Personally, I think you should also say, “Thank you, noble rats! Thank you, under-compensated grad students!” But that’s me. I also think our Thanksgiving grace should focus more on migrant workers than distant Gods. (I’m full up of notions.)

Giving Thanks

Repeatedly Bill reminded me that Backyard Brains, as a project “isn’t really about cockroaches.” It’s about neuroscience, about concretely demonstrating to regular folks that “we’re very electrical beings,” and that our brains can be just as immediately understood – in a functional sense – as our hearts and lungs and laptops.

But I don’t think it’s really about that, either.

RoboRoach isn’t about roaches, and isn’t about neurons: It’s about people living in Post-Industrial 21st Century America – people who will never have to slaughter their dinner or acknowledge the orphans of the garment factory worker who sewed their t-shirts. It’s about acknowledging and accepting the myriad sacrifices that are made to propitiate the Weird Gods of our Life, Liberty, and Property. And maybe, from there, we develop the compassion to acknowledge that sacrifice, feel it as it is felt, and do something to be sure that it is both proportionate and humane.

So, it’s especially apropos that the RoboRoach will be shipping in November, the month of our American Thanksgiving, because the core lesson this educational “toy” can teach our children is in the primacy of Giving Thanks when you live at the top of the food chain.


[1] Parents of teens: Please insert your own “a phone already has control of my kid’s brain” joke here.

[2] The first RoboRoach – now called “RoboRoach beta” – was a sort of clunky kittbashing kludge using a custom board to bridge a live roach and a toy remote control. This newest version is lighter, more flexible, and uses all-custom hardware controlled by a smartphone app. Ethics aside, it really is a slick product.

[3] This Engadget piece about the Kickstarter campaign was the first article I saw flagging the ethical squickiness of this situation, and the source for this video. Incidentally, if you are skipping out on all video links, then here’s a quick verbal description of the surgery: You take a honking huge-ass cockroach, soak it in ice water to anesthetize it, snip down its antennae (which have both olfactory and touch sensors, and are the primary instrument of roach navigation), run a hair-thin silver wire into each severed feeler, then poke a hole in the roach’s back and insert a third tiny wire. Glue all this down, connect a little Bluetooth comms board about the size of a dollar coin (but much lighter), and you’re good to go.

[4] If this seems out of place, consider how not out of place it would have been for me to drop in some physical description had I been meeting with a Betty Reith. Anyway, for reals though, he’s a handsome dude, very affable, and with good prospects. You can reach him through the Backyard Brains website.

[5] I was quick to correct Bill; I’m a columnist. Calling me a reporter is like calling a Miller High Life the “Champaign of Beers.”

[6] Fascinatingly absent among the ethical concerns, so far as I’ve been able to tell, are concerns about funding. Backyard Brains has been supported by DARPA grants – which always gets my black helicopters humming. Another major supporter is the government of Chile – which probably seems benign now, so I’ll take a sec to remind readers of Chile’s disturbing track record on the use of electrical stimulation to modify political opinions. Chile, always innovating with the biomedical application of a few volts.

[7] Or, quite obviously, to personally identify with the fate of the hog or cow or chicken or deer or lobster I might nosh.

[8] When it comes to “Manchurian Candidate” scenarios, I’d suppose folks are probably more worried about a murderously brainwashed Laurence Harvey, but what’s always creeped me out in that film are the endorsements of Staff Sargent Raymond Shaw – who, come to think of it, really is the kindest, warmest, bravest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.

[9] Lots of agriculture is still highly manual work. My wife grew up in rural West Michigan. Out there the prototypical first job was picking blueberries, and conditions for non-citizen workers there weren’t much different than what we saw in the apple orchards of Adrian, or what I later heard reported by folks who grew up picking cucumbers in California. In many regions detassling corn is likewise still migrant piecework. In other words, this isn’t an abstract story about Adrian, Mich, in 1990-something; this is a concrete story about agriculture in America today.

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