Monday, July 22, 2013

Zinn in Indiana

Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at
July 22, 2013

                My late home state, Indiana, has made headlines.  That is, a 2010 telegram asking heads of all state education departments to ensure that Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States be removed from Indiana schools’ use at all levels, now that Zinn was finally dead, by then governor, now Purdue U president Mitch Daniels, has just come to light.
                Jill and I were privileged in 1983 to have Bill Breeden introduce us to Zinn when Zinn keynoted a little symposium our friend Jim Hart, in religious studies at Indiana U-Bloomington, had organized to explore setting up a peace studies program at IUB.  (Many of us taught versions of peace studies; I was on “peace studies” “individualized major” students’ committees; there was never a campus curriculum.)  Bill Breeden was at the time a newly retired young Disciples of Christ minister.  He and his young family lived off the land; he drove a truck part-time to get some cash.  I got him to apply to our  MA program in criminal justice.  In 1984 he became my defacto co-professor teaching my “alternative social control systems” class, required for criminal justice majors.  There we added Zinn’s People’s History” to Bill Moyer’s book and pbs series on The Secret Government to our required reading.  Bill, now a UU minister in Bloomington, got written up in Zinn’s last edition as the only person to do time for Iran-Contra (where I had the privilege of being co-counsel at a jury trial for the only time in my life).
                Over time I also used Zinn’s Declarations of Independence and my last hard copy text, Voices of a People’s History of the United States, compiled by co-editor and Bloomington native Anthony Arnove.  Whether in Norway, Poland or Tanzania, my gift of choice was A People’s History.  I had the further privilege of spending some personal time with Howard.  His work came along when I was looking for ways to bridge criminal justice locally and internationally.  That was critical to me at a point in my career when I had peaked in scholarly reputation, and increasingly marginalized in “the” criminal justice literature.  The growing popularity of a book Zinn had first published in 1981 fortified me to continue to listen and air less heard voices first, as ample human justification for tenured professorship.  In sum, Zinn remains my academic role model.
                The eighties and nineties were rather tumultuous politically times for me locally in South Central Indiana.  I hadn’t yet learned to refrain from winning arguments with my students.  I know my teaching angered many students, including criminal justice majors for whom I was at once politically outrageous and an easy A.  I had two or three hundred students a semester in what was generally the only offering of the class.  I wonder how many of them came home to Our Man Mitch Daniels showing him the stuff I was requiring my students to write about for a grade.  His email indicates that he found outrageous untruths about US history “on every page.”
                I have long noticed and noted that if you take the path Howard and I have chosen, there is no telling what effect may spring from one’s own social control efforts, especially as an “educator.” I am pretty sure that I was among the first to adopt the book, in a required class for criminal justice majors at Indiana’s “flagship” liberal arts institution of all places no less.  I know some of my former associate instructors used the book when they taught summer sessions or when I was away.  Who knows?
                I used to tell myself that making people angry over things I cared about was better than being ignored.  I also had students who had left my class angry come back to teach with me, or in other ways changed even life course.  Now we learn that Howard Zinn’s death in 2010 uncovered years of rage that the governor of Indiana had accumulated over my being allowed to teach what I did with such joy and enthusiasm.  Thanks, Mitch, you flatter me beyond my wildest expectations.  Love and peace--hal

Friday, July 19, 2013


Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at
July 19, 2013

                Peace occurs in elusive moments of living relations, like specks of gold that appear after long periods of panning and sifting.  As in gold mining, the harder we try to accumulate peace, the more waste, destruction and human suffering we create in the process.  As one who has invested a great deal of personal human capital in trying to make peace, I find this a particularly hard reality to accept; ultimately, this reality makes it hard for me to live with myself.  In the face of human problems in my own daily relations, let alone in the face of demands to stop violence on larger human scales, I confront my own impotence.  I have heavily invested my ego in making peace happen, though experience keeps trying to show me that the moments of peace I encounter are instead those I let happen.
                A case in point happened during a demonstration of mediation between guards and prisoners that I facilitated last December at Santa Rosa prison in Trinidad.  When the demonstration ended, a magistrate and experienced mediator seated behind me asked, “Did you notice what Prof. Pepinsky did [to make the demonstration work well]?”  She pointed out how much I had kept quiet and let other participants do the talking.  I was too flattered to let onto what kept me so quiet.  A combination of loud air conditioning, my failing hearing, and my unfamiliarity with Trinidadian spoken English meant that I relied more on body language and tone than on content of what was said.  Plainly put, I didn’t understand much of what people were saying, and so I left others’ interpretations of what was being said alone.  My ignorance proved to be my most salient asset.
                What applies to helping resolve other people’s differences applies to helping me resolve my own internal conflicts.  I have just returned from a visit to Poland with my wife, daughter and granddaughter for a rather large and wonderful family reunion led by my father-in-law, who moved to his present home in Montreal in 1965, and had not been back to his homeland for more than 40 years.  The time was properly theirs to plan and journey through, mine to observe.  I took many pictures and did a lot of listening and watching, while in past visits alone or with my wife and daughter, I had been an active participant.  I had become all the more effusive when I downed Polish vodka with enthusiasm, while this was my first sober visit.  I also spent time with colleagues of mine and Jill’s.  A natural question on getting back together was, “What are you doing?”  I had recently confronted some resistance and resentment in two organizations I have joined—the local folk music society and my neighborhood organization, and was learning to back off and be in both groups without “doing” anything much worth talking about.  So when a couple of dear kinfolk with whom I have spent many good visits asked why I seemed so sad, I found I had little to say in my defense, and felt guilty that I was making them feel bad besides being uninteresting.
                I also returned to outrage among friends, colleagues, and commentators I respect over George Zimmerman’s acquittal from the charge of murdering Trayvon Martin, and the attendant desire to see Zimmerman prosecuted by the US Justice Department for violating Martin’s civil rights.  My blogging ego wanted to contribute something constructive to the discussion, and yet I could not deny to myself that I felt critical of taking the anger and frustration I feel over the racism the incident represents on one criminal defendant.  An inner voice reminded me of what students used to tell me:  Hal, you’re always so critical; what do you propose instead?  All in all, personally and professionally, I came home feeling pretty inadequate, pretty useless as a fellow human being.
                My spirits were briefly lifted on my first walk back home at dawn through my heavily wooded neighborhood, even though it was abnormally still.  I met no deer.  A single blue jay called out from a distance, but otherwise no cardinals chirped, no birds flew across my path.  As that day and the day after wore on, I returned to my existential funk and confusion…that is, until I went out of the closed, air-conditioned house with a cup of coffee to sit on the patio.  The fish were busy feeding on the water hyacinth roots and the algae on the walls of the pool.  I had one leg crossed over the other.  A fly landed on my upraised great toenail.  She and I gazed at each other.  We both rested quite still except that she gently rubbed her front legs together as though cleaning them off.  And as I looked up, one bird after another flew near and began to sing; a pair flitted round each other just over my head.  And I began to feel reconnected with my living relations.
                Last night I fell asleep early.  In place of an unusual string of nightmares I had been having, I had a dream that was merely interesting.  I awoke refreshed.  As I took my warning walk, I passed a young cardinal (perhaps one of those born in my yard), then came upon a doe standing in the middle of the road.  As I walked toward her, she skipped across the road onto a school playground, then walked back toward me as I drew nigh.  I said a soft hello as I passed, and as I nodded toward her she dipped her head in return.  By the time I returned home, showered and had breakfast, all my anxiety over this or that future event or possible problem had dissipated, and I felt free to write this essay.
                In this moment I can separate my appreciation of the nugget of shared awareness that connects masses of people across racial lines in recognizing that no stranger one encounters on the street merits profiling by race, age or gender, as was apparent for Trayvon Martin as it is apparent from police stops to incarceration.  Were it not for our culture of profiling, Mr. Martin would have returned home alive and well.  I separate that appreciation from my refusal to extend that recognition to condemnation of George Zimmerman to further punishment.  I have little enough faith in the capacity of human juries and judges to pass judgment and impose sentence on defendants in any case, which is why I have chosen back home in retirement not to register to vote and hence become obliged to do jury service.  In the Zimmerman-Martin case, I am further taken aback that based on faraway news accounts alone, people are prepared to “demand” that Mr. Zimmerman be prosecuted to the so-called full extent of the law and locked away accordingly.  That is the mindset that underlies lynching.  And for those who think that Zimmerman’s suffering somehow makes up for the loss of Mr. Martin and his nearest and dearest, I would point out that Zimmerman has not gotten off scot-free.  His legal debt has to exceed six figures.  He has been confined and can scarcely go out in public without fear of being recognized and vilified. It is always a moot point whether punishment raises offenders’ awareness of their own responsibility for harm done even if convicted and sentenced, or instead only deepens the anger and fear that may have led them to offend in the first place.  If public condemnation has that effect, Mr. Zimmerman’s conscience is no less troubled for his formal acquittal (which the law makes clear is not the same as being certified innocent).  Nor would repeal of stand-your-ground laws stop racialized violence in the long run any more than court orders have stopped separate and unequal schooling across lines of class and color, which now takes the former of high stakes testing and public funding of elite charter schools and closing of neighborhood public schools not only in the South, but foremost in Chicago, the home of the nation’s first black president, with his implicit blessing.  In a larger sense, today, racism has progressed from national and colonial to globalized, privatized levels across hardening boundaries from the Rio Grande to Southern Europe and across the former Soviet Union.  Nuggets of connection, of compassion that cuts through violent divisions pan out.  They are precious.  My enjoyment of those precious moments sustains me, despite the prospect that for countless generations beyond my lifetime, they will continue to be outweighed by the violence and destruction in which they appear.  Love and peace--hal

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Analogy by Empathy and Its Limits

Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at
July 3, 2013

                This is the third post in a series on epistemology, or in today’s academic language, social science research methodology.  It follows posts on “ordination addiction” and on how “analogy works, linearity doesn’t.”  Here I discuss the ground on which analogies I apply to social relations rely: empathy.
                Empathy is a feeling attached to what others do.  I empathize when I what others strikes a chord with what I have felt, so that I recognize in myself that I have reacted not as I wish others to have acted, but as they have reacted.  It is irrelevant whether their situation and mine that it reminds me of are comparable as in “seriousness.”  If I empathize with survivors whose relatives and friends have been killed in drone strikes without warning or explanation, I may resonate with my feelings toward someone or group that has blamed me, I feel, unfairly, even if in retrospect it seems to have been such a small matter.  The point may simply be that I was angry and wanted the actor(s) not to get away without payback.  And if the wrong is more than personal—an insult or harm to my family—the feeling becomes a unifying force, a source of strength and solidarity in the face of the threat that s/he/they may do it again if not stopped by retaliation.  Essentially, the only analogy I need to draw upon is the feeling that s/he/they shouldn’t get away with it without having to pay for it.  If I am honest with myself and have lived long enough, it may be remarkable how deeply I have been offended by an “objectively” trivial act.  The value of the assumption that I can expect “them” to feel and react as they have is that I need not be surprised when “they” react to what has been done to them, as I already know I have reacted myself.
                At this stage of self-awareness, there is no difference between sympathy and empathy.  I can show sympathy by joining the cause, as representatives of US and Russian and Qatari governments are now doing in choosing which fighters to arm and support in Syria.  As I see it, empathy goes one step further, asking whether they get what they want by acting on their feelings as they do.  If not, the empathic question becomes: How have I or others had those feelings of anger, fear and pain assuaged rather than aggravated by the various ways I or they have responded?  Which among the many responses to having been offended I and others have tried have dissolved rather than aggravating social differences, separation, distrust, fear, anger?  At this point, experience (also known as “the empirical data”) may indicate that anything I or others do to try to set things right may only deepen resentment among the parties, extending resentment to us for interfering.  Empathy that extends to considering the consequences of one’s well-intended intervention may lead one to recognize that doing nothing except being willing to listen when  spoken to is the only way to take offended people’s interests to heart.  Empathically, I confess that what I claim most fundamentally separates making of peace rather than aggravation of antagonism and separation in my relations—letting peacemaking happen to me rather than making peace happen—is the social thing I find myself particularly unsuccessful in doing.  When I or others I encounter are stuck in our relations, I keep on trying others to wake up and see problems as I do.  This very blog of mine is an attempt to make others see the light my way, and I carry on despite angry calls on me to stop pestering people with my “ranting” (as one honest reader put it, no doubt speaking for many others).  I rationalize to myself that the violence I inflame is offset enough for me by voices telling me I validate their own politically and socially marginalized voices.  A certain level of honesty with myself recognizes just how improbable it is that the fruits of my actions will outweigh the resentment they cause, let alone reduce human suffering in any larger social scene.
                Empathy does allow me to appreciate that when others come to me for understanding and validation, especially when they include antagonists, as among parties who give informed consent to mediation, a special gift, a special opportunity for me to make peace is at hand.  The same goes for when someone who feels misunderstood or unappreciated feels validated by a response that shows I have somehow, in some way however small, have felt as they do and so feel understood, reassured that they are no crazier than I am, “validated” rather than judged.  One of the miracles of experiencing empathy is that those feelings become mutual.   Moments of empathy become the social truths I live by.  Love and peace--hal

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Analogy Works, Linearity Doesn't: a tribute to Leslie T. Wilkins

A Tribute to the Wisdom of Leslie T. Wilkins

Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at
July 2, 2013

                 This blog post follows on my last, on “ordination addiction.”  It is an argument for learning the social consequences of our interactions at all levels  by the stories we live and share, for leaving linearity in its place, how to build physical tools.
                I have been guided by the statistical wisdom of Leslie T. Wilkins, since he invited me to team teach a seminar with him and a rotating philosopher of science the first time as a new faculty member in the fall of 1972 I went to his office.  Armed with a 2-year engineering degree he got pioneering application of social systems analysis to reducing the risk of plane crashes.  The question for him became, “Do you replace the pilot or reposition the instruments?”  as a member of the Home Office Research Unit won the Royal Statistical Society Award for predicting which juveniles would recidivate in 1954, then worked for the UN and politically incorrectly served as dean of Berkeley’s school of criminology, until Dick Myren hired him at Albany in 1968.  My first day of work I made a point of visiting his office.  He showed me the proofs of his 2-paragraph foreword to Wenk and Emrich’s impeccably designed study  from  Les’s point of view yet failed attempt to predict which “violent” California youth would recidivate (in the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 1972).  His conclusion, “This ought to be the last word on prediction.”   Les, Barb, Jill and I kept in touch continually for a decade after I left Albany in 1976.  I especially remember the time that Jill, Katy and I stayed with him perhaps in 1986 and Barb at home in a cozy old police station/jail.
                Les taught me 2 axioms that have guided all my social analyses since they sank in.
How is more important than why.
Stochastic models are the only social models that work.
                Les and Don Gottfredson collaborated in designing the eventually notorious US federal parole guidelines.  The system Les designed assumed that since experimentally parole board members had settled on a regression model of their decisions that accounted for some ¾ of their decisions, he could expect them to depart from the guidelines in at least 15 percent of cases.  The system required that a board member write reasons for every departure from the guidelines.  The board would review the reasons annually with a view to revising the guidelines to accommodate their exceptions (in statistical terms, their prediction errors).  Les and I never hesitated to disagree with one another.  Whenever he mentioned his plan, I would tell him I expected that board members would use the guidelines as a bureaucratic tool for absolving themselves from responsibility for the rightness or wrongness of their decisions.   We were predicting in the same stochastic frame.  He thought the decision-making machine would drive the board.  I figured that they would behave like any politically visible and vulnerable body, and love to be able to say, “I was just following the rules.”  Within stochastic assumptions, the probability that either of us would prove right was unknowable, and both of us knew that well enough not to press the point much.  Les proved wrong, and I didn’t anticipate the extent to which the Board and Congress would revise the guidelines to suit political purposes.  It happened at the time that I was still deep into trying to understand Mao’s rejection of the rule of law.  In China I saw a recognition that lawful rights ultimately defended private property rights, where owning trumps not-owning, even in daily “contractual” life.  The Nuremberg decision that following orders is no excuse became a source of national moral pride during my post-WWII childhood.  Ultimately, rules of law bent to politically prevailing winds.  As with the parole guidelines and their successor guidelines, the force of political convenience, as in the habit of appearing to follow “the rules,” runs strong, as by “zero tolerance” for those caught “breaking the rules.”
                Enduring fables become memorable because they at once are not strictly deducible and yet resonate with our own experiences of what we get for what we have done.  They resonate because the same sequence of action-reaction keeps getting the same results.
                The trouble is, that no one can “prove” that an analogy is true or false.   Reactions to our actions transcend linearity.  On one hand, we each other it is foolish to repeat history and expect different results.  On the other hand, when I have tried to analogize past events to current events, it historians have been prominent among those who have admonished me for overlooking uniquenesses any discrete past event.   I am reminded me of law school training, where we were taught the skill of “I can distinguish your case” in briefing any side of any legal dispute.  It is by contrast an act of faith to act on the hypothesis that the reaction to what we do will be like those other reactions, most of all when what we try deviates from standard practice--what now in social sciences are heralded as “evidence-based best practices,” and from what our elders and keepers tell us are “good decisions.”  It is only when events disappoint our expectations that we can learn from history.  It is only when “their” reactions recapitulate “our” reactions that we have an empirical ground to distinguish what works (get what we want) from what does not.  This to me is the implicit message underlying the golden rule; it works more often and sustainably than doing to others what “they” need or deserve that “we” don’t.  Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions observed that the point at which people decided that they had reached a point where an entire “field” of “scientists” had reached a point the history of disappointed expectations would be overcome by enough “scientists” happening amidst failed attempts to come upon an analogical frame for selecting and processing information that worked better—a new “paradigm.”  At a personal level as I have observed at “higher” social levels, I have found that a whole range of ways I have tried to gain and share social security with other that do not work, and amidst the rubble, some that keep on making my own life more socially secure, let alone the lives of disputants among whom I have tried mediating rather than disposing of differences.
                Regardless of whether I really know anything about what I and others can expect to get back from others what we intend to make them do, I see no logic whatsoever in projecting results of things we do to others now, from what they or others “like them” did when left to their own devices.  We may be able to confine people so completely that we can even force them to eat or lie still.  We may be able to stop people doing what we don’t want to do by killing them, but not to stop their survivors and kindred spirits from retaliating or escaping our political grasp.  When we move ourselves and others from point A to point B, no statistic can foretell which direction movement to point C will take in any individual case.  No logic of empiricism justifies using information about what people are, to decide what they deserve or need to get.  Stories of how people reacted in circumstances that seem like mine or ours are the only social information that has ever worked for me.
                Les Wilkins used to talk with a twinkle in his eyes of assigning his advanced research methods students to go out and find serendipity.  I have tried it, and it has worked for me as it did for him.  Thank you, Les, for lending me your world of human understanding.  Love and peace--hal