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Archive for the ‘Quotes’ Category

The death of Alexander Agassiz, from The Dial (April 16, 1910)

Here’s a passage from The Dial: A Semi-Monthly Journal of Literary Criticism, Discussion, and Information. The passage is from the regular Casual Comment feature; this one taking notice of the death of the American scientist and industrialist Alexander Emanuel Agassiz (d. March 27, 1910).

The passing of a noted naturalist and a distinguished contributor to the literature of natural science is noted with regret in the sudden death, March 28, of Professor Alexander Agassiz, at the age of seventy-five. Gifted son of a gifted father, he shone not only as an original investigator in that father’s domain of science, but also as a mining engineer and a remarkably able man of business. His work at Harvard, where he stepped into Louis Agassiz’s shoes without getting lost in them, and where he built up a great museum of comparative zoölogy and made the university his pecuniary debtor to the extent of a half a million dollars, is well known. His success as superintendent and then president of the Calumet and Hecla mines is to be read in the astonishing rise of Calumet and Hecla stock from next to nothing until it is now quoted at six hundred dollars a share. The elder Agassiz used to declare, when invited to turn his scientific knowledge to his own and others’ pecuniary account, that he had no time to waste in money-making. The son found time to make moeny and to spend it beneficently, besides continuing his special researches in his favorite branches of science. His original and unostentatious ways of giving were in marked contrast with the methods pursued by some other public benefactors. When, six years ago, he was offered $75,000 for conducting some deep-sea soundings in the Pacific, on condition that the enterprise should be known as the Carnegie-Agassiz Expedition, he promptly declined the offer and found money elsewhere — chiefly in his own pocket. The life of such a man is full of inspiration to others; and it is to be hoped that a worthy biography of Alexander Agassiz may in due time be forthcoming.

–From Casual Comment, The Dial, April 16, 1910, p. 264

Clearing Up

A quote to-day from Chapter 23 of one of my Christmas presents — In the Land of Invented Languages, Arika Okrent’s delightful book on artificial languages, their inventors, and the communities that (sometimes) sustain them.

We should admire [the inventors of artificial languages] for their raw diligence, not because hard work is a virtue in itself, but because they took their ideas about language as far as they could go and really put them to the test. Who hasn’t at one time or another casually suggested that we would be better off if words had more exact meanings? Or if people paid more attention to logic when they talked? How many have unthinkingly swooned at the magic of Chinese symbols or blamed acrimony between nations on language differences? We don’t take responsibility for these fleeting assumptions, and consequently we don’t suffer for them. The language inventors do, and consequently they did. If we pay attention to the successes and failures of the language inventors, we can learn their hard-earned lessons for free.

We can also gain a deeper appreciation for natural language and the messy qualities that give it so much flexibility and power, and that make it so much more than a simple communication device. The ambiguity and lack of precision allow it to serve as an instrument of thought formulation, of experimentation and discovery. We don’t have to know exactly what we mean before we speak; we can figure it out as we go along. Or not. We can talk just to talk, to be social, to feel connected, to participate. At the same time natural language still works as an instrument of thought transmission, one that can be made extremely precise and reliable when we need it to be, or left loose and sloppy when we can’t spare the time or effort.

When it is important that misunderstandings be avoided, we have access to the same mechanism that allowed Shirley McNaughton’s students to make use of the vague and imprecise Blissymbols, or that allows deaf people to improvise an international sign language—negotiation. We can ask questions, check for signs of confusion, repeat ourselves in multiple ways. More important, we have access to something that language inventors have typically disregarded or even disdained—mere conventional agreement, a shared culture in which definitions have been established by habit. It is convention that allows us to approach a Loglan level of precision in academic and scientific papers or legal documents. Of course to benefit from the precision you must be in on the conventional agreements on which those modes of communication depend. That’s why when specialists want to communicate with a general or lay audience—those who don’t know the conventions—they have to move back toward the techniques of negotiation: slowing down, answering questions, explaining terms, illustrating with examples. . . .

When language inventors try to bypass convention—to make a language that is self-explanatory or universal—they either make a less efficient communications tool, one that shifts too much of the burden to negotiation, like Blissymbolics, or take away too much flexibility by over-determining meaning, like Wilkins’s system did. When they try to take away culture, the place where linguistic conventions are made, they have to substitute something else—like the six-hundred-page book of rules that define Lojban, and that, to date, no human has been able to learn well enough to comfortably engage in the type of conversation that any second-semester language class should be able to handle.

There are types of communication, such as the language of music, that may allow us to access some kind of universal meaning or emotion, but give us no way to say, I left my purse in the car. There are unambiguous systems, such as computer programming languages, that allow us to instruct a machine to perform a certain task, but we must be so explicit about meanings we can normally trust to inference or common sense that it can take hours or days of programming work to achieve even the simplest results. Natural languages may be less universal than music and less precise than programming languages, but they are far more versatile, and useful in our everyday lives, than either.

Ambiguity, or fuzziness of meaning, is not a flaw of natural language but a feature that gives it flexibility and that, for whatever reason, suits our minds and the way we think. Likewise, the fact that languages depend on arbitrary convention or cultural habit is not a flaw but a feature that allows us to rein in the fuzziness by establishing agreed-upon meanings at different levels of precision. Language needs its flaws in order to do the enormous range of things we use it for.

—Arika Okrent (2009), In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers who Tried to Build a Perfect Language. ISBN 978-0-385-52788-0. 256-258.

Something important to remember: we are, after all, so often calling for clarity in language (whether as philosophers or political radicals or…) and when we do that it’s often easy to think that what we need is language that is perfectly clear. But this is a will-o’-the-wisp; what is interesting and important is clarification as a practice — not the ex ante features of a language or a text, but the process of a conversation.

See also:

“Flaws or Features?” from Arika Okrent, In the Land of Invented Languages

Here’s an important passage from Chapter 23 of In the Land of Invented Languages, Arika Okrent’s wonderful and engaging book on artificial languages, and the inventors and communities who create and practice them.

The story of invented languages has not been entirely a story of failure. While Wilkins’s project did not become a universal language of truth, he produced an extraordinary document, a snapshot of linguistic meaning in his culture and era–and paved the way for the thesaurus. Esperanto did not become an auxiliary language for the whole world, but it did become a real, living language, and in the small sphere of people who use it, it does seem to promote a general atmosphere of international understanding and respect. Blissymbolics found a way to be useful, despite the wishes and actions of its creator, and Loglan lives on today, despite not having fulfilled its scientific mission.

One could argue that the success of these languages is only accidental, and makes their inventors no less naive, or misguided, or presumptuous. Just because they produced something that turned out to have some value for someone doesn’t mean they deserve to be admired. We should admire them, however, for their raw diligence, not because hard work is a virtue in itself, but because they took their ideas about language as far as they could go and really put them to the test. Who hasn’t at one time or another casually suggested that we would be better off if words had more exact meanings? Or if people paid more attention to logic when they talked? How many have unthinkingly swooned at the magic of Chinese symbols or blamed acrimony between nations on language differences? We don’t take responsibility for these fleeting assumptions, and consequently we don’t suffer for them. The language inventors do, and consequently they did. If we pay attention to the successes and failures of the language inventors, we can learn their hard-earned lessons for free.

We can also gain a deeper appreciation for natural language and the messy qualities that give it so much flexibility and power, and that make it so much more than a simple communication device. The ambiguity and lack of precision allow it to serve as an instrument of thought formulation, of experimentation and discovery. We don’t have to know exactly what we mean before we speak; we can figure it out as we go along. Or not. We can talk just to talk, to be social, to feel connected, to participate. At the same time natural language still works as an instrument of thought transmission, one that can be made extremely precise and reliable when we need it to be, or left loose and sloppy when we can’t spare the time or effort.

When it is important that misunderstandings be avoided, we have access to the same mechanism that allowed Shirley McNaughton’s students to make use of the vague and imprecise Blissymbols, or that allows deaf people to improvise an international sign language–negotiation. We can ask questions, check for signs of confusion, repeat ourselves in multiple ways. More important, we have access to something that language inventors have typically disregarded or even disdained–mere conventional agreement, a shared culture in which definitions have been established by habit. It is convention that allows us to approach a Loglan level of precision in academic and scientific papers or legal documents. Of course to benefit from the precision you must be in on the conventional agreements on which those modes of communication depend. That’s why when specialists want to communicate with a general or lay audience–those who don’t know the conventions–they have to move back toward the techniques of negotiation: slowing down, answering questions, explaining terms, illustrating with examples. Convention is a faster, more efficient instrument of meaning transmission, but it comes with a cost. You have to learn the conventions. In the extreme cases this means a few years of graduate training or law school. In general it means getting experience with the way other speakers–of English, Spanish, Greenlandic Eskimo, or whatever language you’re interested in learning–use their words and phrases.

When language inventors try to bypass convention–to make a language that is self-explanatory or universal–they either make a less efficient communications tool, one that shifts too much of the burden to negotiation, like Blissymbolics, or take away too much flexibility by over-determining meaning, like Wilkins’s system did. When they try to take away culture, the place where linguistic conventions are made, they have to substitute something else–like the six-hundred-page book of rules that define Lojban, and that, to date, no human has been able to learn well enough to comfortably engage in the type of conversation that any second-semester language class should be able to handle.

There are types of communication, such as the language of music, that may allow us to access some kind of universal meaning or emotion, but give us no way to say, I left my purse in the car. There are unambiguous systems, such as computer programming languages, that allow us to instruct a machine to perform a certain task, but we must be so explicit about meanings we can normally trust to inference or common sense that it can take hours or days of programming work to achieve even the simplest results. Natural languages may be less universal than music and less precise than programming languages, but they are far more versatile, and useful in our everyday lives, than either.

Ambiguity, or fuzziness of meaning, is not a flaw of natural language but a feature that gives it flexibility and that, for whatever reason, suits our minds and the way we think. Likewise, the fact that languages depend on arbitrary convention or cultural habit is not a flaw but a feature that allows us to rein in the fuzziness by establishing agreed-upon meanings at different levels of precision. Language needs its flaws in order to do the enormous range of things we use it for.

–Arika Okrent (2009), In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers who Tried to Build a Perfect Language. ISBN 978-0-385-52788-0. 255-258.

Over My Shoulder #48: from Nicholson Baker, “Human Smoke”

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This is from Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker’s sparely-written, chapterless skein of documentary vignettes retelling the events that led up to World War II.

Cyril Joad, a philosopher who was writing a book called Journey Through the War Mind, had a talk with his pacifist friend D. Joad asked D. whether D. thought Chamberlain should have negotiated with Hitler after Hitler’s peace offer. Yes, of course, said D.: Wars should never be begun, and as soon as they were begun, they should be stopped. D. then listed off many war evils: the physical and moral mutilation, the intolerance, the public lying, the enthronement of the mob. He quoted from the text of Chamberlain’s refusal—that by discussing peace with Hitler, Britain would forfeit her honor and abandon her claim that international disputes should be settled by discussion and not by force. Our claim is, you see, D. told Joad, that international disputes are not to be settled by force, and this claim we propose to make good by settling an international dispute by force. We are fighting to show that you cannot, or at least must not, impose your will upon other people by violence. Which made no sense.

Once a war has started, D. said, the only thing to do is to get it stopped as soon as possible. Consequently I should negotiate with Hitler.

Joad said: Ah, but you couldn’t negotiate with Hitler because you couldn’t trust him—Hitler would break any agreement as soon as it benefited him to do so.

Suppose you were right, D. said—suppose that Hitler violated the peace agreement and England had to go back to war. What had they lost? If the worst comes to the worst, we can always begin the killing again. Even a day of peace was a day of peace. Joad found he had no ready answer to that.


Cyril Joad talked about the war with another acquaintance, Mrs. C., a vigorous Tory. War was natural and unavoidable, said Mrs. C. The Germans weren’t human—they were brute blond perverted morons.

Joad asked C. what she would do with Germany, and a light came into her eyes.

I would make a real Carthaginian peace, she told Joad. Raze their cities to the ground, plough up the land and sow it afterwards with salt; and I would kill off one out of every five German women, so that they stopped breeding so many little Huns.

Mrs. C.’s ideas were shared by others, Joad had noticed; he’d recently read a letter to the editor about Germany in London’s News Chronicle: Quite frankly, said the letter, I would annihilate every living thing, man, woman, and child, beast, bird and insect; in fact, I would not leave a blade of grass growing even; Germany should be laid more desolate than the Sahara desert, if I could have my way.

The longer the war lasted, Joad believed, the more this kind of viciousness would multiply: Already Joad wrote, Mr. Churchill was reviving the appellation Huns.

— Nicholson Baker (2008), Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. ISBN 1-4165-7246-5. 154–155

Claim Chowder: Ray Kurzweil, “2009,” in The Age of Spiritual Machines

Welcome to The World of Tomorrow, everyone. This is from Chapter 9 of Ray Kurzweil’s 1999 exercise in Singularity futurism, The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence. The chapter is entitled 2009, and it’s supposed to tell us what the world would be like by, well, now. It’s long, so I’ll let you know now that I have some commentary below.

(Oh, and in case you’re curious, the weird exchange at the end is this goofy technique that Kurzweil uses at the end of each chapter in the book. It’s supposed to be a dialogue with his imagined reader. So, yeah.)

2009

It is said that people overestimate what can be accomplished in the short term, and underestimate the changes that will occur in the long term. With the pace of change continuing to accelerate, we can consider even the first decade in the twenty-first century to constitute a long-term view. With that in mind, let us consider the beginning of the next century.

The Computer Itself

It is now 2009. Individuals primarily use portable computers, which have become dramatically lighter and thinner than the notebook computers of ten years earlier. Personal computers are available in a wide range of sizes and shapes, and are commonly embedded in clothing and jewelry such as wristwatches, rings, earrings, and other body ornaments. Computers with a high-resolution visual interface range from rings and pins and credit cards up to the size of a thin book.

People typically have at least a dozen computers on and around their bodies, which are networked using body LANs (local area networks).[1] These computers provide communication facilities similar to cellular phones, pagers, and web surfers, monitor body functions, provide directions for navigation, and a variety of other services.

For the most part, these truly personal computers have no moving parts. Memory is completely electronic, and most portable computers do not have keyboards.

Rotating memories (that is, computer memories that use a rotating platen, such as hard drives, CD-ROMs, and DVDs) are on their way out, although rotating magnetic memories are still used in server computers where large amounts of information are stored. Most users have servers in their homes and offices where they keep large stores of digital objects, including their software, databases, documents, music, movies, and virtual-reality environments (although these are still at an early stage). There are services to keep one’s digital objects in central repositories, but most people prefer to keep their private information under their own physical control.

Cables are disappearing.[2] Communication between components, such as pointing devices, microphones, displays, printers, and the occasional keyboard, uses short-distance wireless technology.

Computers routinely include wireless technology to plug into the ever-present worldwide network, providing reliable, instantly available, very-high-bandwidth communication. Digital objects such as books, music albums, movies, and software are rapidly distributed as data files through the wireless network, and typically do not have a physical object associated with them.

The majority of text is created using continuous speech recognition (CSR) dictation software, but keyboards are still used. CSR is very accurate, far more so than the human transcriptionists who were used up until a few years ago.

Also ubiquitous are language user interfaces (LUIs), which combine CSR and natural language understanding. For routine matters, such as simple business transactions and information inquiries, LUIs are quite responsive and precise. They tend to be narrowly focused, however, on specific types of tasks. LUIs are frequently combined with animated personalities. Interacting with an animated personality to conduct a purchase or make a reservation is like talking to a person using videoconferencing, except that the person is simulated.

Computer displays have all the display qualities of paper—high resolution, high contrast, large viewing angle, and no flicker. Books, magazines, and newspapers are now routinely read on displays that are the size of, well, small books.

Computer displays built into eyeglasses are also used. These specialized glasses allow users to see the normal visual environment, while creating a virtual image that appears to hover in front of the viewer. The virtual images are created by a tiny laser built into the glasses that projects the images directly onto the user’s retinas.[3]

Computers routinely include moving picture image cameras and are able to reliably identify their owners from their faces.

In terms of circuitry, three-dimensional chips are commonly used, and there is a transition taking place from the older, single-layer chips.

Sound producing speakers are being replaced with very small chip-based devices that can place high resolution sound anywhere in three-dimensional space. This technology is based on creating audible frequency sounds from the spectrum created by the interaction of very high frequency tones. As a result, very small speakers an createvery robust three-dimensional sound.

A $1,000 personal computer (in 1999 dollars) can perform about a trillion calculations per second.[4] Supercomputers match at least the hardware capacity of the human brain—20 million billion calculations per second.[5] Unused computers on the Internet are being harvested, creating virtual parallel supercomputers with human brain hardware capacity.

There is increasing interest in massively parallel neural nets, genetic algorithms, and other forms of chaotic or complexity theory computing, although most computer computations are still done using conventional sequential processing, albeit with some limited parallel processing.

Research has been initiated on reverse engineering the human brain through both destructive scans of the brains of recently deceased persons as well as non-invasive scans using high resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of living persons.

Autonomous nanoengineered machines (that is, machines constructed atom by atom and molecule by molecule) have been demonstrated and include their own computational controls. However, nanoengineering is not yet considered a practical technology.

Education

In the twentieth century, computers in schools were mostly on the trailing edge, with most effective learning from computers taking place in the home. Now in 2009, while schools are still not on the cutting edge, the profound importance of the computer as a knowledge tool is widely recognized. Computers play a central role in all facets of education, as they do in other spheres of life.

The maority of reading is done on displays, although the installed base of paper documents is still formidable. The generation of paper documents is dwindling, however, as books and other papers of largely twentieth-century vintage are being rapidly scanned and stored. Documents circa 2009 routinely include embedded moving images and sounds.

Students of all ages typically have a computer of their own, which is a thin tabletlike device weighing under a pound with a very high resolution display suitable for reading. Students interact with their computers primarily by voice and by pointing with a device that looks like a pencil. Keyboards still exist, but most textual language is created by speaking. Learning materials are accessed through wireless communication.

Intelligent courseware has emerged as a common means of learning. Recent controversial studies have shown that students can learn basic skills such as reading and math just as readily with interactive learning software as with human teachers, particularly when the ratio of students to human teachers is more than one to one. Although the studies have come under attack, most students and their parents have accepted this notion for years. The traditional mode of a human teacher instructing a group of children is still prevalent, but schools are increasingly relying on software approaches, leaving human teachers to attend primarily to issues of motivation, psychological well-being, and socialization. Many children learn to read on their own using personal computers before entering grade school.

Preschool and elementary school children routinely read at their intellectual level using print-to-speech reading software until their reading skill level catches up. These print-to-speech reading systems display the full image of documents, and can read the print aloud while highlighting what is being read. Synthetic voices sound fully human. Although some educators expressed concern in the early ’00 years that students would rely unduly on reading software, such systems have been readily accepted by children and their parents. Studies have shown that students improve their reading skills by being exposed to synchronized visual and auditory presentations of text.

Learning at a distance (for example, lectures and seminars in which the participants are geographically scattered) is commonplace.

Learning is becoming a significant portion of most jobs. Training and developing new skills is emerging as an ongoing responsibility in most careers, not just an occasional supplement, as the level of skill needed for meaningful employment soars ever higher.

Disabilities

Persons with disabilities are rapidly overcoming their handicaps through the intelligent technology of 2009. Students with reading disabilities routinely ameliorate their disability using print-to-speech reading systems.

Print-to-speech reading machines for the blind are now very small, inexpensive, palm-sized devices that can read books (those that still exist in paper form) and other printed documents, and other real-world text such as signs and displays. These reading systems are equally adept at reading the trillions of electronic documents that are instantly available from the ubiquitous wireless worldwide network.

After decades of ineffective attempts, useful navigation devices have been introduced that can assist blind people in avoiding physical obstacles in their path, and finding their way around, using global positioning system (GPS) technology. A blind person can interact with her personal reading-navigation systems through two-way voice communication, kind of like a Seeing-Eye dog that reads and talks.

Deaf persons—or anyone with a hearing impairment—commonly use portable speech-to-text listening machines, which display a real-time transcription of what people are saying. The deaf user has the choice of either reading the transcribed speech as displayed text, or watching an animated person gesturing in sign language. These have eliminated the primary communication handicap associated with deafness. Listening machines can also translate what is being said into another language in real time, so they are commonly used by hearing people as well.

Computer-controlled orthotic devices have been introduced. These walking machines enable paraplegic persons to walk and climb stairs. The prosthetic devices are not yet usable by all paraplegic persons, as many physically disabled persons have dysfunctional joints from years of disuse. However, the advent of orthotic walking systems is providing more motivation to have these joints replaced.

There is a growing perception that the primary disabilities of blindness, deafness, and physical impairment do not necessarily impart handicaps. Disabled persons routinely describe their disabilities as mere inconveniences. Intelligent technology has become the great leveler.

Communication

Translating Telephone technology (where you speak in English and your Japanese friend hears you in Japanese, and vice versa) is commonly used for many language pairs. It is a routine capability of an individual’s personal computer, which also serves as her phone.

Telephone communication is primarily wireless, and routinely includes high-resolution moving images. Meetings of all kinds and sizes routinely take place among geographically separated participants.

There is effective convergence, at least on the hardware and supporting software level, of all media, which exist as digital objects (that is, files) distributed by the ever-present high-bandwidth, wireless information web. Users can instantly download books, magazines, newspapers, television, radio, movies, and other forms of software to their highly portable personal communication devices.

Virtually all communication is digital and encrypted, with public keys available to government authorities. Many individuals and groups, including but not limited to criminal organizations, use an additional layer of virtually unbreakable encryption codes with no third-party keys.

Haptic technologies are emerging that allow people to touch and feel objects and other persons at a distance. These force-feedback devices are widely used in games and in training simulation systems.

Interactive games routinely include all-encompassing visual and auditory environments, but a satisfactory, all-encompassing tactile environment is not yet available. The online chat rooms of the late 1990s have been replaced with virtual environments where you can meet people with full visual realism.

People have sexual experiences at a distance with other persons as well as virtual partners. But the lack of the surround tactile environment has thus far kept virtual sex out of the mainstream. Virtual partners are popular as forms of sexual entertainment, but they’re more gamelike than real. And phone sex is a lot more popular now that phones routinely include high-resolution, real-time moving images of the person on the other end.

Business and Economics

Despite occasional corrections, the ten years leading up to 2009 have seen continuous economic expansion and prosperity due to the dominance of the knowledge content of products and services. The greatest gains continue to be in the value of the stock market. Price deflation concerned economists in the early ’00 years, but they quickly realized it was a good thing. The high-tech community pointed out that significant deflation had existed in the computer hardware and software industries for many years earlier without detriment.

The United States continues to be the economic leader due to its primacy in popular culture and its entrepreneurial environment. Since information markets are largely world markets, the United States has benefited greatly from its immigrant history. Being comprised of all the world’s peoples—specifically the descendents of people from around the globe who had endured grea risk for a better life—is the ideal heritage for the new knowledge-based economy. China has also emerged as a powerful economic player. Europe is several years ahead of Japan and Korea in adopting the American emphasis on venture capital, employee stock options, and tax policies that encourage entrepreneurship, although these practices have become popular throughout the world.

At least half of all transactions are conducted online. Intelligent assistants which combine continuous speech recognition, natural-language understanding, problem solving, and animated personalities routinely assist with finding information, answering questions, and conducting transactions. Intelligent assistants have become a primary interface for interacting with information-based services, with a wide range of choices available. A recent poll shows that both male and female users prefer female personalities for their computer-based intelligent assistants. The two most popular are Maggie, who claims to be a waitress in a Harvard Square café, and Michelle, a stripper from New Orleans. Personality designers are in demand, and the field constitutes a growth area in software development.

Most purchases of books, musical albums, videos, games, and other forms of software do not involve any physical object, so new business models for distributing these forms of information have emerged. One shops for these information objects by strolling through virtual malls, sampling and selecting objects of interest, rapidly (and securely) conducting an online transaction, and then quickly downloading the information using high-speed wireless communication. There are many types and gradations of transactions to gain access to thes products. You can buy a book, musical album, video, etcetera, which gives you unlimited personal access. Alternatively, you can rent access to read, view, or listen once, or a few times. Or you can rent access by the minute. Alternatively, access may be limited to a particular computer, or to any computer accessed by a particular person or by a set of persons.

There is a strong trend toward the geographic separation of work groups. People are successfully working together despite living and working in different places.

The average household has more than a hundred computers, most of which are embedded in appliances and built-in communications systems. Household robots have emerged, but are not yet fully accepted.

Intelligent roads are in use, primarily for long-distance travel. Once your car’s guidance system locks onto the control sensors on one of these highways, you can sit back and relax. Local roads, though, are still predominantly conventional.

A company west of the Mississippi and north of the Mason-Dixon line has surpassed a trillion dollars in market capitalization.

Politics and Society

Privacy has emerged as a primary political issue. The virtually constant use of electronic communication technologies is leaving a highly detailed trail of every person’s every move. Litigation, of which there has been a great dea, has placed some constraints on the widespread distribution of personal data. Government agencies, however, continue to have the right to gain access to people’s files, which has resulted in the popularity of unbreakable encryption technologies.

There is a growing neo-Luddite movement, as the skill ladder continues to accelerate upward. As with earlier Luddite movements, its influence is limited by the level of prosperity made possible by new technology. The movement does succeed in establishing continuing education as a primary right associated with employment.

There is continuing concern with an underclass that the skill ladder has left fare behind. The size of the underclass appears to be stable, however. Although not politically popular, the underclass is politically neutralized through public assistance and the generally high levels of affluence.

The Arts

The high quality of computer screens, and the facilities of computer-assisted visual rendering software, have made the computer screen a medium of choice for visual art. Most visual art is the result of a collaboration between human artists and their intelligent art software. Virtual paintings—high-resolution wall-hung displays—have become popular. Rather than always displaying the same work of art, as with a conventional painting or poster, these virtual paintings can change the displayed work at the user’s verbal command, or can cycle through collections of art. The displayed artwork can be works by human artists or original art, created in real time by cybernetic art software.

Human musicians routinely jam with cybernetic musicians. The creation of music has become available to persons who are not musicians. Creating music does not necessarily require the fine motor coordination of using traditional controllers. Cybernetic music creation systems allow people who appreciate music but who are not knowledgeable about music theory and practice to create music in collaboration with their automatic composition software. Interactive brain-generated music, which creates a resonance between the user’s brain waves and the music being listened to, is another popular genre.

Musicians commonly use electronic controllers that emulate the playing style of the old acoustic instruments (for example, piano, guitar, violin, drums), but there is a surge of interest in the new air controllers in which you create music by moving your hands, feet, mouth, and other body parts. Other music controllers involve interacting with specially designed devices.

Writers use voice-activated word processing; grammar checkers are now actually useful; and distribution of written documents from articles to books typically does not involve paper and ink. Style improvement and automatic editing software is widely used to improve the quality of writing. Language translation software is also widely used to translate written works in a variety of languages. Nevertheless, the core process of creating written language is less affected by intelligent software technologies than the visual and musical arts. However, cybernetic authors are emerging.

Beyond music recordings, images, and movie videos, the most popular type of digital entertainment object is virtual experience software. These interactive virtual environments allow you to go whitewater rafting on virtual rivers, to hang-glide in a virtual Grand Canyon, or to engage in intimate encounters with your favorite movie star. Users also experience fantasy environments with no counterpart in the physical world. The visual and auditory experience of virtual reality is compelling, but tactile interaction is still limited.

Warfare

The security of computation and communication is the primary focus of the U.S. Department of Defense. There is general recognition that the side that can maintain the integrity of its computational resources will dominate the battlefield.

Humans are generally far removed from the scene of battle. Warfare is dominated by unmanned intelligent airborne devices. Many of these flying weapons are the size of small birds, or smaller.

The United States continues to be the world’s dominant military power, which is largely accepted by the rest of the world, as most countries concentrate on economic competition. Military conflicts between nations are rare, and most conflicts are between nations and smaller bands of terrorists. The greatest threat to national security comes from bioengineered weapons.

Health and Medicine

Bioengineered treatments have reduced the toll from cancer, heart disease, and a variety of other health problems. Significant progress is being made in understanding the information processing basis of disease.

Telemedicine is widely used. Physicians can examine patients using visual, auditory, and haptic examination from a distance. Health clinics with relatively inexpensive equipment and a single technician bring health care to remote areas where doctors had previously been scarce.

Computer-based pattern recognition is routinely used to interpret imaging data and other diagnostic procedures. The use of noninvasive imaging technology has substantially increased. Diagnosis almost always involves collaboration between a human physician and a pattern-recognition-based expert system. Doctors routinely consult knowledge-based systems (generally through two-way voice communication augmented by visual displays), which provide automated guidance, access to the most recent medical research, and practice guidelines.

Lifetime patient records are maintained in computer databases. Privacy concerns about access to these records (as with many other databases of personal information) have emerged as a major issue.

Doctors routinely train in virtual reality environments, which include a haptic interface. These systems simulate the visual, auditory, and tactile experience of medical procedures, including surgery. Simulated patients are available for continuing medical education, for medical students, and for people who just want to play doctor.

Philosophy

There is renewed interest in the Turing Test, first proposed by Alan Turing in 1950 as a means for testing intelligence in a machine. Recall that the Turing Test contemplates a situation in which a human judge interviews the computer and a human foil, communicating with both over terminal lines. If the human judge is unable to tell which interviewee is human and which is machine, the machine is deemed to possess human-level intelligence. Although computers still fail the test, confidence is increasing that they will be in a position to pass it within another one or two decades.

There is serious speculation on the potential sentience (that is, consciousness) of computer-based intelligence. The increasingly apparent intelligence of computers has spurred an interest in philosophy.


… Hey Molly.

Oh, so you’re calling me now.

Well, the chapter was over and I didn’t hear from you.

I’m sorry, I was finishing up a phone call with my fiancé.

Hey, congratulations, that’s great. How long have you known ….

Ben, his name is Ben. We met about ten years ago, just after you finished this book.

I see. So how have I done?

You did manage to sell a few copies.

No, I mean with my predictions.

Not very well. The translating telephones, for one thing, are a little ridiculous. I mean, they’re constantly screwing up.

Sounds like you use them, though?

Well, sure, how else am I going to speak to my fiancé’s father in Ieper, Belgium, when he hasn’t bothered to learn English?

Of course. So what else?

You said that cancer was reduced, but that’s actually quite understated. Bioengineered treatments, particularly antiangiogenesis drugs that prevent tumors from growing the capillaries they need, have eliminated most forms of cancer as a major killer.[6]

Well, that’s just not a prediction I was willing to make. There have been so many false hopes with regard to cancer treatments, and so many promising approaches proving to be dead ends, that I just wasn’t willing to make that call. Also, there just wasn’t enough evidence when I wrote the book in 1998 to make that dramatic a prediction.

Not that you shied away from dramatic predictions.

The predictions I made were fairly conservative, actually, and were based on technologies and trends I could touch and feel. I was certainly aware of several promising approaches to bioengineered cancer treatments, but it was still kind of iffy, given the history of cancer research. Anyway, the book only touched tangentially on bioengineering, although it’s clearly an information-based technology.

Now with regard to sex—

Speaking of health problems…

Yes, well, you said that virtual partners were popular, but I just don’t see that.

It might just be the circle you move in.

I have a very small circle—mostly I’ve been trying to get Ben to focus on our wedding.

Yes, tell me about him.

He’s very romantic. He actually sends me letters on paper!

That is romantic. So, how was the phone call I interrupted?

I tried on this new nightgown he sent me. I thought he’d appreciate it, but he was being a little annoying.

I assume you’re going to finish that thought.

Well, he wanted me to kind of let these straps slip, maybe just a little. But I’m kind of shy on the phone. I don’t really go in for video phone sex, not like some friends I know.

Oh, so I did get that prediction right.

Anyway, I just told him to use the image transformers.

Transformers?

You know, he can undress me just at his end.

Oh yes, of course. The computer is altering your image in real time.

Exactly. You can change someone’s face, body, clothing, or surroundings into someone or something else entirely, and they don’t know you’re doing it.

Hmmm.

Anyway, I caught Ben undressing his old girlfriend when she called to congratulate him on our engagement. She had no idea, and he thought itwas harmless. I didn’t speak to him for a week.

Well, as long as it was just at his end.

Who knows what she was doing at her end.

That’s kind of her business, isn’t it? As long as they don’t know what the other is doing.

I’m not so sure they didn’t know. Anyway, people do spend a lot of time together up close but at a distance, if you know what I mean.

Using the displays?

We call them portals—you can look through them, but you can’t touch.

I see, still no interest in virtual sex?

Not personally. I mean, it’s pretty pathetic. But I did have to write the copy for a brochure about a sensual virtual reality environment. Being low on the totem pole, I really can’t pick my assignments.

Did you try the product?

I didn’t exactly try it. I just observed. I would say they put more effort into the virtual girls than the guys.

How’d your campaign make out?

The product bombed. I mean, the market’s just so cluttered.

You can’t win them all.

No, but one of your predictions did work out quite well. I took your advice about that company north of the Mason-Dixon line. And, hey, I’m not complaining.

I’ll bet a lot of stocks are up.

Yes, the boats keep getting higher.

Okay, what else?

You’re right about the disabled. My office mate is deaf, and it’s not an issue at all. There’s nothing a blind or deaf person can’t do today.

That was really true back in 1999.

I think the difference now is that the public understands it. It’s just a lot more obvious with today’s technology. But that understanding is important.

Sure, without the technology, there’s just a lot of misconception and prejudice.

True enough. I think I’m going to have to get going, I can see Ben’s face on my call line.

He looks like a St. Bernard.

Oh, I left my image transformers on. Here, I’ll let you see what he really looks like.

Hey, good-looking guy. Well, good luck. You do seem to have changed.

I should hope so.

I mean I think our relationship has changed.

Well, I’m ten years older.

And it seems that I’m asking you most of the questions.

I guess I’m the expert now. I can just tell you what I see. But how come you’re still stuck in 1999?

I’m afraid I just can’t leave quite yet. I have to get this book out, for one thing.

I do have one confusion. How is that you can talk to me from 1999 when I’m here in the year 2009? What kind of technology is that?

Oh, that’s a very old technology. It’s called poetic license.

1 A consortium of eighteen manufacturers of cellular telephones and other portable electronic devices is developing a technology called Bluetooth, which provides wireless communications within a radius of about ten meters, at a data rate of 700 to 900 kilobits per second. Bluetooth is expected to be introduced in late 1999 and will initially have a cost of about $20 per unit. This cost is expected to decline rapidly after introduction. Bluetooth will allow personal communications and electronics devices to communicate with one another.

2 Technology such as Bluetooth (see note 1) will allow computer components such as computing units, keyboards, pointing devices, printers, etc. to communicate with one another without the use of cables.

3 Microvision of Seattle has a product called a Virtual Retina Display (VRD) that projects images directly onto the user’s retinas while allowing the user to see the normal environment. The Microvision VRD is currently expensive and is sold primarily to the military for use by pilots. Microvision’s CEO Richard Rutkowski projects a consumer version built on a single chip before the year 2000.

4 Projecting from the speed of personal computers, a 1998 personal computer can perform about 150 million instructions per second for about $1,000. By doubling every twelve months, we get a projection of 150 million multiplied by 211 (2,048) = 300 billion instructions per second in 2009. Instructions are less powerful than calculations, so calculations per second will be around 100 billion. However, projecting from the speed of neural computers, a 1997 neural computer provided about 2 billion neural connection calculations per second for around $2,000, which is 1 billion calculations per $1,000. By doubling every 12 months, we get a projection of 1 billion times 212 (4,096) = 4 trillion calculations per second in 2009. By 2009, computers will routinely combine both types of computations, so if even 25 percent of the computations are of the neural connection calculation type, the estimate of 1 trillion calculations per second for $1,000 of computing in 2009 is reasonable.

5 The most powerful supercomputers are twenty thousand times more powerful than a $1,000 personal computer. With $1,000 personal computers providing about 1 trillion calculations per second (particularly of the neural-connection type of calculation) in 2009, the more powerful supercomputers will provide about 20 million billion calculations per second, which is about equal to the estimated processing power of the human brain.

6 As of this writing, there has been much publicity surrounding the work of Dr. Judah Folkman of Children’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, and the effects of angiogenesis inhibitors. In particular, the combination of Endostatin and Angiostatin, bioengineered drugs that inhibit the reproduction of capillaries, has been remarkably effective in mice. Although there has been a lot of commentary pointing out that drugs that work in mice often do not work in humans, the degree to which this drug combination worked in these laboratory animals was remarkable. Drugs that work this well in mice often do work in humans.

See HOPE IN THE LAB: A Special Report. A Cautious Awe Greets Drugs That Eradicate Tumors in Mice, New York Times, May 3, 1998.

— Ray Kurzweil (1999), The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence, Chapter 9, 2009, pp. 189-201. New York: Penguin.

Oh, well, whatever.

I think what’s interesting about this is not so much what Kurzweil predicts which hasn’t come to pass, but rather the number of things he failed to predict which have come to pass—and why the things he predicts coming to pass haven’t come to pass. Sometimes it’s because Kurzweil is too optimistic about technologies that never materialized, or which are still in their incipient stages at best. But a lot of the time, it’s just that people found they have better things to do with their limited time and resources. So it turns out that a lot of people do book travel reservations online now, but nobody books it by talking with some animated virtual customer service agent. Not because it would be impossible for clever folks to program that sort of thing, if they’d spent the last 10 years working on it. But rather, even if they did, who would want to waste time on that kind of goofy shit, when you can just get the tickets through Kayak? Similarly, I’m sure that if folks had spent the last 10 years working on virtual reality games, or on establishing fancy new paperless Information Superhighway channels for great big established media companies to push their DRMed-up chosen publications, you probably would have seen something like what Kurzweil predicts. But instead of that, we have people who put their time into developing IndyMedia, Craigslist, blogging software, and Flickr, MySpace, and so on—tools which, technically speaking, are mostly dead-simple HTML over HTTP. The real awesomeness of the future — so far, at least — turns out to have not nearly so much to do with technical fireworks and the kinds of techno-conveniences that brute-force computational power can achieve, but rather with the new lifestyles, new patterns of autonomy, and the new forms of social relationships that relatively simple but increasingly pervasive technologies, have helped facilitate. And which are going to continue to grow, and transform, and, ultimately, are going to turn this old world upside-down and inside-out.

Have an awesome new decade, y’all.

Over My Shoulder #46: On Frank Zappa (and Ayn Rand). From Richard Kostelanetz, Toward Secession: 156 More Political Essays From a Fairly Orthodox Anarchist-Libertarian (2008)

Here’s the rules.

  1. At the top of the post, make a list of the books you’ve read all or part of, in print, over the course of the past week, at least as far as you can remember them. (These should be books that you’ve actually read as a part of your normal life, and not just something that you picked up to read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Pick one of those books from the list, and pick out a quote of one or more paragraphs, to post underneath the list.

  3. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, which should be more a matter of context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than they are a matter of discussing the material.

  4. Quoting a passage does not entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Here’s the books:

And here’s the quote. This is from a section of profiles in Richard Kostelanetz’s Toward Secession: 156 More Political Essays From a Fairly Orthodox Anarchist-Libertarian. This was home reading from earlier this week.

A radical from his professional beginnings to his premature end (on December 4, 1993, at the age of 52), Zappa won the respect of some, but not all, of his colleagues in both pop and highbrow composition. Indeed, his popular music had as many enemies as ans, but because of the loyalty of the latter he survived. Admirers of his extended serious compositions included the French music mogul Pierre Boulez. Zappa was once invited to give the keynote address to the American Society of University Composers; the 1995 meeting of the American Musicological Society included an extended paper on Zappa’s work. My own opinion (as someone who has written more about classical music than pop) is that the best of his music appeared before 1973, as many of his later concerts and records disintegrated into extended vamping jams in the tradition of pointless jazz.

Though Zappa was often a vulgar pop musician, he could be courageously critical of pop music vulgarity, at times functioning as an acerbic critic of the music business and eventually of world politics. It was not for nothing that his dissonant records were particularly treasured by Eastern European dissidents. Having influenced the man who became president of a new Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel, he thought about running for the American presidency, and might have done so, had he not been hit with terminal cancer.

He was present in some form or another for a quarter-century, if not as a performer, then as a record producer, sometimes as a cultural commentator. In contrast to other pop stars, he did not lapse into silence or absence; he did not, for instance, let putatively savvy managers ration the release of long-awaited albums. Indeed, in a courageous twist, he took several bootleg recordings of his own music, improved them technically, and released them under his own label. Nobody else involved in rock music, very much a business for the short-lived, could produce so much and such richly continuous cultural resonance.

Printed on the cover to his first album, Freak Out (1966), is an extraordinary list of These People Have Contributed Materially in Many Ways to Make Our Music What It Is. Please Do Not Hold It Against Them. With 162 names, the list reflects Zappa’s precious intelligence, polyartistic literacy, intellectual integrity, and various ambitions. Among the names are the writers James Joyce, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Bram Stoker, and Theodore Sturgeon; the highbrow composers Arnold Schoenberg [by then dead only fifteen years], Edgard Varèse, Igor Stravinsky, Leo Ornstein, Alois Haba, Charles Ives, Anton Webern, Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Roger Huntington Sessions, Vincent Persichetti, Mauricio Kagel; the music historian John Tasker Howard; the blues singers Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Little Walter, and Willie Mae Thornton; the record producers Tom Wilson and Phil Spector; the jazz improvisers Cecil Taylor, Roland Kirk, Eric Dolphy, and Charles Mingus; the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein [but not the Beatles], the off-shore disk-jockey Wolfman Jack, the perverse painters Salvador Dalí and Yves Tinguy; the pop singers Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Tiny Tim; the sexologist Eberhard Kronhausen; the earlier rock singers Elvis Presley and Johnny Otis; the Italian-American martyrs Sacco and Vanzetti; the comedian Lenny Bruce; he oversized actors Sonny Tufts and John Wayne, all of whom indicate not only that Zappa knew what he was doing professionally but that he also could credit the sources of his learning. Though Zappa could be an ironist, all of these acknowledgments were apparently serious (even Wayne and Tufts, whom I take to represent strong performers who could stand out from any group). While Zappa’s formal education ended at a local junior college, mine included college and then graduate school. Nonetheless, as a self-conscious intellectual born in the same year as Zappa (1940), I would have identified many of the same names on my short list at the time.

Even at a time when record albums (not to mention performing groups) began to have outrageous names, Zappa should still be credited with some of the most inventive coinages, beginning with the name of his group, but also including Freak Out, Absolutely Free, The Grand Wazoo, One Size Fits All, Joe’s Garbage Acts, Baby Snakes, Jazz from Hell, Freaks & Motherfu*%!!@#, ’Tis the Season To Be Jelly, Piquantique, Electric Aunt Jemima, Our Man in Nirvana, The Yellow Shark, etc. If inventive titling isn’t a measure of literary talent, I don’t know what is.

It seems curious in retrospect that a man who apparently had no loyal friends outside his family, who surrounded himself with paid retainers, who terminated most of his professional relationships with firings and law suits, hould still have an audience. Unlike most culture heroes who create the impression, however artificial, of someone you’d like beside you, Zappa was someone that most of us would sooner watch than know (or want to know). It is common to attribute his continuing success to his appeal to different audiences, some appreciative of his musical inventions, others of his taste for obscenity.

My sense is that his advanced pop has continuously attracted sophisticated teenagers who, even as they move beyond him, retain an affection for his work. Immediately after his death, the Columbia University radio station, WKCR, presented a marathon of his work, its regular disk-jockeys for jazz and avant-garde music speaking knowledgeably about his work. Many announcers at many other university radio stations elsewhere must have done likewise in December 1993. In this respect of influencing bright youth who grow up (e.g., the sort who become public radio disk-jockeys), he reminds me of the writer-philosopher Ayn Rand, whose commercial potential was likewise surprising. Just as her eccentric work has survived her death, so will Zappa’s.

What should not be forgotten is that Zappa lived dangerously, doing professionally what had not been done before and others would not do after him, at a time and in a country where such adventurousness was possible, even as he was continually warning that such possibility should never be taken for granted. For all the continuing admiration of his example, there has been no one like him since.

— Richard Kostelanetz (1997/2008), Frank Zappa (and Ayn Rand), Toward Secession: 156 More Political Essays From a Fairly Orthodox Anarchist-Libertarian. 300-302.

Over My Shoulder #45: How Empire comes home in sado-statism and police brutality. From Fred Woodworth, “Evil Empire Notes,” in The Match! # 107 (Summer, 2009)

Here’s the new rules:

  1. At the top of the post, make a list of the books you’ve read all or part of, in print, over the course of the past week, at least as far as you can remember them. (These should be books that you’ve actually read as a part of your normal life, and not just something that you picked up to read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Pick one of those books from the list, and pick out a quote of one or more paragraphs, to post underneath the list.

  3. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, which should be more a matter of context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than they are a matter of discussing the material.

  4. Quoting a passage absolutely does not entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Here’s the books:

  • Sonia Johnson (1989). Wildfire: Igniting the She/Volution. (Albuquerque: Wildfire Books. I picked it up some time ago through BookMooch.)
  • Richard Gombin (1975), The Origins of Modern Leftism. Translated from the French by Michael K. Perl. (Baltimore: Penguin. Picked up this very week for 49¢ from the Shaman Drum used books sale rack!)
  • Fred Woodworth, The Match! Issue No. 107 (Summer, 2009). (Tucson: Fred Woodworth. PO Box 3012, Tucson, Arizona 85702. I picked my copy up last week from May Day Books in Minneapolis.)

And here’s the quote. This is taken from Fred Woodworth’s Evil Empire Notes, Issue No. 107 of The Match! (Summer 2009; also, incidentally, the 40th anniversary issue of The Match!). This was airplane reading, taken in somewhere in the sky between Minneapolis and Las Vegas.

GIVEN all the millions of horrifying stories in the naked country, now and then it’s good to pluck out one to hear an authentic voice rather than a statistic. Amnesty International printed up this one, by Donald Boyd of Chicago:

I have been a victim of racial profiling since I was 17 years old. Once when I was walking to the cleaners, I stopped to talk with some young men…. When I walked away, the police just automatically accused me of purchasing drugs. Two officers jumped out of a car and kept asking What did they sell you? I repeatedly replied no one sold me anything. … They cuffed me and drove me to a police substation.

… The next morning they loaded 45 people into a van made for 32. The men were almost all black and Latino. When we arrived at the jail, sheriff’s deputies, dressed in riot gear, met us. They shouted obscenities and threats. The deputies assaulted several people, including me, for supposedly not complying with their every word.

At each step in the process—arrest, detention and bond hearing—we were lined up, and numbers were scribbled on our arms with black marking pens…. In court, you appear before a judge, but via a television screen. You don’t get to speak, and the judge never even looks you in the face…. They treat our communities with disdain and contempt. I had to hire a lawyer and spend thousands of dollars to get the charges dismissed….


AS Law becomes increasingly complex, with hundreds of thousands and even millions of laws stacked on top of each other, almost no one can confront officialdom in any way without a lawyer. But what happens when your lawyer takes your money and does no work, don’t file basic motions or writs, and essentially shafts you? Not much. Bar associations have a cap of compensatory payments they sometimes make to incompetent or dishonest lawyers’ clients, but the amouts are often based on century-old, or even older, stated maximums. And it’s next to impossible to go after such a lawyer legally, because to do so you need… another lawyer.


. . .

EIGHT COPS raided a home in Minneapolis in ‘08. They shot up the place, accidentally not killing anyone. Well, it was the wrong house (there is no right house for something like this). This is completely comparable to a surgeon amputating the wrong leg, but if the doctor who did this to you then got a commendation from the medical association, wouldn’t you feel absolutely floored? So did the family whose home was raided and shot up. All eight cops received medals.

Undoubtedly this sounds like hyperbole or mere rhetoric, but the simple fact is that there is no conceivable way anyone can interpret this but as an official statement of Good Work, Men to stupid, negligent, incompetent thugs for terrorizing and injuring innocent people.


NOT SURPRISINGLY, when humanitarian spirit is dead in officialdom it’s not partly alive; it really is extinct and defunct. Also in Minnesota, a poor wild bear somehow got a plstic jar or bucket stuck on its head. Official solution: shoot the bear. No sympathy for an unfortunate creature; no imaginative or bold remedy. Just kill.


AS REPORTED by the Washington Post, prison guards at Prince George’s County Jail in Maryland are apt to be the kind of guys the average person expects to hear of as BEHIND bars. An investigation by the paper found guards who’ve been charged with assault, theft, beating and threatening their wives with death, having sex with prisoners, robbery at gunpoint, and other crimes.

Among the nine officers was Mark R. Bradley, whose then-wife asked for a protective order in 1998, claiming he had threatened, taunted, punched and slapped her… When she reached for the phone, Bradley who had been on the force for almost four years, yanked it away… His wife recalled him saying: Call the police… Make me lose my job. I’ll kill you. Almost a decade later, he was still on the payroll at the jail, despite three protective orders issued against him in the late 1990s. In 2004, he pleaded guilty to assaulting another woman, whose rib was broken. The woman, who had been pregnant with his child, told police that after a beating days earlier, she had a miscarriage. A judge put Bradley on probation and ordered him to take an anger management class.


AIRPORT FASCISM is being extended to railroads. Amtrak, the railroad passenger company, has brought in a SWAT-style phalanx of agents in full combat gear to sweep through train stations, randomly screening and searching passengers. The randomly chosen passengers will have to place their bags on a platform and be swabbed with chemicals that are claimed to react to traces of explosives. You can also be ratted out by dogs.


ONE OF THE factors that propelled the United States as far along into the police state that it now is, was the Vietnam War. There’s plenty of evidence that soldiers in ALL wars become brutalized, but something extraordinary seems to have taken place in Vietnam. Whatever it was, American men who went there (and survived) tended to come back in a vicious state of mind. Ordinary people were their enemy. They made up stories (essentially none has ever been verified) of people spitting on them when they arrived at stateside airports; and they formed cliques of us-versus-them. Looking for work, a high proportion of them went into law enforcement, and there they reinforced and amplified the already-existing us versus them mentality, ratcheting the propensity toward police brutality to amazing heights.

Now the same thing is happening with Iraq. Our guess is that the psychological corruption happens when soldiers fight amid a culture and a language that has few points of contact with the west and with Indo-European languages. It is one thing to fight, say, Germans or Italians, whose general culture is largely familiar (same religions, for instance) and whose languages have a large percentage of words that are the same or nearly enough so to be comprehensible even to the monolingual standard American youth. But in Vietnam—and now in Iraq—these military people are surrounded by words and behaviors utterly alien to them. Our own idle theory, therefore, is that this operate on their minds in such a way that the enemy becomes completely dehumanized. This creates the us-versus-them, and when they return to the USA, they still have it.

Then they go into law enforcement.

Already we are beginning to read about cases in which police—now Iraq war veterans—are opening fire on people merely running away from them. And already, too, the convoluted excuses are starting to evolve: Re-experiencing a war zone is one of several classic signs of combat stress reaction, says the Department of Veterans Affairs. If persistent and untreated, the Department goes on, this can result in post traumatic stress disorder.

Whatever verbal gimmickery you haul out to gloss over the facts, the truth is that these men (generally they are men) have been ruined, corrupted fatally and irretrievably, by being sent out to murder masses of people for no good reason in a country where they ought never to have gone. Mostly it’s their own fault, too, since ultimately it was their own volition that was compliant in their going there.

The bottom line is that Bush’s freudian effort to surpass his father’s Panama coup by similarly taking Saddam Hussein, unresisted by the press and the American people at the outset, is now going to result in thirty or forty more years of ever-worsening police violence against the public here. With this on top of everything else—the overpopulation, insanely burgeoning law-pollution, disastrous shift to digital culture, etc.—America is rapidly turning into an unliveable hell. Then add global warming.


IMMIGRATION PRISONS, where you’re sent for not having adequate proof of being a so-called citizen, are the new concentration camps of the Evil Empire. There are now a whole class of persons of various ethnicities who are afraid to travel outside of the towns or cities where they live, because of the possibility of being stopped by some profiling trick excused as a broken taillight, and then being sent sprawling into a cell at an immigration prison.

A recent well-publicized case in some of the larger newspapers (and excluded from the local dailies) concerned one Hiu Lui Ng, who’d come to the US from Hong Kong. Making the mistake of going to immigraiton headquarters in New York City to get a green card (legal authorization to live and work in this country), he was grabbed and put behind bars. There he developed cancer, was in severe pain, laughed at by the medical matrons, and eventually died from the rampaging and untreated disease.

. . . They denied him a wheelchair and refused pleas for an independent medical evaluation. Instead, … guards at the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls, Rhode Island, dragged him from his bed on July 30, craried him in shackles to a car, bruising his arms and legs, and drove him two hours to a federal lock-up in Hartford, where an immigration officer pressured him to withdraw all pending appeals of his case. (New York Times.)

One out of hundreds of thousands.

— Fred Woodworth, Evil Empire Notes, in The Match! Issue No. 107 (Summer, 2009). 19–21.

See also:

Over My Shoulder #44: on Roe v. Wade, governmental “victories,” and the ennervation of the Women’s Liberation Movement. From Sonia Johnson, Wildfire: Igniting the She/Volution

Here’s the rules. Except, note that I have changed them significantly, and plan to keep this new version from here on out. Check it:

  1. At the top of the post, make a list of the books you’ve read all or part of, in print, over the course of the past week, at least as far as you can remember them. (These should be books that you’ve actually read as a part of your normal life, and not just something that you picked up to read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Pick one of those books from the list, and pick out a quote of one or more paragraphs, to post underneath the list.

  3. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, which should be more a matter of context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than they are a matter of discussing the material.

  4. Quoting a passage absolutely does not entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Here’s the books:

Here’s the quote. This is taken from Chapter 1, Who’s Afraid of the Supreme Court? from Sonia Johnson’s Wildfire: Igniting the She/Volution.

Often when I say that laws are not worth warm spit in patriarchy, those women who are frightened by the revolutionary implications of that statement often counter with the argument that Roe v. Wade is incontrovertible evidence that women can go through men and their system to win freedom. I reply that, unfortunately, Roe v. Wade is incontrovertible evidence not of freedom but instead of one of the most blatant co-optations, or re-enslavements, of women by patriarchy in history. I go on to tell them how I think Roe v. Wade saved and continues to serve patriarchy.

I wasn’t a feminist at the beginning of the second wave of feminism in this country in the late 60s and early 70s, but I have talked with hundreds of women who were. From them and from the literature written then, I can almost feel the incredible excitement of the Movement in those days. Despite, or perhaps partly because of, very legitimate and healthful anger, women were fairly bursting with energy and enthusiasm. Euphoria and elation might best describe the general atmosphere. It was a very heady time. Every woman I have spoken to who was an active feminist then looks back at that time with nostalgia: Those were the halcyon days, the Golden Age.

There were many reasons for that feeling, but chief among them, it seems to me, was that liberation seemed not only possible, but imminent. In addition, many feminists had a basic understanding of women’s enslavement that has since been lost in a general way: that women are men’s colonized lands; that just as the English colonized — a racist euphemism for conquered — Nigeria and India, for instance, men have colonized women. The English declared themselves owners of these countries, and their people, made all the laws that governed them, and pocketed the profits themselves. Britannia ruled by plundering and raping the colonials and their lands.

The Indians, the Nigerians, the other colonized peoples of the world (and colonization takes firmest hold in the feelings and perceptions of a people) tried to make the usurpers’ system work for them. They struggled to get laws passed that would give them more leeway, and they managed in some instances to infiltrate low- and even middle-level government echelons and to attain a few managerial and supervisory jobs in the industrial/corporate world. A token handful got into the educational institutions reserved for the masters. Some of them regarded these inroads as progress.

But enough of them eventually realized that it did not matter what else they seemed to achieve, if they did not have home rule, they could never be free. They came to the understanding that freedom was simply not possible for them—ever—in the colonial system. Freedom means owning themselves, owning their own lands, using their resources for their own enrichment, making their own laws. The revolution began with their feelings and perceptions of themselves as people who not only should but could govern themselves.

Women were the first owned, the first ruled people in every race and class and nation, the first slaves, the first colonized people, the first occupied countries. Many thousands of years ago men took our bodies as their lands as they felt befitted their naturally superior, god-like selves and our lowly, animalistic natures. Since this takeover, they have made all the laws that governed our lands, and have harvested us—our labor, our children, our sexuality, our emotional, spiritual, and cultural richness, our resources of intelligence, passion, devotion—for their own purposes and aggrandizement. These have been men’s most profitable cash crops.

. . . The burgeoning women’s health movement of the early 70s was evidence of women’s awareness of our physical colonization and of our realization that no matter what else we did, no matter how many laws we got men to pass, no matter how many low-echelon government and corporate positions we won, like the Nigerians and the Indians and all other colonized peoples, unless we had home rule, everything else we did to try to free ourselves was meaningless.

So we were saying howdy to our cervixes for the first time in our lives, our own and our friends’. We may have been the 17th person to see them and the first 16 may have been men, but finally we were meeting them face to face. In doing so, we realized that it didn’t take a man’s eye to see a woman’s cervix, it didn’t take an American-Medical-Association, male-trained mind to diagnose the health of our reproductive organs or to treat them. We were shocked to remember how natural it had seemed to go to male gynecologists, and realized that, in fact, men’s being gynecologists was perverted, gross, and sick and that our accepting them as experts on our bodies—when they had never had so much as one period in their lives, never experienced one moment of pre-menstrual psychic clarity, never had one birth pain, never suckled one child — was evidence of our ferocious internalized colonization. It began to appear as obscene to us as it truly is.

As obvious as this may seem now, it hadn’t been obvious for a very long time.

So in learning to examine our own sexual organs, to diagnose and treat our own cervical and vaginal ailments, to do simple abortions, to deliver babies, and in beginning to think seriously about developing our own safe, effective, natural contraceptives and getting the word out, women were moving out of colonization, out of slavery. We were taking back and learning to govern our own countries.

In those days, the movement was called The Women’s Liberation Movement, and that, in fact, was what it was. Women were breaking the contract that exists between all oppressed people and their oppressors, in our case our agreement to allow men to own us and to exploit us as their resources. Though we agreed to it under the severest duress imaginable, in order, we thought, to survive, we nevertheless agreed.

Those who do not understand how the thirst for home rule among women at the beginning of the second wave of our Movement in this century rocked the foundations of patriarchy worldwide simply do not understand the necessity of women’s slavery to every level of men’s global system. Perhaps even many of the women at that time did not fully understand the revolutionary nature of what they were about. But in establishing a new order in which women owned our own bodies and were not men’s property, they were destroying the very foundation of patriarchy. Since any power-over paradigm is totally dependent upon those on the bottom agreeing to stay there, men’s world organization was in grave peril. If women would not be slaves, men could not be masters.

The men who control the world are not intelligent, as is evident to even the most casual observer, but they are crafty, particularly about maintaining privilege through control. Over their thousands of years of tyranny, they have acquired a near-perfect understanding of the psychology of the oppressed—if not consciously, then viscerally. They knew precisely what to do when women began refusing to honor the old contract, and I am absolutely convinced that their move was conscious, plotted, and deliberate.

They sent an emissary after the women as they were moving out of the old mind into a free world. Hurrying after us, he shouted, Hey, girls! Wait up a minute! Listen! You don’t need to go to all this trouble. We already know how to do all the things you’re having to learn. We know your bodies and what is good for you better than you do. Trying to learn what we already know will take too much of your time and energy away from all your other important issues.

Then he used men’s most successful lie, the hook we had always taken in the past because men are our children, and we need to believe they value us, that we can trust them. You know we love you and want your movement to succeed, he crooned. So do you know what we’re prepared to do for you? If you’ll come back, we’ll let you have legalized abortion!

How could we refuse such a generous, loving offer? We had listened to men’s voices and trusted them for so long—in the face of massive evidence that they had never been trustworthy, had had so little practice in hearing and trusting our own, that we lost our tenuous bearings in the new world and turned around and walked right back into our jail cell. We allowed them to reduce liberation to an issue. We forgot that anybody that can let you, owns you.

So the men let us have legalized abortion. Some women protest that women won the right to it, forgetting that the legal system is set up to keep patriarchy intact, which means to keep women enslaved, and that men own the law. They will never use it to free us. As Audre Lorde states clearly, The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. [Audre Lorde, essay by that name in Sister Outsider. The Crossing Press: Freedom, CA 1984, p. 110.]

You know how pityingly we have looked at the benighted woman who says, I don’t need the Women’s Movement. My husband lets me do anything I want. But our pity has been hypocritical: Roe v. Wade, the glory of the movement, is exactly the same sad phenomenon — our husband the state letting us, and our feeling grateful for it. But, of course, like a husband the men let us not because it is good for us but because it is necessary for them. It keeps us colonized, our bodies state property and our destinies in their hands, and it rivets our attention on them.

So the men let us have legalized abortion, and almost instantly the energy drained from the movement, like air from a punctured balloon. Instead of the Women’s Liberation Movement, we became simply the Women’s Movement, because liberation is antithetical to letting men, depending upon men to, make the laws that govern our lands. For the last 15 years we have been nailed to the system by Roe v. Wade, our mighty energy and hope and love channeled into begging men in dozens of state and national bodies not to pare away cent by cent the truly miserable allowance they promised us for abortions for poor women.

If we hadn’t trusted them again, if we had kept on going in the direction we were headed, with the same time and money and energy we have since expended on groveling, we could by this time have had a woman on every block in every city and town who is an expert on contraceptives, women’s health, birthing, and abortion. We could have educated the women of this country in countless creative ways about their bodies and their right to rule them. We would have learned how to govern ourselves, discovering a whole new way for women—and therefore everyone—to be human.

And, significantly, a Bork could have been appointed to every seat of the Supreme Court, men could have been spewing laws aimed at controlling our bodies out of every legal orifice, and all their flailing and sputtering would simply be irrelevant. Having removed ourselves from their jurisdiction, we would have settled the question of abortion and birth control, of women’s individual freedom, blessedly and for ages to come. When the Nigerians and Indians got ready to rule themselves, the English had no choice but to go home. Tyranny is a contract. Both parties have to stick to it.

But in the early 70s women hadn’t had time to complete the necessary internal revolution in how we thought and felt about ourselves that was necessary for us to be free. Evidence of this is that we took as models for our movement the movements that had preceded ours, all of which were reformist because they involved men. Since our own internal, authentic women’s voices were still very weak and difficult to hear and when heard still without sufficient authority, we didn’t take seriously enough the fact that women and men are in wildly different relationships to the system. We didn’t realize that since the entire global system of laws and governments is set up with the primary purpose of keeping women of every color and class enslaved by men of their own color and class, and often by other men as well, talking about civil rights for women was oxymoronic. We had still to learn how colossally brainwashed we are by patriarchy to do in the name of freedom precisely those things that will further enslave us.

Roe v. Wade was very smart politics for the men; now, regardless of what party is in power or who is on the Supreme Court, the groundwork has been laid. The hopes of thousands of dedicated feminists are bound firmly once more to the husband-state. And we are all a dozen years further away from trusting women and finding a lasting non-male-approval-based solution to the problem of our physical and emotional colonization.

It is time for us to remember that no one can free us but ourselves. Time not to try to get the men to do it for us — which reinforces their illusion of godhood and ours of wormhood and perpetuates the deadly power-over model of reality—but to do it ourselves. Time for thousands of us to learn to perform abortions and to do all that needs to be done for one another in so many neighborhoods throughout the country that our liberation cannot be stopped. Time to manage our own bodies, heal our own bodies, own our own bodies. It is time for home rule.

This is how I want women to spend our prodigious intelligence and energy.

Obviously, Roe v. Wade doesn’t stand alone; it simply models patriarchy’s subversive tactics most clearly. Almost all segments of our Movement have suffered such co-optation. Many women who have been active in the shelter movement for years, for instance, have pointed out to me the similarities in strategy and effect between Roe v. Wade and government funding for shelters.

To obtain funding for shelters in the first place, women must tone down their feminism and conform to male officials’ standards and expectations. To keep the money, the women who work in the shelters as well as those who come there for help are required to do masses of paper work, the purpose of which seems to be to keep women from helping and receiving help. In some areas, when women are in crisis and call a shelter, before their feelings and needs can even be addressed they must be asked a dozen questions and informed at length about the conditions under which the shelter will accept them (they can have no weapons, for instance). Many women simply hang up in total frustration and anger. In other instances, funders won’t allow discussions of racism or homophobia or of battering among Lesbians. They also often control who is hired. Funders regularly split women’s organizations apart by clouding the issues of who is going to define the group, what their work is, what their analysis is, and even what the issue is.

In addition, nearly every funder’s prerequisites are designed to keep women powerless, thinking and behaving as victims. One state, for example, requires shelters to use only professional counselors, specifically prohibiting peer counseling. Peer counseling, I am told by women with much experience, is the only counseling that has yet been seen to have any significant effect upon battered women.

Because of the scope and depth of the subversion of our purposes by funders, local and national, many shelter workers agree with Suzanne Pharr who concluded her brave speech at the 1987 National Lesbian and Gay Health Conference in Los Angeles with these words: From my experience, my strongest urge is to say, DO ANYTHING—BEG, BORROW, STEAL—BUT DON’T TAKE GOVERNMENT FUNDING!

— Sonia Johnson (1989). Wildfire: Igniting the She/Volution. Albuquerque: Wildfire Books. 19–31.

See also:

Over My Shoulder #43: how professional social workers colonized the maternity home movement, and what came after. From Ann Fessler, The Girls Who Went Away.

Here’s the rules:

  1. Pick a quote of one or more paragraphs from something you’ve read, in print, over the course of the past week. (It should be something you’ve actually read, and not something that you’ve read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, more as context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than as a discussion.

  3. Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Here’s the quote. This is from the book I’ve been reading on and off most mornings this week, Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade. This is from chapter 6, Going Away, which focuses on the institutional set-up of the maternity homes themselves and the experiences that pregnant women had when they arrived in them. Although this passage doesn’t discuss it, elsewhere in the book Fessler notes a couple of things which may help put the rest in context: first, Fessler points out elsewhere that, in all the social-work discussion of the causes of illegitimacy, every new wave of theory offered a different explanation of the unwed mother’s defects. Never discussed was whether unplanned pregnancies had anything to do with the personal characteristics, social position, attitudes, psychology, or actions of unwed fathers. The development of theory after theory by the self-styled experts was not a good-faith intellectual effort, and it didn’t emerge in an ideological vacuum; it was theorizing driven by the need to rationalize a social process of shaming and blaming. Second, she also mentions elsewhere the emerging notion of social work professionalism, and the kind of coercive tactics they used, didn’t emerge in an institutional vacuum, either; they were caught up with the fact that maternity homes were increasingly being transformed into intermediaries in health and social services spending by state governments. Women mentioned how social workers would coerce them into surrendering, if they expressed second thoughts, by saying that they would have to pay the state back thousands of dollars for their stay in at the maternity home and for their hospital bills. At the far extreme, one of the women she interviews mentions a case she had heard of, in which a mother who refused to relinquish was forcibly committed to a state mental hospital (on the grounds that she must be crazy) until she agreed to surrender her baby, months later. Anyway. Keeping that in mind, on with the quote:

For most of the women I interviewed, however, especially those who were younger, being sent to a maternity home was a traumatic experience. They had been banished from their schools and homes, they were soon to give birth to a child, and rather than being surrounded by caring family members they were living in institutions among strangers. Although many felt camaraderie with the other young women who were there, they also felt that the environment was cold and demeaning and that the disapproval of those who looked after them was palpable.

The philosophy and mission of maternity homes had changed considerably since the early 1900s, when the maternity-home movement began. The religious women who first ran the homes saw themselves as sympathetic sisters who were there for women who had no other place to turn. The home was a place of refuge and spiritual reform for women who had, in their eyes, been seduced and abandoned. Motherhood, they believed, would increase a woman’s chances of living a good and proper life. During this time, babies were not separated from their mothers except under extreme circumstances, as when women cannot be helped or compelled to meet their obligation as parents. The homes generally encouraged bonding through breast-feeding and they helped the women find employment—usually as domestic servants—which would enable them to care for their child and to work. Well into the early 1940s, some homes still encouraged, if not required, the mother to breast-feed her baby to ensure that a bond developed between mother and child.

But by the end of World War II, a sea change had occurred in the mission and philosophy of the homes. Maternity homes of the 1950s and 1960s were, to a great extent, a place to sequester pregnant girls until they could give birth and surrender their child for adoption. If a young woman was unsure of or uninterested in relinquishment, the staff attempted to convince her that it was her best, and perhaps only, option. Though maternity homes were the only place a girl in trouble could turn for help outside of her family, by the 1950s they best served her interest if her interest was in giving her child up for adoption at the end of her stay.

The change in philosophy was highly contested among those who ran the homes and did not come about uniformly. To a great extent the views at individual homes changed as the staff changed. Between the turn of the century and the 1940s, the women who had founded the homes were supplanted by professional social workers who reshaped the understanding of nonmarital pregnancy.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, social work evolved into a genuine profession, and those who helped professionalize the field were eager to differentiate themselves from charity workers and reformers, whom they saw as overly sentimental and old-fashioned. These professionals formulated what they considered to be more rigorous approaches to social problems, rather than basing their practices on religious perspectives. As the professionals took positions at maternity homes and began to work alongside religious reformers, philosophical clashes resulted. Social workers claimed expertise. As trained professionals, they considered themselves better equipped to diagnose the problems associated with illegitimacy. While their religious predecessors had generally attributed out-of-wedlock pregnancy to the social circumstances of the women’s lives and to outside social forces, the new breed of social worker focused on the women themselves. Over many years, they posited a number of theories about why single women became pregnant, all of which were predicated on the problems inherent in the women themselves.

In the early 1900s, most social workers argued that women who became pregnant out of wedlock were feebleminded; their pregnancy was proof of their feeblemindedness. This made them seem especially dangerous to society because it was believed that these women were not only likely to be repeat offenders, but that they would produce offspring of low intelligence, claiming that the country was in the midst of moral decay and that the family was breaking down, as evidenced by lower birthrates among the better classes of people. They believed that unwed mothers were both the product of bad homes and the cause of broken homes. During this time the concern over nonmarital pregnancy was so great that many feebleminded unwed mothers were either institutionalized or sterilized.

Classifying all unwed mothers as feebleminded, however, proved impossible. Social workers had to acknowledge that many of the women who became pregnant were normally intelligent and relatively well-balanced young women. So a new category was identified, that of the delinquent. This type of womanhad a parallel in the male population. But where delinquency in the male was identified by criminal behavior, female delinquency was defined in sexual terms. The young women who fell into this category were largely seen as those belonging to the working class. By the 1920s, many single women were working in factories, offices, and department stores. They enjoyed a degree of independence and opportunities to fraternize with men. Their sexual lives did not always conform to middle-class standards and in those cases were labeled sexually deviant. This behavior, incidentally, was soon to invade the ranks of the middle class.

Despite the widespread characterization of unwed mothers as either feebleminded breeders or sex delinquents, letters and internal correspondence from Florence Crittenton homes operating in the 1940s offer evidence to the contrary, and the personnel at the homes were still generally supportive of and empathetic to the girls in their charge. A concrete example of such support was found in the application materials for the Kate Waller Barrett Scholarship, which was sponsored by the Crittenton homes in the early 1940s. These scholarship funds were described in materials printed by the Florence Crittenton Mission as being available to a girl who wishes to continue her education to enable her to care for her child. The application required support letters from the superintendent of the home and if the application was successful, the agreement stipulated that the staff at the Crittenton Home would assume responsibility for the care of the child, if necessary, while the mother attended school.

[…]

The kind of support and compassion demonstrated by maternity-home staff in these letters seems to have all but evaporated in the years after World War II. The ongoing struggles between those who aligned themselves with the sentiments of maternity-home founders and those who adopted newer professional strategies came to a symbolic if not an actual end in 1947, when the National Florence Crittenton Mission abandoned its policy of keeping mother and child together.

As the philosophical differences narrowed in the 1940s and social workers coalesced towards agreement on the best course of action for unwed mothers and their babies, efforts to identify the cause of out-of-wedlock pregnancy took a new turn. With the dramatic rise in premarital pregnancies after the war, and as greater numbers of middle-class women became pregnant, it became increasingly implausible to label all of those women as either feebleminded or sexual delinquents. Social workers noted that many of these new unmarried mothers were middle-class girls from good families. A Crittenton social worker wrote about these girls that the sizeable numbers further confound us by rendering our former stereotypes less tenable. Immigration, low mentality, and hyper sexuality can no longer be comfortably applied when the phenomenon has invaded our own social class—when the unwed mother must be classified to include the nice girl next door, the physician’s or pastor’s daughter.

Social workers turned to the growing field of psychiatry for their answer and, as early as the 1940s, began to classify middle-class girls who became pregnant as neurotic: the unwed mother was a neurotic woman who had a subconscious desire to become pregnant. This theory dominated much of the diagnosis and treatment of unwed mothers in the decades that followed the war. Though social workers had been quick to condemn working girls as sex deviants, this new explanation was more appealing in explaining middle-class pregnancy because it downplayed the issue of sexual drive. By identifying the young woman’s goal as pregnancy, rather than sex, the diagnosis of deviance could be bypassed. Though a young woman’s peers, family, and community may still have attributed her pregnancy to loose morals or an overactive sex life, professionals determined that the problem was in her mind.

One of the outcomes of this new professional diagnosis was the justification of the separation of mother and child: a neurotic woman was seen as unfit to be a mother. Given the stigma of illegitimacy in the 1950s and 1960s, many middle-class parents were quick to agree that the solution to the problem was relinquishment and adoption. Following this course, their daughter would be given a second chance. Her pregnancy would effectively be erased from her history and she could expect to go back to a normal life as if it had never happened. Without her child she would be able to marry a decent man and have other children. She would not have to live with her mistake. Adoption also came to be understood as being in the best interest of the child. Rather than growing up with the stigma of illegitimacy and an unfit, neurotic mother, the child would be raised by a stable, well-adjusted married couple.

And though some maternity-home workers were still empathetic to young women who did not want to surrender their baby for adoption, in the postwar years this breed of social worker was rapidly becoming extinct. Internal struggle at the maternity homes continued even into the 1950s, and are evident in correspondence between the leadership of the Florence Crittenton Association of America and the newly hired staff of individual homes. In a letter dated December 23, 1952, Robert Barrett, the chairman of the Florence Crittenton Mission, expresses his concern over a move to shorten the minimum length of a girl’s stay in the maternity home postpartum. The purpose of a mother’s and child’s returning to the home after birth was, Barrett asserts, to give the mother time to be with her baby before making a final decision to surrender. He writes:

Personally I feel very badly that a girl in our Homes shall not be given every opportunity and help to keep her baby if she wants to. Often a girl who has made up her mind to give up her baby feels different after the baby comes and her mother’s instinct is aroused. Not to give her that chance seems a cruel and unnatural proceeding. I am not sure but I feel it would be better for the girl if she tries to take her baby and fails and has to give it up later.

The new policies were shaped by the experts—primarily psychiatrists, social workers, and medical professionals—and promoted by social organizations that had the power and the means to disseminate the ideas. The women whose babies were being placed for adoption were not in any position to influence the policies made on their behalf. Shame is a very effective way to silence individuals, and those who are less socially or economically powerful are rarely in a position to influence the decisions that affect them.

[…]

In theory it was not the social worker but the mother who made the ultimate decision whether to parent or relinquish. A Florence Crittenton brochure from 1952 reads, The mother is under no compulsion, either to leave her baby with us, or to take him with her. There is no priority for either. But it also states that although the mother should perhaps make the choice, not always is she well qualified to make this last decision. And though maternity homes were thought to be safe havens and the goal of all these efforts combined is to induct into society a mother and child, each well started on the road to successful living, in reality this goal was often not fully realized.

Rather than young women being given a realistic picture of the responsibilities and costs of raising a child and allowing them to weigh that information against the resources available to them so they could participate in making an informed decision, they were rendered powerless. And though it might be easy to empathize with a social worker’s efforts to try to persuade a young woman of few resources to be realistic about raising a baby, especially if she lacked family support and did not understand the difficulty and sacrifice involved in raising a child as a single parent, the persuasive techniques were often quite forceful. The degree of pressure put on the women to surrender sometimes crossed the line from persuasion to outright coercion. Many of the women I interviewed recalled high-pressure campaigns waged by the maternity-house staff.

I remember the woman at the adoption agency, a very pleasant woman, smiling, always smiling, and using comforting tones. She sat there and said that I had nothing to offer a baby. I had no education, I had no job, I had no money. Oh, God, they really knew how to work you. Talk about no support, it was how far can we beat you down while we’re smiling?

The social worker was telling me, No man is going to want to marry you, no man is going to want another man’s baby. She proceeded to tell me that the adoptive parents they would find for the baby would be college educated, degreed, they would be much older, they would own their own home, have high incomes. They would be able to give the baby everything that I could not.

They told me I was unfit because I wasn’t married. I didn’t have this, I didn’t have that. Well, it turns out her adoptive parents were just a couple of years older, and neither one had a college education. Nothing against them, but the adoption agency lied to me. They also divorced when she was fourteen. I’m with the same man for thirty-eight years. Financially, her adoptive family was better off than we were, but other than that it wasn’t anything like what the agency promised.

Christine

The argument that others would be better parents presumed, of course, that the mother’s own economic standing would not improve anytime soon, if ever, through further education, job or career training, marriage, or family support. It also presumed that the adopting couple’s status would not deteriorate through divorce or job loss. Essentially, the gap in economic and marital status between the mother and adoptive family was seen as fixed, whereas only a decade earlier the mother’s circumstances had been viewed as temporary and improvable, and steps were taken to help her become self-reliant.

In the postwar years, most of the homes aimed simply to ensure that the physical needs of the women were met until they could give birth and relinquish the baby. And despite the momentous life change that they were about to go through, most were sent to the hospital knowing nothing about childbirth, nor were they counseled about the impending separation. Most were completely unprepared for the emotions that would follow their transition from pregnant girls to mothers.

[…]

Of course, the pregnant women who went into hiding were not of one mind; nor were the staff of the institutions they entered. A few women reported that they were counseled in a respectful manner and came to their own decision. But the majority of the women I interviewed did not make a decision to surrender. Many women, even those in their twenties, followed the only path that was available to them—the one prescribed by society, social workers, and parents. After all they had been through, and all they had put their parents through, they felt that, more than anything, they needed to regain their family’s acceptance. Some women decidedly did not want to surrender but were unable to devise a plan that would allow them to care for their baby without some temporary assistance. Many of the women who wanted to parent would have been capable of doing so with a modest amount of support, the kind offered to Bea only a decade or so earlier. But by the mid-1960s professionals were no longer offering this kind of support, and more than 80 percent of those who entered maternity homes surrendered.

—Ann Fessler (2006), The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade. New York: Penguin. 142–153.

Over My Shoulder #43: how professional social workers colonized the maternity home movement, and what came after. From Ann Fessler, The Girls Who Went Away.

Here’s the rules:

  1. Pick a quote of one or more paragraphs from something you’ve read, in print, over the course of the past week. (It should be something you’ve actually read, and not something that you’ve read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, more as context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than as a discussion.

  3. Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Here’s the quote. This is from the book I’ve been reading on and off most mornings this week, Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade. This is from chapter 6, Going Away, which focuses on the institutional set-up of the maternity homes themselves and the experiences that pregnant women had when they arrived in them. Although this passage doesn’t discuss it, elsewhere in the book Fessler notes a couple of things which may help put the rest in context: first, Fessler points out elsewhere that, in all the social-work discussion of the causes of illegitimacy, every new wave of theory offered a different explanation of the unwed mother’s defects. Never discussed was whether unplanned pregnancies had anything to do with the personal characteristics, social position, attitudes, psychology, or actions of unwed fathers. The development of theory after theory by the self-styled experts was not a good-faith intellectual effort, and it didn’t emerge in an ideological vacuum; it was theorizing driven by the need to rationalize a social process of shaming and blaming. Second, she also mentions elsewhere the emerging notion of social work professionalism, and the kind of coercive tactics they used, didn’t emerge in an institutional vacuum, either; they were caught up with the fact that maternity homes were increasingly being transformed into intermediaries in health and social services spending by state governments. Women mentioned how social workers would coerce them into surrendering, if they expressed second thoughts, by saying that they would have to pay the state back thousands of dollars for their stay in at the maternity home and for their hospital bills. At the far extreme, one of the women she interviews mentions a case she had heard of, in which a mother who refused to relinquish was forcibly committed to a state mental hospital (on the grounds that she must be crazy) until she agreed to surrender her baby, months later. Anyway. Keeping that in mind, on with the quote:

For most of the women I interviewed, however, especially those who were younger, being sent to a maternity home was a traumatic experience. They had been banished from their schools and homes, they were soon to give birth to a child, and rather than being surrounded by caring family members they were living in institutions among strangers. Although many felt camaraderie with the other young women who were there, they also felt that the environment was cold and demeaning and that the disapproval of those who looked after them was palpable.

The philosophy and mission of maternity homes had changed considerably since the early 1900s, when the maternity-home movement began. The religious women who first ran the homes saw themselves as sympathetic sisters who were there for women who had no other place to turn. The home was a place of refuge and spiritual reform for women who had, in their eyes, been seduced and abandoned. Motherhood, they believed, would increase a woman’s chances of living a good and proper life. During this time, babies were not separated from their mothers except under extreme circumstances, as when women cannot be helped or compelled to meet their obligation as parents. The homes generally encouraged bonding through breast-feeding and they helped the women find employment—usually as domestic servants—which would enable them to care for their child and to work. Well into the early 1940s, some homes still encouraged, if not required, the mother to breast-feed her baby to ensure that a bond developed between mother and child.

But by the end of World War II, a sea change had occurred in the mission and philosophy of the homes. Maternity homes of the 1950s and 1960s were, to a great extent, a place to sequester pregnant girls until they could give birth and surrender their child for adoption. If a young woman was unsure of or uninterested in relinquishment, the staff attempted to convince her that it was her best, and perhaps only, option. Though maternity homes were the only place a girl in trouble could turn for help outside of her family, by the 1950s they best served her interest if her interest was in giving her child up for adoption at the end of her stay.

The change in philosophy was highly contested among those who ran the homes and did not come about uniformly. To a great extent the views at individual homes changed as the staff changed. Between the turn of the century and the 1940s, the women who had founded the homes were supplanted by professional social workers who reshaped the understanding of nonmarital pregnancy.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, social work evolved into a genuine profession, and those who helped professionalize the field were eager to differentiate themselves from charity workers and reformers, whom they saw as overly sentimental and old-fashioned. These professionals formulated what they considered to be more rigorous approaches to social problems, rather than basing their practices on religious perspectives. As the professionals took positions at maternity homes and began to work alongside religious reformers, philosophical clashes resulted. Social workers claimed expertise. As trained professionals, they considered themselves better equipped to diagnose the problems associated with illegitimacy. While their religious predecessors had generally attributed out-of-wedlock pregnancy to the social circumstances of the women’s lives and to outside social forces, the new breed of social worker focused on the women themselves. Over many years, they posited a number of theories about why single women became pregnant, all of which were predicated on the problems inherent in the women themselves.

In the early 1900s, most social workers argued that women who became pregnant out of wedlock were feebleminded; their pregnancy was proof of their feeblemindedness. This made them seem especially dangerous to society because it was believed that these women were not only likely to be repeat offenders, but that they would produce offspring of low intelligence, claiming that the country was in the midst of moral decay and that the family was breaking down, as evidenced by lower birthrates among the better classes of people. They believed that unwed mothers were both the product of bad homes and the cause of broken homes. During this time the concern over nonmarital pregnancy was so great that many feebleminded unwed mothers were either institutionalized or sterilized.

Classifying all unwed mothers as feebleminded, however, proved impossible. Social workers had to acknowledge that many of the women who became pregnant were normally intelligent and relatively well-balanced young women. So a new category was identified, that of the delinquent. This type of womanhad a parallel in the male population. But where delinquency in the male was identified by criminal behavior, female delinquency was defined in sexual terms. The young women who fell into this category were largely seen as those belonging to the working class. By the 1920s, many single women were working in factories, offices, and department stores. They enjoyed a degree of independence and opportunities to fraternize with men. Their sexual lives did not always conform to middle-class standards and in those cases were labeled sexually deviant. This behavior, incidentally, was soon to invade the ranks of the middle class.

Despite the widespread characterization of unwed mothers as either feebleminded breeders or sex delinquents, letters and internal correspondence from Florence Crittenton homes operating in the 1940s offer evidence to the contrary, and the personnel at the homes were still generally supportive of and empathetic to the girls in their charge. A concrete example of such support was found in the application materials for the Kate Waller Barrett Scholarship, which was sponsored by the Crittenton homes in the early 1940s. These scholarship funds were described in materials printed by the Florence Crittenton Mission as being available to a girl who wishes to continue her education to enable her to care for her child. The application required support letters from the superintendent of the home and if the application was successful, the agreement stipulated that the staff at the Crittenton Home would assume responsibility for the care of the child, if necessary, while the mother attended school.

. . .

The kind of support and compassion demonstrated by maternity-home staff in these letters seems to have all but evaporated in the years after World War II. The ongoing struggles between those who aligned themselves with the sentiments of maternity-home founders and those who adopted newer professional strategies came to a symbolic if not an actual end in 1947, when the National Florence Crittenton Mission abandoned its policy of keeping mother and child together.

As the philosophical differences narrowed in the 1940s and social workers coalesced towards agreement on the best course of action for unwed mothers and their babies, efforts to identify the cause of out-of-wedlock pregnancy took a new turn. With the dramatic rise in premarital pregnancies after the war, and as greater numbers of middle-class women became pregnant, it became increasingly implausible to label all of those women as either feebleminded or sexual delinquents. Social workers noted that many of these new unmarried mothers were middle-class girls from good families. A Crittenton social worker wrote about these girls that the sizeable numbers further confound us by rendering our former stereotypes less tenable. Immigration, low mentality, and hyper sexuality can no longer be comfortably applied when the phenomenon has invaded our own social class—when the unwed mother must be classified to include the nice girl next door, the physician’s or pastor’s daughter.

Social workers turned to the growing field of psychiatry for their answer and, as early as the 1940s, began to classify middle-class girls who became pregnant as neurotic: the unwed mother was a neurotic woman who had a subconscious desire to become pregnant. This theory dominated much of the diagnosis and treatment of unwed mothers in the decades that followed the war. Though social workers had been quick to condemn working girls as sex deviants, this new explanation was more appealing in explaining middle-class pregnancy because it downplayed the issue of sexual drive. By identifying the young woman’s goal as pregnancy, rather than sex, the diagnosis of deviance could be bypassed. Though a young woman’s peers, family, and community may still have attributed her pregnancy to loose morals or an overactive sex life, professionals determined that the problem was in her mind.

One of the outcomes of this new professional diagnosis was the justification of the separation of mother and child: a neurotic woman was seen as unfit to be a mother. Given the stigma of illegitimacy in the 1950s and 1960s, many middle-class parents were quick to agree that the solution to the problem was relinquishment and adoption. Following this course, their daughter would be given a second chance. Her pregnancy would effectively be erased from her history and she could expect to go back to a normal life as if it had never happened. Without her child she would be able to marry a decent man and have other children. She would not have to live with her mistake. Adoption also came to be understood as being in the best interest of the child. Rather than growing up with the stigma of illegitimacy and an unfit, neurotic mother, the child would be raised by a stable, well-adjusted married couple.

And though some maternity-home workers were still empathetic to young women who did not want to surrender their baby for adoption, in the postwar years this breed of social worker was rapidly becoming extinct. Internal struggle at the maternity homes continued even into the 1950s, and are evident in correspondence between the leadership of the Florence Crittenton Association of America and the newly hired staff of individual homes. In a letter dated December 23, 1952, Robert Barrett, the chairman of the Florence Crittenton Mission, expresses his concern over a move to shorten the minimum length of a girl’s stay in the maternity home postpartum. The purpose of a mother’s and child’s returning to the home after birth was, Barrett asserts, to give the mother time to be with her baby before making a final decision to surrender. He writes:

Personally I feel very badly that a girl in our Homes shall not be given every opportunity and help to keep her baby if she wants to. Often a girl who has made up her mind to give up her baby feels different after the baby comes and her mother’s instinct is aroused. Not to give her that chance seems a cruel and unnatural proceeding. I am not sure but I feel it would be better for the girl if she tries to take her baby and fails and has to give it up later.

The new policies were shaped by the experts—primarily psychiatrists, social workers, and medical professionals—and promoted by social organizations that had the power and the means to disseminate the ideas. The women whose babies were being placed for adoption were not in any position to influence the policies made on their behalf. Shame is a very effective way to silence individuals, and those who are less socially or economically powerful are rarely in a position to influence the decisions that affect them.

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In theory it was not the social worker but the mother who made the ultimate decision whether to parent or relinquish. A Florence Crittenton brochure from 1952 reads, The mother is under no compulsion, either to leave her baby with us, or to take him with her. There is no priority for either. But it also states that although the mother should perhaps make the choice, not always is she well qualified to make this last decision. And though maternity homes were thought to be safe havens and the goal of all these efforts combined is to induct into society a mother and child, each well started on the road to successful living, in reality this goal was often not fully realized.

Rather than young women being given a realistic picture of the responsibilities and costs of raising a child and allowing them to weigh that information against the resources available to them so they could participate in making an informed decision, they were rendered powerless. And though it might be easy to empathize with a social worker’s efforts to try to persuade a young woman of few resources to be realistic about raising a baby, especially if she lacked family support and did not understand the difficulty and sacrifice involved in raising a child as a single parent, the persuasive techniques were often quite forceful. The degree of pressure put on the women to surrender sometimes crossed the line from persuasion to outright coercion. Many of the women I interviewed recalled high-pressure campaigns waged by the maternity-house staff.

I remember the woman at the adoption agency, a very pleasant woman, smiling, always smiling, and using comforting tones. She sat there and said that I had nothing to offer a baby. I had no education, I had no job, I had no money. Oh, God, they really knew how to work you. Talk about no support, it was how far can we beat you down while we’re smiling?

The social worker was telling me, No man is going to want to marry you, no man is going to want another man’s baby. She proceeded to tell me that the adoptive parents they would find for the baby would be college educated, degreed, they would be much older, they would own their own home, have high incomes. They would be able to give the baby everything that I could not.

They told me I was unfit because I wasn’t married. I didn’t have this, I didn’t have that. Well, it turns out her adoptive parents were just a couple of years older, and neither one had a college education. Nothing against them, but the adoption agency lied to me. They also divorced when she was fourteen. I’m with the same man for thirty-eight years. Financially, her adoptive family was better off than we were, but other than that it wasn’t anything like what the agency promised.

Christine

The argument that others would be better parents presumed, of course, that the mother’s own economic standing would not improve anytime soon, if ever, through further education, job or career training, marriage, or family support. It also presumed that the adopting couple’s status would not deteriorate through divorce or job loss. Essentially, the gap in economic and marital status between the mother and adoptive family was seen as fixed, whereas only a decade earlier the mother’s circumstances had been viewed as temporary and improvable, and steps were taken to help her become self-reliant.

In the postwar years, most of the homes aimed simply to ensure that the physical needs of the women were met until they could give birth and relinquish the baby. And despite the momentous life change that they were about to go through, most were sent to the hospital knowing nothing about childbirth, nor were they counseled about the impending separation. Most were completely unprepared for the emotions that would follow their transition from pregnant girls to mothers.

. . .

Of course, the pregnant women who went into hiding were not of one mind; nor were the staff of the institutions they entered. A few women reported that they were counseled in a respectful manner and came to their own decision. But the majority of the women I interviewed did not make a decision to surrender. Many women, even those in their twenties, followed the only path that was available to them—the one prescribed by society, social workers, and parents. After all they had been through, and all they had put their parents through, they felt that, more than anything, they needed to regain their family’s acceptance. Some women decidedly did not want to surrender but were unable to devise a plan that would allow them to care for their baby without some temporary assistance. Many of the women who wanted to parent would have been capable of doing so with a modest amount of support, the kind offered to Bea only a decade or so earlier. But by the mid-1960s professionals were no longer offering this kind of support, and more than 80 percent of those who entered maternity homes surrendered.

— Ann Fessler (2006), The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade. New York: Penguin. 142–153.