Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Life of Dust, or, Zhuangzi and the Turtle

I recently read the book Dead Man Walking by sister Helen Prejean.  For those of you who haven't heard of the movie, the book deals with the capital punishment in the USA as told by a Roman Catholic nun who gets involved in the lives of several prisoners on death row and decides to devote her efforts towards eliminating the death penalty.

Its a gripping book, but a couple small parts of the story really struck home for me.   One involved Prejean meeting with the head of the Louisiana parole board, a Mr. Howard Marsellus.  In this initial meeting, she explained the research that had been done on both the death penalty in general and the case of this particular prisoner.  It is clear that it is imposed in a capricious and racist manner.  For example, murders who kill non-whites almost never get executed, and, wealthy defendants (who can hire competent lawyers) never end up being sentenced to death.  Mr. Marsellus, who is not an ignorant man, readily admits all these things are true and Prejean leaves the meeting feeling that the parole board may recommend clemency to the Governor, who can commute a death sentence to life in prison.

When the verdict comes down, however, it is clear that not only did Marsellus not convince the other members of the board to suggest a pardon, he himself did not vote for one.  Prejean is flabbergasted.

Years later, the nun finds out that Marsellus has been convicted of taking bribes while sitting on the parole board and has been sent to prison.  After he served his time and came out, she contacted him and asked for an interview. He agreed and explained his actions to her.

It turns out that the parole board was never designed to actually deliberate and suggest pardons and paroles for prisoners.  Instead, its purpose was to create "plausible deniability" for the Governor and his political machine.  When Marsellus was hired, he was told that he only had the job as long as he was willing to vote the way he was told to vote.  That meant that the Governor could still make unpopular decisions regarding paroles and pardons, but that he could blame the board for them.

As for the bribery, it turned out that when wealthy convicts wanted to buy a parole, they were asked for large sums of money that were turned over to the political machine, which in turn was used to fund election campaigns.  Some of the money went back down to Marsellus (partially to keep him quiet, but probably more to make sure that he took the fall instead of someone higher up the food chain.)   Money was then used to get members of the state legislature to change their votes on certain bills and put forward the Governor's legislative agenda.

Marsellus went along with all of this because he realized that any hope he would ever have of getting ahead in politics was tied to his ability to show loyalty to the party machine.  If he ever refused to "play ball", he'd just become another "nobody".

Another small part of the puzzle involved a conversation she had with a Major in the guards of a prison she visited.   This fellow had the unenviable job of being the guy who officiated over the mechanics of execution.  He got to know the condemned men and he watched as he was strapped in and electrocuted.  He found the experience intensely distasteful.  He also had serious doubts about the fairness of the system and suspected that he had even killed innocent men.

Prejean asked him about his personal sense of responsibility and he said that he didn't create the laws or make sentence people, he just followed orders.  She suggested that at the very least he could find another job.  He was close to retirement, so he didn't feel that was an option, but he did transfer and died of a heart attack shortly after her talk.

Several ideas come to me from these little stories.

First of all, I suspect that because Prejean is a nun, she has privileged access to people in positions of authority.  I know a few people in authority and none of them would ever have opened up to me, and I suspect anyone else I know, like this.  (She is probably also a remarkable personality, too.)  I've found that one of the key supports of "the system" is the way people become isolated in their own particular little social "bubble".   Managers don't talk openly and honestly with non-managers.  Working class people learn early on that they cannot speak their minds with people in authority---if they ever get a chance to meet them at all---because there will be severe consequences if they do.  People high up the chain also develops habits of conversation that ensure that no one ever does tell them the truth.  This enforces the "distance" necessary for command.   One of the most common is a tendency to bully people lower on the food chain by having an explosive reaction whenever someone says something that doesn't fit into the higher ups view of things.  And people learn early on that many managers are far from fair and will carry a grudge for a long time if they take a dislike to someone.

As a nun, Prejean is in a strange position of being almost part of the elite.  She was also somewhat protected from retribution, which allows her to say honest things to people that they rarely could hear from anyone else without being able to inflict pain on them.

Secondly, Marsellus and the Major were not just isolated individuals.  I suspect that a great many other individuals in the execution machine had similar qualms about what is going on.  But they had that little bit of extra conscience that allowed them to speak more honestly to Prejean.  I also suspect that they had that little extra bit of self-awareness and sensitivity that allowed them to face up to themselves how idiotic and cruel the system truly is.  Probably there are expanding rings of people in any system of power.  Some folks feel that everything is just fine as it is.  Others probably have profound misgivings, but cannot voice them to anyone else.  Others feel that the whole system is a crazy mess, but that the voters (or "powers that be") wouldn't allow anything else so you have to "play the game".  Others still probably think that the system is sick and twisted, but if they don't get involved someone far worse will and ultimately if they amass enough power they can start changing things for the better.

I suspect that all our institutions are filled with people following all these different personal strategies.  They don't honestly talk to each other, because that would make them vulnerable to manipulation.  So collectively they work together to create a system that almost all of them feel is an abomination.

There is a strain in Daoism that believes that an essential part of being a human involves retaining the ability to make spontaneous decisions outside of constraints of human society.  That is where all the stories of Daoist recluses and eccentrics come from.  But it is important to remember that this was a response to a society that involved wrapping everyone in chains of loyalty to family and empire.  The Daoists couldn't rebel collectively against this sort of thing, because to do so would involve creating an institution that would start the whole process all over again.  Indeed, it probably is a very "human" thing to wrap ourselves up in these sorts of collective fantasies and delusions that lead to things like death houses and prisons.  But there is still inside many of us a subversive, irrepressible element that glows like embers in the forest duff---waiting for a strong wind to burst back into flame.   The following story is a one of those embers.  It still glows after thousands of years.

Chuang Tzu Story - The Turtle

Chuang Tzu with his bamboo pole
was fishing in the Pu river
The prince of Chu sent two vice-chancellors
with a formal document:
We hereby appoint you prime minister
Chuang Tzu held his bamboo pole still.
Watching the Pu river, he said:
“I am told there is a sacred tortoise offered
and canonized three thousand years ago,
venerated by the prince, wrapped in silk,
in a precious shrine on an altar
in the temple.
What do you think?
Is it better to give up one’s life
and leave a sacred shell
as an object of cult
in a cloud of incense
for three thousand years,
or to live as a plain turtle
dragging its tail in the mud?”
“For the turtle”, said the vice-chancellor,
“better to live and drag its tail in the mud!”
“Go home!”, said Chuang Tzu.
“Leave me here
to drag my tail in the mud.”

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