Sunday, July 26 2020

Last Updated: 27-07-2020

The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent—strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering. It has the power to heal the psychic harm and injuries that lead to aggression and violence, abuse of power, mass incarceration.

— Bryan Stevenson, "Just Mercy" pg. 510

On a recent episode of Amanpour & Co, a public affairs series which airs on PBS in the United States, Walter Isaacson hosted Bryan Stevenson for an interview conducted over video chat. Isaacson began by asking Stevenson what he felt after watching the video of George Floyd being murdered in broad daylight by a police officer. Stevenson's response was succinct: "frustration and anger". There has been a lot of frustration and anger felt by people in the United States, and around the world, in the wake of Floyd's death but I think Stevenson has more reason than almost anyone to feel this way. Stevenson has worked his entire career to fight the systematic racism that is entrenched into the American justice system. He has been helping people, mostly black men, wrongly or unfairly incarcerated for decades. To see that black people are still being killed by the police in the streets must be deeply saddening. As a lawyer, he can only help those who have been granted a trial—but George Floyd's life was taken before that could ever happen.

Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer based out of Montgomery, Alabama and the founder of a non-profit law firm called the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). Stevenson has ran this organization since its inception in 1989 and its primary purpose is to provide pro bono legal representation to anyone who has been denied a fair trial. The choice of location in the capital of Alabama was not incidental; Alabama is the only state that does not provide legal assistance to people on death row. Montgomery has also been the epicentre of many events related to oppression and slavery in the history of the United States. In the early 19th century it served as an auction site for black slaves who were brought by the boatload up the Alabama river. In the 1860s, Montgomery became the first capital of the Confederacy and then almost a century later it was the centre for protests during the Civil Rights Movement—like Rosa Park's bus boycott and the marches from Selma to Montgomery. Standing on the shoulders of giants, the Equal Justice Initiative is another important step in the on-going fight against inequality and prejudice.

Just Mercy

Stevenson published Just Mercy in 2014. It's a memoir of his life as a lawyer for the last 25 years. The bulk of the book is focused on one particular case—one of the first cases that Stevenson took on after founding EJI. It was in defence of Walter McMillian, a man from Monroeville, Alabama found guilty of the murder of a young white woman and sentenced to death. McMillian's story provides a sort of overarching narrative in the book but Stevenson also spends time sharing stories and information about other cases and areas of the judicial system where he has seen cruelty and injustice. After a long and arduous career campaigning for the disenfranchised, Stevenson distills some really important lessons about humanity, and our society, in Just Mercy:

Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.

— Stevenson, pg. 32

The poor and disfavoured are exactly who Stevenson sought to defend and protect throughout his career. From kids as young as 13 being sentenced to life in prison, to the mentally disabled on death row, to the systematic racism perpetrated against black people...Stevenson and the lawyers at EJI fought for their justice. I was stunned by how discriminatory the police, the judicial system, and the prison system could all be. It is important to recognize that these are not historical events either—Stevenson only began his career in 1990 and he is still working today. Just Mercy was only published in 2014, so the cases that Stevenson has worked on and the prejudices he's witnessed are problems that still exist today. Just Mercy Cover The United States has been in turmoil for the past few months, first with the Coronavirus outbreak, and now by the nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd. It has been a trying moment for a country which is already so divided by partisanship. The death of George Floyd has received a tremendous amount of media coverage and it has generated emotional discussion among people of all races and backgrounds. The unfortunate part is that people are psychologically drawn to the story due to the face attached to it and the personal details of those involved. But the discussion should not be about George Floyd, his past life, or his actions on that day, nor should it be about any of the officers involved and their personal lives. Floyd's death, and the immense reaction to it, was catalyzed by two things: the ubiquity of smartphones with videos cameras, and the scope and influence of social media. These new features of modern society, when used together, help to find and amplify the stories and events that people care about. The sad thing is that deaths like Floyd's have happened continuously in the United States for more than 100 years. This was not a singular event that involved one racist cop and a bad situation and the fact that it wasn't an anomaly is the problem.

When you see the amount of people that have participated in these protests against racism and the amount of emotion and anger directed at the police, it is hard to make sense of it. I knew that it was tough to be black in America, but I figured all of the horrific injustices like slavery, lynchings, and segregation were over and they had moved past that. But by reading Stevenson's book, I realized just how incredibly racist and unfair their institutions still are, particularly in the Southern States. All over America, black children are not taught to trust the police, they are taught to fear them. This is not without good reason too—the police have consistently failed to protect the health and safety of black people for years. Reading about all the cases where obviously innocent black men were sentenced to life in prison, or even to their death, was infuriating. Like Will Smith said in an interview on the Late Show back in 2016: "Racism isn't getting worse, it's getting filmed". Maybe if there were smartphones in the South during the 80s and 90s, more of the racism and oppression would have been captured and challenged by society; unfortunately we are only being informed now through the work of Bryan Stevenson.

Serious Problems

On November 1st 1986, Walter McMillian was having a community fish fry in his own backyard with dozens of people from his Church. That day, miles away from the fish fry, a young white woman was tragically murdered at a dry-cleaners in town. After months of investigation and mounting pressure on the local police department, they felt like they needed to arrest someone to appease the town. So they arrested McMillian. To make a case against him, the police basically forced another criminal, a white man with a known history of lying and making up stories, to testify at McMillian's trial. The story he told was laughably absurd; it was filled with contradictions and asinine motives, and it refuted McMillian's alibi of hosting a fish fry that day, which dozens of people could attest to. Unfortunately, the people that could vouch for McMillian were also black, so it would not have made much difference to the all-white jury that was deciding his fate. Instead, the judge, jury, and the whole damn town decided to believe the stupid story of a degenerate criminal, just because he was white, and so McMillian was sentenced to death row. Maybe deep down they all knew it wasn't true but they just wanted to arrest someone for the murder and feel better about themselves. The fact that they sentenced a black person just made it an easier pill to swallow.

When Stevenson was finally able to exonerate McMillian and save him from death row, after 6 years of incarceration, he stood in front of the judge at the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, and said this:

Your Honor, I just want to say this before we adjourn. It was far too easy to convict this wrongly accused man for murder and send him to death row for something he didn’t do and much too hard to win his freedom after proving his innocence. We have serious problems and important work that must be done in this state.

— Stevenson, pg. 390

Stevenson was right, and he has been working on solving these serious problems his whole career. EJI's mandate is that they will provide legal representation to anyone that has been denied a fair trial and may have been wrongly convicted. Stevenson has taken on many cases but the ones I found most shocking were cases where a juvenile had been tried as an adult, of which there are an astounding number of examples in the United States.

I always assumed that if a juvenile were to be tried as an adult, they would be almost of age (like 2 weeks away from being eighteen) and they had murdered like 12 people in cold blood or something egregiously violent like that. Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to be the case. Stevenson describes numerous examples of 13 and 14-year-old children that have been sentenced to adult prisons for life with no chance of parole, some of them for non-lethal crimes.

In 1989 in Pensacola, Florida, Joe Sullivan was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Sullivan was black, and Stevenson describes him as "a thirteen-year-old boy with mental disabilities who read at a first-grade level". Sullivan had been found guilty of sexual assault of an elderly white woman, but because of some other past misdemeanours the judge concluded that Sullivan was beyond rehabilitation (as a thirteen-year-old!) and the juvenile detention system would be a useless sentence. So instead, he sent Joe Sullivan to prison:

Joe, just one year into his own adolescence, was sent to adult prison, where an eighteen-year nightmare began. In prison, he was repeatedly raped and sexually assaulted. He attempted suicide on multiple occasions. He developed multiple sclerosis, which eventually forced him into a wheelchair. Doctors later concluded that his neurological disorder might have been triggered by trauma in prison.

— Stevenson, pg. 448

The fate of a thirteen year old boy's life was decided upon inconclusive legal grounds, all within a single day of trial. As punishment Sullivan was sent to a facility where he was subjected to rape and sexual assault for years, and was irrevocably damaged as a result. The entire situation is horrifying to read about.

Because some prison staffs have realized that juveniles sent to adult prisons are five times more likely to be victims of sexual assault, they will place these children in solitary confinement instead to "protect" them from the other inmates. This is exactly what happened to Ian Manuel, also in Florida, in 1990 when he shot a woman while robbing her with two older boys. The woman survived the shooting, but regardless Ian Manuel received life imprisonment without parole at thirteen years old. Manuel was sent to Apalachee Correctional Institution, where he began an eighteen year period of uninterrupted solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement at Apalachee means living in a concrete box the size of a walk-in closet. You get your meals through a slot, you do not see other inmates, and you never touch or get near another human being. If you “act out” by saying something insubordinate or refusing to comply with an order given to you by a correctional officer, you are forced to sleep on the concrete floor of your cell without a mattress. If you shout or scream, your time in solitary is extended; if you hurt yourself by refusing to eat or mutilating your body, your time in solitary is extended; if you complain to officers or say anything menacing or inappropriate, your time in solitary is extended. You get three showers a week and are allowed forty-five minutes in a small caged area for exercise a few times a week. Otherwise you are alone, hidden away in your concrete box, week after week, month after month.

— Stevenson, pg. 263

Now, I am not so naive as to think that any justice system can be perfect. Laws can have unintended consequences, bad precedents can be set, prejudiced individuals will always exist, and innocent people may be sent to jail sometimes. However, when a justice system is capable of completely ruining a child's life because of one mistake, when it has the authority to place a child in a concrete box and hide them away until they die, there is something wrong with that system. Stevenson believed the same, and he worked tirelessly for years to get the Supreme Court to make such decisions a lot harder. He has won landmark rulings to ban mandatory life-imprisonments for children 17 and younger, and to ban them completely for non-homicidal crimes. For his efforts, both Joe Sullivan and Ian Manuel were released in 2016, both of them having served over 25 years of their lives in prison.

Slavery By Another Name

It was hard to hear about the numerous cases of injustice and cruelty that have been adjudicated during Stevenson's career, and long before it, that he has worked to ratify. It's even harder to accept that these aren't anomalous events in many ways—it's just how the system is supposed to work. Stevenson spends some time discussing why so many people, predominantly blacks and other minorities, are incarcerated in the United States and why prison sentences are so severe. It can be boiled down to two main reasons, or possibly just two manifestations of one reason: power. Specifically, it is the desire of the ruling class to maintain the existing power structures.

The most visceral form of power in our society is economic power and prison happens to be a profitable business in the United States. It is an industry worth about $6 billion dollars, due to the rise of the privatized prison system. Since their inception in the 80s, private prison corporations have generated massive profits from lucrative government contracts, prison labour programs, and by having publicly traded shares. The prison industry also spends millions of dollars a year through government lobbying to ensure there are more prisoners to profit from:

Prison growth and the resulting “prison-industrial complex”—the business interests that capitalize on prison construction—made imprisonment so profitable that millions of dollars were spent lobbying state legislators to keep expanding the use of incarceration to respond to just about any problem. Incarceration became the answer to everything—health care problems like drug addiction, poverty that had led someone to write a bad check, child behavioral disorders, managing the mentally disabled poor, even immigration issues generated responses from legislators that involved sending people to prison.

— Stevenson, pg. 449

The prison-industrial complex is a strong part of why America has 25% of the global prison population despite only being 5% of the overall population. There is a vested economic interest in having more incarcerated citizens. That being said, private prisons only house about 8% of prisoners in the United States, so the majority of prisons are still operated by the government. This leads me to the second reason why so many people are incarcerated: racism.

Slavery, as a legal institution, was abolished in 1865 by the ratification of the thirteenth amendment. But the South did not relinquish its socioeconomic systems of power over African Americans; the practices of enslavement and prejudice just changed and became more discreet. Reading Just Mercy was a stark reminder that, nearly 150 years after slavery was outlawed, African Americans and other minorities are still severely disadvantaged, and even targeted, in most of the United States still. There is a long way to go until this inhumane discrimination is removed from society, in America and elsewhere. I certainly don't know how it will end, but I believe it starts with education. I'd recommend everyone read Stevenson's novel because it was one of the most eye-opening books I've ever read.

Truth Before Reconciliation

Near the end of that interview on Amanpour & Co, Stevenson says something quite poignant about what sort of positive action he would hope to see from law enforcement. He would like the police to visit the lynching memorials that EJI has erected in Montgomery. He invites them to go there, in uniform, and just apologize. Apologize on behalf of those that have worn the same uniform and have failed to protect black people for so many years. They may not be personally guilty of these injustices, but by wearing the uniform they are representing the same institutions. They could state, verbally, that they want to see change and they will do better to protect black people. Not acknowledging this history, and not talking about it, will not bring about change. Truth needs to come before reconciliation. There is great power in the oral statement, and to provide acknowledgement of the past is all Stevenson wants. It doesn't require a budget, or a change to the laws, but it requires courage.

I think this path towards change that Stevenson wants can apply to more than just law enforcement. As a white person, to be post-racial is as helpful to society as waking up and not killing your neighbour everyday; it is just inaction. To be post-racial in a world that is still racist is just turning a blind eye to problems. By being white, we belong to the same culture and society that promoted and enforced inequality, much like the police officer that represents the institution of law enforcement. There is power in acknowledgement. Action must be taken, by everyone, to work towards a more equitable future.

"We’ve all been through a lot, Bryan, all of us. I know that some have been through more than others. But if we don’t expect more from each other, hope better for one another, and recover from the hurt we experience, we are surely doomed.”

— Stevenson, pg. 218

Rating

Non-Fiction 

Value

7/7

Interest

5/7

Writing

5/7

🥪️If this book was a sandwich it would be: smoked beef brisket on a poppy seed bun with horseradish

Saturday, May 30 2020

In 1886, German architect Mies van der Rohe famously declared that "less is more". In 2019, not to be outdone, American entertainer MattySmokes420 responded with: "like and subscribe for more great content!" Both men make compelling arguments, but I'm starting to think that less is becoming a more important option in this Age of Great Content we've found ourselves in. Mies van der Rohe was a pioneer of modernist architecture, which was also a cultural precursor to the minimalist art movement of the 20th century. In the years since, minimalism has evolved into a variety of other art forms and areas of life. Nowadays we watch as Marie Kondo, a petite and joyful Japanese woman, preaches to her Netflix audience to remove all the possessions that don't "spark joy" in one's life. Clean up your room and throw things out; this is minimalism in 2020.

Looking back to its origins as an artistic philosophy in the 1950s, minimalism was an attempt to "expose the essence, essentials or identity of a subject through eliminating all non-essential forms, features or concepts", according to an art critic named Wikipedia. Digital Minimalism book coverIn the context of American art, it was partly a response to the abstract expressionism movement of the mid-twentieth century. Abstract expressionism was popularized through artists like Pollock, Rothko, and de Kooning who eschewed form and objectivity in favour of the surreal. It was dynamic, spontaneous art that was often overflowing with emotion and energy. As far as I understand it, these artists wanted to abandon traditional composition in order to evoke their subconscious representation of a subject. Jay Meuser, an American abstract expressionist, wrote that "it is far better to capture the glorious spirit of the sea than to paint all of its tiny ripples". If the purpose of abstract expressionism is to represent boundless emotion, then perhaps minimalism is about the boundaries themselves. And that, I think, is the crux of minimalism conceptually: erecting boundaries and then thinking about your relationship with them.

The artists of the abstract expressionist movement sought to express their personal emotions through their paintings. As such, each work of art is integrally tied to its creator. Art created to serve this purpose can be viewed as narcissistic or pretentious, but as much as these artists have imbued themselves into their work, the observer still has their own subjective reaction to the art,

A painting is not a picture of an experience. It is the experience.

— Mark Rothko

Rothko sought to cultivate a personal experience to the observer, but it is still hard to separate him from his work completely. Each brush stroke was produced by his hands. When you see Rothko's bright, colourful rectangles slowly transform over the years into darker and darker shades, ultimately culminating in a work with no colour at all, its hard not to think of his suicide just a year after this work was painted. It is this context, and the intimate focus on the artist that minimalist art strives to eliminate. How can an artist remove themselves from the experience of the art? How can an artist create something with no meaning at all?

Minimalism is all about literal, physical presence. It is characterized by extreme simplicity and a reduction of any personal and referential elements so that only the objective, purely visual parts remain. Expressionism, and most art in general, is about representing some feature of reality, or visualizing human experiences like emotion and feeling. The minimalist artist seeks to remove any external references at all, so that the viewer is effected only by what's in front of them. The material, form, and location is the entirety of the art. Because of this, minimalist art most often takes the form of sculpture rather than painting. And it is common for this art to be manufactured in bulk, or produced by automated machinery; further removing the artist from their creation.

Now, I can certainly appreciate this style of art and the virtues it represents. A metal cube sitting on the floor in front of you can be seen as a very pure form of beauty; the art does not try to imitate something its not, and in that way it is truthful. It is easy to understand it simply by comparison to movements such as abstract expressionism. Minimalist art was created as an antithesis to the emotionally driven art that preceded it. If the point of art is to evoke feelings and start discussions, then I think minimalist art, as boring as it may seem at first glance, fits this criteria still.

stupid monkeys looking at a monolith
stupid monkeys looking at a monolith
cultured humans appreciating art
cultured humans appreciating art

Minimalism's popularity grew throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and its core tenets have spread to other disciplines and facets of life. I would resist saying that minimalist art actually influenced these other areas like music, architecture, software, and lifestyle, because I think it is more to do with the reasons why minimalist art resonates with us in the first place. When we see a neat tiling of bricks on a wooden floor, or a tidy, all-white spacious room with white chairs and white shelves, or a clean and simple user interface on a smartphone app...we are drawn to the simplicity and the clear distinctions. I think its deeply rooted in the fact that these straight lines and neat symmetries are not found in nature. They are of human creation and their inarguable logic is comforting to us. Like the apes in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey being captivated, and inspired, by the monolith, minimalist design can open up possibilities to us and teach us something about the essence of things. Maybe a minimalist lifestyle can have similar benefits.

In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport describes a healthier approach to technology, and our use of it, that is inspired by minimalist ideologies. The book provides guidelines for improving our personal use of technology, specifically the use of internet-based entertainment, social media, and video games. In a broader sense, Newport wanted to address the consequences of ubiquitous connection and endless content that is now possible thanks to smartphones and the internet.

It was interesting to read this book during the Coronavirus outbreak, where Canada and the rest of the world has been placed in a lockdown. Almost everyone has been living in social isolation in their homes; the only face-to-face contact is with whoever you live with, which may be nobody. Newport spends time looking at the fundamental differences between connection, which is digital interactions and communication with others, and conversation, that is real, physical interaction. Anyone that has been subject to this lockdown over the past couple months has become intimately aware of these differences, or at least aware of the negative effects. Coronavirus has forced upon us what may be the greatest global social experiment in the history of our species, and it will be interesting to see the results of this experiment.

Connection is any form of digital interaction with others. The most basic of which is something like the Facebook "Like" button or Instagram's "Heart", which is literally a single bit of transmitted information and therefore the absolute smallest amount of interaction possible between two people. Text messaging, whether through SMS, comments, or e-mail would be the next "level" of interaction we use frequently, which everyone understands is fairly low-bandwidth as well. It is hard to convey emotion with just words, particularly when you do not message the other person frequently (although anyone in a relationship can probably infer a lot of things when their partner sends them a "K"). Newport argues that connection is an insufficient and vapid substitute for true conversation. He points to several studies conducted on the effects of heavy social media use that generally correlate this behaviour with loneliness, lower satisfaction in one's own life, and less overall happiness. Naturally, if social media causes such a detriment to one's mental health, the question arises as to why is it so popular in the first place? I think Newport's explanation can be reduced to two primary reasons; the first is concerned with why we are so willing to replace real conversation with digital connection:

Humans are naturally biased toward activities that require less energy in the short term, even if it’s more harmful in the long term—so we end up texting our sibling instead of calling them on the phone, or liking a picture of a friend’s new baby instead of stopping by to visit.

— Newport, pg. 185

I think this shift towards "easier" forms of communication to blatantly evident today. The decline of phone calls in favour of texting (in my generation at least) is a primary example. Social media provides ways of interacting with your friends and family from the comfort of your own home, or while on the bus on your phone, or anywhere really. It is so convenient and accessible that we can feel, at times, more connected to the people in our lives—but Newport believes that by replacing genuine physical time spent together with these digital forms of communication, we are losing out on the real benefits of social interaction.

The second reason that we love social media is that it is has been explicitly designed to be addicting; the more time we spend using Facebook's services, the more money they get. There is already a plethora of research and information available that explains exactly how these tech companies build these addicting feedback loops into their products, so I won't go into detail here. If you are interested a google search will yield plenty of results, or this podcast episode with the author Cal Newport is a great explanation of how social media works.

Unfortunately, the negative effects of ubiquitous technology do not stop at our social lives, according to Newport. This constant connectivity and consumption has a major effect on our psychological welfare; always having stimulus from other outside sources means we are never truly alone with ourselves anymore. Newport claims that these moments of solitude are vital,

For one thing, when you avoid solitude, you miss out on the positive things it brings you: the ability to clarify hard problems, to regulate your emotions, to build moral courage, and to strengthen relationships

— Newport, pg. 136

I really believe in the importance of alone time, especially in how it can help to clarify whats important to you. When you give your mind the space to breathe, where your not processing anything and there is no distracting stimuli, the things that are important to you (or it?) will naturally surface to your consciousness. If you start thinking about something for no reason, there's probably a reason you should be thinking about it. Moments like these I tend to value, and I place a lot of weight on the decisions I make during these times.

Newport is careful to note that this ability to keep yourself distracted is not a new problem that Silicon Valley has created. There has always been ways of keeping yourself mindlessly entertained, and ever since advertising became a part of entertainment, the "attention economy" has been figuring out ways of getting more and more of your eyeball time. What has changed is how pervasive this influence has become and how its infiltrated every corner of our daily life,

Erecting barriers against the existential is not new—before YouTube we had (and still have) mindless television and heavy drinking to help avoid deeper questions—but the advanced technologies of the twenty-first-century attention economy are particularly effective at this task.

— Newport, pg. 217

The presence of smartphones and devices that we can carry on our person at all times has given us the previously unimaginable ability to access...well...literally everything? If you don't see how insane that is then maybe you were born after 2000 and its just expected for you (Shouldn't you be making a TikTok right now or something?). Anyways, smartphones are, without a doubt, very powerful tools we've been given and I think its right that Newport is thinking about how we can properly manage this power without losing ourselves. It may sound hyperbolic, but I think its necessary. Just as art minimalism was a necessary response to the sensory overload of abstract expressionist art, so to must we respond to a world that claims it has given us all we ever wanted, right in our pocket.

So, how exactly does Newport suggest we survive in this brave new world? Its quite simple; Newport wants everyone to become Amish, they figured out this stuff a long time ago. Just kidding, but Newport does spend some time lauding the Amish for their altogether quite reasonable approach to technology. Most people assume that the Amish are strictly opposed to any technology at all, but it turns out they actually do adopt some new tools and technology, whenever they collectively agree that the tool is good:

The Amish, it turns out, do something that’s both shockingly radical and simple in our age of impulsive and complicated consumerism: they start with the things they value most, then work backward to ask whether a given new technology performs more harm than good with respect to these values.

— Newport, pg. 77

This sort of value-driven adoption is closely aligned with what Newport actually suggests we do to curb our technology use. This lifestyle is what he calls digital minimalism:

A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.

— Newport, pg. 48

In other words, use technology only when it benefits what you personally value. Use it as a tool for life, not a substitute for it. Its certainly easier said then done because there are so many reasons we use technology and so many ways its become integrated into our lives already. But Newport thinks its vitally important to at least become aware of these things. The Googles and Facebooks of the world have every intention to take over all aspects of your life; I've wrote previously about how their entire business model is predicated on getting your data and attention. In an economy like this, we must erect boundaries and protect ourselves. This is what digital minimalism is, a way of saying no.

Pollock
streaming yourself on Twitch watching Youtube videos while scrolling through Instagram
minimalist art
throwing your phone into a lake

Newport goes into a lot of detail around how to become a digital minimalist, and what he recommends you do with all the free time you're going to suddenly have. Overall, I thought it was a very thought provoking read despite being overly prescriptive at times. There was also a sense of "look at all the great ways I spend my time" kind of vibe at points as well, which came off as a little pretentious. But in general, what Newport is talking about in digital minimalism is really important today. Minimalism has been around a long time, in different forms, and it is vitally important today to figure out how to live simply. I will end with a succinct explanation of how Newport suggests we look at each individual technology in our life, when deciding whether it is necessary or not. I think it would be good to keep this in mind.

[Does the technology:]

  1. Serve something you deeply value (offering some benefit is not enough).
  2. Be the best way to use technology to serve this value (if it’s not, replace it with something better).
  3. Have a role in your life that is constrained with a standard operating procedure that specifies when and how you use it.

— Newport, pg. 107

Rating

Non-Fiction 

Value

6/7

Interest

4/7

Writing

4/7

🥪️If this book was a sandwich it would be: half a baconator

Sunday, May 10 2020

Last Updated: 26-05-2020

One fears a number of things—that one's body could vanish, that human beings may really be what they appear to be at twilight, that one might not be allowed to walk without a stick, that it might be a good idea to go to church and pray at the top of one's voice in order to be looked at and acquire a body

-Franz Kafka, "Description of a Struggle" pg. 44

Reading Kafka was not the easiest. His writing was often difficult to parse and understand. I got lost sometimes; trying to maintain a grip on the details while also trying to understand the meaning of the story. Meaning is a tricky concept, in literature and in life. The search for meaning is a ubiquitous aspect of our humanity, yet it is also unique to each individual. Because of this, its hard to compare and share meaning with others. I believe that meaning has a deep relationship with pain and suffering, in one sense they could be seen as contrasting forces that guide us through life. However, I think they are really borne out of one another. Having something to live for begets the possibility it can be taken away—it also forces one to accept the challenge of living, and enduring, for what is meaningful to them.

Over the past few months I've been reading Kafka's The Complete Stories which, as its name implies, is the entire collection of his short stories. I finished reading "the longer stories" but I'm going to stop there and save "the shorter stories" for another day. In this post, instead of just reviewing a book, I'm going to explore the broader theme of meaning in life. Right after reading Kafka, I read Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl, an important story about life in the concentration camps in WWII, by a man who survived them. Frankl was also a psychiatrist, and is known as the inventor of a school of psychotherapy called logotherapy, which is a means of therapy rooted in finding meaning in one's life. This concept was conceived by Frankl before he was imprisoned in the concentration camps, but his experiences there re-enforced his beliefs that an individual always has a meaning to live, and by understanding one's meaning it is possible to endure anything. As he explains himself,

Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a “secondary rationalization” of instinctual drives. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning.

-Victor Frankl, "Man's Search for Meaning" pg. 142

Frankl believed that it is vital to understand our purpose so that we may endure the hardships of life. It was easy to see this by reading Frankl's account of his time in the camps—everything was taken from him and he was left with nothing but himself, in the face of unimaginable hardship. But, does a will to meaning have any benefit in ordinary life? Say, in the case of Kafka writings? Kafka's protagonists experience immense hardship in ordinary circumstances. Walking down the street, getting out of bed, saying goodbye to someone...exposing the infinite ability of the human mind to construct obstacles and complications around oneself. To contrast that with the reality of life as a prisoner in a concentration camp, where existence is the only goal and every obstacle is horrific cruelty and suffering. What can be said about these two states of mind and how can they have anything in common? Would empathizing with Kafka's protagonists in their inextricable quests be an affront to those who face real, external hardship? When compared to real physical suffering, how can feelings of isolation and disappointment be seriously considered actual problems? I don't actually believe there is much difference, but it's a question worth having a good answer to.

The ironic thing about the stories found in The Complete Stories is that many of them are incomplete or fragmentary; it was common to see these placeholders like this in the text: ". . .[Two pages missing]. . ." which signified the missing parts. Taken together with the fact that even the "completed" stories were usually devoid of any sort of conventional plot, such that even they could be considered fragments, it made me curious why Kafka's writing is regarded so highly that such effort would be taken to publish it in these forms. The Complete Stories Cover The writing itself was interesting, and I am no expert but I could definitely appreciate Kafka's talent for prose. I found that he had an ability to describe mundane events as fantastic, and seemingly alien to the narrator. Descriptions of the world in his writing felt different, as if the narrator's perspective was orthogonal to our conventional observations. Writing in this way emphasizes the idea that the protagonist is somehow different than the people around him - they are isolated and forlorn, unable to fully grasp the necessary reality of the world around them.

As an example, the second story in the collection is called Wedding Preparations in the Country. Not only are there several missing fragments from the story (as much as FOUR pages missing in some parts), there is also a second manuscript included right after the first manuscript ends. This second manuscript is a much shorter version which begins under the same premise—a man named Eduard Raban is walking along a street on his way to a wedding in the countryside, but aside from the first couple paragraphs it is completely different than the first version, and also considerably shorter So, to recap, Wedding Preparations in the Country is really a collection of two vaguely similar manuscripts, each with significant portions missing...to me this begs the question, how great was this story, and in a broader sense all of Kafka's writing, that it would merit being published in this form? As I read Wedding Preparations, I sought to find a meaningful message within the words written. For the most part, meaning alluded me; perhaps directly looking for a hidden message is not the best strategy when reading Kafka.

In the second version of this short story, while Eduard Raban is waiting for the rain to stop under the entrance to a pedestrian tunnel, he is joined by an elderly man. They begin to converse, starting with small talk about the weather. The conversation begins to drag quickly, and the elderly man seems bored with Raban. Despite the boring start to the conversation, it evolves into a discussion of literature at some point (it is unclear how they arrived at this topic as this part of the story is missing) and it leads to a passage I found quite profound. Raban, in describing the usefulness of books, explains their significance to one's own life,

"I was only going to say books are useful in every sense and quite especially in respects in which one would not expect it. For when one is about to embark on some enterprise, it is precisely the books whose contents have nothing at all in common with the enterprise that are the most useful. For the reader who does after all intend to embark on that enterprise, that is to say, who has somehow become enthusiastic (and even if, as it were, the effect of the book can penetrate only so far as that enthusiasm), will be stimulated by the book to all kinds of thoughts concerning his enterprise. Now, however, since the contents of the book are precisely of utter indifference, the reader is not at all impeded in those thoughts, and he passes through the midst of the book with them, as once the Jews passed through the Red Sea, that's how I should like to put it"

-Kafka, pg. 75

I'd like to think that Kafka was, in some sense, providing commentary on his own writing. Although these fictitious scenarios are utterly foreign to us, we read to be reminded of our own lives. And as Kafka puts it, by reading something unrelated to one's personal life, it is still possible to think and be stimulated by "all kinds of thoughts concerning his enterprise". But what exactly is one's "enterprise"? I believe Kafka is referring to the same thing that Victor Frankl is. Someone's enterprise is the reason they get out of bed for everyday—their raison d'être. Kafka is saying that there is not one, specific meaning to his work—it is how we interpret his writing in relation to our own reality that we find meaning in it. Kafka understood that literature is meant to open our minds to new ideas and perspectives, and he was exceptional at conveying ideas in veiled form. Beyond the "hissing arc lamps" and the "zephyr shirts", underneath the "wet cobblestone"...Kafka was describing the elements of our human experience, and most literary critics agree that these experiences were largely inspired by his own life.

Franz Kafka was born in 1883 in Prague. He is regarded as one of the greatest and most influential writers of the 20th century. Kafka apparently struggled with anxiety and depression his entire life. He considered himself an outcast in some respects, and it is speculated he may have suffered from some type of personality disorder. Kafka also had a strained and complicated relationship with his father, whom he felt a need to appease due to his father's demanding and authoritarian demeanor. All of these fears and feelings of isolation are represented in Kafka's writing. Most of the stories I read consisted of a male protagonist facing some inexplicable troubles while navigating through a seemingly ordinary situation. The protagonist would struggle against some unseen or unexplained force that disrupts their perception of reality. In the end, their struggles are never vindicated, the "hero" simply succumbs to the fate they fought to avoid the whole story. This struggle, painted in a depressing way by Kafka, feels familiar to us because we all have to work against the forces in life that try to bring us down, be they social, economic, environmental, or bureaucratic. 30 years and 300 kilometres away from Prague, Victor Frankl wrote about how we can face these forces and answer the challenges in life,

Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

-Frankl, pg. 115

Victor Frankl was a prominent Austrian Psychiatrist, born in Vienna in 1905 and laid to rest in Vienna in 1997. Frankl practically lived through the entire 20th century, seeing both World Wars and unfortunately, as an Austrian Jew, having to experience the concentration camps of the second World War. Over the course of 3 years, Frankl was imprisoned in several different concentration camps, including Auschwitz. He was separated from his wife, who at some point died in another concentration camp. Both of Frankl's parents, and his brother, died in concentration camps as well. Frankl did not know the fate of his loved ones until after the war, which I'm not sure made his experience in the camps any better; I imagine the anguish of not knowing was just as terrible as knowing they were gone. Regardless, the reality of camp life that Frankl describes in Man's Search for Meaning is so incredibly horrifying that it doesn't even seem possible to compare levels of suffering at that point. The first part of the book Man's Search for Meaning coveris a vivid description of what life was like in these camps. Upon arrival to the camp there was an immediate selection process—any persons who did not seem physically fit for hard labour we're immediately sent to be killed, either by gas chamber or some other torturous method. For the remaining prisoners, the camps were designed to quickly dehumanize them; they were treated simply as working animals, being fed the bare minimum amount of calories to survive and with no regard for their well-being whatsoever. Hard labour was performed, day in and day out, in any weather conditions and in any state of health. Frankl takes time to describe the afflictions that most prisoners dealt with in the camps:

Like nearly all the camp inmates I was suffering from edema. My legs were so swollen and the skin on them so tightly stretched that I could scarcely bend my knees. I had to leave my shoes unlaced in order to make them fit my swollen feet. There would not have been space for socks even if I had had any. So my partly bare feet were always wet and my shoes always full of snow. This, of course, caused frostbite and chilblains. Every single step became real torture.

-Frankl, pg. 45

No matter how terrible the pain, you worked every day, because if you were not able to work, you were not able to live. In addition to the immense physical suffering that was afforded to the prisoners, the psychological cruelty made it even harder. The guards ensured that no prisoner ever stepped out of line, or even showed any sign of displeasure, even for tasks like cleaning the toilets:

Between the huts in the camp lay pure filth, and the more one worked to clear it away, the more one had to come in contact with it. It was a favorite practice to detail a new arrival to a work group whose job was to clean the latrines and remove the sewage. If, as usually happened, some of the excrement splashed into his face during its transport over bumpy fields, any sign of disgust by the prisoner or any attempt to wipe off the filth would only be punished with a blow from a Capo. And thus the mortification of normal reactions was hastened.

-Frankl, pg. 37

This "mortification of normal reactions" was Frankl's way of explaining how, in the face of constant, routine suffering of unimaginable depths, the human psyche would eventually refuse to process the emotional reaction expected for these conditions. It is a survival instinct to retreat into this state of emotional unconcern:

Apathy, the blunting of the emotions and the feeling that one could not care any more, were the symptoms arising during the second stage of the prisoner’s psychological reactions, and which eventually made him insensitive to daily and hourly beatings.

-Frankl, pg. 40

It is hard to imagine what a state of existence like this would be like—being numb to physical beatings. Reading Frankl's account of life in the camps was emotional for me, as I'm sure it would be for anyone, for two reasons. Firstly, it is shocking to learn the levels of cruelty we as humans are capable of. We are capable of systematically and mercilessly constructing these camps of torture, and that thousands of individuals would willingly operate them. Secondly, and perhaps the most important lesson I learned, was that humans are capable of enduring these levels of depravity. Our ability to adapt to such circumstances speaks to more than just our survival instincts, because there is more to survival than just physical resilience. Human consciousness is special in that we can reflect on our own consciousness. This simple fact enables us to understand any circumstance we find ourselves in, and by holding on to our meaning, we can endure no matter what. This is our greatest survival instinct.

Both Frankl and Kafka wanted to explore suffering and hardship in their own way. Frankl used the most extreme example of physical suffering as a way of proving his theory's applicability. Kafka explored the depths of our consciousness and how we can find suffering within our selves. In both cases, although they may diverge in details, I think understanding one's will to meaning can provide a path out of each. We all experience hardship, this is universal, but each individual has the opportunity to achieve a better future. No one can ever prevent you from seeing the beauty in that.

We build useless war machines, towers, walls, curtains of silk, and we could marvel at all this a great deal if we had the time. We tremble in the balance, we don't fall, we flutter, even though we may be uglier than bats. And on a beautiful day hardly anyone can prevent us from saying 'Oh God, today is a beautiful day'

-Franz Kafka, "Description of a Struggle" pg. 45

More