In Remembrance of My Mom

In the last conversation I had with my mom – this was about ten days before she died – I asked her what she still wanted to accomplish, what was on her bucket list? I sat at the foot of her bed in the darkness of the early evening, the mood set by the ambient glow from the hall light and the white-noise purr of a sleeping cat, and we mused about how she would like to spend her last days, a period once so distant and abstract, but now on her doorstep. She told me there were two things she intended to prioritize above everything else: to finish some aprons, and to spend as much time as possible with the people most important to her.

It wasn’t until later that struck me as odd. It wasn’t that she wanted to see Paris or live to her next birthday or something understandably self-indulgent. It wasn’t as though she felt her life was incomplete unless she sang echoes off the acoustic rocks of the Grand Canyon or stared awestruck at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Nor did she appraise her life as meaningless unless she saw Hamilton on Broadway or James Taylor at Carnegie Hall. Rather, she wanted to use her remaining precious and finite time to carefully and intentionally wrap her friends and family in the fabric of her love.

Indeed, if there was anything my mom had in abundance – apart from romance novels, or multi-thousand-piece puzzles, or wall art with the word “joy” – it was friends. She had more devoted friends than any one person could possibly hope for. These last few months I saw countless people dedicate their time and energies into comforting and encouraging her. Even as her autonomy was stripped away, as she was brought low by the anchor of her cancer, she was hoisted high by your love; as her body sank into the grave of her illness, her spirit soared under the winds of your affection. I watched in awe as some of you tenderly rubbed lotion on her ailing feet, or scrubbed the bathroom sink she no longer had the strength to clean herself, or even just popped in to offer a word of friendly encouragement. Your contributions were noticed, and they were cherished.

She said towards the very end that there were many people to whom she still had things to say, but in the haze of her illness she couldn’t quite clutch their names from the fog or recall what she had intended to tell them. But I feel confident I can summarize what she wanted to say to each of you: that she loved you deeply, and she was infinitely grateful that you were in her life.

True to form, in that last conversation, my mom wasn’t especially interested in dwelling on the minutia of her plans for her final days. She was far more interested in knowing what plans I was making for myself, what roadmaps I was drawing for my future. She asked, perhaps as a provocation, if I was making plans to marry my girlfriend (though what sort of mother would she be if she didn’t?).

I told her – and Gracia, I hope this doesn’t catch you off guard – that I didn’t know yet, but I was giving it serious thought. I shifted a little closer on the bed and took her hand in mine – a moment that echoed with both devastation and joy in the hours shortly before her death as she clutched that same hand tightly and persistently as though it were all that was keeping her alive.

She asked me what I’d want my wedding to be like, if I were to get married, and I told her how I’d want it to be: ankle deep in the cool waters of the Baptism River, surrounded by the surreal colors and the brisk beauty of a North Shore autumn, wearing Red Wing boots and Pendleton flannel, circled by my closest friends perched on rocks above us like cherubs.

“That sounds like exactly the sort of thing that you would want,” she said to me. I think she meant it as a compliment. “I just wish I could be there for it.”

I squeezed her hand and kissed her forehead. “I do too,” I whispered. It was clear she was getting tired, so I left her room to let her sleep. Looking back, I wish I’d stayed until she dozed off, until her snores chased the startled cat from the room.

In a heartbreaking essay about the stillbirth of his first son, the art historian Matthew Milliner tells what could be described as the miraculous origin story of St. Clement, the Bishop of Rome:

The Emperor Trajan had Clement thrown into the sea with an anchor around his neck. When Clement’s companions prayed to see the martyr’s body, the “sea drew back three miles, and all walked out dry-shod and found a small building prepared by God in the shape of a temple, and within, in an ark, the body of St. Clement and the anchor beside him.”

The story then grows even more odd. Each year, at the anniversary of Clement’s death, the sea drew back for visitors. One year, a woman went out to the shrine with her little son, and the child fell asleep. When the ceremony was finished and the sound of the inrushing tide was heard, the woman was terrified and forgot her son in her hurry to get ashore with the rest of the crowd. It was there she remembered, and loud were the cries and lamentations she addressed to heaven, wailing and running up and down the beach, hoping she might see the child’s body cast up by the waves. When all hope was gone, she went home and mourned and wept for a whole year.

At the next anniversary of Clement’s death, when the sea dutifully drew back, the grieving woman was the first to the tomb. She prayed at the shrine, and when she arose, the child—as if nothing had happened—was fast asleep where he had been left. “Thinking that he must be dead she moved closer, ready to gather up the lifeless body; but, when she saw that he was sleeping, she quickly awakened him and, in full sight of the crowd, lifted him in her arms.”

I know what our modern sensibilities would make of such stories, but for my part it rings true. In the perplexing mercy of death, God set aside the anchor of cancer that was tied to her neck and now cradles her in the ark of his arms. While my mother may not have been a saint, or conjured miracles, her love was as bountiful as her books. Although for now she sleeps, when the tide of this world recedes, I will hold her hand again.


Audio of this eulogy, delivered 2/9/19 at Rockpoint Church, can be found here.


Art by Emily Dikken


A Eulogy For Myself, In Anticipation of Dying Young

ed. note: About a week ago, in the wee small hours, I was almost hit by a car. The experience got me thinking about the practical details of dying unexpectedly, whether everyone involved would know my burial preferences or what songs I’d like played at the service (is Iron & Wine’s “Naked As We Came” too obvious?). It also made me think of what I’d want to say to the people who love me enough to come to my funeral. This is what I came up with.

I would hope that by the time these words are read aloud in front of a captive audience – you all look wonderful in your classic black suits and ornate veils, by the way – my life will barely resemble the one I lead now. If all goes according to plan I will have died a peaceful death at home on my dairy farm, my gentle heifers Cownie Chung and Mary Tyler Moo-er grazing in a nearby pasture, the hypermodernist farmhouse I designed and built an enduring metaphor for my simultaneously forward-thinking and self-indulgent nature. I will be survived by my wife Helga, our three sons Sufjan, Maxwell, and Maximillian, and a princely Australian Shepherd named Sir Francis Barkin that I love more than the four of them combined.

Of course, life has a way of laughing at our plans. I can say with some confidence that I would never have met most of the people in this room had I received the future I laid out for myself. What a miracle that turned out to be! No less a modern prophet than Garth Brooks once observed, “Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” The beautiful faces in this room are living testimony to the truth of that sentiment.

Some people preoccupy themselves with uncertainties about life after death. I have no such questions: I know that I will keep living. I don’t mean that in the strictly spiritual sense (although I certainly believe that to be the case as well). Perhaps you remember that essay I wrote about those aspects of other people’s personalities that have rubbed off on me, that have become integrated into my identity, inseparable from my soul. As you have been grafted into me, I have been grafted into you. I live on through you.

I live on when you garnish your butternut squash soup with toasted pistachios and some shards of Parmesan. I live on when you step around to execute a perfect inside-out counterloop, preferably around the net and for the win. I live on when you go top shelf on some sticky summer day, floating above the defender as though carried by cherubs. I live on when you complain that Tarantino’s character work got particularly shoddy after Jackie Brown. When you cry readily at a film, when you order the plainest thing on a menu to accurately gauge its quality, when you sit quietly and just absorb the unceasing human drama playing out in the lives of those around you, I get to live in you.

You found me malleable and seized that opportunity, molding me like sculptor’s clay. No doubt your fingerprints have been baked into my spirit by some cosmic kiln. (Hopefully I wasn’t murdered, or this metaphor just got very awkward from an evidentiary perspective.) Maybe ee cummings had something like this in mind when he wrote,

losing through you what seemed myself;i find
selves unimaginably mine;beyond
sorrow’s own joys and hoping’s very fears

yours is the light by which my spirit’s born:
yours is the darkness of my soul’s return
–you are my sun,my moon,and all my stars

And even if he didn’t, we get to misappropriate his words and intent to our hearts’ content. That is, after all, one of the beauties of art.

That is also one of the beauties of life. It is up to us to interpret and reinterpret our stories, and we can give value and meaning to their details. Superficial tidbits can be imbued with depths unfathomable in the moment. We own our biographies – as Chef John might have said, you are the John Dory of your life’s story – and it is up to us to decide when fidelity to a greater truth trumps fidelity to objective historical accuracy.

And so it is with how I’d like to be remembered. My closest friends no doubt remember our running gag about how the manager at Famous Daves once gifted us with a $7 trillion-dollar meal platter, a not-so-subtle joke about how easily we’ll exaggerate things in retelling, but also a nod to how prestigious, how august that gesture made us feel. When we were still poor college students, savoring the irony of buying kid’s meals for our weekly man nights, this wonderful woman gave us a meal that made us feel like warrior kings. The absolute cost of it is meaningless minutia compared to the emotional value of that gift.

Just a couple nights ago, I was trying to describe to a friend the feeling of being stranded at home with a broken-down car. I crafted an image of a frontiersman in a lonesome log cabin, deep in the wilderness, coughing up white smoke from the pine log that he’d not properly dried before adding to the fire, longing for human contact from anyone who wasn’t his softly-snoring beardly brother. But he dares not venture outside. “He’d die,” I said. “There are bears in these woods.”

In my mind, then, when you retell my stories, the best way to honor me is to identify the kernel of truth each of those stories was told to convey, and to use your best judgment about how to capture that truth in the retelling. Maybe that means that car we found just outside of Montevideo was shrouded in fog when it was, in fact, probably a clear winter night, and maybe the man we found stiff and rigid at the steering wheel was already turning blue. Maybe that means that balcony I pulled you from was on the fifteenth floor rather than the third. Maybe you lost three thousand dollars instead of seventy-five that time we got sushi and I told you that I loved you.

If it’s the feeling that matters, if it’s the emotional experience that is in some way the real truth, the image we use to craft that feeling or evoke that emotion is as real as what we otherwise call reality. Perhaps reality itself is itself a handcrafted image, its sole purpose to reveal these feelings to us. Perhaps these shadow plays are the only way by which such truths can be revealed: “Now I see in a mirror, dimly.”

“But when the perfect comes, the incomplete will pass away.”

I don’t know how I’ll be remembered. Hopefully my award-winning cheese hybrids (like a cross between Gorgonzola and Gouda called, you guessed it, “Blouda”) will merit mention, as will my bestselling self-help extraordinaire “The Macks Effect: Making Life Your Bitch Through Reverse Psychology.” Others will focus instead on my unlikely scientific breakthrough, the discovery of the heaviest element known to man (your mom). But if I had to choose, I hope the stories you tell are about how together we became more than ourselves. I hope you’d remember first those times it felt like our hearts had left our bodies and were dancing together on a stage only we could see. I hope you take comfort recalling those times we looked at each other with tears in our eyes, unsure if the pains we endured were woven from my wounds or yours, or if the joy we felt was your victory or mine. Were you the harmony to my melody, or was it the other way around? It couldn’t matter less. Together we sang a beautiful song.



Photo credit: Daniel Mick

The Peculiar Quality of Friendship

One question I like to ask people after I’ve known them a while is, “In your opinion, what is the exact moment that we started to become friends?” I’d have to concede that in many cases the trust and intimacy required for friendship came along so slowly that no one could identify an exact moment with any confidence, like pinpointing the precise place a creek becomes a river. On the other hand, many of my friends choose the same memory that I do. One friendship started the time we stayed up half the night talking about how I felt my life was crumbling in front of me. Another began when I happened to be the only person in earshot when the cumulative pressures of college and family had become overbearing. Yet another sprouted from a chance encounter in a piano practice room, where she was on the brink of tears and I managed the rare (for me) feat of saying something meaningful and encouraging.

I once described friendship as having five essential pillars – trust, comfort, affection, quality time, and open communication – but I’ve come to realize this model is at once too complicated yet not sophisticated enough. “Too complicated” because quality time and open communication aren’t so much components of friendship as they are the fuel it runs on. (Is gas really a part of a car? A question for the philosophers.) “Not sophisticated enough” because identifying those core components says nothing about the way they interact. Does open communication lead to comfort, or does comfort produce open communication? I’m self-aware enough to notice that it’s often when I start talking that people become uncomfortable.

Setting aside for a paragraph my instincts as a writer, I think friendship can be helpfully conceptualized as a tree, with roots of trust, a trunk and branches made from intimacy, love as its fruit, and communication and quality time the sunshine and rainwater that keeps it fed and makes it grow. Perhaps this is why those friendships with discrete beginnings – the ones we can trace from seed to sequoia – almost invariably involve some moment of profound vulnerability, a basic bid for support, a plea for understanding or compassion that is unequivocally answered.

But rain falls on concrete as well as trees. This obvious fact (and the brusque, blunt person who feels the need to pedantically point it out) has created a lot of conflict in my life. If the word “friend” is to be a useful term, it must refer to something stronger than just someone I talk to or spend time with: it must describe the essential nature of a particular kind of relationship. Nobody, except those who just moments prior had an explicit claim to the contrary, would take offense to the statement, “You’re not my employee” or “You’re not my spouse.” But to say, “You’re not my friend” is an egregious faux pas. Why should this be?

Of course, the first obvious answer to this question is that most people mean something altogether different than I do when they use the word, that their category for the term is much more expansive than my own. Perhaps they would likewise describe shrubs and cornstalks as “Basically just trees.” I hope you can at least understand why I find that lack of distinction unsatisfying.

C.S. Lewis noticed this too. “To the Ancients,” he wrote, “Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it. We admit of course that besides a wife and family a man needs a few ‘friends.’ But the very tone of the admission, and the sort of acquaintanceships which those who make it would describe as ‘friendships,’ show clearly that what they are talking about has very little to do with that Philia which Aristotle classified among the virtues or that Amicitia on which Cicero wrote a book. It is something quite marginal; not a main course in life’s banquet; a diversion; something that fills up the chunks of one’s time.”

The second – and infinitely more important – answer is that friendship is by its very nature selective and exclusive. Any conscious act of exclusion necessarily begs questions about value or worth. But we will continue to be selective, even as we are offended when we are not selected. We will continue to be exclusive even as we are excluded. Percipience is an essential quality of friendship, and our unease will not change that.

Even then, the inherent selectivity at play between friends can create jealousies and rivalries among those who have an equal or even greater claim to such a title. Who has not experienced the feeling of being unable to relate to a close friend when they are in deep rapport with someone else, or the feeling that this person you know intimately has transformed into someone unrecognizable while they are in the company of another friend? White chocolate brings out unexpected flavors in both caviar and coffee, yet few would dream of combining the latter two. If coffee could talk, would it express its insecurities that white chocolate sometimes hangs out with a much fancier friend? Would caviar envy coffee’s much wider social circle and wonder why he needed to hog white chocolate’s attention? Has this metaphor gone off the rails yet?

I like to think of friends as fellow-travelers on the same secret road, people with whom I share a (sometimes intuitive and sometimes explicit) sense of understanding, whether about a shared experience or passion or even something entirely ineffable. “I know how you feel. Let’s walk a while together.” Or, as Lewis wrote, “The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, ‘What? You too? I thought I was the only one.’” Perhaps this peculiar quality of friendship is one of the many that gives it so much value. Regardless, I want trees to climb, even while I see the value of cornstalks. I want friendship, not something like it.

Donald Trump, Charles Manson, and the Importance of Basic Fairness

Following the belated death of Charles Manson, Newsweek published an article comparing the rhetorical style of the late cult leader and murderer to that of the current American president. Based primarily on the opinion of psychoanalyst Mark Smaller, the Newsweek piece notes similarities in how both Manson and Trump were “able to speak in a way that engaged those who felt marginalized or alienated.” Per Smaller, “Our current president speaks in an emotional or affective way to large numbers of people in our country who feel a kind of alienation or disconnection from the government.” Meanwhile, “cult followers … are so seduced by feelings of acceptance and understanding that they accept their leaders’ ideologies regardless of how destructive or dangerous they may be.”

Evaluations of Trump’s communication style are nothing new. Evan Puschak, more commonly known as the Nerdwriter, has done at least two video essays on the topic. One focuses on how Trump answers questions, using an example from an interview with Jimmy Kimmel in the wake of the San Bernardino shooting, while the other takes a look at how he composes tweets. Studies have shown that Trump communicates on a fourth-grade level, using disproportionately simple, monosyllabic language, a “volley of jabs” as Puschak puts it, and ending his sentences with strong, punchy words. Likewise, Trump charges his tweets with emotion by taking advantage of the fact that we perceive Tweets (and texts and other screen-oriented communication) to be more akin to speech than to writing. “Where his opponents and other politicians write through Twitter, Trump speaks through it,” says Puschak. “Instead of asking us to read, he forces us to hear.”

While one might draw similar ideas from the Newsweek piece and the Nerdwriter videos, one is left with the feeling that putting Manson and Trump side by side was a little bit fanciful. While Newsweek does take pains to note that they are not trying to draw a direct comparison between Trump and Manson — “Smaller is clear that he does not believe President Donald Trump is similar to the convicted killer, or that their followers have any shared beliefs or characteristics” — it’s reasonable to wonder if such bases covering is a little bit disingenuous. It’s perfectly valid, I think, to draw comparisons to the way different leaders might use language to apprehend the devotion of impressionable minds; it’s also perfectly valid to point out that such comparisons could be made without such objectionable insinuations. Newsweek might not have been trying to say that Charles Manson and Donald Trump are similar in other ways, but they certainly didn’t seem to mind if we came away with that idea on our own.

These comparisons may be true while not being fair. If this example doesn’t strike you as particularly egregious, ask yourself what your reaction would be if Fox News compared Obama to Hitler because they both love dogs or if Breitbart likened Hilary Clinton to the serial killer Ted Bundy because they were both in favor of suicide prevention.

In the age of Internet memes, political talk shows, and political propaganda television dressed up as educational comedy, fairness is a dying virtue. We increasingly prefer to anger ourselves over things other people don’t actually think than to actively engage with what they do. In “The Reason for God,” Tim Keller notes that if you can’t formulate your opponent’s argument in a way that he or she would agree with, you can’t actually claim that you disagree with them. At this point, few of us seem at all tainted by exposure to our opponents, much less the strongest form of their ideas. Those witches might have had us in mind when they chimed, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. I’ve previously argued that most popular political positions can be framed as a positive (i.e., “Because I care about….”). In another of Evan Puschak’s video essays, he examines the pernicious effects of combining schadenfreude, the process taking delight in someone else’s misfortune, with politics, and how it’s helped create a more toxic political atmosphere. While it used to be that, “on some level, we believe our opponent group is genuinely trying to help, just going about it the wrong way,” we’ve slowly come to see each other as evil incarnate, and deserving of whatever bad things that come each other’s way. This truth is sad and demoralizing, but also self-apparent… and possible to stop. I think it’s on each of us to help create the world we want to live in.

If that’s not enough reason to give fairness another shot, think of the way that ignoring basic fairness distracts us from more important issues. The more time we spend discussing the nonexistent similarities between Donald Trump and Charles Manson, the less attention we can give to Trump’s record as president, or to the still lingering, unanswered accusations of sexual assault that have been leveled against him.


Roy Moore and Overcoming Perceptions

One of the great contemporary American heroes, in my opinion, is an Afghani immigrant named Mohammad Rahimi. In Afghanistan, Rahimi was an anti-Soviet mujahid, one critical of the Taliban. In the late 80s, Rahimi fled the Middle East and settled in Elizabeth, a New Jersey city about fifteen miles from New York City, where he opened a fried chicken shack which, thanks to Rahimi’s children, became a spot where local artists like Flee Jones would have rap battles.

In the summer of 2011, Rahimi’s son Ahmad disappeared for three months. When he returned, Ahmad was no longer the genial, generous kid he’d purportedly been growing up. He exchanged his graphic tees and hip-hop persona for traditional Muslim garb and beard. He started praying in the back of the chicken shack, posting concerning messages on jihadi websites, and wrote about his desire to become a martyr. Mohammad caught him watching Al Qaeda and ISIS training videos. After Ahmad refused to stop, Mohammad reported his son to the FBI, who in turn cleared him as a potential terrorist and turned their attention to other, more acute, threats.

Two years later, Ahmad detonated three bombs in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York. Thirty-one people were injured, though incredibly no one was killed.

Putting it in print is easy enough, but it’s hard to overstate just how rare a thing it is for a father to turn his son into the authorities on only the suspicion that he’s a terrorist-in-training, much less an Afghani mujahid in post-9/11 New York. In fact, in the history of crime, we are far more likely to find the opposite tendency: people overlooking the obvious culprit within their community in order to persecute an outsider.

In 2014, I wrote about the murder of a Texas police officer named Robert Wood. Wood had pulled over someone driving with their headlights out, and as he approached the stopped vehicle, the driver opened fire. Wood died at the scene. A month passed before police got a lead in the case: a sixteen-year old kid named David Harris had been bragging to his friends that he killed a cop. After interviewing Harris, the police found 1) the vehicle driven by the suspect had been stolen from Harris’ neighbor; 2) ballistics from the gun used to kill Officer Wood matched the gun Harris had stolen from his father, a .22 revolver; 3) this gun was still in Harris’ possession; 4) Harris matched the description provided by Wood’s partner; and, 5) between the murder and the interview, Harris had been arrested for holding up a convenience store. Inexplicably, the Dallas police department and a jury of twelve Americans were convinced that an Ohio hitchhiker named Randall Adams had murdered Officer Wood. Adams served twelve years in prison before he was able to get the conviction overturned. Harris was never officially charged with the crime.

Harris had prior contact with the Dallas Police Department, and it was those incidents that helped him escape what should have been a very straightforward murder conviction. Harris was, by all accounts, a charming and gregarious teenager, a troublemaker with a difficult home life who everyone expected would mature into a decent person. It was almost certainly the fact that the officers working the case already knew and liked Harris that they couldn’t accept the obvious fact that he murdered their friend.

Two more cases that follow this pattern are the murders of Mary Phagan and Meredith Kercher which, although separated in time and place by almost a hundred years and five thousand miles, have astonishing similarities. Both girls were killed by men who were the last known people to see them alive. Both assailants had criminal histories. Both assailants defecated at the scene. Both murderers were well-known within the local communities. Both murderers pointed police towards scapegoats that were outsiders to the community: in Phagan’s case, a northern Jew named Leo Frank, and in Kercher’s, an American student named Amanda Knox. After three trials and several years, Knox was exonerated and returned to America. An impatient mob kidnapped Frank from his jail cell and lynched him in the public square of Marietta, Georgia.

I’m not sure what artifact of human psychology drives us to divert our suspicions from clearly suspect people in our in-group and onto clearly innocent people in our outgroup. It’s easy to hypothesize that after millennia of living in small, tight-knit communities, a tendency towards xenophobia and its related pathologies has been bred into our survival instinct. Perhaps it’s related to the psychology of perceptions, that it’s harder to change a formed perception than it is to create a new one. Perhaps it’s something more complex than that. The point, though, is that the urge to “protect our own” is common, whereas the tendency to see someone we know or someone we love as a murderer, as an agent of evil, is so rare that is basically a miracle when it does happen.

This is a roundabout prologue to talking about senate candidate Roy Moore, but my point about him is succinct but the context to understand it is lengthy. When allegations emerged last week that Moore had sexual contact with a 14-year old girl when he was 32, some people were surprised that some Moore supporters didn’t immediately abandon him. But this does not surprise me, nor do I find it inherently wicked. In a perfect world, they’d ask him to step down and drop out of the race. But as someone who’s framed himself as anti-establishment, who portrays his opposition as willing to slander him, it strikes me as exactly what we should expect to see.

Listen, if it’s an act of heroism when a man can turn his own son into the authorities (and I think it is) then that’s only because of how difficult a thing like that is to do. It should not surprise us that their constituents stuck by Bill Clinton or Ted Kennedy, even as it became more and more apparent that each had committed horrible crimes. And it shouldn’t surprise us that his supporters don’t yet want to abandon Moore. That they can’t yet identify him as a creepy old man who has no business in politics isn’t evidence of their wickedness but their humanity. I hope Roy Moore drops out of the race, or barring that gets trounced in the election. But I refuse to see his base as anything other than what they are: the most recent example of a group of people held hostage by the idiosyncrasies of human psychology.


Police Shootings Revisited

This time last year, I published a blogpost that examined police shootings in America. In it, I tried to determine whether police shootings of black people outpaced their expected value in terms of their population share from state to state. I found that the majority of states were within the expected distribution, i.e., in 33 states there was insufficient evidence to suggest that the police were more likely to fatally shoot black people than anyone else. However, the remaining 17 states (my home state of Minnesota among them) showed evidence of racial bias. That is to say, far more black people were shot than could be explained by randomness alone. Additionally, in the most concerning case — when the victim was unarmed, not resisting, and not fleeing the scene — black victims constituted a plurality of the cases. They not only outpaced their population share but were the most common victims of police shootings under those conditions.

Since it’s been a year† I thought it would be a good time to revisit the question and see how we’ve progressed in this area. Despite the best efforts of Colin Kaepernick and his like-minded cohort, it has been my impression that this issue has gotten significantly less press attention in the last year than in the year that preceded it. Is this a reflection of real, quantifiable improvement in this problem? Or have we simply turned our attention to other things?

The results, as one might expect, are something of a mixed bag. Nationwide, the shooting of black people is down roughly 8.5%, while every other category is up slightly. In total, this amounts to an extra three fatal shootings per month, or about a 4.2% rise from the preceding period.

Fatal Shootings Per Month

It’s not immediately clear what’s driving the increase in police shootings. I compared state per capita police shootings to per capita violent crime and there is a loose correlation between the two; however, one would expect states that have seen an increase in violent crime to also show an increase in police shootings, but that does not appear to be the case:

Police Shootings by Per Capita Violent Crime

Police Shootings by Change in Violent Crime

Perhaps these results would be more meaningful if examined on the city level. I am unaware of a city level violent crime rate data set.

When segmented by state, the picture looks quite similar to last year. Every state that showed evidence of racial bias last year continued to show it once the next year of data was incorporated. Moreover, three states and the District of Columbia moved from within the expected distribution to borderline status.

Iowa (n=13, p=.027, k=4), for example, is just barely off the expected distribution, though its small sample size doesn’t inspire compelling conclusions be drawn from its example:

Iowa Example

Washington D.C. (n=11, p=.490, k=10) is similar to Iowa in this respect. D.C. only had three fatal police shootings in 2017, but all of the victims were black men.

DC Example

North Carolina (n=75, p=.216, k=28) has a sample size that justifies its placement among the problematic states. Twelve of North Carolina’s twenty-five victims of fatal police shootings in 2017 were black.

North Carolina Example

Washington state (n=70, p=.037, k=11) had a surprising number of total shootings. Based on national averages, one would expect to see about 30% fewer such shootings, or about 20 (!) fewer fatal shootings since January 2015. Though black victims made up a somewhat smaller proportion of the total shootings in Washington, they well outpaced the population share.

Washington Example

California (n=457, p=.067, k=72) continues to be the worst offender in the country, killing the most of every race and significantly outpacing its population share. In fact, if California’s total shootings were simply the difference between its actual shootings and its expected shootings by population size, it would still rank second in the nation.


It should be noted, of course, that police shootings are not randomly distributed by state, nor are they consistently proportionate to population size. California, Texas, Florida, and New York are the four most populous states in the country and they rank 1st, 25th, 34th, and 51st respectively the rate of police shootings. An important aspect of this conversation is to determine how, exactly, to make California, Arizona, and Oklahoma more like New York, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. (To the best of my knowledge, no one has studied variance in police shootings by state.)  Racial parity here is a laudable goal, but it will be incomplete — and of small comfort to grieving families — if it is not also accompanied by a rapid decline in overall police shootings.

Total Shootings minus Expected Shootings

It’s not all bad news. While states such as Washington, Ohio, Florida, and Missouri are killing more people overall, states like Texas, New Mexico, Nebraska, and Colorado are killing fewer. Texas, for instance, averaged reduced their rate of fatal shootings by more than one per month over the course of 2017. This, unfortunately, was not enough to offset the gains in states like Washington, Ohio, and Missouri. Perhaps closer examination of either extreme — with a contrast with the states that saw little or no change — would provide some insights.

Change in shootings.PNG

Furthermore, states like Nevada, Alabama, and Kentucky were among eleven in total that significantly improved their performance with respect to racial bias. Nevada, for example, didn’t kill a single black person in 2017, despite the black population of Nevada hovering around 5%.

Lastly, the category I referred to last year as the “most insidious form of police shootings” — when the victim was unarmed, not resisting, and not fleeing the scene — has inched closer to the expected distribution. Black people are no longer the plurality of victims of this category. This superficially positive change masks the devastating fact that the number of this type of shooting has skyrocketed: 35% more in the last twelve months than in the twenty one months that preceded it.

Unarmed not resisting not fleeing

On the whole, I would argue that there is reason for optimism. While it’s unclear what is driving the changes that are reflected in the data, the overall picture is one that increasingly matches the population demographics of our country. (It should be pointed out that this facet is understated in this analysis as the country has gotten less white since the last census, meaning the population demographics used here would make us more likely to find evidence of bias than if more recent figures were available.) Whether this change has been driven by new policies, by increased media attention and protesting, or is just an artifact of having a more robust data set, that aspect of the trend seems to be positive. No state is perfect, and there is a lot of work yet to be done, but the data suggest that, with respect to racial bias, we have taken a step in the right direction. Police are killing more white people, however. Perhaps this is tied to the recent spike in the crime rate, but the data are unclear on this point.


† Every time “2017” is used in this post, I am referring to the span from October 10th, 2016 to October 11th, 2017, and “2015-2016” refers to January 1st, 2015 to October 9th 2016. Apologies for the confusion: this choice was made to avoid making the date references more cumbersome than need be.

What Mass Shootings Tell Us About Gun Control

Yesterday morning, an Illinois man named James Hodgkinson approached a baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia, and opened fire on members of the Republican Congressional baseball team. Hodgkinson, said “to be distraught over President Trump’s election,” indiscriminately shot between fifty and sixty rounds but — miraculously — only managed to injure four people before being shot and killed by Capitol Police.

To no one’s surprise, this incident has reignited the gridlocked debate about gun control. The Washington Post, relying on data from the Gun Violence Archive, reported that this shooting was the 154th mass shooting in America so far this year. Per WaPo:

The archive considers an incident a mass shooting if four or more people are shot, not including the shooter. Some definitions are broader: If the shooter is included in the tally, the number of mass shootings rises to 195. Some, however, are much more narrow: If a mass shooting is defined as four or more victims killed in a public location, excluding robberies and gang violence, the number falls to four.

I am not personally interested in debating how we should define the term “mass shooting.” I am, however, inexplicably drawn to analyzing large datasets, so I spent the morning digging into the Gun Violence Archive’s mass shooting database.

A few notes: the GVA archive is downloadable as an Excel file, but not all of the pertinent information comes with the spreadsheet. I spent the better part of the morning investigating and categorizing each individual incident. In fifty cases, or about a third of the dataset, there was either no suspect in custody, police were not releasing details about the suspect’s motives, or no motive information was available. I removed these incidents from parts of my analysis. Further, some might dispute how I categorized certain shootings. An example: when a shooting was described as a drive-by shooting with two or more shooters, I categorized it as a gang shooting. Someone else might call that terrorism. With respect to the broader implications, I don’t think the distinction matters much.

Of the 104 shooting events I could categorize, I used eight broad categories (listed from most deaths to least): Gang-related, Domestic Violence, Interpersonal Disputes, Robberies/Home Invasions, Workplace Violence, Terrorism, Shootouts (where two or more people exchange fire), and Hate Crimes. Here is a chart of those incidents:

This is where the debate often goes off course. Republicans and Second Amendment advocates tend to point to gang shootings, acts of terrorism, and other crimes as evidence that criminals, by definition, are people who are willing to break the law, and as such are willing to acquire guns illegally. And this point is duly noted: of the incidents where a gun was illegally acquired — or an illegal gun was used — the vast majority were gang-related shootings. One the other hand, in the incidents involving interpersonal disputes, workplace violence, and domestic violence, Democrats and Gun Control advocates have an equally compelling point: most of these crimes would not have happened if the perpetrator, temper running high, did not have immediate access to a gun.

With this idea in mind, I compared the locations of the shootings with the local gun control laws. To do this, I borrowed from Gun Law Scorecard who, through a somewhat opaque process, rates each state by the gun control legislation they’ve enacted. Cross referencing each shooting by the state’s Gun Law Score, I put together this table:

States that received an “F” grade likewise had the most mass shootings, the most deaths, and the most injuries. The Gun Law Scorecard appears to be vindicated, at least in terms of the states they fail. (On the other hand, the states with the fewest mass shootings and least deaths had B, C, and D grades, so the rest of the grading system might require some tweaking.)

But not all gun control measures are created equal. There is plenty of academic debate over the efficacy of allowing or prohibiting concealed carry. However, one measure that seems to be generally effective is universal background checks. In states where universal background checks are required, impulse or “hot temper” mass shootings make up less than a quarter of the overall incidents, compared 58% of such shootings in states that do not require universal background checks. Moreover, mass shootings are more common and lethal in non-background check states.

The single most effective gun control measure appears to be universal background checks. Though Republicans are right that there are a number of situations where a person intent on committing a felony act of violence will acquire a gun by any means necessary, there are many incidents where the mere presence of a gun fatally escalates an situation that would otherwise only result in bruised fists and egos. The evidence also shows that mass shootings are more rare in states that require a background check, the shootings are less lethal in those states, and there are fewer injuries per shooting. Although I generally support the Second Amendment right to gun ownership, a nationwide universal background check on all public and private gun purchases seems to be a clear and effective strategy for reducing, though not eliminating, mass shootings.

Wonder Woman and the Noble Savage

In the wake of the unmitigated box office success of Wonder Woman, much of the critical focus has centered on the feminist aspects of the film. Zoe Williams argues that the movie is a “masterpiece of subversive feminism,” while Christina Cauterucci criticizes it for not being “as feminist as it thinks it is.” There’s also this critique:

In my view, apart from addressing issues of representation in film (a theme awkwardly underscored in the film itself), the feminist talking points about Wonder Woman are among the least interesting aspects of the movie. What stood out to me instead was the film’s deconstruction of Enlightenment philosophy, specifically the espousal and subversion of the myth of the noble savage.

According to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, “The concept of the noble savage was inspired by European colonists’ discovery of indigenous peoples in the Americas, Africa, and (later) Oceania. It captures the belief that humans in their natural state are selfless, peaceable, and untroubled, and that blights such as greed, anxiety, and violence are the products of civilization.” Pinker identifies this viewpoint as a subset of tabula rasa or Blank Slatism. (Far from being some form of obscure or minority viewpoint, recent polling suggests that around three quarters of Americans adhere to Blank Slatism in some form.) This idea is the legacy of Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

So many authors have hastily concluded that man is naturally cruel, and requires a regular system of police to be reclaimed; whereas nothing can be more gentle than him in his primitive state, when placed by nature an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the pernicious good sense of civilized man…. The example of the savages, most of whom have been found in this condition, seems to confirm that mankind was formed ever to remain in it, that this condition is the real youth of the world, and that all ulterior improvements have been so many steps, in appearance towards the perfection of individuals, but in fact towards the decrepitness of the species.

This idea (or variants where “savages” are whatever group that stands in contrast to conventional depictions of Western Civilization) shows up in dozens of films and novels, such as The Last Samurai, Dances With Wolves, and Dances With Wolves in Space. The plot typically plays out according to a basic formula: our war-weary protagonist, reeling from some psychic or physical injury, encounters a native people group and begins to heal as he adopts their lifestyle.

Wonder Woman is set in the waning days of World War I, “the war to end all wars,” and follows Diana Prince as she tries to locate and kill the Greek god Ares. While political powers work desperately to negotiate an armistice and call an end to the conflict, Diana (played with the perfect mix of physicality and enthusiastic naïveté by Gal Gadot) is convinced the war will not end until Ares’ destructive influence is brought to heel. As long as Ares is alive, Diana thinks, he will continue poisoning hearts and minds and men will continue to kill each other. The film’s preoccupation with mustard gas as a weapon of war serves to underscore the idea of the corruptive, corrosive effect that Ares has on mankind.

Diana’s view of human nature — that mankind is inherently righteous and noble but is corrupted by society — is played up as an innocent sincerity, untainted by contact with the outside world. Diana was raised on the mythical island of Themyscira in a decidedly pre-modern society occupied by the Amazonians and hidden from the outside world. Life on Themyscira seems continuously set at 300 BC, and it is implied that the Amazonians have lived there without external disruption since shortly after the creation of man.

This sets up the inversion of the noble savage trope. Rather than being told from the perspective of a soldier, Wonder Woman has us tag along with someone pure and primitive as she encounters both war and the West for the first time. She reacts with horror to the injustice of war, and adopts what seems a rallying cry for political activism: “You can do nothing or you can do something.”

Of course, any worldview advocated in a film invites a counterpoint. This function normally falls to the villlain; in Wonder Woman it is co-lead Steven Trevor who embodies the Hobbesian philosophy that humans are violent and combative by nature. Trevor is driven by a sense of pragmatic realism. Knowing the German General Ludendorff and the cartoonishly evil Dr. Maru are developing a form of mustard gas against which gas masks are useless, Trevor believes the Germans won’t enter into the armistice unless the new poison is destroyed: why sue for peace when you have an unstoppable superweapon at your disposal?

Diana’s crisis of confidence occurs when, having killed Ludendorff (who she believed to be Ares), the German soldiers do not immediately stop fighting and return to their righteous, noble nature. Everything she has believed about the nature of mankind is contradicted in an instant and she is devastated to realize that mankind may be beyond salvation. This hiccup is brief, and the ending plays out as a sort of Marxist fairy tale. (I’d elaborate on this, but I don’t want to give away an spoilers.)

Wonder Woman is far from a perfect film. Any superhero that is essentially a god or demigod will suffer the same drawbacks as Superman: without a fatal flaw, no opposition presents a real challenge to their superior might. There were many opportunities for Diana’s naïveté to have painful consequences for her, for her companions, or for the Allied war effort in general, but at every turn her blind, confident stride into action always plays to perfection. She has no character arc to speak of. And there is a scene of mass murder accompanied by extravagant evil laughter that would have fit much better in an Austin Powers movie. And, ultimately, the film could have done more to explore how our different worldviews impact how perceive and treat each other. But Wonder Woman deserves credit for its subtle examination of Enlightenment philosophies. As in the movie itself, sometimes it is indeed better to do anything rather than nothing at all.