Pedophiles and moral calculus

Last night, Alabama did something I assumed was impossible, and turned their backs on an accused serial child molester. It’s a statement about where our country is at the moment that this was a surprise. There are three lessons I learn from this:

  • Republican cynicism isn’t infinite. While a solid majority of white Alabamians voted for Roy Moore (who in addition to his loathsome treatment of young girls, also said in September that the last time America had been great was “at a time when families were united, even though we had slavery”), just enough of them were sufficiently disgusted that they either stayed home or wrote in an alternate candidate. One or two even voted for the Democrat, Doug Jones.
  • White evangelicals are an aging and dwindling minority. They’re usually more motivated to get to the polls, but in basic numbers, there are more young people and African Americans and other people of color in the country, and once these people are motivated themselves, they will always win in a fair race.
  • Speaking of fair races, we learned last night that even without the safeguards of the Voting Rights Act, there’s only so much work voter suppression can do for Republicans. Whether it’s limiting the number of voting places in Democratic neighborhoods, placing regular voters on “inactive” lists, or any number of other tactics to stack the deck against Democrats, if there’s enough outrage, people will get their votes into the ballot boxes.

That Roy Moore was even on the ballot is a testimony to the terminal rot in the Republican party. I’ve read two prominent conservatives over the last week who have declared themselves politically homeless. (David Brooks, wistful for Reaganomics, says “The rot afflicting the G.O.P. is comprehensive — moral, intellectual, political and reputational.” Peter Wehner, who served under Reagan and both Bushes, just wrote a piece outlining why he could no longer call himself an evangelical Republican.)

It’s important to note that Donald Trump is no longer an aberration within the GOP. When the Republican National Committee decided to get behind Moore after the revelations that he was groping 14-year-old girls, they were basically saying that ethical behavior no longer had anything to do with the party’s ideals and goals. They’ll take all comers in order to hold their majority. Remember . . . this wasn’t the state organization. This was the national organization. No Republican can any longer say their party just has some bad apples. When the party accommodates repulsive characters like this, the party becomes the bad apple.

Evangelicals can no longer afford to think in terms of litmus tests. They have to start using their grown-up brains. If you go into the voting booth thinking abortion is different from every other issue and you must make certain compromises to hold that line, you are being majorly conned. And you’re in danger of betraying everything you think you stand for, including the sanctity of life.

You folks, you white evangelical folks, will not have the power in 30 years that you have today. You won’t have it in three years. You need to decide how you’re going to negotiate that. You need to start preparing your epitaph. Religious movements wax and wane, and whatever God has in store for the world, it’s not going to look like what you’re used to, because it never does. What I’m saying is, if you want the Lord to bless your country and its future, you’re just going to have to do a much better job than you have over the last year of using the plain common sense He gave you.

Sex, Men, Apologies

I told a friend today that it has not been fun being a straight white man this week. She said, “Yeah? Well, it hasn’t been fun being a woman for a lot longer than that.” She had a point.

I don’t know if we’re on the cusp of a big shift in acceptable male behavior as some people are saying. I’d like to think so, but then we all thought Newtown was going to finally make a difference in gun laws, and patriarchy is a lot older than the NRA. One thing I wouldn’t mind happening is sex coming out in the open a little more in the Christian community, since sexual predation and abuse benefit a great deal from prudery. How could Roy Moore have gotten away with his abominable behavior without it? If instead of feeling up 15-year-old girls he were, I don’t know, bilking pensioners out of their savings, do you think the pensioners would have kept quiet about it? He knew exactly how much power he had, and a whole hell of a lot of it depended on sexual shame.

I use Roy Moore as an example because he’s presently the slimiest in this particular basket of deplorables, but of course this current basket contains a pretty even distribution of political loyalties. Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK, Al Franken, Bill Clinton—we liberals definitely have our share. The penis knows no politics. Be that as it may, I don’t think politics is off the table in this discussion. As of this moment, the facts are that two of those four have come clean about their culpability, and offered pretty unequivocal apology. Franken, who so far seems to be guilty of not much more than over-the-top boorish comedy, has himself suggested a review by the Senate Ethics Committee. Louis CK’s behavior is far ickier, and a number of people have said his apology didn’t go far enough. It is pertinent, though, that he apologized.

In the meantime, the Alabama Republican Party is circling the wagons around Roy Moore. Trump the Pussy Grabber tweets about Al Franken the Crass Comedian the day after the revelation, but gives Moore the Child Molester a pass for a week and a half. I know there are a lot of conservatives appalled by this. I know there will be a few—not enough—Alabamans who decide this state court judge, who made such a show of his religious convictions, is a Pharisee and an opportunist. But until more conservatives hold their own to account, this issue will be political in addition to being moral. I’m seeing real repentance and soul-searching among liberals. Until conservatives hold Donald Trump himself to account, they will be compromised.

All that said. Sexual harassment, predation, abuse is, as Sarah Silverman says, a tumor. Cutting it out “is messy and it’s complicated and is going to hurt. But it’s necessary and we’ll all be healthier for it.”


I’ve been having a hard time writing here for a while now, mainly because I have little hope of it making a difference. And if it doesn’t make a difference, if it’s just a way to blow off steam, or worse—get pats on the back from liberal friends—I don’t see any reason to keep on. Despite some of the good news for Democrats in last night’s elections, I am not particularly optimistic about the future. I don’t see Congress flipping next year, and even if it does, the huge number of people in this country who loathe Democrats, who distrust foreigners, who are sick of seeing football players taking a knee, who are annoyed by seeing two boys holding hands or girls dressing as boys or Indians protesting pipelines—none of these people are leaving. And I don’t see any minds changing—either side of the aisle—no matter what happens.

What is maddening about this is that often when people of different views sit down together, they have far less dividing them than they have in common. It’s just that we don’t live close to each other anymore, so we don’t talk much, so we forget that’s true. When we do sit down together, though, we are actually kind, for the most part. If someone’s uncle shoots himself, we agree in retrospect that with his depression and his drinking, he probably shouldn’t have had a gun in the house. If someone’s 16-year-old has an abortion, we’re all sorry about it in our various ways. None of us, in any case, thinks she should go to prison. The sanctimony of some vegan relative often annoys all of us. We’re all equally horrified to find someone’s son is living on the streets, and we all agree it isn’t because he’s just shiftless or flaky. We all agree he’s had problems since he was four years old. We agree about how self-involved some gay or environmental activist cousin has always been, even if we disagree about whether that relates to his sexual or political orientation.

One thing about all these made-up examples is this—we agree about the facts, we just sometimes disagree about what to do about them, if anything. On the internet, people don’t even agree about the facts anymore, and this is what has me despondent. Because there is stuff that is true, and there is stuff that is false. And there’s a truckload of stuff, of course,  we don’t know enough about to even have an opinion on. But on the internet, people have an opinion about everything. If there’s a mass shooting . . . you don’t need to know anything more, if you’re a Democrat. There are too many guns. If you’re a Republican, all you need to know is whether the person was a Muslim. If he was a Muslim, he was a terrorist. If he wasn’t, he was crazy. The same kind of instant opinion comes for almost every other bit of news. Listen to yourself the next time you watch or read it.

We are not nearly that stupid and mean in our personal lives. And if we are, if we yell at each other when the subject turns to politics, it’s interesting that that’s about the only thing that makes us stupid and mean. Or that makes us that stupid and mean.

I don’t know if there’s any way out of this. I am frankly not hopeful.

I think one thing to do might be to stop thinking about which party we belong to and see if we can agree on one or two specific problems. Argue about the solutions but at least agree on the problems. I don’t know if even that is possible, though, frankly. One problem I wrote about last summer was unwanted pregnancies. I thought everyone, no matter what stripe, might agree that’s a problem. I had some suggestions to help solve that problem which someone might call liberal but that I prefer to call pragmatic. But I don’t know. Maybe they’re just liberal. Maybe the only solution many people see is what doesn’t seem a solution to me at all, just slowly and steadily making abortion as inaccessible as possible.

I am not hopeful.

For some reason it doesn’t work the way it does at home, among family. We agree that cousin Summerbright (née Marge) is a self-righteous vegan at Thanksgiving. We talk about various solutions. We might have to all just grit our teeth and cook her another damn tofurkey. When she starts comparing the “fumes” of the real bird in the oven to the smoke over Buchenwald, Uncle Kevin will be the one to nicely call her on her shit, talk her down.

It is possible to work together. It is possible to be kind. It’s possible to remain in disagreement and be kind.

I just don’t know if there’s a tofurkey and Uncle Kevin for this country. I really don’t know if it’s possible for the whole country to be kind.

Careful What You Wish For

Magazine covers highlighted in The Guardian, August 18, 2017

Writing about politics at all requires a daily engagement I’m really not cut out for. But in 2017 it pretty much means you can’t even blink. Less than two weeks ago, the President was promising nuclear fire and fury, and early this week—after a bunch of white supremacists marched through Charlottesville with tiki torches, and a young woman was run over by a truck ISIS-style—he was saying there’s plenty of blame to go around, and trying to decide where he stands on the Confederacy. Kate Timpf, on Fox News (yes, that Fox News), reacting to Trump’s words, said, “I’m still in the phase where I’m wondering if it was actually real life. I have too much eye makeup on to start crying right now.” There’s been a lot of tweeting “this is not us,” but this obviously is us. We made this evil man the President. All I want to do is figure out why, and figure out how never to make such a colossal mistake again.

My current amateurish, uninformed working theory is that if it weren’t for fundamentalists’ singular obsession with abortion, Trump wouldn’t have been elected. Almost anyone could refute this pretty easily, I’m sure, but Trump’s victory was so razor thin—won only in the electoral college, not by popular vote—that, given Mitch McConnell’s constitutionally indefensible decision not to allow even a debate on Obama’s Supreme Court nominee through all of 2016, let alone a vote, I’d say abortion had at least an outsized influence. Without a Democratic candidate as personally charming as Barack Obama, enough people felt so strongly about abortion’s evil that they voted for a man they personally loathed simply to keep the Supreme Court conservative.

So I think it’s time to get real about abortion. It has been an undebatable, unexamined issue for evangelicals for far too long. No matter how directly Republican policies contradict Biblical teaching about the poor and dispossessed, how unashamedly the Republican platform worships mammon and how cultishly it protects any damn fool’s possession of as many deadly weapons as he wants, no matter how many millions of refugees are turned back to face death or persecution because of Republican nativist hysteria—basically, no matter how un-Christian the Republican Party is by every other important measure, evangelicals keep voting as Republicans because of that one dog whistle. A politician can do pretty much whatever he wants, including grabbing women’s crotches, as long as he promises he’s going to fight for the babies. This is how we got this archetype of evil for President.

So let’s do some moral algebra. We might start with a few things you may not have been aware of:

  • Abortion first became illegal in the US in 1880. It was not because of religious opposition, but because the medical community felt it was a risky procedure that endangered the mother’s life.
  • Abortion-inducing drugs were widely advertised in 19th-century newspapers, and early, “pre-quickening” abortion was not strenuously opposed by either the Catholic or Protestant leadership. It was only after the mother began to feel movement of the fetus that abortion was morally problematic.
  • Its legal status has not had nearly the effect on the rates of abortion that economic reality’s had. Abortion rates rose substantially during the Great Depression, even though the procedure was illegal, because women would rather lose a pregnancy than lose a child through starvation.
  • Although abortion was illegal in the 1960s, discussion of its morality was much less fraught, and evangelical opposition to it was not a foregone conclusion. In 1968, a professor from Dallas Theological Seminary (of all places), in an issue of Christianity Today(of all magazines), argued that because the destruction of the fetus was not an Old Testament capital offense, it could not be considered murder. “God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed.” Yes. This was an evangelical’s position.
  • According to the National Association of Evangelicals, 80% of young evangelicals have pre-marital sex. Almost a third of evangelicals’ unplanned pregnancies end in abortion. This is higher than the rate within the general population, probably because having any birth control seems to a Christian teen like he or she is planning on having sex, and that, of course, would be terrible.

I found these tidbits with a quick web search, and you could find as many facts to support your own position just as quickly. But my aim with them is not to change your mind about the morality of abortion. It’s to get you to think about the issue as qualified, and at least as complex as the many other things Christians seem to be perfectly willing to think about in shades of gray—feeding the poor, sheltering the persecuted, racism, etc. I bring any of these other subjects up, and a Christian says, “Well, it’s not that simple.” I ask her why she voted for Donald Trump, it’s because he’s going to make abortion illegal. Look, first of all, he won’t, and neither will the Supreme Court—ever. And secondly, if it ever did happen, abortion would not stop. The only thing that would happen is more women would die getting it done illegally.

No matter what you feel about abortion, it is not going away. If you want it to be rare—truly rare, and not just legally unavailable—you have to get real . . .

People have to have access to birth control. Venerate virginity all you want, but when that doesn’t work out for your kids, they can’t be so ashamed of having babies out of wedlock that they 1) don’t have birth control around when they need it, and 2) have an abortion to avoid the shame. Because that is truly bent, and it’s pretty much the same kind of thinking that got this asshat into the White House last fall.

Mothers have to have access to childcare. If a pregnant woman knows she doesn’t have the support she needs, she’s going to be way way way more likely to abort. If she thinks she’s going to have to pass some morality test to get that support, she’s also going to be more likely to abort. Men have to step up, of course they do. But many still don’t. Sometimes the grandparents step up. Super (well, not super, but ok). We should do all we can to encourage the family and the church to help out single moms. But this doesn’t mean publicly available childcare is some socialist plot. It’s one more tool! It’s one more thing to help make abortion rare!

Sex education has to be available in school. You afraid your kids are going to be taught that sex is natural, and that homosexuality is just another natural variation, and that if a boy wants to be a girl, it’s ok? Talk about it over dinner. Tell him what’s wrong with that reasoning, I don’t care. I’d disagree back at you, but that’s at least a discussion. Discussion is a good thing! Here’s what you need to think about: in places that don’t have sex ed in the schools, there are more unplanned pregnancies, and more abortions. So the way I see it, you can either have your child exposed to ideas you don’t agree with, but have fewer abortions, or you can raise her not having to hear any of that perverted stuff, and keep killing babies.

There are more ideas, but I know you have to get to the next Facebook puppy, so for now let me just conclude that if you voted for Donald Trump as the great white hope for all the unborn babies, you now have what you wished for. Nazis in polo shirts screaming, “Jews will not replace us!”

Tell me, what baby would want to be born into this world?

What if . . .

More and more conservatives are starting to get the feeling the rest of us (including a number of conservatives) have had since last November, that is, that the world is going to be on a precipice for at least the next four years. Yesterday, with the news that North Korea now has both an ICBM and a nuclear bomb that will fit on it, Donald Trump said, on his vacation, “North Korea best not make any more threats against the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” A few hours later, of course, North Korea—the only nuclear country in the world with a leader more batshit than Donald Trump—answered that it was thinking about taking out Guam with “an enveloping fire.”

Which is exactly the scenario the rest of us knew was coming if Donald Trump became President, and why we voted for Hillary Clinton, even though a lot of us didn’t like her. After the two megalomaniacs made their comic book–worthy statements, stocks immediately plummeted, which, if that’s the worst that happens—a global recession, say—we can all count ourselves lucky. It’s not at all clear, though, that that’s the worst that will happen.

So I think it’s another good time to examine how Christian conservatives make their civil and political decisions. Because for some reason, a lot of them decided that, despite the likelihood of something happening like what is now happening, it would be even worse if they’d voted for a Democrat and Merrick Garland were put on the US Supreme Court. Many still think this is true. Sometime in the last forty years, Christian conservatives became so obsessed with one great evil out of all the millions of them happening in the world, that they voted for a demonstrably unstable reality television star for President of the United States in order to eradicate it.

If you don’t think abortion made that much difference in evangelicals’ voting, just imagine if there’d been a woman like Clinton in every respect except that she was anti-abortion. It’s a stretch—it’s actually impossible—but put your head around it. A former Senator, Secretary of State, liberal as the day is long in her economic views, her social views (other than abortion), i.e., gay marriage fine, affirmative action affirmative, strong supporter of Obamacare; also, rich from her speaking fees and book royalties, getting outlandish perks all the time and not particularly likable in her demeanor to boot. Calculating, careful. All of that. But she’s anti-abortion. Not just personally, but effectively. She promises if she’s elected she will preserve Obamacare but will do everything in her power to get Roe v Wade overturned. This fake person I’ve come up with can’t be harder to imagine than Donald Trump.

Ok now. Who would the evangelicals be voting for? I’ll tell you who. Fake Hillary.

Just think about this for awhile, because I’m going to start writing about abortion.

Oh . . . And a Russian jet just flew over the Pentagon. Think about those two things.

Shouting v Governing

Last week, after seven years of railing about the socialist evils of the Affordable Care Act and solemn oaths that they would tear it down beam by beam, with a majority in both houses and a President (a half bubble off level, true, but nonetheless) enthusiastically on their side in hating Obamacare, Republicans failed. They admitted that pretty much their whole “plan” since 2010 has been “Obamacare is bad,” and there hadn’t been serious thought in all that time about what might be good. It wasn’t quite a Monty Python sketch, but it was close. Nothing could demonstrate better how easy it is to burn down a house and how hard it is to build one.

Ironically, nor could anything demonstrate better what a mistake it is to deride politicians. Because for all the romance people have with outsiders and idealists these days, it’s the politicians who get things done. But all the Republicans have is screamers. And if Donald Trump’s six-month idiot show has proven anything, it’s that you don’t lead simply by screaming. You lead by working, and in a democracy that means by lots of talk, lots of listening and persuasion and horse-trading and compromise. The very thing we despise politicians for is what makes the country go. It’s called the art of the deal. “Career politicians” are exceptionally good at it. Making a career of something doesn’t automatically corrupt a person in government any more than it corrupts a lifetime construction contractor or a baseball player or an accountant. Sometimes you just get better at your job. A politician’s job is to represent his or her constituents (including those who didn’t vote for that politician) while working with other politicians who were voted in by other people to, all together, lead the country. Change things that don’t work, keep things going that do. It isn’t to crusade. It isn’t to pull up the drawbridge. Mostly, it’s unexciting compromise. As any adult should know who has had to settle an argument among six-year-olds, “compromise” is not a bad thing. It’s what separates the men from the boys, and a democracy from a dictatorship.

Now, while there’s a mad king in the White House, is actually the perfect time for Republicans and Democrats to work together. There’s lots they could accomplish that doesn’t separate them idealogically, starting with an investigation of the Russia scandal. If Republicans want to see what influence the Russians had on the Clinton campaign, sure, let them look into it, since the Russians were undoubtedly up to no good in every nook and cranny they could find. (But they have to investigate in good faith, and so far the evidence of collusion between the Clinton campaign and Russia amounts to about nil.)  Also taxes. Chuck Schumer announced he’s absolutely ready to work across the aisle on the tax code with the Republicans as long as taxes aren’t lowered for the rich—which I actually think should sound reasonable to most Trump voters. Donald also promised to do major work on the country’s infrastructure. He’s temperamentally  unfit for the task, so Congress—Republicans and Democrats—needs to take the lead.

And finally, Obamacare. Obamacare was a huge, complex effort at expanding medical coverage for the country that is a bureaucratic nightmare in part, believe it or not, because of the effort made at avoiding a single-payer system, which would have been  much simpler. (I’m not saying better, I’m saying simpler.) It was an effort to accomplish a national goal—like space exploration, like the highway system—using market principles and including the private insurance industry. It was an incredibly convoluted effort to do a big thing with political buy-in from a broad enough spectrum to get it done. It was bound to get things wrong. But the way to fix those things is not to burn it down and take coverage back away from tens of millions of Americans. The way to fix them is to fix them. And the only way to do that for something so big and so important is for Republicans and Democrats to work together.

Republican Senator Jeff Flake has just written a book in which he basically says Republicans have got to get their morality back and stop pretending they’re in an extended season of Game of Thrones. I disagree with almost all of his politics, but I agree with him  about that. Republicans have got to stop trying to Make America Republican, because that’s never going to happen. They have to start serving their country, which means they stop screaming and scheming, and instead sit down with people they don’t agree with, but work in the same chamber with, and figure out what can be accomplished given all the different kinds of people this country is made of. 

Otherwise, it will not just be the end of the Republican Party. It will be the end of America.

How do you get redeemed in America?

“Well ‘at’s it, boys. I been redeemed. . . . The preacher said all my sins is washed away. Including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo!”

“I thought you said you was innocent a those charges.”

“Well? I was lyin’. And the preacher said that sin’s been washed away, too! Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me, now. C’mon in boys, the water is fine!”

O Brother, Where Art Thou

Two weeks ago, my friend’s mother, who had been a getaway driver 36 years ago for an armored car robbery, was denied parole. A guard and two police officers were killed, and though Judith Clark had not been the shooter, she had shown no remorse at her trial for her involvement, and refused a lawyer. She belonged to a radical group that planned on using the stolen money to fund a revolution. It wasn’t a surprise that the original sentence of 75 years didn’t include parole at all. Harriet has never known her mother outside of prison.

36 years is a long time. How are you different from who you were in 1981? Depending on how old you are, the big difference may even be that here you are and then you weren’t. Judith Clark changed over the years. It was slow. She was a very angry person when she got into prison, a true believer. It was complicated, because she had a baby daughter whom she loved very much, but she had radical politics and—somewhat perversely, in the way we all act perversely when we feel a need to prove something that doesn’t need proving—she was determined to show (herself) that being a mother wouldn’t make her abandon her hard-ass ideals.

Half a decade later, though, she began to re-think some things. In 1986, after she’d been in prison for five years and in solitary confinement for many of them, someone said to her, “I understand how you did this to yourself. What I don’t understand is how you did it to your daughter.” Harriet was six. Clark cried for the first time since she’d been put behind bars.

That was the tipping point. Her essential views about injustice in America didn’t change, but she began to recognize the damage she’d done, how her collusion in acts of violence had not been helping that cause. And then she began the long, slow process of atonement. She earned two degrees. She worked in AIDS education with her fellow inmates. She began attending Jewish services. She made public apology to the families of the victims. When a newsletter that had published one of her poems referred to her as a political prisoner, she refused the title. “I feel only enormous regret, sorrow and remorse.” For the majority of her time in prison now—this span that’s often called a “generation”—Judith Clark has been a very different person from the one she was at her trial.


Whenever friends start harping to me about how awful things that have been done in the name of Christianity, all the damage this religion has done, I agree with a lot of it. But I stick up for redemption. Redemption is the big gift Christianity has given the world. For anyone carrying a burden of guilt—and who hasn’t at least once in her life?—the news that our debt has been paid is utterly transformative. The problem is the disconnect so many Christians have with their faith about redemption in the here and now.

A number of participants in the Brinks robbery have long since been free. They all were arguably guilty of worse crimes than Clark, who drove a getaway car. Not even the getaway car. A backup. The principal driver, who also had a young child, got a good lawyer, pled guilty, and was given twenty years and paroled in 2003. Two others were tried as accessories and served less than ten years. Another got 43 years but was eventually released to serve the rest of her time in Italy, her native home, and was released there in 2006. The mastermind, Mutulu Shakur, is still in prison. The only way to explain Judith Clark’s extraordinary sentence—15 years longer than Shakur’s, no parole—is the attitude she displayed at her trial, which was particularly callous, particularly contemptuous of those who would decide her fate.

Last December,  though, New York governor Andrew Cuomo commuted Clark’s sentence, for “exceptional strides in self-development.” He did not free her, but made her eligible for a parole she wasn’t granted at her trial. In part, this commutation was due to the intercession of Elaine Lord, a prison superintendent who’d once had to have personal protection against the possibility of Clark’s associates attempting a violent jailbreak. Lord said she’d watched Clark “change into one of the most perceptive, thoughtful, helpful and profound human beings that I have ever known, either inside or outside of a prison.” I remember hearing this news and being dumbfounded that Harriet’s mom finally had a chance, after more than three decades reflecting on her actions—living a life, however confined, that engaged with her own culpability, did not turn away from it, where all her present moral decision-making was informed by her responsibility for one dark day—that she now had a chance to live out among other free citizens the lessons she had learned. 

But on April 21, the parole board denied her that chance. There are, understandably, many who remember the Brinks robbery, including the children of the slain men, who are not unhappy about the decision. Many in law enforcement opposed her release, and Republican state senators presented to the board a petition of 10,000 signatures not to let her go. From the New York Times, quoting the parole board: “. . . its members ‘respect and understand the governor’s lawful decision to exercise his unique discretion in your case.’ . . . [Their decision to deny] focused on the unique nature of her case and the message  her release would send to law enforcement. . . . ‘You are still a symbol of a terroristic crime.'” Obviously there was always the chance that the board would decide this way. The governor could have simply freed her, but the case was fraught, and he was expending lots of political capital already. He was going to spread either the credit or the blame around.

As astounded as we were, all Harriet’s friends, by the good news in December, I can’t say the bad news in April was a complete surprise. It was a gut punch, but it wasn’t out of the blue. In a country that elected a man who’s said, “Nobody’s safe. I mean, who’s safe?” the release of a prisoner who’s a symbol of terroristic crime would seem, at the very least, not to have found quite its political moment. And yet I was dismayed by the reasoning. Judy Clark will be eligible for parole again in 2019. But no matter how exemplary a prisoner she is in the meantime, how will she be any less a “symbol” in two years than she is today? I have learned since that denial of parole based on the nature of the original crime—rather than the changed nature of the prisoner—is actually not uncommon. A man who’d been denied parole for the tenth time last year, John MacKenzie, finally gave up and killed himself. I expect more than one of the many people who lobbied against his release were just fine with that. He’d killed a cop, and if the state had just executed him right after he’d done it in 1976, they could have saved the taxpayers the cost of 41 years’ room and board. Of course, they’d have saved us all a repentant man, too.  MacKenzie had long had a record that was (here’s that word again) “exemplary.”

So what about redemption? What are prisons for, and what’s justice?

After 9/11, I remember thinking that the punishment I’d want for anyone involved in that heinous crime was to make them sit down with a family member of each of the victims, a different survivor every day, for 3,000 days. And then over again, with a different survivor. Another 3,000 days. I never thought about how long I’d want this to go on. It was symbolic, anyway, not a real idea. Basically, it was just you wanting a man who’s done something terribly wrong to face the consequences to others of his action. Look his desolation in the face. Just killing a murderer doesn’t do this. I don’t just want the act acknowledged. I want the sinner changed. I mean, as long as we’re in the theoretical . . . that’s what I want.


I’ve wondered, among other things, how Judy Clark’s parole hearing would have gone if, rather than teaching prison mothers about pre-natal care and AIDS, and rather than becoming a practicing Jew, she had become an outspoken advocate for police and prison guards. How it might have gone if she had accepted Jesus as her Lord and Savior. This sounds a little cynical, I know—accusing a parole board of being picky about the kind of conversion a prisoner’s allowed to have, with no evidence whatsoever. Pure speculation. Yet still I speculate. Because if Judy is staying in prison because she’s a symbol, surely the kind of conversion she’s had is symbolic, too. And I can’t imagine it helping that her basic political perspective has not moved from left to right in the same way that, for instance, Eldridge Cleaver’s did. If she were out, there’s no question she’d be a Bernie Sanders voter. What if she’d converted to the Republican Party? Well, who knows, right?


For people who talk up redemption so much on Sunday, Christians seem to me notoriously dismissive of it in the earthly realm. I know this parole hearing didn’t have anything to do with Christians, but this blog does, and really I’m just wondering about how much thought the average evangelical joe gives to crime and punishment in America. Whether the situation with American prisons bothers him the way, say, the persecution of Christians in the Middle East bothers him. Or her. Whether she knows that the land of the free has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prison population. Or that five times as many Whites use drugs as African Americans, but that African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at ten times the rate of Whites. That we have prisons in this country that are for profit, and which therefore have a financial incentive to get tougher sentencing laws.

If you sit and think a minute, what should justice look like? What’s the point of punishment and how should the scales be leveled? I mean, obviously I’m kind of invested in this because of a good friend. But if you’d feel one way about this if Judith Clark were your mother or daughter, and another way if she weren’t, maybe the point is not that one can’t judge well when one is too close to a situation. Maybe empathy could actually give some insight. It’s interesting that the parole board invoked symbolism in its decision. Because Judith Clark had been obsessed with symbolism once, too:

I thought of myself as a symbol of revolutionary fervor and commitment,” she said this week. “I didn’t think about my child. I didn’t think about the families sitting in that courtroom. Because it was all about symbols, and not people.”

No matter what one believes about justice, I would hope it’s obvious that it should be in the service of real people—the victims and the offenders both.

“My mother did not kill anyone,” Harriet said two weeks ago, “and it’s hard for me to understand who is served by making her die in prison, which is what decisions like this eventually amount to.”

It’s about who is served.