The Walking Dead, Ctd.

After a strong opening, I was starting to worry. Episode 4 put my mind at rest. A Tarantino-esque stand-off over hostage exchange between our guys, and what appears initially to be a scary band of lawless Hispanic gangbangers throws you for a loop when it turns out [spoiler alert] that the gangbangers are actually former workers in a nursing home who now live to protect its aging residents. This subtle poke at the viewers’ own racial assumptions is gentle and unsanctimonious, and not even the main point, which is the following flash of dialogue. In discussing the difficulty of knowing who to trust in a now lawless environment, one of our regular characters, T-Dog, says “I guess the world changed,” to which Guillermo the leader says, “No. It’s the same as it ever was. The weak get taken.” Unstated are all the other things which haven’t changed: that trust is earned, that strength tempered with justice will always be necessary because strength without justice is always present, that the basis for lasting leadership is ultimately moral authority. And that a part of that morality involves how we treat the truly helpless.

In some sense, all the better entries in the zombie genre try to assert something about how things really are in our zombie-free world. Zombies always struck me as a combination of two primordial anxieties, about embodiment, and about sociality. Survivors are always outnumbered just as each of us is always outnumbered, and the thought of what it would mean to live in a world where society has turned on you utterly seems to be at the root of that anxiety. Our continued embodiment depends on that not happening. Along with this thought is another, adjacent one: the “veneer of civilization” is all that prevents us from devouring each other. Morality is nothing but that veneer.

Guillermo’s words, and the context in which they are spoken affirm that whether or not that is true depends on the quality of the people involved. Morality is not only a veneer produced by society. Potentially, it is something deeper rooted in humanness. It is the condition of the possibility of society in the first place. While I don’t think that is the whole truth, it is an important part of it, and by committing to it, The Walking Dead proves itself to be one of the most deeply hopeful pieces of television I’ve seen in years.


No, this is not some commentary on the significance of Twitter. But I have set up a Twitter account for Among the Poseidonians, and as soon as I have some notion of what to do with it, I will.

Citizenship Aptitude Test

(1) The  epithet “Nazi” is reasonably applied to:

a) A media employer who fires a journalist for making derogatory generalizations about the members of a religious minority.

b) A media employee who alleges that left of center politics is secretly controlled by a nefarious Jewish plutocrat?

c) Both (a) & (b)

d) Neither (a) nor (b)

The correct answer is “d”. “Nazi” is a colloquial expression referring to a member of the National Socialist German Workers Party, abbreviating “National Socialist.” The Nazis controlled Germany from 1933 to 1945, during which time they established a totalitarian government, initiated a world war, and caused the deaths of dozens of millions of people. The United States was at war with Nazi Germany from 1941 to 1945.

National Survivors of Suicide Day

I made a special point of trying not to forget that yesterday was a friend’s birthday, and as a result, forgot that yesterday is National Survivors of Suicide Day. So I’d like to take this occasion to tell people that once a year on the third Saturday of November the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention holds events in major cities across the United States where people who have had someone close to them commit suicide can go and meet with each other, talk, give and receive support, and know that they are not alone.

Grief, as we all learn if we ourselves live long enough, is a near universal human experience. In a world of becoming and change, nothing is permanent, which means nothing we care about, no matter how deeply we care about it, including our own lives and the lives of those we hold dear, is permanent. All of the creatures live under this rule, that all that is falls into shadow. Human beings are unique in many respects, but this may be one of the most important: we can know this, fully and clearly. The death of someone dear to us can bring this basic fact of existence home to us in an especially vivid way. But the death by violence of someone dear to us does something more, in bringing home to us the unalterable wrongness of this. And when that violence is self-inflicted, when the people we love turn their back on us and life itself, and we see what that does, to them and to us, we are denied the focus, or perhaps the distraction, of anger and blame. This more than anything brings into the clearest light what the most fundamental alternative is, what is truly important. As the Mondoshawan in Fifth Element says, “Only Life Important.”

Surviving suicide of a loved one can be the occasion for wisdom, eventually. But it is, at least initially, one of the hardest experiences that can fall to one’s lot. Setting aside self-euthanasia, it is often unthinkable, utterly unexpected, a shock. It is the ultimate rejection. If divorce with children is a hundred times more painful than the most painful romantic ending, it is countless times more painful than divorce (during the worst times of my divorce I would sometimes tell my children, and myself, “no one has died,” to indicate that there was still a ground under our feet, that in some sense everything was fixable, manageable, bearable, even if the family was changing in so many hard and unwanted ways). It is the ultimate rejection. And in the natural human tendency to reduce powerlessness and perplexity by seeking explanations and causes, many find the only person they can assign responsibility to is themselves, and find this guilt crippling. For those unlucky enough to find the body of a loved one unexpectedly, marred and mocked by violence, there can be post traumatic stress very like that from the battlefield, complete with unexpected panics, rages, flashbacks, obsessiveness, compulsive avoidances and all manner of irrationality. And for those for whom it is their child, the grief is unimaginable.

To those who experience these things, they find they walk in our world as a kind of alien from another planet, for they have looked into an abyss and yet are surrounded by people who act as if there is no abyss. And it is not uncommon for others, often with the best of intentions, to “give them space” and pretend that nothing has occurred for fear of upsetting them, or sometimes, out of dread of the truths that communication might reveal, truths they feel better off not knowing, including the most frightful one: this could happen to you. As a result, survivors of suicide walk their path for the most part alone. I was fortunate not only to have my wife with me through this process, but to have wonderfully sensitive and supportive colleagues and students with me through the worst of it, as well as several months of guidance from a grief counselor who was also a wise rabbi.

Others are not so lucky. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention holds these meetings once a year to take up the slack, but this is only one of the many good works they are trying to do. A million human beings take their lives every year, destroying their own possibilities and leaving devastation behind. In who knows how many cases, this was the wrong choice, an unnecessary choice. Anything that can be done to reduce this number is good works. Please join me in supporting the AFSP.

More With The Flying Nude

What are we to think about the X-Ray Vision and groping of air passengers? In our constitutional jurisprudence, we have a variety of approaches. Some searches require a warrant, which requires probable cause (everyone knows this much). Some searches (where there is some imminent danger) require only reasonable suspicion. Administrative searches (e.g., restaurant health inspections) are another matter. However, I think the category we’re dealing with here are what the Supreme Court has called a “special needs” search, in which case suspicionless searching is acceptable. One example of a suspicionless search found acceptable was drug testing railroad workers because of the high potential for harm to the public from intoxicated operation of locomotives.

But the ultimate standard is just “reasonableness” and that is something that reasonable people can differ on. It seems clear to me that reasonableness places limits on what kinds of suspicionless searches or administrative searches you can have (here’s a thought experiment: we have a tape recording of a fugitive having an orgasm, so we set up roadblocks and require everyone passing through to be manipulated to orgasm so they can be tape-recorded, in the hopes of finding a match: probably impermissible!), but I don’t think there’s any way to get at that by application of some more general rule. You just have to weigh the costs and benefits. In a challenge, the government will argue that the reasonableness calculus weighs a little groping against a possible 9/11; the opponents, that the remoteness of a possible 9/11, and the presence of less restrictive alternatives, has to be weighed against a long tradition of regarding the human body as sacrosanct, etc. etc. (this is a long shot for relevance, but the involuntary retrieval of evidence through surgery was considered a violation of the Fifth Amendment (due process)—though merely seeing or touching is obviously less invasive, though more invasive than not seeing or touching).

It’s not at all obvious to me how God would decide if God were a constitutional lawyer.

The Founders’ view is rather different than we think on probable cause. The idea was that cops could do what they like, and if they caused harm, you could sue them in tort. Warrants were not so much conceived as permissions to search as immunizers from tort liability; they allowed you to search with impunity. So the threshold for when a warrant can issue enters in here–you don’t want this shield given too easily, so you require probable cause. I suspect that it was understood by the Founders that there would be lots of warrantless searches, and that the threat of tort suit was thought to keep the cops exercising care to not cause harm. I also suspect that they had a rather less prissy view of touching (seriously!) than we do, not that that is relevant: this is exactly what is meant when people talk properly about an “evolving” constitution. But the real standard on all Fourth Amendment issues is “reasonableness”. And as far as I can tell, reasonableness is a matter of trade-offs between private and public interest.

As for the moral issue apart from constitutional questions, it seems to me that if the probability of risks to third parties is low, then this should be decided by consent between passenger and carrier. But with airplanes, there is a meaningful risk to third parties: if as a result of consenting parties undertaking a risk to themselves, they cause a plane crash, that at least opens the door, in my mind, to regulation. As a rule, it is better to “regulate” after the fact and allow people to assess their own risks, but if the risk to third parties is great enough, I think the state can step in and structure things in defense of the rights of third parties to non-interference. See Nozick on risk and prohibition. And that takes us right back where we started: how much is the risk? Is any kind of prohibition reasonable in light of it? How much is too much?

I think one of the things that we’re tempted to think here is that airways should be regulated on analogy with roadways. There’s an empirical question here. Our sense of roadways comes from thousands of years of experience, and part of that experience was that an cart being pulled at a fast clip couldn’t destroy a village by making a wrong turn. It is precisely when we start having automobiles that things start to change in terms of how travel regulation is conceptualized; e.g., the requirement to carry accident insurance instead of relying on tort mechanisms is based on a recognition of the fact that ordinary care is not much of a guarantee of anything, and that cars can be pretty powerful tools of destruction. The potential destructiveness of planes is that much greater, so it’s not surprising that the state would look to something more than, say, requiring airlines to carry insurance adequate to pay for the possible destruction of mid-town Manhattan. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect more. In terms of the assessment of risk, it has to be the potential damage times the likelihood, not just one or the other.

I have no doubt that what is going on now is bad and excessive. I suspect that this is a matter for the legislature and not the courts, that this level of intrusiveness is bad policy, rather than a violation of constitutional rights. But honestly, neither side of that sort of debate seems obviously right. It’s a classic conflict: apparently high risk to the public, versus a very high level of intrusiveness in old and sacred territory, the body. It’s not insignificant at all that the actions the TSA is requiring of passengers are, if required by private citizens of private citizens, sex crimes. If our bottom line reaction, apart from the issues of risk, is “oh for Pete’s sake, get over it!” then I can think of a whole lot of other laws we should be rethinking too.