I'm in New York training psychologists this week, and as I always do here, I visited a neighborhood with a professional guide.
On previous trips I've toured Harlem, Wall Street, Brooklyn Heights, Midtown, Upper Park Avenue, and several other neighborhoods. This year we went to Williamsburg, home to the most insular and religious community of Hasidic Jews in North America.
The group is called the Satmars, who came to this country from Eastern Europe after WWII. They dress meticulously like the nobility of 18th century Lithuania/Poland. Even in summer, the men wear long sleeve white shirts, black vests, long black coats, and black fur hats (along with thick religious underwear). Women cannot show their arms, legs, or collarbones, so they wear long dresses over thick flesh-colored stockings. Upon marriage they shave their heads and wear wigs, and often wear hats.
They speak Yiddish, a language brought to America from Eastern Europe in the late 19th century. Working on Friday night or Saturday is strictly forbidden (and "working" includes driving, phoning, cooking, and turning electricity on or off). 100% of their children go to private religious schools. Every family is strictly kosher. Except for work, the internet is forbidden, and all internet usage (including passwords) must be logged with the head rabbi. (I saw two different memos directing this. There are almost no smartphones here.)
Marriage and all other social relations are strictly regulated; community matchmakers are used, and betrothal by age 17 is not uncommon. Childbearing begins immediately upon marriage. The average family has some ten children.
Formal learning is considered far more important for males than for females, and so many girls do not graduate high school. Math, science, logic, and languages are not stressed, as they are considered less important than homemaking and Jewish law. Few women have cellphones or computer access; they rarely own property, have limited right to divorce, and rarely leave the neighborhood (the main exceptions are well-organized shopping trips to a few select stores and visiting relatives or neighbors in the hospital). Satmar families don't go out to eat very much, so food shopping and cooking are a full-time female occupation.
Which brings us to the women, the women who have no eyes.
I admit that I am not welcome in the Satmar neighborhood. As a tourist, I dressed modestly—long pants in 85-degree heat, with a broad-brimmed hat. I brought no camera, no notebook, no food or water. And I certainly didn't come on a Saturday. If I had, I would have been encouraged (in Yiddish, with much gesticulation) to leave. And if I had insisted on my right to walk New York's public streets, particularly if dressed as almost an ordinary American might on a hot day, I would have been forcefully encouraged to leave by the local neighborhood association.
So my guide and I quietly and respectfully spent 90 minutes walking Keap Street, Bedford Avenue, South 4th Street, and the rest of Old Williamsburg. I passed men talking on old internet-free flip-phones, and women pushing strollers. I passed groups of girls (all the boys were in school, studying Torah). I walked by bakeries and schools and wig shops.
The men either looked at me or ignored me. The women, however, had no eyes at all.
You know how you walk down the street, see a stranger come toward you, and you either nod, smile, or (more often) look away? Even the looking away is an acknowledgement of the other's existence.
The Satmar women did none of these. As we approached and then passed each other, they all had the identical, studied look: chin tilted about 5 degrees down from horizontal, just enough so they didn't have to see my face or body. Moreover, their eyes were completely unfocussed, a dead stare you'd expect from someone deeply autistic, profoundly depressed, or in total shock. Even when a pair of them were talking to each other normally as I approached (often with two strollers and 3 or 4 other young kids in tow), when we had to momentarily negotiate our en passant, their eyes died and I ceased to exist.
(And it's not just because I'm a man. They relate to non-Satmar women the same way.)
For the first few blocks I was respectful, and even lowered my eyes once or twice. Then I smiled at a few. Of course, there was no change in their expressionless expression. Then I started to smile when I passed groups of girls, starting with adolescents: same dead eyes. Schoolgirls: same dead eyes. Six-year-olds: a few looked back at me, although always without smiling (a rather creepy experience). And almost immediately an older sister would intrude to fuss over the kid or pull her away. Finally I smiled at a few babies in strollers at red lights. When the babies laughed or smiled, they were quickly wheeled away or covered. They're only a few years from learning to deaden their eyes.
The afternoon tour was fascinating in many ways—I even saw a crowd gathered (actually, two crowds, men on one side of the street, women on the other) watching a rabbi praying loudly over a coffin. According to a nearby Hispanic cop, a 12-year-old girl had died the night before.
But my enduring image of Williamsburg, the very last person I encountered before crossing Broadway and leaving the neighborhood, was an eight-year-old girl. She and two friends (cousins?) were standing on a street corner handing out yellow fliers. They were in Yiddish, and I obviously wasn't going to participate in whatever they were announcing, but I was curious. And I thought I might actually have a momentary interaction with this young person.
So as I approached, I smiled warmly, and held out my hand, gesturing for a flier. And I didn't get dead eyes. Instead, I got the most disdainful, disgusted, derisive look I have ever gotten from a human being. She was eight, and she'd already learned to look down on me.
Soon enough, she'll learn to express this disgust with dead eyes. Meanwhile, I guess she forgot that I'm created in the image of her god, too.
A coalition of conservative Christian groups has petitioned a federal court to support Michigan's ban on gay marriage.
No big surprise.
Here's what should surprise: the coalition includes hundreds of African-American pastors and churches. Gay marriage would "destroy the backbone of our society," said Flint's Reverend Stacey Swimp at a local rally of Black ministers.
Uh, no. Here's what's destroying heterosexual marriage in the African-American community: Heterosexual African-Americans. They marry at a dramatically lower rate than any other ethnic or racial group in America.
"We love everybody, but we don't love the [gay] lifestyle," said Reverend Rex Evans of Ypsilanti. "There's a small group of people trying to destroy [America's] foundation, and it's time to take our nation back."
Take our nation back from whom? While one-quarter of American children live in a household without their biological father, more than half of Black kids are burdened with such parental behavior. The failed war on drugs and our dysfunctional penal system are part of the problem, but what about community norms and individual responsibility? For Hispanic and other non-Black children of color, the number of kids living without their biological father is 28%, comparable to Whites.
This coalition of African-American pastors needs a history lesson, too. Until I was 17 years old, interracial marriage was illegal in this country. White pastors defended these laws, citing centuries of tradition and the Bible—the same justification now being used by Black pastors against gay Americans.
"We believe in the Judeo-Christian conception which America was founded upon," says Bay City's Reverend Rader Johnson. Yes, the tradition which has legitimized slavery for 2,000 years. You'll recall that white pastors cited the Good Book in the years before the Civil War. They cited it in opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Every American is free to dislike whomever they want. But every American is NOT free to select who should get the rights (you know, to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) that they get. These African-American pastors are complaining that Michigan voters passed a law denying marriage and its accompanying privileges (regarding taxes, insurance, hospitals, inheritance, etc.) to gay people, which the courts should respect.
Shall we take a vote on which ethnic, racial, or religious group should get which rights? Wasn't it only recently that the bloodiest war in American history was fought over who could vote on whose rights? Isn't that how the ancestors of these Black pastors were enslaved in the first place—by popular consensus?
These self-righteous Black pastors who use the Bible, religion, and tradition to justify their demand for discrimination against others should blush with shame. They have failed their communities, whose behavior repudiates their better values. Now they fail their communities by descending to their worst clannish instincts. And like all strongly religious people, they blame sex for their moral collapse when confronted by their own fear and ignorance.
Psychologists periodically tell patients that in life, you sometimes have to choose between being right and getting what you want. Unfortunately, many people settle for the first instead of acquiring the emotional skills to get the second.
The people of California currently face a similar situation—would we rather FEEL safer or BE safer?
When the subject is sex offenders, of course, feelings dominate public policy. And so the California Sex Offender Management Board faces an almost impossible task in overhauling and improving the way the state handles its 100,000 Registered Sex Offenders. The Legislature is going to vote no.
California is one of only four states that require all sex offenders, regardless of offense, to register for life. That includes over 800 people whose last sex crime was more than a half-century ago. The enormous amount of money spent keeping track of these people is mostly wasted, and could be far better spent on actually protecting Californians.
And so the Board is recommending to the state Legislature that only high-risk offenders, such as kidnappers and violent predators, should be required to register for life. Others could be removed from the registry 10 or 20 years after their offense. Not 10 or 20 days, weeks or months. Ten or 20 years.
The Board's chair is no Pollyanna—she's the District Attorney of Alameda County, a densely populated, ethnically diverse area which includes Oakland and has more than its share of violence and poverty. She knows her science, though, and says the proposal "won't jeopardize public safety or unleash sex offenders who are dangerous into the community."
As with smoking, nutrition, and alcohol, our understanding of science (and therefore of risk) has improved greatly in the 70 years since California's Sex Offender Registry was created. We know now that:
* Most sex crimes are NOT committed by people who are Registered Sex Offenders;
* Sex Offender Registries do NOT decrease the number of sex offenses;
* Sex offenders have the lowest rate of same-category re-offending of any group of felons.
We also know that sex offenders are a heterogeneous group with vastly differing risk profiles. And of course different sex offenses pose different risks to the community. But most Sex Offender Registries, including California's, make little distinction between people who (1) make obscene phone calls, (2) have consensual sex with a teenager three years their junior, or (3) kidnap a child.
Similarly, neither the justice system nor the Registry generally distinguish between adults who offend with their own child and adults who offend with a convenient child they don't know. From the perspective of risk to the community, the two adults (they're rarely the same) are vastly different.
The mass media make things worse, by using the words "child molester," "pedophile," "child porn collector," and "sex offender" synonymously. Newspapers, magazines, and blogs are obsessed with lurid stories of sexual torture and exploitation; they rarely note the vicious mob mentality that metes out life sentences to the tens of thousands of our harmless brothers, sons, and fathers rounded up for public masturbation, consensual sex with high school sweethearts, computer repairs that uncover child porn installed by malware, and consensual sex between two drunk people that ends with regret, shame, and accusation.
Politicians, of course, are hesitant to consider the facts rationally, fearing they'll be described as "soft on crime." Some politicians are honest about this, saying their constituents are concerned and easily angered. Others, however, insult even the profession of politician. One example is State Senator Jim Neilsen (R-Gerber), who says "This proposal concerns me enormously…I think the risks are too great to try to intellectualize this stuff."
"Intellectualize"—this elected public servant actually says that attempting to formulate public policy by using science or thinking is a mistake.
Mr. Neilsen should stay out of airplanes. You know, the risks are too great to try to intellectualize how they actually work.