Where Is Blaise Pascal When You Really Need Him?

Both the Washington Post and the New York Times have reported that the Trump White House refused to approve the written testimony of Dr. Rod Schoonover for entry into the permanent Congressional Record. Dr. Schoonover had testified on Wednesday before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on the dangers that climate change poses to the security of the US.

Both the Post and the Times had links to the MS Word document of
Dr. Schoonover’s comments complete with the editorial comments of the WH censors reviewers. I have posted a copy of that document here. (I have added the RBC “Seal” and OCR’d the document.) Reading the document is more alarming than the fact of the suppression of Dr. Schoonover’s comments. It reveals a White House or NSC staff that is dominated with climate-denier ideologues.

For instance, one comment reads:

[T]here is nothing exceptional about current climate and it is profoundly incorrect to say that ‘characteristics of global climate are moving outside the bounds experienced in human history.” There was faster and greater Medieval warming around the year 1000 when Norse settled southern Greenland and developed a thriving agricultural society.

BJME 3.

The blog Skeptical Science shoots a hole in that nonsense:

Firstly, evidence suggests that the Medieval Warm Period may have been warmer than today in many parts of the globe such as in the North Atlantic. This warming thereby allowed Vikings to travel further north than had been previously possible because of reductions in sea ice and land ice in the Arctic. However, evidence also suggests that some places were very much cooler than today including the tropical pacific. All in all, when the warm places are averaged out with the cool places, it becomes clear that the overall warmth was likely similar to early to mid 20th century warming.


Since that early century warming, temperatures have risen well-beyond those achieved during the Medieval Warm Period across most of the globe.  The National Academy of Sciences Report on Climate Reconstructions in 2006 found it plausible that current temperatures are hotter than during the Medieval Warm Period.  Further evidence obtained since 2006 suggests that even in the Northern Hemisphere where the Medieval Warm Period was the most visible, temperatures are now beyond those experienced during Medieval times  (Figure 1).  This was also confirmed by a major paper from 78 scientists representing 60 scientific institutions around the world in 2013.


Secondly, the Medieval Warm Period has known causes which explain both the scale of the warmth and the pattern. It has now become clear to scientists that the Medieval Warm Period occurred during a time which had higher than average solar radiation and less volcanic activity (both resulting in warming). New evidence is also suggesting that changes in ocean circulation patterns played a very important role in bringing warmer seawater into the North Atlantic. This explains much of the extraordinary warmth in that region. These causes of warming contrast significantly with today’s warming, which we know cannot be caused by the same mechanisms.

However, at the center of the WH attack is the “uncertainty principle.” That is, the proposition that we cannot act on the threat of global climate change because it is possible that our conclusions are not airtight. Thus, they include this quote from Syukuro “Suki” Manabe: “Don’t put your model in a race with nature. Your model will lose this race.” The quote is literally accurate but taken out of context. What Manabe did in his work was to simplify his models, taking out complexities and, thereby, isolating specific factors in climate change. See here. Manabe believes in the reality of CO2 driven climate change and the basic accuracy of climate models.

Finally, we get to Blaise Pascal and his famous wager. In its most simple form, Pascal posits that we cannot by human reason either prove or disprove whether God exists. He points out that if a wager was between the equal chance of gaining two lifetimes of happiness and gaining nothing, then a person would be a fool to bet on the latter. He then concludes that it is irrational to risk an eternal life of happiness for the possibility of gaining nothing. (“If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.”) (I’m certain that many of the members of the RBC would jump on me if I did not point out that one of the flaws in the wager is that there are many competing gods and that one cannot, using human reasoning, prove which is the true god.)

But that’s not the choice we face in addressing global climate change.

First, modeling, while not perfect, allows us to fairly accurately compute the future temperature rise and rise in ocean acidity due to CO2 buildup. Thus, we are out of “coin flip” territory. The probabilities of a disastrous outcome are, if not certain, very high.

Second, we can assess our costs, but downside and upside, with some degree of accuracy. We have projections of populated areas that are threatened by sea rise, species that are at risk of extinction, and the geographic shift of areas that can be used in agriculture.

Basically, Pascal basic approach was correct. Weigh the upside against the downside. He was in error in assessing the upside (i.e., that there are many competing gods) and could not calculate the probabilities involved. We are not so limited. Except in the White House.

Feline asthma

Cat asthma as a political argument to Republican pet owners.

This is about public policy, promise.

My elderly cat Hobbes now has a respiratory problem, as I do. It’s probably feline asthma. Cats get asthma like humans, while dogs don’t. One cause, say vets, is air pollution.

Credit: MeowValet on YouTube

The literature seems stronger on indoor air pollution than outdoor. Second-hand tobacco smoke is a culprit, as are wood fires and incense. I found a serious controlled Taiwanese study on indoor pollution making the link. The effect of outdoor pollution has been less studied for animals. One Mexican study creepily found similar lesions in the brains of big-city dogs to those found in humans with Alzheimer’s.

It seems safer just to rely on the parallelism in the symptoms and mechanisms of cat and human asthma, and the massive literature connecting the human form to air pollution, to conclude that all air pollution is bad for cats too. The effect is reinforced by the height difference: cats and dogs breathe in air at car exhaust level.

This hypothesis suggests a political strategy. In the USA, there are said to be 49.2 million households with a cat. There are 50.4 million with children under 18. That’s 39% each. I couldn’t find a combined breakdown, but let’s assume that the two are independent. That would give 30 million childless households with a cat. The real total will be different, but it’s still a very large number.

This demographic skews old, white and therefore Republican. It cares for its cats. It strikes me as a good argument to make to this group in favour of the energy transition and the GND that the policy will protect the health of their pets.

Some will say: this is ridiculous. Are there really a non-trivial number of voters who will be swayed by the health of cats but not the health of children? If there are, surely they are either “low-information voters” – idiots – or moral imbeciles, and lost causes in either case?

My answers are (a) quite likely and (b) no.

Let me make the case for the defence. The questions are linked by the broader issue of moral myopia.

Continue reading “Feline asthma”

Weekend Radio Show Recommendation

You read that arightly, I am recommending a radio drama rather than a film this week: 1938’s War of the Worlds (click here to listen). To the extent people have heard of it at all, they know it as the show that allegedly drove America into a national panic about invading Martians (in truth, very few people actually listened to the broadcast). What it ought to be remembered for is its high level of artistic achievement.

The radio play was performed by the Mercury Theater troupe founded by two wildly talented people: Orson Welles and John Houseman.
Howard Koch, who later became justly famous as the co-scripter of Casablanca, gets the credit for brilliantly adapting H.G. Wells’ novel to radio in a fashion that took advantage of everything the medium and the Mercury Theater company could do. The novel’s rather lengthy set-up chapters and some of its clunky plot development (i.e., having the narrator run into someone who provides crucial information) were a function of the book being told through the eyes of a single narrator. In contrast, staged as a fake news broadcast with scattered, breathless, reports coming in as the Martians wreak havoc, the radio play grips you by the throat immediately and gives the listener a range of details from different geographic locations in an utterly realistic fashion.

Radio also of course opens up opportunities to add sounds — the screams and footfalls of panicked crowds, the horrible, metallic, unscrewing of the Martian cylinders, and the terrifying zzzaaapppp of those heat rays! It’s high craftmanship that still leaves us the fun of imagining how it all looked.

Last, but not least, what an explosion of talent this troupe of actors represented! Not just the big names, but also people like Ray Collins, Dan Seymour, Kenny Delmar, and Frank Readick. They are all perfect at creating characters with voice alone, each of whom seems like a real human being responding to out of this world events. Some New York theater fans were disappointed when talented, stage-trained actors they admired began transferring to new, middle brow, media like radio and film, but the upside was that the whole country and indeed the whole world got to enjoy the dramatic gifts and skills of companies like the Mercury Theater.

I loved listening to radio play as a kid (the image above is of the record album of it my parents had) and it’s just as suspenseful and exciting for me today. War of the Worlds is in the public domain so you can give it a listen anytime. You won’t regret it.

p.s. If you want to see a film version of the same story, Walt Disney’s 1953 version provides way more entertainment value that Spielberg’s grim and weirdly lifeless, gazillion-dollar version.

Medical Journal: 9/14/18

Showed the swelling in my feet to Dr. SanFilippo, the radiation oncologist, at my weekly check-in with him Tuesday. He was very concerned, especially about the fact that the right foot was more swollen than the left. Diagnosis: possible blood clot in the thigh, with some risk that a piece of clotted blood would break off and lodge in the lung (very, very bad). Recommendation: a sonogram. This was a big problem for me, since I had a train to catch for an important meeting in Albany, but he was pretty insistent that the test couldn’t wait. The folks in that unit browbeat the imaging group into seeing me quickly.

The test is administered by a technician, not an M.D. According to the rules, he couldn’t tell me the results; that ritual is reserved for the priesthood. But he told me in advance that if he found a clot I would be on my way to the E.D. for a shot of blood thinner, and when the exam was done he said “You’re going home.”

Made the trip to Albany and back with no significant problem. Spectacularly successful meeting; now more likely than not that New York will create the first cannabis legalization program designed to protect public health.

Fortunately, my voice, which comes and goes, was reasonably strong at the meeting; sometimes it’s just a whisper. Dr. SanFilippo assures me both that I won’t lose my voice entirely and that it will recover fully. In the meantime, the telephone is a challenge.

There’s no doubt that hydralazine/isosorbide combination is helping with the shortness-of-breath problem, but the problem is still there, especially at night, and my exercise capacity remains alarmingly low. Even in advance of getting through to Dr. Weiss, I had boosted the isosorbide (which seems to give quick relief and which doesn’t have to be taken with food) from three a day to four a day.

Needed sedatives to sleep Wednesday night and last night, but they’re working. Wednesday was very bad; I had work to do Thursday morning that I wanted to be alert for, so I tried to get through the night without anything until I finally gave up at 3:30. Happily, what I took was Tramadol, and the major aftereffect was that I was cheerful all day. Last night it was oxycodone and Ativan, which left me a little bit draggy this morning.

The throat irritation is either getting less marked over time or I’m getting used to it.

The cramps responded well to some stretching Gary Emmett recommended plus being careful about my position when I lie down to read.

Finally got through to Dr. Weiss this morning, who agreed that boosting the isosorbide dose was safe. He’d like to get more aggressive, but most of what he could get aggressive with has kidney risk associated, so he’s going to have to compare notes with Dr. Bomback before proceeding. After the kidney numbers went South Dr. Bomback recommended that I stop taking hydrochlorothiazide (a diuretic) and Losartan (which controls blood pressure through some other mechanism I don’t understand). It’s possible that the rapid deterioration in heart function reflects no longer being on those meds. I haven’t asked whether it might also or instead be a side effect of the two stress tests; the timing raises that question. Dr. Weiss seems to think that he’ll be able to manage the problem. I certainly hope so, because the lack of cardiac capacity is now seriously limiting daily activities and the intermittent shortness of breath is quite frightening and distressing.

Lowry Heussler is staying with me now, and Mike O’Hare and Debby Sanderson will be here next week.

The Queen of Hearts

From today’s Meet the Press transcript, a portion of the colloquy between Chuck Todd and Sarah Sanders:

CHUCK TODD:
Well it sounds like you’re not — that’s my point. It doesn’t sound like you want him to do his job. It sounds like you, the president has already determined the outcome.
SARAH SANDERS:
Chuck, that’s the reason that he’s granted the attorney general the authority to declassify that information, to look at all the documents necessary is so that we can get to the very bottom of what happened. Once again, we already know about some wrongdoing. The president’s not wrong in that. But he wants to know everything that happened and how far and how wide it went.

I’ve posted the entire Sanders portion of the Meet the Press transcript here.


5 U.S.C. § 3(a) and (b) provide as follows:

§ 3. Appointment of Inspector General; supervision; removal; political activities; appointment of Assistant Inspector General for Auditing and Assistant Inspector General for Investigations
(a) There shall be at the head of each Office an Inspector General who shall be appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, without regard to political affiliation and solely on the basis of integrity and demonstrated ability in accounting, auditing, financial analysis, law, management analysis, public administration, or investigations. Each Inspector General shall report to and be under the general supervision of the head of the establishment involved or, to the extent such authority is delegated, the officer next in rank below such head, but shall not report to, or be subject to supervision by, any other officer of such establishment. Neither the head of the establishment nor the officer next in rank below such head shall prevent or prohibit the Inspector General from initiating, carrying out, or completing any audit or investigation, or from issuing any subpena [sic] during the course of any audit or investigation.
(b) An Inspector General may be removed from office by the President. If an Inspector General is removed from office or is transferred to another position or location within an establishment, the President shall communicate in writing the reasons for any such removal or transfer to both Houses of Congress, not later than 30 days before the removal or transfer. Nothing in this subsection shall prohibit a personnel action otherwise authorized by law, other than transfer or removal.

5 U.S.C. § 3(g) provides as follows:

Each Inspector General shall, in accordance with applicable laws and regulations governing the civil service, obtain legal advice from a counsel either reporting directly to the Inspector General or another Inspector General.

The “investigation” being undertaken by Bill Barr at the direction of Trump is nothing more than a de facto removal from office of the Inspector General of the Department of Justice. When, as Sarah Sanders says, “we’re going to let the attorney general make that determination [of whether James Comey committed treason and should be arrested] as he gets to the conclusion of this investigation” (lines 95-99), what she is saying is that the Trump Administration is intentionally violating 5 U.S.C. § 3(g). That section goes to the core of the independence of the Inspector General. It makes it clear that the Inspector General can only seek legal counsel from an attorney who reports directly up the line to the Inspector General, not the head of the agency that the Inspector General is charged with overseeing.

 “Let the jury consider their verdict,” the King said, for about the twentieth time that day.
“No, no!” said the Queen. “Sentence first–verdict afterward.”
“Stuff and nonsense!” said Alice loudly. “The idea of having the sentence first!

Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll : Chapter XII

Shortly after that passage, Alice awoke:

‘Oh, I’ve had such a curious dream!’ said Alice, and she told her sister, as well as she could remember them, all these strange Adventures of hers that you have just been reading about; and when she had finished, her sister kissed her, and said, ‘It was a curious dream, dear, certainly: but now run in to your tea; it’s getting late.’ So Alice got up and ran off, thinking while she ran, as well she might, what a wonderful dream it had been.

Somehow, I don’t think that we will soon awaken from this dream. Certainly, we will not view it in retrospect as a wonderful dream.

Another Win for Original Intent

Tonight, the United States District Court for the Northern District of California (Gilliam, J.) issued an injunction as follows:

Defendants Patrick M. Shanahan, in his official capacity as Acting Secretary of Defense, Kevin K. McAleenan, in his official capacity as Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, Steven T. Mnuchin, in his official capacity as Secretary of the Department of the Treasury, and all persons acting under their direction, are enjoined from taking any action to construct a border barrier in the areas Defendants have identified as Yuma Sector Project 1 and El Paso Sector Project 1 using funds reprogrammed by DoD under Section 8005 of the Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 2019.

Slip op. at 55

The court’s reasoning is succinctly summed up in the conclusion of the opinion as follows:

Congress’s “absolute” control over federal expenditures—even when that control may frustrate the desires of the Executive Branch regarding initiatives it views as important—is not a bug in our constitutional system. It is a feature of that system, and an essential one. See [U.S. Dep’t of Navy v. FLRA, 665 F.3d 1339 (D.C. Cir. 2012)] at 1346–47 (“The power over the purse was one of the most important authorities allocated to Congress in the Constitution’s ‘necessary partition of power among the several departments.’”) (quoting The Federalist No. 51, at 320 (James Madison)). The Appropriations Clause is “a bulwark of the Constitution’s separation of powers among the three branches of the National Government,” and is “particularly important as a restraint on Executive Branch officers.” Id. at 1347. In short, the position that when Congress declines the Executive’s request to appropriate funds, the Executive nonetheless may simply find a way to spend those funds “without Congress” does not square with fundamental separation of powers principles dating back to the earliest days of our Republic. See City & Cty of San Francisco, 897 F.3d at 1232 (“[I]f the decision to spend is determined by the Executive alone, without adequate control by the citizen’s Representatives in Congress, liberty is threatened.”) (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted) (quoting Clinton, 524 U.S. at 451) (Kennedy, J., concurring). Justice Frankfurter wrote in 1952 that “[i]t is not a pleasant judicial duty to find that the President has exceeded his powers,” Youngstown, 343 U.S. at 614 (Frankfurter, J., concurring), and that remains no less true today. But “if there is a separation-of-powers concern here, it is between the President and Congress, a boundary that [courts] are sometimes called upon to enforce.” E. Bay Sanctuary Covenant, 909 F.3d at 1250; see also Ctr. for Biological Diversity v. Mattis, 868 F.3d 803, 825–26 (9th Cir. 2017) (“To declare that courts cannot even look to a statute passed by Congress to fulfill international obligations turns on its head the role of the courts and our core respect for a co-equal political branch, Congress.”). Because the Court has found that Plaintiffs are likely to show that Defendants’ actions exceeded their statutory authority, and that irreparable harm will result from those actions, a preliminary injunction must issue pending a resolution of the merits of the case.

Slip opinion at 54-55.

I have posted a copy of the opinion here.

Emergency Etiquette Help Needed

I am a past chair of the Section of Taxation of the Maryland State Bar Association. Tonight, May 22, the Section will be holding its annual dinner. The keynote speaker is the current I.R.S. Commissioner, Charles P. Rettig. I will be in attendance.

An article appeared in today’s Washington Post, revealing that there was a memo (perhaps simply a draft), that concluded that the Secretary of the Treasury does not have the authority to deny a request for taxpayer returns from the House Ways and Means Committee. Here’s a copy of the memo. I don’t have quick access to the relevant documents right now, but I’m am fairly certain that the obligation to enforce the tax code has been delegated to the IRS Commissioner and that this delegation order has (i) not been revoked and (ii) cannot be revoked except upon thirty days’ notice, which notice has not been made. So, Mr. Rettig would seem to be under a specific legal obligation to honor the Ways and Means Committee’s request.

Now, I try to remain civil and non-confrontational in face-to-face interactions. (My internet interactions are, um, somewhat different.) This leaves me in a bit of a quandary that I am hoping members of the RBC can help me resolve. Should I:

  • Question Mr. Rettig about the issue in a semi-confrontational matter (“Isn’t it true, Mr. Commissioner that . . . .”)
  • When Mr. Rettig is called to the rostrum, ostentatiously turn my back to him.
  • When Mr. Rettig is called to the rostrum, ostentatiously leave the room.
  • When Mr. Rettig is called to the rostrum, quietly and unobtrusively leave the room.
  • Simply maintain the ordinary sort of courtesies expected in such social and professional situations (ala Nancy Pelosi in her recent meeting with Attorney General Barr), remaining in the room and politely applauding Mr. Rettig after he finishes his remarks.
  • Any other suggestion?

I note that while I have never meet Mr. Rettig, I know a good number of my colleagues who have. They are unanimous in their appraisal of him that he is an intelligent, decent, and honorable man.

Shopping for a Comfortable Coach Airline Seat? Consider the ASSPHIT.

Here’s a travel tip you don’t hear every day: Can you guess how I upgraded all my ticketed airplane seats from basic to premium economy for free? I lost 20 pounds. With two inches taken off my waist, the spacing between me and the arms of my seat has increased to a level I could normally only get by paying for an upgrade. My personal journey of weight loss inspired some research that can benefit any cost-conscious flier, particular those who, like myself, have experienced being “gravitationally challenged.”

Passengers frequently rage at the airlines for restricting seat sizes, and with good reason. Data gathered by former Consumer Reports Travel Letter editor Bill McGee, supplemented by some research I did using Seatguru.com while wedged into seat 47Q, shows that the smallest seat width in coach class across American, Delta, and United Airlines declined around 15% over the past three decades.   

But examining airline seat size decline in isolation understates the march of rear-end pinch. Even if seat size had stayed constant, flying would still feel more uncomfortable because the proportion of Americans who are overweight swelled from 55% in 1989 to about 73% today. Clearly, the nation needs a new statistic to assess the combined impact of smaller seats and bigger (cough) seats. I therefore charted the ratio of minimum coach seat width to the proportion of U.S. adults who are overweight.  At the risk of being cheeky, I label this variable the Airline Seat Size to Passenger Heftiness Index Tracker (ASSPHIT), which reveals a startling 36% decline in posterior comfort over the past three decades. 

The extraordinary ASSPHIT of the first class section is mainly for the corporate traveler; what’s the best coach class choice for the corpulent traveler? Delta Airlines, with minimum ASSPHIT of .23 (and even better ASSPHIT on most of its airplanes) is your best bet among legacy carriers. In contrast, one of the seat configurations of a particular United Airlines narrow body jet offers a minimum coach width of just 16 inches. Even if you have a narrow body yourself, that’s one tight ASSPHIT.

As for my recent success at improving my personal ASSPHIT, the hard fact is that most people who lose weight gain it back again. Given how often I fly, I am hoping to beat those odds. I know I have your good wishes, particularly if you are crammed into the seat next to me.

Hope and the Wish for Certainty: What Alex Kotlowitz’s An American Summer Can Teach Us About Urban Gun Violence


The gun violence that is severely concentrated in poor minority communities in American cities like Chicago has a paradoxical quality. It seems to draw our attention as it repels our reflection. And so, while stories of murder and bloodshed are a regular feature of our news, politics, and urban policy discussions, they rarely encourage us to look beyond the surface of what this kind of violence has done to the people who have experienced it, or to question how it has affected the American body politic.


This is what makes Alex Kotlowitz’s work so important. As he first demonstrated in his 1992 classic There Are No Children Here, Kotlowitz has a unique gift for revealing the humanity that is often forgotten about or ignored in communities that suffer from chronically high rates of racial segregation, poverty, and violent crime.


In his new book, An American Summer, Kotlowitz knits together a collection of true stories about people affected by gun violence in the summer of 2013 in Chicago. Unlike similar kinds of accounts, An American Summer does not try to provide readers with an explanatory theory or a solution. Indeed, it is critical of attempts to do so. But in refusing to participate in this kind of discourse, Kotlowitz’s work can help us examine our assumptions and ask ourselves how should we think and what should we do about the problem of urban gun violence.

About halfway through An American Summer, there’s a short moment that dramatizes one of its most important insights. The chapter in which it appears tells the story of Eddie Bocanegra, a man who has become one of Chicago’s key violence prevention leaders and advocates for peace after serving 14 years in prison for a homicide he committed in his late teens. Kotlowitz writes that after Eddie had served his sentence, an academic asked if he would be on a panel to explore the question whether hope is possible in prison. Eddie has a philosophical disposition and a gift for storytelling. He’d be precisely the kind of person you’d want to hear think about this question. But Eddie quickly realized that the academic wasn’t interested in learning what he thought. It was clear the academic believed he already knew the answer: “that prison sapped one of hope, of any sense of future” and “diminished your sense of self.” Inwardly “agitated,” Eddie “politely but firmly declined the offer.”


The problem, Kotlowitz speculates, wasn’t that Eddie completely disagreed with the academic. Rather, it was the academic’s certainty that angered him. The way the academic presumptuously dismissed the possibility of hope for incarcerated people assumed they could never be more than prisoners of their circumstances, as it also made Eddie incidental to the significance of his own experience. In his certainty, the academic cancelled out something essential about incarcerated people’s humanity. If you lack hope, “you have nothing,” Kotlowitz writes. “It’s about as close to death as one can get without actually dying.” 


It’s not surprising that the academic believed he understood the nature of hope in prison better than Eddie. It’s all too human to feel as if we should be able to understand and master the things that threaten or depress us. You can hear this wish for certainty in the way people often talk about controlling urban gun violence, like in Kotlowitz’s account of former Illinois’ U.S. Senator Mark Kirk’s 2013 proposal to arrest 18,000 members of one of Chicago’s gangs because he believed they were responsible for the city’s murders. Or when one of Chicago’s violence prevention organizations argued in 2016 that a dramatic spike in homicides was caused by decreases in its funding, and that consequently if the organization were fully funded, it could effectively cut the city’s murders in half.  Or when the Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department declared in 2017 that if a proposed law passed to increase the length of prison sentences for a gun-related offense, it would create “a mental culture not to pick up a gun” and reduce gun violence by 50 percent in one year. 


Sometimes these proposals are implausible, the clear product of fanciful thinking or political desperation. Other times they are grounded in empirical observation. But regardless of how they may differ, the more certain people are in plans that aim to control urban gun violence, the more they tend to reduce violence into a kind of mechanistic problem. So conceived, violence will increase when essential inputs in a community are lacking—like a certain program, a policing strategy, economic development, a deterrent threat, or some combination of factors—but it will go down if they are maintained at an appropriate level.


This is a comforting view that we all probably believe or want to believe is true. It makes violence into an operational matter, which we can comprehend and manage. The problem with this conception is that it’s not entirely wrong, but that it never seems to fully satisfy the wish for certainty that usually inspires it. “This is how it often happens in Chicago,” Kotlowitz writes of individual incidents. “One act of violence follows another which follows another and so on. Sometimes there’s a causal relationship between them, and sometime they just happen, almost like an infection being passed along from friend to friend or family member to family member.”  The same kind of dynamic is present at a macro level. Trying to make sense of a 61 percent spike in homicides that occurred between 2015 and 2016, Kotlowitz describes how the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab, the city’s foremost urban violence think tank, examined all of the inputs that experts believe could have caused the increase, but found they couldn’t explain it. Ultimately, the Crime Lab acknowledged, “What caused Chicago’s sudden surge in gun violence . . . remains a puzzle.”


When violence fails to conform to a wish for certainty, it will often produce skeptical resignation, a belief that nothing can be known about how to control gun violence. You can hear this sense of certainty in the voices of commentators who lament they can’t imagine or understand what causes people to engage in gun violence or how people live with it. Or in punditry like The Chicago Tribune’s editorial page which argued in a 2019 piece that “[t]here can’t be a rational explanation [for the city’s gun violence] because Chicago’s plague of urban warfare isn’t logical.”  Behind these expressions of skeptical resignation, there is an assumption that the kind of violence that Chicago’s most disadvantaged communities experience is beyond ordinary comprehension and control because there is something about it that is alien or inhuman.


The fact that some of the most common ways of conceptualizing and addressing urban gun violence can provoke responses that range from confident predictions to skeptical resignation highlights a significant problem in our thinking. The issue here is not with the people who live in communities with high rates of violence, but rather with what a wish for certainty requires of them to work. If we are certain we can master other people’s behavior, we cannot let them be more than the objects of our certainty. To be certain about other people means that we assume we understand their lives better than they do; that their actions are controlled by factors we deem determinative. At its extreme, a wish for certainty is like the academic’s cancellation of hope. It imagines people to be “about as close to death as one can get without actually dying.” This is why public discourse on community violence often devolves into proposals of coercive force, whether in the form of increases in incarceration, aggressive policing, or even military action. It’s because a wish for certainty has already turned the people who would be subjected to these actions into almost dead things.


It is important to keep in mind the deadening assumptions of certainty as you read Kotlowitz’s book, particularly when you consider how he describes his intentions. “Let me tell you what this book isn’t,” Kotlowitz writes at the beginning of An American Summer. “It’s not a policy map or a critique. It’s not about what works and doesn’t work. Anyone who tells you they know is lying . . . . What works? After twenty years of funerals and hospital visits, I don’t feel like I’m much closer to knowing.” This declaration might be misread as an assertion of skeptical resignation. But Kotlowitz grounds his book in a radically different position. Rejecting a wish for certainty—and the lies and untruths that its deadening assumptions engender—he begins with an acknowledgement of his own ignorance, an admission he repeats throughout the book. This admission points to a critical distinction. While believing that nothing can be known closes us off to learning, a knowledge of our ignorance opens us up to possibility and questioning what we can know. A knowledge of ignorance is where the search for wisdom about human beings must always begin.


When we let go of our stubborn wish for certainty, we can learn an important truth from the lives featured in An American Summer about how violence affects our humanity. While we are embodied creatures, our humanity is not reducible to our biological existence. This is why, for example, we believe that even after people die, they retain an aspect of their humanity that seems to demand respect. We can offend the memory of the dead by speaking ill of them, just as we can disrespect corpses if we fail to treat them appropriately. Our biological existence provides the necessary, but not the sufficient set of conditions that enable us to develop and maintain a sense of what our humanity means. Such sufficient conditions lie in the practices and conventions of our community and the concomitant ways in which people treat us as subjects. Thus, when other people treat us violently, they can not only harm our bodies or end our lives, but as the philosopher J.M. Bernstein has argued, they can also injure and even “devastate” our sense of self. This kind of moral injury comes about through the ways in which violence aims to turn people into things or objects, whether by making them into a sign of revenge, a means of obtaining something of value, or a raw expression of rage or a wish for dominance.  As we require others to co-produce our own humanity, violence can fracture the trust we need that others will treat us in ways that reflect the sense that we possess a special kind of dignity because as human beings we are not like mere things or objects, but ends in ourselves.

Acts of physical violence always have a moral aspect that attack a person’s sense of self. But moral violence does not require physical attack to work. Moral violence can be uncoupled from physical attack and used to power our relationships and the conventions and practices that shape how we know ourselves and others. Throughout An American Summer, Kotlowitz shows how such forms of abstracted moral violence pervade the lives and the communities about which he writes. These forms of moral violence draw their strength from the living legacy of white supremacy, which can negatively shape people’s health and life prospects based on their race and the neighborhood in which they grow up. They structure the reductive identities that governmental institutions impose on people, as Kotlowitz shows in the story of Marcelo, a 17-year old who faced an adult criminal charge that would have legally turned him into an adult and branded him for life as a felon. 
They drive conventional wisdom that informs how most people respond to accounts of community violence, which assure us that, as Kotlowitz writes, the victims “must have done something to deserve it; they must have been up to no good.” Such forms of moral violence can even take over strategies to reduce shootings if they treat the people they are trying to help as things—like objects of a wish for certainty—rather than human beings that possess a dignity that we all share. And when that happens, violence reduction efforts can reproduce the moral harm that is interwoven with the physical violence they aim to prevent.


So where does this leave us and the problem of urban gun violence? For Kotlowitz, there are no certain answers that will relieve us from the responsibility to wrestle with this question. While the suffering that Kotlowitz writes about is isolated in poor minority communities in Chicago, its moral harm radiates throughout the American body politic, for we can’t diminish the humanity of others without deadening our own. But if we can acknowledge this essential truth about ourselves, then maybe we can learn the significance of hope, our greatest strength. As we learn from the people in Kotlowitz’s work, hope is the power that enables us to live and love each other even in the face of relentless dehumanizing treatment and sudden violent death. And this is the guiding hope of Kotlowitz’s work: that when we read about the lives featured in his books, we will reflect on our shared humanity, and that through this kind of activity, we can find ways to be more than the worst things that have been done to us or that we have done to others.