Sunday, July 26, 2009

Brain Science and Sotomayer

Should a judge have empathy for legal defendants? Be able to experience compassion and understanding for the motives that might have driven an offender to commit a particular crime?

Sonja Sotomayer, Barack Obama’s nominee for Supreme Court Justice, has been questioned repeatedly about whether she could be objective on the bench. White southern Senators like Alabama’s Jeff Sessions (who once called the NAACP an un-American organization) have accused her of harboring racial prejudice because she remarked that a “wise Latina woman” might make better decisions than a white man. This is racism in reverse.

But Sotomayer’s critics have also fretted that the President listed “empathy” as among her qualifications to serve. It’s a sexist ploy. Women are stereotyped as soft-hearted rather than hard-headed, governed by emotion rather than reason. So it’s implied that Sotomayer will be unable to separate her personal feelings from the ability to do her job.

Actually, judges need empathy, which is part of what makes us fully human.

Neurologist Oliver Sacks describes the case of a judge with a brain impairment that stripped him of the ability to feel emotion. “It might be thought that the absence of emotion, and of the biases that go with it, would have rendered him more impartial—indeed, uniquely qualified—as a judge,” Sacks comments. “But he himself, with great insight, resigned from the bench, saying that he could no longer enter sympathetically into the motives of anyone concerned, and that since justice involved feeling, and not merely thinking, he felt that his injury totally disqualified him.”

A judge without empathy would be working with half a brain---entirely lacking the emotional intelligence that lets us enter into each other’s joys, sorrows and inner struggles.

That’s what the attacks on Sotomayer seem to be: the confused conjectures of a partial brain.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Journeys to Space: Ben Franklin to Neil Armstrong

Benjamin Franklin was a man ahead of his time. On the fiftieth anniversary of the moon walk, he might have asked, “What took you so long?”

In a letter to Jane Mecom dated 1786, he mentions an Italian Poet who gives an account of a voyage to the moon, “telling us that all things lost on Earth are treasured there.” Franklin quips that, if so, the Moon must hold a great storehouse of Good Advice.

The Italian author Franklin’s referencing is probably Cyrano de Bergerac, a freethinking philosopher who penned The Other World: The Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon in 1657. In this story, the traveler’s first attempt at space travel involves tying various glass globes filled with dew to his torso; when morning comes and the dew rises, he begins to ascend toward the sun, but then begins to break the globes when his ascent becomes too fast and plummets back to terra firma. Eventually successful in reaching his destination, he discovers a world where the inhabitants live in cities built on wheels, equipped with giant sails and mechanical bellows to self-propel across the landscape. The rest of the account is equally fanciful.

Franklin records quite a different encounter with moon men in a fragment posted to the American Philosophical Society in 1768, where he details the experiences of one William Henry who lived as a captive among the Seneca Indians. On hearing that Europeans believe there is but a single God, the native chieftain objects: “You say there is but one great good Manitta. You know of no more. If there were but one, how unhappy must he be, without friends, without companions, and without that equality in conversation, by which pleasure is mutually given and received! I tell you there are more than a hundred of them; they live in the sun and in the moon; they love one another as brethren; they visit and converse with each other; and they sometimes visit, though they do not often converse with us.” As an avowed polytheist, Franklin was probably not shocked by the idea.

The idea of space travel—and of encountering the inhabitants of other spheres--has stretched the imagination throughout time. From Ben Franklin to Neil Armstrong, Americans will continue to explore the universe, in dream and reality.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Slavery's Dark Shadow

When President Obama visited the slave fort Cape Coast Castle in Ghana where millions of Africans were penned for shipment to southern plantations, it was a measure of how far our nation has traveled from it dark past.

Many seem to think that racism is now a closed chapter in the book of U.S. history. The U.S. Supreme Court, for example, dealt a legal blow to affirmative action two weeks ago when it upheld a complaint from white firefighters in New Haven, Connecticut, aggrieved that the city tried to scrap a test that seemed to favor Caucasians over blacks and Hispanics seeking promotion. Two years ago, the Court virtually reversed Brown v. Board of Education, ordering Seattle and Louisville to dismantle voluntary school desegregation plans that used students’ racial background to balance and diversify the make-up of their classrooms. The Court, and many others, apparently feel that we have “done enough” to remedy racism.

But the effects of 250 years of slavery and a century of Jim Crow are not so easily overcome.

Look at the numbers. Before the economy tanked, the country’s overall poverty rate was 12.5%. For African Americans, the rate was 24.5%. Unemployment stands now at 9.4%. Among blacks, the jobless rate is 15%. For every dollar of net wealth owned by white families, blacks own just one thin dime. What this means is that in the race of life, children of color are far more likely than whites to hobble forward from the starting gate with a severe disadvantage.

That disadvantage shows up in educational test scores, in higher incarceration rates for African Americans, in larger numbers of single parent households, and more.

In a speech on race a year ago, candidate Obama proclaimed (paraphrasing William Faulkner) that “the past isn’t dead and buried. It’s not even the past.” Unless Americans work harder to guarantee every child an equal start in life, Cape Coast Castle will continue to cast its shadow across the generations.