Bits and Bobs for the Week – April 14th

Right, so, it’s April 14th. Tomorrow is a big anniversary in Boston, so I am planning to avoid all news media outlets. In fact, I think I’d better do that until next Tuesday, because the marathon is taking place a week from today. 

I can’t do it. Sorry. Maybe it’s callous of me to say so, but I really don’t want to be a part of any of the memorializing, the eulogizing, the endless re-evoking of memory that’s going to be happening nonstop for the next week. Of course, I feel very sorry for the families and friends of the three people who lost their lives, and I can’t even imagine what the people who suffered life-changing injuries last April are going through. But being part of the constant displays of memory that have been going on since this time last year will not bring back lives or limbs, and at a certain point, repeatedly revisiting trauma stops being helpful and only causes more pain. I didn’t even live here this time last year, but hearing about the bombing and seeing the reminders again and again – it wears you down. For the sake of my own mental health I do not want to get drawn into it, so the only thing I can do is avoid all the various ceremonies and tributes and news articles that are going to come at everybody in Boston full-on for the next week.

Don’t get me wrong – public outpourings of grief and mourning can be very useful: they show people who were personally affected that they are not alone and not forgotten, and that there is a network of people around them who want to show that they care. And a one-year anniversary is extremely important for commemoration of any major event. The problem is, there is another group of people affected by the bombing – a rather sizeable one, I suspect – who are feeling very alone and overlooked precisely because of all the public displays of “Boston Strong,” the memorials, the news pieces. They’re people who were traumatized by what they witnessed, and for whom every recollection of the day’s events re-ignites that horror. They would like to walk down Boylston Street and not be constantly reminded of the bombing, the blood, the suffering. They would like to one day hang out in their city without seeing everything from shoe shops to schoolkids displaying “Boston Strong” on signs and shirts. They can’t heal so long as the bombing is constantly being thrust in their face – and let’s be honest, there hasn’t been one day since last April 15th that the bombing wasn’t in the news in Boston. Things are only going to get worse once Dzokhar Tsarnaev’s trial gets underway. So perhaps the right thing to do – and I know I’m treading some very delicate ground here, so don’t get me wrong – is for, after this year’s marathon, Bostonians to agree to grieve more privately. Acknowledge that there has been a year of public mourning, and that the next step is perhaps to step back a bit and begin to bury the bombing. This does not mean forgetting what happened or forgetting the people who died, or that people should quit giving to the One Fund. Not at all. It’s simply an acknowledgment that, while we all feel very sad about it, there is a time when you have to move the pain indoors. Take down the banners. Newspapers, radio, and TV outlets should only report on the bombing when there’s real news about it. It doesn’t mean you care any less about the victims. In fact, it acknowledges that if you weren’t directly affected, you realize your pain is distinctly different from that of the people who were injured, who lost a friend or relative, or who were on the front lines of providing help. You have done your bit of grieving in public, and that’s enough, and now it is time for you to move on.

I may very well be giving an opinion where I’m not at all welcome, seeing how I only moved here last June, but this is my rationale and this is why I’ll be avoiding Boylston Street until next Tuesday. It is the same rationale for why I treat September 11th and July 7th like any other days even though they are both significant dates to the two places I call home. At a certain point, for my own sanity, I had to say enough. The grief of the people who lost loved ones is not my grief, and sometimes the most supportive thing you can do is return to normalcy.

It is also worth noting – and thanks to for this stat – that 35 people have died from gun violence in Boston since the 2013 marathon. A further 200 have been shot and survived. Those 35 people were no less loved than the three who died at the Marathon, and those 200 people are dealing with many of the same post-traumatic issues as the 260 wounded in the blasts. Though, chances are that unless you knew any of the victims personally or it happened in your neighborhood, you don’t know the names of the people killed by guns. The idea of “One Boston” rings somewhat hollow for many people living in areas of the city struggling with gun violence and general lack of resources, where killings don’t make the news. Whether it happens on Boylston Street or in Roxbury or Dorchester, death is final, life is precious, and all those people were somebody’s children. End of.


I’ll admit it: I really like Kathy Griffin. She cracks me up, and I suspect that a huge part of her appeal is in knowing that even when she’s at her rudest and crudest, and we’re all thinking, “Oh no, you did NOT just say that,” there’s secretly a part of us that agrees with what she’s saying. We just don’t have the balls to say it ourselves, because we know it’s wrong to poke fun at other people, even if they are famous and living in the public eye. 

Now, turn that kind of criticism on yourself. Feels a bit awkward, yeah? Of course, you shouldn’t give out what you can’t take – but when you can be deeply self-critical, and lace that criticism with self-deprecating wit, you might find that, indeed, plenty of people agree with what you’re thinking. And that leads me to this next bit…

I want to plug a project. I love giggling over Your Kickstarter Sucks as much as anybody, but when I find a Kickstarter that doesn’t suck, I feel like promoting it. This has happened precisely three times. Here’s the third: You should give some money to Peter James Field for his book of illustrations from the past decade of his visual diaries.

Field works as a freelance illustrator in Brighton (the one in England, not the one in west Boston). Columbia people, you may have seen some of his portraits in the university magazine. Or if you’ve flown United and paged through their magazine, you’ve seen three portraits of his in every issue, capturing people who have something to say about that month’s destination of choice. On my last trip back to London, Virgin Atlantic gave us copies of the Independent before we boarded, and I opened up my copy straight onto an illustration I immediately knew was his. Something about the government, or banking, or government and banking policy. Field’s freelance work goes all over, but this book he’s putting out there on Kickstarter is an altogether more personal project – it’s 10 years of his visual diary. Every month, Field posts a half-dozen drawings to his website. Several pictures capture what he sees out and about in Brighton. Sometimes he’ll turn the pencil on himself – if not on his face, then on exactly what he’s seeing as he draws, complete with his hands in the frame. The result is a deeply touching chronicle of a life in moments.

What I love about Field’s diary sketches is that they take something intensely personal – a diary – and present scenes and situations in a manner that makes you acutely aware of shared experiences. You watch Field’s technique evolve, see him move from Dorset to Brighton, go through difficult months and happier ones, all with wry and self-deprecating commentary. All the while you take various glimpses at somebody else’s life – somebody who is clearly very interested in pop culture, watching shows like Big Brother, while simultaneously we watch him through his diary sketches. Amidst the anonymity of the internet, Field does not know who his own “Big Brother” is – he simply puts his life on display, warts and all, and lets himself be watched. He has selected which images he wants to present to the world, but these pictures do not seem at all staged. Rather, they come across as candid and honest, free of the artifice that characterizes the “front stage” performances we so often present to the world on social media, choosing to show only our best sides and tailoring our public faces to exactly how we wish other people would see us. Viewing Field’s work, you feel like you’re peering “backstage” without being intrusive. You’ve been let into a life that is surprisingly like your own – but the difference is, he’s showing a side of himself that you wouldn’t be brave enough to show of yourself. Peter James Field’s diary book is like a reality show, minus all the cynicism you feel when the lens of television is involved.

(August 2007,
We all feel sad and lonely, but we’re not willing to admit it. When Peter James Field self-deprecatingly sketches his TV or his empty can of lager and admits feeling unfulfilled, we’re secretly nodding our heads in recognition and relief. Somebody said it! Somebody said what we’re all secretly feeling – we just didn’t have the courage to say it ourselves.

(December 2007,

It’s also a time capsule – in September 2008, at the start of the financial crisis (that was the month Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy), Field captures a billboard for the Bradford & Bingley bank offering 6.7% fixed-rate mortgages. That same month, Bradford & Bingley’s share price dropped to a record low and the bank announced hundreds of jobs would be lost – a scene that would be repeated again and again over Britain. The bank was part-nationalized, part-sold off. Field’s innocuous-looking nighttime scene doesn’t come with any more commentary than its location: Sackville Road Railway Bridge, Hove. A mundane advertisement like this is not a political statement. It’s not something unusual or shocking. Nor is it tinged with anger or resentment at a world gone wrong. In his diary, the billboard is simply what is present before him, displayed without commentary, something ordinary that gains meaning only when time passes. And maybe life doesn’t have to be extraordinary in order to merit being remembered, etched in ink, put into a book – a rather sacrilegious suggestion in an age of celebrity and narcissism.

Also: can we all just take a moment and recognize that this is a pencil drawing. It is not a photograph put through Photoshop. It is a pencil drawing. Considering I can’t draw for toffee (evidence available upon request), I’m in awe. You should pledge. You really should. Art books are not cheap to print – from my [brief] experience in publishing, I know that anything heavily illustrated is incredibly difficult to get printed, and if you think it’s hard getting a book deal as an new fiction writer, it’s probably 100 times harder for an artist when you remember that publishing houses are looking to make a profit and books from living artists generally don’t, no matter how wonderful the content. Self-publishing makes a lot of sense. Pledge. Pledge pledge pledge.


Happy Passover. Oscar ate my chometz.

I’ve been in New York City quite a bit recently. Something might happen, something might not, but I’d be quite happy if something did, and no, I can’t be any less cryptic. What I can say is that New York always feels right, the way London always feels right. I’m essentially a nobody, like 99.999% of the population, but when you walk down a wide avenue and feel like you own the place, you know you’re in your element, you know something has gone terribly right and you’d better do all you can to keep it that way.
This is an old picture, but there’s a bit of me that will always want to be photographed under the bright lights no matter what. Eh, who am I kidding. There’s all of me still there.

My mother’s got this saying that it is fine to be a janitor so long as you own the building. After moving around so much throughout my 20s, I think I understand that a bit more now.


Things Not to Be Bothered About, Part 3

The Winter Olympics! Controversy! Politics! Human rights, or lack thereof! Snow, or lack thereof! Happy Scandinavians! And more politics! And more controversy! CURLING!

While it pales in comparison to, say, just about everything controversial about the Sochi games, today the BBC brought up the question of whether Russian figure skater Julia Lipnitskaia’s routine to the score from “Schindler’s List” was in poor taste. My verdict? No. Not really. Leave the girl alone. BBC turned to Twitter, that repository of great human opinion distilled down to quickly-digested bites, to quote somebody asking if routines based on Anne Frank’s diary are next. I’m here in Super Jewish Lady mode to say: calm down.

Okay, I admit I did a little mental “uh oh…” when Lipnitskaia entered the ice and the announcer said she was skating to the theme from “Schindler’s List,” but that’s mainly because I don’t like having emotional reactions to sport other than hysterical glee when Tottenham Hotspur win. I definitely took notice of the red costume and immediately thought of the little girl in the red coat. But, you know what? It’s not a big deal. In the great big net of fish we Jews have to fry, this isn’t even a barnacle on the rope. Not bothered. I sat back and watched her land some jumps.

Fact: I was eight or nine years old when “Schindler’s List” was released, but I never watched it until well into my twenties. I suppose my reasoning is the same of that of a lot of Jewish people in my generation: Holocaust Overload. While undoubtedly the biggest tragedy and the most pivotal time in our history, it can sometimes feel like it’s our only history, and so we acknowledge that we can commemorate and remember our genocide but need to draw the line before we are completely consumed by grief. As an avid reader from a young age, I knew all about the Holocaust and had read plenty of accounts of the horror by 1993. I didn’t feel like I needed to see a film, even one as highly acclaimed as “Schindler’s List,” in order to know even more. For children, everything in moderation, including recollections of deportations, gas chambers, and shootings-on-sight.

But eventually I did watch it, and I was glad I did. It’s a work of art. Neeson’s portrayal of Schindler is brilliant. The cinematography could not possibly be improved. It’s a hard-hitting movie that never lets up and it should never let up. It’s a film that resonates with people of all backgrounds, not just my own Jewish-Polish one. And so “Schindler’s List,” as a Hollywood movie, pretty much belongs to everyone. You can’t draw comparisons to Anne Frank’s diary, which to me is far more “Jewish” than a film, even one from arguably the most famous Jewish director of all time. It’s the story, first and foremost, about the work of a German man, played by an Irish actor. The screenplay was adapted from the Booker Prize-winning Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally, an Australian Catholic. The music Lipnitskaia skated to was composed by John Williams, and I have no idea if he is Jewish, but that doesn’t matter – it’s a beautiful, mournful, moving score. Of course, the great Itzakh Perlman is the violinist on that track. The film tells a story of Jewish life and death, but it is not our exclusive property. It’s a story shared with the world, and for that it earned seven Academy Awards and a rightful place in the history of film. I find it actually quite heartening that a Russian non-Jewish girl who wasn’t even alive when the film was made had such an emotional connection with it. That only proves it’s a great work of art. 

Now, as for the costume, my main criticism is that it’s a bit too literal. Everybody knows the character of the little girl in the red coat. Figure skating costumes by necessity are made of skimpy Spandex and there’s nothing “coat”-like about that to me. But this is purely a criticism on the basis of fashion, not taste. Figure skaters are first and foremost athletes, not models, and she had to wear a short skirt with a leotard bottom just like everybody else. If she hadn’t worn red, then critics would have wondered why the hell not, considering how iconic that color is in the film. Something to get upset about? This isn’t it.

To Lipnitskaia and other skaters who sacrifice their youth to training for this sport, it’s an art as much as a physical activity. Skaters are taught to create that emotional connection with their audiences the same way a dancer (or hey, maybe even an actor) would. If this 15-year-old girl and her coach and choreographer thought she could do a great job of capturing the emotion evoked by the film score, then more power to her. It’s a lot to ask of a teenager, and I thought she did it well. So did the judges (although I have to admit I have no clue how the new scoring system works but so long as a pair of friendly Canadians don’t get ripped off again I’m happy to let them do their thing). It should also be emphasized that Lipnitskaia is not the first female figure skater to perform to this music – that honor goes to Katarina Witt, who happens to be German. And was a willing accomplice to the Stasi. Welp.

There’s a lot to be upset about in these Olympics. Julia Lipnitskaia’s routine really isn’t one of them. Carry on skating.

Sleepwalking Toward Sanitizing

I don’t know if this has attracted much attention outside Massachusetts, but in the news yesterday was the controversy over a statue at Wellesley College that depicts a remarkably lifelike sleepwalking man clad only in his underwear. The painted bronze statue, “Sleepwalker” by Tony Matelli, is part of a solo show at Wellesley’s Davis Gallery. It has been placed outdoors on the Wellesley campus and has moved hundreds of students to sign a petition demanding its removal on the grounds that it is triggering memories of sexual assault for some students.


(Photo from the Wellesley Report)


It is important to first emphasize that the man is not naked. He is wearing underpants. His genitals are not visible, or even suggested. His eyes are shut, and as the name of the artwork itself suggests, he is unconscious – he is asleep. He is not taking any deliberate action. Matelli stated to the Boston Globe, “Everyone brings to a work of art their own interpretation, their own history and their own baggage.” And that’s precisely what art is meant to do – interact with your unique mind, with all its history and experiences, and make you think, even if it draws you out of your comfort zone. And while nobody will deny that sexual assault is a horrible thing, I strongly believe this call for the removal of the statue on the grounds of what memories it evokes in some viewers is inappropriate.

One complaint I’ve read about the statue’s placement is that it is intrusive. If somebody is walking across part of the Wellesley campus, they see it – they can’t avoid it the way they could if it was inside the gallery. Fair enough, but public art is all over the United States, much of it referencing war, which by its very nature is a traumatic act. Furthermore, the link between the intrusiveness of public placement and the “triggering” of traumatic memory is tenuous at best when you consider that the man depicted by this statue is less blatantly sexually suggestive than, say, a billboard of David Beckham advertising underwear – and advertising is incredibly intrusive. You can’t escape advertising in American society unless you lock yourself inside with no TV, radio, newspapers, or magazines. That doesn’t mean we ban advertising underwear on the grounds that it is by its very nature sexual and in public, and all things sexual could serve as reminders of sexual violence. If an image in the public eye is disturbing, you must avert your eyes, not place curtains over the rest of the world.

David Beckham for H&M: massive advertising image of a fully conscious man in his underpants. More sexual. Not violent.

Let’s be clear, sexual violence is a horrible, life-altering thing. Nobody is denying that. But it is just one of many terrible things that can happen to a person in the course of an average life. Some people survive getting viciously mauled by dangerous dogs. Their experience is undoubtedly traumatic and they may be triggered every time they see a large dog being walked by its owner or running free in a park. Yet, The world does not owe them a dog-free town in which to live. Gun crime is a sad fact of life in America, yet images of guns are pervasive in this culture and are not going anywhere. I have my own disturbing anxieties, and guess what, they’re my problem. Over many years, as I have grown older, I have learned to deal with them. It hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve learned the world doesn’t owe me a comfortable existence. Why? Because they’re my problems and part of my life story, not other people’s. I don’t expect everybody to read my mind and know exactly what sets me off, because the world doesn’t work like that. It can’t work like that. It’s impossible, unless we all walk around with dry-erase boards around our necks on which we constantly update our feelings, like a real-world Twitter. And even if we were to do something so absurd, what exactly would we be achieving? What actionable course would come out of it?

We all have our traumas, but the world does not revolve around any of us. None of us. The world does not owe you an existence free of offense. The world does not owe you consensus. An environment in which every step is taken to sanitize expression to the level of no possible offensiveness is a world without free expression, a world without art. It is a world suitable only for children, who lack the capacity for critical thinking. Because once you start sanitizing, you can’t stop. Everything is potentially triggering to somebody. But guess what, life is triggering. Life is painful and sad and part of growing up is learning to cope with really, really unpleasant things. People mature with experience and they have to be mentally stimulated to do so. For better and for worse. The truth is that some people in this world are men, and some men sleep in their underwear, and a statue depicting a male sleepwalker in his underwear may offend some people the same way that any other work of art could offend anybody. One form of offense should not be privileged above another when the reason for that offense stems from personal interpretation rather than any blatant characteristic depicted in the artwork itself.

Or, in short: this argument is not about sexual assault.

This argument is not about sexual assault because this is a statue that, at face value, has nothing to do with sexual assault.

All the artist can control is that face value. The rest is up to the viewer.

Of course, because art is open to interpretation, it is perfectly valid if you are reminded of sexual assault while viewing the statue. Everybody is entitled to interpretation. What everybody is NOT entitled to is to force that interpretation upon others, especially when there is no blatant sexuality in the artwork. If the man had a visible penis? Yes, that would change things. But he doesn’t have a visible penis. He’s wearing underwear. Because some people sleep in their underwear. And he’s sleepwalking. We know he’s sleepwalking because the title of the artwork says so. That much, we know. Everything else is personal interpretation – and personal interpretation is just that. Personal. Your own. Thinking back to when I was in college, I’m pretty sure that it was in the Illiad that sleep was said to be the brother of death. I can look at this statue and think about the person being suspended somewhere between life and death. Death is an incredibly unsettling thought. But that doesn’t mean I can make it, or this artwork, go away. If traumatic memories are so pervasive and disturbing in somebody’s life that the sight of this statue will have a severe adverse impact, then that requires a level of professional help that should be made available, affordable, and unstigmatized. The statue isn’t the issue – the trauma is. Removing a work of art doesn’t get rid of PTSD. The statue that triggered you today could be the news story you overhear tomorrow, or the picture in the paper that you couldn’t avoid. We don’t treat diabetes by ridding the world of sugar – we give insulin to people who need it and tell them how to control their diet. Same principle. Treat the root cause of the anxiety and panic rather than bleach the public realm.

Another argument I have heard is that it is particularly distasteful that this artwork depicting a man in his underpants has been installed at a women’s college. I don’t have time for that. Going to a women’s college does not mean you will not be exposed to the sex that comprises roughly half this planet’s population. Higher education exists to expand your experience of the world, not constrain it. (That is precisely the reason I never even entertained the possibility of applying to a women’s college back when I was 17. I wanted a university that reflected the world a bit more accurately than shutting out half the population, and on a more personal level, I got satisfaction from beating the boys on an equal playing field.) If you want to go to Wellesley or Smith or Barnard, that’s fine, that’s up to you. But don’t expect to keep imagery that reflects the rest of society out. If you want to be completely cloistered, you’ll have to become a nun. And even then, you’ll have to interact with men.

If this controversy gets people talking about sexual assault, that is undoubtedly a good thing – there needs to be more action against rape on college campuses and I think we can all agree on that. But that doesn’t mean somebody’s artwork should be a casualty when it does not depict rape. Also, it should be noted that this is not the only sleepwalker statue Tony Matelli has created. He has one of a woman in her underwear. If this had been installed at Wellesley instead of the male version, we would probably be talking about the sexual objectification of women rather than traumatic memories of rape. (Hell, in many parts of American the statue probably couldn’t even be shown in public because REALISTIC FEMALE NIPPLES EQUAL HORRIBLY WORLD-DESTROYING OBSCENITY don’t you know…but that’s another story) And that would be just as good a debate as this one, but it still wouldn’t be grounds for removing the statue.

I anticipate I will be accused of having no sympathy, of victim-blaming. It is not victim blaming to suggest that the world cannot anticipate, and then cater to, your every emotion. It is no more victim-blaming than it would be for me to insist that, say, I have the right to walk down a public street where at one point in time an entirely different young white woman with dark hair committed an act of horrible injustice against somebody living there. Might my action trigger horrible memories for somebody? Sure. Should I be expected to know what goes on in other people’s minds? No. Should I change my life because an innocuous act could offend somebody? Of course not. And neither should Tony Matelli lock up his visual art, which is meant for open-air display, because somebody’s interpretation might trigger unpleasant memories. Nowhere in the history of humankind has a life been free from pain or offense. Societies come to a consensus about what is beyond the pale – those blatant images of abuse, gore, exploitation, what have you. And for those images where there are grey areas, we have debates. Removal of artwork because it could potentially be interpreted a certain way – potentially being the key word, because there is nothing sexually explicit about it – shuts down debate. Nobody is policing your feelings by stating that the world can’t always reflect your feelings and that public art is part of that world. Supporting victims of sexual violence includes believing them when they say they were raped, helping them in whatever way possible when they’re involved with law enforcement, offering support when they need it, being an ear to listen when they want to speak, and teaching young people that no means no. It does not include shutting out the world because something might be interpreted in a certain way. In short, you do not get justice for anybody by getting rid of a statue of a sleepwalking man in his underpants. Sanitize everything for everyone, anticipating every possibility for offense, and you’re left with nothing at all.

Finally, I want to leave you with images of artworks that will live forever in the pantheon of human creativity precisely because the memories they evoke are so painful:

We do not hide Picasso’s “Guernica” or Goya’s “The Third of May” from survivors of war, locked away where they cannot possibly trigger horrible memories. We keep them on public display because we may learn from them and the emotions they evoke. Art, whether creating it or viewing it, can also function to help people come to terms with traumatic pasts, whether individual (as the victims of trauma) or collectively (as a people who have been harmed, harmed others, or had harm done in our name). We do not treat adults as if they are made of glass, terrified they may crumble if exposed to challenge. To borrow from First Amendment law, we do not reduce a population of adults to that which is suitable to children. Those artworks are powerful precisely because they stir up strong emotions, and we would be a lesser species without them. We can use the controversy at Wellesley as an opportunity to discuss the problem of campus rape, but we can do that without removing an artwork that does not even depict rape or any kind of sexual act. We do not reduce culture to what is completely literal because to do so is an insult to our minds, which want to look at the world abstractly and interpret it in different ways. And some of those interpretations are unpleasant. That’s part of life. Life is pain, life is suffering, and yes, life is unfair. But we keep living it for a reason.

UPDATE, MARCH 5th: Jill Filipovic, in the Guardian, has called time on the overuse of “trigger warnings.” I think her piece is brilliant, especially how it highlights the way people shut down reasonable discussion and debate by pointing to potential trauma. What the over-use of trigger warnings mean is that if you proceed with engaging in “triggering” material, such as assigning a great work of literature like “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achibe, you suddenly become an aggressor because you didn’t give into the demand of someone who claimed to be speaking for the oppressed and downtrodden, and thus you make somebody a victim. This becomes a huge slippery slope in academia, where students can complain about unfair treatment by professors. Can you imagine the lawsuits? “Professor X forced me into the psychological trauma of reading this book, or else I would fail the class, even after I pointed out why it is problematic.” It sounds ridiculous, but just wait…

And, y’know what? I’m going to say it: Not everybody is a victim. We don’t need to define ourselves as victims. I read “Things Fall Apart” when I was 15 and so did my entire high school class and somehow we survived without any trauma. As a young woman I’m tired of being treated as if I can’t deal with anything more controversial than a slice of bread or see beyond my own experiences. Trigger warning: I’m asking you to thicken your skin.

What is it good for?

Right now I’m teaching Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiment to my undergrads. Because it’s a methodology course, not a social psych one, an important point I want to drill into their heads is how empirical studies come from the need to address gaps in theory, and then after they’re completed you have to tie your results back into theory so that your work has a meaning beyond the specific context in which it took place. It’s not about some people in a lab in Connecticut, it’s about applications to everyday situations, it’s about agentic states and binding factors, it’s about being conditioned from early childhood that Bad Things Happen when you disobey authorities. I was diagramming everything on the chalkboard, and when I finally brought it all back to the beginning I felt the way gymnasts look when they stick a landing. Done. Nailed it. I saw a few lights go on in student heads, and that’s the fulfilling bit – knowing that you’ve just made what seems like a fuddy-duddy experiment from the early 1960s seem relevant and important in the year 2012.

The things you read about in textbooks can sometimes seem so divorced from current reality that I almost can’t blame undergrads for not being intrigued. But the wonderful thing about sociology is that problems obviously aren’t going to be solved any time soon, so there’s always space for applications to the world around you. Milgram devised his experiment in the wake of the trials of Nazis who argued that they were only following orders when they killed millions of Jews, Roma, disabled people, and others. He aimed to show that these weren’t “monsters” so different from you and me, but that everyday people can be led to do things that go counter to their personal morality because the pull of staying obedient to authority is just that strong. That’s still relevant every single day of every single human life on this planet, from the tiniest act of a rebellious child to the mass murder of war zones.

Yesterday I saw the Man Ray & Lee Miller exhibit at the Legion of Honor here in San Francisco. To be honest, I wasn’t familiar with the work of either of them. I knew of Man Ray, but had never heard of Lee Miller (and had assumed she was a he – oops). While the two of them are known for pioneering surrealist work, I was far more impressed by Miller’s photography of World War II in Europe.

This is the daughter of the mayor of Leipzig. She and her parents, aware that the Allies were going to take the city, killed themselves with poison. Her skin looks so perfect because the shelling around the city hall caused white plaster dust to fall all over the bodies. I have no qualms about viewing the corpses of people whose ideology insisted that my people were life unworthy of life. For all I know, her father sent thousands of Jews to tortured, agonizing deaths. I know that the “right thing to do” is to never rejoice in anyone’s death, but, hey, I got a disturbing and quiet sense of satisfaction from seeing Miller’s photos of how the twisted and hateful ideology they followed turned about and lead these people – who once held the power to dictate life and death – to kill themselves. They ended up in the same place as the people they persecuted: dead and gone. Mind you, they got to choose their time and manner of death. I can look this corpse and shrug. So you killed yourself because you were on the losing side? Your parents were going so you did, too? Whatever, you got what you deserved. Hardly the most enlightened viewpoint, I know. Hardly the nuanced it’s-more-complicated-than-that thinking you’d expect from a sociologist, I know. Tough.

This is a dead Dachau guard in a canal. Again, it’s interesting that I can look at this corpse and not feel any negative emotion. I know, I know, I’m supposed to be all enlightened from studying experiments like Milgram’s, but…nah. He got what he deserved. And even after death, he gets more dignity than the people he watched over in the death camp. How many pictures have I seen of dead Jewish men, women, and children thrown in heaps, in mass graves? They had their heads shaved, they were starved, they were stripped of their uniforms and left undignified in the open air. This man at least got to keep his clothes on for the camera. Miller’s photo made me think of how the piles of corpses in the death camps were newsreel fodder, none of them individuals, just statistics. Are we supposed to care about one man after all that? When the tables are turned and the oppressor becomes the victim, it’s slightly jarring, but death is death – sucks to be you. The Jews were made anonymous in the camps, but then again so were the thousands of rank-and-file Nazis carrying out the atrocities. The only differences were status and power – but those make a hell of a huge difference. (And even that’s an understatement. All sociology is the study of status and power.) The way I see it, if my people had to suffer those indignities, why the hell should I care about their killers getting a taste of the same? I don’t care about this man as an individual. I don’t want to be diplomatic and thoughtful and think about the evidence that shows how and why people obey orders to harm others – though I know I bloody well should, it’s only what I’m building my entire career around. And I usually take so much pride in practicality.

We all think that we would be the person to stand up to the experimenter and say, no, I’m not doing this, there’s no way in hell I’m going to push that button and shock a man who has never done anything to hurt me. Milgram showed, by controlling for loads of variables, that we probably wouldn’t be so special and heroic. Any one of us could become that “monster.” For this reason, I should probably have more empathy/sympathy for people like, say, German civilians who got swept up in the racist fervor of their time. They were just like all of us, right? We could have been in the same situation, right? The evidence is right here in front of me, and I’m big on evidence-based policy, right? But I’m going to be a total unreasonable hypocrite because that reminds me I’m only human. I have no sympathy.

In college I really enjoyed the poets of the First World War, like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Poetry for them wasn’t some abstract concept, but a way to deal with the atrocities taking place right in front of them. The men with their guns, identical and anonymous in uniform, all capable of taking the lives of people whose names they would never know, were still emotional people needing to cope with extraordinary times. I never want to read another Robert Frost poem, but I could happily devour loads more Owen for the same reason I’d read a novel: it shows me a life I don’t lead, and (thankfully) never will.

Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade
How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood;
Blue with all malice, like a madman’s flash;
And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh.

Lend him to stroke these blind, blunt bullet-heads
Which long to muzzle in the hearts of lads.
Or give him cartridges of fine zinc teeth,
Sharp with the sharpness of grief and death.

For his teeth seem for laughing round an apple.
There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple;
And God will grow no talons at his heels,
Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls. 

Arms and the Boy by Wilfred Owen

Let’s go back to the beginning…and tie it all into Milgram. In one of the many variations of his experiment, he found that if the “victim” and the subject were forced to sit close together, the subject would be more reluctant to administer the electric shock. If the victim was in another room, the subject was more obedient to the commands to continue shocking the victim even if he was pounding on the wall or screaming. There’s nothing quite like seeing the harm people do to each other right up close. In modern warfare, we launch missiles from miles away, we drop bombs from planes that are well clear of the area by the time the damn thing explodes, we use drones so that there is essentially no single human being to blame for the carnage. We don’t stare our enemy in the eyes the way the men in the trenches of the First World War had to do, but soldiers still come back traumatized. We still recognise death and suffering, even when it’s diminished by time or distance. Maybe not as much as we should do, maybe not enough to stand up and try to stop anything, but we’re not untouched. We’re only human. And we need documentarians, either with pictures or with words, to make us stare these things in the face and remind us how close we are to our most depraved, violent impulses.

More later. I’m off to bed.

See also Philip Jones Griffiths