Page Two: Correlation Does Not Imply Causation
The lessons of Florida beaches, anti-drug education, and chain gangs
In 1973, for a very few months, I lived in Florida – on the Gulf Coast in Charlotte Harbor across the Peace River from Punta Gorda, about 50 miles south of Sarasota. Living there was very strange and disconcerting in so many ways. The population seemed divorced from the environment in a way I can't recall ever having encountered before. Sure, people quite commonly live in contempt of or out of harmony with their environments, but this was more extreme. In a way, it felt like most of the population and the geological space occupied radically different planes of existence. Three or four years ago, covering this topic, I wrote the following in "Page Two":
"Although still largely underdeveloped, and seeming a couple of decades behind the times, there was still a feeling that Florida was already a state under siege. Cruising around, especially along the coast, was revealing. Evidence of developer and homebuyer greed, and concurrent disinterest in the state's ecological integrity, was everywhere. Huge houses on the water with docks were the most desirable, so development after development sprawled along spiderwebs of man-made canals built to serve the mandatory power boat(s). Very few communities had much in the way of developmental or environmental regulations. Those that did were the richest communities, whose residents wanted to limit development, restrict beach access, and control crowding. Captiva and Sanibel Islands in particular, I remember, were stringently restricted, with dense natural fauna along the road shielding the elaborate beach mansions from view."
Water, or at least the proximity of one's house to water, was the most desirable situation. But almost no one really cared about water. Even those who regularly boated or fished did so evidencing some kind of Sunday-go-to-church sense of obligation. Most of the houses felt unbearably new, as though saturated with some kind of artificial "reality" texture like those spray cans of "new car smells" or the commercially created, enticing smells of cooking food that fast-food joints pump out to attract costumers. They were almost uniformly starkly attractive, with attractive, plastic-covered furniture and valuable objets d'art kept behind glass in cabinets. Any activity these houses' occupants engaged in, other than golf, was just another aspect of the decor – although sometimes one would find family photos bravely breaking through this prepared mosaic, evidencing a less constricted and real life. It was especially depressing to encounter a bevy of family photos that succumbed to the carefully constructed aesthetic texture rather than disrupting or departing from it.
The suffocating ideological atmosphere was not due to hard right-wing conservative politics but rather the unexamined assumption of them. Many of the families were retired military, with a surprising number of them boasting a child conceived almost as an antidote to retirement; usually this child was at least a decade or two younger than his or her nearest sibling.
I'm pretty sure I've written about some of my more distorted personal experiences that occurred because I was so deeply clueless as to how to function in that society. When I saw Tom Laughlin's Billy Jack, I thought I had discovered this country's Jean-Luc Godard. Back in Boston, I literally dragged a number of the most politically active radicals I knew to see it. Fortunately, they found it a hysterically ridiculous political satire. Given that I had sweated through much of the screening fearing physical torture and social censure, this was quite a relief.
It took next to no money to survive back then. I was able to support myself by working once or twice a week at a warehouse, loading and unloading for a few hours. One of my roommates ran the local youth center, so we hung out there.
Through some folks I met there, I ended up working for maybe a week with the Florida drug-abuse education folks, putting on presentations at local high schools. The specifics are cloudy, but I remember that one of the eccentricities of this group was that the powers that be had somehow decided the best people to talk young people out of doing drugs were ex-cons who had served serious time for drug-related crimes. The ones I worked with were very much of that population of ex-offenders who would have never spent a day behind bars if it weren't for this country's ridiculous, unrealistic, and overly harsh drug laws. None of them was the sort of career or even casual criminal whose drug offenses are simply those they are busted for, among the vast array of crimes committed. Even more painful was that most of them had been busted for pot-related crimes. Florida's status as a national center for vast criminal operations importing much harder drugs was still a few years away (Naples was still a very worn-out and rundown community compared to the center of wealth it would soon become). People who would have never been criminals if laws had been reasonable were now marked for life as ex-cons.
Fortunately, the state's drug-abuse program considered a criminal drug record a plus in terms of employment; in that regard, it was different from almost every other employer in the state. Any record of non-pot-related criminal activity, however, was just as lethal to job applicants as it was everywhere else. The program's hierarchical structure actually privileged grander dealing and growing convictions when it came to employment. Thus the person running this group actually had its most impressive rap sheet, having been busted only once – but for, literally, tons of marijuana.
In preparation for our week in the schools, we had a gigantic group dinner at one of the ex-cons' homes on an island (or a key) about 30 minutes away by boat. After gorging on paella rich in fresh seafood, we stumbled out past dunes to the beach to sit around a campfire as we both metaphorically and literally prepared for the week's work.
Many of the stories ran to bizarre experiences they'd had with police, in the courts, or in prison. Most of the storytellers spent at least some time contemplating the much more criminal element they briefly encountered when arrested and while being tried but whom they ended up living among when actually imprisoned.
Mostly, I was quiet while listening to these stories, being more suburban, bleached-white than Wonder Bread. In rural areas and in Harlem, I had interacted with very different populations but was always more an observer than a plunged-in-deep participant.
Eventually they got around to talking about some of their different chain-gang experiences. Here was an area in which I felt conversationally comfortable. Not only had I seen Cool Hand Luke a number of times but also was a fan of the 1932 hit film I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, based on a true story and still a remarkably powerful film because of Paul Muni's harrowing lead performance. Chain gangs also were still commonly seen when one drove through the South, though they were more often found working in small cities, cleaning up trash or painting municipal buildings, than stretched along the side of a road digging ditches.
At the first break in the conversation, I ventured forth my time-tested, carefully dyed, fully vetted, East Coast liberal opinion as to the inhumanity of that form of punishment.
The leader of the group turned to me. So very, very sweetly that I still remember his kindness, without mocking me in any way, he filled me in on what everyone else there already knew. Chain gangs were far worse in the movies than in actuality. The Hollywood vision of near-surreal, nightmare-vicious prison camps in the middle of swamps guarded by Neanderthals more brutal than any con was almost as uncommon in the real world as was the Land of Oz. Instead, working on a gang was a sought-after privilege providing fresh air, sunlight, and physical activity under looser and far more benign conditions. Better still, gangs comprised mostly prisoners from nearby jails. These were often locals who came from the very same areas that they now worked.
During the workday, more often than not, a hidden bottle of hooch or two would be uncovered, having been secreted away by friends. In many cases, if friends came by, prisoners were allowed time to stand around talking to them. Although not explicitly stated, it was strongly suggested that in some cases conjugal visits with wives or girlfriends (sometimes with girlfriends instead of wives) were not out of the question if smoothed out by money and gifts for the guards.
There is perception and reality. There is not always a way to distinguish between them – but unquestioning acceptance of one's own perceptions as reality is often, at best, misleading. As the world grows smaller because of technology, privileging the way we think things should be over the way they are becomes an ever-greater handicap. Combined with the certainty of those convinced that good and evil, right and wrong, the truth and an opinion are all distinct and easily knowable absolutes (which they, of course, know that they can distinguish and know), this take is a potentially apocalyptic blend. The greatest crimes against humanity usually accompany a world-view that empowers one group while demonizing and dehumanizing others. Genocide against kind, known neighbors is difficult; against evil, scheming people just looking for the opportunity to destroy, it is not only easy but necessary. Principled disagreement leads to constitutional government, but dishonest, manipulative lies and demagoguery almost demand the most militant response of violent repudiation.
This is how Hutus can massacre Tutsis; how Serbs, Croats, and Muslims can be peaceful neighbors for a half-century but turn into blood enemies in less than half a decade; how Israelis can force their Arab neighbors into ghettos and how they respond by suicide bombings, which are both conducted by and deadly to innocents.
The mundanity of evil is birthed in the unexamined assumption that one's own community is righteous while those belonging to another are consciously evil. Witnessing any significant, dehumanizing demonization is watching the soil being prepared for unspeakable atrocities. When President Bush declared Iraq, Iran, and Korea the "axis of evil," he was not just verbally chastising them but setting the stage for potential violence while feeding the worst inclinations of some Americans. I fear jingoistic, isolationist, xenophobic, nationalist, racist ideology with much less dread than I do people who deny the humanity of those with whom they have issue. The more one labels one's enemies as evil, the more the situation demands violence rather than disagreement, genocide instead of censure.
The current fantasy-baseball, anti-illegal-immigrant stance of all too many comes across as the foundation for pogroms in the name of national identity. Listening to the 9/11 hobbyists, the anti-One-World-Government truth-seekers, label their enemies as consciously evil while celebrating the preparation for violent resistance makes me fear them far more than I do the federal government, even the overtly mendacious, unconstitutional current administration.
Not really knowing anything about chain gangs but having unassailable opinions, corroborated by one's gut feelings, is of small consequence when those things come out of the conversation of a night smelling of the ocean and illuminated by a small fire. But too often perception is privileged as being reality; any questioning of perception is taken as an assault on knowable good and quantifiable civilization, and the motives of some are not simply in contrast to one's own but motivated by self-aware evil. Consider Shakespeare's description: "All the world's a stage/and all the men and women merely Players/They have their Exits and their Entrances/And one man in his time plays many parts." In the context of such world-views as just described and given too many current circumstances, this stage is now set for what should be unimaginable – but all too many players are thinking this is the path to redemption and restoration.
To all my 9/11-truth-seeking friends: Stacking up even more circumstantial evidence does not prove the circumstantial evidence already stacked.
A tip of the old Hatlo Hat to a recent luncheon companion who noted, "Correlation does not imply causation."
Cover-ups do not prove conspiracy. Regarding President Kennedy's assassination – and not arguing for or against a conspiracy – Norman Mailer noted that there definitely was a vast, massive, governmentwide cover-up. Such a significant number of different government agencies had so many rogue operatives and rogue operations at the time that they often had no idea as to what they were up to, including the chance that they were involved in the assassination. This would implicate the agency even if it had no knowledge of such. Thus, an insane and extensive cover-up took place – most of it, if not all, independent from knowledge about the assassination itself.