Kant We Hegel Our Way Out of This? The Problem of People in Postcolonial Studies


Postcolonial theory has a people problem. By this, I do not mean to suggest those who practice, write, or otherwise espouse a postcolonial perspective on cultural affairs are somehow tricky, obtuse, or otherwise problematic to deal with in professional settings. Even if this were the case, the solution to the deficiencies in postcolonial theory most certainly does not lie in the mandatory installation of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation “Genuine People Personality” (Adams 95) software on every humanities department’s server the world over. Instead, I am unabashedly suggesting that postcolonial theoreticians’ overemphasis on people as the site of analysis lies at the heart of the limitations of the field’s key terms, epistemological boundaries, and approach to understanding phenomena as a whole. Indeed, if postcolonial theory and its related concepts and methods are to have any intellectual purchase, then it is time to abandon its anthropocentric approach to explaining how the world works in favor of perspectives which include non-human entities in colonial processes.

The goals of postcolonial practice occupy several intellectual nodes. One likely comes in the identification of the impact on the psyche and society of those people who suffer under the weight of the colonial project. A second is a means of demonstrating how human knowledge and the institutions it produces has been constructed to create a racist, gendered, and other exploitive architectures to justify and sustain patterns of oppression. A third occurs around communicating the stories of humans before contact and colonization, their collective trauma and resistance to occupation, so that they may liberate themselves to live in freedom in particular cultural conjunctures. What unites these goals are both their evident anthropocentric character and the aims of shifting the locus of analysis from inside the minds of characters in the colonial drama to the human subject positions and collectivities which play out in social and cultural life. Concerns about the colonization of humans were rightly on the minds of postcolonial thinkers during the 20th century. Roughly one-third of all humans alive at the middle of the 20th century lived in non-self governing territories; diplomatic speak for a colony, a mandate, a protectorate, or some other entity which lacked state sovereignty. The onset of the Cold War, the withdrawal from imperial possessions as the global balance of state power shifted, the emergence of wars of national liberation, and the politics of various United Nations organs, and the proliferation of capitalism all worked to create a context for seeing the value of changing the dynamics of political colonization around the world. For postcolonial academics, whose published work came to the party a full generation (Eagleton 204-206) after the formal processes of political decolonization began, their concerns centered mainly on cultural interpretations of identity. This work is done to not only voice, explain and lay blame in the history of colonial relations, but also to point towards ways in which colonial logics, in varying degrees of Derridean-ness, can be deconstructed. This sort of postcolonial analysis fails to acknowledge that colonialism extends beyond the narrow frame of political colonialism, regardless of the suspension of the UN Trusteeship Council’s work in 1994.

The fluid definition of postcoloniality reflects the apparent fact the term ‘postcolonial’ has severe limitations. Loomba rightly situates the very language of postcolonial studies, arguing that the word ‘postcolonial’ itself is only useful “with caution and qualification” and that if divorced from specific historical circumstances, “postcoloniality cannot be meaningfully investigated, and instead, the term begins to obscure the very relations of domination it seeks to uncover.” (16) In turn, Hardt and Negri see postcolonial thought, particularly Bhabha’s binary-busting mechanism of hybridity, as epiphenomenal of the logics of power and Empire. (145-146) These critiques point to another obvious fact: the colonial condition has not ended. Colonialism, neo or otherwise, is not merely or even primarily about the oppression of people. Imperial projects are ontologically materialist in its exploitation of territory through settlement, resources through extraction, surplus value through labor, and profit through finance. In other words, understanding colonialism means examining exploitive relationships between things; a perspective that does not dismiss humans, but indeed dissenters them from the analysis. In the same way that Roy (54) suggests that an exclusive focus on human rights is a camera obscura of contemporary conflict which ignores the vital, fundamental importance of territorial appropriation and resource extraction, so too does postcolonial theory distract of a richer understanding and resistance to the colonial project as a whole by focusing on the epiphenomena of humanity through concepts such as subalternity, the native informant, and hybridity which not only foreclose a sophisticated understanding of human social affairs, but offer a nihilistic and narrow reading of life itself.

There are solutions to the people-based problems of postcolonial theory. Emerging transdisciplinary scholarship focus attention on how the myriad of non-human forms of life, as well as objects themselves, shape and,  are shaped by colonial processes. In turn, theoretical and philosophical debates over “cenes” and the ontology of things point to how holistic work on colonialism necessitates the inclusion of non-human entities to produce robust analyses. Postcolonial theory may have its roots in the study of human affairs, but humans are not the only agents or objects that make up imperial practices; thus the study of colonialism should, therefore, continue to expand to reflect these realities.


The Problem of People

People are a problem in postcolonial theory on at least two levels. First, analyses that focus attention wholly on humans foreclose how colonialism influences other forms of life, as well objects, things, and other aspects of the physical world. People-centered approaches not only limits the field of colonialism’s impact on culture but also miss how material culture can work to sustain and expand colonial projects. Anthropocentric thinking emerges in the precursors and foundational work of postcolonial thought. Cesaire, Fanon, and Memmi all root their analysis of colonial conditions in varying degrees of psychoanalytic thinking. Indeed, it is the emergence, power, and durability of psychoanalysis which not only directly impacted early postcolonial theorists —Fanon, for example, was trained as a psychologist –but speak to what has become an emblematic feature of the humanities; the conceptual and theoretical borrowing from other intellectual disciplines in order to find novel ways to study humans. Digressing into the various critiques of each of these psychological schools would be beside the point at this juncture, although there is something delicious in thinking about Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of psychoanalysis as, “a capitalist disorder.” (Crews 176) Rather, the fact that postcolonial theory latched onto and then extended ideas which were oriented exclusively towards thinking about people, and oppressed people, in particular, was the first act in narrowing the aperture of postcolonial thought for the remainder of the century. The intertwining of psychoanalysis and postcolonial theory is not surprising, for psychoanalysis may be an emancipatory schema committed to freeing, “human beings from what frustrates their fulfillment and well being.” (Eagleton 166) Liberating oneself from slavery, servitude, or the precariat class under the weight of colonialism certainly seems like a worthwhile endeavor for psychoanalytic thinking.

Cesaire may root his work in Marxist analysis, yet the language he employs, “First we must study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the truest sense of the word” (35) is nothing short of anthropocentric. Cesaire’s suggestion that “no one colonizes innocently,” (39) is an intelligent rebuttal to attempts to negate human complicity in colonization –perhaps an earlier, more poetic version of Goldhagen’s provocative thesis on ‘ordinary’ Germans during the Second World War.  While Cesaire works to frame colonialism in economically imperial terms, his argument about both mental states of colonizer and colonized, the latter often dehumanized through the racial component of colonialism, reaffirms that he sees the colonial project as one that lies exclusively in the world of human affairs. In the same vein, Memmi articulates his analysis of colonialism in wonderfully parsimonious terms, “the best possible definition of a colony: a place where one earns more and spends less.” (4)

In a similar vein, Fanon’s works rehumanize the racialized construction of blackness in the face of white supremacy, “I start suffering from not being a white man insofar as the white man discriminates against me; turns me into a colonzes subject; robs me of any value or originality; tells me I am a parasite in the world, that I should toe the line of the white world as quickly as possible , and that we are brute beasts, that we are walking manure, a hideous forerunner of tender cane and silky cotton, that I have no place in this world.” (78) For Fanon, the task of his critique is to expose how the racism that is inherent to colonialism makes him something other than a human, “I am an object among other objects.” (89) But what if we all are objects? What if, rather than setting up human-centric hierarchies, we think about the structures and impact of all objects within particular systems? By framing his opposition to colonialism as a project of rehumanization, Fanon closes off broader, more accurate ways of reading and resisting colonialism, by privileging human existence over those very beasts abused under colonization.

Memmi spends chapter after chapter working through the positionality of the hypothetical colonizer and colonized person, looking to unpack the relationship between these protagonists, intertwined in the tragedy of colonialism. Memmi invokes adjectives such as “disfigurement,” (147) “annihilation,”(151) and ”liberation” (152) to describe the personal outcomes of this relationship. Memmi hints at a broader understanding of the colonial frame but then pulls back towards his exclusively human analysis, “Colonization is, above all, economic and political exploitation. If the colonized is eliminated, the colony becomes a country like any other, and who then will be exploited?” (149) Finally, Memmi writes that the human free of colonialism, “will be a whole and free man;” (153) reaffirming that colonialism and its end is species, or indeed agent-specific to humans.

The point of postcolonial criticism and action should not only be one of ending the exploitation of humans but exploitation writ large; an argument that is sorely absent from postcolonialist theory and praxis because of the anthropocentric nature of their intellectual project. The second people-problem in postcolonial thought: the anthropocentric logic of self-centered human inquiry forecloses other ways of knowing, and thus selectively limits the utility of postcolonial perspectives and concepts. For example, it is worth considering the intellectual options available to anti-colonial intellectuals in the early part of the 20th-century that would have allowed for a more robust postcolonial praxis beyond that of psychological critiques. While it is easy to levy critiques against postcolonialism theory’s myopic foci from the safety of the early 21st century now that many national liberation struggles have been played out, doing so would reek of post hoc commentary. Early postcolonial theorists did not participate in a world with robust environmental criticism, indeed developed theories of nationalism, not even World Systems Theory. But they did have the concept of ‘imperialism,’ a materialist-based, not-exclusively anthropocentric way of understanding and resisting colonial logics that was available to mid- and late-20th century postcolonial thinkers. Indeed, it is curious to ponder why ideas which were so widely in circulation seem completely absent from this postcolonial perspective. Hobson’s turn of the 20th-century analysis of imperialism as the natural extension of capitalist logic beyond the borders of the nation-state not only accurately diagnose the problem of imperialism, but also frame solutions to avoiding colonial logics through capital controls and domestic reinvestment. Hobson’s study is an assessment of both the human and non-human aspects of colonialism, one that rightly sees exploitation in broad terms beyond that of the individual. So influential was Hobson’s thesis that Lenin built and expanded on these ideas for his most prominent of publications, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Synthesizing Hobson and Marx and Engels, Lenin sees financial capital, a non-human object, as the driver of colonialism, one that produces the incentives for imperial policies, extractive economies, and the offshoring of class conflict, the latter being remarkably similar to Memmi’s definition of colonialism. As with much of Marxist influence in the postwar period, (Hobsbawm) Hobson and Lenin-based understandings of imperialism serve to inform anti-imperial praxis in Latin America, from overtly Marxian political and cultural analyses (Morana, Dussel, and Jauregui) to pedagogy, (Freire) to liberation theology. So too can the legacy of Hobson and Lenin be found at the heart of World Systems Theory and in particular, Hardt and Negri’s profoundly influential Empire. Each of these analyses not only avoids the personal and psychoanalytic approach to critiquing the colonial condition, but they are also overtly solidarist and at least are open to, if not outright considerate of, their treatment of human and non-human things.

Hobson and Lenin are nowhere to be found in the analyses of the psychoanalytic approach to postcolonial thought, even though Hobson’s (in English) and Lenin’s (published in English in 1939) work predate and were available to Cesaire, Fanon, and Memmi. But let’s not merely hold these three accountable on their own; their reasons for missing Hobson and Lenin are likely unknowable. Where are Hobson and Lenin, and the study of imperialism in general, in the intellectual history of postcolonialism? Gandhi offers no analysis of either Hobson or Lenin and frames imperialism as “Western Nationalism;” (195) a curious connotation as national liberation and nationalism are the some of the very solutions postcolonialists espouse towards countering logics of imperialism. Indeed nationalism(s) is a key blind spot for postcolonial thought. Loomba is also silent on Hobson, dedicates less than a page to Lenin (10-11) in context with situating the term ‘imperialism’ itself, and dedicates a mere six pages (256) in the entire volume to the concept. Even the inexorable Spivak avoids Hobson entirely, and only discusses Lenin as an apologist for state power. (83) Spivak dedicates pages of prose and footnotes towards imperialism, although much of this comes in the form of her “unquiet ghosts” on the subject. (Eagleton 3) Said reserves just a single line for Hobson, “For imperialists like Balfour, or for anti-imperialists like J.A. Hobson, the Oriental, like the African, is a member of a subject race and not exclusively an inhabitant of a geographical area.” (92) Lenin escapes Said’s sting insofar as he does not appear at all in Said’s seminal work. Imperialism features in Said’s Orientalism of course but Said frames it mainly as a Western construct, rather than a capitalist one. Perhaps this is a reason –there is never ‘the’ reason –why Hobson, Lenin, and imperialism never gain any traction in postcolonial conversations.

Anthropocentrism lies at the heart of some critical postcolonial concepts. Spivak’s conception of the subaltern is a way of thinking through how to name and amplify individual and collective identities under colonization. Spivak’s argument that, “The subaltern as female cannot be heard of read” (104) has its problems, as stories of and by these very women exist and are acknowledged, for example, in testimonio literature the world over. Spivak perhaps concedes this conceptual shortcoming with the intervention of the native informant concept (4); the human tasked with speaking on behalf of their culture under colonization. Spivak’s conception of the subaltern or that of the native informant is emblematic of postcolonialism thinkers’ intense focus on the human subject position which works to foreclose an acknowledgment of other forms of exploitation. The very notion of speaking, and the silences that Spivak sees as a part of the imperial project, presumes that human communication is the only form of dialogue worth acknowledging or even apprehending. In turn, Bhabha’s work on identity also suffers from the same problem of anthropocentrism, although from a different perspective from Spivak’s  Whereas Spivak wants the reader to hear and see those who are obscured by colonialism, Bhabha claims that these folks are already visible, we’re just looking in the wrong places. For Bhabha, an individual’s identity is a hybrid of their cultural condition, one that is shaped and informed by the long arc of colonialism. (277) For Bhabha, there is no Other in a binary sense, only individuals, and groups operating in third spaces between reified conceptions of colonizer and colonized. (66-69) These liminal locales may be sites of oppression or cosmopolitanism, but for Bhabha’s reader, they are spaces dominated, if not exclusively occupied, by human affairs and relationships.

Can postcolonial theory resolve the twin traps of personhood? Such a move will be tricky, as the concept of the subaltern, the native informant, and hybridity are devoutly anthropocentric in their ontology. Focusing on personhood is a central pillar of postcolonial thought, as the intellectual legacy of the Enlightenment shapes the way we have prioritized our politics; both postcolonialists and the rest of us, even if the former is uncomfortable with the idea. Abandoning Hegelian notions of the Self and the Other will be difficult to realize unless one is willing to reconsider humanity’s relationship to life writ large, a perspective that finds its home most prominently in emerging, interdisciplinary ways of knowing. This does not mean colonizing non-Western, indigenous, or other ways of knowing to recapture some lost intellectual framework, although acknowledging these cosmologies is undoubtedly the right thing to do. Instead, rejecting anthropocentrism means considering all of how colonialism impacts and informs material agents in cultural contexts.


Postcolonial Materials

Cross-disciplinary analysis of colonial projects opens up rich ways of understanding how non-human entities contribute to and are influenced by imperialism. Such work invariably involves the methods, evidence, and other tools from cultural, environmental, and literary studies, along with history. Postcolonial theory rests on the practice of traversing intellectual disciplines, and so extending the logic of interdisciplinary practice is essential understanding what Lowe (19) sees as “the intimacies” inherent in colonial practice. For example, paper, sugar, tea, and floral prints; each are seemingly innocuous on their own, and yet each object shapes and is shaped by colonial practices just like humans. Derived from one of the earliest merchantable economies of North America, (Cronon 109) lumber extraction drove efforts of British and later American settler-colonists across the continent; displacing flora and fauna along the way. The colonial logic of the mechanization of production and profit-seeking helped to change the sourcing of paper from rags to wood pulp, producing profound changes to cultural, economic, and environmental landscapes of colonized spaces of nineteenth-century western Massachusetts. (McGaw) In turn, Senchyne (144-148) suggests that the materiality of paper works to develop and further racialized hierarchies by operating within Robinson’s (3) conception of “racial capitalism;” part and parcel of the colonial project. In this case, non-human life such as trees and their surrounding ecosystem, as well as machines and objects themselves that contribute to the production and use of paper embody and normalize colonial legacies.

Focusing attention on production practices reveals both colonialism’s history and current state of affairs. Tsing’s conception of scalability, economies that perpetually expand without the need of changing the essential elements of production, decenter but do not displace humans from colonial narratives (505). In particular, the historical development and contemporary practice of the sugar industry rest upon colonial methods of expansion, standardization, and commodification. (Tsing 510-515) The drive to grow and profit from sugar serves to explain the long arc of capitalist territorial expansion, slave and “free” labor, and deforestation, which in turn influences contemporary demand and practice for cheap food. (Patel and Moore 14-18, 32-34) Indeed, Manning (2004) suggests that food is both an indicator and tool of colonialism. Colonization stabilized episodic famines in Europe (41) where “Agriculture was not so much about food as it was about the accumulation of wealth. It benefited some humans, and those people have been in charge ever since.” (38)

Exemplifying this focus on things instead of people, Lowe demonstrates that, “trades in tea, cottons, silks, and opium connect slave labor in the cotton fields of the U.S. South, the history of Asian textile design and production, and the role of the East India and China trades in the rise of British ‘free-trade’ imperialism.” (74) English tea drinking practice and culture is not contingent on the cultural behavior of humans in Great Britain, but rather the presence of “sugar from the West Indies, tea and china service imported from China, tables made of hardwoods from the West Indies, splendid dresses made from Indian cottons.” (82) What Lowe and the other scholarship makes clear is that an anthropocentric postcolonial perspective that privileges human identity and agency as the site of analysis obscures or subordinates material objects that are essential to understanding the onset and endurance of colonialism.


Speculating Future Postcolonialisms

Thinking about colonialism in a non-anthropocentric way becomes an access point for scholarship on biocolonialism, environmental racism, and speciesism. (Huggan and Tiffin 4-11) This perspective is but one way of rescuing the concepts of the subaltern, the native informant, and hybridity. Animals, in parallel to Spivak’s reading of the term, cannot speak or be heard. Individuals, or better yet animals themselves can, in turn, speak on behalf of non-human objects from their cultural perspective; we merely have to listen. Hybrid locations and cultures can be remapped to acknowledge the existence of non-human actants in these spaces. The slums of Kibera are probably spaces where Bhabha would find hybrid cultures and identities that have been informed by the British colonial experience, so why not the wildlife reserves and parks established by the British East Africa Protectorate? (Chongwa 39-40) These parks are undoubtedly cosmopolitan, home to a broader variety of species and identities that can be found even in the capitalist-core cities of London or New York. Kenyan national parks undoubtedly reflect a legacy of colonialism, including the exercise of colonial power, intervenes in the culture of those who inhabit those spaces if culture is ordinary, learned and lived experiences. (Williams 4-5) There are problems with this line of reasoning for sure, cultural appropriation perhaps the most prominent one, yet questions of who has the authorial power to speak on behalf of something else don’t merely emerge when we are analyzing the colonization of non-humans; the critique is part and parcel to cultural studies as a whole. Instead, decentering humans from colonial studies means acknowledging that the colonization of non-humans occurs in similar and different ways than those of us who work in academia generally recognize.

An edge of contemporary ecocriticism, postcolonial environmental theory synthesizes various scholarly approaches towards understanding the historical, present, and future arc of colonial projects. A core area of study within postcolonial environmental theory addresses the origins and nature of “cenes:” Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Themocene, Chthulucene, and more.  (Balkan 2017) From these standpoints, colonialism is not an exclusive function of human agency at the species level, as climatic and extinction structures work with a variety of entities to further colonial practices in combined and uneven ways. Taking the analytical logic of structures and agents further, Bennett and fellow vibrant materialists understand social action and agency by exploring the assemblages of actants in particular contexts; for example, North American power grids. (24-28) In other words, one can apprehend colonial conditions by acknowledging the agency and influence of all types of objects beyond anthropocentric limits. The point here is that inquiry into colonialism need not be, nor never should it ever have been, exclusively about humans. Some of the more intriguing work in this area lies at the forefront of energy humanities (Imre and Boyer) and petroculture studies, (Wilson, Carlson, and Szeman) whereby access to or in pursuit of fossil fuels enable colonial action and where energy itself exerts agency and structures relationships between all varieties of objects. Thus colonialism remains alive and well, even if humans claim to have abandoned colonialism because the concomitant exploitation of colonization occurs in spaces with and without humans.

Landscapes, flora, and fauna are curiously absent from foundational postcolonial analysis, and so too are markets, machines, and commodities, the engines of capitalist colonial projects. For example, French imperial control over Martinique, where both Cesaire and Fanon hail from, and Tunisia, Memmi’s country of origin, was not exclusively about the power and exploitation of the local population. Ports in Forte-de-France and Tunis and the shipping lanes which connected these colonial entities to the broader Francophone imperial system and modern capitalist world system undoubtedly impacted the environs that Cesaire, Fanon, and Memmi were so passionate about liberating. Rail lines from Tunis stretch outward toward mines and oil fields across northern Africa, linking further on to the extraction of timber, rubber, and ivory from the heart of the continent. Territory, homes, waterways, mammals, libraries, communication networks; all were occupied and exploited by French colonial capitalism. Yes, the colonial condition for the locals in Martinique and Tunisia were deplorable, but Cesaire’s, Fanon’s, and Memmi’s reading of and solution to the colonial situation is suspiciously one-sided. Where is the critique of the French imperial system’s brutalization of the pastoral? Where is the precise, detailed accounting of how the expansion of capitalism from the French core to the Caribbean and North African periphery exploited all aspects of life, not just the local population of bipedal hominids? Flipping the script slightly, is it merely the colonial mindset, and not the literal tools of the trade in the form of flotilla and firearms, which implicate themselves in the colonization of people, places, and everything else in the space? The imposition of the Francophone educational system did not merely colonize locals’ school experiences or knowledge structures; books, buildings, and budgets all became ripe for the picking at the hands of French imperialists. Cesaire, Fanon, and Memmi are rather silent on these issues, and yet exploitation of all things –not merely humans –is at the heart of the colonial project. By failing to fully develop a critique of colonialism beyond the exploitation of humans, thereby privileging one type of object over another, these thinkers set the stage for an anthropocentric reading of postcolonial thought which inevitably comes to misread the proliferation and durability of colonialism to the present day. Our task is not to discard the aforementioned work, but to recognize the inherent anthropocentrism of their work as an intellectual limit to overcome in the present and future critique of colonial practices.

There are other, perhaps more worthy assessments of postcolonial thinking than those I have outlined here. The endurance of settler colonialism on indigenous spaces life is probably the most heartbreaking critique of the limits of postcolonial intellectual project, especially as the rise of postcolonial thought in the 1990s was wrapped up in thinking about emerging identities and nationalism at the end of the Cold War and not about the continued occupation and oppression of indigenous peoples under Empire. The problem of nationalism, the Janus-face of postcolonial thought, also works to limit the utility of contemporary postcolonial thinking, as national liberation ascribes both a vector for overturning European colonialism, but also a means of sustaining colonialism and oppression through Empire, settler colonialism, or blatant imperial capitalism. The problem of anthropocentric thinking may be a nuanced and somewhat troubling issue to work through. After all, postcolonial thought roots itself in the humanities and the social sciences where we primarily, if not exclusively, study human affairs. As I have hopefully argued to some reasonable extent, human-centric thinking has neither resolved the problems of colonialism nor provided entirely accurate accounts of the phenomena in the first place. Anthropocentrism blinds our analytical view to see difficulties in purely human terms, both in their causes and their effects. Decentering, and not discarding humans, from our analysis of exploitation opens up more comprehensive ways of reading the dilemmas that are before us. None of this is easy, either intellectually or practically. Yet if humanities scholars and teachers are genuinely interested in addressing issues of ethics and justice, disrupting locations and the exercise of power and exploitation, then our first acts should be to selflessly acknowledge that thinking exclusively about humans –from our philosophical, economic, and political models to our analyses and critiques of current and future conditions –may in itself be the problem. Put another way: if one is genuinely interested in overturning the colonial project, then it is worth naming all of how such exploitation exists and work, even in small ways, to end imperial interventions into life. We must do better than we have done so far.





Works Cited


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Balkan, Stacey. “Anthropocene,” Global South Studies, 2017. Online.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press, 2010. Print.

Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. Routledge, 1994. Print.

Cesaire, Aime. Discourses on Colonialism. Monthly Review, 1972. Print.

Chongwa, Mungumi Bakari. “The History and Evolution of National Parks in Kenya.” The George Wright Forum, vol. 39, no. 1, 2012, 39-42. Print.

Crews, Frederick. Skeptical Engagements. Oxford University Press, 1986. Print.

Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. Hill and Wang, 1983. Print.

Eagleton, Terry. “In the Gaudy Supermarket.” London Review of Books, vol. 21, no. 10, 1999. Online.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. University of Minnesota Press, 2008. Print.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Grove Press, 1952. Print.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition. Continuum, 2006. Print.

Gandhi, Leela. Postcolonial Theory. Columbia University Press, 1988. Print.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Empire. Harvard University Press, 2000. Print.

Hobsbawm, Eric. How to Change the World: Reflections on Marx and Marxism. Yale University Press, 2011. Print.

Hobson, J. A. Imperialism. University of Michigan, 1965. Print.

Huggan, Graham and Helen Tiffin. Postcolonial Ecocriticism: Literature, Animals, Environment. Routledge, 2015. Print.

Lenin, V. I. Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. International Publishers, 1939. Print.

Loomba, Ania. Colonialism and Postcolonialism. Routledge, 2005. Print.

Lowe, Lisa. The Intimacies of Four Continents. Duke U niversity Press, 2015. Print.

Manning, Richard. “The Oil We Eat: Following the Food Chain Back to Iraq,” Harper’s Magazine, January/February 2004, 32-45. Print.

McGaw, Judith. Most Wonderful Machine: Mechanization and Social Change in Berkshire Paper Making, 1801-1885. Princeton University Press, 1987. Print.

Memmi, Albert. The Colonizer and the Colonized. Beacon Press, 1965. Print.

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Five Homage Poems


Four for Shepp




Gatefold album covers of orange

inside of which Archie Shepp manifested

statements of art,

social responsibility, tradition—


serious texts to accompany

a serious music

a fire music forging

socio-aesthetic felt fabulae




poems propounding pleasure and protest (both),

a tone propolict, gooey,

propitious in its gutturality—

it’s gonna be a good night—


to lay down those scratchy slabs

of vinyl, their heavy covers,

their heavy register finding

the ingate then the path




“[James] Joyce went back to the Druids.”



which is to locate the spirit

in the word and wail, the recitation

of knowledge—be it mystic or felt,

felt textures, a texture of foal’s fur


a text, printed or pressed in wax,

the bees fly us there then erase it,

wind out of a horn, born once more blow

the location of a spirit underneath the mind




“This is a black music. It is a form that black men have given to America . . . havegiven to America . . . out of love!”



acknowledgment or reference to tradition

back/front-garde, thing nouvelle

revolving to a gutbucket beat or

no beat where the wail warps itself


in a pome tenor-throated, of the stage

or in the studio threaded with tapes

revolving and tender, impressions

of birth, and by which art


« murderers

« they shall be destroyed »


and for which art—

for what it’s worth,

I offer my humble




Archie Shepp: 1960s-70s free-jazz saxaphonist and poet.



Bill Evans (Juxtapositions)



Swirls of notes and

shimmering rolls,

or the bittersweet note,

the sad simplicity of

the out-of-key jab—


not always entirely in the blues,

the complexity of bop and

the lyricality of something

I don’t know,

be it fast, or

s l o w


—you listen to Bill Evans

in those places in

your chest or mind you didn’t know

were there, yet there

are those weird places,


a vein

you both share


Bill Evans: Mid-late-twentieth-century jazz pianist.



For Richard Realf




doomed as Burns and Byron,

stabbed and wandering


whose guesses at the beautiful,

whose petting lissome ladies

whose draggled torn-up pages


to Five Points, then to Kansas

to fight against the slavers

—guerrillas American of the soil,


militant rhetorics of poetry

composed upon the prairie ground

at night, or daylight in the leaves


Realf, secretary of state

in John Brown’s provisional govt.

in secret meetings and orations


his Jesuitical responses

to Jefferson Davis

in the federal inquest committee room


and in the outright war

fuck the South, its “chivalry,”

bullets, bullets galore


Realf, post-war wandering

city to town breakdowns,

Pittsburgh panic and poverty


who desolate had burned with love

and swum the hashish skies,

his primal mystic texts, reports


whose mistakes kept coming back

like bad metaphors,

to hurteth him as he hurteth


and ever on he fled his own flaws

hawking rehashed poems to papers

doomed finally to Oakland by the bay—


Realf, I glimpsed you, hoary,

turning a wood-clapped corner

down a hallway of the Winsor Hotel


peripheral visions of poison suicide

daisies round your grave,



Richard Realf: 1832-78, mysterious and storied poet.




Homage to Peggy Pond Church



Once she held this book

to sign it—

and if in dream the dead

return to tell you something—



does she hand you the golden flower?

do you fly above the mesa

pursuing her vision of beauty

the bulge of twilight

the bird that finds its exit

from amid the beams

of the box store


this pink book with green endpapers

of hills, dry riverbeds, ski trails,

and arroyos filling with rain

that she held cupped in hands

till it ran through and down

the atomic air


Peggy Pond Church: New Mexico poet, 1903-86.



Elegy for Leroy Carr



Preceding the blues

of the southern fields,

the Indianapolis avenue


on which human being

sang his sogged refrain

and folded the chords of a traum-time scene


rain along gutters

of the Avenue,

black holes in the white wall of the back room


a becoming-wax—

a becoming-train—

there’s rats in my bed, and booze for my tomb



Leroy Carr: Indianapolis blues pianist and singer, recorded 1928-35,

accompanied by Scrapper Blackwell on guitar.

Mr. Big Stuff

The crackling fire filled the silence among the group of strangers. Shadows danced around the surrounding forest, smoky embers rising into the cloudy night sky.

“This should do for now,” said a tall, strong-jawed man. He dropped a few twigs onto the fire and then settled down, pulling his long coat tighter. He cast a glance at a couple beside him, who smiled back. They had seemed to be the most useful so far, knowing how to start the fire and keep it from burning through the forest.

The rest of the group remained silent. Little had been said for some time.

It had been a few hours since their bus had crashed on the highway, swerving to avoid a deer. Although no one had seen the deer except for the driver, who had died sometime later. The only casualty. Now all that remained were the nine strangers. The bus was a turned-over wreck, and no cars appeared on the dark highway, so all that remained was finding shelter and keeping warm. They just had to survive the night, then find a way back to civilisation.

“Does anyone have any stories?” said a young girl huddled beside her boyfriend. Her wide eyes sparkled in the fire light.

A rotund man with a goatee shook his head, smiling. “What a good idea. It’ll help pass the time.” He looked around the fire-lit group. “Anyone have anything?”

Another man shook his head. “You don’t wanna hear my stories, man.”

The strangers looked between each other; some looked away.

“I have a story.” This came from an old, white-haired man who had yet to speak since the crash. “One of magic, immortality, and eternal tragedy.”

“What, like a fairy tale?” someone said.

The old man shook his head, his frown creasing his wrinkled features. “Not a fairy tale. This is the story of a man named Mr. Big Stuff.”


Snow fell over the small mountain town. White roofs were highlighted by the wavering lights coming from hundreds of little windows. The wind howled upon the cliff top, but I was numb to the bitter chill that night.

I stood there now, like I had stood many times before, overlooking the snowy town, my boots on the edge of the cliff. A moment that had once brought a serene bliss had now become a hollow, bitter resentment.

I have gone by many names in my hundreds of years, chained to this world as an immortal being. While my birth name has long been forgotten – if I was even born – the name that has stuck with me the longest is Mr. Big Stuff. A strange moniker, for sure, but one that came from a special person, so long ago.

The origins of immortals like me, of which there are few, have become lost throughout time. Some stories have been told of us, however, from the few that have seen more than our quiet human costumes. Those who have witnessed a bloodied battle, magical spells, or our heightened agility, have re-written us as fantastical beings. Some call us Vampires, although I have never sucked blood or turned into a bat.

My sigh blew a puff of smoke into the wintery air. I brought out a vial, its luminous blue liquid a beacon of light in the darkness. The light illuminated the specks of blood on my hands.

This is what I have struggled for, I tell myself. Everything has led to this potion. Drinking this will make me mortal. Make me killable. I cast another look down over the cliff, at the darkness below.

I could finally end it all, so easily. Return to the darkness that had likely spawned me.

What good is this life I have been given, if I can never truly live it? Despite the love I’ve known, the love I’ve given, it all ends the same way – me alone. But this vial can change that.

I look over my blood-stained hands, and the specks sprayed over my dark coat. So much death, so much hatred.

The horrified faces of my foes still flash through my mind. Ripping through their flesh, tearing limbs, I was a whirlwind of blood and death. Seven beings, once-immortal, were now a pile of mutilated flesh.

At least I know that this potion actually works.

The liquid was synthesised from a fabled crystal, known as a God Killer. A crystal that, when eaten, could turn an immortal into a mortal who would age and die. It had been a decades-long task of mine to find and bring the crystal to those men.

They had been so happy when I finally brought the crystal to them, not knowing that I’d synthesised a part of it into a liquid – which I had dropped into their wine.

I admit to taking pleasure in their shocked faces when they realised something was wrong. There was also pleasure when I attacked them, and they discovered they were mortal. Sprayed blood was highlighted by the flashes of sorcery thrown about. Decades of resentment and hatred unleashed on them.

I had to do it, I tell myself. Their hold on me was too strong, and I had caused so much destruction for them. But now I was free.

Not that it mattered anymore. My love had passed away, just a month ago.

“No more pain,” she had said to me. Her frail form was nestled in bed, her light slowly fading. “No more pain for me. And, promise me, my love, no more pain for you.”

I gripped her hand, feeling the loose skin of her wrinkled fingers. Six decades together had not been enough.

“Peace, Lucas,” she said quietly. “Let my death bring us both peace.”

Melina was the strongest, most special person I had ever known. Far greater than this world deserved. I had told her everything about me, and she accepted it all. When we vowed to spend our lives together, it meant turning our backs on civilisation. We moved to an old castle of mine in the Carpathian Mountains, only visiting the nearby towns and cities on occasion. No one could really know us, and see that I was not aging.

“Please, do not return to those men,” she said, pausing to cough and grimace.

“I promise,” I whispered. “Once you pass, there is nothing more for me.”

Melina smiled weakly. “Never use it, for any purpose. Please. It can do no good.”

We both knew that she spoke of the crystal, the God Killer, and of those evil men I was bound to.

“It will remain with me, I promise. There is no more vengeance left in me.” Even back when I said those words, I knew I was lying.

Melina turned away slightly, her eyes slowly closing. “I will tell the angels of Mr. Big Stuff. And they will tell me they have heard of you.”

I held her hand tighter, sorrow tightening my throat. Despite her aging, her mortal shell withering over the years, she remained the same person I loved. It was a remarkable thing.

“I will see you some day, my love,” I said, fighting back the tears.

Her expression softened, a small smile remaining. Then she became still.

The tears finally fell, and I remember strangely regretting not crying earlier, so that she could see my tears. But she would remember me being strong, and that was a good thing.

We had both come a long way since we first met, which had been strange circumstances indeed.

It was during a battle with a great enemy of mine. My foe and I were bounding through the city streets in an uncommon public display of our powers. Our darting forms must have been dark blurs in the night, although no one could miss our magical bursts.

A car was thrown into the air, hurtling towards a woman in the street below. I dove off a building, streaming down to catch the car just before it crushed her. Despite the moment – my physical exhaustion and the on-going battle – my breath was taken by Melina’s bright green eyes. Oddly, I remember smiling at her.

The heat from an oncoming blast of sorcery brought my urgency back, and I spun and caught the energy with the car, which melted in my hands.

My enemy landed in front of me, her hands blazing with the purple fire of Fie magic. She extinguished the flames and stepped forwards. Behind me, the shocked woman ran for cover.

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” I told the sorceress, Alryan.

A heavy cloak flowed behind her, revealing the tight combat clothing beneath. A streetlight showed her long face, firmly set, her dark eyes shining. Her shoulder-length hair fluttered in the wind – much shorter than the long, sleek look she had when I last saw her. She raised her gauntleted hands and shook her head.

“Look around us, Mister,” she said, her voice breathy from the fight. “It’s too late for it to be any other way. It was always going to come down to this.”

I sighed and shook my head. “I never wanted it to, Alryan,” I said, frowning. “Not like this.”

My shirt was ripped and mostly hanging off me, smudges of dirt over my arms and trousers. Her left shoulder was bloodied. How did it all come to this?

I darted into the air, pushing off a window sill and landing onto a rooftop. At this time of night the streets were mostly empty, although I knew that several people were watching us and I wanted to take the fight away from them.

While Alryan wasn’t an immortal, she possessed superior magical abilities to me. But she was still mortal. While she was planning on overpowering me, likely intending to chain me up or keep me somewhere far away for eternity, I knew what I had to do.

The fight took us across the rooftops to a nearby riverside. I managed to barge into her, gripping her tight as we fell through the air and crashed into the water.

She struggled to throw surge after surge of sorcery, but we plunged further into the dark depths. Although breathing under water was not a problem for me, she only had minutes left. Her expression grew pained, her eyes widening, but I held on to her and dragged us down further.

I would never forget her face at that moment. Somewhat pleading, shocked, and something sorrowful. I’d like to think it was regret, a plea to start over. But it was too late. Alryan was taken from me. I had taken her from this world.

I know there was no other way.

But it wasn’t always like that, between her and me. We were lovers for many years, drawn together under the strain of tragedy. We were the best of friends before she changed. No, that wasn’t true. Maybe I changed. Maybe we just grew apart, because it wasn’t the same for a long while.

When she found out a dark truth of mine she erupted with fury. Sorcery entered our arguing and she attacked me then. Her anger brought the building down around us, and while I escaped, she was crushed under the rubble. Or so I had presumed for many years, until she returned, far more powerful, and tried to kill me.

I have never known anyone to possess as much passion and perseverance as Alryan Aldobrasse. She was a descendant of an ancient race of witches, and one of my greatest loves.

Before we became enemies – before we became lovers – we were students under the same mentor.

We trained and studied in a monastery in the mountains, under the mentorship of Yenophis Creel. As a young woman, she witnessed the murder of Yenophis. That face she made when I drowned her was similar to her horrified expression as Yen was killed, torn apart by a figure wreathed in shadow. I could never forget either of those expressions.

It was clear why Yen had been killed, for he possessed the only remaining God Killer crystal in the world. The only one that was known of, anyway. The dark creature took the crystal as it departed, never to be seen again.

Yen was the closest to a father figure I had ever known. I trained under him for many years, discovering the ancient art of Fie sorcery and gaining mental and spiritual strength. He was the wisest, most sincere man I have ever known. While Yen was an immortal like me, he was of a kind that could be killed by conventional means. That he had lived for over four hundred years was a testament to his abilities and strength, and it took a very dark creature to take him down.

Alryan became a student of Yen’s at nine years old; an orphan who had somehow stumbled upon the monastery in her wanderings. Yen saw this as fate, and agreed to bring her under his tutelage.

It was strange at first, me a grown man, learning alongside a young girl, but Alryan and I eventually became friends. I watched her blossom into a young woman, strong willed and fierce. We shared many great times together, visiting the mountain villages, sailing off the coast. Yen and I both marvelled at her feats in conjuring magic. It would be later that we’d learn of Alryan’s magical heritage.

One night, she and I stumbled upon a hidden room within the monastery. We were in awe of a small chest hidden in the ground. It was there we found the God Killer crystal. Yen appeared, full of bluster and anger, but he explained the crystal’s power to us. When swallowed, it could turn an immortal into a mortal, who would grow old and be killable. The crystals once belonged to his people, he told us, and this was the last that remained. I later wondered if his people’s prolonged exposure to the crystal was what had caused them to become killable immortals. Perhaps they were like me, once. But no one had those kinds of answers, as far as I knew.

I was a far different man when I first entered that monastery. Homeless, aimless – a wreck. I had heard of Yen and his teachings and was greatly relieved when he agreed to help me.

My time in that monastery contained some of the most pleasant and enlightening experiences of my life.

That all ended the night Yen was killed. Alryan ran away, and I was left all alone.

Alone, like I should be. Like I deserve to be.

I never wanted my life to go in the direction it did. I have owned many lands and properties, seen the world shift and communities grow and dissolve. I have possessed a great wealth, as well as lived without a penny to my name.

It seemed that those evil men knew just the moment to find me. How they knew of me, I couldn’t say. But there I was, a bum in the streets, having given up on life. I was ashamed at how weak I was, but could see no other way to go. A depression had taken hold of me. Several lifetimes of experiences and memories weighed me down.

They came to me as businessmen in suits, but I knew immediately they were more than that. When they took me in, they revealed they were immortals also. They had existed for almost as long as time, or so they claimed.

They offered me a deal. Do one thing for them, and eternal wealth and happiness would be mine. I was a fool to believe them, but I had no other choice as far as I could see. All I had to do was kill a man, and return a crystal to them.

Before I made the vow, I had to promise my soul to them. Until I returned the crystal, I would be bound to them. Once they found me, they could take away all that I loved, and all that I have ever loved before. They would burn my entire history if I went back on my word. I believed they could do everything they said.

Kill a man. Give them a crystal. It seemed simple.

I could never imagine that this man would become a father figure to me; a mentor I would love and respect above all others. While I tried to go back on the deal, once I had inserted myself into Yen’s life and seen what a great man he was, I found that there was no going back. Those men would take Alryan away from me, and take all that I have ever known and cared for. I had to do what I did. I was just glad that she didn’t know that dark figure was me.

Well, she didn’t know until many years later. But even our love couldn’t stop us from becoming enemies.

This was all so long ago, however. As I stood there now, on that cliff top, I had a choice to make. It seemed simpler now that I’d had time to reflect.

True happiness came from being with loved ones. To truly love and be loved. That meant sharing your life with someone. Someone who you can trust without question.

I removed the stopper from the vial and swallowed the blue liquid. The remainder of the crystal I kept with me, just in case I’d need later.

My body warmed and tingled almost immediately. The synthesised God Killer worked its way through me, turning me into a mortal. I was overwhelmingly tired, as if a great weight had come over me, and at the same time I felt lighter. Cleaner.

I looked over the snowy mountain town, knowing that somewhere out there was the monastery I once trained in. I had come to this cliff edge with Alryan many times, and had even brought Melina here a couple of times.

I studied the darkness below me. That was the last time I would look into that darkness, I told myself.

I turned from the cliff edge and began the rest of my life. Perhaps to love again.


“Whoa, that’s some story,” said the young girl who had requested a story.

“It’s nice alright,” said a man around the campfire. “But I call bullshit. Ain’t no one like this Mr. Big Stuff ever been around.”

The old man smiled, though his eyes were sorrowful.

“Hold on,” said the large man with the goatee. “Just how do you know all that?”

A gasp came from the group. They all stared in awe at the old man.

“You’re him,” the young girl said quietly.

The old man just smiled.

No Place Like Home: Magical Ruralism as Cultural Discourse


The iconic film The Wizard of Oz (1939) begins with Dorothy (Judy Garland) desperately wanting to escape from Kansas.  At its core, The Wizard of Oz is a film about a magical journey from rural Kansas to the gleaming Emerald City.  This basic narrative of a young person leaving his or her rural home for the intoxicating promise of urban opportunity underlies many works from the canon of modern American literature.  Since the colonial era, negotiations of rural and urban, country and city, have been central to the shaping of American nationalism.  In the United States, perceptions of countryside influenced settlement and colonization, Jeffersonian ideology, visions of the frontier, agrarian fantasies, the aftermath of the Dust Bowl, and a host of other historical developments and attitudes.  Essentially, American history reflects shifting attitudes about rural cultures and landscapes with contemporary rural culture struggling, in a sense, to define itself against urban-oriented cultural paradigms.

Characters like Dorothy Gale are commonplace in modern American literature.  During the first half of the twentieth century, canonical, widely known literary works by Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, and others portrayed rural American life as essentially alienated from modernity.  Theodore Dreiser’s Carrie Meeber and Sinclair Lewis’s Carol Kennicott yearned to escape small town life in favor of the opportunities and excitement promised by the city. Jay Gatsby, arguably one of the most famous characters in all of American literature, sheds his Minnesota identity to remake himself into a sophisticated, wealthy Easterner.  Gatsby’s lavish mansion is Oz-like in its colorful extravagance and absurdity; he is so obsessed with the pursuit of urban excess that his fantasies ultimately destroy him.  Gatsby’s dream hinges on a complete departure from his rural origins—to win Daisy, he must become a wealthy, sophisticated Easterner.  This narrative of departure works as a kind of twentieth century rural “grand narrative” in that canonical works of American literature legitimized and codified the inferiority of rural culture within the broader context of modernity.  This rural grand narrative hinged on presenting rural life as stifling, boring, and lacking in opportunities.

The question of how rural culture has responded to this grand narrative throughout the late twentieth century and beyond requires further scholarly attention.  While various theories of postmodernism address what Frederic Jameson calls the “cultural logic of late capitalism,” work on rural narratives and culture from the postmodern era is sparse.  In Knowing Your Place: Rural Identity and Cultural Hierarchy (1997), Barbara Ching and Gerald W. Creed argue that postmodern scholarship and society as a whole tend to marginalize rural culture and suggest that “the urban-identified can confidently assume the cultural value of their situation while the rural-identified must struggle to gain recognition” (4).  This “struggle to gain recognition” is a defining feature of rural cultural discourse from the postmodern era and beyond.  In his recent study of Midwestern regionalism, From Warm Center to Ragged Edge (2017), Jon K. Lauck describes how dominant culture in the twentieth century turned away from once-celebrated rural regionalisms: “For the past half century, the prevailing forces and trends in high and popular culture and in the American academy have not been conducive to the study of midwestern history and have cut against a focus on the Midwest as a particular region” (2).  I argue that re-enchantment emerges as the means through which rural culture has attempted to “gain recognition.” A study of postmodern rural narratives and cultural artifacts reveals historical re-conceptualization wherein marginalization of rural space is acknowledged and transformed through magical rural imagery. The conditions of multinational capitalism form the driving force behind the marginalization of rural culture, and postmodern rural narratives respond to these conditions through re-enchantment of pastoral images, forms, or other rural symbols.  I call the cultural discourse that emerges magical ruralism.  In the discussion that follows, I describe how place has functioned in pastoral and modern rural narratives as a way to show how postmodern rural literature and culture more generally can be read as responding to the conditions of postmodernity through re-enchantment of mythical, pastoral, or modern (often industrial) forms.  I trace how postmodern texts by Tim O’Brien, Stephen King, Louise Erdrich, E. Annie Proulx and others exemplify the use of magical ruralism in literature.  Various cultural artifacts, including roadside monuments, are surveyed as a way to show how magical ruralism is a discourse evident in both literature and culture more broadly.


Rural Grand Narratives

Because magical ruralism surveys a broad range of examples not limited to literature, a broad definition of “rural” informs my analysis. The Oxford English Dictionary (2011) provides multiple definitions of “rural,” including “as living in the country as opposed to the town or city” and “of, relating to, or characteristic of peasants or country people; simple, unpolished; rustic.” Definitions of “rural” consistently characterize “rural” as alienated from sophistication. As described above, many grand, canonical narratives of the early twentieth century reinforce the idea that one must abandon rural life in order to achieve modernity and sophistication. In The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979), Jean-Franҫois Lyotard argues that postmodernism involves the collapse or revising of the grand narrative. Attempting to understand the tension between rural and urban culture is a kind of grand narrative in itself.  As Raymond Williams explains in The Country and the City (1973):

On the country has gathered the idea of a natural way of life: of peace, innocence, and simple virtue.  One the city has gathered the idea of an achieved centre: of learning, communication, light.  Powerful hostile associations have also developed: on the city as a place of noise, worldliness, and ambition; on the country as a place of backwardness, ignorance, limitation. A contrast between country and city, as fundamental ways of life, reaches back into classical times. (1)

The qualities Williams assigns to the country—peace, innocence, and simplicity—are familiar elements of what might be termed the primary rural narrative form: the pastoral.  According to Terry Gifford, a pastoral narrative features a rural or country setting, often juxtaposed in some way with an urban setting (2).  A traditional pastoral work represents the rural country environment as idyllic, simple, and desirable.  Of course, the pastoral narrative is familiar when viewed in the context of the grand narrative underlying American history and nationalism.  In The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (1964), Leo Marx explains that rural landscape figured prominently in how early America was imagined as a garden of unlimited potential:

Beginning in Jefferson’s time, the cardinal image of American aspirations was a rural landscape, a well-ordered green garden magnified to continental size. Although it probably shows a farmhouse or a neat white village, the scene usually is dominated by natural objects: in the foreground a pasture, a twisting brook with cattle grazing nearby,     then a clump of elms on a rise in the middle distance and beyond that, way off on the   western horizon, a line of dark hills.  This is the countryside of the old Republic, a chaste, uncomplicated land of rural virtue. (141)

As Marx documents, land was a crucial factor in how the early American republic defined itself against Europe.  Fascination with “unsettled,” remote landscapes spurred westward expansion as individuals searched for arable land, gold, or other early symbols of the American Dream.  Rural life occupied a prominent position in the cultural hierarchy of the early American republic as evidenced by its role in both the formation of a national mythology and in its ability to inspire the general population.
At the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Frederick Jackson Turner famously declared the closing of the American frontier.  This is a crucial moment in that Jackson’s speech symbolically suggests that the promises of happiness and riches linked to the pastoral and frontier myths are no longer accessible.  Modernity and modern literature would only confirm this, and a number of fundamental examples of the modern American novel can also be read as rural grand narratives.  In his book The Midwestern Ascendancy in American Writing (1992), Ron Weber notes that many seminal works of modern American fiction were penned by Midwestern authors and made use of Midwestern settings as microcosms of “American life.”  Weber points out that the pinnacle of this “Midwestern ascendancy” was the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Minnesotan Sinclair Lewis in 1930.  In the canonical texts that Weber addresses in his study, including Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), Lewis’s Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), and Arrowsmith (1925) and others, the Midwest is portrayed as “cut off” from civilization and as hopelessly conformist.  The Great Gatsby suggests that Gatsby’s dream is of a kind of sophistication not available in Jay Gatz’s Midwestern home.  Similarly, in Winesburg, Ohio, George Willard as author and artist must flee Winesburg—a town portrayed by Anderson as a place where dreamers turn into “grotesques.”  In L. Frank Baum’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), which is especially important to the forthcoming discussion of magical ruralism, Kansas is described as a colorless, exhausted world.  Like the urban areas in The Great Gatsby and Winesburg, Ohio, the Emerald City appears as a place where dreams supposedly come true and wherein the “drab” qualities of small town Midwestern life might be countered.
These rural grand narratives provide context for how rural space has assumed a marginalized, inferior position in the postmodern cultural hierarchy.  As foundational examples of canonical texts, these novels also position marginalization of rural space and culture as a central narrative within the field of literary studies.  As Max Weber argues in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), the modern condition is one of disenchantment.  The canonical modern narratives discussed above present rural landscapes and communities as disenchanted and lacking in sophistication.  Magical ruralist texts use re-enchantment as a strategy for countering this cultural marginalization.  Ching and Creed identify a “radical embracing of that marginality by many people in order to contest the late twentieth century’s hegemonic urbanity and it associated socio-political structures” (5).  Magical ruralism surfaces as the cultural discourse where this “embracing of marginality” takes shape, with the supposedly boring and ordinary elements of rural life transformed into something spectacular.


Magical Ruralism
Importantly, a major figure in postmodern literature has pointed to a famous rural narrative as a significant factor in his development as a writer.  In his 1992 essay “Out of Kansas,” Salman Rushdie describes the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz as the text that inspired him to write.  The similarities between the film and Rushdie’s use of magical realism are obvious, and Rushdie acknowledges the prominent green hues in the movie as a source for the “green and black” dreams of Saleem Sinai, narrator of Rushdie’s 1980 novel Midnight’s Children (17).  The links between magical realism and postmodern rural literature extend beyond Rushdie’s essay.  In her excellent discussion of the elements of magical realism, Wendy B. Faris writes that “magical realism has tended to concentrate on rural settings and to rely on rural inspiration—almost a postmodern pastoralism” (Zamora and Faris 182).  In both well-known magical realist narratives and in postmodern rural narratives, rural or “village” life is often threatened by the forces of late capitalism.  Magic and fantasy emerge as means through which characters manage the anxiety associated with existing in such an environment.
Both magical realism and magical ruralism are discourses of marginalization, but to equate magical realism and magical ruralism would be to overlook the significant differences that emerge when tracing the sources of marginalization.  Whereas the forces of capitalism have contributed to marginalization and displacement of indigenous populations and villages worldwide, colonialism and its legacy play a significant role in how magical ruralism and magical realism differ.  In suggesting that both magical realism and magical ruralism are discourses of marginalization, I am not suggesting that the sources or effects of marginalization are equal.  In his article “Magic Realism as Postcolonial Discourse” (1995), Stephen Slemon describes magical realism as a postcolonial discourse historically associated with the Third World (Zamora and Faris 408).  Slemon points out how overuse of “magical realism” can prove problematic: “the concept of magical realism itself threatens to become a monumentalizing category for literary practice and to offer centralizing genre systems a single locus upon which the massive problem of difference in literary expression can be managed into recognizable meaning in one swift pass” (Zamora and Faris 409).  Magical ruralism offers an alternative lens, related to magical realism, through which cultural responses to the marginalization of postmodern rural space and culture can be approached.  Magical ruralism differs from magical realism in that magical ruralist texts enchant or re-enchant decidedly rural forms and materials, both natural and unnatural.  Like pastoralism, these rural “raw materials” are largely Western, often secular forms and concepts.  As with many magical realist texts, ordinary forms and materials assume magical or supernatural powers in the magical ruralist text.  In her article “Scheherazade’s Children: Magical Realism and Postmodern Fiction,” Faris explains that “magical realism combines realism and the fantastic in such a way that magical elements grow organically out of the reality portrayed” (164).  Magical ruralist texts tend to draw from a more recent past than magical realist texts; although this is not true of all magical ruralist texts, many of the examples I survey below reveal a re-enchantment of machinery, commercial imagery, or other post-industrial material.  Magical realist texts often make use of a more distant, pre-industrial past, including “non-Western cultural systems that privilege mystery over empiricism, empathy over technology, tradition over innovation” (Zamora and Faris 3).

Magical ruralist literature typically reveals a central anxiety concerning rural life and/or rural landscapes.  Re-enchantment of rural raw materials functions as a response to that anxiety.  In Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods (1994) and in Stephen King’s story “Children of the Corn” (1977), rural raw materials are re-enchanted in a way that both re-conceptualizes history and manages anxieties concerning rural space.  In both texts, enchantment is linked to commodification, in the sense that tourism plays an important role in both narratives.  In In the Lake of the Woods, the Lake of the Woods in Northern Minnesota—a definitely “remote” location—is presented as a locus of subjectivity, mystery, and supernatural power linked to re-enchanting of rural Midwestern landscapes.  “Magic” works in the novel as a depictive re-conceptualizing of the dominant, popular constructions of remote Midwestern space as empty and vacuous—in the novel, remote space as empty and vacuous is aligned with rural space as landscape of spectacle, which is in turn related to the hyper-violent nature of postmodern society.  Importantly, the lake is also linked to protagonist John Wade’s apparently “magical powers”—Wade, a Vietnam veteran and probable PTSD victim—is nicknamed “Sorcerer,” and the novel details his ability to make people disappear.  The subsequent disappearance of Wade’s wife conjures ghostly imagery and references, calling to mind relevant moments in Winesburg, Ohio as George Willard looks upon the deserted fairgrounds in “Sophistication” and notes that “there are ghosts all around,” and reminiscent of the ghostly voices that permeate Masters’s Spoon River Anthology.  Enacting a pastoral journey to the lake forces Wade and his wife into a confrontation with anxiety that eventually culminates in an unsolvable mystery potentially fueled  by rural magic.

In King’s “Children of the Corn,” two Eastern tourists, Burt and Vicky, are driving through Nebraska on their way to California.  The story makes clear that Burt and Vicky are anxious about their encounter with rural landscapes—they point out how “boring” and monotonous the surroundings are, for example.  Importantly, the story complicates whether or not the couple’s eventually horrific discoveries and experiences are even real, as Burt at one point wonders whether he might be dreaming (King 267).  Quantic and Hafen describe the Great Plains as a “state of mind” (xxi) which informs the dreamlike quality of Burt and Vicky’s confrontation with rural space.  Just as the ghost-like baseball players in Phil Alden Robinson’s film Field of Dreams (1989) seem to originate in the corn field, so too do the beings that torment Burt and Vicky. Like O’Brien’s novel, the story revolves around a confrontation with remote space; unlike the modern rural grand narratives discussed earlier, In the Lake of the Woods and “The Children of the Corn” assign magical properties to rural space.  Burt notices that the corn is “perfect” and “impossibly” free from weeds.  The corn also takes on a supernatural, intoxicating quality, as Burt “became aware of the corn fragrance in his nose now, all around him.  The wind through the tops of the plants made a sound like voices.  Soothing.  Whatever had been done in the name of this corn, it was now his protector” (King 269).  Upon getting lost in the cornfield, Burt oscillates between feelings of comfort and feelings of intense fear, with the sacred and the profane coalescing in the image of a crucifix made from corn husks, which Burt describes as “fabulous art” and which Vicky describes as “hideous.”  Again, the marginalized status of the Midwest is re-conceptualized.  King presents the rural Midwest as a landscape of spectacle and as a re-enchanted, postmodern Arcadia of sorts where rural raw materials assume magical properties.
This re-enchanted Arcadia is also populated by species of images, to borrow garden terminology, that are both natural and mechanistic.  As Leo Marx points out, the “garden myth” is bound up in the idea that gardening represents a kind of ideal fusion between nature and machinery.  This is perhaps best symbolized in the work of Willa Cather and in the famous image of the shadow of the plow in the setting sun that Jim Burden describes in My Ántonia.  Relatedly, Marx explains that Ralph Waldo Emerson saw “genius” as stemming from uniting the nature and the machine.  Texts invested in magical ruralist discourse tend to engage with these ideas and to revise related images through postmodern strategies of historical re-conceptualization (Hutcheon) and pastiche.  In the postmodern world the “rural,” like the notion of “wilderness,” is largely illusory or simulated, and it is difficult to posit that an ideal harmony between nature and machine can truly exist when nature has grown increasingly difficult to separate from “the machine.”  In the work of E. Annie Proulx and Louise Erdrich, Cather’s image of the plow in the setting sun is revised and re-worked in ways that evidence the inseparable nature of “the rural” and “the machine” within the postmodern world but that also attempt to expose the unique, magical nature of the rural machine.

In Erdrich’s The Beet Queen, Karl describes an air seeder as “a miracle” (101); the novel also presents the local beet refinery as “Oz.”  Importantly, both the air seeder and the beet refinery are machines in the garden; neither is a natural form, yet both are clearly symbolic of rural culture.  The novel engages with the difficult place of the rural within the postmodern world, as the butcher shop where Mary Adare works and which unites all of the characters in the novel is threatened by an increasingly apparent desire for “one stop shopping” and the “big box store.”  Although Quantic reads the novel as evidencing the “unbearable” nature of the “closed garden” (98-99), I argue that Erdrich’s work is actually invested in a kind of re-enchantment of the uniquely rural materials that do remain and that do serve as important ways in which rural Midwesterners understand their own identities, even when these objects—air seeders and local beet refineries—are related to machinery.
A similar strategy of historical re-conceptualization and recycling of familiar “garden” images is used by E. Annie Proulx in her collections Close Range: Wyoming Stories (1999) and Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2 (2004), wherein remote Wyoming landscapes are juxtaposed with often strange, fantastic imagery that is often related to a revision of “machine in the garden” imagery.  In her essay “Making Space: A Notebook,” Sandra Lim describes remote Wyoming landscapes as a way to reflect on the relationships between time, place, and poetry.  Lim writes, “To arrive at any one place in a poem is like witnessing the poet come to his or her own senses: you see a vivid and reasonable hallucination before you” (Lessley and Snider 77).  This “reasonable hallucination” evokes the blending of rural reality and magic typical of magical ruralism and illuminates this blending as it surfaces in Proulx’s stories.   In “The Bunchgrass Edge of the World,” Aladdin, a rancher, is given a magical moniker as a result of a green-shaded lamp arriving in the mail from Sears on the day of his birth.  In this way, the rural rancher is a product of both a kind of frontier landscape but also of a capitalistic commodity.  The symbolic space where these two factors meet overlaps with the space of enchantment.  The story also details Aladdin’s sister Ottaline’s conversations with a run-down John Deere tractor.  Both Ottaline and the tractor are presented in the story as similarly “ugly,” marginalized, and “broken”; the voice of the talking John Deere, not dissimilar from the voice in Field of Dreams, essentially voices the concerns of both the tractor and Ottaline as outsiders.  Giving the tractor a voice, although the story later reveals that the tractor cannot actually talk, works as a kind of re-enchantment of a symbolically “outdated” rural machine.  At one point in the story, Ottaline asks the tractor, “Are you like an enchanted thing? A damn story where some girl lets a warty toad sleep in her shoe and in the mornin the toad’s a good-lookin dude makin omelettes?” (138). Ottaline demonstrates a clear awareness of herself within a broader narrative.  The quotation also draws on fairy tale imagery and situates Ottaline as a character within her own fairy tale.
Proulx employs magical ruralist strategies in blending re-enchantment and postmodern narrative technique.  In her stories “A Lonely Coast” and “The Trickle-Down Effect,” Proulx engages in a kind of pastiche of Cather’s plow image that, I argue, inverts and re-enchants that image that, on its own, is no longer a viable ideal in the postmodern world.  “A Lonely Coast” begins with a question to the reader as to whether or not he or she has ever seen a burning house off in the distance while driving at night on a remote highway.  “A Lonely Coast” goes on to describe the spectacular, unique qualities of that image, emphasizing that it is unique to the type of landscape found only in Wyoming or in similarly remote areas:

You ever see a house burning up in the night, way to hell and gone out there on the plains? Nothing but blackness and your headlights cutting a little wedge into it, could be the middle of the ocean for all you can see.  And in that big dark a crown of flame the size of your thumbnail trembles.  You’ll drive for an hour seeing it until it burns out or you do, until you pull off the road to close your eyes or to look up at the sky punched with bullet holes, see them trying for the stairs, but mostly you don’t give a damn.  They are too far away, like everything else.  (189)

“The Trickle-Down Effect” makes use of a similar image.  Deb Sipple is hauling a load of hay bales back to Wyoming, driving through the night and throwing cigarette butts out the window.  Unknown to him, the cigarette butts are actually landing in the hay, igniting the bed of his truck.  Proulx describes the image of Sipple piloting the rig back into town as “the closest thing to a meteor ever seen in Elk Tooth” (54).  These images can be defined as magical images.  At its most basic level, a “magic” entails a power or happening contrary to natural law or logic.  Additionally, the Oxford English Dictionary (2011) defines “magic” as “an inexplicable and remarkable influence producing surprising results; an enchanting or mystical quality; glamour, appeal,” and further as “the art of producing. . . apparently inexplicable phenomena; conjuring.”  Both images from Proulx characterize isolated rural landscapes as theater for spectacular phenomena; the burning house and ignited hay bales are extraordinary to the point of conjuring illusions of oceans and meteors.

I argue that both images represent a kind of re-working and re-enchantment of Cather’s plow in the sun image in that they depict fantastic, distinctly postmodern, distinctly rural juxtapositions of nature and machine.  Postmodern rural space is constructed through the discourse of magical ruralism not as a resurrection of the “real” pastoral garden or of the frontier, but as a re-enchanted, postmodern space of spectacle.  Indeed, part of the value of the work of Erdrich and Proulx, for scholars, is in how both authors’ narratives cast postmodern rural culture and space as inherently different and perhaps even strange in the presence of experiences and imagery that are not available in urban areas.

Giants on the Earth: Rural Landscapes of Spectacle

“If you build it, he will come.”  In the film Field of Dreams (1989), this message from an unknown, disembodied voice drives Kevin Costner’s character Ray Kinsella to plow under his corn to build a baseball field.  Kinsella is anxious about his rural life; originally from California, Kinsella has moved to his wife’s home state of Iowa to try his hand at farming.  Despite mockery from his fellow farmers, Kinsella follows the voice’s advice and watches in disbelief as dead former baseball players, including Kinsella’s father and Shoeless Joe Jackson, inexplicably emerge from the cornfields to play baseball on Kinsella’s “field of dreams.”  By the end of the film, the baseball field has become an impossible portal of sorts, where those who believe in its magic can travel through time and space.  However, the film ends with a clear message: the magical baseball field and the family farm can simultaneously survive only if the Kinsella family starts charging admission.  Young Karen Kinsella, the voice of a new generation, prophesizes that “people will come,” and the closing image of the film shows a long trail of car headlights piloting through the dark Iowa countryside toward the magical farm.

Implicitly, rural life can persist only if it is willing to re-cast itself as a landscape of magic and spectacle to be consumed by urban outsiders.  Many actual rural communities have embraced “re-enchantment” as a way to spur tourism and economic activity.  In her book The Colossus of Roads: Myth and Symbol Along the American Highway (1984), art historian Karal Ann Marling studies the cultural significance of various Midwestern roadside attractions, including the Paul Bunyan and Babe statue in Bemidji, Minnesota; the Jolly Green Giant statue in Blue Earth, Minnesota; and Pierre, the Talking Voyageur Statue in Two Harbors, Minnesota.  The Blue Earth Jolly Green Giant functions as a bricolage of mythical, modern, and postmodern.  As a completely green, towering figure, the Jolly Green Giant resembles various mythological characters, including the Green Man, the Green Knight of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and, to a contemporary visitor, perhaps even the Incredible Hulk.  Built in 1978, the Blue Earth Jolly Green Giant statue contributes to characterizations of the rural landscape as a landscape of spectacle. The statue re-conjures the magical, idyllic conditions of Fitzgerald’s “green breast of the new world”; this is evident on the company’s present-day website, which currently features a video of the Green Giant happily strolling through green rolling hills while a family eats Green Giant vegetables (GreenGiant.com).  Marling describes how the statue is also imagined by the community of Blue Earth, MN as a way for the community to assert its uniqueness to a largely urban audience: “Like the Paul Bunyan of 1937, the Jolly Green Giant of 1978 is a resonant mark of local presence, a magnet drawing the traveler off the highway, into the mythical realm of the American Midwest” (4).  This example shows how magical ruralist artifacts often paradoxically respond to the conditions of postmodernity while simultaneously appropriating capitalistic and/or commercial forms or agendas.  As a kind of secular “god” figure, the Blue Earth Green Giant is a pastoral image in that the character is literally made of green leaves.  However, the statue also glorifies a processed commercial product.  Unlike magical realist texts, which are often read as “writing against” or challenging hegemonic forces, the Blue Earth Green Giant seems to satisfy these forces through re-enchantment of pastoral and commercial imagery.  Countless other unusual monuments and roadside attractions exist throughout rural America and function as examples of magical ruralist discourse: like the baseball field in the film Field of Dreams, these texts attempt to characterize rural elsewhere as unique destinations worthy of interest.  Geographer Jeffrey Hopkins argues that the kind of “place promotion” evident in such roadside monuments functions as a “postmodern imperative” (66) for many rural communities.  Re-enchantment works as both an imaginative and commercialized narrative strategy.


Implications for Scholars and Beyond

Even as the digital age has closed the gap, to some extent, between rural and urban space, the differences between rural and urban culture continue to shape not only artistic and popular imaginations, but also the everyday lives of individuals throughout the United States.  As Minnesota-born Mark Wunderlich writes in his essay “Famous Mushroom,” “Growing up queer in the rural Midwest, I knew there was no life for me there; I would have to leave, and I would most likely have to move to a city.  In an urban place I could make friends, find a society in which I belonged, and live a life of culture and books and like-minded comradery” (Lessley and Snider 269).  A quick glance at the 2016 United States Presidential Election electoral map reveals distinct trends in the voting patterns of “red states” versus “blue states.”  The electoral map is a useful symbol for understanding the intriguing position of rural studies in the twenty-first century.  While general cultural, ideological, and socioeconomic differences certainly persist between rural and urban spaces, these differences are complex, shifting, and shaped by narrative and historical forces.  Negotiating the challenges that can come with growing up in a rural area with the natural affections and nostalgia linked to one’s sense of “home” is often both bewildering and transformational.  In turning to the rural, scholars will encounter a trove of examples for how rural culture has responded to its perception, both self-defined and externally defined, in the era of late capitalism and beyond.

Specifically, Midwestern and Great Plains literary studies continue to explore the concept of Midwestern regionalism.  Magical ruralism provides a theoretical pathway for new scholarship on rural cultural discourse.  In defining magical ruralism, I have chosen texts situated in rural Midwestern settings and published squarely within the postmodern era; the surveyed texts call into question how both individuals and communities make sense of postmodern rural existence.  In focusing on Midwestern and Great Plains texts, I hope to advance discussions of the nature of Midwestern and Great Plains regional literatures in the era of late capitalism and beyond.  While situating magical ruralism within the context of rural American literature as a whole is beyond the scope of this article, the discourse is grounded in yet not confined to Midwestern and Great Plains literature.  Indeed, rural, agrarian landscapes and cultures exist throughout the world, and magical ruralism can provide a lens through which scholars might examine cultural responses to the conditions of postmodernity from various perspectives and regional contexts.
Magical ruralism is also relevant to broader discussions of urbanity, scholarship, and the management of human resources within the field of literary studies.  While rural states house some of the most prestigious English programs in the country, including the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, rural colleges and universities simultaneously struggle to attract and keep quality faculty who may not want to live in a remote location.  Scholars from rural states may feel pressured to leave their home regions for large and/or urban universities in other states, where both prestige and opportunity are more plentiful.  Ching and Creed explain, “In the West, few intellectuals have deep rural roots, and for those who do, education often severs these connections.  The traditional pedagogical agenda, with its emphasis on enlightenment through the liberal arts, has long been opposed to the supposed essence of rusticity—lack of cultural sophistication and a preference for practical know-how over erudition” (10).  The goal is not to generalize practitioners of education at the college and university level as hostile to rural concerns and citizens, but rather to point out the real implications, for our field and beyond, of the popular attitudes toward rural space and culture in the postmodern era and beyond.  For any scholar who has ever discounted a job due to its remote location, or for any rural student who has wondered why no courses in “local” literature appear in a curriculum, the question of how the academy shapes, contributes to, and historicizes rural culture is relevant.

Finally, magical ruralism is borne out in real economic and community development strategies.  As Hopkins demonstrates, “place promotion” has emerged as an economic strategy for many rural and remote communities.  In examples like the Blue Earth Green Giant, “Oz” has become an economic strategy intended to bring tourists to rural communities.  Karen Kinsella’s prediction that “people will come” reflects a strategy of survival for rural communities: magical ruralism is a theoretical lens for approaching rural literature, but also a broader cultural logic wherein magic and re-enchantment collide with and often attempt to counter historical forces.




Works Cited

Anderson, Sherwood.  Winesburg, Ohio.  1919.  New York: Penguin, 2005.

Baum, L. Frank.  The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  1900.  Penguin, 2008.

Cather, Willa.  My Ántonia.  1918.  Mariner, 1995.

Ching, Barbara, and Gerald W. Creed, eds.  Knowing Your Place: Rural Identity and Cultural Hierarchy.  Routledge, 1997.

Dreiser, Theodore.  Sister Carrie. 1900.  Norton, 1994.

Erdrich, Louise.  The Beet Queen.  1986.  HarperCollins, 2006.

Faris, Wendy B.  “Scheherazade’s Children: Magical Realism and Postmodern Fiction.” Zamora and Faris 163-190.

Field of Dreams.  Dir. Phil Alden Robinson.  Perf. Kevin Costner, Ray Liotta, Amy Madigan, James Earl Jones.  Universal Pictures, 1989.  Film.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott.  The Great Gatsby.  1925.  Scribner, 2004.

Gifford, Terry.  Pastoral.  1999.  Routledge, 2010. GreenGiant.com. B&G Foods of North America, 2018, http://www.greengiant.com.

Hopkins, Jeffrey.  “Signs of the Post-Rural: Marketing Myths of a Symbolic Countryside.” Geografiska Annaler, vol. 80, no. 2, 1998, pp. 65-81.

Hutcheon, Linda.  A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction.  Routledge, 1988.

Jameson, Frederic.  Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.

Duke UP, 1990.

King, Stephen.  “The Children of the Corn.”  1977.  Night Shift.  Anchor Books,

  1. 390-433.  Nook.

Lauck, Jon K.  From Warm Center to Ragged Edge: The Erosion of Midwestern Literary and Historical Regionalism, 1920-1965.  University of Iowa Press, 2017.

Lessley, Shara, and Bruce Snider, eds.  The Poem’s Country: Place & Poetic Practice. Pleiades Press, 2017.

Lewis, Sinclair.  Main Street.  1920.  Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003.

Lim, Sandra.  “Making Space: A Notebook.”  Lessley and Snider 75-79.

Lyotard, Jean-Franҫois.  The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.  1979. University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

“Magic.”  Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford UP, 3rd ed., 2011.

Malmgren, Carl D.  “The Lie of the Land: Heartland Novels by Smiley and Kinsella.” Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 45, no. 2, 1999, 432-56.

Marling, Karal Ann.  The Colossus of Roads: Myth and Symbol along the American Highway. 1984.  University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Marx, Leo.  The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. 1964.  Oxford UP, 1981.

Masters, Edgar Lee.  Spoon River Anthology.  1915.  Penguin, 2008.

O’Brien, Tim.  In the Lake of the Woods.  1994.  Penguin, 2006.

Proulx, E. Annie.  Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2.  Scribner, 2004.  Nook.

—.  Close Range: Wyoming Stories.  1999.  Scribner, 2003.

Quantic, Diane D., and P. Jane Hafen, eds.  A Great Plains Reader.  University of

Nebraska Press, 2003.

Quantic, Diana Dufva.  The Nature of the Place: A Study of Great Plains Fiction.

University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

“Rural.”  Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford UP, 3rd ed., 2011.

Rushdie, Salman.  “Out of Kansas.”  1992.  Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992 2002.  Random House, 2002.

Slemon, Stephen.  “Magic Realism as Postcolonial Discourse.”  Zamora and Faris 407-26.

Weber, Max.  The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  1905.  Trans. Stephen Kalberg.  Oxford UP, 2010.

Weber, Ron.  The Midwestern Ascendancy in American Writing.  Indiana

UP, 1992.

Williams, Raymond.  The Country and the City.  Oxford UP, 1973.

Wunderlich, Mark.  “Famous Mushroom.”  Lessley and Snider 263-69.

Zamora, Lois Parkinson, and Wendy B. Faris, eds.  Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community.  Duke UP, 1995.

Poetry Collection

40 Martyrs Church, Aleppo


A deacon points to each saint,

identifies well known iconography in cracked French:

St. John with his head on a platter, St. George and the dragon,

Mary with Jesus and the Baptist, St. Joseph, the Last Judgment,

the altar and the pulpit.

The patriarch, Gregorius, severe Armenian,

as if he expected to bear crosses


buried beneath his feet,

the fourth-century entombed

strata below these medieval stones

and the rest massacred.

Once remembered here.

Near the door, a vase of flowers riffled for one red carnation

handed to me without apparent thought for history.




Aleppo’s Citadel

Early March haze barely hides the sun

strong enough to make a donkey blink

as it climbs the ramparts of the castle and bows

its head under a pannier full of cola bottles

prodded from behind to find the rough grid

meant for Arabian stallions passing by two pairs

of stone lions, one laughing and one crying

at the ceremonial casket laid in state, St. George

taken from the crusades and entombed;

having risen to heaven, he’s left an empty box

draped in green silks, woven in local looms

perhaps on the main avenue of the castle’s

now shuttered souks beside empty cisterns

bleak as prisons. Arrows at right angles

mounted, difficult to imagine flying as torture

in the porcelain pots shaken from earthquakes

and excavations. Scattered pieces, catapult

with cannon and there the eunuchs’ quarters,

like Allah inscribed in stone as witness

to what’s been done and can’t be restored.




Learning to Write in Two Languages

English requires space, asserted autonomy

in separate seats expected to fit average knees


and arms kept an understood distance

from neighbors, untouchable,


a caste kept to the exit rows on airplanes

assumes the necessity for order


before dislocated rivets and bones

break from bodies arbitrary as letters


standing alone in Arabic: A not S, O not N

set apart by design revealing where they are


not where they’re going. L nudging B or T,

squeezes their sides, physicality


taken for granted like bumping into people

and boys holding one another’s pinkies.





Elba in June Without Tourists

would have been preferable to Jehovah digging in his Old Testament heels,

nodding at the pillar of salt and spousal disobedience in Sodom, as if history

didn’t make Assad nervous enough, this pile of stones as read by an Italian

archaeologist could be the very stuff of war, or at least guerilla action,

the Massad sneaking across the border and scooping out new territory,

carrying off armfuls of Syria and rewriting it as if it were Roman.

All those clay tablets, records of what came in and what went out, words.




This Year’s Living Legend


Mario Vargas Llosa

bows his head

for a thick ribbon

with a shiny medal,

accepts applause,

and says,

“I do not want to die dead,”

the weight on his chest

not to be mistaken

for his working heart.

He’s eighty this week–

his new novel

a gauntlet.

It’s no December Dean.

But discreet, like his hero

with plans, a rebel

to epitaphs of praise

for what’s past.

The Dead Television

The Dead Television


Who Was Jeanne?


I was Jeanne, Jeanne was I,

my friends called me Moon Pie,

but now I’m dead, deceased, at rest,

though I still hate my ex.


My husband Mick, he always won,

I’d love to beat that prick,

but love I did, I did, as well,

I loved that Beatle John.


I laid a guy once underneath

the bleachers at my school

then came my daughter Emily

and god I loved her too.


Jeanne seemed asleep lying in her coffin. Her face was appealing, glowing—her hair golden like sunshine. I cried when I saw her. Couldn’t help it. She somehow looked more beautiful than I had ever seen her. There she lay, all tension of life now absent. I fumbled forward, forgetting the formal setting of the funeral home. My fingers ran through her curls, twining, becoming entangled. I kissed her, wetting half her face. Maybe a minute went by, maybe an hour. I only know that Jeanne’s sister, Marianna, at last, pulled me from her.

“Are you done?” she asked.

I stared at Mariana and said nothing. I bent forward one last time and nibbled the tip of Jeanne’s nose.

Mariana gazed inside the coffin through bothered eyes. She nudged me out of the way and fixed Jeanne’s makeup, that death mask she would wear to the crematorium. She prodded at her dress, a blue frock with lace. She combed her hair back into place.

Jeanne had always hated Mariana. I never knew why until that day at the funeral home. Mariana had hired a priest to preside over the ceremony. One noted to possess knowledge of a secret door to Heaven, through which those who had died under questionable circumstances could enter. I suppose the details of Jeanne’s death had given Mariana pause. Mariana’s hiring of such a guy gave me pause. But what could I do? Mariana was running this show. She had all the rights.

Jeanne and I had shared the stage many times before her final performance. We were actors, working for the Old Stage Players. We were a traveling troop and did as many as six performances a week. We were doing A Christmas Carol one December in Colettesville, NC, and that’s the night I first kissed Jeanne.

After the show, Jeanne and I were the last ones left outside the theater. Everyone else had headed back to the motel because it was freezing cold. But Jeanne was in the mood to talk.

“I’ve met Elton John,” she said.

“No way.”

“Yes, I have. I’m the one who turned him gay.”

“No, you didn’t.”

“Yes, I did.”

“How’d you do it?”

“He fell for me and I turned him down.”

“I don’t think that’s how it works,” I said.

“Well, it seemed like it at the time.”

We were bundled up in fur parkas, our breath freezing like cigar smoke. Jeanne was clinging to me to keep warm.

“I know everything about John Lennon,” she said.

“You couldn’t.”

“Yes, I do. Ask me anything.”

“What’s his favorite color?” I asked.


“How do you know?”

“Well, it’s not blue. That’s how.”

“How do you know it’s not blue?” I teased.

“Because blue is everybody’s favorite.”

“So, maybe it’s John Lennon’s too.”

“No, John’s too cool to be like everybody else.”

“That makes sense.”

“I always make sense.”

The night got colder and Jeanne and I walked toward the motel. The wind picked up and we ducked into a store front to shield ourselves. We window shopped until Jeanne got bored looking at tools and coveralls and horse feed.

“You want to help me practice my kissing scene?” she asked.

“Sure, why not?”

“Thought you’d say no.”

“Why would I say no?” I wanted to know.


“Because why?”

Jeanne was clinging to me and our frozen breath mingled and rose like a mist. She stood on her tiptoes and we kissed.

“Because of Mick. Most guys won’t let me practice on them.”

“Was that one just practice?”


That one wasn’t just practice for me. I was crazy about Jeanne ever since I first saw her. I talked to her every chance I got during work. She called on me to practice lines. We always joked around. We had great times. But she was right about Mick, her husband, the owner and artistic director of the troop.

Mick was a tyrant. Most of the guys were afraid of him. He seemed to enjoy humiliating those with whom he was at odds. He had his fun with the rest of the troop at their expense. For those guys he fired, he topped it off with a poor recommendation. If Mick had a beef with you, watch your back. He was both mean and sneaky. He had no mercy.

I was willing to be just friends with Jeanne until Mick began to treat her as badly as he had some of the others. I was shocked one day when she was away from the theater and Mick had the entire troop laughing at her.

“You just can’t fix stupid,” he’d said.

“Neither can you fix a cliché,” I told the stagehand, Terry, a local, whom we’d picked up to help move the sets during performances. Terry was one of the few who hadn’t laughed at Mick’s cruel joke.

Things got worse between Jeanne and Mick. I became her confidant. She told me a few times that she was afraid of him, and that she didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know either, but Mick seemed to know. He stuck to his usual pattern of berating Jeanne to the troop every time he had the chance. He referred to her as “our idiot blonde” once right in front her. The troop had laughed dutifully.

The great blowout in their marriage happened a year later when we were doing A Christmas Carol once again. Mick had cast Jeanne as young Ebenezer’s wife. Jeanne had always played the female leads, and to her, being cast in this inconsequential role was the absolute affront. I’d never seen her so angry in all the years I’d known her. I had the night off and was hanging out with Terry when Jeanne came by my apartment.

She was crying so hard she shook. It was several minutes before she could tell us what happened.

“Mick locked me out,” she said.

“No way!” Terry said.

“Yes, way! He told me to go outside and wait on him. We were going to talk. But then he locked me out.”

“Somebody needs to have a talk with that man,” Terry said.

Terry was right. That was no way to treat anyone, especially Jeanne. We all stayed at my place that night, and I decided to have a talk with Mick the following evening.

When I got to rehearsal, Mick had left word for me to come and see him. That’s convenient, I thought. I found him back stage and we went into the box office to talk.

“I’ve decided to cast you as Charles Dickens,” he said. “It’s the best role you’ve ever had. Do a good job and who knows where you’ll go. I’ve been keeping up with what you’re doing. Consider this your big break.”

“Tell me one thing first,” I said. “Why’d you lock Jeanne out of the theater last night?”

“That’s not your concern,” he said. “I’ve fired Jeanne and she’ll never play another role here or anywhere else if I have anything to say about it.”

“But she was badly traumatized.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because she told me. She came by my place.”

“You have a choice to make and you’d better think hard about it. You have a chance to play a great role, but if you continue to see Jeanne, you will never play another theater role again. Take my word for it.”

“Jeanne is a friend,” I said, “a real friend, and that’s something you know nothing about. You’re a pathetic bully, and I’m ashamed that I’ve worked for you as long as I have. Find yourself another Dickens.”

Outside, I told Terry what happened.

“Well, I’m quitting too,” he said.

“Tell him about me.” The voice came from a pickup truck parked nearby. I could see a brunette woman sitting there.

“That’s my girlfriend, Jane. She just started in ticket sells and she’s quitting too.”

“I couldn’t ask you to quit your jobs that way. How will you live?”

“Jane just got a settlement check.” Terry’s grin was catchy. “We’re set for a year. Besides we like Moon Pie, right Jane?”

“Yeah, we want to be her entourage.”

I thought that was just splendid. We headed off to tell Jeanne about it, and the four of us partied at my apartment that night. Jeanne played piano and sang show tunes. Terry and Jane had a slapstick comedy routine they performed, which kept us in stitches all night. I confided that the reason I had gone into show business in the first place was because I could neither sing nor dance nor act. So, naturally, there was nothing else I could possibly do.

Terry and Jane rented a place nearby. We all became friends, and, more often than not, prepared our dinner together on the grill. Terry was a winemaker, and he shared many bottles of his special blackberry. Jane possessed the talent of coming up with a joint of good smoke. Jeanne would entertain us on piano.

I bought a rattly old van, and the four of us often road-tripped together. One night during dinner, Jeanne had the idea of traveling to Wilmington to chase Hurricane Fran. She had been following this storm on the weather channel, and, given that we all had seen Twister, this seemed like the perfect idea. An hour later we were on the way.

Wrightsville Beach was deserted. Many of the hotels were boarded up. Others demolished totally. The storm had blown through just before we arrived, and the few people we met were scared or angry.

“Did you have your premiums paid up?”


“Well, they’ll pay, then.”

“They better.”

“They will.”

“Well, by-god, they better!”

The hurricane tide had left the beach strewn with debris. After a long walk, Jeanne got a phone call. I figured it was Marianna. Had it been Emily, Jeanne’s daughter, she would have been smiling and laughing. But, Jeanne wasn’t smiling or laughing. In fact, she was quiet and shaking. Not angry shaking but something else. She was horrified.

“What’s the matter?” we asked.

No answer. Jeanne just started walking back toward the van. “I’m going home,” she said.

We finally got her to tell us what happened. Emily had attempted suicide. Jeanne and I had visited Emily many times, and she us, so I knew she had suffered from depression. And I knew she had been in the hospital for it. Jeanne had talked about this more than a few times.

I liked Emily, but she wasn’t like Jeanne. She was analytic, always trying to figure people out. Figure an angle with people. How to have her way with them. She and I talked for an hour once before I figured out that she had wanted me to pay her water bill. Jeanne, though, was the essence of creativity. She rarely thought outside of how best to play a theater role or how best to teach her piano students or how best to prepare a rack of ribs.

Back at home, Jeanne spent the next weeks visiting Emily. They let her out of the hospital after a week, but Jeanne stayed on. She was driven, on a mission to save her daughter. And she wasn’t about to leave her until she knew she was better.

When I went up to visit, Jeanne’s appearance stunned me. She seemed withered, dispirited, as if her character had dried up and blown away on a hurricane. She had aged ten years. She seemed to care about nothing other than keeping tabs on Emily. She seemed obsessed, looking for some “in” into Emily’s psyche. She had taken on her daughter’s persona, her habit of analyzing.

Back at home, Jeanne’s spirit continued to decline. She gave up teaching the piano. She spent her days staring at the weather channel. That light that had been so apparent in her, and had been the core of her character, had faded. Her smile and her laughter seemed nowhere to be found.

Terry, Jane, and myself were on the porch one evening having a glass of wine when Jeanne came out. Her face was animated, and I believed at that moment that she was okay again. I think Terry and Jane thought so too. It had never occurred to any of us that she would never be okay again.

“The television’s dead,” was all that Jeanne said. And she went back inside.

It was Jeanne’s eyes that had died. On that desolate beach in NC, her bright, enchanting eyes were destroyed. The beauty of those eyes was shattered and left lifeless by the dreadfulness of the thought of losing her precious child.

I wondered, even before Jeanne’s decline, how she would be able to manage. She had lost her position as an actor. She had little hope of continuing her career. She had lost her marriage. I imagined that the two of us would marry one day, and I suppose I thought we’d live happily ever after, like in the shows we performed. But some shows depict the tragic nature of life through their twists and reversals, and such was the nature of mine and Jeanne’s experience.

I came home one day to find Terry waiting for me on the porch.

“Is he here yet?” Jane’s voice drifted from inside.

“Yep,” Terry said. He gazed at me, right steady.

“Did you tell him?”

“Not yet.”

When they told me that Jeanne was dead, that she had committed suicide, all I saw was the porch floor rising toward my face. Terry and Jane picked me up and brought me inside.




Jeanne’s brother, Mark, rescued me from Mariana. He brought me to a seat in the chapel and we sat. Jeanne had loved her brother and I understood why. Unlike Mariana, he was patient and caring. I thought he might hold my hand there in that chapel like I had seen him hold Jeanne’s, but he didn’t.

I stared at the yellow carnations on green wires standing around Jeanne like sentries. I willed them to die. But they remained triumphant and leering. They reminded me of Mariana. I decided to take Jeanne’s hatred of her sister upon myself. I took on her love for her brother as well.

The minister rattled on for twenty minutes and, finally, secured a place for Jeanne in Heaven. He claimed that despite Biblical references to the contrary, Jeanne should be admitted because her depression was responsible for her death and not herself.

In spite of this message of reclamation, and Mariana’s gratified eyes, the ceremony put me off. I wanted a celebration of Jeanne’s life and of her beauty and of her brilliance. I understood that everyone has to die, and that many of us do so before we reach that mind-failing age when our bodies fall into disrepair and ruin. I understood that depression is just as surely a disease as any of a physical nature. I just could not understand relegating ourselves to the place where we have forgotten about the excellence and the grandeur and the sublime wonder in our loved ones in favor of living in the shadow of religious doctrine.

After the service, the minister was shaking hands with the crowd, and I stood in line. But I never shook his hand. Instead, I told him that Jeanne did not need his message.

“She owns a heaven more accessible than yours,” I said. “In her heaven, everyone is invited without exception. The only ones who do not come are those who are too fearful, too mired in their smug little worlds to imagine the possibility.”




Overall, I can only imagine that Jeanne had tried to take Emily’s condition onto herself through transference, and then carry it to the grave where it could harm her daughter no longer. Such healing was typical in the West before the onslaught of the Enlightenment, when science came to the fore and religion took a backseat. I wonder, if, in following science, we have strayed further off the mark than where religion had us. At any rate, it seems that Jeanne’s style of healing worked, for Emily seems much better.



The Suicide of Jeanne Little


Jeanne, you asked me once how long

I’d remember you when you died.

I smiled and said, a day or two.

You shook your head and cried.


You really should remember me

much longer than that, you said.

I smiled and shook my head and headed

tiredly back to bed.


A little spirit came to me

as I was driving in my van,

a little spirit like a comet

buzzing all around my head.


Go away you little spirit,

must you be so bothersome?

Go away and leave me be,

I have work to do today.


Then I learned that you’d been found

lying dead behind the door,

prescription bottle by your hand,

tablets scattered on the floor.


Alone on Christmas Day, I sat,

staring at the dead TV,

in my blue rocking chair with her

blue chair now empty there with me.


Jeanne, you got me good this time:

you’ve rearranged my world,

left me reeling in a daze,

lost in a hazy maze.


Then you appeared in apparition

radiant there in front of me.

You laughed and said, I got me too,

and then you flew inside my eyes.


I now see through your eyes, Jeanne,

I learn and laugh for two.

When darkness reigns in my cruel world,

I often seek out you.

America’s Drug Policies: What Works, What Doesn’t


Our current policy mix is not working the way we want it to. The ease with which drugs can be obtained, the price, the number of people using drugs, the violence on the border all show that. We need to rethink our responses to the health effects, the economic impacts, [sic] the effect on crime. We need to rethink our approach to the supply and demand of drugs (U.S. Senator, James Webb, 2008).

For over a century, America’s drug policy has been from a law enforcement perspective.  This approach, has led to a circle of violence across America, particularly in the inner cities.  From a policy stand point; the enforcement centric approach has not worked.  It produced some unintended consequences.  By defining the mission as a war on drugs, the psychology follows that we treat every drug incidence as a war.  In wars, there are casualties.  Cash strapped cities, drug victims needing help, and over policed minorities are the unintended casualties of the war.

War involves weapons, force, killings, and enemies.  War involves an us vs. them approach.  This is hardly beneficial or effective because criminal elements tend to adapt.  As a result, policing adapts by escalating the “war.”  Since our ability to end all drug abuse or supply is unlikely, there seems to be no clear end in sight for the drug war.  Worse still, a chunk of the critical dollar is channeled toward prosecuting the drug war, as opposed to increasing drug education, treatment, and rehabilitation programs.

Historically, drug enforcement has tilted toward minority citizens, since the 1870s anti-opium war, which was largely a race-centric policy, specifically targeting Chinese immigrants.  The various drug law enforcement regimes have predominantly targeted minorities disproportionately for drug enforcement and felony sentencing.  The Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 was targeted at what was then referred to as the cocainized blacks (Sterling, 2001).  Likewise, the subsequent anti-marijuana policies around the same time in the West were directed at the immigrant communities of Mexican descent (2001).  As a result, minorities have been disproportionately targeted for drug enforcement and felony sentencing.  These policy proposals will seek to address these problems.

The First World War ended in 1914, and the Second war ended in 1945. War ultimately ends, and combatants eventually retreat. When will the drug war end?  One issue that this policy proposal will address is the way the drug problem is being approached.  Defining the mission as a “war on drugs” promotes violence between the law enforcement community, the peddlers, and the user community. What policy proposals might we put in place to address the circle of violence on America’s streets as a result of the war?  If there is a war going on, will a truce be apt?

This policy paper will recommend policy alternatives that will replace the old enforcement regimes with emphasis on treatment and decriminalization. The policies’ outcome will also be measured against their cost effectiveness or cost benefits.  Treatment and decriminalization as potential replacement policies will be analyzed.  A review of much of the issues associated with treatment and decriminalization will be discussed.  The problem will be defined, questions will be raised, and finally, various policy proposals will be made.


Key Terms: Definitions

Terms such as Drugs, War, and Minorities will surface in this Policy memo.  To avoid confusion, there is need to define them relative to this proposal since these terms and concepts sometimes have multiple connotations.   For example, since the term drug is interchangeable with medication (as in medicine), a distinction has to be made with regard to its usage in this policy memo.

Drugs.  For the purpose of this policy brief: “Illicit drugs are those that are illegal to make, sell, or use” (Mara et al, 2014).  Drugs refer to illicit drugs of abuse.  See Appendix for a breakdown of drugs according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

War.  For the purpose of this policy memo, war applies narrowly to: “Terrorism, coordinated riots, a high crime rate, brutal policing, or criminal predation” (MUELLER, 2009, p.299).  I define it as legal use of force or violence by the agents of the state against perceived criminal elements over a period of time (usually years).  For example, the war on drugs as lasted over 44 years since President Nixon launched it on June 17, 1971 (Drugwarfacts.org, 2007).

Minorities.  This policy brief views a minority as:  “A subordinate group whose members have significantly less control or power over their lives than members of a dominant or majority group” (Schaefer, 1979, p. 5-10).  In the United States, racial minority groups include Blacks, American Indian, Asian Americans, and Hawaiians.  Note: There is often systemic unequal treatment of these groups in the criminal justice system (Schaefer, 1979).


Theoretical framework and principles

  1. We must do away with ideologically driven drug policies. New drug policies must hinge on facts and evidence.  Policy makers must understand what works and what doesn’t?  Drug policy must be measured based on reduction of violence (harm reduction)—including law enforcement induced violence—treatment, and overall wellbeing of communities.
  2. Policies must de-emphasize labels by focusing on bringing drug users from the periphery of society into the core by ending marginalization and criminalization (i.e., decriminalization). This policy brief adopts the “patient not criminal” (i.e., treatment) approach.

Problem Definition

The United States spend more money as a percentage of its GDP on drug law enforcement in comparison with other enforcement:

Between 1981 and 2008, federal, state, and local governments are estimated to have spent at least $600 billion (adjusted for inflation) on drug interdiction and related law enforcement efforts; factoring in costs associated with treatment and rehabilitation, the overall total rises to around $800 billion.  If one were to also add in ‘invisible’ losses brought about by curtailed job opportunities and reduced workplace productivity, the true cost would be far higher.  (Chalk, 2011)

This policy brief will reveal that despite U.S.’s astronomical spending on the drug war, it has yielded little to no result in terms of reducing overall harm to society.  In fiscal year 2011, when Chalk conducted his study, U.S.’s national drug control budget (NDCB) was $24,365.4 (in billions).  By fiscal year 2015 drug enforcement costs ballooned to $26,336.7 (see Figure 1 for illustration).  In FY 2016, the President requested $27.6 billion to fund the “2015 National Drug Control Strategy (Strategy) effort to reduce drug use and its consequences in the United States” (Office of National Drug Control Policy [ONDCP], 2015)—an increase of $1.2 billion or 4.7% increase (2015).  The NDCB is also expected to increase beyond fiscal year 2016.


Figure 1: Drug Control Resources by Function; adapted from ONDCP, 2015.

Federal Drug Control Spending by Function

(Budget Authority in Millions of US Dollars. Source: ONDCP, February 2015)

Function FY 2014 Final FY 2015 Enacted FY 2016 Request
Treatment 9,481.8 10,267.8 10,960.5
Percent 36.9% 39.0% 39.8%
Prevention 1,316.9 1,306.2 1,381.9
Percent 5.1% 5.0% 5.0%
Domestic Law Enforcement 9,340.5 9,367.0 9,736.6
Percent 36.3% 35.6% 35.3%
Interdiction 3,948.5 3,805.0 3,880.3
Percent 15.3% 14.4% 14.1%
International 1,637.1 1,590.7 1,613.0
Percent 6.4% 6.0% 5.9%
Total $25,724.9 $26,336.7 $27,572.3


Clearly, based on the historical and future budgetary allocations and spending, the current policy of enforcement, incarceration, and prohibition has produced dismal success.  Common wisdom would suggest that drug control cost should be reducing yearly, but that has not been the case given the yearly budget increase.

Along with increased budgetary spending on the drug war, there is a social cost.  There has been an explosion in incarcerations as a result of the reliance on the law enforcement and prohibition model of drug control policy.  According to the report by Sabol et al (2007) of the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), the U.S. is the leading nation in terms of the number of people serving time behind bars for various offenses (2007).  The U.S. is the global leader when it comes to the number of individuals imprisoned for drug offenses.

In addition, the same BJS report noted that there are two million incarcerated Americans in the federal, state, and local correctional facilities (Sabol et al, 2007).  One quarter of those serving time, are doing so for various drug offences.  According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2015), approximately 6.8 million Americans suffer from drug addiction.  Drug addictions continue to drive the increase in the number of incarcerated Americans serving time for various drug offenses.  The law enforcement and incarceration model is unsustainable and unaffordable in the long run because it diverts dwindling resources from other government—i.e., federal, state, and local—programs into prosecuting the drug war.


Racial disparity in incarceration

The findings of racial disparities in incarceration due to drug related offenses threaten to unravel America’s criminal justice system.  A foremost democratic and multi-ethnic nation like America should exhibit equity in its criminal justice system or risk long-term social and political chaos.   According to Carson (2015), in a BJS report, out of the approximately 208,000 individuals serving sentences for various drug offenses in 2013: “67,800 were non-Latino/Hispanic white (32.6%), 79,900 were non-Latino/Hispanic black (38.4%), 39,900 were Hispanic (19.2%), and the remainder were unaccounted for or not specified in the report” (Carson, 2015).  These findings fly in the face of the knowledge that minority Blacks make up 13.2% of the U.S. population, Hispanics, 17.4%, and Whites, 62.1% (U.S. Census Bureau, 2015).  A federal household survey in 1998 found that Whites make up 72% of illicit drug users, Blacks 15%, and Latino 10%, but 37% of arrests are Blacks and 58% of drug convictions are Blacks; Latinos making up 21% (SAMHSA, 2013)

From the available data cited above, it is clear that:

  • The law enforcement model (i.e., the drug war) and prohibition is costly, ineffective, and socially and fiscally unsustainable.
  • There is a healthcare crises because of the over reliance on the law enforcement model as against the treatment model.
  • Minorities have been disproportionately targeted for drug enforcement and felony sentencing.



This policy analysis utilizes a multi-strategy approach.  That is, a combination of rational (cost benefit analysis) and non-rational approach (normative approach based on the principle of equity).  This memo utilizes cost-benefit analysis giving the new era of budgetary and fiscal constraints (i.e., post great recession climate).  There has to be judicial use of limited resources.  Alternative strategies (i.e., decriminalization and treatment) to the current regime of prohibition and incarceration will be considered based on cost to benefit ratio.

Yes, numbers speak but reason must also prevail.  Aside from the fiscal portion of the analysis, this proposal adopts a normative strategy by addressing the question of: What is and what ought to be?  What is the right thing to do in the face of the inability of numbers (dollar) to solve the problem?


Issue analysis

The discussion within the country over the issue of drug policy reform is divisive among policy analysts, law enforcements practitioners, and lawmakers—at all levels of government.  There are those who advocate for doubling down on the existing policy regime by arguing for the allocation of more funding for law enforcement (U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration, 2015).

Overwhelmingly, the advocacy for the doubling down of the status quo is from the political right and law enforcement intelligentsia (Freiburger, 2014).  One argument that pro prohibition and criminalization employ is the “Flouting Federal Law” (FFL) argument (Stimson, 2010).   Proponents of the FFL argue that:  “Supremacy Clause of the Constitution of the United States, the Controlled Substances Act, is the supreme law of the land and cannot be superseded by state laws that purport to contradict or abrogate its terms” (2010, p. 7).  As such, the current marijuana legalizations in the states are illegal (2010).

There is also the health risk argument for the continuation of the current drug policy.  Proponents of the health risk (HR) argument point to scientific finding that “marijuana use during the teen years can permanently lower a person’s IQ and interfere with other aspects of functioning and well-being” (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2014).  On the other hand, a report of the national survey on drug use (between 1975-2013) revealed no concrete evidence on the effect of drug use (i.e., Cannabis) on adolescents (Johnston et al, 2013, p. 401).  However, as more states decriminalizes (e.g., marijuana), it is expected that adolescents’ use will increase (2013).  By and large, proponents of the HR argument asserts that marijuana (i.e., poster child for pro legalization and decriminalization arguments) is “addictive and that its use significantly impairs bodily and mental functions” (Stimson, 2010).

In addition to the health risk argument, there is the crime escalation (CE) argument for retaining the current policies.  The proponents of the CE argument assert that: “Even where decriminalized, marijuana trafficking remains a source of violence, crime, and social disintegration” (Stimson, 2010).  This policy memo argues that behind the CE arguments lies the silent “broken window theory” (BWT).  BWT is the notion that societies can prevent big crimes by “checking” small crime (in this case, possession of marijuana).

This policy memo does not discuss the argument for change because that is essentially what this whole memo is all about.  However, there is clear evidence that public opinion is moving away from the status quo towards decriminalization, treatment, and regulation.  It is appropriate to say that the public appears ready to call a truce and bring an end to the drug war.  According to a Pew Research Center (PRC) survey:

67% of Americans say that the government should focus more on providing treatment for those who use illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine.  Just 26% think the government’s focus should be on prosecuting users of such hard drugs. (PEW Research Center, 2014).


Policy Alternatives and Proposed Solutions

Recently, the stasis in policies is starting to show signs of movement.  Since 2012 when Colorado passed the law legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, a wave of anti-prohibition initiatives has been proposed at the state level.  States across America have flirted or weigh policy alternatives to current policies but there are still no agreements on what courses of action to take.  This policy memorandum shall examine alternatives to the status quo (i.e., criminalization and incarceration).  As noted above, studies show that the current enforcement regime is ineffective.

As a result, alternatives must consider fiscal sustainability and harm reduction.   Harm reduction principle is based on the notion that society can reduce the damages that drugs cause individuals, family, and societies in general by emphasizing treatment over incarceration (Ciment, 2006, p. 579).  Basing alternatives on fiscal sustainability and the principle of “harm reduction” will ensure that facts and evidence, not ideology, drives policymaking.  The alternatives to the policy problems are decriminalization, regulation, and treatment over incarceration.


Alternative 1:  Decriminalization.

The law enforcement or criminal justice model to the country’s drug epidemic lacks efficacy in preventing drug abuse.  It is unsustainably costly and counterproductive.  Criminalizing (i.e., prohibition) is costly because it drives up the cost (both monetary and nonmonetary) of the drug.  High drug cost, in turn, means that more suppliers will enter into the drug economy (law of demand and supply).

One effect of criminalizing the drug problem is the never ending circle of violence. According to the findings by Jensen (2000), decriminalization:

Would decrease violence associated with attempts to control illicit markets and as resolutions to disputes between buyers and sellers.  Moreover, because the perception of violence associated with the drug market can lead people who are not directly involved to be prepared for violent self-defense, there could be additional reductions in peripheral settings when disputes arise. (p.33)

Stopping prohibition would improve the “violence-scape” of the American society.

Additionally, a research conducted by Miron and Waldock (2010) revealed that:

Legalizing drugs would save roughly $41.3 billion per year in government expenditure on enforcement of prohibition.  Of these savings, $25.7 billion would accrue to state and local governments, while $15.6 billion would accrue to the federal government. Approximately $8.7 billion of the savings would result from legalization of marijuana and $32.6 billion from legalization of other drugs. (p. 1)

No doubt, the fiscal situation of the government (federal, state, local) would improve considerably.  Better still, the savings could be deployed into drug treatment and counseling.


Alternative 2:  Regulation.

Aside from decriminalizing drugs, drugs should be regulated like other pharmaceutical drugs.  Regulation (i.e., targeted at usage, sale, and age restriction) will bring the market out of the underground economy into the open regulated market.  Drugs in the open regulated market will eliminate the need for violence.  Regulation would also normalize drug price and reduce potential profit margin (Insulza, 2013).

In addition, regulation will potentially reduce overall demand “because legal sellers face a stronger incentive to obey such regulation than underground sellers, who are already hiding their actions from authorities” (Miron & Waldock, 2010, p. 53).  The underlying assumption is “that the marginal costs of evading tax and regulatory costs is zero for black market suppliers who are already conducting their activities in secret” (p.53).

Another important impact of regulation is the potential tax revenue accruals from taxation, which is estimated to be:

$46.7 billion annually, assuming legal drugs were taxed at rates comparable to those on alcohol and tobacco.  Approximately $8.7 billion of this revenue would result from legalization of marijuana and $38.0 billion from legalization of other drugs. (Miron and Waldock, 2010, p. 53)

Regulation will greatly reduce the vices associated with illicit drug trade and increase government revenues.  The revenue accruals from regulation can channeled into treatment and prevention programs.

Alternative 3: Treatment.

Between January 1994 and December, 2000 the government of Switzerland conducted a study of 1969 drug dependent individuals on treatment, and the result was a resounding success.  The result concluded that:

Heroin-assisted treatment programs are cost-beneficial to Swiss society, since patients often show great improvements in medical and social variables, including criminality.  In other words, the financial benefits from less criminality, less health-care use, and improvements in social variables are higher than the costs of treatment. (Rehm et al., 2001, p. 1420)

An analysis of the Swiss findings revealed that for treatment participant, criminal infractions fell by 60 percent (2001).  For participants, incomes generated from illegal sources also dropped from 69 to 10 (2001).  Use of illicit/ illegal drug declined.  Participants of the study also showed an improvement in gainful employment (i.e., from 14% to 32%) (2001). Overall health improved and incidence of HIV infection declined among the controlled groups—i.e., those who stayed in treatment program (2001, p. 1418).  There were no deaths from overdoses, and no prescribed drugs were diverted to the black market.  A cost-benefit analysis of the program found a net economic benefit of $30 per patient per day, mostly because of reduced criminal justice and health care costs (2001).

According to the Justice Policy Institute (JPI), treatment is more cost effective than incarceration (JPI, 2008, p. 3).  The result of the policy brief by JPI showed that for every increase in funding (+14.6% between 1995-2005) for drug treatment there is a corresponding decline in violent crime by twofold (-31.5% between 1995-2005) (p.3).  For every +14.6% increased spending, there is a +37.4% increase in drug treatment admission rate (p.3).  Clearly, the cost advantage is in favor of treatment because +14.6% expenditure yields -31.5% and +37.4% in violent crime reduction and drug treatment admission rates respectively (p. 3).  By and large, community based drug treatment is comparatively more beneficial and cost effective than incarceration (Aos, et al, 2007).  For every dollar spent on drug treatment in the community is estimated to return $18.52 in benefits to society” (JPI, 2008, p. 16).


Evaluating the alternatives using the decision matrix (DM).  The evaluation was conducted using six criteria (narrowed down) that were determined to be more socially beneficial.  Weights were assigned to these criteria based on the importance of policy outcomes of the alternatives.  The alternatives were scored based on their effectiveness at achieving policy outcomes (i.e., meet criteria).  The scores were then multiplied by weights to determine ratings per alternative, which were tallied to determine total rating.  The alternative with the highest total rating will be recommended (or at least will top the list of recommendations).

Decision Matrix
Criteria Weight Alternative 1: Decriminalization Alternative 2: Regulation Alternative 3: Treatment
Reduce violent crimes 5 3 X 5= 15 5 X 5= 25 5 X 5= 25
Reduce drug abuse 1 1 X 1= 1 1 X 1= 1 5 X 1= 5
Overall harm reduction 5 1 X 5= 5 3 X 5= 15 5 X 5=25
Reduce overall cost 5 5 X 5= 25 5 X 5= 25 5 X 5= 25
Reduce incarceration 3 3 X 3= 9 3 X 3= 15 5 X 3= 15
Wage gain 3 1 X 3= 3 5 X 3= 15 3 X 3= 9
Total Rating 58 96 104


Score:  5= fully satisfy                     Weight: 5= High Importance            (Score X Weight= Rating)

3= substantially satisfy                     3=Medium Importance

1= partly satisfy                                  1= Low Importance

CBA Matrix of Most Desired Alternative vs. Status Quo. (Source of data: Justice Policy Institute)

Benefits Status quo: Incarceration Desired Alternative
Reduction in the cost of drug-related crimes -$4.00 to -$7.00
Violent crime rate (California) -11.2%
Costs Status quo: Incarceration Desired Alternative
Addiction treatment programs +$1.00
Incarceration per year (per person) $24,655.00
Number Treatment facilities (California) +25.9%


Strategic Recommendations

The data analysis conducted in this policy brief show a preponderance of evidence (qualitative and quantitative, see DM and CBA) suggesting that the government should adopt Alternative 3, Treatment as an alternative to incarceration for low level non-violent drug offenders.  Alternative 3, is most effective at a) reducing violent crimes, b) reducing drug abuse, c) reducing overall harm to society, d) reducing overall cost, e) reducing incarceration, and f) improving wage gain among drug users.  Therefore, I recommend alternative 3 (i.e., treatment) for this committee.

Alternative 2, Regulation, is second most effective alternative but it can only work if alternative 1, Decriminalization, is adopted because it will eliminate the underground—criminal—economy for drugs.  The market for illicit drugs can then be regulated and taxed like any other commodity.  Behind this idea is the notion that demand drives supply.  As such, as long as there is a demand for drugs, criminal elements will continue to occupy the supply chain.  The concomitant effects are—as has been—violent crimes and overall harm to society (e.g., HIV and Hep-C infections).  Regulation and decriminalization will reduce and eliminate the need for violence as a means for guaranteeing procurements and supply.  Better still, regulation would buoy the tax revenue of the government and ameliorate the fiscal dilemma that it faces.

Therefore, in the order of effectiveness, this policy brief recommends the following as the alternatives to the current law enforcement approach:

  • Regulation
  • Decriminalization

It is my opinion that if these recommendations are adopted and implemented, the overall wellbeing of the society will improve.  There will be a significant harm reduction as a result of the illicit drug problem.




Aos, S., Miller, M., & Drake, E. (2007). Evidence-Based Public Policy Options to Reduce Future Prison Construction, Criminal Justice Costs, and Crime Rates (Oct. 2006). Federal Sentencing Reporter, 19(4), 275-290. doi:10.1525/fsr.2007.19.4.275

Carson, A. E. (2015, September). Prisoners in 2014. Retrieved from

Click to access p14.pdf

Chalk, P. (2011). “The Latin American Drug Trade: Scope, Dimensions, Impact, and Response,” RAND Corporation for the United States Air Force (Santa Monica, CA: 2011), p. 47. Retrieved November 11, 2015, from http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2011/RAND_MG1076.pdf

Drug trend suggests dealers are targeting kids. (2008, November). Law Enforcement Product News, 19(6), 86. Retrieved from http://proxy.myunion.edu/login?url=http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA189287944&v=2.1&u=vol_m761j&it=r&p=PPCJ&sw=w&asid=97f82def41446e78acfd8be6b4d84d27

Drugwarfacts.org. (2007). Common Sense for Drug Policy. Retrieved from http://drugwarfacts.org/factbook.pdf

Freiburger, C. (2014, January 15). The Conservative Answer to the War on Drugs – Patriot Update. Retrieved from http://patriotupdate.com/conservative-answer-war-drugs/

Garrett, R. (2008, April). The slow burn over Byrne cuts: drug enforcers predict decreased Byrne funding will turn Operation Byrne Blitz into Operation Byrne Bust. Law Enforcement Technology, 35(4), 92+. Retrieved from http://proxy.myunion.edu/login?url=http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA178797481&v=2.1&u=vol_m761j&it=r&p=PPCJ&sw=w&asid=0983a942d56a2daab6e1ce4110b2be28

Harwood, H. J., Fountain, D., & Livermore, G. (1998). The economic costs of

alcohol and drug abuse in the United States, 1992. US Department of

Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Drug Abuse, Office of Science Policy and Communications.

Insulza, J. M. (2013). Retrieved from http://www.cicad.oas.org/Main/policy/informeDrogas2013/laEconomicaNarcotrafico_ENG.pdf

JENSEN, G. F. (2000). Prohibition, Alcohol, and Murder: Untangling Countervailing Mechanisms. Homicide Studies, 4(1), 18-36. doi:10.1177/1088767900004001002

Kleiman, M. A. R. (1998). Drugs and drug policy: The case for a slow fix.

Issues in Science and Technology, 15(1), 45-52. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/195912048?accountid=14436

Mara Tyler et al (2014, September 3). Illicit

Drug Addiction. Retrieved from


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consequences. The Western Political Quarterly, 45(1), 41. Retrieved

from http://search.proquest.com/docview/215322835?accountid=


MUELLER, J. (2009). War Has Almost Ceased to Exist: An Assessment. Retrieved from http://politicalscience.osu.edu/faculty/jmueller//THISPSQ.pdf

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014, March). A Letter to Parents | National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Retrieved from http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/marijuana-facts- parents-need-to-know/letter-to-parents

Office of National Drug Control Policy. (2015, February). National Drug Control Budget, FY 2016 Funding Highlights. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov///sites/default/files/ondcp/press-releases/ondcp_fy16_budget_highlights.pdf

Piana, L. D. (2005, Spring). He fought the law…and he won; david soares’ election as district attorney marks a turning tide against new york’s rockefeller drug laws. Colorlines, 8, 8. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/215530272?accountid=14436

Rehm, J. et al (2001). Feasibility, safety, and efficacy of injectable heroin prescription for refractory opioid addicts: a follow-up study. The Lancet, 358(9291), 1417-1420. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(01)06529-1

Ryan, K. F.. (1998). Clinging to Failure: The Rise and Continued Life of U. S. Drug Policy [Review of Drug War Politics: The Price of Denial; The Return of the Dangerous Classes: Drug Prohibition and Policy Politics]. Law & Society Review, 32(1), 221–242. http://doi.org/10.2307/827753

SAMHSA. (2013). Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings. Retrieved from http://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUHresultsPDFWHTML2013/Web/NSDUHresults2013.pdf

Sabol, Ph.D., W. J., Minton, T. D., & Harrison, P. M. (2007, June). Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2006. Retrieved from http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/pjim06.pdf

Schaefer, R. T. (1979). Racial and ethnic groups. Boston: Little, Brown.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). (2015, September 10). RESULTS FROM THE 2014 NATIONAL SURVEY ON DRUG USE AND HEALTH: DETAILED TABLES. Retrieved from http://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUH-DetTabs2014/NSDUH-DetTabs2014.pdf

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Poetry Collection

Moscow’s Rejected Margaritas


Before they found Margarita Nikolaevna, Koroviev and Azazello did most of the searching.


Behemoth did some searching too, but was distracted by altogether too many things to be of much use—

chess matches in the park

a pawn shop (with a set of excellent dueling pistols for sale)

a polka band, which he changed into flamingoes

a stray child


a very nervous poodle




Hella stayed home with Messire

(we think)

where she did embroidery

(we think).


One does not ask

what Messire does

when he is out of view.

(We are quite certain of this.)


Sixty-eight Margaritas had no royal blood, not even a drop,

not a smidgen, not a hint,

despite twenty-three of them thinking they did

with eighteen hoping for a restoration

two planning to leave for France

three being staunch Party members

and all of them terrified

that someone would find out.


Six Margaritas were under the age of twelve.


Three Margaritas took the appearance of

Azazello and Koroviev at their doors

to be proof

that their neighbors had been poisoning them

and that they had in fact become delirious

as a result of the toxins.

Neither man undertook to disabuse them

of this notion, although Koroviev did take a

glass of pear juice from one woman

and left the other two with oranges

and pocketknives.


Two Margaritas were being poisoned by their neighbors,

but were not hallucinating.

They were merely unpleasant

and agitated

and too ill to leave their beds.


In addition, one Margarita was in fact

poisoning her neighbor,

a cruel but celebrated man

who died instead of tripping over

a poodle (not the one Behemoth saw)

and breaking his neck.


Four somewhat elderly Margaritas

and one very young one

entertained thoughts of becoming nuns.

Perhaps they were delusional.

In any event,

they were ruled out as a matter

of suitability, although their spiritual states

did offer some amusing if entirely imaginary scenarios.


Eight Margaritas were already witches;

two were also literary critics;

none were appropriate

for various reasons


fear of heights

poor hygiene

an allergy to dust

and gout.


Seven Margaritas said that cats

made them sneeze,

although one,

a large, older lady,

cuddled him against her

voluptuous bosom—

in which he fit quite well,

given his own large stature—

for quite some time,

fed him cream and (definitely illegal) caviar,

and brushed his coat with her

own silver-backed (possibly fake)


Behemoth argued for her

but no one

listened to him.


One was a sculptor

whose eyes burned so intensely

Koroviev was certain she had already

met their master.


One was a ballerina

whose talent was so clearly

derived from diabolical sources

that she too

was passed over.


One was a Jew, living alone,

writing under an assumed name.

The searchers, feeling compassionate,

whisked her away to

an entirely different


for her own safety.


Four Margaritas brandished ancient-seeming ikons,

pulled out from beneath layers

of sweaters and cloth and memories

at them. Two more threatened them

with bronze heads of Lenin

and one drew, clattering it in the scabbard,

breaking bits of rust onto the polished floor,

a cavalry sabre

of a war

long past.


One Margarita called the demons her sons

and was so pleased that they’d come to visit.


One served them tea with jam

but could not speak—she’d lost

her tongue

and toes

and fingers

and husband

and daughters

to purges and pernicious cold.


Five Margaritas were ecstatic

and screamed yes

and yes and yes

and circled about the rooms

that they were never allowed to leave.


and four Margaritas simply,

perhaps wisely, perhaps foolishly,


no, for we do not believe in devils.



Lady, Maid, Invocation


I have raised up my arms to console her

and I have given her

all of the soap.


I have tried to sing her to sleep,

brought her draughts

of nightshade and herbs.


I have brought the doctor

who can do nothing at all

and I am afraid

when she walks.


The new moon holds the old moon

in its arms,

a sickle of light that gives her

her path.


I follow

as I must

where she wanders,

but her galled-up brains

are trapped

in a room

of her own

bloody decoration.


The chamber

her mind inhabits

is wet

and thick

with the dust of night,

with spoor

from the ride,

with the taste

of wool and iron.


In it she has

but one job

and easy one:

to leave behind

what should have been left behind



I leave behind

her room

where her bed has been empty

for weeks.

I leave behind

my own sleep

which she has unknowingly



I know

her secrets.

And I will borrow her

cloak and call

for the raven,

the wolf,

the sightless


to preserve my sanity

by bringing her end.

Come, you spirits!

Tend to me and this my charge,

this cruel and murdering woman.


Make steel my bones

and smoke of hers

that she will be

gusted away

over the parapets.


Come, you spirits!

I give you my purpose:

Take now this woman who

owes you, and return to me

my innocence. Let me be

the flower that knows not

the serpent.


Come, you spirits!

Claim her unnatural body,

and give me rest

for the nights and days to come.

Cleanse my conscience, and

let me wake to the

cold air in which she

as left this plane

as a single exhalation.


The queen, my lord, is dead.

My own tomorrow

is now again my own

and I shall sleep

not tempest-tossed

but charm-wound

with peace.


Highway Drone


Emptiness full of sky

and grass and long road,

heat lines, ocular tricks.

Sun glare and the radio

stream into hot air,

black plastic,

drowsy eyes and ears.

There must be cattle



coyote and armadillo

patrol the black top,

crossing and lazing,

tiny flyblown specks

by the vast retreating


Trends in Substance Abuse Treatment and Application for Sex Offender Treatment


Interest in sex offenders and their treatment has been the subject of study since 1886 (Schwartz & Cellini, 1995). Since then, many changes have been made in the treatment of sex offenders. Current treatment for sex offenders includes: cognitive behavioral therapy, relapse prevention, behavior modification, harm-reduction, and self-regulation. Specifics in the type and time-frames of treatment are based on the program or clinicians approach, risk level, and community support available (Bumby, 2006). While there are many treatment options available, it is difficult to determine the success rates of these treatment methods. One study determined that out of 130 previously conducted studies on sex offender treatment, only 25 of these studies met the minimum quality control guidelines established for scientifically reliable research (Brockett, 2012).

While sex offender treatment has been compared to other methods of treating mental health issues, there is limited research available comparing sex offender treatment to the “lifelong” treatment model utilized in treatment for substance abuse. Treatment experts have identified a combination of group psychotherapy and a twelve-step program as the “gold standard” in substance use treatment (Korshak & Delboy, 2013). Currently, twelve-step programs provide fellowship, resources, and support. This model was developed by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which originated in 1935. AA currently has two million members’ worldwide and 200,000 weekly meetings (Galanter, 2014).

According to the rational model, policy makers seek to gather and examine all relative data, and after analyzing all the alternatives, construct a plan.  This model is sometimes called “means-end” thinking, and is built on the premise that problems can be solved by examining and choosing the best method to reach a goal. Often the solution that is deemed the “best” is based on cost effectiveness and maximum total welfare (Stone, 2011).

On the surface, this model appears to be the most logical. However, humans are not rational decision makers. This phenomenon can be described as the “human problem”, which asserts that humans are never truly rational because of personal bias, emotions, and world views we are never able to make purely rational decisions (Clemons & McBeth, 2009). An example of policy making that is not considered “rational” are policies surrounding sex offenders and their treatment.

In an effort to construct a more rational approach to treating sex offenders, I will be comparing and contrasting the models of treatment used for sex offenders and substance users and offering alternatives to current treatment models used for sex offenders.


Policy Implications

There are currently 747,408 registered sex offenders in the United States (National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 2012). Since 1994, we have required that these offenders make their address, crime, photo, and physical description public record, and thus easily accessible to the general population.

The Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act of 1994 required that offenders of sex crimes against children be registered with law enforcement after release from confinement (Comartin, Kernsmith, & Miles, 2010). Subsequently, Megan’s Law of 1996 stipulated that this registry is made available to the public and included community notification policies. Other legislation, such as The Pam Lychner Sexual Offender Tracking and Identification Act (1996) and the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act (2006), increased registration periods for sex offenders and made community notification rules more stringent (Wagner, 2011). By invading the privacy of a sex offender, the general population feels safe. However, studies have shown that allowing public access to the sex offender registry discourages compliance with the registry (Murphy, Fedoroff, & Martineau, 2009).

The passage of these, and other pieces of legislation, has had a negative impact on registered sex offenders. Increasingly, research has shown that sex offenders have been plagued by problematic housing restrictions (Levenson & Cotter, 2005), harassment by the communities in which they live (Pogrebin, 2004), lack of accessibility to forms of public assistance (Travis, 2002), and employment (Wagner, 2011). Additionally, research has illustrated that perceptions and attitudes towards sex offenders are overwhelmingly negative (Olver & Barlow, 2010; Elbogen, Patry, & Scalora, 2003), with one study finding that participants thought it “acceptable” for sex offenders to be physically injured (Wagner, 2011, p. 267).

Some have suggested that the media has assisted in reinforcing myths and stereotypes about sex offenders by over-generalizing them as sexual predators (Katz-Schiavone, Levenson, & Ackerman, 2008). Morrison (2007) aptly summarized that much of the public thinks that registered sex offenders are “incurable, resistant to treatment, and all but certain to offend again” (p. 24). Perhaps not surprisingly, studies examining the public perceptions of sex offenders have found that stereotypes are often not congruent with accurate information related to this population (Church, Wakeman, Miller, Clements & Sun, 2008). In an ideal world, the media would portray objectivity, truth, balance, and accuracy. Unfortunately, there is little evidence to show that the media can live up to these expectations. Regardless of the apparent bias of the media, the general public continues to regard news stories as the “political watchdogs” or “guardians of the public interest” (Schnell, 2001, p. 186).

In the case of Jacob Wetterling and Megan Kanka, there was significant media attention which led to increased emotions surrounding these events. These news outlets play a vital role in drawing attention to political issues and deciding what is “news” and who is “newsworthy.” This attention is a powerful weapon in creating public interest in an issue and can be crucial in generating momentum behind policy issues. Altogether, “some scholars find that the media exert substantial influence in deciding what problems will be given attention and what problems will be ignored” (Oswald, 1994).

Media coverage is also an essential part of bringing the issues to the attention of policy makers. Some problems, no matter how large, are unable to generate enough attention, while other crises events generate enough focus and public support to be placed on the policy agenda. Robinson (1999) calls this phenomenon the “CNN effect”. The basis of the “CNN effect” is that news outlets and media can shape policy. Some argue that political elites influence the media to report stories in a way that is favorable to the political agenda. Alternatively, media reports weigh heavily on emotional response and this emotional response impacts voters and lobbyist (Robinson, 1999), and due to the irrational nature of humans, these emotions play a large part in irrational policymaking.

While the majority of citizens desire to be active political participants, studies show that the majority of the population is not consistent with political participation and is often uninformed. Additionally, even when individuals attempt to be more engaged in the democratic practices like attending political events, voting or researching legislation, they are often swayed by the media. The issue of sexual violence is clearly and easily understood by the general public, and requires no expertise on the subject. This issue is also one that is closely followed by the mass public and, like many political issues, is highly emotionally fueled and fear driven. Also, this issue has the potential to polarize interest groups, who play a dynamic role in effecting policy changes. These specialized groups attempt to influence policy changes in two major ways: insider strategies, and outsider strategies. Insider strategies appeal to our emotions by providing personal stories and expert testimony to influence legislation. Alternatively, outsider strategies attempt to enlarge the scope of conflict and political discourse. Often, this includes media coverage of the issue which may or may not be accurate and can be easily manipulated by the media outlets (Schnell, 2001).

To influence true change, it is vital for policy makers to strive towards a common goal, and work together to provide solutions to current issues. One of the ways to encourage alliances among policy makers is to merge disagreements into a more common goal (Stone, 2011). Reducing the prevalence of sexual violence is a goal I believe we can all agree on. However, the approach to achieving this goal is the subject of much debate. On one end of the spectrum is the punitive approach to managing this problem, and at the other end we have the treatment and preventative approach. While both methodologies have their merits, it is important to assess their individual feasibility.


Background of Sex Offender Treatment

Interest in sex offenders first peaked in 1886 with the release of Psychopathia Sexualis: eine Klinisch-Forensische Studie (Sexual Psychopathy: A Clinical-Forensic Study). This work by Richard von Krafft-Ebing proposed consideration of the mental state of sex criminals in legal judgments of their crimes. During its time, it became the leading textual authority on sexual pathology. Works by Krafft-Ebing depicted all sex offenders as pedophiles and demented strangers. After this work, Freud (1893) and Schrenck-Notzing (1895) published pioneer works in the area on sexual abnormalities (Schwartz, & Cellini, 1995).

In the 1930’s through the 1960’s, the view of sexually deviant behavior was thought to be a product of a mental disorder and that the offenders were too “sick” to be punished. As a result, the sexual psychopath laws were created as alternatives to the criminal justice system. Sex offenders were involuntarily committed to state hospitals for as long as the individual was deemed a threat to society. The purpose was to cure sex offenders in a shorter time than they would serve in prisons, and to protect society against the sex offender population (American Psychiatric Association, 1999).

In 1954, California’s Atascadero State Hospital became the leader in inpatient sex offender treatment, with the primary treatment method being assertion training. The thought that sexual offenders have difficulty relating appropriately to adults led to regression techniques which were believed to meet their sexual needs. This treatment was conducted by psychiatric technicians rather than professionally trained clinicians and did not have a consistent treatment philosophy or protocol.

In 1981, Theodore Frank was released from Atascadero State Hospital. Within three months of his release Fank kidnapped and murdered a two-year-old girl who was playing in her front yard. This crime unleashed a public outcry against the inpatient treatment model for sex offenders, state legislature quickly declared the inpatient treatment model a failure and repealed the sexual psychopath laws. The view that sexual deviance was connected to mental disorder was discredited, and by 1990, all but twelve states had repealed their sexual psychopath laws (California Coalition on Sexual Offending, 2009; Schwartz, & Cellini, 1995).

The 1990’s marked a turn in the management of sex offenders as treatment programs were transferred from hospitals to prisons. Washington became the first state to recognize sex offender treatment as a mental health profession and to begin the certification of sex offender treatment providers. The Association for the Behavioral Treatment of Sexual Abusers, now known as the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, was formed and became the national organization for sex offender treatment providers around the world (Schwartz, & Cellini, 1995).

Recently treatment for sex offenders has attempted to implement a more holistic approach. These methods utilize a multitude of approaches including; cognitive behavioral therapy, relapse prevention, behavior modification, harm-reduction, and self-regulation (Bumby, 2006).


Background of Addictions Treatment

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), approximately 8.2% of Americans meet the criteria for a substance use disorder (Bergman, Kelly, Nargiso, & McKowen, 2016).

One of the most prevalent approaches to treating substance use disorders is the Cognitive Behavioral Model. This model encourages mastery over one’s environment and internal experience by identifying triggers and how this influences their internal experiences and external reactions. This method also teaches assertiveness skills, identification, and avoidance of high-risk people, places and situations, with ways to examine positive and negative consequences of continued substance use. Using this model, therapists and clients work together using problem solving and communication skills to identify, construct and implement a treatment intervention plan (Bergman, Kelly, Nargiso, & McKowen, 2016).

An example of a behaviorally based intervention is AA’s 12-step program. This intervention encourages belief in a Higher Power, recognition of helplessness, the importance of sustained motivation with social support, and complete abstinence. These philosophies have been deeply rooted in substance use treatment in the US. However, the 12-step program has been subjected to criticism when compared to other evidence-based practices due to the reliance on internal rather than external motivators.

Opposite the behavioral model is the method of medically assisted treatment. This model attests that substance use is an illness that is largely outside of individual control and should be treated in the same manner as other medical illnesses.  The US Food and Drug Administration has approved several medications to facilitate medically assisted treatment starting with the approval of disulfiram in 1951. Other approved medications include methadone, acamprosate, naltrexone, and buprenorphine. However, medically assisted treatment does not indicate isolation from therapeutic treatment methods. Ideally, medically assisted treatment would be utilized in conjunction with other psychosocial treatments. However, due to its reliance on chemicals, the medically assisted treatment method could be seen as adversative to behavioral and abstinence-based models (Edmond, Aletraris, Paino, & Roman, 2015).

While abstinence is a large proponent of many substance use treatments, lifelong abstinence is not necessary. In one study of alcoholism recovery, it was discovered that three years of abstinence increased the likelihood of a stable recovery. Another study suggested that five years of abstinence from any substance should be standard practice and that after five years of abstinence the risk of relapse is no longer greater than that of the general population. While the precise duration of abstinence from any substance is still a topic of debate, it has been indicated as an essential part of the recovery process (DuPont, 2015).

In the past, there was a significant stigma attached to treatment for substance abusers. More recently this stigma has been reduced, and access to affordable treatment services has increased. Contributions to these changes can be partially attributed to the implementation of multiple health care reforms within the federal, state and private sectors. Examples of this are, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (Parity Act). These pieces of legislation require health insurers to cover, and health care organizations to provide, prevention, screening, brief interventions and treatment for substance use disorders. Due to the expansion provided by the ACA, an estimated 1.6 million Americans with substance use disorders have gained insurance coverage in Medicaid expansion states (Abraham, et al, 2017).

Together, the Affordable Care Act and the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act assure that care for substance users has the comparable type, range and duration of services as other medical conditions. Additionally, this legislation mandates that financial burden for patients seeking substance use treatment be comparable to patients seeking treatment for an equivalent physical illness.  Illnesses considered “comparable” to addiction are acquired, chronic illnesses. Equally important, this legislation has mandated accessible care delivery such as treatment available within mainstream health care settings including primary care (DuPont, 2015). Implementation of the ACA and its expansion to substance use disorders is still new, and as such, we are unable to determine how it has impacted long-term changes in substance use treatment.


Comparison of Treatment Models

Substance use treatment and sex offender treatment have similar backgrounds in that they both were previously addressed in a punitive manner. More recently, access to substance use treatment has been addressed, and these treatment options have become more affordable with the passage of the ACA. While there are medically assisted options for both substance use and sex offender treatment, this option is deemed more acceptable for substance use than for sex offender treatment. Both models utilize group treatment, however, in the case of sex offender treatment these groups are time limited and follow a strict curriculum. Groups for substance treatment utilize an “open-ended” model which allows for participants to be in different stages of recovery, this allows for better peer accountability. Another significant difference in sex offender and substance use treatment is that sex offender treatment is primarily provided in prison settings whereas community-based options for substance users are readily available.


Alternative Treatment Design

Bardach (2011), provides many definitions of “alternatives”, and the definition most appropriate for this paper is “alternative strategies of intervention to solve or mitigate the problem” (p. 16). For this paper, the identified problem is the prevalence of sex offenders and the possible shortcomings of current treatment. Attempts to mitigate this problem include examining possible alternatives to current treatment and designing approaches based on harm reduction.

Studies on the topic of treatment return conflicting reports. In one study, combined cognitive-behavioral treatment and relapse prevention was shown to reduce the recidivism rate by 40% (Losel & Schmucker, 2005). In a comparison study of treated and untreated sex offenders, 10% of the treated offenders were rearrested as compared to 17% of untreated sex offenders (Hanson, Gordon, Harris, Marques, Murphy, Quinsey, & Seto, 2002). However, another study found no difference in the arrest rates of treated sex offenders as opposed to untreated offenders (Marques, Wiederanders, Day, Nelson, & van Ommeren, 2005).

Notably, policy changes rarely take place by constructing a plan from scratch (Clemons, & McBeth, 2009). While there is no easy solution to the problem of sex offender treatment, we can use the positive pieces of current models of substance use and sex offender treatment to construct a more complete approach. A primary issue is the limited access to sex offender treatment. While treatment for substance abuse has recently been addressed as a health issue, sex offender treatment continues to be addressed from a punitive approach. To increase the success of treatment, it is imperative that we increase the accessibility to these services. One way of doing this is mandating that health insurance cover these services in the form of prevention, screening, brief interventions and treatment for sex offenders.

As an alternative to the current treatment model for sex offender treatment, I propose that more funding is allocated for researching alternative treatment models. Currently, data has not indicated that changes occur within these groups and research has not been done to compare this model with other types of treatment (Wakefield & Underwager, 1991).


Preliminary Implications

In this day of advanced knowledge and research, it seems alarming that there is such limited research on the effectiveness of treatment for sexual offenders, and that the research conducted yields such mixed results. However, current treatment programs were not developed as clinical trials with control groups and scientifically measurable outcomes. As a result, there are no specific standards used to measure success and failure rendering clinical trials nearly impossible to develop. Another limitation to the development of treatment models is the ability to determine success. One measure of success is relapse rates. While this measure works well for substance users it is more difficult for sexual offenders. For substance users, the ability to measure relapse can be as simple as a drug screen, however with sexual offenders you must rely on complete honesty from the participants. Other measure that is commonly used for sexual offenders is rearrests rates. While this measure can be useful at times, it is hard to determine how many sexual offenders may reoffend without being caught, which is further compounded by the number of sexual assaults that are never reported.



While substance use and sexual offending are community health problems that impact multiple individuals and families, there are stark differences in the approaches for treating these populations. On its surface, substance abuse may seem to be harmful to self, while sexual abuse is harm to others. However, this view does not account for the community, family and public health impacts of both these issues. There are many similarities and differences in treatment models for substance use and sexual offender treatment and the political influences impacting regulations for treating both populations. Currently, there are limited studies to illustrate proven success rates for sexual offender treatment, and this is an area that requires more extensive research and development. While there are apparent correlations for treating these two populations including cognitive behavioral therapy and group interventions, there are still significant differences in the accessibility and funding for treatment. To comprehensively address this issue, it is imperative that more attention and funding be allocated for research in this area.




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Successive approximations to the ideal force prescription

“Cop cams are inextricably tied to Taser, by far the dominant supplier, and the company will likely shape whatever the devices evolve into… Founded at one national moment of police angst, the company is using another such moment to transform from a manufacturer into a technology company. From a business perspective, body cameras are low-margin hunks of plastic designed to get police departments using the real moneymaker: Evidence.com, which provides the software and cloud services for managing all the footage the devices generate…”


—Karen Weise, “Will a Camera on Every Cop Make Everyone Safer? Taser Thinks So,” Bloomberg BusinessWeek, July 12, 2016


Variation I: The endocrine safety

The widespread adoption of body cameras was followed by a wave of high-profile indictments for police misconduct, generally considered a mark of their success—a success qualified, of course, by the only somewhat smaller wave of high-profile exonerations following the indictments. From that success and that qualification came the endocrine safety. This was a trigger lock yoked to an optical sensor monitoring the pituitary gland, which would allow the gun to fire only when the officer’s brain released adrenaline and cortisol in volumes indicating a genuine sense of danger to the self or others.

Venture capital drove the technology to the public eye; opinion-makers and legislators of the technocratic Left kept it there; and initial skepticism crumbled as lab and field evidence showed conclusively that the endocrine safety was, in fact, exquisitely sensitive to an officer’s perception of threat. Body cameras could be used to create like-for-like control simulations: After an officer had successfully fired a “pit-locked” weapon, she could be taken back through the same experience, from the body-camera footage, and directed to shoot in the simulation where she had shot in life. With the same sensory stimulus, but the absence of danger, the safety engaged every time.

There followed a string of satisfying prosecutions, a spate of drops in police violence correlated with regional adoption of the technology. “Neuroscience,” wrote the editors of Nature Neuroscience, “now promises to inform something like an ideal force prescription: If not a clear, then at least a less blurred delineation of the circumstances that justify violence.”

The endocrine safety could exculpate as well as implicate, of course. An officer able to fire a pit-locked weapon was, almost definitionally, acting in self-defense—even when hindsight would reveal that there was nothing to defend against. The issue came to a head as a Trenton grand jury declined to indict Troopers Michael Leblanc and Francisco Barraja, who together sent five dozen bullets from pit-locked sidearms through the flesh of Zora Farrow. Ms. Farrow had been stopped on the street, searched for drugs, and handcuffed, kneeling, to a bike rack while the officers called the stop in from their cruiser; an epileptic, she had begun seizing, and the officers had opened fire. Restrained and known to be unarmed, a dozen feet away, she had apparently kindled a terror in those two men that the endocrine safety and an army of expert witnesses pronounced utter and mortal.

Device error was investigated—prayed for—and ruled out. All evidence indicated that Leblanc and Barraja’s fear had been real.


Variation II: The aperture safety

The promise of what was then called “big data” enchanted weaponsmiths as much as it had everyone else. Local wealth and crime rates, the time of day and year, the trails of text and tissue and found light that everybody in a surveillance state left in its wake like footprints in new snow: How could such things fail to pertain to the decision to kill?

And they did not fail. The studies were clear on that: In situations where officers could be agreed, in hindsight, to have erred, statistical models trained on real-time situational information consistently recommended a better course of action. The open question concerned the interface. An algorithm could simply apply weights to the data, compare to a threshold, and decide; for a human officer, no such integration of computed factors and her own judgments could be done in the moment.

Or not consciously. But the machinery of perception, by this point, was in play; law enforcement worldwide was experimenting with improvements to sight, hearing, smell, with new senses for electromagnetism and radiation. Estimates of danger could be fed directly into the inferior temporal lobe, subtly shaping the officer’s visual experience to differentiate high- from low-threat targets. This was called the integration or, more stylishly, the aperture safety.

To support split-second decision-making, the safety tapped into the most entrenched visual archetypes of menace. Dangerous places became darker, closer, more jagged-edged; dangerous people became larger, more graceful, more brutish. Darker-skinned.

Machines are not the only things that learn. Officers from “bad” neighborhoods complained that they were unable to go back, even off duty, the safety disabled; the sense of lurking danger was too great. More saliently: By tightening the association between true threat and swift grace, large size, dark skin, the aperture safety made life more dangerous for non-threatening persons in possession of those features.

This danger was studied, quantified. Biological anthropologists projected that, within two generations, the average size of men in several distressed urban neighborhoods would decrease by several percentage points, their skin lighten by several shades. The ideal force prescription, it seemed, was a Darwinian influence.


Interlude: The peppered moth

From a contemporary vantage, looking back, such a claim is absurd on its face. No matter their bias, no matter their intentions—how could officers of the law kill enough people to exert a visible selection pressure in a population of any size?

The peppered moth, Biston betularia, comes in two colorations—typica, white peppered with black spots, andcarbonaria, all black. In 1811, carbonaria was unknown in England. As the nineteenth century progressed, the frequency of carbonariaincreased, until by 1895 its prevalence in the species was 98%. This is due to the interaction of two factors: The “differential bird predation hypothesis,” a compression of the intuitive idea that birds find it easier to find and eat black moths on white backgrounds and white moths on black backgrounds than the reverse; and the increasing frequency, as industrialization took hold in England, of finding light-colored trees whose bark had been darkened by soot.

From those data, J. B. S. Haldane estimated that carbonariahad a 50% fitness advantage relative to typica. What advantage would it take to enact a smaller shift, in fewer generations?

Do the math. That is how it was. That is how it had come to be.


Variation III. The empathy safety

The Dallas police department, lauded for its strong relationship with the community it served, collaborated with neuroscientists at the Max Planck to prototype what they termed an empathy safety: A tool that would scour and digest the target’s digital history, injecting relationships, hopes, accomplishments, and a life’s high and low moments directly into an officer’s brain in a split-millisecond dream before he or she could pull the trigger. Proponents reasoned that such a thunderbolt of familiarity would restrict the use of lethal force to the absolute height of necessity; opponents countered that it would cripple enforcement, clouding officers’ judgment with the emotions and contradictions of a relationship that was not even real. The fifteen officers who agreed to a live test of the device revealed a more complicated truth.

Although the empathy safety drastically reduced the test cohort’s use of violence, three of the fifteen did indeed freeze up on their first violent encounter, twice fatally. From the rest, one had to be dropped from the program after taking an intense interest in the family of one man he had spared—slipping extra cash to the almost-victim’s wife at her workplace, fund-raising for a motorized wheelchair for his disabled son, intervening with near-cataclysmic results in the admittedly disastrous love life of his daughter.

Two more were terminated from the force after it emerged that they were threatening innocent people expressly to gather their biographies. In one case, the officer used the information to convince the suspects’ associates that she was psychic, a conviction she used to sell tips on stock prices and the outcomes of sporting events. The other officer was discovered recombining and altering the lives he extracted into short stories, none of which he succeeded in selling.

The death blow to the empathy safety was struck by Nina Abousalem, an officer in the test program whose metrics had shown no change. She worked a dangerous beat in West Dallas, on the other side of the river from where the money was. Internal and external evaluators, both then and after her death, found that she drew her sidearm frequently but judiciously, and that her use of force on the job was essentially without flaw.

One spring morning, months after she had joined the test group, Abousalem’s three-year-old son, Ibrahim, refused to go to daycare. A neighbor of theirs, Hunter Strickland, described what followed:


I was on my way out to get the mail and I heard Ibrahim shouting, and Nina talking back at him. Nothing I hadn’t heard before—I think the whole street knew by then that Ibi didn’t always like to leave the house in the morning. But then I heard a different kind of scream. I looked to see what was going on, and I see Nina standing over Ibi in the driveway, talking at him while he holds his shoulder and screams his head off. He’s clearly in pain, and she’s just calmly flaying him—I only caught what she said when he stopped for breath, but stuff like, “If you hate school so much, why don’t you just drive to the station and do my job instead?” And then Yusuf comes out and asks what’s going on and Nina fires on him. She keeps her eyes on Ibi, doesn’t even look at Yusuf, just sort of points the gun in his general direction and pulls the trigger. He jumps, covers his head with his arms, then looks at her and starts to say something. And she says “Fuck off,” and points the gun at Ibi. At that point Yusuf ducks inside, to call the cops, I guess. But she don’t shoot Ibi, just motions him to the car with the gun and says “Get in the car.” And he does. But she don’t, she just pushes the buttons on the key fob that close the door. It don’t take long for the cops to get there, and as soon as she gets a clear line on a cop car, she opens right up —


Sgt. Felicia Garza, also outfitted with an empathy safety, fired the killing shot. On the stand, she claimed the safety had revealed to her, in an instant, what Yusef Abousalem had seen only in hindsight: That Nina Abousalem had withdrawn from her relationships, had grown cold and distant from even her closest friends and family. Photos and video with loved ones waned, then ceased; in disputes where Abousalem would normally have been a peacemaker, she was the first to the knives. “The safety didn’t teach her not to shoot people because she knew and loved them,” Garza testified. “It taught her to look past that knowledge, and that love, and shoot anyway.”

No experts confirmed the plausibility of Garza’s diagnosis. It didn’t matter much. Empathy was officially excluded from the ideal force prescription.


Coda: The failure of alternatives

At no point during this technological evolution, it should be said, did citizens cease to suggest the usual methods for reducing police-involved violence. There remained heartfelt calls to train police in de-escalation and nonlethal subdual, to draw new officers from the communities they would protect, to abandon broken-windows policing and the “warrior mindset” and using citations as an income stream. Some of these were tried, sometimes with seriousness; results or no, none were widely implemented.

A plausible guess at the reason nearly writes itself. As wealth concentrated around a smaller and smaller cadre of the fortunate, an increasing share of law enforcement budgets came from a decreasing population of constituents. That population was technically gifted and optimistic about technology; they had strong networks and platforms for influencing voters and decision-makers.

Very few of them had spoken to a police officer about anything other than a moving violation. Technology was something they trusted and understood. Police were not. But, as their fortunes mounted and the rest of the country stagnated, they needed the police to protect them from a majority with less and less to lose.

In these circumstances, a mandate to protect the golden goose was natural, if not inescapable. The increasingly violent tactics this mandate entailed were both a response to and an accelerant of a mounting conflagration of class rage, like using a fan to blow flames away.



In the decades and centuries that followed, a young man from the green country might venture among the black streets and their gutted palaces. If he returned, he might do so having been bestowed, by the native tribes, a weapon more and more likely, as time went on, to be called “blackwand” or “fire-thrower” or “killer-that-shouts.” And, rarely, such a weapon might be endowed with a special property that nearly demanded to be spoken of just before sleep, seated in a circle, around a fire—for example, the “just” weapon of Demetrius the Square-Dealer, which would fire only in defense of his person; or the “discerning” wand of Martin Sky-Eyes, which allowed him to see who was his friend and who his foe.

The wielders of such weapons often rose to prominence among their people as warlords or rangers, mercenaries or homesteaders. Yet their stories—or, in any case, those that were remembered and repeated—partook of a certain sameness. Martin Sky-Eyes was neither the first hero nor the last to kill a well-loved foe and die at his minions’ hands, when parlay (the storytellers assure us) would have saved them both; Demetrius the Square-Dealer was just one of a long line of heroes who had, drunk or new-awakened, mowed down loved ones in a moment’s mistaken terror. And as that long dark age trudged on, a story grew around the stories, to account for their sameness. The men who walk the black streets understand the treachery of magic, it went. There is a reason that they let their treasures go.