All About Adultery, BDSM, and Divorce

I recently came across a whole bunch of crazy historical trivia, involving the laws around adultery, BDSM, and divorce. Here are some of the quotes that made me gasp (mostly from Wikipedia):

On Adultery

As of 2019, adultery remains a criminal offense in 19 states, but prosecutions are rare. Although adultery laws are mostly found in the conservative states (especially Southern states), there are some notable exceptions such as New York, Idaho, Oklahoma, Michigan, and Wisconsin consider adultery a felony, while in the other states it is a misdemeanor.

Penalties vary from a $10 fine (Maryland) to four years in prison (Michigan). In South Carolina, the fine for adultery is up to $500 and/or imprisonment for no more than one year (South Carolina code 16-15-60), and South Carolina divorce laws deny alimony to the adulterous spouse.

In Florida adultery (“Living in open adultery”, Art 798.01) is illegal; while cohabitation of unmarried couples was decriminalized in 2016.

Under South Carolina law adultery involves either “the living together and carnal intercourse with each other” or, if those involved do not live together “habitual carnal intercourse with each other” which is more difficult to prove.

In Alabama “A person commits adultery when he engages in sexual intercourse with another person who is not his spouse and lives in cohabitation with that other person when he or that other person is married.”

In some Native American cultures, severe penalties could be imposed on an adulterous wife by her husband. In many instances she was made to endure a bodily mutilation which would, in the mind of the aggrieved husband, prevent her from ever being a temptation to other men again. Among the Aztecs, wives caught in adultery were occasionally impaled, although the more usual punishment was to be stoned to death.

The Code of Hammurabi, a well-preserved Babylonian law code of ancient Mesopotamia, dating back to about 1772 BC, provided drowning as punishment for adultery.

Amputation of the nose – rhinotomy – was a punishment for adultery among many civilizations, including ancient India, ancient Egypt, among Greeks and Romans, and in Byzantium and among the Arabs.

In England and its successor states, it has been high treason to engage in adultery with the King’s wife, his eldest son’s wife and his eldest unmarried daughter. The jurist Sir William Blackstone writes that “the plain intention of this law is to guard the Blood Royal from any suspicion of bastardy, whereby the succession to the Crown might be rendered dubious.”

Adultery was a serious issue when it came to succession to the crown. Philip IV of France had all three of his daughters-in-law imprisoned, two (Margaret of Burgundy and Blanche of Burgundy) on the grounds of adultery and the third (Joan of Burgundy) for being aware of their adulterous behaviour. The two brothers accused of being lovers of the king’s daughters-in-law were executed immediately after being arrested.

Until 2018, in Indian law, adultery was defined as sex between a man and a woman without the consent of the woman’s husband. The man was prosecutable and could be sentenced for up to five years (even if he himself was unmarried) whereas the married woman cannot be jailed.

In Southwest Asia, adultery has attracted severe sanctions, including death penalty. In some places, such as Saudi Arabia, the method of punishment for adultery is stoning to death. Proving adultery under Muslim law can be a very difficult task as it requires the accuser to produce four eyewitnesses to the act of sexual intercourse, each of whom should have a good reputation for truthfulness and honesty. The criminal standards do not apply in the application of social and family consequences of adultery, where the standards of proof are not as exacting.

Adultery is no longer a crime in any European country. Among the last Western European countries to repeal their laws were Italy (1969), Malta (1973), Luxembourg (1974), France (1975), Spain (1978), Portugal (1982), Greece (1983), Belgium (1987), Switzerland (1989), and Austria (1997).

In most Communist countries adultery was not a crime. Romania was an exception, where adultery was a crime until 2006, though the crime of adultery had a narrow definition, excluding situations where the other spouse encouraged the act or when the act happened at a time the couple was living separate and apart; and in practice prosecutions were extremely rare.

English common law defined the crime of seduction as a felony committed “when a male person induced an unmarried female of previously chaste character to engage in an act of sexual intercourse on a promise of marriage.” A father had the right to maintain an action for the seduction of his daughter (or the enticement of a son who left home), since this deprived him of services or earnings.

In more modern times, Frank Sinatra was charged in New Jersey in 1938 with seduction, having enticed a woman “of good repute to engage in sexual intercourse with him upon his promise of marriage. The charges were dropped when it was discovered that the woman was already married.”

Buddhist Pali texts narrate legends where the Buddha explains the karmic consequences of adultery. For example, states Robert Goldman, one such story is of Thera Soreyya. Buddha states in the Soreyya story that “men who commit adultery suffer hell for hundreds of thousands of years after rebirth, then are reborn a hundred successive times as women on earth, must earn merit by “utter devotion to their husbands” in these lives, before they can be reborn again as men to pursue a monastic life and liberation from samsara.

According to Muhammad, an unmarried person who commits adultery or fornication is punished by flogging 100 times; a married person will then be stoned to death. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found support for stoning as a punishment for adultery mostly in Arab countries; it was supported in Egypt (82% of respondents in favor of the punishment) and Jordan (70% in favor), as well as Pakistan (82% favor), whereas in Nigeria (56% in favor) and in Indonesia (42% in favor) opinion is more divided, perhaps due to diverging traditions and differing interpretations of Sharia.

The Roman Lex Julia, Lex Iulia de Adulteriis Coercendis (17 BC), punished adultery with banishment. The two guilty parties were sent to different islands (“dummodo in diversas insulas relegentur”), and part of their property was confiscated. Fathers were permitted to kill daughters and their partners in adultery. Husbands could kill the partners under certain circumstances and were required to divorce adulterous wives.

Durex’s Global Sex Survey found that worldwide 22% of people surveyed admitted to have had extramarital sex. In the United States Alfred Kinsey found in his studies that 50% of males and 26% of females had extramarital sex at least once during their lifetime. Depending on studies, it was estimated that 26–50% of men and 21–38% of women, or 22.7% of men and 11.6% of women, had extramarital sex. Other authors say that between 20% and 25% of Americans had sex with someone other than their spouse. Three 1990s studies in the United States, using nationally representative samples, have found that about 10–15% of women and 20–25% of men admitted to having engaged in extramarital sex.

The Standard Cross-Cultural Sample described the occurrence of extramarital sex by gender in over 50 pre-industrial cultures. The occurrence of extramarital sex by men is described as “universal” in 6 cultures, “moderate” in 29 cultures, “occasional” in 6 cultures, and “uncommon” in 10 cultures. The occurrence of extramarital sex by women is described as “universal” in 6 cultures, “moderate” in 23 cultures, “occasional” in 9 cultures, and “uncommon” in 15 cultures.

Traditionally, many cultures, particularly Latin American ones, had strong double standards regarding male and female adultery, with the latter being seen as a much more serious violation.

Adultery involving a married woman and a man other than her husband was considered a very serious crime. In 1707, English Lord Chief Justice John Holt stated that a man having sexual relations with another man’s wife was “the highest invasion of property” and claimed, in regard to the aggrieved husband, that “a man cannot receive a higher provocation” (in a case of murder or manslaughter).

The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert, Vol. 1 (1751), also equated adultery to theft writing that, “adultery is, after homicide, the most punishable of all crimes, because it is the most cruel of all thefts, and an outrage capable of inciting murders and the most deplorable excesses.”

On BDSM

The United States Federal law does not list a specific criminal determination for consensual BDSM acts. Some states specifically address the idea of “consent to BDSM acts” within their assault laws, such as the state of New Jersey, which defines “simple assault” to be “a disorderly persons offense unless committed in a fight or scuffle entered into by mutual consent, in which case it is a petty disorderly persons offense”.

Mutual combat, a term commonly used in United States courts, occurs when two individuals intentionally and consensually engage in a fair fight, while not hurting bystanders or damaging property. There is not an official law that forbids mutual combat in the United States. There have been numerous cases where this concept was successfully used in defense of the accused. In some cases, mutual combat may nevertheless result in killings.

Oregon Ballot Measure 9 was a ballot measure in the U.S. state of Oregon in 1992, concerning sadism, masochism, gay rights, pedophilia, and public education, that drew widespread national attention. It would have added the following text to the Oregon Constitution:

All governments in Oregon may not use their monies or properties to promote, encourage or facilitate homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism or masochism. All levels of government, including public education systems, must assist in setting a standard for Oregon’s youth which recognizes that these behaviors are abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse and they are to be discouraged and avoided.

Dildos or any object used for “the stimulation of human genital organs” cannot be made or sold in Alabama. The Anti-Obscenity Enforcement Act says that anyone caught with such tools could face a fine up to $20,000, a one-year jail sentence or 12-months doing hard labor.

Florida bans “lewd and lascivious behavior,” which is defined as a situation where “any man and woman, not being married to each other, lewdly and lasciviously associate and cohabit together.” The misdemeanor is punishable by a fine of up to $500. In Mississippi, an unmarried couple caught living together “whether in adultery or fornication” can face up to six months in jail and/or a $500 fine.

In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court deemed a Texas state law that banned the practice of anal and oral sex between same-sex couples as unconstitutional. Despite the ruling, a sizable list of states, including Texas, still have anti-sodomy laws on the books.

Louisiana’s “crime against nature” statute prohibits the “the unnatural carnal copulation by a human being with another of the same sex or opposite sex or with an animal.” The state legislature in April failed to pass a bill that would have repealed the law except for human-on-animal relations.

Other states that have some form of anti-sodomy laws include Kansas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Utah, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Virginia repealed its ban in March.

On Divorce

Today, every state plus the District of Columbia permits no-fault divorce, though requirements for obtaining a no-fault divorce vary. California was the first U.S. state to pass a no-fault divorce law. Its law was signed by Governor Ronald Reagan, a divorced and remarried former movie actor, and came into effect in 1970. New York was the last state to pass a no-fault divorce law; that law was passed in 2010.

Prior to the advent of no-fault divorce, a divorce was processed through the adversarial system as a civil action, meaning that a divorce could be obtained only through a showing of fault of one (and only one) of the parties in a marriage. This required that one spouse plead that the other had committed adultery, abandonment, felony, or other similarly culpable acts. However, the other spouse could plead a variety of defenses, like recrimination (essentially an accusation of “so did you”). A judge could find that the respondent had not committed the alleged act or the judge could accept the defense of recrimination and find both spouses at fault for the dysfunctional nature of their marriage. Either of these two findings was sufficient to defeat an action for divorce, which meant that the parties remained married.

Before no-fault divorce was available, spouses seeking divorce would often allege false grounds for divorce. Removing the incentive to perjure was one motivation for the no-fault movement.

In the States of Wisconsin, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Nebraska, Montana, Missouri, Minnesota, Michigan, Kentucky, Kansas, Iowa, Indiana, Hawaii, Florida, Colorado and California, a person seeking a divorce is not permitted to allege a fault-based ground (e.g. adultery, abandonment or cruelty).

In some states, requirements were even more stringent. For instance, under its original (1819) constitution, Alabama required not only the consent of a court of chancery for a divorce (and only “in cases provided for by law”), but equally that of two-thirds of both houses of the state legislature. This requirement was dropped in 1861, when the state adopted a new constitution at the outset of the American Civil War. The required vote in this case was even stricter than that required to overturn the governor’s veto in Alabama, which required only a simple majority of both houses of the General Assembly.

These requirements could be problematic if both spouses were at fault or if neither spouse had committed a legally culpable act but both spouses desired a divorce by mutual consent. Lawyers began to advise their clients on how to create legal fictions to bypass the statutory requirements. One method popular in New York was referred to as “collusive adultery”, in which both sides deliberately agreed that the wife would come home at a certain time and discover her husband committing adultery with a “mistress” obtained for the occasion. The wife would then falsely swear to a carefully tailored version of these facts in court (thereby committing perjury). The husband would admit a similar version of those facts. The judge would convict the husband of adultery, and the couple could be divorced. Specifically, they report that “states that adopted no-fault divorce experienced a decrease of 8 to 16 percent in wives’ suicide rates and a 30 percent decline in domestic violence.”

The Code of Hammurabi (1754 BC) declares that a man must provide sustenance to a woman who has borne him children, so that she can raise them:

If a man wish to separate from a woman who has borne him children, or from his wife who has borne him children: then he shall give that wife her dowry, and a part of the usufruct of field, garden, and property, so that she can rear her children. When she has brought up her children, a portion of all that is given to the children, equal as that of one son, shall be given to her. She may then marry the man of her heart.

In the 1970s, the United States Supreme Court ruled against gender bias in alimony awards and, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of alimony recipients who are male rose from 2.4% in 2001 to 3.6% in 2006. In states like Massachusetts and Louisiana, the salaries of new spouses may be used in determining the alimony paid to the previous partners.

Some of the possible factors that bear on the amount and duration of the support are:

Factor

Description

Length of the marriage or civil union

Generally, alimony lasts for a term or period. However, it will last longer if the marriage or civil union lasted longer. A marriage or civil union of over 10 years is often a candidate for permanent alimony.

Time separated while still married

In some U.S. states, separation is a triggering event, recognized as the end of the term of the marriage. Other U.S. states do not recognize separation or legal separation. In a state not recognizing separation, a 2-year marriage followed by an 8-year separation will generally be treated like a 10-year marriage.

Age of the parties at the time of the divorce

Generally, more youthful spouses are considered to be more able to ‘get on’ with their lives, and therefore thought to require shorter periods of support.

Relative income of the parties

In U.S. states that recognize a right of the spouses to live ‘according to the means to which they have become accustomed’, alimony attempts to adjust the incomes of the spouses so that they are able to approximate, as best possible, their prior lifestyle.

Future financial prospects of the parties

A spouse who is going to realize significant income in the future is likely to have to pay higher alimony than one who is not.

Health of the parties

Poor health goes towards need, and potentially an inability to support oneself. The courts are disinclined to leave one party indigent.

Fault in marital breakdown

In U.S. states where fault is recognized, fault can significantly affect alimony, increasing, reducing or even nullifying it. Many U.S. states are ‘no-fault‘ states, where one does not have to show fault to get divorced. No-fault divorce spares the spouses the acrimony of the ‘fault’ processes, and closes the eyes of the court to any and all improper spousal behavior. In Georgia, however, a person who has an affair that causes the divorce is not entitled to alimony.

Sapiens: How Shared Myths Change the World

I recently read Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens and loved it. In additional to fascinating and disturbing details about the evolutionary history of Homo sapiens and a wonderful account of human history, he has a really interesting way of talking about the cognitive abilities that make humans distinct from other species. I’ll dive right into this latter topic in this post.

Imagine two people in a prisoner’s dilemma. To try to make it relevant to our ancestral environment, let’s say that they are strangers running into one another, and each see that the other has some resources. There are four possible outcomes. First, they could both cooperate and team up to catch some food that neither would be able to get on their own, and then share the food. Second, they could both defect, attacking each other and both walking away badly injured. And third and fourth, one could cooperate while the other defects, corresponding to one of them stabbing the other in the back and taking their resources. (Let’s suppose that each of the two are currently holding resources of more value than they could obtain by teaming up and hunting.)

Now, the problem is that on standard accounts of rational decision making, the decision that maximizes expected reward for each individual is to defect. That’s bad! The best outcome for everybody is that the two team up and share the loot, and neither walks away injured!

You might just respond “Well, who cares about what our theory of rational decision making says? Humans aren’t rational.” We’ll come back to this in a bit. But for now I’ll say that the problem is not just that our theory of rationality says that we should defect. It’s that this line of reasoning implies that cooperating is an unstable strategy. Imagine a society fully populated with cooperators. Now suppose an individual appears with a mutation that causes them to defect. This defector outperforms the cooperators, because they get to keep stabbing people in the back and stealing their loot and never have to worry about anybody doing the same to them. The result is then that the “gene for defecting” (speaking very metaphorically at this point; the behavior doesn’t necessarily have to be transmitted genetically) spreads like a virus through the population, eventually transforming our society of cooperators to a society of defectors. And everybody’s worse off.

One the other hand, imagine a society full of defectors. What if a cooperator is born into this society? Well, they pretty much right away get stabbed in the back and die out. So a society of defectors stays a society of defectors, and a society of cooperators degenerates into a society of defectors. The technical way of speaking about this is to say that in prisoner’s dilemmas, cooperation is not a Nash equilibrium – a strategy that is stable against mutations when universally adopted. The only Nash equilibrium is universal defection.

Okay, so this is all bad news. We have good game theoretic reasons to expect society to degenerate into a bunch of people stabbing each other in the back. But mysteriously, the record of history has humans coming together to form larger and larger cooperative institutions. What Yuval Noah Harari and many others argue is that the distinctively human force that saves us from these game theoretic traps and creates civilizations is the power of shared myths.

For instance, suppose that the two strangers happened to share a belief in a powerful all-knowing God that punishes defectors in the afterlife and rewards cooperators. Think about how this shifts the reasoning. Now each person thinks “Even if I successfully defect and loot this other person’s resources, I still will have hell to pay in the afterlife. It’s just not worth it to risk incurring God’s wrath! I’ll cooperate.” And thus we get a cooperative equilibrium!

Still you might object “Okay, but what if an atheist is born into this society of God-fearing cooperative people? They’ll begin defecting and successfully spread through the population, right? And then so much for your cooperative equilibrium.”

The superbly powerful thing about these shared myths is the way in which they can restructure society around them. So for instance, it would make sense for a society with the cooperator-punishing God myth to develop social norms around punishing defectors. The mythical punishment becomes an actual real-world punishment by the myth’s adherents. And this is enough to tilt the game-theoretic balance even for atheists.

The point being: The spreading of a powerful shared myth can shift the game theoretic structure of the world, altering the landscape of possible social structures. What’s more, such myths can increase the overall fitness of a society. And we need not rely on group selection arguments here; the presence of the shared myth increases the fitness of every individual.

A deeper point is that the specific way in which the landscape is altered depends on the details of the shared myth. So if we contrast the God myth above to a God that punishes defectors but also punishes mortals who punish defectors, we lose the stability property that we sought. The suggestion being: different ideas alter the game theoretic balance of the world in different ways, and sometimes subtle differences can be hugely important.

Another take-away from this simple example is that shared myths can become embodied within us, both in our behavior and in our physiology. Thus we come back to the “humans aren’t rational” point: The cooperator equilibrium becomes more stable if the God myth somehow becomes hardwired into our brains. These ideas take hold of us and shape us in their image.

Let’s go further into this. In our sophisticated secular society, it’s not too controversial to refer to the belief in all-good and all-knowing gods as a myth. But Yuval Noah Harari goes further. To him, the concept of the shared myth goes much deeper than just our ideas about the supernatural. In fact, most of our native way of viewing the world consists of a network of shared myths and stories that we tell one another.

After all, the universe is just physics. We’re atoms bumping into one another. There are no particles of fairness or human rights, no quantum fields for human meaning or karmic debts. These are all shared myths. Economic systems consist of mostly shared stories that we tell each other, stories about how much a dollar bill is worth and what the stock price of Amazon is. None of these things are really out there in the world. They are in our brains, and they are there for an important reason: they open up the possibility for societal structures that would otherwise be completely impossible. Imagine having a global trade network without the shared myth of the value of money. Or a group of millions of humans living packed together in a city that didn’t all on some level believe in the myths of human value and respect.

Just think about this for a minute. Humans have this remarkable ability to radically change our way of interacting with one another and our environments by just changing the stories that we tell one another. We are able to do this because of two features of our brains. First, we are extraordinarily creative. We can come up with ideas like money and God and law and democracy and whole-heartedly believe in them, to the point that we are willing to sacrifice our lives for them. Second, we are able to communicate these ideas to one another. This allows the ideas to spread and become shared myths. And most remarkably, all of these ideas (capitalism and communism, democracy and fascism) are running on essentially the same hardware! In Harari’s words:

While the behaviour patterns of archaic humans remained fixed for tens of thousands of years, Sapiens could transform their social structures, the nature of their interpersonal relations, their economic activities and a host of other behaviours within a decade or two. Consider a resident of Berlin, born in 1900 and living to the ripe age of one hundred. She spent her childhood in the Hohenzollern Empire of Wilhelm II; her adult years in the Weimar Republic, the Nazi Third Reich and Communist East Germany; and she died a citizen of a democratic and reunited Germany. She had managed to be a part of five very different sociopolitical systems, though her DNA remained exactly the same.

Dialogue from Kafka On The Shore

It took another hour to find someone willing to take him as far as Fujigawa. The trucker was a beefy man in his mid-forties, with arms like logs and a jutting belly, who was hauling fresh fish in a refrigerated truck.

“I hope you don’t mind the fish smell,” the driver said.

“Fish are one of Nakata’s favorites,” Nakata replied.

The driver laughed. “You’re a strange one, aren’t you.”

“People tell me that sometimes.”

“I happen to like the strange ones,” the driver said. “People who look normal and live a normal life–they’re the ones you have to watch out for.”

“Is that so?”

“Believe me, that’s how it goes. In my opinion, anyway.”

“Nakata doesn’t have many opinions. Though I do like eel.”

“Well, that’s an opinion. That you like eel.”

“Eel is an opinion?”

“Sure, saying you like eel’s an opinion.”

Thus the two of them drove to Fujigawa. The driver said his name was Hagita.

“So, Mr. Nakata, what do you think about the way the world’s going?” he asked.

“I’m very sorry, I’m not bright, so I have no idea at all about that,” Nakata said.

“Having your own opinion and not being very bright are two different things.”

“But Mr. Hagita, not being very bright means you can’t think about things.”

“But you did say you like eel.”

“Yes, eel is one of Nakata’s favorites.”

“That’s a connection, see?”

“Um.”

“Do you like chicken and egg over rice?”

“Yes, that’s one of Nakata’s favorites too.”

“Well, there’s a connection there, too,” Hagita said. “You build up relationships like that one after another and before you know it you have meaning. The more connections, the deeper the meaning. Doesn’t matter if it’s eel, or rice bowls, or grilled fish, whatever. Get it?”

“No, I still don’t understand. Does food make connections between things?”

“Not just food. Streetcars, the emperor, whatever.”

“But I don’t ride streetcars.”

“That’s fine. Look–what I’m getting at is no matter who or what you’re dealing with, people build up meaning between themselves and the things around them. The important thing is whether this comes about naturally or not. Being bright has nothing to do with it. What matters is that you see things with your own eyes.”

“You’re very bright, Mr. Hagita.”

Hagita let out a loud laugh. “It isn’t a question of intelligence. I’m not all that bright, I just have my own way of thinking. That’s why people get disgusted with me. They accuse me of always bringing up things that are better left alone. If you try to use your head to think about things, people don’t want to have anything to do with you.”

“Nakata still doesn’t understand, but are you saying that there’s a link between liking eel and liking chicken and egg over rice?”

“You could put it that way, I suppose. There’s always going to be a connection between you, Mr. Nakata, and the things you deal with. Just like there’s a connection between eel and rice bowls. And as the web of these connections spreads out, a relationship between you, Mr. Nakata, and capitalists and the proletariat naturally develops.”

“Pro-le-what?”

“The proletariat,” Mr. Hagita said, taking his hands off the steering wheel and making a wide gesture. To Nakata they looked as massive as baseball gloves. “The people who work hard, who earn their bread through the sweat of their brow, those are the proletariat. On the other hand you’ve got your guys who sit on their duffs, not lifting a finger, giving orders to other people and getting a hundred times my salary. Those are your capitalists.”

“I don’t know about people who are capitalists. I’m poor, and I don’t know anybody great like that. The greatest person I know is the Governor of Tokyo. Is the Governor a capitalist?”

“Yeah, I suppose. Governors are more likely to be capitalists’ lapdogs, though.”

“The Governor is a dog?” Nakata remembered the huge black dog who took him to Johnnie Walker’s house, and that ominous figure and the Governor overlapped in his mind.

“The world’s swarming with those kind of dogs. Pawns of the capitalists.”

“Pawns?”

“Like paws, with an ‘n’.”

“Are there any capitalist cats?” Nakata asked.

Hagita burst out laughing. “Boy, you are different, Mr. Nakata! But I like your style. Capitalist cats! That’s a good one. A very unique opinion you have there.”

“Mr. Hagita?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m poor and received a sub city every month from the Governor. Was this the wrong thing to do?”

“How much do you get every month?”

Nakata told him the amount.

Hagita shook his head disgustedly. “Pretty damn hard to get by on so little.”

“That’s not true, because Nakata doesn’t use much money. Besides the sub city, I get money by helping people find their lost cats.”

“No kidding? A professional cat-finder?” Hagita said, impressed. “You’re an amazing guy, I have to say.”

“Actually, I’m able to talk with cats,” Nakata said. “I can understand what they say. That helps me locate the missing ones.”

Hagita nodded. “I wouldn’t put it past you.”

“But not long ago I found out I couldn’t talk with cats anymore. I wonder why.”

“Things change every day, Mr. Nakata. With each new dawn it’s not the same world as the day before. And you’re not the same person you were, either. You get what I’m saying?”

“Yes.”

“Connections change too. Who’s the capitalist, who’s the proletarian. Who’s on the right, who’s on the left. The information revolution, stock options, floating assets, occupational restructuring, multinational corporations–what’s good, what’s bad. Boundaries between things are disappearing all the time. Maybe that’s why you can’t speak to cats anymore.”

“The difference between right and left Nakata understands. This is right, and this is left. Correct?”

“You got it,” Hagita agreed. “That’s all you need to know.”

The last thing they did together was have a meal in a rest area restaurant. Hagita ordered two orders of eel, and when Nakata insisted on paying, to thank him for the ride, the driver shook his head emphatically.

“No way,” he said. “I’d never let you use the pittance they give you for a subsidy to feed me.”

“Much obliged, then. Thank you for such a treat,” Nakata said, happy to accept his kindness.

The North Korea problem isn’t solved

Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un just met and signed a deal committing North Korea to nuclear disarmament. Yay! Problem solved!

Except that there’s a long historical precedent of North Korea signing deals just like this one, only to immediately go back on them. Here’s a timeline for some relevant historical context.

1985: North Korea signs Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
1992: North Korea signs historic agreement to halt nuclear program! (#1)
1993: North Korea is found to be cheating on its commitments under the NPT
1994: In exchange for US assistance in production of proliferation-free nuclear power plants, North Korea signs historic agreement to halt nuclear program! (#2)
1998: North Korea is suspected of having an underground nuclear facility
1998: North Korea launches missile tests over Japan
1999: North Korea signs historic agreement to end missile tests, in exchange for a partial lifting of economic sanctions by the US.
2000: North Korea signs historic agreement to reunify Korea! Nobel Peace Prize is awarded
2002-2003: North Korea admits to having a secret nuclear weapons program, and withdraws from the NPT
2004: North Korea allows an unofficial US delegation to visit its nuclear facilities to display a working nuclear weapon
2005: In exchange for economic and energy assistance, North Korea signs historic agreement to halt nuclear program and denuclearize! (#3)
2006: North Korea fires seven ballistic missiles and conducts an underground nuclear test
2006: North Korea declares support for denuclearization of Korean peninsula
2006: North Korea again supports denuclearization of Korean peninsula
2007: In exchange for energy aid from the US, North Korea signs historic agreement to halt nuclear program! (#4)
2007: N&S Korea sign agreement on reunification
2009: North Korea issues a statement outlining a plan to weaponize newly separated plutonium
2010: North Korea threatens war with South Korea
2010: North Korea again announces commitment to denuclearize
2011: North Korea announces plan to halt nuclear and missile tests
2012: North Korea announces halt to nuclear program
2013: North Korea announces intentions to conduct more nuclear tests
2014: North Korea test fires 30 short-range rockets, as well as two medium missiles into the Sea of Japan
2015: North Korea offers to halt nuclear tests
2016: North Korea announces that it has detonated a hydrogen bomb
2016: North Korea again announces support for denuclearization
2017: North Korea conducts its sixth nuclear test
2018: Kim Jong Un announces that North Korea will mass produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles for deployment
2018: In exchange for the cancellation of US-South Korea military exercises, North Korea, once again, commits to “work toward complete denuclearization on the Korean peninsula”

Maybe this time is really, truly different. But our priors should be informed by history, and history tell us that it’s almost certainly not.

A shameful history

Perhaps there has been, at some point in history, some great power whose elevation was exempt from the violent exploitation of other human bodies. If there has been, I have yet to discover it. But this banality of violence can never excuse America, because America makes no claim to the banal. America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization. One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead moral error. I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard. This is difficult because there exists, all around us, an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not to inquire too much. And it is so easy to look away, to live with the fruits of our history and to ignore the great evil done in all of our names. But you and I have never truly had that luxury.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between The World And Me

I’ve had a bit of a revolution in my thinking recently. This revolution has consisted of becoming properly acquainted with the horror that is American history.

I am not the type of writer that can inspire emotion with the type of eloquence in the above quote. But it feels atrocious to me that the true nature of American history, which should be appreciated by every American, is not taught in schools, or is taught in a softened and white-washed form. I would like to share a few facts about the history of my country that I wish I had known earlier.

Legal Racism

Naturalization and whiteness

  • From the very beginning of our country’s history, Congress explicitly stated that only white immigrants could become citizens.
  • This stayed in place for over 100 years. In 1922 (Ozawa v. US), a Japanese-American man who had lived in the United States for 20 years was ruled ineligible for naturalization by the US Supreme Court.
  • From the decision: “In all of the naturalization acts from 1790 to 1906 the privilege of naturalization was confined to white persons.” This was used to conclude that Japanese could not be naturalized.
  • In both this case and a subsequent case (US v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 1923), the US Supreme Court specifically ruled that Japanese and Indian people do not count as white, and thus are racially ineligible for naturalized citizenship.
  • Bhagat Singh argued for his status as a white person by pointing to his Brahmin status. He argued that his people were originally the conquerers of the indigenous population of India, thus giving them an equal claim to whiteness.
  • Arguments from Bhagat Singh’s lawyers: Singh had a revulsion to marrying Indian women from the “lower races,” and had expressed a “disdain for inferiors” that characterized him as white.
    • “The high-caste Hindu regards the aboriginal Indian Mongoloid in the same manner as the American regards the Negro, speaking from a matrimonial standpoint.”
  • The court decided against the whiteness of high-caste Indians, because “while the invaders seem to have met with more success in the effort to preserve their racial purity, intermarriages did occur producing an intermingling of the two and destroying to a greater or less degree the purity of the “Aryan” blood.”
  • An irony: the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886 with the famous quote…

    “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

    … At this time, only whites had naturalization rights, and the Chinese Exclusion Act had restricted all Chinese immigration to the country four years before.

Oriental exclusion

  • The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, banning Chinese immigration for ten years.
  • In 1892 it was extended for another ten years, with the additions that that all Chinese residents must carry permits, that they could not serve as witnesses in court, and that they weren’t allowed bail.
  • In 1902, it was again renewed, this time with no ending date.
  • In 1913, California prohibited Chinese and Japanese immigrants from owning property. Other states followed suit.
  • In 1922, the Cable Act ruled that if an American woman married an Asian, she would lose her citizenship.
  • In 1924, the Oriental Exclusion Act prohibited most immigration from Asia, including foreign-born wives and children of American citizens of Chinese ancestry.
  • In 1929, the National Origins Formula completely barred Asian immigration.
  • In 1952, all federal anti-Asian exclusion laws are finally nullified by the Walter-McCarran Act, allowing for the naturalization of all Asians.

Interracial marriage

  • Laws banning interracial marriage (i.e. marriage between whites and non-whites) were enforced in many states up until 1967… a mere fifty years ago.
  • At least three constitutional amendments banning interracial marriage were introduced in Congress.
  • Quote from a speech given before Congress by a Georgian governor in 1912:
    • No brutality, no infamy, no degradation in all the years of southern slavery, possessed such villainous character and such atrocious qualities as the provision of the laws of Illinois, Massachusetts, and other states which allow the marriage of the negro, Jack Johnson, to a woman of Caucasian strain. [applause]. Gentleman, I offer this resolution … that the States of the Union may have an opportunity to ratify it. …

      Intermarriage between whites and blacks is repulsive and averse to every sentiment of pure American spirit. It is abhorrent and repugnant to the very principles of Saxon government. It is subversive of social peace. It is destructive of moral supremacy, and ultimately this slavery of white women to black beasts will bring this nation a conflict as fatal as ever reddened the soil of Virginia or crimsoned the mountain paths of Pennsylvania.

      … Let us uproot and exterminate now this debasing, ultra-demoralizing, un-American and inhuman leprosy.

  • Anti-miscegenation laws were deemed constitutional by the US Supreme Court in 1883. The argument was that both races were treated equally, “because whites and blacks were punished in equal measure for breaking the law against interracial marriage and interracial sex.”
  • Idaho banned interracial marriage and sex between black and white people in 1921, even though the state’s population was 99.8% non-black.
  • In 1967, the Supreme Court finally ruled these laws (that were enforced in 17 Southern states – all the former slave states) unconstitutional.
  • It took South Carolina until 1998 and Alabama until 2000 to actually remove the ban on interracial marriage from their Constitutions.
    • In the respective referendums, 38% of voters in South Carolina and 41% of voters in Alabama voted to keep the ban in place.

Racism now

  • A 2018 study found that Republican-appointed judges sentence blacks to 3 more months than similar non-blacks. This is 65% of the baseline racial sentence gap.
    • “These differences cannot be explained by other judge characteristics and grow substantially larger when judges are granted more discretion.”
  • A 2011 poll of Mississippi Republicans found that 46% think interracial marriage should be illegal, and 14 percent replied “not sure.”
  • A 2007 Gallup poll found that 17% of Americans explicitly disapprove of interracial marriage.
  • Black job applicants without criminal records have the same chance of getting hired as white applicants with criminal records.
  • If current trends continue, one of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime.

 

There is so much more, and I haven’t even touched the brutality of the branch of US law dedicated to stripping Native Americans of their homes and their lives. Taking into account this disturbing legacy of white supremacy, one wonders how a slogan like “Make America Great Again” could be anything but a dog-whistle for the type of bigotry and hatred that has always been our nation’s past. It also casts the notion of American pride in an ominous light. The only attitude I can summon up thinking about the realities of our country’s past is shame. Is “proud to be an American” a sentiment borne of ignorance, or something more sinister?

 

You must struggle to truly remember this past in all its nuance, error, and humanity. You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine…

Our triumphs can never compensate for this. Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point. Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about this world is meant to be. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between The World And Me