I seem to be talking about poison a lot.
Once upon a time…
There’s a fantasy board game I have that revolves around quests, and at one point I created a batch of cards to tell the story of quests as they occurred. One was The King’s Feast, an annual open dinner in the royal court for all who came, beggars, serfs, freemen, gentry and nobility. Locals and foreigners alike. For some it was an opportunity to dine with the king. For others, it was a chance to try food fit for aristocracy. And for some it was just a free meal.
There was a catch. One mouthful in one serving among all the foods, would be poisoned. Someone was doomed tonight. It could be a guest (likely, due to sheer odds) or one of the Royal household, or even the king himself. The toxin was a special magical drop, odorless, tasteless and without noticeable texture, and the hapless victim would simply not wake up the next morning. A gentle way to go, if one was looking to check out.
But it wasn’t the best way to commit suicide, as the King’s Feast served enough guests to run the odds very thin. The people of the local county regarded attendance as a duty to lord and land, and refusal to attend was interpreted as a malcontent act of protest. (And there certainly had been years when local guest count was conspicuously low.) Typically, though, there were enough guests that some would die anyway (say natural ailments or food allergies), and it wasn’t always clear which one was the honored sacrifice.
At the time I imagined this scenario (a typical strange-town-with-strange-customs encounter) what surprised me was how few players would dine at the King’s Feast, even when the risk was negligible.
And this reflects a problem with the poison candy analogy.
This time, it’s being applied to the Syrian refugees (who might be terrorists). In the past, I’ve also seen it applied to college boys (who might be rapey) and someone noted the same allegory was applied in a children’s book in the 1930s to Jews (who might corrupt the pure German people). The notion is that if you have a large bin of food (candy, peanuts, m&ms, mushrooms, whatever) but a small portion of it is toxic, would you eat from that supply? If not, why would you suffer a people some of whom are murderous?
The recent version was this:
If I had a bowl full of Skittles and I told you just three would kill you, would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.
Regarding this latest version of the allegory:
• It has been posted with the Trump / Pence campaign logo, but the photograph was used without the photographer’s permission, and as a repatriated refugee, the photographer objects to its use. Not enough to sue, probably, but enough to comment.
• Mike Huckabee expressed the same allegory for Syrian refugees, in this case suggesting a five pound bag of peanuts with a few (deadly) bad ones, though John Oliver observed that literal peanuts kill more people than Syrian refugees are convicted of terrorism.
• As a point of disclosure: I have a limited understanding of the Syrian refugee situation except to know there’s an awful lot of them, and they need homes and we vet the fuck out of them (despite the countless opinions that they are unscreened or not examined enough). Also, they seem to be about as dangerous as any other immigrant group we’ve welcomed (usually begrudgingly) into our borders, such as the Irish and Italians. I think we should accommodate as many as is feasible, given it is the humane thing to do and an American tradition from which we all have, in turn, benefited. Pay it forward. That new waves of immigrants tends to benefit US culture and the US economy is incidental.
Presumptions and Implications
• The Implication Of a Typical Serving: In the five pounds of peanuts case, John Oliver actually obtained five pounds and counted the individual nuts and noted that even then that implied a 1/100 chance of getting a bad peanut, in contrast to three arrested terrorists and zero successful terror attacks by 784,000 Syrian refuges admitted over fourteen years. That is to say in a two-ton bag of peanuts, we identified the three poison peanuts before anyone died. Trump’s bowl of Skittles would be 3.13 metric tons (Skittles are measured in metric) and about 500 liters (or half a cubic meter). And in this bowl we found three that might be bad before anyone ate them.
• You Can Just Say No.: Generally, the allegory is presented as an option of whether or not to snack. More recently, efforts to use this allegory have chosen processed snack foods which one generally eats in recreation. Even then, as the peanuts incident, above, suggests, they’re not always safe. (Mars chocolate has been known to occasionally test for dangerous levels of lead, what became a CSI plot point in Revenge Is Best Served Cold). But the allegory works better when taking into account that we have to eat something, and that common foods we eat are often contaminated.
Outside of the allegory, we have to at least deal with our locals, and our native population tends to have a higher crime rate than first-generation immigrants, no matter where they came from. John Oliver noted the one exception being the colonials who founded the United States who proceeded to commit countless atrocities against the native population (We still haven’t stopped.) Maybe it’s that all new waves of immigrants just make the rest of us look bad.
The #YesAllWomen campaign that used the M&M version of the allegory, the only implied solution was not to trust men enough to interact with them. A related sentiment by Louis CK notes that men are statistically the greatest threat to women, and yet our race depends on women being willing to court these ape-bear-lion monster things. As a generally social (and horny) species, the option to interact only with other women is not feasible, and while the US epidemic of violence against women (or sexual violence against anyone — a set with much crossover) is plenty valid and a big problem, the analogy doesn’t really help.
• Any Risk Is Bad: As implied in my King’s Feast observation, we are terrified more of things that are rare that kill massively or spectacularly or dramatically than we are of common things that kill us rarely or mundanely. The terror campaign on the US functions on this notion, that we’ll spend trillions fighting phantoms out of fear when we could be spending that same money making life better for everyone. It’s just less exciting to cure cancer and heart disease and improve the lives of our citizens than it is to create new ways to scan airline passengers and convince idiots to behave enough like terrorists to arrest them in a sting operation. There’s risk swimming or changing light-bulbs or crossing the street, each of which is a greater threat than the risk of terrorism, and that’s whether or not it comes from Syrian refugees.
Afterthought: Other Applications While accepting Syrian refugees into our nation is surprisingly safe, there are other situations that are way more dangerous to which the whole poisoned food thing would better apply. One of them would be the tendency for our large corporations to do large industrial projects half-assed, so that when they fail they result in massive disaster. Stonekettle Station explains it well better than I can. We have large companies who want to get at swanky minerals in the ground, or drill deep for oil, or shuttle oil from where it’s processed to where it can be distributed or whatever. The problem with a lot of these projects is that they are intrinsically dangerous. We end up with a lot of waste. The goop we like wrecks the environment when it escapes storage. The systems and structures have to retain perfect integrity for a long time, and if it fails there’s a mess too big to clean up and everyone but the big corporation is really sad. People die. Lives are ruined. Animals go extinct. Our world becomes a little bit less livable.
In these cases, the poison skittles are pretty darned common. And they’re huger than terror attacks. Mega-Skittles, like a nuclear Skittle or an infectious bio-Skittle. And the corporations themselves get to walk away rich while everyone else suffers from Skittle death. We remember bunches of these events: Piper Alpha, Chernobyl, Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Horizon… There’s a long, terrible list.
So when we have a bunch of Indians protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline project, they have good cause to expect a bad mega-Skittle and when Energy Transfer Partners negotiates by sending in mercs with dogs and pepper spray to attack the protestors and ETP bulldozes over a hundred miles of sacred lands prematurely, this suggests its officers may not be interested in taking care in good faith. More likely they’ll try to build the pipeline on the cheap to maximize short-term profits and Skittle-fuck the locals if it trashes their land.
Postscript: A last consideration
Regarding the Syrian refugees analogy, someone on Twitter recognized there is benefit to eating Skittles in that each Skittle eaten benefits a fellow human life saved and regarded and given a home. Hence there is actually a humane duty to eat the skittles and suffer the risk of terrorism even if it were high. John Oliver pointed out a ship of Jews arrived on US shores in 1939. We refused them sanctuary and while they found places to hide in Europe the German Jew-hunters annihilated about a quarter of them. That’s a thing we could have prevented.
That’s a thing we should prevent right now.