Dialogs: The Law, Quantum Computing, and Sarajevo Fiction Highlight CHF’s Spring Lecture Series

Illinois is the first state to end book bans, and the Chicago Humanities Festival is the city’s premiere forum for promoting authors on the vanguard and their timely and riveting output. The Spring Series programs on Saturday, May 6, offered an array of speakers at Epiphany Center for the Arts, a former church that was recently converted into a 42,000 square foot arts venue at 201 S. Ashland Ave., across the street from the Mexican Consulate. There was a food truck outside the venue, and interesting bites inside the Chase House area, including delicious chicken and waffle appetizer bites.

Elie Mystal

Elie Mystal. Photo by Karin McKie.

The Nation’s justice correspondent Elie Mystal spoke about his 2022 bestseller Allow Me to Retort: A Black Guy’s Guide to the Constitution. Mystal is the Don King of legal pundits, sporting a glorious gray afro and a pugnacious legal mind. Moderator Brandi Collins-Dexter, former Color Of Change senior campaign director, associate director of The Technology and Social Change Project, and author of Black Skinhead: Reflection on Blackness and Our Political Future, asked Mystal why he wrote his book. He responded that he wished that he had this type of perspective when he attended Harvard Law School.

Both authors reflected on their prescience, as Collins-Dexter remembered writing about Kanye West before he publicly went white supremacist. Mystal recapped his origin story, first getting interested in the law via mock trials in high school. He met former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia at an event, and asked him if he thought Plessy v. Ferguson—1896’s landmark “separate but equal” segregation ruling—was wrong. Scalia snidely replied, “Is that what kids are being taught today?”

“My book is the answer to my own question,” Mystal said. He expertly and comedically talked about how the heirs of the arch-conservative white men who created the Constitution have now taken over and won even more immense political and social power than they were born with. The new paperback edition of Retort has added a chapter about the recent Dobbs decision to strip American women of bodily autonomy. Mystal has warned for years that the increasingly right-wing, siloed and corrupt Court would overturn Roe, mainly because “they tell you what they’re about to do.” He compared recent decisions that roll back the clock on many human rights to the Saw horror movie franchise: only if you’re willing to harm yourself do you deserve to live.

Mystal shared his explanation for Clarence Thomas’s ballooning corruption scandal. He cited examples of public figures who survived growing up under bigotry, but that “racism broke Thomas,” he said. The justice was angered by his confirmation hearing three decades ago, where co-worker Anita Hill credibly accused him of serial sexual harassment. He vowed revenge on liberals, and became a desperately tragic figure now owned by “Jim Crow, I mean, Harlan Crow,” Collins-Dexter Freudian-slipped.

Fixes to the current Supreme Court’s lack of ethics include adding more justices, Mystal said. While he believes in them, term limits are harder to enact, but it just takes an act of Congress to expand the court. He wants at least 20 to 30 justices on the highest bench, since “the blandness becomes the strength,” Mystal said. That way, Americans would have broader representation and less of “the vagaries of ham sandwiches and hunting trips.” He used California’s 9th Circuit Court as a good example, where there are 29 justices who randomly convene three-person panels to decide what goes to the top court.

Mystal is frustrated that he can easily predict rulings now, and notes that it’s harder to recuse from cases that judges might be involved with if there are only nine members. In addition, “without a diversity of education, there’s also the danger of groupthink,” he said. Ethnic diversity is also seriously lacking at present, with no Asian jurists and only one Latinx person.

Known for rightfully railing against constitutional originalism, Mystal shared examples about how America’s founding document is willfully and frequently misinterpreted and weaponized to justify cruelty. He’s incredulous that the death penalty still exists, tweeting last year that “my stance against the death penalty extends to people I’m pretty sure deserve to die.” He believes that Americans can get by with only the 1st (free speech) and 14th (equal protection) Amendments. “We shouldn’t have to live under the rules of our captors,” he said. “My ancestors from Mississippi weren’t originally allowed to participate in this democracy.”

Mystal discussed how eminent domain continues to disenfranchise communities of color, and mentioned how Chicago playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s family is currently seeking reparations for when their property was taken. He also explained how free Black people in New York created Seneca Village in 1825, which was stolen from them to create Central Park.

When asked what he had to be optimistic about, Mystal replied that “things are dark.” Ruth Bader Ginsburg should have retired and been replaced during the Obama administration. He doesn’t think Trump will ever go to jail. “How does one choose a jury for him during an election year,” he wondered. The GOP can’t win elections, but were never weak on the importance of stacking SCOTUS with corrupt judges. “Senator Mitch McConnell understood that,” he said. Qualified immunity allows police to maim and kill with impunity. Mystal argued against appointing the largely ineffective and reactive Merrick Garland as Biden’s Attorney General. When asked who he would appoint instead, he picked former Alabama Senator Doug Jones, who helped convict the KKK church bombers 40 years after four Black girls were murdered. Here’s hoping some of Mystal’s sage suggestions will be heeded.

Michio Kaku

Dr. Michio Kaku is like the Neil deGrasse Tyson of physics, who makes theoretical physics accessible, humorous and understandable. The animated, exuberant futurist and bestselling author is currently a CUNY professor and touring to support his latest, Quantum Supremacy: How the Quantum Supercomputer Revolution Will Change Everything. Kaku believes that Silicon Valley’s innovations have been flattening out, that the tech industry, located near his hometown of San Jose, California, will soon become a rust belt for chips, replaced by quantum computers.

He began his lively PowerPoint presentation in the packed Epiphany Hall sharing the discovery of the world’s oldest computer, a 2,000-year-old device found on a Mediterranean shipwreck in 1901. Kaku also talked about how British mathematician Alan Turing broke the Nazi’s Enigma machine to save countless lives in World War Two. All these technological advancements over the centuries culminate in Moore’s Law, which states that the number of transistors on computer chips doubles every two years. But not for much longer. Kaku said that atoms will be taking the place of transistors, that Mother Nature will show us how to replace the binary computing of zeroes and ones.

Quantum computers will eventually calculate like the natural world, both “simultaneously and instantly,” and will include multiverses where things can be two or more places at the same time. Currently, an absolute zero computer is being tested in Vienna, Google is updating semiconductors for quantum use, IBM is developing quantum bit, or “qubit” processors, and the Chinese are experimenting with light beams.

Different languages will not be a problem in this brave new world, as the computer will provide instant translation. Data will be stored in the cloud, accessible via a smart watch or connected contact lenses. Supersonic travel will return, without the troublesome sonic boom of the Concorde. “We’ll be able to fly from New York to Tokyo in three hours,” Kaku said.

He dropped lots of science, noting that 10% of all earth’s energy gets into fertilizer, and that 50% of human atoms are now created by fertilizer. Quantum computing might help with incurable aging diseases, since 50% of all humans likely will develop some form of Alzheimer’s. Kaku hopes that we’ll access infinite energy from sea water. He worries that all privacy encryption systems will be easily penetrated by quantum computers. He says that AI chatbots like ChatGPT are currently not self-aware, “the essence of consciousness,” and are more like a tape recorder than an entity. And he knows that Schrodinger’s Cat is alive in another universe.

Aleksander Hemon

Sasha Hemon. Photo by Karin McKie.

Bosnian-born former Chicago resident Aleksander “Sasha” Hemon is primarily a fiction writer, although his nonfiction pieces are also stunning, luminescent and poignant. He spoke with local Interview Show host Mark Bazer about his new book The World and All That It Holds, which chronicles the journey of a gay Jewish pharmacist named Rafael Pinto after Archduke Ferdinand is assassinated in 1914 Sarajevo.

“I’m in the business of imagining realities,” Hemon said. “And Pinto didn’t quite realize he was experiencing history.” Literature tells stories of those who are nameless, he added, and whose agency is constricted by world events. He feels these stories are crucial in this age of anti-intellectualism, and of increased migrants and refugees whose bodies are “exposed to history.” His characters move toward greater self-determination, learn the limits of love and how to think about more than survival, like in the other epic narratives of The Odyssey and the earlier Babylonian poem The Epic of Gilgamesh. “History is what happened; literature and poetry is what might have happened,” he said, another reference to a possible multiverse.

Hemon’s novels are not sprawling classics like the Bible, because “you don’t get converted by reading literature,” he said. It’s also not like selfies, because it’s not who we really are. “Language carries knowledge through centuries and millennia,” he added. He conducted a lot of research to write World, which led him down many tributaries about the progress, as well as the horrors, of the 20th century. Hemon quoted German philosopher Walter Benjamin, who said “every monument of civilization is a monument of barbarism,” yet said he tried to create a story of progress, akin to Chicago’s “Century of Progress” theme for the 1933 World’s Fair. He discussed his use of macaronic language, a satirical style that mixes the vernacular with Latinate endings.

Asked about his pandemic experience, Hemon said that he started producing music, a non-hierarchical expression in which to “imagine a future with dancing.” He wanted a bacchanal, a democratic, simultaneous community ecstatic. He pondered his place in the pantheon, concluding by saying “I’m like everyone else in that I’m unlike everyone else.”

Susan Wands

Later on May 6th, New York writer, actor and tarot reader Susan Wands talked about her novel Magician and Fool, Book One, Arcana Oracle Series in a non-CHF event in the metaphysical curiosity shop Sideshow Gallery at 2219 N. Western. The historical fiction book follows London-born empath, Jamaican feminist storyteller and artist Pamela “Pixie” Colman Smith, who works at the Lyceum Theatre during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Bram Stoker introduces her to the mysterious occult group Golden Dawn, who commission her to create a tarot deck. But she runs afoul of sinister member Aleister Crowley.

Photo courtesy Susan Wands.

Wands (her real last name) talked about her writing process, and how, through her love and practice of tarot reading, discovered the real-life Smith and wanted to tell the story of her uncommon female agency in the last century. Wands started with a play, then a TV script, and landed on telling the tale in a book, also inspired by Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey.

She explored Smith’s synesthesia (experiencing one sense through another, like seeing shapes when music is heard) and her other creative output as a costume designer for theater, and a poster designer for suffragettes, along with designing her 1909 tarot deck, a “wicked pack of cards” that T.S. Eliot references in The Waste Land. Her illustrated cards have had over 100 million printings, and her art has been displayed at museums across the world, including at the Tate, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian Folk Art Museum. She was the first woman to exhibit at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery. She illustrated Stoker’s last novel The Lair of the White Worm, and self-published her subscription arts journal The Green Sheaf with W.B. Yeats. She died penniless in Cornwall in 1951.

The Magician and Fool audiobook is read by Wands’ husband, award-winning narrator and actor Robert Petkoff, along with January Lavoy. The second book in the series, High Priestess and Empress, is slated to be published in 2024. Wands has also petitioned to secure a heritage plaque for Smith at her London birthplace.

Tickets are still available for these upcoming CHF events:

An Evening with Gigi Gorgeous and Gottmik on 5/21.

Pulitzer Prize Finalist Elif Batuman on 5/23.

Joan of Arc Band Accompanies 1928 Joan of Arc Film on 5/30.

Oscar-Winning Black Panther Costumer Ruth Carter on 6/11.

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Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.