11 December 2010

a radical turn.

When I was in Utah, I got involved with protest culture. Utah's is distinctive; participatory democracy goes a long way in the state and many groups have successfully found ways to build awareness about their causes. It was exciting to find opportunities to express my beliefs in the public sphere, particularly as I became more aware of my own politics and values after leaving the Church.


I took a class called "Urban Crime" this semester. It was poorly titled; its focus extended well beyond the urban and I learned very little about crime. In fact, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what constitutes a real crime and what crimes are constructed by society for sake of maintaining order and reducing risk to the middle-class.  That I came to conclude there is such a distinction is evidence, perhaps, that the crime part wasn't necessarily a misnomer.


The emphasis of the course was on incarceration.  There are over 2 million people presently incarcerated in the United States right now; over 7 million people have been incarcerated.  Up until very recently, historians have done little to explore incarceration and the punitive process in the United States.  I read the works of sociologists, legal scholars, historians.  I found their arguments very persuasive.  


The penal system in America is, amongst developed nations, one of the most punitive in the world.  Our systems of lawmaking, policing, prosecution, sentencing, and warehousing prisoners rest on racialized assumptions.  The poor and the non-white are disproportionately punished.  Politicians use crimefighting for political currency. A culture of fear has been built up, granting government carte blanche to prevent risk. The humanity of criminals and their potential to reform is, in many states, off the table.  While there are those who do deserve to be in prison, it is taken for granted that every person in prison deserves to be there.  The impact of incarceration on communities, partners, children, families is not a part of how we, as a nation, think about crime.


I point this out-- and give you this summary of what I took from fifteen books and probably as many articles-- because I recognize that I have developed this habit of blowing up my Twitter feed when a story pertaining to criminality or incarceration hits me a certain way.  There are things I never noticed that are now everywhere.  I am at the beginning of an activist moment.  I will stake my career on it; I believe the system is that unjust.  So bear with me this raised consciousness.  




If you can get your hands on this month's Journal of American History, make sure you seek out this article. If not, check out the JAH Podcast. It will give you some insight into the import of this emerging field of study and the scholars influencing my thinking.

6 comments:

Michaele said...

I think appearance is important too. I have an aunt that worked in drug court in Utah and she noticed that good looking people were almost always treated better (more courteously) and got away with more. But if you think about it this has a lot to do with class too- people with more money can afford nicer clothes and cosmetics, etc. I don't know, just something else to think about, yet another way that our society reinforces standards of beauty.

portlandize.com said...

Something I've been thinking about as well, is that much of the country has been convinced that simply "following the rules" is equivalent to behaving responsibly. This is really dangerous, as then people cease to question what the rules are, and they are willing to rat out or go to some length to punish those who don't follow all the rules, because "irresponsible" behavior is harmful to society.

There is also, as Orwell talked about in his introduction to Animal Farm, a very heavy prevailing orthodoxy in society, which, while not having anything to do with law, coerces behavior simply though overwhelming indirect social pressure. Simply the feeling that "it won't do" to behave or speak in a certain way prevents free expression and opposition to certain things.

I haven't worked to compile individual proof, but it seems clear to me that there are a lot of forces at work in America trying to create a culture of fear here. People are making their decisions based on what maybe could possibly happen in extreme circumstances, rather than what you can look and see is the likely outcome based on all your experience. That is, maybe there is some small chance of being mugged while walking out in the city at night. However, people view it as a virtual certainty, just because it has happened to someone in the past. There may be some small risk of bashing your head while riding a bike, but people again treat it as an absolute certainty just because it has happened to someone before.

The litigiousness of our society plays a big part in this as well, because now everything comes with inflammatory warning labels to try to mitigate responsibility in the unlikely case of something going wrong with a product - Warning, your armchair may spontaneously fold up and eat you, and you will never be seen again! - Which just adds to the feeling that the world is intentionally out to get you.

The idea of the assumption that a person in jail deserves to be there also plays into war and prisoners of war. We laud our own prisoners of war, and mourn with their families while we torture and punish the prisoners we have taken from the other side, without any thought to the fact that they may only be "bad" because they come from the country we are at war with, and they have family at home mourning them in the same way we have families here mourning the prisoners the other side has taken. Seriously, how can there not be an uproar from families who have missing children, when they hear about us waterboarding other people's children? Because we have pumped them full of fear and anger and directed it towards "the bad guys".

I just continually get the feeling that the populace of America is deliberately being dumbed down and paralyzed so that it ceases to be able to think and act for itself.

portlandize.com said...

Something I've been thinking about as well, is that much of the country has been convinced that simply "following the rules" is equivalent to behaving responsibly. This is really dangerous, as then people cease to question what the rules are, and they are willing to rat out or go to some length to punish those who don't follow all the rules, because "irresponsible" behavior is harmful to society.

There is also, as Orwell talked about in his introduction to Animal Farm, a very heavy prevailing orthodoxy in society, which, while not having anything to do with law, coerces behavior simply though overwhelming indirect social pressure. Simply the feeling that "it won't do" to behave or speak in a certain way prevents free expression and opposition to certain things.

I haven't worked to compile individual proof, but it seems clear to me that there are a lot of forces at work in America trying to create a culture of fear here. People are making their decisions based on what maybe could possibly happen in extreme circumstances, rather than what you can look and see is the likely outcome based on all your experience. That is, maybe there is some small chance of being mugged while walking out in the city at night. However, people view it as a virtual certainty, just because it has happened to someone in the past. There may be some small risk of bashing your head while riding a bike, but people again treat it as an absolute certainty just because it has happened to someone before.

The litigiousness of our society plays a big part in this as well, because now everything comes with inflammatory warning labels to try to mitigate responsibility in the unlikely case of something going wrong with a product - Warning, your armchair may spontaneously fold up and eat you, and you will never be seen again! - Which just adds to the feeling that the world is intentionally out to get you.

The idea of the assumption that a person in jail deserves to be there also plays into war and prisoners of war. We laud our own prisoners of war, and mourn with their families while we torture and punish the prisoners we have taken from the other side, without any thought to the fact that they may only be "bad" because they come from the country we are at war with, and they have family at home mourning them in the same way we have families here mourning the prisoners the other side has taken. Seriously, how can there not be an uproar from families who have missing children, when they hear about us waterboarding other people's children? Because we have pumped them full of fear and anger and directed it towards "the bad guys".

I just continually get the feeling that the populace of America is deliberately being dumbed down and paralyzed so that it ceases to be able to think and act for itself.

portlandize.com said...

sorry about the duplicate comments, blogger was giving me some trouble and apparently posted the comment even though it said it didn't :)

Matt in Tacoma said...

Do it. Change the world. Tell us all about it.

Jenel said...

This sounds like it's right up the alley of what I'm working with on my dissertation. I'm curious what your fifteen books and articles were. Would you be willing to send the list my way?