Allen Stanford was the victim of a beating and possible traumatic brain injury while in prison awaiting trial for a non-violent crime. He has been declared unfit to stand trial in the interim as a result of the beating.
There is so much to be ashamed about in this story, I’m not even sure where to start. How is it that someone who was being held without bail was housed in the same area with violent convicts? Why does our justice system rely on privately operated prisons? A man who could still be declared not guilty in a court of law has nonetheless borne the de facto punishment of the prison system. That is not right.
And even if he were a convict, it will still not be right. I think our society has to rethink our justice system and its reliance on incarceration. Prisons are rarely a healthy place for rehabilitation nor even a safe place for segregation from society. Violence is regular, and criminals rarely provide a positive influence for one another. Additionally, our society has many laws (with mandatory minimum sentences), so an embarrassingly high proportion of our population is locked up at any given time. Are prisons really the solution to the problem of crime?
I think America has some mixed feelings about violence which play out in our criminal justice system. I sometimes wonder why corporal punishment is not accepted when so many other forms of violence are. In spite of our wars abroad, our torture at Guantanamo, and police violence which is rarely repudiated, you wouldn’t guess that we would be squeamish about corporal punishment. Yet that is something which is not tolerated in modern criminal justice (except when prisoners inflict it upon each other), leaving incarceration as the prevalent form of punishment.
I am not advocating for corporal punishment, nor do I necessarily think I have better ideas for alternative punishments. I think prison violence needs to be stopped dead in its tracks, and I think a reformation of prisons (and the laws which put people in them), in conjunction with a reduction of their population, is the first step in the right direction. Our justice systems suffers from a crisis of legitimacy when punishments are dispensed ad hoc by the prison system itself.
Posted in society
Today the American culture celebrates the apex of consumerism. People have been camping out on strip-mall sidewalks for the privilege of purchasing consumer goods which will be obsolete by this time next year. I myself am feeling the tug of shiny gadgets. Large televisions, gaming consoles, computers, phones, etc. I like that kind of stuff. Luckily I realize that I don’t really use the shiny gadgets as much as in my imagination. Often I derive a great deal of pleasure in writing code on my tiny netbook. And who needs it, with a baby boy in the house?
I doubt any American needs to be told about the amazing levels of consumerism in our culture. I’d like to comment instead on how this consumerism has been tied to our national well-being. “Consumer confidence” is considered a crucial measure of the economy. In 2008 the Bush Administration and Democratic congress gave away free money to every tax-paying citizen in an attempt to “stimulate the economy.” The news media will breathlessly report the sales figures from this weekend in an attempt to determine if we are turning the corner on this recession. Black Friday is part of our national meta-narrative. If we can just come together and spend enough, we will all get through this.
And it is true, to an extent. Our economy is greatly based on the consumption of frivolous goods. It seems a foolish way to organize a society, yet here we are. Consumerism is patriotic and essential for national happiness, or so we are told. I wonder how well the shiny gadgets will serve us in times of real trouble (not just the meta-troubles of capitalism).
I am doing my best to not bow down to Mammon today. It is counter-cultural. And truth be told, I find it very difficult.
It feels almost embarrassingly cliche to mention that the Greek word from which our word “economy” is derived means “housekeeping.” I think that regardless of what “economy” means in today’s English, this etymology can be a helpful lens through which we examine our economic systems.
To state it in the form of a question: what’s an economy for? Very few would be so naive to answer “to make money,” but that is often what the purpose of today’s economy feels like to me. To be fair, personal wealth cannot be totally separated from the proper goals of an economy. But I think the pursuit of wealth should not ever come ahead of those goals.
To me, good housekeeping has to do with good food, clothing, shelter, strong families and neighborhoods, bodily health, good stewardship of resources, hospitality, amusement, etc. “Good” is of course the operative term there. A “good” house is not necessarily a big, new, or fancy house. I find it odd that we could achieve in good measure the goals of good housekeeping with a much smaller economy. I’m not sure what the significance of that is.
Posted in society
Slavoj Žižek gave a talk at Powell’s in Portland in 2008 wherein he addressed the ideology behind censorship. His basic point is that censorship does not really save the people from anything, because it is often clear what is being censored (e.g. an intimate scene in a film being replaced by a fade-out). Rather, he argues that there is some “other” which is actually being protected from seeing the vulgar material. It is a thought-provoking point.
I noticed this exact same phenomenon in how dirty language is bleeped and blurred from popular entertainment. Most times, given the context, it is obvious which bad word is being said, in spite of the sound being covered up. Sometimes the bleep leaves the beginning and ending sounds in tact, so that there can be no doubt what the offensive word is. And in some even more amazing cases, the word can actually be spelled (e.g. “foxtrot uniform charlie kilo”) and pass censorship. That is, only the very naive (i.e. nobody) are protected by such censorship. So why do the censors continue in bleeping, in spite of the fact that everyone still knows what was said? It is a totally futile exercise, and yet it is still carried out.
Posted in society
There is something slightly embarrassing for those readers of Wendell Berry who first discovered his work on the internet. I myself fit in to this category. It is a sure sign of being a Berry neophyte (note the agricultural metaphor), since someone who is initiated to his thought would know better than to approach his work through an electronic medium.
The reason for this is twofold. First, Berry himself has chosen not to use computers. He rejects the premise that computers increase the quality of writing. I believe that we can infer that his opinion of the internet and blogging would fare no better than the technology upon which they are based. There is something supremely ironic about reading about a man’s case against the computer on the internet.
A second reason can be derived from Berry’s thoughts on energy. Berry is a conservationist. He does not seem to mind, however, writing and purchasing works printed on the remains of trees. As an important conveyor of our culture (which he values quite highly), books are a worthy expenditure of natural resources. Another factor in favor of printed books as a medium is that they are durable. That is, one book, if cared for and shared liberally, might spread its value to many people over many years. I suspect that a calf-skin codex would be even better in Berry’s estimation, since it could even last 1,600 years and bless millions. The internet as a storage medium is quite the opposite of books with respect to energy. A Wendell Berry article is in no way durable when conveyed electronically. Information online is ephemeral. Rather than requiring a fixed amount of resources at production like a book, an online article requires electricity each time it is accessed, even if by the same individual. This electricity is typically generated in an unsustainable and polluting manner (both are anathema to Berry).
Therefore I must come to the uncomfortable conclusion that Berry himself might condemn the reading of his articles online. I would hazard to guess that he is blissfully ignorant, however. So this is my formulation of the Berry bloggers’ dilemma: to blog about Wendell Berry is to contradict his writings. Indeed, if I myself become a full-fledged adherent of Berry’s thought, I would have no choice but to quit blogging and disconnect from the internet entirely. The internet is a terrible example of an increasing volume of decreasingly useful information being disseminated to an increasingly large audience, all at the expense of non-renewable energy. So if I one day disappear completely from the internet, blame first Wendell Berry.