Strike A Blow
There is really no point in being all that concerned with the plight of Brendan Dassey and Steven Avery without taking an interest in the larger of issue of criminal justice reform within the United States. What victory would it be, after all, if they are exonerated, if we know that the corruption which resulted in their wrongful convictions remains unchanged or even continues to grow steadily worse as it has done?
One good thing has come of the fact that we Americans have elected a bonafide clown: we have exposed to the rest of the world how insane we’ve become, and the poverty of our thinking. To anyone even casually observant, great rifts in American society have been laid bare, and should be clear to see in a way they weren’t before. Now, there is no more hiding what we are, or what we’re capable of, so now the rest of the world can take warning since they should now be much more aware of what they’re dealing with.
Donald Trump is a living symbol of all which is ignorant and backward. He doesn’t even try to hide this. His clarion call, “Make America Great Again”, is a call to march back to some idealized time in the place (he doesn’t say which time though). The trope is by now so familiar that the idiots who voted for Trump cannot at some future date declare that they didn’t know any better.
It’s just that the prejudice and ignorance of the typical Trum voter is so great that they are willing to overlook the shortcomings of the man himself.
Who votes for a man like Donald Trump? Inevitably, those whose way of thinking is threatened in an increasingly secular world. The True Believers. And it those who proclaim their love of God the loudest have been the most eager, in this case, to make a deal with the devil. It should come as no surprise that Trump’s presidency was most wholeheartedly supported by American evangelicals. I grew up in this faith, and I know it well.
The American political landscape, as it stands right now, is overwhelmingly Republican. This holds not just on the national level where federal politics play the most significant role, but on both the state, county and city level as well. And if you had to pick one system of belief at the center of it all, it would be evangelical Christianity. In a sense, we could even say that it is this which controls the world given America’s overwhelming dominance..
Dominance is really money, and so it’s easy to quantify as GDP (Gross Domestic Product). GDP is a measure of all economic activity for a given country within a given year, and it establishes the pecking order of nations. American GDP for 2016 was $18.5 trillion. Chinese GDP was only $11.5 trillion. But America is much, much, much wealthier country than China because there are billion more people who live in China as compared to America. To imagine America living on what the Chinese manage, it would be necessary to picture an influx of 1 billion immigrants into the United States, and it would then be necessary to imagine everyone living on about thirty percent less. Put another way, every American has, on average, four times the buying power that the average Chinese person has.
It is difficult to overstate how dominant the United States is economically, and it is only by doing a little simple economic comparison (that few people ever bother to do) does it ever become apparent. But for all of this wealth, what is the American evangelical mindset?
Obviously, American evangelicals love prison and jail. American evangelicals also profess an abiding love for the Constitution, and many even think it was a divinely inspired work despite that it was drafted so long ago by white, wealthy, men, many of them slave owners. The evangelical does not want the Constitution to change. The evangelical believes neither in global warming nor in Darwin’s theory of evolution. Evangelicals do believe that Jesus is coming back soon in something called “the rapture”, an epochal event in which the righteous true believers on earth will ascend into heaven when Jesus returns. According to their interpretation of scripture, the earth will be restored to a magnificent state of original glory, and the lion will lie down beside the lamb. At some point, at least two thirds of the remaining four billion heretics will be slaughtered either by their own internal outbreaks of internecine warfare, or during the battle of Armageddon.
Those who are unfamiliar with the American evangelical mindset may be tempted to laugh, or to not take any of this very seriously, but that would be a grave error. There are millions, if not tens or even hundreds of millions of Americans who believe this very doctrine as I’ve just described, and the reason it is so insidious is because the belief system can cause a tremendous amount of damage without ever being directly implicated.
Let me illustrate. To the extent that an evangelical believes in any such thing as environmental degradation caused by something like global warming, he welcomes it. Why? The more the earth moves toward the brink of ecological collapse, the more the evangelical is likely to view this as a fulfillment of God’s prophecy that in the End Times, the earth will be destroyed. The evangelical mindset holds that the earth was created for the sole use and enjoyment of man. It is even so in the evangelical mindset that the very notion that it would even be possible to destroy God’s creation is to be considered heretical. Mere, puny man able to destroy something God created? Blasphemy!
The evangelical mind believes that suffering is ordained as it poverty and capital punishment. Women should be subordinate to men, and should not be allowed to have abortions. Right now there are two sides at war over the soul of America, and the side that is winning is the one with the religious, evangelical mindset.
The evangelical mindset does not accept or recognize the worth or the dignity of individual who is to be regarded as a sinner. It only recognizes the partial redemption of those who are “saved”, those, in other words, who have accepted Jesus Christ into their heart as their personal Lord and Savior.
The great tragedy of American life is that the only way to get away from this poison, if you have a desire to even do so, is to move up the educational and social ladder where the further you go, the less often you run into inane religiosity. But this is a big problem for people who lack this mobility because the way American society is stratified and structured, the social and cultural influence of evangelicals cannot be easily escaped without paying a heavy penalty. In America, if you call yourself an atheist, you will be imposing upon yourself a de facto isolation. All the members of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Presidency have to pay lip service to the religious test of not being an atheist. If they do not pass this test, they are not electable. For poorer people, it means you will lose friends (assuming you’re ever able to make any in the first place) and your family, if they’re religious, will shun you. You also will not have access church as a social outlet, and this is significant because there is nothing in America social life as important as this institution for the vast underclass.
I would also make the point that the American intellectual class is estranged from the great American underclass for the most part. An American intellectual, invariably a liberal (though there is an occasional exception), is someone who is typically socioeconomically remote from the underclass. Members of this intellectual elite study the poor, and chat among themselves about the struggles they face, and even sometimes draft well-meaning policies which affect the lives of the poor, but you won’t see them hanging out together very much. Because disparities in wealth have made social mobility difficult for the underclass, fewer and fewer among those in the ranks of academia have had the experience of being poor. The reason that this is a problem is because these two groups share little in common. The language, the dress, and the manners are particular to each. Ultimately, this means that intellectuals, no matter how sound their ideas and theories, are not heard by the increasingly religious, and therefore ignorant American underclass.
The Great American Prison Program serves its function in American life as an organ among a collection of organs. Its function is critical, discrete, but also interdependent. For one thing, it suppresses the impulse to revolt even while it creates that very impulse. Once you are branded a “criminal” no grievance that you have, no matter its merits will be heard in any quarter of either liberal or conservative American society.
Observers increasingly express mystification over the intransigence of The Great American Prison Program. Hardly a month goes by without a new book, backed up by crack research, that purports to explain why this is. The ones I’ve read never seem to ask where effective opposition would ever come from in the first place. The ones who are already in prison or who have had that experience are whipped. Where are they going to find a voice? Who in normal society is ever going to listen to the rapist, the thief, or the murder demand better treatment?
Intellectuals hardly seem to realize that experience of prison creates an effective moral hierarchy among what remains of the middle class. Middle class society in America is not organized as it is according to any unifying ideology such as the labor struggles of the past might have organized it, albeit loosely, so it hardly matters to one member if next has been ravaged by the depredations of our so-called justice system.
If you’re poor and middle class and by some miracle have avoided being touched by the carceral state you will also not be an effective advocate. The wayward in your ranks have harmed others, and, having gone to prison, require scarce resources for their maintenance? Imagine the resentment of those left behind who choose to obey the law. When you’re poor, it’s already your tendency to see things on a very local, as opposed to global level. You will probably see your circumstances as the result of a series of choices as opposed to ensnarement in a perverse, generational cycle. In any case, you have performed the hard work of avoiding temptation, staying “clean”, and you can now therefore enjoy a feeling of morally superior entitlement. You know that the foolish decisions of others in your class have resulted in a bad outcome, so you are likely therefore to pride yourself on you wise decisions. The idea that you would find common cause among What pompous ass would dare deprive someone of this hard won identity? Who wants to receive the message that they belong to a class from which there is virtually no escape, and one, moreover, which is at the complete whim and mercy of another bent on its exploitation? Maddeningly enough, as soon as you were able to see yourself as a member of such a class you would no longer be a part of it because it would mean that you would have a different perspective, and what, but elevation, affords perspective?
The Great American Prison Program is very different from even the racial divisions of the pre civil rights era American South where all blacks were under a blanket of exclusion. All had to sit in the back of the bus. All had to go to their own schools, and drink from their own drinking fountains. And it because they were all included in these exclusions that they all felt aggrieved together.
Plus, race, in the mind of the individual belonging to the group that is discriminated against is never sufficiently internalized as a legitimate cause for exclusion. Some ignorant white people might have believed that a person was bad just because of the color of their skin, but no black person ever felt that way about another black person for this reason. It’s frankly difficult to imagine how this wouldn’t feel silly and stupid even among those who claim to be racist.
Yet, 99% of all prisoners might be black, and 99% of them will feel shameful about who they are as men. They will look upon themselves and each other as deserving of the abuses heaped upon them. When they are released from prison, they will join the leper colonies of the damned and will not be able to establish the necessary foundation for self-starting, let alone advocacy for fairer treatment. Rosa Parks on the other hand could sit in the front of the bus in justifiable righteous indignation in a way that the ex con never will be able to.
The greatest challenge that a society will ever face is to widen the circle of inclusion to everyone. This process has been underway for some time and now, at least ostensibly, includes women, minorities, and members of the LGBTQ community. The arc of history that bends toward justice is, in toto, the arc of a circle expanding to include more members that were previously excluded. All people of good conscience must all square themselves to the reality that all human life has dignity, that all human life is indeed precious, and deserves to be preserved.
If you want to strike a blow against all that The Great American Prison Program represents, strike a blow against all that our president Donald Trump represents. Yes, fight for Brendan Dassey and Steven Avery, but also understand the much broader implications. If our efforts to free these two innocent men are not one in the same with a broader opposition to tyranny and injustice we will have wasted an opportunity.