February 04, 2015

Embalmed Dissent, or the Fault in Ourselves

Almost exactly three years ago, I read an article by Michelle Alexander that I regarded as especially significant and revealing, and I have intended to discuss it ever since. As you may know, Alexander wrote the very valuable, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. More recently, in the concluding part of "God Damn You, America, and Your White, Privileged Grief", I excerpted a similarly valuable article by Alexander.

In the article that lodged itself in my memory -- which was published by The New York Times, a salient point to which I shall return -- Alexander recounts some of the basic, inescapable facts of the United States' system of profound injustice. For example: "More than 90 percent of criminal cases are never tried before a jury. Most people charged with crimes forfeit their constitutional rights and plead guilty."

The overwhelming majority of people give up their rights -- "to be informed of charges against them, to an impartial, fair and speedy jury trial, to cross-examine witnesses and to the assistance of counsel" -- because, as Alexander, summarizes the point, "the system is rigged."

In their ignorant devotion to the mythical, utterly false view of America as "a shining city on a hill," most Americans prefer to believe that torture was an aberration that the U.S. government practiced for only a short period of time. And America will, of course, never do it again, as we have been assured by Obama and every other political leader. They're all lying, of course. America was founded on torture: how could it be otherwise for a nation which arose out of a centuries-long genocide of Native Americans and the centuries-long institution of slavery? As I have expressed the point: torture is as American as Mom and apple pie. (See the second part of this article, subtitled "Torture and the American Project," for much more on this.)

The genocide of Native Americans and the abomination of slavery mean that torture is woven into the fabric of America and its system of government. In recent decades, America's version of late capitalism has ossified into a kill-or-be-killed system, where the killers are the State, and its multitude of enforcement mechanisms, in alliance with the richest and most powerful individuals. All the rest of us -- the 99% which obviously far outnumbers the oligarchs and their friends, but remains almost entirely powerless -- are their victims. Today, this system metastasizes at nightmarish speed, and the cruelties inflicted on those without privilege or power multiply by the hour.

America's injustice system is a large-scale example of a (comparatively) refined form of torture. We tend to think of torture as physical acts causing horrifying pain and suffering. We recognize the reality of psychological torture, but even there -- as with sleep deprivation or subjecting a prisoner to intolerably loud music (or other sounds) for lengthy periods of time -- the psychological torture is inextricably linked to physical acts. The ruling class encourages us in our understanding of torture as a narrowly circumscribed phenomenon: this makes it far easier for them to assure us that torture is "un-American," and that "we'll never do it again."

It's harder to offer such assurances, and it's impossible to believe them, when we grasp that torture is the skeleton upon which increasing aspects of American life are constructed. In her article, Alexander notes, as among the reasons explaining why more than 90 percent of criminal defendants plead guilty rather than going to trial, that the Supreme Court has held that "threatening someone with life imprisonment for a minor crime in an effort to induce him to forfeit a jury trial did not violate his Sixth Amendment right to trial." The Court has also held that lifetime imprisonment for a first-time drug offense does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

In this manner, terrorizing tens of thousands of individuals (and probably more than that) is made a regular element of State practice. Whatever the resulting monstrosity is, it is certainly not any kind of a justice system. Alexander then relates the following story:
Take the case of Erma Faye Stewart, a single African-American mother of two who was arrested at age 30 in a drug sweep in Hearne, Tex., in 2000. In jail, with no one to care for her two young children, she began to panic. Though she maintained her innocence, her court-appointed lawyer told her to plead guilty, since the prosecutor offered probation. Ms. Stewart spent a month in jail, and then relented to a plea. She was sentenced to 10 years’ probation and ordered to pay a $1,000 fine. Then her real punishment began: upon her release, Ms. Stewart was saddled with a felony record; she was destitute, barred from food stamps and evicted from public housing. Once they were homeless, Ms. Stewart’s children were taken away and placed in foster care. In the end, she lost everything even though she took the deal.
I have described torture as follows:
Torture is the deliberate infliction of unbearable agony on a human being -- a human being who is intentionally kept alive precisely so that he will suffer still more and for a longer period of time -- for no justifiable reason. This is the embrace of sadism and cruelty for their own sake, and for no other end whatsoever.
Apply that description to Erma Faye Stewart. The American injustice system tortured her and destroyed her life -- even though she did precisely what that system forced her to do. In addition to the injustice system, the welfare system, including the availability of public housing (and most likely additional subsystems as well), all worked together to make her life one of unbearable, endless agony.

America "will never torture again"? America tortures countless numbers of people in these ways and others every single day. Torture is what America does. Torture is America's major domestic product, and its primary export to the rest of the world through a neverending series of barbaric war crimes.

All of this is deeply horrifying. When I read Alexander's article, I was already familiar with these aspects of America's injustice system, and I'd come across many stories like Ms. Stewart's before. None of that was the reason I've remembered Alexander's article for three years.

I remembered the article because Alexander proposed a means of crashing this system, of causing it to collapse into itself utterly and completely. In fact, that proposal was her major impetus for writing the article. The suggestion was not hers initially, but an idea offered by a woman Alexander knows, Susan Burton. This is what Burton said:
“What would happen if we organized thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of people charged with crimes to refuse to play the game, to refuse to plea out? What if they all insisted on their Sixth Amendment right to trial? Couldn’t we bring the whole system to a halt just like that?"
Here is Alexander's response to Burton's question, as offered in the NYT article:
The answer is yes. The system of mass incarceration depends almost entirely on the cooperation of those it seeks to control. If everyone charged with crimes suddenly exercised his constitutional rights, there would not be enough judges, lawyers or prison cells to deal with the ensuing tsunami of litigation. Not everyone would have to join for the revolt to have an impact; as the legal scholar Angela J. Davis noted, “if the number of people exercising their trial rights suddenly doubled or tripled in some jurisdictions, it would create chaos.”
It is the elegance and simplicity of the idea that made it so memorable to me. All our politicians and public figures preen and strut, proclaiming the superior virtues of the American system of "justice." Burton's proposal takes these goddamned bullshitters at their word: Fine. You say we have the best justice system in the world. So we'll utilize all the rights that are the bedrock of that system, at least in theory. But we'll actually exercise those rights. Let's see how well your system works then.

And the lie will be revealed before the world. The system will collapse. I repeat one of the sentences I highlighted in the above excerpt: "The system of mass incarceration depends almost entirely on the cooperation of those it seeks to control." Burton's proposal is a marvelous example of non-cooperation: take away the element of cooperation that is essential to the system's operations -- just as all our public figures constantly tell us we have the right to do -- and it will cease to function.

But. Ah, you're smart. You knew there was a "but." Alexander writes:
“As a mother myself, I don’t think there’s anything I wouldn’t plead guilty to if a prosecutor told me that accepting a plea was the only way to get home to my children,” I said. “I truly can’t imagine risking life imprisonment, so how can I urge others to take that risk — even if it would send shock waves through a fundamentally immoral and unjust system?”
Burton replied: “I’m not saying we should do it. I’m saying we ought to know that it’s an option." Burton goes on to say that it "would be nice if reasoned argument would do," but we know that it won't be sufficient. Burton mentions the example of slavery as a great evil that was only eradicated because people were willing to risk their lives.

Alexander's article concludes with this observation from Burton: "So maybe, just maybe, if we truly want to end this system, some of us will have to risk our lives.”

I also remember my reaction when I read Alexander's article for the first time, in March 2012. I was furious. I felt as if I'd been slapped in the face. Here was a marvelous idea that could very well stop a monstrous system of injustice in its tracks -- and after the proposal was explained, I was told: "But ... never mind."

I'm oversimplying my reaction, which contained many other elements. As just one example, although a very important one: I am well aware of the terrible risks attendant on challenging the system in the manner Burton proposes. It's awful to ask others to take risks of that kind. But we also know -- and Alexander and Burton know -- that anything short of risk of that kind, and even decades' worth of all that lovely "reasoned argument," is going to accomplish only minimal changes at the margins, if even that. Nothing short of mass non-cooperation has a chance in hell.

Three years ago, when I sorted through my thoughts after reading Alexander's piece, I realized that I was more depressed with respect to these issues than I had been before I read it. That is the effect of articles of this kind: a wonderful idea is held out as a tantalizing possibility -- and before you even have time to digest it fully, the proponent adds, as Burton does: "I'm not saying we should do it. I'm saying we ought to know that it's an option."

You can almost hear her subdued tone of wistful, yearning resignation. To me, it's the sound of defeat: "Yes, we could do this, if enough people were willing to take huge risks. But how can we expect people to take risks of that kind? Is it right to even ask them to do it?" And nothing changes, except to get worse.

Certainly, nothing has changed in the three years since that article appeared, except that the system has become even more solidly entrenched. And remember where the article was published: in The New York Times, the leading newspaper presenting the ruling class's point of view, and which props up and further strengthens the ruling class's stranglehold on power in every way it can. For the ruling class, articles like Alexander's are a godsend. I'm sure I was not alone in my reaction. I'm certain most people who desperately hope for fundamental change were angry and depressed by it in largely the same way I was. The article holds out the promise of change -- but then tells you it's too difficult, it carries too much risk, it might be possible, but it's not something we'd actually want to do.

The result, whether it is intended or not, is a deepening resignation to the way things are. I do not look to Wikipedia for information when accuracy about specific matters is a major concern, but the opening of its article on embalming captures an important aspect of what concerns me:
Embalming is the art and science of preserving human remains by treating them (in its modern form with chemicals) to forestall decomposition. The intention is to keep them suitable for public display at a funeral, for religious reasons, or for medical and scientific purposes such as their use as anatomical specimens.[1] The three goals of embalming are sanitization, presentation and preservation (or restoration).
In the past, I have sometimes referred to articles like Alexander's as examples of what I termed "institutional dissent." I intended the phrase to refer to (among other things) dissent which, while supposedly honorably registering protest, perhaps even passionate protest, offers no serious threat to the State or the ruling class in any manner whatsoever.

But as I was reflecting on these issues again recently, I decided that "embalmed dissent" captures the dynamic of this kind of dissent with more precision. Embalming preserves human remains, often (when cosmetics are also used, as for an open casket) "to keep them suitable for public display." Embalmed dissent is protest with the life safely drained away. But when life is drained away, any danger, any spontaneity, any mass arousal -- and any genuine possibility for significant change -- are also eliminated.

I chose the Alexander article as a starting point for this discussion because it offers this dynamic is an especially dramatic form. But we see embalmed dissent in endless numbers of articles by self-identified dissenting writers: All too often, the effect of such writing is very similar to my reaction to the Alexander article. As we read along, our understanding of the horrors with which we contend may be deepened. Our revulsion at the operations of the current system will cause us to wish even more intensely that change could occur. and we momentarily will want to grasp at any possibility for bringing about such change.

But if the possibility of bringing about change is even mentioned (and it often isn't), it will be only to state that such fundamental change is too dangerous, that it would require action by more people than we could possibly enlist in our cause, that it's just too hard. So resignation claims more of our souls, and our lives grow bleaker.

This leaves us with a number of questions, including the one suggested by the second part of my title for this article: Is the fault in ourselves? Is it fair to call it a fault? And if we choose to abstain from the public ritual of embalmed dissent, what do we do?

I will take up these questions and some others in the next article on this subject.