January 25, 2012
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.
January 25, 2012
A prison is a trap for catching time. Good reporting appears often about the inner life of the American prison, but the catch is that American prison life is mostly undramatic—the reported stories fail to grab us, because, for the most part, nothing happens. One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich is all you need to know about Ivan Denisovich, because the idea that anyone could live for a minute in such circumstances seems impossible; one day in the life of an American prison means much less, because the force of it is that one day typically stretches out for decades. It isn’t the horror of the time at hand but the unimaginable sameness of the time ahead that makes prisons unendurable for their inmates. The inmates on death row in Texas are called men in “timeless time,” because they alone aren’t serving time: they aren’t waiting out five years or a decade or a lifetime. The basic reality of American prisons is not that of the lock and key but that of the lock and clock.
That’s why no one who has been inside a prison, if only for a day, can ever forget the feeling. Time stops. A note of attenuated panic, of watchful paranoia—anxiety and boredom and fear mixed into a kind of enveloping fog, covering the guards as much as the guarded. “Sometimes I think this whole world is one big prison yard, / Some of us are prisoners, some of us are guards,” Dylan sings, and while it isn’t strictly true—just ask the prisoners—it contains a truth: the guards are doing time, too. As a smart man once wrote after being locked up, the thing about jail is that there are bars on the windows and they won’t let you out. This simple truth governs all the others. What prisoners try to convey to the free is how the presence of time as something being done to you, instead of something you do things with, alters the mind at every moment. For American prisoners, huge numbers of whom are serving sentences much longer than those given for similar crimes anywhere else in the civilized world—Texas alone has sentenced more than four hundred teen-agers to life imprisonment—time becomes in every sense this thing you serve.
For most privileged, professional people, the experience of confinement is a mere brush, encountered after a kid’s arrest, say. For a great many poor people in America, particularly poor black men, prison is a destination that braids through an ordinary life, much as high school and college do for rich white ones. More than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives. Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States.
The accelerating rate of incarceration over the past few decades is just as startling as the number of people jailed: in 1980, there were about two hundred and twenty people incarcerated for every hundred thousand Americans; by 2010, the number had more than tripled, to seven hundred and thirty-one. No other country even approaches that. In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education. Ours is, bottom to top, a “carceral state,” in the flat verdict of Conrad Black, the former conservative press lord and newly minted reformer, who right now finds himself imprisoned in Florida, thereby adding a new twist to an old joke: A conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged; a liberal is a conservative who’s been indicted; and a passionate prison reformer is a conservative who’s in one.
The scale and the brutality of our prisons are the moral scandal of American life. Every day, at least fifty thousand men—a full house at Yankee Stadium—wake in solitary confinement, often in “supermax” prisons or prison wings, in which men are locked in small cells, where they see no one, cannot freely read and write, and are allowed out just once a day for an hour’s solo “exercise.” (Lock yourself in your bathroom and then imagine you have to stay there for the next ten years, and you will have some sense of the experience.) Prison rape is so endemic—more than seventy thousand prisoners are raped each year—that it is routinely held out as a threat, part of the punishment to be expected. The subject is standard fodder for comedy, and an uncoöperative suspect being threatened with rape in prison is now represented, every night on television, as an ordinary and rather lovable bit of policing. The normalization of prison rape—like eighteenth-century japery about watching men struggle as they die on the gallows—will surely strike our descendants as chillingly sadistic, incomprehensible on the part of people who thought themselves civilized. Though we avoid looking directly at prisons, they seep obliquely into our fashions and manners. Wealthy white teen-agers in baggy jeans and laceless shoes and multiple tattoos show, unconsciously, the reality of incarceration that acts as a hidden foundation for the country.
How did we get here? How is it that our civilization, which rejects hanging and flogging and disembowelling, came to believe that caging vast numbers of people for decades is an acceptably humane sanction? There’s a fairly large recent scholarly literature on the history and sociology of crime and punishment, and it tends to trace the American zeal for punishment back to the nineteenth century, apportioning blame in two directions. There’s an essentially Northern explanation, focussing on the inheritance of the notorious Eastern State Penitentiary, in Philadelphia, and its “reformist” tradition; and a Southern explanation, which sees the prison system as essentially a slave plantation continued by other means. Robert Perkinson, the author of the Southern revisionist tract “Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire,” traces two ancestral lines, “from the North, the birthplace of rehabilitative penology, to the South, the fountainhead of subjugationist discipline.” In other words, there’s the scientific taste for reducing men to numbers and the slave owners’ urge to reduce blacks to brutes…
January 25, 2012
A year has passed since liberal America and the liberal opinion class, in particular, went ecstatic over the Arab debut into the modern world. I know that my standing in that class is suspect. So, being a bit flummoxed myself by the not altogether dissimilar developments in the vast expanse from the Maghreb to Mesopotamia, I conquered my doubts and made a slight stab for hope. But I quickly realized that I was wrong and left the celebration. The true-believers are still there, mesmerized by some ideological mirage or preferring to look on the brighter side of things.
For example, Nicholas Kristof found some Muslim Brothers who promised that even Copts and the ancient Coptic Church, among the first of history’s Christian fellowships, have no reason to fear their party’s electoral strength. “Conservative Muslims insisted that the Muslim Brotherhood is non-discriminatory and the perfect home for pious Christians—and a terrific partner for the West.” Yes, he actually wrote this silliness. One 24-year old Salafist he cites went reassuringly specific: “…under Salafi rule, diplomatic relations with Israel would continue unchanged and ties with America would strengthen.” Alas, less than three weeks after Kristof published his daffy attestations, theJerusalem Post reported on an Al-Hayat dispatch saying that the deputy head of the Brotherhood, Rashad Bayoumi, pledged that his movement would not, would never recognize Israel—“This is not an option, whatever the circumstances, we do not recognize Israel at all. It’s an occupying criminal enemy.” What this means is that, more than three decades after Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin signed a more-or-less successful peace treaty, the agreement negotiated by Jimmy Carter might just be submitted to a reckless electorate. At best! And at worst? You figure it out.
Of course, there are some coyer journalists, commentators, and television personalities who have not dallied too long (and certainly not that long) over the democratic prospect in Arab Islam or, for that matter, in the world of Islam in general. The narrative is actually repetitive and, if not repetitive, simply too grim. And if it’s really grim, like in Syria, no reporters are allowed to or no reporters want to risk it. Which is why every story about Syria is datelined Beirut.
A few years back there was a rush of programs by American colleges and universities to set up “international” outlets in Arab countries for their own students and for students from other institutions, both American and foreign. The most successful were situated in the emirates. But even these never reached their numerical goals. As for their intellectual aims, who really knows what they were? But even in the rich little kingdoms, soon to be marbled up with extensions of the Louvre and the Guggenheim, American educational establishments confronted serious practical and conceptual difficulties from the beginning. Already near the outset of these ventures Tamar Lewin wrote in the New York Times Feb 10, 2008 of the unavoidable (and unavoided) challenges they faced. The downward spiral of the regional economies exacerbated these problems. Syracuse, Cornell Medical College, New York University, Rochester Institute of Technology, Michigan, George Mason, and Carnegie Institute of Technology were among those exposed to questions about whether a degree from, for instance, N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi is a degree from N.Y.U. at all. The answer is obvious. Some five years ago, Yale University decided to avoid the problem altogether. It has cooperative research programs all over China and elsewhere. Otherwise, it is an institution in New Haven, Connecticut. Anyway, the Middle East neighborhood is now too agitated for schools to do long-term planning. Just a few Sundays past, an article in the New York Times reported that a host of such programs are canceling. Anyway, Cairo is not Florence. I don’t know which is more interesting. But you can get killed in Egypt—or, as three American college students from Georgetown, Indiana, and Drexel have already learned, at least get yourself arrested for doing nothing. Chalk up one success for American diplomacy: It was able to get the trio released.
(A side thought: Maybe this is my Zionist smugness. But there are no such problems with standards in ties between American institutions of higher education and Israeli ones. Thene plus ultra of this reality is the intimate connection cemented last month by Technion-Israel Institute of Technology (Haifa) and Cornell University (Ithaca, NY). The new institution to be created will be a school of engineering with a two million square foot campus at a $2 billion ultimate cost on Roosevelt Island in the East River of New York City. A very wealthy and imaginative American businessman and philanthropist put up $350 million for the project. He isn’t even Jewish but an Irish-Catholic alumnus of the Cornell School of Hotel Management, no more, no less. Betabeat explained why this development is the envy of many other American institutions. Mayor Bloomberg explained how the undertaking would transform New York and went on to say that he was negotiating with other academic enterprises to take on similar innovative responsibilities. And, yes, Max Blumenthal, self-described “cultural Marxist,” whatever that means, explained in Al-Akhbar how this venture will enhance Israeli imperialism over the Palestinians. The cornerstone for the Technion was laid in Haifa 100 years ago. It opened for classes a decade later. It has been ranked by the usually cited ratings authorities as 15th in the world in the category of computer sciences, 29th in engineering, and 38th among technological universities, more generally. Technion is not alone. The Hebrew University has been rated 57th in the general excellence category by the authoritative survey of Jlao Tong University in Shanghai. Just one more report: The Sciences, a notable scholarly publication, has for the third time rated the Weizmann Institute of Science “as the best place to work” outside a few institutions in the U.S. These are the latest results, and they help explain why no academic boycott of Israeli scholars and scholarship was ever really floated successfully. By the way, no university in an Arab land or in any Muslim country appears on any such list. In what is by now recognized as his simply silly but deeply sycophantic Cairo speech, President Obama saluted Al Azhar University for having “over a thousand years stood as a beacon of Islamic learning.” What it actually represents is spiritual benightedness and religious obscurantism.)
American expectations of the Arabs were always innocent. In the case of this administration, Obama’s delusion extends to non-Arab Muslims, that is, to the Iranians, the Pakistanis, the Afghanis. He cannot imagine that there are fundamental differences between states. But, as even he must have noticed, in many of these circumstances the very idea of compromise is blasphemous. And, given this, there may be temporary lulls between the really nasty confrontations. Basic differences—yes, of course, there are basic differences—persist and flare up unpredictably. Or, as I believe, predictably. Sometimes they call “time out” and simmer.
Where one side governs, and governs cruelly, the other side resents. I suppose this is what we call simmering. Countries that have no satisfying process of systematic mediation turn out to be tyrannies. Despite their ethnic and ideological differences sometimes these regimes try to cover up their weaknesses by forming a union of oppressors with other regimes. One such union was the Baghdad Pact or the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), mobilized by Great Britain at the initiative of the United States. Its real rationale was the Soviet threat. But even such a threat could not bring Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Turkey together or mobilize popular support. It crumbled slowly through two decades of bloodshed and revolution within the member countries. It seems like centuries ago but the Soviet Union had neutralized the pact. Iraq, a member of CENTO, was for decades an ally of Moscow. The Red Army had divisions all over the Arab world. Iran became the heart of militant Islam against the West but retained hunky-dory relations with Russia both before the fall of Communism and after. And Pakistan? Well, Pakistan does have an army. The question is: Is Pakistan a country? Iraq still has too many armies. Turkey is the only real state left standing.
Another of those unifying fictions was the United Arab Republic or Al-Gumhuriyah al-Arabiyah al-Muttahidah, this one being a consolidation of Egypt and Syria with failed ambitions to consolidate Iraq within it. It did include North Yemen which no longer exists. The old question returns: Does Yemen itself exist? It may have a president…or it may not. He has resigned. Or has he? He has been given asylum in America. But he’s not taking it. He may not be the most brutal Arab leader of the age: That honor belongs to Bashar Assad. But, now that Qaddafi is dead, he is the nuttiest. If bombs go off in Yemen, someone does want it. Actually, too many forces want it. It is in a state of perpetual war but over no resources and a fractured population: Shia and Sunni and tribal loyalties that are dysfunctional and bloody. (It once had a Jewish king …15 centuries ago. There are no Jews now, all of them having immigrated to Israel.)
Yet the U.A.E. was the real joke. United? The pretense of “union” intensified the cross-border hatreds while it did nothing to soften antagonisms that were always festering within the countries that had, so to speak, signed up. At its core the staging of a pan-national federation was incompatible with the deepest presence of the religion of Islam. In fact, whether it was civil Arab patriotism in the middle of the nineteenth century on the European model of 1848 or Arab chauvinism in the twentieth, there were always prominent Christians in the movement, many historians argue, to ward off Muslim fanaticism. In places like Baghdad, there were also Jews who added a certain cosmopolitanism to the idea of an Arab nation. In any case, the founder of the anti-religious Ba’ath movement, Michel Aflaq, was Greek Orthodox. The Christians of Syria are fundamentally aligned with the relatively secular Assad regime against the country’s Sunnis who are at the core of the revolt.
When the Palestinians were finally roused from their slumber it was Christians who did much of the rousing. Greek Orthodox George Antonius’s book, The Arab Awakening,was a harbinger of falsehoods to come, both unreliable and instructive for the survival of its unreliabilities. And it is on many college course reading lists nonetheless. Moreover, the literal founders of the Palestinian national movement and terrorists besides, were George Habash, another Greek Orthodox from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Najef Hawatmeh, a Catholic from the (Marxist) Democratic Front (also) for the Liberation of Palestine. Surely, you recall—or have been told about—the airplane hijackings, the car bombs, and the sheer slaughter carried out by these Christian idealists against the Jews, in some great measure to preserve their credibility as Arabs among the Muslims. There is a litany of these Christians: the Roman Catholic bishop Hilarion Cappuci, Leila Khalid, and then Hanan Ashrawi, inamorata of Peter Jennings who from his debut at the Munich Olympics as a television evangelist for the Palestinians, for the Palestinian terrorists, really, couldn’t say a neutral word about Israel. There are no more Christian headliners in the Palestinian movement because there are almost no Christians still in the land. No, that’s not right. Professor Ashrawi is trotted out in emergencies when smooth, heavily accented, English is required to disguise illogic and falsehood. Anyway, don’t be fooled: Most of the Christians at Christmas mass in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity were diplomats, NGO staffers and journalists, foreigners, of course. Mohammad Abbas also came to greet the almost unbelievably diminished number of those who worship at the Cross in the city where Jesus was born….
January 25, 2012
Adulterers and prostitutes could be executed and women were agreed to be more libidinous than men – then in the 18th century attitudes to sex underwent an extraordinary change
We believe in sexual freedom. We take it for granted that consenting men and women have the right to do what they like with their bodies. Sex is everywhere in our culture. We love to think and talk about it; we devour news about celebrities’ affairs; we produce and consume pornography on an unprecedented scale. We think it wrong that in other cultures its discussion is censured, people suffer for their sexual orientation, women are treated as second-class citizens, or adulterers are put to death.
Yet a few centuries ago, our own society was like this too. In the 1600s people were still being executed for adultery in England, Scotland and north America, and across Europe. Everywhere in the west, sex outside marriage was illegal, and the church, the state and ordinary people devoted huge efforts to hunting it down and punishing it. This was a central feature of Christian society, one that had grown steadily in importance since late antiquity. So how and when did our culture change so strikingly? Where does our current outlook come from? The answers lie in one of the great untold stories about the creation of our modern condition.
When I stumbled on the subject, more than a decade ago, I could not believe that such a huge transformation had not been properly understood. But the more I pursued it, the more amazing material I uncovered: the first sexual revolution can be traced in some of the greatest works of literature, art and philosophy ever produced – the novels of Henry Fielding and Jane Austen, the pictures of Reynolds and Hogarth, the writings of Adam Smith, David Hume and John Stuart Mill. And it was played out in the lives of tens of thousands of ordinary men and women, otherwise unnoticed by history, whose trials and punishments for illicit sex are preserved in unpublished judicial records. Most startling of all were my discoveries of private writings, such as the diary of the randy Dutch embassy clerk Lodewijk van der Saan, posted to London in the 1690s; the emotional letters sent to newspapers by countless hopeful and disappointed lovers; and the piles of manuscripts about sexual freedom composed by the great philosopher Jeremy Bentham but left unpublished, to this day, by his literary executors. Once noticed, the effects of this revolution in attitudes and behaviour can be seen everywhere when looking at the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. It was one of the key shifts from the pre-modern to the modern world.
Since the dawn of history, every civilisation had punished sexual immorality. The law codes of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England treated women as chattels, but they also forbade married men to fornicate with their slaves, and ordered that adulteresses be publicly disgraced, lose their goods and have their ears and noses cut off. Such severity reflected the Christian church’s view of sex as a dangerously polluting force, as well as the patriarchal commonplace that women were more lustful than men and liable to lead them astray. By the later middle ages, it was common in places such as London, Bristol and Gloucester for convicted prostitutes, bawds, fornicators and adulterers to be subjected to elaborate ritual punishments: to have their hair shaved off or to be dressed in especially degrading outfits, severely whipped, displayed in a pillory or public cage, paraded around for public humiliation and expelled for ever from the community.
The reformation brought a further hardening of attitudes. The most fervent Protestants campaigned vigorously to reinstate the biblical death penalty for adultery and other sexual crimes. Wherever Puritan fundamentalists gained power, they pursued this goal – in Geneva and Bohemia, in Scotland, in the colonies of New England and in England itself. After the Puritans had led the parliamentary side to victory in the English civil war, executed the King and abolished the monarchy, they passed the Adultery Act of 1650. Henceforth, adulterers and incorrigible fornicators and brothel-keepers were simply to be executed, as sodomites and bigamists already were.
Of course, sexual discipline was never perfect. Men and women constantly gave way to temptation – and then had to be flogged, imprisoned, fined and shamed to reform them. Many others, especially the wealthy and powerful, escaped punishment. As was the case with other crimes, the full rigour of the law was never uniformly or consistently applied. All the same, sexual discipline was a central facet of pre-modern western society, and its unceasing promotion had a profound effect on ordinary men and women. Most people internalised its principles deeply and participated in the disciplining of others. There was no coherent philosophy of sexual liberty, no way of conceiving of a society without moral policing. It seemed obvious that illicit sex had to be combated because it angered God, prevented salvation, damaged personal relations and undermined social order. Sex was emphatically not a private affair.
So pervasive was this ideology that even those who paid with their lives for defying it could not escape its hold over their minds and actions. When the Massachusetts settler James Britton fell ill in the winter of 1644, he became gripped by a “fearful horror of conscience” that this was God’s punishment on him for his past sins. So he publicly confessed that once, after a night of heavy drinking, he had tried (but failed) to have sex with a young bride, Mary Latham. Though she now lived far away, in Plymouth colony, the magistrates there were alerted. She was found, arrested and brought back, across the icy landscape, to stand trial in Boston. When, despite her denial that they had actually had sex, she was convicted of adultery, she broke down, confessed it was true, “proved very penitent, and had deep apprehension of the foulness of her sin … and was willing to die in satisfaction to justice”. On 21 March, a fortnight after her sentence, she was taken to the public scaffold. Britton was executed alongside her; he, too, “died very penitently”. In the shadow of the gallows, Latham addressed the assembled crowds, exhorting other young women to be warned by her example, and again proclaiming her abhorrence and penitence for her terrible crime against God and society. Then she was hanged. She was 18 years old.
That is the world we have left behind. Over the following century and a half it was transformed by a great revolution that laid the ground for the sexual culture of the 19th and 20th centuries, and of our own day….
January 25, 2012
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.