As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air – however slight – lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.
-- Justice William O. Douglas
The strands of modern American containment were woven so gradually that today's prison culture has come to feel almost natural. But imagine how the landscape might look to someone who was experimentally cryopreserved in, say, 1981, and thawed out 30 years later:
People cheerfully taking off their shoes and queuing up to be x-rayed by robotic agents of "Homeland Security," GPS satellite monitoring, DNA databases, civil detention for future crimes, online registries of drug offenders, surveillance cameras everywhere, "zero tolerance" schools where children are viewed as pint-sized criminals.
"By design this penal system churns the poor and marginal, rendering them all but unemployable, thus poorer and ever more marginal," writes anthropologist Roger Lancaster. "No legitimate theory of corrections, crime, or social order justifies this approach, which can only be understood as vindictive."
In Sex Panic and the Punitive State, Lancaster meticulously explains how 35 years of virtually nonstop panics over crime -- urban unrest in the 1960s, street crime in the 1970s, crack wars in the 1980s, predatory gangs in the 1990s, and terrorists in the 2000s -- have congealed into a durable regime dominated by irrational fear: "Power flows through the nervous system of a body politic paralyzed by dread. Ruled and rulers are equally trapped in fear."
Laying the groundwork for wave after wave of panics, Lancaster convincingly argues, is a synergy between deeply ingrained (but now covert) fears of black criminal-rapists and homosexual child molesters:
Sexual anxieties and fear of crime have come to form a dynamic feedback loop. On the one hand, it seems unlikely that revived sex panics would have put down such deep social roots except in the context of a wider war on crime. On the other hand, it also seems unlikely that crime fears could have become so finely woven into the fabric of everyday life without the element of sex panic.
The resulting system of social control is an amalgam of old and new elements. Its Puritanism, its paranoia about strange outsiders, its enactment of dramas of peril and rites of protection are as old as the United States itself; they are deeply embedded in the national psyche…. At the same time the resulting system of social control departs from long-standing liberal traditions that begin with a presumption of innocence, restrain the reach of law, defer to zones of privacy, and resist the application of excessive punishments or the tacking on of ex-post-facto provisions.
Lancaster sees the creation and privileging of a novel social category -- "the victim" -- as a powerful force in this new social order. In the name of this iconic crime victim, the enormously successful Victim's Rights Movement has led the charge to dismantle traditional legal protections, a trend that may be difficult if not impossible to ever reverse.
Perversely, increased repression of the American citizenry has arisen in tandem with the loosening of economic restraints on "capitalism’s most predatory forms" -- privatization, globalization and the corporations' relentless squeezing of what we now call the 99 percent.
In Lancaster's dystopic vision, America has degenerated into "a broken social order based on mistrust, resentment, and ill will," manifested in a mass addiction to dumbed-down, commercialized vengeance spectacles. We need look no further for evidence of this grim state of affairs than the vitriolic comments of YouTube viewers beneath the video of U.S. Marines urinating on the bodies of murdered Afghanis.
As with Abu Ghraib, we can safely bet that the four Marines will be sanctioned, while the structures that fostered their callous behavior will remain untouched. As Lancaster notes, this is all par for the course: "Any cultural system that equates punishment with justice will foster complicated forms of sadism. And any institutional system that inculcates intense fear and rage will produce technicians who periodically depart from standard operating procedures."
Many of you blog readers will have read other fine books on sex panic and the carceral state. But this meticulously researched and eloquently written analysis goes deeper and wider, masterfully integrating disparate historical, economic, religious and social trends. Lancaster delves at length into the complex interplay of racism and homophobia, even weaving in personal experiences as a gay man that helped to shape his thinking.
Bottom line: Read this landmark book; I guarantee it will enlighten.
A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
-- Martin Luther King Jr.
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