Saturday, May 29, 2010

American anger

The other day, on another forum, I encountered a piece from the Financial Times written by my old friend and one-time colleague, Simon Schama. Tagged as "the historian of his generation" by his British mentor when he was in his twenties, Simon wrote two outstanding, large works of political history, one on Holland in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the second on the French Revolution. Since then he has cultivated his interest in art, and enjoyed the new emblem of success in the historical profession, his own television miniseries, produced in Britain. This article identifies the crisis through which the western world is passing (you have to register to read it, but it's free), but uses a different analogy than the ones I've been favoring from the 1930s and the 1860s. Simon goes back to 1789, and finds a dangerously similar mood of inchoate rage, fueled by a sense of unfairness, all around the western world. The elite, here and in Europe, believes business as usual will solve any problem; masses of people do not. Here in the US anger is taking many dangerous forms, and very few people have the courage to stand up against it.

The Arizona immigration law is one manifestation. We now have two parallel economies, one legitimate, one in the shadows, and the latter has been growing while the former may even have been shrinking. Illegal immigration apparently dominates the meat-packing industry and, in much of the country, the construction industry. Illegal spheres of activity, like organized crime, always breed more illegality since their nature does not allow their employees to appeal to the law. White Americans probably do not want the jobs the illegals are doing, but they resent them anyway. This problem had been taken off the national agenda before the Depression struck during our last crisis, since the 1924 immigration act had pretty much halted large-scale immigration from just about anywhere. Today this is not an option. George W. Bush, to his credit, tried to pass immigration law, although he did so in such an undemocratic manner, dispensing with Congressional hearings altogether, that it was almost certain to fail, and so it did. We shall not see immigration reform this year.

The anti-abortion movement, which has entered a new phase, is another such manifestation. Pro-life groups have been using terrorism--defined as emotional intimidation, with or without violence, and occasionally including the murder of medical personal--to reduce the number of abortions for decades. Now several red states are passing laws forcing women seeking abortions to get ultrasounds, and Oklahoma has gone so far as to require that the women look at them. (The law has been stayed by a federal judge.)

Meanwhile the loss of faith in government continues apace, fueled by the new oil spill. It is ludicrous, of course, to blame it upon the current Administration--it reflects policies put in place over decades, as well as the erosion of any real regulatory authority in Washington. But Barack Obama now finds himself the prisoner of technological failures. In the same way that no one in authority worried about subprime mortgages, no one has taken the time or spent the money to devise a relatively quick, safe way to cap an offshore well, at least in the United States. (I cannot remember a serious spill ever occurring in the North Sea, where British and Norwegian firms have been drilling in much harsher conditions for decades. There might be a story in that.) The other night Rachel Maddow ran a remarkable feature detailing the course of a similar spill off the Mexican Coast 31 years ago. Every single tactic employed in the Gulf failed there, too, until, after three months, the company drilled relief wells. And that well was in much shallower water than this one.

A crisis, or fourth turning, generally involves an explosion of anger, and the challenge leadership faces is, on the one hand, to moderate it to the maximum extent possible (as Lincoln so wisely did), and on the other, to channel it productively, which was FDR's great gift. But fourth turnings are difficult times for outsiders and every one has witnessed acts of cruelty, often legal cruelty, against them. In 1940, a relatively liberal Supreme Court ruled 8-1 against a family of Jehovah's witnesses from West Virginia who refused to let their children salute the flag, claiming it was a violation of the Ten Commandments to do so. The decision was very unpopular, and three years later, while the country was engaged against real enemies of civilization, the court overruled itself in a very similar case. The same pattern repeated itself in the 1950s in several cases involving McCarthyism and the rights of Communists. Just last week, as I mentioned, the New York Times told the story of a courageous federal judge who has been willing to stand up for the rights of some the most despised members of our society. It struck a chord with me because I was already quite familiar with the abuse in question.

The sexual abuse of children is a terrible, inexcusable crime--even though I feel quite sure that the vast majority of abusers were abused themselves in their own childhood. People who commit such crimes against children need to be punished, and one can certainly defend the requirement that they register as offenders when released. But most Americans, I think, do not realize that federal law now provides for mandatory prison sentences for people who simply buy child pornography on the Internet to look at their computer. I have been aware indirectly of two such cases myself--I did not know the men in question, but I knew some one who did, very well. In the first case the offender escaped without jail. In the second case, about which I know a great deal more, he did not--he was sentenced to more than three years in federal prison, and served more than half of them. He was lucky--the average federal sentence in such cases is now 81 months.

Now child pornography does, of course, involve the abuse of the children who are photographed to create it, and those who make those pictures deserve severe punishment. I do not understand the appeal of such pictures at all and I certainly feel that people who want to look at them are disturbed. I understand the argument that anyone who buys them is subsidizing the industry, and would certainly support a heavy fine, and if possible, the imposition of some Internet lock. But I certainly am not convinced that there is a high correlation between looking at such pictures and actually abusing a child. I remember that when Denmark became the first country to legalize pornography many years ago, sex crimes immediately declined. And in the case in which I am most familiar, the defendant has never been accused or suspected by anyone--including those closest to him--of actually abusing a child or anyone else. Yet he served more than two years of prison time before being paroled and he will be marked for life as a sex offender. Such punishment does not seem to fit the crime, yet we all have a natural inhibition against standing up for the rights of people who purchase child pornography. To be quite frank, I have thought about addressing this question before, but I didn't have the guts.

Judge Jack Weinstein got over those inhibitions some time ago. After hearing such cases in his New York Court--most notably one involving a married father of five--he concluded that ruining people's lives for looking at pictures made no sense. When this man was convicted, he polled the jury to ask them if they would still have voted to convict had they known that the defendant would face a significant prison term under federal sentencing guidelines. When five of them opposed a prison sentence and two said they would have changed their votes, he threw out the conviction and ordered a new trial. When an appeals court overruled his decision, he found other grounds to ask for one. Child pornography collectors, he said, need treatment and supervision, not jail. He is not alone--other judges around the country, the Times reports, are also fighting rear-guard actions against these sentences--but most, of course, are not.

What generation, you may be wondering, is Judge Weinstein? He is a GI, now 88 years old. Ironically, because they spent so much of their youth in large institutions, GIs, in my opinion, had an acute sense of the need of those institutions to be fair. Most Boomers, on the other hand, simply want to make sure that the right people, from their point of view, are running the show, so that they can act at will. There can't be many GIs left on the federal bench and it won't be long before there are none.

I realize some readers may be offended by this post, but I will never give up the idea that principles like the presumption of innocence and the need to prove specific offenses by facts are rights that everyone enjoys. Society has no right to take out its fear and anger on people who have not directly harmed anyone else. Crises and the early stages of the Highs that follow them (like the McCarthyite early 1950s) are historically the periods when witch hunts occur. No one can listen to half an hour of talk radio without realizing that the raw material for another one is plentiful in America. I'm glad to be a citizen of a country where Judge Weinstein sits on the bench.


Aunt Katie said...

Great topic, very well presented.

Having served seven years as a state court public defender, much of it in felony, and substantial sex crime case load; and having studied some of the ethical issues as a philosopher; I would say that the USA has not generally been well served, politically or economically, by its criminal justice system, state or federal. The reasons for manifold, go back to the beginnings of the republic, and are rather outside the scope of this blog reply.

All the best,
Gerald Meaders

Thomas S. said...

There is no doubt that an angry over reaction by the people would be dangerous for this country, and maybe even inevitable as history has shown, but certainly when a government has legitimately lost the faith and confidence of the people they are responsible to, a legitimate "outrage" on the part of the people is justified. This is what we are seeing. A sense of "enough is enough". Arrogantly ignoring the voice of the people, believing that they (the elite) know better than the people do, has been the source of anger in this country. If there were a common anthem for the Tea Party movement it would be that "the time has come for WE THE PEOPLE".

Aunt Katie said...

Read Schama's article.

I agree with him, re 1789, etc, rather than some later crises dates.

I have tried to read his stuff before, my Dutch heritage wife etc. prompted a look; but found it too circuitous for my taste; almost too arty, if you will.

But this article hits the point, in his 'inimitable' way.

Many thanks for pointing it out!

All the best,

Anonymous said...

I am surprised but fascinated by your narrative on supposed "child molestors." I personally know a person who has been visited by law enforcement officers -- task force types -- who seized a couple of computers because someone had sent him unsolicited teenage child pornography. This happened months ago and he has not been charged yet. But his life has been turned upside down in the meantime. I'll stop there.

It seems our laws have a way of ensuring so-called justice "one way or another."

Pat Mathews said...

"GIs want the institutions to be fair. Boomers just want the right people, as they see it, running the show." I have argued this with a very dogmatic friend born in 1960, saying "I'm against this measure (whatever) because -- would you want, say, George Bush to have such power?" He just looks at me as if I were totally out of it and gently explains "That's why we have to be sure our own side gets in." Cold chill down my spine...

Good post. And what happened to the old folks during the French Revolution?

Gerald said...


I always enjoyed watching Leslie Howard more in the Scarlet Pimpernel than in Gone With The Wind; not that that is necessarily a comment on any historical issues presented here......

All the best,
Gerald Meaders