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August 2007
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Moralism and the United States Gulags

In The Nation, Daniel Lazare has an amazing piece about the drug war and incarceration in the United States: Stars and Bars

How can you tell when a democracy is dead? When concentration camps spring up and everyone shivers in fear? Or is it when concentration camps spring up and no one shivers in fear because everyone knows they’re not for “people like us”…

This is a powerful indictment of the incarceration by-product of the drug war (and its racial emphasis), and Lazare doesn’t let anybody off lightly:

Several of the leading Democratic candidates, for example, have recently come out against the infamous 100-to-1 ratio that subjects someone carrying ten grams of crack to the same penalty as someone caught with a kilo of powdered cocaine. Senator Joe Biden has actually introduced legislation to eliminate the disparity–without, however, acknowledging his role as a leading drug warrior back in the 1980s, when he sponsored the bill that set it in stone in the first place. At a recent forum at Howard University, Hillary Clinton promised to “deal” with the disparity as well, although it would have been nice if she had done so back in the ’90s, when, during the first Clinton Administration, the prison population was soaring by some 50 percent. Although he is not running this time around, Jesse Jackson recently castigated Dems for their hesitancy in addressing “failed, wasteful, and unfair drug policies” that have sent “so many young African-Americans” to jail. Yet Jackson forgot to mention his own drug-war past when, as a leading hardliner, he specifically called for “stiffer prison sentences” for black drug users and “wartime consequences” for smugglers. “Since the flow of drugs into the US is an act of terrorism, antiterrorist policies must be applied,” he declared in a 1989 interview, a textbook example of how the antidrug rhetoric of the late twentieth century helped pave the way for the “global war on terror” of the early twenty-first.
In other words, cowardice and hypocrisy abound.

The article draws a lot of powerful material from Sasha Abramsky’s book: American Furies: Crime, Punishment, and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment — a book that details how the prison system came to be more about punishment and vengeance (without any real legitimacy) than about rehabilitation.
Lazare’s conclusion is depressingly vivid:

American mass incarceration is not what social scientists call “evidence based.” It is not a policy designed to achieve certain practical, utilitarian ends that can then be weighed and evaluated from time to time to determine if it is performing as intended. Rather, it is a moral policy whose purpose is to satisfy certain passions that have grown more and more brutal over the years. The important thing about moralism of this sort is that it is its own justification. For true believers, it is something that everyone should endorse regardless of the consequences. As right-wing political scientist James Q. Wilson once remarked, “Drug use is wrong because it is immoral,” a comment that not only sums up the tautological nature of US drug policies but also shows how they are structured to render irrelevant questions about wasted dollars and blighted lives. Moralism of this sort is neither rational nor democratic, and the fact that it has triumphed so completely is an indication of how deeply the United States has sunk into authoritarianism since the 1980s. With the prison population continuing to rise at a 2.7 percent annual clip, there is no reason to think there will be a turnaround soon.

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