Prisoners As Subjects Unworthy Of Moral Concern

The Intercept notes–in an essay by Alice Speri–that ‘deadly heat’ is killing prisoners in US prisons, that state governments would much rather spend money on legal fees than on installing air conditioning. In one egregious instance, Louisiana spent one million on legal fees to avoid spending $225,000 on AC. As the secretary of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections Jimmy LeBlanc put it to the Associated Press in June, installing air conditioning at Angola would open a “Pandora’s box.” and that his “biggest concern is the impact on the whole system and the cost.” As George Gale noted in response (in a comment on my Facebook page), “I suspect what he actually means is “The public would crucify us if we air conditioned prisoners!”


Not too long ago. I made the mistake of reading the comments section in an online article about Orange is the New Black. There, many commentators expressed anger and dismay over the treatment of prisoners that was depicted in the show. Unfortunately, their anger and dismay was directed at the coddling that the inmates seemed to receive behind bars: They watch television! They walk around in the prison yard! They get their hair done! They had a store where they could buy stuff! One commentator finally went right ahead and said it “These women have a better life than I do.” There was something pathetic about that claim, something that spoke to just how onerous she imagined her life to be if it could be compared to that of a prisoner locked up behind bars. (This is not to say that many living outside of prison do not have qualitatively worse lives than they would have inside but I do not think this person, with an internet connection and the time to read and comment on an article about a television show, was one of them.)

Somewhere in the retributivist argument that many folks employ, the following premise is smuggled in:

If you commit a crime, and are convicted of doing so, you thereby lose all and claims to any civil, constitutional, and human rights. Indeed, you cease being a human deserving of any sort of considerate treatment. You are, after all, a convicted criminal.

It will be noticed that in this case ‘convicted criminal’ has come to mean ‘degenerate sub-human lacking those vital features which make him or her a worthy subject of moral concern.’ It’s not an eye for a eye but rather body and soul for an eye. (It should be remembered that the ‘eye for an eye’ formulation includes proportionality in its claim.) As a result, it is not enough that prisoners are denied their freedom and choice, restricted to particular spaces, told when to wake up, go to sleep, put the lights out, exercise, served particular food items and not other (with some concessions made for dietary constraints), and subjected to–among many arbitrary exercises of power–violence and sexual assault from guards and other inmates. No matter. They deserve it, they asked for it, they got what was coming, if you can’t do the time don’t do the crime, they should have thought about this before they committed the crime: the list of stern platitudes directed at convicts is never-ending, a grand testimonial to the smugness and complacency and small-mindedness of those of us on the ‘outside’ who have lost our capacity for empathy, who imagine that the strong arm of the law will never be lowered on them, who imagine that when they make a mistake, the benevolence and forgiving that has been so carefully hidden away by the world so that it can better deal with its convicts will suddenly be directed at them. It won’t; to encourage vindictive and cruel retribution directed at others is to set up a store for oneself too.

Chelsea Manning’s Bad Luck With The American Polity

In The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story Behind The Wikileaks Whistleblower(Verso Press, New York, 2013) Chase Madar writes:

If any lesson can be drawn from the Manning affair, it’s that leaks can make a great difference if there is organized political muscle to put them to good use. Information on its own is futile; as useless as those other false hopes of the global center-left, international law and its sidekick, the human rights industry, all of which have their uses, but are insufficient to stop wars and end torture. This is not to denigrate the achievements of the person who have us this magnificent gift of knowledge about world affairs. If the disclosures have not changed US statecraft–yet–the fault lies not in the cables, but in the pathetic lack of political organization among those individuals who don’t “have a position” in Halliburton stock–the 99% if you will.

There are two theses presented here by Madar: a) information is sterile unless coupled with political organization and action, and b) international law and the ‘human rights industry’ are ‘insufficient to stop wars and end torture’–they are ‘false hopes.’ (The former claim may be understood as a variant of Marcuse‘s praxis + theory axiom of politics.)

The seeming inefficacy of Chelsea Manning‘s leaks of a veritable treasure trove of revelations about the conduct of US foreign policy and warfare now becomes explicable; those seeds fell on infertile ground. Manning’s leaks were fed to a polity that is at heart conformist and accepting of authority, and whose most suffering faction–the staggering 99%–is disorganized, apathetic in large sectors, and all too easily resigned to a fate characterized by endless wars and a Nietzschean endless recurrence of the same cast of political characters and ideologies ruling the roost. ‘On its own’ information has no political valence; it is only when it serves as the premise of a political argument that it acquires traction.  At the risk of invoking the wrath of those who dislike military metaphors, perhaps we can think of information as ammunition; indispensable, yet insufficient without the right sorts of blunderbusses. (That pair of ‘false hopes of the global center-left, international law and its sidekick, the human rights industry’ are similarly indicted: both, on their own, decoupled from the capacity to enforce and from organized political muscle, are reduced to platitudes, mouthed in predictable time and fashion by the usual suspects. No enforcement authority backs them up; and the political realism of the postivisitic conception of both law and rights appears ever plausible.)

America got lucky with Chelsea Manning; but the luck only went in one direction. Manning didn’t get lucky with her nation; she was feeding information to a polity that didn’t know what to do with it (and which instead, called her a ‘traitor’ and imprisoned and tortured her.) The reception to the Panama Papers, which despite the initial furore, and even the odd resignation or two, is best described as equal parts yawn and shrug, provides further confirmation for this claim. Artful dodging of local jurisdictions to enable ‘fraud, kleptocracy, tax evasion, and evading international sanctions’ is old hat; and there is nothing we can do about it anyway.

Back to rearranging chairs on deck.

Thomas Jefferson: Creepy, or Redeemed by the Declaration of Independence?

The Thomas Jefferson nightmare is on us again. Was the Mother of All Founding Fathers a dastardly racist, and perhaps worse, a hypocrite to boot? Paul Finkelman has an Op-Ed in The New York Times that makes that case: at the time he penned the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson owned 175 slaves; over the next fifty years he did not free all his slaves, not even after his death; he opposed private manumission and public emancipation; he punished slaves by selling them away from families and friends; he suggested expelling the offspring of mixed-race unions from Virginia; and in many writings, spoke disparagingly of slaves’ mental and moral qualities.

David Post over at The Volokh Conspiracy has a rejoinder that suggests the correct response to the Finkleman Op-Ed should be a resounding, and I quote ‘So what? So what?  Really – so what?’ because–as part of his evidence for this claim–Post notes that Lincoln cites Jefferson as the true inspiration for anti-slavery and abolition platforms in 1858:

The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society….All honor to Jefferson—to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression. [italics in Post’s article]

and then goes on to say:

Even if Jefferson had done nothing more than pen those words and get them inserted into the foundational document for the new country— and he did plenty more, see my paper here — declaring that principle to be a self-evident truth and at the foundation of any legitimate government was an act of political courage, not cowardice or hypocrisy, at a time when slavery was at the heart of the way of life and an economy across vast swaths of colonial America.

If I’ve understood Post correctly, his claim–in this post at least, for I have not fully read the paper he links to above to make a longer case for Jefferson–is that Jefferson’s declaration of universal equality of man, made in the abstract, supersedes or at least ameliorates his slave-owning record. This kind of defense of the sordid personal side of a public figure is not unknown: the figure in question deserves our tolerance for the public record outweighs the personal lacunae.

The problem here, of course, is that Jefferson’s slavery record is not a mere personal peccadillo, and it is not in indirect conflict with his public record. Rather it is a straightforwardly direct repudiation of his publicly avowed political claims. Imagine, for instance, someone trying to get George W. Bush off the hook for his illegal war in Iraq and his violations of civil rights at home by pointing to his various speeches, at home and abroad, where he waxes eloquent about freedom and democracy. The invocation of Lincoln, I think, does even less work. As Ann Bartow pointed out, in a comment on Post’s Facebook page, ‘[I]t is likely that Lincoln was using Jefferson strategically. Selling the idea that black men were “men” was perhaps less threatening if you could tie someone like Jefferson to the idea.’

I’m afraid it isn’t so easy to wash out the blot of slavery. The ‘damned spot’ sticks.