I just finished reading A People’s History of the United States after about three false starts over the past year. It’s quite an amazing read, but I kept putting it down and then picking it back up again months later as it’s rather, well, depressing to read about the vastly under-reported exploitation that’s gone on in American history.  Of course there’s the obvious genocide of the American Indians that is completely absent from the history taught in schools, and the horrors of slavery, but this book also details the oppression of the poor and working classes under the rich elite and how our Constitution is set up to perpetuate this imbalance.  Even as a self-proclaimed bleeding-heart liberal, it was really astonishing to read the extent to which the government in this country has gone to help the rich get richer at the expense of the poor getting poorer.

It is not simply the vast imbalance of wealth that is disturbing, it is the uses to which that wealth is put.  Money may be the root of all evil, but in and of itself, it is merely a tool. (1) Gaining money simply for having money is pointless. As appealing as it would be to roll around in a vat of money á la Scrooge McDuck, there is nothing gained in doing so. I am not the sort of person who believes that having a lot of money is in and of itself a sin, nor am I a Communist who believes that all wealth should be equitably distributed (2), but I do believe that those who control the wealth of the country – that is, the government – has a responsibility to use it for the greater good.

Which is distinctly not how money is or has ever been used. And this, I believe, is why we need a revolution. (3) Governments have kept themselves in power without having to kow-tow to the needs of the Average Joe by waging wars, designed to stir up nationalistic fervor and temporarily boost the economy, without having to make any concessions or drastic change to the laws that favor business at the expense of the worker. In the absence of actual war, the government has been known to dwell on the very threat of war (4) to keep the citizenry in the sort of heightened state of panic necessary to build a vast arsenal of unnecessary weapons at the expense of spending money on social reform.  Even President Dwight D. Eisenhower acknowledged this when he stated:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in a final sense a theft from those who are hungry and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.

Zinn goes on to elaborate on this statement:

A radical reduction in the military budget would require a renunciation of war, a withdrawal of military bases from around the world, an acceptance, finally, of the principle enunciated in the UN Charter that the world should renounce “the scourge of war.” It would speak to the fundamental human desire (overwhelmed too often by barrages of superpatriotic slogans) to live at peace with others.

The public appeal for such a dramatic policy change would be based on a simple but powerful moral argument: that given the nature of modern warfare, the victims would be mostly civilians.  To put it another way, war in our time is always a war against children.  And if the children of other countries are to be granted an equal right to life with our own children, then we must use our extraordinary human ingenuity to find nonmilitary solutions to world problems.

Put like this it’s hard to argue for increased military spending, but this of course not the message that the government puts out.  We allow ourselves to believe, as we hear, that bombs only hit military targets unless by accident. American deaths are tragedies, foreign deaths are statistics. The status quo continues unabated. And yet, as a people, we are sensitive to the issues of poverty – especially in children – in other countries. How many times have your heart strings been tugged by ads for Unicef or other organizations offering to sponsor third world children for pennies a day (5)? People are generally willing to help those in meaner conditions than themselves, unless by doing so they have to give up fundamentally sacred to do so.

Which is why the government as it stands will never, no matter who is President, abolish – or even drastically cut back on – military spending in favor of health care or education reform.  War brings business – and not just in arms sales; just look at Halliburton in Iraq.  Controlling Iraq means controlling its resources, and at this point in time, there is no resource more precious to the American government than oil. Without a serious revolution, the United States government will never invest in its children what it invests in a nuclear arsenal.

If you need me, I’ll be out back singing Kumbaya.(6)

NOTES:

1) As the great philosopher DiFranco says: “Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right.”

2) For all members of the CIA reading this: Hello. I am not a Communist. No need to pick up the phone. It’s all ok.

3) I have no opinion as to whether or not the revolution will be televised, but I’m sure it will be live-blogged.

4) See for example: The Cold War. The War on Drugs. The War on Terror. The War on Christmas.

5) I can’t even think of those ads without wanting to cry – the flies! Oh the flies! As a kid, I wanted to adopt ALL of the African children and send them my lunch money. I am both a bleeding-heart liberal and a sucker for advertising.

6) No, not really. I hate that song.

Class Issues in Prison Break.

November 26, 2007

NOTE: I am watching the first season of Prison Break on Netflix. Please consider any comments carefully to AVOID SPOILERS.

The television drama Prison Break is set up on the premise of a successful engineer (Michael Scofield) who commits a crime to end up in prison and assist his death-row inmate brother (Lincoln Burrows) (1) escape. I was hesitant to watch this show as my thoughts tend to run along the lines of “So, then what’s going to happen when they actually escape? Is that going to be the end of the show? And if they don’t escape? What’s the point of that?” But then again, I am a big fan of Lost, which also can not go on forever, so I stepped up to the plate and swallowed my disbelief. (2)

One issue that comes up over and over again in the first season is the disbelief of the secondary characters that someone like Michael would end up in prison in the first place. What would trigger an engineer with a clean record to commit a violent crime? (3) In the world where crimes are not committed to aid in getting one’s brother out of jail and one does not get blueprints of state penitentiaries tattooed all over one’s torso to aid in this scheme, engineers with clean criminal records and no history of mental illness are not at all likely to commit violent crime, and what’s more is that if they do, they are not likely to serve hard time in prison.

Howard Zinn writes a concise summary of the American prison system in A People’s History of the United States (4):

The prisons in the United States had long been an extreme reflection of the American system itself: the stark life differences between rich and poor, the racism, the use of victims against one another, the lack of resources of the underclass to speak out, the endless “reforms” that changed little. Dostoevski once said: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

It had long been true, and prisoners knew this better than anyone, that the poorer you were the more likely you were to end up in jail. This was not just because the poor committed more crimes. In fact, they did. The rich did not have to commit crimes to get what they wanted; the laws were on their side. But when the rich did commit crimes, they often were not prosecuted, and if they were they could get out on bail, hire clever lawyers, get better treatment from judges. Somehow, the jails ended up full of poor black people.

Not only did Michael Scofield not fit the class profile of someone who committed a violent crime, but he certainly did not fit the profile of someone who ended up in prison for said crime. He certainly had a “clever lawyer” in Veronica Donovan, he could afford whatever fines were placed on him, and certainly, a judge would be predisposed by his previous clean record to offer him lighter sentencing than that which is advised. He wasn’t only the type of person who wouldn’t normally end up in prison, but as Michel Foucault (5) argues, he isn’t the type of person for whom prisons are designed in the first place. As he puts it, prisons are built by the bourgeoisie to separate the lower class “other” in incrementally more isolating mechanisms depending on the severity of the infraction: mere displacement from society for minor offenses, solitary confinement for more serious crimes, and the ultimate punishment – destruction of the individual for those offenses that are totally egregious.

So called “White collar” criminals don’t end up in prison merely because their crimes are non-violent, but because the prison system was designed to keep the rich, white elements on the outside and the poor, non-white elements on the inside. Scofield, as a rich white man, had no business being in prison and in a non-television drama, his place in society would have probably kept him from serving any time for a failed bank robbery in which no one was injured. He would have faced probation and some serious fines, but those elaborate tattoos would likely have been for naught.

NOTES

1) It is explained somewhere mid-season that the two characters who are biologically full-brothers have different last names because their father left while Michael was still in utero and in light of this, their mother chose to give him her maiden name, thus conveniently setting up a scenario in which the criminal justice system would neglect to realize that these two inmates were of relation.

2) Actually, I started watching it because my boyfriend got it on Netflix. But that’s not really as impressive sounding.

3) He robbed a bank and discharged a gun. No one was hurt, but the firing of the weapon classified the crime as “violent” on which basis the judge – an older African-American woman, just to continue the world of statistically unlikely occupations – made the ruling that she felt “incumbent that [he] see the inside of a prison cell,” which is a pretty awesome sentence. Not often do you find “incumbent” cropping up in an sentence.

4) My current bed-time reading. See what college does to you? Beware kids, you too will be reading serious social criticism for fun.

5) Yes, I’ve read Foucault. In my spare time. In French. This is what college does to you! I’m telling you, it’s dangerous!