Why Rationality and American Politics Are in Fundamental Conflict
zpoAlpCtgnc - "A Science of Social Justice: Reason Revival"
“Having a serious discussion about ending or greatly marginalizing poverty in America is too important for sectarian or ideological bickering among our elites. We need to find a way to engineer what is one of the most important conversations of the 21st Century – how to bring rationality, philosophy and science into the public domain, in a way that transcends our partisan dogmas.”
Let us look at two different statements about the same problem. One is based on scientific thinking, facts and an analytical frame of mind. The other is a common political sound bite.
(1) Studies have shown for decades5 that we have a vicious cycle of incarceration, poverty, re-arrest, and crime. We have seen that alternatives to incarceration for smaller crimes, as well as making it easier for those without financial means to navigate the justice system, actually save tax dollars, reduce crime and drug use, and are far better for families and communities as a whole. This has been continually corroborated by experts in the field, veterans of the system, community field workers, seasoned police officers, lawyers, judges, lifetime residents of these communities, and the wider domain of social science.
(2) Criminals make bad choices and we need to be tough on crime. We need law and order. We need to remain diligent in the drug war. If you don’t like our justice system, don’t get arrested.
The first is a statement of facts, evidence, and scientific thinking; the second is a common sound bite by politicians, and by many who echo political dogma. Contrast these two statements, in terms of their very substance and the value they have as a guideline for taking action and seeking solutions. These are essentially two fundamentally different vehicles for navigating the terrain of social problems. They hold different frames of reference to reality and are not compatible as a way of solving problems. They will lead to different outcomes. Let us ask ourselves an honest question: which one is better suited for problem solving? Better for responding to our social ills and political issues? The answer should be obvious. Then ask ourselves: which one have we been using more? In this regard, the second example has clearly been winning out against the first, for decades. How has this worked out for us? Few have thought this through in a truly sobering way.
I want to make a point clear, to avoid misunderstanding. This is not chiefly about specific solutions or particular political positions per se – it is about better modes of conversation. It is about better ways of having a conversation. It is also about pointing out the Naked Emperor in the room. About political policies we know are backward and nonsensical, such as our approach to mass incarceration at the expense of more sound, humane, proven and cost-effective alternatives. We have accepted, en masse, a ‘culture of irrationality’ in which bad policies and bad ideas are not challenged in any serious way
The actual effects of these policies on human life and human flourishing are subordinated in our national discourse to partisanship and emotion
Age of Enlightenment, a result of the Scientific Revolution. These events changes history and gave us new ways to think about the world, about being open to evidence, argument, and observation. Many of our social programs, from aggressive policing, drug sentencing, mass incarceration, and inequality before our justice system for the poor, are operating off of pre-Enlightenment, pre-scientific modes of thinking. The Scientific Revolution started with Galileo in the 1600s It is currently 2015, and we still have Dark-Age social policies. We need a new Rational Revolution in the American political system.
Rikers Island and the Moral Arc of Justice, Science, and US Policy
As you read this very sentence, there are un-convicted people sitting by the hundreds in Rikers Island who have been there for months, simply awaiting trial. Their chief crime thus far is failing to have the friends, family or bank account to afford bail, while the very possibility of their guilt –and their very status as a deserving guest of the corrections system to begin with – has not yet even been established by the judicial process. They are being held in hellish, degrading and sometimes dangerous conditions of physical and psychological depravity that no politician or lawmaker would willingly subject their children to even if they volunteered – and of which the vast majority of us are almost completely unaware of. As a veteran of elite military training and selection processes, of harsh conditions of cold, of food and sleep deprivation, and of mental, physical and psychological rigors most would eagerly shy away from, I can admit that the experience by countless undeserving Americans of bearing the cross of the justice system is its own special category of hardship. It is crushing in ways I cannot even muster the words for, born out by experiential realities that are beyond my skillset as a writer to properly capture
“The main objects of all science, the freedom and happiness of man, are the sole objects of all legitimate government.” -Thomas Jefferson
With this statement in mind, I want to cite a few contrasting (admittedly subjective) narratives, let the reader see the glaring contrast, and then decide which ones hold merit.
To cite several quotes from Michelle Alexander’s book11, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness:
“All people make mistakes. All of us are sinners. All of us are criminals. All of us violate the law at some point in our lives. In fact, if the worst thing you have ever done is speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway, you have put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of his or her living room. Yet there are people in the United States serving life sentences for first-time drug offenses, something virtually unheard of anywhere else in the world.”
“The nature of the criminal justice system has changed. It is no longer
primarily concerned with the prevention and punishment of crime, but rather
with the management and control of the dispossessed.”
“The fate of millions of people—indeed the future of the black community itself—may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to re-examine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society.”
Now contrast this with a famous statement by America’s most popular12 (by radio rankings) talk radio host:
"What this says to me
is that too many whites are getting away with drug use, too many whites are
getting away with drug sales, too many whites are getting away with trafficking
in this stuff. The answer to this disparity is not to start letting people out
of jail because we're not putting others in jail who are breaking the law. The
answer is to go out and find the ones who are getting away with it, convict
them and send them up the river, too."
-- Rush Limbaugh. October 5, 1995 show
Which of these quotes stands out as perhaps being out of touch with moral common sense and empirical reality? The first 3 quotes are about Restorative Justice (results-based, outcome-focused), and the last one arguably reflects the sentiments of Retributive Justice (moral purity / revenge-based). The latter has more in common with the justice in the mountains of Afghanistan than with 21st Century logic, or even with post-Enlightenment logic.