Adding further to Mr. Hollander’s observation, the race of the victim also matters these days with the Obama administration. Consider the deafening silence from Eric Holder’s DOJ regarding the racially motivated mob attacks at the Wisconsin State Fair in 2010, or in Ohio in 2009, or any number of similar incidents where whites are beaten senseless by mobs yelling racial slurs as they bloody women and children. 18 U.S.C. Section 245 covers this behavior, but people inside our Justice Department (I name the names in Injustice) are unwilling to enforce the law against the black wrongdoers because the victims are white. They’ve probably been reading The New Jim Crow and can excuse a racially motivated beating from time to time, depending on who is involved.
Dalrymple: Paul Hollander is of course right in saying that the sympathetic understanding extended to criminals by intellectuals is selective, and does not apply to certain kinds of criminals who victimize designated types of victims. In England recently, for example, two white racist thugs were convicted of killing a young black man. The liberal press extended no understanding to the perpetrators, nor do I see any reason why it should have done so, though of course the behavior of these thugs must have had as many social and psychological influences as does the behavior of anyone else. The liberal press was punitive in its attitude, and again rightly so; but that punitiveness does not transfer to crimes committed by favored groups, whose behavior is explained away.
I think there is one general point that needs to be made. The romanticization of crime is not new or confined to one country. The criminal with a heart of gold is almost a stock figure in literature. One laughs at Falstaff, our life is enriched by him, but he is nevertheless a criminal. Dostoyevsky promoted the idea that the greater the sinner, the greater the saint. Sartre’s book about Genet, a psychopathic criminal, is called Saint Genet. William S Burroughs thought that criminals were authentic in a way that ordinary middle class people were not. Mailer saw in the murderer Abbott a man of great talent and in effect aided him in killing someone else.
Balzac said that behind every great fortune lies a great crime, but romantics say that within every great criminal there is someone good waiting and wanting to be redeemed. That is why notorious and brutal killers seldom lack for declarations of love and even offers of marriage. There is a wonderful, hilarious and terrible Australian book on this subject, called Dream Lovers, by Jacquelynne Willcox-Bailey. It recounts stories of delusion about criminals that truly are extraordinary.
A mixture of sentimentality and intellectual pride distinguishes the attitude of many liberal intellectuals towards crime, which almost never affects them personally. On the one hand there is a reluctance to believe that ordinary people can behave very badly; on the other they believe that it is the function of the intellectual to uncover the underlying ‘reality’ of phenomena (if he is not for that, what is he for?), so that it represents a loss of caste to express the ordinary man in the street’s horror at or revulsion against crime.
Thus crime has to become not really crime, but something else altogether more noble, which it takes nobility and intelligence or acuity on the part of the intellectual in turn to recognize. People don’t steal or rob because they want something and think it is the easiest way to get it; they are uttering a protest against injustice. Moral grandiosity and exhibitionism are the occupational hazards of intellectuals.
None of this should, of course, be taken to mean that we should not oppose injustice where it really exists.
Hollander: Mr. Adams listed a number of dismaying incidents (some of which I never heard of, e.g. the mob violence at some Wisconsin state fair) in the realm of law enforcement which illustrate the general themes of this discussion. Apparently officials in the Dept. of Justice on occasion incline to the views which prevail on the campuses. These views and the associated policies can be understood in light of past discrimination, thus there is some plausibility to the argument that if a disproportionate number of black students are disciplined in school or black drivers stopped by the police for alleged traffic violations, racism, that is to say, a hostile predisposition is bound to play a part. Same goes for the disproportionate number of blacks in prison.
But there is the crucial empirical question: do more black students misbehave in school than white or Asian? Do more young black males commit more crimes than their white or Asian counterparts? Even if it is established and agreed that they do, it is still possible to fall back on a more nuanced explanation that includes racism. Thus it can be argued that their behavioral problems or higher rates of criminality may very well originate in the racism of the past (and its impact on the family structure, upbringing, levels of education etc) and not present day discrimination. While the long term after effects of such past discrimination are real, it does not follow that black criminals or misbehaving students bear no responsibility whatsoever for their behavior, or that their behavior is completely dominated and determined by social forces over which they have no control. Concepts like “disparate impact” or “structural racism” are dubious unless there is evidence of actual discrimination. Is the small number of black mathematicians or brain surgeons or musicians in symphony orchestras due to racist discrimination? I rather doubt it. On the other hand, it does have something to with the history of black people in this country and the injustices and deprivations they suffered.
Theodore Dalrymple provided further excellent examples of the literary romanticization of crime and the benign attitudes of some intellectuals towards it. He is also right in emphasizing that, as a rule, these sympathizers have no personal experience of crime, of being victimized by criminals, and criminal violence in particular remains an abstraction for them. Poor people, by contrast, are more punitive partly because they are more often victims of crime and because they don’t embrace moral relativism.
Let me summarize why many intellectuals seem to be favorably disposed toward criminals, or certain types of them:
1) many of them come from the ranks of the poor, the underprivileged, they are putative or genuine victims of society, their behavior determined by inexorable social forces. At the same time, and contradicting the former perception,
2) they are also considered fighters for social justice, their crimes perceived as social protest;
3) they are brave, they take risks, often of impressive physique and physical strength that also impresses timid, sedentary intellectuals;
4) they are authentic, they act out their rejection of the existing social order, they lead dangerous and seemingly adventurous lives.
But as I said earlier, these sympathies are selective and ideologically or philosophically defined. Few people are inclined to be sympathetic toward, or ask for understanding, rapists, child molesters, serial killers or white collar criminals, and their behavior is rarely excused or mitigated on the grounds of inexorable social forces which shaped it.
Adams: It is true that petty criminals have been endearing figures in literature. I’ll add the Artful Dodger to the list provided by Mr. Dalrymple. What distinguishes the positive portrayal of these fictional criminals from Alexander’s sweeping racialist explanation for crime in The New Jim Crow is perhaps the absence of a political and ideological component to give quarter to the fictional criminals, at least not an overt one. Alexander’s attitude toward criminals is rooted firmly in a racialist and corrupt ideological perspective. Simply, people are in jail because a structurally racist system has conspired against them and has criminalized behavior they either can’t help, or shouldn’t be held accountable for. Her intense ideological perspective bears little resemblance to the good natured and jovial fictional criminal.
Then the troubling figure of Falstaff enters our forum. If anybody was a loveable and politically enabled criminal, it was Falstaff. His relationship with Prince Hal gave him all sorts of license, and he expects it to continue after Harry’s coronation. Unfortunately King Henry has other ideas, “I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers; How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!” The King has terminated whatever political relationship allowed Falstaff’s crimes. Alexander does not share Henry’s sense of universal justice. She is willing to excuse.
Regarding the unpunished mob violence since Obama’s inauguration, I discuss it in more detail here or you could listen to Rush Limbaugh read the same article here (starts at 5:30), which I never cease to enjoy. What I describe in the article finds its justification in the ideas of Michelle Alexander, even if the criminals were not familiar with her latest book. The racially motivated mob attacks are the natural result of ideas like Alexander’s. Worse, the failure to prosecute the crimes by the Eric Holder Justice Department also finds support in Alexander’s rotted ideas.
That’s why none of what you have been reading in this forum is theoretical. The fist to the face of Marty Marshall of Akron, Ohio, is rough and real. The brutal violence against Michael Chambers isn’t speculative. These attacks, and the want of legal consequences, are the result of ideas like Alexander’s, and they must be rejected.
Dalrymple: Again, Paul Hollander is right in alluding to the existence and importance of prejudice. It is surely not very difficult to believe that policemen or even courts are often prejudiced against blacks, and that a whole vicious circle of expectation, response, expectation, further response, is set up.
But as he rightly says, the existence of prejudice does not absolve people of personal responsibility; and if a black burglar is sent to prison and a white burglar is not, to whom is the injustice done, to the black burglar or the white, to the victim of the first or that victim of the second? It is surely a prejudice that, if there were justice in the world, everyone would be better off than he is. Many people would be worse off.
Since I know England better than America, let me allude to an interesting phenomenon here. The last time I looked, rates of imprisonment of Sikhs and Hindus were so low that they were not deemed worth calculating. By contrast, rates of imprisonment of Muslims of Indian sub-continental origin were four times higher than expected by comparison with their numbers in the population.
Now it is possible, though I think very unlikely, that this difference in outcome is the result of prejudice. I think I can, with a fair degree of accuracy, distinguish a Hindu from a Muslim, just by appearances (I can’t easily describe how I do it). And of course names are different. But the kind of person who is likely to act on his prejudices – and there is a difference between having and acting on prejudices – is not likely to make subtle distinctions. Therefore it seems to me likely that the difference in imprisonment rate of Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus in Britain is the result of prejudice and not of a real difference in conduct, however that difference arose in the first place. Incidentally, this is borne out by the relative economic success of these groups, which is very different.
I am not sufficiently well-up in American criminological literature to know whether the figures for black imprisonment have been disaggregated, as surely they could be.
Any criminal justice system has to deal with the cases that come before it; and it is no defense against a charge that others have got away with exactly the same behavior (which is always the case). I cannot say I was not guilty of speeding because the car in front of me was going even faster, and the driver is not appearing in court.
One of the most alarming things to me about Alexander’s book was the use of the term ‘racial justice.’ I think you have to have a tin ear to use it, given its historical connotations. However, a lot of injustice, it seems to me, could be avoided if the plea-bargaining system were reined in; though whether this would seize up the courts I do not know. But plea-bargaining is essentially unjust.
Hollander: Perhaps it is a sign of moral progress that in some societies, such as the American, there is public concern with the fate of those imprisoned rather than taking for granted that they got what they deserved.
This discussion also raised the question, at least for me, of the part played by moral indignation in criminal justice. The two authors whose books we made reference to, directed their moral indignation at the criminal justice system, and the larger society it is embedded in, convinced as they are, that the overwhelming majority of black and Hispanic inmates are innocent of any crimes, or serious crimes. These writers seem to have little emotional energy left for moral indignation stimulated by the victims of those who are not innocently imprisoned. These victims themselves are often black and Hispanic. Doubtless there are also many people in this society who do not have sleepless nights over people imprisoned for minor offenses, or on the basis of insufficient evidence, or because of some type of bias on the part of the police, judge or jury.
Apparently it is very difficult to display moral indignation that is balanced and directed at wrongs which are irrelevant to our ideological disposition.
FP: Christian Adams, Theodore Dalrymple and Dr. Paul Hollander, thank you for joining Frontpage Symposium.
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