Forward to next post: In Which I Kiss Off Any Remaining Chance Of Ever Being A Kool Kid of the “Netroots”
Ezra Klein has been blogging, repeatedly and well, about rape in American prisons, and American acceptance of the idea that it’s perfectly okay for prisoners to be subjected to it. As Ezra observes, “We spend a fair amount of time talking about detainee treatment and Guantanamo. But there are no greater, or more common, human rights abuses in America than those occurring in our overcrowded, constantly expanding jails.”
Robert Farley of Lawyers, Guns, and Money adds some excellent points:
[O]ne of the most irritating aspects of CSI (which, sadly, I have been unable to break from) is the common, almost offhand manner in which the heroes threaten suspects with the prospect of rape in prison. It suggests to me that the public at large has simply concluded that a) rape is an integral part of prison life, such that a five year prison sentence automatically includes five years of rape, and b) that anyone who goes to prison is irredeemably besmirched, and thus deserving of constant rape.I think the idea that “society requires extra-legal violence in order to hold together” is pretty much fundamental to the conservative outlook. Even more important, and useful as a tool of social control, is the idea that all wised-up people know and accept this. That’s the real message behind all those hectoring commands to smarten up, toughen up, get with the program, understand that “9/11 changed everything,” and so forth.
To take this a bit farther, it’s interesting to compare modern conceptions of prison (sadly or no, I’ve never seen Prison Break) with the work of Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard. For Haggard or Cash, that a poor white family would have to deal with the prison system in some fashion was simply a fact of life, even if Cash himself only spent one night behind bars. Moreover, neither Cash nor Haggard dodged the question of guilt; even if the protagonists of their songs weren’t going away for life, they were usually guilty of something. At some point (probably as the War on Drugs saw a steady increase in the incarceration percentages of young black men) the idea that white people would have to deal with prison became alien. Is there music or other art today that deals with the possibility that guilty white folks might spend time in prison, and thus that prison should be made at least survivable?
Making a bigger leap, I think that the thread connecting 24, CSI, opposition to anti-bullying legislation, and in the past opposition to anti-lynching statutes is the conviction that society requires extra-legal violence in order to hold together. On 24 (as ably demonstrated by Jane Mayer; more on this later) elite agents of the state murder and torture in the darkness to keep us safe. The heroes of CSI are agents of the state working in the open, but their main job is to track down deviants killing other deviants in order to send the first group of deviants to prison so they can get raped. As Sarah Posner discussed, opposition to anti-bullying legislation is founded on the idea that, without bullying, our children will be recruited into gay cabals, and society will crumble. Conservative opposition to efforts to stem lynching were explicitly about how lynching was a necessary tool to defending the social order of the South.
Both ideas are also deeply ingrained in science fiction and fantasy, including some of the genre’s most intelligent work; indeed, much of the genre works by appealing to our wish that the world’s extra-legal violence be under the control of the kind of smart people we admire. The Second Foundation and the X-Men—and, for that matter, the Scooby Gang and the Laundry—are all, to some extent, basically the Ku Klux Klan, except that the extrajudicial violence they carry out is (we’re assured) merited and just.