Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Not much Christmas spirit this year.

Recently, a Republican friend of mine (I do have Republican friends) sent me an email, recounting a tale of a Republican father and his hard-working student liberal Democrat daughter who, brainwashed by her profoundly elite college professors, berated her father for his selfishness. The father, giving as good as he got, reminded his prodigal child that Democrats were interested, through some ignorance of the Dickensian realities of life, to surrender all their freedoms; she simply did not understand that the progenitors of individual wealth should not be subjected to redistributionist taxation. Why did she not give part of her hard earned 4.0 GPA to her partying 2.0 GPA friend as a token of her undying friendship? When his daughter refused, he pronounced her a Republican.

The histoire continued in a vein of how Republicans benefited from hard work, self-reliance, control over the self, and how Democrats were willing to surrender all individual freedoms to the common good. Other included pronouncements were that conservatives who did not like guns did not buy them, homosexuals “quietly stayed at home,” (as if there were some shame to that), and how down-and-out conservatives lift themselves up by their bootstraps instead of looking for handouts.
Like all exaggerations the tale had some truth to it, but a little truth is as good as a prevarication. Democrats are hard working people, Democrats are not Socialists, and yes, they have social consciences, they believe that society has a duty to help care for those who cannot care for themselves. Is that not what America says in its constitutional preamble? “We the people…promote the general welfare…?” Do conservatives want to ensure the elimination of the middle class, transforming its persona into a 21st century version of 19th century England? In 1970, the top 1% controlled 9% of the wealth. Now the top 1% control 35% of the wealth. It is of these figures revolutions are born. Perhaps conservatives should think of social progressivism as a way of preserving the societal structure we are now fortunate enough to inhabit.
Lately, the political discourse in America has degenerated to an almost religious dichotomy of thought. The willingness of right wingers to denounce all efforts to help the unfortunate, and the condemnation of social progressives for trying to do so has become the underlying theme of present political reality. And by the same unfortunate token, the progressives depicting conservatives as social brutes stoke the fires of more polarization.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Capital Punishment in an Age of Abolition

John Paul Stevens, 90, about ready to retire from the Supreme Court, has recently written a review for The New York Review of Books, on David Garland’s recent book, "Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition."

The role of capital punishment remains a barbaric remnant of an earlier time, when public executions satisfied the need for “community gratification and fascination with death.” It serves no useful purpose, Stevens maintains. Had he been able to change his vote in the landmark case of Furman v Georgia, he would have voted to abolish the institution entirely.

I frankly do understand the arguments made by death penalty proponents: That some people do not deserve to live, that through the crimes they have committed, they have forfeited their right to life. Serial killers, criminal monsters who have violated every social moray, do not deserve to inhabit the planet; it is hard to argue otherwise. I hold no brief for Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and the like. I am glad they are gone. But it is so complicated—and expensive for the state to put someone to death. If we shorten the appellate process, we risk rushing to a dénouement that no one really wants—the potential death of an innocent. And if we delay the process with individuals on death row for twenty years until they are executed, then we diminish and even make irrelevant the penalty.

The argument against capital punishment, therefore, is not the merits of keeping of death-deserving criminals alive; it is, however, the evil that our society perpetuates as a civilized undertaking (no pun intended). It has to do with the ability of our society to administer the punishment fairly. In that respect, we have failed miserably, because it is doled out without rhyme or reason, often for matters of race, or for the convenience of politicians being able to show to voters how tough they are on crime. Blacks who murder whites are 11 times more likely to receive the death penalty than whites who murder whites or blacks. Since 1972, 1,300 prisoners have been released from death row because of newly discovered evidence. We as a nation now inhabit the orb of Saudi Arabia, China, and Iran, to name a few other countries, which still put people to death. Criminality is not reduced by capital punishment. And the likelihood of an innocent man being killed is always present. Death is ever so final.

It is time for us to move beyond this primitive enterprise, and to have some leaders who are politically brave enough to say so.