Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The Evolution Of Punishment

     Time was, Americans believed that people who did bad things should – indeed, must – be punished for them. I know, I know; the idea is simply too 19th Century! We can’t have some people claiming a moral superiority over others that entitles them to inflict punishment! Why, that would imply an absolute standard of right and wrong! Far better that we “understand” the lawbreaker, and perhaps help him to see the undesirability of his deeds. In an appropriately diverse, inclusive, and environmentally friendly way, of course.

     But back in those benighted, hyper-moralistic days, we also believed that people should experience the full consequences of their mistakes, that they might learn to do better. Bad! Supercilious and heartless! Just one more expression of superiority – in this case, a superior understanding of cause, effect, and the linkages between them. We can’t have people flaunting their excessive wisdom! It could lead to hurt feelings. Deficits in self-esteem. After everything our educators have done to promote it!

     No, today we not only tolerate lawbreaking, we condone it. We excuse it on the grounds of single-parenthood upbringings, or structural racism, or the incentives of poverty. We hold persons such as George Floyd, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Breonna Taylor up as icons of the New Thinking. Martyrs to the Cause. Heroes, even.

     In short, today we neither punish the lawbreaker nor expect the dissolute and self-indulgent to suffer for their mistakes. Instead, we – the law-abiding, self-sufficient, and responsible persons of America – punish ourselves.

     In yesterday’s reading I encountered a brief report about a man who’d just died of “natural causes,” at 71 years of age. Dog Bites Man? Suitable only for the Obituaries column, or the bottom right corner of page A36? Not quite: The deceased, James Odle, was an inmate on death row. Indeed, he’d languished there for 37 years, more than half his Earthly life. He’d passed away before the authorities could arrange his demise in the legally prescribed fashion.

     You have to do something fairly far out of the ordinary to get put on death row these days. Murder alone normally won’t do it. It must be an aggravated murder, a mass murder, or a torture-murder. In some states you can get there by killing a cop. Which should tell you something about the value the Omnipotent State puts on the lives of We the Sheeple, the ordinary private citizens of the realm.

     So this...person had to have done something truly vile. His victim must have been a black transgendered lesbian socialist climate-change activist. Maybe he killed her while wearing a MAGA cap. On Eid-al-Adha. But the state of California didn’t get around to executing him in time to keep him from enjoying 37 years of free food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and assorted fringe benefits at taxpayer expense, then exiting this vale of tears without the judicially intended ceremony. There’s no report of his last words, though I’d hardly be surprised to learn that they were “Beat you to it!”

     Many death-row inmates languish there for 20 years or more. Multiple-murderer Stanley “Tookie” Williams, co-founder of the “Crips” street gang, spent 25 years on death row. According to Wikipedia, about a quarter of those who take up residence in the world’s least sought-after housing die of causes other than execution.

     So James Odle is just an unusually extreme case of our contemporary reluctance to punish the evildoer.

     Our favorite Bookworm invites us to share some dark thoughts about the “plight of the drug-addicted homeless” in her former district of residence, San Francisco:

     It occurred to me — and this is where I say that I had a horrible thought — that Narcan is largely responsible for the plight we find ourselves in. In the old days, people with serious drug habits died from overdoses. You couldn’t get to a critical mass of homeless drug addicts. They Darwined themselves out.

     Thanks to Narcan, though, while a serious narcotic habit leads people to horrific lives of degradation and suffering, that I wouldn’t wish on anyone, Narcan means these people keep going like energizer bunnies. For example, in San Francisco, the whole equation would have been different if 3,000 people hadn’t been saved from imminent death (although I suspect many of those 3,000 were repeat offenders).

     Those people would no longer have been on the streets. They would no longer have engaged in crime, and their deaths might have scared a handful of others straight. That would have substantially lessened the horrors of San Francisco streets, both for other homeless people and for the ordinary people trying to conduct their lives in the middle of a nightmare world.

     And of course, without Narcan, there would be a smaller market of drug users buying goods from Mexico, thereby weakening the cartels. (And, incidentally, weakening China’s involvement in damaging American through the fentanyl trade.)

     Bad, naughty, evil Bookworm! The idea of letting people experience the consequences of their bad behavior without other, good-hearted types rushing in to “save” them is obsolete! Antiquated! Practically 19th-Century! You must be one of those hard-hearted Social Darwinist types who expect individuals to learn from their mistakes! No Brie and Chardonnay for you!

     But she’s right. San Francisco allows the drug-addicted homeless to inflict several indignities, including a fair amount of serious crime, upon the law-abiding. Then it uses funds from the public treasury to “rescue” the OD-ing street bum from the consequences of his folly. What has such “benevolence” done to what was once the most beautiful of the cities of the Pacific coast? What message does it send to the law-abiding, self-supporting, overtaxed San Franciscan, who mainly wants to be left in peace?

     Don’t prattle to me about “mental illness.” We used to confine the mentally ill, too. We didn’t do so to punish them. We aimed to protect them from themselves, and to try to help them back to sanity. We also sought to spare others from being afflicted by them, as the homeless are doing to normal San Franciscans.

     What’s that you say? We shouldn’t imprison the mentally ill as if they were lawbreakers? Good point! We shouldn’t. Instead we’ll reserve incarceration for the mentally ill and go back to ritual mutilations, the stocks, and public floggings for the sane lawbreaker. Thanks for the suggestion!

     I could go on, but I think the point stands as established. The reluctance to punish, whether actively, as in the case of the lawbreaker, or passively, by allowing the fool to experience the logical consequences of his folly, has resulted in the penalties they have earned being inflicted on the decent and responsible. You and I must suffer the lashes and other torments that were once meant for them. Worse, we must endure the indignity of paying monetarily for “programs” supposedly to combat crime, homelessness, mental illness, and drug abuse... programs the greater part of whose funding becomes salaries, benefits, and perquisites for government employees.

     Every one of the social evils and maladies that were on the decline prior to World War II is on the increase today. It baffles the meliorists and the humanitarians. What more can we do? they cry. Print another billion! Hire another thousand social workers! It’s as if they’d never heard of Herbert Spencer, Thomas Mackay, or Ralph Waldo Emerson. But of course they haven’t – and if they had, they’d never have bothered to read them. How could the thinking of a bunch of fusty old 19th century writers be of any relevance to our hoppin’ and happenin’ era?

     In So Long, and Thanks For All The Fish, the fourth of the late, deeply lamented Douglas Adams’s “Hitchhiker’s Guide” novels, there’s a character who calls himself Wonko the Sane. He lives in a house built inside-out – shingles and gutters and lawn on the inside; sheet rock, carpeting and such on the outside – which he calls The Outside of the Asylum. It’s a perfect physical representation of the state of contemporary Western society.

     Yet Adams wrote that novel in 1984. I wonder what he’d think of what passes for sanity today?


Mike Guenther said...

In modernity, stuff started going down hill when they banned corporal punishment in schools. Amazing what the "Board of Education" applied across the "Seat of Learning" can do to straighten most kids out.

Plus the age of "Snowflakeism" didn't inure our kids to the possibility of failure. When everyone gets a trophy, the accomplishment of winning or getting good grades by studying hard, is watered down to meaninglessness.


I have gotten into trouble when I suggest a little Darwin "natural selection" to some of society's ills.

Someone develops an acute case of high-velocity lead poisoning attacking someone or breaking into the "wrong" place? Evolution in action, says I.

Someone starts shooting up, and starves to death because of it? Ditto.

Someone goes to bathhouses and gets a 100% preventable disease that ends up wasting them away and killing them? Ditto.

What's that expression? "Good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment."

In my family, my wife is an overprotective hovering helicopter parent. Me? I try to walk that line between preventing the kids from having permanent injury and learning the hard way. Oh, wait, no, that'll just cause a flesh wound - let 'em go.

Ragin' Dave said...

I've gotten into multiple arguments with various people who accuse me of being a bad Christian because I refuse to allow drug addicts to continue their addiction at my expense. "BUT WHAT ABOUT COMPASSION, DAVE!"

My response back is "Just who are you being compassionate towards? The drug user? If so, you show a remarkable lack of compassion to all the victims of the drug users' crimes that you are now enabling." Where's your compassion for the law-abiding citizen who gets his property stolen, his car broken into, his house robbed, his public areas befouled by used needles and human feces? Where's your compassion for that person? Where is your compassion for the person who is doing everything right and has to deal with the far-ranging effects of a large homeless population that continues because some people feel the need to give drug addicts more money?