Ah, Carceral Liberalism
it's pretty weird to be the anti-police, pro-fire-and-brimstone party
Ten years ago, let’s say fifteen to be safe, if you saw an essay titled “Consequences are Good, Actually,” you might naturally assume that it came from the political right. Conservatives, after all, believe in law and order, retributive justice, and the God of the Old Testament. But nowadays, it’s liberals who constantly call for consequences, liberals who sneer at the concept of forgiveness, liberals who stand for a Manichean worldview that permits no deviation from white-hat/black-hat morality. And so in that linked piece OG carceral feminist Jessica Valenti insists that the object of her ire deserves only hellfire, and this is quite in keeping with the contemporary progressive id in 2022. Valenti is reacting specifically to a New York magazine cover story about a teenager who shared nude photos of his girlfriend and the social consequences that followed for him and others. But she is reacting as she and her liberal peers react to everything: “someone has to burn.” She just does so in the vocabulary of a disapproving pre-K teacher.
We’ve spent the past two years with the left-of-center world debating, and largely endorsing, quite radical ideas about ending policing and prisons. This would seem to suggest a certain predisposition to forgiveness and equanimity in human affairs, a communal understanding that life is complicated, all of us are sinners, and there but for the grace of God go we. But as the various groans about the New York piece show, the urge to defund the police etc. is really much less about a particular ethic of caring and much more about simply nominating a communally-approved target for progressive anger. It happens that the abstract category “the cops” is a good thing for people to target, but the broader point is that most liberal criminal justice reform energy isn’t derived at all from a desire to be more compassionate and understanding but simply to have a new designated hate object. And this condition is unhealthy, is my feeling. Because forgiveness is good and absolutely central to the left-wing conception of the world.
The contradiction here is badly exacerbated by the fundamentally weaselly way that the left-of-center mass talks about criminal justice reform. The constant instinct is to refer to more-sympathetic criminal classes, like the gold-standard “first-time nonviolent drug offenders,” when calling for an end to mass incarceration. The trouble with this is that a huge majority of our incarcerated population is not in fact drawn from those more cinematically compelling victims. Most people locked up in state prisons are there for violent offenses and most people in local jails awaiting trial and sentencing who end up in state prisons will be too.
4 out of 5 people in prison or jail are locked up for something other than a drug offense — either a more serious offense or an even less serious one. To end mass incarceration, we will have to change how our society and our criminal legal system responds to crimes more serious than drug possession.
But it gets worse for our liberal champions of anti-carceral measures. Within this large bulk of violent offenders, there’s also many who have committed sex-based offenses like sexual assault, domestic violence or intimate partner violence or similar, or hate crimes. These are considered (to borrow a term) especially heinous by liberals for various ideological reasons. What I frequently feel moved to remind anti-carceral-state lefties is that their efforts to shutter prisons will necessarily involve letting a lot of the guys responsible for those things out. Let me highlight this: there is no path to dismantling the prison industrial complex that does not let out a lot of people guilty of “identity crimes” like sexual assault, hate crimes, or domestic violence. And so you have a bit of a dilemma if you’re a standard-issue (read: not particularly well-considered) liberal, which is that you must rail against the punitive state knowing that if your efforts were to succeed you would inevitably free a lot of people you would prefer stay locked up, perhaps even for longer than initially sentenced.
This conflict is like so many others within 21st-century liberalism in that it’s not only blindingly obvious but totally under-discussed. There’s been both a reflexive endorsement of all manner of ideas related to police and prison reform under restorative justice auspices, but it’s arisen alongside a shamelessly punishing left-wing culture that does nothing all day but look around for the right person to rake over the coals. And this is a conflict of values, obviously. You can come up with some sort of undergraduate justifications of anti-carceral politics that have nothing to do with forgiveness, but ultimately the urge to liberate people from physical prisons is a reflection of a desire to embrace greater compassion and understanding for the guilty. This runs completely against the assumption that the heart of left-wing practice is being a sneering and vengeful hall monitor who never stops passing judgment on others. In a healthy political culture, this kind of conflict of values would result in debate, an assessment of where people stand, and potentially breaking into explicitly-separate camps. But internet leftism is not a healthy political culture, and so there is no healthy debate. Instead, people just ignore the obvious conflict, mostly because they only pretend to care about this shit when chatting up girls at Union Pool.
The kid in the New York magazine article showed some friends nude photos of his ex-girlfriend. Which is shitty, to put it mildly. I wouldn’t want it to be criminal because, you know, I don’t dig on the cops or the courts, but certainly I think it’s entirely inexcusable behavior for which consequences are appropriate. The trouble is that there’s nothing resembling a consistent or even coherent system for handing out extra-judicial punishments for sex offenses, and that lack of internal fairness both alienates some people who might be allies in the fight against those offenses and does nothing to prompt reform of how the mob responds to them. (A few guys who probably made like $40k/year as freelancers got anonymously put on the Shitty Media Men list with utterly vague accusations attached to their names and had their careers erased overnight; millionaire Neil Degrasse Tyson was accused of repeated sexual misconduct and of rape and seems to have faced literally zero repercussions, to pick an example.) In this case, the guy’s name went on a list at his college of “abusers,” some other guys who are probably guilty of nothing got pulled into the scrum, and now they’re total social outcasts for reasons most of the people casting them out probably don’t understand. Few would say this is making anyone safer.
What will be the long-term consequences for this kid? Hard to say. Is he the world’s biggest victim? Of course not. Is it fair to question whether contemporary progressives have a healthy attitude towards crime and punishment, based on this story and many others like it? I would say yes. The people who exaggeratedly roll their eyes at another “cancel culture” story would say no. But I have to go on insisting that it’s very strange to think that someone who murders a convenience store employee in a botched robbery deserves another shot at life but someone who, say, was put on a list for having “creepy vibes” should have that fact scuttle his chances at getting a job years in the future. It’s very weird indeed. The best part of the anti-police state, anti-mass incarceration movement is its wise recognition that we are all fallen, all guilty, and a healthy and compassionate society is one that opens up many paths to second chances and redemption. And I say that with the authority of someone who has done bad things and had to ask forgiveness in turn.
Valenti likes cultivating a reputation as an angry woman, and it’s led to a long and remunerative career for her. The deeper anger of the progressive cause, and whether it’s turned into something toxic and incurable, is of more interest to me. It’s difficult to have pretty much any kind of conversation about anything because everyone is screaming all the time. If you suggest the screaming is unhelpful, you’re accused of not caring about The Injustices, but you could be forgiven for asking how exactly the screaming is helping us with The Injustices. I think the truth of the matter is that the political left in the United States, a group to which I belong, is a pack of angry losers. This is an entirely neutral and objective description; there is no honest read on reality that disputes this. Liberals and leftists can get nothing done. The degree to which this is self-inflicted is a topic of constant discussion, but the base reality of impotence endures. And I can’t help but feel that the rancor against the kid in the New York article and those who attempt to think compassionately about him is ultimately mostly an expression not of the inherent injustice of what he did but of the endlessly-metastisizing rage liberals feel about not being able to make real change.
The contemporary American left-of-center has written up a list of extravagant demands it can’t achieve, watched the predictable failures, and then added new stuff to the list each time. Their response to failure is never to ask hard questions about their goals, their priorities, their messaging, or their strategy. Their response is to get mad together yet again - that is to say, to read something like that New York piece, say “fuck that kid,” and call it politics.