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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Harper's "tough on crime" bill: meaner, more expensive, and not making us any safer

From the essential Alex Himelfarb, another beautifully written and persuasively argued essay detailing everything wrong with both the omnibus crime legislation and the nasty, vindictive and short-sighted sentiments behind it.

It's sadly ironic, he writes, that the Conservatives are moving this way just as U.S. jurisdictions are abandoning the "tough on crime" model, given all the evidence of how ineffective and counterproductive it is, and citing the contrast with what's traditionally been seen as a more humane and flexible approach in Canada – one which didn't compromise public safety.

It's not hard to see the connection between this and years of "crime is out of control / War on Terror" narrative from certain authority figures and media outlets. Clearly, there's been a great deal invested in keeping us frightened, paranoid, convinced that we're being targeted by threatening Others 24/7, and ever more willing to defer, submit, and meekly surrender our freedoms and civil liberties. Attendant upon this, of course, is a ruthless attack machine ready to smear anyone who dissents as a thug-hugging, soft-on-crime bleeding heart. And so with every turn of the wheel, our society becomes a little less open, a little less free, a little less tolerant.

So why? What is to be gained by moving this way? Who benefits from the adoption of policies that emphasize punishment over prevention and rehabilitation, tie judges' hands, make criminals out of people engaging in relatively harmless activities, and create more and more prisoners? Is the Conservative brain trust taking dictation from Joe Arpaio now?

As always, it helps to look at things like this in a larger context: a widespread and multifaceted attack on principle, on the social fabric, and on the whole notion of community. It's part of what many have described as the slow poisoning of the body politic and national discourse, and the attendant lowering of expectations.

Nobody captures that better than Alex, however. The money quote:

Our greater openness to these “tough on criminals” policies and the reluctance of the opposition to take them on may reflect a more profound debasing of our politics, what the American critic Benjamin DeMott has called “Junk Politics”. In his articles and books, DeMott is not calling for more civility, politer politics; he doesn’t mind a good fight, it seems. His concern with contemporary politics is bigger than that; it resides in its refusal to lead citizens to higher ground, to challenge us, to inspire us to find our better selves. Instead, he says, it  panders to our worst sentiments, personalises everything, derides experts and evidence, tells us that we are great as we are, that we have every right to feel morally superior. It divides the world up into good and bad, black and white.  Nuance kills. This world, to paraphrase sociologist Orrin Klapp, is destructively divided up into heroes – “hard-working, law-abiding tax payers”; villains – criminals, terrorists and would-be terrorists; and fools – all the elites and so-called experts who are soft on crime and soft on terror. This view gives not much space to the idea of redemption or, for that matter, to compassion, and brooks no debate on what the evidence might tell us or about the costs of punishment.

Sound familiar? This could be Sun Media's mission statement, or the owner's manual for what passes for Don Cherry's brain. I especially like the "Junk Politics" label.

This is just a taste, mind. Go read the rest of it. Perhaps it'll go sailing over the heads of the people who most need to read it, but that's no reason the rest of us can't benefit from it.

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  1. An excellent post. Himmelfarb is right on target. What is so frustrating is that this movie has been playing south of the border for decades and we know how it ends.

    Why are we sitting through it here?

  2. Harper isn't building his gulags for nothing. While Harper and other country's leaders were swimming in the fake lake. The police were fracturing clavicles, seizing a man's prothesis, and dragging him to the chain link prison. This was Harper flexing his muscles, on his minority. With his majority, he plans on breaking many heads open.

    Harper has many trouble spots. He is very concerned, the anger in other country's will spread to Canada. Especially when, Wikileaks said, the N.A.U. is on the way. The people south of the border saw this coming a long time back. Canadians didn't see it, or, don't want to see it. The American citizens are livid, they despise Harper and intend to fight the N.A.U. every inch of the way. The U.S. people consider we Canadians as wusses, we accept what ever crap is thrown at us. The N.A.U. is to start in small increments. However, Canadians will wake up sometime. When they do wake up, Harper knows he will need many prisons. He is preparing for trouble down the road.

  3. Hey OB you sure provide a powerful frame for the post, thanks.