Chained Melody: Chimes of Unfreedom Flashing

This week we got double barrels of brilliance from Arthur Silber -- a national treasure that you neglect at your peril. (For God's sake, would it kill you to toss a couple of bucks in the hat over at his place to keep this good stuff going? Obama doesn't have to get all of loose moolah out there, does he?).

First Silber disturbs the unquiet grave of the freshly planted William Buckley by unearthing one of the bravura displays of Buckley's much-acclaimed intellectual heft, a 1957 piece that Silber rightly calls "as pure an expression of evil in thought and action (actual and implied) as can be imagined." It is Buckley's classic defense of Southern racism as the necessary "defense" of a "superior civilization" -- a defense that must be undertaken by an aggressive minority of superior beings, even at the expense of democracy. In the piece, Buckley also cites -- and praises -- the example of Britain's savage repression of an "insurgency" in its colonial property of Kenya, where up to 150,000 people died in a relentless operation using brutal military attacks, mass hangings, torture and concentration camps. The "Kenya model" has frequently been recommended by advocates of the "surge" in Iraq as a model of counterinsurgency that the United States should emulate.

You must read the whole of Silber's piece, but his opening salvo is too good to pass up without quoting: "In the land of nightmare and fantasy that passes for the United States today, a nation which is unquestionably the highest note in the song sung by the many universes, facts and history have been banished altogether."

In a second piece -- on the same day -- Silber examines the new report revealing that one in every 100 American adults is now behind bars: the largest number of people incarcerated by any nation in the world, and a figure rivaled only by the Soviet gulag under Stalin. And as with the Gulag, most of the prisoners in America's jails have no reason to be incarcerated; Silber cites another study showing that "a high proportion of prisoners are non-violent drug offenders."

The new study also reveals the astonishing fact that one in every nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 is in prison. This would be the group routinely referred to as "young bucks" back in Buckley's highly civilized and superior civilization of the segregated South. This group, the very prime of African-American manhood, was always the main target of racism's heavy weaponry. Oddly enough, this is also roughly the same age cohort of young Sunni bucks that highly civilized defenders of America's superior civilization like John Podhoretz advocated destroying in Iraq:

What if the tactical mistake we made in Iraq was that we didn't kill enough Sunnis in the early going to intimidate them and make them so afraid of us they would go along with anything? Wasn't the survival of Sunni men between the ages of 15 and 35 the reason there was an insurgency and the basic cause of the sectarian violence now?

In his piece, Silber, as usual, cuts to the core of the new prison stats and their true significance:

You see, in the liberty-loving United States of America, your body does not belong to you. Surrender your delusion that you are an autonomous being, free to choose what to ingest for sustenance or entertainment. It is of no moment that you do not violate anyone else's rights. What matters is that you recognize your body belongs to the state. If you fail to follow the state's edicts as to how you must treat your body, off to prison you will go. All of this is trebly true if you are such a miserable being as to have failed to be born into the privileged class -- that is to say, if you are not affluent, white and male. (With regard to distinct but related issues, women obviously are also such miserable beings.)

We must note one further fact of immense significance. As I discussed in several essays from a few years ago, the prison system in the United States represents nothing less than the institutionalization of brutality and torture on a vast scale. (See "'They Don't Represent America'? Not Quite, Mr. President," "The Real Scandal," and the other essays listed here under the heading, "About Prison Abuse and Torture in the U.S., and in Iraq.") That system embodies the depravity and degradation of extreme cruelty to a degree that is close to ungraspable, and it corrupts everyone who works in it, as it corrupts our nation. When is the last time you heard the horrors of the U.S. prison system -- including not only the non-crimes for which hundreds of thousands are incarcerated, but the cruelties that are inflicted on them when they are unjustly imprisoned -- debated seriously and at length by our major politicians, including the leading candidates for president? That's right: you can't remember, because it doesn't happen.

The piece is called, most aptly, "Read the News, Lose Your Mind." Go read it, now.

I wrote on this subject a couple of years ago, when yet another report detailing America's astonishing incarceration rate was released. Below are some excerpts, still relevant today, alas:

But although the U.S. prison population has soared to record-breaking heights during George W. Bush's presidency, America's status as the most punitive nation on earth is by no means solely his doing. Bush is merely standing on the shoulders of giants – such as, say, Bill Clinton, who once created 50 brand-new federal offenses in a single draconian measure, and expanded the federal death penalty to 60 new offenses during his term. In fact, like the great cathedrals of old, the building of Fortress America has been the work of decades, with an entire society yoked to the common task. At each step, the promulgation of ever-more draconian punishments for ever-lesser offenses, and the criminalization of ever-broader swathes of ordinary human behavior, have been greeted with hosannahs from a public and press who seem to be insatiable gluttons for punishment – someone else's punishment, that is, and preferably someone of dusky hue.

The main engine of this mass incarceration has been the 35-year "war on drugs": a spurious battle against an abstract noun that provides an endless fount of profits, payoffs and power for the politically connected while only worsening the problem it purports to address – just like the "war on terror." The "war on drugs" has in fact been the most effective assault on an underclass since Stalin's campaign against the kulaks.

It was launched by Richard Nixon, after urban unrest had shaken major American cities during those famous "long, hot summers" of the Sixties. Yet even as the crackdowns began, America's inner cities were being flooded with heroin, much of it originating in Southeast Asia, where the CIA and its hired warlords ran well-funded black ops in and around Vietnam. At home, criminal gangs reaped staggering riches from the criminalization of the natural, if often unhealthy, human craving for intoxication. Ronald Reagan upped the ante in the 1980s, with a rash of "mandatory sentencing" laws that can put even first-time, small-time offenders away for years. His term also saw a new flood -- crack cocaine – devastating the inner cities, even as his covert operators used drug money to fund the terrorist Contra army in Nicaragua and run illegal weapons to Iran, while the downtown druglords grew more powerful. The American underclass was caught in a classic pincer movement, attacked by both the state and the gangs. There were no more "long, hot summers" of protest against injustice; there was simply the struggle to survive...

A nation's true values can be measured in how it treats the poor, the weak, the damaged, the unconnected. For more than 30 years, the answer of the American power structure has been clear: you lock them up, you shut them up, you grind them down – and make big bucks in the process.