Director’s Corner: Confronting uncomfortable truths
We all have a finite capacity for bad news. Certain books, for example, reduce me to a near catatonic state of despondency. Bill McKibben’s “Eaarth” was like that. After the first two or three chapters of well-documented ecocide, I turn instead to the prose stylings of, say, David Sedaris. Or maybe I just watch “The Office.”
Eventually, however, I get over my understandable desire to be pointlessly amused and engage with reality.
I’ve had similar experiences with Chris Hedges’s “Death of the Liberal Class,” Loïc Wacquant’s “Punishing the Poor” and Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine.” These are all books best taken with handfuls of Wellbutrin and tumblers of scotch.
Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” is my latest deeply uncomfortable read. My initial excuse for buying this book, but not actually opening it, was that I’d spent nearly a year talking about race, class and incarceration while working to stop a new municipal jail. “Surely,” I thought, “I know all about this already.”
I didn’t. But it still took me nearly two years to read her book.The real reason, to be honest, is that facing down the nearly incomprehensible evils of our system is hard, and I was already pretty much at my saturation point. Something told me that this just might be the one to push me over the edge.
And it was. No longer can I graze, with Obama as my shepherd, within the serene pastures of liberal democratic belief.
The war on drugs, over the past three decades, has created a new caste system that labels huge numbers of the young, black, male and economically disposable as felons, thus depriving them for life of the rights of citizenship and, to a large extent, the benefit of being considered fully human.
Fueled by fear and shame, the travesty of mass incarceration operates nearly invisibly within the white society that it benefits. It is America’s dirty but open secret.
The war on drugs and all the ruined lives that follow are the legacy of the law and order politics that has divided poor and working-class whites and blacks since the ’60s, and it is the linchpin of the racist “Southern strategy” that appeals to white privilege at the expense of economic justice.
Until we confront this fact, we all lose.
This will not be an issue in the 2012 presidential campaign, and yet the abolition of mass incarceration is no less necessary to achieving a just economy than was the abolition of slavery, and the work is no less urgent.
When reasonable people agree that there really isn’t anything to be done here — that the problem of mass incarceration is too big to touch — I think it’s time for the rest of us to become completely unreasonable.
Confronting uncomfortable truths is a necessary act of political imagination, and it is where change begins. Step outside, where the air is clean and all things are possible. More of us live there than you might think.
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