Decarceration: COVID-19 is Opportunity Knocking

On March 23, 14 US Senators from both major political parties asked US Attorney General William Barr and Michael Carvajal, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, to “transfer non-violent offenders who are at high risk for suffering complications from COVID-19 to home confinement.”

It’s a smart idea, and one local jails and state prisons around the country are already implementing. But it raises an important question and also points to an important opportunity.

The question: If the prisoners in question pose no threat of violence, why were they sent to jail or prison in the first place?

The opportunity: The COVID-19 outbreak should mark the beginning of mass decarceration, not just a temporary exception to a dumb and damaging practice.

More than 2.3 million Americans live in cages.

The vast majority of them are not murderers, rapists, armed robbers, or kidnappers.

In fact, many of them didn’t victimize anyone at all — they didn’t pick your pocket or steal your car, they just got caught disobeying this or that arbitrary government edict (for example, laws against using or selling marijuana).

But instead of letting them pay their own rent, buy their own food, and provide for their own medical insurance — not to mention earning money to pay restitution to their victims if they have any — American politicians extort nearly $200 billion a year from American taxpayers to confine them in institutions that provide those already criminally inclined with higher educations in their chosen fields while simultaneously promoting the spread of every malady imaginable from anti-social behavior to substance abuse to, yes, infectious disease.

That was crazy before the pandemic. It’s crazier now, as even the most dim-witted among us (our politicians) are beginning to understand. And it would be bat-feces insane to go right back to it once the COVID-19 panic ends.

We already have at our disposal, and are already using, the  technology and manpower we need to do away with incarceration for all but the most violent and dangerous criminals: The electronic tracking devices already used to enforce “house arrest” and “work release” convicts, and correctional institution staff who can be transitioned into jobs as tracking monitors and/or probation and parole officers.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. We’ve had the way for ages. COVID-19 has at least temporarily created the will. Let’s hold on to the lesson permanently instead of falling back into error  when this present crisis ends.

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Don’t Let Politicians Use Pandemic as an Excuse for Dictatorship

By invoking the Defense Production Act, which “authorizes the President to require acceptance and priority performance of contracts or orders and to allocate materials, services, and facilities to promote the national defense or to maximize domestic energy supplies,” US president Donald Trump has declared himself America’s economic dictator.

He’s also moved to seal the nation’s borders, even as governors and mayors have banned public gatherings, ordered businesses to close or severely curtail operations, sealed off neighborhoods, and even in some cases — San Francisco comes to mind — ordered the entire populations of cities to remain indoors.

And we’re letting them do it.

Why? Because they say it’s about “public health.”

If this was about public health,  obvious vectors for the spread of COVID-19 like the Transportation Security Administration and its airport security screening lines would have been among the first things shut down.

Your neighborhood tavern, where people are seldom closely packed unless one is trying to sweet-talk another back home, is closed. TSA agents are still making airline passengers line up to be groped and coughed on.

If it was about public health, America’s non-violent prisoners would have been released to make more room for “social distance” between the remaining prisoners, reduce staffing needs, and prevent the virus from raging through captive populations.

Some prisons and jails are releasing some inmates or refusing to take in more. But not nearly as many prisoners are being released as Americans are being made prisoners in their own homes.

If this was about public health, government would be letting the market produce, and set prices for, essential goods instead of trying to seize control of production and suppress “price gouging.”

This isn’t about public health. It’s about political power. And things are getting very ugly, very quickly.

Vladimir Putin WISHES he had the power that American politicians have seized in the last couple of weeks.

Latin American dictators are green with envy at the enthusiasm with which Americans are surrendering our freedoms.

Pardon my French, people, but WTF?

A month ago half of us didn’t trust Donald Trump, half of us didn’t trust Nancy Pelosi, and many of us trusted neither. Now all of a sudden most of us seem to be practically begging both of them, and their henchmen, to order us around.

That’s not going to contribute to the public health. It’s not going to shorten the COVID-19 outbreak. It’s just going to crater our economy and leave us less free after than we were before.

If we force the politicians to knock this nonsense off now — by ignoring their orders until they run to the front of the parade by countermanding themselves — we might get off light. A short recession, maybe, and perhaps even some politicians who are scared into respecting our rights a little bit more, for a little while.

If we keep going along to get along, we’re more likely to end up thinking of the Great Depression and Stalin’s reign as versions of “the good old days.”

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What You and the Pandemic Virus Have in Common

What can the COVID-19 virus teach us about philosophy?

With any virus – but particularly with an especially infectious one – we get a perfect working metaphor for the relationship between individual actions and society.

Namely: the only thing that spreads as far and as fast as a pandemic are the consequences of your moral actions.

If you contract a virus – say, for instance, the COVID-19 coronavirus – you immediately become a member of a great chain. Someone before you had the virus. Now you have it because of them. And more likely than not, someone else – multiple people, really – will have it because of you. When you become a carrier for a virus, everything you do becomes a potential vector for infecting people. And you alone can infect hundreds or thousands of people if you do things badly enough.

As a member of a chain of infections, though, your contribution to a pandemic can be far worse than just infecting a dozen or a hundred or a thousand other people. Those people you infect aren’t just sick because of you – they’re carriers too because of you. They can now infect dozens or hundreds or thousands more.

It is in this way that a single human being – a “patient zero” – can be responsible for infecting hundreds of millions or billions of people.

This viral example brings home the significance not just of personal hygiene but of all personal ethics and personal action. We live in networks and chains, and all of our actions “transmit” something to the people around us. If we transmit fear, that fear “infects” the people around us, then the people around them. If we transmit

These networks are how an abusive father’s actions can lead eventually to mass prison camps, or how a friend’s faithfulness can lead to the defeat of a great tyrant. The content of our actions transmits virally, and at scale it can become something very dangerous and destructive, or beautiful and healing.

Take time during this time of pandemic to reflect on the vast significance of your own actions and your connectedness to others – not just in health, but in everything.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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American Fictionalists

It is both fun and informative to consider lists.  To debate the list is a sign that you have engaged with someone who knows what she is talking about.  This morning, I asked Google to find web pages that opined as to whom might be included on a list of the greatest American fictionalists (novelists, short story writers, poets, and playwrights).  Google and I found a page at NoSweatShakespeare.com, which contained a list, 20 Best American Writers. I’ll not quibble with the score of authors enumerated, but I might have substituted others (Jack London, Robert A. Heinlein, Ayn Rand, Robert Penn Warren, Dashiell Hammett, Robert Frost, for instances).

At any rate, these scriveners became famous because they could voice the sentiment of a people at their best. My goal is to present each of the 20, along with a quote that typifies this:

  • Nathaniel Hawthorne 1804 – 1864
    Nathaniel Hawthorne was a novelist and short story writer. Hawthorne’s works have been labelled ‘dark romanticism,’ dominated as they are by cautionary tales that suggest that guilt, sin, and evil are the most inherent natural qualities of humankind. His novels and stories, set in a past New England, are versions of historical fiction used as a vehicle to express themes of ancestral sin, guilt and retribution…

    No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.

  • Edgar Allan Poe 1809 – 1849
    Edgar Allan Poe was an American writer, editor, and literary critic. He is best known for his poetry and short stories, particularly his tales of mystery and suspense. He is generally considered the inventor of detective ficiton. Poe’s work as an editor, a poet, and a critic had a profound impact on American and international literature. In addition to his detective stories he is one of the originators of horror and science fiction. He is often credited as the architect of the modern short story…

    All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.

  • Herman Melville 1819 – 1891
    Herman Melville was an American writer of novels, short stories and poems. He is best known for the novel Moby-Dick and a romantic account of his experiences in Polynesian life, Typee. His whaling novel, Moby-Dick is often spoken of as ‘the great American novel’ ’vying with Scott Fitgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn for that title…

    It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.

  • Walt Whitman 1819 – 1892
    Walt Whitman was a poet, essayist, and journalist who transformed poetry around the world with his disregard for traditional rhyme and meter and his celebration of democracy and sensual pleasure. His masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, a collection of poems, is widely studied by poets, students and academics, set to music, translated into numerous languages, and is widely quoted. His influence can be found everywhere – in contemporary best seller lists to feature films and musical works, both “serious” and popular…

 … re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul …

  • Emily Dickinson 1830 – 1886
    Unknown as a poet during her lifetime, Emily Dickinson is now regarded by many as one of the most powerful voices of American culture. Her poetry has inspired many other writers, including the Brontes. In 1994 the critic, Harold Bloom, listed her among the twenty-six central writers of Western civilisation. After she died her sister found the almost two thousand poems the poet had written…

We turn not older with years but newer every day.

  • Mark Twain 1835 – 1910
    Samuel Langhorne Clemens , far better known as Mark Twain, was an American writer, businessman, publisher and lecturer. He progressed from his day job as pilot of a Mississippi riverboat to legend of American literature. His work shows a deep seriousness and at the same time, it is hilariously satirical, as seen in his many quotes on all aspects of life. His masterpiece is the novel, Huckleberry Finn, which is regularly referred to as ‘the great American novel.’…

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So, throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

  • Henry James 1843 – 1916
    Henry James is regarded as one of the key figures of 19th-century literary realism. He is noted for writing from a character’s point of view’ which allowed him to explore consciousness and perception. His imaginative use of point of view, interior monologue and unreliable narrators brought a new depth to narrative fiction, all of which were influential on the writing of the novelists who followed him. He was nominated for the Nobel prize for literature three times….

Cats and monkeys — monkeys and cats — all human life is there!

  • T.S. Eliot 1888 – 1965
    Thomas Stearns Eliot was an American-born, British, poet, essayist, playwright, critic, now regarded as one of the twentieth century’s major poets. He received more rewards than almost any other writer of the past two centuries, including the Nobel prize, the Dante Gold Medal, the Goethe prize, the US Medal of Freedom and the British Order of Merit…

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald 1896 – 1940
    Francis Scott Fitzgerald was an American novelist, widely regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, American writers of the 20th century. He is best known for his novel, The Great Gatsby, which vies for the title ‘Great American Novel’ with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Fitzgerald’s place on this list is justified by the fact that his great novel is actually about America…

Either you think — or else others have to think for you and take power from you, pervert and discipline your natural tastes, civilize, and sterilize you.

  • William Faulkner 1897 – 1962
    William Cuthbert Faulkner was a Nobel Prize laureate, awarded the literature prize in 1949. He wrote novels, short stories, poetry, and screenplays. He is known mainly for his novels and short stories set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha Country, Mississippi. Faulkner is one of the most celebrated American writers, regarded, generally as the great writer of the American South…

Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world…would do this, it would change the earth.

  • Tennessee Williams 1911 – 1983
    Thomas Lanier Williams III, known as Tennessee Williams is one of America’s most popular playwrights and now regarded as one of the most significant writers of the twentieth century. He wrote more than thirty plays, some of which have become classics of Western drama. He also wrote novels and short stories but is known almost exclusively for his plays. His genius was in the honesty with which he represented society and the art of presenting that in the form of absorbing drama…

I think that hate is a thing, a feeling, that can only exist where there is no understanding.

  • Arthur Miller 1915 – 2005
    Arthur Miller was a playwright and ‘great man’ of American theatre, which he championed throughout his long life. His many dramas were among the most popular by American authors and several are considered to be among the best American plays, among them the classics, The Crucible, All My Sons, A View from the Bridge and, above all, the iconic American drama, Death of a Salesman. He also wrote film scripts, notably the classic, The Misfits…

 … life is God’s most precious gift; no principle, however glorious, may justify the taking of it.

  • Joseph Heller 1923 – 1999
    Joseph Heller was an American writer of satirical novels, short stories and plays. Although he wrote several acclaimed novels, his reputation rests firmly on his masterpiece, the great American anti-war satire, Catch 22. Because of the quality of the novel and the impact it has made on American culture it has catapulted Heller into the ranks of the great American writers…

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.

  • Ernest Hemingway 1899 – 1961
    Ernest Hemingway was a novelist, short story writer, and journalist. He published seven novels, six short story collections, and two non-fiction works, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. More works, including three novels, four short story collections, and three non-fiction works, were published posthumously…

Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.

  • Raymond Chandler 1888 – 1959
    Raymond Chandler was a British-American novelist who wrote several screenplays and short stories. He published seven novels during his lifetime. The first, The Big Sleep, was published in 1939. An eighth, Poodle Springs, unfinished at his death, was completed by another great crime writer, Robert B Parker. Six of Chandler’s novels have been made into films, some more than once…

I knew one thing: as soon as anyone said you didn’t need a gun, you’d better take one along that worked.

  • Toni Morrison 1931 – 2019
    Toni Morrison’s novels are known for their vivid dialogue, their detailed characters and epic themes. Her most famous novel is the 1987 novel, Beloved. She was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1988 for Beloved, and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993…

Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.

  • Vladimir Nabokov 1899 – 1977
    Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was a Russian-American novelist, and also a famous entomologist, specialising in butterflies, a topic on which he wrote several academic books. He wrote nine novels in Russian, but it was when he began writing in English that he achieved international recognition…

I know more than I can express in words, and the little I can express would not have been expressed, had I not known more.

  • Flannery O’Connor 1925 – 1964
    Mary Flannery O’Connor wrote two novels and thirty-two short stories, and also several reviews and commentaries. Her reputation is based mainly on her short stories. She was a Southern writer and relied heavily on regional settings and typically southern characters. She was strongly Roman Catholic, which informed her exploration of ethics and morality…

The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.

  • John Steinbeck 1902 – 1968
    John Ernst Steinbeck was the author of 16 novels and various other works, including five short story collections. He is widely known for the novels, East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, and particularly, the Puliter Prize winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath, his masterpiece, which is one of the great American novels: it has sold more than 15 million copies so far…

All war is a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal.

  • John Updike 1923 – 2009
    John Updike was a novelist, short story writer and poet. He was also a literary and art critic. He published more than twenty novels, numerous short-story collections, eight volumes of poetry and many children’s books. He is most famous for his ‘Rabbit‘ series – novels that chronicle the life of his protagonist, Harry Angstrom – in which Updike presented his progress over the course of several decades…

They can be wonderful bastards because they have nothing to lose. The only people who can be themselves are babies and old bastards.

  • Kurt Vonnegut 1922 – 2007
    Kurt Vonnegut was an American writer who published fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five works of non-fiction. He is most famous for his novel ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ (1969) which has become an American classic. It’s a semi-autobiographical novel based on his experience as a prisoner of war who survived the allies’ bombing of Dresden…

So it goes.

 

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When Did We Become Socialists?

Nobody asked but …

What state has reached the highest level of socialism?  It happened when:

… and so it goes.

— Kilgore Forelle

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US v. Sineneng-Smith: Does Immigration Law Trump Freedom of Speech?

Are you free to express your opinions? The First Amendment says yes, but 8 US Code § 1324 says no. A case currently before the US Supreme Court, United States v. Sineneng-Smith, will presumably clarify the matter, hopefully in favor of free speech.

Evelyn Sineneng-Smith, an immigration consultant, allegedly cheated her clients by charging them $5,900 to file applications for a permanent residency program she knew they didn’t qualify for.

In 2013, a jury convicted  Sineneng-Smith on three counts of mail fraud and three counts of “encouraging or inducing illegal immigration for private financial gain.”

Under that US Code provision, “Any person who … encourages or induces an alien to come to, enter, or reside in the United States, knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that such coming to, entry, or residence is or will be in violation of law,” can be sentenced to hard time — five years in prison, ten years if it’s for financial gain, life imprisonment or even execution if someone is injured or put in jeopardy of death by that “encouragement.”

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit set aside Sineneng-Smith’s convictions on those “encouragement” counts, ruling that the law is “unconstitutionally overbroad in violation of the First Amendment.”

Federal prosecutors appealed the Ninth Circuit’s ruling to the Supreme Court because that’s what federal prosecutors do .  Their case seems to be that we obviously can’t just have people out there saying whatever they want to say.

But we CAN, and SHOULD — in fact, according to the Constitution, MUST — have people out there saying whatever they want to say.

I encourage anyone and everyone who wants to come to the United States in search of work and/or safety to do so, and to stay here for as long as they please, whether the US government likes it or not.

I just broke the law.

And I did so partly for purposes of “commercial advantage or private financial gain.” I consider unfettered immigration an economic boon to everyone, myself included.

As the late economist (and apparent scofflaw) Milton Friedman noted, “Mexican immigration, over the border, is a good thing. It’s a good thing for the illegal immigrants. It’s a good thing for the United States. It’s a good thing for the citizens of the country.”

The Supreme Court should affirm the Ninth Circuit’s ruling.

If it doesn’t, I guess you’ll be waiting ten years or so for my next column.

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