Though I majored in history and later earned a master’s degree in it, I did not hear of Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States until 2000. I can, however, recall the exact moment when I did. Along with several other members of a research and evaluation team from the Minnesota Department of Corrections, I was returning to St. Paul from a site visit to the sex offender treatment center at Moose Lake. A colleague of mine happened to mention Zinn’s People’s History as a remarkable book that every American should read. After mentally filing her recommendation away, my interest was piqued years later when I noticed my wife had added You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train — a documentary about Zinn and his work — to our Netflix queue.
As shown in the film, Zinn has few illusions about the difficulty of challenging the powers that be on issues like racial injustice, prolonging the Vietnam War, or invading Iraq. Over and over again, history has been written by the winners, those who subscribe to some variation on Frederick the Great’s theme that God is with the big battalions. Yet Zinn still finds history hopeful, because it shows us that even the most unjust structures are not forever. Who would have thought a generation ago, for example, that apartheid would crumble, with Nelson Mandela released from prison and lionized around the world? Seen not from the perspective of the dominant groups but from below, history also contains many “fugitive moments of compassion,” Zinn says — moments that can inspire us to laudable acts of our own.
A recognition of our role as citizens in the unfolding story of American democracy is a good place to start as our cash-strapped nation grapples with the consequences of the past generation’s prison boom. An ever-rising tide of incarceration is not inevitable. History teaches at least that much, and each of us has a part to play in creating the future. That is why I sent an e-mail last week to U.S. Rep. John Kline, encouraging him to offer companion legislation in the House to S. 714, the bill sponsored in the Senate by Jim Webb, Arlen Specter and others to create a national criminal justice commission. The commission's task would be to study the issues in depth and recommend reforms in America’s sentencing laws and correctional policies.
Laws like those that impose Draconian penalties for low-level drug possession are not immutable holy wit. They are made by humans and can be changed by humans. Indeed, the process of doing so can itself be empowering. I'm not so naive as to think that writing to my congressperson (a cliché of civics 101) will change the world all at once. Maybe it will help to do that, maybe it won’t. After all, the prison industrial complex is a powerful force, and the political dynamics of any meaningful sentencing reform are unpredictable. The point is that, as psychologist Diana de Vegh says, "taking action frees you from the paralysis that comes from accepting what is called reality." Rep. Kline, if you happen to read this post, you can consider the note I sent about Sen. Webb’s bill a declaration of epistemological independence.