Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Incarceration of the Masses

Philosophy beings in wonder, Socrates famously said.

Two millenia later, Descartes said it begins in doubt.

I have Socratic wonder at the enormity of American incarceration, as well as Cartesian doubt.

Two years ago, when introducing his proposal for a criminal justice reform commission, Senator Jim Webb asked it this way. Are Americans more evil than virtually every other people in the world, justifying such high incarceration rates? Or has our sentencing and corrections system gone terribly wrong, locking up people who really dont' need to be behind bars?

To my mind, the latter is true. Due to an out-of-control drug war and other ideological factors, the American prison population is preposterously high. Prison used to be reserved for the worst of the worst. Now, among the lower depths of the population, it's an expected rite of passage.

This is a plea for recovery of the ability to be shocked, and to ask the right questions again. "To be surprised, to wonder, is to begin to understand," wrote Ortega y Gassett in The Revolt of the Masses. By expressing my surprise at a society that puts 2.3 million people in jail or prison , I am trying to understand.

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