book reviews, criminal justice, faith, history, literature, politics, psychology, science

Book Reviews, May 2015

The May installment of mini book reviews has the two books I referenced in my last post about criminal justice, as well as two very different novels set during World War II, and another book on creation and evolution because I can’t stop reading about the topic.

  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander is a devastating critique of American society.  Alexander argues, persuasively I feel, that upon the end of Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s, instead of ushering in a time of equal opportunity, America erected a new racial caste system based on mass incarceration (via the War on Drugs) with devastating effect on African Americans.  Her argument is a complex one, requiring diving into history, law, and social science research.  It started with calls for a return to “law and order” during the tumultuous 1960s, then with Nixon calling for a “war on drugs” that didn’t really come to fruition until Reagan’s administration.  Reagan truly initiated the Drug War early in his time in office by dramatically increasing anti-drug budgets.  Interestingly, at the time he called for a War on Drugs in October of 1982, only 2% of the country thought drugs were the most important issue facing the country.  Things didn’t get better under Clinton in the 1990s.  He enacted many “tough on crime” policies such as 3-strike life sentences for certain crimes.  His administration cut public housing at the same time it was increasing money for corrections.  In Alexander’s telling, no one is blameless for the current predicament of mass incarceration.  After detailing the history, Alexander shows how police have virtually no legal restraints in carrying out the drug war.  Because there are few, if any constraints, the seemingly race neutral drug war ends up targeting and incarcerating people of color disproportionately, especially in light of the fact that whites and people of color use drugs at similar rates.  Even after someone has served a sentence for a drug crime, the system isn’t done with them yet.  Policies that control ex-prisoners make it difficult to truly re-integrate into society, often leading to second class status or, even worse, recidivism.  In order to end mass incarceration as a caste system, it is not enough to point out that drug use is a public health problem and not a criminal one.  Alexander argues that the racial component of mass incarceration has to be confronted head on.  If it is not, then even if mass incarceration is ended, another racialized caste system will emerge just as Jim Crow followed slavery, and mass incarceration followed Jim Crow.  I would highly recommend this book.
  • Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice by Adam Benforado is a critical examination of the American criminal justice system.  And it is vitally important that we look at it.  Benforado details the many, many ways that the criminal justice system does not, in fact, deliver justice.  The structure of the book, from investigation to adjudication to punishment, allows him to show how things can go wrong each step of the way.  Along the way he points out the relevant social science research that helps to explain how these mistakes can be made.  For instance, some innocent people confess to crimes that they didn’t commit in order to make a grueling interrogation stop.  Or they might take a plea deal if they’re led to believe that a trial will not show their innocence.  Astoundingly, over 90 percent of those charged with a crime and offered a plea take it without a trial.  During a trial, it can be hard to determine guilt or innocence when prosecutors withhold evidence or a jury inaccurately rates a witness trustworthy or not.  Or take an eyewitness’s evidence: people’s memories can be notoriously unreliable when looking at a lineup or recalling the circumstances of a crime.  Memories can be easily corrupted or altered or even fabricated without the eyewitness realizing he or she is doing it.  And the impartial judge who oversees the proceedings of a trial may not be as objective as we would like to believe.  Of course everyone has biases, but it’s amazing how something like the time of day can affect someone.  In studies, judges are more lenient earlier in the day, but they are much harsher before lunch or at the end of the day.  How is that fair?  When it comes to punishment, Benforado puts forth the scientific evidence that “it is a desire for retribution—not deterrence or incapacitation—that has the strongest influence” (191).  This type of punishment leads to mandatory minimum sentencing, three strikes laws, life without parole, and the death penalty, which don’t work to actually deter crime.  Once in prison, it’s hard not to become “institutionalized” or broken as a person (whether by solitary confinement or the threat of rape and violence), so it’s not surprising that so many prisoners cannot re-integrate into society after serving time.  Benforado offers a smattering of possible reforms big and small that could get us closer to true justice.  One of the best suggestions, I thought, was the virtual courtroom.  It would remove obvious problems like being “swayed by the attractiveness of a witness” (266) or thinking a nervous witness is lying when they are merely nervous at speaking in public (we are not good at detecting whether people are lying or not, though we think we are).  My only real complaint with the book is that it sometimes reads too easily.  Benforado presents historical cases or the social science research so smoothly and convincingly (similarly to Malcolm Gladwell) that I was almost entertained by the story he was telling or the research findings he was presenting, when I really should be outraged.  It’s not that I wasn’t ultimately outraged, but maybe the pill should stick in the throat more rather than go down so easily. Despite that slight, and possibly idiosyncratic, complaint, I would highly recommend this book to everyone.  [Disclosure: I received an uncorrected proof from the publisher via a giveaway in the hopes that I would give an honest review of the book.]
  • The Commandant of Lubizec: A Novel of the Holocaust and Operation Reinhard by Patrick Hicks is a novel of witness and remembrance.  It’s an unflinching account of the horrors of a Nazi extermination camp told in a documentary style.  I’ll admit that I mistakenly thought it was going to be told more from the point of view of the title character (though the back cover and the blurbs are quite clear about the documentary nature of the story).  A story told from the POV of the Commandant would have been contrary to the spirit of the novel.  Rather, the narrator refers repeatedly to the absences and the missing, to the thousands killed on a daily basis, about which “traditional modes of storytelling fail us” because “the darkness itself is the story.”  It’s powerful.  And haunting.  The fictional camp of Lubizec is modeled on real camps like Treblinka.  In high school I read Jean-Francois Steiner’s account of Treblinka and the revolt by the prisoners there.  Something similar happens in this novel, but the narrator reminds us that this is not an adventure story, it is rebellion against the killings.  And though this is not a character study of the Commandant, it does in its own way try to humanize him by detailing his family life outside of the camp.  He is truly a bifurcated individual, a loving father at home and a cold, unfeeling engineer of murder at the camp.  His two selves seem impossible to reconcile.  Near the end of the novel, he even refers to himself in the third person when trying to explain his actions during the war.  I would highly recommend this book to everyone wanting to understand the Holocaust better.  [Disclosure: I am acquaintances with Patrick Hicks; he teaches literature and writing at the same college where my wife teaches.]
  • City of Thieves by David Benioff is a marvelous adventure story set during World War II during the siege of Leningrad.  The narrator, Lev Beniov (in the conceit of the novel this is the author’s grandfather telling him the story), along with Kolya, a deserter from the Army, must find a dozen eggs for an important Colonel, so that his daughter can have a wedding cake.  The city is surrounded by the German army, and the people are starving during the winter months.  It simultaneously has the quality of a fairy tale where the heroes have to accomplish an impossible task while also being a coming of age story for the 17 year old narrator.  During their search, the two young men encounter the many brutalities of the war, but there is also a lot of humor in the story, especially the way Lev and Kolya interact.  Kolya treats Lev like a younger brother whom he can teach about the ways of the world and women.  Like any quest narrative, it hits the right notes with twists and obstacles to keep our heroes from their objective, while also subverting some of our expectations along the way.  It was a very satisfying read.  As it was primarily a guy book, I would recommend it as that, though noting that anyone could enjoy it.
  • Evolution from Creation to New Creation: Conflict, Conversation, and Convergence by Ted Peters and Martinez Hewlett is a useful book on the topic of theistic evolution.  The two authors (one a theologian, the other a scientist) offer a helpful guide to the landscape of Christian approaches to origins.  They critique the young earth creationist and the intelligent design positions, but in the most fair and serious way I’ve ever seen.  They treat those who hold those positions with the utmost respect as fellow Christians (it’s a marked contrast to books I’ve read by Karl Giberson and Kenneth Miller).  Curiously, they don’t spend any time with old earth/progressive creationists.  The best part of the book is where they detail the spectrum of beliefs in the theistic evolution camp.  They analyze various thinkers in five areas: (1) deep time, (2) natural selection, (3) common descent, (4) divine action, and (5) theodicy (i.e. an attempt to answer why a good God would allow evil and suffering).  Afterwards, they present their own model that avoids some of the pitfalls they see in the other positions.  For example, most of the other thinkers used some version of the free will defense to answer how God could allow evil.  The problem they see with a free will defense is that it requires God to relinquish interacting with creation, which then makes evolutionary processes random and purposeless.  Most theists would like to avoid that conclusion.  Their approach is novel, by contrast, but it too is rather unsatisfying.  They view creation as both an initial point in time (creatio ex nihilo) as well as an ongoing process (creatio continua) that is not yet complete until it can be redeemed as a “new creation.”  In their reading, the “very good” declaration of Genesis is from the standpoint of the new creation, looking back on the whole history of creation (seems like a stretch).  They admit that they, like Job, don’t know why suffering and death are part of the creation at this time.  So, it’s still a mystery.  Regardless, the book is a handy reference for the various positions within theistic evolution.  I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the debate on creation and evolution.
personal, politics

The Needle and the Damage Done

There’s an exchange in Saga, the sci-fi comic by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples (you should read it!), where two characters debate the role of drugs and the merits of their art.  Alana is a new actress in the Circuit, an underground theater troupe whose performances are broadcast to the universe, and Yuma is the set designer and a veteran of the troupe.  The soap opera plots of the Circuit performances are hokey, but Alana has always wanted to be a star in the Circuit.  Yuma is more cynical about their role in the universe, a universe where most inhabited planets are stuck in a protracted war with one another.

Yuma: It’s true, the Circuit has only ever existed to pacify an angry and hopeless population.

Alana: Maybe shitty shows like ours, but what about actual good ones?  I got into “Filament City” when I was young, changed the way I think about poverty.

Yuma: And what did you do?  Join a nonprofit organization?  Volunteer at a soup kitchen?  Or did you lock yourself in a tiny room, shut the blinds and mainline every transmission like a junkie?  Some art might have the power to change people, but the Circuit can only ever change the way we feel, and never for very long.

Alana: Yuma, if you really think this business is just narcotizing our audience, why are you still working here?

Yuma: Because I adore drugs.

Science fiction, though set in a galaxy far, far away in some distant age in the future or past, often functions as a critique of the here and now.  These words by the two women seem pointed to our own TV entertainments.  I know I’ve binge-watched shows on DVD or Netflix “like a junkie.”  But it’s the comment about the show “Filament City” that really gets me.  HBO’s The Wire seems analogous with the fictional “Filament City.”  However, The Wire is actually good (as opposed to the Circuit productions) and socially conscious.  And it helped me change my mind on how I think about poverty and especially the Drug War, as I’m sure it has for many other viewers.

I’ve never used illegal drugs.  It’s not that I have incredible self control and just say no; I’ve never even been offered drugs.  I’ve never sought them out, either, though.  So I don’t have a lot of experience with drug users.  But I suppose I thought, when I thought about it at all, that drug users deserved their jail time because they knowingly broke the law.  I tend to be a rule follower, so it was easy to sit in judgment over those who have broken the rules.  I didn’t really think about the fact that drug users need help with their addictions.  It’s not something that a person can usually do by themselves.

So The Wire helped me change my mind on drugs by showing me lives ruined by drugs and the drug trade, from users to dealers to cops to innocent bystanders.  Yuma, in the quote above, seems to think that any sort of change, if it’s real change, would require getting involved in some way, either by volunteering to help drug addicts or becoming an activist.  And sure, those would be great things to do, but they are not things I can undertake at this time.  Does that mean that my mind hasn’t really changed if I don’t become an activist?  I don’t think so.  I think there are other ways to express my change of thinking.  For me, watching The Wire is a catalyst, leading me to want to know more about the criminal justice system (I’m really interested in reading The New Jim Crow) and the lives of those in poverty affected by drugs (I’m also eager to read Random Family).  Now I want to support political candidates who are for changing sentencing guidelines for drug offenders or other prison reforms.  Educating myself and voting behavior are not meaningless changes.

One question that bothers me is why do we lock up drug offenders instead of offering them treatment?  Why is drug addiction considered a criminal matter rather than a health issue?  I recently finished a delightful non-canonical Sherlock Holmes story called The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, where Watson helps Holmes kick his cocaine habit.  Sherlock’s cocaine use was mentioned in the original stories, but in this tale, his addiction has gotten out of control.  He is delusional, and the drug is killing him.  As his best friend, Watson naturally cares for him and wants him to be free of the drug.  He hatches a plan to help Sherlock break his addiction.  Throughout the story we empathize with Sherlock, wanting to understand his addiction and eager to see him helped.  But this is not how we treat most drug users in America.

In America, we lock them up.  Nearly half of all inmates in federal prisons are there on drug charges (48.7%, or 97,252 as of Nov. 29, 2014).  Many of the state and local inmates are also there for drug charges.  I could not find exact figures for non-federal inmates, so I looked up the stats for South Dakota, the state where I live.  Twenty three percent of inmates in SD are there on drug charges, and more than half of that 23% were guilty of possession (pdf).  Possession charges make no distinction between personal use and intent to distribute or sell the drug; it merely means the person has illegal drugs.  The total prison population (federal, state, and local) is over 2 million inmates, but it hasn’t always been so large.  Starting in the mid-1970s the prison population has grown more than four-fold.  It used to be less than 500,000 before the Drug War started.

And what has the Drug War accomplished besides filling our prisons to capacity?  The price of drugs has gone down, not up, over time.  The purity of the drugs has also increased over time.  These are evidences that drugs are more available than ever, despite the efforts of the War on Drugs.  There is also the human toll.  The Drug War disproportionately targets black people more than white people.  Whites use drugs at least as much as if not more than blacks over the course of their lifetime, but blacks make up a larger percentage of prison inmates on drug charges.  Black people are far more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, though their rate of marijuana usage is practically the same as for white people.

I don’t claim to know what to do for those who use drugs.  But incarcerating them for the last 40 years doesn’t seem like the solution.  The War on Drugs is a war on people who need help.  And it’s a war that isn’t working.  Some of you already know this, but it took the art of The Wire and a further adventure of Sherlock Holmes to help me see it, too.