Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Endless War

I’m a recovering drug addict. I’ve been in recovery for almost 23 years, and that includes alcohol, of course. A lot of times when I tell people this, they conclude that I must be “against” drugs. But that’s a mistake. One of the things I’ve learned about addiction is that it’s something inside of me—it’s not in the substance. In fact, my addictive nature was manifest before I ever used a drug, and it can manifest itself in behaviors as well, such as sex, eating, spending, or even work. When someone says to me, “So, you don’t like to drink?” I say, “No, I like it too much.” That’s the difference.

I liked getting high too much. It ended up consuming my time, my thoughts, my life. My drug of choice was pot, and that also surprises people. “What, just pot?” For me, it wasn’t “just” pot, it was what I wanted all the time. But the particular drug an addict prefers really isn’t the point. The problem is that the addict can’t moderate, can’t stop, so it becomes an obsession and a compulsion.

I’m explaining all this as a preliminary to my thoughts on America’s perennial anti-drug crusade. Even though I don’t use drugs myself, I know that this so-called “war” on drugs is a pernicious and destructive lie. Most importantly from my perspective, it criminalizes addiction. Instead of making a commitment to treatment and recovery, politicians have cynically promoted punishment as a solution, in order to make themselves look “tough” on crime, and thus win votes from the large idiot demographic. Stigmatized and forced to conceal their drug use, addicts end up filling the prisons and becoming further criminalized, rather than getting help.

Marijuana is a special case, and a very curious one indeed. In terms of social impact, it causes fewer problems than any recreational drug. Yet the government spends billions of dollars confiscating weed and busting people who sell and use it. About half of all the drug arrests in the U.S. are related to pot. The Federal government acts as if pot was more of a threat than cocaine or heroin. Yet the vast majority of drug-related crimes of violence or against property are committed by the users of either the so-called “harder” drugs, or alcohol, which is of course legal. Put succinctly, the official drug policy of the United States is to stick its head up its ass and keep it there forever.

My theory is that marijuana is illegal because of culture. This is why the law seems so irrational—it has nothing to do with a tangible threat to public safety, but only with a perceived threat to a cultural norm. Alcohol is a good drug for war-mongers: it loosens your inhibitions and makes you stupid. A drunk person is more apt to be violent and aggressive, tendencies that are sanctioned and reinforced in the culture. A drug that mellows you out, makes you feel peaceful, and stimulates thought and imagination, represents something alien to the cultural norm. Despite all the hedonistic hoopla, American culture is still anti-pleasure. That is, the ideas about “pleasure” that we are normally presented with are guilt-ridden, materialistic, and stupid.

In addition, the popular identification of cannabis with the 1960s, rebellion, and youth culture, has made it permanently hateful in the eyes of the reactionaries who own and run the country, even though its actual use in the population has gone beyond those stereotypes long ago. So we continue to be told that pot is bad, bad, bad, while we’re inundated with commercial messages telling us to drink, drink, drink.

Legalization of marijuana is a necessity if we’re going to shift from a prison society to a society that values education. Ultimately, some kind of legalization or decriminalization of all drugs will be necessary. The current situation only strengthens organized crime, and always will. The War on Drugs was in fact already a colossal failure twenty-five years ago. So why are they still waging it?

I think it’s obvious that many have a vested interest in keeping this phony drug war going. The Drug Enforcement Administration needs the war so as to keep getting funded and provide more and more jobs to its legions of employees. The more busts they make, the better they look and the more funding they get. If drug arrests were to go down or go away, they’d all be out of a job. The same goes for all the state and local drug police and their operations. Then there’s the prison industry. Since Ronnie Reagan came in and established toughness as our primary political narcotic, incarceration rates have kept climbing year after year. The number of prisons increased tenfold. If the incarceration rates were to drop because the drug war ended, what would happen to all those prison contractors, planners, wardens, guards, and all the other prison employees and their families? The state and federal corrections institutions don’t really want an end to the war, do they? It’s in their interest to have as many drug convictions as possible, year after year, into perpetuity.

The drug war also serves another important function: it helps maintain institutional racism. Every statistical study for the past several decades has confirmed the basic fact that African Americans represent a disproportionate percentage of drug arrests, convictions, and subsequent incarcerations. Poverty makes the use and sale of “harder” drugs more likely, which leads to more arrests, which perpetuates poverty. It’s a perfect little trap. The exploitation has sometimes been quite conscious and deliberate: the CIA allowed the infusion of drugs into black communities as part of their international covert operations, and this was documented by reporter Gary Webb, who was attacked and vilified for breaking the story.

If you told a group of people nowadays that the CIA has been involved in drug trafficking, they would probably nod their heads in agreement. It’s been common knowledge since 1972, when the CIA’s involvement in the Southeast Asian heroin trade was exposed by Alfred McCoy. Now, of course, we’re in Afghanistan, and there have been bumper crops in opium there since the invasion. Michael Ruppert claims that drug money has been keeping the American economy afloat for many years. Whenever Wall Street hits a rough spot, a bunch of new cash eventually flows mysteriously into the market to right the ship again. In other words, the spooks dip into their huge funds of drug money and pump it into stocks. Ruppert’s ideas can be far-fetched at times, yet the close relationships between CIA veterans and Wall Street movers and shakers are undeniable.

So when you consider all this—and I can only skim the surface of this murky swamp in the limited time I have—it becomes clear that the War on Drugs is nothing more than a way to prop up a corrupt establishment. Law enforcement and the prison industry are kept pumped up, a lot of people (including large numbers of blacks and other minorities) get put away and disenfranchised, while the bosses can make huge sums on the drug traffic themselves. It serves them well, but it’s very bad for the rest of us. Our education and health care go down the toilet while our money goes to cops, prisons, weapons, and war. The truth is that ending this war involves ending all the others too, and making a transition to a sane and peaceful society.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Question Ordinary

I ran across the following tidbit in a footnote from Wyndham Lewis’ 1928 biography of the 15th century poet François Villon:

“The Question Ordinary, or Question by Water, was applied as part of the routine procedure of Justice to recalcitrant or to taciturn prisoners. The stubborn one was bound, hand and foot, to staples in such a manner as to stretch his body as far as possible: a rack or trestle two feet high was placed under him, supporting his middle. The Questioner, with his assistant, then proceeded, the one to hold the prisoner’s nose and thus compel him to swallow, the other to place over his mouth a horn funnel. Into this water was poured…about nine litres altogether, by degrees, sometimes through a linen cloth. The patient was then unbound and allowed to recuperate before the treatment was (if adjudged necessary) repeated.”

You may recognize this time-honored method, with only slight alterations, as “waterboarding.” Villon himself suffered this torture in the dungeons of Meun, in 1461, as he attests more than once in his verse. It was common not only during the infamous Spanish Inquisition, as has been pointed out before in what remains of the free press, but as we see here, in medieval Europe in general. What’s interesting in this passage is its air of antiquarian curiosity. A great deal had changed between 1461 and 1928, and involved in that change was a general recognition that torture was an uncivilized relic of ignorant times, made repugnant to modern sensibilities because of centuries of gradual moral and intellectual progress.

It’s rather too easy to be smug about the past, because we tend to take our own ethical standpoints for granted, forgetting that they are the product of long struggles. Torture did not originate in the Middle Ages. We can trace it back to the earliest civilizations. The Romans, who exceeded all previous cultures in cruelty, codified it to such a degree that one could argue a traumatic effect on Western history. They invented, for instance, that grotesque form of the death penalty known as crucifixion, used on untold thousands of people as punishment for crimes ranging from petty theft to rebellion. That this symbol of viciousness became the emblem of the new triumphant religion of Christianity is more significant and more troubling than most of us would wish to admit.

In the case of the “Question Ordinary,” the ostensible reason for the practice is to make someone talk. Those who have taken the time to study torture have explained at length how naïve this reasoning really is. A guilty person may or may not tell the truth under torture. It depends on such factors as whether the truth will actually be perceived as such by the torturer, the preconceptions of the torturer as to what the truth is or should be, and of course how determined the tortured person is to resist the pressure. An innocent person, on the other hand, has no options whatsoever since the torturer assumes his guilt: he must simply figure out what the torturer wants to hear, and tell him that. That no innocent persons are tortured would be the most naïve idea of all, and this is of course the lie that the torturers and their justifiers continually tell us.

But beyond all these considerations, it seems to me that the crucial element here is a lack of any feeling of ethical conflict when inflicting extreme pain on someone perceived as an enemy. If this were an unusual situation that was only applied in extreme cases where vital information was needed, the practice wouldn’t have been so widespread. The fact is that torture expresses rage, hatred, and a thirst for revenge. You can dress this up with ideology, or with seemingly calm rationales based on notions of justice or expedience, but when it comes to the actual practice, the experience of torture, the unavoidable truth emerges. It is an expression of the savage, hateful side of human nature. Yet this fact is precisely what is being repeatedly suppressed and denied by our government, because it represents a regression to a previous form of civilization, one that we have supposedly grown past.

The core political principle of civilization was domination by force. It wasn’t the only principle, but it was the one constant element that authority always fell back on, so to speak. This became increasingly so in the ancient world, as states sought to create empires. In later stages it was thought that the severity of punishment acted as a deterrent to other criminals, although increasingly the opposite effect was achieved. Brutality often created unrest and rebellion rather than docility. Deterrence was only a rationale then, as it is now. The real point was inflicting pain on the criminal in revenge for the pain he or she inflicted on the victim of crime, or on authority or society.

I don’t know anyone who hasn’t fantasized about getting “even” with someone who has done him harm—human beings want to hurt back when they are hurt. This is really the root of cruelty as a method of official “justice.” In the Christian and Muslim conceptions of hell, this impulse was translated into a cosmological doctrine. Dante’s Inferno, for instance, catalogues the torture of sinners after death in symbolic fashion. The guilty suffer unending pain and punishment. When torture is conceived as an eternal condition, the human desire for revenge inflates punishment to a level that becomes self-contradictory: unlimited cruelty visited on limited human beings can never be truly just, no matter what they may have been guilty of.

So what happened since 1461? There was a little thing known as The Enlightenment. Advanced thinkers and philosophers started to recognize an inherent dignity of the individual—not a mere means to an end, but an end in him or herself. From this came the idea of human rights, and not so coincidentally, a searching critique of theocracy and systems of authoritarian domination. Certain practices were unjust in themselves, regardless of the innocence or guilt of an individual, and prominent among these practices was torture. Justice was not the same as punishment; its purpose was not revenge, but the impartial good of society, untainted by cruelty or other savage impulses. Cruelty and hate came to be thought of as human flaws and shortcomings, from which civilized government should guard itself.

These ideas were central to the founding of the United States. In practice, of course, American society was plagued with cruelty and injustice, especially regarding African slavery and the American Indians. But this doesn’t change the fact that in principle the founders were intent on establishing a rule of law that respected the rights and dignity of the individual. Thus in the Bill of Rights we have provisions against imprisonment without charge or trial, warrantless searches, and “cruel and unusual” punishment, among other things. If we could just trust in the purity and good intentions of government authorities, we wouldn’t need any of this. But the thinkers of the Enlightenment recognized that the misuse of power was as old as civilization, and that therefore protections had to be ensured by law and not by mere trust.

Authoritarians don’t get this. They have great difficulty understanding why a guilty person should be protected from anything. They don’t see a connection between the plight of a guilty person and themselves—that the treatment of one would have an impact on the treatment of the other, or on the well-being of society in general. The torturer Bush looks at a phrase like “cruel and unusual” and says, “That’s too vague.” To his mind, cruelty is only something you could do to someone you care about—as far as guilty people like terrorists are concerned, no such category exists.

It took a lot of hard work, with a lot of backpedaling and mistakes and open conflict, to get to a point where torture is considered immoral. Yet there are entire segments of the population for whom the Enlightenment never happened. It’s as if previous strata of human civilization always co-exist with the later additions. Progress means that public life is generally in line with the latest developments, which are really developments in education and consciousness. Regression means that public life has reverted to outmoded previous stages of development.

When the morality of torture becomes a contested issue in public life, it’s a sign of regression. For one thing, it means that education is failing—ignorance has come more to the forefront. If we’re really not sure about the “Question Ordinary,” then where does this movement end? We could amuse ourselves by imagining a return to witch-burning, public flogging, and the use of leeches by doctors. But to see the serious consequences we only have to look at the history of the 20th century, in Germany and Russia for instance, to note that barbarism would take deadlier forms today than they did in 15th century Paris.

One of the important insights we’ve gained since the Middle Ages is that cruelty has a destructive effect on the perpetrator as well as the victim. Soldiers who are told to torture don’t realize that the practice will inwardly degrade them, tainting their own capacity for love and self-respect, causing them to revert to a virtually subhuman state—one that will cripple their capacities for a full life and cause untold suffering for themselves and others in the future. Torture can eventually produce a kind of moral infection in society as a whole—diminishing our capacity for empathy, higher thought, or peace of mind.

I’m sure that the key torturers in our current situation don’t think this way. They operate on the ancient level of hate, revenge, and domination. They may think that torture will scare the terrorist enemy, acting as a deterrent by projecting a kind of “bad ass” image of American power that should not be messed with. But I tend to believe that this is more of a propaganda weapon against the citizens of the United States rather than against foreign enemies. The Cheney gang has taken pains to actually foster a bogus “debate” on torture, which has the effect of both softening up public opinion and intimidating critics. People will be less likely to oppose neofascist designs if they fear that they could be subjected to torture. The push in favor of torture, flying in the face of centuries of civilized social progress, is really subversion, a deliberate attempt to undermine hard-won moral standards so as to ease the way for a China-style capitalist dictatorship.

Torture has been made pretty much of a non-issue in the presidential campaign this year. The electorate is perhaps more concerned in general with their economic self-interest than with a moral issue that doesn’t seem to affect them. I suspect a lot of people are insulated to the degree that they think their middle class status, or perhaps their white skin, will protect them against the government. It’s the old “I’m not doing anything wrong, so I have nothing to fear” mistake. But I also wonder how much the media downplays the issue for its own reasons, which thereby gives us a distorted view of what the public really cares about.

Despite torture being shrugged off in this way, I think it may be the most important issue of the campaign. What goes unspoken and unremarked is often a deciding factor. Torture doesn’t just represent hatred and revenge. There’s also, in this late era, something desperate about it. The Cheney group, the neocons, and their rightist allies, all consider it important enough to fight for, again and again. I doubt whether they will let something as inconsequential (to them) as an election defeat their intentions. The next president will either continue the reign of torture, or face a backlash from the torturers themselves.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Family Panic

Right-wing dominance over the public face of Christianity in America has been so complete that the word morality may inevitably evoke the scowling face of the evangelical conservative preacher in our minds. The so-called religious right has used its financial clout and political connections to advantage. But its real power lies in the skilful evocation of guilt—primarily in the church followers or “flock” but also in all of us, like it or not, by virtue of a shared cultural history.

James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, is as good example as any of the problem. He started out as one of those radio personalities that advise listeners on how to be good parents. There’s a need out there for such guidance—corporate culture offers none whatsoever, and for the less educated, glib media personalities try to fill the vacuum. From “Dr. Phil” to “Dr. Laura,” we have experts of dubious authority making big bucks by teaching the public how to live, especially in terms of relationships and families. Dobson eventually went from there to becoming a player in the right-wing culture wars.

For Dobson, child-rearing is about winning a power struggle between the parent and the child. The will of the child needs to be molded by the parent:

“When youngsters display stiff-necked rebellion, you must be willing to respond to the challenge immediately. When nose-to-nose confrontation occurs between you and your child, it is not the time to discuss the virtues of obedience. It is not the occasion to send him to his room to pout. Nor is it the time to postpone disciplinary measures till your tired spouse plods home from work. You have drawn a line in the dirt, and the child has deliberately flopped his bony little toe across it. Who is going to win? Who has the most courage?”

There is nothing new about this. It reflects a very long disciplinarian tradition. I’m sure many of Dobson’s readers nod their heads automatically at passages like this because they reaffirm long-held beliefs. One curious aspect of the approach is how frightened and defensive it sounds. The parent gets a dreadful feeling from this “stiff-necked” rebellion, and wishes to suppress the feeling at all costs. But look at how unequal the match really is: a grown-up versus a child. Why should there be a line in the dirt, or a test of courage involved? I would argue that the parent in this case is upset (outraged, challenged, confounded) that his authority is being questioned. That’s the sign of a guilt-based authority, in other words, a bad conscience. The parent is afraid of his own vulnerability and painful childhood feelings. So they get projected onto the kid. This is how child abuse is perpetuated.

Dobson would argue that there’s a difference between what he is proposing and child abuse. Certainly there is a difference of degree, and that difference may translate into relative “success” rather than the failure evidenced in an abuse situation. But there is no realistic guideline here, because parental authority is given an absolute value. Dobson talks about the importance of loving, but every parent uses “love” as the rationale for whatever he or she does.

So what is the outcome of the power struggle?

"Some strong-willed children absolutely demand to be spanked, and their wishes should be granted…Two or three stinging strokes on the legs or buttocks with a switch are usually sufficient to emphasize the point, 'You must obey me.'"


"Pain is a marvelous purifier…It is not necessary to beat the child into submission; a little bit of pain goes a long way for a young child. However, the spanking should be of sufficient magnitude to cause the child to cry genuinely."

That’s really what it comes down to. Beneath all religious pretensions is the power principle—the application of physical force by the authority figure.

Most of these quotes are from a book called Dare to Discipline (interesting how the oldest, most unconscious behavior is framed as “daring”—but this is a symptom of Dobson’s identification of liberalism as the enemy, which we’ll get to later). He also wrote a book called Bringing Up Boys. The core of Dobson’s thought lies in the assumption that traditional gender roles are God-given, and that deviations from those roles are both sick and ultimately sinful. Naturally, there’s a hefty section of the book devoted to homosexuality:

The onset of most cross-gender behavior occurs during the pre-school years, between the ages of two and four. You needn't worry about occasional cross-dressing. You should become concerned, though, when your little boy continues doing so and, at the same time, begins to acquire some other alarming habits. He may start using his mother's makeup. He may avoid other boys in the neighborhood and their rough-and-tumble activities and prefer being with his sisters instead, who play with dolls and dollhouses. Later he may start speaking in a high-pitched voice. He may affect the exaggerated gestures and even the walk of a girl, or become fascinated with long hair, earrings and scarves… The fact is, there is a high correlation between feminine behavior in boyhood and adult homosexuality. There are telltale signs of discomfort with . . . boys and deep-seated and disturbing feelings that they [are] different and somehow inferior. And yet parents often miss the warning signs and wait too long to seek help for their children. One reason for this is that they are not being told the truth about their children's gender confusion, and they have no idea what to do about it.

“Masculine” and “feminine” are absolute categories that go unquestioned here. Dobson goes on to express his conviction that homosexuality can be “cured,” and of course he has been obsessed with fighting against equal rights for gays. In any case, it is important to realize that Dobson’s assumptions about boys are very narrow in scope. When children don’t fit into these categories, as they often don’t, Dobson’s idea is to somehow mold the kids so that they will eventually fit into them. If the child rejects the roles, there’s something wrong with the child, not with Dobson’s beliefs and assumptions.

What is reflected here is a patriarchal social system founded on gender roles, in which sexuality is maintained within certain approved forms by male authority. We avoid a lot of confusion when we recognize that this way of thinking, this belief system, takes precedence over religious identity. Dobson’s views on the family and on sexuality would make just as much sense if he was a worshipper of Zeus, or Moloch, or for that matter, Karl Marx. The authoritarian mindset uses religious belief as a dogmatic support. God is the metaphysical counterpart, if you will, of the male authority, aiding the husband or father in exacting a similar authority within the family. The real faith of these people is in the social order that they’ve internalized, the patriarchal system as they believe it should be. All this gets translated into religious terms, but without genuine religious content.

With Dobson and others like him, you don’t get a sense of humility or of the sense of human limitation realized by people who seek God inwardly. You also don’t get a sense of passionate devotion to Jesus as a direct encounter. God is like a mere third-person watcher keeping everyone in line. Of course, this is all unconscious, and whatever spiritual experiences Dobson and his sort have are kept separate from the system of social control that is maintained.

Dobson never wrote a book called Bringing Up Girls. Women are strictly subservient in his world-view. “My observation,” he once said, “is that women are merely waiting for their husbands to assume leadership.” For a woman to have her own desires for power, self-determination, independent expression—to seek fulfillment outside of the context of men and motherhood—is simply unthinkable. They get the scripture passage from Titus 2.4-5: “Train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home.” The Bible actually offers slim pickings for the family system, especially the New Testament: the Dobson type has to be very ingenious to come up with these passages and make them relevant, because the texts are not really about living a conventional life. It’s only because Christianity is a dominant organized religion that the scriptures get used this way.

At one point in Bringing Up Boys, Dobson starts railing against Phil Donahue and Gloria Steinem, blaming feminism for the “gender confusion” that upsets him so much. The myth of these right-wing Christians is that everything was basically okay until the liberals came along and started messing with the family. But I look at old photos of people standing around laughing at a lynching and I think, these were all “Christians” the way Dobson is a Christian. The conservative churches were silent about all that. They opposed women’s rights, too. It was no thanks to the churches that women finally got the vote. The conservative churches were silent on child labor, on slavery, on civil rights, on rape and sexual abuse, on the atrocities of war. Among Christians, it’s always been the liberals who have stood up against these things and worked for change.

When your religion is actually the maintenance of a patriarchal social order, then your “morality” will support anything that bolsters that order. Therefore, Dobson is pro-war, pro-nuclear weapons, pro-torture. He supports the murder of children in other countries if his Christian president orders it, while he campaigns tirelessly against abortion here. The “love” in this religion starts with love of the switch or the paddle, and it extends itself all the way up to the bomb falling on some other guy’s family. But, you know, he’s not really aware of this. The ethos of obedience prevents critical self-examination. It’s all about controlling other people, not looking at yourself.

So when we find ourselves intimidated by the “moral” stance of the Christian right, we must realize that it’s a sham, and not a genuine spirituality or morality. The greatest threat to Christianity as a vital religion comes not from secularists or liberals, but from Dobson and his allies. They’ve already trivialized their faith to the point where it has become not much more than a lobbying group for sexual and reproductive control. Dobson’s God frets all day long about promiscuous teenagers and gays. His is a pathetic, silly God that constantly needs to be reassured and upheld by a group of hysterical narrow-minded busybodies.

So, in a world torn by strife and suffering and injustice, what worries Dobson? Why, the United Nation Convention of the Rights of the Child “has worried me for years,” he said, calling it a “dangerous document.”

That a child may have rights—this is what concerns our guardian of morality. If the absolute authority of the parent is challenged, then the entire system collapses, the entire way of life that has produced such wonderful results for centuries—centuries of twisted, miserable children growing up into lying, self-righteous, abusive adults. And we wouldn’t want that to happen.

And lo, a child shall frighten them…

Friday, May 09, 2008

The Police Society

We’ve seen it all before. An unarmed black man is shot to death by police, who are later acquitted of all charges. This time his name was Sean Bell. There have been many others over the years.

But when people point to this pattern, and protest the excessive force and brutality used against African Americans, they are inevitably accused of being incendiary themselves, using the “race card,” and denigrating the authority of the police.

The same reaction occurs when the subject of racial profiling arises, or the disproportionate number of black people imprisoned. To talk about institutional racism at all seems to be tantamount to attacking the American way of life. The rightists have achieved such a stranglehold on public discourse that it has become taboo to declare what you can see right in front of your eyes. This narrative of denial has been politically effective for the right so far because they’ve framed everything in terms of a bad conscience rather than in terms of justice. No one likes to feel guilty, so in a carefully designed atmosphere of powerlessness, people turn on the bearers of bad news. But in truth, it’s not about guilt. It never has been. It’s about the system and how people can change it. As far as the police are concerned, I would think it was ultimately healthy for law enforcement to be self-critical in order to be truly effective.

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard police chiefs and commissioners defend some indefensible action by claiming that opponents are trying to smear or denigrate the integrity of the police. Someone protesting a specific police action is attacked for being against the police force in general. Or if a corruption story breaks, there’s bound to be some spokesman or pundit railing defensively about “our fine police force” and the great job they do.

This is a curious phenomenon. Yeah, I believe most cops are just honest working folks doing the best they can, and that usually the best is quite good. But why should I have to bow and scrape and repeat this mantra every time cops do something wrong? The entire subject is weighed down by authoritarian thinking. When you really examine the premise, it’s perfectly absurd: as soon as someone puts on a uniform and becomes a police officer, he or she becomes incapable of wrongdoing or corruption, and to criticize the actions of that officer is to criticize the entire police force. No one would actually come out and claim such a thing, but this is really the operating assumption. And it prevents any real accountability.

The truth is that putting on a uniform that gives you power over other human beings always contains the potential for corruption. People have limitations, so if you put guns in their hands, some of those limited people will misuse them. The problem is compounded when the people with guns are in a big group together and develop clannish or tribal behavior, which is a common human pattern. Cops may tend to see people outside their group as insufficiently supportive, or just ignorant of what it’s really like to be a cop, which makes them more defensive and less open. Now add race to the mix. There are plenty of screwed-up racial attitudes and beliefs out there—are you going to tell me that a police officer is somehow immune from that? In fact, that could easily become reinforced in the closed inner-circle atmosphere of a particular police force or unit.

All these things are not only possible, but have clearly occurred, and that’s leaving aside the outright corruption which has been documented in the police of various cities and states over the years. To see this as part of reality is simply to be awake and reasonably sane. How are the police supposed to really do their jobs unless they’re accountable? How can we trust them if they’re not?

Unfortunately, in an authoritarian system protest is considered a security threat. The police forces become political entities with their own constituencies and interests. So the concern is no longer how to serve the people, but how to protect and enhance the authority of the police. This is not a minor concern. Modern history has seen the rise of police power as a new form of government—in the Soviet Union, for example, the police were actually the dominant class, with a clear precedence over the military. Rather than a force of protection, which is still the narrative our society tells itself about the police, the new authoritarianism sees the police as a tool to be used against the citizenry, as a form of social control. The ominous vision of riot cops concealed behind black uniforms and visors, using force to put down peaceful demonstrations, is part of this shift.

So while individual acts of injustice by police, typified by these high-profile racial cases, are alarming, it is the defensive reaction against those crying out in protest that I find more disturbing. Individuals are affected more or less by the system as it has developed. Solutions to these problems may include civilian supervisory boards, increased police-community communication, etc. But I maintain that the system itself has taken on an essentially racial character. The drug war and the prison industry combine to keep African-American communities disempowered. The police shootings and other brutalities are like symptoms of this underlying systemic problem. How and why this is so requires a much wider public debate—and that’s exactly what the authoritarian right doesn’t want to allow.