“Violence has no place in a democracy”

Since the Giffords shooting yesterday, all of a sudden I’m being reminded that “violence has no place in a democracy.” By a number of people.

The hypocrisy here is rich.

Setting aside the critical distinction made crystal clear in James Madison’s Federalist No. 10 between a democracy and a republic (we have the latter, not the former),[1] we are, by far, the most war-like country on the planet:

So given all this, just how does the U.S. stack up as a supposedly peace loving country? It is actually not a simple matter to find out all the wars the the nation has been involved in. And a large number of the wars overlap. But Roger Lee has a list, which I plugged into a spreadsheet. And when I put the data through some manipulations, I came up with a grand total of 16 calendar years in which the United States was not at war with someone, somewhere, somehow. The longest of these periods was eight years. We have been at war the entire rest of the time.[2]

And to claim that we can fight all these wars in other places (though the shooting war on indigenous people in the western hemisphere has been going on for over 500 years) without bringing some of that violence back home is to ignore more than I can even begin to list here. There are other kinds of violence too:

Structural violence usually has the effect of denying people important rights, such as economic well-being; social, political, and sexual equality; a sense of personal fulfillment and self-worth; and so on. When people starve to death, or even go hungry, a kind of violence is taking place. Similarly, when humans suffer from diseases that are preventable, when they are denied decent education, affordable housing, opportunities to work, play, raise a family, and freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, a kind of violence is occurring, even if no bullets are shot or clubs wielded. A society commits violence against its members when it forcibly stunts their development and undermines their well-being, whether because of religion, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual preference, or some other social reason. Structural violence is a serious form of social oppression. And it is regrettably widespread and often unacknowledged.[3]

Perhaps that sounds abstract, an unavoidable consequence of capitalism, a system which claims justification as the least awful means of distributing “scarce” resources:

Certainly, environmental or other circumstances can lead to real scarcities. But artificial scarcities are constantly created by dominator politics and economics through overconsumption, wastefulness, exploitation, war or preparation for war, environmental despoliation, and failure to invest in high-quality human capital by not giving value to caring and caregiving.

Overconsumption and wastefulness by those on top is a perennial feature of dominator cultures. Whether it’s the opulent Roman feasts or the million-dollar parties of today’s super-rich, the grandiose palaces of kings, emperors, and dictators or the extravagant mansions of Enron and WorldCom CEOs, Imelda Marcos’s thousands of shoes, or the immense bank accounts of the Sukarno and Suharto families, it comes to the same. Those on top waste resources and those on the bottom scramble for the scraps.

Competition for scraps often takes on racial, religious and ethnic overtones. Smoldering prejudice is easily fanned into flames of hate and often violence.[4]

The collateral damage of capitalism shows up in violence against the poor. I’ve previously pointed out that

according to the King’s College of London International Centre for Prison Statistics, the U.S. as a country, both in terms of the total number of inmates and as a proportion of population, locks up more than any other country. The U.S. incarcerates more people than countries vastly larger in population. Ranked by proportion of population, the U.S. locks up more than such bastions of freedom as Russia, ranked 3rd with 628 prisoners per 100,000 population; Cuba, ranked 5th, with an estimated 531 per 100,000; Iran, ranked 58th with 222; Libya, ranked 59th with 209; Saudi Arabia, ranked 69th with 178; Zimbabwe, ranked 100th with 136; China, ranked 115th with 119; Vietnam, 125th with 107; Egypt, 147th with 85; and Syria, 183rd with 58. You might think the U.S. government and its subsidiaries might be the greatest threat to your freedom.

Of course, that depends on who you are. If you’re reading my blog, you’ve probably heard that Black men make up a disproportionately large share of U.S. prison populations. For every 100,000 black males in the U.S. population, 4,777 of them are in prison. They are over six times as likely as their white brothers to be in prison, nearly three times as likely as their Hispanic brothers, and four times as likely as their “other” brothers. The Bureau of Justice Statistics recognizes only three races: white, Black, and Hispanics. Individuals are either Hispanic or they are not. To combine with Census Bureau statistics, I added numbers for non-Hispanic “American Indians and Alaska Natives,” Asians, “Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders,” and “Two or more races.” In truth, there are probably no purebred humans anywhere on the planet. But Sergeant James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department, who arrested Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., for “disorderly conduct,” should take note: This is a system of criminal injustice.

Black men are over six times more likely to be in prison than their white brothers, nearly three times as likely as their Hispanic brothers, four times as likely as their “other” brothers, 51 times as likely as their white sisters, nearly 14 times as likely as their Black sisters, over 32 times as likely as their Hispanic sisters, and–get this–936 times as likely as their “other” sisters. The numbers for Hispanic men and “other” men aren’t quite so outrageous, but even an “other” man is over 231 times more likely to be behind bars as is “other” sister. “Other” women are, by far, the least likely to be found in prison. Given that white males make up a majority of judges, prosecutors, and police, I can’t help but think of common white male fantasies involving “exotic,” “mysterious” Asian women.

Men in general are over ten times more likely to be in prison than their sisters. White men are nearly eight times as likely to be in prison as their white sisters, twice as likely as their black sisters, five times as likely as their Hispanic sisters, and over 142 times as likely as their “other” sisters. I’m supposed to believe these are cultural differences but, believe it or not, some of these people have lived in this country for a long time. By the time you get to the third generation, people generally do not speak the language of their ancestors; they are “Americanized.”[5]

Philip Zimbardo had to abort the notorious Stanford Prison experiment, which had been planned to last two weeks, after only six days, because an experiment structured to avoid physical abuse on the prisoners nonetheless resulted in severe degradation.[7] Angela Davis has said,

Prisons create the assumption that those who are a threat to our safety and security are behind bars, but in actuality, the techniques of violence, the techniques of terror that are most dangerous, are the ones used within the system itself. . . .

And the violence of slavery, which we assume was abolished with the Thirteenth Amendment and afterwards, is very much at work within US prison institutions. And because the prison has been marketed on the global capitalist circuit, we discover these prisons, the US-style prisons now, all over the world, in the Global North as well as the Global South.[8]

But after all of this, we act as if Tea Party rhetoric is to blame.

The fact is that the United States loves violence, revels in violence, celebrates violence. From the fireworks at the 4th of July (commemorating exploding rockets in war) to the Star-Spangled Banner to the Boy Scouts and their salutes (as indoctrination for military service) to its “law and order” system of criminal injustice to its attitude that damns the poor to its action-adventure movies to the television sets that its people spend so much time in front of, this country is all about violence. I don’t think this country even knows how not to be violent.

  1. [1]James Madison, "The Federalist No. 10: Madison," November 22, 1787, in The Federalist Papers, Garry Wills, ed. (New York: Bantam, 2003).
  2. [2]David Benfell, "A Peace Loving Nation," October 18, 2009. https://disunitedstates.org/?p=738
  3. [3]David P. Barash and Charles P. Webel, Peace and Conflict Studies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002), p. 7.
  4. [4]Riane Eisler, The Real Wealth of Nations (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2007), p. 130.
  5. [6]
  6. [5]David Benfell, "Thinking about prisoners and institutionalized bigotry," August 5, 2009, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=713

    Prisons inherently commit violence against prisoners. According to EarthWiki,[6]EarthWiki, "United States – Internal Relationships with Humans – Criminal Injustice," dead link.

  7. [7]“Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect (New York: Random House, 2008).
  8. [8]Democracy Now!, “Angela Davis on the Prison Abolishment Movement, Frederick Douglass, the 40th Anniversary of Her Arrest and President Obama‚Äôs First Two Years,” October 19, 2010, http://www.democracynow.org/2010/10/19/angela_davis_on_the_prison_abolishment

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