Tag Archives: the new yorker

Prison, Crime Rates and The Limits of Ideology

In a great  New Yorker article about American incarceration, Adam Gopnik dissects the drop of crime in New York City:

The change didn’t come from resolving the deep pathologies that the right fixated on—from jailing super predators, driving down the number of unwed mothers, altering welfare culture. Nor were there cures for the underlying causes pointed to by the left: injustice, discrimination, poverty. Nor were there any “Presto!” effects arising from secret patterns of increased abortions or the like.

The city didn’t get much richer; it didn’t get much poorer. There was no significant change in the ethnic makeup or the average wealth or educational levels of New Yorkers as violent crime more or less vanished. “Broken windows” or “turnstile jumping” policing, that is, cracking down on small visible offenses in order to create an atmosphere that refused to license crime, seems to have had a negligible effect. […]

Paragraphs like this demonstrate how weak democracy is for solving complex problems. The vast majority of the population doesn’t know very much about crime, policing, prisons or what is likely to produce a favorable ratio between the three. So we fall back on ideology.

Right-wing people want harsh sentencing and strong enforcement not because these have been shown to systematically reduce crime, but because they are a component of their ideology. This is the solution they propose regardless of the problem.

Similarly, left-wing people want more social programs, poverty reduction and equality promotion not because these are empirically effective, but because they are goods in themselves. These will be the first three suggestions for government intervention regardless of the subject matter.

Like all complex social phenomena, the effective intervention turns out to be more complicated and–sigh–as always, morally problematic:

Instead, small acts of social engineering, designed simply to stop crimes from happening, helped stop crime. In the nineties, the N.Y.P.D. began to control crime not by fighting minor crimes in safe places but by putting lots of cops in places where lots of crimes happened—“hot-spot policing.” The cops also began an aggressive, controversial program of “stop and frisk”—“designed to catch the sharks, not the dolphins,” as Jack Maple, one of its originators, described it—that involved what’s called pejoratively “profiling.”

This was not so much racial, since in any given neighborhood all the suspects were likely to be of the same race or color, as social, involving the thousand small clues that policemen recognized already. […] Minority communities, Zimring emphasizes, paid a disproportionate price in kids stopped and frisked, and detained, but they also earned a disproportionate gain in crime reduced. 

I don’t know how this policy came about, but if it’s actually the case that it contributed significantly to NYC’s drop in crime rates, I wonder if either the left or the right would accept it being rolled out more systematically. In other words, are we willing to accept something that doesn’t conform to our ideology if it’s effective at solving a genuine social problem? I fear not.

Anyway, this whole article just makes me never want to have opinions about anything ever again.

Gopnik concludes:

Every society has a poor storm that wretches suffer in, and the attitude is always the same: either that the wretches, already dehumanized by their suffering, deserve no pity or that the oppressed, overwhelmed by injustice, will have to wait for a better world.

At every moment, the injustice seems inseparable from the community’s life, and in every case the arguments for keeping the system in place were that you would have to revolutionize the entire social order to change it—which then became the argument for revolutionizing the entire social order. In every case, humanity and common sense made the insoluble problem just get up and go away. Prisons are our this. We need take more care. 

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Scientology is Good For You

There’s no point in arguing with stuff like this:

Some of the other students told [Anne Archer] that Katselas was a Scientologist, so she began the Life Repair program at the Celebrity Centre. “I went two or three times a week, probably for a couple of weeks,” she said. “I remember walking out of the building and walking down the street toward my car and I felt like my feet were not touching the ground. And I said to myself, ‘My God, this is the happiest I’ve ever been in my entire life. I’ve finally found something that works.’ ” She added, “Life didn’t seem so hard anymore. I was back in the driver’s seat.”

It’s easy to attack Scientology as bananas because of the aliens and the volcanoes and the shunning, but there’s no denying that it, like every other religion, has been a positive influence in a great number of lives.

The real problem, it seems to me, isn’t Scientology as such. It’s the wide range of purposes we expect religions to fulfill.

Pretty much every Western religion gives gives you four things at once:

  1. A moral worldview (In Christianity it’s stuff like the 10 commandments, the golden rule, etc)
  2. A narrative of how you got here (God created the world, Adam and Eve, the flood, etc)
  3. A program of self-improvement (strive to become a more kind and graceful husband, father, worker, etc)
  4. A community of like-minded believers (church potlucks, however you feel about Judeo-Christian religions, are off the chain)

We make fun of Scientology because of its historical narrative, but we forget that the bonkers-ness of its creation myth doesn’t disqualify it from delivering genuine benefits in the other categories. Reading this mammoth New Yorker piece, a lot of the self-helpy components of Scientology actually sound pretty Oprah: work hard, think positively, avoid negative influences, strive for self-defined objectives, etc. The whole ‘auditing’ thing, which sounds weird from far away, is pretty much the same as therapy or, for that matter, confession. Regardless of why you do it, you’re probably better off when you have someone to speak intimately and regularly with.

The problem with Scientology, of course, is that if you want the self-help and community stuff you have to sign up for the aliens and the OT levels and the culty ‘separate from your family’ stuff. You can’t pick out the useful parts and leave the counterproductive parts behind.

This  is what makes the atheist case against religion so difficult to make. In arguing against the bonkers stuff, you’re asking people to give up things that really do enrich their lives, give them meaning and make them better people. I’m not gangbusters about Born Again Christians at the societal level, but there’s a lot of people who managed to stop drinking or be better parents because they became one. Catholicism’s focus on helping out the most vulnerable in society  is a great principle and something more of us should strive for, and it’s really unfortunate that it comes bundled with the anti-evolution and misogynistic stuff from its other components.

It’s too bad that we haven’t managed to break off the components of religion into separate programs.  I would love to join a community of people trying to improve their lives and the broader society, for example, as long as I didn’t have to sign up for believing that the world hatched out of an egg or whatever. It’s my refusal to acquiesce to the moral and historical components that keeps me from getting the benefits of the others.

So we shouldn’t be arguing about whether Scientology is ludicrous. We should just encourage Scientologists to un-bundle the ludicrous stuff from the positive and community stuff. Christianity is still working on this after 2,000 years, so Scientology had better get started.

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