Friday, August 26, 2016

American Innocence

A country in its historical course behaves something like a rubber band: under pressure it can occasionally be stretched into a new shape, but it will usually spring back, almost with relief, as soon as it is allowed to do so. We -- as countries and as individuals -- tend to keep to our familiar ruts, and our efforts at social reform often have all the strength of a New Year's Resolution. We talk about them, we flirt with them, we maybe even manage to adopt them for a season or two-- but next year often finds us fully ensconced in our old habits again.

The pattern (or one of the patterns) that our American democracy keeps on replicating, under however different guises and circumstances -- the pastime we can't seem to live without -- is that of the moral crusade, the quest for purgation. So many of our country's most immoral acts have been perpetrated under the banner of the defense of morals. These used to end in stake-burnings and public murders; now, they result in mass incarceration and mass deportation, or the monitoring of individuals indefinitely by means of felony records, sex offender registries, various national security watch lists and more. Such responses differ in their degree of brutality and lawlessness, but behind them all is a similar impulse -- the political mobilization of disgust, and the desire to remove the source of this disgust permanently from the community -- if not through execution, then through stigmatization, incarceration, and social exclusion.

This, or something like it, at any rate, is the great theme of Philip Roth's The Human Stain (2000), which I recently finished. It is probably the best and least dated of the limited portion of the Roth oeuvre I've read -- far more humane and plausible than its overrated predecessor, American Pastoral (1997). Like the former novel, however, it too suffers (as do we all) from the circumscribed perspective of its era. One is struck on the one hand by the accuracy of Roth's diagnosis of what he calls "America's oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure: the ecstasy of sanctimony"; yet one feels he was overly focused on the less significant -- though considerably noisier -- manifestations of this national temptation on view in the media in the late '90s, to the exclusion of the deeper and more long-lasting forms it was to take into our era.

Roth inveighs against postmodern academics and political correctness (without, thankfully, ever employing that most ill- and over-used term), but his indignation is particularly sparked by the media's prurient and hypocritical reaction to the Clinton/Lewinski scandal. Neither of which is altogether the wrong target, to be sure, but reading the novel in 2016, one feels it is rather missing the forest for the trees to cast Bill Clinton as a victim of America's retributive culture, without mentioning the inordinate punishments Clinton helped to hand down himself to so many far less powerful and protected people in the form of the 1996 bills he signed into law, say, that reduced protections for criminal defendants and immigrants in deportation hearings. Here, in the "Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty" and "Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility" acts, is surely to be found a more stark illustration of the cruelties inflicted by what one Roth character calls America's "morally stupid censorious community," than anything Clinton had to endure at the hands of Ken Starr, Matt Drudge, Linda Tripp and the rest. 

Roth's observations about the national psychology remain acute, however -- and profoundly relevant. One of which is the remarkable ideological promiscuity of the American retributive pastime -- what Roth refers to as its ability to "masquerad[e ...] as something else -- as everything else [...] infiltrating, if need be, as civic responsibility, WASP dignity, women's rights," and more. In other words, the impulse in the face of a social problem to look first for someone to prosecute and jail, to seek ways to stiffen sentences and reduce protections for the accused without too flagrantly overstepping the limits set by our Constitution, is in no way limited to one side or the other of the political spectrum.

Applying the insight to our present cultural moment, we can say the impulse is evident most crassly and nakedly in the right's scapegoating of all undocumented immigrants for the death of Kate Steinle, say, or in Donald Trump's chilling calls for "law and order." It is there too, however, in the movement to limit judicial discretion and the rights of defendants in sex crime cases, which was originally mobilized by the Left in the wake of the Brock Turner sentencing decision and has now gathered bipartisan support in several states. We will return to Roth a bit later, but this point first requires some further elaboration.

Earlier this week, we learned that in addition to new legislation introducing mandatory sentencing for a wider range of sexual offenses, the California legislature is, like other states, now considering still further changes that would, among other things, remove the statute of limitations for sex crimes and allow minors to testify against accused sex offenders in court by means of closed circuit television monitors -- a law that would abrogate the constitutional right of criminal defendants to confront their accusers in person.

The justification for the latter of these proposals -- which comes straight out of the playbook of self-proclaimed victims' rights advocates from the era of the ritual abuse panic of the 1980s, as one can read in Richard Beck's account (an author now relentlessly cited on this blog) -- is ostensibly that it will protect children from having to encounter their abusers in the courtroom, which could be highly damaging and re-truamatizing. This argument, however, while at first sight plausible, manages to let slip something that one had vaguely suspected might be true of the proponents of such legislation, but that they would not be likely to say -- namely, that they are effectively presuming the guilt of anyone charged or accused of a sex crime before the trial has even begun. After all, encountering a defendant in the flesh would be traumatic only if that person is actually guilty of the crime in question. This is precisely what is not meant to be the starting assumption of a criminal trial. In theory, at least, the purpose of a trial is to establish whether a person is guilty or not, and until the state can meet its burden to prove that guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, a defendant is presumed innocent. 

This innocence presumption, of course, like many protections in the American court system, has lost much of its force in practice, especially for defendants of color -- but it has done so in large part because of precisely the kinds of changes that are now being advocated all over again by the backlash movement. Mandatory sentencing laws, for one, have worked to ensure that prosecutors can extract plea bargains even from defendants who might have strong cases in court, so that now more than nine in ten criminal cases never go to trial. The district attorney can drop certain charges in exchange for a guilty plea to a lesser offense -- an offer that even an innocent person may feel obliged to take (and which they will often be advised to take, by their attorneys), as the costs of potential conviction on greater charges become so frighteningly high -- and as the hope for a humane sentence at the discretion of a judge or an appeals court down the line is eliminated.

This should help to remind us that, while America's various moral crusades are always pitched to the public as a defense of the innocent and weak against the guilty and strong -- time and again, it is actually the weak -- the already marginalized or young or vulnerable -- who suffer most under them. While the state sex offender registries, for instance, derive their popular legitimacy from the premise that they are protecting children from abuse and exploitation, few voices are raised against the fact that children have themselves been placed onto these registries, for juvenile offenses, and have had their life chances diminished irretrievably as a result. Human Rights Watch has documented cases in which kids as young as 11 years old have been branded as "sex offenders" and placed on these lists. Some have been forbidden as a result from being in places "where children congregate" -- a hard rule to live up to, when you are a child yourself!

For a society so bent on protecting children, more broadly, we do a remarkable job of prosecuting children as adults and placing them into adult prisons for decades of their lives, at rates that no other peer country would find remotely conscionable. One particularly haunting story that aired a few weeks ago on NPR's Here & Now is that of Robert Holbrook, a Philadelphia man who has served 26 years of a life sentence (as many years as I've been alive) for an incident that occurred when he was only 16. It was a drug deal in which someone was murdered, though Holbrook was not the one who committed the murder, or ever accused of being the murderer. This kind of accessory crime is surely not something for which even the most hardened of us would expect a judge with the power of discretion to hand down a sentence of life without possibility of parole to a minor, but that was what the mandatory sentencing in this case required (the NPR story doesn't explain how, but one is guessing "drug conspiracy"+ "accessory to aggravated felony" may have been enough to do it). 

Holbrook is black, like the majority of the frontline victims of America's War on Crime, which reminds one of another recurrent theme in America's moral purges -- the close connection they bear to this country's equally long history of racial terrorism. Liberation theologian James Cone, as quoted in Gary Dorrien's Social Ethics in the Making, describes the fear for his own life and limb he had experienced as a young man whenever he was in the company of a white woman, "because her word alone could get a person lynched, legally electrocuted, or confined to prison for life." Langston Hughes once described the temptation of sex across the color line to a "black celebrit[y]" in America's mid-century culture as "like pale plums from a tree/ beyond a high tension wall / wired for killing[.]" Clarence Thomas' contention that he was the victim of a "high-tech lynching" in the course of his Senate confirmation hearings was, to be sure, both overblown and blatantly unfair to Anita Hill -- a highly credible witness -- but it was perhaps grounded in more actual personal and historical experience than the Left has generally found it comfortable to admit.

One does not at all mean by this to impute racist motives to the victims' advocates movement currently mobilizing in California and other states, to be sure -- the whole phenomenon was touched off in part, after all, by the contention (sincerely believed, though not, in my view, justified) that a white and relatively privileged college athlete had been treated more leniently in the Stanford rape case than similarly situated defendants of color would be. Yet the real impact of increased mandatory sentencing and still further diminished protections for people accused of crimes will almost surely be felt most keenly in the minority communities that have been devastated already by our unjust justice system. The California legislation, if voted into law, would thus fit squarely within the pattern of racialized and sexualized moral panic that has such a long and odious history in this country.


Is all of this really so American a fixation, though? Are we really still diagnosing the darkest temptations from this country's unique past, by this point, or are we just talking about the sort of scapegoating and stigmatizing that is a near-universal human phenomenon, across all societies? To state the obvious, after all, the United States is not alone among the world's nations in its tendency to persecute outsiders and "others."

On the other hand, the particular focus on sexuality in the course of these moral panics does seem to be a distinct national heritage of ours -- as has often been remarked by wary and corrupt Old World observers (who may well have all the vices of their opposing virtues, don't get me wrong-- corruption among them), and which is evident in the fact that America's steep system of penalties for sex crimes -- like its rates of mass incarceration more broadly -- has not been replicated in any other country. Roth, as we have seen, offers many names for this inchoate and multifaceted phenomenon of American prurience, but perhaps the most relevant here is what he dubs the "pulpit virtue-mongering that [...] the Europeans unhistorically call American puritanism[.]" 

The explanation of this country's unique obsession probably has much to do, as already indicated, with our distinct history of racial oppression. In contemporary America, the punishment of crime has long been so racially coded that many whites instinctively cast themselves, their families, and members of their communities in the role of victims, when crime is discussed, seldom in the role of the offender or the unjustly accused. Rarely, when considering mandatory sentencing laws or sex offender registries, do white Americans imagine that their own sons or daughters or brothers or sisters might be the ones being imprisoned or registered. Europe, meanwhile, does not have the same story of segregation and violent suppression to tell -- at least not for as long a time, and not in its domestic societies to the same degree. They may now begin to engage in the same kind of unspoken compartmentalization in the presence of a larger migrant and refugee population, it is true (around whom heated discussions about crime and sexual peril and the need for stiffer sentencing are already beginning to swirl), but they haven't had as much experience doing so yet. 

Another source for our temptation toward moral panic -- this most peculiar form of "American exceptionalism"-- is hinted at by Roth's description of "American puritanism" as an "unhistorical" term. Why unhistorical? Roth does not elaborate, and perhaps he means simply that puritanism originated in Europe. It is more interesting and potentially unsettling, however, to consider another possibility: that it is not the Puritans -- or not the Puritans alone -- who are rearing their heads in the form of America's moral crusades, but their supposed opposites and adversaries -- the 19th century Romantics, the "idealists," the believers in human progress.

The Puritans, after all, with their belief in human depravity and sinfulness, at least provided some explanation for why people in fact do depraved things -- and, in turn, for why each of us -- even the Puritan minister himself -- may feel impulses toward cruelty or aggression or other manifestations of the Id that we would not consciously want to own. Admittedly, the Puritan belief in the inescapability of original sin doesn't seem in practice to have led them to take a particularly forgiving view of the vices of their neighbors -- as, strangely enough, belief in human wickedness seldom does. The most self-convicted of sin among us often seem to be the least generous to everyone else. Yet the riddle in this is only apparent. After all, the minor transgressions for which the sinner self-flagellates often contrast favorably with the major ones that other, less obsessively scrupulous people find easy to overlook in themselves. If the Calvinist is convinced that he must be the "chief of sinners" because of a few minor episodes of tippling, say -- or because he once played a game with dice -- or if Augustine stands in need of irresistible grace because of that business with the stolen pears-- what then must that say about the rest of us, who have probably done far worse? By the same token, the person who is able to forgive his own faults is more likely to be charitable toward others. 

In order to forgive our own faults, however, we first have to consciously awaken to the fact that we have them -- that we have desires we would never consciously act upon, or that we have done things of which we are not proud. This is the crucial step that the 19th century Romantics missed, in their revolt against Puritanism. Without it, they ended up resurrecting much the same judgmental worldview as the Puritans, but in reverse (there's that rubber band of national destiny again, springing back into its usual formation).

The American Rousseauists, the buoyant partisans of progress, the Bronson Alcotts of the world, united to inform the post-Calvinist world that, far from humankind being inherently wicked, it turned out we were actually inherently good. And the trouble with this view, to paraphrase an argument that is well made in a book by Peter Gregg Slater about the history of American child-rearing, is that most of us while growing up will at some point discover that we are in fact not always good, that all our thoughts are not always selfless and wholesome and other-directed -- that we are, among other more likable things, also incorrigible balls of envy and ambition and the drive for self-preservation. For world-weary Europeans -- as for Calvinists -- this could come as no surprise. For Americans fed on the national Thoreauvian earnestness, however-- on what Joan Didion once dubbed an "engaging period optimism" about the noble essence of human nature-- it is a psychologically untenable conclusion, a most dangerous thought. If human beings are naturally good, yet I discover that I am not entirely good, then I must be unnatural, or perhaps not a human being. And given that no one is likely to believe either of these things about themselves for long at a conscious level, these realizations of one's own imperfections -- and the resulting self-digust -- have to be externalized. They must be displaced onto a suitable "other."

This is why the root of our national tendency toward vindictive retribution is already implicit in our most cherished and seemingly contrary national virtue: our "American innocence." Innocence, in other words, is not so innocent. It creates a need, by the very impossibility of its demands, for an outlet of projection. If I am purely good, then I must imagine someone else who is wholly evil, who can be made to suffer for the things I fear in myself. As Richard Hofstadter puts it in "The Paranoid Style in American Politics": "[T]he function of the enemy lies [...] in what can be wholly condemned. The sexual freedom often attributed to him, his lack of moral inhibition, his possession of especially effective techniques for fulfilling his desires, give exponents of the paranoid style an opportunity to project and freely express unacceptable aspects of their own minds." This is part of what Roth means, I take it, when he writes late in The Human Stain of "the venerable human dream of a situation in which one man can embody evil [.... T]here is this need, and it is undying and it is profound."

Hence the element of prurient fascination at the heart of America's moral crusades and panics; hence the fact that each time, the mask on the persecutors' face eventually slips down to reveal that what they are really worried about in their endless crusading is not the behavior of those they are persecuting, but the vague feeling that they might be guilty of the same "deviance" themselves.

This dynamic is evident in many places, but it is perhaps most visible in the particular virulence with which homophobia manifested itself in this country in the last century. Of course, it has become almost cliché at this point to suggest that homophobia is basically rooted in the self-loathing and self-mistrust of people who don't in reality (like most of us) perfectly embody the Freudian heterosexual ideal in our personal lives. Moreover, this line of argument risks turning into an exercise in blaming the victims, or else into a kind of weird resurrected hetero-normative machismo -- an updated version of homophobia for the twenty-first century (something along the lines of: "I'm so confident in my heterosexual identity that I don't need to be homophobic-- unlike those queers.") However, there is plainly some element of truth to the notion that what homophobes fear most is not gay and lesbian people, but themselves.

The literature of twentieth century homophobic angst bears this out plainly enough. If we put aside Roth for a moment and turn to the musings of Stingo, the protagonist of William Styron's Sophie's Choice (1979) we find an excellent specimen of the type. Stingo, who finds himself thrust into the company of a mildly psychopathic worldly Jewish man, Nathan, and his Polish girlfriend, Sophie, plays very much the role of the "American innocent" in the face of their Old World problems, and has all the reactions that an American innocent ought to have (he is from the South to boot, like Styron, which practically doubles his open-faced candor, in contrast to their emotional toils). He sheds tears in a public park over racist Southern atrocities, while also taking exception to what he sees as Nathan's over-broad condemnation of Southern racial attitudes; he falls rather helplessly and inevitably (as did the present teenaged reader) for the exotic, subject-verb-agreement mangling eponymous European heroine with a tragic past; and, of course, he cannot stand homosexuality -- conflating it seamlessly with child abuse -- and worries in the same breath that he might be in danger of succumbing to the curse of "turning queer" himself. Yet later on, nursing his not yet enacted longings for Sophie, he reassures himself, "[C]ertainly I could not be a homosexual, could I, feeling for this creature such abiding, heartbreaking desire?" Here is externalization in process. 

Of course, the problem with homophobic externalization isn't just that it's overly absolutist and dualistic in its judgements, or that it is insufficiently "forgiving" -- it's that being gay or lesbian was never a bad or harmful thing to start with. The situation is obviously much more complicated when we are talking about child abuse or sexual violence, which are real and widespread social problems that cause severe, often irreparable harm to people. These crimes do need to be prosecuted and sentenced, and offenders held accountable -- albeit in ways that are proportionate to the offense and that prioritize the protection of victims and the eventual reintegration of the offender into the larger community, over retribution and social exclusion.

A genuine victims' advocates movement that focused on these goals, however, i.e. the real reduction of harm and violence, would look very different from the reactive backlash we are witnessing in the aftermath of the Brock Turner sentencing. The rhetoric of the latter movement not only dehumanizes offenders and allows for the expansion of sex crime registries and similar institutions that turn people into permanent pariahs; it also shows an alarming indifference to whether the people swept up in enforcement operations are actually guilty or not -- or assumes that they are guilty simply by association-- with its push to eliminate the statute of limitations and abridge the Constitutional protections of the "confrontation clause" for the accused.

It is especially this last feature of the new victims' rights movement that suggests to me that it is an exercise in externalization, on the model of homophobia, rather than something that will meaningfully reduce violence against women and children. An actual effort to combat the prevalence of sexual assault and abuse, after all, would not show such indifference to the institution of the criminal trial and the protections that have developed within it to shield the defendant from being convicted on false charges -- not only because to accidentally convict an innocent person would be a grave miscarriage of justice, but also because it does no good for the cause of protecting victims to lock up the wrong people. An effort to extirpate one's own feelings of disgust and self-disgust by displacing them onto other people, though -- that is a very different story. A human being might turn out to be innocent or -- if guilty -- then morally complex. The embodiment of one's own fears and confusions and self-loathing, by contrast, cannot -- such a projection can only be eliminated. This is what America's regime of capital punishment aims to accomplish, most blatantly -- but it is also  if more subtly the purpose of sex offender registries. They are an exercise in quarantining the disgust, sealing off the sources of contamination someplace where they cannot reach "us," or "our children." Don't let those people anywhere close to my neighborhood. "O hear me," as the poet says, "Let not the bloodsucking bat or the rat or the stoat or the/ club-footed ghoul come near me." (MacNeice)

What should people so have to fear in themselves, though, that they feel the need to practice this kind of psychic projection? Partly, I would guess, it's just a resurrection of the old homophobia again. For most of the modern history of homophobia, after all -- see Anita Bryant's "Save Our Children" campaign and our friend Stingo again -- homosexuality was simply assumed to be pedophilia, or to border on it, or to lead into it inevitably. And when homophobia began to become a less widely socially legitimated stance, it didn't simply vanish. Just like racism, it became encoded. It migrated to a new target. All the same stereotypes and caricatures and terrible jokes were still there in the public culture -- the mincing elderly neighbor or scout master, the priest and his altar boys -- except now these stock figures were "pedophiles," rather than what they would have been known as to a previous generation: "queers." (And by the way, the fact that our pop culture found child abuse a fit subject for joking for so long should help to convince us still further of how little these public attitudes really have to do with concern for the victims, and how much they have to do, rather, with prurience, queasiness, disgust, and desire).

The externalization is also a foreseeable consequence of changing gender roles and norms of sexual behavior. As the necessary work happens of renegotiating the rules of consent, of changing the standards of appropriate boundaries, and of altering social attitudes, people are bound to wonder if they might not be guilty of more than they realized -- if they could perhaps have been abusers all along without realizing it. I recall hearing a disc jockey on FM radio, sometime back in the 2000s -- this was during the height of the panic over the Michael Jackson child abuse scandal-- wondering aloud if it was wrong that his child occasionally slept in bed with his wife and he if she had had a nightmare. This flash of self-doubt concerning something that most of us would take to be a totally normal and unobjectionable form of non-sexual touch in the family setting was, however fleeting, evidently unsettling enough that it had immediately to be displaced, so the disc jockeys quickly returned to their scabrous discussion about the bogey man of the moment -- who, in this case, conveniently happened to be a vaguely effeminate pop star with a high-pitched voice.

Finally, people perhaps feel inadequate in the face of the implausible standard of heterosexual health, activity, and vigor that our "hookup culture" seems to present as "normal," and in which not all of us are interested in participating, and to which few could live up to if they wanted. Yet, the thought must arise, if one is not among the "normal" ones, then what is one? One of the "creeps"? This is plainly intolerable. People cannot consider themselves for long to be one of the guilty ones, one of the abnormal or contaminated or inadequate or unhealthy ones, even if only in-potentia. Yet how to prove that they are not? The easiest way is the one long settled upon by homophobes -- that of joining the persecution of the "creeps." I'm not one of them. See how much I hate them? I'm just like you.


But where does all this leave us, if our national pattern keeps reasserting itself, regardless of the nominal public ideologies we adopt? If it shows up everywhere, even in places where one though it would be definitionally screened out (such as the contemporary Left, which has in so many other respects made such a point of opposing mass incarceration). What are we to do if our "American innocence" -- our faith in the goodness and wholesomeness and validity of the individual self -- in the end makes us no more likely to see the humanity in our neighbors (especially when they commit terrible and unconscionable wrongs), than did the old Calvinist emphasis on human depravity? What view of human nature can we adopt, then, that doesn't lead to these same ends, if Puritanism burns witches and heretics and Romanticism prosecutes gay people and black people and "unnatural" women and sexual non-conformists?

Philip Roth, to return to him, provides a fairly good answer to this question, we find, when he comes to his definition of the eponymous concept of the "human stain."
"That's how it is," he writes, speaking of this stain, "[...] there's no other way to be here. Nothing to do with disobedience. Nothing to do with grace or salvation or redemption. It's in everyone. Indwelling. Inherent. Defining. [...] The stain that precedes disobedience, that encompasses disobedience and perplexes understanding. It's why all the cleansing is a joke. A barbaric joke at that. [...] What is the quest to purity, if not more impurity?"
Something of the same attitude is conveyed by a character in Roth's first Zuckerman novel, The Ghost Writer. Imagining the life of an adult Anne Frank who had survived the Shoah, he tries to fathom whether she would have rethought her poignant belief in human goodness, after her experience in the death camps. He concludes that this twenty-five-year-old version of Frank would certainly not have become a misanthrope, but her faith in other people would not quite have emerged from the horror in the same form either. "She had not come to hate the human race for what it was," he writes, "-- what could it be but what it was? -- but she did not feel seemly any more singing its praises."

What could it be but what it was? This is neither a doctrine of original sin nor of inborn goodness. It is a vision of the world in which humanity is and must be forever loathsome in its own eyes -- perpetually disgusting in its inability to embody its own exalted self-conceptions -- but not because it has been judged or condemned or stands in need of saving by an external power, but because it has found itself to be such. Both the loathsomeness and the loathing are human; neither is divine. And the loathing for disgusting things is no escape from behaving in a disgusting way -- as the long history of human persecutions and moral panics makes clear. This country's pattern of moral crusading and stigmatizing well bears out Roth's contention that "the quest to purify" is nothing but "more impurity."

One might extrapolate from this a more positive, Feuerbachian dimension, however -- a point on which we will end. Namely, that the ideals to which we hold ourselves are as human as the nature that prevents us from ever fully living up to them. This is what allows us to forgive ourselves, and thereby to forgive others, and thus to escape at last from the temptation to externalize and persecute and scapegoat others for the things we find terrifying in ourselves. I may be a stain, but that is not all I am, we think. And once we have allowed ourselves to believe that we can be both stain and not-stain, that we are something other than either wholly depraved (Calvinism) or shining and spotless (Romanticism), then we no longer have to believe that other people are nothing but contaminants (either on analogy to ourselves or so as to mark a necessary contrast). And we can start thereby to build a world in which everyone-- victims, survivors, accused and perpetrators alike-- will be guaranteed their rights as members of the shared (hopelessly, undesirably, intransigently shared) human community. To all efforts to permanently remove or extirpate certain features of our psyches or certain "undesirable" parts of our community, to cleanse, to eliminate, to scrub ourselves free once and for all of the "human stain," Langston Hughes has a final, inarguable message in his poem "Theme for English B":
You are [...] a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true! 

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