Arts &
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Vol. 8, No. 1, 2009
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By Mark Goldfarb, from a letter sent December 30, 2008 to Robert J. Lewis, editor of Arts & Opinion.
Mark Goldfarb is senior editor of Arts & Opinion.

When a man takes an oath, Meg,
he's holding his own self
in his own hands. Like water.
And if he opens his
fingers then, he needn't hope
to find himself again.
Robert Bolt
A Man for All Seasons
Act II

An unjust law is itself
a species of violence.
Arrest for its breach is more so.

Mohandas Ghandi


So let me get this straight. To sum up: humans, unlike every other species on the planet, are born inherently flawed and doomed to live sinfully. We are born to murder and maim and steal and lie but it’s not our fault. It’s human nature’s fault. Fortunately for us we possess a biological imperative to confess our sins, atone for them, and reprogram our faulty psychic software. Religion, with it’s built-in confessional, a kind of pressure relief valve, is humanity’s cure for this human glitch. Am I right so far?

Secularism, on the other hand, mucks up the bath water. To remedy this shortcoming, secular society devises various ways and outlets for this much- needed catharsis to take place. Such as bars, blogs, drugs and psychoanalysis. And if I might digress for a moment and allude to your theory elucidated in “The Meaning of Dreams," the human faculty to dream while asleep also assists by supplying the corrective subconscious counsel to its bumbling conscious counterpart.

Being human, O.J. Simpson has always subconsciously wanted to confess and do penance for his wrongdoings. All his thoughts, speech and actions subsequent to the killing of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman have represented a camouflaged confession and silent plea to be caught, punished and hopefully fixed. You and Freud would say it’s just the beginning of the long journey home for the damaged unit known affectionately as O.J. Only time…or the man himself…will tell. How am I doing?

Notably, your essay “Half---Back O.J. Simpson” does not touch upon the reparative band-aids we prescribe for injustices visited upon our kith and kin. This too, is where your “Prisons of the World Unite” piece falls to pieces. Both rest on the received wisdom that every crime and misdemeanour, every breach of acceptable behaviour, no matter what the behaviour, must be duly punished and paid for, despite the truths we hold to be self-evident: that such measures have never stamped out undesirable conduct, and abjectly fail to vitiate, reverse, redress or diminish the damage done to the injured parties or general public as a whole – which is what an elightened law must map out if it is to foster healing and guide us back to some semblance of harmony. We are experts sans pareil at equipping our penitentiaries with state of the art technology that keeps lawbreakers and lunatics locked up. We excel in designing pseudo-rehabilitative programs to show them the error of their ways. But when it comes to managing community damage and putting into practice a policy of salutary salves that work for the commonweal, we are all thumbs.

As well, you provide no commentary whatsoever on the impotence and absurdity of the millions of laws on the books – written and re-written daily and flagrantly broken just as often by everyone, including you, me and the very people responsible for legislating and enforcing them. The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate and total documented prison population of any nation in the world. Untempted by heaven or hell, 2.5 million of its citizenry – more than one in every 100 of its adults – presently rot behind bars. Most of them never confessed, much less expiated. This, despite the fact that 90% of Americans adhere to one or another of the country’s top twenty religious groups. That’s how much Americans love their own and that’s how well religion works for them. Another 5 million, also unconfessed, are on probation or parole, their vast majority bound in all likelihood to re-offend. By your reckoning, these 7.5 million souls – the respective populations of Switzerland, Rwanda and the province of Québec – are either misfortunate secularists or ‘the enlightened ones, hiding among us despite their self-precipitated fall into apparent ignominy.’ Astonishingly, these whopping numbers come as no surprise to you, nor do they perturb, because, paraphrasing Popeye, humans are what they are and that’s all that they are…and it’s not their fault. It’s human nature’s fault. The prevailing false perception is that since we can’t change the nature of the beast, and the beast can’t change its stripes, we may as well cage it or kill it.

Four pillars support the need for prisons – ironically termed correctional facilities, although they correct nothing: incapacitation, rehabilitation, retribution, and deterrence. Only the first of these carries its weight admirably. Bedrocked in the belief that humankind cannot tolerate pernicious behaviour and must be protected from it, those who break the rules are arrested, tried and imprisoned. Simply put, it keeps the bad guys off the streets. The last three pillars, riddled with holes and piously propounded under the guise of morality and justice, urge us to swallow the myth that malefactors will walk the straight and narrow provided they confess and only if they are punished. Subjected to re-indoctrination for the duration of their exile, culprits are theoretically transformed into a ‘clockwork orange’ and delivered of their sins before being returned to the free world. If that doesn’t put them squarely on the road to redemption then presumably nothing will. To point out the obvious, any 8-year-old, or 68-year-old for that matter, will assure you that this approach, far from reforming malefic behaviour, only fuels a resentment and resolve to elude capture the next time around. It’s rough justice American style and a great denial system that slakes our thirst for vengeance – but is it a successful strategy of deterrence?

American prisons are bursting at the seams to accommodate the staggering rise of aspiring alumni, and national crime rates, especially for violent offenses, soar off the charts. You do the math. As a one-size-fits-all cure, this retributive eye for an eye policy only takes us so far, and as someone once noted, makes the whole world blind. When you take a closer look, you notice the problem is not going away. Nor will it go away. Because, humans being human, disobedient behaviour can’t go away. What’s the point of outlawing something you know will inevitably happen? We can chisel laws in stone and imprison individuals for breaking them until we’re blue in the face but the odds of quashing misconduct in this way are about as good as surviving a tsunami with a surfboard. I am not suggesting we scrap the law or exchange it for anarchy and chaos. We can no more exist without law than we can exist without air. But a living Law of Life tolls and sooner or later we’ll have to answer its ring. It is not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when.’ In fashioning a sensible way to deal with misconduct, the Law of Life doesn’t criminalize and avenge a misdeed we know will occur, but frames a remedial response to it that offsets the damage done, knits the wound and eases the path towards a better future for ourselves and our families.

Within the framework of the American justice system – a de facto penal system if truth be told – O.J.’s options, which are not palatable options at all, are slim and none. Let’s face it, even if you and Freud are correct in your assessment, a life sentence in San Quentin isn’t much of an option. And the gas chamber is no option at all. Certainly a murderer as brilliant as O.J. – your words, not mine – half---back though he may be, has figured that much out for himself.

What can I say that you don’t already know – the sine qua non that will render my words worth the listen? Our culture, voyaging in search of law and order and desperately floundering on wind-ripped seas, is on a wayward odyssey. Our cat’s cradle of crime and confession is obsolete, our labyrinthine laws untenable, and our redoubtable reliance on prisons and punishment hollow. Unless we find the will to step beyond the grievous pull of this practice it will ultimately cost us more and accomplish less than the wise embrace of the unwritten Law of Life whose essence, eroded though it may be, illusory though it may seem, has not yet vanished. What seems to us a battle is not. There is a law, a living law that flickers like a lighthouse lamp, that flows as easily as any river, that is as alive as any Peruvian jungle or Adirondack forest. Let that law be our polestar.

Wishing you the best from the west,


Other articles by Mark Goldfarb:

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