The United States soon may see its prison population drop for the first time in almost four decades, a milestone in a nation that locks up more people than any other.
The inmate population has risen steadily since the early 1970s as states adopted get-tough policies that sent more people to prison and kept them there longer. But tight budgets now have states rethinking these policies and the costs that come with them.
That is truly good news. We imprison more of our population than any country in the world at high costs and we spend more money on the military than the rest of the world combined. During these decades of wasteful federal spending supported by conservatives, healthcare reform has been floundering during this same period of time. Helping people is socialism, but killing and imprisoning people is good traditional American values.
The National Rifle Association has long fulminated in the gun control debate in Washington like the Great Oz in the Emerald City. Now along comes Frank Luntz, a conservative Republican pollster who, Toto-like, has snatched back Oz’s curtain to reveal that gun owners favor much more reasonable gun controls than the gun lobby would ever allow the public to imagine.
I’m not a gun owner, but I am a supporter of the right to own a gun. I guess I’m a moderate as described in this article, but what is interesting is that most gun owners are moderate about gun controls. I suspect this would prove true in other areas as well. For exaple, like many people, I’m moderate about the issue of abortion, but the moderate voices never get heard. Instead, issues like this get portrayed in black and white terms. But gun controls and abortion are complex issues with many factors.
Most Americans aren’t for absolute control or absolute lack of gun control. Most Americans aren’t for absolute freedom of abortion or absolute denial of abortion. When Glenn Beck’s can portray his extremist views as populist by saying “we surround them”, then you know the media has failed. People have come to think of the extremes as the norm, and moderates are either ignored (as the NRA apparently has with its own members) or portrayed as liberals (pronunced “libruls”), socialists, or some other ugly word.
Let me try to explain how extremism had come to hold such power over the American psyche.
Some consider the NRA to be the most powerful special interest group in the US. For various reasons, the NRA has become associated with the far religious right. Earlier in last century, the GOP was the party of civil rights and it’s true that gun ownership is a civil rights issue, but the civil rights I’m talking about is that of the civil rights movement. I’ve heard that Martin Luthr King jr was a Republican and African-Americans in the past seem to have had been strong supporters of the GOP, but this changed in the middle of last century when desegregation became a major issue. Southerners began worrying about their way of life and around this constellated several issues. There was the increasing popularity of the NRA and at the same time the KKK was losing power, but the far religious right in general was opposed to desegregation. Evangelicals, before this time, were intentionally non-political. However, many white Southerners had formed private schools to escape the desegregated public schools and in response the federal government had taken away the tax exemption for private schools that continued to be racially segregated.
This far right movement led to several results. The evangelical conservatives have had disproportionate influence on Washington politics with presidential candidates courting them and a number of presidents with openly avowed allegiance to the religious right. Nixon had associations with evangelical leaders, Reagan used evangelism and race issues to win the presidency, and of course Bush jr was a born again. It was through the religious right that the GOP has dominated Washington for so many decades. And, in that time, what policies were instated? What were the results?
American politicians have supported Israel because according to evangelical theology the Jews have to rebuild the temple before Jesus can return. The culture wars, based on issues of race and poverty, has become a wedge issue and a major campaigning strategy. Politicians were forced to accept to support ‘tough on crime’ policies which led to the ever-increasing prison population. The War on Drugs was started with an emphasis on drugs used by poor minorities. Communism became identified with Godlessness and so the religious right became identified with the ‘American way’. The religious fueled Cold War led to more wars started than during any other time in US history. The US became a highly militarized society and began it’s mission of spreading democracy (i.e., nation-building). And all of this led to Republican administrations having budget deficits.
The NRA, by itself, seems like a harmless organization. But the problem is that it’s a special interest group that is part of a larger movement that has succeeded in manipulating public policies. And as the polls show this special interest group doesn’t even accurately represent its own members.
On a slightly different but related note, this article is about the popularity of pantheism in American culture. The author doesn’t mention it, but imagine this has its roots in the Founding Fathers preference of deism over theism (which relates to the Enlightenment ideals of democracy).
As usual, Alexis de Tocqueville saw it coming. The American belief in the essential unity of all mankind, Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s, leads us to collapse distinctions at every level of creation. “Not content with the discovery that there is nothing in the world but a creation and a Creator,” he suggested, democratic man “seeks to expand and simplify his conception by including God and the universe in one great whole.”
I think this also relates to the issue of evangelism. Many people don’t realize that a large percentage of evangelicals are liberals and evangelism was part of a great mix of religious fervor in the 1800s (having it’s roots in the Protestant Reformation and the Anabaptist movement). Everything from Mormonism to New Thought Christianity came out of this period, and religious communes such as the Shakers became popular in the era of Civil War unease. People, both liberal and conservative, were looking for a truly American sense of religion… and the Europeans too were having their own version of collective soul-searching (because the Industrial Age in general was disruptive of traditional ways of life).
I suspect that pantheism has a direct link to the evangelical faith in a God who is very close to humanity and also the idea of being filled by the Holy Spirit. Evangelism and New Age spirituality are twin siblings. However, the religious right had seemed to have one the battle in this sibling rivalry for liberal religiosity had seemed to have been purged from the Democratic party in response to the extreme religiosity of the GOP. Ever since, the religious right has defined the terms for all religious and moral debate which has allowed them to set the terms for most of the political debate as well.
However, certain things shifted the balance. Joseph Campbell and George Lucas helped to popularize liberal and secular sense of the spiritual (pantheism), but it also invited liberals to be more openly spiritual and even religious (eventually leading to the likes of Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle). But this had started back in the 1800s with the newly translated ancient texts. And this was kicked into high gear with the discovery and popularization of the Gnostic texts which really hit the mainstream around the time of Campbell’s popularity. These Gnostic texts led to a revival of liberals reclaiming Christianity which has been slow but steady, and which prepared the way for someone like Obama to use religious language to win the presidency (something only Republicans were able to do).
One interesting thing about liberal religion/spirituality is the emphasis on pacifism. That also goes back to the 1800s. It was the time of the Civil War and the assassination of Lincoln (by a racist white Southerner). It was the beginning of the racial issues and culture wars that have bred so much violence. Many people were tired of all of the violence in the late 1800s and so joined pacifist communes such as the Shakers, pacifist communities such as the Amish, and pacifist groups such as the Quakers. The list of pacifist Christian groups in America is very long which is odd when you consider how Christian messages of violence too often dominate our media.
This pacifist tradition has always been strong. America didn’t start off as a militarized society. The Founding Fathers formed America in order to defend themselves against oppressive violence. When they had established the government, they were specifically clear about not wanting a standing army.
So, America has seen some massive shifts in its public policies and in its public opinions. The dominance of the GOP began in reaction to the civil rights movement in the 1950s. The civil rights movement began with the anti-slavery movement of the 1800s. The anti-slavery movement began because none of the Founding Fathers were able or willing to make slavery illegal at the inception of our country. A slow shift that has finally resulted in a black president. Still, racial conflict and the culture wars are just as strong, just as divisive. Mexicans (known by the codeword ‘illegal aliens’) are the new hated minority, but at the same time both blacks and hispanics will outnumber the whites in the near future. Also, as the prison population decreases, this will mean more minorities out in the general public and more minorities with power to influence politics.
It makes me wonder where it’s all leading.