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Non-fiction day: The Divide and The Lucifer Effect

I’m not quite finished with Matt Taibbi’s new book, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, but I thought I’d review it now because, a.) I’m pretty sure of my impressions of the book and b.) it should be read in conjunction with another book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Phillip Zimbardo.  I dunno, maybe I should read the Taibbi book to the end to see if he makes the connection but I’m beginning to get outrage fatigue, which is why it’s probably a good idea to read the more clinical prose in Zimbardo’s book to gain perspective.

So. Much. Morality.

The premise of Taibbi’s book is that the justice system is divided into two parts in this country.  If you are a member of the bonus class or oligarchy, your possession of the One Ring makes it nearly impossible for the justice system to prosecute you.  You’re invisible to the powers of accountability for one reason or another.  On the other hand, if you are a member of the working class, that is, anyone not living off their investments, the justice system can make your life a living hell.  Just breathing wrong can get you into trouble and that trouble is excessively punitive, relentless, expensive, arbitrary and seemingly endless.  It doesn’t take much to fall down the rabbit hole but it takes even less if your are a member of a minority population.

Sidenote: We have experienced this in our own family when a cousin’s persistent drug problem lead to direct interaction with the justice system.  He needed rehab- quickly.  What he got instead resembled Les Miz.  In the end, the legal system and it’s self-replicating fees, coupled with unmerciful punishment of every imaginable variation, put him in a hole he could not climb out of, made him homeless, broke and despondent.  He committed suicide.  So, you know, we definitely know what Matt is talking about. You don’t have to be black or hispanic. All that is required is that you have no money and live in a country where the public has been trained to be completely unsympathetic to what is happening to you.

Taibbi alternates the book with stories from each side of the divide.  We swing from bankers on Wall Street who got away with murder to “stop and frisk” detentions of young black men who are just standing outside their apartments at the wrong time.  Where the justice system seems willing to take a “boys will be boys” attitude towards the bankers, it comes down on the loiterers with a vengeance, depriving them of their dignity in the courtroom and subjecting them to endless hours of waiting around, mounting fees and coercion to plea to crimes they didn’t commit that ultimately deprive them of their right to public housing and student loans.

Taibbi doesn’t write with the same snap and clarity as Michael Lewis or Neil Barofsky  when describing the machinations of the Wall Street criminals.  His prose tends to meander, feels insidery (is that a word?) and it was difficult to follow who did what to whom.  This only pertains to the case studies in the upper justice system but I think his editor should have pulled him aside and asked him to tighten these sections up. He could never have gotten those case studies published in the kind of peer reviewed journals the science community is subjected to. Both Lewis and Barofsky have demonstrated that complexity doesn’t have to be confusing, even in an audio book.  But if you’re going to plow through Taibbi’s book, you’re probably better off getting the ebook version so you can make notes, leave book marks and create a flowchart.

On the other hand, Taibbi’s case studies of what happens on the bottom half of the justice system are easy to understand and  heartbreaking, probably because the infractions are so minor but the reaction is so severe.  It’s like the American justice system is chock full of turbo charged law and order types who carry out punishment with ruthless and brutal inefficiency.  And there was something about depersonalizing experiences of the victims and the anonymity of flawed computer systems of the justice system that reminded me of the Stanford Prison Experiment that Phillip Zimbardo carried out in the 70’s.

In case you aren’t familiar with the experiment, Zimbardo, a psychology professor at Stanford, wanted to replicate the experience of prison in order to figure out how the accused reacted to incarceration and depersonalization.  So, he recruited a couple dozen students to take the roles of prisoners and guards.  He randomly assigned the students to one of the groups and had the prisoners arrested and processed by real police.  In the makeshift prison, the prisoners were stripped of their clothes and given numbers instead of names.  The guards hid behind mirrored sunglasses and were given very few instructions. The warden was hands off.  Well, it didn’t take long before the guards started exercising authority and the prisoners started to crack.  We’re talking days.  It turns out that when one group of people is given all of the power and another group of people is subjected to that power, depersonalization and lack of oversight, it can lead even the blandest guy on campus to become indistinguishable from one of the guards at Abu Ghraib. The guards imposed capricious, humiliating and sadistic punishment while the prisoners became more and more despondent and stressed.  Zimbardo went on to testify as an expert witness in the Abu Graib trials.  He concludes that even the most decent, moral people are capable of evil behavior when the situation is right.  Group dynamics, conditioning to authority and dehumanization contribute to the kind of evil we saw at Abu Ghraib and, it seems, the excessively punitive experiences of the victims in the lower half of the American justice system.

The more I read Taibbi’s book, the more I was reminded of Zimbardo’s book.  So, I recommend you read Zimbardo’s book first and follow it up with Taibbi’s.  In fact, that’s the only reason I would recommend Taibbi’s book.  Without a proper context, it lacks the force it needs to land a powerful blow.  And that’s why I’m going to finish it even though the stories of “getting away with evil” followed by “getting away with nothing” are somewhat monotonous.  Taibbi might make the connection in the final chapters and have that eureka moment that will make it all worth while.  But I’m almost done with the book and see no evidence of it yet.  I’m afraid that the lefty community will miss the larger point that could propel it out of its fecklessness.  Instead, it might fall back on the “Bill Clinton is to blame for all of this!” crap they’ve been mindlessly vomiting for the past decade (as if Newt Gingrich and his Contract On America never existed {{rolling eyes}}).  What a horribly wasted, missed opportunity to see the world as it truly is.

3 Sponges for The Divide

4 Sponges for The Lucifer Effect (it can bog down with too many details in the first part)

PS. The left should study part 2 of Zimbardo’s book to understand how to resist situational influences.  It’s going to come up again in 2016.  Let’s not get fooled again, m’kay?

Oh, and here’s a concept that we should all learn about: malignant narcissism.  Don’t throw it around indiscriminately though.  It’s the kind of thing that Fox News and Rush Limbaugh types will seize on and dilute.  (it’s what they do)  But the next time an oligarch whines about how the rest of us are mean to them and envy their wealth, think about malignant narcissism.  They’re on the spectrum.

 

 

 

One Response

  1. Excellent post

    It turns out that when one group of people is given all of the power and another group of people is subjected to that power, depersonalization and lack of oversight, it can lead even the blandest guy on campus to become indistinguishable from one of the guards at Abu Ghraib.

    There’s no question about that. Many a story , history even fairy tales show this …. That’s why the powers that be endless whaling on the slender reeds that support a decent society is extra troubling….since 2000 they have been vigorously hacking away at the supports and faster all the time …one cannot tell if turning the world into Mad Max;’s Thunder Dome is their plan or it is their unforeseen consequence?

    Now you don’t even have to get into drugs like your unfortunate relative…you just have to have school loans and be jobless to be criminalized …. poverty has been criminalized…it ‘s seemingly the one “crime ” the powers that be are interested in prosecuting

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