Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Letter to Brezhnev

Soviet general cargo ship Sarny By Грищук ЮН (My photo from my collection of photos) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Soviet freighter: by Грищук ЮН
via Wikimedia Commons
Letter to Brezhnev is a light romantic comedy made in 1985, about an encounter between Sergei, a Russian sailor and Elaine, a young working class woman from Kirby, South of Liverpool. The film follows the intense night they spend together, their falling in love, and her decision to go to Russia and marry him. The film has a barbed wit, with the running theme of Margaret Thatcher's supposedly dynamic Britain not really offering more to the average worker than the supposedly sclerotic Soviet Union. In the end, the film shows British authorities applying quiet but strong and not very scrupulous pressure to keep Elaine from going to Russia.

American conservatives who emphatically insist their country has dealt with its historic racial injustices owe Leonid Brezhnev a letter of their own: a posthumous apology.

For decades, Western leaders, and in particular Americans, portrayed the Soviet Union as a carceral state. With the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipeligo in 1973, the criticism of the Soviet Union as defined by its incarceration rate crystallized into doctrine, particularly of American conservatives and the rising "neo-conservative" movement. The dependence on mass incarceration to govern, the weaving of the Soviet prison system into the economy: these things alone invalidated the Soviet project.

Riverfront Prison Camden NJ
By Bobby from Philadelphia
via Wikimedia Commons
Now the United has an incarceration rate notably higher than that of the Soviet Union in 1973, when Gulag Archipeligo first appeared. By any measure, from the number of persons in custody to matters of racial justice, if the Soviet carceral culture embodied in the Gulag system invalidated the claim of the Soviet Union to moral legitimacy, the current American carceral culture should constitute a moral crisis as well.

Apparently, some American conservatives want to argue their country does not confront a moral crisis, claim the current incarceration rates do not give them pause about the state of their nation, and declare race relations have improved and only "race hustlers" proclaim any reason for discontent. Above all, they do not want to accept any sense of urgency or personal responsibility to confronting or accepting any responsibility for the current state of their country and the millions of their compatriots locked up in a system more far reaching and more cruel by most measures than that of South Africa under the apartheid regime.

Pelican Bay Prison, photo by California Corrections
Pelican Bay prison
I consider these people tragically misguided. They have voted to give the launch codes for a thousand nuclear weapons on high alert status to a man with notoriously sloppy impulse control; if indeed large numbers of American conservatives voted for this man because he forthrightly rejected any responsibility for a moral crisis in the legal and penal systems of their country, I consider that one of the most shocking abdications of moral responsibility by an electorate in the history of the United States, if not the history of democracy as a whole. I don't know what, if anything, will convince these voters to consider their position and their responsibilities: to their country, to their incarcerated fellow citizens, to "arc of history" Martin Luther King said bends, however slowly, toward justice. Perhaps it will help to remind them the moral posturing they or in some cases their parents engaged in toward the Soviet Union will ring very hollow to the judgment of history. When American conservatives claim the moral superiority of their system to communism, the solitary cells at Pelican bay, Florence Colorado, and a hundred other prisons answer with their silence.

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