It seems every time I talk about the criminal justice system with Americans, the "Well, if they did something wrong, they should expect to be punished!" argument comes up to justify pretty much whatever. Criminals are the scum of the Earth and cause everything bad to happen, I get it, but let's stop and think about how we define the real criminals who get sent to prison in the US. We clearly don't send every single person who breaks a law to prison. Like everything, it's all about the money:
It's this sort of thing that explains why hate crimes legislation got through in several months with a Democratic House, Senate, and White House, while ENDA languished - one was about making sure the riff-raff got sent to prison, while the other gives workers the right to sue their employers.
I'm reading a history book right now about the American Revolution and it's actually surprising to me, as someone in 2011, how many rebellions freed everyone from prison. A group of farmers rises up against the British - they free everyone from prison. A group of soldiers rises up against the continental government - they free everyone from prison. Shays and his compatriots rise up against the nascent government of Massachusetts - they free everyone from prison.
There's plenty of revolution rhetoric nowadays, mostly coming from the far-right. But if they ever did anything organized and violent against the government, I doubt they'd free everyone from prison. Could you imagine the Tea Party types following through with their revolution rhetoric and busting into a state penitentiary and just assuming that everyone in there would join them?
There are lots of complicated reasons for the change, not the least of which is racism, both personal and institutional. But I think a related problem, one reason racism is able to flourish, is a lack of clarity about who's to blame, about who's really causing the pain in people's lives and how they're doing it. My father-in-law is visiting, a man who never got to high school and worked in factories his whole life, and he was just telling me that the attacks on the French pension system (like attempts to raise the retirement age) are just the rich trying to steal money from workers. The first conversation I had with my mother-in-law a couple years ago, a woman who never made it past the third grade, was about how businesses leave the first world move just to exploit more disorganized workers elsewhere.
Does the average worker interested in politics in the US have the language to discuss these issues without talking about Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives? Does the average French worker who's 30 have that sort of clarity? One of the smartest things the elites ever did was get the middle classes to hate the lower classes, and all of us to hate the person of the other political persuasion. It provides a decent buffer for them and keeps the rest of us unclear, fighting amongst ourselves for limited resources.
And we all hate the people in prison - obviously it's their fault we experience any pain at all.