“Leave aside the fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been convicted of nothing and is thus entitled to a presumption of innocence. The reason to care what happens to him is because how he is treated creates precedent for what the US government is empowered to do, including to US citizens on US soil. When you cheer for the erosion of his rights, you're cheering for the erosion of your own.” —journalist Glenn Greenwald, http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article34684.htm
The movie “Disconnect” is currently playing in the nation’s movie houses. Its web page describes it as exploring “the consequences of modern technology and how it affects and defines our daily relationships.” A quartet of interlocking narratives features characters trapped in their various brands of personal loneliness (adolescent, sexual, marital, and occupational) who attempt to break through their alienation through internet chat rooms, exchanging what amount to soul-searching self-revelations with utter strangers, none of whom are really who they present themselves to be. The premise offers an interesting gloss on alienation, but the conclusion implies that mainstream, white American males (and females) can only come home to their emotional life when they get the shit beaten out of them—or very nearly. Only then are they capable of tears, self-recognition—or empathy.
Has American life come to look more and more as this grade-C Hollywood movie represents it? Consider the widely disseminated image of flag-waving primates, hooting and hallooing that an alleged “foreign” 19 year old has been cornered and trapped like an animal by the vastly superior forces of the polizei; has been wounded, captured, and taken into custody without being read his Miranda rights. (Miranda Rights, what the fuck…?)
Should we feel saddened by this? Angered by this? Should we mourn the loss of a more civilized past? There was a time when in the United States there was still some semblance of the rule of law, semblance only, because if you poll the Black population, you discover that such a quaint sentiment went out with Juneteenth—with the post-Uncivil War promise of 40 acres and a mule. In case you imagine that slavery was abolished by the 13th amendment, forty percent of the U.S. prison population today is Black, disproportionate if you consider that Black people make up some 11% of the population at large. In prison many of them are put to work, for corporations in the banking, transportation, “defense” (munitions), agricultural, service, and manufacturing sectors, sometimes for $4.23 a day or even less. It’s hard now to find a corporation which hasn’t replaced wage-paying jobs with prison labor, the advantages being: no union, no safety oversight, and no pesky pension plan. Slave labor has become a way for corporations to profit in exactly the same way plantations did in the antebellum South.
Some twenty-three thousand people are being held in solitary confinement in the United States, some for over 30 years (I am referring to the Angola Three among others), a practice the UN Commission on Human Rights has defined as torture. Interestingly, on the rare occasions when such prisoners are eventually freed, they are discharged directly—from solitary—into the general population. They have no access to support services, they are denied welfare assistance, and other safety-net benefits. In other words they are discharged to the streets to hang out to dry. If you ask Black women about the state of their reproductive lives, they will tell you that half their men are either dead or in jail.
When does it become reality that Americans are living in a criminal state? Ursula LeGuin in her short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelos” (1973) suggests that if even one person is incarcerated so that all the other citizens in a society may prosper, that is the definition of a criminal state. Worldwide, the United States has the GREATEST NUMBER OF INCARCERATED PEOPLE (25%) in proportion to its population (5%) of any COUNTRY IN THE WORLD, a fact that lends stars and stripes a whole new meaning, while our greatest criminals are successful culture heroes, free to prey on the rest of us—from behind the closed doors of board rooms and government institutions.
Last year for the first time in my life, I helped a person pack for homelessness. Months later she tells me that sometimes when she eats breakfast in a hotel restaurant, Mexicans slip her extra food; a Mexican woman tells her: “I have a bed here; I can share it with you if you have nowhere else to go.” I want to get to know that Mexican woman. I want to get to know ten thousand like her.
The street sweeper who picks up trash close to the bus stop where I wait, greets everyone with a cheerful good morning. Passersby seem to know him, return his greeting. I watch these interchanges for some time. “Where did you get your sunny good nature?” I want to know. “From my mother,” he tells me. “She’s ninety-three now, she’s still the same. Only now she can’t walk any more.” I want to get to know this man. I want to get to know ten thousand like him. I need to disconnect from the Grade C movie that my former country has become.
©Cecile PinedaApril 21, 2013