Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Cognitive Dissonance and Afghanistan

Hal Pepinsky,
September 30, 2009

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance is well recognized among social psychologists: The more you invest in a belief system, the more elaborately you will rationalize failure, the more forcefully you will invest. One image of cognitive dissonance I have is of seniors will buckets full of change playing slot machines endlessly at Reno’s main casino. Cognitive dissonance is a tragic fact of social existence. It is not that people repeat history because they ignore it. Rather, as I learned in law school to be a mark to be a hallmark of an adversarial attorney’s skill, is to be able “to distinguish your facts.” After all, as I discussed in an earlier post on this blog, tautology is the only proof of anything. The more deeply we entrench ourselves in political positions, the more tortured and convoluted and “complex” our rationalizations of our commitments become.
US military effort in Afghanistan is now on US political center stage. Historical reality in Afghanistan shows that no one can take control of this “country.” Even the Taliban did not conquer northern provinces. How then do US forces promise to conquer the hearts and minds of the Afghani people? Who says that a government that supports opium trafficking isn’t legitimate among people in opium country? What Afghani is going to see US troops as “counter-insurgents” rather than as flat-out occupiers who have seen to it that a US-trained former Unocal board member inhabits the national presidential palace? How can we pretend that more US displays of force can improve the situation?
Senator John McCain’s words sum up the argument to increasing US forces in Afghanistan: “We can’t afford to fail.” I get this image of a small child in the store aisle saying, “I want it. But I REALLY want it! But I REALLY, REALLY, REALLY! need it!! I have to have it!!!” That’s cognitive dissonance. Wanting “it” more doesn’t make “it” happen. The sooner you face futility, the less you lose. To say that we must fight harder to win a losing fight is magical thinking.
Strategic thinking, more closely defining our military mission, compounds the problem of cognitive dissonance. We lock ourselves into a frame of reference, into Newspeak and more convoluted language, in the goal-defining process. To me in my work distinguishing peacemaking from violence, devoting ourselves to achieving strategic goals (at all costs?) inherently heats up human relations and splits them asunder, like the effect of dumping Humpty off the wall. The force we put into achieving strategic missions/goals is the essence of violence itself—not just a cause, but violence in action.
If US political history since Truman’s 1947 proclamation of the Cold War repeats itself, US forces will draw and shed considerably more blood before US withdrawal from Afghanistan is complete, as it was in Vietnam. Some among us like John McCain will persist in the belief that if “we” lost, it was (a) because “they” were corrupt and (b) because we faltered in our commitment to send in enough power to get the job done right.
Happily for all concerned, including our troops and their families, I see recognition of the futility of this war rising sooner and more pervasively (George Will?) in political discourse than in the past. Changing course in discourse is the essence of transforming a flood of violence into a course of greater peace and healing from war wounds. President Obama has already demonstrated that he is personally secure enough to apologize for mistakes in judgment, and is willing to accommodate inconvenient facts. We have that going for us, but the reflex to invest more in lost causes—from wars to health care as is—remains strong. Love and peace--hal

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Drug War Comes to Worthington, Ohio, my home town

This morning the "All Sides" talk show on WOSU radio had a set of authorities on the nature of the local heroin problem. Would you believe the timing? Last Saturday morning at 7:30 am thirteen local teenagers were busted for dealing heroin out of my hometown Worthington Square, and at the Dairy Queen at North Street and High, at the foot of the hill from my residence into town. Five of the thirteen were Worthingtonians themselves.

I was listening to a panel of law enforcement and drug treatment experts and getting exasperated, when one of the treatment folks mentioned offering methadone maintenance as an option. There was a lot of talk from law enforcement authorities on how pharmacy burglaries and robberies concentrated on synthetic opiates. I e-mailed a question: Isn't methadone a synthetic opiate? If so, how does it differ from the stuff stolen from pharmacies? A treatment authority began with "Hal is absolutely right, but..." the punchline being that the way they administer methadone you can't get high. I wrote back the message below--l&p hal:

I just retired from nearly forty years of teaching and writing about drug control. My answer to my own question about methadone is that methadone differs from other opiates in that you may need to be busted to qualify for getting it to relieve the kind of back pain, for instance, that brought no less than Rush Limbaugh to oxycontin. The back pain folks you describe weren't looking to get high; they were looking for pain relief, which if you qualify, can work with methadone.
We don't know about the toxicity of any artificial opiate, but natural opium is essentially non-toxic. People die from overdoses, like taking a bhottle of aspirin when you think you are taking one tablet. Switzerland maintains heroin addicts on...heroin itself (see the Drug Policy Alliance website). Guess what, as it may happen on methadone maintenance, users' health improves, and heroin-related crime drops to zero. Opiates and marijuana are not dangerous, drug enforcement and enforced treatment is. Hal (

Monday, September 28, 2009

more on Obama's speech

My colleague Steve Russell sent me this message from Louie Milojevic. It is refreshing to hear this international response to Obama's speech, thanks Steve, thanks Louie:

I guess not everybody wants to lynch him....
Russell, Steve

Sent: Monday, September 28, 2009 9:27 AM
To: Pepinsky, Harold E.


U-Turn at the UN? President Obama Reveals an Unconventional Approach to
Troubled World Body

By Louie Milojevic

Mr. Milojevic is a PhD Student in History at American University in
Washington D.C.

In his first address to the United Nations Barack Obama tried something
that none of his predecessors had ever contemplated; he spoke to the
General Assembly as President of the United States, and not as the
leader of the free world. Political leanings aside, American presidents
from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush have used the United Nations as a
platform from which to project national power and ensure the continuity
of the ‘American way’ in international affairs. A bedrock principle in
America’s relations with the United Nations, there has been more than
one way that presidents have pursued this goal. Some have assumed
leadership through intimidation, others by avoiding responsibility, and
there have also been optimistic presidents who placed an unreasonable
amount of political capital in the world body. President Obama’s address
reflected none of these philosophies.

Prominent critics, such as former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations,
John Bolton, have charged that Obama’s address sponsors an idealistic
and naive foreign policy. “Hope,” of course did come into a play a few
times, it would not have been an Obama speech without it. However, this
was not solely an attempt to enhance the organization’s international
profile, as did Jimmy Carter so often during his presidency. Carter’s
public enthusiasm and respect for the United Nations improved America’s
relations with the Third World by leaps and bounds, but in the process
he lost the American voters who were more concerned with ‘stagflation’
at home. Obama faces a similar constituency today, and that is why he
emphasized early on and unequivocally that his primary responsibility is
to the American people and their interests.

That being said, Obama took a calculated political risk in laying out
his administration’s extensive efforts to prohibit the use of torture,
close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and responsibly withdraw U.S. forces
from Iraq. There was no defeatism here though, nor was there an attempt
to apologize for the Bush administration’s transgressions. Rather, Obama
urged General Assembly members to accept a collective responsibility in
solving the world’s problems. U.S. presidents have rarely entertained
such a notion, preferring instead to focus the blame elsewhere while
maintaining the righteousness of America’s cause. This mindset resulted
in much of the international deadlock that plagued UN initiatives in the
1950s and 1960s.

As President of the United States, Obama also made sure to introduce,
and not unilaterally declare, this “new era of engagement.” No
ultimatums were issued, nor were there threats of vanquishing the United
Nations into irrelevance if America’s ideas were not universally
embraced. In a stark contrast to President George W. Bush’s domineering
style, Obama assumed the familiar role of university professor, clearly
and concisely analyzing the present state of the world, advocating
common sense, and an inward and collective honesty among the delegates.

With the Bush administration as the most recent point of comparison, it
is not at all surprising that Obama’s address has been viewed as a sharp
reversal in American-UN relations. In actuality, the address suggests
more than that. At this point in his presidency Obama has managed to
retain much of his international popularity. He could easily have ridden
that wave of support to the General Assembly podium, and resumed an
American centered approach to international relations. Instead, he came
as a leader and citizen of one nation, and as a concerned parent. This
is an approach Americans have never witnessed, but it may actually make

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Obama's gen assembly speech and its reception

Hal Pepinsky,
September 27, 2009

I grew up thinking that formal diplomatic dialogue (and lack thereof) was the most fundamental difference between war and peace. Later in life, I became more cynical. Over the past four US presidencies, I have come to presume that if the White House feels a need to say anything, it is because it is NOT true. Sigh…
I was excited by the intensity of White House promotion of President Obama’s September 23 first-ever-by-a-USprez lead address to this year’s New York opening of the UN General Assembly. As luck would have it, I was leaving Ft. Lauderdale from guest speaker, on “violence and peacemaking,” on September 21, International Peace Day, at Nova Southeastern U. My personal host was George Kakoti, a criminal justice prof, a British-trained Tanzanian barrister whom I hooded when he received his Ph.D. in the interdiscipline we share. Mr. Obama began his address as George drove me to the airport to return home.
It took me awhile to get the speech on the web that night. It wasn’t easy to find a simple text, until I hit on the idea of going directly to the UN General Assembly, and searching by date, which offers video too. This is the most direct way to open the text of any one of the many national addresses September 23 through yesterday. Check it out.
I was blown away by the speech from this early passage on:
In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold. The traditional
division between nations of the south and north makes no sense in an interconnected
world. Nor do alignments of nations rooted in the cleavages of a long gone Cold War.
The time has come to realize that the old habits and arguments are irrelevant to the
challenges faced by our people. They lead nations to act in opposition to the very goals
that they claim to pursue, and to vote – often in this body – against the interests of their
own people. They build up walls between us and the future that our people seek, and the
time has come for those walls to come down. Together, we must build new coalitions that
bridge old divides – coalitions of different faiths and creeds; of north and south, east and
west; black, white, and brown.
The choice is ours. We can be remembered as a generation that chose to drag the
arguments of the 20th century into the 21st; that put off hard choices, refused to look
ahead, and failed to keep pace because we defined ourselves by what we were against
instead of what we were for. Or, we can be a generation that chooses to see the shoreline
beyond the rough waters ahead; that comes together to serve the common interests of
human beings, and finally gives meaning to the promise embedded in the name given to
this institution: the United Nations.
That is the future America wants – a future of peace and prosperity that we can only
reach if we recognize that all nations have rights, but all nations have responsibilities as
well. That is the bargain that makes this work. That must be the guiding principle of
international cooperation.

To me Obama is making a breathtaking, and I believe deeply personally sincere, offer of radical shift in US diplomatic posture. I couldn’t wait to see and hear worldwide reaction, let alone what I would hear as reaction on National Public Radio the next morning. Meanwhile, I googled for reaction to the speech, and I found no favor, only domestic vitriol about Obama’s weakness. Eagerly I awaited reports on NPR and the BBC the next morning.

All the reporting of the speech was of how in a single line in the speech Obama had called for firmness about Iran’s nuclear activity. Ironic, isn’t it? In the passage quoted above, Obama exhorts us to avoid as the generation who “failed to keep pace” because we “defined ourselves by what we were against instead of what we were for.” In the media frenzy over Obama’s activities this week, the only thing he is remembered for is for what he stood against.

Pardon my suspicious mind, but the timing of government events appears well, tragicomically orchestrated. On Sept 24 that the US (and now Netanyahu tells us, Israelis too) had known of the second Iranian nuclear site for 4 years. It has not been put in operation, and as such is not obliged to report the plant to anyone. On the 24th the BBC had one little segment suggesting that the Iranian govt had sent the UN a formal acknowledgment of that this apparently lawful site to pre-empt the Euro-American bomblast against their having had a second “secret” site.

I felt disheartened, that out of all that has been said diplomatically, that the self-appointed world vs. Iran would end up being the story of all that happened this week.

At moments of expression like this, I am prone to being called a conspiracy theorist. So please don’t get so put off by my sense of media/political coordination here on distracting public attention from taking care of long-term business. It was so corny for Netanyahu to appear before the US Congress at this moment to demand further support for whatever the Israeli Cabinet demands is non-negotiable about Iran, let alone anything else. I have paid attention to too many orchestrations not to suspect I’m looking at another one. How convenient.

I’ve been wrestling with my corollary belief that Obama is the most sincere and up-front president we’ve had since Jimmy Carter, and maybe before that, since Honest Abe. I also believe that his powers of listening, absorbing, and being decisive are extraordinary. I heard long ago that he is renowned for being final substantive editor of his own speeches—the more important the speech, the greater the personal attention. I believe that his UN general assembly represents as deeply heartfelt a foreign policy commitment to peacemaking as any I have encountered. I imagine Obama is as deeply personally disappointed by the silence on the major substance, carefully crafted, silence as I am, probably more so. I ask myself how this could happen to a supposedly all-powerful president. I imagine he does the same.

I imagine Obama spent hours and hours poring over that speech. I imagine his immediate aides focused on helping him and keeping distractions away. If Obama was concentrating as carefully as his speech suggests (clich├ęs are remarkably absent), he was spared time to attend to countless other international political intrigue. Anyone who preferred political/media attention to focus on an enemy rather than on what to do who collaborated in the current global spotlight on Iran and its problems for whatever reason was spared notice by a president focused on redirecting global human relations.

My sympathy for a president’s attempts to run against the prevailing current is heightened. One reason to give up on Washington fathers’ doing best for us is the limitations of one person’s attention. On coverage of this week in New York and Pittsburgh, Obama and voices from many other nations at the UN was virtually obliterated.

You might point out the general assembly speeches to your friends. Leaders worldwide are genuinely struggling for a better posterity. People speculate on how Lincoln felt when his three-minute address at Gettysburg was met with silence. I wonder about Obama here and now, but above and beyond that, I hope as time passes that people will notice how beautiful and courageous Obama’s words are on this occasion. Love and peace--hal

Friday, September 25, 2009

Iranian nuclear surprise?

Who's upstaging whom? This am the BBC broadcast the possibility that the US and Brits had long known of a second nuclear enriching facility, noted that the Iranians had notified the UN that the as yet unopened facility before the news broke, and that what NPR calls "the bigger group" to shift attention from getting together(in itself consequential) to what Obama opposed in his Gen Ass speech, namely oppositional politics. Iran is not obliged to notify the IAEA of a facility until it is in operation.
I expect posturing like this from governments. I regret when my national network goes along with their government's spin. Love and peace--hal

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

blasting Obama for weakness

I'm about to go to bed and thought I'd google reaction to Obama's general assembly speech today. The leading reaction was that Obama is a wimp, an appeaser. Depends on your definition of strength and weakness. In general and in the whole in rhetorical detail, I think Barack expresses a radical shift in the direction of what I call a peacemaking attitude. The flak I'm reading just now reflects the criticism I have received over the years for being soft on crime.
I'll save more for later, but for now, in the wake of international peace day, President Obama, your words refresh me, thanks. Love and peace--hal

for video of Obama today at the UN, go to this site,

Please pay attention to the shift in frame, as in Roger Fisher's "getting to yes" by moving "from position to interest." Amazing I think. If you didn't get it live, it's on video as at the Huffington Post and in text as at the New York Times. I think this is a mega-historical US presidential announcement. Hurray to all those who worked with this president to put together today's general assembly speech.

I'm just back from celebrating the Sept 21 international day of peace at Nova Southeastern University. Thanks y'all. I'll write more on Barack's speech in days to come. Love and peace, hal

Sunday, September 20, 2009

the 1st internet addiction recovery program in the country

In this comment posted at "On the Media," I react to their story today on internet addiction and its treatment:

According to the director and patient you interviewed today from our first internet addiction recovery program. The director tells us that behavioral addiction will become a psychiatrically certifed mental disorder in the next Amer. Pshchiatric Assoc. manual. She names gambling as a prime example. So I figure financial analysts for example qualify as mentally disordered, as do those addicted to the regimented step-by-step recovery programing regimen the recovery center enforces. I keep noticing that focus on curing others' addictions is a projection of the would-be curers' own compulsion to keep treating everyone in a category in a prescribed ritual. I also notice that the recovery program is yet another instance of failed determination to cure people's problems by spending a long (45 days in this cae) and concerted routine of erasing and re-programming people's brains.

Hal Pepinsky

Friday, September 18, 2009

My Struggles with Semitism

Hal Pepinsky
September 18, 2009

As luck would have it the end of Ramadan and the Jewish new year coincide this weekend, just as US special envoy George Mitchell flies home with nothing to show for shuttle diplomacy between Israeli and Palestinian political leaders.
Let’s be honest among ourselves folks: There is nothing for leading Israeli politicians to negotiate. Israel emerged, let alone survived as a Jewish state only by brute force against local gentile residents (Palestinians were half Christian in 1948) and the indigenous residents’ local kinfolk. We Anglo Americans especially ought to recognize what it takes to overwhelm residents of color from sea to shining sea. The sad part is that those who survive political battle to qualify as leaders, including President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, have limited options, notably to resist their governments’ military expansion, except as it gets deflated, as in Vietnam for the US, and increasingly heated, as from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean. When bald aggression and occupation has reached its limits, as in Iraq, Afghanistan and what’s left of Palestine, there’s nothing left to do but to cling to military aggression as long as politically possible.
Sorry, President Obama, but however well intended, notice that your peace mission (an oxymoron in itself) to the Middle East was doomed to failure from the start. Long before you came to office, it was clear that the idea of US clout over Israel is a fiction. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the US government will never vote for any sanctions of any kind against Israel. Nor will we limit our country’s arms and economic support for the Israeli government. If I were in the Israeli government, I would be convinced that the US government and Palestinian Authority are ultimately wimps, and perhaps be persuaded as one might be by the idea of US Manifest Destiny to accept a Biblical prophecy about how Judea and Sumeria would be owned by Jews once again.
I’d say it’s a good bet that Israel will pretty much colonize the West Bank and Gaza, and that if peace gets worked out, it will entail a massive exodus of Palestinians from there and from refugee camps into everyday life across the Middle East. It’s not fair, but I think the process is irreversible. I hope bloodshed abates rather than spikes along the way.
Anti-Semitism has affected me personally. My mother and I lived for half a year with grandparents before my father could find university housing up north in 1945. He took the job up north because his faculty appointment at a southern university was turned down by the regents; he would have been the first Jew on the university faculty. My parents were married in my mother’s hometown, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1943. My dad was too nearsighted to join the army, and so I was conceived a war baby in Minneapolis. I am a Confederate White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Yankee Russian Jew married to someone who received first communion as a Catholic in post-war Warsaw, whom Jewish women I dated in college told that I would be an unacceptable mate to her family because I am gentile. I recall my mother saying around the time of the creation of the Israeli state that a religiously based state was an anachronism. My parents had no organized religious affiliation. My mother assured me that Christmas was a pagan holiday. That confused background may explain my reaction to the present situation in the so-called Holy Land.
From my experience in mediation, I’d say it is time for George Mitchell and other would-be mediators to get unstuck from a debating point, in this case on how to implement the Oslo Accords. Let’s get real. Israelis have the military ascendancy, due in substantial part to US military armament. Brute force will win tactically, as on the point of whether Palestinians deserve a state of their own (a mixed blessing as I can attest) or a right of return. Those are lost causes; there’s no use in kidding ourselves otherwise. This raises larger issues for all of us.
For one thing, suppose we in the US start privately at least by recognizing that the USG voted to create the state of Israel in part because my Anglo-American kin didn’t want Jewish refugees flooding our country. That’s our issue. We have contributed to displacement from Gaza to Kashmir to Guantanamo and Bagram. If we in the US want moral authority, we ought to pitch in to help clean up the social mess by inviting “the tempest tossed” to our own shores.
Then we have a little more moral authority to call on other Arab States to assume more responsibility themselves for absorbing Palestinian refugees.
Who knows? Maybe George Mitchell is quietly working at this level too. Hope so. It’s the way to ride the current wave of change in the Middle East, I think. Love and peace--hal

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

to Dan Brown at npr re ritual abuse/illumaniti/freemasonry

I sent this to npr re an interview with Dan Brown:

Sorry Dan Brown, I have heard the reality of live "conspiracies" as of "illuminati" from oh so many credible survivors. Your stories ring true about what it seems to me happens now. This includes some echelons of freemasonry. Love and peace--Hal Pepinsky,

on imprisoning gang members anywhere

common sense from a New Zealand Maori lifelong gang member:

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FW: FW: Judith Collins Corrections focuses on public safety - Minister
Pat Magill []
You forwarded this message on 9/15/2009 9:06 AM.
Sent: Tuesday, September 15, 2009 4:08 AM
To: Genesis Keefe []; 'Russell Fairbrother' []; 'Martin Williams' [];; 'jim gladwin' [];; 'Tony Taylor' []; Kerry Kitione []; Denis Oreilly []

Cc: Claire Delisle []; 'Robert Gaucher' []; Jocelyn Robson []; Pepinsky, Harold E.; Genesis Keefe []

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From down under, “well down under” !!!!! Denis I double right click only one appears.? Then I left double click and nothing happens.!!!

From: Dennis O'Reilly []
Sent: Tuesday, 15 September 2009 7:07 p.m.
To: Pat Magill
Subject: Re: FW: Judith Collins Corrections focuses on public safety - Minister

Next Issue November 2nd
« Iran: Paranoid, But With Real Enemies
The Complicatist: When Good Hymns Are Sung By Bad People »

Looking After Our Patch
Locking up gang members makes them stronger
by Denis O’Reilly
I cracked up when I heard Wainuiomata indigene Trevor Mallard complain that the people involved in his kainga’s misconceived ‘makutu lifting’ tragedy weren’t going to jail after a manslaughter conviction, ‘because they were Maori’. Crikey, it’s usually the other way round.
Former Police Commissioner Peter Doone revealed in research he undertook some years back for the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, that we apprehend, arrest, convict and imprison Maori New Zealanders at a ratio of 3:1 as compared to other New Zealanders. Trev has played his own hand in creating this reality as an executive member of a Labour led Government that locked up more Maori than any other previous administration in this beloved land.
Phil Goff once triumphantly announced to Parliament that his Government had increased the prison population by over 70% (half of whom statistically would have been Maori). Trev and Phil are not lone figures in pandering to a populist viewpoint: something really gets under the skin of Pakeha New Zealand when our brown fellow citizens misbehave, disobey, or want to do things in their own ‘special’ way. Jimmy Baxter used to ascribe this to ‘the crime of being a Maori.’
In an excellent example of ducks being lined up, Mallard’s comments received enthusiastic support not only from the Sensible Sentencing Trust, who themselves have successfully fostered alarm about ‘Maori’ crime ( and sponsored campaigns that created the acceptance of mass incarceration ) but also from reputedly left wing commentator Chris Trotter. Trotter consistently laments the substitution of class consciousness for cultural consciousness – and harrumphs about Maori being treated as ‘special New Zealanders’ with the rest of us being condemned to an implied second class status. Give me a break Chris. Look at the stats.
It is not unreasonable to interpret the racial skew of the prison muster as a measure of what, implicitly, appears to be institutionalised racism. Moreover, Maori are consistently over represented as ‘victims of crime’ in the statistics provided in consecutive ‘MSD Social Reports’. So not are only Maori communities more offended against – they also suffer the impact of the disproportionate imprisonment of their members, particularly their young men, often labelled as being ‘gang members’.
In this piece, I’d like to probe the interface between prisons and Maori gangs, discuss the self-serving and self-perpetuating construct that has become the New Zealand Prison Industrial Complex, and the perverse outcomes of our current criminal justice policies in that our prisons breed gangs, and foster gang activity. I also want to consider possible ways forward.
Let me start by declaring my interests. I am a life member of the Black Power, a so-called Maori gang. I joined the Wellington Black Power in 1972 because of my personal social justice agenda. I reject the proposition that I am a member of an organised criminal group. Other than being in holding cells I have never been imprisoned although I admit I have broken the law and have incurred convictions. So, to New Zealand Maori gangs and Maori in New Zealand prisons:
“Prisons are a breeding ground for gang activity enforced by the Justice system and regulated by prison population”
My Maori mate, who I quote above, was a member of a major gang, and a highly influential figure in any jail in which he was incarcerated over his twenty-two years of imprisonment. When I took the late Dr Ian Prior to first meet him – near the end of a 13-year lag – the Doc asked him “what do you do here?” The brother answered, “I run the place”.
He wasn’t being smartarse but, rather, acknowledging the reality that prisons contain people and people create their own social realities regardless of the circumstances. What he calls the ‘regulation’ of the interpersonal relationships and social conduct within the institution is as important an ingredient to the management of the place as the concrete walls, steel grills, and organisational systems that constitute the prison.
Regardless of the Department of Correction’s policy that they will not recognise gang structures, the pragmatics of prison management mean that senior staff will establish a working relationship with whoever rules the roost. Sometimes prison staff members use the institutional power of one gang to punish a member of another gang that they may be having difficulty with. It may be as simple a device as simply putting them into a block dominated by members of another crew, to be subject to bashings and intimidation.
It is an interesting proposition that my mate makes: that our prisons are a breeding ground for gang activity. The intent of, and belief behind, what has in reality been about a decade long ‘crack down’ on gangs, is that if you lock the members up for long enough you will crush the gang and stifle gang activity. Apparently not.
We need a rethink. Not just about the efficacy of current policy, but also the improved situation we are trying to create. If we want people to rehabilitate and rejoin society as contributing citizens do we want to subject them to a regime of imprisonment that has the opposite outcome?
For a start, it’s important to recognise that gangs aren’t indigenous to New Zealand. You wouldn’t think so though. We are increasingly labelling and criminalising groups of the young, poor, and indigenous population. We use imported gang terms and metaphors to describe what are, essentially, instinctual social clusters of Maori and other Polynesian youth.
I’m not saying Maori gangs are a good thing. In fact, in my observation and experience they end up being pools of misapplied intellect and self defeating behaviours. After 37 years of involvement I can confirm for you that being in a gang – just like being in jail – is a waste of time and potential. And, equally, that very experience has confirmed for me that there is incredible talent and potential amongst their number: intelligence; leadership; courage; and, for many, distinguished whakapapa.
My thesis is that – rather than suppression – it is much better to apply strategies that help refocus these energies, and to enable this fantastic potential to be expressed within the context of tribe and whanau. In the meantime we need to accept that these tribe-like clusters of ‘tribeless’ young people are a recurrent modern day feature of urbanisation and global forces.
Like didymo and P, gangs result from our being part of a dynamic world. They are a reality, and we better figure out sustainable ways to manage them. Of didymo, one of my mentors, Jim Anderton, used to put the dilemma like this: there is a chemical that could be used to treat and kill didymo. We could be rid of it. The only consequence is though that we would have to kill every other living thing in the rivers as well.
And it’s a bit like that with our approach to our indigenous young people during their time of passage. Not every new cluster or outbreak of bad behaviour is necessarily an instance of organised crime. In our attempt to curb unacceptable behaviours, we end up applying solutions that simply end up killing the potential of those we are dealing with.
Just as in the case of some of our nation’s early colonial houses, which were designed by English architects who failed to factor in the hemispheric differences in the orientation of the sites, we fail to understand what it is we are actually dealing with when we attempt to manage clusters of Maori and other Polynesian youth by suppression and imprisonment. Like the architects who didn’t take account of where the sun rises and shines, we will reap unexpected consequences, dark and shade where we really require light.
The current Government has inherited the legacy of a burgeoning prison muster and the increasing budgetary demands that will follow it. Because of the political immunity gifted by the public’s current lust for punishment the Nats have seized the opportunity to implement a little slice of their neo-liberal agenda by way of privatisation of prisons. This is being done in the name of efficiency and/or ‘Kaupapa Maori’ considerations promoted by some tribal leaders and the Maori Party.
I think there is fuzzy thinking on the part of the Maori Party as regards privatisation of prisons. When you look at their korero what they are really talking about is what the late Justice Sir Clinton Roper once wisely and I think accurately described as ‘habilitation’. He pointed out that many prisoners hadn’t even got to stage one in the process of personal development: it was a matter of a blank canvass rather than a touch up. In any case we are referring to the healing or reformative part of the prisoner’s sentence.
The other aspect, the ‘humane incarceration’, the ‘punishment’ part of the process is where the real focus of the drive to privatisation sits. Let’s face it; if you are of a mind to do so, you can run a prison like a kennel. Personally I think it is only the State that should have the right to incarcerate. Punish if we must, to calm public fears or sense of outrage, but let’s be clear that we are delivering retribution when we are dishing it out. Provide activities as an intelligent function of sound prison management, but don’t dress it up as ‘rehab’, or imply any developmental or therapeutic aspirations.
If we want to restore and heal a prisoner – which morally, socially, is what we must be prepared to do – we can’t do it in a suppressive and retributive environment. I think it is this latter ‘restorative’ aspect that ‘Maori penal system’ advocates are really after. The healing aspect of a sentence could absolutely be delivered by ‘private’ or tribal suppliers, even with firm orders from the Court as regards participation and compliance, just in the same way as Maori health and Maori education providers already successfully provide services.
There is little doubt our current situation with Maori gangs, Maori in prisons, and prisons overall, is unsustainable. The projections are even worse with the comparative Maori rate continuing to rise. When confronting a social problematic, it’s important to ask, “Who benefits from the status quo?”
One explanation might be contained in the written history of the New Zealand Police, “Policing the Colonial Frontier”. As I read it, the very formation of the New Zealand Police was driven by a gang problem – gangs of Pakeha sealers and whalers who were causing mayhem amongst Maori communities and threatening the entente between the tribes and the emergent settler state.
From these roots a whole criminal justice industrial complex has been spawned, and it has developed a symbiotic relationship with gangs, especially Maori gangs – in that gangs provide the rationale for more and more resources. In a familiar colonial twist, the very communities the New Zealand Police were originally formed to protect have now become the primary focus of their suppressive efforts.
I believe that the ongoing commodification of crime, implicit in the intended privatisation of prisons, simply ensures an ongoing gang problem in Aotearoa. The new ‘crack down on gangs’ enabled by Section 98A of the Crimes Act will impose penalties of up to five years for participation in a so called ‘organised criminal group’ – which term is being applied to gangs – and will make membership of a gang an aggravating factor in the commission of a crime. This will increase the number in prison of those deemed to be a gang member, and they will be serving longer sentences.
In turn, this sets up a cycle of its own – represented by a high rate of recidivism, and a revolving inmate population. So, perversely, the efforts of our legislators are likely to contribute to the very conditions that not only promote committed gang membership, but also gang activity. Where there are concentrated populations of gang members in a prison it increases the opportunities to create cohesion and gang structure within the institution itself. A New Zealand example is in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when a large influx of gang members came into the prisons. Authorities shifted all the Mongrel Mob into D Block at Paremoremo. The prison culture transformed to that of the predominant gang.
If we want a glimpse of the future that is likely from our current trajectory – as regards the role gangs play in prisons – then look to North America, from where we seem to take our criminal justice sector cues in any case. There will be increased intimidation of other inmates, and increased actual assaults on prison wardens and other inmates. The predominant gang will run the contraband and in some instances run criminal ventures from the prison.
We may have already seen that here in Aotearoa with the current cases involving P import and distribution rings allegedly being run out of Paremoremo and Rimutaka prisons. In fact the inaugural P epidemic is said to have had its genesis in Paremoremo, when local gangsters hooked up with Asian crims.
Our current approach ensures that prison is a fertile recruitment place for the recruitment of gang members. An individual perhaps on the periphery of the gang outside the prison is likely to become a really committed member over the course of their sentence. Another, perhaps in only for a short sentence may be quickly influenced or intimidated to affiliate with whichever gang has most influence at the time. Double bunking will increase the likelihood. Here’s a quote from ‘Shortone’ a Maori gang member currently serving time:
“Jail is the prime place for finding scared vulnerable inmates to become the next generation gang members. If you can’t handle yourself then the next best thing to assure that you feel safe is to join a gang. Everybody knows that the mob overpopulate the jails. Can’t beat them, join them. I feel sorry 4 the vulnerable ones sent to jail for drink driving, released as a traumatised mentally disturbed gang member with an armed robbery job up his sleeve on account of orders from his patch member. Let the systematic cycle continue”
‘Shortone’ – Current Maori gang member prisoner
Shortone backs up what’s been said about ‘recruitment’, and his description of the traumatised prisoner brings another reality. Prison life is intense with high concentrations of people with severe pathologies and mental illness. American prison reformist Sunny Swhartz calls prisons ‘monster factories’. Just surviving can not only lead to offending inside, with a subsequent increase in sentence, but turn previously non-violent individuals into very violent people.
The pressure to comply with orders can be exerted not only within the prison but outside it too: on partners, family and friends. Because of differing categories of prison due to their security status, prisoners may end up being incarcerated at institutions away from their own area. In many cases partners, family, and friends may move to the particular town housing the prison. If the prisoners are gang members then this may mean different and new gangs settling in the area – this is the situation in Wanganui – and it has a knock-on effect.
On one hand it may mean upsetting the local ‘balance of street power’ and may lead to strife on the street, hardly conducive to community safety. The children of the gang member prisoners will end up going to local schools, invariably ending up alongside the children of prison staff. The conditions for influence further up the track begin to be established. On release a prisoner is going to go to where they are welcome. If the gang was a default whanau for the individual before prison, or became one in prison, then it’s likely to be the point of contact on return to the community, regardless of non-association conditions. That in turns sets up breaches of bail conditions and the cycle is away again.
In late 2007 Ombudsman Mel Smith concluded that the New Zealand criminal justice sector was in such a mess that it merited a Royal Commission to sort it out. I’ve heard the call for a Royal Commission into gangs from Greg O’Connor of the Police Association, and former Labour Govt Police Minister Annette King said, prior to the election that if Labour were back in power it would do just that.
The Prime Minister is about to get on the warpath about P. In an open letter to him, broadcaster and frustrated dad Paul Holmes, has said that the PM needs to come down hard on the gangs as part of beating P.
My thought is that maybe we should attempt to cover all these interwoven bases, Gangs, P, Prisons, by undertaking some form of intelligent enquiry to sort out facts from fiction and to develop answers that work – actually sensible sentences. We cranked up the punishment tariff for P, re-grading the substance from Class B to Class A and setting sentences for supply or manufacture as high as life imprisonment without a noticeable reduction in demand or supply.
It must be apparent to even the most retributive of politicians and lobbyists that the crush ‘em and crate ‘em approach seems set only to escalate the problem. Experience to date suggests that the harder society plays the more gang members enjoy the game. The evidence also seems to be that the more we lock gang members up the more gangs will consolidate and grow.
I put aside the cynical conspiracy theory that the current policies are a deliberate formula designed to perpetuate the prison industrial complex. I’d like to think that at the nation’s heart there is a desire for every citizen to fulfil their potential and that includes Maori citizens. If that is the case then we need to reframe the whole proposition around our approach to P, to Maori Gangs and to Prisons.
For a start let’s roll with a bit of upside down thinking. For instance the notion of privatisation is underpinned by concepts of market efficiency and the push and pull therein. At the moment the Department of Corrections holds as its goal ‘Improving Public Safety’ and its going to do that by ensuring sentence compliance and by the ‘Reduction of Re-offending’.
Now it may be that the organisation tracks and rewards its people for ensuring sentence compliance, but I am unaware of any incentivisation for ‘Reducing Re-offending’. I assume the risk for re-offending occurs when the prisoner is released and consequently it is the critical phase as regards community safety.
But we don’t reward the troops for success at this point. It costs around $100,000 per annum to keep a prisoner in humane conditions and under lock and key. It’s hard to get a current grip on the current rate of recidivism but it seems that some 70% of prisoners will re-offend within five years of release.
What would happen if Corrections was prepared to do a deal with prison staff and give them a share in the savings if they could get better outcomes. E hika! The screws would behave as a father to a son! Even further, what if Corrections actually utilised the organisational self-regulation of gangs and paid gang members not to commit crime? Pay them to study. Pay them to do positive activities. We could slash both crime rates and the negative spend on prisons overnight!
Some forty years ago the late Alan Nixon, drew attention to the relationship between Maori educational under-achievement and Maori over-representation in the crime stats. That is even more apparent today: some 50% of Maori boys leave school without qualifications and too many of this group end up in prison. Even if it took some years to develop policies that split the punishment and habilitation phases of a sentence, in the meantime we could use prison time to facilitate intense education and help rewire thinking by assisting prisoners apply their intellect in pro-social ways.
NZQA indexed programmes and NCEA linked activities can be used to help prisoners the credits vital to their being able to undertake apprenticeships or go on to further education. Former Wellingtonian, now New Yorker, John Wareham has developed a process based on his existentialist philosophies whereby he helps inmates at Rykers Island prison confront themselves and ‘reconstruct’.
It is powerful stuff, and his process is outlined in his book “How to Break Out of Prison”. Hilariously when he went to give a presentation to inmates at Waikeria Prison he was denied access because of the proposition contained in the name of his book. The gain was though that John ended up working with me in a project with the leadership of the Mongrel Mob and Black Power gangs, and the impact of his approach was transformational. We could do with his input.
Another approach – perhaps at the opposite end of the philosophical spectrum – is the approach championed by Kim Workman and already being delivered by ‘faith-based units’. The programmes in these units provide links with communities and ongoing practical and prayerful support for their inmate during and after release. They have had their share of successful outcomes.
A further and current option is provided by the Kaupapa Maori units of some prisons. In this regard and at this point I’ve got to say that the “two facedness” of Corrections knows no bounds. I don’t mean that the Department deliberately lies, but, hell, compare the reality with the promise. Corrections lists as its ‘Kaupapa’ “Kotahi ano te kaupapa; ko te oranga o te iwi” This is translated as “There is only one purpose to our work; it is the wellness and wellbeing of the people.” Damn, that’s pretty cynical.
The schizophrenia between espoused policy and actual delivery is that in Corrections’ ‘Integrated Offender Management System’ is that being Maori is listed as being a criminogenic factor – that is something that is a predisposition to offending and that must be corrected. If however one sees Maori culture as an advantage, there are some advantages for dealing with Maori gang members by utilising tikanga based processes. It is a reasonable supposition that ‘acculturation’ and reconnection with one’s self and whanau through whakapapa will foster social inclusion and help provide an identity beyond and above the gang.
Consider too that a high percentage of prisoners are afflicted by mental illness and addictions. The prison sentence could provide an opportunity. It could provide a high degree of institutional care and therapy with increased chances of wellness on release and improved likelihood of being a functional member of society and a contributing citizen and taxpayer. I acknowledge and support the doubling of the capacity for addiction treatment recently initiated by the Government. That’s a move in the right direction. But, upside down or not, more fresh thinking is required.
The well balanced and well researched input provided by Kim Workman and the Rethinking Punishment movement – and the considered reflections of Sian Elias as expressed in her recent ‘Shirley Smith Address’ – all contribute to the necessary national dialogue, despite the hosing down by those entrenched in opinion or enriched by the status quo.
In addition there’s movement at the flax roots, fostered in no small measure by Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples. Sharples has managed to engage street leaders as well as tribal leaders in resolving gang street violence and related offending, and he has built a platform for Maori designed and Maori delivered interventions. Its good stuff, but its not dealing with the really substantive policy issues implicit in the issues I’ve been discussing.
From where I sit, regardless of the concerns I have noted, I see a real opportunity for a change for the good. When we’re talking about Maori gangs consider that some of them have their origins in the last phase of the rural migration. For the first time, as regards age structure, the demography of the Maori gang population is likely to reflect that of the Maori population overall. In other words there are older, and perhaps wiser, heads around in the Maori gang scene. Some gang leaders say ‘we aren’t a gang, we’re a whanau’ or ‘we’re a hapu’ and so they are. The real issue they have to deal with is how that whanau behaves, how it cares for its members, and how it impacts on other whanau and the community at large.
In turn the challenge for our politicians, policy makers and the public at large is to put rhetoric and prejudice to the side and have the courage to undertake an intelligent and well informed review of the matters I have shared. – by Denis O’Reilly, Pa Waiohiki
This entry was posted on Thursday, September 3rd, 2009 at 3:19 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
1. PW, 4. September 2009, 12:17

A very well researched and thoughtful article indeed.
I just want to say this.
In NZ and worldwide it is not about race or colour, it’s about class.
The rulers and the ruled.
Let’s cut through the BS and face reality.

2. Nick Rosenberg, 4. September 2009, 20:34

Well done Dennis and clear to boot!

3. ash, 4. September 2009, 22:03

Denis, thank you for a truly awesome article. Hope it gets out there and hits home. ash.

4. s, 7. September 2009, 9:46

if only the herald would print stuff like this…

5. Hamish Keith, 7. September 2009, 14:32

This is a must read – if only it would translate in to a must do

6. Toni Toni, 8. September 2009, 14:59

One of the best articles I have read. And wait for it…. Im a Corrections Officer!

7. stuart munro, 8. September 2009, 16:18

Just the thing. Reminds me of some of the stuff the Tams used to do in Dunedin – which worked pretty well for a while. The whole thing about prisons is – we can’t afford to be stupid about them. More from you, please, Dennis.

8. Wayne England, 9. September 2009, 14:41

Eloquently put Denis. I look at that picture (picture No.6)of you and the brothers on the marae, and are moved by the intrinic wairua, knowledge and talent these men embody. That may sound sentimental, but its there! And its heartening to know that there are some “old heads” as you put it, helping to reframe things both within your community and out in the general population – where the media and staus-quo holds so much sway.

9. Maryanne, 9. September 2009, 18:44

Enjoyed this article.

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Gordon Campbell is overseas for five weeks. Next Werewolf: November 2nd
Enter the 'Wolf'
Hi there and welcome to the fourth issue of Werewolf. The Law has quite a presence this time, headed by Catriona’s article on rape law reform and Denis writing on gangs and prisons. At the time, I didn’t notice much resemblance between interview subject Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe and Judge Dredd, but I’m sure even a British Law Lord would enjoy Tim Bollinger’s expansion of Cartoon Alley this month, which - besides the cartooning action - has some excellent reviews and commentary. Check it out, citizens.
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Monday, September 14, 2009

re NPR commentary on Obama's Wall St. speech

posted at :

re npr commentary re prez re fiscal policy:

I wish reporters and commentators would stop blindly adopting fiscal newspeak. For instance, managing "risks." When an amendment to the Indiana Constitution to repeal prohibition of gambling was up for a vote, I kept thinking, "But we permit high stakes gambling, also known as Wall Street." How about using plain street talk when reporting on political/expert spin on using politically correct terms? We're talking about hot to manage high-stakes global gambling with ownership, as of homes and jobs. Let's name it and own it. love and peace--hal

to be posted at

Sunday, September 13, 2009

the role of "proof" in the death penalty case of Troy Davis

the capital case of Troy Davis
Hal Pepinsky
September 13, 2009

Yesterday I heard a Bob Edwards Weekend segment on a forthcoming state court hearing as to whether Troy Davis killed a Savannah, Georgia, police officer, for whose murder Mr. Davis is in the final evidentiary stage of death penalty appeal, on grounds that he is innocent.
Seven of the nine witnesses who fingered Mr. Davis have recanted; one of the other two has been named by witnesses as the true killer. Pretty lame that Mr. Davis’s death sentence hasn’t even been commuted, let alone discarded in one legal form or another, isn’t it?
I give officials from judges on down who credit to those who argue that Mr. Davis’s death sentence should nonetheless be carried out, for honestly defending their personal integrity. I imagine that continuing defenders of Mr. Davis’s death sentence rationalize, as has happened among Supreme Court justices in cases like Darden and Herrera’s, that witnesses and jurors may recant and repent as an execution approaches. As I have learned in child custody disputes, the prevailing view in law is that the first story told by a participant or witness is the least “contaminated” or distorted by retelling. By that logic, once a policy time line has been drawn for raising issues of innocence, all current changes of memory are presumed suspect. In my experience, this is standard, approved courtroom practice. This seems to me to be established law, fundamentally unfair as the standard might be.
Mr. Davis now gets a chance to prove to a judge that he is innocent. In theory this is an impossible standard: you cannot prove a negative. That’s the origin of the fictitious rule that a criminal defendant is presumed innocent until “proven” otherwise “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It is commonly acknowledged among criminologists that the presumption is of guilt, but case by case, that can’t be “proven” either.
I agree with Gregory Bateson (writing on mind and nature) that the only proof of anything is tautology. Two and two equals four because we define it so. Proofs exist in closed logical systems. Human interaction is inherently open, and so in human interaction, “proof” is unattainable, and hence failure of proof unremarkable.
I think that before we try to teach moral lessons, all the way to terrorizing public spectators by determinedly premeditated acts of murder, we ought to set a pretty high burden of evidence on those who prosecute capital crimes. Eyewitness testimony, jailhouse testimony and jurors’ attention to what’s what rather than who’s who are notoriously unreliable, period. Our determination to defend judgments we impose on those detained and punished for offenses grows as our claims to having proven and punished enemies among us get called into question, as by facts of Mr. Davis’s case. In factual disputes, peacemaking reasoning begins where attachment to proving who’s wrong relaxes. Love and peace--hal

Friday, September 11, 2009

Hell be damned; a response to the Christian Right

Hal Pepinsky,
One member of Congress who dared to diss the prez by calling out “you lie”—a Southern anglo-american to a black man at that. You know Joe, I sympathize with you. I’ve become impatient enough with being lectured at to interrupt many a lecturer myself in my own time. In the classroom, I prize the student who interrupts, let alone takes issue with, anything I say most of all. It appeared to me that the president was at most momentarily distracted by the outburst. I imagine that in contemporary political discourse in my country, both Barack Obama and Joe Wilson are as surprised by the fuss over the incident as most of us. One thing the fuss does is take news media air time off health care issues.
I don’t believe in repression. Nor, I hear, does Obama. I learned long ago that the passion that underlies a debater is more fundamental than any evidence I can muster. I have learned to experiment with appealing to an understanding of the passion that in blatant sincerity unites those who profit from Christian right-ism with a rural poor and military, openly angry political base. I have learned to try to respect and understand the passion that underlies unrelenting warfare on “the other side,” in this case to those who would do so much as to allow women to terminate pregnancies. On its face, the passion many people living on the economic margin devote to defending fetus rights is laughable…for us urbane citizens perhaps. From Ahmedinajad to Chavez to places all over the world, we urban elites look down on what in my part of the world are called rednecks, whom we profile as rural and ignorant.
I had taught only graduate students at the country’s first Ph.D. program in criminal justice for four years when I got to Indiana University in 1976. It took me years to get from student hostility to the point where as I told my students repeatedly, from experiences I had never had, taught me more about social control than any other data source I have had, except perhaps my experience in my immediate family of choice. Bloomington lies in a historical heartbed of the Klan. I think the biggest thing my students taught me is the more respect and empathy I showed especially for people courageous enough openly to disagree with me, the more many students seemed to appreciate that their own feelings and beliefs mattered. The more appreciation I and associate instructors added to theirs, the more people in class generally became open to crazy new ideas like “restorative justice.” As I entitled one article become book chapter, “Empathy Works, Obedience Doesn’t.”
So I ask myself: What is the source of the passion that is now known as the Republican base?
My mother, Pauline Wright Nichols, Jr., left her Baton Rouge, Louisiana, home with a master’s degree from LSU to Yankee-land never to return. I was Grandmother Pauline’s cherished first grandchild. Grandmother Pauline gave me a ukulele and encouraged my interesting in singing. She gave me an lp album of “Songs of the Confederacy” as a special present on some occasion. In her gentle and always polite voice, she called the Civil War “the late unpleasantness.” I heard stories about Yankee carpetbaggers—foreign occupiers who exploited white Southerners, especially rural white poor, after the war. On Christmas visits I drank from “white only” drinking fountains.
When in the fourth grade in 1953-54, in my present home town, Worthington, Ohio, we learned about state history and capitals, I read in the almanac that Grandmother Pauline’s state of birth, Mississippi, was the poorest state in the nation.
Growing up I was constantly reminded of the sense in the South that they had lost the war, and hence by extraction, were victims of national government. Southerners taught me that the main reason the war had been fought was economic, notably whether Northern textile mills could dictate terms to Southern cotton plantation owners. The Emancipation Proclamation was nothing more than a war tactic on the road to solidifying Yankee occupation of Southern production.
My great uncle married my parents at her parents’ home in Baton Rouge on a hundred-degree August afternoon in 1943. He was minister at the First Baptist Church of Oxford, Mississippi. My mother married a Russian Jew from Minneapolis. I think my status as a mutt gave me a little latitude to experience Southern Christian Confederacy and its aftermath.
I think that the heart of today’s Republican base is fear of hell, fire, and excommunication. Fear!
How to cast out devils at all costs? I’m not a Democrat at heart. Democrats have taken us to war, beginning in my lifetime with Harry Truman’s declaration of the Cold War, establishment of the CIA, and entry into the Korean War. But in the presidential campaign of 1968 it finally hit me that Republicans had become the party of no-holds-barred polemics against political opponents while Democrats keep trying to get along with political opponents. As political opposition filters up to national media levels, Democrats keep falling back on decency and compromise while a Republican juggernaut launches every invective, truth or falsehood be damned, at what President Nixon early on labeled “political enemies.”
When you most fear damnation, you most lash out, without reason, just to prove that you are on the side of angels. That terrified human spirit has captured national Republicanism as in Congress.
In his inaugural address, FDR famously pronounced, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In the late Confederacy of my maternal ancestry, children of losers of the “late unpleasantness” in this life are passionately committed to proving that they deserve to avoid continued hell in the afterlife. This is a passion to earn a ticket to heaven by exorcising earthly political devils.
The U.S. South became Republican after the Supreme Court ruled in a Georgia case that Congressional districts could no longer favor dwindling rural populations, just as Jim Crow was shut down. As white migration shifted westward, the foreign threat melded as between black and latino. Today, the passion of the US Republican base derives most from the continuing belief that the US government is the devil incarnate, and that the only hope for salvation lies in earning one’s way to heaven in the afterlife by defeating the devils that have conquered and occupied us. In that struggle, anger desperately needs to win at all costs, and so live today’s mainstream Republicans.
I don’t believe anyone is damned, and I hope to help persuade those who are terrified of losing the game of meaningful life that the only hell we can know is the suffering we face here and now. As to the hereafter, hell be damned. Love and peace--hal

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Corruption vs. Law'n'order

Hal Pepinsky,
September 9, 2009
A major excuse for Anglo-American military failure in Iraq and Afghanistan has emerged: corruption among the occupied people. In 1992 the journal Crime, Law, and Social Change published my reflections on what I had learned about “Corruption, Bribery, and Patriarchy in Tanzania.” There I argued that violence in the United States was just more veiled and genteel than violence in and around the Dar es Salaam neighborhood where I had been a guest for 5 months. In Dar I learned that “corruption” boiled down to taking care of those who had taken care of one’s own, whether through campaign contributions or getting a judge to rule your client’s way. I came back from East Africa in 1990 to find that every bit of vice and violence l confronted in Tanzania was right back in my home “heartland” of the US, just more glossed and covered over. I have come to believe that the more energetically “we” focus on “their” problems, the more energetically we are talking about ourselves.
Today as I write, the US supreme court is rehearing the issue of whether all restraints on corporate funding of political ads should be lifted. Afghan votes for president are being subjected to recount on charges of corruption of the voting process. I recall “our” furor that in 2000—under a voting system Jimmy Carter has said would never even qualify for international election monitoring, let alone qualify to be evaluated as in Afghanistan--the US supreme court chose “our” president.
Any political group’s leadership habitually blames others for its own social problems. That may draw “us” together, but I doubt that our hypocrisy is lost on peoples “we” now occupy. I keep being reminded of comic strip Walt Kelley’s Pogo the possum’s 1950s Cold War refrain: “We have met the enemy and the enemy is us.”
A major hazard for all of our self-deceiving US global democracy/anti-corruption/anti-drug efforts is that militarily occupied people know their occupiers’ hypocrisy with crystal, personal and historical clarity. Who are we in the US to kid ourselves that we are qualified to tell “those people” how to govern themselves?
I think the only way for US to gain global security is to withdraw and eat humble pie. The US is a young nation where for several centuries greed and global conquest have run rampant. A little repentance wouldn’t hurt anyone’s global security.
I have hung out around legal and political machinations at home too long to believe that “my” people have anything to teach anyone else about being honest and democratic. I think a lot of folks outside the US would sigh in relief and let go of hurting US folks if “we” let go of telling “those people” what to do for their own good. The time has come for Euro-Americans to give up the colonial habit of embarrassing claims that “their” governments are inferior to “ours,” especially when they are our collaborators…a little ungrateful to say the least. Love and peace--hal

re BBC interview with Alan Greenspan, re human nature

0920 EDT 090909:

Would that Mr. Greenspan had paid attention to Adam Smith's observation that the greatest threat to a free market was incorporation - giving otherwise unconnected investors to license by limiting liability for corporate sins to strive to oligopolize markets. For profit limitation of liability unleashes excesses of power Mr. Greenspan now discovers the principle of human nature that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Hal Pepinsky, Worthington, Ohio USA

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Teaching w/o grading: Response on Assoc of Humanist Soc listserv

you can post back to listserv at Here's today's message to humanist sociology list folks, on what I have labeled "grading without grading":

First, thanks to our forebears who share ahs folk history with us.
I am saddened and hurt by the second wave of messages claiming that one's low grades are a threshold criterion for having one's teaching taken seriously. My position is clear. I don't believe in grades, and because I took my own input in class seriously, believe (former) students who say that my buddhist-sounding attempts to grade students by not grading was a personal and political highlight of their time at Indiana U.
I have never known what anyone else, let alone one of my students, needed to know. I don't believe in grading eggs, let alone people. A career as a criminologist has only helped cure the conceit that I know how publicly to grade other beings.
From the first two jobs I was genteelly fired from on, colleagues have dismissed my teaching on grounds that I have become popular with students (which has not always been true).
Somehow, I ended up with enviable formal educational credentials, and yet even in professorial retirement, I can't dream of being qualified to rate a student I scarcely know for evaluators of the student's academic record I will never know. I'm arrogant enough to believe that if I am unqualified to grade or otherwise pass judgment on students, no one else is either.
Taking grading seriously saddens me most because of the pessimistic message that in one's own immediate relations that matter, I become a better teacher the more my students fail to learn.
I'll post this at my blog:

Monday, September 7, 2009

Resistance to Obama talking to students; let's call a spade a spade

Hal Pepinsky
September 7. 2009
Let’s own up: If our US father figure in Washington were white, there would be no question of all students watching our president tomorrow, as our students have routinely done with presidents before him, without incident.
In hard times especially, fear of foreigners heats up, including fear of people right here at home whom we regard as outsiders, as intruders on our turf. Whether criminalized or even worshiped, this is the logic of gang turf battles, especially when racialized. On September 8, 2009, for a presidential moment in US history, many a US school promises to re-institute jim crow. So blatant, so sad. Love and peace, hal

False debate: Quantitative vs. Qualitative Learning

Hal Pepinsky
September 7, 2009

My eighteen-month-old granddaughter Mila keeps driving home to me how fundamental yeses and noes are to human communication. Mila used sign language for no by the time she said ma. Not long after, as I kept shaking my head back and said the y word while Mila vigorously shook her head in squealing delight, she also learned to say “yes!”
When I was with her in Durango a week ago, Mila kept asking new words for things and stringing two and three words together--a voracious listener, looker and talker. Inadvertently in one moment, I played into what theoretical physicists might call a critical experiment: I said “no” to Mila’s face when I thought she was about to swing a picture off the wall over her head. Thinking back, all I needed to have done, as pretty much all the adults in her life I had seen do, was to pull her hand gently and firmly away, by sign and word said something like “hurts,” and distracted her. When instead I said “no,” Mila virtually collapsed in tears and wander off to be by herself.
In this one incident, an infant taught a retired criminologist a socially significant lesson in how NOT to achieve social control, and led me reconsider data on how I had seen Mila treated in similar circumstances, thereby to recognize how Mila had openly and yet with personal dignity been redirected without noes. All this from an “n of 1”as social methodologists might say about my data set. In many journal reviews I have received, especially early on when I was reporting a significant finding like the lesson Mila just taught me, a primary ground for rejection of my research reports was that I was merely anecdotal. Yes I was, yes I am.
I keep on learning from and sharing essentially anecdotal data because whether the stories are mine or others’, from the personal to the historical, stories have yielded far and away the most reliable (in statisticians’ terms merely “nominal”) empirical data I have in my storehouse of knowledge of how in the real world to get what I want and avoid what I don’t want from efforts at social control. Time and again, I use stories to guide me to look elsewhere, as to significance of other numbers (e.g., at a simple level, comparing when I told Mila no to what happened in other encounters with her I had witnessed). I keep finding that stories informants tell about their own experiences are more reliable and significant than stories social scientists tell about “them” (as in my own case, about prisoners and ritual abuse survivors). The lingering lawyer in me deeply respects my preference for personal over hearsay evidence. Feminists have taught me that in some social scientific circles, this preference is called “the narrative method.” Whatever people call it, that’s my research method--how I truly learn what is socially significant.
Back to the fundamental limit of all human knowledge: yeses and noes. When we try to reproduce language, as in the computer software I am using, language is fundamentally binary, a 1 or a 0, a yes or a no. At root, all our communication are binary, quantitative.
Decades ago, a grad student told me a story of his encounter with a noted quantitative sociologist, who presented a best-fitting path model of something or other. My acquaintance pointed to a particular path in the diagram, and asked, “What is the social significance of [a particular statistically significant path in the model)?” The presenter was baffled; after all, the path was significant at the .05 level.
I have noticed that self-identified quantitative criminologists share the struggle that any dedicated would-be social scientist including me faces, to reach findings that are socially and politically significant. I don’t have a clue as to what most reported research data mean to the informants, let alone figuring out what their data mean to me. I think I know what Mila meant to tell me. She wasn’t lying or trying to put on airs. By contrast, I don’t know for instance why I should accept at face value whether anyone who does or does not self-report victimizing or report being victimizated ought to be trusted, let alone understood.
A further problem I have with standard social research multivariate analyses is about claims of knowing that since a relationship is not statistically significant, the relationship makes no difference, let alone generalizing from group results to expectations of individuals. Statistically, the probability of any sample, let alone single case, having no effect on or being like what shows up in the best-fitting statistical model, IS ZERO (called “the fallacy of affirming the null hypothesis” at the beginning of chapter 1 of my graduate statistics textbook). Statistics only attach probabilities to what is NOT, NOT to what IS. After my late friend, co-instructor, and mentor Leslie T. Wilkins won a British Royal Statistical Society award for his work predicting which detained juvenile offenders would land back in the system after release, Les pointed out to me and countless others that prediction research is statistically bankrupt. (So much for profiling, period.)
As a criminologist in particular I’m brought back to a basic issue of yes or no in my field: whether to take each report of whether crime or criminality has occurred, or more generally of whether social control has been gained or lost, at face value. I can’t get past that methodological issue. Neither could people in 1986 in the Oslo criminology seminar I was invited in on, when we discussed a self-report crime survey, in this case of students in an introductory psychology class. An echo went round the room - How unscientific: the researchers didn’t know the students; how then could the researchers possibly know what the students know by students’ questionnaire responses?
I’ll spare you a separate “false debates” post on the topic of scientific vs. unscientific learning by declaring here and now that that I wish we self-styled social researchers would give up trying to prove who the better, truer, more elegant scientist is, and instead just trade notes on how and what plainly works and doesn’t in our social lives. False debates like that on quantitative vs. qualitative inquiry are beside any socially significant point of research, of socially meaningful learning. Transcending false debates is in my view where peacemaking discourse begins. I expect to follow up this essay with others on false debates that distract from accomplishing accountable, responsible, well informed management of our social problems. Love and peace—hal

Friday, September 4, 2009

The End of Airpower

Hal Pepinsky
September 4, 2009

The Anglo-American military legend continues—that the most overtly globalized “hot” war in human history was won decisively by airpower in 1945. And now NATO clings to the romantic notion that air superiority makes military defeat inexcusable.
Last night in Afghanistan “the Taliban” (our words, who among us knows the words the residents use?) hijacked two U.S. gasoline tankers (which I can only imagine would be seen by residents as fuel for foreign invaders).
I have just turned off BBC after hearing an interviewer explore dangers that all that fuel in enemy hands could have done to our cause, whatever our “mission” (catch the religious connotation of that military word) ever has been. The BBC interviewer inquired whether tankers had been used in previous suicide attacks, and whether fuel was used in other suicide bombs, and implicitly, whether this or that might have justified a military commander’s hasty decision to keep the fuel out of enemy hands.
Give me a break. If I had just hijacked two tankers from an enemy force that could spot them from the air by satellite any time, would I try to hang onto the trucks, or give the fuel to local residents to win their hearts and minds?
Milgram and Zimbardo have among many others found that absolute power corrupts. The only explanation other than nostalgia I can see for Anglo-US reliance on airpower is that we almost never get shot down, and hence our constituents don’t have so many “friendly” casualties to complain about. Noblesse oblige in warfare. At the same time, we strive to count Afghans as enemy casualties. A friend who was a point guard late in the Vietnam War told me he used to shoot monkeys out of trees to make enemy body counts. Those of us who drop bombs and fire rockets are more likely to claim native bodies as trophies than as victims.
We have already well begun to blame the Iraqis and Afghanis for how corrupt their native governments are, telling ourselves that if only they had straightened up and flown right, or if our own constituents had had the will to keep committing more troops and to fighting on, military glory would have been snatched from the jaws of defeat. I long for continuing Anglo-American popular awakening to the reality that military success, karmically, eventually reaches its limits, and as with the Soviet Union, defeats itself. Love and peace--hal

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Letter to Editor, Durango Telegraph: jailing

To the Editor: Freedom from Fear in Durango,
My wife and I spent last weekend in Durango with our children and 18-month-old granddaughter. There I encountered a controversy over whether the La Plata district attorney’s office is excessively moving to dismiss offenses described in Durango police arrest reports.
I retired this year after 39 years as a criminal justice professor. My son-in-law is with the La Plata prosecutorial team, which he tells me has consciously moved toward what I call “peacemaking.” (Google “hal pepinsky” for starters to see what I mean by that.)
I am told that the new county jail space is about empty. Wow! Normally if you build it you will fill it. I’ll be spreading the word among criminologists that La Plata is one county where criminal justice change really is something new and better.
In the classroom, on the streets, in everyday life, I have spent well over half my life among law enforcement professionals. I know the dedication of criminal justice professionals across the system. There is no reason that the people of La Plata County can’t continue to support and celebrate the countless quiet ways criminal justice professionals serve public safety besides locking people up.
As I understand recently published comments by the Durango police chief, he figures his officers have been disrespected by prosecutors’ moves to dismiss arrest charges marginally more often than under the previous prosecutor.
I also find credible reports that line police officers tell prosecutors that they see no greater community danger under a newly elected reform district attorney, and even feel relieved of making nuisance arrests.
Congratulations to the folks of La Plata County for having elected a reform district attorney who truly promotes community safety over jailing excess expense and nonsense. Here’s to supporting unsung ways criminal justice professionals serve without requiring them to bust people to demonstrate their worth.
Thanks to all that makes my family’s community in and around Durango safer and saner—Hal Pepinsky,, 614-433-7386