Dec 10, 2015

Two quotes from "The House I Live In"

Here are two quotes I really liked from The House I Live In, a documentary about the American prison system (quotes are back-to-back starting around 1:30:00, can't find a clip of the relevant bit on YouTube so here's the IMDB page).

First, from David Simon (of The Wire fame):

Let's say it this way, cause it's more honest – instead of saying: "Let's get rid of all these drug addicts and drug dealers and once we throw away the key on them we'll solve this problem." ...

Why don't you try saying it to yourself this way? –

All these Americans that we don't need anymore – the factories are closed, we don't need them, you know, the textile mills, they're gone, GM is closing plants – we don't need these people. They're extra Americans. We don't need 'em. Let's just get rid of the bottom 15% of the country.

Let's lock 'em up. In fact, let's see if we can make money by locking them up, in the short term. Even though it's going to be an incredible burden to our society. Even though it's going to destroy these families, you know, where these people are probably integral to the lives of other Americans. Let's just get rid of them.

At that point, why don't you just say: "Kill the poor. If we kill the poor, we're going to be a lot better off." Because that's what the Drug War has become.

Second, from Richard Lawrence Miller (Lincoln Historian and Beard Cultivator):

My father was a war crimes investigator in Europe after WWII. And we often talked about his experiences.

I was reading the work of Raul Hilberg, who wrote about the destruction of European Jews in the Holocaust.

(Hilberg): We've long known that the process of destruction was an undertaking step-by-step.

I realized that there was a chain of destruction, that what he was talking about could be expressed by links in a chain. Around the world, in more than one society, people do the same things, again and again, decade after decade, century after century.

Now this chain of destruction begins with a phase we can call Identification, in which a group of people is identified as the cause of the problems in their society. People start to perceive their fellow citizens as bad, or evil. They used to be worthwhile people, but now all of a sudden, for some reason, their lives are worthless.

The second link in the chain of destruction is Ostracism, by which we learn how to hate these people and how to take their jobs away; how to make it harder for them to survive. People lose their place to live, often they're forced into ghettos, where they're physically isolated, separate from the rest of society.

The third link is Confiscation. People lose their rights, their civil liberties. The laws themselves change, to make it easier for people to be stopped on the street, patted down and searched, and for their property to be confiscated. Now, once you start taking people's property away, you can start taking the people themselves away.

And the fourth link is Concentration. Concentrate them into facilities such as prisons, camps. People lose their rights. They can't vote anymore, have children anymore. Often their labor is exploited in a very systematic form.

The final link in the chain of destruction is Annihilation. Now this might be indirect, say by withholding medical care, withholding food. Preventing further birth. Or it might be direct, where death is inflicted; people are deliberately killed.

These steps tend to happen of their own momentum, without anybody forcing them to happen.

I think a lot of people would be disturbed and outraged by the thought that any part of this process could be going on in America. But it wasn't until I began studying the Drug War, where I realized that some of these same steps were happening ...

The documentary draws a pretty strong parallel between the American Drug War and the Nazi Holocaust, and really drives it home in its third act. The parallel feels a bit off the mark, and the Holocaust exacted a much greater humanitarian cost than the Drug War has or ever will.

But the framing is shocking, emotively powerful (if you're wired in a way similar to the way I'm wired), and not obviously false.

Though I work at GiveWell, views expressed in this post are my own.
[rereads: 2, edits: phrasing tweaks in the first paragraph, added Raul Hilberg hyperlink, cleaned up quote-within-quotes, added Lincoln Historian hyperlink, "not quite on mark" –> "a bit off the mark", removed extraneous "that"]