Saturday, February 11, 2017

Executing Freedom: The Cultural Life of Capital Punishment in the United States by Daniel LaChance

Freedom from caprice and freedom from injustice, the Court discovered, could sometimes come at the expense of one another. The system they ultimately approved did nothing to resolve the conundrum. Indeed, its unsolvability, and the Court's refusal to acknowledge it, would profoundly shape the exercise of capital punishment in its revived form. A civil libertarian commitment to negative freedom underlay, in the end, a modern death penalty riddled with internal tensions.

I had both excitement and trepidation about reading this book: On the one hand, a history of the death penalty taking a novel approach; on the other hand, much like my reaction to literary criticism, I had a kind of anti-elite bias against anything that refers to itself as a cultural history (WTF is the point of a cultural history, I thought to myself).

In the sense that I still don't know what to do with a cultural history (or literary criticism for that matter), my trepidation was fair. However, in the sense that I don't even care because this book was so interesting and thought-provoking, my fears were completely unfounded.

LaChance has written a book that explains the cultural meaning of the death penalty over the last fifty (or so) years. And referring to books, movies, newspaper articles, even Dexter, he has placed the death penalty within specific U.S. cultural tensions. I read him as developing two narratives that counter-balance each other: One is a kind of liberal-elite-ambiguity narrative. The other is a moral-clarity-hero narrative.

The first narrative is about contradictions within liberal thought. Thus, he discusses the post-war era, where faith in experts (owing to their perceived role in engineering the victories of World War II), was high. We believed in the ability of government and collective action to solve problems. Thus, looking to In Cold Blood (among other sources), LaChance shows how crime was seen as a failure of the State, and how a better (and achievable) State could solve the problem of crime. Criminals were not criminals out of choice, but as a consequence of failed (but fixable) social institutions. Thus, we simply needed to make our social institutions better.  Here, the death penalty represented a relic of a distant past--a blunt tool that failed to recognize that an individual's crimes were less about the person's flaws than about society's flaws.

This narrative began to unravel, however, as we devoted more attention to white, young serial killers, who seemed to have every benefit of modern society and nonetheless chose to kill. Faith in the potential of institutions began to be replaced with a fear that modernity hid some kind of unease. LaChance writes, "In an era when elite faith in rehabilitation was peaking, inexplicable acts of multiple murder by young white men exposed a nihilism that was at stark odds with the technocratic confidence of the age." This complicated the view of the death penalty as unnecessary, and left liberal thinkers in an undecided space about both the death penalty and social problems in general.

This first narrative is counterbalanced by the second: the hero of moral clarity. So, where liberal thought about the death penalty suffered from indecision, doubt, and ambiguity, a cultural phenomena emerged: the vigilante hero represented by Dirty Harry. Vigilante films represented a push against moral ambiguity by representing moral clarity untethered by liberal-elite social mores.

LaChance follows these narratives to the present day.

In the moral-ambiguity narrative, a fear arose that social engineering deprived people of their individuality. Movies and novels like A Clockwork Orange or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, represented a push back against social engineering and the kind of conformity it implies. These media symbolized the plight of the individual v. the society. In this regard, the death penalty came to represent a person's individuality. The individual's act of murder, both in choosing to commit a violation against the social order and in accepting the consequences, rebelled against a society of conformity.

This man knows the difference
between right and wrong.
In the moral clarity narrative, DAs who zealously sought the death penalty began to fill the role of the vigilante hero popularized in movies like Dirty Harry. LaChance describes how media depictions of death-seeking DAs described the DAs as maverick heroes, intentionally obtuse about resisting a broken court-system that coddles defendants. In rejecting the broken court system and seeking the death penalty against defendants, these vigilantes represent the Good in a corrupt, morally relativistic society.

The moral-ambiguity narrative continues with a discussion of death penalty movies from the 1990s and 2000s, which  LaChance points out were whitewashed, conveying that, as a society we had overcome the racialized mob justice of the past (LaChance, of course, points out how problematic the whitewashing is). However, more important for LaChance's narrative, these films humanize the death row inmates by being narratives of rehabilitation and remorse. The plot arc of, Dead Man Walking, for example, is one of spiritual and moral revelation. LaChance points out how this humanizing aspect of the films, consistent with the death penalty's symbolic assertion of individuality, had the effect of ignoring the important dehumanizing parts of executions. In this regard, the death penalty becomes the catalyst for death row inmates to go on their spiritual journey.

The moral clarity narrative continues with a discussion of the nuclear family and its relationship to the victims' rights movement that began in the 1980s. As social issues arose in the post-war period, social-conservatives came to view the cause of these issues as erosion of the heteronormative family unit. This was relevant for the death penalty because the death penalty came to represent a defense of the family unit. That is, the rise of the victims' rights movement correlated with the rise of "protecting the family" as a social movement. Victims' rights arguments were phrased in terms of protecting the family, or in terms of how crime violated the sanctity of family. And thus, starting with the 1980s and the victims' rights movement, we see a gradual shift from prosecutions being on behalf of the state towards prosecutions being on behalf of the victims.

Where will this all go? LaChance predicts that on a long enough time line, defense of the death penalty will eventually give up, not because of a moral victory from abolitionists, but in grudging acceptance that bureaucracy and legal challenges will always prevent the death penalty from living up to its promise of retribution: "It will end not in fire but in ice, when those unmoved by exonerations or botched executions or evidence of race disparities give up on it."

This was a great read: LaChance's discussions of movies and novels were interesting and accessible (he often refers to media so ingrained in pop-culture that even where I hadn't seen a movie I understood enough about the movie to follow along). You do not need to know anything about the death penalty or criminal justice to enjoy this book (though I think it also speaks to anyone who has familiarity with these issues).

And I think writing this review actually answered my question at the beginning. What does one do with a cultural history? One understands a little better. I feel I understand the death penalty a little better because of this book, and that is enough to justify reading it, no?

There's another reason that cultural histories, or at least this one, are worth reading. This book shows how, in a sense, no debate is an island. Views of the death penalty are not held in isolation, but are part of an entire system of thought (on both sides). Thus, a discussion about the death penalty (or any particular issue) is really a debate about something bigger. In light of our recent, divisive election and liberal attempts to understand "what went wrong," I can't help but wonder if we're all missing the big picture as we argue about the details: when we argue about the crowd size at the inauguration, what are we really arguing about? I don't know, but LaChance's book has reminded me that even a seemingly discrete issue is part of a broader context.