Detection, Degradation and Dissimulation

Detection:

“The Malaysian government has begun holding seminars aiming to help teachers and parents spot signs of homosexuality in children, underscoring a rise in religious conservatism in the country.

So far, the Teachers Foundation of Malaysia has organised 10 seminars across the country. Attendance at the last event on Wednesday reached 1,500 people, a spokesman for the organisation said.

“It is a multi-religious and multicultural [event], after all, all religions are basically against that type of behaviour,” said the official.

The federal government said in March that it is working to curb the “problem” of homosexuality, especially among Muslims who make up over 60% of Malaysia’s population of 29 million people.

According to a handout issued at a recent seminar, signs of homosexuality in boys may include preferences for tight, light-coloured clothes and large handbags, local media reported.

For girls, the details were less clear. Girls with lesbian tendencies have no affection for men and like to hang out and sleep in the company of women, the reports said.

(…)

Official intolerance of gay people has been on the rise. Last year, despite widespread criticism, the east coast state of Terengganu set up a camp for “effeminate” boys to show them how to become men.

The latest seminar for the teachers and parents was run by deputy education minister Puad Zarkashi, his office confirmed.

Zarkashi wasn’t immediately available for comment but national news agency Bernama quoted him as saying that being able to identify the signs will help contain the spread of the unhealthy lifestyle among the young, especially students.

“Youths are easily influenced by websites and blogs relating to LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] groups,” he was quoted as saying.

“This can also spread among their friends. We are worried that this happens during schooling time.”

Degradation:

“Gigi Chao is in the awkward position of being the most famous lesbian in Asia, if not the world, now that her billionaire father has offered a bounty of £40m to the man who persuades her to marry him.

It was an undeniably eye-catching response on the part of Mr Chao to the news that back in April, Ms Chao, 33, and her female partner, Sean Eav, 45, had received a church blessing on their relationship. Offers of marriage from would-be suitors have flooded in.”

[SocProf; no !@#$]

Oh, but this is ok, apparently:

“Mr Chao, a 76-year-old playboy property developer, told The South China Morning Post that he was being flooded with replies from hopeful men, half of them from overseas.

Ms Chao, the eldest of three children, seems relaxed about her father’s record with women. “We laugh about it,” she says. “He’s really happy that he’s slept with 10,000 women. I mean, he definitely sees it as a good thing.””

Dissimulation:

“Family is king in Afghanistan – a mini-mafia structure that rules over life and death, providing protection for those who comply with its rules and punishing those who dare to stray from the rules. To be gay and Afghan means to live life in perpetual fear of discovery and betrayal, a paranoid existence spent in continuous terror of forced outing.

In addition to such soul-crushing anxieties, there’s the tyranny of a conformist society with a stubborn image of the ideal manhood to which every male is expected to aspire. This ideal is represented by the figure of the strong and powerful patriarch.

To get married and have children is not enough to live up to this ideal. A man has to be tough and masculine, rich and powerful. More importantly, he has to father many sons and raise them as obedient foot-soldiers under his command. That’s the kind of man who is envied in Afghan society. (The warlords, with their big bellies and long beards are all but a contemporary reincarnation of this traditional model of brutish, militant masculinity).

Needless to say, far from aspiring to this ideal, gay Afghan men dread the prospect of wedding, dodging the barrage of questions and postponing marriage as long as possible.

(…)

It’s a conformism where married life is forced upon everyone, young boys and girls, homosexual men and lesbian women as well as those who simply have no interest in sexuality or in leading a typical Afghan family life.

Many Afghans don’t flee because of politics, they flee their society and escape their culture, Hamid writes in his memoirs after meeting teenage runaway boys who fled Afghanistan to avoid marriage.

Hamid finally settled in Canada where he wrote his pioneering memoirs. It was there in Canada that he met online the man he would have become had he not fled Afghanistan. This other man, also gay, had succumbed to society, marrying and fathering four children.”

Book Review – Who You Claim

Robert Garot‘s Who You Claim – Performing Gang Identity in School and On The Streets is a great and highly readable account of the life of high school students living in a gang-dominated area (mostly, Bloods and Crips).

The book is based on a study the author conducted while volunteering to tutor students at risk (although a lot of them seemed to be past that point) at a high school of last resort for students who had been expelled from pretty much anywhere else. The study was conducted in waves as Garot came back and met with school administrators, teachers and students over a period of years. While tutoring, he conducted interviews with these people, especially students, asking them about identity and performance (not in those terms) at school and on the streets.

Garot also relied very heavily on a body of sociological literature in which I was up to my eyeballs while writing my doctoral dissertation: Goffman and the whole ethnomethodological / conversational analysis canon. Armed with this literature and his body of interviews, Garot proceeds to shatter and slay some myths about gangs and the relationship between youth and gang identity that are widespread in criminological / media / policy circles.

The result is a rather gripping book that is highly enjoyable to read, although the content might be depressing at times in terms of blocked opportunity and social closure on these youths. The chapter that Garot devotes early in the book on the kind of education the youths receive at the school is a serious indictment of the way the educational system treats at-risk students. It is pathetic and sad and goes a long way towards explaining why so many of them just drop out or disappear. It takes enormous effort for these kids to stick with it (way more effort than at a well-funded, suburban school).

Throughout the book, there is no doubt that Garot roots for these students and cares deeply about them and is highly critical of the institutional processes that generate so much alienation and of failed public policy.

So, what is the book all about? The book revolves around the concept of identity not as solid, reified and fixed defining feature of individuals but as a fluid resource that is produced and reproduced in flexible ways and mobilized by social actors (students, in this case) as they go about their business, try to get themselves an education or any other thing they need to do in their gang-dominated neighborhood. One can see why, then, Garot selected Goffman (presentation of self, interaction rituals, impression management) and the EM/CA corpus (“doing gang identity” as much as one “does gender”) for his study (all notations from Kindle edition).

“Through dress, mannerisms, and language, individuals make and dispute claims to identity based in socially recognized categories, and such claims and contestations become the bases for sustaining interaction.” (1).

Through and through, Garot’s study shows how skillful these students are at displaying and using an identity that is both stigmatized and criminalized by society and yet necessary to master if one is to survive in their area. One has to be able to display the proper signals when walking around the neighborhood, the very same signals that are not allowed in school. these signals indicate not simply “I’m in gang” v. “I’m not in a gang”. In reality, Garot shows that there are shades of grey between these two polar opposites. It is a study on the use of stigmatized, practical knowledge that shapes interactions and constitute what John Heritage used to call an architecture of intersubjectivity, despite all sorts of institutional obstacles.

For starters, the concept of “gang” itself is problematic (hence the problem of any social scientific research that uncritically accepts commonsense concepts, as Durkheim taught us long ago).

“Classification of gangs is a daunting task, and with inclusion of other youth collectivities, it is even more so. In addition to diversity and change, youth collectivities come in many forms, which sometimes merge and change in other ways: There are drug gangs, or ‘crews’; ‘wilding’ groups; milling crowds; smaller networks involved in delinquency; ‘tagger crews’; mods, rockers, and soccer hooligans; skinheads and bikers; prison gangs; seemingly ad infinitum.” (4)

More than that, gangs are always reduced to violent and illegal activities, even though, time and again, studies have shown that they provide social services that are otherwise unavailable in poor neighborhood. And, again, once a person is assumed to be a gang member, it is assumed that this person is 100%, 24/7 a gang member. It is based on such essentialist assumptions that police departments and other law enforcement agencies design anti-gang policies. This stance also ignores the fact that one of the major social sites of gang creation is the prison system.

“While gangs on the street may be situated and contingent, perhaps the most lasting and obdurate means by which the state creates gangs is through incarceration.

(…)

Especially remarkable is the lack of discussion of the role of prisons in shaping gangs in much of the gang literature, when one of the strongest findings of prison studies is that incarceration has effects that contradict its supposed purposes, ensuring that convicts will mature in criminal knowledge, contacts, and sophistication.51 Prisons are especially efficacious in ensuring the growth of gangs; depended upon as a source of social control, gangs have become firmly institutionalized there. Many gangs owe their fruition to the prison context,

(…)

Gangs not only maintain order inside prisons but are also integral for meeting prisoners’ needs once they leave. A great deal of recent scholarship has focused on how social institutions are both disinclined and ill prepared to accommodate returning convicts, who typically become concentrated in neighborhoods that already face myriad economic and social disadvantages.” (7)

So, rather than treat gang identity as a reified category that defines someone’s identity once and for all, Garot prefers to treat identity as performance:

“In ecologies where gangs are active, young people may modulate ways of talking, walking, dressing, writing graffiti, wearing makeup, and hiding or revealing tattoos, playing with markers of embodied identity to obscure, reveal, or provide contradictory signals on a continuum from gang related to non−gang related. Yet few studies of gangs appear hip to these nuances. When it comes to understanding gang membership, most of the gang literature is mired in notions from the 1950s that identity simply is, rather than is artfully created and contingent on circumstances and audience.” (13)

As Garot also puts it (and I wish I could make a poster of it): “dress is how we wear the social.” (45) So, an additional challenge that students have to address is how to dress when one is expected to display some gang insignia in order to navigate the neighborhood while the school requires a dress code.

Garot perfectly illustrates the absurdity of dress codes as such:

“First, a wannabe (see chapter 5) could be fully decked out as a gangster and yet not be recognized as such (at least not by actual gang members) no matter how he dresses. In contrast, a reputable OG (original gangster) doesn’t need to dress in any specific way to please anybody—reputation makes an outward demonstration of allegiances superfluous. Second, the combination of items of clothing, along with accessories, is important for creating the overall gestalt of a “gang member.” A young person may well look like a gang member to an outsider, but if certain key aspects of the ensemble are missing, such as the combination of items of clothing, or of clothing along with a certain haircut or item of jewelry, he or she may well be overlooked by gang members. Third, these characteristic markers are fluid and changing, much too quickly for anyone to regulate. One way of “representing” works in this neighborhood but not the next; one style was vogue last week but not this week. Such changes may even entail ways of subverting changing dress codes, in a potentially infinite, perverse loop between the panoptic gaze of authority and the wily creativity of youth. Fourth, the most important aspect of appearing as a gang member has to do not with the clothes but with how the clothes are worn. How one embodies one’s clothes, by sagging them, or walking with a certain style, or cocking the head just a little bit, is impervious to legal regulation, easily escaping supervision, and is the fundamental way of marking gang membership, no matter what color, style, or brand one is wearing.” (45)

In addition, Garot shows that the enforcement of the dress code by the school was always more a matter of individual discipline and intimidation rather than consistent school policy. Dress codes are presented as matters of student safety when they are actually matters of adult authority. The entire chapter that Garot devotes to dress codes is fascinating.

Another fascinating chapter is devoted to how to answer the omnipresent question “Where you from” that people in this neighborhood have to be ready to answer at all times. It is a skill that might save one’s life or at least prevent a beating. This is a question that always comes from a gang member as a way of proving toughness. And, of course, it is an interaction ritual in which one must skillfully determine how to present one’s self. Students know that they might have to answer that question on their way to and from school. This question is a question about gang identity and affiliation.

This ritual always involves an instigator (the one asking the question or “banging on” or “hitting up” or “sweating”) from a respondent in a public place. Being hit up implies three assumptions:

  1. the instigator is a gang member;
  2. the instigator is willing to engage in violence;
  3. the instigator implies that the respondent will understand what is at stake.

To answer “nowhere” is to show weakness and assume an inferior status (“ranker”) and leaves the instigator in a superior position. To claim a gang, on the other hand, carries risk but so does ranking out when one does belong to a gang. Young people then (those most likely to be hit up) have to know where to go to avoid being hit up, know how to dress, know what to say and what kind of emotions to display (if any at all).

The question is also often asked as a form of harassment and intimidation, but also as a physical challenge where the instigator expects it will lead to a physical fight.

This means that living in such areas carries many risks that young people have been socialized to know how to face at a young age and that no one up the social ladder ever has to face. It is always amusing to hear commentators on TV blather on as to how people who have become successful are those who took risks. The real risk-takers are those teenagers who have to carefully think about their every move on the street (whether they are gang members or not) from the moment they leave the house in the morning (if they do) to go to school or to work as every step they take will carry real physical risks to their safety and lives. It is not comparable to the risk of losing money in the failed business venture. It is an absolute privilege to never be asked “where you from” in one’s life.

Garot also devotes some space to the idea of fluidity in gangs by showing that (1) there are a number of groups that are often defined as gangs where they are in reality forms of sporadic social groups (such as cliques, crews, cowbangers, or taggers), and (2) membership in a gang covers diverse realities. Garot goes into more details in the group life of tagging crews and the amount of ritualization that shapes the activities of the group and the behavior of individual members:

“Taggers pride themselves on “can control”: being able to achieve a smooth coat of paint with a minimum of drips. Taggers often have idiosyncratic and stylized ways of holding their cans. They may push the button with their middle finger, index finger, or thumb. They also must find a way to carry the can as they run between tagging sites so that the “little ball” inside will not bounce too much. One consultant found that the back of his pants under his waistband was the best place to manage this.

Taggers take solace in such skills in order to manage the considerable and obvious risks. Of course, tagging is illegal, and especially with the rise of “broken windows” policing, emphasizing the façade of public order over all else, taggers break numerous public ordinances, including trespassing, defacement of public property, and violation of curfew.10 While both fast and slow taggers take pride in the mere act of tagging, these are far from the only skills involved. Management skills are necessary to attract and organize members, maintain a group, and strategically plan “bombing runs.” Skills in shoplifting are important, as many taggers steal their materials. The possibilities for self-expression and action are potentially infinite, expanding far beyond the basic act of tagging.

Some might say that taggers are simply thrill seekers, but such an explanation is far from sufficient, since tagging involves many nuanced skills. One of the most exciting aspects of tagging involves imagining the expressive possibilities, but nothing compares to the thrill of running the streets under cover of darkness, dealing with whatever may come, whether enemies, angry property owners, or the police, and showing others the tag at a later date, a mnemonic for the good times that were had.

Leaders of crews will monitor walls to ensure that younger members are “putting in work.” If not, the leader may assign them a mission. If the younger member does not perform the mission adequately, he may be disciplined (punched) by the leader. The more work put in, the more prestige a tagger has in his crew. Work that is especially dangerous, such as tagging freeway signs or the outside of the girders of bridges over freeways (referred to as “heavens”), is especially valued.

A tagging crew must have enemies. Enemies are created through “beefs.” In exploring “beefs,” we begin to see the highly structured and ritualized nature of some inner-city conflict, as well as the indigenous ways to resolve it. A beef can be created in a number of ways. The most common way is for one crew to “cross out” another crew’s tags. Leaders will often explain, “We gotta go down [i.e., fight] with them because they crossed us out.” Another way is through disrespect or fights that may erupt between members of rival crews. Once two crews “have a beef,” members must fight their rivals on sight. This is why taggers may “hit up” strangers by demanding, “What you write.” If the stranger claims a rival crew, the two must “go at it,” usually only with fists.

(…)

After a beef has endured for a fair amount of time, leaders may decide to “squash the beef.” To do so, the crews must “battle.” Rival crews become quite excited about a battle, as it channels action into a highly structured ritual, combining the thrill and chance of a gamble with the rules and formality of a sport.” (98 – 9)

Garot also creates a typology of gang involvement, which is not an all or nothing affair.

  • Wannabee or hook: someone who claims a gang without having been formally accepted by it. Wannabees are those who are most likely to show off the most gang signals. To be called a wannabee is a pejorative designation.
  • “Kicking it” with a gang without being member: this allows to get all the social perks of being part of a gang without paying the price for it, especially participation in violence.
  • Still in a gang – no longer gangbanging: these are usually individuals who have acquired enough status to no longer have to prove themselves through dangerous activities.
  • “Kicking it” with a gang, still caught up in violence: those are individuals who may be close to aging out of a gang.
  • “Kicking it” but with difficulty managing it: especially individuals whose gang identity conflict with other identities they have (family, for instance); being member of one gang but having to live in an area dominated by another.
  • Banging to the fullest: that one is pretty much self-explanatory although even the youth at that end of the continuum are more nuanced and three-dimensional than most gang studies show. Rival gangs can come together for a common cause (some sort of charitable work).

And there is always the possibility of avoiding gang membership altogether even though these youths might still wear gang insignia.

When it comes to violence though, Goffman’s insights on face and face-saving behavior are very much operative. And when Garot’s consultants (as he called the students he interviewed) avoid violence, they often provide not only elaborate strategies for doing so (such as talking one’s way out of a fight) but also clear rationalizations that point to the fact that they did not do so out of cowardice:

  • the odds were too unequal;
  • potential negative consequences (being expelled from school or putting others in danger);
  • the reason for the fight (a game of basketball, for instance) wasn’t worth it;
  • the potential opponent was too weak (or a woman).

[This is very reminiscent of Tilly’s work, Why?.]

In addition, Garot also shows the enormous (and exhausting, I would add) amount of face-work and emotional management these youths have to do in their day-to-day interactions with school officials, instigators, gang members, etc.

“Aside from a few remarkable exceptions, criminologists have mostly overlooked the emotional dynamics of disputes. In the literature on emotion management, on the other hand, much of the richest data focuses on how workers intrapersonally manage disputes. Arlie Russell Hochschild developed the notion of emotion management to reveal how individuals attune themselves through “surface acting” and “deep acting” to the rules and ideologies of private and public life. Hochschild was especially concerned with the emotive dissonance and alienation wrought when emotional labor is compelled by an employer, and one must attune one’s feelings, like it or not, to the demands of the workplace. This chapter, on the other hand, focuses on how emotive dissonance may also result from the everyday phenomenon of emotion work, when young people must restrict their desire to retaliate because of structural constraints. Such emotion work involves considerable skills to manage a dangerous situation. Young people struggle to attune their actions and emotions to the demands of social structure by “lumping it,” or in local terms “sucking it up,” even as they express the fantastic desire to indulge in righteous retaliation.” (144)

Emphasis mine. 

Garot also shows that things are actually more complicated and nuanced than what Elijah Anderson depicted in The Code of The Street (that book actually takes quite a beating in Garot’s study):

“Despite dicta that one cannot back down from a conflict without losing respect, it is important that we consider seriously what members take as circumstances that mitigate the necessity of such measures. An “affront” or “insult” in itself is not sufficient to inspire retaliation. Rather, individuals take into account the effect of violence on their social ties before responding, and they learn to exercise skills at emotion management in order to remain in control.” (159)

In the end then, Garot argues for reclaiming gangs from criminology and treat these groups as they should:

“Studying gangs as a social movement constitutes an important step away from the discourse of gangs as pathology. Such a perspective, long overdue in the gang literature, recognizes structural, marginalizing conditions but shows that gang members are far from mere victims of circumstance.” (180)

And this involves adopting a soft version of identity (as opposed to the hard, reified, essentialist version) that treats it as a produced accomplishment contingent on a variety of contextual factors, and also as a resource that actors can tap into as the need arises, such as being hit up.

I cannot recommend this book enough. I should add that it is highly readable at undergraduate levels. One could even extract a couple of chapters for students to read and study. The amount of debunking it does will be an eye-opener to a lot of people. They should make it mandatory reading for criminologists and law enforcement members. Hopefully, this book can find its way to where it should be read.

Here is an interview with Robert Garot. Part 1:

And part 2:

Beyond Bystander Apathy

Bystander gold-digging? When opportunity knocks…

“Swedish police have released video footage showing a man leaving an unconscious man to die on the underground train track after mugging him at a station in southern Stockholm.

The security video from a Stockholm train station shows a 38-year-old drunk man falling on to train tracks last week.
A bystander who witnessed the accident jumps down after him, but not for a daring rescue before an approaching train arrives.

Instead, the witness steals the man’s valuables, climbs back on the platform and leaves his victim to be hit by the train.

The victim, who was on his way home from a party survived, but was seriously injured. Doctors had to amputate half his left foot, Sweden’s TV3 channel reported.

Swedish police now hope that surveillance camera footage of the incident at a Stockholm subway station early on Sunday will help them find and arrest the unscrupulous thief.”

The Visual Du Jour – World Drugs Report 2012

Anyone teaching deviance, criminology and other related fields should be interested in that one: the 2012 World Drug Report, published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. It comes with a lot of data and great visualizations.

WORLD DRUG REPORT 2012 from SocProf on Vimeo.

The report also contains some great static maps (Pdf) showing increases and decreases in seizures of various substances. [Click on the images for ginormous views)

Amphetamines:

Cannabis (herb):

Cannabis (resin):

Cocaine:

Ecstasy:

Opiates:

Gender Policing and Degradation Ceremonies

So we have heard before of virginity testing in parts of the Middle East as well as hymen restoration that happen for fear a woman or a girl, found to no longer be a virgin might be the victim of an honorable murder.

In the same vein of degradation ceremony, meet the anal exams in Lebanon, performed by police to detect homosexuals (homosexuality is illegal in Lebanon). The article is in French. The physical consists of men being forced naked, required to bend over for a physician to take a picture of their anus to determine whether homosexual intercourse has taken place. This physical means absolutely nothing and is proof of nothing and the participating physicians know it.

This is pure degradation ceremony whose main purpose is to humiliate and dehumanize but also to extract confessions of homosexual activity. In many cases, the men are arrested based on what police officers determine to be effeminate behavior or just any subjective assessment about one’s sexual orientation. In other words, these men are arrested based on nothing except pure suspicion and then subjected to what the article and NGOs call the “physical of shame”, for shaming is its main purpose. The broader goal is to police sexual behavior and gender identity in conformity with cultural norms.

But policing gender through degradation also applies more generally, remember the case of Caster Semenya? Well, here is the version 2.0:

“There are female athletes who will be competing at the Olympic Games this summer after undergoing treatment to make them less masculine.

Still others are being secretly investigated for displaying overly manly characteristics, as sport’s highest medical officials attempt to quantify — and regulate — the hormonal difference between male and female athletes.

Caster Semenya, the South African runner who was so fast and muscular that many suspected she was a man, exploded onto the front pages three years ago. She was considered an outlier, a one-time anomaly.

But similar cases are emerging all over the world, and Semenya, who was banned from competition for 11 months while authorities investigated her sex, is back, vying for gold.

Semenya and other women like her face a complex question: Does a female athlete whose body naturally produces unusually high levels of male hormones, allowing them to put on more muscle mass and recover faster, have an “unfair” advantage?

In a move critics call “policing femininity,” recent rule changes by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the governing body of track and field, state that for a woman to compete, her testosterone must not exceed the male threshold.

If it does, she must have surgery or receive hormone therapy prescribed by an expert IAAF medical panel and submit to regular monitoring. So far, at least a handful of athletes — the figure is confidential — have been prescribed treatment, but their numbers could increase. Last month, the International Olympic Committee began the approval process to adopt similar rules for the Games.”

It is puzzling that the very same people who tend to adhere to gender essentialism (biology is everything) all of a sudden wish to “correct” biology when women and intersex people are involved (but not men). After all, wouldn’t it be unfair to have men with lower levels of testorerone compete with those with “normal” levels? Also note the arbitrariness of the rule. What level is the male threshold? The average? What average? Why is it at issue that a woman with higher level of testosterone be forced to undergo treatment to reduce her performance? And shouldn’t men levels be equalized before competition so as to have a level playing field?

 And guess who had to subject herself to this? Yes, Caster Semenya herself:

“Today, Semenya is cheering on her teammates at the South African open championships — for many, their last chance to qualify for the Olympics. There is no need for Semenya to race. She easily qualified weeks ago.

Instead, she stands in the stadium aisle, posing for the camera. In the background, Rihanna is on heavy rotation. “It happens all the time, all the time,” she says of the photo requests, laughing. “I’m used to it.”

She wears a tight turquoise polo over her fit, feminine body. Relaxed, poised and, it must be said, pretty, the young woman with an irresistible smile is almost unrecognizable from photographs taken during the height of the controversy.

“I know she gets treatment. What the treatment entails, I can’t give the details,” says Danie Cornelius, a track and field manager at the university.

“We all accept . . . and she accepts . . . within sports you have to perform within certain guidelines, or else it will be chaos,” says Cornelius.

“She feels it’s something she has to do.”

When asked about her treatment, Semenya demurred. “I can’t really say anything,” she said, looking at the ground.”

Funny how this came up only when a woman performed exceptionally. Exceptional performance from male athletes is never questioned in terms of gender or whether some male athlete had some extra testosterone and therefore some unearned, illegitimate advantage.

I am curious as to what chaos Danie Cornelius is referring to except to the challenge to the persistent phallocracy in the world of sports. And, exactly, how are women supposed to catch up (as they have been) in terms of performance if exceptional individual women are “corrected” to reduce their performance levels?

Medicating Social Ills

I know this is Todd Krohn‘s turf but the topic of the ways more and more conditions and behavior come to be defined or redefined as medical conditions to be treated through pharmacology is both sociologically a perfect case study in social construction and labeling but a scary display of the intersection of socially-induced pathologies then treated through powerful social institutions who get to command the discourse on such deviant behaviors.

What is especially interesting to me is, in the medicalization process, the elimination of the social, economic and political as the background against which behaviors and conditions come to be defined as forms of deviance to be treated medically. In other words, medicalization becomes a discourse of legitimation that preserves power dynamics within the social system intact. In this sense, medicalization serves as a cover discourse (with the trappings of science) to evacuate the social aspects whose proper treatment would be better social and public policy. A very obvious example of this was the recent news of the large numbers of suicides among veterans (among other social pathologies widespread in the military, as mentioned in the article).

It is actually quite “funny” that the article lists a whole bunch of social reasons why servicemen and women commit suicide but keeps coming back to “but we don’t know why people commit suicide):

“The numbers reflect a military burdened with wartime demands from Iraq and Afghanistan that have taken a greater toll than foreseen a decade ago. The military also is struggling with increased sexual assaults, alcohol abuse, domestic violence and other misbehavior.

Because suicides had leveled off in 2010 and 2011, this year’s upswing has caught some officials by surprise.

The reasons for the increase are not fully understood. Among explanations, studies have pointed to combat exposure, post-traumatic stress, misuse of prescription medications and personal financial problems. Army data suggest soldiers with multiple combat tours are at greater risk of committing suicide, although a substantial proportion of Army suicides are committed by soldiers who never deployed. [Note: but the probability of being deployed might play a part]”

Or later in the article,

“The numbers are rising among the 1.4 million active-duty military personnel despite years of effort to encourage troops to seek help with mental health problems. Many in the military believe that going for help is seen as a sign of weakness and thus a potential threat to advancement.

Kim Ruocco, widow of Marine Maj. John Ruocco, a helicopter pilot who hanged himself in 2005 between Iraq deployments, said he was unable to bring himself to go for help.

(…)

“It’s a sign in general of the stress the Army has been under over the 10 years of war,” he said in an interview. “We’ve seen before that these signs show up even more dramatically when the fighting seems to go down and the Army is returning to garrison.”

But Xenakis said he worries that many senior military officers do not grasp the nature of the suicide problem.

A glaring example of that became public when a senior Army general recently told soldiers considering suicide to “act like an adult.”

In other words, the article keeps providing perfectly good social, institutional / organizational, and cultural explanations for the suicide rates but keeps returning to the “we just don’t know” as if these could not possibly be sufficient.

I think part of this skepticism is because the pattern does not hold in 100% of cases. It is a kind of skepticism that plagues the social sciences and that, I am sure, many of us have faced in the classroom as we describe statistical patterns of behavior, showing that, under certain conditions, X% of people tend to do A, then, some dude raises his hand to tell us that his brother-in-law (sister, cousin…) actually met the conditions and did B, so, the pattern is not true.

Social explanations are never good enough in the context of individualism and, especially in the case of behavior defined as deviant, the puritan moralism (David Brooks, take a bow) that passes for sociological explanation and that is so much more satisfying to the moral entrepreneurs.

Anyhoo, back to the medicalization of everything especially social ills as cover up to keep systems of power and stratification intact, evidence 1:

“One in four men, and one in three women, has endured recent bouts of depression. As the grinding economic crisis continues to batter people’s nerves, suicides and psychosomatic illness are both on the increase.

In April, a 77-year-old retiree, explaining in a note that he could no longer scrape by, went to a public square in the middle of Athensand put a bullet into his brain, a shot that echoed throughout the country.

While politicians and economists argue about how to pull Greece out of the quagmire of debt that has kneecapped its economy, there can be no doubt that the crisis — once again threatening to eject the country from the eurozone towards an unknown fate — is taking a devastating toil on the mental health of its people.

Compounding the emerging health care emergency is the fact that the state’s ability to cope with it has been deeply eroded by theausterity measures and slashed budgets prescribed to cure the patient.

If you’re going to have a nervous breakdown, in other words, Greece is not the best place to be.”

LOL… don’t you love that last line and how it erases the causality: it is because people ARE in Greece that they are having nervous breakdowns, not a bunch of depressed people who shouldn’t go to Greece because the mental health system sucks. The mental health system is over capacity because the Masters of the World have decided that Greeks should suffer… and so they do. And guess what, widespread systemic collapse hurts.

It hurts in Greece, but it also hurts in Italy:

“Dozens of Italian women widowed when their husbands killed themselves because of the recession will march on Friday to bring attention to their plight.

The grieving wives and family members of more than 25 businessmen who have committed suicide because of financial woes linked to Italy‘s economic crisis – dubbed the “white widows” by the Italian media – will be led by Tiziana Marrone, the unemployed wife of a craftsman who set fire to himself outside the tax office in Bologna last month, dying nine days later.”

And one cannot help but notice that when social causes are accepted as sufficient to explain these suicides, then, no specific help or policy is really forthcoming. There is no medication that the pharmaceutical industry could provide and cuts to health benefits, as required by austerity, are the first be implemented. Easing social pain can only be done socially and systemically. So, it is not happening.

I would also note that no one expands on the role of masculine socialization in these, mostly male,  suicides. If women committed suicide in large numbers, you can bet that there would be loads of experts on gender telling us that departures from “traditional” gender roles (whatever the hell that means) are leading to this mental health disaster.

And it goes on and on:

“Mental health advocates say that stress and anxiety caused by job insecurity is threatening to become a major public health problem in Australia.

Beyond Blue, one of the nation’s most prominent mental health organisations, says job insecurity is one of the leading risk factors for depression and even heart disease.

Beyond Blue CEO Kate Carnell says research indicates that the casualisation of the Australian workforce has resulted in an increase in mental health disorders and heart disease amongst workers.

With 40 per cent of the Australian workforce in insecure work arrangements, Ms Carnell says it has become a serious public health problem.

“Heart health is affected by exercise levels, stress levels, dietary approaches and so on, so bad lifestyle outcomes can cause definite heart problems and mental health is very much part of that whole mix,” she said.

“There is no doubt that job insecurity is a major major cause of job strain and job strain is a major risk factor for depression.

“So we’re seeing more depression in the workplace, we’re seeing more absenteeism and almost more importantly more presenteeism – people who are coming to work when they are depressed without the capacity to concentrate enough, and that can be an issue with other people in the workplace.

“They’re coming to work simply because they’re scared of losing their jobs.”

One could never have guessed that living in the precariat could lead to mental illness (and I suspect that presenteeism is very much akin to Merton’s strain theory’s ritualism). And here again, read the whole article and you will find that once social causes are accepted, no solution is forthcoming. Every expert shakes hir head at what precarization does to people but no one suggests, maybe, just maybe, some structural change might be needed. Nope.

At the same time that socializing deviance leads to a relative shrug as to what should be done, the reverse happens when behaviors and conditions are medicalized, diagnosed and treated:

“In what could prove to be one of their most far-reaching decisions, psychiatrists and other specialists who are rewriting the manual that serves as the nation’s arbiter of mental illness have agreed to revise the definition of addiction, which could result in millions more people being diagnosed as addicts and pose huge consequences for health insurers and taxpayers.

(…)

In addition, the manual for the first time would include gambling as an addiction, and it might introduce a catchall category — “behavioral addiction — not otherwise specified” — that some public health experts warn would be too readily used by doctors, despite a dearth of research, to diagnose addictions to shopping, sex, using the Internet or playing video games.”

This is because the DSM is not just the profession’s standard. It is a reflection of the power of the mental health medical establishment in staking new territory for itself, as under its expert jurisdiction produced as an scientific and objective updating of the field. And for those behaviors and conditions now listed in the manual, there are treatments and professional to administer them. Foucault would have a field day with this. And note that the controversial nature of these new guidelines is not that some “not otherwise specified addiction” is not, well, an addiction, but that it’s going to cost money to treat. One of the key concepts for the profession to stake a new claim is the concept of “spectrum”, constructed as grabbing a whole bunch of conditions and behaviors, now redefined as related as part of the spectrum.

The result, of course, is something that has been known for a few years now: the medicalization of younger and younger children with psychotropic drugs (thanks to The Sociological Imagination for the initial posting on this report):

Part 1

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

If Louis Theroux annoys you (he does me), there is an older PBS Frontline documentary on a similar subject, albeit a bit older. The whole video is here, broken up into chapters.

This documentary does a great job of showing how a medical condition, such as ADHD, is socially constructed. See chapter 3 especially on that.

But beyond that, as medicalization spreads, it also becomes part of the larger culture so that when one thinks about specific issues one faces, such as cramming for school exams, then, it feels “natural” to turn to medical and chemical substances (via Todd Krohn):

“At high schools across the United States, pressure over grades and competition for college admissions are encouraging students to abuse prescription stimulants, according to interviews with students, parents and doctors. Pills that have been a staple in some college and graduate school circles are going from rare to routine in many academically competitive high schools, where teenagers say they get them from friends, buy them from student dealers or fake symptoms to their parents and doctors to get prescriptions.

“It’s throughout all the private schools here,” said DeAnsin Parker, a New York psychologist who treats many adolescents from affluent neighborhoods like the Upper East Side. “It’s not as if there is one school where this is the culture. This is the culture.”

Observed Gary Boggs, a special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration, “We’re seeing it all across the United States.”

The D.E.A. lists prescription stimulants like Adderall and Vyvanse (amphetamines) and Ritalin and Focalin (methylphenidates) as Class 2 controlled substances — the same as cocaine and morphine — because they rank among the most addictive substances that have a medical use. (By comparison, the long-abused anti-anxiety drug Valium is in the lower Class 4.) So they carry high legal risks, too, as few teenagers appreciate that merely giving a friend an Adderall or Vyvanse pill is the same as selling it and can be prosecuted as a felony.

While these medicines tend to calm people with A.D.H.D., those without the disorder find that just one pill can jolt them with the energy and focus to push through all-night homework binges and stay awake during exams afterward. “It’s like it does your work for you,” said William, a recent graduate of the Birch Wathen Lenox School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.”

And here again, the problem, as the article writers see it, is that this might lead to more mental health issues and deviance (the strategies to get a prescription), not the very fact of using these substances for school work, not the whole system that creates that need for chemical support, not the fact that this is the way the upper classes get their edge in the academic race, not the organization of the academic system itself. Again, behind the substance discussion, the central social aspects are pushed to the background.

This reminds me that, a couple of years ago, a well-known company selling energy drinks came to my campus during final exams week to give out free samples of their products. No one can come and distribute stuff to campus without administrative approval. Apparently, someone thought this was a good idea. Let’s pump them full of the thing and it won’t matter that they have to work two jobs to pay for college.

On the other end of the social spectrum, medication can be used a naked social control (here again, via Todd Krohn):

“Georgia’s foster children are being over-medicated, often to sedate them or control their behavior rather than treat a medical condition, a new study confirms.

The question is: What should Georgia do about it?

(…)

Giovan Bazan, now 21, said he almost died at 16 when a combination of medications caused him to convulse and vomit. A sedative made it difficult for him to sit up in bed, Bazan said, and he would have suffocated if the staff at his group home hadn’t recognized the danger and come to his aid.

Bazan told the state House Health and Human Services Committee that foster parents had used more medications and stronger doses to control his behavior. He said juvenile justice officials also warned that they would not end his probation unless he kept taking his medication.

“Obviously as a youth we have a bit of rebellious spirit,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean that we are mentally ill.”

Mason McFalls, 24, said nearly every child he met in 14 years in foster care was taking psychotropic medications.

“I’ve seen kids literally shaking from being so wound up on the medication,” McFalls said.

Frequently, foster children are treated by a different doctor every time they’re moved to a new foster home, authorities say. Those doctors generally do not have access to a child’s medical history, so they may diagnose different disorders and prescribe different drugs and treatment.”

Well, at least, they don’t have to come up with strategies to get prescriptions, like the upper-class kids.

So where am I going with all this? Simply with the fact that how we define, diagnose, treat (or not treat) mental illness involve a whole bunch of variable such as masculine (in the case of the military) or competitive subcultures, organizational and institutional structures, the structure of professional organizations competing for power and various forms of capital, as well as the social status of affected populations and general socio-economic conditions. And all these variables, put together also point to the fact that labeling of conditions or behavior as “mentally ill” they either leave people to fend for themselves when the source of their mental health problems is unavoidably social, or hides the social nature of mental disorders.

What Does This Say About These Societies?

Compare this:

“The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed a federal lawsuit Thursday on behalf of prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison who have spent between 10 and 28 years in solitary confinement. The legal action is part of a larger movement to reform inhumane conditions in California prisons’ Security Housing Units (SHUs), a movement dramatized by a 2011 hunger strike by thousands of SHU prisoners; the named plaintiffs include hunger strikers, among them several of the principal negotiators for the hunger strike.

(…)

SHU prisoners spend 22½ to 24 hours every day in a cramped, concrete, windowless cell. They are denied telephone calls, contact visits, and vocational, recreational or educational programming. Food is often rotten and barely edible, and medical care is frequently withheld.

More than 500 Pelican Bay SHU prisoners have been isolated under these conditions for over 10 years, more than 200 of them for over 15 years and 78 have been isolated in the SHU for more than 20 years. Today’s suit claims that prolonged confinement under these conditions has caused “harmful and predictable psychological deterioration” among SHU prisoners. Solitary confinement for as little as 15 days is now widely recognized to cause lasting psychological damage to human beings and is analyzed under international law as torture.

Additionally, the suit alleges that SHU prisoners are denied any meaningful review of their SHU placement, rendering their isolation “effectively permanent.” SHU assignment is an administrative act, condemning prisoners to a prison within a prison; it is not part of a person’s court-ordered sentence for his or her crime.”

To this:

“Prison authorities are considering hiring people to socialise with the mass killer Anders Behring Breivik should he be found guilty and sentenced to a long spell in jail, to avoid him being kept in total isolation.

The director of the Ila prison, Knut Bjarkeid, told the Verdens Gang newspaper that security surrounding the man who has admitted killing 77 people last year would make it “impossible to allow normal contact with others”.

The prison may therefore allow him to “play sports with the guards and hire someone to play chess with him”, said Mr Bjarkeid.”

This is, of course, on top of a bloated American prison system that incarcerates a greater share of its population than any other country in the world, with very little to show for it beyond the general collective satisfaction of “locking them up and throwing away the key”. See the difference in rates between the US and Norway where Breivik is incarcerated:

But beyond that, there is a very different approach to punishment and its meaning. A crime as severe as the one for which Breivik is being tried would certainly carry either the death penalty or as the very least a life sentence without parole. He would be dumped into one of the hellholes across the US, AKA: maximum security facilities and that would be it: pure retribution, pure neutralization.

The Norwegian approach considers him still a human being and if the state takes complete control of his person for a certain period of time, especially if it is long, then the state has to provide some measure of mental care: still retribution, still neutralization, but some rehabilitation and care.

One society is perfectly satisfied with a highly expensive, counterproductive, and massive punitive system that is purely retributive (heck, prison rape is a source of jokes). Another one does not consider it should stop being humane because it has to deal with a really bad person in the context of a small carceral system.

Kinda says a lot about both societies, doesn’t it?

The Social Construction of Mental Illness – Zombie Edition

So, by now, everyone has heard of the zombie shooting in Florida, and the human flesh eating murder in Maryland. ZOMBIES! This goes to one of my pet peeves: the social construction of mental illness. We often tend to think as mental illness or insanity (or whatever name we give it) as some objective medical condition that is disconnected from society. And of course, no form of deviance is by definition separate from society because deviance is only identifiable because it involves norm-breaking in behavior, ideas and attitudes or conditions. We also know that how we define, identify and treat what is socially-defined as insanity is a social matter through and through, involving culture, social institutions and social stratification mixed into social judgments that determine what happens to people so-labelled.

So, in the current cases that have made the news, it is rather clear that individuals are tapping into what is in the cultural climate in recent months (hard to avoid zombies… and vampires and therefore anything related to flesh tearing and eating and blood and gore),

This goes with the whole “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” rationalization. Well yeah, but people kill people more easily when (1) they have easy access to guns and (2) when there is a supportive culture as a mode of conflict resolution and other patriarchal ideas. Gabby Gifford was not just by just a deranged person. That deranged person was influenced by a specific political context. The same goes for the Breivik case.

So, when people with mental issues engage in courses of action, they tap into cultural repertoires (zombies and superbugs are definitely related) that present them with ideas that have been circulating through the media as part of the information society and through social networks. Crazy does not exist in abstract.

At the same time, we also make sense of deviant acts in terms of the very same cultural repertoires. Why does flesh-eating mean zombie to us if not because the figure of the zombie is a long-standing part of our culture, sustained through films, books and TV shows?

So why do we tend to consider crazy as disconnected from the culture and social structure? Because precisely we do not want to examine the culture and social structure that are the horizon of possibility of certain acts, either to deflect moral responsibility (as Tea Party people did after the Gifford shooting) or to avoid examining the social conditions out of which such acts occur especially if they put into question certain institutions (the health care system) or dominant ideologies (the gun culture). It works better for dominant structures and ideologies and the groups that sustain and reproduce them if we individualize such acts (one crazy person) and pathologize them, putting them squarely in the frame of medicalization of deviance, as pathologies to be treated by the appropriate professionals. In all cases, the system stays intact.

Of course, the zombie meme is big business as well in terms of books, TV series, films, and link bait as well so it’s perpetuation has benefits. And if a moral panic fails to ensue, surely, running jokes and media talk will suffice (and blog posts as well) to keep us occupied.

Degradation Ceremony 101 – Shaving Punks Edition

(Via)

“Indonesian sharia police are “morally rehabilitating” more than 60 young punk rock fans in Aceh province on Sumatra island, saying the youths are tarnishing the province’s image.

Since being arrested at a punk rock concert in the provincial capital Banda Aceh on Saturday night, 59 male and five female punk rock fans have been forced to have their hair cut, bathe in a lake, change clothes and pray.”

Book Review – Cop in the Hood

If you enjoyed the first season of the Wire, you will enjoy Peter Moskos‘s Cop in the Hood. The book is the tale of a sociologist going native by going through the Baltimore police academy, becoming a cop and working for over a year. This mix of ethnography and participant observation makes the book highly readable and enjoyable. My freshmen students will be reading it next term.

The book roughly follows Moskos chronological journey, from the academy to the street and the last part of the book is dedicated to a pretty thorough analysis (and indictment) of the War on Drugs.

This book is especially relevant because of one the challenges of teaching freshmen is to show them why they should be interested in sociology and sociological topics, that there is some knowledge to be produced here and that sociology has the tools to produce it.

Why did Moskos choose participant-observation? (All notations are Kindle locations)

“As a sociology graduate student, I took to heart the argument that prolonged participant-observation research is the best and perhaps only means of gathering valid data on job-related police behavior. Because data on policing are iffy at best and cops, like everyone, love to tell a tall tale, the best way to see what happens on the street is to be there as it happens. As an institution, police have been labeled insular, resentful of outsiders, and in general hostile to research, experimentation, and analysis. Official police statistics are notoriously susceptible to manipulation. And as most police activity has no official record at all, the nuances of police work are difficult if not impossible to quantify. Professor and police researcher Maurice Punch wrote, “The researcher’s task becomes, then, how to outwit the institutional obstacle-course to gain entry and . . . penetrate the mine-field of social defenses to reach the inner reality of police work.”” (114)

The first interesting observation from Moskos’s work is his analysis of the police academy as relatively useless for the job:

“So what’s the point of the academy? Primarily, it’s to protect the department from the legal liability that could result from negligent training. To the trainees this appears more important than educating police officers.

(…)

And second, despite the lax approach toward academics, instructors were very concerned with officer safety, the aspect of the job they emphasized most: “The most important part of your job is that you go home. Everything else is secondary.” This philosophy is reinforced at all levels of the police organization. Formal and informal rules concerning officer safety are propagated simultaneously.

(…)

By the end of the academy, less than half the class saw a relation between what police learn in the academy and what police need to know on the street. A strong antimedia attitude, little changed from sociologist William Westley’s observations in the 1950s, grew steadily in the police academy. At the end of training, just 10 percent of trainees believed that the media treat police fairly.

(…)

After six months in the academy, trainees learn to:

  • Respect the chain of command and their place on the bottom of that chain.
  • Sprinkle “sir” and “ma’am” into casual conversation.
  • Salute.
  • Follow orders.
  • March in formation.
  • Stay out of trouble.
  • Stay awake.
  • Be on time.
  • Shine shoes.” (359 – 390)

But Moskos’s conclusion is that the training actually demoralizes trainees even before they start working on the streets. Physical training is not boot camp and provides a poor preparation (after all, most officers will spend their days in their patrol car), and academic training does not really impart knowledge and does not encourage thinking.

Once training is over, the bulk of the book follows Moskos on the beat, on the Eastern side of Baltimore (that’s Proposition Joe’s territory, for you Wire fans following at home) and the constant contradictory demands placed on officers (between following a very strict military-style chain of command and having to make quick decisions). In that sense, the book is also a good study of the necessity of developing informal rules in in highly formal, bureaucratic environments. Working around the rules is the only way to keep the work manageable and within the limits of efficiency and sanity. But for Moskos, the gap between formal and informal norms is especially wide in policing. One could see here the application of Merton’s strain theory: the officers largely agree with the goals of the job they have to do (even though they are aware of the futility of the War on Drugs), but they constantly have to innovate while on patrol because the rules do not work on the streets (of course, some officers do lapse into ritualism especially in a context where protecting one’s pension is THE concern all officers have and that guides their behavior on the street).

These informal rules are constantly at work whether it comes to stopping, frisking, searching, arresting, writing reports. In all of these aspects of the job, covering one’s butt and protecting one’s life and pension are paramount concerns. This means that officers actually have quite a bit of leeway and flexibility when it comes to their job. These informal norms are described in details in Moskos’s book and there is no underestimating their importance.

Once on the streets, police officers mix a culture of poverty approach to “these people” (the communities they are expected to police, where gangs and drugs culture produce poverty with quite a bit of eliminationist rhetoric that reveals an in-group / out-group mentality between police officers and civilians:

“A black officer proposed similar ends through different means. “If it were up to me,” he said, “I’d build big walls and just flood the place, biblical-like. Flood the place and start afresh. I think that’s all you can do.” When I asked this officer how his belief that the entire area should be flooded differed from the attitudes of white police, he responded, “Naw, I’m not like that because I’d let the good people build an ark and float out. Old people, working people, line ’em up, two by two. White cops will be standing on the walls with big poles pushing people back in.” The painful universal truth of this officer’s beliefs came back to me in stark relief during the flooding and destruction of New Orleans, Louisiana. Police in some neighboring communities prevented displaced black residents from leaving the disaster area, turning them away with blockades and guns.” (609)

That in-group / out-group outlook also involves dehumanization and stigmatization:

“In the ghetto, police and the public have a general mutual desire to avoid interaction. The sociologist Ervin Goffman wrote, “One avoids a person of high status out of deference to him and avoids a person of lower status . . . out of a self-protective concern.” Goffman was concerned with the stigma of race, but in the ghetto, stigma revolves around the “pollution” associated with drugs. Police use words like “filthy,” “rank,” “smelly,” or “nasty” to describe literal filth, which abounds in the Eastern District. The word “dirty” is used to describe the figurative filth of a drug addict. It is, in the drug-related sense, the opposite of being clean.” (633)

The “dope fiend” becomes the loathed representative figure of all this. But the dehumanization applies equally to them and the dealers. In that sense, there is no sympathy for the people who have to live in these communities and have nothing to do with the drug trade. They are put in the same bag. And whatever idea of public service trainees might start with tends to disappear after a year on the streets.

And quite a bit of what goes on in the streets between police and population has a lot to do with forcing respect and maintaining control of the interaction:

“Although it is legally questionable, police officers almost always have something they can use to lock up somebody, “just because.” New York City police use “disorderly conduct.” In Baltimore it is loitering. In high-drug areas, minor arrests are very common, but rarely prosecuted. Loitering arrests usually do not articulate the legally required “obstruction of passage.” But the point of loitering arrests is not to convict people of the misdemeanor. By any definition, loitering is abated by arrest. These lockups are used by police to assert authority or get criminals off the street.” (838)

And, of course, the drug dealers also know the rules and become skillful at working around them, avoiding arrest, challenging the police authority and have structured their trade accordingly. It would indeed be a mistake to look at this illegal and informal economy as anything but a trade structured around specific rules that take into account having to deal with the police and the different statuses of the actors involved in the trade reflect that:

  • lookouts have the simplest job: alert everyone else of police approach,
  • steerers promote the product,
  • moneymen obviously hold the money for the transactions,
  • slingers distribute the drugs after money has been exchanged
  • and gunmen protect the trade.

The transaction is therefore completely decomposed into steps where money and drugs are never handled by the same person while the main dealers watch things from afar, protecting themselves from legal liabilities. For most of these positions, the pay is not much better than fast-food joints, but that is pretty much all there is in these urban areas.

Of course, just like everything in the US, there is a racial component to this. The drug trade is not a “black thing” (like mac and cheese as Pat Robertson would say) and it has its dependency theory taste:

“The archetypal white addict is employed, comes with a friend, drives a beat-up car from a nearby blue-collar neighborhood or suburb such as Highlandtown or Dundalk, and may have a local black drug addict in the backseat of the car. A black police officer who grew up in the Eastern District explained the local’s presence, “White people won’t buy drugs alone because they’re afraid to get out of the car and approach a drug dealer. They’ll have some black junkie with them.” The local resident serves as a sort of freelance guide, providing insurance against getting “burned” or robbed. The local addict is paid informally, most often taking a cut of the drugs purchased.” (1116)

The complete mistrust between the police and the community is also a trademark of impoverished urban environments. And indeed, what would residents gain by interacting with law enforcement and the court system? At the same time, police work is arrest-based (the more the better) which officers all understand to be futile.

For Moskos, part of the problem with policing was the advent of policing-by-patrol-car:

“The advent of patrol cars, telephones, two-way radios, “scientific” police management, social migration, and social science theories on the “causes” of crime converged in the late 1950s. Before then, police had generally followed a “watchman” approach: each patrol officer was given the responsibility to police a geographic area.5In the decades after World War II, motorized car patrol replaced foot patrol as the standard method of policing. Improved technology allowed citizens to call police and have their complaints dispatched to police through two-way radios in squad cars. Car patrol was promoted over foot patrol as a cost-saving move justified by increased “efficiency.”6 Those who viewed police as provocative and hostile to the public applauded reduced police presence and discretion. Controlled by the central dispatch, police could respond to the desires of the community rather than enforce their own “arbitrary” concepts of “acceptable” behavior. Police officers, for their part, enjoyed the comforts of the automobile and the prestige associated with new technology. Citizens, rather than being encouraged to maintain community standards, were urged to stay behind locked doors and call 911. Car patrol eliminated the neighborhood police officer. Police were pulled off neighborhood beats to fill cars. But motorized patrol—the cornerstone of urban policing—has no effect on crime rates, victimization, or public satisfaction.” (1371)

This has encouraged a detachment of officers from the communities they police. Quick response time becomes the goal and officers spend time in their car waiting to be “activated” on 911 calls. The only interaction between officers and residents is limited to such 911 call responses, which can all potentially lead to confrontations. But that is still the way policing is done and the way it is taught at the academies, guided by the three “R”s:

  • Random patrol: give the illusion of omnipresence by changing patrol patterns
  • Rapid response: act quickly, catch the criminals (doesn’t work)
  • Reactive investigation: solve crimes rather than prevent them

But the institutional context very poorly accounts for the interaction rituals that guide the interaction between officers and residents:

“Police officers usually know whether a group of suspects is actively, occasionally, or never involved with selling drugs. Some residents, often elderly, believe that all youths, particularly those who present themselves as “thug” or “ghetto,” are involved with drug dealing. If police respond to a call for a group of people known not to be criminals, police will approach politely. If the group seems honestly surprised to see the police, they may be given some presumption of innocence. An officer could ask if everything is all right or if the group knows any reason why the police would have been called. If the suspects are unknown to a police officer, the group’s response to police attention is used as the primary clue. Even with a presumption of guilt, a group that walks away without being prompted will generally be allowed to disperse. If a group of suspects challenges police authority through language or demeanor, the officer is compelled to act. This interaction is so ritualized that it resembles a dance.

(…)

If temporary dispersal of a group is the goal, the mere arrival of a patrol car should be all that is needed. Every additional step, from stopping the car to exiting the car to questioning people on the street, known as a “field interview,” is a form of escalation on the part of the police officer. Aware of the symbolism and ritual of such actions, police establish a pattern in which a desired outcome is achieved quickly, easily, and with a minimum of direct confrontation. Rarely is there any long-term impact. When a police officer slows his or her car down in front of the individuals, the suspects know the officer is there for them and not just passing through on the way to other business. If a group of suspects does not disperse when an officer “rolls up,” the officer will stop the car and stare at the group. A group may ignore the officer’s look or engage the officer in a stare-off, known in police parlance as “eye fucking.” This officer’s stare serves the dual purpose of scanning for contraband and weapons and simultaneously declaring dominance over turf. An officer will initiate, often aggressively, conversation from the car and ask where the suspects live and if they have any identification. Without proof of residence, the suspects will be told to leave and threatened with arrest. If the group remains or reconvenes, they are subject to a loitering arrest. Police officers always assert their right to control public space. Every drug call to which police respond—indeed all police dealings with social or criminal misbehavior—will result in the suspect’s arrest, departure, or deference.” (1494 – 1507)

And a great deal of these interactions are also guided by the need, on both sides, to not lose face, be seen as weak or easily punked. These interactional factors may often determine whether an officer gets out of his car or not, sometimes triggering contempt from the residents. So, officers tend to like car patrols as opposed to foot patrols which are tiring, leave one vulnerable to the elements, and potentially preventing crime. Rapid response is easier and more popular with officers. People commit crimes, you get there fast, you arrest them.

Overall, Moskos advocates for greater police discretion and more focus on quality of life issues as opposed to rapid response while acknowledging that this is not without problems. I don’t think there ever were a golden age of policing where communities and law enforcement worked harmoniously together for the greater good and the end of broken windows (a discredited theory not questioned by Moskos), especially when minorities were involved.

But the bottom line, for Moskos, that the current War on Drugs is a massive failure and a waste of resources (and Moskos does go into some details of the history of drug policies and enforcement in the US, a useful reminder of the racialization of public policy) and should be replaced by a variety of policies (not all drugs are the same) with three goes in mind:

  • preservation of life (current policies increase the dangerous nature of drugs)
  • reduce incarceration
  • save money (through reduced incarceration, depenalization and taxation).

“We changed our country’s culture toward cigarette smoking. It took effort and did cost money. But most of the money came from legally taxed revenue and the cigarette companies. High taxation discourages new users from starting. Public service messages tell the truth (mostly) about the harms of tobacco. Not only is this a great victory for public health, it is perhaps our country’s only success against any pop u lar addictive drug. Drug policies could follow a similar approach: tax drug sales; treat drug abuse as a medical and social problem; set realistic goals of reduced drug use; and allow localities control over their own drug policies.

(…)

Simply decriminalizing possession is not enough. Legalization must not allow armed drug-dealing thugs to operate with impunity.” (2686 – 91)

Now, none of this deals with urban ghettoization and the lack of economic opportunities in inner cities but that it is not really the goal of criminal policy. This also means that the incentives for officers to do counter-productive work need to be changed and we all know that bureaucracies are not easy to transform. In such cases, resistance is not futile.

So, even though I don’t fully agree with all of Moskos’s recommendations and ideas (I am much more suspect of police discretion than he is), I recommend the book as it does provide extensive food for thought.

The (Other) Visual Du Jour – Don’t Get Too Hard on Them!

Actually, not really and less and less (via here and here):

I guess it’s more fun going after Wikileaks and Anonymous.

Marcy Wheeler explains:

“The government as a whole has prosecuted 57.7% fewer financial fraud crimes than they did 10 years ago, when 9/11 changed everything.

The report on our government’s growing disinterest in prosecuting banksters should be paired with this FBI report which I reported on some weeks ago (since that time, FBI has removed the link to the report). The FBI report makes it clear that the FBI, at least, has shifted its approach over the last decade from a “case driven” focus to a “threat driven” focus–meaning that it decides what it’s going to look for and then goes to find criminals committing that crime rather than finds crimes and responds to them. Depending on whether you believe this report or Director Mueller’s June reconfirmation hearing, financial fraud is either the 7th or 5th highest priority for the FBI, behind terrorism, counterintelligence, and cybarattacks.

(…)

All of which costs money. The FBI reports that its budget authority–which it notes is driven by the strategy–has more than doubled over the period in which it has found half as many banksters.

Most telling, though, is a stat you get by putting the two reports together. TRAC notes that FBI referred 37.6% of the fraud cases for prosecution so far this year–working out to be roughly 470 cases. But if you work out how many financial cases they say they were tracking last year (they say “more than 2,800″ equates to 57% of the cases), you see they were tracking roughly 4,912 financial fraud cases. If these numbers are correct, it means fewer than 10% of the banksters and other fraudsters they’re tracking ever get charged.

In other words, it’s not that they’re not seeing the crime. They’re just not referring it for prosecution, choosing instead to look for young Muslim men to entrap.”

Bottom line is law enforcement, at that level, has more to do with protecting the system (with a few egregious cases prosecuted every once in a while because either they’re too big to ignore – see: Madoff – or the public needs to be convinced that something is being done as a legitimation boosting mechanism… that ain’t working anymore).

Going after Wikileaks and Anonymous is going after organizations that really threaten the system. So, prosecution knows no bounds and allies itself with corporations (to deny these organizations funding even in the absence of convictions).

Corporate Crime and Kid Gloves

If you want to commit crimes, don’t mug old ladies for their Social Security money, don’t rob gas stations, don’t do anything related to drugs because you’re hurting the children and The War on Drugs will get you. All of these crimes will have you join the ranks of the world’s proportionally largest prison population in the US slammer.

No, if you want to commit crimes, go big, go corporate crime. Do that, and if, a big IF, you get prosecuted, you will be treated with kid gloves:

“Federal prosecutors sued Allied Home Mortgage Capital Corp. and two top executives Tuesday, accusing them of running a massive fraud scheme that cost the government at least $834 million in insurance claims on defaulted home loans.

Houston-based Allied and its founder and chief executive, Jim Hodge, were the subject of July 2010 stories by ProPublica, which detailed a trail of alleged misconduct, lawsuits and government sanctions spanning at least 18 states and seven years. Borrowers recounted how they had been lied to by Allied employees, who in some cases had siphoned their loan proceeds for personal gain. Some lost their homes.

Despite years of warnings, the federal government had not — until this week — impaired the company’s ability to issue new mortgages.

The suit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, seeks triple damages and civil penalties, which could total $2.5 billion. Simultaneously, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development suspended the company and Hodge from issuing loans backed by the Federal Housing Administration. The company was also barred from issuing mortgage-backed securities through the Government National Mortgage Association (Ginnie Mae).”

Whoa, talk about harsh punishment. See what they did here? No criminal prosecution. All in civil court. Feels like the equivalent to be sent to your room without dinner.

And to the Rick Santellis of the world: GFY:

“The government’s complaint alleges that between 2001 and 2010, Allied originated 112,324 home mortgages backed by the FHA, which typically go to moderate- and low-income borrowers. Of those, nearly 32 percent — 35,801 — defaulted, resulting in more than $834 million in insurance claims paid by HUD.

In 2006 and 2007, the company’s default rate was a “staggering” 55 percent, the complaint said.

In addition, another 2,509 mortgages are currently in default, which could result in another $363 million in insurance claims paid by HUD.

Borrowers told ProPublica last year that company employees falsified records to bolster their credit worthiness and lured them into unaffordable deals by lying about the terms.

The government’s complaint says: “Allied has profited for years as one of the nation’s largest FHA lenders by engaging in reckless mortgage lending, flouting the requirements of the FHA mortgage insurance program and repeatedly lying about its compliance.””

Also, do you think a prosecutor would talk like that if she were talking about a street crime? (Remember, this is civil court, not criminal court with prosecutors)

“In an interview Tuesday, Helen Kanovsky, HUD’s general counsel, defended the time it took her department to take action.

“We had tried sanctions before,” she said. “We had assessed civil monetary penalties and that had not worked.

“The extraordinary remedy that we have — to be able to terminate somebody’s FHA capacity [and] basically put them out of business — requires a very high level of evidence and a high level of proof.”

The government’s 41-page lawsuit details an alleged scheme by Allied to deceive HUD about its employees and the risks associated with its loans. For years, it operated a network of “shadow” branches that were not approved by HUD and falsely certified that they met legal requirements.

Allied also disguised the high default rates of some branches, the complaint alleges, by tinkering with their addresses to apply for new HUD identification codes for the same offices. When HUD updated its system to prevent such manipulation, Allied simply moved all of its branches to a sister company and obtained new IDs, “thus again achieving a clean slate on its default rates,” the suit said. The sister firm, Allied Home Mortgage Corp., is also named as a defendant.”

I expect the defendants are shaking in their boots with fear and are thoroughly deterred by the prospect of being put out of business and civil sanction.

Whaddaya Know… Moral Entrepreneurs Really Should Have STFU

As I recommended they do during the British riots… let’s go to the data:

“The Ministry of Justice’s statistical report published yesterday into the riots must bring misery to the ears of those like Michael Gove who wished to argue that the root causes of the riots was a lack of morals and values and not poverty. The government’s own figures show that the rioters were in general less educated, young, and ultimately poor.

(…)

For me the rioters resembled more the people I grew up with than the people I attended University with. Of course, there are poor people who do not engage in crime, I was one, but as any criminologist worth their salt will tell you, those more likely to engage in the sort of crime that we saw in the riots, are those with less to lose. And if the above evidence proves anything, it is that those with the least to lose, were certainly those who lived in areas of London where rioting took place.

Oscar Wilde once wrote that: “There is only one class in the community that thinks more about money than the rich, and that is the poor. The poor can think of nothing else. That is the misery of being poor.” The misery of the likes of Michael Gove is their inability to see such misery.”

As a general rule, any moral argument advanced to explain social phenomenon usually amounts to little more than privilege protection and never leads to reasoned public policy but increased discipline against the disadvantaged.

The (Selective) Medicalization of Deviance

This is interesting (H/T DC Blogger over at Corrente):

“A 21-year-old Occupy Wall Street demonstrator caused quite the ruckus early this morning, when he scaled a 70-foot sculpture in New York’s Zuccotti Park, refusing to come down until Mayor Michael Bloomberg resigned.

Dylan Spoelstra of Canada climbed the park’s signature red sculpture around 6 a.m. He sat on a metal platform for three hours, with his feet dangling, as police cleared the surrounding area and tried to talk him down.

Around 9 a.m., Spoelstra was seen descending the sculpture in a police crane, looking jovial, with his arm around the officer who helped him down.

Once on the ground, Spaelstra was placed in handcuffs and transported to Bellevue Hospital, where he was to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, according to a police spokesman.”

Apparently, no one understands performance art or performance stunts as part of the repertoire of contention.

Obviously, a VERY deranged person:

However, the threshold for craziness that needs psychiatric evaluation is rather flexible. The person below was NOT taken to Bellevue. I wonder why:

The answer is, of course, only people who challenge the larger social structure (with its distribution of power, its ideological underpinnings and supportive institutions) get to be classified as deviant, or the more “humane” and medicalized label of “emotionally disturbed” and treated accordingly (remember Gulag Archipelago?).

On the other hand, supporting the existing system and the current distribution of social privileges is rationalized and normalized, and not treated as a pathological category.

The occupation movement is a systemic challenge and therefore, it gets to be depicted in all sorts of demeaning ways in the media (whose role is to provide already-mentioned ideological underpinnings): no clear message, confused people, hippies, dirty and smelly, weird, and now, mentally ill.

On the other hand, the Tea Party movement is of the “suck-up / kick-down” category and therefore gets to have its grievances treated with serious concern and granted legitimacy. This movement presents no challenge whatsoever to established structures.