Confidence Men and ‘Prison Reform’
The following piece is from Truth Out. It was written by Kay Whitlock.
By: Kay Whitlock
Smoke and Mirrors is a new series that dives into the details of “bipartisan prison reform” to reveal the right-wing, neoliberal carceral sleight of hand that’s really at work. It asks hard questions about the content and consequences of various proposals and explores ways in which commitments to unregulated free markets, privatization and states’ rights drive the agenda for a new generation of reforms that will reinforce structural racism, intensify economic violence and contribute to the normalization of a surveillance society.
I was a little kid when I first learned about “confidence men” – and snake oil and the art of the inspired swindle – from my dad and his cronies at the pool hall. They all had stories, shouted at each other over beer, laughter, and the clack of the rack on the table, about their various encounters with those shifty, seductive gents who, in the words of novelist Michael Chabon, introducing Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World, “sell you what you already own.” I couldn’t have been more than five or six when they showed me some of the tricks of a shell game so that later on, I’d recognize what was happening when someone tried to reel me into one.
Later, I received more advanced instruction from such movies as “A Face in the Crowd,” in which folksy drifter Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith like you’ve never seen him) becomes an overnight media sensation and dangerously charismatic political con artist, and “Elmer Gantry,” in which the slick talking, hard boozing, traveling salesman turns into a power-hungry, evangelical huckster.
I’m reminded of all this as I look at a flurry of articles and blog posts – Washington Monthly, The Maddow Blog, WaPo’s WonkBlog, Colorlines, and The Guardian, for starters – making much, largely uncritical, ado about the purported conservative-Right push for “prison reform.” The storyline goes something like this: “At long last! Here’s where the Left and the Right, the liberals, libertarians, and conservatives, can come together in a good cause, namely the lowering of the prison population in the United States. More reliance on community-based corrections! And, having finally seen the light, conservatives are leading the fight! We’re going to win this one! How did that happen?”
How, indeed. O, Brave New World in which Newt Gingrich, Jeb Bush, Grover Norquist, John J. DiIulio, Jr., Edwin Meese III, Ward Connerly, Gary Bauer, and William Bennett are recast as champions of humane criminal justice reform. In which the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) disbands its notorious Public Safety and Elections Task Force (known until 2009 as the Criminal Justice Task Force), responsible for the proliferation of Stand Your Ground, Voter ID, prison privatization, and immigrant criminalization laws. Without noting its own powerful role in promoting the exploitation of prison labor and increasing imprisonment, ALEC has now recast itself as a humane, cost-conscious reformer concerned with ending “prison overcrowding.”
It seems almost miraculous, doesn’t it?
And we want to believe that this is all there is to it: that the Right’s “prison reform” really meshes with the hopes and intentions of all those who have been working for decades to dismantle structural violence, including the violence of prisons, policing, profiling (racial, gender, and sexual), and the race-based nature of mass incarceration in the United States.
President Richard Nixon to H.R. Haldeman, April 1973:
“We’ll survive. . .despite all the polls and all the rest, I think there’s still a hell of a lot of people out there, and from what I’ve seen they’re– you know, they want to believe, that’s the point, isn’t it?” – from the transcript of a recording [PDF] of a telephone conversation, April 25, 1973, during the Watergate crisis
And belief – or at least perception that something is true, whether or not it is – is often more potently seductive than a more complicated and ambiguous reality. As the massive corruption of Watergate threatened to bring him down, President Richard Nixon invoked the power of belief over reality in one of the desperate conversations he had during that time with aide, H.R. Haldeman. Surely he could survive by playing on people’s desire to believe the best rather than the worst. It didn’t work out for Nixon, but he was not wrong that belief can easily trump reality, so long as enough people want it to.
The Confidence Man
There are some real dangers embedded in this new right-wing initiative, and to grasp the complexity of how this happened – as well as what “this” actually is – we need to situate the discussion within the mythic, almost archetypal, context of the Confidence Man in U.S. cultural life. Because as we know, if something sounds too good to be true, it is.
We need to understand the (often yawning) chasm of difference between what is being promised and what is actually being sold. As Gary Lindberg, author of The Confidence Man in American Literature, says, the Confidence Man “is at once the celebrant of shared faith and the agent most capable of exploiting it.” He doesn’t appear to be seedy or dishonest; in fact, the Confidence Man is an attractive figure – at least at first. Whatever he offers is always something that appeals to our hopes and dreams.
But he’s also an edge figure who operates exclusively at the boundary of aspiration and reality in ways that – if we look closely – manipulate and reconfigure that aspiration to his personal benefit, always at the expense of others.
“What the con man represents about us can only be seen, obliquely, in the discrepancies between our ideals and our conduct. . .It is not our official pieties that he represents, but our unofficial reward systems that we have for over two centuries allowed to succeed. He clarifies the uneasy relations between our stated ethics and our tolerated practices.” – Gary Lindberg, The Confidence Man in American Literature
Moreover, there may well be some measure of truth to what the con man offers. Every sideshow, carnival attraction, shell game, and confidence man offers the public a “hook,” the compelling, seductive element that overcomes skepticism and pulls people into the performance. But the distorted genius of the confidence man is most truly seen in the larger game, that is revealed once we’ve taken the hook and been reeled in, only to discover that we’ve been swindled. The challenge for progressives is to clearly identify the hook but not kid ourselves that the hook is the whole (or even the primary) reason for the new “bipartisan” push for “prison reform.”
As the conservative “war on prisons” PR blitz began to take hold, James Kilgore, novelist, research scholar, activist, and former prisoner offered a progressive take on the matter in 2012. But his cautionary warning was, and is, all too rare.
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