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When I Grow Up, I’m Going to Non-Sequitur University

[ 54 ] September 25, 2011 |

Shorter Ross Douthat: “Executing the occasional innocent person is a price worth paying to stimulate a prison reform movement that shows no sign of happening despite the fact that we execute innocent people.”

Take lessons, children: the idea that injustice A shouldn’t be addressed because of injustice B (which, in turn, of course must yield to hypothetical concern for injustice C) is the single most important weapon in the arsenal of the “moderate” reactionary. (Cf. “You can’t unionize if any group of workers anywhere is worse off than you are.”)

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  1. c u n d gulag says:

    It takes effort to make David Brooks seem both a rational and tolerable writer.

    It’s lucky for Douthat that the NY Times has an Affirmative Action program for Conservative columnists.

    This ignorant douchebag couldn’t get a job swabbing floors overnights at a Wawa.

    Oh, and he should stick to writing about other peoples icky parts, ’cause at the very least, that them there’s some comedy gold!

  2. R. Porrofatto says:

    Good grief. Douthat’s last paragraph gives convoluted sophistry a bad name:

    Abolishing capital punishment in a kind of despair over its fallibility would send a very different message. It would tell the public that our laws and courts and juries are fundamentally incapable of delivering what most Americans consider genuine justice. It could encourage a more cynical and utilitarian view of why police forces and prisons exist, and what moral standards we should hold them to. And while it would put an end to wrongful executions, it might well lead to more overall injustice.

    I wonder what Douthat would feel if the capital punishment in question were crucifixion. I also wonder if he’s aware that his chosen religion opposes the death penalty.

    • Bruce Baugh says:

      Well, his chosen religion is just fine with the death penalty. It’s called Roman Catholicism, but it’s only Roman when that doesn’t conflict with the needs and wishes of American empire.

    • NBarnes says:

      Shorter Ross Douthat; “In order to maintain faith in the integrity and justice of our system of laws and courts, it is critical that we ignore and pretend not to notice systematic corruption and injustice in our system of law of courts.”

    • Jamie says:

      I noticed that, too.

      The pernicious belief that failure has to be ignored so that the rabble don’t get the idea that authority is fallible is a freakish thing, especially for so-called conservatives who apparently want to be thought of as sophisticated followers of Burke.

      • temp says:

        That’s not actually Douthat’s argument. What Douthat is saying is that courts are not currently “delivering what most Americans consider genuine justice”, and that abolishing death penalty would be a form of accepting and adapting to this injustice rather than trying to eliminate it. He appears to be against the Davis execution and in favor of a stronger appeals process.

        • soullite says:

          No he pretends to be in favor of a stronger appeals process in order to deflect from the fact that he prefers less justice in our legal system.

          Tell me, how many times does a man like this need to show you what kind of person he really is before you’re willing to believe him?

        • L2P says:

          If I was trying desperating to defend an inherently unjust system, I would have made the same argument. However, we fight with the political and cultural system that we have. What Douthat is ACTUALLY arguing for is…doing nothing. We ARE NOT going to have a stronger appeals process, so he might as well be arguing for a magical unicorn horn that we use to figure out who’s actually guilty enough for execution.

          Oh, and I’m giving you douchebag bonus points for the “abolishing the death penalty [is] a form of…adapting to this injustice” BS. That’s your own baby, baby. Even assuming that it would be “worse” to stop killing the innocent instead of refomring the rest of the justice system to stop killing the innocent (reasonable minds differ), I don’t recall anybody saying we shouldn’t get rid of segregation because that might make us less likely to pass the ERA (for instance).

          We can ALWAYS avoid doing good because there’s more good we can do later. The classic mark of the douchebag is to make it.

          • temp says:

            It’s not my argument, it’s Douthat’s. Read the piece. There are good counters to Douthat’s argument, including, perhaps, some you just made. But it’s simply not true that Douthat is saying that “failure has to be ignored so that the rabble don’t get the idea that authority is fallible.”

            • Furious Jorge says:

              But it’s simply not true that Douthat is saying that “failure has to be ignored so that the rabble don’t get the idea that authority is fallible.”

              I know how to read and everything, and I have to say that it seems like Douchehat is saying exactly that.

              • temp says:

                I can see how it might seem that way from reading the last paragraph in isolation, but if you read the entire article it’s clear that’s not his point. Rather, it’s the the opposite: that eliminating the death penalty will enable Americans to ignore the failures of an unacceptably fallible authority.

                • Hob says:

                  You’re both right, sort of. Douthat does say that if there were no death penalty, Americans would ignore all other injustices. But he doesn’t even try to explain why he thinks that’s the case – he just says so – so calling it an “argument” is a bit extreme. And he does in fact say that it would be a bad thing for Americans to lose confidence in the system, even if (by implication) they would be fully justified in doing so.

                  Also, after reading that shitty article three times (argh), I see absolutely no sign that Douthat supports, or even claims to support, any improvements to the appeals process. I don’t know where you got that. The closest he gets is a neutral reference to its “limits”.

                  What he suggests is reforms in sentencing. Except he won’t even suggest those; he says he’s in favor of someone else suggesting them. What an incredibly fucking weird thing for a columnist in a national newspaper to say.

                • herr doktor bimler says:

                  Douthat does say that if there were no death penalty, Americans would ignore all other injustices.

                  A large proportion of Americans are happily ignoring other injustices already. If anything, they’re in favour of harsh conditions, prison rape, fewer appeals and the death penalty so long as these all apply to someone else from the Criminal Classes who is probably guilty of something or otherwise he’d never have come to the attention of the police. See under “Execution of innocent man; admiration of balls required for”.

                  That is the situation in NZ, anyway. Perhaps one of Jonah Goldberg’s correspondents can look up the results of surveys in the US for me.

                  Conversely, the people who are more interested in rehabilitation than in penal sadism generally treat a dysfunctional justice system as a package. So it is insulting of Douthat to treat them as single-issue moralists who would react to the abolition of capital punishments by switching off their consciences and changing channels on the TV. Fortunately, they are probably not losing any sleep about Douthat holding them in low regard .

        • dangermouse says:

          If there’s one thing noteworthy about Douthat, it’s his long history of advocacy for reform of the appeals process.

          • Rarely Posts says:

            This! The argument that one movement for justice distracts from another, more important movement is always frustrating. However, when the person making it has actually devoted lots of energy to the other movement, I’m at least inclined to consider the argument seriously. In contrast, when a reactionary presents it and points to another movement that he doesn’t actually care about, one should simply ignore the reactionary’s argument.

            IF Douthat was serious, he might have argued that the focus on the death penalty distracts from a proper focus on outlawing abortion. Then, he’d be arguing about a trade-off where he actually cares about the second movement. Of course, if he had done that, everyone would have seen how stupid the “trade-off” argument actually is.

      • RugosA says:

        . . . failure has to be ignored so that the rabble don’t get the idea that authority is fallible . . .

        Which is precisely how the Roman Catholic Church deals with its scandals.

    • Does Douche-Hat think juries can be trusted to award reasonable damages against corporations in civil cases or does he support some kind of, I don’t know, Tort Reform!

    • DrDick says:

      It would tell the public that our laws and courts and juries are fundamentally incapable of delivering what most Americans consider genuine justice.

      You can’t handle the truth, Ross!

      • David Nieporent says:

        If you believe that’s “the truth,” then how can you stop at the death penalty? Maybe it’s not as egregious to wrongly put someone in prison for life as it is to execute him, but it’s still evil. Twenty years, ten years? Each one less bad than the previous — but still wrong.

        • Furious Jorge says:

          So because we still must have prisons, that means the death penalty must be kept?

        • DrDick says:

          Your sequitur, it is non. Then again logic has always seemed to escape you. Tell us again how you managed to get through law school with logic like that?

          The simple answer to your really stupid and typically unreflective question is that life imprisonment allows for correction of errors. The death penalty tends to be pretty final and permanent.

        • Arnold Amaury says:

          Maybe it’s not as egregious to wrongly put someone in prison for life as it is to execute him, but it’s still evil.

          See how one can be fixed, at least somewhat, in light of later evidence, and the other cannot? There’s that word “evidence” again…

        • Bijan Parsia says:

          Isn’t less bad better than more bad?

          Contrariwise, can we not slip that slope both ways?

          What’s interesting about the quote is the rather bizarre utilitarianism:

          And while it would put an end to wrongful executions, it might well lead to more overall injustice.

          That’s a critical slip from not enforcing what “most Americans” think is (a part of) justice (i.e., executing those who ought to be executed) having negative effects on overall justice, to almost but not quite endorsing that the lack of executions themselves would tip the balance.

          He is rather weaselly here. I somehow doubt that most Americans are as extreme retributionists as, say, Kant. Given the evidence of lack of deterrence, it’s pretty hard to argue that the net amount of wrongful death will be lowered. (Unless, of course, being an innocent victim of a fellow citizen is somehow much wronger than being an innocent victim of the state.)

          Like with anti-abortion folks, there’s a lot that one could do that would reduce net injustice (prison rape, sentencing disparity, Public Defender funding, etc., etc.). The fact that death penalty advocates tend to not support even simple measures to improve its “execution” speaks volumes of their commitment to justice even on their own terms.

          It’s loathsome.

          • Bijan Parsia says:

            Ok, I commented before reading the whole article…and it’s pretty shocking, but contrary to part of what I wrote above.

            This point was made well last week by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, writing for The American Scene. In any penal system, he pointed out, but especially in our own — which can be brutal, overcrowded, rife with rape and other forms of violence — a lifelong prison sentence can prove more cruel and unusual than a speedy execution.

            Uh…I would think Davies’ own actions show that he preferred not to be executed.

            And his case became an example of how the very finality of the death penalty can focus the public’s attention on issues that many Americans prefer to ignore: the overzealousness of cops and prosecutors, the limits of the appeals process and the ugly conditions faced by many of the more than two million Americans currently behind bars.

            Words seriously fail me. We should keep captial punishment so people won’t think that the system is ok in other respects? Wouldn’t continuing capitial punishment after such cases suggest that everything, even execution, is hunky dory? (Or why wouldn’t we suspend it?) What of the people, you know, actually executed?

            I am, indeed, shocked.

            • Njorl says:

              I can see Ross as a lawyer:
              ” As your council, my advice to you is to submit to execution”

              (Which is a line from Dr. Who, which is mentioned in a subsequent post, and is therefore on my mind.)

    • The Shaggy DA says:

      We should probably eliminate appeals as well, since they presumably also “tell(s) the public that our laws and courts and juries are fundamentally incapable of delivering what most Americans consider genuine justice.”

    • herr doktor bimler says:

      The pernicious belief that failure has to be ignored so that the rabble don’t get the idea that authority is fallible is a freakish thing

      Isn’t this the usual philosophy among one school of Christian apologetics? “Yes, the New Testament story may be a complete load of cobblers, but it is best for society if the rulers nod and wink and pretend to believe in it, as a way of fostering moral behaviour and obedience among the lower orders.”

  3. sleepyirv says:

    “It would tell the public that our laws and courts and juries are fundamentally incapable of delivering what most Americans consider genuine justice. It could encourage a more cynical and utilitarian view of why police forces and prisons exist, and what moral standards we should hold them to.”

    And that’s a bad thing? When Douthat’s argument was not illogical it was rather non-sensical. I suppose it is meant to be a classical conservative sop: Let’s not throw away the classical construction of the legal system unless the people get upset and revolt. But it seems completely unrelated to actually solving the problems of the penal system.

  4. DrDick says:

    Reading DoucheHat causes brain damage, which may be irreversible if exposures are high enough. Just saying.

  5. Davis says:

    I hesitate to state the obvious, but we do have real-world evidence of what happens when the death penalty is banned, and it bears no resemblance to his ridiculous assertions. What a dope.

    • herr doktor bimler says:

      That real-world evidence includes things like “increased chance of reversing a false conviction, as people have the entire life sentence of the falsely-convicted man to turn up exonerating evidence”.

      I don’t know whether that is often used to argue in favour of the death penalty — that it protects the infallibility of the justice system, by reducing the likelihood that errors will be revealed. But it seems to be there in the background.

  6. efgoldman says:

    Good take by Freddie at Balloon Juice. Short and concise, for him.
    http://www.balloon-juice.com/2011/09/25/catholic-priorities/

  7. bobbyp says:

    The death penalty tends to be pretty final and permanent.

    Not if there is some kind of ‘afterlife’.

    • Malaclypse says:

      Even if there is an afterlife, and even if Davis is there, we still cannot undo his execution. The existence or non-existence of an afterlife does not change the permanence of execution.

  8. Julian says:

    If Ross Douthat should step on a rusty nail and go to the doctor, he should be refused a tetanus shot for fear that the administration of medicine will lead to a collapse in confidence in the human immune system.

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  10. Steve Simels says:

    Shorter Douchehat: If we don’t continue to execute innocent people, how the hell are we going to be able to keep the proles in line?

    On issues of morality, the conservatives always give the game away. Just not usually so blatantly….

  11. Rarely Posts says:

    This argument also gets stupider and stupider the more one things about it. For example, many people support LGBT rights. Those people disagree with the relative importance of various reforms. But, when they disagree, they form different movements focusing on their reforms (marriage equality, Service Members Legal Defense, immigration equality); they rarely attack those with different focuses, barring very good strategic concerns.

    After all, it would be very stupid for people supporting immigration equality and repeal of DOMA to argue that the repeal of DADT or the passage of the Matthew Shepherd Hate Crimes Bill set LGBT rights backwards. Undoubtedly, these legislative achievements built momentum and broader political support for LGBT rights, and they now allow the movement to focus on different issues.

    Similarly, people actually concerned with justice in the criminal system don’t create unnecessary conflict between themselves. People who support reform of drug laws, or decreases in sentencing, or improvements in the conditions of imprisonment, or repeal of the death penalty focus on their respective causes. And, success in one area, for example repeal of the Death Penalty, would help build momentum for success in the others. I seriously doubt that the decision finding it unconstitutional to impose the death penalty for crimes committed before the perpetrator was an adult actually undermined the long-term cause of repealing the death penalty. The burden is on people who advocate against incremental change.

  12. Dave W. says:

    Interestingly, John Adams argued almost the exact reverse of Douthat’s argument:

    “It is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished, for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world that they cannot all be punished. But if innocence itself is brought to the bar and condemned, perhaps to die, then the citizen will say, “whether I do good or whether I do evil is immaterial, for innocence itself is no protection,” and if such an idea as that were to take hold in the mind of the citizen that would be the end of security whatsoever.”
    ― John Adams

    The quote is from his closing argument for the defense in the trial of the British soldiers accused of the Boston Massacre.

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