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Crime is not the problem

August 16, 2020 Leave a comment

This post is a transcript of my video, which can be found here.

I made a video a few months ago about the law and why most people don’t actually care about the law and no one could possibly follow it. You might ask why I would need to make one about crime, since crime is just the other side of the coin. Well, even though literally dozens of people have seen that video, it’s possible the lessons haven’t quite permeated the culture yet. You might even want to watch that one before this one, because I talk about how laws are made (lobbying) and give lots of examples of the many foolish laws most people don’t know about but could still get caught for. This video is about why we should stop talking about crime, and stop using the word crime, and focus on what matters.

Law and crime are such big, important topics and yet most people don’t even question them. I never get a logical argument for why crime itself is a problem and why criminals are bad. It tends to be circular logic: they broke the law. You can’t break the law! Why not? Who says we should follow the law? I bet you don’t. If you think you do, again, please check out my other video because, well, no one does. The average adult commits three felonies every day without even realizing it. No one follows the law because no one can. It’s too complicated. The law governs every aspect of life. Everything is regulated. That means the state considers every aspect of life to be under its power. It considers your body its property. People get incredulous when I say that but it’s easy to demonstrate. The law says you’re not allowed to put certain substances in your own body, even if they would be good for you. And why not? Because they are competition for legal substances. And whenever someone gets arrested for weed or something equally harmless, someone says “police should be out catching the real criminals”. Sorry, but any time you break any law you’re a criminal. As long as the laws and the institutions of enforcing laws exist, those people are still criminals. But that doesn’t mean they’ve done anything wrong. Who did they hurt? The problem is not crime but that we lump everyone who committed any crime in together, so criminals are anyone from someone smoking something Daddy Government says they’re not allowed to smoke to killers and abusers. Our language doesn’t distinguish between them, and neither do courts and prisons.

In another clear example of the state’s ownership of your body, the law says you’re not allowed to engage in sex work, so you’re not allowed to consent to exchanging your body for money. Well, unless, of course, you film it. Why? Because of some medieval religious morality? It was only a few generations ago the police were arresting women for revealing too much ankle.

Is that a reasonable use of your taxes? Well, it was a crime and those women were criminals. If you’re against all crime, you would presumably have applauded the cops for enforcing indecency laws back then and for throwing millions of black and Latino people in jail for getting high today. Then you probably excuse it all by saying, well, it’s the law, as if that meant it was right, and the police and the courts and the prison guards are just doing their jobs, as if their jobs should exist. I also get told it’s not the fault of the police or whoever, as if they weren’t responsible for their own actions and shouldn’t be expected to question anything. Their individual intentions get brought up when their intentions are irrelevant when the institution sets the rules. If you were a vegan and you worked for a slaughterhouse, would your personal beliefs play a role in your job? Would the people giving you orders and signing your paycheque take them into account?

But I’ve also been told that the institutions aren’t the problem either, just a few bad apples, so don’t think about the institution as a whole, don’t study its impact on its agents or on society. Just look at individuals. Blame the politicians, we’re told, since they make the laws, and then vote them out. Yeah, we’ve tried that but the new ones do the same things, because they have the same rich donors. They have to if they want to win elections, and other than raising their hands that’s pretty much their whole job. And I bet you already knew that. So why don’t we question the power they have, the power to make laws over us, the power to define crime. No number of elections will take that power away from them. People will believe in institutions for hundreds of years based on what they were told in school, and however wide the gap between carefully chosen words and the institutions’ results they never lose faith that one day it might live up to the words. Maybe I should start calling this channel the unquestionable, supreme truth of the universe that everyone should listen to. But then, I’m not taught in school.

The power to define crime is the power to create it. Why do you think there are millions of people in jail around the world? How many of those people ever actually hurt anyone with the actions they’re charged with? And how many of those need to be locked up? Why do we assume the state’s preferred methods of punishing them are legitimate? What if the victims prefer reconciliation or compensation? It doesn’t matter. They have no say in the matter. This is a democracy!

The news and pop culture make us think crime is a big problem when they don’t even define the word. Is crime anything I don’t like and think should be punished? Is crime violent and anti-social? Not necessarily. I think we should stop using the language of our oppressors and say what we mean. And maybe look suspiciously at anyone who wants “law and order”.

“Law and order” means increasing police violence, especially against the poor and people of color. In North America, many laws serve a racist function. We get told there is no systemic racism because the law doesn’t literally state it should be applied unevenly. So you’ve got to look beyond words at the results of those laws, and in the case of the US and Canada, they’ve made black, brown and indigenous people the targets of permanent police occupation, with all the fear and poverty and violence that come with it. In many countries, laws favor citizens, so migrant workers have no protection from predatory bosses and cops.

But laws don’t have to be racist. They just need to serve the people who make them. To keep the veneer of democracy, every law that people actually hear about is held up as having been made with the interests of the whole country in mind. But they never consulted us. They told us what they were going to do to us, they used propaganda to persuade us, then they forced it on us. Why would we think they did it for us? Does this system actually regard us as something other than taxpaying workers who are one mistake away from jail?

The same propaganda telling us we should care about crime also uses the phrase “the rule of law”, as if laws prevented crime rather than creating it. By defining activities as illegal, the state turns whoever was doing those things into criminals. When you’re a criminal, the state claims the power to lock you up and have complete control over your body. And when police, prison guards and private prisons are lobby groups, it actually pays for politicians to criminalize more victimless pursuits and lock more people up. We call them lawmakers but it would be just as accurate to call them criminal makers. That’s why those of us who care about freedom hate Joe Biden and Kamala Harris just as much as their Republican counterparts.

They’re prime examples of criminal makers. And some people actually want to vote for them.

Dealing with crime is the opposite of solving social problems. Stopping and harassing people, locking them in cages, attacking and killing them whenever they resist–this is violence. Why is it ok just because it’s legal? I don’t know all the causes of violence but I can put two and two together. If you’re poor but you live in a culture where your value as a human depends on how much money and stuff you have, you might resort to desperate measures to get some. So how about we make sure poor people have all their needs met? And while we’re at it we can stop admiring others just because they were lucky. And if you say the poor just need to get jobs and work harder, you need to clean the capitalist propaganda out of your head and start questioning what you’ve been told.

And I’m not saying poverty creates crime, because those are two really vague concepts. Does poverty necessarily lead to violence? Maybe. But more importantly, poverty is a result of violence. People are poor because they’ve had everything taken from them, including the support of a community. (I’ve made a video along these lines too.) And some people who’ve been robbed will resort to violence to get some of it back.

But why would we be more concerned with crime, in other words, whatever poor people aren’t allowed to do, when compared to the widescale violence of the state? Another cause of violence is empowering and encouraging people to use violence as agents of the state. Why don’t we compare state and non-state violence? We’re so distracted by a tree we don’t see it’s part of a forest. I find people who are most worried about crime watch or read a lot of news and TV. TV crime shows especially normalize police violence and turn us against its victims. But the news is hardly better. When you follow the news every day, the organizations whose reporting you consume, usually huge media corporations, determine what you consider important. If the news talks about individuals acts of crime, you’re going to think crime is a big problem. And if you look at surveys, you can see perceptions of how big a problem crime is bear no relation to how much there actually is. But we don’t look at the causes of those acts, at the effects of systemic violence, the disproportionate violence against certain groups, like black people, indigenous people, disabled people and trans people. We see racism and sexism as individual phenomena, rather than being embedded in the culture, and we think of them as irrational hatred, rather than calculated self-interest. We don’t think about how systems limit our thinking and our ability to solve problems. We don’t look at the capitalist system’s devastation of the environment, so we think climate change is inevitable. We don’t see how it’s all connected. Too many trees, no forest. In our situation, the idea of crime is meaningless. It’s a propaganda word to distract us and make us think anything we do the state has told us not to do is bad, and anyone who breaks the law deserves punishment. The state is going to continue to criminalize and punish everything we do to fight back to try to stop systemic violence. So why would we trust it to tell us what’s right and wrong?

The label of “criminal” is a stigma people who’ve gone to jail carry their whole lives, even though all adults living under the modern state break the law. Words like crime and criminal throw together everything from stealing a pack of gum to killing a hundred people. These aren’t differences of degree. They’re differences of type. And when we talk about violent crime, we’re still assuming all other things the state says not to do are a problem too, when they might not be. When we talk about crime we’re saying you should be at the state’s mercy whether you harmed someone or not, because the state says so. Maybe we should start thinking about right and wrong for ourselves, instead of outsourcing our thinking to the ruling class.

We don’t even actually stigmatize crime. We stigmatize getting caught. I could steal something and still get a job. But if I get caught and go to jail and have a criminal record, whatever it was for, companies won’t hire me, landlords won’t rent to me, banks won’t lend to me, etc. Some people remark that under capitalism the only real freedom you have is the freedom to starve in the street. But you don’t even have that freedom, because people living in the street are subject to laws against vagrancy and loitering and camping. Unhoused people get harassed, arrested and attacked as much as any group, because they are vulnerable and the police are bullies and they know not enough people will find out about their shitty behavior to do anything about it. I’ve always been told prison is about rehabilitating people to rejoin society. That has never been the intended purpose of any kind of state punishment, and if you want to understand the world you need to look at the history and results of the institutions you’re learning about, not the words used to justify them. Really, the result is the opposite of the rhetoric: the so-called justice system destroys communities and destroys people’s lives so they’re more likely to re-offend.

To me, the most obvious flaw in our beliefs about crime is the double standards. The US military has killed tens of millions of people since World War Two, without trial, without even suspicion of wrongdoing. The people at the top get lucrative jobs and the paid killers get the admiration of millions of ignorant people. If I killed ONE person, regardless how long I spent in jail for it, I would probably never be able to get a job again, never even go into a store without getting called a murderer because I didn’t have state approval and a uniform, and no one told the public I was doing it for freedom. And I would inevitably get a much harsher sentence than the most ruthless cop or soldier, because different groups get different sentences. Black and brown people go to prison for years for selling drugs to willing buyers, while huge corporations who launder drug money get a slap on the wrist. Maybe violence, as distinct from violent crime, is the problem. Maybe we shouldn’t be locking people up just because they stole a pack of gum. Maybe we shouldn’t be selling people into slavery because they stole a pack of gum. Maybe caging and enslaving people is a bigger problem than whatever they were accused of.

Even the idea of the war criminal irks me. It’s a useful term for rhetorical purposes but it perpetuates this belief that legal equals good. We assume the rule of law makes things legitimate so we also assume war is only wrong, or maybe just worse, when a court declares it illegal. We call people like Bush and Obama war criminals and there’s no doubt they’re guilty of war crimes as defined by international law. But what if prosecutors couldn’t find enough evidence for the exact crimes they’re alleging, or more realistically, what if no one actually took war criminals to court? What if the state were selective about which crimes it punishes? Hard to believe, I know. It wouldn’t reduce the number of people Bush and Obama had killed and tortured. It wouldn’t rebuild the houses and schools and hospitals they destroyed. It wouldn’t house the countless refugees they created. The problem is not that a given war is illegal. The problem is some people have the power and even the incentive to kill millions of people because they get rich off it.

So please stop telling me things like “there are bad cops, but…”; “there are bad laws, but…” Stop using the law to justify violence and using crime to justify your fears and prejudices. Support criminals, not cops. Support lawbreakers, not laws. Let’s take our language out of the hands of the ruling class.

Changing the culture by changing the focus

April 14, 2015 4 comments

I have been the head admin of the Facebook page Shit Troop Supporters Say since its founding a year ago today. I have a lot to reflect on. It has been an interesting year.

Occasionally I think it is mean picking on troop supporters. Calling out the average flag-waving support-muh-troops guy for not using logic or knowing history is like making fun of a five-year-old for not understanding quantum physics. (And of course some troop supporters do know those things, so it is best not to stereotype.) But then I remember five-year-olds aren’t the ones beating the drums of war, encouraging murder without trial and torture without evidence. They don’t support the police no matter what they do and then claim to believe in freedom. They don’t tell people they don’t deserve to live somewhere because those people were from the wrong part of the world and didn’t pay the fees, and then tell themselves they believe in freedom for all people. Neither do 5-year-olds refuse to learn the history of the regions and conflicts they are so sure someone needs to bomb. People who have taught millions of 5-year-olds to share and play nicely with each other are willing to lend their unconditional support for actions that cost them thousands of dollars and kill thousands of people who posed no harm to anyone.

Calling out the politicians, meanwhile, which is what troop supporters and liberals (not necessarily mutually exclusive categories, of course) tend to suggest, is a good catharsis but not much of a plan for change. I think focusing on politicians might merely reinforce the status quo. Voters often say they don’t trust any politicians, but when election day comes they nonetheless feel it necessary to cast their vote for someone they don’t trust. There are good reasons you can’t trust politicians and they are mostly related to the requirements for winning in politics.

People who say we just need to change politicians but not blame soldiers for signing up seem to have this fantasy of politicians who will not send the troops into harm’s way on principle. But politicians do not have principles. They have tools and they have enemies. Signing up to carry out their orders requires you to understand that.
One group that does not seem to receive enough focus might be those the politicians work for. It’s not you, by the way. They are much richer than you. The people at the top of the business world are the ones really benefiting. So why do people always talk about politicians? Because voting and complaining about politicians is a brilliant way to let the masses let off steam and keep their eyes on the wrong people, like yelling at a poster on your wall.

So Shit Troop Supporters Say looks at how the elite benefit, but we also look at what troop supporters say. Why? Because as a huge and assertive part of the population, troop supporters are the people unquestioningly believing, reproducing and thus legitimizing or making true the beliefs that keep the wars going. That means a big part of the culture is based on a nationalist-warrior mythos that leads to all kinds of unnecessary violence.

But some people are listening and thinking. And some people already know and trust you. To those people who are actually listening you can show the long history of nationalist myths and racism in the US (or wherever you are from) and their legacies. You can show them the history of propaganda in the US, starting from World War One. You can show them how many statements made to sell wars have been misleading or outright lies, or how little truth the newspapers told about what was going on. You can show them how large groups of people can protect themselves by mutual aid rather than hoping hierarchical militaries will do it. If you can discredit the troop-supporter and war-supporter message by reaching those who might listen, especially people you know, you can change the culture.

But we can’t get there with the wrong approach. You don’t impress people by being arrogant, you don’t pull people in by being pushy and you make others turn their ears off when you insult someone. And most people are either not listening or not easily convinced. The latter need to hear the message clearly and repeatedly and the former are not worth your time. The only reason I would argue with the people you can’t reach is because others are listening, and then would only stick to the facts. I fear we lose many opportunities to communicate by simply using the wrong tone.

At any rate, I consider exposing the ignorance of support for war an important endeavour, one that requires research and patience and a little humour. I hope you will continue to support me!