The American Experiment and Truth Cancer

The American Experiment and Truth Cancer November 6, 2015

When I contemplate the fact that the Land of the Free has a bigger prison population than Stalin, and I read about such Big Brotherism as this:

“The NIH inventors have developed a mobile health technology to monitor and predict a user’s psychological status and to deliver an automated intervention when needed. The technology uses smartphones to monitor the user’s location and ask questions about psychological status throughout the day. Continuously collected ambulatory psychological data are fused with data on location and responses to questions. The mobile data are combined with geospatial risk maps to quantify exposure to risk and predict a future psychological state. The future predictions are used to warn the user when he or she is at especially high risk of experiencing a negative event that might lead to an unwanted outcome (e.g., lapse to drug use in a recovering addict).”

I’m beginning to think that the American Experiment is winding up as a particularly spectacular display of Truth Cancer, whereby heresy winds up mutating into its diametrical opposite.

America started out as an anti-Catholic Puritan culture advertising itself as free of the legalism of papism. It is bidding fair to end as an apostate Puritan culture obsessed with an all controlling state attempt to legislate everything and jail everybody.

But at least it’s still anti-Catholic.

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  • Dave G.

    Technically, America did not start out as an anti-Catholic puritan culture. It started as a land already populated that was seized for king and commerce. And long before the once fabled, now maligned, puritans arrived at Plymouth, Catholics had long since celebrated their first mass and slaughtered their first natives. By the time the United States of America was formally started, the puritanical strains were a minor part of the whole national fabric, the Great Awakenings included. If we want to solve the problems, being honest about the details is an important step. The reasons why we are where we are are legion, for they are many. But few now, if any, have much to do with a few dozen puritans fleeing oppression who happened to stumble on a certain strip of land four hundred years ago.

    • MarylandBill

      I think it is fair to say that 1. While what happened to the American Indians was unjust, they themselves were not the start of American culture in the sense of American culture being defined as the culture of the United States. 2. The Catholics who were present in America prior to the foundation of Plymouth colony were not the origin of American culture. 3. I think it is hard to argue that the Puritanism has not played a major role in the shaping of American culture. At the very least, America has been strongly influenced by the beliefs of Puritanism and in a larger sense a Calvinistic interpretation of Protestant Christianity. It is not without reason that the American Revolution was born in Massachusetts, or that the American economy has been built on the back of the Protestant Work Ethic (i.e., the way to prove that God favor’s you is to work hard and be prosperous). Even today that notion still fills American culture which is why “Christians” pushing the prosperity Gospel are so common.

      • Dave G.

        I never said puritanism played no part. But to say our country was started as an anti-Catholic puritan culture is simply overstating a hundred cases. And yes, Calvinism had its influence as well, but the recent fab trend of laying the sins of the States at the foot of John Calvin is, again, overstating many cases. I’m in complete agreement about the influence that the Plymouth settlers had on our revolutionary spirit, and that the origins of the Revolution in Massachusetts is far from a coincidence. But again, America did not start as an anti-Catholic puritan experiment, no matter how you shuffle the historic deck of cards. And that tends not to help in understanding why we are heading a hundred miles an hour toward the cliff with little evidence we are going to turn to the left or right to avoid it.

        Oh, and for the record, I miss the finer points of that old Protestant work ethic, especially as we see the lack of any particular work ethic to replace it other than ‘what’s in it for me’ and the mischief that particular approach to labor and economics seems to have on the world at large. A little ‘I do my work for the glory of God’ doesn’t do bad in balancing the tendency of humans to prefer the ‘what’s in it for me’ approach to things.

    • Art Deco

      No, it wasn’t that populated. The aboriginal population in North America had no cities and was commonly engaged in hunting-and-gathering, pastoralism, and low-productivity farming. They were very thin on the ground.

  • As I understand it, the proportion of population jailed, plus those in mental institutions have not changed much. Since taking someone who is mentally deficient out of the asylum and putting him in jail is not a step forward by anybody’s imagination, this is something of a scandal. It is, however, not the scandal you’re pointing out. We should not just be scandalized by sinful behavior but also identify the right sin. It is a necessary component of repentance and forgiveness.

    I’m in favor of legal reform, criminal justice reform, and mental health reform, all aimed at not unjustly imprisoning anyone and keeping us all as safe as can be managed without a police state. That’s going to go better if we understand the nature and origins of the problem accurately.

    As for the invention, I’m a big believer in owning your own technology, a stance which makes abuse of the invention impossible. The only place I can see this justly being deployed is as a condition of parole to enlarge the pool of prisoners who can be safely released from prison. May this technology only ever be used justly.

    • Art Deco

      Had the asylum population increased pari passu with the general population over the last 60 years, we’d have 1.5 million in state hospitals. We have fewer than 100,000 therein. One reason is that certain sorts of inmates (eg. the senile and the retarded) are in institutions adapted to their specific deficits (i.e. nursing homes and group homes). Another is that certain sorts of ailments have disappeared (e.g. tertiery syphilis). Another is you can care for a great many schizophrenics as outpatients; you don’t need hideous 24 hour care. Another is that state financing of private facilities is available, through Medicaid or other programs. You haven’t just transferred the lunatic population from the asylum to the jail or prison and, no, 2/3 of the people in jail are not addled by schizophreniform disorders.

      • Approximately 1.2 million mentally ill people are housed in correctional institutions. That’s not equivalent to your guesstimate of 1.5M that would have been housed absent deinstitutionalization but it really isn’t that far off.

        Research your facts.

        • Art Deco

          Approximately 1.2 million mentally ill people are housed in

          correctional institutions.

          Here’s the white paper to which they refer

          The white paper does not refer to ‘mentally ill’ people but to people with a ‘mental problem’. What counts as a ‘mental problem’ is listed, and it’s mostly perfectly meh. Only a small minority of these people would have been candidates for long-term incarceration in an asylum in 1955.

          • You’re right that the underlying study put in a lot of mental health problems that are not, by themselves, major worry factors. That’s why they have mental illness numbers of about 1 in 2. However, the subcategories that are serious are large enough that we should be looking at reform.

            They asked about two psychosis symptoms, delusions and hallucinations. 15% of the state prison population responded positively to at least one of the two. That’s almost 200k psychotics in state institutions alone. Local jails are housing another 180k psychotics.

            So, yes, a small minority of a huge number would have been committed under the old system. That doesn’t seem to invalidate my point that we should have reform to get these mentally ill people off the streets and have both a safer society and better treatment for the mentally ill.

            btw: Just so we’re on the same page and you can check my math, I’m pulling incarceration numbers from here:


  • Nate Winchester

    Well who cares about Big Brotherism when we can get such cool engineering feats out of it, eh Mark? Just think of it as another step along the way to Eurotopia, after all, how can the government take care of us if it doesn’t know anything about us?

    Oh and let’s see… population of USSR under Stalin? 170-172 million. America’s population? 300+ million. Yes, how dare we, with twice the population, have a greater prison population. Do you even, math?

    • Alma Peregrina

      “Just think of it as another step along the way to Eurotopia, after all, how can the government take care of us if it doesn’t know anything about us?”

      Hum… may I just say that this Eurotopia thing you just mentioned is in full force on the US with that NSA thingy, and with exactly the same lame excuses of “taking care of us”?

      • Nate Winchester

        True, though the NSA’s invasions of our privacy still don’t hold a candle to what the IRS pulls and does routinely. Yet I notice those who always complain about the NSA are usually eager to put even more power (greater than the NSA has) into the IRS’ hands.

        • Alma Peregrina

          I just kneejerked about your reference to Eurotopia, when the US does much worst on the thing you just mentioned. And yes, your IRS link just proves that even further.

          • Nate Winchester

            I’m not sure there’s enough of a difference between the two to really say which is worst or better. It’s just something people have to keep in mind: governments will always try to make citizens legible to itself. Give the government a reason to be invested in its citizens (whether security or welfare), and you get a natural force opposed to privacy.

  • Cypressclimber

    the Land of the Free has a bigger prison population than Stalin…

    There probably are too many people in prison; there are definitely too many laws, and there are abuses by prosecutors. I’m all for slashing away it all.

    But the statement above by the blog host is both obtuse and offensive.

    • Dave G.

      On too many laws. A priest from West Africa was at our parish for a couple years. He was talking to the RCIA class about the whole idea that the Church is all about laws and rules. And he said something that’s one of those ‘different perspective’ moments. He said, ‘What is wrong with laws? Why do so many people complain about all the laws? Try living in a country destroyed by civil war and taken over by a military dictatorship. Laws are good.’ I’m with you, we have a lot of laws. And not all laws are good, and I doubt he meant to imply otherwise. But the idea of ‘too many laws’ might be the result of me never being in a situation where the entire structure of my society disintegrated, leaving me at the mercy of the strongest, meanest, and most ruthless on a daily basis. One of the nice things I’ve discovered about the Church is the tendency for it to be represented by people who have perspectives I can’t begin to identify with.

    • chezami

      Tough. It’s a fact.

      • Cypressclimber

        Not so. Under Stalin, the entire USSR was a prison.

        It is possible to make a point without absurd and odious comparisons.

      • Nate Winchester

        Yeah, out of context. If the gulag held about 5 million at it’s height, out of 170+ mil population that’s an imprisonment rate of 2.9%. The US imprisoning 6 mil with a total population of 318.9 mil puts us at 1.8%. Hey, Mark, you know what? There’s more catholics than eastern orthodox in jail! Gee by your logic, Catholics are just worst people.

        Oh wait a minute, it’s not actually a fact. Hmmm… world prison brief puts US at 2+ million, New Yorker puts “correctional supervision” at 6 mil. I wonder how it came up with… oh surprise, no source given. Bureau of Justice Statistics? 2 million again. Wikipedia? 2+ million again.

        So no, it is NOT a fact, you’re just once again spreading inaccuracies.

      • iamlucky13

        Ok, so what do we do about that fact?

        The implication seems to be that some of the people in prison should not be there.

        So please, fill in some of the missing data. What proportion of prisoners are in for what causes, and which one’s should we be releasing?

        From what little data I’ve seen, not many people in prison, especially those there for more than 90 days, are there for drug use, for example. But a lot of them are there for drug use AND another crime, usually violent if it was enough to get them sentenced to prison for more than 90 days.

        Or are you suggesting that they’re being falsely convicted? If so, what evidence can you present to help us identify and fix that problem?

        Or are you simply suggesting that we adopt the physically punishing correctional tactics the USSR used that resulted in recidivism rates that even western experts agree were low?

        Honestly, I’m bothered by how high our prison population is, too, and I’d really hope that in particular we can come with and consistently implement dependency treatment programs that are actually effective.

        But comparisons to Stalinist Russia are usually unproductive antagonisms that don’t even identify, much less help resolve the root problems that lead to such high prison populations.

        I honestly wonder how much deepening egoism, materialism, and pleasure-seeking in a country that is truly wealthy but often shocked to find wealth doesn’t make it happy plays a role. Secular society, unfortunately, does not want to hear a Catholic perspective on those issues, and most definitely does not want Catholic teaching to play a political role in fixing it.

        • Dave G.

          Ok, so what do we do about that fact?

          Probably verify if it is a fact or not. I think the general consensus in the thread seems to be that there are several factual problems with the post. Not that there aren’t problems, and that the post is right to want to solve them, but problems are best solved by having the facts mean something, and making sure they are actually facts in the first place.

        • Art Deco

          From what little data I’ve seen, not many people in prison, especially
          those there for more than 90 days, are there for drug use, for example.

          No. Only about 20% or so are there on charges for which the top count is a drug charge, and these are generally trafficking charges or trafficking plea-bargained down. There are others there for possession consequent to parole violations and misbehavior on probation. Few people are sent to prison for possession alone.

    • Art Deco

      there are definitely too many laws,

      Your conflating the problems in the federal criminal code with state codes. About 87% of those incarcerated are so for violations of state code. Have a look at the text of the Penal Law of New York. There isn’t much there which smacks of criminalization of ordinary business activity or offenses analagous to the structuring charges which tripped up Dennis Hastert. You could consolidate provisions and tidy up some titles, but you’re not going to make much of a substantive difference in what sort of behavior counts as criminal unless you try to do something unwise like legalizing trade in street drugs.

  • Art Deco

    When I contemplate the fact that the Land of the Free has a bigger prison population than Stalin,

    The mean time actually served for those remanded to state prisons is 30 months. Not exactly eternity. About 60% of all of those convicted are not remanded to state prison. They received time served or receive any one of a long menu of alternatives to incarceration.

    If you wish to stop enforcing the law, there will be disagreeable consequences. We have a much larger population than any European country, we have a promiscuous criminal element which is proportionately larger than is the case in Europe, and we haven’t resigned ourselves to hideous levels of public disorder a la Brazil or Mexico. If you’d like a Brazilian or Mexican regime in law enforcement, you might move there and quit making inflammatory remarks and striking attitudes. If you want training wheels first, Puerto Rico is just as disorderly as Brazil but somewhat more affluent.