Zero tolerance

Sam Smith, 2004 – During the Cold War someone defined the difference between the major parties this way:

In America everything is permitted that is not prohibited.
In Germany everything is prohibited that is not permitted.
In France everything is permitted even though it is prohibited.
In Russia everything is prohibited even though it is permitted.

One of the ironies of that great conflict is that while the Soviets lost the political struggle, they seem to have won the cultural one; America is not only engorging itself on prohibition it constantly brags about it. Raising gross oversimplification, automated distrust, and cultural intolerance to a national credo, one need only declare “zero tolerance” towards some malfeasance to be loudly applauded by public and media alike.

And of what are we zero intolerant? Of students, the poor, those who prefer drugs less addictive or damaging than vodka or tobacco, the alienated, the unconventional, the mentally ill, and any other group that stands zero chance in such a culture.

We are not, however, totally without tolerance,. For example, we tolerate television and movies and computer games that teach some young people how to kill and maim. We tolerate a president who is the anti-democratic, dissembling companion of a gaggle of certified felons and lesser miscreants. We are tolerant of anyone with enough zeroes after the dollar sign in their gross income. We tolerate the destruction of our national, state and local sovereignty by an international gang of lawyers and their corporate clients. We tolerate an extraordinary and growing maldistribution of wealth. The destruction of the environment, the commercialization of community and sport. And so forth.

There is, in fact, no ethical principle that guides us as we veer from cruel suppression to self-serving laissé faire. In its ad hoc nature, its absurd results, and the uniform vulnerability of the targets, zero tolerance reminds one of nothing so much as southern justice before the civil rights movement or the unequal ministration of the law in a police state. In many ways zero tolerance is just another way of saying we have legalized prejudice and hate as well as arbitrary and capricious power.

There is also short shrift given to less brutal and simplistic approaches. For example, a 1996 study by the Rand Institute found that programs to help youths finish high school were five times more cost effective than harsh jail terms. The study also found that parent training programs prevented approximately 160 crimes for every million dollars budgeted for them. In contrast, “three strikes” measures were found to prevent only 62 crimes for every million dollars budgeted. Meanwhile, the most disastrous example of zero tolerance – the war on drugs – continues on autopilot even as the government itself is forced to admit failure.

We live in a time when we are constantly being taught by government and media to forget our most basic instincts, the lessons from our own past, and the wisdom of those who helped us along the way. There is an unstated presumption that we have somehow moved into a period so complex and novel that our own culture and tradition have no further use. If we are to be saved, we must instead upon external protectors such as the law, the military, and a proliferation of plenary prohibitions.

Only the frightened, the defeated, the vengeful, and the badly confused would voluntarily accept such a coup against reason. And even if one explains as simple prejudice the mistreatment of ethnic minorities, the homeless, the addicted, and the otherwise hapless, how does one explain the use against our own young of infinite intolerance — which is, after all, the unspoken corollary of zero tolerance?

Do we really hate them that much? If we cannot treat our own young with compassion, love, and respect then what human is left in us? What worse epitaph for a country than that it despises its own offspring?

Adolescents who ran farms and captained ships when this country was young and its median age was in the teens, have now become surplus demographic inventory. Perhaps this explains our growing intolerance of youth as we cull from those huge cold warehouses called high schools that minority compliant and competent enough needed to fill the country’s productive requirements. The rest we label, dismiss, ignore, punish, and cage if need be.

I do not say we do this consciously, but increasingly I can find no better explanation for the mean-spirited measures espoused on behalf of “normalcy” and for the distaste we display towards our young. We don’t need them, we don’t want them, and we say they are to blame, not just for the errors of their ways, but for existing in the first place.

So grudgingly welcomed into contemporary American culture, the young may react with confusion, creativity, anger, or depression. We can expect a wide range of responses but we should not be surprised if among them is pure rage itself scaled from the silent to the explosive. This rage doesn’t describe a generation, it is not normal, but given the dysfunction of adult America and the technical training in destruction provided by television and movies, we should consider ourselves lucky that it does not reveal itself more often.

And it’s not just the young. Joel Dyer, author of Harvest of Rage, notes that there are 15 million poor middle-age white men in this country “who have more in common with urban blacks and Hispanics than they do with the average CEO.” This constituency has, like that of the young, has been cast adrift by our culture. Says Dyer in an interview in the Sun Magzine, “Once long-term depression, chronic depression, has set in, only three things can happen: One, you can get help through counseling and the like. But because most people caught in an economic crisis don’t have insurance. . . that option doesn’t exist for the bast majority. The next option is that you turn the anger inward, which means maybe you kill yourself or drive your family away . . . The last option is that you turn your anger outward, into some form of anger.”

Dyer points out that there’s no help for these men from the left which has vilified them as “rednecks” and “Bubbas” and they become easy clients of preachers of violence. Just like those kids we dismiss as Goths or part of a “trench coat mafia.”

It doesn’t have to work out like this. We could make it the nation’s business to find a place for everyone, not just for the abandoned young but the abandoned middle-aged and older American as well. We could teach and practice a discipline that grew along with compensating respect and compassion rather than under a cascade of threats and punishments. We could turn our backs on simplistic notions and our hands towards building communities in which no group is considered expendable or irredeemable. And, most of all, we could model ourselves on those who — because of their kindness, wisdom, and tolerance — were able to help even us to grow up as reasonably decent human beings.

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