A True Democracy

A True Democracy

A while back I wrote about Cory Booker’s autobiography, and a quote he included from a housing advocate in Newark. Booker, learning from this advocate, talked about how important it is that everyone have access to housing. Both men believed that housing was a human right, just as we have rights to property, we have rights to stable, affordable, healthy housing. The reason housing must be a human right is because we cannot survive without it. We cannot flourish, we cannot store necessary medications, and we cannot live out our democratic responsibilities without a home. A true democracy helps its people do more than survive – it helps them participate, grow, and be valued members of society. A home is a necessary component of a true democracy.

 

A quote in Johann Hari’s book Chasing The Scream brought these ideas of a true democracy to my mind this morning. Housing is a first step toward solving many of the problems we see in society, but it also depends on how we think about our society and see our responsibilities within society. Right now we are too quick to cast out others and to see their lives as valueless.

 

Writing about drug users and people addicted to drugs, Hari writes, “In a true democracy, nobody gets written off. Nobody gets abandoned. Nobody’s life is declared to be not worth living.” We write off the lives of the homeless, of drug addicts, and of our nation’s poorest people all the time. If we were to be a true democracy, however, we would have to think more critically of our shared stories, futures, and connections, and work to lift up those who we have pushed down. A true democracy doesn’t limit you to your worst quality or mistake, it helps pull you up beyond your lowest point.

 

The quote makes me think about how important housing is for a democracy. You can’t participate in local politics without a local home. You can’t engage meaningfully with your society if you don’t have a place within society that you can call your own. You also, I think Hari would agree, can’t triumph over drug addiction without a home where you can be safe and have the necessary protection from the terrors and pressures which may push you back toward drug use. If we want to be a true democracy, we need to think about the ways in which homelessness leaves people behind, and we have to decide that their lives matter, and that they can’t be written off, even if they have used drugs or committed crimes in the past. Writing them off and shutting them out of our democracy doesn’t help them and doesn’t solve any problems, it only further entrenches the problems that already exist.

Incarceration

Chapter 10 of Senator Cory Booker’s book United focuses on prison in the United States, and Booker begins by quoting Nelson Mandela, “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

 

A few years back I remember someone reading a Facebook post to me about Joe Arpaio, at the time the Maricopa County Sheriff. The post talked about how he was tough on those who had committed crime, deciding that if they were in prison for doing bad things, they would be limited in their rights and freedoms as opposed to coddled and pampered in a jail cell. The post applauded his decision to switch prison clothing to a pink color, his decision to move prisoners outside into tents, his decision to eliminate all television during recreation time and to only keep books on hand for leisure. It was easy to agree with the post, and tempting to share or like it and encourage Nevada prison authorities to move in the same direction.

 

A couple of years later, however, I had a Spanish theater class at the University of Nevada, Reno, and one of the plays focused on social justice, illegal immigrants, and out nation’s response those who come here by crossing our southern boarder. I was exposed to the stories and realities of those crossing the boarder, and I was also exposed to the dark side of Sheriff Arpaio. One play was filled with criticism of Arpaio’s approach to enforcing immigration laws and quoted many of the unsettling and discriminatory things that Arpaio had said. When I looked back at his priorities as sheriff and thought back to the Facebook post praising his decisions regarding jails, I saw things through a new perspective, and could not help but feel that Sheriff  Arpaio was acting in a way that was meant to dehumanize and belittle those in jail. Looking back, Arpaio was encouraging arrests based on racial motives, then demonstrating his power to control the lives of those members of racial minorities who were incarcerated in his prison system. I think it is fair to argue that his practices as Sherif were as much about power and control as they were about protecting society and creating safe communities.

 

Booker begins his discussion of incarceration in United by looking at the people we arrest in the United States and asking whether these people are sub-human, if they are somehow less than those of us who are not arrested, if the best approach to eliminating behaviors that harms society is to quarantine those who commit crimes from the rest of us, and if we can ignore societal problems by simply removing those who cause trouble. Mandela’s quote shows that the answer to these questions is no. The people in jail are still citizens. They are not sub-human, the problems and behaviors that led to the crimes committed cannot be solved simply with incarceration.

 

There may be a reason to remove television from prison, there may be a reason to change their wardrobe to pink, and there may be a reason to set up outdoor tents for housing, but it may be a mistake to assume that those in prison can grow and find the necessary improvement in their thoughts and lives to become productive and respectable people outside of prison simply by being tough and punishing them. I have not studied how we should treat those in prison, but I believe that treating prisoners as humans and showing them respect in a way that preserves some human dignity is key. Having a system that creates penalties and limits freedoms for those who commit crimes is reasonable, but that system should not de-humanize criminals and reduce them to something that does not deserve mutual respect.