Years and Justice

With the news of the massacre in Norway comes the news that Norway’s maximum prison term is 21 years. The self-appointed pundits are angry:

“Most murderers in Norway spend just 14 years behind bars. The terrorist is 32 years old. He will get out when he’s 53. That means he’s serving about 3 months for every person he murdered. Justice?” asked a blogger at Big Peace.

Now, there may well be arguments to make that 21 years is not enough punishment for the perpetrator of this horror. But this particular argument cannot be it. It rests upon an obviously absurd premise: that there is any number of months, or years, or decades, or eternities that would ever be commensurate to the number of persons he murdered — that would ever amount to “justice.” Continue reading Years and Justice

Our Nation’s Credit Card

Recently, I’ve noticed a tendency among everyone’s favorite denizens — web commenters — to make facile but elaborate analogies between the national debt and their personal credit card bills. But whatevs: when you read some random anonymous typer’s earnest explanation of how the debt ceiling is the precise equivalent of your college-age daughter’s MasterCard limit, you always have the option to assure yourself, “Well, it’s the Internet. Anyone can say anything” and move on with your day.

But now our president, too, has adopted the trope — for instance, last night in his latest speech on the Great Debt Ceiling Impasse of 2011, in which he stated: Continue reading Our Nation’s Credit Card

Don’t Call It -gate

Here’s Bruce Schulman, in his book The Seventies, decrying the proliferation of “-gate”s in American political culture (p. 43):

Watergate would leave a tangled legacy. Most obviously, it triggered the “gating” of American life. Every subsequent scandal—no matter how petty—has received the suffix “-gate.” … From this misleading practice, millions drew the unfortunate conclusion that these scandals somehow resembled each other—that they all revealed the same corrupt, sleazy political underworld.

But the “-gate” suffix confused old-fashioned graft with true constitutional crises. Worst of all, the practice led Americans to conflate Watergate with all the other “-gates” it seemed to generate. Watergate was unique; it forever altered the way Americans understood politics and the presidency, the way they reported and discussed national politics, the way they conceived, investigated, and understood wrongdoing by government officials.

Watergate was much more than a bungled attempt to break into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in the Watergate apartment and office complex … Nixon’s abuse of power preceded the burglary and extended far beyond it. In the course of unraveling the Watergate story, investigators uncovered a wide range of sordid and illegal activities—a rogue government.

Against Gobbledygook

Alfred Kahn’s 1977 memo to the Civil Aeronautics Board, instructing members to avoid “the artificial and hyper-legal language that is sometimes known as bureaucratese or gobbledygook,” is not just a comic orthogon to the history of paperwork (about which, more here) but also a font of still-useful writing tips. The wonderful Letters of Note blog has the full letter. Here’s Kahn on the passive voice:

The passive voice is wildly overused in government writing. Typically, its purpose is to conceal information: one is less likely to be jailed if one says “he was hit by a stone,” than “I hit him with a stone.” The active voice is far more forthright, direct, and human. (There are, of course, some circumstances in which the use of the passive is unavoidable; please try to confine it to those situations.)

The Paragraph Project (4)

The big challenge in historical writing is how to interweave big-picture themes and explanations with the stuff of day-to-day individual lives. (As vs., say, if you’re an economist, you don’t explicitly need to talk about the latter and if you are a novelist, or anyway a novelist not named Tolstoy, you don’t explicitly need to talk about the former. Historians, most of them anyway, try to at least nod to both. OK, end dramatically oversimplified disciplinary caricatures.) I was recently re-reading Rebirth of a Nation, by Jackson Lears, and here’s a paragraph in which he shuffles his zoom lenses:  Continue reading The Paragraph Project (4)

Soft Launch

So I guess they might call it re-branding, in the corporate world: anyway, here’s my new website. It’s basically an upgrade of the WordPress site I’d been tinkering with for a few months, now self-hosted and more bloggy. I’m hoping to use this site to do more regular sharing of thoughts on what I’m reading, my research, pedagogy, and other topics that aspiring-academic types like me think about. In addition to history, I read a lot of novels, long-form journalism, and cultural criticism, so expect some commentary on matters of style, too. For instance, I like to keep track of well-structured paragraphs that I come across, so those are what the “Paragraph Project” posts are about. Beyond those predictions, the site is a work in progress, so I guess we’ll just have to see what exactly turns up here.

I’ve sort of been my own inspiration in deciding to branch out into more of a general-interest blogger (well, a general-interest academic blogger). For the past year I’ve been blogging about prison law and policy issues at Prison Law Blog (which I’ll keep doing). Now, I am a skeptic about a lot of claims people make for the Internet and in my ideal world, we would all still be reading newsprint and typing on Olivettis. But I will say that in the criminal justice space, I have found that blogging has been an incredible way to share ideas and to meet, albeit virtually, other people interested in similar issues as I am — to a degree that has far exceeded my expectations. But Prison Law Blog is definitely more of a Sara-as-Citizen project than Sara-as-Scholar (not that they’re totally separable). Although I do study the history of crime and punishment, and I keep up with the scholarly literature on prisons, I don’t actually do a lot of work on prisons per se in my own research. So, I guess I’m hoping that I can use this site to do for my day job what Prison Law Blog has done for my side gig as criminal justice gadfly.