by Yale Magrass
Changing Lives Through Literature may be one of the best rehabilitation programs ever conceived. However, the goal of rehabilitation is to help someone adjust to society, and indeed, once someone has engaged in violent crime they need to be brought to recognize how self-destructive that is. Implicitly, in rehabilitation, the question “is this a society to which you should adjust?” is seldom raised. Society becomes the standard to which the individual must conform. Nevertheless, if someone is to turn away from violence, he (males in particular) must understand the forces which drew him to it.
The United States may present itself as peace-loving democracy, but it is actually a militaristic empire, conceived in slavery and genocide, with a long history of atrocities against many peoples, including Native Americans, Africans, Mexicans, Filipinos, Native Hawaiians, Japanese, Vietnamese and Iraqis. Whether violence is innate within human nature or contradictory to it, the people who orchestrate such a society need to produce cannon fodder, ready to kill and die at their command.
The military and prisons draw from similar populations. Judges sometimes offered enlisting in the army as an alternative sentence to jail. I propose including All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, often acclaimed as the greatest novel ever written about war, in the repertoire of Changing Lives Through Literature.
Although it is about life in the German trenches during World War I, the horrors it depicts are typical of virtually all wars, fought by almost all countries, including the American invasion of Iraq. It tells how boys growing up in Germany were raised to think of war as something glorious, adventurous and fun, only to endure trauma, more brutal than nearly any prison, with a much lower chance of being released alive, for a cause which no one understood. It suggests the typical French or British soldier was no different than the average German, with whom they might have been friends had they met somewhere other than the battlefield. The front line soldiers of warring countries may have far more in common with each other than with their respective officers, who, in sending them to kill and die, could be their real enemies.
A militarist state must raise boys, ready and able to commit violence, ideally enthusiastically, providing it is directed against peoples whom their rulers deem enemies. As the typical American boy grows up, the media inundates him with violence and perhaps immunizes him to it. For generations, boys have been watching John Wayne Westerns, showing how lawmen must conquer outlaws and the land must be purged of savages. British spy James Bond is “licensed to kill.” Without vigilant law enforcement ordinary citizens will be at the mercy of psychopaths, like the one who terrorized the countryside in No Country for Old Men. Bomber pilots, like John McCain, are upheld as paragons of heroic moral virtue. For the generation now filling the prisons, while growing up, killing bad guys in video games was among the most popular recreational activities.
Rulers, who need cannon fodder, do not want an education system that makes all students independent creative thinkers. Schools in the neighborhoods, where most soldiers and prisoners grow up, tend to emphasize drill and rote memorization. Rather than fostering intellectual curiosity, they transform learning into a tedious alienating experience. This may not be a failure, but fulfillment of its true purpose. They leave pupils angry and frustrated, but suggestible, because they have not developed the critical tools to understand the source of their discontent. For many of them, Changing Lives through Literature may be their first exposure to the possibility that learning can be something else. The No Child Left Behind Act mandates that schools turn over their student rosters to military recruiters. A school is deemed successful if it sends its products to the army as well as to college. The more repelled by learning a student is, the more open to the military recruiter he is likely to be.
Vague inarticulate discontent is volatile and can go in polar opposite directions. People, acclimated to violence, but without the necessary analytical or social skills to maintain a good job, may find themselves on the street, aimless, if they do not end up in the army. In some cases, the military may not even want them. They must redirect their aggression somewhere, perhaps against the society, which bred them for violence, and crime might be a likely alternative. The street gang might provide a source of social support and camaraderie. In the face of the terrors of the front line, the soldiers in All Quiet on the Western Front bonded with each other to point of being willing to sacrifice for their fellow pawns, even if they thought the cause for which they were sent to kill and die was a sham.
To end violent crime, we must first transform a society which uses violence as its means to assert domination. Changing Lives through Literature may provide very effective means to help victims, once the damage is done.
Yale Magrass is a Chancellor Professor of Sociology/Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth where he teaches “Social Thought,” “Political Sociology” and “Social Impact of Science and Technology.” He is the author of three books and over thirty articles. His most recent book is Morality Wars: How Empires, the Born Again, and the Politically Correct Do Evil in the Name of Good (with Charles Derber).