Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Where Is The Balance?

By now y'all have seen the video above of Jorge Garcia saying goodbye to his family before being escorted away by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. I'm not going to re-litigate the details of his case here; we all know what they are. The consensus among the general public is that Mr. Garcia's consequences here are needlessly harsh. Which raises the following question, not just in relation to this case:

When are we going to lose our Puritanical streak? I mean, it's been nearly 500 years.

According to popular history, the Pilgrims fled to America to escape persecution. While the terms "Pilgrim" and "Puritan" are often used interchangeably when discussing pre-Colonial American history, the truth is that the Pilgrims were a separatist movement within Puritanism. Puritans were a sect of Protestantism that sought to "purify" the Church of England from its "Catholic" practices. The Pilgrims, on the other hand, felt that the Church of England was too far gone and therefore new churches should be formed.

Interestingly, our current Puritanical leanings are based in untruths. For example, a common conception of Puritans as being prudish is only partially true ... Puritans were quite open about sexuality, provided it was within marriage -- in fact, one Puritan settlement in Western Massachusetts banished a husband and sent him into exile because he refused to fulfill his marital duties to his wife1.

The problem, in my view, is that American society still hangs on to vestiges of this Puritanism ... the false view of Puritanism. We see it all around us, in the way we deal with gender issues, or criminal justice, or commerce. Underlying all of these things is a very basic concept: retribution.

For instance, let's consider criminal justice. For decades progressives have been advocating for a criminal justice system that focuses more on rehabilitation, the thinking being that it makes more sense to teach criminals how to not be criminals so they can actually contribute to society when they are released. Our inner Puritans, however, take a much harsher view: that punishment must be swift, severe, and uncompromising, and any display of mercy is merely a display of weakness. For nearly fifty years, this Puritan sensibility has won out, with the result that we have overcrowded prisons and absurdly high rates of recidivism.

Mr. Garcia's case illustrates this undercurrent perfectly. Yes, he violated the law (whether he should be held liable for that, given that he was only ten years old, is a different topic altogether). Under a rehabilitative model, his thirty years of being a model resident, and the fact that he is raising a family of citizens with his citizen wife, should all be factored in. We should be not only looking at the original infraction, but also the effect this is going to have on his kids -- who, as citizens, have rights that may be being violated here.

However, the trump administration is taking the "retribution" route, insisting that he broke the law and punishment must be meted out. It matters not whether this punishment is proportional or even appropriate, the driving force here is vengeance through retribution.

How will Garcia's case end up? Hard to say. There are a number of groups taking up his cause (and, by extension, the cause of all other undocumented immigrants with families who are citizens), and it is entirely possible that he will get a day in court and be re-united with his family. However, until we grow out of this mindset of "gotta get even" and turn toward a more thoughtful, nuanced approach, we will be seeing heartbreaking stories like this repeated over and over and over ...

I gotta lie down.

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1Coffin, Charles (1987), The Story of Liberty: So You Will Comprehend What Liberty Has Cost, and What It Is Worth, Maranatha Publications, ISBN 093855820X

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