Reductive Seduction

There’s a great article circulating among international development people that also addresses mass incarceration in the US. Who knew there were so many connections between these two worlds of mine?

Written by Courtney Martin, it’s titled, “The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems.” I’ll quote the opening here:

“Let’s pretend, for a moment, that you are a 22-year-old college student in Kampala, Uganda. You’re sitting in class and discreetly scrolling through Facebook on your phone. You see that there has been another mass shooting in America, this time in a place called San Bernardino. You’ve never heard of it. You’ve never been to America. But you’ve certainly heard a lot about gun violence in the U.S. It seems like a new mass shooting happens every week.

“You wonder if you could go there and get stricter gun legislation passed. You’d be a hero to the American people, a problem-solver, a lifesaver. How hard could it be? Maybe there’s a fellowship for high-minded people like you to go to America after college and train as social entrepreneurs. You could start the nonprofit organization that ends mass shootings, maybe even win a humanitarian award by the time you are 30.

“Sound hopelessly naïve? Maybe even a little deluded? It is. And yet, it’s not much different from how too many Americans think about social change in the ‘Global South.’”

These are real Tindr photos from her article:

World SaverWorld Saver2

Martin goes on to write about the problem of mass incarceration in this country—where are all the new graduates lined up to campaign for change on that? I’ve never met one. I have, however, met many young people who fervently want to work for my organization. Whenever we post a job, we get hundreds of applications, even for admin positions. We get a lot of candidates who can recite all 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but they can’t enter names into a data base without lots of mistakes. They have no interest in fundraising, finance, HR, or any of the other jobs that keep a nonprofit organization humming. They want to get their foot in the door, then jump to the first “meaningful” job that comes open.

They’re not bad people. I don’t blame them for wanting a job that might send them off around the world to help torture survivors, a job that will cause their peers to fawn over them with admiration. As an English friend once said, “You’ve got a job that’s every Lib Dem’s wet dream.” I once had a woman bow down to me when I told her where I work. Super uncomfortable.

And let’s face it, for those of us who crave the exotic, Nairobi fits the bill a lot better than Moose Lake, Minnesota.

When I was in the Occupied Palestinian Territories … there — I did that thing that my set does. We start sentences with, “When I was in Peru …” or Ethiopia, or wherever. I’m sure people who don’t travel to those places, or who wouldn’t be caught dead in those places, find it really annoying.

But, when I was in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, I was invited to write an article about it for a local publication. I did, but I also wrote about Vince’s being in prison, mass incarceration, and how people in the US seem to care a lot more about Palestinians than prisoners who live a few miles away. I can’t be sure why, but they never published it.

You may be thinking, “Who is she to criticize–why doesn’t she work on prison reform?  Erm…I am, in my own way.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting to work on international issues; just be aware of your motivations and your ego.

To quote Martin’s article further: “Most American kids … have some sense of how multi-faceted problems like mass incarceration really are. Choosing to work on that issue … means studying sentencing reform. The privatization of prisons. Cutting-edge approaches already underway, like restorative justice and rehabilitation. And then synthesizing, from all that studying, a sense of what direction a solution lies in and steadfastly moving toward it.”

Maybe Martin’s article will inspire someone to become the Martin Luther King Jr. of prison reform.

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