Tag Archives: judicial system

Prisons, Argumentation, and Good Night and Good Luck

29 Mar

Energy, the environment, and the economy, are often said to be the three most important challenges for America in the 21st century.  Less common are discussions about the problems facing the American judicial system. For example, how it imprisons 25% of the world’s prisoners and results in 1 in 31 Americans being in prison, jail, or some form of supervised release.  A problem rarely discussed because in the eyes of most people, it simply isn’t a problem.

Want less people in prison and you are weak on crime, want people to serve long prison sentences and you are in favor of a brutal and torture prone system.  Predictably, debate breaks down, conversations end, and we go back to talking about the best way to do something about the 3 E’s.

If you’ve never seen “Good Night, and Good Luck”, I recommend you watch it.  It is about the journalist Edward R. Murrow and his dispute with Senator Joe McCarthy over the “tactics” used to root out communism during the 1950s.  The film offers three particularly stunning elements.

  1. Black and white film allows you to see unfamiliar shades and nuances.
  2. The camera angles engagingly betray the controlled chaos of the time and of the Columbia Broadcasting System newsroom.
  3. The diction, word choice, and argumentation technique of Edward R. Murrow

The movie begins with Murrow taking up the case of an Air Force Lieutenant who has been deemed a “security risk” and suspended without trial because his father and sister alledgedly have Communist ties.  Murrow does not argue for the guilt or innocence of the Lieutenant but for the absurdity of a system that suspends the rights of individuals based on who they know, what magazines they subscribe to, or what meetings they have attended.  Today, most rational people woud consider such a system to be a travesty of justice.  Most impressive about Murrow’s argumentation technique is his use of the abstract as a way of asking his audience who amongst them would not be guilty under such a system.  In my mind, Murrow succeeds not by rightly criticizing McCarthy’s virulent anti-communism but by boiling these arguments in a crockpot of history (“we come from men who were not afraid to think unpopular thoughts or do unpopular things”), practicality (“will we arrest every man whose father or brother has gone to a meeting of socialists?”), and optimism (“our nation wil endure against the communist in a battle of weapons but more importantly in a battle of ideas”).

This may be the only way to defeat argumentation by fear.  This combination of history, practicality, and optimism has been used a structural plan for many of candidate and now President Obama’s speeches.  This morning, I was pleased to see a variation of this technique used by Senator Jim Webb of Virginia when discussing our prison problem.

“With so many of our citizens in prison compared with the rest of the world, there are only two possibilities: Either we are home to the most evil people on earth or we are doing something different–and vastly counterproductive.”

Perhaps its been made before but such an argument prepares us to finally have an honest debate on what is one of the great challenges for our country in the 21st century.

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