The Culture of Vengeance and the Fate of American Justice
Terry K. Aladjem | 2008-01-14 00:00:00 | Cambridge University Press | 266 | Jurisprudence
America is driven by vengeance in Terry Aladjem's provocative account - a reactive, public anger that is a threat to democratic justice itself. From the return of the death penalty to the wars on terror and in Iraq, Americans demand retribution and moral certainty; they assert the "rights of victims" and make pronouncements against "evil." Yet for Aladjem this dangerously authoritarian turn has its origins in the tradition of liberal justice itself - in theories of punishment that justify inflicting pain and in the punitive practices that result. Exploring vengeance as the defining problem of our time, Aladjem returns to the theories of Locke, Hegel and Mill. He engages the ancient Greeks, Nietzsche, Paine and Foucault to challenge liberal assumptions about punishment. He interrogates American law, capital punishment and images of justice in the media. He envisions a democratic justice that is better able to contain its vengeance.
Justice, not Vengeance - this riveting book makes the thoughtful case that substituting vengeance for justice is a problem for democracy as such. Especially in the US, society exercizes vengeance instead of justice. From TV cop shows, malpractice lawsuits, issues of race and the death penalty, author Terry Aladjem argues we are substituting the cheap nickel of vengeance for the dollar of moral justice - and we all pay the price of that meanness. Tracing his argument in civil and legal discourse, and in literature, from the Greeks through South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Aladjem's argument is bold and convincing. Indeed, it evoked in me that fore-heading smiting, "why didn't I see that?!" reaction of things that are patently true.
A must-read for anyone interested in where our legal, civil, and social systems are heading.
Aladjem argues here that modern liberal democracy is founded on a "mistake": the misguided idea that the impulse to vengeance can be peaceably transformed into a rational system of punishment. This cannot be done, he thinks; the vengeful impulses are barely contained and waiting to burst out. He sees our system as hitting a breaking point in which our society may explode into crisis.
The author is certainly right that punitive justice in America has become steadily more extreme in terms of the severity of sentences & number of people behind bars; it certainly needs reform. But is this really a fundamental crisis in democracy itself? Or a demonstration, in the Marxist vein (with a touch of Freud as well), that liberal democracy is beset with internal contradictions? I doubt it. For one thing, Aladjem ignores the counterexample of the many liberal democracies in Europe, which have not seen any such dramatic growth in the criminal justice system, and so displays no internal "contradiction" in liberalism. This suggests the problems is something about America, not democracy itself, though the author doesn't explore this possibility.
This book feels like one of those fashionable leftist critiques of liberalism that were popular in the 1970s and 1980s, which also often used to predict the coming crisis of our society as it foundered on its internal contradictions. Needless to say that never happened, and I doubt it will now. There are many problems facing American society, but the idea that democracy is under threat of collapse due to the repressed desire for revenge is just not convincing.
Not only political theorists but anyone who cares about the fate of American justice (and justice more broadly) should consult this provocative and important book. Scholars of liberalism, in particular, will benefit from its challenge to the notion that liberalism has somehow solved the political problem of punishment. It should unsettle assumptions and prompt a rethinking of the moral and theoretical premises of liberalism. Highly recommended.
This is a brilliant analysis of a deep and troubling tendency in American culture. If you have time for only one serious book this summer, let this be the one--while it is an erudite examination of vengeance across time and place, it has special relevance for the upcoming election.
Professor Aladjem supports his observations about our vengeful society with the works of our civilization's philosophers. With words from Sartre, Nietzche, the Bible, and even a joke from Freud, he presents the reader with insights and observations we must face if we are to progress as a people. He looks at the myth of closure, the struggle to be treated fairly by life, and the influence media has on our self-perception. This book would be a useful addition to any student or teacher who wishes to understand the difference between self-destructive and biased reactions and reasoned and thoughtful responsibility.
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