"Let the inchained soul, shut up in darkness and in sighing, .../ Rise and look out; his chains are loose, his dungeon doors are open."
The idea of America is magnificent, so lovely and impossible it seems unfair to hold us to it. The idea, at its heart, is Freedom. In "America: A Prophecy," the English poet William Blake wrote the above lines to celebrate the birth of the United States.
Blake, who composed that ode to freedom in 1793, would be mightily disappointed to learn that over 2 million prisoners, the most in the world, now crowd our jails, with another 5 million on some sort of supervised probation. This comes to roughly one of every 32 adults in America: We've finally surpassed even Russia, more famous for gulags than for freedom. (Still, Vladimir Putin's trying to catch up again, out of crazy jealousy.)
In addition, hidden in unknown and unregulated prisons around the world, we're holding hundreds of what our government calls "enemy combatants" without trials or even charges. Renaming soldiers and prisoners, like redefining torture, is a dead giveaway that something fishy's going on. These prisoners are always referred to as terrorists, but it's a sure bet that some of them — probably many — are innocent, rounded up in confusion from Afghanistan's dusty streets, laced with bribery and murky tribal paybacks. Paradoxically, one reason they've been there so many years is precisely that there's so little proof they're guilty, and by now it's too scandalous to bring them to trial and find them innocent. (You think they're going to find the evidence tomorrow? The paltry six prisoners they've finally decided to try by military tribunal, a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland court — "Off with their heads!" — will only highlight to the world the abuses of Guantanamo.) Even in our "regular" prisons, it's estimated that around 5 percent are innocent. That's over 100,000 citizens, the population of, say, Clearwater — man, woman and child — wrongly held in the hoosegow. Year after year goes by, but America, transfixed by the traumatic problems of the Spears sisters, seems unconcerned.
(On the plus side, some enlightened prisons are now offering vegetarian meals. That's all we need: healthier criminals who live longer.)
Our jails are also jammed because of the enactment of obtuse and racist drug laws — a kind of legal "surge" — that condemn masses of nonviolent black users of crack cocaine to decades in prison, while slapping the wrists of white sniffers of the powdered variety. This practice, like Guantanamo and torture, doesn't work — drugs are more prevalent than ever, much of them flowing from the Afghan poppy fields we abandoned to attack Iraq. So now we're losing three wars at the same time: on drugs, on terror and the struggle for our once enviable reputation.
There's some history to this. The lawless West is as American as Billy the Kid. And on the East Coast, growing up in Brooklyn, I was fascinated when my father would point out a spooky building near our neighborhood. "That's where the Joey Gallo gang makes moonshine," he'd say. Later we moved to what we called Noo Joisey, because it was "safer," not knowing it would become famous for the semi-fictitious activities of a family called the Sopranos. Today, even here in sweet St. Pete, there's scarcely a neighborhood that doesn't have its Crime Watch Association: it's how we live, arm in arm (armed or unarmed) with crime. "Did you remember to put the club on the steering wheel?" Jeanne asks me.
People say the poor will always be with us, and thus criminals, too. This is dubious — as Barack Obama has pointed out — but in any case, we have more of both than we should. A barrage of spin keeps the numbers of the poor as murky as a Mark Rothko black-on-black canvas; like Rothko, they're hard to get a handle on. But millions of our citizens are poor and in trouble with the law, no matter how defined or counted.
The primaries seem to tell us that America is at last calling for a refutation of this administration's handling of the war, crime and the multiple scandals connecting them. If these scandals were about sex, we might have paid attention earlier.
Our kind of democracy is still an experiment, historically speaking, just 217 years old (dating from the Bill of Rights in 1791). Can it survive elections where the candidates spend half a billion dollars each, while the prisons and schools — sometimes resembling each other — fall apart? Slavery bothered our leaders from the beginning, in one way or another, and we still don't know if we can assimilate our black citizens, not to mention our hard-working immigrants, in a fair and hopeful way. Right now, the way we treat them is a crime.
Blake's poem ends, "And the fair Moon rejoices in the clear & cloudless night;/ For Empire is no more, and now the Lion & the Wolf shall cease." Unfortunately, the Lion and the Wolf are still in charge, at least until November.
This month, Peter Meinke is writer-in-residence at Hamilton College (his alma mater) in New York. In 1955, when he graduated, he received the English Award, dooming him to a life among books, his latest being Unheard Music, a collection of stories.