Until last Thursday, I was under the impression that the defunct Davenport Campus Center would be transformed into a building known as the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life, and I found this development to be entirely pleasing. For too long have the disciples of the social sciences been cloistered inside their single building, while more naturally scientific minds were given Hall-Atwater, Shanklin and Exley to serve their academic needs. More data analysis labs, office space for faculty and lounges for those of us studying the social sciences seemed a welcome addition to the campus, and few people were looking more forward to the construction of this new edifice than I. So imagine my shock and disappointment when a friend of mine telephoned me on Thursday and informed me that instead of the Allbritton Center for Public Life, Davenport would instead be housing something called the Allbritton Center for Social Justice.
Having now seen the floor plans for this new “Center for Social Justice,” I must confess that while I am mildly enthusiastic about the addition of some of its facilities, one in particular has persuaded me to behave in a criminal fashion. That is the Prisoner Education Project.
This program’s stated purpose is to provide imprisoned convicts with the ability to engage in interactive video conferences with Wesleyan courses, take those courses for credit and earn accredited Wesleyan degrees by taking all such courses. Once a convict is accepted, he will be able to earn a college degree from the same school as me and my fellow students.
Being a practical person, once I learned of this program I instantly decided to commit a crime—not a big crime like murder, but a little crime like breaking and entering or assault. Or, to put it another way, a crime with a minimum sentence of at least two years, since that is the number of years I have left to complete at Wesleyan. After all, why should I spend those two years as a free civilian, in which case I would have to incur thousands of dollars in student loans to pay for my Wesleyan education, when I could go to prison for two years and get the rest of my Wesleyan education free and leave with a degree either way?
Sarcasm aside, however, it is a good thing that this proposed “Social Justice Center” turned out to be a massive joke, along with the abomination that was the “Prisoner Education Project,” an enterprise which was not only financially unjust, but completely contrary to Wesleyan’s commitment to the notion of a “Safe space” (a place where a neo-Nazi hate criminal and a Jewish student can share a classroom is not a safe space, even if the sharing is purely abstract). However, the “joke” does speak volumes about a concept with which the Wesleyan student body has been, and still is entirely too preoccupied: the notion of “social justice.” Now, nothing is wrong with the term itself—it’s just another example of boilerplate idealist rhetoric—but frequently the term is used as an indictment of institutions that are vital to both society and justice! For that matter, examples of the enemies of “Social justice” usually read like a hit list compiled by Huey Newton, Bill Ayers, Jeremiah Wright and Karl Marx. Take, for instance, the most recent addition to this group—the police establishment.
Oh yes, the police are now the enemies of “Social justice.” It’s not enough to educate the prisoners, heavens no! We have to set them free too. You see, all of society is bound up with the machinations of what is conspiratorially referred to as the “prison-industrial complex.” Despite the images of storm troopers and force lightning, which this term conjures, however, the institution described is fairly rational. The “prison industrial complex” refers to the tendency by corporations to use prisoners as cheap labor, and is supposed to invoke the notion that those prisoners are placed behind bars only to serve corporate interests, rather than because they have committed violent crimes. Clearly, if this “complex’s” enemies had their way, there would be a memorial to the suffering of Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer, because it can’t possibly be that some members of the prison community deserve what they get. And to make matters worse, frequently this attack on the “complex” transfigures into an attack on the whole notion of a legal system, claiming that merely the existence of power is sufficient to create violence and hate.
The most recent example of this sort of naïve, counter-historical, anti-legal carping was a protest instigated by the tragic case of Sean Bell. Now, I will not claim that the grievances of Mr. Bell’s defenders are unwarranted. Clearly, the case is tragic and hopefully, the NYPD’s internal affairs department is dealing very strictly with the police officers who thought that firing 50 bullets was a good idea. However, even if you concede that the case was a complete miscarriage of justice, that is an argument for amending the way the legal system works, not abolishing it altogether, which is what many of the Sean Bell sympathizers here at Wesleyan seem to want to do. Accusations have been thrown around that the police officers were racists. I must point out, however, that two of them were black, so the racism explanation is clearly wanting. Worse yet, some have argued that PSafe itself is complicit in this malevolent act of racial profiling, an argument for which there is NO evidence aside from a few perfectly harmless e-mails warning the Wesleyan Community of threats.
Of course, this outpouring of anti-legal sentiment in the name of “social justice” is hardly new. Prison abolitionists have been scampering about this campus since I was a freshman, and all have paradoxically used the words “social justice” to try and advocate for releasing the most dangerous elements of society back into society, while simultaneously abolishing the justice system, all in the name of a paranoid fear of authority. It appears that this Sean Bell incident has brought the most opportunistic of these individuals out of the woodwork and into the light. Oh well. As Justice Louis Brandeis, another cog in the evil legal hate machine said, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Not to improve upon Mr. Brandeis’s rhetoric, but sunlight can hardly help these people, for while they congratulate themselves endlessly on their love of “social justice,” the only similarity they show to any form of justice is that both are blind.