Welcome to TP Ideas‘ weekly roundup of the best conservative writing! Every Friday, we take a look at three pieces by right-leaning writers that constructively articulate core elements of their worldview. The goal isn’t to find conservatives telling us how right liberals are, but rather to pick out writing that helps liberals understand where their ideological foes are coming from.
So let’s get started.
1. “The Cop Mind” — David Brooks, The New York Times
The failure to indict the police officers who killed Eric Garner and Michael Brown has kicked off an eruption of protests across the country and a national discussion about police brutality. As it turns out, New York Times columnist and centrist conservative David Brooks cut his teeth reporting on the police beat. This week, he dug into his experiences to provide a portrait of what police experience as human beings in the day-to-day, on-the-ground grind of their jobs, and how those experiences can give rise to many of the behaviors, attitudes, and institutional norms that the protestors are now decrying. If nothing else, it’s an essential bit of reading and an exercise in empathy for anyone concerned with addressing the very real problem of police brutality:
[Police officers] spend much of their time in the chaotic and depressing nether-reaches of society: busting up domestic violence disputes, dealing with drunks and drug addicts, coming upon fatal car crashes, managing conflicts large and small.
They ride an emotional and biochemical roller coaster. They experience moments of intense action and alertness, followed by emotional crashes marked by exhaustion, and isolation. They become hypervigilant. Surrounded by crime all day, some come to perceive that society is more threatening than it really is.
To cope, they emotionally armor up. Many of the cops I was around developed a cynical, dehumanizing and hard-edged sense of humor that was an attempt to insulate themselves from the pain of seeing a dead child or the extinguished life of a young girl they arrived too late to save.
Many of us see cops as relatively invulnerable as they patrol the streets. The cops themselves do not perceive their situation that way. As criminologist George Kelling wrote in City Journal in 1993, “It is a common myth that police officers approach conflicts with a feeling of power — after all, they are armed, they represent the state, they are specially trained and backed by an ‘army.’ In reality, an officer’s gun is almost always a liability… because a suspect may grab it in a scuffle. Officers are usually at a disadvantage because they have to intervene in unfamiliar terrain, on someone else’s territory. They worry that bystanders might become involved, either by helping somebody the officer has to confront or, after the fact, by second-guessing an officer’s conduct.”
The consequences of this brew are not surprising: a morally cynical and insular, us-versus-them culture often develops in police departments, while officers themselves endure higher rates of everything from ulcers and heart disease to post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide. The majority of cops who have actually been involved in a shooting endure sometimes severe emotional damage. “According to a 2000 National Institute of Justice study, more than 90 percent of the police officers surveyed said that it is wrong to respond to verbal abuse with force,” Brooks concludes sadly. “Nonetheless, 15 percent of the cops surveyed were aware that officers in their own department sometimes or often did so.”
In essence, Brooks is making a structural argument here — that the problems of police brutality is a natural and inevitable result of asking human beings to do the job cops are called upon to do. But structural problems also suggest structural solutions. As it is with the soldiers America has repeatedly sent into the maelstroms of Afghanistan and Iraq — and who suffer a similar psychological cost as a result — perhaps it’s time we start asking if the mission itself that we send police on is what needs to be reformed.
2. “Long Live The Santa Claus Legend” — Brandon McGinley, Acculturated
Conservatives often complain that the intellectual and ideological diversity in their movement is under-appreciated. Some evidence they’re right popped up this week, when conservative writer Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry issued a call for parents to stop telling their children Santa Claus is real. “Learning the truth about Santa damages their trust in their parents,” Gobry argued. But beyond that, he continued, the inevitable realization that Santa is not real can serve as a trial run for the loss of Christian faith.
I was a credulous child. I wasn’t told definitively that Santa did not exist until 5th grade. I had my suspicions, to be sure, but I never pressed the issue because I really didn’t want to know for certain. Even the tiniest uncertainty gave me a license to hope that this kindly magical man might unaccountably exist and that I might be participating, even if only in a very small way, in a centuries-old legendary story.
My disappointment in the Santa revelation was not about parental deceit or a crisis of faith: It was about having to accept, once and for all, that the world was a little less enchanted than I had hoped.
But this disappointment does not vitiate the value of believing to begin with; to the contrary, there is value — wisdom, even — in dissatisfaction with this world we’re stuck with. We are told that the mature posture toward our world is materialism and literalism, but too often that “maturity” means nothing more than acquiescence with the status quo. We need more grown-ups who understand and engage with reality but who also maintain that childlike disenchantment that whispers hopefully our ear: “Surely this cannot be all there is. Surely we can do better.”
The Santa legend does more, though, than cultivate a longing for enchantment in young children. It complements the religious significance of the season (while being properly subordinate to it) by making children participants in a story-through-time — the Santa legend that has been passed down through the generations — that implicitly affirms a great truth: The blessings of that first Christmas are not confined to the past, but are alive with all of us today. Sure, we can just tell them that truth; but Santa makes it real in a way perfectly suited to children — hence the tradition. The legend allows them, like me on those road trips, to be a participant rather than just a passenger.
McGinley is actually drawing on school of thought laid out by Christian writers like C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, in which fantasy storytelling is seen as a kind of conceptual training ground for religious belief, and thus a great good in the world. The idea being that fantasy develops the instincts for seeing the world as “enchanted” as McGinley puts it, and that the “disenchantment” children feel when they discover the stories aren’t true primes them for the more developed and mature form of an enchanted world that’s found in Christianity and other religions. In this telling, rather than a stultifying system of cosmic orders, religion becomes a utopian (Dare we say progressive?) project to acknowledge what is wrong and broken in the world and to work for something better. It may place the primary motive force for that remaking in divine power — with human action as a necessary but insufficient corollary — but seek that remaking it still does.
3. “The Rape Culture That Everyone Ignores” — Michael Brendan Dougherty, The Week
The ignominious collapse of Rolling Stone’s recent story concerning a gang rape by a fraternity on the University of Virginia campus has sparked a renewed national debate over the extent of sexual assault on the nation’s college campuses, and just what is to be done about it. But Michael Brendan Dougherty, a conservative Catholic writer at The Week, recently set out to remind everyone that another rape epidemic is occurring in the nation’s prisons, with virtually none of the political spotlight that’s being given to the college problem. According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, around 200,000 men, women and children reported being sexually abused in the prison system in 2011 alone:
Statistics on rape are notoriously unreliable. In or out of prison, victims often fear reporting on their assailants. And so the above statistics are likely to underestimate the problem. But we do know that once you include the prison population, men are raped more often in the United States than women.
In prison, men may become the victim of repeated gang rapes. Prisoners can be locked into cells with the men who prey on them. Some live under the constant threat of sexual assault for decades. Their efforts to report their rape are ignored or even punished, both by prison personnel and an inmate culture that destroys “snitches.” The threat of rape is so pervasive it causes some inmates to “consent” to sex with certain prisoners or officers as a way of avoiding rape by others.
Acceptance of prison rape is a stinking corruption. No conception of justice can include plunging criminals into an anarchic world of sexual terror. And obviously it thwarts any possibility of a rehabilitative justice that aims to restore criminals to lawful society. Inmates are not improved or better integrated into society through physical and psychological torture.
Prison rape also vitiates any sense of retributive justice, since rape is not a proper punishment for a crime. Allowing prison rape is just a vindictive horror, and when accepted under the name of punishment makes criminals the victims of justice.
“Antiwar activists like to say that they do not want bombs dropped ‘in our name,’” Dougherty concludes, while calling for massive top-to-bottom reform of the prison system. “But we should remember that the collateral damage at the state penitentiary or at the juvie hall is just as much in our name as a bomb with ‘Made in the USA’ painted on it.”
That’s a sentiment liberals are certainly on board with. But the title of Dougherty’s piece also hints at another reality liberals should keep in mind: that whose sexual assaults get discussed and whose don’t is itself shaped by class and privilege. While the current public debate focuses on rape on college campuses, only about one-third of Americans actually complete a college education. Those who do not, or who don’t attend at all, are much more likely to hail from poor and underprivileged backgrounds.
Data on rates of sexual assault is notoriously hard to reliably collect, and there’s plenty of reason to think the extremely low rates the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) finds on college campuses undershoots the reality. But the studies that find a higher rate on campuses limited their selection to college students specifically, while the NCVS looked at students and non-students like. Amongst young women who are not attending college, the sexual assault rate the NCVS found was 1.7 times higher than for those who do attend. In short, while the campus rape problem is likely more significant than the NCVS suggests, the rape problem amongst the poor and the imprisoned is almost certainly worse.