Readers Write: Sentencing debate shows political divide


On the masthead of its newspaper, the Fortune Society which works with ex-cons, has a quotation: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” — Fyodor Dostoevski.  

I think the Russian novelist was onto something.

Fast forward to the New York Times of July 17, 2015. On page 1, there’s an article about President Obama visiting a federal prison in Oklahoma. 

Lacking expertise on prisons, I turned to Google. 

There, I learned  that President Reagan’s “war on drugs” substantially increased the number of men and women incarcerated.  

The need for more prison space led to privatization and a new industry — “for profit prisons” — sprung up.  

There has been much research on whether government operated prisons are superior or inferior to their private, corporate counterparts. While this question interested me, I was more fascinated by the president’s comments. 

After meeting with six prisoners, he said: “There but for the grace of God…” He amplified “….these are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different than the mistakes I made….” And later, he elaborated: “The difference is they didn’t have the kinds of support structures, the second chances, the resources that would allow them to survive those mistakes.” 

This, of course, led his critics to accuse him of “bleeding heart liberalism”.

What struck me about the president’s remarks was how they epitomize the differences between liberals and conservatives. 

Liberals will argue that the kids who steal hubcaps from a car are more likely to serve time than the billionaire polluters (substitute Koch brothers)  with their army of legal experts. 

The conservative mindset is completely different. It focuses on free will… our ability to choose right from wrong. 

Put differently, liberal ideology stresses the importance of the environment in explaining motivation and behavior. 

The conservative argument is less nuanced….less concerned with such niceties. For them, we are in control of our destinies and must be held accountable for our actions. 

The conservatives have the advantage of the Horatio Alger myth working for them. 

Aren’t we all brought up believing that if we get an education and work hard, surely success will follow? 

The opposite to this way of thinking is epitomized by the line about President Bush. 

He was born on third base and woke up thinking he had hit a triple. 

The liberal points to myriad factors such as race, gender, I.Q., and inherited wealth which must be part of the equation. Inherited wealth was referenced by Ann Richards at the 1988 Democratic Convention when she said: “Poor George was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.” 

President Obama, a prototypical liberal, addressed this issue of interdependence several months ago and got into trouble for it. He pointed out that “if you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.” 

Sadly, Obama’s remarks  were misconstrued. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, expressing the same sentiment more carefully stated: “Sure, some people who built great businesses worked hard….but those businesses needed soil to grow and that meant they need{ed} roads and bridges to get their goods to market, dependable and affordable power grids, access to clean water and safe sewers….the kind of basic infrastructure that we build together.” 

Conservatives do not wish to accept the interdependence of all members of society. 

They prefer the idea of the “self-made man” popularized by Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged. 

One other argument made by conservatives bears scrutiny. 

They believe in a level playing field — one where all are treated equally under the law. 

Anatole France addressed this when he wrote: “The law, in all its majestic equality forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” 

Put differently, there is no level playing field; for the poor and minorities it is always an uphill struggle. 

To conclude, the difference between liberals and conservatives is facetiously described by comedian Mort Sahl.  “Liberals feel unworthy of their possessions. Conservatives feel they deserve everything they’ve stolen.” 

We are fortunate to have a president who understands the precarious trajectory of life’s arc. 

He knows that chance and good fortune are often what separate the inmate in the jailhouse and the occupant of the White House. 

Dr. Hal Sobel

Great Neck


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