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July 24, 2008

If Self-Righteousness Could Kill

By:Bernard Chazelle

Newsweek sportswriter Mark Starr implores Bush not to pardon Marion Jones, who is serving a 6-month jail sentence for lying to a grand jury about drug use.

Keep Marion Jones in Prison.

The president should not commute the disgraced Olympian's sentence. Her precipitous fall sends a chilling -- and essential -- message to our athletes... Please [President Bush], do not grant Jones early release.

Like jazz critics, but unlike, say, political journalists, sportswriters write about people they tend to admire greatly. In fact, they're uniquely qualified to appreciate why the likes of Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and Roger Federer belong to a superior breed of people. My grandmother would have dismissed that as utter nonsense. Obviously her local baker was the superior human being, because his bread truly was out of this world -- and she didn't care much about sports. But sportswriters do. And they realize better than anyone that the man with the magic swing is Tiger Woods, and they are not.

Partly because of this admiration, in the fevered minds of journalists, sports becomes the stage for an endless morality play. Mark Starr talks about our athletes. (Would he talk about our short-order cooks?) Marion Jones has been disgraced. She lost all her medals. She is deeply in debt. And she is in jail. But that's not enough. The goddess must bear the full price of her dishonor.

Drugs or no drugs, she is still endowed with natural skills that Starr will never have. She was once the world's best female runner. Starr will always be a journeyman. Children once looked up to Jones, not to Starr. And he is fully aware of that. But Starr, you see, is only concerned about our children.

Of Marion Jones he tells us what a considerate, friendly, kind person she is.

I genuinely liked this lady.

I hate to think what he'd recommend if he didn't like her.

I am not here to praise the wonders of perjury. Marion Jones seems to have broken some sort of law and she should pay a price. But why prison? Why not community service? I believe that prison should be reserved only for violent offenders. But locking people up has a brutal edge that seems to tickle the petty vindictiveness of a Mark Starr. And let's not even bring up the hypocrisy of drug use in sports, from Lance Armstrong to virtually all of major-league baseball. But lessons must be taught, and what a better way to do that than to lock up a destitute black female athlete.

Mr Starr is doing it for our children.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at July 24, 2008 08:19 PM

There is an excellent article in Boston Review which states,"we have become progressively more punitive" and "incarceration rate for nonviolent and drug offenses increased at an even faster pace: between 1980 and 1997 the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent offenses tripled, and the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses increased by a factor of 11." And this, when real crime rate was going down.
The article is, Why Are So Many Americans in Prison? Race and the transformation of criminal justice.

Also, numbers of all minorities are depressing for incarceration. One in 36 Hispanic adults is behind bars, based on Justice Department figures for 2006. One in 15 black adults is, too, as is one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34.

The worst part of this sysyem is, in county prisons, alleged violent and non-violent offenders are housed together and not all inmates have committed a crime. They may have been picked up for a speeding violation and not have the money to pay the fine or it may be a misdemeanor but do not have the money for bail. "Equal justice for all" is a misnomer.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at July 24, 2008 09:29 PM

The poor and disinfranchised go to jail, the rich do not. How much time did Cindy McCain serve for her drug crime?

Posted by: Mike Meyer at July 24, 2008 10:01 PM

Loury has it right, but I'd go further than that and agree with Lois Wacquant about the ghettoization of prison.

Incarceration is a fascinating topic because it's mostly a cultural/moral construct. It violates all basic rules of self-interest.

The people who want non-violent offenders sent to jail for decades end up (1) paying a fortune for it and (2) creating hardcore criminals who, upon release, are by then true threats to to society.

Think of it as sending those kids to college, where the only major is crime and where tuition dwarfs Harvard's.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at July 24, 2008 10:12 PM

Unfortunately, our govt's priorities are lopsided.
Instead of keeping the school kids off the streets with after school programmes, funding has been cut for those since the days of Reagan administration and which continues till today ( federally mandated programmes without funding have left the states in red). And some communities object to inmates getting better opportunies than they had in terms of receiving education. So, are not willing to pay more taxes for the maintenance of programmes available to inmates.

I have not read any articles by Lois Wacquant but have found some so will read them. the current issue of Boston Review has series of articles on Incarceration, "After Prison-A special issue on incarcerated America"
which came online recently and still have to read them.

Having had some contact with prison inmates, specially the sick ones, the system is totally unfair. Hopefully, with the next administration, there will be some progressive thinking and draconian laws will be overturned.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at July 24, 2008 11:00 PM

I wrote an email to a sportswriter like this guy once. I closed by saying he was a hypocrite if he'd ever smoked pot. He wrote back to let me know he'd never used any drugs ever.

That's when I lost what little respect I still had for him.

Posted by: Mark Gisleson at July 24, 2008 11:03 PM

I'm guessing that if she just lied to the grand jury and didn't use drugs, Bush would be a lot more likely to pardon her.

I imagine pardoning somebody who's in jail for drug use may cause him some psychological discomfort, reminding him (and us) of the nebulous, expunged history of his twenties and thirties, before he "got religion."

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at July 24, 2008 11:37 PM

AND YOU WONDER why YOUR cities burn down every 20 years. It ain't about YOUR Marion Jones and YOUR Rodney Kings, its about YOU. (let it burn, let it burn)

Posted by: Mike Meyer at July 24, 2008 11:48 PM

Athletes can be on the receiving end of million dollar research into fabrics and materials and shoes and vitamins and caloric uptake and sleep patterns and hypnotic tapes and energy counseling and precisely determined training regimens, and whatever etc. That's okay. But no drugs.
They can live daily lives that are fine-tuned to no other purpose than the athletic performance. They can be cossetted pampered and protected by organizations with irons in the fire and chances at big money. That's okay.
But no drugs. In the case of bicycle racing especially it's beyond absurd. The bikes they use are nothing but mechanical drug analogs. Same with running shoes at the professional level.
Either take it back to some arbitrary just-off-the-street median, or give it up and go all the way full bore.
It's puritanical hypocrisy bullying its way into the festivities and trying to pretend it's not stark raving nuts.
More charitably: as with a lot of things, we've outstripped the former limiting boundaries of the real world, and now we have to make artificial distinctions that have no rational ground just to continue. But the falseness of it grates, and people like Marion Jones suffer unnecessarily.

Posted by: Roy Belmont at July 25, 2008 12:23 AM

I should also add that sending Martha Stewart to jail was outrageous, all rich and white and obnoxious as she is.

I should also add that, worse than Reagan, worse than Bush I/II, worse than anyone in this century, the worst offender was Bill Clinton. The first black president sent more blacks to prison than anyone else.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at July 25, 2008 12:37 AM

Roy makes a good point.

I read something about the swimsuits at the Olympics. Evidently some brand allows your average joe to beat the crap out of a human dolphin. So now every team wants to get hold of it, except that they can't because of contractual obligations.

Maybe Tour de France teams should be sponsored by Big Pharma. Right now, they're sponsored by little pharma.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at July 25, 2008 12:58 AM

Sorry, your post is totally unfair and unnecessarily personal. Where is there a shred of evidence that the author of that piece is jealous, or vindictive? He's making the perfectly valid argument that exceptions to criminal laws shouldn't be made for famous people who subvert the justice system. It's fine that you disagree with him, but doing it this way isn't right. What argument are you trying to make, exactly? That putting any non-violent offender in jail is wrong? That putting someone who is black in jail is wrong? That putting someone who is in debt in jail is wrong? Please rewrite this post so it makes a clear, strong, non-ad hominem argument.

Posted by: Guest at July 25, 2008 01:15 AM

Guest: Its putting Marion Jones in jail that's wrong. Perhaps YOU did not see her name mentioned. She just cheated in a foot race. Its not quite the level of robbing the local liquor store.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at July 25, 2008 01:29 AM

Mike: you're simply mistating the facts - you haven't given me anything to engage with.

Posted by: Guest at July 25, 2008 02:48 AM

What is shocking is that not only adult atheletes feel the pressure ( specially the minority--and they do dominate some certain fields of sport) to take performance enhancing drugs but recently reports have come out that even school children are advised by their coaches to take synthetc testosterone to improve their performance ( and it requires very sophisticated testing to diagnose the presence of those drugs. So, apart from the double standards applied in terms of punishment meted out and and totally irrational approach to a public health problem ( drugs are used by middle class and the rich for recreational purposes ), there is no discussion at the highest level of our educational system, why "SPORTS" has higher priority than basic education in a child's curriculum.
And there is not much didcussion about how our govt ( CIA ) has been involved in drug dealing operations in various situations including in latin America.
And as pardons go, if one is the Michael Miliken of the world, it is easier to get pardoned than if you are a destitute black female athelete.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at July 25, 2008 07:53 AM

Nobody should be pardoned. We're all guilty. Guilt precedes existence.

Posted by: donescobar at July 25, 2008 09:24 AM

Incarceration is one of those givens of the natural order of things in Western culture. In some cultures the idea of revenge or retribution does not exist. In these cultures if someone does something wrong instead of exacting revenge the person is considered sick and needs to be cured not punished. This philosophy of curing rather than punishing is found in indigenous, so-called primitive cultures. Naturally we “advanced” cultures consider ourselves to be superior and enlightened but perhaps we are just sick in the head and need to be cured.

Posted by: Rob Payne at July 25, 2008 09:32 AM

Talk about advanced cultures!! and revenge! OUR so called advanced country allows legal murder a.k.a. Capital punishment and if one opposes it, the big brother watches you and one may get a knock on the door in the middle of the night!

Posted by: Rupa Shah at July 25, 2008 10:10 AM

Guest: YOU asked---She lied to a grand jury about cheating in a FOOT RACE. Heaven knows WE must keep up the intergity and reputation of OUR grand juries when involved in these heinious foot race cheatings. NOW in the case of TREASON AND SEDITION in the OUTING OF A CIA AGENT, why the grand jury's opinions are hardly worth Mr. Libby's taking one valuable moment of time from his busy, busy day to go sport fucking in the shower for cigarettes. His victim, a woman, Ms. Plame, is far, far less valuable to society than the ever loyal, great guy, Mr. Libby and a mere stroke of a pen solves both his and HER problem. A rich white man, a "good ole boy" from the front office, is MUCH MORE EQUAL than any woman, let alone an indebted black woman, no matter how fast she can run.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at July 25, 2008 10:12 AM

*Sigh*. Guest, you have committed an unpardonable sin: you have created a situation where I am in complete and absolute agreement with Mike Meyer.

For you, no penance shall suffice.

Read his last post seventy upon seventy times, and let the egregiously pointless capitals BURN INTO YOUR SOUL.

Posted by: No One of Consequence at July 25, 2008 10:19 AM

. . . And the worship of athletes is inherently perverse, so it's no wonder it leads to further perversion. I think science fiction gets it wrong. Our species doesn't transcend when it learns to exist as "pure energy." We become immortal once we give up the cult of celebrity and free up billions of hours of time.

Posted by: No One of Consequence at July 25, 2008 10:31 AM

Guest writes: >> Please rewrite this post so it makes a clear, strong, non-ad hominem argument.

I did not make an ad hominem attack. I made an ad assholinem attack. Not the same.

Mike's "heinous foot race cheatings." Beautiful! I wish I'd come up with that phrase!

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at July 25, 2008 10:33 AM

Mike: once again you have either refused to, or just failed to, make a real argument. It might be wrong that Scooter Libby got off scot-free *while at the same time* it might be right that famous athletes be punished for perjuring themselves before Grand Juries. You're just piling up outrage. I'm asking for more.

Bernard: You're not interested in making an argument. Fair enough, it's your post.

Posted by: Guest at July 25, 2008 11:16 AM

I believe that prison should be reserved only for violent offenders."

So the broker who cheats people out of their lives' savings and destroys the 10-15 or so years they got left should not go to prison but the college kid who gets in a pub brawl because someone came on to his girlfriend should?
Violence comes in different shapes.

Posted by: donescobar at July 25, 2008 11:35 AM

Guest: Blatant oppression does not make equality under the law and favoritism is not JUSTICE. What are YOU looking for?

Posted by: Mike Meyer at July 25, 2008 11:54 AM

Bernard observes that a sportswriter who advocates enforcing the law (such as it is) against an athlete has a 'petty vindictiveness'. The evidence for this attribution? That Starr advocates enforcing the law against an athlete. Nice little circle.

He then states that Mark Starr's 'vindictiveness' only appears to apply to 'destitute black female athlete[s]' by observing that wealthy male athletes who use steroids don't excite Mr Starr's call for punishment. The implication is that Mr Starr is either a classist, racist or misogynist.

Seems like Bernard has unique access to the contents of Mr Starr's mind.

Not to be too picky here, but Marion Jones - unlike other famous drug using athletes - has admitted using steroids and was found guilty of lying about using steroids to a grand jury.

Aren't there more interesting ways to exemplify misogyny, racism, classism, or the stupidity of imprisonment than one which relies so heavily on strawmen?

Also, when did Marion Jones become destitute?

Posted by: scudbucket at July 25, 2008 11:59 AM

Donescobar: Reread your comment: your logical inference is flawed.

Others: Sportswriters don't get paid to be law-enforcement officers. When they act as such, they can count on me to expose them as the little sacks of hypocritical, self-righteous shit that they are.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at July 25, 2008 12:24 PM

The comment about who should or should not go to prison is from your post.
Even at Harvard Law they'd fall off their chairs from laughing too hard.

Posted by: donescobar at July 25, 2008 01:17 PM

donescobar: you wrote
So the broker who cheats people out of their lives' savings and destroys the 10-15 or so years they got left should not go to prison but the college kid who gets in a pub brawl because someone came on to his girlfriend should...

This cannot be logically inferred from what I wrote.
I didn't say that all violent offenders should go to jail. I wrote that

prison should be reserved only for violent offenders

ie, the only people in prison should have committed a violent offense. This is not not logically equivalent to saying that all violent offenders should be in prison.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at July 25, 2008 02:04 PM

I didn't suggest you meant "all," but that you never told us which ones should go to prison. So I picked two examples, one a white collar crime and one violent. How and why should prison be an option for one or both? The harm done? What criteria would you use to assign those who committed "violent" crimes to prison, or not to. And should prison never be an option for those who commit "non-violent" crimes, no matter the damage they cause? If you're going to say prison is ONLY (Thanks, Mike) for those who commit violent crimes, if not for all of them, tell us how that might work, and why it should work that way. And would you never, well, hardly ever, send those guilty of non-violent crimes to prison? How to choose?

Posted by: donescobar at July 25, 2008 02:20 PM

donescobar: Juries. In the case of Ms. Jones, 6 months is a little much in my mind, but then, I did not sit on the grand jury. In the case of Scooter Libby, 2 years is not enough in my opinion, but then, I did not sit on the grand jury. The problem begins when a CORRUPT PRESIDENT (GWB) nullifies the jury's decision making EQUALITY AND JUSTICE void.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at July 25, 2008 02:51 PM

donescobar: valid question. i'll try to answer it in a post soon.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at July 25, 2008 08:41 PM

Martha Stewart is indisputably.. "rich and white". She may or may not be "obnoxious". But she doesn't muck about, and when life hands her a lemon, she knows what to do. Did she go the 'pending appeal' route? Hell no, she didn't! Her battle cry was "let's get it over with". Once behind bars, did she whine? Did she pine? Fuck no, she didn't! She appointed herself Activites Director, and that prison went from drab to dazzling virtually overnight.

She is also indisputably tidy. When's the last time you cleaned under your refrigerator, bucko?

Posted by: JW at July 26, 2008 12:06 PM

Martha Stewart PAID her debt to the courts, and Leona Helmsley did too. NOW FOR THE MONEY QUESTION a white MAN an incredibily rich white man, an Albert Spheer(sp)or the like doing time?

Posted by: Mike Meyer at July 26, 2008 03:19 PM

I support incarceration for these types of crimes, along with many other of similar type.

What I don't support is overincarceration. She has done serious damage to athletic integrity, and her crimes should not be minimized or her sentence expunged.

Six months seems about right for her, and it certainly wouldn't hurt to have many more people undergo a sort of minimal jail experience to make them wake the fuck up and get them out of their exceptionalist mode where the rules apply to others but not to them because they're special.

Certainly Ms. Jones has had ample opportunity to excel and she chose a dishonest path.

Posted by: Labiche at July 27, 2008 12:34 PM