The Talking Dog

June 11, 2016, TD Blog Interview with Wesley Kendall (Part 1)

Wesley Kendall is a Law Lecturer at the University of the South Pacific. Dr. Kendall holds a J.D. from Texas Southern University, an M.A. in Political Science and Government from the University of Missouri Kansas City and a Ph.D. in Political Science and Government from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. He is author of The U.S. Death Penalty and Diplomacy and Language of Terror, and most recently, From Gulag to Guantanamo: Political, Social and Economic Evolutions of Mass Incarceration. On June 9, 2016, I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Kendall by email exchange.

The Talking Dog: Where were you on 9-11?

Wesley Kendall: It’s an interesting and portentous question to lead with Seth (having previewed the next few questions already). For most Americans the question of what we were doing on 911 resonates along a historical wavelength that runs parallel to other national traumas such as the JFK assassination or the bombing of Pearl Harbor. These were defining events for an entire generation of Americans, indelibly seared into their minds and foreclosing any opportunity for the respite of forgetfulness. But the reverberations of 911, due to the immediacy of internet technology and America’s position as the world’s last remaining superpower, created a shock wave that would ripple across an entire globalized society, inflicting a worldwide trauma (as would the American response). As an American living abroad for over five years, I’ve occasionally asked this same question of non-Americans, and can report no person under thirty years old, from Australia to Vietnam, doesn’t remember where they were on that fateful day.

On 911 I was working as a reference attorney for LexisNexis in Dayton, Ohio. I saw the second plane strike the WTC South Tower on TV while walking into the foyer of the company’s headquarters, which were closed shortly thereafter. I drove to a friend’s house, where we watched the towers collapse on CNN. I had been following Al Qaeda and Bin Laden for years, and the report the day before regarding Shah Massoud’s assassination in the north of Afghanistan by two suicide bombers posed as journalists (a common AQ tactic), had given me some presentiment that the Taliban and AQ were moving together to consolidate power away from the Northern Alliance. Not long after the towers fell, I started to understand how the two events were connected. Piecing these connections together and unraveling the tangled roots of American policies in the Middle East became been one of my many interests over the following years.

The Talking Dog: I note that your two prior books- "The Death Penalty and U.S. Diplomacy" and "Language of Terror", coupled with your current book "From Gulag to Guantanamo: Political, Social and Economic Evolutions of Mass Incarceration," appear thematically related to many of my favorite "talking dog" themes, notably crime and punishment (rarely in that order), particularly in the context of the United States of America's rather aggressive position of "Policeman (or some would argue "Dirty Cop") to the World". Can you thematically tie your mass incarceration examination (your case studies span the globe from an Australian detention center on a remote New Guinea island to Russian and Chinese prisons, to American prisons used for juveniles, undocumented immigrants, and millions of prisoners) ultimately to Guantanamo Bay, with the subjects of your earlier works? In particular, I am wondering if you can work in the "language" part-- that is, how the "cover" of public relations and propaganda angles of detention policy, particularly from the American standpoint) serves to enable the entire venture?

Wesley Kendall: Thank you for noting my earlier work, and for asking such an insightful question. The short answer is yes, I absolutely see a thematic convergence between my previous books. Now the long answer. I’m a proponent of the Aristotelian notion of philosophical poetics, which holds that all fields of intellectual inquiry are harmoniously bound together, and should be understood as interconnected avenues of academic pursuit. All of my books are independently multidisciplinary but share certain foundational features, which involve tying together social sciences such as criminal justice, political science and economics to craft a more holistic lens through which we can view societal problems. However, I further examine the hard science that underpins the social science theories, which new medical technologies have made possible only recently. The empirical connections between mind and body have long been a subject of unproven scientific speculation, leaving social systems of belief (e.g. political or religious affiliation) and individual behavior (personal preferences) as uncharted territory. The gulf of ignorance that separates unsupported speculation with scientific certitude is narrowing, and our understanding of exactly how DNA shapes our political identity (and thereby informs policies on crime and terror) is coming into fuller view. In the not so distant past, divergent sexual identities were considered a psychological infirmity caused environmental factors (a “condition” which continues to be criminalized in less enlightened enclaves of the world), before it was understood to be largely the result of a genetic predisposition. In the not so distant future political preferences and religious beliefs may also eventually be understood as a partial product of genetic origin.

Returning to your question regarding the connections I discuss in my second book between our genetically encoded impulses and the way we perceive the use of language in the war on terror, it most certainly can reveal the ways in which we respond to the use of certain charged words across different narratives (e.g. a discussion on the death penalty, the war on terror, or crime and punishment), and illustrates how the three books are interrelated. The scientific literature that supports “biopolitics”, or the contention that genetic predispositions can shape political ideology is robust and compelling, and meticulously detailed in my book on the subject. However, here I will only outline a few studies that illustrate the general state of the extant body of knowledge ( I should at this point acknowledge my co-author, Dr. Kevin Noguchi, associate professor of neuroscience at Washington University School of Medicine) .

In a seminal study by Oxley in the esteemed journal of Science, it was discovered that subjects in the study who exhibited “protective political attitudes” (expressed approval for policies such as military spending, the death penalty, school prayer, patriotism, obedience, biblical truth, etc.), where more easily aroused emotionally when exposed to sudden noises and threatening images. Oxley’s study suggests that subjects, who self identify as being aligned with traditional conservative values, display an automated reflexive response to external stimuli that triggers arousal of the limbic system, which regulates the processing of emotions, most notably fear. An individual who is predisposed to emotional arousal is more inclined to politically reactionary responses to threats, rather than a cautious deliberative approach. Kahan suggested that these cognitive political biases could also interfere with an individual’s ability to think logically. Subjects in Kahan’s study were given mathematical tables and then asked to perform basic computations. Those who self identified as conservatives were able to successfully perform calculations regarding the treatment of rashes using skim cream, but displayed a decline in ability when asked to perform similar calculations regarding gun control statistics. Interestingly, those subjects who possessed advanced mathematical skills exhibited a higher likelihood of political views intruding upon their logical ability to perform simple mathematical calculations. Nyhan conducted several studies concerning political confirmation bias, including a study where conservative subject’s belief that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq was only further strengthened after being presented with unequivocal evidence of the opposite. The emotional circumventing of logical cognitive processes was the subject of an fMRI study by Weston, wherein he found that subjects who preferred one political candidate were less critical of verbal gaffes their candidate made, and overly critical of gaffes made by candidates they didn’t approve of. The brains of the subjects in Weston’s study were neuroimaged using fMRI scans, and fascinatingly displayed a remarkable inactivity of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (associated with logical thought) and heightened activity in the orbital frontal cortex (which processes emotion). My book concludes, after an exhaustive review and examination of the literature and its qualitative application to several cases, that those who are more closely aligned with a conservative ideological system of values (defined as possessing characteristics such as a protective nature, adherence to tradition, respect for authority) are genetically predisposed to emotional, reactionary responses to language which presents as threatening, whereas those subjects who are aligned to more progressive ideologies (defined by characteristics such as tolerance, inclusion and openness to new experience) are more nuanced in their responses to threats, and tend to be less reactionary and more contemplative. As concerns the subject of my second book, language and the war on terror, certain words have been used to great effect to incite fear for political purposes, but have also been distinctly compelling to certain audiences genetically predisposed to respond to fearful rhetoric.

A theme throughout this book is one of cognitive dissonance; the ability to hold in one’s mind two competing and possibly conflicting ideas simultaneously. I contend in my research that conservatives, as reactionaries impelled to act first and think later, are genetically predisposed to suspend rationality and instinctively trust emotion, and are largely incapable of cognitive dissonance, whereas progressives engage in a more detached, dispassionate evaluation of the context and meaning of language. I often use one particular proposition to illustrate this point. “This man is a terrorist, and this man is your friend.” A conservative, according to my hypothesis, would be unable to reconcile this ostensibly conflicting proposition. A man can only be one or the other. If he is a terrorist, kill him, but if he’s a friend, than he can’t possibly be a terrorist. To paraphrase Bush, you’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists. This polarized approach of good verus evil is largely rejected by progressives, who may take a more nuanced approach to this proposition, and instead of reacting viscerally may assume a more deliberative attitude and ask “How are we defining ‘terrorist’? By “friend” could you mean a political ally who may share common strategic interests? Would we define Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or Israel as a friend?” My ultimate contention is that our divergent approaches to these questions are a product of heredity.

The cautious parsing and thoughtful logical dissection of a progressive which represents a stark departure from a conservatives emotionally reactionary response, illustrates the concept of cognitive dissonance. Those unable to tolerate nuance or uncertainty, who seek the security of authority, and reject the threat of the unknown other, are unable to comfortably entertain conflicting ideas. They can easily become the target of political propaganda, enlisted emotionally to support wars against other countries such Iraq (using coded language to dehumanize the feared other, as when Rumsfeld talked of “smoking them out of their holes”), or operationalized in domestic wars against drugs and crime (Dululio’s use of “superpredator” which became a codeword for young violent black males). These words operate like psychic skeleton keys, unlocking emotions that drive an impulse to impassioned action. Unfortunately, as my book demonstrates, the actions committed are often unfounded, ill-conceived and frequently wrong. Thoughtless and emotional support for complicated policymaking has not only been devastating to American policy, it’s also a huge money making machine. Allow me to conflate two great American quotes, “a fool is born every minute”, and “a fool is easily separated from his money,” the first from PT Barnum, the second from Ben Franklin. Genetic science tells us some fools are in fact born, and some policymakers have recognized those fools, and as carnival barkers for low political theater they cynically use inflammatory language designed to stoke emotion and dim logical thought to separate taxpayers from their money by inciting wars and imprisoning citizens. Counting the money made by the military and prison industrial complexes, supported by the banking industry and the Washington political and media classes, it becomes quickly apparent that the business of enraging foolish Americans is indeed a very profitable one.

The Talking Dog: You lay out a pretty dystopian vision of American (and more and more, other nation's) detention practices, as a wider and wider net is cast to ensure a profitable penal servitude (be it from exploiting labor at minimal if any compensation, or from development of private prisons to per diem fees for privatized prisons themselves), taking the reader through "a primer on the evolution of the penitentiary," a discussion of the institution of American slavery as an antecedent to modern mass incarceration, immigration detention, youth detention and a culmination in a discussion of "the gulag to Guantanamo" and torture for profit... did any particular example or case study jump out at you as "the most egregious," and if waved around, maybe even the usually apathetic American public might care about it? (For me, notwithstanding my longstanding Guantanamo interest, it was the Luzerne County, Pennsylvania case of judges inventing draconian sentences for children in order to fill up private prisons for their own profit... although I was, admittedly, already familiar with the case...)

Wesley Kendall: Yes, the Luzerne County example you cite may possibly be the most glaring instance illustrating the venality of a judicial system captured by corporate interests and exploiting and destroying the lives of children for profit. And while it was an unconscionable episode in American judicial history, the fleeting outrage expressed at those involved in Luzerne towers above the general disregard most people feel for others (others most often being primarily poor and black, but increasingly rural whites) also ensnared in a capitalist justice system that operates as a source of economic oppression for far too many Americans. In my book I also talk about the countless masses who are targeted by ostensibly legitimate but overtly exploitative privatization schemes, launched by cash strapped states and local municipalities like Ferguson Missouri, that have transformed regressive law and order policies into revenue streams. The privatization of state services such as probation, mandatory drug testing and treatment and surveillance services such as mandatory home monitoring, has created a shadow economy where lobbyists promote tougher laws to move markets, profits are made a priority over people, and creating an environment where punishments are not determined not by governments, but private companies who conflate criminal justice policies with the profit motive. The prison industrial complex is actually shifting away from prison incarceration policies, which are becoming more politically indefensible and less cost effective than house arrest. In the future state of mass incarceration, American’s will languish in their own private prisons, unable to work, under constant surveillance, subjected to routine drug screens, and paying exorbitant costs for all of the fees associated with perpetual home detention. The psychological impact of the inmate’s family under house detention is incalculable. One striking story in my book talks of a young boy, who had begun to wear a small plastic watch around his ankle, saying that he wanted to be like his father, who was required to wear and ankle monitor 24 hours a day. To answer your question, what stands out to me are the routine unspoken tragedies unfolding every day that never make it into a case study, that I hear from those I’ve interviewed or worked with before.

The Talking Dog: I believe it was George Santayana who suggested that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it, or something like that; of course, we live in the "post-modernist" world where the shock of the new is demanded on a daily basis, particularly in academia (your bailiwick), where history is constantly being rewritten to reflect current sensibility (and, of course fashion-sense), and to avoid discussion of the actual "past," lest it teach us something. That said, you note the religious antecedents of the American penitentiary, to wit, a toggling between "punishment" (the Calvinists holding sway) or "reform" (along with silent contemplation) (the Quakers and their influence), with the ultimate irony, being that one particular Quaker, President Richard Nixon, pretty much set in motion modern mass incarceration as we know it (he being a law and order Republican, except when it came to himself following the law or being punished for breaking it), with his "Southern strategy" and appeal to the baser instincts of our southerly White populace by stepping up "the war on drugs" and attendant punishment that even, at the time, were regarded as a thinly veiled war against Black people (though, eventually, Latinos and poor Whites by the millions were sucked into the criminal justice system for dubious "crimes"). Of course, currently, the "tough on crime" crowd seems to have bipartisan support, particular if we have a national security implication, although at the same time, there is a trend to liberalization of marijuana laws (and seemingly, only marijuana laws). That said, my question is, at a time when 7 per thousand Americans are already in jail (at whatever social and financial cost that entails), how do you get the public to understand that this is not only not normal, it is unprecedented, and that mass incarceration is not only not the American norm (as late as the 60's and 70's there was talk about reducing prison populations to virtually zero), but that even as recently as the middle of the Reagan Administration, we had far fewer prisoners-- indeed, I think the figure is a seven-fold increase in the last 30 years [falling heavily on Blacks and Latinos, of course]? What are your thoughts on that?

Wesley Kendall: Well, the question you ask could be the subject of a PhD dissertation. But allow me to try to fashion a quick answer, which I think may cut to the core of your question. The rightward shift on incarceration policies really begun in earnest under Bill Clinton, who successfully outflanked Republicans in his 1992 presidential campaign. Afraid of being labeled (as many Democrats had been previously) as “soft on crime” Clinton was able to win the White House by essentially co-opting the Republican strategy of using fearful rhetoric to peel of conservative white independent voters while simultaneously appealing to minorities. Clinton was the first Democratic candidate to embrace retributive policies on criminal justice, including mass incarceration, the death penalty, drugs, as well as promote welfare reform and social safety net cuts. After signing the Violent Crime and Control act in 1994, as I note on page 27 of my book, Democrats made “tough on crime” a central plank of their party platform. Politically, the move to the right was a product of effective political campaign posturing that lifted Clinton to two terms in the White House. Socially and economically, it was an American disaster that cost over $30 billion dollars, and gave as our current state of mass incarceration.

The Talking Dog: I join my readers in thanking Dr. Kendall for that thought-provoking interview, and look forward to the second part of the interview shortly.
Interested readers should check out From Gulag to Guantanamo: Political, Social and Economic Evolutions of Mass Incarceration.