Avi Lewis, the host of the Canadian Public Broadcaster's Counterspin, portrays himself as one who challenges ideas "fundamental to our culture". This is his facetious spin. Avi is Old Left establishment. He is the son of former Canadian UN envoy Stephen Lewis and raging feminist Michelle Landsberg, grandson of one-time national NDP leader David Lewis, comrade in life to Naomi Klein of the banal anti-freemarket sloganeering, brother in-law to Seth Klein of the far left Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Avi is a pedigreed pinko and not terribly original at that. Having failed to stray from the ideology of his clan, Avi is not that far removed from the powers that be. He champions a little more regulation and thought control than the Liberals, more of a command economy and more welfare dependence. His fetish is the culture of the commons--but, like the Grits, divisive identity politics is his modus. No one beats Avi for substituting soundbites for substance and smart aleck for intellectual acuity. Given the profile, is it any wonder Avi was in his postmodern, obscurantist element in a segment on penal abolition last week?
The movement for restorative justice holds that problems plaguing the criminal justice system are reason enough to abolish it. Its position is starkly utilitarian: incarceration doesn't reduce rates of re-offense and doesn't bring back the dead, ergo abolish it and heal the criminal in the community. Justice, the activists say, must be sought in a redistribution of wealth and resources. To activist Mara Taub, punishment only stigmatizes difference. Unaware as I was that criminality was an expression of cherished human diversity, I was even more surprised when Taub claimed that "redemption" for psychopaths would be better achieved through therapeutic than punitive means. Avi, who failed to get the goods on the efficacy of unconditional love with psychopaths, ranted about the "hyperbole of the crack down crowd".
A hallmark of an Avi Lewis argument is that you can invariably drive a 4X4 through it. True, crime rates in Canada have been going down. Public demand, however, for tighter parole and tougher young offender laws, for example, need have nothing to do with falling crime rates. Why should aggregate crime trends impact individual sentencing? Do we reduce the sentence for murder in the first degree because there were fewer such murders that year?
Taub sees crime solely as a consequence of inoptimal social conditions. Thus she concludes that the disproportionate percentages of blacks and natives in jails is sure proof of systemic racism. The alchemy of freshman Marx, Rousseau and dollops of post hoc never fails to make Avi smarm. Avi himself is big on skewering the pale, patriarchal, penis people for all ills. No doubt there are racist elements in the criminal justice system, and some false convictions, but people go to jail, first and foremost, because they break the law. The fact that most incarcerations are drug related calls not for the abolition of the criminal justice system, but rather for the complete repeal of all laws against the production, use and trade in drugs.
Next, a smirking African activist proceeded in tortured phrases to compare the cruelty of penitentiaries in Africa with our own. Ms. Agomoh recommended we look at traditional tribal methods for meting justice. I doubt we can pick up where Shaka Zulu left off, or even adopt Winnie Mandela's more humane and contemporary method of necklacing, to wit, placing a tire around the putative criminal's neck and igniting. Suffice it to say that Ms. Agomoh's ideas were anything but African. It is quite marvelous how self appointed African advocates embrace the distinctly Western ideas of human rights: the dignity of the individual and the respect for diversity--all outgrowths of the Enlightenment--and then proceed to slam the West while using its tradition.
The most unabashed utilitarian making an appearance on the show was criminologist Don Andrews who vituperated "this retribution accountability stuff". We are punishing not because we get public protection from it, he hissed, but because it makes us feel better. Punishment here is to be adjudged only in as much as it measurably retards recidivism. If punishment doesn't do this, regardless of what is right or wrong, it must be abolished in favor of quick expedients. But whether punishment makes people feel good, whether it reforms the criminal or safeguards the public is immaterial, although I would argue that a society with a moral code is safer in the long run than one without. Punishment is a public declaration of moral values. It is an extension of natural law. Descend into Avi's amoral abyss, and you abolish the very fabric of our ethical tradition.
©2000 By Ilana Mercer
The Calgary Herald