Recently, a PBS Frontline documentary called “The New Asylum” showed how our jails and prisons have become, by default, the nation’s mental hospitals. This wasn’t an exposé. The prison under examination didn’t seem particularly bad. The staff seemed to be trying their best to deal with an impossible situation. But what, you might ask, has the topic of prisons to do with the culture war and family values, the subject of this series?
First, it shows how the culture war, with its focus on hot-button issues like gay marriage, end-of-life decisions, and obscenity on television, to name the most recent examples, crowds out discussion of serious social problems. More than that, however, the documentary illustrates the reductio ad absurdum of America’s current political culture: its rhetoric of faith and family values combined with its tax-and-services-slashing policies, its deference to corporate power and accompanying sink-or-swim economy, its tolerance of growing inequality, its bread and circuses media, and the unprecedented reliance of the current administration on a strategy of lies and denial.
As a result of all this, prisons have become the social policy of last resort. No longer just the place to incarcerate violent offenders, the prison has become the final common repository of the social problems we are unwilling to prevent or remedy before they grow into crises. Only when these problems deteriorate into matters of crime and punishment can “government spending” be justified.
Janet Gornick’s article on resolving work-family dilemmas illustrates a variation on the general theme of our unwillingness to look at the social sources of family predicaments. She observes that the stressed-out, overworked American parent is a familiar character in the media. But public discussion focuses almost entirely on individuals and their choices, not on America’s institutional landscape. And conservatives are not the only ones committed to this reduction. Gornick observes, as did Kathleen Gerson earlier in this series, that some left writers insist that women prefer work to home, and that Americans in general work long hours to feed their insatiable consumerism.
Yet American families lack supports that their counterparts in other high-income countries enjoy—parental leave, high quality affordable child care, family-friendly work hours and job flexibility, as well as larger social protection systems, such as universal health insurance and protection against sudden fluctuations in income. Given all the difficulties facing America’s working parents, Gornick asks, “Why aren’t American parents up in arms?” Her answer reveals the mistaken beliefs that shape our consciousness.
Rosalind C. Barnett and Caryl Rivers add another piece to the puzzle—the ideological complex that keeps the focus of public concern on individuals, not institutions. The idea that women and men are starkly di...
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