Monday, April 20, 2009

Lonely in America

Atul Gawande's disturbing article about solitary confinement in the New Yorker got me thinking. Our tendency to fling prisoners into the hole is like our health care system or our gun violence or our pitiable public transportation - it's one of the many things that distinguish us from countries with which we ought to have a lot more in common. It's tempting to trace these characteristics to some innate aspect of our national identity, some dubious tendency in our nature. These conclusions are sometimes facile and reductionistic, but they often have the ring of truth: We value greed on the personal and corporate level. We distrust government. We've internalized Manifest Destiny; we view big cars, big houses and Big Macs as our due. We have rebel souls and pioneer hearts, blah blah blah. All the familiar claptrap, sure, but it's hard to dismiss when you're honest about it.

Here's what I think about solitary confinement: it's the perverse underside of American individualism. Throughout our history we've celebrated self-reliance, self-determination, and indeed selfishness. The self-made man. But just as there are self-made men there must be self-destroyed men, for America is a zero-sum game. Every winner demands a mirror loser; every gain is someone else's loss. And as we exalt the individual, so must we debase him. This is American hell: not a hot, dark pit where you toil with your fellow damned but a cold, fluorescent-lit cell where you spend eternity idle and alone.

Solitary confinement is a parody of American values, an ironic punishment. Inherent in our application of it is an unconscious rebuke of the culture that promotes it–that's why it's perverse. If solitude is such exquisite torture for someone behind bars, what is it for someone in a gilded cage? Add this to our list of selfish traits: self-destructive.