Political legitimacy, crime, and the frustration of the political

There is a character in Netherworld, the really rather magnificent novel, who attacks her husband for his seeming lack of political spine: unlike her, he has not fled the Bush US after 9/11 but rather has stayed a broker in NYC and has not voiced strong political concerns. She attacks him therefore for being worse than complicit: for agreeing with Bush’s politics. In fact, he doesn’t. And in fact, he really wants to establish a personal not political relation with his wife, who has effectively left him, and gained de facto possession of their child.

The point here is the wretched political agitation arising from a frustrating complex of political inability and knowledge. The supposed lesson of the 80s and 90s was that the plebeian citizen had no power in the political. In fact, the real lesson was its opposite, and we see something of this terrible power in the ludicrous Tea Party phenomenon. But we also see the slick of hugely moneyed interests spreading “Astro-turf” faking real grassroots or co-opting it.

The result is a kind of shell game of political legitimacy, in which the desire is to establish political legitimacy but where there is little certainty about its identity. I used to believe that the absence of legitimacy resulted in more crime and civil crime in particular. That’s because if no one believes that civil authority is legitimate, then the prohibitions against socially destructive acts, ranging from violations of property but also of people, become more or less disposable, and observed only if a weaponed police agent is present to enforce the law. The law itself is meaningless, in this illegitimatized context, but the long arm of the law is not. And one of the key efforts of the right wing starting from the egregious Reagan (“Government is not the solution, it’s the problem.”) to the execrable George Bush has been precisely to disvalue and render illegitimate government and the logic of government itself.

But the decline of crime puzzles my earlier view. That’s because if the right wing had succeeded in devaluing government and its logic then in my argument, there should be an increase in crime, not a decrease. The opposite has obtained. Thus, something else is probably going on. To be sure, white collar crime seems to have increased, and dramatically, and I do see that as a sign of the devaluation of governmental legitimacy. But violent crime has very much diminished, and I don’t think it’s because of better or more effective policing; the opposite is probably the case.

This suggests some more interesting factors, such as the rise and fall of lead-based gasoline. The thesis, proposed by Jessica Wolpaw Reyes, of Amherst College, was put forth back in 2007. I read it first in the NY Times but one can find it more in depth at Reyes’ papers’ homepage. The argument’s nub:

“[The] evidence suggests that, by increasing impulsivity and aggression, even moderate exposure to lead in early childhood can have substantial and persistent adverse effects on individual behavior. Moreover, such moderate exposure was the norm for residents of the United States born between the 1950s and the early 1980s.” Early lead exposure makes for violence. This violence accounts for the sustained spike in American crime (and other countries’, where lead was included in gasoline and other petroleum products). Once lead was eliminated, the exposure fell sharply and so did, decades later, crime. And the data suggest that is exactly what has happened.


Steve Jobs unveils iPhone 4 • The Register

Steve Jobs unveils iPhone 4 • The Register
Whine: where's Canada and the iPhone4?
On the other hand, this (again) will save me from the impulse of madness besetting all the others so lucky (luckier than I) to be able to spend their money on it.