Retribution for the masses, not the criminals

Americans like to punish people. Despite research in fields like sociology and psychology advising that its effects are mostly harmful, retribution, for real or imagined sins, is a tradition we embrace fondly.

Since colonial times, we’ve meted out punishment for whatever powerful people thought was “bad” behavior. Do we think she’s a witch? Burn her at the stake. Is he poor and uneducated? Keep him in the ghetto. Is he black or Hispanic, doing drugs? Lock him up and remove him from society. Did they take out a mortgage they couldn’t afford? Evict them and foreclose on their mortgage. That’s our way--affirming power through violence.

And here’s a twist: we tend to blame the victims, excusing those who actually caused the trouble in the first place. This is true especially when those with power have an economic stake in creating the mischief.

Industry turned our cities into repositories for the poor and unskilled. But few insist that these corporations have a moral responsibility to hire, train and pay fair wages to these unfortunates. Speculation and market manipulation by the bankers caused worldwide economic chaos. But we let them off with small fines. Why? Our leaders have a stake in preserving the legitimacy of those who have done the damage.

It’s not just an American phenomenon. Retribution is as old as our culture, and is shared by others around the world. Europeans inherited it from the Church in medieval times. The Church received it from the violent accounts of the Old Testament--God supposedly heaping retribution on the people for disgracing the covenant with Yahweh.

Today, whenever something “bad” happens, like a war, an oil spill, climate change or the Great Recession, the shamans of the press typically condemn the victims -- the little people. These modern-day priests never admonish manufacturers, corporations, aristocrats, legislators or presidents. It’s the people, the masses, who must somehow be disciplined.

There is yet another angle being worked here. Those in power use the rules of the game to their own benefit, to stave off accountability and change. And to protect their gains.

For example, in former times of economic disaster, particularly during the Great Depression, relief of debt obligations was available for those who suffered the worst. But the conservatives and wealthy elites today self-righteously deny the people access to debt relief.

What’s happening here is caused by the fact that our most powerful and wealthy citizens understand all too well that we’re being overtaken by the effects of climate change. This is a potential disaster unprecedented since the invention of the atomic bomb. Scientists indicate we may become extinct as a species if earth’s average temperature exceeds an increase of 6 degrees. Certainly, at least, capitalism will be transformed or repudiated and our consumerist way of life will be massively interrupted.

To survive such a disaster, wealthy elites are stockpiling all the resources they can gather. Relieving any kind of debt (student, consumer or mortgage loans) means they lose money they may need later. Besides, redistributing income to the unworthy poor and middle classes simply creates more competition when food, clothes, transport and shelter become scarce.

Now we see where retribution leads. Those in power, facing disastrous circumstances they themselves have created, place their own survival above that of the rest of us. They create a diversion by beating on the masses, punishing them with discipline and austerity. Then they extract resources from them for use against them when disaster occurs.

So, retribution is a tactic used against the people by the troublemakers trying to survive while everyone else perishes. Punishment is a way of covering up the initial crime, ensuring survival for those who profited handsomely from creating the problem.

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