There’s a Lockdown in Cellblock ‘Magiker’…

…because Arne shiv'ed someone with a Solig. Punish him with the comfyPoäng chair!

OK, that's enough flippancy. Today I want to post about something serious. Swedish prisons. Matt Yglesias, commenting on the seemingly flippant attitude of the Swedish men being sent to prison for running the Pirate Bay file-trading service, registers surprise at how indulgent Swedish prisons seem to be (h/t Ed Philp):

But the long and short of it is that, as I understand it, the Swedish system basically understands criminal activity as overwhelmingly stemming from substance abuse problems, mental illness, and … labor market problems. Consequently, though the prisoners are certainly closely supervised, the conditions in prison are extremely humane and not especially “punitive.” The emphasis is on trying to help people with their problems and trying to ensure that dangerous people aren’t out and about on the streets.

This seems like an opportune occasion for a long, wonky post. From a link within Yglesias's story, we are led to a Ynet article about three Israelis in Swedish prisons who turned down an opportunity to be sent back to Israel to finish serving their sentences:

In Sweden, however, it appears that the imprisonment conditions are so good that three Israelis jail there are not even considering leaving. Every prisoner has his own cell with a television airing the World Cup games for free; every six months, the prisoner gets to tour the streets of Stockholm accompanied by a police car; and the highlight – every prisoner has a the right to a three-day conjugal right in a three-room luxury apartment in the prison.

The official explanation of the purpose of prison in Sweden comes from Sweden's central prison agency, the Kriminalvarden:

Being in prison is punishment. However, it is also a chance to acquire knowledge and experience that reduces the risk of new crime after release. The Prison and Probation Service has extensive programs to give prisoners the prerequisites for life in freedom, free of crime.

Prisoners are offered job training, substance-abuse treatment, and regular contact with the outside world, so that they don't become 'institutionalized.' 

I'm always interested in differences in criminal-justice policy between countries, and how they emerge. Part of Sweden's luxury prisons are down to Swedes' less punitive attitudes. Ordinary Swedes are significantly less punitive than Britons or Americans in their attitudes — nevertheless, they're still pretty punitive (and increasingly punitive) in their attitudes toward crime (pdf — pp. 15 & 16). As recently as mid-2001, 49% of Swedes endorsed the return of the death penalty for murder. Thus, the fact that generous prison conditions exist in Sweden doesn't mean that all Swedes endorse that state of affairs.

When writers compare criminal-justice policies, they often begin talking about history and 'values' and 'national character', but frequently ignore a critical factor: who actually makes those policies. As in most other European countries, Swedish criminal-justice policies are created by teams of elite experts. Generally, the government will set up a commission consisting of criminal-law professors, criminologists, psychologists, high-ranking civil servants, judges, and perhaps a few representatives from the bar, as well as police and prison-guard unions. Together, they will work out an entire criminal code in a series of sittings which may last years.

This criminal code will then generally passed by Parliament with few or no revisions. This, at least, was the pattern in Germany, and according to this article, the Swedish process was similar. In fact, major criminal-law reforms came in the mid-1960s in Sweden, as opposed to 1969 in Germany. Prison policies are created in a similar fashion — top-down, by a select committee drawn from a group of policy experts such as criminologists, psychologists and judges. Prison personnel are almost always well-trained and well-paid civil servants with high unionization rates, excellent job security, and a relatively strong sense of obedience to the mission of the agency they work for.

In countries such as Sweden, thus, we have a situation in which the general public has no direct influence on criminal-justice policy or prison conditions. Even if there is a large shift in public opinion toward one of the more conservative parties, this won't change things much, for several reasons. First, piecemeal changes to criminal laws are generally avoided, since they might disrupt the "balance" of the overall legislative framework created by the expert commission. Anything more than minor reforms to the criminal laws will generally be put off until the next commission can be assembled to articulate a basic reform — and that often takes decades.

Further, the conservative and left parties generally agree on their basic attitudes toward criminal-justice policy. On criminal-justice issues, the key divide in European societies is between the 15-20% of the educated elite and the rest of society. Virtually all high-ranking politicians and professors belong to this elite, and they all share basic attitudes toward crime and prisons, such as opposition to the death penalty, suspicion of penal populism, and commitment to human-rights principles. This policy-making elite intentionally designs systems — such as blue-ribbon panels and steering committees — that insulate criminal-justice policy from the vagaries of public opinion.

To European elites, this insulation of criminal-justice policy from public opinion is a feature, not a bug. Creating a just and workable criminal-justice system, they believe, takes extensive training in psychology, criminology, law, and a few other disciplines as well. The 'common man' could no more design a proper penal system than he could a nuclear reactor. This is a fundamental difference in world-view and political structure between Europe and the United States, but it's not often well-understood by commentators – despite my frequent long, boring posts!

Quote of the Day: Mably on America


While doing a bit of research on the French Enlightenment (my day job), I came across this quotation on America from the Abbe de Mably, the brother of Condillac and an important philosophe in his own right:

Whilst almost every European nation remains plunged in ignorance respecting the constitutive principles of society, and only regards the people who compose it as cattle upon a farm managed for the particular and exclusive benefit of the owner, we become at once astonished and instructed by the circumstance that your thirteen republics have, in the same moment, discovered the real dignity of man, and proceeded to draw from the sources of the most enlightened philosophy those humane principles on which they mean to build their forms of government.

Remarks Concerning the Government and Laws of the United States of America (letters to John Adams) (1785). Among the other accomplishments of this now-obscure philosophe, Mably proposed an early version of socialism in his 1776 book on legislation, and essentially predicted the course of the French revolution 30 years before it occurred, in his 1758 book Des droits et devoirs du citoyen (On the Rights and Duties of Citizens):   

Proceeding from a sober assessment of the balance of political forces in France in the wake of recent collisions between parlement and court, Mably . . . provides what is in effect a strategic recipe for the overthrow of French absolutism: parlementary resistance to the court is to be used as a lever to overturn the government, permitting a restored and reconstructed Estates General to assume full legislative authority within a modern constitutional monarchy. This 'script for a French revolution', as Keith Baker has termed it, of course proved to be a clairvoyant prediction of the actual course of events of 1787-9 — an astonishing performance from a supposedly 'utopian' writer.

J.K. Wright, Conversations with Phocion: The Political Thought of Mably, History of Political Thought, Vol. XIII, No. 3 (Autumn 1992), at 396.

Vlaams Belang and Right-Wing Bloggers

Who would have thought that a Belgian extreme-right political party would make headlines in the U.S.?

It all started when one Charles Johnson, an American conservative blogger who runs a website called Little Green Footballs (LGF) took a closer look at some of the people invited to a 2007 meeting of the 'Counter-Jihad Alliance' held in Brussels. Many American or U.S.-based conservative bloggers also attended the conference, where Filip DeWinter of the Belgian Vlaams Belang party delivered a report on the 'Islamization' of Belgium at the conference.

Johnson took a closer look at Vlaams Belang (the 'Flemish Interest' party), and didn't much like what he saw. The party leader, DeWinter, has a cross of Odin on his office bookshelf, consorts with other extreme-right figures such as Jean-Marie Le Pen and Nick Griffin of the British National Party, and gives interviews to radio shows such as 'The Political Cesspool' when he visits the U.S.:

Pulling on my hip boots and wading into “The Political Cesspool” radio show, I discovered a real viper’s nest of white supremacism and race hatred; the online archives of their show read like a who’s who of White Power nuts, Holocaust deniers, and antisemites that you have to see for yourself to really believe.

On the show’s official web site, at the bottom of the page, you’ll discover links to two of the most notorious hate groups in the US: the Holocaust-denying Institute for Historical Review, and the white supremacist group Council of Conservative Citizens.

Johnson, to his credit, has launched an open and sustained attack on these parties, and has urged his fellow conservatives to keep away from European far-right parties: "LGF is as anti-jihad as anyone on the web; but I do not accept that we’ve reached the point where we should embrace these kinds of people as allies, simply because they’re hitching a ride on the bandwagon and saying the right things when the spotlight is on them." The last link also discusses the Swedish Democrats party, some of whose members used to have the unfortunate habit of parading around in public in Nazi uniforms.

One of the key characteristics of an American-style first-past-the-post two-party system is that it squeezes out third parties. This is, of course, bad news for the socialists, but it's also bad news for right-wing fringe parties that would probably arise and prosper in a proportional-representation system. Vlaams Belang is currently represented in both Houses of the Belgian Parliament, as well as the European Parliament, and gets millions of Euros in government funding under Belgian campaign-finance laws. Belgian mainstream parties follow a cordon sanitaire policy to avoid coalitions with Vlaams Belang, but there are signs that the party's steady growth will make a cordon sanitaire policy hard to manage (as has happened in other European countries such as Austria and France).

Thanks to America's bland two-party system, the big mainstream parties soak up all the oxygen, leaving essentially no room for third-parties. The third parties that get traction are usually run by charismatic and well-financed political outsiders who single out a specific issue. They fizzle once the election is over. Lots of leftish Americans would like to see a proportional-representation system in the U.S., on the theory that this would open up political space for a 'real' American left-wing party, keeping the milquetoast, compromised Democrats honest. Perhaps, but it would also open up space for right-wing and regionalist parties. And we might realize, to our chagrin, that there's just as much support for those people as for the left, despite socialism's surprising popularity among young Americans…

Waltz for Debby in Swedish

If you listen to the Complete Bill Evans on Verve, you'll notice a bunch of songs in which Evans accompanies Monika Zetterlund, a Swedish actress and jazz singer. They're not very successful tracks overall, but her voice has a sort of wan, breathy charm. Judge for yourself by following this link (sorry, no embedding available) where you can see her rehearsing with the Bill Evans Trio for a Swedish-language version (!) of Evans' classic Waltz for Debby.

Confirmed: The Double Standard

I've blogged much less about politics lately, now that the Long National Nightmare is recenting into the Mists of History and the U.S. is back in the hands of competent people who can be trusted to make generally responsible decisions.

But I couldn't resist posting something about the torture memos which were recently released by the Justice Department as a result of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union under the Freedom of Information Act. These were memos written by high executive branch officials to the CIA's legal counsel. They were supposed to prove, using hairsplitting legal arguments, that various methods of torture — such as freezing prisoners, stripping them naked, depriving them of sleep, waterboarding them, or locking them inside dark coffins with insects — were not actually torture under U.S. or international law. After receiving the 'golden shield' memos, the CIA agents could presumably continue torturing the prisoners in their custody without fearing legal consequences.

Here's a telling excerpt of one memo posted by Kevin Drum:


Unless you're convinced by the caveats in the second paragraph, the basic import of this memo is that "it's torture when we condemn other countries such as Iran and Algeria for doing it, but it's not torture when we do it." 

It all reminds me of running into the odd supporter of Bush Administration policies back in the day. Generally, all you needed was to ask them: "What would you think of another country that pursued Bush Administration policy X?" They never had an answer to this seemingly predictable question. They seemed never to have asked it of themselves. Eventually, I trained myself to evaluate every Bush policy by asking that question, which was easy, since I was living in a country in which "we get to do it because we're America" didn't carry the day. Which is true of pretty much all countries that aren't the USA.

Now we have proof that "we get to do it because we're America" was actually the policy of the Bush executive branch. As an Eritrean colleague of mine used to say: "The mind buggers!"

Elite Resentment and Socialism

Accumulating Peripherals has some thoughts on conservative resentment in the U.S. and in Europe:

But in fact disdain for cosmopolitan elites and Europe is constitutive of conservatism in a wide range of countries besides the US. Russia and its Slavophile proxies, obviously, but also the UK and Israel, most of the Muslim world, and, for that matter, Europe. In European countries, obviously, “Europe” means the EU, and antipathy to the supranational bureaucracy in Brussels is probably the single most coherent constitutive element of modern European conservatism. More generally, disdain for cosmopolitan elites and Europe has been at the core of conservatism since the dawn of nationalism in the 19th century, and it’s not surprising that it’s still at the core of American conservatism. What is surprising, I would think, is how locally concentrated such conservatism is in the US; it’s a sign that the rest of the US, apart from the South, is becoming quite encouragingly cosmopolitan.

And in other news, Americans are surprisingly friendly to socialism:

Adults under 30 are essentially evenly divided: 37% prefer capitalism, 33% socialism, and 30% are undecided. Thirty-somethings are a bit more supportive of the free-enterprise approach with 49% for capitalism and 26% for socialism. Adults over 40 strongly favor capitalism, and just 13% of those older Americans believe socialism is better.

Atrios ventures an explanation:

Like many commonly used words in our political discourse, "socialism" isn't very well-defined. If the Right defines it as Obamaism, then we may yet get our government health and SUPERTRAINS. People like the skinny black guy.

German Word of the Week (Outsourced): Schwedenkrimi

From the New York Times' house lexicographer Ben Schott comes this weeks GWOW, Schwedenkrimi:

Swedish crime literature has become a phenomenon in Europe, so much so that the Germans have invented a new word for it: “Schwedenkrimi.”

The popularity of crime fiction is a variable in the following Cultural Paradox Formula:

K * M = B * SS


K = popularity of crime novels (Krimi in German).

M = 'Metal' of any description (death metal, speed metal) as a percentage of country's local musical output.

B = reputed / actual boringness of country's inhabitants.

SS = level of overall safety and security of ordinary citizens' lives.

The Demjanjuk Deportation Stay

I just got off the phone with a reporter who had some questions about the most recent court decision in the Demjanjuk case, so I thought I'd share what I've found out while doing a bit of on-the-fly research.

The history of the Demjanjuk case stretches back to the late 1970s, you can find a short summary of the highlights here at the BBC's website. Yesterday's order (pdf) to stop Demjanjuk's deportation by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals was purely procedural. It stays Demjanjuk's deportation long enough to determine whether sending him to Germany would constitute 'torture' under the Convention Against Torture. Demjanjuk makes this argument on pages 7-8 of this motion (pdf). The federal government, which supports Demjanjuk's extradition, calls his lawyers' argument "frivolous" on page 4 of this motion (pdf) opposing the stay.

The recent order by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals isn't a decision on the merits; Demjanjuk was stripped of his U.S. citizenship by a federal court on 2002 for lying about his past when he entered the U.S. in 1952, and has lost in all further appeals, including before the Board of Immigration Appeals, an "administrative body" (not an actual court) that decides whether to deport people.

The case is procedurally ridiculously complex, so I won't go into the details. I just wanted to make clear that the Sixth Circuit order only says the court needs more time to consider the question whether Demjanjuk's health is too fragile to permit deportation. If the court stops his deportation on health grounds, that will have no effect on the actual merits of his case.