Symposium: Why Do Progressives Love Criminals?

Three distinguished guests shed light on the Left’s romance with the incarcerated.

In this special edition of Frontpage Symposium, we have assembled a distinguished panel to discuss the question: Why do progressives love criminals? The discussion will be based on Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which has just recently been released in paperback. Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete? will also serve as a specimen for analysis.

Our guests today are:

Christian Adams, an election lawyer who served in the Voting Rights Section at the U.S. Department of Justice. His bestselling book is Injustice: Exposing the Racial Agenda of the Obama Justice Department Visit his website at

Theodore Dalrymple, a retired doctor and psychiatrist, and the author of several books, among them the Life at the Bottom and Anything Goes.


Dr. Paul Hollander, the author or editor of fourteen books in political sociology and cultural-intellectual history. His books include Political Pilgrims, Anti-Americanism: Critiques at Home and Abroad, 1965-1990, and The End of Commitment.

FP: Christian Adams, Theodore Dalrymple and Dr. Paul Hollander, welcome to Frontpage Symposium and our discussion on the Left’s love affair with criminals.

In thinking about Michelle Alexander’s and Angela Davis’ books, let’s start the discussion in this way: Leftists regard the system itself as criminal and therefore regard criminals as "primitive rebels" against an unjust system.

Christian Adams, correct?

Adams: Correct Jamie, that’s the essence of Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow -- that the criminal justice system is just another example of structural racism.

The Left resurrects Jim Crow so frequently to advance unpopular ideas, that it has lost all meaning. Alexander’s book takes this to a whole new, and absurd, level.  She argues, in short, that the criminal justice system is a racial segregation scheme, where blacks are now warehoused in prisons instead of on plantations.  She provides a dangerous intellectual framework for dismantling perhaps the last mighty keep of our culture – the notion that evil and crime carry consequences.  The Left has attacked every other aspect of western civilization, and now Alexander goes after the very concept of criminal culpability.

One unintended consequence of Alexander (and her fellow travelers) trotting out “Jim Crow” so regularly is that it diminishes the evil of Jim Crow. Reasonable people simply do not believe that people being in prison for committing crimes compares with the political disenfranchisement of the black minority and de jure segregation across the South.

Reasonable people would find Alexander’s thesis laughable, but her audience isn’t comprised of reasonable people. Reasonable Americans in middle America will never hear of The New Jim Crow.  Instead, her audience is comprised of the academic crackpots eager to teach her theories to the children of the reasonable people a decade from now.  Her audience also includes the grade-A race hustlers anxious for the next generation of poisonous grievance.

There was a time when the civil rights movement appealed to the moral core of reasonable Americans. Those who have inherited the legacy, like Alexander, now appeal to irrational fears and zealots.

One of the most dangerous and deliberate campaigns of the Left is to divorce actions from consequences.  Divorcing actions from consequences is the condition precedent to accepting the Great Society.  Divorcing actions from consequences is a condition precedent to accepting the premise of “The New Jim Crow.”  The criminal justice system is not, as Michelle Alexander suggests, the descendant of slavery and Jim Crow. Divorcing evil actions from the consequence of prison allows her to reach this conclusion.  Slavery was an evil system. So was Jim Crow.  But the prisons are largely populated by individuals who themselves engaged in evil acts.

Criminal actions have consequences, and Alexander necessarily must uncouple this relationship.  Uncoupling the relationship between criminal acts and incarceration is her aim.  Further decay of the culture and the rule of law would be the result.

There are so many problems with Alexander’s book, I don’t want to lay them all out here and leave nothing for the others in the forum.  But I will close with this thought.  Authors usually hope their books get widespread attention.  Already, many on the Left are attaching inflated descriptions of grandeur to The New Jim Crow.  They better be careful what they wish for.  This next installment in the moral collapse of the civil rights industry might be too much for Americans to take.  A bridge too far, if you will.  Americans cherish a criminal justice system which they think is both fair, and keeps their families safe.  Widespread popularization of the book’s thesis is certain to provoke a backlash, and further marginalize the already marginalized civil rights radicals on the race grievance left.   The book presents a laughable thesis to most Americans.  And it’s no fun to be laughed at.

Dalrymple: That leftists regard the criminal justice system as criminal and therefore regard criminals as "primitive rebels" against an unjust system is, I suppose, right, though few of them would openly admit it. They tend to see the proper function of the criminal justice system as being the promotion of what they call social justice, by which they mean equality - and not equality under the law, but equality of outcome between identifiable groups. (Equity and equality they almost always assume to be the same.) And they think that if there were justice, equality would result, naturally and inevitably; there is no equality, therefore there is no justice. I think you can read for quite a long time before you find an unequivocal statement that there could be no greater injustice than equality of outcome.

Their approach to the criminal justice system is not that its faults should be corrected, and individual instances of injustice righted (there does seem much to criticize); but rather that the whole of society must be transformed into something completely different from what it is now. Alexander's book has at least the merit of acknowledging this, though she evaluates the supposed necessity differently from how I would evaluate it.

The fundamental thesis of Alexander’s book is not new. Let me quote from El Raheem, a character (a black convert to the Nation of Islam) in a Broadway play, Short Eyes, by a former convict, Miguel Pinero, that won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for the best play, 1973-1974:

“You still expect the white man to give you a fair trial in his court? Don't you know what justice really means? Justice... ‘just us’... white folks.”

Now as it happens, from a foreign viewpoint, there are deficiencies in the American criminal justice system, among them its vulnerability to local political pressure and the iniquitous system of plea bargaining, which can so easily turn justice into a game of poker.

But for all that it takes a great deal of credulity to believe that completely innocent men are routinely incarcerated in the US, and in large numbers.

I want to point out something that is so obvious that I should be ashamed to mention it were it not so repeatedly overlooked. Recidivist criminals are very productive, in the sense that they commit many crimes - in England, for example, one every 2-3 days. Most criminals victimize those close to them, geographically and socially. Thus the class of victims is many, many times the size of the class of perpetrators. In short, imprisonment, in so far as it prevents one crime per prisoner committed against neighbors ever two days, is a benefit received by the community and not an imposition upon it or an injustice against it. And the majority of the cost falls elsewhere.

When recently I pointed this out in an interview in Brazil, there was an outpouring of relief by poor but respectable Brazilians, that someone had acknowledged that to be poor was not ipso facto or ex officio to be criminal.

I will leave it to later to explain why intellectuals are so incapable of or unwilling to grasp this most obvious reasoning.

FP: Thank you Dr. Dalrymple.

Dr. Hollander, what do you make of this phenomenon?

Kindly begin on the theme of leftists regarding the system itself as criminal and therefore regarding criminals as "primitive rebels" against an unjust system.

Hollander: It does depend on who the "leftists" in question are.  Not all leftists consider criminals "primitive rebels" but more likely to consider them victims of the system. It also depends on what type of criminals we are talking about.  Surely white collar criminals, rapists or psychopathic serial murderers are not likely to be considered primitive rebels or even victims of the system.

I think there is a greater temptation to consider criminals “primitive rebels” when they come from  underprivileged strata of society -- poor, uneducated,  ethnic minorities etc. and their crimes can be interpreted as an effort to put bread on the table, so to speak.

Overall, the question of this symposium and the proposition it entails needs modification or rephrasing. I would substitute "have a soft spot for" instead of "love." More important, "progressive," (i.e. leftist or PC attitudes) towards criminals are multidimensional, or selective depending on the type of crime involved and the social (including racial, ethnic, sexual) background of the criminal. These attitudes are highly patterned. Thus, as I just noted, not all criminals and types of crime are viewed with sympathy or empathy in these circles. "Progressives" have no sympathy for white collar criminals, rapists and those who commit "hate crimes." Angela Davis would not consider their imprisonment "obsolete" or lament a "judgmental" a "judgmental" disposition toward them. A wealthy, middle aged, white male’s crimes would be perceived and judged very differently from those of a poor, young black male.

Sympathy or its absence toward different types of criminals and crimes is guided by certain assumptions about the nature of society we live in, by conceptions of human nature and the determinants of human behavior. Most important are the beliefs about the extent to which behavior (of different groups of people) is socially (or perhaps otherwise as well) determined. Allowing for, or denying, individual choice, or free will is selective. Those assigned to the victim groups, the underdogs (as defined by politically correct criteria) are supposed to have little choice, or free will - social forces hold them in their relentless grip. It is a different matter with white collar criminals or hate criminals whose reprehensible actions are apparently freely chosen and supposedly motivated by greed, racism, sexism, or homophobia.

Those in the victim populations are either a) altogether innocent, accused of crimes they did not commit (mainly on the basis of racial profiling); and/or b) were convicted because they could not afford to pay for good legal defense; or c) their crimes were determined by social forces and conditions over which they had no control: i.e. poverty, broken homes, childhood abuse, lack of education, racial, sexual or gender discrimination. In the politically correct perspective crime, esp. against property is often seen as a desperate effort to gratify basic needs unmet in legal or legitimate ways.

The exact connection between these social conditions or determinants and criminal acts are difficult to demonstrate. Many people who experience such disadvantages and deprivations do not become criminals.

More elaborate rationalizations of the allegedly unjust treatment of criminals is offered by these two authors focusing on Blacks and Hispanics. They suggest that such victimization has broader social-political functions, namely to divert public attention from major, serious social problems, defects and injustices and to intimidate those who might take action against the status quo. Most important, the unjustified incarceration of these minorities is designed to perpetuate a racial caste system, or create a new one, Michelle Alexander argues.

Criminals (excluding the politically incorrect ones noted above) are also viewed with sympathy by "progressives" because their "transgressive" behavior is treated as form of rebellion or social protest against a repressive and inherently unjust social system. Bank robbers don’t just take the money from where it is, they also challenge the unfair distribution of privilege, they make a statement.

Norman Mailer’s essay about the "The White Negro" is a notorious and extreme example of such sentiments as he glorifies individual violence as redeeming and authentic as opposed to the dehumanizing violence inherent in the system. As may be recalled some years ago, Mailer used his influence to have a convicted murderer released who soon after his release committed another murder in New York City.

It should also be noted that there is also an American tradition of romanticizing the outlaw who defies society and its conventions that found expression in popular movies such as "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Thelma and Louise" - the latter had a feminist twist. This tradition has little to do with political correctness.

Adams: When I read Mr. Dalrymple’s  recounting of his conversation about criminals in Brazil, I was reminded of the Trenton chapter of the New Black Panther Party, and the general glorification of criminal activity among some segments of the country, but lack of recognition that the effects of crime fall disproportionately on minority communities.  Yet too often the same minority communities have members willing to embrace violent thugs.

As I mention in my book Injustice: Exposing the Racial Agenda of the Obama Justice Department, the New Black Panther Party has high profile members which actually glorify and advocate murder. The Trenton Chapter has a video called “bang out.”  From Injustice: in the music video, the panthers “conjured dozens of people, including women and children that advocate the murder of whites” and burying the “white devil” down by the river.  The New Black Panther Minister of War, Najee Muhammed, appears in another panther “training” video advocating the murder of DeKalb County police officers by lying in wait behind shrubbery and attacking with AK-47s.  Of course the infamous panther King Samir Shabazz was looped endlessly on Fox News calling for the murder of white babies.

These sorts of monsters are the most incendiary audience for Michelle Alexander’s book, because once you believe that the criminal justice system is truly a racist plot to warehouse innocent blacks, advocacy for violence isn’t far behind.

Consider how even Eric Holder’s Justice Department has a small role to play in this sordid mess.  The Obama DOJ and Department of Education are now going after school districts, claiming that school discipline policies are racially discriminatory.  From Injustice:

“In January 2011, [Assistant Attorney General] Perez announced that the DOJ would use a ‘disparate impact’ analysis on school discipline cases to determine whether discipline policies were racially discriminatory. Thus, if blacks were disciplined in higher percentages than their share of the population, the DOJ would bring a lawsuit to stop the discipline policy.”

Ponder the significance of this policy and how it reflects the world view of The New Jim Crow.  Structural racism must be to blame whenever black students comprise a greater percentage of suspended students compared with their share in the general population.  To the racialists like Alexander, Eric Holder and Tom Perez, individual responsibility has taken a back seat to racist structures that produce results that dispense discipline in ways they don’t like.  Given the patient march of the progressive racialist agenda, one can foresee this rancid theory gaining acceptance in the criminal justice system shortly.  One can almost imagine Alexander wishing some defendants could introduce evidence of structural racism in the criminal justice system to lessen their prison terms.

Mr. Hollander is spot on that Leftists have selective sympathy depending on the crime the criminal commits.  Rape, indeed, doesn’t usually gain the racialist pardon.  Murder, theft, assault and narcotics trafficking, however, can earn a great deal of sympathy from the left under the right circumstances.

Sympathy overflows when political crimes are involved.  Consider the murderer Marylin Buck, a Marxist terrorist who helped the Black Liberation Army acquire weapons which were used in murders.  Holder’s Justice Department released her from prison after the Bush DOJ refused to do so.  Some defend the release because she had a terminal disease, but there is no rule that says you can’t die in a prison infirmary after you participated in the deaths of multiple people.  When the criminal is fighting the “racist system,” sympathy is acute.

But such sympathy for someone like Buck is dangerous.  Sympathy for political murder is a species of sympathy right out of Stalin’s purges of the 1920s.  Crimes which benefit the favored ideology are excused, while imaginary crimes earn political opponents a bullet in the head.  This is precisely the madness our Constitutional system was designed to avoid.

Adding further to Mr. Hollander’s observation, the race of the victim also matters these days with the Obama administration.  Consider the deafening silence from Eric Holder’s DOJ regarding the racially motivated mob attacks at the Wisconsin State Fair in 2010, or in Ohio in 2009, or any number of similar incidents where whites are beaten senseless by mobs yelling racial slurs as they bloody women and children.  18 U.S.C. Section 245 covers this behavior, but people inside our Justice Department (I name the names in Injustice) are unwilling to enforce the law against the black wrongdoers because the victims are white.  They’ve probably been reading The New Jim Crow and can excuse a racially motivated beating from time to time, depending on who is involved.

Dalrymple: Paul Hollander is of course right in saying that the sympathetic understanding extended to criminals by intellectuals is selective, and does not apply to certain kinds of criminals who victimize designated types of victims. In England recently, for example, two white racist thugs were convicted of killing a young black man. The liberal press extended no understanding to the perpetrators, nor do I see any reason why it should have done so, though of course the behavior of these thugs must have had as many social and psychological influences as does the behavior of anyone else. The liberal press was punitive in its attitude, and again rightly so; but that punitiveness does not transfer to crimes committed by favored groups, whose behavior is explained away.

I think there is one general point that needs to be made. The romanticization of crime is not new or confined to one country. The criminal with a heart of gold is almost a stock figure in literature. One laughs at Falstaff, our life is enriched by him, but he is nevertheless a criminal. Dostoyevsky promoted the idea that the greater the sinner, the greater the saint. Sartre's book about Genet, a psychopathic criminal, is called Saint Genet. William S Burroughs thought that criminals were authentic in a way that ordinary middle class people were not. Mailer saw in the murderer Abbott a man of great talent and in effect aided him in killing someone else.

Balzac said that behind every great fortune lies a great crime, but romantics say that within every great criminal there is someone good waiting and wanting to be redeemed. That is why notorious and brutal killers seldom lack for declarations of love and even offers of marriage. There is a wonderful, hilarious and terrible Australian book on this subject, called Dream Lovers, by Jacquelynne Willcox-Bailey. It recounts stories of delusion about criminals that truly are extraordinary.

A mixture of sentimentality and intellectual pride distinguishes the attitude of many liberal intellectuals towards crime, which almost never affects them personally. On the one hand there is a reluctance to believe that ordinary people can behave very badly; on the other they believe that it is the function of the intellectual to uncover the underlying 'reality' of phenomena (if he is not for that, what is he for?), so that it represents a loss of caste to express the ordinary man in the street's horror at or revulsion against crime.

Thus crime has to become not really crime, but something else altogether more noble, which it takes nobility and intelligence or acuity on the part of the intellectual in turn to recognize. People don't steal or rob because they want something and think it is the easiest way to get it; they are uttering a protest against injustice. Moral grandiosity and exhibitionism are the occupational hazards of intellectuals.

None of this should, of course, be taken to mean that we should not oppose injustice where it really exists.

Hollander: Mr. Adams listed a number of dismaying incidents (some of which I never heard of, e.g. the mob violence at some Wisconsin state fair) in the realm of law enforcement which illustrate the general themes of this discussion. Apparently officials in the Dept. of Justice on occasion incline to the views which prevail on the campuses. These views and the associated policies can be understood in light of past discrimination, thus there is some plausibility to the argument that if a disproportionate number of black students are disciplined in school or black drivers stopped by the police for alleged traffic violations, racism, that is to say, a hostile predisposition is bound to play a part. Same goes for the disproportionate number of blacks in prison.

But there is the crucial empirical question: do more black students misbehave in school than white or Asian? Do more young black males commit more crimes than their white or Asian counterparts? Even if it is established and agreed that they do, it is still possible to fall back on a more nuanced explanation that includes racism. Thus it can be argued that their behavioral problems or higher rates of criminality may very well originate in the racism of the past (and its impact on the family structure, upbringing, levels of education etc) and not present day discrimination. While the long term after effects of such past discrimination are real, it does not follow that black criminals or misbehaving students bear no responsibility whatsoever for their behavior, or that their behavior is completely dominated and determined by social forces over which they have no control. Concepts like "disparate impact" or "structural racism" are dubious unless there is evidence of actual discrimination. Is the small number of black mathematicians or brain surgeons or musicians in symphony orchestras due to racist discrimination? I rather doubt it. On the other hand, it does have something to with the history of black people in this country and the injustices and deprivations they suffered.

Theodore Dalrymple provided further excellent examples of the literary romanticization of crime and the benign attitudes of some intellectuals towards it. He is also right in emphasizing that, as a rule, these sympathizers have no personal experience of crime, of being victimized by criminals, and criminal violence in particular remains an abstraction for them. Poor people, by contrast, are more punitive partly because they are more often victims of crime and because they don’t embrace moral relativism.

Let me summarize why many intellectuals seem to be favorably disposed toward criminals, or certain types of them:

1) many of them come from the ranks of the poor, the underprivileged, they are putative or genuine victims of society, their behavior determined by inexorable social forces. At the same time, and contradicting the former perception,

2) they are also considered fighters for social justice, their crimes perceived as social protest;

3) they are brave, they take risks, often of impressive physique and physical strength that also impresses timid, sedentary intellectuals;

4) they are authentic, they act out their rejection of the existing social order, they lead dangerous and seemingly adventurous lives.

But as I said earlier, these sympathies are selective and ideologically or philosophically defined. Few people are inclined to be sympathetic toward, or ask for understanding, rapists, child molesters, serial killers or white collar criminals, and their behavior is rarely excused or mitigated on the grounds of inexorable social forces which shaped it.

Adams: It is true that petty criminals have been endearing figures in literature. I’ll add the Artful Dodger to the list provided by Mr. Dalrymple.  What distinguishes the positive portrayal of these fictional criminals from Alexander’s sweeping racialist explanation for crime in The New Jim Crow is perhaps the absence of a political and ideological component to give quarter to the fictional criminals, at least not an overt one.  Alexander’s attitude toward criminals is rooted firmly in a racialist and corrupt ideological perspective.  Simply, people are in jail because a structurally racist system has conspired against them and has criminalized behavior they either can’t help, or shouldn’t be held accountable for.  Her intense ideological perspective bears little resemblance to the good natured and jovial fictional criminal.

Then the troubling figure of Falstaff enters our forum.  If anybody was a loveable and politically enabled criminal, it was Falstaff.  His relationship with Prince Hal gave him all sorts of license, and he expects it to continue after Harry’s coronation.  Unfortunately King Henry has other ideas, “I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers; How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!”  The King has terminated whatever political relationship allowed Falstaff’s crimes. Alexander does not share Henry’s sense of universal justice.  She is willing to excuse.

Regarding the unpunished mob violence since Obama’s inauguration, I discuss it in more detail here or you could listen to Rush Limbaugh read the same article here (starts at 5:30), which I never cease to enjoy.   What I describe in the article finds its justification in the ideas of Michelle Alexander, even if the criminals were not familiar with her latest book.  The racially motivated mob attacks are the natural result of ideas like Alexander’s.  Worse, the failure to prosecute the crimes by the Eric Holder Justice Department also finds support in Alexander’s rotted ideas.

That’s why none of what you have been reading in this forum is theoretical.  The fist to the face of Marty Marshall of Akron, Ohio, is rough and real.  The brutal violence against Michael Chambers isn’t speculative.  These attacks, and the want of legal consequences, are the result of ideas like Alexander’s, and they must be rejected.

Dalrymple: Again, Paul Hollander is right in alluding to the existence and importance of prejudice. It is surely not very difficult to believe that policemen or even courts are often prejudiced against blacks, and that a whole vicious circle of expectation, response, expectation, further response, is set up.

But as he rightly says, the existence of prejudice does not absolve people of personal responsibility; and if a black burglar is sent to prison and a white burglar is not, to whom is the injustice done, to the black burglar or the white, to the victim of the first or that victim of the second? It is surely a prejudice that, if there were justice in the world, everyone would be better off than he is. Many people would be worse off.

Since I know England better than America, let me allude to an interesting phenomenon here. The last time I looked, rates of imprisonment of Sikhs and Hindus were so low that they were not deemed worth calculating. By contrast, rates of imprisonment of Muslims of Indian sub-continental origin were four times higher than expected by comparison with their numbers in the population.

Now it is possible, though I think very unlikely, that this difference in outcome is the result of prejudice. I think I can, with a fair degree of accuracy, distinguish a Hindu from a Muslim, just by appearances (I can't easily describe how I do it). And of course names are different. But the kind of person who is likely to act on his prejudices - and there is a difference between having and acting on prejudices - is not likely to make subtle distinctions. Therefore it seems to me likely that the difference in imprisonment rate of Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus in Britain is the result of prejudice and not of a real difference in conduct, however that difference arose in the first place. Incidentally, this is borne out by the relative economic success of these groups, which is very different.

I am not sufficiently well-up in American criminological literature to know whether the figures for black imprisonment have been disaggregated, as surely they could be.

Any criminal justice system has to deal with the cases that come before it; and it is no defense against a charge that others have got away with exactly the same behavior (which is always the case). I cannot say I was not guilty of speeding because the car in front of me was going even faster, and the driver is not appearing in court.

One of the most alarming things to me about Alexander's book was the use of the term 'racial justice.' I think you have to have a tin ear to use it, given its historical connotations. However, a lot of injustice, it seems to me, could be avoided if the plea-bargaining system were reined in; though whether this would seize up the courts I do not know. But plea-bargaining is essentially unjust.

Hollander: Perhaps it is a sign of moral progress that in some societies, such as the American, there is public concern with the fate of those imprisoned rather than taking for granted that they got what they deserved.

This discussion also raised the question, at least for me, of the part played by moral indignation in criminal justice. The two authors whose books we made reference to, directed their moral indignation at the criminal justice system, and the larger society it is embedded in, convinced as they are, that the overwhelming majority of black and Hispanic inmates are innocent of any crimes, or serious crimes. These writers seem to have little emotional energy left for moral indignation stimulated by the victims of those who are not innocently imprisoned. These victims themselves are often black and Hispanic. Doubtless there are also many people in this society who do not have sleepless nights over people imprisoned for minor offenses, or on the basis of insufficient evidence, or because of some type of bias on the part of the police, judge or jury.

Apparently it is very difficult to display moral indignation that is balanced and directed at wrongs which are irrelevant to our ideological disposition.

FP: Christian Adams, Theodore Dalrymple and Dr. Paul Hollander, thank you for joining Frontpage Symposium.

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Tags: Left, Criminals