Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Like other cities run by Democrats, Los Angeles is going through an epidemic of violent crime. Its Soros-funded DA George Gascón has a lot of blood on his hands for increasing the mayhem. When he was sworn in, he said his office would not prosecute a host of misdemeanor crimes, or seek the death penalty for even the most heinous murders. No surprise that, as Broken Windows policing confirmed nearly two decades ago, tolerating “non-violent” crimes has increased violent ones.
“The data,” as City Journal’s Soledad Ursúa, reports on LA, “show staggering surges of homicides, gun violence, and sexual assaults, and one can see with one’s own eyes the open-air drug scenes, rampant homelessness, streets lined with human excrement and needles, prostitution, filth, and squalor. Last year saw 52 percent more homicides than in 2019; shooting incidents were up 59 percent over the same period, according to the LAPD.” Much of this violence has come at the hands of street-bums and addicts.
In response to this carnage, Ursúa continues, Gascón has fallen back on old sociological nostrums about crime that blame everybody and everything except the criminal: “In many ways we cannot prosecute our way out of social inequalities, income inequalities, the unhoused, the desperation that we have.”
When it comes to crime, progressives who fancy themselves “brights” who just “follow the science,” are in fact slaves of some defunct sociologist.
But even before sociology and criminology became full-fledged “scientific” disciplines, this idea that crime was a response to an unjust social order could be found in popular novels in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. A common theme of these thrillers was the role injustice played in driving the protagonist to crime. Later, the new “science” of sociology turned this literary motif into a “scientific” explanation for crime, one that, as we are witnessing today, worsens the problem by distorting their causes, and abandoning both common sense and the moral imperative in a free society to hold people responsible for their actions.
The fascination with crime and criminals that was widespread in the 19th and 18th centuries, and the focus on some injustice as the cause of their crimes, were a staple of popular culture like the “penny dreadful” pamphlets and later in the century, “dime novels.” More respectable novels like Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838) or Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862), whose main character Jean Valjean is imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving family, featured this same theme of good people forced into crime by a callous and brutal society and justice system.
One bestselling example is Jack Shepherd (1839) by William Harrison Ainsworth, who loosely based his protagonist on a famous 18th century criminal with the same name. The fictional Jack is an orphan and an intelligent apprentice. But serial abuse by his master’s shrewish wife, who slaps Jack’s face when he tries to alert his master that some visitors are criminals, sets his criminal path. “May I be cursed,” Jack vows, “if I ever try to be honest again.” He goes on to become a notorious criminal.
Another example, from Gold Rush California, illustrates how this popular genre could also be politicized to serve ideological ends. That era’s most infamous criminal was a Sonoran immigrant named Joaquín Murieta. In the lurid newspapers of the time, Murieta was often described as the victim of gringo miners, who drove him off his claim, lynched his brother, raped his wife, and flogged him. In an 1853 story in the San Francisco Herald, told third-hand without any corroborating factual evidence, Murieta recounts the injustices he had suffered at the hands of Americans, and vows, “I will revenge my wrongs, and take the law into my own hands; those who injured me I’ll slay, and those who have not, I’ll rob––my track shall leave a trail of blood.”
A year later, after Joaquín’s brief crime spree ended in a bloody shootout, his story was turned into a novel, The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta (1854), written by a half-Cherokee journalist and poet, John Rollin Ridge. Ridge took the few documented facts about Murieta and fabricated a story that would go on to become for many the “true history” of the bandit. One fictive change that drew on the folktales about Robin Hood, was soon added to Murieta’s persona. In fact, he and his gangs were ruthless killers, especially preying on the indentured Chinese miners whose masters kept them unarmed.
By the Sixties, the Chicano movement, which claimed the American Southwest was the original homeland of la Raza unjustly stolen by gringos, revitalized the Murieta legend. Chicanismo elevated the bandit into a revolutionary hero and resistance leader, whose crimes were in fact part of a Reconquista to take back their “stolen” land. This fiction usefully justifies mass migration, legal or illegal, from Mexico, captured in the slogan “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us”––a canard given that most of the Mexican migrants had started coming to California half a century after the Mexican War transferred the Southwest to the U.S.
And of course, the transformation of the bandit into a freedom fighter justified criminal violence as legitimate resistance to an alien occupier. This idealization of violent irredentism, based on folk legends and a dime novel, was a staple of anticolonial Marxist dogma. It was popularized in Marxist Eric Hobsbawm’s 1969 influential book Bandits. In it he created the “social bandit,” who “challenged the economic, social and political order by challenging those who hold or lay claim to power, law, and the control of resources.” Whether the “social bandit” actually existed is irrelevant, since he is a “social phenomenon,” a representative of the larger forces driving the inevitable Marxist revolution.
Hobsbawm’s thesis found support in the wide-spread idea already entrenched in the social sciences, that crime was not a moral issue, the product of choices people make, or their lack of virtue, but a matter of external forces like poverty and oppression that drive people to become criminals. Hence this stale motif of popular novels from a 150 years ago that exempted criminals from accountability, eventually became a “scientific” explanation for crime, replete with reams of dubious “research,” forbidding technical jargon, and rows and rows of quantitative data, all giving them a spurious authority and prestige.
Indeed, so common was this idea that in the 1957 Broadway hit West Side Story, some of the young thugs sing the satirical song “Officer Krupke,” with lyrics that lampoon this crude social determinism:
“Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke,
Ya gotta understand:
It’s just our bringin’ upke
That gets us outta hand.
Our mothers all are junkies,
Our fathers all are drunks.
Golly Moses, natcherly we’re punks.”
Finally, Hobsbawm’s theory combined Marxism with these broader ideas about crime. As such it influenced not just Chicanismo and Chicano scholars who explicitly characterized Murieta as a “social bandit,” whose crimes were acts of reparatory redistribution of wealth from the oppressor to the oppressed. Other identity-politics radicals like the Black Panthers, and of course terrorists like the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army, all found the Marxist fantasy a useful rationalization for political violence and common criminality.
Similarly, in August 2020, a Black Lives Matter organizer justified the vandalism, violence, and looting in Chicago in terms redolent of “social banditry” when she called the looting “reparations,” since “The whole idea of criminality is based on racism anyway.”
As expected, the BLM activists also indulged the trite “poverty made me do it” excuse: “I will support the looters ’til the end of the day. If that’s what they need to do in order to eat, then that’s what you’ve got to do to eat.” Obviously, it’s hard to see how attacking a Ronald McDonald House, which supports the families of seriously ill children, helps to advance “social justice.” And for those who perfume crime as “resistance” against the oppressor, the police are fair game. As the BLM tribune says, “The only people that can undermine our movement are the police, our oppressors.” Hence the nation-wide “defund the police” movement that has spawned record-setting numbers of violent crimes.
As we’ve seen in the current spike in violent crime, such preposterous excuses comprise Gascón’s feeble rationalizations for not doing his job and prosecuting criminals. Empty clichés like “income inequality” or the “unhoused” rely on the social environmental determinism that denies people’s agency and accountability for their actions and choices.
However, these leftist shibboleths about crime and its causes ultimately have their roots in cultural ideas and myths, not real science. They depend on diminishing people’s humanity and dignity by turning them into passive victims of larger material and social forces that somehow their cognitive elite champions have managed to escape. And as these tribunes of the downtrodden leverage the latter’s misery for power and privilege, the victims are forgotten.
But we should never forget those like George Gascón, George Soros, Black Lives Matter, and progressive apologists who all have the blood of the victims on their hands.