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The dark side of America

Two qualifications before I start.

The first is that this piece won’t be funny. It is written out of a sense of injustice.

The second is that I really love America. I do believe it to be a land of opportunity.

But as yin has its yang, the United States has its dark side.

It can be a vindictive and unforgiving place.

Last year one of our friends was found guilty of conspiring to defraud the US government.

Her ‘crime’ was to falsify time sheets while working on an anti-drug advertising campaign for the Government. An accusation she denied.

It was a crime that put her behind bars for fifteen months.

It was a victimless crime.

The advertising campaign that she orchestrated was deemed to be a huge success by her client, the Government. They acknowledged that she had saved them millions of dollars. They also prosecuted her for defrauding them.

Kafka couldn’t have made it up. Joseph Heller, perhaps, could.

She and her team worked all hours on it. Late nights and weekends. The trouble is that the American Government doesn’t recognise anything more than an eight-hour working day. It is not possible, they say, to work any longer in a day.

‘Twenty-four seven’ they like to say over here, but clearly not in Washington. Especially when they have to pay for it.

As anyone who has worked in advertising will know, time sheets are an imperfect measurement of cost. They are completed arbitrarily, if at all, and bear little relation to what a client gets from its agency. They are treated as something of a joke at every agency I have ever known.

If anyone or anything should have been on trial, it should have been sloppy advertising agency practice. Perhaps that’s what it was about. But you can’t put a system on trial. You have to find a culprit, because America always needs a culprit. Culprits make life more reassuring because they reaffirm the distinction between good and bad, between right and wrong. This is a country that likes the world to be simplified into black or white. And having someone to take the rap lets the rest of us sleep more easily; comforted by knowledge we’re on the right side.

Our friend just happened to be the poor sod that they decided was in the wrong.

She and 2,131,179 others.

America, with 5% of the world’s population, is home to 25% of the world’s prison population.

It appears that you’re more likely to end up losing your freedom in the land of the free than anywhere else.

More people are incarcerated in the United States than China (despite China having five times as many people). So much for human rights.

There are more prisoners in California alone than any other country in the world, except China and Russia. Governor Schwarzenegger is spending more on prisons than on higher education. At least he’s not terminating them.

(Actually, that’s not true, he does terminate some of them.)

Why is America so keen to lock people up? Or, for that matter, execute them?

And then to keep them locked up. (A convicted burglar in America will typically spend sixteen months behind bars, whereas his English counterpart will be out after seven months. If you have an inclination towards robbery you’d be best off in Canada, where the downside is five months in custody).

This is a country founded on the belief that every man has an “unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Every man that is who is white. Some pigs, as George Orwell noted, are more equal than others. Prison, perhaps, is the one area where an African American genuinely has a more than equal opportunity. An American black male has a one in three lifetime chance of serving at least a year in prison. Not bad odds.

Our friend isn’t a black bloke. She’s white-collar English. Although nowhere near as handicapped, this did present two significant problems for her.

As an Englishwomen she is an alien. America, I think, is the only country in the world that describes foreign nationals as aliens. The English accent might be fine and dandy in the normal course of events, but when it comes to being judged in an American court of law, it’s probably not much of an asset.

The other problem is the colour of her collar. Now is not a good time to be accused of white-collar crime in the States. In much the same way, I imagine, as the nineteen-fifties wasn’t a good time to be left leaning.

The judiciary and the jury in our friend’s case palpably had no understanding of the world on which they were passing judgment. Making a bit of a mockery of the notion that the jury system allows you to be judged by your peers. Worse than that, though, they saw her as a greedy white-collar criminal, reasoning that anyone who doesn’t properly fill in time sheets is bound to also bash grannies on the head and clearly be a menace to society.

I do wonder sometimes when George Bush talks of bringing democracy to places like Iraq, exactly what model of democracy he has in mind. Could it be a democracy that rules by fear, imprisons its citizens in high numbers and randomly execute some of them?

Our friend has had one lucky break. She was allowed to stay here after serving her time. This is a big deal. Since 9/11 all aliens convicted of a crime are automatically expatriated. Our friend fortunately won her appeal to stay.

That she wants to stay after what has happened to her says all that needs to be said about everything that is good about America.

After all, for all its faults it is a pretty remarkable country.

There is a light side.

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