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Wednesday, November 19, 2003

The criminal mind
At odd fallow moments over the past couple of days, Aaron Haspel's piece extolling Stanton Samenow's notion of the "criminal mind" has popped up in my thoughts waggling various parts of its anatomy. Finding myself disputing with it inside my head, I figured I might as well try to exorcise it by posting a response, however belated. After writing pretty much what I wanted to say, I suddenly got cold feet. I began to worry that, having posted something negative about him before, by posting this piece now I might come off as having some deep animus against him. And I really don't. I would go so far as to say Aaron and I are basically on the same page. He recto, I verso. I merely disagree with most of what he says and bristle at the supercilious tone he says it in. So before posting I thought I'd click on over to the god of the machine one more time and see if I still felt the urge to go on record as disagreeing with him.

You can't imagine how giddy I was to find that his latest 750-plus words are directed--with all their exquisite condescension--at ME!!!!! Specifically, he aims to show how my post on "Ozymandias," though evincing some rudimentary critical aptitude, hits nevertheless about as wide of the mark with respect to evaluating the poem as it is possible to get. I have nothing but kisses for my machine god! I'll respond about "Ozymandias" next time. Here's what I was going to say about his views on criminality.

With wonted grace and nuance Aaron Haspel, god of the machine, directs his effulgence on the roots of criminality. The oft-cited environmental factors --poverty, unemployment, peer pressure, parental failure, etc.-- can't be taken seriously as causes of crime, Aaron holds, for the simple reason that most people exposed to these factors don't become criminals and some never exposed to them do. In Aaron's view, this truth knocks the crime-as-disease metaphor right out the window.
If crime, metaphorically, is a disease, and its "root cause" is a virus, you can be exposed to the virus without catching the disease, and you can catch the disease without being exposed to the virus. This violates both tenets of Koch's First Postulate straightaway. Aristotle wouldn't be too happy either.
Koch & Aristotle in his pants, Aaron proceeds to marshal Stanton Samenow's The Criminal Mind to demonstrate, straightfacedly, the cause of crime is . . . criminality.

In order to humiliate the disease metaphor Aaron is compelled to misrepresent what sociologists mean when they say one or more of those environmental factors is a "cause" of criminal behavior. Poverty, disasterous parenting, etc. are risk factors; their relation to crime is undoubtedly causally indirect, not to say highly variable from case to case, but they undeniably have a statistically significant correlation with it. As I understand it (and I don't have the statistics in front of me, but then neither did Aaron), the sociological claim is that a significantly larger percentage of people exposed to one or more of those risk factors commit crimes than of those not so exposed. Eradicating those factors, therefore, is likely to be effective in reducing crime.

Take the case of AIDS. Contrary to myth, HIV isn't notably easy to acquire. Many who've been repeatedly exposed to it don't end up as carrriers. Some carriers remain asymptomatic for years. Many people with AIDS die, of course, of opportunistic infections. But many, despite a compromised immune system, live for years. Suppose the root cause of crime is like HIV and criminality itself like full-blown AIDS. Controlling the incidence of those risk factors associated with AIDS in the U.S. --having unprotected sex with numerous partners, sharing hypodermic needles, etc.-- while not directly hitting at the "cause" of AIDS --HIV-- nevertheless effectively reduces the number of new cases. Why should controlling the risk factors associated with crime not equally mitigate the spread of the metaphorical HIV causing it?

But it is the criminal mind, for Stanton Samenow and his champion, that causes crime and at which we must direct our attention (if you can read the following without laughing you are a more tolerant person than I):
All criminals think alike. It starts early: most criminals have developed their habits of thought long before adolescence. Samenow begins with what most of us could figure out if we thought about it. Criminals all fancy themselves special, more intelligent than straight people. They treat everyone, including their family and closest friends, as pawns to be moved around for the chessboard for their personal gratification. They lie, not just like most of us when they're in a tough spot, but all the time. They hate work because it's, well, work. They are impatient and seek quick rewards.
Criminals, it turns out, are bad eggs.

Samenow evidently developed his picture of the criminal mind while working with his mentor, Samuel Yochelson, who did much jailhouse "interviewing." In Samenow's words: "In his initial interview, Yochelson asked few questions of the criminal but instead presented him with so accurate a picture of himself that the criminal could do nothing but agree."

Um, is there something wrong with this picture? Not to Aaron's eye: "Hey, with a shrink like that I might go myself! Yochelson could do this . . . because all criminals think alike." Myself, I would have more confidence in Yochelson's views if he didn't habitually walk into a cell and paint for his subject the picture he wanted him to subscribe to.

Deliciously, Samenow later wields the hammer of the invariant criminal mind to take whacks at psychotherapeutic efforts to rehabilitate criminals, claiming that criminals are smart enough to feed their psychiatrists exactly the stories they want to hear!

What is a "criminal" anyway? It can't be just someone who's been convicted of a crime, since obviously zillions of people convicted of crimes (drug possession, involuntary manslaughter, isolated thefts of opportunity [Dreiser's Hurstwood], not to mention those wrongfully convicted) don't fit Samenow's stereotype. Presumably, for Samenow, a "criminal" must have committed several crimes. How many? And what of those whose recidivism is driven by compulsion rather than sociopathic calculation --kleptomaniacs, flashers, peeping Toms? What about the ordinarily kind and loving alcoholic who assaults people when he's really drunk? Must they all be crowbarred into Samenow's singular criminal-mind box?

Surely many, many, many people incarcerated have few, if any, of the characteristics Samenow trots out! So, then, which prisoners do have them? Why the criminals! Those others aren't real criminals. They're people who got convicted of crimes without actually having a "criminal mind." The criminals are those who have the criminal mindset. That's what makes them criminals.

Oh, dear. I think this is why they don't put roundabouts in playgrounds anymore.
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