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by Peter Moskos

January 12, 2016

"Pander to audience expectations"

There's a nice article about Alice Goffman in the Times magazine. Overall it's a great piece about Alice Goffman, who has written one of the best sociology books ever, and the state of sociology in general. One line I find funny is the assertion that she "panders to audience expectations" by this description of a house: "[it] smelled of piss and vomit and stale cigarettes, and cockroaches roamed freely across the countertops and soiled living-room furniture."

In Cop in the Hood, here's my description:
Police are called into people’s homes because the residents have, at some level, lost control: intensely overcrowded apartments next to abandoned housing and empty lots, families without heat or electricity, rooms lacking furniture filled with filth and dirty clothes, roaches and mice running rampant, jars and buckets of urine stacked in corners, and multiple children sleeping on bare and dirty mattresses. Simply entering a “normal” home, well furnished and clean, perhaps to take a stolen car report, is so rare that it would be mentioned to fellow officers.
The criticism against Goffman is just petty semantic BS and academic jealousy.

Part of the problem is that if even a well intentioned person goes so far as to describe such conditions, much less befriend the people who live there, as Goffman did, they're accused of pandering or "orientalism." And what kind of country do we live in where a white girl can't choose to live anywhere and befriend anybody she damn well pleases. This isn't apartheid. It's not taboo.

And if we don't accurately describe reality, how will people ever know? And though I'm probably wrong, I'd like to think that if people really did know about this reality, they might care. Instead, when we close our eyes to such conditions and then, when confronted with it, blame teachers or cops. Cops, for their part, blame liberals and Hillary Clinton.


ed said...

Did you see this piece on Goffman's book by Jesse Singal? He actually goes to Philly and tracks down and interviews some of her sources.

I thought the conversation with "Josh" was particularly interesting.


Adam P. said...

Here's my Amazon review of Goffman's book because, well, I'm feeling lazy and don't feel like coming up with original content: "I read this book with growing disbelief. Surely, this must all be a joke. It reads like an Onion headline: White Academic Harbors And Conspires to Commit Murder with Violent Felons, Laments System In Which Police Seek to Arrest Them.

I’ll give Goffman props for entering a world in which few dare to tread. And for tutoring an at-risk kid. The kudos stop there. She writes as if she has never been the victim of a crime. As if she doesn’t understand violence or loss or accountability or the importance of telling a true account when it comes to taking on highly charged issues such as race relations and police presence in the inner city. On The Run does a disservice to its subjects, to the police, to the reader. The plight of the urban poor calls for smart, discerning folks to step up to the plate to seek solutions. And that’s what’s so depressing and wrong-headed about this awful book. Not only does it fail to provide any answers, but it doesn’t even know what the right questions are."

Anonymous said...

The interview with Josh touches on similar thoughts from Dwayne Betts.


From the article: I’ll say what should be obvious, but isn’t: Most young black men are not committing armed robberies and burglaries, are not engaging in armed battle from moving cars, and are not murdering acquaintances at dice games. They are not shooting into homes. If Goffman wants to reveal the abuses of a surveillance state, why not focus on characters that aren’t so entrenched in the worst criminal activity? Why not give us a picture of Mike and his friends’ lives that is broader than the last felony they committed? Instead Goffman only gives us young men who seem to be committing crimes with relative impunity. If these are the targets of surveillance, is the level of policing in urban communities really a problem as opposed to a solution?

It's basically the same thing that came to my mind reading her accounts. "Uh, these REALLY aren't the stories you should use to make the case that the neighborhood is overpoliced."

aNanyMouse said...

Yes, Peter, certain folks can’t stand “accurately describing reality”, but these folks drop the ball in other aspects of the issue of the underclass: they won’t hear any doubts about the “right” of underclass persons (i.e. those living on public assistance) to reproduce at will, without effective supervision of their treatment of the offspring.

Anyone proposing that these persons be denied the customary automatic, continual access to their offspring (e.g. in subsidized housing for the whole family) is presumed to be driven by racist motives.
Thus, I don’t recall ever hearing any real discussion in the MSM, of the view that such underclass persons, (esp. those who’ve NEVER pulled their own weight) are not qualified to exercise the PRIVILEGE of (all-but total) control of the lives of any youngsters (as happens where kids live w/ unsupervised adults).

So, you get you get the blind leading the blind, and kids being raised w/ the notion that pissing into a jar, etc., is normal.
My understanding is that, such conditions only get changed when an agent from a Child Protective Services bureau gets a court order for transfer of these kids into the foster care system.
But discussion of this problem is one of the 3rd rails of US politics.

Unknown said...

I won't try to improve on Adam's review which perfectly represents my own reaction to this book. I would however give an example to demonstrate why this could have been a valuable piece of work but why it is anything but. At the very beginning she relates the story of a young man who refuses to go to the hospital after being injured in an attempted robbery because he's out after curfew and/or in a location or with people prohibited by the conditions of his parole. Goffman's understanding of this is that these conditions are part of a process that sets people up to fail. Apparently it doesn't ever occur to her that these conditions are imposed precisely to avoid having this kind of thing happen and therefore actually to try to help raise the chances that this young man does not fail. Now had she entertained that possibility she might have looked at the difficulties faced by young men under such constraints EVEN IF they are imposed for their own good and how those conflicts play out. That would have been instructive and provided people who don't have direct experience with these issues with some insight into the problem.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Moskos,
I have just finished your book "In Defense of Flogging" for my Crime and Public Policy class. It was a very informational, but interesting read. A question that popped into my head, while reading this post was if you consider yourself a liberal or conservative or a little bit of both. I understood that you did not think flogging was appropriate now or incarceration, but what would your alternatives be for certain offender populations? I suggested that depending on the offense, most people should have a second chance on probation. If that offender gets rearrested, again depending on the crime, then they should be sent to a rehab center and some go to prison. The ones who could go to rehab would be drug offenses, OWI, DUI, sexual assault, battery, domestic assault just to name a few off the top of my head. The people who committed rape and murder should be locked up. I was wondering what your take would be on it. Thank you.

Hanna Schmidt

Moskos said...

Thanks for writing, Hanna. I actually didn't know my flogging book was assigned anywhere. I'm happy to hear that.

As to your question, I consider myself a liberal. A lefty tax-and-spend city-loving liberal. That said, I don't consider myself an ideological liberal. And certainly not an anti-police liberal I think liberals get a lot of things wrong. (But fewer things than conservatives get wrong.)

I don't know what a better alternative is to prison or flogging. I think the key to any official reprimand is it does need to actually punish. Maybe we need more house arrest. It's free. And despite what people say, it is punishment. Punishment doesn't have to be sever. But it does need to make life worse. Otherwise it's not punishment.

My problem with too many breaks is A) It's not like you get arrested (caught) every time you commit a crime. and B) what does "rehab" mean? I'm not against the concept in theory. I just don't think it's proven to be very effective in practice.

Ironically, murder has very low rate of recidivism compared to other crimes. So why lock up murderers instead of drug offenders? (who have a have rate of recidivism). I'm just being provocative. But still...

Also, please tell your professor to get in touch with me if he or she wants me to talk to the class via skype or something. I enjoy doing that for classes that have read any of my books.

Moskos said...

Also, fining is a great punishment. But the vast majority of people who get arrested in America have no money. It's related -- at least for many of them -- to why they got arrested in the first place.