The Future of America
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The Future of America
A hungry boy stole food from a market, was caught, and his right hand was chopped off. The next week the same boy, stole fruit from an orchard, again was spotted, and his left hand was chopped off. A few weeks later, leaving the back door to a bakery open, his mouth full and eyes no less vibrant, the boy was caught once again. The men of the town were stumped, what was to be chopped off next? The men of the town did not know what to do, until someone offered giving the boy a job. The boy never stole again. As difficult as it may be to remain open-minded when addressing a situation, sometimes the alternative solutions are better than that of the extreme. Throughout American history, there is evidence of over-coming close mindedness. This evidence is seen in women's voting rights and African American's freedom. With the increasing youth violence present in America, we are once again given a task. This task, like that of Women's Suffrage and Civil Rights, is not going to have a simple solution. If the men in the story above had not come up with an alternative solution, what would be chopped off next? Arms? Feet? After reading about this topic and all its perspectives, I believe that severe punishment will always fail to deter youth crime. Rehabilitation and prevention, as difficult as they may be to accept, deserve attention.
Arguments have resulted from examining the increase of convicted youth criminals and the severity of crimes committed. The youth crime rate has reached a twenty year high, says Patricia Cohen in her article entitled, "Punishment." Equally staggering she says, is the fact that "from 1988-1991 the youth murder-arrest rate climbed 80 percent(518)." Terrible crimes committed by youth are sometimes as serious as those of their adult counterparts. As a result, the term ‘youth' is no longer synonymous with innocence. With this sudden "madness," as coined by Males and Docuyanan in "Crackdown on Kids: Giving Up on the Young," juveniles are being deferred into court at lower and lower ages(519). This can be seen in Wisconsin where ten-year-old children can be tried as adults for murder(519). Does imprisonment deter youth crime? Some people believe it is the only way to go, others disagree. Males and Docuyanan are among those who disagree, bringing up the point that, "If more prisons and surer sentences were the solutions to crime and delinquency, California should be a haven where citizens leave doors unlocked and stroll midnight streets unmenaced(521).
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Voting Rights Left Hand African American Crime Rate Youth Violence Extreme Again Weeks Feet Patricia
" This is ironic because California having the third largest inmate system in the world, has failed to deter youth crime. Evidence for this is seen in California's youth murder-arrest rate; it is one of the highest in the world(520).
The fact that poverty-level minorities comprise the majority of youth criminals, proves that imprisonment's failure to deter crime is a consequent of poverty's inability of being policed. Although time consuming and somewhat arduous, evaluating youth criminals cases for correlations can help us understand where the criminals are coming from socially and economically. One common denominator in many of the youth criminals case's as mentioned above, is poverty. Evidence for this strong correlation discussed by Males and Docuyanan, is seen in the cities like Los Angeles where economic gaps are well pronounced. Los Angeles, home to 200,000 poverty stricken adolescents, had more teen murders reported, than the whole state of California(520). Along with poverty, another similarity in these cases is that of race. African American and Hispanic youth account for six out of seven juvenile arrests(520). When these strong correlations are presented, the focus moves from the youth criminal as an individal to youth criminals as a poverty-level minority. Society's obligations are being questioned here as part of our socity is seen to be struggling to survive.
Although some victims of youth crime want to see the criminal held completely accountable for their actions, other victims recognize this issue as a wide spread problem, and would like to see it addressed. Deborah Dickerson in "Who Shot Johnny?," described how her nephew was shot for no apparent reason by a youth criminal. The confusion, anger and feeling of loss that this family went through was devastating. I know my first impulse would be that of revenge, or some kind of immediate need for compensation. To endure an experience as horrific as a wounded family member as a result of violence, regardless of whether or not it was a youth who committed the crime is incomprehensible. Although the very nature of the crime is hard to over-look, Debra Dickerson recognizes that her nephew and his family are only one of thousands of victims of youth violence. It is difficult after hearing of these malicious accounts of crime to continue arguing that youth criminals do not deserve serious punishment. However, looking long term into a world where the same troubled youth will comprise the voting public, preventative measures are imperative.
While rehabilitation and punishment are ways of dealing with a youth criminal after an offence has been committed, prevention rather than fear-tactics are ways to address youth violence long-term. In his article entitled, "Peace in the Streets, " Geoffrey Canada speaks of a community that is not safe for children(527). This community like many all across America is "filled with fear and apprehension." To combat the fear and apprehension plaguing our countries youth, Canada cites pro-active programs that include ideas of how to reduce the demand for drugs, reduce violence in the home, and reduce violence on television(528-531). Along with those just mentioned, a type of peace corps, made up of caring people aimed at mediating disputes and preventing crime is also an option(528). These programs will have a difficult start if the government does not assist. Are these programs necessary in fighting youth criminals? Canada thinks so. "Either we address the murder and mayhem in our country or we simply won't be able to continue to have the kind of democratic society that we as Americans are used to(528)."
Although some programs offered to address youth violence depend greatly on government assistance, other programs introduced by some school systems are already in practice. While looking for answers to increasing gang-activity in a school in Texas, Tina Juarez, author of "Where Home Boys Feel at Home," implemented programs to distract youth from violence and poverty. These programs were a series of clubs, sporting activities, and fine arts, focusing on individual talents. To help with these programs, members of the community were introduced into the classroom. This proved especially helpful for those students that have little or no chance to interact with adults, other than those in the immediate family. In an environment such as this, where the children could recognize their talents and "succeed in the eyes of others(490)," the students did not realize they were being indirectly steered away from violent tendencies. As a result of this program, this school saw truancy rates drop down significantly, and gang activity disappeared(489).
With the United States having one of the highest youth crime rates in the world, it is difficult to claim that youth crimes are not a problem of our society. What is clearly evident throughout this issue is that society has a hard time accepting the fact that it plays a role in shaping its youth. If poverty is a common denominator in many of these youth crimes, then alternative ways of addressing this situation are needed. Although I sympathize with Dickerson's devastation as a victim of youth violence, I also realize she is only one of thousands.
"An eye for and eye, a tooth for a tooth, so that all the world will be blind and toothless." ~Fiddler on the Roof. These youth criminals should be given the ability to leave behind the weight of the hypothetical axe that continues to chop. The appendages should be replaced, not with a quick fix of duct tape, but with the stitches that rehabilitate both inside and out. Prevention if assisted by the government, would prove extremely useful. The healing process required to fight the problem of youth crime will take time and effort. Like Women's Suffrage and The Civil Rights Movement, the answers to the questions of what should done with youth criminals, will be found within open mindedness, time, and effort.
Canada, Geoffrey. "Peace In The Streets." Utne Reader July/August 1995: 59-61 Rpt. in Perspectives on Argument. Nancy V. Wood. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998. 527-31.
Cohen, Patricia. "Punishment." George June/July 1996: 99. Rpt. in Perspectives on Argument. Nancy V. Wood. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998. 517-18.
Dickerson, Deborah. "Who Shot Johnny?" The New Republic 1 January 1996: 17-18. Rpt. in Perspectives on Argument. Nancy V. Wood. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998. 523-26.
Juarez, Tina. "Where Homeboys Feel At Home In School."Educational Leadership 1996: 30-32 Rpt. in Perspectives on Argument. Nancy V. Wood. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998. 486-90.
Males, Mike and Docuyanan, Faye. "Crackdown On Kids: Giving up on the Young." The Progressive. February 1996: 24-26. Rpt. in Perspectives on Argument. Nancy V. Wood. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998. 518-523.
Among the notable features in The Making of the American Essay, the third and concluding volume of editor John D’Agata’s trio of anthologies exploring the ways that the essay form has been shaped over the years, is the inclusion of a number of works that aren’t technically essays. There are plenty of nonfictional touchstones in the book, including works by the likes of Gay Talese, Kathy Acker, and James Baldwin, but the borders established by D’Agata are porous: certain pieces line up with the chronology around which the book is organized, but not all of them do. And there’s a strong sense of the multidisciplinary. Within this sizable tome, one will also find an excerpt from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; William Gass’s short story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country;” and Kenneth Goldsmith’s poem “All the Numbers in Numbers.” D’Agata intersperses introductory texts before each piece, which give a sense of what was happening in American society and culture at around the time that a given piece was written. Or, in certain cases, for the year to which a given piece written much later corresponds.
Halfway through the book, D’Agata invokes the photography of Ansel Adams, and writes something that serves as a touchstone for much of what has already come and is yet to follow. He describes Adams as trying to figure out “how to make photography work, how to render with light and luck the deep and powerful truths that he feels when in the mountains.” D’Agata then quotes comments made by Adams closer to the time of his death, when he spoke of his desire to express “something that is built up from within, rather than something extracted from without.” Given that this is found in a book titled The Making of the American Essay, rather than The Making of the American Photograph, one can assume that D’Agata intended for this notion to have a cross-disciplinary application.
The idea of an essay as something built up from within serves as as good a place as any in terms of demarcating where a personal essay ends and memoir begins. Think of works such as Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking: Life Studies From the Dismal Trade, which could just as easily turn up in a list of acclaimed memoirs as it might in a consideration of notable essay collections. As D’Agata’s recent anthology shows, the lines between essays and other literary forms are often blurred. Wendy S. Walters’s collection Multiply/Divide opens with a prefatory note explaining which literary category each of its pieces falls into. Calling it an essay collection wouldn’t be entirely accurate, but neither would it be incorrect.
The essay is increasingly expanding its reach, both stylistically and in terms of the number of mediums in which works that can be considered essays exist. In The Making of the American Essay, more experimental forms are used to demonstrate the techniques available to essay writers. John Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing” is presented with a style of spacing that may be confusing to readers at first. Gradually, however, the way that those spaces work with the rhythms of the text of Cage’s lecture begins to cohere, as does its relationship to silence. (D’Agata’s note introducing it references Cage’s 4’ 33”.) Absence as a device can be used powerfully in the essay. Jenny Bouilly’s 2002 The Body: An Essay takes an even bolder structural decision: it is organized as a grouping of footnotes annotating an otherwise unseen text. Some of the footnotes in turn contain their own footnotes, or lists, or extended quotations, and the result is a head-twistingly bravura feat in which literary form and narrative decisions embrace the unexpected.
How that translates to the experience of editors and readers is in a state of flux. Kristen Radtke is the Managing Editor of Sarabande Books, who have released some of the most interesting essay collections in recent years, including Walters’s aforementioned Multiply/Divide, Elena Passarello’s Let Me Clear My Throat, and Angela Pelster’s Limber. “As an editor, I’ve been seeing a broader range in the kinds of essays I’m sent—in form, content, and the writers who are crafting them,” she told me. “The work is there, I think, but our capacity to talk about it might not be.” She noted that Maggie Nelson, Leslie Jamison, and John Jeremiah Sullivan, Jr. are often cited as reference points by agents pitching manuscripts to her. “I love those essayists,” she said, “but the frequency with which a few names are cited shows there’s room to expand our canon. That’s always going to start with reading widely.”
For Radtke, the influence of certain essayists on the form has been substantial. “I don’t think we’ve seen a contribution to the form as expansive and considered as John D’Agata’s anthologies. His introductions to each essay are essays in themselves,” she said, and also cited David Shields’s Reality Hunger as significant for “the conversation it started about nonfiction and the essay.” Besides her editorial work with Sarabande, Radtke also creates comics—Imagine Wanting Only This, a work of graphic nonfiction, will be released in April of 2017 by Pantheon. “An essay or an essayistic mode can be employed in any genre,” she said. “I think the comics form is overrun with possibility.”
* * * *
Another form that has long ventured into the essayistic is film. The concept of the “cinematic essay,” much like its literary counterpart, has an “I know it when I see it” component differentiating it from a more traditional documentary. In a 2013 piece for The AV Club, Nathan Rabin praised Orson Welles’s 1975 film F For Fake, which could certainly be categorized on the essay side of the aisle. “Welles’ reality-warping cinematic essay uses the story of a series of famous frauds and hoaxes to explore the slippery line separating reality and deception,” wrote Rabin. Structurally, F For Fake is an odd film to watch: it contains numerous scenes of Welles wandering around Europe, discussing questions of forgery and holding forth on aesthetics, all while wearing a pretty excellent cape. It is also a film that makes abundant use of Welles’s skills as an oral storyteller, including a lengthy section that draws in Pablo Picasso and has a fantastic structural payoff. Perhaps it’s in this scene that the mark of this film’s essayistic qualities resonates: although F for Fake is quintessentially cinematic–this is an Orson Welles film, after all–it also incorporates aspects of and references to other artistic disciplines. It isn’t difficult to imagine some alternate history in which a book version of F For Fake left a huge impact on the literary world, and stood along with the essays of Susan Sontag (who also directed several films) as major touchstones for the form.
In addition to her work at Sarabande, Radtke is also the Film Editor for the long-running journal Triquarterly.The video essays in their latest issue encompass a variety of styles, from “Dimensions,” a concise portrait of artist Gray Foy, to José Orduña’s “This Is Not My Home,” which opts for a much more impressionistic approach. In Orduña’s film, an onrush of images of houses inside and out are juxtaposed with the narration, which acts a kind of negation of or counterpoint to the visuals. That declarative style evokes Joe Brainard’s I Remember, which turns up towards the end of The Making of the American Essay. Orduña’s film feels like a poem turned into sounds and images—but it also seems uniquely essayistic, and uniquely cinematic.
“There are certainly films branded as documentaries that are essays (Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil being probably the most famous example),” Radtke told me. “For me, the definition of an essay is very clear—it’s working to drive something out. Its concerns aren’t stagnant or pre-ordained or prescribed. It evolves.”
In a 2013 roundtable discussion of Thom Andersen’s 2003 documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself at The Dissolve, Scott Tobias noted that a certain type of video essay has grown in popularity in recent years. He pointed out that critics now have the ability “to assemble clips and voiceover with the ease of putting pen to paper,” and held up Los Angeles Plays Itself as a particular high point of that form. But throughout the conversation, which also included Keith Phipps, Nathan Rabin, and Tasha Robinson, there was some debate over just what kind of cinematic essay this film is. Robinson’s take on the film works both as a summary of its stylistic range and as a testament to the strength of the essay in whatever medium it happens to exist:
Los Angeles Plays Itself in many ways comes across as a scholarly essay, dissecting the presentation of a city, then narrowing the focus to broad geographical features, specific buildings, and ultimately specific professions within it. It’s thoughtful and analytical… except when it’s subjective and personal.
“Thoughtful and analytical… except when it’s subjective and personal” can also serve as a solid aesthetic definition for many an essay. It’s certainly a way in which the dozens of works collected in D’Agata’s latest anthology could find some common ground. The Making of the American Essay demonstrates one argument about the influence that other literary forms have had on the essay. Another can be found in a recent piece by Jonathon Sturgeon for Flavorwire, in which he examines the ways in which poetry has expanded the range of contemporary nonfiction, with a particular focus on Brian Blanchfield’s recent essay collection Proxies. Near the end of his piece, Sturgeon points to one of the effects of poetry’s influence: “The reanimation of old forms.” A reader of D’Agata’s latest anthology will find plenty of echoes here.
The influence of poetry on essays doesn’t only proceed in one direction. Poet Brandon Lewis is presently at work on a series of poems inspired by the essays of Michel de Montaigne. For him, the process began by reading through Montaigne’s collected essays. “I was a little mystified by his titles and the interplay between his own life, history, and the quotes from the ancients that he dredges up so regularly,” Lewis said. “105 titles? From ‘On the Cannibals’ to ‘On Pretending to be Ill’ to ‘On Thumbs’–that felt like a challenge for poeming.”
Lewis’s process generally begins with “whatever the title triggers,” he told me. That can lead to a vast array of historical references and imagery. For example, his poem “On Solitude” juxtaposes a very contemporary urban scene with language that evokes a much more classical literary tradition. When I asked Lewis about the way that he arrived at some of the poems, he listed a host of images and references:
For “That the soul discharges its emotions against false objects when lacking real ones,” I began with augury, Houdini and the doomsday pamphleteers lining the subway and that let me to the woods. For “On War-horses,” its my family and my relationship to [the] European invasion of the Americas.
“[W]hat’s been exciting for me is feeling something at stake in each poem,” he said. “I’ve told myself to confess something, to give something away for each poem in the project. It’s a good feeling.” Lewis’s project, then, could be called an essayistic take on poetry that’s inspired by essays. It’s bringing the form back around to where it started, taking something from the well, and moving on. It’s another demonstration of both the lasting influence of the essay, and of the ways in its form can gradually impact other disciplines and mediums, creating richer perspectives through which we readers and viewers can consider the world.