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Jail or corporal punishment?

Updated: January 23, 2012 4:10AM

The United States has been the greatest country in the world for so long, many of its residents seem to think it’s the only country in the world.

The notion that we’re the best, and the rest of the world is so inferior it can teach us nothing, underlies our thorniest problems.

Immigration, for one. Though a nation of immigrants, we tolerate a broken naturalization system and a serf army of 11 million in legal limbo while feigning an outsized respect for law, trying to conceal our all-too-common terror at the fact that the United States is receiving millions of new residents from other places, many Spanish-speakers who, inevitably, will alter the country.

Or health care. That most every industrial nation on earth but ours already has socialized medicine doesn’t make national health care opponents pause; if anything, it stokes their fervor. Millions of critics raise the specter of socialist France and Sweden, as if that were enough to win the point, completely ignoring — not that they ever knew in the first place — that per capita, health care costs in France and Sweden are half of what they are in the U.S., while life expectancy in those nations is longer by 2.4 years.

Perhaps the American social woe that can be best grasped by looking abroad is our prison system. On any given day, the U.S. incarcerates 2.3 million people (more than 1 percent of its adult population) ­— far, far more than any other country in the world, including China (at least officially), which has a billion more citizens than we do.

This is all laid out in a little orange book whose arresting title — In Defense of Flogging (Basic Books, $20) — caught my eye.

In it, New York assistant law professor and former cop Peter Moskos argues that we’d be better off punishing criminals by reducing their behinds to a bloody pulp with a four-foot bamboo cane and then setting them free instead of putting them in prison. If that seems a barbaric option, Moskos points out, then what does it say about the barbarism of prison that most people, confronted with the choice between five years in a cell or 10 lashes, would take the whipping?

“If we wish to punish criminals, and we do, flogging a man — shaming him and hurting him briefly — is better than the long-term mental torture of incarceration,” he writes.

I kept waiting for Moskos to drop the mask and reveal that this is a Jonathan Swift-like satire, a “modest proposal.” But he is sincere, even enthusiastic, claiming, “Flogging is refreshingly transparent and honest.” He never flinches from gruesome depictions of floggings from countries such as Malaysia, where it is still practiced, just as he carefully explores the utterly skewed racial calculus of incarceration in America, where half of all black men who don’t receive a high school diploma end up in jail at some time in their lives, and the whole prison system can be seen as a scam for one racial group to get paid for punishing another.

“The cynical among us might even say we’re spending billions of dollars to pay poor, rural, unemployed whites to guard poor urban unemployed blacks,” he writes.

You can poke a few small holes in the book: China’s incarceration figures are what the totalitarian regime officially admits to; the actual number may be much higher.

Will flogging ever come back? Not a snowball’s chance. We won’t rationalize emptying the prisons with a return to corporal punishment, though we do seem willing to do so as an austerity measure, and indeed Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is pushing to save the county millions by getting non-violent offenders out of the Cook County Jail. Best of luck to her.

But Moskos has brilliantly used the old PR trick of marrying a complex, off-putting topic to a fascinating one. If you want to trick people into reading about penal reform, brandish a whip. And be brief.

In Defense of Flogging is 154 pages long. I read it in less than a day, and it is an eloquent cry to address a problem that we spend billions of dollars trying to ignore. “We’ve run out of options,” Moskos writes. “What we have in America is a massive, terrifying and out-of-control experiment in incarceration.”

There’s no arguing about that.

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