Monday, September 29, 2008

What happened to the super-predators?

For a workshop at NYU I re-read John DiIulio's much vaunted (and disparaged) 1995 article titled "The Coming of the Super-Predators," The Weekly Standard, Vol.I, No.11, pg. 23. What stands out today is not DiIulio's prediction that the nation was about to be overwhelmed by a birth cohort of morally impoverished young offenders (in fact youth violence dropped precipitously during the rest of the 1990s) but his accurate accounting of the intellectually impoverished criminological and crime policy thinking of the 1990s.

DiIulio offered what he called a "moral poverty" theory of youth crime. From DiIulio's perspective it was not economic poverty, discrimination, or savage levels of inequality that leads to crime, but instead, "moral poverty."

“Moral poverty is about the poverty of being without loving, capable, responsible adults who teach you right from wrong. It is the poverty of being without parents and other authorities who habituate you to feel joy at others joy, pain at others pain, happiness when you do right, remorse when you do wrong. It is the poverty of growing up in the virtual absence of people who teach morality by their own everyday example an who insist that you follow suit.”

DiIulio suggested that liberal social policies had intensified moral poverty and that each new generation of ghetto youth were becoming ever more savagely amoral. The world of the "Sharks" and the "Jets," in the 1950s, had become the world of the "Crips" and the "Bloods."

The logic was perfectly in step with the policies of mass incarceration which DiIulio supported. If society was going to be spared mass killings and rapes, only a massive effort at preventive incarceration could work against a feral generation of violent narcissists. If we wanted to something more positive, DiIulio suggested, we could build more churches and hopefully save a generation still in diapers (too late for the super predators).

As everyone now knows, the super-predators never showed up, but where did they go?

The answer is that they never existed. Each generation of young people is a generation of potential "super-predators" because youth is defined by narcissism and radical presentism. Whether this results in rapes and murders has far more to do with the unpredictable patterns of social networks, markets for criminal behavior, and the distribution of violence intensifying technologies like hand-guns then it does with either prisons or churches.

The lesson of the 1990s, if there is one, is that if you want to reduce criminal violence study housing, study the informal economy, study the logic of disputes among young people, study just about anything other than crime.

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