Debate and Panel on Utopias Crime and Punishment
A panel discussion about utopias with thinkers like Dass, Montagu, and Ginsberg discussing their ideal utopia's system of crime and punishment.
THE PEOPLE'S ALMANAC'S EXCLUSIVE SYMPOSIUM ON UTOPIA
6. What crimes would there be, and how would they be punished?
Asimov: With everyone doing as he pleases provided it does not unduly interfere with the right of others to do as they please, the "invasion of rights" would be the major crime. Where this crime is persistent and where the criminal is not persuaded to cease and desist, the punishment could be social ostracism.
Buckley: In utopia, there are no criminals, hence no crime.
Dass: Because of different economic distribution, crimes would not be primarily crimes of property. Also, altering consciousness (one's own, of course) would not be a crime. Bodily harm or psychological harassment of others would still be punishable offenses.
Fadiman: I think you'd have pretty much what you've got now, with fewer crimes against property. No one has ever figured out how to punish the worst kind of crime, that of violence. All measures so far have failed. Anybody got any cures except the gas chamber?
Ginsberg: Passion, aggression, ignorance self-punished by their own painful consequences.
Michener: The present terror in which most of my friends live is not tolerable. They expect to be harassed, held up, mugged, stolen from, and perhaps physically assaulted or killed. They expect juveniles to be coddled until they become rapists and murderers. And they expect society to worry much more about the perpetrator than the victim. Now much of this fear is fable, but some of it is real. I would think that with juveniles we should give them every opportunity to establish themselves, and I would be very forgiving. But when it appeared that we had on our hands a real recidivist, I would be willing to have him put away securely for 20 years in hopes he would learn, under discipline, the lessons he must acquire in order to live in an open society. (He would be permitted and encouraged to have contact with the opposite sex.) For adults or even advanced juveniles who commit horrendous crimes that terrify society--Manson, the Texas killers, the killer of the Chicago nurses--I would impose the death penalty without hesitation. But I would be very careful that it was not imposed merely for crimes about which the society felt strongly, like communism in the 1950s. White-collar crime should be dealt with, not by prison sentences, but by powerful, repeated, and forceful public condemnation. Sex crimes involve an area in which I am not an expert and am indeed bewildered.
Montagu: There would be no crimes in my utopia because by the time a human being reached the age at which he would be capable of committing a crime, he would be so well disciplined and so well disposed to the whole of animate and inanimate nature that he wouldn't commit an offense against anyone. The whole conception of "crime" would be eliminated, as would punishment.
Untermeyer: Utopia has been defined--and accepted--as perfection in moral, social, and political life. In such a state of being there can be no crime or criminal intent. Obviously, there would be no need for punishment.
7. What would be YOUR role in this society?
Asimov: Since I would do exactly as I please in such a society, there would be no change in my role at all. I do exactly as I please right now--which is to be at my typewriter every minute I can manage, and to be quietly and happily with my wife every other minute I can manage. Is there more I could ask?
Dass: A collaborative member, doing what has to be done ... just about the way it is now.
Fadiman: Just what it is now: to lead a harmless life whose main purpose seems to be to pay bills and taxes.
Ginsberg: Making my own passion, aggression, and ignorance more transparent through physical work and poetics and sitting meditation.
Michener: Almost what it is now. I have been pondering answers to this questionnaire for the past 60 years and have undergone a real education in doing so. I used to believe strongly that the death sentence should not be imposed--because by and large only Democrats were ever executed; Republicans could always buy their way free--but now I see that even if only Democrats are executed, they must be if they are totally inimical to society. I have changed on the question of how young people aged 18-28 should live, too, and in my basic attitudes toward women's rights. (I am a much stronger supporter of women's liberation than my wife or most of my women friends, who say, "We've got hold of a good thing and we don't want any changes that might upset it.") I would be willing, or even eager, to turn my earnings over to society in return for a good place to live and work, but again, most women are repelled by this prospect in that to them a home is the most important thing, so long as it can be paid for. And I suppose I would continue to fight for change, for better systems of life, for a stronger society. And I suppose there would always be a need for chroniclers to report what had happened or to guess about what might happen. I would probably be employed much as I am now, which is one of the reasons why I judge myself to have such a happy life.
Montagu: To do what I could as a citizen with whatever abilities I have to serve my idea of world community--an idea which begins at home in one's own community.
Untermeyer: I am a congenital dissenter. Even in a utopian society, I would challenge the slightest suggestion or stricture that would, in any way, threaten to limit the individual's right to free thought and spontaneous expression.
8. Why isn't life like this now?
Asimov: (1) There are too many people for the world to support comfortably. (2) Technology has not advanced to the proper level of computerization and automation. (3) Prisoners of their past, human beings and human societies are too eager to pursue short-term goals to the doubtful benefit of themselves and the undoubted detriment of humanity and the planet as a whole.
Buckley: Invincible ignorance.
Dass: For some people it is. For others, fantasies based on exploitation of others are still very real. I experience most of the time that I am living in a utopia of my own design in the sense that (a) my mind creates my universe, and (b) every moment provides plenty of grist for the mill of awakening--and awakening is my primary work in this lifetime.
Fadiman: As you can see, I think the notion of utopia a bit childish. Let's get rid of war, environmental decay, poverty, and overpopulation and then see what happens. The human race should hang loose. Idealists are dangerous people. Hitler and Stalin were idealists, pure utopians.
Ginsberg: For some it is, for some it isn't. Probably solidification of ego in capitalist skyscrapers and in communist office buildings inhibits the necessary transparency of consciousness.
Michener: For me it is.
Montagu: Because by the time people reach the age at which they might be capable of understanding how things might be better, they are too deeply immersed in the strenuous attempt to keep themselves from falling apart. They have no time for "utopian" ideas or unrealistic idealism. Here and now they are faced with the big-enough problem of survival to have anything left over to pay much attention to anything else. The idea of love has virtually gone from the world, so that millions are unloved to death in societies in which there is a massive failure of love behind the show of love--in which success is measured in terms of its material validations, not its humane victories.
Untermeyer: Why indeed! It never was and (alas) it never will be.
9. Any other comments?
Asimov: If, as the decades pass, population is not controlled and reduced; if public hostility to technology continues and grows; if human beings and human societies remain prisoners of their past and continue to find mutual recrimination, quarreling, and war to be more satisfactory than cooperative survival--then my utopia will not be realized and, in fact, human civilization will not long survive.
Dass: We take birth on the plane of reality which includes earth because of our karmic attachments to (1) lust and greed, (2) anger, (3) agitation, (4) sloth, and (5) doubt. These attachments, by means of our thought forms, shape our universe. So perhaps earth is functional just as it is for those of us who have this particular work to do. There already are other planes of heavens, etc., for those whose karmic predicament is different.
Ginsberg: Existence has built-in qualities of suffering, mutability, and soullessness, so any utopia would have to be based on our unprejudiced working with these qualities.
Michener: The important thing, I believe, in striving for such utopia as is practical during one's life, is to retain a sardonic, introspective, judicious attitude toward everything, and to make what might be called "the grand transitions" from the demands of one period of one's life to the next. Change is the order of the world; few people working today have experienced the degree of change in their professions that I have, for all the old patterns of publishing books have altered. Magazines have died, newspapers have folded, motion picture studios have vanished, television has erupted, pocket books have foliated, and both artistically and economically all has undergone revolution. If I had tried to cling to old patterns. I would have been destroyed. I cannot begin to guess what the pattern of writing will be by the year 2000, but it certainly won't be what I know now. It would be great fun to see what happens to my profession. In fact, it would be great fun to see what happens to anything ... the family, the corner store, the movies, the automobile, the airplane, the dentist's office, the university, the multinational corporation. I'd like to watch it all as the convolutions and the changes take place. It's much more exciting than watching NFL football on the tube on Sunday afternoon. For the changes I'm talking about are for real. This is the great game, the one in which winning and losing is of vital importance. The good part is that regardless of what set of decades chance throws you into, the great game is just as exciting now as it ever has been or can be. I would have loved to live in America in the period from 1750 to 1800. But it's no better than the period from 1950 to 2000. And we who live now are no better off than those who will be living from 2000 to 2050. (But I sure as hell would enjoy seeing that one.)
Montagu: Yes. The only philosophically tenable position for a pessimist in time of crisis is optimism. We have to live and work as if by our labors in the desired direction we shall make the difference that counts. There is really no other possible attitude if we are to accomplish what we are able. And what we are able, we ought to do--and that is to live as if to live and love were one.
Untermeyer: Since I'll never live in that perfected utopia, I settle for my private one: listening to Mozart with a cat on my lap.
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