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Southern Stories of Punishment and Backlash

Garland (2010) suggests that the Supreme Court decision in Furman v. Georgia (1972) to halt all executions (and enter the moratorium phase) reconfigured attitudes towards punishment in America. More specifically, he argues that the stories told in the South about this momentous decision were different to those told in the North, and it was these differences which cemented the notion that the South and North have different ideological views about harsh punishment. Garland suggests that in the South local reporting portrayed the Supreme Court’s decision as a Northern liberal assault on the ‘Southern way of life’ and ‘Southern cultural traditions’. The death penalty and other harsh penal practices (such as mandatory sentencing and the shaming policies mentioned in the previous chapter) became symbolically linked to concerns relating to entirely separate issues such as abortion, welfare, healthcare and taxation.

In short, Garland (2010) contends that punishment has become a pawn in the ‘culture war’; a war between the Northern and Southern states of America. As a result, the meanings of harsh punishment in general, and the death penalty in particular, are not only redefined in terms of their new status as symbols of ‘popular democracy’ and ‘states’ rights’ but have also begun to be spoken about (and continue to be spoken about) in a political and cultural context characterised by a narrative of backlash. However, this suggestion remains somewhat underdeveloped.

It is discussed briefly in a book which has a number of other foci, and as Tonry (2009, p. 383) suggests, the political culture of the South is often characterised by ‘religion-based intolerance’ which manifests as moralistic campaigns against an immoral ‘other’. So Garland’s conclusion that the stories told in the South (portraying severe punishment in terms of a Southern tradition) reposition punishment within a narrative of backlash is rendered more convincing. Punishment becomes one part of a broader Southern strategy in which Southern culture defends itself against the North. By speaking about state’s rights and the (in)ability of local jurisdictions to punish the criminal in ways that local residents see fit, the stories of the South condemn the decisions made by an institution which is portrayed as adopting Northern liberal ideologies. The Supreme Court, and by extension the North, become the targets of backlash concerning a number of disparate Southern concerns (Edsall and Edsall 1991; Tonry 2009).

Both the backlash thesis and the vigilante values thesis signal something of a departure within the cultural life literature. They implicitly claim that cultural products and performances associated with punishment should be examined with reference to where they are found. By analysing the cultural stories told about punishment specific to the South, Zimring (2003) and Garland (2010) provide a new opportunity to cultural life scholars. However, it could be suggested that any research which considers the cultural life of punishment in the South presumes that the Southern states are a somewhat homogeneous and/or exceptional group in terms of punishment practices, a presumption that has been identified as problematic.

Barker (2009, pp. 4-6) has challenged both the ‘American excep- tionalism’ and ‘Southern exceptionalism’ frameworks, drawing attention to massive ‘state-level variations’ in punishment policy. She argues that the US has neither a ‘uniform nor coherent punishment policy’, because all criminal justice policy is a ‘subnational responsibility’. Our next task then, is to continue drilling down in order to achieve specificity. We began by considering the cultural life of punishment in America; we then moved on to looking specifically at the South and now it is time to examine the cultural life of punishment within individual states.

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