Ms. Podgor and I challenged Otis’s serene platitude that “juries convict and judges sentence” by pointing out that the juries are snowed by the procedural inequalities, and that the judges’ hands are tied by usurpatory legislative grandstanding such as mandatory minimums and “three strikes and you’re out.” He met us with a glazed pall of impenetrable prevarication. And the comments of both of us on the human wreckage needlessly created in the justice system by the conduct of prosecutors who would be disbarred in any other serious country caused me to be gently disparaged as — a real and rather agreeable novelty — an almost hemophiliac bleeding heart. When Mr. Otis said that if the conviction rate were as low as those in Britain and Canada (50 and 60 percent), the prosecutors would be reviled for dragging the innocent through ineffectual proceedings, I resisted with difficulty the temptation to reply that if that was his view of how the system should work, we might as well talk about goldfish. Ms. Podgor came in admirably with well-formulated concerns about the commoditization of convicted people.
Former senator Jim Webb (D., Va.) spoke out a few years ago about the imbalance of American criminalization and the record of other advanced countries and concluded that either the other countries (named above) were not interested in crime, which is nonsense, or Americans were uniquely prone to commit crimes, which is nonsense, or the system isn’t working well. Bingo, but Mr. Otis gave us a new explanation, which I called the providential and almost uniform moral and professional superiority of American prosecutors. Senator Webb’s proposed commission on these issues was never set up and would not have achieved anything anyway: There have been countless such commissions and they never achieve anything. But self-coronations for global superiority are disturbing, and unbecoming to Americans. Mr. Otis’s presentation was like that of an unscrupulous televangelist: All was fine, there was a ready explanation for everything, and when a question could not be answered, just answer a different one and pretend it is an answer.
It put me in mind of a friend who had happened to see that ineffably tedious television personality, Dr. Phil, recently assuring a caller on his program that the United States “has the best justice system in the world,” as if this subject had much to do with his field of specialty. The U.S. has done well with a systematic and saturating policy of self-praise, from workers’ putting flag decals on their hard hats to Senator Marco Rubio’s responding to every encouragement to say anything with an encomium to “the greatest country in human history” to intellectuals’ celebrating American exceptionalism in recondite ways. All countries need some boosterism and all people should be proud of their collective identities, national, ethnic, and sectarian, and usually even vocational. There are dangers in cynicism, as the Italians and the French — who generally regard politics as an absurd and inherently corrupt and contemptible activity and their countries as likeable but raddled old harlots — demonstrate. But there is something potentially delusional in this endless American incantation of self-laudations. Even President Obama, a dissenter before his elevation, is grating with his completely false claims to have reestablished America’s prestige in the world, as he runs, not walks, from every problem. This can only be intuition, but I suspect the increasing anti-Americanism on U.S. campuses may in part be a response to this relentless impulse to mindless vanity.
Part of the difficulty is that almost all America’s traditional peers, the old Great Powers, are crumbling too, except Germany and Canada, the only major countries that still impress the unconscionable scoundrels in the thoroughly disgraced rating agencies. When Britain, France, and Japan, not to mention Italy and Spain, are floundering, Russia is a gangster state, and no one can believe a word or number emanating from Beijing, it is easier to continue like Victorian elocution-school students to repeat a mantra — in this case, that America is the greatest. This practice has its rewards and its hazards, but indulging the conveyor belt to the corrupt and bloated U.S. prison industry that is its criminal-justice system in such a full-body immersion of misplaced praise is not just unrigorous and unwise. There is something totalitarian, and thus profoundly un-American, about it.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and the recently published A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.