God of the Rodeo

“God of the Rodeo,” by Daniel Bergner.

“God of the Rodeo,” by Daniel Bergner, 1998, is a great book, an excellent account of life incarcerating and being incarcerated in Louisiana’s Angola penitentiary, a former slave plantation on which much has changed and much has not. The book is also about the struggle required in order to write such a book, a struggle that has recently been made much harder. Compare the following quotes.

(1)”There are countries in which public establishments are considered by the government as its own personal affair, so that it admits persons to them only according to its pleasure, just as a proprietor refuses at his pleasure admission into his house; they are a sort of administrative sanctuaries, into which no profane person can penetrate. These establishments, on the contrary, in the United States, are considered as belonging to all. The prisons are open to everyone who chooses to inspect them ad every visiter may inform himself of the order which regulates the interior.” – Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville, 1833

(2)”The United States Supreme Court, in a series of decisions going back to the 1970s, had helped to ensure that the nation’s prisons stayed isolated and unknown, that criminals, once sent away, could be forgotten. . . .

” . . . A recent federal law, the Prison Litigation Reform Act, driven through Congress to ensure that incarceration not be too costly to the taxpayers or too joyful for the convicts, will likely free Angola from federal oversight within the coming months.” – Daniel Bergner, 1998

Bergner handles, by his own account, many difficult situations with wisdom and grace. He proves his points and labels his speculations as such. He is neither cynical nor gullible. My one complaint is that he includes a passage toward the end (Chapter 15) in which he simultaneously preaches vengeance and quotes Jesus, apparently oblivious to the irony. Proclaiming any moral feat (in this case love of an enemy) impossible is always a moral disgrace. However great the majority of Americans who are unable to overcome the thirst for vengeance that Bergner attributes to all people, there is a minority being ignored, erased from the “natural” and “normal.” This attitude is to blame for much of the horror depicted in Bergner’s book.

January 1999

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