When it’s not funny any more.

There I was, cooking dinner, with a re-run of QI (a comedic trivia game show hosted by Steven Fry), playing to keep me company. Chuckling as I added ingredients to the frittata on the stove.

And then came a question that led to a conversation that simply wasn’t funny: “Where will you find 1% of American adults?”

The answer was “in prison.” But there were more details to be shared.

  • 2.5-3 million adults are in prison in America, more than have ever been imprisoned in any society in history.
  • Of the general population, 1 in 30 adult males are in prison. However, 1 in 9 black males are in prison.
  • There are more 17-year-old black males in prison than in college.

The comment was made that because prisoners in the U.S. are doing enforced labor (producing 100% of certain military supplies, 21% of all office furniture, and a great many other commodities), the American prison system amounts to reinventing the slave trade.

And I immediately lost my appetite. I truly felt ill. Because I know that every word they were saying is true.

And because it’s painful to hear what’s said about us in the rest of the world.

Not that I haven’t heard the world perspective on us before. I have international blogging friends. I read international news sources. I know that when my mother was in Ireland for 8 weeks earlier this year, she lost count of the number of times she was asked (politely but with astonishment) “What the hell is it with Americans and guns?”

I know the U.S. hasn’t cornered the market on institutional racism. But we’re right up there at the top of the heap, and a huge segment of our society refuses to admit it. Just as people refuse to admit we have a sick obsession with guns and the imagined need for “self defense” (an argument that is off the charts on the bullshit meter). Just as we have a terrifyingly large number of people blindly following a sick, self-absorbed dictator-in-the-making, who has the maturity of a 7th grade boy.

There’s something particularly disturbing about being blindsided with the ugly truth in the middle of what was meant to be a relaxing evening activity.

Suddenly it’s not funny any more.


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