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Unplaced op-ed

Thursday 5/20/21

I hate putting these up on here, but here's another unplaced op-ed. I have so many of them. Must be 100 easily. So do what with them? Stick 'em in a book later, I guess. This one is on crime and punishment.


Crime, Punishment, Chauvin, Choice

155 years ago, in 1866, a penurious author in his mid-forties who had been in prison, would be surveilled by the police for the remainder of his life, and who opposed capitalism, published a little book called Crime and Punishment.

The writer, of course, was Fyodor Dostoevsky, a man who had plenty of reason to hate the police. After all, he had been sentenced to four years of hard labor for reading and circulating what had been deemed banned works of literature.

I thought of Crime and Punishment as I read various commentaries on the Derek Chauvin verdict. The novel tells the story of a poor ex-student, Raskolnikov, who kills his landlady—and her daughter who shows up mid-murder—to get some money which he believes can be put to better use in society, thus morally exonerating him of his crime.

It’s a beautiful novel. A loving novel, paradoxically. A novel of deep and touching human connection. Dostoevsky goes to great lengths to show us that humans are more than what may well be the defining moment for which others know them.

One sees this with George Floyd, and the stories that emerge about a person who acted in ways that we might not have expected given a long criminal history. Talk of the trial and the verdict focuses on many of those same ideas that we see in Crime and Punishment. The larger ideas beyond the human lives of a person and two people who came together in a tragic and murderous drama.

Crime and Punishment is about various forms of systemic injustice. Just as Dostoyevsky’s own life was in its way. A historical novel that a man just happened to live. There is the problem of class. Poverty. The overstepping of power. The unchecked prevalence of force. Discrimination.

Raskolnikov commits his atrocities, and then we see him do much good. A lonely, broken, drunken man dies in a roadway accident, and Raskolnikov gives his last money to his family. He has a touching relationship with a young woman who is barely more than a girl. He is protective of his mother and sister. He listens to those around him. He helps when he can.

But the genius of the novel, what makes it a work for these times, and these times of Derek Chauvin and George Floyd, who were about Dostoevsky’s age, is that for all of the bulky rhetoric of “this is everything that is wrong with society,” nothing matters more than the choices that a person makes. It’s what everything comes back to.

That is the burden and the challenge of being human. The choice is king. The choice is beyond all trappings, good, bad, smart, stupid, of society. A choice never really goes away even after it has been made.

The title of Dostoevsky’s novel is purposefully elemental. There is right, and there is wrong. There is crime, and there is punishment. And there is choice.

We are made by our choices, and we are unmade by them. In the end, the choice is always the story, because though it can take some time to see it, the choice was the story all along.

So it went for Raskolnikov. So it went for Derek Chauvin. So it goes for all of us in hopefully our better ways. Choose well, because it is our choices that make us and unmake us, more than anything else ever could. A hell to some, a comfort to others.


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