The Culture of Vengeance and the Fate of American Justice

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America is driven by vengeance in Terry Aladjem’s provocative account – a reactive, public anger that is a threat to democratic justice itself. From the return of the death penalty to the wars on terror and in Iraq, Americans demand retribution and moral certainty; they assert the “rights of victims” and make pronouncements against “evil.” Yet for Aladjem this dangerously authoritarian turn has its origins in the tradition of liberal justice itself – in theories of punishment that justify inflicting pain and in the punitive practices that result. Exploring vengeance as the defining problem of our time, Aladjem returns to the theories of Locke, Hegel and Mill. He engages the ancient Greeks, Nietzsche, Paine and Foucault to challenge liberal assumptions about punishment. He interrogates American law, capital punishment and images of justice in the media. He envisions a democratic justice that is better able to contain its vengeance.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"One part cultural analysis, one part exploration of liberal political thought, The Culture of Vengeance gives vengeance a sympathetic and nuanced treatment. This makes Aladjem’s critique and rejection of it all the more powerful. From start to finish this is a masterful book, rich in insightful analysis, and filled with originality."
-Austin Sarat, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science, Amherst College

"Terry Aladjem's arresting insight that revenge threatens democracy in its resistance to reason and doubt becomes a clarion call as he examines how revenge is awash in America. Reactions to 9/11, debates over the death penalty, soaring rates of incarceration, pop cultural preoccupation with violence, law, O.J Simpson, the victim-focus of TV and radio talk and reality shows, and cowboy foreign policy are some of the vivid examples that this perceptive book traces to waves of enraged grief. Assessing the neglect of this moral desperation within the language and institutions informing American law and justice, The Culture of Vengeance and the Fate of American Justice revisits classical and modern scholarship to etch a course where truth-seeking and moments of mercy can reconnect justice-seeking with democratic respect.
-Martha Minow, Jeremiah Smith Professor, Harvard Law School

"Terry Aladjem has written a deep and moving book on the inevitable impact of passions of revenge on political practice, including in modern liberal democracies. In response to these passions he calls not merely for dispassionate rights-based legality but for skepticism in the face of epistemological difficulties, an acceptance of fallibility, and humility. His book is a salutary corrective to the main tendency in liberal political thought to discount the permanence of anger, loss, and agitated memories in political life."
-Danielle Allen, UPS Foundation Professor of Social Science, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton

"'The Culture of Vengeance and the Fate of American Justice' is a remarkable book. Drawing on the resources of political theory, psychoanalysis, and Greek tragedy, it engages a host of issues concerning the theory and practice of punishment in liberal democracies. Aladjem asks not only why we punish, but why we punish in the peculiar way we do."
-Dana Villa, Packey J. Dee Professor of Political Theory, University of Notre Dame

"Aladjem probes the current tendency among Americans to equate justice with vengeance so as to show that the thinking and passion behind vengeance is incompatible with democratic justice...[an] exceptionally rich meditation on these themes...Recommended."
-C.E. Butterworth, University of Maryland, College Park, Choice

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521713863
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 1/14/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 260
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Terry Aladjem is a lecturer in Social Studies, and Associate Director of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard University.

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Table of Contents

Part I. Liberalism and the Anger of Punishment: The Motivation to Vengeance and Myths of Justice Reconsidered; Part II. Violence, Vengeance and the Rudiments of American Theodicy; Part III. The Nature of Vengeance: Memory, Self-Deception and the Movement from Terror to Pity; Part IV. Revenge and the Fallibility of the State: The Problem of Vengeance and Democratic Punishment Revisited or How America Should Punish.

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