Taking a match to freedom of thought

Malcolm Gladwell, staff writer for the New Yorker and author of a number of rather underwhelming books offering theories about society, may have just become slightly more interesting. Not through his own efforts, however. Rather, he seems to have captured the ear of a US District Court judge, Ann Aiken. Gladwell has become a court philosopher in the truest sense.

Last week, Aiken sentenced radical environmentalist Rebecca Rubin to five years in prison, along with a $13million restitution and 200 hours of community service, for firebombing property in the name of animal rights. Despite the draconian sentence (due to minimum sentencing laws), the judge expressed sympathy for Rubin’s cause, if not her actions. This sympathy led, most oddly of all, to it being mandated that Rubin be legally forced to read Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath, in which he argues that underdogs can win in the apparent face of overwhelming power. The judge thought that the eco-radical could learn something from Gladwell’s tome about ‘non-violent’ action.

In one sense, this case demonstrates how environmentalism has gone mainstream in recent years. Back when Rubin first got involved with groups such as the Earth Liberation Front in the 1990s, they were rightfully seen by society as rather out there. Now, even gavel-slamming beaks buy into the ideas of eco-saboteurs, even if they disagree with their tactics.

However, the sentence handed down by Aiken is perhaps more troubling than the apparent rise of animal rights and eco-miserabilism. Five years in an American prison is a pretty draconian and disproportionate sentence, but it’s a sentence based on the rather conventional idea that if you wilfully destroy property you may be deprived of your liberty. But to mandate that the convicted be forced to read a certain book or author – and a rather poor one at that – goes further. It is an attempt to use the law, not to hand out sentences for the sake of punishment or deterrence, but to change a person’s ideas and worldview.

In doling out this bizarre sentence to one animal-loving pyromaniac, Aiken herself has, effectively, taken a match to freedom of thought.

Tom Bailey is studying for a masters in history at University College London. Visit his personal website here. Follow him on Twitter: @tbaileybailey

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