In American loopiness we trust

the week on radio
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The Independent Online
On Feedback yesterday, Chris Dunkley was fielding complaints that Radio 4 has been infiltrated by Americans, as if the slow Americanisation of Britain was anything new or surprising. All they were complaining about were little Americanisms of language. What's more alarming than minor infection by American accents is the epidemic of American craziness sweeping the land. We are becoming unable to invent craziness of our own any more; in a kind of psychiatric demonstration of the workings of Gresham's Law, bad craziness is driving out good.

Over on Radio 5, for instance, Michael Clarke has been reporting all this week on American initiatives to cut crime. The series was initially flagged as Crime and Punishment USA, which sounded promising - a companion piece to The Brothers Karamazov's Excellent Adventure, maybe. That title wasn't actually used on air, perhaps because they realised Dostoyevsky would be out of place in modern America, where nobody seems to believe in remorse; so, lengthy novels about criminals suffering agonies of conscience are out, lengthy sentences in high security jails for petty crimes are in (thanks to the "three strikes and you're out" law, now packing them in at penitentiaries across California).

The strangest moment of the week - more Kafka than Dostoyevsky - was an interview with a prisoner in a new "supermax" prison, where inmates are denied any human contact (as though crime were another sort of infection and isolation the only response): he was fed through a slot in the wall and could talk to Clarke only through an intercom, which made the dehumanising effect of his treatment worryingly apparent. Among the other peculiar scenes was a 17- year-old getting picked up for violating a curfew aimed at the under-18s and then being let off because he spoke nicely - clearly, the best way to control crime is to give the police space to exercise their infallible instinct for picking a wrong'un.

Clarke's approach to this variety of ideas and jerks of the knee was presumably intended to sound objective, but mostly ended up frustratingly non-committal. Does electronic tagging work? "Only time will tell," he concluded, or rather failed to conclude. Perhaps he was scared off making judgements by the fact that all the ideas he was reporting on have now been taken up over here by one political party or another - presumably on the grounds that Americans, having so much crime, must know how to deal with it.

What seems plain, however, is that America's response to crime is dictated less by utilitarian considerations than by a fundamentalist world-view which is gaining ground over there. In a five-part series called Apocalypse Now and Then (Radio 3, Saturday), Iwan Russell-Jones is investigating another aspect of that: pre-millennialism, the belief that the end of the world is nigh - or more specifically, that we are now in the End Times (signalled by the establishment of the state of Israel), leading up to the Tribulation, Armageddon and the Rapture.

This is a kind of insanity, and a dangerous kind at that; as a critic observed, this way of thinking reduces most of the world's nations to bit-parts in the drama of Christianity: "It doesn't lead to world-building." But even insanity deserves rational attention, and it's good to have this brand examined under a microscope instead of dismissed as a transatlantic freakshow. And, after all, the way things are going, the End Times are likely to be the basis of a new Home Office crime initiative.

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