Controlling small-town gossip and relaxing drug control policies are among Dr. Diana Gordon’s top professional concerns, she told students at a Pierson College Master’s Tea on Wednesday.
Gordon — professor emeritus of political science at the City University of New York and former president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency — shared her latest findings on democratic processes in South African and Chilean townships and villages during the talk. She also discussed her views on the domestic war on drugs with the audience of about 20 students.
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As what Gordon called a “transitional society,” South Africa faces a number of problems, including a lack of citizen involvement in criminal justice. Gordon said she thinks an increase in citizen involvement can help transform South Africa into a more functional democracy.
“Democracy is consenting to what the government does and having a significant role in its institutions,” she said.
Gordon said it is difficult for governments to shift to “operating in service to the public, instead of the other way around.” She addressed these and other issues facing post-apartheid South Africa in her 2006 book “Transformation and Trouble: Crime, Justice, and Participation in Democratic South Africa.”
In her next project, due to be completed in the fall, Gordon said she will combine her expertise in the fields of criminal justice and political science as she confronts the serious issues facing the citizenry of developing democracies. She has spent two years in the Western Cape province of South Africa studying the effects of the Community Peace Programme, the purpose of which is to implement a number of committees of local people in black townships surrounding Cape Town that meet in “gatherings” to resolve disagreements among neighbors.
Gordon said she is primarily concerned with what subjects these forums address and how they deal with the issues that arise. They mostly tackle landlord-tenant disputes and the potentially devastating effects of gossip, which often revolves around witchcraft, she said.
“Westerners can hardly understand the enormous role of witchcraft [in these cultures],” she said, suggesting an inextricable link between AIDS and witchcraft that stems from ignorance about health issues.
Although Gordon characterized the Community Peace Programme in South Africa as successful, she said she was disappointed with a similar Chilean program that uses ordinary citizens to resolve disputes.
“[The Chilean locals] lack the same sense of confidence in or a sense of legitimacy for non-state arenas of democratic deliberation,” she said.
Gordon’s other books include “The Justice Juggernaut: Fighting Street Crime, Controlling Citizens” and “The Return of the Dangerous Classes: Drug Prohibition and Policy Politics.” Both focus on the politics of criminal justice in the United States.
In her observations about domestic policy, she said, she advocates movement away from what she calls “symbolic politics” — “tough-on-crime” policies that reflect the moralistic values of the United States but essentially require massive budgets to enforce them as they trickle through the criminal-justice system. In the past, she said, symbolic politics have stressed the “war on drugs,” but she said she thinks immigration is emerging as the foremost issue.
Gordon said as a “benevolent dictator,” she would tackle the problems of overcrowded prisons and the high corrections budgets by releasing those imprisoned for drug possession and reviewing cases of those imprisoned for dealing drugs. In addition, she said she is appalled by the prosecution of victimless crimes, such as some cases of statutory rape in which both partners give their consent.
Students interviewed who attended the tea said Gordon made some valid observations about political science and policy.
Jesi Egan ’11 said she found Gordon’s plan to relieve the justice system — by relaxing drug-control policies — “extremely interesting.”
“It’s a shame that politicians feel that they have to be hard on crime to get elected,” she said.
Adzua Agyapon ’11 said she agrees with Gordon’s contention that symbolic politics distracts the electorate from more important concerns.
“[Symbolic politics] don’t solve anything and ignore real issues,” she said.
Gordon graduated from Mill College in Oakland, Calif., with a degree in English and from Harvard Law School in 1964.