Engaged – and Engaging – Scholarship – Paul Butler’s Let’s Get Free

I am thrilled to be back at Concurring Opinion – thanks to Solangel, Dan and the other regulars for having me.   The timing of this visit is propitious for me – I am returning from a policy-focused (and surprisingly non-academic) sabbatical and I have been thinking a great deal about how best to stay engaged in policy/politics while also returning to academic culture.  The worlds of advocacy and academia are distinct, obviously, and reconciling them can be challenging.

While I have been wrestling with these challenges, some of our academic colleagues, have I think, been meeting them – Richard Thompson Ford’s, The Race Card, Kenji Yoshino’s, Covering are two examples.  Most recently, and in some ways the most salient to my own aspirations, is Paul Butler’s recent book, Let’s Get Free:  A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice. 

Butler’s book is extraordinary – he is a wonderful writer and tells a compelling story about his days as a prosecutor and his own improbable arrest and trial.   But while books by lawyers about their practice are often fun reads – and this one is – what is most impressive is that Butler’s book is a theory of criminal justice.  Butler is doing far more than telling a good story about lawyering.  He has taken his scholarly agenda (which as many of us know has landed him impressive placements in law reviews) and rendered it readable.  He weaves high level traditional theory, data, narrative, very candid self-critique, and insights from hip-hop.  It may seem like a gimmick to have a sentence containing Snoop Dogg and Jeremy Bentham – but in Butler’s book, it’s not.  He obviously knows both intimately and uses them to brilliant effect (and for the record, I don’t particularly like hip-hop). 

This book intends to engage people outside academia into joining a political/legal struggle for a dramatically different method of criminal justice – most notably for drug offenders.   The first half is a critique of our current system – from Butler’s perspective as an insider resulting from his years as a federal prosecutor.  The second half is his alternative theory of criminal justice – drawn from the outsider’s perspective of “the hip hop nation.”   The first half is fabulous – primarily because Butler is so brutally honest about his own experience and his own complicity in what he now considers to be a failed system. 

 I admit to being more skeptical when I began the second half – which presents his “hip hop” theory of justice.  As a teen ager in the 80s, I danced to “Rapper’s Delight,” too, but I stick with late Temptations rather than many of the other artists he relies upon.    But after reading the book through, I think the idea of bringing insights about crime and punishment from this particular community has enormous utility.  What ultimately persuaded me was Butler’s argument (relying upon Rawls) that the people best situated to devise a system of punishment are those who aren’t sure how they will fare under the system.  And Butler is exactly right that those who make up “the hip hop nation” are “both the most likely to be arrested and incarcerated for crimes and  the most likely to be victims of crimes.”  (131).  Therefore, their ideas about who should be punished and how should be heard.

I don’t necessarily adhere to all of Butler’s arguments, but I deeply admire the book – and the method of bringing his academic ideas into popular culture – while also relying upon one particular form of popular culture’s own ideas.   I would love to hear about other examples of engaged – and engaging – scholarship!

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