Auburn Prison – Where humanity once meant the whip

Early this morning we left Utica for Ithaca. To be fair, Tocqueville never went to Ithaca. He stopped at Syracuse and continued to Auburn to see the prison. This prison was considered the most modern of its kind in the early 19th century. And since the original purpose of Tocqueville’s trip was to write a report about penitentiary reform, he was exited to finally come here.

Tocqueville wrote to his mother: “Here I am at last at Auburn, at this famous Auburn of which we have spoken so often and about which all those who live on the Penitentiary System in France have said things so fine and so false. Not that the institution is not really very fine, but it is other than it is imagined by our excellent friends, the philanthropists of France.”

When Tocqueville walked through the prison, he was surprised to learn what the supposedly revolutionary instrument was that the guards used to discipline the inmates: a whip (or how Tocqueville called it: a fouet).

The Cornell Prison Education Program

Auburn prison still exists. It’s now euphemistically called Auburn Correctional Facility and they hopefully no longer whip the inmates. Instead, they offer university classes to some of them. The classes are part the Cornell Prison Education Program. Here’s what the program is about:

Our work supports a regional collaboration that brings together Cornell faculty and graduate students to teach a free college-level liberal arts curriculum to a select group of inmates at Auburn Correctional Facility and Cayuga Correctional Facility. The credits can be applied toward an associates degree from Cayuga Community College.

The Cornell Prison Education Program is dedicated to supporting incarcerated persons’ academic ambitions and preparation for successful re-entry. (…)

The privately-funded program was initiated in the mid-1990s when tax-funded college programs were ended by an act of Congress.

At 10 o’clock this morning, we had an appointment with Jim Schechter, the Executive Director of the program. In our video, he explains what it’s like for inmates to be enrolled in the program, how they benefit from it, and how education generally helps with re-entry into society.

Vice Presidential Debate

Joe Biden debated Paul Ryan tonight. They put up an entertaining and pointed 90 minutes that I would summarize like this:

The animated gifs by the Guardian and tumblr give you a good idea of what the candidates’ “style” was like during the debate. I’m sure there will be more talk about this tomorrow, as republicans are already framing Biden’s behaviour as condescending and non-presidential.

Zombies and Democracy

I had never heard about Yonkers – until recently. I was reading a book in which the city of Yonkers, just bordering the Bronx, plays a central role. The book was World War Z by Max Brooks. Now, for all the people out there that are not nerdy enough, this book probably won’t ring a bell, because it’s a book about… ehm… Zombies.

In short, in World War Z the world has been infested by a zombie plague. Ten years after the plague began, an agent of the United Nations Postwar Commission publishes a report, consisting of interviews with witnesses from different nationalities. World War Z is this report.

Since we’re passing through Yonkers on our journey, we thought it would be nice to talk to the author of the book, Max Brooks. He is an American author, screenwriter – and a zombie specialist. He knows everything about them and wrote more than one book about this thrilling topic. When we asked him if he could answer some questions about the elections and American society in general, he was all up for it. Here are his replies, which he sent us via email. Continue Reading

The Meaning of Equality

Equality is one of the key concepts in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. “Nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of condition among the people”, he wrote. Yet, what did he mean by equality?

Today, we spoke to Professor Allan Silver, who has been teaching sociology at Columbia University for almost 50 years and who calls himself a “Tocqueville enthusiast”. Professor Silver said that equality for Tocqueville was a condition of society that assigns equal dignity and respect to all. The French writer was less concerned about equal political rights or equal economic status.

It is important, Professor Silver pointed out, to remember the historic context in which Democracy in America was published. Tocqueville wrote the two volumes of his book at a time when aristocracies still ruled in most European countries. One’s position and status in society was defined at the moment of birth. In the United States that Tocqueville visited, this was not the case.

In this excerpt from our conversation with Prof. Silver, he explains why equality, as Tocqueville understood it, is a “passion” and why it can never be fully achieved.

(Sorry about the poor audio quality.)

So here we are in New York

“So here we are in New York …” That’s what Tocqueville wrote on May 14, 1831, in a letter to his mother. And we’re happy to write the same on our blog today. We made it safely across the Atlantic and to our friend’s place. Thanks, Florencia, for letting us stay on your couch!

The officer at border control was in the mood for some smalltalk while taking our fingerprints and picture. We told him we’re here for the elections. “So who do the Germans like better, Obama or Romney?”, he asked. They definitely favoured Obama in 2008, we said, but they’re not as enthusiastic about him anymore as they used to be. “I can imagine”, he mumbled and let us pass.

So here we are in New York. Good night / good morning for now!

Zombies und tote Katzen

“No sooner do you set foot upon American ground than you are stunned by a kind of tumult; a confused clamor is heard on every side, and a thousand simultaneous voices demand the satisfaction of their social wants. Everything is in motion around you.” – Democracy in America, Kapitel 14

Tumult, Gezeter, Stimmengewirr, alles ist in Bewegung – Tocqueville war überwältigt und zugleich fasziniert, als er 1831 in den USA ankam. Noch zwei Wochen, bis wir uns endlich in dieses Abenteuer stürzen!

Im Moment treffen wir die letzten Reisevorbereitungen. Unsere technische Grundausrüstung steht so langsam. Vor ein paar Tagen ist der Windschutz für unser Mikrofon angekommen, sodass wir nun auch für Außenaufnahmen gerüstet sind. Auf Englisch heißen die flauschigen Dinger übrigens “dead cat”, haben wir gelernt.

Außerdem haben wir Kontakt mit einigen Interviewpartnern aufgenommen, unter anderem mit einem Tocqueville-Experten an der Columbia University – und mit dem Autor eines Zombieromans. Was Zombies mit Demokratie und den Präsidentschaftswahlen zu tun haben? Dazu dann später mehr im Interview.

Natürlich verfolgen wir auch gespannt unser Crowdfunding-Projekt auf Wir haben schon mehr als die Hälfte des Geldes zusammen. Vielen Dank an alle, die uns bereits unterstützt haben! Wer das noch nicht getan hat, der kann’s hier schnell nachholen.

Unsere Reiseroute

In den fünf Wochen unserer Reise werden wir rund 5.000 Kilometer zurücklegen – von New York zu den Großen Seen und von New Orleans bis Washington D.C. Hier die Einzelheiten unserer Route.

Unsere Reiseroute besteht aus einer Nordhälfte und einer Südhälfte. Als Vorlage dient uns Tocquevilles Route. Er und sein Wegbegleiter Gustave de Beaumont kamen am 9. Mai 1831 in New Port, Rhode Island, an und fuhren am 20. Februar 1832 mit dem Schiff in New York wieder ab. Ihre Stationen sind hier aufgelistet.

Damit wir in jeder Stadt auch ein wenig Zeit für unsere Berichte und Interviews haben, werden wir ein paar von Tocquevilles Stationen auslassen und die Südroute in entgegengesetzter Richtung zurücklegen.

Wir starten in New York City, durchqueren mit mehreren Zwischenstopps den Staat New York, bis wir in Buffalo ankommen. Entlang des Südufers des Eriesees geht’s weiter bis Detroit und anschließend zwischen dem Huronsee und dem Michigansee hindurch bis Sault Ste. Marie nahe der kanadischen Grenze. Die Nordroute endet in Milwaukee, von dort fliegen wir nach New Orleans.

Größere Kartenansicht

Nach drei Tagen Aufenthalt in New Orleans steigen wir in den Zug nach Memphis, Tennessee. Durch die Staaten Kentucky und Ohio kommen wir anschließend nach Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Die vorletzte Station auf unserer Reise heißt Philadephia, bevor wir kurz vor den Präsidentschaftswahlen in Washington D.C. ankommen. Unser Rückflug nach Berlin geht am 9. November von New York.

Größere Kartenansicht

Unsere genaue Reiseplanung (wann wir wo sind), kann sich noch ein wenig ändern, im Moment sieht sie so aus: