Laura LaFay, writing in the latest Southern Exposure, draws a revealing parallel between the Abu Ghraib scandals and similar abuses in Southern prisons. The recently-convicted ringleader of the "bad apples" in Iraq, Ivan "Chip" Frederick, was in civilian life a Virginia prison guard, and the men hired to run the Iraqi detention system were prison officials themselves tainted by prisoner-abuse scandals in the U.S. We exported a lot more than freedom, it seems.

The other night I happened to catch Comedy Central's Designated Red State Comedian, Jeff Foxworthy, as he launched into a half-hearted riff on why men try to avoid prison (not the most promising comic premise), the answer being that they don't want to become their cellmate Bubba's love slave (to paraphrase from memory).

Yes, there's a connection here. Before Abu Ghraib disappears entirely down the memory hole, it might pay to think about the role played by the now-pervasive sense in American society that prisoners (any prisoners) deserve whatever happens to them behind bars, that torture, humiliation, and abuse are merely informal and extralegal (but perfectly justified) forms of societal payback.

This gets richly manifested in the trope of prison rape, which has become the most irritating staple of tough-guy talk in American pop culture. It's as ubiquitous in male standup comedy as mother-in-law jokes were a couple generations back, and has extended its dominion everywhere: cop shows, soap operas, 7-Up commercials. Bubba the rapist cellmate becomes everybody's avenger, the sweaty, tattooed specter that scares you straight (in more ways than one) and promises the bad guys a fate truly worse than death.

The baroque homophobia of the Abu Ghraib scenarios, as well as American interrogators' obsession with Muslim men's sexual self-respect, surely derive much of their energy and logic from this apparently deeply-felt and society-wide yearning for the righteous visitation of homosexual violence on evil-doers. It has certainly made its way into correctional practice in the United States itself; a Human Rights Watch report concludes that prison authorities condone and even encourage prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse.

Isn't this just the other side of gay-bashing? And what kind of culture fears gay marriage but savors the thought of homosexual rape?

NOTE: Minor edit for style 10:09 a.m. 2-18-05