Archive for April, 2009

Tom Friedman vs. the Republic

April 29, 2009

The ever-entertaining Tom Friedman has a very useful column up at the Times, explaining why everyone feels “unsatisfied” by the current “compromise” with the principles of law and order, even those who agree with it. It should be read by everyone who wonders what’s going on, and wishes to understand why those who wield power do not wish to see government crimes prosecuted even if it means the punishment of their purported enemies.

After all, we’re not just talking about “enhanced interrogations.” Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, has testified to Congress that more than 100 detainees died in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan, with up to 27 of those declared homicides by the military. They were allegedly kicked to death, shot, suffocated or drowned. Look, our people killed detainees, and only a handful of those deaths have resulted in any punishment of U.S. officials.

The president’s decision to expose but not prosecute those responsible for this policy is surely unsatisfying; some of this abuse involved sheer brutality that had nothing to do with clear and present dangers.

In short, we are no longer dealing with torture (bad enough in itself, but a policy for which excuses can, and have, been devised). We are dealing with actual crimes, the kind of crimes that would send you and me and everyone we know to prison, or to death row. So why can’t we have justice? Friedman explains:

justice taken to its logical end here would likely require bringing George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and other senior officials to trial, which would rip our country apart

Friedman is exactly right: Punishing mere lackeys would be a mockery of justice. In order to have justice, we have to put the tyrant and his henchmen on trial. Any other result would make a mockery of justice. The entire country knows who was responsible for these crimes, and plucking scapegoats out of the military would be so blatantly dishonest it would arouse the scorn and anger of the entire electorate, left and right, “moderate” and extreme both.

So why not put the ex-president and his compatriots on trial? We didn’t hesitate to put another president on trial, with the whole world watching, for a puny private offense. Nor did Democrats come to their president’s aid; they abused him and denounced him to the press and called for his resignation. No fear of “tearing the country apart” was then heard, even though the president was popular and there was no mob howl for his head. No fear then, either, of consuming the entire attention of the country for a year and more, of diverting attention from all other domestic and foreign affairs, although that was exactly what happened. Why then, but not now?

We are told it would “tear the country apart.” In fact, the great danger is not that it would tear the country apart but that it would bind the country together, arouse the people’s love of justice and righteousness, and unite them behind the great principles of republican government (as opposed to the fake principles of “pragmatism” and “pluralism” that delight the oligarchs). That is what an exposure of some great public evil always does. Four months after Sept. 11, the whole country exploded in outrage and indignation at the misdeeds of the Enron Corporation. Instead of turning the country into a lynch mob, interested in nothing but bloody revenge on the entire Middle East (as Friedman quite falsely claims), the constant focus on the courage and selflessness of bystanders and firefighters had made Americans despise selfishness and injustice far more than they had in years. As ever, the great majority of the American people had proved to be wiser and better-spirited than the powerful few had made them out to be. But let’s return to Friedman and his “explanation”:

and the other is that Al Qaeda truly was a unique enemy, and the post-9/11 era a deeply confounding war in a variety of ways.

Here Friedman reverts at last — and it took him all of four paragraphs! — to the Great Fallback. Yes, he’s just admitted, all of this business had nothing to do with Al Qaeda; nonetheless, Al Qaeda exists, and its existence requires us to do bad things that have nothing to do with fighting Al Qaeda.

Incidentally, notice that Friedman uses the past tense when he needs to portray Al Qaeda as a grave threat that required extreme measures in the past:

Al Qaeda was undeterred by normal means. Al Qaeda’s weapon of choice was suicide. Al Qaeda operatives were ready to kill themselves…

Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda aspired to deliver a devastating blow to America.

Later, when he needs to remind us that such extreme measures may be needed once again, he switches to the present tense:

Al Qaeda is primarily focused on defeating America in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world

We have to enjoin those who confront Al Qaeda types every day on the frontlines to act in ways that respect who we are, but also to never forget who they are. They are not white-collar criminals.

The essence of Friedman’s argument is rather brutal: No matter how many crimes a leader might commit, he is still a “white collar criminal” and hence more deserving of our special understanding than a vicious, borderline-inhuman Al Qaeda terrorist. Well, I would sooner spend an evening with Dick Cheney than Ayman al-Zawahiri, but let’s not forget that the vast majority of dictators don’t shoot people themselves, and ordering soldiers into battle doesn’t put you on a higher moral plane than the 20-year-old throwing the grenade.

If you have to fear that the person next to you on a plane or in a theater might blow up, there can be no open society.

Friedman descends here into an irrelevant diatribe about the need to suspend civil liberties in wartime. The point is moot, since nothing he talks about — airport security? — has anything to do with the actual crimes committed by (or on the watch of) the last administration. His actual point seems to be that we should let our leaders do whatever they want whenever there is the slightest peril.

One more 9/11 and you’ll be taking off more than your shoes at the airport. We have the luxury of having this torture debate now because there was no second 9/11, and it was not for want of trying. Had there been, a vast majority of Americans would have told the government (and still will): “Do whatever it takes.”

“This torture debate…” But wait, I thought it wasn’t about torture! Remember: “After all, we’re not just talking about ‘enhanced interrogations.’ ”

We have the luxury of having this torture debate now because there was no second 9/11, and it was not for want of trying. Had there been, a vast majority of Americans would have told the government (and still will): “Do whatever it takes.”

It’s easy to nod at this mentality until something actually happens. Then it looks significantly more troubling. “Do whatever it takes” — really? Should we round up suspicious Americans and put them in internment camps? Should we nationalize the airline industry and triple security measures? Should we revive the Sedition and Espionage Acts? Should we begin invading countries at random, to put terrorism-supporters on notice? Should we suspend habeas corpus? How much is “anything”? When will a threat cease to be a readymade excuse for anything and everything our leaders wish to do to us?

So, yes, people among us who went over the line may go unpunished, because we still have enemies who respect no lines at all.

Since Friedman admits himself that the Bush administration crimes had nothing to do with Al Qaeda, he can’t really explain why they ought to go “unpunished.” So he doesn’t bother explaining, apart from that smooth line about it “tearing us apart.” The rest of the powers that be have a much better-sounding excuse. Their reason is that it would make us look like a “banana republic.”

Senator Kit Bond of Missouri: This whole thing about punishing people in past administrations reminds me more of a banana republic than the United States of America. We don’t criminally prosecute people we disagree with when we change office.

Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania: “If there is evidence of criminality, then the Attorney General has the full authority and should prosecute it. But going after the prior administration sounds like something they do in Latin America in banana republics.”

Karl Rove: “What they’ve essentially said is if we have policy disagreements with our predecessors…. [W]e’re going to turn ourselves into the moral equivalent of a Latin American country run by colonels in mirrored sunglasses. … Now, that might be fine in some little Latin American country that’s run by, you know, the latest junta — it may be the way that they do things in Chicago — but that’s not the way we do things here in America.”

The problem with this reason is that it looks absurd if you think about it for longer than it took any of these people to say it. Banana republics are countries where rulers are corrupt and self-serving and rewrite the laws at will. If we decide that presidents are, by definition, unable to commit crimes (which both parties openly declared was not true in 2000 when they impeached President Clinton for perjury), and crimes themselves become “policy disagreements,” then every potential crisis becomes grounds for suspending the law and giving the president the power to do whatever he pleases. In short, we become a banana republic. Nor does a terrorist attack, however tragic and unsettling, count as a crisis that threatens the nation’s existence. (Compared to Imperial Japan or the Confederacy, Al Qaeda’s “threat” doesn’t even register.)

In brief: Friedman’s catechism is useful because it collects the various self-serving falsifications and Orwellian double-thoughts into a single place. If some daring Representative is brave enough, s/he ought to read out Friedman’s column on the floor as a devastating expose of the kind of lies a burgeoning banana republic’s ruling elite likes to tell itself.


Thoughts on this blog’s future.

April 23, 2009

The torture debate (sickening, really, that it even is a debate) has set Andrew Sullivan on fire. I’ve been reading him on-and-off for a couple of years, and I can’t recall him ever being as good — as righteously furious because he’s right — as he has been in the last day or two. Just about every post from the last couple days is chilling, right-on, and perfectly put.

Reading The Daily Dish today, in fact, made me wonder exactly what it is I want to do with The Civic Spirit. Posts have been sporadic this year, in part because I’m busy with my real-world job but more because I’m not sure what I have to add to the chorus on most issues. I take it as a given, for instance, that torture is a bad thing and that we should avoid doing it regardless of whether it “works.” Up until fairly recently, this seemed to be the attitude of the rest of the country. Bush and Cheney changed that. They made torture an option, put it on the table, and its “effectiveness” is now seriously discussed by the country’s pseudo-journalists and self-vaunting intellectuals. The fact that the United States didn’t even torture Nazis during World War II has no effect on the pro-torture crowd. The argument is no longer “we are better than them because we don’t do that” but “we have the right to be every bit as bad as they are.” I could write serious posts about the torture “debate,” but why bother? It’s all been said, and yet it remains an “issue.” All I have to do is read one of the pro-torture arguments, and I feel like I’m floating in an acid bath. To respond to one of these things — to force yourself to take the premise seriously and understand where the other person is coming from — might be necessary, but do I have to be the one to do it?

Leaving things like that aside, I’m often not sure what I can say that Greenwald or Sullivan or someone else hasn’t already said. The blogosphere certainly needs a radical-republican take on Obama’s New New Deal, on the ongoing wars, on the recovering Right — but I’m busy trying to absorb it all. Events are moving so quickly that keeping track of what they all mean is a full-time task. But since I’ve decided not to comment on UA or local issues for the time being, that doesn’t leave me much room for taking time off from national politics.

Quote of the day.

April 20, 2009

In keeping with this blog’s tradition of exposing the undemocratic leanings of Supreme Court Justices, here’s Justice John Paul Stevens, on why he thinks the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays:

“A lot of people like to think it’s Shakespeare because…they like to think that a commoner can be such a brilliant writer,” he says. “Even though there is no Santa Claus, it’s still a wonderful myth.”

You heard it here first, folks: Shakespeare — not to mention Chaucer, Goethe, Joyce, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Orwell, Hemingway, Woolf, Faulkner, Waugh, Wodehouse, Salinger, Ellison, Emerson, and Whitman — couldn’t possibly have written anything of worth, because he was a “commoner.” Clearly, only members of the landed aristocracy should even be permitted to own typewriters.

An epiphany.

April 13, 2009

Justice Clarence Thomas rarely speaks in public, and judging from these rambling remarks at an event sponsored by the Bill of Rights Institute, it’s easy to see why.

The event, on March 31, was devoted to the Bill of Rights, but Justice Thomas did not embrace the document, and he proposed a couple of alternatives.

‘Today there is much focus on our rights,” Justice Thomas said. “Indeed, I think there is a proliferation of rights.”

“I am often surprised by the virtual nobility that seems to be accorded those with grievances,” he said. “Shouldn’t there at least be equal time for our Bill of Obligations and our Bill of Responsibilities?”

In this unguarded moment, Justice Thomas blurted out the essence of his faction — the evil, ugly essence of the reactionary Right. It is marked by detestation of liberty, for liberty brings chaos and crime in its wake. It is marked by hatred of those who defend the powerless and hatred for the powerless themselves. And it is marked by yearning for an omnipotent social order imposed by the state, for the authoritarian Right, unlike its libertarian counterpart, feels no deep distrust of the state unless it emboldens its enemies. How contemptuous these faux-conservatives are of those with “grievances,” and how resentful of a “proliferation of rights” that weakens their own power over others.

Blessedly, the moment also reveals how comic this half-mad ideology is. Side by side with our Bill of Rights, Justice Thomas wants a Bill of Responsibilities and a Bill of Obligations. What are our obligations, one wonders? Helping little old ladies across the street? Returning library books on time? My own “responsibilities” include changing my cat’s litter box and stacking the dishwasher every other day, but do we need to put them in the Constitution?

Hannah Arendt revisited.

April 6, 2009

If I had to pick the best political thinkers of the century, Hannah Arendt would have to top the list. No one else — not even my personal journalistic hero, Walter Karp — ever asked so many original questions, and delved so deep into the answers. More than a mere philosopher, Arendt was “a storyteller, like a guide in the catacombs of history,” as Greil Marcus put it. Immensely well-read, she picked her way through each essay as if cliches were land mines, ever on the hunt for whatever it was she really thought.

Her writing is lucid enough, but it often takes me several rereadings to figure out what she meant; the flow of her argument sometimes seems more fanciful than logical, as if she were leaping from point to point without pausing to make logical connections. In her 1963 masterpiece, On Revolution, she dreams her way back into the French and American Revolutions in search of their meaning, and comes up with answers that no academic scholar — or Marxist — would ever countenance. Does that mean they were wrong? To paraphrase a much-overquoted movie line, is academia equipped to handle the truth?

The true mark of Arendt’s power and originality is that she remains, to a surprising degree, detested. I’ve been thinking about her because I just stumbled on a remembrance of her by the poet Robert Lowell, and it’s a remarkable piece, as generous and understanding as virtually every other piece about Arendt I’ve read has been prissy and judgmental. And it’s beautifully written. Lowell’s account of how he got lost on his way to Arendt’s apartment the first time he went there reminds me more of my own impressions of New York City than anything else I’ve ever read, and it’s only a paragraph long.

He also remembers a terrifying moment. In 1963, Arendt wrote a remarkable book about Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi war criminal who was seized and put on trial in Jerusalem that year. The book, which Arendt once admitted she wrote “in a curious state of euphoria,” pursued Eichmann’s career as a thoughtless bureaucrat with deadpan relish. You read the book’s cool collecting and recounting of facts with a growing sense of helplessness, knowing what’s coming — and yet Arendt doesn’t let her mask slip. Then, at the end, Arendt turned around and spoke in the voice of some cosmic judge, saying what no real judge could ever say, in the only convincing argument for any use of the death penalty I’ve ever heard:

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that it was nothing more than misfortune that made you a willing instrument in the organization of mass murder; there still remains the fact that you have carried out, and therefore actively supported, a policy of mass murder. For politics is not like the nursery; in politics obedience and support are the same. And just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations — as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world — we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.

But the book infuriated people. Not only had Arendt identified Eichmann as an empty suit who did what he did for no reason — not a demon, but a terrifying vision of what any of us might become if we fell into the wrong circumstances — but she condemned Jewish leaders for cooperating with the Nazis. This did not go over well:

When Hannah’s Eichmann was published, a meeting was summoned by Irving Howe and Lionel Abel, normally urbane and liberal minds. The meeting was like a trial, the stoning of an outcast member of the family. Any sneering overemphasis on Hannah, who had been invited but was away teaching in Chicago, was greeted with derisive clapping or savage sighs of amazement. Her appointed defenders drifted off into unintelligibly ingenious theses and avoided her name. When her tolerance was eloquently and unfavorably compared with Trotsky’s, Alfred Kazin walked self-consciously to the stage and stammered, “After all Hannah didn’t kill any Jews.” He walked off the stage laughed at as irrelevant and absurd. His was the one voice for the defense. I admire his bravery, and wish I had dared speak. Half my New York literary and magazine acquaintance was sitting near, yet their intensity was terrifying, as if they were about to pick up chairs.

It could be said, as one critic of Arendt did, that there was something “heartless” about her tone. But Arendt did not write to make anyone feel better. She understood that truth was seldom a pleasant, sensible thing. Her refusal to cover up that fact is surely part of why no one can write about Hannah Arendt these days without adopting that smirky, patronizing tone, as if independent minds are all well and good for the young but the rest of us have moved on.

Electing a new people.

April 4, 2009

Why do totalitarian nations always call themselves things like “The People’s Federal Democratic Republic of Freedonia”? The answer is fairly obvious, but Slate explains. The names are meant to signify “the idea that the state and its people are synonymous.” It’s hard to imagine a more succinct definition of state tyranny: Everything the state does is in the interest of “the people,” and anyone who dissents from state purpose betrays the people.

The United States of America, then, is fairly unique these days in not bothering to include any of this business in its name. In every other way, however, we trumpet our commitment to “the people.” We are told over and over again that we rule, that everything our leaders do is done in our name and for our best interests. Then, when we get angry, we get Newsweek covers depicting us as a lynch mob. We are enjoined to eschew “paranoia,” to avoid falling into a “conspiratorial” mindset, to trust in our leaders and in the magic of “pluralism.” It is not honest debate but “bipartisanship” that will rescue us from the doldrums of democracy. And if anything goes wrong, it’s all our fault; perhaps only mass disenfranchisement would solve our problems. If the government cannot get along with the people, once cracked Bertolt Brecht, it will just have to elect a new people.

Our president is no longer a servant of the people, humbled by his office, but a demigod who can do whatever he wants. When our most recent ex-president demanded the powers of a military dictator, so-called “federalists” around the country were eager to explain to us that his infinite powers were clearly marked in the Constitution. The fact that these claims were taken seriously at all, that they weren’t laughed out of the country for claiming such a thing, could well be attributed to popular ignorance of what that great document — fourteen pages or so — actually says. In the mid-2000s, a popular sex columnist called for a new constitutional amendment to protect a universal right to privacy, oblivious to the fact that such a right is already in the Constitution. Then again, it could just be that our media is so readily intimidated — and impressed — by power that it is eager to go along with everything a powerful person says. One recent author, Gene Healy, has aptly dubbed it “The Cult of the Presidency.” Healy blames the people at large for having unreasonable expectations of their president. It would be more accurate to say that no one dares any longer to have reasonable expectations.

On Brother Jed, Hell, and getting left behind.

April 1, 2009

I rarely comment on UA issues, but Brother Jed Smock’s bi-annual visit to campus and fellow UA blogger Laura Donovan’s in-depth interview with Jed and company demand a word or two. For the unacquainted, Brother Jed is an evangelical preacher who tours college campuses urging college students, well known for their listening skills, to give up sex, drugs, dating, swearing and “pre-marital kissing” in favor of the kind of old-fashioned, innocent, Bible-centered lifestyle enjoyed by fictional teens in the 1940s. This exchange is pretty representative:

“Why are you girls wearing shirts that say YOU DESERVE HELL?” asked the UA female.

“Because you do. So do we,” said Priscilla.

“But God is loving. He sends a forgiving message.”

“That’s part of it, but not all of it,” Martha answered. “There’s more to it than you say. We deserve Hell, but we’re lucky to have Jesus, who died on the cross for our sins.”

“I’ll pray for you girls,” the student said as she walked away.

Cindy Smock re-iterated what her daughters mentioned to the curious, visibly offended girl.

“This is not the ‘God loves you’ show. This is the ‘God hates your sins’ show. If you want to hear about God’s love, go to bible study. You also have to smoke less marijuana, drop your beer, skip your parties, and read the bible.”

You’ve got to love the part about smoking “less” marijuana. The Jed clan might hold themselves to high standards, but they know a hopeless cause when they see one.

Laura’s point about Jed’s audience being more frightening than the old boy himself is well taken, but I go back and forth. I can’t help but feel that telling someone they’re going to Hell is nastier and more abusive than calling someone a foul name or even stealing their chair. I mean, assuming you take it seriously — which at least some of Jed’s audience certainly does — going to Hell is a serious business. Students who regard Hell as a rather sadistic fantasy with tenuous Biblical justification (and even less moral justification) can laugh about Jed’s antics, but the old boy has a hook implanted deep in the heart of anyone who was raised to believe in this stuff, and he’s out there on the Mall all week tugging at it like a maniacal fisherman. A guy who tells his audience he’d like to spank them with the Bible clearly has a sense of humor, but there’s nothing funny about his underlying message, and that’s why he gets the kind of response he does.

From Jed’s perspective, of course, Hell is a real place and he’s doing everyone a favor by encouraging them to behave in a way that will keep them out of it. If you even slightly share his perspective, there’s a way in which he’s a selfless hero, accepting daily abuse and ridicule for the sake of the one or two people who email him every month telling him he’s saved them. After all, if Hell is a real place — hey, a caller-in to the Art Bell show once played a tape of what it sounds like there — then don’t we all have a strong interest in staying out of it?

The problem, of course, is that a faith based primarily on fear doesn’t sound like a particularly healthy one. Obviously, people are free to believe in whatever they choose, but if you spend a single second of your day worrying that you’re going to burn in that place with “devils, and those caves, and the heat, my God, the heat!” (as Elaine Benes once put it) after you die, you chose the wrong religion. To say that the world is a bad place because we are bad — or worse, that the world is a good place that we’re ruining because we’re bad — is fallacious. Every person is flawed, some of us horrifically so, and our world is in many ways a hellish one. Yet little of that hellishness has to do with our flaws. The vainglorious leaders who start wars are far outnumbered by the weary grunts in the trenches who’d rather be sitting at home enjoying hot chocolate. A person who dies of a disease fifty years before a cure for that disease is discovered is a victim of cruel circumstances, not human sin. Someone who turns a gun on his family before killing himself may well be evil, in the sense of being fully sensible of his crime’s consequences and not caring — or he may be the helpless victim of a mental illness. Who can say?

The sermons of a Brother Jed don’t help us much with the vast majority of pain and suffering in the world, because it is not unleashed by human action but by the apparent indifference of the world itself. It is the fact that we don’t live in a Manichaean universe of good guys and bad guys that makes the existence of evil in our lives so harrowing. In a way, such a universe would be much preferable to this one. Jed’s sermons are an attempt to impose such a structure on it, and of course the answer he comes up with is the one we all suspect in our darkest moments — that there are no good guys, only bad guys.

But there’s a catch: You can escape the hellishness of this world by hitching a ride with a chosen few, like Jed. There’s a price to be paid, though:

On a lighter note, another pastor entertained the crowd after Jed’s oldest girl sat back down.

“My grandmother was the sweetest woman in the world, but she’s in Hell right now because she didn’t accept Jesus Christ,” he said.

The price, apparently, is our humanity, because this sentiment is inhuman. How could anyone want to go to Heaven if it meant leaving a loved one behind — not merely behind, but suffering eternal punishment? Surely any sane person would rather go to Hell himself than accept the sickening “rules” of this system. Could Heaven really be such a great place if its rulers were so vindictive and heartless? Such a thought does not enter the mind of this hapless man because his faith is based on blind terror of death and an unthinkable punishment beyond, not on wisdom or reason. Such terror is understandable — death is a frightening thing — but it does not require us to hold even the slightest degree of respect for a person who could express such an abominable, human sentiment. Personally, I think we’re entirely justified in turning our backs on it.