Tuesday, July 17, 2007
The handful of folks that check out this blog with any regularity already know I'm not the most, um, punctual or frequent of bloggers. However, due to two looming deadlines and two impeding out of town weddings, I have been even less frequent than usual, and will likely continue to be that way until about mid-August. In any case, it's not solely personal sloth. (If I had my druthers, I'd love to write more frequently.)
I hope to have the next installment of Rightwing Cartoon Watch done the first week of August, though, and it will cover roughly two months. (No wingnut or mendacious hackery in pen and ink shall be left behind!)
As for other posts, we'll see, since I seem to be getting ahead of schedule on one project... But, let's be honest, there are already far too many interesting blogs to read and so little time!
Monday, July 16, 2007
By RANDOLPH E. SCHMID, AP Science Writer
WASHINGTON - Why did humans evolve to walk upright? Perhaps because it's just plain easier. Make that "energetically less costly," in science-speak, and you have the conclusion of researchers who are proposing a likely reason for our modern gait.
Bipedalism — walking on two feet — is one of the defining characteristics of being human, and scientists have debated for years how it came about. In the latest attempt to find an explanation, researchers trained five chimpanzees to walk on a treadmill while wearing masks that allowed measurement of their oxygen consumption.
It turns out that humans walking on two legs use only one-quarter of the energy that chimpanzees use while knuckle-walking on four limbs. And the chimps, on average, use as much energy using two legs as they did when they used all four limbs.
(Read the rest of the article here.)
When asked for comment, Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) scoffed, "I object to this study and its findings. One, it promotes the Theory of Evolution. Two, it promotes the conservation of energy. This is nothing more than the liberal media reporting liberal scientific research." The presidential hopeful continued, "If man weren't meant to drill for oil in coral reefs, the Bible wouldn't have said man was granted "dominion" over the earth. Think of all the classic, gas-guzzling cars that would be outlawed if liberals got their way. Unnecessary energy consumption is a fundamental American right, and the reason I want to be president."
Brownback has accordingly vowed to scuffle around on all fours for the remainder of his campaign.
(By the way, the Brownback stuff is all satire. Questionable satire, perhaps, but not to be taken seriously.)
(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)
Wednesday, July 04, 2007
(Welcome to this season's Blog Against Theocracy post. My most popular one from last time, on comedy and religion, "How Many Deities Does it Take to Change a Lightbulb?" is here. The rest can be accessed through the Blog Against Theocracy and religion categories. Thanks again to Blue Gal and her co-conspirators for setting this up.)
The Gates of Paradise
A soldier named Nobushige came to Hakuin, and asked, "Is there really a paradise and a hell?"
"Who are you?" inquired Hakuin.
"I am a samurai," the warrior replied.
"You, a soldier!" exclaimed Hakuin. "What kind of ruler would have you as his guard? Your face looks like that of a beggar."
Nobushige became so angry that he began to draw his sword, but Hakuin continued: "So you have a sword! Your weapon is probably much too dull to cut off my head."
As Nobishige drew his sword Hakuin remarked: "Here open the gates of hell!"
At these words the samurai, perceiving the master's discipline, sheathed his sword and bowed.
"Here open the gates of paradise," said Hakuin.
— A Zen story, as told by Paul Reps in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
Sadly, in American politics the authoritarian religious right seems to have co-opted the term "Christian." Religious liberals don't get as much press these days, and "family values" as invoked on the national stage too often seem to be code for oppressing gays and restricting reproductive freedoms versus helping the poor and hungry, for example. It saddens me that, overall, the most prominent political figures invoking religion are people who urge intolerance and promote a more simplistic, polarized worldview instead of inviting greater reflection and nuance. In contrast to Hakuin and Nobishige, they do not seem to experience moments of realization, insight, or self-recognition. They do not generally change their minds or come to greater understandings. They view the forces of good and evil in rigidly literal terms and view heaven and hell as wholly external of themselves. Faith does not lead them to question themselves or the world more, and does not give them a greater openness and humility. Religion for them means that they are Right, and they are Righteous.
The separation of church and state shouldn't be remotely controversial, since it and the First Amendment's Establishment and Exercise Clauses allow for freedom of religion and freedom from religion. As First Freedom First puts it, it's "the freedom to worship, or not." I view our system as both pro-religion and pro-atheism, although it's more accurate to say that our wonderful Constitution is "religion-neutral." Morality exists independent of religion (despite asinine assertions to the contrary), and certainly independent of religious institutions, who may or may not practice it. Being anti-theocracy is not the same as being anti-religious, and being anti-theocracy is really simple civic duty and patriotism. Theocrats do not seek equal rights, which they already possess. They seek a privileged position, and even if they're the swellest folks on earth (which they're not) and would govern wisely and justly (which they would not), the system they favor would be inherently unjust and unfair (more on this in the earlier posts linked above).
There's nothing to prevent religious folks from living their values and even from bringing them into the political realm. It's solely a matter of how it's done, and the sacred is best honored in the public realm through the secular. Nothing prevents a politician from developing an anti-poverty program, for example. However, a world of difference between saying, "we must create this program because Jesus commands it," and saying, "we should help the poor." I also see nothing wrong with saying, "As Jesus said, we must help the needy," as part of a larger speech on social service, although the politician might want to consider his or her audience. I personally believe that no tradition, culture or people has a monopoly on wisdom or stupidity. I believe that a great deal of beloved religious scripture merely expresses the same underlying truths that can be found in different forms in literature, music, the fine arts, poetry... Most religions and cultures have some version of the "Golden Rule," for example. That's not to say that religious groups don't have important theological differences. Similarly, anthropology shows us that human beings do share many traits and behaviors the world over, but there are often important exceptions, and what we may consider universal "human nature" may not be. That said, in opposing theocracy or achieving other positive political goals, I'm interested in the commonalities. I don't believe in helping the poor because Jesus said to, an authority-based or dogma-based approach. I believe in helping the poor because it's the right thing to do. I also recognize that Jesus said some great things on the subject, and I can work on issues of poverty with a Christian who believes in Jesus' divinity without feeling uncomfortable as long as there's not an outbreak of proselytizing. The point is doing good work, and if my fellow worker thinks of it as "the Lord's work," it doesn't much bother me. (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. certainly employed religious rhetoric, but he was not a theocrat, and one did not need to be religious to be moved by his words or support his cause for justice.)
I don't think theocrats, particularly the authoritarian religious right, understand these distinctions. I've certainly read, seen, and met theocrats who are among the most strident, irrational and unpleasant folks I've ever encountered. I also question how well the most ostentatiously "Christian" of these actually know or follow the Bible. Religious hypocrites or "tartuffes" have been around for millennia, and as a general rule I've found the more someone makes a show of their religion or righteousness, the less spiritual they actually are. I view their allegiance as being to organized religion, to an institution, perhaps a community, more than to the religion's actual teachings. That's not always bad, but with theocrats there seems to be very little reflection or tolerance for ambiguity and nuance. I agree with the suggestion that all Biblical literalists would benefit from a good English lit course or two to better appreciate symbolism, metaphor, ambiguity, uncertainty and allegory. In contrast, I consider the religious folks among my friends and family more reflective, thoughtful, kind and humble than the average person — and much more so than any theocrat.
Tom DeLay exemplifies the unwavering theocrat in politics. Writing for The Washington Post, Peter Perl's 5/13/01 article 'Absolute Truth' is a fascinating portrait of DeLay, a recovering alcoholic who constantly uses religious rhetoric but is completely estranged from several family members, with whom he refuses to speak. Perl also reports how DeLay flatly lied in a sworn deposition, hardly a "Christian" act. A specific worldview drives DeLay:
Yet DeLay wants more. Much more. As this day progresses, he tells me "I am still trying to drive the president," George W. Bush, toward a more conservative agenda. Toward a "permanent realignment" that will eternally discredit Democratic Party policies that DeLay considers "socialist." And, most important, toward building a more "God-centered" nation whose government will promote prayer and worship and the teaching of values.
"Our entire system is built on the Judeo-Christian ethic, but it fell apart when we started denying God," he says. "If you stand up today and acknowledge God, they will try to destroy you." His main mission, he says, is "to bring us back to the Constitution and to Absolute Truth that has been manipulated and destroyed by a liberal worldview."
Obviously, DeLay either doesn't know his U.S. history and core American principles, or doesn't care. Bringing us "back to the Constitution" is in complete opposition to making America into a theocracy, since it was expressly designed not to be one. DeLay also implicitly asserts that liberals and Democrats are godless. He seems to believe he is in a holy war with his opponents:
As we leave First Baptist, I ask DeLay about the many citizens who would be quite uncomfortable with the idea that he would mold the government in the belief that his religion – fundamentalist Christianity – had the only answers to society's problems.
DeLay looks me squarely in the eye and shakes his head sadly. "When faced with the truth, the truth hurts. It is human nature not to face that . . . People hate the messenger. That's why they killed Christ."
This incident is far from the only time DeLay has compared himself to Jesus ( although it's been more galling when he's compared his suffering, being prosecuted for clear and deliberate wrongdoing, to that of Jesus). He's also said that Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid were "close to traitors," and on several occasions has compared liberals to Hitler. DeLay really sees the world in black and white terms:
So the 2000 presidential election was not mere politics to DeLay, but an apocalyptic "battle for souls." In this struggle between good and evil, virtually all man-made government programs, philosophies and "-isms" favored by Democrats and liberals are doomed utopian dreams because they are not inspired by God. As he described the coming 2000 vote in a red-meat speech to the Christian Coalition last fall: "Will this country accept the worldviews of humanism, materialism, sexism, naturalism, postmodernism or any of the other -isms? Or will we march forward with a biblical worldview, a worldview that says God is our creator, that man is a sinner, and that we will save this country by changing the hearts and minds of Americans? . . . We have the House and the Senate. All we need is the presidency!"
In an online discussion with readers on 10/7/05, Perl discussed his handful of articles on DeLay. Several readers noted that DeLay's brand of Christianity was nothing that resembled their conception of it. Perl observed:
Actually, I believe that public figures in our culture become caricatures because of how polarized our media has become. Tom DeLay is a true believer. What struck me most about him was his seemingly complete devotion to a creed that combines fundamentalist Christian values with Republican policies. He is so totally convinced he is right--and his religious values are so blended with the political-- that he regards opposition as really representing the Dark Side. I think he believes on a deep level that the forces of God and the godless are played out in the political arena and that is part of why he is "The Hammer" as he has been nicknamed in Washington.
Later, in another response, Perl wrote:
So, let us just say that Tom DeLay is not a man who usually doubts himself and the possible error of his ways, and he is not likely to feel that he needs to justify his actions to many people.
In my personal view, Tom DeLay is on the very extreme edge of the political spectrum in terms of separation of church & state. But he does not speak publicly on this topic (except to audiences such as the Christian Coalition) because he knows his views are far too extreme.
While DeLay has less influence now, he was a tremendously powerful, dangerous figure and there's no doubt he embodies the mindset of the authoritarian religious right. In the course of Perl's articles, some of DeLay's doubts are also featured, but these doubts never seem to produce a change in DeLay's basic outlook and approach to life and politics.
What may be most alarming is that the Bush White House asked DeLay to temper his rhetoric a bit; it was too extreme for them. However, this advice may have been more due to political savvy than an actual philosophical difference. Consider this early passage from Ron Suskind's seminal 10/17/04 essay, "Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush":
''Just in the past few months,'' [Republican Bruce] Bartlett said, ''I think a light has gone off for people who've spent time up close to Bush: that this instinct he's always talking about is this sort of weird, Messianic idea of what he thinks God has told him to do.'' Bartlett, a 53-year-old columnist and self-described libertarian Republican who has lately been a champion for traditional Republicans concerned about Bush's governance, went on to say: ''This is why George W. Bush is so clear-eyed about Al Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes you have to kill them all. They can't be persuaded, that they're extremists, driven by a dark vision. He understands them, because he's just like them. . . .
''This is why he dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts,'' Bartlett went on to say. ''He truly believes he's on a mission from God. Absolute faith like that overwhelms a need for analysis. The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence.'' Bartlett paused, then said, ''But you can't run the world on faith.''
Forty democratic senators were gathered for a lunch in March just off the Senate floor. I was there as a guest speaker. Joe Biden was telling a story, a story about the president. ''I was in the Oval Office a few months after we swept into Baghdad,'' he began, ''and I was telling the president of my many concerns'' -- concerns about growing problems winning the peace, the explosive mix of Shiite and Sunni, the disbanding of the Iraqi Army and problems securing the oil fields. Bush, Biden recalled, just looked at him, unflappably sure that the United States was on the right course and that all was well. '''Mr. President,' I finally said, 'How can you be so sure when you know you don't know the facts?'''
Biden said that Bush stood up and put his hand on the senator's shoulder. ''My instincts,'' he said. ''My instincts.''
Biden paused and shook his head, recalling it all as the room grew quiet. ''I said, 'Mr. President, your instincts aren't good enough!'''
Indeed, Bush's instincts are neither good, nor "good enough." It's one thing to introduce faith, but quite another to shut out all rational discussion, as Bush and Dick Cheney have clearly done, consistently.
Of course, Bush's obstinacy can't be blamed on religion per se, but on how he observes it and his inherent personality and character. As Slate's Steven Waldman put it in a 10/27/04 article: "By most accounts, the president's basic intellectual make-up was formed long before his faith conversion. If Bush is incurious, it's not God's fault." As Waldman points out, Bush's proud anti-intellectualism hardly helps the image of evangelicals. Neither does his appetite for "easy certainty," as explored by Suskind. Nor does his need to reduce everything into simplistic, reductive black and white terms, as analyzed in Glenn Greewald's latest book, A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency (excerpt here).
As the recent Washington Post series on Cheney confirms, Bush has been almost an absentee president, and has long deluded himself into thinking that history will vindicate him as a great man. The worst threat is that he'll try to bomb Iran in a last misguided attempt at glory. Whether Bush literally believes God speaks to him or not, his approach has been disastrous for America and the world. In "The Incomplete Man," Digby ponders the recent words of Congressman Peter King (R-NY) that Bush shows "a sense of fatalism":
I don't think "fatalism" is something we can countenance in a political leader. In fact, it's downright scary. I have believed for a long time that Bush thinks all these troubles will be "a comma" in his legacy -- that somewhere down the road he will be credited with being a great president --- like Give 'em Hell Harry and Churchill. The problem is that it's the kind of fantasy that leads puny intellects to be easily brainwashed by smart manipulators into doing reckless things, like attacking Iran, for instance. A hundred years from now everyone will look back on those "birth pangs" and be grateful, right?
And for all of his alleged soul searching, he hasn't taken action to actually change anything --- he's just trying to understand why people no longer see him as the hero he really believed he was during those heady days of hyped up bullhorns and codpieces. He still adheres religiously to his (very light) schedule, he refuses to cut Gonzales loose when everyone knows he's dragging him down, and although he's allegedly obsessed with Iraq, he stubbornly refuses to admit that everything he's done there has turned out badly.
With his presidency crumbling around him, he still hasn't taken charge...
Bush's administration has indeed pursued and achieved theocratic goals, but his presidency has more closely resembled a monarchy (with an éminence grise), marked by Bush's obstinacy and complete disdain for honest discussion and public opinion. However, the effect of his "faith" on Bush remains stunning. In "Trusting In God's Judgment," (from 3/14/07, and linked earlier in this post) Hilzoy considers the dynamics of George W. Bush's professed beliefs in God, and the actions of the religiously certain in general:
What is a problem is to have someone in office who claims to care only about what God thinks and how God will judge him, but who doesn't actually take this idea seriously. Someone like that will use the thought that only God's opinion matters simply to dismiss human criticism, without actually worrying about God. He will regard God as a convenient excuse, someone he can assume agrees with him. But to believe in a God who is, in fact, you, or who is so unreal to you that you don't need to bother taking His views seriously, is not faith; it is the opposite of faith.
Suppose you actually believe in God. You believe, that is, in a being who is omniscient, who knows not just what you do, but what is in your heart. Moreover, He cares deeply about goodness; in fact, his opinion of you will be based entirely on whether you are actually a good person. He is generous and loving, and so you don't need to worry that He will judge you in a mean-spirited way, taking what you think in the least charitable light. When you are genuinely trying to do the right thing, He can be counted on to know that.
On the other hand, since God does know your heart, He can also be counted on to see through your excuses. He is not interested in whether you can convince yourself, or even other people, that you are a good person. He is interested in whether or not you really are a good person. And, as I said before, He knows everything there is to know on this subject. You can fool yourself, but you cannot fool Him. Not only can you count on Him to give their proper importance to those things you do that you know are wrong but that other people are prepared to laugh off; you can count on Him to see through all the excuses for bad behavior that convince even you.
If you believed this, the idea of being judged by God would be genuinely terrifying. Even if you think you are basically a good person, you might be adopting too easily the lax standards of people around you, or convincing yourself that you are doing what's right when in fact you are not. And the flip side of the fact that God can be counted on not to be unduly harsh on you is that he can be counted on not to let you off the hook too easily either. He will make all the allowances that really ought to be made, but no more.
I have no doubt Bush's faith is sincere on some level, even if I question his understanding of his own religion's teachings. Religious people obviously have a right to participate in politics. However, the catastrophic actions of Bush, DeLay and other movement conservatives show that theocrats, monarchists, neocons and other authoritarians must opposed.
It's a Zen principle not to tell someone a "truth" before he or she is ready to hear it (or at least that's it's pointless). No doubt if Hakuin were faced with DeLay or Bush, he would not provoke them as he did the samurai Nobushige. Hakuin sensed that Nobushige possessed some self-awareness, whereas Bush or DeLay would have doubtless killed Hakuin. More importantly (and sadly), DeLay and Bush have consistently shown that the realization of the wrong they did would never penetrate. Neither man has acknowledged his grievous faults, at least not in public, and neither has ever adjusted his basic approach.
When one is certain one is absolutely good and foreign foes and Democrats are evil, no diplomacy or negotiation is needed or wanted. When heaven and hell are solely external, and not a state of mind, or present in the way one treats others, reflection is unlikely. When one's belief in God does not invite thoughtfulness, but instead a sense that one's actions are blessed and pre-approved, that one's "instincts" and snap judgments are nigh-infallible, it's trouble. Prayers that our leaders will be wise, and that George Bush will accept reality as one of his sacraments, are most welcome. However, the practical challenge remains how to limit the ills wrought by the "Righteous."
You can sign the First Freedom First petition here.)
(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)
Tuesday, July 03, 2007
Many good posts have already dissected the recent comments by Justice Antonin Scalia at a panel discussion:
Senior judges from North America and Europe were in the midst of a panel discussion about torture and terrorism law, when a Canadian judge’s passing remark - “Thankfully, security agencies in all our countries do not subscribe to the mantra ‘What would Jack Bauer do?’ ” - got the legal bulldog in [Justice Antonin Scalia] barking.
The conservative jurist stuck up for Agent Bauer, arguing that fictional or not, federal agents require latitude in times of great crisis. “Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles. … He saved hundreds of thousands of lives,” Judge Scalia said. Then, recalling Season 2, where the agent’s rough interrogation tactics saved California from a terrorist nuke, the Supreme Court judge etched a line in the sand.
“Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?” Judge Scalia challenged his fellow judges. “Say that criminal law is against him? ‘You have the right to a jury trial?’ Is any jury going to convict Jack Bauer? I don’t think so.”
Without discussing the merits or flaws of 24 as entertainment, it's striking how so many conservatives view issues of national security and torture through its lens. It's disturbing that people possessing a great deal of power, or seeking it, seem to be basing their policy decisions and legal judgments almost entirely on a work of fiction. Citing Jack Bauer isn't as big a problem as invoking him as the Alpha and Omega of all "serious" discussion on important issues. Fine, mention Jack Bauer. But what about Maher Arar, the Canadian who the U.S. rendered to Syria to be tortured? What about David Hicks, the Australian whose arrest could be justified but whose treatment was abhorrent? What about all the horrible stories out of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo?
The "ticking time bomb" scenario so beloved of conservatives is highly unlikely to occur in real life, and solving such a problem with torture is even more unlikely. But all right, let's discuss hypothetical situations. Can we also discuss reality? It's one thing to discuss torture as a concept, but where are the conservatives discussing the fact that we have tortured people (or "rendered" them to be tortured), and that at least some of those people were innocent? Where's the distress over keeping innocent people in prison without charges, or with shifting charges, for five or more years? Where's the acknowledgement that even when used on terrorists, torture generally does not work, and if anything is counterproductive?
It's no secret that many conservatives simply do not live in "the reality-based community" (read Johann Hari's piece in The New Republic on the National Review cruise, if you haven't). Still, beyond their stupefying fear and paranoia, there's a special level of self-deception and intellectual dishonesty in praising the fictional Jack Bauer and chest-thumping about who will employ torture the most ("Double Guantanamo!") when it's impossible to open a major (non-Murdoch) newspaper without reading about the consequences of such attitudes.
Consider Charles Krauthammer's 12/05/2005 piece in The Weekly Standard, "The Truth About Torture," widely hailed by conservatives, including the Powerline gang and Jonah Goldberg, among many others (Jon Swift provides a nice round-up of the religious right's views on this). Krauthammer's piece is probably the most articulate, serious conservative take on the subject, and even it doesn't hold up to prolonged scrutiny. Michael Kinsley in Slate and Andrew Sullivan in The New Republic both wrote pieces directly rebutting Krauthammer's arguments. For just a small sampling, the blogosphere is full on thoughtful, insightful pieces on torture, including an entire series on torture by Arthur Silber, "Stand Up" by Digby, "Torture" and "Black Sites" by Hilzoy, "Cowards for Torture" by the late Steve Gilliard and "Bainbridge and Sullivan" by Gregory Djerejian. I could easily find twenty more good pieces, probably from those writers alone.
Without recapping every piece linked above in exhaustive detail, the basic position is this: Torture is immoral, ineffective and illegal. A U.S. policy of torture is anathema to our country's core principles and endangers American military personnel and civilians. It severely damages our image and moral authority abroad, and that in turn undercuts us on diplomatic, economic and national security fronts. Recent NIEs conclude (in accord with common sense) that America's invasion of Iraq has made us less safe. The abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have certainly been great recruitment tools for terrorist groups and for fostering general anti-American sentiment. Torture does not necessarily elicit the truth. It forces confessions. Those are often lies. As John McCain said when pushing for the anti-torture legislation that spurred Krauthammer's article, it's not about them (al Qaeda and other foes), it's about us. As to Krauthammer's core argument, that if rare and unlikely exceptions to a general prohibition against torture should be allowed, torture should be made legal in a limited way, as Sullivan puts it, "It is possible to concede that, in an extremely rare circumstance, torture may be used without conceding that it should be legalized." Some conservatives are honest enough to consider that innocent people can and have been tortured. Krauthammer glosses over this, as most conservatives tend to do.
Krauthammer's piece was addressed by liberals, moderates and rule-of-law conservatives. However, the majority of conservatives do not seem to have addressed the major anti-torture pieces. The Washington Post helpfully provides Technorati information on its articles. "Torture's Long Shadow," by Soviet-era torture victim Vladimir Bukovsky, came out shortly after Krauthammer's piece. It's a harrowing account that shows not only the cost to Bukovsky of being tortured, but also the cost to his torturers. Liberal and moderate blogs heavily linked and discussed the piece, but the most popular conservative bloggers and pundits seem to have ignored it. The same dynamic is true for the 5/17/07 op-ed "It's Our Cage, Too: Torture Betrays Us and Breeds New Enemies," by Charles C. Krulak and Joseph P. Hoar, two high-ranking retired military officers, who examine the "disastrous consequences" of the Bush administration's torture policies. The 5/29/07 New York Times piece "Interrogation Methods Are Criticized" received coverage by many liberal and moderate bloggers (including Hilzoy in one of the two posts linked above), but conservative bloggers seem to have mostly ignored its findings that torture does not work. The same reaction seems to have met Seymour Hersh's disturbing June 2007 New Yorker feature, "The General's Report," about the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Rumsfeld's dishonesty about them. The list could easily go on. For all their pretenses of "facing facts" and being "realists," movement conservatives consistently reject the consequences of the policies they advocate.
I freely admit I may be missing relevant conservative pieces out there. I don't have a Lexis-Nexis account, Google and Technorati aren't flawless, and I'm certainly not. I can't fully recreate the brilliance of the post by Jesus' General showing how major conservative bloggers were largely silent months ago on The Washington Post's features on the horrible outpatient care at Walter Reed. There's not one definitive article on Maher Arar out there, for example, and torture as a broader issue has been discussed for several years now. That said, it certainly seems fair to say that as a whole, conservatives prefer fantasy to reality when it comes to discussing torture and related issues.
Little Green Footballs just assumed Arar was guilty back in 2003. In 2005, Emperor Misha I of The Anti-Idiotarian Rottweiler demanded, "Do you know that [Arar] is innocent? If so, how?" When AP photographer Bilal Hussein was arrested and held with charges by the U.S. military in 2006, Glenn Greenwald and Greg Sargent pointed out that authoritarian conservatives such as John Hinderaker (who as a lawyer should know better) failed to grasp "the fact that someone is accused by the Bush administration of being a terrorist or suspected by the administration of working with terrorists does not, in fact, mean that they are a "terrorist."" Tucker Carlson demonstrated similar cognitive dissonance or hackdom when he astoundingly argued that the government just wouldn't torture anyone if it didn't work. Earlier this year at Townhall, in "Where is Jack Bauer When You Need Him?" Ben Shapiro tried to dismiss Andrew Sullivan's arguments against torture as "unconvincing," because "there is a fundamental difference between our treatment of non-citizens and our treatment of citizens. There is a fundamental difference between how we treat our friends and how we treat our enemies." Shapiro, like most movement conservatives, starts invoking good and evil, ignores how exactly we tell our friends and enemies apart, and ignores the fact that we have tortured innocent people in the real world (even assuming that torture is ever justified at all).
Again, this is not a definitive collection, but I think it accurately captures the flavor of authoritarian conservatives. Their simplistic, reductive good versus evil mindset, that Glenn Greenwald's latest book centers on, is quite clear. On the "why are they silent on this?" front, Glenn Greenwald recently documented how James Taranto and other conservatives were all atwitter over how the supposedly liberal MSM wasn't covering the completely un-newsworthy item that al Qaeda tortures. It is a conservative ritual to publicly condemn the designated enemies du jour, but it's simply a given for most civilized folks to disapprove of terrorists. As for torture specifically, liberals, moderates and rule-of-law conservatives don't despise torture because al-Qaeda does it. They condemn it because it's wrong (and ineffective, and…). As explored in an earlier post, the defining characteristic of authoritarian conservatives is their assault on greater principles and the system itself, and their attempts to elevate their beloved authority figures above such quaint niceties as the rule of law. For them, right and wrong are determined by authority, by an Us versus Them dynamic, not by independent, non-partial notions of justice or fairness. In their limited imaginations, fear of the Other always plays a role, but the idea that they themselves, or a loved one, could be unfairly treated — for instance, tortured — is inconceivable. That only happens to bad people. And if someone's been tortured, he or she must be a bad person.
It's worth noting the warped, insecure views of masculinity that comes with this chickenhawk, I'll-torture-him-more-than-you crowd. John McCain has said some irresponsible things in his time (the Bomb Iran song), but he's an actual vet who's suffered torture, and thus has great moral authority on the subject, unlike most if not all torture proponents. Tough talk is what movement conservatives want. There's the tale of conservative hawk Joe Lieberman watching the action flick Behind Enemy Lines: "whenever the American military scored an onscreen hit, Lieberman pumped his fist and said, “Yeah!” and “All right!"" Recently, Lieberman has been saber-rattling irresponsibly against Iran. (As Wesley Clark put it, "Only someone who never wore the uniform or thought seriously about national security would make threats at this point.") There's conservative Ralph Peters, upset by a poll that shows that roughly half of American troops wouldn't torture a captive even given some implausible ticking bomb scenario. Really, how dare they? There's Bush's horrible idea early in his presidency that the U.S. should withdraw from mediating Arab-Israeli conflicts because ''Sometimes a show of force by one side can really clarify things." There's Bush's angry insistence, in May 2002, that he was "going to kick [Saddam Hussein's] sorry motherfucking ass all over the Mideast." Dan Froomkin observed that it was four years ago today that Bush taunted our enemies with the line, "My answer is, bring 'em on." There's the need of "Tucker Carlson and Jonah Goldberg to search endlessly for strong, powerful, masculine figures so that they can feel those attributes and pose as one who exudes them."
Of course, there's nothing wrong with enjoying an action movie, a little escapism or a little tough talk in private, as long as one is capable of moving beyond that, or one can tell fantasy from reality. Sadly, that doesn't seem to be the case for most prominent conservatives, when a major GOP presidential candidate can misstate a crucial event in the Iraq war (and more sadly, the media misses calling him on it). At Fox News' GOP presidential debate, Brit Hume actually posed a ludicrous ticking time bomb scenario more implausible than most of the plots on Fox's show 24. It was a softball to allow the candidates to boast about how "aggressively" they'd interrogate suspects, and most of them leapt at it eagerly. The faux masculinity and competitive cruelty they showed was even more repulsive than it was laughable, as (apart from John McCain) they all bragged about how much and how quickly they'd torture, and even invoked Jack Bauer, to the audience's approval. As Stephen Colbert put it, "Nothing pumps up a crowd of primary voters in my home state like endorsements of fictional torture." Needless to say, Brit Hume never asked a question about Maher Arar, or how to deal with our human rights violations. Apart from perhaps McCain, none of these leading Republicans has the moral authority or the inclination that Patrick Leahy showed when he lambasted Alberto Gonzales for real wrongdoing, that "We knew damn well if [Arar] went to Canada he wouldn't be tortured. He'd be held and he'd be investigated. We also knew damn well if he went to Syria, he'd be tortured. And it's beneath the dignity of this country, a country that has always been a beacon of human rights, to send somebody to another country to be tortured."
Is Scalia any better than these other Republicans? He's certainly entitled to watch 24, but it's another matter to base legal guidelines according to it. The kindest assessment of Scalia's assertions is that they're silly. Yes, if Jack Bauer tortured someone, criminal law would be against him. (The "Jack Bauer" defense would hold no more than "The Chewbacca Defense.") However, depending on the circumstances, the president would likely pardon Bauer, or if the president did not, a jury would not convict Bauer. Thus, there simply is no problem with upholding the rule of law and letting justice run its proper course, other than Scalia's apparent impatience that lesser men might ever sit in judgment over great men such as he and the fictional Jack Bauer.
Ironically, Scalia's arguments even violate the internal consistency of 24, which presents more complexities than its most diehard conservative fans seem willing to consider. Over six seasons, a consistent theme has been how Bauer's extremism pushes his family and loved ones away and damages him. He started the most recent season, number six, exhausted and eager to hang it up for good because he himself had been tortured. Also in season six (incidentally, easily the weakest season), Jack Bauer tortured his own brother and his brother gave him deliberately incorrect information. Torture is unreliable, even when conducted by the hero Jack Bauer. In season five, Bauer almost lost the woman he loved, Audrey Raines, because of his willingness to torture and bully others in the name of national security. Also in season five, Bauer and Secret Service agent Aaron threatened to maim the President's Chief of Staff right in front of the President because they knew he was a mole. Immediately after they got the information, as blogger Dceiver puts it, "Aaron and Jack hand over their badges and turn themselves in for disobeying a direct order from the President! That's the rule of law in action, right there, kids. Break the law if you think that doing so is the only way to protect the country, but man up and offer to face your lumps afterward." However, that's a level of personal responsibility and accountability that Rumsfeld, Cheney, Bush, Gonzales, Yoo, Addington, Rice and the rest of the gang has never shown on any major issue or action whatsoever, whether it be related to torture and human rights or such little things as starting a war under false pretenses or losing an American city (not to mention commuting Libby's sentence).
But of course, Jack Bauer is fictional. Like many fictional heroes, he is very rarely wrong. Bush and his crew seem to believe in their infallibility as well, yet in their case it is in denial of overwhelming realities showing that's painfully not so. Their professed hatred of Hollywood notwithstanding, at times it seems that movement conservatives' foreign policy and human rights positions have been determined solely by screenings of 24, Rambo, Red Dawn and Chuck Norris movies. Fiction is fine in its place, but the aggressive rejection of reality is not. The Bush administration is dishonest about torture just as it is dishonest about the situation in Iraq and virtually every other issue. As Hilzoy put it eloquently, "Violence is not a way of getting where you want to go, only more quickly. Its existence changes your destination." Torture has a human face. It is the face of Maher Arar and the hundreds of detainees at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and black sites. Vladimir Bukovsky writes that after he was tortured, "neither the doctor nor those guards could ever look me in the eye again." Sadly, detached from the consequences of their policies and rhetoric, the Bush administration and other authoritarian conservatives are still refusing to look at all.
(Maher Arar and his family.)
(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)