ed_rex: (Default)

Lessons from Egypt

Barack Obama is the probably the best possible President the United States could have, but all of his genuinely good qualities don't make a damned bit of difference in terms of U.S. foreign policy. There is a very simple reason for this: He's not the boss. The real boss, of course, is all of that fucking money, all of the profits to be made, and which have to be made because that is the criteria according to which corporations — and hence the U.S. economy itself — lives or dies. Profit must be made, and it is not made exclusively, or even primarily within the U.S. but outside of it, all over the world. That is the necessity that governs U.S. foreign policy. Not morality, not justice, and not Obama. In that sphere he, like any other President, more closely resembles Stepin Fetchit. Thomas Dow, via email.

It's been getting harder and harder for anyone in the Western world to pretend we live in a genuinely democratic society. Ironically — but also tellingly — our rulers have felt in ever-less necessary to hide the fact that they hold "the people" in contempt, just as they hold in contempt the idea of democracy itself.

As a Canadian, last summer's government-sponsored riots in Toronto (see "Dominion of Fear" from last July) tore a lot of the proverbial wool from my eyes, but not all of it. I think it Tony Blair's calmy racist para-logical contortions in support of anything but democracy for the Egyptian people to bring home to me the fact our own democracy is little (if anything) more than a potempkin voting booth.

Which prompted the following, an editorial first published in this past Friday's True North Perspective. Long story short, there are two lessions for those of us in the West to learn from the courageous men and women facing down the thugs in the streets of Egypt.

First, it's not our place to manage Egyptian affairs. Even if we accept the myth of Good Intentions, the result is almost always a torturer like Mubarak.

And second, we need to take back our own democracy; the men in black body armor are at the ready any time we step out of line.

Click here for the rest (behind the fake cut).

ed_rex: (Default)

'If you're simply fed up with trying to counter fantasies and lies with logic and truth, remember that "the price of liberty is eternal vigilance". Freedom never comes without a price, a price paid (in good times) with time and with effort, with the repetition of the truth in the face of brazen lies.

'If you believe that all politicians are liars or corrupt and so avoid the political process all together, you deny a truth repeated throughout history, that all politicians are not the same. Even a seriously cynical mind, if honest with itself, understands there is a very real difference between the pathology of a Mussolini and the petty misdemeanours of a Bill Clinton.'

Scared? Maybe you should be

Why, of course, the people don't want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship [...] the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

     — Hermann Goering interviewed during the Nuremberg Trials, as per the invaluable Snopes.com.

Shutting down for being shouted down

I know, I know: long-time readers will notice that I have quoted Goering before, but the words bear repeating.

I was talking with my father last week and we had a brief conversation about the "debate" they're having south of the border on the Obama administration's attempt to reform the American health care system.

"Oh that," I said, "I haven't really been paying much attention. I can't take the lies and the lunacy any more. I think it was the senior citizen, who didn't understand that Medicare already is 'socialized medicine' that broke my brain."

But that's an important strategy used by fascists — to turn "debate" into such a stinking pile of lies that ordinary people simply shake their heads and ignore it all-together, either believing that no reasonable person could possibly be taken in, or simply unwilling to expend the necessary energy to call the liars on their lies. (Yes, I used the word, fascist; give me a chance. I'm going somewhere with this.)

* * *

A while back, my mother mentioned a talk she'd had with a long-time family friend, a man my mother considers a brother by all but blood, whom she's known since they were both children and who I still call "Uncle" when I see him. "Uncle Phil" was born in Ohio, served in Korea and is now enjoying his retirement in up-state New York. Though a liberal by American standards, he is a patriot in a way that I, as a Canadian, don't fully understand.

Uncle Phil, as I've known him, is a nice guy — affable, quick with a joke or a pun, a man who loves his four children and seems to still be very much in love with his wife after what has to be close to 50 years of marriage. I like him. We exchange hugs when we see each other, and mean it.

And yet, I've never really felt close to him. To me, there has always been a sort of ... vacant quality to him, or to his conversation, that I could never break through.

Conversations in my family have always included those things famously supposed to be banned from polite conversation, including politics and religion. But not so much when Uncle Phil is around. When Uncle Phil is around, conversation seldom strays beyond friends and family, current movies and best-selling novels. There's laughter, yes, but (to me) it's shallow and so, fundamentally unsatisfying.

Still, my mum sometimes works on him and he was certainly thrilled when the era of Bush II came to its long over-due end, so its not like there ought to be an unbridgeable philosophical divide between them.

As part of her effort to get Uncle Phil to at least understand where she is coming from, she offered to buy him a subscription to a small peace-oriented newsletter published here in Canada, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives' CCPA Monitor. The organization describes itself as, "an independent, non-partisan research institute concerned with issues of social and economic justice". By Bushite standards, that probably sounds pretty terrible, but it's part of the mainstream (if somewhat marginalized) Canadian political discourse.

But Uncle Phil would have none of it. "I don't want my name to get on any lists," he told her.

"I don't want my name to get on any lists," said this middle-class, white, over-70 year-old war-veteran. The patriotic American doesn't come with much more apple pie and ice-cream than Uncle Phil.

And yet he was frightened at the very thought of receiving in the mail a small newsletter that "they" — a government he despised — would disaprove of.

Fear is the other side of the fascist's blade.

I mention these personal anecdotes because my talk with my father helped to wake me up to the fact that I had been falling victim to the first strategy. (Yes, I know, I'm a Canuck and some will say it's not my fight anyway; but I think both the fact that I am a human being, as well as the pragmatic one that my 35 million fellow-citizens live right next door to the behemoth gives me an interest in what happens there, if not a vote.)

Speaking truth to liars (and dupes)

Brainwashed

The other single thing which helped to rouse me from my slumber was an article by the writer Sara Robinson entitled "Is the U.S. on the brink of fascism?" — an essay I commend to your attention but which I will quote from here.

Robinson's essay is a scary but, I think, well-reasoned piece which lays out a strong case to suggest that the absolutely hysterical campaign to destroy Obama's health-care bill is not in fact simply the ravings a few professional talk-show instigators like the Fox News gang and some groups of loud, simple-minded angry white men (and women), but part of an orchestrated campaign of what is now an alliance between the far-right and the "mainstream" conservatives of the Republican Party.

"An authentic popular fascism in the United States would be pious and anti-Black"

Robinson's definition of fascism is precise and — particularly because the terms, fascist and fascism tend to be thrown around far too casually by the left (as are the terms socialist and socialism by the right — though lately, those using the latter include members of the media and political elites who don't have the excuse that they are just ranting among friends or fellow-travellers on the internet) and so should be repeated, if only to make it clear that I am not one to smear just anyone as a fascist simply because I disagree with them.

The word has been bandied about by so many people so wrongly for so long that, as [historian Robert] Paxton points out, "Everybody is somebody else's fascist." Given that, I always like to start these conversations by revisiting Paxton's essential definition of the term:

"Fascism is a system of political authority and social order intended to reinforce the unity, energy, and purity of communities in which liberal democracy stands accused of producing division and decline."

Elsewhere, he refines this further as:

"a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion."

According to Robinson (pace Paxton), those democracies which have fallen to fascist movements have done so in five stages. Briefly, they are as follows (again, I highly recommend reading the full essay). Note: The italics below are mine.

  1. "In the first stage, a rural movement emerges to effect some kind of nationalist renewal [...] They come together to restore a broken social order, always drawing on themes of unity, order, and purity. Reason is rejected in favor of passionate emotion." The fascist narrative varies but is "always rooted in the promise of restoring lost national pride by resurrecting the culture's traditional myths and values, and purging society of the toxic influence of the outsiders and intellectuals who are blamed for their current misery [...]"

  2. "In the second stage, fascist movements take root, turn into real political parties, and seize their seat at the table of power. Interestingly, in every case Paxton cites, the political base came from the rural, less-educated parts of the country [...] these days, GOP-sanctioned anti-immigrant groups make life hell for Hispanic agricultural workers in the US. As violence against random Hispanics (citizens and otherwise) increases, the right-wing goon squads are getting basic training that, if the pattern holds, they may eventually use to intimidate the rest of us."

  3. The third stage requires a resurgent left which denies the conservatives their "rightful" seat at the table of power, leading to a political deadlock. "The most important variables...are the conservative elites' willingness to work with the fascists (along with a reciprocal flexibility on the part of the fascist leaders) and the depth of the crisis that induces them to cooperate." (Paxton.)

    "That description sounds eerily like the dire straits our Congressional Republicans find themselves in right now. Though the GOP has been humiliated, rejected, and reduced to rump status by a series of epic national catastrophes mostly of its own making, its leadership can't even imagine governing cooperatively with the newly mobilized and ascendant Democrats. Lacking legitimate routes back to power, their last hope is to invest the hardcore remainder of their base with an undeserved legitimacy, recruit them as shock troops, and overthrow American democracy by force. If they can't win elections or policy fights, they're more than willing to take it to the streets, and seize power by bullying Americans into silence and complicity."

  4. "In stage four, as [the alliance of conservative elites and rural thugs] assumes full control of the country [...] The character of the regime is determined by [which wing of the alliance] gets the upper hand. If the party members (who gained power through street thuggery) win, an authoritarian police state may well follow. If the conservatives can get them back under control, a more traditional theocracy, corporatocracy, or military regime can re-emerge over time."

  5. "Paxton characterizes stage five as "radicalization or entropy." Radicalization is likely if the new regime scores a big military victory, which consolidates its power and whets its appetite for expansion and large-scale social engineering. (See: Germany) In the absence of a radicalizing event, entropy may set in, as the state gets lost in its own purposes and degenerates into incoherence. (See: Italy)"

What's happening, what is to be done?

I said above that I don't toss about the term fascist casually, but despite Robinson's hesitations about so defining the former Bush administration that way, its well-known disdain for the rule of law, its utter disregard for the well-being of its own citizens (remember what happened to New Orleans in August of 2005?), its love of torture and military adventures abroad already had me believing that Bush and Cheney et al were at least fellow-travellers.

As Robinson puts it,

Now, the guessing game is over. We know beyond doubt that the Teabag movement was created out of whole cloth by astroturf groups like Dick Armey's FreedomWorks and Tim Phillips' Americans for Prosperity, with massive media help from FOX News. We see the Birther fracas — the kind of urban myth-making that should have never made it out of the pages of the National Enquirer — being openly ratified by Congressional Republicans. We've seen Armey's own professionally-produced field manual that carefully instructs conservative goon squads in the fine art of disrupting the democratic governing process — and the film of public officials being terrorized and threatened to the point where some of them required armed escorts to leave the building. We've seen Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner applauding and promoting a video of the disruptions and looking forward to "a long, hot August for Democrats in Congress."

This is the sign we were waiting for — the one that tells us that yes, kids: we are there now. America's conservative elites have openly thrown in with the country's legions of discontented far right thugs. They have explicitly deputized them and empowered them to act as their enforcement arm on America's streets, sanctioning the physical harassment and intimidation of workers, liberals, and public officials who won't do their political or economic bidding.

These are scary times, for Americans in particular, but nearly as much for the rest of us in the "free world". As the richest, most powerful nation on the face of the Earth, the United States has the potential to be a force for great good or for great evil.

As Robinson says, it's not yet (quite) too late to stop the madness.

If you're frightened now, think how frightened you'll be if the worst comes to pass. The time to speak up, to write letters and to demonstrate, is now.

If you're simply fed up with trying to counter fantasies and lies with logic and truth, remember that "the price of liberty is eternal vigilance". Freedom never comes without a price, a price paid (in good times) with time and with effort, with the repetition of the truth in the face of brazen lies.

If you believe that all politicians are liars or corrupt and so avoid the political process all together, you deny a truth repeated throughout history, that all politicians are not the same. Even a seriously cynical mind, if honest with itself, understands there is a very real difference between the pathology of a Mussolini and the petty misdemeanours of a Bill Clinton.

We have a both a moral obligation, and a pragmatic one, to stand up and be counted.

The voices of the lunatic right are not yet an organized army of brown-shirts, but the thinly-veiled racism and homophobia of the "birthers" and those who take seriously Sarah Palin's fantasies that Obama wants to kill her baby need to be countered, the coals of paranoia must be doused before they burst into an unstoppable inferno of hatred and fear.

I know, to some of you at least, I am the one who sounds paranoid, but the historical parallels are too stark to be ignored. I don't know about you, but I don't want to wake up from a nightmare some years down the road to tell my grandchildren that I did nothing to stop it when I had the chance.

Originally posted on my website, Edifice Rex Online.

(For those of you who share my anal-retentive qualities, please note that I have edited this post (2009/08/17) to deal with the magazine my mother wanted to buy for Uncle Phil. The actual publication in question was the CCPA Monitor, published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, an organization having nothing to do with the United Church nor any church. The original text read as follows.)

As part of her effort to get Uncle Phil to at least understand where she is coming from, she offered to buy him a subscription to a small peace-oriented newsletter published here in Canada. (I want to say it's The United Church Observer, but the images on the website don't look right. Suffice it to say that, by Canadian standards, it's left-of-centre but hardly radical.

But Uncle Phil would have none of it. "I don't want my name to get on any lists," he told her.

"I don't want my name to get on any lists," said this middle-class, white, over-70 year-old war-veteran. The patriotic American doesn't come with much more apple pie and ice-cream than Uncle Phil.

And yet he was frightened at the very thought of receiving in the mail a small newsletter published by one of Canada's mainstream Christian churches.

ed_rex: (Default)

'If you're simply fed up with trying to counter fantasies and lies with logic and truth, remember that "the price of liberty is eternal vigilance". Freedom never comes without a price, a price paid (in good times) with time and with effort, with the repetition of the truth in the face of brazen lies.

'If you believe that all politicians are liars or corrupt and so avoid the political process all together, you deny a truth repeated throughout history, that all politicians are not the same. Even a seriously cynical mind, if honest with itself, understands there is a very real difference between the pathology of a Mussolini and the petty misdemeanours of a Bill Clinton.'

Scared? Maybe you should be

Why, of course, the people don't want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship [...] the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

     — Hermann Goering interviewed during the Nuremberg Trials, as per the invaluable Snopes.com.

Shutting down for being shouted down

I know, I know: long-time readers will notice that I have quoted Goering before, but the words bear repeating.

I was talking with my father last week and we had a brief conversation about the "debate" they're having south of the border on the Obama administration's attempt to reform the American health care system.

"Oh that," I said, "I haven't really been paying much attention. I can't take the lies and the lunacy any more. I think it was the senior citizen, who didn't understand that Medicare already is 'socialized medicine' that broke my brain."

But that's an important strategy used by fascists — to turn "debate" into such a stinking pile of lies that ordinary people simply shake their heads and ignore it all-together, either believing that no reasonable person could possibly be taken in, or simply unwilling to expend the necessary energy to call the liars on their lies. (Yes, I used the word, fascist; give me a chance. I'm going somewhere with this.)

* * *

A while back, my mother mentioned a talk she'd had with a long-time family friend, a man my mother considers a brother by all but blood, whom she's known since they were both children and who I still call "Uncle" when I see him. "Uncle Phil" was born in Ohio, served in Korea and is now enjoying his retirement in up-state New York. Though a liberal by American standards, he is a patriot in a way that I, as a Canadian, don't fully understand.

Uncle Phil, as I've known him, is a nice guy — affable, quick with a joke or a pun, a man who loves his four children and seems to still be very much in love with his wife after what has to be close to 50 years of marriage. I like him. We exchange hugs when we see each other, and mean it.

And yet, I've never really felt close to him. To me, there has always been a sort of ... vacant quality to him, or to his conversation, that I could never break through.

Conversations in my family have always included those things famously supposed to be banned from polite conversation, including politics and religion. But not so much when Uncle Phil is around. When Uncle Phil is around, conversation seldom strays beyond friends and family, current movies and best-selling novels. There's laughter, yes, but (to me) it's shallow and so, fundamentally unsatisfying.

Still, my mum sometimes works on him and he was certainly thrilled when the era of Bush II came to its long over-due end, so its not like there ought to be an unbridgeable philosophical divide between them.

As part of her effort to get Uncle Phil to at least understand where she is coming from, she offered to buy him a subscription to a small peace-oriented newsletter published here in Canada, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives' CCPA Monitor. The organization describes itself as, "an independent, non-partisan research institute concerned with issues of social and economic justice". By Bushite standards, that probably sounds pretty terrible, but it's part of the mainstream (if somewhat marginalized) Canadian political discourse.

But Uncle Phil would have none of it. "I don't want my name to get on any lists," he told her.

"I don't want my name to get on any lists," said this middle-class, white, over-70 year-old war-veteran. The patriotic American doesn't come with much more apple pie and ice-cream than Uncle Phil.

And yet he was frightened at the very thought of receiving in the mail a small newsletter that "they" — a government he despised — would disaprove of.

Fear is the other side of the fascist's blade.

I mention these personal anecdotes because my talk with my father helped to wake me up to the fact that I had been falling victim to the first strategy. (Yes, I know, I'm a Canuck and some will say it's not my fight anyway; but I think both the fact that I am a human being, as well as the pragmatic one that my 35 million fellow-citizens live right next door to the behemoth gives me an interest in what happens there, if not a vote.)

Speaking truth to liars (and dupes)

Brainwashed

The other single thing which helped to rouse me from my slumber was an article by the writer Sara Robinson entitled "Is the U.S. on the brink of fascism?" — an essay I commend to your attention but which I will quote from here.

Robinson's essay is a scary but, I think, well-reasoned piece which lays out a strong case to suggest that the absolutely hysterical campaign to destroy Obama's health-care bill is not in fact simply the ravings a few professional talk-show instigators like the Fox News gang and some groups of loud, simple-minded angry white men (and women), but part of an orchestrated campaign of what is now an alliance between the far-right and the "mainstream" conservatives of the Republican Party.

"An authentic popular fascism in the United States would be pious and anti-Black"

Robinson's definition of fascism is precise and — particularly because the terms, fascist and fascism tend to be thrown around far too casually by the left (as are the terms socialist and socialism by the right — though lately, those using the latter include members of the media and political elites who don't have the excuse that they are just ranting among friends or fellow-travellers on the internet) and so should be repeated, if only to make it clear that I am not one to smear just anyone as a fascist simply because I disagree with them.

The word has been bandied about by so many people so wrongly for so long that, as [historian Robert] Paxton points out, "Everybody is somebody else's fascist." Given that, I always like to start these conversations by revisiting Paxton's essential definition of the term:

"Fascism is a system of political authority and social order intended to reinforce the unity, energy, and purity of communities in which liberal democracy stands accused of producing division and decline."

Elsewhere, he refines this further as:

"a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion."

According to Robinson (pace Paxton), those democracies which have fallen to fascist movements have done so in five stages. Briefly, they are as follows (again, I highly recommend reading the full essay). Note: The italics below are mine.

  1. "In the first stage, a rural movement emerges to effect some kind of nationalist renewal [...] They come together to restore a broken social order, always drawing on themes of unity, order, and purity. Reason is rejected in favor of passionate emotion." The fascist narrative varies but is "always rooted in the promise of restoring lost national pride by resurrecting the culture's traditional myths and values, and purging society of the toxic influence of the outsiders and intellectuals who are blamed for their current misery [...]"

  2. "In the second stage, fascist movements take root, turn into real political parties, and seize their seat at the table of power. Interestingly, in every case Paxton cites, the political base came from the rural, less-educated parts of the country [...] these days, GOP-sanctioned anti-immigrant groups make life hell for Hispanic agricultural workers in the US. As violence against random Hispanics (citizens and otherwise) increases, the right-wing goon squads are getting basic training that, if the pattern holds, they may eventually use to intimidate the rest of us."

  3. The third stage requires a resurgent left which denies the conservatives their "rightful" seat at the table of power, leading to a political deadlock. "The most important variables...are the conservative elites' willingness to work with the fascists (along with a reciprocal flexibility on the part of the fascist leaders) and the depth of the crisis that induces them to cooperate." (Paxton.)

    "That description sounds eerily like the dire straits our Congressional Republicans find themselves in right now. Though the GOP has been humiliated, rejected, and reduced to rump status by a series of epic national catastrophes mostly of its own making, its leadership can't even imagine governing cooperatively with the newly mobilized and ascendant Democrats. Lacking legitimate routes back to power, their last hope is to invest the hardcore remainder of their base with an undeserved legitimacy, recruit them as shock troops, and overthrow American democracy by force. If they can't win elections or policy fights, they're more than willing to take it to the streets, and seize power by bullying Americans into silence and complicity."

  4. "In stage four, as [the alliance of conservative elites and rural thugs] assumes full control of the country [...] The character of the regime is determined by [which wing of the alliance] gets the upper hand. If the party members (who gained power through street thuggery) win, an authoritarian police state may well follow. If the conservatives can get them back under control, a more traditional theocracy, corporatocracy, or military regime can re-emerge over time."

  5. "Paxton characterizes stage five as "radicalization or entropy." Radicalization is likely if the new regime scores a big military victory, which consolidates its power and whets its appetite for expansion and large-scale social engineering. (See: Germany) In the absence of a radicalizing event, entropy may set in, as the state gets lost in its own purposes and degenerates into incoherence. (See: Italy)"

What's happening, what is to be done?

I said above that I don't toss about the term fascist casually, but despite Robinson's hesitations about so defining the former Bush administration that way, its well-known disdain for the rule of law, its utter disregard for the well-being of its own citizens (remember what happened to New Orleans in August of 2005?), its love of torture and military adventures abroad already had me believing that Bush and Cheney et al were at least fellow-travellers.

As Robinson puts it,

Now, the guessing game is over. We know beyond doubt that the Teabag movement was created out of whole cloth by astroturf groups like Dick Armey's FreedomWorks and Tim Phillips' Americans for Prosperity, with massive media help from FOX News. We see the Birther fracas — the kind of urban myth-making that should have never made it out of the pages of the National Enquirer — being openly ratified by Congressional Republicans. We've seen Armey's own professionally-produced field manual that carefully instructs conservative goon squads in the fine art of disrupting the democratic governing process — and the film of public officials being terrorized and threatened to the point where some of them required armed escorts to leave the building. We've seen Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner applauding and promoting a video of the disruptions and looking forward to "a long, hot August for Democrats in Congress."

This is the sign we were waiting for — the one that tells us that yes, kids: we are there now. America's conservative elites have openly thrown in with the country's legions of discontented far right thugs. They have explicitly deputized them and empowered them to act as their enforcement arm on America's streets, sanctioning the physical harassment and intimidation of workers, liberals, and public officials who won't do their political or economic bidding.

These are scary times, for Americans in particular, but nearly as much for the rest of us in the "free world". As the richest, most powerful nation on the face of the Earth, the United States has the potential to be a force for great good or for great evil.

As Robinson says, it's not yet (quite) too late to stop the madness.

If you're frightened now, think how frightened you'll be if the worst comes to pass. The time to speak up, to write letters and to demonstrate, is now.

If you're simply fed up with trying to counter fantasies and lies with logic and truth, remember that "the price of liberty is eternal vigilance". Freedom never comes without a price, a price paid (in good times) with time and with effort, with the repetition of the truth in the face of brazen lies.

If you believe that all politicians are liars or corrupt and so avoid the political process all together, you deny a truth repeated throughout history, that all politicians are not the same. Even a seriously cynical mind, if honest with itself, understands there is a very real difference between the pathology of a Mussolini and the petty misdemeanours of a Bill Clinton.

We have a both a moral obligation, and a pragmatic one, to stand up and be counted.

The voices of the lunatic right are not yet an organized army of brown-shirts, but the thinly-veiled racism and homophobia of the "birthers" and those who take seriously Sarah Palin's fantasies that Obama wants to kill her baby need to be countered, the coals of paranoia must be doused before they burst into an unstoppable inferno of hatred and fear.

I know, to some of you at least, I am the one who sounds paranoid, but the historical parallels are too stark to be ignored. I don't know about you, but I don't want to wake up from a nightmare some years down the road to tell my grandchildren that I did nothing to stop it when I had the chance.

Originally posted on my website, Edifice Rex Online.

(For those of you who share my anal-retentive qualities, please note that I have edited this post (2009/08/17) to deal with the magazine my mother wanted to buy for Uncle Phil. The actual publication in question was the CCPA Monitor, published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, an organization having nothing to do with the United Church nor any church. The original text read as follows.)

As part of her effort to get Uncle Phil to at least understand where she is coming from, she offered to buy him a subscription to a small peace-oriented newsletter published here in Canada. (I want to say it's The United Church Observer, but the images on the website don't look right. Suffice it to say that, by Canadian standards, it's left-of-centre but hardly radical.

But Uncle Phil would have none of it. "I don't want my name to get on any lists," he told her.

"I don't want my name to get on any lists," said this middle-class, white, over-70 year-old war-veteran. The patriotic American doesn't come with much more apple pie and ice-cream than Uncle Phil.

And yet he was frightened at the very thought of receiving in the mail a small newsletter published by one of Canada's mainstream Christian churches.

ed_rex: (Default)
To serve and protect?
The arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and
The real elephant in the corner

I moved to Toronto from Sudbury, Ontario, when I was 14 and, despite the fact Toronto was a city nearly 20 times the size of Sudbury, it took more than two years before anything happened to make me feel unsafe in the metropolis.

And it wasn't an angry drunk or a gang of teen-age boys that frightened me, but a pair of policemen on the muscle.

I was 16 years old when my friend Vern and I decided to form a band — well, a duet, with Vern on guitar while I banged away at a tambourine and croaked out lyrics as best as my pubescent throat would allow. With a week of practising under our belts we made our début in front of the Eaton Centre and were successful enough that we spent many nights that summer playing Neil Young and Dylan and Beatles songs for spare change.

We were white kids, but we were kids and we both had hair flowing past our shoulders. Being stopped by the police while walking home was a regular, and tiresome, occurrence. Still, we were smart enough to be polite and to answer any and all questions, no matter that we muttered "Pigs!" as soon as they were out of ear-shot. To their faces, they were always "officer".

One night we were stopped three times. The third was in the alley just behind Vern's house and that pair were cops with attitude. I am still convinced they would have happily taken us down to Cherry Beach for a private working-over had we uttered even a single disrespectful syllable. Even without it, Vern and I both sensed that these two wanted us to say something — anything — to give them an excuse.

As I said, we were bright boys and we were very polite, but even so, it felt like a touch-and-go situation until another cruiser pulled up and two officers who had stopped us maybe a half-hour before told our hostile pair, "It's okay, we checked them out earlier." After a tense, six-way moment of indecision, officers Cruisin' and Bruisin' brusquely told us to be on our way.

In this photo taken by a neighbour on July 16, 2009, Henry Louis Gates Jr., centre, the director of Harvard University's W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research, is arrested at his home in Cambridge, Mass.
In this photo taken by a neighbour on July 16, 2009, Henry Louis Gates Jr., centre, the director of Harvard University's W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research, is arrested at his home in Cambridge, Mass.

Which, in an admittedly roundabout way, brings me to the recent arrest at his own home of the man the New York Times called America's "... pre-eminent black scholar", Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Gates (along with his driver),

"...had forced his way through the front door because it was jammed, his lawyer said. Colleagues call the arrest last Thursday afternoon a clear case of racial profiling.

"Cambridge police say they responded to the well-maintained two-story home after a woman reported seeing 'two black males with backpacks on the porch,' with one 'wedging his shoulder into the door as if he was trying to force entry.'"

(According to The Associated Press, the woman did not actually say the two men were black; as we shall see, this sort of "inaccuracy" is unhappily typical of police reports and is, I believe, the real "elephant in the room" in this story.)

Arrested for "being rude while being black"?

According to the Times,

By the time police arrived, Gates was already inside. Police say he refused to come outside to speak with an officer, who told him he was investigating a report of a break-in.

"Why, because I'm a black man in America?" Gates said, according to a police report written by Sgt. James Crowley. The Cambridge police refused to comment on the arrest Monday.

Gates—the director of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research—initially refused to show the officer his identification, but then gave him a Harvard University ID card, according to police.

"Gates continued to yell at me, accusing me of racial bias and continued to tell me that I had not heard the last of him," the officer wrote.

Unless someone has taped that event, only the arresting officers and Gates himself can know what exactly was said. But we do know that Professor Gates was arrested, in his own home, basically for being rude. Being black might have been a contributing factor to the arresting officer, but it was the (I believe mistaken) accusation of racism that got the cop really angry — that, and the simple fact that a "civilian" wasn't being sufficiently respectful of the officers' badges and uniforms.

I do believe that Professor Gates really did — for completely understandable reasons — jump to the conclusion that he was being visited by the law only because he was a black man in a well-to-do white neighbourhood. At the same time, this is a man who has a driver, who is a friend of the President of the United States, and who probably has the fragile pride typical of a "self-made man".

In other words, in this case I believe the police report that says Gates became belligerent. He was being treated like a criminal in his own home and he didn't like it, as none of us would. To the police, that is "belligerent" behaviour.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley and U.S. President Barack Obama drink beer and talk in the Rose Garden at the White House on July 30, 2009. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley and U.S. President Barack Obama drink beer and talk in the Rose Garden at the White House on July 30, 2009. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

When a "civilian" becomes belligerent, police officers typically become defensive — aggressively defensive. Where a white man might have decided to take things down a notch, Gates, emotionally insecure in his position of privilege and politically determined to defend that position, could not bring himself to do so. Being right was more important to him that getting a good night's sleep.

Since that 20th of July, the charges against Gates have been dropped and U.S. President Barack Obama has famously hosted the "Rose Garden beer chat", an event he hoped would be "teachable moment" about racism.

According to the Globe and Mail article,

There was no acrimony —nor apology— from any of the three: black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., white Cambridge, Mass., police Sergeant James Crowley, who had arrested him for disorderly conduct, and Mr. Obama, who declared on national TV that the police had "acted stupidly." But neither Mr. Gates nor Sgt. Crowley backtracked either, agreeing they still had differences.

[...]

"We agreed to move forward," Sgt. Crowley said Thursday night when asked if anything was solved in the meeting. "I think what you had today was two gentlemen agreeing to disagree on a particular issue. I don’t think that we spent too much time dwelling on the past. We spent a lot of time discussing the future."

I think the two men agreed to disagree because they weren't talking about the same thing.

Gates probably insisted his arrest was related to his race while Sgt. Crowley who, ironically, teaches a course on racial profiling, almost certainly denied it. What explanation he offered for the incident I of course don't know.

But I bet he didn't say, "You yelled at a police officer! You disrespected us!"

Which I think was the real cause for this particular circus. As members of an "occupying army", police officers tend to see rudeness as equivalent to assault, to view any questioning of their right to (say) demand ID from someone at his own home as something not far off insurrection. In other words, the elephant in the corner is police culture in general.

But of course, even in the doubtful case that Sgt. Crowley recognized that police culture was the real author of the incident, he certainly wouldn't have said so. Easier by far to simply deny that he is a racist and (probably) to suggest that Gates over-reacted than to confront the dark underbelly of police culture itself, its view of itself a separate from the "civilian" population rather than as members of that population devoted to its (own) protection.

Just as the murder of Robert Dzienkanski was followed by police lies and attempted cover-ups (starting with the RCMP's attempt to suppress the video taken of the incident, most of the subsequent debate has focussed on the taser and whether or not it is "safe" and not why it is that when police statements are compared to independent evidence, the police usually turn out to be liars.

In polite society, to mention the possibility that police culture is out of control is to be naive at best, an anarchist at worst; in political culture, taking on police wrong-doings is to risk political suicide — no matter what, the broad swath of the comfortable middle class still naively "supports the police" no matter what the actual behaviour of its members.

And so from Barack Obama's "teachable moment" we learned nothing at all, except that "race" allows all three parties involved to avoid talking about an institutional problem that is separate from (though still related to) race and racism.

Training police officers not to use racial profiling is all well and good; but so long as police officers think of the rest of us as "civilians" rather than fellow-citizens, we are all in danger from them (yes, and those with dark skin are in more danger than those of us who are pale, I'm not trying to deny it).

Cross-posted from Edifice Rex Online.

ed_rex: (Default)
Apparently I'm not the only person who thinks race may not have been the cause of Gates' arrest.

Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] supergee for this article, and to the internet in general for this one.

And, not related to race (at least not directly) but definitely related to a creeping police state: "The Children’s Secretary set out £400million plans to put 20,000 problem families under 24-hour CCTV super-vision in their own homes."
ed_rex: (Default)
To serve and protect?
The arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and
The real elephant in the corner

I moved to Toronto from Sudbury, Ontario, when I was 14 and, despite the fact Toronto was a city nearly 20 times the size of Sudbury, it took more than two years before anything happened to make me feel unsafe in the metropolis.

And it wasn't an angry drunk or a gang of teen-age boys that frightened me, but a pair of policemen on the muscle.

I was 16 years old when my friend Vern and I decided to form a band — well, a duet, with Vern on guitar while I banged away at a tambourine and croaked out lyrics as best as my pubescent throat would allow. With a week of practising under our belts we made our début in front of the Eaton Centre and were successful enough that we spent many nights that summer playing Neil Young and Dylan and Beatles songs for spare change.

We were white kids, but we were kids and we both had hair flowing past our shoulders. Being stopped by the police while walking home was a regular, and tiresome, occurrence. Still, we were smart enough to be polite and to answer any and all questions, no matter that we muttered "Pigs!" as soon as they were out of ear-shot. To their faces, they were always "officer".

One night we were stopped three times. The third was in the alley just behind Vern's house and that pair were cops with attitude. I am still convinced they would have happily taken us down to Cherry Beach for a private working-over had we uttered even a single disrespectful syllable. Even without it, Vern and I both sensed that these two wanted us to say something — anything — to give them an excuse.

As I said, we were bright boys and we were very polite, but even so, it felt like a touch-and-go situation until another cruiser pulled up and two officers who had stopped us maybe a half-hour before told our hostile pair, "It's okay, we checked them out earlier." After a tense, six-way moment of indecision, officers Cruisin' and Bruisin' brusquely told us to be on our way.

In this photo taken by a neighbour on July 16, 2009, Henry Louis Gates Jr., centre, the director of Harvard University's W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research, is arrested at his home in Cambridge, Mass.
In this photo taken by a neighbour on July 16, 2009, Henry Louis Gates Jr., centre, the director of Harvard University's W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research, is arrested at his home in Cambridge, Mass.

Which, in an admittedly roundabout way, brings me to the recent arrest at his own home of the man the New York Times called America's "... pre-eminent black scholar", Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Gates (along with his driver),

"...had forced his way through the front door because it was jammed, his lawyer said. Colleagues call the arrest last Thursday afternoon a clear case of racial profiling.

"Cambridge police say they responded to the well-maintained two-story home after a woman reported seeing 'two black males with backpacks on the porch,' with one 'wedging his shoulder into the door as if he was trying to force entry.'"

(According to The Associated Press, the woman did not actually say the two men were black; as we shall see, this sort of "inaccuracy" is unhappily typical of police reports and is, I believe, the real "elephant in the room" in this story.)

Arrested for "being rude while being black"?

According to the Times,

By the time police arrived, Gates was already inside. Police say he refused to come outside to speak with an officer, who told him he was investigating a report of a break-in.

"Why, because I'm a black man in America?" Gates said, according to a police report written by Sgt. James Crowley. The Cambridge police refused to comment on the arrest Monday.

Gates—the director of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research—initially refused to show the officer his identification, but then gave him a Harvard University ID card, according to police.

"Gates continued to yell at me, accusing me of racial bias and continued to tell me that I had not heard the last of him," the officer wrote.

Unless someone has taped that event, only the arresting officers and Gates himself can know what exactly was said. But we do know that Professor Gates was arrested, in his own home, basically for being rude. Being black might have been a contributing factor to the arresting officer, but it was the (I believe mistaken) accusation of racism that got the cop really angry — that, and the simple fact that a "civilian" wasn't being sufficiently respectful of the officers' badges and uniforms.

I do believe that Professor Gates really did — for completely understandable reasons — jump to the conclusion that he was being visited by the law only because he was a black man in a well-to-do white neighbourhood. At the same time, this is a man who has a driver, who is a friend of the President of the United States, and who probably has the fragile pride typical of a "self-made man".

In other words, in this case I believe the police report that says Gates became belligerent. He was being treated like a criminal in his own home and he didn't like it, as none of us would. To the police, that is "belligerent" behaviour.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley and U.S. President Barack Obama drink beer and talk in the Rose Garden at the White House on July 30, 2009. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley and U.S. President Barack Obama drink beer and talk in the Rose Garden at the White House on July 30, 2009. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

When a "civilian" becomes belligerent, police officers typically become defensive — aggressively defensive. Where a white man might have decided to take things down a notch, Gates, emotionally insecure in his position of privilege and politically determined to defend that position, could not bring himself to do so. Being right was more important to him that getting a good night's sleep.

Since that 20th of July, the charges against Gates have been dropped and U.S. President Barack Obama has famously hosted the "Rose Garden beer chat", an event he hoped would be "teachable moment" about racism.

According to the Globe and Mail article,

There was no acrimony —nor apology— from any of the three: black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., white Cambridge, Mass., police Sergeant James Crowley, who had arrested him for disorderly conduct, and Mr. Obama, who declared on national TV that the police had "acted stupidly." But neither Mr. Gates nor Sgt. Crowley backtracked either, agreeing they still had differences.

[...]

"We agreed to move forward," Sgt. Crowley said Thursday night when asked if anything was solved in the meeting. "I think what you had today was two gentlemen agreeing to disagree on a particular issue. I don’t think that we spent too much time dwelling on the past. We spent a lot of time discussing the future."

I think the two men agreed to disagree because they weren't talking about the same thing.

Gates probably insisted his arrest was related to his race while Sgt. Crowley who, ironically, teaches a course on racial profiling, almost certainly denied it. What explanation he offered for the incident I of course don't know.

But I bet he didn't say, "You yelled at a police officer! You disrespected us!"

Which I think was the real cause for this particular circus. As members of an "occupying army", police officers tend to see rudeness as equivalent to assault, to view any questioning of their right to (say) demand ID from someone at his own home as something not far off insurrection. In other words, the elephant in the corner is police culture in general.

But of course, even in the doubtful case that Sgt. Crowley recognized that police culture was the real author of the incident, he certainly wouldn't have said so. Easier by far to simply deny that he is a racist and (probably) to suggest that Gates over-reacted than to confront the dark underbelly of police culture itself, its view of itself a separate from the "civilian" population rather than as members of that population devoted to its (own) protection.

Just as the murder of Robert Dzienkanski was followed by police lies and attempted cover-ups (starting with the RCMP's attempt to suppress the video taken of the incident, most of the subsequent debate has focussed on the taser and whether or not it is "safe" and not why it is that when police statements are compared to independent evidence, the police usually turn out to be liars.

In polite society, to mention the possibility that police culture is out of control is to be naive at best, an anarchist at worst; in political culture, taking on police wrong-doings is to risk political suicide — no matter what, the broad swath of the comfortable middle class still naively "supports the police" no matter what the actual behaviour of its members.

And so from Barack Obama's "teachable moment" we learned nothing at all, except that "race" allows all three parties involved to avoid talking about an institutional problem that is separate from (though still related to) race and racism.

Training police officers not to use racial profiling is all well and good; but so long as police officers think of the rest of us as "civilians" rather than fellow-citizens, we are all in danger from them (yes, and those with dark skin are in more danger than those of us who are pale, I'm not trying to deny it).

Cross-posted from Edifice Rex Online.

ed_rex: (Default)

psoriasis, not my back

Those of you who know me from elsewhere, probably know I greet the election and the subsequent inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States with a lot of enthusiasm (and — ahem — a "little" to my surprise) and that enthusiasm remained more or less unbowed during the first month or two of his presidency.

But for a while now — the past month, maybe two — it's been flagging.

I don't know enough about economics to judge the wisdom of the massive deficit spending, though I get the sense the "plan" is meant to succeed by more or less re-creating the consumer-driven, easy-credit environment that (at least in part) got us into this mess in the first place — and frankly, when just about every economist in the world says anything in unison, I itch to reach for my gun.

But what's really disturbing me is the rapid devolution of the Obama administration's foreign policy.
  • The Bush-like fantasy of "victory" in Iraq;

  • the Johnson-like escalations in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, both efforts doomed to ultimate failure, but which will, in the interim create literally millions of civilian casualties, further destroy the economies and whatever progressive civil societies struggling there and — create even more terrorists and poppy-farmers; and

  • possibly worst of all (at least for the civil society of the United States itself), Obama's back-tracking on his promises to end torture, secret prisons and the rest of the fascist brutalization of the Bush II administration.

On Wednesday, May 27, The Nation published Jonathan Schell's brilliant article, "Torture and Truth", which I commend to all of you, but especially to those Americans among you who supported Obama.

If you believed in that "change you can believe in" when you voted, when you canvassed, when you blogged, then now is not the time to sit back and let the boys (and girls) in Washington fall prey to the permanent "government", as seems to be happening.

I'll offer you a few quotes, but really, just read the damned thing and start writing letters, making phone calls ... whatever you think might help to remind your President why it was you elected him.

It has fallen to President Obama to deal with the policies and practices of torture inaugurated by the Bush administration. He started boldly, ordering an end to the abuses, announcing the closing in one year of the detention camp at Guantánamo and releasing the Bush-era Justice Department memos authorizing torture. Subsequently, he seemed to grow cautious. He discouraged formation of an independent commission to investigate the torture and reversed a previous position in favor of releasing Pentagon photos of abuses and instead opposed release [...] He surprisingly embraced a number of Bush policies, including military commissions for trying detainees, the use of the State Secrets privilege to protect information in court and the indefinite use of preventive detention [...] Yet among these reversals and improvisations, one very general preference has remained steady. Throughout, Obama has expressed a desire to concentrate on the "future" rather than the "past." As he put it a while back, he is bent on "getting things right in the future, as opposed [to] looking at what we got wrong in the past." Or as he said in the National Archives speech, "We need to focus on the future" while resisting those "with a strong desire to focus on the past."[...]

When the full history of the Bush administration is finally told, one event may prove iconic: the torture of the Al Qaeda operative Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who recently died, allegedly by his own hand, in a prison in Libya, where he was sent by the United States. Libi was captured in Pakistan in late 2001. At first, he was interrogated by the FBI, and he provided useful information on the inner workings of Al Qaeda. But more was wanted from him. The Bush administration, hellbent on justifying its forthcoming invasion of Iraq, was ransacking the intelligence bureaucracy to find or produce two things that, it turns out, did not exist: weapons of mass destruction programs in Iraq and cooperation between Al Qaeda and the regime of Saddam Hussein. Pressure to find evidence of both intensified in 2002.[...]

As Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff, has stated, the "harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002...was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and Al Qaeda." And according to the recent Senate Armed Services Committee report on the treatment of detainees, a former Army psychiatrist, Maj. Charles Burney, has confirmed the charge. "A large part of the time," he told Army investigators, "we were focused on trying to establish a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq and we were not successful.... The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish that link...there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results." The CIA took custody of Libi and began to expose him to abuse. Next, it "rendered" him to Egypt, where he was subjected to, among other torments, severe beatings and confinement in a tiny cage for more than eighty hours. He then produced the desired false statements linking Al Qaeda with the Iraqi government.[...]

This purpose of the Bush-era torture is inscribed in its origins. In the Korean War, the Chinese invented torture techniques whose aim was to force American prisoners of war to make false confessions of participation in war crimes for use in propaganda. Since false confessions, not information, were the desired product, a heavy emphasis was placed on sensory deprivation and other techniques for producing mental breakdown.[...]

Even as the torturer shatters the world of his victim, he assaults the foundation of his own world, although he does not know it. Indeed, his blindness is a consequence of the torture, even a condition for it. The torturer and his victim are close to each other. There is physical contact. Yet in every other respect they are as distant as it is possible for one person to be from another. In the moral and affective vacuum that has been generated, sympathy, empathy, pity, understanding--every form of fellow-feeling--have been reduced to absolute zero. That is why torture is always, in Scarry's words, an "undoing of civilization," and, probably more reliably than anything, it foretells the descent of a civilization into barbarism. The power of the state that tortures may be increasingly fictional, but the degradation of its civilization is real.[...]

Oh, just read the damned original already!

It was the US that was in large part responsible for the (correct) insistence at the Nuremberg war crimes trials that "following orders" was not an excuse for committing crimes against humanity, including torture. If Barack Obama is not willing or able, if if he does not have the courage, to look to the (o! so recent!) past his country is doomed to repeat the crimes, again and again and again.

And the rest of us might just as well look to China for moral leadership in this world.

(Cross-posted from my Livejournal.)
ed_rex: (Default)
[2009/05/29, 0400 hours Eastern Time: Edited to provide link to full Schell article.]



You all probably know I greet the election and the subsequent inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States with a lot of enthusiasm (and — ahem — a "little" to my surprise) and that enthusiasm remained more or less unbowed during the first month or two of his presidency.

But for a while now — the past month, maybe two — it's been flagging.

I don't know enough about economics to judge the wisdom of the massive deficit spending, though I get the sense the "plan" is meant to succeed by more or less re-creating the consumer-driven, easy-credit environment that (at least in part) got us into this mess in the first place — and frankly, when just about every economist in the world says anything in unison, I itch to reach for my gun.

But what's really disturbing me is the rapid devolution of the Obama administration's foreign policy.
  • The Bush-like fantasy of "victory" in Iraq;

  • the Johnson-like escalations in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, both efforts doomed to ultimate failure, but which will, in the interim create literally millions of civilian casualties, further destroy the economies and whatever progressive civil societies struggling there and — create even more terrorists and poppy-farmers; and

  • possibly worst of all (at least for the civil society of the United States itself), Obama's back-tracking on his promises to end torture, secret prisons and the rest of the fascist brutalization of the Bush II administration.

On Wednesday, May 27, The Nation published Jonathan Schell's brilliant article, "Torture and Truth", which I commend to all of you, but especially to those Americans among you who supported Obama.

If you believed in that "change you can believe in" when you voted, when you canvassed, when you blogged, then now is not the time to sit back and let the boys (and girls) in Washington fall prey to the permanent "government", as seems to be happening.

I'll offer you a few quotes, but really, just read the damned thing and start writing letters, making phone calls ... whatever you think might help to remind your President why it was you elected him.

It has fallen to President Obama to deal with the policies and practices of torture inaugurated by the Bush administration. He started boldly, ordering an end to the abuses, announcing the closing in one year of the detention camp at Guantánamo and releasing the Bush-era Justice Department memos authorizing torture. Subsequently, he seemed to grow cautious. He discouraged formation of an independent commission to investigate the torture and reversed a previous position in favor of releasing Pentagon photos of abuses and instead opposed release [...] He surprisingly embraced a number of Bush policies, including military commissions for trying detainees, the use of the State Secrets privilege to protect information in court and the indefinite use of preventive detention [...] Yet among these reversals and improvisations, one very general preference has remained steady. Throughout, Obama has expressed a desire to concentrate on the "future" rather than the "past." As he put it a while back, he is bent on "getting things right in the future, as opposed [to] looking at what we got wrong in the past." Or as he said in the National Archives speech, "We need to focus on the future" while resisting those "with a strong desire to focus on the past."[...]

When the full history of the Bush administration is finally told, one event may prove iconic: the torture of the Al Qaeda operative Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who recently died, allegedly by his own hand, in a prison in Libya, where he was sent by the United States. Libi was captured in Pakistan in late 2001. At first, he was interrogated by the FBI, and he provided useful information on the inner workings of Al Qaeda. But more was wanted from him. The Bush administration, hellbent on justifying its forthcoming invasion of Iraq, was ransacking the intelligence bureaucracy to find or produce two things that, it turns out, did not exist: weapons of mass destruction programs in Iraq and cooperation between Al Qaeda and the regime of Saddam Hussein. Pressure to find evidence of both intensified in 2002.[...]

As Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff, has stated, the "harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002...was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and Al Qaeda." And according to the recent Senate Armed Services Committee report on the treatment of detainees, a former Army psychiatrist, Maj. Charles Burney, has confirmed the charge. "A large part of the time," he told Army investigators, "we were focused on trying to establish a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq and we were not successful.... The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish that link...there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results." The CIA took custody of Libi and began to expose him to abuse. Next, it "rendered" him to Egypt, where he was subjected to, among other torments, severe beatings and confinement in a tiny cage for more than eighty hours. He then produced the desired false statements linking Al Qaeda with the Iraqi government.[...]

This purpose of the Bush-era torture is inscribed in its origins. In the Korean War, the Chinese invented torture techniques whose aim was to force American prisoners of war to make false confessions of participation in war crimes for use in propaganda. Since false confessions, not information, were the desired product, a heavy emphasis was placed on sensory deprivation and other techniques for producing mental breakdown.[...]

Even as the torturer shatters the world of his victim, he assaults the foundation of his own world, although he does not know it. Indeed, his blindness is a consequence of the torture, even a condition for it. The torturer and his victim are close to each other. There is physical contact. Yet in every other respect they are as distant as it is possible for one person to be from another. In the moral and affective vacuum that has been generated, sympathy, empathy, pity, understanding--every form of fellow-feeling--have been reduced to absolute zero. That is why torture is always, in Scarry's words, an "undoing of civilization," and, probably more reliably than anything, it foretells the descent of a civilization into barbarism. The power of the state that tortures may be increasingly fictional, but the degradation of its civilization is real.[...]

Oh, just read the damned original already!

It was the US that was in large part responsible for the (correct) insistence at the Nuremberg war crimes trials that "following orders" was not an excuse for committing crimes against humanity, including torture. If Barack Obama is not willing or able, if if he does not have the courage, to look to the (o! so recent!) past his country is doomed to repeat the crimes, again and again and again.

And the rest of us might just as well look to China for moral leadership in this world.

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