Saturday, 7 November 2009

The wood-cutters

I've surprised myself writing about American politics. Although I've always been interested and followed it, even studied it under the guise of American history, I have never been impelled to take sides in an internal American political debate. (And having done so I may regret getting caught in the cross-fire!)

What's more, I'm disconcerted to be in a position that someone could paint (wrongly) as anti-American. Throughout my life I've loved the States, been there many times, have a few very good American friends, some American relations. It grieves me to make such large criticisms of a good part of the country.

So something appears to have happened and I think I've worked out what. It's down to the issue of torture, an issue that is cross-border, implicating our own Government. Some of you - those with a taste for very lengthy jogs around houses - may have followed the debates on torture that have been conducted on this blog (most recently here). I've found them very useful in clarifying my thoughts, which I've had to do as the opposing viewpoints were put with thoughtfulness, ingenuity and persistence.

The nub of it for me doesn't rest on abstract reasoning about human rights or derivations from a moral calculus. There's a more self-interested and basic concern: what extra-legal torture (and I know that some might dispute the definition of each of those words) when placed in the hands of the state means for the safety of citizens. I can't put it better than Thomas More, in Robert Bolt's Man for all Seasons:
William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!

Accordingly, I have no wish to see any deforestation in this particular part of the legal wood, that concerned with the safety of the citizen before the state.

And this is what's rather peculiar about the wood-cutters, the soi disant conservatives such as Cheney. Respect for the rule of law - of all institutions and continuities surely the most majestic - must be a sine qua non of the conservative. Not for them it seems.

Even stranger is that these inveterate distrusters of central government (another shibboleth) acquiesce in government having within its power the ability to torture its citizens. Most irregular: these conservative axe-men appear to have chopped their way through the looking glass.

Boehner, Leader of House Republicans, said at a rally last Thursday that the health care bill is the "greatest threat to freedom that I have seen." If I were American and I truly believed this I would resort to any means necessary to oppose it and the Administration that introduced it. It's an extremely provocative statement in a country with a history of political assassination. And its a comment that isn't being made into a void: shoults of 'Nazis' from the crowd, pictures of Dachau and of Obama as Bin Laden.

And now, resorting to any means necessary must comfortably include torture: according to these Republicans it's a reasonable response to existential threat. Now I'm not saying these minatory dots are going to be joined up. But their existence and their association with the Republican party at such a high level, does it not set alarms bells ringing, evoke the sound of trees being felled?

This may explain why I feel right-of-centre in Britain but have found it impossible to feel any sympathy with the Republicans in recent years. Where they are conservative - gay rights, abortion - they seem to me to be talking to themselves. These issues, thankfully, sit outside of politics in the UK for most of the time; they're simply not party political issues.

On the economy and the budget deficit I don't see any difference between them and the Democrats, in spite of their claiming the trillion dollar-plus deficit is nothing to do with them, having been magicked up in the last ten months. And with regard to one issue that is really motivating me right now, that sets my alarm bells ringing not least because it touches us here in the UK, they're not conservative at all.

The Bush-Cheney use of torture was an outrage and it's now a scandal. It was a weapon aimed at America's enemies; not the least of its harm has been the damage done to relationships with America's friends, and the trust formerly felt.


Anonymous said...

Joe the wood-cutter? What ever happened to Joe the plumber? I dunno, Gaw, it sounds like you are starting to go crunchy con on us. Need I remind you that without your hard-working, freedom-loving wood-cutters, you would have no council estates, strip malls and parking lots?

Assume my position on this torture issue is fairly close to yours. That being said, is it possible that what is really worrying you is not extra-legal torture at all, but the effort to justify torture legally? When it comes to torture, the Americans are pikers compared to the Russians, Chinese, French and just about everyone else. But they are slaves to law and have no notion of raison d'état or wink-winking the rules in the name of national security. They don't even have an Official Secrets Act. Whatever they do as a matter of ongoing policy has to be justified legally by definition and be revealed in the public square. So it isn't surprising that excesses on the edge that nobody wants to know about in other capitals are the subject of hair-splitting Department of Justice memos in Washington. Rather than engaging in endless arguments about whether this or that practice consitutes torture, perhaps you should ponder why American transgressions affect you so profoundly when you know full well that other armies and irregulars are doing much worse without let or hindrance.

This whole debate reminds me a bit of history's favourite whipping boy, the Inquisition. The number of deaths it caused over two hundred years probably amount to fewer than an average month of British road deaths, but it still gets hauled out by progressives and secularists as history's favourite horror show at the drop of a hat, even in the face of many immeasurably far worse atrocities since. The only explanation I can come up with is that there is some kind of moral sense of betrayal about it all, and I think that might be what we are dealing with here. In other words, Gaw, you are an American exceptionalist.

OT, perhaps I can save space by just registering my opinion here that the two Henry Fairlie quotes in your post below are full of shit. Q.E.D. :-)

Gaw said...

Very perceptive Peter. Couldn't put it better. I'm gutted that I don't feel comfortable for now looking to - and pointing at - America as the shining city on a hill.

A couple of quibbles. The legal/extra-legal is as perceptive as the rest but not substantive, I think. It's the fact of torture that bothers me. Also the Fairlie quotes are one-quarter full of shit, the quarter being linking the America of fear to Reagan. It's a quote that makes more sense out of context.

Sean said...

I tend to find the treadmill is better on my knees.

There is a point when you are running or doing other very physical exercise, (tree cutting in many nations is a sport) when you go past the niggles, past the "stop now" voice in your head, then past the exhaustion and you reach a point where your body is feels separated from your mind, your body is seems to be on auto pilot, its a sort of idealistic euphoria...then your energy just goes and your mind and body join up and have to work out a way of dealing with the pain.

Last week you were trying to find love from your ipod and dvd player, this week you are in love with an idealistic idea, "we are better and must act better than our enemy"

In the end the body, not the mind always wins.

malty said...

Law, made on our behalf by others, in theory at our behest, should be the nightcap that sends us soundly to sleep and the birdsong with which we rise. That is how the theory goes and a sound one it is, the thing that separates us from savagery. However, as society becomes ever more sophisticated it starts to ask itself questions that never would have occurred to Sir Tom. In his day, life, in the eyes of those who moved and shook, was cheap. Any law that formed a shield against the nasty people needed to be protected by tooth and claw.

As ever, the devil is in the detail, in a society where what do I get is sung much louder than what can I do, bedrock principles are seen as having some nuisance value, especially when they interfere with the pursuit of happiness bit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Much recent lawmaking has been targeted at the third, rather than the first and second.
It is doubtful that, in a great many minds today, strict adherence to the letter of the law is of overriding importance, only when the mob calls at their door do they feverishly thumb through the statute book.

As for torture, it goes on, it will always go on, in the more civilized societies it is the final spanner in the toolbox of the desperate. In those societies where life is still cheap it is the first wrench out of the box.

Kevin Musgrove said...

Being a Machiavellian in the true sense, I'm horrified by torture because of both its inherent evil and it's utter uselessness. If there's anything more self-defeating than "tell us what we want to hear or we'll damage you horribly" I can't think what it might be.

I wouldn't fall out of love with America because of the stupidity of one or other group of people. A lot of the problems we Brits have with the US come down to the fact that we forget that for all the familiarities it is a foreign country, their ways are not always ours.

Much of the vocabulary of politics becomes homonymic. Many of our past "Conservatives" would be viewed as dangerous Marxists and many of their "conservatives" we would view as dangerous radicals. We're confused because the word is describing both apples and pears.

malty said...

Gaw I hope that right at this moment, 6.18 PM, Rhyfelgyrch Gwŷr Harlech is belting out of the living room loudspeakers.

Gaw said...

Sean: Have you been smoking dope?

Malty: I'm not sure we are getting more sophisticated. We've had some success in becoming less cruel. But I think we need to keep on the look out for slippage as there's no iron law that says we'll stay civilised.

Dull game and usual result. It's all happening a bit too often nowadays to sustain any excitement. But then, if you play the buggers every year the odds are bound to come your way eventually.

Kevin: I think you're right there on all counts. As you know, one of the interesting things about blogging is you get to interact quite a bit with Americans, and you do get to appreciate the differences. I'm coming to the conclusion that they think a bit like French people, except they actually believe in their principles.

Hey Skipper said...

Accordingly, I have no wish to see any deforestation in this particular part of the legal wood, that concerned with the safety of the citizen before the state.

You have made a fundamental category mistake here.

The entire discussion on this topic has nothing whatsoever to do with the safety of the citizen before the state.

Gaw said...

US citizens (and British citizens) can be regarded as enemy combatants and therefore subject to torture.

Hey Skipper said...

Are they, in fact, enemy combatants?

Vern said...

America was torturing long before Bush/Cheney attempted to put it on a legal footing. The KUBARK manual, easily locatable online, outlines all manner of torture methods that the CIA was using from the 1950s until the 1980s, i.e. during the Kennedy and even Carter administrations. I say that not to make the point that America is evil, it isn't, it is less evil than probably any other great power that has ever existed.
Merely that torture is unexceptional, it is nothing new, and the events post 9/11 mark no great transformation of the country.

As for Boehner and the threat to freedom stuff- I'm not sure it is any worse than some of the guff Democrats were spouting during the Bush years. In fact, I'm certain it isn't. They all talk shit, all the time.

And to be honest, as a Briton living in the states I have come to respect Americans for getting mad and shouting at their leaders. Compare that to the feeble grumblings of Britons regarding the massive transfer of powers to the EU. At least Americans have balls.

Vern said...

Boehner meanwhile is attempting to ride a movement that started without the Republicans and could easily turn against them. Of course there are whack-jobs at the tea parties; there are whack jobs at every mass rally. But it is a bogus pseudo-liberal media myth that all those people are extremists, fuelled by a snobbish hatred for the hoi polloi that translates into selective reporting intended to demonize.

Gaw said...

Skipper: Does it matter whether they are or not? If they're designated as such they can be tortured.

Vern:I don't think they're all nutters, they're obviously not. But I can't respect any politician who addresses a rally where people are holding up pictures of Dachau in the context of health care reform. Or any political party that doesn't dissociate themselves from this.

Aren't you setting up a bit of a straw man in saying that the media portrays 'all these people' as extremists? I'm sure a few of them are cynics, a few are misguided but the majority of them do indeed believe, for their own good reasons, that health care reform is a bad thing. However, any form of extremism always contains the seeds of a genuine injustice or a justifiably different point of view.

I wish we shouted at our leaders more. I think we're ridiculously supine. However, it would do one's cause no good whatsoever to start comparing one's opponents, in all seriousness, to Bin Laden or Stalin. I mean, it's just so ignorant, never mind in bad taste.

BTW I don't draw any necessary linkage between ordinary people and ignorance. It seems to me that we're dealing with ordinary people who happen to be ignorant and some pols who are probably both ignorant and cynical.

Vern said...

No doubt that Hitler/Stalin comparisons are ridiculous, offensive (and counter-productive). I'm not defending Boehner either. But I think that's been part of US political discourse for at least the last 8 years, what with all the Bush-Hitler/war criminal rubbish.

And it was Anderson Cooper, the uber bland, anodyne CNN anchor who started the trend of referring to Tea Party protesters as tea-baggers. He's as mainstream as you get.

Vern said...

Venturing off topic a little, I also wonder if the hysterical counter reaction to Obama's policies is at least in part a negative reflection of the hysterical veneration of him as a Messiah. Not an excuse of course- any more than the Obama worship of supposed intellectuals such as Andrew Sullivan can be excused.

Hey Skipper said...

Skipper: Does it matter whether they are [enemy combatants] or not?

Absolutely. Acts of war are, by definition, outside the realm of ordinary legality.

Also, you wander into the realm of question begging. Coercion in the pursuit of information pertinent to war is particularly worrisome to the safety of citizens, but the state's extensive punitive powers are not.

Both are useful, properly applied. Both are horrible, otherwise.

The question begged is you choose the former as particularly pernicious.

But I can't respect any politician who addresses a rally where people are holding up pictures of Dachau in the context of health care reform.

I'm not entirely sure why not. The distaste you feel for those Dachau pictures should be, at least to some extent, in proportion to the nature (that is, to ignore for the moment its validity) of the point those pictures are supporting.

So when you say you can't respect a political party from disassociating itself "from this", you should think for a moment about what "this" is.

Those holding those pictures believe that handing this kind of power to government will inevitably result in government deciding who should live, and who should die, and that the results of this kind of power are evil.

Now, you may find their belief overwrought, or objectively wrong, but that belief is, in and of itself not morally objectionable, and the pictures are on point.

This administration's health "reform" is either fundamentally dishonest, or gob-smackingly ignorant of the real problems at hand.

I don't have to be in favor of the status quo to find what Pelose, Reid, et al put up to be a far worse monstrosity.

Gaw said...

My point was that it's in the government's discretion, with no independent judicial oversight, as to whether a person is considered an 'enemy combatant'. This is dangerous, no? What is particularly pernicious is this ability of government to unilaterally designate citizens as enemies and then subject them to torture.

Holding up pictures of Dachau: do you amuse yourself by seeing what it's possible to justify through moral sophistry?!

Hey Skipper said...

Holding up pictures of Dachau: do you amuse yourself by seeing what it's possible to justify through moral sophistry?!

No, you are moral offended without saying what the moral offense is.

When Ahmadinajad next comes to the UN, should protestors hold up those same pictures to show were his kind of vile Jew-hatred aims to go, I don't see any particular need for the JDL to disavow them.

If Islamist mullah was to hold up the same picture in support of where he hopes Ahmadinnerjacket will go with his Jew-hatred, then Muslim disavowal of that mullah should be very prominent.

The difference has nothing to do with sophistry, and everything to do with context.

Yet you said not a word about the context within which the protestors at Boehner's rally were using those pictures. Whether they are mistaken or not, is the context more like the former, or the latter?

If former, which to me seems beyond question, then you need to go rather further in justifying why you can't respect any politician who addresses a rally where people are holding up pictures of Dachau in the context of health care reform. Or any political party that doesn't dissociate themselves from this. Is it really true you can't respect the point of view that this kind of governmental power will kill people, because they hold pictures of Dachau to underline the point?

This isn't sophistry, it is a clear requirement to make distinctions.

Gaw said...

Of course, the context doesn't justify these people holding up these placards. It's in extreme bad taste.

If you can't see that and as taste can't be taught there's not a lot more to be said on this.

Hey Skipper said...

Of course, the context doesn't justify these people holding up these placards. It's in extreme bad taste.

I think if you re-read my comments, I didn't say they were in good taste; in fact, I said nothing about taste at all.

Rather, you were insisting the sign holders be repudiated.

I prefer repudiation for people with offensive moral views, which is clearly not the case here.