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Monday, May 25, 2009

Comments

I don't think you would be happier if he just came out and said all that, though it's true, because hypocrisy may play some small restraining influence on what we do. A generation ago the US would have been carpet bombing Afghanistan and killing people by the tens of thousands. Now the government has to pretend it cares, and the violence against civilians is on a smaller scale.

Strip away the hypocrisy and you'd soon find that killing civilians was openly endorsed by most mainstream pundits (as opposed to ignored) and I think the practical consequence might be that we'd be doing more of it.

Notice, though, that I'm hedging. I've had a similar discussion with a real life friend about torture--we used to be opposed to it (in rhetoric) while practicing it (though sometimes via our allies rather than dirtying our own hands directly) and now being pro-torture is a respectable mainstream position (though one calls it enhanced interrogation instead). But I don't really know if the actual frequency with which we torture people was any greater under Bush than it was under earlier Presidents. So in the end I don't know if hypocrisy is better than open support of evil practices, but I suspect it might be.

I'm afraid I must insist that I'd be happier. I was going to expand on that sentence but ended up cutting it out, but it boils down to this: I highly value honesty, and I respect it even if it's honesty about atrocious thoughts, feelings, actions, etc. When someone comes right out and says look, I don't give a shit about these foreigners we kill, I just want to be safe, I respect and even appreciate the honesty behind it even as I find it repugnant on a moral level.

When you're dealing with honesty you can have a real discussion—one that's worthwhile. Or you can see that there's no point in having a discussion at all, which is often just as useful. But when people's actual intentions are hidden behind a wall of rationalizations and [self-]deception, as they so often are, you can waste endless amounts of time just flailing away at the cobwebs before you reach anything of substance.

I understand your point, but I don't think you have a real discussion with people who are openly pro-torture or pro-killing of innocent people. The discussion with them is over. We might (I'm hedging again) be better off where everyone feels pressure to pay lip service to the anti-torture, anti-state terror position and then we can just point out that hey, look, you're saying one thing and doing another.

I've always thought this, but I'm hedging because I'm no longer sure about it. But we may be moving into a world where there's more honesty about such things, thanks to Dick Cheney, a true American patriot.

And you might be right, is what I'm wondering now, because the discussion is really about persuading the fencesitters, the people who don't know if the US is guilty of atrocities or don't know if it's a bad thing if we are. With hypocrites in power (like the typical Democrat), you do a lot of flailing at the cobwebs, just trying to get people to see what's happening. With Cheney, it's somewhat clearer, but on the negative side you have people thinking "Hey, maybe enhanced interrogation is just common sense." A great many people already think this way about civilian deaths in war.

As an example (not that any is needed), look at the Saturday posting at the "Daily Howler" (the blog is in Jon's list--I'm too lazy to link because I'm going to bed in a minute). Bob Somerby criticizes anti-torture lawyer Turley on the grounds that nobody in real life is as idealistic as he is and his example is war. We kill lots of people in war and nobody cares, he says. This is where honest advocacy of brutality can lead--victory for the honest advocates of brutality.

I found this weekend's death fest extremely depressing...

I believe NE at ATR made Donald's point some time back, back when I read all of his comments, actually. I think Bernard C. was arguing John's side, actually.

I myself almost always come down on the side of honesty, but when I think about it I find little to celebrate be happy about either way... The fact that torture is now socially acceptable is depressing as hell.

KDelphi: Good to see you're still out there.

Donald: I understand your point...

Possibly, but you're taking it in a much different way (and direction) than I intend. I'm saying only that I appreciate honesty, even in negative situations—period. I'm not talking at all about the consequences of greater or lesser honesty, nor looking at larger contexts, nor even applying it to all possible contexts (since there are in fact many where I wouldn't stick by that guideline). But with all that said, as a general rule, I respect and appreciate honesty.

Now I'll set all of that aside for the rest of the response....

...but I don't think you have a real discussion with people who are openly pro-torture or pro-killing of innocent people. The discussion with them is over.

Maybe and maybe not, but if so I'd say this is a good thing. Why waste time on those people? What's the value of having a disingenuous argument with them (disingenuous on their side)?

That said, I will in fact often participate in exchanges with people like this in a public forum, in an attempt to reach others who might be watching/listening/following along (the fencesitters you mention). But even in that case it's still useful to know where the person you're engaging with really stands; I'd rather be taking on their actual arguments than chasing shadows.

This is where honest advocacy of brutality can lead--victory for the honest advocates of brutality.

I understand you're painting a worst-case scenario, but nothing's ever so black and white. There's no victory one way or the other, there's just a constant struggle. And despite appearances to the contrary I'd say that we're constantly gaining ground—and more rapidly than ever. I'll post something uncharacteristically sunny about it some day (actually I've mentioned parts of it in passing before, in postings about the ever-widening reach of international humanitarian law).

StO: Yeah, I may have read one or two of NE's initial comments all the way through, but that ended quickly. I've never seen anyone say nothing worth reading with so many words.

Anyway, I wouldn't be so convinced that torture is suddenly socially acceptable; I think it's more that 1) the debate has surfaced things that were always there, and 2) the Democrats are in power, so people who'd otherwise have no problems seeing right and wrong are tuning their thoughts and watching their words. Which I suppose is also depressing, but for different reasons.


[John C reminds me here of Twain's "War Prayer", in a good way.]

The leader of the peace group to which I belong has announced a planned demonstration for when the total AMERICAN deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan reaches 5000. It's so disheartening. "Anti-war" groups frequently seem to ignore the slaughter of other humans. Why? Are they afraid of alienating their base? That's exceptionalism in a liberal disguise.
This post was profound, John, and I thank you for it.

Well, yes, honesty is good in itself, but when we are talking about honest and forthright advocacy of torture, mass killing, racism, etc, it's a kind of demonic virtue IMO. I think hypocrisy really can be an indication that someone still has a conscience, or (more likely in the case of politicians) at least it indicates a fear that others still do.

OTOH, I do like the fact that the US is having a relatively honest (by our usual pitiful standards) discussion of torture--it's a big relief and I completely understood Bernard C when he said it was "refreshing".

I often agree with NE, but he's definitely a bit too longwinded and of course when he starts talking about Democratic Presidents it's time to move on to someone else's comments.

I saw a story about Prse. Obama considering stopping sales of armaments (our only export) to Saudi Arabia, if, "they didnt stop torturing"...gawd..

And despite appearances to the contrary I'd say that we're constantly gaining ground—and more rapidly than ever. I'll post something uncharacteristically sunny about it some day...

Could you have that done by Thursday? I'm feeling particularly in need of "uncharacteristically sunny" after spending a couple of hours this morning volunteering at this.

Rosemary: Are they afraid of alienating their base? That's exceptionalism in a liberal disguise.

Hard to argue with that. There's a large component of opportunism in there, of course; they know that people are more concerned about American deaths, and also that the media will focus heavily on the 5000-dead milestone, so it's an event that caters to mainstream concerns and comes with built-in publicity. It's opportunism in a good cause, of course, but nonetheless I'm uncomfortable with the peace movement consciously undercutting its own message—what does it say when a movement based on the notion that all lives are equal behaves as though they aren't?

JV: High praise indeed; thanks.

Donald: I think hypocrisy really can be an indication that someone still has a conscience, or (more likely in the case of politicians) at least it indicates a fear that others still do.

I'd mostly agree. At the same time, others don't lose their consciences just because scumbags say what they're really thinking—and (as in this case) the slightly greater prevalence of pro-torture argument doesn't necessarily indicate a higher prevalence of pro-torture sentiment.

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