Tuesday, October 31, 2006

On What's Normal in America

I'm going to try something I didn't think of at first. Instead of putting together a sort of article-post based on what I've read, I'm going to comment on an article just as the thoughts come to me.

Bruce Jackson has a meaty piece at Counterpunch entitled "Normalizing Torture" (http://www.counterpunch.com/jackson10302006.html). I'm not going to do a 'review' of it, but I'm noting what occurs to me as I read it. Chris Floyd has an interesting piece on current Southern manifestations at www.truthout.org/docs_2006/103106J.shtml.

A) I am reminded that the American South has a history of torture that extends into very recent times. I'm not trying to deploy obliquely the now-classic Lefty accusations of Southrons being 'racist', 'homophobic', 'xenophobic', 'heterosexist' and/or fill-in-the-blank. There's something much deeper here, and it's something we as a society have forgotten over the past couple-three decades: the citizenry of the southern parts of this country are deeply involved with violence. (And yes, I am thereby insisting that southerners are American citizens, that they are part of American society, and that they are not to be 'written off' in the service of this or that Advocacy's scripting needs for an 'other', an 'enemy' or an example of how not-to-be American, mature, enlightened, or fill-in-the-blank) . The South as a region is even more familiar with violence than the movie-shaped Wild West or the old frontier West as it actually was.

I'm guessing this has something to do with the fact that the South was always an organized society whereas the old West was devoid of (non-native) society. So each of the West's various temporal phases saw its (native) 'enemies' dealt with in that particular area and then the 'problem' (or what was left of it) moved further west, leaving the settlers of that particular area to settle down to build a society. But in the South the 'enemy', the 'other' - slaves, former slaves, descendants of slaves - have shared the same space with a highly organized society throughout the region's entire history. By 1700 western New England no longer had 'an Indian problem', by 1830 Ohio didn't, and so forth. But the South had its 'problem' from the get-go and the 'problem' never moved on or otherwise went away. And further, all of the resources of its society - church, law enforcement, judiciary, intellectuals, education, authors, the media of the era - have been involved in dealing with the 'problem'. It was from the era before the Civil War that 'literal' reading of the Bible found its home in the South, since there are passages where slavery is either ordered, allowed, or mentioned in an attitude of acceptance as if it weren't ultimately significant.

And it was viewed as a life-and-death problem, a dire threat both to Southern identity and to the physical safety of the (white) Southerners. In a situation like that - constant 'emergency' from a clearly and easily identified 'other' who cohabits the very same geogrpahic space as your own 'kind' - it's not surprising that the firewalls of human decency were first melted out of shape so that they woudn't inhibit what was seen as purely defensive violence, and then the same walls were utterly recast to make such violence necessary, honorable, and even redemptive. But violence is Violence, and Violence is in its essence a repulsive and ugly thing. And the fabric of Life recoils from it in time, much as tectonic plates finally release the stress of their loading through the violent release effected by an earthquake.

We forget two things in modern America: 1) the repulsiveness and corrosive recoil of violence, and 2) the fact that the American South is well-acquainted with violence, used to it in the very deepest elements of its societal being.

And that the police violence so long practiced in the South - so vividly captured in the footage of the civil rights demonstrations of the 1950s and early 1960s - was precisely that: police violence, official violence, violence as policy, government violence against its own citizens. And it reinforces the strong impression that when a government decides that it is threatened, then there will be no holds barred unless Law and Justice are strongly reinforced. The Federal government - at long last - provided just such a reinforcement to Law and Justice in the South forty-odd years ago. But as the Romans shrewdly asked: "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" - who can guard against the guards themselves? This is a question we must ask ourselves today, when the 'guards' of the civil-rights era have now turned against the citizenry.

And granted that Southrons have taken up numerous positions in the goverment and in the military, we have to give serious consideration as to how that fact connects to all that has been going on around here in the past few years. (While keeping a weather eye on that other major strain supporting the current Administration - the neocon strain - which has effectively imported into this country the combative, squabbly, techy 'imperialisms' of 19th-century Central Europe. Such pretensions, translated from the small countries and Rube-Goldberg dynastic entities of that time and place, to be splashed violently across the entire planet under the aegis of the modern American military, cannot bear fruit that will nourish a future.) There is an awful lot of Southron influence in government and in the military, and while that fact of itself does not constitute proof of anything, it generates the grounds for a lot of legitimate thinking.

B) Police torture as a peculiarly Southron phenomenon is reinforced by the romanticizing of the military life, another Southron characteristic that was dimmed only for a moment by the brutal reality of combat that was the Civil War, after which it returned, in hazy golden-hued glory, nourished incomprehensibly - and in a human sense almost traitorously - by the very Confederate veterans who had survived their sustained encounter with Ares Ferox.

The romanticization of the military, initially a Southron characteristic, has taken root in other regions of the country. While the frontier wars against the various tribes and the Spanish American and Philippine gambits provided employment and some excitement, World Wars One and Two provided glorious Causes. And they were won. Many veterans of subsequent wars (I exclude the most recent Gulf War and the current operations that have become for this county our 'Eastern front'), serving in that era of unending low-grade national emergency called the Cold War have become so enamored of the military life (now safely behind them) that they insist on referring to the President as "my" or "our" commander-in-chief, as if the title and rank of Citizen - one of those for whom the President is an employee - meant nothing for them compared to the rank of ex-soldier. The country has come a long long way. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. was more right than he might have let on when he observed (long after his own very active combat in the Civil War) that for him and his comrades "in youth our lives were touched by fire" and that the glow of that fire still warmed and illuminated their days. But a nation faced with such huge challenges as ours today - not at all resolved by the last half-decade's worth of adventures - is not well served by large numbers of erstwhile adults whose emotional focus is to look backwards nostalgically at an ever-receding glow of experiences that took place in an era which will never be repeated. And then to deploy such gravitas as is theirs to command in the service of forcing a repetition of those days and those experiences on a country and a future that has problems enough of its own.

Police departments now draw many of their members from the military ranks. This is not surprising: the need to operate efficiently as a member of a hierarchical team in the face of extraordinary danger is precisely what the military and the police missions have in common. But there are great dangers, because much of what is acceptable for troops operating against an enemy in the field in wartime is not acceptable for police officers operating in civil society among citizens on a day-to-day basis. Nor has the figurative declaration of 'war' on drugs, crime, and assorted subsets of criminal conferred more benefits than disadvantages. It is the very essence of 'war' to untether troops from the day-to-day, from the 'usual', from the 'normal', so that their energies might be 'stoked' for the extraordinary exertions that will be demanded of them. Nor is that extraordinariness simply 'heroic'; the forces of darkness as well as the forces of light are unleashed by war - within the troops as well as all around them. We once had, after a lesson paid for by oceans of blood, a set of Conventions governing governments and troops in their conduct of war - but those Conventions have been thrown aside now with as arrogant and ebullient an insouciance as another generation's hippies threw aside their clothes at a forest rock concert. Nor is the constantly bleated mantra of 'professionalism' sufficient to channel the awe-full power of Ares Ferox. It is never enough to be a dedicated professional; one must always ask: dedicated to what? The Waffen-SS were some of the most professionally competent and dedicated troops the world has yet seen, but dedicated to what?

Probably the most overt example of what's been going on is a comment made on a popular TV show by the star character police lieutenant to one of his subordinates: commenting on the possibility of a cop taking drugs he acidly asserted that "we are the moral governors" of the city and thus have to live in perfect conformity to the law. Now this comment doesn't work on sooo many levels. In the first place, any streetsmart Catholic could tell you that nobody - absolutely nobody - has a prayer of ever living perfectly within the law morally or - most likely - legally either. It's just not what humans do. And to imagine that any human can live a perfect life is both inaccurate and itself evidence of huge pride - and the asserter goeth toward a fall. But such an assertion - utterly avoided by the Catholics who have two millennia of experience with moral weakness, their own and others' - is indeed part of certain low-church Protestant fantasies that one can and must be pefect (that literalist reading again). A goal such as this in the context of one's religious strivings is going to yield trouble enough; for the police to hold citizens to that moral standard is profoundly not in the American tradition.. I'm not sure that even the German police ever expected that of good Germans.

And in the second place, any police department that considers its members the 'moral governors' of the citizenry is laboring under some serious misgivings about its mission and its authority and its role in a free society. And that can only lead to bad things. Yes, some Protestant preachers considers themselves so deputized by God that they may direct the lives of their followers, and some of them or certain assorted New Age whackjobs have actually set up communes where they insist on running the lives of their adherents and followers. But citizens are not the adherents or the followers of their police departments, and no earthly power can so Deputize. Citizens are the employers of their government, not its followers. And while it is true that especially since World War 2 far too many Americans have approached their government with the kind of eager reverence recently displayed by his adherents for the Bhagwan, we will not keep the Republic afloat with such a passive and dependent approach to our responsibilities.

C) And now, in our day, in the past half-decade, the people themselves, us, the citizens, the People to whom Lincoln referred so respectfully and earnestly, are allowing ourselves to tolerate what in other era we would have protested and even repudiated: 'So long as the bad guy is gotten, who cares if non-bad guys are gotten in the process? It's kinda sad, but we got the bad-guy and that's really what it's all about.' We've been rooting against sex-offenders for too long and it's started to affect our judgment: dozens of thousands - perhaps half a million - of Iraq's citizens are dead (many of them children). Did we think the vast firepower being deployed over there was being deployed in a desert empty of civilians? Do we think Iraq is simply the North Africa campaign against Rommel, only with different uniforms and better tanks? And unlike sex-offenders, where one down removes him from the street, one resistance fighter down over there simply creates two or three more, and a dead woman or child creates a dozen more. There's a payback for letting ourselves think that anything we do here is so Good that it doesn't need to be Examined (in the sense Socrates meant it): we wind up letting things happen elsewhere that those elsehwere-people won't sit still for. Our in-a-Good-Cause hubris has created its own Nemesis; an earlier age might have said that we've placed ourselves downrange of the gods.

D) Dershowitz's comments demonstrate how degraded and weakened our ability to think has really become. If you were going to save a child ... he proposes. The trip-wire of the Endangered Child. In the past thirty years, how many times has that bell been rung in the night? Can we recall the late 1970s, when we were told in no uncertain terms that hundreds of thousands of abused children were on the streets and highways of the nation each day? Can we recall in the early 1980s when it was insisted that the nation's day-care centers were facilitating, even perpetrating, the sexual violation of children by numerous adults in animal and even dragon costumes? Can we recall that in the 1990s we acquiesced in the passage of laws that began chipping away at such key aspects of Western Justice as statutes of limitation and rules of evidence? That since then citizens have been locked away merely on the basis of what the goverment thinks they might do in the future?

Did our present predicament spring full-grown from the shock of 9-11? No, many of the ideas and emotions that have been used in the building of our present predicament were already in place, in our minds. And not only in our minds, because we had allowed such things to be introduced into our society, into our social reality. And all ostensibly to protect children. How many times has it been heard: Even if just one was protected, wasn't that worth the price? And: Laws are only words; what are words and abstract ideas when measured against the well-being of a child? And: Can words and abstractions be allowed to slow down the response to the emergency of helping a single child? But words are what the Constitution is made of, words and the concepts in capital-letters behind them. Emergency-ism and Just-one-ism have become the primary elements of public discourse, and this has happened only in the past few decades. It hasn't helped us as citizens to think things through.

And when applied not to other of our fellow citizens (over whom our goverment has a monopoly of power) but rather deployed against citizens not our own, those folks tend to reject it with as much violence as we try to impose it. And more. And successfully. 'If Saddam is an emergency then we can't waste time talking or we'll risk the mushroom cloud. If only one WMD were found, then it would all be worth it. What are the Geneva Conventions but words and abstractions? We've got Sadaam to get rid of and people to save. It's all so urgent that we can't waste time thinking about any of it.' Well, it's been an emergency of one sort or another since 1946: the Cold War, then the long roll of emergencies of the Identities, and now the ever-deepening emergency of 9-11 and of Iraq. Emergencies require even more thinking, performed even more quickly and even more accurately, not less. Is that more than we signed up for? The Republic is stake. And the lives of god-knows how many adults and children within reach of our weapons systems.

'If the Cause is Good, if your intention is Good, then you can't let 'words' and 'concepts' stand in your way. Real men don't even let gunfire and armed opposition stand in their way; they sure as shootin' won't let 'words' and 'abstractions' stand in their way.' Interestingly, though, for quite a while the attack on 'words' and 'abstractions' has come not from the macho men, but from the concerned women (I'm drawing with broad strokes here: Let's call them Guyists and Womenists). For ten or fifteen years at least it has been from the Womenists that the attack on established principles of law have come; for at least that long, and against a variety of Outrages and in the service of an assortment of 'emergencies' the complaint has been that established principles and practices of law have slowed down the righteous response to the emergency. In the beginning it was in order to get funding for this or that; then it became a matter of getting certain types of people convicted through the deployment of the awe-full power of criminal law against them.

Americans have long been familar with the danger to established Civilized Order posed by the gunslinger macho Guy; what we haven't been so alert to is the even more fundamental danger posed to American and Western civilization by the Womenists. The Guy shot up the town and busted a lot of glass and maybe a coupla heads; and yes in real life killed some folks who should have been able to live out their lives in peace. But the Womenists - or some of their Advocates - have literally deconstructed the foundations of the damned Civilization. Habeas corpus is gone; the Posse Comitatus protecton is gone, the Geneva Conventions are gone; torture is in only you just can't call it that. Could all of this have happened in the past month if the bunch in Washington hadn't seen us sit still for years as rules of evidence, statutes of limitations, prosecution for acts and not for tendencies ... as all of those watertight bulkheads were vigorously punctured?

E) All done to 'protect' us. Because we're victims, weak and befuddled and we need to be protected. But we are The People. We are mentioned very prominently in the foundational documents of our Republic and we owe it to ourselves and - yes - our children and - Lincoln noted - the rest of humankind to stand up for ourselves. Which we haven't been doing very much of recently, except to nod in polite tolerance as the hull of our ship was dismantled under us, and we at sea tossed on the ocean of Time and History and a storm raging. HEY. You want to be very careful when you start playing with the hull-planks on your ship at sea. Because even if you remove one in a good Cause, you're gonna let in a lot of water, and the water won't care. Are there some filthy compartments that could use a good scrub? Fine, but don't pull out the hull-planks in that compartment just to get some water without having to carry it down in a bucket.

The government wants our freedom so that it can protect us better, because that is its eternal duty: to protect us. That deal, in almost those very same words, was offered to the German people 73 years ago and they took it. Old Central European issues keep coming over here to afflict us. And they are succeeding. We need to do something about that.

F) Governments are much like people: if there' s no prospect of immedate payoff, they're not going to go to the effort. So when the government starts worrying about war-crimes laws, the very nature of the beast makes you have to think that the goverment sees a problem coming. Robert MacNamara was right; not just about the firebombing as a technique, but because the context of the firebombing was that the Japanese goverment was trying to surrender. But we had these great bombs we'd just gone and built. And maybe we also knew something else: that what the Japanese really feared wasn't the Marines; it was the Red Army. Ivan came through Manchuria like a scimitar through yak butter and the ferocious implacability of Ivan when he was on a tear was enough to give the Japanese nightmares. The Japanese! The authors of the Rape of Nanking, so vicious that they upset even the German ambassador. The Japanese scared the Nazis, for heck's sake. The Marines' garden variety bestialness - the boiled Japanese skulls as ashtrays, or sent home to hold the Valentine candy - didn't bother the Japanese; Soviet industrial-scale massacre did. If Stalin could kill 20 million of his own people between breakfast and tiffin', what was going to prevent him from doing to Japan what the West's God was said to have done to Egypt? The Japanese were more afraid of Stalin than they were of us; that would have to be changed while we still had the war as a cover for making people do things at the point of a gun. Kaboom. Ditto Kaboom. We were back on top again. It was a good war.

We watched those World War 2 movies as kids; I always wondered: how did the German people let it happen? Didnt' they keep an eye on their government? No, the good German didn't keep an eye on his goverment; he obeyed it like a good German. Very un-American. Except for the past sixty years - since World War 2 it seems like Americans have lost the Founding generation's general suspicion of any goverment, and the early Republic's genial but unsleeping distrust even of its own. We maybe need to get some of it back, the distrust and the government. The government is ours. And if we break it, or let some of our employees break it, we pay for it. And if we let those employees take our government out for a joyride or use it in the commission of a raid, then we'll be held responsible for that too. Sooner or later. Sure as shootin'.

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Blogger Davidco said...

Goering made clear in his famous prison interview that any society can be put in fear for its life and coaxed to cede any power or annihilate any enemy.

I recommend to your attention a precis on the state of the genocide question: 'Looking Away' by Stephen Holmes in the LRB 11-14-2002 issue.

Right into the mid-20th century the south was an agricultural colony - first of England, then of New England and the north generally.

All of these entities profited mightily from the slave trade and its products. They cannot be absolved from the terror that was the organizing principle of southern society. Nor should we pass over in silence the violence against immigrant labor in northern coalfields and factories.

Terrorization of labor has been a feature of society since the annual Spartan raids on helot villages - not for purposes of annihilation or 'cleansing' (as the Five Civilized Tribes were banished from the southeast). Slaves and tenant farmers are valuable property after all.

Random acts of violence (lynchings) were conducted to stoke the terror that was the organizing principle of the economic system.

Now the entire nation is being terrorized by its own government. The propaganda organs are not unlike the traveling Inquisitors of old who - while supposedly tasked with the eradication of witches - had as their primary mission propagation of the belief that witches actually existed.

The average American is more likely to drown in his bathtub than he is to be assassinated by an 'islamo-fascist'.

5:49 PM  

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