The GOP's Addiction to Their Own Agony
6 minutes ago
…I just cannot bring myself to believe that the full story will ever be told to our collective satisfaction. Even if every living American were someday to purchase and read the truth commission's collectively agreed-on bipartisan narrative, weaving together John Yoo's best intentions and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's torment on the water board, sweeping national reconciliation will elude us.
…[W]e already know the truth of what happened… We may not have every memo, and we may not be able to name every name. But do truth commissions alone ever reveal the full story? If we decline to hold lawbreakers to account, we may find out a whole lot of facts and arrive at no truth at all. Is the truth that if the president orders it, it isn't illegal? Or is the truth that good people do bad things in wartime, but that's OK? Is the truth that if we torture strange men with strange names, it's not lawbreaking? What legal precedent will this big bipartisan narrative set for the next president with a hankering for dunking prisoners?
…It seems that after 9/11, the solution to the problem of too much law was to simply do away with the stuff. And the solution to the lawlessness that followed 9/11? Do away with any legal consequences for the perpetrators. If there exists a more perverse method of restoring the rule of law in America than announcing that legal instruments are inadequate to address them, I can't imagine it.
…Nobody is suggesting that those who authorized torture and wiretapping were sadists or brutes. But they did a lot worse than mix stripes and plaids. They broke the law. They violated domestic and international laws, and they committed war crimes. They did so deliberately and with the "cover" of cynically bad legal memoranda. And those who have been entrusted as the nation's top law enforcers now claim that public disapproval is punishment enough.
…[As we try to imagine] a perfect truth commission or a perfect congressional inquiry (done by a perfect Congress that had suddenly grown a perfect spine),
it occurs to me yet again that we already have a pretty perfect system for investigating terrible wrongdoing and punishing wrongdoers. And we call it the justice system for a reason. For eight years we've been told, time and again, that the U.S. courts just aren't good enough to try terrorists, and that they aren't smart enough to monitor wiretapping, and that they aren't capable of keeping state secrets. Anyone who believes they are also not good enough to investigate government lawbreaking might reasonably be asked what's changed.Not that anybody asked me, but I would suggest that sadists and brutes were making policy with respect to torture and eavesdropping. We persisted for so long in inhumane interrogation methods that were plainly illegal, and plainly ineffective at getting accurate evidence, that the only rationales are (1) the pursuit of brutal pre-ordained "intelligence findings," or (2) the fact that somebody or -bodies liked the way it felt, being an all-powerful ruthless inquisitor. But we have such a terrible time in our culture separating the criminal from the crime. We can accept that a leering jarhead holding a dog leash is a torturer. We have trouble accepting that a man in a Savile Row suit might be one as well.
Rotwang writes that American anti-intellectualism leaves an exemption for the neurosurgeon, the engineer, the indispensible expert. If there’s historically evident danger to culture war, it is that it is hard to keep it nothing more than a Punch-and-Judy pantomine, hard to keep it confined to a narrowly intramural struggle within specific professional or social hierarchies. There are pathways out of Nixonland that go into very dark, dangerous places that no one wants to traverse.
For the elite, there’s always another extension—a bailout, a pardon, a stint in rehab—always plenty of contacts and special stipends—the country club, the conference, the year-end bonus, the dividend. If Al Gore and John Kerry represent one of the characteristic products of an elite education, George W. Bush represents another. It’s no coincidence that our current president, the apotheosis of entitled mediocrity, went to Yale. Entitled mediocrity is indeed the operating principle of his administration, but as Enron and WorldCom and the other scandals of the dot-com meltdown demonstrated, it’s also the operating principle of corporate America . The fat salaries paid to underperforming CEOs are an adult version of the A-. Anyone who remembers the injured sanctimony with which Kenneth Lay greeted the notion that he should be held accountable for his actions will understand the mentality in question—the belief that once you’re in the club, you’ve got a God-given right to stay in the club. But you don’t need to remember Ken Lay, because the whole dynamic played out again last year in the case of Scooter Libby, another Yale man.
Since the idea of the intellectual emerged in the 18th century, it has had, at its core, a commitment to social transformation. Being an intellectual means thinking your way toward a vision of the good society and then trying to realize that vision by speaking truth to power. It means going into spiritual exile. It means foreswearing your allegiance, in lonely freedom, to God, to country, and to Yale. It takes more than just intellect; it takes imagination and courage. “I am not afraid to make a mistake,” Stephen Dedalus says, “even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake, and perhaps as long as eternity, too.”
By saying they're ambitious, I mean that most of these writers share a politics that is interested in deep-going social reform—you could say it's a social-democratic politics, although few of them would use that term. (As far as I can tell, they have absolutely no interest in socialist thought, which, in my opinion, is a good thing. At any rate, I can't see that any of them has been hobbled intellectually because of a lack of opinions about Bukharin.)
Because most of these writers came of political age after the end of the Cold War, they're not afraid of being red-baited, and this fearlessness in some curious fashion makes them freer to mount radical critiques of U. S. policy than older generations of writers grouped around Dissent and schooled in the socialist tradition. It is odd, but refreshing, to see the emergence of young liberals who are blunter in their critiques of capitalist political and social arrangements than an older generation of democratic socialists could allow themselves to be.
I hesitate to draw any comparisons with the present — and therefore will not end this memory-piece with the word “Iraq.” I am 61 now, but my thinking has not changed much since that year of fire and blood, and as I sit alone in this room with a pen in my hand, I realize that I am still crazy, perhaps crazier than ever.
The environmental movement’s founding father, John Muir, was himself a Wisconsin farm boy, and he did not so much flee the farm for the wilderness as invent wilderness as a counter-image to the farm on which his brutal father nearly worked him to death. Muir worked later as a shepherd and lumber-miller in the Sierra Nevada and much later married into an orchard-owning family, but he didn’t have much to say about work, and what little he did say wasn’t positive. The wilderness he sought was solitary, pure, and set apart from human society, corporeal sustenance, and human toil—which is why he had to forget about the Indians who were still subsisting on the land there. This apartness and forgetting so beautifully codified in Ansel Adams’s wilderness photographs has shaped the vision of much of the environmental movement since them.
The Sierra Club, which Muir cofounded with a group of University of California professors in 1892, saw nature as not where one lived or worked but where one vacationed. And traditional American environmentalism still largely imagines nature as vacationland and as wilderness, ignoring the working landscapes and agricultural lands, whose beauties and meanings are widely celebrated in European art. More recently, as environmentalists have found themselves dealing with more systemic problems—pesticides, acid rain—they’ve begun to shed the sense that the rural and urban, human and wild, are separate in ecological terms, but that awareness has done little to actually connect rural and urban people and issues.
Today, rural citizens see themselves in an unappreciated, fast-shrinking middle zone between wilderness and development (even though agriculture is often the best bulwark against sprawl). In many ways, rural culture is dying, and that seems to push many rural people into near-paranoia. During the water-scarcity crises in the Klamath River region on the California–Oregon border, farmers spoke of “rural cleansing” and seemed to believe that environmentalists wanted to empty out the countryside. Some of them do. Rural life, other than sentimental fantasies of an idyllic past, cowboy fetishism, or the pseudo-ruralism of people who live in rustic-looking settings but commute to work in the white-collar economy, is largely invisible to most of us most of the time. It’s true that agriculture and wilderness are often in competition—the farmers of the Klamath Basin are competing with salmon for water. But if rural culture and rural life were positive values also being defended, the negotiations might go better.
The anti-environmentalist right has shot itself in both feet in the past few years, losing credibility and constituency, and a smart and fast-moving left could make hay out of this, to mix a few fairly rural metaphors. It would mean giving up vindication for victory—that is, giving up on triumphing over the wickedness of one’s enemies and looking at them as unrecruited allies instead.