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Before Don’t Think, Smile!, before No More Nice Girls, before Beginning to See the Light, before Dissent, The Nation, the Village Voice, even before the New Yorker, there was ...

College Bowl 1959!*

Check out the contestant at 2:11, who identifies herself as being from “Bayside, New York,” just east of my old stomping grounds in Flushing:

Yes, it’s her, all right.  I’d know those arched eyebrows anywhere.  And in her spirit, here’s my very first contribution to Dissent’s new blog, “Arguing the World.” (That’s a catchy title!  Perhaps someday it could be a major motion picture or something.) “Arguing the World” doesn’t have comments (yet!), so if you want to argue the world with me, you can do so right here on this humble blog.

Oh, and in other news, last week my friend and former Penn State colleague Amitava Kumar won the 2010 Strange Quark from 3QD for his short story, “Postmortem”.  Congratulations, Amitava!  The story is terrific, and I think Amitava should have won some kind of ancillary award for his reply to this comment.


*H/t to Steve Rubio, who sent me the clip this morning.  I asked him, in reply, whether he had found this gem lying somewhere under Tony Peluso’s sheet music for “Goodbye to Love”....

Posted by on 03/29 at 02:04 PM
  1. How do I comment on your Dissent blog?  This is probably one of those things that will immediately clear up and leave me looking foolish, but I don’t see a comment box on it.

    Posted by Rich Puchalsky  on  03/29  at  04:00 PM
  2. Ah, yes, there is it—right up there, where you say it doesn’t have comments yet, but that we should comment here.  Never mind.

    Posted by  on  03/29  at  04:02 PM
  3. It probably is one of those things!  Like I say, “Arguing the World” doesn’t have a comment box yet, so you can comment right here.

    Posted by  on  03/29  at  04:03 PM
  4. Ah, I see you were typing comment 2 as I was typing comment 3.

    Posted by  on  03/29  at  04:03 PM
  5. All right, all right.  I’ll take pointing out the lameness of a blog called Arguing the World published by a magazine called Dissent as being read.

    I haven’t read Stuart Hall, and am not familiar with the situation around Thatcher.  I don’t really think of myself as an admirer of Chomsky—sometimes I like something he writes, sometimes I don’t.  But on this particular issue, I’m more sympathetic to the general “the U.S. has always done this” attitude.

    Why?  Firstly, because making it a sort of historical break on the level of what actually happened—i.e. were people being tortured or not—just doesn’t seem to be true.  It was a historical break in terms of legal theories and public relations used to justify torture.  The government effectively got much more brazen about it, even recruited conservatives to openly argue that it was good.  But I’m not sure whether the actual amount of torturing going on had really changed.  In that sense, it’s different than a situation in which people were at one point getting welfare state benefits, and then later not getting them.

    Secondly, making it a historical break makes it less likely that anything will be done about the Obama administration’s continued use of torture.  He openly appealed to the American myth—“we do not torture”—as he re-approved the Bush era framework for torture.

    What good is a rhetorical strategy that appears to be both untrue and uneffective?

    Posted by Rich Puchalsky  on  03/29  at  04:13 PM
  6. Argh.  First paragraph above should be “the lameness of a blog called [etc] *not having comments* as being read.”

    Posted by Rich Puchalsky  on  03/29  at  04:15 PM
  7. making it a sort of historical break on the level of what actually happened—i.e. were people being tortured or not—just doesn’t seem to be true

    OK, two things.  First, I think that’s the wrong level.  Yes, people were tortured by the US and its proxies before 9/11; that’s not the break I’m looking at.  I’m looking instead at the “much more brazen” part and then “even recruited conservatives to openly argue that it was good” part.  To put this another way:  recently on a conservative blog I saw an ad for a T-shirt that read, “I’d rather be waterboarding.” That seems to me to be a small but telling sign of the new dispensation:  torture, and aggressive defenses of torture, are now ubiquitous in popular culture.  The degree of fascination/ horror/ advocacy/ vivid representation of torture—from 24 to Pan’s Labyrinth to Star Trek to Syriana to Battlestar Galactica to Harry Potter For Crissakes seems to me a difference in kind rather than degree.  This, Rich, is new.

    Second, I’m not convinced that “making it a historical break makes it less likely that anything will be done about the Obama administration’s continued use of torture.” As with the wingnut freakout over the possibility of civilian trials for suspected terrorists, I think it makes sense to say we didn’t condone this shit before Bush/Cheney rather than to say “‘twas ever thus.”

    That said, I would recommend Chomsky’s essay without reservation to anyone who goes around thinking that the US “lost its innocence” (again) on 9/11.

    Posted by Michael  on  03/29  at  04:24 PM
  8. I should probably give up rambling in your comment box at this point.  But ... no, I’m going to continue, of course.

    I agree that there has been a distinct cultural change in the U.S. regarding torture.  Is it new?  Or is it that that was always what conservatism was about, and it is expressed in slightly different ways according to what is culturally salient at the time?  At the beginning of the century, conservatives in the U.S. were exchanging postcards with pictures of lynchings.  Then they approved of beating up hippies.  Then it went to approval of violent anti-crime vigilanteism and of harsh legal penalties for victimless crime.  Then approval of anti-abortion terrorism.  Then, by the end of the century, it’s yay for torture.  Is that a change?  Sure, in the sense that in one year, there are no T shirts saying I’d Rather Be Waterboarding, in the next year, there are.  But isn’t the commonality really that conservatives are evil and that they express this evil slightly differently in different eras?  A car is a car whether it has fins stuck on the back or not.

    For the second part, I really think that the myth inoculates the Obama administration against the only remaining group of people who could change the situation—the middle-to-liberal group.  They mostly believe that as long as he says that everything is back to normal, it is.  I think it’s better to try to convince them that normality, for America, doesn’t mean what they think it does, then to try to convince them that Obama’s administration continues the same abnormality as Bush’s.  If Bush really did inaugurate such a break on the level of practice rather than on the level of public relations, then why has Obama adopted it rather than attempted to continue it?

    Posted by Rich Puchalsky  on  03/29  at  04:48 PM
  9. GE College Bowl was a staple of our household for all its years beginning in those mid-1950s.  Those were some strange days indeed what with; loyalty oaths, communist hunts, putting In God We Trust on money, adding Under God to the pledge, and trying ever so hard to make everyone conform to rigid rules of social manners and decorum.  Rock-n-roll came around at just the right time to rip Pat Boone, Patti Page, and Doris Day out of our heads.  The College Bowl challenged the status quo as well in spite of it being a corporately sponsored television show.

    Kevin Baker’s new essay in the April Harpers talks about the learned helplessness of the left today.  It may very well be that the national zeitgeist for all things torture and militarism grew out of a historical moment coupled with a strange pathology of paralysis after the one shining day of worldwide protest against war in 2003.  It is as though everything went dark.

    Posted by  on  03/29  at  05:01 PM
  10. Rich, I appreciate the followup, and of course I agree that the evils of which you speak were not invented on 9/12/01.  More, I agree that there are any number of contexts in which one has to place “I’d rather be waterboarding” t-shirts in the context of lynching and hippie-bashing and anti-abortion terrorism.  But I’m still not agreeing with the second half.  I think “this is a radical break and we must restore the status quo ante” is a better rhetorical strategy than “this is not a radical break but we must roll it back anyway.” I don’t think Obama’s continuation of Bush-era policies of indefinite detention and torture follows from Krugman’s argument; I think it follows from blowing off Krugman’s argument—and, in blowing off Krugman’s argument, works to normalize indefinite detention and torture.

    Later in the week I’ll have a followup on criminal trials for suspected terrorists, in which I return to an argument made by Christian H. some months ago in the comment section of this very blog.

    Posted by Michael  on  03/29  at  06:31 PM
  11. Thank you for the explanation of Chomsky, Hall, and leftism. Maybe I’m looking too hard for continuist explanations, but why would these various people argue what they do? Why do you think it’s important to point out radical breaks rather than continuities? It seems to me that pointing out how something is a break with the past might galvanize a public response or even persuade those who disagree with you, which is what Krugman was trying to do--I think he was writing in a newspaper, not a history journal. This seems to be a political use of argument. In contrast, pointing out continuities might be more accurate from a historical or economic point of view. This might be characterized as a scholarly use of argument.

    Then there is another political use of speech, one that does not rely on argument but on rhetoric. In other words, what is instrumental about the statement is not that it is reasonable but that it is memorable and convincing. This is the method of the right, and I think Krugman tries to do this sometimes, as do you with your humor there, and Chomsky with his old-man cynicism. I think this is part of the logic behind a hard left, same-shit-different-day approach.

    Posted by  on  03/30  at  02:25 AM
  12. That’s exactly it—I’m asking when and why it makes sense (and for whom) to say “this marks a radical break and must be rolled back” and when and why it makes sense (and for whom) to say “no, this is just another variation on a long-running theme, and has to be understood in that context.” In Hall’s case, even as he was insisting to one wing of the left that Thatcherism was indeed a radical break with the postwar consensus, he was telling another (more academic) wing of the left that postmodernism wasn’t really the radical break some people claimed, but rather an intensification of some of the strategies and tropes of modernism.  I think he was right about that, too.

    Posted by Michael  on  03/30  at  08:08 AM
  13. Chomsky Hall

    And behind Door number 3...the goat! 

    The non-monty python blogger-left could use some fresh thinking, sir. Like say, Katie Couric’s Snatch.com...or somethin’.  Or else the entire blogosphere could de-generate into one big Unfogged, sort of pillow-talk for suburban demopublicans.

    Posted by Ezra Hound  on  03/30  at  09:58 AM
  14. Jesus, Ludden, calm the fuck down.

    College Bowl is a weird thing. Our measly school beat Rice but got our asses kicked by Midwestern State.

    Posted by  on  03/30  at  11:09 AM
  15. I’ve thought about this some more—mostly in connection with this.  I’ll try to explain again why I don’t think the rhetoric of “this marks a radical break and must be rolled back” won’t work now.

    First of all, it doesn’t appear to be true, at the most basic level.  What really matters, I have to think, is whether people are being tortured—not the cultural change in America around torture.  The second is bad, among other reasons, because it leads to greater acceptance of the first.  But if people were saying how much they approved of torture and not actually doing it, that would not be the same evil as actually doing it.

    Given that I don’t think it’s true, is it effective?  Perhaps when Krugman wrote it could have been.  But since then Obama has used the full rhetorical force of his Presidency to preempt it.  He insists that torture is over, that the radical break is done.  Convincing people that the break still exists now necessarily means radicalizing them (for some meaning of “radicalizing") to no longer trust Obama.

    And if you’re going to have to try to radicalize people, why stop with one politician?  Why not shoot for the whole American myth?  That myth is in itself extremely harmful, because it excuses the same behavior again and again.  It’s quite possible for people to say something like “Obama betrayed us by continuing Bush’s torture policies!”, and then have the next politician say the same old thing—there’s a new person in charge now, the break is over, America has gone back to being the special country that can not really be evaluated by the same rules that apply to other countries.

    Given that the “break” rhetoric appears to be false, at least in the sense that I think is most important, I’d rather go for the larger target.  Obama has successfully mainstreamed Bush’s torture regime, brought it from radical break into business as usual.  I don’t see how we’re supposed to undo that without a broader challenge.

    Posted by Rich Puchalsky  on  03/30  at  12:41 PM
  16. There’s an inadvertent double negative in the second sentence.  Should be “why I think [the rhetoric] won’t work now.”

    One of these days I’ll figure out why I bother with trying to dash off barely grammatical comments in five minute work breaks.

    Posted by Rich Puchalsky  on  03/30  at  12:46 PM
  17. We have now raised a generation of people who know that the United States of America tortures people as part of its public policy.  I don’t know if you’d call that a radical break or not but I do know that the generation that has grown up in the Bush/Cheney years has a different idea of what is acceptable under law.

    Posted by gmoke  on  03/30  at  01:24 PM
  18. Maybe Sammy Harris-stylePraxis has gone into effect?  Torture...works says Sammy. Means justifies the ends, y’all

    Posted by Ezra Hound  on  03/30  at  01:47 PM
  19. er, Ends justifies the Means, that izz.  And who has a decent counterargument, now that Viacom has offed the catholics

    Posted by Ezra Hound  on  03/30  at  01:48 PM
  20. None dare call it treason.  Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.
    These used to be batshit crazy stuff, but no more.  I think the radical break was the effort on the parts of Addington, Yoo, Bybee, et al, to officially enact a rule of law that allowed the USA to be free from the constraints of any international laws, and the US Constitution.  Torture became enhanced interrogation, POWs became enemy combatants, and the power of the POTUS became the unitary executive.  These efforts so changed the conduct of the US government that Obama cannot effectively push back much of it, and indeed is forced to argue in courts that he must preserve these changes.  We have always had our minions of ugly bastards doing our dirty work, but as of the Bush/Cheney reign, all of this is now done in the open with public support.  The Constitution is just a piece of paper, and the Geneva Conventions are quaint (and vice versa). 

    Interesting you bring up Sam, Ezra.  Sean Carrol over at Cosmic Variance got into a dust up with him over his TED talk leading Harris to call Sean stupid and an idiot.  The comment threads are exhaustive in their efforts to support one against the other.

    Posted by  on  03/30  at  05:40 PM
  21. I thought the rule of law, Addington/Yoo/Bybee stuff was more important before Obama took office and demonstrated—as with the story that I linked to above—that it doesn’t really matter.  The torturers who broke the law are going to be protected anyways.

    I don’t really understand why Obama can’t push back much of it, though.  As far as I can tell, he could just hire a counter-Yoo to write the opposite of whatever Yoo wrote.  I thought that he hadn’t done so primarily because he thought he’d be depicted as weak on terrorism if he did, and that therefore it wouldn’t help him bring bipartisan comity.  Or something like that.

    Posted by Rich Puchalsky  on  03/30  at  05:59 PM
  22. his TED talk.

    youtube has a few TED vids--looks like well-funded USC MBA students preparing for the Singularity or somethin’.  Trojan Electronic Design? Torture Education Development. Into zee La-bor-a-tory mit Doktor Harris

    Posted by Ezra Hound  on  03/30  at  10:29 PM
  23. I don’t think that Obama wants to push back, nor can he.  The only possible way to push back would be for the people to demand that those involved are brought to justice.  That will not happen.  I would suggest that the radical break is a matter of spectrum, and boy did we hit the trifecta on the radical spectrum with the Bush/Cheney administration.  Things are not okay in this nation, and won’t be unless the people demand them to be.

    Posted by  on  03/30  at  11:48 PM
  24. I’ve been trying to think of metaphors for something one does that is bad, and when one reaches a certain point it becomes a radical break and a continuation of a trend (this is a both/and blog, right? The health care bill is a major step forward and a disappointing compromise, right? Just checking).

    Socrates might shoot heroin for years, and no one would say that was okay, but when he overdoses it’s a radical break.

    Being purist is a bad thing; so pure that we reject “let America be America again” because if “it never was America to me” there is no use in the hypocritical ideals, or else so pure that we think America lost her innocence at Chappaquiddick Afghanistan Iran/Contra Kuwait Guantanamo.

    Posted by  on  03/31  at  12:15 AM
  25. For an imaginative exploration of the theme of America repeatedly losing its innocence I recommend Mary Ann’s story in Tom Carson’s Gilligan’s Wake.

    Posted by  on  03/31  at  07:54 AM
  26. "I don’t think that Obama wants to push back, nor can he.”

    I don’t know, spyder—I agree with the first, but not the second.  If seems to me that Obama could perfectly well have declared the same unofficial amnesty for past crimes that he’s declared, but then also gone ahead with changing policy.  None of the Addington/Yoo/Bybee stuff is legislative—it was all created by the Executive Branch, and could be dismantled by the Executive Branch just as easily.  Mostly, I think that people are being tortured as a form of DFH-ing, horrible as that is.

    And that’s one of the things that I think is wrong with the whole “radical break” analysis.  There’s nothing that I can recognize as a real political interest in torture.  The indicators of support are a few right-wing gasbags who have added it to their taunt-the-hippies list, and a few T-shirts.  It’s not like how the Drug War created a vastly expanded group of prison guards and prison operators who then became a permanent part of the economy and a permanent lobby for the Drug War.  As far as I can tell, the security services really aren’t lobbying for torture, because they don’t think it works.  So the public approval of torture is a sort of right-wing fad, layered on top of the fact that if you poll people on any controversy that has become “respectable”, a good number of people will take either position.

    Of course, fad or not, people are still actually being tortured.  But they were before, too.  At this point, now that Obama has made it bipartisan, I don’t think you can convincingly go back to the “break” and say that everything was different before.

    Posted by Rich Puchalsky  on  03/31  at  08:22 AM
  27. Michael’s point is valid when he says Krugman’s rhetorical device works better than Chomsky’s in our corporate media culture and our current political discourse.  I also give Michael credit for recognizing Chomsky is not really wrong in saying our nation’s leaders did horrible things before 9/11/2001.

    Still, I don’t like the delegitimization of Chomsky from our discourse that is, to use Michael’s formulation, lurking beneath his blog post at Dissent.  As Michael says about Chomsky, it’s my reaction to Michael’s post text that makes me wonder whether this tic by those of us on the left is a leftover from the Cold War discourse where it was up to us to attack those to our left in order to keep ourselves legitimate.

    Chomsky plays an important role in our society, which is to say certain truths that are not said in the polite corners of policy making, or the elite’s political discourse with each other.  That Chomsky is seen as a legitimate commentator in most other parts of the world, but blocked by corporate owned television and radio here--except when he is attacked--is itself reason for us to be somewhat cautious in how we discuss the distinction between what Krugman and Chomsky are each saying.

    When Chomsky says that one of the things unusual about 9/11 is that for once the violence was pointed the other way may make Berube ask if Chomsky means “it’s about time"--and that’s valid.  But damn if I don’t think what Chomsky said should be said when I hear the bull from the right and in corporate media that Al Queda attacked us because they hate our freedoms.  At least Chomsky has the merit of being far closer to the truth AND the historical record than those rank propagandists and true haters that are themselves now boiling over with rage because they can’t get to do any more torturing of Muslims or others who don’t look like them.

    I don’t want to be misconstrued here.  I am fine with being critical of Chomsky as none of us completely agree with each other, and there are definitely times when don’t agree with Chomsky’s points or especially tone.  It’s just that I felt Michael’s blog post felt like a “pile on” in its tone and its formulation.

    Posted by Mitchell Freedman  on  03/31  at  09:47 AM
  28. Sean Carrol over at Cosmic Variance got into a dust up with him over his TED talk leading Harris to call Sean stupid and an idiot

    Harris didn’t sound completely horrible. He’s looking for a scientific basis for ethics, like Wilson the Harvard ant-doctor. Ants, flies and bees and many species apparently work together, sometimes--show altruistic traits, as they say--and thereby advance their genetic interests . Ergo, humans should too. Then torture’s only needed for the malcontents--the bad flies that must be swatted.

    Carroll on the the hand quoted Hume’s is-ought classic.  But that’s false!  A fly who wants to best advance his interest ought to cooperate, and deny his..appetite for torture.

    Posted by Ezra Hound  on  03/31  at  11:14 AM
  29. That’s exactly it—I’m asking when and why it makes sense (and for whom) to say “this marks a radical break and must be rolled back” and when and why it makes sense (and for whom) to say “no, this is just another variation on a long-running theme, and has to be understood in that context.”

    As Mr. Puchalsky has indicated, there’s a problem with this formulation.  One could just as easily say instead, “this marks a radical break, but the people behind it are out of power now, so we’re back to the prior status quo.  Hooray!” In fact, one could say it more easily, since it is current government policy.  This can be contrasted with “no, this is just another variation on a long-running theme, and if we are ever to break out of it, our elected officials have to actually do something about it.” One could acknowledge the long sordid history of America’s black ops, and still declare “No more” and actually hold (at least some of) the most recent perpetrators legally accountable.  Instead, since Krugman isn’t running the DOJ, lawbreaker and moral monster Jay Bybee remains a federal judge for life.  Yes, attempting to try Bush or Cheney for their flagrant war crimes would probably provoke mass insurrection and the collapse of our republic.  But how about a DOJ recommendation that would actually permit Yoo to be disbarred?  Sure, he’d land in a cushy think tank job, and be a hero on Fox News, but at least he couldn’t keep teaching law.

    Posted by  on  03/31  at  11:16 AM
  30. It’s just that I felt Michael’s blog post felt like a “pile on” in its tone and its formulation.

    I dunno, I thought saying that Chomsky’s essay is quite good in many respects, especially with regard to our history of outsourcing torture, was worth saying to the Dissent wing.  Much of my sense of Chomsky’s essay, and Krugman’s, and mine, depends on where they’re published.  But more on this in a followup....

    Posted by Michael  on  03/31  at  02:01 PM
  31. Chomsky se puede joder. Es un buscavidas liberal de viejo y pomposo (Zizek dice que también). Rousseau ha muerto. ¿Quieres ayudar? Escribir en el señor español o francés. Graves. Muerte a los anglo...

    Posted by Ezra Hound  on  03/31  at  02:18 PM
  32. At this point, now that Obama has made it bipartisan...

    This policy (whether one sees it as a radical break or simply a continuation by other means) was always bipartisan.  One quarter of the Senate Democratic Caucus voted for the Military Commissions Act in 2006, for example.  Obama reaffirmed its bipartisan nature; he didn’t create it.

    My perhaps-too-simplistic thoughts:  I agree absolutely with Rich that the radical-break understanding of torture reinforces a sense that merely voting Bush out of office would change things. In fact, as many have pointed out upthread, this hasn’t. happened. We haven’t even returned to the status quo ante.

    It seems clear to me that Obama has no desire to even go that far. And unlike Spyder I think he could have. I even think he could have built popular political support for punishing Bush and Cheney, though our inside-the-Beltway political class would have hit the roof (and, to be fair, disturbing them is simply not Obama’s steeze). 

    Our policy elite has long provided strong, bipartisan support for (outsourced and politely disguised) torture. And after 9/11, there was strong, bipartisan support for the more open variety that remains our policy.  Though most progressive Democratic voters find torture appalling, in practice they have been no more insistent on it actually ending than they have been on achieving the single-payer healthcare that they theoretically support.  The candidates who made the war crimes of the Bush years most central to their 2008 presidential primary campaigns--Kucinich and Dodd--got nowhere.

    On the other hand, I disagree with Rich that attempting to smash the myth of America once and for all is a potentially effective alternate political strategy.

    Posted by Ben Alpers  on  04/01  at  02:14 AM
  33. Perhaps a sign there has been a radical break.

    Posted by  on  04/01  at  09:32 AM
  34. Michael,

    I give you credit again.  What you said was probably the nicest thing said about Chomsky in the history of Dissent magazine.  I was looking at the text and it said Dissent and I saw more of the negative about Chomsky than the positive. 

    Your response also reminds me of the first time I ever read anything from you, which was in the Boston Globe almost 10 years ago (maybe?) and you were, I believe, reviewing a couple of Chomsky books--and were great in explaining Chomsky to an audience that included many who did not know of him, or if some did, only knew of the demonized version. 

    Still, my point remains, and perhaps its the lawyer in me, that we on the left should be working even harder to defend Chomsky, who is valuable, who is insightful, and who is important for people to read.  In a world where Pat Buchanan gets airtime on television or radio nearly every day for the past quarter century, with his ignorant ravings (even on trade issues where I tend to agree with his being negative on them) that promote xenophobia and racism, the least we can do is to ensure that we highlight--yes, highlight--the strengths of Chomsky’s points.  I doubt Dissent would be happy with highlighting those strengths, but that is where I part company with Dissent…

    Posted by Mitchell Freedman  on  04/01  at  09:42 AM
  35. Indeed, spyder; a federal appeals court just found that it’s fine to Taser(TM) a seven-months-pregnant woman because she refused to get out of her car when being given a traffic ticket.  So I suspect that the 10-year-old will be looking at hard time, and the suspended officers will eventually receive medals.  There certainly appear to be enough commenters on your article that think the officers are heroes for taking down that probably-murderous child.  Better angels of our nature, my fanny.

    Oh, well, at least our oceans full of new offshore drilling platforms will protect us.

    Posted by  on  04/01  at  09:45 AM
  36. Oh, well, at least our oceans full of new offshore drilling platforms will protect us.


    Posted by  on  04/01  at  09:49 AM
  37. err, kraken.

    Posted by  on  04/01  at  09:59 AM
  38. "This policy (whether one sees it as a radical break or simply a continuation by other means) was always bipartisan. “

    I expressed myself poorly—what I meant was that, on a rhetorical level, the moment for rejection of what is presented as “Bush’s radical break” was when Obama took office.  I don’t think that the rhetoric still works now that Obama has insisted that we don’t torture, that our Bush-era policies are perfectly fine with him, and that this is what the country should be doing.  I didn’t mean that the reality of torture was that only one party had supported it.

    The problem of how to work in politics in Obama’s administration is complex.  On the one hand, he has no loyalty whatsoever.  Anything that his base cares about is going to be thrown under the bus preemptively just because his base cares about it, so that he can look more bipartisan.  And he knows that he can do this because there is no other mass figure with his hold on everyone to left of center.  On the other hand, he is unavoidably—almost against his own will, in the case of health care—presiding over a time when some change is actually possible.  My experience of American politics has essentially been that there has been a deep freeze ever since Reagan.  Hope, despite Obama, is now possible.

    Posted by Rich Puchalsky  on  04/01  at  11:07 AM
  39. I am thinking more along the line of a giant nuclear fireball, a party, and GOJIRA!

    Posted by  on  04/01  at  11:09 AM
  40. Rich, I think we need an update to the Editor’s “Poker with Dick Cheney” classic (lost to the tubes, but Google Topeka finds a reproduction here), called “Poker with Barack Obama.” Obama pre-emptively gives away his best cards to his opponents, while Joe Biden says “hey, this is a great fucking hand!”

    Posted by  on  04/01  at  02:24 PM
  41. Dead thread!  But I will keep writing here anyways.

    I think that, in retrospect, a lot of how this historical moment in the U.S. is interpreted is going to have to do with radicalization.  Someone wrote—sorry, I forget who, if could even be Michael for all I remember—that the core radicalization moment for U.S. liberals wasn’t anything that happened in the Bush administration per se, it was Bush v. Gore.  I tend to agree.  I think that was the moment at which people had to give up on the idea that rule of law would protect freedom in the U.S.  The Bush regime only confirmed it.

    I think that this is going to turn out to be the second radicalization moment.  Rule of law failed, and as a result people turned to the idea that strong partisanship might correct matters—that if the Democratic Party could be given some backbone and obtain some victories, the “radical break” could be reversed.  Obama’s continuation of Bush policies is the death knell for that.  It is now apparent that party politics won’t do it either.

    I don’t mean to imply that people should give up on party politics.  I’m a firm believer in the lesser of evils.  But I don’t think that it’s still tenable, rhetorically, to stop short of going for the whole myth.  The people who are going to be amenable to doing anything about torture in the first place just aren’t going to find any force to “mending the break” arguments.  At least, that’s what I suppose.

    Posted by Rich Puchalsky  on  04/02  at  03:23 PM
  42. Well, i too am continuing here Rich.  So two days ago i ordered a little book by a soldier who seems to support the notion of the radical break from the military perspective: None of Us Were Like This Before by Joshua Phillips.  I read a review and then checked online and, well…

    Sergeant Adam Gray made it home from a year’s tour in Iraq only to die in his barracks. For more than three years, reporter Joshua Phillips—with the support of Adam’s mother and the cooperation of his Army buddies—investigated Adam’s death. What Phillips uncovered was a story of American veterans psychologically scarred by the abuse they had meted out to Iraqi prisoners. How did US forces turn to torture? Phillips’s narrative recounts the journey of a tank battalion— trained for conventional combat—as its focus switches to guerrilla war and prisoner detention. It tells of how a group of ordinary soldiers, ill trained for the responsibilities foisted upon them, descended into the degradations of abuse. The location is far from CIA prisons and Guantanamo, but the story captures the widespread use and nature of torture in the US armed forces. Based on firsthand reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as interviews with soldiers, their families and friends, military officials, and the victims of torture, None of Us Were Like This Before reveals how soldiers, senior officials, and the US public came to believe that torture was both effective and necessary. The book illustrates that the damaging legacy of torture is not only borne by the detainees, but also by American soldiers and the country to which they’ve returned.

    I will let you know this summer what it actually says, but i am hoping for confirmation that between 9/11 and 2003 the US government (apparently) unalterably changed the notion that torture was a war crime, and could be taught and practiced by all below the Commander-in-Chief.
    Posted by  on  04/02  at  09:14 PM
  43. i feel bad for introducing such trivia into such a serious thread, but…

    did anyone else notice that the announcer said “let’s hop along to our panel”, just as the footage was showing the statue of the greek soldier? pretty clever pun (hoplite), given that they didn’t really call attention to it.

    Posted by  on  04/05  at  10:47 AM
  44. Another sign that the break has occurred, and we can do nothing about it:

    The AP is reporting that Dawn Johnsen is withdrawing her nomination to be the next Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). Early in his administration, President Obama received praise from the legal and progressive community for nominating Johnsen. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald called the pick “Obama’s best yet, perhaps by far.” As evidence, Greenwald highlighted an article in Slate that Johnsen authored in 2008, in which she excoriated John Yoo’s infamous torture memo. Johnsen also sharply criticized the Democratic Congress for legalizing Bush’s surveillance program. Jay Bybee, Bush’s OLC head who went on to authorize illegal torture — won easy confirmation in 2001 through a simple voice vote. However, despite being recommended by the Senate Judiciary Committee by a party-line vote, the Senate stalled Johnsen’s nomination for over a year. Senate Republicans, joined by Ben Nelson (D-NE) and other conservative Democrats, threatened a filibuster. President Obama could have appointed Johnsen during a recent slate of recess appointments, but declined to do so.

    Posted by  on  04/09  at  09:58 PM
  45. Hi spyder.  Actually, I thought that Obama’s recent assassination order on some not-convicted-of-anything Muslim U.S. citizen was an ever greater indication.  I’m not up on the history of this: has a U.S. President ever openly declared an assassination order before?

    I mean, I’m sure that U.S. Presidents have ordered their minions to assassinate people before, even though they did it covertly.  I’m just not sure whether they released the order to the news media.

    At this point, it seems the left-of-center has a few choices.  And since the left-of-center consists of lots of people, obviously some will choose one and some another and some one that I haven’t thought of.  But these seem to me to be the main choices.

    1.  Silence.

    This seems to be the most popular choice at the moment.  Maybe people are thinking about what it means, or trying to come to terms with it.  Maybe they just don’t want to say anything or can’t bear to.

    2.  Cynicism.  “Everyone does it.  We only cared about that stuff when Bush did it.”

    A popular tacit choice, but not a popular rhetorical choice, I think.

    3.  Depression.  “Everyone does it, and there’s nothing we can do about it, so forget it.”

    4.  Talking up the break.  “Bush started an era of open lawlessness around these kinds of Presidential actions that Obama has continued.  We need to roll it back.”

    OK… how?  The entire functional partisan political system, from the Tea Partiers to Obama, backs this.  Where is the constituency for rolling it back?  People to the left of Obama?  That is not enough.

    5. Radicalization.  “Many Presidents have probably issued assassination orders, and now they’re doing it openly.  It’s not a break, it’s the final breakdown of a mirage of lawfulness.  It’s time to confront the fact that the system itself is illegitimate.”

    Lots of disadvantages to this one.  Serves as an easy rhetorical cover for an actual 2) or 3) above.  Fewer people support it than even 4).  But it has the advantages that it doesn’t require doing nothing, and actually appears to be true.

    Posted by Rich Puchalsky  on  04/10  at  12:51 PM
  46. Radicalization.  “Many Presidents have probably issued assassination orders, and now they’re doing it openly.  It’s not a break, it’s the final breakdown of a mirage of lawfulness.  It’s time to confront the fact that the system itself is illegitimate.”

    Lots of disad

    Posted by Cheap Evening Dresses  on  04/12  at  07:53 AM
  47. People to the left of Obama?  That is not enough.

    I think it might be. Obama is far enough to the “center” (right) that citizens and voters to the left of him are a large and potentially powerful force.  Potentially.

    Posted by Nell  on  04/14  at  08:31 PM
  48. I agree that there has been a distinct cultural change in the U.S. regarding torture.

    Posted by Caldwell  on  08/05  at  03:37 AM
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