Two Wrongs Make a Right Mess

U.S. Senator Cruz speaks to members of the Texas Federation of Republican Women in San Antonio, Texas

(Image: Reuters/Joe Mitchell)

It is enhanced interrogation, it is vigorous interrogation, but it does not meet the generally recognized definition of torture….I would use whatever enhanced interrogation methods we could to keep this country safe. 

– Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz believes torture is wrong. So it’s a good thing waterboarding doesn’t “meet the generally recognized definition” of torture. Otherwise, how could he excuse using it to torture people?

Incidentally, we don’t know who he means when he says “generally recognized.” More than likely, it’s anyone who agrees with him that waterboarding isn’t torture. Or, anyone who knows it is but wants a loophole that allows them to do it anyway.

We also don’t know, because he didn’t say (nor did anyone ask him), where he got his claim that the legal definition of torture specifies “excruciating pain that is equivalent to losing organs and systems.” The UN definition references “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person” and which is undertaken “at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”

I dunno. Sounds like waterboarding to me…

Of course, Cruz at least tried to maintain a foothold on the moral high ground. Then there’s Trump, who in characteristic fashion hurtled the wall between good and evil and left it in the dust: “I would bring back waterboarding and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” The Donald may be right: Ted Cruz may not have a heart. But it’s fairly obvious that Trump has no conscience. It’s not that he’s not aware of the difference between right and wrong. He just doesn’t really care.

So, we have one guy who’s at least inferentially open to whatever form of torture is most likely to yield results, and another guy who’s redefined the concept of torture into near meaninglessness, so that he can do whatever he wants. And, heading into New Hampshire’s primary, these are the two Republican front-runners.

See, hard as David Muir tried to shed light on a murky subject (murky, at least, to those who believe ends justify means), he only granted the candidates leeway to make it even murkier. Why? Because the question he asked wasn’t the question that needs asking.

Not “Is waterboarding torture?” Because if we can argue, however transparently, that it is not, then we can remove it from the larger conversation of right versus wrong. If torture is wrong, but waterboarding isn’t torture, then waterboarding may be conceived of as value-neutral, merely a tool of truth’s trade. And so “enhanced interrogation techniques” enters the American lexicon, by way of dodging moral obligation and our own national rhetoric.

The real question is this: “Whether or not it fits Webster’s definition of torture, is waterboarding right?”

We can say, with Marco Rubio, that there is a difference between law enforcement and anti-terrorist operations–which, while true, avoids the question instead of answering it. Does the presumed urgency of a situation alter its moral nature, or our obligations within that situation? Maybe yes, maybe no–either way, we have a much richer conversation here than with either Cruz or Trump.

But even Rubio’s dodging the question: this is as much about where we’ve been as it is about where we’re going. So much of our self-image as a nation seems to rest on a fictitious moral superiority that, when the least bit of scrutiny is applied, vanishes in a puff of smoke and mirrors. And we know it. And it scares us. So we jingo all the more.

You see, we never ask the same question Muir never asked the Republican candidates last Saturday night: Is what we’re doing right? We never ask; we just assume it is because of Who We Are. We are America, Land of the Free and Home of the Brave. And our shit smells of rose petals and lavender water.

If any other nation on earth treated American prisoners the way we have treated Middle Eastern prisoners, we would go to war. (Incidentally, perhaps we’ve solved the riddle of continued radicalization around the globe.) Just like if another nation tapped our president’s phone; or anytime another country shows signs of developing nuclear capability. We can do whatever we want, and it’s in the interests of Truth, Justice and the American Way. If anyone else does it, they’re chalked up as a Bond villain at best, the devil himself at worst.

As we gear up for November, and face the real possibility of having our own raving megalomaniac at the switch (pick your poison), it pays to think these things through. Newton taught us that every action produces a reaction; the Eastern sages taught us that karma’s a bitch; and anyone who ever ran up to a moving carousel knows that what goes around comes around, and tends to knock one on one’s ass.

We cannot just assume we are right, or change the definitions whenever it suits us. What we do as a country, who we are as a people, how we behave ourselves as global citizens–these things matter. And there is more than semantics at stake here. If a given action is deemed evil when enacted by our enemy, then it is equally evil when we do it ourselves, no matter how just we judge our goals to be.

Two wrongs do not make a right. No matter how hard we insist that they do.

 

The Radical in Me

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Not to see that the essence of humanism is to understand human history as a continuous process of self-understanding and self-realization, not just for us, as white, male, European, and American, but for everyone, is to see nothing at all.

– Edward Said

As I listen to our national fears emptied upon the world in terms beyond hyperbolic; as I watch our rhetoric become self-fulfilling prophecy before our very eyes; as I wait for whichever shoe drops next to land with a thud upon our collective psyche, each successive blow threatening to bring down the whole of the crumbling edifice of our pretension…

…I wonder…

At what point do we realize that it is our own violent language that encourages the radicalization of enemies we ourselves create every time we allow sound bites to shove aside sound judgment? Hate gives birth to hate, prejudice to prejudice. When the Trumps among us deliver pronouncements that devalue and demonize difference as difference, we should not be so surprised when difference gives way to demon, or when difference devalues us in return.

The 24-hour “news” networks have taken xenophobia to the air waves in a way not witnessed since the height of the Cold War: Radio Free Europe has morphed into Video Loose Lips. We monger fear alongside patriotism, to the point that it becomes difficult to distinguish between the two. And we are hoisted on our own petard. We grow so intent on destroying the Other that we do not realize that we are actually destroying ourselves.

Because, you see…we’re all somebody’s Other.

The enemy of my enemy is my enemy’s enemy. If we are to insist on casting ourselves in the role of nemesis, is it any wonder that we are treated as such? Such an approach may work well on Game of Thrones, but let’s face it: what are the odds anyone actually survives it?

Faced with the specter of radicalism, at what point do we realize that the only real solution to any of our problems is to become radicalized ourselves? Not by way of guns or bombs, and not as dictated by any religion or ideology (including, I might add, the one that goes by the name of “freedom and democracy”)…but as members of one race, one global community of neighbors far and wide. We’re all in the same boat, and when it goes down, we all go down with it.

I dream of a day when our humanity is of so radical a stripe that difference as difference ceases to exist. A day when we conceive of one another only as various shades of similarity, when kinship transcends oceans, bloodlines, and political boundaries, taking in every feature, every line and crease, of a global human face. When we truly are the world, regardless of the beverage we drink.

And every time a new story hits the wires, I feel myself pushed closer and closer to that day. Underneath the anger and frustration, there is a glimmer of hope, dim though it may sometimes be.

I want to be a radical in my human being, in my humanity toward humanity. I want to be a terror to terror by offering love in the face of hate.

My enemy is my enemy because I am his enemy. I will, then, be no one’s enemy. Difference divides only if we allow it to take away from, rather than add to, who we are and who we can be. I will, therefore, subtract no one from myself.

In a world coming apart at the seams, this sort of radicalism is the only thread that can hold us all together…

Spread the word:
Open the doors!!!

How to Lend a Helping Hammer & Sickle

ben-carson

You know, the people who say the guy who paid a billion dollars because he had 10, he has still got $9 billion left, that’s not fair, we need to take more of his money. That’s called socialism.

– Dr. Ben Carson

In a recent conversation with a friend from The Netherlands, we broached the subject of American “socialism-ophobia.” Plainly put, we have no idea what socialism is, but we’re pretty sure it’s gunning for us. Consequently, for a large portion of our population, there is no perceived line between communitarianism and communism; any social action constitutes a socialist power grab, and any indication of caring about the well-being of our fellow citizens is but the first step down that good old slippery slope.

During Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate, CNN edition, Dr. Ben Carson spent most of his air time (excluding his comments on vaccination) proving he really doesn’t have a clue about many of the subjects addressed. One of those subjects, specifically, needs further thought: the flat tax. Everybody tithes; everybody pays a flat 10% of their income each year, including the poor, who have been coddled far too long. This is the way to go, argues Carson, because God came up with it, and he’s “the fairest individual in the universe.” An individual who, out of fairness, “didn’t say if your crops fail, don’t give me any tithe or if you have a bumper crop, give me triple tithe.” No, this individual extorts from rich and poor alike. Or does he?

Let’s talk flat tax for a moment.

First, keep in mind that Carson’s got an estimated net worth (according to Celebrity Net Worth) of $10 million or so. So, the 10% tax he’s advocating would bring his IRS bill to around $1 million. If little Benny has ten million apples, and Big Government takes away one million, how many apples does little Benny have left? A whole freaking lot. Nine million of them, to be precise. And he’ll score nine million more by this time next year.

On the other hand, per Carson’s comments during the first presidential debate, if little Johnny has ten apples, and Big Government takes away one of them, how many apples does little Johnny have left? Enough to make a couple of pies. Maybe. And since he probably won’t be able to set aside any of the apples for next year, due to scarcity, even if he scores nine more by this time next year, that’ll still be all he’s got. Unlike little Benny, who had plenty of apples for eating, canning, and surviving the winter months.

To suggest that the only equitable course of action is to treat little Johnny as if he had the same amount of apples as little Benny, or that to acknowledge any disparity between the two somehow foreshadows the rise of the U.S.A.S.R. is not only unfair, it’s just plain bad math. Apparently all the work we did with percentages and ratios in grade and high school eluded little Benny. I’m sure the man is a brilliant surgeon, but he seems unable to count. And completely clueless as to what socialism is.

It is NOT socialism to recognize our mutual obligation to one another, or to disincentivize greed. If the whole point of legislative activity is to compel people to act in ways they would not naturally act of their own volition–if that is what laws are for–then it is not beyond the purview of the federal, state, or whatever government you like, to craft legislation aimed at counteracting our natural human tendency to hoard stuff for ourselves. On the contrary, since those governments are charged with the well-being of rich and poor alike, it is their duty to do so. Otherwise, what we end up with is not socialism; it is antisocial-ism. Don’t tread on me; it gets in the way of my treading on you.

Perhaps you noticed that the one vocal defender of the progressive tax on that dais was none other than The Donald. What are the odds of the ultimate capitalist launching a socialist takeover? I found myself liking the guy, just a little, if only because he seems to understand that the elephant in the room is prone to sitting on people. He may be filthy rich, but at least he seems to care about those who are not. This is not an endorsement of Trump for president, let me be clear; but when the only guy up there who defends the poor is the richest of them all…

Well, where’s Rod Serling when you need him?

American Idiot

Donald_Trump_2_March_2015 (Image by Michael Vadon)

We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

– H.L. Mencken

Has anyone ever considered that maybe a Trump presidency is exactly what this country deserves?

They say that hauntings are the result of past trauma, passions accumulated through the years and then released in a catharsis of spectral manifestation. If that is true, I would like to submit this as an explanation for the remarkable, yet not entirely incredible, success of The Donald’s presidential campaign thus far: as a nation, we are being haunted by the ghost of ourselves.

Trump, as a political thinker (if such is an accurate term for the regurgitative extrospection he exercises on camera) is the immaculate culmination of the phenomenon known ’round the world as “the ugly American.” He is our national id, as Jon Stewart (may his memory increase) so aptly noted after the initial announcement. He is everything we want, but are too afraid of social sanctions, to say. Since Trump can afford to ignore those sanctions, he is rapidly becoming a collective escape valve for our inner sociopathy–the means whereby we dump our boiler, lest the Overlook explode around us, blanketing us all in a cloud of radioactive Fox-planation…

But this is nothing some pundit or other hasn’t already said. The salient point here is simply this: we asked for it.

I recently asked a Dutch friend what he thought about our two-party political system. It does not, he said, allow for nuance: two parties mean two sides to any given issue, black and white, right and wrong (interchangeable according to the views of the speaker). Yes, we have “third parties” and “independents,” but I think Ralph Nader’s political career is indicative of those groups’ viability. Two parties, two teams, two ideological armies locked in rhetorical stalemate.

Add to this the fact that politics is considered a “career,” and that anytime someone dares to mention term limits they are immediately shouted down (by the very people who spend all their time complaining about “imperial presidencies”), and it’s a wonder we’ve made it as far as we have as a nation. It’s not democracy; it’s pure dumb luck.

Given the incessant pissing contest in which we’ve engaged the whole world since the 1950s (at least), it was really only a matter of time before somebody ended up pissing on us. I’ve never quite figured out the dismay with which people react to terrorist threats and/or attacks on US soil; of course they are a bad thing, an evil thing, but to expect anything else is simply naive. One cannot spend his days tossing bombs over the back fence without assuming that, at some point, his neighbor’s gonna toss one back.

We have rested too long on imaginary laurels. We police the world but consider ourselves accountable to no one. We are not the watchdog; we are the bully. And we worry now that Trump’s foreign policy will alienate potential allies? That cat, my friends, done got out the bag.

Ultimately, we can’t talk productively amongst ourselves, which means we can’t talk credibly to our “allies” (defined, lately, as “whoever we aren’t bombing today”). And underneath a thin veneer of cosmopolitan globalism, a strong current of pre-1940s isolationism still flows: there is a fine line between exceptionalism and “go-fuck-yourselves,” and Donald Trump seems determined to erase it, one idiotic tweet at a time. The longer we insist that we don’t need the world (that we, in fact, are the world, Coca-Cola and all), the more likely it becomes that the rest of the world will realize it doesn’t really need us at all. At that point, it won’t matter who’s in the White House, because we’ll all be in the dog house.

Perhaps what we as a polity need is a swift kick to the groin, as a reminder of our unmitigated hubris. And what better stand-in for Uncle Sam’s crotch than good ol’ D.T.? And it’s an honest mistake: he is a bit of a dick.

If the prospect of Trump in the Oval doesn’t get us to sit up and take notice; if The Donald doesn’t inspire us to re-engage one another in some sort of peaceful and constructive way; if we continue to be so deeply inspired by idiocy, well, then…I give you…

Trump 2016:
When we can’t pretend we aren’t who we are
anymore…