That is all I could think as this horrible story unfolded. Sure, some of us speak up every time a new outbreak of violence occurs while others of us make excuses. But we all settle down afterwards and, in effect, shrug our shoulders. Yeah, there’s some nutcases out there. What are ya gonna do? We’re horrified, and then we get over it, and then it happens again, each incident somehow more senseless — and in an appalling way, less surprising — than the last.
I read Andrew Sullivan’s recent Newsweek cover piece on how a second term could elevate Obama to what is sometimes called a “transformational” president, one who leaves the country profoundly altered in his wake. I resisted its conclusions at first, mostly because they are predicated on the assumption that Congressional Republicans will stop fighting the president tooth and nail and actually contribute somewhat to the stewardship of the nation. I couldn’t see why they would bother. After all, it’s not like anyone on our side thought any more highly of George W. Bush in 2008, did we?
But I thought about it some more, and I begin to see how cooperating with the president might be of strategic importance for the GOP.
Conservatives don’t like things that liberals like. That’s not surprising, nor is it surprising that the reverse pretty well applies: liberals don’t like things that conservatives like. Where the difference starts to creep in is that conservatives seem more likely to take this stance to its next logical step: going out of their way to do things that liberals don’t like, solely because liberals don’t like them — even if doing that thing ultimately harms them.
For instance, there was a great deal of attention given recently to a study that tried to persuade people to reduce their energy usage at home. Notices were sent to the highest-consuming households with gentle suggestions that the household in question could do better in conserving energy. The study found that Democratic households were likely to reduce their usage in response; Republican ones, by contrast, were likely to increase it. As noted in the linked article, Rush Limbaugh even encouraged his listeners to turn on all of their lights during Earth Hour, a gesture that certainly cost his audience many thousands of dollars in wasted utility spending. Glenn Beck told his audience not merely to refrain from using their own grocery bags, but to use as much plastic as possible. That’ll show us tree huggers!
It is a commonplace among conservatives that liberals are bereft of humor and joy, hate individual liberty and derive their sole pleasure from curtailing other people’s happiness. A popular conservative slogan goes “Annoy a Liberal: Work Hard and Be Happy.” As a liberal myself, I think it’s only fair to confess that this supposition is true. At our secret monthly meetings (which we totally have, usually in mosques or Whole Foods stores), my fellow liberals and I like to swap stories about the various successes we have had in jealously undermining the successful and the hard-working, persuading women to have abortions and redistributing as much of America’s material wealth to undeserving poor and minority households as possible. We like to strategize about which decadent cultural practice we ought to demonize next: how about off-roading, or fishing? And we speak of the true ache in our hearts when we contemplate those who are prosperous and happy, and who bear the lowest tax burden of nearly anyone in the First World. It is our mission to destroy such comforts, and we will get there one day, Dawkins willing.
At any rate, in the spirit of free discussion, I would like to confess on behalf of my fellow liberals several other activities we liberals hate, and which our conservative countrymen may feel compelled to adopt.
1. Punching Yourself in the Face
As a liberal, my reflexive compassion compels me to help people whether they want it or not. Were I to see a successful American savagely pummel his own mug into swollen, eggplant-like mush in defiance of my touchy-feely values, I would want to see him restrained, evaluated and possibly commited for his own protection. You’re not going to just let me get away with that, are you?
2. Setting Fire to $100 Bills
Little-known fact: the smoke from burning American currency is actually deadly to liberals, and the higher the denomination, the more toxic the fumes. If you were to bring a $5,000 bill to a David Sedaris reading and set it on fire, you would kill most of the audience in the space of a few seconds. You probably don’t have a $5,000 bill, so an equivalent amount of Benjamins would probably do the trick (I haven’t actually tried it).
3. Giving Away All of Your Possessions to a Poor Family
Hey, it’s the government’s job to confiscate your wealth and redistribute it! Stop that!
I offer these suggestions in the hope that my conservative countrymen will make reasoned decisions based on what is actually good for them, rather than what they imagine to be bad for someone else. If that doesn’t work, well, maybe someone will actually punch himself in the face, which would be kind of funny. Glenn Beck, care to take this one up?
From screenwriter John Rogers:
There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.
Think for a moment what a different world we would be living in if just a single man — Alan Greenspan — had fallen for Tolkien instead of Rand. It’s staggering to contemplate. Hell, even if it had been L. Ron Hubbard instead of Rand, I’m thinking it would be a net win for humanity.
Hat-tip to the Daily Dish.
Having finally gotten around to reading Sam Harris‘ The End of Faith, I was surprised to discover a lengthy digression on torture as relates to the prosecution of what we still called, in those benighted days, the War on Terror.
It would be inaccurate, I think, to say that Harris stood in favor of torture as such. However, he did argue powerfully that our revulsion to torture is essentially hypocritical, extending as it does from a sort of moral blind spot. Harris’ argument is too lengthy to quote directly, so I will summarize it as fairly as I can.
- We are resigned to what we call in warfare “collateral damage,” meaning the unintended destruction of non-military targets and the injury and death of civilians.
- The toll in pain and death exacted by collateral damage is as gruesome as that of any other wartime horror: men, women and children are blinded, crippled, mutilated or killed, or suffer thirst, starvation and sickness in the wake of attacks that destroy local infrastructure and services.
- The pain and suffering of the collaterally damaged is, in fact, qualitatively of little to no difference to that suffered under torture.
- The preceding premises being true, one cannot morally object to one but not the other; anyone willing to accept collateral damage in wartime has no basis from which to declaim torture as immoral.
Harris made this argument to illustrate the limitations and biases inherent in our moral reasoning, particularly the human tendency to respond to individual suffering while remaining relatively unmoved by the suffering of a great many people. There is a component of torture — perhaps the way in which it is reducible in our imaginations to a dichotomy of victim and tormentor, the latter holding the former utterly in his power — that seems immediate and visceral. Yet Harris, while admitting even he found his own conclusions unsettling, was not simply arguing as the devil’s advocate. Those who have read The End of Faith will know that Harris has a very large axe to grind against Islamic fundamentalism; unlike most thinkers of essentially leftist bent, Harris has no compunction about denouncing Islam as a religion of ignorance, hatred and cruelty, nor does he balk at describing its war on the West in essentially neoconservative terms: that is, as a clash of civilizations, a zero-sum game in which compromise or rapprochement is out of the question.
As a person repulsed by the torture that has been carried out by my government ostensibly on my behalf, I was brought up short by Harris’ arguments. Had I been too quick to give in to my instinctive reaction of horror and outrage? How can one argue with any conviction that slamming a man’s head repeatedly into a wall is worse than, say, burning a little girl with napalm while denuding the forests surrounding her village? Is one of these things really worse than the other?
Upon reflection, I came to the conclusion that yes, one of these really is worse than the other. The reason lies in an argument that Harris used earlier in his book but forgot, or omitted, to apply to the torture debate. That reason is intention.
The End of Faith spends considerable time discussing of Noam Chomsky, who has argued that the United States routinely commits atrocities of the magnitude of September 11 and that we are, at best, no worse than the terrorists who struck back at us; in fact, our arrogance and self-righteousness actually make us worse. Harris has no time for this facile moral equivalency. Citing Chomsky’s example of the U.S. bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical laboratory in 1998 (which Chomsky claims doomed hundreds of thousands to die of otherwise treatable illnesses), Harris points out an obvious, and significant, distinction. The U.S. attack came as part of an effort to destroy sources of biological and chemical weapons. It was not the United States’ intention — nor was it even in its strategic interest — to destroy a vital source of medicine for the civilian population. The September 11 hijackers chose precisely the opposite tactic, one designed to cause the maximum possible civilian destruction, and concomitantly, the maximum amount of horror, grief and revulsion.
It may be — and is — cold comfort for thousands of bereaved Sudanese to be told, essentially, “We didn’t mean it when we consigned your children to die of malaria and dysentery.” But as Harris points out, intention forms the very foundation of ethics. And ethics, I might add, forms the very foundation of justice. The modern justice system is based on the understanding that motivation is the key to understanding crime and properly administering punishment or redress. Two people might be brutally run over by cars on the same night; one may be the victim of an enraged ex-husband, the other of a sudden and fatal impulse to run into the street after a dropped $20 bill. Although the result in these two situations is the same, as is the sense of loss experienced by the bereaved families, they are not the same crime, and there is no ethical argument for treating them as such.
This is the difference between a girl blinded in a bombing and a man driven irreparably mad by physical and psychological torture. We go out of our way to ensure that the bomb will not injure the girl, continually improving the accuracy and precision of our weapons to ensure only strategically significant targets are destroyed. The purpose of any attack in war is to limit or destroy the enemy’s capacity to fight back, not to murder and terrorize civilians; indeed, the latter effect might well work against the former. Exceptions can, of course, be cited throughout the history of our country and our world, from repugnant aberrations such as My Lai to deliberate wholesale destruction, such as Sherman’s March. But as a general principle of warfare, the axiom is sound: attacking military targets and avoiding civilian ones is the most effective way to wage war.
This is sound military strategy, but it is also a sound moral position, one held by generals as much as by civilians on the home front. We maintain a distinction between civilian and military targets because it is a crucial way of maintaining our humanity in the midst of the harrowing pressures of war. War may be hell, but it is a hell we have tempered through mutually agreed-upon rules for civilized conflict: capturing instead of slaughtering troops who surrender; refraining from the use of chemical or biological weapons; honoring neutrality; and affording all those within a war zone a measure of basic human dignity. Civilized nations do not sell prisoners into slavery, prostitute them or hold them for ransom. And civilized nations do not torture.
Torture deprives human beings of their humanity in a way that mere imprisonment, even in harsh conditions, does not. It is not the randomness of flying shrapnel or the error of shelling the hospital instead of the munitions factory. It is an act of calculated cruelty, a deliberate stripping away of the mental and psychological resources that are the bequest of civilization itself. There is a very good reason why torture strikes such a deep chord of horror and unease within us, why most of the Americans who insist on the benefits of this practice still can’t bring themselves to drop the mealy-mouthed euphemism “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Only a sociopath — or one who has completely excluded the enemy from their moral universe through racism, nativism or simple abject fear — can remain unmoved by the spectacle of one human being reducing another to a state of infantile helplessness through the application of pain. It is simply not who we are.
This is not, as Harris maintains, the result of some facile moral blindness. The capacity to treat even our enemies with a modicum of respect is the quality that, to be blunt, makes us better than them; it is a component of our cultural identity far more valuable than any transient strategic advantage that torture might confer. (That there is little evidence that torture confers any such advantage is beside the point.) We as Americans may not be — may never have been — as exceptional as we claimed. But we entered this conflict with a clear moral advantage, one which I, at least, clung to over the last turbulent eight years. I believed that the ideals which my country maintained even in war were worthy ideals, and that we could never truly be defeated as long as we held fast to them.
Now my country is afraid — so afraid that it couldn’t shed those ideals fast enough, as long as their loss granted a feeling of safety and control; exercising our power and our cruelty gave us the heady rush of charging into battle full-bore, all guns ablaze, redeeming ourselves for the torpor that allowed the attacks to succeed in the first place. Too few people stopped to ask if this crack-cocaine rush of bogus courage was worth the price; and while many people still insist ours is the greatest nation on earth, they are at greater and greater pains to explain why.
Andrew Sullivan has been running a regular feature on his blog called “the cannabis closet,” in which ordinary, productive, otherwise law-abiding citizens advocate for the decriminalization of marijuana by admitting to their own use of it, thus demonstrating the possibility of using marijuana responsibly and harmlessly.
It’s a clever idea. As Sullivan and others have argued, the cultural stereotype of the marijuana user is the bearded or beaded Deadhead, a guy (or gal) who, one strongly suspects, actually hangs those centerfolds from High Times up in the garage or the basement. The first step toward sensible reform of the marijuana laws is to shatter the stereotype of the addled pot-smoking hippie, disingenuously arguing for the benefits of hemp clothing when everyone knows he really wants to be able to blaze up at the Phish concert without getting hooked by the law. I already knew pot was far more mainstream than that, but even I have been somewhat taken aback by the breadth of the testimonials Sullivan has collected so far. There are an awful lot of folks out there who demonstrate you can keep your shit together and smoke it, too.
Anyway, having been clean for many years now, I don’t have the opportunity to weigh in with my own testimony. But it got me thinking about a marvelous mass protest that would force the issue of marijuana reform on the national radar in a big way. Let me admit up front there is no way in hell this would ever happen. But as a thought experiment, it’s a honey.
According to statistics, about 12.5% of people in the U.S. smoked pot at least once in the last year. That’s roughly 38 million Americans, between the ages of 15 and 64. Let’s say for the sake of argument that the majority of those — say 35 million, roughly equal to the entire population of California — are at least semi-regular users.
Now let’s say that all of those folks picked a day. Could be April 20, could be any old day. And let’s say that, on that day, 35 million marijuana users all turned themselves into the police.
Imagine husbands and wives, grandmas and grandpas, sons and daughters; school teachers, financial advisors, lawyers and librarians; soldiers, firefighters, grocery clerks, real estate agents — hell, maybe even the occasional policeman — all rolling up to their local police station to give themselves up.
I can’t find any statistics on how many people are currently embroiled in the criminal justice system right now. From DUIs and trespassing citations up to robberies and murders, there are undoubtedly a lot of people working their way through the state and federal courts. Now imagine tossing in a few dozen million more, all copping to the same benign offense. The justice system would grind to a halt. Camera crews would record footage of lines leading out of police stations and snaking around the block. Police would be reduced to taking names and numbers and sending people home, the cases subsequently going unpursued due to “shortages of resources and manpower.” And the people watching at home would, I think, be astonished to see how many of their fellow ordinary citizens pursue this pastime, who are considered criminals under our country’s current laws.
That, I think, would change the conversation in a big hurry.