The Torture Prosecutions That Couldn’t

Charles PierceIt is axiomatic, or it certainly ought to be, that people who torture are fundamentally cowards, and that the people who order torture are more cowardly still since they subcontract their crimes to people they consider little more than hired hands, and who they will gladly serve up to maintain the fiction of the few bad apples that spoil the whole coffin-sized box. We are seeing this in real time now. Cheney makes sure we know Bush knew. Yoo says the CIA people went too far beyond the careful legal infrastructure he’d built. And this brings us, sadly, to the moral calamity at the heart of the Obama Administration, the final, tragic consequence of Looking Forward, Not Back. And the deepest tragedy about it is that it was inevitable.

It is clear from what we’ve heard from these creatures over the last week that, if they’d ever been tried for the crimes against humanity they committed, in any courtroom in the world, they’d have turned on each other in a New York minute. You wouldn’t have to waterboard Cheney to get him to give you Bush. He’d do it for a steak. You wouldn’t have to blow pasta up John Yoo’s hindquarters to get him to roll on the people who relied on his instructions to carry out their orders. I’m willing to bet a considerable bag of nickels that there are a few dozen anonymous CIA operatives who are feeling very hung out to dry at the moment, and who would be willing, at the price of a reduction of their sentences, to sing a lovely aria. This might have been the easiest prosecution in the history of the world.

Alas, as we also have learned from the polling over the past week, it would not have been an easy prosecution to sell to a public that is more willing to trust a television show than it is to trust the Geneva Conventions… That is what made the moral calamity of the Obama Administration inevitable. The president is not an amoral man. Neither is he stupid. He knew full well, despite all his glowing rhetoric about the fundamental decency of the American people, that, for its own scurvy purposes, the previous administration unleashed the darkest collective human impulses that the country possesses, that the previous administration made good use of fear and ignorance, and the anger that is their monstrous stepchild, and that it profited politically and personally for having done so. He also knew that, somewhere, deep in the heart that he is sure the United State till possesses, a kind of national shame was building up to a level pretty close to critical mass and that, if it detonated in an uncontrolled explosion, the power of it could be terribly misused.

So the moral calamity of the Obama Administration is one that was forced upon it by the nature of the transformation of the country that was wrought in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, a transformation that never was going to be temporary, since an endless war requires a permanently transformed country. Reading the polls today makes a mockery of the notion that there ever has been a president elected to office who would have had the raw political courage to hand these gutless bastards over to the Hague to be tried for war crimes, or to prosecute them ourselves for criminal conspiracy… And that political establishment has resisted the court because it knows full well that the court has no constituency in the United States, an exceptional country that does not torture or commit war crimes, an exception country that has guaranteed that a moral calamity will be at the heart of every presidency for the next 100 years, because there is no constituency for law that is stronger than the constituency for vengeance.

—Charlie Pierce
The Moral Calamity of The Obama Administration

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Steve Biko

[After everything that has gone on with the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and John Crawford III — along with the release of the torture report — I’ve decided to reprint a slightly edited article I wrote three months ago on the anniversary of Steve Biko’s death. It goes along with South African comedian Trevor Noah, and his appearance on The Daily Show about how we’ve managed to create an apartheid state without having to enact explicitly racist laws. We do it all with heavy doses of implicit racism. —FM]

Steve BikoOn this day in 1946, the great political activist Steve Biko was born. He worked against the apartheid regime in South Africa. In the late 1960s, he helped to form South African Students’ Organization and was its first president. By 1972, his political activities were so successful that he was thrown out of college. And the following year he was “banned” by the South African government. That meant he was forbidden from speaking to more than one person at a time. And he was confined to his township. And he could not write for or speak to the media.

Let us take a step back from this. In the United States at this time and for another decade and a half, conservatives in the United States spoke of apartheid South Africa as though it were the shining light of democracy in Africa. According to these conservatives, the rulers of South Africa were the modern incarnations of the Founding Fathers. But we all know what was really going on. The rules were white, so it didn’t matter what they did. And the oppressed were black, so it didn’t matter what was done to them.

Despite these restrictions, Biko continued to organize. The Soweto Uprising was highly successful, and was put down by the regime with its characteristic restraint by setting dogs on the school children and then shooting them. At least a couple hundred where killed and over a thousand wounded. After this, the regime decided that they really needed to go after Steve Biko, even though he was not directly involved.

On 18 August 1977, Biko was arrested at a check point under a law that ought to sound familiar to Americans who have been paying any attention to events in America over the last several decades, Terrorism Act No 83 of 1967. He was tortured for 22 hours. This resulted in Biko slipping into a coma. Then he was chained to a window grill for a day. Just short of four weeks later, he was transported 700 miles to a prison that had hospital facilities. He died the next day — 12 September 1977. Wikipedia provides the following tragic but entirely typical conclusion, “The police claimed his death was the result of an extended hunger strike, but an autopsy revealed multiple bruises and abrasions and that he ultimately succumbed to a brain hemorrhage from the massive injuries to the head…” You know: the police never do anything wrong. And they can never be held accountable regardless, “After a 15-day inquest in 1978, a magistrate judge found there was not enough evidence to charge the officers with murder because there were no eyewitnesses.”

The one good thing about Biko’s death was that it really did publicize just how awful the apartheid system was. Over 10,000 people came to Biko’s funeral. So he was a martyr to the cause that he had worked his whole adult life for. So I can see the beauty in his life and ultimate sacrifice. But it mostly just fills me with rage.

Nevertheless: happy birthday Steve Biko!

Afterword

Here is Peter Gabriel’s song “Biko”:

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Mars Discovery Is Very Exciting — to Me

Curiosity Rover Image of Martian LandscapeIt has long been speculated that the existence of methane on other planets and moons could be a sign that life may be present now or have been present in the past. This is because the methane in our atmosphere comes primarily from life functions like the digestion of cows or termites. So scientists are very interested in Saturn’s moon Titan because of the methane in its atmosphere and the probable methane seas. But yesterday we got some very interesting news from Mars, Curiosity Rover Detects Spikes of Methane at Mars.

What the little rover is seeing is methane levels shooting way up and then coming way back down — below even the average global concentration. Sushil Atreya of the Curiosity team said it “tells us there must be some relatively localized source.” Even if it is of biological origin, it could be an ancient source of the gas, which is slowly being released or cycled through the environment. Or it could be of totally non-biological original through a source “such as interaction of water and rock.” So we want to be cautious here, because the news is interesting but doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

Nicholas Heavens at The Planetary Society had a few choice words of caution even before he found out what the discovery was, Like A Bad Penny: Methane on Mars. I think he is far too cynical, but he does provide a nice overview of the methane-related discoveries on Mars. They start with the measurement of the methane concentration in the Mars atmosphere that is half of what it is here on earth. But that is less impressive than it sounds because the Mars atmosphere is so thin and concentrations are reported as (very very small) percentages. Heavens concludes, “Mars had some methane, but not very much of it.” Like I said: cynical!

He went on to discuss some of the potential problems there were with the initial measurements of methane. The main one was that there was a fairly high level of variability in them. Again, he wrote this before seeing what the new research showed. But now that we do know, it at least partially explains the methane variability. But Heavens’ main concern seems to be that people go hog-wild with the little information we have. Caution is good advice. It makes me think of a sequence from Cosmos about the same thing regarding Venus, “Observation: you couldn’t see a thing. Conclusion: dinosaurs.”

The main thing to remember here is that as exciting as this all is, it is unlikely that any of it indicates that life exists on Mars right now. But it is more data that suggests that Mars did indeed have life on it at one time. And it was a high tech civilization that created canals to move water from the poles! And they flew around on jetpacks like in The Jetsons! And they had domesticated dinosaurs that children rode on at the fair! Stop, stop, stop! I got carried away there. None of sentences the that end with an exclamation mark is true. But the next one is:

Mars might have had some kind of basic microbial life on it at one time!

And that is enough to be very very excited. And I doubt that Nicholas Heavens would disagree.

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Peshawar School Attack Not Religious

Peshawar School AttackThe Peshawar school attack yesterday was truly horrific — in the same way that the Sandy Hook massacre was. Except this one that the patina of politics that makes it seem worse. I’m not sure that it is (except in that there were many more deaths). Adam Peter Lanza, in his messed up mind, must have had reasons for killing a bunch of people. And the Pakistani Taliban have their reasons. The stated reason is that it is revenge for the Pakistani army’s killing of the Taliban’s own families. Just as I don’t think torturing is right just because “they” do it, I don’t think revenge killing is ever justified — especially of the children of those revenge is sought against.

What I don’t really understand why this attack is framed as religious in nature. You can hardly go anywhere in reading about it without tripping over Muslims claiming that the attack was “un-Islamic.” It’s a funny claim anyway. The Quran is a big book. I’m sure you can find all kinds of text in it that would lead one to believe that killing children is wrong — emphatically so. Just the same, I find it hard to believe that you can’t also find text that justifies killing children. I don’t know the Quran, but all the Abrahamic religions are pretty bloodthirsty. Here’s Isaiah 14:21, “Prepare for his sons a place of slaughter because of the iniquity of their fathers.” That was God talking. There is more.

But a fundamental problem I have as seeing this as a religious attack is that it is Muslims on each side. We in the west have such a tendency to see Islam as this monolithic thing. I discussed that yesterday, The Bigoted “Muslims Condemn” Ritual. But clearly, in this case Muslims on one side are acting the way the United States does. And on the other side, Muslims are acting as terrorists. As I have tried to explain over the years, terrorism is a tactic of relatively impotent groups. Such groups would wage wars in more “civilized” ways if they had the ability.

The main thing is that terrorism isn’t something that comes out religion — much less a specific religion. Christians, Jews, and Muslims have all used terrorism when the tactic suited them. And they have just as quickly condemned it as a tactic when it suited their political interests. And atheists use it too! I am sick to death of the idea that terrorism is something specific to Islamic faith when it is actually that Islam is the religion of a lot of places where people have a lot of political grievances.

I came upon a great article from last year by Owen Jones, Not in Our Name: Dawkins Dresses Up Bigotry as Non-Belief — He Cannot Be Left to Represent Atheists. It discusses many of these issues in a general sense. But I want to highlight one that is perhaps most annoying. It is the idea that people like me give Islam a pass — that it is just our liberal nature forcing us to see the poor Islamic world as oppressed.

I’m often asked why I don’t take a stronger line against Islamism: that it is one of my blind spots. In truth, I think that issue is pretty much covered. The alleged threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism has been debated to death ever since several Saudi hijackers crashed planes into the Twin Towers over a decade ago. Polls show that support for political Islamism is tiny among Britain’s Muslims, and they are as likely to support violence as the rest of us. Terrorism is being dealt with by the security services, and a few articles by me isn’t really going to contribute very much. My fear, however, is all I would achieve is magnifying a marginal problem among a small religious minority, contributing to a climate where Muslims generally are portrayed as extremists and potential terrorists.

To this, I would add something else. I still find it offensive that Americans are so concerned about religious extremism over there, when we have so much of it here. The common counterargument is that our Christians are not violent. First, that isn’t true; it is just that we carve out an exception for every act of violence perpetrated by a Christian. Timothy McVeigh wasn’t a Christian terrorist because he acted based upon a political ideology. Guess what? The same thing can be said for the vast majority of Muslim terrorists. The fact remains that if McVeigh had been a Muslim, he would still be referred to as a Muslim terrorist.

More concerning is that I have absolutely no doubt that if American Christians saw their lives fall apart, they would not respond like Job. They would respond with violence. Just look at the violent rhetoric that the Christian right uses for mythical oppression! “Don’t Retreat! Reload!”? That was in response to Laura Schlessinger’s resignation after repeatedly using the n-word on the radio. Imagine what would happen in Mississippi if the federal government refused to send the state any more aid than the federal government received in taxes? There would be blood in the streets. But, of course, most people wouldn’t call it religion violence — nor would I.

It is far too facile to dismiss wars and terrorism as the acts of religious people. They are political struggles. Regardless, I know many of my fellow atheists who think if we could just get rid of religion, the world would be more peaceful. I wish it were so, but I just don’t see that. As Jones put it, “Religion can be used to justify anything: and, in practice, it has.” That’s true of good things and bad. Religion is not the cause; it is the justification.

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No Special Pleading From Hollywood

Aaron SorkinI remember listening to an interview with Sidney Lumet about the making of Serpico. He told one story about Al Pacino hanging out with the real Frank Serpico. It was an acting exercise for Pacino, who was studying for the part. But then the relationship was broken off brutally. Lumet, sympathetic toward Serpico who he referred to as smart and funny, laughed the whole thing off. According to him, that was Hollywood and that was the necessary nature of their “art.” I didn’t buy it. To me, it was just a couple of rich and famous guys who were used to being jerks to people who had no power over them.

I had this feeling again that I was listening to the pampered Hollywood elites who think they are “artists” doing some kind of noble work — above the considerations of other people. In this case, it was Aaron Sorkin’s pathetic OpEd in The New York Times, The Sony Hack and the Yellow Press. Basically, it is a long whine about how unfair it is that the hacked information is getting reported. His logic is what we charitably call “completely wrong.”

He wants us to think about this as though it happened to one of us. Would we want our personal conversations revealed to the world? Of course we wouldn’t! But our personal conversations will not be revealed to the world because the world does not care. The world does care about Amy Pascal, because she runs Sony Pictures. And Amy Pascal gets paid really well to put up with the fact that a computer hack with information about her is news. Similarly, Aaron Sorkin’s $80 million net worth should sooth any hardships he may have to bear. And Angelina Jolie’s half billion dollar net worth is more than enough compensation for getting her fee-fees hurt.

But the whole thing is just so very hypocritical. Michael Hiltzik summed up the issue perfectly, Why the Press Must Report Those Sony Hacks:

Hollywood makes billions by manipulating reality, including the reality that is Hollywood itself. It’s not that executives don’t want information to be divulged about their machinations to get a movie made, or their judgments about actors, actresses and directors: they merely want it all to be published entirely according to their own spin.

That’s what it really all comes down to. It is exactly the same thing we see from the White House — no matter who is sleeping there at night. They don’t want any unauthorized leaks. But they love leaks! They provide a steady stream of leaks. They just don’t want any leaks that don’t flatter them. So Aaron Sorkin’s OpEd really is nothing more than special pleading. But there is no reason to give him or anyone else among the Hollywood elite any special treatment. Richard Nixon did not want the Pentagon Papers reported on because they made the government look bad. Aaron Sorkin doesn’t want the Sony hacks reported on because they make Hollywood look bad.

Hiltzik provided the perfect one word response: tough.

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America’s Difficult Torture Journey

Conor FriedersdorfWhen I was growing up, Americans thought of torture as a tactic used by history’s villains. A brutal dictator might keep a depraved regime in power with torture. People in foreign countries might suffer inside torture chambers. But US policy reflected the will of the citizenry, not the sadism of an evil-doer. Even folks who knew that the US had tortured in the past never imagined it would do so again.

After al-Qaeda murdered nearly 3,000 Americans, our polity didn’t exactly embrace torture. But attitudes in the US shifted. The absolutist taboo against torture gave way to a consequentialist debate. Nearly everyone continued to avow that torture was morally unacceptable in almost all circumstances. On the other hand, say a ticking time bomb would incinerate New York City and a terrorist knew the code to stop it. Would it be morally permissible to torture the terrorist?

Over many months, Americans debated that question.

On Sunday, Dick Cheney gave an interview that illustrated why it was so imprudent to abandon the taboo against torture and indulge in implausible hypotheticals. 13 years ago, Americans were arguing over whether it should be legal to torture a known terrorist if we knew it could stop a mass casualty attack on a major city. Now a former vice-president is defending the torture of innocent people

Once 9/11 happened, Dick Cheney ceased to believe that the CIA should be subject to the US Constitution, statutes passed by Congress, international treaties, or moral prohibitions against torture. Those standards would be cast aside. In their place, moral relativism would reign. Any action undertaken by the United States would be subject to this test: Is it morally equivalent to what al-Qaeda did on 9/11? Is it as bad as murdering roughly 3,000 innocent people? If not, then no one should criticize it, let alone investigate, charge and prosecute the CIA. Did a prisoner freeze to death? Were others anally raped? Well, what if they were?

If it cannot be compared with 9/11, if it is not morally equivalent, then it should not be verboten.

That is the moral standard Cheney is unabashedly invoking on national television. He doesn’t want the United States to honor norms against torture. He doesn’t want us to abide by the Ten Commandments, or to live up to the values in the Declaration of Independence, or to be restrained by the text of the Constitution. Instead, Cheney would have us take al-Qaeda as our moral and legal measuring stick. Did America torture dozens of innocents? So what. 9/11 was worse.

Now that Cheney is stating all this explicitly it must be rejected as moral madness. Torture was the ticking time bomb. It exploded. And a city on a hill was destroyed. I hope it is rebuilt in time for my unborn children to grow up in a place that abhors torture, regarding it as a dark curiosity perpetrated by history’s villains.

We’ve got a long way to go.

—Conor Friedersdorf
Dick Cheney Defends the Torture of Innocents


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John Kennedy Toole

John Kennedy TooleOn this day in 1937, the great writer John Kennedy Toole was born. Other than his juvenilia, he is only known for one thing, A Confederacy of Dunces. But what a thing! Everyone seems to know the story of how the book was published: his suicide and his depressed mother’s pursuit of its publication. I can’t speak to the cause of Toole’s finally unraveling. I’m sure if he had found a publisher — especially if the book had done as well as it would when it finally was published — it would at least have extended his life. But I suspect there was more going on than a general depression brought on by a lack of professional success.

In preparation for this post, I spent an hour going through my books, looking for my copy of A Confederacy of Dunces. I couldn’t find it. I did find two copies of Kaufmann’s translation of Faust — which is okay, given one of them is in pieces. (I don’t know why I haven’t thrown it out.) And I found at least five copies of Dr Faustus — which is not okay, because I was collecting them because I had this idea of producing it at some point. But no Confederacy. I must have loaned it out to someone to read.

This is something that I do, especially with this book. No intelligent American should be able to go through life without reading A Confederacy of Duncesat least once. It is a wonderful book. And I don’t even mean in the sense that it is brilliant with a great feel for language. I mean it in the sense that it is a very funny book. You will enjoy it! Let me go further: you will enjoy it from the first page!

You have to ask yourself an important question, “Why am I reading Frankly Curious when I could be reading A Confederacy of Dunces?” There are really only two acceptable answers. First: “Because it is only now that you have opened my eyes!” Second: “I have already read it!” I appreciate your readership. But I’m more than willing to wait. A Confederacy of Dunces is a very special book — especially for the kind of people who come around here. (You should take that as a compliment.)

Happy birthday John Kennedy Toole!

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Mohammed Islam Should Read During Lunch Break

Mohammed IslamJust about everywhere I went on Sunday, I saw a very click-bait-y headline about some kid who had made $72 million during his lunch break day trading. I’m highly susceptible to click-bait, but I did not click. For one thing, I’m not that interested in things that are special only because they are done by someone young. They always make me wonder what’s wrong with their parents and why the kids aren’t outside doing something edifying. I’m also not interested in the subject of stock trading. I would have been far more interested by a headline like, “High school senior has profound inside into Don Quixote during lunch break.” So I just didn’t care.

Now we learn from New York Observer that the kid was lying. Or rather, he was trading but it was all simulated. Fair enough. Fun with numbers! Of course, it wasn’t all a simple mistake. The young man — Mohammed Islam — went so far as to make a false bank statement that he used to deceive the original reporter. But I can’t imagine that she looked all that closely. After all, a multi-millionaire self-made teenager is exactly the sort of thing that America generally, and New York especially, wants to celebrate. He reaps but does not sow — the American Dream!

Before the story fell apart, Jeff Macke at Yahoo! Finance called it bunk, Story of the High School Day Trader Making $72 Million Fails the Smell Test. Basically, he showed that the numbers just didn’t add up. He calculated that Islam would have had to have made returns of at least 500% per year for the last seven years — since he was ten years old. “In other words, Mo wouldn’t have to be one of the few blessed souls with market skills like Warren Buffett or Paul Tudor Jones… Mo would have to be the greatest trader in history. Ever. By far.” Since he’s a finance type, Macke’s annoyance seems to be with the idea that people think making money with stocks is easy. Fair enough. But I doubt that this is really what was going on in the story. I think it is rather the opposite.

The story was a big deal in the same way as “Six year old sings national anthem at Super Bowl.” Stock trading is something that few people really understand but which they think is super cool because people make scads of money doing it. And it has been a long time since the stock market seemed to have much relationship to the real economy. I know that every stock trader thinks they are doing the important work of moving capital to companies that need it. But with things like high-frequency trading, which actually hurt the process of moving capital to where it can be used, this isn’t entirely true. And certainly the public’s perception of Wall Street is that it is a kind of black magic that some people are very good at. So why not a 17 year old high school student?

I wonder about a society that thinks this is a good thing. I wasn’t kidding when I wrote that Islam reaped but did not sow. His amazing trading — if it were true — would not have resulted in a more efficient market where worthy companies get more capital at a lower price. He supposedly started trading penny stocks! What he was supposedly doing was just beating other traders. He was the human equivalent of a high-frequency trading computer. And that means that all Islam was doing was making money. We’re supposed to applaud that?!

Give me a 5,000 word essay about the depiction of the working man in Don Quixote any day!

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Obama’s Bad Bet on Republicans

Barack ObamaOver the weekend, Jane Mayer wrote, Torture and the Truth. I know that many people are thinking, “Torture! Again?! That’s so last week!” Actually, this article is not about torture. But the truth of the matter is that, for me, torture will never be so last whatever. It’s not that I ever thought that the United States was lily white, but I was appalled when Cheney started talking about the “dark side” and people began to discuss when torture might be okay. From grammar school on, I always thought that the willingness to torture was the prime thing that separated the “good guys” from the “bad guys.” So I’m never getting over this. But that’s not what I’m going to discuss here.

In Mayer’s article, she discussed how Obama blew the response to this issue. By leaving it for so long to be dealt with by the Senate, he allowed it to become just another partisan issue. She quoted political science professor Darius Rejali, “It’s becoming a lot like the death penalty.” (I find this terrifying; I really do think that the Republicans have devolved into nothing short of fascism.) But it isn’t like the issue was off the table. Mayer explained that in early 2009, pretty much all of Obama’s advisers were in favor of “the formation of an independent commission.” It wasn’t done. “Obama, however, said that he didn’t want to seem to be taking punitive measures against his predecessor, apparently because he still hoped to reach bipartisan agreement on issues such as closing Guantánamo.”

Two days ago, I quoted Garry Wills, The Problem With Obama. In it, he said that Obama is so keen to maintain continuity that he often (Usually?) does the wrong thing. I think that is at work here. But there is a political aspect here as well — one that gets to the heart of why Obama was exactly the wrong president for this period. He was so eager to placate to stop people from attacking him as a foreign radical. And what he got for that was absolutely nothing. And that will continue going forward.

Can anyone doubt that if President Cruz is elected in 2016, that he would hesitate to prosecute the previous administration for any actual scandal that turns up? The Republicans — almost twenty years ago when they were a hell of lot more reasonable than they are now — impeached a president because he lied about an affair with an intern. I’m not even convinced that if the Republicans control all of Washington in 2017 that they won’t continue on with their Benghazi and IRS fake scandal mongering.

As I mention a whole lot around here, I’m not that ideological. I’m a pragmatist. That’s why I gave the Democrats a pass on the CRomnibus. But there is a huge difference between knowing what is possible and pretending that you live in a world of fairies and elves where you can have all the candy you want. And that was certainly the world that Obama used to live in. And to a significant, but reduced, degree I think he still does.

Politics is about power. Smart power. It isn’t about rubbing your opponent’s nose in his defeat. In fact, providing face-saving concessions to your enemies is a big part of correcting wielding power. (This is something that the United States is famously bad at internationally.) But it is not about cajoling. All Obama’s efforts to entice and prove that he is a moderate (by our far-right skewing system) have only hurt his efforts to get things done. If he had called for a single-payer healthcare system, he would have been called a socialist. So he didn’t call for a single-payer healthcare system, and he was called a socialist.

Well played, Mr President!

Afterword

For the record, I know that the reason we couldn’t have a single-payer healthcare system is because of all those Blue Dog Democrats — like Obama himself! I should point out, however, that the vast majority of those conservative Democrats were swept out of office in 2010, so I don’t really know what they thought they were buying. And that was as predictable as anything in politics. Conservative Democrats get elected in nominally red districts. Outside of a wave, Democrats won’t get elected there, so they are sure to lose the next time. So they might as well stand up for liberal policy. (This is assuming that they believe in liberal policy. And I have to admit that I just don’t know anymore.)


H/T: Digby

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The Bigoted “Muslims Condemn” Ritual

Haron MonisMy big takeaway from Tim Rice’s White Like Me is that the ultimate sense of white privilege is not being defined as a category. It is like when I was a child, I thought that vanilla had no flavor — just sugary deliciousness. This isn’t to say that this is all that white privilege is. Given my anti-authoritarian tendencies and the way I’ve lived my life, had I been born black, I would probably be doing 20 to life in some prison somewhere. I would not be able to refer wryly to my “colorful” past. But I think it is much more fundamental to know that anything I do — go or bad — reflects on me alone and is not “typical of those people” or “the exception that proves the rule about those people.”

This occurs to me all the time. Whenever there is murder, I hope it is a white guy. It’s not that I care about the individual case. But when it is anyone but a white guy, it becomes categorized. The issue is not the explicit bigots — they already “know” whatever it is they know. But for the rest of us, it pushes buttons that have been created by living in a racist society our entire lives. In fact, it is doubtless deeper than that — with evolutionary and pattern recognition aspects of biology.

It is in this context that I came upon Max Fisher’s fantastic article, Stop Asking Muslims to Condemn Terrorism. It’s Bigoted and Islamophobic. With a headline that great, you hardly need to read the article. I feel like getting it tattooed to my forehead. The truth is, it is everywhere in the United States (and the west, as Fisher discussed). It is more blatantly bigoted than anything Paula Deen ever said. Yet it is not only allowed on television — it is celebrated.

Imagine if the same thing were applied to African Americans. Imagine that every time a black man committed a murder, the NAACP had to issue a statement, “The African American community does not condone murder…” As racist a society as we are, no one thinks that would be reasonable because we all know that the act of one black man does not reflect the arbitrary category we place him in — at least when we manage to think about it explicitly. But somehow, requiring the same from Muslims seems just peachy. Fisher noted, “Otherwise, we wouldn’t expect Muslims to condemn [Sydney cafe gunman] Haron Monis — who is clearly a crazy person who has no affiliations with formal religious groups — any more than we would expect Christians to condemn Timothy McVeigh.”

But there’s a kicker. Every event where a Muslim does something terrible causes every mainstream Muslim group to issues statements designed to pacify the non-Muslim community, who are at that point quite dangerous. But they get no credit for it. Throughout the media, there will still be pundits calling for such statements. On conservative media, there is a genre: the Muslim Lament, “Why don’t regular Muslims stand up against horrific acts?!” Of course, they do. They just never get noticed by these people.

I know the standard reply to all of this, “But Muslims are unique in their use of terror!” I have much to say about this, because it shows a real disconnect where high-tech killing is somehow okay but low-tech killing is not. But let me leave all that aside. Muslims are not unique in their use of terror. And regardless, when the IRA bombed some place, no one went around whining that the Catholic Church didn’t stand up against those terrorists.

Fisher said what ought to be obvious, but isn’t, and bears repeating:

[W]e should treat the assumptions that compel this ritual — that Muslims bear collective responsibility, that they are presumed terrorist-sympathizers until proven otherwise — as flatly bigoted ideas with no place in our society.

This really isn’t asking very much.

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