Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Jon Swift Memorial Roundup 2011

(The Best Posts of the Year, Chosen by the Bloggers Themselves)

Welcome to a tradition started by the much missed Jon Swift/Al Weisel. He left behind some excellent satire, but was also a nice guy and a strong supporter of small blogs. As Lance Mannion puts it:

Our late and much missed comrade in blogging, journalist and writer Al Weisel, revered and admired across the bandwidth as the “reasonable conservative” blogger Modest Jon Swift, was a champion of the lesser known and little known bloggers working tirelessly in the shadows...

One of his projects was a year-end Blogger Round Up. Al/Jon asked bloggers far and wide, famous and in- and not at all, to submit a link to their favorite post of the past twelve months and then he sorted, compiled, blurbed, hyperlinked and posted them on his popular blog. His round-ups presented readers with a huge banquet table of links to work many of has had missed the first time around and brought those bloggers traffic and, more important, new readers they wouldn’t have otherwise enjoyed.

It may not have been the most heroic endeavor, but it was kind and generous and a lot of us owe our continued presence in the blogging biz to Al.

Here's his 2007 and 2008 editions. Last year's revival is here.

If you're not familiar with Al Weisel's work as Jon Swift, his site features a "best of" list in the left column.

Meanwhile, Blogroll Amnesty Day (co-founded with skippy) is a celebration of small blogs that's still going strong, and coming up again the first weekend in February.

Thanks to all the participants, especially those who helped out behind the scenes. Apologies to anyone I missed who wanted to participate. You still can, by linking your post in the comments. Whether your post appears in the modest list below or not, feel free to tweet your best post with the hatchtag #jonswift2011.

As in Jon/Al's 2008 roundup, submissions are listed roughly in the order they were received. As he wrote in that post:

I'm sure you'll be interested in seeing what your favorite bloggers think were their best posts of the year, but be sure to also visit some blogs you've never read before and leave a nice comment if you like what you see or, if you must, a polite demurral if you do not.

Without further ado:

Mad Kane's Political Madness
Newt's Pledge (Limerick)
Madeleine Begun Kane: "A limerick satirizing Newt Gingrich's belated marital fidelity pledge."

Addicting Info
It’s a Sad Day When Some People Think the End of Discrimination is a Sad Day
John Sheirer: "A takedown of all the bogus reasons conservatives used to object to the end of the discriminatory "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" military policy. The article demolishes right-wing talking points on the issue with facts, logic, compassion, personal perspectives, and humor."

Self-Styled Siren
An Amateur Among Amateurs: Agee on Film
Farran Smith Nehme: "The title describes it. Agee is my favorite film critic; I put my heart into this one."

Sarah, Proud and Tall
In which the vengeance of God is justly meted out on earth
Sarah: "This is a little story about one of Bitsy Trump's famous Christmas parties, which contains gratuitous name-dropping, sex, drugs and an act of graphic violence perpetuated against Ayn Rand. What more could a girl want?"

The Satirical Political Report
Michele Bachmann Claims Slavery Ended By a 'Founding Fetus'
Don Davis: "The historically challenged tea-partier from Minnesota drinks the twisted tea to twist history. "

Clarence John Thomas
Dave Dugan: "The real answer behind the question, 'Why Clarence Thomas never speaks when The Supreme Court is in session.'"

His Vorpal Sword
They’re Going After The Wisconsin Teachers
Hart Williams: "How the Waltons, the DeVoses and the Brothers Koch are intimately connected in their attack on public education. And showing the obscene amounts of money they're using to do it...And showing how it's being applied in one state: Wisconsin."

Kiko's House
10 Years After the 9/11 Attacks, The Greatest Cover-Up In U.S. History Remains Intact
Shaun D. Mullen: "Ten years after the 9/11 catastrophe, the Bush administration cover-up of why the terrorist attacks were carried out despite the White House, CIA and FBI being repeatedly warned of them still holds… The mainstream media has been complicitous in ignoring this cover-up and ancillary efforts to hide the truth, which is not to be confused with the rantings of so-called 9/11 Truthers but rather an effort to hide the serial negligence and incompetence that characterized the government response before, during and after the attacks."

David E's Fablog
Hommage à Peter Watkins
David Ehrenstein

The Rude Pundit
The Case for Using Predator Drone Strikes Against Wall Street Executives
Lee Papa: "Hey, if we're not gonna bother prosecuting them, why not treat them as enemy combatants?"

U.S. Can't Take A Whopping Great Iraqi Hint
Steve Hynd

The Debate Link
On Bad Critiques of Rape Prevelance Studies (Part II)
David Schraub: "Two common (albeit somewhat contradictory) critiques of studies indicating rape is quite common in our society are that either the accusers are simply "crying victim" after the fact (e.g., to disguise a sexual encounter they retroactively regret), or that the label of "rape" is being foisted upon events they don't consider to be an instance of assault (as in so-called "gray rape"). In this post, I explain why these explanations don't carry water…"

The Triumph of the One Percent in Pictures
Jon Perr: "With income inequality at its highest level in 80 years while the federal tax burden is at its lowest in 60, the top 1% has already triumphed in the class war Republicans continue to fight on their behalf."

We Are Respectable Negroes
Black History Month is Herman Cain Playing a Race Minstrel For CPAC
Chauncey DeVega: "Here, I examined Herman Cain's breakout performance at CPAC in February 2011. I detailed how he channeled the figure of the race minstrel in order to please white populist conservatives (an argument which I was lambasted for at the time, but that many critics eventually used, in many cases verbatim, months later). Cain and the Right-wing echo chamber latched onto this post. Fox News, Big Hollywood, and many other Right-wing media outlets made it their talking point of the day (or week). Cain became a national figure, in many ways, precisely because of the critique I offered here."

Pruning Shears
Report from Columbus
Dan: "An account of the day thousands of Ohioans protesting SB 5 were locked out of their statehouse."

A Blog About School
Scenes from the first week of school
Chris Liebig: "A description of what my kids' elementary school looks like as it has become increasingly obsessed with behavior, behavior, behavior, and increasingly prone to emphasize obedience and at the expense of critical thought."

Poor Impulse Control
Gods Who Are Any More Vengeful
Tata: "The problem of televised crazytalk demands a solution in which surly sane people break the fourth wall – and do it right the hell NOW."

Mario Piperni dot Com
The Republican Primary – The Illustrated Edition
Mario Piperni: "Say what you will about the Republican primary so far but it has been wonderfully entertaining. I've put together a visual presentation which I believe captures the zany character and antics of all 8 Republican candidates. Enjoy!"

I'll Never Forget The Day I Read A Book
The Autobiography of Mark Twain
Clark Bjorke: "Maybe you remember that the first volume of Mark Twain's autobiography was finally published back in January of 2011, 100 years after his death. This is my review of the book in which I urge the reader to save a lot of time and money by reading one of the Mark Twain biographies written by a real biographer, instead of this meandering, bloated, Joycean tome. I don't think it was worth the wait."

Registration of Guns and Licensing of Gun Owners from the Alien Perspective

Bark Bark Woof Woof
Lanford Wilson – 1937-2011
Mustang Bobby: " A tribute to one of America’s great playwrights… and a good friend who taught me all about writing and character."

Diary of a Heretic
Readiness is All
Kathleen Maher: "This episode in a serialized novel-in-progress, "James Bond and the Girls of Woodstock," finds Matthew King, the new James Bond, preparing for, and nailing in one take, a scene in which Bond's arch-enemy tries to kill him with a fire bomb planted in the Brooklyn Museum."

Mock, Paper, Scissors
This One is for my Dad
Tengrain: "This was on the 4th anniversary of his death, and was just a quick little remembrance, but it seemed to have struck a nerve with my readers. It's not snark, so a bit out of character for the blog."

Watergate Summer
Police Brutality At Seattle Occupy Event 84 yr old Dorli Rainey is PepperSprayed...
enigma4ever: "Here is my post on 84 year old Dorli Rainey (which some media ended up using for research)."

How to embarrass your teenage daughter
J. of J-TWO-O: "I am submitting my post... as a public service to all bloggers and blog readers with adolescent female children."

Stump Lane
Democracy is FAKE (Part 2)
Montag: "A look at OWS used as a springboard to delve into root causes of hierarchy and oppression."

Stonekettle Station
Everybody’s So Different, I Haven’t Changed
Jim Wright/Stonekettle: "The question is, what's more important? Your convictions or how you're labelled for your convictions?"

Simply Left Behind
A Promise Made
Carl (aka Actor212): "What happens when you've been promised the American Dream, only to find out it no longer exists? You Occupy Wall Street."

How Unions Make a Nation Competitive
Marc McDonald: "Like Rodney Dangerfield, U.S. unions have long struggled to gain respect, especially since 1980. But the reality is that unions help make a nation more competitive by disciplining corporations into taking a long-term view and avoiding the short-sightedness that has long been a disaster for U.S. industry."

Bristol Palin’s Airing of Grievances

Whiskey Fire
Before We Go Licking Each Others' Balls to the Point of Unseemly Slobbering...

Balloon Juice
Three speakers, three listeners

Connecting the Dots
A Tale of Two Americas
Robert Stein: "An octogenarian compares his childhood in the Great Depression to today’s political climate—a different country in which government was seen as the answer to misery rather than the creator of it."

Mister Tristan
The Pixilated Side-Boob
Gary, A Relative of Mister Tristan: "The pixilation of a female Survivor contestant’s breast makes me think of how misdirected the righteous right is. They focus primarily on morality politics (abortion, Ten Commandments, prayer, etc.) while Rome burns (unemployment, lack of health care, poverty, etc.)"

Blue Gal
The GOP Debate I'd Like to See...
Blue Gal

I Plan and God Laughs
Gladiator Nation

The Spanish Recipe
Peter discusses a recipe through Mamet parody.

Strangely Blogged
Class, Cluelessness and damned statistics – or Why I'm not About Cutting Slack
Vixen Strangely

p3: Persuasion, Perseverance, and Patience
On Inoculation
Bill Nothstine: "Why many people apparently think that the unexpurgated Huckleberry Finn is as dangerous as smallpox."

Lake and Local
Florida Schools Have a Crisis in Wealthy Student Achievement
Billy Townsend: "This piece makes the statistical/political case that traditional poorer schools in Florida outperform wealthy schools. And has a little fun with local politics in the process."

The UN made me do it
B Psycho

Chimpanzee Tea Party
Foodies = Gluttons?
J.W. Hammer

An Immodest Proposal
Mark Gisleson: "Fair warning, this is possibly the rudest thing I've ever written, but it is done in the style of the original Modest Proposal."

The Inverse Square
I’m Shocked! Shocked To Find That There Are Neutrinos Going On Here
Tom Levenson: "This post looks at how the physicists response to the report of faster-than-light neutrino captures what it takes to assimilate major new results into scientific understanding -- and hence why climate change denialists have a very tough road to hoe."

Death of the Anti-Gonzo
driftglass: "On the occasion of the death of David Broder, as the over-the-top tributes and plaudits being offered up by every single person in the Beltway Media threatened to blot out the Sun, I thought it only fair that at least one contrarian jerk point out that, because of his willful blindness and reflexive hatred of the Dirty Hippies, the "Dean" of American political reporting completely missed the most important political story of the last 30 years."

Dreams Of A Straight Up World -OR- Isn't It Really Interdependence Day?
Rehctaw: "An Independence Day reminder that we are connected to this place and one another. For better or worse, so why actively go for worse?"

Chicago Guy
Tina Fey's Greek Restaurant
Chicago Guy explores the power of improvisation.

Huey Long Died 76 Years Ago
Darrel Plant: "Every year seems to make an annual posting of the Louisiana populist's "Share Our Wealth" plan more relevant. It began it on the 70th anniversary of his assassination, in the midst of the drowning of New Orleans, and it's been a staple through the years our economy has gone underwater."

From the ISLAGIATT (It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time) File
Tild Dallelie: "In which I clean out a folder of assorted graphics projects and share the best, or most memorable images."

The Hunting of the Snark
The Comfort of Others: Inequality Then And Now
Susan of Texas: "If you've ever wondered what Jane Austen would have thought of our growing income inequality (and haven't we all?), take a look at my guest post at Naked Capitalism comparing Sense and Sensibility to Occupy Wall Street."

Mental Floss
The Proliferation of a Virtual Species: You’ll Like This Alot
Miss Cellania: "How a typo became an animal recognized all around the internet."

World O' Crap
Your Suffering is Putting Me Off My Pu-Pu Platter
Scott Clevenger: "Dr. Diane Medved (Psycho Therapist and wife of right wing radio scold Michael Medved) bemoans the plight of wealthy tourists whose holidays are ruined by the sight of poor people, and cries out for vengeance against the Hobos of Hawaii."

Swing Time: "No Cuffs"!
M.A.Peel: "A look at the great Astaire/Rogers film on its 75th anniversary. Its story is amazingly fresh, something not far afield from the likes of The Hangover.

Hysterical Raisins
The Day After
nonnie9999: "Since the Raisin exists mostly to skewer the worst of politicians and politics, a lot of people would probably be surprised that this is the post that I'm most proud of this year. The sentiment still applies even though almost a year has passed."

Brilliant at Breakfast
So what on earth makes anyone think that more tax cuts will cause the executives of these companies to "create jobs"?
Jill: "What happened to rewarding the risk-takers; those who take a chance that they may lose, but that they also may win? In an environment in which a risk that doesn't reward is punished out of all proportion to the supposed "offense", why take the chance?"

Working until we drop: A fable for our times
Lance Mannion: "Apparently the geniuses down in Washington have decided that to "fix" Social Security, what this country really needs is a whole lot of people working into their seventies or until they drop dead."

Woman's Work
Melissa McEwan: "The hard truth for progressive men who care about reproductive rights is this: When you leave the public fight to others, you're leaving it mostly to women. This post is about the many ways in which treating the feminist/womanist fight for reproductive rights as 'woman's work' is some fucked-up irony, and why women need male allies."

Tom Watson
Here We Are Now, Entertain Us
Tom Watson: "The importance of Occupy Wall Street."

Zaius Nation
Paul Ryan's 2012 Budget: It Gives to the Rich, and Steals From the Poor!
Dr. Zaius: "A brief explanation of Paul Ryan's budget proposal."

Fried Green al-Qaedas
Mark Hoback: "Secrets of successful Speakers."

The Reaction
Osama bin Laden, 9/11, and the tweets of Rashard Mendenhall
Michael J.W. Stickings: "After Osama's killing, I defended Steelers RB Rashard Mendenhall's controversial comments about 9/11 and the war on terror."

This Is So Gay
And Howe
Duncan Mitchel: "My review of Florence Howe's memoir A Life in Motion, a book about feminism, class, friendship, academia, the Civil Rights Movement, and publishing women's writings."

Just an Earth-Bound Misfit
Law, War and 9/11
Earth-Bound Misfit: "How to truly mark 9/11 by starting to roll back the National Security State."

They Gave Us a Republic
What is your Planned Parenthood story?
Blue Girl tells hers.

We are not bound by your dictums, Bob Costas
Brendan Keefe


Vagabond Scholar
They Could Not Look Me in the Eye Again
Batocchio: "Torture and wars of choice exist on the far end of an entire spectrum of dehumanization and cruelty that costs us all dearly."

Thanks again, folks. Happy blogging (and everything else) in 2012.

(A 2008 Jon Swift LOLcat, relevant every election season.)

Friday, December 23, 2011

Terry Gilliam's Christmas Card

CBS News:
"Yes, a card makes Christmas complete." These are the first (and only) words in this 1968 short video made by Terry Gilliam. The Monty Python member made this festive cut-out animation for the British TV show "Do Not Adjust Your Set" – a show that featured several other members of what would become "Monty Python's Flying Circus." As you could probably guess, it's odd, funny, and very appropriate for the season.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Psychohistorians versus Pseudo-Intellectuals

Asimov, Krugman and America deserve better. Teresa Nielsen Hayden makes an authoritative case that "Krugman is from Trantor; Gingrich ain't:

Far be it from me to discourage mainstream political commentary that’s framed in terms of science fiction, but Ray Smock’s Newt Gingrich the Galactic Historian gets it wrong:

If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, Newt Gingrich is from the planet Trantor, a fictional world created by Isaac Asimov in his classic Foundation series about galactic empire.

Wrong. The Honorable Newt is not from Trantor. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman is from Trantor. This is known. He’s said on multiple occasions that he went into economics because the field of psychohistory doesn’t exist. What Krugman took from the Foundation Trilogy was the idea that you could learn everything about history and put it together in order to understand not only what has happened, but why things happen the way they do. Remind you of Gingrich? Me neither.*

Newt’s master plan for America does not come from a Republican Party playbook. It comes from the science fiction that he read in high school. He is playing out, on a national and global scale, dreams he had as a teenager with his nose buried in pulp fiction.

Do not blame that on science fiction. 93% of the people in my social circle read the Foundation Trilogy and assorted pulp SF in their youth, and none of them turned into Newt Gingrich.

Smock’s thesis is unwarranted. The argument present in his actual evidence is that Gingrich is prone to wishful thinking, and a grandiose view of his own place in the world. That’s not the fault of the books he’s read; it’s his innate character, beginning to end. If he’d read other books, he’d have drawn the same conclusions but used other examples to illustrate them.

Look at his relationship with history. I’ll allow that Gingrich has read more of it than the average citizen, but I’ve never seen any evidence that his reading has led him to form opinions not already present in his thinking. He mines history, shallowly, for illustrative examples. He uses it to put on airs. And if you’ve read Catton, Foote, and McPherson, Gingrich’s novels certainly won’t give you any surprising new takes on the Civil War.

Newt Gingrich’s knowledge of history is like George Bush’s religion: it exists only to validate what he already wants to believe. When the influence is that shallow, the texts are not to blame.

Hear, hear, and read the rest (the comments have some good stuff, too). Hayden's description of Gingrich's use of history reminds me of several other pieces that call into question Gingrich's quality as a historian and his modus operandi as a public (pseudo) intellectual.

In "Five myths about Newt Gingrich," John J. Pitney, Jr.'s first item is:

1. Gingrich is an academic.

He earned a PhD in history and taught college before winning a seat in Congress. He has often spoken of himself as a historian. In 1995, he told CNN’s Bob Franken: “I am the most seriously professorial politician since Woodrow Wilson.”

But whereas Wilson spent years publishing scholarly works, Gingrich was more like the professor who wins popularity awards from undergraduates but doesn’t get tenure because he doesn’t publish anything significant. He even told a college newspaper in 1977 that “I made the decision two or three years ago that I’d rather run for Congress than publish the papers or academic books necessary to get promoted.”

Since then, he has given countless lectures and written more than 20 books, but has never produced truly serious scholarship. A typical Gingrich work is full of aphorisms and historical references — and devoid of the hallmarks of academic research: rigor, nuance and consideration of alternative views. Conservative political scientist James Q. Wilson once assessed materials for a televised history course that Gingrich was teaching as a “mishmash of undefined terms... misleading claims... and unclear distinctions.”

Yet Gingrich has been quick to cite his credentials as a source of authority. In a letter to Reagan budget director David Stockman, he once wrote: “From my perspective as a historian, you don’t deal in the objective requirements of history.” And recently, he suggested that mortgage giant Freddie Mac had paid him for his historical expertise, not his Capitol Hill connections.

The "mishmash" NYT link is well worth following. It delivers more information about Gingrich's ethic breaches – he was fined an unprecedented $300,000 "for misusing tax-exempt funds for partisan purposes and providing untrue information to a House Ethics Committee inquiry." (Some things never change: "The 395-to-28 vote followed nearly a year of investigation led by the committee's special counsel, James M. Cole, whose view of Mr. Gingrich's transgressions was plainly harsher than the committee's Republicans were ready to accept.") The piece also gives a glimpse into Gingrich's megalomania: In 1992, in talks with supporters in Florida, Gingrich described himself as (among other things), "Definer of civilization," "Teacher of the Rules of Civilization" and "Arouser of those who Fan Civilization" (make your own joke). Finally, it provides more of Wilson's assessment of Gingrich's work as a historian:

In the fall of 1993, Mr. Gingrich began teaching the history course, ''Renewing American Civilization,'' that would later lie at the heart of the controversy over his use of tax-exempt funds. An associate, Jeff Eisenach, sought from James Q. Wilson, the conservative scholar, an endorsement of a chapter of the text prepared for the course. The professor's reply in September 1993 was not quite what the Gingrich camp was hoping for:

I am troubled by the chapter. Perhaps I don't understand the purpose of the course, but if it is to be a course rather than a series of sermons, this chapter won't do. It is bland, vague, hortatory and lacking in substance. I do not deny that personal character is important; I have spent much of the last 10 years making that argument in some detail. But this chapter does not strike me as a thoughtful examination of the sources or importance of character in American life. Philosophically, it is a mishmash of undefined terms (''the universal immune power''), misleading claims (''principles are natural laws''), and unclear distinctions (e.g., between principles and values). Scientifically, it is filled with questionable or unsupported generalizations (e.g., standards of acceptable conduct are influenced more by the media than by the family, broadcasting cannot continue to live by the numbers, since World War I Americans have lost sight of right and wrong in favor of ''quick-fix mentality,'' etc.)

Historically, it does not represent Adam Smith correctly. . . . The Founders are also treated somewhat cavalierly. It is true that George Washington spoke often of the importance of virtue, but he didn't write the Constitution; Madison and a few others did. In the Federalist papers, Madison defends that Constitution by saying that it does not require virtue for its operation: ambition will be made to counteract ambition.

I could go on, but I dare not for fear I have misunderstood what this enterprise is all about. I am a professor, and so I bring the perspectives (and limitations) of a professor to bear on this matter. If this is not to be a course but instead a sermon, then you should get a preacher to comment on it.

''Renewing American Civilization'' was more than a course or a slogan. It was one vision statement after another. This is from the March 19, 1993, version:

American civilization is decaying. Most Americans know that the combination of 12-year-old kids dying of AIDS and 18-year-old students, who cannot even read, receiving high school diplomas, threatens the very fabric of American civilization. . . .

We knew American civilization was decaying before the Democrats took the White House. We now know after two months of the Democratic machine that they will accelerate the decay and make it worse. . . .

Now that's fair and balanced history teaching. Gingrich has been a scoundrel for so long, it's important to remember his own history.

More recently, Steve Benen reports that Gingrich "intends, if elected president, to teach an online course." That's an odd, disturbing and potentially hilarious prospect, but it leads Benen to link a 1995 Washington Monthly piece by Allan Lichtman about the course Gingrich taught at Kennesaw State College in Georgia, the aforementioned “Renewing American Civilization." Lictman dubs it "fictionalized history":

Gingrich’s fictionalized history makes more sense when you examine his sources. This professor doesn’t waste much time on books or documents, unless you count novels and films. This is History Lite (which, admittedly, some students covet). He spends far less time on The Federalist Papers than he does on "The Last of the Mohicans," one of his favorite films:

“Wonderful scene where the American ... is standing there and the British officer says, ‘Aren’t you going to Fort William Henry?’ And he says, ‘No, I’m going to Kentucky.’ And he says, ‘How can you go to Kentucky in the middle of a war?’ And he says, ‘You face north, turn left and walk. It’s west of here.’ It’s a very American response... Now, he ends up going to fight. Why? Because of the girl, which is also classically American. It’s a very romantic country.”

Of the books he does use, you have to wonder whether he has read them recently…

Gingrich’s historical selectivity and outright errors are, well, revealing. He manages to get through the entire Civil War without ever mentioning slavery...

Not surprisingly, much of Gingrich’s course is preoccupied with the history of the welfare state-the “actively destructive” welfare state, that is. He doesn’t acknowledge any of the good that government has done over the past 30 years, when federal investments in education, electrification, research, and facilities built Gingrich’s modern South.

Instead, Gingrich explains, “The modern welfare state basically says to you: Tell us what kind of victim you are, and we’ll tell you how big a check you get ... In the elite culture model, we focus on losers.” Perhaps, but does Gingrich then number the people he represents among the losers? His congressional district receives the largest amount of federal funds of any district in America. Newt the teacher may have forgotten this. Newt the politician knows it well.

Films can be useful tools for teaching history, but it depends on their accuracy, and the teacher's knowledge about their accuracy (scrutinizing an inaccurate depiction could make for a good and fun discussion). Similarly, citing a film or novel might frame a public issue well, but obviously, this is not true is the fictionalized account is at direct odds with reality. Many of Gingrich's notions are either antiquated or fantastical – Al Franken once joked that all of Newt's ideas appear to come from a Reader's Digest from the 50s, and Stephen Colbert pointed out that many of Gingrich's crazy ideas seem lifted from Bond villains. Gingrich has long cited both fictionalized history and fiction to justify his positions. Back in 1994, Gingrich proposed putting welfare children into orphanages, citing the 1938 film Boys Town:

Asked to comment on Hillary Clinton's criticism of his proposal to ship welfare children to "orphanages," Rep. Newt Gingrich (R., Ga.), told the panelists of NBC's Meet the Press that the First Lady should hie on down "to Blockbuster and rent the Mickey Rooney movie about Boys Town."

This advice, from the man who yesterday was elected speaker of the House of Representatives, confounded the nation's movie lovers, not to mention its social-service professionals.

The inspirational Boys Town starred Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan, the real-life figure who rehabilitated thousands of delinquent youths at his facility near Omaha, Neb. In the 1938 film, Mickey Rooney played Whitey Marsh, a hard-bitten delinquent who becomes a cherub under the patient care of Flanagan.

"There seems to be some romanticizing about orphanages these days," says Joan Reeves, commissioner of Philadelphia's Department of Human Services. "I remember Boys Town. I liked the movie. I cried a lot. But I don't look to movies for help in solving social problems."

"Doesn't Gingrich know that the Boys Town of today is nothing like the Boys Town of yesterday - and neither are the boys?" asked Frank Cervone, executive director of Philadelphia's Support Center for Child Advocates, which represents abused and neglected children.

"The actual functioning of the place is quite different from the 1938 film," said Randy Blauvelt, public relations director of Boys Town, which has been "besieged by the media" since Gingrich's statement.

James G. Driscoll made similar points, noting that "Gingrich has a Ph.D. in history and likes old movies, but knows little about preserving modern families. Very little." In a further odd development, Gingrich hosted a showing of the film on one of the Turner networks.

You may have caught Newt Gingrich's remarks that child labor laws should be repealed so that poor kids, who are lazy (and presumably black), can take over janitorial jobs at their schools. Check out Susan of Texas for a good treatment of this characteristically stupid and immoral proposal. Paul Glastris also notes that Gingrich was outraged at a Clinton plan to give jobs to inner-city youth – claiming that tax cuts to private businesses were better. Granted, Gingrich has a long history of flip-flops and talking out of both sides of his mouth, but that doesn't diminish the special quality of bullshit he brings to each one:

As Paul [Glastris] asked, “Why, then, was Gingrich against government jobs programs for poor teens in 1993 but favors them in 2011? Could it be that he opposes them only when they’re offered up by Democrats, and supports them only when they involve firing unionized workers?”

As we've examined before, "Gingrich has somehow remained a member in good standing in the Beltway, despite his long record of hyper-partisan, McCarthy-esque bomb-throwing and many attacks on the very notion of a functioning government." While he has said and done many despicable things over the years, the following get my vote for the most contemptible and unforgivable, summarized well by Steve Benen and Kevin Drum:

Just a few days before the ‘94 midterm elections — the cycle that would represent the “Republican Revolution” — a deranged woman named Susan Smith drowned her two young sons in South Carolina. It was a horrifying crime that captured significant national attention.

In his desperation to exploit literally any opportunity for partisan gain, Gingrich quickly made infanticide a campaign issue and publicly equated Smith’s murders with the values of the Democratic Party. Gingrich told the AP at the time, “The mother killing her two children in South Carolina vividly reminds every American how sick the society is getting and how much we have to have change. I think people want to change and the only way you get change is to vote Republican.”

That someone would think this is offensive. That someone would say it out loud, on the record, is just twisted.

Calling Gingrich “one of the nastiest, most malignant pieces of work ever to grace American politics,” Kevin [Drum] concluded, “Newt Gingrich extolling the virtues of bipartisanship is like Hannibal Lecter promoting the value of good nutrition.”

That’s a terrific line that happens to be true.

Another great summing up of Newt Gingrich is that "He's a stupid man's idea of what a smart person sounds like." Never one to pass up an opportunity, he will continue to show that for the rest of the campaign season and his political career.

(For more on Gingrich, see Roy Edroso's most recent wingnut roundup, John Richardson's 2010 feature for Equire [plus extras], and follow some of the links above.)

Thursday, December 01, 2011

"Pinball Wizard"

This version comes from Tommy, directed by Ken Russell, who died this week. Roy Edroso has more. Russell made some seriously weird films, but he came by it honestly, which made for some interesting and memorable moments in a long career. (Lair of the White Worm is bizarre and unforgettable; I haven't seen most of Russell's many and highly-regarded artist biopics.)

I also have to include this clip, since it features (as the YouTube poster puts it) "crazy dance and hair slapping" and the great mirror bit.

Eclectic Jukebox

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Rumproast’s Fundraiser for StrangeAppar8us

Rumproast blogger StrangeAppar8us has suffered a traumatic brain injury that has, among other things, left him blind. The Rumproast crew is holding a fundraiser to help him out. Follow the link for far more information.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Stop the SOPA and Protect IP Bills

Two similar bad bills are under consideration in Congress, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House, and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate. While some elements in the bills may be well-intentioned, these bills could severely restrict the internet. This video by Fight for the Future spells out some of the issues:

CNET has a FAQ on "How SOPA would affect you."

Kos has more information about the bills and their sponsors, a graphic of what could happen, and links the New York Times and Los Angeles Times editorial.

Balloon Juice has further discussion.

The ACLU has posted "Good Idea, Poor Follow-Through: Congress' Mistakes with SOPA," a post on the Congressional hearings on the bill,
"Free Speech Takes a Beating," and their statement for the record at the House hearings. From the first link:

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), introduced by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), while a well-intentioned effort to reduce online copyright infringement, is severely flawed and has much broader implications than its Senate predecessor, PROTECT IP. Copyright protection is absolutely vital to free speech in that it encourages innovations and assures creators that their work will be protected; however, it is extremely important that such protection remains consistent with constitutional principles and only impacts those who illegally use protected content. SOPA’s vague definitions could lead to the restriction of completely lawful non-infringing content...

Under SOPA, the attorney general would be able to identify an Internet site that is ‘committing or facilitating the commission’ of online copyright infringement and then serve a court order which would force Internet service providers (ISPs)to block access to the accused site. The court order would also compel payment network providers, Internet advertising services and search engines to sever ties with the website. SOPA also allows victims of copyright infringement to take action independent of the courts by directly sending notices of infringing content to Internet advertisers and payment processors. The advertisers and payment processors must then follow the same steps to sever their connections with the infringer as they would if the notice came from the attorney general.

While this all sounds productive and effective in theory, the lack of narrowly tailored language could essentially lead to the shutdown of sites that contain very little infringing material. SOPA also fails to assure that those whose material will be blocked, whether infringing or non-infringing material, receive adequate notice before the content is blocked. We agree that online infringement is a continuing problem, but we do not believe that it is acceptable to sidestep procedural protections, especially in cases that may involve non-infringing First Amendment protected material.

So what does all this mean to the average Internet user? Many opponents fear that the sites that would suffer most under SOPA are those with primarily user-generated content, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. For example, Katy Perry could decide that the awesome video you just posted on YouTube rocking out and lip-synching to her latest hit was, in fact, copyright infringement. All Ms. Perry would have to do is notify YouTube’s ISP of the supposed copyright infringement, and YouTube’s entire site could effectively disappear from the Web, perhaps even before YouTube was notified and despite the fact all other content on the site was non-infringing. Fear of an entire website being taken down for such a small piece of content could lead such user-generated websites to police their users’ content, thus impeding free speech.

For what it's worth, SOPA seems to be a worse bill than PIPA, but elements of PIPA still raise serious concerns.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) is asking for names to petition Congress and to read during a potential filibuster of PIPA. The ACLU (for SOPA), Electronic Frontier Foundation and several other sites have petitions as well.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Blog Redesign

The VS blog redesign is now live. I've been tinkering with it off and on in the background for a while. There are some drawbacks to the latest Blogger layout interface, but it's much easier to share posts and scroll through category archives.

Recreating my blogroll took some time. Regular readers and commenters should find themselves included. If you're not, and you'd like to be, shoot me an e-mail or leave a comment. I did trim some folks who retired, took their blogs private, or haven't posted in a long time (say, six months or more). Folks who come out of retirement are also welcome to contact me to be restored... not that, um, being on my blogroll will give you much traffic, but most people like the shout-out.

I haven't been able to write much this year. (Perhaps I should also turn more of the long comments I leave elsewhere into posts here.) Regardless, I prefer to post occasionally than retire and un-retire endlessly. Other blogs have breaking news covered very well, so I prefer posting long form pieces when I can, along with the odd short piece. Anyway, I'll probably tinker with the site more, but the basic functionality should be good to go. Happy blogging and reading.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Food Banks – November 2011

With Thanksgiving fast approaching, this is a good time for those with the means to donate to their local food banks, or for those in need to get assistance. The Los Angeles food banks make a little go a long way. The Feeding America site has a useful national food bank locator. Best wishes to all those in need.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Eric Bogle - "And the Band Played Waltzing Mathilda"

In the spirit of Armistice Day.

Eclectic Jukebox

11/11/11 Armistice Day

(Click on the comic strip for a larger view.)

In 1959, Pogo creator Walt Kelly wrote:

The eleventh day of the eleventh month has always seemed to me to be special. Even if the reason for it fell apart as the years went on, it was a symbol of something close to the high part of the heart. Perhaps a life that stretches through two or three wars takes its first war rather seriously, but I still think we should have kept the name "Armistice Day." Its implications were a little more profound, a little more hopeful.

You said it, brother.

Thanks to all who have served or are serving, on this Veterans' Day, or Remembrance Day, or Armistice Day.

This post is mostly a repeat I run every year, since I find it hard to top Kelly.

This year, I wrote a new post, "They Could Not Look Me in the Eye Again."

Two years ago now, I wrote a series of six related posts for Armistice Day (and as part of an ongoing series on war). The starred posts are the most important, but the list is:

"Élan in The Guns of August"

"Demonizing of the Enemy"

"The War Poetry of Wilfred Owen"

***"Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels"

"The Little Mother"

***"War and the Denial of Loss"

The most significant previous entries in the series are:

"How to Hear a True War Story"

"Day of Shame"

"The Poetry of War"

"Armistice Day 2008" (featuring the war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon).

I'll update this post below the photo with links to other folks' pieces for 11/11 as I find them. If you've written one, feel free to leave a comment or e-mail me. Thanks.

Here are some other posts for 11/11/11:

Blue Girl at They Gave Us a Republic: "Today I'm a 1%-er."

Darkblack: "Never Forgotten."

Rehctaw: "11-11-11 -OR- To Oblivion And Beyond!"

Atrios: "Armistice Day."

Digby and Joe. My. God. note Mitt Romney's plan to privatize the Veterans' Administration.

BradBlog: "Occupying 11:11, 11/11/11 to Thank Our Vets..."

The Reaction: "Remembrance Day / Veterans Day 2011."

The Galloping Beaver: "Break of Day in the Trenches."

We Are Respectable Negroes: "We Were Always "Men": A Wealth of Dignity in the Civil War Era Photographs of African American Soldiers."

The Political Cat: "Anniversaries."

Chris Jones at Esquire: "Why Our War Dead Remain at the Bottom of the Ocean."


They Could Not Look Me in the Eye Again

See better, Lear, and let me still remain
The true blank of thine eye.
- Kent, King Lear, 1.1, 159-160.

If the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month every year is somehow special or sacred – and it is – then it seems the date 11/11/11 should hold some added significance. Armistice Day, or Remembrance Day, or Veterans' Day, should be about pausing to reflect on war. More generally, it's a good time to consider how torture and wars of choice emerge on the far end of an entire spectrum of dehumanization and cruelty, and what this costs us all.

As we've explored in previous years, the choice to go to war or to inflict cruelty on another human being is rarely a snap decision. It may be, on the individual level – a single person reacting to specific circumstances right then and there – but when it comes to mobilizing an entire nation for war, or instituting an entire system of torture and abuse, the perpetrators almost always receive warnings, often strong and strenuous, against their decisions.

Reluctant warriors do exist. Typically, those who best know the costs of armed conflict insist on a high threshold for starting a war. But few of the Iraq war hawks were reluctant (nor were any but a few "warriors"). They issued grave, exaggerated threats, spoke of the glories of war, delighted in punching hippies, and screamed that any that opposed them were traitors to the country. They lied consistently and shifted their rationales constantly, which are sure signs of bullshitting. Most of all, they eagerly wanted war, and since no sane, honorable, informed person would, this was a glaring sign that they were not to be trusted. Eager dolts such as Richard Cohen and Tom Friedman were happy to prove their manhood by fiercely bellowing that others should go and die on their behalf. (Cohen was later marginally self-aware enough to admit, "In a post-Sept. 11 world, I thought the prudent use of violence could be therapeutic," but not honest enough with himself to recognize how utterly despicable this attitude was.)

Reluctant torturers do not exist. (If they do at all, they are as rare as unicorns.) They are a convenient myth, a piece of propaganda concocted to deflect investigations into torture and abuse. Liz Cheney, John Yoo and the gang would have you believe that if you dared to investigate Dick Cheney and the rest for torture, you would all die in a horrible terrorist attack. The lie is that you should be terrified, but that inflicting pain on someone with brown skin from a foreign land who speaks funny will keep you safe. (And do not dare question this.) One of the common themes of the torture "debate" is that the torture apologist and actively pro-torture crowds refuse to engage on the facts on torture historically and the Bush administration specifically. They'll speak endlessly about hypotheticals involving Jack Bauer and ticking time bombs, but they will not discuss the reality of Maher Arar, an innocent man who was tortured, or Dilawar Dilawar, an innocent man who was tortured and killed, or Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a man who was tortured until he confessed to a non-existent Iraq-Al Qaeda link that the Bush administration then flogged to justify going to war. The torture apologist will not speak of the hundreds of men the Pentagon knew to be innocent and kept imprisoned. (Stay scared, and do not ask questions. Who cares about these foreigners, anyway?)

Torture is a longer discussion, but: the more you study the facts on torture, the more likely you are to oppose it, and the more you study the Bush administration's record, the less likely you are to accept that they acted in "good faith." For now, the main point is that the "reluctant torturer" is a myth. As far back as the Romans, it was known that torture was notoriously unreliable for obtaining accurate intelligence, but was good for inflicting pain, terrorizing the populace, and producing false confessions. It's hardly a surprise that techniques known to elicit false confessions did just that. Far from being reluctant to torture, America's pro-torture crowd – just like all torturers throughout the millennia – saw inflicting pain not as an unpleasant necessity (especially given torture's inefficacy) but as a bonus, or the main point in the first place. Some may well have convinced themselves they were righteous and justified; such certainty and rationalizations are common, even in grotesquely comical circumstances. But torture was primarily driven, as always, by the desire for vengeance, by a desire to feel powerful, and by the desire to inflict pain on another human being. Some of the pro-torture crowd are honest enough to admit this; hell, they're proud of it. Let's not pretend it's otherwise.

Anyone who has experienced or inflicted violence, or perhaps simply been on the receiving or delivering end of bullying, likely has some inkling of these dynamics. There's a seduction to power, whether that power is abused, or employed in righteous fury, or whether it's the former rationalized as the latter. There's a saying that resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for your enemies to die. Many a revenge tale has explored the cost that revenge takes on a would-be hero. (Hamlet's father paradoxically tells Hamlet "Taint not thy mind" even as he begs him to seek vengeance.) Those who have participated in an act of violence, or a life of violence, have probably faced a certain moment, however subconsciously: I'll probably regret this later, but right now, I just don't give a damn. Embrace that dark side, that sadism and power, the release and satisfaction that comes from taking one's own pain and rage and inflicting it on another person... do that, and when you look in the mirror, you will see the ugliest part of yourself staring back. At these points, a person can feel shocked, and chose to step back – or chose that dark side again. And again. And again. Choosing evil is rarely something that just "happens." At some point, someone chooses to ignore the warnings, step over a terrible line onto a dark path, and chooses not to see (or perhaps care) where it leads.

Jonathan Schwarz recently wrote a thoughtful piece called "Where Does the Cruelty Come From?" Do check out his blog, and forgive me for quoting at length, but it's hard to excerpt this piece (emphasis his):

It's not news that the people who run the U.S. have created a gruesome culture of cruelty among those who have everything (or aspire to) towards those who don't. Digby runs down some vile examples here, including a foreclosure mill law firm that had a homelessness-themed Halloween party.

The interesting thing is this happens everywhere with everyone: people with money and guns and power ALWAYS hate and fear everybody else. My historian grandfather Lewis Hanke spent his whole life researching the European takeover of North and South America, and as he put it:

The hostility of those who have power toward those who can be called inferior because they are different—because they are others, the strangers—has been a historical constant. Indeed, at times it seems to be the dominant theme in human history.

So America's dumbasses with their dumbass contempt for the people they're brutalizing is about as surprising and interesting as the sun coming up every day.

But why isn't it surprising? Where does it come from? Wouldn't you expect that people with a weird compulsion to be cruel would be less effective and replaced by those who didn't have it?

Stan Goff, who used to be a U.S. Ranger and was stationed in El Salvador, once wrote about this based on his own experience:

In the street [in San Salvador], I saw an old woman dragging herself down the sidewalk with a gangrenous leg, a crazy man shriveled in a corner, bone-skinny kids who played music for coins with a pipe and a stick.

On the bus one day in downtown San Salvador, a blind man came begging, and people who could ill afford it gave him a coin. These people were callused, very modestly dressed, with Indian still in their cheeks.

To the slick, manicured, round-eyed, well-to-do, the poor and the beggars were invisible, as invisible as the blackened carboneros, the worm-glutted market babies, the brooding teens with raggedy clothes, prominent ribs and red eyes glaring out of the spotty shade on street corners...They have to be subhuman so they can be killed.

I was reminded of the goats at the Special Forces Medical Lab. When I was training to be a medic, we used goats as "patient models." The goats would be wounded for trauma training, shot for surgical training, and euthanized over time by the hundreds for each 14-week class.

Nearly every student upon arrival would begin expressing his antipathy for the caprine breed. "A goat is a dumb creature, hard-headed, homely," we'd say.

A few acknowledged what the program was actually doing without seeking these comfortable rationalizations. A few even became attached to the animals and grew more depressed with each day.

But most required the anti-caprine ideology to sustain their activity.

Dehumanizing the victim, or in the case of the goats, shutting down all compassion, is a defense mechanism. Those performing these actions choose not to see.

An older Schwarz piece quoted the much-missed Molly Ivins (emphasis his):

Watching some dipstick the other day on Fox News carry on with great certainty about Hillary Clinton and her evil motives -- and I don't think this guy actually spends a lot of time tete a tete with Mrs. Clinton while she reveals her deepest thoughts to him -- I wondered, "Lord, when are these people going to get over it?"

I think the answer is never, because most people have a very hard time forgiving those whom they have deeply wronged. I know that's sort of counterintuitive, but think about some of the bad divorces you have known. When we have done something terrible to someone, we often need to twist it around so it's their fault, not ours.

Schwarz added:

This reminds me of some event I saw on C-Span years ago. I think it was an NAACP conference; in any case, everyone on stage and in the audience was African American. After the speeches the people on stage took questions, and a girl who looked about fourteen stood up and asked this:

Why do white people seem to hate us so much? I don't understand. What is it that we did?

Unfortunately, no one gave her the right answer, which is: white Americans cannot forgive black Americans for what white people did to them. Truly confronting slavery and its continuing aftermath would be an almost unbearable experience for white America, because of what [it] would force us to confront about our capacity for evil.

Sometimes this impulse takes lesser forms. But never underestimate the power of spite, or the need to feel superior to, well, someone. A recent study shows that many people will give to those less fortunate – except if they're in the second-to-last position. This is called "last place aversion." As one of the study's authors, Ilyana Kuziemko, explained, "It's the basic human need to avoid feeling like we ourselves are in last place... Or maybe, put a bit more negatively, it's our need to feel like there's at least one person we can feel superior to or look down on."

Digby has looked at how Americans are more likely than Europeans to blame the poor for their misfortune, and how conservatives feel that they've earned their social safety net, but others haven't. (Needless to say, there's often a racial component to these attitudes.) She's also long noted how conservatives deem Democratic presidents to be inherently illegitimate. Matt Taibbi has noted the hypocrisy of the tea party, as has Steve Benen. These far-right conservatives speak of freedom, but they really mean their own privilege and power... in opposition to those they deem less worthy, or simply lesser beings altogether. One of the key conservative tenets is that, when it comes to people not-in-the-group, those who are Other, their misfortune is their own fault. Another one is that these other people aren't supposed to win. Mississippi Burning, while a flawed film, does feature a great monologue that captures these dynamics well, when Agent Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman) tells the story about how a neighboring black farmer gets a mule, which makes Rupert's father terribly jealous. It does not end well.

Obviously, not all hatred is created equal in terms of intent, force, or effect. It's just that cruelty, dehumanization, and lack of compassion exist on a spectrum. The decision to see another human being as somehow lesser or subhuman is a crucial one, and it both creates problems domestically and fuels the worst excesses of our foreign policy. (In a nutshell, conservative policy is: We need to bomb brown people over there so we can deny them social services over here.) Bigotry plays a key role in the imperialist mindset.

During one of the Republican primary debates in October, Michelle Bachmann declared that "We should look to Iraq and Libya to reimburse us for part of what we have done to liberate these nations." Given how devastated Iraq has been, especially in terms of lives lost, this attitude is staggeringly arrogant and callous. Sadly, it's not uncommon. To quote an earlier post:

This is the mindset that cares little for the actual wishes of the "liberated," but obsesses that they should show gratitude. Bush in particular has been consistently fixated on this, and was frustrated and mystified [in 2006] when his clearly-deserved accolades did not pour in:

"President Bush made clear in a private meeting this week that he was concerned about the lack of progress in Iraq and frustrated that the new Iraqi government -- and the Iraqi people -- had not shown greater public support for the American mission, participants in the meeting said Tuesday. . . .

"[T]he president expressed frustration that Iraqis had not come to appreciate the sacrifices the United States had made in Iraq, and was puzzled as to how a recent anti-American rally in support of Hezbollah in Baghdad could draw such a large crowd."

Similarly, on the National Review cruise in 2007, Johann Hari interviewed founding neocon Norman Podhoretz, who delivered (emphasis mine):

…the standard-issue Wolfowitz line about how, after September 11, the United States had to introduce democracy to the Middle East in order to change the political culture that produced the mass murderers. For somebody who declares democracy to be his goal, he is remarkably blasé about the fact that 80 percent of Iraqis want U.S. troops to leave their country, according to the latest polls. "I don't much care," he says, batting the question away. He goes on to insist that "nobody was tortured in Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo" and that Bush is "a hero."

They "care" about Iraqis the same way they "care" about free elections – only if they produce the results they want. This is a long-established imperalist tradition; they view others as subjects, lesser beings, servants, inferiors. Their "caring" is contingent on receiving praise, on these people playing their proscribed, subservient role. Imperialists become indignant when others don't play along. They feel it's terribly bad form to complain about that American bomb killing your grandmother, because clearly it was all in the service of a larger, nobler cause.

If imperialists do not truly care about those they seek to "liberate," torturers do not truly care about the truth. The Oscar-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side focuses on Dilawar, an Afghan taxi driver arrested, tortured, and eventually beaten to death by U.S. forces at Bagram Air Force Base in 2002. He was accused of aiding a terrorist attack, but there was no evidence of this; he was an innocent man. (Guilt would not justify such treatment, however.) Director Alex Gibney interviews several of the guards involved with Dilawar, and a former prisoner, among others. The documentary and the extras are well worth watching, and it's not pretty stuff. It captures several aspects of the abusive mindset very well. Dilwar was a slight man who weighed a mere 122 pounds at the time of his death, but after his death, some of his captors claimed he was combative. The guards were told Dilawar was guilty. Some doubted this, but they were receiving pressure from above – arresting innocent people didn't look good, but capturing dangerous terrorists did, and they were expected to produce confessions. They beat him, eventually to death. (Dilawar's legs were beaten so badly that had he lived, they would have had to have been amputated.)

It's a tragically familiar story in the annals of torture, and it goes something like this: Those in power bring in a man, convinced he's guilty. They abuse him to get him to confess. He does not. They are certain he is lying, so they become angry, redoubling their efforts and becoming more abusive. But still he does not confess. The true sadists don't care, but at a certain point, some of the guards begin to have doubts. What if he's telling the truth? What if he's innocent? They have abused this man terribly. Their treatment of him has been horrible, illegal, inexcusable – especially if he is innocent. That would make them bad people. This is a disturbing thought. And consequently, they push it away, and bury their growing shame by abusing him all the harder.

This is a vicious, self-reinforcing cycle. Decide that you can torture someone, then torture him, and then even if he is innocent, you can never let him go, otherwise the truth of your crime will be known. The justice system must then be rigged to prevent accountability for those in power. In some cases, an innocent prisoner is eventually released, but more typically, this system is a cycle that continues with perpetual imprisonment and abuse or ends with death. Three reinforcing principles drive these dynamics, and any one of them can lead to the others: These people do not deserve essential protections; these people are subhuman; we can (and should) torture and abuse these prisoners. This cycle can occur with individuals, with prisons, and with the entire system. The Bush administration ignored warnings and set up mass arrests, scant review, indefinite detention without charges, torture and abuse, and problematic military commissions. All of these feed into the others. The Obama administration has perpetuated some of these practices, most notably in holding prisoners without charges and using the military commission system. Many people were scared after 9/11, it's true, but the case to go to war and the system of torture of abuse that was implemented were crafted over months or years, with many memos and meetings, and many warnings ignored. The desire for vengeance and violence is impulsive; setting up a system of vengeance and violence is not. As an older post, the Torture Flowchart explored, the Bush administration had many, many opportunities to turn off this path:

(Click for a larger view, or go here.)

We've previously looked at how interrogators have tortured mute prisoners to get them to speak because they were certain that the men were faking. These dynamics are not a bug; they are a defining feature of torture. As we noted in the same post, former SERE instructor Malcolm Nance has described meeting a Cambodian torture victim who explained how, "in torture, he confessed to being a hermaphrodite, a CIA spy, a Buddhist Monk, a Catholic Bishop and the son of the king of Cambodia." Torture is not about getting the truth – and sometimes not even about what the torturers think the truth is. Occasionally, the torturers get so carried away they forget to ask questions at all. Soviet-era torture victim Vladimir Bukovsky has described how the decision to torture and abuse prisoners spreads throughout the entire system: "Why run the risk of unleashing a fury that even Stalin had problems controlling?" Most strikingly, he's described how after how his captors abused him dreadfully, it changed them as well: "I had gotten my lawyer, but neither the doctor nor those guards could ever look me in the eye again."

These dynamics are well known among those who care to see. As human beings, we have enough of a conscience to feel shame, but sometimes, rather than facing it, we rationalize it, and double-down on the shameful action. While real life provides plenty of examples of this, the arts, as always, can often do as good a job or better at capturing the truth about human nature. I wanted to end with taking a brief look at three films (all based on novels), with spoilers.

In Mystic River (2003, sorry, no clips), Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn) learns his daughter has been murdered. He wants to figure out who did it, and he wants vengeance. He settles on a culprit. He kidnaps him. As he grills him, it becomes evident – he doesn't even really care if this man is the one. Jimmy is angry. He's deeply wounded. He desperately wants a scapegoat, and he wants to inflict his own pain on someone else. Several scenes later, he has doubts and regrets. But then his wife Annabeth (Laura Linney) comes in and interrupts his moment of conscience. It's disconcerting. Jimmy was starting to face what he had done, but she stops this, and tells him that he did the right thing. In the final, protracted scene, Annabeth goes on to blame Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), who has just suffered a great loss, for what happened. Jimmy and Annabeth find a way to blame the victim, and this is their solution for living with themselves.

Then there's the tale of two lynch mobs. The first one is in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), a short but striking feature. The news goes out that a local rancher has been murdered, and a posse forms – but it's really more of a lynch mob. They catch some strangers, and there's some circumstantial evidence against them. However, the posse doesn't want to take them back to town to face justice. They don't want to investigate the strangers' claims, which wouldn't be that hard to do. They're angry, and they want to see someone hang. Some of them even think it'll be fun. They shove aside the objections of some in the posse (one played by Henry Fonda). Director William Wellman makes good use of the angry and impassive stares of the lynch mob:

The menace is palpable. As one of the men to be hanged says, "Justice? What do you care about justice? You don't even care if you've got the right men or not! All you know is that you've lost something and somebody's got to be punished."

The second lynch mob is in a scene from To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). The story's set in the South during the Great Depression, and a black man, Tom Robinson, has been accused of raping a white woman. He's in prison. Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) is guarding the jail when he's confronted by a lynch mob. Now, Tom Robinson is already imprisoned, and will go on trial. Given the era and the region, there really isn't any serious doubt that he will be found guilty... and then executed. But that's not enough for this lynch mob. They want to do it themselves. The honor of Southern white women, and thus Southern white men, is at stake. As with Jimmy Markum, or the Ox-Bow posse, they don't want justice – they want vengeance.

The confrontation is interrupted when Scout, Jem and Dill, all children, run up and stand by Atticus. He tells them to go home, but they bravely refuse. Then Scout notices Mr. Cunningham in the mob, and says hello. She asks him about him and his son Walter, her classmate at school. As she continues to talk, Mr. Cunningham and the rest of the men shift about uncomfortably, and cannot look her in the eye.

Scout doesn't fully understand what's happening, and apologizes if she's said something wrong. Mr. Cunningham tells her there's nothing to apologize for, and he tells the mob that they should go home. They disperse. (Parts of the film may seem a bit hokey, but I'll admit it still gets to me, including this scene.) When Mr. Cunningham arrives, all he can see is his rage. But Scout talks to him, and forces him to see her... and suddenly, he's reminded of his own humanity. He sees himself, and what he's doing, and he's ashamed, rightfully so. It's a simple little scene, but it's powerful in its own way.

Sadly, the story doesn't always end that way. It takes far more courage to stand against wars of choice and act of torture than it does to support them. Most forms of outright bigotry are not socially acceptable anymore, but some, such as class snobbery or Islamophobia, are encouraged in certain circles. There are entire industries and institutions whose primary purpose is to misinform the public and interrupt any "moments of conscience." But for all that, some people struggle to be better human beings and do make hard, conscientious choices. In the words of Walt Kelly, who I quote every year:

The eleventh day of the eleventh month has always seemed to me to be special. Even if the reason for it fell apart as the years went on, it was a symbol of something close to the high part of the heart. Perhaps a life that stretches through two or three wars takes its first war rather seriously, but I still think we should have kept the name "Armistice Day." Its implications were a little more profound, a little more hopeful.

Some tragedies in life are unavoidable. But given how inherently tough and unfair life can be on its own, it's all the more imperative that we, as human beings, don't add any unnecessary suffering if we can help it.

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest have borne most; we that we are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.
- Edgar, King Lear, 5.3, 328-332.

(This post is part of The War Series. Edited slightly for typos.)

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Happy 7th Blogiversary, Blue Gal

Reliable sources inform me that it is the indefatigable, multi-talented Blue Gal's 7th blogiversary. Head over and say hi. Also, it'll be the 100th podcast of the Professional Left Podcast this Friday, but since you're a regular listener, you already knew that, didn't you?

(She's the brainy, crafty sort.)