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Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Tortured Tongue

The pain that torture inflicts on its victims is instrumental.  It is a means to an end.  One way to conceive this end is from the point of view of those who condone torture and justify it in the name of security.  Such people ask us to believe that torturers inflict severe pain on their victims in order to force them to divulge information: precisely the sort of information that could save the lives of those on whose behalf the torturer punishes his victims.  Yet, the extent to which torture can help secure this community from the dangers posed by the victim of torture and his/her associates is questionable.  As a means of information gathering, torture is notoriously unreliable.  Victims of torture may confess to whatever the crimes –whether real or imagined—of which their torturers accuse them simply out of a desire to make the pain that they are suffering cease and go away.  Torturers themselves are perfectly aware of the unreliability of the information that they gather, which is why they often must verify its accuracy.  Regardless of the outcome of this process of verification, torturers will always find reasons to continue torturing their victims: if the information is accurate, they will torture again with a renewed sense of confidence in their ability to gather useful information; and if the information is inaccurate, torturers will punish their victims with a renewed sense of urgency and vengeance. Given the unreliability of torture as a means of information gathering and given also that, as a consequence of this unreliability, torturers create their own reasons for continuing to inflict pain on their victims, the claim that torture is conducted in order to gather information seems rather specious.
When we reconsider this claim from the perspective of the victims of torture, we can discern how torture uses pain as a means to an altogether different end.  From this perspective, torturers inflict severe pain on their victims in order to get them to think, say, or do things that violate who they have become thus far in life.  That is: torturers torture in order to humiliate their victims.  The pain that torturers inflict on their victims is meant to break down their victim’s loyalties both to themselves and to their communities.  In other words, torturers inflict pain on their victims in an effort to compel them to speak in other words.  From the point of view of the victims, these other words constitute a language that contradicts their own language; they are words that only their enemies would speak; so when the victims of torture are forced to speak this language, they in effect are forced to speak the language of treason and betrayal.
Victims of torture are, in this sense, involuntary traitors.  They are people who have been forced to betray themselves and their own people.  The physical, mental, and emotional pain that victims of torture are made to suffer is intended to push them to the breaking point.  What breaks at this point is loyalty.  Henceforth, the victims of torture must live with the knowledge that they have become traitors: enemies to their community; enemies to themselves.  But it is not as though torture completely breaks down all loyalty in those victims who it manages to turn into traitors.  Involuntary traitors are left with one kind of loyalty: loyalty to the trauma inflicted on them.  They remember how, under the duress of excruciating pain, they were forced to think, do, and say things of which they will forever feel ashamed.  The shame of involuntary treason perpetuates the pain of torture by assuring that the victims of torture replace their loyalty to self and community with a profound distrust of their integrity as individuals and as members of a community.  Convinced that they are untrustworthy, the involuntary traitors that torture creates feel that they must bear the weight of their shame alone.
            Torture aims to shame its victims and turn them into traitors because treason creates rifts in communities; it fragments them; and breaks them down.  Torture is a way to divide and conquer the enemy.  But torture is limited in its ability to shatter the ties of loyalty that bind communities together.  It can create involuntary traitors only on an individual basis; it can humiliate its victims only one at a time.  As a way around this limitation, regimes of torture have often sought to make torture into a public spectacle: some examples of this are the Autos de Fe celebrated by the Spanish Inquisition; the witch-burnings in Salem, Massachusetts; or, more recently, the public executions of heretics by the Taliban.  When torture is made the centerpiece of public spectacles such as these, it serves as a threat to all who witness it.  In such instances, torture merges its power to utterly humiliate and shame individuals with censorship’s power to humiliate and shame entire communities.
            Censorship generalizes the shame felt by the involuntary traitors that torture creates.  It does this by threatening violence against and imposing silence on those who might otherwise denounce the regime of torture.  Those who obey the censor’s command to keep silent internalize the threat of violence that underscores that command; thus, they are made to share in the shame of involuntary treason that torture forces on its victims.  When the victims of censorship obey the command to say not a disparaging word about torture, they also become involuntary traitors; their silent complicity betrays the victims of torture.  This is why regimes of torture often align themselves with regimes of censorship: torture creates involuntary traitors who are, in turn, betrayed by the victims of censorship.  Together, torture and censorship generate a culture of treason.
            Of all the cruel and inhumane punishments that make up the torturer’s repertoire, there is one in particular that demonstrates the extent to which torture and censorship work in tandem to generate this culture of treason.  This punishment is elinguation, or the mangling, twisting, turning and eventual removal of the tongue.  The tongue matters to torturers and censors because it is the principle organ of speech, and of articulated positions of either loyalty or betrayal.  As such, elinguation involves more than the literal removal of the tongue; it also represents a metaphorical removal of language and community from the self.  It both literally and metaphorically displaces the victims of torture and censorship from their preferred communities of speech. 
            It is easy enough to understand how this punishment satisfies the desire of the censor to impose a treasonous silence on his victims.  It achieves in explicit terms what censorship normally achieves only in implicit terms.  Less obvious is how this punishment satisfies the torturer’s desire to force his victims to speak the language of betrayal.  But it does so too in the sense that the silence it imposes makes the victim of elinguation complicit with the language that the torturer speaks.  No longer able to contradict his torturer, the victim of elinguation is ashamed to feel the space that his tongue once occupied in his mouth filled with the filth of censorship’s silence.
            This image of the tortured tongue is an apt metaphor for how the discussion on torture has been carried out recently here in Washington, DC.  Our tongues –although not literally removed from our mouths, have been forcibly twisted and turned, such that we now speak on torture in a language that contradicts the language in which we have traditionally spoken of both torture and censorship.  That language is intimately tied up with the liberal tradition.  It is the language in which US constitutional law articulates prohibitions on torture and formulates the equal rights of citizens; this language of enlightened liberalism is also the language in which the Geneva Conventions and The United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment articulate international prohibitions on torture and formulate the equal rights of all humans.
            At issue in this language of enlightened liberalism is the idea that freedom must be balanced against solidarity.  This balance is never easy to strike, and requires constant vigilance.  Such is the case, in great measure, because the language of liberalism does not conceive of either freedom or solidarity in simple terms.  Rather, it conceives them each as a dynamic yet delicate balance between positive and negative aspects.  As concerns freedom, our positive freedom to realize ourselves and our life projects is limited negatively by other people’s freedom from coercion.  As such, we are generally prepared to accept our freedom from coercion as a necessary limit that is imposed on our freedom to do with our lives as we please.  Likewise, as concerns solidarity, our right to associate with others positively on the basis of shared characteristics, values, or interests is limited negatively by other people’s right to not have such associations forced on them.  For this reason, we are generally willing to accept the idea that our common humanity should act as a negative limit on the prerogatives of our positive circles of solidarity.
            When it is applied to questions of torture and censorship, the inherent logic of this language establishes an analogy where Torture: Solidarity :: Censorship: Freedom.  According to this reasoning, no positively defined circle of solidarity (such as a tribe, an ethnic or religious community, or a nation) can trump the negative solidarity that is constructed on the basis of all of us having nothing in common aside from the fact that we are members of the same species.  This negative solidarity imposes a limit on freedom by prohibiting torture as a violation of our human dignity.  As concerns the positive solidarity that censorship constructs by imposing silence, the logic of enlightened liberalism suggests that it is limited by our freedom from coercion.  This negative freedom imposes a limit on solidarity by prohibiting censorship, which is conceived as a violation of our freedom to grow into full-fledged individuals who think and speak for themselves. 
The Bybee and Gonzales memos, which the Bush administration prepared in 2002 in anticipation of the US invasion of Iraq, turned this logic on its head.  The new Bush-speak on torture inverted the terms of enlightened liberalism’s prohibition analogy, replacing the negative relationships between torture and solidarity on the one hand and censorship and freedom on the other with positive ones.  As opposed to Torture: Solidarity :: Censorship : Freedom, the new discourse on torture proposed that Torture: Freedom :: Censorship: Solidarity.  According to this logic, torturers are the ultimate expression of freedom; and censors are the ultimate creators of solidarity.  The positive freedom enjoyed by torturers knows no limits; it is neither limited by the victim’s negative freedom from coercion nor by the negative solidarity that ties torturers to their victims insofar as they are both human beings.  Much the same can be said about the censors who this new Bush-speak on torture empower.  The positive solidarity that these censors construct by imposing silence knows no limits; it is neither limited by the negative solidarity of those with whom the censors have nothing in common except their humanity, nor is it limited by the negative liberty from coercion of the victims of censorship.  Failing to acknowledge any of these limits, the positive solidarity that these censors create is as narcissistic as it is jingoistic.  Indeed, the trouble with this overly-positive notion of solidarity is that it has led some Americans to embrace a sense of patriotism that would require all Americans to identify positively with torturers, as opposed to identifying at least negatively with their victims.
I trust my comments have made clear the extent to which this new language on torture, and the censorship that accompanies it, openly contradict the traditional language of enlightened liberalism on which our and all other modern democracies are based.  Insofar as we acquiesce to use this new language or fail to denounce the silences it imposes, we run the risk of becoming involuntary traitors and sharing in the shame that now permanently marks the lives of those “enemy combatants” who have been tortured on our behalf, ostensibly in order to secure our freedom and affirm our solidarity.

The outcome of the recent Presidential election here in the US suggests that a majority of the American public has now decided to reject the new language on torture that was devised in secretive meetings and became policy without even the slightest public debate.  Perhaps this majority favors a return to the more traditional language of enlightened liberalism.  I hope they do not.  For if the Bybee and Gonzalez memos prove anything, it is that the language in which we have traditionally formulated our prohibitions on torture is too weak; the negative limits we have traditionally imposed on freedom and solidarity have proved to be malleable, twistable, and torturous.  We do need stronger language in which to prohibit torture and censorship while at the same time affirming our solidarity as a species.  My hope, although it is not terribly audacious, is that this symposium today serves as a first step in that direction.

Friday, October 25, 2013

America's Imperial Crusade in the Philippines

In an essay titled “Expansion and Peace” originally published on December 21, 1899, Theodore Roosevelt offered this defense of U.S. imperialism in the Philippines:

the expansion of a civilized nation has invariably meant the growth of the area in which peace is normal throughout the world.  The same will be true of the Philippines.  If the men who have counseled national degradation, national dishonor, by urging us to leave the Philippines and put the Aguinaldan oligarchy in control of those islands, could have their way, we should merely turn them over to rapine and bloodshed until some stronger, manlier power stepped in to do the task we had shown ourselves fearful of performing.  But, as it is, this country will keep the islands and will establish therein a stable and orderly government, so that one more fair spot of the world’s surface shall have been snatched from the forces of darkness.  Fundamentally the cause of expansion is the cause of peace.

It is worth noting here how Roosevelt uses Enlightenment rhetoric and imagery.  U.S. expansion, he argues, is an enlightening prospect that promises to “snatch” portions of the world’s surface “from the forces of darkness.”  Empire, in this mode, is literally a matter of enlightening.  But in this, as in other representative passages of Roosevelt’s epic prose, he is ultimately less concerned with the enlightenment of those who live in darkness on far away islands than he is with those among his fellow countrymen who, due to either moral depravity or intellectual obtuseness, simply refuse or are incapable of seeing the radiant light of American imperialism.  In the passage at hand, he depicts American anti-imperialists as men who have counseled “national degradation” and “national dishonor”.

In his famous essay of 1899, “The Strenuous Life”, he depicts the anti-imperialists in similarly unflattering terms:

The timid man, the lazy man, the man who distrusts his country, the over-civilized man, who has lost the great fighting, masterful virtues, the ignorant man, and the man of dull mind, whose soul is incapable of feeling the mighty lift that thrills ‘stern men with empires in their brains’ –all these, of course, shrink from seeing us build a navy and an army adequate to our needs; shrink from seeing us do our share of the world’s work, by bringing order out of chaos in the great, fair tropic islands from which the valor of our soldiers and sailors has driven the Spanish flag.  These are the men who fear the strenuous life, who fear the only national life which is really worth leading.

With this rhetoric of courageous and strenuous effort, Roosevelt seeks to construct a modern heroic type: the imperial civilizer; but this would-be modern hero actually reverts back to pre-modern forms of heroism celebrated centuries before by Spanish imperial apologists who conceived of their own empire in the Americas as the divinely sanctioned and heroic work of self-sacrificing saints and crusading conquistadors.  By means of such heroic rhetoric, Roosevelt sought, not unlike the Spaniards several centuries before him, to elevate the adventurer and even the criminal to the status of an absolute moral conscience. This totalizing and absolutist conception of the imperial hero is tainted, no doubt, with the universalism of Enlightenment moral and political thought.  But Roosevelt’s heroes of American imperialism are not modern-day Prometheans who dare to steal the light of the gods in order to improve the lot of mankind with their modern science and technological know-how; they are rather pre-modern heroes, bent on imposing the tyrannical spirit of their “strenuous way of life” on those unfortunate enough to come face to face with them in a struggle to retain their own freedom.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Meek Submission of Potential Criminals

The first time I realized that the state –as in the government of the United States of America—considers each and every one of its citizens a potential criminal was when my wife, who is originally from Colombia, was seeking to change her immigration status and become an American citizen.  As a first step in that process, she had to fill out Form I-485.  This is the form that innocently asks such pieties as: Are you a prostitute?  Are you, or have you ever been, a member of a totalitarian movement?  Have you ever been, or do you intend to become, a terrorist, a torturer?  Have you entered the United States of America with the intent to overthrow the government?  As I mentioned already, my wife is originally from Colombia, which is not exactly a bastion of civic virtue; but all the same, did the state really have to ask her if she ever had been or ever intended to become an out-and-out criminal?  Of course, my wife answered No to all the questions asked on Form I-485.  And of course the state expected her to answer No to all those incriminating questions.  So why the show?  To what end this silly willy-nilly game of cat and mouse?

The answer, at first, eluded me.  After all, I am a native son; a natural citizen who --unlike Arnold Schwarzenegger-- could become President, if I were half the criminal he is.  Yep.  As a native son, I had grown accustomed to thinking of my government as the people’s government, as a republic dedicated to democratic self-governance and to the equality of all before the law.  So I had a hard time figuring out why the state was asking my wife such dastardly questions.  Then it dawned on me that the reason the state asked her these incriminating questions, knowing full well that she would answer No to them all, was that, if in fact she was lying when she answered No, they could legally criminalize her.

Legally criminalize: this is what the state does with each and every person who seeks to become a naturalized citizen of the United States.  Legally criminalized: this is the state in which all natural citizens have always and already existed vis-à-vis the state.  The state legally criminalizes us all, whether naturalized or natural citizens, whether explicitly or implicitly, as potential criminals.

This is not as bad a deal as it sounds.  Far be it from me to be an alarmist.  Consider, for instance, that there are those among us who are criminals.  Whitey Bulger, the nefarious Irish mob boss of Boston (and no, I am not talking about the Boston Police Department), was convicted this past Monday for committing a series of 11 murders and other gang-related crimes.  If the state did not consider him a potential criminal, if there were no code of law in place that anticipated his potential crimes and set forth appropriate punishments, Whitey would still be living it up with his girlfriend on the beaches of southern California.  As Americans, as a people dedicated to an ongoing experiment in democratic self-government, we submit ourselves, our lives, to the rule of law.  We agree that there should be fundamental limits placed on our right to exercise freedom and pursue happiness: that limit is the right of every other American to exercise their own freedom and pursue their own happiness. So in essence, we are all also in agreement with the basic impulse that informs the rule of law: that is, we all more or less agree to treat each other as potential criminals.  Don’t tread on me and I won’t tread on you: this is the basic underlying logic of our experiment in self-governance.

But not all criminals are of the Whitey Bulger sort, and not all crimes tread on other people’s liberty.  Two cases, which are deserving of our on-going attention and concern, are those involving Misters Manning and Snowden.  Both of these young men are accused of crimes against the state.  They are not criminals of the Whitey Bulger sort, but an altogether different breed of would-be criminal.  They are public servants who the government accuses of being disloyal to the state.  In the case of Manning, the accusation stems from the fact that he disclosed a trove of not-too-secret U.S. government files and made them available, through wikileaks, to a global reading public interested in America’s failing human rights record.  In the case of Snowden, because he released into the hands of the United States’s Cold War enemies –notably China and Russia—secret documents detailing the NSA’s global and domestic surveillance procedures.

Both of these young men claim to have released these secret documents out of their love for the American way of life.  Each claims, in his own way, to be a whistle blower whose main motivation has been to unmask the state’s overbearing abuse of human and political rights both abroad and at home. The government views their actions as proof of their potential criminality.  In Manning’s case, he has in fact already been found guilty of crimes, for which he is likely to spend the remainder of his life, locked up in federal prison.  In Snowden’s case, the judge and jury are still out, since he is quite literally still out of the country.

But the issue here, the real issue, is not whether or not or to what extent their actions constitute crimes against the state.  To the contrary, what is at issue is that their actions and the state’s response to these actions reveal that it is the state itself that we must now also regard as a potential criminal.  Its crime is the crime that, according to our own Declaration of Independence, would justify our rising up against it in protest.  It is a common enough crime, committed over the centuries by any number of rulers drunk on the hubris of their power.  We call it tyranny.  The real surprise in all this is therefore not that our government considers us all potential criminals, but that in the face of our own government’s growing tyranny, we choose the option, not of freedom-loving republicans dedicated to democracy, but that of voluntary servants the world over: that option has a name: meek subservience.

Monday, June 3, 2013

John Locke and America's Empire for Liberty

The political theory of John Locke is generally credited with having provided both a philosophical justification for the American Revolution and a practical roadmap for the founding of the Republic.  It is in this sense, for instance, that historians often point to that celebrated phrase in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, where Thomas Jefferson, citing Locke, declares the People's right to "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness".  On this view, the influence of Locke on American political culture was decisive, unproblematic, and "happy".  But such a celebratory view of Locke's influence on American political culture correlates less with historical truth than it does with the poetic half-truths of a national myth. This myth tells us that Locke was a champion of liberty, of civil rights, and equality.  The historical truth, while not completely debunking this myth, nevertheless unsettles the truths contained in it.

Locke was a champion of liberty; but he was also a champion of British imperialism.  He defended the right of individuals to enjoy negative liberty --that is, their right to be free from coercion and tyranny, but he also defended the positive liberty of "industrious" people i.e., the British, to conquer foreign lands: both those lands that were inhabited only by barbarians (which for Locke amounted more or less to the entirety of North America, where he had a claim to a significant tract of land in the Carolinas), or those lands that had been conquered by people who were not industrious and had therefore neglected to improve the land with their labor, (which for Locke essentially summed up vast areas of the Spanish colonies in the Americas).  This tension between negative and positive liberties, between autonomy and sovereignty, is the true inheritance that Locke bequeathed to America's Founding Fathers.  It is a tension or ambiguity that combines republican rights with imperial virtue.

Insofar as he was an enlightened thinker, Locke was not the first to formulate this ambiguity.  Some sixty years prior to the publication of Locke's Two Treatises on Government, Francis Bacon had already defined enlightenment as a combination of potentia and productio.  Locke, however, takes this double aspect of enlightenment thought and applies it, not merely to Man's dominance over Nature, but also to Man's ownership of the land.

For Jefferson, who dreamed of U.S. expansion in terms of an Empire of Liberty, the issue was not so much the right to property as the right to pursue happiness, which he conceived in the terms of an agrarian utopia of ever-expansive liberty.  Locke did not, however, mince his words after such a fashion.  For him, government was meant to secure the rights of individuals to life, liberty, and property.

Locke's theory of property combines negative freedom and positive freedom.  Negative freedom is at work in what he calls the Law of Nature.  In the Second Treatise, he writes: "The State of Nature has a Law of Nature to govern it, which obliges everyone: And Reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind ... that being equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions."  For its part, Positive Freedom is at work in what Locke refers to as a Biblical injunction to improve the land through labor.  In this sense, Locke writes elsewhere in the Second Treatise: "God, when he gave the World in common to all Mankind, commanded Man also to labor and the penury of his condition required it of him.  God and his Reason commanded him to subdue the Earth, i.e., improve it for the benefit of Life."  Accordingly, Locke argues, God gave the land "to the use of the Industrious and Rational (And Labour was to be his Title to it;) not to the Fancy or Contentiousness of the Quarrelsome and Contentious".  Locke's theory of property thus combines negative liberty, which protects individuals from invasion of their land, with the positive liberty to invade lands that have not been improved by the labor of others.

Now what is truly worthy of note about this theory is the extent to which it is intimately bound up with justifications for British incursions into the Spanish colonies in the Americas.  In this sense, Locke writes in his Second Treatise: "Nay, the extent of Ground is of little value, without labour, that I have heard it affirmed, that in Spain it self, a Man may be permitted to plough, sow, and reap, without being disturbed, upon Land he has no other Title to, but only his making use of it.  But, on the contrary, the Inhabitants think themselves beholden to him, who, by his Industry on neglected, and consequently waste Land, has increased the stock of Corn, which they wanted."  Here Locke speaks with philosophical admiration of the manner in which Spaniards in his time would recognize labor as the only title necessary to own common lands that would otherwise be left alone in a state of "wastelands". But Locke was not only an enlightened philosopher.  He was also a Landgrave of Carolina and the Secretary of the Council for Foreign Plantations appointed by King Charles II of England.  In this capacity, he ordered a study of the history of the Royal Society, in which the argument on wastelands is turned against Spain's colonies in the Americas.  In this work commissioned by Locke, we read: "how unfit the Spanish humor is, to improve Manufactures, in a Country so distant as the West-Indies; we may learn by their practice in Spain itself: where they commonly disdain to exercise any Manual Crafts, and permit the profit of them, to be carry'd away by strangers" (Quoted in Eva Botella-Rodinas' "Debating Empires, Inventing Empires: British Territorial Claims Against the Spaniards in America, 1670-1714" in The Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, Vol. 10, No. 1, 2010).

Locke and his contemporaries in England viewed the Spanish as "lazy" and "sinful", their empire already in decline and doomed inevitably to collapse.  The colonies in the Americas were, on this view, wastelands --lands that the Spanish, who were according to this logic interested only in silver and gold, had neglected to improve.  This prejudice, which in Locke is only in its nascent form, will with the passing of the centuries guide not only British imperial pursuits in the Americas but eventually also those of the United States of America: a Republic which expanded across the continent first and then across the globe in order, supposedly, to civilize the world and turn it, as Jefferson fondly dreamed, into an Empire for Liberty.