Monday, April 28, 2008

Torturing Ideals

In high school, I read with interest Joan Baez's autobiographical musings Daybreak. At the time, 1968, I was quite involved with questions of non-violence and pacifism, and was constantly challenged by “what would you do if” questions that tried to force me to admit a hypothetical limit to my unwillingness to use violence. Baez, not surprisingly, had faced similar types of grilling. Unlike me, however, she didn't fall into the trap, sidestepping the questions by showing the absurdity by turning the questions themselves into a series of laughable impossibilities.

Her point was that one cannot set up principles as absolutes, that one cannot claim that he or she will act unequivocally in one fashion or another, regardless of the details of the situation. Principles provide guidelines for the future and a means for analyzing and even judging the past. No matter how much we want them to, they do not restrict one from particular actions in the moment. They cannot, for each situation differs from every other, as universals do not.

Though I am an advocate of non-violence, I can imagine situations where I might react with violence. Sometimes the needs of a particular situation demand action completely contrary to one's belief. That's awkward, and should cause re-examination, but it does not mean the belief is wrong. Afterwards, the need is for a two-fold analysis: was the action, in fact, necessary, given the particulars, and what course of earlier action could have avoided landing one in that situation? The discussion need not turn on the value of the belief. As fallible humans living in a volatile world, we never completely live up to the ideals we establish. That's no fault of the ideals, and no reason to lower them. It's simply recognition that we, ourselves, are not ideal.

The Bush administration believes differently. In the case of torture, at least. Their argument seems to be that, if you can't reach the ideal, abandon the ideal. Lower your standards.

We've all heard the “ticking bomb” “what if” about torture: What if someone had information that could stop a bomb from going off and killing many, but won't give it up... would you torture that person as a last resort? Of course, the situation is ridiculous; it has never happened and is not likely to—outside of television. If it did, however, the fact of Geneva Conventions (or laws, or anything) is not going to stop anyone from doing whatever it takes to save lives. However, the person who does act has to be willing to face the consequences, an inquiry and (if they were wrong in the choice they made, in the eyes of the inquiring panel) accept punishment that had been established for such an act.

It's simple: we must expect the highest level of behavior when we establish our standards. It may not be met, but a lower one can be seen (in the case of torture, certainly) as an endorsement of certain activities that should be repugnant to all of us.

In The New York Times recently was an article on new letters justifying torture by the CIA:

“The fact that an act is undertaken to prevent a threatened terrorist attack, rather than for the purpose of humiliation or abuse, would be relevant to a reasonable observer in measuring the outrageousness of the act,” said Brian A. Benczkowski, a deputy assistant attorney general, in the letter, which had not previously been made public.
Mr. Bush issued the executive order last summer to comply with restrictions imposed by the Supreme Court and Congress. The order spelled out new standards for interrogation techniques, requiring that they comply with international standards for humane treatment, but it did not identify any approved techniques.
It has been clear that the order preserved at least some of the latitude that Mr. Bush has permitted the C.I.A. in using harsher interrogation techniques than those permitted by the military or other agencies. But the new documents provide more details about how the administration intends to determine whether a specific technique would be legal, depending on the circumstances involved. ...

Some legal experts critical of the Justice Department interpretation said the department seemed to be arguing that the prospect of thwarting a terror attack could be used to justify interrogation methods that would otherwise be illegal.

This is an “end justifies the means” argument that really cannot be used in establishing ideals. It mixes goals with standards, two completely different things. The “interrogation methods” need to be illegal, no matter the situation. If they should be used in any instance, their illegality should trigger an investigation and trial—whether their use should prove justified or not. Sanctioning their use beforehand will only lead to their use more often, making something that should seem outrageous even when necessary become standard operating procedure. And, as people who place ideals ahead of convenience, we don't want that.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Academic Freedom and Yoo

[Crossposted from Free Exchange on Campus]

My grandfather stopped working as a defense attorney when he realized he could not provide adequate defense for people he knew were guilty. The bastards, he deeply believed, deserved the best defense possible but he felt unable to provide it. Today, I sympathize with him, for I am going to try to defend another bastard. And I don’t like it. Still, I do understand, as my grandfather did (and as this bastard does not) that the rule of law and the concept of an honorable defense (and prosecution) are bedrock to our legal system.

The bastard in question is John Yoo, professor at the University of California’s Boalt Hall School of Law and former official in Bush’s Justice Department. It was Yoo who wrote infamous memos advocating torture and claiming the Geneva Conventions concerning prisoners of war and non-combatants in war situations did not restrain the United States. It was Yoo, in other words, who claimed that the protection of law only covered those the prosecutors wanted covered.

Now, the tables have turned: there are those, including the American Freedom Campaign, who want to exclude Yoo from protection.

Though I loathe Yoo, and believe his attitude is directly counter to the interests of the American system of governance, I cannot see that as justification for abandoning another system of protection—academic freedom—in order to punish Yoo. Frankly, I cannot see how anyone who believes in “freedom” can argue for denying someone freedom because he (or she) argued for denying someone freedom.

Yet that is what the American Freedom Campaign is doing:

John Yoo should not only be disqualified from ever serving in government again, but he should also be prohibited from spreading his distorted view of the law and the role of lawyers to young law students.

He must be fired.

Yet Yoo has been charged with no crime, academic or otherwise. Firing him would be a direct slap at the American right to hold an unpopular view without consequence (the First Amendment, of course) and it would also be in direct contravention to the Academic Freedom compact between universities and their faculties that is at the heart of the success of our institutes of higher education.

Some disagree. Writing in Inside Higher Ed, Scott Jaschik mentions:

Timothy Burke, an associate professor of history at Swarthmore College, [who compares] Yoo to Ward Churchill. Writes Burke: “So riddle me this: why isn’t John Yoo just as big a hack when it comes to constitutional law as Ward Churchill was when it came to Native American history? This isn’t about simple disagreement with the substance of his arguments in the ‘torture memos.’ It’s about Yoo making claims (claims with consequences far greater than what normally follows from scholarship, even legal scholarship) that are just factually wrong or are screamingly disingenuous. Whatever the standards might be for employment at the Justice Department (a different issue), shouldn’t this kind of approach to knowledge and scholarship disqualify someone for an academic post?”

As one who refused to defend Churchill, but does defend Yoo, let me answer: First, Yoo is fully qualified for his position in ways that Churchill was not for his. Second, Yoo did not warp the system of reference in academic publications to his own favor as Churchill appears to have done by publishing articles under different names. Third, the “facts” in any argument Yoo makes are there to be found, while those Churchill claims are sometimes obscured. Though I hate to call anyone a charlatan, Churchill comes close. Yoo, no matter how much one may disagree with him, does not.

What I see going on now reminds me of lines from Bob Dylan’s old “My Back Pages”:

In a soldier's stance, I aimed my hand

At the mongrel dogs who teach

Fearing not that I'd become my enemy

In the instant that I preach

If we are going to defend freedom, we need to defend it for everyone, or we become the enemies of freedom, be it freedom of speech or academic freedom. We need to defend it even for Ward Churchill and John Yoo. What was indefensible in Churchill’s case was dishonesty, not his freedom of expression. No one is accusing Yoo of anything like that (though Burke mentions ‘factual errors’ and even ‘disingenuous arguments,’ he does not show that they rise to that level).

By trying to equate the cases of Churchill and Yoo, Burke conflates different freedoms as well as different cases. Churchill may have been brought into the limelight through protected speech, but he was fired for other reasons completely (though they may never have come to light, had he not so annoyed people on the political right). Yoo, too, stepped into the spotlight because of statements with political edge. He has not (as far as anyone has shown), however, contravened his responsibilities under academic freedom.

Burke’s attempt to move the argument from freedom of expression to academic freedom (and responsibility) notwithstanding, there is little reason to move discussion of Yoo from the rights of freedom of expression (in this instance) to the rights of academic freedom. Doing so only muddies the distinctions between the two, distinctions that have become a little too hazy already.

Though Yoo’s ideas are a threat to what I believe is the foundation of the United States, his is a threat through ideas—and he needs to be fought by using ideas, not by attacking the man. Boalt Hall students will learn more if he remains, and if his ideas are countered by concerned students and faculty, than if he goes. When the bankruptcy of ideas is exposed, learning is much more possible than when a person is simply removed.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Forty Years Ago, This Summer

Prague, August 6 or 7, 1968 (two weeks before the Russian tanks rolled in). Three o’clock or so, and I was in the gigantic central train station. The little tour with my erstwhile traveling companion was over (we’d finally found an official willing to extend our expired visas—mine to midnight only) and I needed a ticket, nothing more, to West Germany. Or, at least, close to West Germany. No trains, I knew, crossed that border. And no one at a ticket window seemed to speak any language I remotely found familiar. “Allemande?” Shaken heads. “Deutschland?” Same thing. Finally, someone sold me a ticket to somewhere, a track number and a train number on it.

So, I found it and boarded. Entered an empty compartment. Took off my cheap grey trench coat, bought in Munich, and folded it over my cheap grey backpack, also from Munich, and shoved them both onto the rack above, extracting the London Times I had somehow managed to buy somewhere in Prague. The air was stuffy, so I shoved down the top part of the window as far as it would go, sat, and closed my eyes.

Train moved, rhythm soothing, and I slept. A thump or a bump sometime later, and I awoke, running my hand over my hair—gritty, strange. I looked at my palm: streaked with black, with black speckles behind it, covering the newspaper on my lap. At a turn, I could see the train ahead out the window: we were pulled by a coal locomotive.

Wow. But where was it taking me? Due east, I imagined, Russia and the disappearance of a stupid American kid.

There was, at least, a name on the ticket, along with the numbers, and I watched the stations, hoping to see it.

An hour or so later, I did, and hopped down onto the platform of a tiny station in the midst of a number of tracks, many with electric lines over them. I walked inside—and here, oh such favor!, was a map with a you-are-here star. I was, I saw, on the German border, but the wrong one… I had no visa for East Germany.

There was a town near what was clearly the West German border: “Cheb,” I shouted to the man behind the little window.

He frowned, then motioned me toward him, then kept motioning. Understanding, I started shoving money towards him. He took some of it, shoved the rest back along with a ticket, then ran outside. I followed, dubious.

A little electric train was heading past the station on one of the farther tracks. He flagged it down and motioned me aboard.

This time, there were no compartments, just bench seats in an open car, occupied by what were clearly multiple generations of one family, what I knew then as “gypsies,” what I would now refer to as “Roma.”

The oldest woman talked to me, got nothing out of me, finally asking me a question. I understood, I thought, one word, sounded like “Rouski.” She was asking if I were a Russian. I said, “No, American.”

Everyone laughed. She rubbed thumb and forefinger together and said, “American? Gelt? Gelt!” Now, I laughed, too. “Keine gelt.” She clearly didn’t believe me, but was mollified by the Marlboro cigarettes I gave her and returned to where she had been sitting. One of the younger men came over on her instruction, and handed me a number of curious cigarettes with long tubes and not much tobacco. Strong stuff: he showed me to pinch the tube so I wouldn’t draw to much and continue the choking that had been nearly doubling me forward.

Cheb arrived about dusk, or we to it. At another window, I asked which way the border was. A curious look preceded a reluctant finger, and I turned to walk that direction in a light rain.

The road did take me out of town (I remembered from that map that Cheb wasn’t on the border, simply near it), down a road that got smaller, then became a path, then ended at a gate with a not-so-friendly German Shepherd eyeing me from the other side.

Across a field, maybe a mile away, I could see a road, a lighted road heading to buildings. A road with cars on it.

The wet crop, whatever it was, soaked what little of me wasn’t already by the time I had crossed through it. Cars passing by, some with German plates. Good. Likely heading to or from the border. But which way? One dark, into woods. The other towards those buildings.

I chose the buildings. Near them was a little sign.


Two hours or so, and I had made a circle.

Logic said, “Other way.”

So I walked. And tried to hitch-hike. And walked.

At one point, a huge noise came from the woods to my right, and a dog as big as a Mack truck came bounding towards me, attached to a uniformed giant with a weapon larger than he. I stopped. Petrified.

He motioned for my papers. I handed them over, shaking, along with a few more of my Marlboros. He grunted, took the cigarettes, handed my back my passport, and motioned for me to go on.

Now I knew, at least, that I was likely headed in the right direction.

Walking on, no cars stopped. Walking on, and a different sound came from behind—a tractor. I didn’t bother to thumb, but it stopped. The driver, perhaps my age (I was sixteen), motioned me up behind him.

The noise of the engine was too loud for conversation, but he talked to me anyway, keeping up a steady monologue until we came to one of those guard stations straight out of a spy movie, moveable barrier and phone-booth sized station—with an actual phone. My driver turned his tractor around and stopped. I climbed down, thanking him for going the extra mile, but I am sure he understood as little as that as I had of his tales. He chugged off and I walked over to the man in the booth.

In the distance, about 100 meters away, I could see the lights of the real border. Might just make it out.

The guard took my passport and made a call. He raised his voice and gestured (as best he could, in that confined space), and waited. Then talked again, raised his voice again.

Finally, someone gave him satisfaction. He handed back my passport and motioned me towards the border.

Walking up, I handed my passport to the first guard I saw. He took it, told me to wait. I asked where I could change my Czech currency. He dismissed the need, said “souvenir,” and disappeared into a building. Cars came and went, both directions, but he did not return for me, though I got the feeling that all of the other guards were watching me surreptitiously as they checked papers and passports.

There was something of a gift shop, and I was cold and wet and it looked dry, maybe even warm. So I went inside.

Some guy, a little older than me, perhaps college age and with a fresh college look that was already somewhat out of style but with hair long enough to make it clear to me that he wasn’t military, was talking to a German couple, trying to change money with them. What struck me was that his German was worse than mine—and I could only speak a few phrases. What struck me, too, was his accent—certainly American.

“I know they say you can’t take the money out, but they just told me to keep mine.”

He looked over at me, in astonishment.

But I had expected that.

What I had not been prepared for was that everything at the whole crossing stopped. Even outside. Every guard in sight was watching us.

The German couple sidled away. The other American looked around, nonplussed.

We stood looking at each other for a moment, as still as the tableaux we centered. He spoke first.

“You’re an American, too.”

I nodded.

“They seem to be interested that you spoke to me.”

I nodded again.

“Well, got any idea why?”

I shook my head.

“Look,” he said, “let’s go over there and sit down, get out of the limelight.”

We did.

He, I discovered, was 21, from Florida, a Romney Republican. “Did you know that the balloting is going on tonight in Miami?” No, I did not. “Nixon will get it, but maybe he’ll pick Romney for VP.” I didn’t really care. McCarthy was my man—but I didn’t say that, simply that I had walked from Cheb and needed to be out of the country by midnight—or so my visa said.

He, it turned out, had walked from Cheb as well, and had been waiting there at the border for some hours. “Don’t know what they’re doing. Don’t know why they won’t let me through. Though, I suspect, that with two of us they are going to do it for even longer.”

And they did.

I don’t know how long it was before they finally gave us our passports and told us to walk on into West Germany. And I have no idea what they were doing, all the time they kept us there. There had been reports, I know, from Russia of caches of American arms found in the area. Maybe they thought we were soldiers, sneaking things across. Maybe they searched the whole area. I don't know.

There was a line across the road, marking the actual border. Jumping across it, my companion bent down and kissed the ground, yelling “frei, frei.”

He got a few dirty looks from the Czechs. The German guards remained poker-faced and simply reached out hands for our passports.

The train station in the little town there was locked, but at dawn a man came and, in perfect English, told us there would be a train for Nuremberg along soon. He told us he had been in the SS, but had been captured early on in the war and had spent most of it in a camp in South Carolina.

The Floridian had a small radio he constantly tinkered with. A few minutes before the train arrived, he finally found an Armed Forces station broadcasting the Republican convention. The voting was going on. “The great state of Alabama casts however many votes for the next President of the United States, Richard Nixon.” That sort of thing. Lots of cheers and noise-makers.

On the train, though, reception died. But Nuremberg wasn’t really that far away. Just as we got off, they were announcing that Nixon was over the top, that he had the nomination.

As soon as I could, I ditched the Floridian, found a couple of guys who looked more like me (scruffy, hair to their shoulders--one Italian one Canadian), pooled ready cash with them, bought a liter of gin and a bottle of mixer, and climbed to the castle, where we sat, passing the two bottles back and forth until…

Well, I don’t really remember until what.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Rest In Peace

Today’s The New York Times has a story about an attempt by his children to move the remains of artist Mark Rothko to another cemetery. “The potential loss of the Rothko burial place ‘is a big deal,’ said Nancy Poole, secretary-treasurer of the East Marion Cemetery Association. ‘He’s our only notable person.’”

That brought back memories.

In 1988, after completing my doctoral dissertation, I found myself with a few months free. I had been accepted into Peace Corps, but wouldn’t be leaving until August. So, when our little Brooklyn Quaker cemetery in Prospect Park needed a temporary caretaker, I took on the job.

It was a delight. That is, part of it was a delight. The cemetery, twenty acres mostly wooded, is one of the most inspiring and serene spots in New York City. I spent a great deal of time doing things like finding headstones that had fallen then had been buried under decades of leaves and blown dirt and restoring them to their proper places, mowing lawns, and tending to the plants. It was good work.

It was also nearly unbearably sad. At that time, AIDS was killing with a fury, and I helped many a young man find a spot for the ashes of his partner, knowing that he might soon be joining the other. Alone young men: families, unfortunately, were not often forgiving of gay orientations.

They knew, at least, that their ashes would be together under the gently swaying branches of ancient trees in a spot of real and lasting beauty. That brought them comfort--and me, as well.

There were visitors, too. Some coming to visit family graves, but others appearing at the cemetery gate for another reason entirely. For, like the East Marion Cemetery, we had our one celebrity, and the occasional fan would show up wanting to see his grave.

He was the actor Montgomery Clift, buried there beside his older brother who, much to the outrage of the peace-loving Quakers, had insisted he be buried in an artillery shell casing (he had served in the artillery, apparently, during World War II). Their mother had been a member of New York Monthly Meeting and had seen to the burial of her sons before retiring to a nursing home in California.

Which brings me to my memories—and to what I brag is my greatest claim to fame:

I buried Montgomery Clift’s mother.

She died that summer, and her ashes came to me for burial beside her sons. There was no ceremony—she had outlived everyone who might have been interested—except for my own private moment once the job was complete.

Her son starred in the first movie I remember seeing, Raintree County, not a great movie, but one leaving images as indelible fifty years on as they were that day from the backseat of the family station wagon at the drive-in. So I gave Ethel Clift a short moment of my time, after gently putting her to rest.

I hope no one ever wants to move any of the Clifts. They deserve an eternity of peace in that gentle spot.

Come to think of it, so does Mark Rothko, in his.