Thursday, June 02, 2005

People Get Ready on WTUL today

Howard Zinn on the United States' Machiavellian realpolitik:

Political ideas are centered on the issue of ends (What kind of society do we want?) and means (How will we get it?)....Machiavelli settled for modern governments the question of ends: conquest. And the question of means: force.

Machiavelli refused to be deflected by utopian dreams or romantic hopes and by questions of right and wrong or good and bad. He is the father of modern political realism, or what has been called realpolilik. "It appears to me more proper to go to the truth of the matter than to its imagination...for how we live is so far removed from how we ought to live, that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done, will rather learn to bring about his own ruin than his preservation."

It is one of the most seductive ideas of our time. We hear on all sides the cry of "be're living in the real world," from political platforms, in the press, and at home. ...

How many times have the dreams of young people-the desire to help others; to devote their lives to the sick or the poor; or to poetry, music, or drama-been demeaned as foolish romanticism, impractical in a world where one must "make a living"? Indeed, the economic system reinforces the same idea by rewarding those who spend their lives on "practical" pursuits-while making life difficult for the artist, poets, nurses, teachers, and social workers.

Realism is seductive because once you have accepted the reasonable notion that you should base your actions on reality, you are too often led to accept, without much questioning, someone else's version of what that reality is. It is a crucial act of independent thinking to be skeptical of someone else's description of reality.

When Machiavelli claims to "go to the truth of the matter," he is making the frequent claim of important people (writers, political leaders) who press their ideas on others: that their account is "the truth," that they are being "objective."

But his reality may not be our reality; his truth may not be our truth. The real world is infinitely complex. Any description of it must be a partial description, so a choice is made about what part of reality to describe, and behind that choice is often a definite interest, in the sense of something useful for a particular individual or group. Behind the claim of someone giving us an objective picture of the real world is the assumption that we all have the same interests, and so we can trust the one who describes the world for us, because that person has our interests at heart.

It is very important to know if our interests are the same, because a description is never simply neutral and innocent; it has consequences. No description is merely that. Every description is in some way a prescription. If you describe human nature as Machiavelli does, as basically immoral, it suggests that it is realistic, indeed only human, that you should behave that way too.

The notion that all our interests are the same (the political leaders and the citizens, the millionaire and the homeless person) deceives us. It is a deception useful to those who run modern societies, where the sup port of the population is necessary for the smooth operation of the machinery of everyday life and the perpetuation of the present arrangements of wealth and power.

Mark Danner commencement address on the worth of an English degree at a time when critical skills are needed by citizens to counter the new September 11th justification for expansion of the United States' empire:
One welcome distinction between the times we live in and those other periods I have mentioned is the relative frankness of our government officials -- I should call it unprecedented frankness -- in explaining how they conceive the relationship of power and truth. Our officials believe that power can determine truth, as an unnamed senior adviser to the President explained to a reporter last fall:

"We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out.
The reporter, the adviser said, was a member of what he called "the reality-based community," destined to "judiciously study" the reality the administration was creating. Now it is important that we realize -- and by "we" I mean all of us members of the "reality-based community" -- that our leaders of the moment really do believe this, as anyone knows who has spent much time studying September 11 and the Iraq war and the various scandals that have sprung from those events – the "weapons of mass destruction" scandal and the Abu Ghraib scandal, to name only two.

What is interesting about both of those is that the heart of the scandal, the wrongdoing, is right out in front of us. Virtually nothing of great importance remains to be revealed. Ever since Watergate we've had a fairly established narrative of scandal. First you have revelation: the press, usually with the help of various leakers within the government, reveals the wrongdoing. Then you have investigation, when the government -- the courts, or Congress, or, as with Watergate, both -- constructs a painstaking narrative of what exactly happened: an official story, one that society -- that the community -- can agree on. Then you have expiation, when the judges hand down sentences, the evildoers are punished, and the society returns to a state of grace.

What distinguishes our time -- the time of September 11 -- is the end of this narrative of scandal. With the scandals over weapons of mass destruction and Abu Ghraib, we are stuck at step one. We have had the revelation; we know about the wrongdoing. Just recently, in the Downing Street memo, we had an account of a high-level discussion in Britain, nearly eight months before the Iraq war, in which the head of British intelligence flatly tells the prime minister – the intelligence officer has just returned from Washington -- that not only has the President of the United States decided that "military action was...inevitable" but that -- in the words of the British intelligence chief -- "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." This memo has been public for weeks.

So we have had the revelations; we know what happened. What we don't have is any clear admission of -- or adjudication of -- guilt, such as a serious congressional or judicial investigation would give us, or any punishment. Those high officials responsible are still in office. Indeed, not only have they received no punishment; many have been promoted. And we -- you and I, members all of the reality-based community -- we are left to see, to be forced to see. And this, for all of us, is a corrupting, a maddening, but also an inescapable burden.

Let me give you a last example. The example is in the form of a little play: a reality-based playlet that comes to us from the current center of American comedy. I mean the Pentagon press briefing room, where the real true-life comedies are performed. The time is a number of weeks ago. The dramatis personae are Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (and soon to be promoted) General Peter Pace of the Marine Corps; and of course, playing the Fool, a lowly and hapless reporter.

The reporter's question begins with an involved but perfectly well-sourced discussion of Abu Ghraib and the fact that all the reports suggest that something systematic -- something ordered by higher-ups -- was going on there. He mentions the Sanchez memo, recently released, in which the commanding general in Iraq at the time, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, approved twelve interrogation techniques that, as the reporter says, "far exceed limits established by the Army's own field manual." These include prolonged stress positions, sensory deprivation (or "hooding"), the use of dogs "to induce stress," and so on; the reporter also mentions extraordinary "rendition" (better known as kidnapping, in which people are snatched off the streets by U.S. intelligence agents and brought to third countries like Syria and Egypt to be tortured). Here's his question, and the officials' answer:

Hapless Reporter: And I wonder if you would just respond to the suggestion that there is a systematic problem rather than the kinds of individual abuses we've heard of before.

Secretary Rumsfeld: I don't believe there's been a single one of the investigations that have been conducted, which has got to be six, seven, eight or nine --

General Pace: Ten major reviews and 300 individual investigations of one kind or another.

Secretary Rumsfeld: And have you seen one that characterized it as systematic or systemic?

General Pace: No, sir.

Rumsfeld: I haven't either.

Hapless Reporter: What about-?

Rumsfeld: Question?


And, as the other reporters laughed, Secretary Rumsfeld did indeed ignore the attempt to follow up, and went on to the next question.

But what did the hapless reporter want to say? All we have is his truncated attempt at a question: "What about-?" We will never know, of course. Perhaps he wanted to read from the very first Abu Ghraib report, directed by US Army Major General Antonio Taguba, who wrote in his conclusion

"that between October and December 2003, at the Abu Ghraib Confinement Facility, numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted.... This systemic and illegal abuse was intentionally perpetrated...."

Or perhaps this from the Red Cross report, which is the only contemporaneous account of what was going on at Abu Ghraib, recorded by witnesses at the time:

"These methods of physical and psychological coercion were used by the military intelligence in a systematic way to gain confessions and extract information or other forms of co-operation from persons who had been arrested in connection with suspected security offenses or deemed to have an "intelligence value."

(I should note here, by the way, that the military itself estimated that between 85 and 90 percent of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib had "no intelligence value.")

Between that little dramatic exchange --

Rumsfeld: And have you seen one that characterized it as systematic or systemic?

General Pace: No, sir.

Rumsfeld: I haven't either --

-- and the truth, there is a vast gulf of lies.

Ethical Marketplace on WLAE TV 32 tonight airs a segment on women-owned businesses. Ethical Marketplace is financed in part by the Media Venture Collective, using tax-deductible donations to support alternative public-interest programming. Ethical Marketplace airs at 8 PM on channel 32.

Louisiana Senator David Vitter will be holding a public "town hall" meeting in Chalmette tomorrow morning. I can't go, but if I could, I'd want to ask him to commit to withdrawing the provision he inserted into coastal restoration legislation that would clear the way for unregulated clearcutting of cypress forests for lawn mulch in the same habitat where the ivory-billed woodpecker was recently discovered after it was thought to be extinct.

Parish Council Chambers
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There's more about the Vitter provision at There's also more information there about another issue that remains unresolved, the forced retirement of Willie Fontenot, formerly the community liaison officer for Louisiana's Attorney General, after Fontenot and a group of students were detained by security officers in Cancer Alley. You can also hear the Willie Fontenot segment that aired on WTUL.


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