AGAIN, A MEDITATION INSPIRED BY by the New York Times, although not nearly as long (I hope).
This editorial calls upon Congress to clean up the giant stinking pit of civil liberties toxic waste this administration has produced. Metaphors about superfund sites notwithstanding, one of the major rationales for Doing the Right Thing is as follows:
"When the Military Commissions Act passed, Mr. Bush triumphantly announced that he now had the power to keep the secret prisons open. He cast this as a great victory for national security. It was a defeat for America’s image around the world."
Now, as a scholar of the moving image, and one who's dedicated to a number of positions which claim representation as perhaps the category for political analysis, I find this sort of rhetorical move troubling. What it does is oppose: National Security and America's Image; or rather, it relates them.
Now, I understand that this is not just about looking good. Of course not. The New York Times isn't blushing about our indiscretions in our prosecution of the War on Terror. Rather, America's Image is, on a more sophisticated level of analysis, the major leading factor in Why They Hate Us. Managing America's Image is ultimately an attempt to manage the political emotions of populations who get their news from Al Jazeera and whose participation in and attachment to the forms of the political we take for granted--i.e. civil society--is not a given. What the Bush administration thought is that the secret prisons and torture and illegal spying could be sufficiently hidden that this management of the Arab Street, as it is known (as well as the American People), could be successfully prosecuted without reference to it.
As a matter of practicality, this is wrong-headed. If only because history happened, and word got out. And, well, boys, we fucked up, we screwed the pooch, and now it's time to clean up the mess. Fix America's Image--stop the torture. We've been caught, now it's time to act like the kid who got with his hand in the cookie jar.
Interestingly, the Bush Administration has failed to do this. I think it should, but for very different reasons.
The problem with claiming that GWB has sullied America's Image, and that is Why They Hate Us, misunderstands two things rather significantly. The first is that it confuses our political emotions with that of the Arab Street. The second is that it thinks that political emotions in the Arab Street (or, quite frankly, whichever They you'd like to be talking about) are somehow unproblematically an object of manipulation. The one thing it might get right is that it might constrain our ability to form alliances with other liberal Western democracies.
The major confusion here is that what counts as a Big Upsetting Thing in the American context (torture and secret prisons) will actually be as breathlessly scandalous in other contexts. Torture is reprehensible under any circumstances. But how scandalous it will seem, and what kind of political effect it has will depend largely upon the ecology of political emotions in a particular context. And although I'm no scholar of Arab societies, I'm quite sure that this ecology is very different even in Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Syria, etc. than it is in the U.S. The worry that Guantanamo will be a significant factor in the Pakistani political emotional meteorology fails to understand, frankly, that it's our panties that are in a wad. Because we have an attachment to being The Best Country in the World, Good, Virtuous, and True, A Shining Beacon of Freedom in the World, ad nauseum. The scandal, for us, of Guantanamo, is that our most cherished ideals have been sullied. The scandal of Abu Ghraib for much of the rest of the world is that we've been exposed as hypocrites. But, even that, I'm willing to bet, is hardly news in Damascus (or Paris, for that matter).
A major component of confusion about America's Image is that what's troubling for us is troubling for Them. (Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and secret prisons in the middle of Poland--they should trouble us. But I'll come back to this.)
The worry about America's Image is also a worry about what I've been calling the political emotions of the Arab Street. And insofar as the manipulation and management of the political emotions of Them has become constituted as a task for government (thank you Karen Hughes), part of my thinking in my last post is exposed as hyperbole. Indeed, in this context, worrying about how the average citizen of Ramallah feels about the U.S. is actually part of the conception of terrorism as an object of ongoing management (just a woefully poorly executed practice of management, in the case of GWB & Co.). What Karen Hughes and her admen failed to understand, or even think about, is how political emotion in other societies circulates differently, with different points of reference, than in the American context. Equality of women, freedom, voting--these things don't mean quite the same thing in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, more to the point, they function hugely differently in terms of feeling, emotion, and affect than they do here.
Now, don't ask me what that difference is. I don't know. But really listen to those interviews with "the man on the street in Baghdad/Ramallah/Damascus/Kabul/Karachi," and you can hear a different set of political emotions, something foreign, a little confusing. Or, perhaps negatively: go to Al Jazeera's website (hi there, CIA!) and ask if you're moved, politically. What would have to change in order for you to be? Is it merely a question of presupposition? My thought is that it has something to do with the way that publicness is constructed in the West versus elsewhere. We have a long history of civil society and the public--which is an intense site of political emotional investments, not least of which, paradoxically, is an attachment to rational-critical discourse. This history doesn't exist in, say, Lebanon (or Venezuela). It's not the same in Indonesia as it is in Dubai. Civil society and the notion of the public structure our political emotions significantly. Failing to understand that, and failing to understand how different societies with different mediations between emotion and the political function differently than ours--this failing is dangerous.
So the pragmatic appeal to Stop Torture Now, Send the Guantanamo Prisoners Home, &c.--that this is sullying America's Image--doesn't really work. By all means, figure out how to constitute Iranian political emotion as an object of ongoing management, at least partially; I'd love it--I think. It's crucial for working to stop terrorism against the U.S. and the West. But: don't expect that sending the Guantanamo prisoners home will help. Or will help on its own. --Or, for that matter, don't think that it caused the problem in the first place.
NOW, THIS PRAGMATIST APPROACH, it pisses me off. Why? Not because it doesn't work, but because it's cowardly. Really, what the New York Times and company are doing when they appeal to a version of the pragmatics of the situation is avoiding why it is actually a problem to suspend habeas corpus: those pesky things called Ideals. The reason why we shouldn't torture people is because--we shouldn't torture people. Not because it looks bad, or because our torturing people will become an object of resentment for a billion Muslims, or because it will be used as a recruiting tool for terrorists. None of these things. We should not torture people because it's wrong. Period.
Now, I will pause and say that: yes, this is an emotional position. A political emotional position. I have a deep attachment to certain ideals, certain structuring principles of government and of civil society and of, yes, even the good life--without which government, civil society, and right living are transformed. And without which, they no longer feel like good governance or civil discourse or right living. They might be recognizable as other people's forms of those things; but not mine.
The reason we go ahead and appeal to pragmatic solutions is because making the case on moral grounds, by saying: this is one of our founding principles, and it is incumbent upon us to continue to structure our government according to it, period--the reason we do this is because inevitably the pragmatist argument comes back. "We do this odious thing because we have to in order to survive." And we're back in the realm of conventional debate, with moral scenarios brought to us by the makers of 24, The West Wing, and Battlestar Galactica. I'm not hoping to find a resolution to that debate, here. Nor even, state my position. But I do want to point out that in our current landscape, the pragmatist argument wins, at least in situating the battle. The idealists have to come back with pragmatic arguments. "It's morally right--but moreover, it's also pragmatic." And then you get into a debate about the relative merits of deterrence vs.coercion vs. manipulation by the media. (Government is an awful business.) The pragmatists don't have to justify their position with respect to ideals, other than: security. In a histrionic rhetorical move, they shift a single attack--an event with a singularly diffuse meaning and intensely emotional resonance--into a threat to Our Way of Life, claiming that our ideals will be worth nothing when we don't have a society anymore. And again, we're back into conventional discourse; I don't need to rehearse it for you because you already know it. But I can't stop myself from saying that the truly brave response to terrorism is to hew to our core ideals no matter what.
Pragmatics, in this light, is the politics of fear, that most powerful of political emotions. And so, we cling to the political, hoping it will keep us safe.