Sunday, July 5, 2009

How public corruption happens - or Thucydides and the day by day removal of the word torture from New York Times' reporting

       Going back to Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War and the Roman republic, is a profound notion of public corruption. It is often today forgotten, buried under the personal corruption of politicians who betray their office for personal advantage (Mark Sanford comes to mind).  Public corruption is where politicians and the government gradually alter policies that serve a common good for the citizens or more rarely, internationally as well into policies that serve a particular interest. What Aristotle speaks of as defective regimes, what he calls democracy, oligarchy and tyranny, which culminate in tyranny are regimes which serve only a particular interest. 

      In Thucydides’ History, Pericles’ Funeral Oration, perhaps the most powerful and influential political speech delivered by a democratic leader rivaled only by Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, praises the originality and virtue of Athenian democracy.  We do not, Pericles says, cast censorious looks on one another’s eccentricities so long as each person comes together on behalf of the common good (he meant soldiering; one might think here of Greece defeating the aggression of the Persian empire).  We disdain, Pericles says,  to hide secrets (together with the first point, to engage in McCarthyism or neoconservative campaigns against college professors, and the like).  We are the boldest and most innovative, the Spartans the most cautious and reluctant to act even in crisis.  Ours is a model to other governments.  Pericles also praises  Athenian “glory” and its empire, but that will undermine what is otherwise admirable in the speech and lead, in the course of the History to the destruction of Athenian democracy.  Tracing public corruption, Thucydides details the speeches of Cleon – the most violent man of his time – calling for the murder of the men of Mytilene, the enslavement of the women and children – and also of Diodotus, who claims that such barbaric policies would not be “useful” to the Athenians.  Pericles’s words, suggesting that there are crimes Athenians would not deign to commit, have already vanished in the temporarily successful but corrupt pleadings of Diodotus.  Where Pericles in his last address following the plague and Athenian despair, says that Athens' rule has become “like a despotism,” Cleon, a Cheneylike-figure,  uses the word despotism simply to characterize what Athens does to others  – Athens must, as it were go, to “the dark side.”  For Melos,  the Athenian ambassadors who speak in a blunt, dialogue form to the magistrates, are nameless.   The point of democracy is the assemblies; Thucydides writes of political leaders in the assembly who are otherwise always named.  The Athenians destroy Melos and are, in turn slaughtered in the Syracusan quarries by another great democracy led by Hermocrates, a Pericles-figure.  In their zeal to conquer, Thucydides says briefly, “they were ignorant” of Syracuse.

         Today, the New York Times and NPR, among others, have steadily altered the word torture into “enhanced interrogation techniques,” “harsh interrogation techniques” or when the description is occasionally unbearable, “brutal interrogation techniques.”  As The name of torture or what Obama risks indicated here, these verbal gyrations echo the policies of the government: in Bush and Cheney’s case, blatant and criminal violations of international law and wretchedness, in Obama’s case, a movement away from torture and an exposure of some of that wretchedness (the release of the unedited torture memos, for example) coupled with the attempt to suppress any independent or “bipartisan” (sort of independent perhaps) hearings into the crimes and prosecution for those who are guilty.  This is public corruption, and the way journalism becomes decadent – in Thucydides’ or Montesquieu's (The Grandeur and Decadence of the Romans) or Rousseau’s terms - can be understood through tracing its course. 

     Yesterday, Tracy Strong, my friend, and a wonderful political theorist, wrote the following comment on my post The name of torture:

you will have noticed that the Times today in reporting on the 'confessions' of those leading the demonstrations in Iran refers to the fact that they were obtained 'under pressure.'  I suspect the NYT (and other media) have a policy not to use the word torture about a pretty wide range of countries (including this one, natch).  It has to come up to you and say "Hey! I am a duck" before you can say that because it walks, quacks, flies, and acts like a duck (and carries a tattoo across its back 'DUCK') that is is one.  Like JFK's sex life I suspect this was worked out with the WH.


     Strong here captures the movement of public corruption, how the Times is bending its coverage of torture in other countries down to its miserable, political and dishonoring the standards of journalism reportage of American “enhanced interrogation techniques.”  U.S. law and international law rightly bar torture.  Against the bizarre “unilateralism,” that is, the  criminality of the Bush-Cheney regime, the civilized regime of such laws, one affirmed by the creative or restorative policies of Obama, is vital to human wellbeing.  Such a regime is – and I do not use these words lightly - the only hope we have for preventing contemporary wars and climate change from making human life impossible on this planet within a century or two.  The Times’ reportage is, technically, the corruption of an international common good.  As Bush and to prevent criminal proceedings against Bush officials, Obama are corrupting the language, so their echo the Times.  Over time perhaps, the news media may rewrite all of history.  The Gestapo and Torquemada, perhaps even the crucifiers of Christ, too, will be guilty only of “harsh interrogations.” As with the criminal “Dr. Kissinger,” Mr. Cheney and the others can not only be given time to air, without criticism, defenses of their criminality, but the criminality will have – “poof” – vanished as in some reactionary cartoon strip. Bush will then be merely some mediocre President, not a man who, in response to an attack, did what Osama Bin Laden could not do – perverted and brought down the rule of law and decency in America, and  transformed it into a police state.  The issue here is whether the Obama administration will restore the rule of law, domestically and internationally, and allow investigtions to occur into the criminality of the Bush administration, or whether it will be only a decent interlude, before, after another terrorist attack or in some other crisis, another Republican or Democrat reverts to the Bush-Cheney policies (most Democratic leaders seem much more willing to abet Bush-Cheney atrocities, viz. The Military Commissions Act of 2006 and even Obama’s vote, reversing his previous decent public stand, for retroactive immunity for phone companies illegally spying on Americans, than Obama; Obama has improved the Democratic Party enormously, made significant strides toward a new and decent start internationally and in the world – but has not transformed the politics of torture and the rule of law.  Whether hearings and prosecutions occur about American torture is a litmus test for whether the regime will be decent in the future. 

       One can also highlight this process of corruption by examining the Times’ once vital editorials on torture at the end of the Bush administrtion.  As the colleague with whom I started this discussion rightly pointed out, the Times’ editorials not only mentioned international law, but on December 17, 2008, in a fine editorial based on the bipartisan Senate torture report, called for independent hearings and prosecutions against the administration:

     “This NYT editorial from December last year states clearly that ‘We can understand that Americans may be eager to put these dark chapters behind them, but it would be irresponsible for the nation and a new administration to ignore what has happened — and may still be happening in secret C.I.A. prisons that are not covered by the military’s current ban on activities like waterboarding. A prosecutor should be appointed to consider criminal charges against top officials at the Pentagon and others involved in planning the abuse.

That the reporting increasingly goes a separate way – and that the editorials, as Democratic leaders now do, may soon themselves begin to tread this path - is startling and sad.  

      Tracy Strong’s insight – and especially placing it in the context of public corruption - helps to understand the broader context of  the excellent columns by Glenn Greenwald,  Andrew Sullivan and others.  Yesterday for example, Greenwald wrote about the Times’ and NPR’s coverage of torture elsewhere, underlining the hypocrisy of these outlets: what is wrong when others do it is right when the US does it. See “The NYT calls Iranian interrogation tactics `torture’ here. This point has long, and commendably, been made by Noam Chomsky; it is a great truth and one that anyone who seeks to write honorably about American foreign policy must come to recognize (it is partly why many scholars during the Cold War chose to be realists; well-stated realism is the view that each power has some defensible interests i.s. not being aggressed against - and that the rhetoric of all foreign policy or diplomacy is apology and must be discounted).  But a corollary point  is that decadence grows over time.  As the American government continues with its corruption through torture and extralegal protection of torturers, so the coverage of torture by other governments in mainstream American newspapers is gradually distorted, the words changed.  Ezra Pound (whose own politics were grotesque) used to emphasize this point about words, citing Confucius, with great force.  Words count.  What it means to be civilized and decent is to honor what the word torture means.

       As Greenwald wrote:

       “It's not particularly unusual for a government to permit itself to do something that it prohibits others from doing.  The U.S. is hardly the only country that does that.  But when that country's media collectively abets that government effort by molding its language to reflect that exceptionalism, it elevates the propaganda to a much different level.  When I documented the American media's obsession with journalists detained by other countries and its virtually complete blackout of much, much longer (and often more oppressive) detentions of foreign journalists by the U.S., that was the central point I tried to emphasize:

Pointing to other governments and highlighting their oppressive behavior can be cathartic, fun and gratifying in a self-justifying sort of way. Ask Fred Hiatt; it's virtually all he ever does.  But the first duty of the American media -- like the first duty of American citizens -- is to oppose oppressive behavior by our own government.  That's not as fun or as easy, but it is far more important.  Moreover, obsessively complaining about the rights-abridging behavior of other countries while ignoring the same behavior from our own government is worse than a mere failure of duty.  It is propagandistic and deceitful, as it paints a misleading picture that it is other governments -- but not our own -- which engage in such conduct.

Since the American Government has acted -- and continues to act -- overtly to protect and shield those who engaged in this conduct, will it condemn Iran for torturing detainees? As for The New York Times, at this point, they don't even seem interested in pretending that they make these editorial judgments independently or with a pretense of objectivity.  They're perfectly happy to have you know that when the U.S. Government does X, it is called one thing, but when foreign governments do X, it is called something else entirely.

UPDATE:  From NPR yesterday (h/t reader EI):

Meditations On Freedom: Refugee Finds Peace In U.S.

Musa Saidykhan had been a reporter in his home country of Gambia for more than a decade when he was arrested and later tortured by government officials. Following Saidykhan's imprisonment, he fled the country with his family and now lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Saidykhan explains how he will commemorate freedom on this, his first, Independence Day in the U.S.

All the impediments that prevent American media organizations from using the word "torture" certainly do evaporate quickly when it comes to other countries."

        In addition, Greenwald invokes the public editor of the Times, Clark Hoyt, who approvingly specifies an aetiology of this process of corruption of that journal.  In Balzac’s Lost Illusions (Illusions perdues), the provincial poet Etienne de Rastignac has become a journalist in Paris and covers a strike.  The editor tells him to redescribe and recharacterize what he has seen in the opposite way.  He reflects “Now am I a merchant of words.”

     In Greenwald’s column,

       Clark Hoyt, New York Times Public Editor, April 26, 2009:

A LINGUISTIC shift took place in this newspaper as it reported the details of how the Central Intelligence Agency was allowed to strip Al Qaeda prisoners naked, bash them against walls, keep them awake for up to 11 straight days, sometimes with their arms chained to the ceiling, confine them in dark boxes and make them feel as if they were drowning.

Until this month, what the Bush administration called "enhanced" interrogation techniques were "harsh" techniques in the news pages of The Times. Increasingly, they are "brutal". . . . .

The word had appeared a few times before in this context, most recently on April 10, when the Central Intelligence Agency said it was closing the network of secret overseas prisons where interrogations took place. Scott Shane, who covers national security, said he and his editor in the Washington bureau, Douglas Jehl, negotiated over the wording of the first paragraph. Shane wrote that methods used in the prisons were "widely denounced as illegal torture." Jehl changed that to the "harshest interrogation methods" since the Sept. 11 attacks. Shane said he felt that with more information coming to light, including a leaked report by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the words harsh and even harshest no longer sufficed. He proposed brutal, and Jehl agreed. . . .

And why not, then, go all the way to torture?  Jehl said that when the paper is discussing what is generally regarded as the most extreme interrogation method the C.I.A. used, waterboarding, "we’ve become more explicit in saying in a first reference that it’s a near-drowning technique" that Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder and many other experts "have called torture." But he said: "I have resisted using torture without qualification or to describe all the techniques. Exactly what constitutes torture continues to be a matter of debate and hasn’t been resolved by a court. This president and this attorney general say waterboarding is torture, but the previous president and attorney general said it is not. On what basis should a newspaper render its own verdict, short of charges being filed or a legal judgment rendered?" Jehl argued for precision and caution. I agree.”

      Jehl and Hoyt and the Times are, for the moment and sadly, Balzac’s merchants of words.   All of us must fight – and persuade others – that the words which mark civilization retain their precise and legal meanings.

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