In Ordinary Men, Christopher Browning wrote of everyday German citizens, members of a police unit in Berlin, who were sent to Poland and there, practiced the messy slaughter of whole villages of Jewish children, women, and men. There are no all-encompassing explanations of anti-Semitism that Browning uses to distinguish these men from you and me: the commanders of the group found a way to tap into the basest of human emotions to make these men forget they were basic human beings. And so they killed.

Today, I read two articles back-to-back, and I was struck by the juxtaposition of ideas in them. I want to play with the arguments being presented, although ultimately, this thought experiment may be a failure.

In this morning’s NYT,
Anthony Lewis makes a point that is blindingly obvious to those of us who think about these things, but for which apparently, far too many Americans, including the squawkboxes on the Right, are oblivious. Namely, that people who live in glass houses don’t get to throw stones. (Or as their favourite moral exemplar said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”)

Since the widespread outrage over the photographs from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, Americans have seemingly ceased to care. It was reported yesterday that Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the former American commander in Iraq during the Abu Ghraib scandal, is being considered for promotion. Many people would say the mistreatment of Mohamed al-Kahtani, or of suspects who might well be innocent, is justified in a war with terrorists. Morality is outweighed by necessity.

The moral cost is not so easily put aside. We Americans have a sense of ourselves as a moral people. We have led the way in the fight for human rights in the world. Mistreating prisoners makes the world see our moral claims as hypocrisy.

Beyond morality, there is the essential role of law in a democracy, especially in American democracy. This country has no ancient mythology to hold it together, no kings or queens. We have had the law to revere. No government, we tell ourselves, is above the law.

Over many years the United States has worked to persuade and compel governments around the world to abide by the rules. By spurning our own rules, we put that effort at risk. What Justice Louis Brandeis said about law at home applies internationally as well: “If the government becomes a law-breaker, it breeds contempt for law.”

I intend no disrespect to Mr. Lewis, but my first reaction to reading this was a resounding “duh.” American foreign policy has never been one of consistency. Reagan’s lecturing the Soviets about their human rights violations in the 1980’s while financing death squads in Central America was the example I remember plainly from my college years, and even now, the sight of Elliot Abrams causes hideous gastric reflux. In those days, I took to the streets, attended demonstrations, wrote letters, picketed outside various defense facilities: in essence, spit into the wind.  
Those of us now who are so horrified by what we are doing at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and in the streets of Iraq, are no longer spitting into the wind. We feel as if we’re pissing into a hurricane. The administration and the media have done such a bang-up job of convincing us that those people, who are not really human, those people were responsible for 9/11, and therefore deserve everything they have coming to them. Because, we are told, if we don’t nip this problem in the bud, we will experience a thousand-fold 9/11s. And thus, even treating prisoners like dogs, literally, is the right thing to do. Justice be damned.

And why not? We are, after all, the world’s superpower. And we know what justice is, really. Thucydides told us a long time ago, in The History of the Peloponnesian War.

For we both alike know that into the discussion of human affairs the question of justice enters only where the pressure of necessity is equal, and that the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must.

I want to believe that the vast majority of the American people are as horrified by what is happening as I am. And here’s where the second thing I read this morning comes into play.

Bill Moyers has a lovely
piece at TomPaine today on the threat to PBS. I have not always been the biggest fan of PBS, especially when I saw evidence that they, too, were falling into the MSM, and not presenting an alternative view. But Moyers steps back from the news aspect of PBS to look at the larger picture.

He talks about the impact that being exposed to larger ideas has on the moral sensibilities of a people. Now, there’s no chance that I’m crawling into bed with Allan Bloom and E.D. Hirsch, but I did like what Earl Shorris had to say a few years back in an article he wrote for Harper’s about the effects of teaching philosophy to people who had previously had issues with working stuff out with their neighbors. And Shorris found that reading the liberal arts helped people to think differently about conflict.  

Moyers has this to say:

Americans are assaulted on every front today by what the scholar Cleanth Brooks called “the bastard muses”:

      propaganda, which pleads, sometimes unscrupulously, for a special cause at the expense of the total truth
      entimentaliy, which works up emotional responses unwarranted by and in excess of the occasion
      pornography, which focuses on one powerful drive at the expense of the total human personality.

About that time, Newsweek  reported on “the appalling accretion” of violent entertainment that “permeates Americans’ life–an unprecedented flood of mass-produced and mass-consumed carnage masquerading as amusement and threatening to erode the psychological and moral boundary between real life and make-believe.”

How do we counter it?  Not with censorship, which is always counterproductive in a democracy, but with an alternative strategy of affirmation.  Public broadcasting is part of that strategy.  We are free to regard human beings as more than mere appetites and America as more than an economic machine.  Leo Strauss once wrote, “Liberal education is liberation from vulgarity.” He reminded us that the Greek word for vulgarity is apeirokalia , the lack of experience in things beautiful. A liberal education supplies us with that experience and nurtures the moral imagination. I believe a liberal education is what we’re about.  Performing arts, good conversation, history, travel, nature, critical documentaries, public affairs, children’s programs–at their best, they open us to other lives and other realms of knowing.

The ancient Israelites had a word for it: hochma , the science of the heart. Intelligence, feeling and perception combine to inform your own story, to draw others into a shared narrative, and to make of our experience here together a victory of the deepest moral feeling of sympathy, understanding and affection. This is the moral imagination that opens us to the reality of other people’s lives. When Lear cried out on the heath to Gloucester, “You see how this world goes,” Gloucester, who was blind, answered, “I see it feelingly.”  When we succeed at this kind of programming, the public square is a little less polluted, a little less vulgar and our common habitat a little more hospitable. That is why we must keep trying our best. There are people waiting to give us an hour of their life –time they never get  back–provided we give them something of value in return. This makes of our mission  a moral transaction.  Henry Thoreau got it right: “To affect the quality of the day, is the highest of the arts.”

I have frequently said to anyone willing to listen to me, that I think the cutting of educational funding since the 1980’s is deliberate. An uneducated public is a docile public. A public that runs on video games, t.v., and celebrity magazines is not likely to consider the ramifications of torture.

Why are vast portions of the public discussing missing teens in Aruba and Tom Cruise’s latest love interest? Why are we not having public discussions about torture, foreign policy, and what the hell is happening here at home?

Cutting PBS and making prisoners piss in their pants are related phenomena.

Cross-posted at CultureKitchen

0 0 votes
Article Rating