Sunday, October 14, 2007

Dum n Dummer

On this Sunday morning Fr. Frank is more righteously wrathful than ever, comparing American public silence on the U.S. practice of torture to the "good Germans" who ignored Nazi extermination during World War II. One chilling moment is when he borrows from Andrew Sullivan this observation"

America’s “enhanced interrogation” techniques have a grotesque provenance: “Verschärfte Vernehmung, enhanced or intensified interrogation, was the exact term innovated by the Gestapo to describe what became known as the ‘third degree.’ It left no marks. It included hypothermia, stress positions and long-time sleep deprivation.”
So "As the war has dragged on, it is hard to give Americans en masse a pass." Amen, Fr. Frank!

How did we sink this low- and against a small poor country (again)? Well one answer is that we've always been there. Jim Crow segregation, Japanese internment camps, civilian massacres in Vietnam, and many similar American practices didn't produce rebellion in the streets. Americans are like people all over the world: most of us keep our heads down, if not firmly up our butts, and do what's good for ourselves and nothing more. A reasonable rule of thumb, with the occasional hopeful exception.

Another part of the answer is that the U.S. public has actually gotten dumber in the last twenty years. I was reminded of this when Fr Frank's own paper, the New York Times, couldn't think of any better commentary on the novelist Doris Lessing's Nobel prize than to reprint a fifteen-year old piece of genuine crap that she published about political correctness carrying on for the communist illusion. It sounds like it was ghostwritten by Denish D'Souza or some other culture warrior of the period, and comes complete with a headnote that apparently inspired the reprint - the arch-conservative literary critic Harold Bloom taking the Nobel as an opportunity to say Lessing only got it because of political correctness. This whole idiotic time-warp experience didn't fall down the memory-hole, but became the most emailed article by the upscale types who read the NYT.

What's the connection? The attacks on political correctness in 1990 and 1991 launched the culture wars. These sought to destroy whatever egalitarian instincts had survived the Cold War in the hearts of the American public, and which had been inspired by the civil rights and anti-war movements, among others. Newsweek published a piece in December 1990 about how race consciousness was another version of the Soviet dictatorship of the proletariat. This was right as the Soviet Union was opening up and soon to disband itself, and the Berlin wall was going to fall. What would the Right use to smear equality, negotiation, multilateral foreign policy, and racial justice if the couldn't call it Soviet puppeteering anymore? Like lots of liberals, Lessing fell into the trap, calling PC a kind of communism.

I just finished the copy-edits of chapter 3 of my forthcoming book, Unmaking the Public University, so let me quote myself on the subject:
the early 1990s attacks on PC succeeded through their ability to associate PC with race consciousness, which they in turn described as an internal enemy that challenged national unity. The civil rights movement had yoked race consciousness to increased equality, and these were denounced interchangeably in culture-warrior attacks. Arnold-style invocations of a unified and universal national culture expressed a genuine nostalgia while running intellectual cover for a conceptual rollback. The attacks took advantage of a national culture in transition, one in which most of the American population seemed not to know what to do with an increasingly multiracial, culturally dispersed, and economically fragmented democracy, while their leaders seemed to know even less. American society needed new cultural capabilities, new powers of complex analysis and construction. The need was evident in the PC wars themselves, since the phony social crisis of a few ethnic studies courses and isolated campus incidents could have occurred only in a country that needed new bearings. What the country got, instead of new cultural knowledge about multiracial and egalitarian democracy, was the attacks on PC. These tied racial equality to a Communist-style threat to the nation, while making inequality the prerequisite to order.
I'm not happy to report that this is where we still are, nationally: we don't believe in equality anymore, and don't think negotiation or fairness or development will make the "war on terror" unnecessary. So we do force and war, and torture is the core of war unleashed. That's not because torture works (Fr. Frank cites WWII vets saying they learned more from Nazi prisoners by playing chess with them); it's because torture is what war boys do.

1 comment:

Monique said...

On the other hand, instead of doing nothing about political problems, we could strike about every banal issue that seems to arise in our society.

...Not like I'm complaining about living in France or anything, but it's interesting to see the opposite, extremely passionate, response.