Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Erroneous pundits

This was a nice find. The blogger gives a full accounting of how wrong pundits were a year ago about President Barack Obama. Plus, look at who got it right and who got it completely wrong--worth a strange thought.

The Speech

It's interesting, really, to listen to the talking heads blather on about things. Its a lot like a blog--only on television and without the chance of reflection or proper consideration due the subject matter.

If you saw the inaugural speech yesterday, you no doubt recognized something different. Unlike his predecessors, President Barack Obama didn't outline the next 100 days. He didn't flatter us with praise about how great we are. He didn't pretend that his campaign promises are no longer relevant since he won the election. No, Obama's speech was clever, subtle, demanding, challenging, eloquent, and showed a deft touch with the English language hinted at throughout the campaign. It wasn't just a homerun, but a ninth inning grand slam.

But those talking heads sure felt blase about the speech. I heard one say that Obama chose to speak "in prose" when he should have been speaking "in poetry". They were disappointed. They expected more. It seems appropriate to point out that the early returns on Bush's first inaugural were "he's greatly improved". Hmmm...

Here we are. One of the historians on Jim Leherer News Hour did suggest that the gravity of the day may have led people to expect too much--something adroitly suggested in advance on The Daily Show Monday night.

Or it could be that we aren't use to responsibility--true responsibility. The responsibilities encouraged of us over the recent decades have not only been personal, but were ones deffered by the government. Consumer protection, healthcare, financial planning for retirement--you know, the kinds of things that rich people hire other people to worry about (itself seen as a personal responsibility). Mr. Obama called on individual responsibility to respond to the crises before us. To make ourselves involved in the system and be involved in the way our government operates. To be full and active citizens in our own country. To reach for higher ideals than we have ever been challenged to do.

And this is the real issue. The part that threw all of the pundits and talking heads off. The real part of the thing, which is the part they still don't get about Mr. Obama. The speech was a simultaneously a clear divorce from recent history and an embrace of our historic traditions. His speech evoked references to Washington, Lincoln, and Kennedy (not Bush, Clinton, Bush, or Reagan) while saying the needs of today do not match the leadership we have had. In this way, the speech isn't just a stick in the eye of the Bush Administration (which it clearly was), but a stick in the eye of those Washington insiders that have grown fat off of the culture wars and politics of the Reagan and post-Reagan eras.

Even more than this, we are condemned. It isn't just Bush and Cheney; Clinton, Bush I, Reagan. It is us. We have been misguided and wrong. We have failed to make the hard decisions ourselves. We have kicked the can down the street. This is the real reason talking heads didn't like the speech. They don't want absolution for their sins, they don't want their sins exposed!

The true genius of Mr. Obama's speech is the way in which he covered each of these elements. Yes, we are at fault. Yes, truth hurts. But the light of day can clean us. And working together, as we have in the past, can absolve us. In Obama's America, there is no your and my problems; only our problems. In Obama's America, we can solve those problems together. Has a speech ever been more relevant than that?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

President Obama

It is now official!

We have a new president!

Happy Inaugration Day!

Here is my first chance to wish everybody a Happy Inauguration Day!

Get the champagne ready and give out a big ol' 'Whoot!'

Prosecuting Torture, Part 2

On last night's Countdown, Keith Olbermann produced the following 'Special Comment' urging soon-to-be president Barack Obama to prosecute former Pres. George Bush, former Vice Pres. Dick Cheney, and administration officials for war crimes.

Olbermann gives a concise argument for the prosecution, but he also gives a great deal of attention to the gestures that Obama has made toward not prosecuting. Most important, however, is his final argument, which I will summarize this way: many of our biggest disgraces as Americans and as people have been the times in which we sought an earlier compromise in place of dealing directly with the political consequences.

This in no way suggests that there isn't a great deal of hardship with our current climate. Especially considering the heightened divisiveness fostered by and festering since the mid-90's. However, the lack of action will most certainly serve as presidence and opportunity in the future for domestic malfesance. And worse, it will endanger the very DNA of our country, staining the Constitution and endangering the democratic nature of our republic. Nothing will prove the unitary executive like the not holding of its proponents accountable for their crimes.

Is this who we really are? Is this who our children and grandchildren want to be?

Monday, January 19, 2009

Prosecuting Torture

Or why 24 is still part of the same scam.

It is well-documented that Fox’s hit for the last seven years, 24, is a persistent supporter of torture. We are familiar with the case: Jack Bauer tortures bad guys, gets important information, saves the world. We are also (almost) willing to admit that Jack Bauer has been Bush’s best ideological recruitment tool for the support of torture. The impact of the show is truly staggering as the television depictions of torture, which were virtually nonexistent before 24 aired, have grown to incredible volumes, with over 80 such depictions in a single year on networks in 2006. We have also heard that the biggest problem facing military instructors is that new recruits often site Jack Bauer as not only an influence, but as a defense for their opposition to the military code of conduct.

We all know this. But the new season of 24 has altered its pro-torture stance subtly; perhaps subtle enough to persuade the unsuspecting.

Before I go any further, I must disclose that I don’t watch 24. I did watch the first season on DVD, found it incredibly riveting, and always planned to watch the second. Reports of the content, however, have calmed my interest. My depiction of the first four episodes of the current season are based on a radio report of the show, which included audio clips of the content.

In the new season, Jack is in legal trouble for his actions (you know, the torturing). His defense is, essentially, yes I did it, but these are tough times. In tough times, you have to be willing to do the unpopular thing. Before I go any further, you are likely to say that this message is no different than the message we heard in support of torture in 2004 when public news broke about it. But look at the message in its new context—being prosecuted for torture. In 2004, we were still in the get-the-bad-guys-mode and many claimed they were willing to throw out the constitution for the appearance of safety. That isn’t the case in 2009. This old argument is given a new frame in this later context: civil protester. Bauer’s defense, which mimics the Bush Administration’s defense in their last-minute propaganda drive, attempts to lure us into a false dichotomy that is even more dangerous now than it was in ’04: civil disobedience for the public good vs. following the law at the expense of the public good. Jack Bauer, originally cast as an anti-hero, is now being drawn up as a saint and conscientious objector (figure that one out!).

The problem with this understanding is, of course, that the false dichotomy is truly false. The facts are on the side of torture’s opponents—torture is a less effective method of information gathering, and always has been—while the ideological support is there, as well.

But here is my real argument. Ideological struggle must be met with a willingness to not only accept punishment, but welcome it. Protestors that immolated themselves recognized that the sacrifice of their very life matched the integrity of their ideology (opposition to the Vietnam War). Those protesters that were beaten and abused in Seattle for their protest of the G8 summit in 1999 not only understood what was likely to happen to them, but demonstrated the veracity of their argument by accepting punishment—just or unjust. The civil rights movement employed this concept to such a degree that the entire decade of the 1960s is wedded to ideological protest. Most important, however, is that these two concepts (ideology and acceptance of punishment) are necessarily linked—causally linked, actually.

This is where Jack Bauer comes in. He is now being cast as this same type of protester, whose ideological position on torture will necessarily put him at odds with the authorities who will (rightly or wrongly) punish him. The show, however, doesn’t see Jack as a criminal, but one of greater conscience, who makes the 'tough decisions that we don’t have to.' Except that Jack doesn’t get punished. I don’t know what has happened so far or what is going to happen this season—as I said, I’m not watching it—but I can’t imagine Jack will land in a prison cell, and if he does, it won’t be for long. In fact, Jack’s punishment will nowhere near fit the crime—which is the problem with the Jack Bauer as protester scenario. Jack is praised for his work by the very show itself, not to mention vindicated by a prosecutor that shortly into the season encourages Jack to do some more torturing.

This has broad implications for the outgoing Bush Administration, as well. They have been making this same Jack Bauer argument on their history-revision tour. They set up the false dichotomy, trot out their talking point that we are safer now because of torture, and that they are being crucified in the media. If they were true warriors of conscience and believed in their moral superiority, they would not only welcome prosecution and trials, but actually hope for them. The trials themselves would test both the fortitude of the protester and the very mettle of the ideology itself. Christian martyrs gained intellectual, theological, and spiritual power in their willingness to embrace sacrifice for a greater good through adherence to a higher legal code. That the Bush Administration began using and codified a practice that is both abhorrent and ideologically incompatible with the Constitution while simultaneously using political and legal means of self-preservation demonstrates the weakness of their ideology. Even in light of Vice President Cheney’s virtual daring of the Obama Administration to prosecute him, the Bushies are entirely unaware of the manner in which they have compromised their own position.

There can be only one truth about this time in U.S. history, and it was something that Jonathan Turley suggested on Countdown on Friday: if the United States chooses not to prosecute its own perpetrators of war crimes, then the world will be forced to. In that instance, the problem of torture will not only be Bush’s, but it will then be ours.