Saturday, October 18, 2008

Never Say Never

A decade ago, a close friend and colleague of mine left Buenos Aires to accept a full scholarship to the master’s program at Columbia University’s famed School of Journalism in New York City. He was already in his late thirties at the time and a solid and proven intellectual in his own right. He had long been a professor in the journalism program at the University of Buenos Aires (Argentina’s largest and most venerable institution of higher learning) and was writing for some of the country's top publications under his own by-line, as well as working steadily in FM radio and cable TV. In fact, his first contact with Columbia was when he won the Citi Prize for journalistic excellence in the field of economics. He won the prize for an article that he wrote for a major mass-circulation daily in Buenos Aires and was rewarded with an all-expense-paid scholarship to a two-week seminar at the university’s prestigious J-school, prior to winning the master’s scholarship (one of only two given by the university each year) some time later.

We had worked closely together at a publishing company where we ran a special projects department and, quite frankly, we did a lot more talking about writers, literature and growing up in our two cultures (his urban Argentine, mine rural North American) than we did about special projects. I recall him thinking it odd that I should be as critical as I was of certain aspects of life in the United States.

“Why should that surprise you?" I asked him once. “I mean, you’re critical of Argentina, aren’t you?” This guy had a very loud laugh and when I said this, he laughed so loudly that the overhead light fixture in our cramped office rattled.

“Of course I criticize Argentina. Everybody criticizes Argentina. But you’re American!” he guffawed.

“Look, the United States isn’t perfect, no matter what anybody might tell you,” I said. “Not by a long shot. And anybody that thinks not being critical is the same as being helpful is simply wrong.”

We swapped literary heroes: He gave me Julio Cortázar. I traded him Henry Miller. After reading a lot of Miller and discussing him with me in detail, there came a day when we were arguing some point about US government. He was on Washington’s side, I was against. I can’t recall what it was about, but probably something to do with regulation of big business (in which I would have been pro and he con). Anyway, the debate got heated and at some point, he said: “You’re not representative. You’re like Miller. You’re an American that hates the United States!”

Now it was my turn to laugh. I said: “You’re wrong. I don’t hate the United States and neither did Miller. He loved it and so do I. That’s why we’re so disappointed to see some of the stupid things the government does and some of the utterly stupid ideas that it brainwashes its children into believing. The United States that I love is the town where I grew up in Ohio, the people that work hard and can be relied on, the people of my parent’s generation that survived wars and depression and kept on keeping on, so their children would have a better life. The United States I love is the one you see at breakfast time in the truck stops and coffee shops on the back roads into small towns any day of the week. It’s the United States that has precious little to do with Washington and its policies and its propaganda and its underhanded trickster ways. If the United States is, as it’s always claiming, the best country in the world, it’s the folks that make it that way, not its government or its big businesses, which are eternally greedy and often out of hand. People like Miller and me are not the ill-content liberals we’re made out to be. We’re conservatives...old-time conservatives...1776 revolutionary conservatives, because we still know what’s worth conserving.”

Some days later, my friend came into the office carrying a paperback book in his hand and grinning from ear to ear. He flopped down on the old green leather couch by the office door, red-faced and excited, with his overcoat still on, and started to read aloud:

“I am a patriot — of the Fourteenth Ward, Brooklyn, where I was raised. The rest of the United States doesn’t exist for me, except as idea, or history, or literature. At ten years of age I was uprooted from my native soil and removed to a cemetery, a Lutheran cemetery, where the tombstones were always in order and the wreaths never faded...

“But I was born and raised in the street...

“To be born in the street means to wander all your life, to be free. It means accident and incident, drama, movement. It means above all dream. A harmony of irrelevant facts that gives to your wandering a metaphysical certitude. In the street you learn what human beings really are; otherwise, or afterwards, you invent them. What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say, literature...”

Then he sat there grinning and held up the cover of the book, as if that had been necessary. He had been reading from the first lines of Henry Miller’s Black Spring. He had done so purposefully, intentionally. He was telling me that he understood what I was talking about, comprehended that there was the United States that much of the world “bought”, the one that movies and TV and Ivy League schools and indoctrinated teachers and politicians and diplomats and big business sold like hawkers at a sideshow. And then there was the other one, the real one where people, real folks, lived and worked and loved and died and, in the meantime, tried their damnedest to be good citizens even in the face of all the hypocrisy and greed and cynicism and authoritarian designs at the top of the heap. And that that was the United States that I felt akin too and patriotic toward and obligated to protect and treasure and warn at every opportunity. He got it. He understood.

Later, when he settled in and was studying at Columbia, my friend wrote me an e-mail in which he said that he had been thinking of me in one of his international studies classes. It seems that he and the professor had tangled over a question of semantics that quickly became a question of nationalism and learned beliefs. The argument erupted over some reference by the professor to the North American and South American continents. My friend had the innocence and audacity to point out to her that America was a single continent and this seems to have come, to her mind, as a totally novel and equally ridiculous postulation on his part.

To anyone who has lived anywhere else in the Americas, this would not come as a surprise. I quickly learned in my early days in Buenos Aires that when somebody asked me my nationality, the proper response was “North American”, not “American”. Because the inevitable comeback to the latter was going to be: “We’re all Americans. You’re North American, we’re South Americans.”

At first you think, “This is stupid. What’s the big deal? We call ourselves Americans. So what?” But in the end, it's a lack of awareness at best and a mark of blatant arrogance at worst. As in, “Yeah right, we’re all Americans, but we’re the only Americans that really count.”

Clearly, a great majority of Americans tend to think of North America as ending at the Río Grande. The current administration has even, despite NAFTA, sought to create its own “Berlin Wall” along that river to prove it. And if there were some way to turn “Anglo-America” (the United States and Canada — well, most of Canada) into a “continent” I’m sure you could find a group of politicians in Washington that would be glad to find funding for the “geographical research” — right down to finding a way to leave Quebec out of the “geographic” mix.

If that sounds cynical and unfair on my part, just look at how we’ve bent the meaning of the word continent to fit our ends. By the simplest of definitions, a continent is a large unbroken land mass completely surrounded by water. By this definition, my friend would have won the argument hands down, because before we dug the Panama Canal, somebody who wanted to sail from New York to San Francisco had no choice but to “round the Horn” at the southernmost tip of (South) America.

Now, a more modern, complex and pragmatic definition of what a continent is claims that: "Continents are understood to be large, continuous, discrete masses of land, ideally separated by expanses of water." [Lewis, Martin W.; Kären E. Wigen (1997). The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography. Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 21 – emphasis mine]. This leaves a lot more wiggle room for ethno-political finagling, and in the end, the seven “continents” most commonly recognized in the English-speaking world are identified more by convention and convenience than by the ideal definition of one continent’s having to be separated from others by water.

Anyway, the discussion turned into a real shootout. My friend said that the professor’s argument was indefensible to anyone who could read a map. Clearly, the North and South American land masses were connected from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego and that any presumption of two separate continents was purely political (and perhaps ethnic) in nature. In the end, the professor, furious at having something she had been taught to believe all of her life from grade school on questioned, and clearly grasping at straws as she saw her authority at the head of the classroom fading, said something like: “Okay then, let me see you walk across the Panama Canal, if it’s all one continent.” My friend, whose intellectual arguments are always based on sound intellectual capital, was dumbstruck, and decided to let the issue ride. Obviously, if a professor at the head of a post-graduate level class in one of the most prestigious universities in the world was incapable of seeing the oh-so-obvious fallacy in such an argument, then conventional political indoctrination was evidently immune to almost any amount of education.

After my friend got his master’s degree from Columbia, he decided he wanted to stay on in New York. He got his immigration papers and toughed it out. For my part, as an American expatriate who prides himself on having a further-removed and often clearer view of my native land than many who actually live there, I found in this case that I too was more than capable of believing the hype. I mean, wouldn’t you expect a guy who had gotten a full scholarship to Columbia, who had abounding knowledge of international affairs, who speaks and writes both English and Spanish fluently, who was one of the top in his class and who already had vast teaching experience, to be a shoe-in, diploma in hand, to be placed on the faculty at his alma mater? Or wouldn’t you at least expect him to be immediately snapped up for a solid teaching position in some other school, if not for a high-paying job in journalism beyond the ivy-covered walls of his school. We tend to believe that that’s how it should and does work, because it’s what we’re told...Or we believe it because it’s the way things used to work back in the sixties and seventies when we were young. But not anymore.

So as I say, he stayed on and toughed it out teaching at underprivileged schools in underprivileged neighborhoods in New York while freelancing for papers back home in Argentina and, meanwhile, making all of the contacts he could, trying to fit in, trying to get an “in” into the system. And finally, after a decade of striving, he’s making some inroads. He’s not exactly living the American dream. But after a hard-fought decade, he's getting some better teaching opportunities, even some non-tenured teaching at Columbia...finally, and he's making something of a name for himself as a cultural figure in the Latino community. He's doing what the US immigrants of old did, keeping his shoulder to the wheel, staying in the barrio and making New York work, despite the words long-belied from “The Great Colossus” by Emma Lazarus engraved on a plaque on the base of the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...” And despite the fact that this was never my friend’s case and that he is among the best of immigrants that the United States could ever hope to import.

But the point I want to make isn’t about immigration or about my friend. It’s about us. It’s about Americans and about the learning opportunity we have just been dealt by the government and big business. The opportunity is this: Stop believing the hype.

When people in Argentina woke up one morning at the beginning of this decade to find that the government in cahoots with the banks (mostly foreign banks and many of them American banks) had dilapidated their life savings overnight, any Americans whom I talked to about it back home seemed to glaze over. They just couldn't understand something like that happening and it just made them “so glad they lived in the good ol' USA where something like that would be impossible”. At the time, I wrote an article in which I said, among other things:

“ is probably safe to say that Americans living at home pretty much believe in the system and, in general, don't expect government action to wreak sudden havoc in their daily lives.

“So imagine, if you can, this scenario: After a full decade in which your country's prices and foreign exchange parity have been among the most stable in the world, in which yearly inflation has been single-digit and in which you have been able to freely invest your income at home and abroad — years in which you have come to depend on banks for every kind of financial service imaginable, in which you have entrusted your life savings to the financial system in the belief (backed by repeated assurances not only from your local government but also multilateral institutions) that you are living in a strong, emerging economy with bright prospects for the future — you wake up one morning to find that your world has gone completely crazy. Your bank accounts have been frozen and the government has just announced that the money you had been saving in the system is now worth 40% less than it was yesterday. Your international hard currency has been confiscated. Worse still, no matter how many thousands of dollars you have in your foreign exchange account, the government and the bank will only make $5,000 available to you — not in hard cash, but transferable at an unrealistic official exchange rate to your domestic account, where withdrawals are limited to 1,000 local currency units a month.

“It is, of course, a real stretch for Americans living at home within the stability of the most economically powerful nation on earth to imagine this kind of scenario, but this is precisely what has happened, practically overnight, to the people of Argentina last December.”

At the time, I couldn’t find a single buyer for that article among my journalism contacts in New York and Washington. Americans, it seemed, just couldn’t relate to what had happened in Argentina, even though American banking, the IMF and the Bush administration were involved. It was just too “way out there” for Americans to identify with it. What even I couldn’t foresee back then was that it wouldn’t be a stretch at all for Americans to identify with such a similar situation just seven years down the road.

The ever-increasing popularity of Barak Obama in the run-up to the general elections is not nearly as much a result of his own merit — although he is surely the most revolutionary candidate since John F. Kennedy — as it is of the anger and frustration of Americans who believed in the system and were duped by an administration that did absolutely nothing to protect them from the greed and arrogance of big business and big banking.

But despite the pain and hardship that this crisis has caused to millions of Americans, and indeed to the world economy, there is a valuable lesson to be learned from it. And the lesson is that we should never say never again: that such a thing “could never happen in the greatest nation on earth,” that our business and banking system is reliable and trustworthy beyond all doubt, that trickle-down works, that business can and should be self-regulating, that the US government looks out for its citizens. Perhaps this blow will sober us up and make us realize once and for all that greed and power make government and business do whatever they can get away with and that we ourselves, and our willingness to question and not fall for the hype are all that are standing between us and this kind of disaster.

The late Robert F. Kennedy once said: "The sharpest criticism often goes hand in hand with the deepest idealism and love of country."

We would all do well to recall this every time an administration flashes its sardonic grin and says: "Trust me!"

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Panic Attack

At the root of the economic crisis currently facing the United States is some of the most shockingly negligent and shady governance in the history of the country.

In a singularly black week in which Americans went from being “the most powerful nation on earth” to feeling like one of its most destitute, teetering on the brink of its worst panic since the Great Depression, we saw valiant attempts by both of the presidential candidates – one of whose executive office will ultimately have to deal with this ungodly mess – seeking to reassure a stunned nation and to offer suggestions as to how their presidencies might handle it. Both rushed back to Washington to jumpstart bailout negotiations and both urged their parties to cooperate in finding a first-aid solution to keep the country from folding up like a house of cards.

Neither candidate, as it turns out, has wholeheartedly embraced the final result, even if they voted for it. Worse still, neither have most common everyday American folks, who, if they had their druthers, would probably rather drag the grossly overpaid corporate fat cats and their pampered government lackeys, who got filthy rich driving their companies and the country bankrupt, out into the street and toss them into a huge bonfire set ablaze with all of the worthless paper that they have generated and floated on the market in these first years of the new millennium.

From the people who should have been actively doing something to stave off this catastrophe, what we mostly have gotten is finger-pointing, blame-laying, excuse-making and justification of the utterly indefensible. More specifically, President Bush’s speech to the nation regarding the crisis was way too little, way too late and sounded, as usual, like a weak-kneed apology for the appalling behavior of his big friends in big business and sorry excuses for his proposed golden-parachute bailout that, even in its post-Congress modified form, promises to mortage the future of Americans for years to come, after leaving their hard-earned savings dilapidated, when their only fault was believing in their country and its economy instead of burying their money in a tin box in the backyard, where it surely would have been safer. The president’s 13-minute speech was more of a brief resume of nearly a decade of irresponsible and ignominious behavior that he sought to palm off as an unexpected turn of events. What it was, in fact, and in twenty-twenty hindsight, was a highly predictable debacle. That is, if anybody had been watching, or if those who were watching would have let the public at large in on what has clearly been this administration’s best kept secret: namely, that big banking and big business, in the free-wheeling years of the Bush administration, have run “the most powerful nation on earth” bankrupt and taken the life savings of its people and their promise for the future with it.

More disgusting still than the president’s own lack of sincere apology for his administration's complete and disastrous failure to warn the citizens that it is sworn to defend of the impending disaster that unchecked speculation and greed have brought to the country was the rapid move by emblematic Republicans to shift the blame elsewere. We had to sit by and listen to them claim that it all began with Bill Clinton’s attempts to ensure that the vast numbers of American homeless were brought in out of the cold, or that a Democratic Congress had tied the president’s hands, when the truth is that the Bush administration stood by and did nothing, and moreover, aided and abetted the perpetrators of the crash by self-righteously invoking liberal, free-market policy as an excuse for doing nothing, or for doing everything it could to give the impression that the economy was basically strong when, in fact, it was crumbling beneath our very feet.

Even former Speaker of the House and conservative icon Newt Gingrich, while admitting that he was “embarrassed” that this could happen with a Republican in the White House, suggested that perhaps a lot of it was the fault of Mr. Clinton and other Democrats for getting the banks to lend mortgage money to people who couldn’t afford a home. When asked why the president had failed to warn Americans that huge firms like Lehman and AIG were broke and about to topple, he made the ludicrous suggestion that he “didn’t think the president knew”. Did Mr. Gingrich forget that he was talking about the president of the United States, the most powerful and highly informed leader on earth, or does he just think the rest of us are obtuse and will fall for such an obvious untruth? Or if not, does he, just perhaps, think that the president is stupid? Or, still another possibility, is Mr. Gingrich himself, perhaps, a mental midget? Whatever the case might be, such answers are not merely ingenuous, but downright fatuous and singularly irritating coming from a long-ranking Republican like himself.

Whatever “sins” the Clinton administration may have committed were, to begin with, “presidential sins”, redeemable by the president who followed. If this had happened at the outset of the Bush administration, then perhaps Republicans could have blamed it on the Democratics that came before them. But it has come to a head now, on the very eve of the end of the two-term George W. Bush era. It comes at the end of the eight years in office of one of the most power-grabbing regime’s Washington has ever known. It comes following an administration that has constantly touted its war-time status and dangerously courted authoritarian designs. Who could possibly believe that an administration like Mr. Bush’s – which has always danced cheek-to-cheek with big business and big oil and which has enjoyed a level of power and consent beyond the wildest dreams of any executive in living memory – could be unaware of the impending chaos?

The United States could not have reached this point of panicstriken chaos without the knowledge of the nation’s leaders and particularly of its chief executive and the presidential cabinet. Just saying that the president might not have known what was going on in what amounts to an issue of utmost national security like the speculative undermining of the entire economy to the point of plunging the country into national bankruptcy is tantamount to admitting that the entire administration including the president was not just caught napping but was surprised in an absolutely comatose state on its watch. Wouldn't this, then, be a much more monumentally grave case of ethical laxitude than the private-life, sexual misconduct of President Clinton that Mr. Gingrich was so quick to denounce as worthy of impeachment back in the days of Democratic rule? And if so, why isn't the former Speaker turned author and TV pundit now clamoring for heads to roll in the Bush administration, instead of simply blushing with puerile shame? I mean, other, that is, than because he and Mr. Bush both have elephants tatooed on their proverbial breasts.

More nefarious still are attempts by Republican Party surrogates in the press to lay the blame at the door of the "non-performing poor". It is at least inexcusably naive if not downright dishonest, ill-intentioned and mean-spirited to suggest that banking loaned a raft of money to people who, because of their low income, probably never should have qualified for credit, but did so out of the “kindness of the bankers’ hearts” because they wanted people to be able to buy homes, having then been duped by the “wicked” low-income beneficiaries who all of the sudden and all together defaulted, precipitating today's crisis. Anyone who really expects the people of the United States to believe such complete nonsense clearly thinks Americans to be a nation of imbeciles. And anyone who buys this guff is indeed just that, a complete imbecile.

Culturally speaking, throughout the Bush Jr. era, the United States has been living in a haze of 1950s naiveté but transferred to a time of not only much-multiplied sophistication but also of dehumanizing ruthlessness. It is a ruthlessness that while no less terrifying for it, is socio-politically natural enough. It’s that in those naive '50s that successive Republican Administrations since Ronald Reagan have tried so hard to recreate as one might set a stage to generate an illusion, we Baby-Boomers were growing up in a world that was supporting a population of only a little over 2 billion and Humanity was only just becoming vaguely aware of some environmental and social challenges that might have to be faced in what was thought would be the distant future.

But today the world is fast approaching a population of 7 billion, a fact that is suddenly making vital resources scarce: food, oil, potable water, land, clean air, etc., etc. That which is scarce logically becomes precious. This fosters greed. And this has become an era of unbridled greed.

It is an easier concept to understand if we think of the history, not of these things that we have taken for granted, but that of so-called “precious stones” and “precious metals”. For as long as men have known how to smelt ore and mine gems, they have killed and died for gold and diamonds, for rubies and silver, for emeralds and pearls. And in doing so that have sought to corner the markets for such precious items.

The mentality that we are seeing in corporate business, in investment banking and on Wall Street today is based on this kind of greed, the greed of accumulation, the greed of the cornered market, the greed of getting whatever John and Jane Q. Public have out of their pockets and into those of the major speculators and “business hogs”. And there can be no doubt that government has served the interests of such speculators by encouraging and facilitating or at least turning a blind eye to high-risk credit, society-wide speculative investment, consumerism gone wild, and a general climate of life far beyond one’s means. And all of this in the name of maintaining the illusion of the American Dream in a country that produces fewer and fewer tangibles all the time, while cranking out ever greater mountains of paper assets whose value is as invented and illusive as that staged '50s innocence.

This is the noxious combination that has given us a generation of industry sultans who have each amassed tens and hundreds of millions of dollars in their personal fortunes while plunging their companies into bankruptcy and lying about it on their books. It is the same pernicious combination that has generated multi-billionaire robber barons who have been held up as cult heroes in business for getting away with monopolistic murder. The same evil mix that has permitted financial institutions to encourage people to enter into mortgages that they would never be able to pay off in a lifetime, or to take out two and three mortgages on the same property based on nothing more than an often hollow dream of financial success in the future.

The horror of nine-eleven shocked Americans into submission in the face of a government that has been all about unlimited power for itself and its friends in big oil and big business. This is not a rash statement. The Bush administration has used nine-eleven, international terrorism and the war in Iraq as a bogeyman with which to frighten the nation as a whole into doing its will. Throughout the eight years of the Bush administration, people have been afraid to speak their mind. They have been afraid to question, afraid that they will be perceived as “against” instead of “for”, under a regime that has sought to convince anyone that will listen that criticizing the country and indeed the government borders on treason at a time when the United States is “under attack” from abroad and “fighting for its life”. We are fighting for our lives, all right, but the greatest danger to the American way of life right now is what’s happening to the economy and what hasn’t been happening in Washington: namely, the necessary oversight to protect the economy from rampant speculation and greed and the citizenry from widespread hardship.

The exploitation of “things that go bump in the night” has permitted Washington to invent far-fetched justifications, like the weapons of mass destruction that Iraq never had as an excuse for invading an oil-reach country that never had anything to do with the nine-eleven attacks. It has permitted the administration to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on a protacted war that has still not produced the capture of the supposed architect of the nine-eleven massacre or the disappearance of the terrorist organization that he leads, but that has cost thousands of lives on both sides, and for which no end in sight. How can we be expected to believe that such a grossly and nefariously invented war is not, in the end, about oil and the interests of the administration’s closest friend. Only the my-country-right-or-wrong naiveté of the 1950s could permit anyone to think otherwise. Especially when the vice president is the former CEO of one of the firms that has most benefited from the oilfield contracts that "saving Iraq from itself" has wrought. A vice president who has even recently demonstrated his utter contempt for the democratic traditions of the nation by claiming that his office doesn’t answer to the president and that it presides as more than a figurehead over the upper house of Congress when both things are clearly inventions of convenience and of astounding arrogance on his part. But then again, within the power circles in which this administration moves, the vice president might very well indeed overshadow the president’s power.

During the Bush administration we have witnessed how oil speculators in connivance with big oil have held the country hostage at the gas pump, how big banking and Wall Street speculators have run amok and run the country bankrupt and how government at all levels has knuckled under to the post-nine-eleven with-us-or-against-us mentality of bogeyman paranoia and McCarthyite persecution orchestrated to keep people’s mind off of what was really happening and the results of which we have experienced in the past couple of nightmare weeks.

Gee whizz, wouldn’t it be just swell and dandy to stop thinking about all this doom and go back to the days when the North America looked like a Norman Rockwell painting and gasoline cost 20 cents a gallon? But those days are over and it is time for Americans to come of age.

We need to be perspicacious. We need to distrust government and call it to account. We need to use the Internet for something besides chatting, games and infotainment, use it to get connected, get informed and get our opinions out there. We need to get mad, get involved and get down hard on business and political leaders that lie to us, cheat us, pick our pockets and strip us of our rights, our money and our self-respect. We need to ignore their flag-waving campaigns to win our hearts and loyalties while luring us to disaster. The age of innocence is long-ended. It’s time to get smart, get tough and get mean, if we hope to survive. Most of all, it is time to trust citizen action over government action (or inaction) and become the most tenacious of watchdogs for our own interests.

If we don’t protect ourselves, nobody else least not if we don’t make them.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Waterboarding – Aquatic Sport or Torture?

Night-time talk show host Jay Leno recently did an on-the-street survey in which he asked random urban Americans questions that just about anybody who watches TV news (let alone anyone who ever went to grade school) should know the answers to – things like: Who is the President of the Senate? What is Gitmo? And so on. About the only give-away question he didn't ask was the classic Groucho Marx bonus query on the iconic comic's 1950s TV game show, You Bet Your Life: Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?

And like the responses Groucho used to get, the ones Leno's survey elicited were as hilarious as they were pathetic, in a country where information and the technology to acquire it are available to the point of overload.

One question I don’t believe Mr. Leno asked, but which he might well have, if he had wanted to hear some truly side-splitting answers is: What is waterboarding? Even after all of the debate that this practice has generated in the news, in government and among political and social organizations from one end of the spectrum to the other, I am almost willing to bet that there would have been any number of answers involving aquatic sports: You know, like, snow-skiing/snowboarding, water-skiing/waterboarding…

Actually, it would have come as no surprise to me at all if no one in an on-the-street survey were to have described it as a form of torture. After all, President Bush doesn't. And neither do certain high-profile apologists for some of Mr. Bush’s more questionable policies, like top conservative news show host Bill O'Reilly at Fox News. In fact, when once backed into a corner by Carol Bogart of the NGO, Human Rights Watch, over his support of waterboarding as an alternative interrogation technique to save American lives, Mr. O’Reilly blithely described waterboarding as having a little water poured over your face. Mr. O’Reilly has repeatedly brought up waterboarding on his prime time show, The O’Reilly Factor, always in a positive light and always minimizing its pernicious effects – both on the victim and, more importantly, on rule of law.

This is not an attitude that is worthy of Mr. O’Reilly’s intelligence, experience, learning or background. Waterboarding is torture, pure and simple, and his reiterated defense of it – like the President’s – is simply unconscionable and wrong. He might as well say right out what he is thinking, that it’s okay as long as it is being done to what he considers “bad guys” and not to him or anyone he knows – you know, good guys. It doesn’t seem to matter to him, or to the President that torture precludes due process of law and that it is precisely through due process that we find out who the bad guys really are, instead of torturing anyone he or President Bush would like to torture in order to find out if they are – or so as to get them to confess that they are, whether they are or not.

Mr. O’Reilly holds degrees in history, journalism and public administration and, as such, should surely be aware of the threat that such “flexibility” with other people’s rights signifies for society as a whole. Especially since he covered Argentina during the Malvinas (Falklands) War, at the end of the authoritarian regime that I myself had been covering for most of a decade when he arrived, and if he didn’t learn anything else from that experience or from his coverage of the civil war carnage in El Salvador, which he also covered, he should have at least learned what happens when authoritarians are permitted to suspend individual rights “in the name of national security”. If, despite his vast education and experience, he can continue to promote the “limited use” of waterboarding at the discretion of the Executive Branch, then, as he himself might say, he needs to “wise up”.

What is Waterboarding?

Waterboarding is a form of torture - I repeat, a form of torture – that dates back, at least, to the Spanish Inquisition. Back then, the Inquisitors would stuff a cloth into the victim’s mouth and pour pitchers of water over it so that all of the water was forced into the prisoner’s gullet, causing him/her to choke and strangle and experience drowning, but permitting the torturer to control how fast the drowning process occurred and, thus, prolong the symptoms – and the suffering – until the victim cracked and confessed to whatever “demonic ritual” he or she was accused of.

Water torture of this and other kinds has been applied by just about every authoritarian regime before and since the Inquisition and has played a role in some of the darkest chapters of America’s own human rights abuse history from the Salem witch trials – in which women accused of witchcraft were strapped to a seat on a long lever and dunked in a river or pond repeatedly until they “confessed” to being witches – to the modern-day waterboarding of post-911 terror suspects held by the government without trial or due process.

In the modern version of waterboarding, victims are immobilized by being strapped to a board on their backs with their heads inclined downward. Water is then poured from a hose, tap, bucket or pitcher onto the face, running into and filling up victims’ breathing passages and causing them to feel that they are drowning. The difference between waterboarding and more common water torture techniques – like dunking the victim or holding the victim’s head under water until asphyxia is imminent, is that waterboarding has the added element of activating the gag reflex. Victims cannot fight waterboarding by holding their breath because the water is poured directly into the breathing passages through the mouth and nose, immediately causing severe gagging and choking. This is said by experts to cause the victim’s resistance to break down in record time – usually less than half a minute. For tough to break prisoners (one of the recent victims of U.S. government torture is reported to have held out for more than 20 minutes of water torture before finally breaking down) there are varying degrees of waterboarding, with one of the advanced stages including tightly wrapping the victim's entire face, including the nose, in clear plastic cling-type wrap, then opening a hole for the mouth and repeatedly pouring water in through the opening. This is a variation on the long-used technique applied by the ruthless mass murders of the Khmer Rouge in torturing prisoners at Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, after the United States pulled out of Indo-China at the end of the Vietnam War. Testimonies by prison survivors tell how the Khmer Rouge interrogators would strap prisoners down with an absorbent cloth over their entire face and then gradually pour on water with a sprinkling can or bucket until the fabric was so saturated that the victim had no choice but to breathe in the water that ran from it. One such survivor was Vann Nath, who painted an illustration of the technique, which now hangs on the wall of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

The added advantage for those applying this torture is that, unlike techniques that make use of instruments of torture (electric cattle prods; blow torches; beatings with rubber truncheons; flogging; pliers, clamps or vices applied to nails, appendages, genitalia or other body parts, etc.) waterboarding leaves no obvious physical marks. What this means is that it is hard for the victim to prove he or she was ever tortured if they later wish to claim that their confession was obtained under duress.

Bad Company

Water tortures including waterboarding have been used by the very regimes that, over the course of modern history, the United States has denounced as inhuman and as being violators of international law and treaties (the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations Convention Against Torture, among others): Both Hitler’s Gestapo and the Imperial Japanese forces made use of variations on waterboarding alone or in combination with other tortures during World War II, with some of their number being sentenced to long years in prison for war crimes as a result of their interrogation techniques in Allied war crime trials that followed the war – trials of which Washington was a major proponent.

One compelling testimony of such cruelty to prisoners came from a US airman called Chase Nielsen who was captured in a retaliatory raid on the Japanese following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Providing a chilling and concise account of the waterboarding process, Nielsen said that he was “put on my back on the floor with my arms and legs stretched out, one guard holding each limb. The towel was wrapped around my face and put across my face and water poured on. They poured water on this towel until I was almost unconscious from strangulation, then they would let up until I’d get my breath, then they’d start over again... I felt more or less like I was drowning, just gasping between life and death.” What the former airman describes is a perfect definition of the waterboarding technique that Mr. Bush’s administration would have the world believe is a legitimate, alternative, interrogation method.

The elite French paratroopers used the method in Algeria against suspected rebels during French colonial occupation of that country. French law eventually placed an official ban on waterboarding, but not before numerous captives died from induced drowning and a campaign against these methods was organized by renowned French intellectuals including Sartre.

In President Bush’s own state of Texas, in 1983, a county sheriff and three of his deputies were convicted of “conspiring to force confessions” for using waterboarding on prisoners. They ended up being sentenced for the crime – the sheriff to ten years in prison and his deputies to four – described in court as “a suffocating water torture ordeal” and which was detailed as very much the same method that President Bush and his apologists have repeatedly condoned.

Many experts including not only human rights activists but also former law enforcement, military and CIA officers point out that the procedure is not only illegal and morally objectionable, but also unreliable. As with any torture, when the level of suffering reaches a certain phase, at which the prisoner either fears imminent death or wishes for it, he or she will “confess” to almost anything merely in order to make the torment stop. And as Arthur Miller so masterfully points out in his classic “The Crucible”, we’ve been aware of that fact since the Salem witch trials, where innocent women were tortured until they could bear it no more and confessed to witchcraft, only to be summarily executed (murdered) afterwards, with the blessing of the local authorities.

Just as the Puritan authorities of those times filled the people with such fear that they saw witchcraft at every turn, so too the Bush Administration has managed in eight years to generate such a high level of paranoia among large sectors of the US population that many Americans also see a terrorist behind every tree and so have been willing to give the President any latitude he wants in order to exterminate this perceived threat. But with the Bush government on its way out of office, the question Americans should be asking themselves is, at what cost to democracy and civil and human rights has this license been granted?

If it Walks Like a Duck…

Even if we throw the international rule book out the window because “they did it to us and now it’s payback time”, or simply because Washington suddenly feels itself completely above international law and above long-standing treaties that it not only signed but once championed, torture is still prohibited under the US War Crimes Act. So is there a technical question here for defending the indefensible? I mean, is waterboarding torture, or isn’t it?

There are plenty of military men, forensic medical examiners, jurists, intelligence experts, lawmakers and other interested parties, including victims, that would agree that it is. But the best way to tell is to look at the evidence and if it looks like a duck, talks like a duck and walks like a duck, know the rest. And every description or testimony that you hear about it makes it clear that waterboarding is, indeed, torture – that is, unless you believe, like Mr. O’Reilly pretends to, that “they just pour a little water on your face”.

In its advanced stages, waterboarding cannot even be considered mild torture, much less “a valid, professional interrogation technique”, as those advocating it have suggested: Human rights researchers say that while waterboarding, if very moderately applied, doesn't always cause lasting physical damage to the victim, in its most extreme stages, it poses the risks of severe pain, brain damage, pulmonary damage, indirectly related injuries like joint dislocations and fractures (from the victim's desperate struggle against restraints and impending death), heart failure and, not infrequently, death by asphyxiation. Furthermore, the psychological effects on the survivors of waterboarding can be long-lasting, even permanent.

The bottom line is that if you have to torture someone to find out what he or she knows, there is clearly reasonable doubt about their guilt or innocence, and therefore, doubt too about whether the torture is being applied to someone whose only crime is being in the wrong place at the wrong time, no matter what their prior criminal or political record may look like.

Good Company

Furthermore, any American who recognizes the inherent wrongness in the authorities' condoning this kind of behavior – indeed, promoting it, as the Bush Administration has – is in excellent company, historically speaking. Some US Armed Forces officers who have, in the past, applied waterboarding to captured enemy elements have been tried and convicted of torture and sentenced to lengthy prison terms since at least as far back as the Spanish-American War (when, for instance, Major Edwin Glenn was handed a ten-year sentence for waterboarding a terror suspect in the Philippines). Perhaps one of the most renowned cases was one involving one of America’s toughest presidents ever, a man whose stunning political career was preceded by a brilliant military history, in which he reached the stature of folk hero, not only among the common people, but also among his military colleagues: namely, Theodore Roosevelt. It was Rough Rider Teddy who, as President, ordered the court martial of a US general for permitting his men to employ waterboarding in interrogating prisoners on the island of Samar. The subsequent court of the officer’s peers evidently wanted to send a message to President Roosevelt – like the one so often sent to the American people by Mr. Bush and Mr. O’Reilly – to the effect that extraordinary circumstances sometimes called for extraordinary measures, so they only concluded that the general had been overzealous in his duties. But as commander-in-chief, President Roosevelt cast aside the court martial’s verdict and drummed the general out of the Army.

A Little Bit Pregnant?

There are issues in the life of a nation that permit no shades of grey, and when it comes to rule of law and civil and human rights, there is simply no such thing as “sort of”. Exceptions of convenience with regard to individual rights are tantamount to being “a little bit pregnant”. When it comes to upholding the law and the Bill of Rights, you do it or you don't. There's no in-between. Permitting a country's political leaders to take on powers that belong to Justice, especially in as far as they affect the rights of every individual to due process of law, is an invitation to tyranny.

“Bending” the tenets of due process and rule of law to suit whatever historical stage a country may be going through – as the Bush Administration has done in Guantanamo and elsewhere – is a dangerous precedent, one that we who have long researched and reported on authoritarian regimes know all too well. Far too many dictators elsewhere in the world have awarded themselves sweeping power “to protect democracy against external and internal attack.” And although Americans tend to think that a dictatorship would be impossible in the United States, the Bush Administration has given us a glimpse of just how far authoritarianism can advance just by permitting the Executive Branch to take a bit more “latitude” all the time.

Whoever ends up in the White House next year would do well to focus on getting the country back on the straight and narrow with regard to truly defending democracy and human rights, instead of giving lip service to both while clearly violating them in the name of executive power.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Aloft in the Blogosphere

When I was starting out in journalism some three and a half decades ago, there was a clear dividing line, still, between what was news and what was advertising. Or there was, at least, between news and promotion. For someone with a writer’s mindset, that was a real comfort. That kind of healthy compartmentalization seemed so natural to me that I didn’t even think about it much at first, until I was placed on the international news desk of the small community paper I worked for, as assistant to the night editor, and came face to face with the simple reality of that division.

Every evening at around 6 p.m., someone from the advertising department would bring us a mock-up of the following day’s newspaper. This consisted of the entire 16, 20 or 24-page tabloid “book” of blank newsprint, with the six standard, empty columns printed on each page and with the ad spaces drawn in with ruler and black marker, so that we, who laid out the paper, would know where the “news holes” were. There were two of these mock-ups: one that the advertising department kept, which had the names of the advertisers written in on each ad space marked, and the other, for us on the night desk, in which the blank ad spaces were diagrammed, but from which the advertisers’ names were omitted.

I didn’t give this much thought either, other than realizing that our mock-up didn’t need to have the names on it because we only needed to know how much space we had to work with. But then one evening, when my boss was off sick and I, to my absolute terror, was left in charge of the night desk, when the guy from Advertising came in as usual, what he laid on the desk before me was a mock-up just like the one he kept for himself, with all of the advertisers’ names written in. When I glanced at the “book” and then looked somewhat inquisitively at him, he just grinned and said “Sorry, I screwed up and wrote the names on both of them today. Just ignore them.” So I returned his smile, shrugged and got down to work.

In a short while, however, the managing editor came over to the night desk with the material for the day’s editorial page. As usual, he was distracted, re-reading the editorial one last time as he walked and stopping at one desk or another to mark something out and write in a correction or two with the stub of a pencil as he made his way over to my end of the editorial bay. When he reached the night desk, he laid the typed pages down on my desk and tweaked the lines one more time with his pencil before finally looking up and saying, “Hi Dan. Everything all right? Sorry about your being left on your own tonight…” But then his eyes fell on the mock-up lying open in front of me with the names of the advertisers clearly marked on it. He narrowed his gaze, his expression grim, and suddenly seemed to go livid, shaking with rage. “Who gave you this?” he asked pointing at the offending pages. I told him and he said, “Let me borrow it.”

It wasn’t 20 minutes before the same fellow from Advertising was back with a new mock-up, properly drawn up with the spaces marked but with no names. The guy had his coat on, obviously on his way home, and looked daggers at me as he slapped the new “book” down on the desk in front of me. Then he turned on his heel and left without saying good night.

In those days the editor was also vice president of the publishing company for that paper and the president was also a newsman. That fact tended to keep the paper honest. Before I left the newspaper thirteen years later, management would be taken over by the head of advertising and owner of 40 percent of the share package and his attempts to dominate editorial policy by any means would become a motive for my resignation.

What was crystal clear to me back then was that advertising is a necessary part of mainstream newspaper and magazine publishing. For decades now, it has been impossible for print media to live off of their cover price. Advertising is, clearly, a good thing. Without it, print media would not be able to survive. And in fact, falling advertising revenues due to the growing influence of other types of media have thrust the vast majority of print media into a critical stage in which their survival, even in the immediate future, is quite obviously challenged. But the only way for the news media to preserve the objectivity that they must maintain if they are to call what they sell “news”, is for them to submit to the hard and fast rule that any true organ of the free press has two customers: the advertiser, who pays for the privilege of using the publication’s space in order to attract its readers to buy certain goods and services, and, principally, the reader, who comes to the media seeking objective information and objectively informed editorial opinion.

What is questionable and worthy of concern to anyone interested in the accuracy, impartiality and objectivity in news reporting, however, is the fading boundary witnessed progressively over the last couple of decades between promotion and information, between editorial commentary and political dogma, between clear viewpoint and intentional slant and between researched truth and subjective belief based on political and/or commercial convenience in broad sectors of the media.

On the brighter side of the media universe lies the new media. The Internet in general and the blogosphere in particular offer information-seekers and writers alike a new free-speech, free press forum that is mind-bogglingly vast. Critics will argue that the Web is loaded with misguided, ill-intentioned, scandalous and obscene material. But the biggest hole in their argument is precisely that: The Web is basically uncensorable. And while those who surf it must clearly become intelligent, discerning and sophisticated readers in order to weed out the rubbish and find the truly amazing array of sound, objective content available, this remains the most stunning advance in publishing since the Gutenberg printing press. As an old-school newsman, I am truly pleased to be starting this blog in order to become a small part of it.