Thursday, June 25, 2009

Pictures and Words

At his press conference on Tuesday, President Obama spoke movingly about the "Neda video" of an Iranian young woman dying -- "It's heartbreaking. It's heartbreaking. And I think that anybody who sees it knows that there's something fundamentally unjust about that." He went on to pay homage to "international norms of freedom of speech, freedom of expression." The indomitable Helen Thomas then broke in to ask him how that could possibly be reconciled with his decision in mid-May to suppress photographs of American military personnel torturing or abusing detainees. (She got cut off, but that was obviously where she was headed.)

It was a great question, even though Obama didn't answer it and the press corps laughed. The "Neda video" has brought home for a lot of people the immense power of images to shape public debate, especially where violence is concerned. When it comes to forms of state violence like killing protesters or torturing detainees, suppressing images is suppressing vital information, information that makes concrete for the public what is actually involved in practices that can otherwise sound clinical and basically harmless. (Here at least, Alicia C. Shepard, NPR's champion of vivid writing and of the avoidance of the word "torture," we can agree: "Show, Don't Tell.") Glenn Greenwald and Alice Ristroph both have posted thoughtful pieces about this.

At the same time, I think it's important to be clear about the limits of what images can do in shaping public debate. As Philip Gourevitch wrote in the NYT last month,

Photographs cannot show us a chain of command, or Washington decision making. Photographs cannot tell stories. They can only provide evidence of stories, and evidence is mute; it demands investigation and interpretation.

I don't agree with Gourevitch's conclusion that therefore Obama made the right decision in opposing the release of the photos. But I do think that he's getting at something very important here. Images of atrocity, all by themselves, can be exceedingly ambiguous. This is true in two different ways. First, if they just show victims' bodies, it can be impossible to even figure out, based solely on the images, who the perpetrator was or what, in political terms, the horrifying pictures can tell us. The images themselves don't tell a whole story -- though they certainly do provide crucial and moving evidence for stories we're already telling or trying to tell. (The "Neda video" essentially fits in this category -- the video is indeed heartbreaking, but in the context of many other sources helping us understand what forces -- in the moment, and in the bigger picture of what's going in in Iran -- are responsible for Neda's death here.)

Second, when images do show torture or execution actually happening, not just victims' bodies afterwards, they encourage us to feel enraged at the people doing it -- but those people are invariably low-level operatives, not policy-makers. And so (as essentially occurred in the case of the Abu Ghraib photographs, for example) those powerful decision-makers who are actually responsible for the system of abuse trot off into the sunset while a handful of soldiers or prison guards get labeled "sadistic" or "bad apples" and get thrown in prison. It's just never going to be photos that implicate the people at the highest levels -- that requires different kinds of sources, much less sensational but nevertheless enormously important. There's a reason tireless French anti-torture campaigner Pierre Vidal-Naquet described the entire anti-torture movement during France's Algerian War as boiling down to "a passionate quest for documents."

This isn't to say images aren't exceedingly valuable. They are. As I've said before, cell phone cameras -- and the existence of the Abu Ghraib photographs in particular -- are one huge reason for the differences between the American conversation about torture for the past several years and the French conversation (or, more often, non-conversation) about torture during the Algerian War. I believe that Obama ought to release the photographs. But ultimately photos can only be worth a thousand words when they're framed by lots and lots and lots of...words.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

NPR and the glories of "vivid writing"

There's no improving on Glenn Greenwald's fabulous point-by-point takedown of NPR Ombudsman Alicia C. Shepard's defense of NPR's refusal to call torture "torture." I'm also really happy he linked to this blog I wasn't aware of until now, NPR Check , which has also been writing stellar stuff about this. The blog's creator says he started it up because "it made more sense than yelling at the radio;" as someone who spends an inordinate amount of time doing just that (also throwing pillows at it) I am overjoyed to find it.

So just one thing to add re. my favorite infuriating bit of Shepard's piece:

A basic rule of vivid writing is: "Show, Don't Tell." An excellent example of using facts rather than coded language was a 2005 piece by former NPR reporter John McChesney. It gave meticulous details of tactics used against an Iraqi detainee at Abu Graib who later died.

Ah yes, "Show, Don't Tell." I have lovely memories of my freshman creative writing instructor pressing that advice on us all. Here's the kind of sentence that "rule" is designed to deal with: "John is a big jerk." ("Can you show us John is a jerk instead? What might be some jerky acts readers could see John undertaking?") That doesn't mean that readers' experience will then be somehow damaged if the story also uses the word "jerk." Is Shepard actually, seriously arguing that a piece on torture (one that involves the detainee dying) becomes more "vivid" if it studiously avoids the use of the word "torture"? Is that true for stories on rape, too? Terrorism? Murder? I'm pretty sure that when the writing instructors say "show, don't tell," they don't mean "use smarmy circumlocution tactics to avoid calling things by their proper names," or "employ obfuscating and euphemistic language whenever possible." Good writing -- and we're talking about journalistic writing here, not mystical verse or something -- usually involves using plain English. To stick with our friend John the big jerk, would Shepard think it constituted more "vivid" writing for us to refer to him as "John the tempermentally challenged individual"? Come on. This is proposterous. And for God's sake, "torture" is not "coded language" for torture. "Enhanced interrogation techniques" is.


Greenwald is continuing to update on this issue, and check out Digby's post on the abuse-of-the-English-language aspect of all of this called "Examining the Runes."

Heat wave

Man, oh man,is it hot out today in my corner of America. The kind of day that makes you understand why more Americans say they believe in global warming when the survey happens in the summer.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Here we go again, cont'd. (Sarkozy edition)

So, in his major policy address today, French President Nicolas Sarkozy spoke on the burqa a lot more forcefully than I'd expected him to. Here's the key section. (It's actually part of an interesting larger discussion of laïcité, which is itself only one element in a wide-ranging speech mainly focused on economic issues. You can link to the full text of the speech in pdf from below this summary article in Le Monde; for English-language stuff, there's a NYT article here about the burqua-related parts of the speech. The Guardian also has decent coverage, though it's headline, "Nicolas Sarkozy Says Islamic Veils Are Not Welcome in France," is bizarrely misleading -- the issue here really is the burqa specifically, not "Islamic veils.")

In the Republic, the Muslim religion must be just as respected as the other religions. The problem of the burka is not a religious problem. It's a problem of freedom and of dignity for women. It is not a religious symbol, it's a symbol of subservience, a symbol of abasement. I want to say it solemnly, the burka is not welcome in France. In our country, we cannot accept women imprisoned behind wire fencing, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. That is not our idea of the dignity of women.

A moment later he added, "But I tell you, we must not be ashamed of our values. We must not be afraid to defend them." All of this obviously stands in some contrast to Sarkozy's comments last week in response to Obama's Cairo speech, when he emphasized that, outside of public schools, "any girl who wants to wear the veil can do so." I suppose that it could be argued that the burqa is an entirely different issue from the veil -- and in certain ways it is. But nevertheless this whole initiative strikes me as an abrupt blowback from the perceived criticism of "the French model" by Obama.

For the moment, I'll just note my sense, as I read the news in the last couple days, that despite my sense of déjà vu (and the "Here We Go Again" post titles), this may not actually play out as a replay of the massive French debates about the veil in the public schools. Beyond the obvious fact that we're talking now about a changed political landscape from that of 1994 or 2004, with new actors, there are also other differences. For one thing, the symbolically-charged space of the public schools aren't involved. For another, this puts on the table very different legal questions now, regarding what adults wear in the street, not in spaces administered by the state. (We're also talking about what a very small number of adults wear in the streets -- I've been looking in vain for an estimate of how many women in France actually engage in full-body veiling, but everyone seems to agree that it's pretty tiny. Of course, the numbers aren't the point here. They weren't with the veil in the schools, either -- that too was a very small phenomenon in statistical terms.) Also, there seem to be skeptical voices present in the debate already that are insisting that this stuff is a distraction from the very real issues around Islam in France; to my ear, at least (and I may be forgetting -- please tell me), they sound different than anyone did 5 years ago.

And yet...the déjà vu remains. We'll see.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Here we go again

Oy. On Friday a group of 65 French legislators called for the creation of a parliamentary committee to study, "in the name of secularism,"* the phenomenon of women wearing the burqa in France. Luc Chatel, the spokesperson for Sarkozy's administration, told France 2 tv that the government would consider the possibility of a ban on the wearing of the burqa in public. Other members of the government (Fadela Amara, Rama Yade, both of Muslim background) are receptive to the idea of such a law; the Minister for Immigration Eric Besson, however, has spoken against it, saying "It is necessary to fight against the spread of the burqa, but it must be done through education, through pedagogy, through dialogue." (Sarkozy himself has declined to say anything till Monday; we'll update once he does.)

Yes, according to Le Monde, it looks like this is at least somewhat a response to the fallout from Obama's Cairo speech comments that we posted on last week: "For some people," the paper says, "the parliamentary offensive also appears to be a resopnse to the M. Sarkozy's approbation for Barack Obama's comments about freedom to wear the veil for women living in Western countries, on the condition that it is a matter of 'free choice.'"

This is a giant can of worms for France, where for years now underlying struggles about Islam, tolerance, diversity, extremism, and so on have been playing out symbolically through fights about Muslim women's bodies and clothing. As Arthur Goldhammer observes here, in a great post about these developments, the burqa (and other forms of religious dress or veiling) can evoke visceral reactions of "horror" or upset that simply don't arise in the same way regarding other, less visible forms of religious observance. The large Muslim minority in France creates challenges to secular ideals that are extremely complex, and although personally I disagree with current French policy, as I wrote last week, I think that the French are justified in not being thrilled with offhanded comments about it from Americans. So (until I've had some time to really study what's being said on all sides) I won't get into my position on these issues, but will keep posting on what's happening in France as it develops.

* "laïcité," which does not have a great English equivalent -- "secularism" gets kind of close, but laïcité is more about the **absence** of state involvement in religion, and vice versa. Here's a nice little historical guide from the BBC. Good subject for another post.

Friday, June 19, 2009


As I mentioned, I'm not going to be able to say much about Iran -- what's going on there now involves historical and political dynamics about which I understand just enough to grasp that I actually understand nothing. I simply don't have any expertise in this area of the world. So I've been following avidly but keeping mum.

The unfolding "debate" about the US response is a different issue -- although here, too, I don't know enough about Iran to presume to offer definitive advice to the Obama administration on how they should be reacting to events there, I feel awfully suspicious of all this posturing going on about how Obama isn't being "tough" enough. First of all, I've now seen lots of convincing arguments (from folks that know much more than I do about Iran) that the approach Obama is taking is smart and sound, given that he has to exercise caution about conflating the protestors' cause with "American interference." Second of all, as hilzoy keeps on helpfully reminding us all, even a very basic understanding of the unsavory history of US intervention in Iran ought to preclude some of this absurd fantasy about how the US taking a forceful rhetorical stance might save the day (ahem, John McCain: "We do what we have done throughout the Cold War and afterwards, we speak up for the people of Tehran and Iran and all the cities all over that country who have been deprived of one of their fundamental rights." Right, our excellent Cold War track record in Iran.) And third, to me all this bluster does not sound like it actually has anything to do with Iran per se: it's just the same old schoolyard stuff we've been hearing thrown at Democrats for decades about not being "tough" enough (on crime, welfare queens, defense, terror...), about being girly-men, about speaking French, etc. It's just wrapped around the headline of the week, which happens to be Iran.

Now, I'm not entirely unsympathetic to some of the genuine criticism coming Obama's way, like this piece from Roger Cohen, arguing that Obama needs to be doing/saying more. And I get that lots and lots of Democrats are upset with Obama's caution, too. But, especially because of point #3, I really don't see why the NYT has just chosen to post as the lead article on the website (as of around 10pm tonight) a piece titled "Obama Reluctant to Toughen Stance on Iran." The piece itself, by Mark Lander, is okay, I guess, and informative in a general way about various responses (from Congress, European leaders, etc.) to the situation in Iran. But although it refers to "criticism that Mr. Obama’s refusal to speak out more had broken faith with democracy advocates in Tehran" and "pressure on the White House" from "Congressional Republicans and conservative foreign-policy experts," and although it gives lots of examples of the "tougher line" other people besides Obama are taking, it doesn't actually name one person explicitly criticizing Obama himself for not being "tough" enough, nor give any articulation of what the foreign-policy basis for such criticism would be. (It does, on the other hand quote a number of people, including Henry Kissinger and Karim Sadgadpour, "an Iranian expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace," explicitly supporting the administration's approach and explaining why in policy-outcome terms, not John McCain-speak.) The people Lander does quote may be reacting differently from Obama, but they're not criticizing him. (Yes, I understand that plenty of people are. But aside from the references to "criticism" and one quote from an Iran expert that seems to be connected to the uncontroversial idea that Obama may have to shift his stance in the event that a Tiananmen-style crackdown occurs, they're not present in this particular article.) There was also apparently no one from the administration willing to go on the record here, so it's all "officials said," etc.

Anyway, regardless, my real beef here is with the title, which to my ear seems to use this super-charged language of "toughness" to imply that Obama is somehow simply wimping out about Iran when the right thing to do is obviously to be "tough." In American political discourse, the antonym for tough is wimpy, and someone who is "reluctant" to take a "tough stance" is cowering. I'm not saying Lander's piece or the NYT is delibrately arguing this -- just that this seems like a really poor choice of language for the header. And that this is the case regardless of the valid arguments that might be made for/against the approach Obama has been taking so far.

Now I will be mum again.

**Update: The headline has now become "Obama Resists Calls for a Tougher Stance on Iran." This is slightly less objectionable, I suppose -- it implies a debate over the correct policy rather than a wimpy "reluctance" to do the manly thing. But I still think that there's no need to characterize the use of more bellicose language as a "tougher stance." Also, this version of the header reflects the actual content of the article even less than the previous version did -- again, there are no actual people quoted here "calling" on Obama to do anything differently, and explaining why, just general references to "criticism" of him.


So it has been a crazy week -- for me, in a tiny navel-gazing no-time-to-blog sense, and for the world. I'm not going to now try to jump into Iran-blogging, or catch up on everything I've missed; here are a couple quick points and links.

(1) Andrew Sullivan has been doing a remarkable job on Iran. He might be getting some stuff wrong (as he knows and frequently acknowledges), and he's clearly not getting much sleep, but the Dish for the last week has been exhilerating reading. Eric Martin has a great post up at ObWi (where, by the way, hilzoy has also been posting incredibly thoughtful pieces re. Iran this week) praising Sullivan and articulating how his work this last week has, perhaps, helped "spark empathy and strengthen bonds across what are fraught cultural and political divides" by putting human faces on the too-often demonized Iranian population.

(2) The Washington Post fired Dan Froomkin? Seriously?? WTF???

(3) A note of advice to anyone planning a wedding in a public park: NO, apparently you CANNOT assume that a massive, entirely unannounced construction project won't start up at your wedding site in the weeks immediately before your wedding, when it's way too late to switch location. I recommend friends & family with a really good sense of humor. A very nice contractor happening to be in charge of the project helps too.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

France, the headscarf, & the Cairo speech

I've been wondering about the French response to Obama's remarks about the Muslim headscarf in the Cairo speech, but too busy to investigate. I tried to catch up today (a process that every time makes me hate, hate, hate Le Monde for claiming that articles from like 3 days ago are now in the "archives" and must be paid for).

What Obama said:
First, in the section where he was explaining that the rights of Muslims are protected in US, he said,

"That's why the United States government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab and to punish those who would deny it. (Applause.)"

Then, later:

Likewise, it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit -- for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We can't disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism....

The sixth issue -- the sixth issue that I want to address is women's rights.(Applause.) I know –- I know -- and you can tell from this audience, that there is a healthy debate about this issue. I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality. (Applause.)

Did the French feel like, just maybe, they were the "some in the West" being referred to here? Um, yes. (And they were. After years of tumult and wrenching debate over this issue, which for many French people came to symbolize the way that religious diversity was throwing the French secular republican model into crisis, in 2004 the French banned headscarfs -- and all noticeable symbols of religious identity -- from the public schools.) The Agence France Presse coverage related to Obama's speech came out under the title "Hijab: Obama égratigne la France," which basically translates as "Hijab: Obama Takes a Dig at France." Lots of prominent French sociologists, politicians, etc. who had been involved in France's debates over the veil in the 90s and early 2000s have criticized Obama's speech: for example, here's Patrick Weil, a very respected scholar who served on the special government-appointed commission responsible for crafting the law banning religious symbols in the schools (my translation):

This passage on the banning of the veil is annoying, because it shows a misunderstanding of the French situation. Muslim women can wear the veil here, even if the school has been made a sanctuary [from religion] and if the space of the State is neutral with regards to religion."

Fair enough: outside the public schools, Muslim women are free to wear headscarves in France, with some exceptions like certain government employees on the job. Personally I disagree with the French policy, for reasons I won't get into today, but it shouldn't be mischaracterized as a general ban on the hijab. Sarkozy, meanwhile, who is eager to emphasize the positive in the Franco-American relationship right now, has been making pretty much the same point as Weil but doing it without criticizing Obama: "I am totally in agreement with President Obama's speech, including on the question of the veil," he told reporters. "In France, a girl who wants to wear the veil can do so," with the exceptions I've noted.

So, flap over? Apparently. But a sore spot has definitely been touched. (If you doubt that, and you can read French, check out the "comments" section on the Le Figaro site article about this. Figaro is a conservative paper, but it's extremely mainstream and venerable -- think Wall Street Journal, sort of. Among the commenters there this appears to have sparked some serious anger. This stuff is a big deal in Europe, and European political dividing-lines around it don't map easily onto US Democrat/Republican thinking. It might be an area where Obama wants to tread pretty carefully in the future.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Depressing read of the day

This NYT article on what's going on at Reed College in Oregon is excruciating evidence of what the recession is doing to the already dysfunctional and unjust American system of paying for higher ed. Just makes me want to throw things.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

What was the Algerian War/Why should you care

So here are the basics, quick and dirty. (Okay, one out of two ain't bad. Sorry. I am a wordy person, what can I say?)

From 1954-1962, Algerian fighters under the banner of the Front National de Libération* (FLN) waged a war of independence against France, which had held Algeria as a colony since 1830. Algeria was unusual in France's colonial empire in that it was a "settler" colony: by 1954 about a million Europeans -- of French, Spanish, and Italian origin -- lived in Algerian territory along with about eight million Muslim Algerians. The war (which was not officially acknowledged as such by France at the time -- just referred to as "operations" or "events") ultimately resulted in the decolonization of Algeria, and the mass exodus of the entire European population. Along the way perhaps half a million people died, most of them Muslim Algerians. (This figure is extremely contested, but I'm not going to deal with that whole debate here. It's also worth knowing that Muslim Algerian civilians suffered terribly in ways that cannot be expressed through casualty figures -- for example, about 2 million of them were uprooted and displaced to "regroupment camps.")

The French military tortured systematically from the beginning to the end of the war, most spectacularly during the "Battle of Algiers" in 1957. They used all the classic methods: electricity, simulated drowning, beatings, sexual torture and rape. (The French also committed other sorts of war crimes/atrocities -- summary execution, unlimited detention without charges, etc. -- which I'll write about another time.) The FLN's use of terrorism -- in particular their targeting of European civilians at popular clubs, bars, and so on in urban bombing campaigns -- served as the rationale for this "exhaustive interrogation" of "suspects."

Now, aside from the bare fact of being Muslim, the FLN did not have a great deal in common with twenty-first century Islamist terrorists: for one thing, its members were more motivated by nationalism than by religious ideology (though that did play some role); for another, relying only in part on "terror," they were waging a full-scale war of national liberation against a colonizing power. The Algerian War was a war of independence, a war of decolonization. In that sense, it cannot and should not be understood as analogous to, or a direct precursor to, the United States' "war on terror." I want to be very clear about this. Although I think that learning about what happened in Algeria from 1954-1962 and beyond is enormously interesting, I'm not suggesting that some sort of "key" to America's current experiences lies there. (If you are into this for the sake of the history, probably the best short account that's been translated into English is Benjamin Stora's Algeria, 1830-2000. The bonus there, too, is the book also includes a good succinct history of post-independence Algeria. Alistair Horne's Savage War of Peace , which George Bush once horrifyingly bragged he was reading in search of inspiration for counterinsurgency tactics in Iraq, is a classic and a joy to read, if now a bit dated. A Diplomatic Revolution by Matthew Connelly is fabulous, too, from a broader diplo-history perspective.)

As an American today, what I find really significant about the use of torture in the Algerian War is what it did to France, which underwent a profound crisis of democracy as it attempted to hold on to Algeria. Now, obviously, not all of the ways that France got ripped apart over the Algerian War can be blamed on torture -- as I said, it was a war of decolonization, and the loss of Algeria, which had been previously understood by most French people to be an integral part of France, was traumatic in all kinds of ways. The collapse of France's Fourth Republic in 1958, in the wake of what was essentially a military coup in Algiers, along with the subsequent attempted coups and civil violence that plagued the Fifth Republic until the conclusion of the war, had all kinds of complicated causes. But what torture did do was poison the public sphere: to conceal the fact that the military was torturing, French governments turned to censorship, seizure of publications deemed deleterious to the honor and reputation of the Army, paralyzing control over the movements of journalists, and prosecution of those who nevertheless continued to publish evidence that torture was going on. Torture fueled high-level government deception; it robbed France of any moral high ground from which to denounce FLN terrorism; it put in an impossible, shaming, corrupting position the roughly two million men who served in France's conscript Army in Algeria. (Most of them had nothing directly to do with torture, which tended to be the job of elite units.) And, of course, inevitably, over time it seeped back into metropolitan France, so that by the end of the war torture was being employed by the Paris police.

The reason all the government censorship was necessary was that a small but incredibly passionate, intellectually high-powered anti-torture movement developed in France from late 1956. By any concrete measure, it failed: France continued to torture straight through to the miserable end of the war, and no one was prosecuted then or later specifically for having tortured (or ordered torture). But in another sense, its triumphs were enormous: people like Pierre Vidal-Naquet (read the Guardian's obit of him here), carrying on despite constant government harassment, prosecution, journal seizures -- and, eventually, despite death threats and bombings from hard-line supporters of France's presence in Algeria -- told the truth about what France was doing. Relentlessly. They laid the groundwork for France's eventual reckoning with its past, which is still going on today. (Vidal-Naquet's investigations of government involvement in torture, carried out under huge constraints during the war, remain indispensable for historians of the period.)

The French anti-torture activists also laid an invaluable groundwork for other people living in Western democracies, people like us, to draw on when we try to articulate what, exactly, is so absolutely corrosive and wrong about torture, and why the use of it signals a mortal threat to all that is good and right and admirable in our political system. (Vidal-Naquet got this better than anyone -- check out his 1963 book titled Torture: Cancer of Democracy.) What is especially significant, for our purposes: they did this while acknowledging that France was fighting an opponent that used terrorism against civilians. (Some of them did a much, much better job of this than others -- something that I think affords lots of lessons and that I'd like to continue blogging about in future posts.)

They also did it from a variety of perspectives: Catholics were active in the anti-torture campaign (and especially good at articulating the "infernal dialectic" between torture and terror, and the reason that one was morally obligated to fight against them both), and so were secular humanist existentialists; anti-colonial activists but also people who would have preferred that Algeria remain part of France both participated.

So -- so what? Why does this stuff matter? After all, it's not as if we're short on contemporary commentators who are very, very good at explaining what is wrong with torture -- why dig back to a bunch of French people doing a similar thing in radically different circumstances? Especially since now the major issue on the table is prosecution, and we can see that the French hardly provide any positive insight there: they failed to prosecute and indeed passed general amnesties (thus more recently, when a former Algerian War torturer came out with a proudly confessional memoir, French courts were able to sentence him only for "making excuses for war crimes," not for having comitted them in the first place).

I think it matters for a couple of reasons. Second one I'll save for a subsequent post because this is getting unconscionably long. The first one is that I think that historical comparison can function as illuminating intellectual practice. I posted several days ago about a friend asking me whether the French Right had made "this-stuff-doesn't-really-hurt" arguments to justify torture. Well, it's a long answer (one that begins with pointing out that the correct subject for the sentence is really not "the French Right" but a far more complicated entity), but it basically boils down to "no." Thinking through why that difference exists is helpful for recognizing certain features of the current American debate. Like, wow, cell phone cameras really changed the world. Because the main reason the French torture-defenders didn't argue that stuff like simulated drowning was no big deal was because they didn't have to: they didn't have to admit simulated drowning was happening AT ALL. In the absence of certain forms of highly-circulated, red-handed visual evidence, like the Abu Ghraib photos in Bush-era America, "deny, deny, deny" (even if massive, overwhelming proof actually does exist) remains a plausible public-relations strategy. Even more plausible if any time a newspaper prints the word "torture," the government seizes it! So although it's frustrating as all hell to hear waterboarding described over and over (and over and over) as a form of "enhanced interrogation" or whatever, thinking about the French case made me realize that the fact that this is happening is actually a sign that the free press in America, thanks in large part to the web, is still functioning. Denial that these things happened at all, which will always be the first line of defense, is no longer possible. And that is encouraging, despite everyting.

I'll end for the moment on that quasi-hopeful note.

* Oh fun, I just spent an hour awkwardly figuring out how to do accents in blogger without cutting& pasting. I guess html is going to be a kind of learn-as-you-go project for me. This is really good -- my students last semester were so derisive of the baby-level html skills I demonstrated in formatting the class's Blackboard site that I started to feel like, compared to them, there is basically no difference between me and certain older family members who still call the internet "the AOL."

More inconclusive stuff on pseudonyms

I've been working on getting back here to write (1) a more substantive post on France and Algeria and (2) continued reflections on pseudonymity online. But life keeps getting in the way these last few days, and -- wonder of wonders -- I'm actually managing to get some dissertation writing done, a phenomenon miraculous enough that I'm loathe to interrupt it for any reason.

So now just a short post to note that as the Publius-Whelan flap continued to play out, leading up to Whelan's surprising and laudable apology today (and Publius's characteristically gracious acceptance), some excellent, thought-provoking commentary on the issue of pseudonymity got put out there. Most helpful for me were posts that emphasized the category difference between pseudonymity and anonymity, and argued that a pseudonym, while it may serve as a shield, does at least produce a stable online "persona" who is thus subject to a certain kind of accountability and can be evaluated over time as reliable/unreliable/a real asshole/etc. I'm not entirely satisfied with this -- but then, as Matthew Yglesias points out, by that standard I probably shouldn't be entirely satisfied with the online persona of "Matthew Yglesias" either, without thoroughly investigating who the donors to the Center for American Progress Action Fund are, or ferreting around for possible ways he might be misrepresenting himself online.

(Note: I'm sidestepping here the whole issue of "outing" someone else, which everyone and their brother -- including, now Whelan himself -- seems to agree is just tacky and destructive. I'm more interested in the Q of whether someone -- me, say -- should be blogging under a pseudonym in the first place.)

Other posts I thought were useful besides the one from Yglesias: from a general perspective, Julian Sanchez , EotAW, and hilzoy; on the specific problem of blogging from within academia (and the even more specific problem of blogging from within academia as a woman), there's some interesting stuff up in the archives from the early years of Bitch Ph.D. And all of it leaves me....nowhere.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Pseudonym Issue

So today Ed Whelan outed Obsidian Wings blogger "publius" as John Blevins, an assistant prof at South Texas College of Law. Publius is obviously pretty damn upset, but is taking it with class. Here's his explanation of why he chose not to blog under his own name:

As I told Ed (to no avail), I have blogged under a pseudonym largely for private and professional reasons. Professionally, I’ve heard that pre-tenure blogging (particularly on politics) can cause problems. And before that, I was a lawyer with real clients. I also believe that the classroom should be as nonpolitical as possible – and I don’t want conservative students to feel uncomfortable before they take a single class based on my posts. So I don’t tell them about this blog. Also, I write and research on telecom policy – and I consider blogging and academic research separate endeavors. This, frankly, is a hobby.
Privately, I don’t write under my own name for family reasons. I’m from a conservative Southern family – and there are certain family members who I’d prefer not to know about this blog (thanks Ed). Also, I have family members who are well known in my home state who have had political jobs with Republicans, and I don’t want my posts to jeopardize anything for them (thanks again).
All of these things I would have told Ed, if he had asked. Instead, I told him that I have family and professional reasons for not publishing under my own name, and he wrote back and called me an “idiot” and a “coward.”

As someone in academia, I am deeply sympathetic to this reasoning. The part about teaching is particularly important to me -- I've had fabulous experiences working with conservative students, and the idea that they might avoid taking classes with me because of my blog kills me. Now, I don't have a hard-core, Stanley-Fish-style "no politics in the classroom" kind of ideology about this stuff, and I would imagine that most students probably end a semester with me able to hazard a pretty good guess about some of my positions. And as an intellectual matter I define "the political" very broadly, so I can't really imagine how one would run a "politics-free" history seminar. There is no entirely neutral, universally unsuspect way to talk about the French Revolution, or the Algerian War, or the American sixties, or all the other stuff I teach about. But I believe that there is a way to run a classroom in a spirit of openness and profound respect for reasoned, well-articulated difference of opinion, and to avoid imposing one's own political beliefs on students. I worry about the ways that blogging about contemporary politics (which is not what I teach about) might make it more difficult to create that climate of shared inquiry and mutual respect. What if students who know coming in to a class that they disagree with me about prosecution for America's use of torture in the Bush years thereby become less likely to fully engage with the portions of the class devoted to torture in Algeria? What if they steer clear of taking my classes at all?

I do think that there are ways to tackle these concerns besides pseudonymity. (Beyond what one can do in the classroom, one thing that strikes me as important is to write a blog that forcefully defends its positions but nevertheless remains open to dialogue, respectful of genuine adversaries, and responsive to reasoned criticism. ) But I think that for a lot of academics -- and especially doctoral students or people without tenure, who have to avoid pissing off not only their students but also their advisors, hiring committees, tenure committees, etc. -- blogging pseudonymously will sometimes be the best option. This is especially true because blogging is just not designed to be a "careful" art -- you don't triple-check your citations, then stick it in a drawer for a week to get a chance to look at it with "fresh eyes," then check them again. You just write and post. I think this is a healthy thing -- it feels great to work on developing a more spontaneous and free-flowing, less tortured relationship to writing. But, look, for people trained to be extreeemely careful and conscientious about detail, like historians, it's also pretty scary. Doing it under a pseudonym at least relieves some of the haunting sense that what you're writing might end up in your tenure file, and lets you click "post." (I don't think, by the way, this means the blogosphere turns into a place where academics are relieved of responsibility for getting the facts right and being thoughtful about what they say -- in fact for most of us, after x years of Ph.D. programs and training in academic writing, being careless about that kind of stuff in any forum is basically unthinkable. Even under a pseudonym, we're still going to be insanely conscientious. We just might be slightly less neurotic about mistakes or overstatements or personal revelations somehow ruining our lives, and thus more willing to blog in the first place.)

So those are, I think, some compelling reasons for the pseudonym option being open. They're the reasons I'm doing this sort of semi-open-identity thing here myself (although anyone with google and twenty seconds could probably work out who I am), and haven't yet decided if I'm going to tell people I know about this blog. And yet, at least for myself, I'm ambivalent about it. I was disgusted by Jeff Rosen's gossippy smear piece about Sonia Sotamayor before her nomination, and I thought Glenn Greenwald's takedown of it (and lots of other blogger criticism of Rosen that followed) was dead on. So what's the difference between Rosen's use of anonymous sources and pseudonymous blogging? My gut feeling is that there is one, but -- especially given the trenchant nature of Greenwald's critique of the "professional reasons" excuse for allowing sources to retain their anonymity -- I'm having trouble articulating it. One to sleep on, I suppose. I'll return to this.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


This game is the greatest thing that ever happened. I'm totally addicted. (This is not because I'm any good at it yet -- I still suck. Scrabble-based instincts actually don't work out that well when you have to play this fast. But seeing as I'm planning on playing 24/7 from now on, I'm hoping I'll improve.)

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

the French case

As I've read blogosphere debates about America's "war on terror" and use of torture over the last couple of years, I've been struck by how infrequently French Algeria comes up. Take Andrew Sullivan, one of the most passionate anti-torture voices out there and a blogger that I like a lot. Sullivan mentions the French use of torture in Algeria in passing occasionally, and a couple of times (here and here) he links to substantive discussions of some historical parallels. But he refers more often to the Khmer Rouge and the Nazis.

If you're just looking for horrific historical examples of the use of torture, you certainly need go no further. But what's interesting about France during the Algerian War, and why I've been slightly surprised that it hasn't gotten more play, is that it provides us with an example of what happens in a liberal Western democracy when it decides to use torture against an opponent that uses terror. (Hint: it isn't pretty.) To think that's interesting and worth examining, you don't need to believe that the Algerian War of 1954-1962 was highly analogous to today's so-called War on Terror (it wasn't) or that the Algerian independence fighters resembled today's Al Qaeda ideologically (they didn't).

Historical comparisons are hazardous by their very nature. But historical knowledge is empowering and useful. And for Americans today, historical knowledge of what happened in French civil society and politics when France used torture in Algeria would be especially useful. Future posts will lay out some of the basics.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Why blog?

The other day, my friend Seth emailed me. He was involved in an ongoing debate with some friends about America's use of torture, and the justifications that have been and continue to be offered for it. He had made the argument that the American right today is doing something historically unprecedented when they defend practices like waterboarding with the claim that they aren't really torture: according to Seth, other regimes and their supporters have denied that they tortured at all, sure, but they haven't engaged in this kind of hair-splitting about whether x,y,z practices "count" as "real" torture. The phenomenon of a right-wing radio host getting himself waterboarded to prove it's "no big deal" is uniquely American, Seth said; it's really unimaginable that an analogous thing would have happened in, say, Latin America during the Dirty Wars. Seth's friends were dubious that this kind of logic was really a new phenomenon in the long, ugly history of torture regimes, and so he wanted to know if my knowledge of French discourses about the torture used in the Algerian War supported his point.

I'll get into what, exactly, I wrote to him in another post. (The whole banister/bannister incident has set me back few hours here.) What was most striking to me about our whole exchange, which turned out to be rather extended, was that it was enormously fun for me. A LOT more fun than actually working on the ol' dissertation. I got to thinking that the reason I began working on debates about torture and terrorism in 1950s-60s France in the first place is because of their remarkable resonance with and relevance to contemporary American debates about the same things. But now, years into my project, I pretty much never get the chance to actually write about those intersections and parallels -- I do strictly academic, historical work without a lot of room for that kind of reflection.

This blog is intended as an experiment in remedying that situation, and trying to inject some of the excitement that I felt writing to Seth back into my day-to-day life as a historian. Partly. I'm also planning posts on my various other obsessions (some of them much cheerier than torture & terror, I promise). We'll see how it goes.


Off to an inauspicious start here -- I tried to get this thing up and running just after dinner, and meandered off into a fretful 3-hour detour trying to confirm that I was using the correct spelling for ban(n)ister. Correct-er spelling, I should say, since both "bannister" and "banister" appear to be entirely acceptable. After consulting several dictionaries, text-message polling friends and family, and doing all kinds of geeky academic things like examining the frequency of both variants in JSTOR-archived journals, I threw up my hands and went with the single "n." Apologies to fans of the double.