Thursday, July 9, 2009

NPR, 2009; Le Monde, 1956

So, having refused to be interviewed by Glenn Greenwald about her defense of NPR's avoidance of the use of the word "torture," NPR ombudsman Alicia C. Shepard did agree to go on an NPR show immediately before him. That way, it could be almost like an actual adult conversation but without, you know, any pesky conversing involved.

Shepard's defense of NPR's practices in her segment here is just mind-boggling -- so much so, in fact, that Kevin Drum assumed Glenn Greenwald was exaggerating when he paraphrased it. He was not. Here are Shepard's actual words, when pressed on why NPR had no problem referring to a journalist in Gambia being tortured:

...these were strictly tactics to torture him, to punish him, versus these in the United States in the way that it's used these are tactics used to get information.
Um, excuse me? It's not torture if it's used to "get information"? As Greenwald points out, even laying aside the glaring falsehood here re. the pristine purity of US motives for the use of torture, this is wrong, wrong, wrong. Torture is torture, regardless of motive. Does Shepard think the Gestapo wasn't torturing French Resistance members when they put them through excruciating pain -- beatings, kickings, whippings, electrical shock, burning, needles, etc., often ending in death -- in an attempt to glean information about their networks of fellow resisters? How about French use of torture during the Battle of Algiers, as part of a systematic effort to locate and destroy the Algerian National Liberation Front in the city? Hey, they were just using some "tactics" to "get information"!

I don't believe Shepard thinks that -- because it's just too absurd to countenance. What she really means, of course, is that it's not torture when we do it. This kind of blind, my-country-right-or-wrong "patriotism" was also present in France during the Algerian War, and it helped lead plenty of people -- including people who actually understood perfectly well what France was up to in Algeria -- to publicly deny that any torture was going on.

In my mind today, I've been putting that kind of logic, the logic that seeks by any means possible to deny wrongdoing by one's own country, next to that of the French historian of early Christianity Henri-Irénée Marrou, writing in Le Monde in 1956, before many people in France were talking about torture. Marrou's op-ed contribution was called "France, ma patrie" ("patrie" is a little tricky to translate -- it means homeland, fatherland, or simply country) and, in the name of his love of France, Marrou denounced the French use of torture in Algeria. Here's a rough translation of some of the piece:

I am neither a professional journalist nor a politician; I testify here as a simple citizen whose conscience torments him, and who notices that he is not the only one to feel this heavy discomfort, this worry, this anguish...

...[E]verywhere in Algeria -- it is denied by no one -- veritable laboratories of torture have been installed, with electric bathtubs and everything that is required, and this is a disgrace for the country of the French Revolution, and of the Dreyfus Affair: I cannot, without shuddering, think about the day when I was charged with representing the government of the Republic at an exposition organized by UNESCO at the Galliera museum, in honor of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. There was a whole display panel devoted to the abolition -- not, oh hypocrisy, the renewal -- of judicial torture.

....Yes, French grandeur is in peril. I speak to all those who like me, a professor, are educators; who, like me, have children and grandchildren: we must be able to speak to them without shame about Oradour [site of a WWII massacre] and about the Nuremberg trials. We must be able to reread in front of them the beautiful pages of our classics about love of country, about our France, 'patron and witness (and often martyr) for freedom in the world.' Yes, before we become further engaged in the infernal cycle of terrorism and reprisals, each one of us must hear from the deepest, most profound part of his heart the cry of our fathers: 'La patrie is in danger!'

And, by the way, when readers wrote in to protest publication of Marrou's piece, Le Monde editor-in-chief Hubert Beuve-Méry (whose son was actually fighting for the French in Algeria at that moment, and who was no great fan of the Algerian independence fighters) responded that patriotism "does not consist of imitating or adopting, even as reprisals, the practices that we condemn on the part of the adversary. And no more does it consist of carefully dissimulating that which, chez nous, might be blameworthy."

I think they say it pretty well. The America that I want to live in doesn't use torture. And that means it doesn't use torture, not "it calls torture by some other name."

Sunday, July 5, 2009

In which I destroy the "democratic ideal"

Okay, I guess I'm one of the snobby, hate-filled liberal elite that Ross Douthat slams in his NYT column "Palin and Her Enemies" today. Yep, my belief that this particular woman was wildly incompetent to be vice president (and possibly president) of the United States puts me on the side of the privilege-defending destroyers of the "democratic ideal," the American Dream "about how anyone can grow up to be president." Wow, I am evil. I thought I was critical of Palin in large part because her ideological positions and concrete policies in Alaska were harmful to ordinary families, and in particular to struggling women and children. But, no, it turns out: if I really cared about those people, I would have loved Palin.

So, just to double down on my snarky elitist ways: Palin and whoever helped her write stuff this weekend are providing me with lots of hilarity concerning the use and abuse of the English language. (Is anyone helping her? If so, memo to Palin: fire him/her immediately.) This isn't just a matter of things said aloud, off the cuff -- the written texts are just as mangled and full of weird constructions and outright errors.* The 4th of July Facebook posting contains several gems such as "I’ve never thought I needed a title before one’s name to forge progress in America." Now, okay, I know no one who still loves Sarah Palin at this point is going to turn on her because she can't make her pronouns agree. And I know Facebook is not the most formal writing context in the world. (Didn't she understand, though, that in the absence of any other info coming out of her camp, this post was going to get quoted extensively in every news outlet in the country? And by the way SarahPAC has still not updated its website, and Palin's own twitters are also still reading like they're being written in some alternate reality where the only decision made was "to not run again." ) Nevertheless -- and maybe I'm just hyper-attuned to this sort of thing because I earn my keep by being picky with freshman prose -- this there-is-no-proofreader-on-the-premises sloppiness gives the impression that things are a bit out of control behind the scenes in Palinland. In the absence of any real information, it's hard to resist looking for meaning in details like this.

Also, can she please stop claiming that she's being "candid"?

I really will shut up about this whole Palin brouhaha soon. I promise. Maybe.

* Yes, the single funniest thing so far has been Meg Stapleton telling Anderson Cooper that "the world is literally her oyster." But despite the jaw-dropping awesomeness of the image this conjures up, it's a mistake pretty much anyone could make speaking aloud.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The burqa and the blogger

I know I've dropped the ball in the last week on continuing to blog about proposals in France to ban the wearing of the burqa. It isn't because the story has died -- there have been a number of interesting developments in France, and also tons of play in the American media, from a Daily Show segment to an op-ed piece in the New York Times by an Egyptian-born Muslim feminist titled "Ban the Burqa." (The writer, Mona Eltahawy, refers to Sarkozy and obviously speaks in light of events there, but she's not just just talking about France -- she seems to be arguing for a ban here in the US, or maybe everywhere.) Some just plain bizarre and fascinating stories have also come out -- check out this fashion piece titled "Abayas get glam revamp from designers in Paris" about couture shows of head-to-toe Muslim women's outer garments that took place in Paris the same week as Sarko's endorsement of a ban on the burqa.

I'm following all this with interest (and occasional dismay), but I feel sort of weary every time I try to rev myself up to write about it. (Like, weary beyond what would be explicable based on the fact that I'm getting married this month and writing a dissertation and have been running around like crazy.) I was totally obsessed with the French controversy about the headscarf in schools back in the early-2000s. For a long time, I just didn't understand what the big deal was. Why were the French so upset, so passionate, so divided, about a few girls covering their hair in class? Why did they care? Why was this the issue that seemed to symbolize so much about the strength of the Republican model to so many people?

Trying to find some answers to those basic, naive questions led me down some surprisingly exciting intellectual paths -- many of them going back, back, back into French history as I worked to make sense of the present. Although I no longer do any academic research or writing directly related to my fascination with the veil controversy, in a number of indirect ways that obsession shaped who I am now as a scholar.

It also shaped my perspective on what it means to study a culture of which one is not a part. The questions I listed here are outsiders' questions -- questions that only someone who wasn't French, who lacked an intuitive sense of the culture, could think to pose.* Now, outsiders' questions can be spectacularly dumb. They can be ignorant, insulting, and silly, and they can miss the point by a million miles. Most of the time, they can be answered by people with insiders' knowledge with three sentences and a roll of the eyes. But I also think that occasionally, our attempts to find answers to them can result in fresh-eyed scrutiny of problems (or even the recognition of something as a "problem" for the first time), and thereby produce insightful and important work or reframe research agendas. France and Germany and Australia and India and China all have plenty of brilliant historians of their own, who operate with far more easy access to the archives and insider knowledge of their countries and regions than we Americans do -- so what can we offer that justifies working on their parts of the world? Outsiders' questions -- "what's the big deal?" "why do people here do this, and not that?" "why doesn't anyone ever talk about x?" -- are one of the few things, in my opinion, that we genuinely have to offer.

All of which is a very roundabout way of getting to the point that, right now, my intense interest in this particular issue in France feels a lot more academic (and, specifically, historical) than polemical. I've got no problem saying that I think this is a needless and deeply wrongheaded policy initiative. But I'm so fascinated by the fact that something like this is happening there at all, and with trying, once again, to understand the variety of historical and contemporary factors that have created this situation, that I just don't feel very inspired to extensively elaborate on what I think the absolutely "correct" position on all this would be. I'm more interested in why it matters so much to many people in France -- that is, in what they understand to be at stake in Muslim women's dress -- than in making the case for why those of them arguing one way are right and those of them arguing another other way are wrong.

So I think my weariness when I contemplated continuing to write about this stuff is because I've been feeling irrationally compelled to engage in punditry about it. But there's actually no need for me to do that -- there's no reason WB can't be a space for posing historical questions, not just critiquing contemporary policies.

So my plan is: (1) to continue posting factual updates and links to interesting coverage or commentary, especially in English, and (2) to also try to provide some historical info that I found useful when I was first stumbling around looking for answers to my "what's the big deal?" questions about the headscarf c.2003. (The stuff that still appears relevant this time around.) Some of that historical context is getting great attention in the English-language media -- Michelle Goldberg's piece in the American Prospect, for instance, which heavily cites Joan W. Scott, does a good job situating the controversy within the context of European countries' struggles with growing Muslim minority populations. One context that I do think has been missing from some of this coverage, though, is much mention of France's colonial history and the ways that Islam figured in it, so I'll focus on that. (If anyone thinks that struggles about the veil, with its immense symbolic weight, were born in the 1980s, go read Frantz Fanon's 1959 "Algeria Unveiled" (pdf) right now.)

A related question/plea: does anyone out there know how many of the Stasi Commission's original 2003 recommendations on laïcité besides the "conspicuous religious symbols in schools" one have been adopted? I would really, really love to know.

* Okay, I realize treating nation-states this way, as if there are 100% clearly defined insiders and outsiders, is problematic. Just bear with it as a device to help me make my grandiose generalizations.

Just wondering...

Does anyone else think it's weird that SarahPAC still (as of about noon today Eastern time) has up on its home page the headline: News Update: Palin Announces No Second Term? Then this links to the full text of her resignation speech, which they also have put under the header Palin Announces No Second Term.

I know it's the holiday weekend and not everyone is a nerd who spends the Fourth of July updating their webpages. Even so, I get the feeling this speaks to some considerable turmoil and confusion behind the scenes. It really looks like this blindsided Palin's supporters.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Farewell, Barricuda

Wow. Sarah Palin's resignation from the governorship of Alaska today was one of the most bizarre, incoherent things I've ever seen from a politician. I've got no special insight into this, and nothing new to add to all the interesting speculation about what on earth is really going on here, but I'm fascinated. What a trainwreck.

The weirdest part, for me, was the way Palin kept on insisting that she was explaining in full her reasons for stepping down, and being deeply honest with the wonderful people of the great state of Alaska. But in fact, despite the ungodly length of the announcement, she offered no remotely satisfactory reasons or explanation at all (okay, there was some mixed-up stuff about keeping your eye on the basket without looking down at the ball, that then slid into some other mixed-up stuff about how, actually, the important thing is to keep your eye on the ball, but I'm pretty sure in sane-people-land none of that counts). There's no substitute for watching the video itself in full, but my favorite summary so far is Gail Collins:

Basically, the point was that Palin is quitting as governor because she’s not a quitter. Or a deceased salmon.

I have no clue why Palin did this, but I feel extremely dubious toward anyone trying to spin it as some kind of shrewd or "brilliant" political chess move. Who can watch that mess of a rambling speech and honestly think it was given as part of a crafty-genius master plan? It strains credibility for folks like Mary Matalin to even try to pretend they see the method behind the madness here.

Best observation I've seen so far on the "why" front comes from hilzoy, who has this to say:

Nothing I know about Sarah Palin leads me to believe that she would give up power voluntarily, let alone for something that is such a long shot, and in such a transparently self-destructive way.

I think that's a smart psychological read on Palin, so while we wait for more substantive info, I'm putting myself in hilzoy's speculative camp: "there's something we don't know about." Looking forward to the return of 24-7 Palin coverage while we try to figure out what it is.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

More "vivid writing" from NPR ombudsman

(Sorry for the extended lapse between posts -- I was completely off the grid for a few days and I'm still scrambling to catch up with everything I missed.)

So -- NPR Ombudsman Alicia C. Shepard continues on her merry way defending NPR's practice of refusing to call torture "torture." Glenn Greenwald (with whom Shepard has refused to have an interview) continues to be all over this, and Shepard's stance has been widely criticized. She's now done a couple of radio interviews with NPR affiliates and will do another on Talk of the Nation today; she also has up a new posting on the NPR website assuring readers/listeners that "Your Voices Have Been Heard."

This post is so outrageous to anyone who cares about (a) the integrity of the English language or (b) the integrity of journalism that I don't even know where to begin. Let's start here:

"I believe that it is not the role of journalists to take sides or to characterize things."
To set aside for a moment the absurdity of the idea that calling clear acts of torture by their proper name is to "take sides,"... um, she believes it is not the role of journalists to "characterize things"? Really? What on earth are they supposed to do instead? What would practicing journalism even mean if it were forbidden to "characterize things"? And anyway, terms like "enhanced interrogation techniques" are also a "characterization" of "things" -- albeit a euphemistic mischaracterization.

Shepard goes on to insist that

"instead of using loaded language -- and the word "torture" is loaded -- I advocate that NPR describe interrogation techniques in detail."
Okay, now I happen to agree that the word "torture" is loaded -- but that is because the act of torture is loaded, and loathsome. It is indeed "loaded" to call torture by its proper name because it requires owning up, head-on, to the sorts of abuses Americans have been responsible for. Calling it something else may duck out of that act of acknowledgement and responsibility-taking, but it does not make the truth go away, any more than it would make the historical fact of slavery in America go away if NPR chose to avoid the "loaded" word "slavery" and refer to the practice as "enhanced labor ownership techniques." (Later in the piece Shepard continues to insist, as she did in her last piece, that "torture" is a "coded" term for acts of torture. It's hard to even coherently criticize the logic here -- like trying to explain why someone is wrong when they claim that black is white. "Torture" is not a coded term for torture. It is its proper name.)

Shepard's main argument for continuing to insist that there's some sort of "debate" about what torture "is" seems to come in this section:

"But no matter how many distinguished groups -- the International Red Cross, the U.N. High Commissioners -- say waterboarding is torture, there are responsible people who say it is not. Former President Bush, former Vice President Cheney, their staff and their supporters obviously believed that waterboarding terrorism suspects was necessary to protect the nation's security. One can disagree strongly with those beliefs and their actions. But they are due some respect for their views, which are shared by a portion of the American public."
By "responsible people" here, I can only assume she means "the very people responsible for instituting policies that systematized torture."

Seriously -- can she not even manage to cite anyone here who was not an architect of the torture regime as the other "side" in this debate? And why are they due some respect for their obviously self-serving and nakedly reality-contradicting "views"? What is respectable about them? What new insight about the nature of the concept of "torture" have Dick Cheney & co. arrived at, thus upending hundreds of years of historical precedent for what constitutes "torture," that demands we treat this as a two-sided "debate" between serious people?

On a related note, for those who still have doubts about whether US agents "tortured," there have been some amazingly rich and detailed posts in the last few days from Greenwald, Marcy Wheeler, and Andy Worthington on deaths resulting from torture. I should have mentioned Wheeler by name in my last post on the different roles of images and documents in anti-torture campaigns -- someone give that woman a medal (or at least contribute to the fundraiser on her website). The ACLU Accountability Project is also incredible.