Sunday, December 11, 2005

From Freedom to Torture – Not in My Back Yard

Up here in the mountains, freedom is a fetish. It is a talisman. We practice it conspicuously and have endless discussions about it. If you turn on local access TV you will see large and bearded men – some quite colorful – reading Tom Paine or Jefferson, discussing Iraq and taxes and compulsively practicing their first-amendment rights. Wearing their liberty conspicuously on their sleeve.

I sometimes think we overdo it. Maybe quiet contemplation would make us better people and more free as it did Ralph Waldo Emerson. The endless seminars in the corner store and at town meetings don’t seem to make us any better than anybody else.

But they do tell us who we are. Go deep into the South and turn on public access TV and you see a lot of local religious programs, which I find very interesting, engaging and exotic. It makes the South richer in the heart perhaps than we are up here and it makes our country a rich and colorful patchwork. But here we talk about taxes, government and freedom as if it is our religion.

One of my out-of-town neighbors made a big mistake a few years back when he said you’re not going to put one of those big campaign signs on your lawn, are you? Maybe there should be a little handbook for the new people who come up here. This is what we do. Freedom is our Core Value and our Creation Myth. It is our Original Tribal Story. The discussion of freedom is our Ritual Tribal Practice.

Once the discussion opens it is taken for granted that there will be freedom. To discuss freedom is in itself to be free. The question then will be how much or how little freedom.

But this week something else happened. My local paper here in the mountains has opened a discussion about torture. This is not and never has been a Yankeeland topic of discussion. Torture is anathema to freedom. And as it is with freedom, once the torture discussion opens, the question is not about torture per se, but how much torture should there be?

Let them discuss torture at the trial of Saddam Hussein or the trial of Communist mass murderer Pol Pot or Ugandan dictator Idi Armin. Not in my backyard.

It is startling to read an apologist for torture lobbying his special agenda in a New England newspaper. We have never experienced this climate before in New England. Perhaps the editors are from elsewhere. They seem to be. Maybe they are from Los Angeles. Perhaps they have become disassociated by not being from anywhere at all and live a life of genre and generational politics without any of the traditional moral bearings linked to regional life and provincial tradition. This is the curse of Hamiltonian federalism. The country becomes a series of special interests vying for power. No one is from anyplace. Jefferson’s federalism develops the whole man and woman – mind, body, spirit, culture, region and religion. But Hamilton is all about influence and lobbying influence with money. States lose their influence, regions lose their character and identity and so do the people in them. Torture is just another unpleasant fish stall in the marketplace of ideas.

The article actually came from the Los Angeles Times. I read this week that Barbara Streisand was dropping her subscription to the LA Times and I could not for my life understand why that or anything else about Barbara Streisand would be of interest to the general public.

Wasn’t she a singer about 40 years ago? I think I remember her in a movie with Kris Kristofferson when I was about 12. I also read somewhere that she is friends with Bill Clinton. But why do I always read about her when she does the most trivial thing, like canceling her subscription to the LA Times?

I don’t even think of Los Angeles as being a real place except for Mexicans working for peanuts illegally outside their own country. Everyone else there is really from New York. But I’m beginning to see now that in a country with spiraling ethical, managment and credibility crises that pervade the press as well as the Bush administration, Barbara Streisand is important. Barbra Streisand gives embedded newspaper and TV people shilling for the government a way to make abominable things appear credible.

Barbara Streisand opposes torture. Surely opposing torture then is a frivolous, silly and lightweight affectation like eating Tofu or sniffing crack cocaine or practicing Transcendental Meditation and only Hollywood Friends-of-Bill, oppose it. So torture must be a good idea, if these nillies oppose it. It is the media’s way of promoting torture.

The op-ed page of the LA Times does have more than its share of nut jobs, propagandists and apparatchiks. I’d drop my subscription too if I didn’t get it free on-line. It’s almost as bad as The Washington Post. (Was anyone really surprised to learn that Bob Woodward’s source for his prize-winning Watergate investigation turned out to be an FBI agent?)

In the LA Times article reprinted in my local paper, Jonah Goldberg, a contributing editor of the National Review asks “What does Hollywood think about torture?” He goes on to cite a variety of Hollywood movie and TV scenes like NYPD, Rules of Engagement and Patriots Game in which cops or soldiers whoop someone and he calls it torture, to illustrate what he sees as a Hollywood point of view as supporting torture.

Therefore, to oppose torture is hypocritical. This cannot be called journalism by any stretch of the imagination.

Hollywood plays a role in shaping culture, but it also reflects it,” he writes. “It affirms and reflects our basic moral sense.”

What utter nonsense. He goes on to say that a recent AP-Ipsos poll showed that about 61 percent of Americans believed torture can be justified in some cases. And not only Americans, but those morally superior Canadians and a huge majority of South Koreans and even – Alors! – those effeminate Frenchmen. Surely it is only Barbara Streisand and Bill Clinton’s hair stylist one or two other Hollywood key grips who oppose it.

So, you see, the discussion as it has entered into the mountains here in New Hampshire is not about torture, but about how much torture.

I can think of nothing that has disgraced Lady Liberty in New York Harbor and the flame of light which America has held cupped in her hands and carried into the world to this new millennium than the allegations of torture and the Bush administration’s desired torture policy. This discussion started with Dick Cheney, who famously took five deferments to dodge the draft when he was called to service. When I was called by the draft at the same time Cheney was, many of my friends took deferments and some outright – like Cheney – dodged the draft. But most of them opposed the war. Cheney is a stranger case, taking deferments into well beyond draft age. I remember a shadow thinking that if I avoided the draft when I was called it would poison my life thereafter. Watching Cheney and the rest of his men, none of whom have ever donned a military uniform when they were called to duty, I think I was right.

It is a shameful, ridiculous and anomalous issue which the Bush administration is pushing. But almost every decent man and woman in Congress is opposing it, following the cue of John McCain and U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, both former military officers.

The United States will never be a nation which condones or promotes torture. Those in the current administration who support it will rise to history in disgrace.

But just in case, through Christmas we in New Hampshire and everywhere in America should recall Jefferson and begin to consider the words of America’s greatest ambassador since Franklin, who in his last days on earth endorsed the idea that the New England states should begin to form their own foreign policy thinking in opposition to the war on Iraq.

George Kennan, writing from his sick bed, told Salon magazine: " . . . the idea of the three American states' ultimate independence [Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine], whether separately or in union, I see nothing fanciful ... I see no other means of ultimate preservation of cultural and societal values that will not only be endangered but eventually destroyed by an endlessly prolonged association [with] the remainder of what is now the U.S.A."