Tigerpapers

Pondering the palimpsest and panoply of the planet.

Archive for the category “Society”

Homage to Veneto

There is no status quo in politics. Things really do fall apart, to quote the overly quoted Yeats. For those of us born after WWII, the seven decades of Pax Europa and subsequent founding of the European Union seemed like a permanent state and a symbol of progress and hope for human solidarity. History, it turns out, really is a cyclical story, where collective human action occasionally succeeds but is often defeated by the other deeper and stronger human impulses: tribalism and greed.

The United States has not been so disunited since 1865. The United Kingdom will not remain united for long (nor, possibly, a kingdom). The European Union, after many expansive years of plenty, is now receding and fighting a losing battle against internal enemies of unity. Despite barbarians outside the gates, the fall of any empire always comes from internal pressure within its borders. In Europe these days, that pressure takes the form of nationalist political parties.

In Spain, the autonomous region of Catalonia held an illegal referendum on independence on 1 October, 2017. In Italy, the regions of Lombardy and Veneto are holding a legal referendum on autonomy on 22 October, 2017. It seems that the first step to independence is greater autonomy, and that is what Lega Nord, the dominant political party in the north of Italy, has been agitating for ever since it was founded in 1991. Though I am not Italian, I have lived in the Veneto region for over 10 years, and this is where I will now focus.

Łiga Veneta (that strange L is supposed to represent elision in the local dialect, though I’ve never heard this elided L at the beginning of a word) is a political party allied with the Lega Nord, both of which ultimately want to secede from the Republic of Italy to form a new nation called Padania. Why would they want to do this? Obviously it’s all about the money. The north of Italy is much wealthier than the south, and supporters of the Lega Nord want to keep all that money for themselves. The central policy platform of the Lega Nord is greater fiscal autonomy and eventual secession. It is a populist right-wing party, strongly opposed to immigration and the EU, allied with like-minded parties in other countries such as the French FN and the Dutch PVV. Just as with these other parties, the Lega Nord are not as popular as they like to appear, and they have never been able to translate their separatist sound and fury into electoral success.

In the 2013 federal elections, they took about 4% of the national popular vote. In the 2014 European Parliament elections, they took about 6%. Even in their regional strongholds of Lombardy and Veneto, they only took 12% and 10% respectively. They have had a bit more success in the regional elections, winning the governorship for both regions, including a record-high 40% in Veneto in 2015. Despite this, the Lega Nord has never won a majority of votes even in its own territory. Part of that is due to the fractious nature of Italian politics and the huge number of political parties appearing on the ballot (I counted over 100 different party “lists” at one point). Maybe a larger part of it is that northern secession is just not as popular as the Lega Nord wants it to be.

Sign advertising the referendum next to my town’s elementary school. It shows the Italian flag torn in half with the intact Venetian flag flying away, an illegal image according to Italian law.

I am writing this one week before the referendum on autonomy, so the results are still in doubt. It seems very probable that the “Yes” vote will win in a landslide, though I’m less sure if there will be a quorum. This is not an election between many different political parties and platforms, but merely a single-issue emotional appeal to the citizens of Lombardy and Veneto to “take control of their history and their future”. A few days ago, I noticed an elderly Italian man stuffing papers in my mailbox, going from house to house on foot doing the same throughout my small town. I thought it was probably a fundraiser for a church event or advertising for the town’s upcoming chestnut festival. Almost everyday mailboxes are stuffed with brochures for supermarkets or other local businesses, but 100% of the time these are distributed by African or Asian immigrants (who probably do this work 12 hours a day for a pittance, all so that those reams of wasted paper can go straight to the bin), not by retirees. When I opened the box, I found a well-made, colorful, 25-page pamphlet supporting the “Yes” vote, full of statistics and other propaganda.

The pamphlet enjoins “The Venetian People” to “rewrite its history” and finishes with the slogan, in Venetian dialect, “Vote Now, or Shut Up Forever.” Catchy. I’m doubtful that the individual tax burden will relent if Veneto becomes autonomous. In fact, the whole referendum seems like a victory for propaganda rather than actual change to the status quo. Unlike the illegal Catalonia independence vote, the Lombardy and Veneto referendum for autonomy is based around a weakly worded question, and even the results would have to be voted on for approval by the full Italian Parliament afterwards. The question appearing on the ballot is: “Do you want the Veneto Region to be given other particular forms and conditions of Autonomy?” Not very specific, to say the least.

Here are the highlights from the pamphlet, all resembling mytho-historical propaganda rather than facts, and none of which seem remotely relevant to the current political or economic situation in Italy:

  • the Veneto civilization is older than the Romans, with foundations in the 13th century B.C., fighting with the Trojans against the Greeks (shouldn’t need much commentary, but my Master’s Degree in Ancient Greek and Roman History gives me reason to be skeptical of this one)
  • the @ symbol was invented by Venetian merchants for commerical reasons (impressive!)
  • Federico Faggin, a scientist from Vicenza, invented the world’s first microprocessor (Faggin was actually my neighbor in one of the apartments I used to rent in Vicenza overlooking the magnificent Basilica Palladiana; I’m doubtful that he supports the referendum despite being named–he has lived mostly in America for the last 50 years, has American citizenship, and received a medal from President Obama in 2009)
  • the American Constitution was inspired by the laws of the Venetian Republic, and Benjamin Franklin entertained himself in Venice for almost a year (almost as impressive as the @ symbol!)
  • the Venetian Republic lasted 1100 years (I’ll concede historical accuracy here, even if “Republic”, just like the earlier Roman variety, meant something more like “oligarchy”, and by the time Napoleon put an end to it the “Serenissima” had been in decline for two centuries)
  • in October 1866 the Veneto became Italian because of a fraudulent referendum, which then caused widespread hunger and forced the people to emigrate to all parts of the world (tendentious and overly simplified; after the Austro-Prussian war, Veneto was passed from Austria to France, who passed it directly to the new Kingdom of Italy according to prior agreements; Italy was unified by force and fortune, not by popular votes)
  • the first state to abolish slavery was the Venetian Republic in the 16th century (difficult to confirm; cherry-picking from a long and complex history)
  • Elena Cornaro, a 17th-century philosopher, was the first woman in the world to receive an academic degree (no qualms with this one; too bad most Venetians or humans today are not more like the highly intelligent philosopher herself)
  • the bells ring at noon to celebrate the Venetian victory over the Turks at the 1571 Battle of Lepanto, which stopped the Muslim advance into Christian Europe (the Venetians single-handedly won the victory with only a bit of help from the Kingdom of Spain, Naples, Sicily, Papal States, Genoa, Tuscany, and a few other friends like England and the Holy Roman Empire; also, this plays into the current Islamophobic narrative of European right-wing parties such as the Lega Nord)
  • the Venetian flag is the only flag in the world with the word “peace” (the actual Latin translation says “Peace to you Mark, my evangelist”; seems similar to when Muslims say “peace be upon him” when they name Muhammed; we could also add that this flag is the only one in the world with a flying lion–impressive!)
  • Veneto has the highest number of volunteers in Italy (can’t find any source data on this; even if accurate it probably counts food-selling volunteers at the ubiquitous town feasts more than anything else)

Yes, that was fun to deconstruct, but propaganda and manipulative emotional appeal for political gain is something that I am always happy to fight against (even if I will probably always be on the losing side). The rest of the pamphlet is a series of tables and cherry-picked statistics basically stating the same thing over and over: that Veneto contributes more money to the federal government than it receives in public services. What a terrible tragedy! A relatively rich region subsidizes other poorer regions in a modern nation-state. It would appear that there is no poverty whatsoever in Veneto, and all its problems comes from the federal government (or immigrants!). This is a widespread opinion among well-off citizens in every developed country; it is the mentality of self-interest over altruism; tribalism over human solidarity.

The last part of the pamphlet takes much time and care to compare Veneto with the Autonomous Province of Bolzano, also known as Alto-Adige or Südtirol, the German-speaking, formerly Austrian region ceded to Italy after World War One. One table shows how Alto-Adige keeps 50% of tax revenue for local administration while Veneto keeps only 24%. One point of emphasis is also that education is completely managed locally in Alto-Adige while in Veneto the federal government manages 70% of the budget. There is no reason given for why this is good for Alto-Adige or bad for Veneto. One obvious point is that Alto-Adige is 100% German-speaking and has always been awarded special autonomous status because of its history and culture (along with four other Italian regions with similar situations: Sicily, Sardinia, Fruili-Venezia Guilia, and Val d’Aosta). I have spent a lot of time in schools across Veneto and I can tell you that a huge number of teachers come from the south of Italy (Veneto has a relatively low educational level and the Southern regions are relatively high, probably because there is no work in the South so more people attend university and get advanced degrees). Many residents of Veneto in general also have roots in other parts of Italy or other countries, especially Romania, Morocco, Moldova, and Albania, since there is more work to be found in here.

One of the main platforms of the Lega Nord and Łiga Veneta is xenophobic anti-immigration, but given the history of Italian emigration (including huge numbers of Venetians, who mostly fled to Brazil, Argentina, and Australia) it seems myopic and hypocritical to use immigration as a rallying cry. There are plenty of racists in Italy, just like every other country in the world, and the presence of more dark-skinned people on their streets and in their schools and companies has scared the natives. This is unfortunately a universal trait in humans that can only be expunged with education, travel, empathy, and an open mind, many of which are sorely lacking in Italy, Europe, America, and the World.

My main question regarding autonomy, secession, and independence is this: why is a smaller political unit necessarily better than a larger one? It seems like flawed logic to me that any given region with mostly arbitrary borders would automatically and by definition be better at governance than a nation-state with mostly arbitrary borders. Why not autonomy or independence for every province, every city, town, village, and house? On the other hand, why isn’t every world region divided into European Union-like entities that together would make up a single world government? The contigencies and accidents of history have determined our present political circumstances. If Princip’s pistol had misfired, if Marshal Ney had taken Quatre Bras earlier, if Ali Pasha hadn’t missed his coffee before Lepanto, if Hektor hadn’t killed Patroklos outside the gates of Troy, history might have turned out differently and there might have been no Veneto, no Italy, and no EU.

Superstrada Pedemontana Veneta

The point is that history and culture are not the same thing as governance. Appealing to history and culture in the name of more fiscal autonomy is incoherent. I see no evidence that an autonomous or independent Veneto government would be any more efficient or less corrupt than the obviously inefficient and corrupt Italian government. On the other hand, I need only to mention Veneto President Luca Zaia’s project of a new highway called the Superstrada Pedemontana Veneta to make the opposite argument. It is an unnecessary highway, that no one asked for, being built across the previously beautiful foothills south of Monte Grappa and the Asiago plateau. It has created a hellscape of endless trucks, dust, and cement where once all you could see were cherry orchards and castles. It is so enormously behind schedule and over budget that it may never be completed. If so, it will be financed by increased taxes on local residents, followed by the additional slap in the face of making it a toll road for the same residents. A recent collapsed tunnel under the hills near my town is the latest construction setback for this environmental and economic disaster. This, along with policies favorable to corrupt, Mafia-driven cementification, enormous banking scandals involving the Popular Bank of Vicenza and Veneto Bank, and the super expensive and useless MOSE flood prevention project surrounding Venice, proves that regional government is no more efficient, capable, or trustworthy than federal government.

Absent oppression or persecution, I see no justification for nationalistic separatist movements. That is why the propagandists of these campaigns, including the Brexiteers, rely on disinformation as well as natural human greed and tribalistic tendencies. There is a difference between Kurdish or South Sudanese independence, and that of Catalonia, Scotland, Lombardy, or Veneto. There is nothing wrong with being a proud patriot or even being appreciative of one’s history and culture; there is something wrong with being a nationalist who bends and misuses that history to suit exclusivistic political aims. The best thing to do is to help one’s country and everyone in it to succeed, rather than retreating into a fantasy world of mythical history and no taxes. What’s needed in Italy, Europe, and the whole world is not more division and greed, but more openness, activism, and human solidarity.

Advertisements

Exit West and Dark at the Crossing: Two Novels of Syrian Refugees

It has been a long six and a half years since the Arab Spring, the popular movement of early 2011 that toppled dictators and challenged regimes across the Middle East. While Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt have since then followed different political paths trending either upwards, flat, or downwards respectively, Syria has virtually fallen off a cliff. Over six years of constant war between four major belligerents have left the country with perhaps half a million dead and at least two thirds of its people displaced. The formation of Daesh created a new terroristic boogey-man for Westerners that somehow distracted from the consistently cruel inhumanity of the Assad regime.

Meanwhile, the worst refugee crisis since World War II continues unabated. The neighbors of Syria–Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq–have taken in most of the refugees. The paltry number of victims that have made it into Europe or North America has prompted a xenophobic and Islamophobic backlash resulting in a resurgence of far-right parties. In such a world of hard-heartedness, it is often art that helps us rise above the quotidian news mill and find shelter in stories of compassion, love, and our shared humanity. Two new novels by two very different authors have attempted to tell the stories about Syria and its refugees that we need to hear: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, and Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman.

Exit West, shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize, is the fourth novel of Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid. It tells the story of Saeed and Nadia, focusing on how their relationship begins in an unnamed city (presumably Aleppo) before and during a civil war. The first third of the novel follows a straight-forward narrative arc of the main characters’ increasing desperation in the face of the violence surrounding them. Nadia, independent and rebellious by nature, agrees to leave her flat and move in with Saeed after his mother is killed in her driveway by a stray bullet. Hamid describes the life-altering horror of trying to survive in an urban warzone: “One’s relationship to windows now changed in the city. A window was the border through which death was possibly most likely to come. Windows could not stop even the most flagging round of ammunition: any spot indoors with a view of the outside was a spot potentially in the crossfire. Moreover the pane of a window could itself become shrapnel so easily, shattered by a nearby blast, and everyone had heard of someone or other who had bled out after being lacerated by shards of flying glass.”

As the fighting escalates, there are rumors of doors around the city that transport you to other places, the kind of desperate superstition that takes hold when true hope for a reprieve is nearly lost. Eventually, Saeed and Nadia decide to pay an agent to lead them to one of these doors; they give him their money and don’t hear back from him for weeks, the victims of con artist. Until he does actually call back and lead them to an bombed out dental clinic with a pitch-black opening where the supply closet should be. They both walk through this portal and find themselves on a beach in Mykonos, Greece. The reader also suddenly finds herself in a new type of book that is no longer realistic narrative but Borgesian speculative fiction. It reminds me of last year’s Booker Prize winner The Sellout, by Paul Beatty (my review here), in which straight-forward story of slave plantation brutality opened up to a literal Underground Railroad in which the characters ride from state to state.

The novel changes focus from survival in a war zone to survival as a refugee in a foreign land. After a bit of bartering and wandering between the numerous refugee camps on the Greek island, the pair are helped by a local to another escape door, this one landing them in London. They find themselves in an abandoned but curiously well-appointed condiminium with plenty of food and soft towels. Hamid does not ignore details like the pleasure of a long, hot shower after weeks of living in a dusty tent. Soon, numerous other refugees from all over the third world start filling the house. It turns out that the system of transport portals is not limited to Syria and Europe. Hamid writes: “That summer it seemed to Saeed and Nadia that the whole planet was on the move, much of the global south headed to the global north, but also southerners moving to other southern places and northeners moving to other northern places.”

As you would expect, the locals do not like the presence of millions of new residents inhabiting their cities, and a violent nativist movement begins to isolate and attack them relentlessly. Unexpectedly, an eventual accord is reached and people begin to live in relative peace and start a new socialistic society. During their final move to the Bay Area in California, the same pattern repeats. Hamid makes an allusion to the historic promise to freed slaves in America in this passage: “In exchange for their labor in clearing terrain and building infrastructure and assembling dwellings from prefabricated blocks, migrants were promised forty meters and a pipe: a home on forty square meters of land and a connection to all the utilities of modernity.”

Throughout the novel there are short episodes of unrelated and often unnamed characters in the same alternate universe, following the tone of the main narrative by telling stories of how other humans are dealing with the radical change of free movement. In one, a Japanese man ominously follows a pair a young Filipinas in a dark alley; in another an elderly Dutch man meets a Brazilian artist and moves to Rio; in yet another an elderly English lady who has never left her mansion watches as society changes around her while she stays in place. As Hamid writes: “We are all migrants through time.”

In Exit West Hamid has created a convincing and uplifting portrait of what the world could become if humans evolve ever so slightly out of their instinctive tribalism. The author is in fact an avowed optimist with an interesting biography, which he discusses in his collection of personal and political essays called Discontent and Its Civilizations. The titles of some of these essays include “When Updike Saved Me from Morrison (and Myself)”, “Get Fit with Haruki Murakami”, “Nationalism Should Retire at Sixty-Five”, and “Why Drones Don’t Help”. The relatively sanguine attitude he conveys in this quote, for example the picture he presents of modern Pakistan, is indeed a refreshing view in an increasingly unoptimistic world: “But if globalization is capable of holding out any fundamental promise to us, any temptation to go along with its havoc, then surely that promise ought to be this: we will be more free to invent ourselves. In that country, this city, in Lahore, in New York, in London, that factory, this office, in those clothes, that occupation, in wherever it is we long for, we will be liberated to be what we choose to be.” He is also the author of a gripping, enigmatic novella called The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which I highly recommend and which can be read in a few hours (and has even been made into a film that I have not yet seen).

Elliot Ackerman’s second novel, Dark at the Crossing, is shortlisted for the National Book Award. It is the story of Haris Abadi, an Iraqi former interpreter who wants to cross the Turkish border to fight in Syria. Haris gained American citizenship in return for services rendered from years of loyally working with Special Forces in Iraq (a plausible but unlikely occurrence in real-life). He was able to bring his sister along to his new life in Michigan, but he loses a sense of purpose for his own life after she gets engaged and he does not have to support her studies anymore. He travels to south-eastern Turkey to fight for a cause in Syria. It turns out that neither he nor the readers ever get a strong sense of what exactly that cause is. A large part of the narrative involves waiting in Turkey trying to cross the border, and flashbacks to his time working with SF.

The only American character (other than the naturalized protagonist) was one of the SF team members named Jim, who seemed to be a stand-in for the muscle-bound, arrogant, secretly sensitive, not-as-smart-as-he-thinks American soldier trope. This is similar to Ackerman’s previous novel, Green on Blue, in which a mysterious CIA operator known as Mr. Jack is the only American among a cast of Afghans. In flashback scenes, we see Jim involve himself again and again in Haris the interpreter’s life, including drunk midnight confessionals in his tent. Jim obviously meets an untimely death, and the guilt Haris harbors is part of the reason for his quest.

During the long period of waiting to cross the border, Haris is taken in by a Syrian refugee couple, Amir and Daphne. Educated and sophisticated, they were among the first revolutionary protesters before the civil war started. Now their lives and relationship is stuck in place as Amir wants to move West and start a new life, but Daphne cannot abandon the dead daughter she thinks is still alive in their old village. As Haris becomes entwined with these two and other seedier characters, an opening is found to enter Syria, and their journey together continues inexorably, bewitchingly towards its destined climax.

Ackerman was a Marine Corps officer for eight years, serving multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. His first novel, Green on Blue (review in The Wrath-Bearing Tree here), was a remarkable tale of an Afghan boy’s gradual rise through the ranks of militancy in War on Terror-era Waziristan. In fact, it was riveting reading for me because it is set exactly in the Afghan province of Paktika in which I also spent two years deployed to Forward Operating Bases, specifically around Bermel, Shkin, Gomal, and Orgun. Ackerman has also published a short story in the veteran’s anthology The Road Ahead (to which I am also a contributor), and now lives in Turkey.

One of the greatest benefits of literature is that it can build empathy for people whose lives you could not previously imagine (a theme I discussed in my essay Why Black Literature Matters). I have visited the western part of Turkey, but never the eastern borders of Syria and Iraq, nor have I personally met any Syrians or Iraqis. The only Syrian characters I have previously encountered in my reading are the types of conniving, cultured, expatriot merchants that occasionally dot the pages of a Conrad, Durrell, Naipaul, or Greene. With their characters and their stories that let the reader experience the lives of others, Hamid and Ackerman, like all great authors, show how ultimately we all share the same hopes and fears, and that our humanity defines us more than our nationality.

Yes, We Tortured Some Folks

(published originally at Wrath-Bearing Tree December 2014)

By now everyone in the world has heard about the recently released U.S. Senate Torture Report, which details the shocking and mind-numbing inhumanity of the torture program sanctioned by the Bush administration and operated by the C.I.A. after 9/11. With the appearance of this new report, there has been an enormous amount of press coverage and commentary in America and around the world, which must be considered a victory for freedom of speech, press, and information. One representative example of good reporting on this case is this recent New York Times article. The more we understand and discuss this issue, the better we can avoid ever repeating the same crimes* (I use this word rather than the more euphemistic “mistakes”, as in the common newspeak example “mistakes were made”, as can be seen in the C.I.A. director’s unrepentent rebuttal to the report).

The issue of torture is one that has troubled me for some time. At a press conference last year, American President Barack Obama uttered the phrase “We tortured some folks.” While this acknowledgement was a small step in the right direction in admitting the possible existence of responsibility and guilt in the highest levels of government, it is troubling in its own ways. First of all, the phrasing itself is incongruous, with the transitive verb “torture” being followed by the unlikely direct object phrase “some folks”. Obama has most likely been advised by his speaking coaches to use more down-to-earth vocabulary like “some folks” in order to seem less “professorial” and more simple “middle American” (in America, there is a prevalent view that the best way to win votes is to appear as normal and mediocre as possible). Anyway, “some folks” is not a phrase that should follow “tortured”. I have enough trouble imagining people being tortured who may be actual terrorists without also having to imagine the torture of average innocent “folks”.

The second problem with Obama is that he apparently tried to stop, delay, or water-down the Senate Torture Report for reasons slightly mystifying. Obama famously cancelled his predecessor’s torture program in his first week in office and has often said how he disagrees with what was done (notice the use of the passive voice). The only reason he would stand in the way of this report is respectful fear of the intelligence community, namely the C.I.A. And I don’t blame him–the C.I.A. scares me a lot more than any actual terrorist organization. Even as an American citizen who is ostensibly “protected” by the C.I.A. because of my natural born citizenship, I am still somewhat fearful of attempting to openly criticize this organization by describing in greater detail its long criminal history. Its crimes are so widespread over the course of its entire seven-decade history that the only shocking thing is that more people in America do not know or care anything about what is done by such powerful and unaccountable organizations in the name of their security. In fact, in many countries in the world, where the C.I.A. has supported assassinations, regime change, torture, and state-sponsored violence, it is quite strongly believed to be an evil terrorist organization in itself, but in America people still believe the old lie that it protects Americans’ safety and interests. A revealing fact is that for the first time ever the director of the C.I.A., currently John Brennan, has testified in front of a Senate hearing. In a long and sordid history, the governing body overseeing this organization has never resorted to a public investigative hearing until now. What we do know is that not only is this one of the most unsupervised and counter-productive of publicly-funded American agencies, but also one of the most flagrantly dishonest, with lies covering up deceptions covering up misinformation. No matter if it is spinning counter-intelligence abroad or testifying in front of elected lawmakers, we can be sure that the lies run deep. The proper thing to do would be to disband the C.I.A. and start over with a smaller and less problematic intelligence agency.

The details of the torture report, which is 6000 pages in length, of which 500 are declassified, are so harrowing and brutal that I do not want to mention them here. They have been widely reported and the readers are encouraged to look into it further if you have not already. Or just take my word for it that it is worse than you can imagine. There is something about torture that is more emotional and horrifying than anything else we can imagine. Thinking about humans, even ones possibly guilty of some crime or another, being tortured by other humans makes my stomach turn and makes me want to break down and cry. Thinking that it was done repeatedly to humans who sometimes committed no crime at all is too much to bear. Accordingly, this article is being written in a haphazard way, guided by my emotions and my wandering train of thought rather than in well-ordered paragraphs. In his book Contingency, Irony, Solidarity, Richard Rorty often repeats the claim of Judith Shklar that “liberals are the people who think that cruelty is the worst thing we do…the willful inflicting of physical pain on a weaker being in order to cause anguish and fear…or the willful infliction of a certain kind of nonphysical pain called humiliation.” That quote has stuck with me, not because of its political context, but because of its ethical ramifications.

For years after 9/11, we heard about how torture was necessary if it allowed us to stop “the next attack”. The word torture was never used–it was defined as “enhanced interrogation techniques” for obvious euphemistic reasons–and the media never challenged the new fear narrative that gripped the country. The use of language can be a powerful tool in the hands of media and politicians, and they knew that there would be less concern about something labelled “enhanced interrogation techniques” than there would be for the much more visual and visceral “torture”. We could similarly rebrand the death penalty as “enhanced state-run life-taking procedure”, or war as “enhanced state-sanctioned attack and defense system”. In this kind of Orwellian newspeak, meaning is both hidden and meaningless at the same time. It is no coincidence that TV programs like “24” were popular in these years. I never watched it, but I am aware of its false glorification and justification of the use of torture because the soldiers around me during my deployments were often prone to become obsessed with certain TV shows and binge watch an entire series in a week. The truth, which we can see clearly now that the fear has passed and some of our rationality has slowly come creeping back, is that torture never stopped the next attack, and that there never was and never will be any legal justification for torture.

Even now, after the release of this report, the torture apologists have crawled out of their caves insisting on the same lies, as though even had all of this torture stopped a single attack, it would have been worth it. It is telling that cowardly men like former Vice President Dick Cheney (who avoided military service at all costs) refuse to acknowledge regret for the black tide of illegal war and immoral acts they duped the country into, yet men like John McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, remain firmly against it due to hard-lived experience and certainty of its inefficacy and immorality. It is also troubling that no less than a Supreme Court justice has justified the case for torture using the ticking time bomb situation (Antonin Scalia’s Case for Torture) and saying things like “I think it’s facile for people to say, ‘Oh, torture is terrible.'” Yes, it’s facile because it is terrible, and illegal, and immoral.

The philosophy of utilitarianism derived from Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill is a useful and interesting moral calculus for certain types of situations. In certain cases, the best thing to do is the one in which the most number of people will benefit or be happy. We can stretch this even into financial considerations of how to best spend money in a way which will benefit the most number of people. This should be considered one tool among many to weigh the merits and demerits of a particular decision, but not a hard and fast ethical rule. Doing so leads us into any number of thought experiments where we are playing with human lives and trying to decide the most moral thing to do. Utilitarianism is one form of consequentialism, which basically says that the benefit of an action is decided by its consequences, and not in the action itself. Thus, with the famous trolley car thought experiment, we are asked whether we will shift a runaway train onto a track where it will kill only one man instead of five. Though some will disagree, these types of problems are a proverbial “bridge too far” in the field of ethics. Once human life is involved, rather than mere lifestyle or economic questions, the equation changes. It becomes more emotional, more blurry, less calculable. If I was asked to kill one man to save five, or even to save 100, I am not sure that I could do it. That is exactly the situation presented in John Fowles’ book, The Magus. The Nazis on a Greek island (it is also no coincidence that Nazis and torture are our two ubiquitous subjects for testing the extreme limits of various ethical positions) gave the character a choice of shooting three men in order to save the village, but he could not pull the trigger. When we are asked to do the dirty deed, or to unjustly take human life, something changes in the consequentialist calculus and the ends no longer justify the means.

In the system of ethics devised by Immanuel Kant, “duty” ethics, a man is called to do his duty by acting so that his action will make a universal law. This so-called categorical imperative calls for us to never treat someone as a means to an end, but rather an end in himself. There are holes in this line of thinking, especially that it is too categorical (for example, Kant would have us tell the truth even if a lie protected a loved one from harm), and that what a man wills can differ from person to person (for example, what was willed by the Nazis into being universal law is not what we want to represent our infallible sense of morality). What I take from Kant’s system is his dignity for humanity and for each person existing as an end rather than a means. This is important. Paradoxically, torture cannot be justified in a Kantian system of ethics since it violates personal sovereignty and dignity, yet National Socialism could be justified if it was willed into being as the representation of universal law by a society.

Back to modern times, this brief synopsis was intended to give some philosophical perspective, but I must insist, against certain consequentialist philosophers, some film and TV producers, and some politicians that there is no situation in which torture can be justified. Ever. A situation will not arise in which torture is necessary for any reason. There is no ticking time bomb. There are no lives to save. It is all dissimulation in order to maintain some sense of power and control by the torturer. “The torturer”, in this case, must be understood to represent not America as a whole, but a certain specific regime that controlled America for some years before losing democratic election. Since torture is not only immoral in all circumstances, but also illegal according to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and many other national and international laws, someone should rightfully be held accountable for such crimes. In comparable historical contexts, I would not hold the modern countries of Chile and Argentina accountable for the crimes and torture inflicted by the authoritarian regimes of Pinochet and Videla, to name just two examples; the responsibility is of those who held power and made decisions first and foremost. On the other hand, these countries renounced the crimes of their dictator regimes and prosecuted anyone who was involved whenever possible. This raises the question of prosecuting members of the Bush administration and the C.I.A. leadership for crimes against humanity. It is an open question in which I will leave to the legal authorities and scholars whether it is legally possible or politically wise, but I think it is safe to say that the torture report is a step in the right direction, but seeing high-ranking abusers of power on trial would be an even more powerful statement than a partially declassified report.

It is also troubling that while Obama has refused to prosecute anyone for admitted crimes, saying things like “it’s important to look forward and not backwards” (do they ever say that about any other situation where someone committed a crime?), the only person who has been prosecuted in the C.I.A. torture case is the person who leaked information about it to the press. His name is John Kiriakou, and he is currently serving a 30-month prison sentence for leaking information about illegal activity, while the illegal activity itself goes unpunished.

Lastly, I would like to briefly speculate on the principles behind the practice of torture which, in my opinion, comes from the corrupt desire to exert complete power and control over another living being. One of the best books I’ve read that deals with torture is the novel Waiting for the Barbarians by Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee. Bertrand Russell, in his 1938 book Power: A New Social Analysis, attempted to define a new sociology based on power being the supreme guiding principle of social science. He says, “The ultimate power of the Law is the coercive power of the State. It is the characteristic of civilised communities that direct physical coercion is (with some limitations) the prerogative of the State, and the Law is a set of rules according to which the State exercises this prerogative in dealing with its own citizens”. Here, we can understand his “direct physical coercion” to include not only torture but police brutality, war (including the violence it brings to combatants and non-combatants alike), and the death penalty. Most of these things are done legally because it is the prerogative of the state which makes its own laws. Torture, though illegal according to the U.N. Charter of Human Rights and many international treaties, is the only form of violence which is exercised merely as a form of total control over an individual. This key characteristic of totalitarianism comes from the corrupting influence of unchecked power. As Dostoyesky (a former prisoner) once said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” While this quote could easily apply to modern-day America, we could paraphrase it by saying “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by how those in power treat those without power.” If the answer is to torture with impunity, then we are no longer living in civilization but in hell.

The Death Penalty and State-Sanctioned Violence

(published originally at Wrath-Bearing Tree June 2015)

A confluence of recent events has led to the practice of capital punishment in America becoming a matter of greater public interest and debate for the first time in several decades. Foremost among these events is the trial and sentencing of the younger of two brothers responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing. Another is the undiminished zeal by some state authorities to execute men whose guilt or mental competence was less than firmly established, leading to grassroots protests and calls for clemency. Yet another development is the European boycott of lethal injection drug manufacture, leading some desperate states to resort to more traditional methods of execution such as hanging and the firing squad. In this essay I will lay out some reasons why I believe it is about time America followed in the footsteps of every other developed society on Earth and had this debate as well.

Despite Mark Twain’s memorable quip against the usefulness of statistics, I will open my argument with a few well-chosen figures to put things into perspective. America is the only country in the western hemisphere to use capital punishment, and out of 34 industrialized democratic countries, America is one of three to still use the practice (along with Japan and Singapore); in fact, there are only 26 of 208 countries worldwide that actively practice capital punishment. America has executed 1408 people since 1976, when the Supreme Court’s temporary moratorium was ended (The story of the first person executed after this 4-year hiatus was chronicled in Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song). There are currently over 3000 people on death row; even though African-Americans make up only 12% of the total population, 41% of those on death row are African-American. To put the total prison population in perspective, America has only 4% of the world’s population but has a full 25% of the world’s prisoners–well over 2 million, mostly for non-violent, especially drug-related offenses. 31 states and the Federal Government currently use capital punishment, and the average time spent on death row going through the appeals process and waiting for execution is around 15 years, all of which is passed by the prisoner locked away in a small concrete cell with virtually no human contact. The Federal Government has executed 3 people since 1976; the Oklahoma City bombing terrorist was one of them, and the surviving Boston Marathon bombing terrorist would presumably be the next one. Public opinion has generally been strongly in favor of the death penalty in America, but a 2010 poll showed that when people were asked to choose between capital punishment and life imprisonment without parole, the results were 49% versus 46% respectively. As more Americans become aware of the problems with capital punishment as it becomes more of a public issue, I have no doubt that those figures will begin to reverse (case in point: last month the Nebraska State Legislature overrode the governor’s veto to end the practice of capital punishment in that state).

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was a 19-year-old college student at the time he collaborated with his older brother in carrying out the Boston Marathon bombing. There is no question of his guilt and need to be punished harshly. The verdict of the death penalty, however, is highly questionable at best. Massachusetts is one of a minority of states which do not practice capital punishment and where the majority of citizens are opposed to it. As an act of domestic terrorism, Tsarnaev was not on trial by the state of Massachusetts; rather, he was tried by the Federal Government, which does follow the practice, even if very rarely.

Why, then, was the trial not moved outside of the jurisdiction of Massachusetts to anywhere else in the country, given the difficulty of an impartial jury in a state rocked by such a traumatic and emotional event? Supporters of the death penalty argue that it brings closure and justice to the victims, but this case is far from over and this much-sought closure, however bloodthirsty and ultimately unsatisfying to the victim’s family, could be decades away. Whereas a life sentence without parole is a cut-and-dry affair with little room for doubt that justice is being served, the death penalty almost always means that the full appeals process will be used, meaning that trials and sentencing can carry on for years and years with no resolution.

This is where Tsarnaev is heading, so even if you are someone who will feel better seeing him executed, you have a long wait ahead of you, as his lawyers will fight the death penalty to the very end. Would you not rather find justice was sufficiently served by putting him away for life in a maximum security prison with little to no human contact or sunlight for the rest of his life, and never think of him again? To me, both cases are barbaric, but only the death penalty gives the power of life and death to the state. This is a power we must ask ourselves if we are ready to give up.

Tsarnaev was by all accounts an intelligent and not abnormal 19-year-old university student who was radicalized by his older brother and the family and cultural circumstances he grew up in. I cannot imagine the horror of life behind bars in the type of maximum security prison I described above, but that is where he should go to live out whatever life he will have there. To my mind, this is the farthest step that the state can take in the pursuit of punishment and justice. The moral authority of handing out death penalties is not one that should have ever been in the hands of the state. Christians and Jews should remember that even the vengeful God of the Old Testament reserved the right to punishment: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay”–a decree repeated as the memorable epigraph to Anna Karenina by the notable pacifist author Tolstoy.

Tolstoy himself fought in the service of the Russian Empire against the Muslim Tatars and wrote about the violent wars between the Christians and Muslims in the Caucasus region that have continued for at least 200 years. Tsarnaev’s family come from the Caucasus area of Chechnya which has been violently repressed for decades (centuries, in fact) by Russia. To understand is not to excuse, but every act of violence only perpetuates future violence. From such a background, it is not surprising that Tsarnaev could be convinced to continue the bankrupt path of jihad against real or perceived aggressors against his homeland or his religion; the tragedy is that this path was chosen over another one in which such a young man could have finished his studies and found a peaceful and prosperous way out of the maze of terror that he saw around him.

His execution by the U.S. Federal Government will do nothing to break the cycle of violence of such young men, and could in all likelihood further incite the hatred and search for vengeance for those poor, misguided young men around the world who see America and Western society as an evil target to be fought. In one sense, he would become one more martyr in an ongoing conflict in which there are already more than enough of these to fan the flames of extremism. Like I said before, the case is not closed and you will be seeing it in the news for years to come during the lengthy and likely controversial appeals process that will ultimately decide Tsarnaev’s fate. If capital punishment were not an option (as would be the case if he were tried by the state of Massachusetts, for example), the case would already be over, he would be sent to languish in prison for the rest of his days, and few who weren’t directly affected by his crimes would ever think of him again.

Furthermore to my thesis, even if we grant that the state or federal government has authority over life and death and can execute people whenever they see fit, there is then the question of where to draw the line in who is eligible for execution and how it can be guaranteed that they are truly guilty. The issues this raises should give us just as much pause as whether or not capital punishment is valid at all. There could even exist a strong case for the use of capital punishment (though I disagree), but a situation in which it could not be used in practice because the legal and justice system lacks the ability to prove its worth. I doubt that anyone (with the possible exception of the former governor of Texas) will feel assured that justice is done in 100% of court cases; that is, no one contends that human error, whether by state-appointed lawyers, juries, or judges, never occurs.

We must also dismiss the possibility that racism or other forms of discrimination never take place in the trials and sentencing of millions of accused offenders per year in America. Intuitional and anecdotal evidence is more than enough to raise doubt that pure justice exists in America. If there is the chance that even a single innocent person is found guilty, surely others who share my idealistic and humanistic love of justice will feel that there is no way the death penalty can ever be a real punitive option in a just society.

The fact is that hundreds of convicts have been released after years or decades of imprisonment due to faulty charges, incompetent lawyers, or biased juries, and most likely thousands more sit pining away in dark cells for crimes that they did not commit. Their only hope is that friends, family, and seekers of justice will one day shine the light on their case and win them the freedom they deserve, along with a hefty financial reimbursement. To those who were put to death, no such recourse or reprieve exists, and it is more than likely that no one will ever even know that they may have been innocent. They will never have the chance to clear their name, since it is not in the state’s interest to conduct or even allow inquiries into a case after the execution has been carried out. There are many notable cases in recent memory of just such a thing, especially the 2004 execution of Cameron Willingham by the state of Texas and the 2011 execution of Troy Davis by the state of Georgia.

Such cases also shed light on the power wielded by states, in the form of the governor, whose word in these cases is law, and whose power to stay executions also means that they single-handedly hold the power over life and death. The callous disregard toward troubling death row cases expressed recently by the governors of Texas, Oklahoma, and Georgia, to name only three, should be more than enough to cast doubt not only on the state’s moral authority to kill fellow humans, but that such authority will even be used with the highest respect, consideration, and humanity that it deserves. Instead, we witnessed then-Governor Rick Perry of Texas on the Republican Party debate stage in 2012 saying that he had zero doubt that any of the 278 executions he personally approved and oversaw while in office were less than fully just (despite the prominent case of Willingham mentioned above and the 2014 execution of severely mentally ill convict Scott Panetti). His successor as governor of that state, Greg Abbott, enthusiastically ignored the pleas of the U.S. Justice Department to grant even a temporary stay of execution to a Mexican citizen in 2014, one of over 50 cases in Texas where Mexican citizens have been punished or even executed without having been provided legal counsel by the Mexican consulate.

My final point is about the barbarity, and thus unconstitutionality, of the death penalty both in theory and practice. The Eighth Amendment to the Bill of Rights protects against cruel and unusual punishment, and I would argue that the death penalty is the ultimate cruel and unusual punishment and a violation of the enlightened idea of human rights. If we consider the specific details of how death penalties are actually carried out, there should be no remaining doubt about its illegitimacy as nothing less than state-sponsored murder.

The electric chair was—for almost a century—the dominant method of execution in America. A long series of botched executions and malfunctioning equipment gradually led to the use of lethal injection, which has been favored by all states that practice the death penalty since the 1990s. This has typically been a three-drug cocktail that has the benefit of appearing painless and medically sound. It is neither, in fact. It is a method chosen by lawyers and politicians rather than doctors, who are actually sworn under the Hippocratic oath to not harm patients. Over 7% of lethal injections since 1990 have been botched, resulting in long and painful deaths. This was most notoriously seen in the case of the 2014 execution by the state of Oklahoma of Clayton Lockett. You can read the gruesome details of that case in this goosebump-inducing exposé in The Atlantic.

In 2010, the only American-based company that produced the third ingredient in the cocktail, sodium thiopental, was forced by the FDA to stop production due to contamination. States began to scour the globe for other pharmaceutical companies to meet their lethal needs, but were soon foiled when the companies and governments in question discovered the desired use of these exports. A company in Denmark that produced a drug for animals was the last hope of these states; when it was discovered that the drugs were destined for capital punishment in America, this company, too, stopped its distribution. Most states now have a small stockpile of the drugs needed to perform executions, but only enough to last a few years.

The employment of these substitute drugs has been brutal and horrific as well, as documented in the case of Clayton Lockett above. For better or for worse, states are starting to approve a “regression” (if such a term can mean going backwards from something already backwards) to earlier and more visual forms of execution such as the electric chair and the firing squad. To me, and most people who examine the evidence, there is no doubt that the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment in practice.

Let us now consider the psychological aspect. I mentioned above that the current average waiting time for death row inmates stands at about 15 years. Even if we were to grant the validity of the death penalty for capital crimes, murder and capital punishment are by no means the same thing. I’ll refer to a quote by Albert Camus for an explanation of this: “But what is capital punishment if not the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal act, no matter how calculated, can be compared? If there were to be a real equivalence, the death penalty would have to be pronounced upon a criminal who had forewarned his victim of the very moment he would put him to a horrible death, and who, from that time on, had kept him confined at his own discretion for a period of months. It is not in private life that one meets such monsters.” If we substitute “a period of months” for “a period of decades”, and also imagine that confinement means a total isolation in a small blind cell, we should conclude that this is quite obviously cruel and unusual punishment and most likely much worse than the original crime. We can argue about some of the conditions of punishment and incarceration while still stopping well short of state-sanctioned murder, which is all that capital punishment really is. Max Weber defined the state as “the rule of men over men based on the means of legitimate, that is allegedly legitimate, violence.” This is most readily seen in the use of war or threat of war against other nations, and the use or threat of capital punishment in domestic cases. I would argue that the former is occasionally necessary to preserve world order, while the latter is beyond all authority of a state against its citizens.

Lex talionis has certainly been both the normative and the most intuitive system of justice in all human societies until the relatively recent development of due process based on “innocent until proven guilty” and variable incarceration. Further examination shows why retributive punishment can never really be just. Although many people would argue that a murderer should be condemned to die himself, this will do nothing to bring back the victim. According to statistics of violence and imprisonment in America, it obviously does little to dissuade future murderers from carrying out future crimes. If punishment, the death penalty in this case, does not stop criminals from breaking the law, then one of the main justifications for such punishment holds no water. There is no study which has convincingly shown that the death penalty leads to less crime, so this utilitarian argument falls flat. In crimes other than murder, how will justice be perfectly administered so as to punish for specific crimes. An eye for an eye, or a life for a life has a certain grim logic (though I don’t agree with it), but how can this logic be applied to non-lethal and non-violent crimes? What if there are mitigating circumstances, such as a criminal who is homeless or in extreme poverty, or was himself a victim of gross injustice? The fact is that retributive justice is a system which will only perpetuate a vengeful and bloodthirsty society rather than stop.  America needs to open its eyes and see that we are better than this.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty: A Review

Shortly after Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Booker Prize was awarded to fellow American Paul Beatty for his novel The Sellout. It seems Americans are having a moment in the world of literary prestige, maybe to counterbalance the current political nadir. Dylan was the first American to win the Nobel in 23 years, and Beatty is the first American ever to win the Booker Prize, the pre-eminent prize in Anglophone letters. Originally the Booker Prize had been limited to British writers, then eventually to English language writers from the larger British commonwealth, now to any writer in English. I have read a few handfuls of the past winners and candidates, and I can say that Paul Beatty’s win is well-deserved and ranks among the best of them.

The Sellout is a satire on race in America. It is not only one of the funniest and most intelligent books I have read about race in America (a relatively limited number for me), but one of the funniest and most intelligent books I have read, period. The novel is told by a Black urban farmer with the surname Me in a fictional South-Central Los Angeles slum called Dickens. This impoverished locality, “the murder capital of the world”, was an embarrassment to L.A. and the U.S.A. and was disincorporated by the authorities. One of the central plans of Me is to reconstitute and delineate his hometown of Dickens. He also begins to slyly reinstitute segregation, first on his girlfriend’s bus, then in shops, the library, and the school. After this gambit, crime plummeted and student test results skyrocketed.

The main character was raised and home-schooled only by his father, a prominent psychologist and intellectual who made his son’s life into one long racial sociological experiment. The farm they inhabit takes on Garden of Eden-like qualities, with an impossibly wide-range of exotic fruits that are well-known around town, and delicious enough to make rival gang members put away their Glocks to lick up watermelon juice. One of the members of the local donut shop intellectual club is a Black media impresario named Foy Cheshire, who steals Me’s father’s best ideas to get rich, and calls the main character “the Sellout” for most of the book.

The funniest and most controversial character by far is an aged television actor named Hominy Jenkins, who played a minor role in the old Little Rascals TV series of the 1920-40s. Hominy rejoices at all signs of overt racism, and happily enlists himself as the Sellout’s lazy and unwanted slave. The eventual discovery of this relationship and the resegregation scheme puts the main character behind bars, and eventually in front of the Supreme Court.

There are numerous mentions of real-life African-Americans, often unnamed for legal reasons, throughout the novel, including Barack Obama, Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell, and Dave Chappelle. The novel makes use of the author’s detailed knowledge of Los Angeles, as well as Black pop culture, intellectual culture, language, film and TV, and literature. The plot is very engaging from the first page to the last, as well as being chock-full of new ideas in almost every paragraph. The author never seems to run out of interesting and funny new formulations about race and life in America. It is a very difficult book written with frankness and irreverence, not worried about upsetting any sacred cow or offending overly sensitive readers.  It appears at a time when just such blunt discussions of race are needed.

One instance of how biting the book can often be is this passage about all of the miserable cities of the world that rejected Dickens as a potential sister city. The last of these is the Lost City of White Male Privilege:

“The Lost City of White Male Privilege, a controversial municipality whose very existence is often denied by many (mostly privileged white males). Others state categorically that the walls of the locale have been irreparably breached by hip-hop and Roberto Bolano’s prose. That the popularity of the spicy tuna roll and a black American president were to white male domination what the smallpox blankets were to Native American existence. Those inclined to believe in free will and the free market argue that the Lost City of White Male Privilege was responsible for its own demise, that the constant stream of contradictory religious and secular edicts from on high confused the highly impressionable white male. Reduced him to a state of such severe social and psychic anxiety that he stopped fucking. Stopped voting. Stopped reading. And, most important, stopped thinking that he was the end-all, be-all, or at least knew enough to pretend not to be so in public. But in any case, it became impossible to walk the streets of the Lost City of White Male Privilege, feeding your ego by reciting mythological truisms like “We built this country!” when all around you brown men were constantly hammering and nailing, cooking world-class French meals, and repairing your cars.”

In the final anecdote in the novel the main character tells about a long-ago visit to a local comedy club featuring open mic night for black comedians. Halfway through, a white couple walks in and begins joining in the laughter. The comedian confronts the white couple and asks them to leave. “This is our thing,” he says. The main character then expresses regret that he did not stand up for the couple’s right to be there. It’s a serious end to a powerful, nuanced, and funny book. As all satire, it punches up at an entrenched system of power–racism and bigotry, in this case. Most of the blows landed. In “post-racial” America, though, it will take a lot more people punching to topple the system in question. And a lot more people reading and writing and engaging in open dialogue with each other, and defending each other’s rights to live and laugh freely.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: