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Torture and the Postmodern Right

August 28th, 2009 · 6 Comments

Charles Murray chides those who found his analysis of the politics of torture investigations by the Justice Department disturbingly amoral:

To those who were dismayed, I’ve got worse news: I think it is permissible to talk about murder and rape in amoral terms. To talk about the Inquisition, the Holocaust, and the genocides in Armenia and Cambodia in amoral terms. In fact, it is obligatory to deal with the implications of just about anything in amoral terms, because all important issues have important non-moral implications that warrant inquiry.

This is, in the abstract, a sound and important point.  As social psychologists have taken pains to point out, looking at the Holocaust only as a moral monstrosity can make it seem so alien that we fail to see the role played by ordinary people whose general behavior patterns—if not the particular horrific results—are common across cultures. But this analysis also presumably has a point—preventing similar horror in the future—which involves taking up the moral perspective again. Murray’s original post doesn’t ever really do this, and I think illustrates the weird nihilism that seems to afflict Washingtonians who grow so accustomed to strategic analysis that it crowds out other forms:

They won the election with a candidate who sounded centrist running against an exceptionally weak Republican opponent. But they’ve been in the bubble too long. They really think that the rest of America thinks as they do. Nothing but the Pauline Kael syndrome can explain the political idiocy of letting Attorney General Eric Holder go after the interrogators.

In the specific case, the actual argument to this conclusion is awfully gappy. Murray offers some data to the effect that non-Latino white educated elites have grown significantly more liberal over recent decades, while their counterparts in other classes have grown moderately more conservative. He then supposes that the other classes will share his own feeling that any criminal investigation will entail a conflict between interrogators who seem like heroes and prosecutors who look like wimps, with the general divergent trend explaining why Obama & co. don’t grok this. Now, we’ve actually got polls on this, and some show a significant majority favoring some kind of investigation—with opinion split between criminal inquiry and an independent panel—while others show a smaller majority opposing investigations. There’s certainly some evidence that the course Attorney General Holder is pursuing won’t be popular, then, but not in the wildly lopsided way Murray’s frame seems to assume.

But even if Murray were right about the optics of a prosecution, surely it’s wrong that “nothing” could explain the decision to go ahead. One wacky possibility: The attorney general believes that crimes may have been committed, and if so, those responsible should be held accountable, while the president either shares this belief or at least is reluctant to intervene for political reasons to quash an investigation. And yet a lot of analysts get awfully postmodern when they’re talking about the prospect of investigations, taking it for granted that there simply are no right answers: Any legal reasoning, however specious, simply reflects one more difference of opinion—and you can’t prosecute someone for having different opinions, right? Some conservatives, to be sure, are willing to defend the practices of the interrogators or the opinions of the Office of Legal Counsel on the merits, but others seem to step back and take the meta-view that so long as some  sufficiently politically powerful group was and is willing to mount that defense, it must fall within the realm of reasonable disagreement—and therefore outside the realm of actual legal consequences for wrongdoing. Attempts to establish any kind of real accountability are only intelligible as partisan “witch hunts.”  In this case, the insistence on an amoral perspective undermines the analysis even in purely descriptive terms, since it excludes motivational explanations of the actors’ behavior that don’t reduce to a strategic bid for political advantage. I’m pretty cynical on this front myself, but it seems a bit much to rule it out a priori.

Tags: Horse Race Politics · Obedience and Insubordination · Sociology · War



6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 the teeth // Aug 28, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    And there’s no reason why the defendant in a witch hunt cannot be a witch …

  • 2 paradoctor // Aug 30, 2009 at 11:51 am

    To a man with jaundice, the world is yellow. To Charles Murray, the world is amoral.

  • 3 Barry // Aug 31, 2009 at 11:11 am

    Seconding paradoctor, it’s Charles ‘Bell Curve’ Murray. The prior distribution of anything that he says is lying mother-f*cker; all burden of proof is on him.

    Also, this is a standard position of the right since Nixon, at least. Bush/Cheney fit into the pattern of Watergate and Iran-Contra, which was so well summed up as ‘if the president ordered it, it’s not illegal’ (quote from memory).

    Thirdly, it’s a sweet, sweet position for the right in general. If I can get a lawyer to sign off on the sort of crimes commited by the elites, I get a free pass (don’t worry, if Joe Schmuck got a lawyer to state that he could do something, that matters for jack in courty). Such a theory is very attractive to the elites.

  • 4 Jon Rowe // Sep 3, 2009 at 10:31 pm

    Hey Barry,

    Way to poison the well.

  • 5 K. Chen // Sep 4, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    Postmodern hand wringing saddens me. Our constant focus on ulterior motives is what drives people out of the political process, leaving only the partisan dedicates and the suitably cynical power grabbers, fulfilling the prophecy. Even if we don’t buy the morality out there, I wish there was a collective willingness to assume, just for a moment, that moral decency and political advantage can coincide.

  • 6 Barry // Sep 7, 2009 at 12:17 pm

    Jon Rowe // Sep 3, 2009 at 10:31 pm

    “Hey Barry,

    Way to poison the well.”

    First, Charles Murray did that quite nicely – or are you unaware of his previous work?

    Second, are you denying that the general position of the Right on this topic has indeed been ‘if a[right-wing president] does something it’s OK’?

    Third, are not the right-wingers supporting the torturers in fact saying that having a (hired by the administration) lawyer sign off on something make the torturers unprosecutable?