Monday, May 21, 2007

Abu Ghraib and the Moral Relativism of the Right

The handheld video camera has transformed terrorism. No longer is the terrorist act a necessarily public act staged for television news cameras. Now terror can be more deliberately self-produced and self-directed. Personalized acts – 4 men cutting off the head of another – elicit as much horror among the American spectatorship as an act of mass casualties. More horrible than the act itself is the deliberate staging and filming of the act. For Americans have killed far more Iraqis than the other way around, and many were also innocent of military involvement. But the killers on our side have not sought to stage their killings and record them. If anything, the American refusal to count any dead not their own reveals their purpose: to hide the essential violence of the invasion, especially from the consuming American public. Scenes of slaughter by Americans upsets the story that Bush wants consumed: that our war is to help others, rather than about extending our hegemony. The insecure hegemon seeks to minimize evidence of its violence. Its insecurity lies in the contradiction between its surface ideology – “freedom” – and its real methodology: killing power.

The factor that throws the hegemonic goals off balance is the active presence of more than one consuming public: the TV watchers of Iraq itself as well as the rest of the Arab world. It may be odd to call consumers “active,” but in a struggle where the contest over narrative as important as the contest of killing, consumers – through their role as “the public,” through their anonymous participation in “opinion polls” – do influence outcomes.

Bush does not in fact care about Arab publics, except inasmuch as they accept or reject the mythical goodness of American power. In any case, these publics are corralled by Bush’s undemocratic allies in the region. In this way Bush displays the essential narcissism of the American establishment vis a vis the rest of the world: in other words, the world only exists for me to the extent that it reflects on me and my interests. Turn on CNN “international” and you will rarely see events depicted in foreign countries that only involve domestic interests. Only where American power is at stake – the first McDonalds to open in such and such country, or the kidnappings of Westerners in such and such a place – will such news make it to CNN. Domestic news of other places is reported, but dully, without any real information, without any effort to explain why it is that the people of the country care so much about this election. Such and such party is expected to win X percentage of the vote tomorrow; this opposition candidate charges obstruction and intimidation. The end. A formulaic story that more or less looks like our story line has been completed, and the viewer knows nothing more about that country. For in great power narcissism, “local” interests do not exist unless they impact on the power of the imperial structure. Indonesia did not exist for CNN until US fear of terrorism turned it into a potential “breeding ground” for terrorists. Indonesia as it exists for Indonesians, and which might help enlighten why terrorism takes root there – the conflicts over the way they define their country – does not exist in Cable News Narcissa.

The problem for Bush and his CNN worldview is that real publics do exist outside his navel gaze. Their interest is not in affirming the goodness of American power, but in investigating how deeply Arab peoples have been thrown under the wheels of the American chariot. Every national media is to some extent narcissistic: Arab viewers want to see Arabs, whether Arab kids shot by Israelis for acts of symbolic resistance (rock throwing), or Arab athletes we have never heard of who make it in the European football leagues. CNN is different, however, in that it layers this normal national narcissism with a sheen, a pretence of internationalism which is in essence a reflection of American power as it interacts with domestic forces in different parts of the world. Arab medias show the scenes Bush does not want to see: the holes in the mosque walls, the teenagers dead, the weeping mothers. One can bet that Arab institutions are recording the number of dead with the same precision Americans recorded the number dead at the twin towers, a dignity the Pentagon refuses to bestow on those it kills. Arab homes are inundated with images from these joint productions of American acting and Arab editing and cinematography.

The rise of videotaped atrocities sent to websites or TV stations is an attempt to draw America’s narcissistic eye – and then drive a stake into it. The terrorists know that Arab deaths do not appear on Cable News Narcissa. They know that there are two publics: one American, and decisive for the success of the “operation” ; the other Arab, and unimportant. They know that one well-planned American death, brutally recorded, will draw more ire than 10 soldiers killed off camera, 1000 civilians killed. They engage in a war of images. They are not only, in their eyes, avenging Arab deaths. They are also avenging the systemic inequality of the two publics, whereby the weaker public constantly views its own destruction while the stronger public can pick and choose from reality in order to construct its desired storyline. They are getting even with CNN by taking advantage of the narcissism of the stronger public. They are saying: If you don’t give time to images of our suffering, which we are sick of, we will use the only thing you will pay attention to – American death – to draw your global eye. We will give back to the Americans what they have been unwittingly giving to us, which is images of our own destruction. If you will only look at your own dead, then here is one more – look your fill. If your deaths are like a religious ritual for you, “bringing you together,” whereas our death means absolutely nothing, then here – “come together” over video of a severed head.

CNN gave prominent play to 2 voices on Thursday regarding the Abu Ghraib case. On the one side was Tim Russert, who was interviewed by Larry King, and conservatives in the voices of John Inhofe, Rush Limbaugh (quoted by King), and Joe Lieberman. Both currents – that of the media establishment (Russert) and that of conservatives (Limbaugh and Inhofe) are, like CNN, astonishingly narcissistic, though in different ways.

Russert used WWII as a touchstone for the “good America.” “In my father’s time, they won WWII because they knew what they stood for. We have to stand up as Americans and say, ‘This is not who we are.’” Russert accepts the myth that Americans are a breed apart – and above – others, even though 99 percent of us came from elsewhere. Is there some magic genetic realignment somewhere in the mid Atlantic that makes immigrants glow with a special light, rendering them incapable of brutality? Russert also demonstrates that what sets Americans apart may well be the selective forgetting involved in its own mythmaking. Russert has probably never read a book on the war in the Pacific, nor seen the documentary about McNamara and the annihilation campaign against Japanese cities run by General Curtis Lemay. If an enemy had leveled NYC during wartime, attempting not to target plants or army bases but to slaughter the entire population, leaving 3 million dead, I wonder whether Americans would today regard that enemy as a light to democracy. Especially if large parts, even majorities, of people there refused to believe their side had done anything criminal during the war. Nor has Russert ever reflected on the fact that 30 years ago, our Glorious Nation eliminated 2 to 3 million Vietnamese for no other reason than that it could. True, there was the fantasy of Communist domination in South East Asia, but we can see how that fantasy turned out (much like the WMD fantasy of Bush and Cheney).

Even if we examine the "domestic" history of this nation, we see that it is itself a history of colonization, ethnic cleansing, and expulsion. The history of the word "filibuster" is fascinating in this regard. Derived from the Spanish, it had the meaning of "raising a private army for use beyond the national borders." So the actions of Americans in the early to mid-1800s (in then-Spanish Florida, in then-Mexican Texas, etc) was described at the time as "filibustering." Aaron Burr was accused of treason as a "filibuster" (or is it filibusterer?), but he was only tarred with the accusation while doing what many others did and got away with.

So Russert’s shock at the events of Abu Ghraib (called always “abuse” rather than “torture”) surely stems from a prodigious naivety as to the violence which is part of the American imperial system. Only naïve people could be shocked. Only people totally out of touch with atrocities committed for the flag ever since Andrew Jackson’s genocidal campaigns could believe Americans incapable of brutality. In fact, atrocities happen much more easily under cover of the idealism and airheadedness of the naïve. One must wonder whether the weighty Mr. Russert spends all his free time watching “Friends” to be enthralled by such a naively self-deceptive vision, which is really nothing more than a civic religion of God-granted domination veiled as “patriotism.” For surely, patriotism, as with any love, does not necessarily imply blindness or self-deception as to the fault of the loved object. Somehow, however, the word has been given this narrow, edited meaning by those who would like to silence free thinkers.

Let me suggest that we won WWII because we had more guns, more men, more steel, and more money. These factors have nothing at all to do with religion, unless one believes Jesus lied when he said “The meek shall inherit the earth.” Somehow such a pronouncement does not quite fit with the dominant idea in this country that because we were really good, Jesus made our weapons plants run better and our banks grow fatter than anyone else’s. In these people’s interpretation, the revised translation of Jesus’ utterance should be: the powerful shall inherit the earth.
The nuclear missile holders shall inherit the earth.
The investment bankers shall inherit the earth.
The landlords shall inherit the earth.
The lawyers shall inherit the earth.
The Pentagon generals shall inherit the earth.
The Rupert Murdoch types shall inherit the earth. For if power equals virtue, then the more powerful, the more virtuous, it would seem. Money is a veritable sacrament to the neocons. And poverty, conversely, is simply a sign that God does not like you.

The conservative strain of thought believes the US exists above and beyond rules such as the Geneva Convention. Their reasoning perpetually reiterated, is that the other guy is far worse than me, and so I cannot win without trashing the rules as he does. Calls for me to abide by the rules a) ignore the abuses of the other side, and b) hamstring us in our attempts to off the other guy. During the recent pious outcry in congress over photos from Abu Ghraib prison, some legislators preferred to play the macho heavy and “defend the bully” who, after all, is still much better than “their” atrocities. Oddly enough for conservatives who pretend to follow a fixed morality, unlike those moral relativists of the Hollywood elite, the crux of their argument goes like this: I may be bad, but if you just look how bad the other guy is, actually I come off looking quite a bit better. Because America’s aims are as pure as snow, my actions that seem bad are actually good. They are justified by the virtuous ends. In other words, any atrocity committed by the US can be justified if we just look long enough at the other side, and remember how good we feel about our goals. How can one do bad when one feels so convinced of one’s own goodness? The standard for our behavior, then, is not an unshakeable standard decided by ourselves, but a moving curve that depends on what the other side is doing. As long as we beat their latest low, in other words, we can still be proud of our moral fortitude. The market index of evil fluctuates by the day.

Joe Lieberman, who heroically stood with the self-righteous conservatives and holier than thou media establishment to “break ranks” and castigate Clinton for being impure, played “But he started it,” by stating that there was no need to apologize for breaking the rules at Abu Ghraib because the terrorists who felled the twin towers had not apologized. This is Lieberman’s “morality on a curve,” then. We must not forget that Lieberman likes to sell his religiosity as a part of his political biography. The man who won’t ride in a car on the sabbath claims that because really evil men are the most evil, we need not be concerned about our brutalities, which compared to them are mere “badness,” or even “OK.” If we grade ourselves on curves set by terrorists, then beating prisoners to death and making them masturbate for cameras is actually pretty good, right? Rules, schmules, says Religious Joe – the Devil doesn’t follow rules, so why should we?

This critique leaves aside the absurdity that the men in Abu Ghraib prison did not plan or carry out the 9-11 attacks. But Religious Joe has no need to distinguish between 9-11 and Iraq. He is playing to the “Religious” Right, which still believes the myth that Bush so unwillingly denied when pressed, after using it to trick the public into war – that Iraqis played a part in 9-11. In this, Pious Joe is showing his contempt for the American public: instead of educating the people about reality, he panders to their misinformed ignorance. Religious Joe is thus, unwittingly or not, playing the brown-skinned Muslim card by implying a moral equivalent between Iraqis fighting occupation and Bin Laden. In all these outright lies and moral relativisms – all Byzantine rhetorical maneuvers with only one goal, to make the US look not-so-bad - Joe Lieberman was joined by John Inhofe, Republican, who declared he was “more outraged over the outrage” than over what actually occurred at Abu Ghraib. If we believe what Mr. Inhofe says literally, then setting dogs on unarmed prisoners, shooting down unarmed men from guard towers, and putting women’s underwear on the heads of prisoners chained to beds is nothing, nothing whatsoever compared to the outrage of morally condemning such behavior.

But I do not believe Inhofe. He lacks imagination and integrity. Something tells me that if he were put in Abu Ghraib right now and told to commit those very acts by his superiors, he would hesitate. But morality on a curve is not about really putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and using one moral standard. Morality on a curve is most concerned with obfuscating one’s own failings – failings to own up, in short (another value the “religious” Right claims a monopoly on) by snitching on the other guy. Snitching is a pandering to authority in hopes of gaining benefit. Inhofe and Lieberman are perfect snitches – hoping for votes for their heroic pose against moral standards.

Limbaugh compared the acts at Abu Ghraib to “blowing off steam” or to the initiation rites of Skull and Bones. One need only ask Mr. Limbaugh whether he would make such statements if the captors were Iraqis and the prisoners Americans. One can be assured that Limbaugh would be comparing such acts to those of the Nazis. And in this moral switcheroo – depending only on who commits the act – Limbaugh proves the moral relativism of the conservative establishment. These men are moral revolutionaries, not conservatives.

One final point: conservatives like to point out that critics of US policies or atrocities do not critique the “other side” nearly as loudly as they critique the US. In this view, they reveal the imperial view of their kind: we as Americans have not only the right, but the responsibility to comment equally on acts committed by people all over the world. But the point of moral thought is to take responsibility first and foremost for one’s own actions. Such commentators seem to believe we are stopped from taking responsibility for their acts by the badness of Bin Laden, which so surpassed anything we could ever do, that it is now wrong to criticize the US government.

This tendency to demand that we be as responsible for the enemy’s acts as we are for our own (and thus take on the role of God) is trumpeted as a sort of moral courage against the cowardice of liberals. In fact, it reveals the profound narcissism at the heart of conservative “morality.” The narcissist is a person who refuses to admit the boundaries between self and other. In the case of the US, such morality-on-a-curve narcissists reveal their belief that it is the right and duty of Americans to monitor and judge the actions of all people as if they were all Americans. The real upshot, of course, of this thinking is that by sitting as judge and jury on the actions of others, we can avoid looking deeply at the wrongs we ourselves commit.

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