Waterboarding kabuki, truth to power, and other observations…

By Jefferson Flanders

With a tip of the fedora to legendary New York columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

YOU DON’T HAVE TO AGREE (AS I DO) WITH JOHN MCCAIN AND THE MILITARY’S LEGAL ESTABLISHMENT that waterboarding is torture, or to believe that the United States should never engage in torture (as I do), to recognize the elements of kabuki theater in the recent Washington back-and-forth over the question of harsh interrogation tactics.

Senate Democrats, who know that Attorney General designee Michael B. Mukasey won’t publicly characterize waterboarding as torture, are looking to wring the most symbolic, and political, value out of his awkward situation. Mukasey recognizes that such a concession might trigger lawsuits against the government or even potential war crimes prosecutions; further, it would directly challenge the Bush Administration’s long-held position that it has not practiced torture.

The entire question of “War on Terror” interrogation techniques and torture is more complex than the stylized drama in Washington suggests. The Democratic presidential front-runners, including Sen. Hillary Clinton, have all been careful to say they renounce the use of torture as a policy of the U.S., but have been less clearcut on whether they would endorse its practice in the Al Qaeda terrorist-with-the-ticking-atomic-bomb hypothetical ( a favorite presidential primary debate question this campaign season). Indeed, former President Bill Clinton endorsed harsh interrogation tactics in such cases (as NBC newsman Tim Russert pointed out at the Democratic debate in September); and there is Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz’s controversial idea of “torture warrants” issued by a judge to “obtain immediate information in order to save lives coupled with probable cause that the suspect had such information and is unwilling to reveal it.”

STEPHEN COLBERT PROVED HIS ON-AIR HUMOR can translate to newsprint when Maureen Dowd turned her New York Times op-ed column over to him (“A Mock Columnist, Amok). Colbert’s comic two-sentence recap of a typical Frank Rich NYT column is a classic:

Bad things are happening in countries you shouldn’t have to think about. It’s all George Bush’s fault, the vice president is Satan, and God is gay.

TIME TO BREAK UP THE BOSTON RED SOX? Two World Series wins in four years and there is talk in the Athens of America of a potential baseball dynasty in the making. Good pitching beats good hitting (one diamond truism that holds up in practice), and since the Red Sox can send Josh Beckett, Dice-K, and Jonathan Papelbon to the mound, you have to like the club’s long-term prospects.

JUSTIN CURRIE, FORMER LEAD SINGER OF DEL AMITRI, has released his first solo album, “What is Love For,” eleven well-crafted, haunting songs. Currie sings about yearning for the Other (“Only Love”), about loss (“Not so Sentimental”; “Still in Love,”), and about his vision of the bleak 21st century landscape of materialism, apathy, and anxiety (“No, Surrender”). Del Amitri fans will not be disappointed.

HOW ABOUT AN INFORMAL BAN ON THE USE OF THE PHRASE “SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER?” A quick Google search of recent news stories and editorial columns reveals a bizarre list of those said to be “speaking truth to power” including Cindy Sheehan, Ron Paul, the young Hillary Clinton, Lawrence Summers, Ward Churchill, Dan Rather, Al Franken, Director of Intelligence Mike McConnell, J.K. Rowling, Anita Hill (her book was entitled “Speaking Truth to Power”), Mother Teresa, and, my favorite, the former TV psychic, Miss Cleo. (Miss Cleo does her “speaking truth,” we are told, on her recently released rap CD).

If you’ve noticed a left-ward tilt to the list, that’s because the phrase has been a favorite for many “progressives” since Quaker anti-nuclear activists first began using the slogan in the 1950s.

But what does the phrase really mean? That the speaker is courageously “telling it like it is?” Yet, as Canadian journalist David Warren has noted, this “speaking truth to power” is often performed by “people who have taken very few risks in their lives, and take no risk in speaking publicly.”

That icon of the American left, Noam Chomsky, rejects the slogan, regarding it as “self-indulgent.” His explanation deserves to be quoted:

…First of all, power already knows the truth. They don’t need to hear it from us. Secondly, it’s a waste of time. Furthermore, it’s the wrong audience. You have to speak truth to the people who will dismantle and overthrow and constrain power. Furthermore, I don’t like the phrase “speak truth to.” We don’t know the truth. At least I don’t.

Chomsky has (some of) it right: employing the phrase reflects a holier-than-thou sanctimony more often than not, and skepticism about those who claim to have found “the truth” is well warranted.

WORTH READING: RYAN LIZZA’S NEW YORKER piece, “The Mission,” on Mitt Romney’s life story and its impact on his presidential candidacy; Kay S. Hymowitz in City Journal on “The New Girl Order” about the spread of the “Sex in the City” lifestyle globally; and Patrick Radden Keefe’s witty review of Beantown-based movies, “Ben Affleck’s Boston,” from Slate.

WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS, lyric poet, provides this month’s quotation: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Reprinted from Neither Red nor Blue 

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders

All rights reserved

Be Sociable, Share!