Wednesday, June 22, 2005


Is this progress? Part I

Today Dick Durbin apologized, after a firestorm of protest, for earlier remarks on the Senate floor comparing the treatment of U.S. prisoners to the practices of Nazis and Stalinists. Durbin's critics, as I'm sure you know, argued that such comparisons were totally incommensurable. Charles Bird at Obsidian Wings suggested, for example, "that putting American in the same sentence with Nazis, gulags and the Khmer Rouge has no place in civil political discourse." My feelings are closer to those of Fred Clark, who argues that in constantly comparing ourselves with regimes who have committed horrendous evils, we ensure that we do not become like those regimes ourselves. [P.S. After posting this I also read Jason Kuznicki's excellent post on the subject, as well as this one by John McGowan.]

What interests me about both sides of these exchanges, though, is the assumption that America has to look outside its own history to find examples of torture and injustice. That's the presumption, it seems to me, behind Bird's argument that the very word "American" doesn't belong in the same sentence with "gulags," as though the word "American" is so virginal in its innocence that to place it alongside a Russian word is a violation of the most dastardly kind. That's also what seems to drive the idea that Durbin somehow slandered America by comparing its treatment of prisoners to that of other countries. Fine, then, compare the reports of what's going on at Guantanamo to our own history, which includes plentiful examples of humanity's inhumanity to fellow human beings.

Just for starters, recall that for two and a half centuries after the settlement of North America, millions of men and women were enslaved, with countless numbers of them raped, killed with impunity, mutilated, chained, worked to death, bought, sold, separated from their families, and legally held "in perpetuity." Less than two centuries have elapsed since slavery was abolished, but even less time has elapsed since such practices were common among Americans and winked at by our government. In our headlines this week, after all, we read about an eighty-year-old man being convicted for brutal killings that occurred when my parents were pre-teens--murders he got away with because the victims kept going on and on about how all human beings have intrinsic dignity and inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Set aside for the moment how far we are from gulags and concentration camps. How far are we from Selma, Montgomery, Kent State, from Philadelphia, Mississippi?

I wonder if Durbin's critics would have been nearly as vociferous if he had said, "Reading this FBI report, you might be excused for thinking you had stepped back onto a plantation in the antebellum South, or into a sweatshop in late-nineteenth-century New York, rather than into a twenty-first century military jail."

Perhaps some would have called for Durbin's apology for that too, on the grounds that Americans have moved beyond those sins of our past. But the fact that Americans have been capable of horrors in the past robs Durbin's critics of the right to say that the very word "American" does not belong in a sentence with the names of other countries with records of human rights abuses. We have a record of human rights abuses; we are not an unblemished exception to history. To their credit, Americans have very often acted according to the better angels of our nature, and put away many of our past crimes against humanity. But even that does not make us exceptional: Does the fact that we abolished slavery give us a free pass any time we start chaining people to the floor? Only if Stalin gets a free pass on collectivized forced labor because Russians once emancipated their serfs ... before Americans emancipated their slaves.

Perhaps some readers think that I am lingering too long on our past, that I, like Durbin, am skating too close to the edge of patriotism. The past is past, some patriots might wish to say. We moved on; we do better now.

I do believe that we are, in many respects, better than we were. But I am fearful of our capacity to move backwards as well as forwards, to return like a dog to our own vomit. Why would we do that? Don't we truly want to be better than we were, and if we do, shouldn't it trouble us that reports from our detention centers suggest that our official policy on the treatment of prisoners is regressing instead of progressing? Progress, I am aware, is a loaded term, with conceptual liabilities all its own. But part of me craves the return of a certain usage of the word "progress" in our political discourse. Usually, when you hear a government official say something like "we're making progress in Iraq," it's intended first and foremost as a spatial term: we've pushed back insurgents in this neighborhood, we've secured this city, we've pushed the borders of the Green Zone out a little farther. What I want to know is, are we making progress in time? Are we becoming better? If we cannot ask of our policies whether they are better than the practices of the gulag, let us ask of them: are they better than the practices of our great-great-grandparents, our great-grandparents, our grandparents, our parents? Will we be proud to report this policy to future generations? Or is that question, too, un-American?

Earlier this week I happened to be reading a chapter in Dorothy Day's autobiography, The Long Loneliness, which describes her first experience in an American prison. She was arrested in 1917 for participating in a peaceful rally for women's suffrage in Washington. Here's an excerpt from her description, which is stark and terrifying:
For many hours the women had to wait in a little room back of the court. This waiting, too, was part of the burden put upon us. Years later when I read Arthur Kosetler's Scum of the Earth, he too spoke of the interminable hours of waiting experienced by prisoners who were being sent to a concentration camp.

Finally, at four o'clock, things began to happen to us. Prison wagons were brought, wagons that had only ventilators along the top and were otherwise closed. ... Those whomen who had served sentence before knew that we were being taken to the workhouse, and many stories had been told of what the prisoners had suffered at the hands of the violent keeper there, a man named Whittaker. We were all afraid. ...

Our spokeswoman got up and began to announce that we were all going on hunger strike unless our demands were met, but before she could get the first words out of her mouth, Whittaker had turned to the door and beckoned. Immediately the room was filled with men. [By the way, what a sentence, the way the rhythm accentuates "men."] There were two guards to every woman, and each of us was seized roughly by the arms and dragged out of the room. It seems impossible to believe, but we were not allowed to walk, were all but lifted from the floor, in the effort the men made to drag, rather than lead us to our place of confinement for the night.

The leaders were taken first. In my effort to get near Peggy I started to cross the room to join her, and was immediately seized by two guards. My instinctive impulse was to pull myself loose, to resist such handling, which only caused the men to tighten their hold on me, even to twist my arms painfully. I have no doubt but that I struggled every step of the way from the administration building to the cell block where we were being taken. It was a struggle to walk by myself, to wrest myself loose from the torture of those rough hands. We were then hurled onto some benches and when I tried to pick myself up and again join Peggy in my blind desire to be near a friend, I was thrown to the floor. When another prisoner tried to come to my rescue, we found ourselves in the midst of a milling crowd of guards being pummeled and pushed and kicked and dragged, so that we were scarcely conscious, in the shock of what was taking place.
Remember, the "crime" for this treatment, which happened in the lifetime of my great-grandparents, was demanding that women should be able to vote. (I apologize in advance, by the way, to the estate of Dorothy Day, in case they should receive any angry emails demanding a posthumous apology for Day's comparison of her waiting for the wagons to the waiting in concentration camps, or for her use of the word "torture" to refer to the rough handling of prison guards.)

Set aside for the moment whether our treatment of detainees in Cuba and elsewhere is better than those Others and their irreducible evils, and compare ourselves with our former selves. I'm still distressed by how far we haven't come.

Collective Improvisation:
Thanks for making this point so forcefully. I don't have any evidence to back me up on this claim, but I was planning to write a similar post. The idea that American history has followed some exceptionally unblemished path is patently false.

(Incidentally: The idea that America has followed some uniquely exceptionable course of development is patently false too. I want to coin a term for this latter interpretation: "American exceptionablism." Holders of this view take exception to most aspects of America's past.)

And the development of the proslavery argument in the antebellum period is a good example of how progress has not always come in a linear fashion. As you probably know much better than I, pro-slavery apologists didn't just defend slavery as a necessary evil until finally losing the Civil War; in response to the abolitionists' arguments many actually began to say that slavery was a positive good.

I fear the anti-torture/defense of torture discussion will (or has already begun to?) follow a similar trajectory. But since no one is arguing that torture benefits its victims, or that certain persons are suited to torture, things likely will never go quite that far. I suppose that could be called progress.

Incidentally, I can't understand how indefinite detention is not a violation of the 13th amendment, which clearly requires due process. Detainees may not be doing hard labor, but they are certainly being held in service to the state. This isn't to say that people should never be held, only that there should be some kind of due process. 

Posted by eb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 6/23/2005 03:51:00 AM : Permalink  

Thanks for the comment, eb. I hadn't thought about this before, but the resemblances between some proslavery defenses and the defenses of Guantanamo Bay are a little too close for comfort. When I hear Donald Rumsfeld talking about how prisoners are eating better than they ever have and enjoying life more than they ever could in their own [uncivilized] countries, I'm reminded of the claim by apologists for slavery that it was permissible to violate the personal freedom of Africans since in America they would eat well, have their own little houses, and learn to be Christians ... So much better than being back in their barbaric homelands. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 6/23/2005 09:54:00 AM : Permalink  

The problem I have with comparisons to the gulag or to concentration camps is that it diminishes the full horror and crime of the gulag and the concentration camps.
Behavior and actions can be reprehensible and worthy of condemnation without rising to the level of the gulag. Who has died at Gitmo? Who has died in Abu Ghrabi (sp?) No one that I'm aware of. Taking a situation in which no one has been killed or maimed or even severely injured and comparing that to a system that killed literally millions makes mockery of the death of those millions.
Compare it to the way prisoners were treated 20+ years ago and condemn it if you believe it deserves condemnation and I won't have a problem with it. I would tend to disagree with you (as I believe the level of abuse has been greatly exaggerated) but I would not have an objection to your holding the views you have.
But don't defend the diminishment for political gain of the blood of those who died in the camps and in the gulags without justice and without hope. 

Posted by Fred

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 7/02/2005 02:46:00 PM : Permalink  

Good points (esp Fred).

However, the idea of "progress" in the field of human nature is ludicrous. We're the same beings that we were 40,000 years ago. What magical event has taken place in that time, or will take place in the future, to change our nature?

Technologically, progress makes sense: We get cooler gadgets. An iPod is a lot more fun than a flint knife (although certainly less important).

Sociologically, progress makes sense (to non-cultural-relativists): As a society, our norms of behavior get better. The abolishment and condemnation of slavery by the "civilized" nations of the world is a good example (the scare quotes is purposeful - several nations still practice slavery).

Individually, the idea of progress is silly. People are people.

Sicut erat in principio, et nunc et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. 

Posted by mrsizer

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 7/02/2005 05:13:00 PM : Permalink  

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