Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Enlightenment tradition

Per usual, Judge Smails has some cogent thoughts on the issue of torture, and what it says about the state of the country:
The most interesting thing to me about the torture memos (and to all the torture-realted things of the last five years) is the relative public acceptance --- or at least apathy --- about it all. A few weeks ago I was hypothesizing that the average American wouldn't be particularly liberal if you ditched the borders and forced public choice to be done on a cosmopolitan scale. But torture is by far an even better example. And now we're not talking about the American public being not liberal in the 20th century sense, we're talking about people being fundamentally illiberal in the 17th century sense of the word.

I used to think that the average American (conservative or liberal) fundamentally accepted the political premises of the Enlightenment (equality under the law; equal opportunity in the market; electoral winners agree to hold fair future elections; electoral losers agree not to revolt). They might be thrown off by some underlying biases (like racial discrimination) that would lead them to some very illiberal conclusions (like supporting segregation), but on the whole they were rather principled disciples of English civilization.

But the torture thing really has me rethinking this. I can only see three options:

(1) We've collectively de-humanized The Terrorists to the point that being against torturing them, for the average American, is as pie-in-the-sky radical as being a 18th century American abolitionist or a 21st century PETA vegan: the kind of people you know exist(ed), but only as fringe religious nuts in Pennsylvania or wacky hippies in Vermont.

(2) Most Americans are situational liberals (in the 17th century sense!), whose respect for Enlightenment theory goes as far as it's (a) convenient, (b) helpful to their own self-interest, or (c) applied in "normal" times, however one chooses to define it. (One can think of the horrible POW camps set up by North and South in the civil war as another indicative moment, although both sides at least had the scruples to complain about the other).

(3) Most people are ignorant of the torture details.

I guess for a long time, I assume the explanation for the lack of fury was #3. But after release of the torture memos, that's out. Anyone with anything of a liberal (and, again, I say that in the 17th century sense) conscience can't possibly stomach reading those sorts of things. So I'm left only to believe that there are illberal principes which operate at a much more foundational level than I was ever ready to accept; that for Americans, defense of the traditional institutions of pre-Enlightment thought (the state, the family, etc.) is worthy of means that seemingly compromise the basic premise of liberalism.

Whatever the merits of pre-liberal thought, it can't possible be good for individual liberty, and I'm relatively confident that --- like slavery --- it is probably corrosive and distorting of liberal democratic institutions.

I mean, who the hell can honestly defend these things in any way compatible with western political thought since the printing press?

For my money, I'd say that (2) is the most likely reason, and the racial aspects of (1) probably aren't helping either (i.e. the folks being tortured aren't white). The other problem is that America just isn't what it used to be -- I think we have a lot of really provincial, stupid people in this country who are absolutely incapable of reading and understanding Judge Smails' email, but they are capable of owning TVs and buying products, so their opinions matter just as much as someone with a functional brain.

I think there is a lot of outrage out there, but it hasn't taken an organized form, at least not yet. Since the administration that did this stuff is now out of power one can't really voice opposition at the ballot box any more. And it would be a bit weird to demonize the Obama administration, although certainly fair to criticize them for actions they do or don't take. Personally, I'm willing to give Obama some time on this one to map out the appropriate course. But if no one has been tried for a crime come 2012, then America will have been furthered weakened.