Sunday, February 21, 2010

Exchange on Sullivan


I have a hard time taking this pompous pronouncement seriously:

"Torture is the polar opposite of freedom. It is the banishment of all freedom from a human body and soul, insofar as that is possible. As human beings, we all inhabit bodies and have minds, souls, and reflexes that are designed in part to protect those bodies: to resist or flinch from pain, to protect the psyche from disintegration, and to maintain a sense of selfhood that is the basis for the concept of personal liberty. What torture does is use these involuntary, self-protective, self-defining resources of human beings against the integrity of the human being himself."

What Sullivan wrote here is a cliche. Any two bit moral psychologist could have come up with this kind of formulation.

I would say that torture sets up an involuntary exchange system: cessation of pain for information. It's a kind of forced dialogue.

I am against it as policy because the information gathered from forced dialogues is notoriously untrustworthy.

I would also say that the use of torture to enforce totalitarian ideals is also ineffective.

Totalitarianism works best when people are convinced or seduced into believing a certain ideology. Does Sullivan really think that the Germans were tortured into believing in Nazism? Where the Soviets tortured into believing in Communism? Or the Jihadists into believing in Islamicism?

A combination of factors make totalitarianism possible: yes torture can be part of the mix but it can't be the most important part. Most importantly totalitarians use ideals that people already believe and make them absolute. The inquisition in Spain and elsewhere was made possible by peoples already believing in Christianity, the same with Stalinism in Russia: it was presented as the ideal way of implementing communism. Nazism relied on a belief in "biological racial purity," which it didn't invent, and so on.


What’s a "moral psychologist"—let alone a “two bit” one?

Do you mean moral philosopher?

Nits aside, what you find “pompous” and a “cliché”—in a phrase, “body against soul”—I find radical—not necessarily original, but radical, to be sure.

Because it goes to the root of the issue and the starting point for any thinking about torture, too easily paid lip service to, or written off with a shrug as in “I am against it as policy because the information gathered from forced dialogues is notoriously untrustworthy.”

This I read in contrast to what you call “pompous” and a “cliche” as a thin utilitarianism. Do I understand you to agree with torture—which I am using as a another word for “water boarding”, not to mince words—if it were shown to be effective? Even Sullivan, in spite of himself, concedes its efficacy: “It is possible to concede that, in an extremely rare circumstance, torture may be used without conceding that it should be legalized.”

That is where the case against torture—water boarding starts to fall apart, including misconceiving the example of the ticking time bomb, as Krauthammer makes clear in his Weekly Standard essay with the case of Israel.

But I digress. The point about what you quote is, as I say, opposite to being a pompous cliché, that is a necessary starting point, a fundamental unacknowledged premise, for a wide ranging, informed humanist case against water boarding, the recent likes of which, I think, you would have a hard time pointing to.

Your last two paragraphs are, respectfully, markedly off target:

1.Sullivan nowhere simplistically suggests—as you imply in your “rhetorical question”-- that torture leads populations to embrace totalitarian regimes. Nor does he say torture today Nazi Germany—or any other poison—tomorrow.

2. And it’s remote to start discussing what weight torture should get in assessing the factors that might thought to be the conditions of totalitarianism. You are doing this to demonstrate how Sullivan’s misunderstanding of the nexus between torture and totalitarianism infects his essay. But that is to misread his essay. In his essay he rightly isolates the totalitarian impulse in torture—that impulse is necessarily a cornerstone of all state punishment, profoundly implicit in the notion of “cruel and unusual punishment”—and explains why—in what you find a “pompous cliché”—torture weighs against American creedal values and principles in arguing against it.

Krauthammer and Dershowitz wrestle too with the profound horrors and dilemmas of torture and in roughly the same way, albeit coming to different conclusions—though not necessarily, as I suggested, but probably. That's why Sullivan and Krauthammer mark such important, accessible, humanistic, liberal intellectual book marks to this debate.

Sullivan's essay proceeds markedly astride the central criticisms you offered of it.

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