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Torture and Bad Faith

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The first thing to note about Freddie deBoer’s response to my point about his ridiculous generalizations about liberals and torture is that he cites Alan Dershowitz as representing the typical liberal position. (And he accuses other people of bad faith!)  And does so as if eventheliberal Alan Dershowitz’s feeble defense of torture is news to me. To state the obvious, since I am a fairly typical left-liberal it would be impossible to understate the influence Dershowitz has had on my thinking, on this issue or any other.

Once things have started on such a farcical level further rebuttal is probably superfluous. But I do think it’s worth quoting what deBoer actually argued:

It’s not that I think liberals support torture. No, I think liberals want to be forced to support torture. What liberals want is ultimately to do what conservative hawks want to do, but only after experts and leaders assure them that they have no choice. They want extreme events to make the choice for them. That’s why every discussion of torture always descends into some absurd hypothetical where you know that there’s a ticking time bomb and you know that a terrorist in your custody has info and you know that you can get that info and stop that bomb if you torture him. They devise these incredibly complex scenarios because they need them to take away their personal choice. That’s why writers like Spencer Ackerman exist, to present the proper level of squeamishness and showy moral grappling– to say that these scenes “can make a viewer ashamed to be American, in the context of a movie whose ending scene makes viewers very, very proud to be American”– before the torture happens anyway. The key is to go through the moral indigestion but to eventually get to the all-American pride. There’s a whole cottage industry, like that, for fretting liberals who want to get to the tough guy routine in the end.

If Zero Dark Thirty shows torture as the key to killing bin Laden, that’s what it’s for, and I’m sure performing that service will prove very profitable. It will inevitably be folded into a narrative used to perpetuate violence in the Muslim world. That narrative will come wrapped in the flag and shouting about freedom. That’s what it means to be an American today, to talk about defending principles you swiftly abandon in the process of defending them. And that’s the message of American liberals today, like the film critics showing their profound sophistication as they snark at Greenwald: do the bad thing. Just make us feel that we have no choice.

As you can see, deBoer did not make an argument about some specific liberals, which would not only be fair game but something I (like most liberal bloggers) have done multiple times.  He was making an argument about liberals as a class. To cite isolated examples of unrepresentative liberals (or politicians who lead majority coalitions in the United States and are not, in fact, “favorites” of liberals) defending torture (or, in some cases, defending bad things that are not torture) does not even come close to a defense of his claim, which involved citing one person who defended Zero Dark Thirty because he read at as opposing torture. Comments from Eric Holder that discuss the legal status of detainees but say nothing about torture are also not evidence that liberals as a class support support torture — excuse me, “want to be forced” to support torture. And, in fact an overwhelming majority of liberals do not support torture under any circumstances.

deBoer also cites a comment from Corey Robin, which cites a book edited by Sandy Levinson that I wasn’t familiar with. As it happens, the college library has it in e-book form, so I perused it after getting to work. Levinson, at least, is a liberal who I admire, and Robin is dismayingly right — Levinson’s introduction does express support for the idea that torture might be a lesser evil in some circumstances, based on worthless hypotheticals.  Having said this, the existence of this volume is pretty weak tea in terms of an argument that liberals generally support torture and see value in the ticking time bomb scenario. As Robin concedes, two of the most prominent liberals in the book unequivocally oppose torture. I’m not familiar with a majority of the other contributors, but of the ones I do know, two (Richard Posner and Jean Belke Elshtain) are people of the right. And Michael Walzer made his reputation is a “communitarian” critic of liberalism — if we’re going to use deBoer’s (abjectly useless, IMHO) framework of distinguishing between left-liberals and Real Democratic Leftists, based on his assumptions I believe Walzer proves that deBoer wants to be forced to defend torture, not that I do. It seems rather more accurate to say that Walzer’s idiosyncratic views are not representative of any branch of left political thought.

And finally, there’s this:

Liberal crush object Barack Obama is in charge of, among other things, our intelligence services. Our intelligence services have repeatedly been alleged to have committed torture. Obama is also Commander in Chief to those in the military. And the military tortured Bradley Manning, during Obama’s administration, and certainly with Obama’s full knowledge and support. If Obama wanted the torture of Bradley Manning to stop, he would have stopped it. That’s not intellectual or moral support for torture, it’s direct complicity in torture.

First of all, as I said in comments the “crush object” bit is a rather pathetic bit of projection. In fact, “vastly better than Mitt Romney” and “better than most American presidents” are very low bars to climb, and leaves a considerable distance between Obama and left-liberals, particularly on civil liberties issues.  At any rate, while the treatment of Bradley Manning has been reprehensible is (contrary to some initial reports) does not constitute torture as the term is usually understood. And it seems relevant here that Obama ended the official sanction of torture given by the previous administration. This is one of the many issues — such as gender equity, access to health care, gay and lesbian rights, environmental regulation, voting rights, and so on — that deBoer, being a Real Principled Leftist of Principle rather than a mere liberal, believed should be given no weight whatsoever in determining who was worthy of support in the most recent presidential election (despite the fact that the only other person who could become president was substantially worse than Obama not only on the life-or-death issues deBoer arbitrarily ignored but on the life-or-death issues he focused on.) How this makes people who supported Obama rather than people who were indifferent about the possibility of Mitt “Double Gitmo” Romney becoming president secret advocates of torture is…not clear.

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