wayfaring stranger

Magellan telescopes at night. Ivelina Momcheva, 2005

子曰:為政以德,譬如北晨, 居其所而眾星共之。
(Confucius) said: Governing with excellence can be compared to being the North Star: the North Star dwells in its place, and the multitude of stars pay it tribute. (Analects, 2.1)

Alberto Gonzalez and George W. Bush having dinner

I’ve been trying to develop in previous posts an understanding of political action that is not pornographic, which I define as a ritualized behavior performed to inculcate in the viewer a sense of having something satisfied. I think it’s this form of representative government that leads to disasters like that reported by Physicians for Human Rights stating that the Bush Administration, “conducted human research and experimentation on prisoners in US custody.” Scintillating stuff. My question is: we look to the Holocaust and the Nazi’s experimentation, we point to the Rape of Nanjing and the medical experiments there and we, without hesitation, say those people were monsters; what about these doctors and this enhanced interrogation program?

So, I will go ahead and announce that water-boarding was already wrong because that line was drawn by the U.S. Congress and signed by the President in 1996. But then that line was visibly re-drawn by John Yoo and the rest of the Bush Six.  And then again when the U.S. Congress decided that it would be untoward were the U.S. military personnel to be tried for crimes against humanity, just because they were acting on orders from the Executive Office.

Nine Reconnaissance Satellites over the Sonora Pass, Trevor Paglen (2008)

We must accept that those following executive orders regarding enhanced interrogation techniques between 2001 and 2009 were actually committing torture (read Torture Taxi by Trevor Paglen and AC Thompson); because President Obama’s executive order revoking Bush’s interpretation of the Geneva Convention states explicitly that this revocation is, “to promote the […] humane treatment of United States personnel who are detained in armed conflicts.”

It’s wrong that these doctors performed this research because, as any social scientist with a bachelor’s degree will tell you, Federal Code requires that there be informed consent given by research participants — something that you simply can’t get from a prison population.

But, if you have to ask yourself, “is what I’m doing torturing someone?” then you probably need to put down the syringe, the alligator clips, the whathaveyou, and walk away — have a drink (we can recommend a few), maybe smoke a cigarrette, calm down a little.

Exemplary persons understand what is appropriate; petty persons understand what is of personal advantage


I can understand that there is some unreal shit happening in the world. Especially if you’re a service member in the U.S. military, and particularly if your job entails gathering intelligence. As recent events have shown, even “hooah” young soldiers are having a hard time drawing a line.

I read stories about survivors of the Holocaust, such as this Nazi hunter, Arnold Weiss, and I think, “phew — thankfully I don’t live in a world where to be lawful I have to perform immoral acts.” But that is what was happening and was legally protected until recently. I took a class with Judith Butler last year and read Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt’s main point is not that evil is banal or only done by bureaucrats (C.S. Lewis made that argument in The Screwtape Letters). Without a doubt, she agrees with the court that Eichmann should hang, but why he should hang is worth heavy consideration.

Eichmann’s crime was unprecedented, meaning the court had no prior ruling from which to derive their judgement. Without a precedent, is it possible to find Eichmann guilty? Arendt finds in the end, yes. And she does something interesting, rhetorically, with the moment of judgement on Eichmann: she speaks for the people, then for the judges, then for the judges speaking for Eichmann, then as the judges, and herself as well. It’s worth quoting at length:

You said that your role in the Final Solution was an accident and that almost anybody could have taken your place, so that potentially all Germans are equally guilty. What you meant to say was that where all, or almost all, are guilty, nobody is. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that it was nothing more than misfortune that made you a willing instrument in the organization of mass murder; there still remains the fact that you carried out, and therefore actively supported, a policy of mass murder. For politics is not like the nursery; in politics obedience and support are the same. And just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations – as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and should not inhabit the world – we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.

I’ve invoked Confucius a couple of times because he’s an excellent source for understanding the role of sociality in judgement, something Arendt seems to share with him. Both thinkers agree that to judge is to bring Justice into being, that judging is something that involves putting oneself into another’s situation and appreciating that perspective. Confucius’ term for this action is 恕 (shu) and was central to his golden rule, “do not impose on others what you yourself do not want.” Watch Hitchens get waterboarded and consider this golden rule:

草上之風,必偃 Wind-stroked Grassland, Dave Leiker (2007)

Confucius promoted a system of command that was noncoercive and deferential, where one’s virtue, character, and achievement commanded respect from those that would emulate this exemplary person (君子, junzi). The excellence achieved by the junzi is normative, influencing the world to become a continuing focus of deference and a resource for emulation. Confucius, like Arendt, insisted that the individual must cultivate his or her own virtue in the social world, and that this cultivated virtue would sway the masses as the wind sways the grasses. As we try to understand the role of torture in the U.S. pursuit of intelligence, we might consider the following episode from The Analects (12.19):

A government official asked Confucius, “What if I kill those who have abandoned the way (道, dao) to attract those who are on it?” To which Confucius replied, “If you govern effectively, what need is there for killing? If you want to be truly adept, the people will also be adept. The excellence of the exemplary person is the wind, while that of the petty person is the grass. As the wind blows, the grass is sure to bend.”

Professor Astronomy, wikimedia, Roos Bros., Reading Revolutions, Postcards from Kansas.



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2 responses to “wayfaring stranger

  1. Mr. Mackey

    Torture is bad, mmkay.

    • Mmmkay, you’re cured. You can spend the rest of the afternoon in quiet contemplation.
      One of my favorite moments at the movies was watching South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut: the boys are watching “Asses of Fire” and Terrance & Phillip start swearing at each other. There’s that great moment with the cut scene to the boys staring at the screen in their cinema and I realize that I am staring at the screen in the exact same way. It was brilliant.

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