10 November 2005

Plain language, part two

The first time I wrote about plain language, it was a reflection on the meaning of plain language in Quaker culture. Now I'm writing on plain language as exemplified by the word "torture."

These are not unrelated themes. Early Friends wanted to be plain in the sense of "transparent"—for the ego and its external vanities to get out of the way so the Holy Spirit could shine through. Similarly, words were to be vehicles for truth, not for lies (hence no double standards for public speech, no oaths in the courtroom) nor for idolatries (hence no days and months named for pretender-gods).

Even some of our humor is based on this "plain" concept of bald truth. "A flock of white sheep," says one Quaker passenger on a train to the other, pointing out the window. "Yes, they're white ... at least on this side," responds the other.

The word "torture" has been a fine example of plain language. Now, thanks to our nation's administration, even the word is being tortured, and I have lost my sense of humor. In the service of the latest imperial presidential philosophy, the White House spokesman is put into the impossible position of denying the plain and obvious facts: his bosses want the freedom to go beyond the boundary that the Geneva Conventions have set.

Here's a most peculiar exchange from two days ago, a White House press conference where language is tortured right before our eyes, just so that our government, with our taxes, can do things to detainees, in places where we can't watch. Read this account all the way through, because the concern about torture comes up twice, near the beginning (eighth screen on my computer) and toward the end. Warning: it is truly painful reading.

The initiative that has outraged our leaders, the McCain amendment, simply confirms long-standing U.S. commitments. It would "(1) establish the Army Field Manual as the uniform standard for the interrogation of Department of Defense detainees and (2) prohibit cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of persons in the detention of the U.S. government". The "shock and awe" presidency wants us to reassure us with this tortured logic: we don't actually plan to use these methods that would be prohibited under the amendment. We just want our detainees to think we might use them!

Last night, I happened to be reading Serge Schmemann's fine book, Echoes of a Native Land: Two Centuries of a Russian Village. His great-grandfather, Mikhail Osorgin, was a high provincial official, deeply conservative and devoted to the Tsar. Through his own ancestry and through marriages, he was incredibly enmeshed in the ruling classes. He owned a huge estate with eight villages on the Oka River. At the time of a major peasant uprising in 1898, he was vice-governor of Kharkov Province. The governor, Ivan Obolensky, put an end to the uprisings in his domain by exceeding his authority, commandeering extra Cossack troops, and turning them and their "brutal whips" loose on rioters who were already rounded up. For this, Obolensky was rewarded by St. Petersburg. Schmemann goes on:
The official endorsement of violent and unauthorized methods, as long as they were effective, deeply troubled Osorgin. His moral quandary was intensified when Obolensky became the target of an unsuccessful assassination attempt. The attacker was a confirmed revolutionary named Kochura, and his arrest confronted Osorgin with a conflict between his official duties and a deep religious opposition to the death penalty. The conflict would resurface at several fateful junctures of his career.
(What weak-kneed excuse of a religion might that be, by the way? Why, goodness, what a coincidence: it's CHRISTIANITY!!! Back to Schmemann's account of his ancestor....)
He encountered the sentiment first on the night before the conspirators in the assassination of Alexander II were to be hanged, when he suffered as if it were he or his child who was about to die. "At that moment all other thoughts were deafened by the feeling of endless pity for those who were at the end of their existence; I suffered with them the animal fear of the impending and inescapable; I was tormented by the sense of helpless grief that their families must be experiencing; I understood and endured with them that protest that they must be feeling. I was ready to scream, to weep, and I understood the depth of the Christian teaching: Love thy neighbor as thyself."
On Monday, the day when President Bush assured Panamanians and the world that "we do not torture" (hoping that the detainees either did not hear him or would know he was crossing his fingers?), Bob Ramsey's blog entry was entitled, "Questions for the President and Evangelicals." I am in complete unity with this entry, and particularly these words: "So I'm calling out the evangelical leaders. Speak up. Now. Put your phone banks, email systems and radio shows to use in favor of the McCain amendment, which will prohibit U.S. forces and agents from torturing people. Prove to Americans and the world that Evangelicals care about something more than abortion, sex, and whatever the Republicans want us to care about."

The current issue of Christianity Today features "a new kind of evangelical," Ted Haggard of Colorado Springs, president of the National Association of Evangelicals. Title of the cover story: "Good Morning Evangelicals! Meet Ted Haggard, the NAE's Optimistic Champion of Ecumenical Evangelism and Free-Market Faith." According to the article, "Haggard believes only one cause is big and important enough to bring together evangelicals—evangelism." I have a fantasy, which I described as soberly as I could in a letter to the magazine:
With his every-Monday White House conference calls, I dearly hope that Ted Haggard drops his optimism long enough to express persistent outrage at the administration's campaign to evade restrictions on the treatment of detainees.
After a reasonable period of quiet pressure, I also hope evangelical leaders express their opposition to torture publicly. No other single public act would do as much to redeem evangelicalism in the eyes of skeptics.
Now that I've read Bob Ramsey's challenge, I wish I'd not put in anything about a "reasonable period," because in fact that reasonable period is long over. Nevertheless, I can fantasize that even now, Karl Rove's ears are being singed (humanely, of course) by the no-nonsense input of our evangelical heroes.

What might they actually say? Christianity Today's Web site also published Gary Haugen's article, "Silence on Suffering," a good start toward an assertive church-wide protest against torture.

As I re-read this stuff I've written, I can hardly believe it is even needed. What could be more apple-pie and motherhood than being against torture? Am I just denouncing a straw target to feel good? No, apparently not. Our White House, incompetent in governance, is masterful at expressing its priorities; and exempting ourselves from Geneva-Convention standards somehow rates very high. Bush and Cheney: please stop. The Senate voted against you, 90-9. Even if it had been the other way, you ought to know better in your hearts, but at least now, wake up! Move on. The world is watching. Causes of stumbling are bound to arise, but remove this millstone from your necks now.

Marketing to the slightly rebellious:

Our checking account statement came with a stuffer extolling the benefits of direct deposit. For example, if our paychecks are deposited directly into the bank, we will have "Convenience and peace of mind. Away on vacation? Golfing with friends? Shopping for a new outfit? No matter what you're doing, you'll rest easy knowing your funds are safely deposited into your account for you."

If they could only customize these peace-of-mind messages for individual customers: "Registering voters? Overnight hosting at the Reedwood family shelter? In jail for civil disobedience? Protest with perfect confidence, knowing that your funds are safely deposited...." Try your own variations.

A final thought or two on repentance:

I've never been tempted to torture. In fact, I'm really a comparatively nice person. That thought reminded me of Tom Tomorrow's cartoon from a year or so ago, on the theme of "Defining Deviancy Down" ("At least I'm not as bad as Saddam!").

My mind went on to remember some wise words from the Eastern Orthodox writer Frederica Mathewes-Green (The Illumined Heart: The Ancient Christian Path of Transformation):
Talk of repentance makes modern-day Christians nervous. We are embarrassed by the stereotype of old-fashioned preachers hammering on sin and making people feel guilty. We rush to assert that Jesus isn't really like that, he came out of love, he wants to help us. He knows us deep inside, he feels our every pain, and his healing love sets us free.

This is one of those truths that run out of gas halfway home. The question is, what do we need to be healed of? Subjectively, we think we need sympathy and comfort, because our felt experience is of loneliness and unease. Objectively, our hearts are eaten through with rottenness. A hug and a smile aren't enough.

We don't feel like we're rotten; if anything we feel like other people treat us badly. One of the most popular myths of our age is that if you can claim to be a victim, you're automatically sinless.

A second popular myth is this: We're nice. Being nice is all that counts in life, right? Isn't it the highest virtue? Even granting that doubtful assertion, a more honest self-assessment would reveal that we're nice when we're comfortable and everything is going our way. Anybody can be nice under those circumstances. As Jesus noted, even sinners do the same, yet our God is kind even to the ungrateful and the selfish. That sort of kindness is a standard we rarely intend, much less meet.

Finally, there's the ever-popular conviction that we're still better than a lot of other people. Christians should know better than this; God doesn't judge one person against another; he doesn't grade on the curve. Yet we find it desperately hard to believe that we're really, truly sinners, because we see people so much worse than us evey day in the newspapers. In comparison with them, we just so gosh-darn nice.

The problem in all these cases is that we're comparing ourselves with others, rather than with the holy God. Once we get that perspective adjusted, repentance can come very swiftly.
If God doesn't grade Bush and Cheney on a curve, by the exact same token, God doesn't grade me on a curve either. And I don't have a country to "run."


Bob Ramsey said...

Thanks for taking my rant and puting it into a more thoughful context.

I especially appreaciated your quote of Frederica Matthewes-Green, because her point lies at the heart of the issue. Setting aside the crazy reading of the Constitution which also seems to be driving the Administration, it is clear that our leaders believe that because our national enemies do evil things, we are entitled to do the same.

And I had forgotten about Pastor Ted's weekly conference call. I would love for him to take up your challenge, but sadly, I suspect he calls in to receive orders rather than offer advice.

Nancy A said...

Strong (plain) language, Johan! But so badly needed. We are clearly deep in Orwell's age of double-speak.

I always keep in mind that Hitler wasn't a dictator that stole power. He was elected by a people that he was able to sway with his rhetoric and their fear.

Democracy is incredibly fragile. It can die by slow degrees.

Thanks for posting.

Johan Maurer said...

Gott mit uns!

Yes, democracy can die by slow degrees, and also by otherwise good people truncating their relational and creative possibilities by giving into the temptations to get polarized. The more I protest against the criminal policies and reckless practices of President Bush, the more I'm bound to pray for him. The worst thing we can do is start objectifying people ourselves--that's the very trap that our leaders have fallen into.

(Yes, Bush is sticking to the same talking points: http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2005/11/20051114-3.html), taking a set of phenomena whose very complexity is dangerous, and fashioning one monolithic evil to threaten us with and to pump up the armed forces.

Let's keep up the pressure to be relentlessly relational, challenging every attempt to dehumanize and objectify others, even as we refuse to objectify and dehumanize those whose policies we MUST stubbornly challenge.