02 June 2006

Friday P.S.: A patriotic grief

Last night, I relaxed at home in my favorite chair for the first time since my whirlwind trip to the Middle East. I sat there enjoying my wonderful family; even the wet tongue of our Quaker pit bull Moby made me glad to be home. Our Siamese foster-cat Sebastian's siren song was music to my ears.

Then I saw a headline from an old Sunday New York Times on the table next to me: "In Secret Unit's 'Black Room,' A Grim Portrait of U.S. Abuse." (March 19.) The motto of this U.S. secret interrogation unit in Iraq is, according to the article: "No blood, no foul." Seeing the headline took me abruptly back a couple of days, to my conversation with an angry Palestinian Christian artist in Amman, Jordan. "You Americans have little idea of the way you treat the world," she said, and proceeded to enumerate examples that included, sadly enough, the kinds of extrajudicial confinements and interrogations mentioned in the New York Times article.

I can imagine how our super-patriots would react to her rhetoric. They might well begin by reminding her of how dissidents in Palestine have been treated. However, I'm a patriot, too, and I categorically reject any defense that depends on comparing our best ideals with someone else's worst compromises. Let's start by reminding ourselves that our administration constantly asserts America's right to define democracy and freedom for the rest of the world. We forget that our behavior is inevitably part of the definition we project—and any comparison must therefore be truly parallel. We should compare behavior with behavior, ideal with ideal, and context with context. This is not to justify the objectification of humans anywhere, including in Palestine. I'm just arguing for humble and legitimate comparisons. Yes, we Americans have a genuine message about democracy and anti-elitism to project to the rest of the world; why do we tolerate leaders who kill the message with policies and actions that speak far louder than platitudes to anyone outside their own circles of self-interest?

Sean's Russia Blog has a fascinating—alarming, actually—post about a revival of the use of psychiatry in Russia to punish dissidents. More proof of American superiority? Don't be so sure; Sean points out that the social construction of the category of "insane" to deal with undesirable reformers has a parallel in the definitions we in America use to define people as ineligible for habeas corpus and due process. Sean doesn't claim literal equivalence: "Make no mistake. I am not equating the Russian and American cases. To do so would be to nullify their particularities. My point is a larger and I think more profound one. It is one inspired by Michel Foucault’s and Giorgio Agamben’s thinking on the confluence of law, social science, medicine, culture, and state institutions as a means to discipline, condemn, and manage bodies." Read the whole post.

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