Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Audiobook Recommendation #3: "The Wisdom of Joseph Campbell"

It's been awhile, but I started a series of posts about the best audiobooks I've found over the last few years. Number 3 is a hard to find audiobook of conversations between Joseph Campbell and Michael Toms of New Dimensions radio called The Wisdom of Joseph Campbell.

The four cd set reminds me of Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, the book that introduced millions (including me) to Campbell's work, but I actually like it much better than the Moyers series. While Moyers is one of my heroes and has had a great impact on my life, Moyers is a journalist/generalist while Toms is much more of an expert on mythology. Thus, while Moyers questions probe Campbell to describe his life's work in detail, Toms' questions propel Campbell into lively descriptions of the joys of growing old when you've found and followed your bliss.

At one point, Toms stops Campbell, asking him to go back and restate a point he's just made and Campbell can't, exclaiming that "that's so hard, you talk out of an excitement..." In other words, while Toms tries to get Campbell to slow down for Toms' audience, the great conversation between them has prompted Campbell to talk so excitedly that he goes beyond his prepared material and into a zone of spontaniety that's wonderful to witness. In fact, at one point, upon signing off, Campbell tells Toms that he "feels like he's talking to a brother" in what must have been one of the high compliments of Toms' life.

At another point, Toms reads Campbell a selection from Campbell's early work The Hero With a Thousand Faces. I forget the passage, but Campbell responds that when he wrote the selection he was writing out of what he had read at that time. He goes on to describe how moved he was by his own writing, thinking "I wrote that?," before going on to say that now that he listens to it in old age (Campbell is in his 70's or 80's when the conversations took place) he has now lived through what he described in this book and has witnessed it to be true. When Toms comments that his conversations with Campbell make him not fear growing old, Campbell responds with a quote "grow old with me, the best is yet to be." It's a nice message about myth, in other words, and a rare example of a conversation between two people with an in depth knowledge of mythology.

At one point, Campbell describes Christianity in a rare, but true, way. He says:

"One of the obsessions, I think, in Christianity is the Devil. When I turn from reading Oriental and tribal mythologies to any orthodox Christian work, suddenly the Devil is there. I think he's more important than God. He's the reason for all the wars against other people. He justifies the massacre of primitive tribes. They are all "Devil worshippers." Anyone who has an experience of the divine that's not of some particular clergy, is worshipping the Devil. And "Devil" is the word that's actually used for other people's gods."

At another point he responds to a call-in question about whether primitive people lacked a spiritual life. Campbell disagrees respectfully but strongly, describing that despite their tough lives, primitive peoples' belief systems were often more advanced than our own. In fact, he points out the depth of visions like the one described in Black Elk Speaks in which Black Elk not only had a vision that Harney Peak in South Dakota was the center/ still point of his Sioux tribe but that this vision continued and deepened as Black Elk saw a series of interlocking hoops across the world and went on to describe the center of the world as "everywhere." Campbell describes this as "a tribe that thought it was It is now in a multiple heteregeneous world."

Campbell describes this vision as "good stuff for today." I agree and highly recommend this audiobook or the abridged printed version called "An Open Life."

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Joseph Campbell on Native Americans

I'm reading The Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell's Life and Work which features transcripts interviews he gave throughout his life. I read anything and everything by Campbell and will soon start listening to the audiobook of The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Just yesterday I finished, again, a great series of interviews Campbell did with Michael Toms of New Dimensions Radio entitled 'The Wisdom of Joseph Campbell." Excerpts of this audiobook are also available in Michael Toms' book An Open Life.

But today I ran across a great quote from Mr. Campbell in the Hero's Journey that rings true but which also represents a perspective I rarely hear but that he spoke in the early 80's. He said:

Today you read of our interest in clearing up apartheid in South Africa and we don't think about our own Native Americans, taking the mote out of our neighbor's eye with a beam in our own that isn't matched in the history of civilization. And those people, our own native people, are still living in a subcivilized condition that's been put upon them. I don't see any of our ambitious youth picket-lining to give Indians their due.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Stuttering: The King's Speech

I caught a little bit of the Oscars with my daughter and loved the part where the old man who won Best Screenplay for The King’s Speech concluded his speech by saying “stutterers have a voice.” This hit home for me because stuttering runs in my family. When I was a kid, in first grade, I left the regular classroom twice a day, once to go to with the second graders for reading and once to go with the kids who needed help with their speech. I have two brothers and two of us stutter. I say “stutter” because it never really goes away, although it’s improved greatly over time and no one, not even my wife, knows when I stutter.

Here’s how it works: When I have time to think about starting a sentence with a certain sound I cannot say it and instead must trick myself into starting with a different word. For example, if I have to say the word “when” (‘w’ sounds are particularly troubling) I have a choice of either stuttering, “w, w, w, when… or changing the sound and beginning with, for example, “um, when …”

To those of you who’ve never stuttered this must sound crazy. In fact, reading over it and putting it down on the page makes me laugh at myself. How is it that I cannot simply say a simple sound? I truly don’t know, but know that this slight reminder of the chronic stutter I had as a child still remains. Even more puzzling is that simply talking about it will make even worse for a few weeks, until the memory that I am a slight stutterer fades back into my mind.

In some ways, having this slight stutter has its benefits. For example, it can act as an indicator of stress in my life as when it “acts up” or when I find myself almost stuttering (and having to think of different words) for sounds that used to flow smoothly, I’m reminded that my mind is overtaxed and falling back into old habits that I thought I’d overcome.

Another benefit is empathy. I work with a lot of alcoholics and addicts as well as a lot of people who can’t understand why they can’t simply walk away from the drug they’re addicted to. It reminds me of being a kid and stuttering over a word and then having someone try to help me by modeling the way my mouth should move to pronounce it, as if somehow I’d forgotten to just move my lips around the sound. I wanted to say, “Don’t you think if that were the problem that I’d have tried that by now?” or “Do you think I’m that stupid?”

But, like addiction, it’s very hard to reverse roles with the person who’s afflicted. Right after college I worked at a consulting company designing marketing materials for people whose main job was to speak to large groups of people. I worked behind the scenes, writing and editing some of the materials they used and occasionally speaking before them. When I struggled, the audience was not very forgiving because I was failing at a skill they took for granted and which likely came very naturally for them. When I fell silent for a minute and tried my trick of thinking of a different syllable to begin a sentence, they frequently finished my sentence for me, impatient with my lack of speed and command. I didn’t dare confess to being a secret stutterer to this group as this would have been viewed as a weakness rather than an affliction.

One day at this job, however, my boss corrected me emphatically. I told him, probably wanting to avoid having to avoid speaking in front of a group, that I “was a bad public speaker.” He was a very patient individual, an amazing speaker, but he also understood that the key to solving problems was knowing where to begin. He said, and I’ll never forget this, “Stop saying that you’re a bad speaker and start saying “I need to work on my speaking skills.” It sounded ridiculous at first, sort of like the person who told me, when I stuttered, to “just say it,” but I told him I’d give it a try. He pressed on, asking me if I would commit to presenting in front of a large group at an upcoming conference. Terrified, but having just agreed to try something new, I told him I would.

When the day arrived, I didn’t stun the audience with my command of language, but I did o.k. There were two reasons for this: (1) My boss set the stage for me by introducing me and convincing the audience to welcome me with a big round of applause which created a welcome environment, and (2) simply thinking of myself as needing to work on my speaking skills rather than simply being a “bad speaker” gave my brain permission to look for ways to solve the problem and opened up the possibility that I wasn’t simply bad but just needed to work on acquiring this skill. I found this simple trick, which I laughed at at first, to be amazing in practice.

Not long after that, as I presented a different boss with something I’d written, and commented that I lacked the speaking skills to deliver it she commented that “if you have the mind to create it, you can have the mind to present it. It’s the same process.” This was even more stunning to me because I’d always thought of myself as a writer rather than a speaker. Hearing that moving from creating something that worked on a page to something that worked on a stage, or at a podium, was “the same process” was also stunning to me. More importantly, it gave me permission to open a closed door and stop pretending that I was just “bad” at speaking in front of a group. Instead, her words gave me permission to work on a skill that I lacked rather than hiding behind this deficiency as if it could never change.

Shortly after that came law school. I was 29 years old and would know no one in my class. Since I was late to the law school game, I had the benefit of hindsight to know that I wanted to do something I enjoyed. I decided the path that sounded most intriguing was to be a trial lawyer. Rather than admitting that I was a bad public speaker or even that I needed to work on my public speaking skills, I decided to tell myself and anyone that would listen that I was going to be a trial lawyer, as if my public speaking skills came as naturally as those silver tongued orators and natural public speakers that graced Court TV at night.

I approached the President of ATLA my first week of law school and announced that I wanted to join. I expected her to hand me a sign up sheet or a brochure, but instead she dug in her locker and handed me a thick file. She was a 3L, looked stressed beyond belief, and she said, “Here you go, you’re the new president.”

When I got out of law school and did my first jury trial I was scared beyond belief. Pretending to be a trial lawyer may have worked to trick my own mind and a few classmates, but these stakes were high and real. I felt like the jig was up, like I might be discovered or my stutter return. But I also discovered something as puzzling as my stutter when I stood beside my client. When it was about him and not about me, I didn’t think about stuttering. Sure I was nervous, but stuttering didn’t enter my mind. If I “tripped” over a letter or a sound, I could get around that easily since once I got going I didn’t have time to think about old, bad habits that crept up only when I had time to worry about them. Since this was about his future and about winning against that prosecutor, neither stuttering nor my old belief that I was bad at speaking entered my mind.

When the judge called us back in chambers after the case went to the jury he said I did well with what I’d been given. When the jury hung, I felt like I pulled of a great trick. And I was hooked.

I used to feel guilty about stuttering, as if I made a bad choice or couldn’t overcome a simple problem on my own. Then once I attended a large family reunion and witnessed an uncle, whom I’d never met up to that point, stammer and stutter over his words, nervous to be speaking before the group and unable to sound out the same sounds that often tripped me up or made me start over. It was like looking in a mirror.

It also made me realize that the stutter I’d heard my father describe also had it’s roots on my mother’s side of the family, as it was her brother whose speech seemed so much like mine. It also offered proof that this problem was likely hereditary, that it was more like a disease to be treated than a weakness to be hidden or ashamed of.

Once in awhile I speak to a client and quietly tell them that I know their secret. I tell them that only I can spot it but that I see them doing exactly what I do, trick their own mind into avoiding an obvious stutter by choosing different words before their mind has time to trip them up. Not once has anyone ever argued with me over this and every time they’ve seemed amazed that I can spot what they so craftily conceal.

I go on to tell them not to feel ashamed, that it’s only noticeable to someone like me and that it “takes one to know one.”

It’s nice to see some attention paid to this issue, to know that more people will understand it or at least not be so quick to judge it or so patronizing in their stated cures for it. It’s nice to know that stutterers can learn to have a voice.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

PTSD Tribes Needed

I just finished Tribes by Seth Godin. Scott Greenfield once wrote a post or two referencing Godin and somehow the name stuck, prompting me to pick it up in the library. The book’s timing was perfect as I’m pondering how best to craft marketing strategy, how to be a better leader, and whether the best way to do this is to take Godin’s advice and become a heretic.
Godin describes a tribe as a group aligned around an idea, connected to a leader and to each other, going on to describe how creating a tribe is easier than ever, thanks to the internet and social media which make connecting simple and instantaneous. He goes on to describe tribe leaders as heretics who “must believe.. [who are] challenging the status quo... daring to be great... [who are] not just punching a clock [and] who must have confidence in [their] beliefs.”

According to Godin, size doesn’t matter, at least not at first. I described to my daughter, who wants to be an artist, Godin’s description of a successful artist building a career upon a few hundred true fans. He doesn’t pretend that a few hundred fans will make you rich or even pay your bills, but points out that a few hundred true fans will spread your message and attract enough fans to create a movement.

I saw an example of this kind of “movement” today in the Omaha World Herald and was surprised how quickly this once small group reached the headlines. The group is called “At Ease” and their aim is to help soldiers with PTSD reenter society. Here is how I came to know them:

Last June: I stop in Dick’s Sporting Goods and buy a kayak.
The “kid” (he’s about 22) and I get along well and he talks about how he, like me, likes to go to Zorinsky Lake in Omaha and how he’d like to start kayaking in local rivers if he could ever find the time. We talk about the College World Series, how he found tickets and went with his friends the day before. I tell him that I took my daughters to couple games, how they have great memories of Rosenblatt and how we couldn’t miss the last year there.

Last July: I am in court and see the “kid” who sold me the kayak pleading to a second offense DUI. I hear his lawyer tell the judge how he came home from Iraq with PTSD and hear the judge sentence him to probation, telling him he has to get down to the root of his problems or end up in jail.

The next day: I tell my wife how badly I feel for the kid, how hard it must be to be in Iraq one day and back in Omaha the next with people expecting you to settle right in, despite what you may have seen or been asked to do. She tells me about a program one of her friends’ husbands has started that aims to help soldiers coming home from Iraq with PTSD. When I google the name, “At Ease,” I have to dig for information, but eventually find a few web pages about how Scott Anderson uses space at a church in Bellevue, NE. I can’t let this “kid” go it alone (and don’t have any confidence that his own lawyer will go the extra mile for him) so I stop in at Dick’s and deliver the information, along with Scott’s phone number.

A couple months later: I am appointed to a case and my client describes coming home from Iraq and struggling with PTSD. I don’t know if he ever uses it, but I find the information about “At Ease” and tell him that he’s not alone, that someone locally has started a group for people like him who are, understandably, having trouble settling back into America after being sent to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Last week: I am walking through the courthouse and strike up a conversation with a guy who tells me about his service in the Marine Corps. We end up walking out along the same path and he goes on to tell me how lucky he is, how he doesn’t feel he deserves the veteran benefits he receives. I’m shocked later at his lack of a sense of entitlement as he tells me how his combat experience in Iraq left him with on-going PTSD. When I ask him if he’s ever heard of At Ease he pauses and says, “I couldn’t live without it.” I think to myself how great it is that people like him can join this tribe and hopefully get some relief from PTSD.

Today: I pick up the Omaha World Herald and read that former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey spoke out in support of At Ease:

Kerrey argued Monday that non-profit programs such as At Ease — a 16-month-old effort to provide PTSD treatment to Omaha-area veterans and their families — have the best chance to bring struggling service members back into civilian society.
“This is a situation where we have to solve it, we have to provide help,” Kerrey said of post-traumatic stress disorder before his speech. “It's working.”

Godin’s message is that if you lead well, you will attract the type of people who commit to your vision and spread the word, leading to something that both works and spreads.

Maybe what made me want to help people with PTSD was a sign I wrote about a few years ago, posted by soldiers in Iraq. It said “America isn’t at War. America is at the Mall.”

But maybe that kid you see at the mall was just in Iraq and is having trouble adjusting to the distance between these two worlds. Thankfully people like Scott Anderson, the founder of At Ease, (who took great pains to not take personal credit for its success) are stepping up to help them bridge this gap.

Can you help him spread the word or do whatever you can, even if it takes just a moment, to help someone coming home from wars we seem to have forgotten?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Law Review about The Wire

I read a great law review article recently about The Wire, which is available here. I have only watched a few episodes of this highly-reviewed show, but even these few gave me new insights into a system that I work in every day from but typically only see from one angle. I don’t remember the specific scene or story that hit home with me, only that, after watching it, I felt as if I had more insight into the motivations of the other players in the system, as if I had, however slightly, “reversed roles” (a term associated with psychodrama) with police officers or prosecutors after watching and thinking about this rare, non-melodramatic portrayal of a complex system.

The article made me want to watch the entire series, calling it, “a riveting show: the greatest television series ever made.” While “riveting” shows with compelling drama are important to draw viewers in, what’s often missing from “cop shows,” at least in my view, is truth. I’m not complaining about a lack of nonfiction shows on t.v., only pointing out that, of the vast majority of “cop shows,” most feature some variation of the same old story which essentially places a black hat on the defendant to match the white one given to the pure-hearted prosecutor, or the evil-fighting cop. You know the story, the poor, toiling cop or the outgunned prosecutor, the one who fights for justice all alone, who would have gotten to the killer if it wasn’t for that meddling Constitution, as quoted by the slick defense attorney who clearly wants to put the guilty pedophile back into your kids’ school. It’s the same old story and it’s running in several slightly different versions across cable reruns as we speak.

Thus, the problem isn’t that there are too many fictional shows, only that the one-sidedness of this story, and the repetition of it create archetypes within viewer’s minds and thus create something potentially dangerous: people who stumble into the system for the first time (as jurors or observers, or people who question you at a party about “how do you defend someone you know is guilty?”) with preconceived beliefs, stories which feature defense attorneys as pro-crime, and systemic problems as simple, and solvable, if we’d simply stop that pesky Constitution from getting in the way of “the good guys” who work for the government.

But the system I see, and that these people typically pre-judge, is nothing like the one featured on t.v., (at least outside of The Wire and a few exceptions, like Raising the Bar) in this heavily cliched genre. Here’s one example: since Omaha’s Police have a very powerful union, their contract is correspondingly generous, giving them (the last time I checked) 4 hours of overtime for each court appearance. Thus, when I appear in traffic court in the morning I see less of a call for justice as I do a call for overtime.

These police officers aren’t necessarily greedy, they simply understand that the quickest way to make the most money, to maximize their payment under their contract with the least possible time commitment, is to make a lot of minor traffic arrests. Here’s how it might work: You’re an officer and you work the night shift, getting off in the early morning. If you appear in court, you have to appear in court at 9:00 a.m., but you get overtime pay for four hours for simply showing up. If you arrest someone for driving under suspension, it doesn’t take long and the case is usually wrapped up in under an hour.

In fact, I’ll never forget the look on my client’s face when he told me he had a good case since “even the officer said I should plead not guilty at arraignment and take it to trial.” I had to educate him about the system by explaining that the officer wasn’t giving that advice for his benefit but simply needed him to enforce his right to trial for the four hours of overtime he needed. His shining face in the second row proved it, and also meant the driving during suspension case against my client was a slam dunk, sending the officer home in about fifteen minutes. The City, however, paid him four hours of overtime for that appearance and, who could blame him, he laughed all the way to the bank almost every day.

Sadly, however, hardly anyone within the system was in a position to change it, to save this clear waste of tax dollars In fact, the prosecutor’s attempt to curtail this, which involved asking for money to hire another prosecutor whose job it would have been to secure early pleas and whose salary would be paid many times over in cost savings to the city was met with resistance, likely by the city councilman who knew how powerful the police union was and how they treated politicians who tried to cut into it. In short, the system I saw was complex, driven both by a desire for self-enrichment as well as its obvious goal of law enforcement.

But, while the latter goal was visible, and retold on television many times a night, the less visible goal, that involved the officer who knew how to work the system to maximize his income, was never seen on t.v. In fact, even when I try to tell it here, it likely doesn’t resonate, as it’s complex, not very dramatic and has difficulty competing with the “last honest cop” story that’s deeply imbedded on our minds, put there as we watched Southland, or Blue Bloods, (or fill in the blank) last night.

But the Wire is different. The law review article describes it as “in the business of telling America truths about itself that would be unbearable even if it were interested in hearing them.” While the fact that America isn’t even interested in these “unbearable” truths is depressing, the fact that the Wire ran so successfully is reason for hope. In fact, if the writers and producers of the Wire have figured out a way to tell these stories that captures the attention of us modern “t.v. babies,” who naturally like our drama to reinforce stereotypes rather than uncovering hidden truths, that creates the possibility of a happy ending to this sad story. As the article puts it, the Wire pulls this off as it “demonstrates that complexity and social context can make for a gripping tale.”

Maybe television can educate rather than inculcate, I thought. Then I read further and discover that The Wire educates us about something I see all the time but that is rarely discussed:
The Wire shows us something truly frightening about systemic dysfunction- that most of the harm done is neither dramatic nor venal. Sometimes individuals make heroic or repugnant choices, but the Wire insists on complicating not only the notion of villainy, but also the notion of heroism. It repeatedly presents individual choice as severely constrained, even dictated, by the logic of the system. Harm is done, day in and day out, by regular people trying to do and keep their jobs.

... the viewer is shown how how moral choice is shaped and constrained by systemic forces.... Those who attempt to live within an organizational structure but refuse to obey these rules... are nearly always punished, demoted, forced to resign, banished, murdered...

This reminds me of the Supreme Court case Garcetti v. Ceballos, in which a Deputy District Attorney did his job as a prosecutor and investigated the truth of an affidavit sworn out to secure a warrant. When he found inaccuracies, he recommended dismissing the case, but was met with resistance. When he complained further, he was denied promotion. Shortly after that he transferred, or banished, to the Palookaville Division. His “mistake” was in making an individual choice, rather than a systemic one. If he would have simply passed the potential harm onto the the defendant, ignored his oath and letting the officer’s lie lie (as the system likely demanded) he would have kept his job, perhaps even received a promotion.

While this truth that the Wire reveals, and the real example of it, are depressing, what’s exciting about the show is simply that it was made and that it was successful, running for years on HBO. Thus, while the Wire illustrates that “those who attempt to live within an organizational structure but refuse to obey these rules... are nearly always punished,” it somehow survived what was likely a similar organizational structure, lived to see the light of day, and told important stories that still circulate. In a world filled with the melodramatic stories of which Law and Order is composed, is people’s minds are still open to stories that go beyond the stereotypical, melodramatic stories that make up most of primetime.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Benjamin Wittes' Prefers "Civility" over Law, English Language

Glenn Greenwald wrote this week about Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution, quoting Wittes as calling the Obama Administration’s decision not to investigate the Bush Administration for approving torture “one of the more courageous things ... it has done.”

That’s a common sentiment, but Wittes goes further, claiming that “there has actually been a great deal of accountability for past detention policy -- the disclosure of internal memos, for example.”

Imagine making that argument in court, after your client was convicted of, oh, say obstructing justice for destroying the videotapes that documented Khalid Sheikh Mohammed being waterboarded 183 times in March 2003.

Or imagine that your client was convicted of simply waterboarding KSM one of these 183 times, as occurred during the Reagan Administration, when the DOJ prosecuted, and convicted, a Texas Sheriff, and his deputies (whose “only following orders” defense was unpersuasive to the jury) for waterboarding suspects.

Imagine beginning your sentencing argument, “Your Honor, a lenient sentence is in order here because ‘there has actually been a great deal of accountability’ because of ‘the disclosure of internal memos.’” The judge put your client in prison, a place which, to Wittes, “has only the most limited role in transitions of power in a democracy,” (More on this later) after laughing out loud.

But Wittes continues, with a straight face, stating that “What [Human Rights First] calls “accountability for torture” is, in my book, the criminalization of policy differences–nothing more or less.” Wow. Let that sink in for a second. He first disputes use of the word torture by HRF (ignoring Gen. Taguba’s conclusion that “"there is no longer any doubt that the current administration committed war crimes") and substitutes his own term of it, “policy differences.”

Imagine stating that in your sentencing argument, or your jury argument for that matter, “Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, my client didn’t torture KSM when he simulated drowning 183 times in a month, he just had a “policy difference with U.S., International law, and the Geneva Conventions.”

What becomes crystal clear is that Wittes believes strongly in Equal Protection, as long as some people are “more equal than others.” If you’re a sheriff in Texas, the law applies, but if you’re one of the people, like Dick Cheney, who approved of “enhanced interrogation techniques” enforcing existing law is “criminaliz[ing] policy differences.”

The point here is not to attack Dick Cheney as the decision to not prosecute him, and others, would clearly have implicated people on both sides of the aisle and perhaps stretched to members of the Obama Administration, who have been praised for breaking campaign promises and continuing Bush Administration “detention” policies. In fact, even Michael Hayden, head of NSA during the Bush Administration, praised Obama’s similar policies, describing that “[y]ou've got state secrets, targeted killings, indefinite detention, renditions, the opposition to extending the right of habeas corpus to prisoners at Bagram.”

Instead, the point is that to people like Wittes, the law is for people like you and me, who would, if we were convicted, have to deal with harsh sentencing guidelines and the most incarceration-oriented criminal justice system in existence, a system that was clearly created on a bipartisan basis. What an American general calls a “war crime” isn’t anything for us to worry our pretty little heads over; it’s just a simple “policy difference.” Torture of not only human beings, but also language.

But the most disgusting part of Wittes’ argument is his praise for the Obama Administration key position, which Wittes “believe[s] correct,” not to “do violence to the two-century-old tradition in American life of incoming presidents’ not prosecuting outgoing ones.”

Notice that rhetorical trick? The word “violence,” which carries a negative connotation, isn’t used to describe waterboarding a person more than 3 times a day for a month, (or to destroy the evidence of it) or to describe the more than 100 prisoners who died in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2001 and 2006.

Instead it’s cleverly employed to describe what Obama would have been doing if he had fulfilled his campaign promise to investigate and prosecute people who committed war crimes during our “War on Terror.” Thus, it is not “violent” to securely bind a person’s feet, elevate them and bind him securely “to an inclined bench, approximately four feet by seven feet.[to place a cloth] over the forehead and eyes, [and then apply water] to the cloth in a controlled manner [to produce] the perception of 'suffocation and incipient panic'."

But to prosecute someone who performed this, or ordered it, that would be to “do violence.” Doublespeak at its finest.

With this double standard and clear doublespeak in mind, consider how Wittes would confront the “policy differences” he would have with someone like Julian Assange. Writing, in another post, about the problem in holding someone like Assange, an Australian citizen, accountable under U.S. law, issue, Wittes openly admits to a belief in hypocrisy:

If Congress can make such a demand on Assange, the U.S. would be in a bad position to object if the Congress of People’s Deputies made a similar demand on the Washington Post. I actively want more Chinese secrets revealed against the will of the Chinese government. Indeed, were Wikileaks spending more of its time undermining authoritarianism and less of its time undermining democracies, I might admire it. And I would find outrageous efforts by foreign governments to require American news outlets to keep their secrets for them. I’m not against double standards in all circumstances, so it’s possible that the right answer here is hypocrisy: Doing what we need to do and objecting when other countries do the same. But I agree with Tom that the situation would be very awkward.

“Awkward?” Seriously? I don’t think that’s how foreign governments, or people like Assange (who last week raised, as a defense against extradition, his fear of extrajudicial detention by the U.S.) would describe a law is an admitted double standard, do you? “Very sorry to disturb you, Sir, but your blatant hypocrisy in detaining me indefinitely for doing something you routinely do and condone is making me feel, well, awkward.”

Getting past the “awkwardness” Wittes acknowledges, he at least admits the problem inherent in holding Assange accountable under American law for what the press in the U.S. routinely does by disclosing classified material given to them by third parties. He writes that he is “tentatively persuaded that some jurisdictional limitation is probably appropriate” and goes on to state that he “suspect[s]” that such a limit on U.S. law would “probably get Assange off the hook.”

So, to recap, Wittes believes:

1. The Obama Administration’s decision not to investigate what U.S. General Taguba called “war crimes” on our part is “one of the more courageous things ... it has done.”
2. The Obama Administration’s disclosure of internal memos composed during the Bush Administration describing torture is “a great deal of accountability for past detention policy.”
3. There was no need for this “accountability” anyway since “‘accountability for torture’ is... the criminalization of policy differences–nothing more or less.” “
4. Obama rightfully decided that waterboarding someone 183 times in a month and destroying evidence of this was not worthy of prosecution and, if he had done so, he would have done violence to tradition.
5. Wittes is “not against double standards” and the “right answer” is possibly “hypocrisy,” even though this could be “awkward.”

All of which leads to Wittes’ belief in the best way of dealing with Julian Assange, who might object to the “awkwardness” of indefinite detention for violating U.S. law, which even Wittes admits “probably” doesn’t apply to him. Wittes writes:

[T]hat sex crimes case in Sweden is looking better and better as way of neutralizing Assange.

Got that? As if the cries to simply assassinate Assange (by numerous U.S. officials and future Presidential candidates) weren’t enough, Wittes openly acknowledges how convenient it would be for the most powerful nation on the earth, (with vast resources, available hypocrisy, immunity from war crimes prosecutions, and against whom the disclosure of internal memos brings “great... accountability”) if Julian Assange were neutralized due to a “sex crimes” prosecution.

We need a well-functioning judicial system to protect the public from people who break the law and also to protect those accused of violating it from wrongful conviction or punishment. But what should also be clear, but often isn’t, is the need to also protect people like Julian Assange from those who would use the criminal law to “neutralize” him, people like Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution.

In fact, have you ever seen a clearer example of someone who does not believe in the Equal Protection clause? Or, for that matter, the meaning of words such as “courage,” “accountability,” “torture,” “violence,” or even “awkward?”

Jefferson “consider[ed] trial by jury as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its Constitution.” Wittes shows the importance of such a right for people like Assange (or you and me) as well as how easily, and cavalierly, the government- or the think tanks that support it, no matter which party is in power- can stray, claim immunity from, or simply disregard, the principles of its Constitution.

Wittes' response to Greenwald, however, reaches a new low, accusing Greenwald of a "simple-mindedness with respect to wrenchingly difficult questions and a very ugly eagerness to attack honorable people in government, in the press, and in public life more generally who are trying to do their jobs or to express views that differ from his."

You see, when you take issue with those who take Gen. Taguba's conclusion that "war crimes" were committed in our names seriously, you should be civil about it to avoid "awkwardness," I guess.

The man who, very civilly, mind you, calls Obama's decision not to investigate the "interrogation policy" (or what Gen. Taguba called "war crimes") of the past administration "courageous," who equates "accountability" with memo disclosure, and waterboarding with "policy differences," who isn't afraid to employ "double standards” or "hypocrisy," despite its awkwardness, you must comply with one request when you visit his blog, lest you lapse into an attack on the "honorable people," like Wittes, who hold such beliefs:

We have no purity tests here–just a preference for civility and decency.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Audiobook Recommendation #2: Faithful Place

Just finished the audiobook to Tana French’s Faithful Place, and loved it. Francis “Frank” Mackey, the narrator, is a 40-something Detective in the undercover Division of “The guards,” Dublin’s Police Force. The discovery of a suitcase, found during the demolition of an abandoned flat in “Faithful Place,” a tenement section of Dublin, where Mackey grew up, leads him back home, where he hasn’t been since leaving as a teenager some twenty-two years ago.

The book draws you into a web of family lies and secrets, most of which stretch back generations and remain unclear even to the characters- or the narrator- until they search their own histories, psyches and memories for other things the discovery of the suitcase, or the return of Frank, uncovers. I finished this book today, just as I turned into my own neighborhood and, as I write about it tonight, I’m reminded of my friend Simon, who I met in Coventry, England at the University of Warwick in the early 90’s. Because he studied film history, we talked films a lot and when I asked him what he thought about the one we just watched, he’d say, “I need to think about it for a day or two and then I’ll let you know.”

Like Simon, maybe I should wait a day before I call this a great read, but I think I’m safe in predicting that the strength of the story and the wit and snap of the dialogue will hold up after a few days, or even years. It’s a mystery, but it’s more than that too, as, at its core, it’s a noir story about loyalty to family, to profession, to quick-passing childhood and to clashes between these roles. I wouldn’t call it particularly deep reading, as it’s a fast moving mystery/detective story.

But it’s deep enough, at once both intense in terms of its depiction of alcohol-fueled rage and its effects and intriguing in terms of its ability to make you think deeply about the motivations and techniques of an experienced undercover officer who laughs at the falsely clean morality of the “murder squad.” I don’t know for sure whether, like the best stories I read, I’ll still be thinking about this one in a year. But I’d guess that I will be, and wouldn’t be surprised if, in that same year, it hasn’t been turned into a film.