Sunday, May 22, 2005

The Real Threats

The greatest threat to democracy is that we lose our understanding of the importance of the right to dissent.
The greatest threat to humanity is that we lose our understanding of humanity itself.
Those thoughts went through my head this morning as I read the second part of The New York Times investigation into the deaths of two Afghan prisoners killed at the hands of U.S. troops at Bagram prison.
The defense in this case is that the soldiers were poorly trained. Poorly trained in what? As a letter-writer pointed out in yesterday's Times, how much training do you need to understand that beating a prisoner to death is wrong? Can we really say that "poor training" is responsible for the chaining up and beating of prisoners, sexual humiliation, threats of attacks by snarling dogs, desecration of a holy book?
It's a tough argument to accept in my book. These are simple, clear cases of right and wrong. Any 5-year-old child, described the horrific details of the treatment of these prisoners, would know that what was done was wrong.
So what does the right to dissent have to do with this? Oh, probably just an expression of my own priorities. The Bagram report in the Times ran alongside a piece on the filibuster battle in the Senate, which, in my mind, is an extremely important debate over the rights of the minority.
The filibuster has protected the views of the minority many times over the years. Sometimes that minority has been odious, as it was during the Civil Rights battles, when old-fashioned Southern Democrats (who later realized that the party that would support their racism was across the aisle) used the filibuster against anti-segregation measures. This time, the Democratic minority is trying to protect the moderate majority against the possibility of hard-line conservative judges who would ignore constitutional rights and protections to impose their version of Christianity on us.
Whichever side has used the filibuster, the results have been the same: Frustration of the majority's urge to act quickly, extension of discussion, voicing of the opinions of the minority and movement towards moderation. That is what the filibuster is for, that is why it is important to the Senate, and that is why it should be preserved.
Maybe both these stories are at their core about the efforts of the Bush administration and the Republican right to trample on the rights of the rest of the world and forcibly mold it into their vision of utopia -- which, I gather, is something like an old 1950s black-and-white sitcom.
The problem is that the Republicans' policies and world view would give us something a little too much like that sitcom world. Anything smacking of human frailty would be hidden from view. An all-white, all middle-class, asexual view of American society would be shown to the world while behind the scenes those suffering from poverty, prejudice, discrimination, fear would struggle to make themselves heard.
In a frighteningly real sense, the Bush administration wants to stifle dissent in much the same way that Josef Stalin recommended: "No man, no problem."
I'm not being very poetic this morning -- and maybe not even particularly coherent -- but you get the point, right? We need opennness, we need dissent, we need above all respect for others if the spirit of this country is to survive. There was a time -- not all that long ago -- when the United States actually did stand for a set of goals and ideals that could be emulated around the world.
I truly think -- and this is not just hyperbole -- that the administration of George W. Bush has destroyed all of that. They have made a mockery of the U.S. They have made us global villains, hellbent on destroying anyone outside or inside our borders who dares to ascribe to goals different from theirs.
As a graduate student, I spent some time studying the works of literary critics and philosophers known as "deconstructionists." Mostly French, highly controversial because they feel it is not only their right but their duty to question everything. In particular, the critical method of deconstruction involves looking for internal inconsistencies in texts, which may be anything from traditional narratives to works of architecture.
One of the key concepts of deconstruction is to examine the efforts of mainstream "authors" to set themselves up in contrast to an "other," which is made to seem frightening and perhaps threatening.
I have long found it interesting that George W. Bush is a product of Yale in the late 1960s, which is one of the few places and times in the United States where deconstruction found a beachhead. I think W may have learned more from the French than he ever would be willing to admit. What he appears to have learned is to make use of the majoritarian techniques the deconstructions are committed to examining. He and his team are expert at setting up "others" as dangerous forces to be crushed. Democrats, scientists, Muslims, the French -- you name it.
The only glimmer of hope I see is that Bush is increasingly seen as a failure and a right-wing radical at home. His poll numbers are way down, and I can only hope that is due to the scales falling from some people's eyes.
I hope he continues to overstep, to push programs and ideas that clearly violate our sense of fair play, democracy, humanity. His excesses may end up being the only thing that saves us.