Thursday, January 27, 2005

Sullivan answers some questions on torture

From today's New York Times, with emphasis added:

Q. How can we mobilize this administration's own grass-roots constituents to call for correction of this situation? How should we wake the pulpits of the right at a grass-roots level to the import of our complacencies — without triggering a defensive or dismissive reaction as "liberal agenda"? Can we identify conservative leaders to convince to take up this issue with commitment? — Eva Ng, Cambridge, Mass.

A. Well, I'm doing what I can. It seems to me that pro-war writers should be leading the charge on this. But the instinct to cover for the administration among conservatives is very deep. The trouble is that this White House actively rewards those who praise it and cuts off and punishes any dissenters. I tried to be clear and dispassionate in my review. But very few other conservatives have even raised an iota of concern. I'd like to think that religious Christians, for whom torture should be anathema, would lead the charge. But they seem to be leading the defense.

Q. I'm from South America. The U.S. is always bullying our governments to meet human rights standards. After reading these books, do you think the U.S. will have the moral authority to keep acting with other Central and South American governments as they have acted previously? — Rodrigo Campos, Bogotá, Colombia

A. I think we have fatally wounded our moral authority around the world.

Q. Does Abu Ghraib reflect a mentality that continues in our state-level prisons, and perhaps in psychiatric hospitals, over the years? — David L. Allen, Gary, Ind.

A. I'm sorry to say it does. And we need to be far more vigilant about abuses in the domestic system.

Q. Seymour Hersh has speculated that the torture in Iraq was a deliberate policy, caused by the lack of intelligence at ground level: the photographing of prisoners was designed to humiliate them and thus force them into becoming informers on the insurgency. What do you think of this theory? — Alastair McKay, London

A. It makes much more sense than many other theories. Photographing was clearly part of the process. The photos were going to be used to blackmail detainees after they had been discharged. The use of sexual humiliation is clearly designed specifically for Muslim prisoners. Most grunts wouldn't know how to do this without some guidance. But the insanity of an under-staffed prison at Abu Ghraib also helps explain how it got so grim. It does not explain the dozens and dozens of cases outside Abu Ghraib.

Q. Partisan pundits have divided nearly every major issue of the day — Social Security, gay marriage, the war in Iraq, etc. — into separate camps. How difficult is it as a commentator to defy the platforms or actions of a party on the prisoner treatment issue while accepting it on economic policy? — Dan Morrell, State College, Pa.

A. It's getting tougher and tougher. I'm basically pro-war, strongly supported the war against the Taliban and against Saddam. I back low taxes. I favor social security reform. But I cannot believe how badly the administration has run this war — from manning it to planning it. I'm lucky since I have an existing career, my own blog, and I'm not financially dependent on the Republican or conservative establishment. Others aren't so lucky. And dissent can mean ostracism on the right these days. Nevertheless, some conservative outlets, such as the Weekly Standard, have tried to hold Rumsfeld to account for the conduct of the war. That shows it can be done.
As usual, Sullivan is clear-eyed and moral. But I am also struck by his oblique reference to a fundamental structural difference between right-wing and left-wing intellectual institutions. Whereas universities are the main institutions housing leftist intellectuals, the main institutions for right-wingers are private think tanks. And this makes a crucial difference, because whereas universities offer tenure, an institution explicitly designed to give academics the freedom to dissent, think tanks offer no such freedom. If a think-tanker gets out of line with the stated (or unstated) ideological objectives of her think-tank, she can easily and instantly see her career ruined. Whereas universities offer tenure precisely to preserve intellectual independence and thus integrity, the material conditions of right-wing intellectual production put severe pressure on the capacity of right-wingers to preserve their intellectual integrity.

This is not to say that everyone who works for a think tank feels compelled to toe the party line, but it is true that think tanks regularly issue memos and talking points on various topics, whereas universities would never dream of doing such a thing. Universities in principle look to provide a forum for all points of view. By contrast, think tanks are generally designed to promote a single point of view. And by employing people strictly on an "at will" basis, think tanks keep in place a mechanism for maintaining this orthodoxy. There seems little doubt that this material difference in the conditions of intellectual production goes a long way toward explaining the greater orthodoxy of the right, as opposed to the ideological messiness of the left.

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