Archive for April, 2009

Three different takes on an imaginary disease called information sickness piqued my interest. (Funny how web surfing so quickly develops into a morass of links investigated and discarded.) The earliest suggestion of such a disease comes from a 1981 novel by Ted Mooney called Easy Travel to Other Planets. I haven’t read the novel, but a manifestation of the disease is described here by Tom Frick. Apparently, regular people are periodically overcome by the daily information onslaught, the deluge of data demanding our attention, and are reduced to a quivering mass of jangled nerves and word salad. The absurdity is heightened by the gathering of gawkers on the sidewalk, where such nervous breakdowns are commonplace, and the adoption of a memory-elimination posture to purge excess information and regain normal mental function. The make-believe sickness is a metaphor for the loss of humanity in the Information Age, a notion that was perhaps just beginning to catch on in the 1980s.

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We are the Bad Guys

Posted: April 23, 2009 in Culture, Ethics, Idealism, Politics

Recently released documents from 2002 and 2003 allegedly justifying use of torture by U.S. henchmen (CIA, military, whoever) against suspected terrorists escaped my attention until yesterday. Some sources say the documents were leaked, others say the Obama Administration declassified them, yet others say they were made public through efforts of the ACLU under the Freedom of Information Act. No matter; they’re public and they’re attracting lots of attention. NPR’s story is a pretty good summary.

I can’t say that I’m surprised by any revelations the documents publicize. That’s only because I already have the lowest possible opinion of the Bush Administration and its actions in the “war on terror.” (One editorial, lost to me among a glut of commentary on this topic, suggests that scare quotes around that phrase are now permanent, as it’s become clear that neither war nor terror are accurate terms.) It used to be that villains who made a scientific study of torture techniques and “enjoyed” their work were mostly fictional, like the sometimes jokey villains in a James Bond flick. The “torture memos,” as the documents are being called collectively, demonstrate pretty clearly that we are villains every bit as bad as our prisoners, whose guilt or innocence is irrelevant as long we believe they possess information. In the cloud of confusion spewed by claims of national security and myriad justifications about how we need to torture to thwart further terrorist attacks, it’s clear that our leaders have lost their humanity. How far the synecdoche between us/we and our elected and appointed leaders extends is an open question. However, you don’t have to read far into the comments of a typical news story to find someone opining “like I give a rat’s ass about some terrorist’s civil rights,” so any separation between us, the masses, and our leader is pretty thin.

In the clear light of day, the extremity of the U.S.’s torturing of others is not merely villainous, it’s criminally insane. For instance, in the interrogation of two prisoners, their torturers found it “necessary” to use waterboarding at least 83 times during August 2002 and 183 times during March 2003. You have to be a sick, twisted, miserable fuck to believe such excess is anything other than inhumane and unjustifiable, even by obtaining useful information. Because after the first 5 times someone is waterboarded, then next time he will break and reveal all. Or is it after the 50th time, or the 100th, or some other number? One especially sickening detail is that physicians were on hand to ensure that prisoners didn’t die at the hands of their torturers. However, that’s another way of saying that those physicians, in flat betrayal of the Hippocratic Oath, took steps to prolong the suffering of those being tortured.

So just for the record, let me point out that torture is criminal. The Geneva Conventions are pretty clear on this point, and attempts to see just how much we can get away with without veering over the line — mostly by obviously self-serving attempts to redefine the line — are heading the wrong direction: back towards barbarity rather than toward greater civility and peace. But, of course, we’re not really pushing the line; we crossed it and obliterated it. The memos are simple CYA. In reality, we’re bad guys, criminals, torturers, the very people terrorists decide to attack because of our corrupted humanity.

In the movie Watchmen, a film I didn’t really like for a lot of reasons, I nonetheless responded to several ideas that were fairly high concept. One such ideal was the character Rorschach’s insistence that, while being brutally avenging, he would not compromise on anything, ever, even to his eventual destruction. That’s what our attitude toward torture should be: utterly uncompromising, meaning never even dare contemplate it, because it’s wrong. Period. Done. End of discussion. Cheney’s ranting that torture saved lives doesn’t matter. In addition, bringing torturers to justice, which appears to be gaining enough momentum to be inevitable, should not be mischaracterized as retribution. It’s about the rule of law. You break the law, you will be prosecuted. No political compromises such as selective enforcement should be tolerated. Not on this issue. If we continue to dither about it, just drive a stake through the heart of the American people, because we’re already dead inside.

The New York Times published an unbelievably fatuous article in the science section called “Oversaving, a Burden for Our Times.” The article states that our current phase of hoarding (in anticipation of scarcity) and saving money leads to saver’s remorse, as distinguished from buyer’s remorse, where frugal consumers saving for a rainy day (or more likely, losing one’s job) or preparing for the future (e.g., building a nest egg for a large purchase such as a home) are missing out on too many immediate pleasures and opportunities for fun. The article also accepts rather uncritically that human happiness trumps other concerns and justifies or rationalizes otherwise foolhardy behaviors. It’s a new spin on the old value statement “wish I’d spent more time with my family than at the office.” Consumer psychologists (who/what the hell are they?) have even coopted a term to describe the condition: hyperopia (the opposite of myopia). I normally relish new coin/usage and subscribe to scientific thinking over emotionalism or market-driven appeal. However, this article promotes some very bad thinking, maybe even dangerous thinking.

Some of my acquaintances have made the argument that our current economic contraction is mainly due to a crisis of consumer confidence rather than fiscal malfeasance in the C-suites and straight-up criminal behavior in the financial sector. The argument goes that in the long view, unemployment isn’t yet very high, nor are rates of foreclosure; they just look acutely bad compared to their historic lows of the past decade. Further, the toxic assets that can’t be marked to market honestly and sold because doing so would render insolvent the selling institutions (banks, investment houses, and hedge funds — most of which are de facto bankrupt despite our collective denials) aren’t really so toxic because the assets’ values didn’t decrease to zero but some other nonzero number that still retains some value, however low. Finally, as with the Great Depression, we can spend our way out of trouble with massive cash infusions, without triggering hyperinflation, because today’s deficits are still far cheaper than tomorrow’s production. So what we’re really experiencing is a self-fulfilling prophecy where a few nervous Nellies have sparked the equivalent of a bank run by infecting the general public with their pessimism. Phsaw.

I’d rather disdain debating the merits of these arguments head on; I’m already overtired from relentless coverage of financial news, as though money were the Holy Grail rather than the proverbial root of all evil. The only valuable takeaway from the article is the characterization of opposing character types: the hyperopic vs. the myopic, or as the article notes, the virtuous ant vs. the improvident grasshopper from Aesop’s Fables. At the risk of invoking a false dualism, many of us identify intuitively with one extreme or the other, the ant or the grasshopper. They embody character archetypes and as such are largely immune to logical argument. My acquaintances and I are driving each other to distraction because we seek evidence to support our worldviews, which spring from our character types. As a doomer, I can’t escape the nagging sense of betrayal of justice and impending collapse that my erudition and understanding of history demonstrate are inevitable, even if not predictably next week or next month. As optimists, my acquaintances can’t see why I should torture myself with worries about things so clearly beyond my control that can’t even be reliably foreseen and probably won’t occur anyway, considering how intellectuals have been fulminating and prophesying doom for generations that hasn’t yet materialized. Instead, let’s have some fun. Carpe diem!

If my character weren’t already set in stone, I’d appreciate the opportunity to “don’t worry, be happy.” I’m also reminded of the subtitle to the movie Dr. Strangelove, namely, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. In other words, learn to love the thing that will kill you. But those platitudes don’t work for me. Instead, I soothe myself (or delude myself, take your pick) with the knowledge that I’m full of the sort of personal integrity about which no one cares and which will certainly keep me isolated from folks who would rather be around happy-go-lucky types. Come to think of it, misery doesn’t like company after all.

In waging war, one of the most important administrative hurdles to overcome is how to supply troops so that they can bring the fight to the enemy. As supply lines stretch farther from a military force’s homeland, maintaining the flow of food, energy, ammo, etc. places a significant burden on invading or occupying forces. Those forces are also vulnerable to supply lines being cut when bridges, roads, airstrips, and railroads are destroyed.

It occurred to me recently that in the era of globalization, we are in effect waging civilization in much the same manner as war is waged. This idea isn’t especially novel. I may have read something to the same effect, forgotten it, and mistaken the recurring idea as something I thought up. The prompts came up again as I am currently reading Jared Diamond’s Collapse. His survey of collapsed civilizations always tell the story of disappearing resources leading to decline, usually from being used up but sometimes because supply lines were cut with trading partners.

Ancient civilizations were usually geographically isolated, so once the landscape was deforested and large mammals were exterminated and energy resources were gone, there was often no readily available substitute or alternative. The modern world does not suffer from the same geographical isolation, unless one considers how far away the next planet or solar system is after mankind has exterminated and used up what’s readily available as population growth exceeds carrying capacity, a process already well underway. With that in mind, waging civilization is not unlike waging war in that the resources that make global industrial civilization go are supplied from amazing distances in an impenetrably complex web of relationships. (Further, civilization is in many respects a war on the natural world where moral dilemmas — not even hypothetical anymore — such as whether we allow polar bears to go extinct or curtail our activities are always decided blithely in favor of humans.)

Modern civilization has been revealed recently to be just as vulnerable to supply interruptions and failures as ancient civilizations. That’s the underlying idea behind energy independence: U.S. leaders (and increasingly the public) wish to be less dependent on foreign oil and invulnerable to attacks on our supply lines. Unfortunately, there is no suitable alternative to fossil fuels to keep things humming as presently organized, despite the claims and hopes of technophiles and futurists.