Category Archives: Unclassifiable


It depends on what the meaning of “waterboarding” is (courtesy of Digby):

>DAVID RIVKIN, MILITARY LAW EXPERT: Incidentally, it is not a debate about whether torture is permissible, at least in my mind, it’s what things amount to torture. And with all due respect to my friend Charlie, there are several forms of waterboarding. Waterboarding is a very capricious term, it connotes a bunch of things. There are clearly some forms of waterboarding [that are] torture and off the table. They may well be some waterboarding regimens that while tough and useful in extracting information are not torture. My problem with the critics is that they don’t want to have, contrary to what Senator Edwards said, we are ought to have a debate as a serious society about what stress techniques of interrogation and what to do with it. Let me point out one thing, we actually waterboard our own people. Are we torturing our own people?

That silly and convenient relativism is matched only by an even more ridiculous sophistry:

>FOREMAN: But we’re waterboarding our own people to give them an idea of what they would encounter if they were captured by somebody else.

>RIVKIN: Well, forgive me, as a matter of law and ethics, if the given practice like slavery and prostitution is officially odious, you cannot use it no matter what our goals is, you cannot even use it to volunteers. So, if all forms of waterboarding are torture then we are torturing our own people, and the very same instructor who spoke before Congress the other day about how it’s torture, is guilty of practicing torture for decades. We as a society have to come up with the same baseline using (inaudible) in all spheres of public life instead of somehow singularizing this one thing, which is interrogation of combatants and we need to look at it in a broader way.

Um. So, in order to teach preparedness for torture, the military has used its methods on its own people, but in using these methods, by definition, they are not torture, because you cannot torture someone who is a volunteer. But if it was torture, then the instructor is guilty of torture. So it follows that these people are either guilty of torture, or since no one wants to be guilty of torture, their students learned nothing about torture, since waterboarding isn’t torture.

On a similar theme, Glenn Greenwald discusses Jonah Goldberg’s agony over the definition of torture.

. . . like the pilot of a ship

Another puzzling piece from the nearly always puzzling Stanley Fish. He takes the usual line that “everyone advocates a point of view,” so everyone is a partisan, but then fails to understand the difference between principle and strategy. He writes:

>But the report gets off to a bad start when its authors allow the charge by conservative critics that left-wing instructors indoctrinate rather than teach to dictate their strategy. By taking it as their task to respond to what they consider a partisan attack, they set themselves up to perform as partisans in return, and that is exactly what they end up doing.

He then goes on to criticize the strategy of the American Association of University Professors. They set themselves up as “partisans” in the minds of those who can’t read very well. A few paragraphs later, Fish writes:

>My point is made for me by the subcommittee when it proposes a hypothetical as a counterexample to the stricture laid down by the Students for Academic Freedom: “Might not a teacher of nineteenth-century American literature, taking up ‘Moby Dick,’ a subject having nothing to do with the presidency, ask the class to consider whether any parallel between President George W. Bush and Captain Ahab could be pursued for insight into Melville’s novel?”

>But with what motive would the teacher initiate such a discussion? If you look at commentaries on “Moby Dick,” you will find Ahab characterized as inflexible, monomaniacal, demonic, rigid, obsessed and dictatorial. What you don’t find are words like generous, kind, caring, cosmopolitan, tolerant, far-seeing and wise. Thus the invitation to consider parallels between Ahab and Bush is really an invitation to introduce into the classroom (and by the back door) the negative views of George Bush held by many academics.

>If the intention were, as claimed, to produce insight into Melville’s character, there are plenty of candidates in literature for possible parallels – Milton’s Satan, Marlowe’s Faust, Byron’s Cain, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Shakespeare’s Iago, Jack London’s Wolf Larsen, to name a few. Nor would it have been any better if an instructor had invited students to find parallels between George Bush and Aeneas, or Henry the Fifth, or Atticus Finch, for then the effect would have been to politicize teaching from the other (pro-Bush) direction.

>By offering this example, the report’s authors validate the very accusation they are trying to fend off, the accusation that the academy’s leftward tilt spills over into the classroom. No longer writing for the American Association of University Professors, the subcommittee is instead writing for the American Association of University Professors Who Hate George Bush (admittedly a large group). Why do its members not see that? Because once again they reason from an abstract theoretical formulation to a conclusion about what instructors can properly do.

Bush is the President. The president is kind of a like a captain of a ship, insofar as he is a leader of people. Leaders of people can lead well or badly. Is Bush like the one who leads badly, or not.

The more obviously silly point of Fish’s argument is that he seems to think literature can only refer to other literature. So, if it’s parallels you’re looking for, don’t look at real people. Literature has nothing to say about that. Besides, easily offended Bush lovers might be offended.

At least I tried

Eugene Robinson, liberal columnist for the post, probably means this as friendly advice to democrats (but I’m not so sure, better ask Bob Somerby), but it comes across as instance of the “at least . . .” fallacy. This fallacy is a misbegotten child of the principle that “something is better than nothing.” How does it work? Robinson writes:

>And please, no hiding behind “I don’t do hypotheticals.” The Republican candidates’ view of Iraq, Iran and the Middle East is dangerously apocalyptic, but at least it’s a vision. What’s yours?

Why does he say this? Leading democratic candidates refused to say all of our troops would be out of Iraq by the end of their first term, i.e., 2013. Their view is that their waiting for reality to disclose itself:

>”It is very difficult to know what we’re going to be inheriting,” said Hillary Rodham Clinton.

>”I think it’s hard to project four years from now,” said Barack Obama.

>”I cannot make that commitment,” said John Edwards.

Robinson’s childish gripe reminds me of something I saw on local TV yesterday. Asked which party they support, a group of students at a local community college responded with answers one might expect (democrats–it is Chicago). One, however, responded that he supports the party with “big ideas”–i.e., Republicans. They have big ideas alright. But the size of ideas isn’t a point in their favor. On that score, some vision is not necessarily better than no “vision.”