Wednesday, February 14, 2007

It's My Inquisition, Too: Special Cultural Contamination Issue

5-ChloeSpencerThe blogs are a-flutter with the discovery that the TV show 24 is an apologist vehicle for torture, and the troops are digging it!

Many seem to have been prodded into this revelation by the February 12th New Yorker article by the estimable Jane Mayer, and made thoughtful about it by the LA Times piece referred to by Kevin Drum. Despite Keifer Sutherland's dismissal of torture as an ineffective tool for info-gathering, right-wing creator Joel Surnow ensures that the show plows along week after week, like some kind of PG-rated Hostel, exploring the wonderful world of pain permutation. Surnow, "close buddies" with Rush Limbaugh and now stretching his artistic palette to include a possible "Daily Show for conservatives", was the keen mind behind such quality work as Falcon Crest, and the reactionary, pastel-ridden Miami Vice, so this is not a surprise.

What has surprised me since the show's inception has been how many people whose judgment I trust have been sucked into watching 24, which quickly lost its attraction for me after the fifth or so episode. Maybe it was how my husband would screech a Sutherlandish "People are gonna start dyin' here!" everytime I turned it on, or maybe it dawned on me early that there were an awful lot of inquisitoral scenes being driven by a protagonist too ready to pull out the pliers. And I know it was definitely the intensifying aroma of right-wing ideology that started wafting off the plotlines and scripts, and when watching a television show starts feeling like one is listening to Alberto Gonzales at a Senate hearing, it's time to look elsewhere for my entertainment. Maybe, too, it had to do with the perpetually scowling Chloe, who has got to be one of TV's most annoying supporting parts. prison_break_promo_1And I realized that I could satisfy my action-loving inner leftist by watching Prison Break instead, where only bad guys torture, and the good guys are fighting, against nearly impossible odds, a govenment and justice system corrupted by a most mundane evil.

The military's concern is that its rank-and-file are getting off on the idea of righteous torture, and that it could predispose them to carry 24s armchair philosophy of terror-fighting to the actual people they deal with. After all:
"...The kids see it and say, 'If torture is wrong, what about 24?"
In a culture that has imbued the tube with a credibility once reserved for clergy, the quest for truth stops with the cri de couer: "But it was on TV!"

Fascination with torture is one of the worst kept secrets of childhood. Kurt Vonnegut remembered this when, in a piece title "Torture and Blubber" published in the NY Times back in 1971, he wrote:
"Agony never made a society quit fighting, as far as I know. A society has to be captured or killed--or offered things it values. While Germany was being tortured during the Second World War, with justice, may I add, its industrial output and the determination of its people increased. Hitler, according to Albert Speer, couldn't even be bothered with marveling at the ruins or comforting the survivors. The Biafrans were tortured simultaneously by Nigerians, Russians and British. Their children starved to death. The adults were skeletons. But they fought on.

One wonders now where our leaders got the idea that mass torture would work to our advantage in Indochina. It never worked anywhere else. They got the idea from childish fiction, I think, and from a childish awe of torture.

Children talk about tortures a lot. They often make up what they hope are new ones. I can remember a friend's saying to me when I was a child: "You want to hear a really neat torture?" The other day I heard a child say to another: "You want to hear a really cool torture?" And then an impossibly complicated engine of pain was described. A cross would be cheaper, and work better, too.

But children believe that pain is an effective way of controlling people, which it isn't--except in a localized, short-term sense. They believe that pain can change minds, which it can't. Now the secret Pentagon history reveals that plenty of high-powered American adults things so, too, some of them college professors. Shame on them for their ignorance."
Some children never lose this fascination with torture, and some discover inside themselves a deeply receptive niche for it that only needs the righteous justification of the ticking time bomb myth or the satanic opponent myth to be relased into full, horrific flower. Thus we see once-ordinary men and women transformed into Charles Greniers and Lyndie Englands, not only in the military but in our prison systems and law enforcement.

Professor David Luban wrote the definitive smackdown against the these myths in his 2005 article "Liberalism, Torture, and the Ticking Time Bomb", in which he noted:
"Ticking-bomb stories depict torture as an emergency exception, but use intuitions based on the exceptional case to justify institutionalized practices and procedures of torture. In short, the ticking bomb begins by denying that torture belongs to liberal culture, and ends by constructing a torture culture."
Because ultimately, the end result of the infection and contamination of our culture with these justifications for the unjustifiable is that we are no longer ourselves. We lose the identity we once had, the standing we once believed we had, as a good and decent people. Untimately, the line between entertainment and real horror is erased, and we find ourselves indulging in public entertainments that depend on humiliation, torment, and yes, even physical torture. When the cultural Assumption of Righteousness excuses everything, everything is permissible with the right excuse, until finally, excuses are no longer needed at all.

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