Thursday, May 21, 2009

So What About Torture?

We're all talking about torture these days, what with Dick Cheney ranting that torture (and illegal wiretaps, and and and) has "kept us safe." This has got me thinking about it; I think I've said this before, but it's worth saying again. As a hypothetical question, why shouldn't we use torture? If it'll find us that "ticking bomb" they always talk about, why not?

The practical approach, which you will hear from almost every experienced intelligence officer you find, is that it doesn't work. As the very old saying goes, you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. What you get from a man you are torturing is not the truth; it's what he thinks will make you stop hurting him. You get the truth by persuading him, gently, that his interest and yours run together, and that he can help himself by helping you. This is how the pros do it.

But the real issue isn't whether torture "works" or not. What effect does torture have, and on whom? The issue with torture is the corrupting effect on the torturer. I can't remember the names offhand, but there was a famous psychological experiment at Stanford, about 30 years ago - the professor divided his students randomly into "guards" and "prisoners." In almost no time, the experience of having power over the "prisoners" caused the "guards" to behave abusively to them - it got so bad the professor stopped the experiment. Power corrupts. Torture corrupts the torturer. And if we, the people, allow torture to be used in our name, it corrupts us; we are complicit. This is why Obama is right to say that we can, we must, protect ourselves without compromising our values - the values which say that we don't do those things.

The argument about "keeping us safe" is absurd. I simply don't believe the argument that the lack of further attacks since 2001 means we are "safe," and that we're "safe" because our agents tortured the people in Gitmo. Safety is very iffy - any of us at any time could be killed in an automobile accident, whether the government is torturing people in Guantanamo or not. How then are we "safe"? If we die, what difference is it how we die? If a man wants to kill you badly enough that he's willing to die in the process, you can't stop him except by sheer luck.

The real argument in favor of torture, which is never openly stated, is that our lives, our country, our safety, are so important that we can, we should, use every possible means to protect ourselves. The end justifies the means. This is just wrong. The end doesn't justify the means; the means are important. The wrong means will corrupt the end. If we use the enemy's means, we become the enemy. Where did the "enhanced interrogation" methods come from? They come from the army's SERE school, which teaches U.S. soldiers how to resist torture. Whose torture were they meant to resist? The torture used by the Communist Chinese, during the Korean war; that's when SERE was established. Does this mean we've become the Communist Chinese? Prove that it doesn't. We're doing what they did.

And that's why we have to stop this. The Bible says, By their fruits ye shall know them. We have to stop producting these bitter fruits. We should never have started.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Not in Our Back Yard

Our wonderful Congress has just voted, almost to a man (the Senate vote was 90-6) to deny the administration funds for closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Their primary argument seems to be, We don't want those people in our constituency.

This is a disgrace. Guantanamo is a mess; the United States made the mess; it is our responsibility to clean the mess up. Isn't that one of the things we're supposed to have learned in kindergarten? But the mere possibility that some of the people we've kept in jail in Gitmo for what, over seven years now? That these people might possibly be kept in jail in the U.S. seems to have Congress spooked. I think what really alarms them is the possibility that these people might be released in the U.S. - maybe even in their constituency.

So, under what circumstances would they be released? Well, say there was no evidence that proved that they were "enemy combatants." (Whatever that is.) Like, maybe we've kept innocent people in jail for over 8 years?? If we have, shouldn't we admit it, apologize, and let them go home?

Nobody is suggesting that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is going to be released for lack of evidence, but he isn't the only person being held there. I remember reading that some representative from Kansas actually argued that they didn't want Gitmo detainees transferred to Leavenworth. Come on - you're afraid they'll break out of Leavenworth??

We're supposed to be a nation of laws, or at least so I remember from my civics class. The Bush administration's greatest sin was to declare itself above the law; and for our own sake, we should apply our own laws to the detainees in Gitmo, allow them to defend themselves in open court, and release them, if there's no evidence that they wronged us. Or jail them in the U.S. if there is. And in the case where they can't go home - I'm thinking of the Uighurs, who will be in dire danger from the Chinese government if they return home - we owe it to them to let them settle here. We owe it to ourselves, to prove to ourselves and the world that we are ruled by laws, and we truly regret what we did at Guantanamo Bay.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Lift That Bale

After writing that last post, I realize I want to talk some more about the various versions of Show Boat. Full disclosure: I've never read the book and never seen either movie all the way through. I've recently attended two public discussions of the Broadway show; and last night I sang in the chorus of a concert version of Jerome Kern's Broadway version of Show Boat.

In the second public discussion, the Oakland East Bay Symphony's forum on Race Relations in Art, the presenters showed several film clips: the introduction to the 1951 movie, Paul Robeson singing Old Man River from the 1936 movie, a 1940-something clip from a Hollywood medley with Lena Horne singing Can't Help Loving That Man, a clip from the 1951 movie with Ava Gardner singing Can't Help Loving That Man.

Let's start with the 1951 movie. This is a Disney plantation (although MGM made the movie), in technicolor of course. The slaves all have clean clothes with no visible rips or patches, they have nice straw hats, and they all smile, all the time. It kinda made me shudder. It might as well have been a cartoon; anybody else remember Song of the South? The introduction here is Song of the South with real actors.

Then, they showed the clip from the 1936 movie, which you can not rent from Netflix, with Paul Robeson. First, what a voice that man had. If you've never heard a recording of his, get one. Second, this movie is (of course) in black and white; and frankly, this looks like a real plantation. The slaves' clothes are not nice and clean and mended, and they don't smile. The line of men carrying bales of cotton up the ramp can barely carry them - the camera stays on one man who staggers so that I was sure he would fall. The dock workers gather behind Robeson (as Joe) to back him in the chorus, and they look grim. I don't know how much Robeson had to do with the staging; he was a well-known agitator. If the 1951 version is a too-sweet mint julep, this movie is a splash of cold water in the face. I'd love to see all of it.

Now let's talk about Can't Help Loving That Man, sung by the character Julie LaVerne, who turns out (in a major plot twist) to be "passing as white." Having heard Lena Horne sing that, any time anyone else sings it (and last night it was Debbie de Coudreaux, a brilliant mezzo, who sings at the Moulin Rouge in Paris), the voice I hear belongs to Lena, the interpretation is Lena's. Wow. I must get more of her recordings. So with her available, why did Ava Gardner sing the part in 1951? (She couldn't sing, by the way - they dubbed the voice. Lena Horne's interpretation of the song was better, too.) Because Lena Horne was mixed race - and the astounding reasoning of the mid-century world said that a mixed-race actress could not be allowed to play the part of a mixed-race character. Don't ask me. I don't understand any of it. I understand that it was a problem; hell, I grew up in the 1950s and didn't meet a black person until I was around 10. I've just known too many brilliant, capable black people since, musicians and non-musicians, for any of this to make any sense to me any more.

And it was clear from the discussion at the forum that we still have a problem. In 1999 at Indiana University, a very fine black tenor named Lawrence Brownlee sang Tamino in the Magic Flute, and some local Neanderthal wrote a letter to the editor complaining that it was "an abomination" for him to be kissing a white Pamina on stage. For a broader discussion of race in classical music, I recommend the San Francisco Classical Voice's review of the OEBS Forum.

We've come a long way - just think about those happy darkies in the 1951 movie - but we haven't come far enough yet.

Wotta Week

I just realized I haven't posted in 2 weeks. I have to get more control of things - I have this feeling that I'm overcommitted. In the last 3 weeks I've:
  • Finished up the National Hunger Study (my microscopic part in it).
  • Gone to a retirement lunch for an old friend from work (now he has even more time to send me weird YouTube links).
  • Helped the Oakland East Bay Symphony volunteers set up their forum on Race Relations in Art (and attended same - very interesting, showed clips from the 1936 Show Boat, with Paul Robeson singing Old Man River. If you've seen the happy Disney-style 1951 Show Boat, the 1936 movie would knock you straight off your chair. "Lift that bale" has a whole new meaning after seeing some of those shots.).
  • Spent 2 mornings stacking groceries at the local food bank warehouse.
  • Attended a board meeting for one of my nonprofits.
  • Attended a book signing party for an old friend.
  • Attended the annual convention for another nonprofit, and took photos of the events.
  • Sang at the dinner after the convention.
  • Identified, bought, configured and re-configured a new laptop for a nonprofit.
  • Spent hours on the phone negotiating nonprofit discounts for Microsoft Office licenses.
  • Attended one chorus rehearsal and 2 rehearsals with orchestra and soloists.
  • Sang in a concert performance of Show Boat, plus selected Jerome Kern pieces. Lovely concert, great soloists, great music.
Is that enough? I'm tired all over again just reading it.

This week was enlivened by computer failures. I had to give the photos I took at the convention to someone else, so I tried to burn them to a CD. Got a blue screen of death. Three times. Fortunately, two of those times also produced usable CDs. The system seems fine as long as I'm not burning copies of photos.

Then there's the new laptop. By the way, there are some great deals on Vista laptops out there if you're interested. Bought it, built it out, patched it, everything copacetic. Then we tried to install an ancient version of FileMaker Pro that we've been using (because it was paid for - this is a nonprofit). Couldn't install it; it's supposed to have an auto-play feature, but it wouldn't even run under 64-bit Vista. So I decided to switch to the computer admin user with the install CD still in the drive. The CD drive whirred loudly for a minute and the whole box died. No keyboard, no mouse, no touchpad. Dead. I turned it off, and tried to turn it on again, and it wouldn't come up. To make a long story short, I had to rebuild it from the recovery disk, which took another entire day. I'm really tired of rebuilding computers.

And somehow I still have to make up my mind how I'll vote, Tuesday, on those unspeakable California budget propositions. I don't like any of them very much; I'm in favor of a spending cap (since the Lege has all the spending discipline of a drunken rock star), but I object to using the State Constitution for budget management. I don't like the budget cuts and spending changes the propositions will make, but it's pretty clear that defeating them will cause even more budget cuts. I may never vote for another incumbent again given that the incumbents got us here.