U.S. History postsThursday December 11, 2014
The Best Thing I've Read in the Aftermath of the Senate Torture Report
It comes from Adam Gopnik on The New Yorker site. I'd recommend reading it all. It's not long.
Here's the first thing that struck me as very, very true, and very, very ignored by most commenters:
First, there is the truth that the C.I.A. interrogators were, for the most part, following orders and doing what they had been told they were authorized to do; to make them the prime villains is to clear the democratically elected politicians who allowed this to happen—and, more important, to clear the democracy that elected those politicians. We are all implicated, not just those who drowned and froze and tormented prisoners.
The second thing Gopnik wrote that struck me as both true and little said is below—in the second half of the excerpt: the “moral claim of exceptionalism”:
Second, and running directly from the general responsibility, there is the claim that if we hadn’t tortured people—hanging them upside down, raping them rectally, and all the horrible rest—some terrorist would have been able to kill more Americans, possibly with a radioactive bomb, or worse. This is an empirical claim, but without much of an empirical foundation. ... It is also a moral claim of exceptionalism: after all, every nation can argue that it needs to torture prisoners in order to protect its people. The North Vietnamese were under far more direct threat from American bombers than Americans have ever been from mostly remote Arab terrorists, yet no one would ever suggest that the Vietnamese were justified in torturing American pilots, even if they could have found out about, say, the targeting and timing of bombing raids, which might conceivably have saved Vietnamese lives. That was, we said, and would say again, no excuse. We have none, either.
George Packer’s excellent profile on Angela Merkel, “The Quiet German,” begins with a dull speech at the Reichstag, whose history is anything but dull:
... the Reichstag was reconstructed [in the 1990s] in an earnestly debated, self-consciously symbolic manner that said as much about reunified Germany as its ruin had said about the totalitarian years. The magnificent dome, designed by Norman Foster, suggested transparency and openness. The famous words on the colonnaded entrance, “DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE” (“To the German People”)—fabricated out of melted-down French cannons from the Napoleonic Wars and affixed during the First World War—were preserved out of a sense of fidelity to history. But, after parliamentary argument, a German-American artist was commissioned to create a courtyard garden in which the more modest phrase “DER BEVÖLKERUNG”—“To the Populace,” without the nationalistic tone of the older motto—was laid out in white letters amid unruly plantings. During the Reichstag’s reconstruction, workers uncovered graffiti, in Cyrillic script, scrawled by Red Army soldiers on second-floor walls. After another debate, some of these were kept on display as historical reminders: soldiers’ names, “Moscow to Berlin 9/5/45,” even “I fuck Hitler in the ass.”
No other country memorializes its conquerors on the walls of its most important official building. Germany’s crimes were unique, and so is its way of reckoning with the history contained in the Reichstag. By integrating the slogans of victorious Russian soldiers into its parliament building, Germany shows that it has learned essential lessons from its past (ones that the Russians themselves missed). By confronting the twentieth century head on, Germans embrace a narrative of liberating themselves from the worst of their history. In Berlin, reminders are all around you. Get on the U-Bahn at Stadtmitte, between the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the Topography of Terror Gestapo museum, and glance up at the train’s video news ticker: “80 years ago today PEN Club-Berlin forced into exile.” Like a dedicated analysand, Germany has brought its past to the surface, endlessly discussed it, and accepted it, and this work of many years has freed the patient to lead a successful new life.
This is particularly interesting to anyone who has read Rick Perlstein’s “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan,” since much of that book is about America’s inability to reckon with the worst aspects of its history after Vietnam, Watergate, et al. We bought into, in Perlstein's words, Ronald Reagan’s “cult of optimism,” which includes notions of American exceptionalism and applause lines about America being “the greatest nation in the history of the earth.” We're still buying into that cult. Anyone who deviates from it, in fact, is dismissed as part of the “blame America first” crowd. Thanks to its reckoning, Germany is freer now, while we, reckoning with nothing, are trapped by our optimistic account of everything we've ever done.
Will be interesting to see how the Senate Torture Report, released today, affects these trends. I assume not much.
At the Birth of the ‘Special Rights’ Argument
After the death of John Doar, I was looking over my old copy of Taylor Branch’s “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963,” and came across this story about James Meredith trying to register at the University of Mississippi in 1962, and being prevented from doing so by Gov. H. Ross Barnett. It’s a well-known story.
But it brought to mind the way modern conservatives and reactionaries and racists use the term “special rights.” And it sheds light on what the term means.
It’s 1962. Meredith is trying to become the first black man to register at Ole Miss. Gov. Barnett, looking for votes, prevents him from doing so. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals then threatens both the registrar and the university trustees with contempt, and secures a promise that they will in fact register Meredith. On Sept. 25, U.S. Marshall James McShane and civil rights attorney John Doar accompany Meredith to the Federal Building in downtown Jackson to register him. But no one’s there. Gov. Barnett has called them to the legislature to “testify” about the situation.
That evening, after various other machinations, the three men, with the help of U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy in D.C., attempt to register Meredith on campus, but once again Barnett “interposes,” makes some jokes at Meredith’s expense, and denies the admission. “A Rebel yell went up from the crowds gathered ...” Branch writes. “They hooted the Meredith trio along its path of retreat ...”
Then a call to Barnet from RFK, and this conversation:
RFK: He is going to show up for classes tomorrow.
HRB: At Ole Miss? How can you do that without registering?
RFK: I think they arranged it. It’s all understood.
HRB: They’re going to give him special treatment?
I love that. Special treatment. Special rights.
What are Meredith’s special rights? Well, a racist state has done everything in its power to prevent an entire people from the normal course of events. Then, for a period, they focus on one man. The most powerful people in the state do everything they can to prevent this one individual from the normal course of events—the simple act of registering for college. And when the federal government says, “You can’t do that,” they cry “Special treatment! Special rights!”
Then they spend decades undermining the federal government. But that’s another story.
“They're going to give him special treatment???”
John Doar (1921-2014)
Doar in Jackson, Miss., in the summer of 1963.
John Doar died on Veterans Day, Nov. 11. He was a pilot in the U.S. Air Force during World War II but history will remember him—or at least I do—for his service in another war: the war between the states, part II. Or X. Or XXIII. Called “the Civil Rights Movement.”
The New York Times has a good obit here, but the better tribute is Taylor Branch's civil rights tome, “Parting the Waters: American in the King Years: 1954-1963,” which I read in the spring of 1989. A lot of memorable characters in there: Bob Moses, John Lewis, Bayard Rustin ... and John Doar.
He was a kind of Gary Cooper-type hero. He didn't say much, he wasn't flashy, but he had courage and commitment. He called himself a Lincoln Republican. Branch introduced him on page 331:
John Doar was lanky, taciturn, and plainspoken. In 1960, still building a general courthouse law pratice, he counted it as a small step of success that a client paid him to go all the way to California to work on a paternity suit. He was there when Harold Tyler, chief of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, tracked him down by telephone.
Attorney General William Rogers had hired Tyler for the express purpose of stepping up the enforcement of the 1957 and 1960 Civil Rights Acts. It was a sign of the times that not a single politically connected Republican, nor any friend of Tyler‘s, expressed interest in the high-ranking position of first assistant in the Civil Rights Division ... [So Doar got the nod.]
Doar arrived in Washington in July 1960 and plunged immediately into the two bureaucratic struggles that would mark his career. The first one pitted legal thinking against political calculations. ... [The second was] a sluggish FBI.
Throughout the early 1960s, Doar prosecuted voting rights cases in the deep South, was a witness to the brutal assault on the freedom riders, including John Lewis and Jim Zwerg, in Montgomery, Ala., in 1961, and was the escort to James Meredith as he tried to register at Ole Miss in 1962 but found his way barred by Gov. H. Ross Barnett.
But the main reason I remember Doar is for an incident that occurred in Mississippi in the summer of 1963.
Medgar Evers was the field secretary there for the NAACP, and in the early morning of June 12, at the end of the Birmingham demonstrations and just hours after Pres. Kennedy’s famous speech in favor of civil rights, Evers was shot and killed outside his home in Jackson. After the funeral, a small segment of the crowd, hundreds of mostly young people, began to take to the streets; they were met by policemen with shotguns.
The temperature was 103 degrees. Some of the Negroes shouted, “We want the killer! We want the killer!” These were the young movement people ... Even on Flag Day, June 14, pairs of them had been arrested off the streets for carrying little American flags, as Jackson's white officials allowed Negroes no public display of any kind. The police ... brought up pumper trucks and dogs, and they charged when some of the young marchers began to throw rocks at them. They had clubbed several and arrested nearly 30 when, suddenly, the man who talked like Gary Cooper appeared in a showdown scene from one of his movies ...
Doar walked into the flashpoint of a riot, hands raised above his head “with bottles and bricks crashing around him.” Shouting his name, he told them this was not the way, and the very sight of him stilled the crowd so that he could be heard. ... “My name is John Doar!” he yelled. “D-O-A-R. I'm in the Justice Department in Washington. And anybody around here knows that I stand for what's right!” He walked forward, calling out the names of Dave Dennis and other movement leaders he knew and how many times they had been arrested, saying they too wanted the crowd to disperse. Miraculously, they did.
Doar would go on to prosecute the federal case against the killers of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner in 1964, helped draft the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and was tangentially involved in the Selma march in 1965. He was also Chief Counsel for the United States House Committee on the Judiciary during the Watergate scandal. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Pres. Obama in 2012.
How Gender was Added to the 1964 Civil Rights Act
The New Yorker's Louis Menand, reviewing Clay Risen's “The Bill of the Century” and Todd Purnam's “An Idea Whose Time Has Come,” has a good article, “The Sex Amendment,” on how gender was added to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and thus changed the world. It's less heroic than you might think. Would you believe it was added by an anti-union, pro-business Republican congressman from Virginia?
Menand also goes into the history of women and African Americans—specifically white women and African-American men—butting heads over who should go first through the doorway in the battle for equal rights. He quotes Frederick Douglass speaking at an American Equal Rights Association meeting in 1869 about how women should have the same urgency for equal rights when they're hunted down, lynched, etc. Susan B. Anthony then responded thus in favor of women's rights first:
If you will not give the whole loaf of suffrage to the entire people, give it to the most intelligent first. If intelligence, justice, and morality are to have precedence in the Government, let the question of woman be brought up first and that of the negro last.
Yeah: Susan B. Anthony. Which just goes to show that even if you're on the right side of history doesn't mean you're on the right side of all history.