Monday, January 10, 2005

Exploring Our Options

Current discussions of the "Salvador option" seem to me like another example of the Right's ongoing demand for public approval of every crime and injustice it's ever perpetrated. From pseudoscientific apologies for racism by the likes of D'Souza and Thernstrom, to Ann Coulter's typically addled defense of Joe McCarthy, to all the commentators who recently pretended that Vietnam War protestors were some tiny lunatic fringe, to the repackaging of Oliver North as a legitimate policy analyst, the Right has for years been demanding new debates - on its own terms - on all its biggest failures. Every humiliation and insult the Right ever brought upon itself must apparently be recast as triumph in the public mind, while every act of flint-hearted evil is to be viewed as the respectable exercise of an "option."

The point of the "Salvador option" is that, legally speaking, it was never an option. On the contrary, it was an extremely serious crime. That's why it was kept secret from Congress, and from the public. That's also why, when I protested these actions at the time, I was accused of being a conspiracy theorist or a liar. Now, however, we're learning that the illegal and immoral things that were done in El Salvador comprise an "option": one mere thing amongst other things, all of which can and should be discussed dispassionately by civilized people.

This is one of the Right's favorite strategies: They select arguments that traditionally carry a risk of social sanction, and absolutely revel in discussing them publicly. The goal, I believe, is to overthrow social norms, and make it emotionally and socially easier for people to say things like:

"I'm not a racist, but..."

"I don't support torture, but..."

"I believe in freedom of speech, but..."

"Sure, slavery was bad, but..."

The Right is eager to promote conversations like these, because it understands that every time a person can be led to compromise basic moral principles - every time a person defends the indefensible, or justifies the unjustifiable - that person becomes weaker and more malleable. It's a funny thing, but once I've gotten you to discuss the possible merits of doing something evil, I'm more than halfway to convincing you that it's worth doing.

The proper response to discussions about the "Salvador option" isn't a debate on effectiveness or morality or constitutionality or possible blowback; the proper response is horror and outrage. If a man offers to buy your six-year-old daughter for the international sex trade, you're not going to haggle over the price; you're going to see to it that this predatory monster is stopped dead in his tracks. That's precisely the emotional response that's appropriate when right-wing ghouls take to the airwaves to defend torture and terrorism and racism; the situation calls not for debate - not even heated debate - but for deep-seated spiritual revulsion, and immediate and effective preventative action.

If we refuse to rise to that occasion as a nation - if we can't say "enough is enough," and cast these intolerably arrogant moral lepers back into the outer darkness where they belong - it seems to me that we're just as despicable and dangerous as they are.


Anonymous said...

Absolutely right on. Spot on. Dead on. There can be no haggling. Our only response is to be spurred to action by the revulsion we feel.
Thanks for saying it so powerfully and eloquently.

Rexroth's Daughter

Anonymous said...

thanks for the historical context the of criminality of death squads. i have been struggling all day for a response, an action. i am apoplectic and inarticulate. i'm most often an up sort. today my wife came home after work and asked right away "you're depressed, aren't you?'' Yes.

but all i got here is to suck it up and push the horrible situation in everyone's face.

Phila said...

Anon, I'm not sure I'm reading your post correctly. But just for the record, I don't really think we need to suck anything up, or push horrible things in people's faces...I don't really have any suggestion for a specific course of action. I'm just saying that as a general rule, there's nothing to be gained by debating indefensible things with evil people. And that in a healthy society, the men who are discussing these things would not be treated as civilized people, but as rabid animals. That's not what's happening, unfortunately.

It worries me that the Right's been able to debate things like this publicly, and I don't think we should participate in such debates, other than to say, "What you're proposing is evil, and you should be ashamed of yourself."

Obviously, I don't think mere disapproval is going to save our necks, and I don't know what will, other than huge numbers of Americans suddenly feeling that they can no longer stand being treated with contempt by evil people. It could happen, but I don't see much sign of it yet.

I'm sure we have a breaking point, though. And I'd like to think we're getting pretty goddamn close to it.

joshowitz5 said...

Great post! I totally agree. I wrote my senators, I wrote letters to the editor of my local papers and I put up a post on my blog, looking back at Negroponte's confirmation hearing to become US Ambassador to Iraq (which comes with its own set of Sheep's Clothing).

Two things amaze me about this development.

1) Why did it take John Negroponte so long to get to his favorite tactic?
2) Why weren't more congresspeople sufficiently outraged at the thought of Negroponte getting anywhere near that post. One thing I read was "whoever wants that job can have it."

Negroponte committed a crime, got a slap on the wrist for it and now that he's back in regular society (for him an ambassador post is 'regular') and now he's on to his next victim. Only this time he's learned from his mistakes and he'll be that much harder to prosecute next time. Luckily, the guy who prosecuted him (Kerry) is still around too.

Rexroth's Daughter said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Phila said...

No problem, DPR! I sympathize completely. I can't begin to express how angry and sick I am about all this stuff. In fact, I had to rewrite this post about a dozen times for just that reason; it was initially too incoherent, and had phrases in it that I thought might earn me a visit from the FBI if I left them in.

Rexroth's Daughter said...

did not mean to do that, delete my post. did not realize it was possible. that was the good part. can i get it back? undelete?

dread pirate roberts the dummy

Phila said...

Nope, I think when you delete it, it's gone.

It is a very nice service to offer. I wish Haloscan allowed it...there's a lot I'd take back.

Aquaria said...


Outstanding post, my favorite intellectual stud muffin.

The one thing I always do when someone uses the, "I'm not ______, BUT," is to say back, "There is no but! If you know it's wrong, you don't support it, for any reason. PERIOD." Or, "If you know it's right, you support it. Period." Whichever applies.

It works, people. We can handle nuance. Most Americans cannot. So don't give them any. Give them a non-nuanced position that is RIGHT. Slavery is wrong. Period. Torture is wrong. Period. And etc. Don't quibble. Don't look at the other side.

I was also one of the people who was protesting the Salvador "options," back in the 80s. It's really sad how many Americans were completely unaware of the kinds of things our government was doing there. They didn't wanna hear it. We were just a bunch of treasonous, American-hating liars for even alleging that our government was supporting death squads.

Ay, don't get me started on that one...!


Rmj said...

We have, of course, our limits as a society.

Exposing Janet Jackson's breast on national TV at the Super Bowl is "going too far."

Criticizing a sitting President in the most popular documentary ever made is "going too far."

Using a document that may or may not have been forged, and which is entirely tangential to the main story in a news broadcast, is "going too far."

But misleading the country into war? Misleading the country about the difficulty of the war, the likely outcome, the potential problems? Confusing the ethics of what people see on TV during a football game with waht governments do in the name of the people they supposedly represent? Inventing crises in order to lead by hysteria and fear?

Well, clearly one is a threat to civilization as we know it, and a blight on the American dream. And one is simply strong leadership.

How can you be concerned?

Sans Fromage said...

The Sans Fromage agrees with your response to the "Salvador option". Heinous crimes should not be tolerated. The right seems to excuse any behavior of the Bush administration. If cannibalism was discovered to have been common with the troops in Iraq they would say “People have to eat. Even girl scouts eat hamburgers”. The Sans Fromage always thought the reason the U.S went to war was to uphold the Geneva convention and to prevent torture. Idealistic, maybe, but the goal of the Sans Fromage’s upbringing was to expect good behavior and to follow a moral law. Religion taught that it was right to give to the poor and to help our neighbors in need. The Bush administration’s policies fills the Sans Fromage with shame.