The Nation, 11 May 2009


The recent release of Bush-era “torture memos” occasions an argument to the effect that those responsible for the writing of those memos and the implementation of the procedures described in them must be held to account.  This must be done, less to honor a duty to the past than to establish a precedent for the future:

As a former constitutional law lecturer, Obama should have a firmer grasp of the point of executive accountability. It is not merely to “lay blame,” as he suggests; it is to set boundaries on presidential behavior and to clarify where wrongdoing will be challenged. Presidents, even those who profess honorable intentions, do not get to write their own rules. Congress must set and enforce those boundaries. When Obama suggested that CIA personnel who acted on the legal advice of the Bush administration would not face “retribution,” Illinois’s Jan Schakowsky, chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence’s subcommittee on oversight and investigations, offered the only appropriate response. “I don’t want to compare this to Nazi Germany, but we’ve come to almost ridicule the notion that when horrific acts have been committed that people can use the excuse that, Well, I was just following orders,” explained Schakowsky, who has instructed aides to prepare for a torture inquiry. “There should be an open mind of what to do with information that we get from thorough investigations,” she added.

There must also be a proper framework for investigations. Gathering information for the purpose of creating a permanent record is only slightly superior to Obama’s banalities about wanting to “move forward.” Truth commissions that grant immunity to wrongdoers and bipartisan commissions that negotiate their way to redacted reports do not check and balance the executive branch any more than “warnings” punish speeding motorists.

A short piece remarks on the success leading neocons have had in publicizing the view that piracy off the Horn of Africa is a national security threat to the USA.  The Washington Post, for example, the other day tossed off a reference to “ties between al Qaeda and” the group that recently hijacked the Maersk Alabama, ties which appear to be wholly imaginary. 

George Scialabba’s review of two new books on the liberal tradition and its prospects, one by Alan Wolfe, one by Jedidiah Purdy, contains some interesting moments.  Scialabba seems to be on shaky ground here and there- for example, he paraphrases Oscar Wilde’s famous line that “The trouble with socialism is that it takes too many free evenings,” adding the qualification that the socialism he has in mind is “the real kind, not the totalitarian travesty.”  “The real kind” of socialism is not to be confused with what was once known as “actually existing Socialism.”  It would be unfair to Scialabba to compare this distinction to the distinction between the People’s Front of Judaea and the Judaean People’s Front, those splitters.  Still, a different version of the same impulse that drives him to call his favorite idea of socialism “real” and the historical regimes that have adopted that label a “travesty” of that idea may be at work in the more fissiparous corners of the Left.

Scialabba shakes his head at Alan Wolfe’s concern with metaphysical questions about free will and evolution, writing that “Someday our descendants will emerge from the metaphysical mists, shaking their heads and wondering what all that philosophical fuss was about.”  Maybe so, and as recently as the 90s an academic philosopher might have written that sentence.  Not now, though; metaphysics is back, in a big way.  Makes me glad I’m not a philosophy professor, quite frankly; I could never stand that stuff.  My hat’s off to Wolfe, a political sociologist, for grappling seriously with it. 

Purdy’s book gets a much more respectful hearing.  Purdy’s theme is “‘the divorce of civic identity from government’: the displacement of public virtue by personal virtue in American political life and language. The delicate, shifting interplay between public and private, individual and community, freedom and obligation, in our political rhetoric is, for Purdy, the best index of the condition of liberalism.”  Purdy’s narrative of American political ideas begins amid the early Republic, when economic self-sufficiency and the contrast between free men and slaves were the cornerstones of American notions of liberty.  With the rise of mass production, both of these vanished.  Purdy casts Woodrow Wilson as the first leader to grasp the change.  Wilson’s goal was to establish a partnership between the national government and the private citizens who by themselves would be crushed by the massive, impersonal forces industrialization released.  Twentieth century liberalism tried to build on Wilson’s vision, and met with considerable success until:

Ronald Reagan’s “brilliant recasting” of partnership as paternalism. Reagan simply denied that “complex, impersonal systems” often “outstripped individual will and understanding.” The essential conditions of social and economic life had not changed, he insisted; Americans could master them, as always, by “common sense and free choice” if government only got out of the way. This adroit rhetorical reversal set the tone for his successors. Clinton reluctantly and Bush II enthusiastically agreed that government intervention eroded individual autonomy–or, turning Roosevelt on his head, did not protect individualism but hampered it.

A review of Mary Gaitskill‘s Don’t Cry claims that the stories in it mark a decline from her book Veronica.  “Veronica, a novel that appeared four years ago to great acclaim, marks both the summit of Gaitskill’s work to date and the first stages of what looks thus far like decline.”  The review’s conclusion is withering: “It happened to Wordsworth and Conrad, and now it seems to be happening to Mary Gaitskill. The hunger has gone out of her work. Gaitskill was a great poet of youthful suffering. Whether she can reinvent herself as a chronicler of maturity remains to be seen.” 

I’ve been meaning to sit down with Gaitskill’s work for a while now; I admire the way she can turn a sentence.  Frankly, I’ve been a bit put off by her subject matter.  Sado-masochism and sexual violence are two topics I recognize as important, but I never actually have the desire to spend time focused on either of them.  In the matter of SM, I follow Abraham Lincoln and say that for those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.  The questions sado-masochistic practice raise about the roles of submission and dominance in our political and economic system and in sexuality in general are important, but depressing.  Sexual violence is an extremely important topic of course, but may well be the single most depressing subject in the universe.  So I’m still putting off reading more Gaitskill.


  1. cymast

     /  April 24, 2009

    “Presidents, even those who profess honorable intentions, do not get to write their own rules. Congress must set and enforce those boundaries.”

    Why don’t people GET THIS?!


    ” . . metaphysics is back, in a big way. Makes me glad I’m not a philosophy professor . . ”

    Are you equating metaphysics with philosophy?

  2. acilius

     /  April 25, 2009

    “Are you equating metaphysics with philosophy?”
    Oh no, there are many other subfields within philosophy. But back when I was deciding what to study in grad school, it seemed like it might be possible to spend a whole career as a philosopher without having to take metaphysics seriously. It isn’t that way any more. So I’m glad I didn’t choose that path, because I’d go crazy if I had to think about arguments in metaphysics all the time.

  3. cymast

     /  April 25, 2009

    “there are many other subfields within philosophy”

    Of course, as with any major field of study…….

    And you’re talking about the mystical, meditative, spiritual, universal-om metaphysics, right?

  4. acilius

     /  April 25, 2009

    “you’re talking about the mystical, meditative, spiritual, universal-om metaphysics, right?”

    No, there isn’t much of that in philosophy departments. Metaphysics the academic discipline is pretty dry and abstract. Some parts of it overlap with theoretical physics, some parts with mathematics, and a few other parts overlap with philosophy of science.

    Back when I was a young ‘un, most philosophers didn’t really mind it when bookstores used the word “metaphysics” to label the section about ghosts, life after death, tarot cards, the mystic power of crystals, etc. They all seemed to expect the academic discipline of metaphysics to disappear sooner or later, and rather hoped for “sooner.” Since that usage alternately irritated and embarrassed the remaining metaphysicians, other philosophers cheered it on.

    Now that metaphysics is back, there’s a problem. The field doesn’t have any other name, and the name “metaphysics” is so widely associated with the mystical stuff that it can be confusing to use it in its original sense.

  5. cymast

     /  April 25, 2009

    I see . . thanks for bringing me up to speed. You know you really should write an encyclopedia or something, you could make a few bucks, even in this economy.

  6. acilius

     /  April 25, 2009

    Thanks! That’s nice to say.

  7. cymast

     /  April 25, 2009

    You’re welcome!

    I guess the the mystical, meditative, spiritual, universal-om stuff is called paranormal science now. Or maybe just “paranormal.”

    Mr. Cymast and I like to watch Susan Miller on Comcast’s “On Demand” (The Cutting Edge to Paranormal TV to Horoscopes). It’s a fun ritual, in the most non-ritualistic sense of the word “ritual.” My fav part is at the beginning, before the forecast, when they show the video of a spider playing a theremin (so I say).

    Acilius, did you know we have a mutual hippie friend/acquaintance who is proficient in tarot cards, and a mutual architect friend who is an expert in astrology?

  8. acilius

     /  April 25, 2009

    I believe I did know that about our mutual friends.

  9. cymast

     /  April 25, 2009

    You and the missus should get 2 “couples” readings done after the honeymoon. It’s fun! I know the one barters, not sure about the other . .

  10. acilius

     /  April 25, 2009

    Actually one of Mrs Acilius’ best friends reads the Tarot, and she’s given us some readings. The first time she was unsettled by the cards she dealt out for me; apparently they were perfectly “balanced” in the sense that each card was matched with its exact opposite. She said she’d never seen anything like that before, and that it was very improbable. Subsequent readings, nothing bizarre happened.

  11. cymast

     /  April 25, 2009

    Oh wow does that mean you’re “perfectly balanced” (whatever that means)? And do you put any faith in the readings as explanations of the past, insights into the present, and predictions of future whatevers?

  12. cymast

     /  April 25, 2009

    I think any single combination of cards is no more or less improbable than any other . .

  13. acilius

     /  April 25, 2009

    As I recall, her point was that for every combination of cards that had the property of “balance” she was describing, there were a great many combinations without it. It was like flipping a coin twenty times in a row and getting heads every time. Unless it’s a trick coin that combination would be no less likely than any other, but it would grab your attention. Since she believes in the tarot, she was convinced that the cards proved that there was something extraordinary about me. What, she couldn’t say.

  14. acilius

     /  April 25, 2009

    Oh, I didn’t see your comment #11 until I’d already replied to comment #12. I don’t particularly believe in the tarot myself, but that reading had a spooky vibe that made it a lot of fun. She’s read the cards for me a couple of times since, there hasn’t been anything like that again.

  15. cymast

     /  April 25, 2009

    Well I agree with her, there is something out-of-the-ordinary about you. What, I won’t say.

    It’s funny what people will believe and won’t believe simultaneously.

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