Monday, April 30, 2012

One of these things is not like the other....

So I read Charles Pierce and learn this:
"We made some al Qaeda with American blood on their hands uncomfortable for a few days, but we did the right thing for the right reason. The right reason to protect the homeland and to protect American lives."
Or this, while practically giggling about knocking suspects around and the effectiveness of nudity as a psychological weapon:
"The objective is to let him know there's a new sheriff in town and he better pay attention."
Or this, about waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times:
"I don't know what kind of man it takes to cut the throat of someone in front of a camera like that, but I can tell you this is probably someone who didn't give a rat's ass about having water poured on his face."
Rodriguez also compared sleep deprivation to "jet lag," which is probably why both the KGB and the South African security services were so fond of using it.
Of the use of "stress positions," he said this:
"Forever and ever? I was thinkin' about this the other day. The objective was to induce muscle fatigue, and most people who work out do a lot more fatiguing of the muscles."
Then I click the link at Pierce's blogroll to Crooked Timber, where I find a link to this:

Most people today are spontaneously moral: the idea of torturing or killing another human being is deeply traumatic for them. So, in order to make them do it, a larger "sacred" Cause is needed, something that makes petty individual concerns about killing seem trivial. Religion or ethnic belonging fit this role perfectly. There are, of course, cases of pathological atheists who are able to commit mass murder just for pleasure, just for the sake of it, but they are rare exceptions. The majority needs to be anaesthetized against their elementary sensitivity to another's suffering. For this, a sacred Cause is needed: without this Cause, we would have to feel all the burden of what we did, with no Absolute on whom to put the ultimate responsibility.
I'm highly dubious of that "spontaneously moral" claim.  The idea of torture is not so deeply traumatic that, as Pierce points out, people like Rodriquez can't make a quick buck off of it.  George Zimmerman seems less traumatized over shooting another human being while sitting atop them, than at not being universally approved in his action.  I suppose national security qualifies as a "sacred cause," but I don't see that as uniquely post-Enlightenment or peculiarly 21st century.  Is Jose Rodriguez an atheist?  Does it matter?  He could be a devout Catholic for all I know; or a Bible-thumping fundamentalist.  He certainly seems to be more motivated by a spirit of vengeance than a spirit of sanctification:  "I don't know what kind of man it takes to cut the throat of someone in front of a camera like that, but I can tell you this is probably someone who didn't give a rat's ass about having water poured on his face."  There's not much more behind that sentiment than an atrocity for an atrocity, which has nothing to do with either religion nor any particular schema except the ability to torture someone else.  And since when has religion ever kept people from committing atrocities?  Where does this "elementary sensitivity to another's suffering" come from?  I feel compassion for people I know, but strangers?  And worse, abstractions?  Kill 'em all, let God sort 'em out.  That seems as human a position as preferring to live in groups rather than alone.  You might think I'm making too much of nothing, but the argument goes on:

Religious ideologists usually claim that, true or not, religion makes some otherwise bad people to do some good things. From today's experience, however, one should rather stick to Steven Weinberg's claim: while, without religion, good people would have been doing good things and bad people bad things, only religion can make good people do bad things.
 Which is just pure nonsense.  What religious motivation does Mr. Rodriguez display?  What religious motivation lies behind the torture regime sanctioned by George W. Bush, and continued and expanded (indiscriminate bombing of civilians is no less horrific than individual torture, and Pierce notes:

 A suspected U.S. drone strike killed three people Sunday at a high school in northern Pakistan where militants were hiding, intelligence officials said. The drone fired two missiles at the school in the city of Miranshah, killing three suspected militants, the Pakistani intelligence officials said.
Did Obama approve that strike because he is a Christian?  Or in spite of it?  No, religion isn't to blame; the "Big Idea" is.  And perhaps Zizek sees that:

But what about the Stalinist Communist mass killings? What about the extra-legal liquidations of the nameless millions? It is easy to see how these crimes were always justified by their own ersatz-god, a "god that failed" as Ignazio Silone, one of the great disappointed ex-Communists, called it: they had their own god, which is why everything was permitted to them.
 An idea can be as much a "god" as a religious belief can be; indeed, the two are usually indistinguishable in practice, if not in theory.

I started this, as I say, at Crooked Timber, where the general tenor seems to be that Zizek is full of blue mud (as my grandmother used to say).  I was inclined to agree, but by the end, I'm not so sure.  Zizek's argument begins with Sartre misattributing an idea to Dostoevsky (at least, according to Zizek; I remain mildly unconvinced) and in the process, I had thought, misunderstanding Sartre's point.  By the end, though, he's back to Sartre; or might as well be:

Is this not Dostoyevsky's version of "If there is no God, then everything is prohibited"? If the gift of Christ is to make us radically free, then this freedom also brings the heavy burden of total responsibility.
 Or, as another Frenchman put it:  "Religion is responsibility, or it is nothing at all."  I'm still not quite sure how Zizek gets there from what he starts with, but his end is certainly better than his beginning.  Which makes me think he may not be saying what Crooked Timber thinks he is saying.  But, admittedly, it's kind of hard to tell.*

A footnote, as it were, to this discussion.  Zizek's argument is based, in part, on the assumption that the purpose of God is to provide a moral standard which cannot be refused.  It's not an argument Aristotle would have recognized as valid, nor even Plato; but it has become the sine qua non of atheistic arguments about ethics (mostly by people who don't know what they are talking about, or who don't understand Sartre; or just both).  Zizek mentions the argument of "God=love," in passing.  I won't make the mistake of assuming he approves of it, or accepts it as the final statement of Christian theology; but Stanley Hauerwas absolutely demolishes it; in a good way.

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