The Curious Case of the Establishment Liberal: Condemning Torture, Condoning Mass Murder

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A peculiar notion has arisen of late, maintaining that things like torture, domestic spying and illegal wars are all attributable to the Right -- namely, the administration of President George W. Bush -- and are in fact historical anomalies, not at all in keeping with the traditions of these great United States. The idea that war crimes and civil liberties violations are strictly conservative affairs is particularly comforting to wide-eyed Democrats in awe of America's First Black President--and it affords the heirs to the same liberal establishment which brought us Vietnam and Hiroshima another opportunity to grandstand about their commitment to human rights even as the noble humanitarian Barack Obama continues to extra-judicially murder foreigners with unmanned drones. Unfortunately for partisan Democrats ' and even more so the victims of U.S. exceptionalism--American imperialism and its associated evils have long enjoyed bipartisan backing, though liberals tend to be somewhat more sheepish about their support for killing, torturing and maiming poor people overseas. 

The torture debate has provided the liberals of the establishment punditocracy but the latest opportunity to claim human rights violations are an aberration -- a regrettable "mistake" in the words of Obama -- the use of which was relegated to an eight year span wherein ignoble right-wingers broke with past tradition and authorized a whole host of evils that would make their predecessors in power turn in their graves. Though abhorrent, the message is that these crimes are a departure from the past, when prisoners of war and others in the U.S. government's possession were presumably set up at the Four Seasons and given a lollipop and a court-appointed attorney.

While that take on history is at odds with reality--the U.S. government's torture school for Latin American human rights abusers in training, the School of the Americas, for instance, was started under the watch of liberal icon Harry Truman--it serves a useful purpose in allowing establishment liberals the opportunity to decry the crimes of their right-wing foes with a forceful moral indignation that would appear ridiculous if they acknowledged the long-running, bipartisan nature of the U.S. empire's many transgressions.

"[R]emember that a liberal's only passion is not to do good but to look good" writes Princeton University mathematics professor Bernard Chazelle. In a post at the blog A Tiny Revolution, Chazelle helpfully reminds liberals that the use of torture did not begin with George W. Bush's disastrous presidency and did not end with Barack Obama's glorious ascension to the White House, contrary to popular lore. Rather, Chazelle notes, committed humanitarians from LBJ to Ronald Reagan repeatedly sanctioned its use in places from Vietnam to El Salvador, though past sainted leaders at least had the courtesy to "always [make] sure we could blame a nonwhite guy with a funny accent," thus helping maintain the fictional-if-widespread belief that the American state really is a force for good in the world and at home, and not actually an imperial, cancerous impediment to progress.

Yet even after their best attempts to pretend crimes committed by self-styled progressive Democrats are excusable or never even happened, liberal denunciations of torture appear none the more credible in light of their general acceptance for other war crimes, such as the aforementioned Truman's brave decision to incinerate hundreds of thousands of Japanese men, women and children in Hiroshima and Nagasaki--a decision, it should repeatedly be noted, that was opposed by Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, casting doubt on the oft-debunked claims it was necessary to stave off the deaths of even more American soldiers (as if that would justify the deliberate and repeated killing of civilians).

Comedy Central's Jon Stewart, for instance, in a recent interview pilloried conservative Clifford May's arguments in favor of torture, ridiculing the notion that human rights abuses are justified because, hey, we were scared and shit was crazy. But in response, May rightly pointed out that liberal outrage over waterboarding was a tad bit silly in light of their defense of things like nuking innocent civilians. Not missing a beat, Stewart correctly asserted Truman was a war criminal--could there be any other conclusion? -- for ordering the dropping of not one but two nukes on civilian population centers. Unfortunately, as Dennis Perrin points out, after some pushback from the usual folks who seem to get off on relishing in the American government's murder of defenseless foreigners, Stewart issued this rather pathetic apology a few days later:

Right after saying it, I thought to myself that was dumb. And it was dumb. Stupid in fact. So I shouldn't have said that, and I did. So I say right now, no, I don't believe that to be the case. The atomic bomb, a very complicated decision in the context of a horrific war, and I walk that back because it was in my estimation a stupid thing to say.

To recount: torture, even in a time of war, is never justified as it is beneath the character of a beacon of liberty and human rights like the United States. Dropping successive nuclear bombs on civilian sites in a country that was effectively defeated and seeking a way to surrender, on the other hand, is at the worst "a complicated decision in the context of a horrific war" -- and that according to one of the most radical pundits allowed on television.

While the reasoning may be confused--a bit tortured, even--there is an important lesson to be learned for future statesmen: torture one man and you'll be denounced as a war criminal; kill a quarter million civilians in the span of a week and you'll be "consistently ranked by scholars as one of the greatest U.S. Presidents."

That many, albeit certainly not all, liberals feel compelled to rationalize even the greatest war crimes committed by Democrats goes beyond a mere partisan desire to absolve past progressive icons, however. Rather, justifying past acts of premeditated murder is necessary to maintaining popular support for the state, which they envision implementing their resplendent progressive utopia. For if the public was convinced their government was nothing but a gang of murderous criminals and thieves and always had been, they might perceive that their rulers really don't have their best interests at heart--hell, they might even start joining those reactionary "tea parties" -- undermining belief in the state as a vital institution and a means for improving the human condition. Thus, past crimes are, if not absolved completely, written off as aberrations committed by a few bad apples or as 'complicated decisions' we mere mortals are not qualified to question.

Of course, the crushing enormity of the U.S. government's criminal record belies claims of its benevolence, or that said crimes are merely a departure from the state's regular functioning. The reality, as Albert Jay Nock noted more than 80 years ago, is that the state's crimes are not mere aberrations, but manifestations of its true purpose and entirely in keeping with its founding:

The State did not originate in any form of social agreement, or with any disinterested view of promoting order and justice. Far otherwise. The State originated in conquest and confiscation, as a device for maintaining the stratification of society permanently into two classes--an owning and exploiting class, relatively small, and a propertyless dependent class. Such measures of order and justice as it established were incidental and ancillary to this purpose; it was not interested in any that did not serve this purpose; and it resisted the establishment of any that were contrary to it. No State known to history originated in any other manner, or for any other purpose than to enable the continuous economic exploitation of one class by another.

Liberals (and conservatives), as believers in the force of the state as an engine of progress and goodness, however, can't admit this reality. Instead, they prefer conjectures about social contracts or appeals to pragmatism to justify using violence to enforce their vision for society. But as Nock points outs, these rationalizations for the state are wholly unconvincing--I'm really bound by a social contract because some old white dudes in wigs signed a piece of paper hundreds of years ago? Liberals in particular often appear to believe things like "universal health care" and other policies ostensibly aimed at promoting the public welfare are the core purpose of government, rather than part of the bread-and-circuses bribery politicians use to keep the rabble in check while they transfer wealth from the have-nots to the haves (see: Wall Street bailouts) and engage in countless overseas interventions that benefit not the public at large, but a select elite. It's no accident that the Pentagon budget goes up every year unquestioned -- with even a 4% increase cast as a dramatic cut.

Policies promoting the general welfare are the true aberrations, Nock writes, but because of the deeply ingrained conception of the state most people adhere to, this reality is obscured. Yet if any other institution nine times out of 10 did the opposite of what its supporters claimed was its intent, wouldn't many people start to think that, hey, maybe what that institution does 90% of the time provides a good indication of what it was always intended to do? Writes Nock:

Suppose vast numbers of people to be contemplating a machine that they had been told was a plow, and very valuable--indeed, that they could not get on without it--some even saying that its design came down in some way from on high. They have great feelings of pride and jealousy about this machine, and will give up their lives for it if they are told it is in danger. Yet they all see that it will not plow well, no matter what hands are put to manage it, and in fact does hardly any plowing at all; sometimes only with enormous difficulty and continual tinkering and adjustment can it be got to scratch a sort of furrow, very poor and short, hardly practicable, and ludicrously disproportionate to the cost and pains of cutting it. On the other hand, the machine harrows perfectly, almost automatically. It looks like a harrow, has the history of a harrow, and even when the most enlightened effort is expended on it to make it act like a plow, it persists, except for an occasional six or eight percent of efficiency, in acting like a harrow.

Surely such a spectacle would make an intelligent being raise some inquiry about the nature and original intention of that machine. Was it really a plow? Was it ever meant to plow with! Was it not designed and constructed for harrowing? Yet none of the anomalies that I had been observing ever raised any inquiry about the nature and original intention of the State.

That the U.S. government spends the majority of the tax dollars it expropriates from its subjects on empire and incarceration, and trillions more on propping up the financial elite while regular folks face stagnating wages is not an accident--it's by design.

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Charles Davis is a journalist based in Washington, DC. More of his work may be found at his website.