Mac Donald on torture

January 30, 2005

I have said all I have to say on the subject, but this CITY JOURNAL article by Heather Mac Donald, latest in a series, is worth reading.

Morality and the empty cradle

January 29, 2005

Morality in every culture means striving for behaviors that transcend self-interest.  The moral parliament includes the dead and the not yet born, and we who are alive at this moment will be held to account by them for every act of self-indulgence that reduces the sum of human value in our common story.

To be good, I think, is to live in some measure beyond oneself.  Traditionally, religion has provided the models for transcendence; but one needn’t be Mother Teresa, or at all religious, to live beyond oneself.  Engagement in civic affairs, in the life of the community, is a perfectly secular way to achieve this end.

But the most immediate path to virtue is the family.  Every mother and father will know what I mean:  once a child is born, the parents’ lives are no longer their own.  This can be a source of immense happiness, or a test of character; usually both.  In any case, since life must precede both liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we Americans affirm our traditions as well as our natural instincts when we aspire to parenthood.

I come to my theme, which is the unwillingness of Europeans to reproduce themselves, and to my text, which is this TCS article by the delightfully named Pavel Kohout, described as an associate of the Center for Economics and Politics in Prague.

The decline in European birth rates is becoming a well-known story.  Kohout’s article provides an economic interpretation for the demographic implosion.  Whereas in the agricultural past children had economic value, in the postmodern present, he argues, they have become an expensive commodity, competing with cats and dogs for the affection of budget-limited consumers.

Today, children no longer represent investments; instead, they have become pets – objects of luxury consumption. However, the pet market segment is very competitive. It is characteristic that the birth rate decline in the 1980s, and especially in the 1990s, was accompanied by soaring numbers of dog-owners in cities. While in the past dog-owners were predominantly retirees, today there are many young couples that have consciously decided to have a dog instead of a baby. These are mainly young professionals who have come to a conclusion (whether right or wrong) that they lack either time or money to have a child. Thus, they invest their emotional surpluses into animals.

Sociological explanations have also been put forward, usually based on the changing role of women.  As European females invest more time in education and career, the average age of first-time mothers becomes increasingly older, locking in a decline in birth rates and, soon enough, in the population.

Economic possibilities channel human behavior; aspirations for meaningful work and success motivate European women, no less than the rest of us.  But I wonder whether these explanations are sufficient to account for the astonishing decline in the numer of babies made in Europe by this generation.

If one believes human behavior is shaped by grand, impersonal forces, then the answer is yes.  An alternative hypothesis, which I intend to explore, is that grand, impersonal forces emerge from the decision to behave one way made by individuals who could have decided differently.  And the choice can be informed by morality or naked self-interest.

Do we have a moral duty to reproduce?  Seems like a strange question.  The decision to have children is an intensely personal one.  The community plays no part.  We even frown on parents who put pressure on a couple to produce grandkids.  Yet, as the case of Europe shows, the community has a fundamental interest in the outcome.  If enough private choices turn against reproduction, the community dies.

The answer to the question is:  it depends.  As I said above, there are many ways to transcend self-interest.  Having a family happens to be the most universally accessible.  And I can think of times and places when starting a family would be reprehensible – I wouldn’t do so if I were unmarried, for example, or if I lived in North Korea.  We reproduce not only an organism but a way of life.  If we enjoy and value our way of life, it would be selfish, all things being equal, not to share it with the future.

When one examines the European way of life, a number of recent departures from tradition immediately attract attention.  Even in the most religious countries, like Ireland and Spain, church attendance has collapsed.  Since the 1970’s, the institution of marriage has largely lost its legitimacy; the rates of divorce, cohabitation, and out-of-wedlock births have skyrocketed across the continent.  And whatever the economics behind these changes, working harder isn’t a factor:  the average French worker, for example, toiled 23.5 percent fewer hours in 2002 than in 1970.

A curious portrait emerges of the population of postmodern Europe.  It enjoys freedom, long life, education, and relative prosperity, but is increasingly unwilling to commit to religious ideals, or to a spouse, or to parenthood, or to hard work.

Such a cluster of behaviors can’t be sustained for long.  Old pensioners will soon outnumber young workers; fewer workers will mean still fewer hours worked.  Every secularist European who enters postmodern heaven is replaced by a zealous Muslim, whose ideas about political and social freedom will come from the Koran, not the Enlightenment.  Kohout is by no means the first to worry about “the end of democracy in Europe.”

An older generation chose differently.  Coming generations will look back to this moment in Europe with wonder.  In the parliament of morals, where the dead and the unborn call us to account, the current generation of Europeans will have much explaining to do.


The moral judgment of Alberto Gonzales (2)

January 28, 2005

In an earlier posting, I set out the preconditions for passing a moral judgment on the fitness of Alberto Gonzales to become attorney general.  In brief, the judgment is of Gonzales’ character, and a judgment on character must be based on a pattern of behavior, not on a single moment or memo, unless these can be made to fit into such a pattern.

The Washington Post, in opposing confirmation, has made a case that such a pattern exists:  that Gonzales, in fact, has conspired with the White House to deny foreign detainees any protection against abuse and degradation.  The WaPo argument hinges on whether one accepts that aggressive interrogation practices, for which Gonzales provided legal cover, are in fact abusive and degrading.

This debate between John Hutson and Heather Mac Donald covers both sides of the question.  Hutson testified against Gonzales in the Senate.  Mac Donald, in CITY JOURNAL, has been holding a furious but enlightening dispute with Andrew Sullivan and others, on the questions of what constitutes torture and whether the abuses that have taken place, such as Abu Ghraib, were condoned or even inspired from the top of the Administration.  In the debate with Hutson, Mac Donald quotes in context the controversial bits of Gonzales’ memo:

The war against terrorism is a new kind of war. It is not the traditional clash between nations adhering to the laws of war that formed the backdrop for [the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War]. The nature of the new war places a high premium on other factors, such as the ability to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists and their sponsors in order to avoid further atrocities against American civilians, and the need to try terrorists for wantonly killing civilians. In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions requiring that captured enemy be afforded such things as commissary privileges, scrip, athletic uniforms, and scientific instruments.

She makes her own position clear.  The aggressive interrogation techniques used against detainees could not be carried out under the Geneva conventions, or against Americans protected by the Bill of Rights; but it’s a long way from saying that to condoning torture.

The torture issue is a red herring, as is your admonition against waging “uncivilized war.” No one is advocating either. I have explicitly rejected torture, as has the Bush Administration. Our soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq strove constantly to observe the Geneva Convention requirements for civilized war: They made sure to wear some sort of identifying insignia on the street and before entering homes, they set themselves probable cause standards for searches that were higher than in the U.S., any possibility that a strike would generate civilian casualties was always carefully debated by the Judge Advocate Generals.

What I have advocated is the careful use of stress interrogation techniques against terror suspects when they resist questioning. I believe that it is morally acceptable to question a terror suspect past his bedtime, to isolate him, or to play music to distract him from his resistance strategies. We can argue about whether such techniques would be permissible for a lawful prisoner of war under the third Geneva Convention; you would have to work hard to convince me that such techniques are “torture,” however. I do know that whether we employ such modest stress techniques on Al Qaeda suspects or confine ourselves to the traditional 16 psychological gambits codified in the Army Field Manual for use on POWs will have not the slightest effect on whether Al Qaeda terrorists go ahead with their next effort at mass destruction.

Hutson, for his part, believes in civilizing war.  He is worried about the consequences of  the U.S. not adhering to the Geneva conventions in this war, regardless of the unconventionality of the enemy.  He considers torture both morally abhorrent and pragmatically ineffective.

Now, a word about “civilized war.” Sure, it’s an oxymoron, but it’s a goal we should strive to achieve. War can get a lot worse. It has been in the past. It’s a fearful endeavor under any circumstances, but we dare not give up waging civilized war. If we do, we really, really, really, won’t like what it can degrade to. 9/11 gave us a hint. I think that even if it is only us trying to stay on the high road, it’s worth the effort.

This isn’t the last war we will fight. It’s not even the next to last war. In the end, adherence to Geneva will protect U.S. troops in this war and all the future wars.

This blog is about the relationship between morality and freedom.  This issue concerns both.  One must come to some sort of judgment.

I detest torture.  It corrupts victim and torturer alike.  Like Hutson, I believe that as a tool to obtain truth it is largely useless.  One reads accounts of Savonarola’s interrogation – torture, confession, recanting, more torture, new confession – and one comes away thinking that torture gets the torturer what he wants to hear.

I found the behavior of American soldiers at Abu Ghraib repulsive and shameful.  They disgraced their country, and they tarnished the good cause for which they fought.  That applies to the perpetrators for their actions, and to their commanders for their morally culpable incompetence.

But Abu Ghraib had nothing to do with Gonzales or interrogation tactics.  It was a night party for singularly depraved individuals in uniform.  And I find Hutson’s arguments, on the whole, disingenuous and confused.  Geneva either is a set of conditions to be met or it isn’t.  The comparison Hutson attempts between Al Qaida and the American colonists is historically false.  The terrorists aren’t a citizenry in arms.  Geneva cannot possibly, under any stretch of the imagination, apply to them.  The memos drafted by Gonzales may be controversial, but the substance of what they said is legally and morally correct.

Mac Donald makes a convincing case that none of the techniques approved by the government amount to torture.  The matter requires close and continuing oversight by the American people.  We must never look away, not even if we think that by doing so we will ensure our safety.  In the end, true safety can only be achieved by the preservation of freedom.

None of these qualifications affect the heart of the matter:  Alberto Gonzales appears to be a man of good character.  For political reasons, having to do with the Republican majority in the Senate, he will be confirmed.  Given what I know, I think he should be confirmed.

The pursuit of unhappiness

January 23, 2005

This is an astonishing piece:  an analysis, based on one man’s experience, of the moral environment out which crawl all the social evils present (and apparently growing) in Britain, from torture to the casting out of children by mothers who wish to appease their boyfriends.  The author is Theodore Dalrymple.  I don’t know him, but from the article it appears he is a physician working among would-be suicides in the prisons and hospitals of an unnamed British city.  The title is “The Frivolity of Evil,” which is about the only thing about the article I don’t like.  (I don’t see how evil, any more than virtue, can ever be banal or frivolous.)

We need more from Dalrymple, whoever he is.  If the spreading pathologies he portrays are true, Britain needs his undogmatic moral clarity even more.  Anything I write here will only detract from his compelling story.  Still, I can’t resist observing that the article illustrates the truth of Jefferson’s proposition equating happiness with virtue.  The patients described by Dalrymple live in a reverse-Jeffersonian world:  by perpetuating evil, they endure miseries few of us would dream of.

Read this article. (Via Arts & Letters Daily.)

UPDATE:  Theodore Dalrymple, I have learned, is a contributing editor of CITY JOURNAL.  The JOURNAL seems to spread far beyond its mission statement, which claims to focus on urban affairs; Dalrymple’s other articles have the same acid-bath power as the one above.

Books to read: Jefferson and American virtues (2)

January 22, 2005

Does the work make the man?  Jefferson thought so.  Can free markets destroy our political freedoms?  Jefferson was sure of it.  Combine these two propositions, and we’ve got trouble.  Americans today work prodigiously at getting and spending; our materialism reaches such heights as to resemble a mystical condition.  Can our morals and our freedom survive?

This is my second post on Jean Yarbrough’s American Virtues:  Thomas Jefferson on the Character of a Free People.  The first considered the pursuit of happiness; here I’d like to reflect on corruption.

In Jefferson’s world, farmers make better citizens than bankers or industrialists.  The country is pure, the city sinful; the plowman is frugal, the moneyed man greedy; these are old, widely-held notions, accepted in their day by Aristotle and the Khmer Rouge alike.  I don’t buy it.

Blame my suburban soul, but I can’t see how fighting weevils is more noble or virtuous than, say, building cars or selling insurance.  But there’s a larger point that often gets dismissed along with Jefferson’s agricultural mania.  To maintain their freedom, a people must embody certain specific forms of behavior:  independence, industry, simplicity, as well as justice and benevolence toward others.  Can anyone doubt this?  Jefferson used the virtuous farmer (which he truly believed in) to portray the moral requirements for the character of the American people.

So how can free markets can undermine our character?  Jefferson was a liberal.  He supported free markets.  But unlike Hamilton, he did not consider their consequences endlessly beneficent; and unlike John Adams, he thought, as a liberal, that bringing in government control to shape economic behavior would only make any problem worse.  The battleground wasn’t the Presidency or Congressional legislation, or economic policy; it was individual character.  “Alone among the Founders,” Yarbrough writes, “Jefferson located the heart of  republicanism in the liberty-loving spirit of the people.”

The dilemma was how to sustain that spirit.  Jefferson worried about two possible outcomes of an unbridled market:  one, the division of the citizenry into impoverished servile “sheep” and unaccountable millionaire “wolves”; and two, the embrace of luxury and self-indulgence at the expense of liberty and self-reliance.

Societies divided between sheep and wolves Jefferson had seen in Europe.  Look in the poorer corners of the world today – you’ll find the same divide.  The effect is an inescapable corruption of the spirit.

Some years ago, I spent a few days in Mexico City’s zona rosa.  My hotel looked like a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie set.  I had to fight the urge to waltz.  Outside the gilded doors squatted a little beggar family:  an Indian mother with a baby at her breast, and four more children, the oldest not more than five.  They sat there, impassive, not really begging but expecting something from the lordlings coming out of the hotel.  Their silence amazed me.  I felt wretched at the sight of them, but I convinced myself, with little effort, that these children were different from mine – less demanding of happiness and cheerfulness.

On my last day in the city, I spied them in a traffic island of the Paseo de la Reforma, tumbling and shouting and laughing just like my own kids.  The wolf needn’t be a devourer:  he can be an excuser and a self-deceiver.

Can we point to an example closer to home?  Ken Lay of Enron would win the American Wolf Award by a landslide, I suspect, but my own candidate is Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom, who borrowed billions from pensioners to finance his private excesses.  On the other side of the divide, Yarbrough mentions the growth of an American “underclass” wholly dependent on government largesse.

Yet all these are examples of lack of freedom in the marketplace.  No company or CEO aspires to become a competitor.  By the very nature of competition, they seek to control and monopolize a market, and institutionalize their hold over it.  Cronyism defined the economies of France and England in Jefferson’s time, and of Mexico when I was visiting.

We have long accepted the premise that, just as government exists to guarantee the pursuit but not the achievement of happiness, so must it ensure the competitive freedom of the marketplace, not the success of any given piece of it.  In this spirit, Enron and WorldCom were allowed to go belly up.  In this spirit, too, Lay and Ebbers are staring at a jury of their peers, distasteful as the notion must seem to an ex-billionaire.  And the American “underclass,” statistically, is a very mobile group.

Wolves prowl among us, always will; but we are not sheep.

The second negative consequence of the marketplace – love of luxury and sensation, what we often mean by “consumerism” – is impossible to dispute.  With wealth comes luxury, and we Americans are the wealthiest people in the history of the species.   We own far more than we need, and we are stimulated by the marketplace to desire more still.

But of itself wealth or even luxury need not be corrupting.  A wealthy family may show more independence and spirit than, say, my beggar family in Mexico City.  What Jefferson rightly diagnosed as corruption was a subjective relationship to money and pleasure, in which acquisition and consumption became an overmastering passion, matched by a “lethargy” with regard to civic liberties and involvement in public affairs.

How can we tell when this subjective state has taken possession of a people’s judgment?  Only concrete examples will do:  when women refuse to have children (or abort their offspring) to preserve their uncluttered lifestyles; when men abandon their families to pursue their own pleasures; when individuals borrow to consume what they can’t afford; when (as Yarbrough observes) they gamble away billions of dollars every year; when citizens are too lethargic to vote – then we can say that the pursuit of happiness has been corrupted into a passion for luxury, character has been compromised, and the freedoms that depend on virtue are in danger of being traded for money.

Such Americans exist, in the millions.  A Niagara of data demonstrates this fact.  Yet I can summon an equal and opposite datafall proving the existence, in the millions, of zealously caring parents, industrious workers and businessmen, and citizens engaged in every facet of public life, from the PTA to presidential elections.

Market-driven materialism and Jeffersonian idealism are locked in a struggle for control of the behavior of the American people.  Some individual Americans incline one way, some the other; most of us look for some middle ground where we can enjoy a few luxuries without giving away our inheritance.  Whether the best outcome is a triumph of idealism or a pragmatic balance, is impossible for me to say.  But there can be little doubt that, as Jefferson warned, a purely materialistic and luxury-loving people will not endure long in freedom.


Inaugural thought

January 20, 2005

“In America’s ideal of freedom, the public interest depends on private character – on integrity, and tolerance toward others, and the rule of conscience in our own lives. Self-government relies, in the end, on the governing of the self.”

George W. Bush

Deep thought

January 17, 2005

“Is there no virtue among us?  If there be not we are in a wretched situation.  No theoretical checks, no form of government can render us secure.  To suppose that any form of government will secure happiness or liberty without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.”

James Madison

COMMENT:  From the ineffable PVV – “The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct permanent share in the government… Can a democratic assembly who annually revolve in the mass of the people be supposed steadily to pursue the public good?” — Alexander Hamilton

Madison would reply:  How does one decide who flies “first class,” unless the coach passengers are virtuous enough to make the right choices?