Monday, May 18, 2009

Politics; Old and New

I just watched 1776 a few days ago. For those of you unfamiliar with it, it is a musical about the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It is really good, despite the fact that most of the musical numbers are tedious (the only really good ones are the one about how John Adams is obnoxious and disliked, and the first one between John and Abigail Adams). 

What I like about it is the way that it portrays the characters who made up the Continental Congress. Names we've heard of and sometimes know anecdotes about but that mostly remain shrouded in a dull textbook fog. I think (hope) everybody knows that Benjamin Franklin was a hell of a character, but what does anybody know about John Hancock except that he had a large signature? And the thing seems to be sunnily patriotic, just as you'd expect. 

Thomas Jefferson, for instance, is portrayed as a distraught lover pining for his bride. And while that's entirely believable, you can't help but think of Sally Hemmings, the slave with whom Jefferson had six children.

But the film gets to that. Because of course it would be impossible to skirt around the issue of slavery in a discussion of the founding of our nation. The turning point of the film comes when the issue is forced by the southern representatives. Jefferson included a passage in the Declaration that declared that slavery was a violation of the inalienable rights of man. Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson (perpetually tortured by the fact that he owned slaves while believing that it was a reprehensible practice that should be outlawed) were staunch abolitionists, but were forced to concede on the issue of slavery because otherwise the South would never have agreed to the revolution.

As the film ends you are infused with a patriotic pride at the high ideals of our founding fathers, and the simultaneous awareness that the issue of slavery will come to a head only a few decades later and split the country in a bloody civil war. And you sort of wish that those high ideals could have been a little higher, that we hadn't made that first concession, especially in the name of freedom.

Over the past couple weeks more and more evidence has been coming to light about the U.S. use of torture on Guantanamo Bay detainees. Remember months ago when it there was a debate about whether or not waterboarding even "counted" as torture? Then debates about whether or not torture could be "legal," Geneva Conventions not withstanding.

Most recently has been the position (usually voiced by somebody on Fox News in a spooky voice) that, "If Your Family was In Danger and you had A Scary Forgiener with Information about the next 9/11 wouldn't you be morally obliged to torture that guy?" The answer is no. Torture, like slavery, is wrong. Period. No matter what the extenuating circumstances. Plus now we have people testifying that first of all torture doesn't really work, that conventional non-illegal interrogation techniques work a hell of a lot faster, and most recently, that people were being tortured (after it had become clear that there was no link between Iraq and 9/11) for information that would tie al Qaeda to Iraq, rather than (as has been claimed) for information about other imminent terrorist attacks. And our Brave New White House, the one that has inspired so much hope and optimism, seems to be adopting the stance that we just shouldn't think about it. "Look to the future," not the skeletons in our national closet, even the ones so fresh they're still kicking.

Simultaneously, there are stories about mistreatment of our soldiers in Iraq by the companies that the government is paying to take care of them. Rachel Maddow has reported two stories recently that I found deeply disturbing. One was about servicemen being electrocuted by their tap water, because of some incredibly shoddy electrical work. The other was about servicemen (in the desert mind you) not being rationed enough water. The water they had was over treated with chemicals and made them nauseous. When they drank local water they got dysentery, and when they appealed to their superiors they were instructed to get it from the supplier, and were forced to steal it.

This is outrageous and disgusting on so many levels. I'm sick of it. And I know lots of people are sick of it. But we can't just shut our eyes and hope this goes away. We have to own this, as a nation. This war, the treatment of our prisoners, the treatment of our own soldiers, is a new national scar. We can ignore this, we can pretend that it didn't happen, but we'll be betraying the core principles on which this nation was founded. We're still struggling with the wounds left by the civil war, the repercussions of that very first betrayal of principle, before the ink was even dry. 

We're supposed to be better than this. We're supposed to be a shining beacon of truth and justice and freedom. We screwed that up, and if we're ever want to represent that again (even just to ourselves) instead of towering hypocrisy, we have to admit our own fallibility,  and we have to do what we can to make sure this never happens again.

I don't know yet quite what this means for me personally. I expressed myself through my ballot last November, and I'm doing it again now. I could buy a bumper sticker, or protest on street corners in my safe and liberal city and be reasonably sure that most everyone who saw me would agree with me and that those that didn't would ignore me, just like I do when I see protestors or bumper stickers. The only thing else I can think of is to donate money, because that's what talks. But I don't have any. So I don't know what else to do besides point these things out. There are lots of other people, more articulate and with louder voices, but my hope is that every voice helps. That if we keep shouting, "We are here! We are here! We are here!" that something will get through. 

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