Sunday, July 28, 2013

If you have to tell me, it ain't so

One of Curmie’s maxims is “if you have to tell me, it ain’t so.” I find myself saying that a lot, mostly to students who don’t quite have the confidence they need, who demand rather than command respect. If you’re a director and you have to tell your cast you’re in charge, you aren’t. Same goes for a teacher in a classroom. But there are other manifestations, as well.

I saw two headlines yesterday to prove my point: “Olympic Committee Assures Gay Athletes They’ll Be Safe In Russia” and “U.S. assures Russia Snowden won't be executed or tortured.” All these assurances! Even Curmie isn’t cynical enough to believe that these proclamations mean that gay athletes won’t be safe at the Sochi Olympics this winter, or that Edward Snowden, should he be extradited back to the US, will definitely be tortured and/or killed just because Eric Holder says he won't be. But they do mean that Russia and the US share the unenviable position of having to say what shouldn’t need to be made explicit: that they’ll act like grown-ups (at least this once). Why do they need to say so? Because Russia’s treatment of gays is barbaric and the US has a recent history of torture and execution of prisoners.

OK, Gentle Reader. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know what Curmie thinks of the IOC and their various minions. Almost exactly a year ago, I called the organizers of the London games “arrogant, inefficient, and venal”; a couple days later, I described their activities as “heavy-handed and frankly Stalinistic” and quoted Ken at Popehat that “The Olympic brand is about athleticism only in the sense that iTunes is about music: it is a vehicle for monetizing it.” When the IOC are the good guys in a story, the bad guys are very creepy indeed.

And, of course, they are. Vladimir Putin thinks he’s still in the KGB, and nobody in Russia has the combination of courage and clout to make him re-evaluate that position. A month ago, Putin signed into law a bill which criminalizes the “propagation” of homosexuality to children, with fines up to 100,000 rubles (about $3000) for those who use the internet or mass media to propagate homosexuality to minors. That’s about 10 weeks’ salary for the average Russian: a pretty steep price to pay for a “crime” so obviously intentionally ill-defined as to allow virtually any activity to lead to arrest… leading, of course, to prior restraint, which is the whole idea. Less than a week later, Putin tacked on another law, not merely forbidding gay Russians from adopting, but also preventing foreign adoptions of Russian children by anyone but married heterosexual couples.

In the immediate aftermath of the conviction of Pussy Riot’s Maria Alekhina, Ekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, I described Putin as “both a repressive homophobe and an amoral tactician.” I stand by that description, although I still have not come to a determination as to which of those elements is dominant: is he such a homophobe that he will do anything to suppress gay rights, or does he (probably correctly) believe that he can solidify his political status by playing to his countrymen’s (and –women’s) basest prejudices? Probably a little of both. Either way, it’s not good news if you’re one of the estimated 10 million or so Russian homosexuals… or one of the 600,000 parentless Russian children.

But let’s get back to the present. Playwright/actor Harvey Fierstein (Torch Song Trilogy, among others) may exaggerate the case a little in his opinion piece in the New York Times, but he’s certainly right that:
Historically this kind of scapegoating is used by politicians to solidify their bases and draw attention away from their failing policies, and no doubt this is what’s happening in Russia. Counting on the natural backlash against the success of marriage equality around the world and recruiting support from conservative religious organizations, Mr. Putin has sallied forth into this battle, figuring that the only opposition he will face will come from the left, his favorite boogeyman.
He’s right, too, that the imminence of the Sochi games makes the Putin regime (and I do choose that term intentionally) more open to outside persuasion than it is likely to be for years to come. It would take a level of political courage we’re not likely to see from the likes of Obama or Cameron or Merkel—and certainly not from the pompous hypocrites at the IOC—to actually boycott Sochi, but certainly there are opportunities for persuasion.

I think it’s probably true that Putin and his goons will stay away from enforcing their new repressions while the assembled multitudes are gathered in Sochi and environs. This strategy of pretending to an openness and a tolerance that doesn’t in fact exist has become standard procedure for authoritarian regimes hosting international events: think of the 1980 Olympics, for example, which managed to be a success despite not only the American boycott but the widely-acknowledged sweeping up and re-location of all the undesirables—from prostitutes to alcoholic derelicts—just to get them out of sight. No, there probably won’t be any problems while the games are actually going on. Which is why we really do need to pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

My “hook” on joining these two stories together was provided by this Facebook status update by a friend (I won’t identify him further, as it was a “friends only” post):
A national section headline in today’s Los Angeles Times: “U.S. Says it will not torture Snowden.” I remember a time when such statements would not be necessary. When did we become the country that had to reassure RUSSIA we wouldn’t torture people? Would you send your kids to a school with a sign “Our teachers say they will not molest your children.”? My first question would be, why are you reassuring me about this? Has it been a problem in the past? Neo-cons can call it “enhanced interrogation” all they want and spin out the tired ‘ticking bomb’ scenario. But we are now a nation that has tortured people. I am a proud Eagle Scout, ashamed of what scouting has become; I am a proud Catholic, ashamed of my church and its protection of pedophile priests; and now I am a proud American, ashamed of what my country has become. No jokes here today, folks, just an immense sadness at this once-great country.
My friend is right, of course. We do torture people, even though all the expert testimony suggests that such tactics are less likely to achieve the desired results—accurate and useful information—than other methods. And we’ve done it to our own citizens. Just ask José Padilla.

And we do execute people. We’ve done it over 1300 times since SCOTUS lifted the moratorium on the death penalty was lifted in 1976. That works out to about one every ten days or so. Texas Governor Rick Perry has presided—if that is the term—over 261 of them. The chances that at least one of those cases resulted in the execution of an innocent man or woman approach ontological certitude. Indeed, no less than a member of the Supreme Court seems not the slightest bit concerned by that eventuality: Antonin Scalia wrote, in a dissenting opinion on the Troy Davis habeus corpus appeal in 2009, that “actual innocence” (his scare quotes) is insufficient to overturn a conviction. “This Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent.” True, Scalia was thrown out of Grinchville for being too heartless, but come on.

The chances that a good number of those executed were themselves victims of overzealous prosecutors, jury-stacking, racial bias, and/or incompetent defense attorneys, of course, is roughly equal to the likelihood that the sun will continue to rise in the east and not decide that it’s bored with that routine and try rising in the southwest for a change.

Curmie, to be sure, is ambivalent about the death penalty. As I wrote about the Troy Davis case a couple of years ago, “there are those of our species whom, to be frank, we’d be better off without.” That doesn’t mean, of course, that we ought not to be extremely circumspect in applying the ultimate punishment. And the propriety of the death penalty is not the issue here: it’s the fact of its existence.

Where Edward Snowden falls on the continuum from heroic whistle-blower to self-righteous traitor is the subject for debate, and the opinions of people whose intellect and ethics Curmie respects cover a wide spectrum on this issue. What should not be under discussion, however, is whether he should be tortured or executed. He should not, for both ethical and pragmatic reasons. Period. End of discussion. Nor will he be, I suspect, even if Russia (or some other country) extradites him. You will forgive me, however, Gentle Reader, if I’m a little less confident of that statement than I was a couple days ago. Not (merely) because Eric Holder is a serial prevaricator, but because he had to tell us.

1 comment:

Steve Grossman said...

One of your best yet, and too, too true