Monday, July 28, 2014

A Rights Analysis Doesn't Work for Torture. Here's Why.

I believe that torture is wrong. Yes, even if you’re Jack Bauer and lives will be lost, it is still wrong for anyone to torture the bad guy. But why? In all the anti-torture arguments that I have seen, there is some kind of appeal to universal human rights. Everyone (they will tell you), American or not, combatant or not, has a right not to be tortured. And further, this is a right that cannot be waived. It is a universal human right. I appreciate what this argument is trying to do, but I find it inadequate. Of course there is such a thing as a right to be safe from torture. Everyone knows this. But equally, in real life, everyone knows that you can waive this right. Why do I say “everyone knows” this? We need look no further than the war-, spy-, and police stories that we find all over our culture. Popular wisdom is often revealed in our narratives, and that is true here. A person waives his right not to be tortured when he tortures someone else. Take the handy example of Jack Bauer. As we all know, the producers of 24 employ a double standard. If Jack (or another “good” guy or gal) is tortured, this proves how despicable the bad guys are. But if Jack brutalizes someone while interrogating them, he had to do it to save lives, and it is commendable. Whatever the good guys do, however evil it may be, is considered good, as long as their cause is just. But this is where things get interesting. Even though the producers commend Jack for his acts of brutality, the narrative rule of do-as-you-would-be-done-by is so strong that it still applies. His acts of cruelty, done from good motives or not, have moved him into a realm where he is eligible to be tortured by the bad guys. And, he is. Once he has crossed the line into the world of brutal, desperate measures … the same measures will be applied to him. The producers may not even realize it, but they are following this narrative rule. By the same token, we do not feel that injustice has been done to the bad guys that Jack torments, because the producers have taken care to first establish that by committing previous cruelties, they had already entered that brutal world themselves. This simple law makes it hard for me to sympathize with your average terrorist who is about to be unjustly tortured. If he comes from Saudi Arabia, for example, he is from a place where men routinely sexually torture women. (See the book Princess .) Has he done this himself? We can’t know for sure, of course, but the odds are good that he has. He probably had no idea (or interest in) how those poor women felt. If he is tortured unjustly by the Americans, he is about to find out. But now, behold the beauty of the non-rights analysis. On the non-rights analysis, we don’t need to invoke universal human rights when deciding what to do. We are forbidden to do certain things just because they are wrong. It doesn’t matter if the guy deserves it. It is still wrong for us to torture him, because torturing another sentient being is always wrong. A major comeuppance may be long overdue to the bad guy, but it is not the sort of thing that human beings such as ourselves can rightfully dish out. Ever. Voila. Torture is wrong, and there’s no need to invoke rights. Rights are slippery, and they will turn on you faster than you can say, “I need you to trust me.”

Monday, July 7, 2014

Dystopias: When the World Goes Wrong

I love a good dystopia. By which I mean, of course, a book set in a very dark version of the future rather than in an idealized (utopian) one. Some dystopias project present trends or the author's worst fears quite far into the future. For example, Brave New World shows a society in which genetic engineering plus entertainment have achieved a very advanced level of control over humanity, far more so than was the case at the time of writing. Other dystopias are actually about the present day. 1984 was originally meant to be titled 1948, and to be a description of life under a totalitarian regime that is constantly at war, which was of course already happening at the time. Similarly, Lord of the Flies, about the descent into barbarism of a group of boys stranded on a remote island, was apparently a critique of the adults, who were fighting a world war back in "civilization." Other classic dystopias, which they tended to make us read in high school, include Fahrenheit 451 and Animal Farm. The genre is alive and well, and it seems that new dystopias are being written every year. Lois Lowry has written some terrific ones, such as The Giver and Gathering Blue. There is Agenda 21, which has Glenn Beck's name on the cover but was actually written by Harriet Parke, where the future is one of regimented, cultureless starvation brought about by environmentalist totalitarians. On the other end of the spectrum, The World Made By Hand and The Witch of Hebron by James Howard Kunstler bring to well-written life his vison of a future in which oil shortages, plagues, and an energy crisis have returned North Americans to a preindustrial lifestyle within one generation. (See, you can write a dystopia from any point of view!) A very good recent dystopia was The Office of Mercy by Ariel Djanikian, in which one group of human beings exterminates another group at the slightest sign of suffering. That one will make you cry. Dystopias, especially the classic ones which do not tend to have happy endings, are not good beach reading. They will wrench you, haunt you, and stay with you for weeks. But they tend to be intense page-turners, as well as being an important source of wisdom about our world. So what have I missed? What's YOUR favorite dystopia?

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Where In The World Is Graham Hatter?

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson, 2006. ... Graham Hatter spends almost all of One Good Turn in a coma, but he still manages to dominate the book due to the way he has lived prior to the coma. A coma is not Hatter’s natural state, and it’s as if his energetic, devil-may-care spirit, not content being confined in a hospital bed, has left his body to stalk the pages of the novel. He causes considerable chaos among his associates and employees by his absence. His crappy housing estates, Hatter Homes, figure big in the plot. Most of all, Hatter lives on in the memories of his now-almost-widow, Gloria, as she moves about her daily life, tweaking her home and wealthy lifestyle to (finally!) fit her tastes. A reader, like me, is alternately tickled and horrified as we come to know Graham through Gloria’s musings. Gloria remembers when Graham got a speeding ticket. He had been speeding, talking on his Bluetooth, smoking a cigar and eating a huge, greasy cheeseburger, all at the same time. And that pretty much sums up Graham Hatter. … Martin, the accidentally successful writer, is Hatter’s opposite. He has trouble making his presence felt, even when he is actually present. He is frequently mistaken for someone else, such as a gay person (which he’s not) or a dead person (not quite). But since Martin is not, like Graham, in a coma, he is actually able to make things happen in the world on occasion, and so … well, you will have to read it for yourself. It is dark, sad, and sometimes graphic, but if you are in a space to enjoy such things, it is also very funny.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

They Shot Him

Lay down your arms! I come in peace. Said the ambassador right before they shot him. Lay down your arms! And be released, he said, and then they shot him. His hands were high His heart was wide They saw, and yes – they shot him. Shall I play it back one more time? If I played it back ten times, would there be one time without ‘they shot him’? Would his plea ever work, would his face melt their fear … I doubt it, there’s not enough time before they shoot him.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Merry Olde England, Illustrated

St. George and the Dragon, retold by Margaret Hodges from Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, illustrated by my hero, Trina Schart Hyman. Little, Brown and Company, 1984. As you can see from these photos, Trina Schart Hyman is a master illustrator. We had this book when I was a kid, and ever since then, these are the kinds of illustrations that I have wanted to do. The way she handles landscapes, light, detail, and her characters' forms and faces is just amazing. This is perhaps my favorite page of the book. It is so exciting! Can't you just feel the warmth that is still rising from the ground as the day closes, and the cold breeze that is snapping the banners and making the standing wheat sway? Don't you just love the drawings of the hills, the peasants, the children? And what's that over there ... a bank of clouds blowing in for the night? ... That's what I took it to be, for years. But perhaps it is ... smoke from the dragon! "The dreadful dragon lay stretched on the sunny side of a great hill, like a great hill himself, and when he saw the knight's armor glistening in the sunlight, he came eagerly to do battle." This amazing picture is accompanied by a solid paragraph of description of the dragon. In a modern book, we would consider it over-written, but bear in mind that this story would have been told without any pictures or film. The teller had to create a picture in his hearers' minds. The kids will sit patiently through the old-fashioned prose, because they have such an amazing illustration to look at meanwhile. And while they sit, their ears will be bathed in phrases that bear the features of old Anglo-Saxon poetry: strong rhythm, assonance, and pairs and even triplets of alliterating words. "In his tail's end, two sharp stings were fixed. But sharper still were his cruel claws. Whatever he touched or drew within those claws was in deadly danger. His head was more hideous than tongue can tell ... He snatched the spear in his claws and broke it off, throwing forth flames of fire from his nostrils. He hurled his hideous tail about ..." If experience is any guide, little girls will sigh at this picture. Una looks all of eighteen; George, twenty. They got started young back then. Look at the red braid on the king, and the carved Celtic face on his chair. That's why this is one of my favorite books.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Why Does He DO That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, by Lundy Bancroft

This is a book about abusive relationships. You will notice that ‘abuse’ is nowhere in the title. I suspect this is because everyone has their own definition of what constitutes abuse, and it almost never covers what they themselves are doing – or being subjected to – are seeing and are concerned about. So, with a title like “angry and controlling men,” they are more likely to pick up the book, thinking, “Hey, this might apply to the confusing situation I am facing.” Can a man abuse a woman without physically harming her? Yes. He can scream at her. He can throw things around the house. He can vandalize her property. He can routinely blame her for everything that goes wrong in his life, or he can constantly critique her and tear her down, or he can call her names that when I tried to put them in this review, got it banned from Amazon. This does not mean that just any unpleasant behavior earns the title abuse. Bancroft uses the word “abuse,” but he does not use it irresponsibly. For example, he says that if someone is angry all the time, “I would not like it,” but it is not necessarily abuse. Abuse is not a binary kind of behavior that is only invoked when the fists fly, but a deeply ingrained, unrepentant attitude of ownership, entitlement, contempt and resentment that a man displays, not toward most people in his life, but toward “his” woman (including past women). I have never witnessed physical violence, but I have definitely heard conversations similar to the ones you will read in this book. And that is disturbing. Does this sound hard to read? It is. Despite being written in a very readable style, this book is in some ways torture to read. The only thing worse would be to live it. I recommend that everyone who can stand to, should read this book, because it clears up so much of the confusion that prevails in abusive situations … confusion in the mind of the victims, the observers, and even (especially?) the professionals. Even if you only read the first three or four chapters, you will be far ahead. The very first chapter, titled “The Mystery,” begins with the confusion felt by victims (who might not see themselves as victims) and their friends, as they try to understand the situation and the abuser. “He says I’m too sensitive. Maybe I am.” “Have I changed or has he changed?” “Why does he DO that?” This confusion is created by the abuser himself, in his highly successful attempts to justify himself to himself, to his victim, and to the people around him. Bancroft did not did start out with this assumption, by the way, but came to it after years of working with abusers in mandatory counseling groups. When he started out, he believed what the abusers told him about how their behavior was caused by their wives’ failings, their traumatic childhoods, their unemployment, or the hurts done them by past girlfriends; that they didn’t know what they were doing; that they “lost control.” Only after several years did the author start to cotton on to the lies. Also confusing is the fact that many abusers can actually be kind (yes, kind) in between abusive incidents. Add to this the fact that the victim may indeed have some mental problems of her own (alcoholism, depression, etc.), either predating the abuse or brought on by it. If she has lived with abuse long enough, she may be barely functional. The abuser, meanwhile, is functional in his life at large (except when it comes to treating his wife well), and appears to be a sane, trustworthy person. To top it all off, he has told her many times that his behavior is her fault. (In fact, he may accuse her of abusing him … referring to her attempts to defend herself.) Small wonder, then, that the abused woman, her friends, and society at large cannot figure out what her problem is. If they start from the assumption that the abuser is a decent guy who means well, they will never figure out the situation. There are decent guys who mean well. This book is not about them. This book is admirably free of psychobabble. For example, in one chapter Bancroft examines in some detail a frustrating conversation between a whiny, controlling man and his wife, which ends with him insisting on walking home in the cold, even though she would be willing to drive him. The author then analyzes why the man chose to walk home and resent it. Of course, his main motive is to maintain the role of victim, to keep himself in the right and his wife in the wrong, so that he can tell himself (and tell everyone else later) how she “left him” to walk home in the cold. Bancroft then adds, “Also, deep down inside [the man] there is a human being who knows that what he is doing is wrong.” In another place, he says, “Most people, when you confront them about something they are doing wrong, get defensive and deny it at first. But later, when they have had some time to cool down, they will come back and admit you were right. Abusers do not do this. They use the passage of time to find additional arguments about why they are right.” One last note. There is a fascinating, counterintuitive warning (late in the book), that women in abusive situations should not seek couples’ counseling. “Couples’ counseling is designed for problems that are mutual.” Abuse is not mutual. It is unilateral. It is not the result of a communication problem. Furthermore, couples’ counseling can be dangerous (!) for the wife. The reassuring presence of the counselor might get the wife to open up and say things to, or about, her husband that she would never otherwise dream of uttering. Then, when they get home (or even, in one chilling case, in the car on the way home), she can face violent retaliation. This book will haunt you, but definitely read it. It might help you someday to help someone else, even if it is only by being the only person who believes her.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Let's Just Write Good Fiction, People, Not Preachy Fiction

A review of The Sign, by Raymond Khoury, 2009. I picked up this book because it looked interesting. The Sign, wow. What could it be? Aliens? Ancient prophecy? Will we get a thrill of mystery as clue after clue is revealed? No such luck. If you haven’t heard of Raymond Khoury, think Dan Brown. Similar themes, similar writing style. From chapter to itty-bitty chapter, the book jumps around the world: Antarctica – Massachusetts – Egypt – Mexico – Egypt – Antarctica. This is supposed to give the book a fast pace (“never relents,” according to the blurbs). For this reader, it went agonizingly slowly. You get a little bit of action in Massachusetts, things start to get tense, then the scene moves to Egypt. You think that perhaps in Egypt, we will find out more, but after a few pages of cinematic conversation in which nothing is revealed, we are back to Antarctica. I call the conversation cinematic because, despite an international cast of characters (Egyptian, Croatian, Czech), all of them talk exactly the same, i.e. like characters out of a Hollywood police drama. For example, here is how a Croatian monk, living in a Coptic monastery, sums up his situation to a couple of Americans: “There’s not much to tell. They contacted us. They said they were making a documentary … The abbot wasn’t keen, none of us were. … But they were coming from a very respectable network, and they were very courteous, and they kept on asking and insisting. Eventually, we accepted.” Come on, Mr. Khoury. Not a single bafflingly misused word, or just one case of awkward word order? How often does this monk speak English? And speaking of English, there is Khoury’s own. Here is how he describes a certain bad guy: “He was a ruthless and imaginative political strategist, he had a mind like a steel trap, and [an] appetite for detail. … His effectiveness was further enhanced by an easygoing, gregarious charm – one that masked the iron resolve underneath and helped when one was a dedicated polemicist ready to take on the red-button issues that were splitting the country.” (p. 122) Golly gee. How many clichés can you squeeze into two sentences? (And even getting one of them wrong? Isn’t it supposed to be “hot-button” issues?) As it turns out, the Sign (spoiler alert) is coming neither from aliens nor from supernatural forces (between which, by the way, Khoury sees no difference), but from a very covert, deniable U.S. government group that has gotten ahold of some cutting-edge technology. The Sign, which first appears over the tragically melting ice caps at both poles, was originally meant to scare people into stopping global warming. But as often happens, the bad guys have had an internal disagreement about how to use the sign. The good bad guy (let’s call him Bad Guy B) wanted to keep the sign vague and occasional, so that no one religion could claim it. This, in addition to stopping global warming, might have the desired effect of nudging people toward pantheism or at least religious relativism. But Bad Guy A (the one described above), wants to steer the sign in the direction of a specifically Christian miracle, creating a specifically fundamentalist fervor. (He does this by kidnapping and brainwashing a Mother-Theresa type to be his mouthpiece). The two bad guys’ conversation about this is revealing. Bad Guy B is principled and thinks that deliberately stirring up religious fervor “might help get rid of one evil [global warming], but you’ll be feeding one that’s just as vile. One that’ll turn our world into a living hell for any rational person.” Got that? Belief in God is not just irrational, it’s “vile.” And it leads to hell. Bad Guy A replies: “You know that was the only way to go. These people don’t read newspapers. They don’t research things on the Internet. They listen to what their preachers tell them – and they believe them. Fanatically. They don’t bother to fact-check the bullshit they hear in their megachurches. They’re happy to swallow it whole, no matter how ridiculous it is … We need these windbags. We need them to sell our message.” (page 212) All I can say is, Wow. No, I don’t mean, Wow, Khoury thinks the Internet is a reliable place to fact-check, although that might make us scratch our heads as well. Rather … Wow. Has this guy ever met even one evangelical Christian? So that was where Khoury completely lost me. But I kept reading, partly because I wanted to earn the right to write this review, and partly because I wanted to find out what happened to the two “good” guys (a former car thief, and a Czech scientist-cum-couch-potato named Jabba, the funnest character in the book). And I was well rewarded when the car thief borrowed a garbage truck and crashed it through the façade of the “stately Georgian mansion” inhabited by Bad Guy B, killing bodyguards like flies in the process. He then puts Bad Guy B in the trash compacter, but thankfully, doesn’t compact him. That would have taken the book in a completely different direction. Later, the Mother Theresa character assured me that “of course I believe in evolution. You’d have to be a blind half-wit not to.” Another character finds this attitude to be “much less dogmatic than I expected.” The funny thing is, I think that I (or the person Raymond Khoury imagines me to be) am actually part of the intended audience of this book. His idea is that all of us evangelicals believe as we do only because we’ve never been exposed to any alternative view. So, we will pick up his book because it appears to be a novel about God (or maybe Satan, given the cover art). Then, the “relentless pace” of the action will draw us in, and when we read in the characters’ mouths Khoury’s compelling logic against belief in God, organized religion, and ID, our minds will be blown open, our world will be rocked. Then, the insults will give us added motivation to convert to materialist environmentalist atheism so that we can belatedly join the group of those in the know. It’s a weird experience reading this kind of a bait-and-switch, because often it goes in the other direction, with Christian writers trying to convert unbelievers through mediocre fiction. Khoury isn’t too fond of Tim LaHaye. Would he be insulted to hear that, as far as this reader is concerned, he is the Tim LaHaye of the atheist world? Anyway, reading this book and then reflecting on my experience was certainly enough to cure me of making any such attempts. Let’s just write good fiction, people, because the preachy fiction doesn’t work on thinking believers. It might work in movies, at least for the duration of the film (I’m looking at you, Dances with Wolves), but books don’t overwhelm the senses quite so much. But I digress. If the garbage truck scene sounds like enough fun to make you plough through the anti-religion rants, then this book is for you. About the science behind the book, I don’t know. I haven’t done the Internet research to find out whether “smart dust” a real thing. If the science of the book is as well researched as the historical and religious parts, then it’s mostly made up. But it’s possible that Khoury put more time into the part that interested him more, the part he actually believes in.