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“Accentuate the positive,
Eliminate the negative,
Latch on to the affirmative,
And don’t mess with Mister In-between.”
Harold Arlen lyrics, Johnny Mercer song, crooned by Bing Crosby
“The Negation is the Spectre, the Reasoning Power in Man”
“The US does not torture,” President Bush has repeated often-in the face of terrible pictures from Abu Ghraib and vicious stories from around the world. What is the President saying? Is it a lie or wishful denial, or positive thinking, or casuist ry, or political pandering?
Richard Pryor had a comedy routine where he advised husbands caught in flagranto to counter with “are you going to believe me or your lying eyes?” Sometimes we deny by closing our eyes. But sometimes we deny by rationalizing; by attacking the facts with negation and reasoning. President Bush can say the US doesn’t torture because he redefines US and torture. To wit: The US is good and wouldn’t do anything bad. A few bad apple rogue torturers working the night shift at Abu Ghraib aren’t the US. And, aided by lawyers, he torques senseless the meaning of torture, restricting it by abstraction and redefinition, and by the Secretary of Defense special-reduction to the absurd. Rumsfeld ruminates that he stands hours a day at his desk so what’s torture about forced standing in prison? The dead body on ice, the man roasted above fire, the excrement-smeared, hooded, naked, terrified, sexually brutalized, and wounded figures available everywhere but the American media are not addressed. They’re flushed into collateral damage-like the children burned, maimed, and brutalized by bombs, mistakes, and deliberate revenge in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The assertive kind of denial merits attention because it subverts our survival and coping mechanisms of accentuating the positive into callousness.
William Blake, poet and painter, man of words and images, was on to it. He saw it as the dark side of reason. He called that negating move man’s Spectre, and he attributed it to our reasoning ability to abstract, to negate the body, and subordinate it to an abstraction. It’s a kind of mental mania, like war which sacrifices humans for the sake of protecting them. As Blake’s “London” has it: “And the hapless Soldier’s sigh/ Runs in blood down Palace walls.”
I think Blake would see President Bush in his Spectre’s power when he denies US torture. With chirpy comfort he uses abstract reasoning to destroy and undermine dour facts. If you assert that the US doesn’t torture you take no responsibility for all the documented US uniformed torturers and, more importantly, you cloak all the US torturers who have approved, affirmed, and used the tactics. The spectrous covert agencies used to do US cloak and dagger dirty wet work. In movies, the aide says ‘Mr. President you don’t want to know.’ Not knowing, he also accrues ‘deniability.’ Ronald Reagan said after the Iranian arms for hostages deal was revealed that he still couldn’t in his heart of hearts believe we had traded arms for hostages. The President specialized in the role of true believer in American goodness and righteousness. But Bush doesn’t say I can’t believe in my heart of hearts that the US tortures. He says the US doesn’t torture. He negates the language and facts and seems not a naif but a stonehead. The US in fact has a thoroughly vicious history of abetting torture in Latin America and fomenting assassination. We haven’t wanted to know. We have rationalized, negated, denied. We mean well. We signed the protocols against torture.
Alan Dershowitz openly approves torture for ‘necessary’ situations. He at least doesn’t argue that if we do it it isn’t torture. He says we can and should do it. Both positions, denying and urging, are immoral, but the negative one is more dangerous. Dershowitz is the very recognizable bully who rationalizes his violence. Even if we do terrorist acts, we’re off the hook because we’re good and they’re bad. It’s standard tribal blindness.
But the notion that we create the categories, that the commander-in-chief makes and unmakes the rules and the language, that is a mania of power-thinking you can force all to your will. It is Blake’s Spectre-an ungoverned reasoning power which deludes us that we are not human and vulnerable and bodily and breakable, as are those we torture.
The President opined that his cowboy-warrior language was unsophisticated and that the country has been hurt by Abu Ghraib. His hedging is like Reagan’s, about himself, and like Reagan’s self-pity, the analysis is wrong. “Bring ’em on, smoke ’em out, dead or alive” is plain, all too intelligible-it’s spoiling to fight. And Abu Ghraib is about us hurting prisoners, often innocent prisoners. It’s not the hurt we suffer by being perceived as vicious evil-doers rather than innocent good-doers. The problem is not erroneous perception, it’s the actual facts. We are torturers-like Saddam, like terrorists. We were and are.
Let us say not what we don’t do but what we do do. And let us say it without abstraction. Freedom and liberty and democracy are not force and torture and coercion. Language will have its revenge. It belongs not to the warrior who cries the time for talk is over, but to the human being who hopes we can talk not kill. The Spectre is warlike. It stalks us and is within us. In our deepest heart of hearts we may wish good but we are also capable of evil. No projecting it away.
Haditha or My Lai. Do we think we can train people to kill and destroy and make the world kinder and gentler thereby? The principle of contradiction is something language can teach us. You cannot eliminate the negative.