Thursday, September 28, 2006

Torture and the Legacy of Nuremberg

This weekend marks the 60 anniversary of the judgment in the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal . This is a monumental world event in the sense that it laid many precedents for international law and set the ethical norms for the treatment of people accused of the hideous practice of crimes against humanity.

Almost 60 years to the date, Congress has passed legislation that ushers in new legal and ethical standards for the treatment of people accused of engaging in war crimes, including restricting the rights of detainees and setting up norms for interrogation that might differ from those set in international law. This article from David Luban argues that the new laws demonstrate how the United States is turning its back on the legacy of Nuremberg.

Another article by Dahlia Lithwick suggests that the new legislation still does not describe what is or is not ethically appropriate in the humane treatment of detainees. These judgments seem to be left to the discretion of the President and the President is not to be completely bound by international law according to these new bills. Torture is ruled out, but there seems to be quite a bit of leeway in the various kind of "coercive" techniques that might be allowable. Does the treatment issued out in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq count as something that would be morally impermissible under the new rule of law?

Starting next week, in honor the Nuremberg Trials, I will be beginning a podcast with an expert on modern torture. Hopefully this interview will help us to make sense of some of the kinds of practices that are being sanctioned as essential tools in the war on terror. Stay tuned.

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Is Diversity harmful to Equality in America?

A new book by Walter Benn Michaels, The Trouble with Diversity, challenges the focus of our most popular podcast to date: the ethics of diversity. In his book, Michaels argues that the preoccupation with diversity in this country in the past 20 to 30 years has actually damaged the prospects for equality. The "left", in his view, has concentrated so much on eradicating racism and sexism that it has ignored class. The result is that there has been no social and political force to counteract the growing economic inequality in America. He believes that a focus on cultural differences is either a frivolous distraction from more important matters or a dangerous attempt to cloud over the deep problems that prevent the United States from becoming an egalitarian society.

Michaels makes some startling claims in his work. One point, that he explains in this interview, is that by concentrating on diversity, American universities are complicit with right-wing attempts to ignore class and privilege. By trying to work to get students to be less racist and sexist, and creating different opportunities to attract students of color and women to higher education, universities and colleges are doing nothing more than training more and more people to be the managers for a capitalist system that keeps the economic status quo.

He also claims that our identities are the least important aspects about ourselves. He suggests that our racial or gender identities should matter just about as much as our hair or eye color--that is, not at all. By focusing so much attention on anti-racism and anti-sexism, we perpetuate stories about who we as individuals are that is deeply disconnected from the biggest social problems of the day.

Scott McLemee critically reviews Michaels's book and points out that the so-called "left" that is being taken to task is probably a miniscule number of people working in the academy and this commitment to diversity is not a broad social commitment. As a result, we should still work to eliminate racism and sexism and not see this kind of effort as an obstacle to equality.

Michaels view is not particularly new and seems to have friends on both the left and the right. American philosopher Richard Rorty made a similar point in his book, Achieving Our Country, in 1998. Rorty maintains that the left has divided into two branches--a Cultural Left interested in race and gender difference and a Reformist Left interested in economic class. These two branches don't talk to each other, according to Rorty, and the result is that America is a nicer place to live in than it was 40 years ago (people of color are less likely to run into bigots on a regular basis), but it is a harsher place to make a living and the poor will continue to suffer as the rich run around and consolidate their privilege.

Oddly enough, this criticism of a Cultural Left is also something that is a hallmark of the kind of conservative criticism found in the work of Allan Bloom, Dinesh D'Souza, and David Horowitz (who is making a one man crusade, through the Academic Bill of Rights movement, to prevent the so-called Cultural Left from having too much power to set the course of higher education).

Must we see the commitment to anti-racism and anti-sexism as opposed to economic justice? Does it make a difference to Michaels's argument that, historically speaking, many of the groups most committed to economic justice in U.S. history, such as labor unions, were racist and sexist? Can we rest now on all the anti-racist and anti-sexist work that has been done in the past 40 years and "move on"?

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Saturday, September 16, 2006

Global Citizenship on the Horizon?

An article this week from the Economist confirms a point that came up in our podcast on immigration--immigration is increasingly a worldwide phenomena and people from developing nations are on the move in the hundreds and thousands. The European Union is going to meet to discuss immigration policy so that member nations are not undercutting one another's immigration policies. Hearings in Congress this summer have stifled the issue here in the U.S., even though Congress reports that the number of people dying along the border has almost doubled since the 1990s.

The Ecnonomist, however, recommends that the EU not take too much power away from its member states in setting immigration policy because citizenship is a concept that nation-states have a right to determine, not supra-national entities such as the European Union. This seems like a curious claim. In our podcast, Tony Vogt, Lisa Gonzales and I discussed how so much of the immigration we are witnessing today is a result of the pressure from economic globalization on developing countries. Victor Vargas echoed this point when discussing the politics of Mexico in July. It seems as if we are willing to talk about the free flow of goods and services across national boundaries in a globalized world, but we are still hesitant to talk about what it would mean to grant human beings those same political and civil rights to traverse territory. This brings up the issue of cosmopolitian citizenship. Should we be moving more and more toward the idea of guaranteeing human beings various kinds of rights that recognize we are not necessarily tied to one nation-state territory? This is the view maintained by David Held , who argues that we need to start recognizing the multi-layers of government that affect human beings today. Such a view does not mean that the nation state is now a "zombie" concept, but recognizes that nation-states, even very powerful ones like the United States, cannot control all policies that deeply impact the lives of people living within its territory. Is the idea of being a citizen of the world workable at last, or is this still too much of a utopian fantasy? What other ways are there to protect the well being of the thousands of people who are seeking to enter the U.S. and Europe and escape global poverty?

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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Strong democracy vs. Strongman democracy in Mexico

Events have heated up considerably in Mexico concerning the disputed presidential election. Last week, the Federal Election Tribunal ruled that there had been little evidence of fraud in the election as claimed by Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO). This clears the way for the Tribunal to declare Calderon the president elect, probably later this week. AMLO has already said he considers the possbile Calderon admistration to be illegitimate and is calling for a grassroots gathering on September 16 (Mexican Independence Day) in Mexico City. Many are worried that AMLO is going to declare a "government-in-exile" that could destabilize the country.
Mexican intellectual Enrique Krauze lays out the worry that Mexico's fragile democracy is under threat . His position is very similar to the idea that Victor and I explored in our podcast on democracy in the Americas in July. Krauze points out that Mexico has only had a tradition and practice of democratic rule for less 25 years in its hundreds of years as a society. He worries that putting too much pressure on it will cause it to collapse and bring about the Latin American tradition of caudillo, or strongman, government. The aspect that Krauze does not consider, which was brought up in our podcast, is that the destabilizing pressure on Mexican democracy is not coming from the grassroots, but from neo liberal economic policies that fuel globalization. Calderon represents many of the corporations and businesses that benefit from trade agreements, such as NAFTA, and is likely to continue this form of economic development. AMLO's support comes mostly from the poorer classes and among indigenous groups in the south. Journalist John Ross anticipates a class war to brew now with the Tribunal's decision .

Finally, a piece that suggests that the strength of democracy is something we need continually to uphold and nurture. There is a long tradition in the United States, going back to some of the founders, such as John Jay, and up to the present day in figures such as Richard Nixon, that distrusts the ability of common, ordinary people to have a say in democratic decision making processes. Has the war on terror created rules, procedures, expectations, and institutions that further this strongman view of government and eclipse strong democracy by the people? Perhaps the struggles in the streets of Mexico City are not really all that different from the struggles that are taking place in the United States in trying to define the meaning of democracy for the twenty-first century.