Friday, December 11, 2009

My Presentation to the Torture Class

Warning: High Emotional Content.

There were many subjects I considered discussing for my presentation. I considered showing media clips, or discussing the arc of my blog (thanks to those of you that followed by the way). Ultimately what I decided to discuss however is disability. If you’ll allow me, I’d like to begin with a personal story and then tie it in to the course and the creation of the other.

This may seem like a strange topic considering that I personally am not disabled. Disability, however, has shaped my life. When I was five, my father was in a wheel chair for a year when he had a cancerous back tumor removed. The chemotherapy he had following the removal caused a rare condition to occur wherein the nerves in his legs no longer correctly transmit motor information, severely limiting their use to this day. When I was nine my mother’s auto-immune condition, Sjögren’s Syndrome (which is akin to Lupus or Coeliac disease), drastically worsened. To this day she is constantly nauseous, suffers from daily migraines, is severely limited physically and is only active for 8 hours a day. Today, as they have been for most of my childhood, my parents are severely physically disabled. In other words, I grew up in a disabled household.

My parents’ disabilities affected me directly in many ways. More important in defining who I am today though is how their disabilities affected them. Unlike my younger brother, I still have strong memories of when my parents were able-bodied. My mother in particular was an incredibly dedicated worker, administrating family planning clinics for Contra Costa County, pulling long hours and still finding time to spend with my brother and me. Even when a drunk driver ran her down while she was on a bike, crushing one of her spinal disks, she persevered. When her Sjögren’s Syndrome flared up, everything changed. My mother’s seemingly unstoppable lifelong effort to succeed in the workplace and in the community was crushed within the course of a year. Her work was not all that changed. My mother to this day cannot do lengthy social engagements or even meet with friends outside our house without great physical cost. As a result of this, most of her long-term friendships buckled and collapsed, and many in her family alienated. My mother’s Sjögren’s Syndrome will be with her as long as she lives, and its many burdens along with it.

Despite the amount of suffering my mother endures and the loss of her career, there is an additional layer of unnecessary suffering that greatly compounds her hardships. American society has, to put it mildly, a disturbing view of physical disability. For those who we acknowledge as “legitimately” disabled we have developed limited accommodations but by and large have not committed ourselves to bringing about true equal opportunity. One look at Occidental’s campus will tell you that the school simply wasn’t designed and largely hasn’t been updated to accommodate the basic needs of the physically disabled. Sure there are methods whereby the wheelchair-bound and those with reduced mobility can get into Johnson and Fowler, but can you imagine trying to get into Weingart? Or trying to get food at the Marketplace? Or live for that matter in any of the dorms? Despite its debatable “bet intentions”, Oxy operates out a standard playbook for American social thought: human beings when “normal” are physically “well”, and that additional “accommodations” are desirable but not urgent. I’ll return to this standard of normalcy and wellness in a minute.

To go back to the subject of my mother, she is not one of those I described above. Though her disability is crippling and prevents her from engaging in most activities the “well” (myself included) enjoy, it is not immediately visible to the eye like a wheelchair or a limp would be. Without a physical reminder of her disability, the social construction of “wellness as normalcy” comes to the surface in an ugly fashion. Again and again I see my mother’s friends, peers, acquaintances and even her own family question whether she was “really sick”. Some say it outright, calling her a “hypochondriac”, and inventing/perpetuating her own maladies. Others are, or grow to be more subtle, asking over and over again why my mother wasn’t investing “enough” time in their relationship, or why she couldn’t pick up their kids from school, or why she couldn’t just “overcome” and “be stronger than her sickness” for just one event that they wanted her to do. No matter how many times my mother explains her condition, and indeed demonstrates how limiting it is in her daily life, few truly believe her. With no job and very few friends and family that acknowledge the nature of her life, my mother has no choice but just to live.

This denial of illness and elevation of ability-based normalcy is from my life experience rooted in fear. As my mother’s friends and family look her in the eye and tell her she can overcome her illness if she sets her mind to it they are afraid. Afraid that when they look at her, what looks back is their own mortality. Afraid that the strength they see within her would not be in them were they as ill as she. Western culture is profoundly afraid of death and even more so, I’d argue, loss of our faculties. A post-enlightenment worldview has given the West an obsession with rational observation and our supposed ability to control our own lives. What is more American than the idea that anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps? If someone is not satisfied with their life, shouldn’t they just try harder? If you’ve gotten to where you are in life through hard work, isn’t it insulting when someone says that they are stuck by their circumstances?

This brings me back to our coursework and the discourse of torture. In the very beginning of the course, Elaine Scarry made the claim that the pain of others is fundamentally inaccessible. As we progressed through the course, we saw this view reflected again and again in Western metaphysics. Only in some of our most recently examined theorists, like Levinas and Derrida have we seen an attempt to break this tradition and de-alienate the suffering of the other. These more recent challenges to the traditional framework are just that however: challenges to an accepted reality. This standard conception of identity and the human experience as internal and isolated still governs our society today.

For the tortured and the disabled alike, there is a narrative of conflict between rational self-control and pain. The tortured, when the act is committed, are as we discussed “reduced to animals” and “rendered sub-human” by their loss of self (as Scarry puts it) and inability to overcome their pain through rational thought. When I read this at the beginning of the semester, I wondered how this fundamentally differs from the pain of the unwell or disabled.

While for one the pain is externally inflicted and the other the pain is internal, there is a parallel inherent in the two groups of people in the Western tradition. Neither group has control over their pain, nor can exert the rational faculty that defines humanity in Western metaphysics to stop it. For these two groups that should elicit the most sympathy from us, sympathy is impossible (Scarry). Ingrained in our thinking is the fundamental internalization of the pain of the “other” and their own obligation as humans to overcome their adversity through rationality and re-establishment of a “well” self. As Du Bois put it, the torturee is just “a body”. Asad says that torture in the ascetic tradition releases the soul from the body. Like the tortured, the disabled are reduced to the limitations of their body and hence have a damaged “self” from their inability to exert rational control.

In perhaps an even more frightening manner, this Western metaphysical tradition compounds with American exceptionalism, the American dream, and the neo-liberal tradition. Ingrained in this tradition, as I mentioned earlier is the expectation that everyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and be a productive member of society. External barriers in this tradition are non-existent: the expectation is that whether you succeed or not depends on whether you have the willpower and personal drive to achieve what is offered to everyone equally. The tortured and the disabled are similarly demoted in the eyes of society by their inability to fulfill their Hobbesian social contract. The torture have allegedly already exited said contract for their alleged crimes, and the disabled face an inherent barrier that prevents them from contributing as “productive” members of human society. By “refusing” to use their rational control to fulfill their contract with society, both groups have failed to live up to the supposedly barrier-less American dream.

I know that significantly more biopolitical analysis is needed here, and that this is only an initial exploration, but it was important to me to share with you how this class has made me reflect on my own life and the lives around me. Thank you.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

David Adler: The Q + A

After David Adler's Dec. 3rd lecture to Oxy's "American Presidency", which I blogged about last week, he had a Q+A session. I also got the chance to ask him several questions that focused more directly on torture and the constitution.

Here are some of the questions I asked and the responses I received from Prof. Adler. Because I did not have a recording device, I will be paraphrasing Prof. Adler's responses:

Q: In the last several months, the Obama administration has seen the resignation of several high profile officials who were involved with Guantanamo and Torture policy. The list includes such high profile individuals as Greg Craig (White House Counsel), Phil Carter (Detainee affairs policy appointee), and David Ogden (Deputy Attorney General). Do you think that this massive turnover in torture policymakers is indicative of a disagreement on torture in the Obama administration?

A: Adler does believe there is significant disagreement w/in the Obama admin. He believes that there is a significant push-pull between the Obama administration's desire to follow his campaign promises and Constitutional principles and political pressure from the military and party power brokers not to tackle the issue of torture. He believes Obama will eventually close Guantanamo Bay.

Q: Congress recently wrote legislation allowing the Defense Secretary to withhold photos of US-committed torture during the Bush years. The Supreme Court used this legislation as the basis to advise the 2nd District Court of Appealsto reconsider siding with the ACLU's FOIA suit. Is it unusual for the Supreme Court to rely on congressional legislation to make its legal decisions? Also, what effect does this have on the breadth and power of FOIA.

A: Adler replied that no, it's not unusual for the Court to use congressional legislation rather than just the Constitution and legal precedent. He also asserted that FOIA lost a massive amount of clout under the Bush administration, and he's hopeful that it will return to its previous prominence with the Obama administration's promises for open government.

Q: Why can Obama increase troop levels? Isn't that congress' role?

A: Adler agreed with me that this should be congress' call to make. Because of congress' ceding of war powers to the Presidency and the executive's role as the sole organ of foreign policy has resulted in the movement of war powers from the legislature to the executive.

Q: As a potential US Senate candidate and a Constitutional scholar, I have to ask you abut the institution of the Senate itself. Considering the filibuster fiasco and other undemocratic elements (e.g. unequal representation of states) of the Senate, do you think fundamental changes nead to be made to the institution?

A: Adler believes that while the filibuster may have been useful during the civil rights era, it no longer serves a valid purpose. He would advocate the filibusters' elimination if elected. He doesn't believe that the Senate needs to be eradicated in the name of democracy.

And 3 questions from the class:

Q: If not Iraq, what will it take to get the American public to embrace a Constitutional culture?

A: Adler responded that he didn't know, but re-emphasized education.

Q: Is Obama surging in Afghanistan due to political pressure.

A: Adler has immense respect for Obama's character and thinks he makes extremely deliberative decisions that are not motivated by concerns for his legacy. Though he doesn't agree with the Afghanistan surge, he thinks that Obama is doing what he perceives to be the best and most rational course of action within a very poor set of circumstances.

Q: If you run for Senate, will you devote precious campaign time and resources to making a return to constitutional governance a major campaign cornerstone?

A: Adler reasserted that it will be a top priority for him both on the campaign trail and off.

Thanks a million to Professor Adler for answering so many of my questions and giving his time to our class! I wish him the best of luck, and know he will make an excellent Senator from the great state of Idaho.

Friday, December 4, 2009

David Adler: The Constitutional Presidency, Obama and Torture

On Thursday December 3rd, Oxy's American Presidency class was visited by decorated constitutional scholar David Adler. David Adler is an expert on the American presidency and constitutional law and is a professor at Idaho State University. He is also actively considering running against Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID) in 2014. Imagine that, someone in congress who is an expert on the constitution.

A selection of some of the points he made in his talk about presidential power:
  • Power abhors a vacuum. Congress relinquishes its powers and the president usurps them . The courts have failed to rein in the unconstitutional expansion of presidential power. In other words, congress has willingly abdicated responsibility to its constitutional role. This runs directly contrary to the Supreme Court's 1819 ruling in McCulloch v. Maryland which mandated that congress alone fulfill its constitutional rule.
  • Since the Korean War, all presidents have claimed unilateral power to go to war. The only exceptions have been Eisenhower and (though with some debate) Obama. To return to a constitutional presidency, we would have to return to a pre-Johnson style of presidential role.
  • The standard remedies to the excesses of presidential power are at best infeasible. Obama or any other president is unlikely to actually relinquish their own power. If they were to do so, they would be labled as "feminine" and "weak. The Supreme Court is also unlikely to reestablish a constitutional presidency, as indicated by its frequent decisions to hold up presidential power in foreign policy (e.g. United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp.). Congress, the institutional body that would seem to be the most interested in reaquiring their own constitutional power, is also unlikely to be the agent that effects this change. Primarily obsessed with their own reelection prospects, many congressmen view taking on the president on matters of foreign policy to be political suicide.
  • The standard arguments about why the president should be the "sole organ" of foreign policy are bunk. He/she doesn't necessarily have more foreign policy knowledge than members of congress. The main reason the president might have a higher level of knowledge of current foreign policy information is because congress has structured the flow of information such that it flows through the executive before going to congress (if ever). Congress in the early days of the nation passed a law requiring that the executive branch had to share all of its knowledge with congress. This was passed with the support of Madison, Washington, and even Hamilton, perhaps the biggest founding supporter of executive power. In short, congress' lack of foreign policy clout is because it has artificially and unconstitutionally transfered that responsibility to the presidency.
  • The solution to all this? Adler identifies the 3 C's: Constitutional culture, Constitutional consciousness, and Constitutional conscience. Adler believes that ultimately Americans must be educated from the ground up and reminded what a society without rule of constitutional law looks like. Once we've been educated enough to have a culture that prioritizes constitutional values, Adler argues we will have the consciousness to monitor government actions for excessive exercises of power and have the conscience to speak out against said abuses.
I had the opportunity after the lecture to ask Prof. Adler several questions about presidential power and torture 1-on-1. Stay tuned for a summary of that session as well as my own analysis and reflection!