The Politics of Distraction and Chaos

The latest Executive Order from DT, banning Syrian refugees and putting a 90 day hold on Iraqi nationals who want to enter the US has, at least on the surface, put us on a new playing field it seems. I tried to find the list of the other 5 countries that the press, from the NYT to CNN, has insisted is on the list of banned countries. There is nothing in the executive order about it, although there are references to earlier segments of US law that appear to list those countries. According to CNN, an earlier draft of the order (why can’t we have access to that??) listed the seven countries to which this EO applies. But I see no other confirmation, apart from the media parroting each other.

Here’s the upshot as far as I can tell: those five countries were listed on an original list of exceptions to Visa waivers, passed in December 2015 as part of an Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2016 (h/t to Emory Law School professor Deborah Dinner for helping me figure where to look, and for pointing me to Seth Frantzman’s site for some leads). I don’t agree with Frantzman’s conclusions, but still his efforts to find where the assumed countries are listed are commendable.

Frantzman points us to an announcement from the DHS website, wherein in they list 3 more countries to the list of 3 others already on the list to be exempted from the Visa Waiver Travel program, i.e., travelers from this list will not be eligible for visa waiver exemptions). The six countries are as follows: Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and Syria (already mentioned in DT’s EO).

 

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You will notice that these are seven countries listed under a Travel Visa Waiver restriction that was passed in December 2015, announced in February 2016, that is, under the Obama Administration. Trump’s EO in effect develops further the policy enacted under Obama’s DHS, namely suspending visa issuances to those foreign nationals. To be sure, The Obama policy was narrower than the Trump EO, But let’s also be clear: these were countries of concern under the Obama Administration’s watch.

Trump’s EO suspends the Visa Waiver altogether, requiring in-person interviews for all persons seeking non-immigrant visas.

It is also the case that Trump’s EO is much more sweeping than the DHS restrictions, in that it seeks to suspend the entry of all refugees for 120 days, pending further scrutiny, and suspends the entry of all Syrian refugees until further notice (which is not the same as forever, but perhaps that’s a distinction without a difference).

Trump’s is a rather cleverly crafted EO, in that there is no explicit reference to all Muslims, but rather to “Islamic terrorists” (which we can certainly read as an “existential threat,” to paraphrase Judge Bruce Selya in his 2013 opinion on the Tarek Mehanna case. And we know that “terrorist” is a salient and legally acceptable category in a way that “banning all Muslims” is not. So, I suspect that this EO will-through conventionally narrow legal readings—be upheld as constitutional.

But all that is neither here nor there. I think there is another point here which is extremely salient: This is a politics of distraction and chaos in to which we would do well not to cave. Remember that this EO was effective in stopping exactly 109 travelers in the first 24 hours of the EO taking effect. 109 of 325,000 foreign nationals who fly into the US in a 24 hour period. Of course, this doesn’t include the number of travelers who were turned back in international airports, who are stranded elsewhere. But I worry that the Trump Administration in delivering these splashy—incredibly incompetent, ill-planned, insufficiently vetted EO’s–is leading us around like trained seals. They know we’re protesting, they’re expecting it, and it expends our energy while other less visible chaos is being wrought. In that sense, (and I did join the protests yesterday), I’m reminded of Walter Benjamin’s comments about the aestheticization of politics in his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.

Agreed, we are not proletarian masses, and I hestitate to use the term “Fascism,” because it is overused. But I’m struck by his point that property is preserved while political expression is exercised. I’m also reminded of Hannah Arendt’s point about how the success of authoritarian regimes depends upon throwing us into confusion and chaos, while other devastating acts are undertaken under “dark of night,” as it were (my phrase).

This is not to say that there isn’t important reason to be on record as dissenting. This is not to say that there is no cause for concern—but Trump/Bannon et al are continuing a certain politics of distraction that has been in effect for a long time, including under the Clinton, Bush, and Obama Administrations—namely getting us to focus on a certain social politics of antagonism and hate, while they enact other deeply destructive economic policies: NAFTA, the repeal of Glass-Steagall (leading eventually to the massive mortgage foreclosure crisis), financial treats for pals in the investment banking industry, the loss of pensions, bailing out the banks, cowtowing to the health insurance industry, etc.

We know that Trump has put Steve Bannon, clown and white supremacist extraordinaire (excuse me, his “Chief of Staff” on the NSC), along with the NSC Executive Secretary, while removing the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs from permanent status. This is a WTF moment. Responses from the Trump administration responded that they didn’t want to waste the DNI’s or Chairman’s time. I repeat: WTF?

We also know that over the weekend, Trump launched a barely-noticed drone strike in Yemen that killed the the 8 year old daughter—and the second, US citizen, child– of suspected terrorist and US citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki’s children (the first, American 16 year old Abdulrahman having been killed during an Obama Administration drone strike). You can read all about the heinousness of the Obama Admin’s actions at the previous link.

The big question for me here is: what else are these bozos up to? What are they trying to pass under the radar while keeping our noses focused on this superficial “Clash of Civilizations” approach to foreign policy and immigration/visa policies? What kind of economic destruction are they playing into? Funnily enough, even Benjamin Wittes, on his Lawfare blog (with whom I agree about almost nothing), also thinks there’s something else going on besides “national security concerns”.

Something to consider while we’re being distracted and thrown into chaos.

 

 

 

Some thoughts as we head even further* into the KaliYuga (the epoch of terrible things)…

This post comes after a long hiatus from this blog: almost 2.5 years later. As some of you know, I lost my darling almost 2 years ago next week, and I moved to the South  which, remarkably, has showered hope on me again despite the current moment.  Salon has dropped me from their masthead (without notice), and so I return to my blog. I’d like to think that this piece constitutes a happy (re)inauguration of this blog. Happier than the one happening in DC today in any case. This piece honors the memory of Robert E. Prasch III, and speaks to some of our shared concerns. Love to you all and thanks for reading.

—————-

Two days ago, I was called in for jury duty in my new home territory of DeKalb County, Georgia. That’s part of the 5th district, for all y’all who are keeping track of the spat between Rep. John Lewis and the Trumpster. I spent nine hours in total in the DeKalb County Courthouse. Six of those hours were in a courtroom with 17 others while lawyers for the state of Georgia and the defense asked us a series of questions. The questions were designed to weed out potential jurors who might present obstacles to either side of the case. The charges involved domestic battery, leveled against a young black man, probably not older than 20.

We were ushered out of the courtroom several times so the lawyers could confer privately or speak with some of us who declined to elaborate on our answers publicly. As the day wore on, the 17 of us (one was dismissed immediately for an important reason which I won’t share with you so as not to give any of y’all ideas) developed a sense of camaraderie, kind of like “feeling close” to the participants of your favorite reality TV show. And people’s most intimate views came out. In particular the following 2 views were ringing loud and clear: 1) the accused guy was guilty of the charges. 2) they were hoping to be excused from the jury, because they had a bunch of important work meetings. It was patently clear that a number of us were grasping at straws, but giving lame answers to questions in the hopes of getting off jury duty.

Many of us, I’m betting, were anti-Trump folks. I know that the two who expressed the previous comments were definitely anti-Trump. When they (both women) found out that I was a WGSS faculty member at Emory, they anticipated that I was going to participate in the Women’s march. I’m wondering if anyone else besides me sees the tension in this story: Participating in the Women’s march was important. But giving the man in front of us the benefit of the doubt, and feeling obligated to participate on a jury of his peers somehow didn’t occur to them.

****

As I read lots of suggestions about what do instead of/after the Women’s March (talking circles, get-togethers for strangers who don’t talk to each other, be nice to people, make space for everyone to speak, “resist hate, exclusion, and policies that impoverish your community”…run for office, etc. etc.), I’m struck by how there has been little mention of practices that seem to be the least glamorous and the most important:

Maintain your civic responsibilities. Undertake your political obligations as citizens: not just to vote and to speak. But to try NOT to get excused from jury duty if you think you can be a fair juror (being impartial, I think, is next to impossible, but one can try to be fair). Juries are hugely important sites of social change and justice. Thinking thoughtfully, deliberatively, generously, and fairly is one of the most underestimated values of civic citizenship. And remember that for many decades, non-whites, women of any color or status, COULD NOT SERVE on a jury as the peers of the accused. This is, as problematic as it is, an important civic responsibility—undervalued, and casually dismissed by many of the most otherwise justice-minded of our friends and family.

On a broader level:

Figure out what kind of assistance/advocacy you can offer to men/women/children who are inadequately represented in our legal system. Be a children’s advocate. Join organizations that assist those who are charged with crimes and don’t have adequate laws or protections of their dignity and interests: the elderly, children without parents/legal guardians, men and women of color (Black, Arab, Latino, often) to protect their interests in the courtroom or in prison.

It’s important to be nice and generous and practice kindness and organize gatherings where we talk to each other and make each other feel better.

But there are a lot of folks who are already suffering under policies that, if not enacted under the Obama Administrations, were continued or exacerbated over the last eight years: Muslim men in solitary confinement due to specious material support statutes that make it nearly impossible for them to get a fair trial; men and women of color who are falsely accused of crimes against police officers; undocumented migrants who are penned up in prisons for months because they have “made the mistake” of trying to flee violence (public or domestic or sexual), disbelieved by overworked, harried, or indifferent bureaucrats. The list could/should be continued indefinitely, but you know the details.

Often, the best resistance is that which is everyday, obvious, and unsung. Be a citizen if you still have that privilege and defend others who don’t have—or who may have lost that right–through no fault of their own.

*As Jane Bunker aptly reminded me, we’ve been in the KaliYuga for a while. And it doesn’t really mean the epoch of terrible things, although it does suggest the Dark Epoch. Forgive my idiomatic interpretation…

Shoot first, ask later: Why the concept of “reasonable fear” is anything but reasonable

Hi, all. I’ve taken a Twitter breather. I’m finding that my work is a little more focused off Twitter, but will probably be back a little later. This post came out in Salon earlier in the month, but I thought I’d post and link to it here for readers who might have missed it:

_________________

Recently, Tamara Nopper and Mariame Kaba authored a haunting article, “Itemizing Atrocity,” analyzing reactions and analyses of the police shooting of Michael Brown and the seemingly sudden militarization of the police. They point to Ferguson as an example of the excess of the spectacle that draws attention to the most extreme cases of brutality or violence, and simultaneously renders the daily, hourly, violence faced by black Americans as ordinary and therefore unworthy of the empathy engendered in extreme cases.

Attention is drawn to the “spectacular event” rather than to the point of origin or the mundane. Circulated are the spectacles — dead black bodies lying in the streets or a black teenager ambushed by several police officers in military gear, automatic weapons drawn.

Their insights resonated as every major media outlet covered the repeated, more extreme, ever-growing confrontations between protestors and Ferguson law enforcement. The sympathy for the brutalized in Ferguson emerged as a response to the documented ill treatment of relatively privileged and protected whites (reporters, supporters, observers) who momentarily faced the same treatment that is de rigeur for vulnerable blacks — in Ferguson, St. Louis, Chicago, Paterson, Charlotte, Houston, New Orleans, Los Angeles and elsewhere.

Read the rest at Salon.

What Do You Mean “We” Tortured Some Folks?

About a week ago, for the first time ever, the US government, through the comments of its Chief Executive no less, confirmed that “folks were tortured.” Simultaneously, he observed that there “was little need for sanctimony” given the heightened fears of the American public in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and the enormous pressure that law enforcement officials were under to prevent future attacks.

The President’s official confirmation that “folks” were tortured and not just undergoing “enhanced interrogation techniques”–was remarkable. They were striking not so much because the public learned something new, but because they should have ramifications for those who designed, justified and endorsed torture as part the US’s National Security strategy to combat terrorism.

For those who provide the legal cover for torture, including John Yoo and Jay Bybee, there might be some fear that an official US confirmation of torture will have ramifications for them. But they claim not to be afraid of prosecution. Given the soothing, exculpatory tone of the President’s remarks and AG Eric Holder’s lapdoggish compliance, (despite his 2009 resolute acknowledgment that waterboarding is torture), they have every reason to believe it.

Yet, his remarks are notably deceptive on a number of fronts.

Read the rest at Salon.com.

Ferguson: Not a revelation, but a reminder of White Supremacy

The news that a police officer shot an African American teen several times in the chest was shocking, horrifying, gut-wrenching. But it was not surprising. As even a weekly perusal of newspapers tells us, the murders of Black teens and men by private white citizens or police officers are common, ordinary, every day events. Two days after the shooting of Michael Brown, another young unarmed Black man, this time in Los Angeles, was shot by a police officer.

Yet, in the initial twenty-four hours after Michael Brown’s shooting, I saw flashes of the same questions in the comments to news articles and on Twitter: “What did he do?” “Why?” “Wtf?” Certainly, some of these were plaintive questions asked by grieving persons. But others reflected an earnest, though frustrating, innocence—one that found a shooting of a Black teen by a policeman to be unusual, accidental, coincidental, extraordinary. Their questions echoed as I flipped through the fleeting images that followed the news of the shooting—rows of police officers with shields and batons and terrifying looking dogs, pumped up and ready to attack–accompanied by articles about “looting and riots,” tear gas, sniper guns, and bullets.

Photo 6 in this New York Times slide show, among others, remains in my mind.

In the first three days after Michael Brown’s shooting, as the Black community gathered to protest his death, “left” media analyzed this event as if it were just a case of the police accidentally losing control. Elsewhere, mainstream news sites reported on the protests as if commenting on two equally strong baseball teams: The Cops versus Black people, rather than a case of Black protests against continual injustice. Other news sites report “rioting” and “looting,” as if looting is the prime obstacle to safety, rather than protecting Blacks against an arrogant, secure police force.

Read the rest at Salon.com

 

 

 

Human Rights and Selective Amnesia: Gazans’ expulsion from humanity

In 1946, mostly due to the efforts of Eleanor Roosevelt, the spouse of the late president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a committee was convened to draft what would become the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). As Mary Ann Glendon and Johann Morsink, individual authors of separate books on the UDHR, point out, the context for this document was hardly ideal: it was being developed in the midst of the increasing tensions of the Cold War, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the British handoff of Palestine to form the new Jewish state, and in the midst of an emerging insistence on self-rule in South Asia, among other places. Passed in 1948, ratified by 48 nations initially, the UDHR is heralded as a guidebook for human rights, presumably obligating all 192 UN member nations to acknowledge, if not observe it. It is, by most accounts a “Western” document, crafted by philosophers among others. It evokes the ideals of liberalism and the sacrosanct rights thought to be afforded to the individual, as well as the Kantian notion of human dignity (as something that is beyond value, that does not have a market price). It expresses the unconditional protection that individuals are thought to have with regard to their lives, their health, their ability to marry who they wish (an idea that has taken on a new light in the last few years), to form community with whomever one chooses, to have the ability to determine oneself as one pleases.

The UDHR is a breathtaking document, a mix of unadulterated optimism and seductive naïveté. It is impossible to read without asking how such a framework would ever be enforced. Indeed, this is exactly what students in my courses ask (or more cynically, scoff at). Hannah Arendt, writing in the aftermath of the Holocaust, criticized a human rights framework because of this paradoxical nature:

 

The Rights of Man, supposedly inalienable, proved to be unenforceable—even in countries whose constitutions were based upon them—whenever people appeared who were no longer citizens of any sovereign state.[1]

 

The question of enforceability ironically reveals the point of the UDHR: these protections should be assumed to be universal, unconditional, unanimously observed. And yet, as Arendt implies—the loss of human rights is predicated on the increasing dehumanization and vulnerability of those same human beings. The loss of human rights is preceded by the loss of one’s home, the loss of recognition of one’s “distinct” and precious existence.

The question of human rights arises when a people is inexorably moved toward dehumanization: displaced, violated, removed from their land. But the removal of people from their community, their home, already signals “the loss of government protection,” as Arendt says, and the loss of status as beings worth protecting: political beings, legal human beings. This loss is succinctly clinched by philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s phrase “bare life”—the unique, sacred existence of a people rendered into a barely distinguished mass of existence.

The long-standing paradox of human rights is that the declaration to observe them is a hollow scream that follows their loss, which is the consequence of the loss (if there ever was) of government interest in valuing a people.

We see this loss in US government policies since 9/11, most recently inaugurated by the Bush Administration but continued and enhanced under the Obama Administration: solitary confinement in Supermax and Guantanamo Bay; the tortuous force-feeding of Guantanamo hunger strikers; the aggressive detention of undocumented migrants in the US; the aggressive deportation attempts of child refugees from Central America, the rendition of suspected terrorists in CIA black sites (and eventually to US prisons); the entrapment of Black and South Asian Muslim men in FBI stings.

Today’s most vivid example is the continued support of Israel’s assault on Gaza, and the US’s support of that assault. Even as pictures of severely injured and dismembered children proliferate on-line, the Washington Post publishes team editorials and op-eds insisting that Israel must “crush Hamas.” Israel justifies carpet-bombing Gaza and the death of hundreds of children by insisting that Hamas uses “human shields.” Even while confessing to being traumatized by pictures of dead civilians, Senator John Kerry repeated the White House line that Israel “has the right to defend itself.”

The latter is a stale and hollow canard, reiterated by American newspapers and politicians alike. It is especially hollow in the face of an obviously one-sided genocidal pummeling of a tiny region. Gaza is, let’s remember, one of the most densely populated regions in the world—where there are no exits or escape from the relentless bombing except into the sea.

As of last night, the sixth UN school was bombed by Israel despite 17 warnings as to the shelter’s location. The UN schools were supposed to be protected shelters—intended as refuges for Palestinians who feared their homes would be targeted by Israeli missiles, Yet, despite reports of massive numbers of injuries and casualties, no one in the Israeli government has seen fit to issue an apology. “Self-defense.”

Let us assume for even a moment that despite many first-hand accounts to the contrary, Israel is correct in that Hamas is using “human shields.” Shouldn’t this very possibility give Israel pause? If it were indeed a brinksmanship game, given that Israel has been—will be—barely scathed by Hamas’ rockets, shouldn’t it refrain from blanketing Gaza with missiles that are seen to be annihilating hospitals, children, doctors—all unanimously agreed to be innocent targets? (Never mind that Palestinian men, too, are innocent targets, even as few acknowledge that.) It may be relevant to mention here that Israel is familiar with practice of using Palestinians as human shields. Despite a 2005 Israeli Supreme Court ruling that banned the Israeli government from doing so, it was accused of the same practice as recently as last year.

Yet, the constant Israeli retort of “self-defense” obscures Palestinians’ entitlement to human rights as channeled into the UDHR, prioritizing a selective amnesia in the aftermath of the genocide of European Jews. This robotic line is hardly unique to Israel. It has been echoed in justifying the U.S.’s “war on terror.” Remember President George W. Bush’s insistence, in the aftermath of 9/11: “You’re with us or against us”? This is what the assemblage of a “national security” apparatus is—the totalizing, synchronized governmental rhetoric that surrounds us whichever way we turn: From the creation of the US Department of Homeland Security, to the expansion of the NSA (the National Security Agency), to the shift in name from INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) to ICE (Immigration and Citizenship Enforcement), the modern Western discourse reminds us that “national security” takes priority above any other consideration. The message emanates from its paid lackeys and chicken hawks alike, from Senator Dianne Feinstein to NSA Director Keith Alexander and to DNI Director James Clapper to politicians looking forward to their next campaign (witness Elizabeth Warren’s page and the votes of “progressive politicians from Bernie Sanders to Patrick Leahy) to mercenaries looking for their next million. But “any other consideration” includes not just cost, labor, energy—but also the Lives of Other People (Just Not Ours).

In effect, this is the current post 9/11 global paradigm: F*ck the Lives of Other People (FLOP) in the name of national security. Pundits have called it the New Imperialism, but I think it’s much more apt and succinct to label it as National Security FLOP. This is not to say that NatSec FLOP is original, unique, or singular, but it heralds in a (relatively) new epoch, in which human rights have no currency (except when convenient to a government’s rhetorical ethos). Herein lies the brilliant rhetoric of “self-defense,” used all too often to launch an overwhelming, disproportionate attack on an already vulnerable group, invoking the human rights of those that are not in danger: Kill, but always insist that it’s in order to protect “our own”—even when the facts say otherwise.

The seduction of NatSec FLOP is contagious, especially when consumed in conjunction with the self-aggrandizing allure of hunting “TERRORISTS.” Indeed, both of these positions were enthusiastically adopted by nations whose agendas were conveniently enhanced and justified by riding the coat-tails of American muscularity: the UK, India, Turkey, Pakistan, to name a few.

This is the paradox of human rights that seems to be in play in current moment: the rights of certain individuals can only be secured through the promise to kill others in the name of human rights. This is the supposed trade-off promulgated by the United States, borrowed and appropriated by other nations as convenient: National Security versus Rights. For the US, the trade-off promises, at the domestic level, to be deceptively effective: Freedom v. Security (if you want to be safe, then agree to give up (“some of”) your rights—to privacy, to your public dissent, to your conscience, to the violation of your home, your person, your speech, your freedom. Except that most of us–especially Blacks, Latinos, Muslims, the poor–residing in the US were never offered that choice.

Internationally, National Security has become the defense, the Maginot line against which cries of human rights evaporate.

We see this with regard both to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response to condemnations of Israel’s bombing of Gaza hospitals, UN schools, private residences, and massive number of children dead: Israel has the “right to defend itself.”

Here’s the thing about self-defense: Self-defense means the deployment of sufficient force to block attacks or injury on one’s property, home, or person. It does not mean initiating and sustaining attacks that are disproportionately larger than any imaginable provocation. Self-defense does not mean continuously bombing innocent bystanders—not even accidentally—not one, not two, and certainly not thousands of them—children, women, men, doctors, safety personnel.

According to Norman Finkelstein, who recently wrote a piece on Human Rights Watch’s artful evasion in blaming Israel for its large-scale killings:

International law prohibits an occupying power from using force to suppress a struggle for self-determination, whereas it does not prohibit a people struggling for self-determination from using force.[…]The International Court of Justice (ICJ) stated in its 2004 advisory opinion that the Palestinian people’s “rights include the right to self-determination,” and that “Israel is bound to comply with its obligation to respect the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.” Israel consequently has no legal right to use force to suppress the Palestinian self-determination struggle. Israel also cannot contend that, because this self-determination struggle unfolds within the framework of an occupation, it has the legal right, as the occupying power, to enforce the occupation so long as it endures.

It is difficult to reconcile Israel’s actions with its claims to self-defense, when it has complete control over Gaza’s borders. Self-defense is usually accepted as reasonable when one (person, community, region, nation) is unable to leave the region under attack. Self-defense does not mean blockading all possible openings to a densely packed region that has no other exits nor avenues to get out of the way of these rockets.

In the U.S., it is easy to be habituated to corporate media’s spin and ideology surrounding Israel’s actions toward Palestine, Gaza, and the West Bank: it is a fairly standard position that has had long-standing, even when contradicted by opposite realities. And certainly, it is no secret that the US and Israel share the close intimacy, from providing Israel’s funding, weaponry, and moral support, even in the face of heinous crimes.

Here is Arendt again:

What is unprecedented is not the loss of a home but the impossibility of finding a new one. Suddenly, there was no place on earth where migrants could go without the severest restrictions, no country where they would be assimilated, no territory where they could found a new community of their own…this moreoever had nothing to do with any material problem of overpopulation; it was a problem not of space but of political organization. Nobody had been aware that mankind, for so long a time considered under the image of a family of nation, had reached the stage where whoever was thrown out of one of these tightly organized closed communities found himself thrown out of the family of nations altogether.” (Arendt, 1951, 293–4)

 

Arendt here is referring to European minorities who had been displaced, survived the camps, been relocated into refugee camps. But it doesn’t take much to extend this discussion to Palestinians today.

Man, it turns out, can lose all so-called Rights of Man without losing his essential quality as man, his human dignity. Only the loss of a polity expels him from humanity. (Arendt 1951, 297)

 

How does one go about resurrecting the humanity of a people that has been completely, politically, legally, internationally, abandoned? The answer is obvious, but the solution can only occur when Israel, the US, and the rest of the West drops their convenient, selective, amnesia.

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[1] Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt, 1951). P. 293.

Treating Prisoners as Well as Farm Animals

The legislature in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is now considering passing Bill S.2232. Officially entitled, “An Act to ensure continued humane animal care in Massachusetts,” this commendable bill is designed to prevent cruelty and ill-treatment to farm animals. Here are some key excerpts:

The purpose of this section, subject to exceptions, is to prohibit the confinement of farm animals in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs.

(b) Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a person is guilty of unlawful confinement of a covered farm animal if the person is a farm owner or operator who knowingly tethers or confines any covered animal, on a farm, for all or the majority of any day, in a manner that prevents such animal from:

(1) Lying down, standing up, and fully extending his or her limbs; and

(2) Turning around freely.

[snip]

(d) For the purposes of this section:

[snip]

(3) “Enclosure” means any cage, crate, or other structure (including what is commonly described as a “gestation crate” for pigs; or a “veal crate” for calves used to confine a covered animal).
[snip]

(6)”Fully extending his or her limbs” means fully extending all limbs without touching the side of an enclosure
(7) “Person” means any individual, firm, partnership, joint venture, association, limited liability company, corporation, estate, trust, receiver, or syndicate.
[snip]

(9) “Turning around freely” means turning in a complete circle without any impediment, including a tether, and without touching the side of an enclosure.
[snip]
(e) Any person who violates any of the provisions of this chapter is guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction thereof shall be punished by a fine not to exceed one thousand dollars ($1,000).

This simple, yet precise bill raises the standards for the ethical treatment of animals that will, eventually, be slaughtered for food. Thus, while it is clear that the animals in question will most likely meet their demise intentionally, according to this bill, they should be treated humanely.

Perhaps I should say, “better-than-humanely” or “animal-humanely,” since as we know some tens of thousands of human beings, if not more, are currently confined and shackled in small cells, which certainly impede their ability to “fully extend their limbs without touching the side of an enclosure,” or to “turn around freely without any impediment, including a tether.” As we know, even when we choose to ignore it, our well-deserved sympathy for farm animals or house pets, or many other animals, often does not extend—even as a matter of federal policy—to human beings considered undesirable: imprisoned Black men and women, undocumented migrants or children, and mostly Muslim men who were casualties of American fear in the endless War on Terror—namely those who have been or still reside in Guantanamo.

Some significant portion of these prisoners are in solitary confinement in US prisons. The numbers, as the organization Solitary Watch (SW) states, are difficult to determine. Official numbers do not appear to include those who are undocumented and in “detention facilities”—including thousands of child migrants. None of these prisoners are likely to be granted the same range of unshackled movement, or even the same level of “animal-humane” treatment from their captors or guards. As a recent story by Katie Pavlich demonstrated, child migrants are expected to live inside caged facilities while the US government considers how to process them. The photos obtained on townhall.com show multiple children stuffed into chain-link cages with hardly any room to turn around “without impediment.” The slideshow at a CBS news website shows similar crowding and cages.

There are too many stories are out there about the subhuman treatment of pregnant prisoners who give birth while chained, with prison officials by their side. While there is a federal prison policy, passed in 2007, that prohibits shackling pregnant women, there are only a few similar prohibitions against state prison facilities, pertaining only to about 20 states. To its infinite credit, Massachusetts is among the most recent of states to pass such a policy. S.2063 was passed earlier this year, although its standards are lower than the humane animal care bill under consideration.

While S.2232, the humane-animal care bill, mandates unconditional freedom of movement for farm animals, Massachusetts’ prohibition against tethering pregnant prisoners onlymandates “the opportunity for a minimum of 1 hour of ambulatory movement each day.” Also, unlike a similar bill passed in California, the Massachusetts bill does not pertain to undocumented women. Plenty of other states have no such restrictions, as seen in this horrific recounting from the documentary Checkpoint Nation, of Maria, a woman who was taunted by an ICE official by her side in Tucson, Arizona, while giving birth.

Similarly, the stories of men locked up in tiny cubicles for years at a time proliferate without limit. Listen to these comments by Anthony Graves, wrongly convicted and sentenced to death row. Graves spent 18 years imprisoned, 16 of them in solitary confinement. He has also likened his 8 x 10 cell to a cage fit for animals, prompting prison officials to taunt him like an animal. In similarly dehumanizing fashion, Khalif Brauder was held in solitary confinement, without adequate nutrition, in Rikers as a teenager for fraudulent reasons. Mahmud Abouhalima is imprisoned in a Supermax prison where he has been shackled and forced to live for years in a cage no bigger than 8 feet wide. Yet others tell of being imprisoned in cells that are even smaller, as in these answers to the question of how large a prison cell.

There are countless stories of men who have been beaten and tortured so badly their spines have been broken.

But every single story that is published about these sub-human standards of treatment—in light of S.2232, perhaps we should call them “sub-animalistic” standards—is met with contempt or indifference. Others cheer that these men and women (and children) are being met with appropriate, well-deserved or justifiable treatment. And this Old Testament attitude persists despite the countless—yes, countless—cases of wrongful convictions or, in our post-9/11 legal world, the normalization of the complete absence of proof.

Back in 1997, political philosophers Robert Goodin, Carole Pateman and Roy Pateman published a scholarly article entitled, “Simian Sovereignty.” In it, they argued that simians—apes, orangutans, chimps and others of that species closely resembled human beings, and thus should be able to live and co-exist side by side with human beings. Goodin et al. cited several philosophers from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who argued for the close resemblance between human beings and simians. For example, they cite Lord Monboddo, as being “optimistic” that “the Orang Outang is, if not in the beginning, at least in one of the first stages of society, and in the progress towards a more civilized state.”

The premise of Goodin et al’s article was that simians most closely resemble human beings and therefore deserve to be treated in a superior fashion (as presumably human beings are). When I first read their article in 1997, I was rather skeptical of the comparison, because I wasn’t convinced of their premise. Today, I am still rather skeptical of the comparison, but for obverse reasons: the superior standards that they argue be extended to simians have not yet been extended to many who are supposed to fit into the category of”human”— particularly those who are undesirable, vilified or marginalized.

We are accustomed to thinking of human beings as autonomous, of being individuated, of—through long periods of Kantian story-telling—according them a certain level of respect, of ascribing them a certain dignified status, and by extension, a certain level of protection. In the Kantian story, humans exist between angels and animals, with their intellectual faculties rescuing them from the status of the latter. Their faculties are utilized to govern and restrain their material sides and impulses. Kant’s story continues to be a predominant linchpin in organizing our understanding of the world. In French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s posthumously published book, The Animal That I therefore Am, he points to Adorno’s stance that an idealist insults man by referring to the animal in him. It is certainly true that for many centuries to be understood as merely an animal was an insult. It was a condemnation of all that was unreflective, irrational, morally uncontrolled by one’s intellectual faculty.

There is a documented history that demonstrates how sympathy for animals is elicited much more prolifically and easily than is sympathy for others who suffer similar conditions to caged animals. We see it in this story, from 1994, about how orphaned mountain lion cubs elicited two and 1/3 times more donations ($21,000) than did the children ($9,000) orphaned after their mother was attacked by the cubs’ mother. Today, all 50 states have felony penalties for cruelty to animals.

Notably, in February 2006, a 38-year old man in Columbus, Ohio, was arrested for dog fighting, after officials found twenty-six wounded pit bulls confined in wooden crates. As the chief deputy sheriff reported then: “These dogs were kept in these things with no windows…It is still a phenomenon to me that people enjoy watching these animals suffer like this. It’s just so brutal.” I point to a case that is nearly 8 years old, because the sympathy (rightfully) expressed for the dogs—caged in crates with no windows–is still withheld from men and women and children  who are imprisoned in similar conditions: in Supermax prisons or in Guantanamo Bay or in immigration detention facilities.

We seem to have arrived at a moment when the term “animal” no longer refers as accurately to the non-human animal. If anything, as we have seen over the last few decades, non-human animals are seen to resemble human animals more and more: dolphins can think and sing and feel; chimpanzees can communicate. Octopi have been discovered to wield and implement tools. These facts shatter the foundation of Karl Marx’s celebration of the singularity of human potential.

Yet, there seems to be an inverse disparity between our unadulterated love for animals and our shame and moral outrage in the face of mistreatment and cruelty and the relative lack of concern for human beings facing similar conditions. What are we to make of the seeming fact that certain human beings will not be recognized as having the same kind of protections afforded to animals? How do we understand both their status and their continued misery—a misery that continues and hears fewer objections, less outrage?

The strongest argument in favor of cruel treatment to prisoners is that they have been convicted of heinous actions, and as such, they merit such treatment. But that argument is easily undermined in the face of the fact that so many prisoners who are caged have never seen the inside of a courtroom for their supposed crimes. Most detainees in immigration facilities or in Guantanamo have neither been tried nor convicted, as we well know.

A more cynical reading would suggest that S.2232, pending in the Massachusetts legislature, only offers super-humane treatment to animals that will eventually be slaughtered and eaten, and as such, is not a real fix. But shouldn’t treatment of human beings who are vilified approximate the treatment of farm animals?  It is not too cynical to say that if we had a federal, uniform standard of treatment for imprisoned men, women and children matching the standards of S.2232, that would mark some level of progress in a world in which the US government professes to believe in human rights.

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A version of this piece was published on truth-out.org today.