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Daily Howler: Professional pundits--like Gene Robinson--love the feel of a good novel
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OUR PROFESSIONALS! Professional pundits—like Gene Robinson—love the feel of a good novel: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 19, 2006

OUR PROFESSIONALS: Many Americans stood to complain about that ABC docudrama. But as we’ve long told you, docudrama—or novelization—is the rule, not the exception, when our mainstream pundit corps sits down to reshape the news.

Example? To see a big pundit novelize news, check Gene Robinson’s op-ed column in today’s Washington Post.

Robinson starts rather nicely. “It’s time to stop mincing words,” he writes, discussing the president’s “demand that Congress give him the right to torture anyone he considers a ‘high-value’ terrorist suspect.” Quite correctly, Robinson mocks the president’s euphemistic approach to this ongoing matter. Bush won’t call torture by name, Robinson says. Meanwhile, Bush’s “umbrella term for the whole shop of horrors is ‘the program,’” Robinson snorts. Later, Robinson completes the trifecta. He rolls his eyes at Bush for the way he describes our torture agents as “the professionals.”

Indeed, Bush’s use of this euphemistic language was one of many startling aspects of last Friday’s table-pounding press conference. We cheered when Robinson challenged it. But in the weak-minded world of our mainstream pundits, we’re never asked to gaze at reality long. Quickly, Robinson begins to novelize, rendering today’ story more pleasing.

First, as in novels, he gives us some heroes. According to Robinson, Bush will have a tough time finding Americans willing to carry out torture:
ROBINSON (9/19/06): There is one ray of encouragement: the crystal-clear evidence that the men and women of our armed forces want no part of torturing anybody. The members of the Republican resistance—Sens. John Warner of Virginia, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina—have impeccable Pentagon connections and are not operating in a vacuum. Bush admitted in his news conference Friday that he had spoken to "the professionals" and that they would not carry out "the program" unless Congress specifically told them to.
Bush admitted that our “professionals” won’t continue unless they’re authorized by Congress? This claim makes us feel very good inside, but it’s utterly foolish. In fact, this statement by Bush served Bush’s interests; it was a way to pressure Congress to give him the program he wants. And in the scenario painted by Bush, the “professionals” aren’t balking at conducting the torture; they’re only balking at doing so without immunity from prosecution. Do we really have trouble finding “professionals” who are willing to carry out the policies Robinson describes as “torture?” In a front-page report in today’s same Post, Doug Struck describes the way our CIA “professionals” have carried out “the program” in the past. In his report, Struck is describing the way an innocent Canadian citizen was sent to Syria for years of torture:
STRUCK (9/19/06): Since Sept. 11, the CIA, working with other intelligence agencies, has captured an estimated 3,000 people in its effort to dismantle terrorist networks. Many of them have been secretly taken by "extraordinary rendition" to other countries, hidden from U.S. legal requirements and often subject to torture.

Those renditions are often carried out by CIA agents dressed head to toe in black, wearing masks, who blindfold their subjects and dress them in black. The practice is generating increased opposition by other countries; Italy is seeking to prosecute CIA officers who allegedly abducted a Muslim cleric in Milan in February 2003, and German prosecutors are investigating the CIA's activities in their country.
Robinson’s silly novelization makes the reader feel good inside. But in reality, we have plenty of “professionals” who are ready to don those ski masks and engage in the practices Robinson calls “torture.” It’s silly and stupid to pretend that we don’t—unless we’re just typing a novel.

Robinson creates a second hero in the person of Colin Powell. Here at THE HOWLER, we’re glad that Powell spoke up last week, voicing concerns about Bush’s proposals. But here’s how Robinson describes it:
ROBINSON: Colin Powell's strongly worded rejection of torture should have embarrassed and chastened the White House, but this is a president who refuses to listen to critics of his "war on terrorism"—even critics who helped design and lead it.
In our view, Powell’s letter was a welcome addition to the debate—but was it a “strongly worded rejection of torture?” The claim sounds good, and it makes us feel good, but Powell hasn’t mentioned “torture” at all in his comments on Bush’s proposals. But this is typical of novelization. Instead of reporting Powell’s real conduct, Robinson spins it into something finer. That’s the sort of thing novelists do—including those who work in our press.

Finally, Robinson makes us feel good with a jumbled variant on a standard presentation. Good liberals can all breathe a sigh of relief! After all, torture doesn’t really work, he suggests in a self-contradictory passage:
ROBINSON: There should be no need to spell out the practical reasons against torture, but, for the record, they are legion. As Powell and others have argued, if the United States unilaterally reinterprets Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions to permit torture, potential adversaries in future conflicts will feel justified in doing the same thing. Does the president want some captured pilot to be subjected to the tortures applied in the CIA prisons?

And, as has been pointed out by experts, torture works—far too well. Torture victims will tell what they know, and when their knowledge is exhausted they will tell their torturers what they want to hear, even if they have to invent conspiracies. The president says that torturing al-Qaeda kingpins foiled serious plots against America, but how do we know those plots were real?
We have been told, again and again, that torture doesn’t even work. This makes us feel very good and noble, since it means that all the facts are on our side in any debate on this topic. But surely, this is a silly sophistry, as Robinson admits in his own formulation. “Torture victims will tell what they know,” he writes—thereby agreeing with Bush’s claim that “the program” can provide useful intelligence. But Robby is really writing a novel, so he quickly adds an absurd caveat. “The president says that torturing al-Qaeda kingpins foiled serious plots against America, but how do we know those plots were real?” Duh! We can’t know if these alleged plots were real—or even if any such plots were alleged. (At this point, Bush is hardly a credible witness.) But if high-profile subjects do “tell what they know,” surely they will produce useful intelligence at some point—and someone in Bush’s position surely knows if real plots have been foiled in the process. In this passage, Robinson asserts that torture does produce real intelligence—then quickly starts trying to cloud the picture. McCain has argued that torture doesn’t work at all—an implausible claim that makes us feel good, because it means that the merits are all on one side. Robinson seems to say that torture does work—then quickly returns to his novel.

Robinson writes a silly tale—a tale of inspiring heroes and simplistic debates. Agents of the U. S. government are too noble to engage in torture, he says. And he quickly tries to cloud his own claim—his assertion that torture really does sometimes work. But then, this is a novel, not an analysis—and it’s typical of our pundit corps’ work. Yep! Within the celebrity pundit corps, many of “our professionals” love to work in this weak-minded way. They love the way a good novel feels—and they’re eager to pass on the feeling.

NO CARNIES NEED APPLY: At his table-pounding press conference, Bush’s use of that one euphemism really did take the cake. How do we describe the men who pour buckets of water over freezing-cold subjects? They’re “our professionals,” Bush kept saying. Do not confuse them with gap-toothed carnies running some cheap dunking booth!