In a long post a few weeks ago, I explored the problems with denial -- specifically, denying one's role in the commission of mass atrocity (such as American support for Central American "death squads"). A similar topic has arisen thanks to some of the more unsavory associations of John McCain's chief adviser, Charlie Beck. Today, Hilzoy of Obsidian Wings explores Beck's (and the conservative movement writ large) relationship to Jonas Savimbi and the UNITA rebel movement in Angola, which for awhile was the darling child of the Reagan administration and their intellectual cohorts. Beck was one of Savimbi's chief lobbyists in Washington, and was instrumental in America re-establishing our support for his forces.
I'll leave to Hilzoy to document the atrocities that we knew we were supporting (and in a real sense intentionally supporting) when we assisted Savimbi. Suffice to say, they are appalling. But our current relationship with regards to Beck seems less one of denial and more of forgetfulness. Beck's role in assisting a hideous thug should, by all rights, exile him from public service. But we don't. And we don't not because we've consciously decided that it is alright to drum up support for torturers.* We don't do it not because we've consciously decided that what Savimba did was okay. We don't do it not because we've forced Beck to reckon for his actions and undergo some sort repentance or reintegration into the public space. We allow Beck to maintain his public position because we essentially have no consciousness that Angola ever happened.
We forget that which was never important enough to deny. If Angola suddenly became a political issue, Beck would undoubtedly switch from forgetfulness to denial -- not that he supported UNITA, but denying that UNITA was all that bad, or denying that he knew of whatever bad things they did. Denial and forgetfulness serve essentially the same purpose, because both allow for the people and projects which crafted the original injustice to proceed forth without punishment or remorse. Nothing checks their saga. Often times, injustice occurs precisely because the perpetrators assume that their victims aren't important enough to warrant consideration -- ultimately, to be remembered. When we invite Beck back into a critical part of America's democratic operation, without forcing him to confront this element of his past, we ratify that belief, and ultimately, ratify oppression.
* While I was writing this, I had a thought: what's the difference between being a private criminal defense attorney (representing people who likely committed murder), and being a lobbyist for murderers like Savimbi? We don't say that criminal defense attorneys should be barred from public service (although, I suspect that if one ran for office it would be used against them), because we believe that everyone has the right to have representation in legal proceedings. But in a democracy, shouldn't everyone also have the right to have representation and have their voice heard in the democratic arena? Isn't that the essence of public deliberation?
There are a few differences, of course. One is that while there is no deficit of lawyers, and the poor are guaranteed representation if they can't afford it, political representation is highly stratified -- perhaps choosing to increase the voice of thugs, while there are so many good people who are marginalized in the system, is not a legitimate moral move. Likewise, even though a criminal defense attorney might defend a murderer, he does not defend the act of murder -- his defense is usually either that the defendant didn't do it, or that the killing was not murder (was in some way justified). Aside from securing the release of his client, nothing the lawyer does promotes more killing. By contrast, while lobbyists too rarely concede that their clients are murderers (or also claim that their acts are justified), the lobbyist project is specifically to direct resources to enable his clients acts (in this case, murdering) to continue. Maybe in this way, the lobbyist is akin to a lawyer on retainer by an organized crime family (a person who I think is in a considerably more morally ambigious situation than the average defense attorney)?
It's a tough question. I'd appreciate help.