Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Forgetfulness and Denial

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.


PG said...

Fred Thompson made an unusually pathetic claim that being a lobbyist was comparable to being an attorney, when trying to explain to Republicans how he had ended up lobbying for a pro-choice group. I think the same applies to Beck: in an adversarial system, criminal defendants must have good legal representation. I wouldn't condemn an attorney who represented an alleged child molester, for example. On the other hand, I would roundly condemn someone who lobbied for NAMBLA in order to lower the age of consent to 10.

A lawyer essentially works within the system, saying either that his client didn't break the law or that his client has some justification or excuse, but generally acknowledging that the law exists and must be followed. In contrast, a lobbyist tries to change the system on behalf of his client, and there are parts of our legal and political systems -- such as those that prohibit child molestation and sanction bad regimes -- that I quite like.

A lawyer's morality can be determined only by how he advocates for his client, not based on what his client was alleged to have done. Thus a lawyer who browbeats the molestation victim might be fairly despised as a nasty human being. In contrast, a lobbyist's morality can be judged based on the client and cause.

David Schraub said...

That's not entirely true though: some lawyers do try and "change the rules" when they argue that a statute is unconstitutional (albeit they are appealing to a different set of rules -- but the fact act of making an argument involves appealing to some standard or principle: the lobbyist argues that we should adopt policy X for reason Y where Y is presumably some more bedrock reason that would motivate his target to action).

Moreover, it still doesn't get to my point about representation: ideally, I do think of a democracy in terms of including all relevant voices. Since most people do not know how to effectively participate in our byzantine and technical democratic system (just like most can't effectively participate in our byzantine and technical legal system), they enlist outsiders to act as their representatives -- to give them voice. The question is, if I view "having a voice in a democratic system" as a good of roughly equivalent importance to "having an advocate in the legal system", and believe that even people who I dislike should have advocates in the legal system (and thus don't dislike the hired advocates), why shouldn't I take the seemingly analogous position of disliking certain positions in the political arena, but also thinking they should have the right to a mouthpiece, and not taking my ire out on the hired mouthpiece?

PG said...

I find your analogy of the political system to the legal system to be inapt. Political positions aren't like legal ones, because we don't have an obviously adversarial political system. We can pass legislation that is good for more than 50% of the people (and hopefully do). In contrast, there is no compromise before a jury, and either prosecutor or defendant must lose.

The lawyer may argue that the statute under which his client was arrested is unconstitutional, but he still is operating within the existing legal framework, in which unconstitutional statutes cannot be used to put prison going forward (and occasionally even retroactively). And I would morally condemn a lawyer who made certain constitutional arguments in order to defend a client (e.g., a lawyer who argued after Dred Scot that his white client couldn't be charged with murder for killing a black man, because blacks weren't really people). I also would morally condemn a lawyer who defended a rapist by saying the victim had worn a short skirt, etc. I don't think lawyers are protected from all moral condemnation in their pursuit of victory; you can be a slimy lawyer. Moreover, constitutional arguments are not common in litigation, despite the impression that academia gives ;-)

Hilary said...

I agree with your commenters: the legal system, as a whole, requires that people have access to competent counsel, and if you think the legal system as a whole is decent, you're doing your part by representing people, whether you agree with them or not. You don;t get to break or change the rules, but you do get to try to make sure people get a hearing.

On the other hand, there is no system that somehow requires lobbyists. Lobbying for someone is an act of advocacy, not a way of making sure that everyone has representation, and it should be seen as such. And if, somehow, someone thought that everyone should have a lobbyist, they'd do a lot better to start by offering their skills to people who would not otherwise be able to afford it.

schiller1979 said...

I don’t concede the point that we should not have supported anti-Marxist forces in Angola or Central America. I strongly suspect (admittedly without proof) that atrocities were committed by both sides in the Angolan civil war. Hilzoy seems to be saying that, in light of that, we should not have gotten involved at all. I disagree.

One who accepts Michael Mandelbaum’s argument in The Case for Goliath: How America Acts as the World's Government in the Twenty-First Century, and I largely do, will think we had a moral obligation to get involved. If one does not accept that point of view, then the justification needs to lie with the moral superiority of fighting for an anti-Marxist position over fighting for a Marxist position. Now I know that many will see the two as morally equivalent, and others will prefer the Marxist position. As you may have guessed, I see moral superiority in the anti-Marxist camp. I fully acknowledge that atrocities have been committed by non-Marxist governments, including the American government. But I see those as aberrations. When Marxist governments operate daily in the manner in which they’re intended to operate, there are gross violations of human freedom.

I disagree that labeling anti-Sandinista forces as “death squads” closes out the argument on American support of that faction. The moment that the anti government forces in El Salvador in the 1980s became “guerillas”, while the anti-government forces in Nicaragua became “death squads”, it was clear how the battle for hearts and minds was going to do. The former were Luke Skywalker, and the latter were Darth Vader!

I’m afraid I take a wishy-washy middle-ground position on the lobbyist vs. defense lawyer question. I don’t agree with equating the two in the way that David argues for. Lobbyists advocate for what their clients do or want to do (and don’t want to be forced to do, or whatever), while defense lawyers argue that their clients didn’t do the specific things they’re accused of doing (or that the client’s actions did not constitute the level of criminal offense the prosecution alleges). Therefore, the lobbyists (even though they’re hired guns) can be more closely equated with their clients’ causes (although I think we need to watch out for guilt by association, which has already entered into this presidential campaign).

On the other hand, I can’t fully accept hilzoy’s point in making that distinction that “there is no system that somehow requires lobbyists. On that point, I agree with David that big government requires one to hire a lobbyist in order to be effectively heard. So I see similarity between a defendant’s right to legal representation and a person’s right to lobbying representation.

David Schraub said...

Hilzoy's point about not intervening at all becomes the superior option at the point where non-intervention leads to fewer atrocities/deaths/chaos than intervention. The act of intervening in Angola prolonged the conflict, increasing the horrors the citizenry endured way over and beyond what the government could have done under peacetime. Particularly since Hilzoy seems to be arguing that UNITA was worse than the government (not that the government was sunshine and rainbows, just that UNITA was comparatively worse), the case for intervention on their side weakens still (ditto with the "death squads" and Pinochet -- there's simply no indication that the democratically elected socialist governments we tried/succeeded in undermining were "worse" than the one's we tried/succeeded in replacing them with).

PG said...

"I agree with David that big government requires one to hire a lobbyist in order to be effectively heard. So I see similarity between a defendant’s right to legal representation and a person’s right to lobbying representation."

This isn't a question of rights; I have a right to stage a KKK rally. However, these are morally condemnable acts and I assume we would question a candidate whose chief adviser exercised his rights in such a way. Rights are a distraction from the issue of whether a person is acting in a good, neutral or bad way.

So long as they act honorably in their roles, I don't think either the prosecutor or the defense counsel in a criminal case is blameworthy, even if the prosecution is for something that I don't believe should be a crime (e.g. being a prostitute), or if the defendant is someone who I personally believe is guilty as hell. In contrast, I do think it is more virtuous to lobby for certain causes than for others. It is better to lobby for resources to protect prisoners from rape, than it is to lobby for lowering the age of consent to 10 years old. I honestly find it unbelievable that those who seek to excuse lobbyists from any moral duty in their choice of clients would actually extend that to lobbying on behalf of causes generally believed to be loathsome. (Which is why I keep coming back to NAMBLA, which I've noticed gets conservatives much more excited than this or that anti-Marxist group's atrocities.)

schiller1979 said...

The act of intervening in Angola prolonged the conflict

The US's act of intervening in Korea in 1950 prolonged that conflict. Was that a bad thing?

David Schraub said...

No, because the net effect of prolonging the war was less bad than non-intervention -- precisely the analysis Hilzoy argues isn't true with regards to Angola. We could have prolonged the Korean War even more had we refused the Cease Fire (or attacked China, as Gen. MacArthur urged), but that would have been bad -- whatever benefits it might have yielded for Korea (if any) would almost definitely have not been worth it.

Human Rights Watch's stance on Humanitarian Intervention strikes me daily as more and more wise. They observe simply that war is a terrible thing. Hence, those who advocate going to war, or prolonging it, have a high hurdle to leap in order justify that it's worth it. It's not impossible to do (HRW supports intervening in cases of genocide, for example -- and defending a country against foreign aggression might be another good candidate), but it is a heavy burden on pro-war advocates. Angola didn't come close to meeting it.

schiller1979 said...

I go back to my first comment. Differences of opinion on whether acts of war on any front of the Cold War were justified is probably based on a difference of opinion regarding the nature of Marxist governments.

PG said...

But the Marxism of a government isn't an on-off switch. There is a range of Marxism, and sometimes it is affected by other governments' responses.

As I've noted in a prior discussion thread, Tito's Yugoslavia was not Soviet-style Communism and while abusive of human rights (e.g. through arbitrary arrests and lengthy detentions), did not commit atrocities anything like what occurred in the post-Communist Milosevic government.

If the U.S. had gone to war to give Yugoslavia a non-Communist government, it would have been an extremely bad idea. Tito's abuses simple did not rise to the level that warranted military intervention. Moreover, such intervention almost certainly would have pushed Tito into the USSR's arms, whereas non-intervention allowed him to be non-aligned and even somewhat antagonistic toward Stalin.

There's a plausible counter-history for Vietnam in which France quickly withdrew from colonization, the U.S. never intervened, and the Vietnamese people did not identify self-determination with Marxism. Colonialism made these Marxist movements in developing countries much stronger because the inhabitants generally favored getting rid of imperialist influence, and Marxist rhetoric recognized that and capitalized (pun unintended) on it.

In building toward WWII, Japan tried a similar strategy on Asian nations under colonial rule. Japan claimed that it was working for an Asian sphere free of Western influence, which sounded pretty good to many Asians under colonial rule, at least until they realized that Tojo's Japan was no less racist and imperialistic than Western nations.

schiller1979 said...

I acknowledge that the Marxist-Leninist regimes were not identical to each other. (I think it’s best to call them “Marxist-Leninist”. Some argue that there is a theoretical idealism in Marxism that was corrupted by its real-life application as Marxism-Leninism. I don’t buy that argument, but I don’t think I need to go there in order to establish what I’m trying to establish.)

I would not apply that label at all to present-day China or Vietnam. Whether it applies to Tito’s Yugoslavia is an interesting question. It’s the combination of the denial of economic rights and of political rights that I find atrocious about the Marxist-Leninist regimes, and that sets them apart from certain other dictatorships. The denial of effective political rights (other than the right to vote with one’s feet) was, I believe, pretty much total across the board. Limited economic rights were granted in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. Yugoslavia was perhaps the most free in economic terms.

I suppose one key question is whether the Angolan Marxists were closer to the Tito/Deng end of the scale, or the Mao Great Leap Forward end of the scale. I don’t know. I have my suspicions, which just happen to support the argument I’m trying to make (Dana Carvey would probably respond: “Isn’t that convenient?”). If anyone can shed light on that, I’d be very interested.

I’m skeptical about arguments that Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro would not have turned to Marxism if we had supported them. But again I might be guilty of downplaying evidence contrary to my thesis.

David Schraub said...

Ho Chi Minh is actually an easy case, as he was originally a pro-Western democrat until he felt betrayed when "self-determination" after WWI wasn't taken to include his people (he was in France to lobby for that personally). So he's actually a really clear case of someone who likely would have been on our side had we not supported colonialism.

And in least some of the cases we're talking about (Chile, Nicaragua), the lack of political rights you're worried about wasn't an issue, because the regimes we opposed were democratic ones -- we were the one's supporting the elimination of political rights.

schiller1979 said...

Regarding Nicaragua, it's a question of effective political rights. The anti-Sandinista case is that the government suppressed political opposition so that, while elections had the trappings of multi-party elections, they were not really free and fair. To carry this argument, one needs to address how Ortega was eventually defeated by Chamorro. The pro-Sandinista explanation of that is that the people had freely elected Ortega, until they decided to do otherwise, and that they then freely returned Ortega to power in recent years. The other explanation is that the pressure put on the Sandinista government by the contras forced them into a peace settlement and relatively free and fair elections. My argument is based on that latter explanation.

I see two possible explanations of our backing of the Pincohet coup in Chile.

A pure national-interest justification is that we were reacting to expropriation of American assets by the Allende government.

A pro-democracy explanation is rather difficult (but not, I think, necessarily impossible) to sustain. Even though Allende was originally democratically elected, the hyperinflation and other chaos in the runup to the coup would, one way or the other, have ended democracy. By re-establishing order, and putting the economy back on a free-market basis, Pinochet set Chile on a path toward eventual democratization. The length and brutality of the interval between the coup and democratization are heavy baggage hanging onto that argument. But if one accepts that violence and dictatorship were inevitable in the wake of the Allende-spawned chaos, the argument is that Chile was better off by abandoning the socialist policies that produced that chaos, than going further down that road.