Friday, October 03, 2003


If we took a look around in 1688 - the year of the Glorious Revolution -- what would we say about torture? One of the things we'd say is that we could recognize the implements. Here is the machine that stretched the prisoner. Here is the whip that flayed the prisoner. Here is the wheel. But even in 1688, the divide between torture - as a subset of the work of punishment - and the whole set of punitive acts was porous. Here is the island on which the prisoner was worked to death harvesting sugarcane. Here was the ship on which the prisoner was starved, raped, and died. And so on. The distinction, then, is one of tools and rituals, not of pains and effects.

This is an important distinction insofar as the effects of torture were at the time, and are now, constitutive within the system of the spaces by which the system is identified. I mean, simply, that if I look around today and I do not see the whip, rack and the wheel, my inclination to say, well, there's no torture going on here is naive. I have not understood that prison, which was the work space within which torture happened, has absorbed the effect of torture, even when the implements of it are abolished. In other words, I ought to be looking for torture by other means, if I see a prison. The latter continues the former.

Readers are urged to check out the Slate article entitled Why no one cares about prison rape We immediately sent the article to various friends. We've long found the joky tolerance for prison rape in American culture -- in fact, the dependence on it as both an entertainment motif and, supposedly, a real police tool -- to be amazingly depressing. Robert Weisberg and David Mills are mostly pretty clear both about who gets raped, how often it happens, and the tolerance, even promotion of it, by the society prisons are supposedly protecting from violence. Here's their profile of stir:

"A recent report by Human Rights Watch synthesized data and various perception surveys from around the United States and conservatively concluded that approximately 20 percent of all inmates are sexually assaulted in some way and at least 7 percent raped. A cautious inference is that nearly 200,000 current inmates have been raped and nearly 1 million have been sexually assaulted over the past 20 years. And, as HRW notes, prisoners with certain characteristics�first offenders, those with high voices and passive or intellectual personalities�face far higher probabilities. Moreover, the reports reveal that sexual slavery following rape is also an ordinary occurrence. Stories abound of prisoners who, once they are "turned out" (prison jargon for the initial rape) become the rapists' subordinates, forced to do menial jobs and sometimes "rented out" to other inmates to satisfy their sexual needs.

"Of course, prisoners face not only sexual assault from other inmates, but violence of all forms, often leading to horrific injuries and death. All too typical is the story, repeated by HRW, of a raped Texas prisoner with obvious injuries who reported the rapes (eight alleged rapes by the same rapist) to prison authorities. The authorities interviewed the rapist and the victim together, concluded it was nothing but a "lovers' quarrel," and sent them both back to their cells, where the victim was again repeatedly raped and beaten even more brutally."

Weisberg and Mills lose the thread near the end of the article, where they hypothesize that if American society tolerates prison rape, at least it could be open about it, and let it operate on murderers:

"Perhaps while this federal study is under way, there are other, more honest ways of acknowledging what the American prison system has created. Perhaps every sentencing judge should require that a defendant headed for prison be given extensive "pre-rape counseling" in the hope that he or she can take some small personal steps to reduce the risk of attack. Or perhaps we could require judges to demand data about the differential risks of rape and assault for different types of prisoners in different prisons and begin to factor such data into any sentence. "You committed murder, so let's send you somewhere where you're really likely to be raped." In that way we will be at least as brutally honest with ourselves as we are literally brutal with our prisoners."

Actually, the assumption that brutes are at least honest is disingenuous. Why should they be?

Weisberg and Mills at least come to terms with the reality of attitudes towards punishment. We find that a heartening attitude, in contrast to the somewhat airless world of legal philosophy. As an example of the latter, read the Sanford Levinson's article on torture in this summer's Dissent. Levinson is a well known legal theorist. He's irreproachably liberal. His approach is canonical -- insofar as that liberalism is concerned. His idea is that torture is simply about information. In this way, desire - the desire to hurt - is sublimated into the desire to know. The work of torture, here, is taken out of its work space - the prison - and inserted into another context. Call it a form of extreme research. Instead of going through files, you insert an electric cord into a man's anus. Of course, given Levinson's approach, torture derives from rational principles to accrue a rational gain. Other motives are dismissed:

"If torture never achieves its purpose and, indeed, is
harmful not only to the victims but even to the
police themselves (since false confessions lead
them to stop looking for the actual perpetrators),
then the obvious question is why any rational
police officer would ever engage in it. If
torture is in fact inefficient, then one must be
a sadist to defend it. One virtue of this response
is that it appears "tough-minded," unlike what
some might deem merely "moralistic" arguments
that we should adhere to the prohibition even if adherence
imposes serious costs on innocent people."

The reference to sadism is as close as Levinson wants to get to the desire to give pain. While, on the one hand, one welcomes the liberal civility of the gesture - wouldn't this be a better society if the desire to give pain was only a property of sadists? - on the other hand, one suspects that it encodes that typical liberal bad faith, hiding the desires that animate a social practice under the guise of a rationality that has only one legitimate desire: the desire to know.

It is hard to square Levinson's idea with the reality of prison. One could as well ask if enclosing a man or woman in a 10 by 10 space for twenty years, or enclosing a man or woman in a subterranean space that is for the most part unlighted 24/7, or enclosing a man or woman with another person who repeatedly hurts that person, rapes that person, beats that person - whether these, too, are the dreams of a sadist. In fact, anybody who reads Sade - an author that is probably too distasteful for the persnickety Levinson - understands pretty quickly that enclosure just is the sadistic premise. Without prison, there is no sadism. Sade knew prison from the inside, and he understood that it absorbed the torture effect and was constructed around it.

Our own contribution to prison journalism exists in cyberspace here, in the New York Obs.

Thursday, October 02, 2003


What becomes a scandal in this country is a scandal.

We go to the NYT and we are greeted with two furors -- hey, that has a nice operatic sound, doesn't it? In one corner, the scandal that is singing away concerns the outing of the CIA credentials of an ex-ambassador's wife. She worked undercover. Here's a paragraph in, what, the third NYT story on the subject that I spot today:

"The White House encouraged Republicans to portray the former diplomat at the center of the case, Joseph C. Wilson IV, as a partisan Democrat with an agenda and the Democratic Party as scandalmongering. At the same time, the administration and the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill worked to ensure that no Republicans in Congress break ranks and call for an independent inquiry outside the direct control of the Justice Department."

On NPR, Tom Harkin, the Dem senator from Iowa, opined that this was the worst blow in the war of terrorism ever -- or something like that. Iowa is a pretty fur piece from New York City, as Faulkner might put it --- since I would hestitatingly, and in a quavering voice, suggest that 9/11 was pretty bad. Oh, not as bad as the pain inflicted on Wilson, of course -- but almost, don't you think, Tom? Somehow, that Wilson's wife can no longer work undercover for the CIA does not, to us, appear to undermine civilization as we know it. Actually, what undermines civilization as we know it is the continuing existence of an agency that can employ people that it can officially deny employing ... like, for instance, the CIA. But let's not go there.

Ah, and for those who, clinging to the wreckage of civilization laid waste by the Bush leaker, and who want something a little less D.C.-centric, there is Rush Limbaugh on ESPN. Now, that Rush Limbaugh is a racist pig has not been a secret for, oh, fifteen years or so. His demographic skews to professional Confederacy nostalgists -- like our Attorney General. So there the man was -- Rush, not Ashcroft -- doing the usual coded racist thing. That thing has warped, since the Civil Rights era. It used to be that blacks were inferior, ignorant, genetically challenged. Now it has merged with the old anti-Semitic meme -- the one that claims Jews control everything. The result is the idea that blacks get a free ride in this country. So, the remarks about some black quarterback getting disproportionate attention. Suddenly, the remarks get disproportionate attention, and Rush resigns.

Which begs too many questions about race for one morning. Such as, given that corporate TV is the most demographic driven of businesses, what was the thinking about hiring Rush in the first place? Obviously, appeal to the white male market to which he is such a magnet. And not just any white male market. We are looking for blue collar white males, who in the past thirty years, as their economic life form has been systematically devastated, to the advantage of a quite different circle of white males (see under top income 2 percentile), have secreted an almost predictable, enzymatic reactionary attitude that such as Rush live off of -- an attitude that makes it ever more convenient to assign those guys to the dust heap. The vicious circle of cynicism, race, and exploitation, all in a nice neat package. So the cynical manipulators hire a cynical manipulator whose cynical manipulations land him in hot water, since (since, since, since) ESPN has to pretend to not condone open racism.

Not that we are complaining about the latter. The progress of a civilization can be mapped by the structure of its hypocrisies over time. Still, this is a scandal only for the very bored.

Meanwhile, a non-scandal.

Here's the headline: Senate Panel Backs Bill to Give Tax Windfall to U.S. Companies."
And here's the first graf:

"WASHINGTON, Oct. 1 � American corporations that have deferred taxes for years on the profits they made overseas could be in line for a huge windfall from Congress.Hoping to bring more investment to the United States, the Senate Finance Committee approved a bill on Wednesday that would give a one-time tax holiday to companies that have accumulated as much as $400 billion in foreign profits on which they have yet to pay American taxes."

And isn't this the right time for a tax holiday, boys and girls? With a petty 500 billion dollar plus deficit looming, and 87 billion of it going to an unwinnable war for an inscutable object, the Senate is feeling its oats. No doubt many a Dem, who will otherwise complain about the Bush tax cuts, will vote for this one. It is pure icing. Nobody cares, the angry white guys who are going to continue to be screwed by a government that is shifting the burden of its running to lower incomes either by cuts (which fall on those white guys and their families) or by taxes are going to be talking about Rush, the D.C. wonks will be talking about Wilson, and the corporations will, once again, embed the incredible advantage they have accrued in this society since 1980. Cool or what?

Tuesday, September 30, 2003


My favorite murder

Everyone has one. The Black Dahlia. The JFK assassination. Mine is undoubtedly the strange and lonely death of an Italian banker, Roberto Calvi. The man led the Banco Ambrosiano, a bank that was used by the Vatican, and unknown others, to shuffle money around. The bank collapsed in 83, missing 1.3 billion dollars -- a larger sum in 83 than now, but still not chump change.

Calvi was by all accounts a colorless little man. But in Italy in 1983, there were a lot of .... convergences, let us call them. In 1980, the worst act of terrorism in Italian history had occured, with the blowing up of the Bologna train station. That act was masterminded by a man with a long record of rightwing militancy, Stefano delle Chiaie, who was plugged in to the rightwing network that had tentacles worldwide: Franco's Spain, Argentina, and Chili in particular. The same cultural milieu that now circulates around Berlosconi was, in 83, entangled in a Masonic lodge, P-2, and various military organizations. Traversing this subculture was strong links to the Mafia, with its ties to the Christian Democrats in the South.

Calvi's connection to Lucio Gelli, a major figure on the right who was an associate of delle Chiaie, has always been fascinating. Gelli is a sinister figure, implicated in crimes world wide -- weather death squads in Argentina in the 70s, or the attempt to create an 'atmosphere of confusion" in Italy, preliminary to a military coup. How to finance such things? One way is to have a friendly bank or two at hand. This is Nick Tosches' country of secret handshakes writ large (Tosches, by the way, wrote a book about Michele Sindona, a bigger Italian banker/crook than Calvi -- and Calvi's mentor in some respects).

Conspiracy breeds conspiracy theory, which in turn becomes paranoid in the face of the six degrees of separation that supposedly lies between me and thee. But what if the six degrees are motivated? What if it is only one degree? What if money really is an invention of the devil? Calvi's case makes these thoughts hard to dismiss. Even a hardened spy novelist would hesitate to end a character the way Calvi ended -- suspended on a rope under Blackfriar's bridge in London, bricks in his pocket, his briefcase vanished, and a police department (in Thatcher's England) less than eager for scandal, judging the whole thing a suicide. The current spate of stories and indictments in Italy lay the blame for Calvi's death at the feet of the mafia. But in Italian politics -- where crime openly masquerades as state power, vide Berlusconi's recent passage of a blanket amnesty for himself and his cronies -- every accusation must be refracted through the motives of the accusers. In Calvi's case, the strongest motivation is the church's, which has been trying to wash the bloody stain away for twenty years.

Here's a site that delves into the death lovingly, if not too wisely:

"Calvi had been missing from Italy for one week when a mail-room clerk of the Daily Express, walking to his job on Fleet Street, saw a man suspended from a scaffold under the Blackfriars Bridge. He was hanging by the neck, his feet dragging by the flow of the Thames. He had been dead for five or six hours. After the River Police got him down, a detective noted that the dead man's cuffs and pockets were bulging with chunks of bricks and stones. A body search turned up, among other things, the equivalent of $15,000 in cash and a clumsily altered Italian passport in the name of Gian Roberto Calvini, age sixty-two. These and many other details, but particularly the name of the bridge and the bricks and stones, would take on a sinister pall."

Here's Katz's explanation of that pall:

"The circumstances of Calvi's end � notably his suspension beneath the Blackfriars Bridge and the bricks and stones on his body � were being read in Italy as the signature of the P2, of which he was a card-carrying member. The bizarre rituals of the lodge included the wearing of black robes and the use of the word "friar" in addressing of one another. And what are bricks and stones if not the substance of masonry? In initiation ceremonies the new member was sometimes told that betrayal of the P2's secrets would mean death by hanging and the washing of his corpse by the tides. Calvi, under recent questioning by Italian magistrates, had already revealed some of his own P2 activities, and lately he had been threatening to strip the layers further."

Here's the Guardian story:

"But in October 2002, a Mafia supergrass told police that Calvi had been murdered by the mob for stealing funds they had handed to him to launder. The supergrass accused a convicted Mafioso, Pippo Calo, of ordering the hit. The Italian inquiry agreed, announcing in July that it believed Calvi had been killed by mobsters who had made his murder look like a Masonic ritual. The need to punish and permanently silence Calvi, who had knowledge of Mafia money-laundering, was the main motive for the killing, the inquiry said "

The Guardian doesn't mention Calvi's good friend, Bishop Paul Marcinkus, who haled from Cicero, Illinois, and whose involvement with several Vatican financial scandals has been the subject of several books. Cicero, Illinois was, of course, Al Capone's town -- and it has an enduring reputation as a mobbed up place. This French site has the delirious scoop on the Cosa Nostra-Vatican connection -- and extends its accusations up to the present, claiming, on the basis of an Italian prosecutor's compilation of repenti testimony, that the Archbishop of Barcelona, no less ... well, here's the French:
"...on ne s'�tonnera pas du bien fond� des accusations de magistrats de Torre Anunziata (province de Naples) qui, gr�ce � des t�moignages de repentis recoup�s par des indices mat�rielles et des �coutes t�l�phoniques, mettent en cause en 1995 le cardinal Ricardo Maria Carles, archev�que de Barcelone, dans un trafic d'armes, de pierres pr�cieuses et, surtout, de coca�ne qui profiterait � la Mafia italienne. L'int�ress� a �videmment d�menti, ainsi que le ministre de l'int�rieur espagnol et le porte parole de l'Opus De�."

Yes, Calvi's murder is our favorite unsolved crime. Long may it trouble the consciences of the right wing Euro-underworld.

Monday, September 29, 2003


"I distinctly remember an incident at Boston University�one of those you always remember�when the psychology department chair called me into his office one day, closed the door, sat me down, and proceeded to dress me down for doing palm reading, for taking people�s money under false pretenses, that there was nothing to this paranormal stuff, etc. I sat there listening to him and after he calmed down I said, �would you like me to read your palm?� So he stuck his hand out and I did a reading on him. Then I left. Two weeks later he called me back into his office, shut the door, sat me down, stuck his hand out, and said �tell me more�! This really showed me how powerful this stuff can be.

"And in another one of those unforgettable incidents, the late Stanley Jaks convinced me to do a palm reading on someone and tell them the exact opposite of what I would normally say. So I did this. If I thought I saw in this woman�s palm that she had heart trouble at age 5, for example, I said, �well, you have a very strong heart,� that sort of thing. In this particular case, though, it was really spooky, because she just sat there poker faced. Usually I get a lot of feedback from the subject. In fact, I depend on the feedback, and this woman was giving me nothing. It was weird. I thought I bombed. But it turns out the reason she was so quiet was because she was stunned. She told me it was the most impressive reading she had ever had. So I did this with a couple more clients, and I suddenly realized that whatever was going on had nothing to do with what I said but with the presentation itself. This was one of the reasons I went into psychology�I wanted to find out how it was that people, including myself, could be so easily deceived --
Interview with Ray Hyman

One of the great myths in America is that you can't con a con. Of course you can. Usually they come pre-conned, believing at least half of their own lines.Ray Hyman is a psychologist who has done a lot of work on what is known as the "Barnum" or "Forer" effect. Forer was a pychologist who gave a personality test to his students in the forties, and returned an analysis to each student that was copied out of an astrology magazine. He then had the students rate the accuracy of the analysis. It rated accurate to extremely precise with a large majority of the students. (Personally, we think that Forer did not explore one aspect of this: the assymetry between authority figure and student. It has long struck us, from experience with students, even very smart students, that they carry a firm belief in the one to one nature of their relationship with their professor. That this isn't so -- that a professor deals with hundreds of students -- says something profound about the legitimation of authority, we think. But we will close this parenthesis with just this small note).

We liked Hyman's anecdote about reversing his palm readings because, in a large sense, that is precisely the M.O. of the Bush administration. Again, this isn't to say that Bush doesn't believe every word that comes from his mouth -- he does. He is, alas, the most gullible man elected to the presidency since Harding. Maybe more than Harding. But gullibility has an odd relationship to the deceits involved in confidence games. As Hyman says, he became a believer in his own palmistry powers, in spite of his skepticism about religion and irrational belief systems. The experiment of inverting his responses cured him of his palm reading beliefs -- but a similar pattern of using equal and opposite reasoning to legitimate projects, which has been endemic among the Bushies, seems to have had no such therapeutic effect.Take the recent blogger meme that started with a report about John Pilger's tv show on the Iraq war. Pilger, an industrious left leaning British journalist, found two creamy little CNN interviews from the pre 9/11 period. Both Rice and Powell were caught on camera bragging about how the US policy of sanctions and vigilance had denied Saddam H. the capacity to make or deploy weapons of mass destruction. Rice even, commonsensically, pointed to Saddam's inability to retake the Northern section of his own country. This obvious geo-political fact got somehow lost in the shuffle as he became enemy no. 1 last January. The palm reader reverses the reading. Suddenly, Saddam packs an awful punch, threatening to pulverize us in 48 hours -- a story that Tony Blair has gratuituously stuck to. Or take the current status of our occupation. Palm reading one: look at all the good things that are happening in Iraq! Right on time and on target, too. 3,000 projects in Kirkuk alone! Palm reading two, however, is that inexplicably, there's a hold-up on the turning over the power to the natives project. In fact, it will take +87 billion more dollars. Plus extended National Guard deployments. Plus you can't take seriously the proposal by the French that Iraqis should take at least symbolic control of the "Coalition Authority" -- even though that was the original Defense Department plan. And so it goes, from taxes to deficits to the war on terror. Of course, the right wing intelligentsia turns on a dime as this stuff comes down. They have various excuses. The justification for the war didn't depend on anything like a threat, for instance (thus extending the meaning of pre-emptive to a subjective extreme that wholly depends on the whim of the powerful). But Bush does not strike the observer as possessing even this minimal intellectual distance. Rather, this is a man whose gullibility is ironclad. This is a man who believes that fact must correspond to what he desires -- even if his desires get expressed in two equal and opposite claims. Like the victims of the alchemist in Jonson's play of that name, he has the ability to generate excuses for those inconsistencies that press upon him.

Further along in his interview, Hyman confesses that disabusing the victims of various spiritual scams bears a price. He quotes a student who told him that Hyman's course was entirely convincing, and "I hate your guts." It is tricky, negotiating the emotional rage that comes with enlightenment; this is what the Bushies count on. They shouldn't count on it too much, though. After the 87 billion dollar speech, even the most credulous are starting to wonder what happened. And as the odds start kicking in, they are going to be wondering a lot more. We have bet the house on the most unlikely combination of events in Iraq, and in our economy. We are just starting to pay the price for that bit of faith-based fervor.

The ethics of integrity or the Baker at Dachau

    Throughout the 19th and 20th century, one stumbles upon the lefthand heirs of Burke – Red Tories, as Orwell called them. Orwell’s inst...