Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Art of the State

So the Sunnis are declaring that there's more torture going on under the U.S. occupation of Iraq than there was under Saddam Hussein -- not an easy feat; we really had to work for that one. But that aside, I have to wonder:
  1. If the recent Iraqi Interior Ministry's investigation is correct, where does systematic prisoner abuse end and the ever-shifting U.S. definition of torture begin?
  2. The Administration and Chucky Krauthammer have been trying to parse a moral argument for the use of torture. Cheney wants to make provision for it; Chucky wants to start using it as soon as possible. Cheney sees torture as justified; Chucky sees it as imperative. Both men draw on the Ticking Time Bomb scenario which states:
      1. There's a bomb in NYC
      2. It's going to go off in 1 hour
      3. We've got a guy who knows something about it
      4. He won't talk
  3. Now ... since the recent investigation found 120 abuse cases in two of Iraq's 1000 prisons, is it safe to assume that the Iraqi police forces followed our advice and thereby prevented 120 bombs from exploding? Golly, that's a relief!
Maybe I'm confusing garden variety prisoner abuse (negligence) with sanctioned torture (malice). That's why I ask #1 up there.

But, here's what I don't understand about the Ticking Time Bomb scenario. I can't make qualified statements about the efficacy of torture -- I don't know if it's more or less effective than, say, executing the hypothetical prisoner's family in front of his eyes. What I want to know is: How did we come to learn the first 3 of the above-mentioned 4 conditions which would logically satisfy Krauthammer and the Administration?

In the Ticking Time Bomb scenario, we suddenly have the intelligence capability to know the location, method, and timing of an attack -- when has this ever happened? And how do we know the hypothetical guy knows where it is? The Ticking Time Bomb scenario operates on the premise that we can practically SEE the little LED screen ticking away and, better than that, we can see into the head of this prisoner and know what he knows, we just need him to tell us that he knows what we hope he knows.

I believe this gauntlet of conditions necessary to legalize the use of torture would never happen. More likely, we would resort to torture to obtain the information (conditions 1-3) to construct a Ticking Time Bomb scenario in the first place. Does anyone realize what an achievement it would be to even HAVE knowledge of conditions 1-3? Has this Administration ever come that close to profiling an attack at home or abroad?

ART of the STATE

The Ticking Time Bomb scenario (Bomb in New York! Millions Dead! One hour! One suspect!) is not drawn from existing military After-Action reports or Lessons Learned in any of the Anti-Terrorism/Force-Protection literature that I've read. And I've read plenty. One of my first jobs out of college was to help design Level III AT/FP training modules for the Joint Chiefs. I studied the Khobar Towers incident, the USS Cole Incident and 9/11 and none of the after-action reports said:

"Damn, we HAD a guy in our prison who knew about this and he would have told us how to stop it. If only we'd been allowed to pull out his fingernails while force-feeding him a shit-milkshake as we raped his daughter with a rolled-up copy of the King James Bible! Damn you, liberals back home! Damn you!"

No. Khobar Towers, USS Cole, the African Embassy bombings, and 9/11 didn't happen because we were weak in our interrogation room tactics. The Ticking Time Bomb Scenario doesn't come from military history or even the responsible projection of future military action. It has been manufactured by columnists and the Administration. The TTBS doesn't wash historically, tactically, or even on the basis of its own closed system of logic.

For whatever it's worth, it doesn't have an ethical basis, either. The instant we codify the use of torture, we forfeit the right to be outraged when one of our people comes back missing his thumbs and testicles.

Krauthammer is a trained psychiatrist so I can only assume he's working from some post-conventional morality a la Kohlberg. Developmentally, we start out believing only in rules that benefit ourselves. Then we switch to strict obedience of social contracts. Finally, we find ourselves rushing to the hospital with a loved-one bleeding to death in the back seat and we violate a social contract by running a red light to get there in time. That third stage is morally justified, even though it violates a social law. But here's the catch -- you have to have the social law in the first place. You can't make social laws from a post-conventional viewpoint. Social laws constitute the conventional morality behind the traffic light. Post-conventional morality lets you violate the law under certain conditions (civil disobedience, as Andrew Sullivan recently explained, and the TTBS, and saving a dying loved one).

And get this! The legal system is there to let you enunciate post-conventional violations of conventional law -- often to the validation of the perpetrator who may, on deliberate reflection of the evidence, be exonerated. But just as I can manufacture a hypothetical to validate my violation of basic traffic laws, that doesn't mean I'm asking for the abolition of traffic law.

So go back to your psych 101 book, Chucky. Taking post-conventional exceptions and trying to legislate them as conventional law doesn't advance our quest for Justice. It takes it back to pre-conventional (egocentric) standards. I would expect this mincing of terms from the Administration -- but not from Krauthammer.

STATES of ART

Pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional. These are not dialectical states in the evolution of social justice. The evolution of social justice stops, for the purposes of Kohlberg's schema, at Phase II: the Conventional. Since the torture debate is still a social justice issue (no matter what side you're on), we have to stop there, too, with an eye on what post-conventional entitlements might exist. The American Right repeatedly mistakes Pre for Post: hurling us forward into Middle Ages.

I find a similar confusion in the art world that can only be clarified by borrowing Ken Wilber's Pre-Trans Fallacy. In short: it's easy to mistake Pre for Post when we deal with aesthetics and philosophy, too. That's why so much absurdist and postmodern theatre is just pre-rational bullshit instead of the enlightened, trans-rational artifice it often claims to be.

More on that later.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Cold Fusion Solved!

Oh ... crap. I just forgot. Had the frickin' formula here somewhere. Sorry, that's my way of saying I was on the verge of a really great post and then lost the whole thing like a fart in the ether. Does someone have "A Fart In The Ether" as a blog title yet? I'm sure it's somewhere.

The cold fusion reference comes in as my cover story because I just spent a couple hours pouring over a handful of well-written theatre blogs and the debate du jour seems to be about postmodernism, minimalism, the utility of theatre, etc. And wrangling with avowed postmodernists over the validity of their methods (to say nothing of the larger philosophy) feels rather like trying to discover cold fusion using an eighth-grade science book, two bunson burners, a dead cow heart, and one pair of unsterilized latex gloves. Only less exciting.

Anyway, those of you who've tracked the conversation back to this summer can probably guess my position on all this. But I wanted to share these gentlemen with the rest of you because they're really keeping me on my toes. In a fit of giddy sensory-overload I fear I blathered my way to embarrassment with a few hasty posts -- a crime I've dodged on this sight by not posting so much anymore. But I want to get back into the fray and these guys remind me how much I have to learn and how much I already love talking about this stuff. Please meet Steve, Scott, George, and Matt.
  1. Steven Oxman. Theatre Matters. You can't post comments on this blog, but that's just as well. Steve is a television and theatre critic for Variety, but he's also done time at the LA Times and has first-person accounts of other hefty critics out there in NYC. He puts out at least one well-wrought essay a day and also works as a primary source dashboard for print articles on theatre. He's also generously linked over to and commented on other bloggers like ...
  2. George Hunka. Superfluities. Where Theatre Matters reads like the kid-brother hobby channel version of an already-established critic, Superfluities is more blogocentric. I don't mean that disparagingly; George has very organized, far-reaching, and well-read web of links to the larger theatre blogging community and he marshalls the traffic of ideas pretty well. He's also a critic for nytheatre.com and appears to have either read everything in the world or made honest effort to try. I don't jive with every conclusion he comes to, but as an e-scholar he's great.
  3. Scott Walters. Theatre Ideas. Scott is a professor and director in Asheville, NC. He volleys back and forth with the above-mentioned blogs, but goes the extra step by offering a synthesis to issues the other blogs skitter around. Plus he writes posts with titles like: "How to Help the Audience, Part Two" and "Synthesis" -- to give you some idea of what he's up to. Scott takes what George and Steve are chewing on and teases out some pretty exciting conclusions.
  4. Matt J. Theatre Conversation and Political Frustration. Matt is a grad student in Long Island. No, that's not why he's #4 here. Like Scott, Matt is eager to resolve or transcend issues generated by the other guys. His post "On the Postmodern Critique" triggered the latest round of internal links and comments. He's got the refreshing perspective of someone who's a) frustrated with what he's learned and b) eager to find an answer through informed conversation. Hence the title.
From what I can tell, the most successful blogs these days are about 36% original content, 11% personal journaling, and 53% creative hyperlinking. It seems the goal is to balance between proprietary pith and active redirection to some place more interesting. People are choosing blogs the way they might choose morning radio personalities: Can you give me a brief buffet-table survey of the five most link-worthy things in the universe every other hour? Can you add a delicious coating of vitamin snark to make it all go down easier? Well, these guys are a great place to start if you're looking for deeper theatre conversation. Only they're not just spitting out quotable nuggets, they're actually trying to advance a larger discussion. And all of them ... I mean all of them ... spell much better than I do.

Anyone heard from Trillum lately? Well ... whomever and wherever you are: I thought of you a lot as I jockeyed around these other blogs.