• Remarkable graph in the Economist showing that not only is total healthcare spending per person in the US vastly more than any other rich country; public spending is higher than any other country on its own. Every taxpayer already pays more in taxes for healthcare than they would if they lived in Germany, France, the UK, Sweden… incroyable.
    ( tags: healthcare America )


  • 'The crash has laid bare many unpleasant truths about the United States. One of the most alarming, says a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is that the finance industry has effectively captured our government—a state of affairs that more typically describes emerging markets, and is at the center of many emerging-market crises. If the IMF’s staff could speak freely about the U.S., it would tell us what it tells all countries in this situation: recovery will fail unless we break the financial oligarchy that is blocking essential reform.' A brutal article by Simon Johnson, former chief economist of the IMF.
    ( tags: finance America economics )



  • “I spent the first 17 years of my life dirt-poor,” said Cassano, who was raised by a single mother in one of the most crime-ridden neighbourhoods in Italy and said he is certain that had it not been for football, he would have become a hoodlum. “Then I spent nine years living the life of a millionaire. That means I need another eight years living the way I do now and then I’ll be even.”
    ( tags: football Italy )
  • 'On Boxing Day 1789, Franklin wrote to Webster in Hartford, returning the compliment: 'It is an excellent work, and will be greatly useful in turning the thoughts of our countrymen to correct writing.' He shared and appreciated his friend's prescriptivist distaste for vulgar idiom, and wanted to contribute further follies to a future edition of the work.'


I always thought the US Declaration of Independence had a lovely bit of intellectual sleight of hand. It’s phrased almost as an exercise in logical deduction (various bits bolded for emphasis):

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government … [rhubarb rhubarb] … The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

[long list of ‘facts’ snipped here]

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States….

Quite apart from the awkwardness of reconciling this document with slavery, the phrase I’d particularly  pick out is ‘self-evident’. Jefferson, of all people, must have known perfectly well that over the course of history, it has certainly not been felt to be self-evident that all men are created equal. Or indeed that they are endowed with inalienable rights; or that governments are instituted to secure those rights; or that they derive their powers from the consent of the governed; or that when a government fails in that respect, that it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it.

From Plato to George III, there were an awful lot of people who would have disputed those ideas; it is clearly begging the question to treat them as axiomatic.

As it happens, history has been kind to Jefferson: his revolution went well, and the country he and his cronies set up has become the most powerful on earth. The victory of the democratic way of thinking has been so thorough that it is possible to read the Declaration of Independence and take it at face value, as though it actually was a statement of self-evident truth instead of a piece of political rhetoric. Perhaps that’s for the best: if you believe, as I certainly do, that the principles laid out in the preamble to the declaration are a Good Thing, then it probably helps to have people treat them as an item of faith. But my pedantic soul revolts against it. I’m with Jeremy Bentham on this one:

Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense — nonsense upon stilts.

Those rights — life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, free speech, freedom of religion, fair trials, take your pick — are not given to us by the universe; they are human constructs, things people have chosen and demanded for themselves. All the more reason to defend them.

You may be wondering why I’ve suddenly started going on about C18th political philosophy: well, it’s because I was struck by same process going on right now with gay marriage. There is an attempt by supporters of gay marriage to frame the question as one of simple natural justice: that this is a straightforward case of equal rights* and that the answer is, in fact, self-evident.

Now I’m a supporter of gay marriage, because I think that, all else being equal, we should avoid excluding a large chunk of the population from a social institution which has a central role in the culture; because the evidence generally suggests that having people in committed, long-term relationships is a societal good, and surely having a load of people keen to marry strengthens marriage rather than weakening it; and because it just seems like a way of making people happier with no obvious downside. But any claim that it is obviously a simple question of fairness seems a bit disingenuous.

I mean: has their ever been any society anywhere which has granted full legal marriage rights to homosexual couples on exactly the same basis as heterosexual marriage? I’m no anthropologist, and there may be examples I just don’t know about, but it seems fair to say that most people through history have not thought it was obvious that homosexual relationships are the same thing as heterosexual ones. The people who argue that ‘marriage is defined as between a man and a woman’ have a point: the introduction of gay marriage does redefine marriage in a fairly major way. There’s nothing unique about that; marriage has naturally been redefined over time as society has changed. But if you’re introducing a social change which is almost unprecedented in the whole of human history, it’s hard to deny that it’s a radical agenda.

I’m not suggesting that supporters of gay marriage should present it as a radical agenda; not if they want to get it into law. On the contrary, I think they are exactly right to frame it as a question of equal rights, and tap into the American rhetorical tradition that goes back via the civil rights movement all the way to Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. But like the Declaration of Independence, there’s a hint of a rhetorical rabbit being pulled out of a hat, as a rather controversial and radical conclusion is presented as though it was a self-evident truth.

*and indeed equal rites

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I really am going to stop posting about the US elections soon, but this was kind of priceless:

The best bit is Bill O’Reilly trying to stick up for her.

[later edit]

And while I’m posting YouTube videos, here’s a bit of The Day Today that seems curiously relevant:

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In which my irritation boileth over

Gerard Baker, the United States Editor of the (London) Times, has been gamely sticking up for the Republicans during this election. Even among the employees of that relatively conservative paper I imagine he feels like a bit of a beleaguered minority, so it’s perhaps not surprising that the tone of his articles has started to get a bit hysterical and defensive.

Still, this bit from an article about Sarah Palin really annoyed me:

As for the anti-intellectualism she seems to represent, this is a favourite old saw not only of the Left but also of the whole Establishment crowd. There’s an unshakeable view among the coastal elites that real wisdom is acquired only by circulating between the ivy-encrusted walls of scholarship and the Manhattan and Hollywood cocktail set.

But there’s real wisdom among those derided Americans who have never even ventured to the coasts, but whose steady consistent voice and values have been truly responsible for America’s many successes.

Now, I’m quite sure that there is genuine snobbery aimed at rural America by people from ‘the Establishment crowd’, and that the hostility towards Palin is partially fuelled by that snobbery. And I’m sure there’s real wisdom among landlocked Americans, and I even think it’s important that any culture has a strand of conservatism: stability and continuity are real and important political virtues.

But the real story is not that stereotypes about small-town America have undermined Sarah Palin; it’s that Sarah Palin has done great damage to the image of small-town America. Of course there should be many routes to political power; it shouldn’t be necessary to go to an Ivy League university — or any university at all — to qualify for high office.

But however you get there, once you’re running: you have to be able to talk coherently about politics. This is not an unreasonable demand. Palin’s Couric interview was genuine car-crash TV, and although her performances are getting less panicky, she still answers questions with a freeform stream of low-content babble.

She doesn’t have to be an expert on every subject, or speak in elegant, delicately wrought paragraphs. In fact, given her populist image, that would be a mistake. But she’s not even very good at being a populist. She’s no Ronald Reagan. She’s not even a Mike Huckabee. All those folksy colloquialisms are a good start, but she needs to develop a line in snappy, memorable bullshit for all the bits in between.

Thankfully, it looks like the Democrats are going to win this one, so I’ll soon be able to return to that happy state I was in before, when the only Palin I ever had to think about was the ex-Python, and Gerard Baker can be left to cry into his beer and nourish that sense of victimhood on behalf of the poor oppressed people of the Real America™.

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Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

I made a vaguely dismissive comment about Sinclair Lewis in the comments to the Halldór Laxness post, questioning whether he deserved a Nobel Prize. But not long afterwards, in reference to the Wall Street vs. Main Street theme that has been running in US elections, a journalist mentioned the novel Main Street by Sinclair Lewis. Hang on a minute, I thought, that doesn’t sound right… and about 30 seconds of research revealed that I hadn’t been thinking of Sinclair Lewis at all. I was thinking of Wyndham Lewis. A really quite different writer.

So I read Main Street. And actually, it was surprising how often it seemed relevant to the kind of culture war rhetoric that has been coming up on the campaign trail. Especially for a book published in 1920. There was even an argument about whether or not it’s patriotic to pay taxes.

The book is about Carol, a liberal, bookish girl who is non-specifically ‘artistic’; she marries a country doctor and moves with him to his home town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, which is part of what Sarah Palin would call ‘the real America’. She goes there with vague but idealistic hopes of improving the town, with beauty or culture or architecture, which founder in the face of the gossipy, judgemental, conservative, hypocritical, prejudiced, narrow-minded, coarse, prudish and generally unsympathetic locals.

It is a fiercely satirical portrayal of small-town America which confirms all the worst fears of an arugula-eating, latte-drinking liberal like myself*. Lewis came from a small town himself (Sauk Centre, Minnesota), so he was writing from experience, although it does seem possible that he had a few biases of his own.

This is Carol’s first Gopher Prairie party:

Sam Clark had been talking to Carol about motor cars, but he felt his duties as host. While he droned, his brows popped up and down. He interrupted himself, “Must stir ’em up.” He worried at his wife, “Don’t you think I better stir ’em up?” He shouldered into the center of the room, and cried:

“Let’s have some stunts, folks.”

“Yes, let’s!” shrieked Juanita Haydock.

“Say, Dave, give us that stunt about the Norwegian catching a hen.”

“You bet; that’s a slick stunt; do that, Dave!” cheered Chet Dashaway.

Mr. Dave Dyer obliged.

All the guests moved their lips in anticipation of being called on for their own stunts.

“Ella, come on and recite ‘Old Sweetheart of Mine,’ for us,” demanded Sam.

Miss Ella Stowbody, the spinster daughter of the Ionic bank, scratched her dry palms and blushed.

“Oh, you don’t want to hear that old thing again.”

“Sure we do! You bet!” asserted Sam.

“My voice is in terrible shape tonight.”

“Tut! Come on!”

Sam loudly explained to Carol, “Ella is our shark at elocuting. She’s had professional training. She studied singing and oratory and dramatic art and shorthand for a year, in Milwaukee.”

Miss Stowbody was reciting. As encore to “An Old Sweetheart of Mine,” she gave a peculiarly optimistic poem regarding the value of smiles.

There were four other stunts: one Jewish, one Irish, one juvenile, and Nat Hicks’s parody of Mark Antony’s funeral oration.

During the winter Carol was to hear Dave Dyer’s hen-catching impersonation seven times, “An Old Sweetheart of Mine” nine times, the Jewish story and the funeral oration twice; but now she was ardent and, because she did so want to be happy and simple-hearted, she was as disappointed as the others when the stunts were finished, and the party instantly sank back into coma.

The scathing portrayal of Gopher Prairie is pretty relentless, but the book is more than just 400 pages of mocking the rubes. Carol is hardly perfect herself: she’s just a touch too highly-strung and prickly. And her husband may be more interested in motor cars and land deals than Yeats, but he is shown to be a hard-working, resourceful and skilful doctor. 

Mainly, though, I thought it was an enjoyable read: I really got caught up in it as a story, which isn’t true of everything I read these days. The details, both social and physical, are well observed; it’s funny; it has just enough of the soap opera about it to keep me turning the pages. Good stuff.

*Actually, that’s not true, I can’t see the point of latte. But I don’t suppose my organic, single estate coffee grown on a Guatemalan co-operative wins me any Real America points either. And not being American can’t help, of course.

» The pictures of Sauk Centre are from the enormous collection you can find at the Minnesota Historical Society website.

The reason I quoted such a long passage is that it’s out of copyright, so I could just copy and paste it from the Electronic Text Center at the University of Virginia LIbrary.

This financial crisis is a bit of a buzzkill.

I haven’t commented much, because I don’t think my political instincts are that brilliant even for the UK, let alone a country I haven’t visited for over a decade. But I’ve been enjoying the US elections ever since the primaries: the Americans always do democracy on a bigger scale than the rest of us, but this time round it has been more dramatic than ever. Not so much political theatre as political epic. The Cinton vs. Obama storyline alone was more exciting than anything that’s likely to happen in our own next general election; and it kept on getting more remarkable. I mean really: Sarah Palin! You couldn’t make it up. It adds to the fun, of course, that it definitely means the end of Bush and probably a Democrat in the White House.

But since the world’s financial sector apparently started circling the plughole, I’ve been unable to take the same kind of simple pleasure in the whole thing.

This is genuinely scary. When apparently well-informed people start making comparisons with the Great Depression: eep. Even if they’re saying things like ‘with the right government intervention we should be able to prevent this turning into anything like the Great Depression’: still eep. What Sir Alex Ferguson once called ‘squeaky bum time’.

Neither candidate has exactly covered themselves in glory over this issue. McCain’s stunt of ‘suspending’ his campaign and rushing back to Washington was the undoubted low point, but neither of them has said anything that convinces me that they have exceptionally clear insights or solutions to offer. Neither of them has made a strong and unambiguous case either for or against government intervention. I understand that since they are not in office and are in the middle of an election campaign, they are in the worst possible position to be unbiassed and pragmatic; perhaps it’s too much to expect to ask them to rise above the politics of the moment. But they haven’t. Neither of them has managed to step in and fill the leadership void left by the complete disintegration of Bush’s credibility.

When asked in the debate how the crisis would affect their spending plans, both of them fluffed the issue: Obama just restated all the things he wants to spend money on, and McCain came out with some ludicrous crap about cutting earmarks. I’m not expecting them to come up with new plans on the fly, several months in advance and without knowing how the situation will change, but it would have been nice to see them engaging seriously with the question.

And that leads me onto the last point: this is a horrible time to become President. I will be thrilled to see Obama elected, insha’Allah, but I think the job may be a poison chalice. Just to take healthcare: there’s no doubt at all that America can afford a proper healthcare system, since Americans already pay more than everyone else for healthcare as it is. But it is money that will have to come from somewhere, and the state of the economy will not make the politics of it any easier.

Frankly, even if it wasn’t for the economy, the next President would have enough on their plate dealing with Iraq. It may be that there there is no good exit strategy from Iraq, but we who invaded the country have some responsibility for what happens to it. As the shop sign says: you break it, you’ve bought it. I would vote for Obama, if I had a vote, at least partially from a belief that he wouldn’t have invaded Iraq in the first place, and therefore that he is hopefully less likely to get into some new foreign adventure of his own. But I don’t have any faith that he knows how to sort out the mess in Iraq now. Would McCain do any better? I don’t know. I suspect that to do the job properly would take decades, and I don’t think there’s the political will in America to commit to that kind of timescale anyway. The Iraqis might not be thrilled either.

All of which adds up to: It’s a lot harder than it was a few months ago to look forward to the election with a sense of optimism.

» the picture, Last Chance, is © huangjiahui and used under a by-sa licence.

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  • 'One singer referred him to another. He'd meet with these men and women and discuss lives and careers some forty years past and mostly forgotten; they appreciated his respect and inquisitiveness. Conversations would lead to questions that would lead to new singers and new conversations. My father filled hundreds of tapes, transcribed many of them… Recently, my father has approached me about helping with a project relating to these tapes… He asked if I'd be willing to help him "publish" some of these audio interviews on The Tofu Hut.'
    ( tags: music America )



Why Obama won the nomination

That post title probably ought to have a question mark at the end.

It is ridiculous to suggest that there was a single reason why Obama won it — or why Clinton lost it — but I’m going to do it anyway. I really think that a lot of it came down to timing. Politicians tend, when they first arrive on the scene, to have a honeymoon period; few people have managed to have it quite so precisely when they need it as Obama. His moment as flavour of the month, when he was at his most shiny and new and exciting, seemed to just coincide with Super Tuesday. The news media has the attention span of a three-year-old and is always attracted to ‘news’; to newness.

Clinton had great difficulty competing for the spotlight at the crucial moment because however historic her candidacy was, it wasn’t news. She has been an international figure for nearly two decades; everyone has known she was going to run for president for years; she entered the race as the candidate to beat, with a huge campaign fund and a high public profile. She was expected to do well; any other narrative was always going to be more exciting and more newsworthy.

Obama as a mosaic of US state flags; used under a CC by-nc-nd licence

That’s not to say that newness was the only thing Obama had going for him; novelty value will only get you so far. Ask Mike Huckabee. There are lots of reasons why Obama excites people: he’s an excellent public speaker, if a slightly ponderous gravitas is your thang; he’s young, he’s intelligent, he looks good; and lots of people are excited by the idea of a black candidate. I just think if he had come into the race as a more familiar figure, perhaps from a failed run for president four years ago, or from a prominent job in national government — someone the public had already had a chance to form opinions about and get used to, in fact — he would have found the campaign noticeably heavier going.

I’m not suggesting that there’s some appalling skeleton in the Obama closet which would have come out in the meantime. And I’m not trying to make some kind of accusation or complaint; I don’t suppose anyone has ever made it to be a presidential candidate without a few slices of luck along the way. I just think it’s an observation worth making.

» ‘Barack Obama made out of US flags‘ posted to flickr by tsevis and used under a by-nc-nd licence.

An observation

If there’s one lesson I hope everyone concerned has learnt from the current US election cycle: it’s a really stupid idea to disenfranchise a whole bunch of your constituents for any reason. I’m thinking of the debacle surrounding the Democratic primaries in Florida and Michigan.

Of course it has only become such a thorny issue because the race is so close; in a lot of years it wouldn’t have made any difference. But it’s one of those situations where, with the benefit of hindsight, it seems blindingly obvious that to disenfranchise whole states and millions of voters should not have been the solution to a matter of internal party discipline. I mean really, what were they thinking?

As I’ve said before, I think the US primary system is nuts anyway. But that’s not a reason to screw it up even further.

Marginalia on the word ‘cunt’

In a generally interesting post about Obama, Hillary and all that stuff, Sherry says this:

I have to admit it’s true that Hillary Clinton has never been called a nigger but I suspect Barack Obama has never been called a cunt.

I think the difference in the way that word is used on each side of the Atlantic is quite telling. Because if he was British, it would be quite likely that sooner or lately someone would have called him a cunt: I know it has happened to me. Not usually in earnest, but at least once, in a pub in Bristol when I was a student and one of the locals took offence at my green hair.

And that is the norm, I think, in British English: although it is still a coarse slang term for the female genitalia, it’s mainly used to insult men. Not out of any kind of profound sensitivity to gender relations, but just because that’s the way it is. And as a result, although it is regarded as a very offensive word—you can’t exactly use it on daytime telly—it doesn’t have the same kind of edge it clearly has in America. The parallel with ‘nigger’ is interesting: the word ‘cunt’ is taboo in Britain, but I don’t think anyone thinks of it as hate speech.

I guess if you call a woman a cunt you’re attacking her for being a woman, whereas if you call a man a cunt you are… well, doing something different, anyway.

» ABC, posted to Flickr by An amusing sidenote: my computer’s spellcheck flags up the word cunt as a possible spelling mistake, even though it’s in the built-in dictionary. I guess they think it’s important to warn all those people who were trying to write ‘count’ or ‘aunt’. It would be more useful if, every time I typed ‘form’, it asked me whether I really meant ‘from’.

Coming of Age: American Art 1850-1950

This is a touring exhibition of paintings from the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts that is currently at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Though it will be going to Venice and then Fort Lauderdale later in the year, if that’s more convenient for anyone.

The West Wind - Winslow Homer

I didn’t have hugely high expectations, because the DPG exhibition space is fairly modest in size for a review of a whole century of art, but actually the show works well. It may not be the definitive exhibition of late 19th and early 20th century American art, but it has enough material to suggest an overall narrative, including plenty of enjoyable work. With a very few exceptions it’s one painting per artist, so there’s a kind of lucky dip feeling about the whole thing; especially since it’s hung without too much editorial commentary. It’s like: here’s a load of paintings; see what you think.

Wave, Night - Georgia O'Keeffe

There are plenty of big names represented — Winslow Homer, Sargent, O’Keeffe, Hopper, Whistler, Pollock — but with the one-painting per artist thing, they are very much in the context of other peoples’ work. I don’t know enough to judge how representative that context is, but it worked pretty well for me.

Acrobat in Green - Walt Kuhn

Here and there on the walls between paintings there are quotes from the artists about art and, often, Americanness. I think it’s quite a nice device: it provides some context, some connection to the painters, but again without too much curatorial commentary.

So all in all, not a life-changing exhibition, but well worth popping in and having a look.

» The Addison website has photos of all the work in the exhibition. Those I’ve picked out are The West Wind by Winslow Homer, Wave, Night by Georgia O’Keeffe and Acrobat in Green by Walt Kuhn.

Primarily peculiar

Is it just me or is the American system of state primaries really bizarre?

And I don’t just mean the Iowan ‘we don’t believe in the secret ballot’ thing. The very fact that the results in Iowa and New Hampshire take on great significance is a clear sign that something isn’t working properly. I mean, no disrespect to those two states, but they account for less than 2% of the country’s population between them. And yet if Clinton does badly in New Hampshire, her two losses will be seen as seriously damaging her chances.

And indeed they probably will affect her chances, because there will be a storm of media coverage which will have a psychological impact on voters elsewhere in the country. I know it would be too much to expect that the pundits might treat these early results with the lack of interest they deserve, since it’s their job to express opinions and they’ve been dying to actually have some scores to report on from months now, but it just seems like madness.

I don’t know. I’m only seeing it from outside. Perhaps I just don’t get it. Perhaps there’s some reason why it’s actually a brilliant idea.

» The Purple Finch and American Goldfinch are the state birds of New Hampshire and Iowa respectively. The photo was posted to Flickr by Grant Leavitt.

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The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo

Philip Zimbardo is the psychologist who ran the famous Stanford Prison Experiment [SPE] in 1971. The ultra-shorthand explanation is this: he took twelve normal young men and split them randomly into ‘guards’ and ‘prisoners’ then set up a fake prison. It was supposed to run for two weeks, but within six days the situation was so out of hand and the guards were mistreating the prisoners so badly that the experiment had to be abandoned.

More recently he acted as an expert witness for the defence at the court martial of Staff Sergeant Chip Frederick, the man in charge of the night shift in the section of Abu Ghraib where the notorious photos were taken.

The full title of the book is The Lucifer Effect: How good people turn evil, and it’s an exploration of the processes by which normal people end up behaving in horrific ways. It starts with a detailed, almost hour-by-hour account of the Stanford experiment and an analysis of what we can learn from it, broadens out to talk about parallel situations, then gives a detailed analysis of the events at Abu Ghraib which explores where responsibility for the events there should best be placed.

I can see why the SPE has become iconic: it was a striking experiment and the account of it makes an interesting narrative. Still, I would be reluctant to extrapolate too much from just that. One key to a good experiment is surely that you control as many variables as possible so that you can accurately isolate cause and effect. The SPE by contrast set up a very complex situation in a very open-ended way. Reading this book, it comes across as him just throwing the situation together and waiting to see what happened. There are so many different factors that might be affecting the outcome, including simple chance.

I suppose if you want to investigate complex situations developing over time, you can’t have the kind of control that’s possible in a simple half-hour experiment with one or two participants in a lab, and I do think the SPE is interesting; I just would be reluctant to assume it proved anything very specific or definite.

The other thing that struck me was that the situation was much more loaded to start with than I had appreciated. I’d only heard the vaguest account of the experiment before I read the book and I guess I assumed that it was set up in a very generic way, and that the guards and prisoners developed their behaviour quite spontaneously just on the basis of the jobs they had been given. That’s not entirely true. Zimbardo actually set up the experiment because he wanted to study the psychological effects of imprisonment. The idea was to put normal people in a prison environment and see how the situation affected them, so he was keen to create a suitably tough regime. He told the guards that was what he wanted. The guards had mirrored sunglasses and billy clubs (which they weren’t allowed to use on the prisoners), the prisoners were wearing shapeless smocks and had to respond to their numbers all the time instead of their names.

Again, I can see the reason for all that—to create a convincing prison—but since the interest in the experiment is now normally taken to be the behaviour of the guards, not the prisoners, it’s worth pointing out that they were primed to behave badly. It wasn’t quite as spontaneous as I’d thought.

Just how badly they treated the prisoners is still remarkable, even so. Endless verbal abuse and humiliation, roll-calls all the time, even in the middle of the night, done over and over again forwards and backwards, pointless, repetitive tasks, solitary confinement in a cupboard for hours at a time. A striking sign of how bad it got was that one of the prisoners went on hunger strike: this is someone who was in a psychology experiment and could have left at any time, but got so fixed into the prisoner mindset that they started starving themselves in protest at conditions. Zimbardo himself, playing the role of the warden, got so involved in the dynamic that he started worrying about managing the prisoners as though it was a real prison.

Of course, if the message is simply that good people will, in the right circumstances, do evil—well, we shouldn’t need a psychology experiment to teach us that. The classic rhetorical focus for that argument is the Holocaust; given the sheer number of people involved, they can’t all have been born evil. Even the Holocaust, if it was an unparalleled event, might be a one-off; some kind of freak combination of circumstances. But there are thousands of possible examples. Many of those working on the Atlantic slave ships were no doubt models of honesty, generosity and trustworthiness with their families and friends. And there’s Rwanda, Nanking, My Lai, lynchings, the Cultural Revolution, all those East Germans who informed on each other to the Stasi, as well as countless examples of brutality by soldiers, police and prison officers.

In fact, it takes very little thought to see that it must be true that a large proportion of evil acts are committed by normal people. Perhaps the most striking thing is that we find it so difficult to make the imaginative leap: to believe that it could be you or me doing those things, that the ‘normal person’ could be any of us.

Still, one thing that makes the SPE notable is that the guards had so little motivation for their behaviour. I know I said they were primed to be aggressive, but they had no other motivation comparable to the examples above. They weren’t in a war zone, they didn’t stand to gain money or career advancement, and the prisoners weren’t part of some kind of stigmatised group—terrorist, criminals, Jews, Tutsis or whatever. Of course they didn’t actually massacre them either, and analogies between this kind of mistreatment and genocide need to be drawn with care. But it’s interesting even so that they got so caught up in the situation; especially since, unlike the prisoners, they were able to go home between shifts.

Anyway, that’s enough going round in circles about what lessons you can or can’t draw from the Stanford experiment. The other major theme of the book is the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Zimbardo specifically doesn’t say that situational pressure absolves people from responsibility for their actions, and in the case of the Abu Ghraib scandal, the guards clearly behaved appallingly. But he does question the version of events put out by the military and the White House after the event, that it was just the actions of a few ‘bad apples’. He raises the possibility that it was a ‘bad barrel’ and that we must also ask who made the barrel. His analogy, not mine.

That argument seems watertight. The US Army’s own internal reports specifically attach blame to people higher up the chain of command, and the very best interpretation would be that the prison was appallingly badly and negligently run. The staff had very little training and very little clear guidance about what was or wasn’t acceptable, the prison was totally overcrowded, the chain of command was unclear, no-one was coming to check up on them, and they were under enormous stress because they were living under appalling conditions, were overworked and the prison was under regular mortar attack. The relationship between the Military Police (who ran the prison) and Military Intelligence (who did interrogations) was not properly defined. Even if you don’t accept a more sinister explanation, it seems clear the the running of the prison was incompetent and chaotic.

The bigger questions are whether it was just down to badly trained, badly managed staff under extreme stress, or whether it was part of a broader culture in the US military; and eventually whether it can be traced to policy decisions.

Prisoner abuse certainly wasn’t unique to Abu Ghraib. Hundreds of cases of abuse have been investigated in Guantanamo, Iraq and Afghanistan, and I don’t think you have to be overly cynical to feel that they may only represent a small proportion of the real cases. And apparently as of November 2004, that included at least five cases of prisoners dying during interrogation. Perhaps they had pre-existing heart conditions and those deaths were just bad luck; but given that one prisoner died in Abu Ghraib while left hanging naked from the wall by his arms (an ‘interrogation technique’ the Spanish Inquisition had a special term for, apparently), one suspects they were in fact tortured to death.

One thing that becomes clear is that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were relatively mild compared to some. Talking about a base near Fallujah

One of Fishback’s seargeants testified, “Everyone in camp knew if you wanted to work out your frustration you show up at the PUC tent [prisoners were called PUCs, “persons under control”]. In a way, it was a sport. One day [another sergeant] shows up and tells a PUC to grab a pole. He told him to bend over and broke the guy’s leg with a mini-Louisville slugger, a metal bat. As long as no PUCs came up dead, it happened. We kept it to broken arms and legs.”

The final question is whether all this abuse is the ‘normal’ behaviour of stressed and badly trained soldiers in a war zone—which would still be a pretty damning comment on the training and discipline of the US Army, given how widespread it appears to be—or whether it can be traced to specific policy decisions. Here the water is murkier. You’re in the world of the CIA, Military Intelligence and special forces, all people who are professionally secretive anyway. And even within that atmosphere of rarified machismo and hard-nosed realpolitik, people know that torture is a hard sell with the electorate.

Zimbardo has no doubt that there is sufficient evidence to trace the blame all the way up the chain of command. Starting with the people running Abu Ghraib and going up through the ranks, he puts a sequence of people ‘on trial’, culminating with George Bush. It’s actually a rhetorical device I’m uncomfortable with. Identifying responsibility is a valid exercise, but with such a sensitive and important subject as the problem of evil, I would prefer a writer who at least maintains a pretence of analytical distance. Zimbardo is a little too fond of theatrical turns of phrase. For that matter, it’s not a book I would recommend for its prose style generally:

The seeds of evil that blossomed in that dark dungeon of Abu Ghraib were planted by the Bush administration in its triangular framing of national security threats , citizen fear and vulnerability, and interrogation/torture to win the war on terror.

Still, despite my misgivings about how he frames it, I basically agree with the conclusion. For me, it’s sufficient to pick up just two things. The first is the decision to ‘legally’ exempt themselves from the Geneva convention by claiming that prisoners are ‘enemy combatants’ rather than POWs. The other is the notorious memo that redefined ‘torture’.

It held that physical pain must be “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” In line with this memo, in order to prosecute anyone charged with torture crimes, it is necessary that it must have been the “specific intent” of the defendant to cause “severe physical or mental pain or suffering.” “Mental torture” was narrowly defined to include only acts that would result in “significant psychological harm of significant duration, e.g., lasting for months or years.”

Which allows plenty of scope for inventive interrogators to do things which most of us would recognise as torture. Indeed it implicitly grants them permission to do so.

Those two things are enough for me. I don’t need a direct chain of orders that can be traced from the Pentagon to Tier 1-A at Abu Ghraib; it seems clear that Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush believe that their employees should be able to torture people. Indeed, they probably pride themselves on taking the kind of tough decisions that wishy-washy liberals in the cloistered comfort of their book-lined studies would recoil from. Who knows; perhaps they only envisaged it happening in urgent interrogations of high-risk terrorist suspects, rather than every two-bit military prison in Iraq. Perhaps they just don’t give a damn.

I remember when they first started shipping people to Guantanamo I felt uneasy about it, but it was soon enough after 9-11 that it seemed like the situation might just be serious enough to justify skipping some of the formalities. If you had told me that people would be tortured there, and kept there for years, not just without a full-blown criminal trial but without a trial of any kind, I’m not sure I would have believed you. I don’t expect American governments to behave like that. America’s preferred image of itself as the freest, fairest country on earth and a beacon to oppressed people everywhere has always been a bit questionable; they’ve always been willing to prop up nasty regimes when it seems convenient, and even for American citizens I’m not sure the US is significantly freer and fairer than, say, Sweden. But there is some truth to it; I think it is important and a Good Thing that the richest, most powerful country on earth is a secular democracy with a free press, an independent judiciary and the rule of law.

Any moral authority derived from that has been cheerfully pissed away over the past few years. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, given some of the darker points in recent British history. Particularly, the fact that many of the ways of torturing people without just beating the crap out of them were developed and refined by the British security services in Northern Ireland, and for much the same reasons: a wish to break prisoners quickly and still be able to plausibly deny that what you’re doing is torturing them.

And it would be a pity if the main message anyone took away from this book was ‘Bush Cheney Rumsfeld: bad’. It wouldn’t matter how bad their intentions were if we could rely on the normal people at the bottom of the food chain to just say no: to refuse to abuse prisoners, to report abuse on the part of their comrades. But what I take away from this book is that evil is normal. It is to be expected that people will do appalling things if the circumstances are right. It is within all of us to be that person.

It’s a depressing conclusion and rather a depressing book, but I do recommend it; it is a thorough, interesting and thought-provoking. There’s also a website.

40 Days and 40 Nights by Matthew Chapman

Full title: 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, OxyContin®, and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania. In other words, it’s about the trial in Dover, Pennsylvania where the school board tried to put Intelligent Design into the biology classes and were found to be in breach of the constitutional separation of church and state.

evolution mural from Dover High School

I’m not quite sure why I felt the need to read a second book about this; the blurbs promised a more entertaining read, and it’s certainly livelier and bitchier than Monkey Girl, but didn’t tell me anything new. And despite what Hollywood would have you believe, trials are not inherently charged with drama. Especially this trial, which, with eleven plaintiffs and a bucketload of lawyers and expert witnesses, lacked a personal dramatic focus.

Chapman largely concentrates on personality and anecdote and glides past a lot of the technical evidence; understandably, I guess, but I would have liked more to get my teeth into.

» The photo above, which I found rather unexpectedly on Flickr, is of a mural painted by a student at Dover High School which helped kick off the whole controversy when one of the school board took offence at it and took it on himself to take it away one weekend and burn it. It’s used under a by-nc-sa CC licence.

Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran has the subtitle ‘Inside Baghdad’s Green Zone’; the Green Zone being the seven square mile compound in Baghdad centered around the Republican Palace, where the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) under L. Paul Bremer III attempted to rule Iraq for about 12 months after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Chandrasekaran paints a picture of a little American bubble where the water and electricity are always working and the air conditioning is on high, the buffet is piled with pork, there are bars and bible study classes, no-one speaks Arabic, and the huge blast-proof walls keep out the noise of gunshots and the call to prayer. Even the food, down to the water the hot-dogs were boiled in, was all shipped in from approved suppliers outside Iraq.

Swimming pool at the Republican Palace, 2003

Swimming pool at the Republican Palace, 2003. Image taken from Wikipedia, and used via a GFDL licence.

Here’s a story which captures some of that disconnection between the people inside the compound and the world around them. It takes place at a farewell party about six weeks before the handover of sovereignty:

It had been a quiet night. No mortar thunderclaps. No messages from the Giant Voice warning people to take cover.

Then came the gunshots. A pop-pop-pop in the distance. Alex Dehgan, a State Department employee at the pool party, dismissed it as a firefight between soldiers and insurgents. So did his colleagues.

But the popping grew louder, more intense. It seemed to be coming from every direction. Orange tracer rounds arced into the night sky. Bursts of AK-47 fire echoed across the Tigris.

Dehgan began to panic. This is it, he thought. The full-on assault. They’re going to crawl over the walls.

He and everyone else by the pool scurried indoors. Some ran into the basement shelter. Others retreated to their offices but stayed away from the windows. They began to wonder if they’d have to leave by helicopter, like the last staffers at the American embassy in Saigon.

Hours later they heard the news: Iraq had defeated Saudi Arabia 3 to 1 in a soccer match, earning a berth at that summer’s Olympics in Athens.

Baghdad was celebrating.

As I hope that story shows, the book is a great read and full of good anecdotes. It would be funny if it wasn’t so incredibly depressing.

Ham station, originally uploaded by Kjirstin. Used under a CC by-nc-sa licence. This picture was taken in the Green Zone, but it’s from after the CPA period; the Green Zone is now the US embassy compound.

If these people had some other, less important job, this might not matter very much. But they were supposed to be running the country. Here’s another quote that seems typical:

Agresto [senior adviser to the Ministry of Higher Education] knew next to nothing about Iraq’s educational system. Even after he was selected, the former professor didn’t read a single book about Iraq. “I wanted to come here with as open a mind as I could have,” he said, “I’d much rather learn firsthand than have it filtered to me by an author.”

In fact Agresto turns out to be, relatively speaking, one of the good guys. When he got to Iraq and encountered the reality of the situation there, he was adaptable enough to set aside his grandiose plans for Iraq’s university system and focus on the pragmatic business of trying to help the universities recover from the damage done by sanctions, war and looting. He didn’t actually manage to achieve much, because he didn’t have the staff or money to do it, but at least he responded to the situation by changing his plans. Most of his colleagues seem to have ploughed on regardless. Still, that mindset, that a career in American academia and an open mind were all the preparation he would need, seems typical of the overconfidence and naivety of the CPA.

Also typical was the choice of a Republican loyalist rather than someone with specific experience of the Middle East or reconstruction in a war zone. Not, I think, out of simple corruption or nepotism, but because it was an operation being run by ideologues from the White House downwards; people who seem to have believed that democracy, privatisation and a free market were some kind of magic wand, and if they could just pass the right laws, the recovery of Iraq would take care of itself. The problem wasn’t so much the fact that they were trying to impose their own political beliefs on the Iraqis, but that they were focusing on theory while Iraq was lawless, unstable, and suffering 40% unemployment and shortages of electricity and fuel.

And that’s just the start of it. There were failures of communication—or overt hostility—between the Pentagon and the State Department, between the CPA and the Iraqis, and between the CPA and the army. They were more worried about how news would play in the US than in Iraq. They didn’t trust the Iraqis to do things for themselves. They didn’t have nearly enough money or enough staff. They allowed the timetable to be driven by the American elections. Over and over again, it all seems to come back to the looting which was left to go unchecked in the week or so after the fall of Saddam, both because it established a pattern of lawlessness and because it crippled half the institutions in Iraq. Hospitals, universities, ministries, schools and businesses lost the equipment they needed to function.

My impression is that the White House and the Pentagon simply didn’t take what they were doing seriously enough. I don’t care how confident they were that, with Saddam out of the way, the Iraqis would gratefully embrace freedom and democracy: they still needed to make plans. Even with the best possible outcome, they would still have been running a whole country, and they seem to have thought they could just wing it.

Anyway. From a British point of view, I would have liked some kind of indication of how my own government fit into the whole situation, but this is a very good book: vivid, thorough, funny, and deeply sad.