Literature 12-19-2006

A Moron and an Oxymoron: George W. Bush and “Human Dignity”

Language lives between art and the world, and can be bent and corrupted; the writer Lawrence Sutin outlines one example. See and read more work by engaged artists in the upcoming "10,000 arts," distributed with the February issue of "The Rake."

abu Ghraib

People complain a lot about the president, but they forget how much easier he makes things for writers composing essays of outrage against his policies. Because Bush the Second has made it clear that he doesn’t like to read—his wife Laura has often told the joke that the two of them met and fell in love against all odds, as she was working in a library at the time—a writer doesn’t have to strain for a tone of public address to our president–a “You, Sir, must reconsider the meaning and legacy of life and of death….” sort of plea. There’s no one there to be addressed, no one who could conceivably reconsider.

This frees me up to talk with the rest of us about a problem I’ve been having with a press talk Bush gave back in September 2006 about Common Article III of the Geneva Conventions, which he called “vague.” The Geneva Conventions have been ratified by 194 nations around the world, including the United States. We fought World War Two within the confines of the Geneva Conventions. Common Article III pertains to treatment of prisoners of war. In June 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Geneva Conventions applied to our treatment of prisoners taken in the War on Terror in Iraq and Everywhere Else, including those prisoners who are being interrogated in the American mini-gulag (sorry for the insensitive diminutive, but I’ve got to give Stalin the credit he’s due) of secret prisons in Europe. This worried Bush, who is a good boss to those who are loyal to him. He didn’t want his operatives to face potential criminal liability for violating “vague” language like that in Common Article III prohibiting “outrages upon human dignity.”

Bush’s utterance of the word “vague” has stayed in my head to the point that not a day has gone by since then that I have not replayed it to myself by way of a test to see how much buffeting my sanity can bear. Because it seems to me that if “outrages upon human dignity” is too vague a conception to be applied by him—and this after the nations of the world have legally and practically applied it (I say applied it, I don’t say it was always followed by any nation) for decades—then he is also saying that the civil liberties and spiritual values of humankind are too “vague” to be respected by or entrusted to governments, too “vague” to be comprehended by and lived by and died by all of us little human beings. Not even Bush, who talks to Jesus, can lift the veil and give us the answers. Nonetheless, in the glorious compromise legislation passed that same September—shepherded by Republican senators McCain and Warner–the power to interpret the language of the Geneva Conventions as applied to prisoner interrogations is left entirely to the discretion of the man who has already said that he can’t understand it.

I know I am not alone when I say I have a problem with something or other Bush said. No claim of special sensitivity here. A remarkable number of people have said to me over the years, just by way of shooting the breeze in hell, that they have a difficult time watching and listening to the president, and that the difficulty does not stem solely from his political views, but also from his delivery of them. It’s hard for him to talk consistently in sentences. It’s hard for him to make sense beyond repetition of refrains. It’s hard for him not to smirk when explaining himself, like he knows he really shouldn’t have to, it’s all so clear. It’s hard for him to keep his dark little eyes from rolling around like they want to escape from his head.

This experience–of a poverty of communication from Bush and his administration–is shared by conservatives and liberals alike. Some of his most eloquent critics have been Republican conservatives who feel that Bush has betrayed their fundamental ideals. The Democratic Party, as an elected opposition party prior to November 2006, showed disgraceful cowardice. Now that they are the majority, Democrats can and should, as a sign that they are a party fit to guide our nation, change not only the politics of the Bush administration but also its style of speaking. Our nation is not only addicted to oil but also to attack-mode public discussions that phase out intelligent ranges of thought and action. Democrats can improve the political sanity of the nation by seeking out common ground with Republicans.

Conservatives believe that government should be limited to essential functions. Liberals believe that those essential functions must be open to debate and reassessment. There is room for cooperation here—essential functions to be found that could (I say could) include, with respectful assessment and $300 billion not spent on a war that makes the least sense of any in American history, better education and better healthcare and the saving of lives in Darfur and AIDS-ridden Africa, even as we protected ourselves by intelligence and limited force against terrorists who must feel delighted that they have inspired so much terror in us that we feel compelled to sell out our schools and cut our benefits for military veterans while passing on whopping tax cuts to the rich and funding the war with foreign loans that our kids will be paying back in the form of further reduced public infrastructure.

The politics of the Bush administration are not “conservative”; they are imperial and lavish and unintelligent and indifferent to the individual rights that both conservatives and liberals cherish, albeit with different emphases—the left being in love with the First Amendment and the right with the Second. So when I am expressing my outrage with Bush’s stance on torture, I am not expressing it as a liberal or a conservative but as a human being with an interest in the ongoing life of language that gives life to humans.

When our president tells us that the phrase “outrage to human dignity” is too “vague” to understand, he is telling us that the “cruel and unusual punishment” forbidden by the Eighth Amendment is potentially too “vague” to understand as well. Our government currently practices “waterboarding” in the mini-gulag, as Dick Cheney freely admits–I think because, of all the torture methods in our arsenal, waterboarding has a summer-fun sound that sells it. The reality behind it is the infliction of repeated brink-of-death drowning experiences to a person bound to a rack or board. Can the Supreme Court be expected to find waterboarding “cruel” or “unusual” in future cases involving other—perhaps domestic–contexts? Why shouldn’t an individual state employ upon its criminals what the federal government employs upon its putative terrorist suspects? You can make your own tour of the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence to find numerous other instances of language too vague to be understood.

But why stop at political documents? Let’s go on to the Bible, which is, after all, the only book that Bush admits to consulting on a regular basis. Bush’s vagueness concerns do seem to be borne out by the words of Jesus (Matthew 5:7-9): “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called God’s sons.” But then again, what is “mercy,” what is “pure,” and aren’t “peacemakers” soft on terrorism? Why read the Bible? It can’t guide us any more clearly than can the Geneva Conventions.

Bush has not said whether he will ask Jesus for help with Common Article III. It is possible, given the violence done to the teachings of Jesus over two millennia, that Bush’s Jesus might give Bush the go-ahead he wants. There are papal bulls aplenty that justified the tortures of the Inquisition. When, in 1484, Pope Innocent VIII put the imprimatur on the spirited interrogation of witches, he explained, in the manner of a Gospel parable, that “when all errors are uprooted by Our diligent avocation as by the hoe of a provident husbandman, a zeal for, and the regular observance of, Our Holy Faith will be all the more strongly impressed upon the hearts of the faithful.”

Be it a hoe or a waterboard, we’re living in a political time in which those who are opposed to torture are accused of breaching the Holy Faith of patriotism. Our language, our values, have been torn away from their meanings and become the babbling talking points of brazen fools. All of us need to pay attention, to think and speak and write as if words matter and human dignity exists.