Monday, January 16, 2012

It's not about Ron Paul. It's about you.

A hole dug to excavate a mass grave in Amalpura, via Fourth World Post
When I was a child, we would travel to Indonesia, where my father conducted his research. It was the time of Suharto. His research mostly took place in Bali, where, due to the high concentration of tourists, the regime was careful to limit its presence, but still the signs were there. Every once in a while, a black army truck, filled with soldiers; your odd military checkpoint; and, always, Indonesian friends and peers of my father who were critical of the regime, and afraid. It was difficult for Western academics. No one wanted to be a collaborator, and among the many I met, none had anything but disgust for the Suharto regime. But to complain publicly risked being barred from the country, which did no good for anyone. I believe the tension haunted him.

When I was thirteen I took a trip with him there, just the two of us. One night, he woke me gently and led me outside, where one of his Balinese friends waited for him. We were in the village, inland, where few tourists ventured, at least at that time. We got in a bemo and drove for awhile, and when we got out, my father led me by hand in the moonlight to a mass grave.

We met an old man there. If you know the right people and know how to ask, you can still find them, I'm sure, older Indonesians who will tell you the stories. He walked us over to the roadside-- I have no idea where we were, geographically-- and showed us a shaded ditch. It was dark, and anyway, there was nothing to see. Just dirt, just earth. You would never have known that bodies were piled underneath, just a few feet down. The older man started speaking and my father spoke to him. (He spoke such wonderful Indonesian, and serviceable Balinese, I envy it even now.) He translated for me, briefly. I bent over and put my hand on the dirt. I tried to imagine my own family, what was left of it then, crammed down underground, with dozens of others. I tried to do whatever I could to make it real. The dirt made it corporeal. It was something I could touch, lay my hand on. I have never been the same, never.

Then we drove home and I went back to sleep.

I don't know if that grave was one of the few to be opened and explored. Even now the Indonesian government broadly obstructs attempts to investigate the events of the Year. The "conservative estimate"-- that is, the one that won't get you laughed at by Very Reasonable People-- is that 500,000 Indonesians were slaughtered, all under the considerable support of the United States. Some Indonesians I know find that estimate a laughable, inflammatory underestimation, but okay. Render unto Caesar. Half a million people, stuff underground or thrown into the sea. Lined up and shot in the back of the head, or hacked to death with machetes, after having been forced to dig their own graves and those of their families. You've heard it before. You've likely even heard that we supported it in every way conceivable, providing intelligence, arms, and funding to the new junta, including a literal hit list. If I know the average political mind today, many could read about these events with only eye rolls. They don't deny the factual accuracy of the claims. They don't even deny their horror. They just react as if talking about them is something gauche, uncool, boring. Few could deny their truth, at this point; the declassified CIA documentation is, as always, terribly frank. You'd be amazed at how many offer justifications to me. These people were commies, after all.

If you think that 1965 is ancient history, and that you are thus free from the burden of responsibility, I would remind you that the Clinton administration backed the Indonesian government in its atrocities against East Timor, where perhaps a third of the population was murdered; that Dennis Blair, former Obama intelligence official, had direct authority in our support of those war crimes; and that today, the Indonesian military is doing this to the people of West New Guinea:

I hardly need to tell you that our support of Indonesia and its military is ongoing. We are up to our elbows in the current regime, just like we were with the Suharto regime. (A Clinton apparatchik called him "our kind of guy.") And in a democracy that makes it our responsibility. A foreign army that takes our money and our training and applies them to the harassment, oppression, and murder of its own people-- that's our responsibility. Yours and mine.

I know very well how this will go over. I know that this kind of talk is anathema to a new American liberalism that values only jokey cynicism and has contempt for the plain expression of values. Perhaps there's much to mock in my story; "he touched the earth!" I was thirteen, after all. But I was permanently changed, and I'm glad that I was, and I'm not ashamed to say so, however that might be taken by others.

Were I to allow comments on this post, I would immediately be greeted by the usual contention that I am being sanctimonious or self-righteous, or that I'm merely posturing, or that I'm trying to be leftier than thou.... In other words, the subject would change immediately from our country's actions and their human consequences to me and my failings. The message would get lost in a consideration of the messenger. When confronting establishment progressives with the reality of our conduct and how much it has cost some of the poorest and most defenseless people on earth, the conversation never stays about our victims; it inevitably changes to those attempting to talk about them, a knee-jerk defense that progressives have made an art form. That's why Ron Paul is so perfect, for establishment liberals. He is an open invitation to change the subject. The United States keeps killing innocent people, keeps propping up horrific regimes, keeps violating international law, keeps trampling on the lives of those who lack the power to defend themselves-- but Ron Paul is a racist, and believes in the gold standard, and opposes abortion, and in general supports some of the most odious domestic policies imaginable. What I insist, and what people like Glenn Greenwald keep insisting, is that Ron Paul's endless failings shouldn't and can't exist as an excuse to look away from the dead bodies that we keep on piling up. What I have wanted is to grab a hold of mainstream progressivism and force it to look the dead in the face. But the effort to avoid exactly that is mighty, and what we have on our hands is an epidemic of not seeing.

I could never vote for Ron Paul, for a thousand reasons. I have been arguing against many of his policies and the worldview that generated them for the entirety of my adult life. But I have to value his voice in the national debate because almost no other national political figures will raise these issues at all. I would love if these issues were being expressed by politicians and pundits who combined them with righteous views on domestic policy. But here, too, mainstream progressivism deserves a great deal of blame. Left wing politicians like Bernie Sanders and Dennis Kucinich have embraced discussion of foreign policy and civil liberties, and for their trouble they have been dismissed as unserious by the self-same progressives who now dismiss Ron Paul's ideas. For far too long, mainstream progressives have signaled their "seriousness" precisely by denying the validity of people like Kucinich or Sanders, so taken with some bizarre definition of the reasonable that they effectively silence the leftist non-interventionists they say they want. If you want left wing criticism of our militarism and surveillance state, stop ridiculing those who express it.

The notion that there is something less disqualifying about support for murder and oppression than support for regressive and racist policies cannot stand scrutiny. The right to not be killed precedes all other rights. It is the foundation on which all other rights rest. What value can any rights have if they are not protected by a right to not be killed? Freedom of expression is no solace to a corpse. Likewise, what value do other rights have if those rights are not protected by rights of the accused? There is no value in freedom of assembly or religion if you can be thrown into a cage without a trial where you can invoke those rights. The right to protest has no meaning if the executive can respond to that protest by killing you without accountability, legal challenge, or review. Civil liberties are not merely right on principle. They are the necessary bedrock on which all conduct in a free society must rest.

What political philosophy supports this dismissal? Liberalism? Liberalism insists that all people, including poor Muslim people in antagonist nations, have equivalent rights. Egalitarianism? I can't imagine a greater failure of egalitarianism than the endless attempts to minimize and justify our crimes against those who have the bad fortune of not being American, or white, or affluent, or influential. I've seen them dismiss and deflect and deny and ignore conduct against poor children in Yemen they would never countenance in Baltimore. I've seen them put "dead Muslim child" in scare quotes, as if we haven't killed them, as if talk about them is some sort of con or game.

The whole argument has revealed American progressives at their absolute worst: incurious about the bad consequences of their positions; totally convinced that righteousness in intent can only lead to righteousness in effect; preemptively contemptuous of criticism from the left; dismissive of arguments that they themselves made under the last administration; and ultimately just as partisan as the conservatives they railed against three short years ago.

I want those who profess belief in liberalism and egalitarianism to recognize that they are failing those principles every time they ignore our conduct overseas, or ridicule those who criticize it. What I will settle for is an answer to the question: what would they have us do? If you can't find it in you to accept our premises, at least consider what you would do if you did. For those of us who oppose our country's destructive behavior, there is no place to turn that does not result in ridicule. Every conceivable political option has not only been denied by establishment progressives, but entirely dismissed. The idea that one should criticize the President from the left is not just wrong but self-evidently ridiculous. The notion of primarying President Obama is not just wrong but self-evidently ridiculous. The idea of supporting a candidate from a different party is not just wrong but self-evidently ridiculous. Every conceivable path forward, for those of us who demand change in our conduct overseas, is preemptively denied. I want my country to stop killing innocent people. What am I supposed to do?

Update: Robert Farley has some powerful objections. I suppose I am using Paul as a proxy for my anger and disappointment that no credible alternatives exist. I appreciate Dr. Farley taking the post seriously.

Update II: I want to stress again, as this has been a source of consistent confusion in this debate, that I don't and couldn't support Ron Paul's bid for the presidency, on any number of disqualifying issues.