Wednesday, July 20, 2005

I Will Bear Witness (Grrr)

So Connor and I had a discussion going on in comments a while ago, and I found it so interesting that I want to give it its own post. As he's said, and I agree, this won't constitute a comprehensive exploration, but it's worthwhile nonetheless. I'm wondering about the act of witnessing, and to what degree it is active. In court, in theater, in day-to-day life, in anything. (And Connor, I guess I'm using witnessing your way here. You're right, I think it's better..)

Around the Terri Schiavo time, I went with my students to see the Neo-Futurists, and one play consisted of Jay asking audience members to witness his living will declaration. I was one of them. To sign a paper saying you saw something is legally binding and of legal substance; a hermit can't have a living will. Seeing something happen can lead to actual psychological disorders; I know because I've had one, along with a substantive percentage of New York City's population. And thinking about words . . . if you witness something, you generally also "bear witness to" something. To bear, to carry. This implies that the very act of witnessing includes something to bear, that witnessing is weighty. If I will bear witness to your living will, then it's not even what I have witnessed that is weighty, it is the witnessing itself that I am carrying. Which is fascinating. It has implications, consequences, an impact, and if it's something *I* bear, it matters more to me than to others. It might make me look different, but it's on my back.

Can witnessing be active, then, or are you simply weighted down by it? As long as you move, as long as you take your witnessing somewhere, it's active. It is possible to bear witness by just sitting there, in which case it isn't borne per se--being borne implies movement. So yes, by this logic, witnessing almost *has* to be active. To call it witnessing rather than seeing something is to take it on.

How and why did this become a social value? It is, of course, true that we present a front of valuing honesty more than we actually do, perhaps more than we actually can (in Jon Stewart's America (The Book), a caption below a photograph of the Bible reads, "Placing your hand upon this book makes you physically unable to lie"), and our use of witnesses to corroborate stories, to prove or to disprove the honesty of another person, is an extension of that. In some ways, we become a society that shoots down passivity, but in other, more obvious ways, we clearly encourage it. Which leads into the theatrical conflicts connected to passivity and is rather interesting.

Boal wants audiences to depart ready for action, to feel that their involvement in an artificial, theatrical situation has been their rehearsal for a real one. Most conventional theater today wants audiences pinned to their seats; some interactive theater wants audiences to be taken by surprise at their involvement. Taking as a given that the theater involved is good theater (I certainly don't believe that good theater comes in only one form), can each of these acts be described as witnessing? Good theater changes people, no matter what their literal involvement with it was. You don't have to participate directly in Theatre of the Oppressed (for follow-up, see Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed and Michael Rohd's Theatre for Community, Conflict and Dialogue, both of which are totally worth your time) to have it be of personal and social significance to you; each audience member's experience at the Neo-Futurarium is unique, but in an only slightly different way that's the case for all shows. Witnessing--seeing something and being powerfully engaged by it, allowing it to take root in your memory and in the way you connect to your own life--is important. It's what we carry with us. It's what we take on.

There can be a passivity to seeing bad art--in fact, the difference between witnessing and watching may be the exact problem with the TV culture, though I'm sure there's an incredibly interesting debate to have regarding video games here, one that I am not qualified to initiate. But I think it's worth encouraging witnessing, however one wants to define its specifics. It creates many social connections that we don't spend nearly enough time considering; it's what allows you to notice that you live in a community, or that you're present in one at the moment.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Emanations and Residue, or, Am I Actually a Liberal?

Yeah, so. About those penumbrae.

I mentioned in a post eons ago that the ostensible constitutional right to abortion comes from a decision wherein the "right to privacy" was found in "emanations of penumbras" in various constitutional amendments (the fourteenth especially, I think). I mis-cited it; it was Justice William O. Douglas, not Harry Blackmun, and he was writing for the majority in Griswold v. Connecticut, the decision that legalized birth control--that is to say, prevented its illegalization. It was this decision that laid the groundwork for Roe v. Wade, and any number of other decisions.

In 2000, when I was a senior in high school, I acted as a justice in a Model Supreme Court, an event my school organized and believed to be the first of its kind. (I've yet to see any evidence to the contrary.) My particular Model Supreme Court heard Griswold v. Connecticut, and upon hearing the arguments that the student attorneys presented, we (a panel of three justices) had no choice but to rule in favor of the state. My history teacher, a liberal, congratulated me for demonstrating how tenuous even the Supreme Court's enforcement of our constitutional rights really is. And I have to say, in the last year or so I've started wondering if maybe the constitutional right to privacy doesn't actually exist.

Which doesn't mean that I don't think the right to privacy exists, or that the decisions that have resulted from that concept are by any means unethical; quite the contrary. But I'm wondering if the Supreme Court should ever have heard those cases at all, Griswold or Roe or Planned Parenthood v. Casey or anything that's followed. I think there may be other constitutional arguments to be made for all of them--equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment extending to medical treatment, for example, taking into account the different bodily needs of men and women--but I'm wondering if the emanation of penumbras might have done a lot of long-term harm. The Burger and Warren courts, which made a lot of the decisions seen as most monumental today (Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade) are seen as "activist courts," which is generally taken to mean deviating from the Contstitution, interpreting it loosely to suit one's own political agenda. Now, let me put in here that I don't believe in strict constructionism (Scalia and Thomas are often seen as strict constructionists, adhering closely to the text of the Constitution)--that is to say, I don't believe it exists, not that I don't believe people should do it. It's not possible; it assumes that there's only one true, or strict, way to interpret the Constitution, and that's no truer of the Constitution than it is of any other piece of writing. To some degree, people read things as they want to read them; different, correct interpretations are almost always possible. But on the other hand, the fact that several interpretations can be right does not indicated that others can't be wrong. Some interpretations are simply outrageous, far enough from the text that you can reasonably believe the interpreter was operating simply from his (or her, but we've only had two "her"s on the Court so far) desire to push his own idea into the world, rather than combining his idea with its sources of inspiration in the text that's ostensibly being interpreted. So, while I don't believe strict constructionism exists, because I think it discounts the notion of interpretation (much like theatrical realism often fails to acknowledge, at least consciously, that putting on a play is automatically a level of unreality), I do believe judicial activism exists. I can understand why Clarence Thomas has a sign that reads "No Emanating of Penumbras, Please!" on his office wall; if I didn't so value what resulted from the emanating penumbrae (and if I were a Supreme Court Justice), I can totally see myself having such a sign.

I feel strongly, as anyone who reads this thing regulalaly has probably deduced, that both birth control and abortion need to be legal in this country. I do have ethical edginess about abortion, as I think most people do, and I can imagine a society in which I would not believe it needed to be legal, but this is not it. (Ironically, given the trajectory of these Supreme Court cases, one tenet of that imaginary society would be that there was no stigmatization whatsoever of birth control.) I think the pro-choice feminist movement often errs in trying to minimize the psychological effects of abortion, both on individual women and on society at large--I think that's often as uncompromising as the pro-life movement's claim that taking a life is socially detrimental and wrong, period, and that's the end of the discussion. But I don't feel that the conflict really comes down to a Constitutional issue; it strikes me as much more the territory of the legislature. Naturally, to place it there would carry its own risks. I have no interest in going back to the days of "Jane." But making it a question of the Supreme Court seems to me to allow an issue with a lot of legal nuances to rest on one bit of legal reasoning that's actually pretty far from the point.

But whether it "should" or not, it's quite possible that the issue will come before the Court upon the appointment of a new justice.

Sandra Day O'Connor's announcement of her retirement has been followed by the expected amount of sturm und drang, and it'll only get worse. I have to confess, I'm not that concerned about the actual nominee, because I think more often than not people with lifetime appointments will surprise you. Of the nine justices we have now, exactly five of them reliably vote on the same political line as the president who appointed them: Rehnquist (Nixon, though Reagan appointed him Chief Justice), Scalia (Reagan), Thomas (Bush the First), Ginsburg (Clinton), Breyer (Clinton). Stevens was appointed by Gerald Ford; the two major swing voters, O'Connor and Kennedy, were appointed by Reagan; Souter was appointed by Bush the First. You don't know. I have to say that at this point, I am at least as concerned about liberal watchdog groups having a kneejerk reaction to anyone Bush nominates as I am about who Bush might nominate. We have a tendency to think if conservative, then conservative justice, but as I hope I've shown above, that's not always true. There's a tremendous amount of unpredictability--even though the individual personalities of justices are becoming more important in the public eye, things are still very different when you don't have to think about being reelected--and a tremendous number of issues that the Court addresses, many more than a nominee can ever be questioned on. To call oneself a "strict constructionist" really doesn't answer many questions.

So regarding O'Connor, I honestly think that for the moment everybody needs to calm down. If Bush nominates Gonzalez and he actually manages to garner some support in the Senate, that, for example, might be a time to panic, given that the man has explicitly endorsed a number of coercive methodologies that explicitly violate the Constitution (see the Abu Ghraib memo). But there's a distinct possibility that we'll get through this relatively unscathed, and I'm willing to watch--to watch closely, but simply to watch--until I know what happens next.

Friday, July 08, 2005

After Losing Every Battle

It's going to take worse than this before I even hesitate to take public transportation. I grew up on the subways, literally enough that my hesitation at this point would be like ceasing to walk because gangrene and amputation are present in the world.

That said, my heart goes out to London residents past and present. Because of the geographically spread-out nature of the bombs, I doubt Londoners were even offered the very slight but very important comfort offered by the immediate downtown community in the wake of September 11 in NY. The death toll in London is much smaller than that, of course, but they were also spread out enough that it might have seemed to touch every piece of the city a bit more thoroughly than in New York.

But as Ian McEwan (who is amazing) wrote in the New York Times, Londoners were able at some level to take it in stride, as New Yorkers obviously could not. It has for some time been a question of when, as it is for almost every American and ally thereof these days.

So I want to know why we haven't yet realized that a war on terrorism cannot be won.

The point of terrorism (non-state-sponsored) is that you cannot know when to expect it. Okay, the IRA did it a little differently, announcing its bombings, but the ultimate goal was the same: to create an environment wherein you always felt at risk--never knowing when a bomb would be announced on a daily basis is about as bad as never knowing when a bomb will go off or a disaster will take place on an approximately annual basis. Terrorism is intended to shake complacence; al-Qaeda's style of terrorism in particular, either deliberately or due to limited funding and resources, is intended to allow complacence to return and then to reshake it. Our choices, as presented to us by al-Qaeda and its most direct combatants, are to turn a blind eye to the possibilities of horror so clearly omnipresent and to live our daily lives as normal, or to live in constant and ultimately paralyzing awareness of what is and indeed will be always possible.

Fighting a basically conventional war with conventional military terminology and philosophy, if not precisely conventional military tactics, as the Bush administration has done for the last four years, can have no effect on this methodology. al-Qaeda terrorists are infinitely angry and infinitely patient; a person who will sacrifice his life based on his belief in eternal reward has all the time in the world. At first, perhaps, they weren't able to take the kind of power they needed; nevertheless our short memories worked to their advantage. And once they had made an indelible impact once, they were able, and as long as they remain this furious will be able, to yank our chains, simultaneously holding us in thrall and allowing us to believe we're living normal lives. Basically, in order to live after September 11 in the United States, our only option was to accept terrorism as part of our daily lives. As long as terrorist attacks are a possibility (and neither the Bush administration nor any other will ever conclusively prove that they are not, because that's impossible), in some ways the terrorism *has* already won. It's accomplished what it set out to do. The task Bush has set for us in order for us to win is impossible. It's possible, I suppose, that there could be no major terrorist incidents for, say, seven years and then when there was another attack, it could be called a new war rather than simply another battle, but it's pretty much semantics. Short of eradicating the world, we can't win.

(For more references on the unwinnable, please go
  • here
  • and read "U CAN'T WIN" by Octavio R.)

    Our only hope is to make people stop being angry at us. Which sounds inordinately simplistic and will have absolutely no short-term effect, but it's the only thing we can do that has any hope of changing anything ever. The basic tenet is the same as when individuals fight with individuals: we can't control what they're like. We have to accept what they are like, and control what we are like accordingly. People commiting terrorist acts are angry; their anger is justified and the actions they commit out of this anger are not. For purposes of conflict resolution that doesn't matter; our anger, too, is justified, but the actions and philosophies we espouse out of our anger will get us nowhere. We can show that we will defend ourselves, and we can mean it, but we also have to know and accept that no matter how ostensibly thorough our intelligence, terrorist acts, simply by their very nature, will slip through. We must therefore do everything we can to stop people from *wanting* to commit terrorist acts. Which, as I said, will not see results for quite a while. But once we acknowledge the realities of what terrorism is and does, it will lead us to know that exacerbating the anger of terrorists can be of no benefit to us.

    It'll happen again here, fairly soon. Not here where I am, but here in this country; New York or D.C. again, possibly Los Angeles. It'll happen in Germany and Italy, as al-Qaeda has publically warned, and though Germany and Italy will be better prepared to handle it when it comes than was New York four years ago (and yes, I am willing to say that Rudy Giuliani, whatever my deeply ambivalent feelings about him as a mayor and a politician in general, handled that catastrophe *extraordinarily* well, in addition to simply being superior to Bush about it in every way), they will not be able to prevent it from happening. We can't. If we foil one and congratulate ourselves on it, we'll congratulate ourselves for long enough that there will be another. If we attempt to continue watching at all times, our rallying cry becomes that of Harry Potter's Mad-Eye Moody--"CONSTANT VIGILANCE!" And that man was miserable for most of his life, and indeed was viciously attacked despite said vigilance and military skills. Vigilance, yes, but a constant state of anything threatens us. I'll quote Susan Sontag, writing immediately after September 11, 2001. She was derided then and would be now for the same reasons, but she spoke more solidly on this subject than anyone else I encountered (with the notable exception of poet Adam Zagajewski, but he wasn't writing about that particular event). "Who doubts that America is strong?" Sontag asked. "But that's not all America has to be."