Cross-posted at Freedom of the Press Foundation: Well, I guess this is a thing now…people running for president
musing about whether they might reintroduce the torture techniques Obama purported to “prohibit” when he took office. The latest is Jeb
Bush; three years ago, it was candidate Romney.
The fact that torture is framed by these candidates as a policy
choice, and the possibility that one of them might in fact reintroduce it, is one
of Obama’s chief legacies. He chose not to prosecute torture as a crime, instead
banning it (or some
of it, anyway) via executive order. As I’ve said
has no more power to prohibit torture than Bush had to permit it. Torture
is illegal in America. The law, not the president, is what prohibits torture.
What would you make of it if the president said, “That is why I prohibited murder.
That is why I prohibited rape. That is why I prohibited embezzlement, and mail fraud,
and tax evasion…” In
America, the president doesn’t make the law, nor does he rescind it. The president
executes the law—which is why Article 2 of the Constitution is called “The Executive
Branch.” Presidents who make and rescind laws at will are more commonly known as
is too short to continually respond to self-serving publishing establishment bloviation,
so I was going to ignore this American Booksellers Association “interview” of Mary Rasenberger, the Executive
Director of the Authors Guild. It’s such a regurgitation of long-since debunked
legacy publisher talking points that the most useful thing you could do with it
is play Bullshit Bingo: Amazon a
Monopoly…Devaluing Books…Free Flow of Ideas…Engine of Democracy…Bingo!
Besides, Nate Hoffelder and Joe Konrath have already performed
the thankless task of acting as this week’s bucket brigade and responding to
this latest cycle of the same old publishing establishment bullshit.
then I realized: the piece is such a purified expression of publishing
propaganda that even apart from the tired, repeatedly debunked substance (a
charitable word, under the circumstances), there were a few propaganda aspects
though the answers Rasenberger provides are entirely predictable (and indeed, have been debunkedso many times they’re not worth addressing with
anything more than a link or two), the questions themselves are
revealing. Here’s a sample:
Amazon’s abuse of its dominance in the book industry directly affected authors?
Amazon’s punitive actions against publishers, such as Hachette during their
2014 contract dispute, impacted authors?
some news reports, self-published authors who once thought of Amazon as their
ally are now feeling victimized. Why is that?
continues to sell huge numbers of titles below cost and uses them as loss
leaders to entice sales on other segments of its website, what will be the
long-term effect on a thriving and robust literary marketplace?
“When did you stop beating your wife,” Batman!
If you were a legacy publisher…if you were an Amazon
competitor…if you were any one of the unprecedentedly joint actors…indeed, if
you were a clone of Mary
Rasenberger, Executive Director of the Authors Guild, interviewing
yourself!—would you phrase even one
of these embarrassingly loaded questions differently?
you had an exceptionally low shame threshold, you wouldn’t. The questions would
all be the same.
brings us to the second revealing aspect of this
propaganda-masquerading-as-an-interview drill. You see, in the standard
“blow-job masquerading as interview” gambit, it’s generally enough to hope the
reader will just assume the interviewer and interviewee are working at arms-length.
Making the point explicitly isn’t really the done thing. Here, however, perhaps
not trusting readers to be sufficiently gulled, the ABA and AG are at pains to
describe the “unprecedented joint action” of the AG, Authors United, the ABA,
and the Association of Authors’
Representatives in going after Amazon for monopolizing
the marketplace of ideas, devaluing
books, and generally crushing
dissent, democracy, and all that is good. The
impression they’re trying to create is, “Wow, if so many separate
organizations hate Amazon, Amazon must be doing something bad.”
what’s critical to understand is that the most fundamental purpose of the Authors Guild, Authors United,
the American Booksellers Association,
and the Association of Authors’ Representatives is to preserve
the publishing industry in its current incarnation. Whatever marginal
differences they might have (I’ve never actually seen any, but am happy to
acknowledge the theoretical possibility) are eclipsed by this commonality of
purpose. Under the circumstances, the fact that these four legacy publisher
lobbyists agree on something is entirely unremarkable (indeed, what would be
remarkable would be some evidence of division). But if people recognize
the exercise as a version of “No really, I read it somewhere…okay, I wrote it
down first,” the propaganda fizzles. And that’s why these propagandists have to
nudge readers with the bullshit about the “unprecedented joint action.”
Otherwise, when Authors Guild Executive Director Mary Rasenberger cites Authors
United pitchman Doug Preston as though Preston were a separate, credible
source, people might roll their eyes instead of nodding at the seriousness of
it all. They might even giggle at the realization that all those “When did Amazon
stop beating its wife?” questions were functionally being put by Rasenberger to
no, this wasn’t remotely a cross-examination, or even a cross pollination
(indeed, publisher lobbyists are expert at fleeing anything that offers even the slightest
whiff of actual debate—which does make their alleged devotion to the Free Flow
of Ideas and Information as the Engine of Democracy worthy of a smile, at
least, if nothing else). It was just a stump speech lovingly hosted by someone
else’s blog. The sole reason for the exercise was to create the misleading
appearance of multiple, arms-length actors when functionally there is only one.
In fairness to the aforementioned Unprecedentedly Joint Actors, there
is a rich heritage behind this form of propaganda. For example, in the run-up to
America’s second Iraq war, Dick Cheney would have someone from his office phone
up a couple of pet New York Times
reporters, who would then dutifully report that anonymous administration officials
believed Saddam Hussein had acquired aluminum tubes as part of his nuclear
weapons efforts…and then Cheney would go on all the Sunday morning talk shows
and get to say, “Don’t take my word for the aluminum tube stuff—even the New York Times is reporting it!”
So leave aside the fact that the “joint action” in
question is anything but
unprecedented—that it is in fact publishing
establishment SOP. Anyone familiar with the record of these
organizations will instantly realize that the “unprecedented joint action” in
question is a lot like the “joint action” of all four fingers—plus the
thumb!—of someone throwing back a shot of tequila. Like that of a little
boy pleasuring himself—with both hands!—and trying to convince anyone
who will listen that the Unprecedented Left and Right Action is proof that
“Everybody loves me!”
The third aspect of this publisher lobbyist
propaganda worth mentioning is the standard “we’re just disinterested,
non-partisan, democracy-loving onlookers” dodge. Authors United, one of the
partner organizations cited by both the ABA and the AG in the piece (they all
work so hand-in-glove and cite
each other so promiscuously they can be hard to distinguish) is particularly
shameless in this regard, repeatedly proclaiming “We’re not
taking sides” even while buying $100,000 anti-Amazon ads, sending
complaints to the Amazon board of directors, and lobbying the Justice
Department to break up Amazon. I’d ask Author United’s Doug Preston what more
he would do against Amazon if he were taking sides, but these
organizations neverengage their
critics (a tactic that could fairly be cited as its own
form of propaganda).
Here, the ABA AG is careful to issue the standard
“We’re not anti-Amazon!” disclaimer—a disclaimer that serves as its own punch
line given the surreally tendentious questions that follow it, and given that
the very title of the piece is “Why Amazon Deserves Antitrust Scrutiny.” It’s
like the old French joke about Germany—“We love Germany so much we think there
should be two of them.” The jointly-acting, non-side-taking, non-anti-Amazon
ABA, AG, AU, and AAR actually love Amazon—so much they want the company broken
into multiple bite-sized chunks!
know what, though? I doubt even the Unprecedented Joint Actors believe their
own storyline. Because a resort to this type of crass propaganda isn’t a sign
of confidence or strength. It’s a recognition that people aren’t buying your
bullshit. That doesn’t mean the Unprecedented Joint Actors won’t prevail—after
all, Cheney did, so we know that sometimes the propagandists win. But this is
why it’s so important that their tactics, as well as their aims, be constantly
Guest-blogging today with Techdirt on how all these “Author This, Author That” organizations are fundamentally publisher lobbyists:
One of the more Orwellian
aspects of the book world is the number of publisher advocate groups calling themselves
Author This and Author That. The Authors Guild, Authors United, the Association of Authors’ Representatives…their devotion to protecting the interests of
authors is right there in the names, right? No further inquiry necessary.
That’s the idea behind
the misleading nomenclature, anyway. But even a cursory glance at the behavior of
all these “author” organizations reveals their true priorities and actual allegiances.
Let’s start with the Authors
Guild, which claims to
“have served as the collective
voice of American authors,” and which describes its mission as...
(I’ve said it many times before, but still I want to pause
here to note that one
president has no more power to prohibit what’s already illegal than another
president has to permit it, and Obama purporting to “ban” torture is about
as coherent a notion as Obama purporting to ban murder, arson, embezzlement, or
rape. The constitution provides that the president “shall take care that the
laws be faithfully executed,” and Obama’s failure to do so despite the
requirements of the United Nations Convention Against Torture and other laws by
which the United States is bound is a violation of that oath.)
I confess it was a little surreal and dispiriting at times
to realize we were trying to persuade American legislators that torture is a
bad idea. I mean, that’s a pretty remedial level of lobbying. What’s next—You know, Senator, it occurs to me the
government really shouldn’t conduct syphilis experiments on
unsuspecting patients? You’d just think that in 2015, we’d be past that
level of inhumanity and could focus on more advanced topics. And yet.
Anyway, I can’t imagine anyone but the most hardened
ideologue or cynical politician spending time with this group and coming away
still believing that torture is in any way a good idea for America, and my
sense is that we might have changed a few minds. There’s something inherently
awkward about insisting on believing something based on absolutely no relevant
experience when a roomful of people with hundreds of years of experience in
that thing is telling you the opposite.
It’s worth pausing to emphasize that point: The world’s most experienced and
accomplished intelligence, military, and law enforcement interrogators all
agree that torture is ineffective, contrary to the values America claims to
champion, and detrimental to our national security. It’s not just that the
actual experts don’t need torture to be available; they don’t want it to be available.
Conversely, the people most enthusiastic about torture—Dick
and Liz Cheney; Mark Thiessen; John Yoo, to name just a few—have no
interrogation experience at all. It’s not a coincidence that these people tend
to argue for torture in the form of clichés—take
the gloves off, do whatever it takes, get tough on terrorists—because the
chief function of a cliché is to provide a comforting substitute for actual thought.
But it’s also interesting that the clichés in question tend to focus on tactics
rather than objectives, because a focus on tactics rather than results is one
of the defining features of an amateur.
Professionals focus on the results they want, and dispassionately
select the techniques most likely to achieve those results. Amateurs focus on
the techniques they want to use because the techniques themselves are the
source of their gratification. So it’s telling that the people who most want to
torture aren’t, judging by their own rhetoric, primarily interested in
actionable intelligence. They’re primarily interested in torture. And the
people most interested in actionable intelligence are the ones least interested
To put it another way: you don’t have to be Sun Tsu to know
that you don’t win a fight by doing what feels
best to you; you win by doing what is
worst for your enemy.
John Oliver got a lot of this right last night on Last Week
15-minute clip is, as usual with Oliver, both hilarious and far more
informative than most mainstream coverage. Its primary shortcoming, I think, is
its failure to mention that torture was already illegal on 9/11; that in
ordering torture, Bush and Cheney were committing criminal acts; and that in
failing to prosecute the officials who ordered torture, Obama has violated his
oath of office. A little more discussion of Appendix M of the Army Field Manual
would have been great, too, because even if McCain-Feinstein passes, the fight
against torture will have to go on.
Amateurs think tactics; professionals think strategy. In
this regard, as part of our efforts, former navy
general counsel Alberto Mora was part of a panel in which he pointed out
that torture was a profoundly tactical
decision. Whatever it might have accomplished in any individual instance (and the
evidence suggests it accomplished nothing useful at all), it cost us the
cooperation of our allies who refused to go along with torture and of local
populations who became understandably reluctant to inform lest they deliver up
a neighbor into barbarity. It’s worth remembering that Nazi soldiers fled the
Soviet advance from the east, hoping to be captured by American forces
advancing from the west because of America’s reputation for humane treatment of
captives (and the Soviet army’s reputation for brutality). Imagine the
intelligence boon we achieved because German soldiers wanted us to capture them. Now imagine if our
reputation had instead been for brutality, and those German soldiers had decided
they’d best flee in the other direction.
Along these lines, I also spent time with Torin
Nelson, a former soldier who has conducted and supervised thousands of
interrogations in Afghanistan and Iraq and at Guantanamo. It was sobering to
hear him describe how nearly every jihadist he interrogated cited Abu Ghraib
and Guantanamo as the causes that impelled them to pick up arms. Former Air
Force interrogator Matthew Alexander, also a member of the Human Rights First
group, has made similar points, arguing that torture
is probably responsible for more Americans killed than 9/11 itself.
If you’re relatively new to this topic, here are a few posts
I’ve written over the years addressing the various torture apologist arguments:
It’s interesting to see how the “facts” apologists used to
cite have all been overtaken by evidence. And yet the apologists continue to
agitate for a return to what Dick Cheney’s “dark side.” I hope the work I was
honored to be part of last week will make that prospect more difficult.
It was great to read this Edward
Snowden New York Times op-ed—great because the piece is as thoughtful and
informative as you’d expect, and even better because it’s an example of Snowden’s
continuing ability to raise awareness of the dangers of an unchecked
surveillance state. In fact, Snowden has been notably public of late, giving
interviews, addressing huge crowds, receiving awards, and otherwise adding to and
amplifying the worldwide discussion he catalyzed with his revelations of two
years ago (this short
video gives an idea of how many people Snowden has been reaching).
Even by the standards of an age where a
new mass-surveillance law is named The Freedom Act (admittedly, something
of an improvement on its mass-surveillance progenitor, The Patriot Act, but
still), there’s a lot of Orwell at work here. Protests about Snowden having a
public forum are really complaints about Thoughtcrime.
Lawmakers trying to smear Snowden are hoping to turn him into Emmanuel Goldstein. The
government’s efforts to prohibit even the utterance of Snowden’s name in court,
and its use of the Espionage Act itself, are attempts to render Snowden an unperson.
There are a lot of terrific blogs out there on the world of writing, but Heart of the Matter isn't one of them. HOTM primarily covers politics, language as it influences politics, and politics as an exercise in branding and marketing, with the occasional post on some miscellaneous subject that catches my attention.
HOTM has a comments section. Sounds simple enough, but as even a cursory glance at the comments of most political blogs will show, many people would benefit from some guidelines. Here are a few I hope will help.
1. The most important guideline when it comes to argument is the golden rule. If someone were addressing your point, what tone, what overall approach would you find persuasive and want her to use? Whatever that is, do it yourself. If you find this simple guideline difficult, I'll explain it slightly differently in #2.
2. Argue for persuasion, not masturbation. If you follow the golden rule above, it's because you're trying to persuade someone. If you instead choose sarcasm and other insults, you can't be trying to persuade (have you ever seen someone's opinion changed by an insult?). If you're not trying to persuade, what you're doing instead is stroking yourself. Now, stroking yourself is fine in private, but I think we can all agree it's a pretty pathetic to do so in public. So unless you like to come across as pathetic, argue to persuade.
3. Compared to the two above, this is just commentary, but: no one cares about your opinion (or mine, for that matter). It would be awesome to be so impressive that we could sway people to our way of thinking just by declaiming our thoughts, but probably most of us lack such gravitas. Luckily, there's something even better: evidence, logic, and argument. Think about it: when was the last time someone persuaded you of the rightness of his opinion just by declaring what it was? Probably it was the same time someone changed your mind with an insult, right? And like insults, naked declarations of opinion, because they can't persuade, are fundamentally masturbatory. And masturbation, again, is not a very polite thing to do on a blog.
Argue with others the way you'd like them to argue with you. Argue with intent to persuade. Argue with evidence and logic. That shouldn't be so hard, should it? Let's give it a try.