Saturday, February 13, 2010

Fear, With Good Reason

Last week, Dahlia Lithwick had a terrific piece in Slate in which she ponders America's "Terrorism Derangement Syndrome." America does seem to be in the grip of morbid fear, doesn't it? KSM could irradiate Manhattan if he's given a trial there... terrorists can melt the walls of supermax prisons... the Underwear Bomber is so diabolically clever he would laugh off traditional interrogation methods. With all this terror, you might even think... I don't know, that terrorism is working pretty well.

Lithwick attributes some of the cause of TDS to Republican fear-mongering and to Democratic acquiescence in GOP scare tactics. I agree -- but I think there's something more fundamental going on, something that explains both the fear and the fear-mongering.

Something like... our own policies.

I believe some deep-seated part of our national consciousness is aware there will be consequences for what we've done, and continue to do. The wars, and kidnappings, and illegal imprisonment, and off-the-mark Predator strikes, and, most of all, torture -- we sense a reckoning for all this, a conflagration waiting to engulf the combustible materials we insist on piling recklessly, relentlessly higher. Our tactics worsen the danger. The worse the danger, the more scared we get. The more scared we get, the less capable we are of rational policies. As our rationality deserts us, we embrace more tightly primitive tactics. And the more primitive we become, the worse we make the danger. And so on.

So yes, we're afraid. After all, we understand revenge, don't we? Revenge is a human need so powerful that, if necessary, we'll attempt to satisfy it by proxy, the way we satisfied our need for 9/11 vengeance against al Qaeda by attacking Iraq, instead. We know payback is coming because by God, if there were a country kidnapping Americans and imprisoning them and torturing them in secret prisons, and if that country constantly threatened to bomb us and sometimes actually did so, and if the bombs often missed and massacred women and children and funerals and wedding parties, we would not -- we could not -- rest until that country came to rue the day it even considered fucking with the United States of America.

That's how it would be if the shoe were on the other foot -- in fact, that's how it was. And you don't have to be psychic, or even exceptionally empathetic, to know that's how it is with other cultures, too. A little imagination and intuition are more than enough.

Imagination and intuition, as it happens, is the same combination that makes us sure Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. Our own National Intelligence Estimate claims otherwise, but we don't believe the NIE because what would we do if we were subject to the kind of bellicose rhetoric our politicians and press level at Iran? What would we do if we were Iran, and America had invaded our neighbors east and west? We wouldn't rest until we had nukes, so we know Iran is after them, just as we would be. Anyone who suggests otherwise must be wrong.

As I wrote over a year ago:

It's common for rightists to justify America's embrace of the "dark side" by claiming President Bush has kept the country safe. The claim strikes me as remarkably simplistic. If the temporal frame of reference begins on 9/11, and we ignore the unsolved anthrax attacks that came shortly after, and the geographical frame of reference is the territorial United States alone, then one might accurately claim America has been safe up until now. Whether the correlation between "the dark side" and our safety up until this point has a causal connection is far more debatable. Regardless, to me, "has kept us safe up until this point" has far too much the ring of Neville Chamberlain's "peace in our time." It also makes me think of a parent who seems to be an excellent provider because he's financing all those provisions on a dozen maxed-out credit cards. The temporary comfort he's afforded his family will inevitably be wiped out by the unpayable bill they're all soon to receive. Watching these documentaries, you can't help but feel that bill is out there, and that soon enough, it will be horrifically presented to us. Even if you believe "the dark side" offers benefits, and you're willing to ignore what the dark side has cost us in terms of our own ideals and our image in the world, that bill, when it comes, will represent the dark side's true price.

What every American needs to understand about torture and the rest of the "dark side" is this. Not only has our embrace of the dark side violated our laws and profaned our values. And not only have we received no safety in exchange for our willingness to cash in our national ideals. No, the real irony, the real tragedy is that war and secret prisons and torture and the rest have created and continue to create a new generation of Muslim extremists intent on revenge. We know this. We try to stopper our minds, but our intuition won't be silenced. It's why we're so afraid.

P.S. You can also find this piece cross-posted at Truthout, where there are already some interesting comments.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Torture Tales

There are various factors behind America's growing embrace of torture, but among them, largely overlooked, is a brilliant campaign of cross-promotion between right-wing ideologues and right-wing entertainment.

First, the right reduced the entirety of torture to a simple talking point: "Can you really say torture never works?" And then answered the question through thriller novels and television shows.

There's a reason Glenn Beck so assiduously hawks what he calls the "conservative porn" of novelist Vince Flynn. When Flynn's series character, covert operator Mitch Rapp, saves the day through torture, his deeds vindicate the authoritarian worldview Beck advocates. Beck even has a list of his top ten thrillers at Borders, with Flynn and another rightist thriller writer, Brad Thor, in the top two slots. Nor is Beck alone: he is joined in his promotion of pro-torture novels by Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Hugh Hewitt. And of course the right loves no one so much as Jack Bauer, the "24" operative whose defense of America always depends on torture -- a love the show returns in kind.

All of which raises an important question: why? Given that expert interrogators like the Air Force's Matthew Alexander and Steven Kleinman and the FBI's Ali Soufan and Jack Cloonan agree not only that torture is unnecessary, but that, by producing false leads and creating new jihadists, it has made America less safe; given the existence of scientific evidence demonstrating why and how torture produces false information; and given that there is no reliable evidence that America's resort to torture foiled any jihadist plots, we have to ask, why does the right continue to promote it?

Because fictional questions about torture's efficacy obscure real questions about its criminality. The UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment, signed by Ronald Reagan and ratified by the Senate, not only prohibits torture, but categorically rules out all exceptions. By Article VI of the Constitution, the UNCAT is the supreme Law of the Land (because the treaty also requires party nations to investigate and prosecute credible allegations of torture, President Obama is himself now in violation).

It's surprising the left has been so feckless in its response. True, the left is no marketing juggernaut. After all, this is the movement that chose the stunningly vague and uninspiring product name "the public option" for its make-or-break health care rollout. But because the best thrillers are the most realistic, the form is ideally suited to dramatically examine the actual motivations behind torture (panic, incompetence, proxy revenge). Or to make plain the real fruits of torture (new jihadist recruits and increasingly radicalized Muslims). Or to show how torture, once permitted in military and intelligence circles, metastasizes to civilian law enforcement and otherwise. Or to detail the way torture brutalizes our society and destroys the psyches of the young men and women we encourage to do it in our names. And yet some of the most commercially successful thrillers are those whose take on torture is the most cartoonish.

If the leftwing mass media continues to ignore political thrillers, this important means of shaping the public debate on torture and other critical issues will remain the exclusive weapon of the Glenn Becks of the world. Worse, as reviewers like Kirkus go under and newspapers and magazines curtail their book coverage, writers and publishers, aware that the best means of publicizing their thrillers will be an appearance on Beck or Limbaugh, will shape their stories to please the talking heads whose ministrations they increasingly crave. There's already an orthodoxy among some publishers that the audience for thrillers is largely conservative, an understandable (though mistaken) conclusion caused by the fact that the only mass media hawking thrillers today is rightwing. And with the sad recent news about the demise of Air America, that mistaken orthodoxy is likely set to deepen.

Those of us who value the rule of law and the blessings of liberty in America need to wake up. Novelists, bloggers, screen and teleplay writers, journalists, talk show hosts -- if we don't start hanging together, then, as Benjamin Franklin said, assuredly we shall all hang separately.

P.S. Proud to say I'm now blogging both at Truthout and at the Huff Post, where this piece ran today on the front page. If you have a chance, stop by and leave a comment (already responded there to a bunch) -- thanks.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Paper Earthworks and Digital Tides

Don't be misled by the self-serving narratives Amazon and Macmillan have advanced following their recent eBooks battle. Amazon's narrative is "We're Pro-Consumer;" Macmillan (and paper publishers in general) counter with "We're Anti-Monopoly." Neither of these narratives is untrue, but neither addresses the real cause of this war.

What's happening is this. Amazon is doing everything it can to speed the transition to eBooks because, in a digital world, Amazon's costs of shipping and storage essentially disappear. Paper publishers are doing everything they can to slow the transition to eBooks because, in a digital world, paper publishers' high hardback margins essentially disappear.

That's it. One side wants to improve its profits through lower costs; the other, through higher margins. Everything else is commentary, much of it misleading.

Paper publishing has been around a long time and hasn't changed much. Think of it as a castle, surrounded by earthworks built out of the high margins publishers enjoy on hardback books. Now imagine digital as a surging tide comprised of two elements: (1) increasingly low-cost, high-quality digital book readers; and (2) lower-priced digital books. Amazon has attacked publishing's fortifications first by introducing the Kindle, and second, by selling eBooks at a loss. Publishers can't counter the first strategy (and even if they could, it wouldn't matter -- Apple, B&N, Sony, and plenty of other players are constantly improving and lowering the costs of digital readers). They have found a way to temporarily counter the second, by forcing Amazon to price eBooks no lower than $15, which is what the battle with Macmillan was fought over.

But it was only a battle. In the wider war, digital readers will continue to get better, cheaper, and more widely adopted. As for the price of eBooks, publishers can only control the price of the what Amazon buys from them. If you were Amazon, therefore, and publishers had stymied one of the two prongs of your strategy for speeding the transition to digital, what would you do?

That's right. You'd speed your own transition to becoming a publisher. This has been happening anyway; all Macmillan has done is provide Amazon with an incentive to do it faster. In the coming months, therefore, expect to see Amazon announce that it's poached some combination of editors and writers from major paper publishers. It will then publish its own eBooks at whatever price it believes will most effectively speed the transition to digital. Drive the price of eBooks low enough, and consumers' perceptions of the value of all books will radically change. It's this changing perception publishers fear. Consumers will buy a $17 hardback if the eBook costs $15. Charge $5 for that same eBook, and $17 for a hardback becomes an impossible sell.

Earthworks are a static defense. Publishers can do a few things to make the walls marginally higher and thicker, but that's about it. Meanwhile, the force of the digital tide is always increasing. Eventually, a kinetic and ever stronger offense will overwhelm a static, finite defense. Either publishers don't know this, in which case they're deluded; or they do know it, in which case they're just playing for time while their employees update their resumes. Either way, their position is grim. If they want to survive, they can't just hunker down behind their crumbling walls. They need an offense.

What would that offense be? The only solution I can imagine is for the major paper publishers to stop selling digital rights to Amazon and other retailers and establish their own well branded and managed online store. It's probably too late for them to make such a move anyway, but even if it weren't, the chances that a media industry could do something so radical are vanishingly small. And even if they did manage to pull it off, they'd keep eBook prices high to shore up their paper profits -- which is of course what they're doing now. Piracy would increase, and Amazon would muscle in with its own line of low-cost eBooks. To make it work, publishers would have to radically lower eBook prices and cannibalize their high-margin hardback sales. I've never heard of a company managing such a bold move, and I don't think a publisher will be the first to pull it off. But in a land of zero-cost distribution, with their primary competitive advantage further eroding every day, publishers need to establish their own direct link to consumers. If they don't, they'll offer no significant value in the changing ecosystem in which they find themselves, at which point they will become extinct.

I hope I don't sound unsympathetic. I make a good living selling hardback books through paper publishers and I have many friends in the industry who will suffer as it changes, so on a personal level the transition to digital isn't something I welcome wholeheartedly. But when analyzing a trend, it pays to set aside sentiment.

I used the word "extinct" above. It's hard to avoid the imagery the word naturally conjures: dinosaurs, blinking in frightened confusion as they find themselves encircled by new, hungry-looking predators encroaching on the territory that was once exclusively theirs. Dinosaurs had famously small brains. If publishers have an advantage in this regard, they need to start exploiting it.