Palin and Torture, Party and Gender

September 9, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Al-Qaida terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America ... he’s worried that someone won't read them their rights?”
Sarah Palin was standing up for torture, and the Republicans cheered.

It was then I finally realized: these people actually like torture. Oh, of course you can’t come right out and say that torture is a good thing. But that was the idea the convention conveyed. You don’t tell a story over and over again unless it’s a story you really like, and the story the Republicans told and retold was the story of John McCain’s torture.

Previously, my explanation for the acceptance of torture had emphasized two elements – tribalism and bureaucratic rationality.

Tribalism is all about who. Morality is not some abstract universal that applies to all people. Tribal morality divides the world into Us and Them. What’s moral is what’s good for Us. This morality does not extend to Them. If We torture Them, it’s all right. If They torture Us, it’s an atrocity.

Bureaucratic rationality is about why. Torture is wrong if it’s done for sadistic pleasure or for personal vindictiveness, just to see your enemies suffer. That’s the picture we liked to paint of Saddam as torturer. But if you use torture as a rational means to a goal (“saving American lives”), and if the torturers are impersonal, if they derive no personal pleasure from torturing, then torture is O.K. President Bush used to refer to the torturers as “our professionals” (impersonal, efficient, unemotional) and extended the rational-legal angle by getting White House lawyers to write justifications using the impersonal language of law.

But the Republicans in Minnesota seemed to view torture not just as a regrettable but necessary tactic. Torture became a romanticized test of toughness, the ultimate chapter in the Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche version of masculinity. Only wimps have qualms about torture or worry about the niceties of human rights or the law. Real men can dish it out, and they can take it. Accordingly, in all the repeated invocations of Sen. McCain’s ordeal in the Hanoi Hilton, there was never any condemnation of the North Vietnamese as torturers, only the extolling of McCain for his toughness, patriotism, and other manly virtues. It was as though torture were not so much a violation of basic human rights and international law but a ritual that served to separate the men from the boys, painful but ultimately ennobling. And like the harsh fraternity initiation, those who have undergone it look back on it with something resembling nostalgia. See, you crybabies, the Republicans were saying, torture’s not so bad if you’re man enough to take it.

Surely others have commented on the Republicans’ long-standing effort to define the difference between the parties in terms of gender stereotypes: Republicans – tough, strong, and masculine, Democrats – soft, weak, and feminine. For the GOP, a woman on the ticket had the potential to confuse that imagery. Ms. Palin had to convince the party faithful – and those who shared their traditional expectations about gender – had to convince them that she would not weaken the party brand with feminine softness. So she played up her toughness. Don’t be misled by the lipstick, she said. She was the pit bull who would not hesitate to use torture.

1 comment:

Mathew Toll said...

Nice post. I remember watching that first speech and being absolutely shocked.