Dick Cheney’s unpatriotic utilitarianism.

“If you don’t stick to your values when they’re being tested, they’re not values: they’re hobbies.” Jon Stewart.

The word torture is once again in the air and permeating the airwaves and the national consciousness. The release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the use of torture reminds us all of those horrible years when questioning whether waterboarding people was moral could get you branded as a traitor. All of a sudden, we’re revisiting 2006.

Let’s be very clear: the question is not whether the torture resulted in actionable intelligence. The question is whether that intelligence could have been obtained with less abusive methods. The Senate report indicated that was the case, and all that I’ve read, both before and after the report came out, agreed with that assessment.  Actually, the question is whether obtaining that intelligence is worth tossing out our common values, exposing ourselves as moral hypocrites,  giving jihadists spectacular recruitment fodder, eroding our nation’s standing (and worse, our future security), and dishonoring our country.

No, it isn’t.  It never can be.

Former CIA covert operations officer Valerie Plame (yes, that Valerie Plame) pointed out the essential issue with pinpoint accuracy. “Whatever little bit [of information that] was obtained was certainly not worth throwing away some core values of who we like to think of as Americans,” Plame said. In another interview, this time with msnbc, Plame pointed out that if these techniques were being used on American troops, there would be a deafening clamor protesting against what would be widely (and accurately) seen as torture.

Dick Cheney disagrees.  When asked if he would support using “enhanced interrogation techniques” — torture — again, he replied “In a heartbeat.” When further asked if the ends justified the means, he did not hesitate a second before answering “absolutely.” He engages in the most vile form of realpolitik, a crude utilitarianism in which the only people who matter in the cost-benefit analysis are Americans.

In doing so, Cheney willfully misrepresents the Geneva conventions. He conveniently ignores Ronald Reagan’s signing of  international Convention Against Torture and Inhuman Treatment. He disregards morality and the common humanity we share with those we have captured. I might chalk all this up to simple stupidity, except that Cheney is not a stupid man. He is smart, unprinicipled, and amoral.

Unlike Cheney, the men who founded the United States were not utilitarians.  The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were born of the idea that individuals have, as they said, certain inalienable rights.  Sometimes we have failed to put our ideals into practice (those inalienable rights did not always extend to African-Americans, or natives. or women), but that does not mean that we have not strived to live up to them to our (often poor) ability to do so.

That Dick Cheney refuses to even give lip service to those ideals shows that, unlike most of those he accused of being unpatriotic, he really doesn’t believe in our nation’s common values.  I will not call him a traitor, but simply a rank political opportunist, interested in being able to portray himself as zealously guarding America’s security.  This, while every detainee waterboarded, forced to stand upright for forty-eight hours, or subjected to “rectal hydration” undermines our national safety.

Dick Cheney: American (Anti-)Patriot.

The stories in the wine, II

[The Stories in the Wine, here.]

(The Rocket Scientist and I went on a Segway tour of Healdsburg a few weeks back, and brought back a couple of bottles of wine, and here are their stories.  Maybe because it is winter, these stories turned out a lot darker than the first batch.)


“How bad?” She asked.

“Stage IV,” he replied, avoiding her eyes.  He heard the shuddering intake of breath, and glanced up as she whispered “excuse me,” scraped her chair back so violently it crashed to the floor, and bolted for the bathroom.  He could hear her coughing and retching, and dropped his head into his hands.

A few minutes later she returned, pale but composed. “What now?”

He looked at her for a long minute.  Then he grabbed  his cell and stalked out of the living room.  His voice carried down the hall.  “Yes, hi, I’d like an order of barbecued pork buns, sweet and sour soup for two, honey walnut prawns, and Szechuan beef. Oh, and white rice.  For two, yes. Delivery, please.”

Chinese food, her favorite dishes, from her favorite restaurant, no doubt.  She heard him rummaging under the kitchen counter, and then in the freezer. He walked into the living room with a full ice bucket into which he shoved a bottle with a wired cap.

“Champagne?” She gasped. “He drew himself up haughtily to his full 5’11”. “Champagne? Of course not.” The corner of his mouth twitched. “It’s prosecco.

“You’re celebrating?”

“Yes, I am.  Look, I am not celebrating the cancer, or the fact that I probably don’t have much more time, or that you are going to be a widow at far too young an age.” He paused.

“You are going to be all right.  It’s going to be hard, but we’re financially secure.  The kids are grown and away. I’m going to fight as hard as I can, but realistically, there may not be much that I or the doctors can do.”

He smiled gently. “While I still can I want to celebrate the life I’ve had, the life we’ve had together.  I may not live as long as I want, and I have my regrets the same as any man, but on the whole I have had one damned good time. And I refuse to spend one minute of however long I have left moping.”  He handed her a full flute.  She recognized the Waterford crystal from their wedding reception.

“L’chaim,” he murmured softly.



The young man shifted uncomfortably.  These overstuffed leather armchairs had always made him sleepy. He shook himself awake as his father walked past and handed him a glass.  “Let me know what you think of the port,” the older man said.  “An amusing little wine, pretentious with overtones of overripe cherries and burning rubber tires,” his son replied, mockingly. Actually, it was a lovely port, if a bit sweet. He wasn’t much of a port drinker — bourbon and coke (or pot) being his preferred drugs of choice — but he was willing to indulge his father’s tastes, at least once.

His father had pleaded with him to come home.  He had avoided the place for ten years, ever since the screaming match that had occurred in the aftermath of the car crash that had taken his mother and sister’s lives. His father told him in no uncertain terms that it was his fault because they had been driving to the county jail to bail him out (again) after an arrest for DUI.  That they were killed by a drunk driver proved to the son that God was a cruel bastard, given to the nastiest sort of irony. He hadn’t even gone to the funeral.

His father sat down, avoiding his son’s gaze. He cleared his throat, and gulped, as though words were a foreign concept. After a long moment he looked directly at his son and said, in a voice so small as to be barely audible, “I’m sorry.”

The unexplained apology hung in the air. “Sorry for what?” his son responded, determined not to make it easy.

His father spoke more strongly now, his words tumbling after each other. “I’m sorry I ran you away.  Mom and Beth’s deaths weren’t your fault.  I knew that — I just needed people to blame.  It should have been me who died: your mother went because I refused to. I wanted you to rot in jail, to feel the pain you were causing us.”

His son sat staring ahead in perfect silence.

“It gets worse,” his father continued. “The CHP said that while the other driver was drunk, your Mom strayed over the center line, causing the accident.”

The son exploded. “You knew? You made me feel like horseshit all these years about that accident and YOU KNEW about this?”

His father started crying. “I wanted… I don’t know. I wanted you to be afraid to drive drunk, I was scared you would kill somebody else’s wife and daughter. I wanted you to hurt so much over this that you would never drive drunk again.”

“You’re right,” his son said.  “I have never driven drunk since then. I have sliced my wrists, and taken a month’s worth of Klonopin and washed it down with twenty-year-old Scotch, have spent weeks in ICUs and psych wards — you didn’t know, I wouldn’t let them tell you — but no, I haven’t gotten any DUIs.”

His father stared at him in horror, the shock stopping his tears.  “Jesus Joseph and Mary, what did I do?”

The son drew a deep breath.  “You destroyed me. There are things that are unforgivable. I don’t know if this is one of them.” He stood up, and headed for the door.

“Please don’t go,” his father whispered. “I love you, and I miss you.”

“Goodbye. Thanks for the port,” the son said sardonically. He closed the door softly behind himself, and walked  into the rainy night.

Hey! Lookie!

I have a new profile picture.  It’s me with my latest hair: the color is closer to natural, not my natural but someone’s, and a bit longer. I took it my home-away-from-home, a new Starbucks I found.  (For some value of new: I found it a month ago, which was a ,month after it opened.)

I am also somewhat older and sadder than in my previous picture. It’s been that sort of stretch of years.

Where is Sam Vimes when you need him?

A friend of mine on Facebook stated after the Staten Island grand jury refused to indict the officer in the Eric Garner case that she was taking a break from the news to reread Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch. She said she needed a “fantasy of justice.”

I was ahead of her: the previous days I had spent time (more than I should have really) rereading Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, Night Watch,* and Thud! — all of the Terry Pratchett’s novels about the Discworld Watch and its commander, Sam Vimes that I own. As she said, they offer “a fantasy of justice,” a rebuttal to the despairing voices in our heads that is fatigued by what is happening in our country right now.

Sam Vimes, for those not familiar with Pratchett’s Discworld novels, is in some ways so many things we think we want in our police.  True, he has no interest in “community policing,” and allows a certain level of very small corruption among his men (and women, and dwarves, and trolls, and werewolves, and vampires, and zombies…. the Ankh-Morpark Watch is an equal opportunity employer, even if Vimes is not always happy about it).  But he also has a burning desire for justice, and is more interested in calling out the rich and powerful than going after the common folk.  Not that he has any illusions about the common folks — he doesn’t see them as intrinsically noble, for example — but he feels that someone needs to speak in their favor.  In Feet of Clay, in reference to one of his watchmen, Vimes opines “Nobby is as common as muck, which is one of his better points.” Even when he reluctantly becomes a Duke and ambassador, he really is most interested in justice for the people who live in the poor neighborhoods where he grew up. His methods are not always kosher, but he doesn’t view as the ends always justifying the means.  Break the small rules and you can end up breaking the large ones.  Of course, he also believes that the law can be bent…

The most interesting thing about Vimes is his self-awareness.  He recognizes the part of him that would destroy in the name of revenge, that would beat suspects dead, that is violent and doesn’t care about right and wrong.  He refers to it as “The Beast,” and is very careful to keep it controlled. He lets it out occasionally, but rarely, and usually when his life is truly threatened.  He understand that death is sometimes necessary, but understands the difference between protection and murder.  In The Fifth Elephant, he kills a werewolf that has wrought terror across the countryside, stalked Vimes himself, and just killed Vimes’s servant and several townspeople in his flight. Vimes set off a flare, knowing that the werewolf would find catching the firework irresistible. After the werewolf was killed…

There were a lot of things Vimes could have said. ‘Son of a bitch!’ was one of them.  Or ‘Fetch!’…. He said none of these things, because then he would know that what he had just done was murder. ‘To hell with it,’ he muttered, tossing the crossbow on Wolfgang’s body.

It is fantasy, of course.  Having justice in the hands of one man, no matter how incorruptible that man is, is dangerous. When asked “Who watches the watchmen?” he replies “I do.” When asked who watches him, he responds that he does that too. While Captain Carrot Ironfoundersson is likewise dedicated to justice (and may well be the rightful king of the city-state), Sam Vimes is the man in charge, even as he rejects the idea of power and wealth. But what happens when he is gone?

We want to think of our police as incorruptible.  We want to think that they hold the Beast in check, that they do not act in fear and rage.  We have had too much evidence that, in least some cases, that’s not the case.

*If you do not read Pratchett, Night Watch is a great place to start.  While there is a lot of backstory, it works on its own as a very interesting novel about identity, justice, and the greatness of hard-boiled eggs.

What did Obama do?

He punted.  He basically told Congress “I’m going to just stand here until you people fix this.”

This is not an amnesty. An amnesty would regularize the status of undocumented immigrants. This will not do that.  It will simply provide assurances to undocumented people who fit certain requirements that, at least for the time being, they will not be deported.

It only applies to individuals who have been in the country for more than five years.  This doesn’t open the floodgates: it doesn’t do a damned thing about the current crisis at the border. (Also, what does “fair share of taxes” mean? They already pay sales tax, most of them probably make too little to be subject to income tax, and they aren’t eligible for Social Security, state disability or unemployment, so why should they have to pay for those?)

And, to the young lady who called in to NPR this morning: before you go on whingeing about how this is so unfair to people like you who have Ph.D.s and worked very hard to get here on your H1B visas, talk to a fifty-year old tech engineer who can see your Ph.D. and raise you twenty-years experience who cannot get a job because the rampant age discrimination in Silicon Valley is propped up by increasing numbers of H1B visa entrants.  See what they have to say about “fairness.”

At least it’s not April.

It’s the third week in November.

It is the anniversary of my father’s death, followed the next day by my eldest son’s birthday. (Believe me, I have been grateful to providence that the two did not fall on the same day.) This year, Dad’s death hits me harder than it has the past few years — because Mom is gone now, too.

I left so much unfinished with my father. I have struggled to accept that over the years, but every so often I wish I could talk to him just one last time.  The platitudes insert themselves into my brain — no one knows the hour, etc. — and don’t help.  Both my parents died unexpectedly, but Dad’s seems harder.

The Not-So-Little Drummer Boy is gone now, probably for good.  He is a continent away, breaking out and living his life.  As a parent, that’s what you want, but I miss him terribly.

It is also the anniversary of my notification that I had passed the California bar exam.  I would think that that would be a happy memory, but it’s not.  I brood about it, which is not healthy.

December cannot get here too fast.

Social justice music.

I am listening to The Voice. This week I have purchased two singles, “Redemption Songs,” sung by Anita Antoinette (my favorite performer still on the show) and “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” performed by Damien.

I chose hymns.

How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand aside and look?
“Redemption Songs”

I need hope. It is hard slogging on in the face of the election returns and the past few years of increasing inequality. The temptation to say “screw it, there’s nothing I can do anyway” is almost overwhelming. The wall of outrage fatigue I hit during the Bush era looms again. I know I do not do enough to make the world a better place; sometimes it seems like I just stand on the sidelines and cheer others on. Caring about social justice means squat if you don’t actually do anything about it.

I am getting by, but I see so many who are not. I ask myself, why do I even care? Why does it matter what happens to strangers? Other than just “it does”? I have lost sight of a just and caring God. I have lost sight of God, period.

That’s where the rubber hits the road, ethically speaking. If the only thing that draws you to caring about others is that you were commanded to by an unseen deity who seems capricious in His attentions, what sort of concern is that?

The road is long
With many a winding turn
That leads us to who knows where, who knows where
But I’m strong,
Strong enough to carry him
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother
“He Aint’ Heavy, He’s My Brother”

We cannot know where we are going. In the end, all we can know is that we are not on this journey alone. We are called by “the angels of our better nature” to want, to need others beside us. I have to believe that social justice – even rough justice – is possible, even if I cannot fathom how to achieve it.

I have to believe in the promised land, even as I fight despair born of not knowing the road there.

Molly Ivins instructed us to keep fighting the good fight. I have to find a way to do that. The music helps.