Podcast • November 12, 2010

Kwame Anthony Appiah: How to Make a Moral Revolution

Kwame Anthony Appiah in The Honor Code is inviting all of us to pick the “moral revolution” of our dreams and let him show us how to get big results fast. His exemplary case histories ...

Kwame Anthony Appiah in The Honor Code is inviting all of us to pick the “moral revolution” of our dreams and let him show us how to get big results fast. His exemplary case histories start with the end of dueling in England, which came swiftly on the news in 1829 of pistol shots between the Duke of Wellington (victor at Waterloo and by then Prime Minister of England) and the Earl of Winchelsea. In the same quarter century, England got out of the English slave trade and abolished slavery in the English colonies. And from the East, Appiah recounts the sudden, shamefaced end of female footbinding in China — the collapse of a thousand-year tradition within a generation after 1900. In each instance, a persistent, noxious openly immoral practice died of ridicule, as much as anything else. Appiah makes it a three-step process. First, “strategic ignorance” gets overwhelmed by a very public confrontation with an evil tinged with absurdity. Then the stakes of “honor” get redefined; no longer a prop of support, the idea of honor (as earned respect) becomes a battering ram of opposition. And finally group lobbying and popular politics seal a shift in values and practice.

Professor Appiah, the Ghanaian-English-American philosopher now at Princeton, the author of Cosmopolitanism, is talking about some of his dream crusades, and mine, maybe yours: how’s to kick the props of “honor” out from under mega-wealth and permanent war? How’s to end the routine torture of feedlot animals, the soulless warehousing of good parents and grandparents? Who is to take the “honor” out of “honor killings” today of Pakistani women and girls who’ve been raped or sexually compromised?

In our own recent American experience, torture is one window Appiah’s process, still in motion:

In both the officially, centrally sanctioned torture and the things that it led to, like Abu Ghraib… I think it’s terrible that we focused so much on the poeple at the bottom of the heap who were doing it, at the sharp end, so to speak; and didn’t focus enough on how we had created an atmosphere that made it possible… When Americans know that these things are being done in their name, or face up to the fact, unless they don’t care about our country they can’t feel anything but shame. And that’s because they understand that you’re not entitled to respect if you do things like that.

So that’s an example of the mechanism in operation. That’s why a government that wants to do these things has to do them in the dark… You refer to the values of philosophical Pragmatism. One of the values of Pragmatism which we completely lose when we behave like this is that we take our eye off what we’re actually doing. This is so counter-productive. Nothing that we’re trying to do in the world is advanced by being seen as the country that does this thing. We used to be seen as a country that wouldn’t do these things. It was understood that Syria would do these things, or that old Iraq would do these things. We understand that the Saudis, you know, stone people and beat people up. But we used to be able to claim that we were trying not to do these things; that if we found them done we would punish them; that we would go to the U.N. and the Human Rights Commmission and complain when other countries did them. We can’t do that anymore. We look ridiculous when we when we do…

So I think: an element of “soft power” is honor. And if you lose your honor (…you don’t lose all your honor; you only lose a certain dimension of it each time), then you have to regenerate it. You have to earn it back in order to be able to use that sort of soft power, which is the most powerful political resource we have in the world as Americans, I think. It’s the respect that we have sometimes earned and sometimes not earned that makes all kinds of people who disagree with us about all kinds of things nevertheless have a kind of sneaking admiration for the United States.

Kwame Anthony Appiah with Chris Lydon in Cambridge, Massachusetts, November 3, 2010

Podcast • May 9, 2008

Errol Morris’ "Feel-Bad" Masterpiece

Lynndie England with “Gus” at Abu Ghraib Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure is a shocking, depressing work of art that might tell you almost nothing you didn’t know in your bones: that the torture chambers ...
abu ghraib

Lynndie England with “Gus” at Abu Ghraib

Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure is a shocking, depressing work of art that might tell you almost nothing you didn’t know in your bones: that the torture chambers at Abu Ghraib were a perfect kernel of the war on Iraq. See the movie anyway, for confirmation or as penance. It is a blood sample of a gross policy of humiliation, emasculation, sophisticated mental cruelty and pitiless domination in the Arab Middle East. Errol Morris makes no bones about it. He says: we are looking at icons of American foreign policy:

One of the most infamous photographs from Abu Ghraib is a photograph of Lynndie England: 20 years old at the time; 5 feet tall, I believe under 100 pounds, holding what in effect is a tie-down strap [on] a prisoner named ‘Gus’, who is naked on the ground. The photo is taken by Lynndie England’s then boyfriend Chuck Graner. Well, the photograph of course has fascinated me for many, many reasons. Here would be the central reason. I believe the picture is a graphic representation of American foreign policy, pure and simple.

errol morris

Errol Morris: “the word is denial”

Pictures become iconic for some reason. They answer a certain idea we have. It’s not just simply by happenstance. Oddly enough I know that that method of removing Gus from his cell had been approved by the medical authorities at Abu Ghraib. There was nothing “illegal” about what was happening. But in fact the photograph is absolutely appalling, because part of our foreign policy — and make no mistake about this — was this idea that American women should be used to humiliate Iraqi men, without a thought of course that this might be degrading to the American women as well. It’s not something that was devised by a handful of MPs on one tier at Abu Ghraib. It was part of our foreign policy.

And one of the things I find most appalling is that the photographs were used to blame a handful of MPs, really letting everybody else off the hook, as though nobody else was involved and this was just a few guys on this one tier. By the way Abu Ghraib was not one one tier or two tiers. It was a city. There were close to 10,000 people in there — a vast concentration camp in the middle of the Sunni Triangle. The pictures are misleading in that respect as well. They made you think you were dealing with something much, much smaller and more confined than the reality of what was there.

Filmmaker Errol Morris, talking about Standard Operating Procedure at the Watson Institute at Brown, May 7, 2008.

A lot of pretty forgettable questions buzz around Standard Operating Procedure. There are Errol’s own philosophical distractions: is it true that “seeing is believing”? Or must we commit ourselves to “believing” before we can “see” the truth of these pictures. Do photographs in fact encourage us not to look (or think) further? Then there are the critical nit-picks: can we credit the witnesses that Errol Morris paid to be interviewed? Do some visualizations and reenactments belong in the picture?

There’s a darker set of political questions, nested like those Russian dolls, around many levels of cowardice, scapegoating and denial of responsibility for Abu Ghraib. Only a few lost souls (and no civilians) went on trial for the wholesale dirty-work. The officer class and the political chiefs excused themselves. The voters in 2004 seemed to absolve George Bush in reelecting him. And by now moviegoers (in a stampede to get behind the armor of Marvel Comics’ Iron Man) have made it clear that they don’t much want to see S.O.P. or any other movie about the war in Iraq. See Errol Morris’ movie anyway, and take your kids. It’s sickening, but your kids should know what was done in our name — and what their kids, too, will pay for those world-famous pictures.