Michael Moore’s Sicko opened this weekend in New York City, and I saw it yesterday.

I laughed. I cried. So did the rest of the audience, which also broke into loud applause several times.

This is Moore’s most mature film so far, and I mean that in the best possible way. Other Moore films induced anger, outrage, and sympathy, along with the laughs. But Sicko broke my heart.

As Ezra says, this film is not so much about the health-care crisis as it is a challenge to America’s thick-headed exceptionalism — that “the way we do things is the best way to do things because … it’s the way we do things.”

More than that, however, it reveals that democracy in America is fading, fast.

We may call the United States “the land of the free,” but the truth is that most American working folks live constricted lives compared to people in most other western democracies. Our life choices increasingly are being limited by whatever economic boxes we find ourselves in. People who have worked hard and lived by the rules all their lives must choose between medicine and retirement, or medical treatment and keeping their homes. Working parents find that “quality family time” is an unaffordable luxury. And if we are diagnosed with a serious illness, our very lives are forfeit to the whims of the insurance companies.

The young are crushed by student loans; the middle aged and older live in fear of losing their health insurance. This is keeping the workforce docile and compliant.

But most heartbreaking of all is the way in which Americans passively accept the status quo. We have the means at hand to improve the quality of our lives — a representative government — and we don’t use it.

Moore’s film is not without flaws. The Canadian and British health care systems do have problems, which Moore doesn’t mention. (However, those problems are minuscule compared to ours.) Moore tried to show that because the French do not pay for health insurance, health care, and many other services out of their own pockets, les citoyens have plenty of disposable income in spite of the higher taxes they pay. However, I’m not sure the point came across clearly. The trip to Cuba (partly censored by the Department of Homeland Security) was moving, but I wondered how much the Cuban government helped make it so.

But one point came across clearly — we Americans are being lied to. We’re told that “socialized medicine” means the government will limit our access to health care; or that we won’t be free to choose our own doctors. But Moore shows us it’s American doctors whose hands are tied — by insurance companies — while doctors in Canada and France and elsewhere are free to practice the best medicine they can practice. And their patients are free to choose their doctors.

Sicko has its signature Michael Moore touches. One segment follows an American woman trying to sneak her sick daughter into Canada to see a pediatrician. A man who lost the tips of two fingers in an accident recalls that he had to choose which finger to restore, since he lacked the money for both. A woman rendered unconscious in a car accident was charged for the ambulance ride because, her insurance provider said, the ambulance hadn’t been pre-approved.

But then there was Tony Benn, a former member of the British Parliament, explaining how the British managed to create the National Health Service after World War II. “What democracy did was give the poor the vote, and it moved power from the marketplace to the polling station—from the wallet to the ballot…. And in 1948 the people asked, If you can have full employment by killing Germans, why can’t you have full employment by building hospitals? If you can find money to kill people, you can find money to help people.”

That line got enthusiastic applause from the Manhattan audience.

The poor in America have the vote, yet many do not choose to vote. Some who do vote cast ballots against their own interests. And many, as we know, are cheated of their ability to vote. But Moore’s movie was less about America’s poor than about America’s middle class; working people with insurance who are betrayed by the system. Surely the American middle class has the vote. Why aren’t we using it to our own benefit?

OK, we know why. It’s complicated, but we know why.

Someone in the French segment said something to the effect that The government of France is afraid of their people. Americans are afraid of their government. I’m not sure that’s true. I think Americans are just plain worn down. We’re worn down by the system, by the lies, by working too many hours, by juggling too many responsibilities by ourselves. And most of us don’t realize that we don’t have to live like this.

Like I said — Sicko broke my heart.

No Mistake

This is a follow up to the last post, in which I argue that it is the duty of a patriot to speak up about the wrongdoing of his own country. This is called “taking responsibility.” Non-patriots (like Michelle Malkin) confuse responsibility with disloyalty and scream that we liberals hate America because we point to Abu Ghraib before we point to atrocities committed by other nations.

To this, rightie blogger Neptunus Lex writes,

Both Maha from the Mahablog and Larisa Alexandrovna from At-Largely make the transparently intentional “mistake” of conflating the actions of the Abu Ghraib criminals – thugs who were ostensibly agents of the state but acting against the state’s interests, in contrast with the state’s orders and who were subsequently punished by the full weight of the state’s power – with the state sponsored actions of thuggish Iranian police in the service of a thuggish regime: A positionally gratifying but soul destroying form of moral equivalence.

On Lex’s planet, no one in government or the military who hasn’t already been punished for what happened at Abu Ghraib had anything to do with it. Funny; that’s not what it looks like on my planet. The military’s chief investigator of the incident, Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, says he was blocked from investigating who ordered the torture at Abu Ghraib. So, we don’t yet know beyond a doubt how far up knowledge and orders went. What we do know is not reassuring.

Today Barton Gellman and Jo Becker write for the Washington Post:

The vice president’s office played a central role in shattering limits on coercion of prisoners in U.S. custody, commissioning and defending legal opinions that the Bush administration has since portrayed as the initiatives, months later, of lower-ranking officials.

Cheney and his allies, according to more than two dozen current and former officials, pioneered a novel distinction between forbidden “torture” and permitted use of “cruel, inhuman or degrading” methods of questioning. They did not originate every idea to rewrite or reinterpret the law, but fresh accounts from participants show that they translated muscular theories, from Yoo and others, into the operational language of government.

A backlash beginning in 2004, after reports of abuse leaked out of Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo Bay, brought what appeared to be sharp reversals in courts and Congress — for both Cheney’s claims of executive supremacy and his unyielding defense of what he called “robust interrogation.”

But a more careful look at the results suggests that Cheney won far more than he lost. Many of the harsh measures he championed, and some of the broadest principles undergirding them, have survived intact but out of public view.

Let’s review a few matters that have been in public record for quite a while. We can begin with this handy-dandy timeline from the Washington Post. In short —

In January 2002, John Yoo (as deputy chief of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Counsel) circulated a draft memo saying the Geneva Conventions and laws of war do not apply to the U.S. military action in Afghanistan. By some coincidence, the first “detainees” arrived at Gitmo a couple of days later.

A couple of weeks after the John Yoo memo began to circulate, David Addington (then Vice President Cheney’s general counsel) drafted a legal memo in response to Secretary of State Powell’s opinion that Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners are protected by the Geneva Convention. Addington’s memo — prepared for White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales to sign — advised President Bush that “the war on terrorism is a new kind of war, a new paradigm [that] renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitation on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders some of its provisions quaint.”

On February 7, 2002, President Bush signed an order based on the Addington-Gonzales memo. A couple of years later the White House propaganda mill tried to claim this order rejected torture. But this claim drags parsing and nuance into the Twilight Zone. Michael Froomkin explained,

This Bush order applies to the Afghanistan Taliban, and to alleged al-Qaida members in Iraq and worldwide; it says they don’t have rights, but doesn’t say that they should be tortured; rather it says they should be treated “humanely” and that they should be given Geneva-like privileges when not too inconvenient to do so.

The order accepts the Royalist theory of Presidential power, but says it declines to apply it: “I accept the legal conclusion of the attorney general and the Department of Justice that I have the authority under the Constitution to suspend Geneva as between the United States and Afghanistan, but I decline to exercise that authority at this time.”

The other catch, of course, is the definition of “humanely.” Take the now-infamous August 1, 2002 torture memorandum to Gonzales, for example. As explained by John Dean [emphasis added] —

At the time, [Jay] Bybee was Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) – an office once called the conscience of the Justice Department. …

… The Bybee memo was a formal legal opinion of the Office of Legal Counsel interpreting the Convention Against Torture and the accompanying criminal provisions enacted by Congress in 1996 to prohibit torture.

The co-author of the memo was Bybee’s deputy, John Yoo, now a law professor at Berkeley’s Boalt Hall Law School. But who wrote what is unclear. In the end, Bybee was the senior official who signed off on the legal opinion, so the responsibility for its content is his.

Bybee’s interpretations guided the Bush Administration for twenty-two months. And a powerful case has been made that Bybee’s extraordinary reading of the law led to Americans engaging in torture at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.

The memo defines torture so narrowly that only activities resulting in “death, organ failure or the permanent impairment of a significant body function” qualify. It also claims, absurdly, that Americans can defend themselves if criminally prosecuted for torture by relying on the criminal law defenses of necessity and/or self-defense, based on the horror of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Finally, the memo asserts that the criminal law prohibiting torture “may be unconstitutional if applied to interrogations undertaken of enemy combatants pursuant to the President’s Commander-in-Chief powers.”

In short, the memo advises that when acting as commander-in-chief, the president can go beyond the law.

The Abu Ghraib photos became public in 2004. Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba headed the military investigation of Abu Ghraib. Let’s go to an editorial that appeared last week in the Philadelphia Inquirer to find out what happened next.

The abuses were systemic and pervasive, he concluded. He suspected, but was not in position to prove, that responsibility for these violations of human rights, military honor, American ideals and international law went far up the U.S. chain of command. [Remember, Taguba says he was blocked from investigating who ordered the torture at Abu Ghraib.]

His dire account was confirmed and buttressed by subsequent military and civilian investigations (e.g., the Fay and Schlesinger reports).

Taguba’s report rattled around the Pentagon without much response in early 2004, until the news media broke the Abu Ghraib story in April of that year.

In an interview in this week’s New Yorker magazine, Taguba says that then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s claims of ignorance about the real scope of the Abu Ghraib crimes struck him as phony then – and still do.

Here is the voice of American military idealism and honor talking:

”From the moment a soldier enlists, we inculcate loyalty, duty, honor, integrity and selfless service. And yet when we get to the senior-officer level, we forget those values. I know that my peers in the Army will be mad at me for speaking out, but the fact is that we violated the laws of land warfare in Abu Ghraib. We violated the tenets of the Geneva Convention. We violated our own principles, and we violated the core of our military values. The stress of combat is not an excuse, and I believe, even today, that those civilian and military leaders responsible should be held accountable.”

In January of 2006, Taguba was instructed by the Army to retire by January of 2007. No explanation was given.

Here’s the Seymour Hersh interview
of Taguba, btw.

Last year PBS ran a Frontline program called “The Torture Question.” This chronology takes us from the formation of the Bush Administration’s “legal” framework for torture through Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s involvement in development of torture policies.

And then there’s the Dickster himself, Vice President Cheney. As Spencer Ackerman wrote, “At every stage in the post-9/11 debate, Cheney and his staff sought to enshrine torture as official U.S. policy, relying on a legalistic distinction between ‘torture’ and ‘cruelty.'”

How much did Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and military brass know about Abu Ghraib before it became public? How much was explicitly ordered, and how much was just winked at? Why was Gen. Taguba prevented from investigating who ordered what at Abu Ghraib? Why was he asked to resign? And what’s going on that we don’t yet know about?

Although the degree of complicity with the atrocities at Abu Ghraib is not clear, it’s obvious that Bush and Cheney set the tone that enabled those atrocities. And there have been atrocities. Our good blog buddy The Talking Dog has been conducting interviews with people who worked within such “facilities” as Gitmo and who testify that things were done that should not have been done. Regarding Abu Ghraib, see, for example, this interview with Dr. Steven Miles.

There’s is a great deal more evidence I could drag into this post to show why I am not satisfied the real perps have been brought to justice, but I want to finish writing this blog post some time today. So let’s go back to Neptunus Lex and his criticism of my post–

This is discreditable.

It should have been easy for the left, they could have either ignored Malkin entirely or even deprecatingly agreed: Awful, what the Iranian regime has done, indefensible. Even if it doesn’t add up to a casus belli. Which, although you didn’t mention Michelle, we all assume is what you’re going after. You war mongering pig.

Too easy, I guess. We cannot agree on even this, that evil is evil, end-period-dot.

No: Even here we must grapple with ourselves.

It’s come to this.

Awhile back David Brooks wrote:

Some liberals have trouble grasping evil, and always think that if we could take care of the handguns or the weapons of mass destruction, our problems would be ameliorated. But I know the problem lies in the souls of our enemies. [David Brooks, NY Times, February 11, 2004]

I responded to this with a treatise on evil, which you can read here. This seems to be a common refrain in right-wing screeding — that we liberals don’t know evil, and they do.

But I know a few things about evil that Brooks, and Lex Neptunus, apparently don’t. I know it is seductive, for example. Most of the really great evil ever done in the world has been done by people who thought what they were doing was good and justified and righteous. The 9/11 attacks are a classic example. Torture, including torture sanctioned by any part of the United States government, is another example.

This isn’t about “moral equivalence.” It’s about stopping whatever evil I can stop. The 9/11 attacks happened. I can’t stop them now. But evil being perpetrated by my own government is something I ought to be able to do something about, since this is a republic and I am a citizen.

Another thing I know about evil is that evil does not recognize itself as evil. It denies truth and makes excuses. It doesn’t take responsibility.

Not taking responsibility should remind us of Hannah Arendt’s writings on the “banality of evil.” She looked hard at Adolf Eichmann, a chief architect of the Holocaust, and concluded that he was not so much consciously and willfully malevolent as he was unthinking. He followed orders without taking responsibility for the consequences. From the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Arendt concluded that Eichmann was constitutively incapable of exercising the kind of judgement that would have made his victims’ suffering real or apparent for him. It was not the presence of hatred that enabled Eichmann to perpetrate the genocide, but the absence of the imaginative capacities that would have made the human and moral dimensions of his activities tangible for him. Eichmann failed to exercise his capacity of thinking, of having an internal dialogue with himself, which would have permitted self-awareness of the evil nature of his deeds. This amounted to a failure to use self-reflection as a basis for judgement, the faculty that would have required Eichmann to exercise his imagination so as to contemplate the nature of his deeds from the experiential standpoint of his victims. This connection between the complicity with political evil and the failure of thinking and judgement inspired the last phase of Arendt’s work, which sought to explicate the nature of these faculties and their constitutive role for politically and morally responsible choices.

Please note that I am not saying Abu Ghraib is morally equivalent to the Holocaust. I really don’t give a bleep about moral equivalences. The evil that most concerns me, great or small, is evil I might be responsible for, and that I might be able to stop.

And, of course, if you’ve been following the “Wisdom of Doubt” series, you know I think the real evil that men (and women) do comes not from a lack of morality or religion, but from our capacity to bullshit ourselves about ourselves. People who cannot honestly examine themselves and reflect deeply on their own desires and motives are oh, so easily deceived and seduced by evil.

So now we see Neptunus Lex, who dismisses Abu Ghraib as the property of the “anti-war left” –” it is the defining moment wherein the moral high ground shifted, where they – up until that moment abiding darkly in the stilt puppet wilderness – walked gratefully into the light of public approbation.” And who assumes he and the politicians he supports had nothing to do with it — not his responsibility. Not something he has to think about. Out of sight, out of mind.

Yes, evil is evil, especially when it can’t recognize itself. I suggest to Mr. Neptunus that if he wants to see the face of evil, he should go look in a mirror.