Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Friday, February 03, 2012

We Are All Crabs on a Beach Under a Crashing Wave

So I have been reading about Guatemalan atrocities. It seems as though Guatemala entered a kind of prolonged hell - constant violence, rampant crime, no one to trust, no justice.

I also recently read a book set in Nazi Germany. Again, a kind of hell. Resistance is futile (if morally mandatory), everyone is compromised. You really can't do much. If you fight back, you will quickly be crushed. If you don't help crush other people, you will be crushed. [Note: not all resistance was futile, of course. It's just that it took special circumstances for anyone to be able to accomplish anything worthwhile. Schindler and Duckwitz, yes, but not really von Stauffenberg. Nice try, though. Same for the Hampels (the subject of the book I read, Every Man Dies Alone.]

So, my theory: morality as punctuated equilibrium. Most moral decisions are minor. You shouldn't cheat on an exam, you shouldn't cheat on your taxes, you shouldn't cheat on your wife. These things really do matter, I don't mean to minimize them. But it's far more important to prevent Nazi Germany than it is to make some token resistance once Nazi Germany is in place. We avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings, to quote (misquote?) Justice Jackson.

So my claim is simply, every once in a while, you face a decision on which a tremendous amount hinges. Usually, not much hinges on your decisions. And when you are in a "constitutional moment" (I've forgotten whom I'm plagiarizing here), it's pretty fucking crucial for you to be clear-headed and decisive. You've got to shoot Hitler in the face or issue a declaration calling for a general strike and a speech from Mikhail Gorbachev or something.

Again, it's not that morality doesn't matter in day-to-day life. But practical men are the slaves of defunct moral actors who seized the moment and changed history. Take a moment and be grateful that you live in a society where you don't have to make the compromises that the Guatemalans and the Germans had to make.


And by another coincidence, the New York Times has a slideshow on the violence in Guatemala.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

The Clinton Administration Being the Clinton Administration

So, I swear the title of my previous post was a coincidence. I had no idea this happened:

In March [of 1999], President Bill Clinton visited Guatemala and, with President Arzú sitting in stony silence beside him, made an extraordinary apology for the decades of U.S. support of military dictatorships. "It is important that I state clearly that support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression of the kind described in [a United Nations report, Memory of Silence] was wrong," he said. "And the United States must not repeat that mistake."
I suppose it's too late for Mitt Romney to give a speech attacking Clinton for the apology, but you never know. If he does, I hope someone brings up Rosario Godoy de Cuevas (and the hundreds of thousands of people like her).

Back Before the President was Always Apologizing for the U.S.

It is important to remember this. From The Art of Political Murder, by Francisco Goldman:

Rosario Godoy de Cuevas spoke at Héctor Gómez's funeral, promising that his death would not be in vain. Three days later, Rosario, her young son, and her twenty-one-year-old brother were abducted from the parking lot of a shopping center. The next day her car was found flipped over in a shallow ditch by a road outside the city. The bodies of Rosario, her brother, and her child were inside. The government announced that it had been a tragic car accident, as did President Reagan's State Department spokesman, and the State Department spokesman's declaration, probably unnoticed by anyone in the United States, was repeatedly played on Guatemalan television.

The journalist Mark Fazlollah, later a distinguished reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer, but at the time a young stringer, was staying in my house, and he decided to do some old-fashioned police reporting. He looked at the car the three had died in, and at the ditch where the accident had supposedly occurred, and concluded that the car had been rather gently rolled into it. He spoke to the doctor who had performed the autopsy confirming that the incident had been an accident. The doctor, who was soon murdered, could not bring himself to stand by his autopsy report. When Rosario Godoy de Cuevas's relatives went to claim her body at the morgue, they noticed that there were bite marks on her breasts. Her underpants were stained with blood, indicating rape. At the funeral, people noticed that her infant's fingernails had been torn out. The torturers would have done that, torn out the baby's fingernails while the mother was still alive, to try to get her to say whatever it is they wanted her to say.
Always lovely to see the Reagan administration being the Reagan administration.