“Jon Stewart and the Smug Liberal”: is torture a matter of opinion?

      In a Sunday Review in early August, the New York Times published a sour article by a Virginia political scientist apparently protesting Jon Stewart’s putatively myopic liberalism. But the article actually built toward a conclusion which emphasized the pluckiness of John Yoo, whom Stewart had expected to be a blusterer, and the allegedly – by Professor Alexander – careful consideration given to what is torture by Mr. Yoo,  Yet, as Alexander does not say, Yoo’s memos – a lawyer writing texts for criminal purposes no lawyer could defend – have not so far seen the light of day…
        Alexander snarks:   “Ask yourself how intellectually curious Mr. Stewart really could be, not to know that this is what Bush administration officials had been saying all along?”  His general thesis – that “liberals” do not take the arguments of neocons seriously – fails to consider the money poured into so-called conservative views. Neither the British Tories nor any European conservative denies global warming or ignores science; that is left to, sadly, the “Republican” Party. In addition, it is, in fact, a conservative position to oppose crusading wars supposedly for democracy, as, for example, in Iraq and today in Iran (see Come Home America website or Andrew Sullivan…)


     In this election, a small clique of billionaires led by the Koch brothers
is ponying up $900 million for “Republican” candidates, the same as the Republic Party and the Democrats expect to raise as “political organizations.”  Ted Cruz prates on a single contribution of $58 million dollars.  Though W., just reelected in 2004, tried to give individually-earned Social Security pensions to Wall Street, that was a moral, public relations and political disaster.  Yet every single current Republican candidate for the nomination, with the exception of the blustering, unusually racist Mr. Trump, has announced that they, too, will go after Social Security. That is shilling for the 1% – as Trump, a billionaire, pointed out when 5 potential nominees “went begging” at a Koch brothers conference; it is doing so, even more unusually than the Democrats (Bernie Sanders is the only exception in this campaign).


      Alexander reiterates a theme about alleged condescension from a previous article in  Washington Post – see “Why are liberals so condescending?” here (it is amusing what the Times finds worthy of recycling…).  Some of us just have anger as well as dismay at powerful people launching aggressions or threatening, through global warming for profit, to destroy life on earth; instead of providing decent arguments for “the cow is long out of the barn”…and there are none, Alexander strikes a pathetic pose of being condescended to (a neocon, as it were, who is good at a con)…

       For counterarguments that support the Iran treaty (Obama actually provided many of these) and not yet engaged by Adelson/Netanyahu/Republicans/Schumer and Menendez/Mr. Alexander, see here, here, here here, here and here.

         But shielding Bush crimes is the main objective (withdrawing even the 600 page summary of the Senate’s torture report has been a full time CIA/Republican activity, sadly supported by Obama).  All of Professor Alexander’s handwaving is a Trojan Horse to legitimize John Yoo and torture.

        For as Alexander omits, Yoo’s memos were withdrawn by Jack Goldsmith, head of the Office of Legal Council, at the cost of his job (see Jane Meyer’s account in The Dark Side of his collaboration with Assistant Attorney General James Comey in which they had to invent a special language to communicate in the American government – something  not even people working for Saddam Hussein or Adolf Hitler, i.e. working in a more obviously totalitarian government did… –  because they were unbelievable, legally speaking, as well as being ex post facto.  At Cheney/Addington’s command (and with Bush’s approval), the CIA had already launched the torture program – taking over for the FBI and Ali Soufan who had elicited information from Khalid Shaikh Mohammed without waterboarding –  six months before.


     Thus, the point of Professor Alexander’s piece was to advance backhandedly the supposed reasonableness of torturers and of the crime of torture.  According to the Pentagon, over a hundred homicides occurred in American custody in the Bush period, most of those as a result of torture (the film “Taxi to the Dark Side” is about the murder by torture of Mr. Dilawar, a 24 year old taxi driver).  


     Murder is perhaps, even for Professor Alexander, a crime…
     That week, the Times printed four letters which made more or less clever points on behalf of Democrats against “conservatives.” That left the misimpression that law and the rule of law are somehow a “partisan” issue. 
         But basing themselves on the Magna Carta in 1215 in England, Anglo-American conservatives support habeas corpus (the right of each prisoner to a day in court) and disdain torture and torturers…Bush, Cheney and Yoo are, in fact, imperial, racist authoritarians, destroying the centerpiece of international and domestic law to imprison and torture hundreds of innocent people – Bush finally released most – at Guantanamo, Bagram and Abu Ghraib, inter alia. Of those who were indifferent or of former friends abroad, they have made America many enemies (Since racism is an ideology, Yoo, of course, is not shielded from it, by being Asian-American). 

    The rule of law has not so far, been reestablished inside the United States  (as Black Lives Matter shows, it often does not exist for black and brown people).

    Under the United Nations’ Convention against Torture, each regime is obligated to bring its own officials, against whom there is plausible evidence, to trial.  In the Bush case, the evidence in the public press is overwhelming: hence, Obama decided to have no hearings, and to suppress, at the CIA’s request the Senate’s Report on torture (Senator Udall courageously stood up for releasing at least the summary; even Dianne Feinstein, a career protector of the CIA spoke out, against this suppression).


     This Convention signed by President Reagan and ratified by Congress in 1994, is also American law.  By Article 6 section 2 of the Constitution (the Supremacy Clause), treaties signed and ratified by the US government become the highest law of the land. See here.


    That the Times did not print this brief – 88 word – letter shows that its onetime editorial protests against torture have, with Obama deciding to make himself an accomplice to the crime of torture, faded:
“To the editor, 
   Gerard Alexander praises John Yoo, an intelligent man, for getting the better of Jon Stewart, by Stewart’s account, on the Daily Show.  What Alexander fails to notice is that as Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Legal Council, Yoo licensed Government torture.  Under the Convention against Torture and many American laws, torture is a great crime.  It is not ‘conservative,’ and neither intelligence nor civility is a defense.  
       Alan Gilbert”
       The United Nations Convention against Torture, signed by President Reagan in 1988 and ratified by Congress in 1994 overrides John Yoo’s and Stephen Bradbury’s torture memoranda and the Military Commissions Act of 2006:

“Art 2, Sec. 2.  No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability, or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

      The Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution: Treaties signed by the United States and endorsed by Congress are the Supreme Law of the Land:

“Art 6, section 2: This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.”


   Here is Alexander’s article, retitled for later editions:
Sunday Review | OPINION
Jon Stewart, Patron Saint of Liberal Smugness
IT shows how gifted Jon Stewart is that his best moment happened on someone else’s show. He appeared in 2004 on “Crossfire,” a CNN yelling program, and asked the hosts to take seriously their responsibility to public understanding by having useful conversations instead of shouting matches.
It was Mr. Stewart’s finest hour. He made an earnest pitch for civility in a place where there really was none. Which makes it too bad that in his 16 years of hosting “The Daily Show,” he never lived up to his own responsibility. His prodigious talents — he was smart and funny, and even more of both when he was mad — perfectly positioned him to purge a particular smugness from our discourse. Instead, he embodied it. I loved watching him, and hated it too.
Many liberals, but not conservatives, believe there is an important asymmetry in American politics. These liberals believe that people on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum are fundamentally different. Specifically, they believe that liberals are much more open to change than conservatives, more tolerant of differences, more motivated by the public good and, maybe most of all, smarter and better informed. 
The evidence for these beliefs is not good. Liberals turn out to be just as prone to their own forms of intolerance, ignorance and bias. But the beliefs are comforting to many. They give their bearers a sense of intellectual and even moral superiority. And they affect behavior. They inform the condescension and self-righteousness with which liberals often treat conservatives. They explain why many liberals have greeted Tea Partiers and other grass-roots conservatives with outsize alarm. They explain why liberals fixate on figures such as Sarah Palin and Todd Akin, who represent the worst that many liberals are prepared to see in conservatives. These liberals often end up sounding like Jon Lovitz, on “Saturday Night Live,” impersonating Michael Dukakis in 1988, gesturing toward the Republican and saying “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy!” This sense of superiority is hardly the only cause of our polarized public discourse, but it sure doesn’t help.
And Mr. Stewart, who signed off from “The Daily Show” on Thursday, was more qualified than anybody to puncture this particular pretension. He trained his liberal-leaning audience to mock hypocrisy, incoherence and stupidity, and could have nudged them to see the planks in their own eyes, too. Instead, he cultivated their intellectual smugness by personifying it.
I don’t mean the know-it-all persona he adopted on the air. That’s normal for a host. If anything, he was unusually self-deprecating for his line of work. And I don’t mean that Mr. Stewart thought all progressives were perfect. When some self-styled smart liberals didn’t vaccinate their children, he cracked: “They’re not ignorant. They practice a mindful stupidity.” But there was no doubt where he tilted politically. Conservatives were his main target when George W. Bush was president, and also when Barack Obama took office.

His claims to be objective fell flat. For instance, Mr. Stewart denied being in President Obama’s corner by re-airing a clip in which he had made fun of the Obamacare website’s rollout, as if that was the same as questioning Obamacare itself. That was par for Mr. Stewart’s course, mocking liberals’ tactics and implementation but not their underlying assumptions or ideas.
He could have made the liberals in his audience more open to dialogue across the great left/right divide by asking them to examine themselves more carefully and to admit that both ideological camps contain fools. Instead, he was a cultural entrepreneur who provided those viewers with the validation they wanted.
Maybe that’s why my strongest memory of Mr. Stewart, like that of many other conservatives, is probably going to be his 2010 interview with the Berkeley law professor John Yoo. Mr. Yoo had served in Mr. Bush’s Justice Department and had drafted memos laying out what techniques could and couldn’t be used to interrogate Al Qaeda detainees. Mr. Stewart seemed to go into the interview expecting a menacing Clint Eastwood type, who was fully prepared to zap the genitals of some terrorist if that’s what it took to protect America’s women and children.
Mr. Stewart was caught unaware by the quiet, reasonable Mr. Yoo, who explained that he had been asked to determine what legally constituted torture so the government could safely stay on thisside of the line. The issue, in other words, wasn’t whether torture was justified but what constituted it and what didn’t. Ask yourself how intellectually curious Mr. Stewart really could be, not to know that this is what Bush administration officials had been saying all along?

Mr. Stewart later acknowledged that Mr. Yoo had bested him, which didn’t happen very often. In that sense, the interview was an outlier. But it wasn’t a coincidence. Mr. Stewart had gone in lazy, relying on a caricature, and seemingly unprepared for the thoughtful conservative sitting in his guest chair.
After all those years, the comedian turned liberal standard-bearer still didn’t really comprehend the conservatives on the other side of the divide. Worse, he didn’t help his liberal viewers better understand themselves.

GERARD ALEXANDER is an associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia