Political Animal


February 03, 2013 11:23 AM William Saletan, torture apologist

By Kathleen Geier

If you ever wondered why so many liberals and lefties have a visceral loathing for that plague upon humanity known as journalistic contrarianism, you need look no further than the work of Slate’s William Saletan. Contrarianism as we know it was developed and perfected to a fare-thee-well at The New Republic during the 80s and 90s. But currently there is no better outlet for it than Slate (see the Twitter hashtag #slatepitches for some hilarious parodies of this particular bill of fare).

Saletan is the Lord High Contrarian — insufferably smug, writing like a pompous know-it-all even though his knowledge of and thinking about a subject is rarely more than paper-thin, and a nominal liberal writing for a nominally liberal publication who in fact frequently advances reactionary arguments. The latest is this Newsday op-ed, “The Case for Torture.”

Well, at least the headline writer is honest about the underlying argument, even if the rest of the piece is extremely cagey and disingenuous. What gives the game away immediately, though, is that Saletan repeatedly uses the torturers’ preferred term for what they do — they’re not torturing anyone, silly, they’re merely practicing “enhanced interrogation techniques!” Beautifully Orwellian, that.

The rest of the piece consists of Saletan’s lackey-like stenography from a forum at the conservative American Enterprise Institution. It’s quite apparent that no human rights fans were invited to participate on the panel, because apparently all that anyone ever said at this shindig was how helpful torture was, and how no one ever went too far with it, of course. From time to time, Saletan makes a pretense of objectivity, of being just a reporter delivering the facts.

But no reporter with any sense of human decency could sit there, listen to what he heard, and not ask any sharp questions of the participants. Or seek out experts with opposing views to hear a different side of the story. Or at least do some more reading, for gosh sakes.

After reading his piece, I felt sick all over again — not just about our government torturing people, but about the propaganda industry that has developed to justify it, which William Saletan has now joined. Congratulations, Mr. Saletan!

In the event that you are unacquainted with the previous work by this charming and deeply thoughtful journalist, let me present a highlight reel:

— The best way for pro-choicers to make the case for abortion rights is to repeatedly denounce abortion as bad and wrong. And also, to collaborate with anti-choice groups on abortion prevention strategies, such as birth control. As is well known, the Catholic Church and the right-to-life groups are wildly enthusiastic about increased access to birth control!

— Because African-Americans score lower than whites on IQ tests, that virtually proves they are genetically inferior. And any of you liberal hippie scum who raise objections to this are exactly the same as evolution-denying creationists — so there!

— Geeze, cut Roman Polanski some slack, already! Because the average age of menarche is declining, statutory rape is no biggie — at least, not anymore!

— Because the charges that Dominique Strauss-Kahn had raped a hotel housekeeper were dropped, this proves that the government is always able to determine whether or not a rape occurred. Good to know!

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee


  • gregor on February 03, 2013 1:38 PM:

    Talking about assholes.

    Low hanging fruit indeed.

    Next up: Jonah Lucianne Goldberg.

    Tell us something we don't know.

  • Ryan Seacrest on February 03, 2013 2:08 PM:

    Brilliant post!
    >insufferably smug, writing like a pompous know-it-all even though his knowledge of and thinking about a subject is rarely more than paper-thin

  • Joe Friday on February 03, 2013 2:48 PM:

    "What gives the game away immediately, though, is that Saletan repeatedly uses the torturers' preferred term for what they do - they're not torturing anyone, silly, they're merely practicing 'enhanced interrogation techniques!' "

    Somebody needs to remind Saletan that after WWII, Japanese soldiers were charged with war crimes for torture because they WATERBOARDED American POWs. They were tried and convicted by American judges, then EXECUTED by hanging.

  • Anonymous on February 03, 2013 3:57 PM:

    The ticking bomb scenario, if it ever occurs, which is doubtful, is the only element of the pro-torture argument that makes any moral sense. Otherwise, a torturer is either a sadist, a brute, or a poor timorous creature "just following orders." No doubt some of the hanged Japanese waterboarders were confused by the severity of their sentences. As Captain Mandrake, the RAF officer in "Dr. Strangelove", says about his torturing WWII captors: "I don't think they wanted me to [talk], the swine."

  • c u n d gulag on February 03, 2013 3:58 PM:

    When I was a kid growing up, and then as a young adult, if you had told me that we would start to torture people, admit it, and then not only continue doing it, but defend it, I'd have called in the men with the butterfly nets.

    Now, I'm under no delusion that we didn't torture any people during WWII, or Korea, or Vietnam, or have someone do it in our stead, but if we did it,or ok'd it, we were covert about it, and, people were punished if they were caught torturing others.

    Now, thanks to the evil George W. Bush, and his even more evil puppet-master, Dick Cheney, we have opened up that Pandora's Box, and utter morons like this Saletan @$$clown, feel free to defend the indefensible.

    Bush, Cheney, Rummy, Condi, Yoo, Gonzalez, and, yes, Colin Powell, need to be tried as War Criminals, and locked up for the rest of their lives.

    Not just for the needless wars and occupations, or the torture that they approved of, but for bringing immense and everlastingshame to this once, though far from perfect, great nation.

  • Thymezone on February 03, 2013 4:36 PM:

    "writing like a pompous know-it-all even though his knowledge of and thinking about a subject is rarely more than paper-thin"

    Well, that's called projection. I have caught you doing exactly that, on these very pages, and have never seen you reconsider or take back any of the facile junk that you wrote.

  • pontormo on February 03, 2013 5:15 PM:

    I am afraid I agree with Thymezone.
    Content aside, this is not adult writing.

  • Rich on February 03, 2013 6:00 PM:

    Slate, of course, was filled with second string TNRs for years under that former second string TNR editor, Michael Kinsley. Kinsley is gone from Slate but finally beginning to be recognized as a hack, but much of the culture he created lives on. It's a bad sign that WM publishes him now.

  • Maccheerful on February 03, 2013 6:20 PM:

    I think you're going overboard. What exactly in the column shows Saletan to be a torture apologist? As I read it he was showing what the torturers were thinking, which is a valuable service. I already know what those who hate torture, like myself, think. What the practitioners of torture actually think is less well known.

    The interesting piece of new information, at least to me, was that the torturers consciously disclaim the ticking bomb scenario that obsesses everybody else. They claim they only ask questions during torture they already know the answer to. The goal is to crush the will of the victim, convince them the situation is hopeless and the torturers already have an answer, and they must obey the torturers in everything. It's not questioning, it's abusive conditioning.

    Most anti-torture people go either with it's impractical or it's immoral or both. For those arguing it's impractical, they need to grapple with the above rationalization - can you get transform a human being into a groveling obedient person by prolonged abuse and torture? Hopefully not.

    Which makes the moral case more important. It doesn't matter that you might be able to.

    But Ms. Geier seems bent out of shape the article didn't do everything she wanted it to do, not just presenting the torturers argument but also providing a comprehensive overview of all torture analysis. Perhaps Saletan, like many journalists, is just presenting one piece of the puzzzle. Is it really necessary to indulge in so much ad hominem just because that's what he's doing here?

  • AngryOldVet on February 03, 2013 6:46 PM:

    Other than that torture is immoral, illegal (under both U.S. & international law) and does not work, what is there not to like about it?

    All of the 'justifications' and rationalizations that are made for torture are equally usable by external forces to justify the torture of American military men and women. I believe that anyone who proposes that torture by and in the name of our country has a serious hatred for our military personnel. Why do these people hate our military men and women and so much love our militarization industry?

  • Col Bat Guano on February 03, 2013 7:50 PM:

    While Saletan may or may not be a torture apologist, the three people he presented certainly are, to their everlasting discredit.

  • Keith M Ellis on February 03, 2013 8:42 PM:

    "Well, that's called projection. I have caught you doing exactly that, on these very pages, and have never seen you reconsider or take back any of the facile junk that you wrote."

    I share most of Geier's politics and policy preferences, but it's true that she strikes me (and, I think, others here) as something like a mirror image of her political enemies.

    The most telling trait is just how many of her posts are polemical vilification. That is to say, almost all of them. She's concerned with villains and her arguments are drenched with moral condemnation. That's extremely reminiscent to the arguments of the hard-right.

    Now, mind you, I'm not averse to moral condemnation when it's appropriate ... and it's often appropriate. The right is doing a lot of very bad things.

    But I think that, with regard to politics, people sort of divide between those who are drawn toward self-righteousness and vilification — a sort of outraged, xenophobic personal view of politics that is dominated by a long list of mortal enemies — and those who have ideologies and beliefs and preferred policies and, yes, moral and ethical intuition and reasoning but nevertheless do not exist within the political sphere as if one were playing a role in a WWII movie where it's Us against the Evil Nazis. Speaking for myself, I tend to think that almost as much harm follows from this Manichean view than it does from the more directly harmful ideologies and policies. (To be clear: this doesn't mean that compromise is always possible, or desirable. People can be fools or weak or venal, but not wicked villains, and still do as much damage.)

    However, my observation is that it's always a lost cause to get those prone to this mindset to become more self-aware and less hateful. Because, sadly, for most it is perversely emotionally self-sustaining. Whether Kathleen Geier or Fox News, a world in which one is absolutely certain of who are the nefarious villains, plotting evilly, is a world that is paradoxically emotionally safe and satisfying.

  • James M on February 04, 2013 12:20 AM:

    @Keith M Ellis on February 03, 2013 8:42 PM:
    "Speaking for myself, I tend to think that almost as much harm follows from this Manichean view than it does from the more directly harmful ideologies and policies."

    Hmmm....this sounds lofty but I am not sure I buy it! It seems similar to the gun apologists' arguments, in a kind of "It's policies that hurt society, not people." way!. I have always ascribed to the 'Great Man Theory': that it is individuals rather than the zeitgeist that moves major events.

    For example, does anyone who regularly comments here think that Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Rupert Murdoch, Karl Rove, Paul Ryan, the Koch brothers, etc., are just decent (if misguided) actors out to do their bit to improve society? In my opinion these guys are all aggressively involved in activities so harmful and negative as to border on being evil.

    MSNBC's Chris Hayes likes to emphasize that U.S. political and economic elites now live in an accountability-free world. They receive no punishment or adverse impacts for the damage they cause to society. You may argue with her style, but I think that for the most part Kathleen is calling out people who deserve to be called out.

  • Mike on February 04, 2013 8:33 AM:

    What I learned from reading this: Kathleen Geier doesn't like William Saletan, and doesn't like his piece in Newsday.

    What I didn't learn from reading this: Any reason why anything Saletan said in his piece should be discounted, outside of vehement ad hominem.

    What's the point of writing a critique if you don't actually critique anything? I usually get better from this blog. Sad.