Torture and Taboo: On Elaine Scarry
For Rorty, the highest—indeed, sole—goal of public institutions is to keep evil at bay for the sake of private self-creation. We should divide our libraries in two, he proposed: “books which help us become autonomous” and “books which help us become less cruel.” And torture, in Scarry’s rendition, served him as the exemplar for how the politics of the public realm could go awry and infringe on private artistry by destroying self-creation. Strikingly, Rorty went so far as to redefine “solidarity” in terms of torture: solidarity is “the ability to see more and more traditional differences (of tribe, religion, race, customs, and the like) as unimportant when compared with similarities with respect to pain and humiliation.” Once we see that we are all potential victims of torture, in other words, we will overcome our petty divisions for the sake of protecting our bodies from pain.
In two extraordinary (and extraordinarily flawed) chapters, Rorty turned to literature to illustrate the overwhelming political importance of cruelty and torture. He focuses on the last part of George Orwell’s 1984, in which the cunning Inner Party member O’Brien tortures the novel’s hero, Winston Smith, to gain his compliance. Folded into Rorty’s interpretation of the novel is an attack on the literary critic Raymond Williams, who had dismissed the last part of 1984 on the grounds that Orwell rejected torture so strenuously that he left politics behind. Orwell’s mistake, Williams insisted, was to make torture (and the power to humiliate in general) so crucial a concern; by doing so, Orwell tacitly assumed that power itself is evil and the best thing one could do was to avoid its workings, especially when it reached the extremity of torture. One could denounce torture, Williams countered, without ceasing to concern oneself with what sort of regime was perpetrating it and what sort of politics should replace it. To a Marxist like Williams, or a social democrat, or even a less reactive liberal, the limitation of Orwell’s stance—indenturing the imagination to the specter of “endless torture,” on the assumption that torture is the inescapable face of power—was its denial that power and imagination are necessary for creating a good regime. Ultimately, what matters is the sort of social life that power and imagination can bring about, not just whether torture is averted.
Rorty, however, confined the imagination to the private sphere, restricting its use in public life to helping one see how inimical to others cruelty can be. Torture became the new polestar of politics, Rorty insists, precisely because the dream of “a better world” that people had mobilized around and fought brutal hot and cold wars over in the twentieth century at some point stopped making sense. (The wars contributed to that.) “We cannot tell ourselves a story about how to get from the actual present to such a future,” he contends. “This inability to imagine how to get from here to there is a matter neither of loss of moral resolve nor of theoretical superficiality, self-deception, or self-betrayal. It is not something we can remedy…. It is just the way things happen to have fallen out…. This bad news remains the great intransigent fact of contemporary political speculation.”
Rorty’s argument discloses some of the hidden assumptions of Scarry’s position. Scarry never really defended the single-mindedness of making Amnesty’s position on torture her polestar. Rorty did so for her—and us. The bad news of torture is very bad in a world where there is worse news: political hopelessness. For Rorty, idealism in public affairs isn’t possible in the foreseeable future, so our world of hierarchy and suffering just has to be accepted, with torture—which Orwell had shown insidiously at work even in the grandest effort to remedy hierarchy and suffering—the only thing that you and I could possibly imagine fixing. True, Rorty was nominally a social democrat (Orwell was too), but placing torture first among public concerns belied this commitment. Torture matters greatly, Rorty writes, in “a globe divided into a rich, free, democratic, selfish, and greedy First World…and a starving, overpopulated, desperate Third World.” This state of affairs may not have been inevitable, but it is unalterable: “We liberals have no plausible large-scale scenario for changing that world.” But while cultivating our private gardens, at least we can condemn torture.
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Leaving aside her quixotic attempt to trace the loss of TWA Flight 800 in 1996 to electromagnetic radiation, an undertaking she was allowed to pursue in three long articles published by The New York Review of Books, it was the hijacking and crashing of planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the dishonorable acts committed during the two wars launched by the United States in their wake, that caused Scarry to move into political commentary in the last decade. Yet her reasoning about torture after 9/11 has remained consistent with the pattern she â¨laid down long before.
Scarry’s first effort was characteristically unusual. Comparing the ways that two of the planes on 9/11 crashed, Scarry contends in Who Defended the Country? (2003) that United Flight 93, heading toward Washington, DC, but brought down by its passengers in a field in Pennsylvania, provided a generalizable example of how small, local groups are capable of defending themselves under their own power. It was true, of course, that American Flight 77, which hit the Pentagon, demonstrated the unpreparedness of the government and military for the events on that day. But it hardly follows that, as a general rule, ordinary citizens can and should take ”injuring” into their own hands.