Thursday, September 11, 2008

Since we (the United States of America) are neither an oligarchy nor a monarchy, nor are we a dictatorship or ruled by our military what are we then? As a democratic republic we governed by a constitution and the various laws established by our legislature. The President is charged with upholding and executing these laws. Following are a couple recent articles related by a broad stroke to this portrait of our Nation’s governance.

First from the Boston Review: Presidential Crimes: Moving on is not an option by Elaine Scarry

“We have at the present time two government leaders, a president and a vice president, who, according to all available evidence, have carried out grave crimes.”

Next from The New Yorker: The Florentine: The man who taught rulers how to rule, by Claudia Roth Pierpont

Odd, that an expert at winning should have lost so much, and then lost it all again. In however perverse a way, Machiavelli was no less a martyr to his convictions than Thomas More, who was beheaded—and eventually canonized—for his refusal to condone the royal power grab that Henry VIII purportedly learned from “The Prince.” Of course, More had the courage to stand in opposition to the moral direction of his times. Machiavelli was his times: he gave permanent form and force to its political habits and unspoken principles. Although it is often said that modern politics begins with Machiavelli, most politicians still run and hide at the mention of his name. In 1972, Henry Kissinger, the most arguably “Machiavellian” counsellor of princes this country has ever seen, recoiled at the insinuation that he had learned anything from the Florentine Secretary, stating, “There is very little of Machiavelli’s one can use in the contemporary world.” (Kissinger’s only competitor in this area, Karl Rove, is the subject of a new biography titled “Machiavelli’s Shadow.”) Yet we continue to flounder in the break between politics and ethics that Machiavelli made impossible to ignore: private life and public life; personal morality and Realpolitik. We insist that our leaders convince us that they are exemplary and (increasingly) God-fearing human beings, who are nevertheless able to protect us from enemies not so constrained. How is this to be done? Do we really want to know?

Most important, as we emerge from the century that gave Utopia a bad name—in which Hitler and Stalin and other genocidal princes believed they were building superior worlds, in which the means was annihilation and the end an illusion—we are still arguing bitterly over the question of whether the end justifies the means. Are there any acts that one’s sense of honor (or conscience, or ability to sleep at night) forbid one to commit—as an individual, as a nation—no matter what the promised end? Machiavelli did not question the use of torture for political purposes, even after he had been its victim. “When the very safety of the country depends upon the resolution to be taken,” he wrote in the “Discourses,” “no considerations of justice or injustice, humanity or cruelty, not of glory or of infamy, should be allowed to prevail.” This has doubtless been the tacit position of many governments throughout history; it is openly the position of a large segment of our government now, with Vice-President Cheney warning of the need for going to “the dark side” in dealing with terrorist suspects, and Attorney General Mukasey undecided about which methods of “enhanced” interrogation constitute torture. There is no question, however, about the method used on Machiavelli, the strappado—also known today as “Palestinian hanging”—which was responsible for the death of an Iraqi detainee in C.I.A. custody at Abu Ghraib in 2003: the prisoner was suspended by his arms, which had been shackled behind his back, and died of asphyxiation. Private morality may be presumed to prevail again when the country is strong and secure, although Machiavelli, unlike those who offer such consolation, admitted that the nature of mankind makes it unlikely that there ever will be such a time. “I love my country more than my own soul,” Machiavelli wrote, yet a full assessment of his work makes that decision far from clear. Then, as now, it is a terrible choice.

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