Just a personal note –
Tuesday, December 11, late in the evening out here, I posted the column on the on the CIA torture tapes scandal, if a scandal is what that is – War Crimes Obviously.
Well, scandal or not, the matter is controversial. In fact, the next morning, as the east was starting to get light and with coffee-maker loaded and then set off to help with the unavoidable sunny morning to follow, and it was time to check what sort of emails came in overnight. So light a pipe, fire up the laptop and see who wants what. Nothing from Nigerian widows wanting to use my bank account to transfer funds – fine – the usual list of typos to correct from the high-powered Wall Street attorney who is the default editor here, duly noted, but nothing much else. So, waiting for the coffee to become what it should, it was the usual – delete the come-ons for fake Rolex watches and what might or might not be Viagra at a discount, and, after a quick skim, delete the “today’s highlights” emails from the New York Times, Washington Post, Salon, Huffington, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the French dailies and all the others. The world was still out there – no denying that.
But what was this? An email from Ben Tobias of the BBC World Service –
I’m writing from the BBC World Service radio programme ‘World Have Your Say’. It’s an interactive discussion programme with callers from all over the world. Today we are asking the question ‘Is torture ever justified?’, based on the waterboarding CIA story. I read the article on your blog about this, and I’d really like it if you could come on the programme to express your opinions.
Really? Could this be? With sixty or seventy readers a day, it seemed unlikely that JUST ABOVE SUNSET was noticed in London – but then the spelling and punctuation seemed authentic. When JUST ABOVE SUNSET in its previous format used to publish columns from Mike McCahill – “Our Man in London” – that used to drive the American editing software crazy (but each came out just fine, as you can see). So what the heck – maybe it wasn’t a scam This Tobias chap wanted my telephone number, and that seemed harmless. So I sent it to him.
Then it was the coffee, finally, and grabbing the morning paper from the doorstep to see what the folks at the Los Angeles Times had to tell us all. Wednesday morning always brings the automotive review from Dan Neil – he and I have traded a few emails and I like his style. But what’s this? He loves the new Cadillac – better than the comparable Benz, BMW or Lexus. Interesting – out of my league, but interesting. So on to the news, the business pages, sports, what they call entertainment, the daily book review, a glance at the events calendar for fodder for the photography site, and then the guilt trip. Do I really want to read the columnists and the letters to the editor? One should – but that usually makes one’s head hurt. The letters are invariably both pithy and inane – shallow in a way that make you think the Times staff, carefully selecting each and extracting the key points, is trying to prove to its readers that most people out here are dolts who really need the Times to explain the real world to the rest of us who live at this far end of America. The columns are often shortened versions of items that appeared the day before, or the week before, somewhere on the web – you just watch the Times catch up – but then they provide a summary service, with a few details, to those who don’t troll the web throughout the day to catch whatever sense they can of what the heck is going in this sorry world. JUST ABOVE SUNSET does the same, sort of – without two pages of comics, advice columns, display ads for furniture, new cars, retail fashion and all the rest.
Them the phone rang – London calling! It was Ben Tobias, thanking me for agreeing to “go on” the program (or programme, really). He explained the format – he moderates, a woman monitors incoming emails and reads the good ones, callers jump in and out with comments, and a number of people he has lined up get their say. It seems they are provocateurs – or something like that. I’m to be one of those. Cool.
He asks how he should introduce me. A blogger for Los Angeles? That will do. What’s the alternative? I offer none. There’s no way to sum up my more than sixty years so far, or no way that I can see. And what would be the point? Does my graduate work at Duke on the minor, bitter, angry satires of Swift make a difference, or hanging around the Pentagon chatting with the Secretary of Defense at the time, Carlucci, trying not to embarrass my second wife or her father, who reported to him? All that sort of thing plays into how you come to think what you think – heck, being the only white guy playing in a salsa band on an obscure island in the Caribbean in the mid-sixties probably does too, as does years of teaching literature to late adolescents and almost three decades of work in systems management, including those fifteen years working at the spy satellite factory.
But it doesn’t matter. Mass media, and particularly the news media, has nothing to do with depth and detail – you make your quick hit and run off. No one wants the back story, and the tale of how you came to say what you just said. No time for such things – that’s for personal life, where you get to know people and develop a “relationship” – which is another word for “wholeness” and nuance and detail. One must not confuse that world with what is said on radio or shown on television. There the idea is to play effectively with the thin surface of things. And it is difficult in its own way – very difficult.
But Ben Tobias seems a fine fellow. He asks me about the weather. What? I tell him. The last time I was in London, late June seven years ago, it was sunshine, followed by late afternoon dark clouds roiling in, and then heavy rain all evening. Yes, one must remember they actually do have weather there. As they say, Southern California has only nuance.
He tells me he will introduce me and I will have a few moments to explain my position. Odd – I expected an Oxbridge accent, but he sounds like a regular bloke. I should know better – the BBC is not for the cucumber sandwich set. Or is that watercress? Some odd scene from Oscar Wilde comes to mind. He asks if I think torture is ever justified. I say no. His reply – “That’s it?” He sounds worried. I assure him I will say more on air, and offer a few bits of filigree. That helps. He tells me he will call back when the show starts up.
So that leaves two hours to think about what I’ll say. I skim the column I wrote. I think of a few keys points, but mainly I finish the coffee. I write to my circle of email friends – the New York attorney, Ric in Paris, the marketing professor at the business school, the doctor, Rick the News Guy in Atlanta, Phillip the writer, mason, musician and photographer, and the others. They’re amused and work on ways to figure out how to listen in. I’m nervous. I don’t tell my older sister – she doesn’t much care for my politics, as close as we are otherwise.
So the call comes. I’m introduced. I have my say – and keep it terse, and, I hope, powerful. But it’s a bust. My home phone is one of those handheld wireless things and it’s all smeared – shouldn’t have bought that cheap Uniden thing at Target. There are feedback issues. Others talk and Ben Tobias and I have a sidebar or two. We cannot fix it – my bad. Oh well.
I listen in, and jump in now and then, but it’s hopeless. So much for fame. People from all over the world are saying things – big guns from DC defending waterboarding, an ex-CIA guy brilliantly denouncing it, someone who had been tortured in Chile, or Argentina, who is devastating. I get a few words here and there, but I probably sound like Daffy Duck on shortwave from Albania. It’s comic, really. And it ends.
Rick the News Guy in Atlanta sends a note and asks what I would have said had things worked out differently. I reply –
I spoke to torture as a political tool – not used to gain good information, which it does not, but to prove to a frightened population that those in power would do anything to protect them, and thus should stay in power and be given even more power. Just an attempt to get to the underlying “why do it” of the business. Frankly, as I see it, one key motivation is the domestic political goodies that accrue – as there are, really, no other goodies at all.
He sends this back –
True enough – although an interesting twist on that, to me, is the recent poll (among Iowa voters?) that shows “terrorism” as way down the list of issues that concern people, meaning despite all that tough-guy posturing we see in our leadership, what we really may care more about is the economy. Kind of a waste of effort on their part, or so it might seem!
Not that it matters – nothing worked out. Blogging will have to do.
In any event, the email part of the BBC hour – “Should CIA ‘water-board’ al Qaeda suspects?” – is here. That will give you a sense of what was up – good stuff. The podcast of the program may appear here at some point, but for me it will be an embarrassment.
But I will always have London in my mind, and that rainy afternoon I sat quietly and smoked a pipe under this statue of Prince Albert, just across the street from the Royal Albert Hall (yeah, you know the line in the Beatles song). I’ll try not to think of the BBC.