In recent weeks, we’ve seen Howard Dean cause some consternation from those on the establishment wing of the Democratic party with some tart remarks, first about Tom DeLay (”[he] ought to go back to Houston where he can serve his jail sentence") and then about Republicans’ attitudes towards voting rights ("The idea that you have to wait on line foreight hours in Florida to cast your vote – there’s something the matterwith that… . Well, Republicans, I guess, can do that, because a lotof them have never made an honest living in their lives.").
In addition, we’ve seen Amnesty International get some attention and criticism — not just from the administration and ‘wingers — for using the word "gulag" to compare conditions in America’s new extra-legal prison camps (Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and beyond) to the old Soviet system.
Well, hyperbole is obviously dangerous for all involved, but there’s a difference between hyperbole that obscures or needlessly inflames, and that which illumines.
- Hyperbole can compare two similar situations that are different only in degree, but whose similarities need to be made blindingly clear. Unequal is not necessarily dissimilar.
- There is also the hyperbole of the unpleasant and rarely-said truth; In fact, this is not hyperbole at all, but it can upset conventional wisdom, which makes CW’s protectors a bit prickly.
I think that Dean’s remarks about Tom DeLay actually go under #2: Is it really just out of the question, beyond the pale, to suggest that Tom DeLay might serve jail time for the stuff he’s pulled? Dan Rostenkowski served jail time for mail fraud … is the Abramoff business any less rotten? Or the Texas redistricting shenanigans? (I’m genuinely curious — anyone who specifically knows the laws involved can chime in.)
Dean’s remarks about Republicans "not making an honest living" have to be qualified, of course — Of course he wasn’t referring to Joe Average Republican Voter. The remarks must be heard in context: he was making a point about standing in line for eight hours to vote. Anyone who doesn’t have a problem with that either 1. doesn’t care about disenfranchising people, which is un-democratic and frankly un-American, or 2. is too ignorant to understand there’s a problem. Ironically, Dean is doing Republicans a small favor by attributing their indifference to ignorance and not malice. Stupid is as stupid does: A person who makes an honest living would understand that you cannot wait eight hours in line on a Tuesday and get your ordinary business done.
As for Amnesty International, don’t believe the hype or the headline writers: The "gulag" label is going to stick to BushCo — finally. They can’t get off citing AI reports one year as justification for their ends, and then say they lack credibility the next. That sets off everyone’s BS meter.
So let’s take this on the substance of the charges. The US has set up detention camps where:
- People are held incommunicado, without access to lawyers, family, anyone who might help them or who might be looking for them.
- There is no reliable due process system — the innocent are treated just as badly as the guilty.
- There is systematic torture and humiliation.
- People are murdered.
Is it too much to say that Gitmo et al are of the same family of things as the Soviet gulag? Of course we don’t have as many, or as murderous — we’re not the worst of the worst, yet. Should AI wait until we get to that point to make the comparison?
I don’t think so. The word "gulag" hurts the architects of torture quite a bit, as we’ve seen from the weak reaction of BushCo. The comparison exposes their ruthless and unprincipled (and ineffective) tactics. A little bit of sunshine got into the darkness last week — for that we should be grateful.
We should feel free to be blatantly true, extravagantly honest, spendthrifts with the truth.
Update: See H.D.S. Greenway’s column in the Globe for the same point on the gulags.
Another update: Liberal Oasis says Amnesty is winning.
Even yet still another update: The blogs are circling the wagon$ for Dean.