Friday, March 06, 2009

Our Ms. Brooks: The Big Lie(s)

As Ruth pointed out earlier this week, the contents of the released memos from the Bush Office of Legal Counsel contained some real stunners, including justification for the last administration's complete suspension of the First and Fourth Amendments of the US Constitution. In her most current column, Rosa Brooks examines just how Bush got away with "a theory of presidential power amounting to virtual dictatorship."

It's clear that the whole purpose for crafting the memos was to give the Bush administration cover for this wholesale power grab. What is so amazing is that the memos themselves, mostly written by John Yoo, are so poorly crafted and so legally deficient that any resemblance to the state of the law is purely accidental.

In a way, what's most shocking is just how outrageously bad the office's legal arguments were. The 2001-2002 memos mischaracterize previous Supreme Court decisions, ignore crucial legal precedents and contain gaping holes in logic. To accept the theories the Office of Legal Counsel came up with, you need to assume that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had it all wrong when they rebelled against Britain's King George III in 1776. You need to believe, more or less, that the 225 years of American jurisprudence between 1776 and 2001 amounted to one giant mistake.

The memos are so embarrassingly foolish that the Office of Legal Counsel itself was ultimately forced to repudiate them. ...

So, how did Bush get away with it? Ms. Brooks suggests that one answer is the "Big Lie" theory.

In other words: Paradoxically, the more outrageous the claim, the more apt we are to assume there must be some truth to it. Just as some banks and insurance companies are apparently "too big to fail," some claims from those with political power seem to strike us as "too big to disbelieve." "That seems so outrageous it must be right," we tell ourselves. "The important people keep saying it -- they must know something I don't know." ...

Big lies prevail because we can't bring ourselves to believe that our leaders could be so dishonest or deluded. And big lies can do terrible damage, of course. The Bush administration's big legal lies paved the way for some of the most shameful episodes in our history, including the official authorization of torture. ...

But don't think we're out of the woods. As Hitler demonstrated, some small part of the most "impudent lies" will always remain and stick. Big lies leave little lies in their wake, changing the political discourse in enduring, difficult-to-detect ways.

And that's the challenge we now face: tracing the barely visible effects of the Bush administration's now-repudiated big lies -- through our legal system, our constitutional system, our foreign policy -- and undoing all the damage.

So, just what specifically is the course which must be followed to undo all the damage?

My first inclination was to suggest that it's now time for Congress to start digging into this whole mess, something they should have started doing back in 2001, but certainly should have launched in 2006 when Democrats gained control of Congress. And therein lies the rub, as Dan pointed out in his magnificent post at Pruning Shears (via The Sideshow):

Democrats are hardly blameless though; they were meek in the minority and timid when swept back into power. The most infamous example is Nancy Pelosi’s declaration immediately after the election that impeachment was “off the table.” As we begin to see the details of Bush era lawlessness emerge it is increasingly amazing that the Democratic leadership was unwilling to forcefully oppose it. It seems very likely that the Bush administration took Democratic assurances there would be no attempt to investigate allegations of lawbreaking (!) as a clear sign it could continue to act with impunity.

Which is why there is every reason to be skeptical of any attempt to funnel a process or investigation through Congress: Many of the same players are still there. Congressional commissions are also notoriously ineffective. The two most recent examples - the 9/11 commission and the Iraq Study Group - promised substantial revelations and frameworks for action, and both are already nearly forgotten.

The Obama administration has adopted the positions of the Bush administration in many of its early decisions, but the declassification of the OLC memos is a welcome break. They provide enough evidence of potential lawbreaking to initiate a criminal investigation. That is the process we have always used, and it should be sufficient now. Let the Justice Department start looking into it and let the chips fall where they may. There is no need for Congress to be involved. Given its history and (in this case) its members there is no reason to hope it would produce any kind of satisfactory result.

While I don't think Congressional hearings need necessarily impede any Justice Department investigation, I think about the best we could hope for from the 111th Congress (which is still led, after all, by Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi) is a public airing of the devious and intentionally malignant operations run out of the White House against the nation and citizens it was supposed to serve, not oppress.

Frankly, Dan's argument is compelling enough that I don't think we can hope for even that. This is one of the few times I will admit to wanting Congress to keep its grubby little fists off an important issue.

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Blogger Woody (Tokin Librul/Rogue Scholar/ Helluvafella!) said...

The "Big Lie" works because, though most if not all people will tell small lies, to evade consequences or to avoid blame, they baulk at telling lies which, if they are caught in it, make them look like "LIARS." They won't tell HUGE lies because the dangers of being caught out are so much larger.

And they attribute their own scruples (such as they are) to others, including the State.

So, they cannot believe that the State--or its official actors--would tell lies of such magnitude that they'd be embarrassed to be caught. So, the act of repetition (which is the second part of the strategy) actually re-enforces the the 'truthiness' of the substance of the lie.

This is the psychology upon which the Big Lie is based. See, e.g., Lazarsfeld's work at the New School in the '30s.

It invariably works, at least long enough to accomplish whatever the Big Lie is designed to foster.

5:50 AM  
Blogger Woody (Tokin Librul/Rogue Scholar/ Helluvafella!) said...

By the way: Leahy's "Truth & Reconciliation" Commission is just another white-wash. Utterly useless. Think of how totally unsatisfactory were 1)the 9/11 Commission, 2) the Iran/Contra Commission, 3) the Warren Commission.

I would be delighted if here were some way to threaten the Busheviks with international prosecution if they ever left the States; or if it prompted an Eichmann-like operation to kidnap them and try them in Europe, like Pinochet...

5:56 AM  
Anonymous darms said...

Please remember that the main reason the bushies got away w/what they did is that very few (if any) of their dictatorial tactics were ever challenged in court and even the very few that made it to the supreme court were relitigated or just plain ignored. Face it, folks - even though we elect the guy, we're a dictatorship now. My only hope is that the Obama administration is advocating the same bushie tactics WRT to torture & detention in order to get the Supremes to make a definitive ruling on their legality.

7:37 AM  
Anonymous larry, dfh said...

so why is yoo a tenured prof. of CONSTITUTIONAL LAW at UC Berkeley? Whom did he blow or blackmail to get the gig? Is the UC system so pathetic?
And as to the commissions listed by the Woodster, the common thread is: CYA for the c.i.a. After all, nothing else was ever accomplished by any of them.

7:39 AM  
Anonymous larry, dfh said...

And leahy, NTodd's senior senator, is a classic paper tiger. As I've written him before, he's either incompetent or corrupt. And as to Obama's continuation of bush's policies, I find it very easy to believe that Obama got something like a freeze-frame from the Segruder Tapes, or some such implied threat. The same with Obama's stance on the wire-tapping violations, which I've read were routed through/stored in Israel. I cannot logically remove the possiblilty of Obama's being threatened as being responsible for his current, 're-evaluated' positions.

7:49 AM  
Blogger danps said...

Thanks so much for the kind words, Diane! One point you make that I cut from my post (I try not to ramble on) is "the best we could hope a public airing of the devious and intentionally malignant operations run out of the White House." Let's play Fill In The Blank, and I encourage you to play it with anyone who supports a Truth Commission: A Truth Commission is preferable to a separate (or subsequent) Justice Department investigation because a JD investigation will not _______. I'd love to hear some guesses. Anything the Commission would do would also be done by a proper JD investigation.

larry, Berkeley is suffering from the same malady that afflicted the media years ago - they've become so beaten down and defensive about accusations of being a bastion of liberalism that they've turned over a portion of their operations to conservative propagandists. If they'd been paying attention they'd know it won't stop criticism from the right and will only erode their credibility.

4:39 AM  

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