In the 60s best-seller, The Games People Play, popular psychologist Eric Berne, creator of transactional analysis, described four types of transactions or exchanges between people, depending on whether their ego states felt positive or negative.
I'm OK You're Not OK people are prone to anger and hostility and feel smug and superior. They tend to be high achievers with the self-confidence and ruthlessness to get what they want.. While they can at best be do-gooders patronizingly rescuing others, they usually belittle those Not OK others as incompetent and untrustworthy. Often competitive, power-hungry, and paranoid, at worst they’re killers and warmongers. (1) (paraphrased from the website of the International Association for Transactional Analysis)
A pattern has emerged in commentary on the Abu Ghraib torture scandal.
First, some commentators in the U.S. seem to be much more riled up over the effect on the U.S. image than over the gravity of the abuse. Taking their cue from the President’s “that’s not the way we do things in America,” they’ve taken to telling the story in a way that’s passing familiar to any one who’s watched the national press corps in action.
When the story first broke, to a man these pundits were afflicted with a severe case of pedantry. Never was there so much scholarly hemming and hawing, so many ifs and maybes, so many arcane whereas’s. The abuse was “alleged,” the reports were “hearsay,” more investigation needed to be done. Anyway, even if the stories were true, they showed that the American system worked since people were held accountable for their actions. Despite the bad actions of a few, Abu Ghraib was ultimately a vindication of democracy, we were still a nation of laws not men, etc., etc.
Listening to all the qualifications and parentheses passed around in the days after the story broke, we could have been at a convention of out-of-work human-rights lawyers. Considering what went on at Abu Ghraib, perhaps we should have been.
Since then, the reactions of movement conservatives from Victor Hansen to Newt Gingrich have sounded like the mutterings of a patient working through transactional analysis therapy:
We don’t know what
We don’t know who did
We don’t know if it
If it happened, it’s
In fact Transactional Analysis provides a convenient way to understand how otherwise intelligent people are often unable to tell reality from fantasy. T.A. tells us that some people don’t see things not because they’re consciously lying -- although of course they do that too -- but because their fragile sense of themselves would be shattered if they saw themselves as other than perfect. If they’re not the best, the brightest, the bravest, the greatest, the strongest, then what are they? These are the people who fit the We’re OK You’re Not OK position and their whole interaction is built around maintaining their sense of physical, moral, or intellectual superiority over others. That often means ignoring anything that doesn’t fit their preferred scenario. It’s easy to recognize their tactics: they routinely deny or distort facts either by exaggeration, minimalization, or selectivity; when that doesn’t work, they displace facts with irrelevant or loosely-related ones and use far-fetched logic as though it were airtight. When they’re finally confronted with a reality they can’t argue away, they immediately distance themselves from it and blame it on others whom they deride. It’s a mode of functioning that almost borders on delusional. And when the delusion becomes hard to sustain, I’m OK, You’re Not OK people will do anything and justify anything rather than accept reality. In the end, they don’t even understand or want reality. They just want a big solipsistic bubble into which they can project whatever they want, good or bad.
On the benign end of the T.A. spectrum, you can find Berne’s do-gooders. In foreign policy, these are the liberal interventionists who want to intervene to solve every foreign humanitarian problems no matter if they’ve been asked to or not. On the darker end of the spectrum, there are the neo-conservative enthusiasts of empire, bent on creative destruction in the Middle East and lebensraum for Halliburton and Exxon.
Victor Hansen, a classics professor and columnist, displays a full-fledged case of delusional thinking:
Hansen attacks antiwar activists and critics for being afflicted with a reflexive self-hatred which he calls the “Western Disease.” (2)
Though he’s an elegant propagandist, Hansen’s claims hold up about as well as one of Salvador Dali‘s melting clocks. Americans are in Iraq for the most selfless of motives he assures us in essay after essay in the run-up to the war. Not since King Ashoka renounced war has there been such a self-effacing power -- one which refrains from killing, enriches its enemies, turns the other cheek to the unruly U.N., and tiptoes around the world like an especially tender-hearted Jain monk. This is classic denial. Hansen’s history, such stuff as comic books are made of, seems more like the classical mythology he studies than any reputable history. Alone among all the countries in history, the U.S. has never conquered lawlessly he insists. He fulminates over the Chinese conquest of Tibet but not the bloody American invasion of the Philippines. In good Soviet propaganda style, he insists that American conquest is always about liberation, freedom, and democracy. Thus, we’re in Iraq to establish “consensual democracy,” whatever that is. It’s certainly difficult to imagine what NON-consensual democracy looks like. Guantanamo, maybe? Anyway, Hansen doesn’t get around to explaining why for this “consensual democracy” to work, Iraqi newspapers need to be shut down and threatened, Iraqi leaders appointed by Americans, and Iraqi elections forbidden for fear they might return a government not to the liking of the soi-disant coalition.
His reaction to Abu Ghraib is filled with denial too. In an article in the Wall Street Journal on May 3, he begins with the usual qualification that the pictures of Americans “in some cases, allegedly torturing prisoners,” while “seemingly inhuman” have to be seen in the context of Saddam and his “fascist and Islamicist successors” who “do it all the time.” (3) Then he tells us gravely that as “emissaries of human rights” Americans have of course to be held to a higher standard than Saddam.
Irony, apparently, is not one of the professor’s strengths. Neither is even-handedness. Although warning us sagely about the dangers of rushing to judgment on the basis of “lurid pictures, hearsay and leaked accounts to the New Yorker magazine,” his article is nothing if not a desperate rush to judgment in the teeth of quite a bit of evidence that the abuse was widespread For one thing, lurid pictures and hearsay were NOT the basis for the allegations but well-documented reports from major human rights organizations as well as the army’s own internal review which was cited extensively in the New Yorker article by Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh. (4)
Hansen also employs distancing tactics:
He has already decided that the “apparent transgressions” are only the deeds of a “few renegade correctional officers” who in no way have anything to do with the general conduct of the war.
Then there’s displacement:
The REAL blame for Abu Ghraib lies with the beastly trickiness of the fedayeen, who fire from minarets and use civilians as human shields. After all, this is the enemy which dismembered the four American contractors at Fallujah, and has killed 400 Americans since April, not to mention a number of Iraqis. Very touching this concern for Iraqis, but why doesn’t Hansen mention the 10,000 Iraqi civilians killed by American bombing (using conservative estimates), the indiscriminate use of depleted uranium that leaves extensive, long-lasting, and serious health problems, the use of cluster-bombs which cause grotesquely hideous injuries, the intentional targeting of civilian infrastructure and residential areas, the Gestapo-like tactics employed on women, children, and the elderly that include breaking into homes at night, using military dogs and strip-searches to intimidate, and the almost routine killing of civilians at weddings, at prayers, for not stopping at check points, or evidently just for breathing anywhere in the vicinity of the U.S. army. And that’s besides the genocidal number of people killed either directly during the first Gulf War or by the destruction of hospitals, public sanitation, and water supplies during the decade of economic sanctions and constant bombing in the illegal no-fly zones. In that context, dismembering the bodies of four Blackwater mercenaries, a.k.a., hired killers, although terrible in itself, was the moral equivalent of Palestinians fighting back at Israelis bulldozing their homes and machine-gunning their families. But not only does Hansen detach his assertions from any such historical context, he also likes to solder “fascism” and “Islamism” together in the harangues he spits out in that white-hot neo-conservative style that’s meant to gird up American loins for regime-change in the Middle East as though it were a replay of a D-Day maneuver.
Case in point -- Hansen trots out Daniel Pearl, the Jewish American reporter beheaded in Pakistan. Not to get too esoteric about it, that’s the “religion-card.” In Hansen’s gambit, cleverly engineered words like Islamist or Islamo-fascist play the role of automatically tarring the resistance of Muslim or Arab societies (which they conflate) against Israeli or American policies as anti-Semitic. A term like Islamo-fascist stridently proclaims that there can never be any reasonable grounds for objecting to whatever the U.S. or Israel might see fit to do in the Middle East. There can never be racism on the part of Americans or Israelis but there’s always racism among Arabs. That’s the big lie that dazzles us and prevents us from seeing what’s staring us right in our faces - the intense racial hatred toward Arabs that’s coded into the saddening images from Abu Ghraib.
Finally, there’s a generous helping of derision:
Hansen chose to highlight the picture in which naked males are tangled in a pyramid of flesh before a smiling female GI, although by then pictures of beaten bodies, battered corpses, and forced group masturbation were already available. Why? Because it is the least objectionable overtly and anyway, what better entertainment than a screen full of humiliated Arab males? For the last two decades, in Hollywood hokum and television punditry, in pseudo-scholarly rants and internet chattering, these are the new untermenschen, burqa-loving brutes on a one-way ride to a houri-ridden heaven. That’s the image most likely to play to the gallery in America where Islam’s fair game for a turkey-shoot by oppressed women. A picture of a smiling female guard in the utero-topia of the American army lets Hansen posture as a feminist striking a blow against the patriarchy even while he blows off acts of grotesque sexual degradation as relatively tame. Of course, the men are only superficially degraded. Their bodies and postures actually convey all the sublime dignity of human beings in extremis. But there’s a murky cloud of degradation around that perky GI acting out warped orders in the fatuous belief that she’s come a long way. The homo-eroticism of the image just adds to its choiceness. Muslim culture which taboos male homosexual contact needs a little gay-friendly make-over by the “emissaries of human rights.” A little sado-chic for the rag-heads, some queer eye for the Iraqi guy.
Now that I’ve illustrated these four techniques, it becomes clear why so many bright people simply haven’t got it.
For instance, in the Wall Street Journal on May 3, conservative commentator James Taranto dismissed the torture as “alleged.” (5) Then he added derision: “the Associated Press manages to produce an ex-prisoner, Dhia al-Shweiri, a supporter of renegade Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who claims the abuse he suffered at the hands of his American captors was worse than what Saddam's henchmen meted out in the same prison. Here are the horrors to which America subjected him: During his stay at Abu Ghraib, he said [he] was asked to take off his clothes only once and for about 15 minutes.” Apparently, this was the only instance of torture Taranto could find.
Taranto can’t even plead ignorance in defense of this intellectual chicanery. The army investigation by Major-General Taguba had already made it public that assault, rape, and sodomy were among the felonies committed at Abu Ghraib, yet here he is, a well-known right-wing commentator, prattling on about “alleged” torture and snickering as though he has spotted a pair of knickers at a garden party.
Still, Taranto eventually beats a prudent retreat from his earlier account and concedes “to be honest, they (the soldiers involved) sound like a bunch of losers:” (6) He nonetheless manages to displace attention elsewhere. He insists that the torture is really the result of the crude material that the American military has had to work with and thus the fault of all those lefty universities like Harvard which ought to drag back banned ROTC and military recruiters to their campuses so that our best and brightest can get roped into the army.
The urge to make a molehill out of a mountain was contagious. On the very same day that the Wall Street Journal ran a Red Cross report that the Abu Ghraib torture was only the tip of system-wide abuse, it also carried an editorial by Newt Gingrich that still insisted that “any effort by the anti-American left or the Arab media to generalize the acts of a few into an attack on America, or on America's armed forces, should be repudiated and condemned.” (7) More distancing.
Other conservatives simply ignored the torture story. In a TV appearance, Fox News commentator and political CALumnist, Anne Coulter, on the loose despite a lengthy record as a confirmed plagiarist and alleged historian, initially blamed the abuse on “girl soldiers,” (8) but then contracted a severe case of laryngitis about a story that was splashed on the front page everywhere else. Long of leg and short of logic, Coulter is usually not shy about expressing her views with all the suavity of an unmuzzled Abu Ghraib guard-dog, so it’s not hard to guess what she’d have had to say if the victims had been Americans. As it was, she, like fellow “girl” conservatives Linda Chavez and Peggy Noonan, (9) managed to shovel off the abuse onto feminism and the culture of “girly boys.”
Conservative fingers swiveled everywhere except back home, displacing their anger onto everything from partisan politics to burqas.
The National Review huffed that that the real story of Abu Ghraib was the systemic difficulty of gathering military intelligence and not the actions of a few “dirt bags.” (10) Well, Rumsfeld thought that too. That’s why he signed off on the new approach to torture in the first place.
It was all a machination of the antiwar crowd claimed The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board sourly: “Like reporters at a free buffet, members of Congress are swarming to the TV cameras to declare their outrage and demand someone's head, usually Donald Rumsfeld's… The goal seems to be less to punish the offenders than to grab one more reason to discredit the Iraq war.” (11)
The Journal protested a shade too loudly, breaking into cold sweat over Congress’s “bizarre notion” that the Pentagon decision to degrade “enemy combatants” to a status lower than prisoners of war might have had something to do with Abu Ghraib.
Charles Krauthammer, a subtler intellect than his colleagues, did recognize the gravity of what was at stake and acknowledged that the guilty soldiers needed to be judged by this society’s own professed standards, not by Saddam’s, although in his Washington Post column he was not altogether above the “they’re worse” school of ethical thinking. But he was also smart enough to see that it was not just that the American image had been damaged but that the damage was of a kind that in the context of Islamic sexual mores was almost irreparable.
Yet, he too couldn’t help turning the story into another ego-stroking transaction, a morality play about why the U.S. was not what it looked like while Islamic societies were whatever Krauthammer said they were:
“This war is also about -- deeply about -- sex. For the jihadists, at stake in the war against the infidels is the control of women. Western freedom means the end of women's mastery by men, and the end of dictatorial clerical control over all aspects of sexuality -- in dress, behavior, education, the arts. They prize their traditional prerogatives that allow them to keep their women barefoot in the kitchen as illiterate economic and sexual slaves. For the men, that is a pretty good deal -- one threatened by the West with its twin doctrines of equality and sexual liberation…” (12)
For Krauthammer, American goon squads don’t reflect American society, but jihadists do represent Islam. Who are these jihadist cultures he refers to? Do they include, for instance, Malaysia which has been working staunchly with the U.S. against violent Islamic groups? Or is this a valentine to the Taliban which was midwifed by the CIA? Even in a theocratic state like Iran, women hold senior positions in government and are given the right to vote. Iranian officials often point out that there are more female members in Iran's parliament than there are in the U.S. Senate. And of course Iraq was a modern secular state where despite the brutality of Saddam’s regime women and Christians held high-ranking positions in government. Krauthammer’s distorted analysis is just another form of denial.
Selectively slandering Islam on behalf of gender feminism of a kind that a good part of conservative America Catholic and Jewish itself rejects, Krauthammer forgets that the imposition of your own sexual mores on another society hasn’t yet been declared a legitimate goal of foreign policy. Clearly, he’s one of Berne’s rather patronizing do-gooders.
The Krauthammer article reads the scandal as a faux-pas on which the Arabs are only too eager to capitalize: “The case the jihadists make against freedom is that wherever it goes, especially the United States and Europe, it brings sexual license and corruption, decadence and depravity… Through this lens, Abu Ghraib is an ‘I told you so’ played out in an Arab capital recorded on film.”
“What happened at Abu Ghraib was…ironically and disastrously, a pictorial representation of precisely the lunatic fantasies that the jihadists believe.”
Krauthammer isn’t obtuse enough to confuse Western sexual freedoms with acts of violence and humiliation against non-combatants but he is concerned that “jihadists” with their “lunatic fantasies about the west” might. Perhaps he should be more concerned that most of his conservative buddies from Rush Limbaugh to Linda Chavez have exactly the same “lunatic fantasies” that sexual equality always ends up in pornographic torture. Lunatic fantasies often haunt people who have to be OK while everyone else isn’t.
In these conservative reactions in May, the abuse is still alleged, or it’s the actions of a few distracting from the good of the majority; it’s un-American but being promptly investigated. The culprits will be punished and the system shown to have worked efficiently and justly, proving once again our own superiority. One way or other, whether they blame it on Harvard or Hefner, feminazis or fairies, trailer-trash or toilet-training, conservatives are clear that the torture is simply not about “us” but about “them,” those few rotten apples souring the American pie. The techniques of outright denial or distortion, distancing, displacement, and when all else fails, derision ensure that blame is never attached to the general political culture in America, or to American government policy, or to American mass opinion itself, or to anything that could be regarded as “us.” In a democracy, that would be unthinkable The result for all these writers is that their moral self-satisfaction is invigorated and their faith in the official version of events remains unshaken.
If it’s not the Delta
forces and SEALS (us),
If it’s not
If it’s perverts
But besides the standard claim that the abuse was unrepresentative and limited, there were more muscular defenses of what happened, defenses which identify the users as fascists-in-progress not simply conservatives and which raise the question of whether American public opinion is all that innocent, misled by big bad government, and only waiting for the wool to be pulled away from its eyes. Transactional Analysis helps here too.
One argument that made the rounds of the right-wing circles was that the abuse wasn’t real torture at all but just a slice of American sexual life, the kind of crude roughhousing practiced at fraternity hazings on campuses. Friendly joshing almost like football buddies hanging out, really. This came not from libertarians but from self-styled populist conservatives who until then had made careers out of skewering Hollywood and counter-cultural campuses -- from FOX News Channel's Hannity & Colmes, (13) from the Weekly Standard, from CNBC. (14)
The Voltaire of the airwaves, Rush Limbaugh added his part, “This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation . . . they had a good time. I'm talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You ever heard of need to blow some steam off?” (15) Oliver North agreeing with this is one thing, (16) but it’s another when Scott McClellan, President Bush’s press secretary, also tacitly gave it the nod. (17) Here Limbaugh takes denial a step further. He doesn’t just deny, he delights in what happened.
In his May 6 show, unrepentant despite strong criticism from public interest groups, Limbaugh offers an analysis that cuts the ground out of any defense that the abuse was not directed specifically against Arab or Muslim culture: “And we hear that the most humiliating thing you can do is make one Arab male disrobe in front of another. Sounds to me like it's pretty thoughtful. Sounds to me in the context of war this is pretty good intimidation -- and especially if you put a woman in front of them and then spread those pictures around the Arab world. Maybe the people who executed this pulled off a brilliant maneuver. Nobody got hurt. Nobody got physically injured. But boy there was a lot of humiliation of people who are trying to kill us -- in ways they hold dear. Sounds pretty effective to me if you look at us in the right context.” (18)
What is the right context, which is the welcoming culture in which sexual molestation and beatings are welcomed? Christian or should we say post-Christian societies tolerate high levels of sexuality and nudity, but there’s not much doubt about the outrage that would have erupted had a Christian soldier been stripped and had his genitals wired by taunting Muslims with digital cameras.
But Limbaugh thinks it’s all just “good old American pornography.” (19) “Have you people noticed who the torturers are?” he squealed gleefully on his May 3 show, “Women! The babes! The babes are meting out the torture ... You know, if you look at -- if you, really, if you look at these pictures, I mean, I don't know if it's just me, but it looks just like anything you'd see Madonna, or Britney Spears do on stage.”
And who could possibly object to Madonna, that all-American icon, jeering at his privates in public? So much for a cultural conservative who on every other day never tires of railing against the immoral Hollywood elites on behalf of heartland American values.
And it's not only that “the babes were the torturers.” Limbaugh serves up another version of the torturer-as-emissary-of-human rights: the pictures are also a display of gay sexuality: “We have these pictures of homoeroticism that look like standard good old American pornography, the Britney Spears or Madonna concerts.”
Let’s get this clear -- the most prominent media personality of the resurgent conservative movement isn’t blaming sadistic torture on feminism or homosexuality as his colleagues are doing. He’s not distancing himself from the torture by displacing anger onto feminists or homosexuals. He’s claiming that sadistic torture IS feminism and homosexuality or at least enough to make what’s going on at Abu Ghraib a kissing cousin of the American entertainment industry and elite college campuses. Yet, at the same time, he also blames the public outrage over the photos on “the feminization of this country.” Apparently, feminism is all-American when it yields sadism but anti-American when it leads to moral outrage over sadism. For a cultural conservative to break into such jubilant whoops in a position this convoluted, Limbaugh must be taking lessons in the Kamasutra.
And here Limbaugh moves out of the range of respectable opinion altogether. Hansen and Taranto also equivocated about the occurrence and the level of the abuse but Hansen did say it was inhuman and Taranto quickly abandoned his earlier denials by May 6. But on May 7, when Limbaugh is claiming that no one got injured, the Washington Post had already published more stories from detainees who had collapsed from beatings, Secretary Rumsfeld had admitted in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee that the pictures still remaining were even more sadistic and inhuman, (20) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) had specified that murder and rape were among the felonies committed. While Rumsfeld was vehemently denying accusations that the abuse was not driven by a policy, Limbaugh was delighting in the brilliance of that policy and reveling in the way it had targeted Islam so cleverly.
Other commentators, didn’t even pretend that “nobody got hurt.” Cal Thomas thinks fighting Muslims has a bottom line before which objections to torture have to yield:
“It is good and right to have such a high standard, but not good if that standard is one-sided and undermines what we are trying to achieve in Iraq.…..All that matters is victory. Anything less is defeat.” (21)
Don Feder resurrects media myths we thought had been buried:
“Remember Jessica Lynch, the American private who was captured by the Iraqi army? Lynch was gang-raped (anally) by her captors.” (22)
Lynch and her family of course have always insisted that she was treated well by her Iraqi captors. (23) But that’s really beside the point, because it’s clear that Feder is only interested in a diatribe against “Muhammed’s Mob.”
This is where the need among conservatives to maintain their superiority over others reveals its true fascist face. Krauthammer, for instance, had to show that Islamic societies were in some way ethically deficient before he could maintain his I’m OK You’re Not OK stance, so he picked on their denial of Western-style freedoms to their women. Krauthammer you might say is the do-gooder and humanitarian interventionist. Somewhat smug yes, but the word “good” and “humanity” at least form a part of his rationale. But Limbaugh and Don Feder don’t even need that. Difference not inferiority is what they loathe. Difference IS inferiority. Islam qua Islam is the demon to be exorcized to inflate their own megalomania. In that quest, facts are an unwelcome intrusion. Whereas Krauthammer only fudges, Feder lies outright. When lies are not ready at hand, than distortion is used. Iraq did nothing to the U.S.? Never mind, just bring in Muslim violence against Christians in the Sudan. Conflate the Taliban in Afghanistan with the Muslims in India, who have been victims of the Hindu majority. What’s logic got to do with it? For good measure, drag in the Crusades a thousand years ago to justify mass murder and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians today. What Feder and Cal Thomas and Limbaugh are preaching is selective history as an apology for collective punishment. Or selective punishment for collective history. It really doesn’t matter which. Either way, there no longer needs to be any rationale at all to justify our rightness. There just has to be an “other”, “a difference.”
The apologists for torture can’t maintain their sense of themselves without their sense of being always everywhere the good guys, always everywhere free from human limitations, free from human imperfections, not just more powerful and richer but also better in every other way.
And that’s why no matter how many books and columns and essays lay out every trivial and monumental deception of this war, every deviation and delinquency, some people are never going to see things differently. Some people are going to see what they want to see because it justifies what they want to do. It’s not because they don’t know, or even that they don’t want to know. It’s that they can’t afford to know. Knowledge would destroy their sense of self.
If it’s not a few
And that’s not ok.
Lila Rajiva is a freelance writer in Baltimore currently working on a book about the press. She has taught music at the Peabody Preparatory, and English and Politics at the University of Maryland and Towson University.
Other Articles by Lila Rajiva
1. From the website of
Communication, Culture, and Media Studies.