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PROFESSOR’S PRINCIPLE! Have we been too hard on our cable shows? Consider what Turley said: // link // print // previous // next //
SATURDAY, MAY 23, 2009

PROFESSOR’S PRINCIPLE: Some say we’ve been too tough on our progressive TV shows. We understand, but we disagree. We think progressives deserve—need—much stronger logical frameworks than we tend to get on these programs.

Consider Jonathan Turley’s appearance on last night’s Countdown. Turley’s the current go-to guy on all torture topics. He appeared last night to discuss Obama’s recent fleeting remarks about possible preventive/prolonged detention. (To watch the segment, click here.)

Would prolonged detention be a good idea? For ourselves, we wouldn’t judge at this time. Obama hasn’t proposed anything yet. At this point, we don’t have a clear idea what he might have in mind.

But Turley took a different approach—offered a different framework. As is his wont, he rejected the notion out of hand, based on matters of principle. (For Turley, these things almost always come down to matters of basic principle.) But in the following presentation, we’d have to say that Turley gets the basic notion of “principle” wrong. Sorry—this just isn’t the way “principle” works in most people’s actual lives. Nor is it clear that “principles” should work the way Turley describes:

OLBERMANN (5/22/09): In our fourth story on the countdown: The president has set off a firestorm by warning a "prolonged, indefinite detention" for some of the Gitmo prisoners and maybe others. He described these people in his speech yesterday, a fifth category of Gitmo detainees, the ones who cannot be transferred to another country, cannot be tried in either a civilian court or by military commission, and cannot be released.

"Examples of that threat," he said, "include people who received extensive explosives training at al Qaeda training camps, or command Taliban troops in battle, or expressed their allegiance to Osama bin Laden, or otherwise made it clear that they want to kill Americans. These are people who, in effect, remain at war with the United States. We must have clear, defensible, and lawful standards for those who fall into this category."

But that new legal framework has yet to be devised, and human rights advocates wonder if it would dress up the problem without fixing it and if it`s unconstitutional or constitutional. Although the president—in his speech—was clearly talking about detainees left over from the Bush administration, some of whom cannot be tried because they were tortured, the New York Times reports the president is also considering a framework for future, so-called "preventive detainees,” persons who basically have not done enough to be tried in court but who supposedly pose a threat to the United States.

Let`s call in professor of constitutional law at George Washington University, Jonathan Turley. Jon, good evening.

TURLEY: Hi, Keith.

OLBERMANN: Let’s talk about them in groups. First, the unassigned detainees—we`re going to call them that. Some tortured by the Bush administration, so you can`t put them on trial. Some presumably are not going to be accepted by any country. What do we do with them? What can we do with them legally? Can we leave them off in front of Mr. Bush`s new place in Dallas or what?

TURLEY: Well, it is tempting to say, bring it on literally and just shift them in that direction. But, we can’t do that. The one thing we can’t do besides that is we can’t treat justice like it’s some dim sum menu, where you have the Obama administration saying, "We`ll take a little military tribunal, we`ll take some federal court, we’ll take some with no trials at all. And who’s going to make those decisions? We are! We’re going to decide—for one thing, we’re willing to give trials to people, unless we think they’re going to win. And if we think they`re going to win, we’re going to deny them trials and we’re just going to hold them indefinitely.”

Now, you can dress that up any way you want, but you cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear—and that’s what it is. It is an unprincipled act. It is exactly what Bush is doing.

And what’s strange about the Obama administration is, they think that if you act a little bit on principle, that must mean that you’re a little principled. But that’s not how it works. Being principled means you hold to your principles, no matter how distasteful the consequences may be.

OLBERMANN: Yes, “a little principled” means you have little principles.

TURLEY: Right.

As the conversation continued, Turley started to thunder. “Preventive detention” is “just a fancy way of saying...we’re not going to apply the rule of law,” he said. Soon, things became even more Turleyesque. “If we allow the president to create this special category, we are inviting something that is nothing short of tyranny,” the professor informed.

But it’s often like this on our cable shows. At week’s close, Cheney was getting close to treason. Obama was flirting with tyranny.

Is preventive/prolonged detention a good idea? For ourselves, we’d be inclined to wait for the arguments—to wait for some specific proposal. But Turley takes the idea off the table with his statement about what it means to “be principled.” Basic Turley: “Being principled means you hold to your principles, no matter how distasteful the consequences may be.” But that’s just almost totally wrong. At present, it’s a familiar way of framing progressive arguments. But that statement just doesn’t describe the actual role of “principle” in most human lives—including the lives of almost everyone watching last night’s show.

In fact, there are very few “principles” to which people hold in the manner Turley describes. Let’s consider a very basic principle—the principle which says it’s wrong to kill other people. Very few people hold to this principle in the way Turley describes. Your government kills people all the time—sometimes in extremely large numbers. (Some are soldiers, killed deliberately. Some are civilians, killed as “collateral damage,” sometimes in massive numbers. Neither the soldiers nor the civilians have committed crimes.) But almost no one says boo about this, including those on progressive programs. In truth, very few people apply that famous foundational principle in the way Turley describes. Almost no one maintains that we can never kill anyone “no matter how distasteful the consequences.”

It’s OK to kill (at times)—but not to detain? Our logic may be breaking down.

Turley seems to know the law. On the other hand, he often strikes us as amazingly clueless about basic political reasoning—and he tends to dwell in a “principled” realm which isn’t part of the actual world. Ten years ago, this impulse led him to thunder loudly about the need to remove Bill Clinton from office. Very few pundits screamed louder or longer about the damage that would occur if we abandoned our lofty principles in this particular matter.

Turley became a Famous Cable Pundit during this period. Along the way, he picked up a regular column in the Los Angeles Times. Below, we offer chunks from three of those columns. For the record, impeachment occurred in December 1998; Clinton’s senate trial occurred in February 1999. Along the way, Democrats proposed censure as a saner alternative. But Turley stuck to his lofty principles, no matter how distasteful the consequences. For our money, his love of pure principle led him to reason unwisely. By the end, he felt like “road kill,” thanks to the judgment reached by all us unprincipled rubes:

TURLEY (11/19/98): Congress is on the brink of what may be an insurmountable legislative goal: the shaming of William Jefferson Clinton. Faced with compelling evidence of criminal acts in office, Congress has searched for some alternative to the constitutional process of impeachment. With the encouragement of the White House, some have suggested censure, the shaming of the president...

The use of a shaming device against President Clinton is generally recognized as a rather laughable concept at this stage in his career. It is doubtful that the president's pulse would even register an increase at the very moment that members cried, "For Shame, Mr. President!"

If Clinton has one redoubtable characteristic, it is a certain immunity to shame. After years of personal scandal, our president has made shame his virtual element. This is precisely why the idea of censure is more to the liking of a James Carville than a James Madison.

TURLEY (12/9/98): Yet even if impeachment were only about removal, the White House argument would still fail any moral or historical test. The White House has argued that no ethical prosecutor would prosecute a case that she knew would fail before a jury. I hope that this is not the case. If a prosecutor were convinced that an individual was guilty of a serious crime, it should not matter if the popularity of the defendant or the popularity of the crime would make conviction unlikely....

In some ways, the most recent argument is quintessentially Clintonesque. Clinton has long defined morality by its consequences. Apparently, the same relativism can now be applied to impeachable offenses: It is no longer whether a high crime or misdemeanor was committed, but by whom.

TURLEY (2/12/99): For those of us who feel like road kill on the bridge to the 21st century, today's expected verdict may show that we are simply unprepared for the new millennium. It is not that we miss the morality of the 18th century, only its clarity. Our mistake was to put on trial a 21st century president with the expectations of an 18th century Constitution.

President Clinton has long defined morality by its consequences rather than the content of his actions, and the trial quickly took on his image. There is no expectation of a meaningful conclusion; only a conclusion, one that is all but preordained. It is like watching a slow car crash—we know the outcome before the verdict. It is unthinkable that many Democrats will vote against such a popular president. Such a suggestion was dismissed long ago by pundits as naive, and we certainly are not living in naive times. We are living in Clintonian times.

For those of us who believe that Clinton has committed crimes in office, the morning after the trial will remain somewhat disorienting. While we understood the political realities and anticipated the result, there remains a conceptual divide with the majority of the public in how this president could possibly have been retained. The feeling of confusion and betrayal among some Americans reflects the fact that this verdict says less about Clinton than it does about us.

As we’ve often said about Turley—though only in love: If he likes a president, he wants him removed. If not, he wants him arrested.

We assume that Turley’s a thoroughly decent person. We assume he knows the law. On the May 14 Ed Show, he flatly misstated Obama’s stated reason for withholding those torture photos—but that’s the only time we can recall seeing him misstate a fact. But Turley tends to be found inside Plato’s cave, dreaming dreams of some imagined species of absolute principle. We thought his judgment was bad ten years ago. We’re often amazed by the way he approaches some issues now.

Again: The framework he offered on last night’s Countdown is just pretty much wrong. Very few people apply any “principle” in the manner he described. When we take that framework as our own (on preventive/prolonged detention, let’s say), we’re working our way into a corner where little real life goes on.

For ourselves, we’ll wait to see what Obama proposes. At present, we have little real idea what he’s talking about. If he actually makes a proposal, it may turn out to seem unwise—wrong. But it’s hard to know until more has been said. In real life, people do adjust their “principles” depending on the consequences. People who refuse to do so tend to end up thundering as Turley did ten years ago. We like to ridicule such people—when they’re found in the other tribe.

We shoot and kill soldiers all the time, although they have committed no crimes. We have always detained POWs; they hadn’t committed crimes either. Very few people really believe that you never kill anyone, no matter the consequences. So we’re allowed to kill—but not to detain? We’ll wait to judge Obama’s proposal. But we think the professor’s logic has already broken down.

In our view, the professor was living in la-la land when he dreamed of Clinton’s removal. In general, we think he tends to offer dreamy frameworks on our TV thingy now. But much of what we see on these progressive programs seems to play an unfortunate, hidden role. Presentations seem designed to make us progressives feel extremely moral and good. This is a good way to please the demo. But in seeking such feeling, we may remove ourselves from the logic of the real world—the actual logic of actual people, including people like us.

Final point: We think progressives are currently getting an odd assortment of gurus on these progressive programs. One of our leading gurus is the guy who assembled Powell’s UN report; another one of our go-to gurus begged for Clinton’s removal. Each guru may well have something to say—Turley more than Wilkerson, in our current view. But we think they make a slightly odd couple. Are they just there to make us feel good?

As with you: A question played in our heads as we listened to Turley: WWOORWS?

“RW,” of course, is our own Richard Wolffe. We think you can take it from there.