06/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Torture as Literature

A little while ago the attorney general of the United States accused the nation he serves of being a nation of cowards on questions of race. Mr. Holder was nearly right: America has not yet become, but is becoming, a nation of Donkins -- the "deserving creature that knows all about his rights, but knows nothing of courage, of endurance, and of the unexpressed faith, of the unspoken loyalty that knits together" a group, or, in Donkin's specific case, the crew of the ship Narcissus in Joseph Conrad's novella, The Nigger Of The Narcissus.

Donkin, a scrawny, embittered, but not unintelligent deckhand in Conrad´s sailing story, is the type of person who knows what he deserves but has never known and never wanted to know why he deserves. He is an expression of part of the modern personality -- a man who lives only by rights guaranteed, not by rights fought for or rights earned. He is as close to a child as a man can be and even resorts to tantrum, which comes in the form of riot.

Traveling recently in Nicaragua, I came across a man on a dirt road. This man spoke softly and when he did it was with a British accent. He had piercing blue eyes and gave a strong impression of all-knowing serenity. We began to talk. The conversation drifted towards politics and war, and quickly the man's serenity didn't so much evaporate as boil into rage. He became nearly violent talking about former US involvement in Central America and he spat near my feet and slammed his foot on the ground to signify America's crushing of, in his view, a latent Guatemalan democracy of the 1970s and 1980s.

He challenged me to explain what makes America so great and why it should be considered different from any other country, even North Korea or China. I responded that it was rule of law and the ability of citizens to elect their government, and the recourse they have to alter law or replace government if they so choose. He quickly rejected this and said that the same law which provides freedom permits America to bomb and murder the innocents of other countries. And then in an angry (and a little ridiculous) effigy, he tore up an imaginary piece of paper that to him symbolized the falsity of American law and the governance and values which support it.

Despite the British accent the man was, by rights, an American. After twenty years in the US, he holds an American passport, has voted in many American elections, participated in numerous American peace protests, and fiercely asserted to me that he is just as American as me or any other citizen of the US.

It later dawned on me that this man is the Donkin of our day. He is individuated and atomized, isolated from the society he harshly criticizes, eager to criticize it harshly, yet happy to make use of the many political amenities it provides. He has not asked himself how he arrived at the rights he enjoys, nor how those rights are maintained. For him, all the structures which work toward and maintain the foundation of American political life -- liberty -- are structures of corruption, cruelty, deviousness, and greed. This much he admitted to me freely.

Like Donkin, this man revealed that beneath the calm exterior he was in truth "concentrated and angry, gloating fiercely over a called-up image of infinite torment -- like men gloat over the accursed images of cruelty and revenge, of greed, and of power." And like this man, so much of today´s media, which expresses the political attitudes of chunks of Americans, is now similarly concentrated on these images of cruelty, revenge, power and, most of all, torment.

In many cases, the images are real ones -- the abuses at Abu Ghraib, the greed of war profiteers, the corruption of Washington back-scratching. The problem today, however, is the obsessive focus on these anomalies and the generalization of these exceptions to characterize the behavior of America as a nation. The torture issue is the latest and most acute one. It has sent political leaders like Nancy Pelosi into disgraceful tailspins of accusation against American security agencies. It has evoked the desire of rights groups like Amnesty International for a photographic schadenfreude, an obscene exhibition of abuse. And it has evinced populist calls for the trial, imprisonment and, in some cases, even torture of former American leaders.

Clearly, the Donkins of America have never had a louder voice. The strength of their chorus now gives them the appearance of plurality. This is fine when things are going well and the sailing is smooth. But when the next national storm confronts America, the automatic impulse to imprecate the nation combined with the widespread sense of ultimate entitlement will make it impossible for the country to act with sufficient strength to confront its troubles.

The pendulum has clearly begun to swing the other way: the unity, faith, and support for the nation that America experienced after September 11th is giving way to distrust and fragmentation. Many of these same voices of discontent complained that the Bush administration cultivated a culture of fear -- a paranoia regarding America's purported enemies. But today, it seems we are slowly being driven towards a culture that fears not America´s enemies but America itself. If this is not the beginning of Donkinism on a national scale, I do not know what is.