Friday, November 28, 2008

a short film about killing turkeys

The Rude Pundit has a very good point.
You can't even picture Obama pardoning a fucking turkey. Sure, he'll probably do it. But unlike Bush, who approached such obligations with dunce-like glee, for Obama it'll be like a kick in the groin.
As usual with Rude, there's a serious point here, sneaking past the guards while all the noise and snark and chainsaw dust draw their attention. Pardoning a turkey is, let's face it, exactly the kind of stupid crap most British people look at as just the kind of stupid crap Americans get up to. Can you imagine a British prime minister trying this? He or she would be laughed out of the country; probably they'd end up doing a John Profumo and choosing a life of deliberate monkish obscurity.

But it's not just ridiculous; it's morally repellent and politically more than dubious. After all, what is the turkey's crime? Being a turkey? Pardon implies that you committed a crime, and also that you were punished by some legitimate authority, which has now offered you mercy out of the goodness of its heart. It's a sort of reversed sacrifice - rather than killing a goat to expiate your sins, it's not killing a turkey so as to go off and eat millions of 'em with a clean conscience.

Pardon is also interesting because it can't be separated from executive power. To pardon someone means that the head of state decided, whatever the law happened to be, whatever the judiciary thought of the case, whatever the jury thought of the evidence, just to intervene and make an exception. It's only possible, after all, because the executive has the power to execute. It also means that the executive agreed to all the other executions; what, after all, would happen if the president pardoned everyone? That would be about as likely as pardoning all the turkeys. Executive clemency is the flip side of executive cruelty. (Note, of course, that a British prime minister isn't the head of state.)

It's therefore a profoundly anti-rational, authoritarian custom; no wonder it's a holdover from absolute monarchy. And this, I think, is what worries me about this ceremony - it's the sacralisation of the executive branch. Like the King's touch for scrofula. (He can even un-turkey a turkey!) No wonder, as Rude so wisely points out, Bush loves it.

Before we go on, here's a video from Talking Points Memo in which you can see both Bush doing the turkey thing and also Sarah Palin's now-notorious performance in which she pardoned a turkey while a worker slaughtered turkeys in the background. It will help your comparative turkeyology to watch closely.

Now, what about the well-known cockup in Alaska? A couple of points come to mind. For a start, as befits an anti-rationalist movement, neoconservatism has no culture of competence. They never run anything; their natural habitat is the thinktank, the university campus, the elite circle. Hence the Schlamperei that follows them around, like a drugfuddled burglar in a darkened room full of gym equipment. Of course they'd fuck it up - even in Washington, Bush managed to grant the bird a "full unconditional unconditional pardon".

The second is that perhaps they aren't trying. Looking back, when did they lie convincingly? The case for war was based not on lies, but on the unwillingness to confront the lies. Later, on things like torture and mass surveillance, they moved beyond this and simply admitted the facts while denying the form. Yes, we waterboarded the guy and pulled your call-detail records - are you with the terrorists? Of course, we do not support torture or illegal surveillance. In a very real sense, they were pardoning turkeys in front of the slaughter live on TV all the time.

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