No Comment — July 19, 2010, 2:58 pm

Bill Keller’s Political Correctness

The man who authored the New York Times’s doublespeak standards on torture, Bill Keller, responded recently to the Harvard University study of his paper’s use of the word “torture” with respect to specific techniques, including waterboarding, by saying:

I think this Kennedy School study — by focusing on whether we have embraced the politically correct term of art in our news stories — is somewhat misleading and tendentious.

Got that? It’s “misleading,” “tendentious,” and “politically correct” to point out that the newspaper of record uses “torture” to describe specific practices when used by governments other than the United States, but does not use the word when the same practices are used by the United States. In fact, of course, it is Keller who is being “politically correct.” He made plain in his comments to Brian Stelter that the Times decided not to apply the term torture to waterboarding because Vice President Cheney insisted that it was not torture. This is not merely being politically correct; it is being politically subordinate. This is particularly clear when we examine the work of a prominent Times reporter in the field: Bill Keller (hat tip: NYTPicker). Reporting on police brutality in the field from South Africa and the Soviet Union in the eighties, Keller had no compunction about using the word “torture.” Here’s a snippet from his reporting on Soviet police brutality that won him a Pulitzer Prize–describing the mistreatment of a factory worker in Petrozavodsk (Karelia):

A factory worker, according to the report, was kicked so severely that doctors had to remove a ruptured spleen. The medical report said doctors had found three pints of clotted blood in the abdomen.

Keller called this “torture,” and indeed it was. Soviet authorities insisted at the time that the conduct, while abusive, was not torture, yet Keller didn’t see fit even to bother his readers with their denials. Another major difference between the Soviet torture incidents and the more recent American ones is that the Soviet incidents, also covered in reform-oriented Soviet journals like Ogonëk and by the courageous Arkady Vaksberg in Literaturnaya Gazeta, were investigated by the office of the procurator general, with the investigations leading to dismissal and prosecution of the law enforcement officials involved. The idea that American officials of the Bush era who were involved in torture would be punished or prosecuted is, of course, simply unthinkable.

Bill Keller’s political correctness couldn’t be more clear cut. Aggressive interrogation tactics applied by a regime like the Soviet Union or South Africa in the eighties are “torture,” even though their officials insist they are not. But aggressive interrogation tactics applied by the Bush Administration cannot be called “torture” even if they are even more brutal, because that would offend Dick Cheney. This is precisely the sort of political manipulation of language that George Orwell warned against in “Politics and the English Language.”

Glenn Greenwald has now flagged another prime example of Times torture hypocrisy. Here’s the Times report from Thursday on an important court decision dealing with an asylum seeker from China, whom the Justice Department sought to deport:

The woman, Jinyu Kang, an ethnic Korean citizen of China who now lives in New York, had fled a Chinese arrest warrant for giving food and shelter to Korean refugees. Others named in the same warrant and caught by the Chinese police had described beatings, suffocation, electric shocks, sleep deprivation and other forms of torture to get them to disclose details about the human rights group to which they all belonged.

“It is disappointing, even shocking, that the government fails to acknowledge that the evidence is not only strongly in Kang’s favor, but, indeed, compels the conclusion that she will likely be tortured,” said the decision, issued by a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit… The decision details “the horrific experiences” suffered by members of the group, and cites testimony that Ms. Kang’s son, who is still in China, was also tortured by the police during interrogation about his mother’s whereabouts. (Ms. Kang declined to talk about the case with a reporter through her lawyer, Man C. Yam.)

This is an important case, particularly because of the inexplicable and embarrassing conduct of the Justice Department. The evidence of torture is clear-cut and unchallenged. United States law forbids the deportation of a person to a country where the person faces the clear prospect of being tortured. So why does the Justice Department insist on deporting this woman? Perhaps the answer lies in those Justice Department memoranda, now rescinded but still haunting Justice Department dealings, under which these torture practices are no longer “torture,” largely because the Justice Department blessed their use by U.S. authorities in connection with interrogations.

Note that beatings, suffocation (caused by putting a bag over the head), and sleep deprivation are labeled “torture” both by the court and by the Times writer, when used by the Chinese authorities. But under Bill Keller’s guidelines these are simply “enhanced interrogation techniques” when they are used by American authorities. The Chinese Government insists that these practices are not “torture,” and it rationalizes its position much the same way that the Yoo-Bybee Memoranda would. Why does this rationalization work for Republican officials in Washington, but not for other government officials around the world? Only Bill Keller knows the answer to that question.

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