Three Things to Read this Election Season

I’ve been a terrible custodian of my blog these past few months. To break the silence, and to mark my re-commitment to regular updates, I’d like to share three fantastic essays I’ve been thinking about in recent months. None explicitly addresses the 2012 election campaign — a simultaneously sad and electrifying spectacle that has me hopelessly transfixed — but each speaks in its own way to the America moment, to all the cracks we’ve failed, and will likely keep failing, to fill.

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George Packer, Coming Apart (New Yorker, September 12, 2011)

I missed this essay when it was first published, ten years after the September 11 attacks. More than anything else I’ve read in the past months, Packer’s piece conveys just how thoroughly we’ve squandered the opportunity afforded us that terrible day. Instead of confronting the mounting failures of our major institutions, our political leadership and our cultural establishment have left our democracy to decay. Casting our embrace of  post-9/11 militarism as escapist cover for our growing weaknesses, Packer offers a sober critical frame through which to view the 2012 election.

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Benjamin Kunkel, Forgive Us Our Debts (London Review of Books, May 10, 2012)

In this essay, Kunkel — another self-exiled American here in Buenos Aires — reviews two recent books on debt for the LRB: Paper Promises: Money Debt and the New World Order, by financial journalist Philip Coggan, and Debt: The First 5000 Years, by anarchist anthropologist David Graeber. Though Coggan gets his due, it’s Graber’s book that dominates Kunkel’s essay. (For his sheer ambition, both intellectual and temporal, I don’t see how Graeber couldn’t.) The piece is a tightly crafted and original introduction to a book you *really* should read, and a topic I wish we’d all spend a bit more time thinking about.

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Paul Tough, What Does Obama Really Believe In? (New York Times Magazine, August 15, 2012)

Tough’s well-reported piece takes us to Roseland, the struggling Chicago neighborhood where Obama got his start as a community organizer. A portrait more of deep poverty than of a politician, Tough’s essay is a stark reminder that new approaches to building opportunity for poor children and families have all but disappeared from the political conversation — in fact, the children themselves have, too. Such omissions, Tough shows, have real human consequences.

Kony 2012: Where are the Local Voices?

This is Invisible Children’s video about Joseph Kony and his murderous, child-soldier-fielding militant group, the Lord’s Resistance Army. It’s filled with bleak details about human rights abuses in places that Americans don’t often think about. And, as of today, it’s been viewed on YouTube nearly 80 million times:


One of these YouTube viewings was my own. (If you still haven’t seen Kony 2012 and don’t want to, here’s a nice concise description of the whole affair from the Guardian.) Watching the video, I was struck less by its message (i.e., in the internet age, we can save the world through our awareness alone, and let’s prove it by suddenly caring en masse about the LRA) than by the extent to which the whole 30 minutes felt like one big vanity project. More than just about anyone else — perhaps more than Kony himself — the film centers on one unknown-to-me-before-Sunday narrator/director/principal screen presence, Jason Russell. The photogenic Russell spends an enormous amount of time in front of the camera, and he’s very clearly the hero of his own sleek production. That much is clear from the moment, about 7 minutes into the video, when Russell promises to get the bad guy in an emotional conversation with Jacob, a young boy from Northern Uganda who lost his brother to one of Kony’s attacks. The exchange is a striking illustration of the self-gratifying over-promising that people trained to do human rights fieldwork are told over and over again not to do:

Russell: Jacob, it’s okay.
[Jacob crying.]
Russell, narrating: Everything in my heart told me to do something. And so I made him a promise.
Russell, again to Jacob: We are also going to do everything that we can to stop them.
Jacob: Yes.
Do you hear my words?
Do you know what I mean?
We are, we’re going to stop them. We’re going to stop them.

How to stop them? Share the video, buy some Kony 2012-branded products, and support the good guys (above all, Invisible Children and the Ugandan military) in their efforts to take down the bad.

There are a lot of intelligent ways to frame this video: as a manifestation of a new sort of internet-based activism that has the potential to transform human rights work, as a savvy internet-age marketing tool, as an unacceptable oversimplification of a damningly complex geopolitical situation, as a rebirth of the “white man’s burden” trope in sleek 21st-century guise. (And there is, it must be noted, an eerie resonance in Kipling’s reference to “…new-caught, sullen peoples / Half-devil and half-child.”) Each of these perspectives has been bouncing around the internet this past week, and I suspect that there isn’t much latent demand for me to weigh in on them. But there is one angle that, owing to my interest in transitional justice, I do want to reflect on for a moment: the impact on the halting but critical process of recovery and reconciliation currently underway in Northern Uganda.

Although Kony 2012 tells the black-and-white story of an evil man’s quest to do terrible things to innocent Ugandans, the Lord’s Resistance Army did not in fact arise in the vacuum of a sick man’s mind. It took shape in the late 1980s, part of an ongoing violent struggle between the Acholi-dominated north of the country and the central government, led from 1986 by Yoweri Museveni, who remains in power today. All sides in this conflict (including the Ugandan military) committed horrible abuses, although Kony’s LRA soon earned a reputation as the worst of the worst, and their pillaging of local villages soon lost the group whatever Acholi support it had once had. Yet even as Museveni consolidated his power and the militant group lost any semblance of a political agenda, the LRA continued its attacks in northern Uganda, funded by Sudan in retaliation for Ugandan patronage of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army in its campaign against Khartoum.

Since a 2006 cease-fire, though, the security situation in Northern Uganda has improved markedly. The International Criminal Court put Kony at the top of its most-wanted list, and the Ugandan military is now in pursuit, aided by a contingent of US military advisors dispatched by President Obama last year. Although Russell’s video implies that Kony is still active in Uganda, in fact new geopolitical realities have pushed him (and his much-reduced band of followers/child conscripts) into less-stable parts of the nearby Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Sudan.

Although Kony remains a threat to the region, he is no longer anywhere near the top of the agenda in the video’s area of focus, Northern Uganda, where aid for mutilated and orphaned victims, poverty reduction, disease eradication, and reconciliation are vastly more pressing concerns. Given that several groups are currently working to promote recovery in the wake of horrendous multi-lateral conflict, one wonders how blanketing the world with a no-shades-of-grey video that makes the fighting seem current and the bloodstained Ugandan army an uncomplicated force for good could possibly have a positive impact on transitional justice efforts in the region. Surely the money that Invisible Children is charging for its $30 bracelet-and-poster-filled “Action Kits” could be better spent responding to the actual needs of victims — especially because Invisible Children’s publicity campaign might push Kony deeper into the brush and thus make him more difficult to capture. Perhaps that’s why Ugandan journalist Angelo Izama called the video “misleading” in his sharp takedown, and why residents of the Northern Ugandan town of Lira responded to a local screening with rocks and harsh words:

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I should clarify — I think it’s wonderful that Western teenagers are responding so favorably to a YouTube video that doesn’t involve singing dogs or baby pandas. And vanity aside, it seems hard to doubt that Invisible Children’s staff and supporters have their hearts in the right place. But Kony 2012 is obviously a campaign that does not take its cues from those it’s aiming to help, one which in its oversimplification-bordering-on-distortion may even set Northern Uganda back. I hope the world’s next humanitarian viral sensation can raise the bar just a little bit.

Cristina Likes Us! (Maybe)

Passing the Casa Rosada on my way to the Subte this past Thursday, I came upon an exhibition of photos by Victor Hugo Bugge, Argentina’s official presidential photographer since 1978 (when military dictator Jorge Rafael Videla held the office). I wasn’t in any particular rush, so I figured I’d pop in for a quick shot of fuzzy Kirchnerista fondness. I made my way down the first row of photographs, taking in the carefully chosen images of Néstor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner doing what politicians have done since long before Videla — hugging babies, posing beside imposing neoclassical statues:

And doing some excellent things that past presidents didn’t do so often, like standing together with HIJOS, newborns taken from their disappeared parents by Videla and friends, then given away as spoils of war to families favored by the regime:

None of these photos surprised me much — until, that is, I noticed some familiar characters:

Wow, a lot of yanquis here. (And look, it’s Pittsburgh!) Then again, Argentines don’t hate Obama, and his relationship with Cristina seems to be on the mend right now.  And next to Bush, Clinton must have glimmered like a mirage in the Kirchners’ rearview mirror. Maybe, I began to reason, it wasn’t actually so strange to see these two icons of Northern imperialism guarding la presidenta‘s front door.

But HIM?

And again! (This one wasn’t very well received by the photo-viewing public, it seems.)

And strangest of all:

What’s going on here? Is Cristina trying to show a friendlier face to the US? Or to underscore Argentina’s importance on the global stage? And why is Bush in so many photos? Especially that dopey-faced one with Condoleezza Rice — the only photo, I believe, in which neither Cristina nor Néstor made an appearance. They must be messing with us, right?

Casa Rosadology’s a tricky game.

A Much-Needed Kick in the SEC’s Pants

I haven’t written much about US politics lately, but a decision this morning by federal District Court Judge Jed Rakoff has me fired up, and lest it fly under your radar, I’d like to explain why. In the years leading up to 2008, many of the country’s biggest investment and insurance firms developed a chain of interrelated financial products that enabled them to sell ultimately worthless subprime mortgage debt to investors while simultaneously betting against these same investments. In other words, they encouraged their clients to buy products they knew, in the words of one Goldman Sachs executive, to be “shit” and collected large bonuses for doing so. When the bubble burst, investors like the Mississippi state pension plan took a huge hit while the banks (and their bonus-happy bankers) profited.

(It’s ethically bankrupt and, to my eye, transparently illegal practices like this that led me to detest the unmatched influence that “i-banks” and their enablers wield over the undergrads and career services offices of Harvard and other “elite” schools. When my classmates and I went searching for jobs, no career path was more clearly delineated than the one that led right to Goldman’s door. But, crankily, I digress.)

Since long before the US financial crisis of 2008, the Securities and Exchange Commission–the federal entity responsible for enforcing the laws that supposedly govern the sale of securities in the US–has developed the habit of charging investment firms with fraud or negligence and then negotiating settlements with these firms instead of taking them to court. This practice has continued to govern the agency’s pathetic response to the widespread fraud that contributed to our recent crisis–like, for instance, the $550 million fine the SEC negotiated with Goldman Sachs last year.

Settlements like this might sound like a win for the public–firms get bad publicity and have to pay big bucks, and the SEC can avoid committing its limited manpower to an all-out court battle. But in truth, it’s anything but. Hundreds of millions of dollars in fines would be pretty tough for you or me to swallow, but to a monstrously outsized, too-big-to-fail investment firm like Goldman Sachs, these settlements are chump change–the cost of doing (personally lucrative, morally decrepit) business. But much worse is that they enable the firms to pay up without admitting or denying wrongdoing, and because they forgo the public fact-finding of a trial, there’s no evidence for the victims of these terrible practices to use to recover their losses in civil suits. Perhaps this complete lack of accountability is just an unintended byproduct of the SEC’s pursuit of the public interest, but given the notorious revolving door between the commission and the firms it’s supposed to be regulating, I’m hardly convinced.

Excitingly, neither is Judge Jed Rakoff, who just this morning rejected a $285-million version of the Goldman Sachs settlement that the SEC had negotiated with Citigroup. (In this case, investors lost $700 million through Citigroup-designed securities while the bank itself made $160 million betting against them.) Assuming his decision stands, Citigroup will be going to court to face accusations of fraud, and the SEC’s shamefuly toothless enforcement practices will likely change in what I can only hope to be a substantial way.

Rakoff’s decision is rife with deliciously quotable and oh-so-appropriate moral indignation. Decrying the complete lack of accountability inherent in the SEC’s blame-free settlements, Rakoff observes, “Even in our nation, apologists for suppressing or obscuring the truth may always be found. But the S.E.C., of all agencies, has a duty, inherent in its statutory mission, to see that the truth emerges; and if it fails to do so, this Court must not, in the name of deference or convenience, grant judicial enforcement to the agency’s contrivances.” He takes particular aim at the lack of fact-finding, writing, “An application of judicial power that does not rest on facts is worse than mindless, it is inherently dangerous, serves no lawful or moral purpose and is simply an engine of oppression.”

Here here! At a time when the federal agencies and Congressional committees charged with overseeing the finance industry often seem less like genuine counerweights than launching pads for lobbying careers, and the federal courts little more than a rubber stamp, muscular judicial oversight from judges like Rakoff is exactly what we need more of. The days when our government is accountable to the public over the narrow interests of our country’s greediest sector still feel impossibly far in the future, but this decision fills me with hope. Our system of legalized corruption is under attack, and not just from Occupy Wall Street. Somebody needs to buy Jed Rakoff a beer!

Salon Article on Argentina’s Recent Elections

My first piece for Salon, about the skewed coverage of Argentina’s recent election in the U.S. media. Here’s the lede:

When Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, was reelected two weeks ago by the largest margin of any leader since the return of democracy in 1983, even her bitterest opponents had to admit that she’d done something right. Clarín, Buenos Aires’ highest-circulation daily and a strong contender for the title of Kirchner’s enemy No. 1, acknowledged that the president had earned her victory by creating jobs and prosperity. Mauricio Macri, the conservative mayor of Buenos Aires, congratulated Fernández and told reporters, “If things go well for the president, things go well for us.”

But on the pages of America’s leading newspapers, the tone was strikingly less conciliatory….

The full article:

The New York Times Doesn’t Much Like Cristina

It’s been clear for a good while now that Alexei Barrionuevo, the New York Times‘ Southern Cone bureau chief, isn’t a fan of newly reelected Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. His reporting on topics from Argentina’s approval of gay marriage to conflicts between the president and the country’s central bank tend to paint Cristina (as she’s universally known here) as a shameless self-promoter whose real achievements are merely incidental to her search for political advantage. Sure, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to criticize Cristina, but there’s also ample cause to celebrate her achievements — and Times readers consistently get just the first half of a very complicated story.

Even when set within this context of one-sided reporting, though, Barrionuevo’s article about Cristina’s resounding reelection this past Sunday stands out. Facing a divided opposition and bolstered by Latin America’s highest rate of economic growth, Cristina (whose husband, Néstor, died last November after serving his own presidential term from 2003-2007) won reelection with nearly 54% of the vote, more than three times the share earned by her closest competitor. It’s the widest margin of victory since the return of democracy in 1983, and while Cristina’s critics can choose to blame the results on the weakness of the opposition or on kirchnerismo‘s supposed pandering to the poor, few doubt that the election was free and fair, and a 37% margin would suggest that Cristina has done at least a few things right. Any piece of objective reporting, you’d think, ought at the very least to recognize some of these successes. Yet Barrionuevo’s article, Kirchner Achieves an Easy Victory in Argentina Presidential Election, resolutely does not. Instead, it expounds on the weaknesses of Cristina’s last term and attributes much of her victory to sympathy over Néstor’s death before concluding, in the voice of one of several experts cited in the piece, that a “political reckoning” is in the works. Cristina’s opponents themselves looked more generous in defeat.

Barrionuevo begins by recalling — correctly — that two years ago, Cristina’s re-election prospects looked dicey, the outlook dimmed by conflict with the powerful agricultural sector, increasing inflation, and a number of scandals. (Not mentioned is a temporary slowdown in economic growth.) But in the past two years — and especially since Néstor died — Cristina has experienced an exceptional turnaround, winning reelection by an historic margin. Barrionuevo attributes this revival largely to this year’s economic growth of 8%, so strong that it led voters to overlook “troubling signs” like high inflation and a heavy-handed approach to critics. So far, no real complaints.

But then Barrionuevo’s biases begin to reveal themselves in much more obvious ways. He devotes the bulk of the article to criticism of Cristina’s failings without any mention of her accomplishments in education, poverty reduction, or human rights, and he describes her in unnecessarily harsh terms. (When he says that “with her emotional speeches and designer suits, Mrs. Kirchner appealed to the masses,” one senses that Barrionuevo isn’t complimenting Cristina’s oratory or her fashion sense.)

Much more troubling is Barrionuevo’s refusal to quote any sources with even vaguely flattering things to say about Cristina. One analyst he cites notes that “this election seemed to defy the normal rules of politics,” presumably because of the government’s “corruption and cronyism.” While there is indeed plenty of evidence to warrant these two adjectives (which, for the record, describe just about every government in Argentine history), it seems to me that voters’ willingness to overlook corruption amid record economic growth — and at a time when salary increases are largely keeping pace with real inflation, subsidies have increased, poverty has declined dramatically, and social spending has more than tripled — follows rather than challenges “the normal rules.” Another condemns Argentina’s failure to embrace the sort of macroeconomic policies that favor foreign direct investment; while that’s a legitimate complaint — especially among Argentina’s business class and foreign corporations and governments–the decision to deprioritize long-held debts and, in turn, international investment stands at the heart of the economic “model” that Cristina has touted continuously throughout the campaign, and it evidently didn’t trouble most voters overmuch. A third argues that Argentina’s regional influence has decreased while Brazil’s has increased; I won’t argue with that one. A fourth, already mentioned above, argues that “when the money runs out” due to a predicted economic slowdown next year, “there will be a political reckoning.” This is likely true as well, though it’s worth noting that these predictions are based on probable international developments like lower commodity prices and reduced demand from China and Brazil — and blaming Cristina for these things is like blaming Obama for the European debt crisis.

What’s remarkable isn’t that Barrionuevo cites these sources; for the most part, I don’t even disagree with the points they raise. Instead, it amazes me that Barrionuevo doesn’t quote anyone willing to frame Cristina’s reelection in a more favorable light. There’s certainly no shortage of local political observers who recognize that Néstor and Cristina made life better for a lot of Argentines, and that this might have had something to do with this past Sunday’s results. Even Clarín, arch-enemy of kirchnerismo, was willing to credit decreased unemployment and increases in personal consumption as major factors in Cristina’s victory; the people “voted with their wallets,” one of the paper’s commentators announced. (If you’re curious about the government’s relationship to Clarín, check out this earlier post.)

What emerges from Barrionuevo’s slanted reporting is a narrative that goes something like this: In 2003, Néstor and Cristina set out to establish a political dynasty. Their combative political style and corruption nearly did them in back in 2008-09, but economic growth (driven by high commodity prices, not by an economic model that experts claimed would “collapse” before this year) managed to improve the couple’s political prospects. Then Néstor died, Cristina softened her image, and an ineffective opposition somehow failed to capitalize on the government’s many failings, enabling Cristina to ride a wave of sympathy and economic growth to victory last Sunday. Yet the successes of kirchnerismo ring hollow, and now it’s only a matter of time before all hell breaks loose.

Plenty of people, here and abroad, would agree with this take on the recent Argentine past; lots of others wouldn’t. Barrionuevo’s article would make for a fine op-ed or a piece of what the Times loves to call “news analysis.” But to present this as straight news reporting — it’s what I expect from Rupert Murdoch, not from the New York Times.

Political Complicity Article Goes Live

In case you’re burning with curiosity about the behavior of Argentina’s major Jewish political group during the country’s last dictatorship or craving a reflection on the ways in which the work of German philosopher Karl Jaspers could point us toward a more nuanced approach to the fine gradations of responsibility that define totalitarian social transformation — the final refereed version of the article I’ve spent much of the past two years working on has finally gone up on the International Journal of Transitional Justice’s website. For those wonky, nerdy, or bored enough to be interested, a full HTML version of the article can be found at this address and a pdf can be downloaded from this one. If you do give it a go, let me know what you think!

Full Text:



El Antisemitismo en la Argentina, 2011

Lest you begin to believe I think only negative thoughts about the Delegación de Asociaciones Israelitas Argentinas (I’ve dedicated much of the last four years to researching the group’s behavior during the most difficult period in its history), today I present the fruits of one of the organization’s greatest assets, its able research unit, the Centro de Estudios Sociales (Social Studies Center). The CES, together with the University of Buenos Aires, has just published the results of a comprehensive and academically rigorous national survey of antisemitism in Argentina–the first I’ve seen in my time here. The troubling findings were announced at a public event this past Tuesday, and coming as they were in the wake of last week’s high-profile attack at a synagogue in the BA barrio of Flores, they couldn’t have been more timely. I won’t editorialize any further; these numbers speak for themselves:

  • 53% of 1510 respondents between the ages of 18 and 65 from throughout the country believe that Argentine Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Argentina.
  • 49% say that Jews talk about the Holocaust too much
  • 45% would not marry a Jewish person
  • 39% disapprove of Jews holding political office
  • 70% report first-hand knowledge of discrimination against Jews

Interview with the Harvard Citizen

A couple of months ago, I had the pleasure of participating in the first substantive interview of my life with Matt Bieber, a fantastically thoughtful public policy *and* divinity grad student at Harvard (awesome combination, huh?) who writes the “Citizen Conversation” feature for the Kennedy School’s student newspaper, the Harvard Citizen. We talked about the research project that’s been keeping me busy these last four years, and about its implications for post-authoritarian democratic consolidation. It ran in the paper about a week ago and has also been posted–along with tons of other cool stuff–on Matt’s great blog, The Wheat and the Chaff. I’ve reposted the interview below, in case you’re curious to hear what I’ve been thinking about lately. And even if you’re not, you really should click on over to Matt’s blog and settle in for a good long read.

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Matt: You write about transitional justice, among other things. Let’s start by getting some concepts on the table; what is transitional justice, where does it come from, and what does it hope to achieve?

Me: I understand transitional justice (TJ) to refer to the totality of actions taken by states or international bodies in response to significant past human rights violations. The phrase has also come to refer to a nascent, interdisciplinary academic field centered on the questions of individual and group accountability, social solidarity, and democratic consolidation that emerge in wake of such abuses. Histories of transitional justice tend to begin with the Nuremberg Trials and wind their way through post-dictatorial Argentina to the truth commissions and international tribunals of the present.

Justice, of course, is TJ’s central (if poorly defined) object. I won’t attempt to unpack something so manifold, but I will say that I don’t think transitional justice posits a different type of justice than, say, an ordinary criminal trial. The modifier “transitional” reminds us, however, that societies emerging from dictatorship, genocide, or civil war are often deeply polarized, face many competing pressures, and may have few resources. The challenged states that structure these societies must develop public policies that balance the needs of victims with the demands of institutional stability and social reconciliation. The mechanisms and practices they can employ include criminal prosecutions, historical investigations, and financial reparations. Scholars in the field haven’t agreed on a single set of goals (Is forgiveness a reasonable one? What about economic redistribution?) or a means to measure their achievement, and each discipline brings its own values and approaches to the table. My own sense of what TJ ought to achieve is bound up in my background in history; I believe that transitional justice processes within a country ought to contribute to a culture of greater respect for human rights through sharper awareness of the past and one’s own role in it.

My understanding is that transitional justice efforts thus far have focused heavily on the direct perpetrators of major crimes (the Nazis, say, or Liberia’s Charles Taylor). In your scholarship, though, you’re looking to widen the ambit of transitional justice to include civil society institutions as well – those that may have aided and abetted, so to speak, in the commission of a regime’s crimes. Tell us about your work on the DAIA case in Argentina, if you would.

You’re right to point to TJ’s dominant focus on criminal guilt, especially in a case of an international tribunal like the Special Court for Sierra Leone (the body that indicted Charles Taylor). It’s true, though, that a number of local transitional mechanisms–including investigative commissions in Latin American countries like Argentina and Chile and the high-profile Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa–have placed a fair amount of weight on the political dimension of regime crimes. The TRC even went so far as to grant amnesty to both repressors and guerrillas in exchange for an honest account of apartheid-era “political crimes.” Yet while they were attuned to political implications, these mechanisms still looked more or less exclusively at obvious criminal acts.

We think of abhorrent regimes like Nazi Germany primarily in criminal terms because their nature is, of course, profoundly criminal. Yet in truth, dictatorships with totalitarian social ambitions don’t manage the sort of social co-option necessary to commit sustained, massive human rights violations on their own. Instead, they require the political support of civil society institutions and ordinary citizens alike. In his 1947 analysis of Germany’s guilt for the Second World War, philosopher Karl Jaspers sought to clarify the complex liabilities generated by this co-option of civil society by way of an exceptionally helpful taxonomy of responsibility. He suggested that beyond criminal guilt–which adheres only to those who have committed explicit crimes–individuals and groups bear political liability for all actions which contributed to the political climate that facilitated regime abuses. (These actions could be as subtle as looking the other way in the face of regime crimes or presuming the guilt of their victims.) Such political liabilities are what I’m really interested in; to my mind, they get right to the heart of the small-scale social transformations that empower totalitarian dictatorships. The general lack of discussion surrounding political responsibility in post-dictatorial societies deprives them of the opportunity to promote a more complete and realistic understanding of the nature of abusive regimes and of the capacity of individuals to influence their own political realities, in ways both good and bad.

My work on DAIA springs from a desire to better understand the local mechanics of totalitarian social transformation, in this case in the context of the radical Process of National Reorganization, or so-called “Dirty War,” led by Argentina’s armed forces between 1976 and 1983. While recent years have seen a surge of interest in documenting and prosecuting Proceso-era crimes, few in Argentine public life talk openly and honestly about the complicity of the country’s major institutions–including media outlets, political parties, business groups, religious organizations, and the judiciary. DAIA (the Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations), the official political representative of the country’s Jewish community, is one such institution. During the Dirty War, DAIA responded to a violent campaign of regime pressure by cooperating with the Proceso and further excluding its victims from the organized Jewish community. In the years since 1983, it has largely resisted efforts to critically evaluate its own past conduct. I think it’s important to analyze the behavior of groups like DAIA and to think rigorously about the political liabilities they bear for their contributions to a climate of exclusion and violence. And it should be our goal, I believe, to develop transitional justice practices that can address these liabilities in suitably nuanced ways.

Jaspers’ taxonomy involves four categories of guilt. Some of them apply at the level of institutions, and others apply to individuals. Could you say a word about each one? And why have you found them so useful in your analysis?

You’re right that Jaspers distinguishes among four dimensions of guilt–not so he can break responsibility into epistemologically distinct components, but so he can clarify guilt by exploring its implications at multiple levels. In addition to criminal and political culpability, which I mentioned in my response to your last question, Jaspers speaks of metaphysical guilt–an abstract responsibility shared among all those who failed to do everything possible to combat injustice–and moral guilt, a person’s own reckoning with the ethical implications of every one of her or his actions.

Moral and political guilt interest me most; the former centers on the individual alone (and Jaspers is quite clear that it is only the individual who can take himself to task for his or her moral failings), while the latter comes into play at the level of groups and institutions, too. For me, it’s in the interplay of moral and political guilt–and the intersection of shared and individual responsibility–that Jasper’s taxonomy gets really exciting, transitional justice-wise.

You sound like you’ve got a lot up your sleeve here.  What do you think transitional justice has to say about that intersection?  More specifically, how can efforts toward transitional justice integrate a deeply individual moral guilt with a shared political guilt?  What does that actually look like?

You’re too kind; if I’ve got something up my sleeve it’s because I stole it out of Jaspers’! As he sees it, the guilt that really counts–the kind that can transform an individual’s consciousness and lead her to change the way she acts in the world–is moral guilt, but because this sort of guilt is such an individual question, it’s something that everyone must confront personally. The best that a transitional regime can do is to show that criminal governments succeed by convincing people to look the other way in the face of their abuses and to accept the us-vs.-them thinking at the heart of their worldview. Transitional mechanisms can model responsible engagement with the kind of responsibility that these behaviors imply, providing spaces and contexts for critical self-analysis without making people feel that they are under moral attack from without. I’m not a fantasist; I’m not about to claim that the starving citizens of post-Nazi Germany would have humbly confronted the nuances of their own moral complicity if only the Allies had sought to distinguish political from criminal guilt. But if the alternative is to say nothing, or to lob over-broad charges of collaboration at a population that already sees itself as victim, then I’d say that Jaspers’ approach has real potential to better facilitate individual engagement with the darkest corners of the past.

Say a little more about what it means for transitional regimes to point out that us-vs.-them mentality and to provide spaces and contexts for critical self-analysis within their population.  Are there regimes that you think have done a particularly good job at these tasks?  And are there lessons we can learn from those which haven’t?

To be honest, I don’t really see many examples of transitional regimes that have dealt adequately with political responsibility on the level I think matters most, that of almost-inadvertent cooperation. In saying this, I should underscore that I’m a student of transitional justice more than I am any sort of expert. Opinions about the effectiveness of transitional mechanisms vary widely, and the field is still struggling to develop coherent evaluation metrics. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission–and, to a lesser extent, commissions in Argentina and Chile–did consider human rights abuses in a “political” context and provide a space for victims to speak about their experiences. But none of these commissions paid much attention to the role of civil society, nor did they address the extent of self-blinding facilitated by the criminal regimes.

A thoughtful, nuanced treatment of these topics could take several forms, really. One element could be state support for research into the role played by civil society institutions in past abuses, and/or the inclusion of the question in the mandates of post-dictatorship investigative commissions. Others could include assembling easily accessible documentary archives, holding public hearings, and designing and distributing curricular material for use in schools. Certainly, it’s something the transitional justice community needs to think more carefully about–and something that I plan to continue reflecting on for a while.

The New Yorker on Rick Perry and the GOP

Given the abysmal state of the US economy, the current Republican presidential field is just about the only source of hope that Obama has right now. The New Yorker’s Samantha Henig talks through some of the challenges currently facing the Republican contenders with political reporters Lawrence Wright and Ryan Lizza. I’d recommend giving it a listen. On one level, it’s satisfying to think that Rick Perry has a real shot to win the nomination and pull the GOP over a cliff. But it’s terrifying on too many others that a man who has publicly declared prayer the most important response to the country’s problems may well be just a few stock market gyrations away from the presidency.