Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Leveraging Another Kind of Truth

Those pensive-looking guys to the left are 20th C. philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell. Although they come from different ends of the philosophical spectrum-- existentialism and literature for Sartre, mathematical logic and analytic philosophy for Russell--they did share a passion for and commitment to the life of that long-lost animal, the engaged intellectual. It was that common interest (and the Vietnam War) that prompted Russell and Sartre, in 1967, to organize and preside over what was "officially" called the International War Crimes Tribunal but popularly known as the Russell-Sartre Tribunal (or just the Russell Tribunal). Because the Tribunal was not backed by any official government's mandate, it was really the purest form of a truth commission, seeking to uncover the facts of "war crimes" committed by the United States (and, secondarily, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea) during the Vietnam War.

In his Inaugural Statement, Jean-Paul Sartre offered a preemptive response to critics of the Tribunal, many of whom questioned its legitimacy and potential for effectiveness given the fact that it had been described as a strange organization of "all jurymen and no judge." Sartre acknowledged that the Tribunal had not been given a mandate, and hence could not act in any official capacity as a "judge," but he argued that "neither governments nor the masses" were in a position to mandate an investigation like the one they were undertaking. The Tribunal, according to Sartre, was "not invested with real powers by governments" but was rather "created out of a void and for a real need." Then, in his characteristic fashion, Sartre offered the following:

The Russell Tribunal believes... that its legality comes from both its absolute powerlessness and its universality.

In the background of Sartre's claim was the debate over the merits and demerits of the Nuremburg Trials some two decades earlier, which many people criticized as kangaroo courts conducting show trials. Where the Nuremburg courts were powerful and partial--that is, victors exercising victor's justice--Sartre saw the function of the Russell-Sartre Tribunal as an attempt to "resuscitate the jus contra bellum" by virtue of its non-association with any particular power and, correspondingly, its true representation of "the truth" that "the people" need in their pursuit of legal and ethical laws that could contravene what Satre called "the laws of the jungle."

What I have always found fascinating about truth commissions is that they regularly subordinate the truth that needs to be punished to the truth that needs to be known. That is not to say, of course, that such commissions do not aim to facilitate the "regular" operations of retributive justice or that their work does not often result in traditional "punishment," but only that they recognize that justice without truth, like Kant said of intuitions without concepts, is blind. And historically-blind justice is unjust.

There is a lot of talk these days about the possibility of bringing former President Bush (et al) to account for war crimes, human rights violations, and the like. The truth is, that will probably never happen in any official capacity. And yet, the whole truth of that history still needs to be known. President Obama, on his first full day in Office, welcomed his senior staff and Cabinet members with some remarks that included the following:

But the way to make a government responsible is not simply to enlist the services of responsible men and women, or to sign laws that ensure that they never stray. The way to make government responsible is to hold it accountable. And the way to make government accountable is make it transparent so that the American people can know exactly what decisions are being made, how they're being made, and whether their interests are being well served...

Let me say it as simply as I can: Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.

This is exactly the sort of historically-sensitive commitment to truth that I think we find in the work of truth commissions. That is, it is a commitment to the concept of a truth-in-common, which serves as the foundation that constitutes and legitimates truly democratic polities. When that truth is no longer shared or, worse, when it is intentionally disavowed and covered over, it is the responsibility of we, the people--powerless but universal, to borrow Sartre's formulation-- to insist upon its reintroduction into the public space.

To that end, I hope that we keep pressure on the issue of our former administration's war crimes and human rights violations. That pressure may have to come from non-governmental bodies without a mandate, a constellation of jurymen without a judge, like the Russell-Sartre Tribunal a half-century ago. But we shouldn't underestimate the promise of those bodies. Again, from Sartre:

This session is a communal undertaking for which the final term should be, as a philosopher said, ‘une verité devenue’. If the masses agree with our judgement, it will become truth, and we, at the very moment when we step back so that they will become the guardians and powerful supporters of that truth, will then know that we have been legitimized. When the people show their agreement they will also show a greater need: that a real ‘War Crimes Tribunal’ be created on a permanent basis, that these crimes may be denounced and not sanctioned anywhere and at any time.


Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

Fascinating. I had no idea Sartre and Russell had done any such thing...

Oh, and I appreciate the sophisticated analysis of the meanings of truth commissions here, but I can't help really really wanting to haul all of the Bushies into a kangaroo court....

Chet said...

you lost me what what they share . I assumed you were going to say, chasing skirts.

anotherpanacea said...

This is cool. I don't know how I feel about it, and in fact I think I disagree completely Sartre on the legitimacy issue, but I still like it and the suggestions that emerge.