Friday, May 1, 2009

We are not all to blame

There is an article in today’s Washington Post by the columnist Michael Kinsley. Under the title "Where This Buck Stops", he tackles the torture issue. Under the guise of a critical thinking piece, 'I am not a mere journalist more a deep thinker' kind of piece, he ends up with the conclusion that "If you’re going to punish people for condoning torture, you’d better include the American citizenry itself”. We, the American people, it seems, are the real culprits. I must have had a hand in those torture memos from the Justice Department. Funny, I cannot remember doing that.

This is a recurring theme in sloppy op-ed pieces. They slide from specific issues--torture, the subprime fiasco, the financial meltdown--to the general conclusion that the real fault lies with us all. Baloney. This spurious argument, all the worse for pretending it is a profound analysis rather than a tired old argument, is wrong in two respects. First, we are not all responsible. We did not all write memos justifying torture, we did not all ok risky mortgages or all gamble shareholders savings in dubious enterprises. We are not equal actors in these dramas. There are specific people responsible for specific things and to make the ‘we are all to blame’ argument’ is to reassign blame from those responsible to the general public. Second, it rests on the mistaken assumption that since we are citizens of the country we have an equal part in making decisions. Citizens do not have the same degree of economic power and political access. The ‘we are all to blame argument’ works to make us believe that we all have equal shares, equal responsibility and hence equal culpability when things go wrong. No. Let’s have less blather parading as profound criticism and a sharper focus on who did what. That way we get a much better sense of the distribution of power and a more accurate understanding of the distribution of responsibility.