To the editors of the New Republic:
I am a former subscriber to your magazine who has let my subscription lapse. I’m one of the people who periodically receives invitations to resubscribe as an “old friend”. I should explain that when I let my subscription lapse, I was simply choking in reading materials and not reacting in horror to your non-left positions. (For what it’s worth, my most-read weekly nowadays is BusinessWeek.). The New Republic is excellent far more often than it’s infuriating, and we’d be better off if all journals of political opinion shared your willingness to seriously consider the arguments of the other side. Unfortunately, not all arguments are worthy of serious consideration.
Recently, Amnesty International released its 2005 annual report of human rights violations around the globe. In connection with this report, Irene Khan, the Secretary General, made a wide-ranging speech criticizing the United States, the UN, Western Europe, and the governments of Sudan, Zimbabwe, China, and Russia, among others. In this speech, she made an overheated and historically ignorant comparison of Guantanamo Bay to the Soviet gulags. In response, Bush administration officials joined the ignoble ranks of leaders who have responded to Amnesty International reports of human rights abuses with spin and self-pity. President Bush said, “I’m aware of the Amnesty International report, and it’s absurd.” Vice-President Cheney said that he didn’t take Amnesty seriously, and Donald Rumsfeld called the description “reprehensible”. A small army of pundits rushed forward to attack Amnesty International’s credibility.
We had a truly remarkable debate. On one hand, we had an organization with a 40-year history of standing up for human rights regardless of borders and ideology, criticizing the United States for holding prisoners without due process and torturing them. Only a fool would deny that this is, in fact, happening. On the other hand, we have an Administration accusing Amnesty International of poor word choice. Your contribution to the debate was a piece criticizing Amnesty for the use of the term “gulag”.
I completely understand the objection to the term. After all, the gulags were a vastly larger evil, and a part of a far more sinister and omnipresent system of repression. However, I have to question your priorities. Your magazine supported the war on Iraq on the basis of human rights. (Like the Administration, you used Amnesty’s reports of Saddam’s tyranny without hesitation in arguing for the war.) Surely human rights abuses performed in our name, by our elected government, deserve scrutiny and criticism, even if such abuses don’t approach the depths of Stalin or Saddam. It seems obvious to me that Amnesty doesn’t deserve your sneers.
We have seen horrors, great and small, in the past century. There have always been some who have done what they could to oppose them. History will not look kindly on those who made excuses, looked the other way, or told the supporters of justice to keep their damn voices down. I expect no better from the alleluia chorus of movement conservatives. Too many have shown that their interest in human rights ends when it ceases to be a useful club against domestic opponents. But I expect more from the New Republic.
As I mentioned, I’m frequently invited to resubscribe to your magazine. I see that a digital subscription to the New Republic can be had for $29.95. I’m not going to buy one. Instead, I’m going to send that money to Amnesty International, who have done more for human rights than perhaps any volunteer organization existing. And I’m going to encourage my readers to do the same thing.
P.S. You can imagine a world in which the term “gulag” had not been used in that speech. In that world, do you imagine that the Amnesty report would have set off a serious effort on the part of the Bush Administration to correct its abuses? Or do you think that they would find another excuse- any excuse- to belittle and ignore the report? The question answers itself, doesn’t it?