The spectacle of Senate democrats voting against closing the military prison facility at Guantanamo is more than an exercise in collective pusillanimity. It raises the most profound questions about the nature of the Obama administration. It also raises profound philosophical questions, of the sort that has vexed metaphysicians since Parmenides and Plato; what is change?; is change real?; is change possible?. And more specifically, since, we assume, one cannot change the past, how does this effect our ability to change things in the present or future?
Let me make this less abstract. Listening to Dick Cheney this week, one was reminded how deeply and radically evil was much of what the Bush administration tried to accomplish especially in the area of human rights and foreign policy. And radical evil, unless it is extirpated, will continue to fester. Now some sort of continuity with the past is generally useful in human events. Stare decisis is generally a good political policy in moderation; certainly regimes that try to totally and utterly break with the past, like the Bolsheviks, generally don’t figure high on the human rights scale, in large part because this can only be accomplished by force. But the other alternative is merely differentiating oneself from an evil past, without really coming to terms with it. One thinks of post-war West Germany. Now, Konrad Adenauer was better in every possible way than Adolf Hitler, but under Adenauer the Nazi past and the Holocaust was something one didn’t speak of. Reparations were paid to Israel and Holocaust survivors, but thousands of ex-Nazis occupied positions of influence and power in both the private and public spheres. Easy gestures were made; deeper reckonings were avoided. The watchword of the Adenauer administration was, once the necessary rupture with past was made, as much continuity as possible.
Let me avoid making specious Nazi analogies, and I really am not, but I worry that Obama can become the Konrad Adenauer of our time. He is a good man, and his government is a far better government than that of his predecessor. There was, in the election last November, a democratic rupture and repudiation of the recent past. But Obama has, on a number of issues, out of expediency , out of a sense of the complexity and difficulty of the task, out of a desire to remain on good terms with the military, sort of split the difference with the evil of the Bush administration; banning torture while not pursing criminal cases against the torturers or allowing photographs to be released; modifying but not ending the practices of military commissions, changing the tactics but not the overall strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. All of these policies are still unfolding, and I have my fingers crossed, but it seems to me his decisions feed into a national mood that wants to turn the page from the Bush administration without making any fundamental changes, and the Guantanamo reaction shows what can happen if evil is not directly addressed, cauterized, extirpated. Its poison remains in the system. And it will strike you down. Parmenides argued that since you can’t change the past, you can’t really change the future either. The future is determined by what came before it, and all we can do in the present is witness the unchangeable past inexorably becoming the immovable future. We do not need change that we can use; we need change that is painful, cathartic, and ultimately liberating. Let us hope that Barack Obama is up to task.