The Violence Inherent in the System…

The Violence Inherent in the System… June 3, 2010

In my opinion, what runs through that hodge-podge of peculiar and inconsistent beliefs that characterizes American “conservatism” is a theology of violence. On one level, there is of course the derivative Calvinist dualism that divides the world into friend or enemy, loyalist or traitor, freedom-lover or terrorist, patriot or socialist. And the other, of course, to is be destroyed. On another level, there is a liberal social contractarian that restricts basic human rights to those within the perimeter of the social contract – and liberalism is the reigning philosophy of the American right. And on another level still, there is consequentialism – the notion that all acts should be evaluated solely on their consequences. Of course, this moral relativism embraces social contractarian as the consequences that matter are only the consequences to our preferred side, and violence against those excluded can be readily defended, even relished.

Mostly, this violence is rhetorical, which feeds through into an apocalyptic political strategy. Sometimes, this violence is literal. It can come in the form of a belief in the transformative power of bloodshed – destroying “jihadism” with firepower, bringing “freedom” from the barrel of a gun. It is endemic. Violence is celebrated throughout popular culture, from the mythic frontiersman to the newest video game. War is celebrated, the military is glorified, the “manly man” put on a pedestal. And of course, these “strong men” can fend for themselves, do not need any help from others, and are not obliged to help others. It’s the individualism, stupid, and if you invade my space, I’ll punch your nose!

Taking the individual autonomy underpinning liberalism and Hobbes’s social contract to absurd limits, these “conservatives” elevate the virtue of gun ownership to defend oneself against both other individuals and the state. If they cross you, shoot them.

Consequentialism? The American nuclear bombings of Japan are justified because they saved lives. Torture is justified because it saves lives. War is justified because it saves lives (we are fighting them there so they don’t come here!). This is why the relativism inherent in consequentialism is so pernicious. The collective punishment of a people can be defended if they are not “our” people. They are not part of the liberal social contract. Torture and unjust imprisonment is fine for those beyond the protections of American citizenship. Against the “other”, violence is defensible, legitimate, even virtuous.

And of course, Israel is on “our side”. It is after all a democracy, full of white people who speak excellent English, with a culture of “manly virtue”, and fighting the same “terrorists” as Americans. Add into the mix the twisted evangelical dispensationalist theology that ties the second coming of Christ to secular Jewish nationalism (Palin, anyone?). The result? Evident.

If you look at other “Catholic” blogs, you will see this understated support for violence on full display. In the current context, you will see all kinds of defenses for Israel’s actions, defenses that mirror the old justification for the Iraq war. Hamas is out to destroy Israel. The blockade keeps Israel safe. I’ve even seen one commenter argue Gazans must be lazy, since 80 percent of them are on humanitarian food aid – liberalism meets militarism! The fact that Israel prohibits exports, strictly controls what can enter the territory, and that 90 percent of factories are not operating is clearly beside the point…

And so, while you can read about the obnoxious statements of Hamas ad nauseam, you will hear little about the equally repulsive statements of the Israeli leadership. You will hear little about Avigdor Lieberman, the current foreign minister of Israel. This is the man who, in his younger days, associated with the terrorist Kach group. This is the man who repeatedly talks about the ethnic cleansing of Arabs from Israel and the execution of Arab members of the Knesset. This is the man who once spoke of busing thousands of released Palestinian prisoners to the Dead Sea to drown them. This is the man who thinks that Putin in Chechnya is a role model for how Israel should deal with Palestine. This is the man who suggested that the Americans had the right approach in Japan. And this is the man behind the collective punishment of 1.5 million human beings, people made in the image and likeness of God, in Gaza. But it’s not a matter of consistency, it’s a matter of whose side you are on.

When you read some prominent right-wing bloggers and pundits, it can be frightening. With dialed-up testosterone levels, they embrace military strength and a knee-jerk codpiece diplomacy. The theology underpinned by violence is on full and frightening display. With many Catholic bloggers, this is less evident, but it is there all the same. There is one in particular who likes to quote and link to a person called Robert Stacey McCain, who had this to say about Palestine: “Swear to God, if they ever want a Gentile prime minister, my first order would be to deploy the IDF in a north-south line, facing east. My second order would be “forward march” and the order to halt would not be given until it was time for the troops to rinse their bayonets in the Jordan. After a brief rest halt, the order “about face” would be given, and the next halt would be at the Mediterranean coast“. I quote this not because the blogger in question agrees with this statement (I’m sure he doesn’t), but to show that this kind of discourse is perfectly acceptable and mainstream.

For sure, the blood-lust of the American right is reflected in the Catholic blogosphere. And here’s the irony – these very same people are among the staunchest defenders of the unborn. They fail to grasp that abortion is wrong because it is an act of violence against an innocent person. Violence. They fail to grasp that the defenders of abortion argue that the unborn are excluded from the social contract that would respect their right to life and dignity, and that the economic welfare of the mother might justify the termination of the pregnancy. In other words, abortion is justified by an all-to-ready acceptance of violence, especially if it takes place out of public view, and is defended on both social contractarian and consequentialist grounds. Sound familiar? It should. And the conclusion is pellucid, is it not?

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  • Thaddeus

    Excellent post. I make similar arguments here:

    Where does the violence come from? What is its root? Perhaps Rene Girard has it right: the need to scapegoat. The violence theology is also on the left as well. I think it’s basically a kind of secularized Judaism-Christianity on both the right and left.

  • Mark Gordon

    Of course,Girard also warns against “doubling,” in which even those awakened to the generative mimetic scapegoating mechanism wind up scapegoating the scapegoaters. Doubling only leads back into the mimetic miasma – the war of all against all – which is the ground for a cathartic sacrificial event, the moment when the contagion becomes “the war of all against one.”

    I mention this because whenever the subject is Israel, language on both sides gets superheated, and the classic doubling phenomenon Girard described appears. This post is a good example. In emotional language, Morning’s Minion denounces the “Calvinist dualism that divides the world into friend or enemy, loyalist or traitor …” But he (predictably) does so by mimicking precisely the same sort of dualism he decries, only reordered to fit his own conception of righteousness: “conservatives BAD, the Left (or just Democrats; or perhaps just Morning’s Minion) GOOD!

  • Gargano

    Your linking of consequentialism with moral relativism is misguided.

    The standard concept of moral relativism is that it is the view that there are no universal standards of right and wrong. On that definition, consequentialism is definitely not relativistic. It holds that there is a universal standard of right and wrong, namely, that one should always seek to maximize good outcomes.

    Consequentialism and moral relativism are not even about the same object: to put it in academic jargon, consequentialism is a theory within ethics, while moral relativism is a theory within meta-ethics.

    I assume you call consequentialism relativistic because you believe it entails that there are “no moral absolutes”, and for you “no moral absolutes” is equivalent to moral relativism. This confuses two senses in which one can claim that there are “no moral absolutes”.

    Sense 1: there are no universal standards of right and wrong. This is a meta-ethical claim, a claim about the nature of ethics. This is what is normally called “moral relativism”.

    Sense 2: there are no “intrisically evil” acts; there is no moral rule about a generic act — say, “it is wrong to intentionally kill an innocent person” — that will be valid in every imaginable circumstance. This a specific thesis about right and wrong, not about the nature of ethics. People who defend this view will advance arguments about the specific circumstances where the particular rule will fail to be valid. People who believe there are no universal standards of right and wrong do not advance arguments about specific moral rules. Calling this ethical thesis “relativism” is a non-standard usage of the term, and confuses two different issues.

  • The Colombian philosopher Nicolas Gomez Davila once wrote:

    “An individual declares himself a member of some group or other with the goal of demanding in its name what he is ashamed to claim in his own name.”

    Catholic partisans on both sides justify moral cowardice with such a principal. For the “liberal”, he can justify it by saying: “while I am PERSONALLY against abortion, euthanasia, etc. [fill in excuse]”. He is giving into the regime of the collective in order to obtain a good that he wants for himself but is afraid to ask for on his own behalf. He also absolves himself from all accusations of racism, sexism, etc., by meaningless posturing whereby he washes his hands of the status quo (though he benefits from it).

    The conservative tends to abuse natural law to the point of creating a grotesque anti-morality. Yes, the anti-immigrant, pro-war, pro-capitalist stances seem harsh, but you have to understand, we aren’t Protestants, so we can’t take the Sermon on the Mount literally. That stuff about compassion and turning the other cheek are all good for my kid’s catechism class, but you can’t run the world that way. In other words, don’t let the Gospel (or the lives of the saints, the writings of the Doctors of the Church, the Magisterium, etc.) get in the way of your theology. The state has a right to defend itself, and you can’t run the world with all of that effeminate crap. After all, we have the right to [here fill in the excuse].

    Of course, these excuses on the right impart to one the temptation to live vicariously through what could only be classified as rhetorical snuff porn. Yes, we know it’s not right to kill people, but don’t you think the Crusaders enjoyed their raping and pillaging for God just a little bit? What is the harm of lifting up flag and Cross and saying: “These colors don’t run!”

    Christian political thought is more prophetic than it is practical. It warns against excesses of social action in which the wounds of original sin are more greatly manifested rather than curbed. And while it may give in at times to some necessary evils, it never transubstantiates them into positive goods. But in a regime where democracy is little better than the registering of the passions of the largest mob, this is often lost even on people who consider themselves intelligent and cultured.

  • dan

    “Violence inherent in the system”…inherent in humans as it is all too easy–for all of us at times– to fail to recognize the humanity in others.

    I agree with Thaddeus that the violence theology transcends the left/right divide. Living in the Bay Area California, I have witnessed far too many examples of so-called progressives and social justice types readily using violence and intimidation to de-humanize those they disagree with.

  • Yep, another great post MM.

    Last paragraph is dead on. As I have said before, these people don’t seem to have the ability to reflect on why abortion is wrong and why/how this kind of killing connects with other kinds of killing. For them it’s a kind of baby fetish: abortion is not wrong because it’s the unjustifiable killing of an innocent human being; it’s wrong because it’s killing a baby, and babies are special. That is, if they are OUR babies or babies of peoples that we find acceptable. Killing babies in the womb in Iraq or Palestine? Collateral damage.

  • Rodak

    Killing babies in the womb in Iraq or Palestine? Collateral damage.

    I got myself banned from a blog called What’s Wrong
    With the World
    for making that very point. It seems to strike a nerve–or to hold up a mirror to folks with a certain kind of cognitive dissonance that is just too painful to look at. Susceptibility to the fascist impulse differs from that of the Bolshevik-style impulse largely in that “ordinary” and “good” people are able to reconcile it to their own lifestyles and beliefs; and even to their version of Christianity.

  • R. Rockliff

    I think the defects, and the inhumanity, in the thinking of both the extreme Right and the extreme Left are the result of the modern substitution of contract for status. Biologically, the status of a fetus may be ambiguous, but status does not come into most modern abortion discussion, because status apparently does not make sense to most modern thinkers. The fetus, and the child, are excluded from the social contract, and therefore have no rights. The extreme Left treats the fetus with inhumanity, and the extreme Right treats the child with inhumanity. Where is the extreme Center? Is there anybody there?

  • dan

    “these people don’t seem to have the ability to reflect on why abortion is wrong and why/how this kind of killing connects with other kinds of killing.”

    Yes, the Gospel of Life. Our bishops and priests need to preach and preach and teach to this. All of us have hard hearts and failings to one degree and another that cause use to not see the humanity in others. And when that happens we tolerate violence in the form of war, how we treat prisoners, etc.

  • Mark,

    I anticipated this argument and (surprise!), I reject it. Pointing out dualism is not the same as dualism! More fundamentally, I would that while the culture of violences cements the ideology of the right, it is all-pervasive throughout society. The Obama administration has embraced much of this military consequentialist rubbish. The issue boils down to who is relatively better, not dark dualistic struggle between light and darkness!

  • On the abortion issue, it strikes me that the American so-called pro-lifers oppose abortion primarily because they think the unborn are part of the social contract, deserving legal and constitutional protections. Pro-choicers disagree, but argue from the exact same framework. Ultimately, this is arbitrary, because (as we all know, and as some of you have mentioned), the unborn Gazans or Iraqis or WW2-era Japanese don’t count.

  • Thaddeus Kozinski

    Mr. Gordon: Great point! Exposing the scapegoating mechanism can lead to more scapegoating by the doubling dynamic. We need to be careful.

    The “conservative” Catholics do not realize that they are really classical liberals at best. As MacIntyre so excellently points out:

    “Liberalism is often successful in preempting the debate . . . so that [objections to it] appear to have become debates within liberalism. . . . So-called conservatism and so-called radicalism in these contemporary guises are in general mere stalking-horses for liberalism: the contemporary debates within modern political systems are almost exclusively between conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals. There is little place in such political systems for the criticism of the system itself, that is, for putting liberalism in question.”

    Questioning the system itself seems like impiety or conspiracy-mongering to the conservatives, as well as the liberals. One has to have the courage to be an apostate from the scapegoating, violent, death-oriented system. It also takes grace to convert out of it.

  • And here’s the irony – these very same people are among the staunchest defenders of the unborn. They fail to grasp that abortion is wrong because it is an act of violence against an innocent person.

    Given how often pro-lifers say that abortion is wrong because it is the killing of an innocent human person, I find it hard to believe that they are unable to grasp the point.

    Last paragraph is dead on. As I have said before, these people don’t seem to have the ability to reflect on why abortion is wrong and why/how this kind of killing connects with other kinds of killing. For them it’s a kind of baby fetish: abortion is not wrong because it’s the unjustifiable killing of an innocent human being; it’s wrong because it’s killing a baby, and babies are special.

    Or perhaps the fact that you have to invent motivations for pro-lifers which are directly contrary to their words and actions means that you fail to actually understand what they believe, Michael? Is possible, no?

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  • Curt

    This topic has crossed my mind and I really
    do not understand why it is not addressed.
    I once wrote to a Catholic life group and asked
    if Catholics see a connection between
    contraceptives and abortion, then why not
    is a connection made between greed, power,
    nationalism, etc and war. The response
    give was that they fight contraceptive
    “imperialism” and gave me a link to
    NSSM 200. (a policy the USA had to
    distribute contraceptives to developing
    countries). Once I read NSSM 200, I thought
    if a country is willing to use contraceptives
    to gain resources, then they will not
    stop at anything. The average teenage
    boy in the US or possibly the world is
    more likely to be taught the evils of
    masturbation than to draw a connection
    between extreme nationialism and war.
    How can this be? I would like to have
    a TV show, it would be called “Questions
    That Never Get Asked”. Why does the
    Catholic Church recognize a saint?
    A saint is someone that shows heroic
    virture. Let us look at the Amish,
    they are not living some grand game
    of trying to acquire resources.
    Real warmongers, aren’t they?
    If the prolife community is serious
    about being prolife, I don’t think
    it would hurt us to immulate the
    Amish. Most prolife groups are anti-abortion,
    not prolife. There needs to be an
    encyclical or something condemning
    arms buildup, bravado, nationalism, etc.
    I think of people that are not
    believers. If I scratch my head wondering
    why isn’t violence condemned more by all
    churches, what does a non believer think?
    It must be utterly strange. I know the
    USCCB had condemned the arms race, etc,
    but of course, the people that lead the
    prolife groups sees the USCCB as liberals.

  • Curt–
    You make a good point. Anti-abortion is to many as circumcision is to the Jews: a sign of “belonging.” For such individuals it has very little, if anything, to do with personal morality, or an actual reverance for life. It’s like ’60s hippies flashing each other the “peace sign.”

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