Friday, July 08, 2005

The Daily Word

From a commenter at Hughes for America:

For good or ill -- and each passing day it seems to be for ill, I am sad to say -- it is the media and other powers that be that shape our thinking and our outlook on the world.

On days like today and in the days to come, we are constantly being conditioned to think of western, Christian lives as being more valuable than the lives of the rest of the habitants of the world.

It is no wonder there is a constant and possibly never-ending war going on between these worlds. It is a clash of cultures, and a conflict between the haves and have nots.

I can only hope that we will be able to regard the casualties of all innocent civilians as equally tragic, newsworthy and the object of our contant condemnation.

John McGowan:

As Tony Blair said it today: We will not allow violence to change our societies and our values. How we will send our message? By imposing our will on theirs. We shall prevail and they shall not. Their initiatory act of violence calls forth our responding acts of violence.

What differentiates our violence from theirs? Three things: 1) our aims are moral; theirs are not; 2) they kill innocent people; we do not; and 3) their actions are gratuitous; ours are necessary. (Lurking behind all three is the old schoolboy standard: he started it.)


You cannot preserve a way of life through violence; once you take up arms, kiss your old way of life good-bye. The attacks of September 11th did change America, not through what the terrorists did, but through what we did in response.


But, at least, pacifism calls our attention to the fact that violence, to say the least, is a very uncertain means to accomplish anything. So if the end is something we care about deeply, we will be well advised to consider other means. Violence has a nasty habit of proving indiscriminate in its destruction.


I turn now from pacifism's pragmatism (the focus on instrumentality) to what I think of as its realism. Of course, in matters of violence, the manly rhetoric of determination, will, prevailing, and necessity is considered realistic and is opposed to the namby-pamby, pie-in-the-sky idealism of the pacifist who refuses to face facts.

I beg to differ.

The most abiding lesson I have learned in the four years since September 11th is the persistent inability of humans--as a species? Who knows? But certainly in many instances--to call a spade a spade. The rhetorics of violence divert our attention away from the maimed and suffering and dead bodies that are violence's most real product.

Think of the ways that sacrifice and victory were deployed in Bush's recent speech about the Iraq War. Was there any connection offered between these terms and the dead bodies our war is producing daily? Pacifism calls us to the fact that violence means killing and maiming; it means inflicting physical harm and pain on humans. It tells us to be suspicious, very suspicious, of the words in which we cloak violence, in which we justify it, and in which we avoid apprehending its real effects on the ground. Get real.

By jumping away to the message violence sends about our resolve or to the desired results we imagine it will produce, we cultivate a blindness that renders our claims to be realists delusionary.

Pacifism also calls us to get real about the justificatory distinctions made between innocent and non-innocent victims. Ever since the Blitz of 1940, warfare has pretty much obliterated the distinction between combatants and non-combatants.


To think that our violence can be so surgical that only the non-innocent will feel its brunt is another delusion, one that the Pentagon has developed a whole new vocabulary to create and preserve.

I guess I must add here, since liberals are so often willfully misunderstood on this score, that I condemn and abhor todays bombings. I am only saying that pacifism has some very solid reasons for saying that once you begin making distinctions between 'good' violence and 'bad' violence, or between 'acceptable' violence and 'criminal' violence, or between 'surgical' violence and 'indiscriminate' violence, the consequences, more often than not, are lamentable, and the rhetorics deployed to make those distinctions prove a means for not even seeing the consequences.

Pacifism's realism also extends to a candid look at the joy humans can take in destruction. Since violence has proven so unreliable throughout history, our attraction to it can't be simply its instrumental efficacy. Push aside the rhetorics of necessity and/or of moralism and it's not hard to see the glee of the teenager who throws a brick through a plate glass window or the child who stomps on the sand castle.

The last four years have also taught me how bourgeois I am. I love the life that I have constructed painstakingly over fifty years and the people with whom I share that life. I am enormously grateful to the peace and stability that has made that act of construction possible and that makes its continuation likely. Contempt for all things bourgeois runs deep within modernity from both the right and the left. Having thrown my lot in with the arts early in life, I have gone through my own anti-bourgeois phases. And, even today, my understanding of the bourgeois virtues is carefully distanced from the ethos of capitalism. I will spare you an articulation of my bourgeois loyalties at this time and place.

The current point is that, for many, peace is boring, constraining, complex, and frustrating. They accept gleefully the opportunity to flee domesticity and the difficulties of getting along with others. (Much of the frustration on the ground in Iraq is that it is a political war, really more a policing action than combat, the kind of action for which our soldiers are poorly trained and equipped. Many of them would feel a whole lot better if it was no-holds-barred, shoot-em-up simple.)

Politicians love making those resolve speeches. It offers them their Churchillian moment and puts the messy compromises of politics and the entangling details of enacting policy on the back burner. Violence as destruction offers a clear field for action.

Pacifism asks us to cast a cold eye on this human capacity to take joy in violence, irrespective of its consequences or its legitimacy. We need to devise ways to push a leash on or divert such capacities and we should be wary of the high-minded or instrumental rhetorics that often mask a love of violence for its simplicity and the heady sense of vitality it affords.

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