What they do not want to know about American democracy

Writing at The American Conservative, though said to represent “the antiwar left,” Michael Tracey paints a verbal portrait of himself as a man at his wit’s end, “in a disoriented daze,” mystified by the conduct of a major political party and its leaders, the latter happening to include the nation’s chief executive. When I summed up Tracey’s article on Twitter as a display of “incomprehension before American democracy,” Tracey took my reaction as “lulz”-worthy “snark.” I thought I was capturing his clear intention, and I still find his piece insistently uncomprehending, even if its author does not seem to comprehend why I would say so.

Like several other observers (Conor Friedersdorf, for example) – Tracey was especially put off by exhortations at the Democratic National Convention, most dramatically from the Vice President, to cheer the death of Osama Bin Laden:

As Tracey explains, there was method in the Vice President’s rhetoric:

This was a major thematic refrain of the convention. Osama bin Laden was dead! Barack Obama deserved all Americans’ gratitude for courageously making The Call! And therefore, the muscular Obama-Biden team deserved a second term (also, Mitt Romney is a big wuss and insufficiently reverent of our military). John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, posed the challenge: “Ask Osama bin Laden if he is better off now than he was four years ago!”

Tracey connects the theme to a supposed militarization of  American society, and he describes seeking out well-known political and political-media figures who he hopes might share his “revulsion,” and offer “guidance” or “spiritual counsel.” All to no avail: After a long digression concerning a Ron Paul delegate among more mainstream Republicans, Tracey closes with some melodramatic reactions to “ominous” new threats of “state violence” relating to Libya: He has “a sinking feeling”; he’s at a “point of no return,” without “anything left to do… other than pray.”

Preferring narrative and personal testimony to political critique, Tracey leaves us with little reason to assume that the DNC’s enthusiasms are any less sensible than his mounting horror, especially since the former, at least in the sense of commanding wide allegiance and bidding to move decisive masses of voters in a modern mass democracy, clearly seem to qualify as more practical. Tracey or his editors hear a “demand for war” by the Democrats, but we can as easily identify a forthright, perhaps overly forthright, acknowledgment of historical necessity by those who hope to remain entrusted with American leadership. At the DNC they were accepting, and proclaiming the acceptance, that American democracy – born in violent revolution; assembled amidst genocidal war; re-born in civil war; shaped and brought to global political-economic ascendancy by world war – still requires and receives sacrifice of life from its defenders and from its enemies, potentially from any of its citizens, and even from the innocent.

Tracey may believe that we can and should do entirely without such sacrifice or without the civic-religious, never merely rational love of country that both supports and is empowered by it. Whatever his personal feelings about or definitions of patriotism, he focuses scorn on any supposition that killing Bin Laden could constitute a sacred service to “all Americans,” to America as a nation – that, paraphrasing Biden, the act could provide a healing of America’s heart; that it could in closing a circle of justice also validate the President’s leadership all but irrefutably. In other words, what the bloody demagogy of the DNC effectively comprehends, and what Tracey seems to reject peremptorily, is what makes American democracy work to whatever extent it still does work, and not just work in the sense of “function,” but work for his fellow citizens as a source of shared meaning and collective identity. This national-political eros informs both halves of Biden’s trademark slogan. “Bin Laden dead/GM Alive” means or is supposed to mean that American national greatness is still alive under Obama’s leadership; Biden symbolically offers a piece of that greatness to all who choose to renew the faith: Under Obama, Biden is saying, Americans are still what made us who we are: Biden is asserting that Americans can still become who and what we are meant to be and want to be: He’s claiming that we really are the ones we were waiting for.

There is a difference between the messianic “we” of “we are the ones” and the more emphatically and traditionally nationalistic “we” of the re-election campaign, perhaps attributable to experience and great events as well as to the other side’s deranged attempt to brand the President an enemy alien. As for Tracey and those like him, they seem determined to refuse or even to flee this version of the patriotic call (or Call!), though how deep the resistance goes is unclear, and may not be knowable at all until some moment of irrevocable with-us or against-us decision. In the meantime, however important the refusal may seem to the one who refuses, a nation of 300 million can easily absorb a few or even quite a few objectors and all of their prayers or curses, or even take their duly noted protest votes as tribute.

28 comments on “What they do not want to know about American democracy

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  1. So basically irrational bloodlust and xenophobic militarism are what we get because violence is key to the DNA of the country & a calculation has been made by “our” rulers that enough people want — in a way need — the irrational that to not happily provide it would be to abandon their place…right? Do I follow?

    • I think you mostly follow just fine, although your language is prejudicial. In other words, we may need to be as ruthless and un-squeamish in our assessment as the mechanisms are in their operation. So, I don’t know that Americans are irrationally bloodlusty. Maybe they are rationally ruthless and normally self-preferential, and somewhat burdened from a moral perspective by their or our unique advantages. That the way that we establish meaning in our lives – day to day and at whatever crisis – is not merely rational does not make all of our conduct irrational, or for that matter make us different from anyone else, or mean that there are no rationally or morally justifiable differences between one course of action and another, or between one set of leaders and another.

      Maybe we can’t have a society that would receive the death of a Bin Laden without joy. Maybe a society that could receive the death of a Bin Laden without joy would not be a good society for us in other ways, or a society that we as we are would really want to live in. The problem that democratic nations don’t always democratically decide to do what we think they ought to do isn’t just a problem of other democratic nations.

      • Maybe we can’t have a society that would receive the death of a Bin Laden without joy.

        It’s not like I think we should cry about it, geez…

        Rather, the accomplishment, to the degree that it was one, due to the waste inbetween the act being responded to and the response, doesn’t justify the amount of jubilation behind it. How many future potential OBLs did we create on the way to finally whacking the real one? If that’s so the pinnacle of U.S. potential that it’s to be cheered that loudly, then if anyone is selling the U.S. short it’s the ones cheering.

        • b-psycho: How many future potential OBLs did we create on the way to finally whacking the real one?

          We don’t know. The world does not reveal its alternatives. I can construct a rational argument for going after OBL, but, as I was arguing, going after him might not have been a strictly or narrowly rational decision, and that it was not a strictly rational decision may not be an argument against it in a not strictly rational universe of political meanings.

  2. It’s a questions of means and ends, I won’t suffer any pangs because a Bin Laden, or an Awlaki, the 2.0 model are dispatched, as it will be with Abu Sufyan Bin Qumu. However enabling the structure that enabled the Ilkwan Muslimiya to take power in Egypt, was Qutb’s dying wish.

  3. That the way that we establish meaning in our lives – day to day and at whatever crisis – is not merely rational does not make all of our conduct irrational, or for that matter make us different from anyone else

    Wrong. Documented clearly and proudly in his own words, we are different than the native people Columbus slaughtered. We are different from the people Cortez slaughtered. We are different from the people Pizarro slaughtered. We are different than the people the Puritans and the settlers slaughtered and killed with diseases. On record, there is evidence of their relative, but profoundly different relationship to private property, and gender relations. Over and over again, the native Americans showed the invading parties huge amounts of patience and generosity. We can all feel differently about what that means. Columbus and the rest thought it was weakness. I think it’s sanity. They simply thought quality of life mattered more than wealth. But that is not my point. My point is that time and time and time again, you lump all humankind into one sort and your opinion is not backed up by any history except the history of the victor and while I continue to sympathize with the reason (half of you finds it repugnant to link up with a victim mentality that led to walking passively into the Nazi trains), I cannot sympathize with what b-psycho correctly identifies as your fatalistic negativity. The negativity comes from observing the most violent country in the history of the world from the inside. In respect to the years in which the killing was done, Nazis don’t hold a candle to what so-called Americans have done to people were very different, and seeing that from the inside and having allowed yourself to be influenced for so long by American propaganda, you fall prey to the idea that Americans are the same as everyone else. Not true. They have been the worst people on this planet because they have been the worst people on this planet for by far the longest time.

    • That seems like an oddly inverted reading of what I wrote, Mr. Miller.

      Read the sentence you quote carefully.

      1) I refer to the notion that human beings are not purely “rational” creatures, or, to be more precise, that meaning production is not a purely rational process.

      2) That we are not – that our being is not – purely rational does not make all of our conduct irrational. A psychopath can feed himself.

      That we, or rather the first waves of colonists and settlers, not necessarily even “our” ancestors, were different from the natives in some ways does not mean that the natives were different from the settlers in the way I was discussing.

      “Most violent country in the history of the world” is not a statement open to objective comparisons, but I don’t want to try to sort through the logics in your statement. I want to get at something else that I think is beneath you.

      You say that “Americans… have been the worst people on this planet.” Who are “the Americans”? Is it every person in America? If not, how do we tell the “worst” ones from the “okay” ones?

      Do people turn into something different the moment they set foot in North America, unless they or their ancestors crossed the Bering Strait or came over against their will? Is it just certain Americans? Is it European Americans? What about the Europeans themselves? Did all of their bad people or worst people come to America, meaning that present-day Euros are OK? Are all Euro-Americans “worst,” or just certain types of Europeans?

      Were and are all Americans equally guilty? Well more than 50% of the present-day American population either themselves immigrated or are the children of people who immigrated no earlier than the late 19th Century (it was around 50% post-Civil War immigrants as of 1920, so must be a much higher proportion by now). Did they, in immigrating, turn into the “worst people on this planet”? Or was it just the ones who came before, who did the genocidal disease-spreading, murdering, and expropriating for them? How many of the later arrivals would have been among the “worst” if they had come earlier?

      Is the problem the “American way of life”? Is that what makes an American one of the worst? So wouldn’t that mean that the American people themselves – today or whenever – are no different from other people except that for some reason they have ended up with this way of life. Is it something someone made up in America? Was it the same way of life back when the natives were annihilated or was it in any important way different?

      I think you’re engaging in a weird kind of inverted racism or inverted exceptionalism. You’ve invented an American race that is in some way inferior to all other people, when in fact Americans are “other people.” They or we are an amalgam of peoples who converted immense potential energy into immense kinetic energy, feeding an engine of production developing bi-conditionally with the industrial revolution. It’s like we gave an 18th Century peasant a BMW and told him to figure how to drive it: He ran over a bunch of things, and people, and all but wrecked it. European ways of thinking and coping developed in the Old World met the very different environment of the New World, and converted the lightly populated Native American paradise (not, as you actually know, entirely paradisical) into… what it is. The historical process involved is so all-encompassing that many people, perhaps wisely, simply cease trying to think it through, and attribute it all to divine providence or to some satanic opposite. You are no more on the exterior of it than I am. It completely encloses your critique of it.

    • And, furthermore, what makes the implications of my analysis any more representative of “fatalistic negativity” than the implications of yours? You and Mr. psycho seem to embrace pure impossibilism, a radical and comprehensive judgment of all that is that you can at best imagine would make for a better world, but which your very analysis, in its radical comprehensiveness, defines as utterly utopian, without any real prospects. If it had real prospects, then that would require you to admit that this way of life that you reject also offers elements of hope. So your radical and comprehensive rejection is by the precise extent that it offers any hope at all that much less radical and that much less comprehensive. After all, if our radically and comprehensively evil way of life produced two such beautiful souls as yours and Mr. psycho’s, then it can’t be all bad, can it? Apparently, there are limits to its radical comprehensive evil. Maybe the fact that it allows beautiful souls like yours to flourish has always been its true justification. Anyway, it seems to be the only good you recognize at all: Yourselves, the people who, like you, are qualified to stand in judgment.

      If we instead grant that, for example, the Obama-Biden Democratic Party might represent the best if greatly compromised effort to move a vast mass of people however incrementally in a better direction via politics – which, after all, is merely politics, not the sum and substance of all life – then that implies at least the possibility of a positive change, of a collectively willed and legitimated alteration of our fate actually realized on this planet rather than in your fantasies.

      Maybe it has to be able to will the wrong, over and over, in order to be in a position both to will and to effectuate the right before it’s too late. Maybe in the meantime, the pre-modern life you idealize won’t look that ideal once observed close up. Maybe if it was so ideal, human beings wouldn’t have so busily sought other possibilities. Maybe, even if they were wrong to do so, it’s too late to go back, and there is nothing about any real rather than imaginary and utopian effort to go back that wouldn’t be just as or more “negative” in every way – require the negation of more lives and more freedom, require more destruction and disaster – than setting up this way of life has been.

      So who’s really the most negative and fatalistic one? The one who looks at what is, and isolates possibilities for improvement, or, failing that, alternative ways of understanding what really is possible for human beings on this Earth, where the “positive” really can be authentically located, or the one who looks at it and cries “Evil!” and then, like the author of the piece I was critiquing, turns to some mixture of prayers whose power he doesn’t believe in and self-satisfying and self-congratulatory gestures of virtually no meaning at all?

    • I can’t say we’re worse than anyone else, that’s taking things a bit astray IMO. Rather, we’re no different than any came before morally, while denying that and happening to have the most advanced means for carrying it all out. It’s power and exceptionalism, not a new evil. Same as it ever was, with shiny new toilet.

  4. From what I’ve read and the pictures I’ve seen, I also think that a big percentage of the 6 million people that the Nazis killed were different. It seems that they were what I would call “high consciousness” people. I saw a documentary on the Siberian farmers that Stalin killed and they seemed very different to me. Once they were gone, no one could grow food on the land that they had been farming for a long time. They seemed like the real salt of the earth. Just the pics of them make it clear how different they were.

  5. And, furthermore, what makes the implications of my analysis any more representative of “fatalistic negativity” than the implications of yours?

    Easy answer: Mine points to the fact that there have been large groups of people on this planet who have developed cultures that supported life sustaining good-will toward the vast majority of other living things around them. They were not murderous in general, they shared what they had even with strangers and conducted themselves honorably when it came to gender relations. None of those things are true in general for the people who took over this continent. For four hundred years they have been raping, killing, stealing and hoarding. Who are they? The greediest of the greedy. Willing to face tremendous challenges to cross the ocean for what they could steal. They were bad before they got here and they became worse when they arrived. They were the worst where they were and they came here. Robin Williams said of the Puritans, “Imagine people so uptight that even the British couldn’t stand them.” And the fact that you can’t see how bad the murderers have been in the face of relative goodness is the kind of thinking you should be careful with. It causes depression. The belief that everyone has been as bad as the worst people in history (for what they have done to the planet now in respect to resources) is depressing. It’s disheartening. I am heartened by the knowledge that people haven’t all been as greedy and murderous as the people who killed all the friendly Island people, the Native Americans, the African slaves. American corporations like IMB were also complicit in what the Nazis did. They did what they did in East Asia in the 70s for ignoble reasons. They fought with the wealthy in WW1. They did what they did in the Middle East these past 10 years. Who are these Americans you ask? Again, and as usual in this specific regard, you sound like a defense attorney. The murderer is in plain view. I’m referring to people who may not be sitting there in a defense chair, but you know the murders happened, and I have identified the first perps specifically. Columbus, Cortez, Pizzaro started the killing. Their letters prove them to be horrible human beings. They were the worst of their cultures I’m sure, and that horribleness was transplanted along with the what the Puritans did. The Civil War was just as bad. The North sent boat loads of Irish immigrants to die or be killed for not going to be killed. I have been specific. I haven’t just championed all the victims. There are accounts of who Columbus killed. In his own words they were people who were generous to a fault and good. What you have written makes no sense in connection with that fact. Debate that point specifically if you can. Do you defend Columbus? Have you read his letters. Was a typical human? No, he was a horrible, horrible human. One of the worst in history. His letters prove that and his actions are documented as well. Do you debate that specifically? And in not recognizing the relative goodness of some of the worlds worst actions, when there is documented proof of how different they were than their killers, you do them yet another injustice. You can hide behind your words but what do they really defend? If I’m wrong and you see the goodness is some large groups of people who have lived on this planet, simply say that. Tell me I’m wrong about your negativity instead of talking in circles. Be simple and specific so I can know I’m wrong. I would like to be wrong. Then I would suggest you be more clear about things in your writing. If I’m wrong and you do feel positive about some people who have lived on this planet then you could be more clear and not write things that do imply that you think all humans are the same. Again, I would be happy to be wrong. Since I don’t think I am, I think it would be better for you if you would look into your heart and see if you are just prejudiced against humans or not. If you are, then okay. We’ll all live with it and we’ll know that when we read things you’ve written we’re reading things written by someone who feels the way you do. If not, then just acknowledge that there have been good people living peacefully and well on this planet. They were killed by horrible people who, if I’m right, you let off the hook by looking at their deeds as just somehow typical of humanity. I will admit that I misunderstood you and even apologize if you will just simply tell me that you do recognize that some humans have shown the capacity to be good in large groups for many generations. Simple.

    • As for the nature of human beings, this is, of course, one of the most fundamental of all questions. For a very long time, anthropologists and others in allied fields (paleontology, primatology, and sooner or later philosophy and theology) have argued over whether or not known social arrangements – I mention the Trobriand Islanders below – prove that human nature is not necessarily violent, acquisitive, and oppressive. The question has been argued in different ways for thousands of years, and I don’t think we’ll solve it here. If pressed for my own position, I would say that the inability to resolve the question once and for all is a typical expression of the same insolubly antinomial and dialectical structure fundamental to consciousness/being (a viewpoint that is not the same as dualist, I remind you, since dualism is one side of the eternal antinomy dualism/non-dualism). The fundamental desperation as well as the fundamental hopefulness of humanity is evident in the simple fact that we are here discussing the question. If we were not dangerous, there’d be nothing to discuss. If we did not irrevocably believe in the possibility of agreement (peace), and if indeed cooperation and reason had not triumphed somewhere for some time, we wouldn’t be here in a position to discuss them, nor would we attempt the discussion.

      Put simply, it’s complex, and as soon as you adopt one position on it, you likely strengthen the other side.

      Refutation is overrated. The only thing that bothers you more than disagreement is insufficient agreement.

  6. And though I got the numbers wrong, I was generally referring to the Jews killed by the Nazis. I just didn’t identify them as such because there were also a lot of other great people murdered. The Jews back then seemed to me to be of remarkably high character in general, and though I am most positive about the artists and philosophers who we have some personal history of, the whole lower-income, very religious part of the Jewish culture in pre-Nazi Germany was also very different in a great way. I can’t spell schteddle, but if I could I’d use it to describe them that way. Of course, I just did anyway. Whatever. You get my point. And don’t think I’m upset here. This is old news between us. You know that. I’m just saying, come in, the water is great. Spiritually, we can all still bath in the positivity that positive people living on this planet have created. Their murders aside, they were amazing human beings. Their spirit is still here. Come on in.

  7. I’m also saying that only bad people boast of killing someone–even an evil person. Again, simple. And nothing good is going to come of it. To live well, we must first establish our goodness. Granted, horrible people have been allowed to establish a seemingly insurmountable amount of problems in this country. We can’t change it in degrees. That appears realistic to you. You credit yourself with a kind of positivity because you’re being realistic in that way. It’s not positivity. It’s resignation and your words speak to resignation. They are, then, fatalistic. Instead, we can be truly realistic and insist on truly noble behavior regarding what we will champion. “Right living” is what Buddhists call it. We can all practice it. It’s been done before and it should be done again right now.

    • I don’t believe “boast” is the correct word. There is an assertion that killing OBL was the right thing to do, a proper goal for the Administration – indeed a specific goal of Obama’s prior to his election – and a goal achieved. They are not pacifists. They believe in the use of military force to destroy the enemies of the nation. This is not a secret. They believe in just war, and they define just war according to their values and beliefs. Acknowledging that they operate according to this belief system, and that the vast majority not just of Americans but of people in general have not been pacifists (being a pacifist is not the same thing as being peaceful or being reluctant to do harm) is not fatalism or resignation, it is simply descriptive accuracy. You also in fact understand that, and share that view, yet, because I do not share your attitude, it seems to bother you that I point out many of the very same facts that you base your own position on. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to stand in judgment as you do. Your “insistence on noble behavior” would be meaningless if not based on the recognition that what you see as ignoble is the norm.

      I don’t understand what you mean when you write, “We can’t change it in degrees.” Is that what you believe, or is that what you think I believe?

      You do not acknowledge the potential validity of alternative belief systems, a stance that alienates you from a social-political system based on compromise, including the freedom to do what you see as wrong if a preponderance of opinion and social-economic force supports doing the wrong. All you’re saying, over and over, is “you are wrong not to think as I do and to share my values absolutely.” You have deduced, apparently, not only that absolute pacifism is the correct conduct, but that the only “right” discourse is one that constantly and exclusively asserts the desirability of absolute pacifism and the total rejection of all who do not pursue that same right discourse. In other words, you operate according to a different belief system, one that is effectively incompatible with American democracy. That would be one way of putting the theme of my piece, from the title down – not that American democracy is better than “right living,” but that anyone expecting it to embrace pacifistic values and to deny its own actual, traditional, believed-just, and believed-effective values is being decidedly unrealistic and naive about what it actually is, has more or less always been, and is likely to continue to be whether or not you write in Ron Paul (also not a pacifist) when you vote, or whether you vote or don’t vote, or whether or not you believe that it would be better if we all lived like the Trobriand islanders once did (and may or may not still live – I don’t know), and whether or not you therefore attempt to emulate such peoples (or what you believe they were) as much as possible in your own life.

  8. The other way of looking at it would be to recognize my attempt to get a straight answer from you. Failing that, I will once again play the new age meanie and supply the answer myself:
    B-pyscho asked you a question and you outed your real belief system. You think people are horrible creatures. You think you’re a horrible creature. SInce I try to respect your blog’s rules of engagement–which means trying to ignore the real reason why people act horribly, including us, I get caught up in your game. That doesn’t serve you. The game allows you to try to get me to recognize how horrible I am. I want you to recognize your innate goodness because I see the remainder of it in you from an earlier time, before this system got to you. If we all lived in a different way, I think you’d be fine. You’re not a killer. You don’t boast about killing anyone and you wouldn’t do that even if you had killed someone–even if you had killed someone who in your opinion deserved to die. You’re not like that. In a different living situation, you’d be fine. On the other hand, some people perpetuate the homicidal mania that birthed this country and continues to be expressed by its worst citizens. By playing to the idea that you should defend them, you make it impossible to recognize your own goodness. It feels right to you in the moment but it comes at a cost. I’m telling you once again that you could stop.

    • Mr. Miller, I’ve never called anyone “horrible.” You call me “horrible” because I decline to presume that Americans, America, Joe Biden, or anyone or -thing else is “horrible” simply because they have been violent. You condemn them/us. I don’t. Nor did I judge them/us to be good or right or “positive.” That apparently makes me “horrible” to you. You have an absolute self-preference for your absolutist view of the moral good. In your view, I have committed some kind of thought crime, the crime of not thinking about or talking about things in the “right” “positive” way. I do not hold myself up as judge and spiritual executioner. I do not accept that holding oneself up as judge and spiritual executioner serves any material or spiritual good. If you look at my reply to b-psycho, I am the one refraining from judging. You and he have already presumed the validity of your belief system, and therefore the answer to any question. You have already judged “America,” from which you imagine yourselves somehow separate, to be guilty. You don’t need me to say a word. Your conclusion is already in your premise.

      On the evidence, human beings are given to violence and acquisitiveness, and mass societies often become massively violent and unequal. America is, to say the least, hardly the only example of this tendency. There may be some exceptions to this general rule, but those exceptions may be exceptions that prove the rule: A certain degree of practical pacifism appears to be adaptive in certain types of environments. It may prove adaptive, or even essential, for modern mass societies. It is not yet clear whether we as a species are capable of achieving that adaptation except at great cost, if at all. That is one drama of our era.

      Yet what’s most ironic in this discussion is that you, someone who believes all sorts of unimaginably horrible things about us – about Americans and about the world in which America is the dominant power – who further believes that we’re destroying ourselves and the world, who is driven to place his hope in esoteric magics, since he’s convinced that all human institutions are irredeemably corrupted – continue to claim that the alternative view is inexcusably pessimistic! You’re trying to work a magic spell that can’t work unless there are no alternatives to it, unless it is the only thing possible or acceptable to be believed. Because it is the only thing possible or acceptable to be believed, it cannot be tested. Even to consider testing it is to commit a thought crime, is to risk ruining the spell. Others may think it madness, but they have to be ignored, because it is the only possible or acceptable belief. It’s pointless to try to argue someone out of such a position, since you’ve already defined any divergent argument as unacceptable, as horrible. That means that someone who disagrees with you has two choices: To agree with you, or to bypass you. Since you take an absolutist position, there is no authentic discussion to be had. Only those people already pre-disposed to agree with you (apparently a tiny minority of people especially in a horrible place like America) will be accessible. Anyone who enters the conversation with alternative pre-dispositions will be rejected as horrible, and will discover that you cannot be persuaded.

      This is a fundamentally unequal relationship. People who do not already think like you have the option of submitting to you or to your beliefs, or moving on. They will discover that they, like apparently so many others, are incurably – innately yet culpably – horrible to you, horrible in the way that Biden is and Cortez was horrible. You leave them no choice but to bypass you. To bypass means to go on as they would have anyway, or, if you’re in the way, to destroy you. Though merely bypassing you doesn’t require harming you, it is a form of violent termination of discussion. The violence is simply the violence of moving on as though you do not exist – a solution in force or action rather than in thought. So your absolute commitment to equality and peace means either participation in unequal relations with you, or a more or less violent rejection of you. Your commitment to serving as an example means that you will either be ignored or made an example of…

      …Until and unless the magic happens. If the magic is going to happen anyway, then there’s even less reason for us to worry our horrible heads over it. It’ll just have its great effect on us, whether we wanted it to or not. All the more reason for us to throw our parties and boast about bloody acts and go on however we feel like. The fact that we’re still going on as we are appears to be your fault, since your magic example of right living, really our only hope given all of our other problems, has not yet transformed us against our horrible wills. So it turns out that your determination that there is hope, but there is evil in the world that’s all everyone else’s fault, in the end proves that the fact that there’s evil in the world is really all your fault, and strongly suggests that there is no hope.

      Or, you can stop judging us all, or pre-judging, stop depending on cruel and pitiless condemnation of the vast majority of your fellow citizens, and open your mind to the unpredictable if imperfect, just possibly also worthwhile thoughts and beliefs of others, even if they happen to threaten or contradict yours.

      Maybe death and violence are good. If violence and death are not good, then nature is bad, because nature, whatever else you want to say about it, involves lots of violence and death. To say that nature is bad would be absurd, because without nature there could be no good or bad. To say that death and violence must possibly be good is not to say that they are the only good, or that producing more death and violence than absolutely necessary is good, and leaves open the question of whether human beings can ever justify adding to the sum of absolutely necessary death and violence in the world, but as an assumption it may relieve you of the absolute prejudices that control and, in my view, deform your discourse.

      Human being is natural. Nature involves violence and death. All human beings suffer pain and die. Meaning and purpose, to exist at all, must be meaningful and purposeful despite violence and death. Simply because one individual’s life was longer than another individual’s does not necessarily make it more or less meaningful and purposeful in all ways or overall.

      I won’t presume that you have the time for a Socratic dialogue on violence and death, so I’ll cut to the chase before I get on with my own other business. If you can accept the possibility that the death, suffering, or risk of death and suffering on the part of a particular individual can be meaningful and purposeful, then you should be able to accept the possibility that an entire society or even the entire species can find meaning in the death, suffering, or risk of death and suffering of groups of individuals or even the entire society. Though you would not be forced therefore to conclude that any particular act of violence was justified, or even that any act of violence ever committed or contemplated was actually justified, you might at least be able to understand why other people worthy of respect might reach different conclusions.

      And, if you’re so committed to love that you’d rather die than hurt a fly, what is a love that first judges? Love Cortez.

  9. You’re right in that it’s best to hate the sin, not the sinner. I should be able to love Cortez and hate what he did. That becomes difficult when people who hate themselves see fit to try and convince others to think like them. But I never called you horrible. Quite the opposite, and your idea that I did goes with the psychology of self hatred and I’m not singling you out there either. I think all the politicians hate themselves. They won’t admit either. You still won’t come out and say what you really feel about people or yourself. You consider that private and it would be private except for it explains why a person would think that there is no difference between people who do horrible things and people who have lived peacefully. You can twist that fact around as much as you like but all it does is twist. You misunderstood me to be saying you’re horrible because you think you’re horrible. Show me where I said you were horrible. Won’t happen. I’m not doing at all what you think. Just as you will find no evidence in any of these comments that I have referred to you as horrible, you will find no evidence of your other accusations except in your own mindset which is connected to self-hatred. You want my discourse to be deformed because it stands in opposition to you justifying your feelings toward yourself and humans in general. Death and violence do happen. But we can live in relative harmony with death and people have proved that. If you think violence may be good, you stand in opposition to what millions of spiritualist have advocated on this planet. They could all be wrong, but please don’t try and marginalize my position.
    You’re biggest manipulation is that you focus on that stance to defend yourself against the main question. Do you recognize your inner goodness? Usually, people who recognize their inner goodness do not change as much as you do in the face of differing circumstance. You feel way better about yourself when outer circumstances are positive and way worse about yourself when they don’t. That’s a sign of low self-esteem, and it deforms your arguments. I don’t care if you don’t agree with me. Obviously. I wouldn’t participate on this blog if I did. I’ve been here for years. Your ideas about my ideas don’t hold water at all in the face of the facts. I also would suggest you put less stock in what the Greeks thought.

    • Scott Miller: I never called you horrible. Quite the opposite, and your idea that I did goes with the psychology of self hatred and I’m not singling you out there either.

      You have repeatedly stated different variations on the theme “you are in error”: embracing “fatalistic negativism,” lending support to evil, betraying myself or my better self, indulging in self-hatred, refusing to admit something I should admit, twisting facts – and most of that’s just from the latest comment.

      I think it’s actually another version of the same sin/sinner error, except that, as above, you prefer to psycho-analyze rather than respond to an argument, in a way that lets you make an accusation and personalize a topic without copping to it: “I didn’t say you were evil, I said you were doing evil things in a way that made you seem evil while indulging the evil part of yourself.”

      If I have some personal essence that is superior to the things I end up saying and doing, why do I get an excuse, but nor Cortes, but not Biden, but not Obama, but not Americans in general? In the meantime you refuse to cope with the contradictions in your own discourse, which you want to be one of positivity and love, but which is filled with condemnations and judgments.

      Now on the specific question of violence, “millions of spiritualists” would be a marginal group compared to “billions of people,” and that’s assuming that all of those spiritual people said the same things, or for that matter that it meant anything to our argument whether or not billions of people or no one except one of us had stumbled upon the truth. I have no problem standing in opposition to anyone or everyone. If millions of people believe a thing, then that’s often good evidence it’s pretty stupid. Not saying that’s the case with your spiritualists.

      I do not believe that the statement “violence is bad” has much truth value – even less the statement “I recognize my own inner goodness.” I’ll take the second one first: To say I recognize my own inner goodness would mean I recognize my own outer badness, and might even function as a false excuse, of the type said to be common among criminals – I may have done this and this, but deep down I’m a good person. Cortes may have wiped out or enslaved vast numbers of natives, but deep down he was a good person… Maybe the good thing would be to recognize my own inner badness, and prostrate myself before a power greater than myself, praying for redemption. Why is that any more or less true or admirable than any other approach to the notion of inner worth?

      We can’t really answer such questions in the absence of shared definitions of the self and the good. If I view the self differently, then what I call “inner” might be what you call “outer,” or might not be anything you recognize as real at all, and so on.

      As for the violence question again: If violence is not the same thing as “bad action,” then that implies the possibility of some violence that is not bad. If, when you are house-training your dog, you slap its rump and shout “No!” is that violence? The dog may think so. If inflicting physical harm on someone in the service of a greater good – knocking someone down to save them from being hit by a flying piano – is not “violence,” then that means that many apparently violent acts are not really violent. Otherwise, it means that some violent acts are good. That is the same rationale that leads eventually to justified self-defense and theories of just war. An anti-biotic kills microbes. It does violence to them. I think you’re OK with that. I suspect that most of the millions of spiritualists would be OK with that. They believe in a doctrine of just war against microbes. Many would probably feel OK about shooting a rabid dog or, I believe Gandhi used this example, shooting a rampaging tiger. Some might say that shooting a rampaging murderer would be alright. Some might differ.

      Most political pacifists acknowledge a right of self-defense. I’m not sure where you stand on that – or, in the interest of making this less personal, what position you feel most comfortable arguing or most interested in arguing – but, if you believe in an individual’s right of self-defense, or a community’s right of self-defense against a rampaging tiger, then it’s just a question of choosing to draw a line somewhere. It’s a political decision. Whether after a struggle the person who took a risk to kill the rampaging tiger, or save the innocent children from the murderer, is celebrated in the community or takes pride in his exploits seems a secondary question altogether, but, if you believe that saving children and securing villages against wild animals ought generally to be encouraged, then I don’t see why you should have any trouble with a giving of thanks and acceptance of honors and gifts.

      In the absence of the actual statements of the millions of spiritualists, we don’t know for sure where they draw the line. I tend to believe that you will generally find a political delineation of some kind. If it’s political, then it’s good for one or a range of social situations, but not a general and absolute moral rule.

      You may find individuals who just don’t feel or acknowledge the need to answer hypotheticals. They take it upon themselves to identify with “right living,” period, to themselves pursue and to urge others to pursue a being in the world that greatly or possibly even completely successfully prevents them from having to do any more violence than the autonomic functions of their bodies require, and precious little even of that. Like God in Exodus, they command us not to kill – not, apparently, in the full expectation that their command will actually be obeyed by all. The command not to kill implies a freedom to go ahead and kill. In practice, it has meant that among those who acknowledge that covenant, or any of the covenants like it, will generally avoid killing, seek other recourses where at all possible, condemn acts of murder, and yet often go ahead anyway when they see no other choice.

      • Wrong again. I stated quite clearly what I meant by “horrible.” People who rape, steal, kill, and enslave. Read my responses again. Almost of it has nothing to do with you at all. Since you refused answer simple questions, I apotheosized in the hopes of getting you to see why someone who clearly knows that there is a huge difference between Nazis and the Jews they killed would refuse to acknowledge the difference. Now you try to make it seem like I was lumping you in with the Nazis. It’s absurd to the point of ridiculousness. Again, read what I wrote again. All of the first comments were about people who committed amounts of violence that no rational person would defend. There was nothing violent about me pointing out how different those people were than you and I and every other person with whom I communicate. You have recognized falling into the conservative nut house. You denied saying it later but you did say it. Like now, you fall into other nutty places from time to time. That does not make you horrible. It does make you from time to time unable to comprehend simple facts. Nazis are not the same as the their Jewish victims. That’s my response to your first point and since you refused to acknowledge the truth of that statement and others like them, your defenses got increasingly twisted and I did tell you so. Once I told you so you had what you needed to believe that I was being violent and judgmental. Again, read the comments again and you will see that what I started out saying was very much about what you said. He had nothing to do with psychology. As your responses got increasingly bizarre, I let you know. As a friend, I keep telling you that what made Drive, and Otto, and other works of art great, makes your politics ridiculous.
        The spiritualists do discourse specific events. For example, I got into an argument with a group of Tibetan Buddhists over their belief that pet euthanasia is never okay. You know that one. I’ve written about on this blog, so you know what you wrote in your last comment is inaccurate. There are so many more inaccuracies in what you’ve written in this comment stream than you normally come up with that I feel bad. This is doing you harm and I don’t want to be the cause of that so I’m going to end this stream. I’m not pulling a bob–I will be back after you have time to deal with whatever you’re dealing with in real-life and feel better about yourself. I am sorry that I backed you into a corner. I was wrong to think that it would help. All it did was make you feel worse and that was not my intension. The harm you do in spreading ideas best left to your art projects is minimal enough to ignore and I will ignore it in the future. It’s your business, and while I have a great deal of trouble loving Cortez, I have no trouble loving you. I know you’ll be back to being yourself soon. These nut house visits you make pass when you feel better about yourself and you will feel better soon. You always do.

        • Scott, as a general observation, before I get into a discussion of the issues from my own point of view but which I expect you to continue to bypass, you should consider how you would approach this discussion if you didn’t know me personally.

          The issue isn’t whether the Nazis were “better” or “worse” than the Jews they killed. Very few people have difficulty making that judgment. The question is whether we can usefully and morally distinguish between the Nazis and the people who fought the Nazis – between the Nazis and those who killed Nazis, who bombed Nazis, who bombed, and shot, and killed Germans and others who fought for the Nazis, and who in the process also happen to have hurt and killed a lot of people caught in the crossfire. It’s when you cannot make that distinction, or even consider it, that problems begin. When you also forbid consideration of a parallel distinction between Al Qaeda and people who fight Al Qaeda, then a parallel set of problems begin.*

          You seem to think that sympathizing with or merely offering to consider such a “taking of sides,” and refraining to take any unqualified position against it, is to enter the “right wing nuthouse.” I think that your position is self-marginalizing. Even if we both come down in the end against making war on “terrorists,” and reject all of the terms of that debate and all justifications for it, refusing to understand why you or we are in a distinct and rejected minority position, and why the majority position must be dealt with and truly engaged with, is self-marginalizing. Assuming that you can get anywhere from a position of unassailable moral self-righteousness against the terror-warriors is self-marginalizing. I have no problem with you, me, or anyone taking a position on the margins. I do not presume that you are obligated to be mainstream in your views or actions. But all of the stuff about how I’m in the nut house or am dealing with personal problems and so on is a way of disagreeing without taking responsibility for your disagreement. It is arguing in bad faith. If you can’t pursue the argument without continually personalizing and psychologizing it, without judging me for taking my position, with condescending from a position of assumed superiority without admitting it, even if you condition or qualify your judgements, then, you’re right, you probably shouldn’t be arguing, because you’re not really arguing, you’re just making a half-hearted personal attack, and you appear to be operating defensively. It doesn’t hurt my feelings very much, because I know you mean well, but it’s frustrating.

          *(Since you say you’re dropping out of this non-dialogue we’re pseudo-pursuing, I’ll say this next part for myself: Eventually, as with Gandhi, as we know well, the pacifist position raises serious and disturbing questions about whether the pacifist’s subjective greater sympathy for the Jews or for people in the position of the Jews, than for their killers, has any meaning at all. Gandhi apparently took the implications of his own position all the way to their logical conclusion, which was, to say the least troubling. The extreme position effectively meets its polar opposite: The Jews must die.The extreme pacifist facilitates the genocidal miltarist. Both actually instrumentalize the victims in service of their greater cause. Both achieve – though one actively, the other passively – the annihilation of the victims. There is a distinction between the two, but it’s a moral and subjective distinction that in the world achieves the same result. I will note, however, that the middle ground – the actual pragmatic military opposition to the Nazis – can also be criticized. There is a rational but generally taboo argument, taboo because it’s made typically by Nazi apologists, that the war as it was actually fought accelerated and facilitated the genocide. This is a complex topic that may be worth thinking through all the way to the bitter end, but generally cannot be. Personal, political considerations make it virtually undiscussable – because it encloses our era and constitutes us morally.)

  10. Also, it’s pertinent to clarify my creative support of you. You wrote some very funny, really great things about self-hatred. So I am not just bringing that out of no-where. As you know, I’ve always felt you should focus on art. Your politics are deformed. You know that. You go from socialist to the conservative nut house and back. You are great at making fun of self-hatred. It’s worthwhile because so many people relate. It helps. It’s to the point of our collective societal experience because our society makes us all vulnerable to self-hatred. But to bring that into ideas about politics is deforming.

  11. I’d like to just say, contra the assumptions made, and the route Scott is going with his critique, that I’m not an idealist. I don’t have the political bent I have because I think people are naturally wonderful, I actually think people tend to be bastards and simply wish to get the scenario of a few bastards with inordinate power over everyone else as close to declared Void as possible.

    I’m not saying we’re uniquely bad, or even that we’re unique. We’re not, and largely in denial of the fact that we are not. How this goes with regard to global policy, I propose one of two things:

    1) actually try to be different. That is, be better than the idea of violence for self-interest beyond immediate defense. Or…
    2) STFU with lecturing everyone else. We’re just one of many, no great force for good, no shining city upon a hill, we’re schmoes with nicer weapons, period.

    • We generally tell ourselves we’re doing #1, seeking a golden mean or enlightened self-interest in which conduct that benefits us also happens to bring material and political progress to the benighted peoples of the world. In the process, we’ve created a world system that we depend on and that to some extent depends on us We don’t really know what would happen to the world resource/supply/trade chains and the entire globalized economy if US grand strategy as represented especially in the US Navy wasn’t protecting the key global chokepoints and preventing regional powers even from dreaming of attaining local superiority. No one else is positioned to perform that role.

      Global interdependency means shared vulnerability to disruption. We’re much better positioned than most countries, especially poor countries (and highly import-dependent wealthier countries), to cope with such disruption. It would just be economic depression, shortages of some resources, and painful adjustment for us. It could be cataclysmic in many places. I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject. I’ve simply read a few books on geopolitics. My impression is that few to no libertarians, anarchists, and garden variety anti-imperialists have much looked into the subject at all. They just kind of take it on faith that things would be better if the empire fell, and that the pains of adjustment would be worth it. Maybe they’re right. But maybe they don’t know what they’re dealing with, and maybe the simple football-loving low-information voters have a better intuitive sense for it than they do.

        • That’s my line. Douthat once described the underlying Obama theory as getting everyone in the barrel before we go over the falls. Tony Judt spoke of “the social democracy of fear”: That people will seek safety in numbers, and that means in the state, as they face turbulent and uncertain times. Judt was well aware of the other collectivist-statist dangers, and so was concerned to push people toward visualizing a decent society, the kind of society they would want to live in, since the alternative under this theory would not be decentralized libertarian anarchist localist utopia, but brute anarchy most likely leading to fascism or dictatorship: The Hobbesian re-run.

          Maybe some day on the other side of the achieved steady state, re-defined “growth,” post-capitalist society, a general devolution to maximum localism will make sense, but a global governance of some type, mediated through neo-imperial nation-state alliances or spheres, might still be necessary for the biggest threats – ecological, WMD, aspiring new hegemons. Since WWII, that function has been handled in effect by the US + UN system. Re-designing and -constructing the building while we live in it entails inconveniences.

  12. Yes, that’s the excuse of every dictator and wannabe, interesting how science fiction entertains such scenarios, Star Trek is the typically American New Frontier vision, thirty years later, SABA, envisioned a rotating global polity which is intermittently European, but still Western, the Delian league last a while, then the Pelopenessian war got in the way, and ultimately oligarchy’s arose., which were displaced by a greater regional power, Macedonia.

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