Category: Violence

Rachel Kushner

I have recently read Rachel Kushner’s novels, Telex from Cuba and The Flamethrowers.  They are both compelling reads.  Telex is more coherent, telling the story of Castro’s take-over of Cuba, mostly from the perspective of Americans living and working in Cuba at the time.  The narrative evokes both the blindness of those Americans to what is happening—and the nostalgia for pre-Castor Cuba (and their lives there) that afflicts these Americans after they return to the States. 

The Flamethrowers is a mess.  The story wanders all over the place, with various characters and incidents offered up with no subsequent follow through.  But is it always interesting.  In its second half, it wanders into narrating radical (and violent) political action, specifically the Italian Red Brigade of the 1970s and their kidnappings and executions of business executives.  The narrative voice during this section of the novel is curiously disengaged.  It is not best described as a recording of the events that refuses to suggest any stance (moral or emotional) to them.  Rather, there is a kind of unreality about the whole narration, as if (without ever explicitly stating this) the events are presented as an unbelievable fiction, as a visit to an alternative world neither the narrator nor her readers could actually credit.  It’s like the play violence of a video game rather than violence that is actually experienced as a shock or a grim fact.  There is something pro forma about these sections of the novel, as contrasted to the tale of the heroine’s experiences in the first half.  Adding to this effect is the fact that the heroine walks away from the violence in Italy (in which she has become entangled) with little to no discernible effect on her life or attitudes. It’s as if it didn’t happen.

The violence in Telex is not sidestepped in the same way.  Maybe it’s because we are dealing with a successful revolution—and with a civil war that saw wide-spread violence on both sides.  In any case, Telex contends with the issue of the ways violence is utilized in political struggles—and with the divide between those willing (able?) to deploy violence in cold-hearted, “calculated” ways and those to whom violence is beyond the pale (for whatever emotional or moral reasons). 

The following passage leads me to think about the connection between meaning and “the deliberate.”  Obviously, we can do things that convey meanings we never intended to convey.  But there are also cases where we very carefully set out to communicate something, to insure that what we do or say is fraught with meaning.  Cases where we take special care to see that our meaning gets across.  Kushner ties this heightened attention to meaning to certain acts of violence, ones that can be deemed “rhetorical,” through a speech given by the character La Maziere to a group of Castro’s guerillas after they have captured two of the counter-revolutionary forces.

“Executions, La Maziere continued, his voice rising to be sure everyone heard, was an act of intent, purpose, and exactitude. Assassination was a far lower act, an act of opportunity, or worse, ‘necessity’—a word he said as if it were a soiled, smelly rag he held between two fingers.  Execution was a ritualized killing, he emphasized.  It was never, ever, an act of necessity.  It was always an act of choice, a calculated delivery of justice.  And only by the elevated loft of choice, he explained, could the act of killing take on symbolic meaning.  Killing, he said, had meaning, voluptuous and mystical meaning that should never be squandered.  An execution was a rhetorical weapon, a statement that could not be disproved, just as a man could not be restored from death” (pg. 232 of Telex from Cuba).

Meaning is enhanced by ritual, by the elaborate staging/demonstration of deliberate choice, and by full publicity, full openness to view.

A Bit More on the Police

I should have made clear in my previous post that the idea of hiring military vets as police officers does not mean an endorsement of the “militarization” of the police in terms of tactics used by and equipment supplied to our domestic police forces.  It was shocking to me to see the Kenosha police roll up in an armored vehicle.  Such battlefield armaments should never be deployed on American streets.

And my post should also have been understood as a push-back against the “few bad apples” defense of the police.  What is needed is a wide-scale change of police culture.  The way the police think of themselves, the forms their relations among themselves take, and especially the way they think of and relate to the communities they serve, needs a drastic overhaul.

Two stories that have come out in the past two days put an exclamation point on this need for a total culture change.  In fact, the need for that total change is so compelling that I am inclined to think we need to tear the current police systems in our cities down to the ground and start from scratch in rebuilding them.

The first story points to the evidence that within the Los Angeles County police force there are active gangs that, as with non-police gangs, use violence as a way to create membership—and keep members from defecting.  Here’s the link: https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/09/l-a-county-sheriffs-department-has-a-gang-problem.html

I will confess to typical (?) liberal naiveté at this point.  Just as with the Trump administration, the level of evil—and its straight-forward baldness—never fails to surprise me.  By now, you would think I would have learned.

The second story is about police-union-issued “get out of jail” free cards.  A bit of an exaggeration on my part.  The cards just help you if you get pulled over by a cop for traffic violations or fairly similar matters.  The card tells the cop to let you off because you have a relative in the police force.  But—you saw this coming—somehow the cards don’t get distributed as widely to non-white cops as to white ones.  The link:

Is the culture in the military any better than the toxic culture of our police departments? Maybe I am being naïve in that respect as well.  But Heather Cox Richardson, in her newsletter for today, speaks to this issue.  The full text quotes Tammy Duckworth at some length.  Here’s the key passage from Richardson:

“Since at least 2018, Democrats, especially Democratic women, have advanced a vision of military service that departs from the Republican emphasis on heroic individualism. Instead, they emphasize teamwork, camaraderie, and community, and the recognition that that teamwork means every single soldier, not just a few visible heroes, matters.”

My own (admittedly distanced) contact with the military (through my interactions with both veterans and active service members who are students or colleagues) does give me the generally positive vision of military culture that I articulated in my last post.  But maybe I am just toeing a line the Democrats have been pushing in order to enhance their patriotic bona fides, not a vision that comes anywhere close to the truth of the matter. 

It is certainly weird that the Trump administration has led Democrats to think more highly of the CIA and the FBI, to the extent that both those agencies (like the military) have displayed at least some push-back against Trump—a push-back that appears motivated by a recognition of how much damage he is doing to this country.  Their patriotism (country above Trump) stands in stark contrast to the whole Republican party, who have become Trump’s enablers. 

Still, I don’t want to go very far down that road.  The military is wildly over-funded, while the CIA is almost a completely unmitigated disaster.  The National security state, in toto, is one of those features of the American political landscape that needs to be dismantled, radically re-thought, and completely re-designed.  Our inability to do such work with any of our dysfunctional systems—from health care to the Electoral College, not to mention the police and prevalent discriminatory practices in housing and education—is why it is so hard to summon any optimism about the future of our society.  Our politics currently renders it impossible even to discuss these needed reforms, no less actually begin to undertake them. 

America’s Inept Police: A Counter-Intuitive Proposal

I have mostly avoided political posts in this dark summer.  I do, however, want to weigh in on our policing problem with a perspective I think many will find outrageous, but that I think needs articulation.  I have found my thoughts on this topic somewhat anticipated by Fred Kaplan, in this article on Slate.  https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/09/police-military-tactics-lessons-protests.html

Kaplan draws a stark contrast between the Military and our domestic police forces in terms of fire control. Not only would our trained soldiers be much more unlikely to indulge in the kind of “violence panic” that leads to shooting someone in the back seven times, but the soldier who acted so foolishly would face the contempt of his or her peers as well as being subject to official investigation and (possibly) sanctions. (The notion of “violence panic” comes from sociologist Randall Collins’s very insightful book, Violence: A Micro-Sociological Approach [Princeton UP, 2008]).  Kaplan rightly cautions against over-praising the military, but he is certainly right, I believe, to suggest that something is radically amiss in our training of police officers.  What, even after we factor in racial prejudice, could account for their being so trigger-happy?  It goes against the most elementary principles of any trained military force.

My first reaction is to say we should only allow ex-military to serve as police officers.  Before reacting in horror, my readers should consider a few basic facts about the military.  For starters, it is among the most fully integrated, most fully diverse institutions in American society.  The chances that a veteran would have had long-lasting and substantial interactions with a wide range of different people are much higher than in almost any other walk of life.  The military has also generally succeeded in creating a strong ethos of cooperation with and care for one’s fellow soldiers.  Perhaps only a few exceptional sports teams can compare.

This is not to deny that a certain percentage of white soldiers in the military are involved with white nationalist groups.  Or that the majority of members of our right-wing militias are ex-military.  In fact, the generally exemplary fire control of those militias should be noted.  For all their gun-waving, there have been remarkably few actual shooting incidents.  It is no surprise that the Kenosha shooting was done by an untrained 17-year old, not a military vet.  The police, too, have been infiltrated by the white nationalists, so a careful vetting of potential candidates is needed.  But I still think we’d be better off with veterans than with the quite evidently badly trained police we currently have.  And the vetting is required in either case.

Furthermore, the military has an exemplary (again, not perfect, but still pretty good) record of fealty to civilian control.  Certainly a far better record than police unions, who are openly contemptuous of civilian politicians and review boards even when they don’t outright defy them.  The recent rampages of police forces in our cities dramatically show how fully the police currently operate as an unchecked force beholden only to itself.

The simplest way to put this: the military does not, generally, think of itself as an embattled group of men/women at odds with the society they are supposed to serve.  Rather, soldiers generally experience their service as an alignment with that society.  But the police now seem to exist (at least in our largest cities) in a state of permanent aggrievement.  Their response has been to double down on their defiance of anyone outside their own ranks who tries to direct the terms of their service.

Finally, on a somewhat unrelated point, I never see anyone tie our police violence problem to the lack of gun control.  But surely the police are (at least in part) so trigger happy because they have to assume that everyone they encounter is a potential gun holder.  Back when our politics was sane in the 1990s, police departments were (again, not always, but in a fair number of cases) advocates for gun control measures.  They also participated in buy-back programs designed to get guns off the street.  But now that partisanship has overwhelmed sanity, police departments line up for policies that make their jobs more dangerous.

It is worth noting as well that being a police officer is not especially dangerous compared to other occupations.  Here’s a link to the stats on that fact, with the police coming in as the 13th most dangerous job (in terms of fatalities).  https://www.businessinsider.com/the-most-dangerous-jobs-in-america-2018-7#10-first-line-supervisors-of-landscaping-lawn-service-and-grounds-keeping-workers-25

It is also astounding how many people our police forces kill.  I wish this number would get cited in news stories about the police. On average, about 80 people a month are killed by the police.  As of August 30th, 2020, 661 people have died at the hands of the police this year.  Here’s the stats for the last three and a half years: https://www.statista.com/statistics/585159/people-shot-to-death-by-us-police-by-month/

The failure to make these numbers known just goes hand-in-hand with the bad job our journalists do on just about every story—never asking the probing question, and never digging even slightly below the surface of any story to give readers/listeners the facts necessary to even begin to understand it.

What I have to say here does not override, but exists in a complementary relation, to other proposals about police reform.  The relation of the police to civilian control and to the communities they serve requires a drastic overhaul, while some of the duties currently handled by the police need to be taken out of their hands.  But so long as we are going to have armed police officers on our streets, we need a drastic improvement of the training we give those officers in the handling and use of those weapons.

War and Peace (Two)

Further into my journey through War and Peace, I find Tolstoy stating directly his disbelief in people’s ability to transcend their self-interest and submerge themselves in a larger cause.  But with a twist, as you will see if you read the relevant passage:

“It is natural for us who were not living in those days to imagine that when half Russia had been conquered and the inhabitants were ficeing to distant provinces, and one levy after another was being raised for the defense of the father-land, all Russians from the greatest to the least were solely engaged in sacrificing themselves, saving their fatherland, or weeping over its downfall. The tales and descriptions of that time without exception speak only of the self-sacrifice, patriotic devotion, despair, grief, and the heroism of the Russians. But it was not really so. It appears so to us because we see only the general historic interest of that time and do not see all the personal human interests that people had. Yet in reality those personal interests of the moment so much transcend the general interests that they always prevent the public interest from being felt or even noticed. Most of the people at that time paid no attention to the general progress of events but were guided only by their private interests, and they were the very people whose activities at that period were most useful.

Those who tried to understand the general course of events and to take part in it by self-sacrifice and heroism were the most useless members of society, they saw every-thing upside down, and all they did for the common good turned out to be useless and foolish like Pierre’s and Mamonov’s regiments which looted Russian villages, and the lint the young ladies prepared and that never reached the wounded, and so on. Even those, fond of intellectual talk and of expressing their feelings, who discussed Russia’s position at the time involuntarily introduced into their conversation either a shade of pretense and falsehood or useless condemnation and anger directed against people accused of actions no one could possibly be guilty of. In historic events the rule forbidding us to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is specially applicable. Only unconscious action bears fruit, and he who plays a part in an historic event never understands its significance. If he tries to realize it his efforts are fruitless.

The more closely a man was engaged in the events then taking place in Russia the less did he realize their significance. In Petersburg and in the provinces at a distance fromMoscow, ladies, and gentlemen in militia uniforms, wept for Russia and its ancient capital and talked of self-sacrifice and so on; but in the army which retired beyond Moscow there was little talk or thought of Moscow, and when they caught sight of its burned ruins no one swore to be avenged on the French, but they thought about their next pay, their next quarters, of Matreshka the vivandiere, and like matters.” (Book Twelve, Chapter Four)

Tolstoy, at least in War and Peace, is an odd mix of quietist fatalism (it is all in God’s hands, so human action is futile, blind, presumptuous, and never achieves that for which it aims) and radical critic of society and human depravity (a leftist Christian).

Here’s an example of his radical critique of social institutions:

“That evening he learned that all these prisoners (he, probably, among them) were to be tried for incendiarism. On the third day he was taken with the others to a house where a French general with a white mustache sat with two colonels and other Frenchmen with scarves on their arms. With the precision and definiteness customary in addressing prisoners, and which is supposed to preclude human frailty, Pierre like the others was questioned as to who he was, where he had been, with what object, and so on.

These questions, like questions put at trials generally, left the essence of the matter aside, shut out the possibility of that essence’s being revealed, and were designed only to form a channel through which the judges wished the answers of the accused to flow so as to lead to the desired result, namely a conviction. As soon as Pierre began to say anything that did not fit in with that aim, the channel was removed and the water could flow to waste. Pierre felt, moreover, what the accused always feel at their trial, perplexity as to why these questions were put to him. He had a feeling that it was only out of condescension or a kind of civility that this device of placing a channel was employed. He knew he was in these men’s power, that only by force had they brought him there, that force alone gave them the right to demand answers to their questions, and that the sole object of that assembly was to inculpate him. And so, as they had the power and wish to inculpate him, this expedient of an inquiry and trial seemed unnecessary. It was evident that any answer would lead to conviction.” (Book Twelve, Chapter Nine.)

But Pierre is saved from execution by a moment of human contact:

“Davout [the French governor of occupied Moscow] looked up and gazed intently at him. For some seconds they looked at one another, and that look saved Pierre. Apart from conditions of war and law, that look established human relations between the two men. At that moment an immense number of things passed dimly through both their minds, and they realized that they were both children of humanity and were brothers.

At the first glance, when Davout had only raised his head from the papers where human affairs and lives were indicated by numbers, Pierre was merely a circumstance, and Davout could have shot him without burdening his con-science with an evil deed, but now he saw in him a human being. He reflected for a moment.” (Book Twelve, Chapter Ten.)

This seems plausible to me; how could you look another human being in the eyes—and then torture that person, or kill him or her?  Yet we know it happens.

Pierre then witnesses the execution of five other prisoners, not knowing until after they have been shot that he will not himself be executed.  His response is to lose all faith in life, to sink into complete despair.

“From the moment Pierre had witnessed those terrible murders committed by men who did not wish to commit them, it was as if the mainspring of his life, on which every-thing depended and which made everything appear alive, had suddenly been wrenched out and everything had collapsed into a heap of meaningless rubbish. Though he did not acknowledge it to himself, his faith in the right ordering of the universe, in humanity, in his own soul, and in God, had been destroyed. He had experienced this before, but never so strongly as now. When similar doubts had assailed him before, they had been the result of his own wrongdoing, and at the bottom of his heart he had felt that relief from his despair and from those doubts was to be found within him-self. But now he felt that the universe had crumbled before his eyes and only meaningless ruins remained, and this not by any fault of his own. He felt that it was not in his power to regain faith in the meaning of life.” (Book Twelve, Chapter Twelve).

He is pulled out of his despair through his conversation with a peasant/soldier prisoner who tells him we are all in God’s hands.  We cannot expect to understand God’s plan, but must simply affirm it and place ourselves in the hands of the divine.  Tolstoy’s fatalism is offered as the solution to the problems of evil and of suffering.