Tag: Politics

Justice and American Politics

I want to open by saying (which will prove ironic in light of what I want to say) that I am currently reading Dante’s Divine Comedy for my sins.

I have elsewhere said that I think the fundamental dividing line between right and left in US politics can be quickly characterized by their different understandings of what justice means.  To be blunt: I think this is one of the two or three most cogent and valuable insights I have had in my life.  So I violate my usual rule of not repeating myself to express the basic idea again in this post.

It’s not like anything I have ever proposed in print has been taken up by others.  But this one insight I do think could be of use, so it disturbs my sangfroid in ways the general disregard for my writings does not.

Here’s the basic idea—and how it relates to Dante.  In the Paradiso, Canto 7, Dante is at pains to explain the logic of the Crucifixion.  Basically, he says that forgiveness of an offense is not enough.  Justice is not served unless there is also “atonement.”  Some price must be exacted in order to cancel the debt the offense has created.  (These economic metaphors are completely and utterly inescapable once some “payment” is required for having done wrong.  Similarly, one cannot avoid talking about “reward” for good deeds when operating within the same paradigm.)

Of course, Dante’s Inferno is the place for individualized atonement—and Dante can barely conceal his glee that the big reprobates have to pay the price forever.  No atonement can suffice in their case.  The Crucifixion is about atonement for original sin, for the whole mass of human sins. Canto 7 explains why only the suffering of Christ could erase that stain. God can’t just forgive mankind its misdeeds. (Of course, it’s easy to ask “why not?” And it won’t surprise you that Dante’s answer to that question is tortured and not very convincing. His answer: humans, via Adam’s sin, had fallen from the perfection with which they were created. Being imperfect, humans could not themselves restore their perfection. Only God could do that–and he could only do it be becoming human himself and “atoning” for Adam’s sin by suffering death by Crucifixion. And answer that raises more questions than it answers–in my humble opinion.)

When it comes to individualized punishment in hell, Dante is usually a bit too human to rejoice in the sufferings endured by those he encounters, but he has no doubt of the justice of their being there, as stated (among other instances) in lines 10-12 of Canto 15 of the Paradiso.  “It is well the he grieve without end who, for love of a thing that does not last eternally, divests himself of that other love” (where the “other love” is the love for and of God, a love that does last eternally.) There is just no atonement at all available for some people.

In short, there is always a soupcon of sadism and of self-satisfaction in the justice that motivates the right: people should get what they deserve.  So the bad guys should be punished, and the good guys (me!) deserve all the rewards you can pile up.  Meritocracy with a vengeance (quite literally).

The harshness is the point; it cannot be siphoned out to create some sort of “compassionate conservatism.”  Even if the paternalism imagined in compassionate conservatism were to be enacted, it would be within the strict limits of the family (i.e. citizenry).  Dubya may actually have been a sincerely compassionate guy, a true believer in No Child Left Behind (a noble slogan after all).  But the compassion was certainly not going to extend to Afghans or Iraqis.  The right is fueled by righteous indignation—and the desire to meet out punishment to those who “deserve” it, while augmenting the spoils divided up among the blessed. 

That’s why American conservatism is shot through and through with a certain version of Christianity.  Meritocracy—and the outraged sense that taxes take my hard-earned and well-deserved wealth and give it to the unworthy—is just another version of a religion built upon dividing sinners from non-sinners, and equating justice with the sinners getting hell and the non-sinners getting heaven.

Leftists are talking of something altogether different when they talk of justice.  Maybe you could torture the left wing notion of justice into the language of “desert.”  But the idea centers on what people deserve by the basic fact of being human.  What we owe to one another as humans.  Some basic set of ways to satisfy fundamental material and psychological/social needs.  The things required to render a life worth living.  The means to forging a flourishing life.  Shame unto the society that begrudges those things to any in its midst. Such a society is unjust.

The left’s idea of justice has some Biblical sources as well (of course).  But as Dante’s poem reminds us: ministers of vengeance and cupidity seem to usually have the upper hand in the Christian churches.  There are always heathens and heretics at the door—and surely god does not want you to extend a helping hand to them.  All that love your enemies stuff is overwritten by the doctrine of god’s eventual justice, of the fact of hell. If even God can’t love wicked humans, but sends them to hell, then there is a definite limit to what enemies you are enjoined to love.

So the two sides talk past one another.  The right sees threats, enemies, and (simply in some cases) the undeserving.  The reprobate not only bring suffering upon themselves,  but it also outrageous if society does not act to punish them, to make them pay for their waywardness. Why leave punishment to the next world when you can get the jump of divine vengeance in this one?

The left (bleeding heart liberals) saves its indignation for the cruelty of a society that treats those it deems unworthy so harshly.  Its cries for justice are for society to do right by these neglected souls, not to heap more suffering upon them.

Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary

Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary

I have just finished reading Victor Serge’s “memoir” (New York Review Books, 2012; written in 1941-1943; originally published in 1951).  Perhaps I will have more of my own thoughts about it to record in the coming days.  But right now, I just want to offer three fragments, the relevance of each of them seems obvious to me, not requiring any immediate commentary or interpretation on my part.

Its opening paragraph:

Even before I emerged from childhood, I seem to have experienced, deeply at heart, that paradoxical feeling that was to dominate me all through the first part of my life: that of living in a world without any possible escape, in which there was nothing for it but to fight for an impossible cause.  I felt repugnance, mingled with wrath and indignation, towards people whom I saw settled comfortably in this world. How could they not be conscious of their captivity, of their unrighteousness? (3)

Many years and pages later, Serge reflects on the smear campaigns of the 1930s, highlighted by the Moscow Trials of 36-37, the destruction of the POUM in Spain by the Communists, and the Nazis’ vilification of the Jews:

This uninterrupted avalanche of delirious outpourings in the papers, the radio, at meetings, even in books, were on precisely the same level of psychological appeal as the Nazi agitation against the “Judeo-Masonic plutocracy, Marxism, Bolshevism,” and, occasionally, “the Jesuits”!  We are witnessing the birth of collective psychoses similar to those of the Middle Age, and the creation of a technique for stifling critical thought, so laboriously acquired by the modern mind.  Somewhere in Mein Kampf there are twenty exquisitely cynical lines on the usefulness of slander accompanied by violence.  The new totalitarian methods for dominating the mind of the masses incorporate the devices of mainstream commercial advertising, amplified by violence and frenzied irrationality.  The defiance of reason humiliates it and foreshadows its defeat.

The enormity and wildness of such accusations take the average person by surprise since he cannot imagine that he can be lied to on such a scale.  The outrageous language intimidates him and in a way redeems the imposture: reeling under the shock, he is tempted to tell himself that there must, after all, be some justification for this madness, some justification of a higher order surpassing his own understanding.  Success is possible for these techniques, it seems clear, only in epochs of confusion, and only if the brave minorities who embody the critical spirit are gagged or reduced to impotence through reasons of State and their own lack of material resources. . . .

Totalitarianism has no more dangerous an enemy than the spirit of criticism, which it bends every effort to exterminate.  Any reasonable objection is bundled away with shouts, and the objector himself, if he persist, is bundled off on a stretcher to the mortuary.  I have met my assailants face-to-face in public meetings, offering to answer any questions they raised.  Instead, they always strove to drown my voice in storms of insults, delivered at the tops of their voices. . . . [Not] a single line [of my published work] has ever been contested, or a single argument adduced in reply—only abuse, denunciation, and threats. (393-94).

Serge’s faith in critical thought (a faith at least in its integrity if not in its efficacy) never left him, and is the source of his moving conclusion to his story of the failure of socialism in his lifetime, most particularly the descent of the 1917 Revolution into totalitarian despotism.

Early on, I learned from the Russian intelligentsia that the only meaning of life lies in the conscious participation in the making of history. The more I think of that, the more deeply true it seems to be.  It follows that one must range oneself actively against everything that diminishes man, and involve oneself in all struggles which tend to liberate and enlarge him  This categorical imperative is in no way lessened by the fact that such an involvement is inevitably soiled by error; it is a worse error to live for oneself, caught within traditions which are soiled by inhumanity.

A French essayist has said, “What is terrible when you seek the truth, is that you find it.”  You find it, and then you are no longer free to follow the biases of your personal circle, or to accept fashionable clichés.  I immediately discerned within the Russian Revolution the seeds of such serious evils as intolerance and the drive towards the persecution of dissent.  The evils originated in an absolute sense of possession of the truth, grafted upon doctrinal rigidity.  What followed was contempt for the man who was different, of his arguments and way of life.  Undoubtedly, one of the greatest problems which each of us has to solve in the realm of practice is that of accepting the necessity to maintain, in the midst of the intransigence which comes from steadfast beliefs, a critical spirit toward those same beliefs and a respect for the belief that differs.  In the struggle, it is the problem of combining the greatest possible practice efficiency with respect for the man in the enemyin a word, a war without hate. . . .

Many times I have felt myself on the brink of a pessimistic conclusion as the function of thinking, of intelligence, in society.  Continuously, over a quarter of a century, that is since the stabilization of the Russian Revolution just before 1920, I have found a general tendency to the suppression of percipient thinking. . . .

The relationships between error and true understanding are in any case too abstruse for anyone to regulate them by authority.  Men have no choice but to make long detours through hypotheses, mistakes, and imaginative guesses, if they are to succeed in extricating assessments which are more exact, if partly provisional: for there are few cases of complete exactness.  This means that freedom of thought seems to me, of all values, one of the most essential.

It is also one of the most contested.  Everywhere and at every time. I have encountered fear of thought, repression of thought, an almost universal desire to escape or else stifle this ferment of restlessness.  . . . .

The role of critical intelligence has seemed to me to be dangerous, and very nearly useless.  This is the most pessimistic conclusion to which I have felt myself drawn.  I am careful not to state it finally; I blame the feeling on my personal weakness, and I persist in regarding critical and percipient thought as an absolute necessity, as a categorical imperative which no one can evade without damage to himself and harm to society, and, besides, as the source of immense satisfactions.  Better times will come, and perhaps soon.  It is a matter of holding fast and keeping faith until then. (439-442)

Hatred of Politics (Part One)

After the 2012 election (in which I co-sponsored a fund-raiser for Obama), I decided that I would no longer contribute to political campaigns.  I had (in 2012) given somewhere in the neighborhood of $2500 to a variety of candidates and to my state’s Democratic Party.  My decision was based on three thoughts:

1. Just as a “rational” voter realizes that her single vote can’t possibly make any difference, the rationalist in me thought that my piddling $2500 (doled out in contributions of $200 or less to various campaigns) could hardly have any real impact.  So it seemed pointless to spend my money that way.  Instead, I decided, I would give the money that would go to politicians to various local charities whose work I admired and wanted to support.

I did break this rule by being brought in as a co-sponsor of a fund-raiser for Roy Cooper, the Democratic candidate for governor in North Carolina this year.  That has been the one exception.

2.  Given that there is way too much money in politics–and that the cost of campaigns just continues to escalate in relation to the ferocity of the efforts to raise money for that purpose–it seemed like a refusal to be a party to the whole shebang was the most sensible response.  I realize, of course, that my individual refusal has about as much impact as the small amounts of money that I was contributing.  But if I am, perforce, in the position of making symbolic gestures, I might as well make the symbolic gesture that aligns with my principles.  And I do know that my $2500 is much appreciated by, and put to a better use, by the small local charities that now get that money.

3.  I am increasingly disgusted by the spectacle that is the modern political campaign in this country.  In particular–and surely I am not the only person who feels this way–I am put off by the 18 emails a day I get from the Democrats, and Move On, and Emily’s List, and so on.  I don’t watch TV, so I can’t be disgusted by the ads that my money pays for.  I do believe in the “ground game,” in GOTV efforts and the like (and have done some volunteering in such efforts, if–most likely–not enough), and am more comfortable when I think of my contributions as underwriting such efforts.  But the hysteria of the daily emails is off-putting.  I guess data proves they are the most effective way to raise money.  But for someone like me–and surely I am not alone in this–an appeal two or three times a year, accompanied with the promise to leave me alone after I have responded to that appeal, is much more likely to get my support.  The daily emails have just made me dig in my heels.  I won’t be bludgeoned into giving.

But–and this is actually the more important point–the whole process has led me to hate politics–and to dream of extricating myself from my obsession with it and even my deeply felt convictions about it.  So that’s the topic I really want to explore–and will do so in my posts over the next week or so.  This post is just a preface.