Wednesday, June 14, 2017

On the Shooting of Representative Scalise

Violence is human. Politics is the art of rightly ordering of humans. Therefore, violence must address politics and politics must address violence.
We have all experienced violence. Consuming goods extracted through violent means is violence. Ignoring the persecution of others is violence. Manipulation, economic, psychological, physical, is violence. Honesty compels us to admit we have all been victims and perpetrators, directly or indirectly, of violence.
Violence is one reason we have government. A functional government protects against direct acts of violence and mitigates indirect acts of violence.
Failing to prevent violence is a fundamental failure for government. Citizens must always be concerns when their government fails to prevent violence or--worse still--foments or condones violence.

When the United States was falling apart President Abraham Lincoln made one of the bravest assertions of this duty to mitigate violence:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
In the midst of a war that split the nation asunder along political and moral lines, Lincoln chose not to vilify his enemies. He chose not to condemn or caricature those he was literally at war with. Rather, he extended charity towards all. Even when radical abolitionists called for punishment, Lincoln called for the nation to bind up its wounds.
Yes, Lincoln was party to the bloodiest war the United States has ever been involved in. Yes, the ethics of war are complex. My focus is not Lincoln's prosecution of that war or the larger ethics of war; my focus is the climate that created the Civil War and the climate the Civil War created.
The antebellum United States was divided bitterly and violently. Preston Brooks caned Charles Sumner near to death on the Senate floor. Violent anarchy ruled Kansas until the state could adopt a pro or anti slavery constitution. John Brown raided a federal military installation. If you were an abolitionist, slaveholders were miniature despots trading in and oppressing human souls. If you were a slaveholder, abolitionists were out-of-touch city elites who wanted to tell you how to run your life. Either way, your political opponent was your enemy, your evil enemy. The inability to compromise, to see opponents as fully human, fomented war.

That same spirit animates contemporary politics. Turn on late night television and you'll hear how bumbling Republicans don't understand reproductive anatomy but want to dictate what you do with your uterus, how Christian theocrats want to force their religion on America, or how ill-educated, hypocritical rural Americans want to run out the immigrants and minorities they've always been prejudiced against. Turn the same television to a different channel at a different time and you'll hear how progressives want to allow sexual predators in the same bathroom as your wife or child, how the political establishment is trying to undo the will of the American people, or how the Democrat's are scheming to use the Courts to force Christianity and morality out of America. It's the same message: "We are good. We are safe. They are bad. They want to steal, kill, and destroy the things you love. You must love us and hate them."

A Congressman was shot today. It seems he was shot because of this message, because of the political climate we have created. If we cannot empathize, we will polarize. If we cannot talk as sensible humans, we will kill as insensible animals. If we cannot give charity, we will be given malice.
Let us resolve to preserve our union by giving malice to none and charity to all.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Truth in Empire

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there" 
-L.P. Hartley
My wife and I have been watching a BBC documentary series on the British Empire. In the mindset of its time, the British Empire was civilized, moral, powerful, and fashionable. Britain enriched itself and enriched its colonies--or at least so they thought.
From our post-imperial perspective, these views seem ignorant and immoral. How could a white, wealthy elite justify subjugating a quarter of the world? Even if they brought law and civilization, it could never justify the brutality of slavery, colonization, and the wars necessary to undergird them. The haughty British deluded themselves into thinking they were performing a service for the colonized when really all they were doing was enriching themselves. Worse yet, the elites may have known it was a facade and yet kept the facade up simply to preserve power. The elitism and racism were repugnant and rampant.
This understanding is particularly popular in the United States--an independent, democratic nation founded on throwing off the chains of empire.

Yet this story is a little too neat, too self-justifying. We have matured past our immoral imperial history. We know better now. With our climate accords and peacekeeping missions and microfinancing, we help the developing (not third and decidedly not uncivilized) world in real ways imperialism never did. We allow the peoples of the developing world to govern themselves on their own terms.
But have we really matured?

The developing world can govern itself, so long as it is liberal, sustainable, and tolerant. Criminalize homosexuality, repress women, or restrict voting rights and we might invade you. We did it in Serbia then Somalia then Afghanistan and now (to an extent) Syria. When our NGOs dig their wells or build their schools, they do so to spread the gospel of liberalism (the justice towards which history arcs). When our businesses bring McDonalds, they do so to earn money and to bring capitalism.
Admittedly, we no longer directly colonize other nations. Nor do we argue that the interests of our nation and the interests of God are aligned (at least, not as often). But the differences are smaller than we may be comfortable with. In a secular society, isn't justice the highest remaining authority? What makes spreading belief in tolerance different to spreading belief in Christianity? What makes spreading liberalism different to spreading civilization?

I am not arguing our interventions have been wrong. I am arguing that we must wrestle with the morality of imperialism if we want to jusify our modern inteventions.

We can console ourselves with an easy narrative that we have overcome an elitist, racist imperial past but we do so at our peril. Our peacekeeping operations and nation building are all too often imperialism in different garb. Economic development, liberalization, and modernization can just as easily mask elitism or racism. Our goals may be different but the underlying thesis is the same: we know better and you'd be better off like us. Imperialism's temptations remain. If the past is a foreign country, perhaps we should try to understand it before we condemn it. By understanding it we will understand, and critique ourselves, better.