Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Right of Revolution, Assassination, Context, and the Plague of Non-Sequiturs

At the time of the Tucson shootings, I toyed with this essay as a way of saying at least three things: 1) the right of Revolution—and with it a contextually defensible right of assassination—should not be scrapped in the tragedy of the moment which was and is an indefensible act of a deranged murdered; 2) that those who used the situation as an attempt to muzzle their political opponents were engaged in the worst sort of demagoguery and intimidation I have seen in a long time; and 3) that the historical parallel I thought most apropos for the entire unfolding situation—dominated by a proliferation of absurd non-sequitur arguments—was the crisis leading to the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861.

I did not post it back then for three reasons. The first was the enormous tragedy of the situation made me worry about being misunderstood as being somehow offering mild apology for Mr. Loughner’s despicable and unjustifiable crimes. I do not think his actions have any excuse and justice will soon see him dead, I fervently hope. The second was that many very able public personages combated the notion that TEA party rhetoric or opposition to Obamacare or the President himself was somehow creating a culture where assassination was permissible and more likely to occur. And they did so very effectively and persuasively. The third is that I was never quite satisfied with how all of the elements of this essay fit together. I will plead, lamely, that as a busy writer and researcher I just did not have the time to fix it to my satisfaction and events eventually overtook the timeliness of the piece.

All of that said. Enough time has passed. There are some relevant things here that may not have been said by others—some I know for certain were not said. And despite it’s flaws as a discreet piece of writing, it is still, I think, readable. Enough prefatory excuses, here it is, weeks late........

With Jared Lee Loughner’s play for historical notoriety on January 8, 2011, in what is one of the most despicable assassination attempts in a regrettably long history of such actions, there has been an almost as regrettable amount of hand-wringing over the freedom of political speech in our republic. Much of this hand-wringing is motivated by shameless partisanship—the very thing that is allegedly at fault for Mr. Loughner’s actions—but a penchant for irrational non-sequitur argumentation is also on full display. This form of argumentative fallacy is prevalent throughout contemporary American politics, but it is rarely properly identified and it’s utterly pernicious effects are even more rarely understood. In this particular instance, it is being deployed to surreptitiously attack the first and second amendments of the U.S. Constitution. In addition, much of the alleged “analysis” is muddying the waters as concerns the natural right of revolution and the derivative right of assassination.

To that in a moment. Read Mr. Loughner’s “views” and you will see the classic non-sequitur caricatured—though entirely unintentionally it would seem. Grammar is a conspiracy to control people, those who do not realize this are “illiterate,” those who are “illiterate” are stupid and deserve at the very least contempt—death at the worst. This is Loughner’s—this is one of them anyway—non-sequitur analysis of the world around him. With it, he eventually was able to rationalize his actions. This sort of sloppy irrationalism (and all non-sequiturs are either inherently sloppy, dishonest, or both) plagues modern culture and political debate—as well as most academic debates. But on top of Mr. Loughner’s logical contortionism, those who shamelessly advocate the “soft” totalitarianism of “social democracy” are adding their names to the list of bizarre and obvious fallacy pandering.

The principal villain—and there are numerous others—in this current logical fiasco is New York Times columnist and Princeton Economics professor, Paul Krugman. Writing in a New York Times op-ed piece on the day after Loughner’s assassination attempt/murder spree, Krugman solemnly intoned: “So will the Arizona massacre make our discourse less toxic? It’s really up to G.O.P. leaders. Will they accept the reality of what’s happening to America, and take a stand against eliminationist rhetoric? Or will they try to dismiss the massacre as the mere act of a deranged individual, and go on as before?” Let me be entirely clear. Even if Mr. Loughner was a right-wing extremist, a card carrying member of some Tea-Party movement, an avid listener to Republican radio commentators, in short everything Mr. Krugman clearly wishes he had been, the non-sequitur would still be illegitimate. No nationally prominent politician or commentator has called for violent revolution, for assassination, for threatening lawmakers, or for anything even remotely aimed at intimidating their opponents with armed and violent mobs. Even if such a person existed, adult human beings are responsible for their own thinking and actions. If a politician I admired (if such existed) called me to revolt and murder leaders of the opposition, I would not as a matter of course listen to or act upon such a demand. If I did, I would be responsible for that choice. Of course, there is no “climate of hate” that inexplicably goads otherwise law-abiding Americans to do something which, if there were no vociferous debate, they would not do. Even if there was, the legal remedy would remain the same regardless.

For decades, those on the left insisted that the acts of isolated American communists—an ideology devoted to revolutionizing (violently) the world, including the United States—should not be used against their non-violent cohorts, fellow travelers, and sympathizers. Now, it seems, such tarring and feathering is not only to be encouraged, it is to be fabricated automatically upon learning of any tragedy when one’s own political ambitions are currently under assault. And they aren’t even stopping at the bastion of liberal bleeding hearts—gun control—they are riding straight on through to quashing voices on the radio they despise and commentators on TV that they loathe. Jay Rockefeller, the Senator from West Virginia and a Democrat, recently advanced this sort of censorship in a sub-committee hearing some months before Mr. Loughner’s actions. No one took Rockefeller seriously back then, but now real bona fide heroes of the movement to assure individual rights to African-Americans—James Clyburn of South Carolina—are publicly advocating censoring their enemies if they are on the “public” airwaves in proportions and volumes they do like or approve of. What a tragic way to belittle an otherwise heroic career.

We ought not to lose sight of why so many Americans are upset, rallying in the streets, politically active, and belligerent at this moment in time. For at least the last two years (and much longer) the federal government, under the control of Republicans and Democrats, has behaved irresponsibly—and that’s putting it mildly. Five trillion dollars has been added to the national debt on a series of fool’s errands, from unnecessary bailouts directed at failed and inefficient industries and firms to nearly one trillion dollars to “stimulate” the economy through one-time expenditures on items not in general demand. On top of that abomination of fiscal recklessness, the President and his allies in Congress rammed through, in the sleaziest way, an overhaul of an already overregulated health delivery system under a subterfuge that healthcare is an unalienable right and must be guaranteed by the state. A great many Americans were alarmed by these things. A great many Americans are still alarmed by these things—as well as their sequels, most prominently a proposed Carbon regulation bill that would fundamentally alter the American economy and way of life. They were and are right to be alarmed. But we need to be clear. They have been moved to political action, not revolutionary action. They have organized to run candidates and campaigns, not collect arms and soldiers. They would not be justified in the latter—but not, as some seem to suggest, from some unalterable principle of absolute non-violence.

The natural right of revolution remains with all of us. It is an extra-legal right, outside the normal course of law and order, to be resorted to by the people only, in Jefferson’s words, “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” There is no right to revolt for “light and transient causes;” because the right of revolution, once invoked, holds the potential to unleash a hellish nightmare of civil war and death that can result in a state of affairs far worse than those which prompted it to begin with. It should only be resorted to when all other remedies are exhausted. In the United States today the people still freely speak, assemble, petition, run for office, and vote. They can still, if they care to do so, alter the course of their government, protest its actions and seek redress. While they suffer from onerous regulations in many facets of life, they are not without real and legitimate recourse whenever they should find these things intolerable. But the American people can only attain that sort of change through concerted and vocal political action through numerous election cycles. Our republic was designed that way on purpose to make sure that popular and transient movements, often combined with sudden exigencies, did not create permanent and lasting legacies that could not be undone under the normal course of legislating and governing under the rule of law.

Assassination in American history is terrible enough without Mr. Loughner’s recent actions to cast such an act into nearly irredeemable disrepute. But we must not forget the context that surrounds assassination as a political act. In a free society—in our republic as it now stands—assassination can have no justification. It is, quite simply, murder plain and simple. But not all political societies are like ours—and ours may not always remain as it is now and has been in the past. An assassin’s bullet, or knife, or poison can be a laudable object in a repressive regime, in an absolutist monarchy, in a communist death-state, and in a dictatorship. And this leaves out the insurrectionary actions of slaves in all slave-based regimes from Sparta, to Rome, to Haiti, to the United States. When Marcus Junius Brutus conspired to assassinate the Roman dictator Julius Caesar he stepped, not into infamy, but heroic legend. The putative assassins of Adolf Hitler, while being far less heroic than the ancient Roman, have had their historical legacies partially redeemed through the simple act of trying to murder the German leader. The context of a political regime and the assassin’s motives are what makes, and what has always made, assassination either an abomination to be deplored, or the heroic act of a patriot. For an example of dueling contextual analysis of a political assassination one need read no further that Shakespeare’s thrilling oratorical duel between Brutus and Mark Antony in Julius Caesar. The contemporary American republic is not a place where assassination can be justified. But we should not lose sight of the possibility—a possibility I hope never to see—that the American republic may travel into the territory of all other failed republican experiments: corruption, collapse, and dictatorship. If that ever occurs, then you may expect to see assassination take on a life of its own and whatever is left of the regime to exert itself over more and more of society to quash it out. When force and only force becomes the operative mode of society—when, in Robespierre’s chilling words “terror is the order of the day”—then one may expect the seemingly random acts of violence and assassination that always tends to plague autocratic regimes from Napoleonic France to Soviet Russia.

The response to this tragedy on the part of some is inexcusable. From using the acts of this deranged man as the casus belli for mandating the views to be presented on private television and radio stations to shielding congressmen from the angry and heated rhetoric of their outraged constituents when they go too far afield, they are attacking not Mr. Loughner, but all law-abiding Americans. To use this awful aberrant tragedy as an excuse to dust off old tired attacks on the second amendment is not statesmanship, it is cynical opportunism at its worst. We should not allow our freedoms to be further eroded on the coattails of tragedy, as they have so often been in the past. We need to reflect, mourn, and then return to the business at hand. To go off on an errant path to connect this man to forces we dislike is to embrace this lunatic’s disordered imagination. It is to emulate his logical distortions. It is a futile hunt for the missing link in a despicable non-sequitur. That Mr. Krugman and a legion of Sancho Panzas have done just that is, ultimately, unsurprising, but it is shameful all the same.

Finally, I am reminded of the greatest non-sequitur in American history and how it was used to perpetuate a fraud of remarkable magnitude and epic destruction the likes of which we should be most fortunate to always avoid. As the election of 1860 approached, many Southern politicians began to say openly that if Abraham Lincoln were elected President of the United States, as was appearing almost certain, they would consider that action as, ipso facto, a declaration of war and a legitimate cause to invoke an imaginary “right”—unilateral state secession. The Northern Democratic President at the time, James Buchanan of Pennsylvania parroted this absurd logic in an official message to congress after the 1860 election: “The long continued and intemperate interference of the northern people with the question of slavery in the southern States has at length produced its natural effects. The different sections of the Union are now arrayed against each other...” The cause for this sudden Southern defection from the Union, this revolutionary act which not even Buchanan could, in the end, justify? According to the last doughface (Northern politician of Southern “principles”) to hold the presidency: “all for which the slave States have ever contended, is to be let alone and permitted to manage their domestic institutions in their own way. As sovereign States, they and they alone are responsible before God and the world for the slavery existing among them. For this the people of the North are not more responsible, and have no more right to interfere, than with similar institutions in Russia or in Brazil.” It did not matter than Lincoln ran on a platform explicitly declaiming any desire to interfere with slavery where it already existed under the protection of state laws—for he would control such diabolical levers of government like the post office as well as a very modest frontier army whose only recent functions were fighting Indians and quelling Mormon rebellion. Lincoln condemned slavery as a moral evil, wanted to prevent its expansion (something that would have occurred anyway if Stephen A. Douglas, John C. Breckinridge or John Bell—the other candidates in 1860—had been elected instead), and wished to see it end someday (famously predicting 1960 as the possible day it would die out “naturally.”)

Yet Lincoln’s constitutional election was cause for a “legal” revolution masked under the guise of an ahistorical “right” on the part of individual states to withdraw from the Union? It was a string of non-sequiturs that merely justified a hysterical revulsion to the notion that slavery had no moral justification, would be prevented from spreading across the continent, and would thus have to be legislated out of existence eventually to avoid the calamity all slaveowners feared—servile insurrection. To avoid that “disaster,” they precipitated a civil war which, ironically, destroyed slavery in little less than four years, boggling even Lincoln’s very moderate and gradualist expectations circa 1860. Even then, Southern apologists for slavery actively suppressed free speech in the South, stamping out all public criticism of the peculiar institution, while simultaneously attempting to intimidate Northern states into doing the same. They famously succeeded for a decade between the 1830s and 1840s in gagging the congress from hearing petitions from concerned citizens about the blight on their republic that was human slavery. Those intrepid souls were the violent agitators of their day because they simply wished to express their outrage over the government’s timidity in attacking slavery with the powers at its disposal—for instance the power to regulate the territories of the Union before they were organized as States. When the Confederacy finally attempted to break loose from the rest of the republic and established its own government, it quickly engaged in a whole substratum of intimidation throughout the South to make sure Unionists and other “disloyal” forces left, kept their mouths shut, or were, in some cases, imprisoned and/or put to death. Nothing in Lincoln’s entire war-effort against Southern sympathizers in the North compares to the literal reign of terror which loyal Unionists in the South suffered through. It contributed to the over 100,000 citizens from the seceded States that fought in the Union army—a figure that dwarves many times over the couple of thousand citizens of non-slaveholding states that fought for the Confederacy.

The sentiment and personnel that spawned and lead the Confederacy in one of the most ignoble war efforts of modern times—explicitly fought for the “civilizing” force of race-based slavery—was premised on a series of logical fallacies and non-sequiturs. From the notion that the States “created” the Union, to the “right” of legal unilateral state secession, to the very casus belli of the war—the constitutional election of a President they did not like. No long train of abuses existed anywhere. The South was oppressed only with the knowledge that their detractors were hitting a sore spot when they condemned slavery and the perpetual fear that Jefferson had been right—that justice rested with the slaves—and that agitation would eventually lead to a massive rebellion they would be unable to suppress. In response to these “oppressions” they reacted violently and despotically, attempting to crush civil society and free speech, creating a political culture of violent intimidation in order to block voices they considered “unpleasant,” “dangerous,” and likely to “incite violence.” The real sign of a dangerous person is not the one who uses military metaphors and charged passionate speech in defense of liberty; instead it is the person who attempts to suggest people have no right to be upset, to voice their concerns in angry or unpleasant ways, or no right at all to appeal to their fellow citizens to pressure their government in the defense of freedom.

Sharron Angle has been a punching bag during this recent spate of non-sequiturs for having dared to utter the following: “If this Congress [the 111th] keeps going the way it is, people are really looking towards those Second Amendment remedies.” Now, what the candidate meant, I think, was that when the government ignores the people and imposes itself upon them with force to take away their ability to freely contract for services and products that infringe on the rights of no one else, it is injecting force into civil society. The whole point of the government is to make sure force stays out of civil society by retroactively punishing those who introduce it in the first place via the rule of law and the criminal justice system. When the government itself begins to intermeddle in the private affairs of the people, and begins creating winners and losers (intentionally or not) it is going to start creating an ever expanding list of enemies. Most of those enemies are merely going to grumble. But the longer and more invasively these intrusions occur, the more and more likely it will be that some of the victims of these interferences will lash out violently. While we still have the ability to change the policy of the government, this is not a justifiable alternative or reaction. But to pretend it is not a logical consequence would be to deny all human history, human nature, and plain common sense. The second amendment exists, in part, to guarantee that arms are not monopolized by a single, centralized standing military force—in case the people should ever need to resume their unalienable right to alter or abolish, in some cases violently, their form of government. If Angle meant to encourage people to take up arms, then she was in error, and regardless of her intent, this comment along with others combined to create an image of her as an unstable and unpredictable loose cannon that Nevadans—despite intense loathing of Senator Harry Reid—could not comfortably vote for. She almost certainly meant it as simply a warning that governments which overreach into the private lives of their citizens, while those citizens are armed and not yet the slaves of totalitarian regimes, are likely to face the occasional violent rebuke. These rebukes, while inexcusable, should—if they become frequent—serve as a strong warning to all that the current state of things is quickly descending to dictatorship and/or revolution.

The agitators of 1860—and Lincoln could hardly be counted among them—simply pointed out what was to them (and us) the obvious. Slavery was morally indefensible. It was a war against nature. Sooner or later, it would blow up catastrophically as it already had in Haiti, Latin America, ancient Greece and Rome, and even the United States. Southerners not only tried to suppress and ignore these truisms, but despite all historical evidence to the contrary, tempted fate by inviting war into a territory teeming with dissatisfied and disaffected slaves. Then and now, those who prefer putting their hands over their eyes and ears to hum over the unpleasant noises and block out the unpleasant sights around them always try to shoot the messengers who state what is plain to the honest observer. Perhaps ironically, these outrageous non-sequiturs of today, if they ever get put into operation, will result in the very outrage and probable violence they claim to be against.

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