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August 02, 2006

One man's terrorist


These chaps look familiar.

An evil association teaching a doctrine of hate, and addressing itself to the task of generating bigotry and strife, has no place in America and should not be permitted to exist. If this were the message and mission of the Klan, it should be destroyed. And every true Klansman, who is a real Christian patriot, would aid in its destruction. But the mission of the Klan is harmony, and the mission of the Klan is love.

-- A Fundamental Klan Doctrine, 1924

I recently met an apparently thoughtful, spiritual lady who claimed to be "uncomfortable with the idea of judgement." It is a sentiment I have heard many times in the Annex and it jives with the Prime Directive portions of my anthropology education. Certainly, I think it is a good idea to be open to new ways of thinking about or experiencing the world, in part for practical reasons having to do with avoiding religious wars and in part out of simple curiosity.

However, it is my impression that 100% of the people I have met who claim to be uncomfortable with judgement would agree with the statement, "Discrimination is bad". Though most would avoid the word "evil" as itself too judgy a concept, they are for the most part happy to substitute "bad" or better yet "unhealthy" or "out of balance" or something to do with karma which, when push comes to shove, means for them essentially the same thing. The trouble, of course, is that to assert that "discrimination is bad" is itself an act of discrimination; tautological hilarity ensues. Let us be charitable with the argument and infer that what is meant is closer to "Some forms of discrimination (racial, sexual, etc.) are bad." Which leaves the question of how to decide which forms of discrimination are bad and which sorts of discrimination are good and what, if anything, answers to this question might obligate us to do.

Some people call this process "philosophy" while others call it "ethics" and... wait for it... it might also reasonably be called "judgement". Perhaps not the end of days sort of Judgement but certainly something like the act of discrimation that decides interfering in pre-warp civilizations is best avoided. This is obvious to anyone who has bothered to take the time and trouble to study philosophy or ethics. And by study I mean an analytical engagement with ethics as such not just a formal education in a particular religion or school of thought; certainly not the pre-digested outrage of a short list of taboos. Though such is to ask of people a modicum of effort. I gather this is an unreasonable* expectation in these days of brief attention spans and fast food philosophy even as I am tempted to believe such is as it ever was. To paraphrase the Teacher: The lazy will always be with us.

The fact** is we mortals must engage in acts of judgement and discrimination if we are to get on with each other even as we must not mistake our own preconceptions and prejudices for the hard work of real judgement. I believe the best way to go about this is to teach people how to think. I believe we should also teach people the histories and legends from which we might find a common pool of metaphor upon which to draw analogies in communicating our thoughts to one another. The trick is how to go about the process when most teachers from Pashto madrassas to the Ivy League have decided to forgo learning how to think by preference to mouthing a tiny spectrum of received cant. Or when "tradition" has been circumscribed to one "holy book" or none. Those of us living in café society in what may be the last days of the West used to have The Simpsons to rely on as a litmus test and source of allegory but what with its having jumped the shark long ago it sometimes feels we have precious little to be getting on with. And all too often equivocation about "wagging the dog" or "Minute Men" snuff videos demonstrate not only laziness but a pre-Oedipal refusal to take responsibility for one's own decisions. When everything from slavery to sexual mutilation to rape of children as political theatre to gay lynchings to calls for another Shoah must now be "understood" and not condemned it would seem the Prime Directive has much to answer for.

Take one particularly egregious example of the new cant: "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." Leave aside for the moment the suspicion that most people mouthing these words actually mean to say, "He is not a terrorist. He is a freedom fighter" but lack the courage of their convictions to boldy say so. It is true this fragment of secular homily is not wrong in itself. The trouble is that it is wrong beyond itself (waxing Heideggerian here). It is true, for example, that Hitler thought of himself as something like a freedom fighter and those he disposed of as terrorists.

Here is the problem: Hitler was wrong.

Hitler was not only objectively wrong*** he was morally wrong. It is true Hitler did not believe himself to be an evil man**** but, as Plato might have put it, "So what?" The Ku Klux Klan called themselves Night Riders and believed themselves to be defending their faith, their honour and the virtue of "their" women. It is reasonable to try to understand in some sociological sense how they might reach these conclusions. It is even reasonable to imagine that a selective reading of Scripture might lead one to conclude slavery was a God ordained institution from time immemorial. But understanding why people might believe such a thing is not to conclude their beliefs are "equally valid" with, for example, an universal humanism. It is certainly not to abrogate our responsibility to stop them from imposing their ideas on others out of a misplaced sense of duty to "respect" their "culture" for such is not only to disrepect the culture but the rights of others. Some might say the religious rituals and the masked night rides and even the lynchings were only "terror" when understood from a perspective that privileges the "state terror" of the Union. It is a fact the Ku Klux Klan and its insurgency in many respects reversed the early democratic prospects of a liberated south leaving the United States bogged down in a southern quagmire for more than a century. It might be argued that Reconstruction was precipitous in recognizing the civil rights of all Americans, that military might alone could never impose Union values on the South and that actions such as Sherman's March were grossly disproportionate to the "good" of Abolition.*****

Yes, some might make these arguments. But still they would be wrong.

*The word "unreasonable" is an Englishman's substitute for things others might refer to as "karmically imbalanced".
**Today's money quote from Harry's Place: "When those whose power and influence derives from a fiction are challenged, it is little wonder that they want to criminalise fact." I expect we will be hearing the word "faith crime" many times in the coming days and years. In olde fashioned tymes they called it "heresy".
***The next person who excuses or minimizes the whole mess by reference to the Treaty of Versailles should understand Germany had imposed almost identical terms on its vanquished Russian opponent the year before. Whining about it almost a century after the fact is what philosophers call "sour grapes" and ethicists term "the pot calling the kettle black".
****The Flea's Law: "Any sufficiently advanced stupidity is indistinguishable from existential evil." Please note, Packwood's Law supercedes Godwin's Law when reference to Nazi ideology is critical to illustrating existential evil, i.e. Those who would invoke Godwin's Law to relativise the existential evil of Naziism are in violation of Packwood's Law.
*****Which was good when John Brown was advocating Abolition but not good when Lincoln adopted it as a pretext for war. Not that the Copperheads were objectively pro-Confederacy or some other such simplisme. /acid sarcasm

War never solved anything (except feudalism, slavery, Naziism, etc.) Update: Bill Ardolino blamed the Prime Directive yesterday thereby preempting my post. And I should definitely have worked South Park and (more) original series Star Trek in here somewhere too.

Posted by Ghost of a flea at August 2, 2006 08:47 AM


Packwood's Law...verrrry interesting.

Posted by: agent bedhead [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 2, 2006 10:41 AM

I don't know if all those things are included in the direction "judge not". Clearly wickedness and evil (two other untrendy concepts) co-exist with the direction to judge not. Acts of violence, hatred, bigotry and oppression are clearly to be stopped and worked against even in light of the direction. I do not think that "judge not" means "all things are equally valid" as it would contradict the balance of the entire body of the particular morality. It is not a call to moral stagnancy. Perhaps it is better described as a warning against rigidity. One is instructed to act against evil in this world but not participate in the ramifications of that evil in the next.

So I think it is actually insufficient to say only "Hitler was wrong". It is appropriate to say "Hitler is wrong as are all his ilk and must be stopped but leave the long term to Me". In that way it also includes an implicit message of reconciliation.

As you know, but at perhaps a more general level, Blake raises similar questions in two paradoxical works:

Posted by: Alan McLeod [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 2, 2006 11:22 AM

Part of my point is that Hitler was wrong irrespective of the truth claims of any particular theological perspective including and especially his own. He was wrong not only in the particulars of his conclusions but as a matter of objective fact. If we can cede a morality to the Holocaust we have no basis for moral claims of any kind. I am prepared to defend this claim on biological grounds though the truth of my claim is in the most direct sense self-evident.

That said, I am always up for Blake.

Posted by: Ghost of a flea [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 2, 2006 11:33 AM

I think you have really noted that there are circumstances where morality and objective truth are as one - which is an assurance that morality and objective truth can be co-dependent - which is another way of saying that God is not an utter dolt.

Posted by: Alan McLeod [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 2, 2006 12:07 PM

Excercise judgement when dealing with others, lest others not excercise judgement when dealing with you.

Well, it could be a little snappier, but it will do.

Posted by: Pixy Misa [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 3, 2006 01:41 AM

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