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“Advocating violence is terrible,” Althouse advises, then goes on to defend, as have others, the use of metaphor in political discourse.

…but it is also terrible to try to delegitimize vibrant criticism of the government, to have a biased view of where the least valuable speech is coming from, and to connect speech to violence when there is no connection.

Of course, the real accusation is that there is a connection — that “crosshairs” and “bill killing” are not metaphor, but literal proposals, sometimes thinly disguised. That’s absurd.

Or is it?

If there is in reality a recent increment in the use of “violent imagery” by the Right — an assertion not yet, and not easily, proven — whence might it have come? People who talk about “second amendment solutions” are clearly disturbed by something, and are reacting to it.

“There oughta be a law!” is the ultimate in violent threats. The policeman’s gun is not a fashion accessory. It is a direct and pointed threat that violent recourse can and will be taken against persons whose behavior is discountenanced by the law. Similarly, the fact that tax collectors are sometimes unarmed does not make taxes less forceful exactions; it simply means that the taxed are uncomfortably aware of the preponderance of force available to the taxman should his edicts be ignored, and prudently refrain from challenges. Every law, every tax, carries with it the unspoken but definite threat that the overwhelming force of the State will be brought to bear against those who fail to comply. That’s what “enforcement” means.

People who propose laws often prefer not to acknowledge the element of force. There is, they like to pretend, some magical influence that makes the behavior they consider undesirable simply go away upon Act of the Legislature, or that will cause the desired behavior(s) to become the norm upon the signature of the Executive. They are merely Doing Good for the Benefit of All (especially The Children!), and their hands are not besmirched by the least trace of gun-0il.

Bullshit. Hiring people to do violence is not less violent than performing violent acts in propria persona. In fact, it adds another layer to the crime — that of pretending that the intent can be entirely pushed off onto the agent. It is not pacifism. It is pusillanimity, perversity, and the sort of self-righteous fastidiousness that induces the soi-disant “elite” to consider it disgusting and demeaning to have to clean up their own dog’s poop. The agents’ self-defense all too often coincides with the interests of their employers, resulting in mass graves being filled with no fault assignable — the agents were “just following legal orders”, and their employers were “just acting out of necessity”. No foul may be declared, despite evident harm. Everyone involved is wreathed in Pure Virtue (except, of course, the dead, who are exemplars of Pure Evil), and the carrion-stink that might belie that claim is conveniently bulldozed under.

Anyone who proposes a law proposes sending people to enforce it by violence, and there are an unGodly number of laws in existence and proposed which threaten the life, liberty, and property of any number of people. At the moment, such proposals come disproportionately from the leftoids, ranging from Democratic “moderates” to the few but vocal genuine members of the Left. It is they from whom the threats of violence come, and no amount of self-righteous self-justification can any longer conceal it, whether butter will melt in their mouths or no. When violence is proposed — demanded! in the name of Virtue! — it should not be surprising that the response is violent, “imagery” or otherwise.

Norm Geras again addresses “human rights”, in the context of a review by John Gray of Samuel Moyn’s The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History. (I haven’t read the Moyn; I’m responding to Gray, and to Norm.) Gray is a European Leftist of the school that excoriates American intervention in Iraq, and seeks to assign moral repugnance to that intervention, and to George W. Bush and Tony Blair for conceiving it and carrying it out; he uses his review as a springboard to support that assignment. His focus is to deprecate the argument that the intervention secured human rights to Iraqis in some degree, and his method is to deny the very validity of “human rights” as a reasonable proposition. You should read both his essay and Geras’s response before continuing, lest much of this be meaningless.

Geras extracts and numbers eight propositions from Gray’s essay. I balk much earlier than he does, at #2 and #3 taken together. Gray’s formulation (“secured”) makes it clear that he has, like much (if not all) of the Left, confused natural with constructed or [sneer] positive [/sneer] rights. Natural rights can be violated, but have no need to be “secured” — one may kill, thus violating the victim’s right to life, but absent that intervention the right is exercised freely.

It is only the “positive” rights that can ‘only be respected in the context of an effective modern state’. Should a food-producer be so surly and uncooperative as to fail to recognize the “right to nutrition” of another party, it is necessary to send thugs the police to “secure” the “right” by forcing him to disgorge.

#4 is indeed baloney, but neither Norm nor Gray is on point. The essence of natural rights is that a State that avoids violating them is more stable. A State that avoids killing its citizens for trivial reasons is less likely to find that those citizens take up arms against it; a State that does not punish free speech is more likely to hear and address its citizens’ concerns, and thus less likely to require instruments of oppression; a State that does not interfere in the people’s pursuit(s) of happiness is less likely to find itself resented and opposed. Such a State is also likely to be a less uncomfortable neighbor — the tactic of demonizing the folk on the other side of the river in order to distract the people’s attentions from State misbehavior is very old.

It is beyond doubt that a cynical and self-interested apprehension of the last point was one of the motives for the invasion of Iraq. Saddam’s regime was a very uncomfortable neighbor, and relieving that discomfort was one of the motives, perhaps a primary one. Two thoughts occur: First, that I see no moral or ethical objection to a “win-win” in which the Iraqi people benefit as much as or more than the United States does; Second, that people who are still willing (as the Left, especially the European Left, is) to excuse, or even approve, e.g., the USSR’s intervention in Czechoslovakia, made on the ground that the regime thus overthrown was an uncomfortable neighbor, have no standing to criticize another State’s intervention on the same ground.

Every action, from rolling over in bed to launching a thermonuclear war, sets off a chain of events that is in many ways unpredictable and may have a wide range of possible outcomes. In the case of Iraq, the likely range of consequences was bound by, on the one hand, a worst-case result (establishment of a new but equally uncomfortable regime, perhaps theocratic) and a best-case one (creation of a liberal democracy). There is no reason beyond blind political partisanship to suppose that Bush, Blair, et. al., were unaware that the range of possibilities existed, and every reason to suppose that they were aware, since the efforts they directed have consistently aimed for the best case while accepting that a lesser result might be all that could be reasonably achieved. The governing motto is “aim high, at least you won’t shoot your own foot”.

Gray’s points #5 and #6 are, again, based on the necessity for violent intervention to secure “positive rights”, coupled with the notion that the State should have a monopoly on violent intervention; utopian, indeed. #7 is non sequitur, applicable to the case only because of Gray’s purblind partisanship; “politics”, the term subsuming an astonishing range of possible actions, is an inescapable part of anything involving two or more people, and to suppose that any politician is unaware of that says more about the supposer than about his target.

#8, again, confuses natural with “positive” rights. It is in the interest of the State — more properly, in the interest of the individuals who comprise the mechanisms of the State — to recognize the natural rights, because that results in stability, with consequent perpetuation of their powers and perquisites. Framing that as a moral or ethical question is, to my mind, an error precisely because it leads to “positive” rights. An actor within a regime who self-limits his power by refraining from interfering with natural rights can remain relatively secure in that limited position. A member of a regime which must reave away the farmer’s right to his own produce in order to guarantee to others a right to food, or suppress free speech in order to support a right not to be offended, must expect to be resented and therefore opposed, and consequently must seek greater and greater power for himself and the regime in order to overcome the opposition and maintain his position. I submit that addressing it on that pragmatic basis is more likely to achieve a happy result than anything based on ethics, morals, or “compassion”.

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January 2011