Nations, Nationalisms, And The Natal Crime

Patriots and nationalists of many stripes are often committed to the view that a certain kind of nation-building violence was inevitable, and written into the very idea of the nation, into the national fabric as it were; the sanguine acceptance of such violence is ostensibly worth taking on as the price to be paid for the ‘gift’ of the nation–perhaps a home for a perennially wandering people, or a linguistic and cultural and religious community of one kind or the other, perhaps identified with a distinctive geographic location. Such acceptance has always had the uncomfortable implication that an acute incoherence is built into the citizen’s cherished moral creed of the nation and its politics. Its foundation is wrapped up in a holocaust that is part of its national origin, the burden of which all in the nation seem willing to accept with varying degrees of self-awareness.

Nations and their nationalist defenders deploy, in their political rhetoric, tropes that speak to virtue, to the earthly realization via their nation, of otherwise unrealizable moral and mundane goods; this does not preclude their insisting that their citizen defend in their name, all manner of moral atrocities. This incoherence is built into the heart and soul of the nation–and thus its citizens–so that it can force a peculiar and and distinctive dissonance on the part of its subject, rendering them internally incoherent and divided–and reliant upon the psychic support provided by the now valorized and seemingly immortal and indispensable nation. (There are parents who send out their children so ill-equipped, morally and otherwise, to deal with this world and those in it, that the child is soon driven back into the arms of its parents.) The arch critics of nationalism  insist all nations have violence written into their fabric because the nation can only come to being through some act of a national will to power that necessarily involves crushing the ambitions of other aspirations like family life or religious observance or local association. Cults are said to ask their devotees to discard all previous ties; the nation requires that all other commitments take a secondary place in the hierarchy of alliances and duties; the nation must do violence to these other competing claims. The nation is the mother of all cults.

Defending the indefensible is one of the many burdens that nationalism forces us to take on. Perhaps that explains, at least partially, the intensity of wars fought in the national interest: they are continuations of the violence that preceded and heralded them, an expression of acute discomfort, of horror, at the secret that is to be kept; these wars enable the maintenance of an appropriate distance from the scene of the natal crime. They are disavowals of the national crime, made more plausible by accusatory screeds hurled at another–perhaps a kind of ‘reaction formation’ on a  national level.

An entity that sought, and received, the blood of many to water its foundations will not hesitate for it again and again. Our history bears adequate witness to these demands.

Reinhold Niebuhr On The Ethical Permissibility Of Political Violence

In reviewing Reinhold Niebuhr‘s Major Works on Religion and Politics, Adam Kirsch makes note of the following passage from Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society:

If a season of violence can establish a just social system and can create the possibilities of its preservation, there is no purely ethical reason upon which violence and revolution can be ruled out.

Kirsch then goes on to note:

[B]y the end of the book, Niebuhr has retreated from [this position] somewhat. In theory violence might be justified, he argues, but in practice the American proletariat has no more chance of winning a revolutionary struggle than do American blacks. For both of these disinherited groups, Niebuhr concludes, confrontational nonviolence on the Gandhian model is the best course: “Non-violence is a particularly strategic instrument for an oppressed group which is hopelessly in the minority and has no possibility of developing sufficient power to set against its oppressors.”

Here, Niebuhr argues that political violence is ethically permissible but, given a concrete socio-political situation like the American polity–one with its  particular material circumstances pertaining to matters like the power and reach of its law enforcement apparatus, the material deprivation of its underclasses, and the fragmented relationship between them–tactically inadvisable. This is an interesting and important concession and qualification–especially coming from someone like Niebuhr who, because of his status as a Christian theologian, might be imagined to have some predisposition to ruling out violence on ethical grounds.

For what Niebuhr has conceded here, of course, is that in a different socio-political context, political violence might well be tactically advisable. Perhaps the relevant oppressed classes are more politically united–they have been able to build alliances geared toward revolutionary action; perhaps they are better equipped in material terms–with access to mass media and communication and reliable means of economic support. (In the American context, access to ‘weaponry’ takes on a whole new meaning given the militarization of its law enforcement forces and the proliferation of privately owned guns.) Viewed in this fashion, Niebuhr’s views take on a far more pragmatic hue: Revolution and revolutionary violence is a political business; it aims to change the distribution of power in a particular polity; its advisability is a matter of strategy and tactics; nonviolence, in some contexts, may have more revolutionary potential; in yet others, violence may suggest itself as a better political strategy.

Because I have no prima facie case to make against violence as a political tactic per se, I unsurprisingly find myself in agreement with Niebuhr. Doing politics and achieving political ends requires a toolbox; the more varied its contents, the better, for they are more likely to accommodate a diversity of polities and material political contexts.  Those tools find their place in our bag of tricks according to how ‘well’ they work. This ‘wellness’ can be judged in several dimensions; perhaps violence will be judged inadvisable in some context–as above–precisely because it offers little to no chance of success or threatens to produce too many undesirable knock-on effects. Whatever the case may be, our evaluation of our political options proceeds on pragmatic grounds. So-called a priori, ‘foundational,’ ‘first principles’ arguments against our political tools have no place here.

Oscar López Rivera And FALN Were Right: Puerto Rico Is A US Colony

Oscar López Rivera served many years in prison–before finally having his sentence commuted by Barack Obama earlier this year–for having the temerity to suggest that the US treated Puerto Rico like a colony–and that Puerto Ricans should do something about it, including taking violent measures if necessary, a standpoint forced upon them by the systematic exploitation of the island by the mainland. He was right; and recent events have only proved him right all over again.

Puerto Rico lies devastated by Hurricane Maria; its residents lack housing, food, water, medicine, electricity; the lives of many its residents are endangered; but the White House, which has busied itself in recent days with interfering in how a private entity should discipline its employees, has merely sat on its hands and fiddled. Unconscionably, it has refused to suspend the Jones Act thus blocking the delivery of supplies to Puerto Rico by ships not registered the US. Indeed, rather than expediting relief efforts and the supply of aid, the incompetent Chief Executive has merely ranted about Puerto Rico’s debts. His supporters, who probably do not realize Puerto Ricans are American citizens, are not to be blamed; they have figured out, correctly enough, that Puerto Rico is not ‘really’ American:

Puerto Rico has been a US possession since it was “acquired” — in the usual colonial fashion, through armed disputation — from Spain in 1898. Puerto Ricans became US citizens in 1917, just in time for 20,000 “Boricuas” to be drafted to serve in World War I. Almost a century later, Puerto Ricans living on their island are not allowed to vote in presidential elections; Puerto Ricans have attained neither statehood nor independence. Along the way, they have suffered the indignity of a ban — imposed in 1948 — on owning a Puerto Rican flag, singing a “patriotic song,” or advocating for independence. Their curious political status, a “United States territory,” which is not a state, but whose residents are given automatic US citizenship, ensures economic and political exploitation by the “mainland.”

Colonies suffer at the hands of colonizers; callousness and indifference make sure that deliberate malevolent cruelty is not required; it is enough merely to not care. (The English honed this art to a fine degree during their creation of the Great Bengal Famine during the Second World War–millions died then.)

Rivera’s parent organization, the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional  (FALN) took violent measures–between 1974 and 1983–in an attempt to free Puerto Rico from US subjugation; it had figured out that colonizers require unsubtle ‘persuasion’ at times. There is much sanctimonious bewailing when political organizations fighting to liberate occupied lands deploy violence to achieve political ends; when asked to defend their tactics, a straightforward defense is that the occupier forced their hand, that the denudation of the colonized land and its citizens is a violent act that requires a retaliatory response. Consider now the callous indifference with which the US administration has responded to the dire situation in Puerto Rico: the blood of all those who die for lack of water, food, or electricity in hospitals will be on their hands. If a modern-day FALN were to arise and take up arms, only the deliberately obtuse would have the temerity to suggest their violence would be unjustified.

Update: Shortly after I posted this, I heard the news that the Jones Act has been suspended. My broader claim stands; moreover, this belated lifting does nothing to exculpate the initial callous response and rhetoric.

Political Tactics, Antifa, And Punching Nazis

In response to my post ‘Punching Nazis in the Face and Anti-Antifa Critiques‘ a friend of mine offered some critical responses on Facebook; these responses have offered me an opportunity to try to express my original claims more clearly. My responses are below. (Excerpts from my original post are indented in plain text; my friend’s responses are italicized.)

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Punching Nazis In The Face And Anti-Antifa Critiques

A week or so ago, shortly after the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, I asked on my Facebook page: “Is it OK to punch a Nazi in the face? Asking for a Virginian friend.” As might have been expected this semi-serious query sparked an interesting discussion in the course of which one of my friends asked me to clarify on when I thought the use of violence was justified–against the kinds of folks who marched in Charlottesville or against folks like Richard Spencer, who did indeed, get punched in the face. My reply went as follows:

I do think that Nazis create a greater threat than other instance of ideology on two legs, and will amplify and make that threat more manifest in a manner that will prompt violence directed at them – I’m OK with that violence. If I see a Nazi rally in my street, and a couple of goons screaming in my daughter’s face, I will fucking punch them. It it possible then that I will suffer Clanton’s fate, but I will plead in my defense, that I was protecting my daughter from ‘assault.’ And I will have a good legal case for doing so – Nazis, too often, behave in ways that constitute ‘assault’ – technically. They’re asking for punches.

My reply clarifies something about the nature of the so-called ‘violence’ directed at Nazis by Antifa, and responds to the various critiques directed at those who have ‘clashed’ with the various brands of white supremacists who have started to emerge, in increasing numbers, from the woodwork. The following points, I think, are salient, and build on it:

  1. Violence takes many forms; current critiques of Antifa fetishize physical violence, the actual meeting of flesh vs. flesh; they fail to address the violence present in a relentless pattern of intimidation and abuse and overt exertions of power. These critiques are blind in a crucial dimension; they take their eyes off the content and the history of Nazi/white supremacist speech and action; they do not examine their impact of those that bear the brunt of these. The legal definition of ‘assault’ is more catholic: it admits of more forms of violence, and allows for a greater range of actions in response.
  2. For many folks, the sight of Nazis marching in the streets, calling them sub-human, demanding they leave their homes and ‘go back’ to where ‘they came from,’ is already assault. Nazis don’t offer political critique: they reduce my humanity. (Read the Daily Stormer if you doubt this.) If they attempt to do that to my daughter, I will not wait for them to start swinging. I’ll start swinging first; there is, no, I repeat, no, talking with Nazis. I will not allow my daughter to be ‘assaulted’ by Nazis; more to the point, I will not rely on the goodwill of the police or the state to protect me. They have already made clear they will not defend my family or me. The daily news assures me of their non-cooperation in this matter. Indeed, I expect that they will stand by and let violence be done to me.
  3. Unsurprisingly most objections to the Antifa originate in ‘moderate whites’–the same folks that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described as being the greatest barrier to the civil rights  movement–these folks do not feel physically threatened in the same way that people of color are when Nazis and white supremacists march through their neighborhoods; they have not been subjected to the daily rituals of aggression that people of color are. They do not have their accent remarked on, they are not asked to repeat themselves, they are not subjected to relentless, ignorant queries that betray a lack of cultural sensitivity and an overwhelming ignorance that is anything but benign. Sexism, racism, misogyny, transphobia, Islamophobia; these all exert a daily toll that most ‘moderate whites’ do not experience or understand. As James Baldwin pointed out a long time ago, thanks to segregation, which continues today, most whites know nothing about their fellow black citizens; they do not know what they feel, how they feel, what they think or how they think. Offering political advice on  how to conduct protests to this community is an act of political hubris. So is offering political advice to those who, by their actions, act to reduce the daily intimidation experienced by people of color.
  4. Every single call to denounce the Antifa and their tactics abdicates political agency: if the Antifa do X, then our political opponents will do Y, and we can do nothing about it. There the discussion stops; there is no talk of whether there are any substantive countermoves to Y. The propaganda countermeasures that say that violence on ‘both sides’ will be condemned cannot be combated; the state’s crackdown–now justified because of Antifa’s violence–cannot be resisted. Our only option is acquiescence in the face of precisely those some propaganda countermeasures and the same state crackdown that are already visible today. Here, the moderate white’s imagination breaks down. He cannot imagine a political move in response; all is lost. The ‘other’ will act, and ‘we’ will simply be subject to their actions. We, through our actions and speech, can do nothing in response. This is not political critique; this is surrender.
  5. This is a country in the grip of an ongoing large-scale human rights violation and moral atrocity called ‘mass incarceration’; in this country, police can arrest, assault, harass, imprison, and kill people of color at whim with no accountability; this is the world in which ‘moderate whites’ want the antifa to be treated as morally equivalent to the marching Nazis and for those who seek to combat their violence. In this country, white supremacists control the government and its other branches; here, the moderate white would like the Antifa to keep on marching, keep on checking to see if the ‘moderate white’ approves of their tactics–the moderate white will continue to wait for the non-existent perfect protest, made at the right time, in the right place, in the right way.
  6. Here is a thought experiment concerning 1930s Germany: What would have happened if German Antifa had indeed come out swinging against the Nazis? What if every time the Nazis had held a rally, they had been greeted, not just with overwhelming numbers, but with a swift punch to the face every time one of them opened their mouths to pronounce their murderous ideology? What if that ‘violence’ had indeed overwhelmed the Nazis in Germany? Perhaps the problem with the violence directed against the Nazis in 1930s Germany was that there simply was not enough of it. Twelve years later, German cities had to be reduced to ashes.

American Exceptionalism And Political Violence

Adam Shatz offers some interesting thoughts on dreaming of political violence in the Age of Trump-Bannon:

It’s notable how easily violent thoughts have come to those of us who have known only a single, and much contested, month of the Trump-Bannon era. American exceptionalism may be dead, but it lives on as a habit of mind…in the unprecedented horror we imagine ourselves to be experiencing….It might be useful to think about these fantasies in wider terms, as a way of trying to understand the citizens of other countries, particularly those whom Americans have for the most part refused to sympathise with. We might try, for example, to understand why Palestinians have carried out violent attacks against the people who have occupied them for…half a century. They have been under military rule, without recourse to elections or a fair legal system, much less citizenship, for roughly 600 times as long as we have been under Trump.

Indeed. And we would do well too, to look inwards and closer as well, at the state of communities that have already, for ages now, suffered the kind of political and legal regime we imagine the Trump-Bannon era to resemble. The crisis of mass incarceration and the systematic evisceration of the US Constitution that it has both relied upon and facilitated provides the grimmest reminder that arbitrary search and seizure, detention, arrest, show trials, and cruel prison sentences are already the norm for some American citizens. Innocents make plea deals that send them to jail for years; families are torn asunder; no one reading the formidable corpus of literature on America’s prison and penal system, or the manifestos issued by Black Lives Matter, would imagine that much worse could happen to a black American in the Trump-Bannon era. The heavy-handed knock on the door in the middle of the night at the end of which a young man goes missing, and sometimes ends up dead in police custody? Been there, done that. The road-stop followed by the gunshot, which leaves an unarmed man dead? Been there, done that too. The ACLU received $24 million in donations in the weekend following the issuing of the disastrous ‘Muslim ban’ Trump executive order; it certainly could have used some of those dollars in holding the tide against the assault on the Constitution that drug warriors have been mounting for close to over three decades now.

Why, again, would such an openly declared war not provoke fantasies of violence? America is lucky, very lucky, that the millions of guns floating around in its cities and suburbs have not yet been turned against the armed constabularies who, on the pretext of conducting a War on Drugs, have felt free to promiscuously wage war against entire demographics instead.

The Trump-Bannon era calls for resistance, and resisted it will be. But let us not imagine that this era is exceptional, that the political and legal crisis it showcases is. To do so would be to lapse all too easily to facile self-congratulation, and to let the real work remain undone.

The Trump Rally In Chicago Was Not ‘Shut Down’

The Donald Trump rally in Chicago on March 11th was not ‘shut down.’ It was called off by Trump himself, a decision for which the Chicago Police stated they had not extended any support (they did not consider the situation to be out of hand.) The protesters showed up in numbers thanks to advance organization, and were greeted in the same way all protesters are at Trump rallies–with abuse, and threats of violence. But this time, the protesters were different; they had come in numbers and were much, much louder. And there is strength in numbers, which means that the same bullying which saw single, isolated protesters get beaten, abused, mocked, and ultimately ejected from other Trump rallies, ran up against a wall of locked arms and even louder chants. Violence against such numbers quickly fades from viability: if anyone had dared throw a sucker punch at a protester, it would have been responded to with ten punches. Bullying works when you have superior numbers and/or perceived or actual strength. When you don’t, you get bullied right back. Bullies always, always, back off when they are first confronted with anything resembling a credible threat. Trump behaved like all bullies do when an ostensible victim fought back – he ran for the hills.

One reaction to these events is that the protest and the ‘shutting down’ plays into Trump’s electoral strategy: he can play the role of victim, claim his right to free speech is being infringed (an idiotic claim because–other than in exceptional cases–First Amendment rights cannot be infringed by private actors), and enable him to fire up his ‘base.’ Now, it can’t possibly be a consequence of this position that no one should protest at Trump’s rallies–that would have had the ironic effect of shutting down Trump opponents’ rights to protest. This suggests there are only two options for protesters. Either loners show up to to protest and get beaten and abused as before, or for safety’s sake, masses show up as in Chicago, provoke loud, angry responses, and Trump shuts down again. In that case, he will keep whining like a bully, perhaps his base will be ‘energized’ and they will become more ugly, which might in turn lead other Trump-opponents becoming even more turned off by him, and possibly becoming more ‘energized’ in turn. Or, perhaps protesters could protest outside Trump rallies, and not inside their venues. But in that case,  my guess is that those protesters would still be attacked and abused by Trump supporters–remember, this is a crowd that has been fed possibly illegal incitements to violence from Trump for a while now. Either there are ‘rumbles’ inside, or they will happen outside. That’s what Trump folks do. And if there is a rumble, I suspect the protesters will fight back–if they have the numbers–and take the chance that the Trump rally will be ‘shut down’ and for that fact to be blamed on them.

The claim that the Trump campaign got what it wanted, and that therefore, loud mass protests at Trump rallies should cease misses out on the fact that Trump opponents also got what they wanted: a demonstration of unity and capacity to mobilize, and strength in numbers, . They too will get ‘endless publicity;’ they too know how to manipulate social media.

This is democratic politics–messy, crude, with all its rough edges–in action. People speak, people protest. Democracy would be absent if the government intervened and threw people into jail just for speaking their minds. Those who have been inciting violence for months now bear all the responsibility for the curvature of the arc that has tended from speech to violence.