Saturday, October 21, 2017

Politics and Language in the Time of Trump: Left-Wing Clichés Must Also Go

"Carthage Must Be Destroyed!"
— Bumper-sticker version for
"Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam"
of Cato the Obsessive Elder

         One of my standard lines is that it’s bad enough that people don’t listen to what others are saying but too often we don’t even listen to what we ourselves say. Lately — like for most of my life and back to, say, the Roman Republic — this has been particularly bad on the war-loving Right; we on the Left, however, have our own issues.

         I got thinking about one of our cliches repeated by a schoolchild and answered by one of Robert A. Heinlein’s barely sufferable Men of Authority, in this case inStarship Troopers (1959): the idea that violence or war never solves anything. The authority figure tells the girl to tell that to the elders of Carthage. And here Heinlein moves into fantasy and has a near-future schoolchild know that Carthage Has Been Destroyed. Roman warfare solved their Carthaginian problem as it later solved their Jewish problem at Masada and with the other massacres and what more recent generations with a cleanliness fetish would call “ethnic cleansing.”

         What could be brought up against Heinlein’s militaristic pedant is the ancient historical tradition of dating the decline of the Roman Empire precisely to the moment they killed off the competition with the destruction of Carthage: an argument I find both macho and moralistic (and unconvincing), but it is out there.

         Better, I think, to introduce the small “m” machiavellian note that getting your way by killing people is a game any number can play and part of protecting your city would be a doctrine that whole cities and civilizations shouldn’t be destroyed too casually. More generally, progress would include increasing acceptance of the idea that even people with power shouldn’t kill other people unless they/we really, really have to. As the true Law is laid down by a wise old hermit more nuanced than the pedants of Starship Troopers, “[…] you mustn’t kill unless you must kill. And hardly even then” (Ursula K. Le Guin, City of Illusion (ch. 3).

         If warfare didn’t have its uses, the world, on average, would be a safer and nicer place. Although a whole lot of people would need to be effective at nonviolent resistance since there are other horrors besides war and smaller-scale violence. As Hannah Arendt has said in a argument mostly against violence: “under certain circumstances violence, which is to act without argument or speech and without reckoning with consequences, is the only possibility of setting the scales of justice right again.”

         Ian Morris suggests we should take seriously the rhetorical question (and song) , “War! What Is It Good For?” War does have its practical — as in historical, long term — uses. Better we should think of war and violence in the dangerous but necessary terms of good and evil: Killing people is always evil; killing, wounding, maiming and traumatizing people in masses, destroying the products of human labor and craft and art is evil, and to be chosen as a method consciously, with fear and trembling, and only when its the least evil choice. And indeed, as Le Guin’s hermit says, “not “unless you must […]. And hardly even then.”

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