Politics as Outrage

During the lead up to the Ford/Kavanaugh hearing, a source called the City Journal, referred to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand as “the Madame Defarge of New York.” Madame Defarge is Dicken’s vengeful knitting woman, who seeks to punish the innocent as well as the guilty in A Tale of Two Cities, and it is a remarkable take on where we are in our times. Dicken’s captures the mood of the French revolution and the massacre following. This analogy is apt, we are in many ways repeating steps that have led to bloodshed in the past. I’ve noted on this blog two separate points, the first that we thirst for a justice we cannot achieve on this earth because of human limitations. Secondarily, I noted the issue that modern society gives no room for forgiveness. The repercussion of this is that anger and hate; stored to become bitterness and wrath, are the growing motivational force in American politics.

 

The thing about modern American anger is it has become an issue in both parties, Conservatives and Republicans have sometimes stated they like the fact that “Trump fights back,” that is, Trump deals with Democratic party members and constituency groups the way democrats have dealt with Republican party members and constituency groups for several decades. That is, Donald Trump exemplifies the political rhetoric of Maxine Waters or Sheila Jackson Lee; this is something that, I think, is often being missed in discussions of Trump’s twitter account; it is unacceptable to argue that some people are human trash, whatever else may be true about the state of our immigration policies, it is equally unacceptable to declare half of Americans to be part of the “basket of deplorables.” As Scripture warns us in Matthew 7:2-3, we will be measured with the measuring stick we use to measure others. This, along with the way he has treated women, and his actions in the Republican primaries are leading reasons why I voted for a third party candidate in the last presidential election. Death threats, doxing, and mobs, and other forms of intimidation have become weapons of choice, Charlottesville, Berkley, Portland and other cities are seeing politically motivated violence; others seek to use mobs to shut down traffic and commerce, often with threatening behavior. Republican Congressmen have been shot at, target by a far-left extremist. The group we once called the alt-right and “antifa” are forming militias, similar to the SA and the KDP aligned Red Front in the 20’s of Germany. Where once, “No Justice, no Peace” was a slogan, hinting and threatening violence, that violence is now a small, but growing reality.

 

This becomes greater when we consider that this is true in the academy as well. One of the major movements influencing politics and education in discussions of the “politicization of the humanities,” is something known as “critical theory.” Critical theory is an application of an approach to ethics known as a “genealogical approach” which is largely descended from Nietzsche, but has been further adapted by writers such as Fouchault and socialists thinkers. Nietzsche argued that morality was a means for the weak to control the strong (his “ubermensch” which unlike the Nazi adaptation, is not a racial category). That is, to Nietzsche, morality is an illusion, but it can be used as a means to power. Nietzsche was, himself, rather critical of morality, but Fouchault adapted this thought to communist ideas, arguing initially that moral codes are a form of oppression by the strong, and in doing so seems to be making moral pronouncements to make play for his own power. Critical theory has adapted this approach, some recognize that they are themselves not making a moral argument, but they are aiming at destroying whatever they can of western culture and heritage (including Christianity), to build something new. This appears, however, to be lost among others, who do seem to think they are arguing for some type of morality, and fail to appreciate the absurdity of building an ethic from a line of argumentation that denies morality’s existence. Marxist scholars, who impose a view of class warfare on questions of morality and history have had a similar impact. But while critical theory is absurd, it seems to fan the flames of students, who then fan the flames in the streets.

 

Modern students aren’t arguing for a dispassionate live and let live relativist position, as was the left in the past. Increasingly, students at higher and higher levels believe it is just to use violence to silence speech, usually speech by the right, and increasingly students are in situations where they are intimidating professors about matters of curriculum among other things. The words “Nazi” and “Fascist” are used with less of an eye towards the Nazi and Fascist worldviews, and have become merely a new buzzword to drive people into hysteria.

 

Some will argue that I am merely picking on the left here, but as I noted before, there is a thread of pragmatism in the Trump age; the group that was called the “alt-right” will adapt these tools as we enter a phase of escalations reminiscent of Clausewitz. Antifa’s use of violence in Berkley and other places has led to the beginnings of “alt right” groups that are presenting themselves in the same light. Groups such as the “Knights of the Alt Right” present themselves as protectors of peaceful protestors, hoping to attack their rivals. Alt-right websites hint at violence, perhaps trying to draw antifa into making moves to hurt them in the press; either way it is the right’s version of “No Justice, No Peace.” Therefore, we will likely see similar protests against controversialists on the left being invited to speak in various venues, on the grounds that what is good for the goose is good for the gander. What the age of Trump proves is that the type of incivility used by left can be used against the left. There will come a point when the response to Republican senators being harassed in restaurants will be the harassment of democratic senators. Both sides have what they believe to be legitimate grievances that can be stoked for votes. What has been sown to the wind, is being reaped by the whirlwind.

 

We are spiraling towards a civil war that may be unavoidable, we are moving towards a violent clash as mob will be matched by mob. There are steps that can be taken, but only in a bilateral way. Rebuilding civility will require a de-escalation by both sides rather than calls for unilateral rhetorical disarmament as we see now, but I do not see that happening anytime soon. There are philosophically incommensurable differences between the new left and the right, differences that, alone may leave us with the choice between a national split or a civil war. Yet these intellectual differences cannot move forward in a debate or a peaceful secession of states with the current emotionally charged political climate.

 

But then, when you move into a society that has such a limited understanding of justice that it is  vested solely in human beings, can it be any other way? The primal need for justice cannot be adequately met by human beings. And when a worldview has given itself no grounds for forgiveness or mercy, what else can we expect? When government is given the role of God in a worldview, how can we anticipate anything other than a fevered hysteria, appealing to such a fickle deity? In short, the erosion of Christianity is at the heart of the decay of the civil society; we are a post-truth society wallowing in the misery of our human limitations.

The Quality of Mercy–and Forgiveness–is not Strained

The quality of mercy is not strained; It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes: ‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes The throned monarch better than his crown: His sceptre shows the force of temporal power, The attribute to awe and majesty, Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings; But mercy is above this sceptred sway; It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings, It is an attribute to God himself; And earthly power doth then show likest God’s When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew, Though justice be thy plea, consider this, That, in the course of justice, none of us Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy; And that same prayer doth teach us all to render The deeds of mercy. William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8

 

The title of the article might consider this a further in a series articles written about the Kavanaugh hearings. To be fair, that is the news of the day, and led to three articles, one on this site, one on a new sister site. But the quality of forgiveness and mercy, in a sense, has nothing to do with Kavanaugh; we cannot say a belief that Kavanaugh is guilty is justified, the case against him extremely thin, and if he is guilty there has been no request for forgiveness nor repentance. But, in another sense, it has everything to do with the social fabric that is revealed in  the public reactions by many in our post-Christian culture.

We live in a society that is increasingly being marked by paradoxes; we talk about the need for “rehabilitation” in criminal cases, but whatever might be the discussion, such a plan has been a total failure, creating an overcrowded penal system that seems to make people increasingly animalistic. The prison system seems to be based on the failed Platonic notions that ethical problems are rooted in ignorance, rather than in the human heart. We no longer talk of people paying their debts to society, this would be to give into the “primitive” ideas of retribution, and then we treat those same guilty persons as if they are still in debt to society. In some cases, the debt seems almost unpayable, and would seem to leave suicide as the only reasonable, honorable action for crimes long past their date of commitment. Physical punishment and quick executions are considered less humane than an extended social ostracism, decades in length. One of CS Lewis’s lesser known essay, “The Humanitarian Case for Punishment.”

Of course, we speak much of the need for societal forgiveness for those who have made “mistakes” in their lives, the need for those with felony records to be able to engage in meaningful, legal employment, usually in the form of a request for someone else to do something. Those deemed worthy of forgiveness also seem to be considered worthy of mercy because of sentiments of class and lack of privilege rather than a general principle of forgiveness. That is, we have more arguments that felons engaged in violence (unless it is violence against women and children) should receive societal mercy (whatever the endangerment this might entail to society) then arguments that white collar criminals should receive mercy, the original sin, the unforgiveable action of modern America no longer an action, but class based perceptions, based on questionable historical claims. In short, forgiveness is a political weapon for those influenced by critical theorists to use against enemies, not an ethical duty, or societal necessity.

In part, this is because a post-Christian society has no sufficient basis for forgiveness, within naturalism this makes sense. In many cases, a debt cannot be repaid, because a victim cannot actually be made whole. The PTSD of a survivor of sexual assault cannot simply be healed by an apology, nor can the mother or spouse of a murder victim have their child restored by repentance, there is a lack of wholeness, fueled by the natural human tendency to believe in the justness of our own actions.

This is a change, and is fueled by two things we have lost as a Post-Christian society. First, we have a different view of ourselves, in a personal sense. Christians believe that men are, by nature, basically evil, the modern believes, at least in practice, that man is basically good but some live in a bad system, but then also denies that the concept of good or evil have any real meaning. Determinism is the root of much current thought, we are machines, merely the biological automata, programmed by primarily by our genes and our habitat, freewill is merely an illusion, a useful fiction. This is as true in arguments for criminal actions as it is for the more well known arguments for human sexuality. The Christian knows better, and says “but by Christ, there go I.” This can descend to the paradox of pride in one’s humility, but is important in how we view others. The Christian sees the murderer, the sex offender, the addict, and, in admitting Christianity is true, must admit that the same problems that led this man or woman to their crimes, that is, we recognize our own hearts are made of the same degenerate spiritual stuff as the hearts of unbelievers. True humility is in remembering, we aren’t as good, great or righteous as we tend to think we are, and therefore by grace we extend grace to others.

The second thing that has been lost is the understanding of the atonement, that God became man, to atone for the sins of men. This means that whatever punishment for my sins, or anyone else, I can point to the sacrifice of something immeasurably greater. This combines, as well, with the above. I forgive, because I also am, by grace, a fugitive from God’s justice, and yet, I have obtained mercy, as the unjust in the transaction with the Just.