Sunday, January 30, 2011

Earth & Sky - An Historical Obituary for Bishop Ruiz of Chiapas.

Samuel Ruiz Garcia, bishop emeritus of Chiapas, died last Monday at age 87 of cardio-pulmonary complications. In the United States, Ruiz was eclipsed by the more Romantic image of Subcomandante Marcos, the poster-boy guerilla of Zapatista Liberation Army (EZLN). However, Ruiz’s socio-religious mission was more fundamentally radical and, among the Indians themselves, he is remembered with sorrow and gratitude.

Ruiz joins a long procession of Catholic priests and prelates who fought on behalf of the Indians for the humanity of us all. His efforts to enfranchise the indigenous Maya communities was rooted in a Christian option for the poor without which the present day struggle for “liberation” cannot be understood. The mandate of that option is at the core of the Ibero-Indian encounter and exists to provoke the torpor of the First World.

As everyone knows, Queen Isabel of Spain financed Columbus’s mission to the New World in order to evangelize whatever peoples might be encountered. But within years of 1492 the worser beasts of man’s nature had annihilated the Indians of Hispaniola and Spanish settlers were hard at work enslaving the natives of Venezuela.

The Spanish friars were appalled and, on 21 December 1511, the Dominican Antonio Montesinos pronounced his famous Advent Sermon:

“By what authority have you committed such detestable wars against these peoples who were inhabiting these lands so prosperously and pacifically? ... Are these not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not obliged to love them as you love yourselves? ... Do you not understand? Have you no senses? How can you subsist in such a deep and lethargic sleep?"

He then pronounced judgement,

“Know then that you are all in mortal sin and in sin you live and in sin will die on account of the cruelty and tyranny with which you abuse these innocent people.” [1]

Montesinos took his campaign to Spain and in 1512 the Crown decreed the Laws of Burgos which imposed a trusteeship (“encomienda”) on the Spanish settlers making them responsible individually and collectively for the material welfare, education and religious salvation of the indigenous people. [2]

Needless to say, the settlers soon found ways to abuse the encomienda so that within 20 years the same Dominicans who had proposed the system fought to abolish it.

But as important as its immediate success was the theological impetus behind the reform. In Montesino’s words inhere all the sum and substance of the Church’s present day “Liberation Theology” and of its utopianism throughout the centuries. [3]

Three words are key: authority, soul, sin.

The bedrock of Montesino’s denunciation was the premise that the Indian had a soul; i.e. he was a human being entitled to all the natural rights and spiritual benefits human welfare needs and human dignity desires. If seeming humans do not have souls then they are reduced to exploitable objects. Today we might prefer to speak of “empowerment” and “depersonalization” but the reality being spoken is the same. Either there is a law that applies to all nations or there isn’t; either only our tribe is human or we exist in the “other.” It is a crucible question.

Whatever side they were on, the Spanish understood that this was the most fundamental issue of all and, throughout the 16th century, they threw themselves into the fray. Jesuits like Francisco Vitoria [4] and Francisco Suarez revived Greco-Roman concepts of natural rights, read them into Scripture and applied them to the New World. It is to them that we are directly indebted for our present day ideas of international humanitarian law. [5]

In the end, the King Charles V prohibited the enslavement of the Indian (1530) and Pope Paul III reaffirmed (1537) that Indians had souls, were entitled to the Sacraments, including marriage, and were, in short, citizens. [6]

The Pope’s decree went further and denounced “the enemy of the human race, who opposes all good deeds” and who had inspired his minions to claim that the Indians “should be treated as dumb brutes created for our service, pretending that they are incapable of receiving the Catholic Faith.”

But that was not the end of it. If the natives had souls and had been living peaceably among themselves (as noted by Pope Alexander V in 1493), the next question was: by what authority were the Spaniards setting foot on these American lands at all? [7]

The Battle over “authority” was taken up by Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, Ruiz’s first predecessor as Bishop of Chiapas. Politically correct academics have completely misunderstood what Las Casas was about. Taking his reports of cruelties at face value, they have sought to fit the events into the mold of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This distortion satisfies three urges: a paternalistic desire to rescue the Indian (a sentimental variant of the white man’s burden), indulgence in Anglo-American prejudice against the Spaniard or, alternatively, a resentful victimology against all Europeans.

Las Casas never published a ‘history’. He wrote a brief, which Cromwellian spies got ahold of and published by way of propaganda salvo to justify the English ‘liberation’ of Jamaica -- a liberation which immediately resulted in the importation into Jamaica of thousands of African slaves. [8]

As pointed out by Kenneth Pennnington, Las Casas was a lawyer and he was making an argument in the King’s council against Spanish authority in the New World. Under medieval law, unjust war acquired no rights. In order for war or conquest to acquire lawful possession it had to be waged on just provocation against occupiers who themselves had committed some wrong. If on the other hand, the original occupiers had been “wholly innocent” then conquest was unjust and no authority was thereby acquired. [9]

It was a stunning gambit. Las Casas was telling the King that his writ did not run to America. But if not the King’s, whose writ then? Las Casas was clear: the Church as trustee (encomendero) for the Indian over all the Americas.

It has to be remembered that, in this critical and transitional period, the nation state had not yet been fully birthed. The world was governed by “competent authorities” each in their own sphere. Church versus Crown had been at it for 1000 years and Las Casas was going for the ultimate gold.

As good lawyers do, Las Casas ‘adjusted’ his facts to the legal theory of his case. Not only was the Indian ‘wholly innocent’ but the Spaniard was ‘entirely sinful’. Thus had it to be if the Church were to establish a Brave New Theocracy -- the Civitas Dei -- in the New World.

To say as much is not to deny that abuses and cruelties were committed; it is only to say that a very mixed reality was turned into a legal polemic.

This is also not to say that Las Casas did not really care about the Indian -- he most emphatically did. It is rather to say that he was not fighting for a species of charity but for a broader more fundamental concept of the state.

Las Casas did not win his brief, but the ‘consolation’ prize was nothing to sneer at. Montesinos and Las Casas established a moral benchmark that power lacked legitimacy in direct correlation to its oppression of the weak.

Throughout the colonial period, church radicals would invoke this standard which ultimately become became known as the Church’s “preferential option for the poor” and a key tenet of 20th Liberation Theology.

It bears emphasis that when Montesinos or Las Casas coupled 'authority' with 'sin 'and 'tyranny' they were not speaking solely in individual terms. They were indicting collective action and social constructs that denied reciprocity of rights and aspirations to an entire class of people.

A sort of stupid Voltairian literalism blinds us to what our ancestors were saying. Although the talk is of souls, sacraments and sins the subject matter was what it is today: human dignity within an ordered system of social justice.

Nevertheless, in the intervening 500 years, the record of the Church as a whole was nothing if not equivocal. It appears that the clergy identified with whichever flock they happened to be closest to. The hierarchy in the cities and capitals identified with the oligarchical establishment; the clergy in the fields and villages with the poor and the oppressed. It could be said, very generally, that the urban hierarchy proved itself as obscenely reactionary as the clerical “Jacobins” were heroically humanistic.

Among the radicals were the likes of Bishop Vasco de Quiroga of Michoacan who established (1536) indigenous communities modeled on Thomas Moore’s Utopia and later 18th century Jesuit millenarians who revived the agenda with the ‘Reductions’ of Bolivia and Paraguay (popularized by the movie The Mission). [10], [11]

Mission in Paraguay

Sometimes clerics got too radical. Although Mexico’s post-Revolution, pro-atheist ruling party, the PRI, did its best to gloss over the fact, the twin heroes of the Mexican War of Independence, Hidalgo and Morelos, were both priests who had resorted to the sword.

It was precisely that resort that had the Vatican worried. Although the “preferential option for the poor” became official Church policy in 1983 [12], the Vatican’s condemnation of Liberation Theology was made on the ground that if the sins of the rich were interpreted collectively so as to give rise to a postulated endemic class conflict then the Church’s “preferential option” became simply a code word for a resort to violence. [13]

The worry arose precisely because the ‘sin’ of the system is so utterly obscene. The poverty is so desperate, so revolting, that is almost impossible for a man or woman of good will not to feel that opting for the poor impels a resort to arms, like Jesus’ outrage at the Temple money changers or Yaweh’s collective punishment of Sodom’s “prosperous ease, which did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49).

How is class war avoidable if, as Paul III wrote, the oppressors are the minions of the enemy of the human race?

The dilemma got catalyzed in Yucatan and Guatemala, because the history of the Maya is among the worst in Indo-Ibero relations.

After 12 years of bloody warfare, the Spanish conquered most of Yucatan in 1541. Almost immediately the settlers began to enslave the Indians and just as immediately the Franciscans began their abolitionist agitation resulting in yet another royal decree (1549) prohibiting slavery in the peninsula.

But exploitation ensued by other means triggering uprisings in 1610-33, 1636-44, 1653, 1669, 1670. The principal grievance was the burden and abuse of fees, taxes and conscript labor (‘repartimiento’) -- the same types of abuses that led to the French Revolution.

Arriving in 1722, and moved by the Maya’s pitiful complaints, Bishop Juan Gomez Parada initiated a successful campaign to reform and mitigate the servitudes. In 1728, beloved by the Indians whom he had defended, Parada died. Within years the former harsh conditions were reimposed triggering another revolt in 1761 which was brutally suppressed. [14]

In 1847 Yucatecan Maya rose up again, setting in motion the 75 year, intermittent "War of the Castes." For a while, the Maya almost took over the entire peninsula but, in 1901, the Mexican Army launched a major campaign and re-established national control. [15]

Following the 1910-1920 Revolution, Mexico’s corporatist, quasi social-democratic government adopted a new approach aimed at incorporating the Maya into the broader economy and national life. Of key importance was the teaching of Spanish. The Maya didn’t bite. From their perspective, the “Mexican” government was just as foreign as the “Spanish” and being “incorporated” was noting they were interested in. The result was a “benign oppression” under the banner of reform and rehabilitation which was simply a modern, secular version of forced conversion.

Because forced conversions of any sort treat the subject of rehabilitation as an object they are heteronomously self-defeating. Even if subjectively well intentioned, they only compound the underlying oppression.

It was the same ol’ same ol’. The ultimate result of the PRI’s interventions was the promotion of industrial agriculture at the expense of campesinos and the fragmentation of the Maya into those who got coopted into government policies and those who resisted being dispossessed from their communal land holdings (ejidos).

It was into this historical and theological “dialectic” that Ruiz walked as very young newly appointed bishop in 1960.

Ruiz came from Guanajuato, one of Mexico’s more conservative and Spanish cities. Appointed by Pope John Paul II, he himself was theologically conservative. By his own account, he was radicalized almost over night seeing Indians used as beasts of burden and at the same time being prohibited from walking on sidewalks.

However, Ruiz rejected the paternalistic paradigm. He began the fight against material poverty by recognizing the freedom and dignity of the Maya to express his Catholic faith in an “autochthonous” (self-originating) indigenous manner. (Ruiz, Indian Theology.) [16]

Open Air Chapel in southern State of Oaxaca

This was not a new idea. Throughout southern Mexico there exist the remains of vast open air chapels constructed because, for the Indians, it made no sense to worship other than on earth under open skies. The earliest 16th century missionaries had allowed extraordinary liturgical liberties to the newly converted Indians until the Church, afrighted by the Reformation, put an end to all risky innovations. [17] Ruiz revived these earlier liturgies and juxtaposed Gregorian chants with zampango rythms and prayers in Tztotzil and Tzeltal. [18]

In line with his concept of a grass roots “Indian Theology,” Ruiz ordained 300 married deacons to assist in the process of evangelization. It was Ruiz’s expectation that these deacons would become the vanguard of a communitarian self-awareness which, thus legitimized, could coalesce around political and economic objectives of its own making. (Ruiz, Hora de Gracia § 5.1) The ecclessial Church, with its expertise, contacts and resources, could then assist in the process political self-expression, economic development and social assistance. (§ 5.3) [19]

It was all a post-Vatican II variant of “The Mission”.

The almost automatic reflex of well-disposed outsiders is to eulogize Ruiz as having helped ‘marginalized’ Indians. To say as much incorrectly assumes that the end-game was to ‘incorporate’ the Maya into the globalized economy of the capitalist nation state. Ruiz’s aim was rather for the larger society to recognize the cultural, political and economic legitimacy of the indigenous communities.

Equally short of the mark are encomiums which laud Ruiz for ‘mediating’ between the Government and the Indians. In some instances Ruiz’s role did indeed fall into the normal context of brokering between rival factions or parties. What tends to get overlooked in the North is that, where the goal of one party is the annihilation of the other, negotiation is, in itself, a victory.

It is sometimes forgotten that, throughout Central America in the second half of the 20th century, the War of the Castes was continued by other means with CIA-backed, ‘anti-communist’ dictatorships slaughtering literally hundreds of thousands of Maya. [20]

Thus, when in 1995 a Chase Manhattan Bank memo advised that "[t]he government will have to eliminate the Zapatistas to demonstrate their effective control of the national territory and security policy,” it was no small matter to get the government to sit at a table instead. [21]

Nor was it an “incidental” matter to work for the unity and reconciliation among the rival groups in Chiapas, given that to do so ran exactly counter to the PRI’s divisive policies.

Ruiz himself rejected being characterized as an advocate for any one faction or even on behalf of “the” Indians. “The so called ‘Indian problem’," he said, “is an international problem.”

Ruiz was proved right when, ensuing upon the passage of NAFTA, world corn prices fell through the floor and the Mexican farmer -- Maya and other - were driven into destitution. He supported the political theater of the Zapatistas to the extent that their aim was “to shake up the socio-political conscience” of Mexican citizens and world opinion as a whole.

In all of this, Ruiz skillfully played off his opponents. Needless to say, the reactionary church hierarchy in Mexico City tried to snag him into heresy and get him deposed. But Ruiz never broke the envelope and for every accusation, he wryly quoted some supportive passage from Canon Law or a papal encyclical. When the Vatican was on the verge of recalling him, 20,000 Indians demonstrated in his favor. It was too much for the Curia and the end result was a palaver of favorable words from John Paul II himself.

In a way the best eulogy of Ruiz came from Subcomandante Marcos himself. A university educated “niño bien” ('fair haired boy'), Marcos arrived in La Selva with a back-pack full of socialist wisdom and a burning desire to “enlighten” the natives. The result was a series of long “Declarations” in the usual “dialectal style” that had a devoted readership among a certain class in Mexico City, Berkeley, Paris and perhaps Barcelona. But Marcos was more than a mere dogmatic. He later confessed “I came thinking I had something to teach the Indians, when in fact it was they who had something to teach us.”

Did Ruiz succeed? In an immediate sense? Of course not. In Hispanic America only “the enemy” succeeds. But he continued a long and vigorous tradition of opting for the poor and in doing so he cleared a path for Indians to reclaim their dignity. That was no small victory.


But given a voice, what did the Indians "teach us" -- how to dance and grow corn in small villages? It is an unsentimental but necessary question. The answer, I believe, is that the Zapatistas became an “argument in the flesh” which corrected Church doctrine and challenged the socio-economic paradigm of the West.

The point of departure for Liberation Theology was Luke’s Magnifcat, in which the Virgin Mary exclaims:

"He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty." (Luke 13:45-55)

This was more than a preference for the poor, it was a preference against the rich. It was as 'dialectical' as one could get and hearkened to God’s destruction of Sodom not merely to his deliverance of Israel from Egypt. For the indigenous of the Americas, Mary is not only a ‘goddess’ of compassion and regeneration; she represents triumph over power.

Radicals insisted that the Magnificat enjoined us to assist in casting down the mighty. Conservatives cited other scriptures, such as “rendering unto Caesar,” to support their contention that Christian meekness owed obedience to authority, whatever its character, because whatever is exists with God’s assent.

Strongly opposed to Liberation Theology, then Cardinal Ratzinger argued that the ‘liberation’ and ‘poverty’ spoken of in Scripture were ‘spiritual’ and referred to a subjective inner disposition. [13, supra] The argument was untenable; and, to see its flaw, it helps to return again to the 16th century.

In 1562 while the Franciscan friar Bernadino Sahagun was assiduously translating all Aztec texts he could lay his hands on [22], the Franciscan Bishop Diego de Landa Calderón arrived in Yucatan and committed the Mayan codices to the flames, as a great cry of anguish arose from hapless Indians.[23]

Sahagun and Landa represented opposed understandings of ‘conversion’. Landa embodied the spirit of Reformation literalism and certainty; Sahagun the subtler esprit de finesse which argued that Indian society -- so otherwise model -- had only been deceived with ‘false images’ of the Truth. Sahagun was not Carl Jung, but he intuited the existence of common patterns and archtypes lying within alien myths -- What Vatican II would later call "Seeds of the Word."

Whatever their approach Sahagun, Landa and the Indians all agreed that a people’s socio-economic foundations was rooted in its existential cosmology. Certainly the Maya world was seamlessly organic: Earth is inseverable from Sky and how man prays is inextricable from how he works.

This view runs contrary to the Englightenment’s secularization of social life which, at its most indulgent, relegates religious cosmographies to the private sphere. More usually, religion is deemed an 'ignorance' out of which the 'under-developed one' has to be uplifted.

The Enlightenment is a cheat. It pretends to be cosmologically neutral when in fact it is not. In the name of science -- or business -- it simply discounts 'non-objective' values. More brutally than Landa, its secularization commits traditions and customs to oblivion, paving them under, drowning them in blaring noise and holding up pouty white boys in briefs as the idols du jour. When the Indian is thus torn from himself, he is said to be no longer marginalized when in fact he is reduced to an utterly insignificant cypher in Metropolis.

Although the Church has acquiesced in, it has never sanctioned such a cleavage between faith and work. But a 'subjective disposition' is the greatest compartmentalization of all. Ratzinger’s espousing of an interiorization of the Magnificat resulted in a reductio which surrendered to the Enlightenment’s secularisation of social life. To do so ran contrary to the Church's fundamental incarnational message.

In all things there is a ‘logos’ and an ‘ergon’-- a form and a substance, a theory and practice, a word and a flesh, a Heaven and an 'on Earth'. The union of the two is reflected in the word ‘lit-urgy’ the roots of which mean work-of-the-people. This unity was incorporated into the Sixth Century Benedictine rule of ora et laboro -- not work and then prayer but rather each within the other.

Twenty years on and it would be hard to deny that Pope Benedict has not come around more than half way. In his first encyclical he noted the Marxist argument that the poor “do not need charity but justice” (Deus Caritas Est § 26) and “admitted that the Church's leadership was slow to realize that the issue of the just structuring of society needed to be approached in a new way.” (Op.Cit., § 27). At the same time he postulated that the option for the poor was “as essential” as the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel (Ibid., § 22.) [24]

His second encyclical insisted that “faith” was not merely a subjective attitude but a social reality (Spe Salvi §§14, 16) which “commits us to live for others” and guides each generation to build its own “social structures” to meet the challenges of the times. (Op.Cit., §§ 28, 25) [25]

In his third encyclical he wrote that consumerism and “cultural levelling” had created “new risks of enslavement and manipulation” (Caritas in Veritate, § 26) and that “man's darkened reason pervert[ed] the true economic order which requires human social relationships of friendship ... and reciprocity ... within economic activity, not only outside or after it. (Id, § 36.) [24]

Although he refrained from explicitly calling capitalism the “enemy of mankind” the encyclical’s immensely long list of its catalogued failures leaves one to wonder if it can ever be a friend.

While Benedict will not condone violence, exclude the rich or advocate any particular political-economy, he has unequivocally asserted that Christian prayer must manifest itself in works that create just economic structures which are tailored to human (not simply material) needs. After half a millenium, Montesinos stands vindicated.

The vindication was not all due to any one person or movement. Ruiz was a pastoral bishop who put a certain ergon into theological arguments being made by others. The Chiapas Indians were and remain interested in their freedom and their lands. But the conflict in Chiapas became a dramatic paradigm that was at once theological and political.

Given berth to 'evangelize' in his own language, the first question the Indian asked was: by what authority are you taking away our lands? The answer of the Mexican Government was that it was doing so in the name of economic development and by authority of the fact that the constitutional guarantee of communal ejidal lands had been duly and lawfully abrogated.

For the Indian that vis mayor and legal positivism were not sufficient. They did not weigh in with counter arguments; it was sufficient for them to deny that the government had authority to act in a way that was not responsive to their needs.

It was left to Marcos and Ruiz to take the argument to their respective constituencies: the first world bourgeoisie and the Church. In that way the Zapatista 'No mas' brought the rest of us to stop and question the logic of the paradigm the west has followed for the past 400 years. Unless we are completely "lethargic," the suffering of others always forces the issue.

The lethargic answer of neo-liberal rags like the New York Times was that the Indian didn't matter. "NAFTA has already shaken up Mexican farming — mostly for the better," wrote its resident Hispanic shill, Eduardo Porter. Of course, by "farming" he did not mean the
Tztotzil and Tzeltal varieties. He meant the farming of Mexico, S.A., owned by USA, Inc. As for the flesh and blood campesino, well... the government “will also need to help more rural Mexicans find jobs outside agriculture.” You know, get themselves "re-tooled." [27]

The Indians of Chiapas were not the first, nor will they be the last to invoke the preferential option for the poor. But what was salient, if not entirely unique, was the way they invoked it. Their indictment was not that the neo-liberal economy had failed to distribute benefits efficiently and equitably (a question of mere utilitarian function), but rather that it was denying them their communities, their modo de ser on earth under the sky.

For the Chiapas Indian it was not enough to reply that he could be retooled to do something else. "Retooling" was precisely the sin of Spanish settlers. The Zapatista argument in the flesh forced first world society to go beyond questions of "effective policies" and to ask whether the authority of the liberal secular state was serving the needs of the soul -- man in work and prayer together with his fellow beings.

Too often progressives feel obliged to justify their goals in empirically objectified terms, saying things like “environmentalism makes good economic sense.” We are not afraid of dragging often idiosyncratic personal values into the fray but shrink from formulating and asserting existential social values, as if this involved some sort of trespass onto neutral space. In so doing we fall into the same trap that Ratzinger did. If we concede the underlying logic of liberalism we forfeit the game because that logic dictates precisely what is being done in the name of global trade and market magic [sic]. We should rather ask whether the problem isn't the secularization of society into utilitarian functions and fragmented individual spaces.

This is not to say that we should go native or that indigenous economies can sustain the material benefits we might want or need to have. It is to say that we have to reconsider the types of questions we allow ourselves to ask. It does not really matter if we approach the issues with a socialist or religious or aesthetic disposition. What matters is the range of human and social values we are willing to consider as options.

©WoodchipGazette, 2011

URL's to Notes

[1] Advent Sermon:

[2] Laws of Burgos
Summary :

[3] Liberation Theology;
Concise History of Liberation Theology:

[4] Francisco Vitoria

[5] De Indiis

[6] Sublime Deus:

[7] Inter Caetera

[8] Donovan: Las Casas as Polemicist

[9] Pennington:
Medieval Law

[10] Vasco de Quiroga notes-on-a-practical-utopian-1470%E2%80%931565

[11] Reductions

[12] Canon Law (Autochthonous Prayer & Option for Poor):

[13] Ratzinger in Opposition liberation_en.html

[14] Chronology Maya

[15] Cast War

[16] Ruiz Indian Theology

[17] Teponazcuicatl (Aztec 16th Cent.)

[18] Revived Liturgies (Maya, 20th Cent.)
Tzeltal Mass
Zampango rythms

[19] EstaHora De Gracia (1993)

[20] U.S. Interventions In Central America

[21]David Batstone Bishop Samuel Ruiz and the Zapatistas

[22] Fr. Bernadino Sahagun

[23] DiegoDeLanda

[24] Benedict 16th - Deus Caritas Est caritas-est_en.html

[25] Benedict 16th - Spe Salvi salvi_en.html

[26] Benedict 16th - Caritas in Veritate veritate_en.html

[27] Eduardo Porter Why are they Whining?
Woodchip Gazette:
All the Fetish Fit to Print

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Bezerkeley Gypsy and the Hysteria of Impotence

Last November, 'Zombie' published an unfair but funny photo satire on “Pelosi’s San Francisco.” The montage cleverly spliced photos of “ordinary” San Francisco political protests with snapshots of the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgendered Sado-Bondage Street Fair on Folsom Street. The predictable result was to portray San Francisco as stratospherically wacked out.

The satire was possible because there was, in fact, a certain seamlessness from off-beat protest to beyond Fellini weirdness. What category did “Another Sadomasochist for Peace” fall into? Or, the bearded guy with the far-off look carrying a sign which read “U.S. out of my ovaries!”

Toward the middle of the spectrum, what could fairly be described as a Bezerkeley Gypsy screamed at a reporter from the San Francisco 'Chronicle,' accusing the main-stream media of not reporting on Dick Cheney’s lies or on the fact that “DiFI and her husband Bruce are ... making millions and millions" off the war in Iraq. (DiFi being blue bitch Senator Dianne Feinstein.)

The “gypsy” left the definite impression of being totally unglued as her voice got louder and louder, repeatedly yelling that mainstream papers had “nowhere” reported on these stories. The sad thing was that, unglued as she might have seemed, what she was saying was absolutely correct.

Rather vividly, it became apparent that she became unglued not because she was crazy but because she was impotent. People in solitary confinement and dogs in cages end up howling not because they are mad but because they are powerless; and the “left” in the United States has been reduced to political solitary confinement.

It is very simple. When one is ignored, one shouts and the more one shouts the more one is ignored. Meanwhile, personages like Bernanke or Obama or Cheney can assume the high-road of softspokenness simply because what they say goes.

The inflated reaction from the Liberal Left Progressive Animal Liberation Community in response to the Tuscon shooting seems to me to reflect this political impotence.

Of course, the shooting was a personal misfortune for those involved. But it needs be said that it was not a “world historical” event. It was not Sarajevo. In fact, the shooting was socially and politically unimportant. It will be forgotten in a year and consigned to oblivion in five.

The Second Amendment did not “cause” the shooting. The right to bear arms has existed since 1620, in fact and in law. Free Speech did not cause it. American political rhetoric has been inflamed and prone to violent metaphors from the get go. Arguments attempting to connect inflamed speech with homicidal conduct are about as convincing as arguments attempting to connect porn to rape.

But even assuming a connection can be drawn, railing against railing is a misfocused waste of time. The left has allowed itself to be distracted by an event that is fundamentally irrelevant.

This propensity for distraction seems to me to be one of the defects of the “left” in the United States, which persistently confuses issue-worthiness with issue-importance. It consistently wastes time, energy and treasure on what are non-structural, collateral issues.

The fundamental issue confronting the United States and the world today concerns choice of political-economy: does society exist for the plunder of a few in the increasingly tenuous hopes that there will be incidental overflow for the many, or does society exist so that humans can directly, mutually assist one another to attain material well-being and security?

That is the root question; all else is of secondary importance and will, in fact, flow from the principal choice that is made.

The rest of the world seems to understand this. Greece, France, Spain, Mexico and now Tunisia have all seen protests directly aimed at countering the globalized neo-liberal agenda. The people in the streets are protesting the cut-backs in pensions, the bust-up of unions, and the speculative trading in food futures (an execrable practice outlawed by the Emperor Claudius but allowed by Obama). Behind each of these particular issues stands the root premise that society has a direct and necessary social purpose.

In contrast, the American left has spent 10 days fulminating over the acts of a lunatic and paying scant attention to Senator Sanders’ warning that the Administration is gearing up to cut back on social security. Given the pension crisis in this country, and the sacking of 401k’s by Goldman 'Sack' et al., the left would be better served mobilizing not just to save social security but to expand it into a national retirement system.

The left needs to target the real structural issues and keep the political-economy within its cross-hairs. It needs to focus on core questions of economic security that, when properly explained and argued, can actually unite both “sides” in the political spectrum.

These core questions were summarized in FDR’s economic bill of rights, proclaimed shortly before his death: a remunerative and secure job; affordable education; the right to health care and security in old age. The attainment of each of these “prongs” is secured once the fundamental social question is answered correctly. None of these particular goods will be maintained even in their present degraded form if the Reagan-Clinton-Bush-Obama political economy is accepted.

Thus, the left has to focus on propagandizing the core issues in a unifying, non-threatening, non-offensive way to as broad a base as possible. This means espousing a conventional gravitas and giving up on arguing over issues which are simply intractable.

Each of us has our own pet issue whether it is abortion, gay rights, cruelty to animals, ethnic validation, pedophilia, creationism, school prayer, the right to own our own gun...and so on. The reason the mainstream media spends so much time hyping these issues is precisely because they divide the public and keep it from acquiring a political consciousness that would get the real enemy within its surveyor cross-hairs.

The left simply falls into the trap by harping on divisive issues rather than keeping its focus on core issues which can and to a large extent actually do unite most Americans who are divided in great measure only by the way they talk about them.

And of course, the more it focuses on divisive issues, the more the left becomes vehemently impotent like the Bezerkeley Gypsy.

©Woodchip Gazette, 2011


Monday, January 10, 2011

The Wrong Kind of Climate Control & The Risks of Free Speech

As sure as rain follows upon dark clouds, the cry has gone up to “do something” about so-called hate speech. Fairly typical of the reactions to the shooting of Congreswoman Gifford and several others by Jared Loughner was ' Tikkun’s' Rabbi Michael Lerner, who rhetorically intoned: “Isn't it time for us to demand that our government investigate the violence-generating discourse of the racists and the haters?”

The Constitutional answer is: absolutely not! Lerner and those of like mind need to read -- thrice and slowly -- the words of James Madison on this very issue:

"There are ... two methods of removing the causes of [political] faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

"It could never be more truly said of the first remedy, than it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

"The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed." (Federalist Paper No. 10.)

What Lerner is urging, in modern form, is the revival of laws against sedition. The “protected values” (or in modern legal lingo, the “cognized groups”) may be different but the principle is the same: words which have a “tendency” to incite violence and/or threaten the security or wellbeing of ... [insert your cherished value-of choice here]... need to be outlawed and criminally punished.

Whether enacted in 1789, 1918 or 2011, laws against sedition are inimicable to a free society; and no amount of spurious sociological “impact studies” (so-called) can change that constitutional fact.

What does it actually mean to call for government “investigation” of “violence-generating” speech?

The investigation part is fairly easy to answer: it means police and FBI agents keeping tabs of what you say, interviewing your neighbors about what do, getting warrants to poke into your reading habits and ultimately detaining you for further questioning. Such investigations inevitably entail what the Nazis called “block wardens” -- neighbors and other snitches who make it their business to overhear your chat and take note of the books and guests you bring home. Already both the government and various interest groups have set up networks and web pages to recruit security-volunteers to poke around and keep an ear out for terrorism- or racist- generating violence.

What then is to be the casus for such inquisitions? What exactly is 'violence-generating' speech?

Let us be plain and simple, for Thucydides tells us that simplicity of speech is the mark of a noble man. Websters (1913 edition), defines violence as “physical force, strength of action or motion; as the violence of a storm; the violence of a blow or conflict;” also, “to assault or injure”. By metaphorical extension: “moral force; vehemence.”

Clearly (and simply) words are not violence; they do not cause physical injury. Concoctions like 'verbal assault' are confusions of speech which are the marks of hysteria or sophistry.

Words may be uttered with “moral vehemence.” Preachers do it all the time. Implacable foes along the Great Abortion Divide are very morally vehement. But is it 'violence generating' to call abortion murder?

According to Lerner, violence-generating words are those which “create a climate of hate.” Murder is certainly loathsome. Pictures of aborted foetuses certainly engender revulsion and disgust. But are the pictures false? If abortion foes cannot call abortion “murder” then what must they call it? Whether it is or is not murder is the whole issue of the debate. In effect, Lerner’s demand “creates a climate” where abortion foes are intimidated (under threat of government investigation) into silence. The same holds true when the intimidation works in the other direction.

Attentive readers of Lerner’s article will have noticed a subtle switch from his vaguish opening reference to “violence-generating” speech to the ensuing and even more vague reference to “rhetoric” which “contributes” to a “climate of hate” which “individuals act on.”

The reason for the verbal shuffling is that Lerner can’t quite get himself to say that speech causes violence. It doesn’t, period. The quintessential scientific test of causality is replication and predictability; and no one has ever demonstrated that a particular word, phrase or book has consistently and predictably caused a violent reaction -- the dread 'Mein Kampf' included. Even if human predispositions are genetically determined or environmentally influenced, action is the result of free will.

Sometimes, action is the result of craziness as in Loughner’s case or as in the case of Don Quixote who devoured novels of chivalry until “being quite out of his wits, he hit upon the strangest notion that ever a madman in this world hit upon, and that was that it was right and requisite that he should make a knight-errant of himself, roaming the world in full armor on horseback ... righting every kind of wrong, and exposing himself to peril and danger from which he was to reap eternal renown and fame.” In other words, he became a militia-man.

But the underlying point of Cervantes’ satire was precisely that books do not cause madness. In case anyone might not get it, he made this clear in a prefatory couplet where he wrote that madness is the “cure” for sadness. What drove Don Quixote on his errands of mayhem, chaos and absurdity was an inner grief.

The fact is that people make of words what they will, often bending them all out of shape to suit some inner purpose or drive. Perhaps we might all be better off without speech altogether. As Jesus advised, “let your speech be, Yea or Nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” (Math. 5:37) But Man is nothing if not a loquacious animal, and the desire to speak freely is the foremost urge of our souls or at least of our egos.

Laws against sedition, in whatever guise, are an attack on free speech. They are always couched in vague, open ended terms because the real target is not the alleged “dangers” protected against but some political agenda or ideology that is opposed.

Section 2 of the Alien and Sedition Act of 1789 provided

“ it further enacted, That if any person shall write, print, utter, or publish,... any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, ... with intent to defame the said government, ... or to excite against [it] ... the hatred of the good people of the United States, ...”

The Sedition Act of 1918 made it a crime to

“willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the Constitution of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States....”

California’s Criminal Syndicalism Act 1919 made it a crime to advocate or teach “any doctrine or precept” that espoused “unlawful acts of force and violence or unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing a change in industrial ownership or control or effecting any political change.”

Section 13 of the Reich Editorial Law (4 October 1933) prohibited publication of anything which “tends to weaken the strength of: the German Reich, outwardly or inwardly, the common will of the German people, the German defense ability, culture or economy....” (1933 Reichsgesetzblatt, Part I, page 713.)

What all these laws have in common is a heap of nefarious adjectives coupled with a “tendency” connected to some protected good.

The United States Supreme Court initially upheld these laws precisely on the grounds that they combatted a subversive climate.

In Frohwerk v. United States (1919) 249 U.S. 204 the Court held that “a person may be convicted of a conspiracy to obstruct recruiting by words of persuasion.” In that case the defendant had published a pamphlet in which he called war “murder” and in which he went “on to give a picture, made as moving as the writer was able to make it, of the sufferings of a drafted man.” Most horribly, the author had sneered at various British nobles and had said that “the sooner the public wakes up to the fact that we are led and ruled by England, the better.”

In Debs v. United States (1919) 249 U.S. 211, the Court followed suit and upheld the criminalization of a pamphlet by Eugene Debs in which the famous labor leader had given:

"illustrations of the growth of Socialism, a glorification of minorities, and a prophecy of the success of the international Socialist crusade, with the interjection that 'you need to know that you are fit for something better than slavery and cannon fodder.' "

That statement, the Court held, did not simply oppose war in general but opposed the present and the particularly noble war the nation was embarked upon and “opposition was so expressed that its natural and intended effect would be to obstruct recruiting.” (Id., at p. 251.)

This line of reasoning culminated in Whitney v. California, (1927) 274 U.S. 357, where the Court ruled that "the Constitution d[id] not confer an absolute right to speak, without responsibility, whatever one may choose," and that government had the power to punish those who "abused" their rights of speech "by utterances inimical to the public welfare, tending to incite crime, disturb the public peace, or endanger the foundations of organized government and threaten its overthrow." (Id., at p. 371.)

The common theme of these and too many like cases is that they sought to punish a “tendency” which is subjectively perceived to “endanger” some asserted good. Just as typically, some untoward event such as a Reichstag Fire, a bombing or the murder of an official, was exploited as the necessity to protect “public safety.”

Tyranny always rides to town on the pony of safety.

Today’s political correctness mavens may use adjectival gerunds and verbal-burble which has an impressive sociological sounding ring, but the mental paradigm is the same. They either seek to mandate a uniformity of opinion on whatever subject they are obsessing over, or they seek to cast any opposition to their pet-rocks as creating some kind of danger.

Often times they heighten the “climatology” by invoking a so-called “clear and present danger” to something or other. But this erstwhile standard -- derived from Schenck vs. United States (1919)249 U.S. 47 -- is simply a rhetorically tweaked version of the “bad tendencies” rule. Any danger is always "present" precisely because a ‘danger’ is simply the present prospect of some possible future harm. Schenck was overruled because, as Justice Douglas put it, "[t]he only difference between the 'expression of an opinion' and an 'incitement' ... is the speaker's enthusiasm for the result. (Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969) 395 U.S. 444, 452.)

And Man is certainly an enthusiastic animal. Once again it behooves us to listen to Madison:

"As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other....

"The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.” (Federalist Paper No. Ten.)

Madison's misanthropy is more than justified by the media's screaming rabble-rousers and by Palin's smart-alec thuggishness. But Madison also understood that “the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property.” (Ibid) Put another way, the human tendency toward disputatious vehemence is increased by inequality and insecurity.

Thus, it is a useless, if pretty, piety to urge everyone to be “civil” in their discourse. The reason for the inflamed nature of present political debate in the United States is that the country is in decline and economic inequality and insecurity have destroyed our social and cultural fabric. This creates a terminal downward spiral because the insecurity-generated yelling and accusing prevents the emergence of fair and reasonable solutions to economic and social problems whose very gravitational pull is aggravated by the inflamed rhetoric generated.

To make matters even worse, some of the very forces which generate the economic inequality also finance the spewing of inflamed rhetoric which they then assert needs to be controlled in the name of personal or national safety.

It is a false consciousness to think that “civility” in discourse can be restored by political correctness or laws against seditious incivility. A greater modicum of civility will be restored to political discourse when and only when our civis itself becomes more fair and just and when we cease chasing after the chimera of militarized security. That will be a hard reversal to manage.

©Woodchip Gazette, 2011