Racial justice and demagoguery: the case of the Jena Six

Justice is not man’s deepest longing — for better and worse. Yet it is the form in which our powerful and selfish desires most often disguise themselves, in operations obscure even to ourselves. There will always arise ambitious leaders ready to exploit our confusion about justice, and in a democracy the most dangerous such leaders are the demagogues. They are professional anger-mongers and indignation-peddlers. By flattering injustice with the cloak of righteousness, they make it all that more terrible. They hunger for an incident like the Jena Six, and do all they can to stoke the hatreds and trigger an explosion.

Demagogues like Castro or Chavez are the most common path by which democracies turn into tyrannies. They are usually found in countries where the poor and uneducated form the majority and appear at first as their servants and attack dogs. But even prosperous and better educated countries, particularly when facing a major crisis, can be swayed by a Huey Long or Hitler.

The poor tend to resent and fear those who have more, and the uneducated have little distance or check on their passions. For example, they are much more likely to believe in various absurd “conspiracy” theories — such as the 36 percent of Americans who believe the government supported the Sept. 11 attacks. The belief that there are mysterious and powerful forces bent on one’s ruin is flattering to one’s self-importance and gives one an object for blame — and cause for hope. The followers don’t see a demagogue’s self-interested and grasping character. They mistake tyrant for saint. They are also more likely to hate their political opponents, for the selfishness or injustice they are blind to in themselves.

Al Sharpton is one of the most successful demagogues in America today, thanks to his ability to exploit almost every major racial controversy, real or contrived. He blazed to power in 1987 by daring to make himself manager of Tawana Brawley’s fabricated abduction and rape charges against six white men, including the assistant district attorney. He solidified his position in 1991 by inciting anti-Jewish riots that culminated in the mob murder of Yankel Rosenbaum. But it is not when a demagogue fans his base, as in the Duke lacrosse case, but when he also commands the sympathy of the majority, as in the Jena Six controversy, that he is most able to corrupt a country’s attachment to law and justice.

Thanks to our susceptibility to the rhetoric of a Sharpton, we might almost have forgotten that the Jena Six, whatever might be thought to excuse them, committed a serious crime. In the presence of dozens of witnesses, six black teenagers attacked a 17-year-old white student, Justin Barker, at school. One of them struck him in the head, knocking him unconscious, and then the group kicked him repeatedly as he lay there helpless. True, Barker has apparently not suffered any serious permanent injuries, but it is hard for the naïve observer to see why the Jena Six should be freed, still less why they should be acclaimed as heroes, or what amounts today to the same thing, victims.

For that is the demand of a strong political wind now unleashed over Jena, La., or as Sharpton and Jesse Jackson put it: “Drop all charges!” Tens of thousands have descended on this small town of 3,000. A protest petition has been signed by hundreds of thousands. President Bush has expressed his sadness. David Bowie, Mos Def and John Mellencamp have weighed in.

This pressure has not been without effect. Charges have been reduced from attempted second-degree murder to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy. One juvenile who had been charged as an adult and convicted, Mychal Bell, had his conviction as an adult reversed, and the governor has ordered the district attorney not to file appeals. Trying juveniles as adults is a common practice in many states, and not particularly surprising, given that Bell was only one year shy of adulthood and already had a criminal record. His three “priors” include punching a teenage girl in the face. Most of the defendants have extensive juvenile records that include destroying property or intimidating and beating other students.

But their misdeeds suggest they may not have received enough justice as children, not that they should escape it now. It is true that there have been ugly racial incidents in Jena. In the one most widely reported, three white teenagers hung nooses on a school tree that was a popular place for white students to socialize. The three-week suspension they received was far too light. Yet they did not jump on someone and beat him senseless.

Will it serve the cause of racial harmony in the long run to so politicize the law that violent criminal acts get excused? The simple laws that teach us right and wrong and form a decent society should never be casually set aside; they are not as strong or lasting as we might expect. It does us no good to hold up thugs as heroes; it doesn’t even do the thugs good.

Getting our cut: an open letter to Sen. Jim Webb on Obamacare

Dear Mr. Webb,

I am disappointed in you. As a man of honor, you should have held out
for as much money as Nelson and Landrieu got. Nebraska gets its Medicaid
bills paid in full forever by our taxes. What about us? It is critical
that you throw your full political weight to make sure we get our fair
cut of the dole. Actually, I was hoping a guy like you would even get us
more than our cut!

That’s all the new America is about, the America you will bring about:
duking it out in DC between factions to see who gets the upper hand over
the pot and the breaks and all the regulations and the new taxes, now
that the federal government has taken over another 20%-25% of the
economy and our lives. We stop looking at our lives and all our hopes
and fears will center in the beltway, whining and begging and lobbying
the Pelosis and Reids and Liebermans, the AARPs and the labor unions and
the insurance executives and the pharmas, navigating whatever wins these
constant political battles, through centrally determined plans and
policies and centrally-decided rationing rules, and paying for and
submitting to their views about abortion or euthanasia or the proper
care of our parents or the tests we can get for cancer. Make no mistake:
this monstrosity will never get cut, it will grow and grow (I laugh at
the idea Medicare spending will get cut–these are not even honest
promises). It doesn’t make a difference who gets appointed as the new
HHS “czar”–it will attract and be run by certain kinds of ideologues,
and then, like the EPA, it will really be a joint project of judges and
the regulators, and then on top of that, it will have the strongest
lobby at their most shrill and most pitiable and persuasive, AARP, the
sick, the children, the weak and dying. The time has come at last for

Seriously, if you don’t stop this bill, if you don’t force a full debate
so that the public can see the bill and let its displeasure be known,
you’ve broken your promise to be independent and to put your country
ahead of your party interest. I am just one voter, but in all frankness
I will be ashamed to have ever supported you or praised you to my
friends and family. This bill is the foundation of our great shift to
the European model of government dependence. Please live up to your
youthful hopes for yourself. Be brave. Don’t fight your instincts, but
act with a deep love and understanding of what has made America a great
nation, and with a fear, a righteous fear, of throwing or squandering
the rare and precious gift we’ve received as Americans. If you cannot do
that yourself, don’t begrudge those who honored you with high office a
chance to do their duty for their country: vote against cloture even if
you vote for the bill, allow time for us to see and know what we will
all suffer, treat us as adults not children–and if in a month this bill
should have enough support, then at least we will have honestly deserved
our fate.

On Harvard’s quest for gender balance in the faculty

Dear Dean Kirby,

I don't begrudge you the passionate desire to bring in more girls, and there is an evident connection between the presence of beautiful women and the inspiration and sacrifices that science requires of men (see Renaissance, Italian; cf. Greece, Classical). I wonder whether you are doing enough to promote reproduction, however–will one or two years be enough? Why not give tenure with an unlimited leave of absence to beautiful women who promise to be good playmates and worthy mothers. Obviously you cannot wait for applications to come over the transom–you will need an intensive, proactive global search for these women, led by smart, enterprising, handsome young men. Of course, you cannot wait for applications to come over the transom for these men either! I volunteer to head up a search committee.

I'm afraid that if you don't take my advice seriously, I'll have to stop vaguely promising, as I do now, to start paying back your large loans to me at some point in the distant future.

Limits to Locke, or two cheers for Islam

>Our contemporary politics takes place within the parameters defined by liberalism.

–if liberalism is correct.   If not, then it may have those parameters wrong; it may have misunderstood the human situation.  It may not have understood the unchangeable savagery or irrationality or injustice of human needs (e.g., Locke in his work on education greatly underestimates the fundamental cruelty of boys), and the need for restraints and especially for extreme satisfactions, such as a divine ruler and access to absolute law or rightness or eternal glory. 

It’s not just a theoretical question, whether God has been disproven in the abstract, but a practical political question: it’s a question of what thing gives rise to God inside us and how tamable or reformable it is.   Liberalism may have made a grave mistake in believing there could be a beneficial separation of church from state: a mistake both from the point of view of the survival of the regime (can a tired, sterile non-Christian Europe maintain itself against a fertile Islam?  where the exhaustion arises from lack of self-righteousness and lack of confidence in or hope for the future, a future not blessed by eternal powers); and from the point of view of its desirability (don’t democracies become rotten without some check on popular self-indulgence, a law above them that is not their creation).

>The Bible falls short of what its own principles demands

It’s not what the Bible demands, but what we demand of the Bible—what in us forces us to obey the Bible, to believe—that same force may cause us to obey a bible that contradicts itself.  It may be that we could not tolerate what a non-contradictory, intelligible bible would be (i.e. it would not be a bible), any more than we would rest satisfied with a life in which we have no more than what our naked powers already provide us (–suppose that 99.9% of the value of things does not derive from “our labor,” but from our imagination of the place we earn from God by our labor).  It is not enough to be moderate and rational in a formal sense—one must be able to see the source of irrationality operating even in the desire to be rational and to understand (cf. Nietzsche’s masterful explanation of the will to truth as a piety, as a faith).  In subjecting the bible to the test of consistency, one is assuming that consistency is the demand, or really, that the dominion of the bible over us is only as fundamental as our false belief in its consistency—that could be solved by education.  But if the bible has to be inconsistent for it to be a bible, for it to have force, then can that force that inspires the making of bibles be controlled by education, especially an education that does not see the grounds of that force?  Is whatever is replacing the Bible really more consistent, on the fundamental issue, than the Bible? 

What is the genuine demand?  Is the demand for reason or consistency in fact the highest longing in human beings—is it even compatible with this longing?  If the part in us that gives rise to God is not reason, and if this part, which may drive our reasoning, is the true end or solace of life, and if this part is not compatible with reason or not simply compatible, then such a demand would not be resistible on the grounds of reason, even if it allows some scope for reason in life (and reason would at best confirm the grave insufficiency of reason).  In this view, liberalism would not be taking sufficient account that God is a tyrant, God is not just—that we are forced to be tyrants, that we are not just, that we cannot help insisting on what we cannot have and cannot help having a false relation with other beings, and that life, including what rationality and philosophy is possible, is possible only with proper awareness of and so submission to this imperious irrationality and savagery.  In this view, the beginning of wisdom is that we can never be wise, that we are born in darkness and must die in it, and such light or dignity as we are given is a small, frail, fleeting, partial awareness of this darkness, something that we are built in a thousand thousand ways to deny:  god is a terrible, relentless, jealous, watchful force that never gives us rest. 

I wonder whether the problem in Locke is not that he privately overestimates the divergence of reason from revelation; I mean, that reason is such a safe harbor for Locke, or that it has a clear ability to reform our relations, almost like the difference between heaven and hell (First Treatise, I.58). It seems to me that reason, when fully stripped of the hopes given by revelation (if that’s even possible!), is much weaker, much less comforting, and much more doubtful a political guide than he makes out.

From what I’ve read of Locke, I didn’t have the sense that he was aware of the full force of the demand that the world be good, or that there be a magistrate to take care of our souls.   For example, he seems to underestimate the need we have to be “our brother’s keeper” (letter on toleration); I mean our need to have the whole world be in accordance with justice or with the possibility of salvation.  Can life be good for most people without a very strong and very public assurance that such justice or salvation rules?  That might be why he, like Hobbes, does not have a cycle of regimes (or a non-progressive account): he tacitly makes the longing for justice satisfiable in a stable way, and I suspect someone who saw the force of this longing could not believe any political situation would satisfy it or make it stable.  In contrast, the political situations that explicitly provide for the transcendent longings in the form of a religious doctrine, are more aware of those longings, and are better able to provide what reasonable satisfaction there can be.   (A sign of this is that the most politically active or influential atheists, such as Dawkins and Hitchens, are unable to be atheists without a belief that someone who opposes the teaching of evolution is morally wrong and unjust, not just mistaken.  They don’t accept the world as it is, “survival of the fittest” (believing in evolution does not foster reproductive success), but want a world where one should be on the right side, where there is a “right” side, a holy side; they don’t see that they are striving for redemption. )

>I think everything hinges on the distinction between the few who do not need to believe in a bible and the many who do.

The source of the disagreement is this: is it possible to dispense with the “need to believe in a bible,” in the broad sense of a need for an eternal or transcendent good. In the case of “the few,” one sees a sharp awareness of this need and its effects, but does that awareness cure the need?  I agree reason is “the compass” in the sense that even a little of its light can turn one’s life upside down (not always felicitously); however, for Plato our reason provides less hope than for Locke, because reason does NOT cure our imperious need for something impossible for us to have, salvation.  (Plato does not shrink from either side, the need or the lack of a cure.)

(I also don’t believe that Locke guts only the “more [politically] noxious teachings” of Christianity, but also the best parts, but I admit that Christianity is not an easy problem.)

Christianity and careerism: the case of Harriet Miers

It’s a bit rich that Christianity, which spent its whole youth and manhood (womanhood?) fighting charges that it made men slothful and useless and effeminate and disloyal, that it made them disdain their earthly duties to their country and their sovereign for the sake of some utopia yet to arrive, that it roused up the rabble to hysteria and riots with fantastic superstitions, distracting them from a moderating and disciplining toil that is their necessary lot in life, should have its memory disgraced on its very deathbed by the libel that it is a friend of careerism!  A friend of Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition, yes.  Of Duns Scotus and dim-witted theological abstractions, yes.  Of Augustine and other dissipated men disappointed with their dissipations, yes.  Of Francis and other excitable children who want a world where everything is a friend, yes.  Of the Dominicans and fanatical bloodlusts and infinite hatreds, yes, yes, yes!  But of such a one as St. Harriet Miers, never.  I refuse to have my childhood beliefs polluted with such a filthy and base falsehood.
One problem in [X’s defense of her] is the use of “calling” to signify a career.  A career cannot be a calling.  That seems to be one of those secular corruptions of Christian doctrine.  People are not “called” to serve Caesar.  The only true calling is to serve God–a man cannot have two masters at one time.  The unmarried, celibate state is higher, that is true, but precisely because it allows for direct and undivided devotion to God, as the apostle says:  “The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.”  That doesn’t mean raising a career above one’s marriage–Christ doesn’t actually do any carpentry (raising the dead, yes; carpentry, no).
Now, that true or divine calling might, as your friend suggests, be understood to involve some “secular” work, if that work is done for the salvation of the souls of men.  But a man must deny his very self, etc., and must never forget his true lord might return at any time, will return soon, and will want an account (the talents are to be put to work for the Master) –to the extent that any work, even a devotion to God, forgets this, it is not a calling (e.g., bureaucratization / professionalization of religion).  The highest examples are all of men who surrender their “careers” to follow Christ.  Christianity was not a bourgeois religion, but a religion of the poor, who reasonably enough were not inclined to see much to hope for from their “work” or from worldly rewards, and who felt a lot better spending their time at late-night, crowded candlelit events in underground caverns where they were inducted by forbidden rites by a fervent young man into a movement turning the whole world upside down by raising them up (“the mighty he has pulled down from their thrones”) etc.  The most middle-class guy you get is the centurion (“Lord I am not worthy to have you come under my roof / But only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”), but he hardly seems a model for careerism–what the heck is he doing tending to his dying slave, when he should be out shopping for a new one if he’s serious about his work.  (Did Saul/Paul just stop reporting for work?  Was the blinding light his excuse to “sick out”?  At any rate, “see the light” does not mean “advance your career.”)
Miers is not an admirable woman–I want the word “admire” to still mean something.  (Some of us may even wonder if she’s still a woman after all these years slaving at such an unwomanly job; or are men still men after years at office jobs?)  There isn’t a single example in the New Testament of a career woman, not even priests or disciples (“Women should be silent in the churches . . . If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home”).  The New Testament gives women womanly “careers” (–mother, nurse, wife, widow, prostitute etc).  Why would it raise mothers so highly, if career women are to be praised?  You have widows and prostitutes, but they’re not shown as doing anything but tending Jesus.  Even the Whore of Babylon is not what we would call a career woman.
Christianity has one central and unique doctrine: anti-careerism.  That’s what the attack on the Pharisees and the money-changers means, the attack on dutifully and narrowly following rules and on the self-satisfied accumulation of respect and status, the attack on the Jewish suffocation of genuine faith and love by 1,001 rules.  That’s what God on the Cross means, and King of Kings born in a manger next to animals, conceived out of wedlock from a Jewess and an unknown father; Sermon on the Mount, etc.–Everything that is successful or powerful or respectable in the world is wrong in the eyes of God (“the wisdom of the world is folly in the eyes of the Lord”)–it’s at best to be tolerated. 
It’s true that Miers has some echo of the secret complacent faith of a Christian that everything will turn out well, but she lacks almost all sense of what our passing pilgrim status on the world should mean about our respect for the world (let alone breaking off an engagement for it!).  When the New Testament says, have no care for tomorrow (be like the birds), it doesn’t mean work like a dog today oblivious of death; on the contrary, it means forget about a career or even clothing, since you can’t do much for yourself compared to what God has done, to concentrate on the joy of God’s creation etc.