I am naturally more conservative by disposition. I don’t mean this in the sense of Republicanism, i.e. that I am a foreign interventionist, a drug abolitionist, a rich elitist, etc. Nor do I mean that when I look at the state of American culture, I shake my head, and think back to the halcyon days of the Eisenhower administration – which incidentally I know little about and never experienced firsthand. Rather, I have a preference for order over disorder, justice under the law over vigilantism, quiet over tumult, an uneasy peace over an uncertain war, the familiar over the alien. I like gardens and trees and mountains, and I detest large cities. My friend circle is small but intimate. I drink heavily on holidays and moderately thereafter. I prefer the clashes of philosophy and sport to the far more momentous arenas of war and diplomacy. This innate behavioral trait of mine has, in some way, created or informed most of my political positions.
Many of my friends are self-identified as liberal or progressive, and so in the wake of the Ferguson grand jury decision, I found myself deluged in fashionable white guilt over the “abominable,” “indefensible,” “incomprehensible” verdict. I was greeted to article after article declaring the racist, patriarchal structure of American justice; the oppressive capitalist basis of our condemnation of Ferguson-related looting; the righteousness of looting as an act of protest; the evils of the white race as they have played out over time; and on and on. Based on these factors, so they say, we should not condemn the violence of protestors, but see it for what it is: a legitimate protest of a system that routinely uses violence as a means of coercion. I balked immediately, but then I thought: perhaps there is something more to that charge, than I am giving it credit for?
Violence in this case seems contradictory to me. For the protestors are protesting a senseless act of violence by engaging in seemingly senseless acts of violence. If violence is held to be bad in toto, then any form of violence, even as a form of resistance, is also bad. I suspect many protestors adhere to non-violence in the abstract, but are not prepared to adhere to its most absolute form here. If violence is held to be bad based on whether it has a moral sanction or not – e.g., violence in self-defense is good/acceptable, while murder is bad/unacceptable – then the party which initiated violence is in the wrong, while the party which had violence inflicted upon it and is retaliating, is in the right. I suspect most protestors are in the second category. However, that leads us to the contradiction: the wronged party, Michael Brown, is dead, and so cannot retaliate against the instigator of violence, Darren Wilson – assuming that this is the correct moral equation, and Wilson indeed wronged Brown. The protestors sublimate the injustice perpetrated on Brown from the individual to the collective, asserting that a faceless, nameless, racist, patriarchal, white “system” is actually the perpetrator, while the great mass of black Americans is the victim. Wilson and Brown are only avatars of their respective social groups, which are the real forces in conflict. Because these two groups are in open conflict, and this latest eruption of hostilities is merely a battle in a much longer war, then the metastasizing of hostilities from protest over the police action to looting, arson, and other forms of criminality is justified – because it is against a system that is against them.
But, is this true? I do not think it is time in this enquiry to find out whether the system is as bad as they say. Rather, I would like to explore under what circumstances it becomes legitimate to oppose the system, or the laws that make up that system, by violent means.
I conceive of the legal system, or the laws, in a way similar to Socrates, as he articulated in the Crito: they are the good shepherds of a society, at their ideal, and to violate them is equivalent with disobeying your parents, those who took care of you when you were helpless, and shielded you from the evils lurking in the dark. Once a verdict has been passed under the law, then it is inviolate, and it must be followed to the letter – though one may argue against it, before it has been handed down. This explains Socrates’ mocking dismissal of his trial in the Apology, but his acceptance of the court’s verdict in the Crito, which takes place afterwards in the prison. If we follow Socrates’ example fully, then we may peacefully oppose the reasoning of the laws and their arbitrators, but if we receive a verdict we do not like, then we must respect it regardless. This is because the orderly functioning of a legal system is more valuable than the prevailing of absolute justice in every individual case. If Socrates were to flee from his verdict, he would uphold justice in the absolute, but degrade it in the practical, for he would mock the institutions of the laws and show them to be powerless. Each individual would make himself the arbitrator of justice, and it can be fairly gainsaid, that though some may fulfill this role well – such as Socrates – far more would simply abuse the power of absolute self-determination. Good laws are, to him and to me, a necessary component of social order: without them, the great mass of people would degenerate to the lex talionis.
However, I also conceive of the laws pragmatically, as a tool to further the excellence of a polity, rather than as gods in themselves. When you have a watch, you value the watch only insofar as it can tell time. If it fails in this task, the first thing a prudent watch owner will do is ask: why? If it needs a new battery, it is a simple manner to replace it. If it needs a new winding mechanism, a more complex manner. If the innards are completely shattered, it may be better to chuck it, and procure a new timepiece. So too with the laws: if the system is overall a just enterprise, but may have a few unjust laws scattered amongst the majority of just laws, then it would be foolish to chuck the entire system: better to replace the bad components, rather than the entire apparatus. If many of the laws are unjust, but the system itself may be salvaged, then it is still preferable to work to solve the problems of the system. If the entire system is broken, and it is beyond salvaging, it is at this point better to replace it with a new system.
Thus I come to my own position on the matter*. A state undergirded by just laws, designed to maintain order and peace amongst the members of a polity, is the ideal. Order and peace I define as the state of affairs which, when maintained, allows a polity to about its business without fear of dispossession, intragroup conflict, and so forth. The laws, if they are just and justly upheld, should be maintained and their verdicts followed. If they are just, but unjustly upheld, the laws themselves should be maintained, but the verdicts questioned or protested – the form of these protests should be peaceful, as the state of order under a just system unjustly executed is, more likely than not, preferable to a state of lawlessness. If some laws are just, and some are unjust, the members of the polity should begin to question whether the system that they are governed under is worth maintaining, or whether it should be abolished or replaced. At this point, I think that violent opposition to the laws, or flagrant disregard of them, is not acceptable. Neither is blindly obeying them. The mean, attempting to change the laws through peaceful means, is the best option. However, if the laws uphold a verdict (unjust or not) that is inimical to one’s values, that verdict should be obeyed, because the just rule of law overall is far more important than individual, unjust laws. If they are wholly unjust, they cannot be justly upheld, and all their products are poisoned. At this point, the laws have ceased to serve their purpose as laws, as shepherds of a good society, and so should be opposed actively in their existence and their verdicts, until such a time as a system designed for good and excellence can be created. If peaceful means are ineffective or have been exhausted, violence may be warranted.
To summarize, if the laws fail to serve their proper purpose, viz. being good shepherds of society, then they no longer seek the good of their subjects; and peaceful means of changing or ameliorating these onerous laws have been exhausted, or are unsuccessful, or are impossible; and if the anarchy brought about by disobeying the laws is less bad than the burden of maintaining the laws, then there may be sanction to resist them by violent means. This is a high bar, and I think very few situations merit a violent clash with the laws. A slave revolt would be justified, for example, because the laws exclude slaves from the legal protections afforded to other subjects of the law, means of peaceful resistance are possible but generally ineffectual and unsuccessful, and the anarchy of open revolt is a superior state than the slavery itself.
*If you find amongst my ramblings contradictions, or strange conclusions, let me know: I continue to work out this position at the time of writing.
Now I think I have the means to determine, at least to my satisfaction, whether the system and its laws, as they stand, ought to be opposed by violent means. And thus, whether the violent protests in Ferguson and elsewhere can be justified.
First, indulge me for a brief interlude while I try to summarize the America the Ferguson protestors, or at least their intellectual heavyweights, believe to exist. For them, America is designed to further the interests of white Americans, it was built on the suffering of others, and it continues operating against the interests of other groups, such as black Americans. If you are a white American, or even if you appear white, then you benefit from this system, just as if you are not a white or white-passing American, then you are harmed by this system. The poor cracker jack in the backwaters of Florida, or the slum-dwelling meth head in California’s Central Valley, are despite their various material disadvantages equal beneficiaries of this system with middle- and upper-class whites. For example, they can buy BandAids in their skin tone!
This is called “white privilege,” a symptom of a system that is racist to its core. In this case, racism is defined as this system of power set up for white Americans, so that all whites are racist by virtue of being a part of this system, while all non-whites cannot be racist, by virtue of not being a part of this system. This applies even if the said white does not hold attitudes of prejudice or racial superiority, and the non-white does. For reference, this is the definition of racism as supplied by dictionary.com:
“1. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.
2. a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.
3. hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.”
The revised definition of racism falls into the second sub-definition provided by dictionary.com, i.e. systemic racism. If you attempt to assert the race-neutral sub-definitions, such as the ideology of racial difference in no. 1, or the hatred of such difference in no. 3, then you will often be angrily told that this isn’t the “real” definition of racism. This is because the dictionary, being a product of the white system, is inherently opposed to non-whites and their lived experience, so everything such weighty tomes hold to be true is tainted and suspect. Most people seem to refer to this system without really articulating what it is, but from what I have gathered, it is the constellation of the police, judiciary, prison system, and business class, which are assumed to be dominated by whites. All of these, or so it goes, conspire together actively and implicitly to maintain hegemony over other races.
What is to be done, assuming this system exists, and that it operates in the ways articulated above? Blacks and other minorities do not have to do anything, except continue their mortal struggle with the great white chimera. Whites, on the other hand, have a lot of work to do:
- Acknowledge that you are tainted by your whiteness. It is not enough to feel bad about disparities in educational achievement, wealth generation, crime, or policing between members of your race and minorities in America. Instead, you must acknowledge that this stems from a racist system of which you are a beneficiary, even if the supposed benefits are abstract and cannot be calculated, or do not even apply to you (heresy!). I believe John Derbyshire, formerly of National Review, calls this “ethnomasochism.”
- After acknowledging this, make some apologies, preferably to other similarly enlightened whites. Self-flagellation is always a grand spectacle.
- Work to erode your privilege. This is the tough one, because if it is indeed true that the system benefits white people in small things such as buying BandAids, but also in large ones, like obtaining jobs and loans, then the natural thing to do is to equalize oneself with people of other races, working to dismantle the system of privilege. You don’t have much control over what colors the BandAid corporation produces its products in, but you can quit your job or default on your loan, since they were obtained immorally.
- Produce utopia? All the races will exist happily together in a free and open society, with no group asserting dominance over the other. I assume this is the end result, as the entire foregoing narrative depends on a certain amount of Hegelry to be persuasive.
Now, is such a worldview, and its prescription, correct? I cannot say that it is completely wrong, as it is based on a few observations that are undoubtedly true. Namely, that the brunt of state violence is borne by minority communities, mainly blacks and Latinos; that poor minorities are continually segregated into urban slums, and find it very difficult to leave voluntarily; that the educational systems in these ghettos are atrocious; that discrimination based on appearance, name, sex, and all sorts of categories continues; that because of this, white Americans tend to experience less of racism (or prejudice, depending on your preferred definition of racism) than do minorities; that this is unjust. At this point in time I cannot think of many arguments against the facticity of these points.
I do disagree with why this state of affairs has come into being: it is not the fault of “the white man,” though certain white people have played their part in the tale. I have always found this assertion of collective guilt to be completely befuddling. All white Americans are not responsible for the actions of some white Americans, or white Americans of the past, or the police as a force (which is not all white, anyway), or the actions of the federal government, and so forth. This is just another form of the argument black activists use: that all black people are tarred and feathered as criminals, based on the statistics on black crime. Yes, black Americans as a group engage in more criminal activity than white Americans as a group – if the FBI statistics are to be believed – but the individual black man is not the black group, and so it is unfair to judge an individual based on his racial affiliation, rather than who he is, or what he has done.
Collective guilt is a charge levied on white Americans by certain race peddlers, and on black Americans by others, and it stems from a much broader idea: that the world is not composed of individuals, but faceless social forces. Individuals are not responsible for their own actions, but are induced into doing things by the aegis of some higher power. I would never deny that social forces exist, for there is a certain way that human beings behave when they congregate into groups, which they cannot manifest when alone. However, we must always remember, that a group of people is not blended together into a single entity when they become a group – they are still individual people, always capable of individual action and thought. When thinking about this, I recalled Gandalf’s line in the Fellowship of the Ring: “Bilbo was meant to find the ring, and not by its maker. In which case you were meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.” Whites are meant to have privilege (because the racist patriarchal state was made for them), and other minorities are meant to have none, and there is very little they or anyone else can do about it – save destroying the system, of course.
Based on my own categorization, to Ferguson protestors and their academic stalwarts, this is an unjust system of unjust laws, a fruit of the poisoned tree or so it were, and so must be opposed. Whether peacefully for the idealists, or violently for the rest, both are considered to be valid options, for the system is tainted and must be swept away, to be replaced by something better, a future utopia governed by social justice. I am rather blind to this supposed reality, for I do not see the system of white supremacy that exists, lurking, underneath the supposedly race-neutral laws and institutions. The crusaders for social justice ascribe this self-diagnosed myopia as a symptom of my privilege, for I can choose not to see what, for others, is an omnipresent reality. I ascribe it to the fact, and I believe it is a fact, that this system does not exist. There is not a white supremacist system that exists to crush other races into powder. There is a system, though, that exists to crush us all into powder, if we fall into its orbit: the War on Drugs, as Brandon noted in his post on this subject; the War on Terror, encompassing the surveillance state at the domestic level and the covert war machine at the foreign level; cronyism between government and business; and so forth.
Much of this truly unjust system is an outgrowth not of the system of laws, which I see as just, but of abuses conducted in violation of those laws and legitimized by force, fear, and civic laziness. We have let our system, founded on a just* basis, lapse into what we see today: the restriction of our freedom to peaceably assemble and protest; the restriction of our right to privacy, for the sake of safety against the terrorists and other malcontents our government has fostered abroad; the pillaging of the wealth of future Americans by reckless foreign conflicts against such malcontents and their offshoots; the return of policing methods and equipment developed in Iraq and Afghanistan to our own streets. The list continues on and on, and only grows as our days grow darker.
While the Ferguson protestors may see themselves as protesting against a system of laws that is oppressive, I cannot agree with them. The system of laws that we have, if it were enforced equitably, or at all, would be a flawed but a decent model. The problem is that the law as it is written no longer is the law as it is practiced, and our system, good or bad, is simply powerless. Indeed, we already live in a state of legal anarchy, for while order is maintained in some degree and at some times, it is belied by a concentration of power that is not legitimated by the law, but rather by the supposed enforcers of the law.
Thus, to oppose the system of governmental overreach is to oppose a system that excludes all of us, and in particular certain groups, from its protection. Opposing the police and their excesses, opposing our military-industrial state, opposing the curtailment of our civil and political liberties, is just – for we are now in a state where our laws are in decline, and must be protected from a state that no longer serves to protect and uphold them, or our interests, which they are meant to serve. However, in opposing this governmental apparatus, we cannot fail to uphold the laws that deserve our respect. The looting of private property is in violation of one of our most basic rights, the right to property, and does not harm the system of state terror we are living under, but individual people who are also impacted by that system. The implication that one racial group is behind these evils, and that to target them is to target the system that backs them, is both a silly and perfidious idea. We should not be blind to the realities of race, nor to their effects. But nor should we see race as the prime underlying factor behind the evils plaguing our country, for we are all impacted, in one way or another, by this one system. In conclusion, violence against the state apparatus may be justified, and probably is, while violence against those things which are legitimately protected under the law, such as attacking people in the form of their private property and livelihoods, is not justified. Treatise out.
*Just in the sense that the laws, as written, were largely just, in the sense that they promoted a just society (I think here of the Bill of Rights). There was a large stain on this in the form of slavery’s legitimization under the law, and I concede that this may indicate the system of laws itself was unjust. However, the enduring basis of law in the Constitution, and of our rights under law in the Bill of Rights, is just.