Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., gave an address at Columbia University shortly after the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968. That was an eventful year at Columbia because of the now-legendary student strike and occupation there. It was also the year of urban riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.; if one wants to call those riots a kind of spontaneous uprising, it was the largest of its kind in American history. (The Confederate States of America represented the largest armed rebellion.) It was published in edited form under the title "Existential Politics and the Cult of Violence" in Sept 1968 Phi Delta Kappan.
The world today is asking a terrible question - a question which every citizen of this republic should be putting to himself: What sort of people are we, we Americans?Those paragraphs are the kind that conservative culture warriors like to call Blame American First talk. And the stigmatizing of such observations has been effective in discouraging many Democrats from pointing to ways in which America's actions as perceived by the rest of the world produce sometimes bad impressions and unpleasant consequences. After the 09/11/2001 terrorist attack, "Why do they hate us?" was a favorite question for many people. Conservatives only wanted to answer that "they hate us for our freedoms."
And the answer which much of the world is bound to return is that we are today the most frightening people on this planet.
We are a frightening people because for three years we have been devastating a small country on the other side of the world in a war which bears no rational relationship to our national security or our national interest.
Popular or not, Schlesinger's advice is still worth remembering: "We can not take the easy course and blame everyone but ourselves for the things we do."
Since the 1968 Presidential campaign, though, Democrats came to consider it toxic for them to talk about any kind of larger sociological causes for any kind of violence. The United States began a long period of treating crime and violence in a "law and order" framework, eventually developing a practice Jonathan Simon describes as "governing through crime," i.e., using the fear of crime as a central organizing principle of daily governance. Simon at his blog (also called Governing Through Crime) posted on President Obama's speech in Aurora after the shootings there earlier this month, Full Force of our Justice System? 07/23/2012. He was struck by the sentences Obama used in a presentation that was otherwise in his Pastor-in-Chief mode, "In the end, after he has felt the full force of our justice system, what will be remembered are the good people who were impacted by this tragedy." Simon characterized that statement this way:
It is an unsettling reminder that even (or especially) at a time of unending national economic woes, retribution and especially capital punishment remain esssential [sic] to our national political culture (for why, see [Simon's book] Governing through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear). The President, after all, has nothing to say legally about what kind of punishment (full force, or otherwise), the killer (if that is who is in custody) will face. He does get to execute people by direct order through drone strikes, of course, as well as deport tens of thousands of others, some to death or worst; and make no mistake, this President has done so with relish and he wants you to know that. While he probably can't do either to James Holmes right now, nobody could miss the parallel with President W's promise to the 9/11 terrorist that they would "hear from you" soon. The President as vengeance-seeker. Why bother with a written Constitution, we should just rule by Icelandic Sagas.Simon notes, obviously not in approval, that our Nobel Peace Prize President "has never missed an opportunity to dip his robes in the symbolic blood of capital punishment."
Schlesinger's speech in 1968 focused on his criticism of Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse's social theory, and his essay Repressive Tolerance in particular. Maybe I'll deal with Schlesinger's comments on that in a later post. Here I'll just note that he shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Marcuse's viewpoint in calling it a kind of "existential politics" that "springs much more from Sorel than from Kierkegaard." Whatever existential elements may have been in Marcuse's politics, it didn't stem for Sorel or very much from Kierkegaard. Fourier and Hegel would have been closer to the mark.
But what is striking about Schlesinger's discussion of violence is that he straightforwardly names the Vietnam War as a likely source:
The causes of student insurgency vary from college to college, and from country to country. It would seem likely that the primary incitement in our own nation has been the war in Vietnam - a war which has tempted our government into its course of appalling and insensate destruction, a war which, through the draft, has demanded that young Americans kill and die where they can see no rational relationship between personal sacrifice and national interest. But the cause is also more than the Vietnam war. For that war has come for many to prefigure a larger incomprehensibility, a larger absurdity, even a larger wickedness, in our official society. For some it has come to seem, not an aberration, but the inevitable result of the irremediable corruption of the American system.As advocates of domestic arms proliferation have been quick to point out since the mass gun murders in Aurora, violent crime has declined in the United States in recent years. Not having looked closely at the statistics lately, I would assume that the aging of the population has been a major factor. If there is any causal relationship between the proliferation of guns and the reduction in violent crime, I haven't seen it documented. There is a correlation, but there's also a correlation between the reduction of violent crime in the US and the growth of population in India. Correlation doesn't equal causation.
I cannot share the belief that there was something foreordained and ineluctable about the war in Vietnam - that the nature of American society would have compelled any set of men in Washington to pursue the same course of folly. This really seems determinist nonsense. [Schlesinger is referring there to some of the more simplistic theories of imperialism popular at the time.] One can still understand, though, why the contradictions of our society weigh so heavily on the young - the contradictions between the righteousness of a Secretary of State and the ruthlessness of a B-52; between the notion that violence is fine against simple folk ten thousand miles away and shocking against injustice in our own land; between the equality demanded by our constitutional structure and the equality denied by our social structure; even between the accepted habits of one generation and the emerging habits of the next, as when a parent tipsy on his fourth martini begins a tirade against marijuana. [my emphasis]
But there are violent crimes going on and enough mass murders that our political elites and mass media have essentially accepted them as routine parts of American life, more worthy of coverage than jaywalking or burglary, but not much worthy of special concern.
I've pretty much always been very skeptical about violence in movies, TV or even comic books somehow being a significant cause of real-life violence. (Schlesinger around that time was also pointing to such sources as likely causes.) People over the age of around six can tell the difference between stories and real life.
Military violence, and the mass reverence for it in American society, are very much real life. So is capital punishment. And the fact that it's now considered perfectly acceptable to fantasize out loud about slaughtering military foes, assassinating even American citizens from the air without an indictment much less a trial, and putting convicted criminals to death must be having some kind of real-world effect in changing standards toward violence.
Forensic psychologist Karen Franklin offered some very helpful reminders after the Aurora shooting about jumping to conclusions or looking for simple explanations for such events or easy solutions for the problem, Aurora massacre: To speak or not to speak? In The News 07/22/2012.
In the longer term, though, it's well worth considering what role the psychological militarization of American political discussion, and the long-term effects of the military preparedness rhetoric Cold War which has now morphed into the Long War has on incidents of violence and mass murder in the United States.
Tags: arthur schlesinger jr, aurora shooting, vietnam war