There is irony that flies and irony too heavy to leave the ground. Sometimes you can tweak the flightless variety a bit, sometimes not. I tried and failed in my first attempt at this one a couple of days back, to the horror of more than one reader. I will give it a more straightforward shake, lose some of the italics, try to say directly what I meant to say the first time.
I endorse gentleness and mildness, and strive to maintain these qualities above all, although it is not easy work. Our society is violent, competitive and challenging, for one thing. Most humans are prone to anger when mistreated or frustrated. It is an almost irresistibly good feeling to be right, to feel justified, to prevail. This reflex to prevail is a common cause of friction and leads to righteous anger when we feel wronged or victimized in our zero sum society. Wars are fought, faces punched, prisons filled, lives destroyed, out of righteous anger.
Our society’s laws, not always designed to ensure fairness, can be seen as the organized expression of this rage to be right. Follow me here: laws are made by those with the power to institutionalize their unfair advantage, no matter how grotesque, and to enforce it by deadly state action, if necessary. The penalty for looting after a natural disaster and making off with a bag of groceries — prison, if you’re not shot first. The penalty for participating in, and profiting handsomely from, billion dollar financial fraud — it’s complicated.
Our land of the free and the home of the brave, the worlds’ first modern republican democracy, was for a century a land of slavery. This history is considered ancient and is rarely discussed at any depth. The arguments against slavery are many, well-known, have in recent times won the day. It seems beyond dispute now that slavery is evil, morally repugnant and illegal. The single compelling argument for a century of American slavery was this: we need them to make ourselves wealthier by having a slave economy, fuck you, stay out of our way of life.
The bitter, bloody struggle that resulted in the abolition of American slavery was over for less than a decade before a legally sanctioned new version of The Peculiar Institution was set in place for a century by Supreme Court skullduggery and racist codes of strict segregation violently maintained by terrorism winked at under the laws of the former slave states. The struggle for freedom for the descendants of slaves during that century cost many brave lives.
Today many Americans feel satisfied that slavery is deep in our past, some consider us a “post racial society”, since we now have a half-black man in the White House. Can anyone really say with a straight face that our ongoing history of racism at law and in practice has ever been seriously addressed in this country?
Slavery and racism are considered by many as elements of ancient history, and they are hot subjects that raise hackles on both sides. Fine, then, let’s grant that American racism is all in the past, for the sake of moving on and take a look at more recent outrages at law.
We have been, since the devastating, coordinated terrorist attacks of 9/11/01, engaged in a permanent war against terrorism, The War on Terror, a war that is used to justify many excesses including the murder of many blameless civilians in a number of countries, right now.
Soon after the 9/11 attacks Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld fired chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Hugh Shelton, a commander reluctant to abandon legal safeguards designed to minimize the deaths of innocent people and ensure a solid intelligence foundation before employing elite, secret black ops squads to kill suspected terrorists. Rumsfeld replaced him with a new general who agreed with the sleek, muscular, infinitely flexible new black ops policy the Bush administration had in mind to go after al Qaeda and similar groups.
They sincerely believed that preventing the killing of innocent civilians was a meaningless consideration in an all out existential world-wide War On Terror. Collateral damage, Rumsfeld and the Bush administration believed, is inevitable and, if kept secret, not something many Americans would get excited about. They were correct in that calculation. What you don’t know, you don’t want to know, even if you thought you might have needed to know it, if you know what I’m saying.
Before circumventing the letter, spirit and intent of national security and anti-torture laws and treaties, the administration hired a team of lawyers to write preemptive justifications detailing why they are legally allowed, even obliged, to not follow the laws they were willfully violating.
What makes all this intolerable for an idealist who believes, Anne Frank-like, in spite of it all, in democracy, is that these legal justifications are classified, state secrets kept from the citizens of the world’s greatest democracy. And once these secret policies are given a fig leaf of legality and put into motion, it is almost impossible to stop them. Our current president has stepped up the secret killings and prosecuted journalists under a 1917 anti-espionage statute carrying the death penalty to prevent the release of truths about our policies that might embolden our many enemies.
Righteous rage can be intoxicating to a maniac. While intoxicated with what feels to him like righteous rage, spraying machine gun fire at inhuman enemies seems like a reasonable thing to do. After that, though, the let down often comes quickly. After a moment’s reflection the maniac is as likely to turn the gun on himself as to do anything else.
Personally, no matter how provoked or worked up, I would err on the side of pausing to take a few breaths before capitulating to rage and smashing someone’s fez.
Unless under direct physical threat, being gentle, calm and soft-spoken is usually much more productive than being righteously enraged, agitated, loud, and ready for justifiable violence.
Of course, I know where I live and I fully realize how idiotic what I’m saying sounds. Even if I’m totally right.