Monday, January 23, 2017

Liberals are talking about Gandhi again

Friday's counterattack against Richard Spencer has prompted the usual recriminations from liberal critics of violent protest - and among them, Clare Coffey notes, are an unusual number of appeals to absolute pacifism. It doesn't have to be that way; the simpler thing would just be to say that this particular act of violence was ill-advised, which you can do even while leaving the door open to other acts of violence. Chomsky:
...should we take our guns, go out in the street and start destroying Chase Manhattan bank? Well, if you want to get killed in five minutes that's a good suggestion...are there circumstances in which it might be justified to take up arms to overthrow a repressive government? Yeah, sure. For example, I was in favor of the conspirators who tried to kill Hitler. I think that was a good thing to do.
This isn't a particularly ambitious line of argument; Chomsky just relies on principles that most people agree with, like "avoid inconsequential suicide", to advise against violence in a particular case. A liberal who wanted to make this kind of point against punching Spencer would still be wrong, but at least he would still be operating within the intellectual and moral framework of liberalism.

Instead, we're seeing another kind of objection entirely: grand philosophical claims like "violence breeds violence" that are decisively at odds with what liberals actually believe. This point is even clearer when we consider just how many liberals are appealing to Gandhi, who consistently grounded his objections to violence in radical Hindu mysticism. Consider four of the actual arguments Gandhi made about violence against Nazis - what liberal will openly endorse this?

1. Pacifism is such an absolute moral imperative that we should even be willing to accept the complete annihilation of an ethnic minority or target nationality. Gandhi, to the people of occupied Czechoslovakia: "If Hitler is unaffected by my suffering, it does not matter. For I shall have lost nothing worth. My honour is the only thing worth preserving." On the holocaust: "The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews...if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and the God-fearing, death has no terror." To the people of Great Britain: "You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want...If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allows yourselves man, woman and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them."
2. Pacifism is worth it if it makes murderous oppressors feel bad about what they did in retrospect. "The German Jews will score a lasting victory over the German gentiles in the sense that they will have converted the latter to an appreciation of human dignity."
3. Violent defense of the oppressed deprives them of the opportunity to experience the personal growth that comes from suffering, and also delays their entrance into the afterlife. "And suffering voluntarily undergone will bring [the Jews] an inner strength and joy which no number of resolutions of sympathy passed outside Germany can. Indeed, even if Britain, France and America were to declare hostilities against Germany, they can bring no inner joy, no inner strength...[Death] is a joyful sleep followed by a joyful waking that would be all the more refreshing for the long sleep."
4. Violence is never justified because Hindu metaphysics teach us that there are no such things as facts. "Satyagraha...excludes the use of violence because man is not capable of knowing the absolute truth and, therefore, not competent to punish."

None of this is to contest Gandhism itself; if you buy into his metaphysics, it makes perfect sense. Similarly, if (say) you accept the Mennonite understanding of Jubilee as "a theological concept providing insight into the nature of God...[as] a guide for living which is to be observed in normal daily practice among believers" (Sloan, 297) then it might make sense to invoke John Howard Yoder or Menno Simons in your complaints about Nazi-punching. The same goes for pacifists from Tolstoy to MLK: in every case, their ethic is embedded in a broader intellectual and philosophical framework (often with religious facets) that has to be accepted or abandoned as a whole.

Suffice to say that almost none of the people who are invoking pacifist icons and pacifist slogans like "violence begets violence" actually take any of this seriously, or even aspire to apply these principles consistently. This is at the very least hypocritical; it represents a disrespectfully opportunistic and selective approporiation from the struggles and traditions of other cultures; and it reflects, in its motivated reasoning, the liberal fetishization of order and procedure that becomes indistinguishable, in its extreme, from the inhuman operation of fascism itself.