Tag Archives: Violence

Baltimore and the Tradition of American Rioting

The militarization of city police forces is a spark that's leghting up neighborhoods primed for explosition by decades of beneath-the-surface social unrest.

The militarization of city police forces like those in Baltimore is a spark that’s lighting up neighborhoods primed for explosion by decades of beneath-the-surface social unrest.

Another day in America, another racially charged urban riot sparked by the suspicious death of a black person at the hands of the police.

This time, it’s happening in Baltimore, where there continues to be a glaring lack of information regarding the death of a Freddie Gray. Police arrested Gray on April 12 — for no reason other than the fact that Gray apparently ran — and by April 19, Gray died from “spinal injuries.” If that seems bizarre, that’s because it is. According to witness Kevin Moore, who recorded Gray’s arrest, the cops had Gray “folded up like he was a crab, or like a piece of origami.” Go ahead and view the video at the link, it’s not easy to watch, unless maybe you’re an advanced Yogi who’s used to having your body turned into an Auntie Anne’s pretzel.

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Christianity, Islam, and the American Aversion to Nuance

President Barack Obama does prayer stuff at the National Prayer Breakfast, an event that shouldn't even exist.

President Barack Obama does prayer stuff at the National Prayer Breakfast.

Americans don’t do nuance. The basic dictionary definition of nuance is “a subtle difference in or shade of meaning, expression, or sound,” and boy does this ever go against the American predilection for dualistic thinking in absolutely everything. From the highest level political “masterminds,” to the status-anxiety wracked petite bourgeoisie, to the common blue-collar Bubba, Americans prefer simplistic approaches to a very complicated world. They therefore derive thought-free comfort in the notions that black and white long ago teamed up to gag the numerous shades of grey with a balled-up American flag, that there is only good (America) and evil (everything that isn’t America), and that might ALWAYS equals right — at lease when America uses might.

And no U.S. subculture better exemplifies this inoculation-proof allergy to nuance better than the conservative hive-mind. Yes, if Americans in general prefer simple answers to complex problems, the Right Wing goes a step further: they deny that complex problems even exist. Thus, we have the dunder-headed conservative reaction to President Barack Obama’s invocation at the 2015 National Prayer Breakfast. Continue reading

Why Americans Really, Really, REALLY Love Football

Football fans, even those dedictaed to the lowley Cleveland Browns, bring sports enthusiasm to bizzarre new levels.

Football fans, even those dedicated to the lowly Cleveland Browns, bring sports enthusiasm to bizarre new levels.

Football is the most red-blooded, über-masculine, überAmerican thing on planet earth. That’s right: FOOTBALL. No, I’m not talking about that ridiculous spectacle in which namby-pamby, ethnically ambiguous European men in short shorts traverse across a sprawling, artificially constructed field trying to catapult a checkered spherule into a large trawling net without using their hands as millions of highly inebriated spectators look on from tax-payer-subsidized coliseum stands. Americans have a word for that: it’s called soccer, and we use it to keep our 2.5 suburban children occupied after school on weekdays.

No, the football I’m talking about puts those European pantywaists to shame. REAL football — AMERICAN football — is a completely non-ridiculous, unquestionably heterosexual sporting spectacle in which gargantuan men in tight pants traverse across a sprawling, artificially constructed field while trying to tackle each other with the ultimate goal of carrying a prolate spheroid far enough to win the right to kneel down and praise their sky-dwelling prime mover — all as millions of highly inebriated spectators look on from tax-payer-subsidized coliseum stands. Continue reading

“For what they died, I fight a little longer:” More on National Blood Sacrifice

Soldiers' Graves at Vicksburg National Cemetery, Mississippi. Some of the graves remain unmarked and unidentified.

Soldiers’ Graves at Vicksburg National Cemetery, Mississippi. Some of the graves remain unmarked and unidentified.

As a way of building on some points I made in the previous post about the interconnectedness between modern nation-states and mass violence, Dan Vermilya has an interesting post at his blog Our Country’s Fiery Trial.  Vermilya is a Park Ranger at Antietam National Battlefield, who previously worked at Gettysburg National Historical Park. Reflecting on the meaning imparted by national parks that preserve the sights of mass slaughter during the Civil War, he emphasizes the usual, though still important, roles battlefields serve in reminding contemporary Americans why so many men died during that horrendous conflict. We as the American populace continue to honor the Civil War dead for making the “last full measure of devotion,” for sacrificing their bodies on the nation’s altar.

Such an idea is so commonplace, however, that I think its easy to really gloss over the full meaning implicit behind such sentiments, namely, that it is impossible to separate violence from the idea of the modern American nation. If we imagine the United States as metaphorically being constructed out of bricks, those bricks only hold together because they are tempered with the blood of the 600,00o plus soldiers who died at places like Antietam. The traditional, and far more inspiring way to acknowledge this national blood sacrifice is through honor and gratitude. As an example of this, Vermilya prints a portion of an 1881 letter written by Rufus Dawes, a veteran of the 6th Wisconsin, to his wife. In the letter, Dawes recounts his visit to Arlington National Cemetery, where he gazed over the graves of his fallen comrades:

I looked over nearly the full 16,000 headboards to find the twenty-four, but they all died alike and I was determined to find all. Poor little Fenton who put his head above the works at Cold Harbor and got a bullet through his temples, and lived three days with his brains out, came to me in memory as fresh as one of my own boys of to-day, and Levi Pearson, one of the three brothers of company ‘A,’ who died for their country in the sixth regiment, and Richard Gray, Paul Mulleter, Dennis Kelly, Christ Bundy, all young men, who fell at my side and under my command. For what they died, I fight a little longer. Over their graves I get inspiration to stand for all they won in establishing our government upon freedom, equality, justice, liberty and protection to the humblest.

The key statement in this passage is “for what they died, I fight a little longer.” And what did these men die for? They died for their country, of course. Their blood spilled so that a government of “freedom, equality, justice, liberty and protection to the humblest ” might live on. Generally, we give such sentiments the due respect they deserve. Yet, to fully understand the meaning of such sentiments, we would do well to consider that violence; horrible, mass violence, is intrinsically tied to our modern concept of nationalism. And we continue to legitimize that violence.

Each Memorial Day, Americans remember those who gave their lives to their country, but they also, by extension, sanctify and consecrate the mass violence that was integral to the creation of the modern American nation. This is the darker side of patriotism, the darker side of honoring war dead, because through such rituals, we tacitly acknowledge, even embrace, a history of brutal acts on human bodies committed by other humans. So ingrained is the idea of blood sacrifice in modern national cultures the world over that we scarcely stop to wonder if by turning the macabre act of war into a regular, communal ceremony, we lose perspective over our stated human desires for peace. Of course, through honoring war dead, we promote the notion that their blood sacrifice will bring about peace. Historically, however, violence begets violence in a continually repeating pattern. This was certainly true with the Civil War: the end of the formal fighting gave way to a savage, decades-long cycle of terroristic racial violence, the legacy of which we’re still dealing with today.

From the February 10, 2009 New York Times. An undated photo shows American military personnel with coffins of soldiers killed in Iraq at Dover Air Base in Delaware.

From the February 10, 2009 New York Times. An undated photo shows American military personnel with coffins of soldiers killed in Iraq at Dover Air Base in Delaware.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t honor war dead by acknowledging that they paid the ultimate sacrifice. But it is to say that if we’re serious about taming the level of mass violence in the modern world, perhaps we should be aware of how commonly we sanctify violence in the name of our most cherished ideals, especially nationalism. I mean, if we really want that cake, we should at least be aware of how many eggs we need to crack.

The Age of Violence Continues?

Dead soldiers litter the killing fields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 1863.

Dead soldiers litter the killing fields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 1863.

Is the human race predestined to off itself in a vicious orgy of mass violence? Lawrence Wittner, professor of History at SUNY/Albany, thinks so. In a post for the History News Network’s blog, Wittner ruminates on the continued popularity of mass violence in the form of warfare throughout the modern world. Citing the over a hundred million deaths resulting from the two World Wars of the 20th century, the continued persistence of 21st century warfare in the Developing World, and the trillions spent on military buildup in the so-called First World, Wittner sees a dreary pattern of death and destruction that may spell the end of humankind in the near future. He’s particularly worried about the human propensity towards mass violence in a world where many nations continue to proliferate their nuclear arsenals. Wittner observes that:

Resorting to violence is a long-term, deeply-ingrained habit in human history, and is not easily discarded. To shake it probably requires less attention to a royal childbirth or the latest sex scandal and more attention to the dangers of mass violence in an age of modern weaponry and war. This was certainly what the French writer, Albert Camus, meant when, in the immediate aftermath of World War II and the first use of nuclear weapons, he offered a simple but powerful challenge: “All I ask is that, in the midst of a murderous world, we agree to reflect on murder and to make a choice.”

Wittner’s concerns are certainly valid, but in questioning whether or not humans can ever curb their lust for conflict, he’s hitting on a debate that is as old as human society itself. Wittner’s conclusions, for example, contradict Steven Pinker’s claims in his best-selling book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. Pinker argues that in terms of the broader historical arch of human history, violence is actually on the decrease, and that the 21st century is the most peaceful century ever. Pinker’s book has proven rather controversial, especially in a contemporary world beset by economic downturns, social instability, and understandable mass cynicism about world politicians’ ability to deal with such pressing problems. Americans in particular are inclined to be resigned towards accepting violence as an inevitable reality of modern life. In an article for Global Research, for example, John Cozy thinks that violence infiltrates most aspects of American life:

The United States of America was conceived and nurtured by violence. The Europeans who colonized America were neither tolerant or enlightened; they were the dregs of society, and they even despised each other. The totally impure Puritans of Massachusetts despised the Quakers of Pennsylvania and the Catholics of Maryland. In the Pequot War, English colonists commanded by John Mason, launched a night attack on a large Pequot village on the Mystic River and burned the inhabitants in their homes and killed all survivors. By conservative estimates, the population of the United states prior to European colonization was greater than 12 million. Four centuries later, the count has been reduced to 237,000. Four centuries of continuous violence against native Americans, and the violence persists.

I could easily accuse Cozy of hyperbole, of which he is certainly guilty to a point, but he rightfully identifies the prevalence of violence in American culture that has been an issue since the founding generation first decided to stick a massive splinter in King George’s posterior. That said, Cozy nonetheless overemphasizes the United States’ uniqueness in terms of its violent history in the modern era. In fact, most of the world is still living in the midst of the great Age of Violence that began in the 18th century, intensified in the 19th century, and exploded into the 20th century’s ultra-violent conflicts. Four major trends underlay outbreaks of mass violence throughout the world in the modern era: race/ethnicity, nationalism, economics, and religion. No violent conflict embodies the potent stew of these factors better than the American Civil War.

Beginning in the 18th century, the great European mercantilist powers began competing for territorial and economic control of North America. In such bloody conflicts as the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, these great powers unleashed a new nationalist movement that eventually bore fruit in the formation of the United States. Conceived as a secular republic without a state religion, the U.S., like many of the European powers of the time, enshrined nationalism as new type of civic religion to which citizens owed their devotion. The “last full measure of devotion,” in Abraham Lincoln’s immortal words, was to give one’s life for one’s country, a form of modern bodily sacrifice in which mortals sanctified the national spirit with an offering of blood, so that the nation might live on in the face of threat’s to its very existence.

When combined with the Market Revolution’s unleashing of a dynamic capitalist economy in the early 19th century, part of which saw the expansion of the southern system of racial slavery that fueled widening sectional divisions, splitting North and South along economic, religious, political, and nationalistic lines, the idea of the “last full measure of devotion”  resulted in the most violent conflict to ever erupt on American soil. The Civil War, like other wars of the time, was a war in the name of the new civic religion of nationalism. It legitimized mass violence by amassing two competing armies that acted in the name of their respective Union and Confederate nation-states. These armies proceeded to cut each other to pieces in Hellish killing fields like Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Gettysburg, and Shiloh.

Beyond nationalism, each side claimed divine sanction for their mass violence: the Confederates insisted that they represented a uniquely Christian nation, while the Union saw itself as leading God’s heavenly march to bring freedom to all the world against the tyranny of the great Southern Slave Power. And slavery, of course, was the issue. The debate over slavery encompassed the intertwined issues of nationalism, race, economics, and religion during the Civil War era. The South attempted to protect a slave investment that, as historian James Huston notes, represented 3 billion dollars of investment, more than the combined value of northern railroads and other industries. The South decided to protect slavery by establishing an independent nation that claimed to be the world’s first powerful, pro-slavery republic, a republic built on white supremacy and sanctioned by the Christian God. While the North shared the concept of white supremacy with the Confederacy, it rejected the right of secession, which Lincoln characterized as the “essence of anarchy,” and depicted itself as the only potential vanquisher of the anti-democratic Slave Power that corrupted republican institutions with the sin of human bondage.

John Steuart Curry's mural "Tragic Prelude" (1938-1940), at the Kansas State House depicts radical Abolitionist John Brown as a symbol of how the combined issues of nationalism, racial slavery, and religious fanaticism resulted in the Civil War.

John Steuart Curry’s mural “Tragic Prelude” (1938-1940), at the Kansas State House depicts radical Abolitionist John Brown as a symbol of how the combined issues of nationalism, racial slavery, and religious fanaticism resulted in the Civil War.

We know how this conflict ended, of course, because we are still living with its legacy in the 21st century. Not just the United States, but the entire world is largely organized around the social-political lines established during the 19th Century Age of Violence. Large, secular nation-states are now the principal form of human political organization, and they still seek independence and power, and they do so by constructing mass armies that hold a monopoly on violence to defend their national interests. Further, while legal slavery has been abolished (illegal slavery is thriving in the world at a sickening rate), the continued growth of globalized capitalism over the past 150 years has spurred an even greater demand for resources to feed the world-wide marketplace’s insatiable hunger for greater and greater wealth. Religion, of course, has not stood spectator to this process. The U.S., for example, continues to inject religion into all of its major foreign and domestic issues, while even greater mass violence has erupted in former Western colonies in Asia and the Middle East, as largely Islamic religious fundamentalists invoke hard-line belief systems as antidotes to the perceived corruptions of the modern globalized world.

Its no surprise, then, that mass violence should still be common in the world today. The modern world as we know it was born and baptized in violence. Whether or not the contemporary world is more or less violent than in the past remains a controversial, and likely unsettled, question, but focusing too narrowly on that question tends to miss the more obvious problem: building societies around multiple competing nationalistic, economic, racial, and religious factions is a recipe for continued violence. So what’s the alternative? Damn if I know, but there’s certainly no harm in thinking about new forms of human organization if doing so has the chance to decrease violence. After all, what to we have to lose, except possibly our lives?