Quotations and excerpts from Stephen L. Carter’s The Violence of Peace (2011) (emphasis in red is added):
It is an article of faith among many on the left that there exist on the right some who were chomping at the bit to strike Iraq, and that any evidence, however specious, would do. It is an article of faith among many on the right that there exist on the left some who will never find any war to their liking, and will seize upon any evidence, however specious, to justify their disapproval. Perhaps there is something to these ad hominem fears, but they are uninteresting to the scholar and, in a wiser world, would be equally uninteresting to politicians and pundits. Evidence and argument, not preexisting prejudices, should guide us in our moral lives, particularly when we ponder so momentous a moral decision as whether to move a nation to war.
When we contemplate disaster, our heuristics misfire. Catastrophic harms tend to be treated, in our minds and in our regulations, as far more likely than they are. And, certainly, successful terror attacks are considered catastrophic. The public position is, in effect, zero tolerance. If no attacks are permitted, then no risks can be taken. Thus a risk of 1 percent becomes too high.
Classifying everything unpleasant as “torture” makes a mockery of language. We must not redefine terms to the extent that we become unable to reason about distinctions. Threatening to kill a prisoner is horrific, but not as horrific as actually killing him. Holding him in a position that stresses his knees is outrageous, but not as outrageous as breaking his knees. Forcing him to listen to loud and noxious sounds is terrible, but not as terrible as cutting off his ears. When we say that all that is bad is identical, we are not creating useful moral bright lines; we are, rather, establishing our own moral laziness, our inability to admit that even among those things that shock our consciences, there are degrees of shock.
In war, says Walzer, there is often “a kind of killing frenzy that begins in combat and ends in murder.” There may even be a sort of “temporary insanity”: “a frenzy of fear such that the soldier cannot recognize the moment when he is no longer in danger.” The point is that, in war, decent people fighting for the just side will at times do terrible things. To pretend that their emotions will never get the better of them is childish. To seek somehow to bring them all to justice is again to confuse cause and effect. The war itself is the cause—not some defect in the nature of a few wayward soldiers, but the war itself. That was Sherman’s point: “You cannot help yourself.” You try. You do your best. You train your people, you hammer home the rules, and, if you really care about what happens in the battle, you raise your children to believe the same propositions. If you are serious, you might even build your society around self-discipline and self-denial, even in the face of horror and fear. But, in the end, no matter what, your efforts will be imperfect.89 If you fight a war, terrible things will happen. If you do not want terrible things to happen, do not fight any wars, but bear in mind the risk that the rest of the world might not mind doing terrible things quite as much as you do.
Although there are those on the right who look at our warlike President [Obama] and accuse him of cynicism, and there are those on the left who look at the same President and accuse him of betrayal, I think the truth is different. For it is a painful fact known to all of us, but too often forgotten, that deciding is a more difficult matter than criticizing. It might even be that Obama the insider has realized what Obama the outsider did not: whatever the mistakes of his predecessor, President Bush acted out of a belief in the urgency of the threat facing the nation. The threat was neither invented nor imagined, but is instead out there in the world. The plotting against America continues. If you pay attention, you can hardly miss the fresh headlines every month or so about another conspiracy blocked by federal authorities.
[W]ar rarely accomplishes its objectives except imperfectly. As the church historian Robert Bainton has noted, commenting on the pre-Pearl Harbor support among some Christians for American entry into World War II: “To be sure, the war might not establish democracy, liberty, and a just and enduring peace. The only thing war can ever do is to restrain outrageous villainy and give a chance to build again.”
p. 161 (quoting Niebuhr’s 1948 essay “Why the Christian Church is not Pacifist”):
A decision to intervene in the affairs of another country is no doubt in the end a matter of politics. But the arguments for it are moral. Not every form of government is equal. One thinks here of Reinhold Niebuhr: “Pacifism either tempts us to make no judgments at all, or to give an undue preference to tyranny in comparison with the momentary anarchy which is necessary to overcome tyranny.” Niebuhr points to the tendency of many pacifists to hubris, because of the belief that they have found the one true solution to the brokenness of man, whereas (in Christian terms, and one would hope in the terms of secular morality as well) none of us can ever be sure. Whatever the attraction of pacifism when you alone are under threat, there is less virtue in being pacifist when called upon to defend someone else.
But a moral individual who cares about others still has to decide what the people in Darfur ought to do about the slaughter; or whether anybody else should help. “It’s not my fault” is perhaps the worst reason in the world for doing nothing.
Genocide has always been difficult for genuine pacifists. Consider the Holocaust.
* * *
Gandhi did not merely call for nonviolent rather than violent resistance to Hitler. He evidently believed there was merit in Germany’s claim to lands lost in the First World War, even though he regretted that Hitler had turned to war to attain justice. And Gandhi praised the Nazi leader, arguing that future generations would honor his bravery and genius. True, he also insisted that Hitler’s actions were “monstrous and unbecoming of human dignity.” Yet the praise can hardly be ignored. Probably it was necessary, and not only as a tactic. Gandhi had to believe there was something human and reachable in the worst of dictators, because absent that conscience, nonviolence could never have its desired effect.
This core conception is essential to any pacifism that is not mere pose. Anybody can claim to be a pacifist but politically or intellectually serious pacifism is mature enough to accept the consequences.
* * *
Again, consider the President’s words (about Gandhi’s principles):
But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism—it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.
Gandhi could not possibly endorse any of this.
The office of the Presidency, once assumed, transforms the outlook of its holder. What had seemed frivolous becomes frightening. What had seemed nonsense becomes necessary. The world turns out to be a dangerous place after all. The United States turns out to have actual enemies, people who wish the nation harm, and very few of them are moved by personal loathing for any particular resident of the White House.
I understand why war is not popular, but I also know this: The belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it. Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice. That’s why NATO continues to be indispensable. That’s why we must strengthen U.N. and regional peacekeeping, and not leave the task to a few countries. That’s why we honor those who return home from peacekeeping and training abroad to Oslo and Rome; to Ottawa and Sydney; to Dhaka and Kigali—we honor them not as makers of war, but of wagers—but as wagers of peace.
Christopher Beha, The Index of Self-Destructive Acts (Tin House Books 2020).
The Index of Self-Destructive Acts is the total number of hits batsmen, wild pitches, balks and errors by a pitcher, per nine innings.
Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (2003).
Baseball, math, crime, and faith in New York City! What could go wrong? Beha follows his two earlier novels with a beautifully written narrative about a wealthy family and those who intersect their lives.
Frank Doyle is a baseball writer turned political columnist turned pariah whose career may be jump started by a magazine profile written by Sam Waxworth, wunderkind baseball statistician turned political prognosticator turned writer about all things that succumb to numerical analysis. Frank’s wife, Kit, is on the back end of a lucrative career in investment banking. Their adult children (Eddie and Margot) are largely directionless, but in interesting ways. Eddie has wandered into and out of the military, Margot has wandered into and out of graduate school in poetry. There is a rich collection of secondary characters who alternately stress and soothe the Doyles and Waxworth.
Beha’s characters have to deal with the central question of the novel: “What would you change if you knew it was all going to end?” For some of them the question is prospective—”What choices do I have going forward?” For some of them the question is retrospective—”What can I change about the choices I have made in the past?”
For all, like pitchers, they grapple with their tendency to self-destructive acts.
Emily St. John Mandel, The Glass Hotel (Alfred A. Knopf, 2020).*
No one ever thinks they’re awful, even people who really actually are. It’s some sort of survival mechanism.
Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven 106 (2014).
Emily St. John Mandel made our wait pay off, as she has matched her brilliant 2014 fourth novel with an equally brilliant 2020 followup. Although The Glass Hotel is superficially different than the post-apocalyptic Station Eleven, the two novels clearly come from the same pen.
Mandel again weaves chronology and biography to form a pattern which does not become quite distinct until the last pages. This time the fragile narrative winds through the lives of at least ten major and perhaps another thirty minor characters, but with fewer chronological jump-shifts. (Two characters even reappear from Station Eleven, though the two novels cannot quite share the same timeline.) These characters range from the owner and employees of the Hotel Caiette; to the staff and executives of a Wall Street investment company; to the executives and crew of a shipping concern. There are more than a few musicians, artists and addicts.
No spoilers, here, but the many characters glide into and out of “the kingdom of money,” in which the subjects carry themselves with “with the tedious confidence of all people with money, the breezy assumption that no serious harm could come” to them. P. 44. In the kingdom of money, it becomes all too possible for the servants to become invisible. (“[F]or him coffee appearing out of thin air was so commonplace an occurrence it didn’t merit acknowledgement.” P. 70.)
But for Vincent no one ever becomes invisible, and she enters and exits the kingdom with a high degree of intentionality and clarity, even when her decisions may later prove wrong. At one point she thinks I’m paying a price for this life, . . . but the price is reasonable. P. 65. She may have miscalculated, but she was not naïve.
Other characters are not so self-aware, and Mandel describes their predicaments with her typical crystalline prose:
A revelation earned only in hindsight: beauty can have a corrosive effect on character. It is possible to coast for some years on no more than a few polished lines and a dazzling smile, and those years are formative. (p. 95)
It’s possible to both know and not know something,” he said later [and] he spoke for several of us, actually, several who’d been thinking a great deal about that doubleness, that knowing and not knowing, being honorable and not being honorable, knowing you’re not a good person but trying to be a good person regardless around the margins of the bad. (p. 168).
“If we are to be honest with ourselves,” [he] said, “who among us has never made a mistake?” But this was an error, [she] saw that immediately. . . . Could [he] see the error, too? Impossible to tell. . . . He’d made a mistake but he pressed on with the story, like a boy following a dwindling trail into the woods at nightfall. . . . (pp. 216-17)
Mandel’s characters don’t always live in reality, or they flinch from reality’s glare, and so delude themselves to survive.
This is not a perfect book, and Mandel, a Canadian, stumbles over some minor technical American legal points (FBI investigators are “agents” not “detectives”; the attorneys in the trial she describes would have been federal, not state prosecutors), but her sense of the relevant psychology is perfectly lucid—the lines crossed are evident to her characters only on reflection:
He left the office in a daze, but by the time he reached the corner, he realized he couldn’t pretend to be shocked, . . . , because he was already complicit, he was already on the inside, and had been for some time. “You already knew this.,” he heard himself murmuring, speaking aloud. “There are no surprises here. You know what you are.” (p. 192)
Mandel, like Vincent, plays with light and shadows, creating a precise recording of necessarily imprecise subjects—victims who are perpetrators, innocents who choose guilty actions, insightful people who are blind. In the end, the ghosts are all real, but the dreams are nothing but delusions.
*This review originally appeared online in The Englewood Review of Books [link].
I was reminded today of a wonderful anecdote told by C.S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy. Unsatisfied by the progress of his son’s education, Lewis’ father transferred him into the care of a private tutor, William T. Kirkpatrick (“Kirk” or “The Great Knock”) to prepare Lewis for university. Kirk walks Lewis from the train station to his house, and Lewis recalls:
I began to “make conversation” in the deplorable manner which I had acquired at those evening parties and indeed found increasingly necessary to use with my father. I said I was surprised at the “scenery” of Surrey; it was much “wilder” than I had expected.
“Stop!” shouted Kirk with a suddenness that made me jump. “What do you mean by wildness and what grounds had you for not expecting it?”
I replied I don’t know what, still “making conversation.” As answer after answer was torn to shreds it at last dawned upon me that he really wanted to know. He was not making conversation, nor joking, nor snubbing me; he wanted to know. I was stung into attempting a real answer. A few passes sufficed to show that I had no clear and distinct idea corresponding to the word “wildness,” and that, in so far as I had any idea at all, “wildness” was a singularly inept word.
“Do you not see, then,” concluded the Great Knock, “that your remark was meaningless?” I prepared to sulk a little, assuming that the subject would now be dropped. Never was I more mistaken in my life. Having analyzed my terms, Kirk was proceeding to deal with my proposition as a whole. On what had I based . . . my expectations about the Flora and Geology of Surrey? Was it maps, or photographs, or books? I could produce none. It had, heaven help me, never occurred to me that what I called my thoughts need to be [based] on anything. Kirk once more drew a conclusion—without the slightest sign of emotion, but equally without the slightest concession to what I thought good manners: “Do you not see, then, that you had no right to have any opinion whatever on the subject?”
By this time our acquaintance had lasted about three and a half minutes; but the tone set by this first conversation was preserved without a single break during all the years I spent at Bookham.
Perhaps it is all too clear how this anecdote struck me on April 27, 2020. We are now surrounded by a myriad of opinions justified by nearly nothing at all. In the age of too much “information,” we consider it a useful skill to discern which opinions to ignore, but it has been a long time since I remembered that a person might actually be held to account for expressing an irrational opinion.
Jesus said (admittedly in a different context) “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak,” and this is worth remembering and taking to hear—may we be intentional in our speech and take great care with our opinions.
Evangelisto Ramos was tried for second degree murder in Louisiana in 2016. After a two-day trial the jury voted 10-2 to convict him.
In 48 states (and in federal court), this would have resulted in a “hung jury” and a mistrial. Unfortunately for Mr. Ramos, he was tried in Louisiana, which (along with Oregon), permits non-unanimous verdicts, so he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
The question before the Court was whether the conviction was constitutional.
On this point—the point which Evangelisto Ramos was most interested in—the Court decided (6-3)1 that his conviction was not constitutional.
Here’s the scorecard:
Justice Gorsuch, who needed four Justices to join him, managed to make a 5-4 majority out of Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kavanaugh for most of his nine-part opinion. Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, of course were appointed by President Trump. Ginsburg and Breyer were Clinton appointees. Sotomayor was appointed by President Obama.
That means that Gorsuch could not attract the votes of the Chief Justice Roberts or Justice Alito (both George W. Bush appointees) or Justice Kagan (an Obama appointee) for any of his opinion, and that Justice Kavanaugh (Trump) couldn’t agree with him on three parts, and Justice Sotomayor (Obama) could not agree on one part. Justice Thomas (President George H.W. Bush) thought the conviction was unconstitutional, but for a more-or-less completely different reason, so he did not agree with Gorsuch on anything that he wrote, just the decision he made.
Who says that Supreme Court justices vote politically?
1The only other part of the 87 pages of opinions that were published today that garnered this kind of majority was that Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Thomas, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan and Kavanaugh agreed that whatever Justice Gorsuch thought he meant by part IV.A. of his opinion could not possibly be right.
NOTE: The greyed-out sections of the chart represent the parts that are not legally binding—73 out of 87 pages!
P.S. One headline “Supreme Court rules criminal jury verdicts must be unanimous, overturning decades-old precedent,” rather misses the point. Ramos overturns a lone case which stuck out of 500 years of precedent and which was of doubtful coherence—a 4-person plurality opinion combined with an odd 1-person opinion by Justice Powell—that “decided” that Louisiana could sort of get away with it, though Gorsuch writes that “no Member of the Court today defends either [the opinion of the four or the opinion of the one] as rightly decided.”
I have been reading about Flannery O’Connor in Jonathan Rogers, The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor (2012), which is excellent.1
During her life O’Connor was often rebuked for the violence in her fiction, but she explained how it was not at all inconsistent with her Christian faith:
I suppose the reasons for the use of so much violence in modern fiction will differ with each writer who uses it, but in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.2
I was struck by this, I think, because it seems particularly apropos to our current situation in which our lives have been violently reduced, and much that was extraneous has been torn away from us.
It seems to me that O’Connor echoes C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain (p. 81: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”) and in “Learning in War-Time” (The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.”).
O’Connor, as diligent “sub-creator,” looked for ways that her character might be brought to grace — our creator (and hers) is now doing the same.
1Isn’t that a perfect title? The Terrible Speed of Mercy is a great place to start a study of O’Connor. [Ed. note: It turns out that “the terrible speed of mercy” is a phrase of Flannery O’Connor’s.]
2Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (1961) (emphasis added).