Erotic Untruth and the Violence of January 6

The January 6 attack on the US Capitol gives us a lesson in the futility of violence.

Human beings have a terrifying tendency to kill each other over horseshit (to use a technical term).  Violence typically rests upon a delusion.  The bigger the lie, the worse the violence. 

Religious and ideological warfare are extreme cases.  Terrorism and cult violence routinely occur: with Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate, Aum Shinrikyo, the Manson Family, in Waco with David Koresh, and so on.  There is an analogy linking QAnon to al Qaeda. 

Some of the Trump insurrectionists believed outrageous falsehoods: that Biden and Pelosi were communists; that Covid-19 was a sinister plot; that pedophiles, Satanists, and lizard people had infiltrated the government.  This horseshit was accompanied by other more insidious lies: that the election had been stolen; and that the Congress and Vice-President could overturn the Electoral College. 

A broth of bullshit was brewing when the President said, “Our country has been under siege for a long time.”  He said, “If you don’t fight like Hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”  This rhetoric is eschatological and existential.  It is not surprising that the pot boiled.

The rioters believed they were patriots leading a noble revolution.  But they did not seem to think beyond the immediate outburst of violence.  What was supposed to happen next?  And why did they think they could get away with it?

Some have blamed the rioters’ obliviousness on the sense of impunity that comes from white supremacy.  But at bottom this was a product of the delusion of violence.

Violence is mired in immediacy.  It is reactive and episodic.  Violence focuses the mind on the present moment.  Violence promises simplicity, clarity, and consummation.

This promise is false, of course.  But violence is not about truth.  It is about power in the moment.  It is an expression of anger and contempt.  It is not strategic.  It is emotional, exciting, and erotic.

Tangled webs of braggadocio and bullshit typically lead to violence.  Closed networks reinforce delusion and breed a sense of superiority and impunity.  Critical thought is destroyed by anger, fear, and the love of brothers-in-arms.  When the delusions are eschatological, common sense is trampled underfoot. 

We have known that violence is rooted in psycho-social dynamics since Cain killed Abel and Achilles sailed off to Troy.  Freud described how hate and violence are perversely linked to love.  Aggression against “the other” binds us together and gives us meaning. 

It does not matter that our ideology is a lie.  In fact, falsehood binds us tighter together in an erotic dance.  When some “other” challenges our delusions, we strike out.  When those delusions involve love and identity, the other becomes a menace who must be destroyed. 

Religious violence has often worked this way.  Sometimes religious violence involves tangible conflicts about land or resources.  The Crusades had political and economic causes.  But the faithful frequently fight in the name of the fabulous.  The warriors themselves want glory, as well as penance and atonement.  They want to be purged and healed, uplifted and inspired.

And so human beings continue to kill and die in defense of unprovable myths.  The most dangerous myth of all is the myth that links violence to righteousness and redemption.  Prior to Trump’s speech on January 6, Rudy Giuliani proposed “trial by combat.”  This medieval nonsense holds that somehow the gods ensure that the righteous defeat the unholy. 

But violence has nothing to do with morality.  Good guys get killed as easily as bad.  Violence occurs at the level of physical power.  It decides nothing about truth, holiness, or moral worth. 

The myth of violence is essentially pagan.  It reflects a primitive theology.  To view the world as a battlefield supervised by the gods is to ignore a more elevated notion of the divinity.  If there is a God, wouldn’t He want us to reason together rather than to kill each other? 

The solution to the problem of violence is as old as Jesus and Socrates.  Jesus said the peacemakers were blessed.  And Socrates encouraged us to ask critical questions about the horseshit that encourages violence.  The truth is that violence is not reasonable.  Nor is it loved by the gods. 

Nonviolence and The 2020 Election

Fresno Bee, November 1, 2020

recent survey concludes, “22% of Biden supporters and 16% of Trump supporters said they would engage in street protests or even violence if their preferred candidate loses.” The good news is that majorities on both sides say they are willing to abide by the election result. But it is appalling that significant numbers of Americans are willing to consider violence. Now is the time for a primer in democratic values, nonviolence, and the rule of law.

Not everyone loves democracy. H.L. Mencken suggested that democracy puts the monkeys in charge of the circus. But in the U.S., we trust the electoral system as a nonviolent mechanism for resolving disputes and transferring power.

The connection between nonviolence and electoral democracy runs deep. Violent movements tend to be secretive and authoritarian, while nonviolent movements are inclusive and transparent. Violence tends to destroy liberty, while nonviolence affirms it. Violence breeds reaction and animosity, while nonviolence creates solidarity that builds community.

The advocates of violence are impetuous and impatient. Violence is unpredictable. And it rarely works. Riots, assassinations, and civil wars do not produce good outcomes. Political violence provokes backlash. It risks collateral damage. It causes people to dig in their heels. And of course, it is illegal.

Faith in the rule of law is foundational. Thomas Paine explained that in “absolute governments” the tyrant is the law. But in America, he said, “the law is king.” Paine was a revolutionary. The American system did begin in violence. But it was violence directed against the lawlessness of British tyranny.

The aspiration of the American revolution was for a stable, public system of law that would replace the reckless will of the tyrant. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton explained that “mutable” government is “mischievous” and “calamitous.” Instability “poisons the blessings of liberty.” A stable constitutional order can “break and control the violence of faction.” The cure for instability and violence is representational government, regular elections and the rule of law.

This system channels animosity into productive activity. If you did not win this time, get better organized and run again. In the meantime, hundreds of nonviolent methods can be employed. This includes petitioning the government and speaking out in public, as well as strikes, boycotts, and civil disobedience. Nonviolence works when it is organized, strategic, creative, and tenacious. The American civil rights movement provides an example.

Nonviolence rests upon fidelity to law. The nonviolent protester is willing to go to jail to mount an internal challenge to the system. She does not seek to evade punishment or to create an alternative system out of the barrel of a gun. Instead she works to transform the system from within.

She also expresses solidarity with her co-citizens, including those with whom she disagrees. Violent law-breaking makes it impossible for arguments to be heard. It also puts co-citizens at risk. Nonviolence opens the door to reasonable discussion. It treats opponents as reasonable beings who can be persuaded. It seeks to convert rather than to coerce.

Ideally the bonds of friendship would hold us together despite our differences. But in this polarized era, it is hopeless to imagine that we could all be friends. We disagree about too much. That’s the reality of liberty. In a free country, we retain the right not to be friends. We are free to disagree, protest, whine, and complain.

But it is the constitutional system that guarantees our right to disagree. So when protests break out after the election, they ought to adhere to the basic principles of a system that allows us to assemble, to petition the government, and to speak freely.

Sometimes it does seem that the monkeys are running the circus. Our differences run deep. But we can find common ground in a shared commitment to liberty and the rule of law. Everyone involved in the electoral process has expressed an implicit faith in this system. To run for office is to agree to abide by the result of the election. To cast a ballot is to affirm that this is a legitimate process. And if you don’t like the result, you can pound your chest and howl and scream, as long as you do so nonviolently.

Nonviolence and Naked Power

Nonviolence exposes the brutality of naked power.  By responding to violence with courage and grace, nonviolence provokes the conscience and inspires solidarity. 

When organized and mobilized, nonviolence can change the world, as it has in many cases.  I discuss this in my new book, Nonviolence: A Quick Immersion.  Nonviolence has been used to overthrow colonial regimes, to oust oppressive governments, and to transform unjust social conditions.  Some of the strategies of nonviolence are quite forceful, involving marches, boycotts, and protests. 

But there is also the startlingly subtle power of unarmored, unclothed vulnerability.  We’ve seen this in recent protests in Portland, Oregon.  One lasting image is of Christopher David calmly withstanding the assault of security forces who beat him with batons and sprayed gas in his face.  There has also been a “wall of moms” who turned out in yellow shirts to challenge the brutality of federal authorities.  And then there was the so-called “Naked Athena,” a woman who danced nude in front of the camouflaged troops.

These techniques have a history. The Civil Rights movement in the U.S. included terrifying images of police beating unarmed people. One famous image is of John Lewis, Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee being beaten by cops in Alabama. This image changed minds. Lewis himself went on to become a Congressman and an influential advocate of racial justice and nonviolence. Lewis died last week.

John Lewis beaten by police in Alabama on “Bloody Sunday” (March 7, 1965)

Images such as these demand that we pick sides.  Violence muddies the waters, making moral judgment more difficult.  When fists fly on both sides, it becomes hard to tell who is right and who is wrong.  But nonviolence is edifying and enlightening.  When armed forces assault vulnerable and exposed bodies, clarity dawns.  When bullies beat and gas defenseless people, moral judgment crystalizes.

By exposing themselves to violence, these activists enact what Vaclav Havel called “the power of the powerless.”  Havel demonstrated how simple acts of defiance were used in resistance to Soviet-backed totalitarianism.  In the background of his account is the parable of the emperor’s new clothes.

The act of pointing out that the emperor is in fact naked exposes the false reality of the power structure.  It soon dawns on us that what we are seeing is a mere show of power, camouflaging its cruelty beneath titles, insignia, flags, and guns.  And once naked power is revealed as such, it appears as flaccid, shameful, shriveled, and puny. 

Guns, gas, and truncheons can do real damage.  But when they are exposed in their pathetic nakedness, they lose their legitimacy.  They can kill us but they can’t convince us.  They can harm us but they cannot dominate our thinking.  They can enforce conformity but they cannot destroy the spirit of liberty.

Which brings me back to the Naked Athena who exposed her body and did so while dancing.  This brave woman transfigured vulnerability into strength, power, and grace.  She revealed a moment of beauty and freedom in the face of brutality.  She thereby transformed the power structure.  The unclothed body is typically seen as a symbol of vulnerability.  Consider the cruelty of forced nudity, as seen in images of naked bodies that come from the Holocaust or from the techniques of torture employed by American forces in Iraq at Abu Ghraib prison. 

But in affirming her nakedness, the Naked Athena forces us to choose sides.  On the one hand, we have guns and uniforms.  On the other, we have vulnerable human bodies—mothers, dancers, and unarmored men.  Which side are you on?

The advocates of nonviolence have always been on the side of the vulnerable.  Jesus offered praise for those who clothed the naked, fed the hungry, and visited the sick.  The Catholic priest John Dear explains, “we come into this world as a vulnerable, nonviolent, powerless baby, and we live in that same vulnerable, nonviolent, powerless state.  In our vulnerable humanity is the power of nonviolence, compassion, and love.”

It is our shared vulnerability that unites us.  The forces of domination want to create unity through violence.  But the advocates of nonviolence aspire to what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the beloved community.”  The recently departed icon of nonviolence, Representative John Lewis put it this way: “We are one people, one family, the human family, and what affects one of us affect all of us.”

When brutality is unleashed upon “the least of these,” as Jesus would put it, we see the shame of violence.  This opens the door toward solidarity.  It pricks the conscience.  And in moments such as these the nakedness of power lies indicted before the power of nakedness.

Nonviolence: A Quick Immersion

I am please to announce the publication of my new book, Nonviolence: A Quick Immersion.

I was invited to write this book in 2019, with the goal of producing a short, readable introduction to nonviolence. Nonviolence is a perennial and important topic. But with the way things have unfolded in 2020, following protests against police brutality and the backlash against these protest by security forces, the topic has become even more important. The publisher agreed to speed up the publication process in light of the unfolding events of 2020. And with substantial effort, we were able to bring the book out in July of 2020.

The book provides an overview of nonviolence. It offers answers to the questions of what nonviolence is, how and why it ought to be used, and who ought to employ it. The book discusses examples of successful nonviolent social protest, from twentieth century movements for civil rights and colonial liberation to the Arab Spring and contemporary Black Lives Matter protests, and considers recent research that explains the power of nonviolence. It also explores philosophical and religious sources of nonviolence, while discussing key historical figures including Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, and Malala Yousafzai. This book offers insight into the link between nonviolence and democracy. It reminds us that nonviolence gives us the power to build a better —more just, truthful, and loving— world.

Oppose Fascism, Affirm Nonviolence

Defeat Fascism

This week the President falsely claimed that a 75-year-old peace activist who was shoved to the ground by cops “could be an ANTIFA provocateur.”  The man, Martin Gugino, hit his head on the pavement, drawing blood.  “Antifa,” in case you don’t know, is short for “anti-fascist.”

Even if he was a member of Antifa (he was not), such treatment by police is not deserved.  In the United States, people have the right to belong to political groups and to protest.  Membership in a group does not give the police permission to assault you. 

In fact, fascism occurs when there is a systematic use of the police to abuse members of certain groups.  This is wrong.  And in the United States it is illegal.  The cops who shoved Gugino have been charged with assault.  This shows that the U.S. is not a fascist country.  We prevent fascism by containing police brutality.

The fascists of the 20th Century like Mussolini and Hitler unleashed the police and para-military thugs on the people.  They used violence to consolidate power under a mythology of racial nationalism.

There have been warnings from mainstream thinkers such as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright about the looming threat of fascism.  But so far, the United States is not fascist.  And I doubt that many Americans long for fascism to come to America.   

I’m not saying it couldn’t happen here.  But Americans are typically anti-fascist.  Americans fought against fascism in World War Two. We are generally outraged by racism. And police brutality is prosecuted. Witness the near universal condemnation of the police killing of George Floyd and the arrest of the cops involved.

Anti-fascism is woven into our traditions and culture.  Our founding myth tells a story of rebellion against tyranny in the name of liberty.  The Constitution prevents authoritarian consolidation of power.  And the Bill of Rights creates strong safeguards against fascism.  The First Amendment guarantees religious liberty, freedom of speech, the free press, and the right to assemble and petition the government.  Other Amendments limit the government’s ability to set up a police state.

It is true that there is a counter-narrative to the American myth.  Native Americans were slaughtered and dispossessed.  Africans were enslaved.  Minority groups were excluded and oppressed.  Thugs lynched Black Americans during the Jim Crow era.  Japanese Americans were rounded up and put in concentration camps during World War Two.  Discrimination and racism continue.

But we have made progress.  The slaves were freed.  Women were given the vote.  Jim Crow was dismantled.  And people continue to take to the streets to demand an end to racism, injustice, and police brutality.

One way to continue to make progress is to oppose fascism.  Americans ought to be anti-fascist.  This means we should be opposed to police brutality, racism, and ethnic nationalism.  To be anti-fascist is to be in favor of liberty and the right to speak, protest, and assemble.

Now let’s consider the question of Antifa, which has become a bogeyman for President Trump.  Antifa appears to be a loose collective of activists opposed to racists and neo-Nazis (see discussions here and here).  If Antifa is committed to violence, then its tactics should be rejected.  But a recent analysis from the Center for Strategic and International Studies concluded that there is no threat to American values posed by Antifa.  And Stanislav Vysotsky, the author of a new book about Antifa, concludes that Antifa is “a decentralized collection of individual activists who mostly use nonviolent methods to achieve their ends.”

This brings us back to Mr. Gugino, whom friends describe as a loving person committed to nonviolence.  Advocates of nonviolence have always been opposed to fascism.  Gandhi was a dedicated anti-fascist who described fascism as a doctrine of the “naked sword” that glorified war and violence. 

To be anti-fascist is be in favor of democracy and opposed to a cult of power, violence, and domination.  The best way to oppose fascism is to affirm nonviolence.  When nonviolent protesters such as Mr. Gugino are assaulted by police, the specter of fascism appears.  But when police brutality is prosecuted, this ghost is exorcised.