Monday, June 27, 2005

"And when justice is gone, there's always force/And when force is gone, there's always Mom"--Laurie Anderson

As Holden has noted, the attitude in some quarters toward American foreign policy has slid from "We don't do that!" to "Damn straight! We're the meanest SOB in the valley!" There is, of course, more than one problem with this, but to condemn it as "immoral" is to apply standards that the offending group clearly does not recognize.

Thus do we quickly find the limits of morality.

It's an age old issue, the distinction between morality and ethics. Since at least the 1960's, and the "establishment clause" cases from the U.S. Supreme Court, law has become the third leg of this stool. Now we struggle to establish the boundaries between what law covers, what morality condemns, and what ethics demands. And more and more, the excuse for doing whatever it is one group wants to do, is to redraw the boundaries of all three so that none apply to the desired action. Which is not so new, either.

And, in good ol' practical, pragmatic America, it's seldom a question of: "Is is right?," but rather: "Is it efficacious?" And, for better or worse, we assign the first question to the realm of morality, the second to ethics. Law is simply what the courts say it is, or what the police will enforce. And all three are treated as if they were made of Play-Doh, and were in fact children's playthings.

What brings this up is the issue of "extraordinary rendition" and the Italian judge who is seeking the arrest of 13 CIA agents. Not being an expert in international law, I can't say whether "extraordinary rendition" is, in any sense, "legal." The best argument for it, though, seems to rest on the "Meanest SOB in the Valley" (as in "Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I shall fear no evil, because...") theory. Or, in simpler terms, whose gonna stop the US from doing it? While that is hardly a legal argument, it is certainly a realistic one. But it also assumes that whether or not such governmental action is legal is irrelevant, because the government will do what it thinks is in the interests of its own preservation, an idea by and large supported by the analysis of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr; although he does not confuse "might" with "right" or even with "morality."

Governments, argues Niebuhr, are, by necessity in fact, amoral. For convenience, let us call this the "realistic" political theory of theology. Governments do what they have to do in order to ensure the survival of the society from which they arise. Which is not to say governments are guided by an "invisible hand" in their dealings, and so always choose either wisely or fairly. It is only to say that government have certain purposes to fulfill, and behaving ethically or morally is not necessarily one of them. Is Machiavelli, then, our only guide?

Not necessarily. Governments may not have to behave morally; but they should behave ethically. Especially when the world is no longer either easily dominated (Roman Empire) or a welter of city-states and principalities (Renaissance Italy) where the rule of cunning guides the rule of force toward the goal of survival. Morality may still tell us what we "ought" to do; ethics, however, still guides us in the ways to achieve balance between our own desires, and what the community will not only allow, but reward.

The Laurie Anderson quote from "O Superman" is appropos here. The "vanished power of the usual reign" follows generally the same trajectory, especially in American history where we have always equated force with justice, and justice with morality, and morality with being on the side of the angels. But when justice fails, as the argument goes it did on September 11, 2001, we have to resort to force. We have to arrest men of "Middle Eastern" ancestry or adherents of the Muslim religion, and we have to question them. We have to sweep battlefields in foreign countries like a broom and collect all manner of humanity in our dust pan and deposit them in places like Gitmo where we can determine: "Friend, or Foe?", and no one is allowed to question our motives or doubt our resolve, because our survival is at stake. But if force no longer protects us, we fall back again on our intentions, our good hearts, on the plea that those who know us really love us, that our mothers told us winners never quit, and quitters never win. When justice and force are gone, there's always Mom; which is to say, there's always morality.

It is our national morality that shields us, that protects us from the consequences of our actions. "No one likes us, I don't know why/We may not be perfect, but heaven knows we try." But that morality is as hard to pin down as it is to nail Jell-O to the wall. And, at the moment, the polls are showing that we are no longer assured that we are right; though we are still assured, that we are mighty.

"When justice is gone, there's always force...."

So questions about "extralegal" remedies like "extraordinary rendition" (it's only kidnapping when "criminals" do it, and governments cannot be criminals; apparently) are questions of law (Who hales the U.S. before a superior tribunal? Who enforces the rule of law against the nation that does not recognize that law? We treat the authority of the World Court as Alice treated the pack of cards led by the Red Queen.). If we are not swayed by legal authority we do not recognize, and we do not apply moral standards to what governments do and what they often must do, what recourse is left?


Aristotle's ethics were not designed as "oughts" coming down from an authority on high, universally applicable to all humankind in a kind of natural law; that was Aquinas, many centuries later. Ethics, for Aristotle, meant merely the customs, the expected and rewarded behaviors he observed among his society. As pragmatic as a 19th century American, Aristotle didn't define ethics in order to tell you what you "ought" to do, but only what you should do, if you wished to obtain a certain goal. And that analysis still applies today, to the behavior of nations.

The "neo-cons" in the Bush administration seem to pride themselves on their pragmatism, their ability to assess harsh reality and determine a path to change it to be more to their liking. To do this, they throw of all perceived constraints of law and morality and ethics. Unfortunately for them, the choice of what to discard is not theirs.

No one gets to set the law aside; not even the ruler. No one can ignore moral claims, not even Satan. And no one can abandon ethical rules, or traduce them, without consequence. Not the consequence of angering some unearthly power; but the consequence of ignoring the standards of behavior of nations.

It should be a commonplace to say we are not the only nation in the world, and that we are not the only people who think our nation, above all others, matters. It should be, but especially since emerging from our national coccoon following World War II, we have yet, as a nation, to abandon our myopia. Despite all the encouraging news that Bush's policies and programs are no longer supported, and may soon not even be tolerated, the real change in the national heart has yet to occur. Iraq is not a debacle because it was the wrong war at the wrong time led by the wrong leaders and fought by too few (pace Sen. Hagel): it is a debacle because war itself is wrong. It is not that the U.S. failed to use its tools properly; it is that we used the wrong tools.

This is all that war can do: destroy. This is the only end to which it can be put: chaos. And this time, we unleashed that chaos. It should be new, but it is new only to the 20th century. The 18th and 19th centuries are filled with violence as the tool for salvation, with imperialist enterprises conducted by the "non-imperialist" power of the United State of America. Bush & Co. have not changed American history; they have repeated it. And until we learn the lesson of ethics as applied to nations, and begin to consider that morality might be a better guide for our actions than expediency, there is no reason to suspect we won't be calling on Mom again, before long.

Addendum: after bringing you such a long way down, let me note that my brand of Calvinist tinged pessimism is absolutely sunny compared to some of those who comment on American reality. I see in Houston the continued fever of the "suburban sprawl economy" and I have to agree "there is no alternative US economy in the background ready to take its place." Houston has always lived this way (well, since it started prospering) and knows no other method. A metaphor for the country, I fear.

I think we're going to be calling on Mom far sooner than expected.

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