The Revolution Will Not Be Philosophized

If you choose not to condemn political violence, is that an expression of humility, or elitism?

FERGUSON, MO - AUGUST 17:  Tear gas rains down on a woman kneeling in the street with her hands in the air after a demonstration over the killing of teenager Michael Brown by a Ferguson police was attacked by police August 17, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Despite the Brown family's continued call for peaceful demonstrations, violent protests have erupted nearly every night in Ferguson since his August 9, death.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
FERGUSON, MO - AUGUST 17: Tear gas rains down on a woman kneeling in the street with her hands in the air after a demonstration over the killing of teenager Michael Brown by a Ferguson police was attacked by police August 17, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Despite the Brown family's continued call for peaceful demonstrations, violent protests have erupted nearly every night in Ferguson since his August 9, death. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Two weeks ago, Foreign Policy published From Mother Jones to Middlebury: The Problem and Promise of Political Violence in Trump’s America, an essay by Emmett Rensin that explores how to understand present-day instances of politically-motivated physical aggression. Below is a response from Park MacDougald, which takes issue with the essay’s analysis, and a rebuttal from Rensin.  

Park MacDougald writes:

In a tweet posted during the controversy over the white nationalist Richard Spencer’s punching by a masked anarchist, Niall Gooch observed that “[b]ookish left-wing intellectual types justifying street violence is a psychologically interesting thing.” Indeed it is. So Emmett Rensin’s recent essay in Foreign Policy on political violence is, if nothing else, psychologically interesting.

Rensin’s piece is a consideration of recent, well-publicized instances of political violence in the United States, although “political violence” is a somewhat grandiose term to describe the actual events, which include the aforementioned punching of Spencer; the anarchist riots that accompanied Donald Trump’s inauguration; the anarchist torching of the University of California, Berkeley campus in protest of Milo Yiannopoulos (one senses an emerging pattern); and the assault, by students at Middlebury College, of a professor guilty of trying to help the social scientist Charles Murray escape from the imminent threat of bodily harm. Such outbursts don’t exactly add up to a revolution, but they are not nothing either, and they are made more worrisome by two facts. First, that excepting some of the Washington, D.C., rioters, nobody appears to have been punished for anything; and second, many intellectual types seem to feel this is entirely appropriate, given that the targets of the violence — or the symbolic targets in the case of the random anarchist property destruction — sort of had it coming.

Rensin, apparently, agrees. Sensing a “new, subterranean malevolence” in our contemporary violence, he wants to cut through the thicket of false questions and what he regards to be vapid moral posturing. Is political violence moral? This strikes Rensin as “the most wrongheaded way to go about asking.” No categorical answers can be given — it depends on “[w]ho committed the violence” and “[a]gainst whom.” Is it wise, tactically speaking? Maybe not. But who are we to say? “Even if political violence is a sin, it is, like all sins, largely committed in impulse, contrary to the best intentions of foresight,” he writes. (Assuming that we are taking Rensin literally, instead of literarily, this is simply wrong — political violence is generally far more calculated than, say, criminal homicide. Johnny 99 comes home drunk and shoots a night clerk, not the prime minister of Belgium.)

Having batted away such imbecilic questions as “Is violence right?” and “Does it work?” Rensin gets to the heart of the matter, which is what he calls the “phenomenology of violence,” and which I take to mean, roughly, why violence appears. This is a tricky question to answer, since for Rensin not all violence is the same. There is, in the first case, the violence that is the response to “the intolerable pressure of a hateful and fearful world,” pressure that is “felt most acutely among the poor and oppressed.” Such violence “does not come from its immediate causes” and is therefore “immune … to corrective lecturing.” As to the immediate point, I take Rensin to mean that for people whose grievances he finds legitimate, violence is, if not quite to be encouraged, at least beyond criticism or anything so gauche as moral responsibility. I suspect that the categories “legitimate violence” and “left-wing political violence,” for Rensin, overlap quite significantly.

Why? Well, because left-wing violence is really just a response to the second type of violence identified by Rensin — the everyday violence of America. The indictment is predictable: Violence is the “essential mechanism” of life in a land “cleared by guns and smallpox,” a nation “built up by the whip” and held together by a “police baton and a jail cell.” This is true enough, as far as it goes, and indeed some basic version of this story is true of almost all states and governments, insofar as they are all, in the last analysis, secured by violence and held together by violence or the threat of it. But the direction toward which all this is tending is somewhat ominous.

Read the original piece:

Rensin likes to play with chronology. He names, in quick succession, Darren Wilson; the detention of illegal immigrants; drone strikes in Pakistan; federal marshals returning runaway slaves; and strikebreakers shooting miners in the early 1900s. (One half expects him to start talking about Guatemala and the United Fruit Company.) The implication is that there is no meaningful distinction between these events, that they are really all part of the same process, that what naive people call “the law” is just another form of violence, a far greater and far worse violence than that allegedly committed by individuals (or, as The Onion famously put it, “Hippie Will Tell You What The Real Crime Is”). Of course, this requires the audience to follow along with Rensin’s assumption that enforcing the country’s present-day immigration law, or whatever happened between Wilson and Michael Brown, is only distinguishable in a pedantic and basically irrelevant sense from literal slavery and genocide. The further implication being that because the country is already so shot through with violence, any criticism of actually existing present-day political violence can only be liberal cant and hypocrisy.

The third and final sort of violence is that of the right. Although Rensin elsewhere seems to regard moralizing language with some suspicion, here he has no such reservations. Right-wing violence is the violence of “evil men” such as George Zimmerman and Dylann Roof, that of malevolent, reactionary dupes “growing restless under the strain of economic and demographic forces they do not fully understand.” Their violence, in fact, isn’t really a transgression but only “liminal” — that is, it is “officially condemned but operating in the service of sanctioned power.” Right-wing violence is the violence of the brownshirts, semi-official, not illegal but operating outside the law to ruthlessly enforce the hierarchies of Amerika’s social order with a wink and a nod from the authorities. (Again, this requires one to forget Roof’s death sentence and the bizarre, Bonfire of the Vanities-esque circus that was the Zimmerman trial.)

So, there is left-wing violence, which cannot be condemned because it is inevitable; there is the structural violence of everyday life; and there is the violence of the right, that of the “electric wrath of a reactionary will to power.” Violence is everywhere — “the question,” writes Rensin, is “not how politics became violent” but “whether we can conceive of a world where it is not.” Assuming that is not impossible, then the final question is, channeling Chernyshevsky and Lenin, “What is to be done?”

What indeed. We have come a long way to arrive at this empty and pointless gesture, a sort of rhetorical wink at those in the know that Rensin may be suggesting social revolution, yet in a way that is too cautious, or cowardly, to come out and say it in the open. But absurdity here is piled on top of absurdity. Rensin, in fidelity to his basic contempt for the liberal idea of legal or ethical neutrality — the idea that rules should apply equally to everyone — has presented us with a moral gradation of violence in which only the violence of his political opponents, those on the right, can be judged; left-wing violence, implicitly the violence of “the poor and oppressed,” is vindicated a priori — its goal is to end exploitation, and the system against which it revolts is violent itself, so how can it be condemned?

Of course, implicit here is another joke that Rensin doesn’t quite get — he writes, early on in the essay, that those most willing to condemn violence are those “not subject to the dilemma in bodily terms,” reminding us that “it is easier to declare a moral prohibition on political violence when your children are not starving.” That may be. But it is worth pointing out which incidents of violence we are discussing. Are the anarchists of D.C. and Berkeley, or the students of Middlebury (tuition $49,648), really “the poor and oppressed”? Are they out fighting because their children are starving? More likely, they are bored rich kids, attacking a socially acceptable hate object such as Murray and rationalizing their violence as an act of compassion done in the name of some invented class of victims, of whom they have only a theoretical knowledge.

And what is Emmett Rensin doing? What does he, in fact, think needs to be done? He doesn’t say, and it’s hard to guess. But apparently, getting censured once for the glib promotion of political violence has only convinced him of the smug hypocrisy of liberals who condemn such violence without equally condemning the violence inherent in the system.

It reminds me, on the whole, of a scene near the end of Repo Man. Duke, a punk who spends most of the movie knocking over convenience stores, is finally shot when one of the robberies goes wrong. Dying, he says to the protagonist, Otto, “I know a life of crime led me to this sorry fate. In the end, I blame society! Society made me what I am!” It is, you might say, a sophisticated indictment of the structural violence of the republic, delivered by someone responding to its intolerable pressures. To which Otto replies, “That’s bullshit. You’re a white suburban punk, just like me.”

* * *

Emmett Rensin responds:

Park MacDougald wants to know what I am doing in my recent essay on political violence. I want to know why, if he evidently possesses the self-awareness to realize that he does not know the answer to that question, he nonetheless devoted more than a thousand words to critiquing what he supposes the answer might be. There’s a certain epistemological humility in how often MacDougald says I “seem” to be saying something or that I “apparently” believe something else, but as I tell my freshman rhetoric students, words like “obviously” and “apparently” usually indicate that whatever follows is anything but, and they know it. Perhaps I’ll start recommending that when they haven’t got a clear sense of an author’s point, they should substitute in an Onion article or an Emilio Estevez movie and argue with that instead. It’s certainly easier.

So what am I doing? The answer is perfectly clear in my essay, and if MacDougald cannot grasp it, I can only imagine that he finds it too simple to possibly be my intention: I am trying to have an honest conversation about political violence. In a discourse where that form of violence is commonly understood to be an aberration, I am trying to get a more accurate sense of its scale and contours, to figure out where it comes from and what it entails. I conclude that far from being an aberration, political violence is the essence of politics. It is everywhere and in everything, from the small outbursts of wealthy undergraduates to the incomprehensible violence of the American empire. If we are rightly concerned about it, then we cannot ask why violence is intruding into our otherwise peaceful political life but rather what it would mean to have a politics without it. If peace is what we want, then how do we achieve it? What is to be done? Notice that this is not a phenomenological question. It is a moral and a tactical one. It is not that I believe that such questions are useless — only that they remain useless until we get straight what we are asking moral and tactical questions about.

I am not surprised that merely getting the question right is unsatisfying to MacDougald and that this dissatisfaction has provoked him into a flurry of speculation about my real motives. Our political discourse is possessed by the requirement that authors be nothing less than totally authoritative, that they be able to point out 11 Things Wrong With X and then explain How to Solve It in One Chart. MacDougald, unable to comprehend a political conversation without a clear, actionable recommendation, imagines that I am just refusing to reveal mine, that I must want revolution. But the truth is that I do not know what is to be done. That’s why I ended on that question: I don’t know. That kind of humility comes from apprehending the full scale of political violence; it’s what happens when you refuse to reduce difficult things to glib jokes about privileged undergraduates. The problem of political violence is so totalizing that I am not ashamed to say I am not sure how to solve it. I only want to get us on the right track. I leave it to others to figure out where that track goes.

Here is what I do know: No matter how many MacDougalds rise up to define the problem down again, to invent simple interpretations of the world and to offer simple solutions to it, there is no white paper, no chart, no joke that will make political violence go away. It continues every day — the left-wing kind, the right-wing kind, the sanctioned and unsanctioned, all terrible and pervasive — and I would rather admit that fact and throw open the doors to an honest reckoning than comfort myself by looking up tuition statistics. That is what I am doing. What is MacDougald doing? It sure seems like he’s wrestling straw men, apparently unable to smell smoke, even while the whole farm burns.

Photo credit:SCOTT OLSON/Getty Images

Emmett Rensin is a writer and editor currently based in Iowa City, Iowa. Previous, he was a features editor for Vox and a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books. His work has appeared in the Atlantic, the New Republic, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere.

Park MacDougald is an assistant editor at Foreign Affairs.

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