Gentle Death

Those few of you who follow me elsewhere, or have known me long enough in person may be familiar with the part of my professional history spent in the deep dark, beneath the unforgiving winedark Pacific, of those sunless weeks lazily circling the crushing depths as we listened attentively for Command: Submarine Group 9 to order us to warm up the gyroscopes tucked neatly away inside the 20+ multi-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles that may or may not have been loaded inside the densely-packed silo that acted as de facto bulkheads separating crew quarters. You may have read the occasional post or two or heard me yammer on about the wide gulf between the boring, routine everyday reality of life underway and the civilization-destroying potential locked away in the fissile material at the heart of each warhead. You may have even listened as I rambled on about how every 18 hours or so, I would bravely attempt slumber in a bunk (aboard ship, they’re called “racks”, and I’m still not sure if the allusion to medieval torture devices is intentional or not) with the soles of my feet pressed up against a device, that if used for its intended purposes, is the most gentle, most kind, most humane method of killing millions of people ever devised.

Nuclear combat isn’t a one-size-fits-all affair, as depicted in late Cold War-era cinema (Dr. Strangelove, War Games, eg). Most folks know about low-yield warheads, and about the difference between a fusion device (H-bomb) and the garden-variety thermonuclear fission bomb, like the ones Truman directed dropped on two Japanese cities in 1945. Some folks will even already know what a high-altitude detonation will do (disrupt electronics, particularly communications, rather than kill enemy civilians). Most folks, especially those old enough to recall the 50s-era classroom filmstrips featuring the ever-so-helpful duck-and-cover advice, will know the difference between being in the blast radius and being in the fallout zone. What folks may not know is that for practical purposes, unless you actually live in the wilds of South Dakota, the probability of being in the blast zone of a detonation in a total nuclear war situation, the kind where my old boat would be instructed to launch its inarguable payload, is pretty dang high. If every capable nation on earth would empty the clip, so to speak, and you lived in, say, Gramercy Park, the chances that you’d turn to ash faster than the speed with which the pain signal can travel from the surface of your skin to the pain centers of your brain are better than, oh, I dunno, getting your hat blown off in a hurricane.

Adam misapprehends my sentiments.

If by Sam’s statement, he means that we cannot speak meaningfully of “good government” or that “good government” intrinsically involves fraud and injustice, then we disagree.

Violence is not injustice. Lies are not fraud. Not necessarily anyway. When I say that the lies and the violence ARE the system, I mean simply that as long as there are rewards to being cunning or wicked, there will be cunning, wicked men on earth. Peaceful, cooperative people require defense against the cunning and the wicked. Such defense is necessarily violent, and by the logic of coalition politics, it is often necessarily deceitful. Without measured, controlled, well-directed violence, there is chaos and social disorder. Sometimes this means stuffing a couple dozen or so ICBMs inside a big steel tube and sending it out on the most dread of all possible missions. Most of the time, it means issuing select members of the community a badge and instructing them to enforce the law as she is written.

The lies and the violence ARE the system. When the system is working as advertised, this is greatly to the advantage of the peaceful and the cooperative. In very broad terms, two things can end you up on the wrong end of the truncheon: (1) the system stops working as advertised, or (2) you turn to wickedness and cunning. The counter-protests that have arisen since I wrote the post that Adam excoriated seem to suggest that the civilian protesters believe in (1) and the police counter-protesters believe in (2). I’ve written elsewhere on what I believe to be the source of the discontent, and I stand by my remarks. If legislation makes criminals of us all, we must expect that the police, who are indeed the enforcement arm of the legislature, shall with some probability and when sufficiently provoked, exercise physical force against us. This is the very essence of their jobs. We specifically hire police to be violent on our behalf. Similarly, we commission ballistic missile submarines to mutually assure the annihilation of civilization, if not all human life everywhere. It’s right there, black ink on white paper, front and center in the description.

I’m asking my GMU comrade Sam Wilson, and anyone else who might happen to read this lengthy bit of Internet rambling, to take the task of specifying a model of good government seriously. Or at minimum, take seriously the idea that such a specifically is possible, and abandon the tempting but corrosive rhetoric of negation.

This is the challenge, isn’t it? James Buchanan won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for his work on specifying models of good government. He was a relentless champion of the power of constitutions to constrain the ambitions of the sovereign. I would desperately like to agree with him, but I have a difficult time accepting the proposition that the US Constitution acts as a hard behavioral constraint at all. What would I substitute in its place? What tools do we have to ensure good governance? Well, when I come up with a slam-dunk plan, I’ll post it here first so that we can get all that sweet Web traffic in advance of my own Nobel Committee recognition. In lieu of that, I’ll continue to ask my readers to take seriously the import of petitioning the sovereign for redress of grievances. Each statute is, in the limit, a death sentence for truculent offenders. It can be worth killing to preserve good law and order, as it can be worth risking scouring the earth of every trace of human life to avoid, what, Communism I guess? Unfortunately, my experience parsing survey data suggests that typical respondents routinely fail to acknowledge the explicit consequences of legislation: that it must ultimately be backed by lethal force to have any meaning at all.

The lies and the violence ARE the system. The trick is for citizens of good conscience, of peaceful mien, of gentle disposition to use lies and violence to quell the cruel disorder that would be wrought by the intemperate, the deranged, the wicked. Part of this trick is to kindly ask of my fellow citizens to think deeply, think carefully on the nature of violence in society, much as I once did snuggled comfortably between the orange tubes that contained the most gentle death the imagination of mankind has ever brought forth upon this earth.

8 thoughts on “Gentle Death

  1. valkenburgh

    Well done. I don’t know if you are familiar with Robert Cover but your post reminded me of a great article of his:
    “Legal interpretation’ takes place in a field of pain and death. This is true in several senses. Legal interpretive acts signal and occasion the imposition of violence upon others: A judge articulates her understanding of a text, and as a result, somebody loses his freedom, his property, his children, even his life. Interpretations in law also constitute justifications for violence which has already occurred or which is about to occur. When interpreters have finished their work, they frequently leave behind victims whose lives have been torn apart by these organized, social practices of violence. Neither legal interpretation nor the violence it occasions may be properly understood apart from one another. This much is obvious, though the growing literature that argues for the centrality of interpretive practices in law blithely ignores it.”

    “We begin, then, not with what the judges say, but with what they do. The judges deal pain and death. That is not all that they do. Perhaps that is not what they usually do. But the *do* deal death, and pain. From John Winthrop through Warren Burger they have sat atop a pyramid of violence, dealing . . .”
    But here’s where I take issue with your thesis. I understand why “Violence is not injustice. . . Not necessarily anyway.” But how are lies not fraud, particularly in the context of governance? The rule of law would be an attempt to make death gentle, as you put it, and it would appear that the tool for that is truth of a sort.
    When one knows that interpretation of the law will result, necessarily, in violence, one takes care to be truthful. Truthfulness in interpretation is not platonic but some form of virtuous practice (perhaps, phronesis): be consistent, be public, be clear and comprehensible, be prospective, be stable, be universal (to roughly borrow Lon Fuller’s principles).

    1. spivonomist

      My “lies are not fraud” claim shall stand as a teaser for a forthcoming post. I’m glad that you noticed, as I now have an explicit excuse to write about it. Thank you for your patience in the matter.

    2. If we’re going by my standard (and I’m not the boss of anyone so it’s not like you have to) then whether or not transparency is the only standard short of fraud, or if any intentional misdirection immediately leads you to the moral equivalent of fraud, depends on what you think good government looks like. If the nature of coalition building requires some backroom dealings outside of the limelight, even when everything working the way it should with minimal unjust violence etc, then I think Sam’s argument holds.

      And I think that’s precisely what he’s arguing. Though seems we’ll have a follow-up piece to let us know 🙂

  2. I look forward to your post justifying the Lies half of it. The institutionalization (and monopilization) of violence is well understood, but the Lies bit – I don’t know a good justification or basis for that (other than the sort of lies necessary for operational security in wartime or similar).

    1. spivonomist

      You guys keep using moral language here. “Good” government. “Justification.” I’m doing my best to be morally neutral. I don’t consider myself adequately qualified to comment on what counts as morally superior in an ex nihilio sense. I do not plan on justifying lies, but I do intend to show why lies are indispensable to a democratic republic. Or indeed any form of representational government. I don’t know yet if that’s a meaningful distinction, and I acknowledge that there’s always meta-moralizing going on, but I beg you one and all… meet me halfway here.

      1. I’m already half-way there. I fully understand that force is inherent to the system. I knew that already. I just don’t see how the lies half of it is inherent to the system. That’s what I’m looking forward to seeing.

        I’m not moralizing or making subjective judgments here. If I were to do so, I’d say that a State is still superior to anarchy. But I’m not making that argument; I’m just looking forward to seeing your understanding of what a State is.

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