Sunday, November 16, 2008

Ideology and Crisis

A contrapuntal essay

In John Howard Yoder's What Would You Do?, several pacifist thinkers provide answers to the "What would you do if a violent person were attacking your family" question.  Most of the responses focus on Christian pacifism, including Dale Aukerman's.  Aukerman suggests that if one accepts Christ as Lord, then one accepts Christ as Lord in crisis situations too: faith in Christ and devotion to Christ's commands should not be abandoned in a crisis moment when one isn't sure they will work:

"Perhaps a Christian says, 'If my wife or child were about to be killed, I'd certainly try to kill the guy to prevent that.'  The person is really saying, 'I couldn't have Jesus as Lord of my life in that situation; I couldn't allow myself to be limited in such a way."  That would-be disciple is deciding beforehand to go opposite from the way of Christ and, in that manner of thinking, has already turned from Christ." (79-80)

I recall this passage while reading Matthew Rothschild's "Bush Sells Free Market as Cure-All, Despite Crash." Rothschild quotes George W. Bush saying 

"I'm a market-oriented guy, but not when I'm faced with the prospect of a global meltdown."

According to Rothschild, Bush noted the market interventions the government had taken to address the financial crisis, then went on to praise the wonders and glories of the free market system.  John McCain did something similar during the election campaign: 

"In an interview with Tom Brokaw last month, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was asked to reconcile his criticism of 'socialism' with his advocacy f a $700 billion bailout package [...] 'I'm a fundamentally strong conservative,' Mccain claimed.  'But when we're in a crisis of this nature, that's when government has to help.'" (Matthew Casner)

Bush praises the wonders of the free market, and McCain demonizes the specter of socialism.  In a moment of crisis, they are willing to abandon in practice the free market and apply government intervention.  But then they still want to praise the free market and demonize socialism.  Though their faith in the free market is challenged by the crisis, and they are unwilling to practice their faith to deal with the crisis, they still wish to uphold their faith.

I suppose we could take this in a couple of directions.  One direction would be an "anti-ideology" direction: in practice we should be pragmatic and do what seems to work best, not cling to an ideology.  Another direction would be "perfect ideology": if we claim an ideology, we should find an ideology that we are willing to stand by in good times and in bad times.

There is relevance in sports here too.  I play football video games. If I get down within five yards of the goal line, my playcalling is dependent on the situation.  If I'm in control of the game, I'll likely call some passes inside the five: it's more fun, it's a little more creative, and it can boost the stats of my quarterback and pass catchers.  But if I'm in a close game, in an important situation, I don't fool around with that: I'm calling a bunch of runs up the middle and making sure I get that touchdown.  

And in real world sports, coaches that stick to their system no matter what, that aren't willing or able to adapt their system for the abilities of the players on the team, for the schemes of the opponent, etc., get criticized.  In football the goal is to win the game.  If you believe that the best way to play football is run more than you throw, and the defense puts eight, nine, ten guys in the box to stop the run, it's stupid to just keep trying to run the ball up the middle again and again and again if you are capable of throwing it.

But that's football, with a clear goal and clear options, and significantly, no ethical consideration.  But there is a moral element to a nation's economy.  Sure the goal (prosperity) allows for multiple means of achievement, and various amoral ideas on how to achieve it.  But how far will that prosperity be spread out?  How will the poor in the nation be provided for?  What standards of equality, of fairness, of protection for people will there be?  As Rothschild points out,

"you can't have social justice and human dignity with mass unemployment, rampant foreclosures, high rates of poverty and food insecurity, and a health care system that leaves almost 50 million people uninsured."

Now back to the "What would you do?" question.  There are many ways to address it, and I don't have to do that here: I'll simply recommend Yoder's book if you're interested in some Christian pacifist approaches to the question (though not all arguments against violence in the book are religious).  But as we're on politics, let me make a very important point about the "What would you do?" question: the situation does not parallel or justify war.  The question that parallels war might be "would you throw a grenade into a crowd of people to stop the one violent person in the crowd?"  War is different: it doesn't resist just the "evildoers," but hurts many innocent people as well.  See Tom Englehardt:

"In Afghanistan, a U.S. Air Force strike wiped out about 40 people in a wedding party.  This represented at least the sixth wedding party eradicated by American air power in Afghanistan and Iraq since December 2001."

Or see Howard Zinn:

"Would we approve a police chief, who, knowing there was a vicious criminal somewhere in a neighborhood, ordered that the neighborhood be bombed?  There was soon a civilian death toll in Afghanistan of over 3,000--exceeding the number of deaths on 9/11.  Afghans were driven from their homes, turned into wandering refugees."

However we respond to the "What would you do?" question, we cannot assume that the answer implies a justification for mass warfare.  I think if you are going to argue in favor of a war, you must do so in this language: 

"Will the civilian deaths, violent atrocities, and humanitarian disasters that are bound to result from this war be justified by the ends of this war (which we assume will be achieved, even if we do not know that they will)?"

  And if you still answer yes, you may find yourself sounding a bit like Pyle in The Quiet American:

"They were only war casualties. [...] It was a pity, but you can't always hit your target.  Anyway they died in the right cause. [...] In a way you could say they died for democracy."

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