Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Valuing Human Life

I avoid reading David Brooks, New York Times columnist and author of a couple books only he and his immediate family are proud of, because the only thing worse than a pompous nincompoop is a pompous nincompoop who has fooled enough people in to thinking he says stuff worth listening to. In the internet age, these multiply like flies on a corpse; that one of them has a highly remunerative perch at our national newspaper of record makes me weep.

I am thankful that Charlie Pierce reads Brooks. Far funnier than anything I could say, Pierce pictures Brooks in the Young Fogies Club, an Irish Setter named Moral Hazard rented to give him gravitas routinely looking for an escape, this conjures up nothing less than what I believe is Brooks' image of himself - the one quiet voice of True Conservative Depth And Nuance, huddled with like-minded souls, sipping whiskey through their handlebar mustaches around a fire, upon the mantle of which sits dog-eared copies of Reflections On The Revolution In France and God And Man At Yale.

Brooks latest attempt to sound profound, which hits each and ever fail branch as it tumbles out of the redwood it created for itself, drops banalities the way a rabbit drops raisins as it hops through the forest, the trail leading us right back to where he began - Why do good people do bad things? As if the question needing asking, let alone answering, Brooks soldiers on (pardon the pun in context), until readers realize he has no idea what the hell he's talking about.

One thing Pierce mentions, more in passing than anything, in his discussion of Brooks latest scrib from the mountaintop, is the irony of citing the wisdom of centuries past in regards to human nature:
Can I mention the utter savagery of "centuries past" as regards to religious wars, all of which were launched and fought by "good men" who believed what Chesterton believed, including a number of popes? Innocent III's deep belief in original sin didn't do much for the Cathars, nor did the Huguenots profit much from the fact that Catherine de Medici said her prayers every day and believed in the basic sinfulness of fallen man. And, barely one century past, England rather convulsed over a homicidal eruption that many of its citizens believed was carried out by a member of their god-fearing Anglican nobility.
This brings me to a thought we so often hear regarding the many differences between the West, whose legacy, apparently, we are trying to save from the savage Muslim hordes who saved Aristotle (and improved upon him), only to have this legacy stolen by the barbarians who invaded their lands in the eleventh century. I do not know how many times I've been told over the past decade that Muslims just don't value human life the same way we western Christians do. This same argument was a chorus in my household growing up, by the way; my mother would insist, over and over, that the Japanese just didn't value human life the way we in the Christian west did, which of course explains what that most cultured and civilized of western Christendom, the Germans, were simultaneously doing to Europe's Jewish population.

See what I did there? I went off topic for a moment.

Whenever anyone starts name dropping folks from the past, in particular John Calvin, in regards to human sinfulness and frailty, it is always a good thing to keep in mind that these folks took this particular ball and ran with it all the way to the gibbet. Since human beings are born in sin, utterly without any ability on their own to achieve salvation from this condition, there is no reason in the world why killing such sinners, blind to their own inner corruption, is a bad thing. Whether singly, such as Servetus, or in whole groups - Catholics in France; Anabaptists in the Holy Roman Empire; pick your poison, indeed as Lutherans, Catholics, and Reformed leaders chose up sides and spent the first third of the seventeenth century laying much of central Europe waste in the name of God.

When Europe decided to leave God out of it, they found all sorts of other reasons to slaughter one another. My favorite historical "fact" is the myth of "The Long Peace", from the end of Napoleon's 100 Days and the Congress of Vienna until the outbreak of World War I. Europe, I learned as a young student of history, was shocked by the brutality and length of the conflict because the continent had been peaceful in that century, with the exception of the Crimean War, in which more soldiers died of disease than in battle.

Except, of course, that's bushwah.
1803 Souliote War
1803-1815 Napoleonic Wars
1804-1813 First Serbian Uprising
1804-1813 Russo-Persian War
1809 Polish-Austrian War
1815-1817 Second Serbian Uprising
1817-1864 Russian conquest of the Caucasus
1821-1832 Greek War of Independence
1821 Wallachian uprising of 1821
1823 French invasion of Spain
1826-1828 Russo-Persian War
1827 War of the Malcontents
1828-1829 Russo-Turkish War
1828-1834 Liberal Wars
1830 Ten Days Campaign (following the Belgian Revolt)
1830-1831 November Uprising
1831-1832 Great Bosnian uprising
1832 War in the Vendée and Chouannerie of 1832
1832 June Rebellion
1833-1839 First Carlist War
1833-1839 Albanian Revolts of 1833–1839
1843-1844 Albanian Revolt of 1843–1844
1846 Galician slaughter
1846-1849 Second Carlist War
1847 Albanian Revolt of 1847
1847 Sonderbund War
1848-1849 Hungarian Revolution and War of Independence
1848-1851 First Schleswig War
1848-1866 Wars of Italian Independence
1848-1849 First Italian Independence War
1859 Second Italian War of Independence
1866 Third Italian War of Independence
1854 Epirus Revolt of 1854
1854-1856 Crimean War
1858 Mahtra War
1863-1864 January Uprising
1864 Second Schleswig War
1864 January Uprising
1866 Austro-Prussian War
1866-1869 Cretan Revolt
1870-1871 Franco-Prussian War
1872-1876 Third Carlist War
1873-1874 Cantonal Revolution
1877-1878 Russo–Turkish War
1878 Epirus Revolt of 1878
1885 Serbo-Bulgarian War
1893-1896 Cod War of 1893
1897 Greco–Turkish War
Even in the allegedly peaceful, enlightened 19th century, we in the west were killing one another at a pretty brisk pace.

We no more value human life more than others than we have some key to true civilization that all others in the world lack. Even a glance at our collective history should be enough to disabuse most people from such a silly idea.

Whatever else the west may have exported to the rest of the world - syphilis, chattel slavery, mass exploitation, our waste and trash to poison their land and water - we have yet to export anything resembling a superior ethic rooted in the value of human life. That we are horrified by events such as the mass murder in Afghanistan or the Trayvon Martin murder says more about our current bourgeois sensibilities, so easily offended by the reality of our penchant for intramural slaughter, than it does some violation of some secret norm we and only we have been vouchsafed to protect.

All of Babbling Brooks' nonsense leaves out a huge piece of the puzzle, not so much about how such a horrible act may be possible, as our collective shock at it: It isn't a big deal, at least not in historical terms. Sgt. Bales is no aberration, save that he violated our laws. We have laws against such things precisely because we understand they will happen. All the rest of what Brooks is attempting to say gives gibberish a bad name.

Virtual Tin Cup

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