It’s Not Obvious, Actually

I don’t pay much attention to Republican Party politics. I don’t have a dog in the fight (I’m not a partisan conservative in any sense) and frankly, the GOP has in the last decade or so become the Party of Stupid in a way that makes even the spectacle of GOP politics painful.

But there are times and places when I cannot help but to comment. Speaking in new Hampshire (golly, I wonder why?), former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty had this to say about the Obama regime’s response (or lack thereof) to events in Libya:

Rephrasing a familiar line of attack, Pawlenty told the audience about his international philosophy: “My basic perspective on foreign policy – this is oversimplifying it – but in the interest of time this is it: You may have learned it on the playground, you may have learned in it business, sports. You may have learned it in some other walk of life, but it’s always true. If you’re dealing with thugs and bullies, they understand strength. They don’t respect weakness.”

Where to start with this? I am, or have been on this blog, fairly dogmatic in my views on state violence — it is no different nor more moral than individual violence because it is individual violence. But I also appreciate the reality of human existence. (I was going to add scripture too, but it occurred to me that posting needs to be separate.) Violence is inescapable as long as human beings live together. It may even be necessary as long as human beings live together, though reminding those who wield “lawful authority” (or those who seek to wield or influence that authority) that what they do or wish to do is and requires violence is essential — it is too easy to believe the law is not violence (and the threat of violence is still violence). And generally, I believe as a theologian and aspiring churchman that Christ’s church has no business taking a stake in the outcome of the world’s violence.

But once upon a time, I went to Washington, D.C., to study at Georgetown, with the rather misguided hope of examining and commenting on (and possibly even making) government policy. And there are parts of me which still, sometimes, would like to do that. And can still think that way.

So, the problem I have with Pawlenty’s comment — and American statecraft in general — is that very narrative: “If you’re dealing with thugs and bullies, they understand strength. They don’t respect weakness.” Pawlenty echoes what is the American story, that of virtuous power always rushing to the rescue of those bullied. Always virtuous, always rescuing the innocent bullied. I hate this story. I hate this story with every atom of existence. Because it isn’t true. Americans are quite capable of bullying, each other and those around us. Indeed, the ability of Americans to be cruel and brutal while trumpeting their virtue is one of their worst qualities. Perhaps their worst.

Pawlenty — and those who believe dogmatically in American power — never even consider the possibility that they might be seen by others as the bullies. Or that they might actually be bullies. The bully is never the self, it is always the other. This is like the eternal confrontation with evil, which in the simplistic moral universe always lies outside the self. The powerful American self always lies at the center of the universe, as do virtuous American intentions. Everyone and everything else orbits.

I want to like Reinhold Niebuhr, and there’s actually nothing wrong with the man himself or his ideas. But I dislike immensely Nieburhians, because they seem not to possess his real and honest skepticism of power. Particularly that self-narrative. I am uncomfortable with Niebuhr’s desire to leave room open for action “on behalf of justice,” but Niebuhr’s followers — to the extent they have much power — tend to use his language but not really any of his ideas. His language becomes a way to justify action, not judge how action is to be taken. They merge the desire to “do justice” with the narrative of self-virtue to, in the end, never question who they are or what they are doing. In the end, Niebuhr’s logic — when used by those with power (and this is the same for just-war theory) — becomes a justification for the self-righteous use of violence. No one with the power to act ever (at least publicly) asks: “I am truly good?” It’s just assumed.

Again, center to this is the fact that evil never self-identifies. I’ve never seen “Hello, I’m Evil” on a name tag before. All that’s left between good an evil is force — whoever has the most troops, or tanks, or bombs, wins. And can call themselves “good.”

This is not to say that force cannot result — or even intend — to do good. I’ve said rather pointedly before that there is no such thing as a force for good. I stand by that statement, in that there is no force or violence or organization that engages in violence that is so peopled by the virtuous and noble that it never does any wrong or can never be used for nefarious purposes. God can definitely be encountered even the worst of human actions, and the works of love, mercy and forgiveness can always manifest themselves. But human beings — even American ones — are incapable of the virtue that the Wilsonians, the Neoconservatives, and the Liberal humanitarians ascribe to them. It is just not possible for anyone to be that good or that noble. Ever.