09 October, 2020

On Sparks Before the Prairie Fire

Photo by Katelynn & Jordan Hewlett (15 August 2020). 
Source.

It inevitably will be asked why advanced industrial America has so violent a history, but this is not, I think, either as difficult or as interesting as another question: How could America have combined such a substantial degree of popular domestic violence with such a high degree of political stability?

—Richard Hofstader (1972)

星火燎原

—Chinese proverb 

There is a Hobbesian logic. You are right to fear it.

Hobbes famously described society absent state authority as a "warre of all against all," a time where there is "no propriety, no dominion, no ‘mine’ and ‘thine’ distinct, but only that to be every man’s that he can get, and for so long as he can keep it." [1] Many assume that the savagery of Hobbes vision is grounded in a particularly dark view of human nature. This is not true: far from believing that humanity was incurably tainted by sin, Hobbes denied the category of sin altogether. Hobbes was a committed amoralist. Vice and virtue, he maintained, were arbitrary categories, fictions summoned by authority to keep society smoothly running.[2] What we label villainous was not a matter of character, but incentive; the source of human savagery was not evil, but uncertainty. Strip the commanding powers of their strength to revenge wrongs done and deter wrongs not yet done, and what happens? Humanity is left in an untenable position. Facing potential danger, each clump of mankind must themselves become a danger. For
there is no way for any man to secure himself so reasonable as anticipation, that is, by force or wiles to master the persons of all men he can so long till he see no other power great enough to endanger him... if others, that otherwise would be glad to be at ease within the modest bounds, should not by invasion increase their power, they would not be able long time, by standing only on their defence, to subsist. [3]

The logic of Hobbseian disorder requires neither the fires of rage nor the heats of jealousy. Its downward course requires only the cold recognition that in a world of uncertainty, "augmentation of dominion over men [becomes] necessary to a man’s conservation." There is no exit from a society that has slipped down these slopes. Even he who yearns for peace knows that "if other men will not lay down their right [to arms] as well as he, then there is no reason for any one to divest himself of his; for that were to expose himself to prey, which no man is bound to, rather than to dispose himself to peace."[4] Thus violence starts, then grows, and is not tamed until some sovereign power has gathered enough force to jam the jinn back in its bottle.

Old Hobbes was here half right. The grand philosophizer portrays the descent to civil war as an unstoppable process. As a dam collapsed leads to raging waters, so a state dissolved surges towards unending violence. This has happened. Hobbes was correct to identify faltering central authority as a prerequisite for such happenings. But even a cursory familiarity with human history is enough to see where Hobbes erred. Hobbes did not identify an unstoppable, mechanical force. A weak leviathan is a necessary condition for internecine violence, yet an insufficient one.

Anarchy does not mean enmity. When more plenty can be had through peace than through conquest, do not be surprised if all parties opt for peace. Not every frontier family was a Hatfield or McCoy. Nations long divided by bitter war have later linked themselves together with bonds of love and trade. Anarchy alone is never enough to push a people down Hobbes' cold slopes.

Yet enmity is not so uncommon in human affairs. There were Hatfields and McCoys. Humans are petty creatures, prone to anger, subject to pride, and victim to uncounted vanities. Self interest, even "properly understood," is a poor guarantee of proper behavior. What we today call "liberalism" is one attempt to solve this problem. If growing wealth incentivizes peace, the liberal tradition can be thought of as a social technology that keeps social enmity within healthy bounds. Liberalism defuses conflicting interests and passions by openly acknowledging their existence. The collection of norms, customs, rules, and institutions that comprise a liberal order channel competition towards constructive, or at least minimally destructive, ends. Liberal values and structures deserve much credit for the relative peace of modernity.[5]

Behind the fussy proceduralism and rules-lawyering of the liberal is a more solid conviction: defeat needn't mean death. Hobbes may talk of his cold logic, but here the dialectic of domination does not hold. Liberal orders have their winners and their losers, but by law and custom the losers only lose honor and influence. Losers keep their life and their liberties, confident they might just win the game's next round.

This is how things work—until suddenly they don't. Civil order is undervalued until it is missed. Once missed, society traces Hobbes cold logic to its final, bleak degree. Custom falters. Norms fall. Rules break as each side of a social divide fears the other will not follow them. Unsure and insecure, not knowing where the limits of the emerging order lie, men edge, then hurtle, towards the worse devils of their nature. They shoot lest they be shot. They strike for fear of being struck. As water rushes downward, so must the course of Hobbes cold logic now complete. 

If the state retains coherence, and one side grows strong enough to seize its powers, then the full weight of Leviathan will be used against their enemies. Such is tyranny. But such tyranny is often not possible. Then the people are reduced to an even sadder state, left to kill and be killed, dwindling as their fears drives them.

Hobbes envisioned this outcome, but he could not see its origin point. In some eras this point of no return is easy to identify. In a society tyrannized and divided, a despot's iron arms may be the only thing that keeps enmity from escalating to armed contest. Depose the despot, and the Hobbesian descent begins. But not all feeble states host civil war. The world has seen empires fall and polities crack without their peoples ever being pushed down Hobbes' cold slope. Failing authority must be matched with social enmity—and more important still, a sign that this enmity is moving from the world of words into the world of desperate action. "The empire, long united, must divide"—but only once a signal is sent that the word is now dividing. Men and women must believe that the rules have changed. Something must happen to show a divided people that ballots have given way to bullets. Some moment must teach that henceforth those who strike first live longest. 

 What might that moment look like? 

 *

In 1871, Mark Twain lampooned the violence visited upon the American press with a short story named "Journalism in Tennessee." A few paragraphs from the story provide you with a flavor of the whole:
I never saw a pen scrape and scratch its way so viciously, or plow through another man's verbs and adjectives so relentlessly. While [the narrator's editor] was in the midst of his work, somebody shot at him through the open window, and marred the symmetry of my ear.

"Ah," said he, "that is that scoundrel Smith, of the Moral Volcano--he was due yesterday." And he snatched a navy revolver from his belt and fired--Smith dropped, shot in the thigh. The shot spoiled Smith's aim, who was just taking a second chance and he crippled a stranger. It was me. Merely a finger shot off.

"Then the chief editor went on with his erasure; and interlineations. Just as he finished them a hand grenade came down the stove-pipe, and the explosion shivered the stove into a thousand fragments. However, it did no further damage, except that a vagrant piece knocked a couple of my teeth out. [6]

Twain's work is satire. Yet behind Twaine's fictional caricature of the fiery, gun-toting editor were the many real fiery, gun-toting newsmen spread across the Union. Not long after Twain wrote that piece one such editor described his own armed defense of his old press. The editor in question was one Cassius M. Clay, lesser-known cousin to the Great Compromiser. When Clay first set up his press he was a rare species: a Kentucky abolitionist. Like many such upper South radicals, Clay's hatred for slavery had less to do with sympathy for the black man than for a long-treasured hope to transform his home state into a lily-white, free soil paradise. Today we condemn these ideals as regressive. In the antebellum South, they were radical. By buying a printing press to share them, Clay's ideas moved from radical to dangerous. Clay's closest neighbors decided they must end the danger posed by Clay and his press themselves.

Listen as Clay describes the precautions he took to defend his press from the neighborly mobs he knew would come to ruin it:
I selected for my office a brick building, and lined the outside doors with sheet-iron, to prevent it being burned. I purchased two brass 4-pounder cannon at Cincinnati, and placed them, loaded with shot and nails, on a table breast high; had folding doors secured with a chain, which which could open upon the mob and give play to my canon. I furnished my office with Mexican lances, and a limited number of guns. There were six or eight persons who stood ready to defend me. If defeated they were to escape by a trap door in the roof; and I had placed a keg of powder, with a match, which I would set off and blow up the office and all my invaders. This I should most certainly have done in case of the last extremity.  [7]

The spectacle of a pamphleteer stocking his office with lance and powder seems alien to us today. It did not then. Such precautions would have seemed eminently sensible to the editors of the New York Herald, who saw their office mobbed in 1861 not for abolitionist ideas, but for being too friendly to the Slave Power. War time attacks on publishers were by then an old-time story. The outbreak of the War of 1812 led to anti-Federalist agitation across the country, and much of that was violent. One of the most dramatic of these was siege of Baltimore's sole Federalist newspaper, a siege which ended with one Republican shot dead, nine Federalists beat senseless, another beaten dead, and a last set on fire. [8]

Strange as they may be today, attacks on the press are a staple of American history. The three episodes discussed above are a mere sampling from a violent dispensation that began in colonial era and did not subside until 1970s. Between that time there were hundreds of attacks on presses, writers, and editors. [9] 

Ours is a bloody history. Journalists and pamphleteers were hardly the sole, or even the favored, targets of American bloodlust. Over the course of American history treaties prompted street brawls, bank laws birthed riots, epidemics spawned civil strife, and both abolitionists and slave catchers were met by angry mobs. Less sectional than the mobbing surrounding the slave question, but no less violent, were mob attacks on Catholics, Mormons, Irish, Germans, Mexicans, and Blacks. To this ethnic and religious strife might be added the myriad strikes and labor confrontations that careened into violence. Extra-legal vigilance committees numbering in the thousands have, at one time or another, been charged with keeping the peace in every region of this country. Armed rebellions have seized both city and state governments. Democrats, Whigs, Know-nothings, and Republicans have all murdered and bludgeoned to keep their opponents away from the ballot box.[10] 

At various points in our history, Americans have wondered whether all this blood might deform the integrity of our institutions. One such American was the young Abraham Lincoln. Worried he in one 1838 oration:
Accounts of outrages committed by mobs, form the every-day news of the times. They have pervaded the country, from New England to Louisiana;--they are neither peculiar to the eternal snows of the former, nor the burning suns of the latter;--they are not the creature of climate-- neither are they confined to the slave-holding, or the non-slave- holding States. Alike, they spring up among the pleasure hunting masters of Southern slaves, and the order loving citizens of the land of steady habits.--Whatever, then, their cause may be, it is common to the whole country.

...Thus, then, by the operation of this mobocractic spirit, which all must admit, is now abroad in the land, the strongest bulwark of any Government, and particularly of those constituted like ours, may effectually be broken down and destroyed--I mean the attachment of the People. Whenever this effect shall be produced among us; whenever the vicious portion of population shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands, and burn churches, ravage and rob provision-stores, throw printing presses into rivers, shoot editors, and hang and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure, and with impunity; depend on it, this Government cannot last.[11]

Lincoln was wrong. The government lasted. It lasted even though the violence continued unabated in the years leading up to his Presidency, and then continued again for another century after his Presidency was over. Only twice in that time did local violence seriously threaten the integrity of America's republican institutions as a whole.[12] Americans brawled, burned, shot, and bombed—and America lasted through it all, her people barely remembering the atrocities committed in years past.

*

This is a puzzle. Political stability paired with widespread political violence is rare. It cries out for explanation. A parsimonious answer to the puzzle goes something like this: American political violence reached its apogee in an unusual political order. For most of American history, belief in popular sovereignty was matched by a truly popular participation in American political, economic, and civic life. Americans were experts in the ad-hoc committee. They expanded across the continent, building towns, cities, counties, states, school boards, sheriff departments, union chapters, churches, and associations as they went. Government was highly localized and subject to individual citizen influence. Many problems were solved by citizens directly, without recourse to formal government action at all. This was a world that did not defer to experts and could not appeal to management when things needed doing. Americans believed there was no problem that could not be solved by a gathering of their countrymen.[13]

Sometimes their gatherings were violent.

Today we sharply distinguish between ("legitimate") violence conducted by the state and ("illegitimate") violence inflicted by the mob. But in an age when many members of the mob had personally created, molded, and manned the offices of state, the distinction wore thin. Decentralized collective action was the American norm. When faced with perceived threats to their security, Americans did not hesitate to take matters into their own hands. [14]

This explains in part why social violence could be so common yet so inconsequential. The banality of American violence robbed bloodshed of Hobbesian significance. Gentleman, intellectuals, and lawyers might decry American political violence as barbaric, cruel, and senseless, but they understood it as an unfortunate excess of popular democracy. In a nation devoted to popular sovereignty, this sort of excess was inevitable and unremarkable.

The victims of riots, mobbings, lynchings, and bombings felt differently. Those who survived were left devastated and terrified. The shadows of attacks past lingered long. Many linger still. My own forebodings on this topic trace directly to the experience of my ancestors, driven out of the United States by murder and mobbery

But for most Americans, outbreaks of social violence like these forebode nothing. Clay might lose his printing press and the Mormons might be driven out of Missouri, but neither event was an extraordinary occurrence in a rough-and-tumble, populist republic. Neither eroded national political norms nor threatened national political coalitions. Each was but one more small outrage in a constant churn of small outrages. Stones dropped in choppy waters leave few ripples.

*

American waters have long been still. Like most places in the world, American society grew more peaceful in the 20th century. This is an international phenomena, and so cannot be explained entirely in terms of America's unique national conditions. Yet I suspect the "diminishing" of American democracy (and the can-do populist culture that went with it) plays a critical role in this story, at least as far as social violence is concerned.[15] The American citizen now meets most problems with an appeal to management. A people unused to overcoming crises with the power of their own hands will rarely be tempted to use these hands in violence.

This has been a boon to the people of my country. Mobbing is a thing of the past. Black families last had cause to fear lynch mobs in the Civil Rights era; other groups were last mobbed in the 1920s. The final explosion of labor violence went off in the 1930s. The Battle of Athens was fought in the late 1940s; the last sustained set of attacks on the press occurred in the 1960s. The last real organized campaign of violence in American history, the few thousand bombs set off by a constellation of leftist terrorist groups in the 1970s, was more than 40 years ago.[16]

A question to ponder: just how would American society react if extremists (from either side) set off a few thousand bombs today?

A young Zoomer just come of age is four generations removed from serious social violence. They never learned about leftist bombings, Texas border lynchings, Mormon extermination, or electoral street brawls, and have never experienced anything like them. Events like these have faded from our national memory. They faded so quickly because even in their own day such small atrocities seemed like a background hum to the larger national narrative. Familiarity with violence bred "a confidence that almost any kind of mess could be brought under control quickly enough" notes one historian, "and that if a few people died in the meantime, that was just the way of the world." [17]

Americans of our day are not so familiar with this way of the world. This has been a blessing. It may yet prove a curse.

One response to our historical survey brings comfort. "Do not fear," whisper the unworried. "We have suffered disruptions to our civil order before. We can bear a bit more of it now. The lesson of American history is that we can suffer great violence without descent into tyranny or civil war."

An American saying this in 1920 could be believed. But an American saying it in 2020? 

I am not so sure.

Liken the matter to a wildfire. Our Western coast lies scarred by terrible conflagrations. Naturalists have blamed bad forestry for the scale of these blazes. Small fires, burning often, clear out underbrush that sustain massive flames. Sparser forests mean less deadly forest fires. To promise more years without a fire, forest officials protect the underbrush from all small fires. But when fire finally breaks out, their actions have guaranteed the flame shall bloom into inferno.[18]

The metaphor is striking, if imperfect. Bloodlust does not grow as undergrowth does. Political violence does not explode, inferno-like, because small grievances have built up without violent outlet. Human conflagrations require calculation. Actors must decide whether their world tends towards continuity or convulsion. Acting on that decision may stoke the flame, or stifle it.

In a past America, well experienced with all manner of violence, a mob here or a bomb there would cause few to think the rules were near their breaking point. There was no general rush to terrorize before one was terrorized. The fire stayed within the underbrush. 

 That was then. This is now. Now we must ask ourselves an unsettling series of questions. What will political violence mean to America unaccustomed to it? How much terror can the Americans of our day witness before they conclude that peace has ended—and act accordingly?  Where lies the threshold between doubtful peace and open conflict?

Just how small a spark will start our wildfire?

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If my past treatments of the Hobbesian problem spark your interest, you may find my posts "Introducing Asabiyah" and "On Days of Disorder" of great interest. Those looking for similar tours through the American past may find the posts "On Cultures That Build," "A Tour Through Three Centuries of American Political Culture," "The Title IX-ifcation of American Childhood," "Pining for Democracy," worth reading. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.
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[2] Ibid., Book I,  Chapter VI.

[3] Ibid.,  Chapter XIII.

[4]  bid.,  Chapter XIV

[5] For a convincing pursuit of this thesis see Azar Gat. War in Human Civilization. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006),  443-449,  570-664.

[6] Mark Twain, "Journalism in Tennessee," [1871] AmericanLiterature.com (accessed 9 October 2020).


[8] On the mobbing of the Herald, see Lorman Ratner and Dwight Teeter, Fanatics and Fire-Eaters: Newspapers and the Coming of the Civil War (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 28-29; on the Baltimore 1812 siege, Jeffrey Pasley, The Tyranny of Printers: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic ( Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002), 246-247 and Charles Steffan, The Mechanics of Baltimore Workers and Politics in the Age of Revolution, 1763-1812 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984),  243-247.

[9] John Nerone, Violence Against the Press: Policing the Public Sphere in U.S. History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

[10] In addition to note 9, this section relies heavily on Richard Hofstader and Michael Wallace, eds American Violence: A Documentary History (New York: Random House, 1972); Richard Maxwell Brown, Strain of Violence: Historical Studies of American Violence and Vigilantism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975). 

[11] Abraham Lincoln, "Address to the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield," [27 January 1838], in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol I (Abraham Lincoln Association: 1953), p. 109 111, available online at the University of Michigan Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln database https://quod.lib.umich.edu/l/lincoln/

[12] Those two times being the collection of violent attacks that immediately preceded the civil war ("bleeding Kansas," John Brown, and the caning of Charles Sumter) and of course the bloodshed that ended reconstruction. 

It is worth noting (in relation to the thesis of this piece) that the John Brown revolt and the Charles Sumner caning were less important to many Southerners and Notherners, respectively, than the plaudits each action received by folks from the opposite section. Had Northerners condemned Brown as a terrorist, and Southerners denounced Preston Brooks a hooligan unworthy of his seat, neither event would have created the tensions that it did.  Antebellum Americans understood Hobbes logic. See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 151-152, 210-211.   

[13]  For sources on this see my two earlier posts, "On Cultures that Build," Scholar's Stage (18 June 2020) and "Pining for Democracy," Scholar's Stage  (10 November 2019). 

[14] For a similar account see Brown, Strain of Violence, 114-118. Similar themes are explored (though limited specifically to the Jacksonian era) in Daniel Walker Howe. What God Hath Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-148. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 411-446 and Lawrence Kohl. Politics of Individualism: Parties and American Character in the Jacksonian America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 145-177.

[15] The phrase comes from Theda Skopcal Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Social Life (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004).  

[16] For one example of non-black lynching declining in the 1920s, see William Carrigan and Clive Webb, Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence Against Mexicans in the United States, 1848-1928 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), ch. 4. For the numbers on bombings, see Bryan Burrough, Days of Rage: America's Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence (New York: Penguin Books, 2015),  5. 

[17] Hofsteder, "Introduction," in American Violence: A Documentary History, 

[18] Elizabeth Weil, "They Know How to Prevent Mega Fires. Why Won't Anybody Listen?" Propublica (28 August 2020).

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

fearmongering under the guise of high brow.

extremely unhelpful! if you are truly interested in averting the things you speak of, that is.

If you hold stock in weapons manufacturers, sales and other war-related industries, or have other sunk costs such as an array of firearms & ammo at home etc. -- as many redblooded SOB do, then your post starts to make a lot more sense, of course

Anonymous said...

I once heard maybe the reason rote learning may not work as well anymore is that the past was so quiet and now there's a lot of competition for what reverberates in a skull. I also saw a pine tree thread about some centuries old luddite who said the printing press threatens the monogamy between man and language. Some would tweet about chilled networks, and yet they've become hot. Other threads about a pattern, not so relevant to the second half, that maybe the extremism is mostly the result of new media technology that sometime afterward maybe loses efficacy.

At the moment I have uncles who have threatened to murder each other and extended family I've only met at reunions, since canceled indefinitely but not for political differences, have similar tensions over fear of groups they've never seen in person, yet flinch when they speak over who may be a member. I wont necessarily blame parasitic algorithms but I don't think a book could have created this anxiety, but maybe books are just less accessible. All I can hope someday there will conscientious people, rather than opportunists, with regression models to identify language usage statistics of a people preparing for civil war and respond with something, not famous person PSAs, to just make them fucking relax.

Anonymous said...

Why do you write so much stuff that barely anyone reads? All of your articles have like <5 comments.

T. Greer said...

@Anon 3-

Last month, my article on Taiwan has some 30,000 hits and has been quoted in Politico and The Economist. Numerous folks reached out to comment privately.

This article has had 6,000 views within its first 24 hours. Past stats suggest that it will get another 6,000 or so over the next week. This is less than I was hoping for (I was hoping it would be a 20,000 hit piece) but not every essay is a slam dunk.

More broadly, 300 subscribers on Patreon pay me to write these things. My posts here have been excerpted in the American Interest, the NYT, The Economist, Politico, TNI, and Foreign Policy. Most comments are not left on this blog, but on twitter.

But I started the blog long before people were reading it. I like to write. Getting one's thoughts out in a logical and coherent fashion is fulfilling, in its own way.

T. Greer said...

@Anon 1-

This is how things were in February, when I and folks like me were trying to spread the alarm about covid. Now it happens again.

Lexington Green said...

It’s an interesting question. We have a population that uses very violent language but compared to its ancestors engages in virtually no violence at all. The people who actually act violently on a routine basis are criminals involved in the drug trade, they’re not motivated by political considerations. This may be in part due to feminism and the feminization of the culture, including the raising of two generations now where masses of people do not have fathers in the house, as well as the propagandizing effect of popular entertainment. One of the ways to alienate political supporters to engage in too much violence, particularly lethal or potentially lethal violence. This is also an international phenomenon. Provoking the authorities to use violence while claiming to be peacefully protesting is a proven and effective method of gaining political support, where resorting to bullets and bombs tends to alienate potential support. Antifa is a good example of this. They are very well organized and well trained, and apparently well-funded from some source or another, and the focus of their activities to provoke a violent response from the police, and go up to the edge, but not over it, when engaging in interpersonal violence themselves. Of course the ultimate violent actor is the state, It possesses the means to engage in violence on a breathtaking scale, which most people who haven’t been on its receiving end cannot even imagine. If ideologically motivated people gain control of the violent potential of the federal government, and set it in motion against those of their fellow citizens they deem ideological enemies, how bloody would that be? And what prospect if any would there be to successfully oppose it? More likely, we will face oppression in the form of something like the Chinese social credit system, which will slowly crush the life out of anyone who opposes the consensus view of the US government, and corporate America. There need to be very little blood shed for that to happen.

Alleged Wisdom said...

What is the translation of that Chinese proverb you posted, and what does it mean? Google translate was not helpful. Are you trying to send the signal that only people who can read Chinese should bother reading the post?

T. Greer said...

Alleged,

"A single spark can start a prairie fire."

Alan Xun said...

I'm curious about what you think about whether historical consciousness helps or harms in this case. Arguably the Chinese have a much longer and richer sense of cultural continuity, stretching back four thousand years, and they are very much aware of it. "The empire, long divided, must unite ..."

At the same time, the American cultural consciousness typically (as you note) stretches back around 200 years. "Americans of our day are not so familiar with this way of the world." I conjecture that this might lead to a lack of confidence by Americans in how long America could last, as opposed to the faith implicitly held by many that Chinese culture is nearly indestructible.

Do you have any thoughts on comparisons between American and Chinese senses of cultural continuity, and how that affects confidence about their cultures?

Alan Xun said...

By the way, do you intend to complete your study guide to human society? I was looking forward to the finished series.