Not long after Katrina ravaged the gulf coast, a young lady paid a visit to New Orleans, in part to absorb the contrast between past and present, and in part to lend emotional support in her own private way. She arrived at a place where the view was of a wasteland of bare skeletal remains of homes and the barren land that, for whatever the reason, lay undisturbed from any efforts suggesting recovery, repair or reclamation. Beyond her mind's eye she felt something, felt it strongly: this context bespoke a degradation of culture itself, the very lifeblood of a community.
It was a nauseating thought. The damage had been preventable, and everyone knew it. The death toll had been largely preventable, and everyone knew it. The social unrest, disorder and criminality had been largely preventable, but was inherent in parts of the culture even before the terrible storm. A storm-victimized car offered the opportunity for a symbolic act of defiance against the forces that could crush a culture. With as large a rock as she could manage she summarily trashed the windshield of that car. It felt good despite failing to lift her spirits. There were no policemen there to arrest her for this brazen act of property destruction. They were otherwise occupied.
Many years ago the late scholar and activist Edward Said, a Palestinian by birth, revisited Israel at a time of unrest early in the Second Intifada. An Israeli soldier had been trapped inside a multi-story enclosure, a guard house if I recall it correctly. Throngs of Palestinians surrounded the place and some gained entry. Many in the crowd were throwing rocks at the tower in a gesture of anger and disquiet at an occupier whose soldier was an empirical witness, expression, reminder and symbol, all wrapped into one mental map symbolizing an unrelenting occupation. His body would shortly be thrown, lifeless, from the window, a sacrifice to the crowds below. Overcome by the emotion, Edward Said found himself throwing a few rocks, partaking in the appeal of human equity for relief from the indignities of occupation. There were policemen there, but they were defenseless to prevent the rocks any more than the death of a hateful symbol. But Said paid a price back at home, to be sure.
In 1954, the Supreme Court, in a rare mood of defiance, promulgated a principle ingrained in the Constitution but widely ignored by the populace. To many onlookers it was just as if they had together picked up a boulder and thrown it against the glass house of the Southern culture and its discriminatory ways, as also to send a message to everyone else in the country that wanton disregard of rights was no longer to be tolerated, especially for those historically exposed and deprived thereby. Everyone knew the practice was wrong but nobody cared to correct it. The Court viewed the black race as a wasteland untouched by the hand of equal opportunity and the respect of their natural dignity. It was time to throw a rock, to apply what is in the lawyer's jargon equity, the arm of law that keeps the strict letter of the law from defeating the purpose and ends of justice. There were police who attempted to protect the South from this legal interference, but there was a still stronger force arrayed against it.
The civil rights demonstrations of the 1960's saw lots more rocks, much more destruction, and more evidence that our culture was still severely wounded despite legal progress from the top. Radicals and reformers alike, each in their own ways, with their respective temperaments and tools, dispensed the universal symbols of anger at institutional incompetence, at injustice, at disgusting public apathy. As Thomas Merton would write, there comes a time when violence justifiably symbolizes right against wrong when all options and opportunities for normal redress have proven fruitless, when the damage continues unabated by any force but that of decent people having recourse to rocks and stones. Despite our evident disposition to avoid acknowledging it, these stones and rocks won the Civil Rights Act. Everyone knows this, though many prefer to lie about the facts than to face them.
Lies more often than not cover a failure of accountancy, usually of those in power to those intended to be the beneficiaries of that power when wisely employed. When power is not wisely employed by those who believe themselves to be unaccountable, unaccountably bad things happen. Governments like to believe they have a special immunity on account of the diplomatic office. They think that because their prerogatives imply risk that they have more reason even than corporations to hide behind a veil of liability protection. Our country's Founders were well aware of the cupidities of power and allowed for freedoms that would hold governments accountable. Freedom of the press was to be the institutional bulwark against the disposition of those in power to rule uninfluenced by accountability.
Ultimately even the press gave up the ghost. Those who paid attention to American politics in particular were brutally aware of the strong-arm tactics of our own government, sanctified amid mystery and suspicion of which no accountability was allowed to penetrate. In a particularly glaring example of the type George Bush and Dick Cheney sent us to Iraq. The question was not whether the war was right or wrong, the fact and problematic was that it was staged, that the public and Secretary of State were duped and the country was made out to be the puppet of ideological hypocrites. It made our democracy appear pretty much what it actually now is, a pleasant ruse for those who wish to justify unaccountable power.
The power of governments and corporations (even of professions) to act unaccountably has resulted in untold harm and injustice throughout this country and the world at large. At some point we must surely have suspected someone would start throwing rocks. That someone was to be a young man by the name of Julian Assange. It has been a while now, and evidently the sky hasn't fallen, our troops apparently have yet to be scandalized or brutalized by anything Julian Assange publicly aired, and the officials officiously anxious to throw the book at both Assange and Pfc Bradley Manning (recently a Nobel nominee) are only presenting themselves by example as defenders of all of those other errors that justified many prior episodes of flying rocks.
Lies that dupe a democratic sovereign are despicable, even if the public is willing to accept the consequences of war. But again, war wasn't so much the issue as the duping. When the public can accept being duped by those it has elected to preserve the sanctity of the sovereign entity, it gets what it deserves, but it also creates an environment viciously antithetical to a democratic culture where accountability to the sovereign is an absolute principle that no government can pretend to take with a grain of salt. Or at least it should not ever be permitted to feel that it can do so with impunity.
This is highly intellectualized, but never mind. I am putting into intellectual terms what people feel, what they know, what they can act on without ever needing a formal definition. They comprehend the democratic sovereign despite rarely thinking about it. Why think about what ought to be obvious? What is understood and obvious is acted on, not thought upon. The philosopher's intellectual task is to remind people that such things still matter. Everyone understands something about stewardship of duties, of powers and of offices, of talents and donations and lord knows what else. Who requires an academic definition? Bradley Manning understood these, as also did Julian Assange; they, along with many millions of like-minded citizens the world over were well aware that the government's duty to steward the sovereign's rights was no longer, if it ever sincerely was, a priority in the corridors of power. Power's plutocracy had assumed the reigns and no one was asking questions; not the press, not the public.
The sordid discrimination of money's influence, no less damaging than the discrimination of color or orientation, is wreaking havoc that laws and legislatures and courts refuse to address while yet so many of us are so well aware of the facts of the matter. Many remain silent out of cynical nihilism, the bottom-feeding notion that nothing can be done and thus nothing is worth trying. Many are actually in bed with the philosophy of the plutocrat and so have no qualms over recent events. They include much of the now fabled "one percent'. Many are blitheringly naÃ¯ve or ignorant and are frankly just as comfortable remaining that way. Educating these people tends to require, if we but heed the lessons of history, the voice of rocks and stones.
When people are worth no more than rocks and stones, well, we have come to a crushing realization, haven't we? Stones are a final resort to the notions of equity inherent to the breast in every man, if not always awake and conscious in every man. Again we offer no definition, for both equity and justice are spoken for in the heart without much benefit from erudition. But they are there, and for those whose expertise does know precisely what they are about, these problems of out-of-control governments and unaccountable influence are a clear evidence of cultural disintegration no different from that presented to the young lady visiting New Orleans. At some point one is content to espy a metaphorical car able to absorb the symbol of one's discontent when all else has failed to deliver a remedy. Some have a fond place in their hearts for store windows"oh, and cars, too -- police cars a connoisseur's delicacy.
To those with expertise in law and philosophy, the options are now for radical intervention, and not merely the usual forlorn attempts at exposure through op-ed pages or the hackneyed internet e-zines rife with gluttony for political correctness. Those of us with an acute understanding of life and reality are well aware that we are in dire straits. We expect rocks and we shall expect to throw some ourselves, metaphorically or otherwise, until folks get the picture that accountability is not negotiable, any more than is dignity.
Bradley Manning's defense attorney suggested that history would ultimately judge his client by the standard of equity shared by both moral and legal teaching and memorialized by Martin Luther King Jr.: "I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for the law." Today's legal system, gutted by corporate and political leverage, has been all but denuded of respect for stewardship -- and worse, suffered a marked weakening of equity jurisdiction that was intended to speak for "the conscience of the law', the same conscience implied by Manning's lawyer. It is doubtful whether that defense will find succor in court.
And the police. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are happy to have the military police and CIA work hard to punish those who expose wanton failures in accountability. They have supported Israel's relentless efforts to still the life energy of a captive people. The present administration supported corralling and detaining immigrants until re-election politics compelled a retraction. They spoke well of whistleblowers and behind the scenes all but criminalized the process. They might as well support a return to the Blue Laws for all one gathers of their moral and philosophical weltanschauung. One wonders what real difference there is between Obama and any other pyrotechnic plutophile. The powers that be offer a red hot sizzle of decency but take every care to control outcomes for their own benefit as if by an iron fist redolent of Bismarck.
These are tough words. I speak them with passion and conviction in part because I developed the metaphysical foundation for the analytical study of offices and stewardship. As such I have more than the usual right to pronounce judgments upon these matters, one of which I shall now expound upon. Most of law is predicated upon two contexts: one entails those betraying the trust of others acting lawfully under adverse reliance, by which is meant a reliance upon reasonable presumption of another's authority and the stewardship responsibility to wield it properly. When issues at law arise under such conditions the law generally grants benefit of the doubt to those under adverse reliance.