Home To Roost: Violence, Nonviolence, and Anti-Violence In America

Undoubtedly, it seems the highest order of contradiction that, in order to achieve nonviolence, we must first break with it in overcoming its root causes.  Therein, however, lies our only hope.

Ward Churchill, Pacifism As Pathology, 1986.

Why was Malcolm X murdered?  When a reporter asked for his comment on the shooting of President Kennedy, the unflinching anti-imperialist replied, “Chickens coming home to roost never made me sad.”   The political fallout from that single statement was enough to turn the head of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, into as staunch a reactionary as J. Edgar Hoover.  Muhammad banned Malcolm, formerly the NOI’s foremost spokesperson, from public speaking for 90 days, sparking a year-long feud that culminated in the latter’s assassination by four members of the Nation with at least tacit support from the FBI and New York police.  At the time, the New York Times lamented how he had turned “many true gifts to an evil purpose.”

A former thief and pimp with almost no formal education, Malcolm X was nonetheless an unparalleled master of words and their revolutionary power.  His note on Kennedy is one of the most remarkable examples of his capacity to encapsulate existential ideological battles in wry colloquialisms.  “Chickens coming home to roost.”

It is in the spirit of that observation, an observation enormous enough in itself to claim a man’s life, that we must process this week’s shooting at the Republican practice for Congress’s annual baseball game.

Examining the nuances of violence immediately provokes a unified liberal-conservative refrain – “too soon” – implying in chorus that respect (or respectability) demands nothing more or less than willful and concerted ignorance drawing on religious idealization of victimhood.  In fact there is nothing less respectful to those subjected to any violence than obscuring the circumstances of their victimization, a process which not only dooms others to their preventable suffering, but erases any culpability we may bear in it.

Thursday’s shooting saw the desecration of not four but five lives.  There was Steve Scalise, the Republican Whip in the House of Representatives and a father of two, and Matt Mika, a lobbyist for Tyson Foods and somebody’s son, as well as the less celebrated Capitol Police officer Crystal Griner and Congressional staffer Zachary Barth; these four were shot and injured by gunman James Hodgkinson, and they and the many dozens of people who know and love them are suffering profoundly.  As fellow human beings, we have a responsibility to acknowledge their suffering and extend to them all at the very least our compassion.

And there was Hodgkinson himself, the only person killed on that field shaken Republican lawmakers wasted no time in pronouncing “a killing field” to any vessel of saber-rattling publicity there to listen.  Hodgkinson was, infamously, a former volunteer for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign with a history of domestic violence and, less infamously, homeless due to recent unemployment.  More importantly, he was, like his victims, a human being, and no less a vessel for empathy.  He was shot to death by Capitol Police.

In violence against human life, we find both a moral impossibility and a moral imperative in quantification.  In each individual victim there is by definition a unique violation, an irreplicable shattering of loves and dignities and aspirations that is in itself a practical infinity.  But there is then a practically infinite difference between four victims and five, between extending sympathy to only those Hodgkinson shot and acknowledging the equally tragic destruction of his life as well.  Lying in that infinity is the difference between a cowardly and a truly compassionate society.

The infinity between four and five is in this case immeasurably vast, but it is statistically insignificant compared to the infinity between five and 26,000.  According to the nonpartisan research and consumer advocacy organization Families USA, in 2010, the last year before the Affordable Care Act’s insurance mandate, 26,000 American adults died simply because they had no health insurance.  The ACA was never more than a corporatist band-aid to a crisis unheard of in such a wealthy nation, but it managed to reduce that number to 7,100 in 2012 (incidentally, a single-payer “Medicare for All” system would eliminate even the possibility of these deaths).  The American Health Care Act proposed by House Republicans to repeal so-called “Obamacare” would at the very least return the country to pre-ACA levels of unnecessary illness and inadequate care.  The Republican-controlled Congressional Budget Office practically acknowledges this mass violence in its analysis of the bill, ominously predicting in an unexplained footnote that the AHCA will save $3 billion in Social Security payments.

And the enormity of 26,000 infinities eliminated is suddenly numbed in the face of the staggering 200,000 lives claimed every year by air pollution in the United States.  Moving past the blinders of nationalism, the scope of this crisis becomes simply unfathomable.  The UN’s World Health Organization found in 2016 that one in four human deaths on Earth (12.6 million per year) is attributable to environmental contamination.  This means pollution – overwhelmingly caused by US-based multinational corporations and their pathological thirst for profit – now annually kills as many people as the entire Holocaust.  As the climate continues to collapse, these numbers will rise, as will the numbers of refugees from manufactured wastelands in every continent.

It is not “too soon” to point out that Congressman Scalise gained a national spotlight earlier this year championing the American Health Care Act, which passed in the House of Representatives on May 4 due in part to his aggressive corralling of the more hesitant corners of his caucus.  Nor is it imprudent to point out how, as a climate change-denier serving on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, he has played an essential role in preventing even the most basic environmental regulations, nihilistically ignoring the fact that rising sea levels will consume more than half of his district by 2050.  A cursory examination of his voting record – denying basic welfare to the unemployed, unfaltering support for states slaughtering their own people, cheerleading for our own military as it committs atrocities around the world – paints the portrait of a powerful actor who unfalteringly supports the violence against the many by the powerful few.

Does this mean Scalise deserves the suffering that could easily define the rest of his life?  Of course not, no being deserves suffering.  Contrary to the Puritanic heritage of American ideology, suffering is not a moral premise but a material reality.

Congressman Scalise is certainly not unique or even noteworthy in the suffering he has unleashed.  But, like all political and economic despots at the helm of global capitalism, he can not escape culpability in the destruction their institutions have wrought around the globe.  It should have come as no surprise to any member of the Republican caucus sent cowering behind a baseball dugout that the terror they created has matured into a reciprocal societal force.

Would James Hodgkinson have leapt into his suicidal endeavor if he had any hope for the future?

What if there was some basic safety net in the United States, so that when he lost his job several months ago, he was not forced to live out of a van?  Though the wealthy have long since chosen to ignore the brutal degradation of homelessness, it is not an inexorable fact of society.  Since the 1980s, the population sleeping in American shelters every night has increased by over 430%.  This increase is entirely the result of neoliberal reforms in the welfare system, decimating aid to the poor and mentally ill in exchange for corporate tax cuts.  These reforms have long been championed by Scalise and the Republican Party, though Democrats are no less complicit in their enactment.  Without free public housing, without free treatment for mental illness and addiction, without safe and clean public shelters, without adequate public employment, joblessness creates homelessness and homelessness creates joblessness in an unyielding cycle of poverty and humiliation.

What if his despair was more existential?  As corporate media outlets wasted no time in pointing out, he was a long-time activist committed to progressive tax reform and environmental protection.  Like anyone, he must have observed the decades of rising inequality and frozen wages, the frequency of economic meltdowns, the unprecedented rates of depression and anxiety, the shocking rise in mortality – all symptoms of our profoundly unstable and alienating socioeconomic system which discerning economists such as Thomas Piketty and David Harvey warn faces imminent collapse.  Add to that the near certainty of ecological collapse, a certainty Hodgkinson understood and wrote about in letters to a newspaper, and it becomes clear that the shooter knew how precarious his life already was when he chose to cast it away.

Watch the chickens coming home to roost.  This is the ultimate terror for those of us in the ruling class of a fundamentally violent society: that those whose lives are destroyed by our way of life will realize how easily they can make us suffer in return.  In a culture where machine guns are much easier to find than therapists, we are at all times a few social constructs away from a murderous all-consuming chaos.  Life saving constraints are no longer practical, but conceptual and thus completely permeable.

The philosopher Šlavoj Žizek divides violence into two forms: subjective and objective.  Subjective violence, he argues, “is seen as a perturbation of the ‘normal,’ peaceful state of things.  However, objective violence is precisely the violence inherent to this ‘normal’ state of things.  Objective violence is invisible since it sustains the very zero-level standard against which we perceive something as subjectively violent.”  Objective violence is the violence of power, the silent channel through which the will of the oppressor is exacted.  Is its inverse, subjective violence, not then the channel – often aimless, invariably tragic, but the channel nonetheless – through which people react to that oppression?

Less theoretically – there is no question that the Capital Police officers who gunned down James Hodgkinson acted defensively.  We accept defensive violence as justified so universally that we do not consider his death an act of violence at all; to the contrary, it is a prevention of violence, an act of anti-violence.  But can the same not be said about Hodgkinson opening fire on a field full of ultra-conservative politicians?  Is it not the most absolute form of self-defensive to eliminate those who allow their personal corruption and greed to jeopardize the survival of our very planet?  There is no moral difference between police officers shooting a man to end his killing spree and a citizen gunning down Congressmen to end theirs.

Again, media dictators of public opinion would recoil at such a cruel and disrespectful suggestion, but such an aversion actually reveals a lazy unwillingness to empathize.  We must be willing to work hard enough to hold an unconditional empathy.  The fact that they were shot defensively does not reduce the victims’ worth as human beings, as it should not reduce Hodgkinson’s.  Any revolution based in justice must first be grounded in uncompromising compassion.  But compassion is not the same as nonviolence.

When Gandhi marched 240 miles to reclaim his people’s right to mill sea salt in 1930, there was merit in his courageous and untested thesis that nonviolent struggle was the best antidote to the destructiveness of imperialism.  But nearly 90 years later, western powers still own the salt in the Indian Ocean (now in the guise multinational corporations rather than the official British Empire), while more half of all Indians live on less than $3 a day.  The peaceful mass participation protest movements of the twentieth century, despite many small victories, have decidedly failed to establish an equitable, sustainable global system, and we do not have another 90 years to negotiate on the terms of those in power.  If nonviolence will not end the ceaseless violence of capitalism and imperialism, then it simply becomes another tone in the ambient brutality of objective violence.

Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael), a legendary disciple of Malcolm X and father of the Black Power Movement, put it this way: “If we are to consider ourselves revolutionaries, we must acknowledge that we have an obligation to succeed at our revolution.”  Since clinging to gradualism and nonviolence will be too slow to stop the atrocities of our government – not to mention impending political, economic, and climate catastrophes – it is time to seek alternatives.

At times, to prevent the unparalleled violence of the neoliberal state, it is necessary to commit acts of violence against facets of the repressive state apparatus (government, police, military, corporations – whoever’s destructive power is most urgent).  That violence can be anti-violent seems a horrifying contradiction to those immersed in the white-washed tradition of liberal ideology, who would far prefer to quote Gandhi than engage in any sort of direct action campaign whatsoever.  This reactionary reticence is countered artfully in radical environmentalist Derrick Jensen’s introduction to the 2007 edition of Ward Churchill’s landmark study, Pacifism as Pathology:

“Pacifists tell us that violence only begets violence.  This is manifestly not true.  Violence can beget submission, as when a master beats a slave…Violence can beget material wealth, as when a robber or a capitalist (insofar as we can make a meaningful distinction) steals from someone.  Violence can beget violence, as when someone attacks someone who fights back.  Violence can beget a cessation of violence, as when someone fights off or kills an assailant.”

We must move beyond nonviolence to a compassionate anti-violence.  We must become the best of both Gandhi, who reportedly used his dying breath to forgive his assassin, and Malcolm X , who told his followers to demand their rights “by the bullet” after the ballot had failed them.  We owe the most callous oppressor unconditional love, absolute spiritual forgiveness, recognition of our shared humanity, and we can never forget how everyone from Donald Trump down is oppressed by the constraints of self-perpetuating ideological indoctrination.  But as the state and its corporate counterpart position themselves to unleash historic violence, it is our right and responsibility to do whatever is within our power to stop them.  If this means Congressmen should fear for their lives when they vote for murder, so be it.

The means of anti-violence are varied and often unclear.  A single gunman like Hodgkinson ultimately sews nothing but pointless destruction, inherently an injustice in itself.  Clumsily and brutally attacking a few individual politicians has no impact on the overarching structure of violence.  In fact, the net political impact of the shooting has been a publicity field day for far-right bloviators and a justification for authoritarian policing.  A revolutionary campaign of anti-violence will require pragmatism, organization, and (I repeat as it can not be overstated) compassion.  Hodgkinson’s aggressive emotional reaction to a material crisis represents none of these.

But imagine the scenario in which it did.  Imagine even one percent of the population joined an organized, armed militia threatening the lives those who inflict mass violence.  We would outnumber those who willingly enlist in the state’s military three to one.  This movement could respectfully and humanely warn its targets, and like Sitting Bull’s freedom fighters it could sincerely mourn its opponents, the oppressors.  How many Congressmen would choose the insurance lobby’s American Health Care Act over their own safety?  How many CEOs would risk their own lives to block climate regulators?

As conservatives decry the concept of chaos and liberals deify a peace that has never existed, the world is slipping towards a global violence of all against all quite beyond their control.  As current liberal darling and former left-wing militia leader Nelson Mandela pointed out in his 1964 trial for sedition, “Ultimately, if there is no dawning of sanity on the part of the government, the dispute will finish by being settled in violence and force.”  There are many, many more victims of global capitalism than beneficiaries.  If capitalism and neocolonialism are not dismantled with the pragmatic application of anti-violence, they will be dismantled by the overwhelming force of the billions they have disenfranchised.

The time where we have the power to shape a survivable system is rapidly drawing to a close.  We can have the courage, commitment, and compassion for militant anti-violence.  Or we can allow our state to demolish itself, leaving unprecedented destruction in its wake.  We can now or never answer the famous query of the Harlan County organizers: which side are you on?


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