A Chinese sage defined a wise person as one who sees things together which others see as apart. Writing a blog implies the presumption of at least a measure of wisdom. So here we go:
In an earlier effusion of wisdom, in reference to conflicts between secularist elites and religious voters, I compared the Supreme Court in the United States with the military in Turkey. In each case, the two institutions are used to circumvent the actions of democratically elected legislators. Of course these institutions are very different from each other, but they are indeed similar in providing limits to the democratic process. The Turkish military, which antedates the advent of real democracy in the country, has long been officially defined as the guardian of the secular republic established by Kemal Ataturk. Along with the bureaucracy, the judiciary and much of the intelligentsia it constituted an explicitly secularist elite, a barrier against any incursions of Islam into the public arena. While for a long time this barrier functioned very effectively, the mass of the population, especially outside the big cities, remained strongly committed to Islam. Of course, in the view of the elite these people were unenlightened provincials. The trouble with democracy is that unenlightened provincials vote. As the state became more democratic, these votes had tangible political consequences. Islamist parties acquired power, first locally, then nationally. The military fought hard to stop this, with diminishing success.
I think the comparison here sheds light on the “culture war” in the United States. This country does not have a secularist political elite—Washington is full of important people who attend prayer breakfasts and say grace when they eat in posh restaurants. But there is certainly a secularist cultural elite in America, which also looks down on those who would push religion into the public arena as unenlightened provincials. In a democracy, lamentably or not, these people vote—and there are a lot of them. If items of the secularist agenda are put to the vote, they will usually lose. It is only naturally that the groups that believe in this agenda will seek to circumvent the democratic process. It so happens that the Supreme Court, and indeed the entire federal judiciary, is the least democratic component of the American political system. I think that Supreme Court justices would have little in common with Turkish generals if they had to spend a long weekend together. What they do have in common, as brakes on democracy in the service of secularist goals, is interesting enough to point out. (To do so is an application of the theater technique called Verfremdung by Bertold Brecht. It may be translated as “bestrangement”—using the unfamiliar to shed light on the familiar.)
But let me apply the Chinese sage’s suggestion to another question—an important one: Who are “We”?
Every human society or institution is constituted by a boundary—between those who are inside and those who are outside—between “us” and “them”. This distinction need not be pejorative, but every group, however friendly to outsiders, would not be that group unless it defined who is an outsider—if it did not do this, there would be no insiders. What is more, it is inevitable that people will feel stronger obligations to insiders than to outsiders. Thus we may benevolently contribute to a program that helps children in some faraway country, but we will not dream of making financial sacrifices on their behalf that we would readily make on behalf of our own children. That is not a moral shortcoming; it is human nature. Let me now apply this basic anthropological insight, in a sort of Brechtian Verfremdung, to three cases much in the news right now:
1. The behavior of the Roman Catholic hierarchy toward clergy suspected of child abuse. Since the current crisis has erupted, enough evidence has been amassed to indicate that the first reaction of most bishops has been solicitious of the suspected priests. The bishops have tried to keep the matter out of public view (to “cover up”, if you will), to refer these priests to therapy or to move them to another position. I don’t think that this necessarily implies callousness toward the victimized children. Rather, it is the natural reaction of any institution to be protective of “its own”. It so happens that a clear boundary between clergy and laity is at the very core of Roman Catholicism. Ordination to the priesthood, “in the order of Melchisedek”, is in aeternum—for ever. The priesthood is “a band of brothers” as no other, and any bishop will be most reluctant to throw a priest under his care to the wolves of public opprobrium (let alone to the police). This reluctance has been reinforced, at least initially, by the facts that many alleged offences occurred in the distant past, that many accusers had a financial interest in their accusations being legally vindicated, and that the crisis has been gleefully seized upon by those who dislike the church to begin with. One may welcome that bishops are now being forced to be less protective of their clerical flock (I do, with some reservations). But one should not be surprised by the almost instinctive protectiveness.
2. The current debate over military tactics in Afghanistan. The counter-insurgency doctrine now being applied there dictates that civilian casualties (“collateral damage”) are to be avoided at almost all costs, even if this increases the risk to American troops. The logic of the doctrine is persuasive: A counter-insurgency is unlikely to succeed unless it can bring significant numbers of the indigenous population to its side. The safety of one’s own troops (“force protection”) has long been an unquestioned principle in the American military. The official line has been that both principles can be adhered to—avoidance of civilian and of military casualties. I have no doubt that this is the sincere aim of commanders in the field, and it seems reasonable that is achievable in many situations. Nevertheless, it stands to reason that there are situations in which the two principles suggest opposite actions: American troops are being fired on from a village in which very probably there are civilians—what degree of force may be used by the troops to protect themselves? And what degree of force is permissible if they are ordered to occupy the village? Reports from Afghanistan indicate that many American soldiers are convinced that they are at greater risk because of the counter-insurgency rules of engagement, which may well be revised to assuage the anger that this conviction is causing in the field (and which is almost certain to translate into anger at home).
Warriors, even more than priests, have always formed “bands of brothers” (Shakespeare was right when he coined the phrase in the context of the Battle of Agincourt). No army can expect to win in war if it ignores this elemental instinct. Of course an army’s code of conduct can enjoin commanders to exercise great caution to avoid civilian casualties—but not if that involves soldiers in battle protecting the safety of potentially hostile civilians over the safety of themselves and their brothers. Their families and public opinion back home will even more vocally prioritize “force protection” over counter-insurgency doctrine—and very probably will organize politically to advocate this priority.
3. The debate in Europe, especially in Germany, over rescue plans for the Greek economy. It is quite clear that “sovereign default” on the part of Greece would have serious repercussions for all of Europe and beyond. It equally clear that many Europeans are resentful of having to bail out the Greeks, whose own behavior has largely brought about their present predicament. To put it graphically, European voters who have to retire at age 62 resent bailing out Greek hairdressers (apparently defined as a dangerous profession) who may retire at age 50. Once again, the underlying question here is—who are “our own”? Despite some grumbling, West Germans have for years now accepted a great financial burden in the effort to help out the East German economy. This does not translate into willingness to assume a burden on behalf of Greece. And this is in the context of mounting resentment by Germans of the role of “paymaster of Europe”—a role which, correctly or not, they perceive as having been forced into by the European Union.
During the period of the German Democratic Republic, West Germans were frequently asked to contribute to various programs “for our brothers and sisters in the east”. Precisely. One cannot imagine the EU rescue package being sold on behalf of “our brothers and sisters in Greece”. There is some reason to think that the nation is the largest unit on behalf of which people are willing to make sacrifices. Bureaucrats in Brussels may believe in a “European identity”. Few other Europeans do. Not yet, anyway.
Sometimes there are conflicting national identities within the mind of one individual. The Austrian writer Friedrich Torberg told of an experience on the Dalmatian coast sometime between the two world wars. He was looking at a handsome boat (as I recall, some sort of coast-guard vessel) which was anchored in the harbor. Next to him stood a weather-beaten old man, evidently a native, with the appearance of a sailor. Torberg asked him about the boat. The sailor replied: “The boat used to belong to us. Then we took it over”. Two identities vied with each other in that sentence—one of a subject of the Habsburg Empire, the other of a citizen of the new state of Yugoslavia. Both were multi-national states, and both did not make it through the twentieth century.