Friday, August 14, 2015

Monsters

     [The terrors attendant upon Iran’s pursuit of nuclear power status, which the Obama Administration seems determined to facilitate, and the refusal of so much of the Democrat Party to oppose such a ridiculous “deal,” have moved me to repost the following essay, which first appeared at the old Palace Of Reason in 2003. -- FWP]


Your Curmudgeon's last emission was a comparison between the moral standings of those who make war with precision instruments and those who prefer indiscriminate slaughter. Today we'll have a look at some of the creatures that willingly adopt the methods of genocide and mass destruction, and the mechanisms that empower them to do so.


Possibly no novel in history has excited as much admiration or discussion as J. R. R. Tolkien's fantasy classic The Lord Of The Rings. If you're one of the three remaining English-speakers who has yet to read this extraordinary work of the imagination, it's essentially the tale of the final conflict between the Free Peoples of Middle Earth, belatedly come together in a defensive federation, and Sauron the Dark Lord, the superhuman embodiment of evil, who seeks to enslave the entire world, simply because that's what he does.

Sauron is a diabolus ab initio. He arrives on the stage of Tolkien's fantasy already aligned with evil, absolutely and irrevocably. The novel concerns the efforts of all the free creatures of Middle Earth -- Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits, and Men -- to destroy the magical superweapon Sauron made, lost, and seeks to regain -- the One Ring -- and thus deny him the dominion of the world. Sauron's troops in the contest are the Orcs, inherently evil creatures he produced from a "base" of Elves captured in combat, by unspeakably black arts of torture and distortion.

There isn't much to be said about how Sauron came to be evil. Tolkien presents him to us as a seamless and sourceless construct. Even after reading the many bits of backstory presented in Tolkien's Silmarillion and other peripheral works, one gets no sense for what twisted Sauron, originally a Maiar, a kind of lesser angel, into an agent of utter evil. We must take him as a given.

Similarly, Sauron's opponents are presented to us inherently good. They have their weaknesses, and some very minor failings from which they always quickly recover, but they're never allowed the sort of moral division or ambiguity that would allow the reader to mistake their alignment, which is as absolute and irrecoverable as Sauron's is. These are archetypes of Good and Evil, shorn of genesis.

Some of the sillier criticism of the book has centered on precisely this characteristic. Leftists eager to condemn it and its moral vision have called it "racist." It's unnecessary to comment.


In the human world, we try to study the processes that create monsters, in the hope of unmaking them and preventing the production of more of their kind. We look at such as Ted Bundy, Ed Gein, John Wayne Gacy, and others as less persons than products. This habit of mind occasionally serves us poorly, for reasons best discussed another time.

Still, the overwhelming consensus is that human beings don't enter the world already evil; they choose evil consciously, are deluded into it, or are twisted into it by forces more powerful than they. It's quite natural that we should attempt to determine the mechanisms that produce our human monsters.

Unfortunately, there's little that's known beyond a serious doubt about these paths into the darkness. We can study human monsters once they've emerged, but their origin remains a hotly contested subject. Scholars in the behavioral sciences are sharply divided on virtually every aspect of it.

Perhaps the only area in which there's firm agreement is that some minds, incapable of empathizing with the suffering of others, see evil simply as a path to profit, without regard for moral stricture. These conscienceless ones are called sociopaths. They are justly regarded as the most dangerous members of our race, for they are capable of seeing everyone else in the world strictly as means to their ends -- means that possess no rights or innate value of their own. The only thing that ever checks a sociopath is his assessment of the costs and risks to himself.

Saddam Hussein is a sociopath. Kim Jong Il of North Korea is a sociopath. Mao Tse-tung, Josef Stalin, and Adolf Hitler were sociopaths. Many others dot the pages of history, rulers who were infinitely willing to kill and enslave to the limits of the world if it would get them what they wanted.

Quite plainly, to keep such monsters away from the levers of power is one of the most important goals of any political system. Few have compiled a good record at it.


Today the world is riven into roughly two camps: those who believe, albeit fuzzily, in the concept called rights, which defends the life, liberty, and property of the individual, and those who reject that concept and its implications. The latter group provides our sociopathic monsters. It also controls most of the governments of the world, and by extension, most of mankind.

Friedrich Hayek believed sociopathy to be an asset to one who seeks political power; that monsters, in part because of their monstrousness, have a better chance of rising to command the forces of the State, that institution whose agents exert coercive power over others without fear of legal consequence, than those of us who are constrained by moral scruple. (See the chapter "Why The Worst Get On Top" in his classic volume The Road To Serfdom.) If Hayek's contention is correct, the ascent of such as Stalin, Mao, Hitler, et alii is not an aberration but the working-out of a process controlled by certain hard incentives and disincentives.

As we can easily see from history, a sociopath at the helm of a modern State, with the State's resources and many techniques for enforcing its will, is the most fearsome of all political developments. The death tolls attributable just to Stalin, Mao, and Hitler total perhaps a hundred million. It should be obvious that whatever mechanisms their States possessed to filter out their kind were inadequate to the task.

But equally obvious is the importance of the powers of the State to the carnage they wreaked. Without those powers, they would have been three unpleasant old men, little more. The State put huge guns into their hands, guns too large for their victims to oppose.


One of the key concepts in international political discourse is sovereignty: the attribute a State possesses when it is effectively unchallenged within its boundaries, and is conceded by other States to be legitimate in that position. At one time, we spoke of "sovereigns" -- kings -- who were literally the personal possessors of the power of their States. Today the concept is more diffuse, extending to the government as a distributed entity rather than to an absolute monarch.

Sovereignty is less a thing possessed by right than a thing conceded. The concession is important, for a State is unlikely to be able to hold its own against any and all opposition. A sufficiently large, sufficiently well motivated coalition of other States could bring it down. So State A's sovereignty depends more on the indulgence of other States, for whatever reasons, than on its claims to legitimacy.

Now and then that becomes rather obvious. The Taliban claimed sovereignty over Afghanistan, but America decided otherwise. Saddam Hussein's Baathist dictatorship claimed sovereignty over Iraq, but once again, America decided otherwise.

Today, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, run by the odious Yasser Arafat, is demanding that Israel and the world recognize its sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza Strip territories. At present, Israel allows the PLO a local autonomy, but maintains that the government in Tel Aviv remains sovereign over those lands, quite as much as over the rest of Israel.

The PLO's demands are actually the point of a spear. Behind it, ready to push, stand Hamas, Hezbollah, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Islamic Jihad, Fatah, and other explicitly terrorist organizations. The monsters who run these groups, who persuade deluded young men to strap on explosive belts and spend their lives killing Israeli civilians, have never renounced their vision of a "greater Palestine," redrawing the map of the Middle East with Israel entirely absent. For them, there is no satisfaction short of driving the Jews into the sea. The PLO's demands are merely "the camel's nose under the tent": an attempt to acquire the full coercive powers and the respectability of recognized Statehood for their squalid satrapy. After that, with an untrammeled power to oppress their own brethren and mulct them of funds for their murderous schemes, their campaign of genocide against the Jews of Israel will continue.


In 1787, when the delegates of the thirteen states recently liberated from British colonial rule gathered in Philadelphia to design the Constitution for their Union, the most hotly contested topic of all was sovereignty. Who should have it? Would the individual states concede even a limited power to coerce them to a federal government, thereby surrendering their stance as equals with other nations? Or would they insist on retaining full liberty of action and the ability to refuse federal demands at their whim?

In his diary of the convention, James Madison recounts approaching George Washington with the question. Washington was the titan of the age, recognized by all the other delegates and indeed by every politically engaged American of the day as the man on whose will the future of the Union most depended. Madison asked him whether he thought the delegates would be able to resolve the sovereignty question to the satisfaction of all the states.

Washington didn't answer. He turned away, one hand on his hip, and peered through the window of Independence Hall into a summer sky that suddenly seemed dark.

"Sovereignty," Washington murmured. "The monster."

1 comment:

  1. Cf. http://fair-use.org/j-r-r-tolkien/notes-on-motives-in-the-silmarillion/

    ReplyDelete

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