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Government and the Technology of Power Disdain for Palin

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Mobs, Lynchings, and Psychos

by Christopher Chantrill
February 13, 2011 at 12:19 pm


YOU TELL me: is the attempted killing of a member of Congress for the first time in 30 years a reflection on the violence of our political rhetoric, or a reminder of the remarkable peacefulness of modern life?

Our liberal friends like to think of the United States as uniquely violent, primarily because of its racist gun culture. That’s what the recurrent liberal meme of “Violence in America” is all about. But in A Secular Age liberal philosopher Charles Taylor offers the idea that western culture has been rapidly reducing violence over the last millennium, in particular between 1400 and 1800. At the beginning of the period, he writes, things were pretty violent.

Young nobles were capable of outbursts of mayhem, carnivals teetered on the thin line between mock and real violence, brigands were rife, vagabonds could be dangerous, city riots and peasant uprisings, provoked by unbearable conditions of life, were recurrent.

You only have to sample a couple of Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses plays to realize just how violent, and just how bloody things used to be. Back then, leading politicians did not merely make speeches using battle metaphors; they fought each other to the death in real battles. Now we live in the disciplined society, channeled and regulated by rules rather than the passionate tides of aristocratic pride and dynastic feud. We’ve got to the point where postmodernist Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish makes the disciplined society into something banal and second rate.

It was the Church that led the move away from violence, according to Charles Taylor. It wanted to upgrade everyone’s commitment to Christ, and that meant taming the more violent sectors, in particular the warrior nobles and and the bloody-minded peasants.

Even as late as the American revolution, the patriots could stage a pretty good riot. In the aftermath of the 1775 Boston Massacre, when British soldiers fired on New England colonists, enraged patriots in New York City decided to take the law into their own hands and teach the Tory sympathizers a lesson. So on May 10 hundreds of protesters descended on King’s College (today’s Columbia University) ready to tar and feather the college president, Myles Cooper, a Tory. But the young Alexander Hamilton, a 20-year-old student at the college, held off the crowd on the front steps of the college with a patriotic harangue, while Cooper made his escape out of the back door.

The most notorious form of mob justice in the United States in the years since the revolution was the lynching. The Tuskegee Institute kept statistics on lynchings in the US starting in 1882. As you can see from the chart below, back in 1882, about half the victims of lynching were white, and half were black.

Whites being lynched? Who knew? Lynchings of whites went down to single digits per year by 1910, and black lynching went to single digits per year by 1940, a generation later. Something must be going right when mobs no longer short-circuit the justice system.

Of course, maybe this reduction in violence has nothing to do with a moral movement to reduce violence but merely the fact that, in this prosperous age, few people are desperate enough to resort to violence.

These days we are transfixed, not by the thousands of ordinary murders of nobodies by nobodies, or even race murders, but by spectacular murders committed by disturbed loners. Michael Knox Beran confirms that the awareness of psycho murder is a new phenomenon.

There have been murderers throughout history, but the phenomenon of the lone psychopath intent on cruelty as well as bloodshed seems not to have been remarked until the 1860s.

Horror fiction began with Edgar Allan Poe in the 1840s, and detective fiction with Wilkie Collins and The Moonstone in 1859. The question arises: does the interest in the macabre and in the implausible murders of detective fiction—now dominated by women writers—represent a middle-class appetite for vicarious violence to fill the gap left by the reduction in violence? Is the huge media response to rampage killings a response to the low level of violence in the lives of the educated middle class?

It’s interesting to speculate on this. I suspect that it is only the pacification of society in the last millennium that has allowed the psycho murderer to emerge from a background of ubiquitous violence and become noticeable. It is telling, for instance, that lynchings became a national political scandal at the time of the civil-rights revolution when, the Tuskegee numbers show, the incidents of racial lynchings had already declined by over 90 percent.

After all the scapegoating of the last week is done, the question remains. Is the occasional rampage shooting in a society of 300 million persons a scandal or a wonder?

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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Faith & Purpose

“When we began first to preach these things, the people appeared as awakened from the sleep of ages—they seemed to see for the first time that they were responsible beings, and that a refusal to use the means appointed was a damning sin.”
Finke, Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-1990

Mutual Aid

In 1911... at least nine million of the 12 million covered by national insurance were already members of voluntary sick pay schemes. A similar proportion were also eligible for medical care.
Green, Reinventing Civil Society


“We have met with families in which for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school.”
E. G. West, Education and the State

Living Under Law

Law being too tenuous to rely upon in [Ulster and the Scottish borderlands], people developed patterns of settling differences by personal fighting and family feuds.
Thomas Sowell, Conquests and Cultures

German Philosophy

The primary thing to keep in mind about German and Russian thought since 1800 is that it takes for granted that the Cartesian, Lockean or Humean scientific and philosophical conception of man and nature... has been shown by indisputable evidence to be inadequate. 
F.S.C. Northrop, The Meeting of East and West


Inquiry does not start unless there is a problem... It is the problem and its characteristics revealed by analysis which guides one first to the relevant facts and then, once the relevant facts are known, to the relevant hypotheses.
F.S.C. Northrop, The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities


“But I saw a man yesterday who knows a fellow who had it from a chappie that said that Urquhart had been dipping himself a bit recklessly off the deep end.”  —Freddy Arbuthnot
Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison

Democratic Capitalism

I mean three systems in one: a predominantly market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all. In short, three dynamic and converging systems functioning as one: a democratic polity, an economy based on markets and incentives, and a moral-cultural system which is plural and, in the largest sense, liberal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism


The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness... But to make a man act [he must have] the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness.
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action


[In the] higher Christian churches... they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a string of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it every minute.
Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm


“When we received Christ,” Phil added, “all of a sudden we now had a rule book to go by, and when we had problems the preacher was right there to give us the answers.”
James M. Ault, Jr., Spirit and Flesh

Living Law

The recognition and integration of extralegal property rights [in the Homestead Act] was a key element in the United States becoming the most important market economy and producer of capital in the world.
Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital

presented by Christopher Chantrill

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