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Preemptive Strikes of the (Pseudo) Progressive Kind

For reasons related mostly to geography and the positive experiences of an uncle and a number of family friends, I attended an undergraduate college run by the Society of Jesus, a Catholic religious order known more colloquially as “the Jesuits”.

In making the choice to attend this place, neither my parents nor I were particularly driven by the desire to insure that I be inculcated with the “right values” during my first extended sojourn outside the nest. Rather, we all just hoped that I would get the type of solid education needed for me to be relatively happy and productive in the adult world.

Looking back I can say, with some gratitude, that the Jesuits delivered handsomely on their part of this bargain.

When, later on, Spanish friends would get to the point (always much later in a friendship with a Spaniard than in a relationship with an American) of asking me where I had gone to college, I was surprised at their sharp reactions to the news that I had studied at a Jesuit institution. 

In so doing, they provided me with one of my first great lessons about the deeply contextual nature of meaning. What was for me mostly an organization that ran, as we used to say, “a good school” relatively close to my home, was for them something quite different and much more freighted with meaning.

In the Spanish context, “studying with the Jesuits” carries with it strong suggestions of family wealth, a belief in a militant and often martial Catholicism, and above all, a devotion (albeit with occasional bouts of insouciance and rebellion) to maintaining and strengthening the existing social order.

The Jesuits were founded more or less simultaneously with the Counterreformation, a movement designed to insure that Spain, whose governmental system in the mid- sixteenth century was inextricably entwined with the hierarchy of the Catholic church, retain its role as the sole super-power of the world. This effort obviously involved a great deal of military strategy.

But the Spanish elites also knew that all the military force in the world was useless if they were to lose the “hearts and minds” of the people (mostly from the Germanic principalities) whom they hoped to keep within their sphere of control. They also knew that that this “long war” against religiously fueled insurgents would require ideological discipline in the “homeland”. It would not do, they reasoned, to have the nation’s future leaders perceive the world-view of the insurgents as having even the slightest shred of   legitimacy.

Enter the Jesuits.

One of the great attractions of the beliefs of the insurgents, a family of faiths we now refer to as Protestantism, was their accent on the legitimacy of the individual’s personal search for God. No truly thoughtful person ever wishes to have their search for meaning circumscribed by a priori barriers or considerations. Insofar as these new faiths promised to strip away at least some of these strictures, they tended to appeal to the more intellectual sectors of society.

In this context, one of the Jesuits’ prime functions was to provide those who found themselves attracted to the relative intellectual freedom of Protestantism with a competing intellectual option from within the mother Church.

In other words, their job was to demonstrate that the organization that would, in short order persecute Galileo and burn Giordano Bruno at the stake and that was backing huge and very brutal military campaigns designed to make people stop thinking in the way they were thinking about the church and the Spanish state, was really a great precinct of intellectual life.

Faced with this evidently very hard if not impossible sell, the Jesuits became the masters of the rhetorical misdirection play.

Realizing that they could not win most of the arguments about the church’s and Spain’s long records of perfidy “on the facts”, they got very good at tying their intellectual opponents up in knots with the discussion of small and relatively insignificant shades of rhetorical meaning, a practice of intellectual pre-emption often referred to as casuistry.

Over the past several years I have tried to dialogue with certain friends and acquaintances--almost all of them self-professed liberals and/or progressives--my sense of deep alarm at the destruction of the most basic elements of democratic behavior in this country.

I have shared with them a lot of information about things like extra-judicial killing, the destruction of the most basic constitutional rights, Obama’s real as opposed to imagined comportment, the terrifying cost in both life and material destruction to the millions of people living in the countries we have invaded and occupied during this period.

Aware that the use of carefully tested, innocuous sounding euphemisms is the cornerstone of the corporate and military “perception management” campaigns, I have made a great effort to be stark and simple in my descriptions. When people anywhere get killed by others, I call it murder. When countries that have done nothing to us get invaded I call it wanton aggression and compare it to other times in recent history when countries suffered the unprovoked losses of sovereignty. I refer to people as “war criminals” who have gone on TV and admitted planning and carrying out, well, war crimes. 


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The hope, of course, is to encourage people to transcend the normalizing rhetoric craftily employed by the powers that be and begin use their empathetic imaginations, to ask what it would be like to be the person sent away forever with no charges, to watch your country destroyed for having done absolutely nothing to the country of the invaders, to be beaten by cops for no reason other than you wish to exercise the most basic of democratic rights, to live in a place where the wealthy own not only the corporations you work in, but most of the venues where you might want to express yourself freely as an individual.  In other words, the goal is to have people contemplate and in some sense feel the reality and magnitude of what being done in their name.

But rather than this, I most often get what I can only call casuistic responses in return, statements designed to make the conversation among us about anything but the process of empathizing with the people suffering from our own government’s acts of brutality and lawlessness.  

Here are two of the more frequent ways of doing this.

The pose of the savvy and condescending public relations advisor. “I hear what you’re saying but if you want to get anywhere, you’ll need to stop calling people who murder ‘murderers’ and people who destroy the constitution ‘destroyers of the constitution’. People can’t handle that”. They then go on to call such rhetoric “angry” when it is, in fact, merely a description of reality shorn of familiar euphemisms

What they are of course really saying, is that they can’t handle looking at the society without euphemisms, contemplating the fact that the society that hey have been told constantly since birth is the moral beacon of the world, might, in fact, be something very different. So, rather than contemplate the facts in regard to our own comportment, they change the channel to talk about the messenger’s “tone” and “delivery”.  

The pose of the hard-edged pragmatic “doer”. “All you say might be true, but what are you proposing we do about? If you had a plan, I’d listen. But all this just seems like complaining to me.  Get back to me when you are ready to propose a real solution to the problems you speak about.”

Did Rosa Parks have a plan when she decided not to move to the back of the bus? Did Lech Walesa have a fully developed plan when he jumped over the shipyard wall in Gdansk? Did Mohamed Bouazizi have a plan when he set himself on fire in Tunisia late last year?

Of course not. What they had was a deep and visceral sense of the immorality of the systems they were living under.

Movements of change very seldom begin with blueprints. Rather they begin with a sense that what is seen presently as “normal” is, in fact deeply wrong and unsustainable. The blueprint for the future can only emerge when, and if, people gain a clear understanding of how the system they are living under actually works.

One of the reasons our Constitution has been so durable (at least until the last decade) is that the men who wrote and ratified it had a very detailed knowledge of how previous systems had oppressed mankind, and therefore, how they wanted the one they were building to be different.

What makes it worse, is the fact that many of these same people wouldn’t think of buying a coffee maker or a bike without having done obsessive research about how these products work and which particular brand would be the best for their particular personal needs.

But when it comes to the social and the political they don’t want to know anything, or at least not much, unless is a pre-baked plan dreamed up by someone else.

Somehow I think this probably has a lot more to do with “not wanting to go there”, that is, not wanting to discover how we all might, in fact, be implicated in supporting practices and institutions they we know to be at variance with our own largely positive images of self and nation.

We have seen this last technique on stark display in the media’s coverage of the protest events in and around Wall Street. They have done everything in their power to put the focus not on the reasons that have driven these mostly young people to take such dramatic action, but rather whether or not they “have a real plan” for making things better.

Why do they do this? Because like the close-to-the-establishment Jesuits of the 16th century, the New York Times and all the mainstream media are deeply implicated in the task of making the morally unsustainable and the morally indefensible sound preternatural and reasonable.

They know they cannot win on the facts and they are beginning to realize, moreover, that a lot more people than they ever imagined, are coming to know this.  And in their panic, they do what well-connected casuists have always done: they attempt to direct the gaze of the people elsewhere.

Thomas S. Harrington

Thomas S. Harrington

Thomas S. Harrington is professor of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of Public Intellectuals and Nation Building in the Iberian Peninsula, 1900–1925: The Alchemy of Identity (Bucknell University Press, 2014).

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