TCS Daily

Tiananmen in London

By Frederick Turner - December 19, 2003 12:00 AM

Now that Saddam Hussein has been captured, and the long process of restoring the Islamic world to full participation in the human community has begun, perhaps we can take note of the very strange period through which we have just passed -- a period in which it is as if many among the old elites of the West seemed almost to be taking the side of the dictator against his people and against their liberator.

Observers of the mysterious ebbs and flows of cultural emotion have been almost at a loss, for example, how to account for the recent toppling of a makeshift statue of George Bush in London during the President's visit to our old ally. The symbolism is rich and strange indeed -- it would seem to mean a desire to bring about the restoration of Saddam Hussein, whose statue was pulled down by Iraqi supporters of George Bush. How could such decent humane people as the pacifist protesters want such a restoration? Were they just clumsy in their iconography? But the semiotics of the act are complex and not entirely unambiguous. There is an odd echo of the liberty statue at Tiananmen Square that will need to be explained if we are to understand what is happening here. That this cultural current runs deep needs no more indication than the recent British movie Love, Actually in which the hero is a British Prime Minister who defies a bullying American President to great applause, a movie which begins by pooh-poohing the importance of the destruction of the World Trade Center, and stars -- as a Prime Minister who dates a smitten junior employee -- an actor once caught in America in an act of fellatio.


Thomas Friedman, in a column in the New York Times, expressed sheer bemusement at the anti-American demonstrations -- despite his evident fear, confessed in his piece, of his own wife's disapproval. What he found astonishing is that this symbolic cancellation of the Baghdad toppling took place on the same day the British Consul General and several other compatriots of the protesters had just been murdered by the very people who are even now trying to reinstate Hussein.


The same phenomena are occurring, more amazing still, in the United States of America, where many once temperate liberal commentators have cheerfully declared their hatred for George Bush. This rage has been accompanied by an open contempt for and dismissal of the 2/3 of the Iraqi population who, by the evidence of the polls, welcome the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Again, the semiotics point to an intense though repressed sympathy for the former Iraqi regime and a profound fear of what Bush intends to bring to Iraq -- that is, an empowerment of its people and a proof of the efficacy of freedom.


How to explain what is going on? The resurgence of anti-semitism in itself can only be part of the answer, despite Abraham Foxman's perceptive analysis in his recent book Never Again? The deep psychological markers of mourning for Saddam and hatred for his destroyer are found quite as frequently among American liberal Jews as among gentiles. Usually if we cannot understand something by the arrangement of its parts at any given moment, we will find the explanation in its history.


The Nature of Law


So let us take a look at history, especially the history of our most fundamental intuitions about the nature of law. Laws seem, as many philosophers have opined, to be based on one of two foundations: what is good, and what is right. Very roughly, the distinction can be found in the difference between our own two traditions, of Roman law, and English common law; further back, between the ancient Hebrew ritual law, and the code of Hammurabi. Legal experts will, I hope, forgive the many exceptions to these generalizations for their usefulness as an analytic tool of thought.


The distinction, even more generally, is between what is commanded of us by the gods or God (or, in later ages, by Humanity, by Nature, by Reason, or by Popular Will) on one hand; and what is required of us in the honest fulfillment of a contract, on the other. The former, which finds its Western origins in ancient Israel (and can be found also in the Confucian legal system of ancient China), sees law as a way to enforce the good -- the good as a transcendent endowment of human society that we can partly intuit, especially if we are talented, trained, learned, and morally upright. The latter, which can be identified roughly with the Hammurabic, Solonic, and English Common Law traditions, sees laws as the way to make sure the humble contracts that human beings make with each other have the support they need over and above the natural sanctions built into our families, our markets, and our practical agreed systems of mutual trust. The first emphasizes the good, the second, the right.


The Jewish moral law was, for a time, enforced by the civil authorities of ancient Israel. But with the destruction of the Israelite monarchy in 587 BC, a profound reevaluation of the laws of goodness began, one that is still continuing in the Jewish community. God had evidently found something lacking, the Prophets said, in the literalism and the abuses of a law that afforded so much power to the authorities and left so little to the spontaneous free choice of just individuals. Perhaps the law of goodness was to be kept, not in the hands of armed enforcers, but in the human heart and soul enlightened by the inner voice of Adonai. Thereafter Jews found and punctiliously obeyed the laws of contract they found among other peoples, and kept their free ethical observance of the law of the good to themselves -- until the coming of the Jewish State in the twentieth century, when with the revival of secular power the enforceability of orthodoxy once more became an issue.


Roman law, though again it was based upon a transcendent conception of the good, made many concessions to the low demands of commerce. It gave much authority over to local magnates, capos, and dons, so that in exchange for a local return to the patriarchal customs of the tribe, there would be a general concession to the legal supremacy of the Senate (and later, the Emperor). However, such laws did not provide for the increasing numbers of helpless indigents that are spawned by mercantile padrĂ³n systems everywhere.


Christianity, which began with a purely internal and voluntary law of the good -- love thy neighbor -- had inherited the inner ideals of the old Jewish moral law. But it was purged now, Christians believed, of a great burden of its literalism and legalism, and reinforced by the blazing hope of salvation and faith in the redemption. This new religion gradually created for itself the role of the Empire's welfare system. Finally the Empire itself simply could not manage without it, and was itself forced, under Constantine, to become the secular enforcer of Christian moral law. As the Roman Empire crumbled, the ideal of a society in which the highest moral precepts, enjoined by God, would be enforced by the State, burned brighter and brighter in the imagination of the world. The result was finally the birth of Islamic law, or the Sharia, in the seventh century AD. Sharia systematized and perfected the law of the good, and embodied one of the most beautiful, and tragically flawed, visions of society that our species had yet achieved.


All societies based on the enforcement of a law of good have tended to stagnate, wither, and eventually die. The Soviet Union is a nice test case: based on noble principles of humane goodness, and enforced by a perfect system of coercion, it lasted exactly one lifetime, full of unbelievable carnage, before cracking and falling into dust. It took the Holy Roman Empire much longer to collapse, because it was still "corrupted" by the contractual pragmatism of the right, and was so inefficient and far-flung that it could not fully enforce its own principles. It took even longer for the Islamic empire of the Ottomans and the Confucian empire of China to sink into their long decay, but decay they did.


The Law of Right


Meanwhile another conception of law was gaining ground: the law of right, rather than of good. The code of Hammurabi had arisen at around 1700 BC to protect the golden goose of Mesopotamian business enterprise. Its practical wisdom would eventually leaven the mysterious prescriptions of Leviticus and the pollution-and-purification ritual of Roman law, and give Roman and Jewish civilization the tools to prosper economically. However, in its homeland Hammurabic law could not control the political ambitions of the Persian Empire, which overreached itself and fell victim at last to the Greeks under Alexander. Hammurabi's core ideas had been incorporated into the new and improved version, the Greek laws of Solon, where the laws of contract turned out not to need an emperor to preserve them, but to be equally enforceable by a democracy, a republic, or a legally constrained monarchy of free men. The principles of Hammurabi took on a new lease of life. But Greek law of right was adapted only to the city, and was fatally vulnerable to strict limits of size: it consumed itself in inter-city conflict, was undermined by elitist Platonic yearnings for a law of the good, and was overwhelmed by the more pragmatic ecumenism of the Roman Republic. With the Greek city-states died the first great attempt at a law of right.


The second great attempt at a society based on a law of right -- one that succeeded -- arose in the north with the slow maturing of the neolithic laws of the Germanic tribes into a haphazard and populist collection of rules to secure and sanction the boundaries of a marketplace. As it evolved with its juries, its torts, its precedents, its limitations on monarchic power, its defense of the local rights of civil society, and its astonishing capacity for commercial and technological innovation, it came to dominate the world. Finally the Christian Church was forced to acknowledge the secular dominance of the law of right. After the agonizing upheavals of the Reformation, Christianity was able to internalize the law of good, as the Israelites had been forced to do two thousand years earlier, and abandon the inquisitorial attempt to enforce it externally by secular means. Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, and unto God that which is God's; and now that Caesar made no claim to a law of the good, but wanted only to enforce the right, the way was open for the Enlightenment compromise, in which the Church could have men's souls if the State could claim men's bodies and enrich -- and tax -- men's pocketbooks.


But the yearning for an enforced law of the good could not be eradicated from men's souls, and though two great regimes -- Britain and America -- had largely freed themselves from the law of good, Romanticism and the age of revolutions saw a massive swing toward the ideals of the higher moral law. The result was all the various contenders for the role of secular enforcer of world morality -- Jacobinism, Communism, democratic socialism, Nazism, Fascism, and so on. Almost all despised Judaism and Christianity for having abandoned, as they saw it, the role of secular enforcer of goodness. They hated Judaism especially for having, in their view, succeeded so very well economically and culturally without the help of a state at all, and for having been able, they felt, to combine an inner, voluntary, community solidarity with an adroit and profitable expertise in the outer realm of contracts.


In the last few decades, however, in the light of the huge economic and cultural success of the nations that clung to the law of right, there has been a decisive swing back in that direction. Dozens of regimes have adopted free market policies, have at least in theory signed on to Hernando de Soto's drive to give poor people the legal right to their own property (thus freeing them from moral peonage to a paternalistic government), and have submitted themselves to the contractual discipline of the IMF, the WTO, and the World Bank.


Goodness and Freedom


Let it be said at once that this essay is not an attack on the law of good, nor simply a paean to the law of right. The laws of good apply still more strongly to the individual conscience as the secular enforcement of them diminishes. They apply also to the free institutions of civil society (protected from each other, as they must be, by the law of right). The absolute claims of the law of good that make it so dangerous when armed with secular power are precisely what generate the decent conduct without which a good society is impossible. If the enthusiasts of the religious right were to abjure any claim to govern by legal coercion the conscience of the citizen, I would be in agreement with almost the whole of their cultural program for our country.


But goodness is, in my view and that of almost all ethicists, essentially bound up with freedom. We cannot praise a coerced virtue, nor blame an enforced crime. The very core of morality, enjoined by God himself in almost all religions, is the spontaneous assent to divine grace. Paradoxically, to enforce the law of good is to destroy it. Paradoxically, the freedom to do evil -- as long as it does not violate the right -- is required for the freedom to do good. The law of right is at its center the law of freedom, and is thus, paradoxically again, the only thing for which one can rightly resort to coercion and war. All of this is not to say that the law of good must bottle itself up within the individual and the closed community, and render itself impotent. Instead it means that the law of good must win the world the hard way, by the noncoercive means of persuasion, gifts, and the marketplace -- must win the population one by one by one. And it can only do so under the wing of the law of right.


Certainly, the laws of right do not make a perfect world. Adam Smith's Invisible Hand, the miraculous pricing mechanism praised by Mises and Hayek, that directs resources to where they are most needed, does indeed work, in the large statistical aggregate, when it is protected by the law of right. But it cannot deal with local tragedies, and it cannot by itself create the social and cultural capital that renders people capable of exercising political freedom in a responsible and objective way. And it cannot per se engender the marvelous overplus of heroism, sanctity, generosity and scientific and artistic integrity that society needs to advance. But neither can the law of good do so when enforced by coercion, for these things are free gifts and cannot of their nature be coerced.


The Hatred of President Bush


At this time in the world's history a great turning point is imminent. And here we begin to see why there is this strange and unholy alliance between idealistic liberalism, the vestiges of the old socialist left, traditional third world authoritarians, and the unrelenting forces of Islamic totalitarianism, theocracy, and terror. However various their ideas of what is the good, all are united in their desire for an enforced law of the good. Even elements of the human rights movement, much of the anti-globalist community, and a large swatch of the philanthropic world -- the so-called NGOs -- still yearn for a government that, through sumptuary laws, high taxation, political correctness, and entitlements, would force to happen what people ought to, but do not make happen of their own free will. Much philanthropy has the stated goal of eliminating itself when through its advocacy and lobbying it has given government the power to compel what was once freely given; at which time the employees of the Foundations would presumably take over the powerful role of government civil servants. If the law of right is to become the only enforceable law of the human race, all these constituencies will have suffered what will feel to them to be a mortal setback, and will have to accept the humble and weaponless position of Judaism and Christendom.


In a sense the regimes of Sharia, of Islamic law -- in spirit and in many of its provisions, as I have insisted, one of the noblest codes of human conduct ever invented -- are the standard-bearers of enforced goodness. Baathism, which combines the enforced goodness of socialist secular humanism with the enforced goodness of Islam, is in theory the most perfect of all regimes of the law of good. The Wahhabism of al Qaeda and the traditional code of the Taliban are purer still, abjuring any idea of secular profit in their pursuit of the morally perfect society.


Thus there is a huge unconscious reservoir of sympathy for the likes of Saddam Hussein among the more secular enthusiasts for a law of the good, and even for the likes of Osama bin Laden among the more religious. And Bush-hatred suddenly becomes deeply understandable. He threatens their whole world. And the annoying thing about Bush is that he is simultaneously, in his own private self, a passionate believer in the law of good, while in his outward actions a staunch upholder of the law of right. If he were merely an advocate of the right against the good, he would be easier to disagree with but harder to hate. For believers in the enforced law of good, anyone who believes in the good but does not seek the power to bring it about is a hypocrite.


And hypocrisy is the most fundamental and most heinous charge that the good have to bring against Bush. He is a defender of people who freely believe in different goods than his own, as long as they do not seek to enforce them. He is willing to keep his hands off people who, though they may be offending all the laws of goodness, have managed to stay on the windward side of the laws of contract. He will enforce contracts, while leaving people free to exploit each other if they can do so without breach of contract. He will refuse to enter into contracts that he knows he may not be able to keep (or that he knows that his own country might be the only one to actually keep), even if goodness requires him to give lip-service to the ideals of nuclear disarmament, global environmentalism, and a global legal system.


Like Abraham Lincoln -- another president widely accused of hypocrisy in his own time and since -- he is willing to go to war to enforce a regime of right and to overthrow what at least bills itself as a regime of good. He will hold a tyrant to his contract even if the upholders of the law of good disagree, as long as he himself has won a contractual agreement with a legal legislature to do so. He will hold the United Nations itself to its contract, even if that means offending the sensibilities of his allies. These positions appear monstrously inconsistent, mendacious and hypocritical to people who believe that something obviously good should be forced to happen, and that something obviously bad cannot be right. But in the grand perspective of history, the positions Bush has adopted from his pragmatic Anglo-Saxon predecessors constitute the only policy that has consistently led to large-scale peace, a rough approximation to individual if not social justice, the general prosperity required to make social justice increasingly a moot point, and the freedom that makes goodness possible at all.


So when the protesters in London tore down Bush's effigy they were, unconsciously, expressing not only the opposite of the destruction of Saddam's statue -- that is, a desire to reinstate him -- but also the motivations behind the smashing of the statue of liberty erected by the students in Tiananmen Square. The symbolism of the Bush fragging was not, as many commentators believed, semiotically incompetent, but strikingly accurate. And the good, pacifist destroyers of the Bush statue were unconsciously leaguing themselves with the army tanks that massacred the Chinese students and trampled their poor plaster version of Lady Liberty -- and declaring war on the students themselves. Like their colleagues on this side of the Atlantic, the anti-American protesters stood in solidarity with the Confucian enforcers of the good that gave the order to clear the square of Heavenly Peace, and with seekers after the role of moral enforcer everywhere.



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