Category Archives: violence

Patriot or Martyr

 

I understand that the jury has still not rendered its verdict in the case of Kyle Rittenhouse and will resume deliberations tomorrow.  Yesterday I posted about why I thought there was a good chance he would be acquitted and made a hero.  Today I want to talk about the less likely  chance that he will be convicted and made a martyr. If he is a patriot for his actions as his supporters allege and many on the right believe to be the case, then if he is convicted  he will be hailed as a martyr. Which is it?

Personally, I don’t think a young man who travels from out of state carrying an automatic AR-15 style rifle  to an area of heated dispute   that some call riots and others protests, depending on which side of the great divide in America (and Canada) they lie, is a hero so should not be welcomed as a hero if successful  or a martyr if not.  Instead, he was a foolish young man who took a dangerous chance while endangering the lives of many others that led in fact to the deaths of 2 Americans while injuring a third.  He was not trained for this job and took it upon himself as a vigilante to “help” the police to do their job. He made things much worse as the trail of devastation behind him made clear. It is part of their belief that “the system” cannot be trusted and only private vigilantes or warriors can be trusted.

I realize that many young American men have been raised in the Marvel FantasyLand where such actions are encouraged. They think they can stand up to the evils of a corrupt or inept system that fails to protect American citizens.

Rittenhouse should not be valorized. He was hardly a peacemaker. No one should encourage other young American men (and they are largely men who do this) to take such foolhardy and dangerous actions. Such actions are not helpful. They are pouring fuel onto an already raging fire.

Rittenhouse may or may not be guilty of murder or the other crimes he was charged with, but he is neither a hero nor a martyr.  And he might be much worse.

 

What will the jury do in the Rittenhouse case?

 

I have been fascinated by the case of Kyle Rittenhouse since the day I heard about it.  I think the Associated Press captured the issue well: “the shootings that left Americans divided over whether he was a patriot taking a stand against lawlessness or a vigilante.” That is exactly what I have been trying to figure out. It seems everyone on the left thinks he is a crazed self-appointed vigilante while those on the right see him as a glamorous defender of life and property. Which is it?

Rittenhouse testified on his own behalf, which is always a risky move. Yet an innocent man should be entitled to present his own defence. That is what Rittenhouse did. He told the jury under oath that he was defending himself when he used the rifle he brought to the Kenosha from the neighbouring state of Illinois where he lived declaring his intentions on the internet to defend property.  A true public protector, or a true vigilante?  The judge was expected to give his final instructions to the jury today.

The prosecutors tried to portray Rittenhouse as the instigator of the bloodshed. There was video footage of 3 people coming after Rittenhouse and one tried to grab his rifle. He said he heard a shot and turned to the pursuers and shot at them. He killed two people and injured a third. The jury “appeared largely white” according to the Associated Press reporters. That is not surprising since Wisconsin is largely white.

One of the final witnesses for the defence was a use-of-force expert, John Black, who testified that less than three seconds elapsed between the time somebody fired a bullet in the air and Rittenhouse opened fire on the first man he shot, Joseph Rosenbaum. Rittenhouse testified that he heard a gunshot directly behind him as he was being chased by Rosenbaum. It is not clear who made shot, but apparently it was none of the three men chasing Rittenhouse.

According to the Associated Press,

 

“The account Rittenhouse gave has largely been corroborated by a wealth of video and the prosecution’s own witnesses: Rittenhouse said that Rosenbaum cornered him and put his hand on the barrel of his rifle, the second man hit him with a skateboard, and the third man came at him with a gun of his own. At one point Wednesday, his lawyers demanded the judge declare mistrial and bar Rittenhouse from being retried — essentially asking that the case be thrown out. They accused the chief prosecutor of asking Rittenhouse out-of- bounds questions. The judge lambasted the prosecutor but pressed on with the case.”

 

I am particularly interested in the question of vigilantism that is so prominent in the US. It arises because of a distrust in the government that is also so prevalent in cases of people who refuse to be vaccinated. These issues are related.  There is another case going on right now as well in Georgia that raises similar issues. It is quite possible that those who don’t like the result will protest vigorously. That seems to happen with every trial in the US where the country is so deeply divided and polarized. We certainly live in interesting times.

This is not an easy case. The onus of proof is on the prosecutors who must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Rittenhouse is guilty. If not Rittenhouse will be a hero! Even if he doesn’t deserve to be. It will be interesting to see what the jury does.

 

Kenosha: What happened?

 

A very interesting trial is going on in Wisconsin that is dividing the country.

In the summer of 2020, the city of Kenosha Wisconsin became the site of large and active protests after Jacob Blake, an African American man was wounded by Wisconsin police officers. The protests got carried away with widespread fears expressed on the internet that businesses might be looted and destroyed. Kyle Rittenhouse drove to Kenosha from his home in Antioch Illinois. He took with him two things one would not normally expect to go together. One was a medical kit and the other was a rifle.

Rittenhouse was charged with first-degree intentional homicide, which apparently what is called murder in Wisconsin, and as well attempted first-degree intentional homicide for the man who lived, and first-degree reckless homicide; reckless endangering; and illegal possession of a weapon by a person under 18.

All serious charges. Was he a murderer as many on the left alleged or was he a public warrior/defender as many on the right claim? This issue has captured national attention.

The protesters included many whites and blacks. Rittenhouse is white, as were those he shot. The jury, which appears to be mainly white, will make the decision. Inevitably, a large part of the US will be upset while another large part will be jubilant. It is guaranteed that many people in the US will not agree with the decision of the jury. The judge was adamant that this would not become a political trial, but many think that is exactly what it became.

Rittenhouse  said he was going there to protect businesses that had been ransacked the night before. The rifle, he claimed, was for self-defence. Rittenhouse was white, but so were the 3 men he shot. 2 of them died from the gunshot wounds. As the Associated Press reported,

“The case has stirred fierce debate over vigilantism, self-defence, the Second Amendment right to bear arms, and the unrest that erupted around the U.S. over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other police violence against Black people.”

 

That is a very important issue. Throughout American history vigilantism has been frequent, violent, and controversial. This case is no exception. It will be very interesting to learn what the jury thinks of the case.

 

Where do Mennonites Stand on the War for Trump?

 

Many Christians, including Mennonites among whom I was raised, have always argued that Christians have a duty to turn the other cheek. They advocate for non-violence. In fact, many of them, like my father, conscientiously objected to World War II. He worked in what were called essential services. He worked in a mine in Flin Flon Manitoba during the war. Of course, I realize that many Christians, including many Mennonites have taken a different interpretation of their Christian duties, and have instead joined their fellow citizens in wars. It is all a matter of interpretation of the sacred text and conscience.

In the U.S., the president of the Family Research Council and a leading figure among conservative evangelicals, Tony Perkins, said the following in a Politico interview in 2018, when he was asked what happened to turning the other cheek:

“You know, you only have two cheeks. Look, Christianity is not all about being a welcome mat which people can just stomp their feet on.”

It is clear on what side of the divide many Trumpers reside.

This leads me to the next question: on what side do Mennonites stand?  Would they have joined the melee pummelling police and guards?

Victory in Mosul

 

Mission Accomplished

What does victory look like? Donald Trump bragged about how he had helped the Iraqi forces defeat ISIS (or ISIL or IS as it is sometimes called). For convenience I will refer to them all as ISIS.  ISIS as we all know is not an organization of Sunday school teachers.

I suppose such a victory is what my American friend was looking for when he called for the American forces to “take out Iran.”

Mosul is Iraq’s second most populated city. In June 2014, much to their surprise, ISIS  captured Mosul as the government forces, trained and outfitted by the Americans, collapsed at the mere sight of the fearsome  ISIS warriors. Much to the disappointment of the Americans, the Iraqi forces abandoned all that fancy and expensive American equipment largely without a fight. Years of American training, advice, and money, created security forces that at the first sign of trouble folded up and left their military hardware behind.

The Iraqi government was dominated by Shia Muslims. ISIS was dominated by Sunni Muslims.   That made for natural enmity. It was in Mosul that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the beginning of their self-proclaimed “caliphate.” At the time the population of Mosul was 2.5 million people After ISIS ruled for more than 2 years those numbers dropped to 1.5 million.

ISIS had about 3,000 to 5,000 ISIS fighters in Mosul.  The estimates of their strengths varied widely. Many of them were not well trained and included teenagers, but because of their reputation for brutality they struck fear into the hearts and minds of Iraqis and westerners alike. Only the Kurds were keen on fighting them. About 10,000 were foreign fighters in including both Arabs and non-Arabs. The rest of ISIS fighters were Iraqi.

The Iraqi-led coalition that eventually drove out ISIS included about 100,000 Iraqi security forces, (ISF), 16,000 Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF or PMU) 40,000 Peshmerga that included about 200 Iranian Kurdish female fighters from the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK). It was estimated that Peshmerga and ISF outnumbered ISIS fighters by about 10-1. The Kurds did  most of the fighting for the American military, until the US abandoned them at the end of 2019. The world was notified of that abandonment by a tweet from President Trump and it shocked the world. The Kurds were more shocked than anyone else, even though many people told them not to trust the Americans.

The forces against ISIS were supported by many countries, including Canada, but most importantly the United States. The assault to recapture the city of Mosul really started in October of 2016. The coalition forces inflicted severe pain on ISIS in that effort and because by then ISIS was totally embedded in Iraq, the local population also suffered greatly. As the above photograph makes abundantly clear, the “victory” of retaking Mosul from ISIS came at a horrendous cost to the city and the people who lived there.

The UN stated that ISIS had taken tens of thousands of civilians to use as human shields in Mosul. Those who refused to go were executed. Life (and death) was simple in Mosul.

Airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition targeted ISIS positions, and ISIL started tire fires to reduce visibility. Heavy fighting occurred in the city. The city was “won” back from ISIS by hard block-by-block fighting.  Before the battle to take back Mosul was over, it was estimated that it would cost more than $1 billion to repair “basic” infrastructure in the city. This process would likely take years. Again looking at the photograph above that is hardly surprising.

 The UN also estimated that more than 5,000 buildings have been damaged and another 490 were destroyed in the Old City. During the battle Amnesty International accused Iraqi, Kurdish  and United States forces of using unnecessarily powerful weapons including MOAB the so-called Mother of All Bombs, the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in the world. Both sides damaged many religious sites.

The US accused ISIS of using civilians as human shields. It was confirmed that this happened and was widely condemned by human rights organizations.  The International Business Times reported that ISIS had forced boys as young as 12 to fight for them and that ISIS had trained the children to behead prisoners and make suicide bombs. Civilians were shot and deposited into mass graves in the city. ISIS also carried out retribution killings of civilians for welcoming Iraqi and Peshmerga troops.

The presence of Iraqi forces with several militias with histories of human rights abuses caused various organizations to criticize the US led coalition forces.  The International Business Times reported cases of Iraqi security forces torturing and interrogating young children for information about ISIS. On March 17, 2017 a U.S. led coalition air-strike in Mosul killed more than 200 civilians.  Amnesty Internationals reported, “The high civilian toll suggests that coalition forces leading the offensive in Mosul have failed to take adequate precautions to prevent civilian deaths, in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law.”

Kurdish intelligence estimated in July of 2017 that the total number of civilian casualties at the time were 40,000. The largest portion of this loss of life is attributable to the unyielding artillery bombardment by U.S. supported Iraqi government forces. The US-led coalition forces were one of the significant sources of civilian deaths.

Thousands of people had been forced to flee the country as a result of ISIS attacks and bombardment by U.S. led coalition forces.  Of course, many of these refugees were children. The refugees were not welcome in the Us as part of his Muslim ban. All sides were accused of violating human rights laws. About one day after victory was declared by Iraqi forces, Amnesty International accused both sides of violating international laws. The Iraqi forces, supported by the U.S. were accused of carrying out unlawful attacks using explosive weapons and failing to take necessary precautions to prevent the loss of civilian life and in some cases including disproportionate attacks.

An Associated Press investigation that cross-referenced independent databases from non-governmental organizations, claimed that 9,000–11,000 residents of Mosul were killed in the battle. It blamed airstrikes and shellings by Iraqi forces and anti-ISIS coalition of being responsible for at least 3,200 civilian deaths. The coalition on the other hand has acknowledged responsibility for 326 deaths. ISIS was held responsible for killing one third of the civilians out of the death toll. Both sides were brutal. As I said before, savagery was the chief legacy of the war in Iraq, not democracy as George W Bush an dDick Cheney had envisioned.

Official victory over ISIS was declared in July of 2017, but that did not stop further heavy fighting as ISIS continued to resist in the Old City of Mosul.

It has been estimated that removing explosives from Mosul and repairing the city will cost $50 billion over the next 5 years.

This is what “victory” looks like. It’s not a pretty picture. Who is looking forward to another victory in the Middle East?

Religious Violence

Our first day on the trip was incredibly interesting. To me travel is about learning. I love to learn about new and interesting places and people.

There was a lot of news this weekend about violent attacks by so-called domestic terrorists in the U.S.  Both incidents were deliberate attacks on religious groups. One occurred in New York, the other in Texas.

In New York a man was accused of stabbing 5 people with a gruesome machete at a Hanukkah party at a rabbi’s home.  It left the Jewish community in Monsey New York reeling, not only because of this attack, but because this was the 13th attack on Jewish people in New York in recent weeks.

In Monsey there was another attack, about a month ago, when a 30-year old Rabbi was attacked  on his way to synagogue just before dawn. It seems like Jews are under attack. Why is that? The alleged attacker in the most recent incident had a journal at home that contained references to Jews, anti-Semitism, and Adolf Hitler.  Internet searches on a phone recovered from his car included repeated searches for “Why did Hitler hate the Jews” as well as “German Jewish Temples nears me,” and “Prominent companies founded by Jews in America.”  Clearly, he had a special interest in Jews. Yet he has no known history of anti-Semitism and  according to a family member was “raised in a home which embraced all religions and races.” They also claimed he is not a member of any hate groups.

New York Mayor Cuomo was quick to denounce the crime as “an act of domestic terrorism.” President Donald Trump tweeted referring to the stabbing as an “anti-Semitic attack.” Trump also said, “We must all come together to fight, confront, and eradicate the evil scourge of anti-Semitism.” Of course, Trump ignores the fact that he has enabled haters in the past by statements such as his equating White Supremacists with people who resisted their venomous ideology. He claimed there were “good people on both sides.” Statements like that gave encouragement to the White Supremacists.

In a city called White Settlement Texas near Fort Worth a gunman identified as Keith Kinnunen who was unknown to the police, attended a church service at the West Freeway Church of Christ Parishioner Isabel Arreola said she sat near the gunman. She had never seen him before and began to feel uneasy about him when she thought she noticed he was wearing a fake beard as a disguise. Then she saw him take out a shotgun and starting firing. Abruptly within seconds members of the congregation approach the gunman and in fact one of them shot him dead with one shot.  Arreola said “I was so surprised because I did not know that so many in church were armed.”

In September the laws in Texas were changed to permit weapons in places of worship unless the facility bans them. This church was reorganized once the law was changed and now Texans are praising the effectiveness of the new law. Church security became an important issue in Texas after a previous gunman walked into a church in Sutherland Springs 2 years ago and fatally shot 26 people and wounded 20 others.

This time Texan parishioners believe that the church responder saved “untold lives.” I don’t know if the new Texas law is good or not. I know I was surprised when Texans took that approach after the previous attack. But it seems to have helped in this case. I always think a bunch of vigilantes are about as dangerous as a lone wolf domestic terrorist.

What really interests me about these 2 incidents however, is trying to understand what is happening in houses of worship that is putting parishioners at such risk. I always tend to think this is an American problem because it is such a violent society. But similar incidents have occurred in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, France, German and elsewhere.  Why is religion leading so much to violence? Are the perpetrators also led by religious zeal? What is going on in modern society? Does anyone know? I wish I did.

Our Boys: Judgement

 

One of the most interesting parts of the television series Our Boys, created by a Palestinian and Israeli team,   was the judgement of the court. It was read by an elderly Justice with stern cadences of belief in its truth. Yet, “the truth” was not endorsed by either side.

The judge noted that the days in Jerusalem after the kidnapping of the 3 Israeli boys had been tense. People gathered in frenzied crowds yelling “Death to Arabs.” 3 Jewish boys took this literally.  They were good boys from fine families. They were deeply religious.  The judge did not say it, but I will, they were “Our boys.” Though so was the young Palestinian victim and the 3 Jewish boys that had been kidnapped.

As the judge did say, “This was the shaft through which the 3 plunged into the dark tunnel of hatred and racism from which they emerged that night, yet the troubling thought persists from what well did the 3 drink such quantities of hatred and racism that blinded them so terribly that bashing and suffocating the head, and burning a human being created in God’s image, seemed to make sense? What did the defendants learn and internalize  at the various stages of their education and upbringing that enabled the unbearable lightness with which they took the life of a young Arab boy?” These are profound thoughts. But there is little evidence anyone paid attention. They were too consumed by hatred. Not long afterwards the country was plunged  into war—again.

At the end of the film we do not see justice. We do not see revenge? We don’t see the majesty of the law. Guilt is not important. The sentence is not significant. The mathematics of crime and punishment is false. All we see is a mother’s pain. Her son is dead and he was killed horribly. Nothing else matters. The mother’s pain is real and it endures. Nothing else endures. Nothing at all.

Our Boys: the Quest

 

 

I saw an amazing television series this year. It is powerful, disturbing, difficult to watch, and profoundly important. It is called Our Boys and is the fruit of an astonishing collaboration between Israeli writers, and Israeli and Palestinian co-directors. That brings a unique perspective that enriches this film. It is a perspective that is very difficult to find in the Middle East, where typically vicious certainties destroy  each other. That perspective is different from any other I have ever seen. I urge you to watch.

First I will give a caveat. Most of the film contains English Subtitles.  I don’t usually enjoy watching films with subtitles as I find them very distracting, but in this 10 series of shows the effort is well worth it. The series is based on a  true series of events in Israel and Palestine  in 2014 that led to a war in Gaza.

The series is based on 2 horrible real events. The first was the kidnapping of 3 Jewish boys whose plight ignited Israel, first in hopes and prayers for their survival, then when those hopes were dashed,  and the bodies of the boys were found, and then came the thirst for the nectar of the Middle East—revenge . after that revenge followed as inevitably as pee rolls down porcelain.

That of course called for more revenge. That’s how things work in the Middle East. Soon a 16-year old Palestinian boy was beat up and then gasoline was poured down his throat and he was burned alive.  It was a horrifying murder that mercifully was not depicted  in the series. Could good Jews have retaliated so gruesomely? The Israelis did not want to believe it. As one Jew tells the Simon the Jewish detective, “That’s part of the problem; that you think a Jew is incapable of cruelty to an enemy.”

The series included an actual recording of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu making a speech at the funeral for the 3 boys.  He  boldly declared at the funeral, “A deep moral abyss separates us from our enemies. They sanctify death, while we sanctify compassion.” Is that true? Or a comfortable illusion? As Emily Nussbaum in her New Yorker review of the series aptly put it: “At its heart, this is a show about the brutal economics of empathy in a time of war: who gets it, who deserves it, who is denied it.”

A Rabbi was convinced that to fight the Palestinians they must retaliate in kin. After all they will do anything: blow up children, babies, and buses filled with innocent people, .The Rabbi said,  if one side is crazy the other side  must be irrational too. “It’s like mathematics. If one side is irrational and the other side not, strength does not matter. If the Jew operates irrationally and the Arab doe not, the Jew has power. If it’s the other way around the Jew loses. That is why 1 burned Arab boy is mathematically very good for the Jews.”  The Middle East is transfused with exactly such mathematical fanaticism.

An Israelis detective, Simon, was charged with responsibility to solve these crimes as soon as possible. The detective was relentless and brilliant, but his tenacity was not always appreciated by his fellow Israelis. Some of them did not want him to carry his torch to the back of the cave, particularly where religious and political zealots reside. The light is not always flattering.

The film focused on various groups from both sides in Palestinian and Israeli territory where citizens turn to fury soaked in religion that led to ugly and violent protest. In both cities, religious and political hatreds were fuelled by dehumanizing rhetoric that has horrible effects on young minds sadly open to toxic influence.  As Simon said, “You start arresting people for spewing hate and pretty soon half the country is in jail.”

The killers prayed to their god to send them a victim and praised God when he did. The young boy was a “gift from God.” After all if the young boy is not killed he will turn into a terrorist. Better to kill him first. In the mathematical logic of tit for tat it does not matter that the victim is innocent.

Unlike most American films which employ the simplicity of good versus evil, this series embraces complexity and eschews simple answers. Everyone should see this series available now on HBO. It is worth the effort.

Montreal Massacre: Not a Mad man

I watched the film Polytechnique as part of a local event reminding us of the Montreal Massacre of 30years ago. The film is a powerful re-enactment of the horrific event at the  Université de Montréal’s École Polytechnique on December 6, 1989.

There was an interesting disjunction that evening.  Our Member of Parliament, Ted Falk, failed to attend, but did send a written, well written in fact, comment. But in it he referred to the killer, who killed  himself when he was done, as a “madman.”  During the film the killer called himself “a rational person.”  This may surprise, but I think the killer was right. Our MP was wrong. He was not a madman. And that is the real chilling aspect of this case. He was not mad. He was not errant. He was the natural product of more than a century of male dominance. He was the logical conclusion of that dominance.

People who have power rarely give it up gently. In fact, people who have power see any opposition to that power as deeply irrational. It does not make sense, because their power makes perfect sense. They deserve the power. So invariably they believe. That is true of tyrants and it is equally true of ordinary male supremacists. They can’t even see the incongruity.   White male power is natural. Many even claim it is endorsed by God. Just goes to show you how irrational men can be.

All too often men who see their power slipping away react badly. Sometimes, as in the case of Marc Lepine, the Montreal mass killer, their resentment explodes into irrational rage.  No I don’t think Lepine was a madman. I wish he was. It would be easier to deal with than the truth.

 

Liberalism: A response to Extremism

 

I recently commented about the recent uncomfortable rise of violence inspired by religious fervor. This is not a new phenomenon. Our history is soaked in the blood.

The people of Europe have paid a hefty price in lives for disputes over religion. It is estimated that 1 million were killed in the Arian schism, another 1 million  during the Carthaginian struggle, 7 million during the Saracen slaughters in Spain, 5 million during the Crusades, 2 million Saxons and Scandinavians were killed resisting conversion to Christianity, and yet another 1 million  killed in Holy Wars against the Dutch, Albigenses, Waldenses, and Huguenots.  The cost of religion is high.

Of course in the Americas estimated again vary but some have suggested that 30 million indigenous people were slaughtered resisting the benefits of Christianity and perhaps 9 million burned as witches. Of cou8rse religion was usually not the sole cause for slaughter, but often it helped.

Much of Europe was devastated by the Religious wars of the 17thcentury. The conflicts culminated in the Thirty Years War from 1618 to 1648. These were often religious wars at least nominally, but not entirely of religion. Of course we have to remember that these wars were fought by Christian countries and Christian princes. They were not wars against he infidels.  After the Reformation the various Protestant   Christian sects and the former universal Church—i.e. the Roman Catholic Church—were all eager for a fight. These were wars of Christians against Christians.

By the time the major wars of the 17thcentury were over, Germany which was the scene of much of the fighting, was ravaged and one-third of its people were killed. In some areas more than half the population were killed. For example the Swedish army alone destroyed 2,000 castles, 18,000 villages, and 1,500 towns during its 17 years in Germany. For decades mercenary armies and armed bandits roamed Germany like a packs of vicious wolves slaughtering people like sheep.

Most of Europe participated in the wars. It began as a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics, but ended as a political fight over who would control Europe. Huge swaths of Europe had been scavenged bare and much of Europe by foraging armies. Massive damage was inflicted on churches, monasteries and other religious institutions. By the time the war was ending Catholic France joined the Protestant side because it feared the rise of Catholic Hapsburg power. Many of the European powers involved were bankrupted and famine and disease were rampant.

Although calculations vary, some counted the dead this way:  France and Austria lost 80,000 each, Spain 300,000, Sweden and Finland 110,000, German principalities 400,000. Other countries lost lesser people.

When the wars were over, or at least had subsided, most of Europe was understandably sick of religious wars. Nearly everyone agreed a better way was needed. After that with only minor exceptions, Christianity ceased to be an important motivator for mass scale murder. Someone should be thanked for that, but I am not sure it is God.

I would suggest that as a response to all of this slaughter an important philosophy arose: Liberalism. It is not supported enthusiastically in many places these days. That is a pity, because it is the anti-dote to extremism of all stripes.  And by liberalism I do not mean its bastard offspring such as the Liberal Party or even worse, neoliberalism.  But liberalism was a better way. British philosopher John Locke is often considered the father of Liberalism. He advocated for tolerance, which really means respect for others even if you disagree with them. The world at the end of the 17thcentury and then again at the end of the 20thcentury was in short supply of tolerance. It still is.

The Reformation and the problem of religious minorities were central to Locke’s political philosophy because those were the burning issues (literally burning issues) of his times. Until then this was not an issue at all because values were shared. Everyone in Europe was a Roman Catholic. Until then the issue of minority rights did not arise for there were no minorities.

But after the Reformation and the bloody wars that followed in its wake political theorists had to figure out how can we live together in a society when we don’t all share the same values? That is a problem that continues to haunt us today, as can be seen by the recent spate of religiously inspired murders in the last year.

According to University of Manitoba Professor, Steve Lecce, the key question of modern and contemporary political theory is “How should we live together in society when we don’t all share the same values?[1]Where values diverge, as they now inevitably do in any post Reformation society, and in particular in modern societies that include immigrants from around the world, how can we live together in peace and harmony without resorting to might is right or without resorting to the ability of the majority to crush the minority? Liberals say that there are some things the majority or the powerful should notbe able to do. First we need a method of settling disputes fairly. Fair tribunals such as courts of law. The state has to be like a referee or umpire.

This was very important in the Reformation when religious freedom was the critical issue of the time. It is still important. Until the Reformation a common religion bound us all so that this was not an important issue. Religion until then was the social glue that kept us together. After the Reformation, religion became an explosive issue that could blast society apart. And it often did and continues to do. Before the Reformation religion was the basis of societal trust.  After the Reformation religion became an instrument of distrust. We still live in this post-Reformation world.

There were 2 possible solutions to this problem of religion after the Reformation:

 

  • A religion can be imposed by force to achieve religious unity. This was tried with great vigor in the religious wars of the 17th The result was great misery and abject failure.
  • The second possible solution is the radical idea proposed by Liberals like John Locke–toleration. That had never been tried before. It was truly deeply revolutionary. It is important to remember this when modern liberals are often seen as dull and boring theoreticians. They are considered bloodless. Now we should realize that is a good thing. In the 18thcentury this idea was profoundly revolutionary. Many hated the idea of tolerance because they saw it as capitulation to evil.  Liberals said we had to accept differences.

 

Nowadays toleration, a value that was revolutionary in its day, and I would submit, is revolutionary today, can seem like very thin gruel compared to the spicy virtues reflected by much more aggressive and powerful groups like ISIS, Boko Haram, the alt-right, Antifa, Donald Trump, and their ilk. It can seem wishy-washy just like–well—liberals. It can seem humble. I think that is a good thing. The classic liberals like John Locke stand for permitting others to have their say. This is much less sexy than threatening to ban them, or build a wall to keep them out, or kill them. However, in a world charged with the most vicious of religious hatreds like that of Europe in the 17thcentury or our current world in the 21stcentury, tolerance is not wishy-washy at all. After all the 17thand 20thcenturies were the two most violent centuries in the past 500 years according to Steven Pinker. [2]Tolerance is the most vital of all the virtues! Liberals have to step to the plate with vigor and confidence. I would suggest that liberals actually represent our only chance for civilization to endure.  At least so liberals believe. And I tend to agree (in a wishy-washy way of course).

In the 17thcentury there were those who feared the worst from this revolutionary new idea of tolerance.  Would this not lead to the destruction of public morality?  Personal morality should never be permitted to undermine public morality, it was widely believed. This in fact is the essence of Conservatism! It is stillthe essence of Conservatism.

Liberals challenge this view. Liberals hold that we can each freely have our own personal opinions and morality without challenging the social order or value of society. Let people disagree. We can all get along provided each of us accepts limits. This will not destroy society. In fact modern liberals believe that the diversity of modern society will strengthen not weaken society. That means that we must put reasonable limits on our religious values too. We can hold them personally as much as we want, as vigorously as we want, but we cannot imposethose values on others. Even the majority should not do that. Real democracy is not rule by the majority. It is the rule of the majority within limits. That’s what liberal democracy is all about. The goal of imposing religious values was rightly discredited after the religious wars of the 17thcentury. We don’t want to go back there.

[1]Steven Lecce, “Right Wing, Left Wing, and In between,” April 14, 2016 at University of Manitoba

[2]Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, (2012) Penguin Books, p. 51