Author’s Note: I’ve cleaned this up as best I can manage, but it’s still a bit of a confusing word salad. In the interests of not arbitrarily deleting it (again), I’ve decided to just throw the word salad out to the Interwebs.
In my earlier post, I left on a tangent regarding the theoretical power of people to end conflict with the actual inability to do so. This difference between theory and practice has many reasons, but the first direct tie is to the rise and fall of European empires in the past six centuries. The ideas behind that expansion were older still, justifying the acquisition of the world, its subjugation, and its approval when direct control had to be relinquished. Everyone lives under these ideas, whether they are aware of it or not.
Acquisition by discovery, acquisition by conquest.
Back in law school, we had to read Johnson v. M’Intosh, a weird case about two landowners who bought the same piece of land. One got it from the U.S. Government. The other bought it earlier from the Native Americans who lived there. As one might imagine, the U.S. Supreme Court said the dude buying from the United States was the actual owner. Because, you know, the Native Americans didn’t have a right to sell their land.
This will be a recurring theme, for many indigenous peoples that received visits from Europe.
Chief Justice Marshall, in a fit of surprising openness regarding how bad the local tribes were getting screwed, said that Natives didn’t have the right to sell their land because Europeans already discovered it. In other words, Marshall adopted the European view of adding land to a country as legitimate. This has the current effect of spreading that view to the modern era.
Discovery wasn’t the only way for countries to obtain territory. The more common method that Marshall recognized was a country’s right of conquest. This is an idea that holds countries can win at war and force the loser to surrender part or all of its land. Countries have been doing this for centuries, potentially even before history could even be recorded. It has only recently fallen out of favor.
But not really.
Like with many other consequences of the Second World War, modern nations have achieved workable hypocrisy when it comes to conquering the weak. Nowadays, nations don’t have to receive a formal cession of territory when they win a war. Instead, they get to pick a friendly group of tyrants to run the defeated country for them. Even better, pick two groups and let the locals vote for one. The new country gets recognized, and life goes on.
Notice that this still fits in the European model of agreements. Violence sanctioned by custom is what enables people to liberate themselves, create new countries, and modify the behavior of others. It isn’t an accident. Many countries that exist today (including mine), bought and buy into that system.
Notice that this conflicts with theories of social contract. Social contract says that people get to determine their own government. Reality says a country can only exist if its neighbors recognize it. Thus, we live in a world where a people can’t use self-determination to establish their own rights. Instead, they must beg for them from a “valid” country, or they must hurt people until the rest of the world begs for relief.
Violence and threats of violence are power.
To be fair, this state of affairs has existed even before Europe built its empires. It’s a principle that’s old and familiar to people across many ages. To paraphrase an ancient Greek named Thucydides: The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.
All anyone has succeeded in doing is making power more obscured. No, it’s not a conspiracy or a secret. It’s just hard to follow. And it’s led to some terrifying actions in human history.
So long as violence drives the engines of civilization, it shouldn’t be a surprise that violence is what people will get. In some way, everyone on this planet lives as a beneficiary of a violent act. Even when people recognize that such violence was wrong, they must persist out of not having any other alternative.
The question I asked at the end of my last post was perhaps premature. It is pointless to exercise a choice when there is none to be made. Instead, people have to establish a choice before a decision can be made.
Assuming that there is an alternative to violence as power, it will need to have a response to violence. That response cannot be different kinds of violence. As of this writing, I’m not sure how to begin considering such possibilities.