Of Anger and Statues

This is a year for anger.  Angry mobs have taken to the streets, motivated by senseless killings and other acts of injustice.  As always happens when passions rage unchecked (fueled by lurid journalists, partisan politicians and hostile anarchists), the mobs perpetrated vastly more senseless destruction and acts of violence.  Nevertheless, we might be seeing some genuine increased interest in justice. But it’s far too soon to tout the value of angry mobs as agents of productive change.  Rather, we should ponder the words of Seneca, the ancient Roman Stoic:

No man is ever made braver through anger, except the one who would never have been brave without anger.  It comes, then, not as a help to virtue, but as a substitute for it.

Human life is founded on kindness and concord, and is bound into an alliance for common help, not by terror, but by mutual love.

The best course is to reject at once the first incitement to anger, to resist even its small beginnings, and to take pains to avoid falling into anger.

Anger embodies nothing useful, nor does it kindle the mind to warlike deeds; for virtue, being self-sufficient, never needs the help of vice.

As we contemplate the possible value of public expressions of anger, we might recall some quite recent history. Not very long ago, angry mobs with white hoods burned crosses and, undisguised in broad daylight, angry mobs of men, women and children hung black men from trees. Passion is completely unrelated to virtue.

But some might argue that the angry mobs of 2020 are fundamentally different. There’s a resurgence of legislative attention to justice in law enforcement, while statues believed to symbolize evil are being removed.  Yet, if these are just and rational actions, would they not have been so before the mobs?  Were legislators previously lacking in virtue, or were they simply negligent?  Has the anger of the crowd engendered a virtuous epiphany?

In a rational world, the events of the last month would have changed nothing. Our  legislators would be people of integrity who already performed their duties in accord with their own sound values.  They would not be moved to virtuous action only when threatened by hysterical mobs. 

Perhaps justice will be better served going forward, or perhaps we will be inundated by even more virtue-signaling gestures than we currently endure. But, worst of all is that recent events might once again have contributed to enshrining the fantasy that anger is a sound basis for public policy. Rational decision making is not aided by passion, which is fundamentally a coercive force. Some of the emerging populist initiatives may turn out to make Black lives even worse (defund the police, for example).  The “public” is not a monolith, and anger may flow in multiple directions — consider the irrational forces that drove the result of the 2016 election, for example.

Black lives matter.  This is such an obvious truth that it is absurd that it needs to be said. The United States of America has an exemplary Constitution, providing a solid and comprehensive foundation for our laws and governance. On paper at least, it guarantees that all lives matter.  The most basic responsibility of the three branches of government and every State and local government is simply to respect that foundation.  By extension, agencies responsible to those legislatures (police forces for example) are directed to enact and enforce those same values. It’s really that simple.  Those self-satisfied politicians who adopt a cloak of virtue when angry mobs order them to do so do not thereby absolve themselves of their long-standing irresponsibility and dereliction of duty.

It is a foundational truth of this Nation that all are equal before the law.  So obviously all lives matter.  Yet, insofar as that truth is not uniformly respected and enforced, initiatives such as “black lives matter” will be meaningful and necessary —  perhaps we also need “impoverished lives matter”, “mentally-ill lives matter”, “misfit lives matter”, and even “old white guys’ lives matter”.

Statues are presumably intended to honor and inspire.  If a community erects a statue representing some person, it honors that person’s contribution to the community.  It should be a contribution that is broadly considered to be of value, and that can also serve as inspiration for others across ensuing generations.  There are no perfect human beings;  everyone has a shadow side.  So, while honoring the good in a person, any statue will overlook the inevitable bad.  The best we can hope for is that the good will significantly outweigh the bad.  That’s a matter of judgement that will inevitably land on the desks of legislators, whose own shadow sides are also part of the process. In any case, the removal of statues of people honored for virtues that are widely recognized as vices today is a pretty straightforward decision — so it’s time to accept the disappearance of Confederate leaders. Others deserve more nuanced consideration — for example, Thomas Jefferson is not honored as a slave holder (his shadow side).

What to do with the empty pedestals? We should avoid parochial choices, even if they loom large in our consciousness of the moment. Rather we should choose symbols that transcend the chaos of the present and represent timeless values essential to our nation’s continued welfare. For example, the blindfolded goddess of Justice would symbolize that all lives matter equally before the law grounded in the rational and impartial interpretation of Constitutional principles.  This sort of abstract statue would also transcend the inevitable flaws of any individual human being.

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