Barbarism and Savagery or Civil Society? One of the Meanings of January 6, 2021

I am currently working on a post on the idea of national unity. National unity is something that is absent in American life right now. That post, when published, will explain that topic more thoroughly. But, for now, I wish to highlight an important fact that national unity does not mean uniformity. Quite the contrary, the ideal of unity necessarily requires difference.

E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One)

The United States of America is a country that arose in pluralism, as John Courtney Murray observed in his, probably now little known, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1960). Unlike European countries and other places had “previously existent” unity disrupted, Courtney notes that “pluralism was the native condition of American society” that needed a solution that would ensure unity in pluralist roots (that solution is The Constitution, by the way). Hence, the national motto, E Pluribus Unum. America is truly one nation that came out of many people. American pluralism was and is represented in many pluralisms: religious, ethnic, ideological, and so forth.

It would be an error to think American unity means abolishing all difference, all the things that make us pluralistic, asking everyone to leave behind everything about themselves and to become something else that we all are supposed to be (determined by whom?). Quite to the contrary, American unity presupposes there is a place for everyone and that in our difference (not in spite of it) we can have a shareable national vision.

No doubt, this is not an easy task. One of the requirements for success is the art of reasonable conversation. Here I offer some more insights of John Courtney Murray, specifically what he writes about the difference between barbarism and civil society. (Hint: America is supposed to be the latter).

(Disclaimer: My use of Murray in this post is not meant to imply complete agreement with Murray’s book. But I do find it fascinating how, writing in 1960, some of his insights speak so truly to our contemporary challenges some 60 years later).

First, it is important always to define terms. Barbarism, Murray reveals, has its definition stretching at least back to Aristotle. Barbarism is “the lack of reasonable conversation according to reasonable laws.” And “conversation” is defined in its Latin roots as both “living together and talking together.” How apropos of American life. Indeed, we must learn to speak together because we need to live together. And by “living together,” I am going to assume in the “domestic tranquility” spoken of in The Constitution.

Murray goes on:

“Barbarism threatens when men [sic] cease to live together according to reason, embodied in law and custom, and incorporated in a web of institutions that sufficiently reveal rational influences, even though they are not, and cannot be, wholly rational. Society becomes barbarian when men are huddled together under the rule of force and fear; when economic interests assume the primacy over higher values; when material standards of mass and quantity crush out the values of quality and excellence [Murray is remarkably in line here with critical theorists such as Adorno and Marcuse, although it might have troubled him to think so]; when technology assumes an autonomous an existence and embarks on a course of unlimited self-exploitation without purposeful guidance from the higher disciplines of politics and morals….” (Murray 14-15).

Barbarism happens when we cease to live together rationally. And of speaking together:

“Barbarism likewise threatens when men [sic] cease to talk together according to reasonable laws…. Argument ceases to be civil when it is dominated by passion and prejudice [it should be understood here that by “passion,” Murray means lacking rationality. He is using the word more in its Aristotelian sense of the non-rational part of the soul. He does not mean, as we often do in common discourse, being “passionate” about something we care about]; when its vocabulary becomes solipsist, premised on the theory that my insight is mine alone and cannot be shared [much like a former President who thought everyone was always all about him]; when dialogue gives way to a series of monologues; when parties to the conversation cease to listen to each other, or hear what they want to hear, or see the other’s argument only through the screen of their own categories….” (Murray, 14).

I would like to expand on the meaning of some of the things in the quotation, but for time’s sake, I am going to assume you get the general point.

The entire idea of conversation and learning to live together must absolutely assume difference. If we all already got along and thought the same way about everything, there wouldn’t really be much to talk about, if by talking we mean seeking to avoid barbarism and savagery. In fact, my claim here is that it is the barbaric and the savage that wish, by fear and power, to impose uniformity and to exclude, even by force and violence, those who are not them.

The insurrection at the Capitol one year ago today is just such the kind of barbarism that Murray was writing about.

Donald Trump at his “Save America Rally,” premised on the made-up notion that the election was stolen, said, “We fight like hell and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” When Trump said “country,” he did not mean, I contend, America. Not, at least, if you mean a country that is “out of many, one.” No, Donald Trump’s country and the country of those to whom he was speaking is something else entirely. His country is not the country of The Constitution. He made this clear enough when he told the insurrectionists to go home, that he loved them, they were very special people, and reminded them that the election was stolen. No, it wasn’t antifa or BLM, as he later claimed. He knew they were his people and he spoke directly to them.

I remember watching the Constitutionally mandated certification of the election and seeing Vice President Mike Pence interrupted to be swiftly taken from the building. A few minutes later we all learned, and watched, what was going on outside. Brainwashed thugs, wrapped up in the flag of our country, placed our Capitol under siege. I wrote my thoughts on that horrible event the day after. I think what I wrote then is just as true now. Our country experienced a treasonous insurrection. Whatever else is wrong with America (and there is plenty), we are still a democracy, no matter how imperfectly. Had the insurrection succeeded, I am convinced that today we would not be. I still fear the very real possibility that democracy could be lost. In the long march of history, civilizations have arisen and fallen after existing much longer than our own, relatively, short history.

What we saw on January 6, 2021 was an act of barbarism. It was an act motivated by the desire to rule by fear and power. It was an act by those who do not know how to have conversation, to live together and speak together.

This is not about differences in politics or being right or left. It is true, I do think the right in this country, at least in its most public face, is morally bankrupt and corrupt. I remember a right that used to be intellectual, that had a commitment to real American values. It should be the case, though, that reasonable citizens of various positions can “reason together” about our disagreements or what we think will best serve American ideals. We may have different beliefs about economic theory, or we may have varying political philosophies, but we can recognize one another as fellow-citizens who love our country.

Regardless of the differences among us of whatever nature they may be, the insurrection of our Capitol and the attempt to overthrow our democracy should horrify us all. Just because it was wrapped in flags and with shouts of “America,” there is nothing about that event that was American. What happened one year ago today was hideous and disgraceful. You cannot both love democracy and think that January 6, 2021 was anything other than sedition. May its perpetrators be brought to justice.

The insurrection at the Capitol is representative of the struggle between barbarism—carried out by a savage mob—and civil society.I don’t care if you are conservative, liberal, or any other stripe of political commitments. Let’s stand against sedition and treason together.


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