Leftists couldn’t raise a finger to object to political violence all summer, but feel they are in a moral position to do so now? Blame Herbert Marcuse…
by Shaun Kenney
Herbert Marcuse is a name you might vaguely know.
Marcuse was the darling of violent leftist radicals during the 1960s who found new currency and utility after the rise of postmodern politics on college campuses during the last decade.
In his essay Repressive Tolerance, Marcuse touches on the reasons why toleration is a vice, why it enshrines the status quo, and how it serves as the enemy of the left:
Tolerance is an end unto itself.
Short break in the introductory paragraph, because these two ideas need to be parsed out:
The elimination of violence, and the reduction of suppression to the extent required for protecting man and animals from cruelty and aggression are preconditions for the creation of a humane society.
If the society does not eliminate violence, cruelty and aggression as preconditions (not ends) of a humane society? Then the society is not humane… and ergo can and by rights ought to be destroyed.
Tolerance of a status quo merely enshrines the violence, cruelty and aggression in human society today, whether that is racism, bigotry, transphobia, intersectionality, homophobia, prejudice, bias or any other sort of -ism that needs to be driven out in order to achieve the humane society.
Such a society does not yet exist; progress towards it is perhaps more than before arrested by violence and suppression on a global scale.
How does the inhumane society perpetuate itself? Through violence, cruelty and aggression (of course) in thousands of everyday acts. Call them microaggressions, if you will.
Tolerance is extended to policies, conditions, and modes of behavior which should not be tolerated because they are impeding, if not destroying, the chances of creating an existence without fear and misery.
This sort of tolerance strengthens the tyranny of the majority against which authentic liberals protested.
A tyranny from which you, dear reader, have benefited. Ergo, your tolerance — your silence in the face of tyranny — is indeed a form of violence.
Sounds familiar, does it not?
Read on and read every word, because you’re going to find an admixture of things to agree and disagree with here:
Tolerance towards that which is radically evil now appears as it good because it serves the cohesion of the whole on the road to affluence or more affluence. The toleration of the systemic moronization of children and adults alike by publicity and propaganda, the release of destructiveness in aggressive driving, the recruitment for and training of special forces, the impotent and benevolent tolerance towards outright deception in merchandizing, waste, and planned obsolescence are not distortions and aberrations, they are the essence of a system which fosters tolerance as a means for perpetuating the struggle for existence and suppressing the alternatives. The authorities in education, morals, and psychology are vociferous against the increase in juvenile delinquency; they are less vociferous against the proud presentation, in word and deed and pictures, of ever more powerful missiles, rockets, bombs — the mature delinquency of a whole civilization.
What we have here is a sandwich of sorts, a variation on the “motte and bailey” technique where if one can convince you of the weaker arguments (the motte) then we can convince you of the harder arguments (the bailey). Only in this instance, if you like the meat of this argument, the bread is going to be tolerable. Here’s your meat:
- The moronization of children and adults? Check.
- The problem of marketing, celebrity, and propaganda? Check.
- Aggressive driving? Check.
- Recruitment for and training special forces? How many “stolen valor” types do you see walking around? Folks borrowing credentials to pretend they are something they are not? Check.
- Deception in merchandizing? Check.
- Planned obsolescence in car parts, appliances, and electronics? Check.
Who doesn’t bemoan the state of education in America? Who doesn’t hold in contempt TikTok and OnlyFans culture (don’t look) combined with mass marketing? Who doesn’t despise aggressive driving? How many times have we bought something online only to discover it was cheap and plastic crap? The list is interminable…
Life, it turns out, is disappointing and ephemeral. Who knew?!
For Marcuse’s audience — young twenty-somethings — this is new information. The optimism instilled in them by parents and teachers yields to disappointment and then pessimism, then anger at a society which promised the world and delivered college.
About those twenty-somethings… Marcuse writes that these less-optimistic and now-pessimistic juveniles are scolded by those “vociferous against the increase in juvenile delinquency” while the “mature delinquency of a whole civilization” — that’s you, dear reader — is tolerated.
Toleration of such a radically (Latin: radix or at its root) evil society doesn’t surprise the Christian, because we are taught from a young age that the world is indeed imperfect and in need of a savior, that suffering and salvation are intrinsically linked, and that our imperfect sacrifices are never sufficient, yet they are made sufficient because God offered himself as a sacrifice in expiation of our own shortcomings (the Latin for sin being peccare or to miss the mark).
Yet it surprises Marcuse, and it surprises the acolytes of the secular left.
Worse than this? Such conditions are de facto intolerable. The opposition is, by definition as “radically evil” at their root — bad.
Those who see it otherwise are by definition antibad.
If you are antibad, your opposition immediately becomes bad. After all, it’s in the name: antibad. If you oppose antibad, you must be bad… and there is no tolerance for bad for Marcuse.
Give a boy a hammer (and sickle) and the world becomes a fascist nail. Yet worse still, you can in fact hate your opposition now… because they’re bad and you’re antibad (and there is genius in their hatred).
When you think of great moral critics, the poet Charles Bukowski rarely comes to mind. In fact, the man was an outright moral degenerate — oddly enough by choice, because that’s how he believed you could see the radix of human nature. Bukwoski’s Genius of the Crowd comes to mind as a criticism of Marcuse and the mediocre soul surprised by the imperfectability of the world:
but there is genius in their hatred
there is enough genius in their hatred to kill you
to kill anybody
not wanting solitude
not understanding solitude
they will attempt to destroy anything
that differs from their own
For a more cinematic touch, you may want to listen to this in the quiet of your living room or office:
Problem here is that antibad — or in this case, Antifa — taught the far right that violence qua Marcuse is the new language of political discourse. That the Democrats made equivocations and excuses for five months does not help their cause.
Marcuse reveals his hand midway through his argument with this whopper of a line against the concept of freedom of speech:
The telos of tolerance is truth. Heresy, by itself, is no token of truth.
Marcuse struggles with a present day problem, namely that “the stupid opinion is treated with the same respect as the intelligent one, the misinformed may talk as long as the informed, and propaganda rides along with education, truth with falsehood.”
Objectivity, Marcuse writes, no longer becomes an objectivity with a view towards truth and falsehood, but rather a narrative. The neutralization of opposites that pure tolerance affords — where one error has the same rights as truth — is a violation of the old principle error non habitus ius.
Perhaps this may help.
Imagine a totalitarian democracy where error is given equal weight to truth, where error is allowed to prevail despite the arguments of truth due to institutional norms. Picture the American revolutionaries in 1775, or a conservative student in a college classroom, or the Jews after Kristalnacht (or a black kid in America who gets turned down in a job application because of his name).
• For the patriots of 1775, it was when the British began disarming the Americans.
• For conservatives in the college classroom, there are no options.
• For the Jews of Germany, it was exodus — and Marcuse was among them.
• For the black kid, it is another job application — or protest.
At what point, Marcuse asks, is violence acceptable in the face of injustice? Is tolerance an end unto itself? That’s the institutional bias and structural racism Marcuse is wagging his finger towards. This is the strike against pluralism and epistemic humility vs. the utopians gasping for the eschaton.
These questions that Marcuse raises are not anodyne ones. In fact, conservatives are asking themselves the very same questions in the wake of BLM/Antifa violence during the long summer of 2020.
Given the response in the Sacking of the US Capitol by as many vandals, the problem today is BLM/Antifa have taught the far-right that violence is the new language of political discourse.
So now the far right is talking back.
If the left couldn’t raise a finger to object to political violence all summer, by what rights are they in a moral position to do so now?
The problem here is that Marcuse strikes on a siren song that ultimately smashes us up against the rocks — namely that error has no rights. Yet none of us have a total grasp of the true. We may have facts, but we do not have a monopoly on capital-T truth.
Eric Voegelin writes of this phenomenon in Science, Politics & Gnosticism against the utopians and world builders:
Philosophy springs from the love of being; it is man’s loving endeavor to perceive the order of being and attune himself to it. Gnosis desires dominion over being; in order to seize control of being the gnostic constructs his system. The building of systems is a gnostic form of reasoning, not a philosophical one.
Herein lies Marcuse’s ultimate conundrum. Human beings are created; we live in and are a part of existence — existing in the logic of the world as Heidegger writes in Being and Time. None of us have a monopoly on truth.
Marcuse wants a perfect world without suffering. True, there are institutions that deserve resistance. Conservatives know this; minorities know this; Christians know this. Yet as Christians, how we resist is as important as what we resist (and I think that’s common among most faith traditions).
That’s the wisdom of Western civilization, one might say.
Yet the tension that Marcuse identifies between the ideal and the real shouldn’t be responded to with violence, not just for the reason that it doesn’t work.
Toleration of the ways people see the same problem is the best and most enduring solution; the balance of factions and the widest possible audience is the key — not to mention a touch of Jeffersonian hope after another contentious election in 1800:
If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.
I know, indeed, that some honest men fear that a republican government can not be strong, that this Government is not strong enough; but would the honest patriot, in the full tide of successful experiment, abandon a government which has so far kept us free and firm on the theoretic and visionary fear that this Government, the world’s best hope, may by possibility want energy to preserve itself? I trust not.
I believe this, on the contrary, the strongest Government on earth. I believe it the only one where every man, at the call of the law, would fly to the standard of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern.
Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.
We should tolerate the search for truth while respecting that no ideology, religion or viewpoint has a monopoly on truth.
Thomas Merton once noted that faith is not fanaticism because it is not free. Truth doesn’t coerce; truth persuades precisely because it is the truth. Truth does not require a logic outside of truth in order to make it more valid or appealing. Imperfect consciences strive for right thinking all the time. We settle these questions imperfectly, but always with the perfect in view knowing that when we miss the mark (i.e. that dangerous word sin) we owe to others a restitution — the Aristotelian definition of justice.
The notion of rights, it should be mentioned, is with respect to persons. Society cannot have a justice; persons can. This basic dignity of the human person “requires that in the conduct of his life a man should act on his own judgment, with freedom, out of an inner sense of duty, under immunity from outside pressures or coercions.”
Marcuse rejects this because he is a world-builder and gnostic at core, as are all the totalitarians. Violence as a positive act becomes a shortcut to thought.
So what is the antidote to this new option for violence?
One thought is to simply not play the game and surrender to the logic of power. Another is to commit to a process of discernment that sees lawmaking as an inherently moral process; one that approves of moral laws, rejects immoral ones, and asks lawmakers to discern between the two. Or to see that faith (whether secular or sacred) informs conscience, and that conscience should never be checked at the statehouse or courthouse door. In short, a personal integralism that submits to Jeffersonian public square free of coercion, but one that admits that the ideal culture Marcuse is striving for has competitors who are — to quote Aquinas — all madly in love with the same God.
Of course, we have to want these things. Otherwise we enter a Hobbesian world very quickly more akin to the advice of Shakespeare’s Richard III:
Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devised at first to keep the strong in awe.
Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law.
March on. Join bravely. Let us to it pell-mell
If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell.
There’s that sticky word conscience again.
Perhaps then we need to consider that those in power and affluence have a moral duty to share empathy with their critics.
To date, the political left in this country has shown an utter lack of empathy with the 74 million people who voted for Donald J. Trump — and it shows. Some on the left might argue in kind that defenders of the status quo have shown an utter lack of empathy with the 78 million non-white minorities in America…
Sometimes that shows too.
One thing is clear at this rate. The war on toleration and tolerance isn’t exactly building the utopia that either camps purport to sell to their believers. Utopias promise everything and deliver nothing. Free societies promise nothing and let you build the world you want for your children and grandchildren.
Error may have no rights with respect to truth, but the whole purpose of a true education (again, Latin: ex ducare or to lead forth) is critical if not everything. We can only educate in a sphere where opinions and viewpoints are indeed tolerated.
The alternative is called indoctrination and censorship. Safe to say, that’s not my idea of a society built on truth, much less one respecting the dignity and rights of human persons.
Shaun Kenney is the editor of The Republican Standard, former chairman of the Board of Supervisors for Fluvanna County, and a former executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia. This column has been republished with permission from The Republican Standard.There are currently no comments highlighted.