Tuesday 29 October 2002

Responsibility and sincerity

“The decision to go to war is not yours, its the decision of the state in which you live and if the state decides to go to war you are not responsible for that decision.”

Who said it? asked Norm Jenson. Any comments?

I won’t even hazard a guess since something tells me it’s a trick question, that the speaker is a cultural or political hero rather than a loathsome militarist. In any case, I’m less interested in who suggested the primacy of the state’s will over that of the individual than in an underlying assumption in the way the statement has been framed. It seems to me that there’s is a sting in the tail of that sentence in that it seeks not only to absolve the individual from the decision to go to war but also to excuse in advance any actions that individual might undertake on behalf of the state.

It’s almost an orthodoxy amongst contemporary democratic elites that, before taking part in any war, individuals should make a judgement about the justice of the cause for which they are being asked or ordered to fight. If a person decides that the state is acting wrongly in declaring war, then he or she is morally obliged to refuse to participate—no matter what the consequences. It’s this orthodoxy that makes the quoted statement so provocative (which was doubtless Norm’s intention). Moreover, if individuals have no say in the decision to go to war, are they still responsible for their behavior in that war? And by what standards is that behavior to be judged?

Instead of engaging in a tendentious discussion about the meaning or possibility of a “just war,” I’d rather address the circumstance of someone whose decision to participate—made in good faith—turns out to be based on faulty grounds. Perhaps the cause drew upon false or immoral beliefs or the state had covert reasons for declaring war or had indoctrinated its citizens to an extent that made it impossible for them to make an informed choice. One can think of a half-dozen wars in the last hundred years that meet at least one of those criteria.

This situation is addressed in Rebel Redemption Redux, an essay in Dissent magazine by Joshua Michael Zeitz about the ongoing argument in the American South about flying the Confederate flag. Zeitz adopts a critical attitude to both liberal and conservative opponents of the flag:

Even such staunch opponents of the Confederate flag as Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen frame their argument in such a way as to validate the spirit of the Old South. “The flag is the bloody shirt of Jim Crow and bullies with too much beer,” according to Cohen, who believes that in its post-Reconstruction context, the stars and bars are “no longer [emphasis added] the proud emblem of a lost cause.” In this sense, the liberal Cohen echoes conservative guru William Bennett in the latter’s cautious posture toward sons and daughters of the Confederate Army. “Although there were great individuals who fought for the Confederacy,” Bennett said earlier this year, “and their individual memory should be honored, what that flag stood for was slavery and the separation of the Union.” To their credit, Bennett and Cohen want the flag lowered. But they miss the larger point: those who fought for the “Lost Cause” should not be honored simply because they displayed intrepidity and prowess on the battlefield. What they fought for, rather than how well they fought for it, should determine the measure of respect accorded Confederate soldiers.

I’ll note in passing the way Zeitz subtly denigrates the Confederate army, by his use of the words “intrepidity” and “prowess,” terms one might usually apply to the behaviour of a Boy Scout troop. My New Oxford Dictionary of English defines intrepidity as: intrepid fearless; adventurous (often used for rhetorical or humorous effect). Zeitz uses it to covertly suggest that military virtues such as courage, determination, resilience, and self-sacrifice were only displayed by the Union forces.

By extension, members of the German and Japanese forces during World War II who fought according to the rules of war should be accorded no respect and neither should the American soldiers who fought honorably in the Vietnam War. In the world according to Joshua Michael Zeitz, honor and respect is due only to those who fight on the ideologically correct side.

Zeitz’s argument offends me partly because he is following the unfortunate contemporary practice of judging past behavior according to the standards of the present but mainly because he denies the possibility that one can act in good faith in support of what is subsequently determined to be either an unjust or a pointless cause.

I disagree with Zeitz because I value makoto, “the cardinal quality of the Japanese hero.” As Ivan Morris wrote in The Nobility of Failure:

Makoto is usually translated as ‘sincerity,’ but its connotations reach far deeper and wider than the English word and come closer to the spiritual power to which Saint Thomas More (one of the noblest failures in Western history) referred when he prayed for the grace ‘to set thys worlde at noughte.’ The focus of makoto varies in different periods of history, but its common denominator has always been a purity of motive, which derives from man’s longing for an absolute meaning out of time and from a realization that the social, political world is essentially a place of corruption whose materiality is incompatible with the demands of pure spirit and truth.

Sincerity precedes not only the realistic demands of established authority but also conventional rectitude; for its ultimate criterion is not the objective righteousness of a cause but the honesty with which the hero espouses it. Thus even an executed felon like the famous nineteenth-century robber, Nezumi Kozo, can be esteemed as a hero, since his motives were believed to be pure.

The Japanese heroic tradition places an inherent value on “the sincere, self-sacrificial act, a value which is entirely irrelevant to its practical effectiveness and which may, on the contrary, be given additional validity by failure.”

I realize I’m on tricky ground here since my argument could be misconstrued as justifying evil behaviour undertaken sincerely. My only response is to refer to one’s existential responsibility to act authentically, to act in good faith. In Existential Psychotherapy, Irvin Yalom writes: “freedom extends beyond being responsible for the world (that is, for imbuing the world with significance): one is also entirely responsible for one’s life, not only for one’s actions but for one’s failure to act.

The same idea is embodied in the famous dictum of Wang Yang-ming, the sixteenth-century Chinese scholar whose teachings had a profound influence on the development of the Japanese ideal of makoto:

To know and not to act is the same as not knowing at all.

In this sense, even if I am not responsible for the state’s decision to go to war, I am obliged to act with sincerity of purpose (authentically)—whether I choose to support the war or to oppose it—and to accept responsibility for both my actions and my failure to act.

Update. Occasionally, someone responds to one of my posts in a special way. In his post Faith and Honor, Dave Rogers addresses—persuasively and with great elegance—the issue that continued to trouble me: could my argument be used to justify “evil behavior undertaken sincerely”? Mr Rogers’ post completes my own and so they are best regarded as two parts of a single whole.

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Jonathon, you bugger, you tread tricky ground with as much grace and finesse as you would an essay on home appliances. This is a delicately balanced and beautifully informed essay. Definitely not my style but, hell, I appreciate it. Responsibility and sincerity need a quiet place. They seem to have become highly portable commodities over the past few years, always being shifted from here to there, from me to you, form pillar to post. Thanks for putting them back where they belong.

Posted by Mike Golby on 28 October 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Beautifully written.

But the 'the sincereity purpose' argument makes me uncomfortable. All sorts of fanaticism (religious and otherwise) stem from man's innate belief in the rightness of cause. The idea of Makato seems to elegant and poetic, but dangerous. History is strewn with examples of disasters - just to give a few examples: inquisition in middle age Europe, Nazi Germany, Communist excesses including collectivisation of farms and even Al Quida - that started with people who sincerely believed that they are/were right and I am I am sure hero they are all heroes to their own people.

It is, to my mind, more important to feel, to be human and conscientious. At some point, there are trade offs and that is the special curse of leadership. e.g. Wartime leaders have to take morally ambigous decisions that may, if they have a heart, will haunt them through life. If they are driven solely by singularness of purpose, they will wreck a lot more devastation in their wake. As I grow older, I am beginning to believe that most fanaticism stem from purity of purpose and most evils stem from fanaticism. this world of ours has many shades of gray. From what I read of them, the samurai were fanatics.

Posted by Kaushik on 29 October 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Tricky Jonathon. This is your most Japanese post, which makes it many layered and too subtle for quick responses. Difficult for someone as impatient as me. However, will give it a shot.

Can we deny the nobility of those who fought for the Confederacy because, as a general rule, what the confederacy represented was wrong? Then we're denying the nobility of the individual's actions outside of the actions of the corporate whole.

In a more modern context, I have to think of the Vietnam war. In my opinion, this war was 'wrong'. But I can't deny that there were acts of great bravery and heroism. The helicopters that flew in under fire to pick up fallen soldiers, the medics who refused to leave the wounded even as the 'enemy' approached. The irony is that many of these people probably didn't believe in 'the war', but they believed in their duty to their fellows. Do we then condemn them because they didn't reject the war, go to Canada, not fight? Do we disallow the nobility and the sacrifice they made for their comrades?

In World War II, there were atrocious acts committed by those who 'believed' in a terrible cause, such as the belief in the superiority of the Aryan race, and the necessity of exterminating those of lesser breeds. Can any action on these people's parts excuse what they did?

Perhaps our actions have to be judged against a global standard of humanity before they can be judged against a more refined ideology.

However, that's one layer only. The other layer is our actions or inactions based on a state's decision. If we disagree with the state, are we still responsible for the state? I believe we are if we have control over the representation of the state. In the US, we can vote on 'the state', therefore that makes us responsible.

However, we didn't vote on our current state, President Bush -- so are we responsible for his actions now?

Personally, I think absolving ourselves of responsibility regardless of how Bush obtained office would be wrong. I think most of this country's problems can be directly traced to our ability to absolve ourselves of responsibility.

This is not a simple answer. This is not a simple question.

Posted by Burningbird on 29 October 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Mike, I did have some reservations about this post so I'm grateful for your positive response.

As I said in the post, I realize I'm on tricky ground here, particularly given my abhorrence of fundamentalism of any kind. I guess I believe that sincerity of purpose requires that we be human and conscientious.

Kaushik, although you are absolutely correct in pointing out that "all sorts of fanaticism (religious and otherwise) stem from man's innate belief in the rightness of cause," fanaticism was never part of the samurai ethic, as this quote from Yoshikawa Eiji's Musashi suggests:

"in the case of the samurai there is such a thing as an appreciation of the poignancy of things... a real samurai, a genuine swordsman has a compassionate heart, he understands the poignancy of life."

Bb, at the heart of my post lies the demand that we do accept responsibility "for both our actions and our failure to act." The issue is what action do we take when the party we voted against wins the election and decides to go to war.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 29 October 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Then we have to do what we can to impede them, legally. And perhaps even more. I won't condone violence, but I do remember those that refused to serve in Vietnam and who went to jail for their actions. We may be heading into a world now where we'll each be faced with the same choices these young men were forced to make.

For now, in regards to the invasion of Iraq, I am voting based on this single issue (something I'e never done before) and am publishing this as far and as loud as I can. I'm also doing everything in my power to convince others to follow my example. Will I succeed? I don't know. Is this taking responsibility? I don't know.

Jonathon, this isn't an easy question -- not because it wasn't clear, but because there is no easy or simple answer. As there is no easy path to follow, or simple solution.

I do know (and this isn't directed at you at all, please understand that) that now is not the time for intellectual detachment. Now is the time for passionate committment from those of like mind, to solidify our concerns and work as a unified whole. Regardless of soverign boundaries.

I'm tired and make little sense. Time to close this comment.

Posted by Burningbird on 29 October 2002 (Comment Permalink)

the point i got here is that one's ignorance of the wrongfulness of a cause becomes less plausible in times such as war. when surrounded by advocates of both or either position, it becomes nearly impossible to honestly claim that nothing said in favor or against a war has struck one as true or void of truth. you can say looking back that you didn't know what the war was really about, but you can't plausibly say that you didn't know what the state said it was about, or that you didn't know if you believed it. that is, you knew what it was about to you. in war, you make decisions. we can not universally judge the validity of those decisions, given the variety of their circumstances, but we can judge the lie of claiming the decisions were never made. and this lie, i believe, we can call cowardice.

Posted by scott reynen on 29 October 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Nah, nah, nah, Shelley, you can't do that..:)

Jonathon's essay tells me that responsibility and sincerity are integral parts of any action I undertake. I appreciate this because I have to carefully scrutinize and examine some of the often paradoxical or seemingly contradictory views I hold and the methods I use to espouse them. [This holds true in every instant.]

Given that some of the essays I read on the Web make me livid, I doubt I'd survive if I could not find sincerity in them. That I am convinced that, ultimately, the people with whom I disagree will have to deal with terrible consequences brought about by their beliefs, choices, and actions leads me to offer them alternatives as provocatively as possible but as responsibly as I am able to. You are as much, if not a far greater 'stirrer' than I. And I mean that in the most complimentary way.

At times, the sincerity of fellow Web personae resonates with mine. At other times, it is my sincere response to what I construe as their willful indifference that drives me up walls. Either way, my reaction is not indifferent. I have to react responsibly *as I see it*.

Jonathon's insertion of 'poignancy' is a real Delacour dirty, for it is our sense of life's poignancy that will determine the extent and duration of our responsibility and our sense of it [and that so often tears me up]. Poignancy also offers us the 'global standard' against which we and others can judge our actions or inaction. You're very right, or correct. The short straw [being the most meaningful] says that the tougher it gets, the tougher it gets. Why? Delacour uses another word, 'existential' responsibility. This renders meaningless the pain of being 'forced to choose' and presents us with what we have, i.e. the consequences of our choices.

Your post on symbols is especially pertinent here because it is within each of us that Jonathon sees or locates the qualities of responsibility and sincerity. That is why, given the clutter of today's dissonant thought and clashing opinion, we'd find it very difficult to invest symbols with broadly-shared meaning. This increasing inability to share world views in no way invalidates your or others' passions and their likenesses to mine as we seek fairly similar ends. We both need to remember, though, that with our increased awareness of nuanced thought and intentional diversity comes a greater duty to responsibility and sincerity. And a sense of not knowing. And it all becomes so much more poignant...

It's very tough, but it leads towards living life to the full. And that, as far as I'm concerned, matters a great deal, responsibly and sincerely [or otherwise] made. Oh, damn it, I too am tired, make little sense and agree... this is not a simple question.

Posted by Mike Golby on 29 October 2002 (Comment Permalink)

An eloquent post, Jonathon.

But I have to say that I think you've missed the point of Zeitz's article.

(I speak as a white southern American, the descendant of slaveowners, and as a former resident of Japan; I've given a good bit of thought to what you might call the "Noble Lost Cause Analogy.")

It's one thing be wary of uncritically applying Western egalitarian standards to Japanese traditions (which is not to say that you should never do it.) But the American South was the same country as the North, with the same Bible, the same Constitution, the same Declaration of Independence, the same European Enlightenment traditions. Zeitz goes into some detail about the intellectual gyrations that whie southerners had to go into try to conceal from themselves their rank hypocrisy in practicing and defending slavery in the face of eloquent and principled criticism from the North. I grew up hearing my grandparents say this kind of stuff during the 60s: "It doesn't bother me that my great-grandparents owned slaves. That was the way of that time and place, and it never would have occurred to them that there was anything wrong with it." At some point I figured out that that was sheer bullshit, for reasons that Zeitz points out.

I think there's a distinction to be made. No one doubts that individual Confederate soldiers, just like individual Japanese soldiers and Nazis, like individual soldiers in all armies, displayed tremendous courage and heroism. But there's a romantic myth about the Confederate army, not unlike the myth of yamato damashii: that because they were fighting in defense of their homeland against an industrially more powerful aggressor, they were somehow spiritually superior, doomed heroes. Moreover, this myth was largely a product of the postwar Reconstruction years, was instrumental in the imposition of Jim Crow laws across the South, the foundation of the Ku Klux Klan -- in short, all the means by which black Americans, after being legally emancipated, were shunted back into third-class citizenship. There was a heavy sexual component to the myth: Southern gentlemen had defended, and would continue to defend, the flower of Southern womanhood against rapists and race-mixers. Where do you think lynching came from?

I don't think that stopping the flying of the Confederate flag (or the state flags in which its a major element) would do anything concrete to make the U.S. a better place for black people. I just think it's incredibly offensive to black people, and all the reasons that white people claim it's important to them are damned stupid. I can't think of anything in Japanese cultural politics that's remotely analogous. The right-wingers in the black trucks are an insignificant force, and most of their goals have to do with foreign policy anyway.

I realize this has turned into a rant, so I'd better stop now.

Posted by Alan Cook on 31 October 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Alan, thanks for taking the time to read my post and offer a response. To the contrary, your comment bears no resemblance to a rant -- in fact, comments like those I've received on this post are the only reason I have comments enabled on my weblog.

As "a white southern American, the descendant of slaveowners, and as a former resident of Japan," you are uniquely qualified to comment. I admit that I focused on a couple of sentences in Zeitz's essay, to the exclusion of all the other valid points he made.

But when you say that "No one doubts that individual Confederate soldiers, just like individual Japanese soldiers and Nazis, like individual soldiers in all armies, displayed tremendous courage and heroism," I would argue that Zeitz does precisely this: he specifically refuses to acknowledge that individual Confederate soldiers displayed any courage or heroism, demanding that they be judged solely on the basis of what they fought for (i.e. slavery and oppression).

I understand that black Americans would be legitimately offended by the flying of the Confederate flag. I have no more sympathy than you for the intellectual gyrations used by white southerners to justify slavery, then and now.

But I know that soldiers wind up fighting for values very different from those they signed up to defend. However, I deliberately refrained from mounting an argument that individual Confederate soldiers might have had other (unromanticized) reasons for fighting -- partly because I didn't want to muddy the waters, mainly because that's a whole different issue (about which I intend to write).

I remain offended by Zeitz's refusal to acknowledge that soldiers can behave honorably in support of the wrong cause. That, rather than the evil of slavery or the hypocrisy of white southerners, was the point of my post.

However, your point that Confederate mythology resulted in black Americans being denied the just rewards of emancipation is well taken. No one could argue that recognition of the merits of the Confederate soldier is trivial in comparison to this injustice.

As for yamato damashii, it still saddens me that the extraordinary initial successes of the Japanese Army and Navy are all but forgotten. Pearl Harbor is regarded as an act of treachery rather than a brilliantly planned and executed pre-emptive strike (and I doubt that will change, even now that George W. Bush has legitimized the pre-emptive strike). Would one in a hundred thousand Americans have heard of General Yamashita Tomoyuki? No, yet he humiliated the British by defeating a numerically superior garrison at Singapore and then did the same to MacArthur in the Phillipines by mounting perhaps the most successful rearguard action in military history. Nor would Americans be pleased to learn that General Yamashita was tried by a kangaroo court and executed at MacArthur's behest.

But now I'm starting to rant...

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 31 October 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Interesting to compare Alan Cook's comments about the 'intellectual gyrations' needed to justify slavery in the South in the Confederacy period with those used to justify classic capitalist theft now. 'Getting a job' is portrayed as good and necessary, when all it is - in this culture - is signing up for another form of legalised slavery, with the product of your work and inventiveness siphoned away for the benefit not of society as a whole, but for an increasingly greedy and obsessive few. In the new capitalism, even your own mind is legally classed as corporate property: go check out Evan Brown's story at http://www.unixguru.com/history.html#7_27_2002 - the life and livelihood of every programmer and other information worker is now at risk. And we're the (relatively) wealthy ones: try telling the Latino laborers that I used to see on Camino Real that they live in 'the land of the free', and see what kind of hollow laughter you get as a response. With the wealthiest 1% of the US having doubled their share of the country's wealth in the last twenty years - from 20% to 40% - perhaps it's time to call into question some of the more absurd 'gyrations' used to claim that this miserable mess is truly 'the best that there can be'.

Posted by Tom G. on 1 November 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

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