Defending the indefensible – II

22 02 2010

Some notes on the body and power

On 1 March 1757 Damiens the regicide was condemned “to make the amende honorable before the main door of the Church of Paris”, where he was to be “taken and conveyed in a cart, wearing nothing but a shirt, holding a torch of burning wax weighing two pounds”; then, “in the said cart, to the Place de Grève, where, on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and claves with red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulphur, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes and his ashes thrown to the winds” (Pièces originales…, 372-4).

“Finally, he was quartered,” recounts the Gazette d’Amsterdam of 1 April 1757. “This last operation was very long, because the horses used were not accustomed to drawing; consequently, instead of four, six were needed; and when that did not suffice, they were forced, in order to cut off the wretch’s thighs, to sever the sinews and hack at the joints…

This is how Michel Foucault opens his work, Discipline and Punish. Again, those who want to go more profoundly into the subject can go do their own research. The main point of these observations was to deconstruct the modern perception of treating the body as a sacrosanct locus of individual rights. For Foucault, power did not cease inflicting pain on the body because of some abstract concept of being “civilized”, but more because other forms of control were deemed more effective and less susceptible to causing sympathy towards the criminal.

To expand the topic a little bit more, I have perceived even in my own lifetime how the body has been considered as being even more inviolate in terms of exterior action. I speak in terms of superficial observation, but such things as corporal punishment towards one’s children is deemed to be an unpardonable act of barbarism, particularly in public. Even beating one’s wife not too long ago was at the very least passively allowed, but it is now (one wants to say rightfully) perceived as a heinous act of anti-social behavior. Even the way we execute criminals (the United States being one of the only “modern” states that still executes criminals; it should be pointed out that not even states in Latin America do so) has been reduced to the method with the least amount of spectacle: more often than not, lethal injection. Such was also the thinking behind the first method of modern execution: the guillotine.

Our temptation is to call all of this “progress”. In our political thought, this will stem from the idea that we are all “citizens” with inalienable rights and dignity. According to Enlightenment thinking, adopted by most Christian thinkers in the 20th century, power flows from God through the people, and thus the State is subordinate to them. In old Christian monarchies, power flowed from God directly to the monarch, and thus all of his subjects could almost be considered the property of the King. They, as well as their bodies, belonged to him. He was the old Roman paterfamilias on a grand scale, with the right of life and death over his subjects, though he would always be exhorted to govern wisely or suffer the consequences.

That is of course the atmosphere in which the criminal accused of regicide is tortured and killed at the beginning of Foucault’s book. The gory execution shows in the criminal’s flesh the transgression against the right order ordained by God and protected by the king. Modern punishment is not like that; it attempts (at least in theory, and some would say, only in theory) to “rehabilitate” the criminal and re-educate him in the mentality of the majority. It is to “interiorize” assent, and thus make him a “productive member of society”. Our modern sensibility does not see physical coercion as properly inducing consent, or properly training a “sovereign citizen”, thus, we have learned to be appalled by it.

I do not think much controversy could be seen in any of this yet. Yet when Catholics and other Christians object to such practices as abortion or the propagation of homosexual rights, they would be well advised that they are engaging in an exercise in cognitive dissonance. For the same circle that they draw around the human body that makes them oppose torture, abortion, and capital punishment could also be drawn around the woman’s body to prevent the State from interfering in her reproductive cycle. Or it could be drawn around two people who chose to engage in a particular kind of sexual act. The modern liberal thinking behind this is that the State has no right to treat the human body as a locus of power; the human body is inviolate. In advocating “human dignity”, many Christians thus only shoot themselves in the foot on a metaphysical level. For the march of progress is to treat all people as disembodied citizens, and one cannot legislate or execute action on the body precisely because the body is an a-political, sacrosanct entity.

Why do I write this? To advocate torture or abortion rights? No. But rather it is to reveal once again that a bad argument in favor of a position is worse than an argument against that position. And perhaps as well as a warning against elevating our own inconsistently modern sensibilities to the level of dogma.

Modern liberalism is a faith like any other faith; it has its own unquestioned doctrines that we take for granted. Many would see modern liberalism and the traditional faiths of the world as perfectly compatible, and even complimentary. The disagreements between American Christians in the postmodern “culture wars”, however, speak volumes as to how this is not the case. In the end, it may be that “conservative Christians” are being inconsistent liberals, unwilling to take liberal principles to their logical conclusions.



10 responses

24 02 2010

“Aborting a fetus (to use the modern terms) or preventing an abortion is not interfering with a woman’s reproductive cycle. We are merely extending the circle to the unborn child who also has all the rights to life that any other person has.”

And in the process, violating the sovereign rights of the woman, including her right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as stated in the Declaration of Independence. A woman cannot, should not, be enslaved to an embryo. The ‘intent’ in permitting abortion is not to give permission to kill another human being, but to protect the 14th amendment rights of the woman, “[no State] shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” The death of the embryo is the unfortunate consequence of a woman asserting her own rights; the legal rights of the embryo do not supersede her own legal rights. It’s easy to imagine two bubbles: one around the woman, the other around the embryo. So that neither interferes with the rights of the other, abortion separates the two. It’s the unfortunate consequence of this separation that the non-viable embryo dies. (The exception is during late-term pregnancies, when it can be argued that the fetus would be viable outside the womb and so the woman and abortion provider are taking active measures to end the life of a viable fetus; thus, restrictions can be placed on performing abortions in those situations.)

If a woman can be forced by the State to continue a pregnancy at considerable harm to herself, physical, economic, social, etc – and all pregnancies have possible considerable harm – in order to preserve “the right to life” of the embryo/fetus, why can’t the State force an individual to donate a kidney, at considerable harm to that individual, in order to preserve “the right to life” of another person? Wisely, the Supreme Court recognizes that human beings cannot be forced to surrender their inviolable rights (without due process), and therefore the State demands neither that an individual donate a kidney to save someone else’s life nor that a woman continue a pregnancy to save someone else’s life.*

Those who are smart and pro-choice are usually remarkably consistent. Based on the notion of the rights of the human person, abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage are permissible, while capital punishment (if it is “cruel and unusual punishment”) and torture are wrong. I’m not an abortion advocate, but given their definitions of personal sovereignty and rights, their logic is pretty air-tight. As Arturo has stated, the problem arises when those who are “pro-life” adopt the same ‘rights’ language for other situations, typically capital punishment and torture, but then want to argue that abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage should not be permitted.

When JPII, the USCCB, and the most recent Catechism start using this ‘rights’ language, because we are made in the image of the Creator (parroting the arguments of Enlightenment deists), it’s hard to figure out where this is coming from within the historical teaching of the Catholic Church. For most of its history, the Catholic Church and Christian states (East and West) clearly did not uniformly disapprove of corporal punishment/torture or execution of criminals. If such teaching can “develop” – as the statements from the USCCB on torture argue – well, I’ll just sit around and wait for the Catholic Church to likewise “develop” her understanding of contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage, and euthanasia. Although our world seems to be driven by ideologies and the need for a system and certainties, sometimes it might be better to say, “in these cases, this is wrong. In other cases, that may be permissible.” Get rid of the absolutist language.

“The opposition of Christians towards various governments or governmental policies often has little to do with Christianity and more to do with divergent interpretations of the main tenets of classical liberalism.”

I think it’s pretty obvious that monarchy is the only form of government a Christian in good conscience can enthusiastically support, and thus our rights properly are derived from God through the sovereign. And yet tell that to most modern/post-modern Christians, and watch them recoil in horror. It’s a good example of how much we are wedded to (brainwashed by?) modern ideologies.

*I’m opposed to the government permitting abortion; I would have no problem with the government criminalizing all abortion. But I think applying our constructs of “rights” in order to denounce abortion is very tricky and ultimately ineffective because in an unwanted pregnancy, one person is infringing on the rights of the other no matter what, whether intentional or not.

24 02 2010
A Sinner

“In the end, it may be that “conservative Christians” are being inconsistent liberals, unwilling to take liberal principles to their logical conclusions.”

I don’t know. I oppose abortion because the child should have a circle drawn around HIM (even if there is also a circle around the mother). But I would NOT try to criminalize any consensual sex acts or anything like that. Nor would I demand the assent or productivity of the criminal 1984-style…as long as he wasn’t going to hurt anyone else.

24 02 2010
Arturo Vasquez

One of the difficulties that we have wrapping our minds around these types of problems is that we have a very, very hard time thinking of power as sacred. This is a conditioning of our post-Enlightenment collective consciousness, though we all have to admit that it is not at all old or very rational. The normal condition of human history is that the sacred and the “secular” are not two separate things, but rather interconnected. In the Catholic political ethos, this has historically meant that not only was the hierarchical Church “sacred”, but power as well, that is, the monarch. The king was just as much a minister of God as a bishop, though in a different order, and not necessarily endowed with sacredotal powers. Again, on the Old Testament model, he didn’t have to be: the fact that he wielded the sword in defense of the common good and the Church was enough. The body of the king was sacred, his blood was sacred, and, by extension, his actions were sacred.

Try telling that to Christians today, libertarian, Republican, Democrat, or liberation theologian. The opposition of Christians towards various governments or governmental policies often has little to do with Christianity and more to do with divergent interpretations of the main tenets of classical liberalism. The government is not sacred anymore, it cannot be trusted. If anything, it is the people themselves who are sacred, and the sword can still be wielded against evildoers, only not without the consent of the people. Thus, it makes perfect sense in the liberal perspective that the State cannot execute or torture criminals: its power comes from the people, and can only be exercised with its consent. It makes little sense that such a government harms the people in any way.

I am not making a “value judgment” on any of this, but when issues arise as to what the modern State should and should not do, should and should not regulate, we have to be fully aware of the ideological instruments that we ourselves are wielding in approaching these problems. We are positing that it is above the government’s “pay grade” (to use the infamous phrase of our current president) to put someone to death or to torture someone for information. I am just saying that to those who do not have the “prejudice” of Christian “values” or even “common sense natural law” perspectives (not so common sense anymore), it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to disempower the State on those issues, yet empower it on issues of the female reproductive cycle or personal determinations on what constitutes a family. For them, that is, the proponents of modern secularism, all of this is a seamless garment: your rights begin an inch before my nose ends. You might as well say that the State has a right to tell you how many Doritos you can eat in one sitting, or when you should go to bed. Or perhaps that we have to give up a kidney if someone else really needs it. Imagine the outcry if such laws were proposed. The right-wings’s limitation of “rights” seems perfectly arbitrary, a rhetorical game whose outcome will be determined by judicial dictatorship or the ballot box “will to power” of the largest mob.

What is my opinion? I don’t have one. Really, I find politics a bore: a distraction for those who think that mob action (even nice, suburban, white mob action) is the solution to our problems and the duty of the (nice, suburban, white) Christian. You would do better devoting your energy to praying and taking care of your duties of state.

23 02 2010
random Orthodox chick

Well, that’s what a penitentiary is for.

22 02 2010

Arturo, I am in favour of a system of “retributive justice,” but against capital punishment, and I take the two positions to be absolutely compatible. Let me explain:

I believe, similarly to Dostoevsky, that the choice of the criminal, to commit some heinous crime, has to be “respected,” in a sense, and treated seriously–that is, with appropriate punishment that, in a manner of speaking, “rights the balance.” However, I do not perceive capital punishment as “righting” that “balance” any more than I do the decision of a parole board that someone has been “rehabilitated.” The decision of the parole board that they can “know” that someone is “rehabilitated” is, to my mind, exactly equivalent to the decision of a jury or a judge to “play God” and know all about someone’s guilt or innocence or their state of mind in committing a crime. It is the act of a wholly secularized society whose ethics are wholly positivist, even when the society claims to be “fundamentally” Christian. The decision of the judge and jury is worse, however–and more of an usurpation of the divine prerogative–because it is irrevocable.

The greatest damage is not done, however, to the criminal who is executed, who will, presumably, be exonerated by Providence (and, perhaps, ultimately, by history) if he is innocent; the greatest damage is done to the body politic, and, in particular, to those most susceptible to the subliminal messages emanating from institutions like the penal and justice systems (and, in particular, children), who are taught that such activities as violent punishment or legalized murder are legitimate prerogatives of the state, and are solutions to problems, and that they will, perhaps, bring “closure” to the fraught emotions of survivors. Of course, there will be no “closure” of the vengeful feelings of those who go to watch their loved ones’ murderers writhe on a gurney.

What then, is a legitimate “capital punishment” in a truly Christian society? I would suggest that it is a lifetime of penance: the murderer of someone should not only be required to make furniture or license plates for the rest of his life; he should also be required, dependent upon survivors’ approval, to attend every function that the deceased has missed throughout what might have been the natural life of the deceased, or until his own demise, and publicly apologize for his robbery of a human life.

It has been suggested to me, by acquaintances who support capital punishment that this is crueler than an execution, but I say “tough,” and remind them that my chief concern is for the impressionable who might have to live in a society that condones judicial murder.

22 02 2010

“For the same circle that they draw around the human body that makes them oppose torture, abortion, and capital punishment could also be drawn around the woman’s body to prevent the State from interfering in her reproductive cycle.”
Aborting a fetus (to use the modern terms) or preventing an abortion is not interfering with a woman’s reproductive cycle. We are merely extending the circle to the unborn child who also has all the rights to life that any other person has.

22 02 2010

Thanks for this, Arturo. However, I found myself having difficulty coming up with a better argument for the topics you mentioned near the end of the post. Could you post a good argument for one of these topics? It’d make it easier to see the difference.

22 02 2010
Fr. Anthony Chadwick

Interesting article. I found this after writing on a similar subject, the evil Richard Topcliffe who hunted and tortured priests in the 16th century.

Would you care, Arturo, to leave a comment?

22 02 2010
Dr. S. Petersen

I was brought up short by your phrase “not even states in Latin America” employ capital-corporeal punishment. It seems that you, of all bloggers should be aware that although the masses of Latin Americans have a transcendent awareness, their governments are today uniformly immanentist, secular and liberal having been created, in the 19th century by freemasons. Your bringing forward the questionably occult quasicatholic devotions (e. g. nuestra señora muerte) highlights this situation. It is for this reason that the Perons were noteworthy–they were essentially governments of the people rather than empty bourgeois constructs (perhaps Uruguay with it pro-gay, universal non-smoking regime is the best example).
As to abortion: the Church’s position, as I take it, is that it is sinful to destroy the life in the womb. If the woman does so herself, she is a sinner. She needs to confess and do penance. If the state provides her encouragement and instrumentalities to do so, then the state scandalously promotes sin and should be opposed by Catholics; ditto with suicide.

22 02 2010
A Colourful Character from Elizabethan England « The Anglo-Catholic

[…] Since writing this article, I came across a piece by Arturo Vasquez Defending the Indefensible II, dealing with the question of the rights of the State over the bodies of its subjects. The question […]

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