Morality Play?


Last week over at Political Violence @ a Glance Christian Davenport asked us to pay more attention to state violence.  Today, at Foreign Policy, Adrienne Klasa writes about the trial in London that will expose a great deal about what the UK government’s use of violence in Kenya suring the 1950s; a period that she describes as “a largely forgotten dark corner of England’s colonial legacy.”  I recently conjectured that political leaders’ ability to defend themselves against charges of abuse  declines precipitously as they grow older than the median life expectancy in their country.  When those responsible for the abuse are pushing up daisies our prospects for unearthing the truth ought to improve even more.  And so it, it seems to me, with the trails in Kenya.

This, then, is what troubles me: the public consumption of the information.  The current paroxysm in the United States in response to the cover-up at Penn State University of the child molestation by an athletic coach have sensitized me to a general concern  I have that the public consumption of trials such as the one opening in London are a counter-productive contemporary re-invention of the morality play.  Politicians, commentators, pundits, etc. tend to rush to their podiums and pronounce how heinous was the behavior, and so on.  And I worry that the behavior is, in fact, banal, common, typical is not only lost, but effectively denied in the process.  I encourage readers to check this conjecture as you read about the trial in London.  Reconsider Kasa’s description of a “dark corner of England’s colonial legacy.”  Really?  Does Kasa genuinely believe that the abuse of rights that this trial will press into the world’s news were unusual? If so, she is woefully ill informed.

In his post Davenport explains that the bulk of research on violent political conflict focuses on dissident violence, and then asks: “Why is this the case? Why do governments get a pass?” Does S.H. Chambers’ iconic cartoon shed some light?  Do we need Jack Nicholson, as Col. Nathan R. Jessep in Hollywood’s “A Few Good Men” (a modern morality play in its own right) to shout at us that we “cannot handle the truth!”?

Davenport asks, rhetorically:

What’s the last call or program from a government or prominent foundation regarding state repression that you recall seeing posted? Minerva that.

He continues…

we end up knowing much less about governments and repressive action than we do revolutionaries and revolution, protesters and protest, rebels and rebellion, and terrorists and terrorism. Here’s the kicker: it turns out that government repression is intricately connected with all of the contentious actors and actions identified above… barely a murmur has been heard about the importance of state repressive action in provoking challenges to the state itself. Even less is mentioned about what governments do covertly against potential as well as actual challenges before, during, and after overt challenges manifest.

The next time you read or view an opinion leader holding forth on the horrible acts of government officials, ask whether your commentator is doing more than condemning the behavior and thereby establishing her own moral credentials.  Is he putting these violations in context?  Or are they being treated in isolation from other, similar crimes?  To the extent that it is the latter, I encourage you to tune out and ask questions that make you uncomfortable.

About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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