A writer named Carl Kandutsch recently penned a thoughtful analysis of Blood Meridian, a novel by Cormac McCarthy, in an article for CounterPunch titled “Blood Meridian’s Judge Holden in the Age of American Exceptionalism” (Speaking as an aspiring novelist myself, McCarthy is one of the best writers I have ever come across).
Without getting too much into the details of Blood Meridian, Kandutsch explains how the concept of American Exceptionalism is represented on the individual level within the protagonist as he operates within the historical context of the late 1800s by engaging in brutality he sees as justified because he is above the Indians whom he kills.
Kandutsch then reflects how this attitude of moral superiority, the notion that the normal rules of behavior do not apply, has continued onward into modern society and made manifest in the narrative of American Exceptionalism. While CounterPunch is considered a hard left site, articles like this are as intellectually-stimulating as anything I come across in libertarian circles.
There Is No “Our” In Government
My only qualm with the piece is in one of his concluding paragraphs.
The excessiveness of McCarthy’s descriptions of horrific violence matches the excessiveness of America’s claims to exceptionality, and McCarthy’s refusal to adopt a tone and manner compatible with America’s institutional voices makes his an essential counter-voice reminding us of what we refuse to know, which is that the Judge is one of our own, for whom we remain responsible as our government decimates native villages in distant places in ways that are at least as savage and cruel as the methods employed by Glanton and his gang, and for purposes just as opaque as the Judge’s. (emphasis mine)
I can’t speak for what Kandutsch meant by the use of the word “responsibility,” but my assumption is that he is referring to people’s culpability when they mindlessly support politicians who use their power to inflict harm through the U.S. foreign policy.
Regardless, the use of the words “I,” “we,” and “you” when discussing the foreign policy of the state, have been the cause of much misunderstanding and confusion. For years while I was still a mainstream conservative I wrestled over many issues, but most vexing was the gruesome details of American History such as the ones described in Blood Meridian. My education taught me I was responsible for them or should feel collective guilt for what had happened because of my lineage, yet I instinctively knew I was not at fault nor should be regarded as such.
Reconciling what I knew to be fact and also to be true proved impossible, and sadly I lacked the emotional maturity to reject the underlying premise of the argument that has held people captive to a very narrow paradigm of thinking.
Authority and Responsibility Must Go Hand In Hand
It wasn’t until recently I discovered one of the most important truths in life.
People only have responsibility for things over which they have authority, and the responsibility much be in proportion to the level of authority. When I say responsibility, I refer to the idea of moral culpability, i.e. people are to blame for that which they have no control over. Just as a person who has no control over the weather, they can’t be blamed for it.
Whenever the equilibrium between authority and responsibility is broken, abuses inevitably arise.
The American Exceptionalism Myth relies on the belief that the government is of the people, by the people, for the people, and it is here that the myth is most destructive, for it allows the government to have total authority while the responsibility for these decisions gets divided, distributed, and hoisted upon those who had nothing to do with it – indeed, many vehemently oppose it – but are powerless to do anything about it.
The Orwellian strategy works twofold. First, it allows for a fragmentation of culpability so that no one is at fault enough to the point where they should be punished.
We saw this in the Third Reich. Hardly anyone, if at all, who gave the orders actually fired the shots or operated the gas chambers. The responsibilities got divided to the point where everyone who participated in the atrocities, including those who did not participate but took no action against it, could delude themselves into believing they because they didn’t have the authority to decide they had no responsibility for what they did or didn’t do.
Second, it personalizes the state so that each citizen feels like they are a part of it. This strategy is brilliant and effective; to criticize the state is to criticize everyone around you. We are
Legion the State.
The pretense and blame-shifting is essential to diffusing what might otherwise be potentially volatile situations. If those with direct authority were held directly responsible, there would be no state, because it is an entity that innately requires an imbalance of responsibility and authority.
Libertarianism, in contrast, seeks to maintain this equilibrium through the Non-Aggression Principle.
The great mass of Americans have, practically speaking, no power when it comes to what its government does overseas or at home. Those who, like myself, choose not to vote have absolutely no control. We have no feasible way of preventing the expropriation of our money in the form of taxation used to fund these extra-judicial killings and drone strikes.
The actions of Judge Holden in Blood Meridian do not require much effort on the part of the reader to condemn because he is an individual acting on behalf of himself. If people stopped perceiving the actions of the state as extensions of their own wills and no longer saw it as “our” government,” it would require a similar amount of effort to do the same to the actions of state agents.