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A Violent Country

A Sign for Cain: An Exploration in Human Violence

by Fredric Wertham M.D.
Macmillan, 386 pp., $6.95

A Sign for Cain is indeed, as its dustjacket claims, a provocative book, though not so good a one as its wealth of material and the frequently stimulating insights of its author lead one to expect. It is certainly enormously concrete. Dr. Wertham’s catalogue is long, through every passion ranging; he seems to have total recall for every foul deed of this century, from high-school initiations to Guernica, and many earlier. He provides an annotated list of the concentration camps of Greater Germany in 1945—there were twenty-three, many with specialized functions—and his topics extend from comic books to the McNaughton—to use his spelling—rule for legal insanity. His writing is erudite but cranky, with occasional lapses like his reference to “.024 per cent per 100,000” persons who died in automobile accidents in 1952. But nothing seems to have been omitted. In spite of its very considerable redeeming social significance, if violence turns you on you’ll enjoy A Sign for Cain thoroughly.

The book’s most serious defect is that it is an exploration. It has no organizing principle; and the whole is less than the sum of its parts. There is wisdom in it, like Wertham’s observation that “The greatest achievement of the civil-rights movement is that it has restored the dignity of indignation.” and his reference to it as “an underground of decency.” But he has neither an ideology nor a coherent social theory by which his detailed observations could be related to one another. His analysis of the role of violence in contemporary life is greatly hampered by his lack of interest in and limited understanding of how people are involved in society.

This is a pity, because his subject has become supremely important, and he avoids the most serious trap into which an indignant old psychiatrist might easily have fallen. He does not try to treat the widespread violence in our world as the collective expression of defective personality or emotional disorder. He is far too canny for that; but the absence of a theoretical frame-work tempts him constantly to go off the track to sniff among the flowers of evil.

Rather than try to follow him into these tangled thickets, it seems to me that it may be more illuminating, both to the book’s subject and to the problems it presents to the reader, to take one specific instance of such derailment, and do what seems necessary to get the discussion back on the tracks again, as an illustration of the kind of intellectual effort involved. I have chosen Wertham’s comment on the failure of the courts to punish two high-school boys who had seriously injured a young friend by rough hazing. In this connection, he quotes approvingly The New York Times‘s sad observation that “Young, unsophisticated minds may readily conclude that sadism and barbarism …are not really punishable.” and observes: “This is pricisely what happens. The Goddess of Violence usurps the place of Themis, the Goddess of Law.”

THE GODDESS OF VIOLENCE” is the title of the first chapter of A Sign for Cain, and we become very familiar with her features in the course of it. But are there really two Goddesses? Laying aside for the moment the question whether fraternity hazing among adolescents is the same kind of phenomenon as the others Wertham also includes in his chapter on juvenile violence—for example, kick-killings and ” ‘rooftop murders’ in which boys of fifteen or sixteen throw younger girls from the roofs of tall buildings”—let us look more sharply at the Goddess of Law. As she goes about her business, she is often very hard to distinguish from her sister. In the modern world, nearly all the violence that occurs is lawful violence; while a large proportion of that which is not is nevertheless committed by the civil, penal, or military authorities in the course of duty. The German concentration camps were lawful. Our own authorities maintain that the American intervention in Vietnam is lawful. Executions are lawful. Much of Dr. Wertham’s book is taken up with atrocities of unquestionable legality in the jurisdictions in which they occurred; while the most disgusting examples he cites are proposals for legalizing new punishments for juvenile delinquents. One of these, taken from a letter to a “metropolitan newspaper” advises:

Take the ten worst juvenile delinquents arrested during the week and over a national television hookup tie them to posts, pull down their pants and beat their bare behinds until they scream for mercy.

To an Eastern reader this may seem the product of a somewhat fevered imagination in which hostile impulses have been permitted to displace devotion to due process; but any Californian would instantly recognize in this suggestion the tone of a defender of law and order.

Most Americans would say that they disapproved of violence. But what they really mean is that they believe it should be a monopoly of the state. What we fear is not violence itself so much as “taking the law into your own hands”; and we generally call people who have resisted the legitimate agents of coercion violent even when the agents have been violent and they have not. In spite of the monotonous consistency of the press reports that denigrate their protest, no Berkeley students have ever rioted, but quite a few have been manhandled by the police in the course of demonstrations; while non-violent civil-rights workers all over the country have grown quite accustomed to learning, on recovering consciousness, that X-rays reveal them to have been resisting arrest. Within the past week I have gotten into a public argument with a distinguished editor of a highly respected monthly who heatedly told me that Berkeley students had been behaving “just the way you object to our people acting in Vietnam!” Even if—as is certainly possible—this man had confused LSD with napalm, they don’t drop tons of the stuff on small children in the Bay Area; and even if they had the napalm, they wouldn’t drop it on anyone under thirty. It wouldn’t turn them on.

On the other hand, the headquarters of the Vietnam Day Committee in Berkeley really was bombed with genuine dynamite several months ago and destroyed; and this demonstration of devotion to the new conservatism aroused no visible emotion stronger than embarrassment in the citizens who indignantly perceive the VDC’s protests as riots. The crime remains unsolved; but the supporters of Mr. Reagan who scream that the dissident students are a filthy menace are not at all disturbed by the incontrovertible fact that there is a dynamiter loose among them, and not at all curious to learn who he is.

This, then, is a further complication in the social psychology of violence. Not only do most people accept violence if it is perpetrated by legitimate authority, they also regard violence against certain kinds of people as inherently legitimate, no matter who commits it. When one of these is the victim, his attackers are regarded as more legitimate than the law. The guardians of the law, for their part, seem often to concur in this judgment, and either join the attackers or slink away and leave the victim in their hands. White policemen who are ordered to protect little Negro girls from being beaten by white mobs on their way to school tend to shuffle about their task shamefacedly.

AT A STILL DEEPER psychological level, there appears to be a strong though mute tendency among us to accept violence as legitimate—or at least, not to mind it very much—if it is manifested by individuals who come on with a gung-ho swagger in real or imaginary green berets. Compare the hatred and resentment aroused by draft-card burners, whose aggression is wholly symbolic and non-violent, with the rapid cooling off of public interest in Mr. Whitman after his apotheosis on the Texas Tower. His credentials were so impeccable that they almost served to license his deed. A former marine whose father had reared him with exemplary firmness, he was clearly one of our boys and not a guitar-playing Vietnik, even if he did murder seventeen people. There was nothing long-haired or queer about him: he even beat his wife and tried to sell girlie postcards. As the late Flannery O’Connor observed in her best known short story, which recounts a rather similar episode, a good man is hard to find.

Themis is no goddess in her own right; she is the paler alter ego of her brutal sister: violence in a respectable mask. The mask saves her a lot of embarrassment. While she is wearing it she can preside over police stations whose interrogation rooms are often the most dangerous place in town; and prisons—her grim shrines in which violence has become the ritual by which order is maintained. She can delight respectable citizens, who would be horrified by bare-faced obscenity, with the spectacular asphyxiation of the infamous kidnapper Caryl Chessman. The Goddess of Law has never been non-violent; and has usually been the enemy of those who are.

But whether as Goddess of Law or Goddess of Violence she has certainly, as Dr. Wertham notes, become more conspicuous lately, and has begun to arouse rather unfavorable comment. Her trouble is that when she has on her Themis mask she cannot keep her mouth shut. When she comes on in the role of upholder of the law she utters streams of the most appalling, unconvincing cant; but her voice is the voice of Violence, her deeds are deeds of Violence, and the disagreeable consequence is to create a crisis of legitimacy which evokes violence from others. Some imitate her, like the Hell’s Angels, who volunteer to help the police by conducting mop-up operations on Vietniks whom the Constitution—never a popular document—keeps the police from touching, yet. Some, newcomers and strangers in the polis, like the emptier sort of juvenile delinquent or aimless slum looters and stompers, don’t know what the hell she is talking about and don’t care; but will be damned if they’re going to be told what to do by a goddess who sounds to them like a crazy woman. But some, potentially the most responsible citizens of their generation, do understand her; and are so infuriated by her hypocrisy and the keening note of hatred underlying her pomposity that they finally lose their tempers and hurl a rock or a bottle at her, or, more tragically, set fire to themselves. Altogether, they make quite a scene; but personally, I take Mr. Carmichael for a very patient man and wish him many, many more kilowatts in any color he chooses.

Dr. Wertham deals with the violence of several decades, and these phenomena cannot, therefore, be explained in terms of contemporary events. But the increased sense of urgency with which we respond to the issues he raises is, I think, largely a consequence of contemporary developments. The most obvious of these, of course, is the scope which modern technology gives to violent action. We are not, on the basis of the total historical record, an unusually brutal people; but we are the first whose military leaders and technicians have prattled of megatons and megadeaths in the interests of a free society.

BUT I WOULD ALSO attach great importance to the crisis of legitimacy to which I referred two paragraphs back, which leaves all of us edgier and more trigger-happy than we used to be. The public mood is uglier, a basic element of trust is gone, and with reason. The war in Vietnam, undeclared, continually escalated by the adoption of military techniques and initiatives which the administration had previously undertaken not to use, and devastating the homeland of a poor and gallant people on the shabbiest of political pretexts, is generating a vast contempt for legitimate authority. The Chief Justice of the United States and his Commission appear to have made no serious effort to determine what relationships, if any, the murders of President Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald may have had to the political tensions and power-strivings of the time; though the assassination of course determined the succession of legitimate executive authority in this country. The unnerving fact is that we do not know which of us are murderers; though, in view of the war, we have all become so implicated in killing that we ought not, perhaps, to worry overmuch about the personal daintiness of our neighbors.

Even such melodramatic events as these, however, are but surface manifestations of the fundamental need for violence that our society—and perhaps every society—shows. Dr. Wertham does not reveal to us the source of that need—perhaps it is, as the ethologists maintain, a fundamental instinct of man which reflects his basic impotence. But he does call our attention to a relationship that consistently recurs in our culture, though the patterns of violence vary greatly through time and place. Wertham is not the first to note the importance of this relationship. Gershon Legman1 , Leslie Fiedler, and Norman O. Brown, among others, have done much more with it than he does. But he does bring it up and remind us again of its importance.

This is the curious preference we so consistently show for violence over sex. Wertham, who has been crusading against comic books for a decade or so, is particularly appalled by the way in which obviously lewd encounters are resolved by revealing that the motives of the male are destructive rather than erotic, and hence not offensive after all—an explanation that society accepts as perfectly satisfactory. “A producer of horror films said with pride over the radio,” Dr. Wertham notes, ” ‘Our pictures are absolutely clean. The monster might abduct the young bride, but only to kill her.’ ”

Now it is impossible to disagree with Dr. Wertham’s conclusion that this is the sentiment of a very sick society, though I wish he could also see how funny it is. But I think he seriously misunderstands the situation, which is even worse than he thinks.

Wertham sees the mass media and especially gory comic books as breeding and catering to sadism. But—as the producer’s comment makes clear—what they are catering to is alienation, not sadism. A sadist has a real, albeit distorted sexual relationship to his partner; we may not approve of his methods, but his purpose is to make love, not war. The comic books are a lot more modern than the Marquis; their message is that their characters get no satisfaction, that violence must be its own reward. This is far more dehumanizing than sadism, and, for that very reason, far more functional to a mass society which fears nothing so much as real personal commitment, whatever its basis may be. A real sadist would make a very poor Eichmann; his personal tastes would constantly obtrude upon his official duties, leading him to spare some victims through ennui and others because of need.

AT THIS POINT it may be illuminating to raise again the question I deferred in order to pursue the problem of Themis’s identity. Wertham’s perception of fraternity hazing as functionally equivalent to throwing girls off tall buildings obscures an important point. What is basically horrifying about all the forms of juvenile violence Wertham deplores is not just their violence, but the fact that they involve attacking people contemptuously and breaking them up as if they were things of no value. No sexual act has this inhuman quality, and it is precisely sexuality that prevents it; one suspects that a boy who would hurl a girl to her death would be incapable even of rape. Hazing may become comparably vicious if the boys who are inflicting it are subject to homosexual panic; and this may, of course, have been the case in the incident Dr. Wertham cites. But the contrary may also be true. Hazing may be both violent and obscene without being dangerous, if the group in which it occurs is linked by real affection and is enough at ease with its own animal nature to enjoy an honest dirty joke. It becomes dangerous as it becomes depersonalized under the influence of precisely the same social forces that moved the producer of horror films. The encounter is reduced to sniggering hostility in the interests of keeping the show clean; and the erotic empathy that might have kept it human instead—the built-in safety factor—is repressed as thoroughly as possible.

Since the world is now very much less personal indeed than it was a generation ago, hazing would undoubtedly be more likely to take an ugly turn; and since the present generation tends to approach all forms of sexuality less obliquely than its elders did, they would probably find the fraternity life that we enjoyed both archaic and grotesque. They can protect their precious polymorphous perversity from social strangulation without so often having to proceed, as we did, on the assumption that the longest way round may well be the shortest way home. Times change; hazing—and, in large measure, fraternity life itself—have become dysfunctional in a society in every way more open. In this small area of life, then, there is less violence because young people find it less necessary to use a paddle in order to keep from touching one another.

This is great: but what is great about it is not that they are less violent, but that they are more loving. There is no consistent connection between the two. Violence may be loving, or hostile, or alienated; hostility may be violent; but the worst is passive and cold. Dr. Wertham notes this; his comments on the cool-technicians who ran the concentration camps show that he understands that Jago is more dangerous than Othello. But I am less sure that he realizes that what made Othello dangerous is also what made him lovable and brave. And there is nothing in his work to suggest how infinitely more horrible Emilia’s life must have been than Desdemona’s.

DESPITE HIS DETAILED ATTENTION to the concentration camps, Wertham continually gives the impression that violence is essentially disorderly, and that the more orderly life is the more humane it is likely to be. If this were true, the world would be a far less dangerous place. But it is not true; it is false—and this is more than a psychological axiom. It is a political principle of the greatest relevance and urgency. Violence is, indeed, the hallmark of our age and perhaps its most serious social problem. But one cannot hope to intervene in the processes of violence without making things much worse, unless one is careful always to distinguish the violence of a lover in his passion, or a man revolting against an unbearable reality by whatever means may be at hand, from that violence which expresses what E. M. Forster called “panic and emptiness.” Panic and emptiness are the distinguishing characteristics of our time; and panicky, empty people are usually very fond of order, though the converse need not be true.

Captain Vere, beneath his devotion to discipline, was a panicky man; and it is he, as the story ends, who commits the most violent and destructive action in it; and the only one which is obscene. He and Claggart together constitute the public menace—not Billy Budd, Billy was not wholly innocent, for there are occasions when each of us is obligated to speak plainly, and this he failed to do. But a man like Vere, who feels safer after he had Billy hanged, must cause consternation even in Hell; he would be so boring to torment. The devil, surely, must prefer more imaginative victims; but he must put up with the clients he gets. It hardly behooves us to try to solve his personnel problems. As Dr. Wertham reminds us, we have plenty of our own.

  1. 1

    G. Legman, Love and Death, New York, Hacker, 1949.

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