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Violence & Civility

In response to:

A Special Supplement: On Violence from the July 2, 1970 issue

To the Editors:

Mr. Cameron in his article “On Violence” (NYR, July 2) writes inter alia:

The two obvious examples are the war in Vietnam, where the technical sophistication of the forms of violence used…have no historical parallel, and the Israeli war on the Arab states.

It seems to me that Mr. Cameron owes his readers at least two explanations: What is the meaning of the statement, “The Israeli war on the Arab states”? No war of the Arab states on Israel? Who started this chain of wars? An analogy might be helpful: Was the war of the West against Nazi Germany a war of the West on Nazi Germany? The second explanation called for is related to the association in the two senses of the term: the comparison with the Vietnam war and the innuendo. Is Israel a technological giant composed of tens of millions of people fighting against two-and-a-half million people who are technically dwarfs?

There are modes of violence not mentioned in Mr. Cameron’s article.

Nathan Rotenstreich

Jerusalem, Israel

J.M Cameron replies:

I am grateful to Mr. Davis for his acute criticism, though I find it impossible to reply adequately except at great length. I should like to make the following points. First, it is quite true that my use of “civility” rests upon a stipulative definition, whereas my discussion of “violence” attempts to explore its uses more widely. This seems to me legitimate in what is not a technical periodical. Secondly, he argues that my manipulation of the two concepts is such that I am unable to account for the (sometimes) beneficent roles of “novelty and disruption.” In short, he sees me as a kind of Burke, not in principle averse to profound changes but in practice approving them only in other places and at other times.

In part he is right about my argument, in part wrong, though his misinterpretation may be my fault. He is right in thinking that I believe talk about “revolution” in North America and Europe foolish and pernicious at the present time. Even if one approved certain revolutionary goals and thought them in principle realizable, one would be deceiving oneself if one thought there existed anywhere in western Europe or North America a social basis for revolution. Revolutionary chatter strengthens the power of authoritarian attitudes in the conservative majority, as does the practice of individual terrorism by witless sections of the student left in the United States. I also think that when we engage in “disruption” we can’t justify such disruption in terms of distant social goals. Telling the truth and refusing to kill the innocent may often be extremely disruptive acts, but they don’t derive their value from the anticipation that their further consequences will be good, for then we should have fallen to the level of the merely prudential, treating truth-telling and refusing to kill as dispensable means.

Perhaps I may make my own position clearer if I say that the man whose conduct I most admire in our epoch is Jägerstätter (see his biography by Gordon Zahn). Again, it seems to me plain from any reading of history that the particular consequences we come to value are not goals for the revolutionaries themselves but, as I put it, graces of fate. I don’t say that revolution isn’t beneficent, only that where it is beneficent it isn’t so in ways that the revolutionaries anticipate or intend.

Two further points. I think the virtues belong to humanity as such; every received account of how a virtue is to be practiced in a given society is no doubt limited; but it can only be criticized in the light of the principle the received account invokes but fails to realize. Again, when I speak of “not inviting the violence…of our society to enter the world of the university” I have the Pentagon in mind as much as the Panthers. I suspect Mr. Davis missed this and I am sorry if I didn’t make it plainer.

Mr. Rotenstreich has missed the point of my remark about the war between Israel and the Arabs. A war is a war whether or not it is aggressive. The Six-Day War and the later attacks upon Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Egypt are certainly defensive, though the sequence of events from the time of the Balfour Declaration may strike the Arabs somewhat differently from the way in which it strikes the Israelis. But the contrast I wished to illustrate was simply that between a technically sophisticated community, even a small one, and a community that fights perforce in other ways. The war in Vietnam shows that the advantage is not necessarily with technical sophistication. Israel may have a similar experience with the Arab guerrillas, though I hope not.

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