Aeschylus: The Oresteia

There’s nothing like giving oneself a facial to really get one thinking about the definition of justice. And like Plato, I’m not about to provide any answers.

Most people who spend any length of time around me know that I have my little fixations, usually on subjects that make everyone around me uncomfortable. So one of my primary objectives each day is to never expose my true feelings on this or that subject, but rather do my best to consider all sides…and usually that’s more elucidating anyway, as never in the history of mankind has someone changed his or her mind.

Facts are feelings.

When I was learning to drive, one of the things I was taught was “a million people can’t be wrong, so follow the indentations of their tires.” The follow-up question, of course, is “what if those million people were Nazis?”—not referring to the driving skills of Nazis, but the general rightness or wrongness of their beliefs or actions.

The answer is supposed to be “yes, a million Nazis were wrong.” And, so long as we’re counting, you can include pretty much everyone in Europe and England and the US and the Middle East, including the Jews who thought God would save them, including the Jews who considered themselves Nazis more than Jews. Everyone was to blame. The Americans and Brits were to blame for leaving France weaker in post-WWI victory than the Germans were in defeat, Churchill was to blame for obsessing over Britain’s retention of India and losing his voice nationally, the UK was to blame for not following Keynesian economics or rearming itself, the Church for striking deals with the Nazis and fascists, the US for its unchecked anti-Semitism and weak enforcement of the First Amendment.

And so we repeat, “never again.” Yet, if there’s one thing the 20th century has taught us, and the 21st century has affirmed, it’s that if you want to kill thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions upon millions of people, then you can get away with it. You’ll be ignored until you’ve finished, and then you’ll be condemned, and then you’ll be protected and live to a ripe old age. The Serbs still think the genocide should count as a patriotic act, not a war crime. The Turks deny the Armenian genocide ever happened. And both these countries are still on the path to EU membership? The Russians love their Soviet leader, Putin, who doesn’t seem to be garnering support for re-election so much as permission to go back in time. In Darfur a collective “oops” led to everyone on both sides just pretending that, you know, their next door neighbors didn’t murder their extended families, etc. etc.

Never again! At the rate things are going, you’ll have your turn too!

And then the law gets in the way when it comes to more than 25% of Cambodians being killed during the Khmer Rouge regime…because, well, that can’t be defined as genocide since the killers and killed were indistinguishable from one another ethnically. So, was it right? Or at least okay? According to the current Cambodian government and the UN that supported/supports(?) the Khmer Rouge, yes, it’s okay.

Usually it all works like any business corporation: shareholders ride the ups and downs, and if anything goes horribly wrong, the people on top can’t be held personally responsible. The Nazis were responsible. The Khmer Rouge was responsible. The Ottoman Empire was responsible. And since these things don’t technically exist anymore, everyone’s off the hook.

Why did the Nazis become so popular? Because they didn’t just provide answers, they also provided solutions. They took a worthless, defeated, embarrassed country and turned it, briefly, into the most powerful nation on earth. Did the first war actually just end because everyone was exhausted? Historically, isn’t that what determines the course of wars, the relative ease of a government of securing loans? Or is it which monarch will allow civilian deaths to go on longest?

Didn’t ordinary Germans finally turn against their government and question why this war was happening in the first place? And then, after all this struggle, why, within shooting distance of Paris, were the Germans were somehow declared the losers? The Jews, of course. And economic and military strength grew quite quickly once anti-Jewish policies were in place. It doesn’t always work out that way. And it’d be a stretch to say any other genocide occurred in a modern, industrial country. It’s not that the whole country went mad, it’s that the country made decisions in its best interest that, likely, any country would do. I mean, consider all these African and Middle Eastern countries involved in civil wars related to the Arab Spring. Give these governments better infrastructure and less ineptitude, and that’d be all they’d need.

And so, we’re ultimately left with the problem that once in a while a few policymakers are condemned for their policies, but let off the hook for trying their best to do good under stressful circumstances. And their subordinates can all claim to be “just following orders” as a valid legal defense, the law of command responsibility. And that’s why it’s okay that 20-some American soldiers raped, tortured, mutilated, and murdered more than 500 unarmed civilians at My Lai. That’s more or less how the reports from Iraq go too.

And that’s where it gets so confusing for me. “How much justice can you afford?” is the correct question. If you have a lot of money, you’re in charge of whichever government you choose. US elections can legally be bought by foreign donors now—and just as sure as the Chamber of Commerce supports outsourcing American jobs overseas, they’re also willing to receive and distribute foreign money in favor of their chosen candidates.

And so we return to the awkwardly disconcerting ending of the Oresteia. Individuals should no longer take matters into their own hands, because we now have Justice. And according to Justice, if while hiding you saw your sister gang-raped and then have her hands and tongue cut off by some soldiers…well, a crime hasn’t been committed. And if you sought revenge, there’d be nobody to blame for what had happened. And so all over the world our neighbors were actors in horrific crimes against humanity—and they’ll never, ever be held accountable.

The both sides: one, that life is precious; the other, that if personal justice went unchecked, there’d be total chaos.

Mussolini’s entire “Doctrine of Fascism” reinforces this. The state is a living creature, endowed with the same rights liberals of the 19th and 18th centuries believed held by individuals, Mussolini said. The difference, he says, is that an individual only has those rights and freedoms by being part of the state. The first part sounds similar to the 2010 Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court. The second part sounds like the proposal to support a Republican purity test a.k.a “Resolution on Reagan’s Unity Principle for Support of Candidates.”

Fascism, ideally, involves people acting like bees, sacrificing themselves for the good of the hive. Where we are, rather, is more like an ant colony, everyone working toward the good of the hive, but inebriated with an individualistic will to live. We look at Pol Pot killing off his family, or Richard III’s ruthless murdering of his nephews, and condemn their heartlessness when they’d be more aptly described as doctrinaire. And the line blurs further when leaders call abortion-providers murderers, or call gays honest-to-goodness devils, inspiring their followers to kill doctors in Kansas and gays in Uganda. Doctrinaire, indeed. Following the law of command responsibility, rarely. So, how much justice can you afford?

I definitely, definitely had time to do a mud mask after all, dammit…and I still need to iron my pants for tomorrow.

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