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Belligence and Politics

belligerence noun: an aggressive or truculent attitude, atmosphere, or disposition (Merriam-Webster)


intelligence noun: the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations; … the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one’s environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria (as tests); … mental acuteness; …information concerning an enemy or possible enemy or an area. (Merriam-Webster)

belligence noun: an intelligence or shrewdness that involves an aggressive attitude or truculent words and deeds; adjective: belligent. (Mitchell-Aboulafia)

belligent noun: a shrewd individual whose behavior is marked by aggressive words or deeds; a clever person for whom winning and losing is the sole criteria for success. (Mitchell-Aboulafia)

We live in belligent times that try our souls. But we are unwilling to confront this fact. Take the recent election: We dance around the phenomenon by complaining about how mean-spirited and nasty candidates have become, even as we avoid tackling the problem of belligence directly.

I know. Some of you will complain that I am accusing you unfairly. You will say that you have never heard of belligence. You will ask how you could have done anything about it since you never heard of it. Fair enough. I accept your objection and hold myself responsible. I should have shared this word with the world years ago. The recent election has moved me to rectify the situation. Allow me to clarify its meaning before applying it to our times.

Belligent individuals seek to undermine or injure those who might simply disagree with them. Their goal is not to understand the words or actions of others. It is to defeat them. Belligent individuals may be said to have many chips on their shoulders, which they carry into a variety of contexts. Their hostility to others appears unwarranted to impartial observers. They see life as an endless series of competitions in which there are only winners and losers. They are more cunning and shrewd than thoughtful as they pursue victory. And they plan and expect to be winners. Examples will prove helpful. Superman’s archenemy, Lex Luthor, possessed (or was possessed by) belligence, as was Batman’s nemesis the Joker. Rush Limbaugh is a belligent. Katie Couric is not. Stephen Colbert’s TV persona is belligent. Jon Stewart’s usually is not. In politics both major parties have belligent members. Lyndon Johnson certainly had his belligent moments. The Nixon who was responsible for Watergate and the “enemies list” was belligent. The one who went to China was not. Women can certainly be belligents. In our own day there is Sarah Palin, but Laura Bush is probably the antithesis of a belligent. It should be emphasized that although we might agree with the specific goals of a belligent, this doesn’t make him or her any less belligent. So what has this to do with politics and elections? After all, who doesn’t want to be a winner?

I worry a lot about politics in America. We often view politics as a nuisance or as a sport. (My team wins. Yours loses.) Politics is not sport. We don’t appear to understand what it means to be a political animal, as Aristotle famously called us. For him, we are by nature gregarious and social creatures. Following his lead, Hannah Arendt tells us that the essence of politics is discussion and debate, which the ancient Greeks clearly understood. No doubt the Greeks were highly competitive but they didn’t confuse politics with sport. Although political debate involves an agon—a contest or struggle—it is not simply about winning. It is about public discussion. Your views and mine are aired in the world. For the Greeks important discussion took place in the agora (marketplace or gathering place). It was where you would take a stand, others would notice that you had taken a stand, and everyone (well, in ancient Greece every free male citizen) could engage in discussion and debate, which are alternatives to violence. In The Human Condition Arendt tells us that in the Greek city-state,

To be political, to live in a polis, meant that everything was decided through words and persuasion and not through force and violence. In Greek self-understanding, to force people by violence, to command rather than persuade, were prepolitical ways to deal with people characteristic of life outside the polis.

Perhaps Arendt romanticizes ancient Greece and is really speaking more of Athens than other cities. This is not our concern. What is our concern is whether she is saying something important about the ways in which healthy communities should function. For a community to flourish, its members must understand that they are unique. Each has a different perspective to offer on a common world. And they should share these perspectives with others in a public or political forum.

The reality of the public realm relies on the simultaneous presence of innumerable perspectives and aspects in which the common world presents itself and for which no common measurement or denominator can ever be devised…. Being seen and being heard by others derive their significance from the fact that everybody sees and hears from a different position. This is the meaning of public life, compared to which even the richest and most satisfying family life can offer only the prolongation or multiplication of one’s own position…. [In tyrannies and in mass hysteria] men become entirely private, that is, they have been deprived of seeing and hearing others, of being seen and being heard by them.

Arendt is not claiming that family life is unimportant. She is claiming that it has limitations. Those within a family often have views that are too similar to be political. And even when members differ, they are private disagreements, best kept within the family. Although privacy is vital for human flourishing, some forms of human interaction must not be kept private. Privacy undermines their value. In this respect the secret ballot, while a necessary feature of a healthy democracy, has misled us. It has left us with the impression that politics is private. We often hide our political views as we hide our salaries, feeling that they are none of anyone else’s business. But our political views should be public.

The belligent individual doesn’t seek discussion, debate, or dialogue. He or she seeks to win. And to win one doesn’t have to be thoughtful or deliberative or engage in discussion. To win elections, for example, one merely needs to be cunning or employ cunning people. In America this often means converting others through clever language and advertising. But the substitution of advertising or clever monologues for genuine debate and discussion turns elections into theater. And the leading actors are either belligents or controlled by them. We the people are consigned to the audience, in which we allow ourselves to be entertained by belligents, fearful that if we share our views, trouble will follow or we will waste valuable time.

Americans can rail about how awful the world of politics is, but as long as we remain preoccupied with our private worlds—careers, family matters, net worth, etc.—to the exclusion of active discussion and debate, there won’t be any change. We don’t all have to become political activists. We do have to recognize that the more we shy away from discussion and debate about our common world, the more we stay in the audience, the more we then cede control of our nation to belligents, because they have the savvy and assertiveness to control the agenda.

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