How could Kyle Rittenhouse face no account for what he did? Should I accept or reject the legal process in this case? There are ways of making sense of all this that clarify larger moral questions. The long arc of history speaks to us but mostly we do not listen. That’s lesson one. The past tells us without great vigilance “might is right” always wins over justice and the general welfare. Anyone who is willing to embrace the truth of our history cannot be surprised by this verdict.
Now let’s talk about what we can learn from it and perhaps there will be even bigger surprises. Rules about right and wrong can never capture the vast complexity of life and so they inevitably come into conflict with each other as they do here in this case… justice is messy. To truly understand why Kyle Rittenhouse was exonerated of all charges is about understanding not only power in society but the way each of us approaches our own sense of being and ethics.
To learn is to abandon old beliefs as much as it is acquiring new ones. That letting go can feel like a kind of death. Sometimes we are faced with the choice of pulling the trolley lever and allowing one belief to be crushed in order to serve something greater. True ethics is not about a set of rules to follow. It is based on self-examination.
The Veins of Might Course Through History
There are only brief and exceptional times and places when human dignity has overcome the brute power that resides in the human condition. One of those times and places is post-War America, but our nation fooled itself into believing this great transition towards universal social good was mostly a done deal… that somehow such progress was near complete and would continue to unfold. As such, we placed our faith in the system… like to follow the law.
This system arose in the modern world to put some limits and checks on power. America, like many other countries made great progress throughout the 20th century, fulfilling many of the promises of the enlightenment age to move away from might towards fair and just. The age of reason set the stage for the public good, the general welfare and the concept of universal justice. These impulses grew slowly and unevenly and never truly matured, but somehow many societies began to consider helping everyone and limiting those who seek to accumulate all wealth and power.
It has been a great human project, extending beyond national borders. The post-war period brought prosperity to many, fostered human and civil rights, created institutions of global cooperation like the European Union, the United Nations. This age helped foster healthier societies across the planet. Human justice and dignity have made leaps forward. Abiding by the rule of law, by the justice system is a part of that. We should not stand against it lightly.
Ostensibly one could argue that a jury decided to free this young man and thus the decision stems from an enlightenment principle of respecting institutions created purposefully for the general welfare and to check power. Many of us feel conflicted, however. We feel the wrong in this decision even though we respect the law… the full acquittal of someone who kills people in cold blood doesn’t appear rational nor just.
These institutions allowed for an acquittal most of us know is wrong to be right. The decision is right according to a system of laws we as citizens abide by, therein lies our unsettled feeling, our inner conflict about the whole affair.What do we do about it? We do the work… we set out to make sense of it. The trial verdict needs to be seen and understood beyond the isolation of the moment. Where we find ourselves today is bad enough. The acquittal is framed by a country where children can hold weapons of war in their hands, a country that has unhinged private militias, a country that accepts the strange notion freedom is the right to do anything one wants, a country laden with white nationalism and theocracy and a country based on growing laissez-faire predatory capitalism. But there is also history. America is a country where might is right, despite great efforts and national myths, has always been alive and well. This history speaks to us and we must listen to it now, make it part of the moment. What the whole Rittenhouse affair shows us is that the long-drawn history of elite might in the human condition is alive and well. It shows us that the institutions humanity has put in place to check power and extend rights are flawed and faltering.
The Rittenhouse verdict is not surprising if one knows that the history of progress in America is framed with institutions of law siding with the mighty and their vigilante supporters. It is a history where young, hopeful people fighting for change are villainized, brutalized and killed in a systematic way. It is a history where this unjust treatment is seen as necessary and accepted by most. It is a history of murdered college students fighting for the end of a war at Kent State, of black Americans lynched for fighting for civil rights in Montgomery, or women marchers brutalized on the streets of Washington DC during the “Night of Terror.” It is a history of coal miners massacred trying to unionize on the dusty streets of small-town Pennsylvania.
Systems of justice have always catered to the original, American power base… what arose out of the Revolutionary war, full rights only for white, propertied men. It has always protected vigilantes taking up that cause, that is, self-appointed militias funded by ruthless billionaires and otherwise hired corporate guns. Right extremists have been given the privilege of murdering others under the guise of “law and order,” across the scope of history. These gun-wielding actors are the underbelly of “might is right” in America.
The sustained power of white, propertied males extends far beyond these shadowy institutions and groups. It flows into the legal system, into media, into education. Prior to the New Deal this alliance was not even questioned. Because of the growth of civil rights and social democracy after the last world war, the legal system reformed along with many other aspects of society to be of better service to all. Unjust power was checked to some degree for a while. In the Rittenhouse case, this network of power, from the deep shadows of small-town America to halls of justice, came together to free a young white man who, wielding an assault rifle, set himself against BLM protesters ostensibly to defend property rights.
We on the left face a great conundrum and this conundrum divides us deeply. It keeps us far more powerless than we could be to check this growing right-wing threat. On the one hand, we see the need to conform to the established institutions of our society that do try to fulfill the promise of the enlightenment. And because for a while it seemed to be doing so, most of us signed on, at least provisionally. On the other, we see the workings of the mighty within these same institutions that deny our goals of full human dignity and flourishing. We see that power growing.
The left splits along these lines, to work with the system and to stand against it. The way the left is reacting to this trial, the confusion we all feel arises from this cleavage. So do many other things that divide us, like for example corporate access to the political process. But times have changed…
The great moment that started after World War II has passed. We no longer live in an age of social progress, but one of backlash and the re-ascendancy of Christian, white, hetero-normative and male dominance. We must, in turn, challenge ourselves to rethink our beliefs and our political stances in this new, harsher and more brutal era. We must do so if we are to have any possible chance of beating back a reactionary backlash of great consequence, never mind fulfilling the goals of universal human flourishing and ecological sustainability.
“Might is right” is back in town in all its pomp and glory. America has departed the age of progress that began with FDR. The only way to deal with rising reactionary power is with our own left power. We must also be mighty and that too is part of this conundrum on the left, because power is by and large a dirty word for progressives. We look back and see that those with power abuse it, use it against the rest of us. We see that the post-war period was about checking the great power of the elites. We distrust power, and in turn shy away from it. This has been a terrible mistake.
Reimagining Left Activism
What is the lesson of the enlightenment when it comes to power? It is not to reject it, but to contain it. In fact, the lesson is to use power to contain power. It is to use judicious censorship to allow for a diversity of voices, for a democratization of free speech. It is to check the gross excesses of wealth so many more can live comfortable and safe lives. The democratization of power and of justice requires the power to check those who would take all for themselves.
The reformed post-war institution did a fair job of checking at least some of the power of the hard right. Electoral politics filled the role of all politics. Since this period is done and over with, the left must rediscover the use of street power and of discursive power. It must reestablish lost institutions of power, like unions. The existential truth is that we are not just facing a return to historical norms of oppression, we face extinction itself. A new strategy that focuses on power and outcomes is needed to fight against not only injustice but oblivion. That is the dire warning climate scientists and others are sounding.
We at the Radical Secular are working on a post-liberal framework that fits our times. There is more to come on this strategy which we will present soon…
At this point, the left is caught in a dysfunctional, ideological framework rooted in an America that no longer exists. The centrists work with the system (with corporations) and demand we all stick to electoral politics alone. The progressive wing pushes for more independence, demands big money out of politics and takes to the streets. Each side derides the other. This strategic tension prevents the left from achieving the power it needs. The lesson of the Rittenhouse trial is that we must abandon this false dichotomy about power, as either good or evil.
Clarity Of Vision is Rooted In Self-Knowledge
We must embrace all forms of power, and coalitions are job one. That means keeping our eyes on the prize. The “dirty” work we need most is ideological in nature. Leftists must take a pragmatic, utilitarian approach to power and that means we will need to figure out a way to come together despite minor ideological differences. All of this is going to require us to examine our own nature, our own human propensities to be abusive and self-serving. In other words, as we embrace power, we must also embrace the truth about ourselves.
Political beliefs are personal and bound by ego, self-identity. They are very prone to factionalism. Political work requires some form of introspection, not only an effort to learn about history, politics, geography, but also about our own internal workings as human beings. Honing tools for introspection is a project we at The Radical Secular are also pursuing… including secular meditation. Not just for better health but also for self-learning and awareness in order to be a better person and to be of service to the world.
It once again comes back to the trolley problem. Pull the lever and an ideological “wrong” occurs, but this “wrong” prevents a greater wrong, one that extends beyond ideology to real down-to-earth justice and survival. Some will never pull that lever (that includes both progressives and left-leaning centrists) believing a wrong is a wrong. For the hard left, let’s say, it is simply wrong on an ideological basis to work with corporations, for the center-left is it simply wrong on an ideological basis to work outside the established electoral framework.
The other trolley position, of course, is pulling the lever no matter the ideological sacrifice, believing that there is a greater good that is worth allowing for a lesser wrong. To pull that lever to best effect is to keep one’s eye on the goals and outcomes.
With the Rittenhouse case, I see the benefits of accepting the judgment of the court as a principle of good citizenship. On the other hand, I see the problem of simply accepting a legal system that arbitrarily sides with elite power, against those who seek universal justice. In the same way, I see the benefits of working with corporations, as they have great power to shape change. I also understand the need to fight against corporations preventing change.
Using ethics-based outcomes as a guide, I am willing to work with corporations when their objectives align with mine, and more importantly with forming an effective coalition. I know there is a downside to doing this, and yet that’s the lever I am willing to pull. Likewise, to abide by the decisions of institutions like the criminal justice system is a solid principle founded in civics, but I also know the process can go awry. In a similar way that a soldier can refuse the orders of his superior in certain ethical situations, this “always abide by the courts” principle is contingent on other, greater principles. I pull that lever, sacrifice an ethical rule in order to condemn a greater wrong that is bound by a long history of injustice, the Rittenhouse acquittal.
In other words, even though I generally believe in the rule of law, I reject the decision of the courts in this case. I base that on historical knowledge and the specifics of the case. In the same vein, I also believe it can be okay to work with corporations (including taking their money) when that yields a greater good. Yet I reject any effort that protects fossil fuels and do not believe any politician should take money from corporations associated with that industry or the financing of that industry.
Many people will balk at these positions because they will never be willing to pull that lever no matter how much the benefits outweigh the cost. “Never take money from a corporation” environmentalists, will reject the help of a solar company even though that company is leading to the same goals of a sustainable world. “Always follow the law” citizens will allow for the holocaust, for slavery, for a list of atrocities that stretches as far as history itself. None are willing to stand up against any of it, none are willing to pull that lever and “do a wrong” by breaking even an unjust law.
As someone who believes the courts should be respected, I am willing to let the trolley crush a rule of ethics. I stand against the Rittenhouse acquittal, yet I do not do this lightly. I know the importance of respecting such key institutions in civil society. But I also know the history of these legal proceedings. I know how they can go wrong as this one did. As someone who understands the nature of predatory capitalism, I stand against complicit corporations and advocate for democratic socialism. But I also understand the complex nature of the economy and the diversity among the corporate system and am willing to engage with it in order to pursue my greater goals.
My stance is nuanced and requires a great deal of work. Many will reject it simply for that reason, because it’s hard work, though they will rarely admit that, even to themselves. It is much easier to have hard set rules to follow… “Never work with corporations,” “always abide by the ruling of the court…” are no-brainers but only in the sense there is no need to think things through. Instead, taking the time to learn about history, clearly understand one’s objectives, and judge each case according to its own merits is hard work, emotionally and intellectually.
As a progressive, my outcomes are a sustainable world that enriches all with dignity and support. That is what guides me. These goals are what we all must think about when deciding to divert the trolley. That means being willing to do “dirty” work, when necessary, whether that “sin” means ignoring a set principle or working with questionable allies.
That “dirty work” means the willingness to sacrifice one’s rules of conduct and even one’s principles when protecting greater ones. It hurts but it is necessary. And in the end, one comes to realize, the pain was necessary for oneself as well as society. One realizes pulling the lever was not a sacrifice–but a moment of clarity about oneself.
It would be far better not to have any corporate money in the system, for example, and one way to do that is to refuse it, period. Refuse to support anyone that does. It’s a good idea, in theory. However, if taking corporate money helps protect women’s reproductive rights in the here and now, “ I pull the lever, allow my ideology to be crushed by the trolley, and protect women’s rights to their own bodies.
The clarity comes from understanding we don’t ever have full knowledge. My refusal to pull the lever is in the end based on my idea about the future, something perhaps precious to me that defines me. On the other hand, the history of what it was like for women before Roe-v-Wade is evidence-based, documented history. In true effect, who do I know will most definitely be hurt by my pulling the lever? Me. Who will be hurt if I don’t pull it, if I act to cede this one election for the sake of principle? All women.
We should all be willing to look within and question our own positions in this manner. Question why pulling the lever hurts. Is it truly for the betterment of society (the greatest goals) or is it our own beliefs, or perhaps our own reputation or character? That’s what we should think about when assessing this recent acquittal.
We have lots of work to do.