The problem of violence, then, is not the problem of a few rioters and rebels, but the problem of a whole social structure which is outwardly ordered and respectable, and inwardly ridden by psychopathic obsessions and delusions.– Thomas Merton
When legitimate protesters are showered with contempt by those whose job it is to serve the community, humanity is insulted, but democracy especially; over time and with aggravating circumstances, contempt from police or other officials can lead to a tipping point. Zuccotti Park at that point was more nearly comparable to Tahrir Square than ever before. What demonstrators represented at Tahrir Square was the clear and unapologetic contempt for the ruling family (and its cronies) – for having richly deserved the aforementioned contempt.
The contempt in and of itself will usually be more relevant than the surrounding details, since it is contempt that makes the details legally and politically relevant. Hence the question: how did Mubarak and company become contemptible? The long view is that elitist factions have a special place in their heart for shows of superiority that are addictive and never grow old. They come to feel they genuinely deserve power and become true believers in their own bloated self-image, next to which the public is plainly backward, dependent and contemptible. After heaping and crepitating contempt ad nauseam it becomes apparent to thoughtful folk that the elitist culture is a time-honoured and loyally protected custom of managed and purposeful contempt. They also choose to forget that there is one principle of law universally valid from time immemorial: contempt breeds cold contempt, ultimately mixed with white anger, then rage – the recipe for a determined fight to the end. Regimes fall.
We owe it to the ancient Greeks to have first formulated in stark terms what Locke would later rephrase perhaps more elegantly. Failings at the top give due cause and reason to topple regimes. The concept of the tyrant, the likes of Solon and Peisistratus, was to the Greek mind the strong man with at least a hint of wisdom who could keep the peace in an angry and dangerous age, while issuing sufficient evidence of equity to allow society some room to expand and develop. But let a tyrant mistreat the implicit agreement, and there was little stomach from the sovereign to hold back contenders angling for the top prize. This was a process implicit in the de facto office in which celebrated persons found themselves and by which they must continue to earn respect lest the public vote them out in the plebiscite they called ostracism. Arab states have nurtured similar notions of rule up to the present day, only with a far greater reluctance to overthrow families who first legitimated themselves by overthrowing malignant despots and/or who might stay in power long enough to claim that they represent tradition – whence the necessity of, and dire need for, contempt should they become malignant in turn.
Contempt is the ultimate leveler. A not insignificant portion of English law is built squarely upon contempt. It started in all probability with straying cows. The fellow who came across a stray on his own pasture was thrust upon a de facto office not unlike the Greek forerunner. In that office he had the state’s grant of authority to take the cow into custody and feed and water it as he saw fit. His responsibility was to exercise care and diligence as against mistreatment, loss or, worse, conversion. Conversion meant what it implied, a converting of a benefit owed the legal owner into a benefit usurped by the finder. Conversion is also what turned a misdemeanor into a felony, and contempt is the reason why.
When the finder converted the stray cow to his own use he effectively broadcast a three-part message: 1) I don’t give a rat’s ass about the rights of the owner; 2) in fact I have better rights to that animal than he does, and 3) I couldn’t care less what the law says; the world can take a dump for all I care. Contempt of rights, contempt of stewardship, and contempt of law, all in one fell swoop, in a single act of conversion. What is more, it need never be proven in court because evidence of the fact was sufficient – prima facie – to grant the presumptions of contempt. From the time that Lord Coke reported this very case from Littleton’s notebooks, England’s comprehension of felony found its future home. Far and away more than any other cause of action at law, it is the one not on the law books or in the codes – the stewardship violation – that speaks to the widespread violence of contempt from those willing to abuse their offices, employees, patrons, clients, even the law itself.
To know a conversion when you see it, a prerequisite is to know how to identify contempt (not as easy as you might suppose). Thus in the shadow of 9/11, when New York City Mayor Giuliani publicly refused a substantial cheque from a well-positioned and well-heeled Arab, an Egyptian reporter called the Mayor a homosexual. The meaning here is that for them (if not us) a homosexual represents all that is wrong with honour and manhood; ergo, all that is against their culture and tradition. Simply put, it would be difficult to miss the profound contempt backing up this emblematic piece of rhetoric.
When Palestinians or Iranian leaders talk about shoving Israel anyplace, they are engaging in exaggeration intended to express profound contempt. Please understand something here. It only rarely is to be taken literally, and then only by buffoons. Honour-based societies are blitheringly reality-based and will avoid doing what they know will bring catastrophe on themselves even when harbouring a martyr complex. As evidenced in public interviews, what Ahmadinejad has always implied is, with variations in wording, “Pray tell how Israel merits preferential treatment; how they can presume themselves deserving of every petty privilege; that they might act with abandon, mindless of the contempt such acts can’t help but shower upon so many others, almost all of them innocent of any crime.” That’s it in a nutshell. Iran wants nuclear capacity to command honour and demonstrate ‘presence’, not to bring annihilation upon themselves.
It cannot be overstressed how necessary it is to understand the wellsprings and expressions of contempt. All the more so is it dangerous to remain ignorant of such knowledge in a dangerous world. Symbols, emblems, exaggerations and bald-faced lies are the chief ways of manifesting contempt. Conversion requires that the act expressing contempt must also injure a protectable interest. In old England a man’s house was his castle and within the ‘close’ his ‘peace’ was well-nigh inviolate, and likewise the assurance of peace to innocent visitors. Later the concept was extended to embrace the King’s Peace, announcing the Crown’s obligation to protect a citizen’s right of peace and security, especially in public forums. Breaching that peace was the actual origin of the felony, and expressed exactly the same concepts of conversion and contempt as in the earlier tradition regarding stray cows.
Which brings us back to Occupy Wall Street. We expect authorities to disrespect peaceful protest – in authoritarian, not democratic, regimes. Ah, but contempt is no respecter of system. Once it has become an ingrained culture of the one percent to contemn the ninety-nine percent, we have reason to expect the point at which contempt is greeted with the same. The tipping point will typically assume the form of conversion. Palestinians saw conversion written all over Sharon’s purposefully symbolic treading upon Temple Mount, whence the predictable Second Intifada. Of course, it was predicted only by those acquainted with the psychology and/or law of contempt and conversion (of which, unquestionably, both Palestinians and Israelis have both profound understanding and considerable experience).
Sometimes it requires nothing but the lesson of history-in-the-making to teach us what contempt and conversion really amount to. Occupy Wall Street recently witnessed events in Zuccotti Park that we may hope will prove genuinely heuristic. An extemporaneous five thousand volume public library must have come as something of a shock to aloof observers certain that those protesters were effete and feckless urchins upset at a plight they brought upon themselves. It served two purposes. Obviously it offered a leisurely way to while away time between events, meliorating the little inconveniences and boredoms in a long-term encampment. Secondly, it sent a message: ‘We aren’t silly or ignorant, and we know (perhaps because we read) precisely what you, the one percent, have done to our country. We know how and why you hold us in contempt. Oh, and by the way, we’re here for the long term.’
When New York City police were given the go-ahead to over-run the park, nothing was left to chance, and nothing that might deliver contempt was overlooked, whence a blatant attack on tents and books, property destruction entirely unnecessary in a removal. Led by the irredeemably supercilious Mayor Bloomberg, the city was sending its own message in return: 1) You disrespect all that is right with America; 2) Your show of intellect is a display of laziness and wanton disregard of true culture and true values; 3) Your presumptuousness in thinking you deserve to make a home here in public will not stand. It isn’t what assembly or freedom is about. It is what the jobless and feckless do when they haven’t met their responsibilities or lived up to reasonable expectations. This is elite-speak for ‘go home, get a job, stop complaining, and be content to let us remain content.’
From protecting peaceful protesters the police became the bullhorn of those wishing to advertise to the rest of the one percent the comforting thought that power does work, that it dependably supports the righteous against the unrighteous. The crackdown had much less to do with law and everything to do with the elitist religion that justifies unjust enrichment and cowboy capitalism, replete with an unwritten law to protect what the ninety-nine percent will never see but always suffer from. All opposition is to be treated very approximately as any Near-East potentate would, absent the live rounds (for the present at least). Today’s occupiers are yesterday’s blacks; the same elitist society complains today as it has always and everywhere complained.
More formally and legally phrased: at Zuccotti Park, on 15 November 2011, the one percent, owing a protection of the right to protest, knowingly converted that right to their own use, a bully pulpit promoting 1) hype that it’s okay to dictate – as law – narrow moral values and loose ethics; 2) aggressiveness aiming to assure those in need of quiet and conformity that might makes right, and 3) symbolism intended to reassure their moral compass in ways illustrating the true depth of contempt felt for the disreputable ninety-nine percent.
When Germans at the outskirts of Roman society got sufficiently disgruntled they took it out on the Roman schools responsible for corrupting their culture. Perhaps it is time to return to nativism and turn the tables, to be good Germans of ancient times and attack the one percent at its symbolic heart, namely, by turning contempt into massive uprisings with nonviolent nationwide strikes so magnificent as to strike fear into the vain, cold hearts of people who refuse to countenance their responsibilities to law and society. Regardless of the steps to be advocated, it is high time we fully appreciated the profound depth of the contempt in which we are held. It is time to disrupt the comforts of the one percent, who place their rarified needs at a premium – at the expense of law, decency and democracy. If war is what they really want, they shall have it, if not metaphorically, then…with a reminder of Merton.