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The Riddle of the Barbaric: An Excerpt from Curtis White's The Barbaric Heart


Monday, August 31, 2009

By Curtis White

The following is the preface from The Barbaric Heart: Faith, Money, and the Crisis of Nature (PoliPointPress), by Curtis White, who will celebrate the book's launch with a reading and discussion at the STOP SMILING Storefront at 7 p.m. on Sept. 17, 2009. The event is free. 



My epigraph, taken from Edward Gibbon’s astonishing work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, is presented not so much as a key to this book as a riddle. The riddle of the barbaric. The barbaric is something that we want to place is over there, at a distance from whatever it is that we are, the non-barbaric. We want to think of barbarity as something that we have gone beyond. The “myth of progress,” as developed in the eighteenth century, argued that the barbaric was a stage in human development and that civilization had eclipsed it just as barbarity had eclipsed what was called the “naked savagery” of the hunter-gatherers. Gibbon, Adam Smith, David Hume, Montesquieu, and many others imagined that they lived in an era of civilized “commerce” (just as we imagine today that globalized economics discourages the return of the nationalist barbarities of the twentieth century).

And yet even now the barbaric does not feel to us as if it were “over there” or “back then” at all. In fact, it often seems to be at the heart of matters. As Gibbon makes clear, it is usually the barbaric itself that teaches us how to treat the barbarians. Hence the slaughter of the barbarian children or, as Andrew Sullivan first reported in 2007, the use by American interrogators of the same “enhanced interrogation techniques” (torture) that were employed by the Gestapo. Wrapped in senatorial garb, the barbaric actually dares to assume an ethical perspective (what I will in this work call the Barbaric Heart) in order to argue that the use of force is a necessity, a compulsion of “public safety” or “vital national interest.” Even Gibbon refuses to acknowledge what he sees so clearly: that violence against the vulnerable is the name of “public safety” is injustice.

The rhetorical task that confronts the Barbaric Heart is to persuade us that there are times when crime becomes a necessity. This is usually the job of politicians, the perennial flaks for barbaric purpose. The “virtue of necessity” is also the argument of Cold Warriors, who discover that in order to confront evil (fascism, communism, Baathism, the villainy du jour) they must become a little like it. Works as ancient as Aeschylus’ Oresteia and as modern as John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold have dramatized the dangers of such arguments. In the Oresteia, the ghastly Furies pursue and torment Orestes because he has slaughtered his own mother. Orestes claims that he killed her under the necessity of revenging the death of his father and under the direct instruction of the god of Reason, Apollo. But for the Furies the crime must remain a crime. You killed your mother.

Perhaps it has always been the job of the arts, of philosophy, and of religious spirit, all representing the moral imagination, to take the role of the Furies, in order to make sure that crime remains a crime, never mind what excuses they’re making over at the Ministry of Truth. Never mind what “valuable assets” are gained in the locked rooms of Guantánamo Bay where enemy combatants are interrogated. And, certainly, never mind what “compelling reasons of economic health” the economists provide (for instance, the “Carter doctrine” that the United States would use military force to secure the free flow of Middle Eastern oil).


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