Ends and Means in the New Year

by , December 31, 2006

I happened to hear an old country classic today that somehow got me thinking about the New Year: Charlie Daniels "The Devil went down to Georgia." Here are the lyrics:

The devil went down to Georgia
He was looking for a soul to steal
And he was in a bind
‘Cause he was way behind
And was willin’ to make a deal.

When he came upon this young man playing 
a fiddle and playin’ it hot
the devil jumped up on a hickory
stump and said,
“Boy let me tell you what:

I bet you didn’t know it
but I’m a fiddle player too,
And if you care to take a dare
I’ll make a bet with you 
Now you play a pretty good fiddle boy
But give the devil his due
I’ll bet a fiddle of gold against your soul
‘Cause I think I’m better than you.

The boy said, “My name’s Johnny
And it might be a sin
But I’ll take your bet, your gonna regret
‘Cause I’m the best that’s ever been.”

Johnny you rosin up your bow and play your 
fiddle hard ‘Cause hell’s broke loose in Georgia
And the devil deals the cards
And if you win you get this shiny fiddle made of gold
But if you lose the devil gets your soul.

The devil opened up his case and he said,
“I’ll start this show.”
And fire flew from his fingertips

As he rosined up his bow
And he pulled the bow across the strings
And it made an evil hiss
Then a band of demons joined in
And it sounded something like this

When the devil finished Johnny said,
“Well you’re pretty good ol’ son!
But sit down in that chair right there
And let me show you how it’s done!”

Fire on the mountain, run boys run
Devil’s in the house of the rising sun
Chickens in the breadpan, picking out dough
Granny does your dog bite? No, child, no

The devil bowed his head
Because he knew that he’d been beat,
And he laid that golden fiddle
On the ground at Johnny’s feet
Johnny said, “Devil, just come on back
if you ever wanna try again.
I done told you once,
You son-of-a-bitch,
I’m the best that’s ever been!”

He played:
Fire on the mountain, run boys run
Devil’s in the house of the rising sun
Chickens in the breadpan, picking out dough
Granny does your dog bite? No, child, no.

With its fancy-sounding fiddle music – elementary by virtuoso standards, as I’m sure Charlie Daniels would acknowledge but plenty nifty – this is a lovable song. And the sentiment is lovable. Everybody would like to think they can beat the devil.

There’s just a hint of trouble when Johnny says "it might be a sin" that may deserve a little more consideration. If I understand most brands of Christianity, while the devil might have lost this encounter, he shouldn’t feel too badly. In fact, at the end of the song we might well imagine the devil saying something like (pardon me for not rhyming):

"Well you beat me fair and square this time young fella. But you’re a braggart and a show-off with an inflated sense of your own worth. You think you don’t need any outside help when you run up against evil in person. If you live your life this way, mark my words. You’re mine, boy, you’re mine."

If there’s justice or karma possible in this world or the next, those who act inappropriately will pay the price eventually. It may be that the widespread belief in a hereafter is encouraged by people observing that payback doesn’t always happen in this life and it is helpful to believe it is likely in the next.

ENDS AND MEANS

All this is another way of saying that the relationship many perceive between ends and means misses the point. We debate and speculate endlessly, we hominids, about whether, when or where the ends can justify the means. If the desired end is valuable or desirable or high-minded enough, is it all right to use dubious or even evil methods and means to arrive at a desirable destination?

I first ran across a systematic discussion of why these are not appropriate questions to ask years ago in an essay by Aldous Huxley in a book I loaned to somebody and never got back. In most human activities – though the causal chain may be difficult to perceive – the means determine the ends. No matter how worthy your end, if you use unworthy means you are unlikely to get there. Violence begets violence and violent means will lead to a violent end. Hatred begets hatred. Coercion begets tyranny, and on and on.

We can see the general rule working in Iraq. Assume that President Bush’s motives in launching the war on Iraq were noble, having to do with eliminating what he perceived as a serious potential threat and a terrible ruler. The means he chose to achieve the noble goal involved unprovoked aggression on a sovereign state. Using such means led to consequences, some predictable, some not, and we have the chaos we see now. Violent means led to a violent end.

Even if the subliminal goal all along was installing democracy, the latest justification for the aggression, you don’t get to democracy by using violent methods and top-down coercion. Democracy with a chance to last bubbles up from the bottom and is accompanied by important attributes of a civil society, such as a rule of law that applies to rulers as well as ruled, a capacity for compromise, a shared culture of openness, and important institutions like private property and a relatively free marketplace, all defined and described in whatever terms are congenial to the country and culture in question. These can’t be forced on people from the top down. You don’t get to democracy with the means the administration chose to employ, even if they are applied competently and well, which in this case they weren’t.

The means determine the end.

MORE OF THE SAME

We may have reason to remember this elementary lesson all too often during the year to come. Despite the results of the November election, despite public opinion polls, despite the vaunted Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group, the administration seems poised to give us more of the same in Iraq, possibly accompanied by a "surge" of as many as 20,000 additional U.S. troops. We will be reminded again and again that although fighting a war will someday get us to the end of that war, it’s not the way to get to peace.

You don’t get to peace by fighting or escalating a war. You get to peace by employing peaceful means. Using those means may not guarantee peace in the short run or medium run. But employing warlike means is guaranteed to fail.

PERSUASION OR COERCION

For those of us who believe in human liberty as well as peace, this can be frustrating. Our only – well, maybe not only but surely most – legitimate means for moving toward a freer society are peaceful means like persuasion and reminding people of the consequences of employing coercive or violent means. Sometimes we want to beat some particularly obtuse or stubborn or powerful person over the head to drum home the folly of their ways or the fallacy of their thinking. But we have to stick to non-violent, non-coercive means if our goal is really moving toward more freedom.

So we talk, talk, talk and write, write, write. We can organize peaceful protests or other events to dramatize our desires, but if we employ violence or coercion, we will end up with a more violent and/or coercive society. Either the authorities will crack down, or in the unlikely event we foment a revolution it is likely to be dominated by people who think little of using violence once they have a little real power.

I resolve to try to persuade more skillfully in the coming year. Since I have a young son able to do such things, I now have a Web site – www.AlanBock.com – with a blog that I add to daily, sometimes exhaustingly. I hope you’ll visit and feel free to leave comments.

May we all be more effective at finding suitable means for building a more peaceful world in 2007. Happy New Year!

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