Writing in 1982, the anthropologist Laura Betzig noted a parallel between two very-long-term trends in human societies.
The first trend is increasing inequality and hierarchy. Roughly speaking, early human societies evolved from relatively simple, egalitarian bands of hunters and gatherers, to more complex, hierarchical, unequal societies. Over time, as a general tendency, leaders, chiefs and kings emerged with ever stronger authority and powers.
The second trend is increasing injustice in dispute resolution — what Betzig called “asymmetry in the resolution of conflicts”. Roughly speaking, when there are disputes, they are resolved less and less on the merits of the case, and more and more on the power and wealth of the parties. The powerful tend increasingly to win disputes even if they are in the wrong. Asymmetric rules may develop: for instance, insulting a peasant has rarely had serious consequences, but not so with insulting the king.
Betzig found that these two trends (among others) are correlated. Those societies which are more hierarchical and unequal, tend also to be the ones with unjust dispute resolution. The more powerful the leader or chief or monarch, the more the strong prevail in disputes and the less the weak can expect justice.
Well, surprise, surprise, one might say. We do not exactly expect economic injustice or political authoritarianism to lead to legal justice — or any type of benevolence for that matter.
The details, nonetheless, are interesting. Betzig gives the example of the Tlingit, an indigenous society of North America, studied by the anthropologist Kalervo Oberg. In traditional Tlingit society,
If a man of low rank was caught stealing from another clan, they could kill him for it. If he was high in rank, his clan could settle with the other by a payment in goods. And if he was of very high rank, he was said to have been bewitched.
That’s right: if you’re sufficiently powerful, commit a crime, and it will automatically be assumed someone put a spell on you to make you do it.
This is *almost* the medieval doctrine of “The king can do no wrong”. In this case, the king *can* do wrong, but only when bewitched by someone else!
Furthermore, a powerful Tlingit criminal will not just be held innocent automatically. The hunt is on for the true culprit, who must have cast the spell!
A shamanistic performance was held over [the thief of very high rank] to discover the sorcerer who had forced him to steal in order to injure his position. The sorcerer when discovered was killed and the crime thus compensated
So when the king does wrong, not only is the king automatically not responsible, but an innocent person will automatically be sought out for punishment.
(As an aside, we might question the fairness of this representation of Tlingit culture. However for present purposes we take Betzig and Oberg at face value, and note that, however unjust this aspect of Tlingit culture may have been, the injustice pales in comparison with what we shall shortly discuss.)
Turning to “modern” societies, Betzig notes that the trends of increasing inequality and increasing injustice do not quite apply. Despotisms over much of the earth have been defeated by democracy, and struggles for economic equality have, in some cases, enjoyed success.
Turning to more recent history, economic inequality has rapidly advanced in the last few decades under the ideology of neoliberalism, and political inequality and authoritarianism has advanced under the guise of counterterrorism. And indeed, following Betzig’s correlations, the level of legal injustice has approached Tlingit levels.
Indeed, the US now surpasses it.
After all, in the Tlingit example, it was essentially a random innocent who was picked out by shamanism, to answer for the crimes of the powerful.
In the contemporary case, it is different.
When the modern king — that is, the State, and its force of arms, its military and intelligence agencies — does wrong, it is no small wrong. Torturing, invading and destroying countries on the scale of Iraq and Afghanistan, terrorizing and bombing civilian populations, traumatising whole populations into psychosis, declaring the whole world the battlefield — these are the epic wrongs in question.
We often say that nobody is punished for these crimes. That is not quite true. The US just meted out the first punishment for its torture policies, Tlingit-style.
As the State is “very high rank”, the punishment is not of the wrongdoers in the State. The Tlingit would have selected a scapegoat at random and declared “sorcerer!” But today, we select for punishment specifically on the basis of moral virtue and courage.
Whereas the Tlingit would have admitted the wrong done by the king, if not the king’s responsibility, we admit nothing. We return to the medieval doctrine that the king can do no wrong, with the cruel addendum that brave and good souls will be punished for the king’s non-existent wrong, in addition to the original victims of the non-existent wrong, which number in the millions.
Of course, this extra-cruel version of Tlingit justice is not exactly new: revolutionaries of all stripes have long known not only the punishment they face for demanding a better world, but also that their struggle for a good society would be presented by the powerful as wicked, evil, and depraved, and punished with prejudice. However, the scale of the crimes, and the unimpeachable virtue of the punished, have reached a new level.
John Kiriakou was involved in US torture policies — he blew the whistle on it. We admit no crime of the torture, but we do of the whistleblowing. The state therefore expurgates its sins by punishing those upholding their own conscience and international law.
Bradley Manning blew the whistle on the whole world — the machinations of the powerful, the webs of deceit, the lines of force that radiate from the most powerful States and envelop the world, condemning its unfortunates to poverty, exploitation and death.
Upon crimes of this scale being discovered, the Tlingit of Betzig’s example would have required vast expiation — punishment administered at random. But the shaman’s wrath no longer strikes at random; in defending the criminal, it now, rather more rationally, strikes at the good.
In the present day, the State also requires expiation. So the humble Bradley Manning has been targeted for his own form of torture and vicious punishment, and now awaits helplessly for its blows to strike.
Courage deserves punishment, and telling the truth is a crime: so says the State. Its crimes continue.