Catholic Guilt, Mortification, and Transvaluation in the Case of the Milwaukee Fourteen
Christopher Oldenburg, Illinois College
In 1968 the Milwaukee Fourteen, members of the Catholic Anti-Vietnam War Movement, removed approximately ten-thousand draft files from a Selective Service Office and burned them with home-made napalm in a nearby park before awaiting arrest. Employing the Burkean concepts of categorical guilt, mortification and transvaluation as a framework from which to analyze the Milwaukee Fourteen’s “statement” and the resistive act itself, this essay troubles the general understanding of mortification as simply extirpating one’s guilt by self-victimage. Rather the Milwaukee Fourteen mortify themselves for the disordered transgressions of a culture. Their sacrificial purification results in a form of hybrid victimage with the ultimate goal of transvaluing the moral order of the Vietnam War era.
The fire burned at base of a flagpole in a small downtown Milwaukee park. With arms locked in solidarity, fourteen men stood in a single line; they awaited arrest and peacefully entered police patrol wagons. As reported by the Milwaukee Sentinel on September 24, 1968, fourteen me—comprised of five priests, a protestant minister, and Catholic laity—raided a Milwaukee Selective Service Office. They seized approximately ten thousand 1-A draft files and burned them with homemade napalm in an adjacent park dedicated to America’s war heroes. Before anyone could to make sense of what occurred, all fourteen peaceful demonstrators were demonized by the Milwaukee Sentinel as “war foes,” and charged with “burglary, arson to property (other than a building) and criminal damage to property” (Patrinos 7).
In a statement to the Milwaukee Journal, Senator Robert W. Warren, Republican candidate for attorney general described the event as “brazen anarchy” (Kirkhorn 2). Framing the event this way, the Senator converted civil, Christian-inspired dissent into “anarchy.” The false dichotomy of “with us or against us” was not far behind. Lamenting that the reconstruction of Wisconsin draft files would be long and costly, Lt. General Lewis Hershey, national selective service director, said “people have the right to oppose the Vietnam war, but I don’t think it’s doing service to give aid to the enemy by showing such disunity here” (Kirkhorn 2). The Milwaukee Fourteen’s bail was set at $415,000. They were tried and sentenced to two years in prison.
While much scholarship has been produced on anti-war protests and social movements of the Vietnam era, the purpose of this essay is to understand the Milwaukee 14’s resistance from a Burkean perspective. Through an analysis of both “The Milwaukee Fourteen Statement” and the public act of resistance itself, I argue the case of the M-14 is of particular interest for Burkean scholarship because it demonstrates how categorical guilt is managed with both blame and complicity through what I call hybrid victimage. The M-14 mortified themselves by the “cleansing fire” of burning draft files for which they were arrested, but their victimage ritual simultaneously included serving as scapegoat for the larger American public guilt. Such hybrid instances are absent from the Burkean literature on vicitmage and its variants. My study aims to fill this gap. More examples and analyses of hybrid victimage will better help Burkeans understand the complexity, contingency, and interdependence of sacrificial variants in ethico-melodramas. I intend to illustrate how the M-14’s hybrid victimage can function as a socially purposive political trope, another means of coping with the misguided instruments of our own making whereby symbol users need not have to choose between the all-or-nothing extremes of dogma and skepticism that imperil war and democracy. I would suggest that hybrid victimage is a concept that Burke himself would endorse due to its affinity with his “both/and” view of the symbolic “Scramble,” his pursuit to purify war, and his mindful dedication to the pedagogy of language.
A full understanding of the M-14’s blending of purgation devices requires a brief review of those Burkean scholars who have theorized alterative peace building and guilt relieving strategies. Robert Ivie, for example, underscores Burke’s point that self-mortification is not a default response to guilt. Ivie notes that calling “for a redeeming act of self-mortification by a nation accustomed to condemning scapegoats, asking in effect that it purge itself of savagery without the benefit of the principle of substitution” fails to engender peace (“Metaphor” 178). As a corrective to the ritual of redemptive violence via trigger-happy scapegoating, Ivie calls for rites of reconciliation with the main rite being making enemies less evil and more human (“Fighting” 236). Margret Calvin, in an examination of William Sloane Coffin’s language of peace, suggests the scapegoat function can be replaced by “mutual mortification leading towards a mutual confession” between adversaries (288). Calvin acknowledges that sacrifice is still part of this process “with mortification requiring a death of self, the collective self” (290). But Calvin does not specify who represents the collective self. It is plausible that a mortifying representative from the guilty collective could in fact also serve as a scapegoat.
Offering the idea of hybrid victimage troubles the dichotomy of scapegoating and mortification and thus extends the Burkean applications of these previous studies. The M-14’s brand of hybrid victimage is another rehumanizing rite that purifies the guilt created by war culture in two significant ways. First, the case of the M-14 accounts for Ivie’s assertion that the political language of demonization and national blame alone are insufficient in changing the order of war. Consequently, the M-14 conflates the two variants of victimage. By standing in as sacrificial scapegoats, the M-14 simultaneously exorcise their own guilt and the guilt of their culture. Their burning of draft files and arrest were non-violent and saved lives. Secondly, beyond attenuating guilt through a mutual, confessional “language” of peace as Calvin suggests, the M-14’s hybrid victimage centered on a radical, positive act of bearing witness. Their resistance was a sacrificial drama with deep symbolic meanings that focused on transvaluing the disordered practices of a war culture. My examination of the Milwaukee Fourteen’s resistive drama therefore focuses on the Burkean concepts of categorical guilt, mortification and transvaluation.
Order is a decisive notion in Burke’s dramatistic theory of human relations. Given that symbol users are “inventors of the negative” (LSA 9) language generates orders, hierarchies, and bureaucracies that goad individuals towards perfection. To the extent that verbal acts construct orders and establish proprieties, they engender guilt. Categorical guilt is an initial and necessary precondition of Burke’s cycle of terms implicit in the concept of order. Burke writes of the steps in history that join order and sacrifice, “Order Leads to Guilt…Guilt needs Redemption…Redemption needs a Redeemer (which is to say, a Victim!)” (RR 4-5). Since falling short in the glorious pursuit of entelechy is endemic to the symbol-using animal, guilt is a condition that abides. Burke writes in The Rhetoric of Religion “as there is guilt intrinsic to the social order, it would not in itself be ‘actual,’ but would be analogous to ‘original sin’ an offense somehow done ‘in principle’” (224; PC 290). Here Burke draws an apt parallel between the logological and theological conceptions of guilt. Burke insists that it is important to note the tautological nature of Order. “[W]e may say either that the idea of Disorder is implicit in the idea of Order, or that the idea of Order is implicit in the idea of Disorder” (RR 182). Based on this observation, how might the sacrificial variants engendered by the guilt of such Order and Disorder be purified? It is no accident that Burke defines mortification as “a systematic way of saying no to Disorder, or obediently saying yes to Order” (190). What we witness with the M-14 is a party mortifying themselves for failing to say “no” to disorder and serving as scapegoat for others who and fail to say “yes” to a moral order.
Following Burke’s cycle, “‘guilt’ intrinsic to hierarchal order…calls correspondingly for ‘redemption” through victimage” (PC 284). The purgative sacrifice may be completed by two main salvation devices: scapegoating, “a sacrificial receptacle for the ritual unburdening of one’s sins” (PC 16); and mortification, whereby castigation for one’s sins is self-enforced or self-inflicted which Burke places on the “suicidal” ambit of human motives (RR 208). William Rueckert’s Kenneth Burke and the Drama of Human Relations, provides a narrow distinction between the two salvation devices:
The essential difference between victimage and mortification is that the first always directly involves some other person, place, or thing; always calls for ritualistic transference of pollution to the chosen vessel…In mortification, however, even in its most extreme form of suicide…nothing outside the person involved needs to be polluted or destroyed in order for purification to take place….Generally, then, to make others suffer for our sins is victimage; to make ourselves suffer for our sins is mortification. (146-147)
Barry Brummett notes that mortification “involves open confession of one’s ‘sins’ and actual or symbolic punishment of them” (256). Here an opportunity arises to problematize Rueckert and Brummett’s emphasis on the narrow, autotelic understanding of mortification as “making ourselves suffer for our sins.” But Brummett and Rueckert do not consider the possibility that the ritual of mortification could be enacted for the sake of redeeming the sins of an external group or culture in the form of a self-scapegoat.
In“A Dramatistic View of Language,” Burke does stress the significance of “self” as both the source and telos for mortification; it functions as Rueckert’s paraphrase of Burke suggests as the “self-inflicted punishment for one’s self-imposed, self-enforced denials and restrictions” (Drama 146). For Burke, mortification “does not occur when one is merely ‘frustrated’ by some external interference. It must come from within. The mortified must, with one aspect of himself, be saying no to another aspect of himself” (RR 190). However, mortification is not limited simply to self-punishment. Later in The Rhetoric of Religion, Burke acknowledges mortification’s wider social utility as “basic to the pattern of governance” (RR 200), the Biblical equivalent to Mosaic Law (“THOU SHALL NOTS”). Burke also notes mortification’s martyrdom function. “Martyrdom is the idea of total voluntary self-sacrifice enacted in a grave cause before a perfect (absolute) witness. It is the fulfillment of the principle of mortification, suicidally directed, with the self as scapegoat” (248). This martyrdom function of self-scapegoating can be socially purposive and uncover politically corrective possibilities for guilt. Burke writes, “mortification…can be developed by conscientious priesthoods who would transform the negatives of guilty trespass into a corresponding regimen of ‘positive’ athleticism” (“Dramatistic” 264). Mortification is not merely an efficient self-atoning device but can be a political trope for changing the status quo. To use mortification in this politically active manner, agents must enact an imaginative strategy where “taking one for the team,” a positive athletic form of martyrdom, attempts to achieve a moral victory by altering the game itself.
C. Allen Carter comes close to this strain of mortification when he writes in Kenneth Burke and the Scapegoat Process that mortification involves the secret yearning in people “to be the one whose sacrifice saves the group. Who would not secretly revere the one who behaves heroically in the face of punishment or death at the hands of the authorities?” (19). In accordance with Burke’s cycle, sacrificial motives are driven by a range of partisan and hierarchic estrangements, order/disorder, right/wrong, etc. Every act of victimage, mortification, or some hybrid version is an effort to transvalue the flouted piety incurred by these divisions.
The lesser known, but highly relevant, Burkean concept of transvaluation plays a critical role in redemptive dramas and social orders. In Attitudes Towards History,Burke defines transvaluations as “new attitudes” and remarks that attitudes are synonymous with values (381-382). In Permanence and Change,Burke characterizes the process of transvaluation “whereby the signs of poverty were reinterpreted as the signs of wealth, the signs of hunger as the signs of fullness, and present weeping was characterized unmistakably as the first symptom of subsequent delight” (155). One rhetorical goal of transvaluation is the conversion of attitudes and orders. Sacrifices, self-inflicted or otherwise, are performative rituals enacted for transformative purposes. Virgins are sacrificed to end droughts; baptisms (the symbolic death to self) are conducted to remove original sin. Burke’s conception of transvaluation is another corrective means of “pious yet sportive fearfulness” (“Poetic” 63) that the symbol user can take up to cope with the “ultimate disease of cooperation” (RM 22).
The Milwaukee Fourteen: Catholic Guilt and the Improprieties of Property
In her book Divine Disobedience, Francine Gray provides some historical context and insight into the motives of the M-14. The Catholic Church’s apathy towards the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement prompted the Milwaukee Fourteen to employ an act of radical civil disobedience, one in a series of actions by the little known Catholic Anti-War Movement in the United States. These Catholic activists worked with related organizations such as Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam (CLCV) and Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker. The incursion on the Milwaukee Selective Service Office was the third destructive act of resistance following similar episodes earlier that year. In Baltimore, four activists poured blood on draft files. In Catonsville, led by the infamous Berrigan brothers, nine opponents to the war in Vietnam ransacked the draft headquarters there and burned 1-A draft files with home-made napalm. Unlike the members of SNCC and SDS, who were not going to be drafted anyway, the Catholic anti-war movement carried out their resistance away from the insulated college campus and into the public sphere. The Milwaukee Fourteen, all draft-exempt themselves, confronted the administrative instruments of war directly. Disillusioned with the unraveling of America’s social, economic, political, and moral fabric, these Catholic activists resolved that concrete action was the only option left. Resistive communities like the M-14 held “since politics weren’t working anyway, one had to find an act beyond politics: a religious act, a liturgical act, an act of witness” (Gray 57).
The M-14’s direct confrontation and destruction of property was viewed by the general public as a secular transgression. Yet, for the M-14 it was only a small part in a broader “catholic guilt” that motivated them to self-victimage in the first place. Both meanings of “catholic,” both “Roman Catholic” and “universal,” apply to this situation. Many of the members of the M-14 were Catholic priests, brothers, and laity who were motivated to burn draft files out of their own sense of guilt. And for Burke, guilt is an essential motive in human communication and is therefore catholic. James Forest, one the Fourteen, concisely characterized the general sense of cultural indifference, soft, hands-off dissent, and catholic guilt by drawing analogy to a Peanuts comic strip:
It [soft-dissent] is not unlike the Peanuts cartoon in which Linus, a grim SDS sort of expression on his face, marches forward with a placard in his hands proclaiming: HELP STAMP OUT THINGS THAT NEED STAMPING OUT! But following along a few paces to the rear was Snoopy, a drowsy, clerical expression on his face. He, too, is carrying a sign: (THIS ANNOUNCEMENT IS VOID WHERE PROHIBITED BY LAW). Many of us considered the war in Vietnam, the draft, racism, and poverty intolerable. We didn’t hesitate to say Amen to Linus’s sign. But we marched behind Snoopy. (2)
A close analysis of “The Milwaukee Fourteen Statement” can be read as a confession of “categorical guilt.” Such guilt prescribed purification though social and moral change and redirected readers’ attention to the discourse surrounding the M-14’s own motives for action as they are described in the introduction of the Statement:
Generation after generation religious values have summoned men to undertake the works of mercy and peace. In times of crisis these values have further required men to cry out in protest against institutions and systems destructive of man and his immense potential. We declare today that we are one with that history of mercy and protest. In destroying with napalm part of our nation’s bureaucratic machinery of conscription we declare that service of life no longer provides any options other than positive concrete action against what can only be called the American way of death: a way of death which gives property a greater value than life, a way of death sustained not by invitation and hope but by coercion and fear. (3)
As the statement suggests, the categorical guilt of the M-14 stems from an unconscious acceptance of the actions of political authorities, in which “positive concrete action” is the only remaining corrective. Refusing to act renders one complicit in “giving property greater value” and sustaining the “American way of death.” “The American way of death” was employed as an ironic, subversive phrase with the intention to awaken the American people and inspire more resistive communities. That particular way of death can be understood as another articulation of Burke’s “socialization of losses.” Burke explains, “the most normal mode of expiation is that of socialization (the “socialization of losses”). […] And the patriot may slay for his country, his act being exonerated by the justice of serving his group.” (PLF 50-51). “The socialization of losses” in the context of the Vietnam War could very well be synonymous with “the American way of death” precisely because it illustrates other symbolic related pathologies, i.e. “trained incapacity” and “occupational psychosis” (PC 7, 37) from which collective America suffers.
This kind of desensitizing doxa allows for the violence of war to persist because its dehumanizing effects are remote, not seen or discussed in public. Stephen Brown observes the challenges of confronting and transforming violence rhetorically are difficult to surmount because violence is a potent force that silences, dulls the moral imagination, and eliminates the capacity for resistance (159). Quiescence to the violence of war is socialized under the mytho-poetic banners of “duty,” “service,” and “protecting our freedoms.” More sophisticated strategic ambiguity and double-speak employed by the military to describe events in Vietnam have been captured in such familiar phrases as “pacification,” “neutralization,” and General Westmoreland infamous, “destroying the village to save the village.” It is resistance communities like the M-14 who seek to transfigure such criminal complacency and call attention to systematic distortions of communication. Such an example is the M-14’s own rhetorical revolution evident in the ironic inversion of “the American way of life.”
Moreover, the “genesis” of their moral culpability also centers on acquiescing for far too long to the indifference of ecclesiastical authority. At the risk of being lumped in with those apathetic religious leaders who Martin Luther King indicted for “remain[ing] silent behind the anesthetizing security of stain glass windows” (“Letter” 52), the M-14’s repudiation of Church authorities was necessary for redemption. According to the M-14, their shame also derives from being part of a fractured order. They believed that certain practices such as “killing is disorder, [and] life and gentleness, and community and unselfishness is the only order we recognize” (2). For the sake of bringing about that benevolent order, the group was willing to mortify themselves if it meant purifying the disorder of war and saving even a small amount of human lives.
The M-14’s categorical guilt and motivation for resistance is clearly articulated. “We confess we were not easily awakened to the need for such action as we carry out today. In order for communities of resistance to come into being, millions of America’s sons were torn from family, friends, health, sanity and often life itself” (3). The aforementioned passage illustrates the magnitude of the M-14’s own transgressions. First, they admit the lag in their own enlightenment. Secondly, more significantly, they confess that their own existence as a community of resistance was called forth by immense suffering and loss of life. Thus, as they state later in the pamphlet: “For a growing number of us, the problem is no longer that of grasping what is happening. […] Ours is rather a problem of courage. We wish to offer our lives and futures to blockade, absorb and transform the violence and madness which our society has come to personify” (3). In articulating this disruptive desire to shift a nation’s moral conscience and exorcise their own categorical guilt, it becomes clear to the M-14 that abstract hopes and inert political talk has failed. What are needed are sacrificial acts of witness; however, the acts must to be public, profoundly symbolic, transvaluative and purify by a new brand of sacrifice. Federal property would become the target of this concrete action.
While the M-14’s guilt stemmed from indifference and inaction, they were also deeply troubled by America’s obsession with property. A simple cluster analysis of the Milwaukee Fourteen Statement associates property with: evil, slavery, the instruments of torture and human holocaust. Several examples of this “what goes with what” exercise include: “Today we destroy Selective Service System files because men need to be reminded that property is not sacred”; “So property is repeatedly made enemy of life: gas ovens in Germany, concentration camps in Russia, occupational tanks in Czechoslovakia, pieces of paper in draft offices, slum holdings, factories of death, machines, germs, and nerve gas”; and finally, “Some property has no right to exist” (3-4). However even deeper analysis reveals the role that destroying Federal property played in both the M-14’s micro rhetorical strategies and their grander sacrificial resistance. Property was described using mechanistic imagery, most notably in reference to the draft system as the “bureaucratic machinery of conscription.”
Beyond the materialistic bourgeois sense of property, the M-14 were more interested in eradicating a particular kind of property, that which is given “a greater value than life.” The “bureaucratic machinery of conscription” is one such a type of property. The purposeful use of this mechanistic imagery in describing what the M-14 destroyed functions rhetorically in two important ways. Mechanistic imagery further articulates the pathology of institutions and bureaucracies like the Department of Defense and Selective Service Offices who hold a view of the world as a set of objects preserved by systematic, unconscious, and naturalized practices and behaviors, what British cultural studies theoretician Raymond Williams calls “mechanical materialism” (96). From this perspective, what must stop this apparatus of enslavement is destructive friction. In short, framing the administrative injustices of the military industrial complex in mechanical terms allows for the possibility of breakdown or more pointedly, sabotage—the proverbial “monkey-wrenching.”
Closely related to the idea of property is the thought that categorical guilt is a byproduct of constructed hierarchies of values. As Burke informs us in Permanence and Change that the etymological propinquity of property and propriety is no accident (212). Here the principles of hierarchy allow for the symbol-using animal to place and be placed in positions of moralizing status. “[T]o the extent that a social structure becomes differentiated, with privileges to some that are denied to others, there are the conditions for a kind of ‘built in’ pride. King and peasant are ‘mysteries’ to each other. Those ‘Up’ are guilty of not being ‘Down,’ those ‘Down’ are certainly guilty of not being ‘Up’” (LSA 15). The bounded reciprocity between property and propriety therefore sets up variations of social regulation on who’s in and who’s out, who is guilty and who is innocent. This is precisely the problem the Catholic Anti-War Movement has with property. That is to say, America values property over people; it rejects secular and spiritual norms and therefore establishes why purification is needed.
Fr. David Kirk, a proponent of the Catholic Anti-War Movement declared, “We must depropertize, renounce the material of power. She [the Church] must divest Herself of property to return to the spiritual roots of the Gospel” (qtd. in Gray 25). Brother David Darst, a Christian Brother from Memphis, Tennessee, and the youngest member of the Catonsville Nine, condemned the deleterious effects of privileging property over people at his own trial. Darst, using Jesus’ actions as an analogue, vindicates the radical destruction of property:
The non-violent tradition of our religion has always drawn the line between people and things. It said that material things are for the use of people, but that people are sacred, they are absolute ends in themselves, they can never be used as means. Jesus Christ beat the moneychangers and threw over their tables because these were properties which were desecrating a more sacred property—the Church. Our point is that we’re destroying property which is desecrating the most sacred property—life. Was Jesus Christ guilty of assault and battery? (qtd. in Gray 179)
In short, through America’s quest to accumulate material property, rapacious capitalism has reified human beings. Phil Berrigan, a member of the Catonsville Nine, quipped, “One thing that Americans do understand is the destruction of property! Think of how much more upset the average parent is when his kid smashes the family car into a tree than when he receives an induction notice” (qtd. in Gray 151).
Thus burning draft files served two interrelated functions in the larger goal of reconfiguring the moral order. First, those individuals whose draft files were destroyed were ensured of not being drafted in what was perceived by many as an unjust war. Such an act of destruction was ironically lifesaving. Secondly, perhaps even more important, burning draft files was the impetus for ensuring the M-14’s mortification. As stated the M-14’s scapegoating of the Selective Service was an incomplete sacrifice. For if scapegoating the supreme example of property—the Selective Service—would have exculpated the sins of the Milwaukee Fourteen, then why stand around and wait to be arrested? A defining feature of the sacrificial deed, which marks the M-14’s act as mortification, is the protest notion of “stand around.” Contrary to other alternative tactics such as “hit and run,” after burning the draft files the M-14 simply awaited arrest. Their sabotage was grounded in “the nonviolent mystique that the presence of the man awaiting arrest, sacrificing his freedom to witness to his moral indignation, is an ingredient that transforms sabotage into a religious act” (Gray 2). Along with this shift from sabotage to act of witness, the M-14’s hybrid-victimage becomes clear. They state: “We have no illusions regarding the consequences of our action. To make visible another community of resistance and to better explain our action, we have chosen to act publicly and to accept the consequences. But we pay the price, if not gladly, at least with profound hope” (3). Here, the mortified are transvalued into more than an instance of self-atonement, but, rather, are offered up as a scapegoat for the collective guilt of a culture with the “profound hope” of transcending the disorder of war. In sum, Burke’s guilt-purification-redemption cycle is not always tidy; internal machinations occur. The M-14 was willing to stand in as scapegoat and be mortified by incarceration, however, in order for them to ensure mortification, it was necessary to locate an antecedent material scapegoat (the Selective Service, a penultimate synecdoche for property).
Transvaluation and Mortification: Salvation, Condemnation, and Atonement
Having established the M-14’s guilt and the role property played in the redemptive drama, let us now continue with an analysis of the ways in which the M-14 reappropriated the instruments of war for peaceful purposes, culminating in an act of martyrdom that transvalued mortification into a self-scapegoat. Just as the justification and public support for war necessitates a strategic choreography of attitudes, so, too, does resistance to the tribal war waltz require the “dancing” of new attitudes (PLF 9). But new attitudes are often side stepped or dubbed disgraceful by older orders with recalcitrant values. How can one rhetorically refresh the moral imaginative of older, static orders? One answer is through transvaluation. It follows that the attainment of a new moral order insistent on a conversion of hearts only has hope of taking hold to the extent that the old order undergoes significant rhetorical transformations.1 The M-14’s acts of destroying property did more than simply render the group consubstantial, scapegoat the Selective Service, or set in motion the cyclical elements of redemption; they also saved lives through nonviolent transvaluations.
The M-14’s symbolic conversions rely on changing the perceived meaning of terms and contexts used by the old order. Such refining by redefining is similar to Burke’s concept of “exorcism by misnomer” (PC 133). Burke explains “[o]ne casts out demons by a vocabulary of conversion, by an incongruous naming, by calling them the very thing in all the world they are not” (133). The M-14’s name is itself an exorcism of the more familiar meaning of the M-14, an automatic rifle with a 20-round magazine, more efficient than the 8-round weapon used in World War II and Korea. One protest poster offered this ironic slogan “The M-14, a soldier’s best friend.” Thus, the proverbial sword is turned into the plowshare. But the M-14 had other significations, as well: the number fourteen indicated an increasing momentum and potency of the movement, containing more members than those of antecedent groups—the Baltimore four, and the Catonsville nine.
In addition to transvaluing the meaning of the M-14 machine gun, the scene where the draft files were burned and the M-14 awaited arrest also undergoes a symbolic reformation.2 The draft files were strategically burned with homemade napalm in a nearby park that memorialized America’s war heroes. It goes without saying that a nation’s commemoration of its war dead is an archetypal and rhetorical aesthetic form. But as Burke would remind us, such a form is not only “a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality” (LSA 45). Under a different scheme of hierarchical and cultural values, at different times in history, involving different wars, it is possible to interpret commemoration as condemnation.
However, this translation from commemoration to condemnation is more easily understood when juxtaposed by competing symbolic forms. The choice of the war memorial is intended to produce a radical rethinking of the exploits involved in what those monuments represent. Honor becomes horror, and we are reminded that both “victim and executioner have been trapped in the same dragnet of death” (MFS 3).It is also important to note that it is at this park where the M-14 themselves are arrested. From the perspective of a religious drama, the Milwaukee memorial park may be transvalued into the Garden of Gethsemane through Burke’s idea of secular conversions. “It [conversion] effects its cures by providing a new perspective that dissolves the system of pieties lying at the roots of the patient’s sorrows…offering a fresh terminology of motives” (PC 125). Scholars of rhetoric have observed discourse’s ability to reinforce the conversion process.3 The M-14’s own religious piety is consubstantiated by the symbolic conversion of the situation. The act of their willing arrest converts a secular green space into the locus of their Lord’s sacred Passion. Just as Jesus refrained from resistance upon his arrest by Roman centurions, giving himself up freely; so, too, did the Milwaukee Fourteen accept the consequences of their actions. In doing so, they invited the American public to view their mortification as a resistive act having larger sacrificial purpose.
Finally, there is the repeated allusion to Napalm, which the M-14 used both rhetorically and extra-rhetorically in their act of resistance.4 Symbolic destruction of institutional property and the burning of documents rest on mythic, biblical and historical precedent. Harvey Cox, a Harvard theologian, compared the acts of the radical Catholic anti-draft movement to several other such religious acts, including:
Jeremiah destroying the clay pots on the steps of the Temple; to William Lloyd Garrison’s public burnings of the Constitution in protest against slavery; to Martin Luther’s burning of Cannon Law in front of the University of Wittenberg.... Catholic priests have a special task of carrying out sacrificial acts which lead to redemption. (qtd. in Gray 163)
Before elucidating how the extra-rhetorical use of napalm functions as incipient redemption and corroborates the hybrid victimage thesis, let me explain the rhetorical ways in which the M-14 reconstitute napalm. First, they plainly state, “we use napalm and strike at the draft as a point of continuity in the nonviolent struggle recently carried forward in Maryland” (2). This genuflection to the Catonsville nine, who also burned draft files with napalm, sears the bands together, thereby sustaining and propelling the Catholic anti-draft movement. Secondly, apart from the simple thought that “if it worked once, it will work again,” they use napalm metaphorically. “Indeed Napalm is the inevitable fruit our national un-conscious, the signs of our numbness to life” (2). This metaphor operates on two levels. First, as an all-consuming weapon of mass destruction, napalm is compared to the collective complacency that has subsumed the Catholic Church and the larger American public. While the comparison to “the inevitable fruit,” may appear anachronistic, it becomes analogous to the forbidden fruit of the Garden Eden in the book of Genesis when conjoined with the possessive pronoun our preceding “national un-conscience” and “numbness.” When they eat this fruit under the temptation that it will make them godlike, they directly disobey God’s commandment and thereby instantiate humanity with our “original sin.” Likewise, in the U.S. military’s ubiquitous and arbitrary use of napalm it attempts to be god-like, raining fire down on our enemies, the godless Communists of Vietnam.
Another example present in the opening section of the pamphlet informs readers of precisely why the M-14 chooses to use napalm. In burning government property the M-14 turns the very instrument of war on itself. This transposing of napalm gets close to a more elaborate symbolism. Recall that in order for the M-14’s or any group’s redemption there must first be a purgatory ritual. It has become clear that what the M-14 desires to purify is not the simple machinery of war, but the ideology promulgated by it. It is an ideology that sees “devotion to property take ever greater precedence over devotion to life” (MFS 4). The expiation of guilt, the rejection of the hierarchical position that America has placed on death over life and the guilt by association that complacency produces requires a purification ritual. Joseph Gusfield, in the introduction of Kenneth Burke On Symbols and Society observes, “Rituals, dramatic enactments, provide us with visible symbols in which hierarchy is built up and in which rejection is atoned for (33). Thus, a more expanded understanding of the M-14’s transvaluation of napalm requires the knowledge of liturgical ritual. As the M-14 prepared the altar for sacrifice, as it were, these “suffering servants” burned draft files in order to enact the final rite of mortification.
Most importantly, through mortification by incarceration, the M-14 publicly forge a moral reordering. Although the symbol of fire in most religions has liturgical resonance signifying refinement, purity, or vengeance, for the M-14 it is the light of new life brought about by a holocaust, the “purgatorial fire,” the “ritual cleanser” (SM 97). The draft files functions as a synecdoche representing the larger institution of war and all the guilt and disorder associated with it while destroying the draft files functions as a scapegoat device and not as an act of mortification alone. Since new covenants require the central agents of fire and sacrifice, napalm is transvalued into the fire that creates a new non-violent moral vision with the sacrifice occurring in the arrest and imprisonment of the M-14. While potential draftees’ lives were saved by the protest pyre, the sacrificial act is not complete without self-victimage. Here Burke’s more nuanced definition of mortification as “scrupulous and deliberate clamping of limitation upon the self” (qtd. in Burke, PC 289) aligns most appropriately with the redemptive drama of the M-14. The M-14’s meticulously planned and public act of burning Federal property and subsequent incarceration, the “clamping” of handcuffs, the “limitation” of space, and restrictions of freedoms were all expected and accepted consequences. These self-impositions, the symbolic death of one’s liberties, thereby constitute a form of mortification. The M-14’s hybrid victimage becomes the ultimate act of transvaluation whereby one becomes the object of sacrifice themselves.
The purpose of this paper has been to challenge the narrowly defined concept of mortification by analyzing an act of resistance that illustrates how categorical guilt can be purified through a blend of mortification and scapegoating. The M-14’s actions were not those of mere anarchists or saboteurs, but those of “secular sinners.” The M-14 mortified themselves for the disordered transgressions (most notable the Vietnam War, racism, sexism, poverty, and exploitative capitalism) of a culture. Crucial to this sacrificial drama is that the Selective Service be marked as scapegoat. However, because the M-14 saw themselves complicit with the larger socio-political sins of the Vietnam era, stealing and destroying draft files from the Selective Service did not to purify their guilt outright. It only became a subsequent sin, a necessary catalyst for their mortification by incarceration. Ultimately, the M-14’s brand of hybrid victimage managed both individual and collective guilt and, most importantly, saved human lives through peaceful, nonviolent resistance.
* Dr. Christopher J. Oldenburg is Assistant Professor of Communication and Rhetorical Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- For an excellent analysis of how a new order (albeit an odious one) is achieved by distorting the symbols of another see Kenneth Burke, “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle” in The Philosophy of Literary Form.
- In focusing on the scene or site of the resistive act of destroying draft files, I do so for the purposes of demonstrating the concept of transvaluation and mortification. While I acknowledge the scene is arguably the most prominent element of Burke’s dramatistic pentad, it is not my intention to analyze the scene from that framework.
- See E.E. White. Puritan Rhetoric: The Issue of Emotion in Religion. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. 1972.
- For Burke’s own poetic reflections on the Vietnam War and napalm, see, Collected Poems 1915-1967, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968, 290-291.
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"Redemptive Resistance through Hybrid Victimage: Catholic Guilt, Mortification, and Transvaluation in the Case of the Milwaukee Fourteen" by Christopher Oldenburg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.