A Response to Professor Terry Aladjem’s comments regarding my review of THE CULTURE OF VENGEANCE AND THE FATE OF AMERICAN JUSTICE

by Terry Kenneth Aladjem. New York: Cambridge University Press, 266pp. Cloth $85.00/ £45.00. 9780521886246. Paper $26.99/£16.99. ISBN: 9780521713863.

Reviewer’s Reply: Whitley Kaufman, University of Massachusetts Lowell. Email: whitley_kaufman [at] uml.edu.


(Editor’s note: The following is a response to a comment on a recently published review. LPBR welcomes such comments and invites submissions to the editor.)

I welcome the opportunity to engage Professor Aladjem in a debate about his thesis that liberalism suffers from an internal contradiction in its failure to confront the vengeful impulses. I am sorry that he feels that I have “not seriously engaged” or “miscast” his arguments. However, I see nothing in his reply to my review that leads me to believe I have misunderstood or mischaracterized his position. Here I will briefly recapitulate my two central criticisms of his thesis. After that, it is up to the reader to decide whether liberalism suffers from the deep incoherence that Aladjem claims to have discovered.

My first objection to Aladjem’s account is that he provides a one-sided and even caricatured depiction of the vengeful impulses, according to which they are always and necessarily extreme, irrational, indiscriminate, arrogant, and self-deceptive. Moreover, Aladjem fails to engage (or even mention) the philosophical tradition with its source in Aristotle according to which retaliation can and should be moderate, measured, and rational. Indeed, a substantial contemporary literature exists, which Aladjem does not mention, defending a moderate and balanced form of vengeance. I am thus perplexed that Austin Sarat could call this either a “sympathetic” or “nuanced” treatment of vengeance. Nor do I see any serious argument for the claim that vengeance is always an attempt to “reverse the effect of an injury on life and time.” Some cases of revenge may (irrationally) want to do so, but why should we believe that vengeance always and necessarily is this way? Aladjem ignores the more traditional interpretation of vengeance, found in Nietzsche and in many other places, that the goal of revenge is not to undo the past, but to restore one’s honor. Nor is this latter goal an irrational attempt to reverse the past.

My second objection is that Aladjem’s central thesis does not seem to fit the facts. The “culture of vengeance” that is his concern – the rise of an extremely harsh punitive system, vengeful outbursts in response to 9/11, and the like – are all issues that are essentially unique to America. Yet the book is devoted to a critique not of the American system, but of the liberal tradition in general as failing to handle the problem of revenge; Aladjem’s rhetoric throughout is aimed specifically at “liberalism,” rather than at, say, the American version of liberalism. And [*400] most of the liberal philosophers he cites are Europeans, not Americans; even in his reply, he criticizes “liberal philosophy from Kant to Bentham, and Hegel to Mill” – all Europeans. But this is puzzling, since European liberalism has not seen the rise of a culture of vengeance in the way that America has. Indeed, based on the evidence, one might well conclude that liberal democracies have handled the vengeful impulses impressively well, and it is only America that has not. Thus it would seem that the book should be focused not on what is wrong with liberalism, but what is wrong with the uniquely American approach to liberalism. (Nor is it even clear why Aladjem finds the root of the trouble in liberalism, rather than, say, in America’s failure to live up to the liberal tradition.) The central problem, it seems to me, is why America has diverged so radically from the rest of the world’s liberal democracies. I do not claim to know the answer to this question. But I am not convinced by Aladjem’s claim that the problem can be traced to the “logic of democratic necessity” (whatever that means). Aladjem claims that the “secularism” of America might explain why it has gone this different route. But this cannot be correct, since Europe has become far more secularized than America, and on his theory should thus be more vengeful, not less. Aladjem also suggests it might be the “justice of equity” in America that explains the difference. I do not know what “justice of equity” means, nor why this is something distinct from liberal democracy (aren’t justice and equity, both for race and gender, essential components of liberalism?). Again, I see no evidence that other liberal democracies lack “justice of equity,” in which case this explanation will not work. But the deeper problem, to reiterate, is that the argument of the entire book is framed not at the American version of liberalism, but at liberalism in general as it developed from the European tradition: even in his reply, Aladjem indicates the problem is one “endemic to liberal theories of punishment” and a “dilemma for democracy.” In that case, why have the vast majority of the world’s liberal democracies not experienced the rise of the “culture of vengeance” that we have seen in America? But at this point we will leave it to the reader to decide for herself on the merits of Aladjem’s thesis.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Whitley Kaufman.