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Dec 29, 2005 2:45 am

Ten Worst ...

Yesterday, the BBC's History Magazine and the Independent published a list of the"10 Worst Britons" of the last 1000 years. It was drawn up by a group of historians and governed by the need to include one per century. For the most part, the choices seemed reasonable, though I'd certainly argue with the inclusion of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the 12th century.

The meme got picked up by bloggers here in the States as the 10 Worst Americans: at All Things Beautiful, The Argument Clinic, and Alas, A Blog. Particularly if you check the wingnuttery comments, their lists include Some Things Not So Beautiful: FDR, the savior of American capitalism, as one of its 10 Worst? Please. Some suggestions are even more batty than that. But, borrowing and building on some of their suggestions, here's my own list, in alphabetical order:

1. Jeffrey Amherst (1717-1797) takes the rap for his advocacy of genocide in the French and Indian War, though the story may be a little more complicated than that.
2. John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865), first of our major political assassins.
3. John C. Calhoun (1782-1850) saw no irony in being both the South's foremost defender of slavery and the nation's foremost defender of minority rights.
4. Henry Ford (1863-1947), whose routinizing of labor and sponsorship of The Protocals of the Elders of Zion brought misery (& pleasure) to untold millions of people.
5. J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) embodied federal police authority as a threat to civil liberty.
6. Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), the hero of volks democracy, had little respect for entrenched wealth, displaced and enslaved minorities, or the rights of states.
7. Rush Limbaugh (1951- ) represents a whole phalanx of commentators on the Radical Right.
8. Joseph R. McCarthy (1908-1957), whose irresponsible accusations gave his name to the fears of an era.
9. Herman Webster Mudgett, aka Dr. H. H. Holmes, (1861-1896), undoubtedly neither the first nor the last, but one of the most successful of America's serial killers.
10. Roger B. Taney (1777-1864), Andrew Jackson's legacy to the Supreme Court, held that African Americans could, by reason of race, not be citizens of the United States.

Feel free to offer substitutions or additions in comments. My list is all male, in part I suppose, because one element in judging"worst" would include an exercise of power. Nonetheless, I'd be interested in what lists of our female"worst" might look like.

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More Comments:

Sharon Howard - 1/2/2006

There's only one Maggie Thatcher...

Charles V. Mutschler - 12/30/2005

More moralistic comments, but no specific citations, Mr. Pettit. In case you don't understand what I am referenceing, I mean a citation such "Indian Religious Freedom Act, 92 STAT 469 (PL95-431)." Please provide appropriate citations to support your criminal charges against the men you've placed to your list, or admit that you are making a moral, and not legal case against them.

I am afraid that responses like yours do not answer the question asked, and make a very poor case for US participation in international law.


chris l pettit - 12/30/2005

Firstly, you make a mistake in taking a position that assumes that moral principles are not inherent in law...particularly international law and custom. For a nice rebuttal of that position (and legal positivism in general) you would do well to read Lon Fuller's rebuttal of HLA Hart's position in the Fuller/Hart debates. Now, as a caveat, Fuller bases his natural law in an existance of a higher being, which is highly problematic and rebuttable. However, through scientific inquiry, critical thought, sociological analysis, etc, one can make a definitive case that universal principles have arisen in the customary traditions of all religions, ethnic practices, etc, in similar forms. In terms of serious anthropological and sociological study, this is rarely quesitoned...what is studied is how the principles have been manipulated by power brokers.

Second, I need to remind you that international law, treaty based law, jus cogens, peremptory norms, and customary law are all applicable to US action internationally, and, for the most part, are all incorporated into US law as soon as they are ratified (treaties) by the Senate, we commit to progressively implement and are legally culpable for not implementing those treaties that are signed and not ratified, and law that is identified as customary (ironic since all law is customary...just because someone decided to write something down does not change its nature or import)...particularly jus cogens and peremptory norms is applicable in both national and international practice.

So we have...

Violations of the International Convention of Civil and Political Rights (ratified), the International Convention on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (signed, so progressive implementation and obligation to address most desperate situations), violations of the Vienna Law of Treaties, violations of the Geneva COnventions, violations of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, violations of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (yes, the US is the only country not to have signed and ratified, but it has become, due to its universal acceptance, customary law and jus cogens, meaning that the US is bound by its provisions regardless of whether it cares or not...thus is the nature of international law...just because a sovereign does not want ot accede does not mean that it is not legally culpable if the law in question is one dealing with jus cogens), violations of the laws governing the use of torture, violations of the treaties governing the use of chemical and biological weapons, violations of the legal standards regarding the state responsibility of governments for their state agents (which only have to be doing the work of the state and have adequate minimum contacts...there does not have to be a contract, or even state acknowledgment - see the Iran Contra affair and the Nicaragua case before the ICJ that caused the US to withdraw from the jurisdiction of the court since it did not fit their power bases), violations of the Non-Proliferation treaty, violation of the Genocide COnvention, violations of the customary law of war crimes and crimes against humanity, violations of the UN Charter, violations of the countless treaties and agreements detailing crimes against humanity...there are several others, and several cases from the ICJ, ICTY, ICTR, Inter-American Court of Human RIghts, European Court of Human Rights, African Court of Human and Peoples Rights, as well as US cases (regarding other nations of course...but also a couple against the US) that provide a blanket of legal precedent. I should add to that a variety of Security Council Resolutions regarding the activities of other States that are applicable to US actions (and historically look at the number of vetos utilized by the US to protect well as the fact that US is the ONLY country to ever veto a resolution censuring itself...which is what happened during the Nicaragua crisis).

All of the international law listed is applicable to the US and, according to the Constitution that everyone seems to love to quote and then proceed to disregard and rip apart, are part and parcel of US law...meaning national law, meaning by violating the international law, the perpetrators listed violate US law as well.

Moral outrage...absolutely not. Violation of question. However, as I noted above, law is not relevant in the US, political power, ideology, and rules are. Imposition of ideology by power brokers and those able to "enforce" rules is what masquerades as "law" and terms such as "law" and "rights" are paraded out to confuse and manipulate the ignorant and miseducated public...although I should also state that there are some well intentioned people in charge who simply have no clue what the heck they are talking about and are simply uneducated in legal terminology and theory (Dr Luker and his use of genocide as a term is a fine example).


Barry DeCicco - 12/29/2005

What fascinates me is the number of lists which include Martin Luther King. None of which (that I've seen) include any Confederate office-holder or officer. On the good side, those people do mark themselves as evil - not just political oppenents, but evil.

Charles V. Mutschler - 12/29/2005

Mr. Pettit, Would you care to list specific sections of the criminal codes which were violated by the folks on your list? Not moral outrage, but specific crimes that these men could be charged with. Personally, until you can show me the code sections you want to charge Truman, FDR or even TR with, and show that these were in force at the time the action you are accusing them took place, I don't think you have much of a legal case here.

I find the usual litany of complaints about Truman, FDR, McArthur, and so on to be charged with moral offenses, rather than violations of specific laws. Except, of course, the international law that you frequently base your arguments on. Again, do you want to share specific sections of some code that we can verify? And, I repeat, were these laws in force at the time? Or is this an essay in Presentism?

Thanks for reading.

chris l pettit - 12/29/2005

While McCarthy was despicable, what he did was not a whole lot different than what ideological supporters of Bush, Clinton, "academic freedom" et al are doing on both sides of the idiotic...oops I mean ideological spectrum currently. It has been a common ploy of the power elite throughout history. The theories of deviance and labelling theory demonstrate that these techniques is how power elites and "moral entrepreneurs" such as fundamentalist Christians, Islamic extremists, Pat Robertson, James Jones, Charles Manson, etc, derive the necessary fear and imposition of "otherness" or "evilness" necessary to increase their power and impose their ideological nonsense on a population...most often under either a "democratic" rhetoric (brainwashing enough people into abandoning their ability to reason and critically analyze to follow your ideology) or some sort of utilitarian "greater good" argument.

McCarthy is the same type as the Limbaugh's, Horowitz's, bin Laden's, Prabakaran's (read Sri Lankan history), Bush's, Dershowitz's, etc of the world in terms of propaganda and ideological manipulation. They all ruin lives...they all are worthless and indefensible when one chooses to use their ability to reason and critically analyze.

McCarthy does not make my list because he did not engage in violations of international law that resulted in the deaths and starvation of thousands. I guess you can make a case that in terms of jingoistic American history, he is as culpable as Limbaugh, etc, in the harm he has caused America...but I am choosing to look at things in terms of the harm caused by AMericans to the world and humanity, not narrowmindedly confining it to the harm caused to the artificial and unsustainable category that is "Americans."


chris l pettit - 12/29/2005

I see that my statement on the judiciary could be read as Scalia, et al, being part of truly knowledgable judges...they are ideologues and have no foundations in law in its universal sense whatsoever...they would not know law if it hit them in the face...they know ideology.

Law and rights are, by their very definition, universal. They survive on their own authority, and not because a power based group can enforce them. If something depends on enforcement, it is then simply the imposition of that particular ideology on a group and moves out of the rule of law to the rule of man...from laws to rules (or proscriptions). All law is customary...and there are general principles that are universal (called rights). The ideologues listed are nothing more than political hacks and manipulators of terminology. Their use of the terms "law" and "rights" are about as credible as Hitler's use of the term "peace."

By the last thing about the UK best list. How funny is it that a war criminal, bigot, ultra-nationalist, supporter of crimes against humanity and concentration camps, supporter of the butchering of Zulus and Boers, etc is their greatest Briton? I found that to be hilarious. In terms of international law, the rule of law, and human rights, Churchill should be one of the worst Britons. Funny how ideology and blind nationalism trump human reason, critical analysis, and universal values.


chris l pettit - 12/29/2005

is that they only killed in small numbers...psychologically, many of their profiles fit the profiles of some of the more successful CEOs...they just happened to be in a totally different social environment. My question would be, is it worse to knowingly starve or ruin the lives of thousands in the pursuit of such an idiocy as unfettered capitalism as the one responsible for the profit driven decisions...or is it worse to kill, at the most, a couple dozen. For those who answer that serial killing is worse before it is more "personal," I would highly recommend that you educate yourselves on criminological theory and criminal law. serial killers on my list.

In no particular order...and I realise I may be missing certain people.

1) Henry Kissinger - realpolitik, total disregard for the "rule of law" and human rights, responsible for the death and torture of hundreds of thousands at least, war criminal, responsible for crimes against humanity (including ethnic cleansing that many of you would want to call genocide if the term was applied to others) - power, rule of man, authority only with enforcement and legal positivism (meaning no law at all, only rules and the imposition of ideology) - just a nasty human being

2) J Edgar Hoover - for many of the reasons already listed and for being a huge part of the desecration of the COnstitution and the rule of law that has been the aim of both ideologically motivated sides of the political spectrum for many years

3) Harry Truman - I suppose you can include FDR on this list for the crimes against Japanese Americans and the war crimes of the US forces during WWII (still unprosecuted)...but Truman is guilty, at the least, of state responsibility for mass murder, and at the worst, of a type of ethnic cleansing for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki...both were crimes under international law (which i remind you exists to overcome your irrelevant ideological stances - and mine as well - to universally govern and ensure that no one can impose their ideology on others)

3) Alexander Hamilton - his is the oligarchical Amerika that we current find ourselves enslaved to...if many of Jefferson's ideas had been followed, we would have been a hell of a lot better off. We have Hamilton to thank for the lack of democracy, the power elites, the imposition of ideology, etc. His contributions to the Fedralist Papers would have been better off in some sort of monarchist court

4) Douglas MacArthur - in terms of international law, another war criminal - the Phillippines, Korea, etc...this guy should be reviled, not revered

5) Andrew Jackson - lets see...ethnic cleansing - check, untrammeled government - check, war criminal - check...

6) ROnald Reagan - starved millions, responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity all over Latin and South America, violated the Constitution and wiped his rear with it more times than can be counted, arms races, etc in violation of UN Treaties and international law, AIDS follies, destruction of social safety net, continuing Afghanistan (although Carter deserves credit for that atrocity)

7) Daddy Bush and Son Bush - Daddy for the first Gulf War and US illegalities, both for illegal usage of depleted uranium, son for doing more damage to the international legal framework than anyone since World War II in terms of international ramifications, son for the illegal Gulf War II, destruction of the Constitution, Dads involvement in Iran Contra and pardoning of the criminals involved, state terrorism in Haiti, illegal embargoes on can also include Cheney, Rumsfeld and the rest of the right wing nuts here - support for Israeli atrocities

8) Bill Clinton - illegal war in the Balkans and war crimes committed by NATO (mostly US and US puppet) forces in that intervention, paved the way for "pre emptive" war under Bush (illegal under international law), state terrorism in Sudan, Somalia, Haiti...illegal sanctions and no fly zones in Iraq...atrocities at Waco and Ruby for Israeli atrocities...abuse of Constitution, destruction of social safety net...and his pandering does not even factor here since it is irrelevant

9) Roger Taney - representative of all the ideologues on the Supreme Court and the paucity that the legal system of the US has become...there is no such thing as law in the US anymore, only politically absed ideology. The number of truly knowledgeable judges can be counted on a couple of hands. Scalia, THomas, Rehnquist, Bork, Fortas...they can all be included here. We should look to truly useful judiciaries, such as those in South Africa, the Phillippines, and India as examples on why we should tear down our current system and start anew. By the way...I dont want to hear any "how are those countries doing" arguments...since the legal prowess and authority in law of their decisions is quite different than the power decisions of the corrupt political ideologues that either overlook them or misapply the judgments. In the US we simply bypass the quality legal reasoning and go directly to the discarding of law in the name of ideology and power politics.

10) LBJ and Nixon - Vietnam, an illegal war, crimes against humanity, war crimes, atrocities in Laos and Cambodia, manipulation and destruction of the Constitution, etc

11) I guess I am going a dozen or so here - Teddy Roosevelt - ultra nationalist, chauvanist, war crimes and crimes against humanity in Cuba and the Phillippines, did more than any other to promote the bigoted fallacy of nationalism and patriotism than almost any other Prez...we are humans first...then we split into our unsustainable, artificial mythical hierarchies that cannot be either justified nor explained when closely examined from a critical perspective

12) hon mention - Jefferson Davis, Gen Sherman, and others responsible for the war crimes, concentration camps, crimes against humanity etc involved in the US Civil War

13) bakers dozen - Calhoun - but you can easily include Prez. Johnson, any prominent separate but equal supporters, and countless others who were pro-slavery as well...I just like Calhoun because he was the ultimate hypocrite...which is fitting given the hypocrisy inherent in many ideologically based positions taken in so many postings on this site...I also like the positions and fates of hypocrites in Dante's Inferno...something for the religiously minded among us to give some thought to

I like the inclusion of Amherst...what is interesting is that you are, as usual, applying a legal term with meaning to an act that, if you want to stand by your current stances on the topic, does not technically qualify as that term. I will again ask you to either cease to use genocide in an emotive sense...or deal with the legal consequences of your use of the term and actually get some consistency into your ideological arguments (an impossibility when dealing with ideology I know). For the record, legally, he was advocating genocide, and according to the contemporary legal meaning of the term, as well as its meaning in customary law, he would have been culpable for at least conspiracy to commit the use of the term was correct, even if you got lucky when using it.

To end, you could make a great case that a Walton, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford, Colt, Remington, Hollinger, Lay, or other profit driven psychopath deserves to be on the list (Ford is a nice inclusion due to his ZIonist tendencies)...but since that ignorance, ideological malfeasance, and individualistic selfishness without understanding that there would be no individuals without relationships and that the community is a totally separate entity from the individuals that inhabit it (as has been shown in science, critical thought, Buddhist science of the mind analysis...and expressed in principle in international law, which trumps ideology and national law in its import) seems to be the basis for so much of American thought on both sides of the ideological spectrum and within the academy (or is trying to be forced into the academy) is probably pretty hopeless trying to get through on that count.


Charles V. Mutschler - 12/29/2005

Technically, shouldn't Lord Amherst be removed from the list, since he remained a loyal British subject, rather than joining the rebels in forming the USA? If you need a "worst" from the revolutionary time period, General Benedict Arnold seems better qualified for your list of the ten worst Americans. I'd let the British add Lord Amherst to their list of the ten worst, but I don't think he qualifies here.

An interesting list, though.

Paul Noonan - 12/28/2005

My favorite summation of the career of Henry Ford is that by beginning the mass production of the automobile and sponsoring the publication of THE PROTOCOLS OF THE ELDERS OF ZION he managed to pollute both the air and the mind of America.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/28/2005

Steve, Your reasoning is what caused me to add "(and pleasure)" to what I said. I'd hate to speculate about what pleasures The Protocals brought to how many people. OTOH, if you've recently done routinized manual labor, as I have, you know that, however much convenience it offers large numbers of people, it is a misery to those who must function in that capacity.

Steven Horwitz - 12/28/2005

Well Ralph, I certainly can't argue with Ford's anti-Semitism, but the upside of his changing the nature of industrial production needs to be factored in here. "Fordism," whatever its real costs in the workplace, made possible cheap, mass produced goods which enhanced the well-being of millions, including the very same folks who worked the line.

The progressive cheapening of life's basics is one of the most heartening facts of the 20th century, contributing as it did to improvements in the lives of people world-wide, and Ford certainly deserves credit for his contributions to that process. Whatever his sins, the fact that there is such a positive there, in my view, should exclude him from your list.