October 09, 2006

The Politics of Lies: Suffer the Children

There is a good deal else that would not exist without "poisonous pedagogy." It would be inconceivable, for example, for politicians mouthing empty cliches to attain the highest positions of power by democratic means. But since voters, who as children would normally have been capable of seeing through these cliches with the aid of their feelings, were specifically forbidden to do so in their early years, they lose this ability as adults. The capacity to experience the strong feelings of childhood and puberty (which are so often stifled by child-rearing methods, beatings, or even drugs) could provide the individual with an important means of orientation with which he or she could easily determine whether politicians are speaking from genuine experience or are merely parroting time-worn platitudes for the sake of manipulating voters. Our whole system of raising and educating children provides the power-hungry with a ready-made railway network they can use to reach the destination of their choice. They need only push the buttons that parents and educators have already installed.

Crippling ties to certain norms, terminology, and labels can also be clearly observed in the case of many thoroughly honorable people who become passionately engaged in political struggle. For them, political struggle is inseparably associated with party, organization, or ideology. Since the ominous threat child-rearing practices pose to peace and survival has always remained hidden, ideologies have not yet been able to perceive this situation or, if they do perceive it, to develop intellectual weapons against this knowledge. As far as I know, not a single ideology has "appropriated" the truth of the overriding importance of our early conditioning to be obedient and dependent and to suppress our feelings, along with the consequences of this conditioning. That is understandable, for it probably would mean the end of the ideology in question and the beginning of awareness. Accordingly, many ideologues who consider themselves politically active are like people who, if a fire breaks out, would open the windows to try to let out the billowing smoke (perhaps contenting themselves with abstract theories about the fire's origin) and blithely ignore the flames leaping up nearby.
Alice Miller, Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Society's Betrayal of the Child, excerpted in my essay, "The Limits of Politics."
Nothing is as repellently nauseating as one of America's drearily predictable nervous breakdowns whenever our national discussion focuses on a story that relates in any significant way to sex. We saw the dynamics involved revealed in all their stomach-churning ugliness during the Clinton-Lewinsky saga, and we see it all again in the Foley scandal.

The treatment of the Foley story by our media and our leading politicians carries all the hallmarks of these regular collective paroxysms, which can only be described as neurotic in the extreme. Moreover, and which makes these discussions still more sickening, is that they are conducted in the manner one might expect from a remarkably immature frat boy. Our entire culture rests upon a foundation that views sex as inherently corrupt, and even evil. The frat boy internalizes all of these negative messages -- and yet he is inexorably and compulsively drawn to sex as an overpowering source of forbidden pleasure. It is this neverending battle between these opposed forces that leads to spectacles such as the one occasioned by a brief glimpse of Janet Jackson's naked breast a few years ago.

Many of the greatest artists in history have celebrated the naked human form as one of immense beauty, a form to be adored and even worshipped. But our culture today will have none of this celebration of sexual pleasure -- a celebration that rests upon an innocence that refuses to believe that unimaginable pleasure is coextensive with sin. At the same time almost all our leading commentators condemned that momentary glimpse of breast as "smutty" and "filthy" -- and just as our politicians enthusiastically enacted increasingly punitive measures to prevent such "corruption" of our national life -- Americans throughout the land were compulsively viewing the Jackson video over and over again. When it comes to sex, we as a nation act like the stereotypical teenage boy who takes great and repeated pleasure in the pictures in Playboy -- and who quickly shoves the magazine under the mattress when he hears his mother's footsteps ascending the stairs. The boy and his mother both know that sexual awakening is natural and inevitable. In a profoundly different culture, the first experiences of sexual pleasure might be joyfully welcomed and discussed openly, in terms of what it means for the child and his future, particularly as a crucial source of future happiness. In our culture, it is a shameful, dirty secret, and a subject never to be acknowledged frankly and honestly.

Make no mistake: almost every single one of you reading this has internalized, at least to some extent, the indefensible notion that sex is sinful and corrupt. And your problem is not James Dobson or Jerry Falwell, or even much less extreme religious leaders of today. Your problem is Augustine, and his reinterpretation of Genesis. I will analyze the overwhelming significance of this intellectual tradition in more detail soon. For the moment, consider these excerpts from Jamake Highwater's Myth and Sexuality, from the chapter entitled, "The Body as Sin":
By and large, Christians borrowed only the negative elements of Judaic sexual mores, and gradually devised what is arguably the most sex-negative tradition of world history. In fact, men and women who converted to Christianity often adapted attitudes about sexuality that were considered bizarre by their families and friends. It is curious that the attitudes about sexuality arising from so-called Judeo-Christian origins are now considered to be both normal and obvious, despite the fact that in early Christian times attitudes such as the disapproval of divorce and polygamy and the approval of chastity and nonreproductive marriage would have been viewed as quite abnormal.


The influence of the Gnostics on the Church was more subversive than political, contributing an enduring element of dissent in ecclesiastical matters. Their position on intellectual freedom, however, was largely replaced by an emphasis upon spiritual freedom, a concept which provided moral support during the difficult years when Christians were political subversives in he then-pagan world of Rome. Then gradually, during the third and fourth centuries, the Christian movement gained power throughout Roman society. With this shift in their political situation, the insistence upon freedom of choice was no longer a viable cause for Christians. The emperor had given them that freedom. The world had invaded the church and the church the world. How was Christianity to deal with the worldliness of its Church, in which a bishop now provided many civic rewards, such as tax exemption, increased income, social power, and even influence at court?

To use Foucault's term, the "politics of truth" had drastically changed. The Romans were no longer the instruments of Christian suffering, no longer providing them with the emotional basis for their acceptance of denial, self-sacrifice and martyrdom. The world of the senses was becoming less corrupting than the world of power, luxury, and wealth. To resolve these contradictions, some of the most ardent Christians decided that the renunciation of the world through elective poverty and celibacy must become essential elements in their search for spiritual freedom. Thus, the vast changes in the political life of the Church had a fundamental impact on Christian ideologies. For nearly four hundred years Christians had regarded the supreme significance of Adam's disobedience and his subsequent suffering as a testament of freedom. For many tribes and nations subjugated by Rome, that stance had been a powerful incentive to be converted to Christianity. The embrace of freedom was a great comfort to the politically brutalized subjects of the Roman Empire who were converts to the new faith. It had given Christians motivation to become members of a dissident church and the courage to endure the punishment that resulted from such membership. Then, with the emergence of Augustine as the major force in Christianized Rome, this frame of mind suddenly changed.

In the late fourth century, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, was living in an entirely different political world from his Church predecessors. Christianity was no longer a dissident sect but the state religion of Rome. Christians were now free to follow their faith and were officially encouraged to do so. Such a drastic transformation of the social circumstance of Christians required yet another revision of the reading of Genesis. It was Augustine who undertook this new interpretatioin of Adam and Eve, resulting in a viewpoint vastly different from the majority of his Jewish and Christian predecessors. As [Elaine] Pagels notes, what had been read as a tale of the right to quest for human freedom now became an Augustinian story of human bondage. Hitherto, most Jews and Christians had understood from Genesis that God gave humankind the right of moral freedom, and that Adam had misused it and thereby brought death and pain into the world. Augustine, however, was not content with the travails of such an interpretation, and he went a good deal further. He contended that Adam's sin not only caused our mortality but also corrupted our sexuality. If these notions contradicted the notorious sexual conduct of Rome, they indrectly sanctioned the limitations placed on the political freedom of Romanized Christians, a forfeiture that the followers of Jesus paid to Rome for its sanction of religious freedom. It was Augustine who reread Genesis to fit the limitations of Christian freedom within the Roman world. He observed that Adam's sin had not only made sex irreversibly corrupt, but it also cost us our free will, rendering us incapable of genuine political freedom. "Augustine's theory of original sin offered an analysis of human nature that became, for better or worse, the heritage of all subsequent generations of Western Christians and the major influence on their psychological and political thinking." (Pagels)
The references to Elaine Pagels are to her book, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, which I urge you to read. I will be returning to several of her themes. Here, I want to emphasize two crucial ideas. The first is that sex is "irreversibly corrupt." As I have indicated, this deeply destructive notion has become embedded in our cultural traditions, and you can witness its horrific effects everywhere in our world today. You can also see its effects in the manner in which the Foley scandal is discussed, and in how similar scandals have unfolded in the past. I will analyze some of its manifestations in the treatment of the Foley story soon.

The other idea is also one of considerable moment. Many people believe that there is a final, "revealed" truth. Although we most commonly encounter this idea in religious discussions, there is an equally significant secularized version of this notion. I have discussed one particular secular variation in my essays about the "Idea of Progress." Because this notion undergirds the interventionist foreign policy that is embraced by politicians at all points in our political spectrum, it is of especially critical importance. But the crucial point is this: what is viewed as revealed, final truth is largely the result of the political and cultural realities of a particular time. As those realities shift, so too does the "truth." The evolution of accepted, "approved" Christian doctrine demonstrates this kind of shift very clearly, as Pagels analyzes in detail, but it has occurred and continues to occur with many other ideas, as well.

I will discuss additional aspects of the Foley story in subsequent essays. For now, I want to focus on one particular aspect of how this story is unfolding. I find the following so deeply sickening that I have been unable to write about it until now. It is one of the most hypocritical, ignorant, and destructive displays I have ever witnessed. I keep thinking that our political life cannot possibly become still more debased -- and events continue to prove me wrong. But this particular instance of political hypocrisy and phony posturing truly sets new records for abomination.

There is one group of human beings that has almost no representation in our political life. It is a constituency that is left entirely unprotected. It is abused and brutalized in the most horrifying ways. What makes the horror almost ungraspable in its immensity is that this group is entirely defenseless: it is the weakest and most easily abused and manipulated group of all. That group, of course, is children, including very young adults.

To the extent that Mark Foley sought to manipulate and control the young adults over whom he exercised power and influence, he committed a grievous wrong. He is to be utterly condemned. We can say many things about the forces that impelled Foley to act as he did, and those same forces lead too many others to act in similar ways. I will address some of those factors later. But we can easily identify two critical aspects of his behavior: first, Foley sought to use the young adults for his own pleasure and to his own ends, in complete disregard of their own persons and their own emerging sense of identity, including their sexual identity; and second, Foley's exercise of power and his humiliation of these young adults represents his reenactment and his revenge for related humiliations of him in his own past. This is not to say that I necessarily give credence to the convenient excuses now offered for Foley's conduct, including the contention that he himself was sexually abused by a priest when he was a teenager. But Foley was undoubtedly abused and humiliated in some manner, unless one believes that certain people are born to commit grave wrong, or even evil. I do not believe that, and I am aware of no evidence from any field to suggest that it is so.

That Foley was certainly abused himself should come as no surprise: it is, in fact, inevitable. Most of us have been abused as children, physically and/or emotionally, although we exert endless energy to deny this obvious and overwhelming truth. Our culture accepts such abuse routinely. Worse than this, we believe that abuse is necessary and required -- "for the child's own good." In very rare instances, the effects of such abuse are surfaced and defused before they become destructive. For the most part, adults refuse to acknowledge the truth of their own pasts, and then proceed to reenact the abuse in their own lives. The easiest of their victims are the most defenseless: children, both their own and others'.

I have recounted the Democrats' complete failure to fight the Bush administration on any issue that matters; I will not repeat that litany of shame and cowardice here. But let us try to be clear about the political stakes here. There are only two overriding reasons to install Democratic majorities in the House and Senate: to undo the unspeakable horror of the Military Commissions Act, and to prevent (if possible) the coming attack on Iran. Even if they had majorities in both houses, I consider it impossible that the Democrats would do either. (See this NYT article for a discussion of how unforgivably modest the Democrats' aims are most likely to be. And if you want to see how the Democrats are likely to act with regard to Iran, especially given the overriding concern with the 2008 elections, read this truly terrifying article about what a Hillary Clinton could very easily do: "The tragedy that followed Hillary Clinton's bombing of Iran in 2009." And not one prominent Democrat disagrees with the foreign policy views that would lead Clinton to launch World War III.)

The record proves that the Democrats have opposed Bush on nothing of consequence; nor will they do so in the next two years. But fate handed them a very large club with which to pummel their nominal opponents about the head and shoulders: the Foley scandal. Just like genuine Neanderthals, the Democrats eagerly seized that club, and they hypocritically and dishonestly use it to beat the Republicans to a hopefully bloody pulp. By such means, the Democrats hope to ascend to power once again. Thus, we have Howard Dean proclaiming that Republican leaders "didn't stand up for our children and do the right thing." We have Democrats capitalizing on this scandal by deploying ads like this one:
Majority Watch, a Democratic-backed independent campaign committee, is airing radio ads in Reynolds' home district:

"Another scandal in Washington, and our congressman, Tom Reynolds, is right in the middle," the ad's narrator states. "Reynolds knew of the problem months ago, but he failed to act aggressively to protect the kids. ... Reynolds not only failed to act - he actually urged the Florida congressman to run for office again, possibly putting more kids at risk."
We have Dick Durbin's spokesman -- Durbin, who is most notable for speaking a critically important truth and then completely disowning it when the political heat becomes too great, in the manner of the most craven coward -- responding to an attack as follows:
"It's been a week since this scandal broke and Congressman Shimkus still doesn't get it," said Durbin spokesman Joe Shoemaker. "This isn't about too much partisan politics - it's about too little effort to protect children under his care. It is not a House scandal or a Republican scandal - it is a national disgrace."
As someone who has written a great many essays about the incalculable damage done to children and its horrifying effects, these developments might please me immensely. I might finally feel some relief that our politicians care so deeply about "protecting the children." I might rejoice that they view the abject failure to "protect the children" as "a national disgrace."

I might react that way -- except that all of this is a shameful, unforgivable lie. These politicians don't give a damn about "protecting" children. Not only do these same politicians condone the worst kind of brutalization and torture of children: they help to fund it and make it possible.

By all means, let's talk about "a national disgrace." You don't have to look very far for it. In fact, you can find it in this story from the New York Times just over a week ago, a story published on September 30, 2006, and entitled, "In Many Public Schools, the Paddle Is No Relic":
Anthony Price does not mince words when talking about corporal punishment -- which he refers to as taking pops -- a practice he recently reinstated at the suburban Fort Worth middle school where he is principal.

"I'm a big fan," Mr. Price said. "I know it can be abused. But if used properly, along with other punishments, a few pops can help turn a school around. It's had a huge effect here."

Tina Morgan, who works on a highway crew in rural North Carolina, gave permission for her son to be paddled in his North Carolina middle school. But she said she was unprepared for Travis, now 12, to come home with a backside that was a florid kaleidoscope of plums and lemons and blood oranges.


Over most of the country and in all but a few major metropolitan areas, corporal punishment has been on a gradual but steady decline since the 1970's, and 28 states have banned it. But the practice remains alive, particularly in rural parts of the South and the lower Midwest, where it is not only legal, but also widely practiced.

In a handful of districts, like the one here in Everman, there have been recent moves to reinstate it, some successful, more not. In Delaware, a bill to rescind that state's ban on paddling never got through the legislature. But in Pike County, Ohio, corporal punishment was reinstated last year. And in southeast Mississippi, the Laurel school board voted in August to reinstate a corporal punishment policy, passing one that bars men from paddling women, but does not require parental consent, as many other policies do.

The most recent federal statistics show that during the 2002-3 school year, more than 300,000 American schoolchildren were disciplined with corporal punishment, usually one or more blows with a thick wooden paddle. Sometimes holes were cut in the paddle to make the beating more painful. Of those students, 70 percent were in five Southern states: Texas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas.


Among adherents of the practice is James C. Dobson, the child psychologist who founded Focus on the Family and is widely regarded as one of the nation's most influential evangelical leaders.

DuBose Ravenel, a North Carolina pediatrician who is the in-house expert on the subject for Mr. Dobson's group, said, "I believe the whole country would be better off if corporal punishment was allowed in schools by parents who wish it."

Dozens of lawsuits have been filed around the country, including as recently as August in a case involving a student and a baseball coach in Cameron County, Okla., but thus far, courts have tended to side with school districts in cases where a corporal punishment policy is on the books, said Nadine Block, the director of the Center for Effective Discipline, a group opposed to the practice.


Mr. Price, the middle school principal, also said corporal punishment worked. He arrived at the school two years ago, hired, he said, to turn around an institution that was rife with fights, students cursing teachers and gang activity.

Not until months after he arrived, Mr. Price said, did a parent tell him that corporal punishment was used at the high school. He got permission to reinstate it in the middle school, too, and began with the 2005-6 school year, during which 150 of the school's 685 students were paddled.

The Everman district is not unique in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in allowing corporal punishment. A study by The Dallas Morning News in August placed it fifth among area districts in instances of corporal punishment, far behind schools in Prosper, north of Dallas, for instance, where nearly 15 percent of the students were paddled in the 2005-6 school year.

But, in two of Dallas's largest suburban districts, Plano and Frisco, paddling was banned this year, as it was in Memphis last year.

Mr. Price said he initially encountered resistance. "I was cursed out so much, I couldn't believe it," he said. "And I'm talking about the parents."

But gradually, the tenor of the school turned around, he said, for the better.


Mr. Price said he definitely believed there was a "cultural factor" behind the persistence of corporal punishment in some parts of the country after it has disappeared elsewhere.

"You hear people say, Well, you know, it's in the Bible, don't spare the rod and spoil the child," he said.

He uses it, he said, because he believes it works.

"The rule is, never hit in anger," Mr. Price said. "We always talk to the child before the punishment, make sure they understand why it's happening, and then talk to them again afterward. None of it is cold or harsh. We try to treat the kids like they're our own."
I emphasize that this article concerns public schools. That means that you are helping to pay for the systematic, institutionalized brutalization of children.

Did you even know of this story, or how common these barbarities still are? Are our national legislators denouncing these methods straight out of the Dark Ages, or threatening to cut off funds for public schools that still use them? Is even one of the Democrats leaping on the Foley story with undisguised and sickening glee passionately decrying this commonplace form of torture -- torture of those children they claim to be so concerned about? Of course not.

But they're deeply committed to "protecting the children." Or so they tell us. Lies, all lies.

The unspeakable horrors that these practices represent cannot be overstated. Moreover, as indicated above, such practices then echo endlessly throughout our world, and leave still more horrors in their wake. Consider, as just one example, Alice Miller on the Iraqi prison abuses:
Many people have claimed to be appalled by the acts of perversion committed by American soldiers on ADULT people, Iraqi prisoners. Amazingly, I have never heard of any such reaction in response to the occasional attempts to expose similar practices committed towards CHILDREN as for instance in British and American schools. There, these practices come under the heading of "education." But the cruelty is the same. The world appears to be surprised that such brutality should rear its head among the American forces. After all, America presents itself to the international public as the guardian of world peace. There is an explanation for all this, but hardly anyone wants to hear it.
Read the entire article -- and send it to every single damnable, lying politician you know, Democrat or Republican.

I have written many essays about Alice Miller and her work, and its limitless applications to current events, including our foreign policy. Of special relevance here are these:

When the Demons Come

The Institutionalized Destruction of Innocence -- and of Life

The Search for Underlying Causes -- and Why Spanking Is Always Wrong

The Voice of the Thug, and the Harbinger of Horrors Still to Come

From Mild Smacking to Outright Torture and War: The Lie of "Well-Intentioned" Violence

The concluding essay in my series on torture

In her Preface to The Truth Will Set You Free, Miller sets out the basic elements of the mechanism involved:
Today the problem of child abuse looms large in our public awareness. What is less well known is that what we consider a proper upbringing frequently includes severe humiliations that have far-reaching consequences--humiliations we do not consciously recognize because we have been rendered incapable of perceiving them at the very beginning of our lives. The result is a vicious circle of violence and ignorance.

How does this vicious circle work?

1. The traditional methods of upbringing, which have included corporal punishment, lead a child to deny suffering and humiliation.

2. This denial, although essential if the child is to survive, will later cause emotional blindness, especially parental emotional blindness.

3. Emotional blindness produces "barriers in the mind" erected to guard against dangers. This means that early denied traumas become encoded in the brain, and even though they no longer pose a threat, they continue to be an insidioius hazard.

4. Barriers in the mind stunt our capacity to learn from new information, to put it to good use, and to shed old, outdated programs.

5. Our bodies retain a complete memory of the humiliations we suffered, driving us to inflict unconsciously on the next generation what we endured in childhood.

6. Barriers in the mind make it difficult, if not impossible, to avoid this repetition, unless we firmly resolve to identify the cause of our behavior as deeply embedded in the history of our own childhoods. But this rarely happens. Far too many of us simply replay what our parents and our parents' parents and their parents before them have done, stubbornly and blindly repeating: Spare the rod, spoil the child.
These horrors reverberate in still wider ways throughout the world and throughout history, as Miller describes later in the same book, in the chapter, "Corporal Punishment and Political Missions":
Society's blindness to these mechanisms is what still makes wars possible, because the actual reasons behind them remain in the dark. Although probably all historians, at least in Germany, know very well that Frederick the Great was humiliated and tormented by his father, I have yet to come across a historical work that makes the connection between the cruelty meted out to this sensitive child and the monarch's later compulsive urge to overthrow as many countries as he could. Obviously this subject is still taboo.

For as long as we have recorded memory, the same woeful picture has been repeating itself. Men go off to war, women cheer them as they leave, and very few question what really sparked it off. Wars patently designed to invade and conquer foreign territory are passed off as acts of self-defense, or as the fulfillment of some holy mission. Most people are blind to the genuine reasons behind these "missions." Only when we have understood where evil comes from and how we keep it alive in our children will we cease to be helplessly exposed to its effects. We have a long way to go.
And see my related essays entitled "To Destroy the World": about Saddam Hussein; about Ralph Peters and the atrocities at Fallujah.

It remains to be seen whether enough people will begin to recognize these truths before we finally destroy much of humanity, and our world itself. At the moment, the prospects are very grim.

And still amost no one, and none of our politicians, will address these issues in any meaningful way. We permit and encourage the ongoing commission of the most unimaginable acts of brutality and horror. We make those who are most defenseless -- the children -- the helpless victims of our own injuries, which we will not acknowledge under any circumstances, and no matter how great the cost of our denial. Thus, we instill anger, hatred and cruelty in our children -- and then we wonder why violence, destruction and barbarity engulf the world.

And almost no one cares, and almost no one will speak the truth. Alice Miller does, and a few others. But almost no one else.

Do we even deserve to survive? I often wonder about that these days.