January 31, 2009

The Ravages of Tribalism (II): Creating the Next Generation

Burton: What does it mean to be tribal?

Lee: You know things, secret things.

Burton: Is that tribal law?

Lee: Yes.

Burton: What happens if you break tribal law?

Lee: You are punished.

-- The Last Wave, screenplay by Peter Weir, Tony Morphett and Petru Popescu
Before reading this installment, I recommend reading Part I for necessary background.

As you read the true story I mentioned at the conclusion of the earlier entry, I urge you to try to see these events from the child's perspective. Most of you won't be able to do it; many of you will have very little idea what I mean. I know this is true, because it was true for me for several decades after I had become an adult. In a future installment, I will republish an essay of mine first published four years ago. Because of archive problems, moving the blog and other difficulties, the essay has been offline for most of the intervening period.

That particular essay speaks to this issue in great detail, and it examines how and why it is so immensely difficult to recapture as adults what abuse felt like for the child (abuse of any kind, physical, intellectual, emotional or a combination of all these factors). I didn't write the following passage about the story I'm about to share with you, but about a similar story Miller recounts:
In her books, Alice Miller often comments on the fact that it is close to impossible for most adults to recapture the full reality of what any form of abuse felt like to the child. The important part of that sentence is the end: what the experience of the cruelty was like for the child. If we do not understand that -- which means in many cases that we must fully experience as adults what it was like (or come as close to that experience as we can) -- we cannot fully heal the wounds from which we suffer. Beyond that, it is the inability of adults to remember fully what the experience of abuse was like for them when they were children that permits them to continue to inflict the same kind of abuse on their own children. Most families continue the cycle of cruelty from one generation to the next, and it is never broken.


In her book, Banished Knowledge, Miller relates a story sent to her by a reader that is very instructive about our inability to recognize cruelty to children for what it is. I will tell you in advance that I'm certain most of you will react to this story exactly the way I did at first, and my reaction only changed over a period of several years. When I first read the following, I thought: "Well, honestly, what's the big deal? Things like that happen all the time. It's not that destructive. Many children have to deal with things that are infinitely worse, and they still manage to become functioning adults."

My own reaction reveals yet another means by which the truth of childhood is buried and denied: as we grow up, we identify with the authority figures in our lives. We dare not question them, or their "goodness," or their "good intentions." We dare not, because we depend on them for life itself. Since the child cannot question them, he must question himself, and he must believe that the fault lies within. And that leads him to believe that if he alters his own behavior (and even his very being) in some unidentified manner, then he will win his parents' complete love. The child cannot grasp that his parents' behavior has nothing to do with him at all; it arises out of their childhoods, and the abuses they themselves suffered. In this way, the child is left feeling that he himself is wrong, in some fundamental way.

Because most of us identify to varying extents with authority (and most adults identify with authority almost completely), it is impossible for us to understand the child's experience.
With these observations in mind, here is the true story I came across just over two years ago:
A few nights ago while twin #1 was taking a bath, I spent some quality time with twin #2.

I could hear twin #1 splashing around in the tub, but I didn't think anything of it. When I finally went into the bathroom to help him get cleaned up, I saw water All. Over. The Bathroom Floor. The towels and bath mat were soaked and water was dripping down the side of the tub and the bathroom walls.

Furious and trying to control my temper, I asked twin #1 why he splashed the water out of the bathtub. I could tell he felt ashamed, because he wouldn't look at me and he wouldn't answer.

Of course I realized that this could be an excellent "teachable moment" about impulse control, so I knelt down and spoke to him. I told him that I was very disappointed, that I really didn't like what he did. I asked him again why he did it, and he still didn't answer. Then I asked him "Do you know what we call people who know what they are doing is bad, but do the bad thing anyway?"

He replied, "Democrats."
If you are a Democrat or identify yourself as a liberal or a progressive, does this story enrage you? Does it strike you as immensely unjust and utterly false? Do you perhaps think that this manner of describing all Democrats is no different in principle from vicious stories that describe all African Americans, or all Jews, or all gays and lesbians, or the members of any other group in similar fashion? Do you think it is especially awful, even terrible and abusive, to "teach" a very young child in this way, about issues he cannot possibly understand?

You would be right to feel and think all of that. Would your reaction be different if the young boy instead had replied, "Republicans"? Please consider that question very carefully, and as honestly as you can. Your reaction should not be different, not in any respect, not to even the smallest degree. If it is, I respectfully suggest that you consider the following argument with special care.

In fact, the boy did reply, "Republicans." You will find this story -- a true story, offered with pride by the mother -- at Daily Kos.

As discussed in detail in Part I and the other essays linked there, I immediately state that I am not saying this mother doesn't love her children. I'm certain she loves them, just as I am certain she believes she is raising them the "right" way and teaching them the "right" ideas. And that may well be true in some areas of these children's lives, but it is not true with regard to this story and the lessons it contains. Because this mother offers this story proudly and even happily, one might well wonder what other lessons she is imparting. As we will see shortly, the boy's reaction tells us this pattern is one already very familiar to him. But I repeat -- and consult my Alice Miller essays for very lengthy discussions of these questions -- the problem is not that this mother doesn't love her children. The problem is what she believes that love should properly consist of -- and the problem is that she is almost certainly reenacting what happened in her own childhood, with her own parents.

Because I consider this story so revelatory, I will examine it in detail. I have to do this for the reason discussed above: because we have forgotten the reality of events like this from the child's perspective, our entire viewpoint and all our judgments about it are profoundly distorted. Almost nothing we are likely to think about such a story is true. What follows is far from short, so I would hope you read this when you have sufficient time to consider these points carefully. The power of this story lies not only in the particulars of the incident itself, but in the patterns of thought, feeling and behavior that are instilled in the child. As we will see as we proceed through this series of essays, these patterns are carried into adulthood, where they lead to much of what we witness in our politics today.

Because knowledge and understanding of the child's experience as experienced by the child himself is inaccessible to almost all adults, we must look at every aspect of this story, beginning with the nature of the incident itself.

I am 60 years old. I am ridiculously excited to tell you that I find splashing in the bathtub to be great fun today. I love splashing in the tub. It's fun. I need no further justification or explanation for doing it. It's fun. That works perfectly for me, as I hope it does for you. We should never regard having fun as something unimportant or trivial: having fun is a deeply serious matter. It is one of the primary ways we experience the inexpressible joy of being alive. For a child, this kind of fun carries an additional significance, one that is especially noteworthy. (The post doesn't tell us exactly how old the children are, but it would appear they're perhaps around seven or eight, perhaps younger, certainly not much older than ten. But what follows would apply to children of any age and even to adults, as I just indicated.) For a child, building a big tower and then knocking it down -- or splashing in the tub -- is not just fun in itself. For the child, it is also experienced as a sign of his own efficacy: "I made this happen!" This is one of the ways in which the child learns what he is capable of, what he can make happen as he interacts with the world. It is a wonderful experience, one that should be encouraged.

Obviously, limits and consequences must sometimes be addressed and imposed (but never by spanking or any kind of physical violence, no matter how slight -- see this essay and this one), especially if the child is causing irreversible damage and, most obviously, if the child is inflicting pain on another child, or on a pet or other animal. Here, I will only note that if a child is inflicting pain on another child or animal, problems of a seriously greater magnitude are already present. In every such case of which I am aware, children only learn such cruel behavior by observing the adults around them. Such instances of cruelty must be stopped immediately -- but the adult cruelty, which is always also present, must be stopped as well. But these additional, gravely serious complexities (some of which I will address in future) are not present here.

In this case, it is very simple to explain why the water needs to be cleaned up. The parent (or other adult caregiver) might begin, and ideally would begin, by affirming that, yes, it is great fun to splash water around. It probably isn't a good idea to do it all the time, or every day, but once in a while, absolutely, it's fun. The adult occasionally enjoys it him or herself. But if we're going to splash water this way, then we'd better clean it up. Water on the bathroom floor could be dangerous; someone might slip if we left the floor wet. Leaving the walls wet might damage them, which could lead to major repairs and considerable expense in time. That's also not a good idea. Better to make sure everything is dry again. And the towels and the bathmat are now soaked, so we need to replace them. This is one reason why splashing every day isn't a great idea, unless the child wishes to undertake the task of making certain there is an endless supply of dry towels and bathmats. He probably won't want to do that and doubtless can't, unless he wishes to become a full-time linen maid. Once he realizes the results of his splashing -- and that he himself will need to deal with them as required -- he'll probably only want to do it every now and then. And he'll realize that on his own, with just a little prompting.

This is a very valuable and important lesson: it's wonderful to have fun, as long as you aren't causing serious or irreversible harm, and as long as the child cleans up as necessary. And the child himself will appreciate the value of having a clean, dry bathroom, and having dry towels and a dry bathmat after a bath. (Again, if he doesn't, the problems are already far more serious, and will require much more attention -- attention which the adults will undoubtedly need, too.)

I stress again that the mother offered this story proudly and joyfully. Note another aspect of what she inadvertently revealed, still with regard just to the surface details of this story. The mother reports: "I could hear twin #1 splashing around in the tub, but I didn't think anything of it. When I finally went into the bathroom to help him get cleaned up..." She has a young child. She heard "splashing around in the tub." What did she think was happening, or was most likely happening? Kids like to splash water around, because it's fun. She heard it, but she was busy elsewhere. The problem isn't that she wanted to spend "some quality time" with the other twin. The problem is that is that it was entirely predictable what she would find when she "finally went into the bathroom." The much worse problem is the particular lesson she then imparted to the splashing twin, and the way she imparted it.

Despite the fact that she could easily have known what was happening and should have been entirely unsurprised by what she found, the mother tells us that she was "furious and trying to control [her] temper." It is understandable that the mother might be upset at the fact that there is a substantial mess that needs to be cleaned up. Perhaps the situation is made worse because she had a long, tiring day, and this was just more than she could deal with. But again, she was on notice about what was happening and chose to ignore it for some period of time. Now, note very carefully what she communicates to the boy.

First and most obviously, her "fury" and the fact that she had to work so hard to "control [her] temper" clearly were communicated to the boy very strongly. He knew his mother was "furious," and he knew that his mother was "furious" with him. We know the boy knew all this, because the mother tells us: "I could tell he felt ashamed, because he wouldn't look at me and he wouldn't answer." He wouldn't look at his mother and he wouldn't answer -- because he was afraid, afraid of his mother's "fury" and that her "fury" was directed at him. The boy immediately reacted with shame about himself and his own behavior, which tells us he is very familiar with this pattern; similar kinds of events have occurred countless times before. The boy is being taught to feel profound shame, and he is already learning to be silent about those matters of greatest importance to him. We also know that the boy will turn in vain to his father in hopes of finding a different mode of behavior. I didn't include the introductory sentence to the above story: "With the 110th Congress now in session, my husband, The Professor, encouraged me to share this story with all of you." Both parents find this story charming and amusing, and they enthusiastically share it with others.

The mother then realized this was a "teachable moment," particularly as concerns "impulse control." The boy had been having fun -- splashing water is fun! -- but now he is "ashamed." And his mother is "furious" and having to work very hard to "control [her] temper." Exactly whose impulses are we talking about here? I often marvel at how much people reveal without realizing it, but you need to know what to look for. But thinking she has a "teachable moment," the mother "knelt down and spoke to him."

But she doesn't speak to him about any of the issues I mentioned above -- that a wet floor might be dangerous, that leaving wet walls might cause damage, that the towels and bathmat need to be replaced with dry ones -- and instead she tells this young child the following: "I told him that I was very disappointed, that I really didn't like what he did. I asked him again why he did it, and he still didn't answer. Then I asked him 'Do you know what we call people who know what they are doing is bad, but do the bad thing anyway?'"

This is the crux of the problem, and the source of profound damage. It is crucial to understand what is happening here. Note the nature of the shift that has occurred: the mother's concern is no longer with the wet floor or the wet towels and bathmat, or with the damage that might result if the water isn't cleaned up. The mother's concern -- and what she demands this young boy focus on -- is her own feelings. The mother was "very disappointed." The mother "really didn't like what he did." And "what he did" was "bad." And there is still more, and it is still worse: what the boy did was "bad," he knew it was "bad" (at least, he did according to his mother), and he did the "bad" thing anyway.

Reflect for a few moments on the kind of self-evaluation a message of this kind will almost certainly lead to, especially if the message is conveyed to the boy repeatedly. I state the message again, to drive this point home: according to the mother, the boy did a bad thing, he knew it was a bad thing, and he did it anyway. If all that is true, the boy sounds like an entirely rotten human being. I can confirm this from my own childhood (and I suspect more than a few of you can, as well): I received messages like this all the time from my own mother. And I concluded that I must be a terrible human being, for reasons which remained utterly inexplicable to me. But my mother told me that, and she certainly believed it to be true. And I depended on my mother for life itself, as most young children do.

In my case, what ultimately saved me from the worst consequences was that I never believed that judgment, not completely -- and I never stopped asking questions about it, but only in the safety of my own mind. Of course, I didn't dare question my mother about it; as in this story, my mother's rage, which I thought I had caused (for that is what my mother told me, over and over again), was overwhelming. If I asked her about it, she would be still more furious. No young child would dare do that, if any of the entirely legitimate questions even occurred to him. But in quiet moments alone, I would wonder: "But what did I do? What was so terrible? Why is she so angry at me?" And for many long years, I continued to think that I must have done something awful even though I had no idea what it was, because it never occurred to me that my mother's behavior had nothing to do with me at all. But in fact, it didn't. Yet no child can understand these issues, and very few adults do. It wasn't until I was in my mid-fifties that I understood the answers to these questions.

I repeat this passage from the earlier essay excerpted in Part I:
As children, we dare not question what our parents do: we depend on them for life itself. To comprehend fully what is being done to us would be unbearable, and it might literally kill us. So we must believe that, whatever our parents do, they do it "for our own good." To believe otherwise is the forbidden thought. So we must deny our own pain when we are young; such denial is necessary if we are to survive at that stage in our lives.

But if we maintain the denial when we become adults, it spreads throughout our lives. When such modes of thought are established in our psychologies, they cannot be isolated or contained. We deny our own pain -- so we must deny the pain of others. If we acknowledge their pain fully and allow ourselves to realize what it means, it will necessarily call up our own wounds. But this remains intolerable and forbidden. In extreme cases, we must dehumanize other human beings: they become "the other," the less-than-human. By using such devices, we make inflicting untold agonies on another person possible: if they are not even human, it doesn't matter if we torture them. This is always how we create hell on earth.

I said I was not referring only to the obvious cruelties inflicted on children by physical violence. Just as important, and often of much greater significance, are the psychological agonies to which parents subject their children. How often do we hear parents say to a child who will not follow an order: "Why are you making me so unhappy? You don't want to make your mother unhappy and sad, do you, darling? Now just do what I say." We should recognize this for what it is: emotional blackmail. The unstated threat -- but the threat that is deeply felt by the child, even if he is not able to understand it -- is that the parent's love will be withdrawn unless the child obeys. Since the child knows that his life depends on that love, the threat is a terrifying one. Such blows are delivered countless times every day, by millions of parents around the world.
I return to the mother's focus on her own feelings, when she tells her young son of her "disappointment" with him and that she "really didn't like what he did." She is demanding obedience, not by discussing the inconvenience and possible dangers of failing to clean up the water (which would be damaging enough, if obedience remains the primary lesson being taught; see this essay for more on the nature of obedience), but by demanding that the child obey by adapting his behavior in accordance with his mother's needs and feelings.

This particular dynamic, one which almost all parents exhibit in varying degrees -- the parent who demands that the child behave in the manner required by the parent's own needs and feelings, which have nothing to do with the reality of the child's experience -- is one I have discussed before. One of my Miller essays offered excerpts from Miller's discussion of Sylvia Plath's life and deeply tragic death. You might find the full essay of value; here is one passage of special relevance to the current discussion:
Many parents are like Sylvia's mother. They desperately try to behave correctly toward their child, and in their child's behavior they seek reassurance that they are good parents. The attempt to be an ideal parent, that is, to behave correctly toward the child, to raise her correctly, not to give too little or too much, is in essence an attempt to be the ideal child--well behaved and dutiful--of one's own parents. But as a result of these efforts the needs of the child go unnoticed. I cannot listen to my child with empathy if I am inwardly preoccupied with being a good mother; I cannot be open to what she is telling me.
It is in this manner, among others, that a child is taught not to analyze the arguments being offered and the facts marshalled on behalf of those arguments, but to devote his primary attention to the feelings and attitudes of others. If he wishes to procure or maintain the approval of those others who are especially significant to him -- and for the young child, there is no one of greater significance than his mother (and/or other primary caregivers) -- then he must make his behavior conform to that demanded by those others. But the demands presented to the child don't concern the facts: that a wet floor is dangerous, or that wet towels must be replaced with dry ones. The demands are presented, as in this story, by means of his mother's moods and emotions. To survive, he must do everything possible to make sure his mother isn't "disappointed" or "unhappy." For the child, the most powerful signal will be any sign of his mother's disapproval; his greatest terror will be his mother's fury.

So his major concern, and very often his only concern, will be to watch with great care for signs of approval or disapproval. As the years go on, the merits of the arguments on any subject will hold less and less significance for him. The continued approval of those individuals he particularly values will be among his greatest concerns, and among his greatest sources of anxiety. His greatest fear will be the disappointment, especially the very strong disapproval and even condemnation, of those others of special significance to him.

I now give you a brief preview of what this leads to in adult behavior. In the last several years, I have received between ten and twenty emails of the following kind. I will be discussing other instances of this same dynamic in future essays. This email was especially forthright about the writer's actual concerns, although I note again, as in the case of the mother in the above story, that I doubt the writer has anything close to a full appreciation of precisely what is revealed here. I will not tell you the writer's identity, for his identity is not at all my concern, and "outings" of that kind are of no interest to me whatsoever. My concern is with the motives and concerns involved, and the behavior to which those concerns lead. And I know, from additional emails I've received, from the general rule that if one person offers these statements, some number of additional people had similar thoughts, and from human nature in general, that such behavior is not uncommon. To the contrary, political developments in the last few years -- and, I emphasize, the behavior of many writers, bloggers and others involved in politics -- have proven repeatedly that this kind of behavior occurs with disturbing frequency.

I received the following email just a few days after publishing, "Once More into the Land of the Blind." That post was a scathing indictment of certain behavior of the ruling class, including the Democrats in Washington, and also of those who continue to offer apologies and alleged justifications for the Democrats' miserable performance with nothing less than religious fervor. It might be useful to read that earlier piece of mine before continuing.

The subject line of this email was: "Thank you for your 'land of the blind' essay." I've eliminated certain passages to avoid disclosing the writer's identity (many of you would know the person involved), but the major points remain exactly as written to me:
I wanted to write something very like it the other day, but I confess that I am a coward. I live in [...], and while my blog traffic isn't very high I've been around long enough to be a fixture, and fear that I'd be regarded as having lost my mind.


It came to me, after the MoveOn vote, that the unspoken postulate on which all blogospheric optimism is based is that the only large banks of politically savvy people in the country are either on the side of the Republicans or writing in the liberal blogosphere. That none of the Democrats 'knew what they were doing.' And it finally hit me that this was unlikely in the extreme. The Democrats, more than enough of them anyhow, really are just like that and there can't be said to be any rational excuse for it other than that they're acting according to their true, and essentially wicked, beliefs. If there's any reason to hope, it's that the party could be taken over such that its hypocrisies were turned into truth, but there's no way it could be done fast enough to prevent so many dire things happening, so much broken that could never be repaired.

I'm so afraid, and I want to leave now and never look back. But there isn't an away anymore, is there?
Here, I don't care whether what I wrote is true (although I obviously think it is, as continuing developments demonstrate repeatedly, and as I have analyzed in numerous essays), or whether you think it's true. The point is that this emailer thought it was true. In fact, he "wanted to write something very like it" -- but any concerns he might have had with what he himself thought was true were overridden by his anxiety that his particular peer group, his "tribe," would regard him as "having lost [his] mind." So he remained silent, just as the boy in our story is learning to be silent. He was, in his own words, "a coward."

This emailer is someone who desperately wants the current system to change. The painfully, even pathetically, obvious question is: How will change of the kind required ever occur if those people who see the truth refuse to give voice to it? It is also worth noting that the emailer places the approval of those he himself considers to be wrong above the truth. Consider this for a moment, and consider how deeply sad and pathetic it is: the emailer is convinced that those people of great significance to him are wrong. He is an adult, not a helpless child. But he has learned the lesson of obedience, of conforming to the demands of his tribe, all too well. He thinks they are deeply wrong -- but he does not dare to do anything that might result in their disapproval. He will not even dare to write a blog post -- a blog post, mind you -- that might cause those others to view him unfavorably.

I will analyze this phenomenon in much more detail in the future. As I said, this is only a preview of how facts and the truth recede ever further from view, as far too many adults permit their actions to be dictated by the ongoing approval of members of their tribe, even when they think those individuals are grievously wrong. Just as the boy in our story is learning, this is a person who has learned to watch for signs of approval and disapproval with ceaseless vigilance, and to place primary importance on approval from those others of special significance to him. The boy has no choice, for he is a helpless child. There is no excuse for an adult to behave in this way. Cowardice may be the explanation (or part of it), but it is never an excuse.

I haven't yet discussed the final part of the story, and the last part of the boy's lesson:
"Do you know what we call people who know what they are doing is bad, but do the bad thing anyway?"

He replied, "Democrats."
Or, in the original, "Republicans." In terms of every issue analyzed above, and in terms of the deeply damaging lesson and patterns of thought and behavior being taught, the designation -- "what we call" those people -- is immaterial.

So we will look at that particular part of the lesson next time.

January 30, 2009

The Ravages of Tribalism (I): Introduction

I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate wilfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.

-- Robert Frost, "Birches"
To begin, I need a story. We tell stories to distract us from the cares of the day, to amuse, to entertain. We tell them to explain, to illuminate, to inspire. Stories help us understand what has happened in the past, and they offer guidance about future action. We may be rich or poor, we may be happy and surrounded by family and friends or desolate in our loneliness. Our circumstances are as variable as our moods and momentary obsessions, but our hunger for stories unites us all. The superficial differences among human beings in place and time may appear to be insurmountable obstacles. Yet when we strip away the comparatively insignificant surface details, the similarities in the most enduring stories told across cultures and over thousands of years may well astonish us.

"Why the Stories We Tell Matter So Much" examines certain aspects of stories and our need for them. It also analyzes the great dangers that arise when our favored stories are false. In the political realm, and in the case of the United States, every major national narrative is false and dangerously misleading. We see today the disastrous consequences of insisting on the truth of a story which is fundamentally wrong. Yet most Americans have an inexhaustible willingness, even an enthusiasm, for believing lies. As I have remarked, lies are the diet that sustains us, the poison we will swallow time and again, without end. And still worse: "Truth is the enemy; truth is to be destroyed." It is far from obvious why so many people should enthusiastically embrace a lengthy series of lies, particularly when those lies continually result in death and destruction on a vast scale, as they do today, as they did yesterday, as they will again tomorrow. It is a question that merits investigation.

So, I need a story. As noted in my essay about the importance of stories, it was Philip Pullman who said: "Stories are the most important thing in the world. Without stories, we wouldn't be human beings at all." The title of a collection of Joan Didion essays conveys this idea with eloquent simplicity: We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live. It was Pullman who also said this, which provided the title of my blog:
We don't need lists of rights and wrongs, tables of do's and don'ts: we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.
An article about Pullman excerpted in my earlier piece notes the lines from Robert Frost that appear above. Perhaps those thoughts are not directly relevant to what follows, except for this particular thought: "Earth's the right place for love:/I don't know where it's likely to go better." That will do for me, and very wonderfully, but the value of this idea depends on love being healthy in its source, expression and effects, love that acknowledges and honors the independence and irreplaceably unique value of another human being.

This series will examine some of the many ways that love goes wrong, the ways in which love destroys the genuine vitality of another soul. All too often, which is to say in the case of almost every person, the pattern of this destruction is set in early childhood. Once the pattern has been embedded deeply enough, it will be dislodged later in life only in the rarest of circumstances. For the great majority of people, the destruction is carried from generation to generation.

The same pattern also becomes the basis of the political systems we establish, and of the specific manner in which those systems function. (See "When the Demons Come" for examples of how and why this happens.) Political systems are not devised or operated by individuals who supposedly manage, always by some unspecified means, to set aside or rise above those motives and concerns that dominate the lives of those they rule. In terms of certain underlying human dynamics, rulers and ruled are fundamentally alike, for better or worse. Throughout most of human history, it is almost always for worse; consult any one of numerous history books for the frequently terrifying evidence, and consider how rare the exceptions are and how briefly they lasted. (I should note that certain critical differences between the ruling class and those they rule can be identified; you will find some of those differences analyzed here.)

This is one of the great problems with political commentary: politics is only a symptom of a more fundamental condition. Unless we address these more fundamental concerns, the symptom will never be altered in a lasting way. Yet we (and I) spend so much time on political matters because politics affects our lives so dramatically and with such immediacy. Because politics has the power to alter our lives so profoundly and, far too frequently, even to end them, some of us fiercely resist the especially destructive aspects of its operations. Yet this will never be enough by itself, as history, including our recent history and ongoing events, prove repeatedly.

The final installment of my series "On Torture" speaks to this connection between the personal and the political. This perspective is crucial to what follows, so I offer this excerpt from that article:
In the previous essay, I analyzed how [Andrew] Sullivan approaches the question of torture as a political one: he considers the legitimizing of torture in terms of its effects on the United States as a political entity. He discusses torture's ghastly effects on the victim -- but only in very abstract, impersonal terms, as if he were writing a textbook on political theory. And, very significantly, both Krauthammer and Sullivan -- even though they come down on opposite sides of this dispute -- exhibit the same blind spot: the reality of the person who will always refuse to inflict torture on another does not appear to exist for them. We are left with the sense that, in their world, if the order comes down to torture, the order will be obeyed. So the critical question for them is whether that order should ever be issued. Krauthammer says it should, and Sullivan says it must never be.

For me, the question is a profoundly different one. I recognize that the order will not necessarily be obeyed. So for me, the key lies right there: why will some people refuse, while others won't? Krauthammer and Sullivan never ask this question. They are both the victims that [Alice] Miller describes. Obedience is the ruling principle that informs their approach -- and the only question is: obedience to what? (I note the following, because it is very revealing of the extent to which the principle of obedience dominates Sullivan's approach. Sullivan is an openly gay man, who writes extensively about gay issues -- and also about his Catholicism. It is quite striking to see the enormous struggles that engage Sullivan -- struggles which are entirely self-selected and to which he voluntarily submits -- as he tries to reconcile his own homosexuality with a Church that continues to explicitly condemn gay people for their sexuality. He cannot make peace between these warring parts of his worldview and of himself because, in fact, no such peace can ever be attained. But he refuses to give up the principle of obedience that is still represented by his allegiance to the Catholic Church.)

As I was reflecting on these issues, I recalled a line I once heard or read somewhere. I've tried to remember its source, but I can't. It is not the way I would choose to make the point; it's a sentimental, not fully serious manner of expressing the thought. The line went something like this: "Nothing happens in politics, that did not happen first in the human heart." Let us set the style aside: there is a great truth contained in that statement. It is crucial to appreciate what it is.

For me, the ultimate truth of any question is an individual one. Individual human beings are the ultimate components of all the questions that concern us, whether they are philosophical, political, aesthetic or of any other kind. Politics represents the summation of many individual actions. In all the heated debates about politics or foreign policy, we too often forget where the final consequences of our actions are felt: by individual human beings, by people who are happy or sad because of what we do, by people who all too frequently today live or die as the result of our actions. Obviously, this is why politics and foreign policy matter so much: the lives of countless people are affected because of the decisions we make. This is why I spend so much time on these questions myself.

But the final significance of all these issues is intensely personal: these questions matter so desperately because of how they affect me, and you, and all of us. And this is why, when I consider a subject like torture, the most critical question for me is the personal one: why are there some people who will refuse to obey the order? If everyone refused, the problem would never arise. This is another way of expressing an old cliche. It may be a cliche, but it goes to the identical personal issue: "What if they gave a war and nobody came?"

Think about that for a moment. What if no one did come? Put it another way: why are so many people willing, even eager, to engage in violence? Almost all of us reject violence on the narrower scale: we all condemn the thief, or the individual murderer. But when violence is engaged in on a wide scale by governments, many of us enthusiastically embrace it. We allow ourselves to forget the personal impact, and the horror becomes manifest. And when it comes to the question of torture, some of us will approve it, while refusing to consider its ultimate source -- and while refusing to acknowledge that some people will never permit themselves to act in such a manner. Still others, while they condemn it, similarly refuse to consider the issue in any but the most impersonal and abstract of terms. They cannot imagine the person who simply says, "No" -- because they themselves would not. They have been taught to obey, and they will not challenge the principle that lies at the foundation of their identity.
As noted above, this series will examine some of the many destructions that result from deeply mistaken ideas of "love," beginning with the horrors that most parents visit on their helpless and defenseless children. Yes, there are some parents who understand what it means to respect and honor their young children, and who nurture the development of a genuinely autonomous self. But I tell you this at the outset: such parents are exceedingly rare. I consider it almost certain that your parents were not such exceptions, as mine most definitely were not (as a subsequent installment will demonstrate in detail). Almost every person reading this will have been damaged in countless ways by his or her parents, just as I was. It took me the better part of three decades to understand these issues, and to begin to repair much of the damage. The work still goes on today. (For further details of this journey and for some suggestions on reading Alice Miller's books on this subject, I recommend you read this essay.)

I apologize for excerpting myself still one more time, but I realize that many readers do not follow links. The following passage, again from the concluding installment of the "On Torture" series, is also needed to establish the context of the discussion to come:
[T]here is a necessary corollary to the obedience we are taught: the idealization of the authority figures in our lives. As children, we dare not question what our parents do: we depend on them for life itself. To comprehend fully what is being done to us would be unbearable, and it might literally kill us. So we must believe that, whatever our parents do, they do it "for our own good." To believe otherwise is the forbidden thought. So we must deny our own pain when we are young; such denial is necessary if we are to survive at that stage in our lives.

But if we maintain the denial when we become adults, it spreads throughout our lives. When such modes of thought are established in our psychologies, they cannot be isolated or contained. We deny our own pain -- so we must deny the pain of others. If we acknowledge their pain fully and allow ourselves to realize what it means, it will necessarily call up our own wounds. But this remains intolerable and forbidden. In extreme cases, we must dehumanize other human beings: they become "the other," the less-than-human. By using such devices, we make inflicting untold agonies on another person possible: if they are not even human, it doesn't matter if we torture them. This is always how we create hell on earth.

I said I was not referring only to the obvious cruelties inflicted on children by physical violence. Just as important, and often of much greater significance, are the psychological agonies to which parents subject their children. How often do we hear parents say to a child who will not follow an order: "Why are you making me so unhappy? You don't want to make your mother unhappy and sad, do you, darling? Now just do what I say." We should recognize this for what it is: emotional blackmail. The unstated threat -- but the threat that is deeply felt by the child, even if he is not able to understand it -- is that the parent's love will be withdrawn unless the child obeys. Since the child knows that his life depends on that love, the threat is a terrifying one. Such blows are delivered countless times every day, by millions of parents around the world.

This knowledge is inaccessible to the majority of adults. We are taught to obey, and we learn to idealize our parents. We tell ourselves they did the best they could, or they couldn't help it. In one sense, that is true: they raise their children as they were raised. They learned obedience very well, and they do to their own children what was done to them. But most of us cannot leave this truth at this point: to maintain the veneration of our parents, we must insist that they in fact were right -- that they did it "for our own good." That is where the great danger lies.

When the idealization of the authority figure spreads once we become adults, it can encompass additional authority figures. There are two primary such figures: God -- who may have been there from the beginning, if the child is raised in a very religious household where God is the ultimate authority, and the parents only speak on His behalf; and country. When one's nation becomes such an authority figure, there are subsidiary ones as well: the nation's leaders, and the nation's military.
The story I ideally require to convey these themes and to demonstrate how the damage of children begins would have to combine several elements. It would contain a very ordinary, everyday example of commonly accepted child rearing practices, so typical that most people would view it as entirely unremarkable and not even worth mentioning. At the same time, it would reveal the enormous damage caused by the actions of most parents, damage which sets patterns of thinking, feeling and behavior that will last a lifetime. And with regard to my theme of tribalism, the story would show how the division between "us" and "them" is initially implanted, and how all those who are placed in the category of "them" are viewed as "less than" and not fully human. "They" are to be condemned and to be treated accordingly. The story thus would have to combine the psychological and the political in a particular way, and to set these considerations in the context of raising very young children.

I might have sought in vain for such a story, and I might have had to present a fictional scenario to set forth these ideas in the specific way I require. Fortunately -- or I should accurately say, unfortunately -- I came across a true story that meets all these goals, a story offered by a mother with pride, and even with joy. This mother is convinced that she is raising her children the "right" way, and teaching them the "right" ideas. But if one understands what is actually happening, this commonplace story is a tale full of horror.

As background to the next post in this series, I strongly recommend that you read the final installment of the series "On Torture" in its entirety, and "When the Demons Come" for some useful background. The installment of the "Final Descent" series referenced above should also prove useful. Relying on the issues discussed in this piece and the earlier ones, I will devote the next installment to this true story, and to untangling the complicated dynamics that inform it.

ADDENDUM: I understand that many readers will not have the time (and/or inclination) to peruse my numerous Alice Miller essays. You will find a brief description of each of the essays at that link. A considerable number of more recent essays on these subjects are not listed there; when I have time, I will prepare an additional post describing the newer articles which explore further aspects of these themes.

To help establish the needed context a bit more fully, permit me to offer two further excerpts that capture the heart of Miller's argument, at least insofar as her argument concerns what follows.

The first passage comes from the "Final Descent" essay:
As a final prefatory note to this further exploration of Miller's work, I want to emphasize the following: I would never say, and I have never said, that Miller's explanation of the damage we sustain as children represents the only explanation that matters, or the only causative factor of significance. Here I echo what Miller herself wrote in, The Truth Will Set You Free: Overcoming Emotional Blindness and Finding Your True Adult Self, in answer to a certain kind of criticism:
Many of my critics protest that one cannot trace world events back to the childhood of a single person. But I have never asserted that the causes I have discovered are the only ones conditioning the course of history. What I do keep pointing out is the consistency with which they have been ignored. I stand accused of using arguments that I have never put forward.
This is the key: "What I do keep pointing out is the consistency with which they have been ignored." The damages inflicted in childhood by almost all parents are forbidden territory: it is the single subject which most people entirely prohibit themselves from ever investigating, even as those damages continue to influence their lives as adults.
The second passage concerns the centrality of obedience, and the endlessly destructive effects of instilling obedience as the primary virtue. I addressed this issue in one of my first Miller essays, a consideration of Mel Gibson as an unusually extreme and public example of this phenomenon. From that earlier piece:
In Part II of this essay, I excerpted several passages from Alice Miller's work. To focus this discussion on the issue I now wish to address, let me summarize my understanding of Miller's central argument. By demanding obedience above all from a child (whether by physical punishment, by psychological means, or through some combination of both), parents forbid the child from fostering an authentic sense of self. Because children are completely dependent on their parents, they dare not question their parents' goodness, or their "good intentions." As a result, when children are punished, even if they are punished for no reason or for a reason that makes no sense, they blame themselves and believe that the fault lies within them. In this way, the idealization of the authority figure is allowed to continue. In addition, the child cannot allow himself to experience fully his own pain, because that, too, might lead to questioning of his parents.

In this manner, the child is prevented from developing a genuine, authentic sense of self. As he grows older, this deadening of his soul desensitizes the child to the pain of others. Eventually, the maturing adult will seek to express his repressed anger on external targets, since he has never been allowed to experience and express it in ways that would not be destructive. By such means, the cycle of violence is continued into another generation (using "violence" in the broadest sense). One of the additional consequences is that the adult, who has never developed an authentic self, can easily transfer his idealization of his parents to a new authority figure. As Miller says:
This perfect adaptation to society's norms--in other words, to what is called "healthy normality"--carries with it the danger that such a person can be used for practically any purpose. It is not a loss of autonomy that occurs here, because this autonomy never existed, but a switching of values, which in themselves are of no importance anyway for the person in question as long as his whole value system is dominated by the principle of obedience. He has never gone beyond the stage of idealizing his parents with their demands for unquestioning obedience; this idealization can easily be transferred to a Fuhrer or to an ideology.

The System. Baby.

Not going to beat it. No, baby.

The Obama administration fell in line with the Bush administration Thursday when it urged a federal judge to set aside a ruling in a closely watched spy case weighing whether a U.S. president may bypass Congress and establish a program of eavesdropping on Americans without warrants.

In a filing in San Francisco federal court, President Barack Obama adopted the same position as his predecessor. With just hours left in office, President George W. Bush late Monday asked U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker to stay enforcement of an important Jan. 5 ruling admitting key evidence into the case.

Thursday's filing by the Obama administration marked the first time it officially lodged a court document in the lawsuit asking the courts to rule on the constitutionality of the Bush administration's warrantless-eavesdropping program. The former president approved the wiretaps in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

"The Government's position remains that this case should be stayed," the Obama administration wrote (.pdf) in a filing that for the first time made clear the new president was on board with the Bush administration's reasoning in this case.
In Democratic legal circles, no attorney has been more pilloried than former Bush Justice Department official John Yoo, chief author of the so-called torture memos that Barack Obama last week sought to nullify.

But now President Obama’s incoming crew of lawyers has a new and somewhat awkward job: defending Yoo in federal court.

Next week, Justice Department lawyers are set to ask a San Francisco federal judge to throw out a lawsuit brought against Yoo by Jose Padilla, a New York man held without charges on suspicion of being an Al Qaeda operative plotting to set off a "dirty bomb."

The suit contends that Yoo’s legal opinions authorized Bush to order Padilla’s detention in a Navy brig in South Carolina and encouraged military officials to subject Padilla to aggressive interrogation techniques, including death threats and long-term sensory deprivation.

That’s not all. On Thursday, Justice Department lawyers are slated to be in Charleston, S.C., to ask a federal magistrate there to dismiss another lawsuit charging about a dozen current and former government officials with violating Padilla’s rights in connection with his unusual detention on U.S. soil, without charges or a trial.


Obama’s lawyers aren’t the first at Justice to have to stand by a prior administration’s legal work — whether they agree with it or not — merely in the interest of protecting U.S. government prerogatives.
"Merely in the interest of protecting U.S. government prerogatives..." I do like that "merely." "Prerogatives" is nice, too. Prerogatives such as, just to pick a wildly extravagant hypothetical out of thin air, one that would unquestionably never happen in the actual world in the uniquely Glorious and Good United States, torture. Or illegal, unconstitutional detention. Merely hypothetically speaking, you understand.

The system, baby. But to think of Obama administration lawyers defending John Yoo... You just gotta love the system.

This is not to say that the system cannot ever be altered, but it is crucial to appreciate just how changes occur and their severe limitations. In general, and in every case I can think of, the elective branches of government were the last to respond to the demand for change, and they responded then only after demands for change were made known on a scale that proved overwhelming, and only after many people had paid what was often a terrifying price. The civil rights movement is a notable example of this dynamic. It should be remembered how and why certain changes finally occurred, and what the nature of those changes was:
Just recently, I discussed still another of the numerous distorted and distorting perspectives that result from this insistence on Americans' "unique" goodness. Part of the official story of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s -- that is, the official story from the white point of view -- is that America recognized in meaningful terms how reprehensible and detestable parts of its own history had been on this question and, in a further demonstration of our "goodness," we set about to rectify these grave wrongs with diligence and dedication.

Except that's not what happened. As I wrote in the second part of "Enchanted Evenings -- and Days, and Lives, in Hell":
With rare exceptions, White and Black America occupied entirely different spaces, geographically, culturally, economically and psychologically. One of the results of these different spaces is the profoundly opposed views of America and of American history discussed by Tim Wise, excerpted in "Obama's Whitewash." The violence unleashed in the civil rights upheaval of the 1950s and 1960s was inevitable; in retrospect (and for perceptive observers at the time), it was remarkable only for its restraint. One of the primary reasons for the violence, and a large part of the explanation as to why a sustained, massive movement encompassing millions of people was required to achieve those changes that resulted, lies in the nature of that white "kindness to Negroes." Whites in America, including those whites who exclusively made up the ruling class, were prepared to be "kind" -- but only to the extent they absolutely had to. Equality was not granted, to the extent it was, primarily in recognition of an unspeakable, deadly injustice that whites had committed, although a few whites were aware of that. For the most part, equality was granted, to the extent it was, because the cost for failing to do so had become prohibitive.
That's what happened.
And we must always remember the nature of the action required to effect change of even this scope:
The civil rights protesters of the 1950s and 1960s did not remain in their homes and write polite letters to their representatives in Washington. They took to the streets and protested in many other ways. They did so repeatedly. Many of them paid a very terrible price, and some of them paid the ultimate price. They continued to protest until the government had no choice but to accede to certain of their fundamental demands. If they had only written letters, their children and grandchildren might still be writing them today. If most Americans continue in their current immovable passivity, you will be writing letters -- and blog posts, of course -- as nuclear clouds drift across much of the world, perhaps even over America.

Under these circumstances, you may not delegate your moral agency and your power any longer. You must take them back and make them yours again. Our national politicians are not on the side of liberty and peace: they want power. That is all they want, and if war, even the ultimate war, is required to obtain, expand and consolidate it, war it will be.
The system, and what is required to fight it.

Your move, brave bloggers.

P.S. The story concerning Yoo has this at the very end:
A former lawyer in Bush’s White House, Brad Berenson, said he expects the new Obama officials not only to defend against the suits but to win them. "There are just all kinds of doctrines that protect government officials, even when they’re wrong," he said. "The dirty little secret here is that the United States government has enduring institutional interests that carry over from administration to administration and almost always dictate the position the government takes."
"Enduring institutional interests..." Oh, yeah.

Brad Berenson. There's a name that calls up distinctly unfond memories. Check out one of the first posts I wrote about the Padilla case, at a time when almost no one was paying attention to it, from January 2004. It's titled, "From the Horse's Mouth: The Path to Dictatorship" (and is republished at the end of this post), and it analyzes an article defending the Bush administration's policies.

The article was written by...why, yes: Brad Berenson.

January 21, 2009

Visions of Collapse

[The post originally published here has now been deleted. It was drawing some unwelcome, unpleasant and decidedly unhelpful attention.

I'm in very terrible shape right now, for some reasons I've discussed, and for several I haven't. I won't even try to estimate when I might return to regular writing, or if I'm even capable of it at this point. I seriously doubt it.

My sincere thanks to all who have made donations. I have just enough to pay February rent, with a little bit left over. Since it's just a little bit more than the rent, once I'm able to function even slightly better, I'll be selling my books, CDs and DVDs to a secondhand dealer I've dealt with in the past. I won't get much money for them, since I don't have much of anything now, but it's better than nothing. And I'll need it. I'm sorry that people have recently purchased some items from my Wishlist. I'll try to listen to and/or watch the items people have so kindly sent me before they're all sold. I've deleted the link to the Wishlist, and I don't expect to restore it.

I should sell off all those belongings that I can in any case. I think this is generally described as "putting one's affairs in order." We are taught that it's better not to leave unnecessary clutter behind us, although why I should care about such matters at this point is entirely beyond me. And in truth, I don't much care about them; as I say, I'll sell all those belongings I can for whatever money I can get.

There, isn't all that wonderfully cheerful? You have absolutely no idea how filled with goddamned cheer I actually am.]

January 20, 2009

Of Desire Unfulfilled, and the Deadly Reality of Power

I listened to the inaugural ceremony. Did you feel "enmesh[ed] ... in a grander moment, as if history has stopped flowing passively by, and, just for an instant, contracted around you, made you aware of its presence, and your role in it"? Was Obama's speech "not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of word over flesh, over color, over despair"? Those engorged phrases concerning Obama Oratory, which would embarrass anyone other than an experienced practitioner of the trashier kinds of romance fiction, sputtered forth last year from one member of Obama's army of progressive fluffers. But I undoubtedly do a disservice to many romance writers, at least those who are skilled at pace and tempo. Surely they appreciate more than others the dangers of climaxing too soon.

Given the expectations raised, empurpled, and swollen by Obama's adulators, the speech on this occasion was ... limp. What a moment to find that Obama simply wasn't in the mood. Perhaps Obama's Chief Groper should have used some of the suggestions I generously offered without charge. A more explicitly anatomical approach might have stiffened the performance. Ah, well. I tried to help.

But I must stop offering observations that I regard as outlandish and unlikely to be realized in the great pageant of "real life." Chris Floyd informs us that Homer Simpson has found gainful employment at the Guardian. Thus, we move from make-believe, flowers, bells, leprechauns and magic frogs with funny little hats, to this, in an actual newspaper:
Today a magic spell will be performed. A man who 12 weeks ago was a mere political candidate will be transformed with the incantation of a few words, before a vast crowd and a television audience in the hundreds of millions if not billions, into the head of state, even the embodiment, of the most powerful nation on earth.
As Floyd discusses, these are the superficial and saccharine phrases that constitute one of the primary means by which mainstream propagandists disguise and seek to hide the ugly and deadly truths of the exercise of state power in our time. This particular kind of propaganda is not restricted to just one side of what are commonly regarded as the "right" and "left" in our politics. Right and left both engage in this deadly deception. While a Republican administration held power, those on the right sought endlessly to justify the murders and oppression of the authoritarian-surveillance-militarist state. Now that the Democrats will exercise the levers of power -- in both the executive and legislative branches, let us emphasize -- the justifications will spew forth from the same liberals and progressives who condemned identical actions taken by those who committed the unforgivable sin of not belonging to "their" side. If you are looking for a principled approach to these questions, I suggest you avoid those who regard the achievement and exercise of political power as the means to the improvement of humanity.

With regard to the reality of the heralded "peaceful transfer of power" that we witnessed today, I remind you of the nature of that power. I wrote the following at the beginning of June of last year, when Obama and Clinton still contended for the Democratic nomination. This seems an appropriate moment to remember these truths, as decidedly unsentimental and therefore upsetting as they are to so many people. To say that the great majority of Americans, including most commentators and bloggers, are deeply unserious and unreflective is perhaps the kindest comment I can offer on this point. From the first part of "The Triumph of the White, Male Ruling Class":
Reflect for just a moment about what it is they want to win so desperately. Each of these three persons [McCain, Obama and Clinton] wants to be the most powerful ruler in the world. Given the nature of the weapons that will be at their disposal, they want to be the most powerful ruler in all of history, with the power to fundamentally transform human history and perhaps even to end it in significant part. Even if you believed that you acted righteously, with justice and truth on your side (let us set aside for the moment how one can believe that the power to murder millions of innocent people can ever be thought to be right or just, although I do not believe such considerations should ever be set aside), would you want power of that kind? If you would, I hope never to meet you. For any person who actively seeks the power of life and death over just one other human being, let alone millions of people, is deeply, irrevocably damaged in psychological terms. If we use the term "normal" to designate those goals and motives that can generally be described as supportive of individual life and happiness, no one who wants to be president of the United States is remotely close to normal. When you consider the years of relentless, soul-destroying ambition that are required to approach the office of president, together with the indefensible compromises, the endless lies, and the constant exercise of power over others in less extreme forms, anyone who deeply desires to be president verges on a constant state of insanity.

Yet one of these terrifyingly deranged people will, in fact, be the next president. Many Americans are excited, even thrilled, about the prospect, which tells you a rather important fact about most Americans, actually many important facts. I have numerous reasons for dreaming of a stateless world. There are others, but these are among the most critical of them.
As I regularly note, I am well aware that the state in its current form will not vanish, or perhaps even be significantly altered, in our lifetimes, and it may survive the next several hundred years. Nonetheless, a profoundly different vision of what is possible is necessary to grasp more fully the damaging, far too frequently deadly, reality which now enmeshes us.

And for those people, which is most people, who will immediately protest that people are inherently "bad" in some way that requires adult supervision in the form of a powerful state, I refer you to, "The State and Full Spectrum Dominance, Abroad and At Home," and the Robert Higgs article excerpted there. My essay has more on this issue, and the Higgs piece has much more, but you might want to consider this passage from Higgs:
[E]verything that makes life without a state undesirable makes life with a state even more undesirable. The idea that the anti-social tendencies that afflict people in every society can be cured or even ameliorated by giving a few persons great discretionary power over all the others is, upon serious reflection, seen to be a wildly mistaken notion. Perhaps it is needless to add that the structural checks and balances on which Madison relied to restrain the government’s abuses have proven to be increasingly unavailing and, bearing in mind the expansive claims and actions under the present U.S. regime, are now almost wholly superseded by a form of executive caesarism in which the departments of government that were designed to check and balance each other have instead coalesced in a mutually supportive design to plunder the people and reduce them to absolute domination by the state.
In many posts, I have examined the numerous ways in which Obama has already indicated that he has no intention of modifying this drive to "absolute domination by the state." If anything, and especially given the "opportunity" presented by the economic crisis, the Obama administration will speed our descent into the hell of unanswerable state power.

It is with a profound sense of sadness that I note that future developments will provide many occasions for the analysis of all these issues in still further detail.

January 19, 2009

Thoughts Preceding the Great Transformation

You're living in a world of make-believe, with flowers and bells and leprechauns and magic frogs with funny little hats. -- Homer Simpson, Ph.D., M.D., Psy.D., D.O., D.S.W., Ed.D., D.C.M., D.Min., J.D., D.C.H., from his seminal work, Meditations on the Transmigrational Nature of Perambulating Observances (sometimes referred to more informally as, Don't Bullshit a Bullshitter)
Listen here.

Or perhaps...

Imperial Pageantry for Moronically Idiotic Idiots

So Jon Favreau, Obama's chief speechwriter, has done a lot of work on Obama's inaugural address.

Does this mean Obama will talk about Hillary Clinton's tits?

"Rising tits lift all our hopes..."

"These are the tits that launched a thousand dreams..."

"Let me speak of the tits of change..."

I well realize the galactic scope of Americans' capacity for utterly mindless, contentless, meaningless spectacle. God knows, I've written about it often enough. But the absolutely overwhelming amount of colossal shit attendant upon this inauguration ("Look, Mom! Barack made me fly!" -- I do not exaggerate even slightly, scroll to about the midpoint of the story) is enough to make anyone who remains remotely sane loathe all mankind throughout all eternity.

I post this brief message only to let those few of you who have not lost your fucking minds know that you are not alone. Some of us, perhaps three or four hundred, still retain some connection to reality. But it frays and is under lethal attack. Whether the connection will survive the next day or two is an open question. Recourse to alcohol (and/or other substances of your choosing), sex and other diversions might be the wisest choice, until midweek at the earliest. Let's play safely: make it until the weekend. Hell, through the weekend.

I'm sure that other empires in their final phase of decline exhibited similar signs of complete intellectual collapse, combined with ungraspably trivial sentimentality that would embarrass a four-year-old of average intelligence. But the determined refusal to face facts, including the foundational fact that Obama is a singularly dangerous fraud, in tandem with Americans' love of political philosophy and ideas in general as expressed in a Hallmark card may well be unmatched in history.

To those of you so devotionally intent on celebrating this historically historic moment in history, as you accuse those few of us who are still capable of speaking in full sentences with actual referents of being "cynical" and shockingly lacking in what you so irresponsibly and reprehensibly call "idealism": Have a moronically good time, morons.

January 18, 2009

The Necessary Violence of the Murderous National Bully

I want to explore here some themes that are interconnected in very complex ways. It took me several years to appreciate these interconnections, so I do not expect them to be readily apparent to others. I continue to discern further aspects and ramifications of these ideas, and they are also related to certain mechanisms I will discuss when I explore the nature of tribalism in politics.

I'm prompted to offer these thoughts in part because of the monstrous devastation visited on Gaza by Israel. In considering Israel's ghastly recent actions, it is critical always to keep in the forefront of one's mind that Israel brought widescale death and destruction upon a captive population -- that Israel slaughtered many innocent people in precisely the way cattle are slaughtered. Now, while Israel's military remains in Gaza, Israel announces that it will abide by a ceasefire. Please note that this ceasefire takes effect after "after 22 days of war that killed more than 1,200 Palestinians and 13 Israelis." Even when confronted by such a devastatingly awful death toll (and if "disproportionate" ever had any meaning, it most certainly does here), many people are proclaiming that Israel "lost" insofar as longer term goals of peace and security are concerned -- see, as just two examples, here and here. Because they believe Israel "lost," they are unable to understand Israel's motives in pursuing this course.

This view is absolutely wrong, in at least two critical ways. First, on the practical level (or speaking "pragmatically," as our incoming president might say), Israel pursued its murderous course for several weeks -- and no one at all did anything of consequence to try to stop the murder. To the contrary, Israel's strongest ally, the United States, offered enthusiastic support for these crimes, most notably in the form of almost unanimous and unqualified support from the U.S. Congress. As I've said before, this is far from surprising, since the United States government has a long history of crimes of this kind, and currently continues a crime of historic proportions in Iraq. It is to their mutual benefit for criminals of this kind to applaud each other's bloody work.

Throughout the continuing scenes of dismembered bodies, corpses of bloody children and all the nightmarish further details, Obama maintained his loathsome silence, and broke it only to express a generalized "concern" with the great suffering being endured. Obama also claimed he would have "plenty to say" about Gaza once he is inaugurated. However, as I recently discussed, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that his policy toward Israel will differ in any significant way from that of previous administrations. In fact, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that his policy will be virtually identical.

I will credit Israel for exceptionally clever timing, in the same manner I would credit a very skilled murderer for knowing how to eradicate clues to his identity. Israel says it will now stop the murder, just as Obama is about to become president. In this manner, Israel generously allows Obama to avoid having to take a stand as president about these recent events, and to indicate whether he would have stopped the massacre if he had been president as it was occurring. But the general dynamics remain unchanged. When Israel again decides to ramp up the terror -- and it will, the only question is when -- the blame will once again fall on the "terrorists" who provoked Israel, in the same manner that the U.S. government is always very careful to make every act of its own aggression the fault of the other party. And the slaughter of the innocent will commence once more.

To think that Israel "lost" reveals a significant failure to understand the operations of the State, and of a particular kind of State. Just as the U.S. drive to American global hegemony means that the U.S. government intends to have its way no matter what, Israel intends to have its way within the smaller territory which it claims for its own dominance. From this perspective, it can be seen that the exercise of power in the manner just demonstrated by Israel is not a strategy toward a further end: the exercise of power is the end. Terrorizing an entire captive population, making large numbers of people (including many entirely innocent people) believe they have no choice but to obey, and visiting destruction and death upon them if they do not do exactly as they are told -- all of that is the purpose. To summarize this point, which applies to the governments of both the United States and Israel:
The fundamental lesson is unmistakable, and unmistakably evil in intent and execution (a word made horribly appropriate in more than one sense by our government's actions): you will do exactly as we say -- or else.
Israel did all this -- and no one stopped it. When Israel does it again, it is almost certain that no one, certainly not the U.S. government, will stop it then, either. That, I submit, is precisely what victory looks like.

Here is another connection. From "Lies in the Service of Evil," and the full essay discusses this in great detail:
The crucial point is Foucault's. Let me rephrase it as follows, in connection with torture specifically.

Torture does not work. Its use permanently damages all those who are tortured, and those who administer the violence. Its "lawful" use profoundly undermines the broader society and democratic institutions in ways that are irreparable. But its persistent, ineradicable failure is entirely irrelevant for those who seek to consolidate and expand state power. Moreover, its inherent failure underscores their aim: it does not work, everyone knows it does not work, but the state does it because it can.
There is a second way in which the belief that Israel "lost" is profoundly wrong, and it concerns a particular kind of narrative: the narrative of national founding and identity. Since all States are founded upon and rely on force and coercion (for much more on this subject, see this essay), all States must periodically remind their subject-citizens of the meaning of State power, and of the fact that when the State targets you, there is precious little you have to offer by way of defense. Within this general principle, a narrower principle may also be identified: one particular kind of State is especially prone to fits of aggression, just as any bully is driven to demonstrate regularly that you (and anyone else) cross the bully at your own peril. The psychology of the bully is one that lies at the core of the American national identity, to the extent such a phenomenon can be identified. I discussed these issues at length in two essays in particular: "Bullied, Terrorized and Targeted for Destruction: Our Children Have Learned Well," and "Let the Victims Speak."

What is true of America in this respect is also true of Israel, for their national narratives and their histories contain striking similarities. Chris Floyd recently described this as follows:
[W]hat we have been witnessing in Palestine over the past several decades is a remarkable echo of the dispossession and destruction of the Native American nations by the United States. There are myriad differences, of course, but the broad outline is basically the same: a people denigrated as primitive and inferior are being stripped of their land, driven into poverty and desperation, and killed in large numbers by another people who believe that their "manifest destiny" and moral superiority justify violent conquest and repression. Any violent resistance to the conquest is treated as barbaric terrorism -- and another justification for yet more repression, for even harsher tactics to grind down the conquered, secure "the frontier" and make it safe for "settlers" and the "civilization" they bring.

One reason that Israel persists in its harsh policies of decimation and destruction against the Palestinians is that such methods very often work: you can dispossess another people, destroy all but an ineffective remnant of their society and colonize their land to your own lasting profit and advantage. And you can do it in such a thoroughgoing manner that there will be no realistic possibility of the conquered people ever rising again to take back what was theirs. This is the example that the United States has set for Israel. It is unlikely to work in the same way or with the same degree of success for Israel in 21st century, for a number of reasons. In fact, it can -- and probably will -- end in disaster. But it is not an irrational policy; it does have many successful historical precedents -- including the history of Israel's chief benefactor.
And in "Why Most People Won't Fight," I discussed Uri Avnery's analysis of the same point:
Avnery discusses the profound similarities to be found in the national narratives of the United States and of Israel: how "Israel is a small America, the USA is a huge Israel"; how the "Mayflower passengers, much as the Zionists of the first and second aliya (immigration wave), fled from Europe, carrying in their hearts a messianic vision, either religious or utopian"; how "Both suffered a great deal in their new country. Both saw themselves as 'pioneers' who made the wilderness bloom, a 'people without land in a land without people.' Both completely ignored the rights of the indigenous people, whom they considered subhuman savages and murderers. Both saw the natural resistance of the local peoples as evidence of their innately murderous character, which justified even the worst atrocities." And then Avnery writes:
How is it that a man like Obama, the son of an African father, identifies so completely with the actions of former generations of American whites? It shows again the power of a myth to become rooted in the consciousness of a person, so that he identifies 100 percent with the imagined national narrative. To this may be added the unconscious urge to belong to the victors, if possible.

Therefore, I do not accept without reservation the speculation: "Well, he must talk like this in order to get elected. Once in the White House, he will return to himself."

I am not so sure about that. It may well turn out that these things have a surprisingly strong hold on his mental world.
These are very important insights. That Obama "identifies so completely with the actions of former generations of American whites" folds into my current series, "The Triumph of the White, Male Ruling Class" -- a class to which Obama belongs fully and completely in every way that matters, philosophically, politically, and ideologically. Avnery provides yet another aspect of Obama's identification with the white, male rulers of America, the rulers who have held almost all power from the founding of this nation (and before) through and including today -- and into tomorrow. And Avnery's observations about the power of myth track completely with my writings about that power, and about the power of narrative. As but one example, see "Why the Stories We Tell Matter So Much."
For the argument here, the crucial aspect of these very similar national narratives and histories is this: the founding and development of both America and Israel required the large-scale, even genocidal, destruction of indigenous peoples. To further that destruction, and to provide moral "justification," the indigenous peoples first had to be condemned and demonized. And because force and violence are necessary to the continuation of the State, such demonization must continue into the future, especially since additional acts of destruction will be necessary for the maintenance and consolidation of State power.

When I was reflecting on these matters, I initially thought that part of the reason America and Israel are both driven to acts of destruction that appear to be "irrational" (but, I emphasize, only from an outside perspective which disregards the inner dynamics at work, just as it disregards the extent to which such policies do, in fact, work) was that the political leaders of those nations appreciate in some manner the great evil committed by their governments, evil which they continue in the present day. This is a well-known psychological mechanism: whether one acts for good or evil, after an initial act has been undertaken, one is often compelled to offer further justifications for what one has done. Very frequently, one is driven to acts that are more and more extreme, all to justify the correctness of one's course.

I then realized that this explanation, while it may be true in the individual case, cannot be known with any certainty. In many instances, it may also pay certain people a compliment they do not deserve: that they are, in fact, able to appreciate the nature of their own actions. In any case, I now think this explanation is unnecessary, for there is a much simpler reason for the actions of America and Israel, two reasons actually.

The first reason lies in the nature of a State centrally founded on conquest and violence in the way that is true of America and Israel. Setting aside moral questions and whether the murder of innocent people can ever be justified -- and I realize it is abhorrent to set aside such issues, but we must recognize that such matters rarely concern American politicians or those of any other nation, despite their frequent protestations to the contrary -- reliance on the conquest of victims who are inevitably furiously angry and resentful, and who will seek retribution whenever the opportunity presents itself, is necessarily uncertain and undependable. If your rule depends on the compliance and obedience of those over whom you hold sway in such circumstances, you will necessarily have to remind the subject-citizens of the price of disobedience from time to time. One result is that scapegoats will regularly have to be found: first they will be identified, then they will be demonized, and finally they will be punished, even eliminated as required. From this perspective, violence, even death on a horrifyingly large scale, and the power of the State are not different phenomena: they are two aspects of the same phenomenon. Violence is the State. Power is not the means to another end: it is the end.

The second reason concerns what constitutes "national interests," those of the United States, Israel, or any other nation. Just as many people contend they cannot understand what propelled Israel's recent actions, disregarding the arguments offered above, so many people say that it is not in the "national interests" of America to offer unquestioning support to Israel in the way it does. This rather badly misses the point of what those "national interests" are, and who determines what they are. Those "national interests" have nothing at all to do with you, or me, or with "ordinary" Americans. The "national interests" of the United States as a political entity concern only the ruling class, as discussed in detail here, here and in many other essays linked therein.

And so I return once more to Robert Higgs' formulation. There is another aspect to "national interest" which is analyzed here, but it is critical to appreciate the following. Robert Higgs:
As a general rule for understanding public policies, I insist that there are no persistent "failed" policies. Policies that do not achieve their desired outcomes for the actual powers-that-be are quickly changed. If you want to know why the U.S. policies have been what they have been for the past sixty years, you need only comply with that invaluable rule of inquiry in politics: follow the money.

When you do so, I believe you will find U.S. policies in the Middle East to have been wildly successful, so successful that the gains they have produced for the movers and shakers in the petrochemical, financial, and weapons industries (which is approximately to say, for those who have the greatest influence in determining U.S. foreign policies) must surely be counted in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

So U.S. soldiers get killed, so Palestinians get insulted, robbed, and confined to a set of squalid concentration areas, so the "peace process" never gets far from square one, etc., etc. – none of this makes the policies failures; these things are all surface froth, costs not borne by the policy makers themselves but by the cannon-fodder masses, the bovine taxpayers at large, and foreigners who count for nothing.
The ruling class has not "lost," not in Gaza, not in Iraq, not in most of the other many wars of aggression throughout history. To claim that they have is to misapprehend what their interests are, and how those interests are fulfilled. The prospect or, very infrequently, the actuality of large scale public unrest and protest may cause the ruling class to make concessions now and then, concessions specifically designed to ensure future compliance. But except for extraordinarily rare moments of profound historical shift, the ruling class continues in its enjoyment of untold wealth and power, all of which is fed with the blood and suffering of the "ordinary" people.

It may be that the rot now consuming more and more of the United States economy will circumscribe the U.S. ruling class's determination to dominate the globe. At present, however, there is no sign whatsoever that our ruling class is considering even the smallest degree of humility. To the contrary, Obama's proclamations that "the American moment" should extend for "this new century" lead to precisely the opposite conclusion. I would not be at all surprised if this theme is included in Obama's inaugural address in some form.

For the United States, as for Israel, violence, subjugation and death were indispensable to their founding and development, as they are indispensable to their continuance. We may desperately wish that it were otherwise, but these horrors will not end in the near future. To whatever extent we can, that is the goal demanded by decency, humanity and a genuine reverence for life toward which we must continue to work.

January 17, 2009

The United States of Obama

Aw, Christ. No historical resonances here. Don't you dare mention anything that happened in the twentieth century. You'll ruin the party (that would be the newly "branded" Obama Party), and you wouldn't want to do that, would you? Would you?

Oh, yeah. I have plenty of thoughts about where this kind of development could lead. But it's the weekend, and I don't feel like going into it. Besides, it's too damned depressing.

But you can place your bets with me about how long it will be before some kind of involuntary "voluntary" national service is folded into and/or affiliated with "Organizing for America" and "protecting the Obama brand." My bet says it happens sometime toward the end of Year One of the Obama Transformation. Think of it: "Obama 2.0." Or, rather, don't think of it. Sorry.

So look at it this way: if you missed a few of the low points in history -- "low" being like, you know, a euphemism for really bad times, but I don't want to scare the children or unnerve those of you feeling just a wee bit skittish at the moment -- you get to live them now!

And you can work for the greater glory of The United States of Obama!

Some country we got here. What are air fares to New Zealand at the moment?

Forget this business. Listen to some great music.