**********Life and Death in the Obedience Culture
I have sometimes described America today as an "obedience culture." The phrase refers to the fact that, beneath the specifics of the largely pointless debates on any topic you care to name, those who purport to speak on behalf of the values of "civilization" and "order" -- that is, those who contend they and only
they are the true defenders of Western civilization generally -- insist on the primacy of one virtue above all others: obedience to authority.
What is probably the most significant root of this belief lies in the patterns of thought and feeling that are beaten into all of us in the earliest years of life. In far too many cases, the axiomatic necessity of deference to authority is literally
beaten into very young children, through physical violence. More often and with a frequency that should also be horrifying to every decent human being, this belief is instilled in very young children through emotional coercion, pressure and manipulation. I've written about these issues in detail in many essays. If the subject concerns you -- and I will arrogantly contend that no single subject is of greater moment if we are genuinely concerned with challenging and finally stopping the endless destructions that threaten to engulf the world once again -- you can begin with "Meaningful Connections
." That entry contains many links which will take you to several books' worth of essays on these topics. (On the subject of emotional coercion and manipulation more particularly, I recommend two essays: "Creating the Next Generation
," and "Learning to Hate 'The Other
I've described the manner in which this unquestioning belief in the necessity of obedience is implanted as follows (from "Let the Victims Speak
There are several interlocking parts of the mechanisms that [Alice] Miller describes that must be kept in mind -- and these parts help to explain what is missing from our political debates. The first part is obedience to the demands of the parent and/or other authority figure -- the second part is denial of the pain experienced by the child himself, when he is made to "conform" to arbitrary edicts and to suppress his own spontaneous, genuine emotions -- the third part is idealization of the parent and/or additional authority figure, since the child depends on the parent for life itself and dares not challenge the parent or the parent's "good intentions" -- and the final, inevitable part is the denial of the pain experienced by others. If we fully acknowledge the injuries sustained by others and the pain they experience, it will call up our own injuries. Because this would call into question our most fundamental sense of ourselves, this cannot be permitted. In this manner, the deadening of the soul -- which began with our own souls -- must expand to deaden us to the full reality of the selves of others.
When this mechanism of obedience, denial and idealization is instilled deeply enough, as it is for most people, the mechanism will be transferred to additional authority figures when the child becomes an adult. In the political realm, the additional authority figures may include the State or country, the most powerful political figures, and those agencies of government charged with enforcing obedience (the military and the police being the most obvious examples).
Many of my previous essays trace the operations of this mechanism across a wide variety of examples. Recently, I wrote about "The Blood-Drenched Darkness of American Exceptionalism
." If you keep in mind the underlying pattern described above, you can see that the quasi-religious belief in American Exceptionalism, which effectively operates as a form of secular fundamentalism, represents the transfer of the identical mechanism to the nation itself as an ultimate figure of authority.
I'm reminded of a passage I wrote six years ago, in "When the Demons Come
." I was discussing the nature and extent of the denial engaged in by those who defend American Exceptionalism with special vehemence, and this may help to clarify the point:
With no effort at all, you could multiply examples such as these a thousandfold, every single day. In this manner, defenders of our current foreign policy wipe out of existence all the facts, all the costs, all the deaths, and anything else that might bring into question what is an absolute of their faith: the United States is right, what we have done and are doing in Iraq is right, our military is right, we are inherently unable to make mistakes, and the authorities must not be questioned.
These are the victims described by Miller -- now grown into adulthood, continuing their denial, with additional authority figures added to the ones they first had. Besides the original parent, they now revere our government and our military and, beyond a certain point, nothing they do is to be challenged. As I have discussed, to do so would bring into question these individuals' entire false sense of self, it would undermine their worldview completely, and it represents a threat that cannot be allowed to come too close. As always, what is dispensable in all this are facts ... and above all, the lives of human beings.
The particulars of our debates may have altered to some extent in the years that have passed since I wrote that -- although what is most notable is the degree to which the particulars have not
altered -- but the basic mechanism has not changed at all. As just one example, an especially grisly one, consider my discussion of the torture inflicted by tasering in "Obey or Die
."Additional Means of Enforcement: The Law and the Rules
Many, and perhaps even most, political commentators and bloggers today agree that the United States is an increasingly authoritarian State. Depending on where they fall on the political spectrum, they will disagree about who shoulders the greatest responsibility and blame and about the preferred solution, but the majority of writers no longer question that the metastasizing authoritarian-surveillance State swallows up and obliterates more of our liberties, freedom and privacy with almost every day that passes. I will not reargue the point here; a quick trip through my archives will turn up many articles on the subject.
What is important to this discussion are certain of the means by which the authoritarian-corporatist-militarist State enforces obedience. Two of those means are especially critical: the law, and "the rules." Again, I've written extensively on these subjects. What follows is a very brief overview, to highlight those issues relevant to our consideration of the nature of resistance.
Even many of those people who vigorously challenge the tenets of American Exceptionalism will still speak in hushed, reverent tones of the "sanctity" of "the law." This testifies to the enduring strength and reach of the obedience-denial-idealization mechanism. People sometimes prefer to believe they escape the mechanism's operation and ramifications; most often, they do not.
To arrest your perhaps wandering attention, I announce my own perspective on this issue. With regard to what most people mean when they talk of the "sanctity" of "the law," I shit on it.
I shit on it repeatedly.
This is not the first time I've been extremely rude on this subject
. But, to console the faint of heart, I can be "civilized," too. I can be dispassionate and, horrors, even "respectable": "Concerning the State, the Law, and Show Trials
." From that essay:
The law is not some Platonic Form plucked from the skies by the Pure in Heart. Laws are written by men, men who have particular interests, particular constituencies, particular donors, and particular friends. ... Laws are the particular means by which the state implements and executes its vast powers. When an increasingly authoritarian state passes a certain critical point in its development, the law is no longer the protector of individual rights and individual liberty. The law becomes the weapon of the state itself -- to protect, not you, but the state from threats to its own powers. We passed that critical point some decades ago. The law is the means by which the state corrals its subjects, keeps them under control, and forbids them from acting in ways that the overlords might perceive as threatening. In brief, today, in these glorious United States, the law is not your friend.
"The law" has a mongrel child, which goes by the name, "the rules." From "It's not the sex. It's never the sex.
With regard to these issues -- that is to say, with regard to every issue that matters in political terms -- the ruling class (or the elites) and the State are not different things: they are the same thing. As Christopher Layne observes: "Dominant elites do not hijack the state; they are the state." Rules, also known as "laws," are to control and direct the work and lives of those ruled by the elites. They are intentionally designed to protect the elites and to control everyone else. The elites may and will disregard them as they choose.
In exceptionally rare circumstances, a member of the ruling class may set aside the rules in a way that draws just a bit too much attention. As a result, all those "ordinary" people may become a trifle unruly; they might begin to wonder if the system is rigged against them in some basic way. Obviously, it is, but it would hardly do for the filthy masses to begin to grasp this central fact. In these situations, the ruling class will have to make some minor adjustments.
I offer you one further excerpt about "the rules." This is from an article published in October 2007, and it dealt in large part with the tasering of Andrew Meyer, as John Kerry placidly watched torture take place only a few feet away and did absolutely nothing.
From "Break the Goddamned Rules
The law is not the only method by which the state controls us, and strips our national discussion of all meaning. There is another, less formal but no less constricting means, which is commonly identified by the phrase, "the rules." We must all follow "the rules." You cannot ever break "the rules." Be very, very clear on this point: the only way you can speak the truth on any subject of importance in this country today is BY BREAKING THE RULES.Understanding the Nature of the Demand for Obedience
That is what Andrew Meyer did in Florida. He broke the goddamned rules. He did not do so in any way that merited his being arrested -- but HE BROKE THE RULES. This cannot be permitted, not if our meaningless, pointless national discussion devoid of all substance is to continue in its meaningless, pointless way. Breaking the rules cannot be allowed if the lies are to continue. So he was arrested.
And he was charged with a third-degree felony for resisting arrest with violence and a second-degree misdemeanor for disturbing the peace -- for asking the most urgent question of our time, the question that almost no one will ask. He was charged with resisting an arrest that should never have occurred -- and with "disturbing the peace."
Friends, if this country -- and if you individually -- are to have any kind of human future at all, and by "human," I mean a life with any genuine meaning and joy, a life not fatally compromised by ongoing murder, torture, and brutality -- you had better fucking disturb the peace every second of every day.
Before returning to the subject of Wikileaks in particular and considering the nature of resistance, there is one final aspect of the obedience-denial-idealization mechanism that we need to appreciate.
I consider this issue of crucial significance, so I set it off by itself:
In any society or political system which relies primarily or in significant part on obedience for its continuing operation, the importance of the demand for obedience does not lie in the particular content of a given demand. The importance is in the demand itself: not that you act or speak in a certain way (or forbear to act or speak in a certain way), but that you obey. Compliance with a given demand may carry certain benefits to the ruling regime, but that is not its primary purpose and value. The primary purpose, that which makes everything else possible, is that you obey. From the perspective of the rulers, that is what matters, and it is the only thing that matters.
Once the principle of obedience is accepted sufficiently broadly, the regime may do whatever it wishes. Once a critical number of people have accepted that they must obey, the regime's power is absolute. The regime may continue to allow individuals to act "freely" within delimited areas of its choosing (and those areas may expand, shrink, alter or vanish altogether, depending on circumstances), but the primacy of obedience has been established. The regime can order its subjects to act in any manner it decides, and a sufficient number of people will comply, thus ensuring that the regime's operations continue unimpeded. Power of this kind is absolute, for there is nothing more to seek. The regime can order anything, and enough people will obey so that the order will be carried out.
In "The Honor of Being Human: Why Do You Support?
," I offered a description of obedience. As I explained: "I wanted this description to encompass at least three fundamentally different kinds of relationships, but to isolate the dynamics of obedience that are common to all of them. Those three relationships are: parent to child; one adult to another adult; and the adult to the state." I repeat the earlier description here, to reinforce the argument:
Obedience is the term used to describe the demand by a person in a superior position (superior psychologically, legally and/or in terms of the power he possesses in some other form) that a person in an inferior position conduct himself in a particular manner. The essence of obedience is the demand without more: a reason may be provided, but a reason is unnecessary. Moreover, the reason may be unconvincing or incoherent, and it may contradict other reasons provided for other demands. Most importantly, the reason need not be one that the person in the inferior position agrees with. Informed, voluntary agreement occurs when a person is presented with a reason(s) to act in a certain manner; he understands and is ultimately convinced of the validity of the reason(s), and therefore acts in the manner suggested.
Obedience is the opposite of voluntary, uncoerced agreement: the understanding and agreement of the person in the inferior position are not required, and are often not sought at all. The person in the inferior position may profoundly disagree with the reason(s) offered for the demand, if any. When the person in the inferior position obeys, he does so because of his certain knowledge that if he does not, he will be punished in some form: psychologically, legally, socially, or in some other way. Thus, the primary (although not the sole) motivation that ensures obedience is negative in nature: it is not the promise of a reward (even though certain rewards may be offered), but the assurance that he will not suffer consequences that are painful in varying degrees, i.e., that he will not be punished.
In that same essay, I excerpted a Hannah Arendt essay (found in Responsibility and Judgment
). Arendt argues that what we call "obedience" is not obedience at all in a political context, even under a dictatorship: rather, it is support.
Here is part of what Arendt said:
If I obey the laws of the land, I actually support its constitution, as becomes glaringly obvious in the case of revolutionaries and rebels who disobey because they have withdrawn this tacit consent.
In these terms, the nonparticipators in public life under a dictatorship are those who have refused their support by shunning those places of "responsibility" where such support, under the name of obedience, is required. And we have only for a moment to imagine what would happen to any of these forms of government if enough people would act "irresponsibly" and refuse support, even without active resistance and rebellion, to see how effective a weapon this could be. It is in fact one of the many variations of nonviolent action and resistance -- for instance the power that is potential in civil disobedience -- which are being discovered in our century. The reason, however, that we can hold these new criminals, who never committed a crime out of their own initiative, nevertheless responsible for what they did is that there is no such thing as obedience in political and moral matters. The only domain where the word could possibly apply to adults who are not slaves is the domain of religion, in which people say that they obey the word or the command of God because the relationship between God and man can rightly be seen in terms similar to the relation between adult and child.
Hence the question addressed to those who participated and obeyed orders should never be, "Why did you obey?" but "Why did you support?" This change of words is no semantic irrelevancy for those who know the strange and powerful influence mere "words" have over the minds of men who, first of all, are speaking animals. Much would be gained if we could eliminate this pernicious word "obedience" from our vocabulary of moral and political thought. If we think these matters through, we might regain some measure of self-confidence and even pride, that is, regain what former times called the dignity or the honor of man: not perhaps of mankind but of the status of being human.
With this general argument in mind, together with Arendt's observations, we can analyze the role of Wikileaks more particularly. The Profound Threat of Non-Cooperation
The most alarming indicator of America's likely course in the coming years is the extent to which the primacy of obedience
has been accepted by a majority of the population. I could offer many examples, but one of the worst was the reaction to the tasering of Andrew Meyer. As noted above, I wrote about that incident in "Obey or Die
In that article, I offered several examples of commentary about the torture inflicted on Meyer, a defenseless young man who had committed the unspeakable crime of asking a disapproved question, and doing so in a manner that some people considered rude. I repeat, to emphasize the horror: for the crime of (perhaps rudely) asking a question,
Meyer was tortured.
He might have been killed. With only a very few exceptions, commentators condemned, not the torturers, but Meyer. This was true even of liberal and progressive observers. As I summarized the reaction:
Note the common themes: the authorities are almost always right and they must always be obeyed, even on those supposedly infrequent occasions when they are not. Being rude and disruptive and not "following the rules" is impermissible, and is even criminal -- and it is a crime that deserves swift and harsh punishment. Above all, there is one central, axiomatic, unquestionable virtue that we are all to embody at all times: obedience.
But for reasons I have discussed, in a culture like ours today and at a time of great historic peril such as the present, to "Break the Goddamned Rules" is our only hope. Yet very few people agree with this view; certainly none of the commentators described above does.
I will examine the particulars of the Wikileaks Afghanistan story in the next part of this series. Here, I want to focus on the role of Wikileaks itself in the context of this discussion.
Consider what the United States government stands for at the moment. I will summarize very briefly. The U.S. government is engaged in the occupation of Iraq, while it wages a war in Afghanistan. The U.S. intentionally seeks to broaden the war into Pakistan (and has already done so to a significant extent), and it continues to threaten Iran militarily. Simultaneously, the U.S. has launched operations in at least 75 countries, and made "[p]lans ... for preemptive or retaliatory strikes in numerous places around the world."
The U.S. government also continues and even expands the Bush administration's policies with regard to torture as a "legitimate" State instrument
, as it continues and even expands the Bush administration's comprehensive assault on civil liberties at home. And the U.S. government ceaselessly works to impoverish and brutalize the majority of Americans in countless other ways, as it forcibly transfers countless billions of dollars from "ordinary" Americans to the already massively wealthy ruling elite.
The United States government does all
of this "legally." All of this monstrous behavior is approved by the "sanctity" of "the law" and by "the rules." Some of us argue that most or all of these actions are in fact criminal; indeed, under legal provisions that the U.S. government employs to condemn others, certain of these actions are criminal
. But that is not the story told by our rulers. They consistently maintain that all of these actions are legal, moral, and entirely just.
That isn't all. The State seeks to protect itself from all criticism and challenge by surrounding itself with an intricate and almost impenetrable web of laws, rules and regulations. The State arrives at its decisions on the basis of alleged "secret" information, which is not to be shared with the likes of us. It fashions and implements its policies on the basis of special, superior expertise, which "ordinary" Americans cannot hope to share or understand. All of this is a lie, of course; see the second part of this recent article
, concerning "The Claim to 'Special' Knowledge and Expertise."
If you seek to challenge the death grip of the authoritarian-corporatist-militarist State in a serious way, you will necessarily
have to break the goddamned rules. As I have argued, the point of "the law" and "the rules" is to protect
the ruling class and to restrict your range of action so severely that it approaches the vanishing point. If we challenge the State only within the bounds of what is permitted by the State itself, the challenge will be trivial and utterly insignificant. The State allows such challenges so that "the people" can delude themselves, again, that their "voices" are being heard.
This is not the route followed by Wikileaks. Wikileaks steps outside the boundaries established by the State altogether: it dispenses with the restrictions of "secrecy" and access limited to the already powerful. Wikileaks' approach is the embodiment of justice. It takes the repeated proclamations that the United States is a "representative democracy" and that its government is "our" government, and says in effect: You contend that you act in the name of the people. Then the people surely have the right to know what you're doing. This
is what you're doing.
And the loathsome sham is revealed. The government doesn't want you to know the truth, or anything even approaching the truth. The government wants you to know only the story the State itself chooses to tell. Note that Wikileaks is not unmindful of the possibility of putting people's lives in danger; see my first post
about this story. That is an important issue, and Wikileaks is to be admired for considering it in deciding what to release and what to withhold.
Given the realities of the authoritarian State that continues on its hideous campaign of death and destruction, "the law" and "the rules" constitute a crucial part of the means by which the State maintains its prerogatives. To the extent you follow them, you obey.
The State could not ask for more. Most people comply. Most people believe they should
The most basic purpose of Wikileaks is to challenge this structure at its foundation. To hell with your laws and rules, Wikileaks trumpets to the world. They are what enable you to continue in your evil and murderous actions. The laws and the rules are invaluable to the continuation of these horrors. Without the laws and rules that you use solely for your
benefit and protection, the horrors might be stopped.
In this way, Wikileaks seeks to stop the horrors. These are noble actions, undertaken at great personal risk. They demand profound admiration.
If you doubt at all the fundamental nature of the challenge to the existing system that Wikileaks represents, I offer you a further proof. Tunku Varadarajan is a thoroughly vile human being. I am completely confident in making that judgment on the basis of a single article of his I've previously discussed: see, "Nauseating, Unforgivable and Potentially Lethal Racism
." In my earlier post, I refused to publish the two words in the title of Varadarajan's article. In this context, I will. The title of his article, and the alleged momentous "threat" which gave rise to his disgustingly racist condemnation of a huge number of people, was: "Going Muslim." I repeat: a thoroughly vile human being.
And you may not think that Wikileaks is a serious threat to our corrupt, evil Death State, but Varadarajan certainly does. Consider the opening sentence of his recent article
If Hollywood were ever to make a film about a nihilistic leaker-hacker dude, a rootless subverter of international public order, they couldn’t do better than to cast Julian Assange as himself.
If you've followed my argument, you understand why I highlighted "a rootless subverter of international public order."Order
depends on laws, rules and regulations. The establishment of order
is the rallying cry of authoritarians, and often of the most despicable and bloodthirsty of dictators and totalitarian leaders. Order
requires that people obey.
Varadarajan sees the threat to "order" that Assange represents, and he's entirely correct.
The very next sentence tells us how unnerved Varadarajan is by the threat:
With his bloodless, sallow face, his lank hair drained of all color, his languorous, very un-Australian limbs, and his aura of blinding pallor that appears to admit no nuance, Assange looks every inch the amoral, uber-nerd villain, icily detached from the real world of moral choices in which the rest of us saps live.
This fixation on what Varadarajan views as Assange's repellent physical appearance sets off historical echoes which one might have thought would cause Varadarajan to reconsider his focus and his language. (And what, pray tell, are "very un-Australian
limbs"?) This is bizarre in the extreme. It offers further testimony to the seriousness of the threat Assange embodies to those who value "order" and obedience above all else.
Varadarajan describes Assange as "amoral," but Varadarajan only means that Assange refuses to obey and follow the rules that Varadarajan himself believes must never be broken. Varadarajan goes on to condemn Assange for a number of statements: his "almost catechistic condemnations of American 'war crimes'” (which they are
); and for this:
“I enjoy crushing bastards,” he crowed to Der Spiegel, one of the publications favored with the right to publish his dubiously acquired material. “The most dangerous men are those who are in charge of war,” he harrumphed. “And they need to be stopped.”
Varadarajan says this reveals Assange's "strut, his hubris, his palpable vainglory." Never mind that what Assange says is true.
Despite his own vicious racist condemnation of Muslims as an undifferentiated mass of human beings to be corraled and perhaps even eliminated as required, and his own support for America's ongoing wars of conquest and murder, Varadarajan is such a colossal bastard that he will still pull out this card: "For the security of the numerous Afghan informants who work with U.S. troops, he cares not a jot." Not true as I've noted, and I am not prepared to take the word of Varadarajan or the U.K. Times
to the contrary.
Moreover, if one is so deeply concerned about the lives of innocent Afghans, I would suggest to Varadarajan that he urge the United States to pull every single goddamned American out of Afghanistan in a matter of one or two months, and immediately stop all aspects of military operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and everywhere else. Oh, but we can't do that,
of course. Our national security is at stake!
The rest of Varadarajan's column is too distasteful to analyze. He is a perfect example of the self-willed, complete blindness I described in my recent article on American Exceptionalism
. Facts simply don't matter to him. The myth is everything, and nothing can be permitted to challenge even one aspect of it. I will only note that, in conjunction with some of his language (he refers to Assange's actions as "a sort of self-righteous, self-congratulatory onanism") and his focus on Assange's physical appearance, his final sentence is equally bizarre: "WikiLeaks is a brothel of self-promotion, Assange its puffed-up pimp." This is deeply disturbed, and disturbing.
But it demonstrates how powerful a threat Wikileaks is. Varadarajan correctly perceives that Wikileaks is assaulting not just the rules and restrictions designed to protect the ruling class, thus allowing it to increase its power and reach still further, but attacking the entire system itself,
together with all the beliefs that support it. And Varadarajan's reaction is further evidence of Assange's brilliance as I've discussed
: what truly undoes Varadarajan is that he sees no way to stop Assange, other than "to shower him with our most basic contempt." At least, Varadarajan isn't advocating that Assange be murdered -- although I'm certain Varadarajan is well aware that Obama has arrogated that power and "right" to himself
, should Obama deem it "necessary." Necessary to "national security," that is.
This analysis has focused on the significance of Wikileaks in largely political terms. There remains a very personal aspect of resistance that I want to discuss, along with some further observations about resistance in general. I'll turn to that next time.