January 31, 2006

The Limits of Politics, I: The Roots of the Politics of Power

I have now reposted my lengthy essay about Tony Kushner's magnificent play, Angels in America, at The Sacred Moment: A Hymn to Life. That article remains among the handful of my personal favorites in all my writing over the last three years.

When I first published that essay, a few of my close friends remarked that they weren't sure I myself fully understood how radical the implications of my themes were. At the time, I resented those comments -- not a great deal to be sure, but it was irksome to me in a minor way. I felt like saying: "Well, I wrote it, for goodness' sake. Of course I understand what it means!"

Now, with the passage of a couple of years and having done much more thinking and reading, I see that they were right. Before I explain what I mean by that, let me briefly make a prefatory point. If you wondered what I meant by "dancing" in this post, Angels in America is a wonderful embodiment of the quality and the approach to which I referred. Kushner's play deals with the most complex and multifaceted issues, and its events often focus on terrible pain, disease and death. And yet Angels is suffused with great wit and humor, with endless imaginative inventiveness, and with an almost incommunicable sense of profound joy. In the midst of its dramatization of great suffering, the play always, always dances. That is true for many reasons, and I will be discussing some of them in future essays.

With regard to the theme of this current article -- "The Limits of Politics" -- I was especially struck by this passage from my Angels essay, where I identified some of the issues Kushner's play raises:
[W]hat is the relationship between the political ideas we espouse and our persons, and our emotions? To what extent are our political theories shaped, and sometimes even distorted, by what we feel? Are our political ideas of value in themselves, even when they're cut off from or contradict our inner sense of ourselves? And many more issues are suggested in the exchange between Louis and Belize -- and one of them is critical to one of Kushner's central themes. At one point, Louis says there are no "angels in America," that there is no "spiritual path," that everything is only political. Here and throughout the play, Kushner thus raises these additional questions: what is the relationship between the spiritual and the political? Between the spirit and the body? Which is more important? Do we need both? How can a political theory properly account for our spiritual needs? Should it?
This provides an important clue to the source of the joy that Angels in America conveys, and it returns me to some of the implications of the earlier piece that I myself had not fully appreciated.

For many decades, and especially today, our public debates have been lamentably superficial and tragically limited in the way they approach political questions. The entire "spiritual path" has been almost entirely banished from consideration. In today's cultural atmosphere, I should immediately emphasize that by "spiritual," I am not referring to a God or gods, and what influence they should have on the public sphere, if any. I am using "spiritual" to refer to concerns that are much deeper, more complex and, blasphemous as some may view it, of infinitely greater significance.

On questions of domestic policy, almost all commentators sound like dessicated technocrats -- and the same approach infects and dehumanizes even the most momentous issues of war and peace, and of life and death. It is not at all the case that the more delimited issues in foreign policy, for example, are unimportant. Certainly, whether the invasion and occupation of Iraq help or hinder the fight against our actual enemies is a question of the greatest importance. There cannot be any reasonable dispute about the answer, since the Iraq catastrophe has only aided a worldwide jihadist movement, one which regards the United States as its primary enemy. Similarly, how we should deal with the possible threat represented by Iran is of immense significance, which is why I will complete my series on Iran shortly. (Here are the first two parts of that discussion: Part I, and Part II.)

But almost no writers will address the deeper questions: what explains humanity's long and virtually unbroken history of violence and warfare? Why do we appear to be so in love with destruction and death? I have addressed these questions in a number of essays -- most notably in The Voice of the Thug, and the Harbinger of Horrors Still to Come, and in When Life and Happiness Are Not Enough, among other articles. But most commentators, including almost all bloggers, never discuss these issues at all.

That reluctance, if not outright refusal, seriously to address and to try to come to terms with the underlying causes has been explained in Alice Miller's work. By way of contrast, I offered some specific examples of the often sickeningly trivial nature of most contemporary political discussions in the very first piece I wrote about Miller. Every day offers more stories demonstrating the truth of the mechanisms that Miller has identified, yet the majority of people will not see it. I remain convinced of the truth and the unique importance of Miller's writing, so I will attempt once again to explain the explanatory power of her work, from yet another angle.

Kushner's approach in Angels in America, including the paragraph from my essay excerpted above, suggests that we have deadened our souls in a crucial way, that there is a fundamental part of what constitutes our selves from which we have become irrevocably disconnected. As Miller demonstrates, using countless examples of actual life histories including the histories of many famous writers and artists (such as Sylvia Plath, among many others), that disconnection first occurs in our childhoods.

In fact, the truth is much worse than that: the methods most commonly used to raise children are designed to deaden our souls, and to prevent the growth of an independent, genuine, vital self. No, most parents do not realize this consciously -- which makes the danger only greater. Most parents simply reenact what they learned from their parents. Miller refers to traditional child-rearing methods as "poisonous pedagogy." In an earlier Miller essay (The Demand for Obedience), I offered Miller's own definition of this phrase:
Poisonous pedagogy is a phrase I use to refer to the kind of parenting and education aimed at breaking a child's will and making that child into an obedient subject by means of overt or covert coercion, manipulation, and emotional blackmail.

In my books For Your Own Good and Thou Shall Not Be Aware, I have explained the concept using concrete examples. In my other books I have repeatedly stressed how the mendacious mentality behind this approach to dealing with children can leave long-lasting imprints on the way we think and relate to one another in our adult lives.
In that same post, I went on to say:
I want to emphasize (and I will return to this subject at greater length soon) that, despite the common acceptance of spanking and corporal punishment as "legitimate" means of obtaining obedience from children, it is probably true that the much more common forms of "coercion, manipulation, and emotional blackmail" are not physical in nature at all. The damages and costs resulting from the demands of parents and educators for adherence to rules which are arbitrary and nonsensical to the child -- and to most thinking adults as well -- are terrible to contemplate.
There are several interlocking parts of the mechanisms that 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. (These issues are all explained in much more detail in the earlier Miller essays, and I will soon be posting a Table of Contents for all the Miller pieces.)

Some further excerpts from Alice Miller's own work are very illuminating with regard to these issues, and to their relevance to the current essay. The following is from one of her first books, Thou Shalt Not Be Aware. We should note the revealing subtitle: Society's Betrayal of the Child. As Miller once again makes clear, it is our childhood experiences -- and learning to internalize completely the obedience-denial-idealization mechanism -- that explain so much of our adult behavior.

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

Crippling ties to certain norms, terminology, and labels can also be clearly observed in the case of many thoroughly honorable people who become passionately engaged in political struggle. For them, political struggle is inseparably associated with party, organization, or ideology.
Since the ominous threat child-rearing practices pose to peace and survival has always remained hidden, ideologies have not yet been able to perceive this situation or, if they do perceive it, to develop intellectual weapons against this knowledge. As far as I know, not a single ideology has "appropriated" the truth of the overriding importance of our early conditioning to be obedient and dependent and to suppress our feelings, along with the consequences of this conditioning. That is understandable, for it probably would mean the end of the ideology in question and the beginning of awareness. Accordingly, many ideologues who consider themselves politically active are like people who, if a fire breaks out, would open the windows to try to let out the billowing smoke (perhaps contenting themselves with abstract theories about the fire's origin) and blithely ignore the flames leaping up nearby.

My hypothesis that Adolf Hitler owed his great popularity to the cruel and inhuman principles of infant- and child-rearing prevalent in the Germany of his day [see the Hitler chapter in For Your Own Good] is also proved by the exception. I looked into the background of Sophie and Hans Scholl, two university students in Hitler's Germany who became famous as a result of their activities in the resistance movement, "The White Rose," and were both executed by the Nazis in 1944. I discovered that the tolerant and open atmosphere of their childhood had enabled them to see through Hitler's platitudes at the Nuremberg Rally, when the brother and sister were members of Nazi youth organizations. Nearly all their peers were completely won over by the Fuhrer, whereas Hans and Sophie had other, higher expectations of human nature, not shared by their comrades, against which they could measure Hitler. Because such standards are rare, it is also very difficult for patients in therapy to see through the manipulative methods they are subjected to; the patient doesn't even notice such methods because they are inherent in a system he takes completely for granted.
Miller's footnote about the Scholls should also be noted:
In the words of Ilse Aich Scholl: "When my brother came back from Nuremberg he seemed completely changed: tired, depressed, and uncommunicative. Although he didn't say anything, we all sensed that something must have happened having to do with the Hitler Youth. Little by little we learned what it was. The senseless drills, the militaristic parades, the drivel, the vulgar jokes -- all this had been shattering for him. Having to line up from morning till evening, speeches and more speeches, and then the artificially whipped-up enthusiasm. There was no time left for rational discussion.

"What had happened in Nuremberg irritated Sophie, as it did all of us. Nuremberg -- this did not yet cause an open break, but it was probably the first step separating us from the world of the Hitler Youth and the German Girls' League" (Hermann Vinke, Das kurze Leben der Sophie Scholl [The Short Life of Sophie Scholl], p. 45).
Today, in the United States, we see all this on display every day. Very fortunately, we have not seen the full catastrophe to which these dynamics can lead -- at least, not yet. But the crucial point is that the mechanisms are identical.

How else can we explain the phenomenon of intelligent people who proclaim their allegiance to "American values," to individual rights and to liberty heralding Bush as the great defender of those same values -- even as he acts to undercut them at the most fundamental level? How else do we account for the blatant contradiction inherent in the idea of launching a war of aggression against a third-rate country that posed no threat to us -- supposedly in the name of "peace" and "democracy"? What else can explain the continuing refusal of the most vehement hawks to acknowledge the devastation suffered by those we supposedly are "liberating," the Iraqis -- or suffered by the members of our own military? How else do we explain the means by which intelligent commentators end up justifying the use of torture, commentators who contend that we have "no choice" about turning ourselves into the very same monsters we say are our enemies?

As Miller's work explains, these are people who suffered terrible injuries as children, but who were forced to deny their own pain in the name of "obedience." This first denial leads to all the subsequent ones -- and it leads to the denial of the pain experienced by others. In an extreme case, it can also lead even to the denial of an indisputable historical fact such as the Holocaust. Mel Gibson denies it -- because his father does. Gibson dares not question his father beyond a certain point, or to challenge his idealization of the primary authority figure. When we become adults, and when the mechanism remains in place, the same idealization spreads to include political authority figures, and our nation's military.

Thus we have the "crippling ties" to "norms, terminology, and labels" -- and we have a populace that is unable to see the truth behind "politicians mouthing empty cliches." They were forbidden to see the truth as children, and the blindness expands when they are adults. The same blindness may well lead to worldwide conflagration once again, as it has in the recent past.

It should be emphasized that, while the most extreme and dangerous examples of these mechanisms are presently to be found in the United States among Bush's defenders, most of those who criticize Bush are only marginally better. They do not challenge Bush's program on the deeper level indicated by Miller, and most of the political debates we witness are conducted in only the most artificially circumscribed terms. Thus, even those who denounce Bush usually avoid the most significant and meaningful issues -- and in the end, they are helpless to prevent disaster from overtaking all of us.

I will explore these issues further in the upcoming parts of this series.