March 03, 2006

The Power of Narrative, and the Myth that Justifies the Horrors

[I first published this essay on November 14, 2005. I have continued to explore these themes in my writing over the last few months, and especially in the series, On Torture, as well as in the series concerning Iran. I've added links to related more recent essays below. These themes will also figure in a number of upcoming essays, a few of which I expect to begin posting over the weekend. So I decided to feature this essay once more, particularly for those readers who may not have seen it when it first appeared.]

In the middle of last night, motivated primarily by my growing revulsion as I comprehended the magnitude of the horror revealed in this NYT op-ed piece, I wrote this essay: Monsters with Borrowed Souls: The Horror Magnifies. Several of the issues that I identified deserve lengthier consideration. Here I will discuss one of them, because it is particularly well-suited to an explanation of the title and theme I chose for this new blog.

The NYT article traces the source of the torture methods now adopted by the U.S. military. The nature of that source is more than sufficiently horrifying: it turns out that these particular barbaric techniques were practiced and perfected (if such a word can be employed in this context) by communists who were once our enemies. The purpose of the torture is equally sickening. As the authors put it: "For Communist interrogators, truth was beside the point: their aim was to force compliance to the point of false confession." As I pointed out, this means that the rationalization of using torture to procure useful intelligence and thus to save lives is only that: a rationalization, and a blatant lie. These methods have never been used, and are not used today, to obtain the truth: "truth was beside the point." The point was, and is, to destroy the prisoner's will -- to make him a literally mindless automaton who will do exactly as he is told. This is now the purpose adopted by our own military.

This alone is sufficient to make any person who remains remotely civilized recoil in disgust at the degree of inhumanity involved. Make no mistake: this is sadism for its own sake, with no further aim or purpose. In the future, I'll write in some detail about the psychological sources of this kind of impulse, and I will also repost earlier essays of mine which address this question. [That series of essays is now available here: On Torture.] As I say, all of this is horrifying enough -- but one element that underlies this is even worse with regard to the object and nature of the target of destruction. It is monstrous to deliberately destroy even one human being -- but it is even more monstrous to destroy the concept of morality itself, and the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, between the truth and a vicious lie.

What now concerns me is contained in the following paragraph. After describing some of the methods formerly practiced by our communist enemies and now adopted by the U.S. military -- methods which include but are not limited to "prolonged isolation and sleep deprivation, stress positions, physical assault and the exploitation of detainees' phobias" -- the authors write:
Some within the Pentagon warned that these tactics constituted torture, but a top adviser to Secretary Rumsfeld justified them by pointing to their use in SERE training, a senior Pentagon official told us last month.
In the previous essay, I pointed out that this web of lies that loops back around on itself in a kind of infinite regress is a technique now raised to a monstrous art by the Bush administration: it uses its initial lies to "prove" later ones. Let's translate the above paragraph into blunter terms that accurately capture its essence: "These tactics cannot constitute torture for one simple and overriding reason: we have used them ourselves in our own training. If we use them, they cannot be torture. It's impossible." To say it another way: "If we do something, it is inherently justified and right. It may not be questioned -- simply because we have done it."

This is the reasoning employed by any murdering thug, who justifies his actions to himself by repeating over and over that whatever he does is right. "It's right because I do it. It's right because I say so." I note that this is the same justification offered by any bloodthirsty dictator. This approach rejects reality explicitly: there is no reality any longer, except the one created by our own thoughts and deeds. This is why I again referenced Ron Suskind's NYT article in the earlier piece: when these people insist that they are "creating other new realities" whenever they choose, they mean it, fully and completely. I suspect that a fair number of people still don't appreciate precisely what this means, or what its full implications are. Perhaps this latest story about our adoption of torture and the government's "justifications" for it will make the point clearer.

But there is a still more fundamental issue involved, an issue that goes to the heart of the overall theme I chose for this blog. In the time between shutting down my old blog and starting this one, when I was not preoccupied with the serious practical problems which unfortunately still face me, I read and thought about many issues. At a certain point, I became aware that there was a certain approach, a particular kind of issue, that seemed to be under the surface wherever I looked. It came up with regard to almost every political issue I considered, it arose with regard to personal relationships and in connection with the view we each hold of ourselves, and it came up repeatedly with regard to literature and the other arts. It was the same issue, but it took me quite a while to realize what it was: very simply, it centered around the stories we tell ourselves, and the stories we tell others.

When I refer to "stories" or "narratives" in this sense, I intend a much broader meaning than the one typically employed. To use a different kind of example, but one which is also the focus of much controversy at the moment, consider creation myths. Every society we know of in history has had a story about how the world was created, where mankind came from, and how we fit into the universe. In our own time, we have two competing stories on this subject. One of those stories was most notably begun by Charles Darwin: a tale of the natural world, how it developed and changed, and how man finally emerged. The other story focuses on a supernatural being or force of some kind which is beyond our comprehension, and which created this world (or at least significant parts of it) in some manner we can't explain. (With regard to the latter story, it doesn't matter whether its proponents choose to call it creationism or intelligent design: the basic story is the same, and so are its meaning and purpose.)

The contrast between the evolution and creation stories illuminates a few key elements of the issues that concern me. We can arrive at a story about our world by first observing what is before us, analyzing its nature and causes to the best of our ability, and then carefully identifying those broader explanations and conclusions we consider justified and provable. Those explanations and conclusions then become the story we tell about what we've observed. Or we can begin with the story itself, a story we have chosen because it pleases us for some reason or fulfills some need, and then proceed to fit the facts we discover into the already existing story as best we can. When the facts won't fit, we may ignore or seek to dismiss them through a variety of strategems.

Contrasting creation myths underscore another crucial point: the stories we tell, and the method by which we arrived at them, affect how we think and how we act in countless ways. To put it another way: we tell stories to explain why the world and we exist as we do, a retrospective kind of telling -- and those stories then influence what we do in the future, as a prospective guide. The quotes in the box to the right all speak to the power of narrative, and the Salman Rushdie statement is especially relevant to this point. If we are irrevocably wedded to one particular story and if we adamantly refuse to challenge or reconsider its various aspects, we can quickly become paralyzed: we render ourselves "powerless," because we "cannot think new thoughts." [The quotes no longer appear on the site, but the Salman Rushdie statement is as follows: "Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts."]

To move to another realm: we all have stories about ourselves, and about our families and our lives. We may not all consider ourselves to be the heroes of our lives, but we are certainly the protagonists. By the time we are well into adulthood, our autobiographies explain whether we deserve our fates, be they good or bad, whether we shaped our lives or they were shaped by forces beyond our control, and many other issues. We also tell ourselves stories about our families and our childhoods, and how they have affected us and influenced the trajectories of our lives. As I have examined at length in my series of essays based on Alice Miller's work, many of those narratives are wrong. More than that, they are very often profoundly damaging. If our parents denied or condemned parts of our vital, genuine selves as we were growing up, most of us will internalize that denial. As we mature, the denial spreads throughout our own lives, and it affects our perception of the world around us. Because almost all of us are taught not to question authority from the time we were infants -- or at least not to question it beyond a certain permitted point -- we seek to justify those we view as authority figures even when we are adults, and even when their actions are cruel, unjust and sometimes monstrous.

This brings us back to the question of torture, and why its practice now appears to be so easily accommodated by many Americans. And not simply accommodated: many of the most fervent hawks offer affirmative arguments in favor of torture. What we had once condemned as inhuman and impermissible when practiced by our enemies is now virtuous and admirable when we do it. But the behavior itself hasn't changed: only the actor is different. This rests on one element of the myth justifying torture today: that authority is not to be challenged beyond a certain point. Just as infants and young children cannot even imagine questioning their parents' behavior, even when it is inconceivably cruel and sometimes monstrous, but seek to explain it by blaming themselves, so too many Americans cannot even contemplate questioning our government, our political leaders (including the president most significantly), or our military beyond certain narrow limits.

The idea that our own government might be run by people who are themselves monsters is not a thought that anyone would welcome or even entertain seriously without a great deal of evidence. Tragically, the current administration has provided just such evidence, and on the required scale. But for many people, such an idea is literally inconceivable. In their universe, where authority is still identified with life itself, such an idea is forbidden. [These issues are explored from a slightly different vantage point in When the Demons Come.]

The reverence for authority is one piece of the explanation. The other piece lies in a narrower creation myth: the story that is widely accepted about the birth of the United States as a nation. Just as every culture has a narrative to explain the origin of the universe, of our planet and of man, so every country has a narrative it embraces about its own origins. There is one sense, but only one sense, in which I enthusiastically embrace the generally accepted myth about the United States: in terms of its original founding principles, the United States represented a genuinely revolutionary and awe-inspiring leap forward for mankind. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights codified individual rights as the foundation and purpose of legitimate government: government's sole valid function was the protection of those rights. No country in history had ever stated this idea explicitly, and placed it at the very center of its founding document. (I note here, although the full explanation would take me far afield, that in my view the Declaration of Independence set forth the same founding principles, and should properly be read together with the Constitution to appreciate the full scope of the founders' achievement.)

The founding principles that first gave life to the United States, principles that represented the fundamental reason for which the American Revolution was fought, represented a glorious and noble achievement. In its deepest sense, the American Revolution was an intellectual one. I acknowledge that fact and the magnitude of the achievement with profound gratitude, and with a reverence for which I cannot find appropriate words.

The tragedy which began barely a century after our country's founding, the same tragedy which threatens to engulf us today, similarly defies proper expression, so terrible is it in its meaning and consequences. As just one example, but one of the greatest significance: the right of habeas corpus was one of the major elements underlying the liberty we once enjoyed. For a long time, no one seriously considered questioning this right to any degree at all. In this case, recognition of the crucial nature of this right was entirely correct. As a consideration of the administration's stance in the Padilla case indicates, if the executive has the power to imprison any one of us, perhaps for the remainder of our lives, and never has to explain or justify its actions, we have accepted the basic principle of any dictatorship. (I discussed the Padilla case, and its relationship to Guantanamo as a symbol of omnipotent power, in this essay.)

I strongly recommend this wonderful article by Jacob Hornberger for an explanation of the meaning of habeas corpus, and why it is so central to the American experiment. To underscore what is at risk today, here are Hornberger's concluding paragraphs:
Given the powers that Bush, Ashcroft, and the Pentagon are wielding, it is impossible to overstate the magnitude of the danger Americans now face from the executive branch of their own government.

If the Supreme Court ultimately permits such powers to stand — or if the president, attorney general, and Pentagon refuse to comply with a ruling of the Supreme Court against them — federal officials will be free to wield those powers not only against the likes of Padilla, Hamdi, Moussaoui, and Marri, but against anyone and everyone.

In that event, genuine freedom in America will have disappeared, for there would no longer be any barriers standing in the way of sedition laws, concentration camps, disappearances, gas chambers, and gurneys, not only at Guantanamo Bay but here at home as well.

That’s why the time to stop tyranny is at its inception, not later. Just ask any German.
Today, led by Bush himself and other political leaders, habeas corpus is under attack across the board and threatened with complete destruction, just as Hornberger explains. Certain of our legislators seek to deprive not only foreign detainees of the right of habeas corpus, but American citizens as well. Thus, if the Padilla case doesn't destroy it, Congress might. If that were to happen via either route, liberty is a dead letter in the United States in principle. As I previously explained, the rest is only a matter of time and details.

Habeas corpus is only one example of the destruction of liberty that has been occurring in the United States for many years. The destruction began in the late nineteenth century, and became widespread throughout the entire twentieth century. Liberty was constantly diminished, while government power over our lives and government intrusion into all our activities grew exponentially. Today, government is our constant companion in almost everything we do. If the current administration and many of our political leaders have their way entirely, liberty will no longer exist for us, not in any meaningful sense. Individual liberty, the right to live your life as you choose as long as you refrain from violating the same right of others -- the right which was the beating heart of this country at its birth -- is close to extinction. It should be remembered that the founders themselves would not be surprised by these developments, although they would certainly grieve the infinitely great loss. The founders' writings are shot through with warnings about the fragility of the experiment upon which they had embarked: they knew that all governments only grow, and never diminish -- and that all governments' thirst for power cannot be satisfied. I strongly suspect that many of them would be surprised at how long the reality of their vision lasted. The rise and fall of other nations throughout history certainly offers no consolation on this point.

But to return to the myth that still sustains many Americans, the same myth that now justifies even torture: for many Americans, once again most notably including our president, the America of today is fundamentally the same America that existed in the late eighteenth century. For them, essentially nothing has changed. America remains "the city on a hill," the unblemished, intact original vision to which the founders first gave life. But, in fact, that vision began dying well over a century ago.

The belief that the original vision still exists today flows into the other parts of the enduring myth: America remains the final, best hope of mankind; America is essentially pure in purpose and motive; America has only liberty as its goal, for itself and for the rest of mankind; America eschews all forms of power over others. If events of the last few years have proved nothing else, they have proved that this myth is no longer true. We invaded a country that did not threaten us; we have established dominion over it; we will leave only when that country will do our bidding, in all the ways that concern our leaders. Such purposes may be described in many ways; liberty is not one of them. (A knowledge of history, and especially of the Spanish-American War and its aftermath in the Philippines, should have established these facts long ago.) [I have since discussed in more detail how this myth about America informs our foreign policy -- in Part III, and particularly in Part IV and Part VI, of my series about Iran.]

But to see and acknowledge this changed reality, one must be willing to face the facts squarely, and one must be able to appreciate their meaning. This is why I stress the power of narrative, and the power of myth. Once it is embedded deeply enough in the national psyche, the myth cannot be dislodged. No matter that a mountain of contradictory facts has arisen, the myth will prevail. And the full truth is worse: the new reality, a reality which contradicts and undercuts the actual founding principles at their root, is justified in the name of the myth. Even torture, we are told, is acceptable if we practice it -- precisely because we practice it on the myth's behalf. We may even torture, and the inhumane and barbaric become virtuous, because we act in the name of liberty -- the same liberty that is now vanishing into memory within our own shores.

There is much, much more to be said about all this. This will have to suffice for now. I shall return to these ideas very soon. I consider none of greater ultimate importance.