November 26, 2007

A Nation on the Edge of the Final Descent (IV): A Country Ready to Follow Orders -- Even into Hell

Part I: Glimpses of the Horrors to Come

Part II: A Culture of Lies, and a Desperate Need for Action

Part III: Obey or Die

The tasering of Andrew Meyer became and remained a major news story for at least a week after it occurred. I didn't attempt to follow all the commentary; it would have been impossible for anyone to do so -- there was simply too much of it. But I tried to listen to and read a representative sampling of opinion, across the political spectrum. (Since I can't afford and thus don't have television, my listening was confined to radio.) As I showed in Part III, two primary themes announced themselves, regardless of whether a person identified himself as conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat: the axiomatic assumption that the authorities are almost always right in whatever they do, and the uniform insistence that the authorities must always be obeyed.

I heard only one person who offered an impassioned contrary view: Randi Rhodes. (I apologize if there were others who made the points she did, and if I unfairly overlook them. As I said, no one could have kept track of what everyone said on this subject.) Rhodes is a difficult case for me, for I very often find her to be deeply irritating. At her worst, she is an unconvincing partisan hack, offering the most threadbare defenses of the Democrats. For several months earlier this year, she offered the "Innocent Bystander Fable" at least three or four times a week; based on my irregular listening habits, it appears she still repairs to these falsehoods with untiring dependability. This fable is very obviously false, as David Sirota regularly demonstrates, and it is deeply insulting to any intelligent listener. When I hear Rhodes and other Democratic defenders rely on transparent falsehoods of this kind, I always wonder who the target of such disinformation campaigns is: those they appear to be addressing, or themselves. I suspect it is both. I'll consider this question further in some upcoming essays.

But about the Meyer incident and the subjects it raised, Rhodes shone very brightly. I extend my great thanks to her for her treatment of these critically important issues. Rhodes noted that many others characterized Meyer as rude and obnoxious, and they considered him to be only a troublemaker and rabble rouser, someone who was "looking for trouble" and was "asking for it." To all this, Rhodes responded: No, I would say he is informed. She went on to say that given what has been transpiring in the United States for the last several years, and what continues to transpire today (none of which has been altered or even slowed down in any significant way by the Democrats whose virtues Rhodes still attempts to sell her listeners on), people who are informed tend to be agitated.

That's exactly right -- and that is precisely the point I have tried to make in essays such as, "Break the Goddamned Rules." Public life in the United States is designed and structured to make serious discussion about any subject of great moment impossible. This is true with regard to those views that are considered to be "acceptable" and "respectable," and it is also true of how political campaigns and political events are run, down to the daily and hourly details. It is prohibited to speak of the criminal genocide the United States has caused in Iraq; we may only talk about the monumental "strategic blunder" that has been committed. In the same way but on the smaller scale, both Democrats and Republicans make all but certain that they are never greeted with unwelcome or uncomfortable questions at public events, as Rhodes herself mentioned in connection with Andrew Meyer. On this occasion, Rhodes correctly insisted that her criticism was deserved across the board: she emphasized that Democrats do this as frequently as Republicans.

Rhodes saw very clearly that Meyer had to overcome tremendous obstacles even to ask his questions: he had to break through the cultural refusal to acknowledge the issues he raised, just as he had to push to the head of the line of questioners -- to ask questions that no one else dared to utter. As I have discussed, I consider Meyer's second question about the looming possibility of an attack on Iran to be the most critical at this particular moment. Meyer's first question, concerning Kerry's concession of the 2004 election on the day of the election itself, despite the fact that significant evidence of voter disenfranchisement and voting fraud was already known, was certainly an important one. Meyer forlornly asked Kerry at one point: "Didn't you want to be president?"

Although this is an undeniably critical question, I consider it to be a wasted, futile one, for one reason above all: neither Kerry nor any other leading politician will ever provide an honest answer. If Kerry were to be honest, he might say something like this: "Certainly I wanted to be president. But if I called into question the election results in any fundamental way, it would raise still more questions. It might make people wonder about the integrity of elections altogether. It make cause people to question the legitimacy of our system of government itself. We can't have that. Sure, Democrats and Republicans disagree about some issues of policy, and sometimes those are important. But we agree on the basics: a corporatist, authoritarian government at home, and American world hegemony abroad. That system has worked just fine for me, and for all my friends. Hell, I'm incredibly wealthy and powerful. So I don't get to be president. But I still have a life that 99.9% of you can only dream about, and I like that just fine. I'm not about to mess with the system that gives me all that."

Since no one in public life is ever going to provide an answer that even approaches the truth, it's pointless to ask the question at all. As for Meyer's third question, about the "secret society" that both Bush and Kerry have belonged to, I view that as a very bad mistake both substantively and strategically. It amounts to relying on conspiracy theories (or at least appearing to), when the motives and goals of our ruling class are in full public view, as they have been for decades. Any explanation provided by membership in a "secret society" is redundant and unnecessary. Additionally, since this approach is widely viewed as peddling conspiracy theories, it provides critics with an easy means of writing people like Meyer off completely -- and thus avoiding the crucial importance of his second question.

The possibility of an attack on Iran is not going away; it may actually be increasing. With their ceaseless, irresponsible warmongering, the leading Democrats do nothing but make such an attack more likely. For the better part of a year, I have tried -- and tried -- and tried -- to motivate people, including the leading liberal and progressive bloggers, to do something to try to prevent it. Almost no one gives a damn. It would appear that the greatest threats to liberty and peace are Joe Klein and David Broder, with the endless dire warnings about the Klein-Broder Fearsome Engine of Destruction leavened with a few posts here and there in praise of Otto von Bismarck's far-seeing social policies. There's nothing like the sugar-plum ideal of the Prussian welfare state to raise the spirits and get the blood rushing. Meanwhile, global catastrophe lies in wait. But neither I nor anyone else can convince the leading lights of the progressive blogosphere to move their pudgy fingers and fat asses to do a damned thing. To hell with it, and to hell with them. (In my zealous efforts to be scrupulously fair in all matters, I note that some of them may have slim fingers and superlatively firm asses -- but in almost every case, they are unforgivably lazy and contemptibly immovable with regard to any issue that genuinely matters.)

Returning to Rhodes' comments on Andrew Meyer: Rhodes repeatedly identified tasering as what it is -- and what it is, is torture. Rhodes was the only commentator I heard who made this point, and who made it numerous times. No one else thought this fact to be worth mentioning. In this manner and in many similar ways, we see how cruelty, barbarity and torture have become normalized in America. We feel no need to mention that the sun rose again this morning; it is an unremarkable, known, predictable fact, one of no significance whatsoever. And so it is now with torture and inhuman cruelty. These practices are now so common as to be unworthy of comment. The sun rises and sets; America tortures and murders, many times a day, every day, throughout the darkening years. There is nothing to note here.

On her show one day shortly after the Meyer incident, Rhodes' guest was Jonathan Turley. One primary focus of Turley's comments was especially enlightening, and particularly alarming. Turley's concern was the increasingly common Catch-22 of our increasingly authoritarian government: police approach you about some matter; in many instances, you have committed no crime at all; if you question the police -- or do anything at all that the police will later construe as "resisting arrest" -- then the police get you for that. In this manner, the police have free rein to arrest anyone and everyone. All they have to do is come up to you, for any reason or for no reason. If you do anything, if you even continue to breathe, you may be accused of resisting arrest. Out come the tasers, among other instruments of torture. If you manage to keep breathing and live, off to jail you go.

This is the "freedom" that "they" hate us for.

Yet with the exception of Rhodes (and perhaps a handful of others I may have missed), none of this was deemed worthy of comment or concern. Commentators who identify themselves as conservative and liberal, as Republican and Democrat and progressive, said almost as one: "He was a troublemaker. He was rude. He behaved badly. He was asking for it." As one, almost all of them insisted that we must always obey the representatives of authority, that we must do exactly as we are told, that we must follow orders.

Do I need to remind you of the historic episodes best-known for invocations and appeals of this kind? It appears I do, and I will get to that in more detail shortly. First, we need to consider the roots of this unquestioning, unappealable reverence for authority. This returns me once again to the work to which Alice Miller has devoted her life.

I have written numerous essays based on Alice Miller's books and articles; you will find them listed here, with a brief description of each. My recent essay about the Morton West high school students also discusses the critical importance of Miller's work, in the last section in particular. The overall theme of Miller's work is the destructive, life-long effects of the child rearing practices accepted by virtually everyone. If you are reading this, you have suffered in varying degrees the damages that Miller describes, as I have too. The exceptions are so rare that they scarcely merit mentioning. If you are a parent, you almost certainly are damaging your children in similar ways, at least to some extent. In essays that will be posted in the coming weeks (beginning, I hope and plan, in the next several days), I will prove this to you.

As Miller herself must regularly do, I hasten to add that the continuation of this destructive cycle is not the result of parents' failure to love their children, and certainly not because most parents wish to do harm. To the contrary: it is because today's parents were taught by their parents that these destructive methods of child rearing were "for your own good" -- that is, for the child's good. We are taught to deny our own pain as very young children; the continued denial requires that we idealize our parents (or other primary authority figures); the denial of our pain necessitates the denial of others' pain; and the idealization of authority spreads as we mature and often, as today, encompasses the state, including its military and law enforcement apparatus.

Permit me to offer a few general notes concerning Miller's work. I recognize that acceptance of the truths that Miller identifies is a painful and exceptionally difficult task. It may be of some help if I give this brief outline of my own intellectual journey in this particular terrain. I first began reading The Drama of the Gifted Child in the early 1980s. I didn't finish the book -- and it is not a long book -- for two or three years. Miller's identifications resonated very deeply for me, and reading the book was terribly painful. I was unable to read more than 20 or 30 pages at a time, and I then had to set it aside for months. In the late 1980s, I began reading Miller's other books. It continued to be very painful, and I continued to resist seeing the full scope of what Miller discussed. I only absorbed and understood it in small parts, over a very long period of time. (Many of Miller's other readers have reported the identical pattern to her.)

This resistance is completely understandable, and inescapable. Miller asks us to question those beliefs that were instilled in us in the very first years of our lives -- those beliefs that serve as the foundation for much of the rest of what we later come to believe. To question -- and then to begin to challenge, and finally to set aside -- those beliefs that are so critical to our sense of ourselves and to our view of the world must of necessity require a great deal of time and work. You can try to take shortcuts through this process, and I certainly did. But they don't work: I had to return to the beginning many times, and start to work through it again. It has only been recently, in the few years preceding my first essays about Miller, that I finally began to think that I had understood the major parts of my own history, and that my life began to make sense to me in terms of the beliefs and approaches that had shaped it.

My own resistance is mirrored in the response of many of my readers. As nearly as I can tell, only a very small number of people agree with my general political views, including my views concerning foreign policy. But even among that small number, the resistance to my Miller essays is remarkable, as I noted at the outset of the final installment of my series "On Torture." As I said there, many of the same people who agreed with me every step of the way will suddenly stop at that point. I understand the general reasons for this resistance, but it continues to cause me no small amount of astonishment.

Second, let me offer a suggestion about the order in which to read Miller's books. Although I started with The Drama of the Gifted Child (this was the book that first brought Miller worldwide attention, and it probably remains her best-known), I strongly recommend that you not begin with it. It is very densely written, and it is hard going. (It may not help that, if we read Miller in English, we are reading all her books in translation.) In addition, Miller was first trained in psychoanalysis, an approach she later disavowed emphatically and completely. A brief note on that subject will be found at the end of this entry. Psychoanalytic jargon and terms will be found throughout The Drama of the Gifted Child and her other early books, which makes them considerably more difficult. After Miller had jettisoned psychoanalysis, and as her ideas became clearer and more precise, her writing grew increasingly streamlined and "reader-friendly," if you will. For these reasons, I strongly suggest beginning with two of her later books, both of which serve as wonderful introductions to her thought: Banished Knowledge and Breaking Down the Wall of Silence. (Excerpts from the latter will be found here and here.) After those two books, you can work forward or back, and I think you will find that approach much easier.

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.

In one of my earliest Miller pieces, I made these related observations:
With regard to Miller's point that the idealization of authority figures is easily transferrable for those who have not been allowed to develop a true sense of self, events of the last few years have provided numerous examples. Let me emphasize one other point before moving on to some of the more notable ones. Nothing I am discussing here should be construed to mean that the ideas that people accept do not matter. In fact, as most of my writing here demonstrates, I view ideas, and whether they are true or false, as of critical importance. But the truly notable phenomenon is the following one: many of the ideas that people have accepted, in some cases even for thousands of years, can easily be shown to be wrong. So the obvious question arises: if the ideas are demonstrably wrong -- and as is often the case, when the consequences of certain ideas can easily be shown to be disastrous, and even horribly destructive -- why do people still cling to them so desperately, and absolutely refuse to give them up?

And this is where Miller's work is invaluable. Such tenacity in the face of overwhelming evidence cannot be explained simply by saying, "Well, they just refuse to think. And when someone refuses to think, no one else can make him." Obviously, certain people refuse to think at a certain point. But the question remains: Why? If one looks at the life histories of the great majority of people, keeping in mind Miller's work and her detailed personal histories of a number of individuals, the answer is clear: they dare not question the goodness of the authority figure, they dare not acknowledge the pain they have experienced as the direct result of the actions of the authority figure, and above all they dare not say: the authority figure is wrong. This underlying mechanism of obedience is set very, very early in life -- and the thought of dislodging it later on literally causes the adult to panic, in a sense that threatens his precarious (and false) sense of self. So the adult will do anything to avoid having to question the authority figure.
That is the last of the introductory matters I wish to include here, and it leads directly into two excerpts from Miller that I included in earlier essays. These passages provide the broad outlines of the general issue that concerns me. In future installments of this series, I will examine these ideas and their implications in much closer detail.

First, with regard to the foundational role of obedience, from the same earlier article:
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.
In "The Roots of the Politics of Power," I offered this excerpt -- from Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Society's Betrayal of the Child -- which broadly traces the interconnections between the personal mechanism of obedience and the political sphere (by "poisonous pedagogy," Miller means, "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"):
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.
In the concluding part of that essay, I compared the cultures of the United States today and Germany in the 1930s. I emphasized that the differences are important and notable -- and yet, certain of the underlying mechanisms involved, particularly the demand for obedience, are shockingly similar. The reactions to the Andrew Meyer incident from people of all political persuasions demonstrate that fact with terrible clarity.

I had not read the very end of that essay, written close to two years ago, for quite a while. I do not at all enjoy being accurate in predictions of this kind, and I admit that it gave me a chill to read my own words now:
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.
Events of recent years have confirmed these observations too many times to count, just as they continue to confirm them today.

To be continued.