November 10, 2007

The Obedience Culture, and the Death of the Mind -- and Toward a New World

At the beginning of February, I wrote about the profoundly heroic stand taken by Lt. Ehren Watada, in "You're Either With the Resistance -- or With the Murderers." I said that Lt. Watada "is one of those rare heroes who has said, 'No' -- and he is prepared to go to jail for four years for his refusal." So part of what happened this past week is wonderful news:
First Lt. Ehren Watada, the first commissioned officer to refuse deployment to Iraq, won what his backers are calling a "huge victory" in court Thursday.

US District Court Judge Benjamin Settle ruled the military cannot put Watada on trial a second time unless it can prove such a trial would not violate the US Constitution's prohibition against "double jeopardy."

In February, Lt. Watada's first court martial ended in a mistrial just before he was to take the stand in his own defense. Many observers believe the judge, Lt. Col. John Head, ordered a mistrial in that case because he was worried that Lt. Watada's testimony would lead to him being found not guilty of "missing [troops] movement" and "conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman."

Immediately before a mistrial was declared, Watada had said: "Your Honor, I have always believed that I have a legal and moral defense. I realize that the government can make arguments and you can make rulings contrary to that, but that does not negate my belief that I have a defense."

"To me," Watada told the court, leading soldiers into battle in Iraq "means to participate in a war that I believe to be illegal."

Watada had hoped to make that argument under the so-called Nuremberg Principles which arose from trials of Nazi war criminals after World War II.
Of course, the military remains determined to punish Watada as severely as possible:
In a statement released Thursday, the Army Office of the Staff Judge Advocate indicated it was not giving up and said the military plans to file additional briefs on the double jeopardy issues.


Watada's supporters expressed surprise that the military continues its legal crusade. David Mitchell, a lawyer who served time in prison for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War, noted that Lt. Watada has already completed his term of service in the military and could now simply be discharged.

"The longer the military continues this trial, the more publicity Lt. Watada gets," Mitchell told IPS, "[and] the more information is out there for the public that there are people in the military who challenge the legality and morality of the war."

Yet despite Watada's apparent victory, Mitchell is disappointed that other officers have not followed in the lieutenant's footsteps. Nearly two years after he publicly refused his deployment, Lt. Watada remains the only commissioned officer to refuse to serve.
I'm surprised that Watada's supporters are surprised that the military still wants to make an example of him. If Watada's resistance to an illegal and criminal war were successful...why, it might give people ideas, including those in the military itself. So the military continues its efforts to destroy him. In varying degrees, this is always how those in authority treat dissenters and those who challenge their asserted right to rule and to command obedience. It is especially true in the military.

Before I go on, let me note that you can read much more about Lt. Watada's courageous actions here, and you can donate to his legal defense fund here.

In the second of my essays "On Evil, Guilt and Responsibility," entitled "The Culture of War, and the Culture of Chicken Shit," I quoted from a superlative presentation given by Paul Fussell. Longer excerpts will be found in the earlier piece. For my purposes here, this is the crucial issue:
Now my point is simple: if you are trained to be uncritical of the military, you can easily go a little further and learn to be uncritical of government and authority, and even to be uncritical of all established and received institutions. The ultimate result is the death of the mind, the transformation of the higher learning and independent scholarship into a cheering section for whatever popular notions and superstitions prevail at the moment. ... I wonder if the habit of unthinking obedience is a good one to instill in young Americans. For one thing, what is clear about the culture of war is that it is necessarily an obedience culture. In armies, as one critic has noticed, where there must be unquestioning obedience, there must necessarily be passive injustice. And not just that--the obedience culture is certain over the long-run to shrivel originality and to constrict thought, to encourage witless adaptation and social dishonesty.
The United States is now a fully militarized nation. This is true not only because we spend more on defense than all other countries combined, or because we maintain a global empire of bases -- all for the sole purpose of ensuring American global hegemony. That this goal is impossible of achievement is no deterrence to the ruling class: they are determined to rule not just the United States, but the world. They will not surrender this goal until catastrophe on an unprecedented scale convinces them they must.

But the United States is fully militarized in a much deeper sense: it is now militarized psychologically and culturally. The other day, I analyzed how the critical lessons necessary to the achievement of an obedience culture are instilled in teenagers. As I noted there, the most fundamental lesson imparted to the high school students who peacefully protested the Iraq occupation is the necessity of obedience. Obedience, they were instructed, is the absolutely mandatory requirement -- if you wish to have a future, if you wish to pursue your goals, and if you wish to have any life at all.

As Fussell notes, and as I observed in my earlier discussion, you have only to give up a few things: justice, originality, honesty, and an independent mind. It should be noted that there is only an independent mind: to the extent you are willing to constrict your thought to acceptable mainstream views, you fail to think for yourself, and you give up any claim to genuine first-hand knowledge. You are left only with the unprocessed opinions of others, which you have never bothered to investigate or evaluate for yourself. Whatever might remain, it is not a mind in any meaningful sense.

Consider the people you know. Take a look at the views offered in our media. Consider the opinions offered on the most prominent and popular blogs, and the courses of action they support -- and the courses of action they reject. And then reflect upon the fact that the great majority of people are more than willing to give up all the values Fussell identifies. And for what? To be popular, to be successful, to wield "influence," to be "respectable."

In terms of its possessing a significant, genuinely vital intellectual and cultural life insofar as our political structures and governing purposes are concerned, the United States is already dead. That we refuse to recognize this does not alter the fact of our demise. Although it may take years or even decades for the rot to set in on a scale that forbids denial, all that remains for those of us who hope for a future of peace and liberty is to perform the autopsy, and to make certain we understand what went so horribly wrong.

And then, perhaps, another way of life can be devised, one that places nothing above the sacred values of peace and liberty. I do not expect to see it in my lifetime, not even the beginnings to any consequential extent. Still, it is the only goal worth working toward, the only kind of world I would choose to live in.

For the present, we are confronted with the world as others have made it, and we attempt to alter it to the extent we can. The task is often overwhelming, but it is the task we have been given.

I had what I found to be an interesting exchange with a reader and new acquaintance last week. Here is part of what we wrote to each other (I have edited this very slightly, only for clarity; of course, I obtained his permission to publish this, for which I thank him again):
About part of what you [my reader] wrote:
Maybe it is part of being a human being that you are sensitive to other human beings and suffer when they do. Maybe this is a natural feeling, but it has been repressed in most of us because it is painful and hard to deal with. I don't know. I am curious what you think about this. You are clearly very motivated. Do you know what drives you?
Empathy is a natural feeling -- we all would have it, if it were not driven out of us by destructive methods of child rearing, as Miller describes. I'll be discussing and analyzing many of those issues in more detail in the upcoming essays.

Certainly I know what drives me. Part of it is what I said in an essay several months ago -- that one I referenced this past week, "Passing on the Sense of Wonder." Passing on that sense is one part of it. And in that essay, I said that I am always aware that, "It doesn't have to be this way. We could act otherwise."

I see a very different kind of world -- a world of deep compassion, empathy and genuine respect and concern for all living beings. (That is not to say that I'm a vegetarian, for example. I'm not...although I sometimes think the fact that I'm not means that I still haven't made certain connections. I'll work on it. :>)) And in a very significant psychological sense, that is the world I live in now.

Although I once admired Ayn Rand, my view of her personally (and I worked for her and knew her to some extent in the 1970s) and of her work has grown steadily more negative. Today, it is extremely negative, and I think many of her ideas are and must be enormously damaging and destructive. But she once wrote something that captures a significant part of what I had responded to in her work. I believe this very, very deeply: "Those who fight for the future, live in it today."

That's why I do it. I want the world I envision. To the degree I fight for it in every way I can, I live in it today.
Do what you can. Donate to Lt. Watada's defense. Sign the petition in support of the Morton West high school students. Honor the resisters wherever you find them, and speak out on their behalf. Resist yourself, in all the ways you are able to.

The world I see is a very wonderful one. I deeply wish more of you would join me there.