January 01, 2009

The Same Year of Hatred, Cruelty and Violence, Endlessly Repeating

I wish all of you a joyous and peaceful New Year. Within the borders of your personal lives, such goals might be realized. Insofar as the general political and cultural issues that I have often written about are concerned, all such hopes were doomed long before 2009 began.

This is not because the human race is innately evil, but rather because each generation determinedly teaches the next how to hate, and how to kill. The unending procession of oppression, barbarity and widescale murder throughout human history is not inevitable. There have always been those rare individuals who, when confronted with the horrors of their time and asked to render support for them in any form and to any degree, will declare, simply and with no claim to heroism: No. Such individuals teach us that another mode of consciousness and a radically different manner of conduct exist and can be ours. The overwhelming majority of people are cowards; they consistently refuse to learn the lesson. Cowardice, too, is not inevitable or "natural": people are taught to be cowards. Most people learn that lesson very well indeed.

In the second part of "The Personal Factor," I wrote about that moment of choice, when "You're Either With the Resistance -- or With the Murderers":
History provides us with stories of individual heroism from which we draw courage. We wonder: why did Hans and Sophie Scholl fight against the immense evil of the Nazi regime, even when they knew their actions would very likely lead to their deaths, as they did in fact? In our own time, we wonder: why does Ehren Watada refuse to participate in acts that he regards as evil, even when he knows the penalty for his refusal may be exceptionally severe? From what source does he derive his strength, and why is he willing to pay such a terrible price? As I noted in an earlier part of the series, On Torture:
But above all else, there is one fact that appears forever invisible to both Krauthammer and Sullivan, and one kind of individual who does not exist for them.

When the order comes down to treat a prisoner with unspeakable cruelty, to "waterboard" him, to electrocute him, to cut him, to hang him on hooks from the ceiling for days on end, or to commit any number of other unforgivable crimes, there is always the man or woman who will say -- without bravado, without show, without explicitly staking any particular moral claim, but as a simple, unadorned statement of fact:
No. I will not do this. You can torture me, or say you will kill me. I cannot and will not do this to another human being. I will not do this.

It is the person who says, "No," whom we must seek to understand. It is not melodramatic or engaging in overstatement to say that he or she is our salvation.
In extreme circumstances -- as was true in the case of the Scholls, for example -- the cost of refusal may be death.

It is not that such people wish to die; to the contrary, it is precisely such people who are aware of the supreme joy of living in a manner most others are not. No, the reason for their refusal, even at the moment when refusal means death, is that they are unwilling to live on the terms demanded. In her essay, "Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship," Hannah Arendt considers what motivates such "nonparticipants":
[T]he nonparticipants, called irresponsible by the majority, were the only ones who dared judge by themselves, and they were capable of doing so not because they disposed of a better system of values or because the old standards or right and wrong were still firmly planted in their mind and conscience. ... Their criterion, I think, was a different one: they asked themselves to what extent they would still be able to live in peace with themselves after having committed certain deeds; and they decided that it would be better to do nothing, not because the world would then be changed for the better, but simply because only on this condition would they go on living with themselves at all. Hence, they also chose to die when they were forced to participate. To put it crudely, they refused to murder, not so much because they still held fast to the command "Thou shalt not kill," but because they were unwilling to live together with a murderer -- themselves.
Further excerpts from the Arendt essay are offered in, "The Honor of Being Human: Why Do You Support?" Additional discussion of the Arendt essay, with further excerpts, will be included in an upcoming piece of mine. Among other passages, I will include Arendt's answer to the charge of "irresponsibility" leveled against those who refuse to participate in evil. It is by means of such accusations that those who collaborate with evil seek to justify their own choice, while simultaneously discrediting the meaning of resistance; more than that, the collaborators with evil seek to convince people, themselves most of all, that no resistance is possible. In this way, evil is assured of its victory.

At the same time most people are taught to hate and kill, or at a minimum to acquiesce in hatred and killing, they are taught another similarly deadly lesson: that they themselves have no moral agency in the realm of politics, that their own choices are of only marginal significance. In "The United States as Cho Seung-Hui: How the State Sanctifies Murder," I wrote:
Many sins can be laid at the feet of the State, particularly when a State has metamorphosed into an advanced stage of fundamentally corrupt corporatism, where nominally private business and enterprise become inextricably intertwined with the workings of vast government bureaucracies, when often unidentified enforcers are capable of favoritism or punishment on a vast scale. When the State is also engaged in widespread intrusiveness into and surveillance of most aspects of its citizens' lives, that State has almost certainly passed the point of no return. But one sin of the State is notably terrible in its specifically moral implications: it dissolves guilt and responsibility, and it cloaks human action in protective anonymity. The State, including the government of the United States, destroys countless lives both at home and abroad every day. With rare exceptions, we are unable to say: "This person caused the destruction." We don't know who did it; everyone did, and no one. "The system" is responsible. Guilt for the State's crimes is undetected, and undetectable.
The balance of that piece (and many other essays here) makes clear a critical point: while this dissolution of responsibility is one of the hoped-for results of the existence and actions of the State, destruction of moral agency is impossible as long as human beings exist and are capable of choosing. For those people who possess, in Arendt's terms, "the disposition to live together explicitly with oneself," for those individuals who engage in "[t]his kind of thinking" and "who want to think and therefore have to judge by themselves," responsibility and, where applicable, guilt always remain.

For more than a hundred years, the foreign policy of the United States government has been directed to the establishment and maintenance of global dominance. To this end, violence, overthrow, conquest and murder have been utilized as required. (See "Dominion Over the World" for the sources and development of this policy.) More and more, oppression and brutalization have become the bywords of domestic policy as well. Today, the United States as a political entity is a corporatist-authoritarian-militarist monstrosity: its major products are suffering, torture, barbarism and death on a huge scale.

Do not seek refuge in mindless platitudes on the order of, "But everyone pays taxes, and everyone supports this system in one way or another." No: some people, a very few people, do not. From "On Evil, Guilt and Responsibility":
[N]ote that it is far from sufficient to claim, in any form and with regard to any circumstance, that "the system made them do it." Most of us reject this kind of defense with regard to Germans during World War II, for example -- but today, many of the same people use the identical defense with regard to American soldiers in Iraq. But as Hannah Arendt incisively observes: "[W]here all are guilty, no one is." Blaming atrocities on the "system," failing to make more precise moral judgments, and avoiding the fact that there are always individuals who say "no," will not suffice.
Those who seek to justify their own collaboration with evil by condemning all of humanity ("All men are liars and hypocrites." "All men are evil." Etc.) might wish to consider how eagerly they join the ranks of monsters such as Charles Krauthammer, who seeks to justify the use of torture by similar means:
The confession is undeniable. Be absolutely sure to grasp what it is: Krauthammer thus confesses that he is already a monster, but he does not want you to condemn him for it. To the contrary, he wants you to become a monster too, to accept that you were "compelled" do so in the name of morality itself, all so that you will fear judgment in the same manner, and for the same reason.
Despite all these efforts at obfuscation and avoidance, the possibility of that "No" remains. It is the possibility for hope that most people refuse to recognize.

In the months leading up to the November election, I repeatedly argued that both major presidential candidates were war criminals. The truth is considerably worse than this statement would indicate: given the United States' corporatist-authoritarian-militarist identity and nature, a major national political candidate must be a war criminal. If he (or she) is not, he will never rise to the national level in the first place. (The rare exceptions only prove the point: they are of vanishing importance, and they exercise no power whatsoever.)

My judgment of Barack Obama in particular has now been proved beyond all dispute and all doubt, even before he takes office. I find it altogether astonishing that anyone could be surprised to the least degree by the American establishment's absolute refusal to recognize the monstrous evil of the ongoing Gaza massacre. No major American politician and no American commentator of any significance will acknowledge the war crime the United States has committed and continues to commit in Iraq, or the scope of the genocide the actions of the U.S. government have unleashed. Why, then, would the American establishment recoil from the slaughter perpetrated by Israel on a horrifying but still lesser scale? This truth, too, is infinitely worse: the primary emotional response on the part of the American establishment is one of rejoicing -- rejoicing that those sub- or non-humans, those animals, those "terrorists" are getting what they deserve. Given the record of the United States over the last century, and over the last six or seven years more particularly, one would think such monsters would not be so enthusiastic about people "getting what they deserve." As I have noted many times, a crucial part of our national religion is the conviction that the United States is "unique," and that the moral laws we so murderously apply to everyone else have but one exception: ourselves.

But those who engaged in numerous rationalizations and lies to justify their support of Obama should take the lesson: you supported a war criminal. A man who is a war criminal himself can hardly be relied upon to point out the crimes of others. Mike Whitney describes the nature of the evil embodied by Obama:
Obama has passed his first test with flying colors. He's made himself disappear so Israel can continue its killing spree in Gaza. The last time a president shrunk this small was when Ariel Sharon took his wrecking-ball through Jenin during the second intifada. Bush slipped down a mouse hole so Israel's "Man of Peace" could finish his dirty work unopposed. Now Obama has taken refuge in that same dark hideaway. What a relief it must be for his critics at AIPAC and the far-right think tanks to know that the next Commander in Chief will be every bit as compliant as the last. That's "continuity they can believe in".

Obama has remained serenely detached while American-made F-16's have dumped more than one hundred tons of lethal ordnance on the captive population of Gaza. In fact, the president-elect has spent more time working on his abs at the Semper Fit gym in Honolulu than trying to stop the bloody onslaught which has already resulted in the deaths of over 300 Palestinians, half of who are civilians.

When asked why he hasn't given his opinion on the conflict, Obama spokesman have blandly stated, "There's only one president at a time".

Uh-huh. So why was Obama so quick to condemn Russia's invasion of South Ossetia? Is the yardstick for measuring aggression different in the Caucasus than it is in the Middle East? Or is it because politicians are just too afraid to cross Israel?

"If somebody shot rockets at my house where my two daughters were sleeping at night, I'd do everything in my power to stop them," Obama proclaimed on a recent visit to Israel. Right. It's too bad Palestinian parents can't claim that same right without being branded as terrorists.

Perhaps Obama's inaction will finally put to rest the idea that he's a man who is seriously committed to justice or change. He's not. He's nothing more than an ambitious and well-spoken young man who's being used to conceal the genocidal operation of the imperial machine; a fact that is particularly poignant on a day like December 29, the 118th anniversary of Wounded Knee, when more than 200 Lakota Sioux were mowed down by the 7th Cavalry on the Pine Ridge Reservation marking the end of the Indian Wars. Like the Palestinians, the Indians were guilty of nothing more than having been born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Needless to say, if Obama had been around then, he would have looked askance and bit his tongue just as he has today. The truth is Obama is a "cool guy" who doesn't really feel that strongly about anything. That's why Obama's moral authority has been gravely eroded before he's even been sworn in. The bloody streets of Gaza are an indictment of Obama not Hamas.
If you voted for Obama, this is what you voted for. This what you support.

And yet ... there remains that, "No." As long as we live, the possibility for choice lives in us. If enough of us made a different choice, a future of peace might have a possibility of realization, however small that possibility now appears.

It is in the name of that possibility that we go on into a New Year, and into all the years to come.