February 12, 2012

On Behalf of Life: Occupy, Authority, and The Obedient Dissenter

Men may be divided into those who are in favour of life and those who are against it. Among those who are against it there are sensitive and wise and penetrating people who are too offended and discouraged by the shapelessness of spontaneity, by the lack of order among human beings who wish to live their own lives, not in obedience to any common pattern. Among such was Maistre. On the whole he has no positive doctrine, and if he has to choose between liberty and death he rejects liberty. -- Isaiah Berlin, writing about Joseph de Maistre, quoted in my essay, "Writing from the Scaffold: In Defense of Terror and Authoritarianism"
At the conclusion of my post from last week, where I described an ad idea which I hoped would get the attention of many Americans and prompt them to think about the criminality and insanity of an attack on Iran, I indicated I had additional ideas along the same lines and would discuss them soon. I decided I would leave that post as the latest one for a period of time, to see what response it received. I repeat that I'm not especially wedded to that particular ad idea, although I think it's a good one. But I'm sure other people could come up with more effective ones, or ideas of very different kinds employing strategies grounded in other ways. My post got a few links and several tweets, and I thank the few people who noticed it. And that was it. No writer or site with a large readership linked to or commented on my article.

With regard to what I hoped might happen -- the beginning of a discussion about doing something significantly different, in the hope of altering what otherwise seems to be an inevitable series of events -- the response was exactly the same as it was five years ago when I went through this same process: nothing. Almost nothing at all. As I indicated in the entry preceding the ad idea, that is what I expected. I may be perceived by some as being extraordinarily rude and dismayingly unruly in this post and several subsequent ones. I'm not going to use four-letter words this time (except perhaps one or two), but I plan to do something far worse. I will offer some observations which are more in the nature of indisputable facts, yet they are facts that most people have agreed never to acknowledge. Here, "most people" includes many dissenting writers and the major alternative websites.

Those writers and websites have offered hundreds, even thousands, of articles over the years about the immense destructiveness of U.S. foreign policy in general, and more particularly about the devastation and chaos that would result from a criminal U.S. attack on Iran. They have also published articles about the destruction of civil liberties and the massive growth of the surveillance state. I've written many such articles myself, including many dozens about Iran and the Middle East. During this time, all the terrible problems to which we've devoted so much attention have gotten steadily worse -- and not simply worse, but much worse. How do I know this? I follow the news -- and I read the dissenting writers and the alternative websites. They tell me that all these problems become more nightmarish by the day, and they tell me (and all of us) in excruciating, lengthy detail. Thousands of articles document the gathering, worsening horrors -- and the horrors constantly grow still more horrifying.

I do not want to be misunderstood on one critical point. The articles I refer to (and the alternative websites) have very significant value. They provide an inestimable educational service, by setting forth history, facts and analysis that are not available elsewhere for the most part. That is crucial. Also, and very importantly, they offer a sense of community and kinship to those who would otherwise feel isolated and alienated by the depravity and cruelty that dominate our culture. I myself receive emails from time to time in which a reader will thank me for allowing her to feel less alone, for reassuring her that she is not the only person who resists the madness that descends on us. I find some of those emails very moving, and I'm always enormously gratified to read them. These two purposes -- education and community -- are vital. I do not underestimate or casually dismiss their importance.

But if we hope to alter the course of events, even if all we can do is slow down what now seems to be a rush toward disaster on an ungraspable scale, thus to buy ourselves more time if we can, it cannot be disputed that all those articles are not enough -- and they will never be enough. Nor will huge, worldwide protests on the order of what we saw in 2002-2003, as I noted. I say again that it is the dissenting writers and alternative websites themselves that repeatedly tell me that all these awful problems grow steadily worse and increase in their destructiveness and cruelty. In addition to the articles, and to protests of the kind we've seen (which are routinely and systematically ignored), something very different in kind is required if we wish to see another outcome. That's the reason I offered the ad idea: to start a discussion of what we can do that is different and new, something that might motivate many Americans to look at these questions in a radically different way.

This is the same reason I offered my suggestions five years ago. I remind you that I was far from alone in thinking that the Bush administration was determined to attack Iran; a great many people had reached the same conclusion, and a large body of evidence supported it. I continue to believe that we will not know until 10 or 20 years hence, if then, what convinced the criminal Bush gang to give up those plans. And in that article from 2007, I wrote:
Two or three years hence, no one will be happier than I to look back on this time and laugh about how worried we were about what turned out to be nothing in the end. But as I said, that is not a chance I am willing to take. Even if my assessment should turn out to be completely wrong, the steps suggested below would be wonderfully good practice, in the awful event that an equally maniacal administration should hold power in the future. It would be enormously useful and comforting to know that an effective force of resistance can be built to check the mad ambitions of those who hold the reins of power.
I occasionally think about how much easier this work would be today if such an "effective force" had been built five years ago. I don't dwell on it, for it's far too dispiriting. There's also no point in reflecting on what might have been, especially at this moment in time.

Now, five years later, here we are again, seemingly in the exact same place. With regard to an attack on Iran, we have "an equally maniacal administration" that appears to be determined to follow the same general plan the Bush criminals finally gave up, for reasons unknown. They certainly didn't give it up because of the force of a resistance movement that had become so powerful that the ruling class decided some concessions had to be made, if only to protect their own power. That couldn't have been the reason because nothing like that came close to happening. So it is again today, at least as things stand at the moment. And a few thousand more articles about the criminality and insanity of attacking Iran will not alter future events, not by themselves. So I suggested something new and different. And exactly as before, almost no one is interested in even discussing it.

I've been reading Adam Hochschild's book, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918. In his usual engrossing manner, Hochschild tells the stories of those individuals in Britain who enthusiastically supported The Great War and drank deeply of the endless stream of lies offered to justify it, against the stories of those who opposed what had previously been unimaginable horror and destruction. Bertrand Russell was one of those who resisted the call to murder and devastation from the beginning. Russell managed to escape imprisonment until the last year of the war, and it is worth noting the excuse finally used to throw him in jail. Among the awful consequences of an attack on Iran, I would expect excuses like this to be employed once again, especially since they already have been. Hochschild writes:
In this bleak spring [of 1918], Bertrand Russell finally joined those Britons in prison. As their excuse, authorities seized on a few sentences in an article in the No-Conscription Fellowship's Tribunal, where Russell predicted that the American troops now starting to arrive in England and France might be used as strikebreakers, "an occupation to which the American Army is accustomed when at home." In court, the prosecutor claimed that this passage would have a "diabolical effect" and interfere with relations between Britain and a key ally. "A very despicable offence," thundered the judge, and sentenced Russell to six months.
Russell was released shortly before the Armistice and the war's end on November 11:
Bertrand Russell, recently released from prison, walked up Tottenham Court Road and watched Londoners pour out of shops and offices into the street to cheer. The public jubilation made him think of the similar mood he had witnessed when war was declared more than four years earlier. "The crowd was frivolous still, and had learned nothing during the period of horror. . . . I felt strangely solitary amid the rejoicings, like a ghost dropped by accident from some other planet."
It would never occur to me to compare myself to Bertrand Russell in any respect; besides being unbearably pretentious, it would be astonishingly stupid. But to some extent, I think I understand how he felt on that day so long ago. We find ourselves in the same place we were five years ago, and I make the same arguments I made then. I again point out that registering our dissent as we have will change nothing. Events of the last decade prove that conclusively. And the dissenting writers are very smart people: they know that hundreds, even thousands, of new articles about the madness of attacking Iran won't stop it. Yet to my knowledge, almost no one will discuss doing something new and different in addition to those articles.

So I sometimes feel "like a ghost dropped by accident from some other planet." Given my overall perspective, which differs on every fundamental issue at every critical point from the prevailing consensus (and is usually in direct opposition to that consensus), it is not a feeling unfamiliar to me. But even ghosts have work to do. Russell lived for another 50 years, and much important work was yet to be accomplished.

I find the great reluctance to consider new and different courses of action, even on the part of sincere and dedicated dissenters, an intriguing and important subject. I've been thinking about it a lot. An explanation for this phenomenon has gradually taken shape in my mind. And although it is not where I began my investigation -- for I never begin with a conclusion, even one I find very persuasive and even if it is one I have been led to in the past, but instead always begin with the very particular facts of the specific question before me -- I was inexorably led to themes to which I've devoted much attention over the years: how we all are taught the necessity of obedience to authority, the manner in which most people are profoundly uncomfortable when confronted with spontaneous, unplanned and undirected situations, and the operations of tribalism, including the tribalism of political affiliation. I was also led to the identification of what I will call "The Obedient Dissenter." I'll explain what I mean by that phrase in considerable detail, using several well-known examples. Hell, to pique your possibly wandering attention, I'll tell you the examples I plan to use: Matt Taibbi, Chris Hedges (and see below), and Glenn Greenwald. Several important aspects of these questions are captured in the Isaiah Berlin passage at the beginning of this article, which is why I selected it. (The full essay offers more extensive excerpts from Berlin.)

While I was working my way through these very complicated issues -- so complicated that they will require several essays to examine -- a controversy erupted which reveals many of the same dynamics. Chris Hedges wrote this article -- "The Cancer in Occupy" -- and David Graeber responded with this one -- "Concerning the Violent Peace-Police." If the controversy is new to you, I strongly suggest that you begin with Graeber's piece. Graeber is relentlessly focused on facts and the specifics of the problem being examined. The conclusions and more general observations he offers grow out of those facts; in this sense, Graeber's conclusions and observations are organic and spontaneous, much like the Occupy movement itself.

Hedges proceeds in a very different manner. He wrote the article because he had an agenda; as Graeber reveals in an especially devastating fashion, it is a very ugly agenda, whether Hedges realized it consciously or not. And there is close to nothing in Hedges' article that is accurate or truthful. Graeber also demonstrates, to put it plainly, that Hedges doesn't know what the hell he's talking about. In rereading Hedges' piece, it struck me very forcefully that it is nothing like the sober political analysis it purports to be: rather, it is a psychological confession. What interests me, and what I think constitutes its importance, is what Hedges is confessing. Hedges is far from alone in approaching these questions in this way.

As you correctly suspect, I have much more to say about both articles, and that is where I will continue next time.