June 28, 2012

Choosing Blindness and Stupidity, and About Helping "Some" People

The self-satisfied smugness and self-congratulation now exhibited by many liberals and progressives is abhorrent and nauseating. In addition to the general argument I made earlier today, I want to address two further issues.

In a brief article, John Stauber captures the essence of the Supreme Court ruling with full accuracy:
It was a brilliant move by far Right (but oh so likable) Chief Justice Roberts to side with the Dem-appointed Justices and uphold ObamaCare. After all, this is a massive victory for corporate power, forcing citizens to buy an expensive insurance product that won’t serve our needs very well but will profit industry, in lieu of receiving real health care. ...

He and his Dem-appointed colleagues have given huge new powers to corporations, and further reduced the rights of citizens. ...

Any real reform — call it single payer, or medicare for all — is doomed in bipartisan fashion. The “pragmatists” who are for Obamacare are duped if they think it is going to be expanded to single payer. From this point on, it will only be picked over and further reinvented to empower the insurance and drug industries.
In my post from December 2009 -- "How Bad Is The Fuck You Act?" -- I closely analyzed some of the extraordinary mental contortions and distortions engaged in by Digby. I began by noting the following:
First, and this merits strong emphasis, the "health care reform" legislation will fatally undercut all the goals set forth by Democrats and progressives themselves. To restate the point: if the Democrats and progressives are sincere and genuinely committed to what they say their goals are, they should be working day and night to defeat this abomination. That most of them are doing the opposite is deeply revealing. And they are doing the opposite for the most transparent and pathetic of reasons: they are desperate for something they can call a "win" as an alleged demonstration of perceived political power."
After examining Digby's "argument," which is fully representative of "the Horror Hall of Mirrors of the fatally corrupted world now inhabited by the 'leading' progressives" (and not only with regard to this subject, but in connection with every issue of significance), I said:
And the people who won't be helped are precisely those people these same Democrats and progressives endlessly told us they so desperately wanted to help when this wretched, abysmal process began.

This is the very definition of moral and intellectual bankruptcy. In certain respects, it is not possible to go any lower. If you're willing to give up this much -- and as far as "health care reform" is concerned, they've given up everything that matters -- is there anything at all you won't give up? This is the inevitable result of engaging in this manner with a fundamentally corrupt system:
Thus, the lesson: when you choose to be a critical part of a system that has become this corrupt -- and the endless corruptions of our corporatist-authoritarian-militarist system have been documented at great length here and in other places -- you will not ameliorate or "save" it. The system will necessarily and inevitably corrupt you.
That last point is absolutely critical, and it must never be forgotten.

I want to stress that it is a huge error to believe that liberals and progressives who are happy about the Supreme Court "victory," and who generally support Obama and view his reelection as vitally important -- despite the fact (among other similar facts) that Obama asserts that he can murder anyone he wishes, anywhere in the world, for any reason he chooses or invents -- will somehow recognize the truth and come to their senses. I'm not referring here to those Americans who barely follow politics and who vote automatically and without any measurable degree of analysis and consideration beforehand, if they vote at all -- but to those liberals and progressives who follow politics even somewhat closely. And I'm especially referring to liberals and progressives who are active in politics, including writers and bloggers.

It must be understood that they cannot and will not grasp the actual meaning of the Supreme Court ruling, just as they will not grasp the meaning of Obama's other numerous, heinous acts. I explained some of the reasons for this phenomenon in a post from almost five years ago: "Blinded by the Story." I noted the self-proclaimed inability of leading progressive bloggers (including Atrios, and Digby once again) to understand why the Democrats acted as they did, and then wrote:
I suggest we take these leading lights of the progressive blogs at their word: they most certainly do not get it, and they absolutely cannot "for the life of [them] figure out why the congress is doing this."

I also note that, following the Senate cave-in, Atrios has dubbed Harry Reid the "Wanker of the Day." Will all this diminish in even the smallest degree Atrios's, or Digby's, or any other leading progressive blogger's efforts to ensure a huge Democratic victory in 2008? Of course not.

The reason for that is very simple, and it goes to the progressives' central articles of religious faith: The Democrats aren't really like this, not in their heart of hearts. The Democrats don't actually favor a repressive, authoritarian state. The Democrats are good, and they want liberty and peace for everyone, everywhere, for eternity, hallelujah and amen.

People who continue to believe this have evicted themselves from serious political debate, and they have willingly made themselves slaves to their enthusiastically embraced self-delusions. They confess a comprehensive ignorance of history, a stunning inability to understand the political developments of the last century, and a desire to place the story they have chosen, primarily because it flatters their own false sense of vanity and self-worth, above every relevant fact.
None of this has changed in the five years since I wrote it; to the contrary, developments have proven the truth of these observations repeatedly.

But one derivative aspect of this sickening business has changed, and I also described that aspect in the earlier entry:
Whenever a preexisting and preselected narrative assumes primary importance in this way, the longer one clings to the preferred story, the stupider one becomes. This is why the truth or falsity of the stories we tell is so critical, and why our methodology matters so much. If a story that is central to our view of ourselves fails to comport with the facts, and if we refuse to give up or even question the story, this necessitates that we block ourselves off from more and more information that might "undermine" that story ... Rather than eagerly seeking out further facts and trying to find out if a given story remains accurate or needs to be significantly revised (and sometimes even jettisoned altogether), we will lower our heads, narrow the scope of our inquiry, and progressively restrict the kind of data we permit ourselves to examine and even acknowledge. As time goes on, our intellectual curiosity steadily decreases. We won't want certain facts and information, because we might have to wonder whether particular cherished beliefs are correct.
With regard to these issues, people do not stay the same. The intellectual framework within which they operate either increases or decreases; to put it informally, they become smarter or dumber.

In those cases where the preexisting and preferred narrative is crucial to a person's self of self-worth (and often, when it is critical to their livelihood), it is close to impossible that a fundamental reassessment of that narrative will be permitted or seriously considered. The only direction psychologically is steadily downward: the frame of reference constantly diminishes, and the person becomes less and less able to address any issue accurately and truthfully. Neither "side" has a monopoly on this fundamental failure -- and even though both conservatives and liberals furiously deny that they act in this manner, their own commentary and behavior reveals the truth on a daily basis.

The other issue I want to discuss is a contention that was frequently offered during the debate over the health "care" bill, and I'm certain it will put in another appearance in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling. A certain kind of commentator would ruefully note the bill's numerous shortcomings (including the fact that it was bought and paid for, and sometimes written, by the major insurance and pharmaceutical interests), but go on to support the bill anyway -- because, they claimed, it would help "some" people.

This is one of the most awful arguments imaginable. I discussed it in detail here: "Concerning Those Who Manufacture and Eat Shit." My particular target was Paul Krugman, but many others proceed in the same manner. So I will simply offer my analysis again:
I would not argue and, in fact, I haven't argued that this bill won't help anyone. I've seen lots of analyses that force me to conclude that the bill will help far less people than its supporters claim, but time will tell as they say. I think it's going to be very ugly, and I also think partisans like Krugman will never acknowledge just how ugly it is.

But the fact that this bill will help some people is a ridiculous, completely asinine standard. It is utterly illegitimate as a matter of analysis, as well as being vile in moral terms, to use the fact that it will help some people as justification for its passage. Think about it for a moment. Any bill in any political system will help some people. This is true even in a dictatorship, and even under totalitarian rule. As I feel compelled to remind people when they appeal to the "sanctity" of "the law" (which I noted only yesterday I myself shit on insofar as what most people mean by such vacuous blather is concerned), even dictatorships have laws. Hey, I'll make it easy for you to ignore this argument by violating a singularly idiotic prohibition. They had laws in Nazi Germany. And guess what? All of those laws helped some people. In some instances, perhaps it was only sadists who enjoyed torturing and murdering other human beings -- but some of Germany's laws certainly helped them do that.

Or to pick a less confrontational example: many laws in Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia indisputably helped those who were members of the ruling clique or well-connected to same accumulate wealth and/or power, or benefited them in any number of other ways. So the laws helped some people. Take a more obvious aspect of the same issue: in any corporatist system (such as ours), legislators receive all sorts of payoffs for enacting legislation that benefits certain interested parties. When the legislation is passed, it's passed because it helps those interested parties. That's true of any major piece of legislation you care to name (and almost all minor ones as well). You need only trace back the effects of the legislation far enough, and you'll find an interested party that sought to have it passed. And the payoffs help the legislators themselves. So some people are always helped.

That cannot ever be the standard for judgment. The standard must focus on the primary or major effect of the legislation: on what lies at the heart of the bill. What lies at the heart of the health "reform" bill is a massive transfer of wealth from "ordinary" Americans to an already hugely wealthy and powerful insurance industry via the mandate system, which is made still worse by being a subsidized mandate system (which means that taxpayers are robbed at gunpoint twice). As a result, the legislation in its totality is, right, a piece of shit.
And that's all I have to say about that.

For the moment.

The State of Things

A few days ago, I suggested a general rule for predicting Supreme Court decisions:
In light of the above examples and the Court's generally odious history, and if one must engage in fruitless speculation, I suppose one might adopt this rule of thumb: with the subject and questions of the particular case in mind, what is the worst way the Supreme Court can fuck you? Answer that, and you should at least be in the right ballpark.
In this case, the worst way the Supreme Court can fuck each and every one of us is to find the individual mandate constitutional -- which is precisely what the Court did.

Since I long ago dubbed the health insurance bill The Fuck You Act, it all fits together very neatly.

For the moment, I'll leave the lengthy exercises in sadomasochism, otherwise known as legal analysis, to others. For those of us favored by Providence to live in the freest, noblest, bestest ever country in this best of all possible worlds, here is how things stand. The following summary rests on a charmingly out of date notion -- namely, that once a principle has been established, the rest is only a matter of time and degree. And this principle was not proclaimed for the first time today, although today's decision states the principle in stark terms which cannot be avoided or minimized.

The State has announced:
You will do exactly as we tell you in every area of your life. You will work as and when we allow you to work, you will spend what little money we allow you to keep as and when we tell you to spend it, you will say what we tell you to say -- and if you disagree with us about any of this, you will indicate your disagreement as and when we allow you to. In brief: you will follow orders. Please don't be tiresome and petulant, telling us this isn't what you want. We've been systematically approaching this end for well over a century. You can hardly claim this is surprising, not if you wish to avoid ridicule. And you might have stopped these developments much earlier -- if you'd wanted to. You didn't want to.

Aw, you're upset. What are ya gonna do? Not vote? Not pay taxes? Not buy health insurance? Hahahahaha. A few Americans have responded that way in the past when the State acted in ways they viewed as deeply evil. One of your great heroes did. But you don't want to do that, do you? Of course you don't. Inconvenient. Might cause trouble. Oh, a few of you respond that way today, but not enough to make a difference. And we know who you are. If we allow you to get away with it, that's only because you amuse us. And when a few of you object in ways that might actually matter and we let you get away with it (at least temporarily), it allows the rest of you to continue to believe you're "free." We love that shit.

So understand this:
The Constitution created a government of, by and for the most wealthy and powerful Americans -- and it made certain (insofar as men can make such things certain) that their rule would never be seriously threatened. The most wealthy and powerful Americans were the ones who wrote it, after all.
We emphasize: that is what the Constitution itself accomplished. And you say you're surprised by subsequent events? You're making this much too easy. You could at least make it more interesting for us.

Yes, it's all about us. We talk about how much we care about "ordinary" Americans, and constantly proclaim that everything we do is for their benefit -- and some of you actually believe that crap. Christ, you're funny, in a sickeningly pathetic kind of way.

So you'll do exactly what we tell you to do, with regard to everything that matters to us. We're giving you exactly what many of you said you wanted. So shut up and stop being annoying about it.

Oh, there is one more thing. It's a little thing, and almost none of you seem to have even noticed it. Even after you do everything we tell you to do in every area that we care about, there is something else we still might do. We might do it because we're in a rotten mood, or because we're bored, or because we just feel like it. We won't announce our decision, or tell you anything about how we made the decision. What? You think you have a "right" to know such things? God, you are so funny.

So one day, when you're going to the job we allow you to keep, or buying something we tell you to buy, or minding your own business in the home we permit you to live in, we might decide to give the order. Maybe just because we feel like it, or because you pissed off the friend of our sister's husband's father. For some reason, or for no reason at all, we'll decide to give the order.

And you'll be murdered.

There now. Is it all finally clear to you? Now do what we tell you, follow orders -- and shut the fuck up.

UPDATE: More about today's decision, here.

June 26, 2012

Icy Water

I see various predictions round and about concerning how the Supreme Court will rule on Obamacare.

Here's my own: I have absolutely no idea. I further submit that no one can have any idea, not in a serious sense -- and not only about Obamacare, but with regard to any issue you might view as "significant" and "far-reaching."

A few of you might believe that Supreme Court rulings represent a sacred redoubt of dedication to principle, that the Justices view their task as one of solemnly weighing timeless considerations of political theory and practice, balanced against the complex realities of governance, with eternal philosophical verities guiding their humble, faltering steps. The Justices themselves, together with their cognitively-challenged acolytes, will doubtless peddle this portrait of the High Priests and their holy work to all those with nonfunctioning gag reflexes. And I myself once thought such a portrait was accurate, at least to some measurable degree. Yes, there was a time when I believed in fairy tales of fantastic idiocy.

Even a cursory review of Supreme Court jurisprudence should disabuse you of any such illusions. There is no principle -- no principle whatsoever -- that the Supreme Court will not acknowledge and support, or deny and discard, depending on circumstances. That is, depending on the result a critical number of Justices wish to reach. And the reasons they may wish to reach a certain result are as various as the motives that affect any individual: personal belief, including personal prejudice and ignorance, rewarding friends and punishing enemies, their reading of what they regard as relevant political and social concerns (which reading may have precious little to do with complicated realities), and so on. As is true of most people, the Justices have remarkably little insight into how they arrived at the beliefs and convictions that move them toward one result as opposed to another. For them, as for most people, it is an amalgam of the beliefs of those groups with which they most closely identify, a smattering of disconnected, abstract "thought" here and there, and happenstance.

Lawyers will often to be heard to say that the mark of a skilled litigator is her ability to distinguish or reconcile any two cases you care to select. You can present an attorney with two cases that appear to be exactly identical in every critical respect -- but a clever lawyer will find one issue that differs and that will, at least according to the lawyer's carefully constructed argument, necessitate directly opposed conclusions. ("But the plaintiff's hangnail was an eighth of an inch longer in the first case! That makes all the difference in the world!" You think I exaggerate. I do not.) Conversely, the clever attorney -- or as we might more accurately describe it, the manipulative deceiver -- will analyze a pair of cases that would seem to differ with regard to every fact and all methods of analysis, and will proceed to construct a numbing, dizzyingly complicated argument as to how they are actually the same and compel identical results. While skills of this kind are highly prized in the legal community, they are admirable only to the extent you regard propaganda and deception as admirable.

A notable example from recent years, one that holds grim fascination for me as a man who regularly practices the demanding arts of faggotry with messily fervent ardor, is Bowers v. Hardwick, which held that criminalizing private sexual acts between consenting adults is entirely constitutional -- and which was then overruled a mere seventeen years later. Significant, timeless principles -- such as the right to one's own body -- are lasting only in the manner of the evanescent morning dew. What was overruled, can be reinstated. It all depends. (As for what it depends upon, I'm reminded of a remark I recently read with considerable amusement. One famous actress said of another with whom she had recently worked: "I just make sure to stay out of her way until after they feed her." I'm certain the Justices eat very well indeed, but you may want to ensure it to the extent you can.)

I also remind you that Korematsu has yet to be overruled, a fact that might increase in its nightmarish aspect as and when the United States descends further into chaos. As far as any right to one's own body might be concerned, it is also worth recalling that the Supreme Court has informed us in its most learned manner that when the government has the power to control every minute of every hour of your life for years on end, and when the government can even order you to your certain death, that has nothing whatsoever to do with involuntary servitude, nor does it represent even the smallest infringement on individual liberty. Under the Constitution, it is completely permissible. The vote was nine to nothing. That has remained "good law" for almost a century. You're "free" precisely to the extent the government permits you to be free. For those who pay attention, this is not a recent development. (I discussed the immorality and destructiveness of a draft at length in the third section of "Desperately Seeking Peacenik, Pot-Smoking Hippies.")

You need not pay any attention to these ramblings. After all, I am the disreputable blogger who once wrote:
Even many of those people who vigorously challenge the tenets of American Exceptionalism will still speak in hushed, reverent tones of the "sanctity" of "the law." This testifies to the enduring strength and reach of the obedience-denial-idealization mechanism. People sometimes prefer to believe they escape the mechanism's operation and ramifications; most often, they do not.

To arrest your perhaps wandering attention, I announce my own perspective on this issue. With regard to what most people mean when they talk of the "sanctity" of "the law," I shit on it.

I shit on it repeatedly.
For the strong of heart, I offered many more thoughts on the subject here. And I didn't employ only four-letter words, although I admit to a fondness for shocking the complacent, especially in connection with fantastical, puerile notions.

In light of the above examples and the Court's generally odious history, and if one must engage in fruitless speculation, I suppose one might adopt this rule of thumb: with the subject and questions of the particular case in mind, what is the worst way the Supreme Court can fuck you? Answer that, and you should at least be in the right ballpark.

Oh, my. I used a naughty word again. (Take it to the Supreme Court, buddy. You did? Aren't you the clever one.) Have I caused distress to another delicate soul or two? Good.

June 18, 2012

Gathering Clouds

These clouds are the personal ones, which unfortunately are never far away. I sincerely regret having to do this yet another time (both for your sakes, and for mine), but since I have no other source of income, I don't have a choice if I wish to avoid (or at least postpone) very bad consequences.

I'll have to pay July's rent in less than two weeks; I only have about half of what I need. Then there are the usual additional barebone bills: food, internet, phone, etc. And now, I have three other concerns. The first is my beloved Cyrano, the big orange fellow who has graced my life since he fit in the palm of one hand. I'm pretty sure he's basically okay, but he'll be 14 in August. He should go to the vet ("Only Dr. Mike!," says Cyrano, referring to our wonderfully gentle and sweet caregiver), just to be checked over to be sure nothing requires attention. I can't afford it at the moment. And I suspect Cyrano may have a tooth problem or two, so that may need addressing. I certainly can't afford that.

In addition to my ongoing heart problems (for which I have no means whatsoever of obtaining treatment, now or ever, given the prohibitive costs involved), I myself have two new sources of pain at present. I'd prefer not to go into details; I try not to think about any of it at all, let alone dwell on what it might mean. What's the point? I can't do anything about what the problems may be in terms of curative or preventive treatment, so it's a pointless exercise in self-inflicted psychological pain (in addition to the physical pain). But I suspect that, some time fairly soon, I may need to visit a doctor to at least get some prescription(s) for strong painkillers. As far as then getting the painkillers -- well, I can't afford that either right now.

The last problem is one that looms in the future, but hopefully will not be actualized. I had a bad scare when I first got on the computer this morning: my anti-virus/general protection system alerted me repeatedly that my computer was "unprotected" against viruses, hacking, etc. I futzed around with the program for a while, and now it indicates that everything is fine, all protections in place and functioning. But I realized that, if my computer were to crash entirely for whatever reason, I might have no means of regaining access to the internet. Whatever might need to be done would most likely require money, and...

More generally, I'm in the situation facing more and more people these days. Any one emergency, if sufficiently dire, could bring everything to a complete halt. It's an awful way to live. That, too, is something I try to avoid focusing on. It's futile masochism, and nothing more. Nonetheless, I'm all too aware that it takes a terrible toll. Thank God for the cats; they keep me sane, and my heart open.

And I'm pleased with how the writing is going. I'm only about halfway through the current series, perhaps even less than that. As I explore these issues, I realize that more and more subjects and themes of concern to me are directly relevant and should be addressed. Some of these are topics I've dealt with before; some of them will be largely or entirely new.

So I'd like to continue with my efforts here, at least until Dr. Doom comes to visit. As always, I'm tremendously grateful for the generosity and support you continue to offer. I cannot thank you enough. And a special blessing on those of you who care so much.

P.S. "Could you mention that we'd also be able to get better snacks and some new toys?"

I laugh. "It's always about the snacks and toys, isn't it, Cyrano?" He looks at me blankly, and his eyes widen slightly in mild astonishment. He thinks the point is so obvious, and so obviously true, that it insults his intelligence to ask for further comment.

"Okay," I say. "Consider it mentioned. Oh, I ordered some of the turkey you love so much. It's coming with the groceries later this morning."

"What time is that?"

"About 11 or so."

"Excellent! Something to look forward to. An early lunch. Mmmm, turkey." (It's deli turkey, the only kind he'll eat. Not cheap. But he adores it. I order a pound of it at a time. I eat some of it, for it's mostly for Cyrano. It lasts barely a week. I've offered some to Sasha a number of times, but she is completely uninterested. Sasha insists on a rotating variety of "superior canned foods," as she describes them. She is so miraculously adorable and loving that she quite takes my breath away.)

Cyrano yawns. "I think I need to rest and gather my strength for the tasks later on. Lunch, play, chatting with Sasha, my lookout duties, dinner. Another full day."

He gets comfortable on his carpeted platform, and drifts off to sleep. He's already performed his morning inspection tasks, in addition to eating a good breakfast. No wonder he's tired.

In a few moments, Sasha will want her morning lap time. Lots of gentle ear and neck scratching, and purring. So I'm afraid you'll have to excuse me for a little while. Many thanks again.

June 16, 2012

Reflections on a Bestial Culture (IV): Ordinary Horrors, Everyday Murders

Part I: Reflections on a Bestial Culture, Ready and Eager for Slaughter

Part II: When the State Proclaims It Is Become Death

Part III: The Monsters in Our Midst

In the third part of this series, I offered my imagined version of a new history book which discussed events in Nazi Germany, focusing on the Nazis' consolidation and expansion of power in the pre-World War II period. My imagined book dealt with the extent to which knowledge of the Nazis' actions, including their systematic attacks on civil liberties in general -- and notably including details of Nazi brutality -- was available to the general public. The first sentence of my imagined history announced this general theme: "It perhaps astonishes us today, but newspapers often published accounts of these firebombings, raids and murders while the campaign of terror was still underway." The "gimmick" of my imaginary book was to replace Nazi justifications and explanations with those offered by U.S. officials, as detailed in the NYT article about Obama's "Kill List." I attempted to demonstrate the close parallels between Germans' acceptance of growing Nazi horrors and Americans' acceptance of our government's actions today.

As I wrote that imaginary history, I experienced what is one of a writer's greatest rewards, one experienced all too infrequently. Although I have read fairly extensively about the rise of the Nazis, I would hardly say that I am an expert on the subject. But I have thought a great deal about the general issues involved, and about the dynamics that explain why people in many historical periods and places have so blithely accepted the steps by which their society descends into hell. As I wrote that passage, details and examples from my reading and thinking over many years flooded my mind, and a significant problem was selecting those details that I considered most revealing. In addition, and this is the reward to which I referred, I had the unshakable and deeply felt conviction that the history I had created was unerringly right. I knew, certainly with regard to the general picture and often in connection with specific details, that this had to be the way it happened. I'll explain the reasons for my confidence in a future installment.

Soon after that post appeared, I received an email from Chris Floyd. He told me that, in what he (and subsequently I) considered a rather astonishing coincidence, he had just begun reading a book concerned with the subject of my imagined history: Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany. Although the book was first published ten years ago, Floyd had never read it before. Moreover -- and I swear this is the truth -- I had never heard of Gellately's book and knew nothing about it. In connection with my earlier essay, the Amazon description of the book is worth noting:
Debate still rages over how much ordinary Germans knew about the concentration camps and the Gestapo's activities during Hitler's reign. Now, in this well-documented and provocative volume, historian Robert Gellately argues that the majority of German citizens had quite a clear picture of the extent of Nazi atrocities, and continued to support the Reich to the bitter end.

Culling chilling evidence from primary news sources and citing dozens of case studies, Gellately shows how media reports and press stories were an essential dimension of Hitler's popular dictatorship. Indeed, a vast array of material on the concentration camps, the violent campaigns against social outsiders, and the Nazis' radical approaches to "law and order" was published in the media of the day, and was widely read by a highly literate population of Germans. Hitler, Gellately reveals, did not try to hide the existence of the Gestapo or of concentration camps. Nor did the Nazis try to cow the people into submission. Instead they set out to win converts by building on popular images, cherished ideals, and long-held phobias. And their efforts succeeded, Gellately concludes, for the Gestapo's monstrous success was due, in large part, to ordinary German citizens who singled out suspected "enemies" in their midst, reporting their suspicions and allegations freely and in a spirit of cooperation and patriotism.

Extensively documented, highly readable and illustrated with never-before-published photographs, Backing Hitler convincingly debunks the myth that Nazi atrocities were carried out in secret. From the rise of the Third Reich well into the final, desperate months of the war, the destruction of innocent lives was inextricably linked to the will of the German people.
Obviously, I ordered the book immediately, and I received it a couple of days ago. I'm still reading it,

I have already come across many passages in Gellately that are directly relevant to the themes of this series -- and that are disturbingly similar to the central idea behind my own imagined history. For example, from the Introduction (in all these excerpts, I have omitted the numerous footnotes and added emphasis):
I began research for this book by addressing one of the major questions that has been raised since 1945, when we became aware of the concentration camps, namely, 'what did they know and when did they know it?' Did the Germans know about the secret police and the camps, the persecutions, the murders, and so on, and did they go along? Germans have defended themselves by saying they were unaware of, or poorly informed about, the camps, and were surprised by the revelations at the war's end. There was close to general agreement among historians for a long time, that the Nazis deliberately and systematically hid what they were doing, so it was possible that ordinary people really did not know.

This book challenges these views. It shows that a vast array of material on the police and the camps and various discriminatory campaigns was published in the media of the day. In the 1930s the regime made sure the concentration camps were reported in the press, held them up for praise, and proudly let it be known that the men and women in the camps were confined without trial on the orders of the police. The regime boasted openly of its new system of 'police justice' by which the Secret Police (Gestapo) and the Criminal Police (Kripo) could decide for themselves what the law was, and send people to the camps at will. The Nazis celebrated the police in week-long annual festivals across the country, and proudly chalked up their many successes in the war on crime, immorality, and pornography. Far from clothing such practices in secrecy, the regime played them up in the press and lauded the modernity and superiority of the Nazi system over all others.

I make extensive use of newspapers in this book, but what about censorship? The novelist Christa Wolf indicated some years ago, that anyone in Nazi Germany who wanted to find out about the Gestapo, concentration camps, and the campaigns of discrimination and persecution, need only read the newspapers. Nazi Germany was in fact a modern mass media society, and for its day was in the vanguard of modernity. Germans were both highly literate and voracious readers of newspapers, and moreover Hitler's regime did everything possible to put a radio in every home, and used newsreels and movies to get across their messages. Movie-making was soon transformed into a system-friendly industry, and it proved remarkably easy to win over journalists. Even renowned middle-class and conservative newspapers demonstrated their agreement with Hitler's appointment or asked readers to give him a chance. Thereafter, the regime guided the press mainly by holding owners, editors, and journalists politically responsible for what they published. In time more formal methods, like press conferences and directives were used. Reporters and editors colluded with Hitler by virtue of what they wrote, and reached a point where they simply chose not to follow up leads about the murder of the Jews, and numerous other atrocities. Even when newspapers published death notices about the victims of euthanasia, reporters apparently made no enquiries.

Readers of the press in dictatorships do not read less because they know it is censored. If anything, they read more attentively because it is so important to figure out what is going on. The emphasis in the book, at any rate, is not what the Nazis wanted to keep out of the media, but what they wanted to put in, and how they crafted their stories to appeal to the minds and hearts of the German people.
I have emphasized that the NYT article represents the story the government wants to tell. That is the meaning of the fact that most of the article's content is derived from interviews with "three dozen of [Obama's] current and former advisers." Gellately finds great significance in "what [the Nazis] wanted to put in" the media; the same is true for us.

Horrifyingly enough, that is only the beginning of the similarities between the two situations (and this is only one brief passage from Gellately's book; I'm certain I will offer further excerpts in the future). The Nazis "proudly let it be known that the men and women in the camps were confined without trial on the orders of the police." Today, we can forget entirely confining "suspected terrorists" in jail or camps. The Times trumpets: "Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret 'nominations' process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical." The Times details how the U.S. government regularly murders individuals suspected of "terrorism," or of representing some unspecified "threat," on the basis of fragmentary and even non-existent evidence. The government, and Obama personally, simply orders their deaths. As I discussed in the preceding installment, most Americans have already been conditioned to hate "The Other," and "terrorists" -- even suspected "terrorists" -- are obviously the worst "Other" imaginable. Even if it were true that Obama "ended torture" (it emphatically is not, and even the ACLU enthusiastically fell for that bald-faced lie), these inherently bad and evil "Others" should be grateful for their summary executions, rather than being subjected to months or even years of brutalizing imprisonment.

The Times article tells us that the Obama administration systematically and regularly murders human beings whom we must regard as innocent if we are seriously concerned with evidence and proof. If most Germans reacted at all to the stories in the 1930s, it was with indifference or approving support. Most Americans react to a prominent story about the institutionalized murder of innocent human beings in the same way.

Furthermore, the Nazi regime "boasted openly of its new system of 'police justice' by which the Secret Police (Gestapo) and the Criminal Police (Kripo) could decide for themselves what the law was, and send people to the camps at will." The Times tells us:
That record, and Mr. Awlaki’s calls for more attacks, presented Mr. Obama with an urgent question: Could he order the targeted killing of an American citizen, in a country with which the United States was not at war, in secret and without the benefit of a trial?

The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel prepared a lengthy memo justifying that extraordinary step, asserting that while the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process applied, it could be satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch
Thus do the President and his fellow murderers dispense with charges and trials altogether; relying on secret (non-existent and/or usually erroneous or extremely doubtful) evidence, which is evaluated in secret by means of secret standards, they "decide for themselves what the law" is. Once again, they part company from the Nazis, at least as far as the Nazis' actions in the first years of their rule are concerned: Obama and the other murderers today don't merely "send people to the camps at will." Instead, they kill them.

But of course, we tell ourselves, it could never happen here.

In my imaginary history in Part III of this series, I included Michael V. Hayden's statement that “the protection of innocent life was always a critical consideration," as well as John Brennan's claim that "the president, and I think all of us here, don’t like the fact that people have to die." Compare this approach to a passage from the first chapter of Gellately's book ("Turning Away from Weimar"):
In an interview on 14 March 1933, after he was appointed provisional head of the Munich Metropolitan Police, Himmler was asked if a purge of the police was in the offing. He answered that it was not, and said that henceforth it would be easier for them to do their duty. He was pleased that the police were functioning smoothly with the assistance of the SA and SS as deputy police, and together they were tracking down many Communists and other Marxists. House searches turned up numerous weapons, illegal printing presses, and large quantities of suspicious writings. He also offered one of the first justifications for the new concentration camps. The reasoning behind the camps was meant to appeal to traditional German social values, as well as antisemitism:
The state protects the life of all citizens. Unfortunately, it is only possible to provide such protection for certain individuals, and those involved have to be taken into protective custody under the direct protection of the police. The individuals involved, who are often of the Jewish faith, have through behaviour towards the national Germany, such as through offending nationalist feelings, and so on, made themselves so unloved among the people, that they would be exposed to the anger of the people unless the police stepped in.
Less than a week later, Himmler gave instructions to open a concentration camp at Dachau. In claiming that 'protective custody' was designed to protect individuals from the wrath of the mob, he made it easy for Germans to construct stories of their own in which supposedly endangered persons were picked up for their own good. Not only that, but according to Himmler 'often' the alleged culprits who outraged the national feelings of citizens were Jews, a statement which opened the possibility for citizens, even those who were not antisemitic, to conclude that it was good to have such 'enemies' off the streets. The comforting thought was that most prisoners in concentration camps were not at all like 'good citizens'.
Imagine for a moment that, in the aftermath of a significant terrorist attack or series of attacks within U.S. borders, the government announced, with numerous expressions of "deeply regrettable necessity" and how the government earnestly sought other alternatives but could find none that would assure public safety, that local police departments (with additional support from the U.S. military as required) would immediately begin rounding up "terrorists," "Muslims" and/or "Arabs," as well as those suspected of being terrorist sympathizers, and confining them in detention camps. Imagine that U.S. officials said, among other things, that taking such "enemies" or potential enemies off the streets was necessary "for their own good," as well as for the protection of the public.

On the basis of the principles and methods the government has already announced -- and which the government thoughtfully has conveyed to the public in great detail in the pages of the nation's leading newspaper -- the government would only be continuing the policies it has already implemented if it murdered all such potential "enemies." Surely confining them in detention camps is a far more modest and less brutal means of dealing with the continuing crisis, is it not? And since almost no one objects to the already implemented and publicized program of murder, who would protest? And what would most likely happen to such protesters in the atmosphere of hysteria following another attack?

There are still more similarities and parallels to be explored, and I will address them soon. But look over the above passages another time. Think about where we are along this route to hell -- where we are today.

Your blood should run cold.

June 14, 2012

The Nightmare Gathers Force

In writing about the ongoing crisis facing Greece (and Europe generally), commentators often advance the notion that what is occurring in Greece in particular provides a preview of what will happen in the United States if we continue on our current path. Conservative and neoliberal writers (but I repeat myself) proclaim that this necessitates governments becoming far more brutal in their dedication to "austerity": that is, the ruling class must be extravagantly ruthless, without surcease, in depriving those who are without power, wealth and privilege of every means of sustaining their lives. One of the assumptions of our "betters" is that truly deserving, "good" people will nonetheless manage to survive, and perhaps thrive, even in the midst of resources and possibilities for action that diminish daily. We are told that this is one of America's greatest virtues: anyone who is hardworking and dedicated, who genuinely "makes the effort," can succeed -- because, of course, the ruling class's success has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that they have long been favored by privilege and power, often from birth. To the contrary: the ruling class is the ruling class because of their magnificent virtue and hard work. They deserve their privilege, power and wealth. And you? If you can't manage to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps -- even though the last bootstrap was destroyed a generation or two ago, and even though you are unable to grasp a bootstrap or anything else since the ruling class cut off your hands -- well, you deserve to die.

The New York Times has a story on this theme which details a grim, unrelenting reality: "Dread and Uncertainty Pervade Life in a Diminished Greece." Here are a few revealing passages:
From its wealthy northern suburbs to the concrete blocks of downtown, there is a sense of an endgame in Athens. “It’s the last days of Pompeii,” said Aris Chatzistefanou, a co-director of “Debtocracy,” a provocative 2011 documentary about the Greek crisis ...

Giorgos, a 27-year-old economics major who did not want to reveal his last name, said the sense of uncertainty was oppressive

“There is a depression in the Greek people, in all my friends,” said Giorgos, who has put off plans to open a frozen yogurt shop. “They keep saying: ‘I can’t take it. There’s depression about our jobs, depression on the news, depression about the economic situation, depression in our family, depression and fighting among friends.’
The immense psychological toll and the sense of desperation are further underscored:
Highly educated young people are desperate to emigrate. Families are putting their property up for sale to pay debts. Banks long ago stopped lending. Casual conversations between friends end in tears.
Here are some numbers:
Saddled with debts to foreign lenders, Greece is in its fifth consecutive year of recession. The uncertainty, political and economic, has brought the economy to a standstill. Private sector salaries dropped 22.5 percent in 2011, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. New figures released last week show unemployment at 22 percent, rising to nearly 30 percent for Greeks 25 to 34 years old.
The Times describes how "the country is becoming more politically polarized between left and right." There's "the leftist party" (Syriza), "its conservative rival" (New Democracy) -- and there's even a "neo-Nazi, anti-immigrant Golden Dawn party," whose spokesman physically assaulted two female left-wing lawmakers on live television.

Perhaps those of us who seek to understand what happened in earlier eras can find ghoulish consolation in this: everything conspires to take us directly into the heart of the 1930s.

I'm certain that a full and more accurate picture of what is occurring in Greece is far worse than what the Times offers. In my ongoing series, I'm discussing how the Times article about Obama's "Kill List" represents the story the government wants to tell. In a more general sense, and because the NYT is a notably valuable appendage of the ruling class, the same is true of every story that appears in that venerated publication: the Times is written by and for the ruling class, and by and for those who aspire to rise into its fetid ranks (or descend, depending on your values and perspective). In the name of some perverse "balance," the Times offers a paragraph describing how Greece's economic collapse "has also hit the upper tiers." The soul of any decent human being positively shatters upon reading that a black Porsche 911 Turbo sold for $210,000 only four years ago -- and "[n]ow the customer brought it back to sell it for $97,000." These people are suffering. Quit your damned whining.

I wrote about hideous spectacles of this kind in a lengthy piece a year ago: "Caught Up in Nightmare: Killing Jack Rabbits." Here's one pertinent passage:
If we broaden our perspective, and if we look beyond particular developments and attempt to grasp what is happening over a longer period of time, the nature of the horror that awaits us takes on a clearer shape: The West's ruling class is embarked on a program of killing and elimination. A general caution should be kept in mind. I'm not suggesting that this program is one that the ruling class has explicitly identified, even to itself, at least not necessarily. The ruling class is intent upon increasing its own power and wealth; in one sense, that is its only concern. I suppose, in some fantasy world, the ruling class would be content to enjoy its immense power and wealth while "ordinary" people pursue their own lives of contentment. This, of course, is the goal which the ruling class announces, and which it desperately tries to convince both itself and us is true.

But we don't live in that fantasy world. In this world -- and, I would argue, in any world where brute power is the final means of settling every dispute, especially when that power is consolidated in the State -- the ruling class seeks power and wealth by dominating and controlling the weaker segments of society. The ruling class may not set out to kill those people it finds unnecessary for its aims, but if the ruling class can maintain and increase its power and wealth only by eliminating them, it will eventually eliminate them. This is the logic of the ruling class's desires. It is certainly true that the ruling class could change much of this if it wished to: the productive capacity of both England and the United States could be reinvigorated, and much new wealth could be created and enjoyed by many more members of society. But the ruling class believes that would necessitate the diminishment of its power and wealth, so they will not consider the possibility seriously.

The ruling class dreamed a nightmare, and made it real. We are now caught up in it. For many of us -- certainly for me, and very possibly for you -- the end result is clear: the ruling class intends to kill us. Not today or tomorrow, the ruling class hasn't reached that point of desperation quite yet, but they'll kill us soon enough. We have no value to them; we're superfluous; we're not needed.
"Oh, Arthur," some of my critics occasionally complain. "Why must you always be so extreme? It isn't that bad. And that certainly couldn't ever happen here!" All peoples in all times and places always offer such pathetic denials. Then the logic of events overtakes them; later, they always offer identical, pitifully unconvincing attempts at self-justification: "But no one ever knew it would come to that!" History is virtually non-existent for most people; it's as if nothing ever happened before. Yet with regard to the basics of human nature and behavior -- and until that welcome day when a critical number of people alter their basic mode of being -- it all happened before.

The reference to "jack rabbits" in my earlier essay arises from the horrifying war waged against the Philippines by the United States over a hundred years ago. As I discussed, "the Philippines episode established the pattern the U.S. followed in countless subsequent foreign interventions. It is the identical pattern that the ruling class has begun to reenact in England and the United States (and in other Western countries as well, to be sure)." Add Greece to the list.

Paul Kramer explains who the "jack rabbits" were:
One of the most banal and brutal manifestations of racialization was U.S. soldiers' imagination of war as hunting. The Manila occupation and "friendly policy" had frustrated martial masculinity; the metaphor of the hunt made war, at last, into masculine self-fulfillment. All at once, a language of hunting bestialized Filipinos made sense of guerrilla war to American troops, and joined the latter in manly fraternity. "I don't know when the thing will let out," wrote Louis Hubbard one week into the war, "and don't care as we are having lots of excitement. It makes me think of killing jack rabbits."
Who are the jack rabbits today?

You know the answer.

June 11, 2012

Reflections on a Bestial Culture (III): The Monsters in Our Midst

Part I: Reflections on a Bestial Culture, Ready and Eager for Slaughter

Part II: When the State Proclaims It Is Become Death

Imagine you are reading a new book about the ways in which the Nazis consolidated and expanded their grip on power in the mid- to late 1930s. The book focuses on a particular series of heinous acts committed by the Nazi regime, acts designed to instill terror in all Germans, and to ensure that the general population would obey government commandments, regardless of their nature.

In the course of your reading, you come across this passage:
It perhaps astonishes us today, but newspapers often published accounts of these firebombings, raids and murders while the campaign of terror was still underway. The officials of the special units responsible for these activities were happy to work with reporters, although it must be noted that the reporters who still had jobs were those who would write essentially the story the government wanted told. The reporters would occasionally, but gingerly, raise questions and offer mild criticisms about the special units and their actions; such questions and criticisms pleased Nazi Party officials, for they supported the belief -- one very dear to ordinary Germans, who always welcomed reassurances as to their moral worth and goodness -- that the press remained free, that what it printed was the truth.

So the officials of the special units openly acknowledged that some innocent people were being killed, and would unfortunately but inevitably continue to be killed in the future, but the officials stressed that such deaths were unavoidable given the nature of the evil threatening Germany. And the officials insisted that “the protection of innocent life was always a critical consideration,” as one of them was quoted in a story that received wide notice. Of course, this could not possibly have been true, for the same official acknowledged that the government regarded all military-age males found in the areas of the firebombings and raids as Jews or other designated enemies of the regime. The official went on to question just how "innocent" these individuals could have been: "People in an area of known Jewish activity, or found with top enemy operatives, are probably up to no good," he said. "We all know that Jews are an insular, paranoid people. Innocent Germans don't associate with such types."

The claim of concern with "the protection of innocent life" was also belied by the Nazis' reliance on certain "patterns of behavior" in areas where the government suspected Jews were hiding. Another special units official was quoted as saying: "Everyone knows that Jews act and live in ways unique to them. When we see such behavior, there is little question that we are dealing with a very serious threat to the German people." Another official commented that such "signature strikes," as they were called, "killed a large number of suspected Jews and other enemies of Germany, even when Nazi analysts were not certain beforehand of their presence."

We read such statements today, and we are aghast. The disregard for the value of human life fills us with horror. How is it possible that millions of Germans could read such stories -- which quoted Nazi officials admitting that they regularly murdered "large numbers" of people who were only "suspected" of being Jews or other "enemies" of Germany -- and not rise up in protest and disgust? Nazi officials proclaimed their utter ignorance as to their own actions -- for what is the meaning of the admission that they "killed a "large number of suspected" enemies "even when Nazi analysts were not certain beforehand of their presence" other than ignorance of the basest kind? -- and Germans barely reacted.

And, of course, our horror increases when we consider the lies utilized to portray all Jews, together with other "undesirables," as "enemies" in the first place. The campaign of terror was premised on an endless series of lies, and then carried out in a state of complete ignorance as to the actual nature of their murderous actions. We can say, and it would hardly be engaging in exaggeration, that in one sense the Nazis had no idea what they were doing. That is undeniably true with regard to the targets of the killing program -- but in a very different sense, the Nazis knew what they were doing with enormous precision. They were terrorizing the general population; they were causing Germans to become accustomed to murder on a regular basis, murder that might strike anyone, anywhere, especially if they weren't careful about which streets they used to travel to and from work or to run errands, and which people they chose to associate with. At a certain point, the Nazis had no need to publish long lists of prohibited actions or associates: Germans knew that making a mistake would get them killed. For most Germans, it became easier to wait for the government to tell them what they were permitted to do. That was far easier for the government as well. And, importantly, the list of permitted actions could change from day to day, sometimes even from hour to hour. So ordinary Germans learned to survive in a state of constant terror, never knowing when death would come to visit them. Germans learned to do nothing, until and unless a party official told them they might.

So the program was staggeringly effective. From our vantage point, we can see that the systematic, regularized killing of innocents was hardly an unfortunate and regrettable consequence of a sincere effort to protect "good" German citizens from harm -- this despite the insistence of one high-ranking official that "our leader, and I think all of us here, don't like the fact that people have to die." Rather than being an unfortunate side effect, indiscriminate killing -- the unpredictable, daily murder of innocent human beings -- constituted the heart of the terror campaign. Today, we can appreciate that one of the gravest mistakes most Germans made was to believe the government's statements regarding the ultimate target of that campaign. In fact, the target was not Jews or other "enemies" of Germany -- but ordinary Germans themselves. The error cost them, and the world, very dearly.

We must always be profoundly grateful that such horrors are unknown to us in our own time.
Perhaps we can more clearly grasp the mechanisms involved, and the nature of the horror being perpetrated, when we alter the labels affixed to the various actors in this tragedy, and when we contemplate events safely removed from the present moment. We draw back in disgust from phrases such as, "an area of known Jewish activity," or "We all know that Jews are an insular, paranoid people" -- we recognize how evil such thoughts are -- but these phrases appeared in New York Times article about Obama's "Kill List." The worst details in my imagined book about heinous Nazi crimes all come directly from the Times piece.

For example:
Just days after taking office, the president got word that the first strike under his administration had killed a number of innocent Pakistanis. “The president was very sharp on the thing, and said, ‘I want to know how this happened,’ “ a top White House adviser recounted

In response to his concern, the C.I.A. downsized its munitions for more pinpoint strikes. In addition, the president tightened standards, aides say: If the agency did not have a “near certainty” that a strike would result in zero civilian deaths, Mr. Obama wanted to decide personally whether to go ahead.

The president’s directive reinforced the need for caution, counterterrorism officials said, but did not significantly change the program. In part, that is because “the protection of innocent life was always a critical consideration,” said Michael V. Hayden, the last C.I.A. director under President George W. Bush.

It is also because Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. “Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization — innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs,” said one official, who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program.
In Pakistan, Mr. Obama had approved not only “personality” strikes aimed at named, high-value terrorists, but “signature” strikes that targeted training camps and suspicious compounds in areas controlled by militants.

But some State Department officials have complained to the White House that the criteria used by the C.I.A. for identifying a terrorist “signature” were too lax. The joke was that when the C.I.A. sees “three guys doing jumping jacks,” the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp, said one senior official. Men loading a truck with fertilizer could be bombmakers — but they might also be farmers, skeptics argued.

Now, in the wake of the bad first strike in Yemen, Mr. Obama overruled military and intelligence commanders who were pushing to use signature strikes there as well.

“We are not going to war with Yemen,” he admonished in one meeting, according to participants.

His guidance was formalized in a memo by General Jones, who called it a “governor, if you will, on the throttle,” intended to remind everyone that “one should not assume that it’s just O.K. to do these things because we spot a bad guy somewhere in the world."

Mr. Obama had drawn a line. But within two years, he stepped across it. Signature strikes in Pakistan were killing a large number of terrorist suspects, even when C.I.A. analysts were not certain beforehand of their presence.
And about drone strikes in Pakistan, from a story dated June 8:
As officials express public outrage at the Pakistani government for various perceived slights, President Obama has been authorizing more and more aggressive levels of drone strikes against the tribal areas, further escalating the war in the area.

A top US official quoted in McClatchy but unnamed said that the administration’s attitude toward Pakistan’s opposition to the strikes is “what do we have to lose?” UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay has called for a UN probe into the indiscriminate killing of civilians in the strikes.

The US has claimed that the strikes are extremely accurate and based on the best intelligence possible. Despite this, the drone strikes in Pakistan have killed well over 2,000 people since President Obama took office, and fewer than 50 of the victims have ever been conclusively named by officials.
Another passage from the Times article about the "Kill List":
Some critics of the drone strategy still vilify Mr. Brennan, suggesting that he is the C.I.A.’s agent in the White House, steering Mr. Obama to a targeted killing strategy. But in office, Mr. Brennan has surprised many former detractors by speaking forcefully for closing Guantánamo and respecting civil liberties.

Harold H. Koh, for instance, as dean of Yale Law School was a leading liberal critic of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policies. But since becoming the State Department’s top lawyer, Mr. Koh said, he has found in Mr. Brennan a principled ally

“If John Brennan is the last guy in the room with the president, I’m comfortable, because Brennan is a person of genuine moral rectitude,” Mr. Koh said. “It’s as though you had a priest with extremely strong moral values who was suddenly charged with leading a war.”

The president values Mr. Brennan’s experience in assessing intelligence, from his own agency or others, and for the sobriety with which he approaches lethal operations, other aides say

“The purpose of these actions is to mitigate threats to U.S. persons’ lives,” Mr. Brennan said in an interview. “It is the option of last recourse. So the president, and I think all of us here, don’t like the fact that people have to die. And so he wants to make sure that we go through a rigorous checklist: The infeasibility of capture, the certainty of the intelligence base, the imminence of the threat, all of these things."
Many Americans now regard Nazi propaganda with sneering contempt: "How could educated, supposedly civilized people ever believe such contemptible nonsense?," they wonder in astonishment. And then they read an article like the one in the Times -- and they swallow it whole.

One of the critical issues that explains Germans' acceptance of Nazi propaganda then, and Americans' acceptance of government propaganda now, is a particularly primitive form of tribalism. I have explored in detail how tribal identity is instilled in a very young child in two articles: "Creating the Next Generation," and "Learning to Hate 'The Other.'" I will set modesty aside for the moment and say that, if I have identified one issue that may prove to be of special value, it is my analysis of the ways in which the formation of a tribal identity is inextricably and inevitably tied to Alice Miller's discussion of how the most commonly accepted methods of raising children -- and teaching them the primacy of obedience to authority above all -- severely impair or even destroy a child's sense of genuine, autonomous personal identity. In the tribalism series, I discussed an incident recounted by a mother involving her young son, an incident which made her proud and happy. As I explained, I chose the story not because it revealed unusual, especially horrifying cruelty (physical, psychological or both) -- but for the opposite reason: because this kind of incident is so completely ordinary, because it occurs millions of time a day, all over the world. In the fourth installment of the tribalism series, I wrote:
Keep in mind what I consider the critical essence of that story: by means of emotional intimidation and blackmail, the mother forces her young son to agree with her own judgments about matters the child cannot possibly understand. The mother hasn't presented any sort of argument, or encouraged the child to analyze her argument independently to determine whether he agrees. The story makes it clear that this kind of incident involving the same specifics has occurred before. Remember the end of the story:
Of course I realized that this could be an excellent "teachable moment" about impulse control, so I knelt down and spoke to him. I told him that I was very disappointed, that I really didn't like what he did. I asked him again why he did it, and he still didn't answer. Then I asked him "Do you know what we call people who know what they are doing is bad, but do the bad thing anyway?"

He replied, "Democrats."
In the original story, the despised "Others" are labelled Republicans; I altered the designation to emphasize the fact that the label is of no significance at all. What is of crucial importance is the method being taught to the child. The young boy knows his mother is furious with him, and he is terrified that her love and approval might be withheld or withdrawn. Although he cannot understand these issues as an adult would, the child is aware that he cannot survive without that love and approval. As a result, he will say whatever his mother demands: what he is learning, above all else, is the primary importance of obedience. The boy joins in his mother's denunciation of "The Other" of the moment. In this manner, the child's basic tribal identity is forged. Our tribe is good, their tribe is bad. But the child will not be able to provide a reasoned explanation as to why this is true (and as I discuss in Part III, it is not true in that form). The child embraces these judgments because he is forced to -- and he is forced to by means of his mother's emotional manipulation.

I offered one example of the results this leads to in adult behavior in Part II, the emailer who praised a post of mine and wanted to write one like it, but didn't do so because of his fear that he would be "regarded as having lost [his] mind." The prospect of his tribe's disapproval meant more to him than what he himself considered to be the truth. In a general sense, you see this behavior many times a day in our political commentary; most writing by bloggers falls exclusively into this category. Rarely will you find a carefully presented argument as to why one particular policy is better than another. For the most part, our political writers start with the assumption that their political affiliation and its associated views are unquestionably correct. Their writing consists of emotional signifiers to other members of their political tribe. Persuasion is not the goal; instead, the purpose is the reinforcement and reaffirmation of tribal identity, and reinforcement of the view that one's own tribe is "good," while all opposing tribes are "bad" in various ways and degrees. ...

Two aspects of the psychological dynamics I am discussing are of critical importance; both of them have many effects on adult behavior. I've already discussed the first aspect to some extent: the manner in which those ideas that the child comes to embrace are not "ideas" in any genuine sense. The child is not encouraged to explore a subject at his own speed and on his own terms (with guidance from adults, to be sure, but without subjecting the child to fear and intimidation should he show interest in the "wrong" ideas); instead, the child is offered slogans and labels devoid of content, and pressured into accepting the views his primary caregivers consider to be the "correct" ones.

The other aspect is just as crucial, and it concerns the child's sense of personal identity. All of us need this sense of personal identity in at least two respects: we require a fundamental sense of self-worth, and we need a belief in our ability to function in the world. We need to believe that we are both worthy and capable of living successfully. To the extent our sense of personal identity is not founded in our functioning as autonomous, independent, genuine individuals, our personal identity will be replaced by another kind of identity. We must have some kind of identity; the only question is what kind it will be. We might think of the issue this way: to the extent we don't have a truly independent identity, we will have a tribal identity. This is what the mother is teaching her son in our story; this is the lesson taught by the vast majority of parents, with only the specific labels changing from one instance to another.
Concerning the lessons the mother is teaching her child, I had earlier written the following in "Learning to Hate 'The Other'":
This particular story, together with the patterns of thought to which it gives rise, presents still further issues that merit analysis. Whether we call the "bad" people Republicans or Democrats, this perspective entirely rules out the possible existence of those individuals who might hold different political convictions in good faith. The "bad" people are not simply mistaken or misguided. They are bad. Not only are they bad, but they know they're bad. Despite this knowledge -- which the accuser knows the "bad" people to possess with the certainty of the True Believer -- the "bad" people persist in their evil. The young boy in this story certainly does not want to be "bad" or evil, and he desperately does not want his mother to think he is. So of course, the boy will say whatever his mother demands. He will obey.

We might very well wonder whether the mother believes her own condemnation. It would certainly appear that she does. Consider the insurmountable obstacle this belief represents. Such a belief makes impossible the idea of changing the opinions of those with whom one disagrees about issues of any significance. For according to this perspective, we aren't faced with a problem of knowledge or understanding. Those who disagree aren't innocent in their error, if it is error: they are "bad," and they know they are "bad." So what is one to do in political battles? Try to overwhelm your opponents by sheer numbers? If you can't do that, what then? Eliminate them?
I remind you, as forcefully as I can, that this lesson is being taught to a young child with regard to members of an opposing political party. As I go on to discuss in that essay, this becomes the manner in which adults view their political opponents: this is how Democrats view Republicans, and how Republicans view Democrats. (Use conservative and liberal or other labels instead, and the phenomenon is the same.) And I provide examples to prove the point.

When these patterns of thought and behavior are instilled in young children, they are rarely altered later in life. And the mechanism is easily transferred to other contexts. Today, our government tells us that certain individuals are "terrorists" or even "suspected terrorists," and the hatred the child learned to feel for "The Other" is triggered. Moreover, the government hurls the accusation on the basis of scant or non-existent evidence -- and it offers the condemnation virtually exclusively on the basis of "intelligence." But -- and almost no one else will tell you this -- "intelligence" is almost uniformly wrong. Even when it is right, it is not the basis for decisions of policy. This is a vitally significant point, so I will cover it in more detail shortly. (See "Played for Fools Yet Again" and "You, Too, Can and Should Be an 'Intelligence Analyst,'" if you wish to get started.)

But the child was taught that facts, logic and argument don't matter. What matters is obedience, including obedience to the edicts of one's own tribe. For the Nazis, the enemy was Jews and other designated groups. For us, it is "terrorists," a term used without regard to evidence or specific meaning. But as devoted, obedient tribalists, we know that "terrorists" are bad. We know they mean to kill us. So we need not wonder what the answer to my earlier question is.

About the mother's lesson in the story, and what she taught her son must be done about the despised Other, I asked: If all else fails, what do we do? "Eliminate them?"

In reply to the urgent prompting of government propagandists, most Americans enthusiastically scream: "Yes!!!"

Yet we insist on telling ourselves, in the manner of my imaginary author writing about crimes from another, but still recent, era: "We must always be profoundly grateful that such horrors are unknown to us in our own time."

June 10, 2012

Reflections on a Bestial Culture (II): When the State Proclaims It Is Become Death

Part I: Reflections on a Bestial Culture, Ready and Eager for Slaughter

Poisonous pedagogy is a phrase I use to refer to 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. -- Alice Miller, The Truth Will Set You Free

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. -- Alice Miller, Thou Shalt Not Be Aware

(The Miller excerpts are discussed in Part IV of "The Ravages of Tribalism.")
In a culture that was healthy to any significant degree, the recent NYT article about the Obama administration's institutionalized, systematic program of murder by secret decree would have resulted in a deafening, sustained, nationwide howl of outrage and denunciation. In a healthy country -- and here, I use "healthy" in the sense described in an essay from four years ago: "to designate those goals and motives that can generally be described as supportive of individual life and happiness" -- the government's announcement that it regularly murders innocent human beings, wherever they may be in the world, for any reason the government wishes, and that the murderers are proud of their murders and plan to continue them indefinitely, would have propelled millions of people into the streets. Given the government's proclamation that it considers anyone's life to be entirely disposable and subject to the State's momentary whim, it would hardly have been surprising if many of the potential victims resorted to violence to register their shock and disgust. In such circumstances, acts of violence in response should properly be regarded as acts of self-defense. If someone tells you he believes he has the "right" to murder anyone at all -- including you -- you cannot demand that the person who might be the next target should sit back and hope for the best or try to "reform" the monster, especially when the monster regards his murders as good, even noble.

It is true that such acts of violence would almost certainly be futile and very probably result in the imprisonment or death of the person who committed them, particularly when the monster is the State itself, with its monumental panoply of death-dealing personnel and machines. But people who grasp that their lives have been threatened might understandably be overtaken by the desperate need to protect themselves -- and to strike out in defense not only of their own lives, but of life in the most general sense, and of the possibility of happiness. In a situation of this kind, I would never condemn the individual who resorted to violence, just as I refused to condemn the rioters in England last summer: "Violence is a completely understandable response, particularly when every other means of amelioration and recourse has been systematically closed off. When you leave people no choice but to engage in violence, they'll engage in violence."

In America today, it is almost impossible even to imagine such a response. This is a measure of how profoundly damaged this country is, how accustomed it has become to an endless, ghoulish parade of horrors. While violence and cruelty have always been an inextricable, central part of the American experience -- a nation founded on the centuries-long genocide of the Native Americans and the centuries-long enslavement of millions of human beings was hardly born in radiant innocence -- recent decades have seen the American State systematically turn its terrorist acts of murder and widespread devastation from a primary focus on foreign targets (foreign in the sense of other countries, as well as individuals who are easily designated as "The Other") to a focus on domestic targets, as well. From this perspective, the slaughter of Native Americans and the enslavement, brutalization and murder of Black Americans proved very valuable to the ruling class -- that is, the white, hugely privileged ruling class. While these two targeted groups were "domestic" in the sense that they were to be found within U.S. borders, they remained "The Other" insofar as the white ruling class and its willing adjuncts were concerned. In this manner, the general population became accustomed and desensitized to the idea of widespread terror and slaughter practiced at home. Eventually and inevitably, the ruling class would turn the same methods of death and brutalization on all of the domestic population that failed to find favor with the ruling class. I described this shift in "Terrorist State, Abroad and At Home":
Just as it is not possible for an individual to restrict what constitutes a fundamental psychological methodology to only one area of his life, so a ruling class will not employ one approach in foreign policy while dealing with matters of domestic politics in a radically different manner. In any case, the U.S. ruling class never had such a desire: in one way or another, other nations would be made to submit to the demands of the U.S. government -- and the same is true for U.S. citizens. The citizens of America will do exactly as the ruling class demands -- or else. As far as the ruling class is concerned, you have as little reason to complain as the murdered Iraqis do: the ruling class only wishes to improve your life. The ruling class acts only on your behalf, and "for your own good."

You now witness these tactics of intimidation and of the most transparently, viciously manipulative fear-mongering deployed by almost every member of the ruling class in connection with the bailout bill.
See the rest of that essay, from October 2008, for further details.

It is one thing for the ruling class to target the general domestic population on economic matters, as it has by systematically squeezing every last bit of wealth and opportunity out of "ordinary" Americans and shoveling all of it into the drooling maw of the rulers (and for many Americans, these methods of brutalization are already catastrophic in the extreme). It is very different when the ruling class announces to the world that it considers every human being on Earth not favored by power and privilege to be fair game in a neverending campaign of slaughter.

Yet there are no crowds in the street. Forget howls of fury; you can listen with the greatest concentration of which you are capable, and you will detect barely a whimper. Life goes on precisely as before, as if nothing of great moment has happened. With very rare exceptions (and Chris Floyd is the sole such exception I have come across thus far), even the harshest critics of the murder campaign so thoughtfully detailed in the NYT will not say:
These people are monsters. This is profoundly evil. All these people, all those who collaborate and assist in such a program, have placed themselves far beyond any limit of what can be designated as civilization.
You can read almost any "dissenting" article you wish, Floyd excepted, and you will never come across such thoughts.

It should be noted that, in terms of the basic facts adduced by the NYT, we have not been told anything new. However, and it is huge "however," this is no excuse or explanation whatsoever for the lack of sustained, outraged response to the Times article, and I'll return to this point shortly. We've known of the Obama administration's claim to absolute power for more than two years. In "Murder with Malice Aforethought" from June 2010, I wrote (linking a still earlier piece):
Obama and his administration claim the "right" to murder anyone in the world, wherever he or she may be, for whatever reason they choose -- or for no reason at all. Obama and his administration recognize no upper limit to the number of people they can murder in this manner: they can murder as many people as they wish. And they claim there is nothing at all that may impede their exercise of this "right."

This is the game entire. Understand this: once Obama and his administration have claimed this, there is nothing left to argue about. They can murder you -- and they can murder anyone else at all. What in the name of anything you hold holy remains to be "debated" once a vile, damnable "right" of this kind has been claimed?

This is a war crime [under the Nuremberg Principles]: "murder, ill-treatment or deportation to slave-labor or for any other purpose of civilian population of or in occupied territory..."

It is also a crime against humanity: "Murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation and other inhuman acts done against any civilian population..."

Under Principle VII, all those who are complicit in these crimes are also guilty.
Be sure to understand this issue. The claim of absolute power -- the claim of dominion over all of human life itself, and the assertion of a damnable "right" to unleash death whenever and in whatever direction they wish -- is not remotely equivalent to any dispute over lowering Social Security benefits, raising the retirement age, or any similar question, at least it is not equivalent to any sane person. The claim of absolute power is sui generis; it is a claim unlike any other. It is not -- I repeat: it is not -- simply another "question of policy." It is certainly possible that, in particular cases, the deprivation of medical benefits (as just one example) may ultimately result in a person's death sooner than would have occurred otherwise. But for some period of time, however brief, the persons so affected are left with the possibility of action; they can still try to save themselves, even if those efforts are finally unsuccessful. But the claim of a "right" to dispense death arbitrarily -- the claim that the State may murder anyone it chooses, whenever it desires -- constitutes a separate category altogether, a category of which this particular claim is the sole unit. When death is unleashed, all possibility of action is ended forever.

Yet you can read various harsh denunciations of this policy, and you will almost never encounter language of the kind I employ here. Even for the most vehement of "dissenters," the assertion of absolute power is treated as another in a list of wrongs, perhaps an especially egregious wrong, but not a claim which demands a fundamentally different response. For such writers, it is certainly nothing to take to the streets about; it is no cause for withdrawing one's support in every way possible from a system of evil dedicated to death. This, too, is a measure of how profoundly damaged our culture is. With regard to almost all "dissenting" writers, and if I may express the point more personally and informally, I often think that I have never seen such a collection of gutless wonders. And I frequently recall this passage from Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience":
Those who, while they disapprove of the character and measures of a government, yield to it their allegiance and support are undoubtedly its most conscientious supporters, and so frequently the most serious obstacles to reform. Some are petitioning the State to dissolve the Union, to disregard the requisitions of the President. Why do they not dissolve it themselves — the union between themselves and the State — and refuse to pay their quota into its treasury? Do not they stand in the same relation to the State, that the State does to the Union? And have not the same reasons prevented the State from resisting the Union, which have prevented them from resisting the State?

How can a man be satisfied to entertain an opinion merely, and enjoy it? Is there any enjoyment in it, if his opinion is that he is aggrieved?
Not infrequently, I think that what may doom us is not the immense evil to which the State devotes itself, but the quality of the opposition -- those who are, in Thoreau's formulation, the State's "most conscientious supporters, and so frequently the most serious obstacles to reform." (In these times, you would do well to spend some time with Thoreau's essay on a regular basis; I've been doing just that myself.) These questions regarding when and how to withdraw one's support from a system of evil or, as I have termed our government at present, from the Death State, are serious and complex, and I will discuss them in further detail in a subsequent installment of this series. In the meantime, you might find this earlier essay of some use: "The Honor of Being Human: Why Do You Support?"

Although the NYT article did not disclose new information with regard to the essentials of the State's program of death, its length, detail and prominence constitute a significant ratcheting up of the State's claim of absolute power. Most crucial is the statement in the article that much of the content is derived from interviews with "three dozen of [Obama's] current and former advisers." As I pointed out in Part I, this in effect announces the identity of the article's true author: the author is the U.S. government, the State itself. Through these "advisers," the highest levels of the U.S. government have told the story they want to tell. And what is that story? It is simply this:
The State is become death. Our target can be anyone we choose. Yes, this means you. No, there is nowhere to run.
It is not every day that the State announces in the august pages of "the paper of record" that its primary program, the central mission to which it patiently and carefully devotes its vast resources, is the elimination of human life, wherever, whenever and to whatever extent it wishes. The State is not concerned with improving your "quality of life." How is that possible, when the State can end your life at any moment? And the State most assuredly is not concerned with safeguarding your "rights." The State proclaims that you have no rights at all which it is obligated to recognize. All of the State's claims as to its purposes -- to improve the economy, to protect the environment, to provide education or health care, to safeguard the lives of its citizens (the irony is black and bitter in a manner beyond description) -- are revealed as a tissue of lies, as the most transparent public relations and propaganda.

This, of course, is my identification of the meaning of the NYT article; as I will demonstrate, this indeed is the meaning of the article. But it seems very few people agree with my assessment. What explains the chasm between what I am saying about this article and its significance, and the widespread non-reaction to it? I submit that it is impossible to understand any aspect of this article without an appreciation of the mechanisms identified by Alice Miller in her critically important work. And I mean any aspect: from the information provided by the three dozen advisers, to the details of how the story was written (and edited), to the article's reception. None of these elements can be satisfactorily explained in the absence of Miller's explanation of the manner in which all of us are taught the primary importance of obedience to authority from the time we are young children.

I set out two Miller statements at the beginning of this essay; the earlier article of mine in which I discussed those statements may be of interest. I also direct your attention to the detailed discussion of America as an "obedience culture" in this article. More particularly for our purposes here, consider this summary of Miller's thesis that I offered in that piece:
There are several interlocking parts of the mechanisms that Miller describes that must be kept in mind -- and these parts help to explain what is missing from our political debates. The first part is obedience to the demands of the parent and/or other authority figure -- the second part is denial of the pain experienced by the child himself, when he is made to "conform" to arbitrary edicts and to suppress his own spontaneous, genuine emotions -- the third part is idealization of the parent and/or additional authority figure, since the child depends on the parent for life itself and dares not challenge the parent or the parent's "good intentions" -- and the final, inevitable part is the denial of the pain experienced by others. If we fully acknowledge the injuries sustained by others and the pain they experience, it will call up our own injuries. Because this would call into question our most fundamental sense of ourselves, this cannot be permitted. In this manner, the deadening of the soul -- which began with our own souls -- must expand to deaden us to the full reality of the selves of others.
The manner in which these mechanisms operate in relation to the NYT article is complex, and that is the subject to which I will turn next. I will begin with correcting a mistaken impression that I may have inadvertently created at the conclusion of the first installment, when I said that the Times article can be viewed as "a trial balloon."

That is entirely accurate in my view, but I did not mean to imply that such a trial balloon was constructed and offered to the public in an entirely, or even largely, conscious manner. It may have been conscious for a very few participants in the creation of the article (less than a handful of people in my estimation), but for the most part, that is not how these mechanisms operate. These methods of thought and behavior are set very, very early in life; they quickly become automatic. It is extraordinarily rare for an individual to engage in a purposeful, thorough, conscious examination of the ways in which he processes information, reaches conclusions, and interacts with others. This is especially true because most of us are taught as children to react to the emotions of others, and to signs of approval or disapproval, even when those signs are very subtle. Most of our political debates are not debates at all, in the sense of an intellectual assessment: they are an intricate series of adjustments to the emotional signifiers exchanged between ourselves and others. This is even more true when we deal with questions of power, which is to say, when we deal with questions of politics in any form. These issues can be immensely complicated and deserve treatment in a book or two. I will not be able to do that, but I shall cover as much ground as I can.

Until next time, when I will offer some thoughts concerning the psychology of power and manipulation.