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.