November 13, 2012

Letting Evil Set the Terms


This is how I always start:

“I am the prosecutor.

“I represent the state. I am here to present to you the evidence of a crime. Together you will weigh this evidence. You will deliberate upon it. You will decide if it proves the defendant’s guilt.

“This man—” And here I point.

You must always point, Rusty, I was told by John White. ...

If you don’t have the courage to point, John White whispered, you can’t expect them to have the courage to convict.

And so I point. I extend my hand across the courtroom. I hold one finger straight. I seek the defendant’s eye. I say:

“This man has been accused.”
-- Scott Turow, Presumed Innocent
This is the root of the problem: most people refuse to point. Most people do not have the courage to point.

When the most critical issues are at stake -- when the value of a human life, or the fundamental requirements of a civilized society, are under assault -- most people will not raise their hand, point their finger, look the person in the eye, and say: "I accuse you."

Many people will insist they do possess the courage to do this. They may point their finger and announce the words of accusation, but they will do so only with regard to derivative, secondary issues. When it comes to the most vital questions of our time, indeed of any time, they will not.

If you wish to stop evil, if you wish at least to slow its spread into our lives, until it threatens to destroy our lives altogether, you must have the courage to point. You must say: "I accuse you."

I state at the outset that I understand very well that most people will not agree with the argument that follows. I know this to be true because I have discussed aspects of these issues for close to ten years. There are certain truths that most people will never grant serious consideration, for to acknowledge these ideas threatens them in a manner they find intolerable. Yet I am convinced these ideas are true, in fact I believe them to be true more strongly than ever before, because I look very carefully at the world around me, and I sift the evidence with painful, close attention. The evidence in support of these ideas grows daily. It is a wonder to me that a great many more people do not see the truths that I do, but I know they do not. I don't offer this as any sort of boast; it is a cause of deep personal unhappiness. I desperately wish it were otherwise. Very, very few people agree with me. That is simply another truth.

Even though I have discussed aspects of my theme for years, and although I have devoted many words and many posts to some of these ideas, I didn't fully appreciate certain connections until very recently. It was only events of the last months, and in one instance the last week, that caused me to engage in a reexamination of these ideas, to challenge myself as to whether what I consider the explanation is, in fact, accurate. So I reconstructed my argument from the beginning, taking nothing for granted and questioning every assumption. When I did this, I employed a technique that I recommend in the strongest terms to anyone who wishes to consider ideas in a systematic way. We must be willing, even eager, to say to ourselves: "Everything you think is wrong. Everything."

I think I still have a few longtime readers from years ago. They will recognize that when I began writing in the fall of 2002, I held many beliefs that I have since rejected entirely. As one example, one of great significance, I had absorbed the myth of American exceptionalism in its totality; I condemn that myth today, as I have for over five years. My acceptance of that myth had many repercussions; I believed many things to be true that I now know to be false, often viciously false. The major part of my journey took place roughly from 2003 through 2006. During that time, on every occasion I considered an issue, I began by saying to myself: "Arthur, everything you think is wrong." During that period, I did this many times a day, every day. On numerous occasions (it would take quite a while simply to list them all), everything I thought was wrong. It was often exhausting, and in many ways it was the hardest work I've ever done.

I still do it now. I don't do it as often, but at least several times a week -- and always when I think about an issue that is new to me, even if only in one minor respect -- I begin with the premise that everything I think is wrong. I do not know of any other way to make progress, to try to come as close as each of us can to an understanding of what happens in the world, and why people act and think as they do. When I conclude that I am wrong about an issue, as I have many times in the past and as I still do sometimes today, I am never sad or embarrassed to admit my error. To the contrary: I am happy and relieved to realize that I've made a mistake, and that I am now able to correct it. I have never understood why most people find it almost impossible to admit they're wrong, even, or especially, about issues of immense importance. This was true even when I was very young, even when I was a teenager. I still don't understand it today. Or rather, I should say that while I think I now understand many of the reasons why most people are so resistant to admitting error, there remains a sense in which I remain unable to imagine the inner state of someone who adamantly refuses to do so. Do they think their refusal changes the facts? Do they think what may be horrifying consequences of an error will miraculously be altered? I have no idea what they think in regard to such questions; I am forced to conclude that, for the most part, they don't think much at all about them.

I have a reason for offering this brief personal history, what I consider a very important reason. In what follows, I urge the reader to adopt the strategy I have utilized so often. I ask that the reader at least consider the possibility that: Everything you think is wrong. This is especially true with regard to the first issue I will discuss. I have to begin here, for this is where all of us begin: in our childhoods, and in our relationship to our parents. This is precisely the area where I have met the fiercest and most determined resistance. With regard to this issue, I know why this is true, for it was true in my own case. I first began reading Alice Miller in the 1980s. I would pick up her work, and then put it down. I would set her work aside, sometimes for a year or two, because I found her ideas deeply upsetting. I couldn't take them in, not all the way. But I would always eventually return to her books.

It took me more than 20 years to take it in, and finally to understand Miller's ideas in a way that made it possible for me to see how they explained so much of what happens in our world, including in our politics. I've now written a great many articles applying her ideas to a number of subjects. You will find the more recent ones described here; the older ones are listed here. I explained (in far too brief a manner) the significance of Miller's work to me in "Meaningful Connections." As I noted in that post, Miller's own site provides a link to my older collection of essays; the link is still there today, even though Miller died a few years ago. (As far as I can tell, her site has remained unchanged since her death.) Miller provides very few links; her description for mine (written when she was alive) reads: "Very interesting essays." I mention this not to claim that Miller endorsed my articles in their entirety (which her description obviously does not state), and certainly not to appeal invalidly to some noxious idea of "authority." Such an appeal is directly opposed to everything I believe; it is certainly opposed to everything Miller believed. As is always the case, and as I have emphasized here again, all of us must analyze any idea, and anything at all, independently. You will make your own judgments as to whether Miller's work is true and has explanatory power, just as you will judge my work in the same way. You may think my argument in what follows is wholly true, or true only in part, or entirely false.

I mention the Miller connection only to suggest that Miller thought that I was at least on the right track, and that my work had value. That she chose to link me at all is the evidence. I should add that Miller's link goes only to the older articles of mine. I have no idea whether Miller ever saw the more recent ones; I strongly doubt that she did. I never communicated with Miller directly. Our only personal contact was indirect, in 2005, when I received an email from her American publisher. He told me that Miller had asked him to send me a copy of her latest book, which was about to be released. When I received it, there was a note from the publisher, stating that Alice Miller wanted me to know that she was "a great fan" of my site. That, together with her link to my work, remains one of the happiest and proudest moments in my more than ten years of writing.

The argument that I will offer is a complex one, and it will necessarily extend through several posts. I ask for your patience and understanding, not only because of the unavoidable length of this discussion, but because some of the material is very difficult to acknowledge and accept. To set the overall framework for what follows, and especially for those who may be unfamiliar with Miller's work and its application to events in our lives, I offer the opening of the last installment in my series, "On Torture." (All of the installments, together with descriptions of their contents, will be found here.) Here is what I wrote almost seven years ago:
Children who become too aware of things are punished for it and internalize the coercion to such an extent that as adults they give up the search for awareness. But because some people cannot renounce this search in spite of coercion, there is justifiable hope that regardless of the ever-increasing application of technology to the field of psychological knowledge, Kafka's vision of the penal colony with its efficient scientifically-minded persecutors and their passive victims is valid only for certain areas of our life and perhaps not forever. For the human soul is virtually indestructible, and its ability to rise from the ashes remains as long as the body draws breath. -- Alice Miller, at the conclusion of the "Afterword" to For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence
I have read extensively in my life, and Alice Miller is the most profoundly courageous writer in the world today to my knowledge. She writes unflinchingly and with a gaze that never turns away from what it perceives, no matter how horrifying it may be. Miller describes the untold cruelties that are inflicted on the most innocent and defenseless of victims -- infants and very young children. Almost all of us accept these cruelties to one degree or another. I am not speaking only of the obvious cruelties, of corporal punishment and similar barbarities -- although we should never forget that the great majority of parents believe that spanking is sometimes necessary. I will begin to trace the connections here at the outset: just as Charles Krauthammer maintains that we are "morally compelled" to utilize torture in rare circumstances in the name of our own survival, so most parents believe that physical violence is sometimes morally "required" if their children are to be taught to be "civilized."

Let us try to be as brave as Alice Miller: what we mean by "civilized" when we speak in this way, is that children must be taught to obey. If the principle of obedience is instilled in children from earliest infancy, and if parents further teach their children that physical violence is the means of commanding obedience, why do we wonder that some adults will torture those who have been rendered helpless and delivered into their control? They are merely reenacting what their parents taught them.

But we refuse to see this. We will not acknowledge what has been done to us. Miller continues in her work, because she understands better than anyone that these issues must be understood if the horrors are to be stopped. But she has met with fierce resistance every step of the way. In a similar way, although on an immensely more modest scale, I have found that many readers who agree with me on many issues -- and many readers who may have followed this series so far, nodding their heads in confirmation at every point in my argument -- will stop here. They will not acknowledge these particular truths, because they are too threatening.

This is because there is a necessary corollary to the obedience we are taught: the idealization of the authority figures in our lives. As children, we dare not question what our parents do: we depend on them for life itself. To comprehend fully what is being done to us would be unbearable, and it might literally kill us. So we must believe that, whatever our parents do, they do it "for our own good." To believe otherwise is the forbidden thought. So we must deny our own pain when we are young; such denial is necessary if we are to survive at that stage in our lives.

But if we maintain the denial when we become adults, it spreads throughout our lives. When such modes of thought are established in our psychologies, they cannot be isolated or contained. We deny our own pain -- so we must deny the pain of others. If we acknowledge their pain fully and allow ourselves to realize what it means, it will necessarily call up our own wounds. But this remains intolerable and forbidden. In extreme cases, we must dehumanize other human beings: they become "the other," the less-than-human. By using such devices, we make inflicting untold agonies on another person possible: if they are not even human, it doesn't matter if we torture them. This is always how we create hell on earth.

I said I was not referring only to the obvious cruelties inflicted on children by physical violence. Just as important, and often of much greater significance, are the psychological agonies to which parents subject their children. How often do we hear parents say to a child who will not follow an order: "Why are you making me so unhappy? You don't want to make your mother unhappy and sad, do you, darling? Now just do what I say." We should recognize this for what it is: emotional blackmail. The unstated threat -- but the threat that is deeply felt by the child, even if he is not able to understand it -- is that the parent's love will be withdrawn unless the child obeys. Since the child knows that his life depends on that love, the threat is a terrifying one. Such blows are delivered countless times every day, by millions of parents around the world.

This knowledge is inaccessible to the majority of adults. We are taught to obey, and we learn to idealize our parents. We tell ourselves they did the best they could, or they couldn't help it. In one sense, that is true: they raise their children as they were raised. They learned obedience very well, and they do to their own children what was done to them. But most of us cannot leave this truth at this point: to maintain the veneration of our parents, we must insist that they in fact were right -- that they did it "for our own good." That is where the great danger lies.

When the idealization of the authority figure spreads once we become adults, it can encompass additional authority figures. There are two primary such figures: God -- who may have been there from the beginning, if the child is raised in a very religious household where God is the ultimate authority, and the parents only speak on His behalf; and country. When one's nation becomes such an authority figure, there are subsidiary ones as well: the nation's leaders, and the nation's military.
This is how I have described my understanding of Miller's central thesis:
By demanding obedience above all from a child (whether by physical punishment, by psychological means, or through some combination of both), parents forbid the child from fostering an authentic sense of self. Because children are completely dependent on their parents, they dare not question their parents' goodness, or their "good intentions." As a result, when children are punished, even if they are punished for no reason or for a reason that makes no sense, they blame themselves and believe that the fault lies within them. In this way, the idealization of the authority figure is allowed to continue. In addition, the child cannot allow himself to experience fully his own pain, because that, too, might lead to questioning of his parents.

In this manner, the child is prevented from developing a genuine, authentic sense of self. As he grows older, this deadening of his soul desensitizes the child to the pain of others. Eventually, the maturing adult will seek to express his repressed anger on external targets, since he has never been allowed to experience and express it in ways that would not be destructive. By such means, the cycle of violence is continued into another generation (using "violence" in the broadest sense). One of the additional consequences is that the adult, who has never developed an authentic self, can easily transfer his idealization of his parents to a new authority figure. As Miller says:
This perfect adaptation to society's norms--in other words, to what is called 'healthy normality'--carries with it the danger that such a person can be used for practically any purpose. It is not a loss of autonomy that occurs here, because this autonomy never existed, but a switching of values, which in themselves are of no importance anyway for the person in question as long as his whole value system is dominated by the principle of obedience. He has never gone beyond the stage of idealizing his parents with their demands for unquestioning obedience; this idealization can easily be transferred to a Fuhrer or to an ideology.
Before proceeding further, we need several additional elements that are critical to the general background. Miller describes one of her key concepts in this manner:
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.

In my books For Your Own Good and Thou Shall Not Be Aware: Society's Betrayal of the Child, I have explained the concept using concrete examples. In my other books I have repeatedly stressed how the mendacious mentality behind this approach to dealing with children can leave long-lasting imprints on the way we think and relate to one another in our adult lives.
And consider with care this excerpt from Miller (from Thou Shalt Not Be Aware), and note the application of her observations to political events, including every election you have ever witnessed, including most particularly every presidential election:
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.

Crippling ties to certain norms, terminology, and labels can also be clearly observed in the case of many thoroughly honorable people who become passionately engaged in political struggle. For them, political struggle is inseparably associated with party, organization, or ideology. Since the ominous threat child-rearing practices pose to peace and survival has always remained hidden, ideologies have not yet been able to perceive this situation or, if they do perceive it, to develop intellectual weapons against this knowledge. As far as I know, not a single ideology has "appropriated" the truth of the overriding importance of our early conditioning to be obedient and dependent and to suppress our feelings, along with the consequences of this conditioning. That is understandable, for it probably would mean the end of the ideology in question and the beginning of awareness. Accordingly, many ideologues who consider themselves politically active are like people who, if a fire breaks out, would open the windows to try to let out the billowing smoke (perhaps contenting themselves with abstract theories about the fire's origin) and blithely ignore the flames leaping up nearby.
We now need to examine in further detail how these dynamics develop and are implanted in the case of almost every person in early childhood. We need to understand why it is absolutely necessary for almost all of us to have the courage, at least in the safety of our own minds, to raise our hand, point our finger -- and directly contemplating our parent (or other primary authority figure), declare:
When you subjected me to violence, when you hit me and spanked me, when you coerced and manipulated me and subjected me to emotional blackmail, even though I was a helpless child and had no means of defending myself, you committed a grave and grievous crime against me. To the extent you acted in these ways, you committed evil.

I accuse you.
Please understand what I am saying: I mean precisely what I just said. This does not mean that your parents were evil as people. To be sure, there are some parents who are thoroughly evil with regard to how they raise their children, but such individuals are rare. The majority of parents are (or were) supportive and nurturing in a number of ways. They may be wonderful parents in certain respects. It may be that you continue to love your parents, even very deeply.

I mean exactly what I said: if your parents subjected you to physical violence, if, like most parents, they subjected you to emotional coercion, manipulation and blackmail when you were a child, to that extent they committed evil. I must add, and as I have already indicated, that I emphatically do not mean that you must accuse your parent(s) in person. There are many situations in which such confrontations are entirely futile and pointless; often, confrontations of that kind serve only to make a bad situation still worse. But at a minimum, in the sanctity of your own mind and soul, you must have the courage to make the accusation when it is true.

If you or unable or refuse to level the accusation when it is true, you will never be able to point at a political leader -- or at those people who systematically, routinely murder innocent human beings -- and say the same in any meaningful way. And that is a critical part of the reason, perhaps the critical part of the reason, why evil flourishes in America today, why evil extends its reach throughout our lives.

We must have the courage to point at the perpetrators and say, without faltering, with full conviction of the truth of our judgment: I accuse you.

Next time: "Believing the Lie."