June 06, 2013

Trained for Totalitarianism

The major topic of the day is the Obama administration's massive domestic surveillance program. The administration quickly trotted out the usual justifications, stressing that this surveillance is entirely "legal":
A senior Obama administration official said on Thursday morning that a court order seeking the business records of Verizon customers, disclosed by the newspaper The Guardian, “does not allow the government to listen in on anyone’s telephone calls” and “does not include the content of any communications or the name of any subscriber,” but rather “relates exclusively to metadata, such as a telephone number or the length of the call."

The official emphasized that “all three branches of government are involved in reviewing and authorizing” any domestic intelligence collection under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and that any surveillance activities under it are overseen by the Justice Department, the office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the FISA Court “to ensure that they comply with the Constitution and laws of the United States and appropriately protect privacy and civil liberties."

“Information of the sort described in the Guardian article has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States,” the official said, “as it allows counterterrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States.”

The order, signed in April by Judge Roger Vinson of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, directs a Verizon Communications subsidiary, Verizon Business Network Services, to turn over “on an ongoing daily basis” to the National Security Agency all call logs “between the United States and abroad” or “wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls."
I initially note that the outrage that has greeted this story once again encompasses the entirety of the political spectrum: many people on both the right and left are infuriated by this sustained assault on individual privacy.

The fact that the outrage is so widespread provides another opportunity for me to encourage anyone who might see this post to consider what I wrote only a few weeks ago: "You Say You Want a Peaceful Revolution." In that article, I described a nationwide movement of civil disobedience; the purpose would be nothing less than shutting down Washington, D.C. (and a number of other major cities, as well). And the purpose of that would be to get the bastards' attention, and to say: STOP IT. If sufficient numbers of protesters descended on Washington and other cities, they would make the bastards stop it, at least temporarily. As I explained, even the real prospect of such protests actually materializing could lead to many possibilities that are now all but inconceivable. In the earlier essay, I focused on the IRS abuses; the past few weeks have already begun to flesh out the scope and systematic nature of the IRS targeting. The surveillance story could certainly grow in importance; add it to the fuel for creating civil disobedience on the required scale. Massive abuses by the State certainly justify massive reaction.

The "Peaceful Revolution" article describes what I imagine happening; I emphasize again that I view the scenarios I offer as entirely possible and realistic. But that article, along with everything I write these days, disappeared mere moments after it appeared. I make that observation not as a pointless exercise in self-pity, but as a simple statement of fact. In fact, I don't feel sorry for myself in the least. My reaction to the passivity and somnolence that seem to have embraced almost everyone in this benighted country is more on the order of towering fury and rage.

For the simple fact is that the reaction to the surveillance story is most likely to follow the pattern I described last November:
So whatcha gonna do? Write outraged blog posts and newspaper columns? Demand congressional hearings? Please. The whole point of hearings is to soothe the disgruntled and the people who are yelling about how terrible it all is, while changing absolutely nothing of consequence -- of consequence, that is, to the ruling class, which will engineer any and all hearings to make certain that their power and prerogatives are not altered to any degree whatsoever. The only way their power and prerogatives change is to be increased. They'll be happy to have hearings for you. It's entertainment, baby! And then everyone will shut up for another five years, until the next big "new" scandal erupts. And then the whole routine will be repeated again.

But be sure to vote in 2014, and in every election! This is a democracy, after all! It's your country! Love it or leave it!

I should mention one other point. It's just a minor little thing, no biggie. Don't you assume that every email of yours, every blog post and comment, every telephone call, anything you write or say using media of any kind is monitored by some government agency or other, if only they decide to check up on you, for any reason they dream up or for no reason at all, just because they're bored and, hell, you look like you might be fun to investigate for a while? I have assumed exactly that for years. I find it hard to believe that everyone doesn't make the same assumption.

But "privacy"? You don't have any. You haven't had any for a long, long time. And this latest story? Fodder for conversation, and outraged posts and articles of course, for a week or two, perhaps three. Then everybody will forget about it. There will be another BIG STORY to talk about, another BIG CONTROVERSY. It's a circus, with flashing lights and lots of colors. Oh, the beautiful colors!
History in general, as well as our particular history in the U.S. over the last ten years, leads to the conclusion that this latest story will be no different in ultimate effect. Nonetheless, I will continue to say that my hope for massive civil disobedience is equally realistic: it all depends on the choices made by millions of individual Americans. In the "Peaceful Revolution" article, I referred to my earlier idea for an ad designed to educate the public about the U.S.'s ghastly policy toward Iran -- a policy which is deliberately designed to lead to military confrontation, whenever the ruling class finally decides to exercise that option -- and to motivate the public to protest against it. And my God, imagine what a powerful ad could be written about the surveillance story. Maybe the tag line this time is: "So ... who's the Soviet Union now?" The answer would be inescapable: We are, baby. And you could do it in 60 seconds. I'd be thrilled to help write it, if anyone is interested in pursuing it.

But I've been down this road repeatedly. Many people have forgotten, but there was a time during the Bush administration when almost everyone who carefully followed developments with Iran thought the U.S. would certainly attack that nation. I offered a detailed, step-by-step proposal to attempt to derail such plans: "Building an Effective Resistance." Very few people noticed or linked that post. But I tried again: "Still Another Call for Activism: Prove Me Wrong, I Beg You." No one cared about that post, either. Finally, I became profoundly disgusted and, yes, furious and enraged: "Thus You Lose the World: What the Fuck Is Wrong with You?" And there was almost no reaction at all to that post.

Still, I went on to write about Iran again, and about my idea for an ad that might help lay the foundation for civil disobedience on a wide scale. That post was almost universally ignored.

So I know what to expect, and what I expect is nothing. Still, there is always the possibility for making a different choice...

I will briefly discuss two issues that make me less than hopeful at this point. First, keep in mind one critical tactic that the ruling class has been pursuing with murderous dedication over the last few years. The tactic is perhaps best described this way: numbing people to the coming horrors. The primary example remains the State's carefully calibrated PR campaign for its Murder Program. In describing what happened in the months leading up to the last election, I wrote the following:
Two of the nation's most prominent newspapers -- the New York Times and the Washington Post -- offered detailed stories about the State's Murder Program. The Program targets innocent human beings anywhere and everywhere in the world. The State claims that it can murder anyone it chooses, for any reason it wishes. The State also claims that it need not ever disclose the identities of those it chooses to kill, just as it need not reveal the reasons (if any) for issuance of a death sentence. In short: the State can do whatever it wants, and there isn't a damned thing anyone can do to stop it. The State took great care to make certain that the newspaper stories of which it was the primary author included the fact that the persons to be murdered can be American citizens, in addition to the now-familiar cast of dreaded, strange "others."

Except for a small number of commentators who objected to or questioned the legitimacy of the Murder Program, these stories -- prominently displayed in the most well-known of newspapers -- caused almost no reaction at all on the part of Americans. It was as if nothing of any significance had been said. Even those commentators who condemned the State's explicitly announced program of unrestricted, unbounded murder of anyone, anywhere, anytime, regarded the Murder Program as no reason at all to refuse to vote for Obama. The stories had repeatedly made clear, doubtless at the urgent prompting of the government officials who provided most of the information to the newspapers, that Obama was and is a key figure directing the Murder Program. But almost everyone who spoke of the Program, even those who condemned it, insisted that it was still entirely "legitimate" and "reasonable" to vote for him. (See the discussion in Part II of "Accomplices to Murder" for several examples.) Not to be outdone in supporting the American nightmare of death, Romney stated his full and enthusiastic support for the Murder Program.

And yesterday, approximately 120 million Americans voted for Obama and Romney -- and for the Murder Program. ...

And thus we arrive here: the State and the ruling class have told all Americans, repeatedly and with great care, that they systematically, regularly and routinely murder innocent human beings, including American citizens. Except for a vanishingly small number of people, no one cares. No one cares about the unimaginable suffering, about the bodies torn apart, about the growing number of lives to be endured in unbearable pain. No one cares about the horror, the blood, and the agony.

The State and the ruling class were interested to know if anyone cared about these matters. They now have their answer: No. Almost no one cares. The full truth is still worse. To the extent they are aware of these horrors -- or easily could be aware of them, if only they chose to be -- most Americans support them.

It was important to the State and the ruling class to have this information -- because of what's coming.
See the full essay for details about what's coming.

This numbing technique can be observed with every major news story since 9/11: enactment of the Patriot Act, which elicited almost no outrage at all given the national hysteria that engulfed us; the reauthorizations of the Patriot Act, which were greeted with somewhat increased outrage each time, although it was quickly absorbed into our national forgetfulness; the Military Commissions Act, which occasioned much outrage (most of it at the very last minute, and all of it ineffectual), which similarly faded into our collective amnesia (does anyone even mention the MCA now?); every story concerning revelations about the State's surveillance programs (there have been a lot of them, in case you've forgotten -- here's one brief example, offered with a bitter comedic twist); and on and on and on.

In all these instances, there is outrage from the usual quarters for a few weeks, and then the story is submerged in the ongoing rush of events. The revelations -- about surveillance, about torture, about the State's Murder Program -- become part of the New Normal. Why, there's nothing especially noteworthy here. This is just the way things are. And, after all, the State has its reasons. Many Americans agree with those reasons. The State is always very helpful in teaching us these lessons: the experiment in Boston showed us just how obedient we are prepared to be -- totally obedient.

Yet none of this should be in the least surprising. All of us are taught, from the time we are infants and very young children, that the principal virtue is obedience. That is what I was taught, and I am certain you were, too. (The exceptions are so rare that they do not merit mention.) I have written about this in great detail, basing my analysis on the invaluable work of Alice Miller. For an introduction to the subject, you can consult "Letting Evil Set the Terms," especially the second half of that article.

Many parents use physical violence to compel obedience (and such violence is unforgivable, even if used only on "rare" occasions of alleged intransigence on the part of the child -- and in every case I know of, the child's "intransigence" is in direct reaction to the parent's unreasonable, often senseless demands), and virtually every parent regularly employs emotional and psychological manipulation to make the child obey. For example:
[M]ost 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. ...

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. ...

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. ...

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.
On the same theme, I want to offer a passage from Alice Miller's work. This comes from Breaking Down the Wall of Silence. When I first read this passage many years ago, I gasped out loud as I began to understand the connection Miller was making. These mechanisms are implanted deep within our psychologies at a very young age, when we are incapable of understanding what is happening to us, let alone resisting it. And this pattern helps to explain much that otherwise remains mystifying:
I FIRST RAN UP AGAINST the wall of silence as a child. For days my mother would ignore me in order to demonstrate her total power over me and reduce me to subservience. She needed this power to disguise her own insecurities to others and to herself. She also wished to deny her responsibility toward the child that she had not wanted in the first place. The needs and questions of this little girl simply ricocheted off this wall. For her part, my mother felt no need to feel responsible for her sadism. As far as she was concerned, her behavior was justifiable punishment for my wrongdoing. She was, as they say, “teaching me a lesson.”

For a child who for many years had no brothers or sisters and whose father, on the rare occasions that he was at home, never offered his protection, this long, unremitting silence was an agony. Even worse than the silence itself was the child’s doomed but persistent attempt to discover its cause. As in Kafka’s Penal Colony, the accused was in this case denied any clarification as to the nature of her offenses. This omission, however, contained a message: “If you don’t even know why you have earned this punishment, then it is clear that you are quite without conscience. Look within. Search. Try. Then your conscience will tell you what guilt you have brought upon yourself. Only then can you try to excuse yourself. Then, if you are lucky, you may be forgiven. But that depends on the mood of the powers-that-be.”

Did I know that I had begun my life in a totalitarian state? How could I have? I didn’t even realize that I was being treated in a cruel and confusing way, something I would never have dreamed of suggesting. So rather than question my mother’s behavior, I cast doubt on the rightness of my own feeling that I was being unjustly treated. As I had no point of comparison of her behavior with that of other mothers, and as she constantly portrayed herself as the embodiment of duty and self-sacrifice, I had no choice but to believe her. And, anyway, I had to believe her. To have realized the truth would have killed me. Therefore, it had to be my wickedness that was to blame when Mother didn’t speak to me, when she refused to answer my questions and ignored my pleas for clarification, when she avoided the slightest eye contact with me and returned my love with coldness. If Mother hates me, reasoned the child, then I must be hateful.
If you doubt that this pattern is a tragically common one, I urge you to read my analysis of an anecdote offered by a mother with pride. The mother similarly believes she is "teaching" her young child an important "lesson"; she is incapable of seeing how cruel and manipulative her behavior is -- and that, in fact, her behavior has nothing at all to do with the child and what he has done. I chose that story because it is an utterly ordinary one. It's not an example of unusual horror and torture, of a kind that would cause most people to recoil. (And, as I discuss in a related essay, all of the commenters applauded the story and thought it charming and wonderful.) It is the kind of thing that happens every day in millions of homes. And it is one of the grisliest horror stories you will ever read, precisely because of the modes of feeling, thought and behavior that the mother is instilling. You might also want to read this description of a profoundly different approach to child rearing (that essay also contains a brief description of some of the horrors to which I was subjected as a child).

With tragically rare exceptions, all children are taught obedience as the primary, foundational virtue and, as a necessary corollary, they are taught to idealize the authority figures in their lives. In this way, they are, as Miller suggests, trained for totalitarianism. (I suppose we could somewhat "soften" the argument, and merely say that we are trained for authoritarianism; the point remains the same.) Miller was trained in this way; so was I; and so were you. (You may be the blessed exception in five or ten thousand, but I seriously doubt it.) It has taken me decades to undo the lessons I was forced to learn. The same was true in Miller's case: she notes that she was close to 60 before she grasped these mechanisms -- and around 60 seems to be the age when such realizations occur, based on extensive reading and on the numerous people with whom I've discussed this subject.

I don't think it is possible to overstate the significance of this early childhood training. Of equal significance is the fact that these issues are almost never discussed in the course of political analysis. Yet there is a profound sense in which authoritarianism (and even totalitarianism) feel right to many people -- "right" in the sense that it is very familiar, that it is the environment in which they were first made to function. So when the State expands its control over us, when the State spies on us, when the State lists more and more activities which are forbidden or for which we must seek "permission" before we act, and even when the State announces that it has a Murder Program, many people, most people, think: "The State knows best. The State has much more information than I do, and our leaders must have reasons for their actions. And certainly, the State only acts to protect us. The State acts for our own good." This is what we had to believe about our parents, regardless of the cruelties to which they subjected us -- and this is what most adults now believe about their political leaders.

So in one sense, I can only repeat what I wrote several years ago about these matters:
This is one of the great problems with political commentary: politics is only a symptom of a more fundamental condition. Unless we address these more fundamental concerns, the symptom will never be altered in a lasting way. Yet we (and I) spend so much time on political matters because politics affects our lives so dramatically and with such immediacy. Because politics has the power to alter our lives so profoundly and, far too frequently, even to end them, some of us fiercely resist the especially destructive aspects of its operations. Yet this will never be enough by itself, as history, including our recent history and ongoing events, prove repeatedly.
Even though I am convinced that "these more fundamental concerns" must be addressed for the long-lasting resolution of these terrible afflictions, we need not wait for that blessed day once the State's violations pass beyond a certain point. We passed that point some time ago. Moreover, it hardly needs to be said that waiting only multiplies the dangers, and makes the success of any resistance movement that much more unlikely.

I therefore repeat my call for widespread resistance. And if anyone wants to build on my suggestions or come up with better ones (I'm certain you can, once you put your minds to it), and as I've said on many occasions, I'm more than willing to help. I have lots more ideas for some hard-hitting ads, as well as about additional tactics ...