Monday, December 27, 2010

2011: A Brave New Dystopia

2011: A Brave New Dystopia
by Chris Hedges article link article link
December 27, 2010 | TruthDig | CommonDreams

The two greatest visions of a future dystopia were George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” The debate, between those who watched our descent towards corporate totalitarianism, was who was right. Would we be, as Orwell wrote, dominated by a repressive surveillance and security state that used crude and violent forms of control? Or would we be, as Huxley envisioned, entranced by entertainment and spectacle, captivated by technology and seduced by profligate consumption to embrace our own oppression? It turns out Orwell and Huxley were both right. Huxley saw the first stage of our enslavement. Orwell saw the second.

We have been gradually disempowered by a corporate state that, as Huxley foresaw, seduced and manipulated us through sensual gratification, cheap mass-produced goods, boundless credit, political theater and amusement. While we were entertained, the regulations that once kept predatory corporate power in check were dismantled, the laws that once protected us were rewritten and we were impoverished. Now that credit is drying up, good jobs for the working class are gone forever and mass-produced goods are unaffordable, we find ourselves transported from “Brave New World” to “1984.” The state, crippled by massive deficits, endless war and corporate malfeasance, is sliding toward bankruptcy. It is time for Big Brother to take over from Huxley’s feelies, the orgy-porgy and the centrifugal bumble-puppy. We are moving from a society where we are skillfully manipulated by lies and illusions to one where we are overtly controlled.

Orwell warned of a world where books were banned. Huxley warned of a world where no one wanted to read books. Orwell warned of a state of permanent war and fear. Huxley warned of a culture diverted by mindless pleasure. Orwell warned of a state where every conversation and thought was monitored and dissent was brutally punished. Huxley warned of a state where a population, preoccupied by trivia and gossip, no longer cared about truth or information. Orwell saw us frightened into submission. Huxley saw us seduced into submission. But Huxley, we are discovering, was merely the prelude to Orwell. Huxley understood the process by which we would be complicit in our own enslavement. Orwell understood the enslavement. Now that the corporate coup is over, we stand naked and defenseless. We are beginning to understand, as Karl Marx knew, that unfettered and unregulated capitalism is a brutal and revolutionary force that exploits human beings and the natural world until exhaustion or collapse.

“The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake,” Orwell wrote in “1984.” “We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”

The political philosopher Sheldon Wolin uses the term “inverted totalitarianism” in his book “Democracy Incorporated” to describe our political system. It is a term that would make sense to Huxley. In inverted totalitarianism, the sophisticated technologies of corporate control, intimidation and mass manipulation, which far surpass those employed by previous totalitarian states, are effectively masked by the glitter, noise and abundance of a consumer society. Political participation and civil liberties are gradually surrendered. The corporation state, hiding behind the smokescreen of the public relations industry, the entertainment industry and the tawdry materialism of a consumer society, devours us from the inside out. It owes no allegiance to us or the nation. It feasts upon our carcass.

The corporate state does not find its expression in a demagogue or charismatic leader. It is defined by the anonymity and facelessness of the corporation. Corporations, who hire attractive spokespeople like Barack Obama, control the uses of science, technology, education and mass communication. They control the messages in movies and television. And, as in “Brave New World,” they use these tools of communication to bolster tyranny. Our systems of mass communication, as Wolin writes, “block out, eliminate whatever might introduce qualification, ambiguity, or dialogue, anything that might weaken or complicate the holistic force of their creation, to its total impression.”

The result is a monochromatic system of information. Celebrity courtiers, masquerading as journalists, experts and specialists, identify our problems and patiently explain the parameters. All those who argue outside the imposed parameters are dismissed as irrelevant cranks, extremists or members of a radical left. Prescient social critics, from Ralph Nader to Noam Chomsky, are banished. Acceptable opinions have a range of A to B. The culture, under the tutelage of these corporate courtiers, becomes, as Huxley noted, a world of cheerful conformity, as well as an endless and finally fatal optimism. We busy ourselves buying products that promise to change our lives, make us more beautiful, confident or successful as we are steadily stripped of rights, money and influence. All messages we receive through these systems of communication, whether on the nightly news or talk shows like “Oprah,” promise a brighter, happier tomorrow. And this, as Wolin points out, is “the same ideology that invites corporate executives to exaggerate profits and conceal losses, but always with a sunny face.” We have been entranced, as Wolin writes, by “continuous technological advances” that “encourage elaborate fantasies of individual prowess, eternal youthfulness, beauty through surgery, actions measured in nanoseconds: a dream-laden culture of ever-expanding control and possibility, whose denizens are prone to fantasies because the vast majority have imagination but little scientific knowledge.”

Our manufacturing base has been dismantled. Speculators and swindlers have looted the U.S. Treasury and stolen billions from small shareholders who had set aside money for retirement or college. Civil liberties, including habeas corpus and protection from warrantless wiretapping, have been taken away. Basic services, including public education and health care, have been handed over to the corporations to exploit for profit. The few who raise voices of dissent, who refuse to engage in the corporate happy talk, are derided by the corporate establishment as freaks.

Attitudes and temperament have been cleverly engineered by the corporate state, as with Huxley’s pliant characters in “Brave New World.” The book’s protagonist, Bernard Marx, turns in frustration to his girlfriend Lenina:

“Don’t you wish you were free, Lenina?” he asks.

“I don’t know that you mean. I am free, free to have the most wonderful time. Everybody’s happy nowadays.”

He laughed, “Yes, ‘Everybody’s happy nowadays.’ We have been giving the children that at five. But wouldn’t you like to be free to be happy in some other way, Lenina? In your own way, for example; not in everybody else’s way.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” she repeated.

The fa├žade is crumbling. And as more and more people realize that they have been used and robbed, we will move swiftly from Huxley’s “Brave New World” to Orwell’s “1984.” The public, at some point, will have to face some very unpleasant truths. The good-paying jobs are not coming back. The largest deficits in human history mean that we are trapped in a debt peonage system that will be used by the corporate state to eradicate the last vestiges of social protection for citizens, including Social Security. The state has devolved from a capitalist democracy to neo-feudalism. And when these truths become apparent, anger will replace the corporate-imposed cheerful conformity. The bleakness of our post-industrial pockets, where some 40 million Americans live in a state of poverty and tens of millions in a category called “near poverty,” coupled with the lack of credit to save families from foreclosures, bank repossessions and bankruptcy from medical bills, means that inverted totalitarianism will no longer work.

We increasingly live in Orwell’s Oceania, not Huxley’s The World State. Osama bin Laden plays the role assumed by Emmanuel Goldstein in “1984.” Goldstein, in the novel, is the public face of terror. His evil machinations and clandestine acts of violence dominate the nightly news. Goldstein’s image appears each day on Oceania’s television screens as part of the nation’s “Two Minutes of Hate” daily ritual. And without the intervention of the state, Goldstein, like bin Laden, will kill you. All excesses are justified in the titanic fight against evil personified.

The psychological torture of Pvt. Bradley Manning—who has now been imprisoned for seven months without being convicted of any crime—mirrors the breaking of the dissident Winston Smith at the end of “1984.” Manning is being held as a “maximum custody detainee” in the brig at Marine Corps Base Quantico, in Virginia. He spends 23 of every 24 hours alone. He is denied exercise. He cannot have a pillow or sheets for his bed. Army doctors have been plying him with antidepressants. The cruder forms of torture of the Gestapo have been replaced with refined Orwellian techniques, largely developed by government psychologists, to turn dissidents like Manning into vegetables. We break souls as well as bodies. It is more effective. Now we can all be taken to Orwell’s dreaded Room 101 to become compliant and harmless. These “special administrative measures” are regularly imposed on our dissidents, including Syed Fahad Hashmi, who was imprisoned under similar conditions for three years before going to trial. The techniques have psychologically maimed thousands of detainees in our black sites around the globe. They are the staple form of control in our maximum security prisons where the corporate state makes war on our most politically astute underclass—African-Americans. It all presages the shift from Huxley to Orwell.

“Never again will you be capable of ordinary human feeling,” Winston Smith’s torturer tells him in “1984.” “Everything will be dead inside you. Never again will you be capable of love, or friendship, or joy of living, or laughter, or curiosity, or courage, or integrity. You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty and then we shall fill you with ourselves.”

The noose is tightening. The era of amusement is being replaced by the era of repression. Tens of millions of citizens have had their e-mails and phone records turned over to the government. We are the most monitored and spied-on citizenry in human history. Many of us have our daily routine caught on dozens of security cameras. Our proclivities and habits are recorded on the Internet. Our profiles are electronically generated. Our bodies are patted down at airports and filmed by scanners. And public service announcements, car inspection stickers, and public transportation posters constantly urge us to report suspicious activity. The enemy is everywhere.

Those who do not comply with the dictates of the war on terror, a war which, as Orwell noted, is endless, are brutally silenced. The draconian security measures used to cripple protests at the G-20 gatherings in Pittsburgh and Toronto were wildly disproportionate for the level of street activity. But they sent a clear message—DO NOT TRY THIS. The FBI’s targeting of antiwar and Palestinian activists, which in late September saw agents raid homes in Minneapolis and Chicago, is a harbinger of what is to come for all who dare defy the state’s official Newspeak. The agents—our Thought Police—seized phones, computers, documents and other personal belongings. Subpoenas to appear before a grand jury have since been served on 26 people. The subpoenas cite federal law prohibiting “providing material support or resources to designated foreign terrorist organizations.” Terror, even for those who have nothing to do with terror, becomes the blunt instrument used by Big Brother to protect us from ourselves.

“Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating?” Orwell wrote. “It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself.”

Copyright © 2010 Truthdig, L.L.C.

Chris Hedges writes a regular column for Truthdig.com. Hedges graduated from Harvard Divinity School and was for nearly two decades a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He is the author of many books, including: War Is A Force That Gives Us MeaningWhat Every Person Should Know About War, and American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. His most recent book is Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.

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Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Collective Face of Evil

The Collective Face of Evil
By James Hunter article link
December 26, 2010 | OpEdNews

Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made. -Immanuel Kant

The great atrocities of history have been condoned and/or committed by communities, most frequently nations, and have been done in the name of "purity," or some other high ideal. Unspeakable physical, cultural, and psychological violence committed against other human beings is predominantly a collective phenomenon. Only a small proportion of the mindless violence of which the human race is guilty is committed by deranged individuals. This is an important point because it is generally assumed that when individuals and society come into conflict, society occupies the high ground. This assumption is even built into our language. When we wish to use a more or less polite term to define someone we think is an evil person we call him "anti-social" or "sociopathic." If our assumption about the moral superiority of society over the individual is untrue, then it will require a serious re-evaluation of some basic assumptions that most of us have. It is a re-thinking that those who stand to benefit from the established order do not want us to undertake.

Does the data available to us support our primary claim here? Getting reliable statistics on important topics is always an iffy thing. If a matter of historical fact is of great significance, then probably someone has an interest in misrepresenting the data. Also when different people collect data they may mean very different things while using the same terms. What is genocide? What is rape? Murder? An atrocity? Torture? Fortunately for our purposes only a rough estimate is necessary. For our measure of "social evil" we will include war, genocide, and obvious examples of destroying the infra-structure of societies, upon which a significant number of people rely simply to sustain life. We will compare this with the most obvious example of death caused by individual violence, which is murder.

On his web site Matthew White tallies the number of collectively caused deaths in the twentieth century as follows: Genocide and Tyranny: 83,000,000, Military Deaths in War: 42,000,000, Civilian Deaths in War: 19,000,000, and Man-made Famine: 44,000,000, for a total of 188,000,000 unnecessary deaths caused by collective policies during the 20th century. This was lower than estimates by two other researchers on the same topic that he cites. Their estimates were 203,000,000 and 258,327,000. Different ways of counting, different definitions, and perhaps somewhat different political agendas account for the variance. However, it would seem to be a fairly conservative estimate that about 188,000,000 people in the 20th century died from socially created catastrophes, such as wars, genocides and the destruction of social infrastructures. How does this compare with murder?

Basing his estimate on known statistics, and extrapolating from these numbers, White comes up with the figure of 8,500,000 homicides in the 20th century. Granted that this is simply an estimate, his reasoning was plausible, and this probably represents a fairly accurate ball park figure. If we put White's two figures together we have about 8.5 million homicides compared with 196.5 million collectively generated deaths. That means that about 4.3% of these the death total was the result of individuals acting on their own and 95.7% was the result of the internal and external policies of nations. That is rather striking. Surely it should be enough to raise questions about our assumption that when individuals and societies are in conflict, society generally occupies the ethical high ground.

The lion's share of evil in the world is not created by individuals violating the rules of society, but by societies who violate the rights of the individuals that compose them, and who are not willing to accommodate to the legitimate needs of their neighboring societies. Enemies of society, if they are violent and fanatical, may indeed pose a threat to people, and we may need some protection from them. But first and foremost we need protection from society itself. It was this understanding that led to the creation of the Bill of Rights, the Nuremberg Principles, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and similar documents . The danger is especially great when we are dealing with a society that operates under the illusion of its unassailable purity, as is the case with the United States at this time.

It is curious how often one finds the ideal of "purity" behind the actions and ideologies of groups that perpetrate needless violence on others. Examples abound. The war on drugs. Prohibition. Laws against sex workers. The persecution of gays, lesbians and other sexual minorities. The Holocaust. The Inquisition. The Kumer Rouge. Whether we are talking about physical, sexual, ideological, racial, religious, or ideological purity, the advocacy for and implementation of this ideal is generally a prelude to violence. So much is this the case that whenever we hear the word "purity", or perceive this ideal disguised in the garb of another word, a warning bell should go off in our minds. Is some new carnage being engineered?

How are we to explain this propensity for groups of individuals to do things that most of its members acting as individuals would never do? I am sure that a number of factors come into play, but perhaps we can highlight a few of the most important ones.

Undue Submission to Authority

People suffer from the belief that if an authority tells them to do some the thing that is plainly evil, they are exonerated from the guilt of doing it. They have, in other words, no responsibility for assessing for themselves what is right or wrong in a situation. This fact of human nature was brought home in the famous experiments preformed by Stanley Milgram's in the 1960s. These experiments showed that people would administer what they believed to be painful and possibly fatal electric shocks to people they had no reason to hurt, simply because they were told to do so by an authority. For those not familiar with these experiments an excellent summery of both Milgram's work and some follow up studies can be found here. Minimally they challenge the equation of morality with obedience, as when we consider the terms "good child" and "obedient child" to be synonymous.

The experiments done by Millikan focus on how people respond to experts and/or individuals who have been designated by society to establish and enforce social norms. Mindless conformity to the norms and expectations created by such individuals is certainly one aspect of how society is able to get people to do things that, acting on their own insights and inclinations, they would never do. However, there is a more amorphous type of authority. This is the authority of the group itself. People are afraid of "public opinion." We carry around inside out heads a "generalized other" that expects things of us. "They" will disapprove of us if we are not careful. People want to be accepted by, and thought well of, by their communities. They want to do what is done -- what "they" will approve of. One of the great ironies of history is that the philosopher Heidegger, who warned people about the power of the "they" self, himself became an ardent supported of Hitler. It is easy to be swept along with the crowd. It feels "good." Even philosophers who should know better become seduced. It is difficult to oppose what one's primary social group believes and is doing. It creates anxiety about not being thought well of, about losing the social home to which one belongs, and about the validity of one's own insights. It is difficult indeed.

Eschatological Ideologies

In their collective activities people tend to come under the sway of eschatological ideologies. By "escotological ideologies" I mean to designate ideologies characterized by the following beliefs:

* The the world can best be understood as a battleground between the forces of good and the forces of evil.

* That we are moving toward a final battle between these two forces that will lead to an end of history.

* That during this battle the evil forces will be defeated and the good will enter into a kingdom (either in this world, or in the next) that will establish for all times an unchanging (a-historical) social order based on righteousness and purity.

Christian fundamentalism, Islamic fundamentalism, and the belief system of the Neo-Conservatives all fit this pattern. They are all eschatological ideologies. That is one of the primary reasons why the world is in such a dangerous state at this time.

Most individuals, at least in their personal affairs, are guided by what might be called a value oriented pragmatism. That is to say they pursue those things that they experience as having value, and they do so in a practical manner. This entails the recognition that the needs, beliefs and desires of others must be taken into consideration as they pursue their goals. I am not suggesting that most people are excessively honest or rational in their personal pursuits. They are not. They are mixtures of rational, irrational, self-serving, altruistic and sometimes even noble thoughts and feelings. But they do not organize their daily interactions with others on the premise that they are themselves paragons of virtue and that anyone who opposes them is an incarnation of pure evil and should be killed. They do not, in other words, understand their personal affairs in terms of an eschatological understanding of reality.

The Influence of the "Super-Elite"

Not all the forces that contribute to the dangerousness of the times are driven by eschatological fantasies. The money elite of the world -- primarily of big bankers and the CEOs of multi-national corporations -- are driven by other aims.

In large part it the super-elite seem to be driven by pure and unadorned greed. However, it is probably true that some of the economic super-elite sincerely believe that it would be best for everybody if the world were ruled by the elite who who presumably proven themselves in the economic arena to be capable of ruling. Three important facts should be noted about the super elite. First, they manipulate for their own ends the belief systems of those who are susceptible to escotological thinking. Second, they see any real form of democracy as contrary to their ends. Whether their motivations are self-seeking or benevolent, they are aristocrats. Third, whatever their motivations, by promoting policies that increase financial gap between the rich and the poor they are creating a very dangerous situation.

Every week I read articles and see videos done by intelligent and sensitive women and men, who have taken the trouble to know what they are talking about, and who make sensible and creative suggestions about how we as species might move forward without destroying either each other or the ecology upon which we are dependent. My thinking and life are vastly enriched by the work of such people. There are lots of them, actually. I think, so long as there are such people around, the human race is not hopeless. In an article entitled The Fundamental Mistake of Civilized Life I argue that human beings are not intrinsically evil. I believe I am justified in this fundamentally positive take on human nature, despite the evidence that points toward a less optimistic assessment. But then I notice an unfortunate fact. These thoughtful people are not running the world. Many are marginalized. They are not called by the TV news shows, even when they obviously know far more than the experts who are called. These intelligent and informed people are seldom powerful elected officials or appointees, or CEOs in big corporations. They are not members of the political and economic super-elite. This raises an interesting question in my mind. What does it take to rise to the top of the business and political organizations in our society. Of course there are many charming and sensitive, and perhaps even moral people among the super-elite, but it appears to me that rising to the top generally entails a number of characteristic:

* A fortunate birth which gives the person access to economic and educational resources that most people do not have, and which also pre-disposes them to be identified with the interests of the very rich.

* A superior degree of intelligence. This is not always the case. With a fortunate birth sometimes a superficial cunning, and an instinct for who one should hang out with may be enough. But on the average, people who rise to the top probably are more intelligent than average.

* A ruthlessness in playing the highly competitive games that permit success in our political and business institutions. The ability to empathize with others would tend to inhibit the needed ruthlessness and would serve as an impediment.

* Narcissism, and a drive toward self-aggrandizement.

* A willingness to embark on enterprises that will inevitably lead to great human suffering and even death. We see this, for example, in the willingness to exploit the cheapest labor that can be found, and to undercut the ability of workers to advocate for health benefits, acceptable working conditions, or even a living wage.

* A philosophy of social Darwinism that tells the person that since s/he is at the top, s/he must belong there. If the unfit die from malnutrition and preventable diseases, that is just natural selection at work.

* A willingness to set aside the most fundamental requirements of ethics whenever they might impose a limit on personal ambition.

These characteristics paint the picture of a privileged, cunning, ruthless, narcissistic, amoral individual who is incapable of real empathy or of loyalty in relationships that are not self-serving, and who conducts his or her affairs in a Machiavellian manner. In other words, in the language of the mental health field, a sociopath. If it is individuals with these characteristics that do, on the whole, rise to the top the power hierarchies in business and politics, then there is little wonder that our collective lives are on the whole ethically inferior to the lives we live as individuals.

Unless definite steps are taken to prevent it, a super elite of the very rich and powerful always seems to emerge. These groups may consider themselves to be the philosopher kings that Plato felt should run societies. Minimally one can say that these elites are not strong advocates of real democracy -- though they may like the trappings of a democracy if they can control it with their money. It is possible that some members of the super-elite actually do try to act for the benefit of the whole of society. The super-elite do not represent a totally monolithic entity. In general, however, they do band together to protect their privilege and to further the right of a small minority of people to amass and retain huge fortunes at the expense of the rest. The resulting inequities -- when they reach a degree of absurdity -- invariably produce violence.

Social Distance

The issue of "distance" between people is also a factor. Interactions between individuals are most often face to face, while collective actions tend to be in relationship to people who are more distant from one. David Grossman in his book "On Killing" makes the point that it is actually very difficult for one human being to kill another one. Soldiers have to be psychologically conditioned to do so. In this context, boot camp can be understood as society training people to be less than fully human, or at least to suppress the innate pro-social inclinations that are built into the species. A good deal of the conditioning in boot camp is focused on teaching the soldiers not to perceive the enemy as people like unto themselves, with family, friends, hopes, fears, worthy aspirations etc. Despite the training, many soldiers find it very difficult to deal with the aftermath of having killed -- even in battle, where it is the socially prescribed thing to do. Physical as well as psychological distance between the killer and the killed facilitates a willingness to kill. One presumes that the same person who could direct a drone plane to bomb a household of people -- with the inevitable "collateral damage" that he/she knows will be a part of the process -- would not kill the children and other non-military people with a knife while looking them in the face. A certain amount of collective violence is possible simply because the perpetrators are spared the horror of seeing what they are doing. Cultural and language differences are additional forms of distancing that facilitate socially prescribed killing. The less "like us" and therefore the less human the other person is perceived to be, the easier it is to kill and/or torture him/her. Perhaps the greatest distance is achieved through the process of demonizing the "enemy." Members of the group to be attacked or exterminated are not human. They are not even ordinary animals, for which one might still feel some sympathy. They are monsters -- devils. We have been taught that society forces individuals to repress violent and destructive impulses for the sake of harmonious social living. Actually what seems more common is for society to repress those impulses that are most tender, gentle, loving and pro-social.

Some Ramifications

We have attempted to suggest some of the reasons why, on the average, collectivities and societies -- especially nations -- are responsible for much more violent and criminal behavior that are individuals. We have touched on eschatological ideologies, the dynamics of authority, the nature of the economic/political super elite, and the role of social distance as some of the factors that might help explain this fact. Undoubtedly there are other factors. Whatever the causes, the recognition that people acting as a part of collectivities do, in fact, tend to be more violent than the same individuals acting of individuals has a number of important ramifications.

Human beings are social creatures. We cannot totally withdraw from participation in the life of our communities, nor would it be good to do so. At the same time, when we evaluate any conflict between society and individuals we should remain open to the possibility that the source of the difficulty may be as much or even more with society than with the individual. The prisoner is not necessarily more guilty than the guard, the judge, the legislature, or the churches that pressed for laws that might be repressive, draconian, misplaced, counterproductive or simply unnecessary. The isolated and eccentric thinker may have exactly the insight that is needed for our survival and evolution.

Authority should always be treated with suspicion. This doesn't mean we don't need authorities, in the sense of people who take the trouble to study this or that aspect of life in detail, so that they can provide us with reliable conclusions. But we should always be aware of any biases that the authorities might have. Are we really getting an objective appraisal, or are we reading a more or less subtle form of propaganda? Is the real aim simply to inform us, or is it to create a particular view of reality that would be conducive to their interests, or to interests that they serve. Perhaps the most conspicuous examples of less than objective reporting on data are supplied by drug companies, who do the research on the effectiveness of their own products. Anyone who thinks they can trust such research is naive indeed. Experts in all fields can be bought by business or political groups that want the information that is delivered to the public to be tailored to create the right impression. Our society is awash in misinformation, half truths, and just plain lies pumped into the mainstream by "experts".

When their own insights are in conflict with what "everybody" knows, individuals should at least entertain the possibility that they may be right and society wrong. Of course it is also possible that society may be right. But the matter should be resolved by reason and evidence, not by deeply ingrained prejudices, urban legends, moral panics and force.

Radically free speech may be the most important of all the liberties to be protected in a free society. Many people believe that freedom is a value in its own right, and I would concur. But perhaps an important pragmatic consideration might also be brought forward in support of free speech. Think about how often it is that what everybody "knew" turned out to not be so. In these dangerous times it might well be fatal for us to disregard the voices of those who march to a different drummer.

While there are notable exceptions, the fact is that most individuals most of the time are capable of only very limited deviations -- whether in thought or action -- from the norms of their reference groups. This is true whether their primary reference group is a nation, a religion, a social class, a political movement, or a criminal organization. If one wishes to understand why people perpetrate so much needless suffering on others, it is of limited value to look into the evil that lurks in the hearts of individuals. Rather, one needs to focus primarily on the collectivities to which individuals belong and examine the manner in which these collectivities create the conditions that facilitate the ongoing carnage.

James Hunter writes for Politics of Health and works with David Werner on issues of health.

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Suppressing Dissent in America

Welcoming the Summer Soldier and Sunshine Patriot: Suppressing Dissent in America
By David Model article link
December 26, 2010 | OpEdNews

Zealously hunting for a rationale to indict Julian Assange for the Wikileaks documents reveals the obsession of presidents to suppress information exposing improper or illegal conduct. They treat the freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment as privileges to be withdrawn when those freedoms threaten to cause them a serious problem. Their pretext for their response is to blur the distinction between subversion and dissent.

Together with the suppression of individual freedoms, Homeland Security, the Patriot Act, unwarranted search and seizures, assassination squads, harsh response to protests and the designation enemy combatant are part of a security regime that leads Americans on a dangerous path to tyrannical government, some might even say dictatorship. Ironically, the structure of American democracy was heavily based on the fear of monarchies and the accumulation of too much power at the highest levels of government.

A healthy democracy is based on an open society with a free exchange of ideas and tolerance of dissent where seeking the truth is considered the noblest pursuit. John Adams warned us about the dangers of tyranny even in a democracy when he uttered the words: "The Jaws of power are always open to devour, and her arms always stretched out if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing." Former British foreign secretary Robin Cook postulates a far grimmer scenario when he claimed that: "All the checks and balances that the founding fathers constructed to restrain presidential power are broken instruments."

At the extreme end of the spectrum are those who believe that the United States is becoming or is a police state. Naomi Wolf, author and political consultant, argues that: "It is clear, if you are willing to look, that each of these 10 steps [to becoming a fascist state] have already been initiated today in the United States by the Bush administration." As well, Michael Ratner, president of the Centre for Constitutional Rights, worries that: "It is no exaggeration to say we are moving toward a police state."

There have been numerous attempts since 1798 to suppress dissent in the United States but in recent years the sophistication of technology, a corroborative media, a climate of fear and the abdication by Congress of its critical role as a check on the powers of the president, not to mention its collaboration in the expansion of his powers, has resulted in significantly greater powers of the chief executive to suppress dissent.

Previous attempts to suppress dissent usually occurred when perceived internal or external threats induced fear over the security of the state in the same way that terrorism justifies the extreme security measures that are in place today.

When the United States was on the brink of war with France in 1798, the Federalist Party passed the Alien and Sedition Acts to safeguard the union from internal threats. The Alien Act targeted immigrants who might side with France and the Sedition Act criminalized malicious writings which defamed, brought into contempt or disrepute, or excited the hatred of the people against the Government, the President, or the Congress, or which stirred people to sedition.

Then in 1862, President Lincoln facing an armed rebellion within the United States suspended habeas corpus, the foundation of all the freedoms guaranteed in the constitution.

During the outset of the civil war, President Lincoln, facing riots and hostile militias, particularly in Maryland, suspended Habeas Corpus in Maryland and parts of some mid-western states. Article 1, Section 9 of the constitution prohibits the suspension of Habeas Corpus "unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it". Since Section 9 refers to Congressional powers, Lincoln's decision was very controversial. 

President Wilson signed the Espionage Act into law in 1917 which criminalized vaguely defined anti-war activities such as gathering information with the intention to injure the United States or with the intention of promoting its enemies during World War 1. It was followed by the Sedition Act of 1918 which defined as illegal acts defaming the American flag or the uniforms of military forces.

During Word War II, President Roosevelt issued executive order 9066 granting the military the power to create internment camps to hold all persons of Japanese ancestry for the duration of the war.

Other attempts to suppress dissent include the FBI Cointelpro program which appallingly authorized the assassination of suspected internal threats to American security and the harsh treatment of protestors at various events including the 1968 Chicago Convention, Berkley sit-ins and Kent State.

Since 9/11, civil, political and legal rights both nationally and internationally have been severely curtailed all in the name of protecting the security of the United States.

One of the cornerstones of the emerging quasi-police state in America is the Patriot Act which grants agents of the state the powers to treat ordinary American citizens as suspected terrorists if, in their judgment, there is reasonable cause. U.S. government officials can now name individuals as terrorists without a public hearing, conduct search and seizures in private homes, tap telephone lines, subpoena anyone's telephone, medical and university records without any real legal obstacles. Surreally, it expanded the definition of terrorism to include domestic terrorism, enlarging the scope of activities to which the Patriot Act implies. Since its passage, Americans can be detained indefinitely under the aegis of the Patriot Act. In addition, it granted immigration authorities the power to detain and deport immigrants.

Congress overwhelmingly supported passage of the original and reauthorization Bills with the Senate voting 98 in favor in 2001 and 89 in favor in 2006. In the House, 357 voted in favor in 2001 and 280 in favor in 2006.

On February 2010, President Obama signed into law, legislation that would temporarily extend for one year three controversial provisions of the Act.

In contrast, there was sharp opposition in Congress to the Sedition Act of 1798. Vice President, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and the entire Democratic-Republican Party condemned the Act as unconstitutional. As well, there was strong public opposition to the Sedition Act.

When Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, the press and Supreme Court opposed it as unconstitutional. Congress called an emergency session to introduce a bill to provide indemnity for President Lincoln's suspension of Habeas Corpus although the democrats strongly opposed the suspension. The press demanded that the suspension be tested in the courts to determine its validity.

President Wilson's introduction of sedition legislation in 1918 met with considerable opposition from Republicans and the final vote in the Senate was 48 to 26 and in the House 293 to 1 in favor. Congress repealed the Sedition Act on December 13, 1920.

Although the Sedition Act was upheld in the Supreme Court in Abrams v. United States in 1919, it was subsequently considered unconstitutional in cases such as Bradenburg v. Ohio in 1969 which virtually rendered it extremely unlikely that similar legislation would be considered again.

Massive popular non-violent protests acting within the law are a key mechanism for communicating to the administration and Congress that there is opposition to government policies. Clearly, first amendment rights protect the protesters from intimidation, harassment or detention by agents of the state.

Following the principle that First Amendment rights are only privileges, President Obama mobilized all the resources at his command to ensure that protesters at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh were denied an opportunity to deliver their message and furthermore he precipitated a deterrent to dissuade people from participating in future demonstrations. Highly militarized police from across the nation attacked the protestors with batons, pepper gas and Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRAD)

In all the above pre-9/11 examples involving the suspension of civil, legal and political rights, there was strong opposition and the above-mentioned Acts were short-lived. There was no danger that those security measures would lead to a permanent and growing abrogation of constitutional rights.

Dissent has always been fragile but is now becoming a security threat that requires an immediate and harsh response. Without dissent, there is no democracy. Just ask Julian Assange.

David Model: I have been a professor of political science at Seneca College in Toronto. I have published five books the last of which "Selling Out: Consuming Ourselves to Death" was released in May/08. As well, I have been featured in CounterPunch, Z Magazine, Dissenting Voice and College Quarterly. Additionally, I have delivered numerous papers at international academic conferences including Cambridge and Oxford.

OpEdNews Articles by David Model
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Friday, December 24, 2010

Facing the Myth of Redemptive Violence

Facing the Myth of Redemptive Violence
By Walter Wink article link
November 16, 2007 | Ekklesia

The belief that violence “saves” is so successful because it doesn’t seem to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It’s what works. It seems inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts. If a god is what you turn to when all else fails, violence certainly functions as a god. What people overlook, then, is the religious character of violence. It demands from its devotees an absolute obedience- unto-death.

This Myth of Redemptive Violence is the real myth of the modern world. It, and not Judaism or Christianity or Islam, is the dominant religion in our society today. When my children were small, we let them log an unconscionable amount of television, and I became fascinated with the mythic structure of cartoons. This was in the 1960s, when the ”death of God” theologians were being feted on talk shows, and secular humanity’s tolerance for religious myth and mystery were touted as having been exhausted.

I began to examine the structure of cartoons, and found the same pattern repeated endlessly: an indestructible hero is doggedly opposed to an irreformable and equally indestructible villain. Nothing can kill the hero, though for the first three quarters of the comic strip or TV show he (rarely she) suffers grievously and appears hopelessly doomed, until miraculously, the hero breaks free, vanquishes the villain, and restores order until the next episode. Nothing finally destroys the villain or prevents his or her reappearance, whether the villain is soundly trounced, jailed, drowned, or shot into outer space.

Few cartoons have run longer or been more influential than Popeye and Bluto. In a typical segment, Bluto abducts a screaming and kicking Olive Oyl, Popeye’s girlfriend. When Popeye attempts to rescue her, the massive Bluto beats his diminutive opponent to a pulp, while Olive Oyl helplessly wrings her hands. At the last moment, as our hero oozes to the floor, and Bluto is trying, in effect, to rape Olive Oyl, a can of spinach pops from Popeye’s pocket and spills into his mouth.

Transformed by this gracious infusion of power, he easily demolishes the villain and rescues his beloved. The format never varies. Neither party ever gains any insight or learns from these encounters. They never sit down and discuss their differences. Repeated defeats do not teach Bluto to honour Olive Oyl’s humanity, and repeated pummellings do not teach Popeye to swallow his spinach before the fight.

Something about this mythic structure rang familiar. Suddenly I remembered: this cartoon pattern mirrored one of the oldest continually enacted myths in the world, the Babylonian creation story (the Enuma Elish) from around 1250 BCE. The tale bears repeating, because it holds the clue to the appeal of that ancient myth in our modern media.

In the beginning, according to the Babylonian myth, Apsu, the father god, and Tiamat, the mother god, give birth to the gods. But the frolicking of the younger gods makes so much noise that the elder gods resolve to kill them so they can sleep. The younger gods uncover the plot before the elder gods put it into action, and kill Apsu. His wife Tiamat, the Dragon of Chaos, pledges revenge.

Terrified by Tiamat, the rebel gods turn for salvation to their youngest member, Marduk. He negotiates a steep price: if he succeeds, he must be given chief and undisputed power in the assembly of the gods. Having extorted this promise, he catches Tiamat in a net, drives an evil wind down her throat, shoots an arrow that bursts her distended belly and pierces her heart. He then splits her skull with a club and scatters her blood in out-of-the-way places. He stretches out her corpse full-length, and from it creates the cosmos. (With all this blood and gore, no wonder this story proved ideal as the prototype of violent TV shows and Hollywood movies).

In this myth, creation is an act of violence. Marduk murders and dismembers Tiamat, and from her cadaver creates the world. As the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur observes (The Symbolism of Evil, Harper Collins 1967), order is established by means of disorder. Chaos (symbolised by Tiamat) is prior to order (represented by Marduk, high god of Babylon). Evil precedes good. The gods themselves are violent.

The biblical myth in Genesis 1 is diametrically opposed to all this (Genesis 1, it should be noted, was developed in Babylon during the Jewish captivity there as a direct rebuttal to the Babylonian myth). The Bible portrays a good God who creates a good creation. Chaos does not resist order. Good is prior to evil. Neither evil nor violence is part of the creation, but enter later, as a result of the first couple’s sin and the connivance of the serpent (Genesis 3). A basically good reality is thus corrupted by free decisions reached by creatures. In this far more complex and subtle explanation of the origins of things, violence emerges for the first time as a problem requiring solution.

In the Babylonian myth, however, violence is no problem. It is simply a primordial fact. The simplicity of this story commended it widely, and its basic mythic structure spread as far as Syria, Phoenicia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Germany, Ireland, India, and China. Typically, a male war god residing in the sky fights a decisive battle with a female divine being, usually depicted as a monster or dragon, residing in the sea or abyss (the feminine element). Having vanquished the original enemy by war and murder, the victor fashions a cosmos from the monster’s corpse. Cosmic order requires the violent suppression of the feminine, and is mirrored in the social order by the subjection of women to men and people to ruler.

After the world has been created, the story continues, the gods imprisoned by Marduk for siding with Tiamat complain of the poor meal service. Marduk and his father, Ea, therefore execute one of the captive gods, and from his blood Ea creates human beings to be servants to the gods.

The implications are clear: human beings are created from the blood of a murdered god. Our very origin is violence. Killing is in our genes. Humanity is not the originator of evil, but merely finds evil already present and perpetuates it. Our origins are divine, to be sure, since we are made from a god, but from the blood of an assassinated god.

Human beings are thus naturally incapable of peaceful coexistence. Order must continually be imposed upon us from on high: men over women, masters over slaves, priests over laity, aristocrats over peasants, rulers over people. Unquestioning obedience is the highest virtue, and order the highest religious value. As Marduk’s representative on earth, the king’s task is to subdue all those enemies who threaten the tranquillity that he has established on behalf of the god. The whole cosmos is a state, and the god rules through the king. Politics arises within the divine sphere itself. Salvation is politics: the masses identify with the god of order against the god of chaos, and offer themselves up for the Holy War that imposes order and rule on the peoples round about.

In short, the Myth of Redemptive Violence is the story of the victory of order over chaos by means of violence. It is the ideology of conquest, the original religion of the status quo. The gods favour those who conquer. Conversely, whoever conquers must have the favour of the gods. The common people exist to perpetuate the advantage that the gods have conferred upon the king, the aristocracy, and the priesthood.

Religion exists to legitimate power and privilege. Life is combat. Any form of order is preferable to chaos, according to this myth. Ours is neither a perfect nor perfectible world; it is theatre of perpetual conflict in which the prize goes to the strong. Peace through war, security through strength: these are the core convictions that arise from this ancient historical religion, and they form the solid bedrock on which the Domination System is founded in every society.

The Babylonian myth is far from finished. It is as universally present and earnestly believed today as at any time in its long and bloody history. It is the dominant myth in contemporary America. It enshrines the ritual practice of violence at the very heart of public life, and even those who seek to oppose its oppressive violence do so violently.

We have already seen how the myth of redemptive violence is played out in the structure of children’s cartoon shows (and is found as well in comics, video and computer games, and movies). But we also encounter it in the media, in sports, in nationalism, in militarism, in foreign policy, in televangelism, in the religious right, and in self-styled militia groups. What appears so innocuous in cartoons is, in fact, the mythic underpinnings of our violent society.

The psychodynamics of the TV cartoon or comic book are marvelously simple: children identify with the good guy so that they can think of themselves as good. This enables them to project out onto the bad guy their own repressed anger, violence, rebelliousness, or lust, and then vicariously to enjoy their own evil by watching the bad guy initially prevail. This segment of the show – the “Tammuz” element, where the hero suffers – actually consumes all but the closing minutes, allowing ample time for indulging the violent side of the self.

When the good guy finally wins, viewers are then able to reassert control over their own inner tendencies, repress them, and re-establish a sense of goodness without coming to any insight about their own inner evil. The villain’s punishment provides catharsis; one forswears the villain’s ways and heaps condemnation on him in a guilt-free orgy of aggression. Salvation is found through identification with the hero.

Only the names have changed. Marduk subdues Tiamat through violence, and though he kills Tiamat, chaos incessantly reasserts itself, and is kept at bay only by repeated battles and by the repetition of the Babylonian New Year’s festival where the heavenly combat myth is ritually re-enacted. Theologian Willis Elliott’s observation underscores the seriousness of this entertainment: ”the birth of the world (cosmogony) is the birth of the individual (egogony): you are being birthed through how you see ’all things’ as being birthed”. Therefore “Whoever controls the cosmogony controls the children”.

The Myth of Redemptive Violence is the simplest, laziest, most exciting, uncomplicated, irrational, and primitive depiction of evil the world has even known. Furthermore, its orientation toward evil is one into which virtually all modern children (boys especially) are socialised in the process of maturation. Children select this mythic structure because they have already been led, by culturally reinforced cues and role models, to resonate with its simplistic view of reality. Its presence everywhere is not the result of a conspiracy of Babylonian priests secretly buying up the mass media with Iraqi oil money, but a function of values endlessly reinforced by the Domination System. By making violence pleasurable, fascinating, and entertaining, the Powers are able to delude people into compliance with a system that is cheating them of their very lives.

Once children have been indoctrinated into the expectations of a dominator society, they may never outgrow the need to locate all evil outside themselves. Even as adults they tend to scapegoat others for all that is wrong in the world. They continue to depend on group identification and the upholding of social norms for a sense of well-being.

In a period when attendance at Christian Sunday schools is dwindling, the myth of redemptive violence has won children’s voluntary acquiescence to a regimen of indoctrination more extensive and effective than any in the history of religions. Estimates vary widely, but the average child reported to log roughly 36,000 hours of television by age 18, viewing some 15,000 murders. What church or synagogue can even remotely keep pace with the myth of redemptive violence in hours spent teaching children or the quality of presentation? (Think of the typical “children’s sermon” – how bland by comparison!)

No other religious system has even remotely rivalled the myth of redemptive violence in its ability to catechise its young so totally. From the earliest age, children are awash in depictions of violence as the ultimate solution to human conflicts. Nor does saturation in the myth end with the close of adolescence. There is no rite of passage from adolescent to adult status in the national cult of violence, but rather a years-long assimilation to adult television and movie fare.

Not all shows for children or adults are based on violence, of course. Reality is far more complex than the simplicities of this myth, and maturer minds will demand more subtle, nuanced, complex presentations. But the basic structure of the combat myth underlies the pap to which a great many adults turn in order to escape the harsher realities of their everyday lives: spy thrillers, westerns, cop shows, and combat programmes. It is as if we must watch so much “redemptive” violence to reassure ourselves, against the deluge of facts to the contrary in our actual day-to-day lives, that reality really is that simple.

Redemptive violence gives way to violence as an end in itself. It is no longer a religion that uses violence in the pursuit of order and salvation, but one in which violence has become an aphrodisiac, sheer titillation, an addictive high, a substitute for relationships. Violence is no longer the means to a higher good, namely order; violence becomes the end.

© Walter Wink is Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. Among his various books are The Human Being, Peace Is The Way, The Bible in Human Transformation The Powers That Be, and Homosexuality and Christian Faith.

Christian Peacemaker Teams is an initiative of the historic peace churches (Mennonites, Church of the Brethren, and Quakers) with support and membership from a range of Catholic and Protestant denominations. Supporting violence-reduction efforts around the world is its mandate.

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