While critics of the vicious and evil policies of the modern American state continue to ask what can be done to punish and/or remove its practitioners from office, I am far more interested in the question: why do the American people continue to support such destructive and tyrannical behavior, whether eagerly or by silent acquiescence? With almost weekly escalation of government power over their lives, and threats to the lives of innocent men, women, and children in foreign lands, why is there so little willingness to say "No! You have gone too far for decent people to any longer tolerate your actions!"?
America is in terrible straits. It is no exaggeration to suggest that it is well into an irreversible state of collapse. The national government is ruled by psychopaths, with wars being fabricated out of lies, forged "documents," and other deceptions. Two nations that have not posed any kind of threat to the United States have been singled out for unprovoked attacks. With the diminishing returns that have rendered the continued bullying of Iraqi and Afghan people boring to both advocates and opponents of these wars, Republican and Democratic officials now turn their attentions to another country that poses no threat to America: Iran.
John McCain has clearly expressed his support not only for a continuation of the war with Iraq, but for extending it to Iran. He has wowed audiences with renditions of his song "Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran," a theme that seems to go over with his octogenarian supporters in their "U.S.S. Missouri" baseball caps. Nor does Barack Obama show any real objection to continuing and expanding American warfare in the Middle East. His campaign has largely been confined to such empty slogans as "change" and "hope." Does he mean anything of more substance than "vote for me and ‘hope’ for some kind of ‘change’"? When Eisenhower was running for the presidency in 1952, everyone understood that his purpose was to bring the Korean War debacle to an end; that "peace" was still a quality embraced by most Americans. Because American goods no longer command the respect they once did in world markets, far too many of us seem to have accepted the exporting of violence as America’s most impressive product.
Why is there no widespread moral revulsion by Americans against the murderous and destructive policies of its political system? Might there be an unconscious resentment against the killing of innocents that causes so many people to transfer their concerns to the childhood victims of predators, a more isolated threat the media continues to offer as a substitute for the widespread killings done in the name of flag-waving patriots? If your son was out with his friends engaging in drive-by shootings, would you be as proud as the parents of those who do their killings on behalf of the state, and who emblazon their cars with bumper-stickers reading "proud parents of a Marine"?
Even if we don’t wallow in such savagery, why are so many of us unwilling to openly condemn it? As the current police-state continues its growth, some may understandably fear the midnight knock on their front door that was implicit in the September, 2001 remark by White House Press Secretary, Ari Fleischer: people "need to watch what they say, watch what they do." The message gets through to many that, an administration that thumbs its nose at habeas corpus, embraces the use of torture, and openly regards the Constitution as nothing more than "a piece of paper," is a bully too dangerous to offend.
I suspect that many who secretly oppose what the state is doing believe that such "excesses" amount to little more than a temporary embarrassment; one that will pass upon the end of George W’s final term; and that the election of a new president will bring things back to "normal." But it seems clear that what we are now experiencing in America is a new "norm"; that we are dealing not just with the idiosyncrasies and psychotic traits embedded in the present administration. The problem runs much deeper, I believe, as an expression of more sinister purposes of the political establishment that presumes ownership of the nation. As I have written before, I regard the "war on terror" as the establishment’s struggle to restore and reinforce the vertically-structured power system that has been collapsing in favor of decentralizing, horizontally-networked systems. This "war to preserve political hierarchies" is a cause to which Democrats and Republicans, alike, have enlisted and pledged their "bipartisan" support. This is why neither Obama nor McCain oppose continuation of the Iraq war or its accompanying police-state; and why the Republocrat parrots for Congress and the Senate – with the notable exception of Ron Paul, who refuses to do the establishment’s bidding – afford no reasonable expectation of post-2008 change.
There is a deeper explanation for the refusal of most Americans to play out the superintending role expected of an electorate by defenders of democratic states: the fear of being critical of a system with which people have so closely identified their egos. If one thinks of himself as an "American" or a "Peruvian" only in the sense of being a resident of a given territory, there is little threat of organized conflict. It is when we identify who we are by reference to nationality – or race, religion, gender, or social status – that problems arise. We have been carefully trained – primarily by government schools – to attach existential significance to our nation-state. We learn such childish catechisms as "our" group is better than "theirs"; those who are not "with us" are "against us." The daily recitation of our "pledge of allegiance" to the flag that dominates the front of the classroom, is the most obvious example of the political conditioning that begins in the grade school classroom, and carries over to our adult lives as we watch televised newscasts presented by men and women wearing miniaturized flags on their clothing.
Once we have learned to think of ourselves as "indivisible" from the nation-state, we are as desirous of protecting the state’s image as we are our own, for that is who we have become; who we are. We have become totally "externalized" beings, whose direction and responsibility lies beyond us and, thus, beyond our control. The wrongdoings by the state become our misdeeds. What embarrasses the political establishment becomes a source of personal humiliation, a discomfort we try to overcome through internal repression and/or projection onto scapegoats. Watching Americans rationalizing the bombing and invasion of two countries that have neither attacked nor threatened to attack the United States, while killing over a million men, women, and children in the process, provides as much evidence as one would need of the dangers that lie in identifying with a nation-state.
Closely identified with the unwillingness of people to criticize the base of their collective identity, is the desire not to offend your fellow ego-compatriots. Your friends, neighbors, relatives, or work colleagues might think less of you should you point an accusing finger at the entity that mirrors their very being. Should you persist in your questioning of the nation-state, you might be accused of that greatest of all political misdemeanors: the advocacy of "conspiracy" explanations for governmental behavior! Other political interests conspire; yours does not, and to think otherwise is to risk being labeled a paranoid.
The fear of looking foolish in the eyes of those whose respect you desire, is one of the greatest pressures used to keep the herd in line in a collectivist system. When it becomes evident to the establishment that an awareness of political wrongdoing has spread sufficiently amongst the general public, "respected" politicians and members of the mainstream media will signal an official recognition of the offense. It will then identify one or two low-ranking government employees as isolated culprits to serve as scapegoats for systemic wrongs. Thus was the widespread torture practiced at Abu Ghraib defined as the crimes of a few soldiers who got out of line. Current efforts to foreclose any deeper inquiry into the 2001 anthrax attacks, by focusing attention on Bruce Ivins alone, is another example of the need political systems have to hide behind "lone" assassins or other deviants as explanations for the sins of the state.
Is the American civilization likely to recover its bearings in time to reverse its moral and intellectual free-fall? In the absence of a fundamental transformation in thought and the nature of social systems, the answer is a firm "no." America – along with the rest of the West – will likely find itself suffering the fate of all previous civilizations. War-lusting empires collapse, but civilizations leave to the rest of mankind their creative and beneficial attributes. Thus were we bequeathed by the ancient Greeks the basic foundations for intelligent thought; the Romans their engineering skills; and the Persians their important work in the sciences and advanced forms of mathematics.
Western civilization built on these and other attributes to produce great works of literature, art, music, scientific discovery, and invention. But perhaps its greatest contribution to human well-being will prove to have been the confluence of such factors as individual liberty, the private ownership of property, and an understanding of the dynamics of the marketplace, to have produced the industrial revolution. In contrast with its present decline-and-fall, we should learn from history that civilizations are created and sustained by individuals; they are destroyed by collectives.
Recent civilizations have generally followed a westerly course: from Greece to Rome to Western Europe to Great Britain to America. Perhaps the beneficent qualities that once made America great – particularly respect for individuals pursuing their self-interests within free markets – will find themselves embraced by Asian countries – perhaps China – as the creative energies that make for great civilizations continue their westward trek.
Perhaps centuries from now, historians – writing in different languages than English, and for intelligent minds of different cultures than ours – will ponder the question with which Gibbon and others left us after the fall of Rome: why? Having produced such free, prosperous, and humane social systems, why were the foundations of Western civilization so easily allowed to be torn away? As barbarians and looters began to ooze their way upwards through an expanding pool of muck, why were so many millions of people who had benefited from this civilization – and who stood to suffer the most from its collapse – so unwilling or unable to see what was at stake, and to say "No!"?
August 12, 2008
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918–1938 and of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival.
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