CLVIX – Identifying With the State

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One
of the deadliest practices
we engage in is that of identifying
ourselves with a collective
entity. Whether it be the
state, a nationality, our
race or gender, or any other
abstraction, we introduce
division — hence, conflict
— into our lives as we separate
ourselves from those who identify
with other groupings. If one
observes the state of our
world today, this is the pattern
that underlies our deadly
and destructive social behavior.
This mindset was no better
articulated than when George
W. Bush declared u201Cyou're either
with us, or against us.u201D

Through
years of careful conditioning,
we learn to think of ourselves
in terms of agencies and/or
abstractions external to our
independent being. Or, to
express the point more clearly,
we have learned to internalize
these external forces; to
conform our thinking and behavior
to the purposes and interests
of such entities. We adorn
ourselves with flags, mouth
shibboleths, and decorate
our cars with bumper-stickers,
in order to communicate to
others our sense of u201Cwho we
are.u201D In such ways does our
being become indistinguishable
from our chosen collective.

In
this way are institutions
born. We discover a particular
form of organization through
which we are able to cooperate
with others for our mutual
benefit. Over time, the advantages
derived from this system have
a sufficient consistency to
lead us to the conclusion
that our well-being is dependent
upon it. Those who manage
the organization find it in
their self-interests to propagate
this belief so that we will
become dependent upon its
permanency. Like a sculptor
working with clay, institutions
take over the direction of
our minds, twisting, squeezing,
and pounding upon them until
we have embraced a mindset
conducive to their interests.
Once this has been accomplished,
we find it easy to subvert
our will and sense of purpose
to the collective. The organization
ceases being a mere tool of
mutual convenience, and becomes
an end in itself. Our lives
become u201Cinstitutionalized,u201D
and we regard it as fanciful
to imagine ourselves living
in any other way than as constituent
parts of a machine that transcends
our individual sense.

Once
we identify ourselves with
the state, that collective
entity does more than represent
who we are; it is who
we are. To the politicized
mind, the idea that u201Cwe are
the governmentu201D has real meaning,
not in the sense of
being able to control such
an agency, but in the psychological
sense. The successes and failures
of the state become the subject's
successes and failures; insults
or other attacks upon their
abstract sense of being —
such as the burning of u201Ctheiru201D
flag — become assaults upon
their very personhood. Shortcomings
on the part of the state become
our failures of character.
This is why so many Americans
who have belatedly come to
criticize the war against
Iraq are inclined to treat
it as only a u201Cmistakeu201D or
the product of u201Cmismanagement,u201D
not as a moral wrong. Our
egos can more easily admit
to the making of a mistake
than to moral transgressions.
Such an attitude also helps
to explain why, as Milton
Mayer wrote in his revealing
post-World War II book, They
Thought They Were Free
,
most Germans were unable to
admit that the Nazi regime
had been tyrannical.

It
is this dynamic that makes
it easy for political officials
to generate wars, a process
that reinforces the sense
of identity and attachment
people have for u201Ctheiru201D state.
It also helps to explain why
most Americans — though tiring
of the war against Iraq —
refuse to condemn government
leaders for the lies, forgeries,
and deceit employed to get
the war started: to acknowledge
the dishonesty of the system
through which they identify
themselves is to admit to
the dishonest base of their
being.

The
truthfulness of the state's
rationale for war is irrelevant
to most of its subjects. It
is sufficient that they believe
the abstraction with which
their lives are intertwined
will be benefited in some
way by war. Against whom and
upon what claim does not matter
— except as a factor in assessing
the likelihood of success.
That most Americans have pipped
nary a squeak of protest over
Bush administration plans
to attack Iran — with nuclear
weapons if deemed useful
to its ends — reflects the
point I am making. Bush could
undertake a full-fledged war
against Lapland, and most
Americans would trot out their
flags and bumper-stickers
of approval.

The
u201Crightnessu201D or u201Cwrongnessu201D
of any form of collective
behavior becomes interpreted
by the standard of whose actions
are being considered. During
World War II, for example,
Japanese kamikaze pilots were
regarded as crazed fanatics
for crashing their planes
into American battleships.
At the same time, American
war movies (see, e.g., Flying
Tigers
) extolled the
heroism of American pilots
who did the same thing. One
sees this same double-standard
in responding to u201Cconspiracy
theories.u201D u201CDo you think a
conspiracy was behind the
9/11 attacks?u201D It certainly
seems so to me, unless one
is prepared to treat the disappearance
of the World Trade Center
buildings as the consequence
of a couple pilots having
bad navigational experiences!
The question that should be
asked is: whose conspiracy
was it? To those whose identities
coincide with the state, such
a question is easily answered:
others conspire, we
do not.

It
is not the symbiotic relationship
between war and the expansion
of state power, nor the realization
of corporate benefits that
could not be obtained in a
free market, that mobilize
the machinery of war. Without
most of us standing behind
u201Couru201D system, and cheering
on u201Couru201D troops, and defending
u201Couru201D leaders, none of this
would be possible. What would
be your likely response if
your neighbor prevailed upon
you to join him in a violent
attack upon a local convenience
store, on the grounds that
it hired u201Cillegal aliens?u201D
Your sense of identity would
not be implicated in his efforts,
and you would likely dismiss
him as a lunatic.

Only
when our ego-identities become
wrapped up with some institutional
abstraction — such as the
state — can we be persuaded
to invest our lives and the
lives of our children in the
collective madness of state
action. We do not have such
attitudes toward organizations
with which we have more transitory
relationships. If we find
an accounting error in our
bank statement, we would not
find satisfaction in the proposition
u201Cthe First National Bank,
right or wrong.u201D Neither would
we be inclined to wear a T-shirt
that read u201CDisneyland: love
it or leave it.u201D

One
of the many adverse consequences
of identifying with and attaching
ourselves to collective abstractions
is our loss of control over
not only the meaning and direction
in our lives, but of the manner
in which we can be efficacious
in our efforts to pursue the
purposes that have become
central to us. We become dependent
upon the performance of u201Couru201D
group; u201Couru201D reputation rises
or falls on the basis of what
institutional leaders do or
fail to do. If u201Couru201D nation-state
loses respect in the world
— such as by the use of torture
or killing innocent people
– we consider ourselves no
longer respectable, and scurry
to find plausible excuses
to redeem our egos. When these
expectations are not met,
we go in search of new leaders
or organizational reforms
we believe will restore our
sense of purpose and pride
that we have allowed abstract
entities to personify for
us.

As
the costs and failures of
the state become increasingly
evident, there is a growing
tendency to blame this system.
But to do so is to continue
playing the same game into
which we have allowed ourselves
to become conditioned. One
of the practices employed
by the state to get us to
mobilize our u201Cdark sideu201D energies
in opposition to the endless
recycling of enemies it has
chosen for us, is that of
psychological projection.
Whether we care to acknowledge
it or not — and most of us
do not — each of us has an
unconscious capacity for attitudes
or conduct that our conscious
minds reject. We fear that,
sufficiently provoked, we
might engage in violence —
even deadly — against others;
or that inducements might
cause us to become dishonest.
We might harbor racist or
other bigoted sentiments,
or consider ourselves lazy
or irresponsible. Though we
are unlikely to act upon such
inner fears, their presence
within us can generate discomforting
self-directed feelings of
guilt, anger, or unworthiness
that we would like to eliminate.
The most common way in which
humanity has tried to bring
about such an exorcism is
by subconsciously projecting
these traits onto others (i.e.,
u201Cscapegoatsu201D) and punishing
them for what are really
our own shortcomings.

The
state has trained us to behave
this way, in order that we
may be counted upon to invest
our lives, resources, and
other energies in pursuit
of the enemy du jour.
It is somewhat ironic, therefore,
that most of us resort to
the same practice in our criticism
of political systems. After
years of mouthing the high-school
civics class mantra about
the necessity for government
— and the bigger the government
the better — we begin to experience
the unexpected consequences
of politicization. Tax burdens
continue to escalate; or the
state takes our home to make
way for a proposed shopping
center; or ever-more details
of our lives are micromanaged
by ever-burgeoning state bureaucracies.

Having
grown weary of the costs —
including the loss of control
over our lives — we blame
the state for what
has befallen us. We condemn
the Bush administration for
the parade of lies that precipitated
the war against Iraq, rather
than indicting ourselves for
ever believing anything the
state tells us. We fault the
politicians for the skyrocketing
costs of governmental programs,
conveniently ignoring our
insistence upon this or that
benefit whose costs we would
prefer having others pay.
The statists have helped us
accept a world view that conflates
our incompetence to manage
our own lives with their omniscience
to manage the lives of billions
of people — along with the
planet upon which we live!
— and we are now experiencing
the costs generated by our
own gullibility.

We
have acted like country bumpkins
at the state fair with the
egg money who, having been
fleeced by a bunch of carnival
sharpies, look everywhere
for someone to blame other
than ourselves. We have
been euchred out of our very
lives because of our eagerness
to believe that benefits can
be enjoyed without incurring
costs; that the freedom to
control one's life can be
separated from the responsibilities
for one's actions; and that
two plus two does not have
to add up to four if a sizeable
public opinion can be amassed
against the proposition.

By
identifying ourselves with
any abstraction (such as the
state) we give up the integrated
life, the sense of wholeness
that can be found only within
each of us. While the state
has manipulated, cajoled,
and threatened us to identify
ourselves with it, the responsibility
for our acceding to its pressures
lies within each of us. The
statists have — as was their
vicious purpose — simply taken
over the territory we have
abandoned.

Our
politico-centric pain and
suffering has been brought
about by our having allowed
external forces to move in
and occupy the vacuum we created
at the center of our being.
The only way out of our dilemma
involves a retracing of the
route that brought us to where
we are. We require nothing
so much right now as the development
of a sense of u201Cwho we areu201D
that transcends our institutionalized
identities, and returns us
— without division and conflict
— to a centered, self-directed
integrity in our lives.

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