CXVIII – A Monopoly on Life

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Once
there was a man who said,
u201CRange me all men of the world in rows.u201D
And instantly
There was terrific clamour among the people
Against being ranged in rows.
There was a loud quarrel, world-wide.
It endured for ages;
And blood was shed
By those who would not stand in rows,
And by those who pined to stand in rows.
Eventually, the man went to death, weeping.
And those who stayed in bloody scuffle
Knew not the great simplicity.

~
Stephen Crane

Like
a monkey that has been bitten by a scorpion, the doltish
can always be counted upon to entertain the dull-witted
with irrelevant chatter following a major crisis. So
it is with the catastrophe in New Orleans, as partisan
political interests oppose one another on such questions
as were Republicans or Democrats more to blame; whether
federal, state, or municipal governments were most at
fault; or did race or economic factors make for disparate
treatment? As Thomas Pynchon so aptly expressed it:
u201Cif they can get you asking the wrong questions, they
don't have to worry about answers.u201D

One
of the most important questions — going to the perverse
nature of our institutionalized world – occurred
in the recent flooding in New Orleans. It grossly understates
the significance of this tragedy to focus attention
only upon the utter failure of state and federal government
agencies to respond. Standing alone, the sheer incompetence
of government agencies and officials in the days following
the flooding resembled the comic-opera buffoonery of
a Marx Brothers film. That Jon Stewart's insightful
u201CThe Daily Showu201D was the only newscast capable of putting
such behavior in perspective, tells us much about the
fallen state of our culture.

The
speed and scope of private responses to this devastation
contrasted with those of the political establishment,
reflecting not simply the greater efficiency of spontaneously
ordered systems, but fundamental differences in purpose.
Millions of individuals from all over the world began
sending food, clothing, blankets, fuel, money, water,
medical supplies, and other life-and-death necessities
to flooding victims. Homeowners from across the country
went online to pledge over 150,000 beds to help house
those whose homes had been destroyed. In the San Fernando
Valley, one woman e-mailed to people that she would
be collecting such items at a given location for trucking
to the victims. Her e-mails were, in turn, forwarded
to others and, in three days time, six truckloads of
relief supplies were collected. Such experiences have
been repeated manifold, with individuals, businesses,
churches, and private charities voluntarily coming to
the rescue of total strangers. The disaster in the Gulf
Coast is an object lesson in how compassionate and cooperative
we can be toward one another when our thinking has not
been infected by politically-contrived and manipulated
conflicts.

The
responses of the state stand in stark contrast to those
of individuals. From the moment government officials
awoke to the enormity of the disaster — a number of
days after private persons had already begun their shipments
of aid — their principal purpose has been not to
aid, comfort, and rescue the victims, but to establish
their authority and control over them. Political systems
have always served as strange attractors to the control
freaks and other misfits who have never become socially
housebroken. People express surprise that government
didn't come to the aid of stricken people sooner. But
aiding people is not what government is about;
that is the function of the marketplace and other voluntary
activity. The state is about menacing, threatening,
commandeering, and killing. You will not see mayors,
senators, governors, or even presidents, wading through
waist-deep waters to rescue a trapped family: their
functions are confined to holding press conferences
and muttering platitudes.

Control
is what the state has always been about. If you
doubt this, consider the words of Louisiana Governor
Kathleen Blanco, who declared that National Guard u201Ctroops
are fresh back from Iraq, well trained, experienced,
battle tested and under my orders to restore order in
the streets.u201D She added: u201CThey have M-16s and they are
locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and
kill and they are more than willing to do so if necessary
and I expect they will.u201D

Or
consider the words of Homeland Security Secretary Michael
Chertoff expressing what, by now, has become the underlying
motto of his police-state agency: u201CWe are in control
of what's going on in the city.u201D Add to this the words
of one National Guard general who decreed: u201CWe're going
to go out and take this city back. This will be a combat
operation to get this city under control.u201D

From
whom will the city be u201Ctaken back,u201D and to what ends?
Those who have learned their political catechisms from
the television priesthood will speak of u201Clooters,u201D without
distinguishing those stealing food and water from stores
in order to survive, and without asking whether this
will include a crackdown on the police officers and
firemen who reportedly joined in the stealing of television
sets, computers, and other valuables. Perhaps getting
u201Cthis city under controlu201D includes continuing to interfere
with such voluntary efforts as Red Cross deliveries
of food, Wal-Mart's shipment of water, and physicians
offering to come to New Orleans to help the sick and
injured. This purpose may also explain why FEMA cut
emergency communications lines from New Orleans, an
action reversed by the local sheriff who then placed
guards around the facility.

And
where, in any of the draconian rhetoric being barked
by these martinets, is even an oblique reference made
to ending the suffering that has now run for two weeks?
While men and women were graciously opening their homes
to flood victims, state officials were locking people
inside crowded, smelly convention centers and domed
stadiums. While individuals were fighting the bureaucratic
red tape that prevented the flow of assistance, National
Guard troops were employing automatic weapons to menace
dispirited flood victims. Navy helicopter pilots who
deviated from their assigned roles and rescued more
than 100 victims, were reprimanded for having done so
and, in the process, had the state's priorities reinforced
upon them.

A
police chief ordered his officers to block a bridge
to prevent people from leaving the city, with some policemen
firing warning shots over the heads of tourists trying
to get out. Meanwhile, residents who wanted to stay
in their homes were being forcibly removed — handcuffed
and at gunpoint — while homeowners were having their
guns confiscated in what some might suppose was a practice
run for a subsequent disarming of Americans. All of
this was, of course, defended in that most Rousseauian
notion: u201CWe're trying to save them from themselves.u201D

u201CLock
and load,u201D and u201Csixteen in the clip,u201D were oft-heard
phrases coming from National Guard soldiers, one of
whom put everything in perspective: u201CIt's like Baghdad
all over again.u201D To the state, the victims of a flood
— like the victims of American aggression in Iraq —
are u201Cinsurgentsu201D to be brought under control. u201CThey
treated us like dirt,u201D one woman reported, words that
have come to represent human responses to police and
military behavior anywhere in the world.

It
is interesting — albeit not pleasant — to observe a
civilization in freefall. Panglossian optimists continue
to hope — as they would at the death-bed of a loved
one — for a miracle to reverse the terminal course.
The belief that someone in authority can change all
of this; that new leadership or new machinery can make
us better than we are, continues to drive minds that
have been conditioned in institutional thinking. Most
of us have simply accepted, with little examination,
the statist premise so well articulated by Jacques Ellul:
u201C[w]e believe that for the world to be in good order,
the state must have all the powers.u201D u201CWaiting For a
Leader,u201D the title of a New York Times editorial
written in response to New Orleans, reflects the same
pathetic attitude one saw on the faces of victims at
the convention center in New Orleans. This inclination
is as fatal to a society as it is to those who passively
await salvation by the state.

Western
civilization will not be saved by the same forces that
are destroying it. Einstein said it best: u201Ca problem
cannot be solved by the same thinking that created it.u201D
Neocons and other deluded minds continue to dream of
empire, as though the arrow of time can be reversed
and, in the process, resurrect the fantasized world
of Roman emperors or Napoleon. While the pretenders
at various Washington, D.C. think-tanks continue to
fancy themselves in purple and ermine robes, the realities
upon which the world functions will continue their incessant
march toward the decentralized, horizontally-networked
systems that are rapidly displacing the command-and-control
vertical structures that have long dominated mankind.

I
do not recall the author of the words that have long
been burned into my mind: u201Ca man has a moral duty not
to allow his children to live under tyranny.u201D At no
time in my life has this obligation been called to accountability
more than now, as our institutionalized thinking continues
to play out, in exponential fashion, its implicit absurdities.
The qualities that either foster or destroy a civilization
are ultimately to be found only within the character
and thinking of the individuals who comprise it. Our
world is only as peaceful, free, loving, and creative
as you and I make it; and can become violent, tyrannical,
inhumane, and destructive only as our individual thinking
produces such ends.

I
have written of the common origins of the words u201Cpeace,u201D
u201Cfreedom,u201D u201Clove,u201D and u201Cfriend.u201D Most of us have long
since forgotten what our ancestors must have implicitly
understood, namely, that the intertwining of the qualities
inherent in the meaning of these words is what produces
a decent society. To institutionalized minds, the idea
that a free and peaceful world is dependent upon people
living as friends, with genuine love for one another,
is pass. In our politically-structured world, u201Cconfrontation,u201D
u201Ccontrol,u201D u201Cambition,u201D and u201Callyu201D have corrupted such
earlier sentiments. These changes in thinking have been
necessary to sustain the conflict-ridden world of institutional
domination. A healthy society held together by trust
and mutual respect deteriorates, in a politicized world,
into one dominated by fear and incivility.

A
complex system may experience turbulence and, later,
reach a bifurcation point to which either a creative
response will be made, or the system will collapse into
total entropy. Modern society appears to be at such
a point. The question before us is how we are to respond:
by mobilizing our intelligence to generate systems that
are supportive of life, or to allow the nature of our
present practices to play out the destructive consequences
of their premises?

Events
in New Orleans have brought into focus the long-standing
question that we have heretofore preferred not to face:
is society to be organized by and for the benefit of
individuals or of institutions? Does life
belong to the living, or to the organizational
machinery that the living so unwisely created?
We are confronted — as was Dr. Frankenstein — by a monster
of our own creation, which must control and dominate
us if it is to survive. We continue to feed this destructive
creature, not simply with our material wealth, but with
our very souls and the lives of our children. Perhaps
we direct so much righteous anger at child-molesters
because we are afraid to face our failure to fulfill
parental obligations to our own children.

In
the outpouring of individual compassion and cooperation
following the disaster in New Orleans, the state discovered
a threat to its existence. Political systems thrive
only through division and conflict; by getting people
to organize themselves into mutually-exclusive groups
which then fight with one another. This is why u201Cwar
is the health of the state.u201D But if people can discover
a sense of love and mutuality amongst them, how is the
state to maintain the sense of continuing conflict upon
which it depends?

This
is why the state must prevent the private shipment of
truckload after truckload of private aid to victims;
this is why flood victims — including those who
want nothing more than to remain in their homes — must
be turned into a criminal class, against whom state
functionaries will u201Clock and loadu201D their weapons and
u201Cshoot and kill . . . if necessary.u201D The state is fighting
for its life, and must exaggerate its inhumane, life-destroying
capacities in order to terrify the rest of us into structured
obedience. This is the meaning of Pogo Possum's
classic observation: u201Cwe have met the enemy and they
is us.u201D This is why, as New Orleans continued
to be under the u201Ccontrolu201D of federal agencies, the Pentagon
proposed the preemptive use of nuclear weapons against
u201Cterrorist groupsu201D using u201Cweapons of mass destruction.u201D
What could u201Cterrorizeu201D the state more than to have people
realize that social order lies only within the hands
of free men and women? What u201Cweaponu201D could be more destructive
to the state than a u201Cmassu201D outbreak of love and compassion?

In
the waning days of Western civilization, you and I are
in a struggle between the individualized sense of humanity
and the collective forces of structured order. The nature
of this struggle has been no better expressed than by
Gandhi: u201CThe individual has a soul, but the State is
a soulless machine, it can never be weaned from the
violence to which it owes its very existence.u201D It is
this contest between the human spirit and the machine
that will determine the fate of mankind — including
our children – in our post-civilized world.

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