CXXXIX – The Price of Madness

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Whom
the Gods would destroy they first make
mad.
~
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

On
9/11, one of my colleagues and I were
watching videotape of the planes hitting
the World Trade Center earlier that
day. He asked my response to this surreal
atrocity. My concern, I replied, was
twofold: (1) Americans were now going
to have to do some very deep soul-searching
to discover why so many people in the
world have such an intense hatred for
America that they could do this, and
(2) I despaired of what the long-term
implications of this would be.

The
attack was of such horrific dimensions
that when I turned on my television
that morning — not knowing what had
happened — my first reaction was that
I was viewing a clip from a forthcoming
catastrophe film, complete with amazing
special effects. Since some one-third
of television u201Cnewsu201D consists of Hollywood
gossip and movie promotions, there was
a sound basis for my response. When
I switched to another channel and saw
the same ghastliness, I knew that reality
was outdoing Irwin Allen.

As
we approach the fifth anniversary of
this act of horror, my initial concerns
have proven themselves valid. To this
day, most Americans — be they for or
against the invasion of Iraq; be they
Democrat or Republican, u201Cconservativeu201D
or u201Cliberalu201D — show no disposition to
confront the deeper implications of
all this. Depth analysis takes a commitment
of moral and intellectual energy, and
most of us are more comfortable inquiring
into such superficial matters as missing
teenagers, spousal murders, or sexual
predators.

In
the language of u201Cchaosu201D theory, America
— if not all of Western civilization
— is in a state of turbulence of such
intensity that efforts to restore order
by recourse to traditional systems and
policies will be to no avail. On the
contrary, it is our insistence upon
established practices that has led us
to our plight; and only a fundamental,
creative change in our thinking and
behavior can extricate us from the destructive
consequences of our prior assumptions.
Just as the western segment of the Roman
empire was no longer able to sustain
itself, so, too, the western franchise
of Western civilization is finished,
no more capable of rehabilitation than
would have been the case with Jeffrey
Dahmer. Like a caterpillar, the hope
remains that America may be able to
metamorphose into something more beautiful;
to transcend its limited capabilities.

But
upon what could we draw in effecting
such a change? There is certainly no
way in which a u201Csocietyu201D or a u201Ccivilizationu201D
can transform itself in some collective
fashion. Statists — all of whom believe
in a top-down, command-and-control model
of imposed social order — ignore what
ought to be evident to every thinking
man and woman: society becomes either
peaceful and creative, or warlike and
destructive, only as the individuals
within it exhibit one or the other
set of characteristics. Carl Jung expressed
the point as eloquently as any when
he observed that u201Cthe salvation of the
world consists in the salvation of the
individual soul.u201D His words predate
— but reinforce — what students of u201Cchaosu201D
refer to as the u201Cbutterfly effect,u201D
i.e., the capacity of even the smallest
output of energy to produce infinite
results.

The
study of history can provide some insights
as to the connections that link our
thinking, our actions, and the consequences
flowing therefrom. But just as the study
of chaos informs us that there are too
many variables at work upon complex
systems to allow for meaningful predictions,
the historian's efforts to unravel Ariadne's
golden thread makes it difficult to
account for past influences upon the
present. Still, intelligent minds work
to discover patterns that produced either
beneficial or destructive ends. What
were the conditions that allowed a handful
of creative people to produce a Renaissance,
the Enlightenment, or the Industrial
Revolution? Conversely, what conditions
led to wars, genocides, and concentration
camps?

How
did an America of H.L. Mencken, Mark
Twain, Thomas Edison, James J. Hill,
Henry David Thoreau, and Anne Hutchinson,
manage to become a nation of Bill O'Reilly,
Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld,
Halliburton, and Condoleezza Rice? How
did the spiritual voice of a Ralph Waldo
Emerson get replaced by Pat Robertson?
What epidemic of pests has eaten away
at the timbers of the White House since
the days of Thomas Jefferson, producing
an infestation of such anti-social insects
as the Clintons and the Bushes? How
was Tom Paine toppled as the all-time
best-selling author by the likes of
such scrawlers as Al Franken and Ann
Coulter?

How
did this erosion of character arise?
The shallow-minded among us will be
quick to accuse television, Hollywood,
rock music, drugs, the u201Cliberalu201D establishment,
a u201Cright-wing conspiracy,u201D or any of
a number of equally irrelevant culprits.
The reality is that the decay arose
from within, not within some amorphous
collectivity called u201CAmerica,u201D but within
the minds and souls of individuals who
comprise society.

We
live in a country ruled by dangerous
and foolish people; by sociopaths who
are prepared to engage in the planned
killing of hundreds of thousands of
innocent men, women, and children, for
no other purpose than to satisfy their
insatiable appetites for power. But
what is far worse than this is the fact
that we live in a country whose residents
either value such traits or,
at the very least, are unable — or unwilling
– to recognize and condemn them.
The ruling class — and its coterie —
offers the most specious rationalizations
for their practices to a public largely
reduced to flag-waving.

It
is a dreadful mistake to blame political
leaders, the media, or corporate-state
structuring for our problems. By default
— if not enthusiasm — we have been the
authors of our own madness. Our contradictory
thinking — unchecked by our inner standards
of conduct — allows us to internalize
institutionalized insanity as acceptable
behavior, turning us into a society
of the u201Cnormally neurotic.u201D This madness
is destroying our sense of what it means
to be a human being, including our relationships
with other people.

The
war in Iraq provides a microcosmic,
time-lapse record of the moral collapse
of a once decent society. The war itself
was grounded in lies, deceit, forged
documents, a propagandizing media, and
other dishonest tactics; yet few Americans
raised any objections. When terrorist
u201Csuspectsu201D were rounded up and sent
to a concentration camp at Guantanamo,
without benefit of any due process —
or, worse, to eastern European countries
for more sophisticated forms of torture
— few people spoke out. When the systematic
torture at Abu Ghraib was revealed to
the world, there was little more than
a few squeaks of protest from Americans.
When it became evident that a number
of soldiers were murdering helpless
men, women, and children in their homes
in such places as Haditha, silence was
again the response. And when three prisoners
at Guantanamo apparently saw their chances
for freedom becoming so hopeless that
they committed suicide, most Americans
scrambled for some rationalization that
would ease their minds.

I
suspect that more Americans would be
critical of the fact that such wrongs
were revealed to the public than that
they were engaged in by state functionaries.
When we think of ourselves in terms
of a collective identity, any blemish
upon that group becomes a stain upon
our own character. Like a parent whose
child has embarrassed the family, the
focus of attention is to protect the
collective image rather than to address
the substance of the wrongdoing. What
got so many people upset with Bill Clinton
was not his sexual peccadilloes, but
the fact that his actions had defiled
the u201Coval office.u201D Had he satisfied
his urges at a local motel, little criticism
would have been made.

But
from what basis can criticism of governmental
action proceed? Those who support the
direction in which the American state
is now going — (e.g., Republicans and
other conservatives) — will be disinclined
to acknowledge the need for any critique.
Indeed, they will be quick to charge
questioners with u201Cdisloyalty,u201D u201Cdisrespect
for the troops,u201D u201Cpartisanship,u201D or
even u201Ctreason.u201D But those (e.g., Democrats
and u201Cliberalsu201D) who have misgivings
about the war — or its necessary companion,
the domestic police-state — have offered
little more than limp-wristed criticism
of Bush administration policies. They
would fine-tune the war, and tinker
with some of the details of the Patriot
Act and NSA surveillance of people's
private lives, but not to any degree
that might threaten their opportunistic
ambitions at the polls.

No,
to make any fundamental challenge to
such wholesale political wrongdoing
requires a resource that most Americans
gladly abandoned long ago: a set of
clear and focused transcendent principles.
If one is to live a centered life —
free of contradictions and paralyzing
conflicts — one must have an inner-directed,
intuitive sense of behavior that is
appropriate for living among others
in the world. In my conversations with
others, I rarely find people who regard
an appeal to a clearly-enunciated philosophic
principle as a sufficient answer to
a question.

In
an age in which a collective mindset
is expected to drown out the voice of
the individual, philosophic principles
have been replaced by public opinion
polls. I don't know how often my opinions
on some matter have been met by the
response u201Cmost people don't agree with
you.u201D In our Panglossian world, u201Cprinciplesu201D
have become little more than politically-correct
slogans; mantras to be splashed across
a T-shirt or the bumper of a car.

When
people equate u201Crealityu201D with the u201Cmaterial,u201D
and regard the u201Cquantifiableu201D as the
only values to be measured, one should
not be surprised to discover the decreasing
relevance of moral principles as a factor
in decision-making. If you were to ask
a man about his 401(k) retirement plan,
or the equity in his home, or the mileage
he is getting from his BMW, he can give
you a detailed accounting of such matters.
But moral principles — not having a
material substance — he will
likely regard as immaterial.

There
is a price we will pay for abandoning
what the late Joseph Campbell referred
to as our u201Cinvisible means of support.u201D
Richard Weaver reminded us that u201Cideas
have consequences.u201D So, too, does the
absence of ideas, as well as
the narrow circumscribing of what it
is important for us to think about.
We live in a dying culture, the demise
of which most of us shall not recognize
until there is a total collapse of all
that we value: our material wealth.

Herman
Hesse criticized a journalist who stated,
in the years surrounding World War I,
that a concern for the inner-focused
life was u201Cintroverted rubbish.u201D Such
a viewpoint would doubtless be shared
by most modern Americans, including
the war-whooping evangelicals who make
a pretense of being religious as they
cheer on a war that the founder of their
religion would have condemned. As Goethe's
Faust should remind us, moral
principles can be traded for, but only
with consequences that most would fail
to calculate in advance.

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