a recent trip to Holland, I went to The Hague for an on-site visitation
with two of our school's students who are on externships there.
The visit renewed a long-standing interest I have had in the role
that moral authority can play as a countervailing influence to political
power. Mankind is always in need of voices that transcend institutional
power structures in order to help restrain their destructiveness.
is, of course, no end to the list of people and organizations that
engage in moral posturing as a way of lending credence to some political
program. I am not speaking of those for whom "morality"
is only a device for rationalizing one's self-interest, or of those
who self-righteously seek to inflict an ideology upon their neighbors.
I use the word cautiously and reluctantly, particularly in a world
in which the words "good" and "evil" have become
rallying cries around which the politically ambitious organize humanity
on behalf of murderous crusades.
a world in which the lure of political power infects the minds of
even the most sincere defenders of humane values, is it possible
to discover voices that transcend ambitions for human domination?
If those who express genuine moral concern over the direction taken
by organized society have in mind a political agenda for change,
no real transformation can take place. Only in the absence of coercive
power can one have moral influence. Coercive power operates as a
magnet for division and conflict, as contentious interests compete
for the control of its tools of force.
have been a number of men and women who have challenged the destructiveness
of politics from a deep moral sense without, in the process, becoming
corrupted by the trappings of power. Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, recent
popes, Thoreau, Emerson, Tolstoy, Krishnamurti, Carl Jung, Viktor
Frankl, Amnesty International, Mother Theresa, and Eric Hoffer,
are some of the more prominent examples. Albert Einstein was an
examplar, particularly when he was wise enough to turn down the
offer to become the first president of Israel. Martin Luther King
also performed this role in his early days but, unlike Einstein,
managed to get seduced by the lure of political solutions to social
philosophers, novelists, and poets have fulfilled this role. Shelley's
characterization of poets as "the unacknowledged legislators
of the world," while employing an unfortunate political metaphor,
reflects this need for voices that speak to power from deep within
the human soul. Even journalists — such as Mencken and Nock — have
been effective voices.
a good parent or teacher, what such people have shared has been
a desire to help others develop into self-directed, self-sustaining
individuals. They have not tried to create followership,
but only examples from which others could learn. They have
also offered to their neighbors a sense of companionship in a world
in which people often feel alienated from one another. There is
a strength of courage that comes from realizing that others share
your sense of what is right and wrong with the world.
an age of collective rather than individualized expression,
so-called "think tanks" offered early evidence of serving
this function. But most of these organizations have either been
created or co-opted by political interests so as to
make them little more than the intellectual arms of state planning
and coercion. That so many of such bodies were either established
or relocated in the Washington, D.C. area, should inform us of the
audience they wish to address.
I returned from The Hague, I pondered the role that an international
court of justice could perform as a moral authority, provided
it was completely divorced from the exercise of any political power
or dependency upon political systems. I suspect, however, that most
of those who now work for a "world court" do so in longing
anticipation of the day when a coercive international government
is able to formally legitimize their edicts.
international courts — like "war crimes" tribunals — do
not qualify for the role of which I speak. The Nuremburg trials
and their progeny stand for little more than a perversion
of moral judgment, what others have called a system of "victor's
justice." They play a cruel hoax upon mankind in perpetuating
the illusion that the state may rightfully employ deadly force for
reasons that the prevailing practitioners of such violence can convert
into self-fulfilling rationales for their viciousness.
the state is to persuade us to participate in wars, it must overcome
our reluctance to kill others — particularly strangers who have
done us no personal harm. War crimes trials provide this service
by getting us to believe in the idea of the "moral war;"
the belief that there are "good" and "bad" reasons
for the mass slaughter of human beings, and that the state exists
to reinforce such distinctions.
is just such deranged thinking that allows us to regard the mass
killing of civilians in concentration camps — when done by "them"
— as "atrocities," while the mass killing of civilians
carried out by nuclear bombs dropped from airplanes — when done
by "us" — as necessary wartime acts. It also permits
television newscasters to refer to American soldiers who kill people
in foreign countries as "peacekeepers," while resisting
locals are dismissed as "terrorists." War crimes trials
were concocted for the benefit of such people as my former student
who declared "at least we have the decency to drop bombs on
people from airplanes!" This legalistic ritual offers a convenient
way to reinforce popular commitments to statism, giving people the
comforting feeling that their having succumbed to the mass-mindedness
of warfare was not a psychotic lapse on their part, but a commitment
to moral behavior!
concept of "war crimes" is a form of political correctness
extended to an international stage, struggling to make a meaningless
distinction based on nothing more than the misfortune of ending
up on the losing side in a war. If you doubt this, then please explain
why the likes of George Bush (father and son), Henry Kissinger,
Robert McNamara, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and other recent
forms of moral detritus, have never been prosecuted for their
murderous deeds. What else can explain the absence from the dock
at Nuremburg of Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Sir Arthur "Bomber"
Harris, and the other moral degenerates who planned and carried
out the massive butchery of civilians at such non-military targets
as Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Hamburg?
Lehrer has said that satire died when Henry Kissinger was awarded
the Nobel Peace Prize! International courts of justice and war crimes
trials share this Lewis Carroll commitment to absurdity disguised
as reason, and because of this I can place no confidence in their
being able to function as voices of moral authority. They are too
much a part of the political power structure — or seeking to become
same — to be able to transcend the inhumane and savage nature of
all political systems.
who would express moral authority against coercive power must be
persons devoid of conflict, not only within themselves, but with
others. Such persons must be capable of transcending the partisanship
that fuels the conflicts of the world. It is not a role to be exercised
by those with divisive interests that separate humanity into competing
groups, with political systems acting as the arbiter of disputes
they have created. It is for men and women who grasp that one attribute
of equality worthy of defending, namely, the inherent and undifferentiated
worthiness of each individual to live and act for their own purposes.
What we have in common is a need to protect one another's inviolability
from those who would subject any of us to their control.
all else, such moral authority must be the expression of a genuine
strength of character that arises from deep within the individual
and resonates with the inner being of others. It is not in sloganeering
or ersatz moralizing that such influences can be found, but only
in a transcendent state of mind that recognizes both the plight
and the hope of humanity: we have created our well-organized madness
together, and we can regain our sanity together.
whom should we look for such moral authority? Who embodies the integrity
of character that is capable of pulling us from the moral quicksand
against which we now hopelessly struggle? Is there anyone other
than ourselves who can become such a moral authority for
us? Are there others who are more capable than you of bringing your
life to order? Might you become a voice to help others restore
their sense of humanity?
how can I become a moral influence in the world?," you may
be asking yourself. The answer to such a question was provided by
the late J. Krishnamurti in a talk at which I was present. He was
discussing the importance of our awareness of the movement of thought,
and of the need for us to become more self-directed in our thinking.
Sensing an uneasiness in his audience, he asked: "would you
like to know how to accomplish this?," to which many voices
and nodding heads answered in the affirmative. "How will you
find out?," he asked, and quietly walked away.