by Butler Shaffer by Butler Shaffer
It has been interesting to observe the epilogue to the Bush administration's fable about alleged Iraqi efforts to purchase nuclear materials from Niger. Not since childhood, when I delighted in reading of magic carpets and genies, have I encountered such fantastic stories with a Middle Eastern setting. It's not that I would consider such efforts beyond the motives or the means of Hussein — or any other government official — but that such accusations were cobbled together with "documents" that would not pass muster in a freshman journalism class, was remarkable.
Even more amazing has been the unwillingness of most Americans to take offense at the fraud offered up for their consumption. For many, the fault lay in those who dared to expose the grand lie ("from whom did the BBC get this report?"). When, like the naked man at the party, the embarrassment could no longer be ignored, efforts were made to shift the blame. The President, along with the state itself, had to be shielded from any suspicion of wrongdoing in the matter. As with any hierarchic system, underlings within the government were offered up for sacrifice.
Does it not seem remarkable that there is very little acknowledgment, by most Americans, that their government has — at least in recent times — engaged in unconscionable or tyrannical practices? The United States has amassed the most potent military machine in history, has trillions of dollars of resources at its disposal, enjoys a legal monopoly on the use of violence which it seeks to expand throughout the world, and yet few are prepared to admit that such a combination could ever produce heinous consequences. The horrors of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Pol Pot's Cambodia, or Saddam Hussein will be readily admitted; but what others would call the wrongdoings of the United States will be vociferously denied. I still recall the plaintive response of a student who, upon being told that the Americans had manipulated the Japanese government into the attack on Pearl Harbor, declared that "our government wouldn't do that."
Whatever their nationality, most people seem to share a three-tiered view of the nature and purposes of their own governments. The initial stage is that their political system is beneficent, or well-intentioned. This purpose is usually picked up from the political establishment itself, wherein it declares its intention to "establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty." What's to distrust in a government that announces such wonderful purposes? That these same words could be employed by the most vicious tyrant to justify his rule (e.g., locking people up without benefit of a trial serves the cause of "justice" and "domestic tranquility") never enters the minds of most. Their government "means well" and, since most people identify themselves with their nation-state, that seems sufficient to overcome any fundamental criticism. To think ill of their own government is to think badly of their own character.
The second stage is one in which people regard the purposes of their government in more neutral terms. If political wrongdoing is revealed, such conduct is nothing more than the product of mistakes in judgment, inadequate information, or the fault of outsiders (e.g., foreign agents, special interest groups, etc.). The idea that governmental leaders would be prepared to lie, deceive, coerce, or even kill to achieve their secret purposes, cannot be admitted. And so, we see neocons and other Bush defenders arguing that the Niger contract fraud amounted to nothing more than a "mistake" in fact gathering!
The final stage is one in which people look upon political institutions as malevolent forces. According to this view, the purpose of the state is to allow some people to benefit at the expense of others by using lawful force and violence. It should be observed that, except in times of insurrection or imminent revolt, and for the reasons already discussed, most people are unprepared to accept this characterization of their state while, at the same time, insisting upon such a view of opposing systems. If a violent confrontation occurs between two governments, the moral accountability for any wrongdoing must lie with the other government.
When one state system confronts another, mass-mindedness gets mobilized, with most of the citizens of each state convinced of the beneficent intentions and methods of their side, and the malevolent purposes and actions of the other side. In such ways do irreconcilable divisions get created, producing the conflicts that keep all political systems — as well as flag manufacturers – well-fed. Once such a sharp line of demarcation is drawn, citizens must be careful never to transgress the established boundaries: one's own side is inherently "good," while the enemy side is unalterably "bad." One hears such sandbox reasoning expressed by Pres. Bush's continuing references to the forces of "good" and "evil," a demarcation also expressed by the Husseins, bin Ladens, and other practitioners of political violence.
It is for such reasons that most people are unwilling to acknowledge the wrongs of their own government. Most Americans still resist the solid evidence that FDR manipulated the Pearl Harbor attack (see Robert Stinnett's Day of Deceit), or that the World War II bombings of Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki were clear wartime atrocities with no military significance for the war itself. To most, the Civil War was conducted, by the North, with the beneficent motive of ending slavery — even though the purpose of the war was to maintain political hegemony, with abolition of slavery a purpose expressed only well after the war began (see Thomas DiLorenzo's The Real Lincoln). To point out that slavery was protected by the federal government for many more years than it was by the confederacy (see the fugitive slave laws, e.g.) or to otherwise doubt the politically correct interpretation of that war, is to risk being labeled a "racist."
Political systems thrive on people accepting this distinction between the benevolent purposes of their state and the malevolent purposes of others. Once this kind of divisive thinking is accepted, the state has an open-ended process for generating and sustaining those "perpetual wars for perpetual peace" of which historian Charles Beard warned. The state can then fill in the blank spot for any change in the identity of this year's "enemy." In my lifetime, Germany, Japan, and Italy were identified as my "enemies," while Russia and China were my "friends." No sooner was World War II completed than there was a role reversal: Russia and China were now by dreaded "enemies," and Germany, Japan, and Italy were now my "friends." Now that the Cold War has ended, Russia and China are no longer my "enemies" but my "friends," a category enlarged by our current leader to embrace whoever is "with us." A Saddam Hussein who, a few years ago, was an American government operative who received weapons technology from Washington, is now the devil incarnate, for whose destruction a war of imperial ambition must be undertaken!
This deadly game was neither designed nor monopolized by American political interests. It goes well back into the history of statism. India and Pakistan are now playing it out in Asia, while Northern Ireland and the British have their own versions. In the Middle East, Israel and the PLO have been battling one another in a symbiotic relationship that benefits the political ambitions of both sides. The Israeli government needs the PLO as a threat for the same reason that the PLO needs the Israeli state: to rally the support of their respective constituencies in order to solidify political power.
Does it not offend you that the operatives of political systems have so little regard for your intelligence or integrity that they can count on you to keep participating in these deadly games? That these moral slugs can lie to you, deceive you, tax and regulate you, and ask that your children be offered up as sacrifices for such deadly purposes; and then expect you not to respond with disgust, but to intensify your displays of "loyalty," ought to be enough to catch the attention of any thoughtful person.
The apparent ease with which states are able to sustain these bloody scams undoubtedly has much to do with the size of the nations involved. In his "size theory of social misery," (The Breakdown of Nations) Leopold Kohr suggests that political institutions become ever more violent and oppressive as they increase in size. When Germany consisted of a collection of smaller principalities, their war involvement was much less than after their unification, in the 1870s, into the German Empire. As the United States became more powerful, it began involving itself in more and more wars, unlike such smaller nations as Luxembourg, Costa Rica, Norway, and Portugal.
Evidence for Kohr's thesis abounds in our daily lives. The police of Los Angeles or New York City are far more violative of individual liberties than are the police in my wife's hometown of some 1,400 residents. As George Bush and Tony Blair continue to try to lie themselves out of the preposterous fraud perpetrated upon the world, the prime minister of Finland — accused of misleading her parliament and leaking secret documents relating to the proposed war with Iraq — was forced to resign her office.
Following this resignation, the president of Finland declared: "we are very strict concerning discipline and honest behaviour in Finland." Can you imagine such a response in Washington? The American president's attitude toward accountability is far more lax. In responding to questions about how his administration was going to deal with accused terrorists being held by the military, Bush said: "I'm the commander. . . . I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being the president."
It is also the "interesting thing" about being an emperor or dictator: not being answerable to anyone for your actions. I suspect Bush's comment sent a rush of pride through the veins of flag-wavers everywhere, as they puffed out their chests and declared "now there's a leader!" After all, what's the use of having oppressive and destructive political machinery if the leaders don't act like tyrants? People want their money's worth!
An aversion to corruption is fine for Finland, but for America a genuine insistence upon openness and "honest behaviour" would bring down the entire political system! As Lord Acton observed, power is a corrupting influence, and the greater the power exercised the more the accompanying corruption. If America is to achieve its desired world monopoly in political hegemony, its leaders must play their parts. Nothing less than Caesarian or Henry VIII absolutism will do! It's like the state not trusting you with July 4th fireworks, but then failing to put on a spectacular show of its own as it celebrates your freedom for you! Much better that we continue indulging ourselves in official lies, and condemn those who would speak truthfully! It's the patriotic thing to do!
When people ask me "what can be done?" to change all of this, I reply: nothing, if you are speaking of a collective solution. Collectivism — and the mass-mindedness in which it is grounded — is the problem. One can accomplish all sorts of ends if one is to begin playing the political game and start organizing others, but such methods only inject more energy into the political system. To move beyond the destructiveness of politics requires highly-energized individual action, and a recognition — in the words of Carl Jung — that "the salvation of the world consists in the salvation of the individual soul." Anything less is but to engage in the kinds of patchwork reforms that keep us spinning our hamster wheels.
Such change will begin to occur — at least within yourself — with an awareness of how the divisive thinking in which we have been trained is destroying us. Neither George Bush nor his retinue of shameless advisors have been smart enough to have dreamed up the mindset upon which this game continues to be played. They are simply exploiting it for their own ends. You, on the other hand, can withdraw your energies and move on to more peaceful pursuits.
Lest you believe that such a course of action is meaningless and futile, please remind yourself of the "butterfly effect" of chaos theory (i.e., that the flapping of the wings of a butterfly over the Andes will affect the weather in Tibet). Our social world is becoming increasingly decentralized, despite the ongoing efforts of the institutional establishment to force it back into a controllable mass. If it is your desire to bring about meaningful change, you need not waste your time trying to reform the crumbling system; you need only to walk away from it!
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.