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.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.

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