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.
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival.