Two news stories arose in the same week, each illustrating the significance of living one’s life with integrity. The first involved allegations that Republican Congressman Mark Foley had engaged in explicit sexual e-mail conversations with teen-aged male pages. The other informed us of the killing and wounding of a number of young Amish children by a deranged man. In the mirror images of these events are reflected both the pathological nature of our world, as well as a vision of how a society might function when men and women live with principled wholeness.
By u201Cintegrity,u201D I mean living one’s life without contradiction or moral confusion; being integrated — or centered — in thought and action; expressing both spiritual and material values without conflict; and having an uncomplicated mind with which to function, creatively, in a complicated world.
The reaction of the political establishment and its self-styled opinion leaders to the Foley matter illustrates the utter lack of integrity in political systems. Statists and a bamboozled public can recite the virtues of u201Cpeace,u201D u201Cfreedom,u201D u201Cprotection of life and property,u201D u201Cresponsibility,u201D and other life-sustaining qualities to be sustained by the state while, at the same time, engaging in wars, restraints on individual liberty, the killing and looting of individuals, and acting without being accountable for the consequences of their behavior.
The state — which enjoys a legal monopoly on the use of violence — does nothing more than steal people’s property, force them to do what they do not choose to do, and kill millions upon millions of persons whom it is convenient to its interests to destroy in wars and genocides. Such perversions — far more damaging to young people and to a nation than are lewd e-mails — pass without criticism within the halls of state, academia, or media studios. That so many of us continue to see the political system as essential to u201Csocial orderu201D reflects our intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy, as well as providing testimony to the remarkable effectiveness of the state’s propaganda machinery.
The state survives on our individualized lack of integrity. For most of us, our thinking and emotions are in conflict; our principles are muddled. It is our weaknesses that keep it strong. Not wanting to confront the contradictions that lie within our unconscious minds, many of us eagerly project our self-directed fears onto others, and demand their punishment, a debilitating practice upon which the state depends for its existence. Mr. Foley provides a vivid example of how this trait corrupts all sense of integrity in both the individual and the political institution. As a man with an apparent penchant for sexual conversations with teen-aged boys over the Internet, he was Co-Chairman of the Missing and Exploited Children Caucus, and authored legislation — u201CInternet Crimes Against Childrenu201D — that may have criminalized his actions.
The political establishment has circled the wagons against Mr. Foley, treating his offense as sui generis. But his wrongs pale in comparison with those regularly engaged in by virtually all members of congress and the executive branch: including the use of outright lies, forgeries, and other forms of deceit to fabricate conflicts with other nations. On the basis of such intrinsic and pervasive dishonesty, the state sends young men and women off to foreign countries to kill or maim innocent people, and be killed or maimed themselves. The use of torture against anyone the state deems u201Csuspiciousu201D is now widely accepted in Congress and, apparently, among the general public. Such dishonest and destructive acts continue with only token objection. But let someone direct lascivious e-mail messages to teenagers and the forces of self-righteous indignation are loosed.
By contrast, if there is a sizeable community of people in America who live with a more centered sense of wholeness than do the Amish, I have not discovered it. I have long admired these people, and spend one class session each year discussing them in my informal systems of order seminar. One year, after a lengthy description and analysis of their ways, one of my students asked whether it was possible for non-Amish people to go live with them. u201CWhy would you want to do so?,u201D I inquired. u201CDo you share their religious views, or have a desire to do farm work? Are you prepared to live the austere lifestyle upon which they insist?u201D
My student answered u201Cnou201D to these questions, acknowledging that she was too much of a Southern California person to make such a fundamental change in how she would live. u201CSo, what is so powerful about the Amish that attracts you to the possibility of living amongst them?u201D, I asked. u201CIs there something about the integrity of their lives that you find so compelling?u201D I then urged my students to explore the question of whether there is a way of emulating the Amish system in a major urban setting.
It is the integrity of the Amish that attracts most of us and makes us want to defend their freedom to live as they do. Over the years, state and federal governments have tried to force the Amish into their coercive systems, such as government schools, Social Security, military conscription, jury duty, etc. The Amish — consistent with their peaceful ways — have always refused such participation. I recall, in the mid-1960s, the efforts of one state school system to force Amish children to attend government schools. A front-page newspaper photograph was about as expressive of the contrast between these two cultures as you could find: an armed sheriff’s deputy chasing Amish children through a cornfield in order to force them onto a school-bus. The scene was so repugnant to any sense of human decency that even most Republicans and Democrats insisted that the state drop its efforts. There seems to be a widely-held sentiment in society — perhaps faint echoes from our dying inner voices — that the Amish should be left alone.
Those who wonder if it is possible for people to live in a condition of anarchy need look no further than the example of the Amish. These people refuse to have any dealings with the state — except for the taxes they are forced to pay — and respect the inviolability of one another’s person or property interests. Their contracts with one another are grounded in nothing more than mutual promises to perform. Their system of protection and security is found in one another, not in institutions. Anyone who deviates from Amish community standards need fear no jails, fines, beatings, or confiscation of their property: the neighbors will simply refuse to deal with them — to withhold their approval — until the offender reforms.
To the Amish, their work — particularly as farmers and carpenters — is the worldly expression of their religious views. Unlike many of the rest of us — whose divisive separation from our work is reflected in negative bumper-stickers — the Amish find wholeness in their labors. Nor do the Amish regard technology as an u201Cevilu201D; they resist bringing anything into their communities that will make them dependent on the outside world. Thus, the automobile is not looked upon as the u201Cwork of the devil,u201D but as a tool which, if brought into their lives, will make them dependent upon tire and parts manufacturers, oil companies, and the suppliers of other auto necessities, the net effect of which would be to destroy their system.
The Amish community provides its members no more guarantees of protection from hostile elements than does the dominant political structure in America. Not unlike our experiences on 9/11, the Amish world was terribly disrupted by the intrusion of a destructive force from the outside. Though the innocent victims were at work in a humble schoolhouse rather than towering skyscrapers, the Amish shared with others the painful consequences of disturbed men from a deranged world who could find only in their suicidal attacks the most effective expression of their conflict-ridden madness.
I doubt, however, that members of the Amish community will respond to the slaughter of their children in the same way most Americans reacted to 9/11. Even with the holes ripped into the fabric of their culture, the Amish will be able to transcend these horrible events without sacrificing the integrity upon which their lives are founded. They will not put aside the principled nature of their society, but will find comfort and energy within it. They have already demonstrated this.
But for those of us who still struggle with the meaning and effects of 9/11, and who do so on the basis of principles and practices that are a mass of confusion, conflict, and contradiction, our responses have proven consistent with the normally neurotic — and often psychotic — foundations upon which our social systems rest. Our alleged principles and values — which have long found expression only as empty abstractions rather than integrated into our sense of being — were among the first unwanted cargo to be thrown overboard, lest they prove a hindrance to the onrushing sea of fear and doubt in which we found ourselves. We eagerly jettisoned our compasses as well, allowing the politically ambitious to chart new directions for us, and obeying their urgings to u201Cstay the courseu201D to wholly unknown destinations.
The Amish will survive their pain, bruises, and broken hearts, but they will do so intact. Their values will sustain them, while ours have been lost in the darkness in which we live our lives. Such are the pragmatic, real-world, u201Cbottom lineu201D contrasts — and consequences — between living with and without integrity.
Perhaps my seminar student was on the right track when she asked whether it was possible to live in such a community as the Amish enjoy.
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.