How Does a Nation Lose Its Soul?

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What is morally wrong can never be advantageous, even when it enables you to make some gain that you believe to be to your advantage. The mere act of believing that some wrongful course of action constitutes an advantage is pernicious.

~ Cicero

The received wisdom informs us that the American public has tired of George Bush and his use of lies and other deceptions to fashion a war-crazed police-state. According to this view, voters will go to the polls this November and exchange a sufficient number of Republican scoundrels for Democratic ones to deprive Bush of a GOP-controlled Congress. Then, we are further led to believe, the sociopathic madness that has metastasized from inside the u201Cbeltwayu201D will have come to an end, and — like members of any lynch mob who later reflect on their deed — most Americans will rediscover their lost sense of sanity and decency.

I accept none of this foolish thinking. I see no evidence that any greater number of Americans are critical of Mr. Bush’s appetites for tyranny or unprovoked wars than existed at the time of his Afghan/Iraqi attacks. This is not to suggest that many Americans are pleased with Mr. Bush’s performance. Public opinion polls reflect a growing dissatisfaction with his handling of the presidency. But their displeasure does not rise to the level of a moral condemnation of his actions.

It’s not that Mr. Bush’s performance has been one long string of lies and deceptions that bothers many Americans. Politics is dependent upon lies, fraudulent promises, and misrepresentations. Americans know this and insist upon their fantasies and delusions being catered to with a faithful adherence to accepted rhyme and meter. Those who insist upon the truth are treated as outcasts: u201Cextremists,u201D u201Ccynics,u201D u201Cwackos,u201D or u201Cparanoid conspiracy theorists,u201D are the usual epithets directed against persons who would bring discredit to the game by truth-telling.

While most Americans demand that their politicians be liars and pretenders, they want the performance to be carried off with sophistication and elegance. Mr. Bush’s lies have been too transparent. He is like a clumsy magician who inadvertently lets the egg drop from his sleeve just as he is about to remove it from behind a subject’s ear. Americans prefer being seduced by such suave, smooth-talking types as Bill Clinton or the Kennedys. Bush comes across as a crude fraternity boy seeking a fast conquest. His deviation from the accepted standards of refined dishonesty are so apparent as to have made a success of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show.

While Clinton and the Kennedys are Democrats, the Republicans are expected to have their practitioners of the subtle arts of mendacity. Men like Henry Kissinger — who can both promote wars and win the Nobel Peace Prize! — provide a model to which conservatives can repair. Was it not Kissinger who said that u201Cpower is the ultimate aphrodisiacu201D? Is this the reason Kissinger has been brought into the White House to advise President Bush?

A number of critics have asked why the Democratic politicians have been so tame regarding the Bush administration’s outrageous policies. Why haven’t they taken a strong stand against Mr. Bush’s unprovoked wars, his phony u201Cwar on terrorism,u201D his snowballing police state, and his plans to add Iran to his laundry list of war targets? The answer to this question is quite evident, for two reasons: (1) the Democrats are as much a part of the system that depends upon lies, deceit, and violence as are the Republicans, and do not want discredit to be brought upon the game they imagine themselves to be controlling one day soon. (2) The Democrats understand the mindset of most Americans, and recognize that their political ambitions would be dealt a fatal blow should they be perceived as embracing moral principles.

Most Americans have an aversion to reality, and are inclined to settle for ersatz versions of it in so-called u201Creality televisionu201D programs that can be turned off whenever troublesome questions arise. The mainstream media continue to divert attention away from any topic that would lay a burden upon the minds of men and women who prefer live coverage of car chases, or stories about missing children or a teenager in Aruba. With politicians and government officials providing the example, truth-telling has become just one of numerous strategies for pursuing one’s advantage; a lie is as good as the truth if it serves one’s ends and others will believe it.

What has brought so much of modern society to such a low course? Why do so many of us not only accept being lied to — particularly about matters that lead to the deaths and mutilations of hundreds of thousands of innocent people — but are unwilling to voice any moral objection to such practices? Why were so many people prepared to run Bill Clinton out of the White House for lying about his sexual trysts, but now embrace a president who tells one lie after another in order to carry out what appears to be his dominant purpose: the conduct of war against as many defenseless people as possible? Why do so many of us feign moral indignation over the sexual peccadilloes of politicians, while decorating our homes and cars with flags in support of mass-murder?

The answers to such questions begin in the practice of identifying ourselves through various institutional abstractions, the nation-state being the most prominent and troublesome. I have written extensively on this topic, and will not repeat the details of it here. Suffice it to say that we have learned to regard the very essence of our being as indistinguishable from such abstractions. To most of us, being an u201CAmericanu201D is much more than a matter of physical geography; it provides us with what Frederick Perls’ termed our u201Cego boundaries,u201D the sense of who we are. The same processes explain the weltanschauung of Germans, Chinese, Israelis, Swedes, Palestinians, et al., as well as the u201Cego boundaryu201D identities defined by one’s race, religion, gender, or other collective criteria.

And herein lies the problem. My question, u201Chow does a nation lose its soul?u201D, is intentionally misleading. A nation is but an abstraction and has no more u201Csoulu201D than does a crowd of subway passengers. Only individuals enjoy a spiritual essence. A nation-state is but a tool that has proven useful to men and women who seek to promote their interests by inducing others to submit their lives and other resources to their management and control. To accomplish such ends, it is first necessary for the politically ambitious to herd individuals into a collective mindset, a process that requires us to transform our inner, individualized sense of being into an externalized one. We learn to twist the moral, ethical, emotional, and spiritual sense that inheres within each of us, into the collective virtues of conformity, obedience, resignation, and intolerance for members of other u201Cego boundaryu201D collectives. In such ways does the soul of an individual become corrupted and homogenized into a form of potential energy to be used for collective purposes.

Carl Jung and others have devoted much effort to helping us understand the u201Ccollective unconsciousu201D that we share with our fellow humans. Each of us has a u201Cdark sideu201D consisting of unconscious forces we prefer not to share: capacities for dishonesty, violence, anger, irresponsibility, bigotry, or any of numerous other negative qualities. We may not act in response to such impulses, but we fear that, sufficiently motivated, we might do so.

It is such u201Cdark sideu201D energies that the state exploits in fostering and reinforcing our sense of collective identity. Responsive to fears and weakness, our u201Cdark sideu201D is easily mobilized and made available for the state’s destructive purposes. Evidence for this is found in the response of most Americans to the events of 9/11, whose spectral fears are bolstered by daily reminders of the dangers we face from alleged u201Cterroristsu201D plotting to attack our neighborhood grocery store, a petting zoo, or people boarding airliners with toothpaste. For those challenged by the complexities of simple language, a color chart is made available, whose hues can be manipulated to elicit the desired fear response.

When we become collectivized beings, the moral perspective that might otherwise arise from our individualized judgments, gets transformed into a kind of mechanistic u201Cgroup-think,u201D without any basis for more introspective thought. u201CLegalityu201D takes the place of u201Cmoralityu201D; the rules of u201Cpolitical correctnessu201D substitute for intellectual acuity; while the Dow-Jones Industrial Average and the world price for oil become the standards for measuring political propriety.

Such collectivized thinking has provided George Bush with the safety net that does not translate his lies and butcherous dispositions into a widespread moral resentment. Most criticisms of his policies have arisen not out of any fundamental philosophic principles, but — at least recently — only from the pursuit of partisan political advantage. At best, his disapproval ratings derive generally from perceived defects in style, not substance. His clumsiness and arrogance run counter to the expectations people have come to expect from occupants of the White House; to be president, one must act presidential, not like a grade-schooler in a cowboy suit. The office must not be besmirched by a lack of grace.

Most people do not comprehend the dissimilarity of public and political reaction to Bill Clinton’s and George Bush’s behavior. Clinton’s offense was not that he had lied about illicit sex, but that he had chosen to engage in it in the u201Coval office,u201D thus desecrating the holy temple of the statist religion. Had he confined his trysting to local motels, his acts would have brought about no more criticism than was visited upon FDR or JFK for their liaisons.

To inject moral or philosophic considerations into the political process totally misconceives of the basic nature of the state. To confront a collectivized mind with normative principles is as much a waste of time as trying to educate a person in differential calculus whose understanding of mathematics has been confined to using an abacus; or to explain the communicative powers of the Internet to a medieval man accustomed to sending fire signals from towers.

Mr. Bush, his Machiavellian supporters, and the Democrats understand this essential fact of politics quite well. If the Republicans suffer at the polls this November, it will not be due to any moral hostility to the wholesale lying or the slaughter of innocents directed from the White House, but only from a substantial deviation from the political forms, practices, and litanies upon which collective minds insist.

We begin to lose our souls when we allow ourselves to become part of a collective, a truth the statists understand as providing the foundation for their vicious systems. If individuals do not maintain their constant awareness, the u201Cdark sideu201D is very easy to mobilize into a collective mass of destructive energy. Crowds and mobs are made up of people who allow their judgment and responsibility to be taken over by such collective forces that speak in one simple, uncomplicated voice.

By contrast, the moral dimensions of our being — whose intuitive and emotional nature are the language of the soul — do not organize well. Though we may speak with one another of such matters, their resolution ultimately comes down to a sense that emerges wholly within each of us. This is why, historically, collective forces of state power have prevailed over mankind. As we have discovered from the failures of constitutional limitations on government, there is no way of preventing the state from doing whatever its leaders choose to do, once millions of people have been herded into a collective force obedient to the will of their masters.

A nation — any nation — does not lose its u201Csoulu201D for, being an abstraction, it has none to lose. Only individuals can suffer such a loss, which they do whenever they allow their sense of being to get submerged in any collective.

But such dynamics also indicate the way out of our collective madness, namely, to go back in our thinking to our childhood, and become aware of how we were taught to stand in straight lines, to recite pledges of allegiance, and to march to other people’s music. In such reflective ways, we may rediscover our individuality by withdrawing our energies from the collective mindset; we may learn to have a healthy skepticism about the nature of organizations. In so doing, we may end our contributions to world madness.

Men and women devoted to their collectivized identities will never bring about such change. Neither will those of us who — enmeshed in the 51% political mentality in which he have been trained — believe that meaningful change depends upon altering the thinking of others. But as chaos theory informs us, the flapping of the wings of a butterfly over the Andes will affect the weather in Tibet. Carl Jung expressed the matter most poignantly: u201Cthe salvation of the world consists in the salvation of the individual soul.u201D Think of the creative powers that might be unleashed from just two of us — you and me — intent on rediscovering our souls.

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.

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