The Control Cult

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What an immense mass of evil must result
. . . from allowing men to assume the right
of anticipating what may happen.

~ Leo Tolstoy

In the aftermath of the murders of 32 people at Virginia Tech, we are witnessing the collective reaffirmation of the article of faith uniting all politically-minded persons: the belief that the state is capable of identifying and controlling the factors that produce undesirable behavior. Even before the killer was identified, the chant arose — in unison — from political chambers, academia, government offices, and the media: u201Cthere is something that those in authority can do to alleviate such problems.u201D The mantra often finds expression — without any break in established meter — in this form: u201Cwe will find out what went wrong and fix it, so that this doesn’t happen again.u201D

This mindset is so out of touch with the harsh facts of reality that The Wall Street Journal carried a feature article asking: u201CNext Debate: Should Colleges Ban Firearms?u201D That firearms had been banned on the Virginia Tech campus before these atrocities took place apparently did not inform the judgments of this newspaper’s editors. Nor have I seen evidence of any rethinking on the part of a Virginia Tech spokesman who, in 2006, following the Virginia legislature’s enactment of a ban on guns on state university campuses, declared: u201CI’m sure the university community is appreciative of the General Assembly’s actions because this will help parents, students, faculty and visitors feel safe on our campus.u201D This man might send such words of comfort to the families of these 32 victims!

Whatever explanations or remedies various u201Cexpertsu201D offer for the problems that beset mankind, the common thread connecting them is that both human and physical nature are capable of being causally understood and, therefore, subject to interventionist correction. Universities are the temples of faith in this proposition, with students enrolling for their stated purpose of u201Cmaking the world a better place.u201D It is not surprising, therefore, that immediately following these atrocities, the Virginia Tech campus became an attractor for the proponents of this Weltanschauung. u201CIf the university had intervened after this man turned in some disturbed writing to his English professor;u201D u201Cif we can just control guns;u201D u201Cif police had had access to his mental health records beforehandu201D: these were the oft-repeated concerns of those who are convinced that the world is predictable and, hence, controllable. In the latter vein, NBC news anchor, Brian Williams, reportedly vocalized the catechism in proposing a new federal program to monitor the mental health of all college students, in order to prevent occurrences such as this one.

The true believers of the dogmas of control have insinuated themselves into all forms of institutions. Being ends in themselves, and with people serving as little more than resources for organizational purposes, institutions provide a fitting environment for such thinking. Government schools — unable to grasp the reality that children are, by nature, self-directed, spontaneous, and exploring people eager to devote their energies to what interests them — become upset when their conscripts refuse to suppress their inquisitiveness. The children get labeled u201Chyperactiveu201D or u201Csufferingu201D from u201Cattention deficit disorderu201D (i.e., do not adhere to the teacher’s prescribed agenda) and must, therefore, have their energies controlled by drugs, counseling, and other u201Cbehavior modificationu201D techniques that squeeze the childhood sense of personally-relevant curiosity from them.

Children grow into adulthood, and go to work for an institutionalized employer who plays this same control game at their expense. The employee finds himself or herself under the thumb of what has got to be the most dehumanizing and vulgar job description anywhere: a u201Chuman resources manager.u201D For an individual to be labeled as nothing more than a u201Cresourceu201D — what one dictionary defines as u201Can available meansu201D — is a glaring admission of the victory of institutions over the human spirit!

Members of the control cult have always found themselves attracted to the agency whose raison d’tre is to subdue all of humanity to its coercive mechanisms of control: the state. What problem, or catastrophe, or even fear thereof, is not met with the aforesaid chant of bureaucrats: u201Cwe will find out what went wrong and fix it, so it doesn’t happen againu201D? And what members of the boobeoisie — their minds thoroughly indoctrinated in this mindset — do not breathe a collective sigh of relief that their managers are on the job, looking after their well-being? Cho Seung-Hui bought one of his guns on Friday the 13th? Perhaps — with psychics explaining the causal connection — gun sales should be banned on such days! Cho Seung-Hui was bullied and teased as a child? Maybe such behavior can be included under u201Chate crimeu201D laws and made subject to criminal punishment!

In the months following 9/11, the control freaks came forth with their seemingly endless laundry list of additional mechanisms of control with which they promised to fight the u201Cterroristu201D bogeyman. More police powers to enter people’s homes — even without their knowledge; more wiretaps; more surveillance cameras in more places; more x-ray cameras; more background checks; more systems for probing into the human mind for motives and dispositions — an area of research now being perfected in England. Any objections offered by the handful of people who see the dangers inherent in police-states were casually dismissed by those who regard all expressions of individual liberty as u201Cloopholesu201D to be closed by additional legislation.

Not to be left in the exhaust provided by their u201Cwar on terroru201D brethren, the u201Cglobal warmingu201D denomination mounted the pulpit to preach the sins of human behavior, and to promise existential salvation if only they, too, be given extended control over the human species. Mindless of the incalculable complexities at work within our world — a topic I took up in my last article — there is an arrogance of omniscience that unites members of the control cult. Whatever the field into which they wish to intrude, they remain convinced that they are capable of marshaling sufficient information that will allow them to create mechanisms to prevent harmful acts and to generate beneficial ones. If, in religious thinking, God is regarded as both omniscient and omnipotent then, in a secular age, such powers must repose elsewhere, namely, in the gods and goddesses of institutional governance.

But recent inquiries into the nature of u201Cchaosu201D and complexity are revealing the baseless foundations of this faith in control. Our world — including each human being — is simply too complex, too subject to a myriad of too many influences over which we can never have sufficient awareness to predict outcomes. If physical and human nature are too complicated to be predictable, the rationale for state control is swept away. To the controllists, the expression of this fact is a heresy that must be exorcised from our thinking.

Those who cling to a faith in their dying secular deity remain convinced that all that is needed to make a complex world more predictable is more information. This is the essence of much of the babbling of tongues disguised as u201Cexpert analysisu201D in the days following the killings at Virginia Tech. What we tend not to understand is that the more information we possess about anything, the more questions and uncertainties that arise. Albert Einstein understood this quite well in saying that u201Cas a circle of light increases, so does the circumference of darkness around it.u201D Bertrand Russell provided the social meaning to this when he declared: u201CThe trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.u201D

But one need not rely on abstract insights to confirm that a complex and unpredictable world cannot be rendered certain by more information. Over many decades, the American government has spent — and continues to spend — tens of billions of dollars in so-called u201Cintelligence agencies,u201D whose functions are to gather as much information as possible on the forces at work within foreign countries — and, disturbingly, within America itself. Despite the virtually unrestrained powers enjoyed by such agencies, and the resources put at their disposal to gather information, they have been able to predict almost nothing of major significance. The tearing down of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the events of 9/11, all occurred without any foreknowledge of such agencies. And what of the predictions that American troops would be welcomed by Iraqis as u201Cliberatorsu201D in a u201Cslam dunku201D war that would last only a few weeks? On a more comic level, even knowing that January 1, 2000 was an event certain to happen, the voices of what became known as u201CY2Ku201D uncertainty were all over the lot in trying to predict what consequences, if any, were likely to befall our computer-centered world.

Apostles of the control cult will focus their energies on any area of human activity that provides them the opportunity to advance what is central to their lives: the exercise of coercive power over other people. Whether any given issue involves gun ownership; global warming; discriminatory behavior; tobacco, drug, and alcohol usage; eating habits; educating or raising children; or any other expressions of human action that can be exploited for their purposes, the overall objective remains fixed. There is nothing this crowd fears more than the specter of ordinary people retaining decision-making authority over their own lives.

Those who want control over us have taught us that they — if given enough power — can protect us from the destructive and murderous rampages of madmen. The Cho Seung-Huis and the Saddam Husseins of our troubled world will continue to be offered up to us as the destructive, murderous madmen from whom we need the protection of state officials. But the war system ought to be a stark reminder that it is political authorities who are the madmen; who destroy property, ravage economies, and — in the 20th century alone — butchered some 200,000,000 people in pursuit of their psychotic ambitions to control the rest of humanity.

Most of your life is — and will continue to be — spent in peaceful relationships with others. But there will be the occasional thug with whom you may have to contend. Your ability to defend yourself will always depend upon the actions you take, with the resources you have available. You are more likely to prevail if you have disabused yourself of the notion that the state — or any other established system — will be there to prevent such threats to you. To this end, if you draw nothing else from the terrible events of this past week, let it be the awareness that there is nothing that anyone in authority can do to protect you from the unpredictabilities and uncertainties of life.

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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