Civilization in Free-Fall

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This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
~ T.S Eliot

The news story and accompanying photo were quite startling. According to the report, Sony — a dominant firm in the electronic industry — held a party to announce a new computer game it was putting on the market. As part of this soire, a goat was decapitated, with the photo showing its not fully severed head hanging over the table on which it lay, having been sacrificed to the gods of corporate sales. Party guests were even encouraged to reach inside the goat’s body cavity to remove and eat the offal to be found therein.

All around us can be found the evidence of a civilization in its death throes; a culture that has evolved from the creation of life-sustaining values to the ritualistic celebration of death. Dr. Pangloss’ u201Cbest of all possible worldsu201D has backslid into an anti-life swamp. Sony’s public relations stunt did not generate this collapse, but only reflects it.

Upon reading this news report, my first response was to seek the confirmation of its validity elsewhere. Might this be nothing more than a dark side version of one of my favorite websites, The Onion? Jon Stewart, The Onion, and a few other sources have helped us to appreciate the difficulties associated with satirizing absurdity; only a faithful commitment to reciting the ludicrous details of what we now accept as u201Crealityu201D will suffice.

Where does one begin to describe — much less analyze — our institutionalized commitment to death? The war system is certainly the most dramatic, having accounted for some 200,000,000 deaths in the 20th century alone. So insistent is our culture on the perpetuation of this corporate-state slaughterhouse that those who sponsor debates among presidential aspirants have systematically excluded the two candidates — Democrat Mike Gravel and Republican Ron Paul — who have most consistently opposed continuation of the war in Iraq.

And what of the academic and corporate institutions that derive so much of their income from designing and producing u201Cnew and improvedu201D weapons systems that reduce the unit costs of butchering others, thus fostering the values of u201Cefficiencyu201D by which the spiritually-bankrupt calculate their bottom-lines?

The state in its other varied expressions manifests this same hostility to life. All political systems are defined by their use of violence — whether actual or threatened — to compel people to do what they do not otherwise choose to do. Life is a spontaneous, self-directed process; and to forcibly intervene in human action is to make life become or do what it does not choose to be or do. Because uncoerced people will always act for the purpose of achieving their desired outcomes, governmental action will, of necessity, produce lesser degrees of well-being.

And why does the state engage in such life-depleting behavior? Part of the explanation lies in the fact that there will always be some segment of humanity that enjoys the exercise of coercive power over others. As H.L. Mencken observed: u201CThe urge to save humanity is almost always a false-face for the urge to rule it.u201D

But there are others who find the use of force quite useful for their own ends: those with concentrated economic interests wanting to control political machinery in order to restrain the competitive behavior of others. Major business interests and labor unions have been the principal examples of such restrictive desires. My book, In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918—1938, documented such efforts during the critical years in the development of government regulation of the marketplace. Such coercive efforts have both increased the costs and limited inventiveness in the production of goods and services upon which life depends.

This institutionalized war against life permeates our entire culture. Our world abounds with people-pushers who want to use state power to control the kinds and quantities of food we eat; how we raise our children; the language we can use with one another; the drugs we are both prohibited from and required to ingest; whether and where we can smoke; the weights, measures, and prices at which produce can be sold; and the health care services we may use. These are but a few examples of this mania, with additional proposals being offered on a regular basis.

The state insists upon its mechanisms of control, with expanded police powers, warrant-less searches, the erosion of habeas corpus, increased government databases of people, an exponential increase in prison populations in America, and a grater domestic military presence. These are among the current practices that go largely unquestioned. In Great Britain, surveillance cameras and recording devices have become so widespread that it is estimated there is one such camera for every fourteen people! This has led at least one critic of the system to grasp the anti-life implications of such practices in saying that Britain risks u201Ccommitting slow social suicide.u201D

At this point, one normally hears an indictment of television, motion pictures, rock music, video-games, or that all-encompassing demon: Hollywood. Such is an expression of the superficiality of our understanding. When Cho Seung-Hui shocked us two weeks ago with his slaughter of 32 fellow students at Virginia Tech, the shallow-minded reflexively blamed guns, computer games, violent films, or any other factor that would save them the trouble of looking more deeply. I was reminded of the vacuous responses to the Columbine massacre that sought an explanation in teenagers wearing long coats!

Institutions that either employ, or advocate, the use of coercion are, of course, responsible for their actions. Furthermore, the butchery practiced by operatives of the state is quantitatively more destructive than that perpetrated upon a goat in order to kick off a sales campaign. Having said that, I am obliged to look beyond institutions for the explanations of our anti-life self-destructiveness. Even the state itself, for all its life-consuming viciousness, is of lesser significance in our plight than is the real culprit: our thinking.

In my book, Calculated Chaos, I explored how conflict-ridden thinking has generated the institutions that mobilize our inner divisiveness. The state has expanded its powers over us by playing upon our fears: be it of u201Ccommunists,u201D u201Cillegal immigrants,u201D u201Cdrug dealers,u201D u201Cthe Hun,u201D or the now-fashionable u201Cterrorists.u201D As Carl Jung advised us, we project our u201Cdark-sideu201D fears of ourselves onto others; define them as enemies; and then act to control or destroy them. Others begin to enjoy power over us only as we abandon both the authority and responsibility for our own lives. As Shakespeare expressed it:

u201CThe fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.u201D

Once we learn to look outside ourselves for meaning and direction in our lives, we set ourselves up to be exploited for whatever purposes our u201Cauthoritiesu201D have in mind for us. Having given up our own centeredness — our own integrity — we become as balls in a pin-ball machine, capable of being moved about by forces over which we have no control. Our conduct becomes guided by those who control the levers with which we come into contact. Over time, the logic of the machine defines our mindset and, like Pavlov’s dogs, we learn to slobber on cue and press the levers that deliver our prearranged rewards.

When our minds become other-directed, we should not be shocked to find our actions reflecting the values and emulating the behavior of external forces. To what extent might Cho Seung-Hui have unconsciously identified the faceless bullies who had terrorized him in his youth, with the faceless schoolmates he ritualistically slaughtered? To what extent might his rage against his innocent victims have found rationalization within a nation that continues to wave the flag against innocent Iraqis made to serve as surrogates for the faceless wrongdoers of 9/11?

Why did Sony undertake its tasteless and grotesque action? Probably for the same reason that it sells video games that appeal to appetites for computerized violence: because there are enough people whose thinking attracts them to such products. That there is a demand for such merchandise provides no more justification for criticizing the marketplace than attends the sale of anything else. Animal-rights advocates who would turn to the state to prohibit such conduct unwittingly contribute their energies to a disrespect for life that generates the wrongs they seek to prevent.

Our civilization is experiencing more than a u201Cslow social suicide,u201D but is more in a state of free-fall. A vibrant society is one that encourages the production of life-sustaining values — which include a respect for the inviolability of the lives and property interests of one another, a condition that becomes synonymous with peace. America, however, is a nation in a constant state of war, not only with the rest of the world, but with itself. What condition that people-pushers are quick to identify as a u201Csocial problem,u201D does not carry with it proposed legislation to forcibly restrict how others are to live their lives?

For reasons largely explainable as a reaction to the increased decentralization that threatens the institutional order, our formal systems — as well as those who take direction from them — are becoming increasingly sociopathic. The day may soon be upon us when cannibalism will emerge as the u201Cpolitically correctu201D solution to all our problems; with Hillary writing a cookbook; and The New York Times editorially praising her for her u201Cboldu201D program to u201Cserve her fellow man.u201D In that day, cable news channels may continue to challenge our minds with inquiries into the fate of the teenage girl in Aruba.

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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