Where Matters Stand

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There is nothing more frightening than active ignorance.
~ Johann von Goethe

I am often reminded of the time H.L. Mencken was interviewed by a young newspaper reporter. The question was asked: "why, if you find so much that is unworthy of reverence in the United States, do you continue to live here?" Mencken responded: "why do people visit zoos?" I share Mencken’s sentiment, even though I regard it as something of a slur upon the rest of the animal world. Should I ever witness California brown bears organizing an invasion of Europe for the purpose of destroying their Russian cousins, I might be inclined to treat the collective madness of the human species as characteristic of all living beings. But there is little evidence of other species devoting their energies to the annihilation of their own kind. Perhaps we are the best evidence for Arthur Koestler’s view that mankind was an evolutionary mistake: providing a killer ape with great intelligence may not have been the wisest of experiments.

We live at a time in which collective insanity has become the norm by which human behavior is to be judged. The willingness of men and women to commit their thinking, their lives, their material wealth, and the lives of their children and grandchildren to wars, genocides, torture, police-state brutalities, and the destruction of economies, reflects the danger in all forms of collective identity. To the union of fifty states with which we are familiar, has been added another: the state of non compos mentis, in which most Americans have taken up residence. From the normally neurotic to the regularly irrational, most of us have, at best, a sense of detachment from the causes of our destructiveness. When teenagers engage in the mass killing of their classmates or shopping mall patrons, the herd-response is to criticize the guns, rather than the attitudes and values upon which our children have been raised. If one of these high-school assassins had gone to Iraq and killed the same number of equally-innocent persons, he would probably have received medals for his accomplishment, and his family would have treated him as a hero upon his return.

For at least a year now, the mainstream media has been obsessed with the 2008 presidential election, as though this event portends some fundamental change for America. It has become almost axiomatic that the American people have had enough of the Iraq war. I wish this were so but, quite frankly, I see no evidence for the proposition. There are, to be sure, a great many who, on principled grounds, opposed this — and the Afghan — war even prior to its beginning. But most Americans who express dissatisfaction with the war do so largely on the basis of how the war has been conducted, not on the criminal nature of it. If the Bush administration — or its successor — can concoct another sham cause for attacking Iran — as it did for Iraq — Boobus Americanus will be back in the streets waving flags, wearing "U.S.S. Missouri" baseball caps, and turning to Fox News for the latest epistles from their electronic messiahs.

We have turned ourselves into the grotesqueries most of us have become by a willingness to identify ourselves with collective entities. I have explored this process in my book, Calculated Chaos. We come to think of our very sense of being — who we are — in terms of the institutions to which we have attached ourselves. The state — by virtue of a monopoly on the use of violence that defines all political systems — is, of course, the most dangerous and destructive of our identities. The sense of accomplishment or greatness we would like to feel for ourselves, we find reflected in the imagery of "our" nation-state. If "America" — or any nation — is seen, by others, as powerful, then those of us who identify as "Americans" experience a sense of vicarious power. It is not unlike baseball, football, or basketball fans who, when "their" team has won a national championship or a World Series, don a T-shirt with the team’s logo for some ego-strutting.

But when the source of one’s collective identity is embarrassed — as by engaging in a war that cannot be won, and ought never to have been undertaken — a sense of personal embarrassment ensues. Milton Mayer discovered this when, following World War II, he lived in Germany to discover what ordinary residents of that country thought of Hitler’s police-state. They Thought They Were Free was both the overall response and the title of Mayer’s book. This is the mindset that seems to trouble most Americans regarding the Iraq war. To admit that the war is criminal and immoral, is to admit that, by identifying with the state, one’s sense of being is also criminal and immoral.

Having invested their egos in the state and its purposes, most Americans can never afford to think ill of a war that gives vicarious meaning to their lives. Many are like the man who invests in Amalgamated Zilch at $100 a share, then watches it slowly decline in value to $40, $30, then $10 a share. Refusing to sell his stock and cut his losses — an action that would force him to admit to having made a bad decision — he hangs onto it hoping that, in time, a reversal will occur. This, I believe, is why John McCain has become so popular amongst Republicans. His statement that he doesn’t care if the Iraq war lasts another one hundred or even ten thousand years is precisely what those who identify with the state want to hear. As long as the troops remain in Iraq — for whatever purpose or pretext — the war has not been "lost," and the harsh verdict of history — like repayment of the national debt — can be delayed.

All is not bleak, however. In the presidential candidacy of Ron Paul, one saw the igniting of a human energy devoted to peace, liberty, and free markets. Perhaps the most encouraging qualities of the Paul supporters are (1) most were under the age of forty, and (2) there were many self-organizing, self-directed people taking orders from no one in a political hierarchy, but doing what they thought best served the interests of their candidate. I like to think of such young men and women as Albert Jay Nock’s "remnant," the ten percent who are the creative, liberty-loving people upon whom the health of a civilization always depends. Such are the people who will be around to pick up and reorganize — on fundamentally different principles — the broken pieces of a fallen system. Contrast these young, energized, optimistic young people with the lifeless, aged humanoids who sit glassy-eyed listening to empty bromides from a John McCain!

I am greatly encouraged by the energy exhibited by so many members of my children’s generation. I have been around the political cesspool long enough to realize that a man of Ron Paul’s decency and integrity was not going to be sworn in as president next January. There are two basic reasons for this conclusion: (1) the political establishment has far too much at stake playing with the trillions of tax dollars and other advantages of power to allow their racket to be disassembled; and (2) the American people are not of a frame of mind to vote for any such changes. And even if the voters were so inclined, they would not be likely to have the opportunity to so express themselves. The political establishment knows, as did Emma Goldman, that "if voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal."

The major political parties are in shambles. While each can enunciate policies or programs they wish to develop, neither has any identifiable set of transcendent principles to which to repair for direction. An example of this was brought to my attention by one of my daughters and her husband, who became Ron Paul activists in Minnesota. At one of their regional party conventions, the Paul supporters proposed a resolution condemning the American government’s use of torture. The resolution was narrowly defeated. Enough Republicans had become so morally bankrupt that they could not even bring themselves to censure the torture of other human beings when done by a government with which they identified themselves!

Even though Ron Paul will not soon become president, his candidacy did inflict irreparable damage on the political establishment. After witnessing, on live television, how his own party schemed and gyrated in an effort to keep him out of the political debates; and how the mainstream media refused to even acknowledge his presence as a candidate — all the while trumpeting others who Paul left in the dust in primaries — intelligent minds need no longer question the conspiratorial nature of all politics.

His candidacy also revealed to the next generation of adults the benefits of decentralized ways of accomplishing social ends. This is the generation that will be incorporating the anarchistic principles of chaos theory — with its "butterfly effect" that so characterized the Paul campaign — into their lives and their children’s learning. They will be giving effect to F.A. Harper’s words that "a man who knows what freedom means, will find a way to be free." Hillary, John, and Barack — and other political hacks — are the detritus lying at the base of a collapsed system that serves no purpose useful to productive and honest people, and is destroying life. The depth of the lies, swindles, theft, and butcheries upon which the political racketeers have depended, is far too evident to be explained away as problems of "management," or to be resurrected in the name of "change."

Perhaps in one of my favorite poems — one I often recite and which serves as the title of this E-Book — can be found the fate of a political system that the members of CNN’s self-styled "best political team" will never fathom. It is Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias:

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

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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