No one is sadder than the man who laughs too much.
~ Jean Paul Richter
It is a curious thing to watch videos of Peter Schiff’s appearances on television interview programs. Going back from one to three years, Schiff predicts the adverse consequences that are likely to occur as a result of government economic policies. Some of the economists and investment advisors on the same shows mount no more of a response to his prognostications than to giggle. Even after Schiff’s predictions were proven correct, more recent programs generate the same guffawing when he foresees more adverse consequences.
Why is this so? Why would a man who has anticipated so much of the economic dysfunction in the world — and who has provided sound, economic analysis to explain his thinking — be openly laughed at by others who, on some of these same programs, were advising investments in the banking industry? What is even worse, why does so much invective get heaped upon Schiff for being accurate? Furthermore, how do these other investment advisors manage to stay in business, after their advice has been shown to have been so fundamentally unsound?
I encounter this same syndrome from a number of my colleagues and students. I recall one conversation with a colleague following the atrocities inflicted by the federal government upon the Branch Davidians. After explaining both the legal and moral wrongdoing in this attack to this man, his response was to do no more than laugh. "Is giggling all that your years of formal education have prepared you to do?," I asked.
In more recent discussions of the destructive nature of governmental regulation of the marketplace, or the evil nature of the war system, or of efforts by statists to bring virtually all forms of human activity under political control in order to "save the planet," I am greeted with the same snickering. It is not just that such people have a different perspective on these issues, and endeavor to debate me on them. We could then have the kind of intelligent inquiry that might lead both of us to consider the other’s positions. Rather, their all-too-common response is to employ laughter in the way that a small child does to ward off fear.
"The people who promote these governmental programs," I go on, "are destroying the world in which your children and grandchildren will live. Why do you giggle about this?"
The answer, I suspect, is to be found in our conditioned practice of identifying our sense of being with institutions. (I dealt with this topic in my first book, Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival.) Through schools, churches, the media, corporations, our parents, and various other influences in our development, we train ourselves to look for meaning in our lives not within ourselves, but in external organized systems that have a vested interest in having us elevate their purposes above our own. It is this practice that is the midwife to all forms of collectivism.
An institution is an organization that has become an end in itself, a condition that can arise only through our thinking; only by regarding the collective as of greater significance than ourselves. We do this through learning to identify ourselves through what Fritz Perls called "ego boundaries," which may embrace our nationality, race, gender, ideology, or other belief systems. By so identifying our sense of purpose and meaning in these abstractions, we set ourselves up to be dominated by the institutions which, we are told, represent such groupings. Whatever individuality we might otherwise have becomes subservient to — and subsumed by — the institutions that thus become our collective identity.
The principal beneficiary of such thinking has been the nation-state. Through years of careful conditioning — conducted through such agencies as the government schools and the entertainment industry — we have been taught to regard the state not only as the fundamental organizing principle, but the raison d’etre for both human beings and society. We learned to recite our daily catechism of purpose to our lives in the form of a "pledge of allegiance" to a flag that was the omnipresent and dominant symbol of the state in our classroom. (Have you ever dissected the literal meaning of this pledge; that you are vowing to become and remain subservient to state authority?)
The media and the rest of the entertainment industry join forces with the schools to provide us a consistent indoctrination in the centrality of statism. We learn to regard obedience to constituted authority as our greatest virtue; to replace morality with legality as our personal standard of conduct. War films — starring the likes of John Wayne, who managed to keep himself out of World War II — brainwash us to believe that dying for the glory of the state is our glory; the concrete meaning of the U.S. Army’s advertisement to "be all you can be, in the Army."
The sadness as well as the unmitigated evil of such practices are reflected in the faces of World War II military veterans, who are trotted out for every holiday — each of which has been converted into an excuse for more war-celebration and John Wayne flicks — to speak of the sacrifices they and others made. To such men — identifiable with their "U.S.S. Missouri" baseball caps, or their "5th Army" shoulder patches — any suggestion that this war was carefully contrived by political and corporate interests, and that FDR manipulated the attack on Pearl Harbor, is met with rage, and understandably so. Having been conditioned to identify themselves with the state, to see their very sense of being tied up with obedience and service to the state, the slightest hint that political forces had conspired to exploit them does more than question the integrity of the state: more importantly, it creates uncertainties as to one’s own moral stature.
Imagine that, from the early 1940s to the present, you have thought of yourself primarily as a victorious warrior on behalf of the United States of America, with which you have identified your life. A few times each year, you are invited to don your old army or navy uniform — with your numerous medals – and to go out to a cemetery or auditorium to celebrate the "glorious" history of which you have been a part. Tom Brokaw feeds your ego by labeling you "America’s greatest generation." Historians then begin to present evidence of the contrived and corrupt nature of this war that is, in the most literal sense, your war; the expression of meaning to your life.
For you to question not only the legitimacy of World War II, but of the entire war system with which you have come to associate yourself, would be destructive of what you have become. If, in elevating the state above yourself, in creating the state as your super-ego, you were to be open to the challenges raised by the war critics, the entire meaning to your life might be jeopardized. If your state can engage in evil — be it in promoting wars, engaging in torture, or bombing civilian populations in such places as Hamburg, Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki — then such evil unavoidably stains your very soul. Your 80+ years of being a war hero evaporates, and rather than seeing the virtue of spending the remainder of your life with a transformed consciousness, you react with anger or, in the case of those with more tangential attachments to the state, bouts of giggling.
To wholly reform the existential base of one’s thinking can be a very troublesome undertaking, rendered more so by Heisenberg’s "uncertainty principle," which reminds us that the one conducting the change is the one to be changed. I find my students more willing to engage in this process than are many of my colleagues: my students have less baggage to sort through, and will at least listen to the questions I raise. Rather than undergo such a challenging task, many of my colleagues endeavor to laugh the questions away.
Irecall how, during the Vietnam War years, a number of fathers expressed contempt for their sons who chose to go to Canada or Sweden rather than participate in this war. I recall asking one such parent whether he really loved the political system more than he did his own son. At the time, I had less of an understanding of the psychological factors at work in the minds of those who identify themselves with the state. Today, however, I would have to acknowledge that, yes, such fathers did love the state more than they did their own children or grandchildren. And why not? Such adults have learned to love the state more than they do themselves; why would we expect them to be more caring for their offspring than they have been for themselves?
There is much encouragement in the fact that so many veterans of the Vietnam and Iraq wars have become vocal critics of such atrocities. I suspect that, in years to come — with a depleted supply of World War II vets — on Memorial Day, July 4th, Flag Day, and other militaristic celebrations, there will be fewer veterans prepared to don their costumes and join with the politicians — most of whom manage to keep themselves out of the sound of gunshots — to reinforce the patriotic fervor upon which the state depends for its survival.
On a sadder note, at a time when more soldiers are committing suicide than are dying in battle, it is well to remember that, no matter how thoroughly indoctrinated the belief in the superiority of an abstraction, there remains within each of us a powerful life-force that can never be fully repressed. What Gandhi called Satyagraha — a "Truth-force" or "Soul-force" — remains deep within us as, perhaps, the greatest power at work upon each of us. The state — and the civilization it is helping to bring down — will continue to fight this life-force in every conceivable manner, not simply in the war system, but in efforts to regulate even the most miniscule details of life’s expressions.
When the minds and the spirits of men and women combine to address, with intelligence, what we have done to ourselves — and are doing to our children and grandchildren — we may be able to walk away from our roles as servo-mechanisms to state and corporate power interests, and to discover how to live according to that life-force within each of us. To those unable or unwilling to confront the wickedness implicit in their robotic existences, there will be nothing but unfocused anger and giggling to accompany their trip into the awaiting black-hole.
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918—1938 and of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival. His latest book is Boundaries of Order.