By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East? Their morale, like so many lifeless bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas.
~ Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
When Ted Kaczynski — otherwise known as the "Unabomber" — was finally captured, he was living as a recluse in an isolated cabin in Montana. Over a seventeen-year period, he mailed bombs to a number of targets (e.g., universities, airlines) killing three persons and injuring a score of others. While he was quite open about the socio-politico motives for his violent acts, thoughtful minds wondered how an otherwise intelligent and well-educated man could reduce himself to such acts of utter desperation.
My thoughts on this question centered on the fact that this man had — during this time period — lived such a secluded life. I was reminded how so many serial killers are identified by neighbors as "loners," suggesting that those who choose to live apart from others might have anti-social tendencies. I continue to reject this idea, but do acknowledge that a prolonged isolation from others can generate a confused and conflict-ridden state of mind; that we need ongoing relationships and conversations with others to keep from talking ourselves into a state of insanity.
We are neither members of a single-minded collective, nor hermits living in isolation from one another. Each of us is a biologically and experientially unique individual who, at the same time, is a social being who requires living in society with others. Whether we can conduct ourselves so as to fully integrate these characteristics, is a question with which we continue to struggle.
From early childhood on, we have a need to converse, to negotiate, to get feedback from others, to ask questions of one another, in order to discover the nature and range of our actions. This does not mean that we need to have others tell us how to act: to so think is to abandon the responsibility for our own thinking. Ayn Rand's works were an important catalyst for the development of my thinking; she raised all sorts of questions that energized my mind. But after a few years of such exploration, I ended up rejecting most of her thinking. But to get to that point, I had to listen to, consider, and analyze what she was saying as part of the process that brought me to where I am. I might add, that this is the same process small children engage in when they keep asking you "why?": they often want to hear what you tell them so they can compare and contrast what they have learned from others and their own experiences.
What if we didn't use others — and they, us — as sounding boards for our understanding of the world? What if you or I went off to a cabin in the wilderness and tried to interpret the nature of our world, and create our plans of action without the benefit of conversing with others? Others may have experiences, insights, knowledge, questions, or strategies other than our own, whose exploration might greatly improve the quality of our own thinking.
In isolated circumstances, with whom could we talk in an effort to flesh out our own thinking? Is it not evident that, when we are alone, the only voice we hear is the echo of our own thinking? Is it not also clear that this voice will be in complete agreement with what our conscious mind has to say on any subject? How many of us have developed an inner critic whose words can match the power of an intelligent friend, family member, colleague, or even a stranger, who might respond to an idea by saying "you must be kidding"?
The more I think of the processes of isolated thinking, the more I am convinced that such a restricted mindset precisely describes life in Washington, D.C. With the Beltway helping to isolate this city from the rest of the country — or world — the practitioners of a realpolitik fashioned from shared basic premises can talk to one another with the same self-assurance attending the inner conversation every neurotic conducts within himself. Who is to disagree? Where is there to be heard a discouraging word? Oh, sure, a Ron Paul or Dennis Kucinich, or one or another dissenting voice, may try to disrupt the dominant single-mindedness of purpose. Even the resident of a remote shack in Montana must have heard occasional words of peace and reason during his stay.
What passes for debate in Washington sounds more like Lilliputians arguing over which end of a boiled egg to be opened than it does a morally principled or analytically sound inquiry preceding governmental action. Nor do establishment news flacks — whether of electronic or ink persuasion — exhibit any disposition to raise questions that would appeal to intelligent minds. Never has the metaphor of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic been more apropos.
I am tempted, as I write this, to engage in my habit of making a play on words; to refer to the current president as the "Unaobomba." A few readers might regard it as clever or cute to do so, but the characterization would be unjustified. Barack Obama didn't invent this game. He is but the heir to policies and practices passed on to him by George W. Bush who, in turn, was the devisee of his predecessors. Obama did inherit the keys to the arsenal, and it is he who will be responsible for how he employs what has been left to him. But it is the system — carefully put together and controlled by the corporate-state establishment — to whom the "Unabomber" label justly applies. It is the system owners who put the Stepford servomechanisms in seats of apparent authority to have the system run to their liking.
While a handful of dissenters will occasionally fall through the cracks, those who aspire to exercise political power on behalf of the system owners will be carefully screened to eliminate from voter consideration any man or woman of truly independent persuasion. A candidate's race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or other group identity, will become the diversion that keeps the system attuned to the owners' interests. Thus, John Kennedy's candidacy was important for the purpose of electing a Catholic president; Barack Obama in order to have the first black president; while Hillary Clinton's campaign stressed the importance of having a woman president. As long as the candidates were in agreement on the primacy of government operating of, by, and for its corporate-state owners, peripheral matters served as the lagniappe to keep Boobus Americanus content with asking these and such other irrelevant questions as whether increases in the federal budget should be reduced by 1% or 1.5%!
In the same way that men and women who isolate their minds from the inquiries and doubts of others end up talking only to themselves, the limitations imposed by the owners on intra-Beltway thinking produce the same narrowness of policies and behavior. Those whose inner thoughts monopolize their conversations about the world are often characterized as persons with serious mental problems. But in Washington, such a disposition is regarded as a virtue, known otherwise as "bipartisanship." When politicians strut around proclaiming their commitment to bipartisanship, they are reminding the owners — not the voters — that their faith was not misplaced.
Nowhere is this singularity of thought more evident than in that political arena known as "foreign policy." In what could more honestly be termed "war policy," those in control of the military operations of the state have the same tunnel-vision; the same singleness of purpose, as did the Unabomber. Kaczynski and the government war-planners were faced with identical tasks: to determine who would be the next victim of a deadly and unprovoked bombing. This university or that one? Iran or Libya? Given the centralized nature of all state behavior, it might be said that the government war-makers came together with a oneness of mind — each functioning, metaphorically, as a synapse to interconnect with other like-minded persons. How indistinguishable are such processes of group-think from the Unabomber's insular means of arriving at his destructive decisions?
Will the public wise up to the deceitful and destructive game being played at its expense? I doubt it. I am quite optimistic that the system is in a state of irreversible collapse, and will likely go the way of the erstwhile Soviet Union. It will collapse of its own conflict-ridden, contradictory, and life-destroying dead-weight, not because of any sudden intuitive epiphany amongst millions of people. Until that time comes, the game will continue to be played according to the undeviating proposition that a lie is as good as the truth, if you can get people to believe it. In the meantime, if a sitting president were to unilaterally declare war on the entire world — to be followed, perhaps, by a Star Wars attack on other planets — his public opinion ratings would soar. When you talk only to yourself, immunized from alternative opinions, any course of action is possible. As long as the corrupt business persists, the owners will have it no other way!
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.