He that would speak truth must first have one foot in the stirrup.
– Turkish proverb
It was during my freshman year of college that I first encountered the works of that most eminent American political philosopher, Pogo Possum. Channeled through cartoonist, Walt Kelly, Pogo provided an alternative to the “Ozzie and Harriet” mindset that kept most Americans from engaging in those twin towers of political sin: asking questions and speaking truth. In those post-World War II years in which the state had to hurriedly find a new threat with which to keep Americans under its control – lest they mistakenly think that the end of that war presaged a world at peace – the Cold War bogeyman was put together.
While Pogo was decidedly a left-of-center person – Ayn Rand had yet to arrive on campuses to challenge collectivist thought and behavior – he was one of the remnants of the spirit of classical liberalism whose ranks were rapidly being conscripted into the service of statism. At a time when Sen. Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee were doing their best to convince Boobus Americanus that “active agents of the communist conspiracy” were entrenched everywhere, Pogo went forth from his meager homesite in Okefenokee Swamp to find these “enemy” forces. Upon his return, he confided to his neighbors that “we have met the enemy, and they is us!”
In this simple phrase, Pogo Possum encapsulated the essence of statism. His words continue to inform those who desire to understand politics. Pogo became a popular presidential candidate, and I wore a campaign button that read “I Go Pogo!” to show my support for that most prominent example of a person eager to stick pins in established balloons. I later discovered that most effective social critic, Lenny Bruce, whose works laid the foundations for people like George Carlin. But that is another story altogether.
What Pogo helped us to see was something that Ms. Blodgett omitted from our high-school civics class lessons: all political systems – from Washington, D.C. to Mud Flats, Kansas – depend for their existence on the institutionalization of lies. Truth is as fatal to the state as oxygen was to earlier anaerobic life forms. It is not just that some politicians or government agencies occasionally lie to us: no political system can withstand the sunlight of truth. This is not because the politically minded are genetically-determined evildoers, but because of the very nature of politics.
Political systems exist because of the willingness of most people to participate in what economists call “externalities.” We are, by nature, cost-avoiders. We love the benefits of our actions, and want to keep them for ourselves. But the costs of acquiring such desired ends we are eager to share with others. A factory owner may not want to incur the costs of disposing of the unwanted by-products of his business, and might resort to dumping such “wastes” into a river or the atmosphere, actions that force such costs to be transferred to others. Such property trespasses as a means of disposing of externalities, are also appropriately known as “socializing the costs.” Physicists have a related term to describe this: “entropy,” defined as “energy unavailable for productive work.”
In a society grounded upon respect for the inviolability of individuals and their property interests, responsible people internalize these costs (e.g., dispose of the unwanted consequences of their actions at their own expense). For men and women of irresponsible dispositions, the state provides mechanisms for imposing such costs onto unwilling victims. Those who want schools, highways, parks, mail delivery, hospitals, or other services, will generally turn to the state to provide them, not because political systems have demonstrated any capability for more effectively creating such projects, but because the state can compel others – through its powers of eminent domain and taxation – to incur the costs involved.
How does the state get away with this? Why would otherwise intelligent people passively consent to being forced to provide “benefits” they do not want? One might exercise sound judgment and give an armed street-mugger his money, but what would motivate this same victim to stumble into a voting-booth every two years to anoint the mugger as his “elected representative?”
The operators of the political system, and those who benefit from the practice of imposing externalities/entropy upon others, are able to sustain their racket only through years of conditioning people to accept, as truths, what are demonstrable lies. It has been the purpose of schools and academia, the mainstream media, the entertainment industry, and other institutional voices, to condition minds to accept, as true, whatever serves the interests of those who control the apparatus of the state. Those who expose the lies, or reveal deeper truths about the political system, become enemies of the state to be destroyed. This is why Ron Paul was so condemned: not for “speaking truth to power” – the slugs who exercise political power already know the nature of their well-organized fakery – but for speaking truth to the powerless. Ron’s efforts even forced Rudy Giuliani to publically admit his ignorance of what most grade-schoolers know: Newton’s Third Law of Motion!
The mountains of lies upon which citadels of power are built are comprised not of granite, but of glass, easily shattered by particles of truth. One need not go back into ancient history to confirm this: the “weapons of mass destruction” lie that led most Americans to approve of a war against Iraq, and the repeat performance being put together against an equally innocent nation, Iran, offer sufficient evidence. The statists now call for retaliation against Russia for having granted political asylum to Ed Snowden. The politically-motivated have always been aware of the fragile nature of coercive power, and of how contagious the pursuit of truth can become. Truth and individual liberty represent entropy to the state; forms of energy that not only do not contribute to the ends sought by political systems, but often interfere with such purposes. As such, state power remains ever-vigilant to their threats.
We have been witnessing the institutional order’s war against truth in the ongoing persecution of such men as Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, and Ed Snowden. The essence of the state’s complaint – and that of its media lickspittles – is that these men (gasp!) dared to truthfully inform the public regarding what the state has been up to! Theocratic states once found the charges of “blasphemy” or “heresy” sufficient grounds for burning people at the stake. But a modern politicized society is too sophisticated for that, right? A different but equally vacuous charge had to be invented: the “threat to national security.” Anything that anyone says or does that offends those in power is deemed a “threat to national security.”
Those who identify with the nation-state often find themselves embarrassed by revelations of the “dark side” forces that are inevitably attracted to the state’s monopoly on the use of violence. What cannot be acquired through one’s own efforts, or through trade or other voluntary dealings with one’s neighbors, are often seduced into pursuing their interests through legalized coercion. But to create – and perpetuate – policies that depend on forcibly violating the will of others requires the suppression of truth. As our world becomes ever-more politicized, men and women implicitly embrace the idea that “a lie is as good as the truth, if you can get other people to believe it.” Ed Snowden et al are the latest to uncover the lies upon which the state fabricates its scarecrows to “protect us” from our “enemies.” Like Pogo, they also reveal to those who are not afraid to look that the “enemy is us!”
Any relationship – from the most personal to the more formal – that is grounded in lies will quickly perish. As my jurisprudence professor, Karl Llewellyn, was fond of saying, truth is like a beautifully spun spider’s web. A lie is equivalent to throwing a rock into this web; it breaks up the interconnectedness that otherwise gives the web wholeness.
When those who speak truth are labeled “criminals,” “traitors,” or “threats to national security,” you know that America finds itself in the same moral and intellectual sewer from which officials of Nazi Germany tried to extricate themselves with the plea “I was just following orders.” While the Nuremberg Trials were doubtless an expression of “victor’s justice,” they nonetheless raised the very troubling question that most Americans prefer to ignore: can a person avoid being responsible for one’s actions on the grounds that a governmental authority had ordered them to act? This question represents what has come to be known – and largely forgotten – as the “Nuremberg principle.” Are we accountable for the consequences of our behavior when someone orders us to do something in violation of our moral principles?
Of course, Americans have put the kind of twist on this question that negates it as a problem at all: what “enemy” forces do are “war crimes” or acts of “terror”; what “our” troops and leaders engage in are “recognized” and “accepted” acts of war. Brendan Behan made this distinction: “the terrorist is the one with the small bomb.” As much as anyone, George Orwell understood how the power of the state depends upon distorting and deforming reality to create whatever impressions will serve the interests of the ruling class.
To believe in and act upon lies results in the abandonment and/or transfer of responsibility for conduct. The liars who have crawled out from beneath their rocks to condemn Ed Snowden for speaking truth to the world, are doing no more than projecting onto this man wholly fabricated “consequences” which, even if they were true, derive from the cascade of lies, forgeries, and other corruptions that comprise the totality of governmental behavior. Ed Snowden has embarrassed the political elites in much the same way as did the young boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes. Boobus Americanus – who has long identified his very sense of being with the nation-state – has begun taking down the flag from his house, and less-frequently plasters his car with “Support the Troops” bumper-stickers. This transformation wasn’t caused by Ed Snowden: he is just the latest scapegoat upon whom the parasites of both wings of the bird of prey now descend.
The Hitler regime used the “due process” model that the post-9/11 despots long to squeeze into the Constitution. Republican Newt Gingrich defended the Obama administration’s killing of an American, Anwar al-Awlaki on “due process” grounds. “The president signed an order to kill them. That was due process,” he concluded. Sophie and Hans Scholl and other members of the White Rose – to whom I dedicated my most recent book, The Wizards of Ozymandias – were summarily decapitated by the German Gestapo for having exercised their sense of responsibility by daring to criticize and expose to the German people the vicious criminality of the German state. The Obamas, Holders, McCains, Grahams, Kerrys, George W. Bush’s, and such lesser weasels as Jay Carney, Michelle Bachmann, John Bolton, and the reptilian-brained members of the mainstream media, may secretly admire the swiftness with which their counterparts in the National Socialist German Workers party dispensed with those who embarrassed the regime. One doesn’t have to be a Nazi to respect the resolve with which a dictator can act. George W. Bush admitted this in his comment, while president, “if this were a dictatorship it would be a heck of a lot easier. . . as long as I’m the dictator.” It is the political system itself – not the temporary puppets put in place by the owners to run the system – that insists upon the absoluteness of its rule, a purpose that is disrupted by truth-telling.
Those who babble the inanity that Ed Snowden should “come home” and “make his case” within the American legal system, reflect not only their own moral and intellectual bankruptcy, but that of those who share in such nonsense. “The law is the law,” such empty-brained babblers mutter, a phrase befitting those who speak from beneath the bottom of the barrel of human intelligence and decency.
For those of us who regard the speaking of truth as something more than just one of a number of available strategies; and who understand the unavoidable connection between truthfulness and responsibility, I direct attention to the film Judgment at Nuremberg. One of the trial judges – played by Spencer Tracy – is discussing with another judge the proposition that Nazi judges on trial before their tribunal might not be responsible for their judicial decisions. In Judge Haywood’s (Tracy’s) words: “You were saying that the men are not responsible for their acts. You’re going to have to explain that to me; you’re going to have to explain that to me very carefully.”