• CXVIII – A Monopoly on Life

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    Once
    there was a man who said,
    u201CRange me all men of the world in rows.u201D
    And instantly
    There was terrific clamour among the people
    Against being ranged in rows.
    There was a loud quarrel, world-wide.
    It endured for ages;
    And blood was shed
    By those who would not stand in rows,
    And by those who pined to stand in rows.
    Eventually, the man went to death, weeping.
    And those who stayed in bloody scuffle
    Knew not the great simplicity.

    ~
    Stephen Crane

    Like
    a monkey that has been bitten by a scorpion, the doltish
    can always be counted upon to entertain the dull-witted
    with irrelevant chatter following a major crisis. So
    it is with the catastrophe in New Orleans, as partisan
    political interests oppose one another on such questions
    as were Republicans or Democrats more to blame; whether
    federal, state, or municipal governments were most at
    fault; or did race or economic factors make for disparate
    treatment? As Thomas Pynchon so aptly expressed it:
    u201Cif they can get you asking the wrong questions, they
    don't have to worry about answers.u201D

    One
    of the most important questions — going to the perverse
    nature of our institutionalized world – occurred
    in the recent flooding in New Orleans. It grossly understates
    the significance of this tragedy to focus attention
    only upon the utter failure of state and federal government
    agencies to respond. Standing alone, the sheer incompetence
    of government agencies and officials in the days following
    the flooding resembled the comic-opera buffoonery of
    a Marx Brothers film. That Jon Stewart's insightful
    u201CThe Daily Showu201D was the only newscast capable of putting
    such behavior in perspective, tells us much about the
    fallen state of our culture.

    The
    speed and scope of private responses to this devastation
    contrasted with those of the political establishment,
    reflecting not simply the greater efficiency of spontaneously
    ordered systems, but fundamental differences in purpose.
    Millions of individuals from all over the world began
    sending food, clothing, blankets, fuel, money, water,
    medical supplies, and other life-and-death necessities
    to flooding victims. Homeowners from across the country
    went online to pledge over 150,000 beds to help house
    those whose homes had been destroyed. In the San Fernando
    Valley, one woman e-mailed to people that she would
    be collecting such items at a given location for trucking
    to the victims. Her e-mails were, in turn, forwarded
    to others and, in three days time, six truckloads of
    relief supplies were collected. Such experiences have
    been repeated manifold, with individuals, businesses,
    churches, and private charities voluntarily coming to
    the rescue of total strangers. The disaster in the Gulf
    Coast is an object lesson in how compassionate and cooperative
    we can be toward one another when our thinking has not
    been infected by politically-contrived and manipulated
    conflicts.

    The
    responses of the state stand in stark contrast to those
    of individuals. From the moment government officials
    awoke to the enormity of the disaster — a number of
    days after private persons had already begun their shipments
    of aid — their principal purpose has been not to
    aid, comfort, and rescue the victims, but to establish
    their authority and control over them. Political systems
    have always served as strange attractors to the control
    freaks and other misfits who have never become socially
    housebroken. People express surprise that government
    didn't come to the aid of stricken people sooner. But
    aiding people is not what government is about;
    that is the function of the marketplace and other voluntary
    activity. The state is about menacing, threatening,
    commandeering, and killing. You will not see mayors,
    senators, governors, or even presidents, wading through
    waist-deep waters to rescue a trapped family: their
    functions are confined to holding press conferences
    and muttering platitudes.

    Control
    is what the state has always been about. If you
    doubt this, consider the words of Louisiana Governor
    Kathleen Blanco, who declared that National Guard u201Ctroops
    are fresh back from Iraq, well trained, experienced,
    battle tested and under my orders to restore order in
    the streets.u201D She added: u201CThey have M-16s and they are
    locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and
    kill and they are more than willing to do so if necessary
    and I expect they will.u201D

    Or
    consider the words of Homeland Security Secretary Michael
    Chertoff expressing what, by now, has become the underlying
    motto of his police-state agency: u201CWe are in control
    of what's going on in the city.u201D Add to this the words
    of one National Guard general who decreed: u201CWe're going
    to go out and take this city back. This will be a combat
    operation to get this city under control.u201D

    From
    whom will the city be u201Ctaken back,u201D and to what ends?
    Those who have learned their political catechisms from
    the television priesthood will speak of u201Clooters,u201D without
    distinguishing those stealing food and water from stores
    in order to survive, and without asking whether this
    will include a crackdown on the police officers and
    firemen who reportedly joined in the stealing of television
    sets, computers, and other valuables. Perhaps getting
    u201Cthis city under controlu201D includes continuing to interfere
    with such voluntary efforts as Red Cross deliveries
    of food, Wal-Mart's shipment of water, and physicians
    offering to come to New Orleans to help the sick and
    injured. This purpose may also explain why FEMA cut
    emergency communications lines from New Orleans, an
    action reversed by the local sheriff who then placed
    guards around the facility.

    And
    where, in any of the draconian rhetoric being barked
    by these martinets, is even an oblique reference made
    to ending the suffering that has now run for two weeks?
    While men and women were graciously opening their homes
    to flood victims, state officials were locking people
    inside crowded, smelly convention centers and domed
    stadiums. While individuals were fighting the bureaucratic
    red tape that prevented the flow of assistance, National
    Guard troops were employing automatic weapons to menace
    dispirited flood victims. Navy helicopter pilots who
    deviated from their assigned roles and rescued more
    than 100 victims, were reprimanded for having done so
    and, in the process, had the state's priorities reinforced
    upon them.

    A
    police chief ordered his officers to block a bridge
    to prevent people from leaving the city, with some policemen
    firing warning shots over the heads of tourists trying
    to get out. Meanwhile, residents who wanted to stay
    in their homes were being forcibly removed — handcuffed
    and at gunpoint — while homeowners were having their
    guns confiscated in what some might suppose was a practice
    run for a subsequent disarming of Americans. All of
    this was, of course, defended in that most Rousseauian
    notion: u201CWe're trying to save them from themselves.u201D

    u201CLock
    and load,u201D and u201Csixteen in the clip,u201D were oft-heard
    phrases coming from National Guard soldiers, one of
    whom put everything in perspective: u201CIt's like Baghdad
    all over again.u201D To the state, the victims of a flood
    — like the victims of American aggression in Iraq —
    are u201Cinsurgentsu201D to be brought under control. u201CThey
    treated us like dirt,u201D one woman reported, words that
    have come to represent human responses to police and
    military behavior anywhere in the world.

    It
    is interesting — albeit not pleasant — to observe a
    civilization in freefall. Panglossian optimists continue
    to hope — as they would at the death-bed of a loved
    one — for a miracle to reverse the terminal course.
    The belief that someone in authority can change all
    of this; that new leadership or new machinery can make
    us better than we are, continues to drive minds that
    have been conditioned in institutional thinking. Most
    of us have simply accepted, with little examination,
    the statist premise so well articulated by Jacques Ellul:
    u201C[w]e believe that for the world to be in good order,
    the state must have all the powers.u201D u201CWaiting For a
    Leader,u201D the title of a New York Times editorial
    written in response to New Orleans, reflects the same
    pathetic attitude one saw on the faces of victims at
    the convention center in New Orleans. This inclination
    is as fatal to a society as it is to those who passively
    await salvation by the state.

    Western
    civilization will not be saved by the same forces that
    are destroying it. Einstein said it best: u201Ca problem
    cannot be solved by the same thinking that created it.u201D
    Neocons and other deluded minds continue to dream of
    empire, as though the arrow of time can be reversed
    and, in the process, resurrect the fantasized world
    of Roman emperors or Napoleon. While the pretenders
    at various Washington, D.C. think-tanks continue to
    fancy themselves in purple and ermine robes, the realities
    upon which the world functions will continue their incessant
    march toward the decentralized, horizontally-networked
    systems that are rapidly displacing the command-and-control
    vertical structures that have long dominated mankind.

    I
    do not recall the author of the words that have long
    been burned into my mind: u201Ca man has a moral duty not
    to allow his children to live under tyranny.u201D At no
    time in my life has this obligation been called to accountability
    more than now, as our institutionalized thinking continues
    to play out, in exponential fashion, its implicit absurdities.
    The qualities that either foster or destroy a civilization
    are ultimately to be found only within the character
    and thinking of the individuals who comprise it. Our
    world is only as peaceful, free, loving, and creative
    as you and I make it; and can become violent, tyrannical,
    inhumane, and destructive only as our individual thinking
    produces such ends.

    I
    have written of the common origins of the words u201Cpeace,u201D
    u201Cfreedom,u201D u201Clove,u201D and u201Cfriend.u201D Most of us have long
    since forgotten what our ancestors must have implicitly
    understood, namely, that the intertwining of the qualities
    inherent in the meaning of these words is what produces
    a decent society. To institutionalized minds, the idea
    that a free and peaceful world is dependent upon people
    living as friends, with genuine love for one another,
    is pass. In our politically-structured world, u201Cconfrontation,u201D
    u201Ccontrol,u201D u201Cambition,u201D and u201Callyu201D have corrupted such
    earlier sentiments. These changes in thinking have been
    necessary to sustain the conflict-ridden world of institutional
    domination. A healthy society held together by trust
    and mutual respect deteriorates, in a politicized world,
    into one dominated by fear and incivility.

    A
    complex system may experience turbulence and, later,
    reach a bifurcation point to which either a creative
    response will be made, or the system will collapse into
    total entropy. Modern society appears to be at such
    a point. The question before us is how we are to respond:
    by mobilizing our intelligence to generate systems that
    are supportive of life, or to allow the nature of our
    present practices to play out the destructive consequences
    of their premises?

    Events
    in New Orleans have brought into focus the long-standing
    question that we have heretofore preferred not to face:
    is society to be organized by and for the benefit of
    individuals or of institutions? Does life
    belong to the living, or to the organizational
    machinery that the living so unwisely created?
    We are confronted — as was Dr. Frankenstein — by a monster
    of our own creation, which must control and dominate
    us if it is to survive. We continue to feed this destructive
    creature, not simply with our material wealth, but with
    our very souls and the lives of our children. Perhaps
    we direct so much righteous anger at child-molesters
    because we are afraid to face our failure to fulfill
    parental obligations to our own children.

    In
    the outpouring of individual compassion and cooperation
    following the disaster in New Orleans, the state discovered
    a threat to its existence. Political systems thrive
    only through division and conflict; by getting people
    to organize themselves into mutually-exclusive groups
    which then fight with one another. This is why u201Cwar
    is the health of the state.u201D But if people can discover
    a sense of love and mutuality amongst them, how is the
    state to maintain the sense of continuing conflict upon
    which it depends?

    This
    is why the state must prevent the private shipment of
    truckload after truckload of private aid to victims;
    this is why flood victims — including those who
    want nothing more than to remain in their homes — must
    be turned into a criminal class, against whom state
    functionaries will u201Clock and loadu201D their weapons and
    u201Cshoot and kill . . . if necessary.u201D The state is fighting
    for its life, and must exaggerate its inhumane, life-destroying
    capacities in order to terrify the rest of us into structured
    obedience. This is the meaning of Pogo Possum's
    classic observation: u201Cwe have met the enemy and they
    is us.u201D This is why, as New Orleans continued
    to be under the u201Ccontrolu201D of federal agencies, the Pentagon
    proposed the preemptive use of nuclear weapons against
    u201Cterrorist groupsu201D using u201Cweapons of mass destruction.u201D
    What could u201Cterrorizeu201D the state more than to have people
    realize that social order lies only within the hands
    of free men and women? What u201Cweaponu201D could be more destructive
    to the state than a u201Cmassu201D outbreak of love and compassion?

    In
    the waning days of Western civilization, you and I are
    in a struggle between the individualized sense of humanity
    and the collective forces of structured order. The nature
    of this struggle has been no better expressed than by
    Gandhi: u201CThe individual has a soul, but the State is
    a soulless machine, it can never be weaned from the
    violence to which it owes its very existence.u201D It is
    this contest between the human spirit and the machine
    that will determine the fate of mankind — including
    our children – in our post-civilized world.

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