Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The New Abnormal

(Note:  Please excuse the annoying underlines in some of the paragraphs below.  I've been trying to get rid of them for over an hour, and have despaired.  I know not where the fault lies.  In the "old days" it was easy enough to get rid of random garbage like this, but technology has overtaken reason in this area, as in many others.)

To start this topic off, let me reprise a quote from William S. Burroughs that I posted a while back:

We have a new type of rule now. Not one-man rule or rule of aristocracy or plutocracy, but of small groups elevated to positions of absolute power by random pressures and subject to political and economic factors that leave little room for decision. They're representatives of abstract forces who have reached power through surrender of self.

The iron-willed dictator is a thing of the past. There will be no more Stalins, no more Hitlers. The rulers of this most insecure of all worlds are rulers by accident – inept, frightened pilots at controls of a vast machine they cannot understand, calling in experts to tell them which buttons to push.

Now, one symptom of this “new type of rule” is in the public image of those who rule. Gone is the ranting, raving, fist-shaking, beet-red-turning demagogue – Hitler being the prime example. Fidel Castro is still alive, of course – even if in a state of more-or-less retirement. But the demagogues of today – Hugo Chavez, for example – are pale imitations of their predecessors. Even this country had its barn-burning speech makers in the old days – think of Teddy Roosevelt, for instance. But everything since at least FDR has been an exercise in blandness. Even LBJ, who was a tyrant of the first order, felt constrained to put on a “just a good 'ol shit-kickin' country boy” act in public.

In our time, gray men in gray suits and “power ties” mount the podium, mouth words, make minimalistic gestures, and then walk off, with nary a hair out of place and certainly no sheen of perspiration anywhere to be found. And yet, once back in their “control centers” and “situation rooms”, they commit just as many atrocities as the more colorful dictators of old. They are just as apt, and technically more able, to steal from their subjects as any bejeweled prince or mustachioed invader. But the face they present to the world is without character or form, to an almost absurd degree. If you look for “character” in their faces, words, or actions, you look in vain. They are all products of committees... and the members of those committees are themselves products of committees... and so on. Is there ever a point, far up the line, where the blandness ends and the character begins? Is there a Dr. Evil at the top of the heap, lording it over his gray servants by way of a Buck Rogers-style control panel? I'm almost afraid to find out. It would actually be easier to imagine, and accept, one single, masterful, super-intelligent (or at least super-socially-dominant) character at the top, with a high forehead and flashing eyes – a Ming the Merciless, perhaps. Anything but these uninspiring dullards! If you go as far as you can up the ladder of the international cabal, you can get as far as Henry Kissinger, who is starting to look like something out of “Cake Wrecks”. (And actually, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao weren't looking all that great toward the end either, come of think of it.) But beyond Henry the K (if there is a “beyond”), all is enshrouded in night and fog. We think, or suspect, that we know who's in charge, and what their motives are, but proof is hard to come by. All we can do, really, is study symptoms, the way a non-holistic medical practitioner would. And even then, the challenge is to sort out the “intentional” symptoms from the unintentional, accidental, and random ones. We have to remember that we appear on Dr. Evil's magic viewing screen as nothing more than a numberless array of ants... which means that our individual fortunes and failures are of no real interest to those in charge. We might grow rich by accident – by lucking out in the stock market, for instance – or go into penury by accident. The ruling elite doesn't insist on having all the power and all the wealth all the time – only enough to consistently tip the scales in its favor. It is, in fact, possible to stay entirely under radar – as long as one has no lofty political ambitions or is not a small businessman. In that case, all we are is passive (and compliant) victims – paying taxes, putting up with oppressive laws and regulations, trudging off to vote every couple of years... ideal citizens, in fact. But we're prey, no matter what; there's no escaping the jungle in which we all live.

So what's it all about? Well, look back at the Burroughs quote. We really are ruled by committees these days – cabals, shadowy organizations, trusts, conspiracies. Certainly there is a “first among equals” in each one, but they are easily replaced as the need arises, the way Mafia “families” always have someone waiting in the wings in case something happens to the “don”. The best (i.e., best-planned) organizations are always set up this way, right up to and including – if you'll pardon the juxtaposition – the Roman Catholic Church. No organization with a desire to survive is totally dependent on a single person. This can be demonstrated by what happens to the typical “cult”; if the leader dies or is disabled, it doesn't take long for things to fall apart, unless adjustments are made swiftly. (Remember the “troika” that took over when Stalin died? It, basically, kept the Soviet Union from falling apart for another 40-odd years.) The point is that there is a continuum when it comes to organizations, and especially political ones – from “one-man rule” with no back-up plan, to rule totally by committee. Note, however, that this continuum is not necessarily correlated with “democracy”. A head of state – even one with absolute powers – can always choose to listen to advisors, or even to “the people”, typically through some form of representation (the way the czars of Russia had the Duma, although they didn't always pay any attention to it).

On the other hand, any notion that “rule by committee” is some form of democracy can be easily negated. All we have to do is point out the various multi-national organizations and cabals that have a stranglehold on the world's economy (including ours), on our political system, and on our foreign policy. Who elected them? Can they be impeached? Can they even be identified for certain? And yet they have a whole more to do with the wealth and welfare of American citizens than anyone we might or might not elect in November. In short, if you want true democracy, the fabled New England town meeting might qualify... but anything above that level has to be considered a racket. And really, the notion of letting “the people” do anything even remotely like “rule” must cause the elite to double up with mirth at their confabs in places like the Bohemian Grove. What a ridiculous notion! Number one, “the people” are not worthy, by definition; what gets you into the club is wealth and/or power, either pre-existing or earned. Number two, what “the people” want is foolish, impulsive, and short-sighted, and does not involve any sort of grand strategy for remaking the world in our image. And number three, we've got the power now, and damned if we're going to give it up. So there!

So, am I saying that true democracy does not exist – anywhere? I think there are places where the people's voice is occasionally heard, and where it might actually make a difference – in small matters. But when it comes to the big issues, no. What varies world-wide is not the degree of democracy but the degree of illusion of democracy. Here we see dramatic differences from one place to the next. And this illusion is, sure enough, manipulated for the optimum gain for those in charge. There are “high illusion” countries (like ours), “low illusion” countries (any obvious dictatorship, especially of the hereditary type), and those in between. In all cases, the idea is to keep things quiet and under control... and if occasional adjustments are required (like in Egypt), then so be it. But the overall picture does not change.

Another way of describing the situation originated with Hannah Arendt, in a book about Adolf Eichmann. To quote from Wiki -- “Her thesis is that the great evils in history generally, and the Holocaust in particular, were not executed by fanatics or sociopaths, but by ordinary people who accepted the premises of their state and therefore participated with the view that their actions were normal.” The discussion goes on as follows: “Explaining this phenomenon, Edward S. Herman has emphasized the importance of 'normalizing the unthinkable.' According to him, 'doing terrible things in an organized and systematic way rests on “normalization.” This is the process whereby ugly, degrading, murderous, and unspeakable acts become routine and are accepted as “the way things are done.”'”

The above needs a bit more explication, in my opinion. While it's true that evil deeds can be committed by the most ordinary of people (think of atrocities committed by our troops in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.) there has to be someone at the top, or a group, characterized by fanaticism, sociopathy, or at the very least singleness of purpose (think again of cult leaders). The ordinary people who do the evil deeds have to be “inspired” -- if that is the word – by someone. They have to be the victims of hysteria, delusions, and bad ideas. And – most important of all, perhaps – they have to be convinced that their victims are sub-human at best, or not human at all. This, of course, is the role propaganda plays in all conflict – to “thing” the enemy, and dehumanize them to the point where killing of women and children is tossed off as being of no consequence, either moral or otherwise. Note that an important part of this process is the distortion of language, so that – for example – war becomes “defense”, the other side becomes “terrorists”, civilian deaths are “ancillary casualties”, etc.

So the blandness – the “banality” -- comes in at the point at which we cease to see things as they are, because we have acceded to the corruption of our language and thus of our thought. We cannot embrace the “cause” of the war-makers in any real way, because there is nothing to embrace. Instead, we have to adopt, and rely on, and cling to, words, phrases, and symbols that have been given artificial meaning in order to trap the unwary. It would even be refreshing if we could know that, far enough up the line, the people in charge “don't believe any of this crap”, but even that is not for certain. Yes, they may be totally cynical, but who knows? In the present case (i.e. the election), I credit Obama with nearly-complete cynicism, and Romney with a good deal of misplaced idealism. Which is more dangerous? You tell me. They're pretty much two peas in a pod when it comes to foreign policy, which, after all, is the focus of our discussion.

One question – pretty much historical at this point – is, why the changeover? I mean, if Burroughs was right (which he was, more or less), why was he right? What did he see? I think it was a number of things. For one, the illusion of democracy (cherished by much of the world at this point) is not compatible with a single, overt, obvious dictator – even an elected one, like FDR, for example. And since the illusion of democracy is one of the main psychological tools of the Regime, it's much better to have the trappings of representative government and a figurehead at the top, while others behind the scenes make all the real decisions. Plus, this system has built-in longevity. Dictators eventually die, after all – but a Regime with faceless men at the top can, in theory, go on indefinitely.

Another factor is that dictatorships have simply gone out of style in most places, with the exception of the few remaining communist countries (China not included) and some out-of-the-way crapholes in Africa. Other places that are called (by our media) “dictatorships” -- like Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, and Belarus, for example – are unconvincing, in my opinion. Those systems have a strong man at the top (or a dominant family or tribe) but they still serve at the pleasure of their subjects – i.e. they can be toppled, and frequently are. No, individual rule is very tenuous in our time, and, in most cases, scarcely worth the bother. There is much more stability and continuity with an oligarchy in command, consisting of replaceable parts. And I think no one realizes this more acutely than the members of the ruling elite themselves; better to give up a bit of personal glory in order to achieve stability and a guaranteed source of ever-increasing wealth and power (even if it has to be enjoyed semi-anonymously).

“And yet...”, as they say – we are nonetheless faced with the daily challenge of seeing through the “masks of sanity” our politicians and leaders wear, in order to see the deformed monstrosities beneath. And this is, in fact, one of the biggest issues when it comes to “conspiracy theories” and their acceptance by any significant portion of the populace, above and beyond “conspiracy buffs”. We are asked, on a daily basis, so accept these finely-coiffed, squeaky-clean, immaculately-groomed, well-dressed, well-spoken, manifestly intelligent men (and women) as the very paragons of virtue and of reason... and as deserving of all of the esteem that has been heaped upon them by us, the unworthy. And I guess this calls to mind another American delusion, that of meritocracy – that because we only choose the best among us to lead, then whoever is in a position to lead must, by definition, be among the best among us. In other words, there are no accidents when it comes to who acquires political power (the same way all rich people are smart by definition – meaning that the rest of us are all stupid). And it's true – if our leaders really were guilty of all that they've been accused of, why are they not glowing red like the Devil himself, breathing fire and brimstone, and oozing toxic slime from every pore? I mean... can't they at least look a little bit like Vlad the Impaler? How can what we see be so different from the way things are? And if it can't, then clearly we must be wrong... those people can't be guilty of any of the evil deeds that have been ascribed to them, and only someone suffering from “paranoia” would persist in thinking so.

The best argument I can come up with in support of this apparent contradiction is that nearly everyone seems normal until we find out they aren't. Look at Jerry Sandusky, for example. Look at the very few Wall Street types who have actually gone to trial, and the even fewer who have gone to jail. Nixon's crew all looked perfectly normal until they were packed off to prison. The leading Nazis just didn't look the same in the dock at Nuremberg, without all the leather, buckles, and gold braid. And so on. The essence of the Age of Banality is that not only does everyone look normal, they have to look normal, or it ruins the whole effect. No matter what is going on behind closed doors, or in their feverish brains, they have to wear that mask of sanity – which is why, on occasion, one of them slips up a bit and we get a glimpse of the truth, the way a “pod person” in an old sci-fi movie will occasionally say or do something that gives the game away. And yes, I'm sure it takes its toll – but hey, these guys chose this vocation, they get plenty of perks, so they've got no complaint when they find themselves turning into the Slime Monster. Or... maybe they were slime monsters from the beginning, and have only now found their true vocation. In any case, we shouldn't be skeptical about the possibility of such things, because we have seen enough real-life cases. The ones still playing the game are simply smart enough or lucky enough to get away with it – so far, at least.

An interesting nuance in the Burroughs quote is that it describes the rulers of our time as, in effect, trapped in a world they never made – ostensibly in charge, but things are, in fact, out of control. Now, the irony here is that this is not far off from what the mainstream media would like us all to think – that our leaders are well-intentioned, but things have gone so far and gotten to such a point that they can only do so much. (Witness the arguments Obama & Co. are constantly putting forth for why they haven't been able to make much of a difference in 3-plus years.) So this constitutes, basically, an excuse for the visible leadership – things are just too big, too complex, etc., and we ought to be rated based on good intentions rather than actual accomplishments (which is precisely Obama's argument... and speaking of rewards based on good intentions, how about that Nobel Peace Prize?). So yes, this is the unfortunate but nonetheless acceptable, and grudgingly approved by the media, alternative view of things. “If this isn't the best of all possible worlds, it isn't our fault.”

The real alternative, of course – and the one I've been preaching for many moons now – is that, yes, it is not the best of all possible worlds, and yes, our leaders are basically helpless... but no, it's not only about “abstract forces” but real forces, embodied in real, if anonymous, people. They can be as colorful, or colorless, as they want behind closed doors... but their requirement for the visible leadership is that it be universally bland and banal. They have to be moving targets or, better still, not targets at all – just undulating clouds of nebulousity. This is why politics on the surface is so dull and depressing, and if that were all there were to it, I'd have none of it! Rather, it's what's below the surface that I find fascinating. That's where the real games are played – and the challenge is to discern what the games are, what are the goals, and who's winning... even if we can only speculate as to who the players are.

No comments: