Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Birth of "Terror"

Have you ever had the experience of coming up with a new (to you) idea, or concept, or theory, and then you pick up a book and it turns out someone had it figured out decades, centuries, or even millennia earlier? (This alone is a good reason to delve into good literature, both “fiction” and nonfiction.) In this case, the insight is from R. D. Laing, a Scottish psychiatrist who was very popular with the hippies back in the 60s. The book in question (one of his many) is “The Politics of Experience”, and the chapter of interest is entitled “Us and Them”. Here is what he has to say about “terror”: 

        “If there is no external danger, then danger and terror have to be invented and maintained.”

Now, he is talking primarily about (negative) family dynamics here – but the concept can easily be extended to group, tribe, state, nation. What he calls the “nexal family” is “then the 'entity' which has to be preserved.... which one lives and dies for, and which in turn offers life for loyalty and death for desertion. Any defection from the nexus (betrayal, treason, heresy, etc.) is punishable...”

What it all boils down to is the age-old Us and Them dichotomy, which serves as the ideational source of most, if not all, wars. Conflict, on any level (right down to a fistfight with your neighbor), is always predicated on the idea of an “Us” (or a “Me”) versus a “Them” (or a “You”). And it always involves a judgment of some sort, i.e. that I or We are somehow superior, and You or They are somehow inferior – based on pretty much anything (traditionally race, religion, ethnicity, tribe, social class, etc.). Has any warrior, in all of history, when fighting hand-to-hand with an enemy, ever seen that other person as having equal moral standing to themselves – equal validity, equal “human-ness”? I doubt it. There is always a judgment, and it may be nothing more than “Too bad, they chose the wrong side, or the wrong cause, or whatever, but in any case they have to go.” There are plenty of examples in history of giving respect to fallen enemies, much as one might give respect to a fallen opponent in an athletic contest – except for that factor of judgment, which is always present.

To the notion that wars are often, if not always, fought for “practical” reasons like land, resources, living space, etc. I offer that most people who start wars already have enough of all these, and then some. (It's this, in fact, that provides them the resources to go to war at all.) Are you telling me that the Mongols and the Huns didn't already have enough land? Please. It was a zeal for conquest that drove them; acquiring new goods was just a fringe benefit – a by-product of their victories. Germany in the 1930s could have left well enough alone, and become a prosperous nation all on their own, but no, they had to have “Lebensraum”, because, after all, the Master Race needed unlimited space to grow and prosper, and eventually to dominate the world. And take our own country, with its concept of Manifest Destiny, that required us to conquer and displace all the previous inhabitants. (The sparsely-populated states on the Eastern Seaboard were still way too crowded to suit the rugged individuals and pioneers, so they headed west.) Take Israel vis-a-vis Palestine too -- “a land without a people”? Please. Once any nation, or people, decide that they “need” more than they have, you have the foundation for war, just as – to stretch a point – individuals who “need” more than they have wind up enslaved to whomever they borrowed money from – banks, credit card companies, loan sharks, retail establishments, etc. And have we not become slaves to war? Are we not serving our creditors night and day as a result of our zeal for war, and empire? (Note that those creditors do not care about empire themselves, since they already have one – the empire of debt.)  It's notorious that one of the things that bankrupts a nation most readily is its over-investment in war.  So what do we say, then, about a nation that has invested -- politically, economically, and psychologically -- in perpetual war?  Is that not a virtual guarantee of early demise?  

Now, you might say, this is just the natural course of things – not only is it ubiquitous throughout human history, but in a sense it is human history. What is “history”, after all, but a narrative about conquerers and the conquered? OK, fair enough. But let me introduce something that is more closely germane to our time.

In all “traditional” wars – with which we are all too familiar – there is, as there must be, an Other – a Them. And they are not only “the enemy” -- a very real one at times – but are always judged as being inferior in some way – respected to some degree (for skill as warriors, for example) but ultimately found wanting. The most obvious symptom of this is in the process of naming: They are not merely the enemy, or opponents, or the other side, but they also have to be Japs, Gooks, Slopes, Russkies, Krauts, etc. And in our time (drum roll, please) “Terrorists”. They have to be rendered less than human in our minds – to be “thinged”. And this is pretty much a universal phenomenon, since who, after all, is willing to simply kill – in vast numbers at times – people they consider their equals? Human nature forbids it – and this is actually, in a strange way, a point in favor of human nature. Our prisons are bursting at the seams with murderers and those convicted of major violent crimes; how many of them looked at their victims and said (or thought), “Well, here's someone just like me, a fellow human being – a fellow traveler – a bunkmate on a very large ship in a vast ocean – but they have to die.” Talk with these convicts – you'll find that, on some level, they were convinced (at least at the time) that whoever is was not only had to die, but deserved it in some way. And when you get to the hard-core psychopaths, everyone deserves to die. (So many victims, so little time.) And this doesn't have to be a subtle or nuanced point of view; the inferiority of the victim may have been something as simple as this: They had no gun, and the murderer had one. But simple or not, there was always a reason... a justification. Later on, they may have second thoughts – and I guess this is part of human nature too. Self doubt – perhaps my “reality” was not, is not, the only valid one. But by then it's too late.

That's on the individual level. But the individual level gets rolled up, more often than not, to the group level, the tribal... ethnic... national... etc.  And in the process it becomes more extreme.  Nations will do things that individuals will never do.  Thus we find ourselves cursing whole nations... whole peoples. Not just the Japs and Krauts, but the “heathens”, the “thievin' Injuns”, the “nigras” (note the slightly less crude wording there, courtesy of upper-crust folks in the Old South), the “wetbacks”, and so on.

But now we're on to something at least somewhat new – although our Cold War battles with the “commies” were certainly along similar lines. Communism was (and continues to be) a concept – an idea – an ideal... with implications for a system of government and for foreign policy. But it was an abstraction before it was a reality, i.e it existed in the minds of its originators long before it was implemented. But it at least had the conceptual advantage of having a political/economic/social theory behind it – wrong as that theory turned out to be. But now we are engaged in battle with “terrorists”, but not only that – we are fighting a War on Terror (officially dubbed as such by the Regime). But what is “terror”? It's a feeling -- an emotion. So are we waging war on a feeling, an emotion? Apparently so. Actual “terrorists” are, after all, people – solid, flesh-and-blood... and thus way too tangible, not sufficiently abstract. Some questions might arise as to the wisdom and validity of fighting “terrorists” at all times and in all places – not the least of which are: What is a “terrorist” anyway? (Once in a while the media slip up and refer to them as “fighters” or “insurgents” or “rebels”, which is at least somewhat objective.) Do we know them by their race, ethnicity, or religious beliefs? But we have plenty of “allies” of the same race, ethnicity, and religion, so that can't be it. And what are their motives? Are they all fighting for the exact same thing? But these questions imply nuance, and that's way too much to ask of our leadership and those who aspire thereto. So, bottom line, we can fight “terrorists”, but it's much better to be fighting “terrorism”, and best of all to be fighting “terror”. (It wouldn't have any less meaning if we just referred to as “It”, or “The Thing”. Yes, we're going to war to fight “It” -- flags flying, bands playing, handkerchiefs waving, etc.)

But if we want to talk a bit more objectively, about strategy and tactics, what distinguishes “terrorism” is (apparently random) attacks on civilians, for whatever reason. And this did not begin on 9/11 or in Afghanistan or Iraq, or with militant Islam. We've had, recently, the Caucasus, and previously Ireland, Algeria, and – yes – Israel itself, or Palestine in the 1940s. And back about 100 years ago we had the anarchists; picture some wild-eyed guy with a black beard and a long coat tossing a bomb with a lit fuse through an embassy gate. (At least he was somewhat focused; his targets were, by and large, appropriate.)

And again, there is always an Us vs. Them issue, and the terrorists, or whatever one might call them, are as guilty of this as anyone else. What they are not guilty of is defending their homeland against an invader, any more than the resistance fighters and partisans during World War II. This is considered respectable – nay, heroic – activity when they're on our side; when they aren't, they're called “terrorists”. I would venture to say that anyone who attacks anyone in uniform is, technically, not a terrorist but simply a solider (with or without a uniform). Did we considered the Viet Cong “terrorists” when they were fighting our troops? Not that I'm aware; they were simply an opposing force, even though I have yet to hear of one wearing any sort of uniform.

So in this sense, fighting in a “military” context, as defined by “rules of war”, is respectable – honorable, even. But picking on poor, helpless civilians – that's another matter, right? And no one can accuse us of such a dirty business. Well, unless you want to bring up Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki... but , to quote Hillary Clinton, what difference, at this point, does it make?

I'm not deluded enough to say that “it's OK, as long as we're the ones who do it”. I'd rather say that it's wrong no matter who does it. But war is war, after all. (And let's not bring up Atlanta, while we're at it.) It's just that the minute we start mouthing words about “terror” and “terrorism” we should, first, look to ourselves.

But that's not yet the whole story. I've discussed, in previous posts, the idea that the War on Terror is the ultimate Golden Goose in that, since it's a war on nothing and everything, and can never be said to be “won”, it's a dream come true for ambitious politicians and armaments makers. And again, we get into the business of naming. If we're honest, we will say we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan for our own reasons, and anyone who got in the way, well... it's their own fault they're dead. Brutal, crude, arbitrary – but accurate. We could even say that no, we don't hate them... we don't even mildly dislike them. But they got in the way. (And unlike Mr. T, we don't pity the fools that get in our way.) But how much support, especially of the emotional and political (assuming there's a difference) kind, would you get for something like that? Much better to create this thing – this entity – called “terror”, and call those who perpetuate it “terrorists”. Ah, that's the ticket – an emotional hook, a threat so ambiguous that Americans can be made to fully believe that there are armies of “terrorists” right across the Rio Grande, just itching to swoop down on Texas. We've become like hippies on a bad LSD trip who see snakes coming out of the wallpaper – except that the snakes are terrorists and the wallpaper is our paper-thin “borders”.

So you see, now we're back to Laing. “Terror” is a feeling – an emotion – that is occasionally based on reality, but in our time serves as a tool with which the leadership subjugates the citizenry. “Terrorism” is no longer a specific set of strategies and tactics, but an entity in its own right – infinitely threatening, omnipresent, and impossible to resist unless we fly to the arms of the government.

      “If there is no external danger, then danger and terror have to be invented and maintained.”

Was the current War on Terror based on a real external danger? Or was it ginned up in the minds of politicians and armaments makers, with the enthusiastic support of the military, the bankers, the Evangelicals, and the Israel lobby? The answer to this depends to a great degree on what you think about 9/11 – and I've dealt with that issue extensively in prior posts. But even if 9/11 was what the Regime says it was, it's not at all clear that the response had, inevitably, to be invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, with puppet governments and military occupations that continue to this day. The events of 9/11 were dramatic enough to, basically, soften everyone's brain to the point where they accepted anything, even the wildest claims, that the Regime had to say about clear and present danger, “existential threats”, threats to “the American way of life” and “our freedoms”, etc. etc. Not only was there danger, but there was “terror” in that we never knew what disasters would befall us next – not when or where – and from sources unknown. So even if the events of 9/11 were “real” to the extent that certain things did, in fact, occur (I don't think it was all done with mirrors) – the resulting narrative and overwhelming propaganda campaign was what got us into Iraq and Afghanistan, and got the Patriot Act passed, and the TSA established. 9/11 didn't force any of that; we forced it on ourselves.

So once the danger and terror are invented – once they've implanted themselves deeply in our consciousness – how are they maintained? Well, think about booster shots. You get the initial vaccination, which is a big deal, physiologically (and may cause permanent damage, to some) – and over time the effectiveness starts to wane, so you get a booster shot, which is not as big a deal – not as traumatic – but which serves to refresh the body's memory as to what it's supposed to do about this particular disease agent. So what do we have in our time but the occasional, scattered “terroristic” act, or plot, or threat... typically by “lone nuts” (or a handful of them), but you never know! They might be working for ISIS! Or, they might be ISIS sympathizers. They might have tuned their mental radio receivers to the 24/7 ISIS frequency -- “all terror, all the time”.

And then there's, once again, the language factor – the “narrative”. And what is propaganda without language? So anyone, anywhere in the world, who points a gun at our troops, or at American citizens, or at troops or citizens of our allies, is a “terrorist”. By definition! Never mind the motives. Never mind if all they were doing was protecting their olive orchard. When someone shoots someone anywhere in the U.S., the first thing that comes to mind is: Was this an act of terrorism? That ticket has to be punched first, before anything else can be done. When someone threatens to punch their neighbor in the nose, what is that? A simple, crude argument? No! It's a “terroristic threat”. So the process I've been discussing is not limited to declaring war between Us and Them – it's now to the point where each of us is a potential Them, which means that we are each making war, or threatening to make war, or have the potential to make war, on the others. Can anything be more ideal as a substrate for totalitarianism? And as you may recall from reading about communist regimes, it was, in fact, a war of all against all at all times – suspicion and paranoia were ubiquitous, and that is the very thing that feeds the Regime. Make every citizen suspicious of every other, and you have the perfect formula for everyone running back to the mother hen (AKA the Regime) to find shelter under its wings.

The point is that when it's Us vs. Them, it eventually becomes Us vs. Us. We become greater enemies to each other than any external threat. It's this point which we are rapidly approaching, as witness the scandals and crimes of the IRS, CIA, NSA, DEA, and so on. It won't be long before we fear each other more than we fear ISIS; in some respects this is already the case.

See, we don't need any more 9/11's, because “mission accomplished”. The American public is terrorized – in the deepest sense, and permanently. All that's needed is the occasional reminder that we're never safe, and that the Regime is our only hope. In this, “terror” in our time serves the same purpose as the Depression during the New Deal – it sustains the Regime, and that is why it will be perpetuated as long as possible, until something even more terrible comes along to take its place.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Age of Bifurcation

We live in a most interesting time (as if that's news!). What I'm thinking of in particular is what seems to be a kind of cultural bifurcation – fault lines appearing across nearly aspect of our society and our lives – some of them revivals of age-old divisions, and some quite new.

What got me started thinking about this is the contrast between the conventional wisdom that we are becoming a nation of overweight, malnourished (as opposed to undernourished) couch potatoes who spend most of our waking hours staring at screens of various sizes, tapping out cries for help on keyboards ranging from standard typewriter size to microscopic – and the omnipresent health clubs, runners, joggers, trekkers, marathoners, triathletes, cyclists, parkour adepts, and other physical overachievers that one sees on an endless stream of TV shows. Which is it? It's both, clearly – the populace is dividing itself, of its own relatively free will, into a nation that is one part jocks and one part blobs, with very few people in between – a kind of fitness gap, if you will. And this is not just a matter of age, although it has to be correlated with overall health (either as a cause or effect). There is a new cohort of war veterans with an assortment of missing limbs achieving things that would be forbidding to most “able-bodied” people. Any discussion of the overall fitness of Americans has to take this into account – and yet I never see it dealt with in any meaningful way. Apparently we have now evolved into two cultures on this particular continuum – that of the fit and that of the dangerously unfit. And as far as I can tell, no one has forced anyone to be one way or the other; they are just doing what they prefer doing. But anyone interested in public health and the cost of medical care has to ask why, and maybe even how we can turn more blobs into jocks. (Unplugging the Internet for a few hours each day might be a start.) (And yes, you are reading this on the Internet, by a guy who just enjoyed a vodka and tonic and a cigar.)

A related issue is that of medicine -- “alternative”, holistic, etc., with a surprising (to me) rise in popularity of homeopathy, not to mention massage, reiki, aromatherapy... the entire panoply of natural treatments, remedies, and cures... side by side with the explosion in vaccination, prescription drugs (and their abuse), “designer drugs”, and so on, to the point where we probably have a higher percentage of addicts (of some sort) in the population that at any previous time in our history. (I suspect that the apparent rise in transportation accidents – trucks, buses, trains – can be traced to this to a large extent.)

But that's not all, by any means. We also have a spiritual bifurcation, with a large proportion of the populace being “unchurched”, as the saying goes, and having no alternative activity in the spiritual realm. We may not yet have arrived at the point where most of us are atheists/agnostics/skeptics, but I have a feeling the day is not far off. But at the same time, the legacy of the 60s has made “New Age” spiritual endeavors pretty much mainstream, and they do constitute a serious challenge to established churches, religions, and creeds. (Maybe I should describe this as “trifurcation”.)

And when it comes to politics – well, of course that has always been a hotbed of conflict, debate, and outright hostility, but now it has seeped into new and novel areas of life. It's no longer enough to have two major political parties based on differing visions of government; you now have to show your “creds” by declaring a position on abortion, same-sex marriage, LGBT “rights”, GMOs, global warming, evolution, the ever-present race issue, marijuana legalization, fracking, oil pipelines, fossil fuels... the list is pretty much endless. (Remember the good old days when it all boiled down to fluoridation and communism? Ah, those were simple times.)

But I'll allow this much – the political fault lines of our time are still on the “soft” side compared to other eras. Everyone likes to complain about “political extremism” (on both sides, depending on which side you're on), “rhetoric” (as if that's a bad thing), “unwillingness to compromise”, etc. Apparently they forgot the Sixties, or weren't around then, or were too young. There was a civil war on then, folks – and the blacks vs. cops struggles in places like Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago, and St. Louis can't compare.  We had a fragmented populace then too, along a number of fault lines -- but since the fragmentation was relatively new, there was also a great unsettledness about it all -- frustration leading to hostility leading to violence.   Things had a hard edge then, a product of the newness of it all.  At least that's how I see it.  There were more true radicals then as well, as opposed to the chic "nonconformity" of our time with political correctness of some sort having an impact on virtually everyone.    

Then there's food, and there was a time – believe it or not – when “liberals” and “conservatives” all ate and drank pretty much the same things. But now you can be a locavore, vegan, vegetarian... you can find an “artisanal”, or gourmet, or green, or free-trade, or no-animal-testing version of practically any type of product... you can shop exclusively at Whole Foods or some boutique “gourmet” store, or at farmers' markets... or you can stick with the fast-food offerings with all of their chemical enhancements, toxins, and terrible effects on your innards. Again, people tend to gravitate toward one position or the other, although there are a few of us who occasionally find ourselves wandering off the reservation. (Yeah, I like Whole Foods and farmers' markets, but I also indulge in the occasional Baconator at Wendy's. My bad. And when I'm on the road, I hold out for Cracker Barrel.)

(I thought of including clothing and hair in all of this, but then I realized that pretty much everyone these days dresses like a slob (when compared to the 1950s, say) and has “unfortunate” hair. When I happen to be downtown on a weekday and encounter an old-style businessman sporting a tailored Brooks Brothers suit, I'm startled. He looks like he wandered off the set of “Mad Men”.  All he needs is a double martini to go with his briefcase and we're good to go.)

Then we have not only the race issue, but race per se. The great American underclass is no longer the exclusive domain of urban blacks and rural whites (the first poverty program was aimed at Appalachia, the "whitest" region in the country), but is being reinforced on a daily basis by new arrivals from Latin America and refugees from pretty much everywhere else on earth (except the ones who show up already middle class, like the South and East Asians). Upward mobility as a prominent fact of life in America seems to be a thing of the past – replaced by the ruling class vs. the dependent class. (Ironically, the refugees all seem to prefer this country to the one they came from – which, I guess, shows you how really lousy things can be elsewhere in the world.)

There are other fault lines that are more or less derivative of those already mentioned. When it comes to cultural offerings and entertainment in general, we enjoy an astonishing level of diversity, and frankly I'm all for it. (I remember when pretty much everyone watched Ed Sullivan.) The numbers involved are not by any means equal, of course, which is a data point in itself. You can fill a stadium with Kenny Chesney fans, but a world-class string quartet is lucky to half fill a modest-sized auditorium. No, I do not begrudge people their tastes (or lack thereof); it's just an illustration that pretty much everywhere you look there's a bimodal distribution with few in the middle.

And I'm not saying that these trends are even bad, per se – the 50s, when you look back on it, were, after all, a pretty dull time in our history, culture-wise. But there were, at least, various subcultures (including ethnic ones that were way more genuine than the poster children for “diversity” these days). There were thriving, self-contained black neighborhoods in any large city, most of which are long gone – destroyed by, first, “urban renewal”, then by social policy, drugs, and so on. (White ethnic neighborhoods in those same cities were destroyed by forced integration, which resulted in those neighborhoods now being entirely black, or at least “minority”.) (The last I knew, “Little Italy” in Manhattan was one block long – about the same size as Washington, DC's “Chinatown”.) We first commit cultural genocide, then put what little remains up on the wall at the “It's a Small World” ride.

What else? Urban vs. rural? Most of us are suburbanites now – the living death, culture-wise. Few are farmers, and most of those who are are “big” -- massive, industrialized, high-tech. They line up to worship at the pagan altars of Monsanto and Ethanol. Large areas of some cities are becoming “gentrified”, much to the dismay of social activists, who apparently prefer ghetto life and squalor to clean streets and (relative) safety. And the elite are fleeing to gated communities where you can be picked up for using the sidewalks without a permit.

I can trace most, if not all, of this to – as usual – the Sixties, when people started to break out of their accustomed molds. Suburban kids decided they wanted to live in large cities – or on rural communes. The drug culture trickled up from the underclass to the middle class, at least among the young. Rock served to “clean up” black music – blues in particular – at least until Little Richard came along. But now we have rap, hip-hop, etc. etc., which in a way is a re-assertion of black identity, but with more attendant pathologies than we ever witnessed with jazz. There is a huge difference between the self-contained black communities of old and what we have now, which is a relationship – a cultural overlap – fraught with tension and ambivalence.

And don't forget economics and the standard of living. Not a day goes by but what one reads, or hears, something about the demise of the middle class – not only as a political force but as an economic reality. And I think this is pretty much the case. The process is slow, but steady and inexorable – the middle is being carved out of the society and the economy the way some wise guy will eat the middle out of a pie and leave the crust (either upper or lower). And apparently this is perfectly OK with the Regime, i.e. with those in charge. The lower classes feel plenty of pain, but at least they're used to it; it's pretty much all they know, and every time their expectations are raised (like in the case of “the first black president”, who was going to solve all their problems and make all the rough places plain) it's not long before they feel disappointed, and then you get riots, demonstrations, etc. -- all part of the same dreary cycle. The middle class, on the other hand, has – OK, I'll say it – a sense of entitlement, not as extreme as that of the elite, but they at least expect that their standard of living won't get worse as time goes on. And when it does, they're dismayed and confused, not realizing that theirs is mere collateral damage from the overall plan.

But unlike many of the factors mentioned above, the demise of the middle class is a truly serious matter, because, for all we know, the middle class is the driver – essential to the development, prospering, and survival of any “advanced” society. It is at the same time a cause and an outgrowth of the process and progress of civilization, and along with it urbanization and technology. Try to imagine a modern, successful society without a middle class. Whenever it's been tried, i.e. by communist regimes, the results have been less than idyllic – the lower class is no better off, the elite grow fat, and things eventually fall apart, unless those in charge decide – grudgingly – to alter conditions so that a middle class can again be formed (slowly, painfully, and with great ambivalence, since they will inevitably be called “bourgeois”). In our case, the middle class is like the proverbial golden goose, except that no one realizes where the golden eggs come from; they apparently just appear, courtesy of the government. And yet, once that goose is cooked, it's too late – no one can un-cook it.

Another way of putting it – harshly, perhaps – is that if you eliminate the productive class and keep the parasite classes, how is society going to survive, much less prosper? But again, no one seems to worry about this except those who see their vision of the good life slipping away.

So there you have it – everywhere you look, there are the poles... the extremes... and a missing middle. There is a great pulling-apart going on, and this is reflected in virtually every area of life.  And again, I'm not even saying that all of this is necessarily bad; it's just the way things have evolved, and whether it's all part of a master plan or simply an effect of some other agenda matters little. There are people (a few) who benefit, many more who lose, and some who sink into despair (even as the stock market soars and skyscrapers rise to new heights). Is it part of the natural evolution of a system that is flawed? Is it inevitable? (See previous post on that topic.) And as for those who “think we're heading in the right direction” -- that may be true for them in the short run, but eventually they too will pay a price – if only the loss of their delusions.