June 30, 2006

Dear Mr. Siegel...

In an entry reporting some recent Limbaughian lies, I wrote:
Well, sez I to myself, this is pretty easy to check out. So I donned my internets exploring outfit and did some field work. (When I go exploring this way, I usually get an extra large cup of coffee, put on my LA Dodgers cap, and sometimes I even put my pants on. Yes, that's right: I often write half-nekkid! No pajamas for this boy.)
Since I divulged my dress habits in this manner, including the fact that, like some barbarian, I wear a baseball cap indoors, I feel obliged to respond to one Lee Siegel. Therefore:

Dear Mr. Siegel:

There is no place in all the universe, as far as blogofascists are concerned, where the dim murk, especially in the now-sweltering late afternoons, in the too damned hot Los Angeles summer, is more impenetrable than in MacArthur Park. It's big city murk, heavy and suffocating. It soaks into the sides of buildings, coats your lungs, yucks up the entire outsides of cars crawling along Wilshire Boulevard, and makes even yuckier puddles against the dim grey walls of the park where all the cakes are rotting in the murky, impenetrable, yucked-up rain.

Now that the phony lit crap is out of the way, I have to tell you that you, sir, are a wanker. You write: "The baseball cap's insinuation that life is a game with transparent rules gets to me." Transparent rules? Are you effing kidding me? Some of the most violent baseball disagreements are about some rule that nobody ever heard of, until some coach or manager makes a big deal out of it and everybody has to try to figure out what the hell it means. It's not a game for dilettantes like you, Siegel. No sirree.

You go on: "Also the insinuation that by wearing a baseball cap in inappropriate situations--like indoors--you have what it takes to break the rules and win the game." Where's your rulebook about "inappropriate situations" for certain items of clothing, Siegel? Packed away with your baseball rulebook? You, sir, are a double- or triple-wanker. And I'm here to tell you that a lot of us baseball-cap-wearing troglodytes do have what it takes to break your stupid rules and win the goddamned game.

Yeah, baby!

Oh, hell, what's the point. You must take some of Noonan's pills. Do all you self-designated elite journowankers share them or something? But I will mention one more thing to you, Siegel, about this: "When I see someone wearing a baseball cap in a movie theater, I want them to bring back the guillotine." You might want to check out an anger management program. Given world events, your rage seems just a tad misdirected.

And Mr.Siegel: life is a game. You lost. Very, very badly.

Non-wankerly yours,

"Some Troglodyte," who nonetheless remains cool and indifferent, 'specially to the likes of you

Countless My Lais, Hadithas Beyond Number, and Atrocities Without End

From the final part of my series, "The Culture of the Lie: Creating Hell On Earth," quoting M. Scott Peck, who had been appointed the chairman of a committee of three psychiatrists by the Army Surgeon General, to examine the causes of the atrocities at My Lai, writing about the cultural dynamics that made such acts of barbarity possible, and that enabled the Vietnam catastrophe itself:
Once again we are confronted with our all-too-human laziness and narcissism. Basically, it was just too much trouble. We all had our lives to lead--doing our day-to-day jobs, buying new cars, painting our houses, sending our kids to college. As the majority of members of any group are content to let the leadership be exercised by the few, so as a citizenry we were content to let the government "do its thing." It was Johnson's job to lead, ours to follow. The citizenry was simply too lethargic to become aroused. Besides, we shared with Johnson his enormous large-as-Texas narcissism. Surely our national attitudes and policies couldn't be wrong. Surely our government had to know what it was doing; after all, we'd elected them, hadn't we? And surely they had to be good and honest men, for they were products of our wonderful democratic system, which certainly couldn't go seriously awry. And surely whatever type of regime our rulers and experts and government specialists thought was right for Vietnam must be right, for weren't we the greatest of nations and the leader of the free world?

By allowing ourselves to be easily and blatantly defrauded, we as a whole people participated in the evil of the Johnson administration. The evil--the years of lying and manipulation--of the Johnson administration was directly conducive to the whole atmosphere of lying and manipulation and evil that pervaded our presence in Vietnam during those years. It was in this atmosphere that MyLai occurred in March 1968. Task Force Barker was hardly even aware that it had run amok that day, but, then, America was not significantly aware either in early 1968 that it too had almost unredeemably lost its bearings.
Peck also writes:
The research we proposed was rejected by the General Staff of the Army, reportedly on the grounds that it could not be kept secret and might prove embarrassing to the administration and that "further embarrassment was not desirable at that time."
From Editor & Publisher, the article, Haditha, My Lai and the Media:
As the war in Iraq passes its third year, no phrase has been as controversial and persistently used lately -- besides "cut and run" -- as "My Lai." The reference to the 1968 massacre of hundreds of South Vietnamese civilians by U.S. troops has most often been used in the context of the November 2005 incident at Haditha, which left 24 Iraqi civilians dead.

But while debate continues as to whether the comparison is valid, few in the press have actually reexamined My Lai. This is unfortunate. E&P has found, after a close study of the two incidents and how they emerged in the media, that the cyclical nature of history – and war -- holds particularly true in the case of My Lai and Haditha. Several chilling links to the current case of Haditha are clear.


The main impetus behind the new investigation closely resemble those of My Lai.

Just as Ronald Haeberle's photographs of the My Lai massacre at the outset provoked outrage upon appearing in The Cleveland Plain Dealer (and were eventually admitted as evidence), a videotape by an Iraqi journalism student that showed the corpses of the Haditha victims--including a 3-year-old --caused the Marines to open a formal investigation into what occurred that November morning.

Just as Seymour Hersh's articles proved to be the catalyst for action, so too were the shocking eyewitness accounts provided by Tim McGirk in a March 27, 2006 article for Time magazine.

Titled "One Morning in Haditha," McGirk's article took the reader through the tragedy of Haditha, one that "has become numbingly routine amid the daily reports of violence in Iraq." A nine-year-old girl named Eman Waleed told McGirk that she "watched [the soldiers] shoot [her] grandfather, first in the chest and then in the head. And then they killed [her] granny." Another witness, Yousif Ayed, told the reporter of how his four brothers were killed by U.S. troops: "We could tell from the blood tracks across the floor what happened ... The Americans gathered my four brothers and took them inside my father's bedroom, to a closet. They killed them inside the closet."


Currently, the press coverage has focused on the lawyers involved with the case -- much like the coverage of My Lai. Attorney Neal Puckett has taken the most forceful role; a former military judge himself, Puckett is representing Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, who was the leader of one of the platoons on Nov. 19, 2005.

Puckett dismissed the ongoing investigations against his client in a June 12 article in the Los Angeles Times, saying that, "There will be no proof that these Marines intentionally killed civilians. To call this a massacre is completely groundless." He continued in a defense that almost directly matched George W. Latimer's defense of Lt. Calley: "That innocent people were killed is regrettable, but now to have people, in hindsight, say, 'Well, I would have done things differently,' is wrong. Unless you were on the ground that day, you can't judge."

He also has said: "My client did nothing contrary to his training on that day."

Much as Bailey and others did before him, Puckett brought accusations against the press, claiming that "an erroneous explanation given to the media" had caused much of the Haditha controversy, the whole story had not come out, and the media's wide coverage of Rep. Murtha's remarks had tainted the case.

As this article is written, the investigation into the alleged cover-up of the Haditha killings, is the most recent news. The Los Angeles Times on June 21, 2006 quoted an unnamed Defense Department official who said that this report concluded, "Virtually no inquiry at any level of command was conducted into the circumstances surrounding the deaths," even though "there were ... a number of red flags and opportunities to do so."

If history is any guide, it will serve the press well not to be cowed by claims of bias or lack of objectivity when dealing with such serious cases as Haditha -- especially since in today's overtly partisan atmosphere most readers will likely flock to positions without close attention to the evidence.
From Dahr Jamail, in an article entitled, Countless My Lais in Iraq:
The media feeding frenzy around what has been referred to as "Iraq's My Lai" has become frenetic. Focus on U.S. Marines slaughtering at least 20 civilians in Haditha last November is reminiscent of the media spasm around the "scandal" of Abu Ghraib during April and May 2004.

Yet just like Abu Ghraib, while the media spotlight shines squarely on the Haditha massacre, countless atrocities continue daily, conveniently out of the awareness of the general public. Torture did not stop simply because the media finally decided, albeit in horribly belated fashion, to cover the story, and the daily slaughter of Iraqi civilians by U.S. forces and U.S.-backed Iraqi "security" forces had not stopped either.


Arun Gupta, an investigative journalist and editor with the New York Indypendent newspaper of the New York Independent Media Center, has written extensively about U.S.-backed militias and death squads in Iraq. He is also the former editor at the Guardian weekly in New York and writes frequently for Z Magazine and Left Turn.

"The fact is, while I think the militias have, to a degree, spiraled out of U.S. control, it's the U.S. who trains, arms, funds, and supplies all the police and military forces, and gives them critical logistical support," he told me this week. "For instance, there were reports at the beginning of the year that a U.S. Army unit caught a 'death squad' operating inside the Iraqi Highway Patrol. There were the usual claims that the U.S. has nothing to do with them. It's all a big lie. The American reporters are lazy. If they did just a little digging, there is loads of material out there showing how the U.S. set up the highway patrol, established a special training academy just for them, equipped them, armed them, built all their bases, etc. It's all in government documents, so it's irrefutable. But then they tell the media we have nothing to do with them and they don't even fact check it. In any case, I think the story is significant only insofar as it shows how the U.S. tries to cover up its involvement."

Once again, like Abu Ghraib, a few U.S. soldiers are being investigated about what occurred in Haditha. The "few bad apples" scenario is being repeated in order to obscure the fact that Iraqis are being slaughtered every single day. The "shoot first, ask questions later" policy, which has been in effect from nearly the beginning in Iraq, creates trigger-happy American soldiers and U.S.-backed Iraqi death squads who have no respect for the lives of the Iraqi people. Yet, rather than high-ranking members of the Bush administration who give the orders, including Bush himself, being tried for the war crimes they are most certainly guilty of, we have the ceremonial "public hanging" of a few lowly soldiers for their crimes committed on the ground.
Read the entire article -- and see Jamail's followup piece as well: Propaganda and Haditha.

Our government ferociously denies it, and Americans refuse to believe it -- but the massacre at Haditha is not an exception. It is the norm.

We will not give up our vision of ourselves as "morally superior." We refuse to surrender our delusion that we represent the last, best hope on earth, and that we have the "right" to force everyone else to live as we do. And if they refuse, we believe we have the right to slaughter them.

Rather than question ourselves or our "ideals," we render ourselves deaf, dumb and blind -- and the atrocities and the slaughter go on, day after day after day. And we lie about all of it.

And still we wonder "why they hate us."

June 29, 2006

The Culture of the Lie, III: Creating Hell on Earth

[This is the third and last of this series of essays. The first part is here: If Only There Hadn't Been Any "Mess"; and the second part is here: The Loathsome Lies in the Service of the Horrors of War. The essay republished below was originally posted on May 28, 2005. Rereading this for the first time 13 months after I wrote it leaves me with an immense feeling of desolation. Even though I think I understand many of the mechanisms that make it possible and despite the fact that I have written about them in detail, I still find it very difficult to grasp that widespread cultural denial -- and the "laziness" and "narcissism" that Peck describes in connection with Vietnam -- should remain so central to our national character. It is these traits that make the horrors of Iraq possible, and even inevitable -- just as they made the horrors of Vietnam possible and inevitable.

A year ago, the Downing Street Memo was still recent news. In reposting this piece, I was especially struck by my comments about it then -- and how rapidly that story, like every other one revealing the lies and manipulation behind our immoral and criminal invasion and occupation of Iraq, vanished into the deliberately unfocused mists of our collective amnesiac consciousness. I draw your attention to the note I added below on this point:
Added 6/29/06: Two of those three links [about the Downing Street Memo] are now outdated. But I left these remarks as they were -- to show that just a year ago, there was a brief moment when it appeared that enough members of Congress and the American public might finally be motivated to take significant action to stop our criminal behavior in Iraq. But the moment quickly passed and, as before, with the exception of less than a handful of members of Congress, our Representatives and Senators do not give a damn about their constitutional responsibilities. And as documented below, the "laziness and narcissism" of the American public continue on their oblivious, destructive course. We prefer to think of ourselves as "morally superior," as ignorant commentators like Peter Beinart contend -- when in fact, just as M. Scott Peck said about the Vietnam era, we have almost completely and irredeemably lost our moral bearings.
The truth about the American public is much worse than a general lack of concern with the truth: the fact is that we affirmatively do not want to know the truth. It poses too much of a danger to our preferred vision of ourselves -- so we bury it under the details of our lives, and avoid reading or hearing anything that might challenge our ignorance.

I will leave it to you to decide whether that is evil in itself -- or if it only makes evil possible. But one thing is certain: whatever else may be open to debate, such widespread ignorance, and our national willingness to succumb to lies and manipulation, is profoundly dangerous. That was true during Vietnam, and it is no less true today. And with an administration that still may unleash a widespread war by attacking Iran, the danger cannot be overstated. Yet we refuse to acknowledge any of this, just as we refuse to acknowledge the horrors taking place in Iraq every day. We do not know when or in what form a day of reckoning will finally arrive, but it cannot be postponed forever. The price all of us may have to pay is terrible to contemplate.

I will have further thoughts about these issues and how they apply to our current situation very soon, probably beginning on Friday.]


I had intended to present what follows in a somewhat different form, but as Iraq continues to turn even more rapidly into a hell on earth, I think it would be better to begin now, with one central part of what needs to be said.

As I have emphasized before, we must never lose sight of the single crucial, overwhelming fact: the invasion and occupation of Iraq were completely and absolutely unjustified in terms of any legitimate meaning of the phrase "national defense." Even though our government would prefer not to tell us anything at all about the decisions that affect all of us (or as little as possible, and only what it is forced to reveal), what was available in the public record conclusively established this point a long time ago. [See this recent essay for more on this issue, and specifically about its moral significance.]

In this context, the emergence of the Downing Street Memo did not tell us anything we did not know before, at least not anything that those of us who have been paying attention had not known. But the Memo did provide still another piece of evidence -- and a remarkably explicit and unambiguous one. For that reason alone, it merited significant attention and discussion, which the American media has still failed to provide to the extent demanded. It appears that lies which lead to widespread death and destruction, and which gravely imperil our national security, are not matters which concern our press any longer, if they ever did. So much for the integrity of our media, to say nothing of its decency and humanity. (On the subject of the Memo: sign Conyers' letter, and also visit this site. In particular, read this about the investigation that must now be conducted into Bush's possibly (and almost certainly) impeachable offenses, if anyone in our government remains serious about their constitutional responsibilities, and if they give a damn about anything at all. [Added 6/29/06: Two of those three links are now outdated. But I left these remarks as they were -- to show that just a year ago, there was a brief moment when it appeared that enough members of Congress and the American public might finally be motivated to take significant action to stop our criminal behavior in Iraq. But the moment quickly passed and, as before, with the exception of less than a handful of members of Congress, our Representatives and Senators do not give a damn about their constitutional responsibilities. And as documented below, the "laziness and narcissism" of the American public continue on their oblivious, destructive course. We prefer to think of ourselves as "morally superior," as ignorant commentators like Peter Beinart contend -- when in fact, as M. Scott Peck said about the Vietnam era, we have almost completely and irredeemably lost our moral bearings.]

What makes all of this infinitely, unbearably worse is that we have been in this same precise place before, when the Vietnam catastrophe tore our own nation apart while also destroying Vietnam, yet another country which never threatened us. The title of this series of essays comes from M. Scott Peck's book, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil. Several necessary caveats before proceeding: I do not share Peck's overall philosophic perspective, including his particular religious beliefs. There are a number of points in his book (and in his writings more generally) with which I disagree, and there are certain of his views that I utterly reject.

Despite my sometimes serious disagreements with his particular opinions, I consider Peck to be unusually perceptive about many of the psychological dynamics involved in deception and manipulation, and with regard to our capacity for immense cruelty to other human beings. He also has many valuable points to make about how these dynamics can suffuse an entire culture. Peck had tragic and serious reason to think about these issues in great detail (from Chapter 6, "MyLai: An Examination of Group Evil"):
The fact that the American public learned about MyLai at all was due solely to a letter that Ron Ridenhour wrote at the end of March 1969 to several congressmen about the atrocities--more than a year after they had occurred. Ridenhour had not himself been a part of Task Force Barker but had later heard of the atrocities in idle conversation from friends who had been at MyLai, and he wrote the letter three months after his return to civilian life.

In the spring of 1972 I was chairman of a committee of three psychiatrists appointed by the Army Surgeon General, at the request of the Chief of Staff of the Army, to make recommendations for research that might shed light on the psychological causes of MyLai, so as to help prevent such atrocities in the future. The research we proposed was rejected by the General Staff of the Army, reportedly on the grounds that it could not be kept secret and might prove embarrassing to the administration and that "further embarrassment was not desirable at that time."

The rejection of the recommendations of the committee for research is symbolic of several issues. One is that any research into the nature of evil is likely to prove embarrassing, not only to those who are the designated subjects of the research but also to the researchers themselves. If we are to study the nature of human evil, it is doubtful how clearly we will be able to separate them from us; it will most likely be our own natures we are examining. Undoubtedly, this potential for embarrassment is one of the reasons we have thus far failed to develop a psychology of evil.

The rejection by the General Staff of our recommendations for research also highlights the fact that in considering the evil at MyLai--as in all our other considerations of evil--we suffer from a simple lack of scientific knowledge. In tune with what has preceded, much of what follows is only speculative. We will inevitably be limited to speculation until such time as we have been able to develop, through scientific research, a body of knowledge that constitutes a genuine psychology of evil.
People of the Lie was first published in 1983. Although research of the particular kind envisioned by Peck has probably still not been conducted, evidence supporting his contentions continues to accumulate in other forms. A significant part of the reason that I will excerpt Peck here and in future entries is that certain of his identifications very closely track many of those made by Alice Miller. In terms of what follows, see in particular parts of my "To Destroy the World" series: Part I (about Saddam Hussein), and Part II (about the psychology of a certain kind of warhawk, as revealed by Fallujah). Those articles have links to other posts providing more detail, and all the Alice Miller entries are listed here. In addition, Peck's analysis of certain aspects of the Vietnam debacle is also strikingly similar to that offered by historian Barbara Tuchman (see here, for example -- and also this essay about a related aspect of recently revived Vietnam propaganda).

First, consider the following -- and think about these dynamics as applied to militant, aggressive nationalism, that is, the "group cohesiveness" of an entire country:
It is almost common knowledge that the best way to cement group cohesiveness is to ferment the group's hatred of an external enemy. Deficiencies within the group can be easily and painlessly overlooked by focusing attention on the deficiencies or "sins" of the out-group. Thus the Germans under Hitler could ignore their domestic problems by scapegoating the Jews. And when American troops were failing to fight effectively in New Guinea in World War II, the command improved their esprit de corps by showing them movies of Japanese committing atrocious acts. But this use of narcissism--whether unconscious or deliberate--is potentially evil. We have extensively examined the ways in which evil individuals will flee self-examination and guilt by blaming and attempting to destroy whatever or whoever highlights their deficiencies. Now we see that the same malignant narcissistic behavior comes naturally to groups.

From this it should be obvious that the failing group is the one likely to behave most evilly. Failure wounds our pride, and it is the wounded animal who is vicious. In the healthy organism failure will be a stimulus to self-examination and criticism. But since the evil individual cannot tolerate self-criticism, it is in time of failure that he or she will inevitably lash out one way or another. And so it is with groups. Group failure and the stimulation of group self-criticism act to damage group pride and cohesiveness. Group leaders in all places and ages have therefore routinely bolstered group cohesiveness in times of failure by whipping the group's hatred for foreigners or the "enemy."

Returning to the specific subject of our examination, we will remember that at the time of MyLai the operation of Task Force Barker had been a failure. After more than a month in the field the enemy had still not been engaged. Yet the Americans had slowly and regularly sustained casualties. The enemy body count, however, was zero. Failing in its mission--which was to kill in the first place--the group leadership was all the more hungry for blood. Given the circumstances, the hunger had become indiscriminate, and the troops would mindlessly satisfy it.
Now read the following, replacing in your mind communism with terrorism, and Vietnam with Iraq:
While the military may have been crashing around in Vietnam like a crazed bull, it did not get there of its own accord. The mindless beast was sent there and let loose by the United States government acting on behalf of the American people. Why? Why did we wage that war?

Basically, we fought the war because of a combination of three attitudes: (1) communism was a monolithic evil force hostile to human freedom in general and American freedom in particular; (2) it was America's duty as the world's most economically powerful nation to lead the opposition against communism; and (3) communism should be opposed wherever it arose by whatever means necessary.


Our military involvement in Vietnam began in the period between 1954 and 1956, when the idea of a monolithic Communist menace seemed realistic. A dozen years later it was no longer realistic. Yet at precisely the time when it had ceased to be realistic, when we should have been readjusting our strategy and withdrawing from Vietnam, we began to seriously escalate our military involvement there in defense of obsolescent attitudes. Why? Why, beginning around 1964, did America's behavior in Vietnam become increasingly unrealistic and inappropriate? There are two reasons: laziness and--once again--narcissism.

Attitudes have a kind of inertia. Once set in motion, they will keep going, even in the face of the evidence. To change an attitude requires a considerable amount of work and suffering. The process must begin either in an effortfully maintained posture of constant self-doubt and criticism or else in a painful acknowledgment that what we thought was right all along may not be right after all. Then it proceeds into a state of confusion. This state is quite uncomfortable; we no longer seem to know what is right or wrong or which way to go. But it is a state of openness and therefore of learning and growing. It is only from the quicksand of confusion that we are able to leap to the new and better vision.


Let us also examine the narcissism. We are our attitudes. If someone criticizes an attitude of mine, I feel he or she is criticizing me. If one of my opinions is proved wrong, then I have been wrong. My self-image of perfection has been shattered. Individuals and nations cling to obsolete and outworn ideas not simply because it requires work to change them but also because, in their narcissism, they cannot imagine that their ideas and views could be wrong. They believe themselves to be right. Oh, we are quick to superficially disclaim our infallibility, but deep inside most of us, particularly when we have apparently been successful and powerful, we consider ourselves invariably in the right. It was this kind of narcissism, manifested in our behavior in Vietnam, that Senator William Fulbright referred to as "the arrogance of power."

Ordinarily, if our noses are rubbed in the evidence, we can tolerate the painful narcissistic injury involved, admit our need for change, and correct our outlook. But as is the case with certain individuals, the narcissism of whole nations may at times exceed the normal bounds. When this happens, the nation--instead of readjusting in light of the evidence--sets about attempting to destroy the evidence. This was what America was up to in the 1960s. The situation in Vietnam presented us with evidence of the fallibility of our world view and the limits of our potency. So, rather than rethinking it, we set about to destroy the situation in Vietnam, and all of Vietnam with it if necessary.


Rather than alter these policies, however, we launched a full-scale war to preserve them intact. Rather than admit what would have been a minor failure in 1964, we set about rapidly escalating the war to prove ourselves right at the expense of the Vietnamese people and their self-aspirations. The issue ceased to be what was right for Vietnam and became an issue of our infallibility and preserving our national "honor."

Strangely enough, on a certain level, President Johnson and the men of his administration knew that what they were doing was evil. Otherwise, why all the lying? It was so bizarre and seemingly out of character that it is difficult for us merely to recall the extraordinary national dishonesty of those days, a scant fifteen years ago. Even the excuse President Johnson gave in order to begin bombing North Vietnam and escalate the war in 1964--the "Gulf of Tonkin incident"--was apparently a deliberate fraud.


But it would be a mistake and a potentially evil rationalization itself for us to blame the evil of those days entirely on the Johnson administration. We must ask why Johnson was successful in defrauding us. Why did we allow ourselves to be defrauded for so long? Not everyone was. A very small minority was quick to recognize that the wool was being pulled over our eyes, that "something rather dark and bloody" was being perpetrated by the nation. But why were most of us not aroused to ire or suspicion or even significant concern about the nature of the war?

Once again we are confronted with our all-too-human laziness and narcissism. Basically, it was just too much trouble. We all had our lives to lead--doing our day-to-day jobs, buying new cars, painting our houses, sending our kids to college. As the majority of members of any group are content to let the leadership be exercised by the few, so as a citizenry we were content to let the government "do its thing." It was Johnson's job to lead, ours to follow. The citizenry was simply too lethargic to become aroused. Besides, we shared with Johnson his enormous large-as-Texas narcissism. Surely our national attitudes and policies couldn't be wrong. Surely our government had to know what it was doing; after all, we'd elected them, hadn't we? And surely they had to be good and honest men, for they were products of our wonderful democratic system, which certainly couldn't go seriously awry. And surely whatever type of regime our rulers and experts and government specialists thought was right for Vietnam must be right, for weren't we the greatest of nations and the leader of the free world?

By allowing ourselves to be easily and blatantly defrauded, we as a whole people participated in the evil of the Johnson administration. The evil--the years of lying and manipulation--of the Johnson administration was directly conducive to the whole atmosphere of lying and manipulation and evil that pervaded our presence in Vietnam during those years. It was in this atmosphere that MyLai occurred in March 1968. Task Force Barker was hardly even aware that it had run amok that day, but, then, America was not significantly aware either in early 1968 that it too had almost unredeemably lost its bearings.
Yes, great evil was committed against us on 9/11. But our response as a nation has been so tragically misguided -- with the war on Iraq and the subsequent occupation as the greatest and most calamitous errors -- that we repeat all of this again, only 40 years later. Even the "large-as-Texas narcissism" and the absolute inability even to conceive of the possibility that we might be gravely, terribly wrong are identical.

The horrors that are thereby unleashed on the world are also the same. And as long as we continue on our present course, still more and even worse horrors lie in wait for all of us.


Related Essays: Battling the Ghosts of Vietnam

The Amnesty Question: We Are Not the Good Guys in Iraq

American Narcissism: Deadly, Dangerous, Wrong and Futile

[[My sole income is from the writing I do here and at The Sacred Moment, where you will find my essays based on the work of Alice Miller, my series On Torture, and many other pieces. (As I noted recently, all the essays at The Sacred Moment will be moved here as I have time, so that all my writing is in one place. I think that will be much easier.) So if you find my writing of some value, I would be very grateful if you considered making a donation in any amount. I'm still trying to get together the money for upcoming July bills for basic living expenses, and unfortunately I'm not quite there yet. Links will be found at the top right and on the main page.

If you use the PayPal button here, it appears that you're donating to The Sacred Moment. But donations to either site come to me, so it doesn't actually matter. I mention it only if it seems confusing, which it is. I'll straighten it out once I figure out what the problem is. Many thanks for your consideration.]

And Bush Is More of a Woman, Too! Hah!

In the lunatic world we now inhabit (light versions thereof here and here, heavier version here), I often reflect that I probably don't take nearly enough recreational drugs. When I think about it more seriously, I am absolutely certain that I don't. And when I consider the question from numerous vantage points, I realize there simply aren't enough drugs in the world.

So okay. We've been told that Bush is a "man's man," a warrior cast in the heroic mold, a brave and valiant defender of civilization, the last bulwark before the barbarians destroy the few remaining vestiges of decency, honor and the "Father Knows Best" world. Balderdash and humbug, all of it. In fact, I'm planning an essay about our views of masculinity, feminity and sex generally that will touch on the nuttiness of this perception of Bush.

But oooo-kay. I'm used to all that. Now I don't even flinch when people say they feel all warm and cuddly and cozy with Bush in charge, just cuz he's so manly and all. I pity them deeply for their blindness and because they're batshit crazy, but it doesn't really get to me. You know what I'm saying? Alright, we're on the same page here.

But what in hell are we to make of this, from the always dependably insane Peggy Noonan?
Bush the Younger would breastfeed the military if he could.
Leaves you speechless, doesn't it?

Fortunately, it doesn't have that effect on Charles Pierce:
This is one of those moments in which I love to imagine how the editing process at a place like OpinionJournal works: "Jesus, Bill, I told you to hide the damn mushrooms."

Feed your head, Peg-o-my-heart. One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small.

Ask Rush if you don't believe me.
You probably figured this out, but the Noonan statement inevitably comes in a discussion about how Hillary "has to prove she's a woman. No one in America thinks she's a woman. They think she's a tough little termagant in a pantsuit." See, Bush is even more of a woman than Hillary is. Something like that.

So...I wonder if Limbaugh's maid is looking for a new job. See, if I had a dependable and large supply of the right pills, this would all make sense to me -- and I'd be writing for the Wall Street Journal!

I have no ending for this post. Maybe I'll bang my head into the wall repeatedly. That should help, or at least knock me out for a few days.

The Culture of the Lie, II: The Loathsome Lies in the Service of the Horrors of War

[Yesterday, I republished the first part of this series: If Only There Hadn't Been Any "Mess." Here is the second part, which was first posted on May 9, 2005. Even though we might desperately wish otherwise, in light of the horrors that continue to unfold every day, this retains its timeliness -- as I am certain it will for the rest of our lives. As before, I've made a few minor editorial revisions, primarily for clarity given the passage of time, but 99% of this essay appears as it was originally published.

With regard to the second part of this essay -- the propaganda campaign on behalf the glories of our nuclear program, and to justify the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and to minimize their horrors, which stupendously and unbelievably claimed that almost no one died of atomic radiation -- I emphasize that the pattern of attacking the messenger that we have just seen again is a very old one. Then and now, there are those in the press, those who are nominally "reporters," who relay government lies, and who do so proudly. In this case, William L. Laurence was paid by The New York Times -- and by the War Department at the same time. Laurence, of course, won a Pulitzer for his "reporting." As I remarked at the conclusion of a piece the other day: "For the most part, [the press] will congratulate themselves on their bravery and valiant service. After all, it takes great courage to make oneself a slave voluntarily, and eagerly to enter into bondage. They've been doing it for years. Why, they deserve a medal. In the brave new world that is now so near, they'll probably get one."]


While pursuing various links around the internet, I came across the following story once again. Since it unfortunately retains all of its relevance today and also parallels almost precisely similar lies being told now, I think it is worth taking a few minutes to note the infernal lies of war, including a few of the more notable ones from the United States' own lengthy history of such lies.

I know it is a terrible thing to strip people of their apparently necessary delusions. Nonetheless, in the same spirit that children who have been misled into believing in Santa Claus must someday let go of that fantasy if they are to grow up, here we go. Start with this one: the lie that the atomic bombs unleashed on Japan were "necessary" to bring an earlier end to World War II and save many American lives. This fable, recited by schoolchildren everywhere and also by many adults who endlessly apologize for the horrors of war, is nothing but a series of lies, one on top of another:
Although hundreds of thousands of Japanese lives were lost in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bombings are often explained away as a "life-saving" measure-American lives. Exactly how many lives saved is, however, up for grabs. (We do know of a few U.S. soldiers who fell between the cracks. About a dozen or more American POWs were killed in Hiroshima, a truth that remained hidden for some 30 years.) In defense of the U.S. action, it is usually claimed that the bombs saved lives. The hypothetical body count ranges from 20,000 to "millions." In an August 9, 1945 statement to "the men and women of the Manhattan Project," President Truman declared the hope that "this new weapon will result in saving thousands of American lives."

"The president's initial formulation of 'thousands,' however, was clearly not his final statement on the matter to say the least," remarks historian Gar Alperovitz. In his book, "The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth," Alperovitz documents but a few of Truman's public estimates throughout the years:

*December 15, 1945: "It occurred to me that a quarter of a million of the flower of our young manhood was worth a couple of Japanese cities . . ."

*Late 1946: "A year less of war will mean life for three hundred thousand-maybe half a million-of America's finest youth."

*October 1948: "In the long run we could save a quarter of a million young Americans from being killed, and would save an equal number of Japanese young men from being killed."

*April 6, 1949: "I thought 200,000 of our young men would be saved."

*November 1949: Truman quotes Army Chief of Staff George S. Marshall as estimating the cost of an Allied invasion of Japan to be "half a million casualties."

*January 12, 1953: Still quoting Marshall, Truman raises the estimate to "a minimum one quarter of a million" and maybe "as much as a million, on the American side alone, with an equal number of the enemy."

*Finally, on April 28, 1959, Truman concluded: "the dropping of the bombs . . . saved millions of lives."

Fortunately, we are not operating without the benefit of official estimates.

In June 1945, Truman ordered the U.S. military to calculate the cost in American lives for a planned assault on Japan. Consequently, the Joint War Plans Committee prepared a report for the Chiefs of Staff, dated June 15, 1945, thus providing the closest thing anyone has to "accurate": 40,000 U.S. soldiers killed, 150,000 wounded, and 3,500 missing.

While the actual casualty count remains unknowable, it was widely known at the time that Japan had been trying to surrender for months prior to the atomic bombing. A May 5, 1945 cable, intercepted and decoded by the U.S., "dispelled any possible doubt that the Japanese were eager to sue for peace." In fact, the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey reported shortly after the war, that Japan "in all probability" would have surrendered before the much-discussed November 1, 1945 Allied invasion of the homeland.

Truman himself eloquently noted in his diary that Stalin would "be in the Jap War on August 15th. Fini (sic) Japs when that comes about."
So we didn't need to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force Japan to surrender...so why did we? Here's the reason -- which must represent one of the most profoundly immoral and sickening acts in mankind's recent history:
As far back as May 1945, a Venezuelan diplomat was reporting how Assistant Secretary of State Nelson Rockefeller "communicated to us the anxiety of the United States government about the Russian attitude." U.S. Secretary of State James F. Byrnes seemed to agree when he turned the anxiety up a notch by explaining how "our possessing and demonstrating the bomb would make Russia more manageable in the East . . . The demonstration of the bomb might impress Russia with America's military might."

General Leslie Groves was less cryptic: "There was never, from about two weeks from the time I took charge of this Project, any illusion on my part but that Russia was our enemy, and the Project was conducted on that basis."

During the same time period, President Truman noted that Secretary of War Henry Stimson was "at least as much concerned with the role of the atomic bomb in the shaping of history as in its capacity to shorten the war." What sort of shaping Stimson had in mind might be discerned from his Sept. 11, 1945 comment to the president: "I consider the problem of our satisfactory relations with Russia as not merely connected but as virtually dominated by the problem of the atomic bomb."

Stimson called the bomb a "diplomatic weapon," and duly explained: "American statesmen were eager for their country to browbeat the Russians with the bomb held rather ostentatiously on our hip."

"The psychological effect [of Hiroshima and Nagasaki] on Stalin was twofold," proposes historian Charles L. Mee, Jr. "The Americans had not only used a doomsday machine; they had used it when, as Stalin knew, it was not militarily necessary. It was this last chilling fact that doubtless made the greatest impression on the Russians."

It also made an impression on J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director at Los Alamos. After learning of the carnage wrought upon Japan, he began to harbor second thoughts and he resigned in October 1945.

In March of the following year, Oppenheimer told Truman:

"Mr. President, I have blood on my hands."

Truman's reply: "It'll come out in the wash."

Later, the president told an aide, "Don't bring that fellow around again."
Have you got that? We murdered hundreds of thousands of citizens of a nation that would have surrendered very shortly in any case -- and we did it to "send a message" to another country. No wonder Truman never wanted to see Oppenheimer again. I'm surprised Truman was ever able to sleep another night in his life.

Unfortunately, this is hardly the end of this particular loathsome trail of lies. No: we still need to note the propaganda campaign launched by the press, most notably by that stellar exponent of the establishment and carrier of the lies told and retold for the benefit of the United States government, then and now -- The New York Times.

Here's part of the tale:
At the dawn of the nuclear age, an independent Australian journalist named Wilfred Burchett traveled to Japan to cover the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The only problem was that General Douglas MacArthur had declared southern Japan off-limits, barring the press. Over 200,000 people died in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but no Western journalist witnessed the aftermath and told the story. The world's media obediently crowded onto the USS Missouri off the coast of Japan to cover the surrender of the Japanese.

Wilfred Burchett decided to strike out on his own. He was determined to see for himself what this nuclear bomb had done, to understand what this vaunted new weapon was all about. So he boarded a train and traveled for thirty hours to the city of Hiroshima in defiance of General MacArthur's orders.

Burchett emerged from the train into a nightmare world. The devastation that confronted him was unlike any he had ever seen during the war. The city of Hiroshima, with a population of 350,000, had been razed. Multistory buildings were reduced to charred posts. He saw people's shadows seared into walls and sidewalks. He met people with their skin melting off. In the hospital, he saw patients with purple skin hemorrhages, gangrene, fever, and rapid hair loss. Burchett was among the first to witness and describe radiation sickness.

Burchett sat down on a chunk of rubble with his Baby Hermes typewriter. His dispatch began: "In Hiroshima, thirty days after the first atomic bomb destroyed the city and shook the world, people are still dying, mysteriously and horribly-people who were uninjured in the cataclysm from an unknown something which I can only describe as the atomic plague."

He continued, tapping out the words that still haunt to this day: "Hiroshima does not look like a bombed city. It looks as if a monster steamroller has passed over it and squashed it out of existence. I write these facts as dispassionately as I can in the hope that they will act as a warning to the world."

Burchett's article, headlined THE ATOMIC PLAGUE, was published on September 5, 1945, in the London Daily Express. The story caused a worldwide sensation. Burchett's candid reaction to the horror shocked readers. ...

Burchett's searing independent reportage was a public relations fiasco for the U.S. military. General MacArthur had gone to pains to restrict journalists' access to the bombed cities, and his military censors were sanitizing and even killing dispatches that described the horror. The official narrative of the atomic bombings downplayed civilian casualties and categorically dismissed reports of the deadly lingering effects of radiation. Reporters whose dispatches conflicted with this version of events found themselves silenced. ...

U.S. authorities responded in time-honored fashion to Burchett's revelations: They attacked the messenger.

Four days after Burchett's story splashed across front pages around the world, Major General Leslie R. Groves, director of the atomic bomb project, invited a select group of thirty reporters to New Mexico. Foremost among this group was William L. Laurence, the Pulitzer Prize-winning science reporter for The New York Times. Groves took the reporters to the site of the first atomic test. His intent was to demonstrate that no atomic radiation lingered at the site. Groves trusted Laurence to convey the military's line; the general was not disappointed.

Laurence's front-page story, U.S. ATOM BOMB SITE BELIES TOKYO TALES: TESTS ON NEW MEXICO RANGE CONFIRM THAT BLAST, AND NOT RADIATION, TOOK TOLL, ran on September 12, 1945, following a three-day delay to clear military censors. "This historic ground in New Mexico, scene of the first atomic explosion on earth and cradle of a new era in civilization, gave the most effective answer today to Japanese propaganda that radiations [sic] were responsible for deaths even after the day of the explosion, Aug. 6, and that persons entering Hiroshima had contracted mysterious maladies due to persistent radioactivity," the article began.3 Laurence said unapologetically that the Army tour was intended "to give the lie to these claims."

Laurence quoted General Groves: "The Japanese claim that people died from radiation. If this is true, the number was very small."

William L. Laurence went on to write a series of ten articles for the Times that served as a glowing tribute to the ingenuity and technical achievements of the nuclear program. Throughout these and other reports, he downplayed and denied the human impact of the bombing. Laurence won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting.

It turns out that William L. Laurence was not only receiving a salary from The New York Times. He was also on the payroll of the War Department. In March 1945, General Leslie Groves had held a secret meeting at The New York Times with Laurence to offer him a job writing press releases for the Manhattan Project, the U.S. program to develop atomic weapons. The intent, according to the Times, was "to explain the intricacies of the atomic bomb's operating principles in laymen's language." Laurence also helped write statements on the bomb for President Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson.


"Mine has been the honor, unique in the history of journalism, of preparing the War Department's official press release for worldwide distribution," boasted Laurence in his memoirs, Dawn Over Zero. "No greater honor could have come to any newspaperman, or anyone else for that matter."
So you see that there is truly nothing new under the sun. "Journalists" have always been used to peddle government propaganda, to sanitize the bloody horror of war, and to help people continue to nurse the delusions which allow them to believe that their nation fought nobly in a glorious cause. And there are always some "journalists" who will do it proudly-- and still tell themselves that what they are doing is "reporting." None of it is new -- and if the scale of destruction were not so horrifying, it would merely be pathetic.

In the next installment, we will look at today's version of these same lies -- and consider why people are so willing to accept them. In one sense, that is not surprising: people are not generally willing to view themselves as vicious and cruel murderers, killers who did not need to murder on the scale and in the manner they did. To avoid that harsh and devastating truth, they must tell themselves fables and myths. And their lies are always enthusiastically embraced by a public which must delude itself in the same way, always without exception.

Always. Just as the same kind of lies are trumpeted to all of us again today, and far too many of us desperately and unquestioningly accept them. The alternative is too awful to contemplate, and people will do anything to avoid it -- including the attempt to destroy all evidence of their wrongdoing, even if that evidence constitutes an entire country. We've done it before, in Vietnam -- and we are now doing it again, in Iraq.


June 28, 2006

Insipid, Pretentious, Poorly Written, Incoherent, Meretricious, Wrongheaded and Fraudulent

My, my. Dear me. Who on earth could deserve such criticism? Peter Beinart, that's who:
The Good Fight began life as an essay that appeared in The New Republic when Beinart edited that magazine. According to press reports, he received a handsome $600,000 advance to expand his essay into a book. The result can only be called a major disappointment: The Good Fight is insipid, pretentious and poorly written. At points it verges on incoherence. As history, it is meretricious. As policy prescription, it is wrongheaded. Beinart has perpetrated his fraud twice over.
I haven't read Beinart's book, but I did read his TNR article, which offered the same thesis. And since these broadsides come from a man whose writing and analysis I greatly respect, I'm perfectly prepared to consider his criticisms entirely valid for the moment.

That is the concluding paragraph from Andrew Bacevich's review of the Beinart book. Bacevich is the author of a genuinely excellent and valuable work, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War. It is a terrible thing, to witness an amateur poseur, notably ignorant and dishonest in his arguments, subject to thorough examination by one who is a genuine expert in his field and deeply knowledgeable about history and foreign policy. It puts one in mind of Greek tragedy, and the piteous howls of anguish emitted by the horrified members of the audience. Well, it would have that effect if I did not hold Beinart in such very low esteem and view his policy prescriptions as so profoundly dangerous.

I will give Beinart credit for one thing: he understands the importance of the story we choose to tell, and the manner in which we tell it. This is a theme I return to repeatedly. The problem with Beinart, of course, is that his story is flatly wrong. Bacevich provides many examples of Beinart's convenient omissions, and the various ways in which he distorts history to serve his particular purposes. Narratives possess enormous potential for good when they are based on truth and facts. When they are founded on fantasy and our preferred, but fictitious, vision of ourselves, they become nothing more than propaganda -- and all such propaganda leads to only one result: destruction, of ourselves and of large parts of the world, as we see again today.

On the importance of narrative, note the opening of Bacevich's review:
When it comes to foreign policy, the fundamental divide in American politics today is not between left and right but between those who subscribe to the myth of the "American Century" and those who do not. Peter Beinart is a true believer. In his eyes America's purpose today remains precisely what it has always been: to confront and destroy the enemies of freedom at home and abroad. In The Good Fight, he summons liberals to recover their crusading spirit and to "put anti-totalitarianism at the center of their hopes for a better country and a better world." Liberalism must become once again what it was in its heyday: "a fighting faith."

A fighting faith requires "a narrative of national greatness."
God save us from the true believers and the "narrative of national greatness" -- the combination that landed us directly in the catastrophe of Iraq.

You should read the review in its entirety, but this is one passage that I found especially interesting and entertaining:
To legitimate this fraud and to wrap anti-totalitarian liberalism in a mantle of moral superiority, Beinart shanghais Reinhold Niebuhr and subjects the great Protestant theologian to ritual abuse. In essence, he uses Niebuhr much as Jerry Falwell uses Jesus Christ, and just as shamelessly: citing him as an unimpeachable authority and claiming his endorsement, thereby pre-empting any further discussion.

To establish his Niebuhrean credentials, Beinart sprinkles The Good Fight with references to "guilt," "moral fallibility" and "limits." Yet whereas the real Niebuhr's message was a cautionary one, Beinart-channeling-Niebuhr emits portentous exhortations. Like a third-rate stump speech, the results don't necessarily parse, but they do manage to sound awfully important. Thus Beinart lets it be known that "only when America recognizes that it is not inherently good can it become great." Then there's this chin stroker: "America must shed its moral innocence to act meaningfully in the world." Or better still: "America's challenge lies not in recognizing our moral superiority, but in demonstrating it."

The real Niebuhr worried less about Americans demonstrating their moral superiority than about whether they would forgo temptations of moral irresponsibility. But then, the real Niebuhr did not conceive of history as a narrative of national greatness. Rather than bend the past to suit a particular agenda, liberal or otherwise, he viewed it as beyond our understanding and fraught with paradox. "The whole drama of history," he wrote, "is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management."

No such humility constrains Beinart. He not only comprehends history but insists with all the fervor of William Kristol that the United States has the capacity and duty to manage it.
After all, when the first phase of the American Century ended in 1989, it rendered a definitive verdict: "The core reality was that the United States had vanquished its chief ideological competitor and military rival, leaving it in a position of astonishing strength." Victory in the cold war imposed obligations; Americans were called upon to use that strength to carry on the work of liberating humankind. Today, when in Beinart's estimate "U.S. military and economic influence knows few bounds," he believes it is incumbent upon policy-makers to redouble American efforts to spread the blessings of freedom and equality across the Muslim world.
To balance Beinart's platitudes and his narrative of world transformation by military might, Bacevich discusses Stephen Kinzer's Overthrow:
A longtime foreign correspondent with the New York Times, Kinzer does not provide a lot that's new. Relying on secondary sources, Overthrow recycles and repackages material that will be familiar to the historically literate. But by collecting these stories in a single volume, Kinzer performs a useful service. Overthrow makes it abundantly clear that far from being some innovation devised in the aftermath of 9/11, "regime change" has long been a mainstay of American statecraft.


Kinzer is especially good at tallying up what he calls the "terrible unintended consequences" that frequently ensue when the United States overthrows a government that has fallen out of Washington's favor. Bush's removal of Saddam Hussein is by no means the first such enterprise to produce something other than the tidy outcome envisioned by its architects. ...

Most instructive of all, however, are the ironic consequences stemming from America's success in ousting the Soviets from Afghanistan. In retrospect, the results of regime change there serve as a sort of cosmic affirmation of Niebuhr's entire worldview. Of Afghanistan in the years following the Soviet withdrawal, truly it can be said, as Niebuhr wrote, "The paths of progress … proved to be more devious and unpredictable than the putative managers of history could understand."

Those, like Peter Beinart, who are gung-ho to wage their war against jihadist terror dare not contemplate present-day Afghanistan too deeply. Their depiction of the war as a contest that pits freedom against totalitarianism becomes plausible only if they ignore the actual history giving rise to the conflict. Much of that history occurred in the period enshrined as the American Century, but precious little of it had anything to do with promoting freedom. As experienced by Muslims, the American Century was marked by imperialism and intervention, manipulation and betrayal, Israel and oil. It goes without saying that in Beinart's account none of these matters qualify as relevant.
As I say, the entire review is well worth your time, and you're likely to learn quite a bit that may be new to you.

And it's entirely delicious.

The Culture of the Lie, I: If Only There Hadn't Been Any "Mess"

[In connection with my Systems of Obedience series, which I plan to continue in the next several days, I've been looking through the archives I had saved, but which were lost to the internet when the data base was corrupted some time ago. I finally located one particular series of earlier pieces, and the first of those essays is republished below. I wrote and published this on April 26, 2005. This essay, and the following ones in the "Culture of the Lie" series, offer what I think are unusually compelling examples of the numerous connections between the personal and the cultural, and between the personal and the political.

This is the same theme I discussed in the final parts of my series, On Torture. After analyzing the broad cultural and political forces and dynamics involved in the barbarism of state-sanctioned torture, I turned to what I think are the most crucial questions of all, those that are most personal and intimate: What kind of person is capable of torturing another? And why will some individuals refuse to do so, even when they know that such a refusal ensures their own deaths? In the last part of that series, in contrasting my approach to that of Andrew Sullivan, who is very strongly opposed to torture but from a perspective a universe away from mine, I wrote:
For me, the question is a profoundly different one. I recognize that the order [to torture] will not necessarily be obeyed. So for me, the key lies right there: why will some people refuse, while others won't? Krauthammer and Sullivan never ask this question. They are both the victims that [Alice] Miller describes. Obedience is the ruling principle that informs their approach -- and the only question is: obedience to what? ...

As I was reflecting on these issues, I recalled a line I once heard or read somewhere. I've tried to remember its source, but I can't. It is not the way I would choose to make the point; it's a sentimental, not fully serious manner of expressing the thought. The line went something like this: "Nothing happens in politics, that did not happen first in the human heart." Let us set the style aside: there is a great truth contained in that statement. It is crucial to appreciate what it is.

For me, the ultimate truth of any question is an individual one. Individual human beings are the ultimate components of all the questions that concern us, whether they are philosophical, political, aesthetic or of any other kind. Politics represents the summation of many individual actions. In all the heated debates about politics or foreign policy, we too often forget where the final consequences of our actions are felt: by individual human beings, by people who are happy or sad because of what we do, by people who all too frequently today live or die as the result of our actions. Obviously, this is why politics and foreign policy matter so much: the lives of countless people are affected because of the decisions we make. This is why I spend so much time on these questions myself.

But the final significance of all these issues is intensely personal: these questions matter so desperately because of how they affect me, and you, and all of us. And this is why, when I consider a subject like torture, the most critical question for me is the personal one: why are there some people who will refuse to obey the order?
That final installment and the entire series has much more about these questions.

In republishing this, I've omitted one parenthetical paragraph, both because it was unnecessary to this essay and because I'm saving it for further consideration in a new article. I've made a couple of minor editorial changes in wording; otherwise, the essay appears as it was first published.]


Over the last two years, I have periodically been haunted by one particular line from an extraordinarily fine film. From time to time, I've mentioned the line to a few friends -- when I've contemplated how people who had appeared to be civilized, in the deepest sense of that word, now have no hesitation about condescendingly lecturing Iraqis with regard to how "grateful" they should be to the United States, when I've thought about how many of the same people lecture in the same profoundly insulting way to entire nations when those nations do not behave in ways which the lecturers believe to be "correct," and when I've considered the seemingly unstoppable downward spiral of our increasingly enthusiastic embrace of torture, lawlessness. and barbarity.

It has often seemed to me, as I know it has to others, that 9/11 and the ensuing cultural atmosphere ripped off a very thin veneer of civilization -- to reveal a deeply disturbing combination of blind hatred and an unquenchable desire for revenge bubbling underneath. Our current administration perceives it to be in its own interest of amassing ever-greater power and control over more aspects of our lives to perpetuate this atmosphere of hysteria and fear -- so rather than eventually ebbing at least to some degree, these dangerously destructive emotions and impulses are constantly fed and encouraged. The result is a growing number of people who are increasingly desensitized to the horrors in their midst -- and who would be all too capable of committing the most unimaginable kinds of atrocities, if they felt sufficiently threatened and were presented with a "suitable" target for punishment.

Although this indicates the great danger now facing us only in general terms, this summary provides some idea as to why I have long thought that another terrorist attack here in the United States, either on the scale of 9/11 or, which would be infinitely worse for countless reasons, on an even greater scale, might well signal the end of genuine liberty here at home, for a long, long time to come. And the horrors that might accompany that loss of freedom are terrible to imagine.

As evidence has continued to pile up, I have simultaneously become increasingly convinced that tragedies of this kind, tragedies that spread across an entire culture (and eventually, possibly the world), simply reenact the tragedies that first take place in individual cases -- that what happens to a society at large happens in the first instance to particular people, in the specific circumstances of their own lives. This has been the general theme of my series on "The Roots of Horror," a series based upon the genuinely revolutionary and profoundly important work of Alice Miller. (Links to the entries in that series and to a number of other essays based on Miller's work and exploring its countless applications will be found here.) As Miller has convincingly demonstrated on the basis of an enormous amount of evidence, it is the wounds first inflicted in childhood that lead one to desire the destruction of the world -- whether the destroyer is a vicious dictator like Saddam Hussein, or a standard issue warhawk like Ralph Peters. It is these same underlying dynamics that also create the demand for obedience -- whether it is obedience to God, to a totalistic ideology, or to a specific political leader.

To return to the individual tragic case, and to the line that has haunted me: the line is spoken by the mother in Robert Redford's film, "Ordinary People": "We'd have been all right if there hadn't been any mess." For those who may not remember the story of the film, Vincent Canby wrote a perceptive review when the movie first opened in September of 1980 -- although he is wrong on one crucial point:
In her spare, efficient, best-selling novel, Judith Guest, seemingly without trying, dissected the contemporary white Anglo-Saxon Protestant psyche when, by accident, such perfect order is destroyed. Recently achieved economic and social privilege is no defense against emotional chaos. Privilege is a plywood treehouse in a hurricane.

The very real achievement of Robert Redford, who makes his directorial debut with "Ordinary People," and of Alvin Sargent, who meticulously adapted Miss Guest's novel for the screen, is that the Jarretts become important people without losing their ordinariness, without being patronized or satirized. "Ordinary People," which opens today at the Loews Tower East, is a moving, intelligent and funny film about disasters that are commonplace to everyone except the people who experience them. Not since Robert Benton's "Kramer vs. Kramer" has there been a movie that so effectively catches the look, sound and temper of a particular kind of American existence.

The Jarretts are not only ordinary people, they are also "nice" people. They wear the right clothes, read the right books, eat the right things and misbehave discreetly. They put great store in self-control, as much in the privacy of their own house as abroad in the company of friends or strangers. The problem is that such niceness and control cannot accommodate the fears, furies and resentments occasioned when things go to pieces.

At the start of "Ordinary People," young Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton) has been home from the hospital for just a month and is trying very hard to resume life - school, the swimming team, the glee club - as if, five months earlier, he hadn't attempted suicide by slashing his wrists. Anyone looking at Conrad can tell that he is a wreck. He doesn't eat. He's nervous and he's too quick to say whatever he knows his mother and father want to hear.

Though Calvin (Donald Sutherland) worries about Conrad, he is unable to do much more than be enthusiastic in response to everything Conrad says. Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), resolutely pretends that there's nothing wrong with her son. She goes about her daily routine of golf, tennis, bridge and committee meetings with the determination not of someone living the good life in suburbia, but of a woman climbing Everest. Her jaw is set. She doesn't look back or down.

She's quite right when she says at one point, "We'd have been all right if there hadn't been any mess." The Jarretts's "mess" was the accidental drowning of Bucky Jarrett one summer afternoon when he and Conrad were sailing together on Lake Michigan. Bucky, the strong one, gave up and drifted away from the overturned boat. Conrad survived, in guilt and sorrow, but when he realized he couldn't be the son Bucky was, he chose suicide.

More than five months after the suicide attempt, Conrad is in even worse shape than before. His mother, he tells the psychiatrist, will never forgive him for, among other things, having ruined the bathroom rug when he cut his wrists. "She had to pitch it out," he says. "They even had to regrout the tile floor."

In several ways, Mr. Redford's film is far more effective than the novel. It's difficult to write about people who cannot talk to each other because writing is itself a kind of talking. Mr. Redford's film demonstrates this lack of communication, the inability to express affection, in scenes of sometimes overwhelming pathos - a Christmas Day gone all to hell for Conrad when his mother, as if in reflex, refuses to have her picture taken with her son.
Canby's fundamental error is a tragically common one, and it is the root of much of the misery and unhappiness in the world. Note carefully what Canby says: "The problem is that such niceness and control cannot accommodate the fears, furies and resentments occasioned when things go to pieces."

You might believe something like this yourself. If you do, I hope to disabuse you of this enormously costly error. Canby implies that certain "fears, furies and resentments" only come into play "when things go to pieces." But in fact, what the film reveals -- and what Miller demonstrates over and over in her work -- is that those "fears, furies and resentments" were there all the time. These precise "fears, furies and resentments" are the necessary, unavoidable result when people's genuine, authentic, spontaneous selves are denied, and when those selves are prevented from expressing themselves. In other words: the "niceness" and "control" are a lie.

With regard to suicide, for example, recall these passages from The Suicide Taboo in my "Roots of Horror" series (quoting Alice Miller, in For Your Own Good):
Sylvia Plath's life was no more difficult than that of millions of others. Presumably as a result of her sensitivity, she suffered much more intensely than most people from the frustrations of childhood, but she experienced joy more intensely also. Yet the reason for her despair was not her suffering but the impossibility of communicating her suffering to another person. In all her letters she assures her mother how well she is doing. The suspicion that her mother did not release negative letters for publication overlooks the deep tragedy of Plath's life. This tragedy (and the explanation for her suicide as well) lies in the very fact that she could not have written any other kind of letters, because her mother needed reassurance, or because Sylvia at any rate believed that her mother would not have been able to live without this reassurance. Had Sylvia been able to write aggressive and unhappy letters to her mother, she would not have had to commit suicide. Had her mother been able to experience grief at her inability to comprehend the abyss that was her daughter's life, she never would have published the letters, because the assurances they contained of how well things were going for her daughter would have been too painful to bear.


If a sensitive child like Sylvia Plath intuits that it is essential for her mother to interpret the daughter's pain only as the consequence of a picture being damaged and not as a consequence of the destruction of her daughter's self and its expression--symbolized in the fate of the pastel--the child will do her utmost to hide her authentic feelings from the mother. The letters are testimony of the false self she constructed (whereas her true self is speaking in The Bell Jar). With the publication of the letters, her mother erects an imposing monument to her daughter's false self.

We can learn from this example what suicide really is: the only possible way to express the true self--at the expense of life itself. Many parents are like Sylvia's mother. They desperately try to behave correctly toward their child, and in their child's behavior they seek reassurance that they are good parents. The attempt to be an ideal parent, that is, to behave correctly toward the child, to raise her correctly, not to give too little or too much, is in essence an attempt to be the ideal child--well behaved and dutiful--of one's own parents. But as a result of these efforts the needs of the child go unnoticed. I cannot listen to my child with empathy if I am inwardly preoccupied with being a good mother; I cannot be open to what she is telling me.
Miller thus describes the Jarrett family perfectly -- and the dynamics that drive the mother and Conrad, in particular. The lesson is obvious, but not any the less tragic for being so simple and so common: the Jarretts' "self-control" and their "niceness" were all a pretense. All of it was a lie. Thus, the mother is correct only in one very narrow sense to maintain, "We'd have been all right if there hadn't been any mess." She is correct in that this family, like many others, might have successfully continued the pretense if the "mess" hadn't happened -- but the pretense would have been at the cost of genuine thought and emotion, and authentic lives, lived in a truly meaningful way. And this kind of pretense is always accompanied by tremendous costs: possibly alcohol and/or drug abuse, other kinds of self-destructive behavior, and always profound emotional repression and a deadening of the soul. (If you want to see the costs of this kind of pretense in another unusually fine movie, watch "Far From Heaven," Todd Haynes' wonderful reworking of the Douglas Sirk 1950s movie genre. Haynes shows in excruciating and telling detail the enormous emotional costs exacted by attempting to falsely fit one's life within the bounds of social convention, and "acceptable" behavior.)

But the "mess" that happened to the Jarretts tore the lie away -- and the family members were left with the actual emotions that lay beneath the surface. Those emotions are the reality that the surface was designed to cover up, and hopefully destroy. But such emotions are never destroyed: if they are not identified and defused in a non-destructive manner, they will simply be redirected and cause destruction in some other form. And when the protective covering was torn away, the Jarretts were helpless to deal with the truths they had worked so hard to hide. By the end of the film, the father and Conrad are slowly taking their first steps in dealing with this new reality -- the reality which had been there all the time, and which they can no longer avoid -- while the mother will not give up the lie, and therefore must leave.

And more and more, I think that for all of us, 9/11 was the "mess" that tore the thin surface of our civilization to shreds -- and many of us are now struck dumb with horror when we contemplate what had been seething underneath all the time. But to overcome that horror, we must first understand it, and grasp its causes. Only then can we begin to change it. It is for this reason that I have spent so much time on "The Roots of Horror," and why I have returned to this subject yet again. Of course, there are also many people who, like the mother in "Ordinary People," refuse to give up the lie -- and who, intentionally or not, would lead us all to a worldwide conflagration rather than admit the truth. We can only hope that enough minds and souls are changed before the devastation reaches the point where the recovery of genuine civilization finally becomes impossible.


Nuking the "Treasonous Press": I Am the State

A propos my recent piece about "A Press that Holds Itself in Contempt," Dan Froomkin's column yesterday is noteworthy. In particular, I offer these excerpts:
In accusing the press -- and specifically, the New York Times -- of putting American lives at risk, President Bush and his allies have escalated their ongoing battle with the media to nuclear proportions.


It's a monstrous charge for the White House to suggest that the press is essentially aiding and abetting the enemy. But where's the evidence?


But not once has the White House definitively answered this question: How are any of these disclosures actually impairing the pursuit of terrorists?

Terrorists already knew the government was trying to track them down through their finances, their phone calls and their e-mails. Within days of the Sept. 11 attacks, for instance, Bush publicly declared open season on terrorist financing.

As far as I can tell, all these disclosures do is alert the American public to the fact that all this stuff is going on without the requisite oversight, checks and balances.

How does it possibly matter to a terrorist whether the government got a court order or not? Or whether Congress was able to exercise any oversight? The White House won't say. In fact, it can't say.

By contrast, it does matter to us.

This column has documented, again and again , that when faced with a potentially damaging political problem, White House strategist Karl Rove's response is not to defend, but to attack.

The potentially damaging political problem here is that the evidence continues to grow that the Bush White House's exercise of unchecked authority in the war on terror poses a serious threat to American civil liberties and privacy rights. It wasn't that long ago, after all, that an American president used the mechanisms of national security to spy on his political enemies.

The sum total of the administration's defense against this charge appears to be: Trust us. Trust that we're only spying on terrorists, and not anyone else.

But what if the trust isn't there? And what if they're breaking the law?

That's why it's better to attack. It makes for great soundbites. It motivates the base. And perhaps most significantly, it takes attention away from Bush's own behavior.
"Trust us" is, of course, the phrase that I mentioned the other day in connection with these issues.

In a section entitled, "Red Meat Watch," Froomkin notes some other commentary:
Heather MacDonald writes in the Weekly Standard: "By now it's undeniable: The New York Times is a national security threat. So drunk is it on its own power and so antagonistic to the Bush administration that it will expose every classified antiterror program it finds out about, no matter how legal the program, how carefully crafted to safeguard civil liberties, or how vital to protecting American lives."

And the editors of the National Review write: "President Bush, who said on Monday morning that the exposure 'does great harm to the United States of America,' must demand that the New York Times pay a price for its costly, arrogant defiance. The administration should withdraw the newspaper's White House press credentials because this privilege has been so egregiously abused, and an aggressive investigation should be undertaken to identify and prosecute, at a minimum, the government officials who have leaked national-defense information."

Ooh, that would show them. Banning Times reporters from the nearly meaningless rituals of noncommunication that pass for briefings? They should be so lucky.
At the end of his column, Froomkin offers this excerpt from Jane Mayer's New Yorker profile of Cheney chief of staff and legal advisor, David S. Addington:
"Bruce Fein, a Republican legal activist, who voted for Bush in both Presidential elections, and who served as associate deputy attorney general in the Reagan Justice Department, said that Addington and other Presidential legal advisers had 'staked out powers that are a universe beyond any other Administration. This President has made claims that are really quite alarming. He's said that there are no restraints on his ability, as he sees it, to collect intelligence, to open mail, to commit torture, and to use electronic surveillance. If you used the President's reasoning, you could shut down Congress for leaking too much. His war powers allow him to declare anyone an illegal combatant. All the world's a battlefield -- according to this view, he could kill someone in Lafayette Park if he wants! It's got the sense of Louis XIV: 'I am the State.'"
And that, my friends, is where we are in this, the Sixth Glorious Year of the Reign of Our Noble King, George the Fool.

He's not using all his absolute powers -- not yet. But wait until the next attack within our own borders, which our enlightened elite assures us is inevitable. Then it may be dictatorship all the way.

George Bush is the State. They are one and the same. And you will shut up and obey -- or else.

I'm sure you can fill in the details on your own.

[My sole income is from the writing I do here and at The Sacred Moment, where you will find my essays based on the work of Alice Miller, my series On Torture, and many other pieces. (As I noted recently, all the essays at The Sacred Moment will be moved here as I have time, so that all my writing is in one place. I think that will be much easier.) So if you enjoy my writing and find it of some value, I would be very grateful if you considered making a donation in any amount. Links will be found at the top right and on the main page.

If you use the PayPal button here, it appears that you're donating to The Sacred Moment. But donations to either site come to me, so it doesn't actually matter. I mention it only if it seems confusing, which it is. I'll straighten it out once I figure out what the problem is. Many thanks for your consideration!]

"Patriotic" Murders

Several days ago, I wrote a piece titled, "The Amnesty Question: We Are Not the Good Guys in Iraq." As I explained, I was intentionally provocative because of the widespread refusal to recognize fully the immoral, unjustifiable nature of our invasion and occupation of Iraq. When it comes to the most difficult questions, most Americans refuse to acknowledge the criminally and profoundly immoral nature of our actions. They will not give up their fantasy of America as the last, best hope for mankind. No matter the degree of non-defensive destruction and mayhem we ourselves unleash, we "meant well." Our murders are redeemed by our intentions, a dispensation we do not, of course, grant to anyone else at all.

On the issue of amnesty, consider some remarks from Medea Benjamin and Raed Jarrar:
The Iraqi reconciliation plan unveiled by Prime Minister Al-Maliki on Sunday had the potential to mark a turning point the in the war. But thanks to U.S. interference, instead of a road map for peace, the plan that emerged looks more like a bump in Iraq's torturous path to continued violence and suffering.


[T]wo of the most critical aspects of the reconciliation plan discussed with the insurgents—the withdrawal of U.S. troops and amnesty for Iraqis who fought soldiers but not Iraqi civilians—were abandoned under intense U.S. pressure. The result is a weak plan that will probably not entice a significant number of fighters to lay down their weapons.

The withdrawal of U.S. forces is key to any peace plan, and is supported by the majority of Iraqis. A poll taken by World Public Opinion earlier this year showed 87% of the general population favoring a set timeline for U.S. withdrawal.


The other critical area watered down by the hose of U.S. political pressure regards amnesty. The original concept was a broad amnesty for fighters and detainees who have not “shed the blood of Iraqi civilians.” Those who attacked soldiers, whether Iraqi or American soldiers, would be pardoned for their resistance to occupation, while those who attacked civilians would not be. But the final document was more ambiguous. It called for amnesty "for those not proven involved in crimes, terrorist activities and war crimes against humanity."

Without an explicit amnesty for those who took up arms against U.S soldiers, whom they considered foreign invaders, there is no chance of stopping the violence. Unfortunately, it is the Democratic leaders in Congress who have been leading the charge against amnesty, introducing an amendment against it in the Senate even before the plan was released. Sen. Carl Levin, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Fox News Sunday that, "The idea that they should even consider talking about amnesty for people who have killed people who liberated their country is unconscionable.” What is unconscionable is for Democrats to use amnesty as a political club to beat up the Bush administration in a "we’re-more-patriotic-than-you-are" election season game, instead of recognizing it as a necessary component any serious peace plan.
A note to Senator Levin: we were not asked to "liberate their country." Saddam was a brutal, loathsome dictator -- but Iraq was not a threat to us, so it was none of our business. Moreover, we have "liberated" an entire country into hell on earth -- a hell so awful that some Iraqis wish only for the return of Saddam himself. Well done, Senator.

One of the most damning criticisms of the Bush administration offered by many liberals and progressives, including many bloggers, is that the administration sees the Iraq catastrophe only in terms of what it means for domestic politics. The large-scale death and destruction -- not only of an entire country and of individual Iraqis, but of American military personnel -- do not exist for the administration except insofar as they serve their political aims. It is an accurate criticism -- and it is indeed a very damning one.

It is a measure of the foul corruption that has thoroughly saturated American culture and politics that when we come to what could be critical turning points in this monumental disaster and to moments where we might begin to find a way out, many of those same liberals and progressives, and many of the same bloggers, do precisely the same thing. Ruined lives and maimed bodies, destruction without even a moment of reprieve, a catastrophe that stretches endless years into the future -- all of it is fodder to be used for political advantage, because Democrats think they can use the amnesty question to embarrass the Republicans and to make Democrats appear to be more "patriotic" and more genuinely "American."

This is the politics of the gutter. It is despicable beyond anyone's ability to describe accurately. Shame on them, every single one. I wrote an essay recently about the value of a single human life. Not one of these people understands what I was talking about or, if they do, they ignore all such concerns, thus earning their damnation in a still worse way -- merely because they seek the easiest, cheapest, most dishonest means of electoral advantage.

This is the state of our politics today, and this is the face we present to the world. May God have mercy on us -- not that we deserve it, which we most assuredly do not.

[My sole income is from the writing I do here and at The Sacred Moment, where you will find my essays based on the work of Alice Miller, my series On Torture, and many other pieces. (As I noted recently, all the essays at The Sacred Moment will be moved here as I have time, so that all my writing is in one place. I think that will be much easier.) So if you enjoy my writing and find it of some value, I would be very grateful if you considered making a donation in any amount. Links will be found at the top right and on the main page.

If you use the PayPal button here, it appears that you're donating to The Sacred Moment. But donations to either site come to me, so it doesn't actually matter. I mention it only if it seems confusing, which it is. I'll straighten it out once I figure out what the problem is. Many thanks for your consideration.]