Reading=Burning II (2008)
“Naturally the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”
Reich Marshall Hermann Goering, 1946
In my last post, I detailed two historical examples which illustrate how the State manufactures or greatly skews information with the explicit intent of mobilizing public opinion for war. In addition to putting the aggressive actions of the United States into a greater historical context, I did this to illustrate the alarming parallels between the tactics that have been successfully employed to mobilize public support for war in the past, and the tactics that we are seeing being utilized against Iran in the present (Glenn Greenwald does an excellent analysis of those tactics in their current Iranian context here). As Arthur Silber notes in one of his latest scathing posts , there is no shortage of knowledgeable, critical observers writing on these and other such vital themes today. There are libraries of excellent books, documentaries, blogs, alternative news columnists, speakers, activists, academics and regular Joe’s saying these things, articulately and with great scholarship and insight. They will not be in the mainstream media news, headlining their own TV show, or rising through the ranks of power in government, but many exist, and with a bit of effort it isn’t so hard to find them. While the State continues to attempt ever more aggressive means of limiting these dissenting voices (and the importance of this trend should not be minimized), I do not believe that the inaccessibility of information that challenges official narratives is the primary cause of inaction on these issues. So what is?
Why was the propaganda employed by the Nazi’s following Operation Gliewitz so effective in turning public opinion towards war against Poland? Why was the official “surprise attack” narrative of Pearl Harbour that left out hostile American actions towards Japan so readily and uncritically swallowed by the American public? Amid the mountains of critical theory and available evidence providing dissenting voices, why can exactly the same type of propaganda be counted on to produce exactly the same type of results today?
The Curious Case of the Systemically Isolated Incident
As I said in my last post, I believe the most important thing to grasp at this point is that the issues of impending action against Iran, worldwide human rights abuses and hunger, massive financial corruption, ever increasing income disparity, environmental destruction, and a litany of other offences are not isolated incidents, but are directly resultant from and inextricably linked to the way we have chosen to structure our societies; that is, they are systemic problems. It is going to take a radical and fundamental rethinking of our relationships to our governments, our environment and to each other to change these systems. The foundation I propose for that radical rethinking is this: there is no such thing as an isolated incident, everything is connected.
I do not mean this in any kind of dubious conspiratorial way. I don’t believe that the Free Masons, or the Illuminati or a massive and shadowy ‘world government’, or lizard people or anyone else is behind the scenes, plotting every machination of power. I mean this in both a philosophical and quite literal way: everything is connected. Society is just made up of people; people with more power and people with less, people who can see their connection to the world around them and people who cannot, people for whom it is in their best interest not to see it, people for whom it is in their best interest to convince you not to see it.
When graphic images of American service members torturing detainees at Abu Ghraib prison were released in 2004, the event was decried by both the President and the United States Military as being an “isolated incident”, the work of “a few bad apples,” and not representative of American policy in any regard. Since 2004, we have been similarly assured we are dealing with “isolated incidents” as further evidence of torture emerges, as civilians including children are intentionally targeted by American forces, as drones target funeral mourners , as civilian children are raped by American service members , as military servicewomen are raped by their male counterparts , as service members engage in acts of shocking animal cruelty , as soldiers are recorded desecrating the bodies of their victims . Each of these extensively documented and ongoing events are sold to us not as representative of a pattern of violence and atrocity, but as the unfortunate, isolated acts of a “few bad apples.”
Isn’t it a more plausible explanation that these ongoing atrocities are the inevitable products of an institution that systematically trains people not to value life, to believe that some lives have more value than others, to believe that some of us deserve life while others deserve death, and then requires that individuals act on those beliefs, the moment they are ordered to do so? That is, isn’t it more plausible to believe that such outcomes are systemic outcomes, the nature of which are inherent in such a system’s very premise?
It is part of the great western fallacy of the infallibility of our ‘meritocracy’ and our unquestioning worship at the altar of individualism that we accept this explanation of “a few bad apples.” If we see these events always as isolated incidents, we see them as individual failings. As it is one’s excellent personal attributes (natural talent, hard work, perseverance etc.) that can be counted on to make one respected and successful, so it is one’s inherent personal failings (weakness, violence, instability, etc.) that can be counted on to cause one to commit such heinous acts. Believing this makes our dealings with the world more manageable, our successes more worthy (after all, we earned it), our empathy for others more diminished (after all, it was their fault, their personal defect that lead to their circumstances, what could we do?), our responsibility for our collective actions decidedly less. And so we look to soldiers torturing detainees and do not see the tragic and inevitable expression of a deeply flawed system that has lead them to commit such acts. To do so would be to acknowledge our own complicity in such a system, our own complicity with atrocity.
When we see our world through this fragmented lens we deceive ourselves that all events and actions can be understood and addressed in isolation. Individual soldiers who torture can be court-martialed and disciplined. Crime can be curtailed through building more prisons and instituting harsher punishments, famine can be ended through judicious tweaking of foreign policy, the tide of mortgage foreclosures can be stopped by pouring more money into the banks, climate change can be arrested by legislation or more technology, terrorism can be ended by force. Like the military atrocities outlined previously, all of these issues are seen as isolated occurrences with little or no relation to each other. We are asked to address all of these issues in a similar way: with an appeal to the system in which they occur for greater intervention on our behalf. That is, an appeal to a powerful State actor who will respond as though each of these events are isolated incidents, requiring variously differing legislation of an identically top-down nature in order to rectify them. We cannot engage in a worldwide dialogue of peace and prosperity, be free from the hazards of climate change or safe from terror or crime, because, we are told, the State does not yet command enough power. The more power the state accumulates, the more these ‘isolated incidents’ are brought to our attention. The more they are brought to our attention the more the system is invoked to intervene with more power to rectify them. The more power is invoked, the more power is required to rectify the issue the next time, on and on, in an endless cycle of self justifying, escalating intervention leading to greater and greater consolidation of power in the hands of the few.
In our daily lives, we see both the causes of and the solutions to these issues as events that occur outside of ourselves and outside of our control. For the majority of us, we live every day comfortable in the belief that the responsibility for addressing the issues of the environment, famine, poverty, inequality, crime, or war are outside of our own responsibility or control, except on those few occasions when we are asked to vote to choose ‘the best people’ to deal with them. We deceive ourselves that while one or two such examples may effect us, they are overwhelmingly the realm of the other, a fragment of a world that does not apply to our daily experience. This fragment of the world is easy to fear or to ignore entirely because of its otherness and because of our belief that it is their many personal failings that justify the unfavourable situation those others now find themselves in. Former professor and environmental activist Sean Weaver speaks to this fallacy of isolated otherness in a particularly poetic way, he states:
“The global ecological and financial crisis is merely the global signature of institutionalized greed and ignorance writ large. Selfishness has always been in human societies but modernity made it sovereign. But an unsustainable economy does not even serve self-interest. To compromise one’s prospect of future survival is hardly self-serving. It is simply stupidity. More effectively serving the self comes with dynamic reciprocity delivered through mutual generosity: between individuals, groups, and the broader system itself. Look after the interests of the broader group or system and the law of reciprocity will kick in and look after the self. It is simply ignorance that assumes that the self is better off if it cheats other individuals, the group or the system.
But where can we turn for the source of the wisdom of generosity? A theory? A culture? Yes they can help but there is a deeper wellspring that trumps all theories and is more accessible and more powerful.
The seeds of selfishness lie in language itself because language creates the illusion of the separate self by naming the illusion as “me” and naming the complementary illusion “other”. This is because all language names things that are separate from other things. To understand what we mean by “tree” we need to understand what a “tree” is not – otherwise we say “look at the tree” and the person does not know where to look. When we explore the “tree” we soon discover that it cannot be separated from the non-tree. Without “water”, “sunlight”, “minerals”, “pollinators”, “soil”, “oxygen”, “carbon dioxide” and countless other non-tree elements the “tree” cannot exist. There is no actual boundary between the real tree and its other.
The world is an interconnected whole that cannot be torn apart in the way that language (any language) demands. Many cultures understood this, which is why they have poetic languages, and myths of origin that point to the creation of the world through the separation of opposites. For one example: first a void, then the act of speech separated light from darkness, and so the world (the collection of things we name) is created.”
When we see the world and our place within it solely in fragments, as separate and distinctive parts without recognizing our relationship and fundamental solidarity with the inclusive whole, we create this otherness. Often, even those whose good intentions lead them to work for change fall into this trap. We become fervent supporters of one political party, ideology, or cause to the exclusion of all others. We become vehement ‘lifestyle purists’ with no patience or understanding for those who don’t follow our particular system of beliefs, we cut ourselves off from opposing viewpoints by surrounding ourselves in safe echo chambers of like minded individuals. In short, we embrace the idea of the other just as totally as those who use the idea to justify or ignore the status quo, rather than to act to change it. In either case when we embrace this concept of the irreconcilable other, we lay the foundations of tribalism.
The World in Fragments: Tribalism*
*I sincerely urge you to read Arthur Silber’s amazing series of essays discussing the complex roots of tribalism from childhood onwards (particularly “part III: on learning to hate the ‘other’”). His incredibly valuable, in depth analysis I only briefly touch on here.
In Silber’s analysis, he lays out the following observations as key to understanding the nature of tribal behaviour:
- “To the degree that membership in a particular tribe or tribes is important to a person’s sense of identity, that person believes that his own tribe(s) is inherently and uniquely good. To the degree that tribal membership is a critical element of personal identity, all members of all tribes are convinced this is true of those tribes to which they belong.
- Insofar as the tribe’s centrally defining characteristic(s) (race, religion, political beliefs, etc.) are concerned, all other tribes that differ with regard to these characteristics are necessarily inferior and wrong. This has an especially critical implication: at first with regard to these centrally defining characteristics, and inevitably in a more general sense, the individual members of all other tribes are necessarily inferior to and less worthy than the members of one’s own tribe(s).
- The basic dynamics of all tribes are the same. This applies to all tribes in two different critical respects. It is true of dynamics within the tribe — that is, of those particular mechanisms which create and maintain tribal identity and cohesiveness — and it is also true of how one tribe views itself and behaves in relation to other tribes.
- The major mechanism by which any tribe creates and maintains tribal identity and cohesiveness is obedience: the requirement that each member of the tribe conform his thinking and behaviour in accordance with the major elements of the tribe’s belief system.”
Silber goes into great depth to explain exactly how these patterns of behaviour are learned in childhood and continue to be cultivated and rewarded on into adulthood. The most crucial of these points to understand is regarding the necessity of obedience, the powerful agent under which tribalism operates. We are all capable of responding to an unfamiliar other from another ‘tribe’ with an openness and curiosity about our differences and a willingness to further our mutual understanding. However, in our current society this response remains highly unlikely. The system in which we live, the system perpetuated by our parents and theirs before them, has trained us to respond with apprehension, fear of the unknown and an appeal to the authority and inherent ‘goodness’ of our own tribe to protect our interests by ‘reforming’ the dangerous other (through force if they are incapable of recognizing ‘the error of their ways’).
By separating our interests into warring ‘tribes’ we can be convinced to fear or loathe each other, both of which are very useful reactions for inspiring obedience, and maintaining control. This tribalistic system persists based on two factors. Firstly, the majority, who have learned this behaviour since childhood, unquestioningly continue it. Secondly, a minority of powerful individuals, for whom such a system is in their self interest, ensure that it continues. Paradoxically, it is often these very ‘powerful individuals’ that have internalized the tribalistic understanding the most, (ie. learned their ‘lesson’ of obedience the most unquestioningly), and the extent of their power can, in part, be attributed to the extent to which they embrace these beliefs. But more on that another time.
We don’t have to look any farther than the latest mass media top story to see evidence of how this tribalistic demonizing of the villainous other is perpetuated through fear mongering (here CNN’s Erin Burnett discusses ‘Iran’s planned attack on American soil’). There are countless other examples. This technique is so pervasive as to be nearly universal throughout all major mass media in the United States (and numerous other countries as well, although the United States has become by far the most extreme example). All we have to do is recognize what we are being shown.
Without an awareness of how we buy in to different expressions of tribalism, and an awareness of how these systems are used against us, we set ourselves up to be manipulated by those who would exploit our fear, who would twist it into hatred of those ‘less than human creatures’ of other tribes, ‘with whom we have nothing in common’ to further their own ends; those who use our fear of the other to instill our obedience and thus consolidate their own power. In this way the Nazis’ framing of the Gliewitz incident manipulated the German people’s fear of the Polish, in this way the Roosevelt Administration’s framing of Pearl Harbour manipulated the American people’s fear of the Japanese. In this way we are today manipulated into fear or hatred of the one seen as other; the criminal, the members of an opposing political party, different ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion or nationality. We name them with slurs that dehumanize and define them exclusively in terms of their otherness that is to be feared and despised: jap, commie, infidel, terrorist. In this way we arrest the process of dialogue and understanding and allow ourselves to be manipulated into obedience. In this way we become willing and active participants in normalizing inequality, persecution, atrocity, and war.
Iranian graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi said;
“The world is not divided between East and West. You are American, I am Iranian, we don’t know each other, but we talk and we understand each other perfectly. The difference between you and your government is much bigger than the difference between you and me. And the difference between me and my government is much bigger than the difference between me and you. And our governments are very much the same.”
The world is not divided, neither into East and West, nor into ‘America’ and ‘Iran’, or even into ‘you’ and ‘me’. These are all constructed identities that we create in order to make sense of an incredibly complex world. There are no isolated incidents, there are no isolated lives; everything is connected. Any hope for fundamental, systemic change must start with this understanding. Therefore my radical proposal for stopping a war, for changing the world, is for all of us to start living like we believe that. Today.
Within the last few days, the United States has successfully convinced global banking giant SWIFT, which provides banks with a system for moving funds around the world, to block all Iranian banks from using its network to transfer money. If it is implemented, this move will effectively shut down Tehran’s business dealings with the rest of the world, and likely have catastrophic impacts for average Iranian citizens. It is my belief that based on this action (in addition to the previously imposed financial sanctions), the decision to go to war with Iran has already been made and this is nothing short of a last ditch attempt to cause a desperate Iran to strike out first, thereby legitimating a ‘defensive’ strike in retaliation. If Iran is not enticed into striking first, an Operation Gliewitz style false flag event is entirely possible.
In the next few days and weeks how we respond to official narratives framing these events will be more crucial than ever. In my next post, I will talk about some specific ideas of how to act on the understandings I have outlined here. Whatever we can do, and we can do much, the sooner we can do it- the better.