February 26, 2004

THE ROOTS OF HORROR: The Consequences of Denial

Even though these developments were completely predictable, I nonetheless find the particular manner in which they have occurred somewhat amazing. First, we have this little exercise in bad fiction [link no longer working]:
In a blow to the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives has told the White House and fellow Republicans that he will not bring up legislation to extend its May 27 deadline, officials said on Wednesday.

President Bush's chief of staff, Andrew Card, personally had appealed to Speaker Dennis Hastert to reconsider, and the Illinois Republican met on Wednesday with Bush at the White House.

But the speaker's spokesman, John Feehery, said Hastert told the White House and members of the House Republican conference that "it's a bad idea to extend the commission and ... that we're not going to bring any legislation up."

The commission wants a 60-day extension through July 26 to complete its final report on the attacks. Despite initial objections, Bush backed the extension and the Senate is moving forward with legislation.

But Hastert cast serious doubt on its prospects for passage in the Republican-controlled House. "He thinks the (commission's) report is overdue and we need to get the recommendations as soon as possible. He is also concerned it will become a political football if this thing is extended and it is released in the middle of the presidential campaign," Feehery said.

The commission says it needs the extra 60 days to complete hundreds of interviews and review millions of documents.

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice has also refused to testify publicly on the grounds she is a presidential adviser and not a Senate-confirmed Cabinet officer.

Bush and Cheney have only agreed to meet privately with commission chairman Thomas Kean and vice chairman Lee Hamilton, rather than with the full, 10-member panel.

In contrast, former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore have agreed to meet privately with all members of the commission, the panel said.
It's bad enough that the White House has stonewalled this commission repeatedly and continuously since its inception, and that it never wanted such a commission in the first place. It's infinitely worse that the White House apparently has no desire actually to understand what might have happened that contributed to the horrific events of 9/11. But to view the American public as so credulous and irredeemably stupid that they would buy this dime version of "good cop, bad cop" is insulting beyond forgiveness. The administration appears to believe that Americans generally are as stupid and craven as they are.

Then we have this exercise in denial:
Under a thick partisan overcast, the House International Relations Committee on Wednesday sidetracked a resolution calling for a congressional probe of the circumstances surrounding the public outing of a CIA agent whose husband had debunked a Bush administration claim that Iraq obtained uranium from Africa.

By a 24-22 margin, the GOP-controlled committee voted along straight party lines to report the resolution adversely to the House. In effect, such votes quash any chance that a measure like this would ever be taken up or, in this case, that a prompt election-year congressional inquiry into this case would be launched. ...

Two other committees in the House -- Intelligence and Judiciary -- have likewise voted to sidetrack the resolution sponsored by Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J. The Judiciary Committee on Wednesday voted 17-8 to report the measure adversely, as did the Intelligence Committee by a 10-3 margin when it met Jan. 28. The House Armed Services Committee plans to take up the measure on Wednesday, with the panel's Republican majority assuring the same outcome.
So much for being concerned about national security, and about the safety and the lives of those people who take great risks to ensure our safety.

What I find hard to absorb in all this is that Bush's most ardent defenders still view him as a knight in shining armor, riding to the rescue of the United States and Western civilization against the most evil enemies ever known to man. They believe this despite the consistent record of failure and destructive action compiled by this administration. They believe this, despite the numerous, ongoing, endless examples of Bush's complete disinterest in identifying the intelligence failures leading to 9/11, his ongoing failure to remedy any of those defects, and his utter lack of interest in determining if people in his administration put the lives of CIA operatives in jeopardy and compromised intelligence operations more generally for the sake of political payback.

Whatever the Bush administration puts the greatest premium on, it is most assuredly not the security and well-being of America and her citizens. But the ability of certain people to deny facts which are lying in plain view directly in front of them is endless.

There certainly are a great number of people who can't handle the truth and don't want to know what it is, and most of them are either highly placed in this administration or to be found among its most insistent defenders. If and when there are further terrorist attacks here in the United States, which the administration constantly tells us there will be, don't ever forget that they have had more than enough time to take corrective action -- and they have resolutely refused to do so.

On top of Bush's proposal to the gut the central meaning of the Constitution -- its fundamental guarantee of equality for all citizens [which Bush would eviscerate by means of his support for the Federal Marriage Amendment] -- he thus makes more and more certain that history will be very likely to judge him as among the very worst of Presidents. Anyone who supports him for reelection, especially if it appears that Congress will remain in Republican hands, is no friend of mine -- or of security for our nation, or of liberty or freedom.

And frankly, it no longer interests me what mental gymnastics they go through to convince themselves otherwise. They have made themselves irrelevant -- in terms of the actual threats that confront us, the threat to the United States that Bush himself has come to represent and, most importantly, facts and reality.

To demonstrate just how far such a denial of reality can take you, consider these words of a man of remarkable brilliance -- a man who was not compelled to write these words, but did so out of a deep belief in the correctness of his ideas. Here is this man, writing in 1934:
The Aryan unconscious...contains explosive forces and seeds of a future yet to be born...The still youthful Germanic peoples are fully capable of creating new cultural forms that still lie dormant in the darkness of the unconscious of every individual--seeds bursting with energy and capable of mighty expansion. The Jew, who is something of a nomad, has never yet created a cultural form of his own and as far a we can see never will, since all his instincts and talents require a more or less civilized nation to act as host for their development. ... In my opinion it has been a grave error in medical psychology up till now to apply Jewish categories--which are not even binding on all Jews--indiscriminately to Germanic and Slavic Christendom. Because of this the most precious secret of the Germanic peoples--their creative and intuitive depth of soul--has been explained as a morass of banal infantilism, while my own warning voice has for decades been suspected of anti-Semitism. Their suspicion emanated from Freud. He did not understand the Germanic psyche any more than did his Germanic followers. Has the formidable phenomenon of National Socialism, on which the whole world gazes with astonished eyes, taught them better? Where was that unparalleled tension and energy while as yet no National Socialism existed? Deep in the Germanic psyche, in a pit that is anything but a garbage-bin of unrealizable infantile wishes and unresolved family resentments. A movement that grips a whole nation must have matured in every individual as well.
That was Carl Jung, who was Swiss and, as Alice Miller notes in Thou Shalt Not Be Aware where she quotes this excerpt from his Collected Works, he "did not have to accommodate himself to the Nazi regime," and "wrote these words out of conviction."

These are some of the results of the mechanism of denial and obedience, a mechanism which requires that reality be obliterated, so that the threat of unpleasant facts cannot come too close and so that authority will not be questioned -- even when those facts lead to the deaths of untold millions of people and a war that engulfs the entire world.

People ought to consider this warning from history -- before it becomes too late, once again. Unfortunately, if history itself is any guide, all such warnings will be disregarded, and the nightmare may envelop us still another time.

But I still hold out hope that it will not happen.

February 19, 2004

THE ROOTS OF HORROR: The Suicide Taboo

Alice Miller's writings explain a great deal that otherwise remains mystifying. In particular, her identification of the precise mechanism by means of which an authentic self is prevented from being formed allows us to see that, in the deepest sense, a genuine soul -- an "I," if you will -- never has a chance to exist in far too many instances. And crucially related to this absence is an inability to remember in a meaningful way, or often even to acknowledge, the pain that we ourselves have experienced -- and this denial then prevents us from realizing the pain of others. This lack of a self, and the obedience to authority to which that lack is tied -- since we must find guidance from some source, and if it is not ourselves, it will be some external authority -- also lets us see why people desperately hold onto ideas which they otherwise would easily see to be nonsense, whether it is an incomprehensible, contradictory, unintelligible supernatural being, or some kind of totalitarian ideology.

No subject is more misunderstood, even today, than suicide. It remains one of the last taboos. This post is extremely difficult for me to write in certain ways. I have experienced very bad depressions in my life and, while I never attempted suicide, I went through periods when I often thought about it. Sometimes, I would share those feelings with friends. (I would always discuss them with a therapist if I was seeing one, but I'm not talking about professionals in what follows.) Almost every time I discussed my suicidal thoughts with friends, it turned out to be a disastrous mistake.

It is a measure of the deep misunderstandings and unthinking moral commandments so prevalent today that a number of people have said to me over the years something like the following: "Oh, don't even think about it. It's wrong. It's selfish. Think about the pain you would cause all of those who love you, including me. Don't you see how cruel it would be? Besides, it's so weak. How could you give in to such feelings?"

Every single issue that Miller discusses at great length is revealed in this illustration of what I've often heard over the years. And I assure you, it is absolutely accurate in terms of what people have said to me on any number of occasions. Several things should be noted about such remarks. The easy part is what we might term a general ethical point. It is more than a little absurd to say -- to someone who may be seriously contemplating wiping himself out of existence for all time -- that he's being "selfish." And such an argument is hardly likely to hold much persuasive power for someone experiencing deep depression, but to make that point only underscores how ludicrous the argument is, especially in these circumstances.

But that isn't what interests me about this, and as I said, that's the easy part -- although it points to the underlying issue, one of critical significance. Here's the hard part: note what is missing in those comments. What is missing is simply this: any acknowledgment of the inexpressible anguish and pain experienced by the person who seriously considers suicide. Do you have any idea how intense and unbearable such pain must be for a person to view suicide as a viable option for more than a moment? If you don't, I suggest you think about it for a long, long time. And then think about it some more.

The truly significant part is the following: this is exactly the mechanism that Miller describes. People who make comments like those (and most people have similar views) are cut off from their own pain, and they are therefore unable to empathize, or even recognize, pain felt by others, even when such pain is agonizingly extreme. When you make real to yourself the degree of pain someone must be feeling to think about suicide, it is simply astonishing that anyone would believe for one moment that pointing out the pain of others would be a compelling argument. In addition, there is another truly destructive element that such an approach introduces: that the person thinking of suicide should feel guilt for even considering it, much less doing it. Implying that anyone in enormous psychological pain should feel guilty about having such feelings in the first place is not precisely a useful therapeutic approach. But people very often accuse those experiencing deep depression of being "cruel," "weak" and "selfish" -- and they apparently have no appreciation at all for how deeply wounding such accusations are -- particularly at a time when the person hearing them is at his most vulnerable, and possibly in grave danger. This issue cannot be overemphasized: to the extent that a person hearing such accusations views them as valid, he will feel guilt, and he will experience even greater pain -- and the possibility that he may actually kill himself thereby increases. While they delude themselves into believing they are "helping," many people thus commit great harm. Sometimes, such harm is tragically and finally irreversible.

There is a still deeper issue involved. In For Your Own Good, Alice Miller discusses Sylvia Plath at some length. Her chapter title is illuminating: "Sylvia Plath: An Example of Forbidden Suffering." Here is part of what Miller says:
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.
Miller then quotes from the mother's book of Sylvia's letters. Plath's mother tells the story of how a pastel still-life Sylvia had completed gets blurred accidentally, when an apron brushes up against it. Sylvia lightly said, "Don't worry; I can patch it up." Later that night, Sylvia wrote her first poem "containing tragic undertones" -- at the age of fourteen. Here is part of it:
I thought that I could not be hurt;
I thought that I must surely be
impervious to suffering--
immune to mental pain
or agony. ...

(How frail the human heart must be--
a throbbing pulse, a trembling thing--
a fragile, shining instrument
of crystal, which can either weep,
or sing.)

Then, suddenly my world turned gray,
and darkness wiped aside my joy.
A dull and aching void was left
where careless hands had reached out to

my silver web of happiness.
The hands then stopped in wonderment,
for, loving me, then wept to see
the tattered ruins of my firma-

(How frail the human heart must be--
a mirrored pool of thought. So deep
and tremulous an instrument
of glass that it can either sing,
or weep.)
Here is Miller again:
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. This can be observed in various parental attitudes.
And that is the most important, the absolutely crucial point: suicide is the only possible way to express the true self--at the expense of life itself. Most people do not grasp this at all.

Do not think that this is academic, or that it does not touch your life. It touches all our lives:
The silver grave cover bore colorful wreaths and American flags -- a nod to Suell's three years of military service. He was deployed to Iraq in April 2003 as an Army petroleum supply specialist out of Fort Sill, Okla. Less than two months later, he was dead.

A report provided to the family at their request says that the 24-year-old died of a drug overdose on Father's Day, one of 22 suicides reported among troops in Iraq last year.

According to William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, who discussed the suicides in a briefing last month, that represents a rate of more than 13.5 per 100,000 troops, about 20 percent higher than the recent Army average of 10.5 to 11. The Pentagon plans to release the findings of a team sent to Iraq last fall to investigate the mental health of the troops, including suicides.

The number Winkenwerder cited does not include cases under investigation, so the actual number may be higher. It also excludes the suicides by soldiers who have returned to the United States.
For instance, two soldiers undergoing mental health treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington reportedly committed suicide there, in July 2003 and last month. In its weekly report on the treatment of returning battlefield soldiers, the hospital never mentioned the deaths. An official at Walter Reed said the deaths are "suspected" suicides and are being investigated by the Army's criminal division.

Stephen L. Robinson, who visits the hospital regularly and is executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center, a nonprofit advocacy group for veterans and soldiers, said there was no public record of the deaths. "They just covered it up," he said.

The military's emphasis on honor, valor and courage makes suicide perhaps one of its last taboos. The Pentagon does not publicly identify a soldier's death as a suicide but may classify it as a "non-hostile gunshot wound," or death from "non-hostile injuries," which can also include accidents such as negligent discharge of a weapon. In comparison, the Pentagon will release a description of the cause of death -- enemy fire, a land mine, a car crash -- for a soldier killed in action or as a result of an accident.

The Washington Post contacted more than a dozen families of soldiers whose causes of death were listed as non-combat related. Some said that although the military had not provided further details, information from soldiers in the field indicated that the deaths were from "friendly fire" or an accidental weapons discharge. For others awaiting the results of an investigation, the possibility of suicide was too painful to bear.

"I am not ready to hear that," said the mother of one soldier who died from a gunshot wound to the head -- a "non-combat weapons discharge," according to the Pentagon.

In Texas, the Suell family says the military has it wrong. Suellboy, as he was known to those closest to him, was strong-minded and a God-fearing Christian. The son of a minister, he preached to others that suicide was a sin. He drew hearts on the letters he sent to his wife and said he could not wait to come home to see his daughters.

Rebecca Suell, 23, said she will never believe that her husband killed himself. She and her mother-in-law, Mathis, 47, are demanding answers, and they say the military has been silent and unsupportive. ...

Soldiers looking for ways to cope have several options. Military chaplains, assigned to individual units, offer comfort without the label of mental illness. Soldiers in more serious distress might be referred to inpatient psychiatric wards or be sent home. The Army sent 596 soldiers from Iraq to mental health treatment facilities in 2003.

Still, some soldiers don't speak up or don't get noticed. ...

In his letters, Joseph Suell wrote that Iraq was a shadowy conflict. "Over here you never know what's going to happen next," he wrote to his mother-in-law, Janice Doggett, 41. "So I just keep faith in Jesus and keep my eyes open."

To his widow, those are not the words of a suicidal man. He had no history of mental illness, and even while in Iraq he was making plans. Married at City Hall, he and Rebecca planned a church wedding upon his return.

Maybe he took some pills because he couldn't sleep, Rebecca Suell suggested. Or because he was feeling a little bit stressed. But the intention was not death.

"When he got his teeth pulled he wouldn't even take one pill for the pain," said Rebecca Suell. "Why would he take a bottle?" ...

"He didn't commit suicide," Shepherd said. "That ain't him."

Tears crawled down her cheeks at a Sunday morning church service when the minister spoke of having a good year. In her living room, they fell again as she tried to make sense of Suell's death.

"I have no autopsy report, no toxicology report, nothing," she said. The one document that Mathis has from the military is a DD Form 1300, a casualty report that lists the cause and circumstances of the death as "self-inflicted: drug overdose."

"I believe in my heart that he did take some medicine, but it wasn't to kill himself. He probably had a headache," she said.

"I'm not blaming God -- God don't make mistakes. I'm not mad at the war -- Joseph wasn't war material."

Suell told his mother that he hadn't killed anyone, and he hoped he wouldn't have to.

"God looked down on Joseph and said he's not that type of person. God came down and took my son."
And so you see how the denial -- first the denial of one's own pain, and then the denial of the pain of others -- continues, and takes the most terrible toll imaginable. Whatever the cost, even if it may result in a person's death, people will not acknowledge the reality of another's pain. And so a mother says, "I am not ready to hear that" -- even though her son's pain was so great that it may have caused him to take his own life. He is dead, but she is not ready to hear why. Her denial of his pain probably took precedence over his life, and now it takes precedence over his death.

And thus the horrors continue.

Finally, here's some unsolicited advice. If anyone you know ever makes a tentative effort to discuss obviously painful feelings with you, and perhaps even thoughts of suicide, do not judge them, do not condemn them, and above all, do not attempt in any way to shut them down. Listen, listen as carefully as you can -- and communicate to the person in every manner possible that there is someone who cares about them, who hears and sees the pain they are in, and who wants to help, if you can. Just be there, as a friend, as someone who empathizes, and make real to yourself what their pain feels like.

Just be there, with understanding, with compassion, with affection or love, as the case may be. As Miller indicates, be open to what the person is telling you. Sometimes, just being there, being there in the most meaningful sense, is the hardest thing in the world to do -- and the most important.

And perhaps, someday, the horrors will end. I still choose to believe in miracles.

THE ROOTS OF HORROR: Addendum on Mel Gibson

Having written extensively just yesterday about Mel Gibson and some of his statements about his father, and how they reveal crucial aspects of the psychological mechanisms of denial and obedience discussed by Alice Miller, I found this article very interesting:
A week before the United States release of Mel Gibson's controversial movie, The Passion of the Christ, the filmmaker's father has repeated claims the Holocaust was exaggerated.

Hutton Gibson's comments, made in a telephone interview with New York radio talk show host Steve Feuerstein, come at an awkward time for the actor-director who has been trying to deflect criticism from Jewish groups that his film might inflame anti-Semitic sentiment.

In his interview on WSNR radio's Speak Your Piece, to be broadcast on Monday, Hutton Gibson, argued that many European Jews counted as death camp victims of the Nazi regime had in fact fled to countries like Australia and the United States.

"It's all -- maybe not all fiction -- but most of it is," he said, adding that the gas chambers and crematoria at camps like Auschwitz would not have been capable of exterminating so many people.

"Do you know what it takes to get rid of a dead body? To cremate it?" he said. "It takes a litre of petrol and 20 minutes. Now, six million of them? They (the Germans) did not have the gas to do it. That's why they lost the war." ...

During his lengthy radio interview, Hutton Gibson, 85, said Jews were out to create "one world religion and one world government" and outlined a conspiracy theory involving Jewish bankers, the US Federal Reserve and the Vatican, among others.
As Miller discusses at great length, the denial-obedience mechanism she analyzes is one that usually continues through many generations -- until one of the children is able to break the chain. All of which makes one wonder: what was Hutton Gibson's father like? One trembles to think.

February 18, 2004

THE ROOTS OF HORROR: Mel Gibson, A Public Case Study in Obedience and Denial

In Part II of this essay, I excerpted several passages from Alice Miller's work. To focus this discussion on the issue I now wish to address, let me summarize my understanding of Miller's central argument. By demanding obedience above all from a child (whether by physical punishment, by psychological means, or through some combination of both), parents forbid the child from fostering an authentic sense of self. Because children are completely dependent on their parents, they dare not question their parents' goodness, or their "good intentions." As a result, when children are punished, even if they are punished for no reason or for a reason that makes no sense, they blame themselves and believe that the fault lies within them. In this way, the idealization of the authority figure is allowed to continue. In addition, the child cannot allow himself to experience fully his own pain, because that, too, might lead to questioning of his parents.

In this manner, the child is prevented from developing a genuine, authentic sense of self. As he grows older, this deadening of his soul desensitizes the child to the pain of others. Eventually, the maturing adult will seek to express his repressed anger on external targets, since he has never been allowed to experience and express it in ways that would not be destructive. By such means, the cycle of violence is continued into another generation (using "violence" in the broadest sense). One of the additional consequences is that the adult, who has never developed an authentic self, can easily transfer his idealization of his parents to a new authority figure. As Miller says:
This perfect adaptation to society's norms--in other words, to what is called "healthy normality"--carries with it the danger that such a person can be used for practically any purpose. It is not a loss of autonomy that occurs here, because this autonomy never existed, but a switching of values, which in themselves are of no importance anyway for the person in question as long as his whole value system is dominated by the principle of obedience. He has never gone beyond the stage of idealizing his parents with their demands for unquestioning obedience; this idealization can easily be transferred to a Fuhrer or to an ideology.
I want to stress that my discussion in this series of essays gives only a brief, condensed sense of Miller's work, and of her extraordinarily important and valuable contribution to an area that has been largely neglected by our society at large. I cannot recommend strongly enough that you read Miller's books themselves. Here is a site with many links to Miller's work, and here is Miller's own site.

With regard to Miller's point that the idealization of authority figures is easily transferrable for those who have not been allowed to develop a true sense of self, events of the last few years have provided numerous examples. Let me emphasize one other point before moving on to some of the more notable ones. Nothing I am discussing here should be construed to mean that the ideas that people accept do not matter. In fact, as most of my writing here demonstrates, I view ideas, and whether they are true or false, as of critical importance. But the truly notable phenomenon is the following one: many of the ideas that people have accepted, in some cases even for thousands of years, can easily be shown to be wrong. So the obvious question arises: if the ideas are demonstrably wrong -- and as is often the case, when the consequences of certain ideas can easily be shown to be disastrous, and even horribly destructive -- why do people still cling to them so desperately, and absolutely refuse to give them up?

And this is where Miller's work is invaluable. Such tenacity in the face of overwhelming evidence cannot be explained simply by saying, "Well, they just refuse to think. And when someone refuses to think, no one else can make him." Obviously, certain people refuse to think at a certain point. But the question remains: Why? If one looks at the life histories of the great majority of people, keeping in mind Miller's work and her detailed personal histories of a number of individuals, the answer is clear: they dare not question the goodness of the authority figure, they dare not acknowledge the pain they have experienced as the direct result of the actions of the authority figure, and above all they dare not say: the authority figure is wrong. This underlying mechanism of obedience is set very, very early in life -- and the thought of dislodging it later on literally causes the adult to panic, in a sense that threatens his precarious (and false) sense of self. So the adult will do anything to avoid having to question the authority figure.

You can see this mechanism obviously, and very painfully, displayed in public, for all the world to see, by Mel Gibson in recent interviews. First, some background from some months ago:
Now, Mel Gibson is at the center of a storm that may be of his own making. As he was completing a film on the last 12 hours of the life of Christ, The New York Times Magazine published a March 9 cover story reporting that "The Passion" may reflect the radical Catholic view that Jews are collectively responsible for the death of Jesus.

The Times story delved into the "traditionalist" beliefs of Gibson and his father — and it quoted 85-year-old Hutton Gibson denying that the Holocaust occurred.

Scoffing at the notion that 6 million Jews died at the hands of the Nazis, the elder Gibson told the Times that the Holocaust was fabricated in order to hide a secret deal between Hitler and "financiers" to move Jews from Germany to the Middle East. And he dismissed the notion that Osama bin Laden was behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, saying the planes were crashed by "remote control."

The Times also reported that both Gibson men are Catholic "traditionalists" who reject the 1962-65 Vatican II reforms. (A key reform was the dropping of the doctrine that Jews are collectively responsible for Christ's murder.)
And here is a report about Diane Sawyer's interview of Gibson that was televised just the other night:
The only thing he refused to talk about was his father, a Catholic Traditionalist portrayed in a New York Times Magazine interview as a Holocaust-denying extremist inclined to blame Jews for the evils of the world.

"Gotta leave it alone, Diane," Gibson said angrily when she brought it up. "Gotta leave it alone."
I didn't see Sawyer's interview, but I heard parts of it replayed on the radio. Gibson did say a bit more about his father, and what he said, and his tone, were very revealing. Just before he said, "Gotta leave it alone, Diane," Gibson said, several times: "Diane, he's my father. My father. My father."

And the way Gibson said it clearly conveyed that his father, his father's goodness, the fact that his father was worthy of deep admiration, and -- above all -- his father's authority were not to be questioned; all of these were immutable facts, absolutes beyond all debate or questioning. It is this mindset, and this refusal to allow even the smallest possibility that his father might be mistaken -- even with regard to a supremely significant issue such as the Holocaust -- that lead Gibson to equivocate unforgivably in his own statements about whether the Holocaust actually occurred. Whatever else is open to discussion, the worth, the authority and the inherent goodness of his father cannot be broached.

If you read any of the numerous personal histories laid out by Miller, you will conclude that Gibson, like the other helpless victims Miller describes, undoubtedly had a brutal and cruel upbringing, especially in view of his father's particular beliefs. But Gibson has denied all of this -- first to himself, and later to the rest of the world. And even today, when he is a fully independent adult with wealth and power beyond the dreams of almost all of us, he dares not question any of this fable he has told himself about his father, and about his own childhood. It is this first denial that makes all the others possible -- as Miller sets forth in compelling detail, it is the denial of the reality of our lives in our earliest years, it is the denial of our own pain, which greatly lessens (or even completely destroys) our ability to empathize with others, and it makes possible denial of countless other facts, and even of events such as the Holocaust, which are documented to an extent which one would think would make such evasion literally impossible.

But the demands of this belief system are unending: after you have denied your authentic self, you will be prepared to believe anything. You will believe that the Holocaust never happened -- if your father tells you so; you will believe that Hitler is your country's savior -- if the surrogate father and authority figure leading your nation tells you so; or you will believe that a third-rate dictatorship which can threaten no one must be invaded, and tens of thousands of Americans and Iraqis must die -- if enough authority figures tell you so.

Whatever else can be questioned, the parent's authority must never be doubted -- regardless of consequences, regardless of the pain and destruction that must follow such denial, regardless even of the countless deaths of innocent victims. This mechanism of denial and obedience leads to another tragic result, as well:
In a revealing interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer due to be aired at 10:00 p.m. E.T. Monday, on "Primetime," Gibson explained that for him the making of the controversial film was cathartic, that he set out to make it over 10 years ago because he had reached "the height of spiritual bankruptcy."

The Hollywood star admits that things got so bad he once contemplated suicide by hurling himself out a window.

"I just didn't want to go on," he confided to Sawyer. "I was looking down thinking, 'Man, this is just easier this way. You have to be mad, you have to be insane, to despair in that way. But that is the height of spiritual bankruptcy. There's nothing left."

Instead, he said he turned back to the word of God. "I think I just hit my knees. "I just said, 'Help.' You know? And then, I began to meditate on it, and that's in the Gospel. I read all those again. I remember reading bits of them when I was younger."

"Pain is the precursor to change, which is great," Gibson said. "That's the good news."

He recalled that the "spiritual bankruptcy" led him to reexamine Christianity, and ultimately to create "The Passion of the Christ" - "my vision . with God's help" of the final hours in the life of Jesus.
Two overwhelmingly important aspects of this must be noted. First, Miller documents in her work that one of the most common results of the child's suppression of anger at the parent/authority figure, and of the inability to develop an authentic self, is suicide or suicide attempts, or at least thoughts of suicide. If the suppressed rage cannot be directed outward, it will be taken out on oneself.

Second, and I cannot stress the following too much: Gibson's refusal to question his father's goodness, his refusal to allow himself even to doubt his father for one second, has now led Gibson to adopt a second authority figure as well: God. And despite the fact that I know this observation will undoubtedly enrage many people, it is this denial-obedience syndrome that underlies the faith of many (if not most) people who are deeply religious. It is precisely the same mechanism that they first experienced with the parent or other authority figure -- but now transferred to the supernatural realm.

A belief in God cannot be defended from even the simplest of arguments. But the primary reason people believe in God is not because they believe in the most primitive of superstitions: it is because they can only function by relying on an authority figure, who will tell them what to do, how to behave, and what to think. And they learned that in their very first years of life.

If you wonder why people refuse to give up a belief in God, why they are completely impervious when you point out the most obvious contradictions in their belief system, why they are perfectly content to accept what is easily shown to be nonsense, this is why: they have never escaped the parent who demanded obedience, and now as adults -- since they have never developed an authentic, independent sense of self -- they dare not question the goodness of their additional authority figure. But the underlying psychological mechanism is precisely the same.

And if you wonder why they become so angry when you point out the numerous inconsistencies in their beliefs, the obvious contradictions, the completely nonsensical nature of what they proclaim to believe, and why they may as well believe in the Easter Bunny -- this is the reason for that response, as well. You are not merely challenging one particular belief: you are challenging their entire sense of self -- or rather, their entire false sense of self. They have never been allowed to develop a true sense of self, and that is the real tragedy. The parent prevented them from developing one in the first instance, and now God does. Also, and this makes the tragedy even worse, they themselves now prevent themselves from doing so.

Do you think it is a coincidence that people so frequently address their prayers to "Father"? Or that people often plead, "Father, tell me what to do"? It isn't. And Miller helps us to see why.

February 17, 2004

THE ROOTS OF HORROR: The Institutionalized Destruction of Innocence -- and of Life

In her book, The Untouched Key, Alice Miller discusses the story of Abraham and Isaac at length. She had been looking for a jacket illustration for her earlier book, Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, and came across the Rembrandt painting which I suggested you look at. She notes that "the father's hand completely covers the son's face, obstructing his sight, his speech, even his breathing. The main concerns expressed in my book (victimization of the child, the Fourth Commandment admonishing us to honor our parents, and the blindness imposed on children by parents) seemed to find a central focus in Abraham's gesture."

She eventually found thirty illustrations of the Abraham story, and all of them presented this image in essentially the same way. I have not been able to determine Miller's precise political beliefs, and it is not clear to me if she is a pacifist across the board (a position I would not agree with, and I also tend to doubt that is her position for a number of reasons) -- but setting that issue aside, consider what she says. Remember that this was written about fifteen years ago, and also consider its relevance to events of the last few years:
As I sat in the archive looking at the pictures, I suddenly saw in them the symbolic representation of our present situation. Inexorably, weapons are being produced for the obvious purpose of destroying the next generation. Yet those who are profiting from the production of these weapons, while enhancing their prestige and power, somehow manage not to think of this ultimate result. Like Abraham, they do not see what their hands are doing, and they devote their entire attention to fulfilling expectations from "above," at the same time ignoring their feelings. They learned to deny their feelings as children; how should they be able to regain the ability to feel now that they are fathers? It's too late for that. Their souls have become rigid, they have learned to adapt. They have also forgotten how to ask questions and how to listen to them. All their efforts are now directed toward creating a situation--war--in which their sons too will be unable to see and hear.

In the fact of mobilization for war--even a conventional one, a nonnuclear war--the questions of the younger generation are silenced. To doubt the wisdom of the state is regarded as treason. Any discussion or consideration of alternative possibilities is eliminated at a single stroke. Only practical questions remain: How do we win the war? How do we survive it? Once the point of asking these questions has been reached, the young forget that prosperous and prominent old men have been preparing for war for a long time. The younger generation will march, sing songs, kill and be killed, and they will be under the impression that they are carrying out an extremely important mission. The state will indeed regard highly what they are doing and will reward them with medals of honor, but their souls--the childlike, living, feeling part of their personality--will be condemned to the utmost passivity. They will resemble Isaac as he is always depicted in the sacrificial scene: hands tied, eyes bound, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to wait unquestioningly in this position to be slaughtered by one's father. (In my German translation of the Bible the verb used in this passage is schlacten, which refers to the butchering of animals.)
An illuminating interview with Miller begins this way:
For many years Alice Miller was a lone voice in the dark. Her message, devastatingly simple but with the kind of implications people refused to face, was considered far too controversial: violence towards children engenders a violent society.

Gradually, though, she has won wide acceptance around the world for her central theory that abuse runs in the family. The slapped child of one generation becomes the abuser of the next. Violence towards "a bad child" may create a bad adult and eventually foster the creation of a bad society.

Her latest book, Paths Of Life, takes this argument still further, declaring that tyranny and totalitarianism are born in the nursery. Having studied some of the worst dictators known to the modern world - Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Ceaucescu - she says all four were systematically beaten throughout their childhood, and all denied the pain.

Dr Miller says: "These men learned very early to glorify cruelty and to be able to justify it to themselves without remorse." Crucially, they were also born into societies in which violence towards children was commonplace. In Hitler's case, for instance, harsh rearing of children was fashionable in Germany in the 1900s. So there is a causal connection between that practice and the terror unleashed 40 years later by so many willing executioners.
In her books, Miller offers lengthy and detailed histories of these political figures, and also of famous writers and artists, including Nietzsche, Picasso, Kafka, and Plath. Later in this same interview, Miller says the following -- which I recommend every parent think about for a long, long time. In fact, every adult ought to think about it, because every single one of us is affected by these issues:
The central question, to which she has devoted the last 20 years of her work, seems deceptively simple: why is it so hard not to smack a child? Why do people who wouldn't dream of striking their friends slap their children?
Her answer, equally straightforward, compels us to re-examine both our history as children and our roles as parents:
"Beating children teaches short term obedience, but in the long term, only violence and anxiety.

"As beaten children, we have to learn to forget our physical and psychic pain. This blocking out enables us to continue punishing our own children while we insist to ourselves: smacks teach lessons. Sadly, all we are accomplishing is sowing the seeds of cruelty for another generation.

"Almost everyone agrees that we should not maltreat children, yet they also claim that corporal punishment is not a maltreatment, labeling it as 'educational discipline'. This is a dangerous error which can only be solved by a law preventing the punishment of children within the home as well as school. The goal of this law should not be the punishment of parents. It should educate them into understanding that every beating is a maltreatment, both socially and emotionally."
I should add, as Miller also discusses in her work, that violence toward children need not involve physical abuse (in which category I include even "occasional" spanking; violence is violence, and the damage it does to a child is incalculable, even if inflicted only once or twice). Parents frequently abuse their children terribly in emotional and psychological ways, and such damage can be just as severe, or even worse.

Miller often reports profoundly disturbing stories and polls about the commonplace approval given to corporal punishment in Europe, even today. Let us consider this recent story from the United States:
The public by a 2-1 margin approves of spanking children in principle, and half of parents say they sometimes do it to their own kids, an ABCNEWS poll found. But an overwhelming majority disapproves of corporal punishment in schools.

Sixty-five percent of Americans approve of spanking children, a rate that has been steady since 1990. But just 26 percent say grade-school teachers should be allowed to spank kids at school; 72 percent say it shouldn't be permitted, including eight in 10 parents of grade-schoolers.
At the bottom of the story, there is a section entitled, "The Right Way to Spank." Among its admonitions -- don't do it in front of other students, specify the number of spanks in advance, have a witness to ensure that "proper procedures" are followed (that has an especially unpleasant historic resonance, doesn't it?) -- there is this one:
The person administering the punishment is not the person who the student directly got into trouble with, to assure that there are no emotions involved in the administration of the spanking.
And that one short phrase contains the entirety of this deeply tragic phenomenon -- a phenomenon which has resulted in worldwide horror and catastrophe. Thus do adults deny the reality of what is occurring directly in front of them, including its emotional reality -- and they continue the denial of what was done to them as children, what they are doing to the next generation, and the deadening of the soul that inevitably results.

In For Your Own Good, Miller discusses this "poisonous pedagogy" and its consequences in detail. At one point, she quotes from a journal kept by poet and writer Christoph Meckel's father during World War II:
On a roundabout way to have lunch I witnessed the public shooting of twenty-eight Poles on the edge of a playing field. Thousands line the streets and the river. A ghastly pile of corpses, all in all horrifying and ugly and yet a sight that leaves me altogether cold. The men who were shot had ambushed two soldiers and a German civilian and killed them. An exemplary modern folk-drama. (1/27/44)
Miller says: "Once feelings have been eliminated, the submissive person functions perfectly and reliably even if he knows no one is going to check up on him..."

And she goes on:
This perfect adaptation to society's norms--in other words, to what is called "healthy normality"--carries with it the danger that such a person can be used for practically any purpose. It is not a loss of autonomy that occurs here, because this autonomy never existed, but a switching of values, which in themselve are of no importance anyway for the person in question as long as his whole value system is dominated by the principle of obedience. He has never gone beyond the stage of idealizing his parents with their demands for unquestioning obedience; this idealization can easily be transferred to a Fuhrer or to an ideology. Since authoritarian parents are always right, there is no need for their children to rack their brains in each case to determine whether what is demanded of them is right or not. And how is this to be judged? Where are the standards supposed to come from if someone has always been told what was right and what was wrong and if he never had an opportunity to become familiar with his own feelings and if, beyond that, attempts at criticism were unacceptable to the parents and thus were too threatening for the child? If an adult has not developed a mind of his own, then he will find himself at the mercy of the authorities for better or worse, just as an infant finds itself at the mercy of its parents. Saying no to those more powerful will always seem too threatening to him.

Witnesses of sudden political upheavals report again and again with what astonishing facility many people are able to adapt to a new situation. Overnight they can advocate views totally different from those they held the day before--withou noticing the contradiction. With the change in power structure, yesterday has completely disappeared for them.

And yet, even if this observation should apply to many--perhaps even to most--people, it is not true for everyone. There have always been individuals who refused to be reprogrammed quickly, if ever. ...

Morality and performance of duty are artificial measures that become necessary when something essential is lacking. The more successfully a person was denied access to his or her feelings in childhood, the larger the arsenal of intellectual weapons and the supply of moral prostheses has to be, because morality and a sense of duty are not sources of strength or fruitful soil for genuine affection. Blood does not flow in artificial limbs; they are for sale and can serve many masters. What was considered good yesterday can--depending on the decree of government of party--be considered evil and corrupt today, and vice versa. But those who have spontaneous feelings can only be themselves. They have no other choice if they want to remain true to themselves. Rejection, ostracism, loss of love, and name calling will not fail to affect them; they will suffer as a result and will dread them, but once they have found their authentic self they will not want to lose it. And when they sense that something is being demanded of them to which their whole being says no, they cannot do it. They simply cannot.

This is the case with people who had the good fortune of being sure of their parents' love even if they had to disappoint certain parental expectations. Or with people who, although they did not have this good fortune to begin with, learned later...to risk the loss of love in order to regain their lost self. They will not be willing to relinquish it again for any price in the world.
What Miller discusses at the conclusion of that passage is the simplest reason, and an eloquent explanation, for why -- despite my frequent discouragement, depression, anguish and deep anger at our contemporary intellectual climate and the nature of our public discourse -- I have returned to writing once again.

And why I always will, no matter how painful it sometimes is.

P.S.: Many thanks to the reader who reminded me of Wilfred Owen's World War I retelling of the Abraham and Isaac story. Here is Owen's version:
Parable of the Old Men and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Historically, as Owen himself witnessed and knew all too well -- paying the ultimate price himself, when he was killed just one week before the Armistice that ended The Great War -- it is Owen's version that has transpired, over and over and over.

How profoundly tragic that the poet's insight and forbidding warning has still not been heeded, down to this day. Will we ever, ever learn? One can only wonder -- and hope against hope that we do, before it is finally too late.

THE ROOTS OF HORROR: Worth A Thousand Words

Before proceeding to Part II of my series, "The Roots of Horror" (here is the introduction), look at this Rembrandt painting. Click on it, so that you can see the large version. Study it carefully, and ask yourself some questions.

Note carefully how Abraham's hand is placed over Isaac's face, covering it completely. What does the painting project about Abraham's feelings for his son? What does it project about Isaac's attitude toward his father? Does it project anything about Isaac's feelings at all? Is Isaac an actual person -- or merely a sacrificial object? What are Abraham's priorities, when faced with an incomprehensible demand from God that he kill his son? Does he appear willing to question God's cruel demand in any way at all? Does he seem to have any regret about having to kill Isaac?

I'll be back later with much more about the story of Abraham, and about its connection to many of the world's horrors, as well as to a number of the public justifications for our current foreign policy, including the war with Iraq. It is notable that certain commentators are willing to defend that war publicly on grounds such as: Well, we had "to do something," or that it was a war we "should" have pursued simply because we could, as if no other reason is necessary for killing (of both our own soldiers and of innocent Iraqis) not required by the genuine demands of our self-defense, to say nothing of the fact that it has distorted our economy for decades to come and created greater dangers for us than existed before.

And the fact that such obviously empty and unconvincing arguments do not cause widespread outrage and condemnation is one indication of how the underlying tragedy affects our society much more deeply and in a much broader way than is reflected only in foreign policy.

One final observation about the painting for now: it is also notable that the painting's title is "The Sacrifice of Abraham." In fact, that is almost always how the story is referred to. But it isn't Abraham who is about to be killed. However, Isaac as a fully-realized human being, a human being worthy and deserving of care, respect and love -- and from his father, above all -- doesn't genuinely exist in the painting, in the Biblical story, or in the world's memory. And thus, horrors are unleashed upon the world.

THE ROOTS OF HORROR: Instilling Obedience and Denial in Childhood

As I indicated in an entry last week, just at the time I became so deeply discouraged about the state of public debate (yet again), I had been about to begin a series of articles concerning a subject which is almost entirely neglected -- a subject which is crucial to understanding the precise manner in which world events are now playing out, and which is indispensable to grasping why people cling to ideas and theories which facts repeatedly demonstrate are incorrect and, what is much worse than being merely false, are profoundly destructive.

I have decided that I will go ahead with these posts -- although I do not delude myself that they will be widely read, or much discussed. For reasons which will become clearer later in this discussion, this failure to pay attention to these issues, and the stubborn refusal to acknowledge their demonstrable importance and explanatory power, are in themselves confirmation of the crucial nature of these ideas. For the majority of people, certain identifications -- no matter how well-documented and how strongly proven -- are simply too dangerous to be countenanced. And thus the tragedy of world history is reenacted over and over, and into our own times.

Before proceeding to my primary subject, I want to note two recent stories which reveal the reasons for my profound depression about the lack of seriousness in current public debate. In fact, and to be blunt about it to the point of rudeness, my reaction is much more than depression, sadness and discouragement: it is, in a word, disgust. The first story is the one which led to my recent outburst: the one concerning John Kerry's alleged adultery. It should be noted that there is an element of this "controversy" which is genuinely worthy of Pirandello, the playwright noted for his blurring of the lines between art, reality and theatrical artifice. What is reality? What is pretense? Who can discern the difference? Is there any difference worth noting? Those are some of the questions that Pirandello placed at the center of his work.

And with the Kerry story, Pirandello has fully entered our political discourse (although one could convincingly argue that the writer had taken over the reins of our public discussion long before). Note that the original story on Drudge did not concern the actual story itself: Drudge's story was the story about the story. In other words, Drudge was reporting on the reporting allegedly being conducted by certain news organizations. Subsequently, certain of those news organizations denied they were pursuing the story at all -- but in all cases, the news organizations in question had not yet carried the story. If they were pursuing it, they had not yet found anything worth reporting.

But Drudge reported the "story about the story" nonetheless, confident in the belief that the story would soon become about the underlying "story" itself. And so it did. With barely a blink, the story focused on whether the underlying allegations were true -- whether Kerry in fact had had an affair. But again, please note that no one had even made such an allegation yet, and no news organization had reported it. This is media irresponsibility carried to the edge of dementia -- when one individual (albeit with a huge readership) can literally create a "controversy" out of absolutely nothing, out of a meditation, as it were, on the nature of media considering whether to report a story that another news outlet might have considered reporting if only they could have discovered facts to support the allegations in question, if only...

And the elements that are entirely dispensable in this deplorable exercise are facts and, of equal significance, relevance. In the final analysis, even if the allegations had been true, they are irrelevant to Kerry's policy views, and what he would be likely to do if ever elected President. That is all that ought to concern us, but in the current media climate, that is precisely the last subject that anyone cares to address. (There are certain circumstances under which Kerry's "affair," if it had ever occurred, might have conceivably been relevant, depending on how Kerry himself dealt with the charges -- but those circumstances were not present here.) For the resulting continued deterioration in the nature of public discussion of supposedly "important" issues, I hold everyone responsible who discussed, or continues to discuss, the "merits" of this story at all. It deserves only to be ignored entirely.

The other current "controversy" that I want to mention briefly is the one about Bush's National Guard service. The strongest case for its relevance now is that, in the recent past and continuing into the present, Bush has misrepresented his service during the Vietnam years -- that he portrays himself as a man who was willing to serve his country, and that he did his duty and allegations to the contrary are scrurrilous and not to be credited. According to the view of certain of Bush's critics, Bush thus seeks to divert attention from the fact that he unfairly took advantage of the privileges conferred by his family connections, and his family's power and wealth. And that may well be true.

But if one wants to make the case that Bush is not worthy of respect, or that his reputation as a man of "honor" and "service" is not merited, or that (in my own view) he is worthy of the deepest condemnation, there is a much simpler way, which almost no one appears to want to make. Or, to be more precise, people's sense of moral priorities appears to be damaged beyond repair at this point.

Consider the following. It is now indisputably clear that Iraq presented no serious threat to the security of the United States. In addition, it is obvious from any number of news reports that the Bush administration had decided to invade and occupy Iraq regardless of whether that nation represented any threat to us at all. The only remaining justification for the invasion of Iraq is the Utopian delusion -- the "reverse domino theory" by means of which we will "democratize" the Middle East, the fatal defects of which I have examined in detail. In subsequent parts of this series, I shall discuss why people continue to cling to this dangerous delusion, despite overwhelming evidence as to its falsity and its potential for uncontrollable and deeply damaging consequences.

In other words -- and this is the central and completely damning point -- Bush went to war for no reason connected to the demonstrable, genuine security interests of the United States. And in the course of that war and in the subsequent occupation, at least 540 Americans have already died (to say nothing of those Americans who have been horribly injured, and whose numbers appear to be criminally underreported) -- and without doubt, more Americans will die in the coming months (and years, most probably). To put the matter plainly and simply, which appears to be the one thing that almost no one is willing to do: Bush condemned innocent Americans to death for no justifiable reason.

And what makes it even worse is that these innocent Americans, the ones who are now dead, are precisely those Americans who had volunteered to fight for the defense of their country. But most of them probably did not volunteer to take part in deluded, doomed attempts at "nation building," attempts of the kind that Bush himself once derided (before he decided that such campaigns might be useful in pursuit of other political aims). If one is looking for a reason to damn Bush as he now deserves, what more reason could one possibly need? I will repeat the point, to drive it home:

Our own President condemned innocent Americans, those Americans who had volunteered to fight for the defense of this nation, to death for no good reason, and for no reason connected to the legitimate requirements of our nation's security.

If you want a reason to damn someone to the lowest rung of hell, I do not know what other reason you could possibly require. In the face of this truly monstrous fact, who gives a damn what Bush may or may not have done thirty years ago in connection with his National Guard service? Yet again, this reveals how deeply distorted our media coverage has become (a phenomenon which carries over in spades into the world of weblogs) -- people are faced with a hugely significant fact, which they steadfastly refuse to acknowledge or deal with, and instead spend endless amounts of time dealing with issues which are tangential at best, and probably irrelevant, even if one could ever ascertain a full version of the facts, which one can't.

I have discussed these two stories to make one point above all: in our current cultural climate, people will do almost anything to distract themselves from the issues and the facts that ought to matter. The great majority of people spend almost all their time discussing issues about which it is close to impossible to obtain a complete version of the facts, issues which are largely irrelevant in any case -- when facts which are staring them in the face, and which carry unmistakably significant implications, are completely ignored.

If you have followed me along thus far, I think you might agree that this phenomenon is one worthy of note. One might well wonder at this point: what could possibly explain this studied refusal to acknowledge what is staring one in the face? Why would so many people be so resistant to facing what is plainly right in front of them? And the majority of people will not even acknowledge the existence of this problem: they will not admit that they are ignoring a crucial topic that is lying in plain view.

Nonetheless, they are. When the world continues to hurtle to what may well be its destruction, and when people refuse to even acknowledge what is happening, you are witnessing a worldwide version of The Big Lie: the lie is so huge, that its very size prevents people from identifying what it is right there in front of them, screaming the fact of its existence in their face.

Now I will share with you a story from last week. It is not a story that received much notice -- and that lack of attention is the most significant confirmation of what I have been saying, as will become clear. Here is the story, in its entirety [link no longer working]:
RICE, Texas - A fifth grader with a rare deformity says two teachers put him on display for a science lesson.

Robert Will Harris has Stahl's ear, which causes points to form on the ears. He and family say two fourth-grade teachers at his school used his deformity to teach a lesson in genetics.

The boy says the teachers pulled him from his class twice in one day and took him to their classrooms to show his ears.

Officials with the Rice Independent School District acknowledge the incidents happened, but say the teachers meant no harm. They say the teachers were simply trying to teach genetics and family traits.

The family says the boy's ears have nothing to do with genetics. His parents say they no longer want their son used for show and tell.
Several aspects of this exceedingly brief report deserve the most serious attention -- and as I indicated, that very brevity is central to its significance. First, note that the adults involved -- who were teachers, keep in mind -- insist that they "meant no harm," as if that insistence on their "innocent" motives exonerates them of responsibility, and blame.

Second, and much, much more important: please note what is not mentioned in this story. How do you think these incidents affected the child? Robert Will Harris is in elementary school -- and he is probably no older than nine or ten. How do you think a ten-year-old would feel about being used for "a lesson in genetics," because of "his deformity"?

Despite my very deep revulsion at the unnecessary deaths in Iraq, the deaths of both American soldiers and of innocent Iraqis, I have to say that this may well be the most deeply disturbing and most disgusting story I have read in the last year. And I say that for the following reason: it is society's refusal to acknowledge the profound damage that is inflicted on innocent children in innumerable ways, every single day, that is the deepest root of most, if not all, of the evils that confront us today.

Most adults reading this news story will probably react by saying something on the order of the following: "Well, yes, that is terrible, but after all, all of us are exposed to cruelty as children. And we all survived, and we're okay. It's just part of life. So it's not that bad. Remember, too, that cruelty is part of life, so it's probably just as well that children learn what life is truly like at an early age."

And that is the other part of this overwhelmingly significant and largely ignored problem -- this denial by almost all adults of the pain that was inflicted on them as children. This is the manner in which adults demonstrate how disconnected they are from their own pasts, how they deny and become dissociated from their own souls, and how they become so willing to pass on unthinking cruelty to children of the next generation.

And this is also why people are willing to cling to political beliefs and ideologies which lead to nothing but destruction and death, as we shall begin to see in the next parts of this series.

February 11, 2004

They Are the Damned

Here are two vicious Vietnam lies, courtesy of Mark Steyn:
The only relevant lesson from Vietnam is this: then, as now, it was not possible for the enemy to achieve military victory over the US; their only hope was that America would, in effect, defeat itself. And few men can claim as large a role in the loss of national will that led to that defeat as John Kerry. A brave man in Vietnam, he returned home to appear before Congress and not merely denounce the war but damn his "band of brothers" as a gang of rapists, torturers and murderers led by officers happy to license them to commit war crimes with impunity. He spent the Seventies playing Jane Fonda and he now wants to run as John Wayne.
The worst lie is not the despicable claim that Kerry "damn[ed] his 'band of brothers' as a gang of rapists, torturers and murderers." That lie is exposed here and here. [And for much more on this subject, see my later essay entitled, When the Demons Come.] Kerry wasn't talking about his own views -- he was reporting the testimony of over 150 honorably discharged Vietnam veterans:
"I would like to talk on behalf of all those veterans and say that several months ago in Detroit we had an investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged, and many very highly decorated, veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia. These were not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command. It is impossible to describe to you exactly what did happen in Detroit - the emotions in the room and the feelings of the men who were reliving their experiences in Vietnam. They relived the absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do."

"They told stories that at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country."
Whether the propagandists repeating this vicious, easily exposed lie are colossally ignorant or simply remarkably unskilled propagandists, you may decide.

But there is a lie that is even worse: the revived claim that "[t]he only relevant lesson from Vietnam" is that the enemy's "only hope was that America would, in effect, defeat itself" -- and that defeat is the direct result of a "loss of national will." The claim is not true now with regard to the "War on Terror," and it was not true then.

I've offered this excerpt before, from Barbara Tuchman's The March of Folly -- and because of the importance of this issue, here it is again:
Fulbright's vote on the Morse amendment signified an open break with Johnson. He felt betrayed by the move into active combat, contrary to Johnson's assurances, and was one day to confess that he regretted his role in the Tonkin Gulf Resolution more than anything else he had ever done. He now organized, in January-February 1966, in six days of televised hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the first serious public discussion at an official level of the American intervention in Vietnam. More than was appreciated at the time, basic issues emerged--alleged "commitment," national interest, disproportion of effort to interest and the nascent recognition of American self-betrayal. Secretary Rusk and General Taylor made the case for the Administration; Ambassador George Kennan, General James M. Gavin, Fulbright himself and several colleagues spoke for the dissent.

Secretary Rusk insisted as always that the United States had "a clear and direct commitment" to secure South Vietnam against "external attack" deriving from the SEATO Treaty and Eisenhower's letter to Diem, and that this imposed an "obligation" to intervene. With the inventive rhetoric characteristic of true believers, he asserted that "the integrity of our commitments is absolutely essential to the preservation of peace around the globe." When the supposed commitment was punctured by Senator Morse, who cited a recent denial by Eisenhower that he had "ever given a unilateral commitment to the government of South Vietnam," Rusk retreated to the position that the United States was "entitled" by the SEATO Treaty to intervene and that the commitment derived from policy statements by successive Presidents and from the appropriations voted by Congress itself. General Taylor acknowledged under questioning that insofar as the use of our combat ground forces was concerned, the commitment "took place of course only in the spring of 1965."

With regard to national interest, Taylor claimed that the United States had a "vital stake" in the war without defining what it was.
He said that Communist leaders, in their drive to conquer South Vietnam, expected to undermine the position of the United States in Asia and prove the efficacy of wars of national liberation, which it was incumbent on the United States to show were "doomed to failure." Senator Fulbright was moved to ask if the American Revolution was not a "war of national liberation."

General Gavin questioned whether Vietnam was worth the investment in view of all other American commitments abroad. He believed we were being "mesmerized" by the endeavor, and that the contemplated troop strength of half a million, reducing our capacity everywhere else, suggested that the Administration had lost all sense of proportion. South Vietnam was simply not that important.

The charge that public opposition to the war represented "weakness" and failure of will (today being revived by the revisionists of the 1980s) was briefly touched by General Taylor in describing the French public's repudiation of the war as demonstrating "weakness." Senator Morse replied that it would not be "too long before the American people repudiate our war in Southeast Asia," as the French had theirs, and when they did, would that be "weakness"?

In sober words Ambassador Kennan brought out the question of self-betrayal. Success in the war would be hollow even if achievable, he said, because of the harm being done by the spectacle of America inflicting "grievous damage on the lives of a poor and helpless people, particularly on a people of different race and color....This spectacle produces reactions among millions of people throughout the world profoundly detrimental to the image we would like them to hold of this country." More respect could be won by "a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions" than by their stubborn pursuit. He quoted John Quincy Adams' dictum that wherever the standard of liberty was unfurled in the world, "there will be America's heart...but she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy." Pursuing monsters meant endless wars in which "the fundamental maxim of [American] policy would insensibly change from liberty to force." No harder truth was spoken at the hearings.

For all their truths, the Fulbright hearings were not a prelude to action in the only way that could count, a vote against appropriations, so much as an intellectual exercise in examination of American policy. The issue of longest consequence, Executive war, was not formulated until after the hearings, in Fulbright's preface to a published version. Acquiescence in Executive war, he wrote, comes from the belief that the government possesses secret information that gives it special insight in determining policy. Not only was this questionable, but major policy decisions turn "not upon available facts but upon judgment," with which policy-makers are no better endowed than the intelligent citizen. Congress and citizens can judge "whether the massive deployment and destruction of their men and wealth seem to serve the overall interests as a nation."

Though he could bring out the major issues, Fulbright was a teacher, not a leader, unready himself to put his vote where it counted. When a month after the hearings the Senate authorized $4.8 billion in emergency funds for the war in Vietnam, the bill passed against only the two faithful negatives of Morse and Gruening. Fulbright voted with the majority.

The belief that government knows best was voiced just at this time by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who said on resumption of the bombing, "We ought to all support the President. He is the man who has all the information and knowledge of what we are up against." This is a comforting assumption that relieves people from taking a stand. It is usually invalid, especially in foreign affairs. "Foreign policy decisions," concluded Gunnar Myrdal after two decades of study, "are in general much more influenced by irrational motives" than are domestic ones.
It is curious indeed that, in their constant efforts to denounce anyone who dares to suggest parallels between our current tactics in the "War on Terror" (including the Iraq invasion and occupation) and Vietnam, the war propagandists simply make those parallels clearer, and more precise.

The claim that it is only "weakness" and a "failure of will" that can lead to defeat should be seen for what it is: a dishonest and dangerous attempt to shift the focus, and the blame, away from our policies themselves and how they are implemented, and to put the blame -- and the responsibility for failure -- on anyone who dares to criticize or question those policies. It is a vicious and childish lie, for the simple reason that the people the war propagandists thus seek to blame are people who have no control whatsoever over what our policies are, or how they are carried out. How in the world can a military failure be the fault of someone sitting at home in the United States, or even demonstrating against the war, rather than the military itself, and the policies it is implementing?

It shouldn't be necessary to state such obvious truths, but in the corrupt intellectual atmosphere of the war debate, it unfortunately is. Once again, keep this in mind: "But there's always a purpose in nonsense. Don't bother to examine a folly—ask yourself only what it accomplishes." What this particular folly accomplishes is, first, the hawks' attempt to avoid all responsibility for the policies they adopted and that they themselves are carrying out. No one else is to blame for any failures they may experience, and it is a measure of their moral cowardice that they won't even accept responsibility for what they are doing.

But there is a second goal of this particular nonsense: the attempt to stifle and shut down all dissent, and all the voices which question our policies. In this way, the war propagandists hope to achieve a complete uniformity of opinion (despite any claims they may make to the contrary), and they simultaneously seek to avoid ever having to explain or defend their views.

What you are witnessing is psychological projection on a massive scale, across an entire culture: the guilt which the Vietnam hawks felt -- which they fully deserved, in view of the endless list of horrors that their decisions and actions unleashed, all for something which had nothing whatsoever to do with the defense of the United States -- was shifted to the Vietnam war protesters, and all the others who questioned our involvement there. And now the "War on Terror" hawks are trying to do the same thing. They deserve to feel profound and tremendous guilt -- for the lack of wisdom in their policies, for picking wars and occupations which do nothing to enhance our security, but only worsen it, for unleashing yet another train of horrors, to say nothing of the damage their actions are causing on the domestic front -- but following the example of cowardice from the Vietnam era, they once again try to shift their own earned guilt onto those who merely dissent from the official view.

It is quite remarkable when you think about it. The hawks are endlessly proud of the fact that the United States has the greatest military in the world. And the hawks constantly complain about the "weakness" and "lack of will" of those who question our government's actions, apparently forgetting that it is the hawks who control our government. What would it take to make these unhappy warriors content? A world where everyone agrees with them, and repeats all day long how wise and brave they are? It would appear so.

But in the meantime, it is amazing that despite the fact that we have the strongest armed forces known in all of history and that hawks control all the levers of power, somehow people armed only with placards, words and keyboards can threaten to destroy all that the hawks hope to achieve, at least according to the hawks themselves.

Perhaps what they genuinely desire is a return to censorship of the kind we had in World War I and World War II, when people were thrown in jail for reading the Bill of Rights in public. Thus do these particular hawks reveal their true lack of confidence, their moral cowardice, their refusal to accept responsibility for any of their actions, and the traitorous nature of their own souls.

They are the damned -- and in time, history will treat them accordingly.