Thursday, December 30, 2010


We seem to be bombarded lately by “random acts of culture” both in the real world (if such a place exists) and on YouTube. Handel's Hallelujah Chorus seems to be popping up all over -- almost expected at shopping malls and food courts.

I love Messiah. I've made it a point to sing, play, or conduct it almost every year since I've been 20. The Hallelujah Chorus is an astoundingly effective work of its time–and ours–and one can well imagine King George rising in ecstasy when hearing it. I've written about Messiah in several of my books, and it is a major altar in my church of worship.

But does it belong in a shopping mall? In the midst of ongoing orgies of consumerism, here we have enthusiastic artists, most often volunteers, singing “for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.”

In the context of the shopping mall, who is the Lord God omnipotent that reigneth? Surely more Mammon than Jehovah. The Lord God of Capitalism here reigns, “and he shall reign for ever and ever!”

While this may in fact be true, at least for the moment, is it worth putting so much energy into celebrating it? The Hallelujah Chorus is not Muzak, especially in live performance. People hear it, understand it, and receive it positively. What is it they are joyfully hearing in the context of the mall? The delight of Christmas shopping. The triumphant assertion of their own culture. The craving for that culture to reign forever and ever.

But is this the function of art? Should great music be an accomplice to great crimes? Should it enable and abet destructive capitalist madness?

In One Dimensional Man, Marcuse speaks of the Great Refusal–the protest against that which is. That is great art's function in society -- to refute, break and recreate "the modes in which man and things are made to appear.”

I have been invited several times to participate in a Hallelujah flash mob. I know the bass part well, and could easily do it. But the idea of singing such praise in a shopping mall–to a shopping mall–to the activities of a shopping mall–makes my gorge rise.

When I got my most recent invite, I suggested, as an alternative, a flash mob which would sing a neighboring chorus from Messiah–“Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs And Carried Our Sorrows.” The music is truly harrowing, filled with dotted rhythms of the lash and dissonances of pain. The words go on to say, “He was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruisèd for our iniquities.” And was he not? What would Jesus buy at the mall? The text of “Surely” concludes, "The chastisement of our peace was upon him.”

Singing "Surely" at the mall? Now that would be a surprise event, an invasion of culture by Culture.

Of course whenever I hear the word Culture, I think of Goering and his remarkable assertion, “Whenever I hear the word Culture I reach for my gun.” I understand what he was talking about. Because real Culture is always and immensely subversive of great schemes human and inhuman.

Brecht nailed the oppositional function of art in the closing speech of his teaching play, The Exception and the Rule. Concerning the actions of the characters in the one-act, the narrator instructs the audience:

Observe the conduct of these people closely:    
Find it estranging even if not very strange    
Hard to explain even if it is the custom    
Hard to understand even if it is the rule    
Observe the smallest action, seeming simple    
With mistrust
Inquire if a thing be necessary    
Especially if it is common
We particularly ask you -
When a thing continually occurs -
Not on that account to find it natural
Let nothing be called natural
In an age of bloody confusion
Ordered disorder, planned caprice
And dehumanized humanity
Lest all things
Be held unalterable!

That, I think, is what random acts of Culture should be doing.

My next week's essay will discuss the healing potential of infiltrative art.

Thursday, December 23, 2010


Donna Bister: Bread & Puppet Sheep
Toward the end of Bread & Puppet's marvelous Christmas Story, after the news spreads of Jesus's birth, King Herod picks up the phone:

"Hello, Third Army?  Go straight to Bethlehem and kill all the children."

In the next scene a large soldier marches in, in full battle array, and knocks on the door of a tiny puppet house.

"Good evening, Ma’am.  Do you happen to have any children in the house?"
"Oh, yes, of course," the little hand-puppet says. "Hansie and Mariechen.”
“Can you bring them out, please?”
“Oh certainly, Sergeant. But...why?
"We want to kill them."

The mother then tells the sergeant an amazing story that he'll "never believe, but..." about how the children were just taking a bath and then -- by accident -- they were washed down the drain.  The sergeant, stupefied, weeps.

"Oh, lady, that's really terrible.  Allow me to extend the condolences of the entire Third Army."

He marches off to the next house where he finds that the six children happened to have just marched off six weeks ago and haven't come back yet.

"Men, King Herod isn't going to be too pleased about this."

The next house turns out to be the Bethlehem Nursery, "And we have 55 sweet, little darlings fast asleep in their sweet little beddy-byes," says the Nurse out her window, "AND YOU GORILLAS ARE WAKING THEM UP WITH YOUR SCREAMING.  You better go play soldier somewhere else, or I'll call the authorities."

"Lady," says the sergeant, "we are the authorities."

The Slaughter of the Innocents is not an aspect of the Christmas story dwelt on during our consumerist, Hallmarky season. In fact, it's not dwelt on at any other time -- whether the Innocents be the Iraqi, Afghani, Pakistani, or Palestinian dead, the humanitarians aboard the Mavi Marmara or the recipients of its aid, Rachel Corrie herself, crushed by an Israeli bulldozer, or the newly oiled seabirds, fish and fishermen in the Gulf.

"I'll call the authorities," the public says, only to discover that "We" -- the perpetrators -- "ARE the authorities."

It was the authorities who set up the enrichment of the rich and the impoverishment of the rest. It is the authorities who promote the mass murders of the military industrial complex with their endless wars and genocides, who pocket the cash and power, cloak themselves in secrecy, and silence whistleblowers. It is our "best and brightest" who enable the destruction for profit of the environment, and call for economy on collapsing infrastructures, concrete and human. Is current "authority" any less than a sociopathic criminal enterprise?

The moment captured at the end of the Bread & Puppet Christmas Story provides the insouciant watchword of our time: "Lady, we are the authorities."

Friday, December 17, 2010


So Julian Assange is now without his passport, braceleted under house arrest, waiting for the Wheels of Injustice to slowly grind. At this point, his story is not so much that of killing the messenger (though that is what many in the US are calling for), as that of kicking the dog.

The dog in question was Julian’s close ancestor, Diogenes, a contentious fanatic foolish enough to spend his life with a lantern, looking unsuccessfully for "an honest man." Some say he sought “a human being.” His writings did not survive, but there are legends.

Notorious for his provocative behavior, people called him a dog, a nickname he embraced. “Other dogs,” he said, “bite their enemies. I bite my friends to save them.”

He wasn’t kind to his enemies either. At a sumptuous dinner given by a wealthy man, a guest became so outraged by Diogenes' behavior that he began to throw bones to “the dog”. The philosopher got up, lifted his leg and toga, and took a leak on him.

Like Assange’s, Diogenes' life was a relentless campaign to promote reason and virtue, and to debunk the values and institutions of a corrupt society. In doing so he disregarded laws, customs, conventions, public opinion, reputation, honor and personal dishonor.

Political authority was a main target for both -- its folly, pretense, selfishness, vanity, self-deception, corruption, and artificiality of conduct. Diogenes said: “Those who have virtue always in their mouth, and neglect it in practice, are like a harp which emits a sound pleasing to others, while being itself deaf to the music.”

So together the dogs -- Diogenes and Assange -- challenge the false coin of human morality, sharing Socrates' belief that one can be a doctor to men’s souls, and morally improve humanity, while being contemptuous of its behavior.

Sitting alone in a Dickensian prison, or now with wi-fi in a mansion, Assange has not yet been assassinated, as many have called for. He may or may not end like Socrates, taken out by the State. But Diogenes lived a long while, and one hopes the same may be true for Julian Assange.

One legend of  Diogenes' death is that, at 90, he committed suicide by holding his breath. If or when Assange does die, it will likely be because he, too, is no longer allowed to breathe, speak, or leak out his documents.

Friday, December 10, 2010


A recent revelation: rehearsing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, I was in the cello section mentally drooling over the carpet of harmonies we were laying down under the solo violin during the gorgeous slow movement. Not much to concentrate on other then how very beautiful this moment was.

As I breathed in the slow movement of the Mendelssohn, I realized that this music, this moment, and others like it, were SPECIFIC antidotes to the poison spewing from the mouths of politicians. I realized too, that without my frequent hits from the music inhaler I would probably be dead, or at least reduced to zombiedom. My life's balance was suspended between the poison of politics and the healing of music, which interaction created a space for my writing.

I had long been aware of “the healing power of music” inasmuch as it was the arena of "music therapy" and the tool of music therapists. But I had never been so acutely aware of its specific purgative and remedial effect.

Coming up soon are Beethoven's two birthdays, December 16 and December 17. As one of the characters in my novel, Insect Dreams, says: “Extraordinary people do extraordinary things.” (Not to be coy, there are two different documents with two different birth dates. I celebrate both.) And this week, too, Donna and I begin rehearsals for a New Year's Day performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which will hopefully become a tradition here in Burlington. In any case, Beethoven is often on my mind.

It's somewhat predictable, then, that the combination of Beethoven, music, and healing would find its way into my writing. I want to share with you this week a particularly ridiculous scene based on a particularly amazing piece of music–a movement of the A minor String Quartet which Aldous Huxley called “proof of the existence of God”. The movement was labeled by Beethoven “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Gesenenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart”–a "Holy Song of Thanks from a Convalescent to the Godhead, in the Lydian Mode".

Beethoven was known to have serious stomach problems which bothered him increasingly as he aged. I put this all together and came up with the following note in my recent novel, The Annotated Nose.

The hero, Alexei Pigov, has become the Glenn Gould of the accordion. He is befriended by a fellow lab tech, William Hundwasser, who exploits and markets his strangeness, creating from him the public figure of a medieval plague doctor come to heal The Contemporary Plague. Here he is in Hundwasser's lab, experimenting with Beethoven on Hundwasser, and Herman, the tarantula:

44. Studying tarantellas and subtly applying them was my first experience of being a healer. Hundwasser kept several in a terrarium in his lab as a conversation starter for the “pretty young things in their white lab coats” he enjoyed cultivating. I began with one named Herman.

    Herman was a dancin’ fool. He (?) would jump out of hiding — or hibernating, or estivating, or whatever tarantulas do for sleep —  at the first peep of the accordion, and would then stand thoughtfully, taking the music into his ganglia. Then he would begin to sway, and after a minute to dance, and to dance appropriately to whatever I was playing, almost in rhythm, but definitely fast for allegros and slowly for adagios. When I stopped, he stopped — and waited. He could outwait me. When I left, I would just leave him there, waiting.

    I figured if an insect person could react this way, with so few nerve cells, human persons must be able process such signals with far more complex consequences than simply dancing.

    As you probably know, Beethoven suffered from chronic abdominal problems and severe intestinal inflammation. Fortunately Hundwasser suffered similar symptoms. An experiment was staring me right in the face. The famous
Heilige Dankgesang in the A minor quartet, the “Holy Song Of Thanks From A Convalescent To The Godhead“, was written after recovering from a serious bout with abdominal pain.  Surely the tones, the great ideas of that movement, beyond being “proof of the existence of God” (Huxley), the successive integrations of disparate elements, must have something to do with disease, and with (Beethoven’s) stomach disease in particular. It was worth a try.

    I made an accordion arrangement of the three adagio sections, and played them daily to Hundwasser during lunch break. We used the animal room for privacy. He just sat and listened.  I suppose the rats listened too, but I had no parameters to measure the effects on them.

    Hundwasser, however, had lots of parameters.  Or, like the hedgehog, one big parameter: the number of Rolaids he popped each day.  It took a week or so before R began to drop. From an average of 20 to an average of 12. On weekends, no music, R rose again. Come weekdays, it began to fall by Tuesday.  In a sustained three week experiment, no days off, R fell to 3, then climbed to 12 again with a week off. We were on to something.

    Neither of us had the time for a full and lasting cure, but after we stopped the experiment, he bought a record of the Budapest playing it, and has used that routinely to calm his symptoms.  Saves him money on Rolaids, and he can listen while washing the dishes during the rare moments that he washes the dishes.

    Flush with success, I looked more closely into the tarantella situation, the Antidotum Tarantulae. I would need to study the phenomenon first hand. But there aren’t a lot of tarantula bites in Manhattan. There aren’t many tarantas
[women bitten by tarantulas] to whom I could offer treatment — especially if it were just an experiment by a newbie. What to do?

    Herman to the rescue! I could get him to bite me, and then, in the heroic tradition of the great doctors and medical researchers, I could try to cure myself. I admit such research is small potatoes compared to the guy who shoved a catheter into an arm vein and guided it up into his heart, or the guys from Walter Reed’s team who invited malaria mosquitoes to bite them, so they could test drugs, or even the guy who gave himself ulcers so he could prove it was bacteria that caused them.  Small potatoes unless I died.  But I know that though tarantula bites were toxic, they were not often fatal.

    And of course, we have to remember Dr. Curt Conners, aka, the Lizard in Spiderman Comics, who lost his arm in a war, and experimented with reptilian DNA to try and grow it back, a great example of be careful what you wish for: the therapy caused him to mutate into a creature half-human and half-reptile. He became a villain, too, and even uglier than I am. I wondered if I might turn into a tarantula person — from the saliva — but it wasn’t very likely.

    I knew this self-experimentation would be looked down upon at the Berg Institute for Experimental Physiology, Surgery and Pathology, even though experimental physiology, surgery and pathology was exactly what I was doing. So it was 1 A.M. when I let myself into Hundwasser’s lab, took Honey
[his accordion] out of her case, and aroused Herman with the traditional slow, lamenting introduction to Borodin’s Polovetsian Dance #2, “The Wild Dance of the Men”. Out he came on cue, staring at me through the Adagio, and when the fast part started, gave a shiver, and went into nothing short of a frenzy, leaping high off the terrarium floor, doing 90º, 180º, 270º, and 360º spins in the air, landing on his feet, rolling over on his back, and dragging himself miraculously by hyper–extended forelegs reaching up, over and behind his head, engaging the sand. It was so amazing, I almost forgot what I had come for. He must have been a Polovetsian spider, or at least have Polovetsian blood, perhaps from the Russian steppes.

    When the both of us stopped to get our breaths, I thrust my left arm into the terrarium, and, though normally a pacifist, he leaped at it, and sunk his fangs in midway between wrist and elbow. Good Herman! I had to pull him off. Within a minute and a half, I was, as they say, possessed by the spider.

    Though being somewhat atypical myself, I was that night afflicted with all the typical tarantula bite symptoms: feelings of prostration, anguish, psychomotor agitation, clouding of my sensory apparatus, difficulty standing, stomach cramps, nausea, paresthesia, muscular pains, extraordinary itching, and best and worst of all, vastly heightened sexual desire. I took a cab home; the cabbie thought I was way-drunk.

    Lying in my bed, I felt wounded and weary, and aware of the deep tediousness of all things.  Still, after a short sleep, I was able to drag Honey out of her case, and begin a medly of tarantellas I had learned.

    Somewhere toward the end of the 1490s, the great Neopolitan scholar Alessandro d’Alessandro described the treatment of stricken tarantas by the local folk musicians: “they play different dances according to the nature of the poison, in such a way that with the vicitms entranced by the harmony and fascinated by what they hear, the poison either dissolves inside the body and dissipates, or else is slowly eliminated through the veins.” And with (wouldn’t you know it?) one of the Neopolitan tarantellas, I could feel just that effect, a veritable exorcism, a return to life, possibly to love. By the next day I was weak, but feeling basically normal via my iatromusical practice.

    Plague doctoring is not so much different, though I suffer less, and my patients suffer more.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


“In each event–in the living act, the undoubted deed–there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the molding of its features from behind the unreasoning mask.”
Capt. Ahab

So they -- Pynchon's "They", the Blue and Red Meanies, visible and undisclosed -- won't renew unemplyoment benefits, want to kill 'em all, anywhere, with drones  or nukes if possible, are prepared to starve out Palestinians and Caterpillar their homes, drown low-lying peasants, and assassinate or execute any whistle blowers so they can do their deeds in secret.  Who are these people?

“Greedy” and “mean-spirited” are the mildest adjectives one hears describing the attitudes and projects of heads of state, their underlings, and the CEOs that drive them. And last -- but definitely not least -- the populations that applaud them.

It might be possible to assume that Mr. (and the occasional Ms.) Big and their followers have human hearts (Cheney's contraption notwithstanding), love their children as we do, and hope to pass on to them a better world. What is it, then, that drives them to propose and cheer on such callous proposals and systems?

While differing in personal details, it's likely that each actor is driven by what the Frankfurt School called the “Authoritarian Personality,” whose fundamental trait is the urgent need for, and privileging of, order. Freud, Fromm, and Reich explained the psychodynamics of weak ego structures that underlay the Authoritarian Personality, while Adorno and Horkheimer analyzed the social repression that encourage it and leave its marks on individual souls.

When Alles in Ordnung becomes the highest value, and all else seems threatening, many things follow:

1) Powerful leaders are assumed to be needed to keep society in line, secretly if necessary, and to restrict it to conventional, middle-class values. Exaggerated assertions of toughness and strength become the norm. Trickle-down theories designed to protect the powerful are understood to be in the interest of all. Though greed and lust for power may be involved, they are justified by an appeal to the general good.

2) Democracy becomes a threat and must be limited. In The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governed Ability of Democracies To the Trilateral Commission, Samuel Huntington warns about the consequences of an “excess of democracy”: “The arenas where democratic procedures are appropriate are, in short, limited.… The effective operation of the democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals and groups.… Marginality on the part of some groups is inherently undemocratic, but it has also been one of the factors which has enabled democracy to function effectively.”

The need to control the unpredictability of excess democracy has guided American foreign and economic policy throughout its history. The pattern of marginalizing the general population and supporting rich or dictatorial strongmen is driven as much by a rage for order and fear of chaos as by a simple selfish need to maximize profits–profits.

3 Individualism becomes suspect, a negative value to be minimized or stamped out. Difference means unpredictability, and thus "bad". Fear of an unpredictable, uncontrollable Other spawns all the “–isms” which rampage today: racism, sexism, classism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia. Nature itself becomes an enemy Other to be conquered and subdued.

4) Rigid moralism of stereotypical values seems the most secure protection against anarchy. The psychosexual chaos at the core of an authoritarian personality simultaneously fascinates and repels. There is exaggerated concern with and (often hypocritical) denunciation of libidinal art and sexual “goings on.” God hates fags, don'tcha know. Don't ask, don't tell, don't be. At the same time, unconscious emotional impulses are projected outward, and the world is seen as a wild and dangerous place in which worst-case scenarios abound.

5) Fear and guilt about chaotic thoughts within and deeds without is so potentially threatening that psychic numbing becomes a typical response, with emotional dissociation from the consequences of deeds. Knee-jerk patriotism in response to moral questions is an effective defense mechanism. Yellow ribbons blindfold eyes against our corpses. The story of the Enola Gay or 9/11 must not be told. Control of information makes compassion difficult.

6) A culture of punishment follows hard upon. Offenders against official order must be heavily penalized. Dominance and submission become crucial. Pro-life and pro-death penalty attitudes flourish together. Sanctity of life is secondary: the important thing is to punish transgressors. Tender-mindedness is for bleeding heart liberals.

Thus, the Authoritarian Personality -- individual and social. While no “angry white male” leader or follower may display every trait, they are all on collective display in the current reactionary zeitgeist. To characterize them as simple greed or mean-spiritedness is to misunderstand their psychic origins, and to limit effective response.

Can there be an effective strategy in response?

Each of the characteristics above can be substantially addressed. In dealing with any particular individual, from talkshow caller to senator, a crucial move might be to speak to his or her insecurity and need for order:

1) Powerful Leaders. We can emphasize the collective wisdom and surprising knowledge of larger groups, and the limitations of powerful, but narrow, leadership. We can point to the possibilities of decentralized planning and decision-making. If trickle-up energy can be recognized and honored, trickle-down economics will make less sense.

2) The Threat of Democracy. We can call on any reserve goodwill for the founding ideas of this country. In their research for Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah's group of sociologists discovered a pervasive “second language” of civic republicanism and biblical tradition flourishing alongside the seemingly dominant American language of manipulative instrumentalism. World Bank strangulation of the global poor, for example, can show up -- at least to the masses -- as profound injustice if this second language is brought forward and appealed to. Bellah's book is an important read for activists thoroughly discouraged.

3) Suspect Individualism and Dangerous Others. “New” and “different” are not negative terms in American culture. Current advertising appeals to it all the time. Ethnic music and restaurants thrive–so why not the folks that originate them? Today's xenophobia may not be an indelible characteristic of the American psyche, but a relatively superficial effect of economic hard times. Many positive sensibilities are there to be addressed, and one can try to locate blame where it belongs -- on the power structures, not on their victims.

4) Rigid Moralism. Puritanism and profligacy have always existed in dubious battle. Hawthorne's “Maypole of Marymount” teases the most rigid among us, creating chaos within control. Understanding the inner workings of self and others is a possible key to a more peaceful order. Mitch McConnel (married to an Asian-American) may be secretly fascinated with Louisville's gay pride parade, but he has no conceptual tree on which to hang it. Can we make it okay for him and his to ponder such things, if only as examples of the human condition?

5) Patriotic Psychic Numbing. Now that the information highway has invaded the world, images of Others seep daily into consciousness. For all the "good guy/bad guy" media spin, there may be a perception of common humanity lurking under the thickest hide, kept in place only by fear. Should that hide begin to melt, psychic numbing will disappear with it and blinding patriotism might be open to fascination and even generosity. “They're just dumb, greedy sonsabitches” sells short even a right-winger's capacity for wonder.

6) The Culture of Punishment. As nuclear power, once projected as “too cheap to meter,” has priced itself out of existence, so must three-strikes prison building make its idiocy felt. When the quick fix fails–as even a casual observer can see it must–Americans will have to confront the contradictions of dominance. And here our egalitarian “second language” can come into play, creaking open through cognitive dissonance. If even Dick Cheney supports his daughter in her lesbianism, can angry, punishing America be all that far behind?

All right. But as Cheney so famously said, "So?"

These approaches to the Authoritarian Personality do seem overly optimistic in the era of our once and future Congresses. And surely social and political structures of domination are firmly in place, prejudicing events and guiding their outcomes. But Melville directs our attention to the glimmer of hope, the “unknown but still reasoning thing” behind the unreasoning mask. Far better, perhaps, to organize toward that glimmer and engage that reason then to lapse into despair, and the powerless calling of names.

But can the vestigial better angels of our nature swell the chorus of a new, more humane union? Or have badder angel systems so suffocated us, for so long, that the better angels have turned their backs, taken their leave, and fled?

Lincoln's angels must by now confront Walter Benjamin's Angel: angel who seems about to take leave of something, something at which he is staring.  His eyes are wide, his mouth open and his wings outspread.  This is what the Angel of History must look like.  His face is turned toward the past.  What look to us like a chain of occurrences appears to him as one great catastrophe incessantly piling wreck upon wreck and hurling it at his feet.  He would very much like to stay, to waken the dead and make whole what has been shattered.  But a storm is blowing so strongly from Paradise that his wings are pinned back: he can no longer close them.  This storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile before him grows.  What we call progress -- that is the storm.

As the winds increase, I'm not betting on the outcome.

Friday, November 12, 2010


I hear on the news this Veterans Day that our thankfully exiting governor–cynically known as Governor Scissorhands for all his ribbon cutting -- will be dedicating a new memorial to our Vermont dead in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The "Vermont Global War on Terror Memorial", planned and funded by the families of "Vermont's 36 Fallen Global War on Terror Heroes,” to the tune of $350,000 is aimed at “marking both the sacrifice of those who served and the heartbreak of the loved ones left behind.”

A memorial to oneself?

The sculptor of the Memorial describes it thus:

"In front of the field memorial stands a low sarcophagus etched with the names and representing the body of Vermont’s Fallen Patriots.

Surrounding the field memorial and sarcophagus are three semi-circular bench walls.

In the center of each bench wall stands a monolith. The monolith on the left is dedicated to all those from Vermont who have served in the Global War on Terror. It has a hand tooled War on Terror Service Medal. The monolith on the right is dedicated to the families of the fallen and the great sacrifices they have made. It has a hand tooled Vermont Patriot’s Medal. The monolith in the back has a bronze dedication plaque and expresses the pride and sorrow of the citizens of Vermont.

Together the three monoliths – their family, their comrades and their fellow citizens stand as sentinels ready to guard the sacred honor of the fallen. …”

The Cemetery Advisory Board of the Vermont Veterans Memorial Cemetery has provided what they call “a reverent location at the entrance to the cemetery.” “The GWOT Memorial will be a lasting tribute to our Fallen Heroes who have made the 'ultimate sacrifice' protecting our country and defending our freedom. They will not be forgotten.”

It is hard to know where to begin reacting to all this. I cringe at the language–bathetic, maudlin, soupy, cloying, schmaltzy, large-P Patriotic–but the sentiments inscribed in this language are more problematical still.

A guy stopped by at our peace vigil last night and said, “My nephew got back from Iraq and blew his brains out. He couldn't deal with the stuff he had done–killing civilians and all that.”

This, it seems to me is a more accurate description of reality.

Our president, of course, made a typical Veterans Day pledge: “As long as I am Commander-in-Chief, I am going to do right by them [our veterans]. America will not let you down. We will take care of our own,” he said.

On the other hand, yesterday's release of the draft report from the President's Fiscal Deficit Commission has recommended establishing Veterans Administration health co-pays. From the report: “This option would increase out-of-pocket costs for veterans in Priority Group 5–those who do not have service-connected disabilities and whose income is below a VA-defined threshold. Currently, those patients pay no fees for inpatient or outpatient medical care. This option requires copayments for medical care provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs to these enrollees, saving 0.7 billion in 2014.”

This, it seems to me, is a more accurate description of reality.

And today, Obama exhorted Congress to stop shooting down the deficit proposals before they have been studied. “If people are in fact, concerned about spending, debt, deficits and the future of our country, then they're going to need to be armed with the information about the kinds of choices that are going to be involved, and we can't just engage in political rhetoric.” A new rhetorical War on Political Rhetoric?

The question of supporting troops is a vexed one. It is true they have suffered–but they have also caused much suffering. Which of the two do we support? Only the first while ignoring the second? The families too have suffered. But is part of their pain related to their own responsibility in sending their children off to kill and be killed in the interests of a governing elite? Do we support such sending off?

In any case, the language of the Vermont Global War On Terror Memorial is tired, empty, and ever less to any point. It perpetuates a sentimental, obscuring cloud-of-unknowing over the realities we currently face and must radically change.

Saturday, November 6, 2010


I'm just beginning the week run of rehearsals and performances in the pit orchestra for Peter Pan. The Lyric Theater production will be extremely professional as usual, and attended by full houses of an enthusiastic community. I play in these musicals not because I think the dramatic art is great or the music profound, but because they are such wonderful examples of communities coming together–200 people working for months without pay–to produce a high-spirited event which several thousand people will enjoy.

Nevertheless, I have to admit being irritated by the very thought of Peter Pan. The unthinking enthusiasm with which his motto, “I won't grow up”, is greeted reflects the destructive childishness, and embrace of that childishness, epidemic in the American public. And here I'm not thinking of the occasional comico-pathetic gray-hair who earnestly exhorts me to honor my inner child as he or she does, and then trips blithely away in some psychic equivalent of tie dyes and bellbottoms. Rather I am concerned with the rampant embrace of the trivial and superficial.

This pattern has some innocent manifestations such as the recent adult enthusiasm for various children's books, business-suited women carrying them proudly underarm and assuring questioners that they are “really for adults, too.” The infantilization of the reading public -- bad for serious authors, but not all that sinister. Far more so is the dumbing down of news and other information, and the substitution of infotainment and celebrity.

I was reminded of this recently when Obama walked on stage, pre-election, at the Daily Show. The audience cheered and clapped–but in a way far beyond the polite, enthusiastic greetings routinely offered to even villains and semi-villains. The adulation went on and on. Obama tried four times to stop it, and finally just stood there smiling and waving occasionally.

Now remember, Jon Stewart's audience is made up mostly of lefty liberals who enjoy his satirical critique of the powers that be. Nevertheless, this very audience offered up an unstoppable standing ovation for a man who stands against everything they presumably stand for: a man  who is currently answerable for the worldwide death and starvation of millions; the many domestic losses of home and job; the destruction of climate and disarmament conferences; the ever-increasing expenditures on ever-increasing wars; the now commonplace practice of torture; the undercutting of public healthcare; the shielding of executive crimes past and present; the hoarding of executive power; the resurgence of the nuclear industry; the embrace of Israel's brutal policies in Palestine; the ever-increasing inequality of wealth; and now, post-election, the inevitable strangulation and death of democratic government. For starters.

Yet the children cheered him, and cheered him, and cheered him, because he is the president and they were in the same room, behaving not unlike swooning teenage girls at early Beatles concerts. Clap if you believe in fairies. I was embarrassed for them.


Burlington, Vermont, where I live, is the birthplace and main home of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Their motto, plastered all over bumper stickers, and inside their Burlington store, is IF IT'S NOT FUN, WHY DO IT? I've often pondered this question. And I've pondered alongside it another bumper sticker common in our area: Emma Goldman's face next to the line "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution.”

Is this a food fight between bumper stickers, or are they finally on the same side? Are they both exhorting us to honor our inner children? I decided to look further into the Goldman quote, and this is what I found–in her autobiography, Living My Life:

At the dances I was one of the most untiring and gayest. One evening a cousin of Sasha, a young boy, took me aside. With a grave face, as if he were about to announce the death of a dear comrade, he whispered to me that it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway. It was undignified for one who was on the way to become a force in the anarchist movement. My frivolity would only hurt the Cause.

I grew furious at the impudent interference of the boy. I told him to mind his own business. I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face. I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from convention and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that are Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement would not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things. Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world–prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own closest comrades I would live my beautiful ideal.

This statement feels significantly different from “IF IT'S NOT FUN WHY DO IT?”, for behind the joy and exuberance, Emma embraces a larger ideal to be joyful about. The playfulness of Ben & Jerry's, its flavors, its graphics, is more about honoring one's inner child. and putting out a lot of money -- with a smile -- for an ice cream cone.

I must say that the figure of Peter Pan is more complex then his motto song “I won't grow up” might imply. In Barrie's book, and even in the musical, Peter is a semi-tragic figure, sentenced to repeated loss of the friends who do grow up to leave him, responsible for the parental pain of losing the children kidnapped, and the nostalgic regret of losing one's childhood. Peter is as much the villain of the piece as its hero. He is boastful, selfish, distructive, and unreflective. And naturally, the children abducted to Neverland give him a standing ovation at his every appearance.

While I may be a churlish old grouch, I really do think that we, the kidnapped, had better begin to honor our inner adults, and not continually embrace childishness -- usually at the expense of others, and ourselves.

Hope is not a method, nor is belief in fairies.

(This essay was also published on The Rag Blog.)

Friday, October 29, 2010


Halloween is my least favorite holiday, the one that has strayed furthest from its original intentions, and has been most overwhelmed by candy–capitalism. The worst part about it, from my point of view, is that it now involves treats with no tricks. I am on full general strike against it.

It's not so much that I want to see infantile maliciousness attack the community but that I am a great fan of the word “or”. “Trick or treat”? – the homeowner has a choice, and should he choose the former, the onus is then on the tricker to come up with punishments that fit the crime. What tricker is prepared for that these days? Our corporate criminal element cultivates both treat and trick. Should not our children practice running the world?

It's not only the loss of imagination that I mourn, but even worse, a loss of the sense of Evil as a power to be meditated upon and respected. I left a career – or rather was invited out – as a minister because my congregations were unenthusiastic about exploring the evil around us. A personal critique of my denomination can be summed up in one sentence: they want Easter without Good Friday, transfiguration without death. "The world out there is bad enough–we don't need to go through it here on Sundays." In short, they had no theology of evil. Which these days, we need more than ever.

The great seasonal gift of this past week has been the Wikileaks release of 400,000 internal documents related to our military behavior in Iraq. It was both trick and treat, an apotheosis of Halloween behavior. And of course, in a culture which refuses to acknowledge its own evil, our government's initial response has been to shoot the messenger, with the mainstream media predictably complicit.

While media worldwide - mainstream and otherwise - focused on the contents of the communications – prisoners abused, raped and murdered; the civilian death toll covered up; the shooting of men trying to surrender (“you can't surrender to a helicopter”); the abuses of our private security firms; the hundreds of civilians killed at checkpoints – the US media focused almost entirely on whether Julian Assange had the right to release such documents, whether he is a sexual offender or not, and what punishment for him is appropriate.

This refocusing is perhaps predictable in our celebrity culture: everything comes down to the actions of particular, limelighted people, and the underlying currents are ignored. Julian Assange and Wikileaks are not the abscesses that need to be opened in order to heal. Their targets are. We should thank them for reviving the true spirit of Halloween.

Friday, October 22, 2010


 "I'm depressed."  A most common comment.  Depressed about what?  The answers are various: our dangerous, deaf, moronic leadership, the ongoing wars, religious strife, public and private corruption, joblessness, lack of child care, housing, perverse spending priorities, the entire fate of the earth.  So I thought I might bring some cheer this month by calling for a birthday celebration, a BIG birthday celebration -- the October 23rd anniversary of the birth of ... EXISTENCE.   

That's right.  On October 23rd, 4004 BC, at 4PM, Eastern Standard Time, or midnight in the Garden of Eden, God created the heavens and the earth.  And the earth was without form and void.     

Such was the conclusion of James Ussher (1581-1656), Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of All Ireland, and Vice-Chancellor of Trinity College in Dublin, after profound and exhaustive study of scriptural genealogies and Middle Eastern and Mediterranean histories.  His conclusion was incorporated into an authorized version of the Bible printed in 1701, and thus came to be regarded with almost as much unquestioning reverence as the Bible itself. 

Six thousand and six years old!  That's a lot of years.  And after all that time, what have we come to?  The Decline of the West.   

Way back in 1919, Oswald Spengler saw it all, the grand pattern, the "inward form of History", repeating through all recorded time, and in every major culture, including ours."For everything organic the notions of birth, death, youth, age, lifetime are fundamentals…"     

He saw all cultures come into springlike being, youthful and vigorous, flower in their summery, unique ways, and then autumnally decay.  Their winters were frozen into rigid, petrified forms, and these forms he called “civilization”.  Our Western culture had been born around the tenth century, flowered in the gothic and the Renaissance, became “civilized” in the eighteenth century, and in the nineteenth century, with the industrial revolution, had begun the process of spiritual decline.  The upcoming death of Western Culture was as certain as that of any other living organism.  History was Destiny, unfolded through the cycle of human cultures, all of which shared a common rhythm and pattern.  We cannot choose our destiny, we cannot alter it.  We have no choice but to make the best of our historical situation.   

Stark.  Dramatic.  No wonder it attracted so much attention.  In this wintertime essay, he drove his metaphor hard.  When the freezing point of a culture is reached, like water, it expands and can shatter its container.  Though spiritually exhausted, it gathers the technical and material capacity for outward reach, desperately grabbing at life.  And so begins what he called an Age of Caesarism.  He predicted the coming of totalitarian states, not by looking at the social movements around him, but by taking the longest possible view.  He predicted a coming age of imperialist wars in which nations would complete their spiritual death, and finally fall to pieces, yes, like Rome, but also like every other culture, finally succumbing to the invasion of new forces, alien, hostile to the old, full of springlike, spontaneous creativity and religious devotion.  In the inevitable final battle between civilized engineers and God-inspired barbarians, the engineers would go down clutching pens and pencils.  Artists would also succumb: this was not a time for soul.  Art would be frustrated by society’s rejection, or corrupted by its licentiousness and power -- a spiritual vocation gone astray.  The Zeitgeist is inevitable, a time of perverted men in a hopelessly perverted age, liars calling liars liars.     

Spengler spoke of the endless repetition of the “already-accepted”, of standardized art, of petrified formulas which would ignore and deny history. “Events,” he said, would become “the private affairs of the oligarchs and their assassins,” and would arise from administration, not society.  He foresaw professional armies operating with an entirely different morality than civilian society.  In 1917, he noted, “In a few years, we have learned virtually to ignore things which before the war would have petrified the world.”     

Oh well, happy 6006, anyway!

Saturday, October 16, 2010


Late last month, Pentagon officials stood around supervising the scene as St Martin’s Press destroyed the entire first run of Anthony Schaffer's new book on spycraft and special operations in Afghanistan.

Was there a good old bonfire -- as with the Nazis, or the anti-Harry Potterites? Somewhere in the center pentagon of the Pentagon? Or was there a festive scene roped off over at Madison Square Park with folks peering down from the Flatiron Building?

I queried my editor about how publishers "pulp" books, and he, in his innocence, never having pulped one, suggested that perhaps they feed the books into a large machine which turns the shreds into packing material, new paper and jiffy bags.

I suspect publishers don't actually burn books these carbon-conscious days, but offer them up as sacrifice to the chemical companies to deal with. And for a hardback book, that's a multi-step process, tearing off the covers, and dealing with them separately, cloth, cardboard, glue, and possibly plastic.

But whatever the process, "book-burning" is a description more accurate than an anodyne "recycling of printed material", and 9,600 copies met their maker as brass looked on, checking to make sure the deed was done.

Interesting, too, was the price we taxpayers forked up for the party. The book retails at $25.99, and Amazon sells it for $14.21 plus $3.99 shipping. The Department of Defense twisted St. Martin's arm to sell them the first run -- none to bookstores or Amazon -- for only $47,000. If you do the math, that's only $4.90 a copy. What a buy we got!

Not to be accused of censorship, our Freedom Fighters allowed St. Martins to publish a heavily redacted copy of the second edition. The great Russian writers had to deal with this all the time, so who are we to complain?

I once tried to burn a book. New in grad school, I thought I could make the world a better place with a ritual burning of Kafka's The Trial. I went out and splurged on a new, hardcover, Modern Library edition, along with a hefty tin pail in which to make the fire. With the LA Times for kindling, and some good Los Angeles brush and sticks, I had a nice blaze going, said an anti-blessing, and consigned the book to the flames. Kafka smothered the blaze in billows of smoke with no significant damage to self, and unhip neighbors upstairs called the fire department -- which didn't quite get the issue. Also I melted a hole in the floor's shellac. So you see it was a good idea for our defenders to check to see that the job was done, and done right.

Why am I telling you all this? Most commentators have deplored the censorship aspect of this chapter of national-security mania. But I want to use these events to draw your attention to a story by that dark spirit of Salem, Nathaniel Hawthorne, a tale frequently left out of anthologies — "Earth's Holocaust" – an incisive cautionary to would-be reformers, radicals or revolutionaries like me, or possibly you.

Once upon a time, the inhabitants of the world determined to rid themselves of the evil accumulation of “worn-out trumpery”, by heaving it all into an enormous bonfire. Into the flames went

coats of armor, nobility
sceptres of emperors and kings
hogsheads of liquor
bank notes
enamored sonnets
weapons and ammunition
machinery to inflict the punishment of death
marriage certificates
daybooks and ledgers
statute books and printed paper in general
priestly garments
the Bible

Interesting list.

As the fire burns down, and the satisfied reformers leave to go to bed to wake to their new world, a little party—convivial, but despondent—is left hanging around the fire. It is the last murderer, the last thief, the last drunkard and the hangman.

"The best counsel for all of us is," thought the hangman, was "that, as soon as we have finished the last drop of liquor, I help you, my three friends, to a comfortable end upon the nearest tree, and then hang myself on the same bough. This is no world for us any longer."

The despair of the wicked at the new-created world.
"Poh, poh, my good fellows!" said a dark-complexioned personage, who now joined the group—his complexion was indeed truly dark, and his eyes glowed with a redder light than that of the bonfire; "be not so cast down, my dear friends; you shall see good days yet. There's one thing that these wiseacres have forgotten to throw into the fire, and with which all the rest of the conflagration is just nothing at all; yes, though they had burned the earth itself into a cinder."

"And what may that be?" eagerly demanded the last murderer.

"What but the human heart itself?" said the dark-visaged stranger, with a portentous grin. "And, unless they hit upon some method of purifying that foul cavern, forth from it will reissue all the shapes of wrong and misery—the same old shapes or worse ones—which they have taken such a vast deal of trouble to consume to ashes. I have stood by this livelong night and laughed in my sleeve at the whole business. Oh, take my word for it, it will be the old world yet!"

You can see, perhaps, why this is rarely anthologized.

Call it depraved or misguided, but it is this "foul cavern" — foul, if often sublime—that continues to attract and orient my attention. It's why I write novels.

Oh, btw, the title of the book the DoD recently burned is Operation Dark Heart.

Friday, October 8, 2010


[The end of last week's essay: Just in case there were any legislative objection to these judicial proceedings, Hitler pushed through the “Enabling Act” which allowed his handpicked cabinet to make laws having the same validity as any passed by the Reichstag, even ones disregarding the Constitution. The circle was closed, complete and tight. The living dead would soon become the dead -- period.]

Laws are being made here, too. And Presidential Enabling Acts, aka "signing statements". And court seats being filled.

The cast of characters is somewhat changed. Instead of Jews, we have the poor and soon-to-be-poor, the homeless, the disabled, the aged, the immigrant "Other" -- an open-ended, potentially unruly, group, getting larger with each job loss and foreclosure.

We have no Nazis, only Republicans and Democrats in Congress. Both parties agree that the foremost task is to eliminate the deficit, and both agree that the main hit will be on services to the poor, without tapping the military budget or corporate welfare. Both agree that taxes for the most part need to be cut -- it's good for getting re-elected. Asses and Pachyderms (from Gr: "thickskinned") may argue over numbers or priorities, but the fundamental assumptions -- and the potential victims -- are precisely the same. And outside the beltway is a population of Good Americans, voting their pocketbooks, not paying much attention to details evolving inside. How could they? All they know is what the government- and corporate-controlled media choose to tell them.

All the propensities of the Authoritarian Personality are still at large in this social consciousness, along with the tendency to behave as Milgram’s subjects did with respect to “legitimately constituted” authority. Weber’s analysis accurately describes what is going on today: bureaucracy, science, efficiency, and value-free thought running the show in the interest of “Progress” and “Freedom and Democracy” -- and maximization of profit.

Social forces and individual thought habits are distressingly similar to those in Nazi Germany. The poor and the "Others" are as despised as were the Jews. Helping them is as verboten. There are no cultural safeguards in place which would prevent a holocaust-like social cannibalism, a society-wide suspension of morality with regard to the designated “problem”.

There would be no help on a global level, either, since every national state claims the right to dispose of its citizens as it will, starving them, imprisoning them, executing them as it finds necessary. The United States refuses to recognize judgements of the World Court except when such judgements suit its purposes, and refuses to ratify several international treaties concerning human rights. International objectors like Amnesty International are delegitimized as “interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign nations”. The legitimacy of national sovereignty is built into the United Nations. Besides, who would take on the United States, militarily or economically for any mere human rights issue?

Thus, all the pieces are in place for another holocaust -- this time against the poor and "Other". Native racism adds to the potential, since -- no surprise -- many of the poor are immigrants and people of color, and code words overlap: “End welfare as we know it” = “Get the minorities under control.” Hence the ominous double significance of our move toward prison expansion. The U.S. already has a far greater percentage of its population behind bars than any other industrial country -- the highest in the world. The vast preponderance of prisoners are poor people of color.

A comparative check on where we are now in the six historical steps above is sobering -- and frightening.

Step 1. Defining the enemy. The poor are clearly defined as “the problem”. Not the profit-driven economy. Not the culture of violence. Not the controlled information system. Studies focus on the pathology of the “underclass”. The Poor are the problem. They are “other” to “normal Americans”. Consequently they must to be “dealt with”. Highest priority : "excess" population, a drain on the nation, unviable.

Step 2. Eliminating the enemy from the economy. By national policy, there are fewer and fewer jobs available to the poor, and fewer and fewer salaries that could raise a family out of poverty. Wall Street is bailed out, while money for public sector employment is denied, and corporate profits recover, with CEOs reaping massive benefits at taxpayer expense. Education funding is similarly squelched, so that the problem army of the poor can only swell. “Otherness” is increased as the media focus in on the predictably rising problems of crime, the inner city, and immigrant workers, ignoring problems elsewhere, and their root causes.

Step 3. Ostracism by custom and law. It is frightening to make such a list, but almost every step taken by the Third Reich has some parallel here and now -- with no built-in limits:

 -- Laws passed by Congress can be overridden by executive orders, presidential “findings”, National Security directives, or simply aborted by not disbursing committed funds.

-- Courts are routinely packed with obedient federal appointees. The current composition of the Supreme Court is the biggest scandal of all. Legal rights of poor defendants are being systematically reduced, and money for good lawyers diminished.

-- The current push in Congress is for law to serve the state and its rich financiers at the expense of individuals. Corporate personhood triumphs. Eavesdropping technology and "anti-terrorism" stand guard at the gates. The government moves to limit consumer and environmental protection. These laws are being made deliberately, without even pretending to be a democratic response to the will of the people. There is increasing governmental readiness to evade constitutional law.

-- The many Nazi restrictions on employment are all replaced by the fact that -- for the poor and uneducated above all -- there are simply no jobs. Affirmative action is increasingly questioned. The situation has worsened catastrophically with jobs exported and capital flight, and its attendant dog-eat-dog resentments. With no money for private transportation, no money for parking, and increasingly expensive, inadequate public transportation, the poor are deprived of the mobility necessary to find and maintain employment -- even if there were employment to be had.

-- Municipal services are neglected or abandoned in poor neighborhoods, and the police remain an occupying army, protecting and serving the threatened rich. Consequently, living conditions and ghettos become ever more intolerable.

-- Student loans are being cut at the same time that tuitions are skyrocketing. Thus education increasingly excludes the poor as effectively as discriminatory laws did the Jews. Without an educated workforce, the vicious spiral continues downward.

-- "Economics of scale" are driving out smaller, local businesses in favor of large corporate operations -- if they even choose to locate in poorer neighborhoods.

Remember: such policies are not accidents. They are designed and signed by upper-class men and women, and approved by well-prepped voters.

Step 4. Removal from view. In addition to long-existing ghettoization, foreclosures on housing toxically mortgaged, and increasing inter-racial suspicion, many municipalities are now enacting draconian laws to “get the poor out from under our noses.” Sleeping in public spaces, panhandling, even accepting free food have been criminalized. Here in Burlington, Vermont, an ordinance was floated to make it illegal to sit in a street, or even lean against a building. When there are no more poor on the streets or in the subways, how will we know when there are no more poor at all? As the plight of the poor is made ever more intolerable, radical solutions become ever more thinkable.

Steps 5 and 6 -- slave labor and death camps have not yet been literally established. Nevertheless there is recognizable social movement in that direction. Prisons are currently the greatest growth industry, and there is increasing practice of substituting prison labor for outside workers -- at substantially smaller wages. As a co-worker once said to me, “Why should I support those criminals? Let ‘em earn their keep.” (She would also kill everyone on death row right away, so that her taxes wouldn’t be used to support murderers.)

Great for profits, terrible for labor, further incentive to put as many people behind bars as possible. And the attachment to capital punishment continues. Less legal protection for prisoners, less chance for appeal, more designated-capital crimes, destruction of habeus corpus and Miranda protections in the name of "fighting terrorism"; micro-fascism at the airport, greater surveillance, and now Obama giving himself permission to assassinate Americans without trial -- all to general public approval.

Given the above array of conditions, what can we surmise about the likely American future?


There is a scent of pre-holocaust in the air. It is a mood, a direction faced, a lingo, haze of assumptions. And look! -- there is a Jack-in-the-box with a box’s six sides: authoritarianism, consumo-conformity, efficiency, moralism, patriotism, and a penchant for punishment.

Turn the crank:

All around the mulberry bush
the monkey chased the weasel,
the monkey thought ‘twas all in fun...

Now just hold it there. What will pop out at the very next move?

We don’t really know. The mind rebels. Tens of millions of children in poverty experiencing a “greater sense of personal responsibility”? Welfare cut-offs flooding an already non-existent job market getting people "back to work”? Or giving them back their “self-esteem”?

There is discontinuity in the curve of thought here -- except for one constant -- it is definitively the poor and "Other" that are poised to fall off the line into god-knows-what abyss. And the numbers of those impoverished are growing as the middle class shrinks away into unknown territory.

The number of officially poor is now over 45 million, higher than at any time in the 51 years of counting. 2009 saw the largest increase ever. The most vulnerable families are those headed by single mothers, and among them the hardest hit are those headed by single women of color. Two-thirds are employed. But in addition to chronic low wages, many single mothers have seen their work hours cut in the recession. The number of Americans on food stamps is at an all time high, and the Republicans want to cut into those food stamps in order to "fund childhood nutrition".

One out of every seven mortgages is delinquent or in foreclosure, 10 million Americans are on unemployment, more than half of them in long-term joblessness. Bankruptcy filings have risen 20% in the last year. One out of every five children lives in poverty.

Even though there are six people applying for every available job, the new "welfare as we now know it" (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) insists that one has to find a job in order to continue benefits. So since there are no jobs, TANF is eliminating benefits for 85,000 families a month, even as the destitute swamp welfare offices, having exhausted all other options. Obama wants his administration to "break the cycle of dependency," dontcha know.

Where have the jobs gone, the money? The current income gap is the largest its been since the late 1920s, the result of a long series of policy decisions by legislators bought and paid for by the high-class bandits making out. The race to the bottom is fueled by a race to the top. The dynamics seem irreversible.

The assault on America is a bipartisan operation. Whatever their deceitful rhetoric, neither party is willing to place serious limits on corporate speculation and profitability. Neither will question the need for public austerity and private profit, nor the enormous damage done by the military industrial complex.

The Republican's current "Pledge to America" is most importantly a call to continue the Bush tax cuts for the rich to maintain the income gap and protect its well-heeled beneficiaries. Secondarily, it is a plan to repeal even the pathetic Affordable Health Care Act, itself written by lobbyists from insurance and pharmaceutical companies. Even while in the minority, the Republicans have blocked benefits for homeless vets, health care for 911 first responders, a jobs bill that gives tax breaks to companies hiring new employees, an act to ensure women are paid the same wages as men, have tried to block unemployment benefits extension, and have succeeded in blocking stricter regulations for financial institutions. Their ultimate goal, often stated, is privatization of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The Democrats have put up no fight in the interest of "compromise". Is there a pattern here?

Such an immiseration project must be protected by spreading fear of "terrorism", and the use of illegal spying now openly practiced, with sweeping new regulations for the internet. Robert Mueller, director of the FBI has stated that, “There is a continuum between those who would express dissent and those who would do a terrorist act.” One spokesperson from an FBI/police "information fusion center" claimed that the protest of a war against "international terrorism" is itself "a terrorist act". The USAPATRIOT Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism -- 1st prize for acronyms) stands behind him. And for good measure, Obama has come up with approved "kill lists" of suspected terrorists -- including Americans -- he claims he can exterminate with impunity. The final solution, no doubt.


Many of the classic structures of a totalitarian state are already in place in contemporary America, Land of the Free. Many new ones, too -- modern and post-modern. Official lawlessness no longer bothers to hide itself, and is tolerated or approved by the population at large. Criminal investigations into state crimes are blocked in the interests of "national security". Checks and balances among the three branches of government have been manipulated into a seamless, self-validifying whole. Make that four, as the media becomes ever more embedded in the corporate beltway.

But while totalitarianism is almost certainly a necessary context for holocaust, genocide, nakba, shoah, it is not a sufficient condition: the cooperation of the population is necessary. And that is where the Milgram Experiments come in (see part one of this essay). When the authorities say "do it!", a population of authoritarian personalities, born and bred, will do it.

American murder, massive and limited, even if openly criminal, seems to have widespread support by a swamped population, ready to lash out at designated victims. Americans know about torture of detainees in hidden prisons. They know of American slaughter in Iraq and Afghanistan, even if they are only discovering such activities in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and well-supported in Palestine. Hey, freedom isn't free. They know, too, about the slave labor of prisoners, and of undocumented workers, frightened and hiding. Let the torture, war and racist attacks proceed, I guess, if USA is once again to be Number One. Gott mit uns!

Should some object, they, like Germans in the thirties, will find no levers of change in their much-vaunted political process, all of whose candidates stand behind the American project of victory, "democracy", and control of resources. As Jay Gould said back in the 1880's, "I don't care who they vote for as long as I get to pick the candidates."

And those candidates are -- with notable exceptions -- no dummies. They can see as clearly as anyone the general direction in which we are headed. Why else reduce or remove the safety net for Americans while pouring trillions into armaments , corporations, and banks? A group -- the poor and Other -- has been identifiedas the problem and the need for a “solution” given highest priority -- Step 1, above.

Now we are poised at the edge of the precipice. "Terrorism" and its attendant and well-tended-to fear, make Step 2 certain: they virtually guarantee that most people will not be able to make the transition into productive work. They further assure galloping immiseration of the poor as they are cut off from food and cash assistance, childcare and nutrition for their children. The consequent desperation will require more policing, desperate, more “final” and effective solutions, solutions which can ensure that the misery of the poor does not inflict itself on the top 10%.

Steps 1 and 2 have been taken. Steps 3 and 4 are underway. The smell of holocaust is in the air. Our civilization provides no safeguards. The Zweckrationalität dynamic described by Max Weber -- the very one that nourished the Jewish holocaust in a most civilized, advanced-industrial Germany -- still rules. Is it realistic to say “It can’t happen here”?

We have the Jewish holocaust behind us, and the words “Never Again” engraved in our collective heartminds. But our own history -- previous and subsequent to the holocaust is not reassuring. Native Americans were wiped out to make room for middle America. “Pioneers” were rewarded by the government with land deeds for expropriating Native American territory and violating treaties. It is not necessary to go over the “social suspension of morality” with respect to African Americans, or the atrocities committed during the Civil War.

In our own time, we have seen World War II with its mass firebombings and atomic attacks, then two more wars, wiping out gooks with high-tech weapons. They don’t value life like we do. Just to keep our hands in it, we buried Iraquis alive and incinerated fleeing columns of troops with gas-air explosives. And now our middle-east atrocities. I don’t have much faith in home-grown American morality resisting commands to solve a problem by slaughter.  Richard Miller notes that

Most Germans did not believe the final steps would be taken. They saw each measure as a discrete event and failed to understand that each step prepared the way for the next. The SS Journal Das Schwarze Korps noted in 1938, “What is radical today is moderate tomorrow.” In 1933 the Nazis had no plan to kill all the Jews, and even militants would have shrunk in horror from such a suggestion. Gradually, over the next decade, “reasonable people” found that they had to become a little harsher. By 1943, the context of the war against Jews had escalated to the point where warriors could blandly pass bureaucratic memos back and forth about behavior that would have seemed unconscionable in 1933. “ (Nazi Justiz, p.3)

Our leaders are now passing such notes, and setting in place such laws concerning our current "Others". Proposals are being negotiated which would have horrified officials of earlier administrations. This is our 1943. Will we allow a similar denouement? It can happen here.

Saturday, October 2, 2010


I know one is not allowed to use the word "nazism" in any discussion of current practices, that the holocaust is unique, etc., etc. -- but if you don't see the similarities between the structures put into place in Germany in the mid- and late-1930s and those evolving here, now, well then, you don't see structural similarities.

National Socialist Strategy

What were the moves the Nazis evolved to “overcome animal pity”  with regard to Jewish victims?

Step 1.  Defining the enemy.  Jewishness was clearly and legally defined as part of a problem.  Thus the Jews were made “other” to the rest of the population.

Step 2.  Eliminating the enemy from the economy.  Jews were not allowed to work in state-affiliated institutions.  Jewish stores were boycotted and vandalized.  “Otherness” was thereby increased, as the Jews were forced from the normal productive economy, and were now an ever-increasing problem -- and not just by definition.

Step 3. Ostracism by custom and law.  Many other discriminatory laws were put into place. No Jews allowed, here or there, this place or that.

Step 4. Removal from view.  Ghettos were created to wall the problem off from the rest of the population. Jews thus became less visible.  When they began to disappear, there was often little to notice.  As intolerable conditions developed in the ghettos, inhuman measures were justified as humane.  Jews were killed in “acts of mercy” -- in order to “spare them the agony of famine”.   In deliberately intolerable conditions, the stage was set for even more radical steps.

Step 5. Transport to slave labor camps, using these “outsiders” to support the economy.

Step 6. Transport to death camps.  The “Final Solution”.

Tactics: Ostracism as a policy in Nazi Germany

To better make some later comparisons, let me provide more detail about Step 3 above:  “other discriminatory laws”.

In his hair-raising book, Nazi Justiz (Praeger 1995), Richard Miller describes the gradual, multifaceted ways in which Jews were turned from productive members of society into an kind of “living dead” who were permitted to wander through society, but forbidden to take part in it.  The mass killings in the camps was only a late development, the logical “final” successor of many incremental “solutions” inflicted along the way on an increasingly desperate people.  

Miller concentrates on Germany in the 30s, after the rise of Hitler, but before the war, all changes affecting Jews were done “legally”, “democratically”, with support from the media and the German people.  In this “time of peace”, a variety of local and national laws were passed, with due deliberation, in no way a result of military desperation. Across the country , jot by innovative jot, legal and social restrictions fell into place which sealed the victims’ fate. 

The movement began with “unofficial” boycotting of Jewish businesses or professionals.  Boycotts spread to those who patronized Jews in any way, thus taking goods and wages away from good German citizens.   Having a street conversation with a Jew could lead to charges of “race pollution” and “civic disloyalty”, and perhaps to being paraded through town, with a sign around one's neck.  Such “unofficial” boycotts were peppered with equally “unofficial” violence, of which Kristallnacht was the most coordinated example.  Naturally, there was no police protection.

Having recognized a “mandate” from the people, governments began to act.  A pastiche of creatively sadistic local law and ever more inclusive national law took control of Jewish life, and eventually obviated the need for “unofficial” populist action.  Place by place, Jews were not allowed in parks, theaters, libraries, museums, sports stadia, beaches, athletic and social clubs.  They could not be guests in hotels, or get service at restaurants.   One profession after another banned Jews from being licensed.  Jews would no longer be granted permits to open retail stores, or be allowed into blue or white collar unions or the jobs they controlled.  They couldn’t be patent agents or lawyers, tax consultants or swimming instructors, lifeguards, jockeys, actors, lottery salesmen, stock brokers, antique dealers, archivists. They couldn’t rent out park chairs, or distribute motion pictures, or deal in art or literary works.  They were prevented from dealing in currency, engineering construction projects, selling guns.  No Jew could be a detective, private guard, accountant, or work in a credit agency.  No Jew could be a tourist guide, a peddler, auctioneer, or real estate agent, or manage a factory, house, estate, or land.  Needless to say, all the new business and newly opened job opportunities went to Aryans, vastly increasing the popularity of the Nazi regime. Jobs, jobs, jobs. And housing.

In areas where Jews were not yet banned, other ways were found to shut them down.  Before real estate licenses were outlawed for Jews, tax authorities refused to deal with Jewish agents, leaving few property owners interested in hiring them.  Sugar was cut off to Jewish bakers and candy-makers, effectively destroying their businesses. Legal Jewish newsstands would be refused newspapers; Jewish textile managers could no longer get raw materials.  Jewish businesses could not put ads in commercial directories, newspapers, on billboards or the radio.  Eventually all employment was restricted except particularly disagreeable tasks: cleaning public toilets and sewage plants, jobs at rag and bone works were considered possibly “suitable” for Jews.  Outside of such work, Jews had to somehow fend for themselves.

How could even that be made more difficult?   Travel bans and invalidation of passports were obvious.   But how about no parking for Jews?  Special license plates to identify Jewish cars for special harassment.  Soon enough, prohibition of drivers licenses, and then restriction from public transportation.  Impoverished Jews could not rent their homes, sublet, or sell.  Retirement benefits and contracted pensions were cancelled, as were all insurance policies.  Jewish students were not allowed to take finals, and so couldn’t complete their schooling.  All student loans had to be repaid within 2 weeks, regardless of contractual payment schedules; those in default were subject to police action.   Jewish streets were not cleaned, nor were other municipal services available.  German police, when present at all, were an occupying army, and beatings and attacks were common.  Many main sections of towns became off-limits to Jews, and any remnants of Jewish culture came under attack:  Jewish art and music were censored as “decadent”, and even jazz was attacked as “a barbarian invasion supported by Jews.”

Because Jews were to be restricted from so many areas, they needed to be easily identified. Rush-hour passengers were not about to tolerate checking IDs of every boarding passenger.  Eventually the yellow star was required, with strict punishment for any Jew who did not wear one in public.  Jews were forbidden to name their children with “Aryan sounding names”, and had to adopt the middle names “Israel” or “Sarah”, and use these names when identifying themselves.

Germany has long been known as a land of “law and order”.  But Jews could not use the justice system to thwart clearly illegal onslaughts.  All courts were packed with government appointees to enforce, not judge, official policy.  The object of the law was to protect the state, not the individual citizen. If Jews were a menace to the state, then all laws oppressing them, were both legal and just.  Furthermore, laws were seen as implying “direction”,  and were not confined to their original settings. For instance the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service spoke only of dismissing Jewish government employees.  Martin Heidegger however, as rector of the University of Freiburg, ended fellowship payments to Jewish students under the guiding spirit of that decree. 

Courts built rulings on Nazi party resolutions, and took their philosophical guidance from Hitler speeches.  In 1934 Goering complained that defendants still had so many rights that convictions were being impeded.  Naturally, Jewish defendants were at an extreme disadvantage.  Jewish lawyers were barred from court; Aryan lawyers could not serve Jews.  Consequently, Jews had to represent themselves against highly trained adversaries.  Judges were instructed to view Jewish witnesses “with extreme caution”, and no verdict was to be passed when a sentence would have to be based entirely on Jewish testimony.

Just in case there were any legislative objection to these judicial proceedings, Hitler pushed through the “Enabling Act” which allowed his handpicked cabinet to make laws having the same validity as any passed by the Reichstag, even ones disregarding the Constitution.  The circle was closed, complete and tight.  The living dead would soon become the dead -- period.

Next week: You don't need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows -- here and now in America.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


So now, in place of Newt Gigrich's 1994 Contract With America (aka Contract On America) we have the new GOP Pledge to America. Not unlike the current design, the rich are to get richer, and the poor to get sick, become homeless, starve, or shatter in endless wars.

The comparison of our American trajectory with the tactics and strategy of Germany in the late 1930s is more striking now than ever. We would do well to study this era carefully for a possible glimpse of our own future. Those targeted are no longer just our dispossessed, reviled and outcast -- our "jews" -- but much of the American (and of course world) population. 

The attempt to exterminate European Jewry during the Nazi era was, in many ways, as unique as Jewish culture proclaims.  Never before had an organized, industrial state targeted a population for complete annihilation, ruthlessly and efficiently pursued even within its “civil” codes and activities.  But to think of the Holocaust as a completely unique act, restricted to 20th century German antisemitism, is to limit it unduly, to make it unavailable as evidence and warning about tendencies in our own place, our own time.

For it would seem that every major thought pattern, every cultural institution that fueled the Nazi holocaust is present and empowered in the United States today.  Safeguards against catastrophic outcomes are few and weak.  “It can’t happen here”?  Maybe.  But with so many elements brewing together, and no visible controls to dampen the flux, there is no predicting in what direction the reaction will run.  

Half a century ago, a civilization as culturally advanced as our own experienced a society-wide suspension of morality.  Jews were the target.  Now, the next set of domestic victims has already been chosen: the poor and unruly.  Ready... aim...


Much of the current political agenda is dominated by what is popularly known as the “extreme right”. Clinton and Obama have been instrumental in moving the Democratic Party in that direction.  The Tea Parties and religious fundamentalism nourish the “shift to the right” within the population at large.  Critics have unanimously deemed the right wing motives as “greedy” and “mean-spirited”, but such labels obscure the positive agenda involved -- an agenda described in most detail by the Frankfurt School in its attempt to analyse the roots of German fascism.  Then and now; the descriptions are eerily alike.

It is reasonable to assume that Obama, the Clintons, Bush and Joe&Jane Six-Pack are nice enough folks who love their children and grandchildren, and hope to pass on to them a better world.  What is it, then, that drives them to outlandish and seemingly heartless proposals concerning the poor, often themselves?

The Authoritarian Personality

In each event -- in the living act, the undoubted deed -- there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the moulding of its features from behind the unreasoning mask.
                 Captain Ahab 

While differing in detail, such right-wing positions are driven by  belief systems characteristic of what The Frankfurt School called  “the Authoritarian Personality”, whose main characteristic is the urgent need for order.  Freud, Fromm and Reich unearthed the psycho-dynamics of weak ego-structure which underlay it, while Adorno and Horkheimer analysed the social repression which left its authoritarian marks on the individual soul.  When ALLES IN ORDNUNG becomes the highest value,the consequences are predictable.  For the authoritarian personality:

1.  Powerful leaders are needed to keep society in line and restrict it to conventional, middle-class values. Exaggerated assertions of toughness and strength become the norm.  Trickle-down theories are designed to protect the powerful -- in the interest of all.  Though greed and lust for power may be involved, they are rationalized by an appeal to the general good.

2.  Democracy becomes a threat and must be limited. In The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission, Samuel Huntington warns about the consequences of an “excess of democracy”:

The arenas where democratic procedures are appropriate are, in short, limited....The effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals and groups....Marginality on the part of some groups is inherently undemocratic, but it has also been one of the factors which has enabled democracy to function effectively.

A need to control unpredictable “excess” democracy has guided American foreign and economic policy throughout this century. The pattern of marginalizing peasant populations and supporting dictatorial strong-men is likely driven as much by rage for order and fear of chaos as by the selfish need to maximize profits -- which profits might be even greater should the general standard of living be raised.  So great is the need for predictable order that maximal profits are sacrificed.

3. Individualism becomes suspect, a negative value to be stamped out.  “Difference” means unpredictability, and fear of an unpredictable, uncontrollable “Other” spawns all the “isms” which rampage today: racism, sexism, classism, anti-semitism, anti-immigrant, anti-muslim rage, xenophobia. Nature itself becomes an uncertain enemy to be conquered and subdued.

4. The psycho-sexual chaos at the core of an authoritarian personality simultaneously fascinates and repels.  Rigid moralism embracing stereotypical values seems the most secure protection against anarchy and chaos.   There is exaggerated concern with and denunciation of libidinal art and sexual “goings-on”.  At the same time, unconscious emotional impulses are projected outward, and the world is seen as a wild and dangerous place in which worst-case scenarios abound.

5. Fear and guilt about chaotic thoughts within and anarchy without is so potentially threatening that psychic numbing is a typical response, with emotional dissociation from the consequences of action.  Knee-jerk “patriotism” in response to moral questions is an effective defense mechanism.  Yellow ribbons blindfold the eyes against mass incineration and live burial.  The story of the Palestinians targeted by US weapons must not be told.  Such defensive control of information minimizes compassion for victims.

6. A culture of punishment follows hard upon. Offenders against order must be strictly punished. Dominance and submission becomes crucial.  The very same heartmind is both pro-life and pro-death penalty.  But the sanctity of life is secondary: the important thing is punishment.  Tender-mindedness is for “bleeding-heart liberals”.

While no political leader or follower may display every characteristic above, they are all on fine collective display in the current reactionary Zeitgeist -- as they were in Nazi Germany.  

Is it just that “people are no damn good”, or is their behavior created by social conditions surrounding them?

The Milgram Evidence

In her study of Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt noted that the greatest problem the Nazis faced was “how to overcome...the animal pity by which all normal men are affected in the presence of physical suffering.” Most of the German perpetrators were “normal” people, people who would not be picked up by any questionnaire or psychiatric screen.  They were by and large not sadists or moral degenerates or even political fanatics -- yet they became conscious collaborators in the process of mass murder.  How was it possible to create torturers out of next door neighbors?  (How could our  clean-cut young boys napalm women and children?)  What about that animal pity?

In the early sixties, A Yale psychologist named Stanley Milgram began a series of experiments which sought to clarify these problems. The basic question was narrowed to “if an experimenter tells a subject to act with increasing severity against another person, under what conditions will the subject comply, and under what conditions will he disobey?”  Subjects were recruited from all walks of life to “help us complete a study of memory and learning.”  An actor-scientist greeted pairs of volunteers, and lots were drawn to pick who would be the"teacher"and who would be the"learner".  The subject would always choose the “teacher” slip (all the slips said “teacher”); the other “volunteer” was a plant who then became the “learner”/victim.  The “scientist” explained that there has been some association of punishment with learning, but that there had never been any quantitative studies on how much punishment would give the best results. 

After orientation, the “learner” was strapped into a chair in the next room, and an electrode glued to his wrist.  The “teacher” could see and communicate with him via a glass panel and microphone.  In front of the "teacher" was a bogus control panel consisting of 30 switches enabling him to deliver shocks from 15 to 450 volts in 15 volt increments.  The groups of switches were marked Slight Shock, Moderate Shock, Strong Shock, Very Strong Shock, Intense Shock, Extreme Intensity Shock, Danger: Severe Shock. Two switches after this last designation were simply marked XXX. 

Milgram conceived many ingenious variations to examine different parameters, but the basic design was this: the “teacher” was read groups of word pairs to the “learner”, and then ask him to correctly identify the pairing word from lists of four.  If the "learner" made a mistake, the "teacher" was to administer a shock.  For each mistake, the "teacher" was instructed to “move one level higher on the shock generator”.    The victim (who, of course, was feeling no shock at all) greeted the increasing “voltage levels” with a full range of response, indicating no discomfort until the 75 volt shock was administered.  At 120 volts he would shout to the experimenter that the shocks were becoming painful.  Painful groans at 135 volts.  At 150 volts. he would cry out, “Experimenter, get me out of here!  I won’t be in the experiment any more!  I refuse to go on!”  By 180 volts, “I can’t stand the pain”, and by 270, agonizing screams.  After 300 volts he would no longer provide answers to the test questions.  The “teacher” was told that no answer constituted a wrong answer, and was instructed to raise the shock level. 

How far would these “teacher”/subjects go?  In spite of there being no coercion or threat (as in Nazi Germany), and without any animosity toward the victim (unlike Nazi Germany), these average Americans far, far exceeded the expectations of all psychologists in their obedient compliance with instructions.  Despite the fact that many questioned or even protested what they were doing, a substantial proportion continued to the last last level of shock despite the “learner’s” screams.  Almost 2/3 of the subjects  -- ordinary people drawn from working, managerial and professional classes -- were “obedient subjects”, willing to go to almost any length at the command of an authority.  Their explanations at post-experiment interview echoed those of Adolf Eichmann -- “I was just doing my job.  I was doing what I was told.  I was only doing my duty.”

Milgram was profoundly disturbed by his findings, (as were many members of the scientific community who attacked him personally.)  

   What is the limit of such obedience?  At many points we attempted to establish a boundary.  Cries from the victim were inserted: they were not good enough.  The victim claimed heart trouble; subjects continued to shock him on command.  The victim pleaded to be let free, and his answers no longer registered on the signal box; subjects continued to shock him.  At the outset we had not conceived that such drastic procedures would be needed to generate disobedience, and each step was added only as the ineffectiveness of the earlier techniques became clear.  The final effort to establish a limit was the Touch-Proximity condition [where the “learner” sat, screaming,  shoulder to shoulder with the subject.]  But the very first subject in this condition subdued the victim on command, and proceeded to the highest shock level.  A quarter of the subjects in this condition performed similarly. 
   The results, as seen and felt in the laboratory, are to this author disturbing.  They raise the possibility that human nature or -- more specifically -- the kind of character produced in America democratic society, cannot be counted on to insulate its citizens from brutality and inhumane treatment at the direction of malevolent authority.  A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority.

In spite of Milgram’s despair, the findings did have their bright side.  A number of experiments were done in which the subjects were exposed to several experimenters who disagreed among themselves and argued about continuing the shocks.  Another series was performed not at Yale, with its aura of authority, but in a minimal office, under the auspices of the fictitious, unknown, “Bridgeport Research Associates”.  A third series was performed in which the “teachers” were not instructed to increase the shock level with each wrong answer, but could choose their own levels throughout the experiment.  The outcomes of these series was illuminating: given any hint of disagreement among the authorities, subjects immediately discarded their slavish obedience, and were no longer willing to engage in behavior they found morally questionable.  When authority became questionable (“Bridgeport” vs. Yale), compliance dropped significantly.  And without prompting from authority, “teachers” maintained shocks well under the discomfort level of the victim.

The casting off of “animal pity” was sustainable only under seamless monolithic authority.   For all its fragility, it seems that it is not human nature per se that is malevolent, but that human malevolence, at least in part, is socially constructed.  Under the right system, even here and now in the United States, obedience to authority can prevail against the  “better instincts” of the population.   The trouble is that such a system is currently alive and well throughout the land.


It is commonly assumed that outbreaks of bestial violence -- the Holocaust, or what we have recently seen in Rwanda, Afghanistan or Palestine -- are the result of primitive eruptions into a civilization insufficient to contain them.  If people could only become “more civilized”, there would be no such behavior.   But what if our civilization itself were the problem -- not the solution?  More civilization would mean more such crimes.  Is such a proposition simply inappropriate self-hatred?

Again and again we have to confront the difficult fact that Nazi Germany was an advanced industrial culture quite like our own.  The death machines were put into operation by people quite like us, living in comparable surroundings.  Certified architects and engineers in well-lit rooms drew up plans for crematoria.  Government bureaucrats, some trained in Kant and  Hegel, purchased tickets for each passenger in the cattle cars. Had there been computers, there would have been excellent data bases.  Nazi soldiers played Beethoven sonatas to entertain the troops, to lift their spirits and help them return to guard duty at the camps.  Bayer made superb aspirin using slave labor.  Out of this modern, rational society, with a history of the highest culture, the Holocaust was born.   Can we ever understand this?  What can it tell us about our own situation?

One of the most crucial insights here came from a man who died well before Hitler came to power.  Contemplating the industrialization of late 19th century Germany, Max Weber, “the father of sociology”, came to the conclusion that “Reason” -- the ideal of the Enlightenment -- was evolving dangerously into Zweckrationalität -- instrumental reason, reason driven by a goal.  In the service of its goals, modern society was becoming efficiently bureaucratic and scientific, but was losing its sense of values.  In fact, “value-free” had become a test of objectivity and scientific legitimacy, as technique replaced moral responsibility. 

This century has certainly proven Weber correct.  Marxists and postmodern thinkers have taken Weber many steps further, as they deconstruct the goals we have inherited, and the stories we tell ourselves.  Whose goals are they?  What corpses lie between the lines in our story of “Progress”?  If society is a garden, who decides on who gets weeded?

The important point is that Weber’s analysis of modern society -- clearly increasingly applicable as the years push on -- in no way excludes the possibility of another Nazi state.  Nothing in the rules of the reigning instrumental rationality would disqualify Holocaust methods of social engineering, nor would its actions even seem improper.  After all, social problems must be solved.

Milgram, too,  found Weberian mechanisms at play in his subjects.  To avoid confronting the victim’s pain, his “teachers” became absorbed in the technical aspects of voltage control and memory testing.  They also demonstrated a kind of “counter-anthropomorphism”, denying any human element in a human-generated situation.   “The experiment requires that you continue” was often sufficient explanation to overcome any hesitations.  “Scientific truth” as defined by “authority” was a goal so persuasive that its perceived legitimacy overwhelmed humane behavior.

Outside the laboratory, for instance in the military, we find parallel mechanisms at work.  Boot camp is not so much a training in military technique as it is in absolute acceptance of monolithic authority.  Patriotism requires such acceptance.  Once in the field, attention to technical details blinds the perpetrator to the effects of his violence.  The bombing sequence in Dr. Strangelove is a brilliant satire on the efficient calm of men about to destroy the world.  Violence is turned into a technique, free from emotion and purely rational, even reasonable.  Similar comparisons can easily be made with the instrumental rationality of the corporate board room, where the lives of millions are part of the calculus of maximizing profit.

(To be continued next week: How the Nazis did it.)