From DON SANDERSON
If there were only evil people somewhere, insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
— Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
The twentieth century was a bloody gore scattered all over the globe and this century promises to continue the pattern. While all other predatory animals guard their territories potentially to the death, this extremity is seldom necessary. Not so we humans. We not only now have weapons deadly almost beyond imagination, but little compunction about using them. Worse, while other predatory animals are satisfied with sufficient for their immediate needs, we humans seemingly have an inexhaustible hunger for more and more and more, given the opportunities, and little constraining wisdom. We, seemingly without exception, are so certain that our beliefs are true, our causes are just, and that we’re especially deserving that we’re willing to fight, kill, and die beyond all bounds to sustain our lifestyles.
In 2004, several American soldiers were ambushed outside Fallujah during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In response, the U.S. destroyed the town of maybe a half million inhabitants, reportedly killing 1,500 insurgents or so. Around 36,000 of the city’s 50,000 homes were destroyed – who counted how many bodies were inside? White phosphorus was used against the civilian population, which is against international law. There is more. The U.S. uses artillery shells and rockets containing depleted uranium, leftovers from nuclear plants and still highly radioactive, because they are more powerful in penetrating defenses. When they explode, uranium dust is spread all around. Such munitions were used throughout Fallujah and many other places in Iraq. Purportedly as a result, it has been recently reported that incidences in Fallujah of cancer, infant mortality, and birth defects at a rate higher than that after the bombing of Hiroshima. How is that about getting even for ambushing a carload of GIs? Doesn’t that make you proud? Whose taxes paid for that so-called war? Whose elected representatives supported it? Whose children are executing it?
Both the following poem and Solzhenitsyn’s quote were taken from Becoming Evil; How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing by James Waller, a truly frightening book that all should read.
Start with an empty canvas
Sketch in broad outline the forms of men, women, and children.
Dip into the unconscious well of your own
with a wide brush and
stain the strangers with the sinister hue
of the shadow.
Trace onto the face of the enemy the greed,
hatred, carelessness you dare not claim as
Obscure the sweet individuality of each face.
Erase all hints of the myriad loves, hopes,
fears that play through the kaleidoscope of every finite heart.
Twist each smile until it forms the downward
arc of cruelty.
Strip flesh from bone until only the
abstract skeleton of death remains.
Exaggerate every feature until man is
metamorphosed into beast, vermin, insect.
Fill in the background with malignant
figures from ancient nightmares – devils,
demons, myrmidons of evil.
When your icon of the enemy is complete
you will be able to kill without guilt,
slaughter without shame.
The thing you destroy will have become
merely an enemy of God, an impediment
to the sacred dialect of history.
— Sam Keen, from Faces of the Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination
Don’t doubt that Keen is speaking about you and me, especially if you’re male.
We have now entered a time, perhaps like no other since the Civil War, in which the American population is fragmented into antagonistic camps differing over political, economic, environmental, and social issues with resounding verbal, so far, violence. These groups appear to have almost no values in common and the writings distributed by each are filled with anger and hate toward the others. Concurrently, violent behavior is massive marketed as exciting, whether wrestling, football, computer games, television shows and movies, or books, soldiers are returning with hands-on experience, and guns are everywhere. Should physical violence erupt on a large scale, our economic and social infrastructure, which is already crumbling, may well collapse. Oh, it can’t happen here, you say. Need I tell you of all the places in all parts of the world where it happened in the past two centuries? Unlike those, we have so much further to fall and are so much less prepared.
In America I saw the freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest condition that exists in the world; it seemed to me that a sort of cloud habitually covered their features; they appeared to me grave and almost sad even in their pleasures. … He who has confined his heart solely to the search for the goods of this world is always in a hurry, for he has only a limited time to find them, take hold of them, and enjoy them. His remembrance of the brevity of life constantly spurs him. In addition to the goods that he possesses, at each instant he imagines a thousand others that death will prevent him from enjoying if he does not hasten. This thought fills him with troubles, fears, and regrets, and keeps his soul in a sort of unceasing trepidation that brings him to change his designs and his place at every moment. — Alexis de Tocqueville, from Democracy In America, originally published in French between 1835-1840, as recently translated by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop
If this was true then, it is surely even greatly more true today. Arguably, this urge for security is ancient, an expression of the evolutionary drive to survive. The passion for wealth accumulation was justified when St. Augustine proposed the theory of predestination, that if God chooses to smile on you in the afterlife, why should he wait until you die? The idea really caught fire during the Reformation when Martin Luther and John Calvin made it a central feature of the faith.
In the elect, we consider calling as an evidence of election, and justification as another token of its manifestation, till they arrive in glory, which constitutes its completion. As God seals His elect by vocation and justification, so by excluding the reprobate from the knowledge of His name and the sanctification of His Spirit, He affords an indication of the judgment that awaits them. — John Calvin
In other words, those we judge to be failures are surely damned, the worst of all punishments, so anything we might do to them is inconsequential. These ideas were seeded throughout the English colonies and stamped deeply in the American heart by the religious movements of the nineteenth century. They likely were operative to an extent in justifying the massacres of Native Americans and enslavement of Blacks. Even if we have no religious convictions, almost all of us continue to unconsciously adhere to this faith. So, we fight to have more, put up with the damnedest ways of making a living, fear failure, express anger and jealousy, and take alcohol and drugs to dull our doubts. Alas, it true evolutionary style, a few are overwhelmingly blessed, as they say, and the rest are left behind too often in hells on Earth. Praise the Lord.
Psychotherapist Philip Cushman has written in his eye-opening book Constructing Self, Constructing America, in which he noted, “Instead of having vibrant, authoritative communities and moral traditions to guide us, we are faced with a multiplicity of scientific theories, a cacophony of voices, one more dogmatic and self-righteous that the next. Each promises a universal truth, a magical technology, and some type of certain deliverance from the vicissitudes and illnesses of twentieth-century living. A societywide consensus, a shared sense of right and good and true, simply does not exist in our times. It has been shattered by historical forces, military events, and intellectual trends.” He later adds, “By the late twentieth-century, the combination of industrial capitalism, large-scale immigration, the loss of community and tradition, and the press of consumerism has resulted in a landscape in which relatedness usually shows up either as the result of a social profit-and-loss calculus, as the product of the isolated parent-child dyad (and later in life, the romance dyad), or as part of the impression management and personnel manipulations of the workplace. This is indeed a bleak, unsafe landscape with only very limited space for social interactions. Isolation and dissatisfaction have become a taken-for-granted way of life. As a result, individuals, especially middle-class individuals, have struggled with feelings of unreality, hopelessness, low self-esteem, and despair. Despite the openness, optimism, and expressive confidence that earlier twentieth-century American displayed, the emptiness that has evolved is now far too prevalent to be dismissed. It constitutes the underside of mastery and boundedness. The empty self has become the predominant configuration of our era.”
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is difficult to find any facet of American society that isn’t mass produced to specification: our houses, our autos, our clothing, our foods, our pharmaceuticals, our business parks and shopping centers, our television programs and movies, our political parties, our evangelical religions, our education systems, our newspapers and books, our national holidays, even our medical delivery systems. By widely using beauty and self-help products, we are mass producing ourselves to advertiser specification. Pharmaceutical corporations are constantly hounding us to help our physicians determine our treatments. Each university are funded and directed to efficiently produce narrowly trained organic chemists, electrical engineers, computer scientists, statisticians, management scientists, geneticists, nutritionists, and cardiologists who are interchangeable with those produced by every other university. A graduate can only get a job if his qualifications exactly fit corporate requirements just-in-time as needed. Malleability is highly esteemed, which too often means that oldsters (often far short of the current Social Security benchmark of 66 years) are relegated to the trash heap of lower paid service jobs. In the process, fields of study and practice have been narrowed and generalists become unwelcome. Meanwhile, MBAs have become favored degrees and business management the most highly paid profession – even oversight of the American government has become a business management enterprise. Supposed experts heaped with knowledge are guiding our lives, yet our world is spinning out of control.
As a result of his personal studies, cultural anthropologist Bradd Shore has written in his Culture in the Mind; Cognition, Culture, and the Problem of Meaning, “It would appear beyond question that the rapid proliferation of modular design strategies and their associated technologies have had a powerful and ubiquitous effect on human perception and the psychic environment within which we operate.” He continues, “Since the modularity schema has come to shape our very approach to the analysis itself (I am writing this chapter in a ‘window’ of my computer!) grasping their overall potency may prove quite difficult.”
During my nearly 75 years, I’ve been determined to find out my true nature and why I’m here. I’ve refused, or at least attempted not to be just another assembly line Franken-creature designed by and for corporate and government social engineers. It has been a long slow process with maybe some glimmers. Along the way, I’ve fallen more and more out of step with the American culture in both its left and right versions and moved ever closer to the Earth. Wendell Berry, in his The Way of Ignorance, describes much of what I have concluded far better than I:
There are kinds and degrees of ignorance that are remediable, of course, and we have no excuse for not learning what we can. Within limits, we can learn and think; we can read, hear, and see; we can remember. We don’t have to live in a world defined by professional and political gibberish. But the essays and speeches in this book have been written with the understanding, hardly a novelty, that our ignorance is ultimately irremediable, that some problems are unsolvable and some questions unanswerable – that, do what we will, we’re never going to be free of mortality, partiality, fallibility, and error. The extent of our knowledge will always be, at the same time, the measure of the extent of our ignorance. Because ignorance is part of our creaturely definition, we need an appropriate way; a way of ignorance, which is the way of neighborly love, kindness, caution, care, appropriate scale, thrift, good work, right livelihood. … The way of ignorance, therefore, is to be careful, to know the limits and the efficacy of our knowledge. It is to be humble and work on an appropriate scale.
Thus, I’ve increasingly undertaking a fast, not from food but from all the contentious clamor of true believers of any hue. This, I find, is surprisingly hard. I have an immense urge to beat the drum for this or that cause and jump into the fray, but nearly always this has later been seen to have been a waste of time and matter of personal foolishness. This doesn’t mean I don’t attempt to keep informed, but I always question presumptions, particularly my own.
I end with another favorite poem, this by Thich Nhat Hanh.
Call Me by My True Names
Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow
because even today I still arrive.
Look deeply: I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
in order to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and
death of all that are alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time
to eat the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond,
and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence,
feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands,
and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to, my people,
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.
My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life.
My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.
— Call me by my true names: the collected poems of Thich Nhat Hanh
When asked, the Dalai Lama said his religion was love. Jesus would surely have agreed. What an idea.