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Dissent During Wartime

What is the Greatest Treason?

by HENRY MILLER

Editors’ Note: What follows is a brief but biting excerpt from one of our favorite books, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, by one of our favorite writers, HENRY MILLER. The Air-Conditioned Nightmare is Miller’s travelogue across Depression Era America on the eve of World War Two. It is essential reading, even though there’s not much sex in these vivid pages. — JSC / AC

I had to travel about ten thousand miles before receiving the inspiration to write a single line about America. Everything worth saying about the American way of life I could put in thirty pages. Topographically the country is magnificent-and terrifying. Why terrifying? Because nowhere else in the world is the divorce between man and nature so complete. Nowhere have I encountered such a dull, monotonous fabric of life as here in America. Here boredom reaches its peak.

We are accustomed to think of ourselves as an emancipated people; we say we are democratic, liberty-loving, free of prejudice and hatred. This is the melting pot, the seal of a great human experiment. Beautiful words, full of noble, idealistic sentiment. Actually we are a vulgar, pushing mob whose passions are easily mobilized by demagogues, newspaper men, religious quacks, agitators and such like. To call this a society of free peoples is blasphemous. What have we to offer the world beside the superabundant loot which we recklessly plunder from the earth under the maniacal delusion that this insane activity represents progress and enlightenment? The land of opportunity has become the land of senseless sweat and struggle. The goal of all of our striving has long been forgotten. We no longer wish to succor the oppressed and homeless; there is no room in this great, empty land for those who, like our forefathers before us, now seek a place of refuge. Millions of men and women are, or were until very recently, on relief, condemned like guinea pigs to a life of forced idleness. The world meanwhile looks to us with a desperation such as it has never known before. Where is the democratic spirit? Where are the leaders?

To conduct a great human experiment we must first of all have men. Behind the conception MAN there must be grandeur. No political party is capable of ushering in the Kingdom of Man. The workers of the world may one day, if they ever cease listening to their bigoted leaders, organize a brotherhood of man. But men cannot be brothers without first becoming peers, that is, equals in a kingly sense. What prevents men from uniting as brothers is their own base inadequacy. Slaves cannot unite; cowards cannot unite; the ignorant cannot unite. It is only by obeying our highest impulses that we can unite. The urge to surpass oneself has to be instinctive, not theoretical or believable merely. Unless we make the effort to realize the truths which are in us we shall fail again and again. As Democrats, Republicans, Fascists, Communists, we are all on one level. That is one of the reasons why we wage war so beautifully. We defend with our lives the petty principles which divide us. The common principle, which is the establishment of the empire of man on earth, we never lift a finger to defend. We are frightened of any urge which would lift us out of the muck. We fight only for the status quo, our particular status quo. We battle with heads down and eyes closed. Actually there never is status quo, except in the minds of political imbeciles. All is flux. Those who are on the defensive are fighting phantoms.

What is the greatest treason? To question what it is one may be fighting for. Here insanity and treason join hands. War is a form of insanity-the noblest or the basest, according to your point of view. Because it is a mass insanity the wise are powerless to prevail against it. Above any other single factor that may be adduced in explanation of war is confusion. When all other weapons fail one resorts to force. But there may be nothing wrong with the weapons which we so easily and readily discard. They may need to be sharpened, or we may need to improve our skill, or both. To fight is to admit that one is confused; it is an act of desperation, not of strength. A rat can fight magnificently when cornered. Are we to emulate the rat?

***

These wars teach us nothing, not even how to conquer our fears. We are still cave men. Democratic cave men, perhaps, but that is small comfort. Our fight is to get out of the cave. If we were to make the least effort in that direction we would inspire the whole world.

If we are going to play the role of Vulcan let us forge dazzling new weapons which will unshackle the chains which bind us. Let us not love the earth in a perverse way. Let us stop playing the role of recidivist. Let us stop murdering one another. The earth is not a lair, neither is it a prison. The earth is Paradise, the only we will ever know. We will realize it the moment we open our eyes. We don’t have to make it a Paradise-it is one. We have only to make ourselves fit to inhabit it. The man with the gun, the man with murder in his heart, cannot possibly recognize Paradise even when he is shown it,

***

Some people think that a declaration of war changes everything. If only it were true! If only we could look forward to a radical, sweeping change from top to bottom! The changes brought about by war are nothing, however, compared to the discoveries and inventions of Edison. Yet, for good or ill, war can bring about a change in the spirit of a people. And that is what I am vitally interested in-a change of heart, a conversion.

We have a condition now which is called "a national emergency." Though the legislators and politicians may rant at will, though the newspaper tribe may rave and spread hysteria, though the military clique may bluster, threaten, and clamp down on everything which is not to their liking, the private citizen, for whom and by whom the war is being fought, is supposed to hold his tongue. Since I have not the least respect for this attitude, since it does nothing to advance the cause of freedom, I have left unaltered those statements which are apt to cause annoyance and irritation even in times of peace. I believe with John Stuart Mill that "a State which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes, will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished." I would rather my opinions and appraisals were proved wrong-by the emergence of a new and vital spirit. If it takes a calamity such as war to awaken and transform us, well and good, so be it. Let us now see if the unemployed will be put to work and the poor properly clothed, housed and fed; let us see if the rich will be stripped of their booty and made to endure the privations and sufferings of the ordinary citizen; let us see if all the workers of America, regardless of class, ability or usefulness, can be persuaded to accept a common wage; let us see if the people can voice their wishes in direct fashion, without the intercession, the distortion, and the bungling of politicians; let us see if we can create a real democracy in place of the fake one we have finally been roused to defend; let us see if we can be fair and just to our own kind, to say nothing of the enemy whom we shall doubtless conquer over.