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“Something is rotten in the state…”
- Marcellus, in “Hamlet”
In our times, in a media-saturated culture in which well-packaged and comforting lies are explicitly preferred to unsettling truths, those who reveal sordid realities are often dismissed if not reviled. Whistleblowers and voices of integrity—such as Julian Assange and Bradley Manning—engage in the often-thankless vocation of disturbing complacency; and those awakened from their lying dreams angrily threaten to “kill the messenger” (figuratively—or perhaps literally).
I am reminded of Henrik Ibsen’s bitterly satirical play An Enemy of the People. The protagonist, a maverick scientist named Dr. Stockmann, has dreamed up a project to turn his backwater town into a cosmopolitan health spa. However, he later discovers that the project, upon which the town has invested its capital and its future, is hopelessly ruined by contaminating waste coming from upriver. At a meeting of the townspeople, he tries mightily to inform, explain, warn—but his fellow citizens refuse to listen and shout him down, finally even labeling him “an enemy of the people.” At that moment, he announces the discovery of an even greater source of corruption–“that all the sources of our moral life are poisoned and that the whole fabric of our civic community is founded on the pestiferous soil of falsehood.”
In the last half of the 20th century, the American economy promised the realization of a “dream” of universal home ownership and a veritable cornucopia of consumer goods. The coveted, high-consumption ideal of unparalleled material comforts, based as it was on easy credit, offered the two-car garage and four-bedroom house. But by the 1990s, with almost one motor vehicle per adult and domestic oil fields largely depleted, the U.S. economy had become addicted to an endless ocean of foreign oil. Per capita consumption of oil remained at a rate roughly twice that of western Europe.
As U.S.-based oil companies further extended their tentacles globally, a bloated U.S. War Machine-in-overdrive laid waste to entire countries, creating incalculable human suffering in its quest to secure access to the oil which fed an insatiable Moloch called the “American Way of Life.” Dis-information and fabricated pretexts manufactured the consent of a largely passive populace that resigned itself to, or often cheered on, the next waging of aggressive war–“the supreme international crime,” according to the Nuremberg Charter. By 1996, U.S. diplomat Madeleine Albright matter-of-factly stated on national television that the deliberate killing some 500,000 Iraqi children had been “worth it”—and her remark provoked little concern, let alone outrage, among the American citizenry. (The draconian U.S.-UN sanctions in the early 1990s, had deprived the Iraqi people—whose water treatment plants and medical facilities had been deliberately destroyed in the Gulf War—of urgent necessities like vaccines, medicines, food.)
Two millennia ago, ruthless Roman commanders would lay siege to a city, starving the people into submission and enslavement. But such generals, no matter how cruel, lacked the advantages of modern artillery and air strikes. And, despite other fiendish torments available for their use, they did not have the chemical know-how to drop clouds of white phosphorus or giant combustibles, thereby burning and incinerating thousands of people living below. Often merciless, their crimes were nonetheless circumscribed by the spatial and technical limits of the times. Such was not the case in the U.S. invasion, bombing, and occupation of Iraq.
The statistics are horrifying, unspeakable—although we must (relentlessly) speak of them. If one ponders, for even a few minutes, what such statistics mean, one suffers serious emotional disturbance and disorientation. “Roughly” 500,000 children in the early 1990s? “About” a million people killed by the invasion and its aftermath? “A few million” more lives maimed, displaced, wrecked (as much by grief and despair as by physical mutilation)? Such statistics are terribly abstract, obscenely abstract: an adding-machine tabulates an endless list of corpses into an abstract figure to be entered in the chronicle of “collateral damage,” “civilian casualties,”—or a “body count.”
Yet such icy abstraction can suddenly become terribly concrete—when we scrutinize up-close the faces and bodies of children “unlucky” enough to have inhabited a city called Falluja. In the short RAI documentary “Falluja: The Hidden Massacre,” we see a city completely in ruins, bricks strewn everywhere, with the occasional motionless, crushed child to be discerned beneath the rubble. We see, with a fierce lucidity, the squashed faces and scorched skulls of little children—viciously burnt to death by the napalm (MK77) the killers chose to inflict on these innocent victims. We see many other things, unspeakable things, unspeakable crimes of which we must find a way to speak—and to speak with searing moral clarity.
Within neo-colonial systems (empires), those living in the “core” nation are led to believe that they can and should enjoy an affluent standard of material comforts—even if it is based on military conquest, resource-extraction, and the exploitation of cheap labor (in “peripheral” places like the Middle East). Those Americans who continue to believe in an unrealistic standard of material affluence—based as it is on an addiction to an energy-guzzling, hyper-consumption “way of life”—will continue to tolerate U.S.-initiated oil wars and minimize the threats posed by global warming. (Indeed, Cheney’s secretive Energy Task Force—comprised mostly of top-level U. S. oil executives—had mapped out some of the coveted Mideastern oil fields; upon U.S. occupation, the contracts and profit-sharing agreements were anticipated to be highly favorable.)
If trying to sustain the “ideal” of American-style prosperity nowadays is based on war (i.e., imperial Terrorism)—as well as its counterparts of trade embargoes and “regime change”–why even care if the U.S. economy continues to falter or even collapse? True, those who suffer the most are always poor people and innocent children. Nonetheless, even with better jobs and financial reform, the coveted “American Dream” of material affluence can only be sustained by Middle Eastern (and possibly Venezuelan?) oil—favorable access to which has been gained through military aggression, draconian sanctions, and neoliberal privatizations.
The “American Dream”–with its equation of “consuming” with living, with its “middle-class” ideal of big cars and big homes, with its addiction to frivolous (and vulgar) amusements—is in itself morally bankrupt. The culture is an insatiable Moloch which feeds on oil—and has already demanded the mass sacrifices of innocent children ten thousands miles away to get it.
A shrinking “middle-class”? Insufficient “stimulus” to jump-start “consumer demand”? Sixty-year congressional gridlock regarding universal “health care”? Surrounded by a soulless banality propped up by vicious wars, those who hold fast to truth and universal human values are confronted with Dr. Stockmann’s haunting question: “What does the destruction of a [society] matter, if it lives on lies?”
William Manson, a psychoanalytic anthropologist, formerly taught social science at Rutgers and Columbia universities. He is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press).