Reflections on American Pathology


After September 11 much was made of America’s “loss of innocence.” What was meant by this phrase was that our sense of inviolable security had been forever breached and that we could no longer feel safe in our impregnable fortress, this chosen land protected by two oceans and God’s divine munificence that had so defined us as blessed and so granted us suzerainty as “the first new nation” and “the city on the hill.”

Of course, such a realization of utter vulnerability as 9/11 provided would assuredly produce a violent trauma in our national consciousness. But the wound went deeper still. For it has always been a fundamental assumption of the American political- religious psyche that we alone were inviolable, and that our geographical distance from the remainder of the world conferred upon us a special status among nations, one that freed us from concern for immediate political consequence and thereby provided us with an impartiality of judgment marked by a special purity. In the middle ages the distribution of land was understood as the embodiment of God’s transcendent purpose, and similarly, in the consciousness of the first Puritan settlers our secure distance from Europe was construed as an ideological premise in an argument that provided us with unique moral possibility. Our geographical separation and our moral mission were merged into a single claim of unique theological purpose.

From its Puritan origins America was steeped in a transcendent claim to moral purpose and mission. The “American jeremiad,” as Sacvan Berkovitch has reminded us, produced as one of its cultural manifestations such ceremonial confirmations as the litany of Fourth of July oratory, hailing in Charleston in 1788, “the Revolution as the beginning of a new age in human history;” and in New York, proclaiming, in the words of Thomas Yarrow, “From their birth,” the American states were “designed to be the redeemers of mankind.” From Pennsylvania to Rhode Island, the country was averred “the Great Temple of Liberty.” “Long streams of light emanate from its portals…its turrets will stream into the heaven…and the pillar of divine glory, descending from God, will rest forever on its summit.” In Maine, Virginia and South Carolina, orators asserted the correspondence between local developments and the “vast design of providence…for the universal redemption of the human race.” This was not the vision of human corruption born of original sin that the Puritans had brought with them from the despair of Europe. Nor was it merely a proclamation of American superiority, though this claim was certainly included. It was, rather, the embrace of a mandate to lead the “redemption of the human race” in total transfiguration. Winthrop’s very notion of “a city upon a hill” connoted separation from the turmoil of European corruption for the sake of a new social order. The water passage was a metaphorical ablution, a symbolic rite of purification from those sins of our original nature.

Berkovitch has stated the matter with brilliant concision:

Only in the United States has nationalism carried with it the Christian meaning of the sacred. Only America, of all national designations, has assumed the combined force of eschatology and chauvinism. Many other societies have defended the status quo by reference to religious values; many forms of nationalism have laid claim to a world-redeeming promise; many Christian sects have sought, in secret or open heresy, to find the sacred in the profane, and many European defenders of middle class democracy have tried to link order and progress. But only the American Way, of all modern ideologies, has managed to circumvent the paradoxes inherent in these approaches. Of all the symbols of identity, only America has united nationality and universality, civic and spiritual selfhood, secular and redemptive history, the country’s past and paradise to be, in a single synthetic voice. `

And Melville, in his novel White-Jacket:

And we Americans are the peculiar, chosen people — the Israel of our time; we bear the arc of the liberties of the world…God has predestined, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our souls…Long enough have we been skeptics with regard to ourselves, and doubted whether, indeed, the political Messiah had come. But he has come in us.

However, it is crucial to understand that “redemptive history” was a task still to be completed and that the mission might indeed fail. The giddy self-congratulation of Fourth of July oratory has moved considerably from the original Puritan understanding that their failing their covenant with God would lead to harsh affliction.” As Winthrop warned his congregation:

if wee whall deale falsely with our god in this worke we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us…wee shall shame the faces of many of gods worthy servants, and cause theire prayers to be turned into Curses.

False dealing would produce swift and terrible revenge. This understanding, along with America’s simplistic optimism, has always been an aspect of our fundamentalist heritage.

The situation that cried out to us after September 11, and that we as a nation struggled to deny, was the awareness that rather than the redemptive savior of the world, we had become instead a despised pariah among the world’s nations. The development of this articulated world condemnation was not without its terrible irony. Immediately following the attack upon the World Trade Center the United States became the recipient of considerable world sympathy. Such at least was the prevailing cliché. For whatever the manifest expression of grief for our catastrophe, it was not likely to be without its own peculiar irony. The United States had been responsible for entirely too much disaster and grief in the world for there not to have developed a considerable amount of world hatred and suspicion toward our long imperial history. The consequences of our irresponsible global destructiveness festered within the living memory of large numbers of existent men and women and within the mourning memories of the offspring. The German resistance toward our manipulation of the United Nations vote on Iraq, for example, represented among other constituencies that present generation, previously silenced by guilt for the German role in the European catastrophe and the Second World War, whose parents had been incinerated in the fire bombings of Dresden and Dusseldorf.

Regardless of the more complex causes and consequences that are still to reveal themselves, this much seems clear enough: one of the dominant causes of the emergence of Osama bin Laden was American cold war policy, which provided him funding, weaponry and logistics and whose own imperialist fundamentalism manifested itself in the equally fanatical counter-violence of bin Laden ; the Bush administration had begun planning the colonization of Iraq long before the attack on the Twin Towers; our military venture into Afghanistan was morally and politically without justification and owed more to geopolitical interests than any concern for justice, or even revenge; the reduction of Palestinian lands to separated Banstustan enclaves, as entailed by the Oslo accords and one hundred years of Zionist violation of the secondary reasons, perhaps, for al Qaeda’s 9/11 attack

Given the history of American imperialism in the 20th century there is nothing unusual about the degree of our violence in Afghanistan and Iraq. The extent of those murders pales into insignificance when compared with other well documented American holocausts. We killed many more persons in a very large number of other equally unjustifiable military ventures: 20, 000 soldiers and more than 500,000 civilians in the Philippines between 1899 and 1902 and some 500,000 to 1,000,000 in the massacres that we supported and expedited in Indonesia in 1965, and which the New York Times called “one of the most savage mass slaughters of modern political history.” Nevertheless, there is greater world hatred for the United States now that there has ever been, for a number of reasons that seem quite obvious:

First, with the advent of modern communications there is greater world awareness of the activity of the United States than has ever existed. Second, the justification advanced by the United States during the United Nations debates on Iraq were not only without merit, but so transparently mendacious, as to produce visceral contempt among the great majority of members. The same might be said of previous imperialist ventures and their ideological rationalizations but for two considerations: the world has advanced considerably beyond the easy 19th century assumption that the Western nations had the right to dominate the “undeveloped” peoples of the world, a view that now appears morally absurd and second, there now exists a forum for world discussion in which these views can be provided easy access. With the end of the cold war and the dissolution of the Soviet Union as a counter force to American hegemony, the prospect of confronting the United States as a single, dominating world power exercising its will upon the world, however implausible it might be in fact, seemed credible enough to a large number of nations to produce considerable world fear and hatred.

The response of conservatives to the opposition of France, Germany and Russia regarding our claims on Iraq in the United Nations was simply that these countries were as little interested in the fate of Iraq as were we, and were merely chafing under the likelihood that we would dominate Middle Eastern resources to the exclusion of other competing countries. So much is undoubtedly true. It has not taken long for France to display a thoroughly oppressive attitude toward Haiti. But this truth misses the point. There has never been a time in world history when one country has exercised so much political power supported by total military superiority; it is no surprise that other competitors in the world market will challenge our control regardless of their moral commitment or its absence. We are not the sole world villain opposed by a company of saints. We are a country on the march toward word domination, opposed by others who feel rightly threatened by our insanity.

The fact that al Qaeda chose to act with such barbaric indifference to the human cost of its carefully premeditated violence made the denial of our responsibility for centuries of world slaughter so very easy to obscure. But, ultimately, we cannot evade the moral equation that lies behind these acts of violence. It was, for example, 30 years to the day of our own 9/11 that Allende was murdered in Chile and the Chilean people robbed of their newly won freedom and subjected to a systematic reign of violence that far exceeded anything that occurred in the towers of New York. Did it matter to us? No, of course not, for they are merely Chileans and beside, their lives are so irrelevant and so far away. This is definitely not to say that al Qaeda “represented” the oppressed peoples of the world, being itself an ultra-dogmatic agent of fanatical oppression and mass murder. But its attack against the United States did resonate with millions who had been the object of our own oppression and destructiveness. We, who had created, nurtured and directed the ultimate intent of al Qaeda’s anti-Soviet mission in Afghanistan with our contribution of money, weapons and logistics were soon to find ourselves in the position of a malignant parent, who having contributed to the development of a grotesque offspring, now found itself under attack from its own despicable progeny. There was a great deal of empathy for this parent newly under ferocious assault, but as awareness grew that it had played a seminal role in the creation of its own victimization, and as memory returned of its long history of destructiveness, the world’s judgment turned. In fact, as is generally the case with political movements as well as living beings, the birth of al Qaeda derived from a number of influences. Beyond the United States there was of course the contribution of Saudi Arabia, the home and inspiration of the movement and once the residence of 13 of the 19 who attacked the United States on 9/11. It was an “ally” of the United States and a place of considerable support for bin Laden. Even more to the point, it provided the fanatical, dogmatic and totalitarian religion that formed the world view of bin Laden’s jihad. This movement has been called “austere” but that term seems difficult to apply to a state so saturated with self- indulgences of egregious waste. It is the religion, as Tariq Ali has noted “of the Saudi royals, the state bureaucracy, the army and the air force and, or course, Osama bin Laden….”

However, this situation involved the proliferation of paradoxes, for the fact that the religious fundamentalism of the Saudi regime and the “imperial fundamentalism” (Ali) of the United States were locked in a less than holy alliance, did not deepen the commitment of the Saudi regime in bin Laden’s eyes, but thoroughly corrupted it. The dependence of these two fundamentalisms upon each other did not multiply the strength of both, but revealed how far American depravity had destroyed the Saudi claim to respectful devotion. For bin Laden, the American presence was an indication of how far the Wahabbism of the Saudi regime had strayed from its origin. Once the Soviet Union had been disposed of, this new, armed al Qaeda militancy could direct itself against both its progenitors, for their own unholy alliance and for their support , passive in the case of Saudi Arabia and active if indirect in the case of the United States. So, al Qaeda, the child of Saudi religious fanaticism and American technological imperialism, turned against both of its original sources.

Whether historically fortuitous or more carefully crafted, the events of 9/11 were ripe for utilization by the Bush administration. This illegally constituted government was saturated with a deeply fundamentalist evangelicalism whose primary ideological function was to conceptualize the 9/11 attack as a war of good and evil. Deep in its apocalyptic fanaticism was a version of the early American fundamentalism we have previously referred to, and implicit in that religious mentality was a vision, as Berkovitch notes, that

the sacred characteristically defines itself through its antithesis. The significance of “holy land” depends on other lands not being holy; the chosenness of the chosen people implies their antagonism to the goyim, the “profane nations of the earth.” Moreover, sacred history means the gradual conquest of the profane by the sacred…. the church as a whole wins the world back from Satan in a series of increasingly terrifying and triumphant wars of the Lord.

Throughout its entire history, church doctrine has provided one of the ideological legitimations of expanding capitalist empire. The exact proportion and timing of missionary conversion and military force varied from one circumstance to another, but their mutual involvement was commonplace. As an early American minister wrote; “One thing is very certain, that the influence of the gospel will have the tendency to make them (the Indians) more submissive to the rule of the whites….” and a later Christian advocate noted that “Christianity civilizes in the broadest sense. Commerce, science and industry all accompany her majestic march to universal domination.” Long after Christian fundamentalism had lost much of its power to convert others, it had, ironically, lost none of its powers to convert the current administrators of the American Empire. From its earliest claim to spiritual dominance over the material interests of sinful men and women, religion in America slowly and inexorably embraced and succumbed to “man’s worldly goods.” First as an expression of mercantilism and then as the arm of a developing capitalism, religion made peace with the world. As a Commissioner of Indian Affairs once noted: “Secular ruthlessness was supported by religious fanaticism.” But what of the original covenant with God and the possibilities of either exaltation or damnation? Some of the Church men, like Increase Mather expected fearful vengeance from the Lord: “It is the judgment of very learned Men, that, in the glorious Times promised to the Church on Earth, America will be Hell.” However, his warning was to dissolve in the expansion of American empire that swept away all in its path.

There is probably no better summary of this transformation of Protestantism under the influence of capitalism than the following passage from Richard Niebuhr’s The Social Sources of Denominationalism, the brilliance of which may excuse my quoting it at length:

A single line of development leads from Jonathan Edwards and his great system of God-centered faith through the Arminianism of the Evangelical revival , the Unitarianism of Channing and Parker, and the humanism of transcendental philosophy, to the man-centered, this-worldly, lift-yourself-by-your-own-bootstraps doctrine of new Thought and Christian Science. The common strand that runs through these various movements is the adaptation of the early faith to the changing attitudes of the bourgeoisie…. Here the gospel of self-help has excluded all remnants of that belief in fatality which formed the foundations of Puritan heroism. Here the comfortable circumstances of an established economic class have simplified out of existence the problem of evil and have made possible the substitution for the mysterious will of the Sovereign of life and death and sin and salvation, the sweet benevolence of Father-Mother God or the vague goodness if All. Here the concern for self has been secularized to the last degree; the conflicts of sick souls have been replaced by the struggles of sick minds and bodies; the Puritan passion for perfection has become a seeking after the kingdom of health and mental peace and its comforts. This is not the religion of the middle class which struggles with kings and popes in the defense of its economic and religious liberties but the religion of a bourgeoisie whose conflicts are over and which has passed in the quiet waters of assured income and established social standing.

Each of the stages of religious expression corresponds loosely to the corresponding system of developing capitalism. The American Hell that Increase Mather thundered against did indeed come to exist; not in America, however, but in the foreign outposts of empire, The prevailing sense of rational progress and easy accommodation settled itself in the comfortable circumstances of the American psyche as its power expanded. Even in contemporary times, and even through the course of our invasion of Afghanistan, our continued support of the egregious Sharon government in Israel, our wholly illegitimate coup in Haiti, nothing in our sense of national purpose was really disrupted. We would have to conclude that the great majority of Americans paid little attention to these events; nothing much disturbed “the quiet waters.” However, the escalating deaths of our troops in Iraq began to unravel the original moral pride and chauvinistic patriotism felt by most Americans in their moral venture. At first, this was not because the carnage taught us anything about the unprincipled nature of our undertaking, but because the Administration made the Iraq invasion the cornerstone of its definition of national purpose, and because we Americans have a deep sense that the righteousness of our cause ought to protect us against harm. When harm appears and is multiplied, as in Vietnam, the sense of misadventure appears with it and insinuates itself in the national psyche as a sign that our moral purpose has been corrupted. A mangled military body presents two possibilities: the lacerated flesh of the sacrificial savior, bearing a transcendent purpose, or the dehumanized wreckage that suggests to us, against our will, that we have simply and unaccountably embraced death and disfiguration. Only World War II in the last century eluded the apprehension that our cause had not been wholly pure, and even that war, as it ended in the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was not without its insidious fissures.

Of course the notion of sacrifice is the great defense against the threatened realization of our own corruption. And in a strain derived from the original Puritan covenant, suffering becomes the sign of superiority. Along with the ancient Hebrews we can, in the words of Amos, cruelly comfort ourselves with God’s declaration: “From all the families of the earth I have chosen you alone: for that very reason I will punish you for your iniquities.” But there is a dark side to the maneuver. The acts of revulsion which we impose or receive can prove too powerful for the thin ideology that we construct to defend ourselves. The doctrine of “proportionality” used to distinguish just from unjust wars has also a psychic dimension. And the horror of mass violence may overflow the banks of our moral dikes, flooding the adjacent countryside of our being. This is never more true than when we find ourselves, despite massive efforts at denial, attracted somehow to the hideous pathologies we know we should abhor, as in the case of the sado-masochistic tortures of Abu Ghraib. The terrible secret, exposed beyond repair, is that we find it difficult to turn away from the degeneracy we find exposed before us. In a culture as saturated as ours with pornographic sexuality, the tortures we witness and our response are all too easily folded into the collective perversion. As Adorno noted in another context, still relevant to our own:

A modicum of madness furnishes collective movements — apparently for the time being regardless of their content– with their sinister power of attraction. Individuals cope with their own disintegration, with their own paranoia, by integrating themselves into the collective delusion, the collective paranoia…”

We need only add that as this “integration” is itself a defense against individual disintegration, so collective pornography provides legitimation for individually despairing sexuality. And whether our response is excitement, indifference, or the moral thrill that comes with the revelation of the subaltern, we have been found out.

Our society is no different from others in attempting to codify “ideologies” designed to establish and perpetuate the “legitimacy” of our ruling order. What distinguishes us is the manner in which we construct this ruling illusion: by technology, the manipulation of mass media, the proliferation of integrated civic institutions and the state’s endorsement of professional, that is, expert, identities. This effort is exercised in the realm of popular culture, the political and economic systems, and in the enclaves of the intellectual elites. We possess no generally acknowledged set of institutions charged to construct definitions of the “moral” and “immoral,” “good” and “bad,” or “normal” and “pathological.” The closest we come, perhaps, is in the realm of psychotherapy, where the DSM, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual serves to define what would generally be considered by the mental health profession, “mental disorders.” This is a manifestation of what Niebuhr had referred to as ‘the conflicts of sick souls being replaced by the struggles of sick minds’ in “a seeking after the kingdom of health and mental peace and its comforts.” Of course, the DSM being itself an ideological work, that is, an analysis designed to disguise, mystify and invert the actual creation of “dysfunction,” must be “stood on its feet” to reveal the reality it functions to obscure. So it is no accident that the DSM begins by informing us that “Neither deviant behavior (e.g. political, religious, or sexual) nor conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are mental disorders unless the deviance or conflict is a symptom of dysfunction in the individual….” By this account we are precluded from locating the sources of individual aggression, destruction, violence, venality, manipulation, exploitation, subordination and other such “pathologies” in the larger society.

In fact, in the DSM’s notion of “conduct disorder,” for example, which it analyzes into the four subcategories of 1) aggression toward people and animals, 2) destruction of property, 3) deceitfulness or theft and 4) serious violation of rules, the operative though unspoken imperative is to treat these disorders as emanating from the characteristics of individuals and affecting essentially the lives of other distinct individuals. Those who control the major corporate and state institutions of capitalist society are, in their collective existence, excluded from the charges of aggression, destruction, deceitfulness and violation of rule that is understood to pertain exclusively to individuals.

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Puritan America conceived of itself as a people chosen to lead the redemption of mankind. And it was long so regarded by many nations aspiring to liberty. But several centuries later much has changed and a great number of the world’s people look upon the United States as a scourge and the most fearful threat to any possibility of world peace. The idealization of itself it has constructed to justify its role in the world has turned hollow and rancid, and the claims of its origin can only bring derision. Rather than a stance of moral transcendentalism it is now forced into a grim embrace of technocratic reason in the service of a degenerate capitalism. With these considerations in mind let us consider the recent film “The Fog of War,” an overview of the political life of Robert McNamara. Such an examination is useful as the film has made McNamara’s political life common knowledge, because it relies largely on his own account of himself, and because through the prism of this life we are made to see the larger contours of American policy of which he is a manifestation. Three aspects of the film seem particularly noteworthy:

First, there is for all of McNamara’s self-creation as an analyst of note, a profound lack of significant theoretical perspective, His intelligence is completely circumscribed within the assumptions of American chauvinistic ideology. One of his most vigorous attempts at self-critique leads him to hold that while the Vietnamese leadership saw the situation in Vietnam prior to our invasion as a civil war and a struggle for national independence, he saw the conflict from the perspective of the cold war. Granting that this confession is honest and that McNamara so conceives of America’s role and obligation, it in no way obviates the further need to trace the cold war itself, at least in significant part, back to American post war expansion. For this task McNamara lacks all capacity and motive. The idea is never even contemplated. Why does the DSM recognize individual psychosis as involving serious distortion of thought and lack all reference to the reification of murderous social reasoning.?

It might be said in rebuttal that McNamara’s management of American policy in Vietnam is precisely what we would anticipate of an individual committed to the administration of the war and its success. We can hardly expect such a person to organize massive violence against others and simultaneously find their organized destruction lacking in justification. The very truth of this reply undermines itself. For it leaves us to ask why any human being could morally adopt such a role and it simultaneously suggests that the very exercise of its functions renders one’s thought grossly pathological. But can we legitimately adopt this position of extreme psychological moralism, accusing every thinker who disagrees with our assessment of the situation as suffering from some profound pathology.? Certainly not for every disagreement or even the mass of them. There are, however, forms of thought so deeply rooted in perverse structures of political, social and psychological activity as to require examination of their normative condition. The more deeply rooted the system of pathological activity, the more pathologically inseparable the mentality of those whose behavior expedites its function. The structures of thought that define, justify and organize the military operations that kill 3,500,000 human beings cannot be separated in their function from the activities they discharge.

Second, McNamara plays at the acceptance of responsibility while all the time denying any ultimate guilt for the activities he has fostered. In reference to “agent orange,” for example, he maintains that he did not know that it was toxic. If this claim can be believed, it indicates a level of ignorance regarding a matter of egregious moral consequence that exceeds anything the law could conceptualize as criminal negligence. It is, rather, an act of depraved indifference on a scale of mass murder. Rather than reflect on the devastating consequence of applying a toxic defoliant to the great mass of Vietnam land and populace, Mcnamara engages in a pseudo-serious exercise designed to clarify the legal foundation of the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable chemical weapons. But this is more an exercise in denial and the obsessive thought employed to facilitate it than any useful consideration. For the whole exercise is a carefully contrived distraction. The fundamental question concerns our right to invade another country without any credible appeal to self-defense or legitimate call from the international community. “I would not have authorized an illegal action,” he brazenly informs us, thereby folding in the lies of the invasion with the obfuscating account of the original Tonkin Bay incident. But we should not be surprised, for at the conclusion of the film interview he tells us, laughing, that one should never answer the question that has been asked of you, but the question one wished had been asked. This operation in evasion is not merely a device for deceiving the larger public, but simultaneously a device for deceiving one’s self.

Third, it is illuminating to compare McNamara’s response to the death of one individual with his response to the death, by his own account, of 3,500,00 human beings. When citing the death of John Kennedy and the process of locating an ideal place for his burial, McNamara shows some sign of grief; he becomes teary and approaches a public display of pathos. But the death of the Vietnamese produces no such effect. It is, of course, perfectly obvious that nobody can feel or display, in appropriate proportion the grief that would be the measure of the death of millions. This fact in itself reveals the utter corruption of war; for it strips of human response and leaves our capacity for compassion wholly disengaged. But to show no meaningful affect at all? This is an indication of pathology and it is no less so for applying equally to all of us as well as to McNamara. We are all made inhuman by our participation, willed or not, in the horrors carried out by the military, economic and state apparatus that we continually reproduce. McNamara’s first stated rule advises us to “empathize with our enemy.” But McNamara appears incapable of any such response. What he actually seems to intend is to “grasp the strategy of your enemy,” a wholly different notion of subservience to state planning and control.

Finally, though McNamara cites with admiration T S Eliot’s conclusion to the Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

This is intended to indicate that McNamara too has actually returned in his comprehension to Vietnam and understood “for the first time” the nature of the situation that previously alluded him. But what precisely is this understanding? Two of McNamara’s favorite concepts are “complexity” and “errors in judgment.” However, nothing could mark a sharper contrast between Eliot and McNamara than the transcendent, moral mysticism of the former and the technocratic positivism of the latter. McNamara’s vocabulary is a manifestation of reified, technocratic instrumentalism that facilitates the system of power constructed by modern corporate scientism. When asked at the end of the interview whether he feels responsibility and guilt for his role in Vietnam he speaks in the language of “complexity” once more, as though the slaughter he helped to plan was a matter of administrative flow charts and mathematical probability. When asked why, after his separation from the administration he did not speak out against the war, he can only respond, pathetically, that “these are the kind of questions that get me into trouble.” As though his prosecution of the war was not in itself a trouble of enormous and repellent magnitude.

The point of this examination is to establish that there can be no final separation between the pathology displayed by McNamara and the society from which he derives. Nor can there be such a separation for the rest of us. The dehumanization of a society dominated by alienated, technocratic, corporatist military imperialism is the dehumanization of its leading agents and, to a greater or lesser degree, the remainder of us as well. In our society, as McNamara’s presentation reveals, moral problems are more and more reduced to practical tasks to be judged by their efficiency, the ends and normative principles that direct them less and less open to scrutiny, unexamined and left subservient to capitalist domination. Our unwillingness to engage in moral reflection and accept moral responsibility is the willed attempt to avoid looking into the face of a society of very deep corruption. And what does this corruption finally consist in? One of its root assertions is the prevailing hypothesis that we Americans, are superior to the remainder of the world’s peoples, that we have the right or even the obligation to dominate them and decide on their behalf; that we alone understand what justice, virtue and human fulfillment consist in, we who have so degraded ourselves and destroyed the long nurtured hopes of others. The occurrence of 9/11 was a malignant and apocalyptic attempt to destroy a singular manifestation of our society, its secular modernism. But the course of action we undertook in Afghanistan and Iraq only convinced an enormous number of the world’s peoples that we had become a power of little moral discernment given to malicious and terrible violence of our own. When to these events were added our continuing support for mass violence and terror in Palestine and our support of a vicious coup in Haiti, there remained very little in our world position that could elicit anything from the world but terror and revulsion. The conclusion we must draw is that the pathologies of others, particularly those we have nurtured for our own purposes, certainly do not eliminate our own and do not permit us to escape recognition of our own immoral descent.

Of course, the very idea that we are “pathological” as a collectively, as a politically engaged people, is not likely to be credited as a serious proposal. It is a proposition most often met with scorn and derision. But it must be remembered that the notions of pathology and human nature are dialectically related. Since we regard individuals as “naturally” egoistical and self-serving, we conclude that their acts of what we call “self-gratification” fall within the realm of normalcy, that is, of reasonable nature. Some acts of self-gratification, such as theft and murder, may well be considered illegal and immoral, but they are not considered prima facie pathological because we believe we understand their motive and conception according the criteria of self-assertion. They are what a rational person, someone like ourselves for example, might do under similar circumstances. Pathologies, on the other hand, are acts that we believe defy rational consideration, particularly when the appear for “reasons” that can neither be understood nor controlled. So we readily define others as pathological when their acts, particularly those directed against ourselves, appear to us completely unintelligible. Then their irrational destructiveness appear to violate the limits of human, that is, “humane” nature. Yet, our intentions, directed as they are toward “the good,” that is toward rational self-fulfillment, are endorsed as transparently luminous. But how are we to understand the murder of 3,500,000 people? And whose rational self-gratification do they provide for? For McNamara, and those institutions of our society which have produced him and from which his mentality is inseparable, these are issues of complexity and failure in judgment. The moral dimension of the situation appears to dissolve under the corrosive assault of positivist calculation. Is this not social insanity?

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To reframe Niebuhr’s discussion, the original struggle between good and evil souls has been replaced by the accommodation of sick and healthy individuals. Behind this change is the secularization of American society under the influence of capitalist world expansion. So theocracy gives way to positivism. However different the origin of the United States from its present constitution, the constant is the drive toward control of resources, markets and peoples. The accompanying mentality is an arrogant sense of entitlement and superiority. We are left finally with this question: how, ultimately, can we understand the activity of a people, made up of those we know as friends, family, lovers and acquaintances, so often decent in their individual relations, participating in the requirement s of a society so given to barbaric destruction? This is one of the central questions that perplexes us and demands our deeper scrutiny.

RICHARD LICHTMAN is the author of “The Production of Desire,” “Essays in Critical Social Theory,” and most recently, “Dying in America,” which among other aspects, includes a memoir of the death of his father. He can be reached at: