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The Question of American Guilt

“The delusional is no longer marginal, but has come in from the fringe to influence the seats of power. We are witnessing today a coupling of ideology and theology that threatens our ability to meet the growing ecological crisis. Theology asserts propositions that need not be proven true, while ideologues hold stoutly to a world view despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality. The combination can make it impossible for a democracy to fashion real-world solutions to otherwise intractable challenges.” So writes Bill Moyers in the current issue of the New York Review of Books. (1)

Moyers describes how the anticipation of “rapture” — the belief in a cataclysmic Armageddon separating the “saved” from the “damned” as described in the Book of Revelations — trumps any environmental or even rational concern, for a large number of evangelical American Christians. A separate news story about evangelical Christians who have awakened to environmental reality only underscores Moyers’ point, since green evangelicals seem to be a minority. (2)

What is going on? We are losing our minds because we are clinging to power.

“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

— Lord Acton (John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1834-1902), in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton of 5 April 1887.

“Those whom God wishes to destroy, he first makes mad.”

— Euripides (c. 485-406 B.C.), a fragment.

Today, America wields what many see as absolute power, hence we Americans must be corrupting absolutely. It is easy to see this in the intentionally engineered physical manifestations of the decay of our social consciousness and sense of commons. For example, we are at war with the entire concept of public education because we are at war with any idea of contributing resources into a socialism that breeches our tribal and class barriers.

What may not be appreciated is that corruption by power will also include the decay of our mental faculties — our sanity. Unrestrained power is psychotic. Psychosis is detachment from reality. Much of our national psychosis is expressed with religiosity (as opposed to religion and religiousness).

“Rapture” is just a psychotic raving that like water in rapids mounds over hidden rocks indicating a deeper truth: reality is ultimately fatal to all psychosis. This does not mean cure, simply that objective nature does not allow unrestrained psychotics to survive. Restraint is social interaction, the recognition of “the other” — a recognition basic to sanity.

The psychotic on the streets dies of exposure or the assaults of society unless taken into its care, whether benign or pharmaceutical or judicial. The psychotic nation similarly dies starved of any connection to a world community — perhaps a North Korea — or must be put down like Nazi Germany because its frenzied thrashing wrecks havoc on too many others, frightening them with the prospect of losing all life and liberty.

The ultimate rapture of US power may come soon or beyond our lifetimes. The great conflagration consuming all, anticipated by the evangelical psychosis, may appear as an environmental collapse, an abrupt climate change triggered by global warming, a depletion of world hydrocarbon reserves, a financial collapse, a military effort by a large coalition of nations, a mutated bird flu pandemic, or some combination of any of these. We might delude our way into our own gotterdammerüng, as the Maya kings of cities like Tikal and Copan did in the 8th and 9th centuries — blinded to the proximity of our collapse by the luster of our power. “Whom the Gods would destroy they first make mad” (Longfellow).

It is this madness that is our greatest weakness, and the vulnerability most accessible to real enemies. Four jumbo jets were flown through this opening on 11 September 2001. The “inability” to understand “why?,” and the loud howling of indignation about Ward Churchill’s stridency in his use of the phrase “little Eichmanns” since, are only reflex denials mounding over the underlying truth that must remain submerged: Americans’ collective guilt for the continuing impact of American power on non-American lives. We engineer this denial into our manner of speaking and the objects of our daily lives. Our SUVs are psychological sculpture, karmic Rorschach blots, anechoic cocoons free of the Palestinian screams emitted as we squeeze the earth for black blood to burn. (3) If ignorance is bliss, then America is paradise.

As an American, accept the collective guilt. Denial, whether rhapsodic evangelical or an enlightened progressive’s disavowal (“It’s not my fault, I know better”), only delays responding to its causes — and changing this nation’s course. We are all guilty to some degree for the footprints of America in this world. Why? Because we are — and want to be — all part of this nation. This attitude is the psychological antidote to the psychosis.

The following excerpt is from a 2000 essay by Gerhard Rempel of Western New England College. (4)

In 1947, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers, who had a clear conscience, a good heart, and great moral vision, provided a compass that can still serve us in finding our way out of the moral wilderness of Nazism. In trying to examine “German guilt,” it is first necessary to define the wrong that was committed that should precipitate guilt. Jaspers and most moral Germans would agree that in the case of Nazism such wrongdoing involved committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. Other crimes included imperialist expansion, the manner in which war was fought, and even the crime of starting the war. There can be no denying that Hitler’s Germany was indeed guilty of these crimes.

There are, however, as Jaspers points out, types of guilt, which he labels as criminal guilt, political guilt, moral guilt, and metaphysical guilt. Criminal guilt involves anyone who committed a crime under unequivocal laws, with jurisdiction resting with the court. Political guilt attaches to all citizens who tolerated what was done under the name of the state. We are all co-responsible for the way in which we are governed and therefore liable for the consequences of the deeds done by the state, although not every single citizen is liable for the criminal actions committed by specific individuals in the name of the state. Jurisdiction for political guilt rests ultimately with the victor. Moral guilt involves the individual’s awareness of serious transgressions or participation in unethical choices that resulted in specific wrongdoing. Jaspers argued that moral failings cause the conditions out of which both crime and political guilt arise. Jurisdiction of moral guilt rests with one’s individual conscience. Finally, there is metaphysical guilt, which arises when we transgress against the general moral order and violate the archetypal moral bonds that connect us to each other as human beings. As humans we are co-responsible for every wrong and injustice that is committed; and by inactively standing by, we are metaphysically culpable. The jurisdiction with metaphysical guilt ultimately rests with God.

Although Jaspers was willing to admit that Germans were morally and metaphysically culpable in the sense of tolerating conditions that gave rise to criminal activities on a large scale, he denies that all Germans were collectively guilty of the crimes committed by the Nazis. For crimes one can punish only individuals; a whole nation cannot be charged with a crime. The criminal is always an individual. Moreover, it would be tragic to repeat the practice of the Nazis and judge whole groups by reference to some abstract “trait” or character. There is no national character that extends to every single individual. This would be committing the fallacy of division that holds that what is true of some presumed whole must be true of all its members. One cannot make an individual out of a people without falling victim to the same disease that afflicted the Nazis. People are not evil; only individuals are.

(I have removed stray keystrokes and added more paragraph breaks in the above excerpt from Rempel.)

Given this recognition, how do we each use what is available to us (as Americans, this can be quite generous) to compensate for what we regret has been done? All such judgment is personal (“Judge not, for as you judge, so shall you be judged.”). It is so easy to find the inadequacy of others, and so hard to push ourselves to become a little more aware, and to do a little something about it. But, in being willing to make space in your conscious reality for “the other,” you make your personal revolt against the tide of national psychosis. “With rebellion, awareness is born,” Camus wrote. (5)

Our first act of rebellion is to become aware. This creates solidarity with all others similarly aware, and is the basis of group action in rebellion. Camus writes from a rational humane perspective. The existential problem he sought to unravel does not arise in minds possessed by the irrational, such as faith in unprovable theology, or by history, like the apparatchik obsessed with “success.” Among Camus’ observations in “The Rebel” are these four:

“In absurdist experience, suffering is individual. But from the moment when a movement of rebellion begins, suffering is seen as a collective experience.”

“I rebel — therefore we exist.”

“The consequence of rebellion…is to refuse to legitimize murder because rebellion, in principle, is a protest against death.”

“Then we understand that rebellion cannot exist without a strange form of love. Those who find no rest in God or in history are condemned to live for those who, like themselves, cannot live: in fact, the humiliated. The most pure form of the movement of rebellion is thus crowned with the heart-rending cry of Karamazov: if all are not saved, what good is the salvation of one only?”

“O Bailan Todos O No Baila Nadie” — Tupamaros, Uruguay 1964-1970. (6)

Manuel Garcia, Jr. can be reached at: mango@idiom.com

References

[1] Bill Moyers, “Welcome To Doomsday,” New York Review Of Books, 24 March 2005,
http://www.nybooks.com/articles/17852

[2] Laurie Goodstein, “Evangelical Leaders Swing Influence behind Effort to Combat Global Warming,” New York Times, 11 March 2005,
http://www.truthout.org/docs_2005/031105G.shtml

[3] MANUEL GARCÍA, Jr., “The Palestinians Versus The SUV,” 10 May 2004,
http://www.swans.com/library/art10/mgarci13.html

[4] Gerhard Rempel, “The Question of German Guilt,” 2000, Western New England College,
http://mars.acnet.wnec.edu/~grempel/courses/hitler/lectures/german_guilt.html

Karl Jaspers, “The Question of German Guilt,” 1947
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Jaspers

[5] Albert Camus, “The Rebel,” 1955 (“L’Homme Révolté,” 1950).

[6] William Blum, “Killing Hope,”
see chapter “33. Uruguay – 1964-1970: Torture — as American as apple pie,”
http://www.killinghope.org/, or
http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Blum/Uruguay_KH.html

More articles by:

Manuel Garcia, Jr, once a physicist, is now a lazy househusband who writes out his analyses of physical or societal problems or interactions. He can be reached at mangogarcia@att.net

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