We’re living in a very weird and convoluted moment in the annals of truth and bullshit. For some reason Americans saddled themselves with a rich and obnoxious reality TV star significantly unmoored from reality. A George W. Bush aide famously told a reporter: We’re an empire now and we make our own reality. Maybe it’s an axiom of our age: The wealthy and powerful have the right to make their own reality. As for the poor and the powerless, the same condition of being unmoored from reality is generally linked with what we call “mental illness,” which leads to marginalization, institutionalization or incarceration.
The same corrupt double standard works in the realm of violence. I‘ve been writing for decades about the killing our government has officially undertaken in places like Vietnam and Iraq and in smaller venues. I’ve always liked the bumper sticker that says: Kill One Person It’s Murder; Kill 100,000 It’s Foreign Policy. In my thinking, it isn’t a joke; it’s more like the Rules Of Engagement.
For me, the exemplary culprit in this equation is Henry Kissinger and the cold-blooded slaughter of millions of Vietnamese in a war that really makes no sense at all. (I challenge anyone to tell me what the Vietnamese ever did to us other than work as our ally against the Japanese in World War Two.) The most truthful narrative is that the Vietnamese were betrayed and attacked by the United States, one, to support French re-colonization after WWII, and, two, because US leaders felt compelled to dominate the wrecked post-WWII world. To recognize Vietnamese nationalism and the Vietnamese urge for freedom was too complicated for our fearful and reductive Cold War mindset. Rich and powerful, we ended up killing millions of Vietnamese in an ultimately failed effort to impose our reality — although in the end the Vietnamese developed excellent capitalistic instincts.
In a very weird turn of events, our new president seems to agree with the idea that killing is very American and that there are killers in our government. President Trump revealed this in an interview with his old pal Bill O’Reilly. The interview was appropriately run just before the Super Bowl, our culture’s pre-eminent gladiatorial extravaganza, an annual event of such masculine escapist power that it defines Bread & Circus for our media-addled, couch-potato age. Here’s O’Reilly and Trump:
O’Reilly: “Do you respect Putin?”
Trump: “I do respect him.”
O’Reilly: “Do you!? Why?”
Trump: “I respect a lot of people. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to get along with him. He’s a leader of his country. I say it’s better to get along with Russia than not, and if Russia helps us in the fight against ISIS – which is a major fight, and Islamic terrorism all over the world – that’s a good thing. Will I get along with him? I have no idea.”
O’Reilly: “He’s a killer, though. Putin’s a killer.”
Trump: “There are a lot of killers. We got a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent? You think our country is so innocent?”
O’Reilly: “I don’t know of any government leaders that are killers.”
Trump: “Well, take a look at what we’ve done too. We’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve been against the war in Iraq from the beginning.”
O’Reilly: “Mistakes are different than —.”
Trump: “A lot of mistakes. Okay. But a lot of people were killed. So a lot of killers around, believe me.”
I’ve worked with a group of fellow Vietnam veterans in a project called Full Disclosure. The group’s mission is to inject some truth into the national consciousness about our tragic and immoral war against the Vietnamese. So far, the effort has been asymmetrical, or Sisyphian, since government efforts to propagandize the war as a noble cause grotesquely out-budget grassroots efforts like Full Disclosure.
Ex-POW and Senator John McCain was outraged by Trump’s remarks about killers in the US government and gave a speech on the floor of the US Senate. He was so impassioned he flapped his arms in an extremely awkward fashion attributable to the permanent shoulder-and-arm injuries he received ejecting from his jet and, later, from abuse by angry Vietnamese; he ended up in Truc Bach Lake in the middle of Hanoi. Of course, he was shot down on a bombing run over Hanoi killing Vietnamese, which may explain his vociferous opposition to the idea of American killers. It’s John McCain’s brand of bullshit — the patriotism of warrior politics — something that has taken him quite far. While I oppose McCain’s militarist views on everything but torture, I have to confess I often find it hard to dislike the man due to the suffering he endured and the fact I’m a “brother” Vietnam vet, albeit a vet with a quite un-glorious story, but a vet with some degree of guilt from the war.
This kind of discussion always reminds me of the history of the imperial United States from the days of the Spanish American War 119 years ago and how we’ve too often treated people as backward and barbaric in the places we so blithely assaulted. We tended to undertake the killing of people in order to open their countries as markets for our surpluses at times America was bursting at the seams with industrial production. Such was the case in the Philippines in 1900; it was thought war against Spain’s occupation there might open markets in Asia. Industrial forces and newspapers lobbied for war, but once it got underway things quickly became confused. For example Admiral George Dewey dispatched the Spanish fleet in Manila so quickly and easily, the question arose: What now? Like Shock & Awe in 2003 in Baghdad, the war then generated its own internal logic and motivations that could be reduced to we must continue to fight the war because we’re here fighting a war and don’t want to lose face. Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn Rule comes out of this condition: “If you break it, you own it.” Plus, in 1900, we had the White Man’s Burden to carry or, as Teddy Roosevelt liked to put it, we were called to “manage small states unable to manage themselves.” In this way, the US did a lot of killing, most of it not a “mistake.” It was policy.
So the master bullshitter Donald Trump is ironically a profound truth-teller when he says: “We got a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?” He’s turning the tables on one of the most incredible sewer-clogging piles of propaganda bullshit in modern American history. Add to this the pop-culture adoration by Americans of the dramatic archetype of the killer and one begins to understand the problem. Americans (maybe humans in general) love a good killer — both good in the sense of efficient and good in the sense that people love a killer who kills for them, responds to their fears, advances their hopes and dreams.
The disturbing aspect of Trump’s truth-telling is that he’s not making a moral point that killing is wrong. He’s making the opposite point, that killing is normal and, therefore, acceptable. Americans need to be honest with themselves; those who get worked up about killing are hypocrites, weak sisters or cowards. Real men don’t eat quiche; they kill other people. He’s basically making a Hobbesian violent State Of Nature argument, as in the following by Vadim Volkov from his 2002 book Violent Entrepreneurs: The Use of Force In the Making of Russian Capitalism:
“In the state of nature, property exists only as long as it can be protected by the claimant. An entirely different world is what Hobbes calls the Commonwealth, where individuals are deprived of, or willingly abdicate, their natural right to self-government in favor of a higher power that establishes protection and laws for all.”
As a philosopher, Hobbes, of course, was being abstract. In the real world of America or Russia, these abstract concepts get a bit confused and begin to overlap into each other so we end up with an amalgam of the features of the State of Nature and the Commonwealth. We see this in the informal institutions of selective enforcement where the “protections” and “laws” that the Hobbesian commonwealth establishes, and citizens abdicate their self-determination for, are selectively applied, leaving some elements of society subject to the State of Nature where property (and life itself) “exist only as long as [they] can be protected by the claimant.” It’s as the narrator says in the preface of the Cohn brother’s film Blood Simple: Over shots of desolate west Texas desert highways he makes glib references to socialist societies, then says, “In Texas, you’re on your own.” It’s the Old West ethic of the gunfighter. It’s the manifest destiny that made America “great,” our dirty foundational secret that reveals the two strains of American history: the self-congratulatory mythic strain and The Truth, where America’s greatness is not inherent and God-given but achieved on the backs of people the world over weaker and less sophisticated, people vulnerable to domination and exploitation by a western mindset full of itself. There’s a strong case to be made that much of today’s threats are rooted in this legacy. What goes ’round, comes ’round.
Rather than use terms like “Mafia” or “organized crime,” Volkov, a Cambridge-educated Russian sociologist at the European University at St. Petersburg, likes to use terms like “violence-managing agencies,” “force wielding organizations,” “protection enterprises” and “private enforcers.” His book, he writes, “deals with an exclusively male world, where traditional male virtues associated with violent contest prevail.” The tale he unfolds is one of the anarchic aftermath of the downfall of the Soviet Union noted for the “violent entrepreneurs” of the title and the countervailing impulse to create a State structure that would constitute a Hobbesian commonwealth. He writes that in 2001 newly elected President Vladimir Putin addressed the Russian legislature and conceded the state was coming up short in “protecting citizens from racketeers, bandits, and bribe-takers.”
The Russian dance between state of nature anarchy and state protection is still a work-in-progress, something a truthful analysis of conditions in the United States would also have to concede. While the US may not be on an identical moral footing as Putin’s Russia (in some instances we may be better, some worse) selective enforcement remains a very healthy institution in America. Local cops tell me individual officers always have the discretion to arrest or not to arrest. Prosecutors have the same discretion. Think sentencing for crack cocaine in the ghetto versus powder cocaine in Hollywood and the mass incarceration of African American males. The list is long and the legacy of selective enforcement is overdue for a major American dialogue.
One might argue that President Trump is trying to shift the Hobbesian reality away from a classically liberal commonwealth of protection for the poor and weak to a more robust state of nature and wealth- and power-friendly society where, like in Texas, “you’re on your own.” This may also help explain the mysterious affinity between Trump and Putin. It’s like Russia and the United States are moving in opposite Hobbesian directions, and their current respective leaders — Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump — are meeting ideologically in the middle. Central to this struggle is the archetype of the killer, which is, as Volkov emphasizes, predominantly a male role. In the abstract world of Hobbes, the archetypal killer is a feature of the anarchic state of nature and a feature of the state’s monopoly on violence.
Notwithstanding Hillary Clinton’s evident shortcomings as a candidate, this may shed some light on why a liberal woman considered a fait-accompli failed to obtain the White House in 2016, a moment in history when the feminine, maternal and nurturing instincts associated with women would improve the American political character. But in a nation that has declared itself at war with crackpot elements of extremely violent, misogynous Muslims, the Rules Of Engagement among the winning Trump base may demand a countervailing violent male misogyny on our part. When you go to war with strange alien people, there’s a certain intimacy that necessarily grows from such an intense experience. It’s not exactly a case of If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em; it’s more like: If you fight someone long enough, you will assume some of their characteristics. The obverse must be true as well: in a natural learning curve, violent Muslims necessarily learn certain things from fighting westerners and Americans.
* NOTE: The term bullshit is used here in the sense established by Harvard philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt in his little gem of a book titled On Bullshit, which opens with: “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.”