Who’s Guilty and of What?

Photo by Anssi Koskinen | CC BY 2.0

Okay, “sickos,” to use our president’s terminology, are always a “no brainer” when it comes to finding motive for crime. They did it; they’re guilty. Of course, the question of whether they personally chose to commit the crime or their sickness drove them to it has to be settled in order to determine guilt. However, in a culture filled with the illusion that personal choice remains regardless of what determinants, internal or external, that may exist, we hold everyone accountable. True, the Unabomber was shuffled over to an asylum without trial but there was no way he was going to be giving a courtroom platform to proselytize.

In a culture in which everything comes down to personal choice, it is strange that we are anxious to grant that freedom to choose to those who obviously don’t have it. There’s a certain lust to pronouncing guilt, a need to hang’em high, though in so many cases of audacious and outrageous trespass and violation — most recently The Great Recession — guilt doesn’t ever come to mind.

There are so many crimes, for instance, against the well being of the planet itself that do not appear to be crimes in the view of many of us. There are also the intricacies of a crime that are difficult to trace, rather like chasing one shadow shell company after another trying to find ownership.

The Dude in The Big Lebowski expresses it this way: “This is a very complicated case, Maude. You know, a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-you’s.”  The Dude is looking for a trail of breadcrumbs, a chain of causality, which takes us to the guilty party. The one trail of clues that Holmes and Philip Marlow can follow. The one trail.

Multiple realities, however, produce multiple trails. As disturbing and scary as this sounds, we are as a society now driven by innumerable personal logics regarding who’s guilty and of what. The Golden Road to The Truth has turned into what’s left of the streets in Eastern Ghouta.

Beyond all agreeing that this or that “sicko” is so obviously guilty, we accuse or dismiss in a daily combative moshpit, now given voice in the social networks of cyberspace Thusly, many are relieved and absolved when unambiguous guilt hits the headlines, their own enterprises, profitable, and therefore far removed from a consideration of innocence or guilt.

We are in the sort of society that needs its scapegoats of guilt.

Behind every clear case of felony drug possession, there’s a multitude of crimes in the suites that go undetected, cleverly concealed in a labyrinth of lawyerly subterfuge but also undetectable because we don’t see the enterprise as criminal. No crime, no guilt. I need someone to tell me how very different Bernie Madoff’s ruthless market play is from a Wall Street player’s norm.

What guilt is and who’s guilty has traditionally been relative to ethical system and moral beliefs so derived but as we now have collapsed all that into your own personal take on right and wrong, true and false, guilt and innocence and so on, we’re in a kind of madcap circus as to who’s guilty and of what.

We might all agree that Nikolas Cruz is guilty of slaughtering 17 people and that security guard so and so failed to serve and protect. But what do you think if I hold manufacturers of assault weapons who are profiting from the sale of such weapons as accessories to that crime and therefore guilty? What do you think if I hold drug companies who make huge profits on opioids accessories to drug overdoses on those drugs? What about the tobacco industry that covered up the deadly nature of its product? Or, Exxon-Mobil’s campaign of false and misleading statements about the financial risks of climate change? What of the plastics industry which is now clearly making every effort to conceal  the environmental and public health impacts of plastic, and stifle regulatory attempts, in the footsteps of the tobacco industry who wrote that playbook.

Is the guilt of any of these recognized in any majoritarian way needed to prosecute? Or, rather in every example is there not a counter-narrative that dissolves any certainty of guilt in a confounding mist, a state of undecidability which nonetheless in every case clearly serves the interests of profit making?

The hot guilt issue of the day, however, is whether Robert Mueller’s investigation is going to find President Trump guilty of something. Maybe colluding with the Russians to smear Hillary in the presidential campaign. Maybe obstruction of justice in firing FBI Director Comey and in seeking to stifle Mueller’s investigation. Maybe the #MeToo accusations of sexual assault and sexual harassment will get to a court and Trump will be sued.

About 60% of Americans want desperately to find Trump, the very Devil, guilty of something. 40% view that 60% as guilty of conducting a witch hunt against Trump, an innocent man, their Savior.

We already know that the Russians are guilty of tampering with the 2016 presidential election but that guilt lies in a limbo state for many Americans as it does for President Trump.

He acts as if he’s tied up in this guilty charge made against the Russians. His supporters follow his lead in ignoring the consequences of that charge even though it’s a crime that will repeat if a defense is not made from the top down. Whether the president is guilty here or not remains unknown but guilt has shifted to Hillary, who, according to a House Republican memo, financed a surveillance of the Trump campaign and its links to Russia.

Once again, who is guilty here depends on whom you ask. Clarification in our new hyperreality is almost a thing of the past as “Bots” continue to bombard social media with bogus and incendiary posts that appeal to bottom feeders, which is the level we have popularly descended to in cyberspace.

We may not all eat at the Golden Arches of McDonalds but we cannot deny that it represents the popular level of eating in the U.S. Facebook and Twitter and such are where we now feed our brains, and it’s a poor menu, a failing diet vulnerable to every broadside, loud and repetitive, launched to penetrate and control.

What should be found guilty is a far more difficult matter than who should be found guilty.

Who do we find guilty for the tragic continuance of Vietnam? The media drummed up anti-war protest and is therefore guilty of our defeat. This is a far easier assignment than to represent the always present fear that a “free enterprise” will fall under a Communist state control, or to entertain the view that war, like illness, can be very profitable to those who are not ill and do not fight.

Surely, the cabal of Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz-Chalabi-Perle and so many other Princes of Darkness that surrounded and invaded George W. Bush’s head got us into the nightmare still ongoing in the Middle East. I use the adverb “surely” fully aware that there’s nothing universally accepted as certain about any such statement.

Is former President Obama guilty of the continuing devastation of Syria, perhaps because he drew a red line and “whiffed at a chance to show resolve.” Perhaps because he initiated a campaign of “Assad has to go” when what was at stake — the lives of innocent Syrians — was unknown. Perhaps because he failed to imagine that victory was in the cards if we joined the battle in Syria.

As we now see how accommodating Congress is to a white president, even though he prattles against basic neoliberal beliefs, we realize that Obama was found guilty the first day he stepped into the White House of simply being there, of being president while black.

Whether that meant he would be found guilty of “loving blacks too much” cannot now in review of his presidency be found to be the case. As Pankaj Mishra in a review of T-Nihisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power, points out, Obama was “[c]olor-blind to the suffering caused by mortgage foreclosures . . . scolded African-American, using the neoliberal idiom of individual responsibility, for their moral failings as fathers, husbands and competitors in the global marketplace.”

Being charged and found guilty of not assuming personal responsibility is an indictment that both Neoliberals and Liberals make, they themselves adopting the illusion of individual autonomy and freedom to choose regardless of surrounding conditions. It is a guilt that is adopted and internalized ironically in a culture in which the playing field is so obviously tilted that choice is most often remains on a ground level of either going to a doctor or eating.

Nevertheless, we now see that a black man in the White House presiding over a country rapidly browning and in the view of the rapidly rising LGBTQ community, equalizing gay and heterosexual, has been producing the kind of fear in the American cultural imaginary that we haven’t seen since slaves were emancipated and given the freedom to roam the land. The verdict of guilty, therefore, can have no connection at all to reason or justice or a courtroom trial.

Who’s guilty of putting Donald J. Trump in the White House? The “Deplorables”? Who would have been guilty of putting Hillary in the White House? The Coastal Elites? The fact that so many view this presidency in Trump’s own estimation — “very proud of my great performance…I am a winner” — reveals a state of the Union upon which we can lay the blame, find the guilt, like a nasty, brutish and abusive home which can only breed its own image.

We’ve moved on from reckoning guilt of a structural, foundational, discourse, practice and institutional level –private enterprise and governmental — to “accountability.” If somehow, the argument here runs, we can narrow the tracks of accountability to such a refined level that blame can be levied and terminations ensue, our societal moral demands are met. No corporation, however, will trace crime or injury or even failure to what very well may be at base a guilt-ridden enterprise. Profit making axiomatically carries on. Guilt is just not a relevant criterion of judgement.

For instance, 98% of all scientists agree that our use of fossil fuel is threatening our human habitation of this planet. Given such a situation, it would seem that our continued use of the same would find perpetrators guilty. Such is not the case. At some point when planetary conditions make human habitation difficult or possible, where guilt lies will swirl within the same whirlpool of narrative/counter-narrative, your opinion/my opinion, as every issue now seems to swirl.

We do not indict and hold guilty someone who reaps profits from investments that are toxifying the planet. We do not indict and hold guilty those who can increase production and profit by replacing people with robots.

It seems to be an aspiration of our economics to put people out of work, releasing them to a “leisure” that somehow will very quickly become an angry mob. Whether cyberspace will enable a kind of revolutionary mobilization of the angry that the world has never seen, or whether it will, with its vast web of seduction, distraction and anesthetizing, de-mobilize any concerted effort and leave each fixated are his or her own spinning in cyberspace is a matter to be witnessed in the future.

What is a guilt-ridden issue and who is to be found guilty await the players and the drama of that moment.

In a time of violently opposed politics, the most flagrant instances of guilt are flagrantly ignored. Guilt is in the eyes of the beholder and the beholder has very impenetrable personal opinions regarding everything.

Right now Don Blankenship, former executive at Big Branch Mine in West Virginia is running for the U.S. Senate though a federal grand jury had indicted for a number of felony charges He was acquitted of felony charges for lying about safety procedures in Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine that caused an explosion in 2010 killing 29 out of 31 miners on the site.

His is a viable candidacy for the Senate, as unbelievable as that seems, because he has deflected guilt in the same way the president has. The New York Times reports that “in the coal fields, many people don’t think his candidacy is a joke at all. He has found support there for his claim to be a victim himself, pursued unfairly by federal prosecutors and mine safety inspectors. He brazenly calls himself a former `political prisoner.'”

Through a politicized lens that we presume is our own personal creation, every person without work and relying on a government provided “safety net” is guilty of scamming that system, is too lazy to work and should be allowed to “free fall” into a personally chosen destiny.

A winning defense against any accusation of guilt certainly lies with having a Dream Team defense but it also lies with accusing the Federal government and its regulators, judges and law enforcement of trying to take away your personal freedom. It would seem very difficult to establish innocence or guilt when the order of such establishment is itself found guilty. Such an indictment was made by Nixon as the case against him grew.

Now in the view of President Trump almost every branch of government is incompetent, bribed, and politicized and set on destroying his presidency. The scenario is which the government won and Nixon lost has much to do with his loss of support among voters and Congress and much more to do with making public very revealing tapes of his conversations.

Such are not the conditions we face with the Trump presidency, although his responses to any investigation of himself and his administration has thus far followed the Nixon playbook closely, right up to the threat to fire those investigating him. What chances for guilt to be revealed when so many are prepared not to accept any allegations of such truly places the integrity of a Constitutional order in jeopardy.

We are strangely caught between ardent belief that somehow the resident order of things is against The People, and a mounting disgust of these people, who are, in the words of Treasury Secretary Mnuchin’s wife, “adorably out of touch” and whose lives “look cute.” Our fractured, divided state is itself sad and depressing but those on both sides are themselves far removed from what Lincoln expressed as the better angels of our nature.

What forces in this culture are guilty of driving The People from efforts to reason to the dead zone of their own impenetrable opinions have not been identified nor are we in search.

What forces in this culture are guilty of fashioning a wealth class barricaded protectively in the dead zone of their own superiority have also not been identified nor are we in search.

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Joseph Natoli has published books and articles, on and off line, on literature and literary theory, philosophy, postmodernity, politics, education, psychology, cultural studies, popular culture, including film, TV, music, sports, and food and farming. His most recent book is Travels of a New Gulliver.

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