Tuesday, September 9, 2008

We Are in Trouble: Comments on theTheocracy Slouching to the Polls to Be Born

I remember reading years ago something German theologian Dorothee Sölle wrote about the Vietnam War. To be specific: what she wrote about is how those who manipulate the public’s consciousness to make war thinkable must inevitably assault the linguistic structures that enable us to see, touch, witness what is going on when we kill fellow human beings in war. They must break the link between what we know to be true with our own eyes, and what they inform us is true.

As well as I remember, Sölle points out that one of the “advances” of modern warfare is its ability to remove the killer from the killed. We now have the ability to kill millions of people in an instant, merely by touching a button. We do not have to see the faces of those we annihilate. We do not have to hear their screams. We do not have to smell the burned skin and witness the mangled bodies. We can fly over, drop the bomb, and go about our other daily business after we've taken care of that bit of business.

War as business, war as transaction, war as techne: it’s only a matter of building the killing machine, deploying it, telling someone to do his duty, and then doing that duty, if we’re the one so ordered. All in a day’s work. I can be flying one hour over the village I napalm, and the next, sitting in a beer hall joking with friends—never having seen a single face of the human beings I have just murdered.

Sölle notes that this capability not only removes the human cost—the human reality, the evil—of war from the table of public life (except, of course, for those who are killed, and for their friends and relatives). It also requires linguistic structures to get the rest of us, who might have qualms about what we understand to be done in our name and with our tax contributions, to buy into the murder.

The new “advances” of modern warfare require words that shield us from the sordid reality of those advances. So we now speak of “neutralizing” the enemy, rather than killing her, of “sanitizing” an area rather than murdering its occupants. And, when the same folks who control the manufacturing of the war materiel and who profit from this manufacture also attain the ability to spin our language outside reality-based boundaries, well, what’s left to do? What’s left to assure their total control over everything?

A next step is to chain the watchdog media insofar as they keep wanting to natter tirelessly on about reality-based inconveniences. It’s important not only that murder of innocent civilians be spoonfed to the public as a winning surge: it’s also crucially important that we never get to see the evidence of our winning surges. That is, it’s imperative that we don’t see the real-life, real-dead human bodies, mangled, splayed, leaking blood and guts, on our t.v. or internet screens. A huge mistake of the Vietnam War was the willingness of the media to flash news to the American public in which we actually saw the little Vietnamese girl running down the road naked, fire streaming from her back. From a bomb we had dropped. From a bomb we in the heartland, munching our suppers at the family dinner table, had paid for.

Seeing, touching, witnessing atrocity has the potential to lead to backlash against atrocity—and our complicity in atrocity. For those trying to sanitize our consciences when it comes to our willingness to accept our complicity in murder, it's important not to allow us to see the bodies returning home, either, the bodies of our own soldiers. These remind us that, as bombs are deployed and enemies neutralized and problem places sanitized, human beings are the ultimate price. Both them and us. Both human.

I bring all of this up today as part of a larger reflection. As the current presidential election slouches towards its final end, I’m asking myself—more than ever before, more than with any previous election I’ve tracked since I began to vote in the late 1960s—what it would take to end democracy in our nation.

That is, assuming that someone, somewhere, would like to see our democratic experiment finally ended. As I think about it, I’m more and more convinced that the final act leading to nightfall is to remove the stinger of plain truth from plain language, so that people no longer have the ability to tell a lie from truth. Or even care to distinguish lies from truth.

Assuming that someone might want to move our faltering democracy in an overtly fascist direction, what would that someone have to do to move us definitively past the tipping point? Well, after years of “sanitizing” and “neutralizing” our language so that red has come to suggest green and pro-life comprises war and the death penalty, after deploying the term “elitist” as a weapon so that anyone asking simple reality-based questions about the growing gap between truth and lies in official rhetoric is, voilà, an elitist, we simply have to sin more boldly. And as we do so, defy anyone to tell us that we are sinning.

We have to start sinning boldly by telling lies that anyone can see to be lies, and declaring them to be true. Because I said so. And God is on my side. And God is not on your side. And if any watchdog group challenges the lie, that group is elitist and I won’t even talk to them until they are chastened and willing to swallow the next lie I intend to tell as I sin boldly.

I used to claim to be great. I now declare myself to be GREAT. Who are you to question that declaration, to ask piddling questions about evidence and facts, when it is I—the GREAT ONE—who have made the declaration, I who have twisted the arms of those I terrorize to make the declaration?

A society that has moved light years beyond doublethink and newspeak to the lie boldly told by one declaring herself or himself GREAT and an emissary of God is a society in trouble.

We are in trouble.

If we let ourselves be duped and bullied in this way, if we do not fight back, we must be prepared to accept the inevitable: the definitive falling of the curtain, the demise of our democratic society. We must be prepared to see people of good will hounded from our midst, people of integrity gloriously smeared in every way possible by people of the lie, and then booted out as troublemakers.

We must be ready to endure the muzzling of poets and artists, the hemlock administered to the philosophers and theologians we have not yet succeeded in making obsolescent, those who will not conform.

We must be ready to stand and cheer as some new group of Brown Shirts burn books and order us to cheer. In the name of God, you understand. We must be prepared to watch with sneers on our faces as rabbis, imams, and pastors who have refused to bow to the new theocratic GREAT ones are publicly humiliated, forced to tape-record canned sermons in praise of the GREAT ones of the land.

I imagine the new Brown Shirts—God help me, but I do!—displaying huge pro-life banners as they do their dirty business in the name of the GREAT ones whom GOD has sent.

Not ready for this? It's coming with a vengeance, if we don't wake up. And the narcotic—of cultivated stupidity, of systemic lying, of god dispensed as right-wing commodity to those who crave a dispensable god that answers to them alone—has been administered for so long now, there is not much hope to postpone the inevitable. Or to make a difference.

Unless we awake from our slumber very soon. And do something.