Friday, November 05, 2004

Powerlessness Corrupts

One of the least impressive observations ever made was George Santayana's remark that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. It's equally true, and far more profound, to say that those who do remember history are doomed to repeat it. And not merely to repeat it, but to see it looming well in advance, and tremble.

The history I'm inclined to remember, these days, has to do with exhausted, frightened societies that seek a scapegoat for the anxiety they feel at their own powerlessness. For as true as it may be that power corrupts, it's again more profoundly true that powerlessness corrupts. And the United States, at this time, is essentially powerless, and therefore essentially corrupt.

Having tried every medicine against melancholy, every tonic against age, and every balm for anxiety - all to no effect - we've decided that it's the working poor who are to blame for our unhappiness, or monogamous lesbians in their late sixties, or whatever other unlucky group seems helpless and friendless enough to inspire our righteous contempt and Vesuvian wrath. Having granted ourselves a license to abhor these people, we cheerfully forge God's signature upon it, and call it morality.

The terrorists hate our freedom, supposedly. They hate our freedom to dissent, our freedom of worship and association, and our freedom to pursue harmless, ordinary dreams of love and happiness. The strange thing is, at least half of our country basically agrees with them. Al-Qaeda's animus against Western Civilization is second in potency only to that of the Christian Right, whose hatred of our traditional freedoms makes it a veritable fifth column. These are the people who have sworn to defend us from tyranny, and will fight it to the last drop of our blood.

There's an old joke about a man who catches his wife in bed with his best friend. He pulls out a gun and puts it to his head. "What are you laughing about?" he demands. "You're next!"

That, in a nutshell, is George W. Bush's War on Terror. Either through secret assent with the terrorists' opinion of our own guilt, or through that self-defeating logic that compels people to throw things away for fear of losing them, we've chosen self-punishment and self-oppression as our primary weapons against the Forces of Evil. We seek the sort of power a man has when he puts a gun to his own head, the sort of power that turns to powerlessness the minute the trigger is pulled.

With what shall we replace outdated notions like charity and equality, once we've beaten the terrorists at their own game? With "traditional values," of course. With a refined moral sensibility that rejoices when a hospital refuses to aid a poor man, and hears the music of the spheres in the humming of a munitions factory. With moral delicacy that blanches at the sight of nudity, unless it's for the purpose of humiliating Arab men in front of their women and children. With compassion that aches for the unborn, while sneering at the bloodsoaked cardboard coffins of children killed by cluster bombs, and at the grief of their parents.

All of this is an abdication of responsibility, in favor of moral weakness. All of this makes us less strong and less safe.

Like his healthy forests and clear skies, Bush's "Culture of Life" is topsy-turvy shorthand for the aimless abuse of power. And power wielded without responsibility or intelligence increases powerlessness, for all intents and purposes; it can only lead to chaos, as the situation in Iraq demonstrates. Support for Bush expresses a sick country's need to revel in destruction at home and abroad...partly out of sadism, partly out of displaced guilt and anxiety, and partly as an expression of a weary culture's urge towards the abiding peace that can only come with its own extinction. It doesn't want power so much as it wants to be caught up in circumstances in which all responsibility can be abdicated, circumstances that justify anything.

This being the case, our use of power can't help but be self-defeating.


Thersites said...

I was talking with an old friend today. This question came up in conversation...

Whom does a wingnut hate more: a New York City liberal, or Osama Bin Laden?

Another one, I thought of later. Before 9/11, who had greater contempt for the city which housed the Twin Towers, Osama Bin Laden or a typical Bush-supporting wingnut?

Who is "our" enemy? Who are "we," anyway?

I want to pin as much of the past and future disasters on our homegrown religious wingnut bigot bastards as possible. I want to match them hate for hate.

von Nostrand said...

I certainly want to be careful with this story, but there seem to be some troubling numbers with regard to exit polls being way off in 'E'states and way accurate in paper ballot states... is anyone watching this? My latest post provides some interesting numbers...

Phila said...

Re: the exit polls, I heard the same thing a few days ago, and have been cautious about it too...not so much out of disbelief but because I think things need to be kept under the media's radar as much as possible.

Anonymous said...

Hi. I'm Ellie. I post occasionally on Atrios - mostly I lurk. And I always enjoy your comments there. This is a wonderful blog. Your writing is elegant and thoughtful. I've sent this essay to a friend and will try to generate a bit more "business". I'm surprised more people aren't hanging out here.

Poor Atrios is suffering from major burnout - has turned off all his comment avenues. Me, I'm profoundly depressed with no small degree of anxiety as well. Some of the Tibetan lamas, you may be interested to know, prophesied that we would have another dark age and they said not too long ago that we have, indeed, entered it. I fear we may not survive this one - as a species, as a planet. The stakes are so very high.

Keep up your clear and careful and profound writing, Philalethes. It is consoling to read your pieces.

I'll try to check in every day.

Phila said...


Thank you...I really appreciate the kind words! I agree with you about the idea that this a "dark age," and like you I wonder whether we'll survive it. My wife and I spend a lot of time watching birds, and last night I found myself hoping that some of the birds we like have very near relations on some distant planet, as the thought of them dying out altogether through human stupidity and avarice was too depressing. Talk about a forlorn hope!

On the other hand, I think we all believe a better world really is possible, or we wouldn't put so much effort into politics. (I have an interesting bit of info on this, which I haven't gotten around to posting, so stay tuned.)

They say that people who view the earth from space come back with a profoundly different view of human conflict. Maybe we should send all of these idiots up there, and let them orbit until they learn how to could be a sort of geopolitical time out.

Anyway, thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Phila -

It took me a while to catch on that you have a blog. And once I did, I took a quick scan and then left again without posting. I think I was in one of those numb states of mind which can descend upon me when everything happening is simply too painful to take in. I'm very, very glad I came back to drink in your words.

Your eloquence about morality makes my heart sing because you speak for the deepest values I hold - and it also makes my heart break at the same time, because you're so clear-eyed in describing the tragic course set for all of us by primitive nihilists, whose cheap flag-waving tricks seduce anxious citizens to get aboard the Death Wish Express. Each one of us (who's not a member of the cheap "values" crowd) faces a dark time of great moral testing. Not losing hope is the first part of the challenge.