"I cannot accept, your canon that we are to judge pope and king unlike other men, with a favorable presumption that they do no wrong. If there is any presumption, it is the other way against holders of power....Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." ~ Lord Acton
Inferno, Part I of II
Column by tzo.
Exclusive to STR
Quoth Nietzche with regard to the State, “Yes, a hellish artifice has been created here, a death-horse jingling with the trappings of divine honors!”
The State is perhaps better understood in this industrial and technical era as a death-machine. The true ugliness within the guts of this meat grinder is hidden behind a well-crafted propagandafaçade of wisdom, benevolence and justice—those timeless trappings of divine honors.
I contend that most everyone is quite aware, at some level of consciousness, of this unsavory truth, and yet most everyone supports the existence of this hellish artifice. Shall we conclude, therefore, that most everyone is evil? That a hellish institution is required to forcibly restrain the evil impulses of an evil population in order to build a just society?
I say no. The odds are very good that you, dear reader, are a good person because most people are. People came together first, cooperating to build society though voluntary association, and later the government parasite attached itself to suck nourishment from this collection of good people and the fruits of their labor.
At first, this was done by brute force, and the brutes weren’t thought of as government as much as conquerors. But the thugs eventually figured out a beautiful system for mollifying the conquered: They would get them to agree that being subject to a coercive organization was voluntary and not only in their best interests, but virtuous and vital.
Yes, we’ll each have an order of the hellish artifice, please. For here, thanks.
Good people want to associate themselves with other good people and organizations. This is not a particularly profound or controversial statement. Good people do not associate themselves with groups like the KKK, which is committed to violating human rights based on ancestry and skin pigmentation. Good people understand that such behavior is not reconcilable with a just society and equal human rights.
Now if government truly is a hellish artifice, this simply cannot square with the proposition that it is dedicated to supporting a good society. And yet good people participate in it and are willing to fight and die for it. Those trappings of divine honors must be very persuasive indeed.
And yet, I contend that those jingling distractions are not enough. You know quite well what lies behind the gaudy façade, gentle reader, and you really don’t like it. You may actually loathe it enough to stop reading right here instead of allowing me to push you any closer to its rotten core and the nasty ramifications that emanate from it. I don’t expect many of you to actually finish this entire article, as I will be flipping some switches that you probably don’t want flipped. Run!
Let’s begin by addressing the contention that the State, a.k.a. government, is a “hellish artifice.” Can this in any way be substantiated or is it merely poetic hyperbole? I would submit the following as support for the assertion:
Consider the police department that uses high explosives to destroy the house of a murder suspect. The blast is large enough to take out the adjacent houses as well, and so a few innocent men, women, and children who were unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity of the law enforcement activity lose their lives as well. The police dutifully apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused, but justice was served and the public is now safer than it was, and that’s the important thing. Yes, last week they slipped up and accidentally blew up a wedding party, but these things are going to happen and they already apologized for that, and you can’t expect them to be perfect, so let’s move on. Today, it was nothing but a sterling Mission Accomplished!
It seems I could only insult your intelligence by listing out the obvious problems with such a hypothetical policy. Assassinating suspects that are assumed guilty without trial and reckless homicide of innocent bystanders would no doubt head up a long column of objections.
In such a world, would you actively and vocally support your local law enforcement officials? Would you gladly pay whatever taxes necessary to keep them operating? Would you buy their raffle tickets, do the holiday barbeque thing with them, and affix cute little decals on your front door to show just how much you support them? Would you encourage your children to grow up to become police officers? “Gee, Mom, maybe someday they’ll let me push the detonator button! Kablooie! Gosh, that’d be swell!”
So now let’s give the globe a spin and make a stop in Pakistan, shall we? As of this writing, the United States Government has fired at least 50 drone missiles at “suspected militants” in 2011. Between 281 and 407 human beings have been killed in these attacks, many of whom were not suspected militants. I imagine the numbers have been adjusted higher by now as you read this.
Now observe how the brain scrambles to differentiate between the drone attacks in Pakistan and the hypothetical police bombings. Amazing, isn’t it? There is no difference, and yet your training kicks in and words and terms like “war,” “collateral damage,” “sovereign nations,” “American,” “Pakistani,” “suspect,” “militant,” “suspected militant,” “national defense,” and “support the troops” are all woven in.
Have you redefined and abstracted things so the first example is unjustifiable while the second is acceptable? Somewhere, there must be one hell of a serious short-circuit on the logic board. Where do you suppose that came from?
This short-circuit is a breach in the wall of human reason and rationality upon which has been constructed a bridgehead of irrationality. Illogical memes are free to swarm in and embed themselves deep in the machinery of the rational mind, compromising its integrity.
When little Johnny in the suburbs being recklessly blown into chunks is a horror and little Farhang in Afghanistan can likewise be dismembered without a second thought, then surely, irrationality is in charge.
And who made this breach? Who built this bridgehead? Who guarantees that the breach will be effective by inflicting it upon human beings when they are young and impressionable? Who sends the illogical memes in over a long period of years to infect rational thought? Who teaches us that there is, in fact, a difference between little Johnny and little Farhang? Who trains us to believe that the lives of people in one area of the world are worth more than those of the subhuman creatures in foreign lands? Who insists that we be proud of that superiority, and celebrate it? And what teacher demands unconditional love and allegiance in exchange for such conditioning?
All this, I contend, describes the heinous workings of a hellish artifice. And the conditioning it renders as its handiwork makes irrational thinking the norm, and a difficult habit to break.
Cognitive dissonance is defined as an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance. This makes perfect sense, in that if one is to understand the world around him, he must have a relatively accurate model to refer to. Believing in things that don’t match up with reality tends to discourage ongoing survival.
Reasonable ways of reducing or eliminating dissonance include changing attitudes, beliefs, and actions based on investigating the conflicting information and deciding what is true and what is false. But that takes a bit of work and perhaps even some introspection.
Unfortunately, it turns out that dissonance can also be reduced by justifying, blaming, and denying any new information that may conflict with pre-existing beliefs. This particular solution set does not concentrate on rational decision-making so much as it emphasizes the reduction or destruction of the dissonance as quickly and as painlessly as possible. All such superficial coping measures may be summed up as: Rationalizing the irrational.
And there’s that short-circuit on the logic board coming into play again. Why not justify, blame, and deny? The breach was made long ago and the bridgehead still holds. Justifying, blaming, and denying may not be rational, but there are already irrational ideas that have fanned out and laid a supply line into rational territory.
Of course it’s terrible that children are killed in war. So should I be against war, or for it? I suddenly feel uneasy. Well, the news calls these unfortunate deaths “collateral damage.” OK. Oh, look, that meme hooks right up to some of these other things I have been taught to be facts, so it’s actually quite reasonable: Integrate “collateral damage” into the rational meme center. War is bad, but sometimes necessary. Unfortunately, there will be some collateral damage. Now I feel better. Let’s go shopping.
But wiping the paradox out of the conscious mind is not the same as eliminating it. The human brain will not just let it go as easily as one might like. Little Farhang was no different than any other innocent child in your family or neighborhood, and laying a collateral damage blanket over his remains does not make what actually happened go away. When the shortcut-route is taken to resolve dissonance in order to clear up the conscious thought, the dissonance merely sinks down into the subconscious, where it grinds through an endless loop:
10 But it’s necessary…
20 But it’s bad…
30 But I’m part of it…
40 And I’m good…
50 So it can’t be bad…
60 But it is bad…
70 Go to 10
It can’t be resolved, so it sits there, spinning. See, you had it tucked away pretty well, but now it’s out for you to think about again. Wouldn’t you like to just get rid of this thing once and for all? Or are you just going to toss a couple shovel-fulls of dirt back over the top of it when you’re done reading here?
Rationalizing the irrational is, unfortunately, a common practice, and even libertarians are not exempt from its seductive allure. One famous libertarian has written much about how voluntary participation in government endeavors is justified as long as the participant is operating like a spy behind enemy lines. He contributes his efforts to the death-machine, but his efforts are also responsible for lessening the body count.
To give a concrete, although extreme example, he contends it is ethical to become a concentration camp guard if one can save 10 lives out of 100 that he is instructed to murder, even as he murders the 90 to maintain his cover.
Perhaps this is true, but I would never be able to do such a thing. Yes, the utilitarian result is that 10 lives are saved, but I could not kill 90 people to achieve that end. I could not kill one person to save 99. Given the choice of participating in the killing with the objective of curbing the body count or not participating, knowing more will be killed without my “help,” I would have to choose the non-participatory route. Call me a slacker if you must.
Rationalizing the irrational with regard to murder as a means to a better end, utilitarian-style, is an all-time government favorite. If the libertarian can utilize it, then how can he criticize the Statist? Hiroshima and Nagasaki had to be nuked to save lives. Rationalized.
And here is a fine example of a more recent application of this principle:
Lesley Stahl on U.S. sanctions against Iraq: “We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?”
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it.”
—60 Minutes (5/12/96)
What type of calculator do you suppose she used?
Means are nothing but ends in progress. Murdering, even as a means to prevent more murders, cannot lead to a just end. Stay off this slide or you will quickly find yourself at the bottom of that slippery slope.
But the hapless citizen finds himself careening down that very incline, eyes tightly shut, with an endless, irrational Möbius loop churning in the middle of his brain. To be a citizen is to rationalize irrational aggression. Coercion, theft, and murder are elevated to virtues. This inverted state of ethical affairs should be troubling to a society full of good people, and yet it seems not to be.
And so now we’ve come to the dark heart of it. Anyone still with me? Good—a couple of you, at least. Let’s continue on then, shall we?
Part II to follow.