Category Archives: Identity

Is Shocking People Revolutionary?

Image from Maria Online

White popular musicians rebelling against appearances

Recently I attended two music concerts in one of our local parks that were billed as a combination of soul, rhythm and blues and blues. The musicians were all white.

I am not going to argue that white people playing this kind of music is “cultural appropriation” and that they should not play it. There are wonderful white musicians historically and contemporarily who have played in all these musical forms. What I am more interested in is the appearance of the band members. Historically, music, like all the arts originally came out of sympathetic magical practices. In preparation for a magical ritual, the participants had clothing made for them or they made the clothes themselves. In addition, each participant had a very specific role. The ritual was intended to draw a line in the sand and say “what is going on here is beyond everyday life and we have to look and dress accordingly.”

In western religion, singing in church was and is accompanied by a choir who had roles to play and dressed according to their role so they distinguished themselves from their audience. Historically, when black musicians began to play secular music, they continued to carry forward the same things they did in church. They dressed for the occasion. Their dance moves and the outfits were choreographed with the background singers dressed in the same color. The lead singer would be dressed in a color that might be analogous or complimentary to the background singers. If any of you remember the Temptations, the Miracles, or Gladys Knight and the Pips you know what I am talking about. In the 50’s and the early 60’s the white Rock ‘n’ Rollers also dressed up for their performances: the groups Danny and the Juniors, Dion and the Belmonts both did this.

But somewhere in the late 1960’s white rock bands decided that dressing up for performances was somehow giving ground to the Establishment. So, the band members began to wear any old clothes: tee shirts, jeans, sneakers, anything that would level their relationship to the audience. In addition, each band member dressed in a way that was not coordinated with what the other band members were wearing. They made an extra effort to tell the audience, and especially whom they deemed the authorities, that they didn’t give a fuck about clothes or roles. However, the band still had to play roles, because, of course, they were specialists in what instruments they played. But as much as they could, they were rebelling against the concept of taking appearances seriously. I cannot track what has become of popular music since then because, frankly, I lost interest in the kind of music that was being played. But if my recent experience in the park is any indicator, there are at least some white musicians who operate with this same code of appearance fifty years later.

I am not trained as a musical critic but I spent three years working in music stores in Times Square in New York City and this job required you to become familiar with different types of music. In addition, many musicians came to our store and gave us tickets to the Apollo theater in uptown Manhattan so I’ve seen many musical acts. I was about 20 years old and working in a music store at the time the changes in appearance of the white musicians were taking place.

The western rebellion against appearances in philosophy

The predominant western tradition has been at war with the value of appearances for most of 2,500 years. Plato characterized appearances as deceptive, shallow, temporary and lacking of substance, while reality was true, deep and eternal. Socrates attacked the Sophists and rhetoric for very similar reasons. Mainstream Christianity, at least in theory, has seen the preoccupation with appearances as a sign of the devil’s work, associated with idolatry. A true Christian got beyond the surface appearances of this world to discover the true source of reality – God – on a transcendental plane. The major philosophers of the west have been hostile to appearances, whether it be Descartes, Kant, Bradley and to a lesser extent, Leibniz, and Hegel. Those who have taken appearances seriously have been few and far between, (Hume, Locke) and the Enlightenment philosophers.

Romantic Rebellion Against The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment and the Renaissance were two intellectual movements that appreciated the magnificence of nature, whether expressed through science or through art. Neither were interested in the above, the beyond, or the transcendental. They made clear distinctions between form and content in art. In terms of clothing, the Enlightenment, while rebelling against of foppishness of aristocratic appearances, still believed in the importance of clothing because they were linked to roles people played. Like those in the Renaissance arts, Enlighteners valued the power of illusion, whether it was in perspective painting or in creating distance between the stage and the audience in their plays.

The romantic rebellion in the early 19th century was a new kind of rebellion against appearances. The importance of a person’s inner essence required that they dispense with roles and appearances in order to get to the essence of the person’s soul. When they did that they were being “sincere”. The romantics were about tearing down boundaries: the boundaries between form and content; picture plane and reality; stage and audience; roles and inner state; the objective world and the subjective world. This boundary trampling characterized modern 20th century music, the symbolists, the Dadaists, the surrealists and the abstract expressionists.

Romanticism and the Early New Left

Beginning in the early1960’s the New Left rebelled against the Old Left in a similar way as the romantics rebelled against the Enlightenment. Identity politics, with the focus on individual experience, replaced class politics; the “subjectivity” of the situationists replaced the economic analysis of capitalism. Infinite diversity replaced unity. By the mid 1970’s to call for unity within diversity was seen in some sense as imperialistic. From the Frankfurt School, to postmodernism, boundaries between disciplines or genders were all signs of the Old World. But to rework the title of James Hillman’s book One Hundred Years of Therapy and the World is Getting Worse, we’ve had One hundred years of Romanticism and Capitalism is Getting worse.

The rebellion against appearances and roles of the musicians in the introduction to this article is part of a larger New Left movement rebellion against the Old Left and a continuation of the romantic rebellion against the Enlightenment. But here is the problem. It is one thing to wear whatever you want if you are content to exist for your entire adult life at a university as a professor or work with a liberal non-profit which prides itself in “diversity”. If all the members of the New Left wanted was some kind of “lifestyle” politics, than there wouldn’t be a problem. But there is a big problem. The New Left socialists are increasingly cut off from mainstream Americans and capitalism is getting worse for 90% of the population.

The New Left and the Shock Value of Appearances

The New Left in the US understands that it must reach sectors of the population that are not on board with its romantic roots. For almost 50 years the New Left has ignored its working class and dismissed them as stupid, bought off, simpletons and Archie Bunkers. What is its strategy? To shock people. So, by the multiplication of half shaved – fluorescent colored hair, body piercings and tattoos along with compulsive black attire, it tells the authorities and mainstream Americans to drop dead. The problem, however, in the case of the working class, is that you are telling the same people you need to make a revolution with to drop dead. It would be naïve to think that working-class people in the United States, at least in their thirties, do not also color their hair, have tattoos and more. However, the working class is also composed of people in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s who are still working, have the power to stop capitalism with strikes and boycotts, and they don’t particularly like all the New Left garb.

On the one hand New Lefters think appearances are phony and don’t really matter. In true romantic style, what is of substance to them is an inner essence beyond those appearances. But on the other hand, in trying so hard to rebel against traditional appearances they develop a new set of counter cultural appearances that they work very hard to maintain, scrupulously crafting the appearance that “appearances don’t matter”.

The psychology of shock value

As a social psychologist I say the desire to shock people by appearances is not a desire to extend and move people to join in a common project. Rather it is a haughty, in-your-face “we don’t give a shit what you think” stance. I also have suspicions that the people this hostility is really directed at are not as much the general public but the bankers, and other elites (whom they naively imagine are paying attention). Just as likely as a target, this shock therapy of appearances might be directed at their parents. Given the age of the people who are in the business of shocking people, I see this as a developmental issue of people in their late teens or early 20’s. I would be happy to admit I was wrong if I could find a substantial number of people over 40 who continue to dress this way.

You have to meet people where they are if you expect to take them where you want to go

Let me use my own experience as an example. I have been a “full-time” adjunct college teacher for 27 years. I have taught in universities: mainstream and alternative. I’ve taught for the Air Force and the Navy, I’ve taught in prisons and I’ve taught in community colleges. All these students have a great deal of differences in how they expect their teachers to dress. I also have my own agenda about how I prefer to dress. My goal in teaching is to appear in such a way that gives students a sense that I respect the role I am in, and gives them clear messages that the role I am in has something significant to do with what I am wearing.

I have had about 1-½ years of training in figure drawing and color theory based on the Old Masters approach. From studying the Old Masters, I came to appreciate earth colors – yellow ochre, olive green, burnt sienna, burnt umber – and I try to incorporate these colors into how I dress. I also like two-toned shoes, like the old-fashioned wingtips. I also like to wear the caps that were commonly worn in the 30’s by the working class. I also wear colored bandanas which I have been wearing all my adult life. Lastly I have a pirate earring, which I started wearing ten years before other straight men invaded the earring departments in the early 80’s.

So, compared to most college teachers, my appearance is outside the norm. At the same time, I always wear a sports jacket, sweaters and cotton or wool pants. Although I like all these things, I am also aware that that they fulfill the role of a respectable looking teacher. Overall, I’d say I look more like a musician in a soul band than I do a college instructor, but because of the sports jacket, sweaters and pants, I get a pass. I’d say I am unusual enough not to be seen by students as “establishment” but not so “out-there” that students or faculty don’t know what to make of me. My message to students is something like “I have my own life and tastes but still intend to play my role as a teacher.”

Other instructors, especially at community colleges, don’t see it that way. Many of the male teachers go out of their way to look as much like the students as possible so that an outsider cannot easily tell from walking around the campus who is a student and who is a teacher. These teachers keep up with students not only with scraggly beards, colored hair, nose rings, tattoos and earrings, but they sometimes out-do them. I can only guess that it is confusing to students that these same people who act like they are showing solidarity with students, then act like authority figures who discipline them for lateness, absences, missing papers and low grades.

Shocking people is cross-culturally individualist

Cross-cultural research shows that 80% of the world population, mostly outside the U.S and Western Europe, are collectivist. “Collectivism” means that the needs of the group come before the needs of the individual. Collectivists very clearly link up clothing worn to the role that is being played.

The problem for those teachers who are wearing clothes that confuse or deny their role is that the people from other parts of the world who are their students as sojourners studying abroad lose respect for them. I base this on both cross-cultural research and my experience as a college instructor. Secondly, they are likely to put off college students within their own country who are in the military. The military is a very clear collectivist institution within the individualist U.S with the ranks, clothing and roles that goes with it. Lastly, these individualist teachers who are on a “shock mission” are also confusing and turning off first and second-generation students who come from collectivist countries and are immigrants and refugees. If these liberals or socialist teachers think they are “building solidarity” they will be doing so in spite of their appearances.

The dilemma for New Left

Since the middle 50’s when the Socialist and Communist parties were destroyed in Yankeedom, the New Left has existed on the margins of student life and identity politics with little relationship to the working class. Whether they be social democrats or anarchists, if they wish to reach the 60% of the poor and working class, most of whom don’t vote, they must be careful about how far out they go. These are matters of degree. There need to be some concessions in appearance that imagines what these classes think is normal. Appearances have to be sensitive enough so people don’t have to withstand your appearance in order to listen to you.

Conclusion: Appearances as a means – not an end

Talking about socialism and capitalism is easier now than it has been in well over 70 years. So to the New Leftist I say – “Why make these conversations more difficult because people are put off by your appearance?” I am not proposing which part of appearances should be changed. It is not a question of picking a part of identity and saying, “don’t wear this or that”. It is more a question of quantity and intensity of the hair color, body piercings and clothing that matter.

The heart of Christmas is the Christmas tree. The tinsel and the ornaments are subordinate. Past a certain point, if there is too much tinsel and too many bulbs on the tree, the tree becomes lost in the shuffle, or as the Christians might say, the meaning of Christmas is lost. Talking about socialism and creating a new society is like recognizing we are part of the Tree of Life, the tree whose sap produces all the wealth. We must focus on strengthening the tree, not on becoming preoccupied with the decorations. Our appearances must invite people to come and look at the tree of socialism and it must be an invitation for them to stay and get lost in its branches, twigs and leaves. The New Left is mired in tinsel, bulbs, and darkness and this must change if it is to ever join a working class which will mobilize without them.

• First published at Planning Beyond Capitalism

Government Eyes Are Watching You

We’re run by the Pentagon, we’re run by Madison Avenue, we’re run by television, and as long as we accept those things and don’t revolt we’ll have to go along with the stream to the eventual avalanche…. As long as we go out and buy stuff, we’re at their mercy… We all live in a little Village. Your Village may be different from other people’s Villages, but we are all prisoners.

— Patrick McGoohan, The Prisoner, Television Series

First broadcast in America 50 years ago, The Prisoner—a dystopian television series described as “James Bond meets George Orwell filtered through Franz Kafka“—confronted societal themes that are still relevant today: the rise of a police state, the freedom of the individual, round-the-clock surveillance, the corruption of government, totalitarianism, weaponization, group think, mass marketing, and the tendency of humankind to meekly accept their lot in life as a prisoner in a prison of their own making.

Perhaps the best visual debate ever on individuality and freedom, The Prisoner (17 episodes in all) centers around a British secret agent who abruptly resigns only to find himself imprisoned and interrogated in a mysterious, self-contained, cosmopolitan, seemingly tranquil retirement community known only as the Village. The Village is an idyllic setting with parks and green fields, recreational activities and even a butler.

While luxurious and resort-like, the Village is a virtual prison disguised as a seaside paradise: its inhabitants have no true freedom, they cannot leave the Village, they are under constant surveillance, their movements are tracked by surveillance drones, and they are stripped of their individuality and identified only by numbers.

The series’ protagonist, played by Patrick McGoohan, is Number Six.

Number Two, the Village administrator, acts as an agent for the unseen and all-powerful Number One, whose identity is not revealed until the final episode.

“I am not a number. I am a free man,” was the mantra chanted on each episode of The Prisoner, which was largely written and directed by McGoohan.

In the opening episode (“The Arrival”), Number Six meets Number Two, who explains to him that he is in The Village because information stored “inside” his head has made him too valuable to be allowed to roam free “outside.”

Throughout the series, Number Six is subjected to interrogation tactics, torture, hallucinogenic drugs, identity theft, mind control, dream manipulation, and various forms of social indoctrination and physical coercion in order to “persuade” him to comply, give up, give in and subjugate himself to the will of the powers-that-be.

Number Six refuses to comply.

In every episode, Number Six resists the Village’s indoctrination methods, struggles to maintain his own identity, and attempts to escape his captors. “I will not make any deals with you,” he pointedly remarks to Number Two. “I’ve resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own.”

Yet no matter how far Number Six manages to get in his efforts to escape, it’s never far enough.

Watched by surveillance cameras and other devices, Number Six’s getaways are continuously thwarted by ominous white balloon-like spheres known as “rovers.” Still, he refuses to give up. “Unlike me,” he says to his fellow prisoners, “many of you have accepted the situation of your imprisonment, and will die here like rotten cabbages.”

Number Six’s escapes become a surreal exercise in futility, each episode an unsettling, reoccurring nightmare that builds to the same frustrating denouement: there is no escape.

As journalist Scott Thill concludes for Wired:

Rebellion always comes at a price. During the acclaimed run of The Prisoner, Number Six is tortured, battered and even body-snatched: In the episode ‘Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling,’ his mind is transplanted to another man’s body. Number Six repeatedly escapes The Village only to be returned to it in the end, trapped like an animal, overcome by a restless energy he cannot expend, and betrayed by nearly everyone around him.

The series is a chilling lesson about how difficult it is to gain one’s freedom in a society in which prison walls are disguised within the trappings of technological and scientific progress, national security and so-called democracy.

As Thill noted when McGoohan died in 2009, “The Prisoner was an allegory of the individual, aiming to find peace and freedom in a dystopia masquerading as a utopia.”

The Prisoner’s Village is also an apt allegory for the American Police State: it gives the illusion of freedom while functioning all the while like a prison: controlled, watchful, inflexible, punitive, deadly and inescapable.

The American Police State, much like The Prisoner’s Village, is a metaphorical panopticon, a circular prison in which the inmates are monitored by a single watchman situated in a central tower. Because the inmates cannot see the watchman, they are unable to tell whether or not they are being watched at any given time and must proceed under the assumption that they are always being watched.

Eighteenth century social theorist Jeremy Bentham envisioned the panopticon prison to be a cheaper and more effective means of “obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.”

Bentham’s panopticon, in which the prisoners are used as a source of cheap, menial labor, has become a model for the modern surveillance state in which the populace is constantly being watched, controlled and managed by the powers-that-be and funding its existence.

Nowhere to run and nowhere to hide: this is the new mantra of the architects of the police state and their corporate collaborators (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google, YouTube, Instagram, etc.).

Government eyes are watching you.

They see your every move: what you read, how much you spend, where you go, with whom you interact, when you wake up in the morning, what you’re watching on television and reading on the internet.

Every move you make is being monitored, mined for data, crunched, and tabulated in order to form a picture of who you are, what makes you tick, and how best to control you when and if it becomes necessary to bring you in line.

When the government sees all and knows all and has an abundance of laws to render even the most seemingly upstanding citizen a criminal and lawbreaker, then the old adage that you’ve got nothing to worry about if you’ve got nothing to hide no longer applies.

Apart from the obvious dangers posed by a government that feels justified and empowered to spy on its people and use its ever-expanding arsenal of weapons and technology to monitor and control them, we’re approaching a time in which we will be forced to choose between obeying the dictates of the government; i.e., the law, or whatever a government official deems the law to be, and maintaining our individuality, integrity and independence.

When people talk about privacy, they mistakenly assume it protects only that which is hidden behind a wall or under one’s clothing. The courts have fostered this misunderstanding with their constantly shifting delineation of what constitutes an “expectation of privacy.” And technology has furthered muddied the waters.

However, privacy is so much more than what you do or say behind locked doors. It is a way of living one’s life firm in the belief that you are the master of your life, and barring any immediate danger to another person (which is far different from the carefully crafted threats to national security the government uses to justify its actions), it’s no one’s business what you read, what you say, where you go, whom you spend your time with, and how you spend your money.

Unfortunately, George Orwell’s 1984—where “you had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized”—has now become our reality.

We now find ourselves in the unenviable position of being monitored, managed and controlled by our technology, which answers not to us but to our government and corporate rulers.

Consider that on any given day, the average American going about his daily business will be monitored, surveilled, spied on and tracked in more than 20 different ways, by both government and corporate eyes and ears.

A byproduct of this new age in which we live, whether you’re walking through a store, driving your car, checking email, or talking to friends and family on the phone, you can be sure that some government agency, whether the NSA or some other entity, is listening in and tracking your behavior.

This doesn’t even begin to touch on the corporate trackers that monitor your purchases, web browsing, Facebook posts and other activities taking place in the cyber sphere.

Stingray devices mounted on police cars to warrantlessly track cell phones, Doppler radar devices that can detect human breathing and movement within in a home, license plate readers that can record up to 1800 license plates per minute, “sidewalk and public space” cameras canercoupled with facial recognition and behavior-sensing technology that lay the groundwork for police “pre-crime” programs, police body cameras that turn police officers into roving surveillance cameras, the internet of things: all of these technologies add up to a society in which there’s little room for indiscretions, imperfections, or acts of independence—especially not when the government can listen in on your phone calls, monitor your driving habits, track your movements, scrutinize your purchases and peer through the walls of your home.

As French philosopher Michel Foucault concluded in his 1975 book Discipline and Punish, “Visibility is a trap.”

This is the electronic concentration camp—the panopticon prison—the Village—in which we are now caged.

It is a prison from which there will be no escape if the government gets it way.

As Glenn Greenwald notes:

The way things are supposed to work is that we’re supposed to know virtually everything about what [government officials] do: that’s why they’re called public servants. They’re supposed to know virtually nothing about what we do: that’s why we’re called private individuals. This dynamic – the hallmark of a healthy and free society – has been radically reversed. Now, they know everything about what we do, and are constantly building systems to know more. Meanwhile, we know less and less about what they do, as they build walls of secrecy behind which they function. That’s the imbalance that needs to come to an end. No democracy can be healthy and functional if the most consequential acts of those who wield political power are completely unknown to those to whom they are supposed to be accountable.

Unfortunately, we seem to be trapped in the Village with no hope of escape.

That we are prisoners—and, in fact, never stopped being prisoners—should come as no surprise to those who haven’t been taking the escapist blue pill, who haven’t fallen for the Deep State’s phony rhetoric, and who haven’t been lured in by the promise of a political savior.

So how do we break out?

For starters, wake up. Resist the urge to comply.

The struggle to remain “oneself in a society increasingly obsessed with conformity to mass consumerism,” writes Steven Paul Davies, means that superficiality and image trump truth and the individual. The result is the group mind and the tyranny of mob-think—especially in a day and age when most people are addicted to screen devices controlled and administered by the government and its corporate allies.

Think for yourself. Be an individual. As McGoohan commented in 1968:

At this moment individuals are being drained of their personalities and being brainwashed into slaves… As long as people feel something, that’s the great thing. It’s when they are walking around not thinking and not feeling, that’s tough. When you get a mob like that, you can turn them into the sort of gang that Hitler had.

In a media-dominated age in which the lines between entertainment, politics and news reporting are blurred, it is extremely difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. We are so bombarded with images, dictates, rules and punishments and stamped with numbers from the day we are born that it is a wonder we ever ponder a concept such as freedom. As McGoohan declared, “Freedom is a myth.”

In the end, as I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, we are all prisoners of our own mind.

In fact, it is in the mind that prisons are created for us. And in the lockdown of political correctness, it becomes extremely difficult to speak or act individually without being ostracized. Thus, so often we are forced to retreat inwardly into our minds, a prison without bars from which we cannot escape, and into the world of video games and television and the Internet.

We have come full circle from Bentham’s Panopticon to McGoohan’s Village to Huxley’s Brave New World.

As cultural theorist Neil Postman observed:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared we would become a captive audience. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared that we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate would ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

You want to be free? Break out of the circle.

Slow Suicide and the Abandonment of the World

The condition of alienation, of being asleep, of being unconscious, of being out of one’s mind, is the condition of the normal man.  Society highly values its normal man.  It educates children to lose themselves and to become absurd, and thus to be normal.  Normal men have killed perhaps 100,000,000 of their fellow normal men in the last fifty years.  Our behavior is a function of our experience.  We act the way we see things.  If our experience is destroyed, our behavior will be destructive.  If our experience is destroyed, we have lost our own selves.

— R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise, Penguin Books Limited, 1969

The artist is the man who refuses initiation through education into the existing order, remains faithful to his own childhood being, and thus becomes ‘a human being in the spirit of all times, an artist.’

— Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History, Wesleyan, June 1, 1985

Most suicides die of natural causes, slowly and in silence.

But we hear a lot about the small number of suicides, by comparison, who kill themselves quickly by their own hands.  Of course, their sudden deaths elicit shock and sadness since their deaths, usually so unexpected even when not a surprise, allow for no return.  Such sudden once-and-for-all endings are even more jarring in a high-tech world where people are subconsciously habituated to thinking that everything can be played back, repeated, and rewound, even lives.

If the suicides are celebrities, the mass media can obsess over why they did it.  How shocking!  Wasn’t she at the peak of her career?  Didn’t he finally seem happy?  And then the speculative stories will appear about the reasons for the rise or fall of suicide rates, only to disappear as quickly as the celebrities are dropped by the media and forgotten by the public.

The suicides of ordinary people will be mourned privately by their loved ones in their individual ways and in the silent recesses of their hearts.  A hush will fall over their departures that will often be viewed as accidental.

And the world will roll on as the earth absorbs the bodies and the blood.  “Where’s it all going all this spilled blood,” writes the poet Jacques Prévert.  “Murder’s blood…war’s blood… blood of suicides…the earth that turns and turns with its great streams of blood.”

Of such suicides Albert Camus said, “Dying voluntarily implies you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit [of living], the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, and the uselessness of suffering.”  He called this feeling the absurd, and said it was widespread and involved the feeling of being an alien or stranger in a world that couldn’t be explained and didn’t make sense.  Assuming this experience of the absurd, Camus wished to explore whether suicide was a solution to it.  He concluded that it wasn’t.

Like Camus, I am interested in asking what is the meaning of life.  “How to answer it?” he asked in The Myth of Sisyphus.  He added that “the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions.”  But I don’t want to explore his line of reasoning to his conclusions, whether to agree or disagree.  I wish, rather, to explore the reasons why so many people choose to commit slow suicide by immersing themselves in the herd mentality and following a way of life that leads to inauthenticity and despair; why so many people so easily and early give up their dreams of a life of freedom for a proverbial mess of pottage, which these days can be translated to mean a consumer’s life, one focused on staying safe by embracing conventional bromides and making sure to never openly question a system based on systemic violence in all its forms; why, despite all evidence to the contrary, so many people embrace getting and spending and the accumulation of wealth in the pursuit of a chimerical “happiness” that leaves them depressed and conscience dead.  Why so many people do not rebel but wish to take their places on this ship of fools.

So what can we say about the vast numbers of people who commit slow suicide by a series of acts and inactions that last a long lifetime and render them the living dead, those whom Thoreau so famously said were the mass of people who “lead lives of quiet desperation”?  Is the meaning of life for them simply the habit of living they fell into at the start of life before they thought or wondered what’s it all about?  Or is it the habit they embraced after shrinking back in fear from the disturbing revelations thinking once brought them?  Or did they ever seriously question their place in the lethal fraud that is organized society, what Tolstoy called the Social Lie?  Why do so many people kill their authentic selves and their consciences that could awaken them to break through the social habits of thought, speech, and action that lead them to live “jiffy lube” lives, periodically oiled and greased to smoothly roll down the conventional highway of getting and spending and refusing to resist the murderous actions of their government?

An unconscious despair rumbles beneath the frenetic surface of American society today.  An unspoken nothingness.  I think the Italian writer Robert Calasso says it well: “The new society is an agnostic theocracy based on nihilism.”  It’s as though we are floating on nothing, sustained by nothing, in love with nothing – all the while embracing any thing that a materialistic, capitalist consumer culture can throw at us.  We are living in an empire of illusions, propagandized and self-deluded.  Most people will tell you they are stressed and depressed, but will often add – “who wouldn’t be with the state of the world” – ignoring their complicity through the way they have chosen compromised, conventional lives devoid of the spirit of rebellion.

I keep meeting people who, when I ask them how they are, will respond by saying, “I’m hanging in there.”

Don’t common sayings intimate unconscious truths?  Hang – among its possible derivatives is the word “habit” and the meaning of “coming to a standstill.”  Stuck in one’s habits, dangling over nothing, up in the air, going nowhere, hanging by a string. Slow suicides. The Beatles’ sang it melodically: “He’s a real nowhere man/Sitting in his nowhere land/Making all his nowhere plans for nobody/Doesn’t have a point of view/Knows not where he’s going to/Isn’t he a bit like you and me.”  It’s a far cry from having “the world on a string,” as Harold Arlen wrote many years before.

Maybe if we listen to how people talk or what popular culture throws up, we will learn more through creative associations than through all the theories the experts have to offer.

There have been many learned tomes over the years trying to explain the act of suicide, an early and very famous one being Emile Durkheim’s groundbreaking sociological analysis Suicide (1897).  In thousands of books and articles other thinkers have approached the subject from various perspectives – psychological, philosophical, biological, etc.  They contain much truth and a vast amount of data that appeal to the rational mind seeking general explanations.  But in the end, general explanations are exactly that – general – while a mystery usually haunts the living whose loved ones have killed themselves.

But what about the slow suicides, those D. H. Lawrence called the living dead (don’t let “the living dead eat you up”), those who have departed the real world for a conscienceless complacency from which they can cast aspersions on those whose rebellious spirits give them little rest.  Where are the expert disquisitions about them?

We’ve had more than a century of pseudo-scientific studies of suicide and the world has gotten much worse.  More than a century of psychotherapy and people have grown progressively more depressed.  Large and increasing numbers are drugged to the teeth with pharmaceutical drugs and television and the internet and cell phones and shopping and endless talk about food and diets and sports and nothing. Talk to talk, surface to surface. Pundits pontificate daily in streams of endless bullshit for which they are paid enormous sums as they smile with their fake whiter-than-white teeth flashing from their makeup masks.  People actually listen to these fools to “inform” themselves. They even watch television news and think they know what is happening in the world.  We are drowning in a “universe of disembodied data,” as playwright John Steppling has so aptly phrased it.  People obsessively hover over their cell phones, searching for the key that will unlock the cells they have locked themselves in. Postliteracy, mediated reality, and digital dementia have become the norm.  Minds are packaged and commodified.  Perhaps you think I exaggerate, but I feel that madness is much more the norm today than when Laing penned his epigraphic comment.

Not stark raving screaming madness, just a slow, whimpering acceptance of an insane society whose very fabric is toxic and which continues its God-ordained mission of spreading death and destruction around the world in the name of freedom and democracy, while so many of its walking dead citizens measure out their lives with coffee spoons.  A nice madness, you could say, a pleasant, depressed and repressed madness.  A madness in which people might say with T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock (if they still read or could remember):  “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons…And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, / and snicker, / And in short, I was afraid.”

But why are so many so afraid?  Everyone has fears, but so many normal people seem extremely fearful, so fearful they choose to blend into the social woodwork so they don’t stand out as dissenters or oddballs.  They kill their authentic selves; become conscience-less.  And they do this in a society where their leaders are hell-bent on destroying the world and who justify their nuclear madness at every turn. I think Laing was right that this goes back to our experience.  When genuine experience is denied or mystified (it’s now disappeared into digital reality), real people disappear.  Laing wrote:

In order to rationalize our industrial-military complex, we have to destroy our capacity to see clearly any more what is in front of, and to imagine what is beyond, our noses.  Long before a thermonuclear war can come about, we have had to lay waste our sanity.  We begin with the children.  It is imperative to catch them in time. Without the most thorough and rapid brainwashing their dirty minds would see through our dirty tricks.  Children are not yet fools, but we shall turn them into imbeciles like ourselves, with high I. Q.’s if possible.   From the moment of birth, when the Stone Age baby confronts the twentieth century mother, the baby is subjected to these forces of violence, called love, as its mother and father, as their parents and their parents before them, have been.  These forces are mainly concerned with destroying most of it potentialities, and on the whole this enterprise is successful.  By the time the new human is fifteen or so, we are left with a being like ourselves, a half-crazed creature more or less adjusted to a mad world.  This is normality in our present age.  Love and violence, properly speaking, are polar opposites.  Love lets the other be, but with affection and concern.  Violence attempts to constrain the other’s freedom, to force him to act in the way we desire, but with ultimate lack of concern, with indifference to the other’s own existence or destiny.  We are effectively destroying ourselves by violence masquerading as love…We live equally out of our bodies and out of our minds.

So, yes, I do think most people are victims.  No one chooses their parents, or to be born into poverty, or to be discriminated against for one’s race, etc.  No one chooses to have their genuine experience poisoned from childhood.  No one chooses to be born into a mad society.  This is all true.  Some are luckier than others.  Suicides, fast and slow, are victims.  But not just victims.  This is not about blame, but understanding.  For those who commit to lives of slow suicide, to the squelching of their true selves and their consciences in the face of a rapacious and murderous society, there is always the chance they can break with the norm and go sane.  Redemption is always possible.  But it primarily involves overcoming the fear of death, a fear that manifests itself in the extreme need to preserve one’s life, so-called social identity, and sense of self by embracing social conventions, no matter how insane they may be or whether or not they bring satisfaction or fulfillment.  Whether or not they give life a meaning that goes deep.

But for those who have taken their lives and are no longer among us, hope is gone.  But we can learn from their tragedies if we are truthful.  For them the fear of life was primary, and death seemed like an escape from that fear. Life was too much for them.  Why?  We must ask.  So they chose a life-in-death approach through fast suicide.  Everyone is joined to them in that fear, just as everyone is joined by the fear of death.  It is a question of which dominates, and when, and how much courage we can muster to live daringly.  The fear of death leads one to constrict one’s life in the safe surround of conventional society in the illusion that such false security will save one in the end.  Death is too much for them.  So they accept a death-in-life approach that I call slow suicide.

But in the end as in the beginning and throughout our lives, there is really no escape.  The more alive we are, the closer death feels because really living involves risks and living outside the cocoon of the social lie. Mr. Pumpkin Head might seize you, whether he is conceived as your boss, an accident, disease, social ostracism, or some government assassin.  But the deader we feel, the further away death seems because we feel safe.  Pick your poison.

But better yet, perhaps there is no need to choose if we can regain our genuine experience that parents and society, for different reasons, conspire to deny us.  Could the meaning of our lives be found, not in statements or beliefs, but in true experience?  Most people think of experience as inner or outer.  This is not true.  It is a form of conventional brainwashing that makes us schizoid. It is the essence of the neuro-biological materialism that reduces humans to unfree automatons. Proffered as the wisdom of the super intelligent, it is sheer stupidity.

All experience is in-between, not the most eloquent of phrasing, I admit, but accurate.  Laing, a psychiatrist, puts it in the same way as do the mystics and those who embrace the Tao.  He says:

The relation of my experience to behavior is not that of inner to outer.  My experience is not inside my head.  My experience of this room is outside in this room.  To say that my experience is intrapsychic is to presuppose that there is a psyche that my experience is in.  My psyche is my experience, my experience is my psyche.

Reverie, imagination, prayer, dream, etc. are as much outer as inner, they are modalities of experience that exist in-between.  We live in-between, and if we could experience that, we would realize the meaning of life and our connection to all living beings, including those our government massacres daily, and we would awaken our consciences to our complicity in the killing.  We would realize that the victims of the American killing machine are human beings like us; are us, and we, them.  We would rebel.

Thoreau said a life without principle was not worth living.  Yet for so many of the slow suicides the only principals they ever had were those they had in high school.  Such word confusion is understandable when illiteracy is the order of the day and spelling passé. Has anyone when in high school ever had Thoreau’s admonition drummed into his head: “The ways by which you may get money almost without exception lead downward. To have done anything by which you earned money merely is to have been truly idle or worse.”  Of course not, since getting a “good” living is never thought to involve living in an honest, inviting, and honorable way.  It is considered a means to an end, the end being a consumer’s paradise.  “As for the means of living,” Thoreau added, “it is wonderful how indifferent men of all classes are about it, even reformers, so called – whether they inherit, or earn, or steal it.”  Is it any wonder so many people end up committing slow suicide?  “Is it that men are too much disgusted with their own experience to speak of it?”

What the hell –TGIH!

I believe the story has it that when he was in jail for refusing the poll tax that supported slavery and the Mexican-American war, Thoreau was visited by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, who asked him, “Henry, what are you doing in there?”  To which Thoreau responded, “Ralph, what are you doing out there?”  Today, however, most folks don’t realize that being outside their cells is being in them, and such imprisonment is far from principled.  That’s not a text message they’re likely to receive.

I recently met a woman, where or when I can’t recall.  It might have been when walking on the open road or falling in a dreaming hole.  She told me “if you look through a window, you can see the world outside.  If you look in a mirror, you can see yourself outside.  If you look into the outside world, you can see everyone inside out.  When the inside is seen outside and the outside is seen inside, you will know what you face.  Everything becomes simple then,” as she looked straight through me and my face fell off.

The Radical Derelict: Giving Up the Work Ethic for Peace

The same relentless energy driving a toddler in its Terrible Twos still drives that voice in my head. However, when I see a toddler, I know I’m in the presence of a genius, albeit a naïve one. It’s not the size of the intellect, but the velocity of learning that describes its intelligence. I, on the other hand, tend to move in well-worn circles, constrained by prejudice and vested interest. I’ve learned to “circle the wagons”, so to speak, around particular conclusions.

Essentially, I’m what happens when a toddler’s unstoppable urge to learn gets diverted into supporting a predatory status quo. Open-ended learning gets replaced by a narrowing framework of instruction as the driving force; and a dawning sense of some innate order or intelligence in the world gets short-circuited by dependence on authority and by conformity to the culture’s creeds and isms.

I don’t feel like a conformist or very obedient. But the creeds and conformities that constrain my perceptions are difficult to notice from inside the ism itself, such as white or male privilege. But even these patterns are easier to notice than the more subtle ruts that limit my sense of reality itself, and which prevent a more ecstatic realization of my shape-shifting place in this miracle of a living earth.

These subtle creeds constrict the flow of meaning, making me weaker and dumber than I might otherwise be. The main culprit is “the creed of error avoidance”. A toddler is certainly no role model, but there’s a quality in that beginner’s mind that was thrown out with the bathwater: A toddler doesn’t know error as something to avoid, something “bad.” To a toddler, error is a friend. Everything is unknown, and every mistake is a clue to wider and more inclusive worlds.

Some training is necessary, of course. But if training becomes a pathway to approval, a proscribed path forms, which separates an autocratic right from wrong. Then a prejudice against error becomes internalized, turning error into a boogeyman. This cripples an exploratory spirit (a playful, Trickster’s spirit). And the child begins to fear its own errant probing of the world, and no longer trusts its own intelligence. And this develops into an oppositional or warlike relationship to its own now “unruly” thoughts, which leads to that voice in the head, which is constantly working to maintain an impression of correctness.

In other words, as an adult I’ve been taught to resist error by breaking awareness into fragments, and escaping into the delusion of being the better angel, who can look back at its dim-witted past from an improved distance. As if I were superior to my own immediate past. And these internal revolutions occur in quick succession, like a dog chasing its tail.

And this means that when I encounter my own white-privileged thinking, for instance, I don’t learn; I retreat from this fault by way of clever, dissociative feelings of guilt, or by denial and self-condemnation (as if “I” were the victim of these bad thoughts).

In other words, I lose that essential ingredient of learning: The ability to be edified and bemused by my own stupidity.

Questioning the Work Ethic

I’m claiming that this little quarrelsome dynamo of error avoidance is the engine propelling awareness down ever-narrower and more practical paths, which makes a person susceptible to darker indoctrinations.

Cut off from that rapscallion love of error and mystery (cut off from learning), faith is placed in authorities, ideals and dogmatic certitudes, (in training). Attention shifts from a mysterious reality that is constantly erring from expectations, to the smaller fictions of an idealized Self — whether rebellious or conformist — which needs to be constantly preserved from failure and doubt.

And this anxiety-driven Self inevitably seeks refuge in the larger and more confident ego of an organization, whether it’s the nation or the corporation (or some reactionary group crushed by this pyramidal caste system). And it’s this dynamic that lends a vicious spin to the macro-level hurricanes destroying the world. In the upper reaches of this economic pyramid system, among CEOs and presidents, that dynamo is magnified. Their private desperation for status becomes the desperation of empire. But on all levels of the pyramid it trains dutiful soldiers for what Sheldon Wolin calls “inverted totalitarianism”. And the work ethic is one of the main pillars of that totalitarian system.

In other words, most people like to complain about their jobs, but I’m trying to complain about this whole workaday world (this blinkered trek down some career path towards a diabolically mundane vision of the earth as a grab-bag of minerals, and life as a frantic search for status and distraction). It’s hard to complain about something that all-encompassing.

But that’s probably because something this overwhelming begins to look “only natural”. And adults like to pretend they’re serious enough to face reality and not drift off into Utopian fantasies. However, the workaday world is also a fantasy: not a fact of nature, but an artefact of indoctrination. And an inability to question (and bitch at) this dumbed-down way of life is collusion.

The Work Ethic as a Pillar of Inverted Totalitarianism

Joining the workforce requires being subjugated to a regimental authority. Here a bear-sized human potential gets stuffed into the parakeet’s cage of a job. What I get in exchange for this reduction in human potential is money, yes, but also something equally fictitious: status, a cripplingly small façade of identity.

This façade inevitably generates a repressed frustration, which some metabolize as an urge to push the work ethic on everyone else, transforming the ethic into a moralizing judgment against “derelicts” who refuse to sing communal hymns to the harness. And I think this betrays a fear and resentment of the cage-free human being, and a refusal to face my own caged spirit.

Mind you, I’m not criticizing work itself. I work hard if someone needs my help or if there are finite tasks that need doing. But the time clock represents an obligation to the pyramid itself. It claims that my life belongs to an organization from at least 9 to 5. And if I allow my life to be metered in this way I’m essentially agreeing that my time and energy can be owned and directed at the system’s discretion, which is a form of slavery.

After all, these work contracts aren’t presented in good faith. It’s either sign or starve. And I have more pressing responsibilities to the real economy of earth than the responsibilities imposed on me by a company or nation.

Nevertheless, I know it’s hard to distinguish an honest desire to do well at any given task, or a need to work three jobs to provide for a family, from a true believer’s devotion to duty, which goes beyond those necessities, becoming a duty to the lifeless momentum of work itself.

And I know it’s also difficult to distinguish doing something I love from the passion of a workaholic who loves a particular task with devotional blinders. For instance, scientists working on weaponry obviously enjoy analyzing the problems they encounter. But this “love” emerges from a blinkered vision that can only produce what the system itself can monetize. That is, these creative endeavors emerge from an infantilized mind that goes where it’s directed and enjoys the entitled status of not having to think too widely about the consequences of what it loves to do.

To Hell with Morality

Frankly, I often do feel a “moral duty” to support this economic way of life. It’s the Stockholm Syndrome. It restricts my freedom to think or act outside the interests of the status quo. I become reflexively hostile to the idea that I (or especially Others) could ever be trusted to live unrestrained by economic necessities (as if this mad culture’s coercions and controls do anything more than agitate a human spirit already starved of love and learning).

Sometimes I assume it’s beyond my pay grade to question the shape of a system that runs my life. Stay practical, nose to the grindstone. In this way, the work ethic masks a deeper laziness, or reluctance to face the ambiguity, uncertainty, and “error” of myself; a reluctance to do the “real work” of giving up the façade of identity and status that represents my collusion with this way of life.

What Activates Maturation?

I collude in this destructive pyramid system the moment my unruly energy gets tricked into the circular pursuit of status; or as long as it turns constantly towards distraction and escape. Then I become the system’s battery pack, a dynamo in pursuit of an ever more idealized and fetishized commodity of Self.

This dynamo is the desire to avoid error. It embodies a predatory system’s perfect ideal, which rejects what it means to be human. Life, after all, is inseparable from error, mutation. Without it, the maturation process stalls, and the human becomes a monstrous child. Learning requires the freedom to go wrong and not compound the error with circular systems of control. Intelligence (greater maturity) can only be activated by encountering the uncontrolled and the unknown.

And I feel this directly, because in the absence of that subtle enslavement to an economic authority (after my own internalized slave-drivers of guilt and status-seeking have been laughed off), I rediscover a freedom from circular thinking; and relearn how to drift and stumble into a world that resembles a kaleidoscope of cascading visions of order.

And this exploration of order inevitably leads to a clarity about what really needs to be done (as opposed to what I need to do in order to succeed in this pyramid system). And this real need requires no ethic. The self-organizing intelligence of the world is primarily a widening and deepening realization of responsibility to life itself. And this realization trumps duty and morality.

But this responsibility isn’t heavy with moral seriousness. There’s joy in discovering this responsibility and connection. The whole workaday world was built on a false conflation of adulthood with seriousness and striving for perfection. But a “perfect conclusion” would mean the ending of learning. That is, when playing stops, so does learning. Maturation doesn’t mean outgrowing being playful, errant and mischievous. It simply means learning to play in ever more subtle fields.

And by denigrating profound play, society suffers the consequences of leisure, which is little more than a gaudy parole from the everlasting chain of workdays. But if I’m not trained to oppose my errors, then perception is freed from a Literal or dogmatic tendency to pin the world down, becoming entirely metaphoric. And then the uncertainty I was trained to fear and resist becomes something beautiful and inviting.1

A Dereliction of Duty

There’s a spot of dialogue in the movie version of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row that I love. The natural leader of the bums, Mack, is baffled by the earnest efforts of Doc, the proprietor of the Western Biological Laboratory:

Dock: I got a problem, Mack. How am I going to light them?
Mack: Light what?
Dock: The octopi. Octopi are afraid of light. How can I light them without scaring them?
Mack (with bewildered exasperation): Why don’t you just give up?

Mack is no role model. And despite Doc’s genuine love of learning, thwarted ambition burns a sad hole in him too. But Steinbeck wasn’t writing a moral fable about becoming better angels. He was writing a love story about real people, who will always be diamonds in the rough.

Look, if I can’t love the Mack in me (or the Doc), then I’ll keep striving to “overcome” myself, and denigrating the derelict and the failure in me, and never moving into wider fields of play.

This is contrary to every subtle creed I’ve been taught, but I need to trust my own intelligence here: Learning (maturing) isn’t a path to perfection, but a surrender to an ever more daring honesty. This is only possible when I stop throwing out the bum with the bathwater.

And that means giving up the whole destructive dynamo of self-condemnation and self-promotion that has corralled human energy and attention; giving up that morality of the competitive pyramid; and rediscovering the same broad view Steinbeck had, or that most people have in the presence of a toddler. Only then is it possible to see how deeply you and I have been made sick by work and war.

And then it’s possible to recognize diamonds of wisdom in what is childish, and the spirit of rebellion in a derelict. Because for all his faults, Mack knows something: the battle with ourselves, and even for ourselves, for status and admiration, is worth giving up. Mack is on to something here. Something big.

  1. See the essay “What Is Real?”

The Radical Derelict: Giving Up the Work Ethic for Peace

The same relentless energy driving a toddler in its Terrible Twos still drives that voice in my head. However, when I see a toddler, I know I’m in the presence of a genius, albeit a naïve one. It’s not the size of the intellect, but the velocity of learning that describes its intelligence. I, on the other hand, tend to move in well-worn circles, constrained by prejudice and vested interest. I’ve learned to “circle the wagons”, so to speak, around particular conclusions.

Essentially, I’m what happens when a toddler’s unstoppable urge to learn gets diverted into supporting a predatory status quo. Open-ended learning gets replaced by a narrowing framework of instruction as the driving force; and a dawning sense of some innate order or intelligence in the world gets short-circuited by dependence on authority and by conformity to the culture’s creeds and isms.

I don’t feel like a conformist or very obedient. But the creeds and conformities that constrain my perceptions are difficult to notice from inside the ism itself, such as white or male privilege. But even these patterns are easier to notice than the more subtle ruts that limit my sense of reality itself, and which prevent a more ecstatic realization of my shape-shifting place in this miracle of a living earth.

These subtle creeds constrict the flow of meaning, making me weaker and dumber than I might otherwise be. The main culprit is “the creed of error avoidance”. A toddler is certainly no role model, but there’s a quality in that beginner’s mind that was thrown out with the bathwater: A toddler doesn’t know error as something to avoid, something “bad.” To a toddler, error is a friend. Everything is unknown, and every mistake is a clue to wider and more inclusive worlds.

Some training is necessary, of course. But if training becomes a pathway to approval, a proscribed path forms, which separates an autocratic right from wrong. Then a prejudice against error becomes internalized, turning error into a boogeyman. This cripples an exploratory spirit (a playful, Trickster’s spirit). And the child begins to fear its own errant probing of the world, and no longer trusts its own intelligence. And this develops into an oppositional or warlike relationship to its own now “unruly” thoughts, which leads to that voice in the head, which is constantly working to maintain an impression of correctness.

In other words, as an adult I’ve been taught to resist error by breaking awareness into fragments, and escaping into the delusion of being the better angel, who can look back at its dim-witted past from an improved distance. As if I were superior to my own immediate past. And these internal revolutions occur in quick succession, like a dog chasing its tail.

And this means that when I encounter my own white-privileged thinking, for instance, I don’t learn; I retreat from this fault by way of clever, dissociative feelings of guilt, or by denial and self-condemnation (as if “I” were the victim of these bad thoughts).

In other words, I lose that essential ingredient of learning: The ability to be edified and bemused by my own stupidity.

Questioning the Work Ethic

I’m claiming that this little quarrelsome dynamo of error avoidance is the engine propelling awareness down ever-narrower and more practical paths, which makes a person susceptible to darker indoctrinations.

Cut off from that rapscallion love of error and mystery (cut off from learning), faith is placed in authorities, ideals and dogmatic certitudes, (in training). Attention shifts from a mysterious reality that is constantly erring from expectations, to the smaller fictions of an idealized Self — whether rebellious or conformist — which needs to be constantly preserved from failure and doubt.

And this anxiety-driven Self inevitably seeks refuge in the larger and more confident ego of an organization, whether it’s the nation or the corporation (or some reactionary group crushed by this pyramidal caste system). And it’s this dynamic that lends a vicious spin to the macro-level hurricanes destroying the world. In the upper reaches of this economic pyramid system, among CEOs and presidents, that dynamo is magnified. Their private desperation for status becomes the desperation of empire. But on all levels of the pyramid it trains dutiful soldiers for what Sheldon Wolin calls “inverted totalitarianism”. And the work ethic is one of the main pillars of that totalitarian system.

In other words, most people like to complain about their jobs, but I’m trying to complain about this whole workaday world (this blinkered trek down some career path towards a diabolically mundane vision of the earth as a grab-bag of minerals, and life as a frantic search for status and distraction). It’s hard to complain about something that all-encompassing.

But that’s probably because something this overwhelming begins to look “only natural”. And adults like to pretend they’re serious enough to face reality and not drift off into Utopian fantasies. However, the workaday world is also a fantasy: not a fact of nature, but an artefact of indoctrination. And an inability to question (and bitch at) this dumbed-down way of life is collusion.

The Work Ethic as a Pillar of Inverted Totalitarianism

Joining the workforce requires being subjugated to a regimental authority. Here a bear-sized human potential gets stuffed into the parakeet’s cage of a job. What I get in exchange for this reduction in human potential is money, yes, but also something equally fictitious: status, a cripplingly small façade of identity.

This façade inevitably generates a repressed frustration, which some metabolize as an urge to push the work ethic on everyone else, transforming the ethic into a moralizing judgment against “derelicts” who refuse to sing communal hymns to the harness. And I think this betrays a fear and resentment of the cage-free human being, and a refusal to face my own caged spirit.

Mind you, I’m not criticizing work itself. I work hard if someone needs my help or if there are finite tasks that need doing. But the time clock represents an obligation to the pyramid itself. It claims that my life belongs to an organization from at least 9 to 5. And if I allow my life to be metered in this way I’m essentially agreeing that my time and energy can be owned and directed at the system’s discretion, which is a form of slavery.

After all, these work contracts aren’t presented in good faith. It’s either sign or starve. And I have more pressing responsibilities to the real economy of earth than the responsibilities imposed on me by a company or nation.

Nevertheless, I know it’s hard to distinguish an honest desire to do well at any given task, or a need to work three jobs to provide for a family, from a true believer’s devotion to duty, which goes beyond those necessities, becoming a duty to the lifeless momentum of work itself.

And I know it’s also difficult to distinguish doing something I love from the passion of a workaholic who loves a particular task with devotional blinders. For instance, scientists working on weaponry obviously enjoy analyzing the problems they encounter. But this “love” emerges from a blinkered vision that can only produce what the system itself can monetize. That is, these creative endeavors emerge from an infantilized mind that goes where it’s directed and enjoys the entitled status of not having to think too widely about the consequences of what it loves to do.

To Hell with Morality

Frankly, I often do feel a “moral duty” to support this economic way of life. It’s the Stockholm Syndrome. It restricts my freedom to think or act outside the interests of the status quo. I become reflexively hostile to the idea that I (or especially Others) could ever be trusted to live unrestrained by economic necessities (as if this mad culture’s coercions and controls do anything more than agitate a human spirit already starved of love and learning).

Sometimes I assume it’s beyond my pay grade to question the shape of a system that runs my life. Stay practical, nose to the grindstone. In this way, the work ethic masks a deeper laziness, or reluctance to face the ambiguity, uncertainty, and “error” of myself; a reluctance to do the “real work” of giving up the façade of identity and status that represents my collusion with this way of life.

What Activates Maturation?

I collude in this destructive pyramid system the moment my unruly energy gets tricked into the circular pursuit of status; or as long as it turns constantly towards distraction and escape. Then I become the system’s battery pack, a dynamo in pursuit of an ever more idealized and fetishized commodity of Self.

This dynamo is the desire to avoid error. It embodies a predatory system’s perfect ideal, which rejects what it means to be human. Life, after all, is inseparable from error, mutation. Without it, the maturation process stalls, and the human becomes a monstrous child. Learning requires the freedom to go wrong and not compound the error with circular systems of control. Intelligence (greater maturity) can only be activated by encountering the uncontrolled and the unknown.

And I feel this directly, because in the absence of that subtle enslavement to an economic authority (after my own internalized slave-drivers of guilt and status-seeking have been laughed off), I rediscover a freedom from circular thinking; and relearn how to drift and stumble into a world that resembles a kaleidoscope of cascading visions of order.

And this exploration of order inevitably leads to a clarity about what really needs to be done (as opposed to what I need to do in order to succeed in this pyramid system). And this real need requires no ethic. The self-organizing intelligence of the world is primarily a widening and deepening realization of responsibility to life itself. And this realization trumps duty and morality.

But this responsibility isn’t heavy with moral seriousness. There’s joy in discovering this responsibility and connection. The whole workaday world was built on a false conflation of adulthood with seriousness and striving for perfection. But a “perfect conclusion” would mean the ending of learning. That is, when playing stops, so does learning. Maturation doesn’t mean outgrowing being playful, errant and mischievous. It simply means learning to play in ever more subtle fields.

And by denigrating profound play, society suffers the consequences of leisure, which is little more than a gaudy parole from the everlasting chain of workdays. But if I’m not trained to oppose my errors, then perception is freed from a Literal or dogmatic tendency to pin the world down, becoming entirely metaphoric. And then the uncertainty I was trained to fear and resist becomes something beautiful and inviting.1

A Dereliction of Duty

There’s a spot of dialogue in the movie version of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row that I love. The natural leader of the bums, Mack, is baffled by the earnest efforts of Doc, the proprietor of the Western Biological Laboratory:

Dock: I got a problem, Mack. How am I going to light them?
Mack: Light what?
Dock: The octopi. Octopi are afraid of light. How can I light them without scaring them?
Mack (with bewildered exasperation): Why don’t you just give up?

Mack is no role model. And despite Doc’s genuine love of learning, thwarted ambition burns a sad hole in him too. But Steinbeck wasn’t writing a moral fable about becoming better angels. He was writing a love story about real people, who will always be diamonds in the rough.

Look, if I can’t love the Mack in me (or the Doc), then I’ll keep striving to “overcome” myself, and denigrating the derelict and the failure in me, and never moving into wider fields of play.

This is contrary to every subtle creed I’ve been taught, but I need to trust my own intelligence here: Learning (maturing) isn’t a path to perfection, but a surrender to an ever more daring honesty. This is only possible when I stop throwing out the bum with the bathwater.

And that means giving up the whole destructive dynamo of self-condemnation and self-promotion that has corralled human energy and attention; giving up that morality of the competitive pyramid; and rediscovering the same broad view Steinbeck had, or that most people have in the presence of a toddler. Only then is it possible to see how deeply you and I have been made sick by work and war.

And then it’s possible to recognize diamonds of wisdom in what is childish, and the spirit of rebellion in a derelict. Because for all his faults, Mack knows something: the battle with ourselves, and even for ourselves, for status and admiration, is worth giving up. Mack is on to something here. Something big.

  1. See the essay “What Is Real?”

Whose Country Is This? Is the Constitution Even Welcome Here Anymore?

The first time it was reported that our friends were being butchered there was a cry of horror. Then a hundred were butchered. But when a thousand were butchered and there was no end to the butchery, a blanket of silence spread. When evil-doing comes like falling rain, nobody calls out ‘stop!’ When crimes begin to pile up they become invisible. When sufferings become unendurable the cries are no longer heard. The cries, too, fall like rain in summer.

― Bertolt Brecht, Selected Poems, March 24, 1971

There are days I wake up, and I’m not sure what country I live in anymore.

There are days I wake up and want to go right back to sleep in the hopes that this surreal landscape of government-sanctioned injustice, corruption and brutality is just a really bad dream.

There are days I am so battered by the never-ending wave of bad news that I have little outrage left in me: I am numb.

And then I get hold of myself, shake myself out of the doldrums, and remind myself that it’s not yet time to give up: America needs our outrage and our alertness and our tenacity and our fierce determination to remain a free people in a land where justice matters.

This is still our country.

Don’t just sit there.

Do something.

When you hear that the U.S. government “lost” 1,475 migrant children within its care over a three-month period, in some cases handing them off to human traffickers, don’t just chalk it up to incompetent bureaucrats. The Trump Administration’s plan to separate immigrant children from their parents at the border should outrage anyone with a moral conscience, especially in light of the government’s latest revelation that it is unable to account for the whereabouts of 1500 of those children.

Mind you, this is not just a Trump problem. A recent report indicates that under President Obama’s watch, migrant children were allegedly beaten, threatened with sexual violence and repeatedly assaulted while under the care of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials. According to Newsweek, “Border authorities were accused of kicking a child in the ribs and forcing a 16-year-old girl to ‘spread her legs’ for an aggressive body search. Other children accused officers of punching a child in the head three times, running over a 17-year-old boy and denying medical care to a pregnant teen, who later had a stillbirth.”

ACT. It doesn’t matter what your politics are or where you stand on immigration issues. There are some lines that should never be crossed—some government actions that should never be tolerated or justified—no matter what the end goal might be, and this is one of them. Demand that Congress stop playing politics and endangering children’s lives.

When you read that Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants police to use stop and frisk tactics randomly against Americans without even the need for reasonable suspicion, don’t just shake your head disapprovingly.

ACT: Call the Justice Department (202-353-1555) and read them the Fourth Amendment: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

After you watch the video of how the Transportation Security Administration, unfailingly tone deaf to the spirit of the Fourth Amendment, subjected a 96-year-old World War II veteran in a wheelchair to a patdown that left no part of her body untouched, don’t just seethe in silence.

ACT: Contact your representative in Congress and file a complaint on the TSA’s egregious practices. When old women and little children are being groped by government agents, things have gone too far. In light of revelations that the TSA “has created a new secret watch list to monitor people who may be targeted as potential threats at airport checkpoints simply because they have swatted away security screeners’ hands or otherwise appeared unruly,” you can expect even more headache-inducing behavior in the near future.

When you find out that Amazon is selling police real time facial recognition software that can scan hundreds of thousands of faces, identify them, track them, and then report them to police, don’t just shrug helplessly.

ACT: Harness the power of your wallet to urge Amazon to favor freedom principles over profit motives. It’s only a matter of time before these programs are used widely here in the U.S. They are already being used and abused abroad. For instance, Amazon’s Rekognition software was used by broadcasters to identify attendees at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Chinese police have used similar facial recognition tools to scan crowds at rock concerts, malls and gas stations in order to catch alleged lawbreakers. Just recently, Chinese police used the technology to capture a suspect who had been living under a pseudonym after he failed to pay for $17,000 worth of potatoes. Chinese schools are even employing the facial recognition cameras in classrooms to alert teachers to students who aren’t paying attention.

When you hear Sessions bragging about how much he loves civil asset forfeiture, which allows the government to seize Americans’ personal property—money, cars, homes and other valuables—without having to first prove that any criminal conduct has taken place, don’t just take his word for it.

ACT: Do your own research. You’ll soon discover that because of the corruption that surrounds this abusive program, countless innocent Americans have been robbed blind by government agents out to get rich at their expense. Billions of dollars have been taken without probable cause. Anthonia Nwaorie, a Texas nurse who had saved up $41,377 to start a medical clinic for women and children in Nigeria, had her life savings seized by Customs Agents who refused to return the money unless she agreed to pay their “expenses.” Six months later, even though Nwaorie was never charged with a crime, she’s still waiting to get her money back.

When you hear about armed Denver police pulling a gun on a school official and conducting a classroom-to-classroom search for a missing student at an area high school, don’t just thank your lucky stars your childhood was more idyllic. Likewise, when you hear that the lieutenant governor of Texas thinks the solution to school shootings is fewer school doors (entrances and exits), don’t just marvel at the short-sightedness of government officials.

ACT: Say “enough is enough” to government-sponsored violence. The systemic violence being perpetrated by agents of the government has done more collective harm to the American people and our liberties than any single act of terror or mass shooting. Violence has become the government’s calling card, starting at the top and trickling down, from the more than 80,000 SWAT team raids carried out every year on unsuspecting Americans by heavily armed, black-garbed commandos and the increasingly rapid militarization of local police forces across the country to the surveillance drones that are already crisscrossing American skies.

When you read about how 28-year-old Andrew Finch of Kansas answered a 5 pm knock on his front door only to be shot in the head and killed ten seconds later by a police sniper because a SWAT team responded to a prank “swatting” phone call with full force, don’t just tsk-tsk over the senseless tragedies arising from militarized and police and overzealous SWAT teams. Not only did police refuse to identify the officer who pulled the trigger, but he was also never charged with Andrew’s death.

ACT: Demand accountability. If any hope for police reform is to be realized, especially as it relates to how SWAT teams are deployed locally and holding police accountable for their actions, it must begin at the community level, with local police departments and governing bodies, where citizens can still, with sufficient reinforcements, make their voices heard.

The rise of SWAT teams and militarization of American police—blowback effects of the military empire—have unfortunately become entrenched parts of American life. SWAT teams originated as specialized units dedicated to defusing extremely sensitive, dangerous situations. As the role of paramilitary forces has expanded, however, to include involvement in nondescript police work targeting nonviolent suspects, the mere presence of SWAT units has actually injected a level of danger and violence into police-citizen interactions that was not present as long as these interactions were handled by traditional civilian officers. Nationwide, SWAT teams have been employed to address an astonishingly trivial array of criminal activity or mere community nuisances: angry dogs, domestic disputes, improper paperwork filed by an orchid farmer, and misdemeanor marijuana possession, to give a brief sampling. In some instances, SWAT teams are even employed, in full armament, to perform routine patrols. All too often, botched SWAT team raids have resulted in one tragedy after another for American citizens with little consequences for law enforcement.

When you find out that police and other law enforcement agencies are accessing the DNA shared with genealogical websites and using it to identify possible suspects, don’t offer up your DNA without some assurance of privacy protections.

ACT: Protect your privacy. It’s not just yourself you have to worry about, either. It’s also anyone related to you who can be connected by DNA. These genetic fingerprints, as they’re called, do more than just single out a person. They also show who you’re related to and how. As the Associated Press reports, “DNA samples that can help solve robberies and murders could also, in theory, be used to track down our relatives, scan us for susceptibility to disease, or monitor our movements.”

By accessing your DNA, the government will soon know everything else about you that they don’t already know: your family chart, your ancestry, what you look like, your health history, your inclination to follow orders or chart your own course, etc. Capitalizing on this, police in California, Colorado, Virginia and Texas use DNA found at crime scenes to identify and target family members for possible clues to a suspect’s whereabouts. Who will protect your family from being singled out for “special treatment” simply because they’re related to you? As biomedical researcher Yaniv Erlich warns, “If it’s not regulated and the police can do whatever they want … they can use your DNA to infer things about your health, your ancestry, whether your kids are your kids.”

In the face of DNA evidence that places us at the scene of a crime, behavior sensing technology that interprets our body temperature and facial tics as suspicious, and government surveillance devices that cross-check our biometricslicense plates and DNA against a growing database of unsolved crimes and potential criminals, we are no longer “innocent until proven guilty.”

Finally, when you hear someone talking about how two American citizens in Montana were detained by a Border Patrol agent because he overheard them speaking Spanish at a gas station, don’t just shake your head in disgust.

ACT: Remind yourself (and those around you) that despite the polarizing, racially-charged rhetoric being tossed about by President Trump, this is still a nation whose strength derives from the diversity of its people and from the immigrants who have been seeking shelter on our shores since the earliest days of our Republic. As President Ronald Reagan recognized in one of his last speeches before leaving office:

We lead the world because, unique among nations, we draw our people—our strength—from every country and every corner of the world. And by doing so we continuously renew and enrich our nation… Thanks to each wave of new arrivals to this land of opportunity, we’re a nation forever young, forever bursting with energy and new ideas, and always on the cutting edge, always leading the world to the next frontier. This quality is vital to our future as a nation. If we ever closed the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost… Those who become American citizens love this country even more. And that’s why the Statue of Liberty lifts her lamp to welcome them to the golden door. It is bold men and women, yearning for freedom and opportunity, who leave their homelands and come to a new country to start their lives over. They believe in the American dream. And over and over, they make it come true for themselves, for their children, and for others. They give more than they receive. They labor and succeed. And often they are entrepreneurs. But their greatest contribution is more than economic, because they understand in a special way how glorious it is to be an American. They renew our pride and gratitude in the United States of America, the greatest, freest nation in the world—the last, best hope of man on Earth.

As I  make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, if the freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, are to mean anything anymore—if they are to stand for anything ever again—then “we the people” have to stand up for them.

We cannot allow ourselves to be divided and distracted and turned into warring factions.

We cannot sell out our birthright for empty promises of false security.

We cannot remain silent in the face of ugliness, pettiness, meanness, brutality, corruption and injustice.

We cannot allow politicians, corporations, profiteers and war hawks to whittle our freedoms away until they are little more than empty campaign slogans.

We must stand strong for freedom.

We must give voice to moral outrage.

We must do something—anything—everything in our power to make America free again.

As Reagan recognized, “If we lose this way of freedom, history will record with the great astonishment that those who had the most to lose did the least to prevent its happening.”

Things Are Getting Worse, Not Better

The roundups are getting worse. The checkpoints are getting worse. The harassment is getting worse. The things we were worried would happen are happening.

— Angus Johnston, professor at the City University of New York

No one is safe.

No one is immune.

No one gets spared the anguish, fear and heartache of living under the shadow of an authoritarian police state.

That’s the message being broadcast 24/7 to the citizens and residents of the American police state with every new piece of government propaganda, every new law that criminalizes otherwise lawful activity, every new policeman on the beat, every new surveillance camera casting a watchful eye, every sensationalist news story that titillates and distracts, every new prison or detention center built to house troublemakers and other undesirables, every new court ruling that gives government agents a green light to strip and steal and rape and ravage the citizenry, every school that opts to indoctrinate rather than educate, and every new justification for why Americans should comply with the government’s attempts to trample the Constitution underfoot.

Here in Amerika, things are getting worse—not better—as the nation inches ever closer towards totalitarianism, that goose-stepping form of tyranny in which the government has all of the power and “we the people” have none.

Take what happened recently in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

On Friday, January 19, 2018, immigration agents boarded a Greyhound bus heading to downtown Miami from Orlando and demanded that all passengers provide proof of residence or citizenship. One grandmother, traveling by bus to meet her granddaughter for the first time, was arrested and taken off the bus when she couldn’t provide proof of residency.

No word on whether that grandmother was actually in the country illegally.

All we know is that the woman didn’t have proof of identification or residency on her, which is common for many older people who don’t happen to drive and have no reason to walk around with a photo ID. According to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice, more than three million Americans don’t actually own a government-issued picture ID. That group includes the elderly, the poor, city dwellers, young people, college students, and some rural residents who might not live near a DMV.

This isn’t is a new occurrence.

A year ago, passengers arriving in New York’s JFK Airport on a domestic flight from San Francisco were ordered to show their “documents” to border patrol agents in order to get off the plane.

With the government empowered to carry out transportation checks to question people about their immigration status within a 100-mile border zone that wraps around the country, you’re going to see a rise in these “show your papers” incidents.

That’s a problem, and I’ll tell you why.

We are not supposed to be living in a “show me your papers” society.

Despite this, the U.S. government has recently introduced measures allowing police and other law enforcement officials to stop individuals (citizens and non-citizens alike), demand they identify themselves, and subject them to patdowns, warrantless searches, and interrogations.

These actions fly in the face of longstanding constitutional safeguards forbidding such police state tactics.

Set aside the debate over illegal immigration for a moment and think long and hard about what it means when government agents start demanding that people show their papers on penalty of arrest.

The problem with allowing government agents to demand identification from anyone they suspect might be an illegal immigrant—the current scheme being employed by the Trump administration to ferret out and cleanse the country of illegal immigrants—is that it lays the groundwork for a society in which you are required to identify yourself to any government worker who demands it.

Such tactics quickly lead one down a slippery slope that ends with government agents empowered to subject anyone—citizen and non-citizen alike—to increasingly intrusive demands that they prove not only that they are legally in the country, but also that they are in compliance with every statute and regulation on the books.

This flies in the face of the provisions of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which declares that all persons have the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures by government agents. At a minimum, the Fourth Amendment protects the American people from undue government interference with their movement and from baseless interrogation about their identities or activities.

Unless police have reasonable suspicion that a person is guilty of wrongdoing, they have no legal authority to stop the person and require identification. In other words, “we the people” have the right to come and go as we please without the fear of being questioned by police or forced to identify ourselves.

The Rutherford Institute has issued a Constitutional Q&A on “The Legality of Stop and ID Procedures” that provides some guidance on one’s rights if stopped and asked by police to show identification.

Unfortunately, even with legal protections on the books, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for the average American to avoid falling in line with a national identification system.

We’re almost at that point already.

Passed by Congress in 2005 and scheduled to take effect nationwide by October 2020, the Real ID Act, which imposes federal standards on identity documents such as state drivers’ licenses, is the prelude to this national identification system.

Fast forward to the Trump administration’s war on illegal immigration, and you have the perfect storm necessary for the adoption of a national ID card, the ultimate human tracking device, which would make the police state’s task of monitoring, tracking and singling out individual suspects—citizen and non-citizen alike—far simpler.

Granted, in the absence of a national ID card, “we the people” are already tracked in a myriad of ways: through our state driver’s licenses, Social Security numbers, bank accounts, purchases and electronic transactions; by way of our correspondence and communication devices—email, phone calls and mobile phones; through chips implanted in our vehicles, identification documents, even our clothing.

Add to this the fact that businesses, schools and other facilities are relying more and more on fingerprints and facial recognition to identify us.

All the while, data companies such as Acxiom are capturing vast caches of personal information to help airports, retailers, police and other government authorities instantly determine whether someone is the person he or she claims to be.

This informational glut—used to great advantage by both the government and corporate sectors—is converging into a mandate for “an internal passport,” a.k.a., a national ID card that would store information as basic as a person’s name, birth date and place of birth, as well as private information, including a Social Security number, fingerprint, retinal scan and personal, criminal and financial records.

A federalized, computerized, cross-referenced, data-based system of identification policed by government agents would be the final nail in the coffin for privacy (not to mention a logistical security nightmare that would leave Americans even more vulnerable to every hacker in the cybersphere).

Americans have always resisted adopting a national ID card for good reason: it gives the government and its agents the ultimate power to target, track and terrorize the populace according to the government’s own nefarious purposes.

National ID card systems have been used before, by other oppressive governments, in the name of national security, invariably with horrifying results.

For instance, in Germany, the Nazis required all Jews to carry special stamped ID cards for travel within the country. A prelude to the yellow Star of David badges, these stamped cards were instrumental in identifying Jews for deportation to death camps in Poland.

Author Raul Hilberg summarizes the impact that such a system had on the Jews:

The whole identification system, with its personal documents, specially assigned names, and conspicuous tagging in public, was a powerful weapon in the hands of the police. First, the system was an auxiliary device that facilitated the enforcement of residence and movement restrictions. Second, it was an independent control measure in that it enabled the police to pick up any Jew, anywhere, anytime. Third, and perhaps most important, identification had a paralyzing effect on its victims.

In South Africa during apartheid, pass books were used to regulate the movement of black citizens and segregate the population. The Pass Laws Act of 1952 stipulated where, when and for how long a black African could remain in certain areas. Any government employee could strike out entries, which cancelled the permission to remain in an area. A pass book that did not have a valid entry resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of the bearer.

Identity cards played a crucial role in the genocide of the Tutsis in the central African country of Rwanda. The assault, carried out by extremist Hutu militia groups, lasted around 100 days and resulted in close to a million deaths. While the ID cards were not a precondition to the genocide, they were a facilitating factor. Once the genocide began, the production of an identity card with the designation “Tutsi” spelled a death sentence at any roadblock.

Identity cards have also helped oppressive regimes carry out eliminationist policies such as mass expulsion, forced relocation and group denationalization. Through the use of identity cards, Ethiopian authorities were able to identify people with Eritrean affiliation during the mass expulsion of 1998. The Vietnamese government was able to locate ethnic Chinese more easily during their 1978-79 expulsion. The USSR used identity cards to force the relocation of ethnic Koreans (1937), Volga Germans (1941), Kamyks and Karachai (1943), Crimean Tartars, Meshkhetian Turks, Chechens, Ingush and Balkars (1944) and ethnic Greeks (1949). And ethnic Vietnamese were identified for group denationalization through identity cards in Cambodia in 1993, as were the Kurds in Syria in 1962.

And in the United States, post-9/11, more than 750 Muslim men were rounded up on the basis of their religion and ethnicity and detained for up to eight months. Their experiences echo those of 120,000 Japanese-Americans who were similarly detained 75 years ago following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Despite a belated apology and monetary issuance by the U.S. government, the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to declare such a practice illegal. Moreover, laws such as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) empower the government to arrest and detain indefinitely anyone they “suspect” of being an enemy of the state.

You see, it’s a short hop, skip and a jump from allowing government agents to stop and demand identification from someone suspected of being an illegal immigrant to empowering government agents to subject anyone—citizen and non-citizen alike—to increasingly intrusive demands that they prove not only that they are legally in the country, but that they are also lawful, in compliance with every statute and regulation on the books, and not suspected of having committed some crime or other.

It’s no longer a matter of if, but when.

You may be innocent of wrongdoing now, but when the standard for innocence is set by the government, no one is safe. Everyone is a suspect. And anyone can be a criminal when it’s the government determining what is a crime.

Remember, the police state does not discriminate.

At some point, it will not matter whether your skin is black or yellow or brown or white. It will not matter whether you’re an immigrant or a citizen. It will not matter whether you’re rich or poor. It won’t even matter whether you’re driving, flying or walking.

After all, government-issued bullets will kill you just as easily whether you’re a law-abiding citizen or a hardened criminal. Government jails will hold you just as easily whether you’ve obeyed every law or broken a dozen. And whether or not you’ve done anything wrong, government agents will treat you like a suspect simply because they have been trained to view and treat everyone like potential criminals.

Eventually, when the police state has turned that final screw and slammed that final door, all that will matter is whether some government agent—poorly trained, utterly ignorant of the Constitution, way too hyped up on the power of their badges, and authorized to detain, search, interrogate, threaten and generally harass anyone they see fit—chooses to single you out for special treatment.

We’ve been having this same debate about the perils of government overreach for the past 50-plus years, and still we don’t seem to learn, or if we learn, we learn too late.

All of the excessive, abusive tactics employed by the government today—warrantless surveillance, stop and frisk searches, SWAT team raids, roadside strip searches, asset forfeiture schemes, private prisons, indefinite detention, militarized police, etc.—started out as a seemingly well-meaning plan to address some problem in society that needed a little extra help.

Be careful what you wish for: you will get more than you bargained for, especially when the government’s involved.

In the case of a national identification system, it might start off as a means of curtailing illegal immigration, but it will end up as a means of controlling the American people.

Remember, nothing is ever as simple as the government claims it is.

The war on drugs turned out to be a war on the American people, waged with SWAT teams and militarized police.

The war on terror turned out to be a war on the American people, waged with warrantless surveillance and indefinite detention.

The war on immigration is turning out to be yet another war on the American people, waged with roving government agents demanding “papers, please.”

Where things start to get dicey is when the stakes get higher, when there’s money to be made, when there are lives on the line. All of these government-fueled wars—on drugs, on terror, on immigration—have given rise to whole industries (defense contractors, prison contractors, security contractors, etc.) devoted to profiting off them. And “we the taxpayers” are footing the bill.

It’s easy to point fingers at the Trump Administration, but this feeding frenzy started long before Trump ascended to the White House. He’s just a red herring—as journalist Glenn Greenwald puts it, “a shiny red herring—one that distracts from the failures, corruption, and malice of the very Establishment so invested in promoting it.”

We’re in trouble, and we’re all to blame: the government bureaucrats who are marching in lockstep with the regime just as much as the populace that obeys every order, that fails to question or resist or push back against government dictates that are unjust or unconstitutional or immoral, and that allows itself to become so focused on the political circus before them that they fail to heed the danger creeping up behind them.

We have been down this road before.

Reporting on the trial of Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann for the New Yorker in 1963, Hannah Arendt describes the “submissive meekness with which Jews went to their death”:

arriving on time at the transportation points, walking under their own power to the places of execution, digging their own graves, undressing and making neat piles of their clothing, and lying down side by side to be shot—seemed a telling point, and the prosecutor, asking witness after witness, “Why did you not protest?,” “Why did you board the train?,” “Fifteen thousand people were standing there and hundreds of guards facing you—why didn’t you revolt and charge and attack these guards?,” harped on it for all it was worth. But the sad truth of the matter is that the point was ill taken, for no non-Jewish group or non-Jewish people had behaved differently.

The lessons of history are clear: chained, shackled and imprisoned in a detention camp, there is little chance of resistance. The time to act is now, before it’s too late. Indeed, there is power in numbers, but if those numbers will not unite and rise up against their oppressors, there can be no resistance.

You can’t have it both ways.

You can’t live in a constitutional republic if you allow the government to act like a police state.

You can’t claim to value freedom if you allow the government to operate like a dictatorship.

You can’t expect to have your rights respected if you allow the government to treat whomever it pleases with disrespect and an utter disregard for the rule of law.

If you’re inclined to advance this double standard because you believe you have done nothing wrong and have nothing to hide, beware: there’s always a boomerang effect.

As I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, whatever dangerous practices you allow the government to carry out now—whether it’s in the name of national security or protecting America’s borders or making America great again—rest assured, these same practices can and will be used against you when the government decides to set its sights on you.

As Arendt concludes:

Under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of :the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that ‘it could happen’ in most places but it did not happen everywhere.

It does not have to happen here.

A Genuine Actor: Francesco Serpico

There are unconscious actors among them and involuntary actors; the genuine are always rare, especially genuine actors.
– Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Any artist [person] who goes in for being famous in our society must know that it is not he who will become famous, but someone else under his name, someone who will eventually escape him and perhaps someday will kill the true artist [person] in him.
– Albert Camus, “Create Dangerously”

It ain’t me you’re lookin for, babe.
– Bob Dylan, “It Ain’t Me, Babe:, Another Side of Bob Dylan, 1964

Enter

The set was real but illusionary: A legendary old New England hotel dressed festively for Christmas and the holiday season.  Norman Rockwell’s magical realism. The lobby full with merriment, the cozy fire dancing to the sweet sound of violin and piano Christmas music mixed with a subtle alcoholic fragrance.  Main Street U.S.A.  Snow on the street and the classic strains of “White Christmas” in the inner air.  A mythic setting for meeting a legendary actor.

But as I entered the dimly lit set, the legend was nowhere to be seen.  I approached the spot where the musicians were playing and didn’t see him in the room opposite.  Then, as I was greeting two actors with bit parts that I knew (unconscious actors, I should add), out of the shadows came a laughing Russian spy obviously dressed as a Russian spy, one red star on his hat, walking stick in hand.  He and I were there to have a drink and enjoy the music that would allow us to talk privately without being overheard.  A few hours earlier he had sent me a strange message from Epicurus:  “It is impossible to lead a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living pleasantly (‘justly’ meaning to prevent a person from harming or being harmed by another).”

What did this cryptic message mean? The day before I had met a leading expert on the CIA on the same set and we had discussed the criminal activities of the Agency, how they dissembled and lied in their self-declared mission to defeat communism everywhere, even where it didn’t exist.  Those people were great at creating false myths, counter-myths, and Hollywood/media narratives to discombobulate a public already lost in an entertainment culture.  Now I was meeting this crazy Russian whom I heard say to some passing actors that he was a communist, and then he said something in Latin that totally perplexed them, which made him laugh.  A woman approached him and said she liked his hat.  Again he replied in Latin with a Russian accent and her face dropped.  Then we all laughed. She blushed, the scent of flirtation in the badinage. Was this guy serious or a comic having fun?

Off to the bar he and I went for some vino, wisecracks spewing from the mad Russian’s mouth. Heads turned to watch our passage, for even on this movie set, his costume stood out.

The True Man

As we settled in a corner with our drinks, a joyous warmth enveloped us.  Play-acting was fun.  Francesco was good at it.  Here in the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, no one took him for the legendary New York City Detective, Frank Serpico, shot in the face for being a whistleblower before the word became commonplace, and made mythic through the 1973 movie, Serpico.  To the people surrounding us, he was just an amusing guy in an interesting hat, a man having fun with a buddy.

At a round table in front of the chairs we were sitting in, a group of six middle-aged adults sat playing cards. They were not conversing. Frank mentioned that they reminded him of those pictures of dogs playing cards.  He got up and asked them if they were playing for high stakes.  They laughingly said no, just for amusement.  And what game were they playing? I asked.  A children’s game, the woman said. It was a perfect scene from a spoof, and Frank whispered to me, “The masses are deluded with TV, Hollywood, and children’s games.  Let’s bark.”

“Become who you are,” advised Nietzsche.  Frank had done that; had always done it, despite decades of having to escape the mythic masked man Hollywood had made of him when Al Pacino played him in 1973, creating the legendary persona behind which the real person is expected to disappear, held hostage by the mask. While all persons are, by definition, masked, the word person being derived from the Latin, persona, meaning mask, there are those who are nothing but masks – hollow inside.  Empty.  No one home.  Unconscious and involuntary actors living out a script written by someone else.  Not Frank Serpico. He has consistently been an unmasker, a truth-teller exposing the fraud that is so endemic in this society of illusions and delusions where lying is the norm.

The Lone Ranger

Frank has always understood masks. When he was an undercover cop, he used his play acting skills to save his life.  In the recent documentary film, “Frank Serpico,” directed by Antonino D’Ambrosio, he says he told himself: “You’re going on the stage tonight.  The audience is out there.  I told myself I was an actor and I had to sell my role.  I got my training in the streets of New York where I played many roles from a doctor to a derelict and how well I played those roles my life depended on it.” His acting skills were his protection, but these acts were performed in the service of protecting the citizens he had vowed to protect.  Genuine acts.

Shakespeare was right, of course, “all the world’s a stage,” though I would disagree with the bard that we are “merely” players.  It does often seem that way, but seeming is the essence of the actor’s show and tell.  But who are we behind the masks?  Who is it uttering those words coming through the masks’ mouth holes (the per-sona, Latin, to sound through). In Frank’s case, the real man is not hard to find. Never was. From a young age he was incorruptible. When he became a cop and took his oath, he was the same honest guy, though not fully aware of the dishonesty that pervades society at all levels.

When this honest cop was lying in a pool of his own blood on the night of February 3, 1971, having been shot in the face in a set-up carried out by fellow cops, Frank Serpico heard a voice that said, “It’s all a lie.” In that moment as he fought for his life, he realized a truth he had previously sensed but never fully grasped in its awful reality. His honesty, his refusal to be a corrupt cop like so many others, his allegiance to the sacred oath he took when he became a police officer, was returned with a violent snarl by the liars he walked among. And in that moment he was determined to live and return their lies with more truth, which he did in his subsequent eloquent testimony to the Knapp Commission that was investigating police corruption in the New York Police Department because of him.

The After Life

But then came the rest of his life, not a small thing.  Lionized and damned as a “rat” by many cops, recreated through the superb actor’s mask of Al Pacino in the film Serpico, his legend was created by the celebrity machine.  His truth was turned into a Hollywood myth; a true American hero became a cool movie star.  But unlike a movie actor or entertainer, he was still Frankie the honest boy who became an honest cop, and he wanted to become who he was, not an actor playing someone else.

Police work was his “calling,” he told me.  It is a word with deep religious roots.  A vocation (Latin, vocare, to call).  The mythographer Joseph Campbell has written eloquently of “the call” in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  When one is called by this mysterious voice that many call God, this call to adventure and authenticity – the hero’s way, he terms it – one is faced with a choice whether to accept or refuse.  Campbell writes:

[It] signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown.  This fateful region of both treasure and danger may be variously represented: as a distant land, a forest, a kingdom underground, beneath the waves, or above the sky, a secret island, lofty mountaintop, or profound dream state; but it is always a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, superhuman deeds, and impossible delight.

From the start of his police work, Frank sensed he was moving in “a zone unknown” and danger lurked along the way, but he had accepted the call.  Like the heroes in all the authentic myths, he could not be sure where it was all leading.  He came to realize that it led to the depths of hell, the frightening underworld through which the hero must transit or perish.  The dark night of the soul.  A near death experience at the hands of the monsters.  Unimaginable torments.

Let Me Be Frank

But dawn broke slowly, the same rosy-fingered dawn that greeted Odysseus as he contemplated the next step on his journey “home” from the war zone.  So Frank left home, set sail for Europe, and although a wounded warrior, he took up the rest of his life.  “Some may say I’m full of it,” he said to me, “but my life has been like a serendipitous dream, one scene after another.”  This may surprise those who think of him only as Frank Serpico, the heroic and honest cop.  But that was a role he played, something he did, not who he was. He has led a colorful, exciting, and adventurous life, but not because of the movie and book about his cop’s life.  His name Frank, after all, means a free man, and Frank is the epitome of a free-spirited soul, always trying to escape others’ definitions of him.  Sitting with our wine amid the music, he said:

I wanted to be who I was before the shooting.  Back then I knew more people and they knew me.  Friends.  Afterwards they made me into their own image.  They were looking for perfection, but I wasn’t perfect.  So I became more guarded and felt I was living under a microscope.  Even among friends, if we were playing a game in which you could make up things, like a word game, and pretend just for fun, and I did it like them, they would look at me as if I couldn’t, that if I did, I was betraying myself as the honest cop.  I had become the legendary honest cop to them, not Frank, a guy who had lived up to his oath to be an honest cop, but who was also a regular person, not a celebrity.  So I’ve had to deal with people being drawn to me because they think I’m a celebrity.  I’m not an actor.  I’m the real thing.

I was drawn to him because I sensed he was a compañero, similar to old, authentic friends I had grown up with in the Bronx.  Guys with consciences, not crooks.  Friends who could laugh and joke around.  From our first meeting we connected: each of us dressed in individual camouflage – he, the bearded, aging Village hippie, concealing a conscience-stricken Italian-American kid from Brooklyn; me, sporting the look of an Irish-American something from the Bronx, concealing a conscience-stricken radical thinker and writer.  Birds of a feather under different plumage, costumes concealing our true identities.  Real play acting.

And then there was that Catholic thing.  Both of us products of New York Catholic families and schools.  Thus conscience does not necessarily make cowards of us all. It also calls to us be honest, brave, and frank, despite the corruption of religious institutions.  Nietzsche again:  “‘Christianity’ has become something fundamentally different from what its founder did and desired….What did Christ deny?  Everything that is today called Christian.”  Frank hated school, and when he attended St. Francis Prep he was beaten by a religious Brother.  Then, when this teacher died and was being waked, Frank looked at him in the coffin and found himself, to his own amazement, crying for the man.  “That’s how deep it goes into you,” he said to me, “you end up crying for your tormentor.”  And while I understood his point of criticism that a corrupt society reaches into the cradle to poison us from the start, I thought there was more to it, some deep human empathy in that boy’s soul.  In the man’s.  Like Nietzsche, I sense in Frank a Romantic at heart.  He once wrote a poem in which he said:

I was taught religion and all about race
I was taught so well I felt out of place

But now I am a man and have no one to blame
So I must forget words like guilty, stupid, and shame.

And with the help of my soul I’ll remember the way
And get back where I was on that very first day.

Then he added in prose:

The God I believe in is not just my God, but the God of all beings no matter what language they speak….I have no use for man-made religion….They profane the name of Christ but none follow in his footsteps save a few perhaps like St Francis and even Vincent Van Gogh.

The few: St. Francis and Van Gogh.  Telling choices.  The wounded artist with a primal sympathy for the poor and the saint who drew animals to him out of love for all beings.  St. Francis Prep where Frank was first wounded by a sadist, a sign of things to come.  And later, the lover of nature who lives in the country and feeds birds that eat out of his hands.  The man who has written a beautiful essay about Henry David Thoreau.  And the artist/genuine actor who writes, plays musical instruments, has acted in theatre, is producing a film about former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, another maverick who has also come in for severe criticism.

The Lying Rats

“What has been your reaction over the years to having been harshly criticized as a “rat” by so many N.Y. cops?” I asked him.

“I took it as a joke,” he said.  “I am a rat.  It’s my Chinese zodiac sign.”  But turning more serious, he added, “I never broke bread with these people, so I never could rat on them.  I was never a part of them.  In fact, when I was asked to wear a wire to record guys I worked with, I said absolutely not.  I wasn’t out to catch individuals, but to warn of corruption throughout the system, from bottom to top in the Police Department.  It’s the system I wanted to change, so in no way was I ever a rat.”

“What sustained you all these years?  Was it faith, love, family – what?

”It was wine, women, and song,” he replied with a smile, as he held up his glass for a toast.

As we were walking through the crowded lobby, a woman was rocking in a rocking chair.  Frank burst into song about a rocking chair to amuse me; then told me he was once sitting outside a café and someone approached him to act in a production of William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life.  He said to the guy, “But I’m not an actor.”  “But you look the part of the Arab in the play,” was the reply.  So he took the part of the unnamed Arab and got to recite the most famous lines: “No foundation all the way down the line. No foundation all the way down the line.”  A refrain that echoes Frank’s take on American society today.  “It’s all a lie” or “No foundation all the way down the line” – little difference.

Until we see through the charade of social life and realize the masked performers are not just the politicians and celebrities, not only the professional actors and the corporate media performers, but us, we won’t grasp the problem.  Lying is the leading cause of living death in the United States.  We live in a society built of lies; lying and dishonesty are the norm.  They are built into the fabric of all our institutions.

Later he quoted for me the preface to that play, words dear to his heart:

In the time of your life, live – so that in that good time there shall be no ugliness or death for yourself or any life your life touches.  Seek goodness everywhere, and when it is found, bring it out of its hiding place and let it be free and unashamed. Place in matter and flesh the least of the values, for these are the things that hold death and must pass away.  Discover in all things that which shines and is beyond corruption. Encourage virtue in whatever heart it may have been driven into secrecy and sorrow by the shame and terror of the world.  Ignore the obvious, for it is unworthy of the clear eye and kindly heart.  Be the inferior of no man, or of any man be superior.  Remember that every man is a variation of yourself.  No man’s guilt is not yours, nor is any man’s innocence a thing apart.  Despise evil and ungodliness, but not men of ungod-liness or evil.  These, understand.  Have no shame in being kindly and gentle but if the time comes in the time of your life to kill, kill and have no regret.  In the time of your life, live – so that in the wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.

A Genuine Actor

And so I came to understand those words of Epicurus that this Thoreau-like bon-vivant had sent me.  A pleasant life must be a just life, and if one is wise, and if one prevents people from harming or being harmed by others, one has chosen wisely and well.  That is the way of the genuine actor.  As Nietzsche meant it, a genuine actor is an original, one whose entire life is a work of art in which one begets oneself, or becomes who one is, as the Latin root of genuine (gignere, to give birth, to beget) implies.  In a world of phony actors, Frank Serpico, the real man, stands out.

He stood out long ago when he so courageously came forward to light a lamp of truth on the systemic corruption within the NYPD, and despite paying a severe price in suffering that almost cost him his life, he continues to speak out. Having spent a decade in exile in Europe where he entered into deep self-reflection (“There’s nothing outside that isn’t inside,” he says), he returned “home” still passionately committed to shining a light on all that is evil but taken for normality that harms people physically and spiritually.

To this day his conscience gives him no rest.  He is still fighting by lending his name and presence to cases of police corruption, injustice, racism, the silencing of dissidents, etc. He does not live in the past.  A while ago he protested with some NYC cops the deplorable treatment of the football player Colin Kaepernick by the National Football League.  Just recently he spoke out for justice in the egregious 2004 police fatal shooting of Michael Bell, Jr. in the family driveway in Kenosha, Wisconsin.  Supporting a video being distributed to 10,000 registered voters in a quest to get a public inquest, Frank wrote:

This video equals the cell phone footage that captured the shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina.  Such compelling and condemning evidence of a cover-up and abuse can no longer be ignored.  For the sake of justice in American policing, Attorney General Brad Schimel and DA Michael Graveley must reopen this investigation if society’s trust in their police is ever to be restored.

But before anyone gets caught up in hero worship of the genuine hero that Frank is (not a pseudo-hero deceptively created by the celebrity and propaganda apparatus), his parting words are worth remembering.  In this corrupt society, you had best not get ensnared in mythic fantasies about heroes coming to the rescue. It ain’t him, babe, it ain’t him you’re looking for.

When you see injustice and corruption, when you open your eyes and see lying and deceit everywhere, you must be your own hero; you must be courageous and act.  “Take care of it yourself,” he says.

Or in the words of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, a book that serendipitously fell into his hands when he was alone in a friend’s humble chalet in the Swiss Alps and shocked him with its relevance to his own experience: “‘This is my way, where is yours?’ thus I answered those who asked me ‘the way.’  For the way, that does not exist.”

Life without Limits: The Delusions of Technological Fundamentalism

In a routinely delusional world, what is the most dangerous delusion?

Living in the United States, I’m tempted to focus on the delusion that the United States is the greatest nation in the history of the world — a claim repeated robotically by politicians of both parties.

In a mass-consumption capitalist society, there’s the delusion that if we only buy more, newer, better products we all will be happier — a claim repeated endlessly in commercial propaganda (commonly known as advertising and marketing).

I’m also white, and so it’s understandable to worry about the delusion that white people are superior to non-white people. And as a man, I reflect on the delusion that institutionalized male dominance is our fate, whether asserted to be divinely commanded or evolutionarily inevitable.

But all these delusions that rationalize hierarchies within the human family, and the resulting injustices that flow from those hierarchies, are less frightening to me than modern humans’ delusion that we are not bound by the laws of physics and chemistry, that humans can live beyond the biophysical limits of the ecosphere.

This delusion is not limited to one country, one group, or one political party, but rather is the unstated assumption of everyday life in the high-energy/high-technology industrial world. This is the delusion that we are — to borrow from the title of a particularly delusional recent book — the god species.

This ideology of human supremacy leads us to believe that our species’ cleverness allows us to ignore the limits placed on all life forms by the larger living world, of which we are but one component. What we once quaintly called “environmentalism” — which too often focused on technical solutions to discrete problems rather than challenging human arrogance and the quest for endless affluence — is no longer adequate to deal with the multiple, cascading ecological crises that define our era: climate destabilization, species extinction, soil erosion, groundwater depletion, toxic waste accumulation, and on and on.

Playing god got us into this trouble, and more of the same won’t get us out.

This inability to accept the limits that come with being part of “nature” – a strange term when used to contrast with “human,” as if humans were somehow not part of the natural world – was on my mind as I read two new books about controversial topics that typically are thought of as social, not ecological, issues: Transgender Children and Young People: Born in Your Own Body, edited by Heather Brunskell-Evans and Michele Moore, and Surrogacy: A Human Rights Violation, by Renate Klein.

[Disclaimer: I have met Brunskell-Evans in our shared work in the radical feminist critique of pornography, and Klein is co-publisher of Spinifex Press, which published my book The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men.]

Both books offer a feminist critique of the ideology and practices of these movements that herald medical/technological “solutions” to struggles with gender norms and infertility.

Brunskell-Evans’ and Moore’s book brings together researchers, activists, mental health practitioners and parents who question such practices as puberty suppression to block the development of secondary sex characteristics as treatment for gender dysphoria. Are such disruptions of a child’s development with powerful drugs warranted, given the lack of testing and absence of a clear understanding of the etiology of transgenderism? The authors challenge what has rapidly become the liberal dogma of embracing medicalized approaches to the very real problem of patriarchal gender norms (the demand that boys must act one way and girls another) that constrain our lives.

Klein marshals research and the testimony of surrogates to point out that another liberal dogma — affluent individuals have a right to “rent a womb” so they may have a child genetically related to them — involves considerable risks for the surrogate mother (sometimes referred to as the “gestational carrier”). The author’s assessment is blunt, but well supported: modern surrogacy is a form of exploitation of women and trafficking in babies.

Both books demonstrate the enduring relevance of the radical branch of feminism that highlights men’s attempts to control and exploit women’s reproductive power and sexuality as a key feature of men’s dominance in patriarchal societies. And both are critical of the naive celebration of high-tech medicine to deal with issues that stem from patriarchy’s rigid, repressive and reactionary gender norms.

Those radical feminist challenges dovetail with a radical ecological critique that reminds us that being alive — being a carbon-based creature that exists within the limits of the ecosphere — means that we should be skeptical of claims that we can magically transcend those limits. The high-energy, high-tech, human-defined world in which we live can lull us into believing that we are like gods in our ability to shape the world, and to shape our own bodies.

Of course, drugs, surgery and medical techniques routinely save lives and improve our lives, in ways that are “unnatural” in some sense. To highlight these questions does not mean that lines are easy to draw between what is appropriate and what is ill-advised. But we invite serious miscalculations when we embrace without critical self-reflection the assumption that we can manipulate our human-centered worlds without concern for the limits of the larger living world.

Many of us have experienced this in end-of-life care decisions for ourselves or loved ones. When are high-tech medical interventions that prolong life without concern for quality of life a mistake? I have had long conversations with friends and family about where the line should be drawn, not only to make my own views clear but to search for collective understanding. The fact that the line is hard to draw, and even harder to face when arriving at it, doesn’t make the question any less relevant. The fact that there is no obvious and easy answer doesn’t mean we can avoid the question.

Elective cosmetic surgery is perhaps the best example of the culture’s rejection of limits. All living things eventually die, and human appearance changes as we age, yet many people search for ways to stave off that aging or to change their appearance for other non-medical reasons. In 2017, Americans spent more than $15 billion on cosmetic procedures (surgical and nonsurgical), 91% of which were performed on women. The two most common surgical procedures are liposuction and breast augmentation. Although some people who get liposuction are overweight, it is not a treatment for obesity, and breast augmentation is rarely related to physical health. These procedures typically are chosen by people seeking to conform to social norms about appearance.

With this humility about high-tech human intervention in mind, how should we understand the experience of feeling at odds with gender norms? How should we reconcile the physical inability to bear children with the desire to have children? There are no obvious or easy answers, but I believe that as a culture we are better served by starting with the recognition that we are not gods, that we cannot endlessly manipulate the world without risking unintended consequences for self and others. How does the rejection of limits impede our ability to first examine and then resist the impositions of patriarchy, to find new understandings of sex/gender and new social relationships for caring for children?

At the planetary level, we have considerable evidence that our faux-god attempts to dominate the ecosphere — which started most dramatically with the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago and intensified with the exploitation of fossil fuels — now make the future of a large-scale human population uncertain. The lesson some of us take from that is to turn away from the “technological fundamentalism” that leads us to see all problems as having high-energy/high-tech solutions and consider different ways of living within the biophysical limits of the planet.

That same perspective is compelling on the level of these questions around gender and fertility. Here’s a sensible place to start: We should step back from the hyper-individualism of neoliberal ideology and examine more deeply how the institutionalized male dominance of patriarchy has shaped our collective thinking about gender and identity, and about women’s status and parenting. Such reflection reveals that the liberal ideology on transgenderism and surrogacy embraces the technological fundamentalism that embraces medical and market “solutions” rather than enhancing the sense of integrity that we seek.

Integrity is a key concept here because of its two meanings — adherence to moral principles and the state of being whole. We strive to act with integrity, and to maintain the integrity of both the living body and the larger living world. In hierarchical systems that reward domination, such as patriarchy, freedom comes to be understood only at the ability to control others and the world around us. Andrea Dworkin captures this struggle when she writes:

Being an object – living in the realm of male objectification – is abject submission, an abdication of the freedom and integrity of the body, its privacy, its uniqueness, its worth in and of itself because it is the human body of a human being.

Freedom in patriarchy is granted only to those in control, and that control turns other living things into objects, destroying the possibility of integrity-as-moral-principles and integrity-as-wholeness. Real freedom is not found in the quest to escape limits but in deepening our understanding of our place in a world with limits.

• First appeared in ABC Religion & Ethics (Australia)

Life without Limits: The Delusions of Technological Fundamentalism

In a routinely delusional world, what is the most dangerous delusion?

Living in the United States, I’m tempted to focus on the delusion that the United States is the greatest nation in the history of the world — a claim repeated robotically by politicians of both parties.

In a mass-consumption capitalist society, there’s the delusion that if we only buy more, newer, better products we all will be happier — a claim repeated endlessly in commercial propaganda (commonly known as advertising and marketing).

I’m also white, and so it’s understandable to worry about the delusion that white people are superior to non-white people. And as a man, I reflect on the delusion that institutionalized male dominance is our fate, whether asserted to be divinely commanded or evolutionarily inevitable.

But all these delusions that rationalize hierarchies within the human family, and the resulting injustices that flow from those hierarchies, are less frightening to me than modern humans’ delusion that we are not bound by the laws of physics and chemistry, that humans can live beyond the biophysical limits of the ecosphere.

This delusion is not limited to one country, one group, or one political party, but rather is the unstated assumption of everyday life in the high-energy/high-technology industrial world. This is the delusion that we are — to borrow from the title of a particularly delusional recent book — the god species.

This ideology of human supremacy leads us to believe that our species’ cleverness allows us to ignore the limits placed on all life forms by the larger living world, of which we are but one component. What we once quaintly called “environmentalism” — which too often focused on technical solutions to discrete problems rather than challenging human arrogance and the quest for endless affluence — is no longer adequate to deal with the multiple, cascading ecological crises that define our era: climate destabilization, species extinction, soil erosion, groundwater depletion, toxic waste accumulation, and on and on.

Playing god got us into this trouble, and more of the same won’t get us out.

This inability to accept the limits that come with being part of “nature” – a strange term when used to contrast with “human,” as if humans were somehow not part of the natural world – was on my mind as I read two new books about controversial topics that typically are thought of as social, not ecological, issues: Transgender Children and Young People: Born in Your Own Body, edited by Heather Brunskell-Evans and Michele Moore, and Surrogacy: A Human Rights Violation, by Renate Klein.

[Disclaimer: I have met Brunskell-Evans in our shared work in the radical feminist critique of pornography, and Klein is co-publisher of Spinifex Press, which published my book The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men.]

Both books offer a feminist critique of the ideology and practices of these movements that herald medical/technological “solutions” to struggles with gender norms and infertility.

Brunskell-Evans’ and Moore’s book brings together researchers, activists, mental health practitioners and parents who question such practices as puberty suppression to block the development of secondary sex characteristics as treatment for gender dysphoria. Are such disruptions of a child’s development with powerful drugs warranted, given the lack of testing and absence of a clear understanding of the etiology of transgenderism? The authors challenge what has rapidly become the liberal dogma of embracing medicalized approaches to the very real problem of patriarchal gender norms (the demand that boys must act one way and girls another) that constrain our lives.

Klein marshals research and the testimony of surrogates to point out that another liberal dogma — affluent individuals have a right to “rent a womb” so they may have a child genetically related to them — involves considerable risks for the surrogate mother (sometimes referred to as the “gestational carrier”). The author’s assessment is blunt, but well supported: modern surrogacy is a form of exploitation of women and trafficking in babies.

Both books demonstrate the enduring relevance of the radical branch of feminism that highlights men’s attempts to control and exploit women’s reproductive power and sexuality as a key feature of men’s dominance in patriarchal societies. And both are critical of the naive celebration of high-tech medicine to deal with issues that stem from patriarchy’s rigid, repressive and reactionary gender norms.

Those radical feminist challenges dovetail with a radical ecological critique that reminds us that being alive — being a carbon-based creature that exists within the limits of the ecosphere — means that we should be skeptical of claims that we can magically transcend those limits. The high-energy, high-tech, human-defined world in which we live can lull us into believing that we are like gods in our ability to shape the world, and to shape our own bodies.

Of course, drugs, surgery and medical techniques routinely save lives and improve our lives, in ways that are “unnatural” in some sense. To highlight these questions does not mean that lines are easy to draw between what is appropriate and what is ill-advised. But we invite serious miscalculations when we embrace without critical self-reflection the assumption that we can manipulate our human-centered worlds without concern for the limits of the larger living world.

Many of us have experienced this in end-of-life care decisions for ourselves or loved ones. When are high-tech medical interventions that prolong life without concern for quality of life a mistake? I have had long conversations with friends and family about where the line should be drawn, not only to make my own views clear but to search for collective understanding. The fact that the line is hard to draw, and even harder to face when arriving at it, doesn’t make the question any less relevant. The fact that there is no obvious and easy answer doesn’t mean we can avoid the question.

Elective cosmetic surgery is perhaps the best example of the culture’s rejection of limits. All living things eventually die, and human appearance changes as we age, yet many people search for ways to stave off that aging or to change their appearance for other non-medical reasons. In 2017, Americans spent more than $15 billion on cosmetic procedures (surgical and nonsurgical), 91% of which were performed on women. The two most common surgical procedures are liposuction and breast augmentation. Although some people who get liposuction are overweight, it is not a treatment for obesity, and breast augmentation is rarely related to physical health. These procedures typically are chosen by people seeking to conform to social norms about appearance.

With this humility about high-tech human intervention in mind, how should we understand the experience of feeling at odds with gender norms? How should we reconcile the physical inability to bear children with the desire to have children? There are no obvious or easy answers, but I believe that as a culture we are better served by starting with the recognition that we are not gods, that we cannot endlessly manipulate the world without risking unintended consequences for self and others. How does the rejection of limits impede our ability to first examine and then resist the impositions of patriarchy, to find new understandings of sex/gender and new social relationships for caring for children?

At the planetary level, we have considerable evidence that our faux-god attempts to dominate the ecosphere — which started most dramatically with the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago and intensified with the exploitation of fossil fuels — now make the future of a large-scale human population uncertain. The lesson some of us take from that is to turn away from the “technological fundamentalism” that leads us to see all problems as having high-energy/high-tech solutions and consider different ways of living within the biophysical limits of the planet.

That same perspective is compelling on the level of these questions around gender and fertility. Here’s a sensible place to start: We should step back from the hyper-individualism of neoliberal ideology and examine more deeply how the institutionalized male dominance of patriarchy has shaped our collective thinking about gender and identity, and about women’s status and parenting. Such reflection reveals that the liberal ideology on transgenderism and surrogacy embraces the technological fundamentalism that embraces medical and market “solutions” rather than enhancing the sense of integrity that we seek.

Integrity is a key concept here because of its two meanings — adherence to moral principles and the state of being whole. We strive to act with integrity, and to maintain the integrity of both the living body and the larger living world. In hierarchical systems that reward domination, such as patriarchy, freedom comes to be understood only at the ability to control others and the world around us. Andrea Dworkin captures this struggle when she writes:

Being an object – living in the realm of male objectification – is abject submission, an abdication of the freedom and integrity of the body, its privacy, its uniqueness, its worth in and of itself because it is the human body of a human being.

Freedom in patriarchy is granted only to those in control, and that control turns other living things into objects, destroying the possibility of integrity-as-moral-principles and integrity-as-wholeness. Real freedom is not found in the quest to escape limits but in deepening our understanding of our place in a world with limits.

• First appeared in ABC Religion & Ethics (Australia)