Something is rotten in the stateâ€¦
In our times, in a media-saturated culture in which well-packaged and comforting lies are explicitly preferred to unsettling truths, those who reveal sordid realities are often dismissed if not reviled. Whistleblowers and voices of integrityâ€”from Dennis Kucinich and Ralph Nader to Julian Assange and Bradley Manningâ€”engage in the often-thankless vocation of disturbing complacency; and those awakened from their lying dreams angrily threaten to â€śkill the messengerâ€ť (figuratively?â€”or perhaps literally).
I am reminded of Henrik Ibsenâ€™s bitterly satirical play An Enemy of the People. The protagonist, a maverick scientist named Dr. Stockmann, has dreamed up a project to turn his backwater town into a cosmopolitan health spa. However, he later discovers that the project, upon which the town has invested its capital and its future, is hopelessly ruined by contaminating waste coming from upriver. At a meeting of the townspeople, he tries mightily to inform, explain, warnâ€”but his fellow citizens refuse to listen and shout him down, finally even labeling him â€śan enemy of the people.â€ť At that moment, he announces the discovery of an even greater source of corruptionâ€“â€śthat all the sources of our moral life are poisoned and that the whole fabric of our civic community is founded on the pestiferous soil of falsehood.â€ť
In the last half of the 20th century, the American economy promised the realization of a â€śdreamâ€ť of universal home ownership and a veritable cornucopia of consumer goods. The coveted, high-consumption ideal of unparalleled material comforts, based as it was on easy credit, offered the two-car garage and the three-bedroom house. But by the 1990s, with almost one motor vehicle per adult and domestic oil fields largely depleted, the economy had become addicted to an endless ocean of foreign oil. As U.S.-based oil companies further extended their tentacles globally, a bloated U.S. War Machine-in-overdrive laid waste to entire countries, creating incalculable human suffering in its quest to secure access to the oil which fed an insatiable Moloch called the â€śAmerican Way of Life.â€ť
Dis-information and fabricated pretexts manufactured the consent of a largely passive populace which resigned itself to, or often cheered on, the next waging of aggressive warâ€“â€śthe supreme international crime,â€ť according to the Nuremberg Charter. By 1996, U.S. diplomat Madeleine Albright matter-of-factly stated on national television that the deliberate killing some 500,000 Iraqi children had been â€śworth itâ€ťâ€”and her remark provoked little concern, let alone outrage, among the American citizenry. (The draconian U.S.-UN sanctions in the early 1990s, had deprived the Iraqi peopleâ€”whose water treatment plants and medical facilities had been deliberately destroyed in the Gulf Warâ€”of urgent necessities like vaccines, medicines, food.)
Two millennia ago, ruthless Roman commanders would lay siege to a city, starving the people into submission and enslavement. But such generals, no matter how cruel, lacked the advantages of modern artillery and air strikes. And, despite other fiendish torments available for their use, they did not have the chemical know-how to drop clouds of white phosphorus or giant combustibles, thereby burning and incinerating thousands of people living below. Often merciless, their crimes were nonetheless circumscribed by the spatial and technical limits of the times. Such was not the case in the U.S. invasion, bombing, and occupation of Iraq.
The statistics are horrifying, unspeakableâ€”although we must (relentlessly) speak of them. If one ponders, for even a few minutes, what such statistics mean, one suffers serious emotional disturbance and disorientation. â€śRoughlyâ€ť 500,000 children in the early 1990s? â€śAboutâ€ť a million people killed by the invasion and its aftermath? â€śA few millionâ€ť more lives maimed, displaced, wrecked (as much by grief and despair as by physical mutilation)? Such statistics are terribly abstract, obscenely abstract: an adding-machine tabulates an endless list of corpses into an abstract figure to be entered in the chronicle of â€ścollateral damage,â€ť â€ścivilian casualties,â€ťâ€”or a â€śbody count.â€ť
Yet such icy abstraction can suddenly become terribly concreteâ€”when we scrutinize up-close the faces and bodies of children â€śunluckyâ€ť enough to have inhabited a city called Falluja. In the short RAI documentary â€śFalluja: The Hidden Massacre,â€ť we see a city completely in ruins, bricks strewn everywhere, with the occasional motionless, crushed child to be discerned beneath the rubble. We see, with a fierce lucidity, the squashed faces and scorched skulls of little childrenâ€”viciously burnt to death by the napalm (MK77) the killers chose to inflict on these innocent victims. We see many other things, unspeakable things, unspeakable crimes of which we must find a way to speakâ€”and to speak with searing moral clarity.
Within neo-colonial systems (empires), those living in the â€ścoreâ€ť nation are led to believe that they can and should enjoy an affluent standard of material comfortsâ€”even if it is based on military conquest, resource-expropriation, and the exploitation of cheap labor (in â€śperipheralâ€ť places like the Middle East). Those Americans who continue to believe in an unrealistic standard of material affluenceâ€”based as it is on an addiction to an energy-guzzling, hyper-consumption â€śway of lifeâ€ťâ€”will continue to tolerate U.S.-initiated oil wars and minimize the threats posed by global warming.
If trying to sustain the â€śidealâ€ť of American-style prosperity nowadays is based on war (i.e., imperial Terrorism)â€”as well as its counterparts of trade embargoes and â€śregime changeâ€ťâ€“why even care if the U.S. economy continues to falter or even collapse? True, those who suffer the most are always poor people and innocent children. Nonetheless, even with better jobs and financial reform, â€śthe American Dreamâ€ť of material affluence can only be sustained by expropriating Middle Eastern oil through military aggression, draconian sanctions, and neoliberal privatizations.
The â€śAmerican Dreamâ€ťâ€“with its equation of â€śconsumingâ€ť with living, with its â€śmiddle-classâ€ť ideal of car and home ownership, with its addiction to frivolous (and vulgar) amusementsâ€”is, in itself, morally bankrupt. The culture is an insatiable Moloch which feeds on oilâ€”and has already demanded the mass sacrifices of innocent children ten thousands miles away to get it. A â€śdecliningâ€ť standard of â€ślivingâ€ť? High unemployment? Persisting problems with affordable health insurance?
Surrounded by a soulless banality propped up by vicious wars, those who hold fast to truth and universal human values are confronted with Dr. Stockmannâ€™s haunting question: â€śWhat does the destruction of a community matter if it lives on lies?â€ť