Saturday, April 18, 2009

Why Ask Why - The Torture Memos

A great deal of genuine angst is being expended on a question that is consuming a lot of thought, happily or sadly. The question is this: "What could possibly allow people to convince themselves that torture and abuse of other human beings is OK, in the name of any cause?"

The answer, sadly enough, is simple.

Because it's fun!

It is perhaps an unpalatable truth about humanity, but it is true nonetheless; the sublimation of our urge towards sadomasochistic behavior manifests itself in every aspect of our culture, from sport, to politics, to entertainment. I leave the the fun of finding appropriate examples to you, save for this one.



It's the sort of fun that we have to create general social rules to prevent, but it's also a pretty basic, if very dark human urge, made the darker for being buried and repressed. It forces us to make up justifications and rationalizations and excuses that allow us to pretend that we are doing what we would do anyway for Higher Purposes, even because God Demands It.

The ability to degrade and abuse other human beings and get away with it is one of the single greatest perks of power, nor has any human being ever managed to entirely free themselves of the thrill that comes from grinding a victim's face in the dirt.

Some manage to shed or regret the impulse quicker than others. The best of us realize that it must an may only be savored when it is to the end of genuine right action, because only then do the karmic dominoes resolve into an aesthetic whole, rather than a noisy, chaotic mess.

The very worst of us seek power for the very purpose of being able to inflict pain and horror on others.
They have or need no greater reason and any motives they cite are there only to convince you to give them the power to do as they will. But any good or evil that results from their exercise of power is entirely beside the point, save to concentrate and preserve their power to do it again, harder and more frequently.


We call that "Evil" - or if you wish a more personal image, try Dick Cheney.

There is a man who has created an entire world-view that permits any imaginable exercise of power over others while keeping whatever remains of his conscience restrained from it's duty. But let's face it; Cheney would be nothing without his enablers and fellow travelers; those who think of their perception of humanity as being "realistic," their understanding of power and consequence as being natural and free of "Naive self-delusion," their manipulations of the body politic "necessary" to evade the "squeamish" objections of "cowardly liberals" who think - as does the FBI - that torture brings nothing but bad karma and highly motivated enemies.

This viewpoint is ultimately shared by the likes of Cheney - but if you were to ask him bluntly during a sodium thiopental interview, the answer might well be a question - as in, "what's your point?"

The creation of external enemies from people who's viewpoints might or might not make them enemies is all to the good for such a mind. It places everyone into two neat little boxes. "Us, and Them." All that remains is to slowly crush anyone labeled "them" Repeat as often as needed, until only "Us" remains.

Unfortunately for the rest of humanity, the only "Us" in Dick Cheney's universe is Dick Cheney and perhaps a handful of direct relatives. I wouldn't bet on that, though. While blood may be thicker than water, there is a great deal of history regarding tyrants and dictators that suggests that power is at least an order of magnitude thicker than blood.

The thing to remember is that there is nothing more visceral, nothing more primal than forcing some "deserving" loser's face into a pile of horse dung and raping him with one's riding crop whilst forcing him to watch his wife and children being "entertained" by the troops. The torture memos reveal nothing more than an attempt to make it possible for our leaders to enjoy this classic perk of leadership without being held accountable by "squeamish moralists."

Now, frankly, I have no moral qualms with consensual sadism. For every person who enjoys wielding power, there are many that enjoy it being used upon them far more than conventional moralists and ethicist would believe. I think it an important dynamic, but it breaks down when the one wielding the staff of power refuses to admit that their power is donated by those they have power over toward the end of creating a society that is more than the sum of it's parts.

And when the entire purpose of a society is the self-gratification of a Great Leader, it is not more, but less than the sum of it's parts.

Americans can see this all around them, if they care to look. The idea that society is composed of "winners and losers" and that the "winners" owe nothing to those less successful save, perhaps a charitable kick in the ass to "motivate them." For example, equating a lack of charity and community with patriotism and responsible behavior has become the latest trogladyte meme.

I find it starkly hilarious that any "online entrepreneur" could say that with a straight face, for any profit they have "earned" from their efforts is due to an infrastructure developed as a direct result of hundreds of thousands of volunteer man-hours undertaken with no particular anticipation of profit.

Furthermore, Internet Marketing is, even at it's most ethical, something of an intrusion upon the tolerance of others. How much spam, for instance, has the Tea-Party movement generated all by itself? Perhaps Google or Yahoo might tell us the frequency of "Tea-Party" as a spam filter keyword.

Without a collective infrastructure, there is no commerce. It breaks down in confusion, or - as we have seen - due to those who see a collective trust in a system an opportunity to abuse that trust for personal gain. Whether that be Bernie Madoff, the Savings and Loan industry, Enron, the Securities industry, or even the US Federal Reserve, abuse and manipulation by insiders for personal power, influence and reward leads to the destruction of not just individuals, but puts the whole fabric of civilization at risk. Commerce and capitalism are certainly parts of that fabric - but they are certainly not the point to it. Commerce and profit are means, one hopes, to the end of a better life and a more secure and enjoyable life for all.

If for no other reason than this; happy, fufilled people are far less likely to rip you off at gunpoint.

The stated position - that one "earns" one's bread without incurring any obligation to the rest of society or it's common financial, social, political, legal, regulatory or transportation infrastructures is intuitively ethically untenable, it requires a great deal of propaganda, religious brainwashing, jingoism and induced paranoia to maintain. A rigorously monolingual and functionally illiterate mindset helps a great deal, due to the fact that most writings in the social sciences are either in other languages or written in an English that is inaccessible to the majority of the American people - that is to say, above a sixth grade level.

One of the great problems American Conservatives have with the French is that they have committed great Socialistic Sins, have placed people far above capitalistic ideals - and have yet managed to muddle through. Though if anything, American Conservatives hate Scandinavia and Canada as much or more, for each, in their way, prove that with more social structure and investment comes more, not less individual liberty. (A reality, that to be fair about it, alarms many liberals and socialists as much as it does our own Social Conservatives)

But never mind all that; the stated motives of politicians are but an illusion; a mask upon a corpse. And even when such an idiology is sincere and genuine, the Liberal mindset is no more useful, for it tries to deny just as many aspects of human nature, or suggest that a properly constructed society could and would successfully suppress them, for the Greater Good.

Greater Good arguments, far from being a slippery slope, are a precipitous cliff. You see, it all goes toward the question of what the Greater Good is, who is empowered to define it, and whether they actually understand if their chosen means can possibly achieve the desired end, even if that end is unarguably desirable.

One can eliminate crime, for instance, by simply shooting all criminals. Sharp reductions in criminal behavior will be immediately evident - if only due to the enhanced caution of criminals.

One can also eliminate crime by eliminating all laws, under the premise that if there is no foul, there can be no harm. Even as a quite seriously anti authoritarian, I present this as an absurd premise. With no law, no regulation, no justice - you get Somalia.

In both cases, negative consequences will occur - but those negative consequences are commonly dismissed as being "the price of security" or "the price of freedom." Actually, they are, in both cases, direct and predictable consequences arising from human responses to a social matrix developed without regard to human nature is the price of willful, unethical stupidity. It's entirely possible for a civilization to be more free and more secure by indulging neither conceit.

There can be no lasting social structure that does not account for all aspects of human nature, create places for people biased in particular directions and put in place mechanisms that tend to reward positive expressions while disadvantaging negative ones, so long as society never expects nor demands perfect results in all cases. Society must be satisfied with statistical progress, while permitting and collectively insuring against risks that may lead to individual failures.

Why? Ask any successful businessman how many failures it took for them to succeed. Or any successful person who is known for anything remarkable at all. It is not the conformist that makes great things possible, it's the non-conformist; the guy that would rather accept the risk of failure than buy into a managed, franchized "sure-fire success."

Paradoxically, a society that does not permit enough room for people to make horrible mistakes is too inflexible to learn and grow. And a society that demoniezes, or worse yet, denies the existance certain tendancies that lead to certain very predictable mistakes can easily collapse overnight, as the structures that appear to be sound reveal themseleves to have been consumed from within.

Dick Cheney is not evil because of his nature. There's nothing inherently evil about enjoying pain, suffering, the defeat and humiliation of competetors or the exercise of power upon one's enemies. It's very often a critical, survival grade trait. For instance, Dr. Christian Barnard is often said to have been a sadist; it is certainly a trait that is clearly useful to a surgeon. Likewise, the ability to send young men and women to their deaths is a trait we value in the military, even in slightly glorious excess - though even there we sharply disapprove of those who contrive excuses for doing it.

The choice to value the limbic rewards of an action to the point where right action and just outcomes become immaterial - that is evil.

That sort of person flourishes best when there is a structure intended to oppress and oppose the very thing they most wish to do - by the methods and means they most like employing themselves.

Take the war on drugs. In the name of protecting people from their own choices, the very worst case outcomes are enforced, making the apparent need a seeming necessity. The war on drugs is nothing more and nothing less than a contrivance, a self-fulfilling prophecy and a sinecure for those who can imagine no better life-path than one based upon imposing their will upon others.

This is not to say that there are not very upright and capable people within law-enforcement who sincerely believe that the road to hell is paved with recreational medicine, or those who see drug cartels as being heavily armed dangerous people who really should be dealt with appropriately. I'm sad for the first, for they are sincere fools, and sad for the second, for they are correct without having any leverage upon the problem.

But the vast majority of those who take up the cause of suppressing Vice in the name of Virtue... I would say their grasp of virtue is, or will soon be compromised. It's simply a matter of time.

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