An excerpt from the book “The Cunning of History: The Holocaust and the American Future”

From the book The Cunning of History: The Holocaust and the American Future (1975) by Richard L. Rubenstein, below is a piece I transcribed in 2008 for safe-keeping.

This excerpt is taken from chapter 1, Mass Death and Contemporary Civilization:

The passing of time has made it increasingly evident that a hitherto unbreachable moral and political barrier in the history of Western civilization was successfully overcome by the Nazis in the World War II and that henceforth the systematic, bureaucratically administered extermination of millions of citizens or subject peoples will forever be one of the capacities and temptations of government. Whether or not such a temptation is ever again exercised, the mere fact that every modern government possesses such power cannot but alter the relations between those who govern those who are governed. The power must also alter the texture of foreign relations. According to Max Weber, “The state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a given territory.” Auschwitz has enlarged our conception of the state’s capacity to do violence. A barrier has been overcome in what for millennia had been regarded as the permissible limits of political action. The Nazi period serves as a warning of what we can all too easily become were we faced with a political or economic crisis of overwhelming proportions. The public may be fascinated by the Nazis; hopefully, it is also warned by them.

In studying the Holocaust, the extermination of Europe’s Jews, it is necessary to recognize that our feelings may be strongly roused. Both the Nazis and their victims elicit some very complicated emotional responses from most people. These feelings are important but they can add to our difficulties in arriving at an understanding of what took place. In order to understand the Holocaust, it is necessary to adopt a mental attitude that excludes all feelings of sympathy or hostility towards both the victims and the perpetrators. This is a methodological procedure and, admittedly, an extremely difficult one. Nevertheless, this bracketing is necessary, not only because of the emotions aroused by the Nazis, but also because of the ambivalent reactions Jews inevitably arouse in Western culture. In view of the fact that (a) most Europeans and Americans are the spiritual and cultural heirs of a religious tradition in which both the incarnate deity and his betrayer are Jewish and that (b) the fate of the Jews has been a primary datum used to prove the truth of Christianity from its inception, it is difficult for even the most secularized non-Jew to be without a complex mixture of feelings when confronted with Jewish disaster. The feelings are likely to include both guilt and gratification.

Nor are Jews normally capable of greater objectivity in dealing with the Holocaust. The event has challenged the very foundation of Jewish religious faith. It has reinforced all of the millennial distrust on the part of Jews for the non-Jewish world. It has also raised the exceedingly painful issue of the role of the Judenräte, the Jewish community councils which everywhere controlled the Jewish communities and which were used by the Germans as a principal instrument to facilitate the process of extermination.

Both Jews and non-Jews have good reasons for responding with emotion to the Holocaust. […]

[…] It is, of course, somewhat easier to assess the meaning of the Holocaust today than it was a generation ago. During and immediately after World War II, the shock of the experience was too great. As the camps were liberated, brutal media images of survivors who seemed hardly more than walking skeletons were mixed with images of mounds of unburied corpses. The pictures hinted at the frightfulness of what had taken place, but their very horror also tended to obscure comprehension. The moral and psychological categories under which such scenes could be comprehended were hatred, cruelty, and sadism. The past was searched to find parallels with which the event could be understood. Human history is filled with incidents of rapine, robbery, and massacre. It was to such categories that the mind was initially drawn. In addition, the Jews had been the victims of degrading assault so often that there was an understandable tendency to regard the Holocaust as the contemporary manifestation of the anti-Jewish violence that had so often exploded during the two-thousand-year sojourn of the Jews in Europe.

There was also the paucity of facts. It was known that millions had been killed, but, until the German archives and the survivors’ memoirs became available, it was not possible to get an accurate picture of the destruction process as a whole. Because of the total collapse of the German state in 1945, its archives became available soon after the events had taken place. Under normal conditions, many of the most important documents would never have become available. Even after having been made available, the archival material, the transcripts of the war crimes trials and the avalanche of memoirs all had to be digested. To some extent, that process is still going on. Unfortunately, whenever scholars have attempted to comprehend the Holocaust in terms of pre-twentieth-century experience, they have invariably failed to recognize the phenomenon for what it was, a thoroughly modern exercise in total domination that could only have been carried out by an advanced political community with a highly trained, tightly disciplined police and civil service bureaucracy.

As reflection replaced shock, attention shifted from a description of the mobile killing units and the death camps to the analysis of the process by which extermination was carried out. The process was a highly complex series of acts which started simply with the bureaucratic definition of who was a Jew. Once defined as a Jew, by the German state bureaucracy, a person was progressively deprived of all personal property and citizenship rights. The final step in the process required the cooperation of every sector of German society. The bureaucrats drew up the definitions and decrees; the churches gave evidence of Aryan descent; the postal authorities carried the messages of definition, expropriation, denaturalization, and deportation; business corporations dismissed their Jewish employees and took over “Aryanized” properties; the railroads carried the victims to their place of execution, a place made available to the Gestapo and the SS by the Wehrmacht. To repeat, the operation required and received the participation of every major social, political, and religious institution of the German Reich.

The essential steps in the process of annihilation have been outlined by the historian and political scientist, Raul Hilberg, in his comprehensive and indispensable study, The Destruction of the European Jews. According to Hilberg, since the fourth Christian century, there have been three fundamental anti-Jewish policies, conversion, expulsion, and annihilation. Until the twentieth century, only two of the policies were attempted in a systematic way, conversion and expulsion. Throughout the history of Christianity, there have been countless attempts to inflict violence upon Jews. These assaults were often encouraged by religious and secular authorities. Nevertheless, such outbursts, no matter how extensive, were never transformed into systematic, bureaucratically administered policies of outright extermination until World War II. According to Hilberg, the Nazis were both “innovators” and “improvisors” in their elimination of the Jews.

Before the twentieth century, the Christian religious tradition was both the source of much traditional anti-Jewish hostility and an effective barrier against the final murderous step. Something changed in the twentieth century. As always, there were men who sought to rid their communities of Jews and Jewish influence, but the methods proposed were no longer limited by traditional religious or moral restraints. The rationalizations with which a massacre of the Jews could be justified were at least as old as Christendom. […] For our purposes, it is sufficient to note that those stereotypical images did not lead to systematic extermination until the twentieth century. There was little that the Nazis had to add to the negative image of the Jew they had inherited from Martin Luther or from the Pan-German anti-Semites of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In every instance, the Jew was depicted as an enemy within the gates, a criminal and a kind of plague or species of vermin. Gil Eliot has observed that such images ascribe to an adversary or a potential victim a paranthropoid identity. As Eliot has asserted, once a human being has been stripped of his human and given a paranthropoid identity, the normal moral impediments cease to operate.

To repeat, something happened in the twentieth century that made it morally and psychologically possible to realize dreams of destructiveness that had previously been confined to fantasy. Part of the reason for the radicalization of the destructive tendencies can, of course, be found in such specific events as the defeat of Germany in World War I after four years of fighting of unprecedented violence. An element of even greater importance was the fact that the secularized culture which substituted calculating rationality for the older traditional norms in personal and group relations did not mature fully until the twentieth century. Yet another factor was the conjunction of the charismatic leadership of Adolf Hitler, the bureaucratic competence of the German police and civil service, and the mood of the German people at a particular moment in history. Himmler and Goebbels, for example, were convinced that Hitler’s leadership gave the Germans a unique opportunity to eliminate the Jews that might never be repeated.

All of the elements cited played their part, but more was involved. The Holocaust was an expression of some of the most significant political, moral, religious and demographic tendencies of Western civilization in the twentieth century. The Holocaust cannot be divorced from the very same culture of modernity that produced the two world wars and Hitler.

[Emphases his. Links obviously mine.]

The gist of “paranthropoid identity,” as I understand, is it represents assigning someone sub-human status where they are considered primitive by comparison.

Navigating in the New Economy — an excerpt from the book “Dark Ages America”

Today I’m looking at the book Dark Ages America by Morris Berman (2006). Let’s begin on page 15:

Liquid Modernity is the title of a book by the Polish-British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who defines it as the condition of a society that lacks a clear sense of orientation, or the kind of stability that derives from a long-standing tradition or set of norms. In Will Hutton’s version of it, it is a situation in which all of life is lived in “a permanent state of contingency.” It is the social and cultural face of globalization, the ideational and emotional counterpart of the New Economy. America has been the cutting edge of this way of life, a society characterized by speed, fluidity, and transience—obsessive change, in short. Being modern in this context means having an identity that is always shifting, always “under construction.” In effect, says Bauman, it is like living a life of musical chairs. The problem is this fluidity is not a choice we are free to make. Despite the unifying patriotic rhetoric that permeates the United States, on some level Americans are not really fooled: at bottom, each person knows he or she must continually “reinvent themselves,” which is to say, go it alone. America is the ultimate anticommunity.

Of course, we didn’t get to this peculiar state of affairs overnight. The notion that each person is free to choose his or her own destiny was the ideal of a New World that was rejecting the social chains of the old one. As the British writer Ian Buruma puts it, “the promise of freedom in America is precisely to be liberated from the past.” Not for Americans the suffocating restrictions of class, history, religion, and tradition, but rather the absolute weightlessness of choice. This remains the lure of America for many traditional cultures, or at least for many individuals in those cultures: the world of limitless possibilities. The irony for Americans, however, is that in the fullness of time, the limitless possibilities and the absolute weightlessness of choice became as suffocating as the social restrictions of the Old World. American citizens cannot choose not to participate in the utterly fluid, high-pressure society that the United States has become. Liquid modernity, is, in short, quite rigid: a world of compulsive self-determination. But since it is norms that make life possible, when normlessness becomes the norm, the social order turns into a hall of mirrors. The way of life, says Bauman, may prove to be the greatest discontinuity in human history.

Work

The consequences of liquid modernity show up in many areas of American life, including, notably, the realm of work. It is, after all, the arena in which most of us spend most of our waking hours, and the impact of globalization here is going to be especially telling. What do we find? Within a single generation, almost everything has changed. A young American with moderate education, says Bauman, can expect to change jobs at least eleven times during his or her lifetime. The modern place of employment, he adds, typically feels like a “camping site.” Fleeting forms of association are more useful than long-term connections. The main source of profits are ideas, not material objects, and so everything seems ephemeral. Workers know they are disposable, so see no point in developing any commitment to jobs, workmates, or even to the tasks they perform. Everything seems to be ever new, endlessly produced, consumed, and discarded. Globalization means greater competition, intercommunal (and, often, intracommunal) enmity. The most functional work attitude in such a context is one of cynicism. 

[…] Similar descriptions (sans sociological analysis, for the most part) can be found, among other places, in the Wall Street Journal. Thus reporter Clare Ansberry describes the “just in time” labor force that has to make it “in an ever-more-fluid economy.” In Cleveland, for example, the Lincoln Electric Company shifted salaried workers to hourly clerical jobs. A & R Welding of Atlanta maintains a cluster of welders to work out of state, when needed. In South Carolina, the Nestle Corporation has created an in-house roster of part-time workers “who stick by the telephone to hear if they should report on a given day to assemble frozen chicken dinners.” Flexibility, writes Ansberry, can be a euphemism for less pay (and fewer benefits) and largely random work arrangements, but workers really have no choice: it’s that or nothing. The New Economy takes no prisoners.

A dramatic case study of the new work ethic is provided by computer programmer Ellen Ullman in her memoir, Close to the Machine. This new ethic, she says, is one in which all of life is about “positioning.” Projects and human connections bubble up and collapse with dizzying speed; everyone is running his or her own little virtual company in which skills aren’t cumulative and everyone is disposable. There is constant talk of “teamwork,” but it is a phony courtesy, part of the workplace “process.” In reality, says Ullman, we are all “creatures swimming alone in the puddles of time.” Her description of the people she met along the way is that of nonpersons, people who say and do all the right things but who seem to be completely empty. And all of this, she concludes, is very likely everyone’s future:

We wander from job to job, and now it’s hard for anyone to stay put anymore. Our job commitments are contractual, contingent, impermanent, and this model of insecure life is spreading outward from us. . . . We programmers are the world’s canaries. We spend our time in front of monitors; now look up at any office building, look into living-room windows at night: so many people sitting alone in front of monitors. We lead machine-centered lives; now everyone’s life is full of automated tellers, portable phones, pagers, keyboards, mice. We live in a contest of the fittest, where the most knowledgeable and skilled win and the rest are discarded; and this is the working life that waits for everybody. . . . Where we go the world is following.

An equally disturbing portrait is provided by the American sociologist Richard Sennett in The Corrosion of Character. What is now absent from our lives, he writes, is a sense of narrative coherence. The way we have to live in order to survive in the New Economy has set our inner lives adrift. One can no longer deploy a single set of skills through the course of a working life; in fact, the fastest-growing sector of the American labor force is that of temporary job agencies. The domination of consumer demand has now created a “strategy of permanent innovation.” Skill, craftsmanship, and commitment are dysfunctional in a world in which, according to Bill Gates, one should “position oneself in a network of possibilities.” Such a world, however, might well be regarded as a form of dementia.

[Emphasis his.]

Let’s leave off there on page 17.

Blue Gold: World Water Wars

This is one of my favorite documentaries to share with others, titled “Blue Gold: World Water Wars”:

Anyone know what time it is?  Better start wondering.

And all for what?  For power. Simple as that. For power, greed, money-lust…a desire to achieve ‘god-like’ status among humans.  For what?  You’d have to ask them. Probably because they have a vision of it working out in their favor, perhaps believing their ideologies (if they indeed embrace any) are the cure to what ails humanity. Or perhaps it grows out of contempt for fellow humans. I don’t know. But it is real and serves to teach us the deeper meaning of that which we term “evil.” From what I can tell, it appears evil is frequently born of sheltered, willful ignorance and a sense of special, selective entitlement.

This documentary is also available for viewing on Netflix. To learn more about this documentary, check out the official site here. Quoting from that site:

In every corner of the globe, we are polluting, diverting, pumping, and wasting our limited supply of fresh water at an expediential level as population and technology grows. The rampant overdevelopment of agriculture, housing and industry increase the demands for fresh water well beyond the finite supply, resulting in the desertification of the earth.

Corporate giants force developing countries to privatize their water supply for profit. Wall Street investors target desalination and mass bulk water export schemes. Corrupt governments use water for economic and political gain. Military control of water emerges and a new geo-political map and power structure forms, setting the stage for world water wars.

We follow numerous worldwide examples of people fighting for their basic right to water, from court cases to violent revolutions to U.N. conventions to revised constitutions to local protests at grade schools. As Maude Barlow proclaims, “This is our revolution, this is our war”. A line is crossed as water becomes a commodity. Will we survive?

On subjectivity, science, and scientism — an excerpt from the book “Technopoly”

Continuing in Neil Postman’s book Technopoly (1992), picking back up on page 158:

Technopoloy wishes to solve, once and for all, the dilemma of subjectivity. In a culture in which the machine, with its impersonal and endlessly repeatable operations, is a controlling metaphor and considered to be the instrument of progress, subjectivity becomes profoundly unacceptable. Diversity, complexity, and ambiguity of human judgment are enemies of technique. They mock statistics and polls and standardized tests and bureaucracies. In Technopoly, it is not enough for social research to rediscover ancient truths or to comment on and criticize the moral behavior of people. In Technopoly, it is an insult to call someone a “moralizer.” Nor is it sufficient for social research to put forward metaphors, images, and ideas that can help people live with some measure of understanding and dignity. Such a program lacks the aura of certain knowledge that only science can provide. It becomes necessary, then, to transform psychology, sociology, and anthropology into “sciences,” in which humanity itself becomes an object, much like plants, planets, or ice cubes.

That is why the commonplaces that people fear death and that children who come from stable families valuing scholarship will do well in school must be announced as “discoveries” of scientific enterprise. In this way, social researchers can see themselves, and can be seen, as scientists, researchers without bias or values, unburdened by mere opinion. In this way, social policies can be claimed to rest on objectively determined facts. In Technopoly, it is not enough to argue that the segregation of blacks and whites in schools is immoral, and it is useless to offer Black Boy or Invisible Man or The Fire Next Time as proof. The courts must be shown that standardized academic and psychological tests reveal that blacks do less well than whites and feel demeaned when segregation exists. In Technopoly, it is not enough to say it is immoral and degrading to allow people to be homeless. You cannot get anywhere by asking a judge, a politician, or a bureaucrat to read Les Miserables or Nana or, indeed, the New Testament. You must show that statistics have produced data revealing the homeless to be unhappy and to be a drain in the economy. Neither Dostoevsky nor Freud, Dickens nor Weber, Twain nor Marx, is now a dispenser of legitimate knowledge. They are interesting; they are “worth reading”; they are artifacts of our past. But as for “truth,” we must turn to “science.” Which brings me to the crux of what I mean by Scientism, and why it has emerged in Technopoly.

I have tried to show that science, social research, and the kind of work we call imaginative literature are three quite different kinds of enterprise. In the end, all of them are forms of story-telling—human attempts to account for our experience in coherent ways. But they have different aims, ask different questions, follow different procedures, and give different meanings to “truth.” In most of these respects, social research has little in common with science, and much in common with other forms of imaginative literature. Yet social “scientists” have consistently sought to identify themselves, and in more than name, with physicists, chemists, biologists, and others who inquire into the lawful regularities of the natural world. Why students of the human condition should do this is not hard to explain. The great successes of modern times—indeed, perhaps the only successes—have come in medicine, pharmacology, biochemistry, astrophysics, and all the feats of mechanical, biological, and electronic engineering made possible by the consistent application of the aims, assumptions, and procedures of natural science. These successes have attached to the name of science an awesome measure of authority, and to those who claim the title “scientist” a similar measure of respect and prestige. Beyond that lies the nineteenth-century hope that the assumptions and procedures of natural science might be applied without modification to the social world, to the same end of increased predictability and control, and with the same kind of engineering success. This hope has proved both misguided and illusory. But the illusion is a powerful one, and, given the psychological, social, and material benefits that attach to the label “scientist,” it is not hard to see why social researchers should find it hard to give it up.

It is less easy to see why the rest of us have so willingly, even eagerly, cooperated in perpetuating the same illusion. In part, the explanation lies in a profound misunderstanding of the aims of natural and of social studies, and of the differences between the physical and social worlds. But there is more to it than that. When the new technologies and techniques and spirit of men like Galileo, Newton, and Bacon laid the foundations of natural science, they also discredited the authority of earlier accounts of the physical world, as found, for example, in the great tale of Genesis. By calling into question the truth of such accounts in one realm, science undermined the whole edifice of belief in sacred stories and ultimately swept away with it the source to which most humans had looked for moral authority. It is not too much to say, I think, that the desacralized world has been searching for an alternative source of moral authority ever since. So far as I know, no responsible natural scientist, either of the Renaissance or of recent times, has claimed that the procedures of natural science or its discoveries can tell us what we ought to do—whether some way of dealing with our fellow humans is good or evil, right or wrong. Indeed, the very principles of natural science, with its requirement of an objective stance toward what is studied, compel the natural scientist to abjure in his or her role as a scientist such moral judgments or claims. When natural scientists speak out on moral questions, on what is good and evil to do, they speak as the rest of us—as concerned citizens on a threatened planet, as rational women and men, as people of conscience who must struggle no less than you must, or I, to answer for themselves where the ultimate authority for their moral judgment lies. It is the world of desperate listeners, longing for a more powerful moral authority, that begs the natural scientist to say it is the science that speaks, not the woman or man. But the scientist cannot with honor consent.

Our social “scientists” have from the beginning been less tender of conscience, or less rigorous in their views of science, or perhaps just more confused about the questions their procedures can answer and those they cannot. In any case, they have not been squeamish about imputing to their “discoveries” and the rigor of their procedures the power to direct us in how we ought rightly to behave. That is why social “scientists” are so often to be found on our television screens, and on our best-seller lists, and in the “self-help” sections of airport bookstands: not because they can tell us how some humans sometimes behave but because they purport to tell us how we should; not because they speak to us as fellow humans who have lived longer, or experienced more of human suffering, or thought more deeply and reasoned more carefully about some set of problems, but because they consent to maintain the illusion that it is their data, their procedures, their science, and not themselves, that speak. We welcome them gladly, and the claim explicitly made or implied, because we need so desperately to find some source outside the frail and shaky judgments of mortals like ourselves to authorize our moral decisions and behavior. And outside of the authority of brute force, which can scarcely be called moral, we seem to have little left but the authority of procedures.

This, then, is what I mean by Scientism. It is not merely the misapplication of techniques such as quantification to questions where numbers have nothing to say; not merely the confusion of the material and social realms of human experience; not merely the claim of social researchers to be applying the aims and procedures of natural science to the human world. Scientism is all of these, but something profoundly more. It is the desperate hope, and wish, and ultimately the illusory belief that some standardized set of procedures called “science” can provide us with an unimpeachable source of moral authority, a suprahuman basis for answers to questions like “What is right and wrong to do?” “What are good and evil ends?” “How ought we to think and feel and behave?” It is Scientism on a personal level when one says, as President Reagan did, that he personally believes that abortion is wrong but we must leave it to science to tell us when a fetus enters life. It is Scientism on a cultural level when no scientist rises to demur, when no newspaper prints a rebuttal on its “science” pages, when everyone cooperates, willfully or through ignorance, in the perpetuation of such an illusion. Science can tell us when a heart begins to beat, or movement begins, or what are the statistics of survival of neonates of different gestational ages outside the womb. But science has no more moral authority than you do or I do to establish such criteria as the “true” definition of “life” or of human state or of personhood. Social research can tell us how some people behave in the presence of what they believe to be legitimate authority. But it cannot tell us when authority is “legitimate” and when not, or how we must decide, or when it may be right or wrong to obey. To ask of science, or expect of science, or accept unchallenged from science the answers to such questions is Scientism. And it is Technopoly’s grand illusion.

[All emphases his.]

This excerpt concluded on page 162.

Observing orgiastic rave phenomenon

Stumbled across this video clip today on accident. The reason I post it is because as I watched that, thoughts on the rave phenomenon sprang to mind. This is the sort of thing I’ve read a decent amount about, pondered a good bit, observed firsthand several times, so I don’t believe my thinking on the subject to be naive.

In Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind, he discusses the rave phenomenon a little, but he focuses on it from more of the spiritual and/or unifying angle, in reference to the hive mentality. That limited view is not the only way these sorts of things play out though, as that video and many others attest to. In Chris Hedges’ book Empire of Illusion, he goes into the disturbing side of the rave trend, the pornographic end of it where women debase themselves and money is king. Sex tends to be the central theme (though it isn’t always, as in the case of moshers), but underneath it all is a frenetic energy that hypnotizes and intoxicates. Historically these crowd experiences had ritualistic value, but what is their value today? What do people get from them, and why is so often the atmosphere one of disgust and disrespect, escalating aggressiveness within nihilistic fantasies?

The way I’m coming to see it is the most harmful aspect of that sort of rave phenomenon is the attitudes taken. Laws can’t change that. Moralizing won’t stop that, not if the people involved remain resistant to stepping back and taking a deeper look. There’s almost a tribal sense of comfort that can be uncovered in eroticized mass gatherings and losing oneself in an ecstatic trance, but why do you figure so many people approach it the way they do today?

Women offering themselves up to the crowd. Practical concerns fly out the window and, once beyond a certain point, nearly anything goes. The bumping music drowns out thoughts of consequences, working alongside libations to reduce inhibitions. The atmosphere drifts toward a feel of devil may care. People respond to this opportunity to lose themselves, and certain demographics perhaps more so than others.

That’s enough to say for now.

On war, sex, violence, and cultural rot

The following are excerpts from Chris Hedges’ book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, beginning on pages 74-75:

The effectiveness of the myths peddled in war is powerful. We often come to doubt our own perceptions. We hide these doubts, like troubled believers, sure that no one else feels them. We feel guilty. The myths have determined not only how we should speak but how we should think. The doubts we carry, the scenes we see that do not conform to the myth are hazy, difficult to express, unsettling. And as the atrocities mount, as civil liberties are stripped away (something, with the “War on Terror,” already happening to hundreds of thousands of immigrants in the United States), we struggle uncomfortably with the jargon and clichés. But we have trouble expressing our discomfort because the collective shout has made it hard for us to give words to our thoughts.

This self-doubt is aided by the monstrosity of war. We gape and wonder at the collapsing towers of the World Trade Center. They crumble before us, and yet we cannot quite comprehend it. What, really, did we see? In wartime an attack on a village where women and children are killed, an attach that does not conform to the myth peddled by our side, is hard to fathom and articulate. We live in wartime with a permanent discomfort, for in wartime we see things so grotesque and fantastic that they seem beyond human comprehension. War turns human reality into a bizarre carnival that does not seem part of our experience. It knocks us off balance.

On a chilly, rainy day in March 1998 I was in a small Albanian village in Kosovo, twenty-five miles west of the provincial capital of Pristina. I was waiting with a few thousand Kosovar Albanian mourners for a red Mercedes truck to rumble down the dirt road and unload a cargo of fourteen bodies. A group of distraught women, seated on wooden planks set up on concrete blocks, was in the dirt yard.

When the truck pulled into the yard I climbed into the back. Before each corpse, wrapped in bloodstained blankets and rugs, was lifted out for washing and burial I checked to see if the body was mutilated. I pulled back the cloth to uncover the faces. The gouged-out eyes, the shattered skulls, the gaping rows of broken teeth, and the sinewy strands of flayed flesh greeted me. When I could not see clearly in the fading light I flicked on my Maglite. I jotted each disfigurement in my notebook.

The bodies were passed silently out of the truck. They were laid on crude wooden coffin lids placed on the floor of the shed. The corpses were wound in white shrouds by a Muslim cleric in a red turban. The shed was lit by a lone kerosene lamp. It threw out a ghastly, uneven, yellowish light. In the hasty effort to confer some dignity on the dead, family members, often weeping, tried to wash away the bloodstains from the faces. Most could not do it and had to be helped away.

It was not an uncommon event for me. I have seen many such dead. Several weeks later it would be worse. I would be in a warehouse with fifty-one bodies, including children, even infants, women, and the elderly from the town of Prekaz. I had spent time with many of them. I stared into their lifeless faces. I was again in the twilight zone of war. I could not wholly believe what I saw in front of me.

In the book, Chris Hedges writes a good deal about his time in Bosnia and Yugoslavia during the 1990s. The next portion stood out to me, following a tale of a Muslim child shot and killed for throwing stones at Lebanese fighters taunting the community in a Jeep with mounted loudspeakers. This part deals with the carnal relations in war. Picking up again on page 98:

The violent breakup of Yugoslavia, which was preceded by economic collapse, began in 1991. It was the same year that the government decided to permit hard-core sex films to be broadcast on public stations and that the first locally made pornographic film was produced. While the old Communist Yugoslavia did not censor love scenes in its state-run film industry, it condemned pornography as the exploitation of women and banned its production. The first graphic pictures of mutilated and dead from the war, along with the racial diatribes against Muslims and Croats, hit the airwaves at the same time Yugoslavs were allowed to watch porno films. The war was, like the sex films, about the lifting of taboos, about new forms of entertainment to mask the economic and political collapse of Yugoslavia. War and sex were the stimulants to divert a society that was collapsing.

The world, as it is in war, had been turned upside down. Those who had worked hard all their lives, put their meager savings into banks, and struggled to live on pensions or salaries, lost everything. The unscrupulous, who had massive debts, never had to repay them, lived off the black market or crime, used force to get what they wanted, and became fabulously rich and powerful. The moral universe disintegrated. There was a new code.

The criminal class, many of whom had made their fortunes by plundering the possessions of ethnic Croats and Muslims who were expelled from their homes or killed in Bosnia during the war, had rented apartments where they sold stolen clothes from Italy. Huge outdoor fairs were held where you could buy stolen cars complete with fake registrations. Drugs, protection rackets, prostitution, not to speak of duty-free cigarettes (smuggled into Italy with speedboats from the Montenegrin coast), became the country’s major businesses as state-run factories folded. In Belgrade, at the war’s height, there were seventy escort services, three adult cinemas, and twenty pornographic magazines. After midnight the public television channels ran hard-core porno films.

Hedonism and perversion spiraled out of control as inflation ate away at the local currency. Those who had worked hard all their lives were now reviled as dupes and fools. They haunted the soup kitchens. The loyalty they had expressed to the state of the institutions they worked for had left them beggars. They held worthless war bonds. They collected pensions, when they were paid, that amounted to a few dollars. They sold rugs, tea sets, china, paintings, anything they could dig out of their apartments at huge open-air flea markets. Their children, no matter how well educated, worked in menial jobs abroad so they could mail back enough for their parents to buy food. Distraught teachers said they struggled to cope with children as young as eleven who had been exposed to scenes of graphic sadomasochism on television and copied the sexual acts they witnessed. Domestic violence, often by men who were out of work or had not received their small salaries for months, was widespread.

The ancient Greeks linked war and love. Aphrodite, the goddess of love and the wife of Hephaestos, the lame blacksmith who forged the weapons and armor for the gods, became the mistress of Ares, the god of war. It was an illicit affair. Ares, impetuous, quarrelsome, and often drunk, was hated among the gods. He loved battle for its own sake. His sister, Eris, spread rumor and jealousy to whip up the winds of war. Ares never favored one city or party against another. He frequently switched loyalties, abandoning those he had once helped. He delighted only in slaughter. It was only Eris and Aphrodite, who had a perverse passion for him, who loved him. Hades honored him because of the legions of slain young men he dispatched to the underworld.

There is in wartime a nearly universal preoccupation with sexual liaisons. There is a kind of breathless abandon in wartime, and those who in peacetime would lead conservative and sheltered lives give themselves over to wanton carnal relationships. Men, and especially soldiers, are preoccupied with little else. With power reduced to such a raw level an the currency of life and death cheap, eroticism races through all relationships. There is in these encounters a frenetic lust that seeks, on some level, to replicate or augment the drug of war. It is certainly not about love, indeed love itself in wartime is hard to sustain or establish.

Casual encounters are charged with a raw, high-voltage sexual energy that smacks of the self-destructive lust of war itself. The erotic in war is like the rush of battle. It overwhelms the participants. Women who might not otherwise be hailed as beauties are endowed with the charms of Helen. Men endowed with little more than the power to kill are lionized and desired. Bodies, just as they lie scattered and immobile a few hundred yards away, become tools, objects to an end. The fleeting sexual encounters, intense, overpowering, and largely anonymous, deflate with tremendous speed and leave behind guilt, even disgust, and a void that expands into a swamp of loneliness. Stay long enough in war and real love, tenderness and connection, becomes nearly impossible. Sex in war is another variant of the drug of war.

“If we are honest,” the philosopher J. Glenn Gray wrote in The Warrior, “most of us who were civilian soldiers in recent wars will confess that we spent incomparably more time in the service of Eros during our military careers than ever before or again in our lives. When we were in uniform almost any girl who was faintly attractive had an erotic appeal for us. For their part, millions of women find a strong sexual attraction in the military uniform, particularly in time of war.”

Skipping a few paragraphs, continuing on page 102:

Those relationships that appear to extend beyond the erotic, however, are also hollow. Many liaisons in wartime look and feel like love, but they too have more to do with projection than reality. Soldiers fall in love with women across a vast cultural divide, although the linguistic barrier makes communication difficult. Here too war perverts the relationship. For in the soldier lies absolute power, protection, and possibly escape. The women’s appeal lies in the gentleness that is absent in war. Each finds in the other attributes that war wipes out–tenderness or security. But few of these liaisons last once the conflict ends.

The young are drawn to those who wield violence and power. Why study to be a doctor or a lawyer when such academic toil was not rewarded, indeed often considered worthless? Why uphold a common morality, including hard work, when the outcome was destitution? Why have any personal or moral standards when these standards were irrelevant?

The killers and warlords became the object of sexual fantasy. The paramilitary leader Željko Ražnatović, known as Arkan, was, according to Serbian opinion polls, one of the most desired men in the country.

War turned Belgrade, along with every other capital caught up in conflict, into Caligula’s Rome. There was a moral lassitude in the air, bred of hopelessness and apathy. The city’s best-known gangsters, sometimes in the company of Milošević’s son Marko, who threatened bar patrons with automatic weapons, cruised the streets in BMWs and Mercedes. They filled the nightclubs of Belgrade, dressed in their expensive black Italian suits and leather jackets.

At the Lotus, one such club in the downtown area of the city, pulsating music thumped through the blue haze of cigarette smoke and strobe lights. Scantily clad strippers spun around poles and leapt into two huge floodlit animal cages with men and women from the dance floor. The young couples began to peel off their shirts and simulate sex with the dancers.

“Stay a little longer,” a patron shouted at me. “The simulation is just the beginning.”

Under a spotlight a stripper known as Nina, a star of Belgrade’s violent and frenetic nightlife, descended a spiral staircase into the mayhem. Her lover and bodyguard, a stocky woman with closely cropped hair and a German Luger tucked in her belt, followed her menacingly from the shadows. Nina moved seductively around the dance floor bathed in light. She nuzzled up to the patrons.

War breaks down long-established prohibitions against violence, destruction, and murder. And with this often comes the crumbling of sexual, social, and political norms as the domination and brutality of the battlefield is carried into personal life. Rape, mutilation, abuse, and theft are the natural outcome of a world in which force rules, in which human beings are objects. The infection is pervasive. Society in wartime becomes atomized. It rewards personal survival skills and very often leaves those with decency and compassion trampled under the rush. The pride one feels in a life devoted to the nation or to an institution or a career or an ideal is often replaced by shame and guilt. Those who have lived upright, socially productive lives are punished for their gullibility in the new social order.

The wars in the Balkans saw the rise of the rape camps, places where women were kept under guard and repeatedly abused by Serbian paramilitary forces. When this became boring–for perverse sex, like killing, must constantly entail the new and bizarre–the women were mutilated and killed, reportedly on video. Women were also held in very similar conditions, and later murdered, in Argentina during the Dirty War. Sexual slaves in Argentina were used and then discarded like waste, their drugged bodies at times dumped from helicopters into the sea.

Disturbing stuff to think about, especially when you consider the parallels visible in American society. We may not broadcast porn on public television stations, but we don’t have to—we have the Internet now. And we all know parental controls are largely a joke, primarily because parents won’t consistently use them. No shocker there.

What’s disturbing to me is how the sort of decadence described by Chris Hedges doesn’t appear restricted to war-ravaged nations. The U.S. is waging wars elsewhere on the planet, and while none of that touches our streets, the decadence and sex obsession absolutely has. I wonder why that is. Is it the mindset that accompanies a sense of superiority ushered in during wartime, though not necessarily resulting from it? Like maybe war and this form of decadent living are both symptoms of a larger societal ailment?

That’s enough of that for now.

“…from now on, all resistance is local.”

Been a busy week. In the few minutes I have this morning before heading to work I’d like to share this short excerpt from a speech by Chris Hedges on inverted totalitarianism:

Chris Hedges is the author of several books, a number of which I’ve read and greatly appreciate, including War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Losing Moses on the Freeway, I Don’t Believe in Atheists, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, among others.

Why I’m No Longer a Feminist

Now, let me back up to the month of November 2012 when I posted a video titled “Why I’m No Longer a Feminist”:

Probably would help if I added a bit of background information on who I am and what my experience with feminism involved. I originally became aware of feminism’s existence during teenagehood, though I had no direct exposure to it back then aside from television programs and talk in glossy magazines marketed to girls (like Cosmo and Glamour). During my freshman year in college (1999-2000), I purchased my first computer and discovered feminism in greater detail online. Now, I was attending school at Mississippi State University and wasn’t all that sociable with others, so at that time delving into feminism was pretty much strictly limited to the internet, though my husband (now ex) considered himself a feminist and we did discuss topics pertaining to that movement. We both come up with and embraced a libertarian spirit (as products of the same small county), which then dovetailed into supporting women’s rights to do with their own bodies as they see fit.

I remember becoming aware of NARAL and NOW online back when they were offering free kits to anyone who asked that included pro-choice literature and posters to put up around campus, but like I said we lived in Mississippi and my husband staunchly put his foot down on this due to the likelihood of this leading me to be targeted and given hell. This was at a time when there were no abortion clinics in the state, though I am told there now is one.

So I contented myself with learning and reading online, which is when I first came up against a band of feminists who really threw their weight around and ridiculed me and let it be clearly understood that I was naive and ignorant and should sit back and listen and read rather than speak up and interfere. That would’ve been when I was 19. So for a while that’s what I did. I read and listened and a couple years went by.

I moved up to the Midwest once again when I was 21 after my husband and I decided to split. As a young woman single once again, the world appeared to be my oyster, and I went about earning a living and picking back up on continuing my education. Continued reading and listening and then jumped back into the feminist arguments, again mostly online despite living in a much larger, more open-minded city. The reason for that probably has a lot to do with me not knowing a lot of women in person, and those I do know and get along with don’t consider themselves feminists necessarily and aren’t too interested in discussing those sorts of topics. The feminists I did run up against in academia or out in society didn’t seem to have much patience with me or my questions, so not much in-person dialogue took place that I can remember. Wasn’t involved in any local groups and didn’t attend any rallies. Most of my friends tend to be male, and we did and still do discuss feminism from time to time, but the breadth of their understanding of it was that it pertained to women’s reproductive rights, which they all pretty much support. Mostly I tell them what I’ve learned and they take it in. When I’ve asked how feminism has affected their lives, most stated that they don’t see really how it has, aside from being reared to be respectful toward women (as was the norm long before feminism came into existence). So, not much drama occurred there. Had a few verbal bar feuds, as to be expected when we drunks get to running our mouths.

But when I went back online and decided to really get into what all was being said and to speak my piece, I found out just how unpopular my beliefs were. One major source of contention between myself and many feminists I interacted with online revolved around the question of sexual agency. While on one hand they argued that we women have so much power, on the other and at the same time they spoke a great deal about us being victims to violence men can and do inflict upon us, particularly rape. Now, I don’t feel like going into much detail here on my experiences in dealing with men or what life has taught me, but I will say that I’ve always been a strong advocate for women arming themselves and becoming well-acquainted with their weapon of choice so as to be properly able and willing to use it if needed. Seems to me that cuts down significantly on worrying about being victimized when you are in possession of an equalizer. Doesn’t even have to be a gun; tasers and stun guns work too, as do knives and brass knuckles and whatever else happens to be handy. Well, you wouldn’t believe how unpopular of a position that apparently is in some feminist circles. Holy cow.

Now, combine that with my hesitation in accepting the notion that women should walk around scantily clad and expect no repercussions at all (that’s not to say we deserve to be attacked, not at all, but cat-calling is predictable) and you might imagine where those fights led. I still struggle to see their logic, because to me, if I’m out walking around in public half-naked I’d expect back then to have to deal with men’s come-ons. And because I’m no fool when it comes to understanding how some men will treat you when you appear young, dumb, and defenseless, I did make an effort to protect myself. Hell, even a canned air horn is something to consider to draw attention from others if you’re afraid and being confronted by a strange person. My point was that there are options, though I also certainly know that walking around scantily clad isn’t the only way to wind up receiving unwanted male attention. But the issue made over the right to self-defense really stuck in my craw when dealing with a lot of feminists because they were arguing in favor of gun control, which to me seems completely antithetical to their professed goal of remaining safe and secure. If a woman wants to remain safe, why not take power into your hands and do what you can to ensure it? That was my primary argument there. But many of them had jumped on the liberal bandwagon and the Democratic Party pushes for gun control, so they then followed in suit, and I don’t feel very many critically considered what they were advocating there. Because basically that’s arguing in favor of a situation where you have to rely on police protection, and one thing I do know is cops can’t be everywhere all at once. Depending on what neighborhood you live in, they might not even show up after being called. Besides, police are part of a retributive justice system, which is to say they seek out people who have already committed a crime. And my experience dealing with police has shown me that their response can be a mixed bag. Sometimes they care. Sometimes they don’t. Depends on which officer is on duty that day, I suppose. And they surely don’t want to receive a call every time someone feels creeped out by someone else who has not yet perpetrated a crime.

From there we went on to argue about prostitution and pornography and women’s agency in regard to being involved in those forms of employment. There’s lots of disagreement within feminism in relation to the sex industry, though many feminists appeared to take the position that women cannot freely engage in such work because they are being exploited, and even to desire to do such work is a sign of past psychological damage within the woman in question. So, if she wants to earn money engaging in sexual acts, she’s sick or seriously misguided and therefore lacks the agency to decide that for herself, but if she wants to “ho around” for free, that’s perfectly acceptable and nobody better talk bad about it. Okay. That makes no sense whatsoever.

The minority of feminists in support of sex work, those today referred to as “sex positive” feminists (which is a weird label, IMO), argued from the position that sex work somehow leveled the playing field between men and women, as if that were the preferable arrangement for any two people interested in seeking out sex. Some bolstered this with economic arguments, stating that the money is good so therefore that makes it worthwhile to pursue — basically benjamins speak and they listen. And let me say that plenty of the so-called “sex positive” feminists strike me as a bit kooky in their defense of sluttiness. And I don’t mean that to be mean necessarily, just an honest observation, because I see there as being more sides to the argument than feminists were bringing up. Either they’re victims in a male-dominated society or they’re empowered, money-making freak hos doing nothing of greater consequence than businessmen — no in between, no third or fourth possibilities, no deeper thought given to the intricacies of how using one’s body in so intimate a way affects the participants involved in such a transaction. And that’s about where I’d had enough and began backing toward the door. That would’ve been about 2007.

But there were many discussions throughout those years, such as women’s roles in the military, women’s advancement in businesses (with lots of griping and complaining that there aren’t more female CEOs), discussions among ethnic women about how mainstream feminism caters primarily to middle-class white women’s interests (which I do believe was true originally, though ethnic middle-class, college-educated women are being actively brought into the fold nowadays), socioeconomic class divisions with lots of talk on how to allot resources to the poor, the perceived imbalance of educational choices, and, of course, the ongoing debate about whether a stay-at-home mom supported by her husband’s income can even consider herself to be a feminist. I read a lot of people’s opinions, followed countless links and tried to make sense of an untold number of academic journal articles written by self-described feminists. The jargon employed within their movement got to where it turned me off, because patriarchy is a central tenet that you can’t get past, can’t deny, and can’t resolve to virtually anyone’s satisfaction.

What is patriarchy? I’ve come to see it as the old way, meaning the several-thousand-year period marked by societies and cultures being shaped, in part, by special attention paid to patrilineal lineage. That era only recently began to dissolve (100+ years back), something commonly attributed to the first wave of feminists in their securing for women the right to vote, though I tend to believe it was waning prior to that. Why? I don’t know. Probably because religions were already beginning to slowly die out, Abrahamic religions having provided the great narrative for patriarchal societies. With the lessening of that stronghold, cultures become more flexible and paradigms begin to shift. But with change comes chaos, so the trade-off brings with it growing pains.

What we’re left with today is a weird hodge-podge constructed in a past that no longer seems as relevant, updated and retooled again and again since the 1940s by men and women with new objectives, and no one seems to know where to steer this ship. Generally speaking, feminists place what I consider an unwarranted amount of faith in the State and centralized power to realize their dreams and to provide for their protection. Many men seem unsure of what their role is supposed to be anymore, and I can sympathize with their confusion and feelings of being left out of a meaningful position in the new narrative others are busily constructing for the future of society. I feel left out too, but in a different way. I feel like once all the talk about rights settles down, we’ll be left to realize we dropped the ball on our responsibilities to one another, especially a lot of women who believed the horrible Disney-fied lie that they could have it all (a committed partner, children, a demanding career, a healthy sex life, an active social life, exotic vacations, a fulfilling existence and time to enjoy it). They’re being run ragged by their own selves, and it shows. More than that, it affects everyone around them. When locked up in an echo chamber one comes to believe they’re on the right path, but what is it a path to? A fantasy is all it is. And not even that great of one when you really stop and think about it.

When I first took up interest in feminism, it was because I believed in my right to do with my own body as I see fit, and I still feel that way as much, if not more, today. What I discovered I didn’t want to sign up for or take part in was this great lie, this massive experiment in social distortion supposedly in favor of women but in the end appearing to not be truly in favor of hardly anyone. Men are not automatically our enemies, though specific individuals may prove to be, and the same holds true vice versa. Most men are no more guilty of upholding “patriarchy” than are most women, even self-professed feminists. The problem isn’t in men universally, it’s in people, all of us. History swings back and forth over time, favoring some more than others in any given period, but we were all simply born into it and none of us are responsible for having created the past. All we can do now is move forward, and I think that’s a discussion that needs to be brought out to include everyone, not just this sex or that one. This group or movement or that one doesn’t get to decide the fate of all going forward. No. That’s ludicrous. That, in itself, is bigoted, because it pretends that members belonging to one affiliation or another are necessarily more “enlightened” and therefore in the best position to decide for everyone. But plenty of us are deeply unhappy with the options being handed to us and we reject this queer “utopia” others seem intent on striving toward and dragging everyone else along in tow.

There’s plenty more I can say on the topic of feminism, but it will have to wait until another night.