Tuesday, December 6, 2016

narratives of violence

           Physical events have a symbolic aspect making it possible to construct "narratives" (sacred stories, myths, ideologies..) from physical events ( whether real or imagined). In practice, story creation involves collective editing. The group - society - selects which facts, actions, attitudes are "real", "important" or acceptable.

Anatomy of violence, Deepa Mehta film

            Indo-Canadian film-maker Deepa Mehta's recent film deals with a gang rape which fatally injured an Indian medical student a few years ago. Mehta agrees that the young men (one was even married) were "monsters" and needed to be punished. She wanted to explore the question of how (and, perhaps, why) society creates such monsters.

            She focused on causal factors like poverty which debases and degrades sensibilities, cultural norms which tolerate physical (and, to some degree, sexual) abuse of children, a machismo psychology which devalues women and glorifies male violence and toughness. As Mehta realizes, the problem of gender inequality knows no national boundaries even if it manifests a bit differently from place to place and one historical period to another.

            Anthropologists see human culture as a (more flexible) replacement for instinctive behavior patterns. Even if cultures don't allow individuals much more freedom than fixed instinctual patterns do, human cultures themselves are less constrained and more rapidly adaptable in their expression than "instinct dominated"  animal societies. The individual human may not be much - or any - "freer" than the average animal but human groups possess superior behavioral suppleness and adaptability because of human culture. 

           Periods of extremely rapid transformation such as we are living through today, provide particular challenges. The old Roadmaps of Reality that once worked no longer do, or they are no longer believable or no one wants to reach the old destinations  anymore. Such times inevitably show a rise in "insane" behaviors. Over the years I have heard several comedians complain that satire becomes impossible in a world in which today's parody is tomorrow's headline news: think, the Trump presidential campaign and election! Who would have thought it possible just a year ago. Trump himself is a self-parodying modern narcissist..


          The following article deals with some of the problems of living in a time of transition. As colonizers we occidentals were raised with the foundational myth that we were bringing the One True Religion in order to save the souls of the Heathen from eternal punishment in Hell's fires. (Later, after the Enlightenment and Scientific Materialism, a new foundational myth was needed to justify European rapacity in the colonized world: White Supremacy. Darwin's evolutionary theory was press-ganged to justify and rationalize colonial exploitation: superior races are destined to dominate / eliminate inferior ones in the universal struggle for survival..


           The following podcast gives some insight into just how strong the human "herd instinct" really is. Once we have committed  ourselves to some cause or course of action, we assiduously sweep aside all data that do not conform to our current position (note 1). One can easily see that, under technologically primitive conditions, such behavior would probably have been "selected for" by evolutionary pressures such as endemic competition with other human or proto-human hunter / gatherer groups for limited resources. The question now arises as to whether such behavior has negative survival in world of space rockets, genetic engineering and nuclear bombs. In our evolutionary past most of our worst problems probably came from the natural environment. Our collective "ecological footprint" was small, our impacts on the environment limited in scope, intensity and duration. Today, with advances in technology, we - not nature - have become the source of our own worse problems. 

           In the archaic Past, blind obedience to a charismatic leader may have had survival value but as World War II demonstrated, in "advanced" industrial societies, these ancient patterns of behavior may prove lethal..

           A CBC journalist visited towns along the route of the Kinder Morgan pipeline (western Canada). This pipeline is going to be updated, tripling its capacity to carry oil from the center of the country to West coast ports for export. People in smaller, remote communities accepted unhesitatingly the multinationals' false equation: a healthy environment means job loss. Thus in the collective mind, pipelines become equated with economic security and "Progress". 

           The multinationals' stranglehold on the mass media provides them with a propaganda victory. The fact that renewable energies tend to be less capital intensive and more labor intensive - thus creating more jobs per dollar invested than highly centralized fossil fuel or nuclear energy systems - appeared to be universally rejected by all the people interviewed. Some people did nuance their enthusiasm for Big Oil with a desire for increased security in transport but none challenged the Great Lie: Jobs OR Environment.


                  Rationalizations. "Pipelines, at least, are safer than rail transport of petroleum". But the root questions never get asked. What do we actually need energy for? Are there better sources than the one's we rely on today? Do we really need all the energy we consume to do the things we want to do (that is, can we do things more efficiently)? And - of course - what should we really want to do (that is, what constitutes the Good Life)?





             Even out in the - supposedly - tree hugging West Coast, British  Columbia, "tangible concerns" like jobs and transport security trumped worries over the long term effects of greenhouse gas emissions. In Burnaby BC, risk to water quality and local scenic beauty was the Big Issue. No one gets the Big Pic, that in a Self-Organizing System like nature, everything is connected to everything else.. You can't do serious injury to one part without its impact being felt elsewhere.




1- Cognitive dissonance. We favor "Roadmaps of Reality" that are internally logically consistent. Data, arising from the environment (social or physical), which doesn't fit with our world view are ignored, denied, under-rated or re-interpreted to make them fit.

 "anxiety that results from simultaneously holding contradictory or otherwise incompatible attitudes, beliefs, or the like, as when one likes a person but disapproves strongly of one of his or her habits." 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Book Review: Jeff Sharlet: The Family - an American Tragedy

                                          Mirror image clones joined at the lip

Jeff Sharlet: The Family, the secret fundamentalism at the heart of American Power (Harper Collins, New York, 2008): 387 pages, extensive chapter notes, index. Missing: a glossary to keep track of obscure fundamentalist pressure groups and their front organizations.
"I am not against structure. I am for structure. I just think it needs to be underground", page 218. Doug Coe, elitist fundamentalist militant 

"All the vital activities of industry, commerce and government are carried on by corporations and other formal organizations. Such bodies are constantly growing in size, and hence the top leadership is continually growing in power and influence.
           We have entered an era when the masses of the people are dependent upon a rapidly diminishing number of leaders for the determination of their patterns of life and the definition of their ultimate goals. It is the age of minority control", page 143. Abram Vereide, elitist fundamentalist militant

" 'An epochal opportunity is ours', one of his tracts had advertised to the new men of his congressional Fellowship back in 1942, 'to control the future of America by the simple strategy of controlling the character and ideals of a relatively small majority of {college-age} men and women. Hitler long ago perceived this strategy, and established his elaborate system of .. leadership training. The democracies have been asleep'.", page 217. Abram Vereide

            For one who has lost their belief in Lighthouse America, beacon of hope to the world's oppressed, The Family does not shock so much as confirm and complete their understanding of America's decline. The book will be a great shock, methink, for secularists who can only see religion as as a vestigial force, a relic of primitive ages when Myth, not Science, served to explain the world and our place in it.

         The Family documents how, far from being dead, religion and the rising tide of social reaction are forging powerful new symbiotic linkages. Post-modern society, we learn, is being steered toward a destination neither envisioned nor desired by the founders of the Enlightenment nor their successors.

           This was not an easy read for me. The first three-quarters of the text is a history of the current fundamentalist revival (post World War II, USA). I found it tedious and overwritten. I wished an editor had taken a weed whacker to the manuscript and hacked out 20 - 30% of the superfluous matter. I felt that the numerous intertwining narratives of bit actors obscured, rather than elucidates, whatever points Sharlet is trying to make.

           My opinion changed during the last one hundred pages. The last quarter of the books is a freestanding narrative of Sharlet's investigation of the various groups, churches, schools and organizations which constitute the network known to insiders as The Family (also known as The Fellowship, The Brotherhood). As Sharlet himself intimates, The Family is not an easy concept to grasp. Like the Islamic jihadist organizations which it preceded, The Family is fluid, omnipresent, interconnected and polymorphous, constantly generating offshoots and mutating into new forms as circumstances require. Like Islamic jihadism, the informal American fundamentalist network in its international extension is hard to pin down, define, isolate geographically or in terms of class, nationality, race or even psychology. (Some interesting parallels to say the least.. note 1)

           The Family, as it exists today, may be described as a loose informal network of American fundamentalist activists and groups. Their goal is, baldly, World Theocracy (Islamic State style.. mirror image clones joined at the lip..) A "Christian" Theocracy led by that most exceptional of all nations, the United States. 

"The voice he heard was his own, his prayers, transformed by his inverted theology into revelation. What he wanted was what God wanted.. And what the Family desired, from Abram Vereide to Doug Coe to Bengt, was power, worldly power, with which Christ's Kingdom could be built, cell by cell", page 51

Spiritual arrogance, hubris and delusion raised to the highest power: mistaking one's will for God's - under the guise of a false self-serving "humility" which sees wo/mankind as "worthless sinners".

            The Family (Brotherhood, Fellowship) includes America's "elite": CEOs of multinationals, powerful neoconservative politicians at the State and Federal level, the Officer corps of the military and Christian university students. A prefered method of outreach is the Prayer Group - or "cell", following the example of the early Christians during their persecutions and revolutionaries of all ages and cultures. A loose (semi-)informal network of cells encourages intense personal interaction, efficient mutual / group indoctrination and the elaboration of highly effective "on the ground" tactical engagements. A cellular network allowed Christianity to survive several persecutions to become the Number One religion on earth today. And let us not forget, a revolutionary cellular network allowed Communism to rise to become a very serious threat to monopolistic Capitalism! Of course, Internet interconnectivity facilitates cellular interaction and organization: witness the work of terrorist groups like ISIS (or Right Wing extremists in Europe and North America).

           As is the case with ISIS, the actual philosophy and psychology of Prayer Groups (other names are used) is surprisingly hard to pin down and define. On the one hand, the "elite" are required to submit to God's Will and do His Bidding. Which raises the thorny questions: what is God's Will? How do we know it? 

          Apparently - as an unchallenged assumption on the part of Family members - the Divine Will coincides with unregulated "Free Market" capitalism and minimal environmental and worker protection. If I read Sharlet right, it is as dumbly and blindly self-serving as that! (Sharlet's documentation seems impeccable, a few exceptions aside. Sceptics - always a healthy starting position! - should check out his references given in the notes; quite a few are on line.) 

           What makes the Family really dangerous - beyond its arrogance, power and depth of self-deception - is their recent (post 1960) fusion with / control of popular fundamentalist Christianity. For example, Family members or sympathizers produce textbooks for self-schooling fundamentalist parents of for use in school districts controlled by Family friendly politicians. Such texts deny the reality of Darwinian evolution and teach that the Book of Genesis gives an accurate account of the creation of the world, thus weakening the appeal of scientific, fact-based argument to young people. These guys really know how to fly under the radar, invisible to self-contented and somewhat contemptuous Liberal commentators. Yet their influence on young minds seems to be growing. Recent polls indicate that 50% of Americans do not accept Darwinian evolution as "factual" or "proven".  In Canada, that figure is only 25%. In Western Europe, where American fundamentalism has less taken root, even fewer people reject science.

An Open Conspiracy. Several times Sharlet notes how Family members consciously avoid seeking publicity.

"I am not against structure. I am for structure. I just think it needs to be underground", page 218. Doug Coe, elitist fundamentalist militant 

           As a Christian theocratic elite, The Family wants to work through backroom politics, elite speaking to elite, the Old Boys' Club - Democracy be damned! The recent fusion with / control of popular fundamentalism, Sharlet believes, augurs no good. To be blunt, it smacks of the kind of (mass) psychological manipulation, responsible for the 20th century's bloodiness: Communism, Fascism (but also, for its long term negative environmental consequences, Consumerism). Sharlet chillingly provides numerous citations, written, printed or spoken, of Family members' admiration for fascists, communists and dictators. Such admiration makes a certain cockeyed logical sense: if God speaks to you personally through the networks' cells, you possess Absolute Truth, you therefore have no need of debate to discover truth. It follows that Democracy's untidiness and uncertainty are not for those whose soul and will have been enflamed by "God's" Will.. 

"'Yes', Coe told us, "it's good to have friends. Do know what a difference a friend can make? A friend you can agree with?'. He smiled. 'Two or three agree, and they pray? They can do anything. Agree. Agreement. What's that mean?' Doug Coe looked at me. 'You're a writer. What does that mean?' 
         I remember Paul's letter to Philippians, which we {a bible study group Sharlet had joined in order to study it} had begun to memorize. Fufill ye my joy, that ye be likeminded
          'Unity', I said. 'Agreement means unity.'
          Doug Coe didn't smile. 'Yes', he said. 'Total unity. Two, or three, become one. Do you know,' he asked, 'that there's another word for that?'
           No one spoke.
           'It's called a covenant.  Two, or three, agree? They can do anything. A covenant is.. powerful. Can you think of anyone who made a covenant with his friends?'
           We knew the answer to this, having heard his names invoked numerous times in this context. Andrew from Australia, sitting beside Coe, cleared this throat: 'Hitler'.
           'Yes,' Doug Coe said. 'Yes, Hitler made a covenant. The Mafia makes a covenant. It is such a very powerful thing. Two or three agree.'" Page 54

           The meeting this quotation comes from could be considered a form of political indoctrination of intelligent, but naive and rather socially isolated, young college men from well-to-do / wealthy families. The anti-democratic elitist vision expressed is patently evident. Less evident, the covert, Machiavellian  ethic: God's Will, which works through established "elites" is above the law, outside any consideration of a "common humanity". Hitler and the Mafia are, after all, not known to be altar boys..

             Another piece of evidence for the danger the Family poses to Democracy: the Family's capacity to clone cells / Prayer Groups among the elites of countries under the sway of the American Imperium: Egypt, Indonesia, Brazil, post-war occupied Japan, Indochina, India.. Since their real goal is Power (wielded in God's Name to bring about His Kingdom on Earth), Family cells may, in practice, include non-Christians - a rather curious ecumenicism for theocratic globalists!! Foreign Prayer Group members are drawn from local elites heavily implicated in the civil rights abuses, corruption and drug running which the cynical Pax Americana authorizes: Egypt's autocratic military governments, murderous Indonesian and African regimes, the obscene Pinochet regime installed by CIA coup in Chili ("the Other 9-11": September 11, 1973, the overthrow of the democratically elected Leftist Allende government)..

             All in all, it is neither a pretty nor an edifying picture: religion "instrumentalized" - prostituted - to the service of the multinational corporate elite. The Family's true function, if I read Sharlet rightly, is to grease the wheels of the universal (American based) corporate elite.

             Fascism: control or seizure of the State by the Corporate Elite  

           It is a scary image of America. The Family was published about eight years ago. The recent election of Donald Trump gives credence of its essential correctness. Once again, the Corporate Elite will fleece the masses by directing their anger - raised by globalization's negative impacts - onto scapegoats. Witness the racism, sexism, xenophobia flooding the media and, especially, the Internet lately..

             These are dangerous times we live in. If there is indeed a silver lining to this turmoil, it will lie in the demonstration of inability of the "System" to confront the mounting tide of planetary challenges. While The Family is not an easy - or comforting! - read, it is essential reading for those who want to get a handle on the rise of authoritarian political views and movements today, what is their true source and inspiration or, alternatively (as in the case of Al Queda or ISIS) what they are reacting against.  

"When Buchman spoke of Christianity's 'new illumination', 'a new social order under the dictatorship of the Spirit of God' that would transform politics and eradicate the conflict of capital and labor, Abram took him literally." Page 128


1- The psychology of groups like ISIS is hard to quantify or qualify. Members may be rich or poor, foreign or native born, male or female, conventionally religious or not, well integrated socially or not, idealistic or criminally motivated, and so on. Some social psychologists blame the Anomia (sense of meaningless or drift), typical of industrial urban culture. They point to the lack of "Life Narrative" (sense of purpose and value in one's life) and the lack of a sense of Community in modern society as causal or contributing factors  to the success of terrorist recruiters. These are certainly contributing factors. In addition, the misguided and misdirected attention of Western powers in the Mid-East has provided a reservoir of long standing greivances to avenge. Specific events in the Mid-East have then served as "nuclei of crystalisation", as triggers or detonators for the radicalization of disaffected young people, particularly in Western Europe (but also here in North America). An overarching source of frustration has been the failure of the West to launch a Green Technological Revolution in the Third World in the eight decades following World War II. Rising expectations frustrated by chronic unemployment and underemployment in burgeonning youthful populations. Can't ask for better Social Dynamite than that!