In the part one of this essay, I examined a piece by William Rivers Pitt that looked at first like a genuine summoning of the masses to fight the destroyers of our nation and people. On closer study, however, as a rallying cry, the piece, showed itself to be weak, empty, outmoded, and doomed.
At worst, it was as if Pitt were purposely misleading his readers, luring them into the maw of the cannon. At best, it was as if he really had no idea what to do in the face of our present, enormous, endgame emergency. So he just swooned onto an old sofa piled with cushions of worn-out tropes—tatters, rags, slogans of the 1970s.
The truth is that he may as well just have thrown up his hands and said, “I don’t have the least idea what to do.”
That failure wouldn’t matter, Pitt’s giving up (even if he didn’t think he was giving up) and throwing in the towel—if he were the only one doing it. But he’s not. The “Pitt syndrome” is all but epidemic. It pops up everywhere, like mushrooms. All kinds of Pitt-like writers—appearing to be scrupulous, conscience-driven, and serious—labor to name, identify, and describe the ruinous criminality everywhere around us, only to conclude, like Estragon in Waiting for Godot, “Nothing to be done.”
Are things that bad? Are we really that passive, helpless, and paralyzed? Well, let’s look at some examples.
In Counterpunch earlier this year (Feb. 13, 2012), Diana Johnstone ran a piece called “Road to Damascus . . . and on to Armageddon?” After giving a nod to Ron Suskind’s famous article (Oct. 17, 2004), where an aid to Dubya was quoted as saying ‘‘We’re an empire now, and . . . we create our own reality,” Johnstone wrote:
Because, in the minds of our political ruling class, the United States has the power to “make reality,” we need pay no attention to the remnants of whatever reality we didn’t invent ourselves.
Our artificial reality is coming into collision with the reality perceived by most or at least much of the rest of the world. The tenants of these conflicting views of reality are armed to the teeth, including with nuclear weapons capable of leaving the planet to insects.
The situation is another “us” and “them” situation, as it was with Pitt. In the earlier case, the “them” were the people with guns (cops), and the “us” were the ones without (OWS). In the Johnstone case, the “them” are those with their own “created reality” and the “us” are—well, they’re us, with our “normal reality.” On the subject of “their” reality and “ours,” Johnstone wonders how most people would answer the following question: “Which is more important, ensuring disgruntled Islamists freedom to overthrow the secular regime in Syria, or avoiding World War Three?” Her own guess: “I’ll bet that there might be a majority for avoiding World War III.” A majority, in short, that would be for a “normal reality.”
The stage is thus set for her essay, which she duly writes. Here is her last-but-one paragraph:
Western politicians and media are not yet fighting World War III, but they are talking themselves into it. And their actions speak even louder than words . . . notably to those who are able to understand where those actions are leading. Such as the Russians. The West’s collective delusion of grandeur, the illusion of the power to “make reality,” has a momentum that is leading the world toward major catastrophe. And what can stop it?
Indeed, “what can stop it?” And there it is, the one, single, greatest question, the question everyone should be exploring, examining, and—I live in optimism—answering: What can stop the unspeakable, multi-faceted criminality, the ongoing program of terror, repression, threat, imprisonment, torture, brigandage, and murder that the United States has been pursuing steadily since the catalyst, trigger, perfect excuse, and starting gate of 9/11?
Here is Johnstone’s answer: “A meteor from outer space, perhaps?”
Can anyone, I ask, conceivably grow more helpless, hopeless, and passive than that? I suppose, in fairness, we’ve got to allow that Johnstone may, with a gallows humor, have been joking. It ain’t much of a joke, though, and Johnstone’s hands are thrown up even higher than Pitt’s, in her case all the way up to the stars.
What is it, exactly, and exactly where does it come from, in writers like Johnstone, Pitt, and so many others (“How do we put love into collective motion?” asks the wistful Robert Koehler, while, even more wan with desire, William T. Hathaway pines that “We, the people of the world, have to take control of the forces that shape our lives,” and Professor Peter Phillips finally puts his foot down: “We cannot allow extrajudicial killings”), this quality of impotence, of weakness, of thinking that’s so completely unleveraged and powerless? The question sweeps me back to 1958 or so and high school physics. It’s as though writers like these have two things but are hopelessly missing a third. They’ve got a huge boulder and a crowbar—and, yes, an unremitting desire to dislodge that boulder. What they’re missing, though, is a fulcrum—a smaller boulder, say, or a block of sturdy oak—that would let them transform their crowbar from simply a long stick of iron into something very, very different. They could, with a fulcrum, transform it into a lever, a thing possessed of almost miraculous power, more than enough to lift, dislodge, and get rid of a boulder.
Any hope of answering this question—what is it that’s wrong with our left and liberal writers?—in a meaningful way and also a clear one will require two preparatory steps—maybe more. The first is to look closely at an example or two of what I call “impotent writing” or “writing of impotence.” And the second is to pin down the origin or cause of this wan and sickly way of writing and thinking. This step is the more complicated of the two, and I doubt that we’ll get to it until part three of this essay.
Earlier I said that examples of what I then called “the Pitt syndrome,” or the syndrome of “throwing in the towel,” were so abundant as to be epidemic. Unfortunately, it’s true. Examples are everywhere, as we’ve seen hints of above. They come in varying categories, types, and strains, and the majority of them, I’m quite sure, are written in and with the very best of intentions. Another type—the category of the lying, deceitful, and invidious, we might call it—is another matter, and we’ll deal with it in turn.
For now, though, let’s take a piece like America is under attack! by William T. Hathaway. Perfectly correct in its essential premise, that “Even fanatics like al-Qaeda aren’t really aggressors,” it is also perfectly correct in its next logical step, namely that
If people knew this—knew how easy it would be to stop terrorism—they wouldn’t want to fight this war. That’s why the media ignore al-Qaeda’s demands. Western leaders don’t want people to see that the war’s real purpose isn’t to stop terrorism but to control the resources of this region. They actually want [emphasis in original] the terrorism because that gives them the excuse they need—the threat of an evil enemy.
To create “The threat of an evil enemy” was, of course, exactly why 9/11 was shaped, molded, and brought into existence in the first place—with such excellent and profitable results that the happy wasters, killers, and destroyers are still capitalizing on them a decade later. How can such criminal and demonic policies have dragged on unimpeded for so long? Well, Hathaway himself, as an impotence-writer, demonstrates one of the many reasons for our years of terror having stretched on for so long as they have. In regard to the terrorists (in regard, that is, to us) he asks exactly the right question. The trouble is that then, immediately afterward, he tumbles right off the wagon and gives exactly the wrong answer.
To put both the question and the answer into context, we need another paragraph. Hathaway’s real subject, it turns out is capitalism:
Capitalism is always at war. The violence, though, is often abstract: forcing us either to accept low-paying, exhausting jobs or starve; denying us adequate health care, education, and economic security; convincing us that human beings are basically isolated, autonomous units seeking self-gratification. But when this doesn’t suffice to keep their profits growing, the violence becomes physical, the cannons roar, and the elite rally us to war to defend “our” country and destroy the fiendish enemy. Motivating us to kill and die for them requires a massive propaganda campaign—America is under attack!—which we confront whenever we turn on their media.
Now we’re positioned to understand the correctly-asked question. And this is it: “Why do they do this? Are they monsters?”
But then comes the incorrect answer. Look closely to see if you can find the impotence-signal:
No, they’re not. They’re just human beings serving an inhuman system. Capitalism is inherently predatory. It demands aggressive growth. It’s either dominate or go under.
The impotence-signal is made out of one part false logic and one part sentimentality. Both elements are dirt-common in impotence-think, though it’s almost impossible to choose which is the more destructive.
Let’s take the false logic first. The propagandists, war mongers, and greedy profiteers, says Hathaway, are not monsters. But why on earth not? Aren’t they liars, killers, and cheaters? And aren’t they also free agents, responsible and accountable, like everyone else in the universe, for their own actions?
The answers to these questions seem to me to be yes, yes, and yes (for the lying, killing and cheating), and then yes and yes again (for the free agency and the accountability).
But in Hathaway’s view, I’ve apparently got it all wrong. In his view, it looks as though the five “correct” answers aren’t “yes,” but, instead, Doesn’t matter, Doesn’t matter, Doesn’t matter, and then twice more, Doesn’t matter, Doesn’t matter.
How can it possibly be that lying, killing, and cheating don’t matter? Well, hold on half a second and I’ll show you. In Hathaway’s own words, the reason why such sinners as these aren’t monsters is because:
They’re just human beings serving an inhuman system. Capitalism is inherently predatory. It demands aggressive growth. It’s either dominate or go under.
Pardon me? At this point I must ask a question of very great importance. It’s this: Where can or could an “inhuman system” come from if not from the minds and efforts of human beings? And the answer is: Nowhere.
No differently from any other similar systems—systems of philosophy, for example, of political order, or of religious belief—economic systems are created neither by nature nor by divinity, but solely and only by human beings and through no other agency or force than human ones. Whether a resulting construct is or is not “an inhuman system,” the fact remains that that construct was created by human beings and that human beings, therefore, are responsible for it, whatever its nature may be.
I raise this subject not because I want to praise capitalism, and not because I want to condemn it—at least not here and now. I raise it, instead, in order to expose one of the truly insidious, destructive, and all but omnipresent elements in impotence-writing and impotence-think. Hathaway’s false logic leads to—or reveals—something even worse than the false logic itself. This worse thing is a form of blindness, a form of not-seeing what’s real. Mixed in with this not-seeing, or perhaps even an actual part of this not-seeing, is an element of sentimentality that results in a profoundly debilitating moral paralysis.
Consider thinkers who are handicapped by the debilities we’re talking about. What do such thinkers see when, like Hathaway, they turn their eyes toward and actually look at liars, murderers, war-makers, and thieves at the very moment when they’re doing their lying, murdering, war-making, and stealing?
If we follow the Hathaway template, we know, as we’ve already seen, that such thinkers do not see “monsters.” And what do they see instead? They see victims. Physically and literally, of course, their eyes are in fact looking at industriously-functioning liars, murderers, war-makers, and bandits, since that’s what such people actually are—or what they actually are in “normal reality.” But the fact is that impotence-thinkers no longer think or see within or by means of what others of us may call normal reality. They see in another kind of reality. They see in their kind of reality, or in their kind of seeing.
And in their kind of seeing the thing actually looked at is not the same as the thing that’s seen. Impotence-thinkers look right past, or straight through, the actual, the physical, or the real thing—or, another way of expressing it, they imbue that real thing with attributes that it may not actually have. Most often, the actual, real, physical thing is sentimentalized by the impotence-thinker and then, at one and the same time, also made into an abstraction.
The sentimentalizing step helps explain how an impotence-thinker can look at liars, murderers, war-makers, and thieves and see them not as criminals or “monsters” but as figures who are exploited and victimized (as well they may be, though at the same time they’re still criminals and still accountable for being so). And, next, the abstracting element of impotence-thought explains how it can be that the very object (that is, these criminals) before the seer’s eyes gets changed into something else. In this case, the seen object is liars, murderers, war-makers, and thieves. But they get changed. They get changed from the specific concretes of liars, murderers, war-makers, and thieves into the abstraction of the victims that are created by capitalism.
Now that we’ve come this far, I hope that it’s becoming easier to get an idea of how evasive, toothless, self-limiting, self-cancelling—paralyzing, diversionary, and self-imprisoning—impotence-thought really is.
Part of the reason for the half-blindness, indecisiveness, and unassertiveness of impotence-thinking can be understood by remembering that this kind of thinking, or this kind of seeing, had a major part of its origin and formation in the “false kindnesses” of political correctness, a naïve and limited set of attitudes wherein the highest aim and sole end of all liberal social existence was, or is, to make sure that no one whatsoever, at any time, ever has his or her feelings hurt. For people to live in accordance with that kind of guideline or that kind of governing purpose requires absolutely that they see life in a euphemized and simplified way, as being made up of elements far less complex than it really is made up of, and, perhaps most important of all, that they approach life from a philosophic stance that is much, much, much more passive than it is assertive, aggressive, or active.
It’s far easier, it’s far softer, it requires far less energy, assertiveness, or action—and, most damning of all, it requires far less courage—to label criminals as being the passive victims of a superior and venal system than it is to declare them the criminals that they actually are and to punish them appropriately and accordingly.
The emotional-intellectual simplification that accompanies impotence-thought, that in fact is a central component of impotence-thought, cannot, however much a person may wish it otherwise, be denied. Does the process of thinking through difficult matters such as these possibly make it more understandable that while not a single person who was a member of Congress on 9/11, and not a single person who has been a member of Congress since then, that not a single one of these is exempt from the crime of treason for having abused their oath of office, for having broken international law, for having been party to a breaching of the Geneva Conventions, and for having subverted, betrayed, and soiled the Constitution of the very republic they serve—that all of this is true and yet not a single one of them has been challenged, summoned, tried, or punished under the law?
Why not? Why have we allowed more than ten years to pass without making certain that such accountability has been brought to bear upon those most obviously deserving of it?
The villain, the enemy, the one responsible for so heinous a dereliction, is us. It’s we who are to blame. It’s us, the so-called liberal and progressive and left constituency in the national dialogue. It’s us who’ve done too little—who’ve done, in fact, very nearly nothing. The ranks of the left have softened and devolved to the point where they are almost as worthless standing on their two hind legs as they would be if they fell out of existence altogether. Their eyes are faulty, seeing that which isn’t there and failing to see that which is. Their philosophic minds are simplified, their brains fuzzy with euphemism, they themselves paralyzed, while and courage is an echo from lost and distant days.
We are wan, pale, weak. We are twittery. We are full of words and yet are saying nothing. If you and I were sitting now in a class of Freshman English, and if this passage, say, from “Big Greed,” by Missy Comley Beattie, were the passage to be analyzed for that day’s class, how would it fare? Imagine that the class, guided by its instructor, evaluated it for the maturity and subtlety of its premise, the sturdiness of its logic, the continuity of its thought, and for its overall persuasiveness to a reader—would it be rated as excellent and be given an “A”? Or as average, and a “B-minus” or a “C”? Or would it end up being considered “poor,” and thus given a “D” or lower?
There it is, then, an assignment for you to complete before next time. As you work on it, keep in mind the real underlying question: Is this, or isn’t this, a piece of impotence-writing? And the corollary question: Is this, or isn’t this, an example of impotence-thought?
Be thorough. Think carefully. Good luck.
The Occupy Movement mustn’t be suppressed or co-opted. It’s all we’ve got. To construct a new system, a force whose strength incapacitates Big Greed, we need creative strategy. And we must be brave. If we can accomplish this, there will be no need to write articles on behalf of Bradley Manning. There will be no war. No war crimes to expose. It will be unnecessary to work for a healthy environment, peace, income equality, or civil rights.
Next: Leverage and lies.
Eric Larsen is author of A Nation Gone Blind: America in an Age of Simplification and Deceit, and of The Skull of Yorick: The Emptiness of American Thinking at a time of Grave Peril—Studies in the Cover-up of 9/11.