Billy, don’t be a hero,
don’t be a fool with your life.
Billy, don’t be a hero,
come back and make me your wife.
And as he started to go,
she said, “Billy, keep your head low!”
Billy, don’t be a hero,
come back to me.
—”Billy, don’t be a hero,” Vietnam Era American pop song.
On July 23, 2012, journalist Chris Hedges wrote an article for truthdig.com in which he blamed “careerists” for facilitating many of the great evils of the world, including the Holocaust.
In opening his column, he described these people as:
The bureaucrats. The cynics. They do the little chores that make vast, complicated systems of exploitation and death a reality. They collect and read the personal data gathered on tens of millions of us by the security and surveillance state. They keep the accounts of ExxonMobil, BP and Goldman Sachs. They build or pilot aerial drones. They work in corporate advertising and public relations. They issue the forms. They process the papers. They deny food stamps to some and unemployment benefits or medical coverage to others. They enforce the laws and the regulations. And they do not ask questions. . . .
They are there to make corporate systems function.
Hedges goes on for three pages condemning the careerists, criticizing them as being ” . . . blind and deaf . . . [u]tterly illiterate”. He paints them as devoid of empathy, a sense of history, and the ability to think critically. He calls upon significant writers and historians such as T.S. Eliot, Blaise Pascal, and Claude Lanzmann, who made the documentary film “Shoah,” on the Holocaust, to back him up. Hedges gets so worked up about the careerists that, at first, he says, “Good. Evil. These words do not mean anything to them. They are beyond morality.” But later he says, “They assure themselves of their own goodness through their private acts as husbands, wives, mothers and fathers. They sit on school boards. They go to Rotary. They attend church. It is moral schizophrenia.”
Amorality and moral schizophrenia are two different things. What are these people, really?
Hedges leaves the answer to that question to Hannah Arendt, author of “Eichmann in Jerusalem.” In one of the many references to the Holocaust in his essay, Hedges quotes Arendt as saying that Adolf Eichmann was motivated by “an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement. . . . The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that there were so many like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.” In other words, the careerists are people.
It is clear from this essay and several others that Hedges has written of late, that he sees something akin to the Holocaust occurring in the genocides and ecocides of today. I tend to agree with him, although today there is no singularly perverse figure such as Hitler upon which to focus. Likewise, we both wish that there would be a mass refusal to cooperate with systems of killing and slavery such that they would collapse from nonparticipation. We both wish that the Everyman and Everywoman doing the 9-to-5 in monstrous corporations, such as Monsanto and Goldman Sachs, would bring down such entities from within by looking out more for their fellow human beings than for their careers. But while Hedges recognizes that these facilitators of atrocity have existed throughout history, he fails to see why; the heroism he asks of the vast majority of the American public, and people in the world at large, is not possible, precisely because most people are “normal,” that is, they are motivated by desires for themselves and their loved ones, first of all, to survive the conditions in which they find themselves, and secondly, to prosper therein. Outside of that intimate circle, their fellow human beings are “Others,” concern for whom lessens as the degrees of separation—by kinship, race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, nationality, political identity, geography, and economic status—increase.
Today, we admire the people who hid the Jews or tried to assassinate Hitler during World War II, or who acted heroically during more recent atrocities, such as Nelson Mandela did in the years of South African apartheid. But these are heroes, moral giants, not normal people.
Most of us have, at some time or another, faced a situation in which we had to decide whether to walk away from a job or a business deal on moral grounds, even if the decision to walk away might cost us money we desperately needed to pay our next bills or cost us the reputation needed to advance our careers. Kudos to the brave ones who have made those sacrifices, especially when the survival stakes were very high. However, we simply can’t expect that kind of bravery from everyone. “Normal” people are programmed biologically to survive. The black hats know this. They also know that we are programmed socially by our parents, teachers, and peers to survive within our cultural milieu, to be “accepted”.
The heroes have a “defect” in their social and biological survival mechanisms. Scientists today look for genetic factors and differences in brain structure to explain why some people are more “risk-averse” than others. Whatever the reason, some people are more willing to step out of line than others. The rest of us figure out at an early age that if we obey, we will be rewarded with acceptance and thus, survival. Sometimes we’re wrong, but that, at least partially, explains why so many people quietly marched off to the ghettos, concentration camps, and gas chambers of World War II. There were those in denial of the situation, and there were those who lacked the financial means to flee to safer places. But for many, there was the hope that obedience would mean survival. Perhaps for some people it did, as they were able to hold out physically until rescue came. But for millions that was not the case. Yet this persistent belief among the many that obedience means survival is how the black hats have maintained various systems of slavery and death throughout the millennia.
The Nazi regime was, of course, an extreme example of keeping people in line. It not only kept its enemies in line, but it kept its own people in line with the fear that the price of disobedience would be too great. Thus, you had “normal” people, who, in ordinary circumstances wouoldn’t harm anyone, helping to facilitate atrocities because they thought it best to keep their noses to the grindstone. To condemn “careerists” is to condemn the desire to survive, which is to condemn our own basic biology and psychology.
Those of us who do not care about being accepted are in a certain sense “abnormal.” Heroes, the kind of people who, at risk of their own survival, biological or social, step out of the crowd to stand up to a great evil power and say, “you shall not pass”, are truly admirable; they may save the rest of our lives by their courage. But they are as abnormal as the evil powers they face. If heroic actions were normal, they wouldn’t be very heroic, would they?
Rather than to wish that human beings would be more heroic more often, as I think Hedges wishes in his essay, I would make doing the right thing less costly, and thus, more within the spectrum of “normal” behavior. If we could take the threat to survival out of most of our moral decision-making, more people would make the right choice more often.
In a demonetized society, no one would be denied survival resources because of lack of money to buy them, and thus, any person could extricate himself or herself from any endeavor that turns out to be discriminatory, genocidal, or ecocidal. In fact, it would be difficult for those harmful systems to endure without the ability to pressure compliance with threats to biological survival. Moral decision-making would be commonplace, not heroic.The black hats would have to resort to literally putting guns to our heads.
In a world without money, the threat to our survival would still be there in cases such as a decision to attempt to save a drowning person, or a person in a burning building or car, but the existential threats the “careerists” now face would be removed.
The subtle threat intimated by Alan Greenspan in his claim that debt was a great tool for obtaining labor quiescence because no worker wanted to strike and risk being unable to make the mortgage or credit card payment, would be eliminated. It is because, in a monetized society, our ability to feed, clothe and shelter ourselves is most often in the hands of others that we do not rise up against genocidal, ecocidal or otherwise tyrannical employers and systems until we’ve reached an extreme threat point. And we are more likely to rise up when we feel the threat personally, than when a stranger, even a neighbor, feels it. .
Which would be easier to do: to make most of us more heroic, or to free all of us from the money-jobs system that fetters our moral decision-making? Without the need to be accepted so that someone pays us money with which we can buy our survival resources, we would be free to make more moral choices for ourselves, our fellows, and our planet. Neither path would be easy, but I would trust our ability to change economic systems more than I would trust our ability to change biological and psychological ones.
Kéllia Ramares-Watson, an associate editor for Intrepid Report, is an independent journalist in Oakland, CA. Her pro-demonetization web site is The End of Money. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.