Swans Commentary » swans.com November 5, 2007  



We Hold These Truths


by Michael Doliner





"We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal."
—Declaration of Independence of the United States

"'All' surely means: all."
—Ludwig Wittgenstein


(Swans - November 5, 2007)   What does it mean that we allow ourselves to animalize Iraqis or Iranians, to call them "ragheads" or "Hajis," to do unspeakable things to them, to shoot them for sport? Someone might point out that we animalized our enemy in Vietnam, World War II, and in many other, perhaps all, previous wars. But how does that fact change this act's meaning? Certainly, if we Americans animalize anybody we deny not the truth of our founding statement, but that we hold this truth. For to hold a truth means to live by it. For other countries, those not engaged in the American experiment, dehumanizing of another means much less. An aristocracy dehumanizes others as a matter of course. Interestingly, it animalizes not the aristocracies of its enemies, but the proles of all countries including its own. It treats the aristocracies of other countries with respect, even during war. To do otherwise would be to deny itself. Not so for us. Not just this war, but any war that requires Americans to deny that any man or woman is human corrodes the foundation of what America is.

But let's face it. "To corrode the foundation" is but a pathetic euphemism. To deny anyone's humanity busts America to bits, at least the America for which Americans fought the Revolution. And what other America is there? Of course we continue to go on. We just don't hold these truths any more. Perhaps we should now say, "We hold these truths to be self evident, that some men are created equal?" Somehow it just doesn't have the same ring to it. It's hard to imagine anybody getting his gun and going out to fight for that. With this flabby truth we seem to be back where we came from: an aristocracy ruling over a swarm of proles. There's us and then there's them. And how do we separate us from them? Most of us came from somewhere else not all that different from, say, Yugoslavia or England. Should we say that now that we've made it to these hallowed shores we've become part of the elect? Beach your boat and become a king? That's not much of a foundation for an elite. Americans all like to think they are special, but even Americans might not be able to convince themselves that that made them special. Besides, what with racism and homeland massacres, many of "them" are right here. Indeed, I suspect that even you, dear reader, and I might discover one day not too far in the future that we are "them," unless we manage to amass a couple hundred million bucks at least.

For the most part none of this seems to trouble us and we might as well admit here and now that we never took this principle of universal equality all that seriously. High-flown sentiments are all well and good in grade school, but let's face it, this is real life. All of us are simply trying to survive and it's a dog-eat-dog world out there. This is another way of saying that we hold to no truths, that we will do anything in order to get ahead. It is an admission that we are all, in fact, nothing but animals. "In money we trust," some honest man once said. People have always killed other people to get their stuff. We're just admitting it. We're not like animals, we are animals with nasty, brutish, short lives...and we love it. We worship the greediest man.

But we don't admit it. We need to be better than that. Oil? What oil? It never crossed my mind. We want to take things, but we need to hide it from ourselves. Here's how Joseph Conrad's narrator, Marlow, put it in Heart of Darkness.

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea -- something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. (1)

We, too, with our more than 700 military bases strewn around the planet, are engaged in the conquest of the earth, and like those who came before us, must tell ourselves a story, place an idea between ourselves and what we are doing. We are not "taking it away" from others. Oh, no, we are setting up a democracy. We are the good guys. Although we have jettisoned the high ideals of the Declaration of Independence, we want to set up "democracies" across the Middle East. We take it upon ourselves to overthrow dictators, such as Saddam Hussein, and set up new governments in their place. We know what's best. The hallmark of these "democracies" is that the new governments we set up have constitutions and free elections. Of course if we look too closely we can see that this is all part of the "idea" we use to hide our imperial venture from ourselves.

The Constitution of the United States is really our fall-back idea. It is not a glitzy and high sounding as the Declaration. With the Declaration of Independence relegated to the realm of childhood fantasy, we have grasped the Constitution with the Declaration as window-dressing "democracy" and "liberty," both empty of meaning, held up as baubles. Yes, politicians do trot out the Declaration and its ideals on the stump whenever they want applause, and most Americans imagine that the Constitution somehow continues or upholds or does some other good fuzzy thing for the Declaration, but it is not so. We think that the Constitution is just a natural extension of the Declaration, conveniently forgetting the Articles of Confederation we lived under for more than six years, and the bitter fight over ratification of the Constitution. The ratification of the Constitution was a messy business during a second period of turmoil. The Constitution's purpose is "to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, ..." that is, put down rebellion, control slave revolts, and expand the territory of the United States to the west as well as maintain a balance of power among different powerful factions with different interests.. The biggest complaint about the Articles of Confederation was that under it the federal government could not levy taxes and raise an army, an army needed to suppress revolt and facilitate westward expansion. The Constitution is an oligarchic document that protects power from the tyranny of the many and offers a structure to decide disputes between different factions of the elite. Under it, the colonies did unite in a more perfect union that could resist England and become the huge imperialist power it is today. And the Bill of Rights did protect citizens, somewhat. Overall it is not essentially democratic, but oligarchic. It is designed to protect the rule of an oligarchy but it did offer many opportunities to people who otherwise wouldn't have had them. Of course life under the Articles of Confederation might also have offered such opportunities.

Not the idea that men are equal, but that they are self-interested is behind it. The famous checks and balances check and balance "factions" that men organize to further their own interests. The founders, acknowledging that men are self-seeking, sought to balance their interests against one another. In the original Constitution only the House of Representatives was popularly elected, and if one reads the Federalist Papers one can see just how much the founders feared this institution and just how many of the checks and balances are there to check and balance it. The Constitution grew from a conference in Annapolis to impose tariffs to protect fledgling American manufacturing from being undercut by England. Ironically, the Constitution's purpose was primarily mercantilist; that is, protectionist. It was designed to put an end to the completely free trade that would have left the United States as a Third-World backwater relegated to supplying raw materials to England. The Bill of Rights, added under duress, protects civil but not political rights.

We still use the high sentiment of the Declaration of Independence as an "idea," to obscure our imperial activities. But we cannot truly believe that we "hold" its truths as self-evident. So we have the Constitution as a second idea, less exalted, but more believable. But those who "hold" this idea are also self-deluded, for we no longer hold even this. It is no secret that the Bush administration, what with their violation of due process, their suspension of habeas corpus, their use of torture, their violation of treaties, their illegal surveillance, and much more, have blasted the Constitution as well. The Supreme Court is stacked; Congress bought. Perhaps worst of all is their twisting of the language of the Constitution to try to justify their activities. For it is not the criminal who does damage to the law but the Attorney General who reinterprets it out of all recognition. Bush did a hatchet job on the Constitution and most Americans, even lawyers, don't mind a bit. So really we don't hold to the Constitution either.

As Conrad's narrator Marlow says, the idea behind the imperialist project cannot be a little sentimental idea, but an idea you can "set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to." You must passionately believe this idea, at least if you are the one who is going to have to do the sacrificing. But this belief, in ideas we no longer really "hold," is becoming impossible. For "holding" and "believing" are really one and the same. The only way to keep doing it is to stop thinking entirely. To continue to believe one must simply learn how to not think. Don't connect one thing with another. Don't bother with evidence. Drown out any reasonable person and attack him personally. If words change meaning, so what. Meaning is for fuddy-duddy "old thinkers." What is important is the swell feeling you get when you say "America" or when you see the flag. Shut up and get by.

To conquer to world The United States of America has had to engage in a project of intentional self-stupefaction and self-delusion. It has been going on for some time, perhaps forever, but the Bush administration has certainly advanced the project mightily. They have emptied our "idea" of whatever remaining content it had so that we are left with a hollow bladder of sentiment, passionately held. Right-wing callers to left-wing talk shows now want to shoot the hosts as traitors. Sometimes these callers make claims, for example about the existence of WMDs, without feeling any need for evidence. Right-wing talk shows are nothing more than a string of ad hominem arguments against antiwar advocates and groups. Many Internet commentators have noticed the increasing incoherence of American political discourse. Justin Raimondo has nicknamed it "Bushzarro World." Gene Lyons, in a recent column has commented on "the Funhouse Mirror aspect of American political debate." (2) Or here is Juan Cole: "Among the Republican front-runners, debate about Iran occurs in a dark, upside-down fantasy land, where a weak third-world regime with no air force to speak of plots a military strike on the planet's sole superpower." (3) And these are only three, taken at random from many more I could easily find. War supporters hold up the "idea" with rising hysteria directed at anyone who might reason about the situation. Although they direct their hatred towards antiwar voices, it is not these voices but their own repressed critical sense that they fear. For it is obvious that the United States no longer holds to either the Declaration or the Constitution. Even the smallest critical examination of the situation will reveal that. So to continue to claim that we hold those ideas one must make oneself crazy.

As the bladder of hot air expands with sentiment it becomes ever thinner and more transparent. Whereas many in other countries once believed in the American idea, few now do. Whatever supporters we have now expect some material benefit from their aid. And their enthusiasm for our project quickly wanes. The "coalition of the willing" has become a thin line of stragglers wending their way home. The growing antiwar sentiment here bespeaks an ever-larger number of Americans who can no longer hold the idea up to hide our imperial policies. More and more of us see through it, and the crazy voices of the idea become ever more shrill. To be sure, most of us see only the Americans dying, but they can't find any good reason for these deaths. What is that but a disbelief in the idea?

The neocons, if we are to believe their mentor, Leo Strauss, hold up the idea to hide their true intentions. They, like him, are no true friends of liberal democracy. They do not "hold" the idea, but hold it up to encourage others to make the sacrifice for the imperial project. Here they are, inflating the bladder:

In 1997, William Kristol and David Brooks, writing in the Wall Street Journal, offered a critique of the Republican Party of Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole. "What's missing from today's American conservatism is America," they wrote. "The left has always blamed America first. Conservatives once deplored this. They defended America. And when they sought to improve America, they did so by recalling Americans to their highest principles, and by calling them forward to a grand destiny. What is missing from today's conservatism is the appeal to American greatness. (4)

They, blowing up the bladder with all their breath, see through the flimsy membrane of the idea to the other side. Through it they see the people they expect the now empty idea to induce to fight for the imperialist project. But as the idea gets thinner they see instead their own nightmare, Cindy Sheehan, a woman who has made the sacrifice and discovered the emptiness of the idea. When Cindy Sheehan asks what noble cause her son Casey died for, she is puncturing the idea. The lack of an answer to her question is what the neocons in power fear. For if the idea bursts, as it did in the Soviet Union, power will be naked, and naked power is illegitimate power.

Our self-induced madness grows apace. We have a president who is superb at insisting upon the obviously false. "There are WMDs." "We're winning." "We don't torture." What manner of human being can listen to this claptrap? Who is going to bow down to, and sacrifice for, this? Those who do make the sacrifices and those that love them will find themselves forced either to expend ever more energy on self-delusion or, like Cindy Sheehan, to think. And with thinking will come a wave of knowledge and anger. In the end the war is not against Iraq, not against "terrorism," but against the human critical faculty, against homo sapiens, the thinking biped.

In this war George W. Bush is a formidable weapon. We want to believe Bush and all the "freedom," "democracy," and "liberty" in his speeches. He seems so sincere. He gives these speeches always before very select audiences, such selection showing to TV watchers either that everybody loves Bush or that Bush believes Americans will "hold" what they see and not what they know is true. What you see depends upon whether you are of the thinker or anti-thinker tribe. He does not dare speak before the general public. He does not dare answer questions. Or is it that he does not deign to? Perhaps he does not think the facts worthy of him. He looks out over desolation and death. Does he, or does he not, see it? Listen to him and you will want to not see it too. Look how many hunger for the "idea." But learn the facts and he will revolt you.

Bush's greatest talent is that just listening to him could drive anyone out of his or her gourd. You will question your five senses. The vast wasteland of Iraq will disappear before your very eyes. You will feel good about yourself. He is probably the best crazy-maker ever. He can create and reinvigorate the delusion (or is it the truth!) of goodness that the entire population needs to continue this enterprise in the name of our "idea." Who else could have complete indifference to the undeniable fact that he has created piles of corpses, a vast wasteland, horrible torture prisons, and an ever-growing maelstrom? Is he preparing the end of the world? His face remains as honest as they come. What truly is bothers him not. For those who think, is it worse if he knows or does not know?

Listening to Bush shakes the very foundation of ones own sanity. It is truly awe-inspiring to think that this man holds the world in the palm of his hand. With a nod he can launch an attack on Iran and perhaps start World War III. Maybe he rises in the morning and weighs his options over juice. Balancing a fork with a bit of impaled sausage on his forefinger, he thinks what he never says. Let's see. Should I or shouldn't? The decision has been made. All the preparations are set. Hmmm. I guess I'll put it off. I love watching them squirm while trying to guess what I'm going to do. I love all the energy Seymour Hersh puts into trying to reveal my plans. I love watching them argue about all the pretexts we throw out there. They never discuss our real reasons (because we don't) even though they are obvious. Just by musing, I exhaust them with interminable debates. I love watching them delve into all the he-said she-said stuff. Then the "really good" reporters digest all that shit and announce that they know my plans. They are now so weary of trying to divine my intentions they are ready to acquiesce. (5) Cheney's influence, Rice's influence, Israel's influence? Don't they know me? I never listen to anything. My mind is all made up. I think I will let their futile efforts continue awhile longer. Nobody realizes that I will decide just when...on a whim. Now who sees what really is? (If I can end the world, am I not a God?)

Near the end of Marlow's tale in Heart of Darkness he tells of transporting the dying Mr. Kurtz, the novel's central character, away from his post in the interior of Africa. Kurtz had been an absolute ruler in his domain. As they steam down the river all hell breaks loose on the shore -- the natives are grieving wildly over the loss of Kurtz, their God. Kurtz is raving in delirium, clearly mad. Just before he dies, Kurtz, in a moment of lucidity, utters his famous line, "The horror, the horror." Earlier Marlow had met a young Russian who admired Kurtz. He presented him as a man of ideas, a great talker about the highest things, and also as a criminal who had stolen a cache of ivory from him. He says Kurtz hated Africa but was unable to break free of it.

What Kurtz means by his last words has been much debated. I do not think imperialism alone is "the horror." It is deeper than that. My own opinion is that the horror is the heart of darkness stripped of the idea. The idea, when held, is civilization itself, human, not just animal, life. Near the beginning of the novel Marlow reminds the listeners that it wasn't that long ago that England was the heart of darkness. (6) Kurtz, confronted with his own heart of darkness, could no longer deny that he did not "hold" his idea, he was "hollow at the core."



1.  Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2003) p. 41.  (back)

2.  http://www.seacoastonline.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20071007/OPINION/710070334/-1/OPINION05  (back)

3.  http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2007/10/17/iran/  (back)

4.  http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/10/25/041025ta_talk_packer?printable=true  (back)

5.  http://www.counterpunch.org/tripp10062007.html  (back)

6.  Conrad pp. 39-40  (back)


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About the Author

Michael Doliner has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He lives with his family in Ithaca, N.Y.



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Published November 5, 2007