Swans Commentary » swans.com January 25, 2010  



Beginnings With No Known End


by Gilles d'Aymery





Principiïs obsta; sero medicina paratur cum mala per longas convaluere moras.
("Stop it at the start; it is late for medicine to be prepared when disease has grown strong through long delays.")

Ovid (43 BC - 17/18 AD)


(Swans - January 25, 2010)  Homo sapiens pride themselves on being the only thinking species on the planet -- though the meaning of "thinking" is never really defined and no human has ever been able to enter the mind of The Other, be it a dog, a whale, a dolphin, a bird, a bee, an ant, a lizard, a rattlesnake, a worm, or any other species that graces our environment. Humans assert that they are sitting at the top of the food chain, able to control and fashion life as they see fit (brainless weeds are also known to take over abandoned parking lots in a hurry...). Yet, humans are blind in the face of the future. They cannot consider the end -- or consequences -- of their actions (Finem respice). Were they, were they to confront their ineluctable personal demise, would they engage into triviality, as fed on a daily basis from top to bottom of the human pyramid? Then again, how can they resist the beginning if they do not grasp the end? Uncertainties abound and with them grow passivity and the call for securing one's material properties and lives. The more ensconced the top of the food chain is within its accumulated material possessions the more insecure it becomes. Feeling besieged by imaginary barbarians knocking on their gate, people turn to their government for security and, incapable of grasping the end (the consequences of their actions), they take for granted the beginning without resistance or second thought. American righteousness -- the historically latest iteration of the Leviathan -- cannot be questioned if one would rather not be sent to the pillory of political correctness. Obedience to the new, more secured order is not only asked for, it is embraced without questioning. After all, is not it what the Joneses are about? Don't rock the boat. Go with the flow. Accept the surveillance state in the name of patriotism and self-preservation.

This is not a new phenomenon, of course. Distinguished historians have itemized the happenstances over the ages. Leaving aside the annihilation of the native populations in the name of security, accumulation, and expansionism, and the mob lynching of the witches of Salem, Americans turned on their own in 1798 by letting their government enact the Alien and Sedition Acts. Repressive acts after another followed suit: the Anarchist Exclusion Act of 1901; the Immigration Act of 1918; the Palmer raids in 1919. On and on people accepted and welcomed restrictions to their liberty in the name of personal safety -- especially when they were not directly targeted. To incarcerate Japanese Americans during WWII did not raise a second thought in the populace. It could not happen to them, since they were not Yellows...and FDR was such a liberal, freedom-loving president, was he not? That the working class, the "little people" suffered tremendously during that eminently preventable war made little difference. Trust in the governing elites and self-preservation carried the day.

It carries on, largely unquestioned, to this very day. The surveillance state, fostered by the elites, grows hand-in-hand with the need to repress hoi poloi as the economic conditions of the masses deteriorate -- and they have been worsening ever since the mid 1970s. (In 2008, 91.6 million people lived below 200 percent of the poverty line -- almost one third of the American population.) People of means dread sharing their bounties and fear the masses that call for a larger stake in the pie. Control becomes a leitmotiv of the holders of wealth, the rentier class. Fear of the other -- the communists, the terrorists, the immigrants -- has to be instilled into the populace, and the masses have much to fear as their living conditions aggravate. National acts after national acts are enacted. It becomes the policy of the state to remove dictators and other enemies abroad. Whether the policies register with the people is of no import, and even if it registers it makes no import. Bad people ought to get dealt with, and good, decent people who are inherently fearful know that there are bad guys out there allegedly bent to spoil their way of life. They do not trust their government to regulate their lives but they ask their much-maligned state to defend their very lives. Enemies are not only without, in the great geographical and cultural unknowns, they are also within, nearby, ready to strike at the fundamentals of society (the fifth column). Thankfully, the Clinton administration worked assiduously to emulate the policies of ancient gore. It passed a few more "acts" and even placed on a shelf one that would be known as the USA PATRIOT ACT and be implemented by the Bush II administration in the wake of the sordid day that came to pass on 9/11.

Within hours of those tragic events the military and police were roaming the streets of New York City. Flags were waved. In the times ahead, people were stopped, checked, frisked at airports and in the subways; metal detectors installed in office and public buildings; the PATRIOT ACT enacted; the Department of Homeland Security created. Fear was rampant, fueled by more dreadful incidents (anthrax attacks in the mail, suburban killings by snipers). The daily news alerted the viewers about the color of the newly instituted threat level. Following the arrest of a hapless shoe-bomber, travelers were required to remove their shoes at airports. When a plot to use liquid explosives on transatlantic flights was foiled, travelers saw their bottles of water, shampoo -- any liquid -- confiscated. Terrorists were everywhere, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, everywhere, in and out. People were angry and fearful. They wanted more security. The government responded by intercepting through the Telecom companies and the NSA practically all communications (e-mails, phone conversations, etc.) of foreigners and, eventually, the American people. Afraid of the ticking bomb, a system of torture was put in place and largely accepted. People were asked to report to the authorities any unbecoming gatherings or strange-looking individuals. Antiwar and pacifist groups were constantly watched or infiltrated by the FBI; dissenters shunned, accused of unpatriotism; civil libertarians ignored. Muslims and Arabs became suspects because if all Muslims and Arabs were not terrorists, all terrorists were. Racial and ethnic profiling became common policy -- though always officially denied. (Last week, Jim Inhofe, a Republican senator from Oklahoma, called to make such a policy official, because it's "90% true" that all terrorists are "Muslims or Middle Easterners.") New full-body scanners are being deployed in the airports. And on it goes.

There is no reason to fear these little intrusions in our personal lives, we are told, so long as we are law-abiding citizens -- "nothing to hide, nothing to fear." These small inconveniences are all about our safety, our security, in defense of our way of life. It's really about catching the bad guys, the enemies, domestic and foreign -- those hyenas that hate our freedoms!

In the very name of those cherished freedoms the people, little by little, over time, accept their abrogation, one by one, and leave the state free to pursue ever-expanding foreign adventures (wars) and tighten the repressive noose around their neck, so that when social unrest caused by economic misery bursts into the streets, the forces to put down the rebellions will have long been put in place.

Are those developments a new story or an historical repetition of similar trends and events? Will people awaken from their torpor and passivity to pause, think, realize the ominous reality, and begin to reject the narrative that has been fashioned by the elites and peddled by their gatekeepers? History does not repeat itself in the exact same manner. Even though the past is a precursor of the present, conditions change over time -- Ovid, for instance, could not incorporate into his thinking the advent of the hydrogen bomb or the multitude of consumer gadgets polluting our modernity, filling our landfills, and poisoning countless recycling countries. However, human behaviors, particularly wired to self-preservation, do not change much -- a worrisome phenomenon.

Therefore, looking into the past is a worthy endeavor if one wishes to understand the present. The behavioral trends we are witnessing in our society are far from new. Keep in mind the words of James Madison in a May 13, 1798, letter to Thomas Jefferson: "Perhaps it is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to provisions against danger, real or pretended, from abroad." ... And the words of Benjamin Franklin: "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty not safety."

But for a cleared and more trenchant analysis of these behavioral trends, one should read the words of Milton Mayer, an author and journalist who researched them in other circumstances way back in the 1950s. Mayer, who coined the expression "Speak truth to power" in the summer of 1954 as he was working on the American Friends Service Committee's far-reaching 1955 alternative to violence pamphlet, spent years in Germany to analyze with the help of a few Germans how such a civilized culture had fallen prey to the atrocities that Hitler and his henchmen let loose on the world.

Please read "But Then It Was Too Late," a long excerpt of his 1955 book, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45.

Then read again this piece and ask yourself: How can I reverse the dreadful trends?


They Thought They Were Free, But Then It Was Too Late


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Gilles d'Aymery on Swans -- with bio. He is Swans' publisher and co-editor.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art16/ga278.html
Published January 25, 2010