The Politics of Awareness, Part 1

Before the second world war I believed in the perfectibility of social man…. [A]fter the war I did not because I was unable to. I had discovered what man could do to another. I am not talking of one man killing another with a gun, or dropping a bomb on him or blowing him up or torpedoing him. I am thinking of the vileness beyond all words that went on, year after year, in the totalitarian states … there were things done during that period from which I still have to avert my mind lest I should be physically sick. They were not done by the headhunters of New Guinea, or by some primitive tribe in the Amazon. They were done, skillfully, coldly, by educated men, doctors, lawyers, by men with a tradition of civilization behind them, to beings of their own kind … but anyone who moved through those years without understanding that man produces evil as a bee produces honey, must have been blind or wrong in the head…

— William Golding

For nearly half a century the specter of wholesale nuclear devastation menaced the world during the Cold War: a pedantic cautionary narrative of retaliatory muscle-flexing politick; a spectacle of statecraft onanism — the planet and its inhabitants disregarded as nothing more than a rag to wipe the mess, provided that one nation were to stroke a little too long and actually blow it, figuratively speaking. To think that those in high enough positions of power came so close to annihilating life and precluding the chapter we all happen to be characters of this very moment is outright breathtaking, in the most horrific sense.

To acknowledge the actuality that nuclear nonproliferation is not occurring today, that nuclear exchange is always a threat so long as the weapons are kicking around, and worse, continued to be manufactured, is an even more horrifying reality. And to think that there is a recrudescence of Cold War mawkishness stoking the aged embers of Cold War hawkishness (i.e., the bellicose language and quotidian paroxysms bursting from tendentious statesmen across the political spectrum of all partisans involved), manifesting the most pernicious horizontal hostility over who-is-complicit-in-what-in-collusion-with-whom, is outright insanity in its most terrifying and pathological ensemble.

Here we are, putatively intelligent and complex higher organisms of a planet staring down the barrel of a gun. Is anyone flinching yet? Any sweat beading up along a tensely, furrowed brow? Aside from the chilling prospect of nuclear exchange (which will always menace us as long as there are stockpiled nuclear weapons at the fingertips of politically-crazed individuals), anthropogenic global climate change (induced by the industrial belching of greenhouse gas amalgams) already threatens to undermine everything we’ve come to cherish and, in tandem, the industrial culture has also initiated the largest mass extinction in the history of Earth. This culture is killing more than just two birds with one stone — it’s committing omnicide. And yet, history has shown us, time and again, that there are natural limits to surrender to; that civilization — a way of life predicated upon the growth of cities (civilization, see civil: from civis, meaning citizen, from Latin civitatis, meaning city-state) always crumbles. Always. (Please find me one civilization from the annals of human social-development that did not collapse and I’ll cancel the historicity implied in the latter sentence — promise).1

Here we are, repeating the patterns of collapse, on the largest scale ever (i.e., hegemonic globalization) and world leaders are on the verge of celebrating with atomic fireworks. Has history just been a vanity project? Has anyone not learned that our resource wars that are about to perhaps erupt into a self-fulfilled Armageddon® are ridiculously mad and depraved? Powerful people may actually, for the second time in less than a century come close to destroying life on this planet with the push of a button — a fucking button, just to control access to resources that will allow the industrial culture to continue to destroy life on this planet. Trying to find a rational and sane reason for all of this leaves one despairingly confused. I’m reminded of Melville’s megalomaniac captain in Moby Dick who proclaimed with unwavering coolness: “All my means and methods are sane: my purpose is mad.”

Owing to the fact that the Nineties bore witness to over a hundred million human deaths as a direct result of wars occurring across the globe supports the notion that history is not only on repeat but, some of the toughest lessons we should have learned by now are recurring with ever more intensity and acceleration. Over the last decade there has been no mitigation to lower the statistics of war-related casualties and injuries, nor has there been any effective campaign waged to smash into irreparable pieces the cogs in the war-machine itself. Moreover, the US has become infamously known as the world’s leading “purveyor of violence,” acting out of a place of hostile claims to virtue and “benevolent” fights against an everlasting enemy that morphs in and out of various isms. The remaining contingent of the West is complicit as well. No country that is “civilized” is exempt from the crimes perpetrated (against non-White cultures, nonhuman animals and the planet’s ecological infrastructure) so to attain such a euphemistic status.

Spin a globe on its axis, close your eyes, stick out your index finger and place that finger upon the pirouetting orb in order to bring it to a halt. Chances are, where your finger is finally positioned there is conflict occurring. And if not, that landmass that has been abstractly demarcated into ‘territory’ is the result of social arrangements tethered to a long history of war and conflict, spring-loaded with fateful geopolitical corollaries that can be slightly steered but never directed.

Open a history textbook and across the pages one will find ostensible accounts of war (aka: hostile economics) sensationalized as obstacles to overcome in order to attain a long overdue armistice. Or as just another tragic event; one more bedraggled footfall in the long concatenation of human “progress”– progressing toward… well, can someone define the word progress for me? And where, exactly, is progress taking us to or away from for that matter?

After a while, all this war begins to look like an oblation to the God of Production so He can bestow the triumphant, the victorious, with offerings of raw materials decocted from purloined natural resources. Or after a while, it just starts to look like War™.

I’m going to jump tracks for a moment, but I assure you I won’t stray too far — besides, this will all end up within close proximity to the conclusions I’ve alluded to immediately above: that a.) War has been central to nation building b.) Our history is smeared with tendentious accounts of battles c.) Nothing has changed other than the fact that war itself has become more intense, diffused, and even further abstract over the years, doubtlessly leading into an arena where humans will be the spectators of robotic-lieutenant-&-corporal-machine-droids carrying out generals’ orders (the fact that thousands of militarized drones and robots [some of which meretriciously bear the resemblance of the irreproachable Wall-E] are roving the climes of the Middle East sneaks us a peak at the road we’re heading down and, a glimpse into the not-too-distant future where the use of robots for military and authoritarian purposes will not only be ubiquitous but, strangely normalized).2 And d.) For the sake of humanity, nonhuman life, as well as art, cultural diversity and beauty in general the framing conditions that engender wars of civilized proportions must be done away with completely.

Indeed such a statement is quixotic, romantic and undeniably idealistic, and I’m sure there are other ics I could apply to define my notional triumph of a defeated war-machine. But at a juncture in time (i.e., now) when tens of thousands of nuclear weapons subject to exchange at the push of a button (despite nuclear non-proliferation treaties that, clearly, are insanely met with phlegmatic indifference from ‘civilly refined’ nations) are threatening to end life on the planet so to settle some fermented dialectic germane to abstract social concepts like Freetrade™, global-market-economic-exigency, and the requisite exploitation of ‘natural resources’3 needed to keep the dominant cultural-economic-complex growing — at this point war, wrapped in all of its modern-day accoutrements, should be disrobed, disarmed, divested, de-manned of its direct operators4 and put on trial (along with its direct operators) for crimes against life. Now, back to jumping tracks.

I am putting forward an international week of boycott to preface this exhorted trial for crimes against life. An international boycott against what? — you may ask. I say we boycott the education system for a week, maybe a month. Maybe longer. Perhaps forever. Be it kindergarten, high school, college, whatever. At least until we see some real fundamental changes around here. Now hear me out on this, I know I have a propensity to digress but my point will become clear, hyperbolic maybe, maybe not, but my point genuine and clear — no doubt.

In the mid to late nineteenth century, the new Industrial Age provided the impetus behind the expansion of the public school system. Reading, writing, and arithmetic were all pressed into service in order to foment a literate labor force. It was important that this new literate proletariat remained obedient and submissive to authority. Such subject matter as history was taught from the perspective of the victors of wars and, essentially, from the vantage point of the dominant culture. Mathematics inculcated the presumption that the world is comprised of generalized numbers to be counted and exploited; a sociopathic notion to say the least (viz., in a recent dialogue I had with author Derrick Jensen he pointed out to me that it’s much easier for members of this culture to kill a number for production’s sake than it is to kill a sentient being with its own web of relations, histories, potentialities, emotions and proclivities). And reading and writing silenced the languages older than words themselves.

Clocks and bells primed individuals to respond to employment itineraries — to be more proficient in efficiency. There is no room for diversity and creativity in efficiency. The raising-of-hands-to-be-called-upon conditioned one to respond with deference to authority. To give one’s self away to authority, chiseling away, piece by piece, at one’s sense of personal agency. Cheating on tests was frowned upon, when really it should have been encouraged as group problem solving. If one felt torn to cram frenetically for a test, one was submitting her/himself to authority. If one decided to settle for a C for credit, one was giving her/himself away to authority. All of these elements and their implications are extant today and, virtually unchanged from their original forms.

Howard Zinn wrote in The People’s History of the United States, “It was in the middle and late nineteenth century that high schools developed as aids to the industrial system, that history was widely required … to foster patriotism. Loyalty, oaths, teacher certification, and the requirement of citizenship were introduced to control both the educational and the political quality of teachers.”5

  1. The historian Clive Ponting revealed that every civilization has undermined the health of its natural environment, see Ponting, Clive, A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations (New York: Penguin, 1991). []
  2. See: Remotely controlled armed robots deployed in Iraq or Special Military Robots Manufactured by WVHTC Foundation Shipped to Middle East to Combat IEDs or Robots replace trigger fingers in Iraq or First Armed Robots on Patrol in Iraq (Updated).

    DARPA has even invented a “corpse-eating” robot; viz. a robot that powers itself by ‘ingesting’ organic matter, see: Robots That Eat Bugs and Plants for Power or U.S. Military Working on Flesh Eating Robot or Military Researchers Develop Corpse-Eating Robots. []

  3. ‘Natural resources’ being nothing more than the reification and silencing of an animate and subjective world in order to exploit for the sake of cultural prosperity and aggrandizement. []
  4. I.e., those who finance war, those who profit from war, those who bang the drum for war and, those who design the blueprints for war, et al. []
  5. Zinn, Howard, A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present, (New York: Perennial Classics, 2003), p.263. []

Frank Smecker is a writer and social-worker from VT. He can be reached at: frank.smecker@gmail.com. Read other articles by Frank, or visit Frank's website.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on January 14th, 2010 at 9:57am #

    The label “cold war” presents a fictive reality. It does not even suggest that US had been so hostile to some human rights that it even risked a nuclear war.
    It had positioned N-missiles in turkey and aimed them at USSR.
    This was a cassus belli. So, USSR was morally and legally obligated to retaliate.
    Once again US risked end of the world. USSR, being by far more humane than fascist US, backed away from further confrontation with such coldblooded murderers.
    After the end of USSR, US was never so free and unafraid to commit mns of murders against innocent peoples in asia, s.america.

    And if u`r a sybarite abhoring basic human rights, own and world poor, it not only makes sense for US to do that, it is actually a constitutional demand and thus also US sacrosant right to murder anyone who does not agree with US. tnx

  2. AaronG said on January 14th, 2010 at 7:17pm #

    Good article. It’s quite ironic, as I look around my office and note the products of war – eg coltan in my phone and possibly the computer at which I’m typing. This is what is feeding the war machine. “Man has dominated man to his injury”, wrote the ancient Israeli King Solomon (Ec8:9).

    He also wrote “And I myself returned that I might see all the acts of oppression that are being done under the sun, and, look! the tears of those being oppressed, but they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was POWER (emphasis mine), so that they had no comforter. ” That is, if the power structure (that is currently causing oppression) is dismantled then the oppression would stop. That’s the solution as far as HOW is concerned, now for the WHO…………………

  3. Gary Corseri said on January 15th, 2010 at 10:10pm #

    It will be interesting to see where Mr. Smecker takes this in Part 2, etc.

    The writing is interesting, if a bit windy. Obviously a good brain at work if the author would take off his blindfold, quit divaricating, and just pin the tail on the donkey. Of course, no one should minimize that task as the whole culture is designed to keep us deaf, dumb, blind and bumbling.

    And Smecker is right: the fact that we’ve advanced so little in so many centuries of warfare–so little in any moral sense, despite the religions and “education” must give us pause and make us wonder, What the hell is it to be human?

    Smecker asks for a definition of “progress.” I’m not offering one, but if humans are merely here to fill some small time slot in the evolution of intelligence on this planet–then I guess we’re making some sort of “progress” in terms of non-biological intelligence which, let’s face it, will soon be running the show, geo-engineering Mother Earth to save our asses and their mechanical rumps, perhaps keeping us around as cute pets–if we’re lucky enough to be “bred” for our endearing qualities. (Of course, the pit-bulls among us–our present crop of Cheneys, Palins, Limbaughs, et. al. will have to be muzzled in public.) Progress? From my childhood I remember General Electric had a slogan: “Progress is our most important product.” Who’d’ve thunk under that rubric they were developing nuclear bombs, NBC and “Late Night With Conan O’Brien”?

    I hope Mr. Smecker will provide some footnote, some documentation, for his figure of over 100 million dying from wars on Planet Earth in the 1990s. It’s an extraordinary number, though it may seem halcyon in years to come, looking back on the Resource Wars, etc. (My recollection is that fewer than 100 million died in both “World Wars” together and I don’t recall a “World War” in the 90s, but, after all, what’s in a name? A war by any other name would smell as putrid.)

    Is boycotting education–the schools–the place to begin to get out of this labyrinth, out from under the miasma? Is there even one place to begin–or are we so far past the tipping point that no action is useful (or that all actions are useful?)? Are boycotts still effective? How would one organize such a boycott? Is it easier to rein in the imperial presidency or to boycott education? How?

    Thanks, Mr. Smecker. There’s food for thought here. And it’s more than the Soylent Green the System has been feeding us.

  4. kalidas said on January 17th, 2010 at 9:40am #

    Keeping in tune with the times, (via my lying eyes, ears, nose and heart), I’d suggest the reality is obviously human devolution and the soup de jour is Goylent green.