Whiteness is Absence, is Loss and Death

Whiteness is an odd thing. It is one of those social constructs that falls apart under any significant degree of scrutiny. Yet few of us pale-skinned descendants of Europeans know how to not think of ourselves as white, as the enculturation of white identity is so deeply embedded within our collective psyche and throughout all of society around us. Such racial ideology frames and shapes everything else, ever lurking in the background even when not acknowledged.

It’s become a symbolic proxy for so much else. Racial differences and divides have become our way of talking about class, economic oppression, housing segregation, capitalist realism, the prison state, and on and on. It’s related to how talk of inequality of wealth so often hides the deeper inequalities of power, privilege, resources, and opportunities; of pollution, lead toxicity, underfunded schools, and loss of green spaces; et cetera.

The thing is white politics of identity and victimhood doesn’t really even benefit most whites. It is a cheap salve and band-aid placed over a wound that cut to the bone and left nerves raw. Whiteness is a sad compensation for all that was lost: ethnic culture, regional identity, close communities, extended kinship, rooted sense of place, the commons, and so much else. No wonder so many whites are on edge, a sense of free-floating anxiety about their place in the world.

The takeover of whiteness has happened slow enough for most people not to notice while being rapid enough to cause a radical transformation of society and civilization. Prior to the world war era, most people didn’t identify with a race or even with a nationality. The sense of self was defined by local experience, relationships, and commitments. That previous world barely lingers in living memory, but is quickly fading.

Most American whites became urbanized a little over a century ago. Even then, much of the rural experience held on in small towns and ethnic enclaves. The Boomer and Silent generations were the last to have a significant number of people to experience those disappearing traces of traditional culture, however faint they were already becoming. With the generations following, the loss is becoming so complete as to become collective amnesia.

My father is a young Silent and, even though his parents came from different parts of the country, he spent most of his early life in a single small town. He wasn’t surrounded by kin beyond his immediate family, but he did have the comfort of being surrounded by a community of people who themselves were surrounded by a web of extended families. That small town has since been decimated and no longer functions as a healthy community, instead having fallen into poverty and decay.

My mother, a first wave Boomer, had a much stronger experience of those old ties. She was born and raised a short distance from where generations of her family had lived. She spent her entire childhood and youth in a single house, in never having moved until college, with extended family all around her, a grandmother and uncle next door along with other uncles, aunts, and cousins in the neighborhood. Her siblings and cousins were her main playmates.

Her ancestors began coming to this sub-region of Kentuckiana (Central-Eastern Kentucky and Southern Indiana) shortly after the American Revolution. The first line of the family came in 1790 to fight Indians. Soon after, other lines of her family showed up in the area. As a young girl, she regularly visited a village where her family lived in the 1800s and where her grandfather had been born, a village that had been turned into a state park with historical re-enactors. Her childhood was filled with elders telling stories about her Kentuckiana ancestral homeland.

This older identity was beginning to erode with industrialization, but some of her family still remains in that area. Some of my father’s family also remains in the small town he left. So, both have hometowns to return to where family will greet and welcome them, including family reunions, but this inheritance isn’t likely to last much longer. My parents never gave my brothers and I the same chance to experience such deep-rooted belonging of family, community, and place.

By the time I graduated from high school, we had lived in four different states in multiple regions of the country. And after graduation, I wandered around between various states before finally settling down. Now the next generation is on the scene. I have two nieces and a nephew living somewhat nearby, if not as close as with my mother’s extended family. This new generation of young kids are all Generation Z or whatever one wants to call them.

If asked, I’m not sure most in the younger generations would have a strong sense of identity with either family or place. In my upbringing, I gained some vague semblance of being ‘Midwestern’, but with mass media so ruling the modern mind now I’m not sure that even such amorphous regional identities retain much hold over the public imagination. What’s replaced the local and trans-local are even more broadly generalized identities of being white, along with being American or Westerner, but such identities don’t speak to the concrete details of lived experience.

Then that brings us to what it means to not be white. That is how we often think of it, since white is the dominant and hence the supposedly defining racial identity. But maybe that is the wrong way around. Instead, it makes more sense that whiteness is defined as not being black, as it is always the other that defines us (the reason we should be careful about the people we choose to ‘other’ as minority or untouchable, as foreigner or outsider, as opposition or enemy). Germans and Italians, Catholics and Jews assimilated into general whiteness. Even Hispanics and Asians are being assimilated. Everyone can assimilate into whiteness, everyone that is except blacks.

Unlike whiteness, being black is a much more specific and localized identity. In America, it is defined by descending from West African ancestors who were enslaved as part of the colonial project of the British Empire with a population that was concentrated in the Deep South where a particular ethno-regional culture was formed and to some degree maintained as a segregated sub-culture among blacks that moved north and west but with most of the black population remaining in or returning to the Deep South.

Another difference is that the majority of American blacks were urbanized rather late, not until the 1960s to 1970s as compared to the ubanization of the white majority several generations earlier. The black population, even in being segregated in inner cities, maintained larger social connections than have most whites. That segregation had many downsides in being built on racist practices of sundown towns, redlining, and exclusion from government benefits that gave so many whites an advantage in moving into the suburban middle class. Yet it had the side benefit of maintaining black communities and black culture as something distinct from the rest of society, and this allowed a certain way of social relating that had been lost to the average white person. As Stephen Steinberg wrote:

“More important, feminist scholars forced us to reassess single parenting. In her 1973 study All Our Kin, Carol Stack showed how poor single mothers develop a domestic network consisting of that indispensable grandmother, grandfathers, uncles, aunts, cousins, and a patchwork of neighbors and friends who provide mutual assistance with childrearing and the other exigencies of life. By comparison , the prototypical nuclear family, sequestered in a suburban house, surrounded by hedges and cut off from neighbors, removed from the pulsating vitality of poor urban neighborhoods, looks rather bleak. As a black friend once commented , “I didn’t know that blacks had weak families until I got to college.””

Blacks weren’t allowed to assimilate to the larger society and so had to stick to their own communities, opposite of many other ethnic populations that were encouraged and sometimes forced to assimilate (e.g., German-Americans during world war era). To be black is always to have the stigma of the Deep South and all it stands for. Most whites had their past erased, but blacks aren’t ever allowed to escape the past. And for whites the erasure happened twice over — once before in Europe and once again in the post-colonial order.

The indigenous cultures and religions of Europe were genocidally wiped out over the past two millennia and replaced with foreign systems of rule and worship, primarily of the Roman Empire and the Christianity with the Catholic Church playing a key role, although in England it was the Romanized Normans that created the monarchy and aristocracy that replaced traditional British society. American blacks can look back to West Africa where traditional cultures remain to a large degree, but American whites can’t look back to Europe for traditional cultures are missing. The erasure and amnesia of whiteness is nearly absolute.

This is the reason whites are forced to define themselves against what they are not — they aren’t black, as they aren’t ‘savages’ or ‘primitives’. They inherited the Roman ‘civilization’ as an overlay of all that was destroyed and lost which means they aren’t even ‘indigenous’. So, they’ve become part of some amorphous and monolithic Westernization, upon which WEIRD bias is founded. This WEIRD, this Wetiko disease as victimization cycle is a scar of trauma upon trauma, so many layers thick that the contours of what came before is obliterated. All that is left is whiteness as an empty signifier, an absence and a void, but that throbbing wound reminds us who are called white that we too once had our own traditional and indigenous cultures, that we too were once people of a particular land, of ancient languages and lifeways long since forgotten.

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“What have you given up?” – Zen priest Greg Snyder on growing up Pennsylvanian Dutch, assimilation, intimacy, and power
interview by Eleanor Hancock

The main thing that was different about growing up in a Pennsylvania Dutch (PD) community, in central Pennsylvania, is that my default identity wasn’t white. I didn’t know people without Germanic surnames – Snyder or Rehmeyer or Schroeder. That area of Pennsylvania was said to be, at the time, the least ethnically diverse place in the U.S.; virtually everyone was Pennsylvania Dutch. We were in the social position of being treated as white — but as a kid that wasn’t our first way of talking about ourselves. […]

In Pennsylvania I was a shy boy; I was afraid. We moved around a lot, to new places, and felt alone. But I also had a sense of “we.” So much of that “we” had to do with the land. It wasn’t an abstract we, like “we’re all American.” I am suspicious of that identity and wonder how many folks really walk around with a deep, gratifying visceral identity as an American. Maybe they do. I guess I am just suspicious of identities that seem to have more to do with power than connection. […]

When I go back to central Pennsylvania and I see that particular landscape, it feels like me. I am that land. I am the people who till the earth on that land. I know that shale; shale is right on top of slate. I used to make chalkboards with my brother, cutting into that ground. It’s sad: in one or two more generations, I think the people I am of will be gone, as an identifiable ethnicity in the U.S. Maybe the Amish will survive, but already assimilated Pennsylvania Dutch are shifting from calling themselves Pennsylvania Dutch to referring to themselves as being descended from Pennsylvania Dutch. Capitalism and whiteness are really good at wiping out ethnic support systems for poor white people.

In Undoing Racism workshops [for white folks], at Brooklyn Zen Center, we have participants state their ethnicity. How connected they are to their ethnicity depends on how far back it got included in the white camp. Italians and Greeks are clear: “I’m Italian; I’m Greek.” They know who they are. While those of English or Welsh background don’t really have any idea who they are; it’s hazy. So they say “I’m just white suburban.” As someone with a Germanic heritage (which has also been wiped away in the U.S.), what I cherish is that I grew up with a sense of a people. The saddest thing for white people, and something they need to look closely into, is what’s missing. What’s missing when you let whiteness characterize you? What have you given up? […]

There were lots of things like this, that were experienced as an ethnic community. Having a sense of a people, where you live together and do things together — an identity — I think that’s a loss. Of course food is the last thing to go with eroding ethnicity, so fastnachts and Pennsylvania Dutch food are still popular. But I remember having a sense of the year’s progression in relationship to the cycles of the harvest and community religious celebration. When I left Pennsylvania, that was lost.

When an ethnicity falls away for the sake of whiteness, we trade intimacy of connection for positions of power. If you understand yourself as an individual without a people, the only thing protecting you is your social location. We have to interrogate that deeply. What would it be like to be a people that is not rooted in power? […]

As a kid in farm country, when you ran out of something you went to your neighbor and asked for it. If you started working in your yard, your neighbor showed up to help you. When my aunt Henrietta got cancer, pies and other food just kept showing up. Here in New York City, I’d never ask my neighbor for anything. In middle-class white circles, asking your neighbor for something can be seen as a sign of shame or weakness: “Why haven’t you figured this out?”

Roots Deeper than Whiteness
by David Dean

In order to weaken their resistance to enclosure and prepare them for a forced exodus to towns and cities as the exploited labor force that this new economy required, the communal, earth-based, and celebratory cultural identity of the English peasantry was attacked. In The World Turned Upside Down, English historian Christopher Hill describes the attempted brainwashing of this population to believe in the primacy of work and the devilish nature of rest and festivity.

“Protestant preachers in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century undertook a cultural revolution, an exercise in indoctrination, on a hitherto unprecedented scale… to create the social conditions which discouraged idleness. This meant opposing observance of saints’ days, and the traditional village festivals and sports, and sexual irresponsibility… it took generations for those attitudes to be internalized. ‘It is the violent only that are successful,’ wrote the gentle Richard Sibbes: ‘they take it [salvation] by force’.”

Notions of the isolated nuclear family and women’s inherent inferiority were also emphasized. If a wife could be subjected to life as the sole sustainer of her family in the home then her husband could be expended of all his energy in the factory. Women, too, were associated with the devil. Federici names the witch-hunts as a tool of this cultural revolution and the movement to take away the commons. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of women were tortured and killed throughout Europe. The century between 1550 and 1650 was both the height of the enclosures and of this genocide in England. Particularly autonomous women were in the greatest danger of persecution. Herbalists and traditional healers, widows and the unmarried, and outspoken community leaders were regularly targeted. Mass government-run propaganda campaigns led peasants to fear one another, effectively dividing and weakening them against the threat of enclosure.

Relentless protest and insurrection, most notably the Midlands Revolt of 1607, was not enough to prevent the eventual outcome. Historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker illustrate the “colossal dimensions of the expropriation of the peasantry” in The Many-Headed Hydra:

“By the end of the sixteenth century there were twelve times as many propertyless people as there had been a hundred years earlier. In the seventeenth century alone almost a quarter of the land in England was enclosed. Aerial photography and excavations have located more than a thousand deserted villages and hamlets…”

Communities were traumatized and splintered. The fortunate worked in urban textile mills under grueling conditions, weaving into fabric wool shorn from sheep that grazed their ancestral lands. Most were not so lucky and lived on city streets as beggars at a time when loitering and petty theft were punished with physical mutilation, years of incarceration, or death.

Even with this mixture of urban poverty, hyper-criminalization, and merchant campaigns to encourage the poor to go to overseas colonies as indentured servants, only some willingly left their home country. The Virginia Company, a corporation with investors and executives intent on profiting from the theft of labor and foreign land, began collaborating with the English government to develop a solution to the problems of unemployment and vagrancy. Homeless and incarcerated women, men, and even children, began to be rounded up and put on ships headed to the plantation colony of Virginia to be bought and traded by wealthy British royalists. According to Linebaugh and Rediker, of the nearly 75,000 English indentured servants brought to British colonies in the seventeenth century most were taken against their will. In The History of White People, Nell Irvin Painter commented that in this era these captive voyagers would be “lucky to outlive their terms of service.” However at this point in history, they still did not call themselves “white.”

They crossed the ocean with their traditional way of life shattered, clinging to meaningful communal identity only in memory. They arrived to the colony of Virginia through the early and mid-1600s where, according to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, fifty wealthy families held almost all of the land. They worked on tobacco plantations for periods of seven to fourteen years with indentured and enslaved Africans and some indigenous people, two other populations recently torn from their cultures and communities.

At this time forms of racism did exist. Scholar Cedric Robinson tells about the existence of various forms of race-like hierarchy within European societies for centuries. In early colonial Virginia the presence of racism was evidenced by the initial genocidal attacks on indigenous nations, some disproportionately harsh sentencing toward people of color in colonial courts, and the fact that even though chattel slavery had not yet been fully institutionalized, some African and Native people were already spending their entire lives in bondage.

However historians Jacqueline Battalora and Edmund Morgan note that the historical evidence still is clear that all three of these laboring groups in Virginia shared a more similar position in society and stronger relationships with each other than they soon would. It was common for them to socialize and inhabit in the same quarters. They often intermarried and built families together. They toiled in fields side by side and were degraded and beaten by the same wealthy masters.

Many had lived on some form of “commons” earlier in their own lives and some sought to live in this way again. The Many-Headed Hydra includes the following striking examples. In the early years of the Jamestown settlement one in seven Englishmen fled to live within the more egalitarian Tsenacomoco or Powhatan Confederacy, inspiring the Virginia Company to enact a decree called Laws Divine, Moral, and Marshall threatening execution for desertion in order “to keep English settlers and Native Americans apart.”

The Vast and Beautiful World of Indigenous Europe
by Lyla June Johnston

I have come to believe that if we do not wholly love our ancestors, then we do not truly know who they are. For instance, I get very offended when people call Native Americans “good-for-nothing drunks.” Because by saying this, people don’t take into account the centuries of attempted genocide, rape and drugging of Native American people. They don’t see the beauty of who we were before the onslaught. And now, I am offended when people call European descendants “privileged good-for-nothing pilgrims.” Because by saying this, people do not take into account the thousands of years that European peoples were raped, tortured and enslaved. They do not understand the beauty of who we were before the onslaught. They do not understand that even though we have free will and the ability to choose how we live our life, it is very hard to overcome inter-generational trauma. What happens in our formative years and what our parents teach us at that time can be very hard to reverse.

They estimate that 8-9 million European women were burned alive, drowned alive, dismembered alive, beaten, raped and otherwise tortured as so-called, “witches.” It is obvious to me now that these women were not witches, but were the Medicine People of Old Europe. They were the women who understood the herbal medicines, the ones who prayed with stones, the ones who passed on sacred chants, the ones who whispered to me that night in the hoghan. This all-out warfare on Indigenous European women, not only harmed them, but had a profound effect on the men who loved them. Their husbands, sons and brothers. Nothing makes a man go mad like watching the women of his family get burned alive. If the men respond to this hatred with hatred, the hatred is passed on. And who can blame them? While peace and love is the correct response to hatred, it is not the easy response by any means.

The Indigenous Cultures of Europe also sustained forced assimilation by the Roman Empire and other hegemonic forces. In fact, it was only a few decades ago that any Welsh child caught speaking Welsh in school would have a block of wood tied to their neck. The words “WN” were there-inscribed, standing for “welsh not.” This kind of public humiliation will sound very familiar to any Native Americans reading this who attended U.S. Government boarding schools.

Moreover, our indigenous European ancestors faced horrific epidemics of biblical proportions. In the 1300s, two-thirds of Indigenous Europeans were wiped from the face of the earth. The Black Death, or Bubonic Plague, ravaged entire villages with massive lymph sores that filled with puss until they burst open. Sound familiar?

The parallels between the genocide of Indigenous Europeans and Native Americans are astounding. It boggles my mind that more people don’t see how we are the same people, who have undergone the same spiritual assault. The only difference between the Red Story and the White Story is we are in different stages of the process of spiritual warfare. Native Americans are only recently becoming something they are not. They are only recently starting to succumb to the temptations of drugs, alcohol, gambling, self-destruction and the destruction of others. Just as some Native American people have been contorted and twisted by so many centuries of abuse, so too were those survivors of the European genocide. Both are completely forgivable in my eyes.

The Lost People
by Thom Hartmann

Imagine if this — the dream and best effort of the White conquerors from Europe — was fulfilled. Imagine if there was not even one single Native American alive in the entire world who could speak a single sentence in Cree or Ojibwa or Apache or Lakota. Imagine if every Native American alive today, when thinking back to his or her ancestors and past, could only imagine a black-and-white world where people were mute and their ceremonies were mysterious and probably useless and primitive, having no meaning…and if they did have meaning, it didn’t matter anyway because it was now lost. A total forgetting of the past — all the ways and languages and memories and stories — destroyed by the people who had conquered your people. Every bit of your culture was burned in the fire of this conquest, and all was lost. All of your people knew the history of Greece and Rome and England, but nothing of the Cherokee or Dene or Iroquois people.

Can you imagine what a disaster that would be? How empty and alone and frightened you and your people would feel? How easily they could be turned into slaves and robots by the dominators? How disconnected they would feel from the Earth and from each other? And how this disconnection could lead them to accept obscene behavior like wars and personal violence and the fouling of waters and air and soil as “normal”? Perhaps they would even celebrate this fouling in the name of “progress,” because they would have no memory of the Old Ways, no realization of the meaning or consequences of these actions.

Imagine if your people were no longer a people, no longer nations and tribes and clans, but only frightened individuals of a different race than their conquerors, speaking only the language of their conquerors, sharing only the memories of their conquerors, and living only to serve the richest of those conquerors.

This is an almost unimaginable picture. The worse fate that could befall any people. The most horrific crime humans can commit against other humans.

And this is what happened a few thousand years ago to my people, to the Whites of Europe, who for 70,000 years prior to that had lived tribally just as your elders did.

It was done first by the Celts, who conquered and consolidated most of the tribal people of Europe 3000 years ago. It was then done more thoroughly by Julius Caesar of the pre-Christian Romans 2000 years ago. And it was absolutely finished by the iron-fisted “Christian” Romans 1000 years ago as their new Church sought out and destroyed all the ancient places, banned the old rituals, and tortured and murdered people who practiced the ancient European tribal religions. They even converted all alphabets to the Roman alphabet, and forced European people to change their holy days, calendars, and even the date (the year 1 or “beginning of time”) to one that marked the beginning of the Roman Christian Empire’s history.

This massive and thorough stripping of their identity and ancient ways — this “great forgetting,” as the Australian Aborigines refer to it — is why my people often behave as if they are “insane.” It is why they are disrespectful of our Mother the Earth and the life on Her. It is why so many of my people want to be like you and your people, to the point of dressing in buckskin and carrying medicine pouches and building sweat lodges from California to Maine to Germany. It is why we have hundreds of “odd” religions and paths, and why so many of my people flit from Hinduism to Buddhism to Paganism like a butterfly going from flower to flower: they have no roots, no tribe, no elders, no path of their own. All were systematically destroyed by the Celts, the Romans, and then the Roman Catholics. Whites in America and Europe — and Blacks who were brought to America as slaves and have since lost their ancient ways and languages — are a people bereft. They are alone and isolated from their ancient clans and tribes. Broken apart from the Earth, they are unable to reclaim their ancient languages, practices, and medicine…because these are gone, totally destroyed, even to the last traces. […]

For over a thousand years, the soldiers and inquisitors of the Holy Roman Catholic Church spread across Europe and destroyed the native people’s sacred sites, forbade them to practice their religions, and hunted down and killed those who spoke the Old Languages or practiced the healing or ancient arts.

Stones with written histories on them were smashed to dust.

Ancient temples and libraries were torn down or set afire, and Roman churches were built atop them.

The few elders who tried to preserve the Old Ways were called “witches” and “pagans” and “heathens,” and imprisoned, tortured, hung, beheaded, impaled, or burned alive. Their sacred groves of trees were burned, and if their children went into the forest to pray they were arrested and executed. God was taken from the natural world and put into the box of a church, and Nature was no longer regarded as sacred but, instead, as evil and dangerous, something to be subdued and dominated.

For a thousand years — continuously — the conquerors of the Roman Official (Catholic) Church did this to the tribal people of Europe.

As a result, today not a single European remembers the Old Ways or can speak the Ancient Languages. Not a single elder is left who knows of sacred sites, healing plants, or how to pronounce the names of his ancestors’ gods. None remember the time — which the archeological record indicates was probably at least twenty thousand years long, and perhaps as much as seventy thousand years long — when tribes lived peacefully and harmoniously in much of what we now call Europe. None remember the ways of the tribes, their ceremonies, their rituals of courtship, marriage, birth, death, healing, bringing rain, speaking to the plants and animals and stones of our Mother the Earth.

Not one single person alive still carries this knowledge. All is lost but a few words, the dates and names of some holidays, and a few simple concepts that have been stripped of their original context.

For example, my father’s parents came here from Norway during World War I. They spoke Norwegian, but it was not the true language of their ancestors. That language was written with a different alphabet, which is referred to today as Runic; nobody alive remembers how to pronounce the runes, or their original meanings. Adolf Hitler adopted one of the ancient Norwegian runes — what is believed to be the symbol of lightning and the god of lightning — for his most elite troops. The double lightning-bolts looked like an SS, so they were called the SS, but it was really a rune. So lost are the old ways of my grandmother’s people that even the Nazis felt free to steal and reinvent them in any way they pleased.

When we track it back, it seems likely that it all began — the entire worldwide 5000-year-long orgy of genocide and cultural destruction — in a part of the Middle East known then as Ur and now called Iraq. It started with a man named Gilgamesh, or one of his ancestors, in an area now called Baghdad.

The first conquers — the first people to rise up and discard the Great Law — were not the “White men” of Europe. They were, instead, the people of the region where the Middle East meets northern Africa. (Which is why this area is referred to as the “Cradle of [our] Civilization.”) Their direct descendant is not the Pope or the Queen of England or King of Spain, but a man named Saddam Hussein.

What is the lesson of COVID-19?

The US has been reacting to this public health crisis of COVID-19. But one can’t remain in emergency mode permanently. So, we’ve suddenly switched to the opposite reaction of reopening everything as a free-for-all as if everything is fine and normal again. Then there will likely be a massive upswing again of infections, followed by another period of fearful reaction.

We are stuck in this cycle because we are unprepared, both in terms of public policy and public health. But a major factor is the population is so unhealthy with 88% of Americans being metabolically unfit, not to mention environmental risks to the health of poor communities. Even in the best of times, that would eventually be devastating simply in terms of financial costs. Some predict we might eventually go bankrupt from treating all those sick Americans, along with the increasing costs of sick days, disability pay, etc.

The main thing that COVID-19 is showing us is how weak of a position we are in. It’s multiple factors that are putting us in a difficult bind. And this is a rather minor pandemic. If a truly deadly pandemic hits, which is inevitable, our society is going to be totally crippled and devastated. We barely can manage public health issues and healthcare costs without a pandemic. This situation is only going to get worse, specifically as the rates of metabolic disease continue to rise.

If we don’t become pro-active about dietary policy and healthcare quickly, we could be facing an existential crisis as a society. So, why is no major official or expert talking about public health in terms of factors we can control, specifically comorbidities such as diet-related and pollution-related suppression of the immune system? We can try to control external risk factors through public policies on social gathering and such, but we’d be wiser in the long term to improve public health by improving the metabolic and immunological health of Americans so that we are less susceptible to infections in the first place.

Being unhealthy is not only a threat to the individual. When magnified across an entire society, most of the population being unhealthy is a much greater threat. Every single unhealthy individual is a risk factor, is a threat of infectious spread to their family, friends, neighbors, fellow church congregants, etc. Personal health is a public health issue. But Americans seem only to know how to react to such things, or else scapegoat individuals for failure of public policy. Even those who want to dismiss it all are likewise trapped in an opposite reaction. Both sides have their head in the sand about the most central factor.

Even if the COVID-19 pandemic fizzles out in the end with maybe only a million or so dead in the United States, it doesn’t change the basic public health crisis that will continue to get worse. Imagine when even more people in the United States and worldwide have metabolic diseases, and imagine when an even more virulent infectious disease hits. If we make no changes before then to improve individual and public health, we will be in a worse position than now and we will still be unprepared. Are we going to learn any lesson from this crisis?

None of this is to consider the potential combination of other factors. We are likely entering a period of one crisis after another with each crisis as bad or worse than the one before. Besides pandemics and other public health problems, there will be climate change events with worsening and increasing number of superstorms, along with floods, droughts, wildfires, famines, etc that will lead to refugee crises, social instability, civil wars, political coups, international conflict, fight over resources, and on and on.

That could be on top of the crises of destabilizing inequality, loss of public trust, and weakening political authority; not to mention various backlashes of reactionary politics, authoritarianism, riots, terrorism, and so much else. In the end, worsening health concerns, even pandemics, might be the least of our worries. But certainly a great enough public health crisis alone could unleash a cascade of stresses, conflicts, and failures within American society and across the geopolitical order.

This situation with COVID-19 is a warning we should heed. This could be, as some claim, the new normal. Or else a mere suggestion of the new normal yet to come.

Democratic Realism

We are defined by our opposition, in many ways. And a society is determined by the frame of opposition, the boundaries of allowable thought — such as right and left (or equivalent frame). This is how power has operated in the United States. In recent generations, this frame of the “political spectrum” has intentionally been kept extremely narrow. Sadly, it is precisely the supposed political left that has kept pushing right, such as the Clinton Democrats supporting the military-industrial complex, corporate deregulation, racist tough-on-crime laws, privatization of prisons, etc; not to mention supposed radical leftists like Noam Chomsky acting as sheepdogs for the one-party corporatist state.

In the past, right-wing reactionaries have often been successful by controlling the terms of debate, from co-opting language and redefining it (consider how libertarianism originated as part of the left-wing workers movement and how human biodiversity was conceived as a criticism of race realism) to the CIA in the Cold War funding moderate leftists (postmodernists, Soviet critics, etc) as part of a strategy to drown out radical leftists. This is how the most devious propaganda works, not primarily or entirely by silencing enemies of the state — although that happens as well — but through social control by means of thought control and public perception management. One might note that such propaganda has been implemented no matter which faction of plutocracy, Democrat or Republican, was in power.

This is how authoritarians create an oppressive society while hiding much of its overt violence behind a system of rhetoric. That is while the corporate media assists in not fully reporting on all of the poor and brown people killed abroad and imprisoned at home. Plus, there is systematic suppression of public awareness, public knowledge, and public debate about how immense is the slow violence of lead toxicity, poverty, inequality, segregation, disenfranchisement, etc). The propagandistic framing of thought control cripples the public mind and so paralyzes the body politic.

As such, any freedom-lover would not hope for an authoritarian left-wing to replace the present authoritarian right-wing. But we must become more savvy about authoritarianism. We Americans and other populations around the world have to become sophisticated in our intellectual defenses against rhetoric and propaganda. And we have to develop a counter-strategy to regain control of public fora in order to protect and ensure genuine public debate defined by a genuinely democratic public as an informed, engaged, and empowered citizenry. This would require a program of public education to teach what is authoritarianism, specifically how it operates and takes over societies, and also what relationship it has to the reactionary mind.

Before we get to that point, we need to free our minds from how the enforcement of authoritarian rhetoric becomes internalized as an ideological realism that is experienced as apathetic cynicism, as helpless and hopeless fatalism. So, let’s have a thought experiment and not limit ourselves to what the powers that be claim is possible. We could imagine a society where the right-wing and conservative opposition is represented by some combination of social democrats, progressives, bourgeois liberals, communitarians, and such. This far right and no further! There might be influential thought leaders acting as gatekeepers who would guard the ideological boundaries or else public shaming to maintain social norms in order keep out fascists, imperialists, and other outright authoritarians — ideological positions that would be considered immoral, dangerous, and taboo in respectable society.

Meanwhile, democratic socialists, municipal socialists, community organizers, environmentalists, civil rights advocates, and reformist groups would hold the position of moderate centrism. And on the other side of the equation, powerful social, economic and political forces of anarcho-syndicalism, radical liberationism, international labor movements, etc would constantly push the Overton window further and further to the the far left. This would allow the potential for center-left alliances to form strong political blocs.

This must require a strong culture of trust and a well developed system of democracy, not only democracy in politics but also in economics and as a holistic worldview that would be felt and practiced in everyday life. Democracy could never be part of the public debate for it would have to be the entire frame of public debate. Democracy is about the demos, the people, the public. Public debate, by definition, is and can only be democratic debate. Anything and everything could be tolerated, as long as it isn’t anti-democratic, which is why authoritarianism would be excluded by default. The public must develop a gut-level sense of what it means to live not only in a democratic society but as part of a democratic culture.

That would create immense breathing room for genuine, meaningful, and effective public debate that would be supported by a populist-driven political will with majority opinion situated to the left of what goes for the ‘left’ in the present ideological hegemony of the United States. That is our fantasy world, if not exactly a utopian vision. We could imagine many scenarios much more revolutionary and inspiring, but what we describe wouldn’t be a bad start. At the very least, it would be a more interesting and less depressing society to live in.

Rather than a political left always weakened and on the defense, often oppressed and brutalized and almost always demoralized, it would be an entire culture that had taken the broad ‘left’ as the full spectrum of ideological possibilities to be considered. As the revolutionary era led to the social construction of a post-feudal liberalism and conservatism, a 21st century revolution of the mind would imagine into existence a post-neo-feudal democratic left and democratic right. Democracy would be taken as an unquestioned and unquestionable given, based on the assumption of it representing the best of all possible worlds. In place of capitalist realism and fascist realism or even communist realism, we would have democratic realism.

* * *

This post was inspired by a strong left-wing critique of the failures of social democracy in Western countries (see below). The author, Stephen Gowans, is a foreign policy analyst with several books in print. In his recent article, he argued that social democracy has been, in practice, fundamentally conservative in how capitalist societies and their political systems are designed or shaped by elites and so serve elite interests. We don’t know what to think of Gowans’ own political proclivities of old school leftism, but he makes a good point that we find compelling.

The bogeymen of communists, both in the Soviet Union and in the West, kept capitalist power in line and so curtailed fascism and other authoritarian tendencies. If not for the ideological threat of the Soviets as a global superpower, there likely would have been no leverage for radical leftists in the West to force political and economic elites to comply with the reforms they demanded. Similarly, it was the Soviet attack on the American oppression of blacks that gave the civil rights movement the ability to influence an otherwise unsympathetic government ruled by rich whites who benefited from their continued oppression.

Social democrats often are given the credit for these reforms, but the actual social and political force came from radical left-wingers. This is not unlike why Teddy Roosevelt openly argued that conservative and pro-capitalist progressives should listen to the grievances of socialists and communists so as to co-opt them. In offering their own solutions, such leaders on the political right could steal the thunder of left-wing rhetoric and moral force. So, Roosevelt could throw out some significant reforms to reign in big biz at home while simultaneously promoting am American imperialism that defended and expanded the interests of big biz abroad. He only offered any reforms at all because left-wingers were a real threat that needed to be neutralized.

So, once the external pressure of a threatening geopolitical opponent was gone, those very same elites could safely reverse the reforms they had previously been forced to allow, in fear of the alternative of a left-wing uprising. The object of their fear was eliminated and so the elites could once again show their true face of authoritarianism. What we added to this line of thought was, if social democrats have acted like conservatives under these conditions, then we should more accurately treat them as an ideology on the political right. In that case, what follows from this is then how to define the political center and political left.

Here is another thought, to extend the speculation about how our enemies shape us and hence the importance of carefully picking our enemies, which then defines our frame of reference. We are in another period of geopolitical contest that already is or is quickly becoming a second cold war, but this time the perceived enemy or rather enemies are no longer on the political left. What the ruling elites in the West offer up as a scapegoat for our anxieties are now all far right, if in a rather mixed up fasnion: Islamic Jihadists, Iranian theocrats, Russian oligarchs, Chinese fascists, and a North Korean dictator. In response to these right-wing threats, the Western authoritarians have pushed further right. This is different than in the past when, in facing down left-wing threats, the powerful interests of the time felt they had to relent in letting themselves be pulled left.

Apparently, according to this established dynamic of ideological forces, to make real our crazy fantasy of ideological realignment toward the political left what we need is a new left-wing bogeyman outside of the Western sphere, as a supposed threat to Western civilization. Better yet, make the perceived opposing left-wing ideology non-democratic or anti-democratic so that by being in knee-jerk opposition to it mainstream media and political figures in the West would be forced to be polarized in the other direction by adopting democratic rhetoric and democratic reforms. Sheer genius!

Social Democracy, Soviet Socialism and the Bottom 99 Percent
(text below is from link)

Many left-leaning US citizens are envious of countries that have strong social democratic parties, but their envy is based mainly on romantic illusions, not reality. Western Europe and Canada may be represented by mass parties at the Socialist International, but the subtitle of Lipset and Marks’ book, Why Socialism Failed in the United States, is just as applicable to these places as it is to the United States. For socialism—in the sense of a gradual accumulation of reforms secured through parliamentary means eventually leading to a radical transformation of capitalist society–not only failed in the United States, it failed too in the regions of the world that have long had a strong social democratic presence. Even a bourgeois socialism, a project to reform (though not transcend) capitalism, has failed.

This essay explores the reasons for this failure by examining three pressures that shape the agendas of social democratic parties (by which I mean parties that go by the name Socialist, Social Democrat, Labour, NDP, and so on.) These are pressures to:

• Broaden the party’s appeal.
• Avoid going to war with capital.
• Keep the media onside.

These pressures are an unavoidable part of contesting elections within capitalist democracies, and apply as strongly to parties dominated by business interests as they do to parties that claim to represent the interests of the working class, labour, or these days, ‘average’ people or ‘working families’. The behaviour and agenda of any party that is trapped within the skein of capitalist democracy and places great emphasis on electoral success—as social democratic parties do–is necessarily structured and constrained by the capitalist context. As such, while social democratic parties may self-consciously aim to represent the bottom 99 percent of society, they serve–whether intending to or not—the top one percent.

So how is it, then, that egalitarian reforms have been developed in capitalist democracies if not through the efforts of social democratic parties? It’s true that social democrats pose as the champions of these programs, and it’s also true that conservatives are understood to be their enemies, yet conservatives have played a significant role in pioneering them, and social democrats, as much as right-wing parties, have been at the forefront of efforts to weaken and dismantle them. Contrary to the mythology of social democratic parties, the architects of what measures exist in capitalist democracies for economic security and social welfare haven’t been social democrats uniquely or even principally, but often conservatives seeking to calm working class stirrings and secure the allegiance to capitalism of the bottom 99 percent of society against the counter-example (when it existed) of the Soviet Union. […]

Egalitarian reforms, however, have been achieved over the years in Western capitalist societies, despite these obstacles, and this reality would seem to call my argument into question. Yet the number and nature of the reforms have fallen short of the original ambitions of social democracy, and in recent decades, have been abridged, weakened and sometimes cancelled altogether, often by social democratic governments themselves. […]

The point, however, isn’t to explore the reasons for the Soviet Union’s demise, but to show that while it existed, the USSR provided a successful counter-example to capitalism. The ideological struggle of the capitalist democracies against the Soviet Union entailed the provision of robust social welfare programs and the translation of productivity gains into a monotonically rising standard of living. Once the ideological struggle came to an end with the closing of the Cold War, it was no longer necessary to impart these advantages to the working classes of North America, Western Europe and Japan. Despite rising productivity, growth in household incomes was capped, and social welfare measures were systematically scaled back.

Social democracy did nothing to reverse or arrest these trends. It was irrelevant. When strong social welfare measures and rising incomes were needed by the top one percent to undercut working class restlessness and the Soviet Union’s counter-example, these advantages were conferred on the bottom 99 percent by both social democratic and conservative governments. When these sops were no longer needed, both conservative and social democratic governments enacted measures to take them back. […]

Since capitalist forces would use the high-profile and visible platform of their mass media to vilify and discredit any party that openly espoused socialism or strongly promoted uncompromisingly progressive policies, social democratic parties willingly accept the capitalist straitjacket, embracing middle-of-the-road, pro-capitalist policies, while shunting their vestigial socialist ambitions to the side or abandoning them altogether. They planted themselves firmly on the left boundary of the possible, the possible being defined by conservative forces.

Conclusion

When social democratic parties espoused socialism as an objective, even if a very distant one, the socialism they espoused was to be achieved with the permission of capital on capital’s terms–an obvious impossibility. It is perhaps in recognizing this impossibility that most social democratic parties long ago abandoned socialism, if not in their formal programs, then certainly in their deeds. That social democratic parties should have shifted from democratic socialist ambitions to the acceptance of capitalism and the championing of reforms within it, and then finally to the dismantling of the reforms, is an inevitable outcome of the pressures cited above.

But the outcome is ultimately traceable to what history surely reveals to be a bankrupt strategy: trying to arrive at socialism, or at least, at a set of robust measures congenial to the interests of the bottom 99 percent, within the hostile framework of a system that is dominated by the top one percent. The best that has been accomplished, and its accomplishment cannot be attributed to social democratic parliamentary activism, is a set of revocable reforms that were conceded under the threat, even if unlikely, of revolution and in response to capitalism’s need to compete ideologically with the Soviet Union. These reforms are today being revoked, by conservative and social democratic governments alike. The reality is that social democracy, which had set out to reform capitalism on behalf of the bottom 99 percent, was reformed by it, and acts now to keep the top one percent happy in return for every now and then championing mild ameliorative measures that conservative forces would concede anyway under pressure.

The Great Weirding of New Media

Our society has become dominated by new kinds of media. One one level, we have a return to the image, in replacing or subverting or altering the written word, by way of cable tv, 24/7 news, Youtube, numerous streaming services, etc. But that isn’t quite correct. Even as the image has retaken territory within the psyche and the media world, the 21st century has seen a simultaneous rise in the consumption of text. More books are being published now than ever before in history. That is on top of the endless and overwhelming stream of news articles, long-form essays, the blogosphere, social media, email, and texting. There are comment threads on Reddit that are so long that, if printed out, would fill an entire multi-volume encyclopedia.

All media has increased, as unmediated experience has gone on a rapid decline. Even when people are together physically and in person, there are quite likely to be multiple devices that are offering diversion and distraction. In the middle of a conversation or debate while sitting with friends at home or chatting with a coworker over lunch, someone is likely to settle an issue or answer a question or throw in a factoid by turning to their smartphone. All the world is at your fingertip; well, all the world that conforms to the constraints of new media. Our minds are constantly aflutter with both word and image, if not so much the direct human relating that defined humanity for so long. If media is the message, what does it mean to have all of this addictive, compulsive, and obsessive, immersive, and always accessible media?

There have been a number of scholars who have explored how changes in media are closely tied into changes in culture and mentality — there is Marshall McLuhan, Walter J. Ong, Julian Jaynes, and Jean Gebser, to name a few. All of them agreed that media has the power to destabilize and transform societies, but none of them had formed their theories in analyzing media in the 21st century. They were prescient in many ways, that is true. Still, I’m not sure any of them was able to come close in predicting the full extent and impact of what media would become in the not too distant future that we are now living in. How could they?

There is something strange about the internet, in particular. There is such an ease of access to other humans, in being able to talk with people anywhere in the world. Even for those who only speak one language like English, much of the world’s population can communicate with them. But this means most interactions online have an arbitrary or random quality about them, in that the price of admission is low. It can feel like there is little at stake. The connections made are usually fleeting with the people interacting likely never meeting again. The quality of sitting alone and silently with text on a screen has similarities to talking to oneself or being lost in one’s own thoughts — it creates shallow intimacy, a sense of sharing that is only words deep. Besides, such sharing is rarely reciprocated, as there is this constant reticence and pulling away from these shadowy others lurking at the periphery of one’s mind (personal space is amorphous, shifting, and porous when online; this can be unsettling).

The human desire to connect draws one in, but typically leaves one dissatisfied or worse. It creates social conditions that are extremely unnatural, distorting, and anxiety-inducing. So much of the normal context of interactions are removed, not only the sensory experience of lived perception and behavioral observations of being in the embodied presence of others but also the shared environmental and cultural context that offers cues, norms, roles, expectations, and such. Even videos, be it Youtube or Zoom, create an odd situation in the hyper-focus on the face; and seeing one’s own image while talking lends an agitating self-consciousness, as if one is performing on a stage.

Text without video isn’t better as it can lead to an insular unawareness of others, as if one is talking to oneself while the people on the other side of the screen aren’t quite present or, at best, that they are a mere audience to one’s monologue (this is magnified by the tendency of text to induce abstract thought, whether in how people get caught up in ideologies or in how they reify their ideas, in either case making it harder to differentiate between thought and reality). Along with anonymity, this is a probable contributing factor to disinhibition in people acting in ways and saying things they otherwise would not. If one expresses online that one’s feelings were hurt as one might do in normal life with a friend who said something unkind or careless, one is unlikely to receive sympathy or even acknowledgement, much less an apology and contrition — to expect any human warmth from other humans online is treated as naive, pathetic, and laughable. That is how low our standards have become.

The human quality that exists in almost any other situation is missing when people pull on the masks of their online identities. That latter issue is most apparent in a blog such as this. The blogger is an unknown entity, as is each new commenter. There is often a heavy guardedness to such interactions where everyone is ready to retreat, attack, or evade — sometimes a near total lack of the basic goodwill and casual trustfulness that is more common in person, the lack occasionally verging on paranoia about the intentions of the other. The internet can be a harsh and unforgiving social environment, a playground where our worst impulses are unleashed.

More often than one would prefer, people online say what they otherwise would not and in ways they would not if they were talking to a living, breathing, feeling person right in front of them. Such ways of treating others can come across as quite unfriendly, often passively indifferent and apathetically unsympathetic, but sometimes downright cruel or trollish, aggressive and confrontational. Yet at other times, one leaves a comment and gets no response at all, even when attempting to be friendly in inviting connection. And because of the practice of drive-by commenting, even responding to a comment won’t necessarily elicit dialogue. This kind of behavior of one-way talking would never happen in most other situations in life (Would you drive around your town yelling at strangers? Would you knock at people’s doors, blurt out your political opinions or pet theory, and then run away? Would you harangue and criticize random people at a store and then act shocked or outraged by their negative response? Would you stand on a street corner giving a monologue to a passing crowd about your relationship problems or the movie you just saw?). One-way behavior in general is indicative of power inequality where one has no social obligation or moral responsibility to the other who is perceived as inferior in value or of lesser position. This othering effect can be quite profound and disconcerting.

It’s not only strangers that are pulled into this great weirding of new media (the “great weirding” is related to what some refer to as the “global weirding”). Similar interactions or rather non-interactions happen with people one personally knows, including family. You text, email, or Facebook chat someone as a friendly gesture of conversation. Under normal conditions in talking face-to-face, this person you know would immediately acknowledge you said something and respond. But the social norms of relating well don’t translate outside of the directly interpersonal sphere. One loses count of how often no response is ever given, even when it shows the person viewed what you sent them. Could you imagine meeting your brother or a neighbor you’ve known for years, casually saying something to them as an easygoing conversation-starter, have them stand their silently as if you said nothing at all, and then watching them walk away as if you weren’t there? Yet that is the equivalent of what happens with new media on a regular basis. Most people don’t seem to recognize how utterly bizarre this is.

This lack of basic recognition of another’s humanity, of course, is far worse with those met online without any prior personal contact. Most of the internet is not people fighting but ignoring each other, as if people of different identities, views, and ways of speaking don’t matter or don’t exist. A large part of online commentary occurs with little or any response — it’s echos in the void, a vast seething swarm of humanity mostly talking to themselves or else to those who already agree with them, which is the same difference. That is how it can feel at times. Maybe this is why so many seek out conflict, simply to be acknowledged at all. This is how people can become trollish without consciously intending to do so. Trolling is often more of a mentality one falls into than an identity one embraces. Any attention can be good attention, to all those isolated individuals hidden behind their keyboards amidst the lonely masses in their not-always-quiet desperation.

We humans are social creatures — we need the social as we need air and water; we long for human contact and relationship. Here is the rub: Social conditions determine our social behavior. But millions of years of hominid evolution happened in a far different kind of environment than we’ve created in recent generations. Social behavior requires social input. Mindreading others (i.e., social cognition) requires the development of a mental map of others. This is called theory of mind, but there is an interesting and informed speculation. It appears that, as children, we develop a theory of mind of others before we develop a theory of mind for ourselves. That is to say our self-concept is a model that mirrors and internalizes our developing perception and understanding that comes through relationship. The other becomes the self. And so the others we are surrounded by are powerfully influential — as your mother told you, pick carefully who you associate with, including the strangers you interact with. “Let me explain,” writes Augustin Fuentes (Are We Really as Awful as We Act Online?).

“We’ve all heard the diet-conscious axiom “You are what you eat.” But when it comes to our behavior, a more apt variation is “You are whom you meet.” How we perceive, experience, and act in the world is intensely shaped by who and what surround us on a daily basis—our families, communities, institutions, beliefs, and role models. These sources of influence find their way even into our neurobiology. Our brains and bodies constantly undergo subtle changes so that how we perceive the world plays off of, and maps to, the patterns of those people and places we see as most connected to us. This process has deep evolutionary roots and gives humans what we call a shared reality. The connection between minds and experiences enables us to share space and work together effectively, more so than most other beings. It’s in part how we’ve become such a successful species.

“But the “who” that constitutes “whom we meet” in this system has been changing. Today the who can include more virtual, social media friends than physical ones; more information absorbed via Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram than in physical social experiences; and more pronouncements from ad-sponsored 24-hour news outlets than from conversations with other human beings. We live in complicated societies structured around political and economic processes that generate massive inequality and disconnection between us. This division alone leads to a plethora of prejudices and blind spots that segregate people. The ways we socially interact, especially via social media, are multiplying exactly at a time when we are increasingly divided. What may be the consequences?

This is where new media short-circuits our normal cognitive and affective functioning. If we can’t fully experience the other with all of our senses, our ability to read them is crippled. Pushed to the extreme, our ability to read ourselves can also go offline as we go online. The signalling we depend on disappears and so might much of our self-awareness. The person on Twitter or wherever might not be an intentional asshole or troll. Rather, in a sense, they might be lashing out in social blindness. And the same goes for us. That is the thing about the internet. It creates the social conditions of social unawareness for people who likely have little ability to handle this well. Someone who spent their whole life blind can walk down a city street and not get run over. But put blindfolds on crowds of sighted people and they’ll be running into each other and they won’t be happy about it. Then imagine what happens when you also put blindfolds onto those driving the cars. Well, that is what the internet is like.

By the way, some studies indicate that internet trolls may not be as socially blind as some but they are psychologically deaf, in not emotionally hearing their targets and victims except in the most exaggerated forms of emotional response. Interestingly, though lacking affective empathy, trolls actually measured high on cognitive empathy, which is to say they understand human behavior well enough for purposes of manipulation while being emotionally numb to the consequences — to put it simply, they know where to jab the knife for greatest hurt (Evita March, Psychology of internet trolls). On the other hand, “trolls displayed low levels of emotional and social intelligence” (Neil Graney, Is internet trolling simply replacing the violence we used to see on the football terraces?). Trolls are both stupid and smart in relating to others — call them stupid-smart. The other person remains psychologically unreal to them and so they just don’t get what all the fuss is about (it’s all about the lulz). Keep in mind, though, that anyone can be prone to trolling, particularly when a precedent of trolling has been set in a particular situation (Justin Cheng et al, Anyone Can Become a Troll) — this is maybe why trolls seem to proliferate and take over comment threads. It’s a virulent mind virus.

Outright trolling behavior (Dark Tetrad: psychopathic, sadistic, narcissism, Machiavellian) aside, what we perceive as anti-social behavior may often be better understood as non-social behavior, that is to say normal responses to abnormal conditions. It’s a reality-warping effect. We become disconnected to a radically extreme degree because most of the key markers of reality perception are missing; and so we relate without fully relating, something we’ve all experienced in the regular irritations, conflicts, and miscommunications of the internet. What one sees on a screen might not feel psychologically and viscerally real, even as intellectually we know there are real people involved living real lives in the real world. This effect can be subtle in unconsciously creeping up on us after spending long periods on the computer or scrolling our smartphone, as is common these days between work and home. It can take immense effort of reality monitoring (combining self-awareness and social awareness) to counter this sense of derealization. About why this psychological slippage happens, Alan Martin wrote (Online disinhibition and the psychology of trolling):

“Psychologist John Suller wrote a paper on this in 2004, entitled “The Online Disinhibition Effect”, where he explored six factors that could combine to change people’s behaviour online. These are dissociative anonymity (“my actions can’t be attributed to my person”); invisibility (“nobody can tell what I look like, or judge my tone”); asynchronicity (“my actions do not occur in real-time”); solipsistic Introjection (“I can’t see these people, I have to guess at who they are and their intent”); dissociative imagination (“this is not the real world, these are not real people”); and minimising authority (“there are no authority figures here, I can act freely”). The combination of any number of these leads to people behaving in ways they wouldn’t when away from the screen, often positively — being more open, or honest — but sometimes negatively, abusing their fellow internet users in ways they wouldn’t dream of offline.

“Internet psychologist Graham Jones believes that to a certain extent the kind of aggressive behaviour often seen online happens in the real world. “Having said that, there is a feature of the online world that makes such negative behaviour more likely than in the real world,” he says. “In the real world people subconsciously monitor the behaviour of others around them and adapt their own behaviour accordingly… Online we do not have such feedback mechanisms. These feedback mechanisms can be body language, facial expressions or more obvious cues, but a recent study at the Univeristy of Haifa revealed that those who had to maintain eye contact were half as likely to be hostile as those who had the eyes hidden. The lead author of the study, Noam Lapidot-Lefler, believes this is because eye contact “helps you understand the other person’s feelings, the signals that the person is trying to send you.”

Some people are more skillful in handling this psychological crippling of online environments. They might have learned greater social intuition about personality and behavior from some kind of atypical life experience or professional training. Or because of some lucky combo of nature and nurture, they might’ve always been extraordinarily calm, accepting, gracious, and forgiving toward others. But for most of us, we continually bump into one another and then immediately blame the other, likely even giving them a good whack to teach them a lesson and complain mightily when they whack us back, that is if we manage to even slightly recognize and appreciate their humanity and existence. One might like to think that one is above average in interpersonal skills and moral character, unlike all those other social morons and lowly reprobates, but the fact of the matter is most people are not above average. And in the social blindness of the online world, the standard social ability of the average is already quite low.

It’s actually worse than described since, as the deficient social signaling can make us socially blind, we can be socially blind to the fact that we’re socially blind, not recognizing ourselves in the mirror of our own projections — a self-enclosed obliviousness and self-reinforcing obtuseness. Imagine all those normally sighted people with blindfolds on and not realizing they are blinded, going about their lives as if they could see. That causes much psychological confusion and interpersonal havoc, further exacerbating the sense of the great weirding and at times magnified to the level of the political and even geopolitical (President Donald Trump being the great example). Welcome to the new media world! Think of it as an opportunity for a steep learning curve. Keep all of this in mind. If you can recognize you’re in a situation of social blindness and surrounded by the socially blind, you are already ahead in the game. Maybe don’t react so quickly, withhold that initial impulse to judge, pause and take a breath. Maybe give the other person the benefit of the doubt and assume the best, as you’d like them to do for you. People sometimes just have bad days, even when the antagonism of new media weirding isn’t involved. Simply put, be kind and forgiving.

We are going to need all the compassion we can muster, as we move forward in this new media society of heavily mediated reality. The changes in media are going to happen faster and faster with impacts and consequences we won’t be able to imagine or predict. It’s guaranteed we won’t handle it well. The stress of society will fracture society even further. It’s possible that our society will survive the threats of collapse and eventually gain a new stability within this media paradigm, although social norms and functional ways of relating well will be slow to develop and take hold. It is highly doubtful that we will see the end of this transition in our lifetime, much less benefit from what might eventually be a positive change. We are in the middle of the storm — tighten the straps and hunker down.

Let’s end on a personal note. In this crazy online world, for those we’ve attacked, irritated, or unfairly judged, for those times we failed to treat others as we’d want to be treated, we apologize for our shortcomings as normal humans stuck in abnormal times. But we know we’re likely to continue to get stressed, anxious, and emotionally pulled into conflict; and so we also apologize in advance for our future wrongdoings and lack of needed understanding. We’ll try to do better, if that helps. In such difficult times, though, one’s best might not be good enough. So, we should be forgiving toward ourselves as well.

* * *

Here are a few things I came across while writing this post:

Here’s Why Internet Trolls Are So Good at Upsetting You, According to Science
by Minda Zetlin

Internet Trolls Really Are Horrible People
by Chris Mooney

Psychopaths, Sadists, and the Lure of Internet Aggression
by Traci Stein

Loneliness moderates the relationship between Dark Tetrad personality traits and internet trolling
by KeitaMasui

Autonomic stress reactivity and craving in individuals with problematic Internet use
by Tania Moretta & Giulia Buodo

Internet “addiction” may fuel teen aggression
by Amy Norton

To end internet trolling, send everyone to a nice park
by WHIMN

Over a quarter of Americans have made malicious online comments
by Jake Gammon

Why Is Everyone on the Internet So Angry?
by Natalie Wolchover

We’re the reason we can’t have nice things on the internet
by Whitney Phillips

The Internet Is a Toxic Hellscape—but We Can Fix It
by Whitney Phillips

Weirding Diary
by Venkatesh Rao

The Internet of Beefs
by Venkatesh Rao

Crowds and Technology
by Renee DiResta

Status as a Service (StaaS)
by Eugene Wei

The White Privilege of Guns

In the ongoing protest movement against racist police brutality, there have been white right-wing individuals and groups showing up with guns, often military-style guns that are designed to kill humans. Many of these people don’t have ill intent and certainly perceive themselves as the good guys. When asked, more than a few of them would say they are there to protect peaceful protesters, as they will protect all members and businesses of their community, and there isn’t necessarily any reason to doubt them. Still, some of the gun-toting vigilantes are crazed Trump supporters, conspiracy theorists listening to Alex Jones, and general right-wingers riled up by Fox News while others have been identified as members of white supremacist groups, militias, gangs, etc. One can’t assume peaceful results from armed groups of people seeking to violently stop the violence they fear in their over-active imaginations. Bringing a gun to a protest you disagree with is sending a clear message.

It’s true there hasn’t been many confrontations between protesters and counter-protesters, in that the protests nationwide have remained largely peaceful. But the mere presence of guns as a potential threat of violence — similar to when police show up in riot gear ready to rumble — understandably makes many people feel uncomfortable and unsafe, including some local business owners and local officials (Kip Hill & Chad Sokol, Armed presence in North Idaho towns questioned by some politicians, business owners; Adam Shanks, Elected officials condemn ‘armed vigilantes’ attending Spokane protests). Certainly, it hasn’t always been peaceful. “People wielding everything from bats to firearms have appeared at protests in Philadelphia, San Antonio and other cities. At times, their presence has led to confrontations with protesters. Sometimes there has been gunfire: In Boise, an 18-year-old white man was arrested after allegedly firing his rifle into the ground during a protest outside the capitol” (Isaac Stanley-Becker & Tony Romm; Armed white residents lined Idaho streets amid ‘antifa’ protest fears. The leftist incursion was an online myth.). It’s hard to see how mobs of intimidating whites bringing heavy-duty weapons to largely black protests against racism promotes a shared and communal experience of peace and safety, free speech and democratic engagement.

Look at the news reporting on various protest events over recent years and these kinds of white right-wingers are what one finds, but it rarely gets the same kind of attention or framed in the same way. It’s racist bias that is regularly seen in the news, such as how studies show black criminals are more likely to have their photographs shown on tv than white criminals, even as most crime is committed by whites. When there is a black gang violence in Chicago, it’s national news as part of an ongoing narrative of those kind of people in Chicago, despite violence in Chicago actually being low compared to other large cities — Chicago is far down on the list of violent cities with Beaumont and Houston in Texas having higher violent crime rates than Chicago (Andrew Schiller, NeighborhoodScout’s Most Dangerous Cities – 2020). Yet white biker gangs in Waco, Texas had a shoot out where 9 died, all charges were dropped against those involved, and it disappeared from national news and public memory as if it never happened. Then the next event in Chicago is obsessed over in the news cycle. Everyone knows that an equal number of weaponized blacks in similar military-style gear or gangster-like outfits as seen with these right-wing ‘concerned citizens’ would not get the same treatment by the media or by the police. Everyone knows this is true and it is the precise issue of racism motivating the protests that we can’t publicly, honestly, and fairly talk about as a society.

This is not anything new (Anti-Defamation League, Small But Vocal Array of Right Wing Extremists Appearing at Protests). Armed whites is pretty much the totality of American history going back long before the Klan, whether violence by militant groups, lone actors, or the police. There has been generations of homegrown terrorism from white right-wingers — besides the Klan and similar groups: kidnapping, attacks, and murder of family planning nurses and doctors, not to mention bombings and arson of clinics; Oklahoma City bombing, Charleston church shooting, Charlottesville car attack, and on and on. Even during the Bush administration when Republicans gained support for their War on Terror, two FBI reports specifically warned that terrorism was likely to come from U.S. citizens who were right-wing militants and veterans, as that has been the demographic of most terrorism in this country. In terms of numbers of groups and their membership, there is no equivalent history of violently radicalized left-wing groups. Even the Black Panthers, the most famous left-wing group, never came anywhere close to being as large, powerful, and violent as the Klan. And the most notorious left-wing terrorist group in the United States was the Weather Underground whose members strove to avoid harming life. Left-wing activists when violent have tended to target property, not lives. Right-wingers, on the other hand, haven’t always made a distinction between lives and property, sometimes going out of their way to intentionally target people so as to enact punishment, create terror, and set examples.

In general, white militant groups on the political right when not committing violence are often threatening it or implying such threat. Think of the Bundy gang and religious death cult that committed armed protest and revolt over many years, in having repeatedly challenged the Federal government in the hopes of forcing a firefight and becoming martyrs. This included the 2014 Bundy Ranch standoff in Nevada where supporters pointed guns at federal agents, the 2015 armed conflict with the U.S. Veteran’s Administration in Priest River, Idaho, and the 2016 armed armed seizure of the federal building at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. These altercations ended peacefully, but only because the police and federal agents treated these dangerous white people with kids’ gloves, in a way they never would have done for Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, or Arabs. Also, these aren’t minor events for major figures were involved such as the veteran and Republican D.C. politician Matt Shea who was charged with domestic terrorism in his direct involvement through militarily training some of the individuals for what he said was a Holy War, and yet Representative Shea remains in power.

This same pattern of white right-wing violence has been seen during the coronavirus pandemic, such as the terrorist plot by Timothy Wilson (Anti-Defamation League, White Supremacists Respond to Coronavirus With Violent Plots and Online Hate). The fact of the matter is that COVID-19 was more likely to infect and kill poor minorities and poor people in general, but it was whites, largely middle class, who protested the shutdowns (Coronavirus Protest Rallies Draw Extremists, Conservative Activists and Guns; & Boogaloo Supporters Animated By Lockdown Protests, Recent Incidents). Consider the white gunmen in bulletproof vests who occupied state capitols to demand the end of lockdowns. These were white people complaining about tyranny while, in one case, being given full cooperation from the government in their armed takeover of a government building. They acted tyranically in refusing to tolerate other viewpoints and, given the long and bloody history of right-wing terrorism, their actions of aggressive intimidation pose a real threat to democracy. They are demonstrating that, in being armed to the teeth, they are able and willing to fight against democratically-elected governments representing the people in order to get their way as a vocal and privileged group, even though the government is simply doing what most Americans want them to do as the shutdowns have been widely supported by the majority.

The white privilege flaunted on the public stage is mind-boggling. “This is the great irony, of course—that these men are enjoying a surfeit of justice, though they refuse to recognize it. It is impossible to imagine people of a different skin color angrily marching with military-style weapons and being treated with similar generosity by law enforcement. As Representative Rashida Tlaib noted on Twitter, “Black people get executed by police for just existing, while white people dressed like militia members carrying assault weapons are allowed to threaten State Legislators and staff” “ (Firmin DeBrabander, The Great Irony of America’s Armed Anti-Lockdown Protesters). “Unfortunately, while these armed protesters benefited from the rule of law, they unwittingly undermined it. For their demonstration certainly looked lawless—or made the rule of law seem absent, or tenuous at best. […] Whether they admit it or not, when these men carry military-style guns in protest, they send the message that they have occupied the public sphere, and that others are not really welcome. The public sphere is less public in that regard—and these protesters are fed up with a diversity of viewpoints. Armed protesters don’t want to deliberate or debate, or even tolerate the opposition. When they appear, democracy ends.”

Now the right-wing display of weaponry has increasingly shown up at the George Floyd protests against racist police brutality. As a counter-protest, one suspects that some of them are advocating racist police brutality and a more than a few have made their racism blunt. For certain, there is a movement of far right extremists hoping for race war, as they openly admit, and a number of them have been arrested for causing destruction and committing violence in the protests, including attempts to incite riots — for example, there are those loosely organized around the ‘Boogaloo’ meme (Jason Wilson, Protesters across US attacked by cars driven into crowds and men with guns; editorial staff, Right-wing extremist group ‘Boogaloo boys’ poses real threat during protests; Mehdi Hasan, How the Far-Right Boogaloo Movement Is Trying to Hijack Anti-Racist Protests for a Race War; & Clarence Page, While Trump blames antifa, a menacing far-right ‘boogaloo’ movement rises). There are also violent actors from more well organized groups such as the neo-Confederate bikers gang that is variously referred to as the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ (SCV), Mechanized Cavalry, or Mech Cav (SPLC, North Carolina Protest Shooting Suspect Appears To Have Ties to Organized Neo-Confederacy, Hate Groups). Claiming to be a Klan leader, Harry Rogers drove into a crowd of protesters. There are many other militant and militia groups with white membership that promote such right-wing extremism and violence.

In cities across the country, armed right-wingers showed up at protests in response to fake news created by fake social media accounts, including the right-wing group Evropa posing as antifa (Aaron Holmes, An ‘ANTIFA’ Twitter account that called for looting ‘white hoods’ was actually run by white nationalist group Identity Evropa). False rumors of “ANTIFA agitators” being bused in were spread on social media, including in the social media accounts of some Republican politicians, such as Senator Jennifer Fielder, along with President Donald Trump trying to get antifa officially listed as a terrorist group (Could you imagine the right-wing outrage if President Barack Obama had Tweeted that white militias were taking over the Tea Party protest movement and that they should be designated as a terrorist group?). Who believes this obvious bullshit, such blatant tactics of cynical divisiveness and attacks on democracy? It’s not clear who actually believes it, but it is known who is promoting it and it comes from respected officials. “QAnon theory builds on this, suggesting that all of it — the protests, the police reaction, the presence of antifa — has been preordained as part of a coming mass destruction. And QAnon isn’t just a niche conspiracy theory. Tweets from its proponents are regularly retweeted by the president. At least 50 current or former candidates for Congress, plus the Republican nominee for the US Senate in Oregon, are public QAnon supporters. And that doesn’t even include candidates running on the state or local level. As Adrienne LaFrance argued in the Atlantic, QAnon has become a religion, with clearly defined sides of good and evil, hungry for converts. The antifa fantasy functions similarly. Whether you’re in Lewiston, Idaho, or Klamath Falls, Oregon, it’s so, so easy to believe” (Anne Helen Petersen, How The Antifa Fantasy Spread In Small Towns Across The US).

The reports of antifa as a terrorist group have, of course, been greatly exaggerated. “The most important thing to understand about antifa is that there are very, very few of them: According to the Washington Post, when the group tried to gather nationally, they topped out at a few hundred” (Petersen). All that antifa means is anti-fascist and the boring reality is most people opposed to fascism aren’t seeking to provoke mass violence and revolution. If asked, the vast majority of Americans surely would agree that fascism is bad and should be opposed. “Anarchists and others accuse officials of trying to assign blame to extremists rather than accept the idea that millions of Americans from a variety of political backgrounds have been on the streets demanding change. Numerous experts also called the participation of extremist organizations overstated” (Neil MacFarquhar, Alan Feuer & Adam Goldman, Federal Arrests Show No Sign That Antifa Plotted Protests). So, it’s not clear why the vague label of ‘antifa’ been turned into a boogeyman. There aren’t likely many people who identify as antifa in any of the protests. “The Daily Beast also combed through the first 22 criminal complaints federal agents filed since May 31 that were related to the protests. None of them list antifa or anti-fascist ideology as being a motivating factor for the alleged crimes” (Sonam Sheth, The GOP’s claim that antifa is infiltrating George Floyd protests is a right-wing ‘bogeyman’ that bears all the hallmarks of a domestic disinformation campaign). Of these complaints, only 3 listed a specific political ideology claimed by the guilty party — one was anti-Trump, another anarchist, and a third involving several Boogalooers.

“Indeed, local officials in the state confirmed to the Post that not a single participant in the rallies was known to have defaced homes or storefronts in the name of antifa. […] Meanwhile, the FBI’s internal situation report which found “no intelligence” indicating antifa’s involvement in the May 31 protest violence did warn that people associated with a right-wing social media group had “called for far-right provocateurs to attack federal agents” and “use automatic weapons against protesters.” […] Politico also reported earlier this month that a Department of Homeland Security intelligence note warned law-enforcement officials that a white supremacist channel on the encrypted messaging app Telegram encouraged its followers to incite violence to start a race war during the protests” (Sheth). “Actual cases of Antifa violence, however, have been few and in nearly all instances in response to violence or threats of violence from their opposition. Most accusations of its involvement in violence at protests around the country have proven unfounded. The FBI, for example, looked into Washington, D.C.-area violence last week and found “no intelligence indicating Antifa involvement/presence.” “ (Randy Stapilus, The Antifa is coming! The Antifa is coming!).

As far as that goes, unlike some of these right-wing groups, antifa is not the name of a specific group, much less a national organization with fees and a membership roll. Research indicates that antifa, in intentionally being unorganized, mostly takes form as small groups in response to local events. There is no national system by which to organize, much less leaders to bus antifa around the country. “Antifa operates as a designation similar to the way someone might describe themselves as a punk rocker,” says Joan Donovan, a Harvard media expert (Nate Hegyi, Spurred By Debunked Antifa Rumors, Armed Men And Women Stand Watch Over Protests). It’s not clear who is antifa, since anyone can claim it; and those genuinely anti-authoritarian aren’t necessarilly attracted to clearly-defined group identities and organized movements. Heck, numerous fake antifa accounts were created by right-wing hate groups, specifically to promote conflict and create the false perception of a dangerous and well-organized antifa movement. “Twitter determined that a tweet promising antifa would “move into residential areas” and “white” neighborhoods was sent by the white supremacy group Identity Evropa. The tweet was shared hundreds of times and cited in online news articles before Twitter removed it, a company spokesperson said. Facebook, using information shared by Twitter, announced it also took down a handful of accounts on its platform that were created by white supremacy groups like Identity Evropa and American Guard, some of them posing as part of the antifa movement” (Associated Press, False Claims of Antifa Protesters Plague Small U.S. Cities). It turns out the only active antifa groups promoting riots, destruction, and violence are in actuality right-wing groups. If we eliminated all the right-wingers posing as antifa, there might not be much of an antifa left remaining.

“[T]he group the Trump administration has labeled a menace has mostly been nonexistent, experts and law enforcement officials say, and certainly has not been orchestrating what have been largely peaceful protests. Despite warnings of antifa incursions in scores of cities, there is no evidence linking outbursts of violence to an organized left-wing effort. And those associated with the autonomous groups that went up against far-right figureheads four years ago — and whose roots go back to earlier left-wing causes — say there is no such centralized organization. Federal and local arrest records in dozens of cities make virtually no mention of antifa. Law enforcement officials who had braced for the purported invasion of antifa militants in cities large and small now mostly acknowledge the threat has not appeared. […] The absence of antifa from protests roiling Berkeley — a crucible of left-wing activism — is a sign, Arreguín said, of the scale and possible significance of the protests. They are not driven by left-wing zealots, he said, but by multiracial and multigenerational crowds seeking a reckoning with systemic problems of racism and policing. […] The difference was expressed another way by Yvette Felarca, a Berkeley middle school teacher charged in 2017 with felony assault for allegedly punching a man with a neo-Nazi flag. (The assault charge was later dropped.) “Trump has turned everybody into antifascists,” Felarca said. “There’s no organization called ‘antifa.’ It was always just people prepared to take action against fascism. It turns out, that’s a lot of people.” (Isaac Stanley Becker, Scant evidence of antifa shows how sweeping the protests for racial justice have become).

It’s really bizarre. The paranoid mind will believe almost anything. If President Trump had told these white right-wingers that elephant agitators were going to invade from Mexico or be bused in by George Soros in order to take over the protests and trample their towns, he could make a small wealth from selling elephant repellent. The consequences of these conspiracy theories, however, are not a joke. The rumors of armies of antifa planning to destroy cities all over the United States were taken seriously, including by some rural Sheriffs (Ryan Burns, Sheriff Honsal Stands By ‘Antifa Bus’ Reports Despite Evidence That It Was All a Hoax). “The Associated Press has catalogued at least five separate rural counties where locals have warned of imminent attacks, although none of the rumors have been substantiated” (Russell Brandom, ‘Antifa bus’ hoaxes are spreading panic through small-town America). Sheriff of Curry County, Oregon called on local vigilantes to take action: “Without asking I am sure we have a lot of local boys too with guns that will protect our citizens and their property.”

That irresponsible fear-mongering online instantly elicited comments threatening violence (Nicole Blanchard & Ruth Brown, Police: No, antifa not sending ‘a plane load of their people’ to Idaho to incite riots) — one man was arrested because he made his intentions too clear when he stated on Twitter that he would “personally kill” any “antifa soldiers” (Isaac Stanley Becker, Scant evidence of antifa shows how sweeping the protests for racial justice have become). Later at the protests, in several cases, it did lead to serious altercations. Some of the armed white right-wingers haven’t merely threatened but acted out with violence. Roving gangs of armed white men have already started fights and attacked people in various protests. With fears of antifa, many protests have had a large influx of well-armed white people showing up to violently stop the left-wing violence that social media has told them is coming. Innocent people were caught in the crossfire, such as a mixed-race family traveling in a converted bus who were accused of being antifa and harassed to the point they feared for their lives (Peter Aitken, Washington family accused of being Antifa members, followed by armed citizens; & Deborah Hastings, Fake ‘Antifa’ Social Media Posts Incite Fear and Anger Across the Country). As in many other states, cities in Montana have had masses of white people with guns looking for trouble. In Missoula, this led to one black teen being chased down an alley where he was attacked by right-wing goons carrying AR-15s. They thought a young black kid riding a bicycle was suspicious and believed he was ‘antifa’ apparently because he was black.

It turns out this young black had lived most of his life in that town, but it makes no difference where he lived. Black people should be free to travel in the United States without fear of being attacked by the equivalent of the Klan. The sad irony of attacking an innocent black kid at a protest against racial violence was lost on these right-wing terrorists. “I feared for my life,” he told a reporter (Seaborn Larson, UPDATE: Teen: Armed group wanted ‘reason to hunt me down’), “I could have been killed or could have been taken out.” This self-appointed militia handed the boy over to the police and, after brief questioning, they released him as obviously not being a threat. He immediately called Quentin Robinson, an adult he trusted. “Robinson was not at the protest last week, but said the dynamic of armed white men surrounding an anti-racism protest reinforces the system in which white people are the de facto authority. […] The problem is on display when police do not pursue the men who conducted a citizens arrest of the teen for seemingly no reason.” Imagine if men who looked like black gangsters or a Black Panther militia attacked a white boy at a Tea Party protest and tried to hand him over to the same group of white policemen. One suspects it would have ended quite differently.

The greatest privilege of all is being oblivious to one’s privilege, to have one’s privilege taken for granted by you and everyone around you, including authority figures like the police. There have been some arrests when right-wing extremists undeniably go over the legal boundary, but otherwise they are allowed to menace citizens freely. The police have, in some instances, attacked peaceful protesters with no apparent reason or provocation or sometimes have beat on innocent bystanders such as old man who couldn’t move out of the way quickly enough. Such attacks don’t seem to happen to armed right-wingers. Why not? Is it that police only attack innocent citizens when they are unarmed? Or is the main factor the color of one’s skin? Maybe it’s the combination of the two, some magical power that is formed from white skin touching the metal on a gun. In that case, could we stop police brutality by carefully placing in key locations white people with guns who are allies with minorities? If that is all it takes, we should have taken this simple step years ago.

The beauty of paranoid fantasies is that they are non-falsifiable because they create reality and enforce their own truth. The fantasy of violence works if violence does erupt as a self-fulfilling prophecy or if it doesn’t in that one becomes a hero in claiming to have prevented it. But that they are fantasies is the main point, fantasies as melodramatic spectacles on the public stage (Violent Fantasy of Reactionary Intellectuals; & The Fantasy of Creative Destruction). They create a narrative of self-importance with little personal cost or consequence. That no buses full of antifa is likely to show up is the whole point. Most of these right-wingers want to keep it a fantasy that can be repeated. “The Idaho Public Television journalist Melissa Davlin tweeted on Tuesday: “After searching, I saw a number of bots posting about Antifa heading to (Coeur d’Alene), which spurred the armed people to ‘protect’ downtown. Antifa never showed, and now the armed people are claiming victory. Meanwhile, a few bots are still posting that CdA is under siege from Antifa.” “ (Stapilus). So, even in self-perceived right-wing victory, the bots of the social media machine go pumping along, mindlessly spewing their hateful conspiracy theories and fearful visions of destruction.

“Militia members get to plan, anticipate, and enact the idea at the foundation of their existence. And they get to do it in a way that positions them as “the good guys,” fighting a cowardly bogeyman easily vanquished by show of force alone. As a popular meme circulating in North Idaho put it, “Remember that time when Antifa said they were coming to Coeur d’Alene / And everyone grabbed their guns and they didn’t come? That was awesome!” It doesn’t matter if antifa was never coming in the first place. They didn’t come, and that’s evidence of victory. And that victory can then be leveraged into further action — and a means to extend the fantasy. On the Montana Militia page, a man named Tom Allen, whose home is listed on Facebook as Wibaux, Montana, posted that he’d spent the night in Dickenson, North Dakota, “protecting” the veterans monument during a planned protest. A group of bikers showed up to guard the nearby mall, protecting “all of Antifa’s usual targets.” There was no incident” (Petersen).

These are staged events orchestrated by whichever puppet masters are writing the scripts and programming the bots. These ordinary white right-wingers are willing puppets, as long as they get to be in the leading role. The protests that were in response to the racist maltreatment of blacks can be reframed once again about the heroic victimhood of whites. And like some of the white police officers who brutally kill blacks, these self-styled white vigilantes get to feel powerful in carrying their guns and demonstrating their racial privilege. Meanwhile, the police go on shooting black men and boys for carrying cellphones, candy, or nothing at all — in the racist suspicion that they might be carrying a gun and so must be put down for the good of the community or simply because the officer felt ‘threatened’. Even a black person running away in terror for their life is considered by some cops as justifiable cause for being gunned down. One of the other white privileges is getting to choose your own narrative, rather than having someone with power impose their narrative upon you.

“Look, every advancement toward equality has come with the spilling of blood. Then, when that’s over, a defensiveness from the group that had been doing the oppressing. There’s always this begrudging sense that black people are being granted something, when it’s white people’s lack of being able to live up to the defining words of the birth of the country that is the problem. There’s a lack of recognition of the difference in our system. Chris Rock used to do a great bit: ‘‘No white person wants to change places with a black person. They don’t even want to exchange places with me, and I’m rich.’’ It’s true. There’s not a white person out there who would want to be treated like even a successful black person in this country. And if we don’t address the why of that treatment, the how is just window dressing. You know, we’re in a bizarre time of quarantine. White people lasted six weeks and then stormed a state building with rifles, shouting: ‘‘Give me liberty! This is causing economic distress! I’m not going to wear a mask, because that’s tyranny!’’ That’s six weeks versus 400 years of quarantining a race of people. The policing is an issue, but it’s the least of it. We use the police as surrogates to quarantine these racial and economic inequalities so that we don’t have to deal with them.”
~Jon Stewart, NYT interview by David Marchese (June 15, 2020)

“We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

“It’s hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head.”
~Sally Kempton, from Ben Price’s None Dare Call It Propaganda

“Power is the ability to rule the imagination.”
~Jacques Necker, from Guillaume de Sardes’ Against the hegemony of American art

Divide and conquer begins in the psyche, the soul. Before authoritarianism is a system of power, it is a memetic virus that slips into the public mind where it grows and spreads. That is how we have come to find ourselves in this moment of a conflict we don’t understand because the first divide is within awareness. Such is our schizoid identity. As with any protest movement, there are criticisms and complaints, often unfair and dismissive. Those people are destroying their own communities, burning down their own neighborhoods. These are nothing but violent and destructive riots. They are bringing police violence down on themselves; they’re asking for trouble and get what they deserve. The protests are infiltrated or taken over by ‘antifa’ who are a terrorist group. On and on goes the idiocy, quite demoralizing but also quite effective.

First off, most of the protesters and protests are nonviolent. Few Americans, protesters and police alike, want to commit violence against their fellow Americans, against their own neighbors. Amidst the violence and destruction, there are many involved, including some police attacking those peaceful crowds often times for no apparent reason. There is sad irony when some authoritarian-minded police use brutality to punish supposedly free citizens in a democracy who dare to protest police brutality. But it’s the nature of the narratives we get caught up in that tell us conflict and confrontation can only end in violence. And for anyone drawn to that narrative, it’s easy to find someone on the other side who will join you in playing it out to its inevitable conclusion. This narrative pull of conflict and division overpowers any natural empathy that might otherwise inspire the better angels of our nature.

That isn’t to say there aren’t people committing crimes that the police are well within the the purview of their official mandate and public duty to pursue in enforcing the law. But the police can arrest those few people without wantonly attacking large crowds of innocent protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets and batons, sometimes with real bullets as well, including innocent bystanders such as a businessman who was shot to death by police while standing in front of his business (Aída Chávez, Louisville Police Left the Body of David McAtee on the Street for 12 Hours) and the medical staff beat up by roving gangs of police (Olivia Messer, Medical Workers Fighting COVID Say Cops Are Attacking Them). The police showing up to peaceful protests in riot gear ready to rumble, now that is asking for trouble. The police, in being drawn into a narrative of fighting mob violence, end up acting like a violent mob and so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

There are other ways of dealing with crowd control in maintaining peace and by directing police force only against serious lawbreakers, not the general public who are practicing their democratic rights. Some of the government officials have stated that most of the lawbreakers arrested were from outside the cities and states in which they were protesting. No doubt there are plenty of outsiders of one kind or another. Protests attract a diversity of individuals and groups and no one knows who they all are. Of course, there are the opportunistic looters, arsonists, criminals, gangsters, and troublemakers who join in and cause havoc without any greater purpose. Also, throw in some people who simply have serious psychiatric disorders, including some of the police as far as that goes.

Then there are the agitators and provocateurs of various sorts, specifically those who oppose the ideals and message of the protest movement, from white nationalists to undercover cops and maybe some FBI agents. This latter set of people, in some cases, would even be seeking to incite violence and destruction, looting and rioting, while hoping for police backlash and authoritarian measures. This is a much more difficult problem to deal with in our society. In some of the cities, the police have welcomed and cooperated with white thugs walking around with bats and other weapons to take care of the protesters which has led to violent altercations. This same kind of police-thug alliance has happened in past protest movements as well.

Some of these dangerous individuals and groups have clear agendas, often an attempt to alter the media narrative and public perception in order to undermine support for the protest movement and to isolate protesters. Think of COINTELPRO agent provocateurs of the past and the more recent entrapment practices during the War On Terror. Protesters have noticed older white guys dressed all in black with faces covered who were working alone or in teams to cause damage, such as the now infamous umbrella man. Most of these covert actors and malcontented troublemakers remain unidentified.

There are many games going on. Even outside of the protests themselves, social media has been a hotbed of influences. One Twitter account was portrayed as ‘antifa’ and was promoting violence, until those behind it were outed as white nationalists and the account was shut down. Imagine all of the state and non-state actors, including foreign actors, who might want to not only influence the protest movement but meddle in American society and politics, maybe simply to promote strife and conflict before the election. I could imagine fake accounts and trolls even infiltrating and targeting police in online groups to further rile them up.

There are many competing narratives out there. And those pushing those narratives in many cases aren’t doing so for ideological reasons. One doesn’t have to believe a narrative to want to use it to promote whatever one does believe in, from authoritarianism to chaos. The sad truth is that the average person never gives much thought to the narratives that are fed to them and that infect their minds. Many of these narratives are carefully crafted to get past our defenses, to tell us what we want to hear, confirm our biases and prejudices, fit into our stereotyped interpretations of others.

One of these narratives has fallen into the category of white identity politics. Many otherwise libertarian-minded whites who would criticize abusive authority find themselves pulled into a racialized narrative promoting the rationalization of authoritarian oppression toward those ‘others’. They are allowing themselves to be cynically manipulated because these narratives make them feel good about themselves while so many others suffer. But the reality is poor whites also suffer police abuse and so, even if only for selfish reasons of believing all lives matter, they should be joining these protesters demanding police reform and justice.

Even though blacks are disproportionately harmed, the fact of the matter is most police brutality as with most imprisonment falls upon whites, mostly poor whites, for the simple reason that whites remain the majority on both sides of the authoritarian equation. The racialized narrative of oppressive authoritarianism gives these poor whites a sense of pride in that, no matter how bad their lives are, at least they can think of themselves as being better than those poor blacks. Why do whites so mindlessly accept this false narrative that harms themselves personally, harms their families and neighbors, harms their entire communities? Why can’t they see they are being used as tools of authoritarian power? Why can’t they muster basic human empathy for others who are oppressed in this same system of injustice?

How would conservative and right-wing whites respond if during Barack Obama’s administration black police officers were wantonly killing poor whites, typically without legal repercussion or sometimes even losing their jobs, and then when Tea Party activists formed a mostly peaceful protest movement, they met with further police violence intended to silence them? Now imagine that this followed centuries of continued personal, systemic, and institutionalized racism against whites that kept them trapped in impoverished neighborhoods where there children were literally being poisoned from urban pollution and heavy metal toxins and targeted by a school-to-prison pipeline.

The response by most on the political right to this radical thought experiment would be typical. The narrative of white identity politics says this would never happen to whites because somehow whites, even the poorest whites, aren’t of lowly character like blacks. But this is total bullshit, if we are to define character by the conditions of oppression. Some of the most desperately impoverished and criminal-ridden places in the United State are these poor white communities such as in Appalachia where such racist rhetoric most strongly takes hold (Are White Appalachians A Special Case?). This racialized story comforts the traumatized, rather than resolving the trauma that continues generation after generation.

None of this is necessary. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, he was in the middle of organizing a poor people’s movement. He was hoping to join poor whites and poor blacks in a fight against the oppression of a caste system of a permanent underclass. It was understood even long before MLK that class war was used to oppress not only blacks but also poor whites. This argument was made by Peter H. Clark (1829-1925), the first black socialist in the United States. There was also the Wobblies, the Industrial Workers of the World, that in the early 1900s organized across racial and ethnic lines in reaching out to minorities and immigrants; and, as always, they too were persecuted. Even many racist whites prior to the Civil War understood that the emerging industrial capitalism was being built on class war that kept lower class whites in a state of desperation and disenfranchisement. One doesn’t even have to be an anti-racist supporting black freedom and civil rights to understand this basic truth of capitalist class oppression and disenfranchisement.

Following MLK’s assassination, others tried to carry forward a multiracial (and multicultural) fight against class oppression, including the popular Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton who united with diverse other groups in a Rainbow Coalition, including the Young Patriots consisting of Southern whites living in poor Chicago neighborhoods (Poverty In Black And White; Michael McCanne, The Panthers and the Patriots). Guess what happened to Fred Hampton? He also was assassinated. And who was behind the assassination? The FBI and police. This was the era of COINTELPRO where the government sought to infiltrate, co-opt, and manipulate groups considered to be a threat to statist power and interests. For example, earlier on, the FBI sent MLK a letter threatening to expose his extramarital affairs in order to blackmail him to commit suicide. Please understand, these were some truly evil people in our government and evil people like them are still in positions of power and influence.

The point is that this was never only about blacks and other minorities. Poor and working class whites were also harmed and disempowered when those black civil rights leaders, MLK and Hampton, were assassinated. I’d go so far as to argue that even middle class whites were worse off for having lost these voices that, if they had lived longer, might have alerted them to the forces that were also attacking the middle class. Now there is a narrative for you. It’s not only a story for it is actual history, much of it based on government documents that were released or leaked along with some great investigative news reporting from the past. But how many Americans, particularly poor whites and conservatives, know their own American history? Very few. The propaganda of corporate media, corporatist education, and corporatocratic politics has suppressed and silenced these facts that are inconvenient to the capitalist class and ruling elite. More importantly, it isn’t only a class war being hidden behind racist agendas of social control. As the likes of MLK and Hampton understood, all of this is inseparable from violent and oppressive imperialism, a class war against the entire world’s population of the poor.

Some relatively comfortable and privileged Americans get upset because a few people died in the recent protests, along with some property damage. They take this as indicating the protest movement has gone too far. Yet many of these same people supported the Iraq War based on a lie, a war of aggression and invasion that ended up destroying an entire country while dislocating, injuring, killing, and orphaning millions upon millions of innocent people. For what purpose? So that the United States could set an example for what happens to anyone who doesn’t bow down to American hegemony. And so that American corporations could maintain control of Middle Eastern trade routes and access to Middle Eastern oil and other natural resources. Talk about looting and on mass scale, not to mention the vast wealth and resources that corporations steal from the American public every year (Trillions Upon Trillions of Dollars).

It’s far from limited to Iraq. American imperialism has led to aggressive wars, overthrowing of democracies, support of terrorist/paramilitary groups, and much else all over the world. Of course, those are mostly poor black and brown people suffering and being killed and they are far away in other places. American policing around the world is far more brutal than the policing at home, but the two are simply expressions of the same fundamental brutality. This is made more apparent with the overt militarization of the American police, not to mention the deployment of military in U.S. cities. The counterinsurgency tactics used to suppress populist movements in other countries are brought home to be used on the American people, of all races and ethnicities.

This protest movement is not only about blacks and other minorities, is not only about police brutality. Most importantly, it is a fight over narrative, a fight to speak truth to power. If whites don’t stand up with blacks now, then later on upper working class whites won’t stand with poor whites, middle class whites won’t stand with any of them, and eventually the ruling class will turn on us all. We are divided up into groups and each group is isolated and attacked and neutralized, until there is not enough people left to stand up against the authoritarianism that began creeping into power over many generations. Authoritarian oppression against any of us, in the end, is authoritarian oppression against all of us. Violence is violence.

All of this was made possible through narratized propaganda that too many of us blindly or cynically accepted because it was easier to do so. Maybe it’s time to change that, time to wake up to reality, time to unite in solidarity. There are more of us than of them. As was understood when America was founded, supposedly in the words of Benjamin Franklin to the Continental Congress in signing the Declaration of Independence, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” But at the same time, we have to take responsibility for being complicit in a society where we’ve projected our authoritarian impulses onto an ‘other’, the police and military, instead of healing this disease within. If we hang separately, it may very well be on a scaffolding we helped build with the thought that we were building it to deal with another set of ‘others’, the poor and minorities.

We need new narratives and so do those authority figures who stand in as representatives of our social order. The police are in an impossible position. They are being commanded to serve too many masters, serve too many purposes. With increasing militarized power and aggressive methods, they are supposed to, implicitly or overtly, represent the enforcement of authoritarian statism, capitalist interests, systemic racism, and class war while somehow also “basically being tasked with addressing every social problem that we have”, far beyond mere enforcement of basic laws (NPR CODE SW!TCH interview with Alex S. Vitale, How Much Do We Need The Police?). While being the ultimate symbol and representative of hierarchical power and privilege, they are supposed to monitor traffic infractions, protect communities, uphold individual rights, deal with troubled teens, handle disorderly conduct, help the mentally ill, provide services to the homeless, mediate spousal conflicts, stop child abuse, intervene in alcoholism and addiction, monitor sex workers, act as guards in schools, enforce order in classrooms, and on and on.

The main tool we give the police to deal with this overwhelming and ever growing set of tasks is violence and threat of violence with a gun always at hand — stop the bad guys by any means necessary, in a narrative where all social problems are turned into black-and-white morality judgments. The police are often both the first to be called and the last resort to enact punishment when all else fails. The police are put into an impossible situation. They are asked to carry the entire load of our schizoid society, simultaneously serving authoritarianism and (hyper-)individualism, two sides of the same dysfunctional society of ideological extremism and dogmatic absolutism. It makes no sense. It defies all possibility of sense. So, we end up scapegoating the police when they fail to do the impossible, no different than we also scapegoat the poor and minorities in being victims of the same moral rot that grows like a cancer within our collective humanity.

Such vast areas of modern life have been criminalized. This has placed a large part of the population under the control of militarized policing that must enforce law and order. As communities have disintegrated and culture of trust has weakened, the police are suppose to replace what has been hollowed out, what once made society functional. It’s fucking insane! This is how we end up with more police than social workers, more police than teachers, more police than librarians and coaches and ministers. The police have become the sole pillar that must hold up the entire social order or it will collapse into total chaos and that will be the end of civilization as we know it; or so the story is told in a tone of the fear-mongering. Well, that is asking a lot of police. No wonder they feel stressed out and so often break under the pressure in turning to brutal violence and abuse, not only of citizens but also as seen in the high rates of spousal abuse among police officers.

The police are incapable of even policing themselves, much less reforming themselves. That is because they are forced to try to do what is beyond their capacity. They are violence workers with the mandated power to stop and arrest criminals with the protected right to kill whenever they deem it necessary. “And while we’re not using police to manage slavery or colonialism today,” Alex S. Vitale spoke, “we are using police to manage the problems that our very unequal system has produced. We’re invested in this kind of austerity politics that says the government can’t afford to really do anything to lift people up. We have to put all our resources into subsidizing the already most successful parts of the economy. But those parts of the economy are producing this huge group of people who are homeless, unemployed, have untreated mental health and substance abuse problems. And then we ask the police to put a lid on those problems — to manage them so they don’t interfere with the “order” that we’re supposedly all benefiting from.”

It’s not surprising that the police act dysfunctionally and oppressively in acting on behalf of a dysfunctional and oppressive system. It could not be otherwise. And so we should not be surprised that, when turning police against protesters who are protesting police abuse, it will not turn out well — as Vitale explained: “What we’re seeing is really an immediate escalation to very high levels of force, a high degree of confrontation. And I think part of it is driven by deep frustration within policing, which is that police feel under assault, and they have no answer. They trotted out all the possible solutions: police-community dialogue sessions, implicit bias training, community policing, body cameras. And it just didn’t work. It didn’t make any difference. And so they ran out of excuses. So the protests today are a much more kind of existential threat to the police. And the police are overreacting as a result.”

Policing has not only become our answer to everything but, worse still, our explanatory narrative of everything. And to try to resolve this conflict, we’ve made our problems worse by militarizing the police which ends up conflating military and police, as our society further takes on the characteristics of a fascist police state and hence a banana republic. With each new wave of policing failure, we throw even more policing measures to deal with it. But this is not a problem for the police to take care of. Turning to the police in the first place is the problem. The police are an extreme measure and should only be called upon when all other measures have been tried and failed. Only in immediate situations of violence should the police be the initial course of action. Militarizing the police in treating them as the solution to everything is not only anti-democratic and anti-libertarian but also simply unfair to the police officers themselves who shouldn’t be forced into that position of authoritarian oppressors. All of us as citizens and community members need to take responsibility for having apathetically succumbed to authoritarian realism, of having failed to radically imagine another way.

It shouldn’t be hard for us to imagine non-violent methods and services to replace present violent policing. Even within the limits of the present legal system, if given a choice, most Americans would rather have rehabilitation than harsh punishments and mass imprisonment (Reckoning With Violence; & The Court of Public Opinion: Part 1 & Part 2). We Americans aren’t a punitive people. Rather our imaginations have been intentionally constrained by a punitive ideology enmeshed in social Darwinism and capitalist realism, a system maintained through the narratives pushed on us by polticians funded and MSM owned by big money interests, largely transnational corporations seeking to uphold the fascist police state and military empire.

It could be added that neither are we a divided people, not fundamentally, certainly not in terms of what we support according to diverse public polling over decades (US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism; American People Keep Going Further Left; Sea Change of Public Opinion: Libertarianism, Progressivism & Socialism; Warmongering Politicians & Progressive Public; Gun Violence & Regulation (Data, Analysis, Rhetoric); Claims of US Becoming Pro-Life; Public Opinion on Tax Cuts for the Rich; Most Oppose Cutting Social Security (data); Non-Identifying Environmentalists And Liberals; Environmentalist Majority; Public Opinion On Government & Tea Party; Vietnam War Myths: Memory, Narrative, Rhetoric & Lies; Who Supported the Vietnam War?; & Most Americans Know What is True), although the ruling elite have gone to great efforts to divide us but in reality it’s the ruling elite who are disconnected from the silenced majority (Political Elites Disconnected From General Public; Wirthlin Effect & Symbolic Conservatism; Sacrifice of Liberal Pawns; Polarizing Effect of Perceived Polarization; Inequality Means No Center to Moderate Toward; Racial Polarization of Partisans; Poll Answers, Stated Beliefs, Ideological Labels; & Get on board or get out of the way!).

In imagining another way, consider some possibilities from Ktown for All. These aren’t necessarily perfect suggestions, but they give us the basic sense of how other solutions could operate, specifically at the community level. This is how we need to start thinking. After we get past the idea phase, it will take years and decades of local experimentation, if centralized government will get out of our way. In some ways, this is simply a return to local community systems that used to operate in the United States — consider the non-criminal courts in the mid-20th century that offered community solutions for juvenile problems which is a far better system than our present school-to-prison pipeline. When naysayers tell us that change is impossible, there are precedents we can look to. Portugal’s Carnation Revolution, to take one inspiring example, was a nonviolent removal of a police state that allowed democratic reform, specifically to how policing was done. The Portuguese demilitarized the police, eliminated mass incarceration, ended their war on drugs that was a war on the people, decriminalized drug use, turned funding to programs for intervention and rehabilitation, and as a result saw a decline of drug addiction.

Maybe reforms are unlikely to be successful anytime soon, as the forces resisting them are powerful. Maybe or maybe not. Either way, it’s always nice to dream. We have to start somewhere and there is nowhere better to start than with radical imagination. If an era of ever worsening crises is heading our way, that is all the more reason to get our minds in the right space. We need to have new ideas and narratives in place ready for when we finally get to the point where change is inevitable. Let us prepare for a better tomorrow so that the next generations will have a fighting chance to build a free society, the dream that has inspired Americans for centuries.

“We continue to make this about the police — the how of it. How can they police? Is it about sensitivity and de-escalation training and community policing? All that can make for a less-egregious relationship between the police and people of color. But the how isn’t as important as the why, which we never address. The police are a reflection of a society. They’re not a rogue alien organization that came down to torment the black community. They’re enforcing segregation. Segregation is legally over, but it never ended. The police are, in some respects, a border patrol, and they patrol the border between the two Americas. We have that so that the rest of us don’t have to deal with it. Then that situation erupts, and we express our shock and indignation. But if we don’t address the anguish of a people, the pain of being a people who built this country through forced labor — people say, ‘‘I’m tired of everything being about race.’’ Well, imagine how [expletive] exhausting it is to live that.

“Police brutality is an organic offshoot of the dehumanization of those power structures. There are always going to be consequences of authority. When you give someone a badge and a gun, that’s going to create its own issues, and there’s no question that those issues can be addressed with greater accountability. It can be true that you can value and admire the contribution and sacrifice that it takes to be a law-enforcement officer or an emergency medical worker in this country and yet still feel that there should be standards and accountability. Both can be true. But I still believe that the root of this problem is the society that we’ve created that contains this schism, and we don’t deal with it, because we’ve outsourced our accountability to the police.”

~ Jon Stewart, NYT interview by David Marchese (June 15, 2020)

“Our democracy hangs in the balance. This is not an overstatement.

“As protests, riots, and police violence roiled the nation last week, the president vowed to send the military to quell persistent rebellions and looting, whether governors wanted a military occupation or not. John Allen, a retired four-star Marine general, wrote that we may be witnessing the “beginning of the end of the American experiment” because of President Trump’s catastrophic failures.

“Trump’s leadership has been disastrous. But it would be a mistake to place the blame on him alone. In part, we find ourselves here for the same reasons a civil war tore our nation apart more than 100 years ago: Too many citizens prefer to cling to brutal and unjust systems than to give up political power, the perceived benefits of white supremacy and an exploitative economic system. If we do not learn the lessons of history and choose a radically different path forward, we may lose our last chance at creating a truly inclusive, egalitarian democracy.

“The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously said that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Today, the same can be said of our criminal injustice system, which is a mirror reflecting back to us who we really are, as opposed to what we tell ourselves.”

~ Michelle Alexander, America, This Is Your Chance

“If we are serious about ending racism and fundamentally changing the United States, we must begin with a real and serious assessment of the problems. We diminish the task by continuing to call upon the agents and actors who fuelled the crisis when they had opportunities to help solve it. But, more importantly, the quest to transform this country cannot be limited to challenging its brutal police alone. It must conquer the logic that finances police and jails at the expense of public schools and hospitals. Police should not be armed with expensive artillery intended to maim and murder civilians while nurses tie garbage sacks around their bodies and reuse masks in a futile effort to keep the coronavirus at bay.

“We have the resources to remake the United States, but it will have to come at the expense of the plutocrats and the plunderers, and therein lies the three-hundred-year-old conundrum: America’s professed values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, continually undone by the reality of debt, despair, and the human degradation of racism and inequality.”

~ Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, How Do We Change America?

What will we choose?

Donald Trump, in declaring anti-fascists are his enemy, is helping to remind and clarify to Americans what is fascism, who are the fascists, the great enemy an earlier generation of Americans fought and defeated. He has stated it in no uncertain terms.

If you’re opposed to anti-fascists, there is only one other choice. There is no third option. Are you for or against fascism? That is now the main dividing line in American society. It’s a stark contrast with centuries of unresolved conflict being forced to the surface.

If we allow it, the police will become increasingly violent and draconian. Lockdowns and curfews could become the norm. More and more innocent people will be attacked, killed and imprisoned. Eventually, if it continues, ghettos and camps will be created. Maybe we’ll even get to the point where people are simply disappeared.

Humanity is at this crossroads again. In a state of public crisis and moral panic, demagogues are offering the certainty of authoritarianism, the promise of law and order. But it’s also an opportunity to seek a just and fair society, to finally fulfill the dream of a free society, maybe a second American Revolution to complete what the first began.

What will we choose?

* * *

Donald Trump’s “Antifa” Hysteria Is Absurd. But It’s Also Very Dangerous.
by Chip Gibbons

Conserving America’s Radical and Revoltuionary Vision

What does it mean to be a ‘conservative’ in a country like the United States? What does it mean to conserve? What is it we might conserve? America was founded on protest, on riot, revolt and rebellion, some of it peaceful but much of it not peaceful in the slightest. Besides the American Revolution, there was the War of Regulation, Shays’ Rebellion, and much else, such as the later Coal Wars, Battle of Athens, and on and on. Americans have never ended their confrontational demands of freedom, even as we speak with yet another protest challenging abuse of power.

The classical liberalism that both liberals and conservatives often claim was given fullest expression in the American tradition from the words of Thomas Paine, the most radically left-wing of the founders. He is the only one of the main founders to directly demand a democratic government, not to mention he was a deist heretic and worst still advocated for what was the equivalent of a universal basic income with his citizens’ dividend. It was Paine who named this country, “the United States of America,” and the closest we’ve come to his radical vision was the Progressive New Deal.

Also, Paine had an honorary citizenship from France and called himself a citizen of the world. Then again, some of the other founders also had honorary citizenships of France and called themselves citizens of the world. Many in that generation had radical aspirations of global revolution, far beyond mere nation-building. Some of them hoped America would be an inspiration to further revolt. In fact, many rebellions were inspired. That legacy, if nothing else, has been conserved in the memory of humanity. That makes sense as it was Paine who argued that America never was an ethno-nationalistic project, since even when he wrote his revolutionary tracts the majority in several colonies were not English and not even British. America was to represent a new multiculturalism based on universal human rights.

Ignoring Paine’s religious hereticism and that of Jefferson, Franklin, Ethan Allen, and Thomas Young… which is a lot hereticism to ignore… even if we proclaim Christianity as the one true faith of American society, which of the over 4,6000 sects of Christianity in the United States get credit and privilege? And if we are to genuinely conserve Jesus teachings and example, we’d have to be as radical as he was in challenging accumulated wealth and challenging claims of authority, including the rule-obsessed and literal-minded fundamentalism of religious authority as Jesus did with the Pharisees and Sadducees. That would mean we’d have to treat far better the least among us, including the sick, homeless, prostitutes, etc. Instead of an elite, it would be the meek who would inherit the earth, those who are poor and trampled upon, those who are most child-like.

One might add that Jesus himself was a heretic, in a long tradition of Jewish heretics. There has always been a strong heretical impulse that splintered the Christian tradition, right from the beginning. This is maybe because Jesus never set to found a religion and so left no official organization, doctrine of beliefs, set of rules, methods of practice, etc. So, if Christianity is a product of heresy, blossomed in a diversity of heresy right from the start and maintained that heretical tendency ever since, then what does it mean to conserve Jesus’ ministry that opposed conserving what came before? Can one conserve heresy and the heretical mindset that motivated it?

We’d even have to take note of how Jesus paid zero respect to family values and follow his lead in his having told someone about their father to let the dead bury the dead and at another time declared that he came to turn family against each other. Jesus preached a universal love and compassion that extended far beyond kinship, far beyond all social identities such as race, ethnicity and nationalism. Anyway, if we are to ignore Jesus, which family values would we conserve? The nuclear family is a modern invention that is as unconservative as can be according to historical standards of family values. The notion of family used to be connected to a complex traditional culture of community and commons, but such a culture has no place in modern American society.

As for traditionalism as the heart of conservatism, the most traditional societies in America, those with the greatest claims on an established tradition are the Native Americans, some of which inspired the division of power that was adopted into the US constitution. In their existing as separate legal nations, they remind us of the federalism this country was based upon. Yet we still don’t honor the legal and constitutional promises made to them. If we want to be reminded of what conserving the traditional could mean, we’d need to relearn traditionalism from the few remaining American people who haven’t yet fully destroyed their traditional cultures, haven’t yet entirely sacrificed their ancient identities in worship of Mammon.

On the most basic level of all, let’s consider the main enemy of conserving traditionalism against change. It is capitalist realism that eliminates and replaces all that is traditional while devouring the world we’ve inherited. Instead of conservation of the environment, instead of caretaking for God’s Creation, instead of being morally responsible to future generations, we sacrifice the common good and leave nothing to be inherited as we inherited what was left to us. Is nothing sacred? What about the most conservative impulse of all, the precautionary principle that would lead us to not be so careless and wasteful, so morally indifferent and psycopathically destructive.

There is a further way in which modern American conservatism finds itself in a tricky relationship with traditionalism. Prior to the rise of reactionary conservatism in post-revolutionary era, the ancien regime was based on a sense in which social realities laid claim upon the individual. Everyone was defined by kinship, community, and the commons; by an entire network of relationships, obligations, and commitments; and a profound sense of place that rooted one in a shared social reality.

Modern American conservatism is a far different beast, in its being intertwined with capitalist realism. Instead of what claims the individual, it is about what the individual claims. The individual is defined by what they own, what or who they control, including subordinates below them in the capitalist order such as employees. Most of use never think about how strange that is, how unusual, how extremely different from most of the historical past. This is also the sense of modern ethno-nationalism. There is the demand to claim a country as an identity with mapped boundaries. In the pre-modern world, especially the ancient world, sociopolitical boundaries were much more blurred, overlapping, and shifting. People could be claimed by multiple social identities, depending on the context as identity was inseparable from particular relationships. There weren’t the abstract identities that moderns cling to.

If we seek to conserve what has claimed humanity for most of existence, we must forego our modern claims of identity that seek to force themselves onto the world and so reshape that world. To conserve would mean to some degree return to a sense of being claimed by the other, by the world. It would mean asking what we owe, who we are responsible to. An attempt to return to such a worldview would be a radical act. That is where we find ourselves now, having to choose either the reactionary or the radical. And the radical potentially takes more seriously and treats with more respect the traditional.

Other than unjust privilege, cruel oppression and rigid hierarchy, what is actually conserved by so-called ‘conservatism’ in American society? What can conservatism possibly mean other than convenient rationalization for whatever rhetoric is useful to the powerful at any given moment? But maybe conservatism could be more than that, if we were to take seriously the value of conserving what is of value. Imagine for a moment that American conservatism actually meant something other than defending a fantasy of power and instead was a guiding moral vision. Imagine if conservatives actually fought to conserve what mattered most.

Now that would be truly radical, maybe even revolutionary — radical as going to the root, revolutionary as a cyclical return. Let us return to the roots of the greatest of social, moral and political visions of American society, the founding vision that inspired more than any other. That would be worth conserving. In that case, we radicals could be conservatives. Maybe the only way to be meaningfully conservative now is to be radical enough to deeply consider the claims made upon us by the demands of conserving. The reactionary can mouth empty words, but traditionalism is forever lost to the reactionary mind. They are opposites. We radicals should make the case for conservatism.

The Empire Within Us

In a review of Buddy Levy’s book Conquistador, Chuck Pezeshki uses it as an opportunity to discuss the sociopolitical implications of psychopathic power, cruel sacrifice, and the loss of empathy (Learning from Aztecs and Bon Vivants — Empathy in the Time of the Coronavirus (VIII)). Levy describes, in taking Spanish accounts at their word, the claimed atrocities of human sacrifice supposedly committed by the Aztecs and how Cortés put on a pretense of moral outrage.

Levy writes that, “Some of Cortés’s men reported being shown a morbid place, an ossuary of human skulls, constructed to resemble a viewing theater of slain sacrifice victims. Set in stacks of five, on tiered poles between large supporting towers, were some 136,000 skulls, all the heads facing outward, the open-mouthed faces bleached to a bone-white patina from the high-altitude sun. For the Spaniards, it was a macabre and chilling sight. During his tour of the palaces and marketplace, Cortés would also have heard about other equally gruesome ritual practices, including the slashing open of the throats of infants, the beheading of young women, and the dressing of teenagers in recently flayed human skins. The shock and disgust that he felt (notwithstanding his own recent personal acts of barbarity) must have fueled his sense of mission and righteousness.” Was that true? Were the accounts accurate? Before answering those questions, let’s consider Hernán Cortés’ rhetoric and rationalizations given right before battle, from another section of Conquistador:

“Before departing, Cortés assembled the entire allied force—the Spaniards in clanking and shimmering armor, the Indian warriors in feathers—at the central square of Tlaxcala. By now more than proficient in rousing oratory, Cortés spoke to his men (translated to the Tlaxcalans through Malinche and a few pages who had learned Nahuatl) reminding them of (and cleverly providing legal precedent for) the task ahead. They embarked on a “just” cause, he said, simultaneously appealing to honor, faith, and greed. “The principal reason for us coming to these parts,” he bellowed across the plaza, “is to glorify and preach the Faith of Jesus Christ, even though at the same time it brings us honor and profit, which infrequently come in the same package.”

“Cortés went on, attempting to justify, both to the crown and in accordance with Spanish law, his proposed military actions by suggesting that the Aztecs were not a liberated nation but rather were vassals of Spain in rebellion, murderers of Spanish citizens who therefore required “a great whipping and punishment.” While the argument was weak and rather dubious, it achieved the desired effect: the army rallied with whoops and cheers. Cortés closed this portion of his speech with a salient reminder of the Aztecs’ vile practices of human sacrifice, cannibalism, and even sodomy (this last an appeal against a taboo, seemingly for punctuation). Then he called upon a crier to shout out a list of seventeen rules of engagement, recently scribed by his new war secretary. The irony of some of them is so egregious, given Spanish brutality and duplicitous behavior, that in reading them, one does not know whether to laugh or to cry.

“The highlights of this list, which Cortés called “ordinances for good government and other matters concerning war,” include the following. The purpose of the war was to impart to the local inhabitants of Mexico a “knowledge of our holy faith” and to “subjugate them, under imperial and royal yoke and dominion of His Majesty, to whom, legally, the lordship of these parts now belongs.” The terms “subjugate,” “dominion,” and “belongs” betray Cortés’s true intention: to bring this land to its knees and possess it.”

Basically, Cortés was not a nice guy, much less a trustworthy source on his own motivations. Spanish accounts were intended as imperial propaganda, but that is as expected. Of course, Cortés was also trying to advance his own career and reputation. “In effect, he was a rogue, a rebel, a pirate. Arguments about his relative morality will persist: he was manipulative, duplicitous, and egomaniacal. He was barbarous in his own way, using his religious faith and convictions to justify brutalities including torture, branding, execution, unprovoked massacre, and slavery.” He was ambitious, if nothing else, and would do anything to promote that ambition. The accusations of brutality were pretext to justify the brutality that was to come, as Levy explains:

“For the next three weeks, fueled perhaps by a desire for vengeance for La Noche Triste, and certainly wishing to make a show of unyielding power, Cortés terrorized the region, ravaging villages and cities with brutal impunity. He turned his ferocious armored war-hounds loose on any Aztecs or their allies who refused to submit; the snarling, blood-crazed animals tore them to shreds. Hacking and burning a wide and deadly course, Cortés took prisoner-slaves and exacted fealty from leaders until, as the thick smoke of sacked towns choked the horizon, he had subjugated the entire province of Tepeaca. Cortés would say of this bloody carnage, “Although…this province is very large, within twenty days we had subdued and pacified many towns and villages, and the lords and chieftains…offered themselves as your majesty’s vassals.” Cortés would later justify his brutality and the taking of slaves by arguing that it was in response to widespread regional cannibalism, which both he and the crown despised, but this claim rang false, sounding like an excuse. The campaign reached, even for Cortés, shocking levels of atrocity and barbarity. In one city he is said to have lined up and killed two thousand civilian men, while four thousand women and children watched—and the latter were then branded and enslaved.”

That was a brutal era of clashing empires ruled by the Dark Triad: psycopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. There wasn’t much allowance made for compassion or even pity. That apparently is what attracted Pezeshki to Levy’s book. Empathy is a central theme of Pezeshki’s blog and of his scholarship. According to his About page, he is “a published professor in the field of design theory and high performance work teams. […] And I’m also one of the second-wave pioneers in understanding nonlinear dynamics and complex system theory [… with] an extensive background in environmental policy [… and] experience up and down the governmental food chain.” His writings are more than worthy of studying, specifically his application of v-memes or value memes. He also has fascinating posts on diet and nutrition as they relate to society (see an earlier post, Diets and Systems, from this blog in response to that), although that is an entirely other topic. Anyway, the context of the recent post by Pezeshki is how empathy should be part of our discussion of COVID-19, specifically as a way of understanding different responses and what they mean. The focus is on human sacrifice and I agree with his larger point:

“Aztecs sacrificed victims regularly to make sure the sun would rise and set, as well as almost every other reason imaginable. That is never a good feedback loop to make. Once a society institutes Divine Rationalization justifying any depravity, the end is near. What such constant, chronic sacrifice certainly did was destroy empathy, and create a massively dissociated nation. […] What is interesting is that such treatment of people, both within, and very much without their society, destroys the ability of a society to have more evolved empathy. The last thing you would ever want to do is connect to someone having their heart cut out and then subsequently decapitated. […]

“Yet instead of being future focused, the psychopaths in charge created an entire civilization run off the rails by trauma. […] Through promotion of a class of highly sophisticated psychopaths who could both manage, exult in and design the grisly daily rituals of suffering and death, unmoored from their obvious consequences, should serve as a warning to all of us. Current Wall Street dynamics, anyone? […] This blog typically does not talk about moral justice in all of this. But it’s very hard to argue that the Aztecs didn’t have it coming. Something we might think about when we have our own version of sacrificing the poor as morally justifiable in order to keep our civilization running. What is the end game here? What can history teach us?”

He really isn’t talking about the Aztecs. Rather, he used a foreign society that is distant from us in time and place in order to give us the emotional distance to gain new perspective on our own society. I applaud what he is attempting and the ongoing project it’s part of, but I’m not sure the Aztecs are a good example for this purpose. That history of European conquest is mired in the unreliable accounts of the violent Spaniards, arguably far more brutal and psychopathic than the Aztecs. The Aztecs might have lost because they weren’t psychopathic enough compared to the Spaniards or else because they lacked the ambitious quality of psychopathy as seen in Spanish colonial imperialism, military expansionism, and genocidal exploitation — not to mention the Inquisition that led to the torture, persecution, and killing of millions. That isn’t to lessen the moral crime of human sacrifice that was practiced by the Aztecs, even if at a much smaller scale compared to the Spaniards at the time. But as we seek proper perspective toward our own society, we should also seek a fuller understanding of the societies of others.

There is much discussion and debate about Aztec human sacrifice. The archaeological record apparently hasn’t so far supported the claims made by the Conquistadors who would’ve been motivated to exaggerate. Three sites have shown the remains of individuals numbering 35, 123 and 150, not the thousands upon thousands of sacrificial victims from the Spanish accounts, much less the 100,000 that some have suggested nor even close to the ‘conservative’ estimates of 20,000. There was ritual sacrifice, but it was rather limited according to the evidence. Besides, most sacrifices were animals and, among humans, the most common practice was self-sacrifice. Even captured enemies who were sacrificed were kept for long periods of time during which they were well fed, trained in special dances, and much else. It was an immense investment and so, as this intriguingly involved knowing cooperation by the intended victim, these highly prized sacrifices were rare. Anyway, to put it in context, Cortés and his army killed more natives in battle than the most exaggerated number ascribed to human sacrifice by the Aztecs — according to Levy: “The clash of empires that followed culminated in the bloody siege of Tenochtitlán, to this day considered the longest and costliest continuous single battle in history, with estimated casualties of 200,000 human lives.”

As for Aztec cannibalism, it appears to have been much more rare, quite likely far more rare than the medical cannibalism practiced in Europe for many centuries and into the modern period, having fallen out of favor during the 19th century although it continued into the 20th century: “From creating candles made of human fat in the 1880s, to drinking blood at the scaffolding (still happening in 1908)” (Eddie Wrenn, Europeans indulged in cannibalism until the 1900s, two new books claim; Richard Sugg, Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: the History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians; & Louise Noble, Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture). As a side note, similar to human sacrifice, cannibalism has been more common than previously acknowledged. Weston A. Price, in searching diverse traditional societies, couldn’t find a single example of veganism but many examples of cannibalism (Being “mostly vegan” is like being “a little pregnant.”). European history is no exception when it comes to cannibalism. As with a supposed cannibalistic elite among the Aztecs, European aristocrats, royalty and popes partook of human flesh (Keith Veronese, The UncLouiseomfortably Common Practice of Medicinal Cannibalism; & Bess Lovejoy, A Brief History of Medical Cannibalism). European scholars, priests, and peasants also joined in such morbid activities, not limited to eating human flesh but also smearing human fat and sprinkling human blood on their bodies. This might be unsurprising since Europeans at the time took seriously the idea that a symbolic ritual of eating the blood and body of a sacrificed godman would bring them eternal life.

Consider that “Europe boasts the oldest fossil evidence of cannibalism,” albeit of Neanderthals, and “the world’s first cannibal incident reported by multiple, independent, first-hand accounts took place during the Crusades by European soldiers” (Sarah Everts, Europe’s Hypocritical History of Cannibalism). To Europeans, the university lecturer Richard Sugg points out, “The question was not, ‘Should you eat human flesh?’ but, ‘What sort of flesh should you eat?’ ” One might argue that European cannibalism was far more barbaric in how it dehumanized the human body. “The one thing that we know,” says Beth A. Conklin, “is that almost all non-Western cannibal practice is deeply social in the sense that the relationship between the eater and the one who is eaten matters. In the European process, this was largely erased and made irrelevant. Human beings were reduced to simple biological matter equivalent to any other kind of commodity medicine” (Maria Dolan, The Gruesome History of Eating Corpses as Medicine). The human body was made into mere matter, the result of the new ‘Enlightened’ thought. Such European cannibalism became common practice — in Eating Your Enemy, Richard Sugg writes:

“Though Christian Europeans shunned the cannibalism of the New World, they themselves in fact practised cannibalism more systematically than any tribes in Canada or Brazil. Until around 1750, human fat, flesh, bone and blood (preferably drunk warm) were widely used and esteemed forms of medicine. Advocates and consumers included Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle and Charles II. Meanwhile, from the early sixteenth century, Protestants and Catholics in northern Europe  denounced and slaughtered one another with tribal ferocity, even as each side attacked the ‘cannibal barbarity’ or inhumanity of the other. Frank Lestringant (1997) tells how, around 1580, a French Protestant was killed and eviscerated by Catholics. His heart was next ‘chopped in pieces, auctioned off, cooked on a grill and finally eaten with much enjoyment’.

“Elsewhere such savagery might be inspired by social antagonisms. Historian Piero Camporesi (1988) tells of violent aristocratic feuds in early-modern Italy. In one case, a victim’s disembowelled heart was bitten. In a second, the narrator tells us, ‘lucky was the man who might grind the entrails between his teeth’. In a third instance, a man was tortured and killed before being disembowelled. After gnawing his intestines, his attackers proceeded to ‘cut him up into small pieces to remove his fat because he was young, being probably twenty-eight years of age, tall and slim in build’. In Camporesi’s view, the emphasis on the victim’s youth and stature betrays an intention to sell this fat to ‘pharmacologist-doctors’ who would find it ‘beneficial to all nervous ailments’. Given the trade in cannibalistic medicine, the inference looks all too plausible.

“In these incidents the aggressors do not actually eat, but enact their dominance by cannibalistic gestures. Such gestures violently break taboos, yet avoid the possibility of being contaminated by the substance of their victims. In a broadly similar way, selling Orsi’s fat is a form of derisive exploitation, and one that procures someone else to do the actual consumption.”

With that in mind, let us return to what supposedly so horrified the Conquistadors, men who weren’t squeamish about blood and guts and the screams of the innocent. Pezeshki argues, based on Levy’s book, that human sacrifice and cannibalism were central factors in the downfall of the Aztecs. The assertion is based on the evidence of an uprising among the subordinate populations who would’ve been the source of victims offered to the bloody rituals demanded by an authoritarian elite. That surely played some role, although maybe not as much considering the evidence is skimpy for a large-scale death count. Revolt might have had more to do with basic reasons such as a starving and unhappy peasant class, similar to what incited the French Revolution. A lack of empathy would still be involved, even if no dramatic large-scale violence was necessarily involved. Standard authoritarian oppression is brutal enough by itself to instigate unrest, as the Spanish would experience themselves when oppressed people fought back with Haiti being a key case in point.

Whatever may have been behind uprisings that helped the Spanish invaders, some argue that the Conquistadors were so able to defeat the Aztecs because so many of the enemy soldiers were already sick and weak from an outbreak of typhoid-like salmonella enterica bacterium, “the second of three epidemics” that killed 15 million people, as compared to the bubonic plague that did away with 25 million (Agence France-Presse, 500 years later, scientists discover what probably killed the Aztecs). By the time the would be conquerors arrived, the city was in a chaotic state where an organized defense was no longer possible. Imagine if a large empire with a population immune to bubonic plague had attacked Europe while mass infection and death was taking hold. It would’ve been an easy victory even for a small invading army, with or without local revolt. Furthermore, the higher rate of deaths in the rural areas of the Aztec empire would’ve added to the social instability for the Aztec ruling elite living in the central city. There already had been drought, malnutrition, and famine preceding the arrival of the Conquistadors. This would’ve made the population susceptible to infectious diseases and rural areas might have been affected more harshly, a situation the Conquistadors were able to take advantage of.

To return to the issue of human sacrifice, that is a complex issue. At around same the time, as I pointed out, the Spaniards were committing human sacrifice as well, even if by other means. Between the Inquisition and genocide, many millions were killed, far beyond the scope of Aztec brutality. Public torture, quarterings, hangings, burnings, etc was common practice in Europe during that era, from feudalism to colonialism. There was systemic persecution and mass decimation of entire populations and religions like the Cathars. That moral depravity and lack of empathy didn’t stop these countries from creating advanced societies and rising into empires. If anything, too much empathy would have been a hindrance for the Spaniards in seeking to conquer and enslave other societies, far from limited to the Aztecs. Psychopathy was their key to success.

Interestingly, it was during this period of mass oppression, violence, and suffering in Europe that the ideals of empathy were emerging. It had more to do with a new understanding of individuality and psychology, such as what developed in the violently warring Italian city-states in the Renaissance. Some believe the changes in mindset had more to do with changes in technology and media, such as the printing press that made books more widespread. Also, there were changes in how text was written, as seen in the introduction of punctuation and spaces between words that allowed silent reading in the privacy of one’s own mind. The conditions that create psychopathy can simultaneously inspire new attitudes, ideals, and visions of empathy. Thomas Paine, to take an example from another empire, could see from his house the almost daily public killings at the gallows which included the death of a childhood friend and it probably helped to later shape him into a revolutionary who proclaimed himself to be a citizen of the world. By the way, what became of the executed? “In Great Britain, the body supply was easily replenished by using the corpses of criminals. The Murder Act of 1752 allowed executed murderers to be dissected for science. After the bodies were dissected, they were sent to apothecaries and were made into corpse medicine. Almost every single body part was used in one way or another” (Nichole K., Cannibalism in Europe: The Hypocrisy of Corpse Medicine in the 17th Century) — Paine was a teenager when this barbarism was put into law and so this was likely the fate of the corpse of his childhood friend. Brutality can deaden the soul but it can inspire others instead, as demonstrated by the martyrdom practiced by Stoics and inherited by Christians.

Empathy developed in spite of or maybe even in response to a dominant social order that was the complete opposite of encouraging empathy. The conditions that make greater empathy possible are complex and can take long periods to accrue. Julian Jaynes explored how the earliest signs of a more modern empathy appeared after the fall of the Bronze Age civilizations. Others have studied this in terms of the Axial Age societies and religions that came out of that prior period of dark ages, often using the Greeks as the key example. Interestingly, the Bronze Age civilizations became most brutally violent right before their collapse. Jaynes argued this change was caused the weakening of the bicameral social order. Empathy, as we understand it, had not been necessary to the communally-oriented bicameral mind with its collective identity of external voice-hearing. For that same reason, the early communitarian societies of small city-states were far less violent with no evidence of mass torture and slaughter. A new kind of violent hierarchy only rose later on with the tentative signs of a new individualistic and introspective consciousness that, so goes the argument, also made empathy as we know it possible. Violence might become more common and brutal in response to the radical potential of empathy that challenges it.

By the way, Jaynes does discuss the Aztecs. He was writing at a time when info was more limited and so he didn’t know about the drought, famine, and disease that preceded the Conquistador attack. His suggestion was that the Aztecs were still a bicameral society or beginning transition out of bicamerality and that their defeat partly came from an incomprehension about the mentality of the Conquistadors. Bicameral societies operated in a very different way. According to theory, individuality and hence sacrifice wouldn’t be experienced as is done with Jaynesian egoic consciousness. Here is what he wrote:

“The conquered Aztecs told the Spanish invaders how their history began when a statue from a ruined temple belonging to a previous culture spoke to their leaders. It commanded them to cross the lake from where they were, and to carry its statue with them wherever they went, directing them hither and thither, even as the unembodied bicameral voices led Moses zigzagging across the Sinai desert.

“And finally the remarkable evidence from Peru. All the first reports of the conquest of Peru by the Inquisition-taught Spaniards are consistent in regarding the Inca kingdom as one commanded by the Devil. Their evidence was that the Devil himself actually spoke to the Incas out of the mouths of their statues. To these coarse dogmatized Christians, coming from one of the most ignorant counties of Spain, this caused little astonishment. The very first report back to Europe said, “in the temple [of Pachacamac] was a Devil who used to speak to the Indians in a very dark room which was as dirty as he himself.” And a later account reported that

” “… it was a thing very common and approved at the Indies, that the Devill spake and answered in these false sanctuaries … It was commonly in the night they entered backward to their idoll and so went bending their bodies and head, after an uglie manner, and so they consulted with him. The answer he made, was commonly like unto a fearefull hissing, or to a gnashing which did terrifie them; and all that he did advertise or command them, was but the way to their perdition and ruine.” “

Even if it were true the Aztecs had been as violent and superstitious as portrayed with a lingering bicameral mindset, maybe they offered a mirror to the invading soldiers in which to gaze upon their own distorted visage. It was the familiarity of such a society that might have so frightened those simple Conquistadors. The vestiges of bicameralism were still strong in the European mind of that era when individualism was barely taking hold, not that long after the so-called Dark Ages. The threat of a still functioning bicameral society might have been that it awakened the still living voices that exerted so much power over these religious Europeans, at a time when worship of idols and corpses was still widespread in the Catholic church.

Those bicameral voices might not be so distant for us modern Westerners either. In reading the Spanish accounts of the Aztecs, it also holds up a mirror to our own repressed dark fears and depraved fantasies. We’ll never know the objective reality of who were the Aztecs and it ultimately doesn’t matter. We don’t have to look outside of the West to know the bloody origins of the psychopathy that rules our own modern world. The Empire never ended, as Philip K. Dick said — call it Roman, Spanish, Aztec, or American. It’s all the same Empire and we carry it in our soul and psyche, our shared humanity, in the shadows of the unconscious. It’s not whether or not those others lacked empathy but, as Chuck Pezeshki would agree, if we will allow ourselves to empathize with our own darkness, what we’ve denied in ourselves. The Other is to be found within.

* * *

Ancient Aztec skull rack discovered in temple complex in middle of Mexico City — decapitated victims’ skulls used in mortar and used like bricks
Ahhuatl:
A good demonstration of the disconnect between what the Spanish claimed and the actual empirical evidence.

ictlantecuhtli:
They found 35 skulls so far. Hardly close to 100,000.
The Spanish were quite awful at estimating things in their accounts. A lot of the numbers have been inflated to make things sound grander.
And Diaz wrote his book decades after the event when he was an old man. His account comes into conflict with Cortes’ letters on numerous accounts, probably because Diaz wanted to make things more exciting to get more money for his book.

Britannica Book of the Year 2014
Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.
p. 194

In central Mexico, north of the Maya world, archaeologists discovered another mass grave, in what appeared to indicate the largest human sacrifice in Mesoamerican prehistory. This finding, published in the December 2012 issue of Latin American Antiquity, garnered significant press after its initial publication. Christopher Morehart (then of Georgia State University) and colleagues—while investigating ancient canals and irrigation systems in proximity to Lake Xaltocan (now drained), about a half hour’s drive from Mexico City—discovered a looted site. This site, which appeared to have included a ritual shrine, produced evidence of more than 150 human skulls—some of which included the first and second cervical vertebrae—carefully placed in linear rows. The crania that were analyzed showed that most of the victims were male. Radiocarbon dating indicated that these individuals were sacrificed sometime between 600 and 850 CE, beginning about the time of Teotihuacan’s collapse. Teotihuacan was located just 15 km (9 mi) southeast of the shrine, and its collapse was attributed to social disruptions caused by massive drought. If indeed drought conditions were affecting the broader region at this time, then the region’s inhabitants may have intensified their ritual practices in an effort to appeal to deities that could intervene on their behalf. The site’s ceremonial nature was indicated by the presence of the shrine, which contained such ritual objects as incense burners, figurines depicting water deities, and pottery embellished with agricultural imagery. The sacrifice of so many male individuals within this ritual context suggested that the drought must have been severe along Lake Xaltocan.

Aztec sacrifice and the blood fetish
u/AlotOfReading:

Primary sources surrounding the Conquest of Mexico are a tricky thing to interpret. They were the product of a set of social and political environments vastly different than today’s. Even our best primary sources are far from comprehensive or accurate. Diaz is neither. There have been many different attempts3 to convey the context of Diaz’s writings to the modern reader, but none that can be understood by taking quotes out of context. It’s this difficulty with interpreting primary sources of the conquest that schools often teach guided interpretive readings of primary sources to help students navigate their biases. As /u/Ahhuatl and /u/Mictlantecuhtli (both flaired users on /r/Askhistorians) correctly note, Diaz’s claims are not archaeologically substantiated. I will defer to /u/Ahhuatl’s previous post to explain the issues with the scale of sacrifice and death in precolumbian Mexico.

Why did Mesoamericans sacrifice people, and why was it not because “the gods don’t bleed?” – A further analysis of the flaws of “The Road to El Dorado”
Ahhuatl:

“What’s unique is the scale and its centrality, not the act itself.”

This is actually a fairly debatable point. It is important to contextualize our understanding of Mesoamerican culture – specifically to recognize that our understanding of the scope and nature of human sacrifice in Mesoamerica is almost wholly derived from colonial era sources. The once source we have that actually interacted with Precolumbian Mesoamerica comes from the Conquistadors themselves – Cortes, Diaz, et al. These sources don’t do much in the way of granting us a sense of the number of people sacrificed by the Aztecs or any Mesoamerican culture and they, just like later colonial sources, had every incentive to exaggerate the scale of human sacrifice in Mesoamerica. The conquest of the Aztec Empire fueled a firestorm of controversy that was already taking place in Europe regarding the morality of subjugating people as the Spanish were doing. Emphasizing the supposed devilry inherent to Mesoamerican religion helped bolster the reputation of the Spanish in the eyes of the Church and the rest of Europe. This isn’t to lend the impression that all of the sources we have on Mesoamerica were deliberately distorting the truth. There are several other mitigating factors which call the accuracy of Spanish depictions of human sacrifice into question as well. Most notably, texts from the Middle Ages routinely involved the inflation of statistics for the sake of dramatic purpose. The Spanish themselves would claim that they claimed millions of people in the Conquest. Most damning however is that our most valuable sources – Sahagun, Duran, Motolinia – were all writing decades after the fall of the Aztec Empire. In that time period, a huge swath of the people who had actually lived prior to the arrival of the Spanish had died. The Spanish frequently relied on people who either claimed to be members of the Aztec elite or stories passed on to younger generations to form their understanding of what life was like before the Conquest.

I’m going to take a controversial stance here, so you should take what I say with a grain of salt. To be frank, I don’t find the figures provided by most Mesoamerican historians to be much more than baseless speculation. […] There is an elephant in the room when it comes these proclamations about the supposedly unparalleled scale and brutality of Aztec sacrifice: archaeology.

Lets play a guess game, shall we? In 2012, Archaeologists discovered the largest example of human sacrifice ever recording in Mesoamerica. If you had to guess how many unique individuals identified in that excavation, how many would you guess there were? More than 150,000? Nope. More than 15,000? Nope. More than 1,500? Nope. The largest example of mass human sacrifice ever found in Mesoamerica contained more than 150 skulls. 150 skulls. What Berdan is alluding to in his quote is the enormous gap that exists between the reported scale of Aztec human sacrifice and actual, physical evidence we have of human sacrifice in Mesoamerica. Given the scale and intensity of Aztec sacrifice (and note that the aforementioned discovery date to a period before the Aztecs were even around) to say nothing of Mesoamerican sacrifice as a whole, there should be vast quantities of sacrificial remains all over the region – yet there aren’t. Right now there are several flimsy explanations for this huge discrepancy, the most pervasive of which actually derives from the Harner if I remember correctly. It has been suggested that the befuddling absence of sacrificial remains can be attributed to cannibalism.

Cannibalism in Mesoamerica is an area of even more dubious credibility that discussions of human sacrifice. While there is no question that cannibalism did take place in Mesoamerica, what we know about its practice really does not explain the absence of subsurface sacrificial remains. […] Beyond this, only particular portions of the human body were consumed in ritual cannibalism. Other parts, like the skull, were displayed or ritually buried, so we should STILL be seeing more evidence of sacrifice than we are.

I don’t want to lend the impression that the Aztecs or other Mesoamericans did not practice at notable amount of human sacrifice. Rather I want to emphasize to you and other readers that we academics are still coming to terms with this complex issue on our own. When you look at the hard data we have about Mesoamerican human sacrifice and then look around at other cultures and realize the verifiable scale of Mesoamerican human sacrifice is barely greater than anywhere else in the world, your perspective on the matter changes significantly. It is fascinating to me how unequal the treatment of Mesoamerican human sacrifice is to say, Ancient Greek sacrifice. When people think of human sacrifice, they immediately think of the Mesoamericans. The entire legacy of this truly remarkable region has been polluted by this perception of Mesoamericans as a particularly bloodthirsty, cruel, superstitious, and barbaric group of people. Yet the reality that the Ancient Greeks practiced human sacrifice and ritual cannibalism is something that is functionally erased from the collective mindset of the West. We still envision the Ancient Greeks as the inherently good an enlightened people – even though they subjugated a far wider array of people than the Aztecs did and even though held many of the same cultural practices as the Aztecs. Yet there is a deep, almost obsessive, need among not just the public but scholars as well to focus in on Mesoamerican sacrifice. I think if anyone ever suggested that the limited archaeological evidence of Greek human sacrifice stems from the founders of Western civilization simply eating all of their sacrifices, they’d be laughed out of the room. Yet these extreme explanations, so divorced from the evidence and rational explanations, are eagerly embraced by the West. Why?

The Aztecs: A Very Short Introduction
by David Carrasco
Chapter 4: Cosmovision and human sacrifice
pp. 77-82

No topic has caused more controversy and confusion about Aztec life than human sacrifice. Chroniclers, priests, anthropologists, journalists, filmmakers, and creative writers have repeatedly focused on it, some to condemn it, some to refute it ever took place, and some to understand the indigenous purposes and cultural meanings of ritual killing and the ritual ingestion of human flesh. That the Aztecs practiced ritual human sacrifice is beyond doubt, but it is also clear that Spanish chroniclers exaggerated the numbers and purposes of these sacrifices as a strategy to justify their own conquests and prodigious violence against Mesoamerican men, women, and children. Scholarship also reveals that many ancient cultures including the Romans, Greeks, Japanese, Chinese, Africans, Andeans, and Egyptians practiced human sacrifice, often in very large numbers. Even though the Aztec image in Western thought ranks them as the biggest sacrificers in the world, there is no substantial archaeological or documentary proof that they ritually killed more people than other civilizations.

Evidence of human sacrifice

[…] This kind of eyewitness observation can be combined with Aztec pictorial and alphabetic sources, the detailed accounts of elders interviewed by Spanish friars, as well as archaeological evidence, to show that ritual violence was a basic part of Aztec life. We now know that ritual killing long predates the Aztecs with the earliest Mesoamerican evidence coming from hunter-gatherers in the Tehuacán Valley at around 5000 bce. It is also likely that many city-states before the Aztecs practiced some form of human sacrifice. But there is a huge discrepancy between the numbers that the Spanish “eyewitnesses” tell us and what careful archaeological work in this area has revealed. For instance, here is what the record shows at the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan, the most thoroughly excavated Aztec site in Mesoamerica, where the largest numbers of sacrifices most likely took place:

  • Two sacrificial stones ( techcatl ) stood at the entrance to the two shrines at the top of the Great Temple. Each rose from the floor about 50 centimeters and served as altars for ritual killings, just as Díaz del Castillo described them.
  • More than a thousand ritual knives, mainly of flint, were uncovered in the excavation of different stages and offering caches. They are carefully decorated and often transformed into the face of a deity awaiting the sacrificial moment. Evidence shows that these knives were not used in the ritual killings but rather were symbolic offerings.
  • Traces on the surfaces of statues, altars, and floors of certain ritual chambers reveal that sacrificial blood was smeared on divine images and spilled in significant quantities.
  • The human remains of 126 people were buried throughout the site. Forty-two are children who, suffering from various diseases, had their throats slit so the blood could be used as an offering to the gods. Forty-seven adult heads with the top vertebrae connected were found in various offerings. Only three complete human skulls have been uncovered. They were perforated at the temples probably indicating that they had previously hung on a nearby skull rack. Thirty-three facial skull masks decorated with shell-and-pyrite eyes and representing the Lord of the Underworld, Mictlantecuhtli, were deposited in the floors of the Great Temple.

This is the sum total of all sacrificial human remains found in over thirty seasons of intensive excavations in the main ritual precinct of Tenochtitlan. It is remarkable that more human remains have been found at the site of Teotihuacan (1–550 CE ) than at this central ritual landscape and capital of the Aztec empire. A Spanish account claims that more than 80,000 enemy warriors were sacrificed in a four-day ceremony, and yet no evidence approaching one-hundredth of that number has been found in the excavations of Tenochtitlan. […]

It may come as a surprise that the most common form of sacrifice was autosacrifice. This involved the use of maguey thorns or other sharp instruments to pierce one’s earlobes, thighs, arms, tongue, or, in the case of sinners and priests, genitals, in order to offer blood to the gods. The most common type of killing was the beheading of animals like the quail. But the most dramatic and valued sacrifices were those of captured warriors, women, children, and slaves. These victims were ritually bathed, carefully costumed, often taught special dances, and sometimes either fattened or slimmed down during the preparation period. In one of the most fascinating examples, during the feast of Toxcatl, great care was taken to choose a male with the most perfect body who would ritually become the prodigious god Tezcatlipoca before he was sacrificed. […]

Moreover, this person lived in luxury for an entire year as he promenaded, with guards, throughout the city, playing his flute, greeting people in gracious prose, for he was the living image of one of the most powerful of Aztec gods.

About thirty years ago, a heated debate broke out in academic and popular journals about the extent and purpose of Aztec cannibalism. Some argued that the Aztecs ate large numbers of people as a necessary source of protein. The Aztec state was called the “Cannibal Kingdom” by an anthropologist who unfortunately did a very limited study of the evidence. The opponents of the protein argument stated that cannibalism in Aztec Mexico was primarily a ritual need to feed the gods and renew their energy, not a gastronomic need of humans to feed themselves. This meant that in the Aztec understanding of sacrifice and cannibalism, it was the gods who were nurtured through the ritual offerings of blood and human flesh. The Aztecs had abundant protein sources in their environment, thus only small amounts of human flesh were consumed, primarily by nobles, on relatively rare occasions.

“…we are held fast in the grip of the dead.”

Monotheism as we know it arose out of the wreckage of the Bronze Age collapse, out of the shattered bicameral mind. It first took form in the following Axial Age, but came to fruition in the post-Axial era with Manichaeanism, Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, etc. Then many centuries later appeared Islam that quickly took over the Middle East.

Islam has been one of the most extreme manifestations of not only monotheism but of Jaynesian consciousness more generally. It’s not only that the bicameral voices went silent but became entirely forbidden, absolutely denied according to doctrine (Islam as Worship of a Missing God; Islamic Voice-Hearing; & Psychology in Religion or as a Religion). Accordingly, voice-hearing is not to be trusted.

Yet there has remained the mystical traditions in all of the monotheistic religions, Islam included. These mystics, as with the prophets, repeatedly ventured back into the territory of heresy. They had the audacity to claim to hear God or the angels or the prophets of old, to know the divine directly. To make such claims typically meant a death sentence. The bicameral voices didn’t die of natural causes but were genocidally wiped out.

The Old Testament describes the official decrees to kill off the last of the voice-hearers,  having gone so far as to have commanded parents to murder their own children. But the bicameral mind exists in all of us and so the voices keep erupting back to the surface, continue to defy church hierarchy. They can’t be denied for they speak with the authority of God or gods, of the divine and otherworldly, an authorization of command that trumps all mere human claims to authority.

These bicameral voices are the voices of the dead, the ancients; of the past, the eternal.

* * *

Catafalque
by Peter Kingsley

It was to show that our ideas of truth, or reality, are just an upside-down illusion. We, among the so-called living, are not in charge of our lives as we think. The real fingers around our necks or on our pulses are not our own. As a matter of fact we are hardly alive at all, here, because the real truth is that we are held fast in the grip of the dead.

This is why [Shihab al-Din Yahya] Suhrawardi’s tradition is, itself, so dangerously alive. It’s able to reach out through and across the centuries, secretly, silently, whenever someone is ready—whoever, wherever, you are. And that aliveness explains the name he gave his Ishraqi tradition: the “eternal leaven”.

Just like leaven or yeast it contains its own living germ, its transformative enzyme, inside. But that also makes it a perpetual source of ferment; of disorder and disturbance, agitation, unpredictable change. And this in turn is exactly why Suhrawardi was killed at the age of thirty-six, put to death by the rigid powers of dogmatism for opening the door to too much life.

Instead of admitting as expected to the Islamic clergy that prophecy was dead, that it had come to an end with Muhammad, when interrogated he gently indicated it was still alive inside him.

But even more threateningly, and offensively, he allowed prophecy to spread unchecked not just forward into the present or future. He also followed it far into the past—openly announcing that his own tradition of the dawn reached back way beyond Muahammad to the earliest Greeks and Persians. That was one of the main reasons for his execution: that he made the mistake of treading in the footsteps of the Ancients.

In fact aside from describing this troublesome leaven or restless ferment as eternal, he had another name for it too. At times he also called it “the leaven of the Pythagoreans”.

And he traced this livingness back not just to the sacred figure of Hermes but very specifically, very explicitly, to somebody else in particular—the philosopher and prophet Empedocles.

Just like some cosmic cycle, the prophetic impulse to find life in death is always going to be met by the deceptive need to turn life into death. Even though his final role as a martyr, not to mention many of the details in his teachings, Suhrawardi was following the traces of one very particular prophetic tradition: the lineage stemming from the great Gnostic known as Seal of the Prophets, Mani. And as is bound to be the case with such sacred traditions, that heretically challenge every cherished collective belief, the most potent threat to the threats it poses is never going to come only from outside.

On the contrary, it’s going to come from the innermost circle—in exactly the same way that it also comes from inside us.