Action and Non-action at a Distance, versus Moral Magnetism

Americans are fascinated by and obsessed with guns because they give the illusion of allowing one to work one’s will by action at a distance.

Americans are mesmerized by and obsessed with handheld ‘telinternet’ electronics because they give the tenuous illusion of shielding one’s non-action, and of being insulting, from a distance.

Both of these fetishes are indictors of the lack of social cohesiveness among Americans. We separate ourselves by fear and shame. Hence, our society is fractious, disunited, weak. Our politics fully conforms to Ambrose Bierce’s definition of that word: “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.”

It is then no mystery why, as Daniel Warner bemoans (https://www.counterpunch.org/2021/10/25/collective-responsibility-and-our-moral-compass/), random collections of Americans are consistently morally irresponsible by failing to stop injustices occurring right before their eyes.

Behind the belief in an ability for action or non-action at a distance rests the illusion of having a store of personal power: each of us a little Zeus with a quiver of thunderbolts to hurl at offenders from our safe remote clouds. We cherish this illusion because it is how we stifle the voice of gnawing fear at the root of our behavior: in truth we are powerless individuals among uncaring people in an uncaring world.

While it is comforting to complain about being in a “99%” victimized by the leading actors in our national political stage play, the soap opera they put on accurately reflects our consensus about what kind of society we are willing to accept, and what kind of individuals we allow ourselves to be. While American democracy is blocked from implementing the populist socialist aspirations of the American public, by the Fort Apache attitude of our political advantage-takers, it is still true that American government reflects the general character of that American public. In this regard our government remains representative. So, we both are and are not victims of our political managers.

Individual reactions to our societal mediocrity can include: charitable action intended to ameliorate suffering and inspire wider imitation; activism intended to promote greater justice and inspire others to similar activism; a disdainful loss of pity for the crowd because its individuals are seen as too easily and ignorantly allowing themselves to be exploited and enslaved by their political gullibility and lack of social solidarity.

Fortunately, there remains a portion of the population that is clear-eyed about our fractious social reality and yet makes the individual effort not to acquiesce to it but instead “do the right thing” as a matter of principle, and of personal pride, even if convinced that life is intrinsically absurd and the idea of any future “triumph of good” is an illusion. Probably most of us think we are in this group, but of course most of us are not (as our society shows). Probably all of us can recall some instance in our lives (and perhaps many) when we have been lovingly and generously touched by the consequences of kind acts by people, known or unknown, who were trying to inject goodness for others into our times.

In his article, Daniel Warner repeats the falsehood (widely publicized by the New York Times in 1964) that the assault on and murder of Kitty Genovese proceeded without anyone seeking to stop that crime while it was in progress. From wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Kitty_Genovese):

“In the early hours of March 13, 1964, Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old bartender, was stabbed outside the apartment building where she lived in the Kew Gardens neighborhood of Queens in New York City, New York, United States. Two weeks after the murder, The New York Times published an article erroneously claiming that 38 witnesses saw or heard the attack, and that none of them called the police or came to her aid.”

For the full story about the tragedy of Kitty Genovese, the responses of neighbors who tried to help, and the disgusting duplicity of the newspaper writers who jumped with alacrity to social criticism — “the bystander effect” — while ignoring investigation of the facts, see ‘The Witness’, the 2016 riveting documentary movie produced by Kitty Genovese’s younger brother, William (http://www.thewitness-film.com/).

I lived in Jamaica, Queens, just east past Kew Gardens until 1962 and then further east in Suffolk County into the late 1960s. I remember the shock, dread and sadness of the Kitty Genovese murder as a local current event, and always thought about it when the Long Island Railroad train I was taking to or from Manhattan would stop at the quaint Kew Gardens station whose small parking lot was where Kitty Genovese had left her little FIAT sports car, which she never returned to after the early hours of 13 March 1964. Kitty Genovese bled her life out in the arms of a neighbor woman who rushed to her aid while waiting for emergency services to arrive.

While I believe that American society is corrupt, and perhaps even irredeemably so, I also believe we will always have individuals who will instinctively embody goodness and selflessness for the sake of others overwhelmed in crises of pain and sorrow. This is taking action at hand, of human connection and of solidarity, without concern for feeling powerful.

The natures of our national and world societies are reflections of the (deficient) proportions of their populations who take the risk of adopting that altruistic attitude. The “risk” to the individual, of trying to live by some standard of communal altruism, is of failure at advantage-taking, as evidenced by the counterexamples of “the winners” in our world, who achieve their “successes” (money, status, de facto legal immunity, the envy from the multitudes) by taking the exact opposite attitude: being parasites.

Daniel Warner quotes Virginia Held, that “a random collection of individuals may be held responsible for not taking collective action,” and he concludes that “a universally accepted institutional moral magnet no longer exists” for remagnetizing the failed moral compasses of a people who in random groupings fail (or will fail) to take collective action to stop moral outrages that erupt directly in front of them.

I see the failure to ‘take collective action’ against the moral outrages of the obvious victimization of others, and the evasion of responsibility to do so, as the unspoken design criterion of American society. It is a labyrinth of advantage-taking designed by and for moral evasion. My attitude here is like that of Jonathan Swift: I can condemn human society as a whole, as a fractious collection of competing parasites, while simultaneously prizing those many individuals — few of whom I can ever know — who contribute what goodness and beauty and compassion and connection are available for experiencing when we need them.

Also, a ‘universally accepted moral compass remagnetizer’ does exists. Put yourself in the place of the victim you see before you and ask: minimally, how would I want those who see me in this crisis, to help get me out of it? That then is the personal remagnetization challenge. It is for me, too.

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On Gloating Over The Death Of A War Criminal

By Stan Goff on 2 July 2021 (on the death of Donald Rumsfeld):

No one cracked on Donald Rumsfeld harder than I did for a few years there.

Just finished DB Hart’s book on universal salvation, which contends that even Rumsfeld falls within the ambit of Christ’s salvation. I found it utterly convincing.

Some know I don’t do ritual corpse kicking, which I see as virtue-signaling in far too many cases (and which I’ve done!); and posting this right now may seem a little masochistic . . . like I’m inviting people to protest this claim (don’t worry, plenty of Christians also still cling to the idea of some eternal torture for those of us who went waaay off the rails in this life).

We think Donald Rumsfeld made himself the way he is, because we cherish the belief that we make ourselves the way we are, and moreover (unstated) that those of us who didn’t turn out like Rumsfeld (or ‘choose your villain’) never even contained the potential to become like him. That we are ourselves not superior beings, and not substantially determined by a complex chain of “nurture,” by luck or lack thereof, by history, and by accidents.

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I thought Stan Goff’s comments important enough to comment rather fulsomely on, as follows:

I found C. G. Jung’s comments on this question illuminating. His were given post WWII, about Nazism and Nazis, and “collective guilt” of the German population (and others).

Jung advocated people learning about their “unconscious” (which he wrote so much about) because most of us (our personalities) are contained in (or is) the unconscious.

Among the elements of our entire psyche, Jung included a “shadow”, a part of us which we (our conscious ego) denied about ourselves. This deep “negative” part is where we have the dirty, nasty, perverse and violent thoughts THAT WE ALL HAVE, but block from affecting our actions by the workings of the more conscious, logical and moral (and educated) part of our consciousness.

Jung’s point was that the many self-styled “moral” people who claimed ‘I would never have been a Nazi nor acted like one, because of my morality’ were precisely those most in danger of becoming so, because they were blind to their intrinsic potential to become so — as everyone is — and thus unprepared (a deficiency of consciousness) to recognize the external psychological influences pulling one into that direction (basically: brainwashing you).

For Jung, the successful operation of “morality” to keep an individual free (safe) from the worst potentialities of evil erupting from their unconscious into action, was knowing that: ‘anything the worse villain — like a Nazi — can do, I am equally capable of doing, so I must consciously keep myself from falling into that, I cannot rely on remaining safe from it unconsciously.’

In more modern times we might say that, genetically, we all sprout from the same root, and all the potentialities of human form and expression are coded within us, and those that are actualized have emerged by a combination of our personal genetic spectrum (our alleles) and our learned conscious (logical and moral) behavior.

So, yes, “corpse kicking” is embedded in the Id (“virtue signaling”), and can be recognized as such, and re-channelled, by the Super-Ego (the non-asshole top layer of the Ego). We all want Rumsfeld to “burn in hell,” but what’s the point? (It’s too late for prosecuting him in a war crimes trial. The U.S. must have the world’s best “social security” and legal immunity programs for retired war criminals: as, why no Nuremberg II for the Vietnam War?)

The best we can do about people like that (successful war criminals who have moved on) is to — as best as we can — clean up their messes, care for the surviving victims, and try embedding that tragic past into our society’s historical memory as a lesson (accepted and learned) for eliciting safer and better behavior in the collective future.

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On Just Societies

In his book, “Republic,” Plato lays out his political philosophy for the establishment and maintenance of a stable, well-ordered and just society. In his time societies were city-states, like Athens in the time of Socrates, Plato and Diogenes. The essential element of Plato’s scheme is the “guidance” of the city — “governing” is too strongly “micro-management” of a word — by a class of “guardians” who were carefully selected and trained from youth for the task, and who were wholly devoted to it for their lifetimes: basically philosopher-guru-priests.

However, I note that the viability of Plato’s political formulation for the construction and operation of just societies rests primarily on the incorruptible moral character of its central and guiding personnel, the guardians, and secondarily on the reasonably stable decency of behavior of the citizens: that is to say, their morality.

Please note that by “moral” I do not at all mean “religious”; there is no functional correlation between the two (and in my view more likely an anti-correlation).

At least since the end of the Neolithic, the idea developed that a stable, well-ordered society (whether just or unjust, but always to the liking of its rulers) could be established solely by political means, such as in: monarchies, parliamentary democracies, socialist and communists states (most pointedly those sharply Marxist materialist), and dictatorships (whether purely materialistic or theocratic).

By political I mean social arrangements for societal management that are constructions external to the individual person. Note that such political structures can include elements of physical compulsion on individual behavior, and elements of thought-control by indoctrination and propaganda to capture, shape and distort individual thought, and that such political structures will still be external to the individual as a moral being.

So, I do not believe it is possible to ensure the stable continuation of any momentarily just society, whatever its political structure, solely on the basis of the forced maintenance of that political structure, nor solely on the basis of a change of political structure whether that change is reformist or revolutionary. Justice as societal stability requires a taproot into incorruptible moral character by a majority of the citizens. Justice is good politics and good political structure, and is a natural outgrowth of good and intelligent morality, which in turn is individually personified as character.

Given the above, I believe that any social movement aiming to “permanently” evolve, reform or revolutionize a society in need of anything from improvement to drastic change in order to make it universally just, has to base its efforts on developing the moral character of its movement adherents and the mass of citizens it wishes to convince, for lifetime incorruptibility. Here, we have faith that a society with a majority of its citizens being of incorruptible moral character will ensure the continuation of such in succeeding generations, by the operation of its educational systems.

Of course any serious movement for social change will act politically whenever it can to counter existing injustices and respond to humanitarian emergencies. But it must never lose sight of its chronic fundamental task regardless of the frequency and variety of crisis flare-ups it reacts to during the daily spectacle.

Yes, this prescription for engineering permanent social change for the better is an idealization that may seem impossible to implement, as witnessed by the history of human civilization, but I think it is nevertheless true and has been the most powerful force that has helped bring about whatever degree of decency any of our human societies possesses today.

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For Americans, the 1950s began in 1947, as Gore Vidal bemoaningly told us, and collapsed in 1964 after June 21. The 1960s began on 1 January 1959, in Havana, and disappeared steadily from October 1973, vanishing completely by 1978. The 1970s erupted on 11 September 1973 and died on 4 November 1980, when the Collapse of American Civilization lurched downward into freefall, which it continues plunging to this day as our Neoliberal Dark Age. While it is still deeply submerged, scattered faint glimpses of the Next Age have broken through the pall of our Neoliberal Dark Age with increasing frequency since 17 September 2011. Whether that Post Fossil Capitalism Next Age is strangled in zeitgeist utero by neofascism, or withered in its infancy by global warming, or lives to emerge into the open and break free to flourish, is for the future to tell.

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Climate Change is like an enormous steamroller that is inching slowly but implacably along the open road of our projected expectations, to roll over and flatten our comfortable situations.

Since we are all “cemented in place” in those personal comfort situations, that steamroller is bit by bit squashing us: first ‘here’ then ‘there’; some by sea level rise; some by hurricanes razing all; some by wildfire; some by deepening and eternal heat and drought; some by waves of disease pathogens sprung from out of formerly deep recesses in the wild; some by the increasing withdrawal of food availability; and some by the infighting all this sparks among us and that causes casualties from our war with ourselves.

First we lose our illusions, then we lose our money, and finally we lose our lives.

Those who refuse to face reality and relinquish their illusions will cause the most damage to their fellow human beings, by being rabidly competitive, as they slide down the cascade of suffering longer and ever obsessed to the death with their unrelieved anxieties of avoiding losses and pain. Those who jettison their illusions and face reality will a least gain the comfort of finding the company of similar people.

Even as the steamroller inches forward toward us, for everyone “the future is uncertain, and the end is always near.” One can pin oneself to an obsession with “the end,” and its avoidance; or one can open oneself to an appreciation for the processes of life, and to the sharing of such appreciation.

Climate Change is now our great teacher, and its lessons range from stark terror to transcendence. We have no choice but to live out those lessons, but we do have some choice in which of those coming experiences we can aim our personal selves to.

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