In Search of the Axe for the Frozen Sea Within Us
I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief. -- Franz Kafka, in a letter to a friendI came across these remarks by Kafka several months ago; I don't recall seeing them before. It is a memorable passage, striking in its expressiveness and emotional power. I doubt that Kafka intended his prescription for the kind of books he prefers to be an admonition that must be scrupulously followed across the board, with no exceptions whatsoever. Not all of existence, and not all of art, need be in the nature of a hair shirt. Surely there must be a place for fun and diversion. (The other excerpt in the brief article linked above, from another Kafka letter to the same friend, indicates that Kafka enjoyed teasing the friend about matters of this kind.)
However, there is one subject where Kafka's urgent mandate should be ruthlessly adhered to, and that is politics. Politics, by definition and of necessity, concerns the exercise of power, which means the exercise of violence, wielded by those possessing power against all those without it. The powerful utilize violence in this way to maintain and increase their own power, wealth and advantage. The power, wealth and advantage of the ruling class are underwritten by and directly flow from the suffering, destruction and death of the powerless. In such circumstances, a writer who seeks, on however modest a scale, to unmask the true nature of the political enterprise must forever be in search of Kafka's axe. In certain circumstances, if and when events reach the final breaking point in a society, the dispossessed will rise up with their own, non-metaphorical axes.
In what follows, I am concerned with one particular aspect of politics in the United States at present. I was about to write that Kafka's axe is especially needed with regard to political developments in America over the last few decades. But one of the many problems in writing about American politics is that the Empire of Lies that constitutes the American experiment is founded on a monumental lie. The lie will be found in the deepest roots, in the trunk and every branch, and in the newest leaf on the youngest twig. Almost everyone tells us that even our worst problems would be solved if we only returned to the "true" values of the Constitution. The Constitution is the greatest miracle drug known to humankind, and it will cure all ills.
This is a tale for children, and a viciously cruel one. It represents the complete inversion of the truth: "The government established by the Constitution was the indispensable means by which the ruling class established its dominion over the new nation and sought to ensure the continuation of that dominion into the future....The Constitution created a government of, by and for the most wealthy and powerful Americans -- and it made certain (insofar as men can make such things certain) that their rule would never be seriously threatened."
The Empire of Lies that constitutes America infects and corrupts everything it touches. The lies are endlessly repeated by almost everyone, in every form, from TV hosts and TV shows ("entertainment" shows in addition to "news" programs), to "serious" novels, to your next door neighbor and the person you chat with over coffee at work. The lies become a torrent in political coverage. Critically analyzing the reporting and analysis offered by major news outlets becomes an exhausting task, which is one reason most people forgo it. Almost every story and article is replete with equivocations, outright lies as well as lies of omission, and a dedicated determination to avoid stating logically necessitated conclusions.
In the later stages of an increasingly despotic State, a curious aspect of these mechanisms arises. While it is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment the United States reached this point of deformity in its existence, there is no question that we have reached these later stages now. That we have was established beyond all doubt when the Obama administration chose to publicize the operations surrounding its Kill List. The administration fed its press release to the nation's two leading newspapers, and both The New York Times and The Washington Post published the administration's version of events. Both newspapers were happy to be of service to the State, as they continue to demonstrate every day.
The stories about the Kill List provided more than sufficient facts to reach certain conclusions. Of course, neither the Times nor the Post stated the most significant of those conclusions; in fact, they diligently avoided drawing conclusions or making judgments about what they "reported." And the stories about the Kill List, as is true of all stories offered by news organizations that are adjuncts of the State, continued to smother the reader with misrepresentations, equivocations, and lies of all kinds. Lies are a vital and necessary part of authoritarian rule. If the truth were identified fully and in plain language that could be easily understood by everyone, the revolution would begin in ten minutes. The ruling class knows this very well, so lies are the gruel we ingest every day.
But the ruling class also wants to know how secure its rule is. Hence, they will dole out certain parts of the truth at critical moments, to determine what degree of resistance might exist, if any. So it was with the stories about the Kill List. Our rulers could not have been more pleased with the result: almost no one gave a damn. Even though the stories laid out facts which necessitated certain horrifying and deeply disturbing conclusions, almost no one identified those conclusions explicitly. The newspapers, as organs of the State, would never do so. But almost no one in the audience for those stories -- which included most people in time, since coverage of the Kill List became widespread -- would draw those conclusions either. Understanding carries numerous responsibilities; nowhere is this more true than in politics. Most people don't want to be bothered. Most people are as described by Sven Lindqvist:
You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.Trump's unexpected election victory has created a series of dilemmas for news organizations, beyond the fact that almost all of them got so much wrong. Trust in media was already declining at an alarming rate. One hardly reestablishes trust by being consistently and repeatedly in error, in an endless number of stories spread over a substantial period of time. One particular dilemma is especially vexing: what are "responsible" and "serious" news organizations to say when Trump implements policies they abhor, but Trump insists that he relies on precedents established by the Obama administration to justify those policies? What are they to say when Trump's appeal to Obama administration precedents is obviously true? My, my, vexing indeed.
The New York Times decided to tackle this problem early. It screwed up its courage, and put the problem right in its headline: "Harsher Security Tactics? Obama Left Door Ajar, and Donald Trump Is Knocking." The first paragraph reminds us of some of the security measures Trump vigorously endorsed during the campaign, such as targeting mosques for surveillance, and bringing back waterboarding and a "hell of a lot worse." The next two paragraphs lay out the Times' framework for analyzing the problem identified in its headline:
It is hard to know how much of this stark vision for throwing off constraints on the exercise of national security power was merely tough campaign talk. But if the Trump administration follows through on such ideas, it will find some assistance in a surprising source: President Obama’s have-it-both-ways approach to curbing what he saw as overreaching in the war on terrorism.Note the critical phrases: the Trump administration "will find some assistance in a surprising source"; Obama "and his successors could be trusted to use them prudently"; "policies that Mr. Obama endorsed as lawful and legitimate for sparing use." In two brief paragraphs, the article depicts Obama as "prudent," a man of wisdom and restraint who can "be trusted" to use frightening and lethal powers "sparingly." And, of course, Trump is none of those things. For the Times, we should be terrified of the man who would make greater use of these powers, but not of the man who established the legality and legitimacy of such powers in the first instance. Since it was Obama who devoted great time and effort to establishing their legality and legitimacy, why are Obama's policies "a surprising source" for Trump's exercise of such powers? It's not surprising: it's logical and predictable. For those paying close attention, the article explodes its own argument. Fortunately for the Times, not too many readers pay close attention.
Over and over, Mr. Obama has imposed limits on his use of such powers but has not closed the door on them — a flexible approach premised on the idea that he and his successors could be trusted to use them prudently. Mr. Trump can now sweep away those limits and open the throttle on policies that Mr. Obama endorsed as lawful and legitimate for sparing use, like targeted killings in drone strikes and the use of indefinite detention and military tribunals for terrorism suspects.
Later in the article, some further details about Obama's Murder Program (the name I've given to the operations surrounding the Kill List) are offered:
Mr. Obama followed a similar course [of "leaving the options open"] with several national security practices that became controversial during his first term. After his use of drones to kill terrorism suspects away from war zones led to mounting concerns over civilian casualties and other matters, he issued a “presidential policy guidance” in May 2013 that set stricter limits. They included a requirement that the target pose a threat to Americans — not just to American interests — and that there would be near certainty of no bystander deaths.I've read this article several times, and this phrase still takes my breath away: "led to mounting concerns over civilian casualties and other matters." "Other matters." Such as the fact that Obama targets "terrorism suspects," and he therefore is murdering people who may be entirely innocent? Such as the fact that Obama thus asserts a claim to absolute power? There is no power greater than that over life and death. Perhaps these "other matters" include some of these issues:
But the Obama administration also successfully fought in court to establish that judges would not review the legality of such killing operations, even if an American citizen was the target.
With the adoption of the Murder Program, a program which the Obama administration seeks to make permanent policy for the United States going into the future, the Obama administration has chosen as the fundamental policy of its governing philosophy the principle of mass murder. I'll say that again: the Obama administration has adopted the principle of mass murder as the fundamental foundation for its governing philosophy. The Obama administration has taken great pains to publicize this principle in the nation's leading newspapers. Almost no one gives a damn.You can appreciate how difficult the truth would make the Times' unceasing efforts to portray Obama as a "prudent," restrained and wise leader, one who can be trusted with all-encompassing power. If the nature and full meaning of Obama's policies are made explicit and if they are genuinely understood, we must conclude that Obama is a monster. When Trump uses the same powers -- and we can be certain he will -- he will be a monster, too. But he won't be the first one. (Although it should be obvious, given the deluge of lies and half-truths on this subject, I feel compelled to note briefly the following. The Times mentions the "stricter limits" that Obama placed on his Murder Program: "that the target pose a threat to Americans -- not just to American interests -- and that there would be near certainty of no bystander deaths." All such "limits" can be manipulated or lied about as required. History, including the history of the drone killing program itself, also tells us that such "limits" will be disregarded when those in charge have what they view as a reason for doing so. Moreover, we will never know whether such limits are observed, since the operations of the Murder Program remain shrouded in secrecy. In short, such "limits," especially in the context of a claim of absolute power, are utterly meaningless.)
The Obama administration claims it has the "right" to murder anyone in the world, any time it wishes, for any reason it chooses or invents, and that it need never tell anyone about its actions or the reasoning behind them. The Obama administration claims absolute power, the power of life and death itself. If the Obama administration has the "right" to murder anyone at all, even someone who is entirely innocent of any crime whatsoever, then it has the "right" to murder 20 or 50 people in the same manner. It has already done that. This also means that the Obama administration claims the "right" to murder hundreds of people in this way, or thousands, or even millions of innocent human beings.
But, some will object, they would never do that! They're only targeting people who have harmed or seek to harm the United States and its citizens. But those who wield absolute power always offer such arguments; that is how they make the claim of absolute power "acceptable" to their docile subjects. And the alleged justification is patently not true: they have murdered innocent human beings, and their methodology makes certain they will continue to murder innocent human beings. This monumental fact is no deterrence to their commitment to the Murder Program. They view it as simply a problem of public relations. Thus far, it is not a problem they need be concerned about. As I said: they have adopted the principle of mass murder, they have repeatedly announced this fact publicly -- and almost no one gives a damn.
The passage from my earlier essay underscores another way in which the Times article whitewashes Obama and his record. While the article makes the point that Obama fought against any legal finding that the policies in question are illegal, a battle which he won, the author works very hard to leave the impression that all would have been well, if only all future presidents were as "prudent" and "restrained" as Obama. With Trump's election, these calculations are invalidated. In this view, Trump is the problem, not Obama. This narrative ignores completely the extent to which Obama devoted himself to making certain that these policies would become a permanent part of State power going forward. For example, from a Washington Post article:
Targeted killing is now so routine that the Obama administration has spent much of the past year codifying and streamlining the processes that sustain it. ...Another example, discussing a NYT article (!) published shortly after the 2012 election:
For an administration that is the first to embrace targeted killing on a wide scale, officials seem confident that they have devised an approach that is so bureaucratically, legally and morally sound that future administrations will follow suit.
We are told that the Obama administration "accelerated work in the weeks before the election to develop explicit rules for the targeted killing of terrorists by unmanned drones, so that a new president would inherit clear standards and procedures, according to two administration officials." The story repeats several times how urgent and gravely serious the administration considered this particular problem to be.I offered a translation of this effort "to develop explicit rules" for murder, which has become quite amusing in the wake of Trump's election. Please keep in mind that, as noted above, the methodology utilized for the Murder Program makes certain that innocent people are killed:
Oh, my God! We have to have rules telling everyone exactly how to kill people. If we don't, they're going to go nuts and murder lots of completely innocent human beings! Everyone isn't good and pure the way we are, especially those maniacal Republicans and that monster"Amusing" may not be precisely the right word. The stark, terrible fact is that Obama worked tirelessly to ensure that these powers, including the absolute power of life and death, would become part of standard operating procedure for future administrations. Obama didn't leave all his "options" open by mistake, just as he didn't fight against any finding of illegality with regard to a number of policies through some oversight or misunderstanding. All of it was deliberate and methodical. Obama wanted to make sure future presidents had these powers -- and he wanted to make damn sure he had all these powers himself. Even though the Times article omits some key history, it still contains sufficient facts to draw this conclusion, among others. Such a conclusion would undercut the portrayal of Obama, the prudent and wise ruler -- so it must remain unidentified. The strongest criticism of Obama offered in the article, and the only criticism that goes to this particular point, comes in the very last paragraph. It's a statement by Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU:
RomneyTrump, so we have to spell out exactly how to do the killing.
“Obama’s failure to rein in George Bush’s national security policies hands Donald Trump a fully loaded weapon,” Mr. Romero said. “The president’s failure to understand that these powers could not be entrusted in the hands of any president, not even his, have now put us in a position where they are in the hands of Donald Trump.”"Not even his." Thus, the crucial point, and the issue that might have been the focus of the article (admittedly, a very different article, and not one you would ever find in the Times), finally makes an appearance, but only in three words, only in the very last paragraph. Most people probably never even read that far; those who did might easily miss the import of those three words.
Mention of the ACLU reminds me of a further point I want to make about the Times piece. The article states:
The two areas where Mr. Obama broke most cleanly with Bush-era practices were torture and the indefinite military detention of Americans and other terrorism suspects arrested on domestic soil. Mr. Obama issued an executive order requiring interrogators to use only techniques approved in the Army Field Manual, and he later signed a bill codifying that rule into statute.Although the author doesn't state it in this fashion, he unmistakably implies that Obama "ended torture" by limiting interrogation techniques to those "approved in the Army Field Manual." Virtually everyone believes that Obama "ended torture." They're all wrong. It's a bloody, goddamned lie. I've been arguing this point for years, but the belief that Obama "ended torture" has become part of the holy writ of American mythology. I consider it a lost cause, but I will continue to maintain that anyone who makes such a claim is a bloody, goddamned liar, or woefully ignorant. For the record: "How the U.S. Army Field Manual Codified Torture -- and Still Does." See also: "Torture Never Stopped Under Obama." The second part of this essay discusses how the ACLU propagated this lie. Here's the text of an ad the ACLU ran in late January 2009:
You ended torture & will close Gitmo.Ah, "restoring America together." That's what Trump has promised, too ("Make America Great Again," etc.). When everyone offers the same promise, you can be certain of this much, at a minimum: the promise doesn't mean a damned thing.
We are restoring America together!
Let's thank Obama for these bold first steps! Send him thanks!
The Times article is an excellent (which is to say, awful) example of propaganda in our time. The overall effect is to whitewash Obama and his record and, perhaps of even greater moment, to whitewash the American project itself. But the article is critical of Obama! Yes, but only at the margins, and not with regard to the most crucial issues, which remain unnamed and unidentified. If we could only be guaranteed of having prudent, restrained and wise presidents in the future, everything would be fine. America would be fine! But now we have to contend with a maniac like Trump. But Trump isn't the problem; that is, he may and probably will be a problem, but in connection with these specific issues, the problem lies with the policies that Obama has deliberately and with great care cemented into the foundation of the State.
So, be careful out there. Remember: when considering any issue concerning politics, always carry Kafka's axe with you. We desperately require a multitude of such axes. Despite the claims of global warming, it may be that a new Ice Age will come upon us, and the frozen sea will overtake us all.