As I pointed out at the end of the blog, “Class Traitors” (May 26, 2007), we are all, always, being trained in contempt for our own. Betrayal of our own. Those who are our masters know they must continually attend to this training. They know their survival depends on a continuous supply of underlings trained in contempt for our own, contempt for those below from whom we derive, and who have become, relative to our ascension, “other.” Americans, especially, are constantly being trained in this contempt, this scorn for all “others”—those in Europe, those in Mexico who “violate” our borders, those in Latin America who denounce our dominance, those in the Middle East who resent our attempt to “liberate” them, the entire third world which demands our aid and then steals what we have taught them including the very factories producing their, and now our, goods.
And of course the reason for training us in contempt is simple: those for whom you have contempt are those whom you can exploit and dominate, those whose exploitation and domination does not prick your conscience because they are, after all, born to that contempt, deserving of that contempt, I mean just look at how they live. Ten to a room. Thirty to a house. Dirt floors. Cardboard roofs. No running water. Filthy and diseased and shameless. Fortunate they are, damned lucky to have us Americans establishing our factories in their countries so they can have jobs, at least. Which is why they implore us to bring our factories. Only that sooner or later, they catch on and then the ingratitude begins to show, their resentment begins to erupt, and they arrogantly begin to think they can do without us. There’s gratitude for you.
It’s like the damn Japanese, the damn Europeans, both decimated by WWII, prostrate without food or water, and we spend our national treasure reviving them, saving them, only to have them what? Beat us at our own game. Out-produce us and undersell us with cars and TVs and record players and how could they not, they paid starvation wages just like the Chinese and the Indians and the Mexicans are doing now, again, once more pilfering our technology and know-how and expertise and management skills until before you know it the wogs are in charge and we’re damn near out of the game.
Except of course we can still kick ass. We can still, from above, shock ‘em and awe ‘em, shake ‘em and bake ‘em these Haggi’s, these ragheads who’ve never seen anything like the tech we bring to bear. So ignorant they can’t even get their electricity to run, their water to flow, their oil wells to work, much less a democratic government to function. What does it matter if one or two or two thousand or two hundred thousand get blown away? They care little about life in any case. Suicide bombers. Rag heads. Who you’d think would appreciate the fact we’ve brought them some civilization. But no, all they want is to blow us to hell. So be it, blow them away first, nobody’s counting….
Yes. We’re all traitors, or aspiring traitors, or traitors in training, there seems no help for it. Except perhaps this: understanding. Understanding that it works, how it works, why it works.
Consider, first, some cases. At the outset of World War II, and in fact, well before Pearl Harbor, the United States government was already planning for its “Orange War” with Japan. Part of those plans involved the anticipated need to build up its navy quickly, much of it having gone to seed in the period following the previous war for civilization, WWI. Documents show that the U.S. Navy intended to compensate for this lack, at least until production could be geared up, by seizing or buying or renting commercial boats and pleasure boats wherever it could and modifying them for war. On the West Coast, many of those boats were to come from Italian American fishermen. Crab boats in San Francisco could be used as patrol boats, while the 80-foot purse seiners in San Francisco, Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Pedro and elsewhere, nearly all owned by Sicilian fishermen, could be used as sub chasers. Around 1940, Naval officers set about making inventories of these boats, and contacting some of the more influential boat owners in the Italian community. Though the latter knew it would be a great hardship for any sardine fisherman to give up his boat, they agreed with the Navy to set the example. They would then do everything they could to convince their countrymen to be patriotic and give up their boats as well.
Thus, though there was some resistance—especially from those fishermen who saw that the United States had not only declared war on their home country of Italy, but that many of their wives and families were already under restriction and would soon be forced to remove themselves from their homes and evacuate to inland areas—the influence of these so-called “prominenti” proved invaluable in persuading other boat owners to let the Navy have their boats. The payoff came when the boats were returned. The first few boats returned—belonging to the same prominenti who led the way—were repaired and refitted as good as, or better than, new. After that, however, most boats were returned their owners in miserable shape, still sporting the scars from guns and cannons and other naval equipment that had been mounted on the fishing vessels. Though they tried to petition for monetary compensation, most of these little boat owners were dismissed out of hand. By this time, of course, the prominenti who had urged them to cooperate with the government were nowhere to be found.
It is always thus. Those who assimilate first, who have the intelligence or skill or canniness to curry favor with power by becoming “models” for their less fortunate brethren, always make off not only with their prizes, but also with a swollen sense of satisfaction at their own self-sufficiency. In managing to learn the new language or the new rules of the economic/social game, they never consider that it is precisely their demonstration of success that dooms their countrymen to opprobrium. “They did it. Why can’t you?” becomes the accusation. And always, inevitably, this turns into:
“I did it, made it big despite the obstacles; why can’t you?”
Not coincidentally, at about the same time Italian immigrants were being persuaded to give up their boats, something similar was taking place in the Japanese American community, only this time with graver results. When pressure began mounting to relocate the entire West Coast Japanese American community—including 70,000 American-born citizens—to remote camps in the desert, many community members wanted to fight this unprecedented and unconstitutional plan. Mike Masaoka, then head of the assimilationist Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), had other ideas. Considering it futile to resist the government, he testified publicly that not only would the JACL cooperate with the government’s planned internment of native-born citizens, it would welcome it on the grounds that Japanese Americans would actually be better off in camps. Thus, in answer to a question from Congressman John Sparkman of Alabama whether “as loyal Americans you are willing to prove your loyalty by cooperating?” Masaoka answered:
“Oh yes, definitely….if the military say ‘Move out,” we will be glad to move, because we recognize that even behind evacuation there is not just national security but also a thought as to our own welfare and security because we may be subject to mob violence and otherwise if we are permitted to remain.” (quoted in Peter Irons, Justice at War, p. 80.)
This capitulation to what became one of the greatest violations of American civil liberties in U.S. history, was therefore facilitated by the willing cooperation of the major Japanese American organization—one that might well have led the resistance.
World War II proved to be fertile ground for this type of betrayal. A lesser-known instance occurred among those who suffered most—the European Jews targeted by Hitler’s extermination program. This betrayal derived from the longtime Zionist policy of currying favor with the major sources of power in the world—the British Empire, the newly powerful Americans, and, as we shall see, the Nazis themselves. It was also informed by Zionist ideas about the need for “sacrifice” in order to establish a Jewish state. Here is what Prof. Ilan Pappe (an Israeli historian) had to say about this in a recent interview:
In 1943 Rabbi Dov Weissmandl of the Jewish Rescue Committee in Slovakia arranged for Nazi officials to stop transports to concentration camps in exchange for $50,000. They in fact stopped them while waiting for the money, which had to come from abroad.
Weissmandl appealed to the Zionist Jewish Agency HQ in Switzerland and was told Zionists “must turn a deaf ear to the pleas and cries emanating from Eastern Europe” in order to establish the state of Israel.
“Remember this: all the allies have suffered many losses, and if we also do not offer human sacrifices, how can we gain the right to sit at the conference table when the territorial boundaries are reshaped? [Israel] Eretz Yisroel will be ours only by paying with blood, but as far as our immediate circle is concerned, ATEM TAJLU. The messenger bearing this letter will supply you with funds for this purpose”.
Weismandl interpreted the letter as follows: “The price of Eretz Yisroel is the blood of the men and women, hoary sages, and babes in arms - but not YOUR [Zionist] blood! Let us not spoil this plan by giving the Axis [i.e. Nazis] powers to save Jewish lives. But for you, [Zionist] comrades, I have enclosed carfare for your escape. What a nightmare! The Zionist agent “diplomat” comes to Czechoslovakia and says “Shed your blood cheerfully, for your blood is cheap. But for your blood, the Land (of Israel) will be ours!” (Min Hametzar, p. 92) by Rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandl, ZT L Dean of Nitra Yeshiva).
If you don't think this philosophy actuated the rise of Nazism, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, you are kidding yourself. Nazism was a fraud on the German people, just as Zionism is a fraud on Jews. Both turned good people into cold blooded killers, pawns of the “Prince of Lies”. (22 April 2007, The Canadian.)
These cases make it clear that betrayal indeed arises from within, from those one would least expect to betray their own. To understand this, we must penetrate a little deeper into the syndrome described above. When we do, we notice that we must abandon comforting ideas about betrayal. That is to say, we must notice that whenever we humans aspire to move beyond that from which we have come, and towards that to which we have been lured or pressured or instructed, we are moving on something deeper than mere self-advancement, or self-improvement—though those dynamics certainly are operative. More fundamentally, however, we are moving on an instinct, or what appears to be as deeply imbedded as instinct, to transcend ourselves, transcend our origins, transcend who we are. In his way, Malcolm X saw this fifty years ago, saw that it is not simply that we reject our own, those from whom we derive. It is not just that, because in order to do even that, we are also necessarily rejecting ourselves. We are rejecting who we are. In short, the price for rising above our origins, the unavoidable field on which the diabolical bargain occurs, is the field of identity: We dis-identify with what we are, so we can identify with those we serve, and to whose position we aspire. Here is how Malcolm X put it:
The house Negro, if the master said, “We got a good house here,” the house Negro would say, “Yeah, we got a good house here.” Whenever the master said “we,” he said “we.” That’s how you can tell a house Negro.
In short, it is more than Malcolm’s house negro saying, “Yes, the goodness of this house helps not just you, the master, but trickles down to help me, the slave.” No. More deeply, he says, “The goodness of this house derives from the fact that it is now mine, which is to say that its interests are my interests, and take precedence over, indeed obliterate the interests I once thought were my own.” So when the house negro, in Malcolm X’s rendering, hears a proposal to revolt, to go back to Africa or African ways, he responds with scorn:
“What you mean, separate? From America? This good white man? Where you going to get a better job than you get here?” I mean, this is what you say. “I ain’t left nothing in Africa…”
Now here is where it gets interesting. For we see that far from being simply a surface matter, a question of an individual who simply wants to get ahead, betrayal partakes of the deepest of human impulses. That is to say, betrayal is about betraying others in the effort to find some economic or social or physical advantage, yes, but it is also about something deeper. It is about betraying that which is deepest in us. It is about betraying our deepest, truest selves, the consequences of which cannot ever be fully calculated.
“I ain’t left nothing in Africa.” This sentence could serve as the chapter heading for the entire human race. For it is, according to population geneticists, the continent of Africa from which the human race derives. Mommy Africa. And ever since that fragment of a family or group or tribe made its way out of that continent onto one part or other of Arabia or Gibraltar or Sicily or Greece and then outwards—eastwards and northwards into Europe and Asia and Australia and finally the Americas—the human races of those areas, particularly those human races which made their way into Europe and then America, have been trying to forget, reject, transcend and obliterate those African origins. We northerns are different; we are better; we are smarter, lighter, cleverer, more intelligent, and indeed, of a different race altogether than those darker races to the south. In a word, “I ain’t left nothing in Africa.”
Nor is this the beginning or the end of the move to transcend origins. A little reading in the anthropological literature makes it plain that within Africa, the same movement has long gone on and continues to go on. Most vividly, those Africans who have made the transition from hunting and gathering to cattle raising and agriculture, display the same contempt for those who haven’t—the hunter-gatherers. The most recent account of this I have read occurs in the book, The Old Way: A Story of the First People, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas (Farrar Strauss: 2006). There, Marshall demonstrates that the way of life maintained until almost the present day by the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert is very nearly the simplest that we can imagine: living in small groups, men hunt for specific game animals, while women gather roots and plants and all the other vegetal materials that sustain life. The savannah, barren as it seems to a modern visitor, provides all that the indigenous people need. As for shelter, Bushmen make use of only the most temporary of structures—literally half dome lean-tos made of brush, each one erected in a few minutes, and built anew each time the group moves, which is often. These shelters are used mainly for sleeping, providing the minimal visual obstruction against surprise attack by predatory leopards that is needed. It is clear that until the last few thousand years, all humans, all of our ancestors without exception, lived in much the same way, with variations depending on whether the home ground was savannah or temperate woodland or rainforest. What Marshall makes plain, however, is that today, the Bushmen’s African neighbors, who have taken up the settled life of agriculture in villages and cities, regard them with open contempt. They look upon Bushmen, that is, as primitives, animals, or worse. And why is this so? Because the village dwellers know that only a few years back, they, too, lived in the same way—and might be drawn back into that same primitive life again. Carl Jung referred to this fear of reversion to the Old Way by those, especially Europeans, who have transcended it as “the fear of going native.”
The same syndrome is described by Colin Turnbull in his books about the pygmies of the Congo rainforest. The pygmies, too, live comfortably and peacefully in the forest by hunting and gathering. And they, too, are looked upon with utter contempt and loathing by their now-agricultural neighbors who live in cleared and settled villages. The reason is clearly the same: to those who now farm in settled villages, the pygmies represent the precarious life of muck and mire from which they have “liberated” themselves. No one wants to go back.
The response of the first settlers in the New World to the indigenous Americans they set about replacing partook of this same fear and loathing. Living in the forests of New England, exposed to the elements, half naked, eating whatever they could gather or hunt or scavenge, susceptible to famines if the natural supplies of food ran out due to environmental conditions, the natives were considered not only uncivilized humans but more often not human at all. Subhuman savages. A people with no constraints or restraints on their “animal-like” behavior. And hence, animals that could be displaced and exterminated without a thought, or with no more thought than would pertain to forcing forest animals to flee their one-time territories to make room for their betters.
The only challenge to this attitude arose when, on occasion, some settler child was captured and raised among these subhumans. Then, there would arise a conflict, because often, the attempted rescue of the formerly civilized child would run up against an astonishing roadblock: a pronounced preference by the captive for the life in the forest, the life of the natives. This was a catastrophe in the minds of most English settlers, comparable perhaps to the revulsion they felt when they encountered the occasional French trapper who had taken a squaw wife. Both could only be seen as some sort of pathological reversion to a fallen state, the consequences of which were too awful to contemplate or countenance.
Enough. We get the picture. We humans tend to see ourselves as we see evolution (those of us who see it, that is)—as the story of constant movement upwards: from the primitive state of forest-dwelling primates living on bushes and berries and roots, to the wandering state of pastoralists moving with their herds in a more or less constant round, to the more settled state of basic agriculturalists cultivating grains and other foods that can be stored against hard times, to the glory of cities and settled civilizations redolent of gods and rules and priestly classes who regulate consumption and behavior and war to the beneficial survival of all. (Though it should be noted that the submission of nomadic hunters to settled life in cities was anything but guaranteed or automatic, many of them putting up fierce resistance to such circumscribed [which to them meant imprisoned and dependent] existence.) Anything, therefore, that reminds us of the condition of animals—living in intimate contact with the earth, dependent for survival on the vagaries of soil and plants and weather and the successful reproduction of animals—also reminds us of our origins, and the possibility of reverting to them. It reminds us that we are of the earth, rather than on the earth. And that is the reminder most of us can least tolerate.
Here we come back to Malcolm X’s formulation. Betrayal is about identity. And the identity we are all, always, trying to transcend is the true realization of who and what we are. Because who/what we are is creatures of the earth. We derive from earth and mud and muck, no, we are earth and mud and muck. That is what we are. We are dependent on each element of earth and mud and muck, on the bacteria that make up that earth and mud and muck, that create that earth and mud and muck no less than they make up and create the earth and mud and muck that we are. Our bodies, our cells are, literally, composed of bacteria. As Lewis Thomas once put it, ‘humans are giant taxis for bacteria to get around safely in.’ But we do not, most of us, want to know this. And so, we dress ourselves up, we clean ourselves up, we develop disgust for anything that reminds us of the malodorous stuff which lies beneath our veneer of civilization, and we try desperately, whenever we get the chance, to leave it behind. To betray it.
Thus, what is at play in betrayal is not simply the yearning to procure some advantage over those we betray. What is at play is the attempt, literally, to reject them as reminders of what we always, and forever, are. To reject ourselves as reminders of what we always and forever must be—no matter how elevated our speech patterns, or our dry homes or our aspirations or our pretensions to purity and freedom—creatures of the earth. Of the mud. Of the slimy interaction of billions upon billions of other creatures, prior creatures, creatures of which we are still made, and from whom we derive. And hunters and gatherers, immigrants, Africans, are only the very tip of the iceberg.
Indeed, a recent book by Franz deWaal, Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (Princeton: 2006), takes aim at our most cherished human trait, the one that, above all, is thought to separate us from the rest of nature. That trait is morality. The idea, in brief, is that where animals can contemplate the pain or death of their fellow creatures with indifference, humans, equipped with a deep moral sense, cannot. Humans have empathy for the suffering of others, even those of different families or nationalities or species, and it is this which sets us apart from, gives us dominion over all other life. DeWaal, however, disagrees, and provides us with vivid examples of animal empathy, which is, for him, the fundamental ingredient in morality. Perhaps the most striking concerns the behavior of a female bonobo (a relative of the chimpanzee) named Kuni in a zoo in England. DeWaal (p. 30) describes the incident as follows:
“One day, Kuni captured a starling. Out of fear that she might molest the stunned bird, which appeared undamaged, the keeper urged the ape to let it go...Kuni picked up the starling with one hand and climbed to the highest point of the highest tree where she wrapped her legs around the trunk so that she had both hands free to hold the bird. She then carefully unfolded its wings and spread them wide open, one wing in each hand, before throwing the bird as hard as she could towards the barrier of the enclosure. Unfortunately, it fell short and landed onto the bank of the moat where Kuni guarded it for a long time against a curious juvenile (de Waal, 1007a, p. 156).
What Kuni did would obviously have been inappropriate towards a member of her own species. Having seen birds in flight many times, she seemed to have a notion of what would be good for a bird, thus offering an anthropoid version of the empathic capacity so enduringly described by Adam Smith as “changing places in fancy with the sufferer.”
The point deWaal is making, and which he cements with many more examples, is simple: humans are not unique. Our most precious trait, our moral sense based in empathy for others, is shared by and no doubt derives from our primate ancestors. We are not separate from all other life, from nature. We are in a continuum with nature, we are nature. Therefore, any notion that we have somehow risen above nature, transcended nature, and now stand outside it or above it, stems from simple ignorance. So, too, does any sense that we can separate from, by betrayal, that which gave us birth. We are always, everywhere, indelibly marked by and connected to that from which we derive. And though betrayal seems deeply ingrained in our aspiring natures, that connection must make it just as deeply futile.
To realize this, to realize that betrayal in many of its guises actually masks the fundamental but ultimately futile yearning to be freed from our origins, may be the best we can hope for.