Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Great Disobedience

I have been thinking a lot lately about why people obey. More particularly about why people obey bad leaders. Think of them all: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, the Shah of Iran, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Idi Amin, Augusto Pinochet. The list is endless. And in each case it’s one insane fool somehow getting masses of people to do his insane bidding. Nor is it just politicians who manage to amass enough power—usually the power of armies they control—to enforce their decisions. It’s the CEOs of predatory corporations as well: the Waltons of Wal-Mart, the nameless CEOs of Chevron and Halliburton and General Electric and Disney and Microsoft and Boeing and Monsanto. I mean, what is it with people? The information surely gets out there—that the dear leader, as Korea’s Kim Jong Il styles himself, is a paranoid schizophrenic delusional asshole whose policies are killing millions, poisoning millions, amassing offshore fortunes for this psychopath to pass on to his equally psychopathic offspring and cronies after he’s gone. And yet. People obey. They shoulder their rifles, they salute their officers, they go off to war and likely death or maiming without a whimper. Standing tall. Proud to serve the cause. Or less grandly, we obey the traffic signals, pay our taxes that go to enrich scoundrels, support with our dollars the useless products that are destroying people and planet alike, and never stop to think why? Why do we do this? Why do we contribute to our own destruction?

I mean, no ruler rules out of absolute strength. Each one relies on the cooperation and collusion, the support and forebearance, tacit or otherwise, of millions. In China, to take the most extreme example, a few bureaucrats control the movements and lives of more than a billion people. Does it not ever occur to that billion that they could rise up and sweep away those heartless, pompous bureaucrats with one breath? Does it not ever occur to all of us in the United States that it is within our power, written in our founding documents that if those in power become too deceptive, too intoxicated with their own grandiosity, too royal or tyrannical, it is our right, our duty, to overthrow them? Or at least to disobey? To refuse to shoulder that rifle, refuse to kill that innocent family in Iraq, refuse to credit any more slick propaganda about the latest incarnation of evil allegedly threatening our homeland?

Apparently not. Partly, it must be, because disobedience, revolt can be messy. Can cost lives. As we see in Burma right now. And the mess can get even messier when disobedience triumphs, as it did in the French Revolution, when thousands of nobles lost their heads. Terror. The terror is never pretty. Never without loss. Though these days, with the monsters in power, with CEOs raking it all in without concern for starvation or murder or the destruction of the planet, the idea of such a terror begins to seem more and more appealing, for what else can be done with monsters?

But it’s not just the fear of consequences that keeps the masses obeying. It must also be training. Training beginning in childhood that inculcates obedience to those in charge. Those who are in charge must be right, the training seems to say, or they wouldn’t be in charge. And where disobedience can mean loss or injury or even death, it’s prudent to train the children in obedience to the wise and powerful Father.

Still. When the evidence becomes so overwhelming that the Father is a psychopath, that he countenances not only mass murder via Shock and Awe, and mass torture via Guantanamo, and mass exploitation and profit for his oilmen cronies, but is leading the nation to the brink of environmental and economic disaster—is there any way to understand continuing obedience? I mean only recently we have been treated to the spectacle of mothers of soldiers slain in Iraq screaming their support for their leader, screaming their rage at those who question that support, screaming that their sons have died for a noble cause. And all we can say is that surely there is nothing quite so sad as a mother who has lost her son in battle. Unless it be a mother who remains ignorant of the real truth about that loss: that her son’s death, far from being a sacrifice for the freedom we all allegedly enjoy, was really a sacrifice for megalomaniacs who never served, who are capable only of mouthing platitudes and staging photo ops while they enrich themselves and their friends—all those CEOs who are quite willing to sacrifice obedient slobs in uniform in order to protect their precious corporate investments.

And all we can hope is that the great disobedience that is the people’s right and duty is building and will arrive soon—or soon enough, at least, to cripple the current fool playing at leader long enough to prevent the next disaster he is surely, even now, drooling over.

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, October 19, 2007

New Orleans: Deja Vu All Over Again

The more we hear about the attempt to "cleanse" New Orleans of its poor black population (while reconstruction and recovery from Hurricane Katrina proceeds rapidly for the white, heavily-touristed areas), the more we realize that history runs in repetitive cycles. For the truth is, Americans have always been suspicious of the exotic denizens of that most fascinating of all American cities. Were it not for its position as indispensable port city at the mouth of the Mississippi River, it probably would have been abandoned to floods and tides long ago. But it is important. And so Hurricane Katrina has been turned, in the rah rah atmosphere post-Katrina, into an "opportunity." And the opportunity, again, is not to rebuild New Orleans better, but to rebuild it cleaner, more like what Americans seem to prefer these days—a theme park without the problem of messy, unsightly poor folks.

Sadly, this is not new. From the time when New Orleans was transformed from an outpost of the French and Spanish empires to an American possession, many Americans have cast a disgusted eye on this outpost of foreignness. I am referring to the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The port of New Orleans, not all of Louisiana, was really the issue for President Thomas Jefferson. New Orleans was what he sent his envoys, James Monroe and Robert Livingston, to France to procure. Stunningly, Napoleon Bonaparte offered the Americans not just the port city, but the whole of the Louisiana Territory. And in history classes, we learn that Jefferson took the deal, paid $15 million, and doubled the size of the nation in one stroke. At 4 cents an acre, the Louisiana Purchase has gone down as one of the greatest real estate bargains in history.

What we are rarely told, however, is that there was great American resistance to the deal. Northerners worried that their influence in the new nation would be diminished by the addition of so large a western and southern territory. They also worried that slavery might be extended into the new territories. But the worry went beyond that. That was because in Article III of the treaty, Napoleon insisted that the inhabitants of New Orleans—the French, the Spanish, the free Blacks and part-Blacks and part Indians—must all become citizens of the United States. To many Americans, this was like giving the keys of their new acquisition to half-civilized people, to "savages and adventurers." New Orleans, to them, was "a place inhabited by a Mixture of Americans, English, Spanish and French, and crowded every year….with two or three thousand boatmen from the back country…" Others found the denizens of New Orleans and the whole West beneath even that. Josiah Quncy, who would become president of Harvard College, predicted that "thick skinned beasts will crowd Congress Hall, Buffaloes from the head of the Missouri and Alligators from the Red River."

In the end, Jefferson prevailed, and the Louisiana Purchase Treaty was ratified. And with it, came New Orleans and all its people. Clearly, however, what has been happening there since, and especially since Katrina, demonstrates that many Americans, in particular our conservative brethren of the heartland, have never quite accepted New Orleans as a place fit to be included in the lily-white, squeaky-clean America of their dreams. It’s too colorful, in every sense of that word, by far.

And so the bleach job goes on.

And most Americans watch it happen, maintaining all the while their dominant cover story: that America is indeed the land of the free and the home of the equally color-blind—except, of course, where property values are concerned.

Lawrence DiStasi