[Revised 12/17 pm to improve style and clarity]
If our leaders were more honest, they’d admit that the CIA’s recently revealed torture isn’t a break from this legacy, but the fruit of it – the product of decades of dehumanizing counter-insurgency warfare that expanded the USA from 13 colonies on the East Coast to much of North America and, ultimately, a global empire (it’s no coincidence that the code-name for Osama bin Laden was “Geronimo,” taken from the famed Apache leader).
After almost wiping out America’s original inhabitants, the U.S. government went on to declare total war on differently pigmented people around the globe. President Woodrow Wilson re-instituted slavery (or “forced labor”) in Haiti after its political class proved insufficiently compliant, his famed commitment to the right of self-determination not extending to those darker than pasty white. In Vietnam, the CIA’s “Phoenix Program” saw those accused of collaborating with the North Vietnamese subjected to “assassination, kidnapping, and systematic torture,” according to historian Douglas Valentine. Inmates at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were raped and murdered. And today, amid official proclamations that we live in a post-torture age, inmates held in Guantanamo Bay – many of whom could never even go to a show trial because insofar as there’s any real evidence against them it was gained through torture – continue to be subjected to torturous force-feedings that have been condemned by the United Nations.
The abuse, exported across Latin America through the torture-training School of the Americas, also continues here at home, with tens of thousands of black and brown and poor white US citizens currently languishing in mind-destroying solitary confinement, California’s Pelican Bay State Prison alone holding over 500 people in isolation for a decade or more. In Chicago, a cop who electrocuted and otherwise tortured more than 200 people until they confessed to crimes they didn’t do, got off with about 3 years behind bars after the evidence of his sadism became too great to ignore; that’s less prison time than if he had been caught with a gram of crack cocaine.
I don't dispute the facts--in fact, he left out the American brutality during the Filipino Insurgency after the Spanish American War--but I find the narrative into which they are woven to be too one-sided and self-defeating. He describes Thomas Jefferson as a "savage white supremacist who in practice if not always in speech believed that people of color (“slaves” and “savages” as they were known then; “thugs” and “terrorists” as they’re often called today) did not deserve all the same rights as wealthy white Americans like him." Come on. There has always been this split in the American soul, and I think it's wrong to say that the darker side of that split is the 'real' or the 'only' truth, as if there is no other story to be told.
The darker side follows the logic of the serpent, which is the human default if you accept the Christian story that all human beings are fallen. 'Being fallen' means doing what comes naturally, if by that we mean how animals behave, i.e., acting as either predator or prey. Hegel uses the terms master and slave, but it's a more sophisticated variant on the same theme. We are programmed by the logic of the serpent whether we consciously acknowledge it or not. And so we shouldn't be surprised that most Americans are inclined to follow this script, i.e., it's normal for anyone to follow their natural inclination to advance their own interests without regard to their harmful effects on others, especially when the Other belongs to another tribe. White racism toward black and brown people is just a relataively recent variety of a tribalism that has organized social power relations for millennia. It's normal. The miracle happens when people don't act normally.
And 'being nice' is too often just the way we humans have been domesticated; we are almost as easy to train as dogs and horses. And that's fine for laying a foundation of habits that enable us to operate within the consensus reality, but It is just a form of slavishness until we find some way of transcending it. Contemporary culture celebrates in film, in video games, and elsewhere pop forms of the Nietzschean Master, the uebermensch, who rejects all forms slavishness, the live-free-or-die guy who refuses to be bound by the conventions determined by the play-nice consensus reality and the clueless bureaucrats who set the rules. But the logic of the uebermensch is the logic of the serpent, and it is always regressive. The only truly progressive way to subvert the consensus reality is to reach toward the Absolute Future, and in doing so to awaken the Logos slumbering within. This is the only true Liberty.
So the master/slave pattern is not abnormal behavior. Nothing could be more normal. Look around you. You see it everywhere. It's only in its most brutal manifestations that we find ourselves upset by it. But these brutal extremes, to take torture for an example, are behaviors that aren't different in kind, only in degree, from our everyday experience of the master slave dynamic in our families, at work, in sports, in politics. Cheney understands that, and he has no patience for anybody who doesn't. He understands that nothing could be more normal or natural; that it's either be master or slave, rule or be ruled, eat or be eaten. Any other way of understanding how the world works is a fairy tale. There are no miracles.
But that's where he's wrong. There are miracles and they occur individuals or groups find a way to transcend normalcy. And I think there have been plenty of miracles, often effected by people who in most ways we find it hard to admire. We should nevertheless celebrate the miracles, no matter who performs them, because every miracle advances the ball a little farther toward the Absolute Future.
Christians are not exempt from the logic of the serpent. It is the Christian's default programming as it is everyone else's. But if honest Christians have any advantage, it lies in their having a heightened awareness of their default programming and have at their disposal tools that (should) help them to resist and transcend it. The honest Christian realizes that it's not enough to decide to follow the tribal rules, to think benevolent thoughts, and not "be evil". It's not good enough to be simply domesticated into Christian habits.
Our social or group acculturation can, depending on the group, provide tools for resistance, but they are like apps that still must work with the underlying operating system. The real task is to reprogram the operating system, and that is a lifelong struggle individually and an eons-long struggle for humans as a species. As badly as we still mostly behave, I'd argue that the ball has been advanced by our intermittently idealistically motivated ancestors. The task is to increase the frequency of these moments of response to the ideal, and to find ways to consolidate the gains.
So why do I describe the story told in the excerpt quoted above as self-defeating? Because it's not telling us anything new. It holds Jefferson and the other founding fathers to an impossibly high standard, and its goal is wrongly to negate the good in what they did because they also behaved, as most all of us do, according to the default programming. There is such a thing as cheap grace, but there is also cheap cynicism. To expect any human being, especially those who have had public careers, to be anything but a mix of good and bad is silly and naive. 80:20 bad to good advances the ball, I'd say. The best among us are maybe 50:50. So I see nothing wrong in celebrating the miracles of grace when someone, even if it was only once in his or her life, chooses the Absolute Future, that is, reached toward it as Peter reached impulsively toward Jesus as he walked on the waves, only to slip back again into the flood. It's our reaching out that matters, even if we can't sustain it.
Reaching out is a skill that needs to be learned, and like any other skill you get better at it with practice. But it's hard to practice if you don't believe there's anything there toward which to reach.