"To dare is to temporarily lose one's footing; Not to dare is to lose one's self."
"Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom." --Soren Kierkegaard
If I’ve come to understand anything over the years, it’s that individual human beings, even the best and worst, are always a mix of good and bad motives, but large institutions (governments, corporations, churches) the larger they get, the less ambivalent the motives that drive them. Large institutions don't do ambivalence. Their defenders will make all kinds of nuanced, clever, lawyerly arguments to justify what they do, but what in the end they do is boringly predictable, i.e., whatever serves their institutional self interest.
That self interest is defined mainly in terms of security and control. There are always threats, real or imaginary, that justify getting more of the latter to insure the former. No argument, no matter how morally compelling, succeeds if it requires that the institution act in such a way that it threatens to undermine or diminish its security and control, no matter how much security and control it already possesses. The individuals who do the institutional will might feel ambivalently about what they do, but they do it, or the institution will spit them out.
No human project is unambiguously motivated, but some Institutions like the Church, the United States, the first French Republic, and I'd argue even the USSR and the PRC moved the ball ahead because they were at least in part inspired by ideals that pointed to truths that have deep, sustaining power. But at some point the anxious institutional mind takes over and chooses to play it safe rather than to live even ambiguously in the light of its founding ideals. Those ideals are pushed to the side in the interests of security and control. Early in the institution's existence there is usually more institutional ambivalence about it, but at a certain point it crosses the line and never goes back unless forced to.
Take for instance the U.S. policy toward Latin America in the 70s and 80s. I think the historical record about Operation Condor is well established, and the story of American support for Pinochet's Chilean coup and its support for other fascist (sorry, authoritarian) governments is well established. The people of Chile democratically elect a socialist government, and because that was an affront to the security interests of the United States, its democratic principles and values are pushed aside so Americans can install an authoritarian government they can control. They might have been bastards, but they were our bastards.
Nothing shocking about that. Humans will rarely choose ideals over security, even if they have every reason to feel secure by most human standards. I'm sure there are some exceptions that prove the rule, but large institutions after crossing that line of no return never do it. They will only compromise when a greater threat to their security forces them to. Large institutions have their minds made up, and they are never interested in having a discussion in which it is genuinely open to a proposal unless it has a positive or neutral effect regarding its security and control interests. If representatives of a large institution sit down to talk with you about doing something that would have a substantive positive impact but could possibly have a negative impact on its security and control, they will not listen to your arguments. They will just see the conversation as an opportunity to propagandize you into accepting that its security project is in your best interests. They are not in the least open to being persuaded that anything else is more important.
We all need a certain level of security and stability in our lives to function effectively as humans, but when we allow security concerns to crowd out all others, we create hells of alienation. This is at the heart of the Gospel warning about the difficulty for the rich man entering the kingdom as it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. The rich man has the resources to buffer himself against all threats to his security, and in doing so he cuts himself off from reality and instead lives in a toxic, alienating dream prison. So do rich nation states and empires operate by the same logic, and the modern security state is one of its most toxic manifestations. These hells are, however, country club prisons for most of the people who live in it, and the inmates are mostly unaware that they are in fact prisoners, and they are unaware of the price people outside it pay to maintain them in it.
In Part I I tried to make the argument that progress is not to be confused with heedless innovation, but rather with whether changes we experience move us toward greater levels of freedom and communion. There is no progress if innovation simply reinforces the prison walls by lulling us into a deeper state of hypnosis or stupefaction. For Americans this stupefaction is particularly strong because of our security obsession. If anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, we'd rather not be free. Better for us just to anesthetize ourselves in any way we can, better for us just to stay passed out, unconscious, asleep.
I assume that we all start more or less in a sleep state insofar as we accept uncritically the conventional thinking into which we have been acculturated. This is the consciousness of children whom adults seek to protect from life's evils, as they should. But if we want our children to grow into highly functioning adults, we cannot protect them forever. We cannot be like the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov, who sincerely believes he is performing the highest service for the people in his care by arresting their development, protecting them by treating them like children. And so when Jesus Christ appears on the scene to invite those in the Inquisitor's care to experience deeper levels of freedom and communion, he cannot be tolerated. The Inquisitor sees Jesus as a threat, a destabilizing influence who threatens to subvert the security state that it's his duty to preserve. He must be banished.
This is the human story on so many levels, but it's particularly relevant in describing how we humans become hypnotized by inquisitors in our own day--politicians, religious figures, media personalities--who tell us not to worry, they understand what we cannot, that they have our interests and safety in mind, and that we should just go back to sleep. We want to feel safe, and so we want to believe them. We find ourselves wanting very much to accept the conventional wisdom--everybody does--and we feel a twinge of anxiety when we entertain the possibility of thinking differently: to dare to think differently means to go where we will not have the protection these authorities offer us. So, yeah, what they say sounds a little fishy, but so what? It's none of my business. It's better to just roll over and go back to sleep.
This is a long prelude to what I originally sat down to write about, which is Costas Gavras's 1982 film, Missing, which I saw again the other night after having seen it years ago. It struck me as a much better film this time because I saw in it more than just formulaic political propaganda. It works on another level because it's a parable of awakening from the dream prison I've just described. Ed Horman (played by Jack Lemmon) is Everyman, and he's quite comfortable in his imprisonment by the security state and accepts its conventional wisdom as "reality". It’s the story of Ed's waking up from his complacent dream as he gradually comes to realize a twin horror—that his adult son has been killed by the Chilean government and that the US government was complicit in his execution.
This is a quest story, one in which Ed Horman, played by Jack Lemmon, searches for his son, Charlie, a writer who was swept up by the military in the aftermath of Pinochet’s Chilean coup. Ed is an honest man, a devout Christian Scientist, and someone who trusts his government. He's a middle American, a member of what was called back then the 'silent majority'. He arrives in Chile after learning from his daughter-in-law, Beth (Sissy Spacek) about his son's disappearance. Ed is in immediate conflict with Beth because Beth stands outside the security state's conventional wisdom in which Ed still sleeps.
She sees the situation more clearly. She is not cynical--she is anything but. But her epistemology, so to say, allows her to entertain an alternative explanation of the facts than the ones presented by the security state that Charlie accepts. Beth and Charlie have chosen to live outside the safe zone defined by the conventional wisdom of the American security state, and have found a deeper experience of communion there. They are poor, but they have a good life in which they are creatively engaged with spirited, interesting American and Chilean friends.
Ed sees Beth as a flake who in stepping outside of the protections provided by the security state has exposed herself and his son unnecessarily and foolishly to danger. For Ed the prospect of living outside the conventional security zone is deeply repugnant and incomprehensible. These kids, Charlie and Beth, are stick figures for him in a crude anti-establishment cartoon, and he is incapable of understanding them because of his deep alienation from them and the life they lead.
The story is about Ed losing his footing but saving his Self. It's about his coming gradually to see the world from Beth’s perspective, and about his coming into a deeper communion with her and by proxy with his son. Ed has arrested development; he is like one of the Inquisitor's children. He is someone who has resisted all his life the invitation to grow up, even though invitations were continuously offered to him by his son. For him it was better, safer, to live estranged from his son than to grow up.
The U.S. government officials, of course, make a good show of wanting to help Ed find Charlie. But really their objective is to reinforce the security perimeter that shapes Ed's childish worldview, and they suggest in so many ways that he just go back home and to sleep, but Charlie's disappearance has awakened him. He's up, and his mind is clearing. He keeps digging, and gradually it becomes clear to him that the U.S embassy officials have no interest in telling Ed the truth; they care only about protecting American interests, which means reinforcing the system that keeps the Americans safe and well fed within the country club prison, aka the American Dream.
This following exchange occurs after Ed hears from a reliable source that Charlie was killed in the stadium. He goes to the American embassy confront the U.S. ambassador. My comments are in brackets:
U.S. Ambassador: We're not involved, Mr. Horman. Our position has been completely neutral. [This is the Big Lie needed to reinforce complacency of prison life. It assumes that most people will believe it because most people want to believe it, because not to believe will initiate a chain reaction that will bring down the prison walls. We resist losing our footing, and we don't like feeling dizzy.]
Ed Horman: That is a bald face lie, sir. How can you say a thing like that when you have army colonels, you have naval engineers, they're all over Viña Del Mar! [Ed has been exposed to too much evidence for him to accept that the Big Lie can be true. He wanted to believe it, but now his instinct for truth is stronger than his desire to stay safe. There's no more ambivalence--he's fully awake; he's regained his balance, and so now there's nothing for the ambassador to work with, but he gives it one last try:]
U.S. Ambassador: Please sit down. Look, it's very obvious you're harboring some misconception regarding our role here. [Misconception = any ideas or evidence that doesn't support the Big Lie. This statement is like the Jedi mind trick, to work with Ed's predisposition to be hypnotized by the Lie, but it doesn't work now.]
Ed Horman: What is your role here? Besides inducing a regime that murders thousands of human beings? [Ed's not having it. He's passed the point of no return. His prison walls have collapsed. He's already walked out. His gait is determined and confident.]
U.S. Ambassador: Let's level with each other, sir. If you hadn't been personally involved in this unfortunate incident, you'd be sitting at home complacent and more or less oblivious to all of this. This mission is pledged to protect American interests, our interests. [The ambassador sees that Ed can no longer be hypnotized, so he provides an honest answer: If your son's leaving the confines of the security state and its conventional wisdom hadn't made you aware that there was life outside it, you'd still be home living happily on your prison rations without a care in the world. Don't blame us; blame your son.]
Ed Horman: Well, they're not mine.[Ed is coming to realize that his real interests lie outside the security system. This was his son's gift to him, even if he had to die to give it to him.]
U.S. Ambassador: There are over three thousand US firms doing business down here. And those are American interests. In other words, your interests. I am concerned with the preservation of a way of life. [Way of life = American Dream = existence in the country club prison of the American Security State. This prison cannot exist without American political and economic dominance. This is Costas Gavras's political statement, and I accept it as true for reasons I'll explain below.]
Capt. Ray Tower, USN: And a damned good one. [So take your rations, Ed. Stop complaining, leave matters you don't understand to us, and don't leave prison or you'll wind up like your son.]
Ed Horman: (Staring out the window at empty yard) Maybe that's why there's nobody out there. [Not sure what this line means. Maybe that preservation of the American way of life requires murdering anybody who opposes American interests.]
U.S. Ambassador: You can't have it both ways. [You can't have the benefits of living in prison without those living outside the prison paying to maintain you in it.]
I don't look at this as anti-American propaganda, because the story it tells is universal. The American government is behaving like all governments any where and at any time. I'm sure the real U.S. embassy officials in Chile at the time of the coup were more complicated as human beings than the way they were depicted in the film, but whatever their discomfort and feelings of moral ambiguity about what happened to Charlie, they accept that their duty is to serve the institutional will, and in that they were not caricatured. It doesn't matter what they feel; it matters what they do.
It's not that our "enemies" hate our freedom; it's that our enemies are paying the price for our American 'way of life'. The defenders of that way of life understand that our 'enemies' have good reason to resist paying for it, and so they must be suppressed. And so they also sincerely believe, like the Grand Inquisitor, that keeping the rest of us safe and asleep is in our best interest.
Part I focused on the macro theme that progress is not simply innovation, but a movement from alienation and lack of autonomy to communion and freedom. Ed Horman's story is a parable of what "progress" looks like on the micro, individual level. Ed's is the story of what it's like for any of us to hear the wakeup alarm and to dare to get up and live in the world with a greater degree of wakefulness. The context of the movie was political, but politics is only one area of our lives in which we are lulled into the dream state we experience as conventional thinking. Our work lives and religious lives are shaped by churches, schools, companies that follow the logic of the security state as much as our political lives do.
The logic of all conventional thinking follows the logic of the security state, and the degree to which we remain confined in any aspect of our life is the degree to which we remain in a state of arrested development. To leave the confines of the security systems that seek to confine us does not mean that the alienating dream dissolves all at once and that one immediately finds complete liberation from illusion and deep communion; it means that you take on the life-long task of developing a greater capacity for freedom and communion. At some point a critical mass of people reach a point in the project which has a transformative effect on the collective mind, and the social imaginary changes, even for the people who are still only semi-conscious.
This is a task that starts in freedom--it must be freely chosen--but it succeeds to the degree that it moves the toward communion. It begins with individuals as autonomous agents who accept the task as their own individual responsibility, but in accepting it, they start on a path toward greater levels of wakefulness. Taking this path requires in the beginning that one feel a little unsteady on one's feet, but the farther on move along, the more he awakens, and the greater becomes his awareness of the communion that was there all along, but which was shrouded when he was dreaming. As we awaken, our experience of alienation from ourselves, from others, from all of creation begins to melt away. Not all at once, but gradually. But nothing changes for him who, when he hears the wakeup alarm, rolls over and goes back to sleep.