Monthly Archives: December 2010

The Fall of the House of Zeus: Metaphor for America

Former Boston Globe writer Curtis Wilkie’s new book The Fall of the House of Zeus (Crown 2010) is ostensibly about the rise and ruin of Dickie Scruggs, arguably the most powerful and most successful trial lawyer in America.  Scruggs, the brother-in-law of former U.S. Senate majority leader Trent Lott, made a fortune in Mississippi by bundling up mass tort lawsuits against Big Tobacco and the asbestos industries in much the same way Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs bundled up subprime mortgages.  In reality The Fall of the House of Zeus is a metaphor for America.

Just as the United States government is owned, operated, and controlled by Wall Street, Corporate America, the Pentagon, and the Israeli Lobby, so too is the government of Mississippi controlled by a handful of very powerful trial lawyers, corporate law firms, and their well-heeled clients.  It’s all about money, power, greed, and class.

Dickie Scruggs made billions of dollars for his clients and hundreds of millions of dollars for himself by the clever manipulation of the legal system.  Described by Newsweek as a “latter-day Robin Hood,” Scruggs is highly intelligent, shrewd, charismatic, cunning, arrogant, generous, and ruthless beyond words.  He was portrayed in the movie The Insider as a “dapper aviator-lawyer” who owned two private jets, several homes, and a number of yachts.  He drove a Bentley automobile.  Today he finds himself in a federal prison in Ashland, Kentucky where he is serving seven and half years for having been convicted of bribing two Mississippi judges.  His son and junior law partner, Zach, spent fourteen months in federal prison for his role in the sordid affair.

Although he was identified as a liberal Democrat, Dickie Scruggs seemed to be connected to everyone of any political importance in the state.  To Scruggs it did not matter whether you were black or white, liberal or conservative, Democratic or Republican.  What did matter was whether you could be useful to him.  And if he thought that to be the case, use you he would.  But a racist he was not.

Scruggs was as comfortable with sleazy Republicans linked to Trent Lott as he was with smug, politically correct, liberal Democrats such as Governors William Winter, Ray Mabus, and Ronnie Musgrove, and Attorney General Mike Moore.  He contributed to all of their political campaigns and had no problem palling around with the mysterious Big Jim Eastland protégé, P.L. Blake.  Although the former firebrand racist senator died in 1986, his influence lives on in the hearts and minds of white racist Mississippi power brokers.

The author of The Fall of the House of Zeus, Curtis Wilkie, is a superb writer.  There are few books which have ever motivated me to read every word written by the author.  Wilkie’s book is such a book.  His accounts of the bribery of backwoods judge Henry Lackey and the negotiations with the U.S. Attorney’s staff are riveting.

Having grown up in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1950s where I lived for the first twenty-one years of my life, I have long been a follower of the twists and turns of Mississippi politics.  But Curtis Wilkie’s knowledge of Mississippi politics is without equal. An important subtle subtext of his book is that Mississippi politics, not unlike the politics of many other states, is corrupt to the core.  And Dickie Scruggs knew very well how to turn all of Mississippi’s legal shortcomings into his own personal gain.

One is struck by the prominent role which the University of Mississippi Law school played in the rise and fall of the Scruggs empire.  Scruggs, his son, and most of the other key players in the story were all graduates of the Ole Miss Law School.  Scruggs was a major contributor to the University and was closely associated with Ole Miss Chancellor Robert Khayat who was from Pascagoula, Mississippi, where Scruggs had grown up and launched his legal assault on the tobacco and asbestos industries.  The Chancellor even wrote a letter on official University of Mississippi letterhead to the federal judge presiding over the Scruggs case requesting leniency.  The judge was unamused.

The Ole Miss Law School is to Mississippi politics what the Harvard Law School is to Beltway politics in D.C. and the Harvard Business School is to Wall Street.  At both the Ole Miss and Harvard Law Schools, aspiring young politicians make the necessary political contacts and learn the proper legal tricks for manipulating the political system.  From the Harvard Business School those bound for Wall Street learn from the experts how to manipulate the financial system.  Whether at Ole Miss or Harvard the message from the students is loud and clear, “Teach me how to be a money making machine.”  Dickie Scruggs got exactly what he paid for at Ole Miss.

On the cover of his book Wilkie wrote, “Mississippi is emblematic of the modern south with its influx of new money and its rising professional class, including lawyers such as Scruggs, whose interests became inextricably entwined with state and national politics.”  If I had written this blurb for the book’s cover, I would have said, “Mississippi is emblematic of the American Empire which has not only lost its moral authority but is run by a single corrupt political party disguised as a two-party system.”

Unlike his Wall Street, Corporate America, and Pentagon colleagues, Dickie Scruggs operated out of Pascagoula, Mississippi, and he got caught.

For anyone interested in the confluence of money, power, and politics, The Fall of the House of Zeus is a must read.

Thomas H. Naylor

January 1, 2011

Founder of the Second Vermont Republic and Professor Emeritus of Economics at Duke University; co-author of Affluenza, Downsizing the USA, and The Search for Meaning.

The Human Condition: Our Options

A day comes when, because we have been inflexible, nothing amazes us anymore, everything is known, and our life is spent in starting again.  It is a time of exile, dry lives, dead souls.  To come back to life, we need grace, a homeland, or to forget ourselves.  On certain mornings, as we turn a corner, an exquisite dew falls on our heart and then vanishes.  But the freshness lingers, and this, always, is what the heart needs.

Albert Camus

“Return to Tipasa”

What are our options for dealing with the human condition bestowed upon us by God after Adam and Eve’s ill-fated encounter with the seductive serpent in the Garden of Eden, if we rule out suicide?  Most of us respond in some combination of three ways—having, being, and rebellion.  To help us sort out the effects of each of these three options on the four human conditions we employ a simple matrix called the Life Matrix. Each element of the matrix represents the likely effect of a particular option-condition combination.  For example, someone who is into having and is separated from others is likely to be estranged from one’s family, friends, coworkers, and fellow citizens.  Such a person is also likely to engage in nihilistic behavior, become aggressive, and deny his or her own mortality.

Having

In an attempt to numb the effects of the pain and suffering associated with separation, meaninglessness, powerlessness, and fear of death, many of us embrace a lifestyle based almost entirely on having—owning, possessing, manipulating, and controlling people, power, money, machines, and material wealth.  Through having we hope to find security and certainty in an otherwise uncertain world.

Affluenza, technomania, e-mania, megalomania, robotism, globalization, and imperialism are each driven by our compulsive desire to have.  If we are to be successful in challenging

THE LIFE MATRIX

OPTIONS
CONDITIONS
HAVING
BEING
REBELLION
SEPARATION
ESTRANGEMENT
COMMUNITY
ENGAGEMENT
MEANINGLESSNESS
NIHILISM
QUEST
FAITH
POWERLESSNESS
AGGRESSION
CREATIVITY
EMPOWERMENT
DEATH
DENIAL
ACQUIESCENCE
CONFRONTATION

technofascism, we must confront its proclivity towards estrangement, its underlying nihilism, its aggressive behavior, and its denial of death.  Only then can we prevail.

Even though the Western frontier movement ended in the early twentieth century, millions of Americans, particularly alpha males, cling to the self-image of rugged individualism and the illusion that we are in control.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Technofascism engulfs us because of the mindless conformity with which we respond to it.  It’s much less painful to deny cipherspace than to admit to our addiction to money, power, speed, and instant gratification.  So hooked are we on consumption, technology, the Internet, and the bigger-and-faster-make-better mind-set, that we are unable even to imagine any other kind of world.  We are blind to the same old, same old nature of our high-tech, globally interdependent lives.

Nothing better illustrates the all pervasive nature of having in our country than the United States government, which has become too big, too centralized, too powerful, too intrusive, too materialistic, too high-tech, too globalized, too militarized, too imperialistic, too violent, too undemocratic, too corrupt, and too unresponsive to the needs of individual citizens and small communities.   GameAmerica is about how a handful of elites who control our government, the real players, con the rest of us into believing that we too are players, even though we never will be.

Every weekday afternoon when I was in elementary school back in the 1940s, I used to tune into the radio show known as “The Shadow.” The eerie opening words were always “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?  The Shadow knows.”  Evil is an extreme form of having which involves scapegoating, intolerance to criticism, a preoccupation with self-image, and intellectual dishonesty.  Carried to its logical conclusion, it may actually lead to killing, the ultimate form of having.

Being

“Man is what he makes of himself,” said Paul Tillich,  “And the courage to be oneself is the courage to make of oneself what one wants to be.”  If life has meaning, then it is we who must create our own through being rather than having.  Being involves loving, caring, sharing, cooperating, and participating in communities rather than owning, manipulating, and controlling money, power, and things.  To live is to be, to have is to die.

Among the possible sources of meaning associated with being are:

  1. Our Creations—what we accomplish or give back to the world through our creativity.
  2. Love Relationships—what we give to and take from the world through our encounters, experiences, and personal relationships.
  3. Spirituality—how we experience prayer, worship, and meditation.
  4. Community—our integration into and participation in worthwhile groups.
  5. Pain, Suffering, and Death—our stand toward a fate we cannot change.

The search for meaning is concerned with the crafting of our soul—our only possession that can never be taken away by death.  While we are still alive, our soul is who we are. It is our being—our very essence.  Even if there is no life after death on the other side of the mountain, our soul survives as our legacy on earth.  At the time of our death, our soul is the sum of our being—the manifestation of who we were and not what we owned or controlled while we were still alive.

Whether we be rich or poor, the only thing over which we have ultimate control is our soul.  If there is life after death on the other side of the mountain, we know not how to influence it.  However, we do know how to influence the condition of our soul, which survives after death on this side of the mountain, where life has been taken from us.

One’s soul is a completely nontransferable asset.  It is impossible to own another person’s soul, and no one else can control ours.

If our soul is all that we will ever have, how then shall we live our life?  Does it make sense to devote so much time and energy to the accumulation of material wealth?  Isn’t the care and nurturing of our sole possession far more important than having more and more of that which can never be our own?  Is it possible to care for our soul alone while ignoring the plight of others—the poor, the needy, the sick, the hungry, and the homeless?  Mahatma Gandhi answerd this question with a call for :  “voluntary poverty.”

…the less you possess, the less you want, the better you are….Not for enjoyment of this life, but for enjoyment of personal service to your fellow beings; service to which you dedicate yourselves, body, soul and mind…when you dispossess yourself of everything you have, you really possess all the treasures of the world…

Death is truly the great equalizer.  We are all going to die.  How will we die?  Will we die happy?  To die happy we must first live.  To live we must be.  We express our being by creating, loving, caring, praying, meditating, sharing, and suffering.

Those in the being column of the life matrix respond to separation with community, to meaninglessness with quest, to powerlessness with creativity, and to death by acquiescence.

As an alternative to cipherspace many have embraced a lifestyle of being known as the simple living movement.  Those who are into simple living aspire to a quieter, simpler, more fulfilling life.  They hope to achieve such a life by slowing down, working less, and consuming less.  Downsizing and downshifting are the important bywords of the simplicity movement.

Inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s admonition “simplify, simplify, simplify” in Walden in 1854, the influential Club of Rome injected new life into the simple living movement in 1972 with the publication of its widely read report The Limits to Growth.  Followed by E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful in 1973 and Kirkpatrick Sale’s Human Scale in 1980, the simple living movement soon took on a life of its own.  Since then, literally dozens of books have been published calling for the simplification of virtually every aspect of our fast-paced, harried lives, including such titles as Simple Living, The Circle of Simplicity, Getting a Life, Six Weeks to a Simplified Lifestyle, The Simple Living Guide, Freedom of Simplicity, Downshifting, Affluenza and Downsizing the U.S.A.

Prescriptions proposed by these books range from selling your car, getting rid of your TV set, walking to work, quitting your job, meditating, baking your own bread, and getting a wood stove to buying a farm, moving to the country, planting an organic garden, becoming a vegetarian, joining a yoga group, and canceling your trip abroad.

Not unlike many other movements, the simplicity movement also has its share of clichés such as, “Reduce, reuse, repair, and recycle.”

SIMPLE LIVING RULES
  1. Affluenza—Enough is enough.
  2. Technomania—Keep it simple.  Make low-tech molehills out of high-tech mountains.
  3. E-Mania—Get real.
  4. Megalomania—Small is beautiful.
  5. Robotism—Get a life.
  6. Globalization—Think locally and act locally.
  7. Imperialism—Might doesn’t make right.  Share power and reduce tension.

Although many Americans who practice simple living do so by choice, the vast majority do so out of necessity.  Poor Blacks in the Rural South, poor Hispanics in South Texas, poor Whites in Appalachia, and poor Native Americans living on reservations don’t participate in cipherspace simply because they can’t afford to do so.  Given a chance, they would no doubt eagerly join the club.

However, there is at least one large group of Americans, the eighty thousand or so Amish living primarily in Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, who have distanced themselves from the popular culture for spiritual rather than economic reasons.  Unlike nineteenth century Luddites, the Amish don’t reject all technology out of hand, but rather pick and choose which technologies they will use and under which circumstances.  Most Amish homes contain no telephones, radios, televisions, VCR’s, microwaves, personal computers, or other electrical appliances.  Yet a business may own a cash register, a telephone, refrigeration equipment, and, under certain circumstances, a computer.  It is also possible for a group of neighbors to share a community phone.

Even though private ownership of an automobile is a no-no, a business may lease an automobile, and it’s okay to take a taxi.  However, the horse and carriage is the mode of transportation of choice.  Most farmers till the soil with horses, but occasionally one sees a farm tractor.

The Amish have their own schools which go only through the eighth grade.  Although they may visit a doctor or a lawyer, they do not study medicine, law, or anything else in college.  Participation in political affairs is minimal and usually restricted to local elections.  School board membership is permissible but not election to higher public office.  Since they are conscientious objectors, the Amish do not serve in the military.  There is perhaps no better metaphor for the Amish way of life than the carriage described by Donald B. Kraybill in his book The Riddle of Amish Culture:

The carriage is a collective statement of Amish values and identity: separation, simplicity, frugality, tradition, equality, and humility.  The carriage protests the fads and fashions of modern transportation.  Its stark rectangular form, which clashes with the sleek styles of modern cars, symbolizes the stalwart nature of Amish society.  It epitomizes local control, for its form and accessories are governed by local tradition rather than by market research conducted by giant car makers.  Locally manufactured, the carriage transcends the flux of oil prices, imports, and labor strikes.

The Amish have not summarily rejected popular culture, but rather they engage it.  They have demonstrated that it is indeed possible to draw a line in the sand and finesse some technologies and customs while accepting others.  They remind us of our humanness, that we do indeed have the freedom to step back when faced with stimuli from every direction and throw our weight in one direction or the other.  When we cave in to pressure exerted by Corporate America, our media, and our government, the choice is ours.  Unfortunately, the influence of the Amish in America is miniscule.

In addition to the Amish, the largest concentrations of people in North America who adhere to simple living by choice can be found in Alaska, British Columbia, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington.  Most live independently, but some live in communes and cohousing developments.

A not entirely facetious answer to the question, “What ever happened to all of the hippies from the 1960s?” is that, “They are living in Vermont.”  Many who migrated to Vermont in the late 60s and early 70s never left.  They were attracted by the fact that Vermont is smaller, more rural, more democratic, less violent, less commercial, more egalitarian, and more independent than most states.  One can still find a sense of community in Vermont’s small towns, small schools, small businesses, and small churches.  It provides a communitarian alternative to the dehumanized, mass production, mass consumption, narcissistic lifestyle found throughout most of the rest of the United States.

Simple living as a lifestyle of choice is much more prevalent among small European countries than it is in America.  This is particularly true of the Nordic countries – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden.  Compared to the United States these tiny countries have fewer big cities, less traffic congestion, less pollution, less poverty, less crime, less drug abuse, and fewer social welfare problems.  The same is true for Austria, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, and parts of France and Germany.  Indeed, Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Australia, Holland, and Belgium were ranked as the six best countries in which to live in 2003 by the United Nations report on human development.  The United States and Canada ranked seventh and eighth respectively in the report which assessed per capita income, education, health care and life expectancy.

Since 1972, the king of the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has been trying to make gross national happiness the national priority rather than gross national product.  Although still a work-in-progress, policies instituted by the king are aimed at ensuring that prosperity is shared across society and that it is balanced against preserving cultural traditions, protecting the environment, and maintaining a responsive government according to Andrew C. Revkin in The New York Times (4 October 2005).

Although the number of Americans who are voluntarily simplifying their lives has been increasing, the overall impact of the simplicity movement on affluenza, technomania, e-mania, etc. appears to be marginal, at best.  Even though these downshifters are consuming less, they go about it in such a passive way as to minimize the impact of their reduced consumption.  Furthermore, they receive little national media attention, because they have no charismatic leader like French farmer José Bové, who leads the fight against McDonald’s and genetically altered agriculture in Europe.

Most opposition to Wal-Mart is still highly localized.  Only recently has a national movement against the Arkansas behemoth emerged.  When a federal judge ordered the breakup of Microsoft, later rescinded by another judge, no one seemed to care.  Whether Microsoft is a monopolist or not is not a matter of great concern to most Microsoft customers.

Many simple living adherents see no contradiction whatsoever between spending hours chatting, surfing, and sending e-mail messages over the Internet while espousing a quieter, simpler, more fulfilling lifestyle.  They fail to see that the Internet is an integral part of the problem of cipherspace, not the solution.  There is little evidence to suggest that the simple living movement has had any impact whatsoever on cipherspace.  It is simply too passive, too laid-back, too complacent, and too self-satisfying to ever be a threat to any of the icons of cipherspace.

While self-absorbed members of the simplicity movement quietly do their own thing, our government does its thing, too: encouraging bigger and bigger megamergers, pretending global warming is a myth, supporting unrestrained economic growth, bombing any Third World country which does not play by our rules, continuing to spend billions of dollars on the Pentagon’s antimissile technological fantasy, promoting genetically engineered foods, ignoring skyrocketing drug prices, curtailing civil liberties, doing little to curb corporate crime, and generally doing everything within its power to make sure we are all the same  Anything which deflects our attention away from what our government and Corporate America are doing to us enables them to have free rein to do whatever they choose.  That’s the paradox of simple living.  The actual results of simple living are often quite different from those which were intended.

It would be a wonderful thing if everyone embraced simple living.  Consumer spending would plunge, Wall Street would panic, and Corporate America would be brought to its knees.  All textbooks in economics would be rendered obsolete.  Economic theory would have to be re-written to accommodate a no growth economy.

However, there is a distinct possibility that a very important elixir could soon appear on the horizon which would significantly reduce the incidence of affluenza in America.  That elixir is called the cheap oil endgame.  The end of cheap oil could force all of us into simple living regardless of our income level.

Rebellion

Although it may be possible to isolate oneself from the world of technofascism and find solace through one’s creations, one’s personal relationships, one’s spirituality, and one’s experience with pain, suffering, and eventually death, so what?  How meaningful is it to retreat to a small farm, a village, an island, or a commune, doing our own thing, separated from the rest of the world which is going to hell in a handbasket?  How can we deny the economic, environmental, social, psychological, and spiritual effects of cipherspace?  For how much longer can we pretend that we don’t notice our government’s use of the war on terrorism to restrict civil liberties at home and to expand our influence and control over the rest of the world?  Do we really have any other alternative than to rebél against the money, power, speed, greed and size of the icons of cipherspace—the White House, the Congress, the Pentagon, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, the Internet, Fox News, Wal-Mart, and McDonald’s, as well as the churches, schools, and universities which suck up to our government, the military, and big business?

A word of caution.  We summarily reject all forms of killing of human beings, because, as we said before, killing is grounded in nihilism.  It makes no sense to attack the nihilism of cipherspace with just another form of nihilism.   As Albert Camus said in The Rebel, “To kill men leads to nothing but killing more men.”

“Rebellion,” according to Camus, “is born of the spectacle of irrationality, confronted with an unjust and incomprehensible condition.  It protests, it demands, it insists that the outrage be brought to an end, and that what has up to now been built upon shifting sands should henceforth be founded on rock.”

To rebél is to confront the human condition head on, to face down separation, meaninglessness, powerlessness, and death.  The problem said Camus is that, “The rebel refuses to approve the condition which he finds himself.” And, “he is willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of a common good which he considers more important than his destiny.”  That’s a lot.

Although not usually thought of as a rebel, nineteenth century Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy was indeed such a person. “Instead of blind and calm submission to the incipient or advanced stages of disease, rise in rebellion against them,” said Mrs. Eddy.  She was a rebel against the conventional health care system—physicians, surgeons, hospitals, and pharmaceutical manufacturers.

Whether one is a believer, an agnostic, or an atheist, Eddy’s mind-body paradigm for healing is not without merit.

Fear is the fountain of sickness, and you master fear and sin through divine Mind; hence it is through divine Mind that you overcome disease.

The physical affirmation of disease should always be met with the mental negation.

By conceding power to discord, a large majority of doctors depress mental energy, which is the only recuperating power.

Mental practice, which holds disease as a reality, fastens disease on the patient, and it may appear in more alarming form.

Suffering is no less a mental condition than is enjoyment.

Imagine the effect on total national health care spending, if every medical student were required to read Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health.

In November of 1932, radical economist and political dissident Scott Nearing and his partner Helen Knothe moved to the Pikes Falls region in the southern Green Mountains of Vermont.  Near the town of Jamaica they organized an intentional community known as the Forest Farm experiment which was committed to simple living, self-sufficiency, sustainable agriculture, cooperation, mutual aid, and an ascetic lifestyle.  The Forest Farm complex included eight stone houses and a 4000-tap sugar bush which the Nearings transformed into a self-sustaining maple candy business.

Nearing was fired from teaching positions at the University of Pennsylvania and Toledo University for his political views.  He was strongly opposed to American participation in World War I.  Indeed, he wrote an entire book, The Great Madness, devoted to that subject.  Although Nearing called himself a pacifist, a more accurate portrayal of his stance on war would be that of one radically committed to nonviolence.  He was hardly a shrinking violet when it came to expressing his opposition to American imperialism.  Not only was Nearing an active communist sympathizer for over a half century, but he was a nonsmoking, vegetarian, teetotaler.  Above all, Scott Nearing was a rebel.

On 6 August 1945, the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Scott Nearing wrote to President Harry S. Truman that “your government is no longer mine.”  A few years later in his book The Conscience of a Radical, he said, “My conscience is aroused, outraged, and anguished by the dangerous drift of mankind toward self-destruction, and by the satanic role which the United States is playing in the fateful drama.  I have no choice in the matter – I must speak out.”  And speak out he did.

What differentiated Scott and Helen Nearing from contemporary environmentalists, simple living proponents, and back-to-the-land advocates was their commitment to radical politics aimed squarely at the American Empire.  All too many downshifters and newly minted agrarians overlook the fact that the American Empire is currently engaged in the implementation of a series of military horrors including full spectrum dominance, nuclear primacy, the right of pre-emptive strike, the militarization of space, and imperial overstretch.  Simple living may make one feel good but it really doesn’t do a whole lot to curtail the influence of the Empire and its use of high-tech death machines.

Nearing’s biographer John Saltmarsh described him as “a complete secessionist from capitalist cultural hegemony.”  Saltmarsh opined that “Nearing moved through a series of secessions—from Christianity, from politics, and finally from American society itself.  The secessions in his life were progressive repudiations of American canons of moral conduct as well as indications of Nearing’s perception of the fragmented, segmented, discontinuous nature of American society.  Only in the isolated private sphere provided by homesteading could a radical resistance and constructive challenge to capitalist culture be nurtured.”

In 1952, after twenty years in Vermont, the Nearings moved to Harborside, Maine.  There they started a new homestead and continued practicing simple living, self-sufficiency, and sustainable agriculture until Scott’s death in 1983 and Helen’s in 1995.  In 1954 they self-published Living the Good Life which became the Bible for the hundred thousand or so people who moved to Vermont between 1967 and 1973 searching for the good life.  As a result of this mass in-migration, Vermont was transformed from the most Republican state in America to the most left-wing state.

Ironically, the two people most responsible for the change in Vermont’s political character during the last two decades of the twentieth century, Scott and Helen Nearing, had not lived there since 1952. 

Although he appeared in only three films in the 1950s before his untimely death at the age of 24, James Dean became, and still is, an icon and symbol of rebellion for angry, discontented young men.  Even today, “East of Eden” and “Rebel Without a Cause” are required viewing for any aspiring young rebel.  “Rebel Without a Cause” skillfully depicts the state of tension in adolescents between the propensity to rebél and the longing to conform.

From the perspective of a rebel, every word uttered by our media, our government, our business leaders, our educators, our scientists, our healers, and our clergy must be challenged.  There can  be no escape from a world controlled by ciphers without first confronting their every message.

The targets of French farmer José Bové’s rebellion are globalization, genetically altered food, and McDonald’s.  Shortly after he was elected Prime Minister of Spain, Jose Luis Rodriquez Zapatero stood down both President George W. Bush and the Vatican by withdrawing Spanish troops from Iraq and refusing to buckle under to the Holy See’s homophobic mandates.

Ostensibly American political scientists and economists have some responsibility for decrypting our political and economic system respectively. Unfortunately, all too many political analysts are merely cheerleaders for our government while most economists are in bed with Wall Street and Corporate America.  No one is rebelling against anything.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, and Soviet leader Michail S. Gorbachev were not only rebels but influential social critics—in some cases too influential for their own good.  Dr. King rebelled against the ciphers of racial injustice and violence in the American South in the 1960s.  Liberation theologian Archbishop Oscar Romero, who ministered to the poor in El Salvador, paid with his life when he challenged the authority of the right-wing military regime El Salvador in 1980. Bishop Tutu helped bring down apartheid nonviolently in South Africa.  Walesa, in collaboration with the Catholic Church in Poland, peacefully and democratically took control of the government in Warsaw.  And Gorbachev, baptized as a Russian Orthodox Christian, exposed and confronted the ciphers of Soviet communism as well as the Soviet and American Cold War ciphers.

Gorbachev may very well have been the greatest political leader in the twentieth century.  His strategies of tension reduction and power sharing changed not only all of the political ground rules within the Soviet Union but the entire basis for U.S.-Soviet relations. He repeatedly employed tension reduction to reduce conflict at home and abroad.  He pursued a nonconfrontational problem-solving approach to political problems based on open discussion, negotiation, and mutual trust.  Ronald Reagan soon discovered that it wasn’t much fun to pick a fight with someone who didn’t fight back.

The other linchpin of Gorbachev’s leadership style was power sharing. Soviet enterprise managers, labor unions, local government and party officials, ethnic minorities, Soviet republics, religious groups, Eastern European nations, and Third World allies were among the groups with whom Gorbachev shared power.  But power sharing is risky business, as Gorbachev learned.  The leader can lose complete control, as did he.

For over six years Gorbachev’s radical political and economic reforms were implemented in the Soviet Union with virtually no violence.  He repeatedly confronted the all-powerful Soviet nomenklatura—the party leaders, the KGB, and the military.  Then in December 1991 the walls of the Soviet Union unexpectedly came crashing down.  It split nonviolently into fifteen independent republics.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Bolivian Leader Evo Morales are two notable twenty-first century Latin American rebels whose targets include globalization, Corporate America, and the U.S. government.   Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is one of the few leaders in the world who possesses the courage to confront the United States and Israel.

Duke University Professors Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon have proposed a radical form of disengagement for the Christian church in their bestselling book Resident Aliens. They offer a compelling new vision of how the “Christian church can regain its vitality, battle its malaise, reclaim its capacity to nourish souls, and stand firmly against the illusions, pretension, and eroding values of today’s world.”  They envision the church as a colony of resident aliens, “A holy nation, a people, a family standing for sharply focused values in a devalued world.”  Even though Hauerwas is a radical pacifist, Resident Aliens is, to put it bluntly, a book about nonviolent Christian rebellion.

When Revolutionary pamphleteer Thomas Paine wrote about the British Empire in Common Sense in 1776, he might very well have been writing about the American Empire at the dawn of the 21st century.  “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.  But the tumult soon subsides.  Time makes more converts than reason.”

Nonviolent rebellion involves a four-step process which includes denunciation, disengagement, demystification, and defiance:

  1. Denunciation. The American Empire, technofascism, and cipherspace, all metaphors for the human condition which we allow to manipulate and control our lives; they are the targets of our outrage.
  2. Disengagement. We must disengage personally, professionally, and politically from the scourge of technofascism.  It’s the only way to live.
  3. Demystification. Who are the ciphers in our lives?  What do they do for us?  What do they do to us? How do they affect others?  How can we rid ourselves of them?
  4. Defiance. We must take back our lives back from big government, big business, big markets, big computer networks, big schools, big religion, and big health care systems.  To do so we must decentralize all decision-making authority to the lowest possible level in every major institution; downsize to a smaller nation, state, town, employer, school, college, church, shopping center, hospital, home, and car; and peacefully dissolve the American Empire.

“It is those who know how to rebél, at the appropriate moment, against history who really advance its interest,” said Camus.

Rebél

Thomas H. Naylor

January 1, 2011

Based on chapter 5 of a manuscript by the author entitled Rebél.  Naylor is Founder of the Second Vermont Republic and Professor Emeritus of Economics at Duke University; co-author of Affluenza, Downsizing the USA, and The Search for Meaning.

The Human Condition, American Nihilism, and the Absurd

How is it possible that the vast majority of Americans remain unconditionally committed to the American Empire even though it rests firmly on a foundation based on money, power, speed, greed, gluttony, sprawl, size, class inequality, racial injustice, environmental trauma, and violence without end?  Although millions of Americans distance themselves from many of these insidious traits, they, nevertheless, continue to march in lockstep with political leaders who embrace them all.  How can this be?

Where is the glue which holds the highly destructive American Empire together?  The glue is nothing less than the human condition itself, God’s gift to us in the Garden of Eden.

There they were in the Garden, Adam and Eve – separated, naked, purposeless, powerless, and fearful – just like we Americans.  What they were up against, as are we, was the human condition.  First, we are, as were they, all separated from each other.  Second, our lives are meaningless.  Third, we are overwhelmed by our inability to influence our own destiny.  We are powerless.  Fourth, since we are so afraid of death, we spend most of our lives denying the inevitable.

God told Adam and Eve that they were free to eat the fruit from any tree in the Garden but one, “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”   “You will surely die,” warned God, if the fruit from that tree is eaten.  Seduced by the slippery serpent, Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit.  So enraged was God by their complete disregard for his entreaty that he imposed on all of us who have come after Adam and Eve the same four conditions which bedeviled them.

Just as the clever serpent seduced Adam and Eve into eating the forbidden fruit, so too has the United States government enticed millions of Americans into its web with the promise of human connectedness, meaning, power, and security.  Such an offer few dare refuse.

For starters, U.S. citizenship offers us membership in a very large and influential community, the United States of America.  Whether or not it’s possible to have a real sense of community among over three hundred million people seems to matter little.  Most Americans still believe that, “We are the greatest nation in the world.”  What is important is that American citizenship implies a sense of connectedness to something that is bigger than life.  It enables us to feel less separated from ourselves, from others, and the ground of our being.  We experience the satisfaction of belonging even though it may be illusory.

The fact that the United States is the world’s only remaining superpower is not only a source of pride for millions of Americans, but also a source of pseudomeaning as well.  We are number one, the most powerful country in the world.  How we use this power matters not.  Few seem to care how many innocent Afghans, Iraqis, or Palestinians we massacre through our policy of full spectrum dominance.  “Might makes right,” said Adolf Hitler.  We want everyone to be just like us, and we are in charge.

Many an American truly believes that only the U.S. government can solve all of our problems all of the time. The government will protect us from the economic recession and from terrorism.  Unfortunately, if the truth be known, U.S. government policies were a major cause of the recession and appear to be much more effective in promoting terrorism rather than eliminating it.

Finally, in the eyes of many Americans, the United States is immortal.  It will surely live forever.  But is it really true?  How can an empire survive if it engages in an endless war on terrorism, the rendition of terrorist suspects, prisoner abuse and torture, the suppression of civil liberties, citizen surveillance, pandering to the rich and powerful, environmental destruction, a culture of deceit, and a foreign policy based on full spectrum dominance and imperial overstretch.   Massive military spending, multi-trillion dollar budgets and Wall Street bailouts, mounting trade deficits, and a precipitous decline in the value of the dollar are concerns of only a few.  For most it is simply business as usual.  Everything is going to be just fine.

But everything is not okay.  The American Empire’s promise of allaying our fears of separation, meaninglessness, powerlessness, and death is pure bunk.  The U.S. government is all about nihilism.  It has become too big, to centralized, too powerful, too intrusive, too materialistic, too high-tech, too globalized, too militarized, too imperialistic, too violent, too undemocratic, too corrupt, and too unresponsive to the needs of individual citizens and communities.

In the language of French existentialist Albert Camus, the American Empire is “absurd.”

Thomas H. Naylor

December 10, 2010

Founder of the Second Vermont Republic and Professor Emeritus of Economics at Duke University; co-author of Affluenza and Downsizing the USA.

Two Rebels – Albert Camus and Jesus Christ

I am leading a rebellion.

Jesus Christ

Matthew 26:55

One of the only coherent philosophical positions is revolt. It is a constant confrontation between man and his obscurity.  It is not aspiration, for it is devoid of hope. That revolt is the certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation that ought to accompany it.

Albert Camus

The Myth of Sisyphus

This is a tale of two rebels – Jesus Christ and Albert Camus. One is thought by Christians to have been the Messiah, the son of God, who lived, taught, healed the sick, and ministered to the poor two thousand years ago.  The other was a French writer born in Algeria in 1913, a card-carrying agnostic, who was the editor of the French Resistance underground newspaper Combat in Paris during World War II and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957.  Camus died in an automobile accident on 4 January 1960.  Christ was crucified in Jerusalem at the age of 33 and, according to Christian belief, arose from the dead three days later.

Belief in the virgin birth of Christ, his healing the sick, calming the storm, walking on water, feeding the thousands, and resurrection from the dead requires a strong Christian faith and a willingness to accept the possibility of supernatural behavior.  In sharp contrast to the alleged miracles surrounding the Biblical account of the life of Christ was Albert Camus’s unrelenting admonition to his readers to “live only with what you know.”

But Camus and Jesus have at least two things in common – an uncanny grasp of the human condition and an unwavering predisposition towards rebellion against it.

Throughout his life Camus struggled with Christianity with which he had a love-hate relationship.  About Jesus Christ he said, “Christ came to solve two major problems, evil and death, which are precisely the problems that preoccupy the rebel. His solution consisted, first, in experiencing them.”  He suffered and then died on the cross.

As revealed to us in the New Testament, Jesus Christ must have been one of the most radical nonviolent rebels in all history.  In his book The Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder described Jesus as a “social critic and an agitator, a drop-out from the social climb, and the spokesman of a counterculture.”  His mission was to decipher and confront the popular culture in Judea at the time of the Roman Empire – a challenge not unlike the culture of technofascism in the American Empire. His message was threefold:

  1. Life without love and community is nothing.
  2. The preferential option for the poor.
  3. Nonviolence.

“Love your neighbor as yourself,” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” were truly radical maxims during the time of Caesar Augustus.  These words are even more radical today in light of President Barack Obama’s bellicose speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on 10 December 2009.  In what may have been one of the most imperialistic speeches ever given by an American president, Obama opined that “War is justified when certain conditions are met.”  His predecessor George W. Bush, who was obsessed with the war on terrorism, used language like “axis of evil,” “Wanted, dead or alive,” and “You’re either with us or against us.”  Both Bush and Obama profess to be Christians.

The rebel Jesus admonished his followers to “turn the other cheek,” “go the second mile,” “store up treasures in heaven,” and serve God not money.  That was pretty heady stuff.

And as though this were not enough, in the Sermon on the Mount he singled out the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, those hungry for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who had been wrongly persecuted for special dispensations from God.  Jesus Christ was no ordinary rebel, but he paid a high price for his acts of nonviolent rebellion –death on the cross.

In his book Power and Innocence, Christian psychotherapist Rollo May characterized a rebel as one who “does what the rest of us would like to do but don’t dare.” About Jesus he said,

Note that Christ willingly takes on Himself the sins and the scorn of men; He acts, lives, and dies, vicariously for the rest of us.  This is what makes Him a rebel. The rebel and the savior then turn out to be the same figure.  Through his rebellion the rebel saves us.  Civilization needs the rebel.

As a loving, caring, nonviolent rebel with a particularly strong penchant for the poor, Jesus Christ was without equal.

With a role model like that, how is it possible for the sheeplike Church in America to be so docile, so timid, so complacent, so accommodating, and so self-serving in the presence of the hedonism, idolatry, blasphemy, and violence of American culture?

Inspired by the Second Vatican Council (1961-65) and Pope Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio (On the Progress of Peoples) but grounded in the widespread poverty and violence in Latin America, a radical form of Christian theology emerged in the 1960s called liberation theology. The main thrust of this new theology was a “preferential option for the poor.” Within a few years after its inception liberation theology spawned thousands of small, lay-led Christian communities throughout Latin America.  Many of these so-called base communities (comunidades de base) literally had their origins in small-village Bible study groups that stressed not Catholic doctrine but community action aimed at solving very real social and economic problems. Some coalesced around very specific projects such as digging a well, building a road, negotiating with wealthy landowners, and defending the village from guerrilla attacks.  Above all, base communities were not passive.   Indeed, they were often made up of political activists who some called revolutionaries.

Many villages owned collective farms as well as collective stores, pharmacies, health clinics, and schools. In other villages families owned their own small plots of land. Base communities fostered an atmosphere of cooperation, trust, and sharing as well as a strong sense of community.

Unfortunately, Latin American base communities became victims of their own success.  Wealthy landowners, conservative Roman Catholics, and right-wing military governments found the community action and direct democracy practiced by base communities to be threatening. Under pressure form Pope John Paul II, Vatican power broker, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and the Reagan administration’s foreign policy in Latin America, the Catholic Church withdrew its support from base communities in the 1980s and distanced itself  from liberation theology.

Before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Ratzinger was John Paul II’s hatchet man. He was responsible for leading the war against liberation theology and enforcing Catholic dogma worldwide.  Among the prominent Catholic theologians investigated and disciplined by Cardinal Ratzinger were German theologian, Hans Kung; left-wing, California, priest Matthew Fox; Belgian priest, Jacques Dupuis; Brazilian liberation theologian, Leonardo Boff; and Peruvian priest, Gustavo Gutierrez, who actually coined the term “liberation theology.”

Anti-democratic John Paul II and his henchman Cardinal Ratzinger, along with their fascist-friendly allies in Opus Dei, ripped out the heart and soul of modern Christianity.  Stripped of liberation theology, Christianity becomes the religion of George W. Bush and his Christian fundamentalist and Jewish neocon friends. John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger did irreparable damage to Christianity in general and to the Roman Catholic Church in particular.  “What would have happened, Guatemalans and El Salvadorians ask to this day, if Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II had regarded the Latin American call for liberation from autocratic rulers with the same force with which the European churchmen supported the Polish Solidarity revolution?” wrote journalist Mary Jo McConahay for Pacific News Service.

In spite of the efforts of the Catholic Church to snuff them out, some base communities are alive and well today. One such community located near Guatemala City consists of four hundred families who elect their own officers and governing board.  Among the assets owned by the village are a general store, a pharmacy, a school, a small hospital, a children’s nutrition program, and an agricultural development center. Through the agricultural development center, village farmers have become heavily involved in organic farming, producing their own natural fertilizer, herbicides, and insecticides, which are sold in the community farm supply store. Although most of the families in the village raise vegetables, forty families help support themselves by raising cattle to produce milk, which is sold in the marketplace.

Although base communities are by no means a panacea, they do offer a mechanism whereby impoverished people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, so to speak, using a combination of grass-roots democracy and direct action.  For example, there may be a great deal that desperate inner-city neighborhoods can learn from them.     There is considerable evidence to suggest that the early Christian churches in the Roman Empire resembled Latin American base communities and subscribed to a theology remarkably similar to liberation theology.

A unique contemporary example of liberation theology can be found in a secular setting in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.  Each Sunday several hundred pilgrims find their way to the performances of Our Domestic Resurrection Circus presented by the Bread and Puppet Theater in July and August in a remote abandoned gravel pit near the tiny village of Glover, Vermont.   There they are treated to a free outdoor puppet circus complete with sideshows, music, pageant, politics, and delicious free homemade German sourdough rye bread made personally by Bread and Puppet founder Peter Schumann.   All of the puppets are bigger-than-life human puppets, some of whom are on stilts.

The highly politicized circus skits combine art, drama, dance, music, humor, radical left wing politics, and liberation theology to confront the human condition, as well as affluenza, megalomania, Corporate America, globalization, and the American Empire.  Now in his seventies, rebel Peter Schumann appears on twelve-foot stilts dressed as Uncle Sam at the end of each circus.

Unlike Jesus Christ, who Christians believe confronted the human condition with the support of the Holy Spirit, Camus proclaimed “I don’t believe in God, that’s true.  But I am not an atheist.”  Camus’s rebellion against the human condition was thoroughly grounded in what he called the absurd – the absurdness of the human condition – the fact that we are all separated, our lives are meaningless, we are powerless to influence our fate, and we are all going to die and face nothingness. From the absurd flowed three consequences for Camus – his revolt, his freedom, and his passion.

About separation, Camus wrote an entire essay in 1944 entitled “The Tragedy of Separation.” “The meaning of life is the most urgent of questions,” he said in The Myth of Sisyphus, but “I continue to believe that this world has no ultimate meaning.” No doubt his feelings of powerlessness were influenced by his recurring bouts with tuberculosis which he first contracted in 1930 with relapses in 1936, 1942, and 1949.  As for death, “We know it ends everything,” and results in eternal nothingness. “Eternal nothingness is made up precisely of the sum of lives to come which will not be ours.”  But, “There is no freedom for man so long as he has not overcome his fear of death.  One must be able to die courageously without bitterness.”

Although it may be presumptuous to try to do so, I believe Camus’s philosophy can be summarized in one sentence.  Even though life is absurd and there is no hope, rebél against the human condition, live, and try to die happy.

“Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom is living,” but “The point is to live.”

Unlike Jesus’s rebellion against the human condition which was grounded in hope, Camus’s was not. Camus frequently reminded us that his rebellion was always without hope of affecting the human condition. There was no “pie in the sky” in Camus’s world. “I share with you the same revulsion from evil.  But I do not share your hope, and I continue to struggle against this universe in which children suffer and die.”

In his book Camus:  A Theological Perspective, James W. Woelfel summarized Camus’s view of the relationship between rebellion and hope:

It is only by repeatedly revolting against the absurdity of his predicament, without appeal or hope beyond it, that a human being fully expresses the absurd relationship. Only the person who sees clearly what in the final analysis is his ultimately tragic and trusting situation relative to his world and remains actively unreconciled to it can be said to “live out the absurd.”

About the absurd man Camus had this to say:

The absurd man thus catches sight of a burning and frigid, transparent and limited universe in which nothing is possible but everything is given, and beyond which all is collapse and nothingness.  He can then decide to accept such a universe and draw from it his strength, his refusal to hope, and the unyielding evidence of a life without consolation.

And about his defiance:

The absurd man can only drain everything to the bitter end, and deplete himself. The absurd is his extreme tension, which he maintains constantly by solitary effort, for he knows that in that consciousness and in that day-to-day revolt he gives proof of his only truth, which is defiance.

In his later writings, according to James W. Woelfel, Camus “extends the concept of revolt more centrally to the ethical sphere.”  In The Plague and The Rebel,

Revolt is importantly seen as revolt against the various oppressions arising from the absurdity of the human condition, as rebellion that always either implicitly or explicitly expresses the solidarity of human beings in their common life together.

Like Jesus, Camus also expressed a preferential option for the poor.  “It is in this life of poverty, among these vain or humble people, that I have most certainly touched what I feel is the true meaning of life.”

Regardless of one’s religious preference or lack thereof, there is but one fundamental question according to Camus.  “Can one live and stand one’s ground in a state of rebellion?”

In his Notebooks 1942-1951, Camus says it all,

A salon of eight or ten persons, where all the women have had lovers, where the conversation is lively and anecdotal and a light punch is served shortly after midnight, is the one place in the world where I am most comfortable.

Rebél

Thomas H. Naylor

December 6, 2010

This piece is based on chapter 5 of a book in progress by the author entitled Rebél.