'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, May 30, 2011

A Memorial Day Reflection 

A voice from the past:

Wartime brings the ideal of the State out into very clear relief, and reveals attitudes and tendencies that were hidden..In times of peace the sense of the State flags in a republic that is not militarized.. For war is essentially the health of the State. The ideal of the State is that within its territory its power and influence should be universal. As the Church is the medium for the spiritual salvation of man, so the State is thought of as the medium for his political salvation. Its idealism is a rich blood flowing to all the members of the body politic. And it is precisely in war that the urgency for union seems greatest, and the necessity for universality seems most unquestioned. The State is the organization of the herd to act offensively or defensively against another herd similarly organized. The more terrifying the occasion for defense, the closer will become the organization and the more coercive the influence upon each member of the herd. War sends. the current of purpose and activity flowing down to the lowest level of the herd, and to its remote branches. All the activities of society are linked together as fast as possible to this central purpose of making a military offensive or a military defense, and the State becomes what in peacetimes it has vainly struggled to become-the inexorable arbiter and determinant of men's businesses and attitudes and opinions. The slack is taken up, the cross-currents fade out, and the nation moves lumberingly and slowly, but with ever accelerated speed and integration, towards the great end, towards that peacefulness of being at war, of which J.P Jacks has spoken so unforgettably.

The classes which are able to play an active and not merely a passive role in the organization for war get a tremendous liberation of activity and energy. Individuals are jolted out of their old routine, many of them are given new positions of responsibility, new techniques must be learnt. Wearing home times are broken and women who would have remained attached with infantile bonds are liberated for service overseas. A vast sense of rejuvenescence pervades the significant classes, a sense of new importance in the world. Old national ideals are taken out, readapted to the purpose and used as the universal touchstones, or molds into which all thought is poured. Every individual citizen who in peacetimes had no function to perform by which he could imagine himself an expression or living fragment of the State becomes an active amateur agent of the Govemrnent in reporting spies and disloyalists, in raising Government funds, or in propagating such measures as are considered necessary by officialdom. Minority opinion, which in times of peace was only irritating and could not be dealt with by law unless it was conjoined with actual crime, becomes with the outbreak of war, a case for outlawry. Criticism of the State, objections to war, lukewarm opinions concerning the necessity or the beauty of conscription, are made subject to ferocio'us penalties, far exceeding severity those affixed to actual pragmatic crimes. Public opinion, as expressed in the newspapers, and the pulpits and the schools, becomes one solid block. Loyalty, or rather war orthodoxy, becomes the sole test for all professions, techniques, occupations. Particularly is this true in the sphere ofthe intellectual life. There the smallest taint is held to spread over the whole soul, so that a professor of physics is ipso facto disqualified to teach physics or to hold honorable place in a university-the republic of learning-if he is at all unsound on the war. Even mere association with persons thus tainted is considered to disqualify a teacher. Anything per taining to the enemy becomes taboo. His books are suppressed wherever possible, his language is forbidden. His artistic products are considered to convey in the subtlest spiritual way taints of vast poison to the soul that permits itself to enjoy them. So enemy music is suppressed, and energetic measures of opprobrium taken against those whose artistic consciences are not ready to perform such an act of self-sacrifice. The rage for loyal conformity works impartially, and often in diametric opposition to other orthodoxies and traditional conformities or ideals. The triumphant orthodoxy of the State is shown at its apex perhaps when Christian preachers lose their pulpits for taking in more or less literal terms the Sermon on the Mount, and Christian zealots are sent to prison for twenty years for distributing tracts which argue that war is unscriptural.

If anything, the fact that similar objectives have been attained with a lesser degree of repression as occurred during and after World War I is particularly disturbing. Furthermore, unlike after World War I, the populace has become inured to a low level, perpetual state of global conflict, and the utilization of military force, or the threat of it, as one of the most common American responses to resistance of any kind. The acceptance of the primacy of vengence as a US foreign policy objective, as recently expressed in the execution style assassination of Osama Bin Laden in front of his family, is ominous.

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