In the opening to a piece published here on The Ghion Journal a few weeks ago, The Noir Detective, Julian Assange and What Comes Next, I mentioned how important the keeping of secrets is to empires (and most authoritarian societies, for that matter). I’d like to follow up on that today.
The people and institutions who own and operate the U.S.-centralized empire not only gain enormous wealth and privilege from doing so, they also get something even more intoxicating—for one, they hook into an enveloping energy that’s greater than themselves (a need shared by most human beings) and, for another, they enjoy a feeling of extraordinary power, a mastery over the world and the people in it.
It hardly matters that this feeling of control is an illusion because the feeling, however false, is so exhilarating that the fallout from it—nothing major, just the violent deaths of millions and the unraveling of eco-systems on which we depend for life—seems insignificant compared to the rush.
If you dare look through the eyes of the empire’s inner circle and see how much the imperium nourishes something deep and hungry and malignant within them, you can begin to understand how much they have to lose from the exposure of horrifying imperial secrets. That kind of exposure could lead enough citizens away from their current compliance with the status quo that the empire could crumble—and with it that glorious feeling of omnipotence savored by its most prominent players. The difference between these two potentialities, the extension of the status quo or empire’s dissolution, really does lie on a razor’s edge. There’s a reason, after all, why the words “omnipotence” and “impotence” are so terribly similar.
Fortunately for our shadow rulers, the darkest secrets of empire are extremely well concealed, and many of the ones that aren’t take both work and courage for regular people to seek out. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. Caitlin Johnstone already touched on the issue of secrets last week in one of her typically penetrating pieces of writing.
As upsetting as those hidden secrets are likely to be, and as helpless as many of us feel about our ability to master the complex games played to keep us away from those secrets, we need to be a lot more honest with ourselves. To make decisions about how to approach our citizenship, the bulk of what we need to know is already metaphorically basking in the sun, smack-dab in the middle of the town square.
It’s there for all eyes to see:
- Private ownership of politicians who are ostensibly meant to represent the interests of the public
- Elections so dependent on money that they’re rigged well before any more overt manipulation take place
- An education system that steers us away from any reckoning with our personal and collective responsibilities as citizens of a republic, let alone a democracy
- A justice system that allows large corporations and public institutions to break the law (and break both people and nature) with impunity
- A law enforcement system that allows police to beat and murder any poor, disabled or non-white person in the street, or send them to body and soul-crushing dungeons over next to nothing
- A health care system that allows a small number of people to get rich by denying others the ability—through cost and heartless bureaucracy—of getting medicine, an operation or even simply seeing a doctor
- The poisoning of the air and water of entire cities and towns with blithe indifference, and no consequences for the perpetrators
- The use of a bloated military for every type of mass murder imaginable without any public debate, adherence to the Constitution, or basic accountability
- State and corporate propaganda masquerading as news, blatantly and without shame or remorse
Need I go on?
Pick any part of our national situation, or even the more immediate world of our daily lives, and you’ll have no trouble coming up with examples of catastrophically life-altering consequences meted out to regular people, not because they’re guilty of anything egregious, but as a simple matter of course of the functioning of our society.
My point is this:
We know what we need to know.
And still we do not rise.
Let that sit for a minute.
We know what we need to know.
And still we do not rise.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
There are few writers or thinkers from the early days of the American republic who were as prescient, who had such a developed understanding of who we are, than Herman Melville. In his 1855 novella Benito Cereno he tells a crafty tale of an American sea captain (Delano) who boards what appears to be a disabled Spanish slave ship.
During the course of his progressively odd interactions with the ship’s captain, crew and soon-to-be African slaves, the guileless Delano won’t allow himself to see that an elaborate pantomime is being played out in front of him. As the story unfolds, it becomes more and more apparent to the discerning reader that it’s actually the slaves who control the ship, and they’ve forced the crew to pretend to be running the show until they can get Delano to leave.
What’s always fascinated me about this story lies in the phrase I dropped in the above paragraph, “Delano won’t allow himself to see”—because at various points in the tale, he knows. But his racism is so strong and so intermixed with the innocent image he has of himself and the world, that he represses his real, intuitive knowledge: that African men and women are autonomous human beings, no different from any other. And, as human beings, it’s abhorrent to them to be taken by force and enslaved. They will use all of their wits and power to prevent that enslavement from happening.
Tons of literary analysis has been written about Melville’s story. Much of it concerns the interplay of America’s uncanny ability to maintain cultural innocence while simultaneously propagating something so obviously odious as the enslavement of other human beings. There is so very much to learn from these analyses and how little our cultural makeup has changed from the early 19th century. Despite this, I return again and again to the repression. Delano knows. And yet he refuses to know. Because if he allowed himself to consciously understand what was before him, his world would fall apart. So he pushes that understanding down.
Here, in our technological, information-rich, post-modern American life in the heart of a staggering empire, are we any different? Just as Delano represses his understanding of African personhood equal to his own, do we not repress our knowledge of the evil we live within? And does the guilt many of us feel over our fear of and indifference to that knowledge cause us to repress that knowledge even further?
Whether a humane politician becomes president or not, whether Congress becomes humane or not, doesn’t matter until we let go of the immense cultural concentration it takes to repress our knowledge, our fear, and our indifference. We are not innocent. We have never been innocent. And the world needs us to own it.
Because we don’t have time for this shit any more. This repression is the lynchpin. Unlocking it and setting it free is the only way we’re going to confront and end the subjugation, the murder, the desecration of ourselves, other human beings, the plants, the animals, the ocean, the water, the air and every other achingly beautiful and extraordinary thing about this planet that holds us.
We are all repressors. This is one of the reasons that political tribalisms don’t matter. None of them. Ending the repression, letting it go to float up and dissipate in the air—allowing ourselves to collectively acknowledge the horror (to steal from Conrad) and collectively acknowledge our lack of innocence, this can put us in a position to rise.
I don’t know of a single historical example of an empire that was actively dismantled by its own citizens. If Americans are to be the first people to accomplish that, each of us must do this one painful thing.
Then it will be time for us to come together. Not for an election or a political party, but as fellow travelers on the same one-way trip, with the same descendants coming up behind us. And we must decide together in town after town after town, what we will no longer be a part of, what we will no longer allow, and what we agree to do about it.
God, please, can we start already?
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