Arthur Silber: God Damn You, America, and Your White, Privileged Grief
I debated whether to use what some will find a deeply offensive title, or to employ a safer, anodyne one. The debate did not last long, and it was finally settled, for me at least, when I read this:
President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit Newtown, Conn., the close-knit town rocked by tragedy, after a gunman stormed into Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday and shot 20 children at least twice each with a high-powered rifle.
Officials revealed Saturday the gunman executed some children at close range and killed adults who tried to stop the carnage.
Obama will meet privately with victims' families on Sunday before attending a church service.
I also remembered the headline of a NYT story yesterday: "Nation Reels After Gunman Massacres 20 Children at School in Connecticut." "Nation Reels…"
We've had Cool Obama, and No Drama Obama. Now we have Weeping Obama. Does Weeping Obama "meet privately" with the families of those he has ordered murdered in Pakistan, or Somalia, or Yemen? Does he even acknowledge those murders — murders that he himself ordered? Does the "nation reel" in response to these regular, systematic murders of innocent human beings — many of them children? Does the "nation reel" in response to the Obama administration's repeated public announcements of its Kill List and its Murder Program, a program which intentionally, repeatedly murders innocent people? Does America react with horror to the fact that Obama and his administration claim the "right" to murder anyone they want, anywhere in the world, for any reason they choose or invent out of nothing?
I have written countless articles on the theme of the sacred, irreplaceable value of a single human life. At this point, and at least insofar as an honest reader is concerned, one who has read even a handful of my essays, I do not need to demonstrate my sincerity and commitment on this issue. (This is hardly to say that I am thereby protected from baseless, utterly unjustified attacks with regard to this issue, or many others. But I regard such attacks as entirely worthless and undeserving of any response, beyond my pointing to earlier pieces and saying: Read these, and then shut the hell up.) When I first heard of the tragedy in Newtown, my reaction was certainly one of horror. But it was not different in nature or intensity from my reaction to all the needless murders committed by the United States government in recent years.
And my reaction quickly shifted from horror at the murders in Newtown to a sickened disgust at the purposes for which the general public reaction was immediately utilized. I certainly do not question the genuineness of the reaction of those immediately affected by this immense tragedy. I made precisely the same point in connection with the murders in Aurora, Colorado. But that is not all I had to say:
I do not wonder about the terrible, life-altering grief felt by those individuals immediately affected by these ghastly events: the families and friends of those who were killed and injured, as well as those who were trapped in the theater during those terrifying and endless minutes, together with those who live in Aurora.
But I do wonder about the national paroxysm of grief, the generalized scream of pain offered by every politician and public official from president to trash collector, the public lamentation and wailing, the sickening enthusiasm shown by political tribalists from every point in the spectrum for scoring disgustingly cheap points off the blood-spattered corpses of the victims. Yet that isn't honest of me: I don't wonder about such public displays at all. I view them with deep loathing and contempt. I consider them, without exception, to be the symptoms of irretrievably damaged, narcissistic psychologies. Those who engage in such public displays and political positioning are vile and despicable in a manner that is close to impossible to capture in words. I emphasize again that I am speaking here not of those immediately affected by this tragedy, but of those people who have no direct connection of any kind to the victims and their families.
In that earlier essay, I explained the reasons for my judgment, speaking primarily of the horrors committed by the U.S. government in pursuit of a deeply evil foreign policy. After detailing the specifics in support of my conclusion, I wrote:
[M]any Americans hurl themselves with fundamentally false, deeply disturbed enthusiasm into public demonstrations of grief over the needless deaths of some human beings — those human beings they see as being much like themselves, when the deaths happen in what could be their own neighborhood. As for all the murders committed by their government with a systematic dedication as insane as that of any serial killer: silence.
But every murder committed by the United States government, every murder ordered by Obama, represents a tragedy exactly like Aurora to someone. But it is not someone most Americans happen to know or recognize — even if only to recognize the person as a fellow human being — and it is therefore as if it never occurred.
These particular connections are overly familiar by now, for this pattern has been repeated an indecent number of times. This particular pattern of avoidance carries the stench of the decaying, rotting corpse of one of Obama's own countless victims.
Now I want to draw your attention to several other issues that will never be mentioned during the current exercise in national mourning. I again emphasize that I exclude from this analysis those persons and families directly affected by these events. My concern here is the national immersion in this story. This enthusiasm, and there is no other word to describe it, for demonstrating how deeply one is affected, how vast is one's grief, how completely shattered everyone is by these deaths — everyone, that is, who is supposedly "decent" and "caring," and who is grief-stricken and shattered by these deaths but not by many thousands of other deaths — is a symptom of a culture that is profoundly disturbed. It is another instance of a dynamic I recently identified in discussing the "feel-good" story about the NY policeman who gave a new pair of boots to a homeless man:
The fundamentally unjustified and highly selective focus — on feel-good stories on one hand, and on only narrowly delimited evils on the other — always seeks to achieve a whitewash of this kind: it attempts to obliterate the reality of the obviously related, but unacknowledged greater evils in the broader system. In this sense, all such efforts are cover-ups, they are intellectually dishonest, and they are always lies.
The "narrowly delimited evil" in the current story is, obviously, the murders in Connecticut. Because the majority of the victims were very young children, we have been repeatedly told by everyone how especially awful these murders are. The victims were those who are unquestionably innocent, and who are the most defenseless among us. Everyone has gone on to assert how desperately concerned we all are to protect "our" children, and to always, always keep them safe from harm.
This is a fantastic lie, and a lie that is truly spectacular in its scope. If "we" are all so deeply committed to always keeping "our" children safe from all conceivable harm, perhaps someone can explain the following to me:
[P]ublic displays of outrage and condemnation, particularly when engaged in with such unsettling eagerness, are to be distrusted. Anyone and everyone will rush to say, when the spotlight is on him, "No one could possibly care more about protecting children than I do!" The test of his sincerity is what happens when the spotlight moves on, when no one is looking — no one, that is, except his own conscience and sense of humanity (and God, if he believes in such).
The test of his sincerity also includes what he does not say. I have yet to come across an article about what happened at Penn State that mentions this:
Thirty-one nations fully ban corporal punishment.
Sweden, in 1979, was the first to make it illegal to strike a child as a form of discipline. Since then, many other countries in Europe have also instituted bans, as have New Zealand and some countries in Africa and the Americas.
More than 70 additional nations have specific laws in place that prohibit corporal punishment in schools. You can sort through the table above to see where different countries stand on the issue.
In some cases, such as the United States, there are partial bans in place depending on either location or the age of the children.
For the U.S., corporal punishment is prohibited in public schools for 31 states and the District of Columbia. Two states, Iowa and New Jersey, extend their bans to private schools as well.
Thus, in the United States, corporal punishment is legal in public schools in 19 states, and in private schools in 48 states. In addition, corporal punishment is legal in every home.
I'll keep this simple. I'll put it in bold capital letters:
AN ASSAULT ON A HUMAN BEING IS AN ASSAULT ON A HUMAN BEING.
CHILDREN ARE HUMAN BEINGS.
CHILDREN ARE NOT PROPERTY.
I refer you to an article I wrote, God help me, in 2004: "From Mild Smacking to Outright Sadism, Torture and War: The Lie of 'Well-Intentioned' Violence." Here is the opening of that essay:
I had begun this essay with a different title: A New Law for Adults — Moderate Assaults Now Permitted. Can you imagine for one moment that anyone would assent to a law of the kind suggested by that statement? Think about the howls of justified outrage that would greet a proposal to pass a law stating as follows:
After review of many studies and having consulted the opinions of numerous experts, we have concluded that it is sometimes acceptable for one spouse to smack the other, if he or she does so to inflict "moderate punishment" for disapproved behavior. However, we emphasize that this new law should not be taken as permission for any adult to go further. Any violence engaged in by one spouse which results in genuine physical or mental harm to the other will be prosecuted to the full extent permitted by other applicable laws.
Yet physical assaults on children are legal in public schools in 19 states and in private schools in 48 states, and in every home in the Glorious United States of America.
From the ACLU, three years ago:
More than 200,000 US public school students were punished by beatings during the 2006-2007 school year, Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union said in a joint report released today. In the 13 states that corporally punished more than 1,000 students per year, African-American girls were twice as likely to be beaten as their white counterparts.
In the 125-page report, "A Violent Education: Corporal Punishment of Children in U.S. Public Schools," the ACLU and Human Rights Watch found that in Texas and Mississippi children ranging in age from 3 to 19 years old are routinely physically punished for minor infractions such as chewing gum, talking back to a teacher, or violating the dress code, as well as for more serious transgressions such as fighting. Corporal punishment, legal in 21 states, typically takes the form of "paddling," during which an administrator or teacher hits a child repeatedly on the buttocks with a long wooden board. The report shows that, as a result of paddling, many children are left injured, degraded, and disengaged from school.
"Every public school needs effective methods of discipline, but beating kids teaches violence and it doesn't stop bad behavior," said Alice Farmer, Aryeh Neier Fellow at Human Rights Watch and the ACLU, and author of the report. "Corporal punishment discourages learning, fails to deter future misbehavior and at times even provokes it."
The report found that in the 13 southern states where corporal punishment is most prevalent, African-American students are punished at 1.4 times the rate that would be expected given their numbers in the student population, and African-American girls are 2.1 times more likely to be paddled than might be expected. There is no evidence that these students commit disciplinary infractions at disproportionate rates.
"Minority students in public schools already face barriers to success," said Farmer. "By exposing these children to disproportionate rates of corporal punishment, schools create a hostile environment in which these students may struggle even more."
Students with mental and physical disabilities are also punished at disproportionate rates, with potentially serious consequences for their development. In Texas, for instance, 18.4 percent of the total number of students who were physically punished were special education students, even though they make up only 10.7 percent of the student population.
The report documents several cases in which children were beaten to the point of serious injury. Since educators who beat children have immunity under law from assault proceedings, parents who try to pursue justice for injured children encounter resistance from police, district attorneys, and courts. Parents also face enormous, sometimes insurmountable, obstacles in trying to prevent physical punishment of their children. While some school districts permit parents to sign forms opting out of corporal punishment for their children, the forms are often ignored.
Since the time of that ACLU report, two more states have outlawed corporal punishment in public schools, so some progress is being made. But corporal punishment is still legal in public schools in 19 states, and in private schools in 48 states — and in every home. I have yet to see even one of the many wonderful people expressing metaphysical outrage about the Penn State story mention this fact.
So I repeat:
AN ASSAULT ON A HUMAN BEING IS AN ASSAULT ON A HUMAN BEING.
CHILDREN ARE HUMAN BEINGS.
CHILDREN ARE NOT PROPERTY.
I spoke of the endlessly repeating pattern of momentary outrage followed by forgetfulness, a pattern which will doubtless occur still another time with the Penn State story. I wrote an article in October 2009 about the Roman Polanski controversy, which was just one more among countless "sensational" stories. Among my points was this one:
Most people, and certainly most people in the United States, will not condemn cruel behavior toward children by adults in anything approaching a consistent and meaningful manner. For an examination of emotional and psychological cruelty to children, see the discussion here and here (and follow the links for much more; you'll find still more links here). Very few people condemn such cruelty, for many people, and most parents, inflict such cruelty on children with great frequency. They consider such methods of childrearing to be "proper" and "correct," and they believe they treat children cruelly "for the child's own good."
This inconsistency becomes even more marked when we note how common physical cruelty toward children is. See "When the Demons Come," "The Search for Underlying Causes, and Why Spanking Is Always Wrong," and "From Mild Smacking to Outright Torture and War: The Lie of 'Well-Intentioned Violence.'" I also direct you to my discussion of the heated and fundamentally hypocritical Mark Foley controversy, and of corporal punishment in public schools: "The Politics of Lies: Suffer the Children." I emphasize: corporal punishment in public schools — which means you pay for the torture of children. On the identical point, see the ACLU report here (pdf).
As noted, individuals are correct to condemn Polanski's actions, and they should condemn them. However, until and unless they demonstrate that they understand the much more common forms of cruelty toward children — and until and unless they condemn that cruelty as well — their condemnations of Polanski (and of similar behavior by others), however impassioned and even sincere they might be, represent nothing more than an isolated instance of happening to stumble upon the truth. It is very easy to condemn a figure such as Polanski: such condemnation involves no risk of any kind (indeed, for many people, the failure to condemn is much more likely to open them to criticism from those tribes with which they identify and to which they belong), nor does such condemnation imperil their belief systems.
A heinous crime such as rape — rape of anyone, adult or child — is comparatively rare. How often do adults treat children cruelly in the much more common ways I mention above, and that I have analyzed in detail in the past (and which I will soon analyze in still further detail)? Why, every minute of every day, all around you. Do you react with horror when the angry parent smacks a child at the supermarket? You should. Do you intercede to protect the child? I would not suggest that you should in every instance; it might be very inadvisable, for a number of reasons. But you should want to. Most people don't. Many people approve the parent's behavior, and many other parents treat their own children the same way.
For these reasons (and many more), while I regard the condemnations of Polanski as correct in a broad sense, I view them as largely insignificant. I also regard them as worse than insignificant in one crucial way: we are eager to condemn the most extreme crimes, especially when that condemnation carries no personal risk of any kind, precisely because we do not wish to confront and condemn cruelty that is much more widespread. The eager condemnation of the extreme particular instance allows us to avoid a much more threatening and fundamental truth.
In the midst of this latest national paroxysm of grief, have you heard even one mention of our longstanding national acceptance of corporal punishment of children? Can you recall the last time you heard corporal punishment discussed? Are any major national voices raised in a campaign to outlaw corporal punishment, for the same reasons we outlaw physical assaults on adult human beings? I repeat: CHILDREN ARE HUMAN BEINGS. They are not insensate hunks of matter on which you may unleash your repressed anger and hatred.
And do not wonder for even a second if or how widespread abuse of children continues to affect us when we become adults. For just one example, I turn to Alice Miller, in her article "The Origins of Torture in Endured Child Abuse":
Many people have claimed to be appalled by the acts of perversion committed by American soldiers on ADULT people, Iraqi prisoners. Amazingly, I have never heard of any such reaction in response to the occasional attempts to expose similar practices committed towards CHILDREN as for instance in British and American schools. There, these practices come under the heading of "education." But the cruelty is the same. The world appears to be surprised that such brutality should rear its head among the American forces. After all, America presents itself to the international public as the guardian of world peace. There is an explanation for all this, but hardly anyone wants to hear it.
It is definitely a good thing that light has been cast on the situation and that the media have exposed this lie for what it is. Basically it runs as follows: We are a civilized, freedom-loving nation and bring democracy and independence to the whole world. Under this motto the Americans forced their way into Iraq with devastating results and still insist that they are exporting cultural values. But now it turns out that alongside their bombs and missiles the well-drilled, smartly dressed soldiers are carrying a huge arsenal of pent-up rage around with them, invisible on the outside, invisible for themselves, lurking deep down within, but unmistakably dangerous.
Where does this suppressed rage come from, this need to torment, humiliate, mock, and abuse helpless human beings (prisoners and children as well)? What are these outwardly tough soldiers avenging themselves for? And where have they learnt such behavior? First as little children taught obedience by means of physical "correction," then in school, where they served as the defenseless objects of the sadism of some of their teachers, and finally in their time as recruits, treated like dirt by their superiors so that they could finally acquire the highly dubious ability to take anything meted out to them and qualify as "tough."
The thirst for vengeance does not come from nowhere. It has a clearly identifiable cause. The thirst for vengeance has its origins in infancy, when children are forced to suffer in silence and put up with the cruelty inflicted on them in the name of upbringing. They learn how to torment others from their parents, and later from their teachers and superiors. It is nothing other than systematic instruction by example on how to destroy others. Yet many people believe that it has no evil consequences. As if a child were a container that can be emptied from time to time. But the human brain is not a container. The things we learn at an early stage stay with us in later life.
The full article has more.
Yet we almost never discuss any of this.
In reaction to the Newtown tragedy, we have also heard a great deal about the unfathomable grief experienced by the families, and about the devastation suffered by those families. As I've already noted, the grief and devastation experienced by the families themselves is genuinely horrific. My question — and my vehement criticism — is directed at everyone else, and especially at those who claim to be so concerned with the families' suffering. If that concern is indeed genuine, why is there no mention of the following:
Obama’s mere presence in the Oval Office is offered as proof that “the land of the free” has finally made good on its promise of equality. There’s an implicit yet undeniable message embedded in his appearance on the world stage: this is what freedom looks like; this is what democracy can do for you. If you are poor, marginalized, or relegated to an inferior caste, there is hope for you. Trust us. Trust our rules, laws, customs, and wars. You, too, can get to the promised land.
Perhaps greater lies have been told in the past century, but they can be counted on one hand. Racial caste is alive and well in America.
Most people don’t like it when I say this. It makes them angry. In the “era of colorblindness” there’s a nearly fanatical desire to cling to the myth that we as a nation have “moved beyond” race. Here are a few facts that run counter to that triumphant racial narrative:
*There are more African Americans under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.
*As of 2004, more African American men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.
* A black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. The recent disintegration of the African American family is due in large part to the mass imprisonment of black fathers.
*If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life. (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80%.) These men are part of a growing undercaste — not class, caste — permanently relegated, by law, to a second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era.
Somehow, "our" limitless concern with the well-being of families does not manage to include what Alexander has termed "The New Jim Crow," and the great evil of the War on Drugs.
Note the thread connecting the issues I've discussed above, those issues mentioned by virtually no one else in connection with the Newtown murders. The overwhelming majority of the victims of the behavior (and often the crimes) described above are non-white — at least, they are not "white" in the way "we" recognize "whiteness." They are foreigners — often darker-skinned, almost always poor, people who count for nothing as far as "we" are concerned — or they are Americans, but most often African-Americans, and usually poor, certainly much, much poorer than all the public and media voices screaming at us about how much they "care."
And while there are references now and then in news stories to Newtown being a "wealthy" or "affluent" town, I haven't seen much highlighting of some easily available facts about Newtown: 95% of those who live in Newtown are white, and the estimated median household family income is around $120,000. This is one very small, enormously privileged fraction of America; it certainly is not representative of America in any general sense in the smallest degree.
And that makes it the perfect tragedy for the Age of Obama, and the perfect opportunity for Weeping Obama to make his appearance. Never mind those whom Obama orders to be murdered; don't give a thought to the children abused, humiliated and tormented in ways that will scar them for the rest of their lives; ignore the families destroyed by Obama's zealous pursuit of the monstrous War on Drugs. None of those victims are people like us, they're not human beings who actually matter. Who gives a damn what happens to them? These are among the hideous effects of the unrelentingly cruel and brutal reality America entered when it elected its first black president, a man who perfectly embodies the white authoritarian-corporatist-militarist State, and who ran as a white man. You elected — and reelected — a white man who is also a vicious killer. What did you expect?
Now that I've explained some of my reasons — and there are many more, but these will do for the moment — I come back to where I began. So I will say it again: God damn you, America.
ADDENDUM: I want to mention, but only very briefly, a closely related aspect of this awful business. Stories have already appeared depicting Adam Lanza in the terms typically employed in the wake of such tragedies: he was a "loner," he was "painfully shy and awkward" (the Daily Mail); he was generally weird, and he "seemed not to feel physical or psychological pain in the same way as classmates" (Yahoo News). And of course, the New York Times will never permit itself to be outdone on this score. The NYT leads with the obviously terrifying and ominous fact that Lanza "carried a black briefcase to his 10th-grade honors English class" (!!), goes on to note that he was "nervous and fidgety" — and offers what is apparently damning in the extreme: "[His former classmates] said he always seemed like he was someone who was capable of that because he just didn’t really connect with our high school, and didn’t really connect with our town.” And all the stories include the general catchall "explanation": he was "mentally ill" in some form.
You may think all of that is unexceptional in this case — but I point you to another NYT story from over two years ago. That story described another "loner" in remarkably similar ways — but the subject of the earlier story was Bradley Manning.
Now, that's more than slightly interesting, wouldn't you agree? I have a great deal to say about it, and it will have to wait for a separate article. But the fact that a murderer and someone who sought to expose the monumental crimes of the United States government are portrayed in largely identical ways is a powerful indication of how profoundly diseased this culture is. I have to say that the Times story about Manning is remarkably disgusting even for the Times. I had meant to analyze that article in some detail, but never found the time to get to it. Tragically enough, it appears I will have to do so now.
Source: Arthur Silber