Monday, May 28, 2012

Free Discourse

When I was a young man, like many young men who have read books about politics and history, I fancied that I, like figures of the past, had some say in the manner in which the world was run.  Moreover, because I grew up in a school system dependent upon discipline to maintain order among hundreds of students at a time, I chafed against rules and ideals intended to organize my purposes along approved lines of thought.

Was it not true, I asked, that the thinkers of the past had contended with small minds who insisted that small ideas were the only ideas?  And did not those thinkers rail against small ideas, and propose a wider perspective upon the methods and manners of living?  I thought so, and therefore took my cue from them, railing against the petty tyrants imposed upon me:  teachers and priests and parents, none of which existed by my means and none of which seemed to have read any of the books conveniently placed upon the shelves of institutions over which they held authority.

That is particular always baffled me.  Why was it that John Stuart Mill or Hermann Hesse was there to be checked out by any student at any time, but no teacher seemed to have heard of either?  Certainly no teacher bent on chipping off the edges of square pegs comprehended the values of free discourse over dogma, charged as they were to expose the latter and formerly crush the former at every opportunity.

I did not comprehend, being a mere lad of 15 when beginning my political crusade, the dangerous fallout that can result when free discourse, spoken too eloquently and too well, is married to the minds of thousands of blind, unthinking sheep festering in their misery.  That is, I did not comprehend until I came across a copy of Mein Kampf.

While I am astounded at the difficulty one encounters now in attempting to find a copy of this book, compared with the late 1970s when it was on the shelf of the university I did not even yet attend (I was not out of high school, but I roamed the shelves there upon occasion).  Not having the privileges to take books from the university, I simply found a copy in a local bookstore ... though I was wise enough to keep it buried in my backpack and not wave it around at my teachers or my parents.  I did not, as it happens, read the book from cover to cover.  I cannot imagine any educated individual could.  I understand how a person, having had no other books to read, could affect an affection for the text - it is, after all, written for that very purpose.  It rouses the sleeping fool from slumber - yet anyone already awake can see immediately the idiotic claims, the rabid reaction to fear, the absurdist policies advanced and the damaged results of having quite a lot, but not quite enough, knowledge necessary to comprehend the Oz behind Germany's Curtain at the time.  The tiny mind of the author, crammed full to bursting, and thus splattered upon every page of the book, is more than evident.

Educated persons, living in a world completely devoid of poverty, deceit and shame - such as the esteemed world of the ordinary western academician - will read a few passages of the book, laugh, and discard the text as a artifact, anachronistic and appropriately neutered by history.  Socially 'responsible' persons, fabricating their own dogmas, will be offended to the highest degree - thus, the difficulty in obtaining a copy.

I did not view the book in either manner.  I was not offended; I had been called worse names by my childhood peers growing up than the words I found written.  Nor did I find it in the least bit funny.  I tell you honestly: I had only one response to the text, and that response was fear.

Not fear that someone might read it and believe it.  I had known for a long time that people believed such things, and that they acted upon them continuously.  At 15 I had attended lectures given by people visiting countries such as Honduras or East Timor, and seen images of massacres of villages and peoples in 1979, presented by people who had been there and could speak at length upon the subject, and who could and did provide proof that the guns used to kill children and priests in El Salvador were sold to cold bastard mercenaries by the Canadian government.  Any week of my choosing I could attend such lectures, as people tried and tried to return from the horror sites of the world with proof that would force some change to be made.  I no longer thought that Nazi Germany was an isolated incident; I had evidence that mass executions were ongoing ... as they have been ongoing since I became aware of it.  It goes on that nothing is done about Zimbabwe, Sudan, Burma or Equatorial Guinea - why would it be?  The business of buying and selling in the world is no more affected by corpses that pile up today than was the German war machine seven decades ago.

I did fear that Hitler's notions were so terribly easy to put into practice.  Not because they had been put into practice, and that it was therefore evident that they could be ... no, I mean that from the words written on Mein Kampf's pages, how simply the process could be rendered.  Hate an enemy which your subject already fears.  Hate any existing condition which your subject views with  impotence or shame.  Have no compunctions of what enemy or what condition; what difference does it make?  Your truck is not loaded with ideals; your hay is their fear and their impotence.  Exploit it.

I continue to be puzzled at the conception that this was something that was done at a particular time and at a particular place by a particular man.  I am further puzzled that it is viewed as a creation of the 20th century, or that indeed it was ever "invented," and not merely pursued with blind intuition or imitation by creatures throughout human existence.  I cannot read an opinion upon the matter that does not begin and end with position that this habit of exploiting weakness and fear occurs with isolated infrequency ... as if it was not a part of the same church that slaughtered pagans in the 4th century, or the pagans that slaughtered christians in the 5th.  As if that exploitation was present when the Nazis sterilized humans, but was not present when the United States, Canada, Sweden, India, Japan or the United Kingdom, among others, did the same - and as if the vigorousness of the policy in each country is the subject on the table.

It is not that I create a cold, heartless world for my D&D players - if I may be so bold to interrupt all this with something as mundane as a role-playing game - because that happens to be my curious nature, as if I awoke one day and decided a dark world was more interesting.  I could no more conceive of a real world that is not brutal and heartless by nature than I could conceive of light without a source or mass without gravity.

Whatever random time and place in history I might imagine, it makes no difference.  Where once Ghibellines picked up stones and roof tiles in the streets of Florence with the full intention of braining the skulls of Guelphs, I can yet hear the voice of one such Florentine creating lies and fomenting falsehoods to urge his terrified and impotent fellows to fear the pope with shivering resolve.  I hear the same candidates for power urging the Concordians to shoot anything with a red coat; or brothers marching towards each other near a church in Mississippi; or horsemen burning piles of corpses on the fields around Oxanian Balkh; or footmen who will slaughter Archimedes should he be caught writing upon stones ... or those who would remake Iran into so much horizontal glass.  I don't think it takes a lot of brains, only a lot of energy, to impel one's sad, troubled fellows to murder someone else's sad, troubled fellows, and I think it must be acknowledged far more of the slaughter of humans for the purpose of conquest has been accomplished with blood made cold with fear than made hot with desire.

The curious thing about human nature is that in that moment of the bloody kill, one very much resembles the other.

Thus I run a dangerous, dark world; no other world with humans in it could exist.  Thus I look the abyss in the eye and calculate how near to its edge I dare to stand ... and disdain those thoughtless enough to think they cannot be marched straight into its maw, singing and banging drums.


Wilson Theodoro said...

"I continue to be puzzled at the conception that this was something that was done at a particular time and at a particular place by a particular man. I am further puzzled that it is viewed as a creation of the 20th century, or that indeed it was ever "invented," and not merely pursued with blind intuition or imitation by creatures throughout human existence. I cannot read an opinion upon the matter that does not begin and end with position that this habit of exploiting weakness and fear occurs with isolated infrequency"

Have you ever read Giorgio Agambem`s books about the "homo sacer"? It has a lot to do with this point of your text.

JDJarvis said...

When I was in highschool Mein Kampf was on our reading list and was required reading in some classes. We also read Animal Farm, 1984, Alas Babylon, and The Stranger. My children read a lot but curiously enough I don't recall their having read any of the works mentioned above. The grumpy old man inside makes me wonder if the educational system is getting better at the art and science of producing sheeple.
We've always been very capable of destroying each other and it doesn't take the keenest of minds to shape and direct that capacity.