"The seeker after truth must be humbler than the dust." Mohandas K. Gandhi
Satyagraha means "truth force." It is not fundamentally indistinguishable from more common and well understood western notions such as the hackneyed "power of ideas." Even the Straussians get credit for having one valid insight — one that entirely too many progressives fail to grasp. "Ideas matter." I posted an essay here, two years ago, entitled "The War of Ideas," and I use that phrase constantly for a reason. All war, all conflict, and all political struggle gets down to a fundamental "war of ideas." Indeed, at the heart of satyagraha is the insight as to WHY "ideas matter."
It all gets back to that primal human sense of justice — the one that appears to be instinctive in us. That sense of justice is what makes you react to injustice, not in your head, but right in the pit of your stomach. That sense of justice doesn’t come out of your cerebral cortex. It is a more fundamental part of your "hard wiring." We simply do not like injustice and oppression, at a visceral level. But the world is full of injustice and oppression, you say, and indeed it is. Here is the "truth force" insight. People are very good at recognizing oppression and injustice, when they see other people doing it. They are very poor at seeing in themselves. All injustice and oppression is always and inevitibly done in the name of "justice" and "freedom" — by people who, honest injun, no foolin’, believe it.
All the evidence I have seen convinces me that Hitler believed that he was "right." Similarly, hundreds of thousands of German soldiers, confederate soldiers, Soviet soldiers, American soldiers, Vietnamese soldiers, Al Qaeda operatives, Christian soldiers, Roman soldiers, Spartan soldiers, Athenian soldiers, Persian soldiers, Assyrian soldiers, Hebrew soldiers, Egyptian soldiers, and every other soldier who took up arms against other human beings, all of them believed that they were "right." "We’re right, and they’re wrong" is perhaps the single most unoriginal, and ultimately worthless piece of political analysis ever devised. It is unfortunately, also the most common. You can go over to Powerline right now, and read Assrocket and company’s latest post, which is always and inevitably a variation on "we’re right and they’re wrong." It never occurs to Assrocket — or anybody else stuck in this mode of thinking — that this insight, such as it is, is the very same insight that has motivated every soldier, on every side, of every human conflict, in human fucking history.
It gets even better. In fact, it would be funny, if it weren’t so fucking deadly. "We" — meaning the U.S. — lost 3000 innocent people in the 9/11 attacks. How many innocent people do you suppose have been killed as "collateral damage" in Afghanistan and Iraq? I guaran-damn-tee you it’s a shitload more than 3000 people. What are they supposed to think about that? What should WE think about that? I’ll tell you what Assrocket thinks. The collateral damage we cause is "good," because we are "doing good." Ah, but the collateral damage they caused is "evil," because they "are evil." I guarantee you something else. Very few Americans equate innocent Americans with innocent Afghani’s or innocent Iraqi’s. Every American nurtures in his heart that peculiar human belief that "our" people are just a cut above "their" people. Thus, the death of our innocent people is more worthy of outrage than the death of their innocent people. And here’s the thing that’s most interesting. THEIR PEOPLE LOOK AT IT EXACTLY THE SAME WAY — RELATIVE TO THEM. That’s why radical muslims are lining up for a chance to travel to Iraq and participate in a little "jihad" against the American "infidel."
Numerous patriotic Americans have pointed out the counter-productive absurdity of military action in Iraq that actually drives the creation of "terrorists" — our bogeyman word for "insurgents." We call them "freedom fighters" when it’s our allies doing the terrorizing. See, for example, the Central American "freedom fighters" of 20 years ago. The neocons don’t give a shit about those dynamics. In fact, if you think about it, they actually have an affirmative interest in creating enemies faster than we can kill them. If you are a Halliburton stock holder, the "war on terror" is a money making opportunity. Creating a "determined enemy, out to destroy our way of life" also has the further salutary benefit of justifying domestic spying, "internment" of dissidents, intimidating the news media, all the while destroying the social democratic infrastructure they’ve hated since its creation, 70 years ago.
Rarely in human history, has war, conquest, slavery, or other human imposed misery ever benefitted more than a tiny elite driving the process. The majority of white southerners owned no slaves, and had no particular interest in furthering that institution. Indeed, they would have been better served had the south taken the same road to industrial development as the north. Wealthy southern planters didn’t see it that way, since they were the one’s deriving huge fortunes from a slave labor, cash crop economy. Since they were the "hegemonic faction" of southern politics, they made sure to drive the polarization and hostility that eventually led to secession. Few Germans had any real reason for their hostility toward Jews. It was only Hitler and his lieutenants who benefitted from that particular brand of "German nationalism" — since they were the prime movers. Notice, that it was a very specific form of nationalism — race based, "genetic nationalism" — that defined Nazism, as opposed to a more generic "cultural nationalism" that would have included Jewish Germans. Hitler, of course, was perhaps the first master of mass marketing a political movement, Nazism being literally created as a brand. Obviously, Hitler was the owner of the brand, and so derived his power from it. No one should be surprised to learn that Nazi henchmen were the also primary recipients of wealth looted from the Jews.
Thus, we see the fundamental corruption behind every form of perpetuated hostility — where we understand that hostility among people in close proximity is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to metastacize, and wouldn’t without someone with an interest in aggravating the hostility. Every fear driven movement in history has somewhere at its bottom, some individual or cabal of individuals who derive wealth and power from the conflict. The Spanish inquisition derived power from the existence of "heresy" — be it internal, or Islam, or Protestants. Its power likewise rested on the self-definition of the "church fathers" as the ultimate arbiters of truth. When Galileo looked through his telescope and saw direct evidence that the "church fathers" were wrong about something, those churchmen didn’t miss a beat. It wasn’t about "truth." It was all about them being responsible for everybody’s "salvation" doncha know. Lo and behold, the folks at the Discovery Institute have pretty much adopted intact this reasoning behind their anti-science crusade. Once again, its all about their own prestige and influence — and indeed, the prestige and influence of every fundamentalist preacher in America. Will they choose their own selfish interests over knowledge itself? Count on it.
Now go back up, and look at that first quote I led this essay with. Get it? "Self-interest" and "truth" are frequently contrary to each other. In fact, a conflict between what is true and what benefits you, will inevitably emerge, if you wait long enough. The only way you can successfully see the truth — always — is to annihilate your own interest in your assessment of it. You see, reality doesn’t give a shit about you. Gandhi is pointing to a fundamental existential truth. Ultimately, YOU don’t matter. In the end, after all of your striving and effort and all of the evil you work for a little comfort and luxury, you are headed from the same six by three foot hole as everybody else. New Orleans recently celebrated "Fat Tuesday." The next day, Catholics around the world went to church, and heard their priest say to them, "remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." In the face of eternity, your individual interests don’t mean shit. If you want to understand the truth — by which we mean, understand reality — you must first remember that in the face of reality, you are nothing. You are humbler than the dust. That human beings habitually have a difficult time with that rather stark and fundamental truth, well, we see the wars, slavery, brutality, exploitation, and lies caused by nothing more difficult to understand that the vain and wasted efforts of human beings to "further their own interests" — on their way to the same hole in the ground as their victims.
With that rather cold, existential introduction, let us return to that fundamental sense of justice — the one that selfish humans pervert on a regular basis — and see if we can understand it a little bit better. I suggested earlier, that all human conflict boils down to a "war of ideas" — the purpose of those ideas being to justify whatever vision of "right" is driving whatever organized folly we happen to be considering. I wound up suggesting that all of that folly, and all of the errors that justify it, have a common source in the self-interest of someone. I have also suggested that the antidote is just as fundamental — finding itself in our instinctive response to injustice. I have suggested that ultimately, the "war of ideas" may itself be stripped away, leaving one universal conflict at the very heart of the human condition.
You see, the human condition is great paradox — a paradox which may actually account for that peculiar phenonenon we call "consciousness." Everybody concerned about "individuality" overlooks the reality of things. As individuals — I mean genuine individuals, living in the wilderness all by yourself with NOTHING that you didn’t make yourself — we are incredibly vulnerable. Imagine being dropped into the middle of a rain forest — or how about the east African savannah — with nothing but the Brooks brothers suit you’re wearing, a pair of Gucci’s on your feet, and a pocket jammed full of pictures of Benjamin Franklin. It won’t be long before you’re reduced to a steaming pile of cheetah shit. We might even be able to pick out the buttons from your suit.
We didn’t survive those first days on the African savannah by being a bunch of greedy, selfish cocksuckers. If early humans had the sensibilities of Donald Trump, we would have become extinct two million years ago. We survived because of something you may have seen discussed here and there in the progressive blogosphere these days. That something is called "unit cohesion." When confronted by predators, we humans don’t many natural weapons, we’re slow, and our offspring take years to mature. So fighting alone doesn’t work, and neither does running. In fact, saving yourself makes no sense at all from the standpoint of evolution — where the process evolution isn’t necessarily concerned with the survival of individuals, but with the survival of species. The fear driven instinct for self-preservation we inherited from our earliest vertebrate ancestors doesn’t wind up functioning.
Now go back up, and take another look at the paragraphs where I lay out the nothingness of your own being. Here it is again, in all of it implications. Run for the trees, it doesn’t matter. Sooner or later, you’re heading down the big cat’s gullet. By that time, your offspring will be long gone. Your individual survival is exactly meaningless. It’s just deriving whatever evanescent pleasure you might get from the moments of rest snatched here and there, while you’re waiting around to become something’s lunch. Maybe you live an extra day, maybe an extra week, maybe a year. So what? Three million years ago, "looking out for number one" was a recipe for species extinction — and who gives a shit that you lived a week longer than your brother who’s a little slower than you.
Behold, the moment of truth. That is the moment when you come face to face with your own mortality, and realize the futility and meaninglessness of your own individual existence. You don’t even get the solace of believing that your own individual self-preservation has some emergent value to survival of our species. In our case, it simply doesn’t. We survived not by selfishness, but by unit cohesion. We survived not by competition with each other, but by cooperation — including the acceptance of risk for the sake of other people. Here, let me show you some examples.
There is a really poignant scene in the third episode of the HBO series Band of Brothers. That was the episode about a cowering soldier, huddling in his foxhole, never managing to fire a shot. One night he’s crouched down, doing his level best to stay alive, while at the time doing absolutely nothing to keep anybody else alive, when he has an encounter with another soldier. That soldier says to him, "your problem is that you think there’s still hope. As soon as you realize that you’re already dead, then you will be able to function as a soldier." The moment of truth is that moment when you realize that you are "already dead." It is the moment when you come face to face with the stark reality that your "self" is "humbler than the dust." It is that moment when you realize that it doesn’t matter if you live another day, or another week, or another fifty years. In the end, it’s all the same. Your life is either defined by what you give to yourself, in a cause that is ultimately futile, or what you give to the world you are part of, in a cause that is larger than your insignificant self.
At the courthouse in Rutherford County, North Carolina, there is a plaque commemorating a soldier awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. That soldier was in a foxhole with four or five other men. Suddenly, a hand grenade landed right in the middle of them all. 550 million years of evolution told each one of them to "run like hell" — but of course, there was no time for that. Every one of them was "already dead." Every one of them faced that "moment of truth." In a half a second, this soldier realized two things. First he realized he was "already dead." Second, he realized that he still had something to say about the timing and manner of the death he could no longer escape. Which means that what he did wasn’t really all that heroic, when you think about it. He just did the only thing that made any sense. He fell on top of the grenade, absorbed the entire blast, and saved the other men in that hole. Faced with that "moment of truth," he chose other people, because he realized that choosing his "self" was absurd. He no longer had any "self" to choose. Satyagraha is the business of bringing people face to face with that moment of truth — without using a hand grenade to do it.
What we are looking at is the formative moment of the "first society." We are considering that most fundamental question of what human society is. That is where we will find the answer to how to influence it, how to participate in its creation, and how, when necessary, to change it. Society is not any physical thing you can point to. It exists between your ears — and nowhere else. Specifically, it consists of the cohesion of individuals, each of whom experiences his own moment of truth, and reaches the same conclusion. "Together, we survive. Together, we are better off than we are by ourselves." You see, that’s the thing about social cohesion. It turns out to be an incredibly powerful adaptation. It transformed us from a slow, naked, and vulnerable creature, into perhaps the most adaptable and successful creature that ever existed.
But wait, there’s more. Up to this point, we have talking in terms of survival — your individual survival versus our survival as a species. We have been talking strictly in terms of sacrifice, and the ultimate nothingness of the lone individual. But sacrifice isn’t the point. Indeed, sacrifice is actually rare. In fact, sacrifice isn’t particularly useful — particularly when a social unit is small, and can’t really afford to lose anybody. As General Patton said, "no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his." Well guess what? Unit cohesion improves your individual chances for survival. That’s why it’s a good deal. That’s why we did it. We saw a really profound transformation in that moment of truth. If we hold on to our fear, and try to save ourselves, we actually lose in the long run. But if we master our fear, accept the risks of standing together to face a common threat, not only do we live, we live better than we ever thought possible. It turns out that this individuality, this freedom that we cherish, is actually created by social cohesion.
This opportunity for the development of your individuality comes at a price. That price means things like paying taxes, obeying the law, and respecting other people’s equal rights to the same benefit of living in society. It also still means, even today, acceptance of certain risks. Did you take a shower this morning? Was the water hot? You can thank those electric linemen, the one’s who fix your transformer when it blows, handling lines carrying thousands of volts. A handful of them die every year. Others die in accidents in steel mills, skycrapers, coal mines, trucks, and hundreds of similar industrial settings. If your house catches fire, there are people trained to handle the risks associated with putting it out. A handful of them lose their lives every year. There are risks and burdens associated with living in society with other people. But those risks and burdens are actually less burdensome than living by ourselves in the wilderness.
Society is simply a collection of individuals who share one thing in common. They have all faced that moment of truth, that moment when they were "humbler than the dust" and they came to the identical insight into the paradox of their position. As a famous prophet once put it, "He who would save his life will lose his life. He who would lose his life for my sake, yet will he find his life." That same prophet also said that if you put yourself first, you will wind up last. This is what that visceral sense of justice we all have inside is telling us. Satyagraha baby. And yes, Gandhi was well familiar with the gospels.
So what about all of that selfishness, greed, brutality, oppression, and war? What does this tell us about the problem of human evil? That problem winds up being with people who lack this fundamental insight. The problem winds up being people who believe "there’s still hope" — for them as lone individuals. The problem is people who put themselves first, and who refuse to accept the risks and burdens of living in society with other people. These parasitic humans, seek to derive those socially generated benefits, and shift the cost of those benefits off to someone else. Why? They don’t understand that living in society isn’t a burden, it is a blessing. As a strategic and tactical doctrine, satyagraha is the method by which such people may be brought face to face with their own moment of truth. You can’t do that, until you understand what it is — and until you have yourself, come face to face with it.
I will take up the particular dynamics of the process in the next installment.