"I sometimes feel like I'm caught in a vice. Some people feel like I'm some kind of hero. Others hate me. They say I deserved it. Other people, I can hear them mocking me for when I called for an end to the destruction, like I'm a fool for believing in peace." - Rodney King
When Jack Nicholson - playing President James Dale in Mars Attacks! - utters the plaintive words: "Why can't we all just get along?" to the Martian ambassador, it is hard to suppress a laugh at the idea of the real world's leaders ever saying those words. Indeed, using this phrase as anything but a joke is likely only to attract mockery, as Rodney King, a victim of excessive police violence, discovered when he famously posed the question.
Yet it is a valid and vital question. As most who have lived abroad will tell you, the vast majority of people one meets, even those with vastly different customs and cultures, are kind, helpful and friendly when one engages them in a respectful way. Even from the evolutionary/survival standpoint it is logical for humans to avoid violence for the simple reason that there is a risk of defeat, injury or even death - it basically makes more sense to solve differences in a non-violent way if it is possible.
Put simply, order is greatly preferable to chaos. Only special factors such as poverty, mental illness, or societal (national or local) dysfunctionality trump this.
Why, then, do we live in a climate of violence and war? From an earlier article on this blog:
In this short but informative article at globalsecurity.org, we learn some unsettling facts about the nature and consequences of war in the new millennium.
From the article:
'The United Nations defines "major wars" as military conflicts inflicting 1,000 battlefield deaths per year. In 1965, there were 10 major wars under way. The new millennium began with much of the world consumed in armed conflict or cultivating an uncertain peace. As of mid-2005, there were eight Major Wars under way [down from 15 at the end of 2003], with as many as two dozen "lesser" conflicts ongoing with varrying (sic) degrees of intensity'.
We also learn that civilian deaths now greatly outweigh military ones:
'Most of these are civil or "intrastate" wars, fueled as much by racial, ethnic, or religious animosities as by ideological fervor. Most victims are civilians, a feature that distinguishes modern conflicts. During World War I, civilians made up fewer than 5 percent of all casualties. Today, 75 percent or more of those killed or wounded in wars are non-combatants'.
In addition the US alone has covert operations in at least seventy nations and the number of countries blighted by Obama's drone bombing campaign is now seven and counting.
How have human instincts been so overridden and subverted?
In this long (and highly recommended) speech about his book, The Lucifer Effect, by Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist and professor emeritus at Stanford University noted especially for the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971, it is made clear that humans cannot be defined as 'good' or 'evil', and that in fact every human, perhaps with some special exceptions, possesses the potential for both in great quantities. The choices made by an individual depend on multiple factors but situational ones are particularly powerful. In the wrong situation, a person with no sadistic tendencies or history of 'evil' can do terrible things, as demonstrated at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and countless other sites throughout history.
Zimbardo explains that these situational factors are particularly powerful when they are given a legitimate legal framework. The guards who abused at Abu Ghraib were given the green light for certain actions on prisoners (stress positions, sleep deprivation and so on) directly down the chain of command all the way from top generals and Donald Rumsfeld himself. Their actions led on from that legitimacy. The same applies when society (or subsections of it) itself gives legitimacy to immoral actions, when it punishes ordinary citizens but not the powerful, even when the crimes are egregious, and when the establishment protects itself with secrecy and the persecution of those who seriously dissent.
This human corruption - sickness if you like - is not limited to any race or culture. It has been with us since time immemorial and will continue forever unless something is done. To take a recent example, the Muslim Rohingya people of Burma have recently suffered torture, rape and mass killings. The Rohingya people have in fact suffered for a long time, not only due to local issues, but also under British colonial rule, followed by the Japanese occupation when countless incidents of rape, torture and murder were also committed. The recent massacres are clearly connected to the plans of the Burmese government to open bidding in April for thirty offshore gas and oil 'blocks', with bids likely to come from major Western corporations like Chevron and Total among others. The strategic port of Sittwe, which is being developed as a deep sea port for oil tankers, is apparently being cleared of the local Rohingya population. Observers are systematically being followed and harassed.
It is hardly surprising that the Rohingya people have been described by the United Nations as among the most persecuted in the world.
A group of human beings - be they Burmese officials or corporate agents (it doesn't matter) - with vested interests in these oil bids sat down one day and made the decision to persecute, maim, torture, rape and kill these vulnerable people. No doubt when the decision was made, euphemisms were used - 'clearing the area', for example. They can do so because for such people, profit trumps human suffering without question...because they exist and work within a system that consistently fails to punish such actions, in fact rewards them via material gain or in-house promotions. This decision is particularly easy because these suit-wearing, high-flyers in government and/or corporations will never have to actually look in the eyes of the people that are murdered or meet traumatized and bereaved family members - that's what their hired thugs are for.
This is what Professor Zimbardo meant by situational factors. There is no need for dark conspiracies - simply a self-reinforcing culture which rewards evil and punishes those who attempt to expose it. Those who ordered the 'cleansing' of the Rohingya are no different to those who ordered torture in Iraq and around the world in the 'War on Terror', those who knowingly defrauded millions of people in the 2008 financial crisis, and those who ordered the extermination of the Jews. They are human beings in dysfunctional systems, all invested with enormous power, all therefore capable of acts of great evil justified in various ways like 'the greater good', the need to 'get the job done' and 'national security', further aided by delusional concepts like 'don't let the team down' and 'shit happens'. At the corporate/establishment level, big lies like this become second nature to officials because they know their predecessors have done such things using the same justifications and gotten away with them to boot. Witness Obama's refusal to prosecute Bush-era officials: refusing for one simple reason - precedent: if he allowed such prosecutions, knowing the Bush officials were guilty as hell, the next administration might do the same. This means, of course, that Obama knew at the time that his administration would go on to act controversially or even illegally - and this has been borne out by reality with the illegal drone bombing campaign and the clearly unconstitutional indefinite detention provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) etc.
Can't we all just get along?
Yes, we most certainly can, but only after a thorough cleansing of our own. It is particularly saddening when even decent commentators in the media still pathetically cling to the idea that society can be improved through incremental reform to corrupted institutions like the judiciary and the media etc. This is delusional. For all his populist flaws, Beppe Grillo, who refuses to work with establishment officials and parties, has the right idea - what is needed is a new beginning, a new New Deal for human rights and justice, something on the scale of change seen in the latter half of the 1940s when the evil and reality of war was still at the forefront of the minds of the people of the world.
There is a war going on right now - not only the endless war perpetuated by the horrendously corrupt arms trade, but also an ideological, economic war on the poor, the disabled, the sick and the helpless. This war is being waged by people who have no concept or experience of poverty or suffering, people who see state institutions and civilian populations simply as things to be exploited for profit, and indeed see nothing wrong with such a view.
In order to win this war people need to mobilize and rise up on a massive scale. However, a revolution in the traditional mold is not enough - what is the point of removing the current regime only to replace it with other people just as potentially corrupt? Look at Egypt. No, there must be an honest reckoning with human nature, a manifesto written with checks and balances designed to ensure any new system is immune to corruption, immune to the infinitely destructive vagaries of human nature. Indeed, no one individual must be allowed anywhere near significant power.
In order to achieve this, radical changes need to be made.
And the first is to abolish all political parties and introduce systems of direct democracy. Political parties have been comprehensively outed as easily corruptible, with cronyism, greed, hunger for power, and desire for personal gain rampant. Parties, therefore, are just about the most destructive entities one could imagine for a true democracy. As an essential bonus, in the absence of political parties, rich and corporate lobbyists will be suddenly bereft of targets for their nefarious goals: corporations would be unable to gain any kind of foothold over policy. Gone at a stroke would be the days of corporations actually writing policy themselves.
With these corrupt institutions out of the way, a reformed media with no profit motive, and education systems that train people to think critically and to actively participate in their democracies, not simply to parrot 'facts' learned at school, and with ordinary people deciding by consensus upon policy with the guidance of committees of scientists, philosophers and experts in all other fields...with all these things, world peace, equality and justice really would be a giant step closer to reality. Although it would likely take generations to heal the damage already done, at least humanity would be moving in the right direction once again.
To even voice such a suggestion is to invite ridicule and accusations of naivete. Ignore anyone who does so. This, also, is a propaganda tactic designed to make one feel foolish for even believing peace is possible, just as Rodney King was made to feel.
It will not be easy. We have a mortal enemy - namely the establishment: a pliant media which is almost completely owned by corporations. There are ideological lobby groups, thinktanks, and other tools of establishment power like the IMF and the World Bank. Serious opponents of the prevailing orthodoxy are persecuted and imprisoned by the establishment (Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and others) and at the same time ridiculed and defamed by the corporate press. Beppe Grillo is treated with contempt even by the so-called serious newspapers, just as Hugo Chavez was. Their crimes? Trying to create just societies that provide for all people, no matter how poor or vulnerable. The Occupy Movement tried to change things but was swatted down and is now subjected to near-universal ridicule throughout the media (when it is mentioned, which is rarely). It is clear in modern society that classical protest movements have a next to zero chance against violent, militarized police forces, mass-media condemnation and the soon-to-be-ubiquitous spy drones.
One thing may prevail, however: a leaderless grassroots movement that builds a vast network of sympathizers. Like-minded groups like The Zeitgeist Movement, The Pirate Party, Anonymous, Wikileaks, protest groups in Greece, Spain and Italy and other nations blighted by neoliberalism are attracting more followers daily. The people already have great power, albeit currently splintered. Most just don't know it yet.
Social psychology and countless tragedies throughout history have demonstrated beyond doubt that humans are capable of great evil. Until we build systems (one possibility is posited in my forthcoming book) that shield humanity from its own dark, destructive potential, endless war, human rights abuses, inequality, injustice, poverty and human misery are inevitable.
'The 99.99998271% - Why the Time is Right for Direct Democracy' by Simon Wood is available for free download. In this 70-page book, the current state of human rights and democracy is discussed, and a simple method of implementing direct democracy is suggested.
Simon Wood on twitter (@simonwood11) and Facebook or at his blog. The Direct Democracy Alliance, a voluntary group dedicated to creating national/global direct democracy, is now also on twitter: (@DDA4586)
Author's note: For over a year I have been writing detailed articles on human rights and direct democracy, and have written a book on the topic which is freely available. However, despite some small successes, I am yet to make a scratch in any meaningful way that will bring about real change. For this to happen, I need to create an NPO or similar organization devoted to creating and promoting direct democracy. I therefore appeal to any reader who has significant resources, or who has connections to someone who has, to contact me with regard to making a philanthropic donation to bring about a transparent organization with paid, professional staff which can actually make a difference.