“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” – Thomas Pynchon
Human understanding is premised upon a continuing refinement in the quality of questions we bring to any subject matter. If our distant ancestors knew little more about their physical world than the proposition that “some things fall and hurt us,” their ability to safely function in the world might have been insufficient to sustain their lives. After centuries of trying to explain such occurrences by reciting such maxims as that things fall to their natural level in the world, our ancestors became better informed by Newton’s understanding of gravity and principles of motion. His views – like the more sophisticated opinions that followed from other scientists – emerged not from the recitation of other men’s answers, but from the formulation of more complex questions.
We humans have long struggled with the abstract question of how society can be rendered more peaceful, productive, and spiritually fulfilling. Many answers have been offered by philosophers, religionists, lawyers, politicians, essayists, and other thoughtful speculators. At a time when seemingly constant wars – facilitated by ever-more advanced technologies of death; genocides; economic and emotional depressions; and other destructive dislocations preoccupy the content of what passes for “news” in our world, causal explanations are sought in simple-minded “answers” that place no burden on deeper levels of inquiry. The specters of guns, drugs, greed, hate, racism, inequality, and other hobgoblins are offered with a constancy and passion that gives a superficial appearance of sound analyses of our social problems.
Destructive events in recent months have brought to the surface the turbulence that has long underlain our relationships with one another in our world. What are reflexively referred to as “terror-motivated” bombings and other mass killings of innocent men, women, and children, are convenient explanations for the conflicts, contradictions, and other institutionalized forms of violence that we prefer not to question. Better to tell ourselves that a mass murderer was driven by racial or religious bigotry, easy access to guns or drugs, or some twisted sense of “justice,” than to confront the myths, philosophic premises, and long-revered organizational systems, to which we have been conditioned to subordinate our lives.
The folklore of our corporate-state establishment has long been grounded in such thinking that the coercive nature of the political machinery that dominates every facet of our being is under our “democratic” control; that it exists to “protect” our lives and property interests; that its mandates are applicable to all in ways that do not “discriminate”; and that “we” are able to change the policies and practices of this system should we choose to do so. These assumptions wallow in so much buncombe that it becomes difficult to fathom how there can be such an inverse relationship between the strength with which such thinking is embraced, and the amount of formal education to which the faithful have been subjected.
I don’t know when I have heard so much unfocused babbling in the media as I did in the days following Dallas. Presidents and other politicians with well-meaning but empty thoughts held together by clichés and bromides, all recited in their proper meter and rewarded with applause from an audience thankful that the speakers did not stray beyond the boundaries of permissible thought. (BTW, in the all-too-many funerals I have attended in my life, I do not remember a single instance in which praise for the deceased was followed by applause or cheering, or a speaker dancing to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”)
Were the eulogies at Dallas offered up in praise of the five police officers slain in this latest act of madness, or to try reinstalling faith in the institutional order which has increasingly failed to satisfy even the most meager of public expectations?
Like high school students reciting their articles of faith in the religion of politics, speakers took turns affirming the statist creed. One after another spoke of the need to “end violence,” a statement which, taken to its logical conclusion, would bring about the end of all political systems. The central feature of the state that distinguishes it from all non-political institutions is its enjoyment of a legally enforceable monopoly on the exercise of violence within a given geographic territory. The difference between marketplace systems and political agencies is that, in the former cases, relationships between and among individuals are peaceful, voluntary, and grounded in respect for the inviolability of property interests, while political systems are just the opposite.
Who, other than the state, could regularly engage in such activities as war, capital punishment, eminent domain, maintaining prisons, conscription, asset forfeiture, genocide, taxation, fines, slavery, injunctions, contempt of court punishment, police brutality, torture, and other permanent powers each of which depends upon the well-organized machinery of violence that helps to define the state? The perpetual existence of the state also requires the protection of its legal monopoly to employ violence in a given area. The urban street gangs that function as mini-political systems compete with the formal police agencies whose violent powers provide the essence of what is meant by “law-and-order.” The crazed man who machine-guns harmless men, women, and children at schools, dance clubs, or other public gatherings, must be distinguished from the soldier in a helicopter who opens fire upon, and kills, numerous innocent victims in foreign lands. The “sniper” who murdered five policemen in Dallas is to be reviled for his actions, while Chris Kyle – the Navy SEAL veteran – was honored in the much-acclaimed film American Sniper for his state-serving talents. Policemen and soldiers are the human agents of legal violence – who we are expected to recognize as “heroes” and thank for their “services” – while those who coerce and kill others for their own purposes are to be regarded as “hardened criminals.”
How easily we digest the lies, contradictions, and platitudes that we are daily fed by the voices of authority, we being unaware of their addictive poison. I was torn between laughter and purchasing one-way airline tickets to a land of lesser collective insanity, when I heard President Obama declare, just two days after the Attorney General gave a free pass to Hillary Clinton, that in America “no one is above the law.” Was the man testing our sense of humor or our gullibility? If the Establishment was eager to find out if there are any boundaries to our collective dull-wittedness, the absence of any significant response to his twaddle should relieve their concerns.
Another vacuous phrase that has been uttered in recent days is that we need “to come together.” In the political context in which such words are offered, they amount to little more than a reaffirmation of the collectivist mindset upon which established political interests feed. Civilizations are destroyed by the mobilization of the dark side forces that doze in our unconscious minds ‘til weakened by institutional interests bent on provoking self-serving social conflicts. A recent book, presuming to introduce children to philosophy, emphasizes that “communities matter, not individuals.” The offspring of e pluribus unum, the installation of such beliefs is necessary for human beings to subordinate their sense of being to the purposes of external agencies. Those who doubt the destructive nature of collectivism should bear in mind that the sniper who killed police officers in Dallas was the product of, among other collective influences, the U.S. Army and his participation in the war in Afghanistan.
As I finish the writing of this article, I am informed that another mass atrocity has taken place this Bastille Day in Nice, France. The thoughtless people who expose their intellectual bankruptcies from perches of political power or the mainstream media will have nothing to offer as either a cause of or solution to the collective insanity that continues to escalate. President Obama tells us that today’s slaughter “appears to be a horrific terrorist attack.” Tremendous insight! I will be better able to sleep tonight knowing that our leader is on top of the problem! I do wonder if the one-barreled minds that see “gun control” as the solution to all social violence will now include trucks as tools to be removed from the hands of ordinary people!
The reality of the matter seems to be that those determined to inflict massive doses of pain and death upon innocent men, women, and children, keep discovering new ways of doing so, a strategy that makes it increasingly impossible to plan for and prevent such attacks. It is also the case that those whose minds remain mired in early 20th-century thinking will have no understanding to contribute to the ending of our collective madness. Donald Trump shouted “this is war!” as the best, he could offer. At this point, I have not heard Hillary’s response, but I suspect she will be able to add two or three empty bromides. The minimal lesson to be learned from these recent events is that the outcome of this November’s presidential election will do nothing – absolutely nothing – to improve your life or liberty, or to make your world more peaceful and productive.
Those we have allowed to be the keeper of the questions we are allowed to ask will continue to direct our attention to such utterly meaningless inquiries as whether Hillary mishandled classified government documents, or whether Trump is too politically incorrect. For the sake of our own well-being – if not survival itself – as well as the importance of living responsible lives, we must take back the control of our minds by asking the sorts of questions we have been conditioned to not ask. As our world continues to collapse around us, we must take our thinking into unfamiliar territories.
Most of us live under the delusion that there is something that those in power can do to end our collective destructiveness. Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren expressed this quite well when, in her reports on the Nice atrocities, she asked: “why aren’t the world leaders getting together to do something about this?” The truth that thoughtful minds must discover is that political authorities are in control of nothing and that our world can be made better only by our willingness to question our tradition-bound answers, and to discover and continue to refine the quality of the questions we bring to our complex world.
Butler Shaffer is Professor Emeritus at Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918–1938, Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival, and Boundaries of Order. His latest book is The Wizards of Ozymandias.