I have been the head admin of the Facebook page Shit Troop Supporters Say since its founding a year ago today. I have a lot to reflect on. It has been an interesting year.
Occasionally I think it is mean picking on troop supporters. Calling out the average flag-waving support-muh-troops guy for not using logic or knowing history is like making fun of a five-year-old for not understanding quantum physics. (And of course some troop supporters do know those things, so it is best not to stereotype.) But then I remember five-year-olds aren’t the ones beating the drums of war, encouraging murder without trial and torture without evidence. They don’t support the police no matter what they do and then claim to believe in freedom. They don’t tell people they don’t deserve to live somewhere because those people were from the wrong part of the world and didn’t pay the fees, and then tell themselves they believe in freedom for all people. Neither do 5-year-olds refuse to learn the history of the regions and conflicts they are so sure someone needs to bomb. People who have taught millions of 5-year-olds to share and play nicely with each other are willing to lend their unconditional support for actions that cost them thousands of dollars and kill thousands of people who posed no harm to anyone.
Calling out the politicians, meanwhile, which is what troop supporters and liberals (not necessarily mutually exclusive categories, of course) tend to suggest, is a good catharsis but not much of a plan for change. I think focusing on politicians might merely reinforce the status quo. Voters often say they don’t trust any politicians, but when election day comes they nonetheless feel it necessary to cast their vote for someone they don’t trust. There are good reasons you can’t trust politicians and they are mostly related to the requirements for winning in politics.
People who say we just need to change politicians but not blame soldiers for signing up seem to have this fantasy of politicians who will not send the troops into harm’s way on principle. But politicians do not have principles. They have tools and they have enemies. Signing up to carry out their orders requires you to understand that.
One group that does not seem to receive enough focus might be those the politicians work for. It’s not you, by the way. They are much richer than you. The people at the top of the business world are the ones really benefiting. So why do people always talk about politicians? Because voting and complaining about politicians is a brilliant way to let the masses let off steam and keep their eyes on the wrong people, like yelling at a poster on your wall.
So Shit Troop Supporters Say looks at how the elite benefit, but we also look at what troop supporters say. Why? Because as a huge and assertive part of the population, troop supporters are the people unquestioningly believing, reproducing and thus legitimizing or making true the beliefs that keep the wars going. That means a big part of the culture is based on a nationalist-warrior mythos that leads to all kinds of unnecessary violence.
But some people are listening and thinking. And some people already know and trust you. To those people who are actually listening you can show the long history of nationalist myths and racism in the US (or wherever you are from) and their legacies. You can show them the history of propaganda in the US, starting from World War One. You can show them how many statements made to sell wars have been misleading or outright lies, or how little truth the newspapers told about what was going on. You can show them how large groups of people can protect themselves by mutual aid rather than hoping hierarchical militaries will do it. If you can discredit the troop-supporter and war-supporter message by reaching those who might listen, especially people you know, you can change the culture.
But we can’t get there with the wrong approach. You don’t impress people by being arrogant, you don’t pull people in by being pushy and you make others turn their ears off when you insult someone. And most people are either not listening or not easily convinced. The latter need to hear the message clearly and repeatedly and the former are not worth your time. The only reason I would argue with the people you can’t reach is because others are listening, and then would only stick to the facts. I fear we lose many opportunities to communicate by simply using the wrong tone.
At any rate, I consider exposing the ignorance of support for war an important endeavour, one that requires research and patience and a little humour. I hope you will continue to support me!
Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. – Lord Acton
Power kills. Absolute power kills absolutely. – RJ Rummel
Do you want to know what a sociopath looks like? Think of George W. Bush. Think of all the people he knew were killed due to his policies. Do you think he cared? Did you see him joking about finding weapons of mass destruction in front of the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2004? Do you think he had pangs of guilt later that night? I don’t think so. Sociopaths are people with no conscience. Many of those who have lost their consciences kill them over time by committing, ordering, approving or otherwise knowingly facilitate murder.
Psychopathy and sociopathy (in particular the so-called dark triad of narcissism, Machivellianism and sociopathy) broadly refer to the condition of having little or no conscience, no guilt, no feeling of responsibility, no ability to feel sympathy for others. Sociopaths lie, cheat, manipulate, intimidate, use violence for their own benefit and do not feel as though they have done something wrong. Some of them occupy positions of power in big business, politics, the bureaucracy and security agencies. Do you think that matters?
Are people born without consciences? Some might be, but environmental factors play a major role. Do you think we could reduce or eliminate some of the incentives to put aside one’s conscience? How might we do that?
Well, how did George take on the characteristics of a sociopath? Was he born that way? Possibly. Did his parents and his upbringing contribute? Probably somehow. But people in power usually kill their consciences over long periods. Few people are dropped into positions of considerable power. They climb to them over time. When Little George was still at university, he connected with other powerful people. He spent years in top positions in oil businesses. Did these roles teach him to control his conscience? When running for Governor of Texas he said he approved lowering the age of the death penalty to 14. If he was a full-blown sociopath by then (which he may have been), he could have signed the death warrants of a million 14-year-olds with no pangs of conscience. But even if he wasn’t yet, he had already begun to chip away at his conscience. He could simply tell himself killing teenagers was for the best for Texas, for “society” or for God and remain emotionally detached from any violence.
One reason soldiers commit suicide is because they can’t live with the guilt of killing people. George W. didn’t see a drop of anyone’s blood. He did the killing with strokes of the pen. His job was to shake hands and give speeches, not think. His PR people cultivated a highly likable image that made sense to enough voters. What are politicians but actors? He knew he would be rewarded for doing what other powerful people wanted him to do. If he ever felt ill at ease, he could always tell himself it’s all right, this is for the good either of others or of myself. But any excuse would do.
The more things they do they might otherwise have felt guilty about, the more cuts people make to their consciences. Soon, they simply don’t care about anyone but themselves. Now, consider how many millions of people around the world have power over us, from bureaucrats who can deny us permits and visas, to taxmen seizing what we worked for, to soldiers occupying our countries, to politicians who make it all official. This is the state, people. This is why your world has been so messed up for so long. They weren’t all born to be bad. This system sucked out their consciences like a leech. Its agents go through a process of learning to control any feelings of guilt by finding reasons to justify their decisions.
Actually, all of us justify hurtful actions sometimes. If we tell ourselves we did the right thing, we are more likely to do it again and with less guilt. But not all of us benefit from doing things that make us feel guilty or repressing that guilt. I can lie, but I might lose the trust of those I rely on. I might steal, but I might face all kinds of social penalties if I do, including jail. Having power means not needing to take responsibility. Indeed, unless there is a sufficiently large scandal and perhaps scapegoating (in a democracy) or rebellion, those in power are rewarded with more money and power. The most powerful in today’s world wield their power through the state.
The state is an instrument of concentrated force. The small minority who control the state can use it to build consensus for their plans or simply impose them without asking, but ultimately the choice is theirs. As long as the state and its precursors (pharaohs, kings, popes, and so on) have existed they have been a means of theft, whether by overt plunder, such as ransacking a town or enslaving people, defensive violence such as protecting large estates acquired by overt plunder, or covert plunder, such as taxation or economic policies. Working with the state, including trying to change it from within, inevitably means following the orders of those at the top of the pyramid to plunder the people.
Power feeds all the elements of the dark triad. The admiration and awe that come with power feed narcissism. As expert manipulators and ruthless competitors, Machiavellians benefit most from a competitive system. And sociopaths make decisions on impulse and take no responsibility for any harm they cause. The state’s monopoly on force shields all these people from consequences.
Any of us could walk the path to these disorders. We are not immune to knowingly hurting others for our own benefit, or in the name of some idea whose implications we do not understand but which we invoke to ourselves for the sake of assuaging our consciences. People have trouble resisting taking power over others when it is offered to them, or when they condition themselves to believe it is right. Concentrating and institutionalising power incentivises sociopathic behaviour. If we considered everyone equal and thus not deserving of power over others we could achieve a free society with far less violence and suffering.
If you want to understand why a coalition of states invaded Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, why drones are bombing people in a dozen countries and why Syria and Iran will probably be next, consider, as one reason, the logic of empire. Empires are always attempting to expand. For at least 20 years now, if not 50, people have been talking about the decline of the US empire. It’s not declining. It’s still expanding. But it’s a new kind of empire.
This empire does not consist solely of the US government. It includes considerable cooperation from other states. Contrary to what some realist scholars believe, states do not represent the people they rule over (and never have), but the elite of the given territory they rule. In recent decades, however, as legal regimes have converged and states have made it easier to make and move money across borders, the elite and their corporations have gone global. National and regional governments have become, to one degree or another, subordinate to this empire.
This empire is becoming less about the US than about multinational corporations and pliant states around the world. The UN and all affiliated organisations designed for global governance, aided in part by well-meaning non-governmental organisations, have spread constitutional and legal norms. Corporations now have the law (ie. words they have written to give them the use of hired guns) on their side when they repress and displace locals, whether kicking native people off their land in far-flung regions or tossing people out of foreclosed homes all over the US.
If states do not play by the rules of empire, they become targets for regime change. While the US is integral, as I mention elsewhere, this modern empire is not only about the US military but whichever militaries the elite want to use so they can enjoy a piece of the action. Look at how they carved up Iraq’s oil reserves. They went to oil giants from the most powerful countries, not just Shell, Exxon and BP, but the China National Petroleum Corporation, Japan Petroleum Exploration Co., the Korea Gas Corp, Malaysia’s Petronas, Turkish Petroleum International and Russia’s Lukoil and Gazprom. The conquerors auctioned off the oil in Iraq those who might otherwise have had the power to block future wars. Now that they profit from war, they are likely to support it more willingly in future.
Historically, all empires have declined and fallen. There are a variety of answers as to why. Suffice to say, we have it in our power to push this empire over the cliff of history as well. But it is not inevitable. The people of the world could eventually cave in, succumbing to the boot on their faces and accepting their enslavement. Most people do not even know what is going on. It is up to those who can see the system for what it is to show others. Resist. Disobey. Fight for freedom and justice. We can have it if we want it enough.
Atheism is spreading. People who have realised religion has harmful effects have taken it upon themselves to spread the word against God. So far, I have no problem. However, millions of the same people are willing to use the state to force others. They have no problem with the growth of the state (or if they do they do not voice their concerns), as long as no one lets religious beliefs guide it. Is that the right way to prevent the damage caused by religion? More importantly, does it strike the root of the problem?
Bill Maher made an authoritative list of his problems with religion: “most wars, the Crusades, the Inquisition, 9/11, arranged marriages to minors, blowing up girls’ schools, the suppression of women and homosexuals, fatwas, ethnic cleansing, honor rape, human sacrifice, burning witches, suicide bombings, condoning slavery and the systematic fucking of children”. (I would add religious dogma that denies science.) Let us go through this list and see if we are attacking the root of the problem.
-First, most wars, the Crusades and the Inquisition. Wars are started because powerful men want to expand or maintain the territories and the people on them they consider their possessions. In the past, religion was indeed used frequently to justify going to war, and the Crusades are only the most obvious example. But we need to distinguish between wars that religious people take part in (which is most or all, since most of the world’s people can be considered religious) and wars started by invoking religion. Nowadays, religion has been largely replaced by nationalism as the source of appeals to go to war. Nationalism is far deadlier in the present moment, and it is no less a religion than Christianity. Conflicts between groups that seem to be of different religions, say in Israel/Palestine, are often better understood as colonial, racist and nationalist in nature. Different forms of division and oppression tend to feed off each other. Religion is one means people in power use to oppress, of course, but it is also used by those on the bottom fighting for their rights. As long as no one has a monopoly on interpretation, people can use religion for “good” as well as “evil”.
Moreover, the War on Drugs has killed more people than any religious conflict going at the moment. It is a war that could be ended with the stroke of a pen. Religion takes centuries of education to eradicate. Why would we not concentrate on the former if we wanted to help people?
Condoning slavery is the same. Scripture gave religious justification for slavery, of course. Slavery is a very old institution. Any books written thousands of years ago and used to control people will include slavery. It is possible the reason it took so long to eliminate slavery was religion. But systematic slavery has been wiped out in much of the world and the religions continue to exist. That is because, contrary to what religious and irreligious people believe, religions change with time. Certain parts are emphasised at different times and places. Since we agree slavery is wrong, why not work to end debt slavery in your own city?
The deadliest religious conflict going at the moment is probably the fighting between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria. Nigeria is a very poor country with a poor education system. While poor education itself does not cause conflict, it facilitates manipulating people into attacking each other. When education is controlled by a corrupt state, it is the state who is to blame for poorly-educated citizens. Of course, the conflict is more complicated than I am making it out to be. I merely wish to point out that religious differences do not necessarily lead to violence.
-9/11 was probably the work of religious fanatics who had pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden. But was it religion that led them to destroy those buildings? People who make this claim have only Osama’s pronouncements from the Quran to back them up. But a closer look at the evidence reveals the attacks as what is often called “blowback”, or revenge for US foreign policy. To say Islam is what flew 19 men into two buildings begs the question, as it does not explain the millions of Muslims who denounced the attacks or the 1.5-or-so billion Muslims who have never committed any act of terrorism.
-Arranged marriages to minors, blowing up girls’ schools, the suppression of women and homosexuals, honour rape, human sacrifice, burning witches and suicide bombings are not institutions of religion. Bill might have added male and female circumcision to this list. They are things that take place in some religious societies and some societies with different religions. Many anti-theists do not take the time to research the different cultures that comprise “Islam” and “Christianity”. If they did, they would see beyond the lenses their cultures provide to the fact that it is ignorance, not religion, that unites these practices; and while religion keeps us ignorant, so do state schools and propaganda. Many religious people would find all of these practices abhorrent and can point to places in the scripture to justify their positions. War is human sacrifice, and religion is just as likely as atheism to make someone oppose war.
Suicide bombing, in particular, has little to do with religion. We tend to see it as something justified by Islam, but only if we do not look at the reasons behind it. (Indeed, Islam forbids suicide and the killing of innocents.) Robert Pape has done comprehensive research into this field, having looked at every suicide bombing that has taken place. He has concluded that, while religion may be a recruitment tool for suicide bombers (even though the irreligious Tamil Tigers were the pioneers of suicide bombing), nearly every such attack has had the same causes: an indigenous population feels under threat from occupation by an illegitimate foreign military, nearly always that of a democracy, and suicide bombing is an effective tool for making the foreigners withdraw. It is not a phenomenon of Islam, or religion, but merely a weapon of war. If we want to end it, we should end foreign occupation, not religion.
-Fatwas are religious legal opinions and are non-binding. Until the scholars begin enforcing their fatwas with police, the rule of law should be the target of all who are against arbitrary violence initiated to protect the elite. It matters to an extent who make the laws, but most lawmakers, now and throughout history, do whatever they can to further their own interests. The more laws and police to enforce them, the more restrictions there are on you, the more easily you can go to prison, the more money it is going to cost you and the more powerful the lawmakers and the people they work for get if the masses do not rise up against them.
-Seeing ethnic cleansing on the list makes me wonder if Bill (and Richard Dawkins in the God Delusion) is clutching at straws. Any differences in identity, whether religious, ethnic or national, can be the reason we claim for committing acts of violence. But how does religion actually cause it? The problem here is the politics of identity. I am just as opposed to religious identity as I am to any other form of collectivism. People commit acts of ethnic cleansing in the name of their group, whatever the group. We should not be more or less opposed to it when religion is the excuse.
-The rape of minors by priests is indeed a problem and we are right to oppose it. However, it is a problem with a specific part of a specific religion. If it were possible for priests to get married, it is unlikely children would suffer anymore. Religions can be reformed, as time has shown us, and enough pressure on the Vatican could end this vile practice in our lifetimes. Someone who works against the priesthood for raping children but remains silent on or approves of drone strikes that kill children is a hypocrite.
Anti-religious statists also display hypocrisy with relation to the esteem the religious hold for the written word. They lament and mock following religious texts while believing in constitutions and the rule of law. What is a constitution but a legal holy book? What is a holy book but an old constitution? Those who say holy books are invalid because they condone war and slavery but consider more recently made laws legitimate (perhaps because of democracy) need to consider what principle their beliefs are based on. As Lysander Spooner said, “whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain – that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case it is unfit to exist.”
My main problem with religion is its emphasis on scripture, rather than science, as the method for ascertaining truth, and providing certainty where there should be mystery. All that means is humans, with their capacity for both fantasy and reason, should emphasise the latter over the former. That goes for the militant atheists as well. The question I pose to them is, what is truly important?
We see places like Saudi Arabia and Iran, where religious people have taken over, and we see the excesses of the state in forcing people to act in certain ways, and we blame religion. But if they had no power to force people, what would be the problem? People could still practice their religions and yet would not harm others. Any ideology can be warped when it is used by the state for legitimacy.
I liken the hatred of religion to the hatred of communism. In its time, communism needed to be opposed for the sake of freedom. Today, such worrying almost seems quaint. The truly dangerous ideas of today are statism, the rule of law and nationalism, which millions of people claiming to be atheists hold in awe. If they have principles besides merely ruffling feathers, they should end their religious views of politics and oppose all violent ideologies.
Have you ever read the book or seen the movie Lord of the Flies? Lord of the Flies is about a group of schoolchildren marooned on a desert island. At first, they are somewhat disorganised but they soon learn to cooperate to solve collective tasks and divide labour. They have certain simple rules they have learned in school for conducting themselves, though they might not understand the logic behind them. But the situation deteriorates. “Might makes right” prevails as most of the boys follow an alpha leader. Without grownups to keep order and feed them and take care of their every need, the boys revert to a state of what we typically imagine as savage. Within what seems a matter of weeks, they kill one of the boys. The island has become a zone of no mercy.
I believe this story is accurate. Children, or anyone, in a “state of nature” might create mayhem in a way that the state keeps in check. So why would anyone want that?
Anarchy has come to be synonymous with chaos. It is understandable. The boys on the island resorted to savages in a state of anarchy, which means the absence of rulers. Anarchy as chaos is “bad” anarchy; at least, I don’t personally know any anarchist or any other adult who wants chaos. I wonder, though, what would have become of the island society. Even young boys do not stay cruel and savage forever until there is no one left. The book Anarchy in Action describes the case of August Aichhorn, who ran a home for maladjusted children in Vienna. One especially aggressive group went around smashing all the furniture, the windows and the doors. Kids hurt each other, of course. Yet, Aichhorn and his colleagues believed that, out of anarchy arises order. As Proudhon once said, “Liberty is the mother, not the daughter, of order.” They did not waver in their beliefs and restrained themselves. Self-governing order took time to arise, but it did nonetheless. The children settled down. They developed strong attachments with others and learned how to cooperate. Aichhorn could now proceed to work with the students to get an education free of the limitations of the real world.
All this is based on spontaneous order. Anarchy based on spontaneous order, or self organisation, can be “good” anarchy.
As I have written elsewhere, spontaneous order describes how all manner of processes, from the development of the universe and the evolution of life on Earth to language, the internet, the market economy and the Egyptian revolution. Spontaneous order, leaving people alone to live their lives, among adult humans has driven the industrial and scientific revolutions and given us most of what some people call progress. Jeffrey Tucker says, “Anarchy is all around us. Without it, our world would fall apart. All progress is due to it. All order extends from it. All blessed things that rise above the state of nature are owed to it…. [W]e need ever more absence of control to make the world a more beautiful place.”
Anarchists have all kinds of different beliefs and ways they would like to live. Some want an economy free of all government intervention, vastly equalising opportunity, creating vast prosperity for most or all people, and creating new markets for security, education, health and so on. Others want to live free of both government and corporate influence, where pollution is minimal, nature abundant, and technology is for helping, not hurting, people. These things are all possible in the absence of coercion by a higher power.
They don’t mind moving away and starting communities, or living off the grid. Part of the problem is that, even when they consume no state resources, the state usually tries to reincorporate them by force. The other option is secession, whether as an individual living in towns and cities or as a community, based in any given sized territory. Anarchists would not force others to do the same, but they do want everyone to have the option.
Good, bad or whatever, anarchists want the freedom to live in the form of system—including none—they like, and would not want to take the same option away from you.