Describing how Germany's civilized and highly cultured society devolved into Nazi totalitarian rule so rapidly in his book Defying Hitler, German journalist Sebastian Haffner wrote of the "automatic continuation of ordinary life that hindered any lively, forceful reaction against the horror" of Hitler.
In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt described what she called the "banality of evil": how seemingly ordinary people can commit terrible acts simply because those acts were performed in a systematic manner and within a sanctioned context — a context which discourages accountability by rewarding obedience.
In his book Twilight of Authority, conservative icon Robert Nisbet warned of "licensed immorality."
Doing terrible things in an organized and systematic way rests on "normalization." This is the process whereby ugly, degrading, murderous, and unspeakable acts become routine and are accepted as "the way things are done." There is usually a division of labor in doing and rationalizing the unthinkable, with the direct brutalizing and killing done by one set of individuals; others keeping the machinery of death (sanitation, food supply) in order; still others producing the implements of killing, or working on improving technology (a better crematory gas, a longer burning and more adhesive napalm, bomb fragments that penetrate flesh in hard-to-trace patterns). It is the function of defense intellectuals and other experts, and the mainstream media, to normalize the unthinkable for the general public. The late Herman Kahn spent a lifetime making nuclear war palatable (On Thermonuclear War, Thinking About the Unthinkable), and this strangelovian phoney got very good press.
Once granted, state power eventually becomes absolute. No matter how many limits we try to impose on them, they will violate those limits and demand our submission none the less. Obedience is a one-way street. After all, the state maintains an exclusive monopoly on the use of force and violence. (Not to mention that it's also the only institution in society that gets all of its revenue via compulsion).
Have Americans, the descendents of pioneers and independent revolutionaries, learned to accept he unacceptable in the name of obedience to the state?
Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one. -- Thomas Paine
Growing up, I heard non-stop warnings about the evil "Red Menace," the communist conspiracy intent on taking over the world. I learned that these barbaric totalitarian regimes spied on their citizens, monitored their every move, regulated their diet, controlled their income, restricted travel, limited their bank transactions, tortured people, and had brutal police forces that enforced their edicts.
"Thank God" I thought, "I live in America!" We're different. Our government would never engage in evil like that. Or so I thought. Because the United States federal government has become a virtual copy of the "Red Menace" nightmares of my childhood. Yet, very few Americans seem to care.
Man Shot In Back By Police For Not Paying Train Fare
WARNING: Very Graphic Video
Another young, unarmed Black man, Kenneth Harding, has been gunned down in broad daylight. He was shot numerous times in the back as he fled, his empty hands held in the air. His crime had been a simple train fare evasion for which San Francisco police executed him in the street.
Dozens of witnesses saw a sight that has become commonplace in U.S. cities while capturing images with cell phones of police surrounding the man, watching him struggle and writhe from a distance in his swelling pool of his own blood.
Without either offering the severely wounded man assistance, searching him or otherwise looking for the supposed weapon, the police – most of whom had their backs turned to the suspect – would later try and say that he had fired at them and randomly into the crowd that had assembled. No one in the crowd said anything about him having or firing a gun. Police would later say one had mysteriously appeared via an informant.
The police publicly named Harding as a "person of interest" in a Seattle killing a day after he had been shot dead. They are using a criminal conviction to attempt to further devalue his life. This piece is not about previous convictions or the "official story" about murder suspicions and mystery guns which the police are constructing post-mortem, as I write. One thing is clear: As far as police knew, he was a simple fare evader. As far as multiple witnesses could see, Harding had no gun and the shots all went one way.
Politicians, cops, it doesn't matter, agents of the state are all the same. They lie, cheat, and make things up. Why would anyone think that this time is different?
"Innocent until proven guilty" used to be an important principle in our once "land of the free." Unfortunately today, it seems (at least to me) that most Americans take the side of "authority" instinctively. Especially the "law-and-order" crowd, who believe they're all moral and tough, but are in reality are just immoral and sad little bootlickers, who cheer for "licensed immorality."
Has the "automatic continuation of ordinary life" led our society to accept "terrible acts simply because those acts [are] performed in a systematic manner and within [the] sanctioned context" of the state? Have we "licensed immorality?" Has the unthinkable been normalized?
Take the "Tom Joad Test" to find out for yourself.
While I have no desire to put anyone to the sword, I suggest that liberty-minded Americans, whether or not they subscribe to the Christian faith, can learn much about themselves and those around them through what we could call the "Tom Joad Test."
I'm not a fan of Steinbeck's incurably wrong-headed economic views or his idiosyncratic collectivist politics in general, although I must admit a sneaking respect for anybody who attracts the hostile interest of the FBI solely on the strength of his published writings.
His creation Tom Joad isn't among my favorite fictional characters. But there is substantial merit in Joad's pledge to sympathize with those who are victims of Power.
Early in The Grapes of Wrath, Joad — recently paroled after serving four years in prison for killing a man who stabbed him in a fight — becomes re-acquainted with Jim Casy, a fallen Oklahoma Pentecostal preacher who has embraced a populist version of Emerson's "oversoul" concept: "Maybe all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of."
Thus was planted the seed that would sprout into Joad's famous soliloquy, which included the pledge that "Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there."
So here, stated briefly, is the question that serves as the shibboleth/sibbolet dividing line in the "Tom Joad Test":
When you see a cop — or, more likely, several of them — beating up on a prone individual, do you instinctively sympathize with the assailant(s) or the victim?
If it's the former, you're an authoritarian, irrespective of your partisan attachments or professed political philosophy.
If it's the latter, you're an instinctive libertarian, whether or not you are consistently guided by that impulse in your political decisions.
It may later be demonstrated that the figure on the receiving end of the beating had committed some horrible crime. However, such a disclosure wouldn't invalidate the results of the Tom Joad Test, because that test reveals a subject's default assumptions about the relationship between the individual and the state.
Do you assume that the state is entitled to the benefit of the doubt whenever its agents inflict violence on somebody, or do you believe that the individual — any individual — is innocent of wrongdoing until his guilt has been proven?
This could be considered a reverse application of Lenin's famous political formula, kto kogo? — broadly translated as "Who does what to whom?" Lenin and his followers sought and acquired the power to be the "Who" in that formula, which meant that millions of those consigned to the "whom" category were imprisoned and slaughtered.
Think about it.
Do you give cops and prosecutors the benefit of the doubt? Is your first reaction to support the cops when you see a video of police violence on the Internet?
Do you support politicians who continually betray you? Do you assume they have your best interests at heart? Do you champion putting ever more power into the hands of a single individual - the president - especially when it comes to waging war and punishing "enemies?" Do you consider the president your "leader?"
Are you offended when I say our federal and local governments are the only "homegrown terrorists" we need to fear?
In his book, The Anatomy of Fascism, Robert O. Paxton described fascism this way:
A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.
Are you beginning to see the writing on the wall?
Partisanship may be America's worst affliction. Because in reality, both parties - the Donkeys and Elephants - are actively building the American totalitarian state. They are the problem, not the solution. Party loyalty over principle has got to be the dumbest idea in the history of mankind. It keeps us focused on soap operas and minutia, as our rights continue to erode.
Will we learn the lesson of history? Or will it be left, right, left, right ... As We Go Marching down the totalitarian road?