Can an Entire Country Go Mad?
by Ernest Partridge
April 28, 2003
"The way of a fool is right in his own eyes. . . . A wise man fears, and departs from evil: but the fool rages and is confident."
Can an entire country go mad?
Of course it can!
And history provides many examples: the Salem Colony during the witch trials (and its 20th century counterpart, the McCarthy mania), Nazi Germany, Cambodia under Pol Pot, and arguably the United States under George Bush.
Worse yet, most people living at a time of national derangement, perceive that condition as perfectly normal, and even “moral.” And pity the poor soul who sees things differently: the “one-eyed person in the land of the blind.”
If we are even to suggest that the American public has, by and large, gone bonkers, we should begin with a definition of “sanity” and, by implication, of “insanity.”
Perhaps Sigmund Freud said it best: a sane person is someone with an operating “reality principle” – someone who checks his beliefs against the readily-available promptings of “the real world.”
Of course, each and every one of us falls short of complete congruence with “reality” – it’s the price we pay for our finitude, our mortality.
“Sanity” does not mean perfection; it merely means sufficient commerce with the real world to allow us to survive both day-by-day and in the long term – thus “sane” individuals obey traffic laws, learn from their mistakes and practical experience and, in the case of moral sanity, they recognize in others their worth and their capacity for joy and suffering. Furthermore, sanity implies a capacity to critically evaluate one’s experience, to distinguish fact from fiction, and to further adapt to the real world through that experience and knowledge.
Insanity, by implication, suggests a kind of “habitation” in an unreal, made-up world. The megalomaniac who believes he is Napoleon, to put it bluntly, is not Napoleon. The schizophrenic hears voices that nobody in fact utters. The paranoid is in constant fear of non-existent threats. The psychopath can not recognize the human worth and the capacity for pleasure and pain in others, and so on.
A deranged society is often, but surely not always, made so by a deranged leadership. This is especially likely when that leadership has effective control of the media. Then the leaders possess the means to convey their delusions to much of the public at large.
Now I don’t wish to claim that one George Bush has lost all his marbles, though I suspect that he may be “a few bulbs short of a full marquee” (Garrison Keilor). George Bush’s “world” may, to a disturbing degree, be out of sync with the real world.
That’s a startling charge to level at “our leader” and, by extension, at our compatriots. So let’s look at the evidence:
“Solipsism” is the philosopher’s term for the assertion that “all that exists is my mind and its ideas.” It is epitomized by the opening sentence in one of Arthur Schopenhauer’s books: “the world is my idea.” Of course, no sane person believes this (including Schopenhauer). However, the challenge of “escaping solipsism” leads to the core issues of epistemology: how do we demonstrate the existence of other minds and of an independent “outside” physical world. (My late friend, the novelist Edward Abbey, had an ingenious solution: “if someone tells you he is a solipsist, throw a rock at his head. If he ducks, he is a liar.”)
Now, of course, Bush and his gang are not solipsists, and the term, “national solipsism” is meant figuratively. (Literally, the term is self-contradictory – “national” entails a plurality of minds).
In this figurative (and I suspect original) sense, “national solipsism” is a belief, still better an “attitude,” that the world beyond our borders is just what I want it to be and believe it to be, and nothing more. To Bush and his neo-con “handlers,” ours is an uncomplicated world free of unintended consequences. This world need not be studied in order to be understood – the opinions of “experts” are of no interest. Rather, the state of the world is best apprehended by “gut feeling.” So we are free to violate a batch of treaties, to defy the United Nations, and to invade an unthreatening country. And what will the excluded “community of nations” think of this behavior? How will the Arabic and Islamic nations react? Can they retaliate in any troublesome way? We don’t know and we don’t care. Anyhow, we can always bribe or bully our way through, as we did when we collected the “coalition of the willing.” In brief, in the world of the “national solipsists,” our nation is the sole actor; all other nations are completely passive.
Case in point: Syria. When asked “what is the message of the Iraqi attack” to other countries in the region, Richard Perle casually said: “you’re next!” To Perle and others of like mind, the governments of Syria, Iran, North Korea, or wherever, upon hearing this and contemplating the fate of Iraq and its leader Saddam, will simply passively await their fate in fear and dread, making no alliances or other preparations that might surprise us. Instead, they will wait helplessly, like condemned prisoners in their cells, awaiting the sentence of the court.
And that kind of an assumption is just plain crazy.
In point of rational fact, the remark “You’re next!” must surely provoke strategic planning in Syria, etc., and for that matter in numerous nations throughout the world. Similarly, reactive strategic planning is the certain response abroad to the Bush regime’s flagrant violation of treaties, and its disregard of international law and institutions. We are not the only nation on earth with “national interests” to attend to, although the neo-cons behave as if this were so.
Suppose one were to directly confront Perle, or Wolfowitz or Rumsfeld with the question, “Do you really believe that other countries will stand idly and passively by as they contemplate the fate of Iraq, as they read the text of ‘Project for a New American Century,’ and as they hear that taunting remark, ‘you’re next’?” Surely they would reply, quite truthfully, that they don’t really believe in the complete passivity of nations abroad. But the essential point is that they act as if they believed this! Provocative remarks (‘you’re next!”), violations of treaties, habitual lying, unprovoked attacks upon harmless and disarmed countries – all this is done by the Bush team as if they firmly believed that the U.S. government and its military can do whatever it damned pleases, without fear of “surprises” and retaliation from other regimes and non-governmental organizations such as al Qaeda.
In short, their beliefs in rational reflective moments are fundamentally disconnected from their actions and their policies. And that is clinically insane behavior. Moreover, to the degree that this disconnection between certifiable knowledge (“justified-true-belief”) and operative foreign policy doctrine infects the general public, via the “vector” of a compliant media, that public “catches” a bad case of the crazies from its government.
Sooner or later, the Bushistas and the American public will find out, to their astonishment and chagrin, that “the world” beyond will not tolerate this behavior much longer, and moreover, that the community of nations, comprising the “other” 95% of the world’s population, is quite capable of devastating, albeit non-military, retaliation.
Solipsism, or “subjectivism gone mad,” is reflected in Bush’s attitude toward science, and in the consequent policies of his administration. According to the Bushevik subjective metaphysic, the physical world is also just what we want it to be, scientific expertise and proof be damned. And so, when the threat of global warming is affirmed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change, consisting of 2000 of the leading atmospheric scientists of the world, and when the IPCC findings are confirmed by the National Academy of Sciences, the Bush regime responds by “shooting the messenger” – by arranging the firing of the IPCC Chairman, Thomas Watson. Furthermore, the Bush EPA then removes a section on climate change from its annual report. Similarly, Bush energy policy is apparently based on the belief that petroleum reserves are infinite – contrary to scientific information and economic statistics. . “We don’t want to believe what the scientists tell us, so it ain’t so.”
Economics is not a “hard science” – to say the least of it. Nonetheless, there are a few compelling economic principles that are ignored at the peril of society. One is that huge deficits far into the future, with no indication of reversal, leads inexorably to fiscal collapse. Another principle is that the way to “stimulate” an economy is to direct funds to those who will spend and/or invest in the near future (that’s most of us), and not to those who will send these funds to offshore banks or to set up low-wage industries abroad (i.e., to the fortunate top 2%). But never mind all that. George Bush has “a promise to keep” – to his political contributors. And, at least in this case, he keeps his promises.
Another bit of economic lunacy: “Compulsive behavior” – persisting in an activity that has clearly been shown to be useless or even counter-productive – is a compelling indicator of some loose screws in the cognitive clockwork. In extreme cases, it calls for strait-jackets and padded cells. Now consider “supply-side,” “trickle-down” economic policies (i.e., “reverse Robin-Hoodism" – throwing money at the rich), which proved to be a colossal failure during the Reagan and Bush-I administrations. When Bill Clinton dumped “supply side,” two conservative Texas Professors of Economics, (and Senator and Congressman respectively) Dr. Phil Gramm and Dr. Richard Armey, predicted economic disaster. Instead, there followed eight years of unprecedented growth and prosperity. But never mind that, with Bush the Sequel we get supply side, the sequel. Experience refutes supply-side economics, and eight Nobel Laureate economists have denounced it. But so what? George Bush’s “gut” says otherwise, therefore “supply side” theory is true.
Psychopathology: “Who cares what you think?”
Psychopathy – the failure to recognize, much less to empathize with, the personal human dignity, rights, and feelings of others, is displayed in the Bush administration de-funding of Medicare, Social Security, veterans’ benefits, and furthermore, in the callous disregard of the lives and safety of the unfortunate Iraqis beneath the U.S. military’s cruise-missiles, shells, and bombs. Sure enough, the Bush word-smiths recognize compassion as a politically potent concept – hence “Compassionate Conservatism.” But the astute citizen will (untypically) follow Richard Nixon’s advice: “don’t pay attention to what [they] say, pay attention to what [they] do.”
The Bush administration has an uncanny ability to concoct lies and, when “found out,” to “move on” unscathed. This accomplishment stands as a tribute to their mastery of the black arts of public relations and propaganda.
Consider the “justifications” for the attack on Iraq – in particular, those presented by Colin Powell to the UN Security Council. (a) Saddam Hussein is producing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), and (b) Saddam Hussein is in close cahoots with al Qaeda terrorists. As it turns out, the case for WMDs was based on a collapsing structure of plagiarized term papers, forged documents, rumors and false reports, even as the UN inspectors were failing to find any independent evidence of WMDs. And even the CIA reported that there was no evidence linking Saddam with al Qaeda. Furthermore, it was a plain verifiable fact that none of the 9/11 hijackers were Iraqi. And yet, so effective is the Bush propaganda machine, that a majority of the American public now believes that Saddam had WMDs “at the ready,” and that Saddam was involved in the 9/11 attacks. Significantly, the corporate media has taken no great pains to disabuse the public of these flat-out misconceptions.
In other words, the American public’s “reality principle” was, in these cases, deliberately and effectively sabotaged, resulting in a case of mass-derangement.
And yet, “the truth is out there.” The facts about Saddam, WMDs, al Qaeda, 9/11 are not secret, nor are the opinions of atmospheric scientists, petroleum geologists. The opinions of world-renowned economists are on the record, and if that doesn’t suffice, the economic statistics – unemployment, consumer confidence, inventories, stock prices, etc. – are published for all to see.
Yet, to the neo-conservative and fundamentalist dogmatists in the Bush administration, none of this matters. “Screw reality, we have our doctrine – and we have the interests of our ‘sponsors’ to tend to.”
Likewise, although the facts are out there in front of the eyes of the public, yet they refuse to see. Meanwhile, the subservient corporate media have instituted a successful campaign of “mass distraction,” while the Congress and the Courts are no help, since they no longer work for “We the People.”
Corruption and despotism, like cockroaches, scurry for cover when the light is cast upon them. Thus the most dependable route out of this pit that we the people find ourselves in, is the route prescribed by Thomas Jefferson and fellow founders of our republic: a free and diverse media, a vigorous and well-funded system of education, and the resulting open discussion of competing ideas. Unfortunately, now that the corporate media at home have abandoned us, we must now look to the foreign press and the internet for our news and information.
So wake up, America. Reality calls!
And reality won't budge an inch to accommodate our fantasies.
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a philosopher with a specialty in moral philosophy (ethics) and environmental ethics, who resides in the San Bernardino mountains, east of Los Angeles, CA. He has taught at several campuses of the University of California and at the University of Colorado. He is the editor and sole writer of the website, The Online Gadfly. He is also co-editor of The Crisis Papers with Bernard Weiner, where this essay first appeared (http://www.crisispapers.org).