Swans Commentary » swans.com October 24, 2005  



Crisis: Depravity Of The Leaders, Obedience Of The Citizens


by Philip Greenspan





(Swans - October 24, 2005)  What has happened in the U.S. over the past several years is to my mind's eye an updated recreation of the German people's fall into Hitler's Nazi nightmare. The fear induced by 9/11 anesthetized an overwhelming number of the American people transforming them in unthinking zombies who rubber-stamped the abominable policies of an incompetent and unprincipled government!

How the Germans, a civilized, educated, and talented people, could indulge the sadistic and barbarous Nazis has been a mind-boggling question. Certainly no other civilized society was expected to descend to anything approaching that aberration. Or so we thought.

As more and more atrocities of the Bush administration are exposed it becomes apparent that it will employ any and every tactic to achieve its objectives. Like the Nazis, it has tried to conceal its evil deeds but when enough were revealed why, why, why did many Americans continue supporting this government? The sarcastic epithet "Good German" should be modified and condignly bestowed upon the "Good American."

It would seem that the German anomaly is not as unusual as was once thought. The "Good Israelis" have also descended into unconscionable depravity.

The perplexing question has a psychological explanation. Howard Zinn provided an answer in a debate on civil disobedience back in 1970. "Our problem is civil obedience . . . Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. . . We recognize this for Nazi Germany," are some excerpts of his talk. (1)

An epitome of evil, the Nazi bureaucrat responsible for dispatching millions to the death camps, Adolf Eichmann, concurred. Before the Israeli trial court considering his sentence he pleaded "I am guilty of having been obedient . . . Obedience is commended as a virtue." (2) Yes, obedience is considered a virtue.

Hannah Arendt, the perceptive reporter for The New Yorker magazine who subsequently wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem realized that Eichmann was just an ordinary law-abiding bureaucrat who proudly performed his duties and was not a fiendishly evil monster. "Banality of evil" is her well-expressed phrase for the book's subtitle. (3)

Following the Eichmann, trial psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted scientific behavioral experiments to determine how many Americans, if any, would permit authority to override sympathy and moral judgment. Fellow psychologists predicted a few sadists. The shocking results demonstrated that most ordinary Americans would commit atrocities in obedience to authority. "Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation." The disgraceful results could be altered by varying the conditions of the experiments. If subjects became aware that others disobeyed, authority was undermined and most rebelled as well. (4)

Eichmann's German defense counsel Dr. Robert Servatius was very insightful. Before Milgram conducted his experiments, Servatius commented to the Israeli court, ". . . the Accused was in no way different from his contemporary setting. The Accused must be seen as an integral part of the existing group hierarchy. . . of the political hypnosis which held sway over the overwhelming majority of the people. . . One cannot disregard the findings of modern group psychology, which are the only way of understanding the behaviour of an individual.. . . . What happened to the German people can come to pass in every people. . . . This is a crisis of the leaders, those who give the orders. " How true, it's a crisis of criminality of the leaders and it's also the obedience of their citizens.

Governments are aware that they exist just as long as they retain their citizens' support. "Consent of the Governed" is how Jefferson phrased it in the Declaration of Independence. Accordingly, they employ every available means to inculcate a love of country and thereby foster respect for its leaders. The CIA seriously tried unethical mind control experiments on unsuspecting subjects for years but discovered no magic potion. So the establishment relies on a suitable recipe for inseminating devotion and loyalty. Young children memorize the National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance by rote and are enthralled by the glorifying myths of their country's history. Their previously inculcated parents reinforce those lessons. An ongoing patriotic atmosphere permeates the schools, churches, stores, sport stadiums, the courts, etc. The establishment media will bias its coverage to reinforce the administration's version of the news, even if it is aware of lies, violations of the Constitution or international laws so long as the administration is furthering the interests of the elite.

Am I appalled by what the Bush administration has done? No! Am I perturbed by the supine response of the American people? No! Disappointed, but not perturbed. I am optimistic that the current seemingly bleak situation may be a harbinger of a welcome change in the U.S. Let me explain.

Since the Constitution was ratified every political party has been controlled by the elite. Their modus operandi varied since each appealed to a different bloc for the votes to put them in power. But once in office they cautiously -- clandestinely if necessary -- applied all feasible means to accommodate the demands of the real bosses. Almost every abominable atrocity committed by the Nazis was committed by US governments. A fraction of them was disclosed in my essay "A Belated Apology to Adolf."

I have not been appalled by the Bush gangs' atrocities because they did not differ from those of prior administrations whose discretion and sophistication kept their crimes hidden. The incompetence and hubris of the Bush gang permitted their crimes to be easily exposed. Revealed to the world at last are the vile and criminal activities that have always emanated from the highest levels of the US government. Bush's objectives are the objectives of the ruling elite -- tax cuts for the wealthy, conquests of strategic foreign areas, clampdowns on civil liberties. I believe that any other administration, given a 9/11 opportunity to cash in on a mesmerized population, would have pursued those same objectives, acting more prudently and perhaps using different methods. Didn't the "opposition" Democrats sign on to Bush's legislative initiatives?

If Kerry had won he would have enjoyed the new president's usual six-month honeymoon and instituted his more hawkish war policy. However, during the first six months of 2005 Bush's ratings tumbled as his war imploded and public sentiment swung against him and the war. Democrats now finding a backbone to oppose Bush's war would have loyally supported their party's more hawkish pro-war president Kerry. The public would not have held Kerry responsible for Bush's problems and the increasing antiwar sentiment would have been delayed until Kerry's policies backfired. For those like me who consider stopping the war more important than all other issues, the reelection of Bush was propitious.

From time to time a strong and sustained demand from the people will alarm the politicians who are aware that governments must retain the "consent of the governed." Accordingly, to protect their voting base and to prove that "the system works," a satisfactory response is effected. That is how new classes of voters entered the rolls; social legislation was enacted; Jim Crow was slain!

During certain critical periods of history an aroused public, agitating for a fairer shake, so threatens the political order that to contain the conflagration the politicians must abandon their obligations to the elite and must enact major overdue changes. The twentieth century saw two such periods, the 1930s and the 1960s. The first was brought on by a depression that threatened the very foundations of the country. To prevent a major insurrection FDR felt it was necessary to enact a slew of reforms that became known as the New Deal. The 1960s uprisings were fed by the continually growing numbers demanding an end to the Vietnam War. Other sizable activist groups, seizing the opportune time, pressed for an end to Jim Crow, recognition of women's rights, and protection of the environment.

It is quite possible that the evolving and growing public opposition to the Bush administration will bring on another such period. There are many factors that presage its arrival. Many people are angry. They feel the government has let the public down on many issues. Bush's policies are in a shambles. His own conservative supporters are turning against him and there are rumors that he is turning to drink.

The power and prestige of the U.S. is declining. It has become isolated from other world powers. The few that assisted it in Iraq are abandoning their commitment. Venezuela's Hugo Chávez has thumbed his nose at Uncle Sam and has become a hero along with Fidel Castro, another leader whom the U.S. has been unable to topple. People in Latin America are dumping their pro-US governments and swinging to the left.

The world's largest debtor is in financial hot water. Its foreign outstanding debts and domestic obligations are continually increasing. Corporations like the airlines that previously were rock solid have gone into bankruptcy; others like GM and Ford are on the ropes. The government has become straddled with tremendous pension obligations of the failed corporations. Many of its creditors are scaling back their purchases of US debt. The dollar keeps dropping against the major world currencies and soon the euro, the yen, or some other currency will replace the dollar as a reserve currency.

The polls confirm the downward slide in the public's assessment of the war and of the administration. The military has failed to meet its enlistment quotas even though sweeteners have been added -- an indication that there is no desire on the part of the youth to support their government. Other negatives could be added.

The Milgram experiments showed that when some refused to obey authority, others rebelled as well. Hopefully the existing situation will cause more, more, and still more to enlist as activists and lead to a major rebellion.

Will the public take advantage of the weakened and staggering bully to land a knockout blow? They could make this decade another watershed period for restoring -- correction: INITIATING -- a democracy of the people and not of the elite? If it is natural for people to obey authority then they should install humanitarian leaders!

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1.  Howard Zinn, Anthony Arnove; Voices of a People's History of the United States; Seven Stories Press, 2004; "the Problem Is Civil Obedience" Novermber 1970 speech pages 483-488.  (back)

2.  The Nizkor Project, The Trial of Adolf Eichmann, Session 120 (Part 3 of 3).  (back)

3.  Hannah Arendt; Eichmann in Jerusalem, Penguin Books, Ltd., New York, NY; 1963, 1964.  (back)

4.  Stanley Milgram; "The Perils of Obedience."  (back)


Internal Resources

America the 'beautiful'

Patterns which Connect on Swans


About the Author

Philip Greenspan on Swans (with bio).



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This Edition's Internal Links

Theocracy. Hypocrisy. Plutocracy. - Jan Baughman

The Dark Side - Milo Clark

The United Corporate States of America - Raymond Garcia

The American Experiment, Really? - Gilles d'Aymery

To Hell In A Hand Basket - Gerard Donnelly Smith

What Have We Become? Not Better -- Zombie Nation - John Steppling

Soup Of The Evening, Beautiful Soup - Michael Doliner

U.S.: A Psychological Profile - Charles Marowitz

The Best Of Times - Deck Deckert

The Corporate-Owned Ivory Tower: An Omen - Audra Himes

Where Is The Left In The U.S.? - Robert Wrubel

Do Workers Understand Their Class Interests? - Louis Proyect

The Terms Of My Surrender... - Michael DeLang

Letters to the Editor

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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published October 24, 2005