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"You've got to be a little sick in the head to take a moral stand."
August 20, 2013 10:18 PM   Subscribe

"In every society, democratic or totalitarian, the sensible, grown-up thing to do is to commit to the long haul of sleazy conformity. The rewards are mostly guaranteed: if not freedom or happiness, then respectability and degree of security. What spoils it is the obstinate few who do otherwise – those, absurdly, who actually believe in the necessary fictions; enough to be moved and angered by the difference between what an organisation does in reality and what it says in public." (SLGrauniad)
posted by kengraham (34 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite

 
I didn't try because I was a normal, mentally-healthy, mature, well-socialised individual – which is also to say that I was weak and selfish,

And here is a picture of a man who truly, deeply loathes himself.

I hope he works it out soon. He sounds really miserable.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:36 PM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


The name for this, if anyone's wondering , is "Diffusion of Responsibility". I find that knowing about it actually changes my day to day behavior some, though obviously on not so grand a scale as this.
posted by NoraReed at 10:36 PM on August 20, 2013 [10 favorites]


He sounds really miserable.

Not as miserable as Bradley Manning.
posted by Drinky Die at 10:37 PM on August 20, 2013 [17 favorites]


Seriously, that article was about the most paltry, disingenuous apologia for "I'm too cowardly to stand up for what I theoretically believe in" that I've seen lately. Bleah.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:41 PM on August 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


And here is a picture of a man who truly, deeply loathes himself.


If that's what you took away from this piece, you are probably looking in a mirror. Or didn't actually read it.
posted by empath at 10:41 PM on August 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


If that's what you took away from this piece, you are probably looking in a mirror. Or didn't actually read it.

There's a pretty large chunk of that text that seems devoted to self-hatred. But what did you find in it?
posted by Going To Maine at 10:44 PM on August 20, 2013


Seriously, that article was about the most paltry, disingenuous apologia for "I was too cowardly to stand up for what I theoretically believe in" that I've seen lately. Bleah.

Did you read the reddit or metafilter thread about workplace secrets? It's comment after comment after comment from people who compromised their ethics so they could hold on to shitty jobs. And it's not remotely an apologia. He's not defending himself or anyone else for not doing it. It's pointing a giant finger of blame at all the people who watch atrocities from the banal to the genocidal while saying nothing.

It simply must be true that the vast, vast majority of people-- the 'sane' people--are complicit in the crimes their governments and organizations commit, or those institutions would never last.
posted by empath at 10:45 PM on August 20, 2013 [30 favorites]


When I was taking Latin in college, I had a study partner who was a bit older than the rest of us. A veteran of Gulf War I. Really nice, decent guy. He stayed in my dorm and I'd see him come back from his service in the reserves on odd weekends, dressed in camouflage and chain smoking. Sudden noises would make him jump.

One night the following year we were at his apartment studying for a final late at night. We were both struggling in the class and stressing out over that. My anxiety was manageable. His seemed to be amplifying throughout the evening. At some point, we got to talking about his service. He talked about serving as a gunner on a tank. About sighting Iraqi soldiers on the horizon, pulling the trigger and watching heads explode. He talked about how normal it felt after taking a life. Like it was just a thing that you do. And he talked about how, ever since then, he'd be in a bar or at a party and some guy will be mouthing off, and he'd think about how easy it would be just to kill him. How everyone else was acting like the interaction they were having was all in bounds, but there he was trying to remind himself why people in stressful situations didn't take each others' lives.

We fell out of touch after that semester. I hope he's okay. He was going to go to med school, I think. I hope he did that.

The last time I thought about him was when the Collateral Murder video came out. The matter-of-factness in those pilots' voices reminded me of him. The contrast between the ease of mechanized killing and its brutal emotional aftermath has stayed with me.

It may be that you need to be crazy to take a stand against the unjust actions of the state. It probably helps, at least. But it's equally the case that allowing yourself to become an agent of state power, even if it's just for a bit, can break something fundamental inside you. Institutions create their own rationality, as Max Weber recognized. When that logic requires the taking of human lives, it cannot help but warp those whose bodies the state uses to its killing.

After all that has been done over the last twelve years, can anyone deny that it is the state itself that is sick? That it infects most deeply those who are closest to its ugly heart?
posted by R. Schlock at 10:46 PM on August 20, 2013 [68 favorites]


In the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union, writers and activists were commonly detained on mental health pretexts. The logic was that the state was so obviously correct in its policies, only a lunatic could think otherwise.

Now we just call them "terrorists" to save on medical diagnoses.

After all that has been done over the last twelve years, can anyone deny that it is the state itself that is sick?

The state isn't sick; it's just being run by a bunch of terrorists - who were re-elected by a comfortable margin in a free and fair election. That's not sick, it's democracy.
posted by three blind mice at 11:19 PM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


The state isn't sick; it's just being run by a bunch of terrorists - who were re-elected by a comfortable margin in a free and fair election. That's not sick, it's democracy.

Potatoes, Po-tah-toes.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:25 PM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


"You've got to be a little sick in the head to take a moral stand."

never trust a healthy woman (or man)
posted by philip-random at 11:46 PM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Winston understands that he'll kneel and kiss Big Brother's hand before they send someone to put a bullet into the back of his head. First you repent.

Get used to it.
posted by mule98J at 12:02 AM on August 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


The problem lies in thinking that people taking a moral stand need to be special, unique - which is another way of saying alone.

I think that one of the psychological issues incipient activists have is this idea that the battle between the moral stand and the state (or what have you, society, capitalism, patriarchy) is between an individual and a system he must singlehandedly resist and if possible destroy. That's the sort of cultural model that we're provided with, in the US especially - lone hero narratives. And of course doing that is kind of crazy.

Collective action, however, creates both a multiplication of individual strength to resist and push back and a relatively safe space to retreat to, lick your wounds, talk with and take strength with like-minded people. This is how religious organizations, underground political movements and resistance groups managed to function in far, far more comprehensively authoritarian and repressive environments than the USA is today. It's how minority rights movements throughout the last century tended to function, with many successes. Even people often thought of as "loner" activists - like Noam Chomsky, or Julian Assange, are enabled by the communities, both ideological and personal, that sustain them. Without that, you crack up pretty damn quick.

But its interesting (or maybe predictable) that a lot of mainstream discourse pretty much elides this side of things. And that that elision helps makes this lone wolf model self-reinforcing: individuals emulate it (both positive examples, such as Manning or Snowden, and negative ones, like the Unabomber or innumerable crazies from the fringe), and when their stories are reported in the media these in turn strengthen the idea that this is what resistance looks like, what it has to look like. One man against the world. You see it in fiction - I was reading an article in Jacobin about Elysium, and there's the classic model there: basically one guy against the System. It's how we're taught to think. And the result is you get articles like this which make the dicotomy of stand alone and be destroyed or submit, and yeah, of course the latter course looks saner. But it's a false dicotomy.

You don't need to be sick in the head. You need backup. And backup is something you have to build, create, organize, not something that will just be standing there to hand.
posted by AdamCSnider at 12:10 AM on August 21, 2013 [108 favorites]


AdamCSnider, I wish I could favorite this comment a thousand times.
posted by ipsative at 1:19 AM on August 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


By the way, in terms of political culture, the message I got in school was that organized action was wrong because only cowards hide in the masses. Real courage means standing on you own to represent you personal beliefs.

They really hated it when we stamped our feet together or went 'on strike', and insisted on punishing each individual involved.

Now it's so obvious to me how this individualistic mentality is devised to serve the interests of the powerful, but it took me a long time to understand the power in popular movements and organized political action.

I'm not sure if this is because this was an American school (abroad), or just plain post-dictatorship fear and conservatism.
posted by ipsative at 1:30 AM on August 21, 2013 [13 favorites]


Who was it that had that line about how there's no health in being well-adjusted to a sick society?
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:58 AM on August 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


AdamCSnider: And backup is something you have to build, create, organize, not something that will just be standing there to hand.

Building that backup is an incremental task, with the risk that in the nascent stages, you will have it very difficult to make it grow precisely because at that stage the game theory favors conformance with the flow rather than sticking out. So the lone wolf and a few initial pseudo lone wolf types still need to show up.
posted by Gyan at 2:01 AM on August 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


That's the sort of cultural model that we're provided with, in the US especially - lone hero narratives.

We need an alternative model—something for whistleblowers to emulate—if we are to inculcate a new cultural environment where reform is possible. An obvious one is: rather than one guy against the System, we have ad hoc showings of peer solidarity where the first of a group is joined by his or her (unsolicited) fellows who corroborate any claims and, maybe more importantly, put themselves at the same risk. We've seen this already with Binney, Drake, Tice and Snowden, but over the length of a decade. And now the inertia is building. Compress this timeline into a matter of days or weeks. Imagine the narrative shift if there were three Snowdens this past May, or even just two. Compatriots who followed suit and said, "Oh yeah, by the way, these allegations are true and substantial. Here's parallel evidence that I acquired from my unique position in the organization." It bolsters the initial claim and diminishes the low-hanging slander.

Even without direct evidentiary support, conspicuous and vocal moral support, from one who moments previously was a safely obscure member of the crowd, is a powerful motivator.

It really is telling that practically every synonym for whistleblower in English is a pejorative: bigmouth, blabbermouth, busybody, fink, gossip, informer, rat, snitch, squealer, stool pigeon, telltale, troublemaker, windbag, rumormonger, scandalmonger, talebearer, taleteller, blabberer, canary, fat mouth, tipster.
posted by troll at 2:32 AM on August 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


As trite as it may sound, the only pop culture narrative I can think of that has a true ad-hoc group "fighting the system" would have to be Hackers. Sure it had the lone protagonist, and the love interest and all that dreck, but it also had as the main final boss fight, the necessity of having a rather large and diverse group across the globe initiate the attack on the system.

No other point than that, though.
posted by daq at 3:03 AM on August 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Seriously, that article was about the most paltry, disingenuous apologia for "I'm too cowardly to stand up for what I theoretically believe in" that I've seen lately. Bleah.
posted by Greg_Ace at 7:41 PM on August 20 [+] [!]


I envy your certainty that you would behave so much better, Greg_Ace.
posted by Sebmojo at 3:46 AM on August 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


You need backup. And backup is something you have to build, create, organize, not something that will just be standing there to hand.

Solidarity Sing-Along.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:19 AM on August 21, 2013


The group showing solidarity is easily branded as a terrorist organization. If they have a spicy name (like Anonymous), those in power can attribute anything they want to agents of that organization. "Look, over there! It's You-Know-Who! They're coming to take your children!"
posted by overeducated_alligator at 4:29 AM on August 21, 2013


"'He is normal. What you meant to say is average.'"
posted by eviemath at 5:15 AM on August 21, 2013


Building that backup is an incremental task, with the risk that in the nascent stages, you will have it very difficult to make it grow precisely because at that stage the game theory favors conformance with the flow rather than sticking out. So the lone wolf and a few initial pseudo lone wolf types still need to show up.

One can read up on or go to training workshops put on by some unions on how to do this sort of organising in an intelligent, risk-minimizing way. It's not nearly that dire.
posted by eviemath at 5:20 AM on August 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


Depends on the stakes and the players on the opposite side.
posted by Gyan at 5:24 AM on August 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


I mention unions because, even in the US, they have faced a long history of targeted assassinations of organizers, deadly and less deadly violence from paid security firms, a range of violence and repression from police and military organisations (eg. the US National Guard), and political repression and smear campaigns (even continuing past the McCarthy era) which have informed modern labor organizing practices. But groups resisting repressive regimes in non-democratic countries have similarly collected organising advice and strategies over the years. For most non-union groups that I know of, this sort of info often gets shared via trust networks rather than distributed randomly over the internet, which is an obstacle for the lone individual trying to become non-lone, thus my mention of unions. But I'm told that civil rights groups in the US trained their organizers in these matters, eg. when bringing a voter registration drive to a new area where there was a strong threat of lynchings of organizers and firebombings and other violence and intimidation against active participants, and this sort of info is still kicking around various places. Likewise for groups resisting the various repressive dictatorial regimes in South America and Latin America. One can do a web search on the history of gay rights movements to get a lot of ideas on how lone individuals can recognize and connect up with other like-minded individuals to form communities even in the face of legal obstacles and violence.

There are always different circumstances in different parts of the world, of course, and my knowledge is unfortunately mostly limited to North and South American and European contexts. Getting involved with a group already in existence is certainly easier than trying to build one from scratch, regardless. But you could start here, at least. Although it would likely be much more useful to find a local group working on issues that you at least somewhat care about in your area and work from there - the IWW, though international and internationalist, is a predominantly western organisation. My google-fu is failing me for finding helpful links in India, but I've read in the past of various groups working on class/caste issues, women's rights, and of course anti-globalisation.

This is also why there are World Social Forums and similar international meetings where activists exchange information - and build solidarity networks - on a regular basis.
posted by eviemath at 6:46 AM on August 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


So, in concrete terms, how might Snowden have gone about his leaks differently?
posted by Gyan at 7:04 AM on August 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


That's a really interesting question, Gyan. Snowden has gone to some lengths to minimize harm and disruption to the machine that means to chew him up. He is an idealist who wants his country to be good (again, if it ever was). What if he really did want to cause maximal harm?

I have no idea what the NSA database actually contains but I shall feel free to speculate fairly widely. They have access to all emails and phone calls made in, out or through the USA and various allied nations since the mid-90s. This includes elected officials, senior bureaucrats, senior military officers, financial industry magnates, infotainment industry figures, etc. It's pretty safe to assume that a large number of these people are being basically blackmailed to ensure their continued compliance with whatever nefarious acts the NSA want them to assist with. Release all the blackmail secrets.

There are probably records of the identities and cover identities and covert activities of CIA personnel and undercover police. There would be "state secrets" of various kinds, including but not limited to reports from covert agents and orders to them. Release all that.

There would be banking records, tax records, mortgage records, etc. Commercial contracts, records of governmental bidding processes, that sort of thing. No doubt riddled with inferential evidence of corruption, insider trading, etc. Release all that.

If I had access to the same stuff Snowden had, and wanted to cause maximum disruption, I would release it all, initially encrypted, and once there are a couple hundred seeding nodes, I would release the keys. I'd also have used the financial information I found to get myself around $10 million, hidden my actions as much as possible, and moved to somewhere obscure in Europe where I would proceed to live a quiet life under an assumed identity.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 7:36 AM on August 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Bradley Manning sentenced to 35 years in Wikileaks case
posted by Drinky Die at 8:02 AM on August 21, 2013


ouch
posted by bukvich at 8:25 AM on August 21, 2013


> AdamCSnider, I wish I could favorite this comment a thousand times.

ipsative, you don't need to favorite the comment a thousand times, a thousand people need to favorite it once.
posted by officer_fred at 10:11 AM on August 21, 2013 [10 favorites]


Very nice, officer_fred :)
posted by ipsative at 1:04 PM on August 21, 2013


And here is a picture of a man who truly, deeply loathes himself.
If that's what you took away from this piece, you are probably looking in a mirror.


A mirror that reflects me from 20 years ago.

The author's touchstone for his own cowardice is that he failed to stand up against injustice in the Army, even knowing full well there would be little accomplished except his own hastened exit from the forces.

To do something with no effectiveness that screws you is arguably insane, so I'll have to grant him that part of his argument.

The problem is that he can't seem to differentiate between that and what Bradley Manning did. He thinks that he was faced with the same situation only much much smaller but he wasn't.

Bradley Manning was able to do something he believed would be effective. That's a whole different ballgame. It involves rational tradeoffs. I don't particularly care for what he did, but I also don't see anything insane about it.

Other respected leaders have also made tradeoffs. Behind Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez1 were thousands of group leaders who were not insane, merely driven.

What bothers me most for the author's sake though is that there are many British veteran's groups, some of which exist more or less to address abuses in the ranks. The problems he talks about persist and he has a far less risky and probably much more effective way to try to influence the situation.

So he has the choice of hanging on to his failure years ago to do something fairly pointless that would have helped him self-destruct, or to do something now that will be a lot more effective and that will simply take time and effort on his part. I know exactly what course a well-adjusted, not-at-all sick in the head member of society would take. Does he?




1Speaking of moral leaders his claim that totalitarian and democratic societies are equivalent for this is just plain wrong. Tremendous forward progress has been made in democratic societies by people who would have quickly disappeared in totalitarian states. Once again he fails to recognize the important difference between realistic and futile action.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:21 PM on August 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


There's no difference between being complicit in a sick system and standing by during schoolyard bullying. Both are symptoms of a cultural thing that we need to change. No one else will.
posted by Eideteker at 7:59 AM on August 23, 2013


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