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confront american sadism
PRESS**WATCH for September 23, 2004

I was in a Third World country yesterday. I was up at four-thirty in the morning, bicycling down a quiet street, enjoying the quiet and the stars between the clouds. I passed workers sleeping in a doorway—it's a particularly coveted doorway, that of a little boutique that closes every day at five PM, and the would-be night occupiers are careful to put their little pile of dirty belongings there as soon as the business closes its doors for the day. There were three people sleeping there yesterday morning, which was possible because it was not raining. When it rains, the awning only offers shelter for one—if you call that shelter. Sometimes I see the dry space expanded with a tarp.

I passed a gasoline dispensary, where a young man in a shabby, thin plastic jacket was sitting on a low retaining wall, holding his head in his hand and making a soft keening sound, the sort one might hear from a lonely dog. He did not notice as I glided past on my bicycle. He apparently had no place to lay his head. It was forty-nine degrees Fahrenheit.

The third world country is, of course, my neighborhood, and I was on my way to work. I had an early split shift, beginning at 5AM, ending at 9AM, followed by an afternoon shift. Given the alternatives, I am very, very glad to have the job. I also have health insurance, unlike many of you listening now, and after my initial shift, I put my bike on a bus rack and rode to see my doctor.

Now I was in the First World. I paid a five-dollar copay at the doctor's office, and went to see my physician. She confirmed that the anti-panic drug she had given me was working. I am on the drug because, after years of homophobic shouting and threats against me as a transwoman driving the bus, I had lost my ability to maintain calmness. So I have returned to work, the paychecks keep coming in, and for now, my family will not be joining the legions of desperate people that we, our society, has discarded into the streets as useless, as reprehensible for their own condition.

At my workplace, there are posters asking for help for persons who have suffered lingering illnesses, who have run out of benefits, who are facing poverty as well as pain and death. There are other posters asking for letters of encouragement to be sent to employees who have been taken away to the wars. I have considered writing, but I would not want to put a soldier under suspicion, and the letter might be intercepted in any case. I know as I say that, that there are those of you who doubt what I say. But I have seen this very phenomenon before, during the 1991 bombing of Iraq, when my sister's letters were intercepted in an effort to destroy her relationship with her boyfriend. He was Special forces, she was in the Lawyer's Guild. It took a Congressman's intercession to get the letters and packages out of the Army's secret stash. By that time the Army had succeeded in destroying their relationship.

This is life in a fascist police state, life during imperial war, life under Fatherland Security. The question I want to bring up is: how did we get here?

This society is shot through with a mean-spiritedness, a spite, a sort of sadism, that we direct toward others and toward ourselves. I do not mean to deny that there are many good-natured person, nor that we are generally civil to each other; but no analysis of American society can be complete without understanding that we have been inculcated with a vast capacity for sadistic thought and action. The Republican Party understands this fact very well, and uses it constantly and successfully in its political efforts. It is time the Left admitted that this society has a deep and abiding moral sickness, and that it is being used with great effect against us and against every progressive effort in the US and abroad.

For example, one might think that the revelations about rape, abuse, beatings, killings, torture, and humiliation in the US-administered Iraqi prison system would shock Americans into demanding that the perpetrators in the Administration be held responsible. One would think that the population here would be constantly talking about something that so stains our reputation and abrades our consciences. But this is not happening; in fact, the torture revelations help the war effort.

Let me explain how it works. We live in a society that has two million people in the prison system. These people are not rehabilitated; on the contrary, they are subject to constant abuse. We have also raised a generation of people who have faced increasing education cuts—that's how long it's been since the conservatives started attacking the tax base for schools. There is now a pervasive, degenerate subculture that has been taught to glory in ignorance, to accept oppression and to greet its signs with a fawning loyalty. In this subculture, which is really too large to be called a subculture, loyalty to the power of the State and the corporations is a way of easing the pain of powerlessness by associating with the powerful.

Therefore, when the US tortures Iraqis, there is a joy that springs in the hearts of these people. We call them Bubbas, we sneer at them, but they are too many to dismiss, and they will not allow interference with the torture. If the Iraqis are being tortured, that means that the Bubba class may be voyeurs to the unstoppable power of the State that they identify with. This is a secret joy, however, and it is understood by all that one may not speak publicly of it.

This is not new. During the Inquisition, when women were being burned at the stake, the crowds that gathered to watch were told that in Heaven, they would have even greater entertainment as they watched the torments of Hell. You may recall in horror if you wish, but this psychological phenomenon isn't going to go away until we face it and deconstruct it, and call it what it is.

The Republicans understand this phenomenon and get great political mileage out of it. They have introduced facile phrases into the popular lexicon that the sadistic class repeats to itself. For example, when I complain to my co-workers of the savagery of a society that would allow its own brothers and daughters and grandparents and little children to sleep in doorways, I hear the same right-wing bullet points repeated to me: They have made poor lifestyle choices, I am told. They should get a job. They are drug addicts and drunks, and deserve their personal hells, I am told.

Do I even need to say that these are lies? Of course there are broken people and alcoholics and drug addicts among the homeless; the condition of being homeless certainly makes that situation worse, though it certainly could be said that there are many alcoholics and drug addicts with nice houses. And in a civilized country, in a responsible society, we would spare no effort to provide housing and healing.

The sadistic streak in our country did not appear overnight. It has many historic sources. This continent was invaded by the aforementioned witch-burning religious fanatics, who sought to enslave the indigenous inhabitants, and then set to genociding them when that proved too difficult. These were people who also viewed women and children as little better than slaves, and who maintained cruel and degrading conditions and punishments for them. Greater success was achieved by stealing the people of Africa, who were unfamiliar with the plant and animal life of this continent, and who were easy to identify. They were genocided by the profitable method of working them to death.

These phenomena were followed by a bloody and fratricidal Civil War, after which the population turned to severe forms of religious fundamentalism, marked by rigid constriction of women and abusive treatment of children. Still, during this time, there was still some coherency to the family unit, some allegiance to local community, if for no other reason than common need.

To this degraded, stressed, and psychotic society, the corporations introduced consumerism, and the final destruction of social identification and community feeling took place under the power of the suburb, the commute, the television, and the video game. It is no accident that the most violent movies and the most violent games sell the best. We have been transformed into drones of sadism.

Sadism needs a victim—the Republicans understand this well. Hence we have the gleaming and gleeful eyes of the news commentators as they show us pictures of gigantic explosions in Baghdad during the wars. It's not true that we have forgotten that these bombs are tearing people apart. The bombs are popular precisely because they are causing terrible misery, causing terror and horror. We get to participate in that awesome destructive power.

The Bush Administration is particularly clever at exploiting schadenfreude, hence their war on queers. Here in Oregon we are faced with Constitutional Amendment 36, which would permanently designate same-sex people as second-class citizens. But that's not a mistake; the measure is popular precisely because it is a hate crime, and because the majority of the voting population wants to participate in the power of a hate crime. It's a hate movement, and it brings great pleasure. I can see the pleasure on the faces of the people who confront me in public. They are absolutely ecstatic, especially when there are three or more people denouncing me. They are so happy to have found a legitimate target for their hatred; sometimes they literally dance with glee as they loudly seek to intimidate and humiliate. Yes, it really is that way, sometimes.

However, it is also very much desired that the sadistic nature of Amendment 36 be hidden. It works best if the perpetrators can pretend that they are working for some moral purpose, hence the confusing and ridiculous claims that gay marriage threatens straight marriage. Likewise, the war on Iraq is presented as a fight to democratize. It doesn't matter that the very idea of invading, occupying, bombing and torturing people in order to bring them enlightenment is ridiculous and racist on its face. It's just the cover story, and the real story is that we, the American society, enjoy inflicting pain on the "other."

This sadism must be addressed directly. Progressives must call out the Republicans and other so-called conservatives on their sickness. The war on Iraq is a pleasurable sadistic joy. We have been taught to gleefully ignore the poor. The Christian fundamentalists who support Measure 36 are supporting a hate crime, because it feels good, because Mommy spanked them too many times and they need to transfer the aggression. The frightened, propagandized American public feels good when dissent is punished with pepper spray and beatings and no-fly lists, because they want to identify with power, because they've been taught by example and movies and video games that it feels good to hurt someone, especially when you're unsure of yourself.

We have to say to our fellow Americans: this joy you feel is a sickness.
dear theresa mitchell 23.Sep.2004 10:03


want to thank you for writing this. It clearly lays the patient (Amerikan kulture) wide
open on the surgery table to see the nasy "kancer" that has invaded the body politic in
which the patient is dying from. Will we have the courage to cut it out, or will it be
decided that the patient is too far gone, and thus, the "kancer" allowed to run it's full
and final course? God help us all!

Well done... 23.Sep.2004 12:45


Thank you for this refined view of reality. It is easy to slip into the big sleep and pretend that all is well, or blame oneself or ones family or community for what has taken us over. I wish I knew what to do. Maybe it is time to head for the mountains and dig in.

Teresa, I agree 23.Sep.2004 18:54


I just returned from a happy little vacation in the Netherlands and the American mean-spiritedness you so aptly described is so evident to me now more than ever after having had a rest from it. Holland isn't a utopia by any stretch of the imagination but many people there act normal,not psychotic agressive, rude, rushrush. Quite an eyeopener.

Thanks 24.Sep.2004 00:44


Excellent ethical analysis. The connections between institutional and individual violence are strong and painfully obvious. I watch with morbid fascination as violence between individuals becomes normalized. A good example is the assaults on protestors by non-cops that seem to result in the protestors being arrested but not the perpetrators. I listen with morbid fascination as people speak of hate in the name of love, cruelty in the name of compassion and unprovoked attacks in the name of self-defense.

I'm not sure about the "too many spankings" theory but I always wonder why some people get hurt and react: "That hurt, I felt powerless, I don't ever want to hurt anyone else like that" while others respond with "That hurt, I felt powerless, to feel powerful I will hurt others".

Good article 24.Sep.2004 09:31


I really enjoyed this analysis of Amrika. You make some very insightful comments. Thanks.

Thank you 24.Sep.2004 20:18


thank you.
I'm with you