Our Enlightenment Legacy On the Ropes

The Politics of Cruelty

Cruelty is the expression of hate and of the will to power. … The sadistic traits, the tendency to barbarousness, the impulse to destroy, manifest themselves in a manner that is senseless, brutal, scornful of every cultural achievement. … The sadist revels in the fear, the anger, the humiliation of his victim. … The sadist pictures to himself what is happening in the mind of his object, whose resistance he calls forth and breaks. Only this feeling of himself into the affective life of the object brings him the expected pleasure.
          - Wilhelm Stekel, Sadism and Masochism: The Psychology of Hatred and Cruelty (1929)

[T]he powerful often turn to torture in times of crisis, not because it works but because it salves their fears and insecurities with the psychic balm of empowerment. . . . Once torture begins, it seems to spread uncontrollably, particularly during times of crisis, in a downward spiral of fear and self-empowerment.
          - Alfred W. McCoy, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War On Terror (2006)

The way the Trump administration has gotten tough with immigrant families and children from Central America and Mexico shares something with psychological studies of sadism and the United States government’s own research on torture tapped by the George W. Bush administration to justify its cruelty in a moment of perceived crisis. Cruelty and torture are like pornography; as a famous Supreme Court justice put it: “I know it when I see it.” Cruelty as policy — ie. the inducing of suffering among the powerless by the powerful — is an ancient reality that hinges, as Dr. Stekel put it in 1929, on “the expression of hatred and of the will to power.” Stekel was an Austrian and a student of Freud’s; it’s noteworthy he wrote his 430-page work on sadism synonymous with the rise of European fascism. Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign can be seen in such a psychological and mythic light as a return to the “greatness” that presided over this land during the days of slavery, Jim Crow and Manifest Destiny, an expansive period when the politics of cruelty prevailed as a necessary tool for the capture and control of a wild land. As McCoy suggests, above, the politics of cruelty appears in times of crisis. For the atavistic populist, there’s no need to articulate this clearly; since it’s all there buried deep in the loam of US history and myth, dog-whistling will do.

The wall separating the two Nogaleses seen from the US; two boys on the Mexican side.The wall separating the two Nogaleses seen from the US; two boys on the Mexican side.

I’ve been reading a lot these days about the Age of Enlightenment, the period that flowered in the 18th century as a counter to the dark ages of medievalism when religious mysticism and authoritarianism ruled. Science began to flourish; democracy came into its own with people like Thomas Jefferson and the constitutional creation of the United States of America. Humanism took root; an openness to information and new ideas prevailed. The Rule of Law found roots and grew. As a force of reform to pull the world out of a long, dark nightmare, the metaphor of Light shoved the metaphor of Darkness into the deep shadows. The Enlightenment, of course, is the root of what we call Liberalism, something that has been under assault from both the Left and the Right for decades. Much of the criticism from the left is valid but not based on a critique of Liberalism itself; rather it’s more a critique of the corrupt hypocrisy of many so-called liberals. Liberalism was a reaction to oppressive, constricting times, an opening to new ideas. The notorious 19th century Know Nothing Party was, of course, a reaction to this liberal opening of ideas. The Enlightenment and Liberalism did not happen in a vacuum. It was a reaction that grew from the ground up based on the idea that knowledge or Light as a tool of power was better for the future of humankind than ignorance or Darkness. The struggle turns out to be a perennial one; just consider the right-wing ideologue Grover Norquist’s famous prescription for The New Deal: He wanted to drown it in the bathtub. That effort now is in full swing.

Sonia Nazario makes it clear in a long New York Times op-ed, how the Trump administration is blatantly breaking the law by splitting immigrant families. It’s so overt and in-your-face it effectively amounts to beefing up the incredible level of corruption already in full flower in the Americas and the world. Central America has deep roots in US-friendly corruption. Mexico’s corruption is over the top and noted for the worst kinds of bribery and violence. Brazil’s government is so imbued with corrupt it’s hard to keep score. Trump’s actions debasing the Rule of Law only sink the US deeper into what is a worldwide morass. Employing Rudy Giuliani as cultural obfuscator vis-a-vis Robert Mueller further debases the idea of the Rule of Law by creating confusion that “trumps” the legal discussion and re-directs it into the realm of politics, where corruption has become normalized with rulings like Citizens United.

It’s a no-brainer why Donald Trump is so enamored of Vladimir Putin and men like Rodrigo Dutarte. He personally trashes European leaders and NATO in Brussels, then struts all puffed-up and man-proud next to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the authoritarian leader of Turkey. He’s comfortable associating with male tyrants, while democratic politicians make him fearful and distrustful. The man has zero political experience in a democratic context, while he has decades of experience as a ruthless Manhattan real estate mogul and reality TV star. Tyrants like this always employ cruelty as a weapon of politics. The smart ones figure out the buttons they need to push within their tribalized base cultures to advance their power. In the case of Donald Trump, one of those buttons is the satisfying sound of liberals and progressives squealing in horror at cruel decisions made by 3AM Twitter or in a well-publicized TV announcement. He clearly announced his current Supreme Court nominee in prime time because, as we’re being told ad-nauseum, it will result in 40 years of right wing control of the court, which he knows will send Liberals and Progressives into apoplectic fits of panic. So he wanted to rub it in, sadistically, as if he were stirring a wound with a stick. As Dr. Stekel suggested, because the prospect of a right-wing generational-lock on the US Supreme Court is so painful for Liberals and Progressives, announcing it this way made Mr. Trump feel especially powerful, as it no doubt made him feel invulnerable to the Mueller investigation — at least for the moment. His (and our) problem is that the feeling of omnipotence from an act of cruelty is ephemeral and, like a drug that wears off and makes reaching that great original high evasive, more cruelty will be necessary in the future to sustain the feeling of power.

                                                                          Cruelty as a Political Tool

In his 2006 book cited above, Alfred McCoy shows how the Central Intelligence Agency’s extensive research on torture led to the emphasis of two concepts during the Bush years in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo: sensory disorientation and self-inflicted pain. McCoy describes the former as “a total assault on all senses and sensibilities — auditory, visual, tactile, temporal, temperature, survival, sexual, and cultural. . . . The method relies on simple, even banal procedures — isolation, standing, heat and cold, light and dark, noise and silence — for a systematic attack on all human senses.” Most important, as with many lines of military research these days, the thrust is how to make the tools of cruelty and human debasement palatable to a 21st century sensibility. In an age when we’re all bedazzled and confused by the mind-boggling geometric expansion of information thanks to the internet and social media, add the many expanding regimes of secrecy and surveillance that dominate institutions competing to keep themselves whole and profitable in a drowning flood of information. Euphemisms are always employed. It’s no longer torture, it’s now enhanced interrogation. It’s no longer thumb-screws and the rack to get people to go along with the program; it’s now sensory and sleep deprivation, adjustments of cold and heat — all aimed at the calculated, slow, steady break-down of a person’s humanity while in custody. It’s not only in the immigration business; it’s the methods of modern penology.

The idea of self-inflicted-pain was developed by the CIA from research done by the Soviet Union that found when pain is applied to a victim by another person, the will to resist can be intensified in the victim. However, once a person can be truly disoriented (a procedure that could include beatings and other “tuning-up” abuses) he or she can be mentally leveraged by inducing the idea that the victim is actually causing the pain he or she is suffering. The concept relies on relatively mundane things like enforced standing in uncomfortable positions for extended periods of time. It also relies on the fact that over time one becomes exhausted and one’s thinking process is strained. Abuse people enough and their critical thinking skills begin to decay.

“Victims are made to feel responsible for their own suffering, thus inducing them to alleviate their agony by capitulating to the power of their interrogators,” says McCoy. “The fusion of these two techniques, sensory disorientation and self-inflicted pain, creates a synergy of physical and psychological trauma whose sum is a hammer-blow to the fundamentals of personal identity.”

Protesters outside the Eloy Detention Center near Phoenix. (All photos by John Grant)Protesters outside the Eloy Detention Center near Phoenix. (All photos by John Grant)

To be honest, when I first read McCoy’s book I had trouble with this idea. Even if an interrogator/torturer isn’t literally pulling out fingernails and is, instead, sitting in a corner reading a magazine while forcing someone to stand naked on one foot for four hours in 50 degree air-conditioning, the torturer is still forcing the person to stand in the uncomfortable posture against his or her will. My skepticism, I’ve concluded, has more to do with my naiveté, having never been tortured. My reference point is, thus, the relatively mild idea behind the rigors of military basic training, something I went through as an 18-year-old. The idea often expressed was that basic training was breaking a young recruit down in order to, then, build him up in a certain mold. Intensify that mental activity into the context of someone held against his or her will under the severe and relentless pressure of a “systematic attack on all human senses” and it becomes understandable. One can empathetically appreciate how the human mind under stress can easily slip from the realms of comfort and reasonableness into an irrational, existential process of survival. I recall reading an account of torture in Argentina during its dirty war that emphasized the relationship of torturer and tortured; at one point, the torturer showed his victim pictures of his kids. The point was, a human being can become very desperate for even a miniscule sign of humanity — even if it’s from one’s own torturer. The same kind of perverse desperation, no doubt, contributes to the faulty logic that a torture victim can attribute the pain he or she is undergoing as “self-inflicted.”

As we know, ICE agents have been enthusiastically rounding up and arresting families who have crossed the border into the United States illegally. Much of it is done under the radar, in secret, which is the standard mode of most government operations. Thus, much of the current story is still unclear. What does seem clear is that, once arrested, the law permitted the US government to immediately deport adults. Supposedly to protect minors from abuse, the law prohibits the immediate deportation of children. This presented a dilemma. Selectively following the letter of the law on deportations and employing the politics of cruelty, Trump selectively enforced laws that said they could deport parents and, because their kids were legally un-deportable, essentially kidnapped the kids (some 2,300 of them) and put them in detention. Now we’re hearing stories of 3-year-olds as defendants in hearings without representation by a lawyer. Meanwhile, the legal rule that demands an asylum-seeker be given a “credible fear interview” and be allowed to apply for asylum is selectively ignored.

The Trump officials responsible for these action understood they would be embarrassing and even dishonorable. That didn’t stop them; the politics of cruelty trumped their better angels. The point seems to be to throw a monkey wrench into a process, thereby making a mess of it — then to say there’s nothing we can do about it; it’s a done deal. In this spirit, in a nation that can forensically find a needle in a haystack if it needs to, they claim they are unable to re-unite many of the broken up families. How hard they’re really trying is impossible to grasp, thanks to the regime of secrecy.

The element in this story that made me think of McCoy’s book on US torture is the part where President Trump threw up his stubby hands and began insisting over and over that it was “the Democrats’ law” that made him do what he did. This is a borrowing of the idea of self-inflicted pain from the realm of torture. “The Democrat Party made me do it.” The president’s logic (if one can call it that) was that, since the Democrats are opposed to funding his boondoggle border wall, they are somehow responsible for whatever current law he’s enforcing to lock up and abuse (torture?) families fleeing violence in Central America. As with much of Donald Trump’s logic, there’s just a glimmer of something in it that, as you listen to the words, makes you doubt what your lying eyes are seeing. Those with good critical thinking skills get over this moment; while Trump’s base revel in it and hoot for more. “Punch him in the face!”

There’s two things going on, here, that are important: One, there’s the ridiculous logic that suggests Democrats are responsible for Trump’s cruel decisions. And, two, there’s the long American tradition of selective enforcement. There are so many laws on the books, every one of them becomes susceptible to selective enforcement. In this case, the elite, autocratic real-estate tycoon who somehow became president of the United States is using the laws like a “hammer-blow” (McCoy’s term) against emigrating Central Americans, holding them to the letter of the law in one area and ignoring the law and pleas for compassion in another.

Meanwhile, this same president is using his great bully pulpit to facilitate selective enforcement for himself and his cronies-in-crime. That is, he’s employing Rudy Giuliani to argue the case on TV for selectively dropping enforcement for crimes of collusion, obstruction of justice, money laundering etc. Giuliani’s thrust is to present corruption as Exhibit A in a cultural trial. During the 2016 campaign, Trump told us he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and get away with it. He’s now working the amoral Giuliani to establish what Richard Nixon told David Frost: “If the president does it, it’s not against the law.” In other words, corruption is so prevalent in our political culture, it’s unfair to nail the president for it.

This president with very real roots in world-class corruption is playing the selective enforcement game to the max. Go easy on power and wealth and go hard against the weak and powerless. Republicans in Congress, of course, are the enablers. This plays out immorally when Trump uses the politics of cruelty to enforce laws against poor, powerless people fleeing violence in Central America. I spent a lot of time in Central America in the 80s and 90s, and I’ve read a fair bit. As many know, the United States had a huge stake in creating the mess we’re now dealing with on the border.

Consider the Honduran woman who recently fled to the US. She was given a credible-fear interview in Port Isabel, Texas, and claimed she feared for her life, thanks to her political activism. Her application for asylum was rejected; a case, Sonia Nazario writes, “that in the past would have been a slam dunk.” Put this in the context of the 2009 coup in Honduras that overthrew a duly elected left-leaning president — a coup that President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton did absolutely nothing to prevent or, after the fact, to turn around. They made excuses and accommodated the US to the coup leaders. The coup led to a huge increase in political and gang violence; it also led to the pressures we see driving families north to save their lives. Related to this, is the question why so many families are fleeing north from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, while virtually no one is fleeing Nicaragua for the United States. There are obviously problems in Nicaragua these days; but they seem to be different than the crisis that drives people north from the other Central American nations.

One can only hope President Trump is digging his own grave and that major changes like the election of Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador to the presidency of Mexico are omens for a new relationship with Latin America, especially when it comes to the violence and corruption given comfort by our militarist history there and, especially, the failed US Drug War. Justin Trudeau’s Canada has felt the sting of Trump’s reactive lash at the moment in history it nationally legalized marijuana for recreational use. Following the bizarre NATO meeting in Brussels, tea with the Queen and the Get Smart cone-of-silence meeting with Putin in Helsinki, a big question hovers over all this: Will the US continue to abuse its neighbors to the north and south and in Europe as it continues to cozy up to Putin’s Russia and other authoritarian governments? Or as the 97 to 2 vote in support of NATO by the US Senate might suggest, is there a rift developing between Trump and a Republican Congress? Then there’s the Midterms and: Can Liberals and Progressives get over their destructive squabbles, ease up on the identity politics and regain at least the House of Representatives, and if the planets are really in line, maybe the Senate?

Trump America is an example of the worst kind of international corruption. It explains Trump’s love of Putin: A fraternity of public/private Big-Swinging-Dicks out to dominate the 21st Century. Does it foretell a new Dark Age? Can one hope for rays of enlightenment to counter the darkness, to open the way for pragmatic reform here in the US? Might constitutional democracy in America actually work as it was conceived by our flawed Enlightenment founders? Can good, hard-working people run for office and get elected so that intelligent governing structures can be legislatively enacted to make America work from the bottom up with dignity for all? Time will tell. The fact is, top-down corruption is a vampire sucking our life’s blood.