Monday, May 07, 2007


A Revenge Tragedy

By John Steppling


(Editor's Note: This stream of consciousness-style piece is excerpted from an ongoing online dialogue between Steppling and fellow radical, Guy Zimmerman. They are Co-Senior Editors of Arts and Culture at Cyrano's Journal Online. "A Revenge Tragedy" is but a small sampling of the brilliant conclusions drawn during the exchanges between these highly refined thinkers.)

Originally published in the Voxpop section of Cyrano’s Journal Online

I spent Easter weekend watching all of Adam Curtis’ documentaries, but I was especially struck with Century of the Self . And it spawned many observations on Karl Rove.

The mechanisms of control are more and more obvious. As for accusing your opponent of your own dark intentions, yes, this is absolutely crucial to remember. First cousin to this can be seen in anti-insurgency thinking. There was, during the Mau Mau resistance in Kenya, a certain colonel — Kitson, I think (but his name hardly deserves to be remembered anyway) who wrote a book with a title something like Low Intensity Operations. It suggested creating a problem….violence….in the case of Kenya, with people looking and dressed like the resistance, and then ordering a response. This is second cousin to false flag operations, which are a staple of the CIA and Mossad. Blame violence and terrorism on the resistance, wear the uniforms of the resistance, and create anti-resistance sentiment in the general populace, and then whatever draconian response you come up with will have widespread sympathy. One sees this now in recent terror attacks in Algeria. Following conveniently on the heels of the Pentagon’s formation of AFRICOM. In fact, one wonders often at the *real* Osama Bin Laden…..since onetime CIA assets have a tendency to remain CIA assets. (I can hear the term conspiracy theory being tossed about now….but I think to use that term as a knee jerk epithet is to buy into the very strategies of the Empire and Rovians).

Ok, well, as for dark intentions. I think a huge problem is that people, even a Karl Rove, tend to not know what their dark intentions are. Or rather, to not know what is beneath them. I had a big argument recently about Miami-Dade courts allowing released sex offenders to live under freeway overpasses. They couldn’t find normal housing and the police just said, ok, well, live under the bridge. That our supposedly great society now houses *anyone* under bridges speaks to a martial and mean spirited social center. One tends to notice the hysterical responses from a lot of parties when this topic comes up. “Cut off their dicks”, “castrate them”, etc. I always wonder at why dropping daisy cutters on families doesn’t create this kind of frothing fury, but only a sexual crime. Well, I suspect because our own dark intentions, no matter how well and appropriately sublimated, still are white hot exposed nerve endings that excite at the slightest touch (of Eros) in the lightless caves of our inner Id.

Now, with Rove and his friends, their malevolence is extreme; and they exhibit pure sociopathic personalities. But this deep hidden reservoir of instinct and inarticulate desire gets somehow channeled in people like Rove into a more pure sadism. Notwithstanding this, I suspect their inner turmoil to be extreme. The culture altogether is more sadistic, and I fear more accepting of certain kinds of sadism… or takes more pleasure in sadism. Shows like Big Brother for example are complex exercises in humiliation and sadism, and yet also (and this is a separate topic) they express something about leisure time fantasy — so they are both reinforcing Capital and attacking it somehow. Anyhow, the marketing of political reality by the neo-cons and Rove is just a more sophisticated extension of what Reagan started. Or maybe what Machiavelli started, who knows. Ghouls like Elliott Abrahms, Frank Gaffney, Richard Perle, Michael Ledeen (though I doubt anyone really takes that clown seriously) and folks like Cheney and Rumsfeld, are not, finally all that different from Richard Holbrooke or Mad Maddie Albright, and certainly not from Kissinger. The historical moment though, is such, that these poorly educated madmen seem more nakedly satanic. There is desperation now, where under Nixon the assumption was that the world was perfect and the system sustainable. I think Rove knows that isn’t the case. So issues like Peak Oil and clean water and climate change signal the need for several Plan Bs. And it is quite right that one of these plans (per the trial balloon of Katrina-N.O.) is for some form of martial law enforced largely by private security firms.

I believe Burroughs, circa Soft Machine, used to write about the typewriter writing us. This is the same dream dreaming the dreamer motif in a sense….but in advanced capital almost all media and Hollywood product is interchangeable. Not totally, yet, but close. The endless assault of MTV reality shows, network reality shows, and faux news-ertaintment, is now writing our lives. The system has colonized our unconscious to some degree……not as totally as it has colonized our ego, but its growing. The cyborg quality of people hence needs outlets of appropriate rage. Road rage is a useful one, but child predator hysteria and drug hysteria is even better. Since 90% of all child abuse (sexual or otherwise) happens in the home and involves close family members, it sort of suggests that there aren’t guys lurking at every schoolyard with offers of candy. Bush and his pals won’t address this because it flies in the face of *family values*. One can (and Adam Curtis does) harken back to the work of R.D. Laing and Wilhelm Reich. The family is the seat of our darkest internalizations. To accept this contradiction (because the family is also the seat of our grace and brings us closest to something divine) is a big first step to backing away from knee jerk responses of punishment. The Buddhist notion of our greatest sin being seeing the other as an *other*, as separate from oneself is very significant in this context.

So, Rove-Iago, a man of great hypocrisy, too. Funny how Hastert, Gingrich, etc etc etc, all have such rather obvious skeletons in their closets (sic). The Puritanism of America can’t be emphasized enough. Put all this together and we return to the state of modern consciousness. It’s reflected in the US in the supreme sense of entitlement, exceptionalism, at work in even liberal thought. Curtis’ other documentary, The Power of Nightmares, addresses this by tracking the rise of Islamic movements over the last 50 years or more. One begins to see the absolute sophistication of Islamic thought, albeit very different in logic from western colonial thinking. In The Trap, the weakest of his films, but still worth viewing, one arrives at Frantz Fanon and Sartre. I find myself returning to Sartre rather more often than I might have guessed I would. Both he and Fanon were exceptionally articulate on the role humiliation plays and has played, in colonial adventures and in all occupations. One can forgive torture and arrest, but cannot and never will forgive humiliation. One of the greatest examples of American ignorance is to not see this, and hence to act out our inner aggressions in places like Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and Baghdad. This isn’t new….in fact the Balkan conflict was the immediate precursor (see, also on line, The Avoidable War, a very sound look at the history of the former Yugoslavia and the PR campaign to demonize the Serbs).

US foreign policy has always reflected the desire for control and domination. When we reduce this from support for a Pinochet or a Mobutu, and take it down to an individual level, we find ourselves struggling to understand such lack of compassion. In Curtis, he speaks a lot of modern governments looking (Clinton and Blair in this case) to let people behave in their own interests. This sort of systems management style real politik has one basic flaw…and that is, that most of us, if not all of us, don’t know what’s in our best interest. I certainly don’t. Or at the very least, I have endlessly shifting criteria for what those interests might be. This is why all Rand Corporation think tank slide rule wonk planning always goes so fucking wrong.

The increasing use of media and cultural product for heteronymous thought and social passivity is starting to reach fail safe. Maybe that’s being too optimistic, but one senses a lot of psychic unrest in the west. No amount of NBA or NFL, or American idol or Survivor, or internet porn is going to quiet the collective forever. What forms out of this unrest remains to be seen. I think this is a separate topic, but I do think, as I’ve said before, that small acts of refusal are a solid place to start.

Rene Girard’s book on scapegoating is essential reading in this respect. Selling evil….from child *predators* to *terrorists* is deflect attention away from state terror. The culture keeps intensifying its moral-outrage….but only at the powerless. A child molester may be at the bottom of the moral food chain (well,alongside weapons dealers and 99% of politicians)…but he is also, usually, powerless to fight back. The countries that *harbour* terrorists seem to keep being the rock bottom poorest countries in the world. Drug users and drug dealers — on the street level — are tossed into super max prisons (which even Amnesty International calls among the world’s worst) and yet rarely if ever does the state put the big mafia/corporate/CIA managerial class in jail. If a white collar criminal is convicted there is almost total certainty that he or she wont do hard time, but rather will be sent to an easy minimum security country club facility. And few people object to this, it’s just another example of how deeply internalized class privilege has become to most Americans. The point is that fever pitch moral hysteria is the result of targeted enemies and scapegoating. The entire victims’ justice movement is selective in its focus, too. Prosecutions are highly selective, and both a local and an international level, the US likes to have its scapegoats easily targeted. The perfect example is Lynndie England, who somehow absolves the sins of Abu Ghraib all by herself. She is the fall girl, the scapegoat. The movement away from compassion is clear on levels of our culture, and especially in talk radio or talk TV. It’s all an excuse to get *righteous*, and demand justice or revenge. Revenge is an empty emotion, perhaps the emptiest man has, and hence fits perfectly in our ever more empty society.

Cruelty and exploitation are what all sane individuals want to help do away with. A more equitable society, a society that lifts everyone up and protects the weakest and most vulnerable. Children, the poor, the disadvantaged, are obvious signifiers for what should be protected. The answer to creating a society that protects its people is not found in hysterical demands for punishment …. nor in our utter incapacity to forgive….but it’s in an awakening to the systematic exploitation that goes on under different banners. The tragedies of dead Palestinian children, Iraqi children, Afghan children, dead children all over Africa, and the endless list of destroyed families in these places, never seems to register on the moral radar. Recently right wing columnists attacked the released British seamen (and woman) for not resisting enough. Not one of these critics has ever had a gun pointed at them. The statistics of men on death row suggests that a VERY high percentage of them were physically beaten as children. There should be, but isn’t, a profound sense of cognitive dissonance here. Why is compassion so selective? One answer is found in something that the Curtis documentary touches on, and that is how marketing took over western culture. It’s both the creating of enemies, both domestic and international — a means to distract from State abuses and corruption — and the creating of easy to digest feel-good balms for our deep guilt and shame. Projection is acute in our culture. Our own feelings of powerlessness are projected outward, and find marketed targets. Pop-psychology and New Age gurus still have traction because they make people feel special and unique — when the totally administered society keeps all real individuality at arm’s length, or simply erases it. What brand of spiritual commodity you *buy* isn’t really important, same as most toothpastes are more or less the same. Real individuality is a long process that costs, and must be paid for to some degree with suffering. In the Curtis doc, Arthur Miller is quoted (after Marilyn Monroe’s suicide) and he says, we must accept suffering, it’s how we learn. The dharma road is by necessity a long and pot holed one. We don’t get there by demonizing anyone and we don’t get there begging for approval from the masters above us. The greatest target of our sense of betrayal should be a system that is based on (!!) exploitation. A system run by men willing to send *others* off to face guns and to risk death and maiming, without ever having to do so themselves.

Click here for links to a number of worthwhile documentaries available for viewing online.

John Steppling: Playwright, director, screenwriter and teacher, Steppling was an original founding member of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival and has had his plays produced in London, LA, New York, Paris, San Francisco, and Poland. Plays include The Shaper, Teenage Wedding, Neck, Dog Mouth, The Thrill, Wheel of Fortune and My Crummy Job. A collection of his work was published by Sun and Moon Press in 1999 (Sea of Cortez and Other Plays). He is a Rockefeller Fellow, multiple NEA recipient, and PEN-West winner. His last film credit was Animal Factory (directed by Steve Buscemi 2000). Steppling lives in Lodz with Norwegian director Gunnhild Skrodal, and teaches at the Polish National Film School.

JOHN STEPPLING now helms a new special Cyrano blog on the theater and culture, along with fellow wordplayers Guy Zimmerman, Patrice Greanville and Phil Rockstroh. Check and be sure to join this lively dialog at . A treat for hard core theater fans of all stripes.

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