Sunday, September 28, 2008


I came across an article from more than half-a-century ago: “Conditions of Successful Degradation Ceremonies”. It was written by one Harold Garfinkel, and published in a scholarly professional journal. It’s available, among other places, at
Judging from the date, I’d say that watching the McCarthy hearings and all of the dark looniness surrounding it had something to do with inspiring the author as to the need for the article. And further back, he must have watched the increasing pattern of demeaning Jewish people during the Third Reich of only twenty years before. And perhaps the Leninist and Stalinist “denunciations” and “classifications” that took place without let-up from 1918 right up through the show trials of 1938.

Yet it’s a piece that doesn’t discuss any then-current or then-recent events. It’s careful, dry, clear, precise, and – well – ‘scholarly’, but in a crisp social science way (social science, at least, the way it was done back then).

But still you read it and you can’t help thinking about the McCarthy trials and perhaps Germany in the 1930s. And no doubt folks who read it in 1956 did just that. It held many rewards for folks trying to get a grasp on what those events meant for Americans and for human beings generally, for Us and for Our future.

I am reading it now. The McCarthy hearings are – thankfully – back in the past, as is the Third Reich and – after much tribulation – the blood-feverish visions of Communism. Forgotten … but not gone, I think. Because when you read the article, you get the eerie and disturbing sense that it’s very contemporary. You get the sense that it’s all very familiar. Too familiar to just be about something so far in the past. You get the eerie sense that Garfinkel is describing something in the present world, the world of contemporary America, Our world.

And that can only mean that whatever demonry he describes from his own world has now come into Our world. And hasn’t much changed.

The ‘degradation’ is aimed at “transforming an individual’s total identity into an identity lower in the group’s scheme of social types”; thus it is a “status degradation”. The “denouncer” has the goal of getting the onlookers “to appreciate the perpetrator and the blameworthy event as instances of an extraordinary uniformity”. To accomplish this the denouncer “must name the perpetrator an ‘outsider’”.

I could think of the Manichean denunciation and classification of those who are “goats” in the world, in their very essence beyond the rights of human beings and liable to human degradation and violence utterly justified as being God’s will – such is the fond, fierce practice of fundamentalisms everywhere.

We see it, from a distance, deployed against other people and peoples even now.
But I want to focus on how it is done much closer to home, and not spontaneously, but erected into law and incised into the popular mood among Us to such a degree that it comes to assume an aura of inevitability, as if it had been with Us all along and enjoys the status of a ‘good’ and ‘logical’ thing to do.

Garfinkel observes that whenever such a new ‘identity’ is to be imposed on a person or a group, “the identity must be ‘total’, meaning that the ‘identity’ “must refer to persons as ‘motivational’ types rather than as ‘behavioral’ types”. In other words, it’s not what they do, it’s what their ‘motivations’ are; it presumes that there is a ‘motivation’ common to the entire target group, and that this ‘motivation’ is somehow essential to the persons, predictably expectable from them. This dynamic was used to describe ‘Kulaks’ by the early Soviets, to describe ‘Jews’ by the Nazis, to describe ‘pinkos’ by McCarthy.

It is contrary to the spirit and practice of Western law, that with a due humility does not seek to divine motives or predispositions, but rather limits itself to judging acts. An act is all that is extended into actual events, such that an observer other than the act-or can see it, or discover irrefutable traces of it. This is all a human court can do. It’s all that humans, not possessed of supernatural powers of insight and knowledge, can with any reasonable certainty discover by the flickering lamp of human reason.

In the history of this country, the Salem witch trials were not a precedent but a throw-back, a revenant from a prior age, where certain believers felt that they could discern with certainty the causes and sources of certain suspect acts; causes that included supernatural beings, active in this world. The ‘mind’ of a suspected witch or warlock, one who cooperated with dark powers and dark beings, could be clearly discerned, if the right methods were used and the right assumptions were made by the investigators. And in the end, the suspect could be declared for what she or he ‘really’ was, a cooperator with the demonic and the infernal, and thus the accused could be ‘degraded’ in status, from member of the community to ‘evil other’; death would often be the result, as it was for many in Salem.

Western justice, freeing itself from theological entanglements with the immaterial and the unseen and the un-provable, limited itself. And was justly proud of the fact.
But in doing so it set itself a difficult task, although one that proves vital to a free society. Because there is a natural and not unhealthy capacity for “moral indignation” in all human societies: it is this capacity that enables a society to inculcate in its members what is acceptable and not-acceptable to it on a fundamental level. Deployed wisely, this capacity can foster a sense of identity and unity among the members of a society. Deployed otherwise, it can create unjustifiable divisions, excessive wounds – physical or emotional, and even inaccurate judgments that eventually undermine the commonality itself. In the Western system of justice, the court – through its careful investigation and deliberation - is there to not only to protect the community from malefactors, but to protect the community from itself. Because in the long run, the community can harm itself far more grievously than any individual or individuals among it.

“The paradigm of moral indignation is public denunciation. We publicly deliver the curse: ‘I call upon all men to bear witness that he is not what he appears to be but is otherwise and in essence of a lower species.’” It’s not simply that the person is other than he appears; saints are not so often what they appear to be to their contemporaries, and angels famously disguise themselves; you could make a case that Jesus did it. But it’s that this ‘appearance’ is with absolute certainty indicative of ‘inferior’ status. In a West influenced by Christendom, no human being has the authority to reduce the status accorded to a human being by the Creator.

Not acknowledging a God, the Soviets arrogated His powers to the State. Acknowledging a God but presuming utterly that He was on their side, the Nazis also arrogated unto themselves that power. Dispensing with God with a refreshing (and almost surprising) candor, the Italian Fascist, Mussolini, simply and flatly declared: ‘Nothing outside the State, nothing above the State, nothing against the State.” The State which, not coincidentally, he and his Party ran. But all of these instances were departures from the ideals of the West; and unless We wish to condemn every entity that fails to live up fully to its ideals, then We cannot condemn the West for what these vigorous monstrosities concocted in their rebellion against it.

“Moral indignation serves to effect the ritual destruction of the person[s] denounced.” Now that is a powerful concept: ‘destruction’. Human beings in their more deliberative moments have always considered themselves well-advised to employ it sparingly; it has proven itself to have a nasty boomerang capability, especially if wrongly inflicted.

Courts in the West have thus had to contend with this delicate but vital balancing act: to inflict some ‘partial destruction’ – almost never the total destruction of death – sufficient to the crime but proportional to it as well. The job had previously been left to the wronged himself, or if he was incapacitated, to the relatives of the wronged; among advanced tribal peoples this sometimes resulted in elaborate schedules of payment – ‘wergild’ is one instance – which the wrong-doer had to pay to the wronged or his family members. A more primitive alternative was simply to let the wronged, or his relatives, go after the (hopefully correctly identified) wrong-doer to extract or inflict whatever they could or whatever they felt was due. When the State assumed a monopoly on violence, then it assumed responsibility for correctly identifying the wrong-doer and assigning a sufficient punishment. The wronged had a way of going a bit overboard with a distressing frequency; a society could be torn apart in short order.

Transforming a person in his very essence is accomplished by “substituting another socially validated motivational scheme for that previously used to name and order the performances of the denounced.” By the denouncer somehow inducing the community to look upon the person through the lenses of the substitute system, the denounced person becomes [in their eyes] a different person”. Where yesterday in the village a man was simply a fellow-peasant with a few more cows and a larger hut, today he is a “Kulak”, and the only fate for the parasitical Kulak is to be put up against the nearest wall. And through the working of the new ‘lenses’, not many folks feel bad. Although, as the Soviets eventually discovered to their dismay, a lot of folks started wondering if tomorrow they themselves might not be declared a Kulak, especially if the definition of Kulak kept changing to expand the class of potential targets. A society with too many folks thus preoccupied and distracted is not going to get a lot of stuff done. And shooting even more folks turns out not to work so well in the long run.

In order for the whole thing to work, a couple of things must be made to happen.

First, “both event and perpetrator must be removed from the realm of their everyday character and be made to stand as ‘out of the ordinary’”. The denounced person or perpetrator must be seen to be ‘extraordinary’, and not in a good way. After all, if whatever he had done was ‘ordinary’, then there would be no reason for ‘destruction’ and the usual justicial workings of the community would apply. And if he was ordinary, then folks would not feel right about inflicting ‘destruction’; and their guilt, if overridden long enough to approve the ‘destruction’, might well boomerang, sooner or later, onto the denouncer. (This is one big reason why when this type of thing gets started, it’s hard to stop: the ‘denouncers’ and their collaborators – official as well as unofficial – don’t want the lenses to come off the people and the people’s guilt, now transmuted into anger, to be inflicted upon them.)

And this is where ‘emergency’ comes in. The ‘extraordinary’ nature of the act or the denounced person justifies the change in ‘lenses’ by which the people view the denounced person. Released from the cage of ‘ordinary process’, emotions can be loosed among the people which can overwhelm reason. Dictators and revolutionaries don’t cotton to ‘emergencies’ out of boredom or lack of imagination; they grasp the usefulness of ‘emergency’s’ power. And so often, the people don’t realize the painful truth of just how primitive or emotional they can be; the fragility of ‘civilization’ is not something most folks like to think about, in relation to themselves. As the Greeks famously assumed, ‘barbarians’ – by definition – lived somewhere else.

A sturdy court system, like a system of levees, will be able to handle such a tidal surge. But if it is driven by too big and well-orchestrated a storm, then – like the courts in Germany by 1934 – then they too will bend, and become deformed. And then, not wishing to admit the fact, the courts themselves become part of the inertia preventing recovery from the flood of emotions and what was done under their influence.

Second, both the act and the denounced perpetrator must be seen to have a preference not simply for the act, but for the type of act. Thus, this type of person will inevitably commit this type of act because it is in his essence to do so. Thus a Kulak must be killed not simply for what he purportedly has done in the past (be a parasite on the people) but because he will always try to do it in the future; and thus all Kulaks must be identified and destroyed, because there is no rehabilitating them – they are what they are and can never change.

And “event and perpetrator must be treated as a uniformity throughout the work of denunciation”. The Kulak and the parasitical theft and the essence of being a parasitical thief – it’s all of a piece, and there’s no breaking that chain. You will never be able to separate the essence of the man from the act, not under any circumstances.

And the people “must appreciate the characteristics of the typed person and event by referring to a dialectical counterpart”. Thus a Kulak should always be accompanied, even if only in the viewer’s mind, by a ‘good communist’ whose shining example throws the Kulak’s dark evil into even more vivid relief, the shadow appearing darker when contrasted with light. The curious American variant – more passive – is the ‘victim’, who is, in the lenses, innocent and deeply damaged.

Further, the denouncer must get himself to be seen by the people as not-personally interested in the outcome of the denunciation, as merely a heroic upholder of the ‘common values’, who can speak in the name of those values to the people, and who can speak in the name of the people to effect the destruction of the denounced person. Again, curiously, the American variant requires that the ‘victim’ be very ‘interested’, but under the influence of a certain feminist valorization of ‘feeling’, it is this ‘feeling’ and the sympathy that any ‘correct’ onlooker will deploy that actually launches the designated ‘victim’ over the hurdle of having a very significant stake in the outcome of the process.

It’s not hard to see how terribly fraught with emotion this type of dynamic is. Especially in the setting of a court, this can exercise a baleful influence. In a hundred or a thousand courts, the consequences to a society can be profound.

And since “not only must the denouncer fix his distance from the person being denounced, but the witnesses must be made to experience their distance from him also”, then this depersonalization introduces a toxic element not only into the court and its personnel (the judges especially), but among the people in whose name – theoretically – the denunciation is being carried out.

And finally, “the denounced person must be ritually separated from a place in the legitimate order, i.e. he must be defined as standing at a place opposed to it. He must be placed ‘outside’, he must be made ‘strange’.” The people must see – through the lenses – that this irretrievable perpetrator is also opposed to the order and well-being of their society, is an active and deliberate and purposeful enemy of it, and is no ‘member’ of it, but is rather some ‘stranger’. At times, the Soviets and the more tactful Chinese, augmented the ‘otherness’ of an enemy-of-the-people with a psychiatric label to reinforce the ‘strangeness’ (in their ‘science’, opposing or questioning the communist system was of itself a clear indication of insanity).

But it is of paramount importance that the people do not see the denounced as one of themselves. And this is also dangerously narcotic to the people, since they are lulled into the sense that what is happening to the denounced – since it only happens to ‘others’ and to ‘strangers’ whose attitude has been deliberately chosen and embraced – will never happen to them; they are ‘good’ communists, Nazis, Germans, fill-in-the-blank. Martin Niemoller, the former German naval officer turned pastor and preacher, noted that he took no notice when ‘they’ came for this or that group and did not speak up for the accused, until ‘they’ came for him and there was nobody left to speak up. Most people, when ‘they’ come for them, do not even achieve the consolation – stern as it is – of that much self-insight.

(Come to think of it – most Americans nowadays aren’t really going to grasp the concept of a ‘stern consolation’, are they?)

Thus Garfinkel. He was writing about what he detected in his times. I sense that it is among Us now. And that it is a product of two fundamentalisms: the fundamentalisms of a politically-ascendant if not mainstream Protestantism that reinforces its own identity by identifying and hunting ‘strangeness and otherness’ and of a feminist (of the Second Wave) hostility to ‘men’ and to ‘reason’ that seeks to gain leverage over ‘male domination’ by continually tapping into that inexhaustible font of powerful emotional grievance, sex. And the whole brew carefully blended by a government police power that has found that what authority it cannot expand on its own behalf, it can expand by cloaking itself behind the cover of ‘the victim’, on behalf of whose pain and outrage all manner of constitutional encroachment can be effected. And in the 1990s it all came together.

The fact that so much of what Garfinkel observed among Red-baiters (and tellingly among the genuine Reds themselves) and – I think – among the Nazis who copied much of the Soviet playbook in these matters is traceable to the tremendous borrowing that America made from the Nazis and the Soviets after the war. From the Nazis we not only got military tactics like ‘blitzkrieg’ and rockets and jets and ‘preventive’ war (and eventually the shape of their helmets), but also the masterfully developed propaganda trade-craft of the darkly brilliant Goebbels (who himself got some of his best ideas from the 1920s American pathfinder of ‘shaping’ (manipulating) public opinion, Edward Bernays). From the Soviets, especially through certain feminist theorists of the second-wave who borrowed heavily from Marx’s analysis and Lenin’s and Stalin’s praxis, and from advanced level ‘advocacy’ specialists, came orchestrated campaigns against targeted groups and imposition upon the public and the court system of ‘sex offenses’, packaged so as to be irresistible to an increasingly shallow and sensationalist mass media, and show trials, and dubious ‘science’ that is not accepted by any of the most reputable practitioners and institutions.

Why keep bringing this up? Because all of this is still operative through laws that even now continue to become more and more oppressive, and are passed without any serious justification or grounding in fact or science, and systems of registration that continually demonize large swaths of citizens.

As an example, the Supreme Court has stated that the whole system would raise constitutional issues if it weren’t for the fact that it is ‘rehabilitative’ and that it is not ‘punitive’. Yet no practitioners or researchers can point to a rehabilitation program that works, nor even a diagnostic system or etiological explanation that is viable. And Hitler – seeking the German people’s donations to his assorted schemes for assisting the needy – refused to legislatively mandate such donations; he simply published in schools and places of employment the names of those who did not contribute: harmless public notification?

And what does it do to the sense of community and the community’s sense of justice when such derangements are embedded in the public mind – and conscience? What does it do eventually to the legitimacy of Law itself?

We are operating Our constitutional system, having introduced great chunks of communist, fascist, and authoritarian praxis. Do We assume that since these chunks have been ‘baptized’ by being put into the service of ‘American’ society that somehow they will thereby automatically lose their noxiousness and toxicity?

We allowed Our economy to operate in the hands of those so ‘interested’ in it that they enriched themselves by all manner of schemes, and where has that led Us?

We allowed Our foreign policy to fall into the hands of unripes who deluded themselves into thinking that what failed for the aggressive governments of the early and mid-20th century would work for Us, and where has that led Us?

This can’t go on forever. It probably can’t go on much longer. If We don’t stop all of this, it will stop Us. That will be stern, but it won’t be a consolation. History doesn’t like being ignored on such a scale; neither does Reason.

Labels: , , , , ,


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home